On second thought…

Ok. Remember when I said I loved my stuff and I didn’t think I had too much of it?

I was wrong.

I (and let’s be honest here, it really is me and not B & C) have WAY too much stuff.

How did I discover this truth? I received the last of our shipments. Our HHE from Arlington, and our consumables. Four more crates full of sh…stuff.

IMG_2034

You might recall the 1,600 lbs of food I sent – it’s now here. A crate full of yumminess. I was excited about that, but I (for some unexplained reason) thought that the rest of the HHE from Arlington would be maybe one more crate. Nope – it was three. It did contain a queen sized mattress and three bikes, which obviously took up a lot of room, but how did our tiny little apartment fill three crates!?

IMG_2039

My living room on boxes…

I got the food side of the consumables unpacked and organized in the pantry pretty quickly, but the rest of it has been (really) slow going. I’ve been unpacking and finding places for things, but suddenly my nice uncluttered house is starting to look a lot more cluttered. I finished painting C’s room, so she has moved in and we have transferred most of her toys there,  but that hasn’t seemed to make a dent in the office/spare room. It is like an explosion of STUFF when you walk in. And the bathrooms, now that we have received two years worth of shampoo, soap, lotion etc…, look like a smaller version of CVS.

IMG_2044

IMG_2046

But don’t be fooled into thinking that this means I not going to be buying anything else. Nope. I’ve got an Amazon Prime Pantry box in the works and I’ll be heading to the grocery store this morning to look for, of all things, chili powder. Seriously, how could I forget plain chili powder? I have a cupboard full of spices, about 6 different kinds of curry, and coriander, cardamom, cumin and cinnamon in all their various forms, but good old add-to-your-chili chili powder? Somehow that did not get included. So last night, as I’m making B’s top secret chili recipe for the Chili Contest on Saturday I had to go to my neighbors and beg for chili powder and now I’m headed out to buy a jar of my own. [Wait! News flash! Did you guys know that chili powder is actually a blend of spices? Of course you did, but I did not – until now – so hooray – I made my own chili powder and it has made my chili DELICIOUS!]

It is baffling that even with all this stuff I could still need more, but there it is.

C didn’t worry about there being too much stuff. She only had eyes for one thing – her bike. She has been asking us when the bike would arrive since we set foot in our house over two months ago.

She marched straight up to the supervisor and said “Did you bring me my bike?”

Catching my eye, he nodded. “Yes,” he said.  “It is in one of these boxes.”

“Can you please get it for me now?” C asked.

And bless him, he bypassed the boxes with the consumables and the mattresses and went straight to the crate with the bikes.

C is not always comfortable with strangers, but apparently the promise of delivering her bike made her fast friends with John. She walked up and put her arms out for him to pick her up, which he did.

IMG_2036

“How come your truck is so slow,” she said to him.

“My truck isn’t slow,” he answered, looking puzzled.

“But it took a LONG time to get from our house in Washington,” C responded. “So it must be slow.”

We, the adults, looked at each other for a minute and then I realized what C meant.

“She thinks this is the same truck that picked up our things in Arlington,” I told him, laughing. “She saw them load a truck with boxes and crates, and now a truck with boxes and crates has arrived in Kinshasa, so to her it must be the same truck.”

Leave it to a four year old to make sure everyone has a good laugh in 95 degree heat while unloading heavy boxes.

This has been an ongoing struggle for B and me – trying to explain to C that the four inches between Africa and North America on our map are not literal. As far as she is concerned we can swim to Canada from here, so why shouldn’t a truck drive from Arlington?

C didn’t think it was funny at all, and was not impressed by the delay in finding her bike while John told all the workers in Lingala what C had said in English.  But, eventually the bike was found, peddles were added and, from a four year old perspective, all was right with the world.

Our gardner asked during the unloading if he and our housekeeper could each keep a crate. “Of course,” I said. “What do you do with the crates?”

It’s an innocent enough question, right? I should have anticipated the response, but somehow I had not.

“We use it for our roofs, Madame,” my gardner told me. “They are not very strong and with the rains coming, this good wood helps keep the rain out.”

This “good” wood is plywood.

