Moving overseas means leaving possessions behind, but taking your furniture and some sentimental objects can make all the difference when it comes to feeling at home.
Feel at home in a new house
One of our friends back home in Montreal lived the expat life for several years: first in remote northern Guinea, where her husband worked on a bauxite project, and then in Warsaw, where he managed the construction of apartment buildings in the Polish capital during the post-communist building boom. When Karen found out that my family was planning our own adventure living in the UAE, her first piece of advice - after being satisfied that we were indeed serious about the move - was to insist that we take our home furnishings with us.
"You'll appreciate coming back to your apartment after work or vacation, or when things are really rough," she said. "It'll feel like home."
And indeed, our three-bedroom flat in Abu Dhabi does feel like home. Just about everything in the apartment came with us: from beds to bookcases, artwork to tchotchkes. The only items my wife, Denise, and I bought here were of necessity. Because I came seven months before they did, I needed a bed to sleep on, a table to eat off and an easy chair to relax in after work. These were all bought new and inexpensively at Ikea; kitchen appliances were bought new at Lulu; cookery items and utensils I bought here and there, in the Mina Zayed outdoor souq, Nefertiti's used-goods store, Home Centre.
As much as we would have liked to have brought all our household possessions with us, there was too much to fit into the apartment. We sold some items, including many books and music, in a yard sale. We gave other things away, such as our television sets, love seat and chair, and our elliptical trainer, to friends. We kept very few items in storage, nor did it make sense to leave them in the house we were planning to rent; mostly this was out of necessity: to have non-resident status for tax purposes, we needed to make clear to the Canadian government we had no significant ties back home. I assumed that to mean, besides family members, healthcare card and a driver's licence, no hammocks.
We also left behind a few pieces of original artwork that we thought might not make it through customs inspections. We had been warned that nudes were frowned on and could be confiscated. As it turned out, our boxes were never inspected. We could have brought the paintings with us, though we knew it was best to be safe than sorry. Two of the pieces were hugely sentimental and worth a decent amount of money because they were the original art for the covers of Denise's short story collections. We stored one and a friend has hung the other.
Our friend Karen, as it turned out, was absolutely right. Our flat feels like home in a city and country that in many ways isn't and won't or can't ever be.
In the living room behind an Ikea lounge chair, we placed an easel upon which rests an original painting by John Pohl, a Montreal painter with a colourful palette and unique sense of humour. The title of the painting is Still Life with Manifesto. When it hung in our house back in Montreal, it was in a hallway near the kitchen and at the foot of the stairs from the second floor. It wasn't the first thing I saw every morning, but pretty close. Now, it's the first thing I see upon return from work each night. It's the same painting, seen at a different time of the day, but it speaks "home" every time I see it.
The easel on which it sits was actually in the garage back home, tucked behind a set of garden tools and a lawn mower (with the exception of my bicycle, everything else in the garage remained so tenants could maintain the house and garden). We brought the easel with us thinking that Denise might get back to painting, or I might take it up. But that hasn't happened. When our belongings arrived and I began unpacking, I tucked the easel behind the chair. I put the Pohl still life on top to keep it from getting damaged while I thought of where best it would hang, but we liked the way it looked and it stayed.
That's one of the good things about having moved with so many of our possessions. Back home, everything pretty much stays where you put it, or gets lost in the muddle of the accumulated effects and gear of life. Here, we were able to rethink rooms and the placement of our stuff within them. Same notes, new song.
A what a melody. It's not exactly CSNY's Our House (we have the two cats, but no yard), but it works for us. I have perhaps half of my compact discs and a third of my vinyl LPs, so there's plenty to listen to. We hadn't had many DVDs to bring with us, so we brought what we had, have added more, and along with the videotapes (yes, videos), there's always something to watch when we need to relax or when we need distraction while working out on the elliptical (one I bought out of necessity my first summer here).
We have many books as well, a collection we're always adding to since we're both writers and readers, and subtracting from because we don't mind sharing. Luckily enough, we must have picked well which books to bring with us because, in three years, I believe I can count the number of times I've asked the question "Where is so and so's ..." only to remember it's in storage.
Because Denise bakes and I cook, it was important we bring cookbooks with us also. We sold or gave away many before we left, but are suitably stocked to cook from a range of cuisines, from French and Italian to Mexican and Georgian, and since arriving have added Indian and Middle Eastern to the mix.
Recipes on how to make fateh or dal makhani are not all we've added, of course. After all, we've been here three years and we have travelled a bit. So there are Afghan rugs, bought from a friend who'd visited Kabul; embroidered Kashmiri pillowcases, wall hangings and tissue-box covers from Rashdi in Khalidiya Mall; a small Turkish rug bought in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul; an incense burner from the Muttrah souq in Muscat; mosaics from Lawrence Arts and Crafts in Madaba, Jordan; and hand block-printed duvets and bed covers from Jaipur, India.
Perhaps the most personal, couldn't-live-without items in our flat are the photographs. Shelves throughout the apartment are replete with framed memories of family members and friends. This isn't just because we're living abroad: our home in Montreal was similarly cast in a Kodak glow.
Our reasons for bringing our goods with us were a combination of the sentimental and the practical. Wherever we stop next on our adventure, the reasons for taking our belongings with us will be overwhelmingly sentimental. After all this time living with our new books, music, art and furniture, they are a part of our life.