When living lightly, home floats along with you

14 Feb 2011 // places

This past year, life decided to throw me randomly around the world. I moved from San Francisco to Berlin for 3 months, then back to SF, then got stuck in Lima for 3 weeks, and now here I am back in Sydney, after 8 years.

I didn't plan this, it just happened.

It's not that I don't like traveling but unexpected dislocations across continents would have be terrifying, were it not for one thing: this was also the year I embraced minimalism. And once you've embraced minimalism, hopping continents is not so bad, and even kind of easy. I had accidentally become a minimalist globe trotter.

Minimalism's been something I've always been drawn to – I've never felt the need to accumulate a lot of things, and my mom's hoarding tendencies had always made me rather uncomfortable. But I had not realized just how far you could go with downsizing your possessions until I started reading bloggers such as Leo Babauta in Zen Habits and Everett Bogue's Far Beyond the Stars. These were inspiring blogs, giving both motivation and a practical recipe to downsize.

So when I prepared to move to Berlin last year, I took the 100 things or less challenge. The hardest thing was letting go of books. But once you start shedding books, you realize that books are dead weight, most notable when you have to carry them. I eventually got it down to one box of books, which is now in storage. Alas once you have narrowed it down to so few things, it sometimes sets off cognitive dissonance with other people. It was kind of awkward, for instance, to have such small luggage when I was interrogated by the US Border police, as it made me look like an illegal homeless bum.

The joy of traveling lightly is that it makes it easy to settle in a new place – to feel at home – practically anywhere in the world. Before, traveling felt like an abbreviated experience, part of the traveling experience was the forceful deprivation of your everyday routine. But once you adopt a minimalist lifestyle, you always carry with you everything that you use in your everyday life. Lacking nothing of the familiar, I found it remarkably easy to feel at home, no matter where I would end up.

This ease of feeling at home is not due to the fact that you have few things but more to the fact that your habits have changed to do this. Downsizing, you end up eliminating daily habits that don't fit in a backpack. Then, when you do travel, you have no habits to give up, and your everyday life travels with you. You bring the feeling of home, of completeness with you.

Perhaps the biggest change involved learning how to work. I do mostly biophysical simulations and website design and I had to learn how to do this on a single Macbook, a mouse, and my trusty Swiss-made international power adaptor. I had to figure out how to work without paper – the only paper I have is a little notebook and one pen. One interesting side-effect was that I got considerably more efficient in many activities.

Everything I used to do in a cramped desk jammed up in the corner of my old lab, I can now do in any cafe, anywhere in the world (of course, as long as I have good wifi).

A more subtle change was learning to get my entertainment from either my iPhone or my Macbook – movies, music, books and games. It took me awhile to do this: I had to wean myself off TV, give up magazine subscriptions, digitize my CD library, learn to watch movies on my macbook screen. I carry the most wonderful entertainment device with me everywhere around the world.

The final piece of the puzzle is the weave of social networks that have grown up across the internet over the last few years. Yes, many people use them poorly but when you are floating transiently from place to place, the very solidity of your facebook presence or twitter presence, keeps you grounded and connected to your people.

When I used to travel, feeling at home used to be difficult, as I would always feel a giddy sense of dislocation. My self was stretched over thousands of miles, from the home I would normally live, and where my everyday habits residues, to the wondrous place that I was just visiting. But now, having embraced a minimalist lifestyle, when I travel, I bring my home with me.

If you want to get started downsizing, try Leo Babauta's brilliant eBook The Simple Guide to a Minimalist Life

I found that Everett Bogue's Minimalist Business provided plenty of great hints on learning how to work with as little impact as possible.