What’s In Your Suitcase?

When I was 7 years old, my parents packed up their life and moved me and my four siblings to the other side of the world. Since then, I have lived in four countries and moved over 20 times. In fact, my oldest son’s first crib was a suitcase on the floor next to my bed.

Needless to say, I have learned a thing or two about packing over the years, whether it is just for a weekend with family or an indefinite stay in another country. Here are some tips I have picked up along the way:

We don’t need nearly as much stuff as we think we do. Soon after we were married, my husband and I moved to a small Mongolian town on the edge of the Gobi Desert. We took six 70-pound suitcases full of all sorts of must-haves, from spices to a full winter wardrobe. However, I soon realized that everyone around us only had a few changes of clothes. My students would typically alternate between two outfits, washing one each night and wearing the other one while it dried. Since I didn’t want to stand out any more than absolutely necessary and I certainly didn’t want to perpetuate the “rich American” mindset, I started to do the same. All those “essential” clothes and the fancy gear that I had crammed into my bags ended up staying right where they were … in my suitcases.

Nonessentials are sometimes more important than the essentials. Music of all kind is soul food for me, especially when I am the one creating it. One of the best and easiest ways for me to recharge and de-stress is to simply sit down in front of a piano and play a few songs. But pianos don’t fit well with a nomadic lifestyle. They are expensive and too heavy to move easily. Finding a piano tuner can be next to impossible when you live in the African bush or the Mongolian steppes, and what happens if a key breaks or a string needs to be replaced?

For years, every time we moved to a new city or country, I would say, “I can’t do this anymore. I have to buy a piano.” But I never did, and my soul slowly dried up.

What I didn’t realize was that by not recognizing and responding to this need deep within me, I was crippling myself emotionally and limiting the depth and the quality of care that I was providing for my family and for those around me. It took me a long time to realize the hurt that my “sacrificial” lifestyle was inflicting on myself and others, but after 10 years, I finally broke down and bought a piano. It may be expensive and unwieldy, but it has significantly increased my joy, my sense of peace, and my feelings of contentment. The old saying is true…“If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

Pack things that will help you feel at home. Before I had kids, it was easier to leave the photo albums and mementos packed away back in America. I wanted to keep them safe—all sorts of things can happen when you live overseas, and who knows if you will be able to fit them in your suitcase next time? Also, who wants to go to the trouble of printing, framing, and hanging pictures when you might be moving in six months or a year?

But this all changed when I had kids. One day, I looked at the empty walls in our house in the African bush and realized that they were growing up in a house, not a home. So I started leaving room in our suitcases for special things…baby pictures, Christmas ornaments from the grandparents, and favorite toys and games. Our house slowly came to life and developed a personality of its own. It may just be stuff, and nonessential stuff at that, but I saw my whole family relax and become more at ease with our circumstances.

As a family of five, we made our last international move with only six suitcases. I had to leave most of the clothes behind, but I managed to fit in special pictures that my kids had drawn, sports awards, crafts that they had made at school, favorite books (the ones you want to throw away because they have been read so many times), about 50 pounds of Lego, and even a giant (de-stuffed) plush lion.

Because of our lifestyle, my kids are unable to draw comfort from having always lived in the same house and in the same town, but I have found that I can help them feel secure and at peace through familiar objects, music, colors, textures, and smells. What I choose to pack in our bags can protect the emotional stability of my family and is key to our ability to thrive (not just survive) in a new setting.

It’s pretty clear that what I put in my suitcase has changed over the years. The world has changed drastically from when an international move meant taking along everything but the kitchen sink. These days, all those “must-haves” that I hauled to Mongolia can be found in just about any corner shop in every part of the world. But I haven’t shifted my focus from essentials to nonessentials, per se. Rather, I have learned to prioritize my soul needs over my physical needs. A quality life is far better than one of quantity.

What is the one item (or items) that makes it into your suitcase for every move? How has the way that you pack a suitcase changed over time? What are some “nonessentials” that nourish your soul?

Photo Credit: jessicavk via Compfight cc


  1. Beth Everett June 8, 2015

    Thanks for sharing Lydia!

