Less is more, the compromise of the nomad lifestyle

“Less is more”

Mies van der Rohe

Whether I like it or not, the nomad lifestyle forces me to live like a minimalist. For the last three years I’ve been changing home every few months, never sure what the next place might look like. Renting a furnished house is a challenge in accepting that all of life is a compromise.

Take this latest compromise. A rock-hard bench, that looks like it belongs in a pagoda or a museum, is our new living room couch. Two days ago we moved into our fourth house this year in Vietnam. On the sofa-comfort scale it’s the worst one yet. We’ve had the ugly-but-comfy sofa and the too-short-for-Western-bottoms couch, but never the no-cushion-variety.

It’s beautiful to look at, but impossible to sit on. The only way I can get comfortable is by sitting in cross legs …. until my legs and butt fall asleep.

What I love about the inconveniences of the nomad lifestyle

What’s the appeal of  changing houses four times a year, my mother wants to know. Why would you put yourself through the effort of turning a musty house with waterlogged floors, rickety shutters that don’t shut and a leaking roof , into a home when it’s only going to be for 2 months?

Yes, that first day was challenging. Every nook and cranny of our new home was covered in yellow sediment. Dead geckos had hardened onto dark timber doors that hadn’t been opened in months. The house was filled with the stale, musty breath of Hoi An’s largest flood in recent years. And then there’s the hard bench … Indeed,  I wondered, why do I do this?

Because a new house, even if it’s just a temporary one, means a fresh start.  Yes, the house may be dank, but it’s not cluttered with emotions and expectations. It’s a clean slate. Anything is possible. New projects can be started and finished here.

It took less than 24 hours, a home cooked meal, a trip to the local market to buy flowers and other essential items including 2 knives, 2 wineglasses, 2 coffee mugs and a chopping board, to make us feel at home. And now I am in love with the place and can’t help myself spamming Instagram with my photos of our new home.

The challenge to feel at home anywhere

The appeal of living out of a backpack and a small trolley suitcase, I want to tell my mother, is the challenge to be able to feel at home anywhere. When you move into a place that isn’t properly set up for our Western needs, you have to be open-minded and creative. It’s not just the lack of upholstery that is challenging. There’s also the lack of a wardrobe – my Vietnamese neighbors simply hang their clothes to air out in the breeze – there’s the bad mattress and the cleaner who doesn’t understand the meaning of a deep clean, to being with.

The Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that our true home is our breath. It’s what anchors us to the here and now. So, I took a deep breath and did the deep clean myself. Then, I re-arranged the furniture until it made sense, removed all unnecessary clutter and filled the shelves with the contents of our two backpacks and carry-on trolley and voila, I am home. I even created a study/meditation space where I can sit and focus on my breath.

My mother will never understand this. Growing up during the war, with very few possessions, too poor to go to high school, she needs her possessions to feel alive. Her anchor isn’t the breath. It’s the comfort of knowing that everything is clean and in its proper place, including the rows of dresses she will never wear again or that box that has been stored for 20 years, because who knows,  she might need it one day.

Freedom from belongings

I am not sure if it was part of my youthful rebellion that made me embrace a lifestyle that is in total opposition to my mother’s. I’ve lived most of my adult life ready to uproot at any moment. You could say, I am an accidental minimalist and an early practitioner of the art of up-cycling pre-loved furniture.

Nothing makes me feel more alive than going to a rubbish dump and finding a piece of furniture that with a touch of sandpaper and a lick of paint can be turned into a centre piece in my home.

I remain a committed lover of vintage clothing. Many of my clothes are from the second hand shop. If they get ruined on my travels, it doesn’t matter, there is always more where they came from.

I also have a firm rule that for every new item of clothing I buy, another needs to be thrown out. But since I hate wasting things, I’ve stopped buying new clothes. Having a limited wardrobe, means I never waste time wondering what to wear. I have a few yoga outfits and a couple of nice outfits I rotate to my weekly creative writing class and to my weekly outing into old town. Working from home, I never have to worry about lipstick, ironing and uncomfortable shoes. None of which makes sense in Vietnam anyway.

