Monday, June 8, 2009


More than once in my career as a professional nerd (historian, archivist, curator) I have been delighted to come across an inventory. A French one, from 1793: how many books did the marquise own? how many pocket handkerchiefs? An American one, from 1954: how many framed photographs? how many record albums? They are a wonderful source, inventories, for getting at the texture of life, for furnishing the mental picture.

Until you have to undertake one.

When we left America two years ago, U.S. customs wished us a pleasant journey and reminded us not to bring our nail scissors on board. Les douanes françaises have a different idea. Our furniture and--what is the term? household effects--came to France with us. And will return with us. And there's the rub. French customs requires an inventory of our personal effects.

This inventory--which runs to 12 printed pages of Excel spreadsheet--exists right this minute on my computer as a bilingual list of household objects. All we have to do is write down how many of each item we own, its individual worth, and its collective worth. Confused? How's this: under the heading Children's Items, the list goes: Bassinet, Bicycle, Boards Games (sic), Bottles, Car seat, Child's Vehicle, Cradle. After each entry there is a column for the quantity of Bottles that we own; another for their unit value (in euros); and a third for their total value (in euros).

Perhaps you are not convinced of the difficulty of this task. (Perhaps you've never moved house; perhaps you and your laptop live alone on a desert island, using solar panels for battery power and eating coconuts.) Let's take a look at the Home Office Equipment & Supplies category. There, we find Calculator; Computer Software; Copier; Envelopes. A little further along: Laptop; Modem; Notebooks; Notepads; Pencils; Pens.

Quick: how many pens do you own? Notepads? Bonus question: what's the difference between a notebook and a notepad?

Now, C and I are seasoned enough in the ways of the French Mind to suspect that there must be a way around counting our pens and estimating their value. So we called up our responsable de déménagement, Nathalie, and asked her to square the reality with the form. Did we need to count and value our envelopes, or could we just make a guess?

The French customs are requiring that you list all of your household items, came the response, but do not worry about it. It is not a big thing, just a formality.

So do we need to count the envelopes?

You must fill in the inventory with the number of items you possess, but their value, you do not need to be so exact.

So if we were to write down, 150 envelopes, worth 5 euros total, would that be adequate for the customs agents?

I do not know how many envelopes you have, of course, so I could not say. But it is not a big thing, you do not need to worry about it, they are not checking the forms all the time very carefully.

There is here the official, capital-letter Truth (French customs requires an inventory of personal effects leaving the country in an ocean shipment), and then, it seems to us, an unofficial, lower-case truth (the inventory can be approximate as long as it is credible). What is difficult is finding the sweet spot of credibility, the number of envelopes and notepads and, while we're on the subject, staple removers, toilet seat covers, model cars (adult), and pantry items, that we are likely to own, that a douannier could rubber stamp. Of course, we could count all of those things (staple removers, two or three unless we need one that minute; no toilet seat covers or model cars (adult), whatever those might be, and as for pantry items, I though we weren't allowed to ship foodstuffs?), but that does not seem like a good use of our time or sanity.

Although the professional nerd in me is curious about how many books and pocket handkerchiefs we own. I almost feel as if we owe it to posterity--to the professional nerd of generations hence who is writing an article on the material culture of American expatriates in France in the first decade of the 21st century--to do a proper count. (Three laundry baskets; one hamper; one sofa; one dining room table; one kitchen table; six night stands; one rocking chair; 19 candle holders; seven rugs; two teapots; five beds; 15 wine glasses; 10 quilts; 744 books...)

Almost. But not quite.