    Our first born also slept in a carry-on suitcase the first few weeks of his life. 🙂
    “What I choose to pack in our bags can protect the emotional stability of my family and is key to our ability to thrive (not just survive) in a new setting.”
    Yes! I look at the contents of our bags as we are packing up our lives to relocate in just two weeks to the other side of the world and realize that the majority of items are those things that I am hoping will protect our emotional stability as a family – including favorite books, LEGO and favorite stuffed animals!

    1. Lydia Rich June 8, 2015

      I completely agree, Beth! You have a big transition ahead of you and what you decide to do with your limited luggage space can have a huge impact on how well your family weathers the storm. We sometimes work with college-age TCKs, and I will never forget one boy (man, really) describing how traumatizing it was for him when all of his LEGOs suddenly disappeared a few days before his family’s move because they weren’t important enough to bring along. I can’t protect my kids from everything (and wouldn’t want to), but I can certainly ease transitions for them.

  2. Ashley Felder June 8, 2015

    My one item that makes every move: a framed (and somehow the original duct tape has remained!) crocheted doily thing of our last name. We received it as a wedding gift from a family friend. Lots of other family members have them, and it just reminds me of home.

    Yes to more pictures! I just saw an idea on Pinterest of a couple of floating shelves, full of picture frames. It’s now on the summer project list. 🙂

    1. Lydia Rich June 8, 2015

      I think that it is important to both be reminded of home and to recreate that same sense of home regardless of where we live. Good luck with the picture project! Sounds fun!

  3. Kim June 8, 2015

    Although we didn’t have a solid list, other overseas workers had given some suggestions: good sheets and towels, a crockpot. I despaired at the thought of leaving all my books behind. I would have preferred putting books into the suitcases over clothes, when it came right down to it. But then our home church offered to pay for a container so we didn’t have to worry about getting everything into six suitcases. We didn’t take much furniture (a dresser, a desk, a couple of Ikea Poang chairs that are easily assembled) but we did take books (winnowed down to just under 700) and my husband took his tools. We went with the smallest container and ended up only half filling it with our stuff so we had room to take things for other overseas workers too. I took a lot of kitchen supplies: pots, pans, dishes, silverware. Oh, and a dozen boxes of fabric. You could say I’m a material girl 🙂 My used Pfaff, with dual voltage, was not entrusted to the container. I hauled it in my carry-on (which probably wouldn’t be allowed now with new weight restrictions).

    Because he had his tools, my husband was able to build bookshelves for all the books, platform bed frames with cubby holes underneath that have been great for storage, an outdoor cabinet for the first washer we bought and had to put on the back patio…

    The transformer we brought was handy for the crockpot and yogurt maker I’d packed, but I had decided to just get other small appliances here. We have bought a few things, but the poor quality and short shelf life has prompted me to pick things up in the U.S. each furlough. First furlough I brought back a KitchenAid stand mixer. Second furlough I brought back a vegetable steamer and a coffee grinder, both picked up at garage sales. What I’m trying to say is don’t just pack what you might use, because most homes every where else in the world are smaller than homes in the U.S. with much less storage. But if you use something a lot, then consider taking it. As long as you have a transformer, you’re good to go (unless, of course, you live some place where the electricity is nonexistent or sporadic). I love to cook and we host a lot of meals so having a well stocked kitchen is important to me.


    We waited 18 months to buy a sofa because we couldn’t find a comfortable one we liked. Our host country doesn’t value living rooms like the U.S. does; all the entertaining takes place around the kitchen table or a table on the patio. Many homes don’t have a living room, and if they do, it is the least used room in the house. The sofa we finally bought was not inexpensive but it was cheaply made; within months the foam was breaking down and the vinyl piping around the cushions started cracking (and pinching!). Seven years in we still haven’t bought a dining table. Don’t ask.

    If we had it to do over, we’d have added some basic furniture to the container. We just didn’t know how hard it would be to find decent things at a decent price. Live and learn.

    I also learned how hard ceramic tile floors are on glass dishes. Within the first couple of years I had three plates left, we’d gone through more glasses than I could count, and so on our first furlough I looked for good quality melamine plates and hard plastic glasses (the kind you find in diners) to bring back.