And so my stuff became to me, quite literally, an embarrassment of riches. I could feel my cheeks getting red as I stood there watching them unpack the crates. Box after box after box.  A bed that no one will sleep in 90% of the time. Pillows for decoration. Dozens of wine, martini, champagne, cocktail glasses that will sit in the china cabinet. China that will only be used at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Four boxes of Christmas ornaments and decorations. And the plywood crates it all came out of that will be the roof over the heads of two people who come to my house every day to my life easier.

I was standing there watching this, feeling horrified, when our neighbor’s driver, Pappy, who I turn to with lots of questions, asked me what was wrong.

“It is just so much, when so many people have so little,” I said.

“Oui Madame,” he replied. “Mais c’est comme ça partout dans le monde. Certaines personnes ont plus, d’aucuns ont moins. Vous assurez que vous appréciez ce que vous avez.”

“It is like that that over the world. Some people have more, some people have less. You make sure that you appreciate what you have.”

This truth is not lost on me. There are plenty of people in the world who have a lot more stuff than we do. And people whose sole goal is to get more stuff. Make more money, get more stuff, on and on until they die and there is no more stuff to get. And it is as true in the U.S. in many ways as it is in Kinshasa, but somehow it is just not as obvious. Maybe because I don’t know anyone sleeping under a plywood roof – and appreciating it – in the U.S.

It doesn’t make me like my stuff less, but it certainly makes me look at it differently.

IMG_2041

Boxes, boxes, boxes and paper, paper, paper…

So now I have the stuff put away. It is folded, arranged and stored so that there are no more boxes in my living room. The bikes are in the garage, the china is in the cabinet, and…the plywood is keeping my gardener and my housekeeper dry.

And I appreciate having our tools back, and my desktop to write at, and the spare bedroom arranged.

The question I’m asking myself is whether I appreciate it enough.

cleanliving

Stuff

For the last 12 months we have lived without. Without a junk drawer. Without excess. Without clutter.

In our corporate apartment in D.C. we had the items provided by the housing company. Basically that consisted of a small frying pan, 3 pots, 6 plates, bowls, cups and glasses, six forks, spoons & knives, a kettle, and a few kitchen utensils. We supplemented those items, at least in our kitchen, with a few things that for us are “cannot live without,” including our cast iron frying pan, a Le Crueset pot, my coffee maker, our knives and a couple of my favorite wooden spoons. The rest of my kitchen went into boxes and was shipped off to storage.

There were certainly moments when I wished I had some item or other – a muffin tin, a bread pan, a rolling pin – but for the most part I made do. Admittedly I didn’t cook as much as I used to, and what I did cook was not as adventurous or experimental, but no one in the family seems to have come to any harm.

Many FS people we talk to believe that one benefit of Foreign Service life is the ability to shed “things” every couple of years. In 23 or so months we (by this I mean the “royal” USG we…) will pack up and move ourselves and our stuff somewhere else in the world (and we won’t even know where for about another year!). So, essentially, every two years or so we are forced to take stock of what we own, what we need, what we don’t need, and, ultimately, what we want to drag to the next post.

I’ve met several people in the last year who’ve told me they got rid of all their “stuff.”

“I don’t care about ‘things,'” they tell me.

I think if B had his way we would be in the “get rid of everything” camp (though I’ve been to the homes of some of those people and they still seem to have plenty of stuff…)

So I’ve been thinking a lot about why I DO care about things – at least some things.

Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean that I care about things above people, or experiences, or just about anything else, but I do care about the things that make me feel comfortable. The things that make my ever changing “residences” into my ever changing “homes.”

On Friday we received our HHE (house hold effects). Four huge wooden crates filled with our stuff – and our mattress wrapped and sitting on top. Things, things and more things.

And I was deliriously happy.

Could I have lived here – or anywhere – without all these things? Absolutely.

Do I want to? Not particularly.

So I spent the weekend unpacking and revelling in STUFF.


MY STUFF! Our lovely blue chair that is so comfy to snuggle into and read. Our throw pillows which almost (but not quite) disguise the deplorable embassy provided “gold” couches which have seen (many) better days. Our stainless measuring cups. Our art. Our photographs. Our bed (I could almost cry thinking about the joy I will feel when we finally get rid of the embassy provided queen size bed and set up our bed…ah, King Size Bed…how I love and have missed you…).

