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Packing, Is It All Just Stuff?

Let’s talk about packing. I love listening to expatriates talk about shopping and packing. Anyone else been the woman at Payless with twenty boxes of shoes? Buy 1, get one ½ off. We expat moms looking for sandals and tennis shoes for the foreseeable future take that seriously. Anyone else been the woman in Kohl’s crying in the dressing room because you don’t know what size your daughter will be two years from now? Or cried in Target because you don’t know if you’ll be back in one year or two years and how much sunscreen you will use between now and then?

If you’re an expat, either you’ve packed, way too many times, or you are about to pack and have way too many questions. Either you are going somewhere few people have gone before and can get no reliable information on what you need or how you might get it there, or you are going somewhere loads of people have gone and you face far too many suggestions of what you need or how you might get it there.

I know how she feels

500 pounds of luggage. Plus carry-ons. I know how she feels.

Packing is country-dependent, family-dependent, personality-dependent, cost-dependent, and sanity-dependent. We bring English books (until Kindle!) and anti-bacterial ointment (in a carry-on for easy access) and swimsuits because we are a reading family in a country with a single bookstore the size of my Djiboutian kitchen (the size of an American bathroom), we always have at least one soon-to-be-infected skinned knee or case of impetigo, and we live in a country where swimming is the only weekend activity and where locally available swimsuits are expensive or fall apart on the second wearing or simply can’t be found. We always packed only in our allotted luggage until after a decade in Djibouti, we shipped a container. We split the space between three families and filled it with a car (ours) and a kayak (not ours), free weights (mine), and an oven with more than one functional burner (bliss).

Packing puts strain on a marriage. This is how it goes in the Jones house. Ten days before moving back to Africa, I pull out all the suitcases and action packers and duffels and stare at them for a day or two. Then I begin moving purchases and gifts into the vicinity of the luggage and stare for another day. Then I rent a movie or three and get to work. I spend five days organizing and reorganizing and rejecting and shifting and weighing, shedding packaging and wrapping t-shirts around the glass gumball machine that was a gift and can not be left behind and stuffing Bob the Builder underwear into the crannies between running shoes. By the end of the five days my back aches and there are yellow post-its on every piece of luggage indicating exactly what they weigh, usually 49.99999 pounds.

Enter my husband.

Either the last evening in Minnesota or the morning we are leaving, he makes a last-minute run to the store and comes back with a beach shade complete with iron bars and massive tarp. It is heavy and bulky. Or, he comes back with a new printer. Heavy and bulky. Or, he comes back with the oh-so-necessary 220-volt, battery-chargeable vacuum cleaner. Yeah, try fitting that into a suitcase.

thankfully the reclining bicycle in the background wasn't moving to Djibouti

thankfully the reclining bicycle in the background wasn’t moving to Djibouti with us

We fight. I cry. He promises to rearrange it himself which makes me mad because then why did I waste my last few days packing? I make him promise to not get rid of or break anything and am convinced this will be impossible. I leave the room, slam the door.

He succeeds.

When we arrive in Djibouti, we generally feel we didn’t need all that we bought and brought but six months later, when the swimsuits are sagging and the skinned knees are pus-ing, we’re glad we did.

For anyone going through the packing throes, remember:

1. People wear clothes there. (probably)

2. People eat food there. (even if you don’t like it)

3. There is probably a visitor coming at some point who can bring the Shutterfly book that arrived in the mail thirty minutes after you left for the airport.

4. It is all just stuff. Pack it tight but hold it loose.

 

How have you packed suitcase, container? What are the best things you’ve packed? Silliest? What do you wish someone could bring or send to you right now?

Read more from Rachel about Djibouti and expatriate living at her blog, Djibouti Jones. Follow her on Twitter @RachelPiehJones and Facebook: Rachel Pieh Jones.

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