We have a Costco card, a Volvo wagon, and homework. We have meetings, deadlines, and commitments. We have check-ups, a clothes dryer, and prescriptions. We have invitations, a gift closet, and dressers. We have a dishwasher, to-do lists, and sports practices. Take-out menus and punch cards fill our handbags. We each have more than one pair of shoes and we find it harder to slow down.
We wonder sometimes what happened to our wander?
This is the first time in over five years we have lived anywhere for twelve months. When we voted as a family in August and decided to enroll the kids in Explorations Academy in Bellingham, Washington, we owned nothing but the clothes on our backs. We were not sure what this year would bring and we wanted to continue to be intentional about what we acquire, how we use resources, and what we do with the moments we are given.
Here are some things we learned from other cultures that we apply to our lives in America on a daily basis. The holidays seem like a good time to remember these things as the city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, get even busier:
1. Why walk when you can drive?
In some of the European cultures we have lived, many of our friends do not own cars. Our friends that do own cars, typically only drive when necessary. What does this mean to us this year in America? We walk even though we can drive. The kids walk or bike to school most days. We take public transportation to local events. For utilities that are within walking distance, like Puget Sound Energy, we walk our payment to the office. We do this because it slows us down, speeds up our heart rate, and connects us to people in our community in ways that we miss when we drive.
2. Do you barter?
Bartering is a huge part of our economic stability as nomads. It is still used widely in many cultures and it is a legacy we believe strongly in passing on to our kids. Trusted Housesitters is probably one of the ways we use barter the most consistently, swapping house-sitting in remarkable places for free lodging. We have taken care of vineyards, villas, and organic farms in two hemispheres and 30 countries. What we have learned since being back in America is that the barter culture is alive and well but not as common as it is elsewhere. We always ask if there is something we can give in exchange for goods and services. We offer things we know we can provide with a high level of quality. We have exchanged house painting for a car, copywriting for wardrobes of new clothes, and photographs for ski lift passes. What begins as a business transaction becomes the fabric that ties us to the community through the relationships that form along the way and it is hard to put a price on that gift.
3. How about lunch?
Lunch is a very important meal in many countries and it is a bit of a lost art in others. When someone commented to one of our kids, “It looks like your mom still makes your lunch,” my son replied, “It’s the Italian way” with a grin. Are our kids capable of making their own lunches? Yes. Would we pass up a chance to pack it for them while they will still let us? Never! When the kids attended public school in Tuscany, their school day ended at noon three days a week. That is how important the midday meal is in Italy. Typically, both parents picked up their students and headed off to mamma’s house. Often three generations were present at lunch when served at home. On the day’s lunch was served at school, it was a sit-down meal, lasted at least an hour, with teachers and students, served in courses. Lunch done right takes practice because it slows us down in the middle of the day when we almost fear stopping productivity, which is exactly why we should.
4. You had me at hello!
The people of Southeast Asia taught us about the power of a greeting. More than any other geographic region we visited, we learned the importance of acknowledging the presence of others in an intentional way. While we had to learn the proper way to wai (hands together close to chest and face, dip head in a slight bow), what will always stay with us was the vibrant smiles offered with every greeting. While it took us a while to stop bowing when we moved out of Southeast Asia, we are now committed to recognizing others. Whether it be a quiet smile, a purposeful handshake, or a formal hello, we will never again take the power of greetings for granted. Greetings tell others we see them and feel their presence and that is where serendipity steps in.
5. Trash or treasure?
We will never forget walking, sometimes miles, to find a community dumpster in Southern Italy. When we lived in Bali, the neighborhood burn pile was on a vacant lot next to our house. Toxic black smoke billowed over the wall daily. In Portugal, our kids would take the recycling 5 blocks and then sort it. They did this once a week and stopped in at the corner shop for ice cream on the way home. The curbside pick-up was rare and because of that, we became much more aware of what we were both buying and throwing away. We are trying garbage pick up once a month with a small can and it is a great experiment for a family of five in America. It is a tiny step toward trying to offset the environmental impact of our travels. We now know, even though the garbage gets picked up, there is no such thing as throwing anything away. It is all here, in every ocean and every continent, and it is growing every day. The less of it we make, the better.
6. Did you strike out today?
One of the muscles we worked out every day while traveling was our willingness to try new things. It is easier, in our native country, to let that muscle atrophy and yet America makes new things so readily accessible. There is an Indian Market on the way to school that serves incredible chai. The man sitting on the porch of the VFW has a story to tell. The book store welcomes all to come in from the rain. Often the French wear cashmere scarves when they jog and bike and now we do too because why not? When we travel, we don’t have to work as hard to be curious because travel quenches our thirst for knowledge as we plunge ourselves into the unknown. We know that keeping our curiosity alive when we don’t have to takes intention and it leads to a richness in our own back yard so worth striking out to discover.
7. Buy Nothing!
When we landed in America recently, we only had a few belongings. Instead of shopping, we decided to do what we always do when we land in a new country. For some reason, it felt strange to do it at “home” but we wanted to try. As nomads, we often borrow, recycle, reuse, and donate what we need for different activities at different times. For example, last year we did a ski season in the Italian Alps. When we arrived, we had absolutely no gear. We asked, gathered, and left behind all of what we used. Our task in America seemed more daunting as our accommodation in other countries came at least partially furnished by varying definitions. We needed to furnish a house and get kids school ready. We found incredible community lists like Next Door and Buy Nothing and we literally set up our life with ease and style for very little. We wanted to only bring things into a home that we were comfortable leaving if we decide to move on. What we have learned by joining these groups is that recycled things have a story that is now a part of our story and that gives home a history even when it has just come into being.
8. Sunday’s at the Park
We will never forget playing a rowdy game of basketball at a park in central Spain on a Sunday. It was surrounded by apartments and we were not even through the first quarter when a neighbor asked us to respect Sunday as a day of rest and tranquility. We walked away sharing stories with our kids about how, when we were kids, Sundays were quieter. Many stores were closed and family meals and church were all that really happened. Somewhere along the way, with select sports schedules and 24-hour shopping malls, we lost that day of rest but it is alive and well within us if we feel the desire. In London, arguably one of the busiest and most diverse cities we have spent time, Sunday at the park is an art. Families from all over the world, stroll, rent paddle boats, picnic, and play quidditch! It is truly the perfect reminder that someday, whether it be Sunday or some other day, it is a good day for rest. If we don’t give it to ourselves, nobody else will. We have to take it back because it is too important to let slip away. It is easier when everyone is doing it, but those days are gone, so now it is up to us.
We are not making a statement about what others should do. If there is one thing we have learned through travel it is that there is so much we don’t know. While we are humbled by our experience we also believe that the choices we make every day change the world for better or worse. We are committed to learning continuously what the world has to teach us. Slowing our pace so precious moments don’t allude us is part of our life’s work. What are some things you do every day to land in the present?