Expat Life: Oh, the Stuff You Collect!

by missfootloose on January 13, 2013 · 30 comments

in exotica, Expat life, living abroad

I have yearnings to be a minimalist. A minimalist expat. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with all those possessions that get bagged and boxed and shipped and stored and moved and schlepped around the globe. I’d be rid of most of that stuff living and breeding in drawers and cupboards and shelves and boxes.

Ghanaian fabric

Like all this fabric from Africa — endless colorful meters going unseen and neglected in a storage box. I so loved them when I bought them in Ghana, West Africa. The colors! The designs! Surely I’d find something really creative to do with them. But no, here they are, years later, languishing in the dark.


Do you know what these things are? They’re called podstakanniki, tea glass holders, the ones you are presented with when you travel on Russian trains, or so I hear (I’ve never traveled on Russian trains.) Why do I have a collection of them? Well, I thought they were so cool when once I was served tea in them in a restaurant in Yerevan, Armenia, a former Soviet republic. I thought it would be unique to serve my guests tea in them, so I rummaged around in the Vernissage, the fabulous flea market in Yerevan, and picked one up here and there, now and then. For fun, you know. But I never ended up getting the glasses that fit in them, and the friends I generally collect along the expat trail are more the wine-drinking types. So here they are, my lovely podstakanniki, about a dozen of them, stashed away in a box on a shelf.

I dream of living a simpler, less cluttered life. To be at peace and spend time meditating sitting on the floor in an almost empty room. Just a decorative plant peacefully spreading its oxygen. Perhaps a little incense burning and mind-altering music playing in the background. You know what I mean. Maybe just a serene picture of a mountain on a wall, a pretty candle, a few colorful cushions . . . well, there I go again, filling up the space.

Yes, I have yearnings to be a minimalist. But it eludes me.

I swear I spend my wandering expat life selling and giving away stuff when I move –  towels and pots and pans and furniture and clothes. But the universe loves a vacuum it is said, so lo and behold I seem to have more stuff next time around.

Handpainted ceramics Hebron

I love these hand-painted dishes. I bought them in the Old City of Jerusalem and in Hebron while we lived in Palestine. I have more than you see on the photo. I do use one or two of them. Not all the time, but sometimes. So really, why should I hold on to them?

If you’ve been taking careful notes while reading all my previous posts, you know I made another one of those chaotic transatlantic moves a few months ago. My mate and I relocated from Moldova in Eastern Europe to the US, back into our fully furnished and equipped American house that had stood empty, pining for our return.

The time came when our shipment from Moldova arrived and I started unpacking boxes and putting stuff away and while doing this I had a blinding moment of enlightenment: We have too much stuff! Or to be honest, I have too much stuff. My prince can live out of a backpack, and would even prefer to.

I don’t consider myself a collector of stuff. I don’t have shelves full of Elvis Presley memorabilia, handcuffs, toasters, air sickness bags or dryer lint. I’m not a shopper, I don’t like shopping, I’m not much of a consumer at all unless it’s going on vacation to fabulous places like Rome or Paris and spending money on food and wine. But . . . .

While I was finding room for our possessions that had just arrived from Moldova I went through all the things in the house I hadn’t looked at for ages. I was stunned to discover that really, I do have proper collections! Objects gathered in different places in the world like the above mentioned African fabric and Russian tea glass holders.

glasses for liqueurs

Look at these things! What am I doing with 30 plus liqueur glasses? All different, pretty, unique, some even antique. How did I ever get that collection? Well, it started innocently enough with a few pretty ones inherited from family. Then I started seeing other ones here and there, and then people started giving me one now and again because they knew I liked them.

I hardly ever drink a liqueur. When I have a dinner party almost never does anyone want a liqueur. So what am I doing with them now? This is not a minimalist approach to owning things.

Ghana beads

And what about these African beads? I have a large bin full of them, kilos and kilos of them. Why, you ask? Because they are gorgeous and when I lived in Ghana, buying beads was so much fun because they were everywhere and you can make fabulous jewelry with them. And yes, I actually have made a few necklaces. However, I have enough to start a business and string beads from now till kingdom come. But I don’t. So the bin with beads sits in the basement, being no good to anyone.

