We each have our own priorities and ideas as to which items make the cut and which can be left behind. These decisions also depend largely on where you’ll be making your new home. Are you moving to a place where you’ll bargain for prices in markets and then carry your purchases home in a basket on your head? Or will your new address be near a McDonalds and large grocery stores?
Having lived and adapted to life in both extremes, I was surprised to realize that several key items on my packing list seem to stay the same, no matter where the destination. Apparently, these are my essentials. Whether or not you agree with me as to their importance, they might give you some insight as to what items will make up your ‘must-have’ list.
1. Photo album
While packing all of your photos and scrapbooks is not practical, I do suggest compiling an album of family and friends. Not only will you enjoy flipping through the memories, but it’s also a good way to help your children remember family members that they won’t see on a regular basis.
Sharing photos is a great way to show your new friends what your life was like before. However, first be sure that the content is appropriate for the local culture. For example, when I lived in West Africa I did not show my Muslim friends pictures of me in a bathing suit or standing in front of our house, which would have been considered extravagant by their standards.
2. Ranch dressing mix
What a lifesaver. Those little packets of dried seasonings and buttermilk flavoring have rescued me on more than one occasion when friends dropped by or I was craving a taste of ‘home.’ A quick batch of Ranch dip can be mixed up with any combination of milk, mayonnaise, sour cream, or plain yogurt. Serve with fresh veggies as a snack or apéro before dinner. As it turns out, the French adore this ‘special American sauce.’
3. Holiday decorations
If you will be moving to a culture that does not celebrate the holidays you hold dear, like Thanksgiving for example, consider packing a few seasonal decorations. I was given this advice by a veteran expat, and it was brilliant. No matter where we live, our home is sprinkled with at least few Easter eggs in the spring, Pilgrim candles in November, and a small tree and stockings at Christmas. Don’t forget Christmas music!
4. Flavored drink powders
We all know that we’re supposed to drink eight glasses of water each day, and much more if living in a hot, dry climate, like the Sahel desert in my case. I found that the only way to convince my body to drink enough water was to first flavor it with drink powders. I prefer the sugar-free kinds in single-serving packages, which you can throw in your bag to have on hand at all times. Do pack all powders and liquids in zipper-sealed bags to prevent damage from spills.
5. OTC meds
Medications available over the counter in the U.S. may not be as easy to come by in other countries. Plus, the dosage and active ingredient information may be in a language that you haven’t yet mastered. Pack at least one bottle of fever reducer/pain reliever, allergy medication, and cold syrup. That will get you through your first case of sniffles until you can figure out the local pharmacy and your new insurance plan.
Be sure to take enough of your prescription medications to last three months.
6. Sports sandals
I have found my sport sandals to be indispensable. From pushing my way down the long sandy beaches to hiking to the mountain peaks, through the shallow river on the way, those sandals are the greatest things since sliced bread. The adjustable straps really came in handy when I broke my toe and needed shoes with support that weren’t constrictive.
If you cook, bring your recipes. If you don’t cook, ask someone to teach you how to make a few dishes from home, like chocolate chip cookies or baked beans. You may have to adapt the recipes based on what ingredients are available to you, but I’ve found most any recipe can be made most anywhere.
You will probably find a few amazing local specialties once you move. Be sure to learn how to cook them before leaving!
Some of you may laugh at this one, but try to get past the image of a young 20-something carrying her crochet needles and yarn onto the Paris metro. The idea is to bring your hobby with you, or pick one up once you move. I actually learned to crochet from my Wolof language tutor in Africa. It’s kept me sane while waiting in line to get my visa at the préfécture, sitting for hours on long airplane rides, and also opened a few doors for me to communicate with the older women in my village, even when we didn’t yet speak the same language.
9. Scented candles
When we moved onto beach-front property in an African village, the wave of fish smell was enough to knock you over at times. When we moved to the quaint century-old apartment in France, it was a sewage problem that gave off that certain je ne sais quoi odor. In both cases, I was happy to unpack my small collection of scented candles to fight the smelly fight for me. I have once particular scent that I love. Wherever I light it, it smells like home.
10. A smile and a positive attitude
Every new place has its share of benefits and frustrations. Be prepared for both. You will probably have a bout or two with culture shock as the honeymoon excitement wears off and reality sets in. The good news is that culture shock is not fatal, and a positive attitude and a smile can get you through even the most trying situations.
Now that you know my secrets to top-notch packing, what will yours be?
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By Kari Masson, a freelance writer for travel, cross-cultural, and expatriate-focused publications. More than 50 of her articles have appeared in North America, Europe, and Africa. If you are looking to add dynamic creativity to your publication, contact Kari at