Expat Life: Oh, the Stuff You Collect!

by Miss Footloose

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 quietly living and breeding in drawers and cupboards and shelves and boxes.

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 where I lived the expat life for a good number of years. 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 the capital of 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, 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.

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?

Some years ago my man and I got ready for another one of those chaotic expat moves and 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, music boxes, air sickness bags or dryer lint. I’m not a shopper–I don’t like shopping except in funky foreign markets. I’m not much of a consumer unless I’m on vacation to fabulous places like Rome or Paris and spending money on food and wine. Still . . . .

Getting  through all the things in the house I hadn’t looked at for ages, I had to admit 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. And more, as you’ll see below.

And what did I do? Minimalism or not, I was not able to part with them so I shipped them all to our new location. Please don’t judge me.

Look at these things! Thirty-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. Hanging on to these pretty things is not a minimalist approach to owning things, but who else would even want them?

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 now lives in the garage, 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 think.

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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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… Read more »

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

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?… Read more »

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… Read more »


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!

Minimalism is highly overrated. You’ve got a treasure trove there — 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. 🙂

Emily McGee

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”.


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… Read more »

Well, look at it this way, with all the places you’ve been to, at least you’ve collected interesting clutter. 🙂 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.

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 🙂

I tend to give away stuff that I don’t use but I STILL have clutter! Bleah boo me.

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

I’ve heard the south of France is truly beautiful.

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… Read more »


Hello.. 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… Read more »

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!

Such great memories, but how about ebay or estsy for the beads? 🙂 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.

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… Read more »


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… Read more »


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… Read more »

Oh My God Karen! You must have climbed into my psyche and wrote this about me 🙂 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… Read more »

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