If I want to be a true minimalist, I should just sell or give all of these things away. But I don’t really want to. I kinda like these useless trinkets. But rest assured that if the house burned down I wouldn’t weep over them.

I so admire people who are true minimalists, don’t you? I long to be one, really, but I might as well admit to myself that there is no hope for me in the minimalist department.

What about you? Tell me your tale of woe when it comes to your possessions.

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Anne O'Connell (@annethewriter) January 14, 2013 at 1:31 am

Oh My God Karen! You must have climbed into my psyche and wrote this about me πŸ™‚ My hubby and I have been dreaming about that minimalist lifestyle as well and we really did pare down quite a bit with our last two moves. Who needs 20 wine glasses? And, yes, I too had a huge collection of liqueur glasses… some I can’t part with because my mom gave them to me but I was ruthless with the others. I had a garage sale before our second last move and got rid of half my glassware and still had enough to fill a dishwasher three times over! We also got rid of a lot of sporting equipment. Who needs six weight belts for scuba diving? You can only wear one at a time (and honestly, I can’t remember the last time we actually went diving). I’m looking forward to the next move because I’ve gotten much better at saying, “I’m not packing THAT again!”
Happy Minimalizing!


missfootloose January 22, 2013 at 10:37 am

Anne, garage sales, yes, they help! One time when we sold our house in the US to move to the Middle East, I had four garage sales in order to get rid of stuff. Then the rest we put into a self-storage unit. Eleven years later we came back to the US (for a while) and checked out the stuff in the storage unit and wondered why the heck we kept the stuff that was in there. I’m planning this spring to have a huge garage sale. I won’t sell the stuff I showed on the photos though πŸ˜‰
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Louise January 14, 2013 at 1:32 am

I truly sympathize , I find out that when you travel a lot it’s really hard not to collect things even with the best intentions. Like you, I find myself with all kinds of African fabrics and trinkets plus you want things to remind you of your travels. I smiled when I saw the handpainted stuffs from Jerusalem for I too collect them. I now have a few display cabinets for my souvenirs, so I called them, but after awhile you do run out of room there too. I now try to buy a piece of jewelry for each place I visit but that’s getting very expensive very fast plus I can only wear so many bracelets or necklaces at a time. Let me just say tha it’s really hard to be a minimalist when you do a lot of traveling and love beautiful things. Now I am getting to the flea market game, oh boy! I now travel with son who’s trying really hard to save me from myself, so he said…will see?
Good luck to us all!


missfootloose January 22, 2013 at 10:42 am

Louise, I have a collection of jewelry too, but not of the precious variety. I covered a big cork board with a piece of fabric and my necklaces no hang from push pins to make an interesting collage. It now serves two purposes, one as a place to keep the jewelry and another as a fun decorative display. It works well because at a glance I can see what I have and what to choose to go with what I’m wearing. I love flea markets too. Hope you don’t get into fights with your son!


Pat January 14, 2013 at 2:44 am

Oh my, Karen, what a collection especially for a non collector! How I too “yearn to be a minimalist,” although like you I don’t consider myself a collector, I tend to accumulate those precious souvenirs that remind me of special times and places in my life. My biggest collections are books and T-shirts from every team I coached or played on and every tournament I took part in. We used to move on average every 2 years so the mountain of goods was managable, but now that we have lived in Switzerland for 15 years, things are getting out of control!


Dana January 14, 2013 at 3:15 am

I can completely relate to yearning to be a minimalist! I have worked so hard at it, and in the past couple of years I have become so good at admiring beautiful things without taking them home. I’ve also avoided flea markets! I have learned to ask 2 things before buying anything: “Where can I put that in our house right this minute, right now without moving something else? What am I willing to give away / sell to make room for this?” This includes linens and fabric. The only exception I’ve allowed myself is candle sticks, which ironically I can’t seem to find to suit my tastes.

Our house is not packed full of “stuff,” but my husband has the same vision as you, empty rooms devoid of much. I am trying to meet him half way!

PS. I love each of your collections that you have featured here, especially the beads.