I know it’s absurd on many levels, and if all the stuff in those crates had fallen off the boat they came on I would really only have been sad about the irreplaceable photographs and art. BUT, that doesn’t mean that I’m not happy that they didn’t fall off the boat and are now sitting in what would otherwise be a very impersonal house making it feel, smell and look like home.

  As an added bonus we will now use one of the crates to build a bed for my vegetable garden.

We did take a break from unpacking to drive out of the city for the first time to a place called “Chez Tintin.”

The draw of “Chez Tintin” has nothing to do with the random statues of the iconic Belgian cartoon “sleuth” Tintin and other characters from the books. The real draw is The River. Le Fleuve Congo. The location overlooks rapids that have stopped many a traveler from the Atlantic (though they are not the huge rapids that forced many early travellers to portage from miles below Kinshasa into the city (then called Leopoldville)).  One day I’ll attempt to describe the drive and the location a little better, but for now a picture will have to be worth 1,000 (or less) words since there are still boxes waiting for me to happily discover the “stuff” they contain.

IMG_1599

IMG_1594

5,892

5,892.  This, in pounds, and along with a few hundred additional pounds currently in our Arlington apartment, is what our “life” weighs.

I called the State Department warehouse in Maryland where our stuff, and the stuff of many other FS families, resides while we galavant around the world.  In my head, it looks like the last scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.

the ark and our stuff

When the movers came and emptied our house in Charlotte they took everything to this warehouse.  We haven’t seen it since, though we get one opportunity to visit it before we decide what it is we want to have shipped to us in Kinshasa when we leave in a few months.  As January 1 creeps (or rushes…) up to me I decided it was time to know how much all that stuff weighed so I could start mentally thinking about what we could (and would want to) bring with us as part of our HHE.   This got me thinking about what we want to bring with us in all the categories of “shipments” we have.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are several categories of shipments that we get when we leave (or “pack out”) of Arlington and head toward Africa.  By my count there are six: carry-on luggage, checked baggage, UAB, HHE, POV and Consumables.  Each will have its own set of challenges in terms of packing and scheduling.  For now I’m just thinking in broad strokes and hoping I can narrow down what we want before July.  So here, a short description of the six types of packing we’ll be doing.

Carry-On Luggage:

The first is no different than a typical traveler: carry-on luggage.  Normally my carry-on consists of some clothes (thrown in last minute), a book (wishful thinking with a three year old as a traveling companion) and my toiletries bag (in handy see- through bag).  This time, all of our carry-on bags (one bag and one personal item each for C, B and me), will be packed with precision and much forethought.  They will include enough games, toys, coloring books, and downloaded TV shows/movies to keep C occupied for basically 24 hours of traveling.  The first flight (from the US to Europe) will be overnight, so that might be easier, but I have no idea if the level of excitement we will all be feeling will allow for sleep, so I’ll be prepared.  The second flight, from Europe to Kin (it’s time to revert to the “nickname” for our new home – typing Kinshasa is getting old…) is 8 hours long in the middle of the day.  Leaving at 10 a.m. and getting in at 5 p.m.  So I predict at least one bag will be devoted to kid-occupation.  The other bags will be carrying our “must have” “cannot lose” items – documents, money, medication etc.

busy bagChecked Baggage:

We officially get to check two 50 lbs bags each.  So that’s 300 lbs of stuff that will travel on the same plane with us.  Technically we can, on our own dime, bring more, but having looked at the cost it is not the “few extra” dollars I anticipated.  You can take up to five additional bags, each up to 50 lbs, at a cost of $146 each.  Do not put it past me to set aside $730 so that I can make sure that I have my Le Creuset, cast iron frying pan, and other “creature” comforts, but right now that is seeming like a steep cost for a few extras.

I suspect most of our checked baggage will be our clothes (but hooray for going to a hot country where clothes weigh less!) and a lot of C’s toys.  This luggage, along with our carry-ons, will be all we’ll have of our own for several months in Kin – hence my desire to have my frying pan.  We’ll have a “welcome kit” when we arrive which I’m sure will contain a frying pan, but I’m equally sure that having my own frying pan will help me feel that much more “settled” when we arrive. The remaining categories of stuff (see below) won’t arrive for between two and six months.  So what we put in our checked baggage will be “it” until possibly Christmas time.  Our dog, Miller, because he weighs over 70 lbs, will be a whole separate category of “cargo” but thankfully he will be on our plane, so I’m considering him within the “checked” category.

