Unexpected Consequences: Instant and Ongoing Decluttering

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that the Four Hour Work Week is a major influence on my life and was a big part of the “how” portion of the massive quality of life upgrade that was my move from America to Europe.  In the book Tim puts forth a notion called “mini retirements” in which instead of working and saving until some mythical age to sell everything and move to Thailand (for example) why not do that now for a few weeks and see if you actually like it.  There are other reasons to take mini-retirements, including not assuming you’re in control of your health or when you die, but what I want to focus on is Tim’s insistence that you dump pretty much everything.

Stuff.  It can define us.  And Americans in particular have so much room that nothing stops us from buying more.  We even define our “national holidays” by sales of stuff.  We even have a very healthy business category of self-storage, which is an embodiment of our hoarding mentality.  Alas, that industry is now kicking off in Paris (and probably greater France as well).

Tim’s points were simple: get rid of everything that doesn’t have a particular or sentimental value.  You can always buy another couch, or plates, but maybe you can’t buy that one pan Grandma taught you to cook with.  Dump the other stuff, keep that.

I decided pretty quickly that my “must keeps” consisted of roughly 100 framed prints that had mostly been painstakingly transported from Europe over the years and adorned all the spaces of my then-home in America, as well as the 4000 books that I had collected over many stops of library book sales and used and new bookstores over the years.  I spoke to a friend in Canada who had a large amount of space in a new home he had recently moved into, who also happens to homeschool his kids.  He would get a teaching and parenting resource for free, as well as for his own enjoyment, and I would have free and safe storage of my treasures.  We agreed on a 5-year term, after which time we could discuss what was to follow.  I knew after 5 years in Europe (I’m 2 in now) I would either have a place to ship the books or have a long term plan about what to do with them.

So books and art sorted.  I rented a large truck about 6 months before I left the USA and drove the books to Canada.  As a note, if you do this, the Canadians will ask you for a value, so they can tax you…on stuff you already own…because hey, you might choose to sell it!  So, cynically (and in keeping with American, and what I would find out, French traditions), I assessed the 4000 books at a value of $.01 each and the art at $1.00 each, to a value of roughly $200, which I still had to pay tax on.  Small price to pay honestly, but it does add an extra 30-45 minutes to your border crossing.

I then proceeded to dump all the furniture I had painstakingly picked out during my “I’m a grown-up now with a real salary” phase when my college furniture found the curb.  These were the delicious dark wood headboards, the plush suede couches, the tasteful (and useful) ottomans.  I even had a lovely Victorian double-sided desk.  All gone: happily mostly sold to friends and friends of friends, and what was still left over went onto craigslist.  For the very last items (what was I doing with my own power drill?), I left them with my sisters to sell on their own or keep.

That left me with roughly 20 resealable tubs into which I mostly, but not exclusively, put items of real sentimental value.  Stuffed animals I had as a child which I kept in really great condition and which I wished to pass on to my children or to my nieces and nephews.  A report on birds I wrote as a ten-year-old.  A drawing my sister made for me.  That kind of stuff.  Some dear friends have been kind enough to keep those tubs in a spare room in their home.  I plan to keep reducing the quantity of tubs in that room every time I visit, loaded with goodies from Europe for my gracious caretakers.  And each year that passes that I don’t miss the stuff in those tubs, it makes it that much easier to get rid of when I do see it again.

In truth, limiting myself to the four full-sized pieces of luggage I ended up bringing to France was an enormous task that I totally underestimated.  I flew American Airlines to France in December 2013 and at that time the policy was: 1st bag free, 2nd bag $100, and bags 3-10, $289 each.  Hard to believe, but this is actually the cheapest and fastest way to move your stuff.  I checked into freight, believe me, and either my calls weren’t returned, or my emails weren’t returned, or it was prohibitively expensive when I did manage to get a price sheet.  Same for UPS, sea-freight even.  And then you have to go to Le Havre to pick it up.  Yeah, skip that.  Pack it with you.  It’s really cheap, comparatively.

Now, when you’re bringing that much stuff (my aforementioned 4 pieces of luggage…I won’t even share the absurd limits of carry-on that I stretched), you find a way to bring too much, so I want to encourage you to spend one month packing these 4 pieces (or fewer).  You’ll take more stuff out as you work on it every day and keep asking “Do I have to have this?”  I know when I showed up to the airport that I was at least 5 pounds over on each bag.  But I knew how to get around this: the skycap.

This profession doesn’t exist in Europe, oddly, though it is exactly the sort of profession you expect to exist there.  They are (for my Euro friends who might be reading) men and women who stand on the curbside to help those who wish to “skip the line” get boarding passes and check bags there instead.  For this “convenience” you are expected to tip – anywhere from $5-$25/bag.

That morning that I left Kansas City the skycap picked up all 4 of my bags and gave a slight grunt for the last one, the heaviest.  “Where ya goin’?”  “Paris.”  His eyes widened as he looked back over the bags, quickly calculating how much it was going to cost me.  “I’m moving.”  “Ah.”  He started weighing the bags, and I watched each bag on the digital readout.

