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spring cleaning

One of the biggest draws of the Foreign Service is the opportunity to move every couple of years – to explore a new country, become familiar with a new culture, and then relocate to a new place to start the process of social exploration all over again. One of the few drawbacks to this lifestyle is that one has to move every couple of years. Packing up one’s whole life to start afresh elsewhere is apparently much more difficult and time-consuming when one has pets, kids, cars, and a whole house full of stuff than it was when we packed a couple of suitcases to study abroad for a year in college or join the Peace Corps.


Although the State Department helps with the moves, shipping its employees’ household effects halfway around the world, it also imposes constraints on what one can pack. We know people, for example, who have mailed their spice collections to themselves every time they’ve moved because food items cannot be shipped out of or into certain countries. Sometimes the movers will not pack anything flammable — candles, for instance — supposedly for fear that the container will catch fire. This last strikes us as an unreasonable worry — candles may melt if the container overheats in the sun, but at the point where they are bursting into flames it’s probably because the container is already ablaze.

We’ve met some FSO families that, after several tours abroad, have worked out exactly how much toothpaste, diced tomatoes, and taco seasoning they will consume during a two-year assignment abroad. They keep elaborate spreadsheets and stock up on the consumable items they know they need and which might be difficult to obtain in a foreign country. Nairobi being our first assignment, we are nowhere close to making similar calculations. With only a couple of months left before our departure and a pantry full of food, we threw a party last weekend to help pare down our supplies and empty out the liquor cabinet.

Moving every couple of years also provides the impetus to get rid of things one definitely does not need, but which might continue to accumulate dust for years in a forgotten part of the house if left undisturbed. The State Department limits by weight how much stuff each employee can bring abroad, but also provides storage space in several regional warehouses throughout the world. As a result, one can have small parts of one’s life stored on various continents for years without even remembering what is packed where. D’s former boss was fond of recalling how he retrieved some boxes from storage, which had been packed after he completed his first tour nearly three decades earlier, only to find them full of baby clothes and toys that had belonged to his firstborn.

Over the course of the last 3-4 months S had been slowly paring down our belongings, advertising items we decided we no longer needed through the embassy newsletter. With more than a thousand locally employed staff at the embassy, this proved better than ebay and everything she advertised sold within days. While selling things like our old digital cameras through the newsletter was easy, there was no way to advertise all the miscellaneous knick-knacks and used clothing that we wanted to get rid off. Fortunately, the embassy organizes yard sales several times a year and they are among the best attended of embassy-organized events.


Our Swahili teacher told us that Kenyans prize foreign-made goods much more than domestically produced goods of the same quality. Certainly, most Kenyans we’ve met are eager to acquire used things from foreigners. On Saturday, the soccer field on our compound was buzzing with the excited chatter of shoppers in search of bargains. Because she wasn’t sure how much to charge for each item, S asked our housekeeper to help her price the items and bargain with the customers. None of the things sold for a lot, but S came back to the house almost completely empty-handed, which D counted as a huge victory.


George Carlin used to joke that a house is just a place where you keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff. Hopefully, changing houses every couple of years will help us keep the amount of stuff we acquire under control.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Looks like you are coming to the end of one exciting adventure! Any idea where the next stop is?

    March 18, 2013
  2. I love doing yard sales in Africa!

    March 18, 2013
  3. There’s nothing like having a last party to pare down your liquor supply and people show up with bottles of wine…

    March 18, 2013
    • We’ve definitely hosted a couple of parties after which we had more booze than when we started. For this one, we specifically told people not to bring anything other than mixers. People did bring beer, even though we told them not to, but it got drunk also.

      March 19, 2013
  4. I’ve never been in the foreign service or even lived abroad, but at one point I calculated that I had moved 23 times in 11 years. Some of that was in and out of dorms but as an English major with many books, a kitchen set with a full set of dishes, pots and pans and small appliances, and my own bed, I felt those counted.

    You definitely get better at seeing things as replaceable. Some large items cost more to move than to sell and replace. I also have a much smaller amount of books and clothing than I did when I was younger.

    The best part is even when you stop moving quite as much you still consider ownership carefully. I think it makes me appreciate the things I own much more.

    March 23, 2013
    • That’s a lot of moves, Sha…and it’s certainly harder to move when you have to do it yourself; we at least have the State Department to help us do the heavy lifting.

      In that Carlin clip I quoted, he talks about going on vacation and how you have to pack a smaller version of your stuff to feel comfortable and then if you go on a day trip from your vacation destination you need an even smaller version. Moving from post to post is kind of like that: most of our stuff gets crated up and shipped and arrives months later, but we also get a much smaller air shipment that, theoretically, at least arrives sooner. Plus, we have the luggage of course…so we have the stuff we can’t do without (two suitcases each), the stuff that would be nice to have sooner rather than later, and all the other stuff….and it’s this latter that we were trying to pare down.

      Thankfully the digital revolution has made it easier to travel with the stuff that really matters…pictures, books, movies, music. In high school/college I had multiple, giant three-ring binders full of CDs. Now, all I need is my laptop and a small external hard drive to back everything up.

      March 23, 2013
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