Joy @My Turkish Joys January 14, 2013 at 3:43 am

Such great memories, but how about ebay or estsy for the beads? πŸ™‚ We’ve only been expats for about 3 years so my collection so far has been limited to Turkish ceramics and tea glasses – things that I do use on a regular basis. But who knows what I’ll add to the collection down the road.
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Mara January 14, 2013 at 5:09 am

I couldn’t go minimalist. I love my books and my dvd’s too much. Plus some little reminder of a place I visited some time ago. And another little reminder of a place where I lived. No, I couldn’t go minimalist!
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Sara January 14, 2013 at 5:14 am

I think you have some lovely ‘stuff’.
A. for the tea glass holders, find candles in glass and use them as holders, inside and out in the garden / on the deck.
B. The Ghanian cloth makes wonderful table cloths and napkins as it is so wide and long. Also lines baskets, you make the lining taller and have a drawstring so that nothing falls out. Baskets are cheap, and make excellent gifts.
C. Make Humous or something else equally delicious, put it into a dish, wrap in cling-film and take it with you as hostess gift when you go to someone’s house for a meal.. remember to keep a few for yourself!
D. Those beads are amazing and a jeweller would have them off you in a NANOSECOND! I have just emailed your page to a friend whose daughter is a jeweller in NYC.
My problem is books.. oh dear.
Best wishes from chilly London.


Judy January 14, 2013 at 7:27 am

I think everyone collects stuff along the way. If you haven’t fallen in love with the countries you’ve lived in and wanted to take a piece of it with you when you left, you haven’t had much of an expat life. Managing it though is a problem. When we moved back to Canada my solution was to a) thin it out a little b) put it all in a cupboard in the living room (quite tightly packed so I could get a lot in it) and then just display one item, or a small groups of items, rotating it each week. That way each piece gets far more attention, the display is constantly changing, less dusting! and I can achieve the illusion of minimalism (so long as no one opens the cupboard). πŸ™‚
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missfootloose January 16, 2013 at 11:52 am

Rotating to show off your priced possessions is a good trick, as long — as you say — you don’t look behind closed doors. But what to do when you move again? I will have to learn to be more radical with some of my treasures πŸ˜‰


guyana gyal January 15, 2013 at 10:59 am

You have so many beautiful things and so many amazing stories. Maybe, one day, you can have a big home, and put the beautiful things on display, and cook exotic food and tell your stories and serve up to visitors. New career πŸ™‚

I tend to give away stuff that I don’t use but I STILL have clutter! Bleah boo me.
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missfootloose January 15, 2013 at 3:40 pm

That’s my dream! And then I hope you come and visit! How’s the south of France? Great food and wine culture!
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guyana gyal January 15, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Do it, follow your dream. And you can capture it all on youtube!

I’ve heard the south of France is truly beautiful.
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Turkey's For Life January 15, 2013 at 11:21 am

Well, look at it this way, with all the places you’ve been to, at least you’ve collected interesting clutter. πŸ™‚ I love the tea glass holders! I used to hoard all sorts of things but living in a tiny house helps – no shopping allowed unless it’s a necessity.
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missfootloose January 15, 2013 at 3:29 pm

For some time now I’ve told myself I won’t buy anything unless I can actually use it. Anything else just takes up space. My mother used to call them “dust catchers.”
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Isabelle January 15, 2013 at 7:45 pm

My problem is books, I just can’t get rid of any of them! I’m 44 and I only have one shelf left, what will I do for the next 40 years?!
I’m not a collector but I do allow myself to buy little things when I travel. And I travel quite a bit. But I have rules: 1-where will I put this? 2-will I use it? (for bowls and plates, the answer is always yes!). If I don’t have an answer for 1 or answer ‘yes’ to 2, then I can’t have it, plain and simple. It takes some practice though! I find that a little plate or earrings are always ok so I tend to consider those purchases only…


missfootloose January 16, 2013 at 11:38 am

I’ve always loved my books but have to be radical as they are very heavy for shipping around the globe. I’m with you on buying things like dishes and earrings! I have loads of fun and funky jewelry, too πŸ˜‰


Emily McGee January 17, 2013 at 2:34 pm

After moving 5 times in the past 5 years, I’ve become quite a minimalist too. Your collections are beautiful though, and I can see how they might be hard to part with. My husband will envy your dishes from Jerusalem. (They are gorgeous and neither of us have ever been there.) I find that our main arguments revolve around the “stuff” that he wants to keep from our travels and my desire to get rid of all “stuff”.
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missfootloose January 20, 2013 at 2:58 pm

As soon as he himself (rather than his company) has to pay for the shipping of his stuff across the globe, he might rethink the desire to keep some of it. So far we have not been in that position, but we might be in the future and then I’m sure we’ll get more radical about disposing of stuff.