    Every country is going to be different, in terms of what’s available. This is our third country/continent and we’ve discovered each has its limitations. It would have made my life infinitely easier if I’d taken the time to make a list of things I thought we MIGHT need and then asked a bunch of overseas wives already here what they thought. We’d made a brief trip here about a year before moving and done some cursory looking in stores, but had I taken the time to really inspect the goods, I’d have had a better idea what to bring and what I could get here. It didn’t help that sudden inflation and the downturn in the worldwide economy would send prices skyrocketing right as we moved.

    Bottom line: you’ll never manage to think of everything. And it’s okay. Seven years in we’re still using a folding table in the dining room — and my obsession with table linens has finally paid off: a tablecloth covers a multitude of plastic 🙂

    1. Lydia Rich June 8, 2015

      Kim, I completely understand your frustration with trying to find decent appliances and furniture…if only every country had an IKEA! I also have a list of practical items that I squeeze into my suitcase every time, including good kitchen knives, high-quality sheets, and grapefruit seed extract (for washing fruit/veggies, treating sore throats, killing parasites, purifying sketchy water, etc).

  4. Amy Young June 8, 2015

    Lydia, I absolutely LOVE the idea of packing for our souls as well as our bodies! I have two notebooks where I record every book I read. They are a record of my life through books — I have hauled those things back and forth more times than I can tell you (even on short summer trips I took them with me, in case something happened they were my ONE thing I wanted with me). And I never put them in my checked luggage … they are always in my carry on 🙂

    1. Lydia Rich June 10, 2015

      Amy, I am also a big reader and would love to see the list in your notebooks…when we lived in Mongolia (long before the advent of e-readers), I was so desperate for anything to read that I would read the very simplified classics that we gave to our English students! You will always find a book or two (or three or four) in my suitcase…

  5. Jo Beth June 9, 2015

    Great post!  My sweet hubby has moved my Baldwin piano from Tennessee to Germany to Austria to Hungary to Pennsylvania to Georgia.  I totally agree with you–having this cherished friend and “cleft-of-the-rock” instrument has nourished my soul for over 35 years of moves and changes. Thanks for the sweet reminder that we are all created to be worshippers before anything else.

    1. Lydia Rich June 10, 2015

      Jo Beth, it sounds like you figured out the importance of caring for your soul a lot faster than I did! And you must have a very long-suffering hubby! Your’e right that we need to prioritize worship in our lives…using our gifts to worship our creator is what nourishes our souls. There is a quote that I love from Bernard of Clairvaux: “The man who is wise, therefore, will see his life as more like a reservoir than a canal. The canal simultaneously pours out what it receives; the reservoir retains the water till it is filled, then discharges the overflow without lost to itself. Today there are many in the Church who act like canals, the reservoirs are far too rare. You too must learn to await this fullness before pouring out your gifts, do not try to be more generous than God.”

  6. MaDonna June 16, 2015

    This was a great list – really. I loved your idea of the nonessentials that are important for our quality of life. That sums up why I’ve dragged a few large paintings around with me. I know that I could find others to take their place, but each time I look at them – they just make me smile inside.

    BOOKS are my other weakness. There are just a few boxes that have seemed to trek along with us from move to move. I just can’t part with them…

    Photo albums and photos have definitely go with us as well since we’ve had children. I totally related to that as well.

    1. Lydia Rich July 14, 2015

      MaDonna, books, music, and art are so important to my emotional and spiritual stability! If you have seen a woman in an airport lugging some oddly shaped, bulky item around with her, it was probably me hauling another piece of art from one country to another! My Kindle has cut down on the amount of books in my suitcases, but I am always stuffing a few extras into every free spot!

    1. Lydia Rich July 14, 2015

      Julie, I enjoyed reading your blog post! I really appreciate your grace-filled approach to transition. We transitioned from one continent to another six months ago, and I am still having to regularly remind myself that it takes time and that it is okay for my emotions to be all over the place!

      1. Julie July 14, 2015

        Hi Lydia, Thanks for taking the time to read it, and to comment back. I am thankful for the grace that He gives us, and for how a little wisdom can go a long way, in dealing with change! 🙂

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