“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!