Maria January 17, 2013 at 10:21 pm

Minimalism is highly overrated. You’ve got a treasure trove there β€” of stuff, and of memories! Enjoy it in all its overwhelming glory. If you’re not convinced, come over to my house and take a look at the crappy glasses I serve liqueur in. πŸ™‚
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missfootloose January 20, 2013 at 2:54 pm

Thanks for the laugh. I’d love to come over and have a liqueur from one of your crappy glasses!


edj January 18, 2013 at 1:09 am

But these are memories from all your travels! Makes sense to me. I must admit I love my odds and ends from Mauritania, Morocco, France, Mexico. I keep things my parents bought in Ethiopia and Jordan and Lebanon. They tell stories. This is not even remotely like shelves of Elvis memorabilia. (If it is, don’t tell me! I don’t want to know)

But yeah, I dream of…not minimalism exactly, but something a bit closer to it than I’ve yet achieved!


Sami Veloso January 18, 2013 at 10:17 pm

I have a collection of plates I used to buy from every big city I visited, then I decided they were getting too much and just bought 1 per country! I still have over 80 plates that I used to have hanging on a huge wall. Since we moved to Australia, I have no big walls or the inclination to hang all those plates again, so they sit in boxes in the garage! I have loads of other smaller collections – dolls, mini cups, coins, stamps….
Just like you I wander what to do with all of them, some remind me of places I visited, some were gifts.
I love your colourful Ghana fabric, as someone else said you can use them as tablecloths, but if you are handy with a sewing machine you can make beautiful dresses too, maybe one or two and give someone else the rest so they can sew for themselves…


missfootloose January 20, 2013 at 2:53 pm

I suppose we can hang on to our stuff and enjoy it, as long as we don’t get too obsessive about it. And I think I will find some use for the fabric; it is fun and colorful.


Karien January 21, 2013 at 4:44 am

Your story is mine, I too have turned into a collector over the years. Now I do not know where too put it all. The problem also with the Singaporean damp (never was a fan of airco) is that it turns everything stored into a green, living thing. Mould is my new enemy…
I have a new love for the beautiful colourful Peranakan china you can buy here. But my antique Biedermeyer dutch china cabinet croaks and moans under it’s load. Literary, and a big crack appeared in one of it’s shelfs. So where, o where should I put it?
Sigh. I have this dream, one day, when I will settle down in a large, spacious house, I can stall and show all I own. Question is when, of ever…
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missfootloose January 22, 2013 at 10:31 am

Karien, I googled Peranakan porcelain and I see what you mean! It’s gorgeous and colorful. Do you use any of it? One day I hope, like you, to have a house that will have enough space so I can have the things I really like in it. And then to be able to actually use them when friends, guests and eaters come visit. A house in a place where our international wandering friends will want to come and visit . . . .


Tressa in Norway January 28, 2013 at 2:01 am

Your collections are beautiful! – Although I would love to get rid of TONS of stuff… I would have a hard time getting rid of all of your beauties… perhaps you can find a way to gift them? – ahem.. I would like the Russian teacups when you start giving away! lol
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missfootloose February 2, 2013 at 10:11 am

I’ll keep you in mind for the tea cup holders! (I found your comment in my spam box – how strange!)


Peta, Expat Archive Centre January 31, 2013 at 6:26 am

What beautiful items! I particularly like the tea glass holders.

When our archive of expat life stories first began, we did take in some items collected by Shell wives during their travels. Unfortunately we just can’t do it anymore – we don’t have the space or the right environment to converse such things.

We can take your paperwork though! We are always encouraging expats to keep as much as possible about their life abroad – and then to send it to us, of course. We collect diaries, letters, postcards, photos, documents and lots more – and we can arrange for a free pickup. We scan everything and give you a free digital copy – much better for a minimalist home πŸ˜‰


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