53 lbs

57 lbs

52 lbs

61 lbs

“They are all over.”  He was reminding me of the 50 pound weight limit I was already aware of.  Overweight would add $150 to each bag.  I nodded, putting on a guilty and downtrodden look.  I wanted my silence to speak.

“I can take care of this for you, if you make it worth my while,” he said after a beat or two.  I tried not to beam and high-five myself, as this was the exact response I was banking on.  I took out my last bit of American currency I was carrying, a $50 bill, and put it on the counter.  I still said nothing.

Given that he was about to save me $600, he was expecting more, I’m sure, but he probably realized that $50 was good pay for 5 minutes and a few key strokes that indicated that yes, these bags weighed no more than 50 pounds.

We were operating in that shadow economy, and little did I know that this was precisely the kind of hustle I needed to survive and thrive in my new country.

So, to sum up:

  1. Get rid of mostly everything.  Try to come up with creative, trade-based, non-recurring monthly cash flow ways of storing the rest.  You need to spend as little as necessary in your new country when you first get there.
  2. Take a long time to pack what you are bringing, in order to have a critical instead of a stressed and harried eye to look it over with.
  3. Don’t hesitate to leverage American idiosyncrasies to bring what you want.
  4. However, do be pragmatic and take the time necessary to figure out what you really need vs. what you can buy when you get there.

A giant move out of the country can be the impetus for that Spring Cleaning you always aspire to do (and which my sister Clare does roughly every 3 months) but never get around to.  Which is yet another reason to move abroad.

And when you do get here, the housing in Paris is small enough to prevent you from restarting that life of stuff you left behind.  When you shop, you constantly ask yourself, “where would I put that?” which is a practical question that you don’t have to answer in always too big America.

* * *

For a great video to share with kids or anyone who cares about our planet and the absurd and unsustainable way of life in the First World, check out the work that these guys have been doing.

Photo from jsmjr.  Labeled for reuse.  What a cute dog.

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My worst week in Paris

This is the “Part II” to my “finding an apartment in Paris” article, though it’s really more of an appendix.  Future parts will discuss what to bring with you when moving here.

They say that whether you are a native of France or the lovestruck visitor of Paris (comme moi) your first apartment in the City of Light will always be the worst.  It gets better from there.  There’s a number of reasons why.  You don’t know the arrondissements.  You don’t know how you will feel about your commute.  You won’t know how you feel about your space.

One thing I did know, three months into my stay, as my landlady tried to charge me more for my already too-small space, was that I was done paying 800 euros a month for a studio (between $1000-$1100 USD, depending on the state of the world economy at any given time).  In a week I had settled on a very cool art studio that the resident artist had added a number of bedrooms to.  It was very cool and the price – 650 euros – was great.

She, Sophie, my new potential landlord, was a bit flaky in setting up the appointment to see the place but I chalked it up to the “artiste” in her.  A writer and teacher at heart, I’m able to shush my inner businessman who (rightfully) whispers “accountability!” at necessary times.  But we got along okay at the first meeting and we shook hands on a move.

It was 30 days before my move when I gave notice to my then-current landlady.  I didn’t tell her all my grievances.  They had been kind and I was determined to leave on good terms. I found out, in drips and drabs, just how much had been missed in the handshake agreement that had sealed the deal.  Each new discovery, via email or text, was not in itself a dealbreaker but cumulatively it worried me a lot.  I think I was too excited about moving to the 11th and so close to Père Lachaise, as well as saving almost $225USD a month, so I didn’t really blink as I discovered:

1) I would need a security deposit equal to one month’s rent (pretty standard here).

2) I would need to do one hour of chores per week or pay the cleaning lady 15 euros each week (no big).

3) I was not allowed to receive bills or bank statements – what???  So I could get personal mail but not bills?  This would also complicate the immigration process – but the concierge of my current place agreed to – for 30 days – collect my mail while I figured out an alternative.

4) I was to sign a contract and agreement, 7 pages long, all in French.  I figured I would just have to hash that out with her after moving in.  I wasn’t going to pay for a translation nor was I going to sign something without fully understanding it. But all of these (what should have been blatantly waving red flags) paled in comparison to what I dealt with on February 28th, my worst day in Paris and the beginning of a tough week.  Please keep in mind that I use “worst” and “tough” purely in the First World sense.  At no time was I without the basic necessities of life nor was I being waterboarded, and incidents like these do great wonders for one’s sense of gratefulness.

I had asked two colleagues from Paris Foot Walks to help me.  I had four suitcases and two backpacks to take literally across town (17th to the 11th).  We would be able to stay on the (mostly for locals) Line 3 and just have one change at the very end.  Additionally, the metro stations at the starts and ends of the journey were roughly 500 meters or less from where we needed to be and all the bags had roller wheels.

