Traveling circuses

The trials of yet another house move

Pack. Unpack. Repeat.

As I prepare for yet another move, living among boxes and bubble wrap, it occurred to me that I’ve become very adept at packing. And unpacking.

Not only are there the BIG moves, the ones involving shipping containers and lost-at-sea insurance premiums, but there are the little moves in between and lots and lots and too much suitcase packing. I’m sure the following train of thought will be familiar to anyone who has ever moved overseas:

“We’re moving? Great! (Motherf*ck**!). Yup. I’ll arrange for them to come and pack up the house. Yes, I know. I need to make sure I have 6-8 weeks of clothing, toys, toiletries and anything else I can’t get/is too expensive to buy/is illegal to purchase put aside while we are living out of suitcases in temporary housing. No problem! I can put X in the air freight, Y in the container. Plenty of room for Legos in my carry-on. Hmm, but it’s going to be a different season where we are going so I need to make sure I pack the summer stuff for the trip we were stupid enough to book in the middle of this all while keeping the winter clothes marked so we can get to them after we move and the container comes and – oh we’ll need the converter for the coffee pot and what’s the voltage where we’re going?…”

Like most things in life, the more you do it, the better you become at it. But packing up your life into cardboard boxes isn’t the only thing you become good at when you sign up for the traveling circus that is ex-pat life. And as I procrastinate packing up my own moving boxes, I’ve come up with a few more.

Streamlining sentimentality

Virgo neurosis aside, when you are moving from place to place every few years, you become very picky about what stays and what goes. In our marriage, my husband is the more sentimental of the two of us. While I long for the day when I can decorate like a grown up with breakable objects without having to step over boxes of trucks and bins of color-coded Lego, he gets slightly misty when it comes time to cull the boys’ things. I have saved a few favorite books, tee shirts that tell a story, but everything else gets donated, given away, or sold. Harsh maybe, but a necessity when you are charged by the cubic foot and you don’t have a basement.

Making friends

This life is not for the wall-flower. Unless you are the personality type that likes to change your name, hair color, and identity in order to hide from Interpol by moving every few years, you have to put yourself out there. I’ve never been a particularly shy person, so making friends was never a hardship for me, but I’ve become even better at it after living abroad. Coffee mornings, school functions, playground chit-chat. Ex-pat socials, linked up lunches, supermarket tours. It’s the only way to get by. The tails to the friendship coin toss, however, is…

Saying goodbye

When you live your life on a timeline, as a lot of expats do, you have two choices. One is to not invest in friendships. But you will lead a very isolated and lonely life. Not to mention missing out on a lot of information like where the cheapest place to get your eyebrows waxed is and which babysitter is likely to invite her motorcycle driving boyfriend over to ‘help’ with the kids. The other is to harden yourself to saying good-bye. Depending on where you are in the ‘circuit’, there are years where the turn-over is pretty low, and there are other years when it seems like everyone you know is putting those packing skills to good use.

In Cyprus we had one friend whose house was the one everyone congregated at. Impromptu barbeques and playdates and dinners. Gossip and wine for the ladies, cigars and meat grilling for the men. When they left, it was a sad day. But you can’t wallow in the holes that are left behind. Instead you have to become a little Buddhist about the whole thing–those people who are meant to stay in our lives will cross our paths again. And even those that don’t, well, they were present for a time and touched us in some little way and we will have them in our memories and photo albums. And there is always Facebook.

Making it work… Ikea style

No one tells you when you sign up for this that the furniture that worked in your small Brooklyn apartment will get lost in your giant, modern Cypriot house which in turn looks wrong in your traditional Danish flat. Or that the electronics you buy in one country won’t work in most others. Honestly, why no one is lobbying for a universal voltage initiative is beyond me. Hence most expats are thrilled to find a local Ikea. You may find yourself in a giant house with no furniture (Cyprus) or in a lovely apartment with zero closets (Denmark). And you will thank God for Ikea. Most of us clutch the catalog like a Bible. Most of us can tell you which pieces require those god-awful allen keys and which you can put together on your own when your partner is attending a conference in sunny Dubai and you’re stuck with 18 boxes of books that need to be unpacked and you have nowhere to put them.

Embracing carpe diem

I’ve written before about some of the downsides of the expat life. The difficulties, the complaints, the cons of living far from home. But what an opportunity! And despite the fact that you can’t find Kraft Macaroni and Cheese or Fruit Loops (and really folks, we shouldn’t be eating them anyway…) or that a Cypriot might get out of his car and bang on yours while yelling that you didn’t move fast enough… at a red light… (true story), or that a Dane may look at you in horror when you casually ask “How are you?” (true story), life is pretty good. Better than pretty good. Pretty great really. And this is written by the forever pessimist. The one who keeps a Worst Case Scenario Handbook close by. But when you embrace the concept of living each day, it helps ease the homesickness pangs and the cravings for Utz Cheese Doodles.

So while I sort through my belongings yet again, decide which glasses to take and which to chuck, fret over which box to put the coffee pot in, I am grateful. This circus isn’t always easy. At times it feels like you are a walking a tightrope between cultures, balancing more than a few spinning plates on the end of a stick. But it’s certainly a colorful life–one filled with juggling acts sure, but magic and wonder as well.

And I, for one, find that a few sparkly trapeze outfits hanging in my Ikea closet brighten up my life immensely.

Bring on the dancing horses!

Republished with kind permission of Dina Honour via Traveling Circuses | Wine and Cheese (doodles).

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  1. I’m with Neil! When I was ‘stationary’ it used to be about home and garden – the right cushion covers, colour schemes, maintenance of lawn and deck. Since becoming an expatriate again the focus has definitely switched from things to experiences. There’s a limit to what you can do with rented property, acceptance is the quickest way to serenity when surrounded by bright yellow walls (no joke – if you could see the orange & black basement…). Once your family has lived on different continents from one another while one of you works abroad your perception changes.
    Older and wiser, I know it’s not the house it’s the people in it that count. I have all my most precious things in the same passport country as me – my cup runneth over.
    Great piece, really enjoyed it! (Love Ikea! But it makes my husband nervous)

    1. Wow! Have you moved into my previous house? We had an orange and black (and blue!) basement too!
      Have to admit, I’m still about the house and garden. Both give me comfort and pleasure. And having lived in a temporary apartment now for a few weeks, using borrowed homewares I am desperate to get into my ‘own’ house and unpack my own goods again. Also, I did a lot of backpacking / suitcase living in my youth so have done the minimalist thing. I like ‘stuff’!
      Interestingly, my husband hates Ikea too. But there isn’t one here in South Africa so that’s not an issue.

  2. After 20years of doing this, and then having kids in the middle, that I’ve gone from backpacker to accumulator and back to minimalist with surprising ease… Toys are by far the highest priority, then their clothes (much more value per unit volume!), and then mum and dad’s ‘stuff’, less and less of which is now never being unpacked simply because there is less of it. Things are useless, experiences are priceless…

    1. I’ve definitely noticed the decrease in toys since my daughter got older. And I’m seriously considering leaving a lot of my stuff packed into boxes this time around… I’m fed up with packing!

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