Minimalism is having a moment. Entire niche blogs are devoted to it. Marie Kondo, the high priestess of the decluttering cult, was named in 2015 by Times Magazine as one of the 100 most influential personalities in the world. The diminutive Japanese woman who since childhood has been obsessed with tidying up, preaches the importance of consciously holding on to things that bring joy. Take every object you own into your hands and ask yourself: Does this give me pleasure? If not, out it goes.

It’s not a concept my mother could ever get used to.

Less really is more

I too once had a wardrobe filled with nice clothes. I worked hard and I spent a good percentage of my hard earned cash on nice clothes. It made me feel happy about the long hours spent inside an office. Nuts, right? Especially since most of those clothes are now either moldy in my storage shed back in Australia or have been tossed into the charity bin.

These days I wear pre-loved clothes, I spend less money and I have more free time. I’ve learned to spend it wisely. Travel makes me aware of its preciousness.

I also choose my possessions wisely. I have no choice. I travel on low cost airlines where every kilo costs extra. To get maximum value out of those kilos of check-in luggage, I’ve learned to pack quality.

A set of Egyptian cotton sheets and a nice fluffy towel are part of my standard equipment. I’ve also minimised the fabric on the clothes I bring. I carry a tailor-made set of short and long sleeve tops, and a knee length dress in paper-thin silk. It feels great, it looks great and it weighs nothing. By the way, that was my very exclusive bonus travel tip!

In case you were wondering, my butt and legs are in a deep sleep by now from sitting too long on those hard benches. Maybe there is a bonus in my numb limbs. Will I finally learn how to write shorter blog posts?  On that note, I’ll better sign off.

.

What’s your attitude to clutter? Are you a hoarder? A minimalist or somewhere in-between?

.

Feel free to share in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!

.

6 replies
  1. Gracie Opulanza
    Gracie Opulanza says:

    I had a house fire in 2014. It was then l discovered that less is more. Buy smarter and save money.
    Lost everything allowed me to create a new beginning. Few years on l am a luxury lifestyle journalist travelling all the time. Reviewing 5 Star hotels, cars and restaurants.
    I sold lots of household goods, downsized to set me free for our new adventures.
    The skill and art of looking always chic is hard. Yes you’re right silk is the best for that.
    Travelling like this is hard for family and friends to understand why we do it.
    The answer is simple live each day as if it’s your last. I assure you tomorrow may never come.

    Great post.

    Gracie Opulanza

    Reply
    • Kerstin
      Kerstin says:

      Hi Gracie, thank you for reading and commenting. Sorry to hear about your housefire, but as you say, sometimes a disaster can be a blessing in disguise. We had a category 5 cyclone rip my village to pieces, luckily my house only sustained minor damage, but the experience of having to grab what I couldn’t loose taught me a lot about our need to cling to possessions. Like you say, the answer is to live each day to the fullest. I practice mindfulness, it helps me remember to stay in the present moment, because as zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, says, the present moment is the only reality there is. Good luck on your adventures (I too had a stint as a reviewer of 5 star resorts, it was quite enjoyable, for sure). 🙂

      Reply
  2. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth says:

    Great post and very relevant to me at the moment. I am back in my hometown helping to clear out the family home which my parents have had for over 40 years. In addition, I’m minimising my own possessions, many of which have been stored here for the best part of two decades as I have travelled, lived and worked abroad. It’s tough going and I found it very difficult to get started but the more I clear out the more I feel inclined to get rid of. It’s so debilitating to live in a state of “just in case” but it’s also hard to finally let go…….
    Here’s to clearing the clutter and feeling at home in ourselves ♥

    Reply
    • Kerstin
      Kerstin says:

      Lovely to see you here Elizabeth and so happy this resonated with you. Oh gosh, clearing out the family home, what an enormous task. Yes, I can totally relate to that feeling of living in a state of ‘just in case’, like you, I’ve done it for decades and found it at times debilitating. I did a radical cleanse of my possessions a few years ago when I started renting my home out on Airbnb and to let go of all the ‘just in case’ clutter was totally liberating. Of course, it was difficult, heartbreaking, many times I ran back to a rubbish bin to rescue something because I’d changed my mind, but often I’d change my mind again and by the morning put it back in the bin. In hindsight, it was therapeutic and the sense of liberation that comes from my new lightness has proven to be long-lasting. Good luck and if in doubt, throw it in the bin 🙂 x

      Reply
  3. Kati
    Kati says:

    Hi Kerstin,

    Have been following you ever since I heard you talk to Amanda on the Thoughtful Travel podcast (your story about grief and a proposal (?) in Egypt – despite the serious topic, I laughed so hard I cried!).

    I’m not a big spender and have been somewhat adhering to minimalist ideas for some time. But I’ve got two questions that keep popping up for me: 1) How do you deal with personal mementos, family photos, etc.? You know, the million photos you have stored away before digital came in. Do you digitise them or simply look at them one last time and say good-bye? And 2) How do you deal with digital clutter? Photos, files, etc.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this as this kind of clutter makes me crazy (ok, maybe some other things make me more crazy 🙂 ) and I’m at a loss on how to deal with it (beyond total purge, which I’m loathe to do).

    Reply
    • Kerstin
      Kerstin says:

      Hi Kati, so nice to meet you here, a fellow German living in Queensland! Had a quick look at your website, very beautiful and full of inspiration, made me want to go to Canada!
      Yes, I remember the episode on Amanda’s podcast, it was a funny one to recall. I had a similar encounter in India, he’d already done the math on how we would spend his pension and adopt two children 🙂

      Now to your questions, both are tough to answer. I used to be very attached to the few things I managed to gather in my new home, but living in cyclone territory in the Wet Tropics of FNQ, has forced me to become cyclone prepared. This means having everything I cannot loose stored in watertight plastic buckets I can quickly load into my car. I’ve decided that life is too short to digitize old photos (I’ve thought about it, but I simply can’t do it). So I’ve made a selection of my most precious photos, I store them in ways that the humidity will not spoil them and I keep them in a plastic box, ready to evacuate at any moment as I had to when cyclone Yasi came to visit. Many of my personal mementos have either gone moldy or rusty in our harsh beachfront environment, which left me no choice but throw a lot of it away. It was painful at first but I feel lighter and happier now, knowing I don’t have to worry about safekeeping those items when the next cyclone comes. So now I keep two or three small things I brought over with me from Germany, they fit in the box with my photos, and that’s it.

      For years now I’ve made it a policy that souveniers I bring back from my travels have to be useful items (ie. a tea towl, a teapot, coconut salad serving spoons etc). If I can’t use them in my day to day household, they don’t have a place in my home. It’s a simple policy I had to enforce quite strictly once I started renting my home out on Airbnb because my guests will bring their own clutter and don’t appreciate my clutter and I have limited storage space.

      Regarding your second question, how to deal with digital clutter, I am probably the worst person to ask, I regularly let my hard drive become so full, I swear it slows down my computer. But I have become better recently and I now do a weekly purge, for example I’ll clean up my download folder, storing what I need in appropriate folders and delete the rest. My biggest problem is how to keep my photo files tidy and manageable. It’s a task I’ve set myself for the next year, as my MacBookAir simply hasn’t got enough storage space. On days when I feel uninspired to write, or when I feel tired and unfocused, I now tend to do a bit of computer maintenance (ie. filing things away and deleting what’s superfluous). I don’t love doing it, but every time I turn an unproductive writing day into a spring clean day of my online home, I feel so much better.
      Please let me know if you find a better answer to this dilemma, but I hope these suggestions have been somewhat useful 🙂

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *