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Friday, February 20, 2015

Excess Baggage: The Reality of Expat Luggage

It was about a year ago when I flew over the Arabian Gulf and landed at the International Airport to do a recognizance tour of Abu Dhabi.

Having escaped the polar vortex plaguing NYC and stepping off the jet into 80 degree warmth and streaming sunshine, I reminded myself not to tell the hubs I was already sold on the place. By the time I reached baggage claim, the day-dreaming had started when I spotted a woman who, based on her English accent, subtle tan, and inordinate amount of luggage -- was obviously an Expat wife.

Looking at the suitcases piled so high on her cart that they reached over her nose, I imagined them filled with fabulous fashions -- Pucci dresses for day and sparkling Vera Wangs for night. I imagined designer golf gear and yoga pants with brand names only fit to be worn by people like Victoria Beckham. I imagined that that would be soon be me, a glamorous Expat wife crisscrossing the globe with my fabulous life tucked in a trunk… a Louis Vuitton trunk, at that. I envisioned dazzling pool parties, epic brunches, decadent evenings in five-star hotel ballrooms. Truth be told, I may have even entertained the thought of having an occasion to wear a tiara. Yes, a tiara...

Fast forward a few months, after I shut down my life in NYC and began to settle in to my new Abu Dhabi existence and spent a few weeks of indulging in the ritual of the “flight of the Expat wife” (when non-working expat housewives head out of the Sandpit to enjoy the cooler summer temperatures of the UK and USA), I was back at John F. Kennedy Airport with three large pieces of luggage filled to brim to check-in. The conversation with the ticket agent went something like this:

“Do you have any dangerous liquid or anything flammable in your bag?”





“Definitely not.”

“How about car parts?”

“Car parts?”

“Yes, car parts.”

“Well… as a matter of fact…”

Yep, not ball gowns. My bags were running over with car parts.

I won’t get specific here, but the parts were very much questionable, and I would end up spending the next hour or so with the TSA fellas getting my bags and their contents pre-cleared before the airline would approve taking them onboard.

Standing with the TSA, I found myself in the awkward position of not only explaining my car parts, but also feeling judged by obvious lack of dress gowns (and tiaras) that were making room for far more important things like:
  • Three cases of cat food (that’s 72 cans, people!),
  • Liquid concentrated chicken and beef stock (because the canned stuff is absent here),
  • My favorite cooking pan,
  • My oversized Starbucks insulated coffee cup for iced coffee,
  • My cheap but oh-so-awesome vegetable slicer-dicer doohickey,
  • An array of vitamins and health supplements,
  • Six sticks of deodorant (hey, you get stinky in the Sandpit!)
  • My big fluffy winter slippers (because the air conditioning is hell on my always cold feet),
  • A pair of salt and pepper shakers I bought from the Duty Free trolley on our trip home from Australia… That look like rocks (don't ask).
…And an England hat.

The reality of my excess Expat baggage.
What kind of life these TSA guys must have pieced together from this stash was almost laughable. 

And yet, this is reality of the excess baggage of the expat housewife.

John always tells me as I begin to spin into a panic about luggage and being able to get everything in, “If you forget something, you can always get it there.”

And indeed, Abu Dhabi does have EVERYTHING…

Except our cat’s favorite flavor of Fancy Feast…

…and I don’t seem to be able to cook meals as well in any other skillet than my beloved pan…

…and that vegetable slicer? We go way back.

There are just things, little touchstones from home, that after being out here in the expat world, when you reconnect with them you find you suddenly just can’t live without. It’s like the scene from THE JERK, when Steve Martin announces he’s going to leave his wife and all his worldly belongings for a simpler life:

And while one of the things we did when we left NY was to get rid of the clutter and commit to living a more ‘minimalist’ life, there are just… things… that are hard to live without.

So now when we go back and forth, we end up packing as light as we can and putting in an extra bag so we (or rather, I) can bring back those beloved items that make me feel a bit more connected to my life at home.
  • My favorite wool sweater, ratty fleece and ripped shorts for house-lounging;
  • That running club t-shirt with the NYC reference that once had little meaning but now speaks volumes to others about who I am;
  • My most favorite dog-eared writing books.
Of course, the problem becomes what will go back when the time comes...  

We recently attempted to purchase a cocktail bar (it didn't fit in our elevator) from a couple who had lived in Abu Dhabi for seven years but whose contract -- and thus time -- in the Sandpit were up.

When I went to check out the bar, the place was filled with a heavy cloud of emotion. I was greeted by a teary-eyed woman who escorted me through a villa full of the remnants of still palpable memories of her UAE life. Book cases filled with travel guides to ‘far off’ places like India, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Jordan – all a mere puddle-jump away. Rugs and kilims from Turkey, Iran and the carpet souq down the block. Camping gear for desert excursions among dunes and camels a mere hour’s drive away.  A shisha pipe. The dark wood, well-worn bar. 

“We had many great parties with this bar,” she said. “So many friends… we celebrated… everything.”

At that moment, I wished I had had that tiara to place upon this woman’s head. Even without an evening gown in sight, to me she was a belle of the expat ball, having spent her time in the region embracing all it offered -- and digging in the emotional dirt of living fully in a very temporary space.

Despite my lack of ball gowns and party frocks, I realize even if my bags are packed full with mundane items like cat food tins, skincare products and car parts (yes, car parts!), life at the moment is BIG! And there would always be baggage of some sort to deal with.

It’s not just part of the expat life. It’s part of ANY life.

It just goes with the territory.
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