Trimming the Fat
By Joan Ochi
Riddle: I'm trying to lose weight, but I'm not on a diet. What am I doing?
If you answered "preparing to pack out," you're right! It also probably means that you too are a veteran of many an overseas move...and have experienced the anxiety of trying to pare down your belongings. Arriving at our current post in Kuwait two years ago precariously close to our family's weight limit of 7200 pounds of worldly possessions (as mandated by our employer, the U.S. State Department), we are preparing now to move back to our own Washington, DC home, which is about the size of our current living room. We are in serious purge mode.
Of course, some of what came with us will not be repatriated. For example, unaware of the bounty of our local Kuwaiti supermarket, we arrived with enough canned tomato products to stock a small 7-11. And the solid brown masses that used to be chocolate chips before they sat on a Middle Eastern loading dock in the September heat have been discarded. I've gone through my Costco provisions, like the two-year supply of contact lens solution the post report recommended I bring with me. Ridding ourselves of our
McDonald's Happy Meal toy collection dramatically reduced the clutter in our children's room. Even my husband's treasured hardcover "library for life" has been consolidated.
In the Western world, there is a growing trend toward what is called "living simply." Lately, I've been applying some of the tenets of this movement to my own experience by trying not to acquire so much "stuff," realizing that often, less is more. We've tried to avoid falling into what long-time Foreign Service types affectionately refer to as "the gong and trinket" syndrome. You know, buying something just because it's there to buy in the country in which you are posted. If you're in [insert country], you must buy [insert local country tchotchke]. I've occasionally wondered if some of the items I've seen in expatriate homes are things their owners really liked, or simply bought because they were "the" thing to buy in that country? (On the other hand, the recent easing of the US embargo on Iranian goods has occurred quite conveniently in time for us to snag a few Persian carpets before we head home...)
The litmus test consists of asking ourselves if we will be happy when we unpack a certain item at the other end of the move. Or will we be wondering where we are going to put it and why we bothered transporting it around the world? Somehow, it seems that we have too much that falls into the latter category, but with certified pack rats, old habits die hard. I read on the "organizedhome.com" website about the one-year rule--if you haven't worn it, used it, read it, admired it, etc. in one year, it's history! "Halas!" as they say in this part of the world. The really ruthless go so far as to rid themselves of 10-20% of household "stuff" each year. Somehow, it all seems a bit harsh. I still remember the trauma I suffered when I spied a Willie Mays jigsaw puzzle--a present my brother and I had given to our father for Christmas one year--in the "donate to rummage sale" pile.
Still, there is a certain cathartic pleasure to getting rid of stuff, and as we prepare to move this time, I'm determined to simplify our life. I've come to accept that I probably won't be needing those notes from my freshman zoology seminar. (But then again...we might be posted to Africa someday!) And then there's all the stuff still stashed in storage facilities around the globe. Since I don't think I've really missed any of it in the 5+ years we've been gone, I'm tempted to make arrangements for the movers to deliver it directly to the Salvation Army. All in all, I guess I'd rather go through this process every few years than force my heirs to sift through attics and basements full of stuff upon my eventual demise. Less weight, fewer encumbrances, no excess baggage--more of the benefits of a nomadic life, perhaps?
© 2000 Joan Ochi. All rights reserved.
Joan Ochi, a marketing consultant, is married to Foreign Service Officer Douglas Bell. The couple has two children and has pursued a nomadic lifestyle since 1995. While she wrote this piece, Joan was trying to figure out how to offset her recent purchases of antique furniture through increased consumption of canned goods.
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