Too Much Stuff—Some Of It Will Have To Go

Not everyone is interested in a life in the tropics…or at the beach. Maybe you, for example, dream of a cosmopolitan life on the Continent.

I’m going to let you in on a secret: Euro-city life can be more affordable and therefore more realizable than you might imagine, for reasons you might not predict. The key is adjusting your approach.

In the United States, we Americans live big. We reside in three- and four-bedroom houses with walk-in closets, full basements, finished attics, and two-car garages. We have porches, backyards, and driveways, and we fill every square inch of every room, every cupboard, and every storage shed with stuff. We keep two cars, lawn equipment, garden implements, boxes of old clothes, plastic tubs of mementos, hardly-ever-used appliances, the latest electronic gadgets, and on and on. We expand to fill the available space, and, typically, the space available is a lot.

Not so in Europe. Euro-city living isn’t spacious. It’s compact. In Paris or Zagreb, for example (the featured retire-overseas destination for this month’s issue of the Overseas Retirement Letter, you don’t live in a house but an apartment. An apartment with no basement, no attic, no laundry room, no mud room, no family room, not a single walk-in closet, and maybe one or two bedrooms.

Under these circumstances, it doesn’t take much to fill the available space. Europeans don’t mind. They don’t buy a new pair of shoes until the old ones wear out. They don’t invest in a new coffee maker until the current one is kaput. Maybe they have a car, but more often they keep a bicycle. No need for a lawn mower or a weed whacker. No room for three or four televisions.

Our move from Waterford, Ireland, to Paris, France, took us from a 5,000-square-foot house on 6 acres to a 112-square-meter (1,200-square-foot) apartment. The adjustment, at first, was a shock. We’d sold much of our furniture and household belongings with our home in Waterford. Still, I had to do some creative organizing to fit our family of four into our seriously downsized quarters.

We squeezed in with not a square meter to spare. Sure, I would have welcomed a roomier closet in the master bedroom or a playroom for Jack. Honestly, though, after a while, we wondered how we’d ever occupied so much space as we had during our Irish country living adventure.

We found, over time, that we didn’t miss the stuff we’d off-loaded during our move…and we didn’t miss the area it had occupied either.

We learned to live not in our apartment, but in our city, as Europeans do. Within a 15-minute walk of our place were five parks. These were Jackson’s backyard, where he met his playmates from school, where he and Lief played catch, and where we enjoyed picnics nearly every weekend the weather allowed. Within a 10-minute walk of our apartment were eight cafes. We’d stop for tea in the morning, a drink on the way home, or a snack after running errands on Saturday afternoon.

Neither did we miss our car. Paris is the world’s most walkable city, and, when your feet give out, the Metro will take you anywhere you want to go for 1.25 euro.

We didn’t miss yard work or spring-cleaning the attic. We didn’t miss reorganizing closets to make room for yet more plastic tubs of things we couldn’t possibly part with. It was an unexpected but liberating side effect of Euro-city life.

And it led to another unexpected benefit that Lief embraced whole-heartedly: We (well, I) spent less money. Some of our fixed costs increased, but our discretionary spending was reduced dramatically. I learned to buy with judgment, rather than on impulse. Every purchase had to pass the where-will-I-put-it test?

Formerly a hobby shopper, I had no choice but to reform.

Though, I admit, not completely.

Leaving Paris for Panama City, we decided to make our apartment there available for rental. When the French rental manager we engaged came to inventory the contents of the place, I walked her room to room, cupboard to cupboard. She grew increasingly quiet, finally noticeably unhappy.

“You will have to get rid of many of these things,” she said at last. “These knick-knacks. All the extra kitchenware. All those CDs and DVDs.

“You have too much stuff. Some of it will have to go.”

Kathleen Peddicord

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