The day started auspiciously enough.  I had woken up on time and lugged the bags down to the fourth floor where my landlady generously allowed me to use the building’s elevator to get down the final four floors.  My friends arrived on time and were treated to some excellent pastries and coffee from my soon-to-be former landlord.  We made our way in and out of the Metro – up and down quite a few steps – huffing and puffing and laughing – and grateful for the assistance of the (always polite) Parisians around us.

We arrived at my new place-to-be.  One of Sophie’s employees answered the door and she came out.  She had a look of surprise on her face.  “Well, you come tomorrow!” she said.  It was February 28th.  “Well, that’s fine,” I said.  “I’m not going to sleep here tonight, I just need to drop off these bags.  I’ll come back tomorrow.”  “Non, non, it’s just not possible,” she replied with the typical French shrug which said, “I don’t give a merde” about your situation.

I kept my composure.  My colleagues very astutely just kept silent.  She was going to be a landlady for at least the next 6 months, so handle this well, I thought to myself.  I explained that we had come across town – that these bags were not light – that my friends were able to help me today and not necessarily tomorrow – and that I was due to be out of my old apartment first thing tomorrow morning.  I also referenced a text I sent her last week saying I was coming Friday.  To my chagrin she pulled it up and pointed out that I said I was coming to drop off money on Friday, not drop bags.

Now, as an American I would have proffered one of two responses, in my experience as an erstwhile landlord:

a) Okay, you’re here a day early, but you’re going to be here the next six months and you’ve got 1300 euros in your pocket, so I can do a favor for you this one time.

OR

b) If your stuff is here I must charge you rent for today, pro-rated.  Is that okay?

Either of these would have been acceptable, but instead I got the French “sorry, I cannot do anything.”  She said she was in the middle of a photo shoot, she had no room, people always take advantage of her, etc.  But what you need to understand is that I picked this place precisely because it was ENORMOUS by Parisian standards.  If she had room in one place, surely it was in my room which anyone could reasonably expect was cleared out less than 24 hours before my arrival.  It was unoccupied when I had previously seen it. After 5 minutes of fruitless back-and-forth we agreed I would arrive at 09h00 the next day.  The door closed and the man not usually at a loss for words was.

Josh immediately and kindly offered storage at her place, about 14 blocks away.  A wheel had kindly broken off on one of the pieces – cobblestones are murder on cheap luggage, and while I did have 3 Samsonites, that was not one of them – which made the trudge just a bit more challenging.  Two of the three in our party were American and while we tried not to see this incident through the “customer is always right” lens, I was still shocked at such unaccommodating behavior.  “I’m not,” said Danyell, who was married to a Frenchman.  “My mother-in-law is the same.  Typical French.”

We agreed, in between huffs, puffs, and stops, that if I could not even leave my luggage there the day before I moved in that all that awaited me was more unpleasant surprises.  We got to Josh’s, where four more stories and the corresponding stairs awaited us.  I laughed bitterly as I lugged the luggage up those flights, marveling that what I imagined would be such an easy day instead had gone wrong in every conceivable way.

One of the new views from my new apartment

One of the new views from my new apartment

Danyell had to run off to another job, so I didn’t get to take her to lunch for all her troubles.  We parted and Josh and I grabbed some lunch and discussed the problem further.  She had some room and very kindly consented to let me leave my luggage there for a week while I scrambled to find a new place. I swung into action and had a place the following morning, for one week.

It was in Le Pré San Gervais, which is at the very edge of the 19th Arrondissement.  When I say edge, I mean outside of.  It was outside Paris city limits by about 1 km.  Good, I thought.  Let me find out what it’s like to live in the burbs for a week.  Gk, who owned the room, wanted 700 euros per month for a very sunny and lovely room – but for someone living and working in Paris – it wasn’t tenable, by my standards, for a long stay.  I paid for one week. It was at the edge of Paris transport, and door-to-door, with Velib, bus, and metro, it would take at least 30 minutes to get to one of the “center” stations of Paris, like Chatelet, Opera, or Republique (see, even right there in my list I can see how Right-Bank biased I am).

I loved the size of the room and the quiet of the building, as well as being on the 1st, not the 7th, floor, but I wasn’t going to pay that much and not even live inside Paris proper. Still, in my week “in exile” I came to appreciate just how spoiled I had become (and would remain – my new apartment was in the same neighborhood as my old one – 20 minutes by foot, or 10 minutes by Velib, or 5 minutes by Metro to the Arc de Triomphe, a beating heart of the city).

The happy ending to my alleged “worst week”?  I picked up my keys that Thursday and moved in over the next three days.  I had plenty of time to adjust to my new views.  Danyell and Josh valiantly joined me to “finish what they had started” a week ago.  I avoided moving into a place that had featured numerous warning signs and a disastrous move-in day.  I found out I had friends who were more kind and generous than I could have imagined or even deserve.  But most importantly, I had upgraded my housing while decreasing my cost of living – which is a feat in any city, not just this one.