UAB – Unaccompanied Air Baggage:

I’ve written about our UAB before, but this time it will be a whole different world of UAB.  Last time we were driving two cars about 400 miles, so whatever didn’t go in UAB just got shoved (and I mean this fairly literally) into the car with us.  I also drove back to Charlotte for work and picked up all the stuff that wouldn’t fit in the cars on the first trip.  This time, we’re moving 6,570 miles over an ocean and to another continent.  There will be no “going back” to pick up anything we’ve left, forgotten, or couldn’t fit on the first trip.  We’ve been told by the folks in the know (the CLO (Community Liaison Officer) in Kin) that it can take 2-4 months for our UAB to arrive in Kin.  So what goes in the UAB needs to be things that we can do without for 2-4 months, but that we want more than the things that are going in our HHE (Household Effects) – since it can apparently take up to six months for that to arrive.  We get a total of 600 lbs of UAB, so, assuming most of our clothes manage to fit in our carry-on and checked luggage, I suspect this will be a lot of kitchen stuff, but I’ve got until July to figure it out (and I’ll probably need every second of the time I’ve got).

HHE – Household Effects:

So this is where the 5,892 lbs comes into play.  I wanted to know the weight of our storage so I could start thinking about what I would want to have shipped to make our new house a little homier.  I knew we wouldn’t top the 18,000 lbs career limit (the max any FSO can have – be they ambassador or lowly ELO (entry level officer)), but I was frankly shocked to find out that we didn’t even come close to the 7,200 lbs HHE limit for our post (where housing is provided fully-furnished).  Technically this means we could ask for everything that is in storage.  We won’t, because there won’t be room for all our furniture, but it’s amazing to me that our house full of stuff weighs less than the 7,200 lbs allowance.  Admittedly, we don’t have our fridge, washer/dryer, and stove in storage (our renters have those), and we sold our sectional and a couple of other pieces of furniture, but if all of this fell through – we could still furnish a four bedroom house so that it looked like grow ups lived there.

The one piece of furniture I know we’ll want to include in our HHE is our bed – I DREAM of our king sized bed…a queen just doesn’t cut it once you get used to a king.  We’ll be able to bring all our kitchen stuff too.  Hooray for no more wine bottles as rolling pins (now I can use wine bottles for their intended use – drinking!).

DSC_1575

Personally Operated Vehicle:

It seems to be somewhat shocking to people that the USG will ship our car to Kin for us.  Only one car, mind you, but still…our trusty 4Runner will be making the trip with us.  We strongly considered selling our other car when we left Charlotte.  We certainly don’t need two cars in DC.  We don’t even really need one car given that we have the Metro and are walking distance to pretty much everything, but we’re really glad we kept both of them since it means that we might not have to wait 6 months for our car.  Our plan right now is to ship the 4Runner early – several months before we are scheduled to leave – and *hopefully* (fingers crossed everyone) it will be there when we arrive (or soon thereafter).  Having a second car allows us the luxury of shipping one car, but still having a vehicle.  And, since I’m planning to spend some time driving around visiting friends and family before we leave, this makes me very happy.

Consumables:

This is 2,500 lbs of “commodities that are intended to be used up relatively quickly.”  Not all posts are “consumable” posts, but Kin is.  So, we’ll also be identifying the 1,250 lbs of Kraft Dinner (shout out to my Canadian peeps), coke, peanut butter, spices etc…that we want and shipping those in an entirely separate shipment.  We’ll save the second 1,250 for later in our tour to account for expiration dates and determining the things we REALLY miss, instead of the things that we think we’re going to miss.  I’ll have to write a whole separate post about the consumables – I’m already obsessing, but suffice it to say that 1,250 lbs of food/household goods could mean 2500 cans of coke, or 3,636 boxes of Mac & Cheese, or almost 84 bags of dog food (the big ones).  The combinations are endless – I’m hoping to come up with the perfect one before July.

Kraft Dinner

The grand total of our “stuff” that could come along with us – a whopping 10,750 lbs (not including the car) of clothes, furniture, toys, books, dog food, coke and mac & cheese.  I’m pretty sure that will be sufficient “stuff” to make us feel *almost* at home in Africa for two years.  Now if only I could figure out a way to pack a Starbucks store…