What Living Abroad Taught Me about Simplicity

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When I began posting entries to this blog, I traced the beginning of my simplicity journey back to roughly twenty years ago, when I first read about simplicity.  However, recently something triggered a memory of my time abroad, and I had a revelation:  THAT time in my life was the catalyst for my new focus on simplicity.  In retrospect, it makes perfect sense.  The experience I had in Germany was life-changing for me in many ways.

In college, I was a music major.  I chose the university I attended to study with a particular professor.  Imagine my dismay when the end of my freshman year brought the news that he’d been given a Fulbright grant to teach for a year in Munich, Germany.  The thought of paying out-of-state tuition to study, in his absence, with a graduate student for a year held zero appeal.

I was in a veritable state telling my roommate Lori about this new development.  I’m certain there was some ranting and raving.  Then Lori uttered the words that ultimately changed my entire trajectory: “Why don’t you just go to Germany and study with him there?”

My immediate reaction was to laugh at the suggestion, but then I thought, “Why not?”  I talked at length with my parents and then my professor, and I started making plans.  It was important to me that my decision to move to Germany be clearly delineated as completely separate from my professor’s plans. He was moving there with his entire family, but nevertheless, tongues wag.  Young undergrad follows her professor overseas.  It is the stuff of rumors, to be sure.

My dad made a connection through work with someone in Germany who helped us place an ad, and I was able to procure a place as an au pair. I would be a nanny for two young children in exchange for room and board.  The only thing left was to settle one other deficiency: I didn’t speak German.

I could have muddled along for the year in English (the father of the family I lived with spoke excellent English, but his wife was Italian who also spoke German.)  Part of what attracted them to me as an au pair was the added benefit of helping the wife with her English.  The children were already learning English in school at ages five and six.  What a wonderful experience for those kids, who would ultimately become tri-lingual, fluent in German, Italian, and English.

I elected to attend an intensive language school in the northern part of Germany for two months before taking up my au pair position in Munich.  This was a big deal.  Imagine my stress stepping off the bus and having to transact all business in German.  The school went to extraordinary lengths not to speak a bit of English.  It wasn’t called “immersion” for nothing!

If you’re wondering about the point of this tale, it’s actually the back story that’s telling.  I was nineteen years old.  I arrived with two medium-large suitcases in Munich but left one in safekeeping while I attended school.  As a result, I didn’t have anything other than some clothes, toiletries, and a few books.  My entire way of life shifted towards simplicity the day I arrived in Germany, and that shift has stuck.  Here are the lessons I learned from my adventure abroad.

Personal Grooming

I arrived in Germany armed with my blow dryer and curling iron.  (Have mercy, this WAS, after all, 1988!)  I had an electrical adapter that didn’t work.  I had to find hair styling equipment that worked.  That expense put a dent in my budget and pretty quickly, I abandoned curling my hair.  Too much trouble.  Much simpler to leave it straight and use a ponytail if necessary.

Makeup was another part of my personal grooming that went by the wayside.  During the prior year at college, I had rarely bothered.  In Germany, I quit using make-up entirely.  To this day, I’ll fix my hair and apply minimal make-up for work.  Otherwise au naturel is my norm.

No television

While at the German school, I had a television in the room I shared.  Since all the programming was in German and I was overwhelmed by the immersion experience anyway, watching TV held no appeal.  Once I settled in with my host family, we very rarely watched television.  Ever since, I almost never watch television.

Entertainment and travel on the cheap

My parents were kind enough to pay for my expenses to get me to Germany and back, as well as provide a monthly allotment.  I loathed asking for money, and my frugality developed during those months.  Even so, I wanted to experience Europe as much as I could and began to figure out how to do it on the cheap.

I found, for example, I could buy an opera ticket that was a “standing place.”  The “standing place” was the equivalent of a nose-bleed seat at a stadium, but without a chair.  I learned to scan the seats below to find empty spaces, and then at intermission, move to a seat.  I also attended (free) rehearsals in lieu of actual performances whenever I could.

Train travel was my mode of seeing the surrounding countries.  I could write a book about the bizarre experiences I had traveling by train “on the cheap.”  Suffice it to say, it was seldom comfortable, and sometimes a little bit unnerving.

This would be one area in which I no longer necessarily practice frugality.  I certainly did for a period of time.  But no more hostels and creepy train companions for me, if I can help it.

Eating out was highly unusual

During my days as an au pair, I can remember exactly ONE meal that was at a restaurant.  Other than that, all meals were in the home.  Fortunately, the Italian mother of the family was an excellent cook!

When I was traveling in Europe, my biggest challenge was finding ways to eat inexpensively.  I quickly learned that sticking with basic, fresh food was the way to be healthy and save money.  I still adhere to that way of eating today, but I do love fine dining from time to time.

German brown bread is utterly amazing

The house I lived in was across the street from a small grocery store and bakery.  After the initial shock of very limited choices in the store, it was incredibly refreshing to have a single choice for needed items.  Instead of twelve varieties of peanut butter, there was one.  And the bread!  It is no wonder I gained weight, and my love for good bread has never wavered.

The other impact on me is that even today, I experience a small amount of anxiety grocery shopping in the USA. The overwhelming number of choices is too much for me, so my husband does the majority of our grocery shopping.  I am thrilled when we come upon small grocery stores when we travel.

Simple clothing

While I arrived in Germany with two medium-large suitcases, I had purposely left lots of empty space for anticipated souvenirs.  My clothing was plain and functional, and far from stylish.  I bought zero items of clothing while abroad for a year, with one exception.  As bizarre as it sounds, I had to buy more underwear after EVERY SINGLE PAIR of my panties was stolen from the German school’s washing machine right before I departed for Munich.  Not only was the situation bizarre, it was also a huge complication since I was stopping in Munich only briefly and then taking a road trip with school friends.

I wore the absolute hell out of the clothing I brought.  By the end of a year, the few items I had were dingy and threadbare in places.  Most of all, I was just tired of seeing them.  And besides, I needed the room in my suitcases for souvenirs and gifts!  The day before I departed for home, all my newly laundered, worn-out clothing (other than what I was wearing) got donated.

I still don’t care a whit about clothing and fashion.  I’ll wear the same clothes for years, because for me, shopping for clothing is one of the most painful tasks in life.  The simpler, the better, when it comes to clothes.

Books are friends

While in Germany, I read a ton.  Fifty novels of classic literature, to be precise.  (I know this because I had started my book journal, where I kept track of every book I read.  That same journal eventually became a spreadsheet that I still use today.)  As an au pair, I had very little time to myself, and spent any free time practicing my flute.  If I had any down time at all, I read.

I cannot recall why the library didn’t work out for me, but either I was ineligible, or the English literature selection was poor.  I found a bookstore that had a marvelous selection, however, and I would read and then trade my books for credit.  In this way, I read spending as little money as possible.  During my youth, books were a central part of my life, but my music focus took up my pleasure reading time when I was in high school and college.

It was in Germany that I fell back in love with the simple pleasure of reading.  I haven’t quit since.

You can do anything you put your mind to

This may not be a simplicity lesson, but it is a critical thing to know about yourself.  Looking back, I’m astounded I plunked myself down in a foreign country with very few belongings, and I made a life there.  A frugal life, but a simple, happy life.  That is a lesson that has served me well ever since.  No matter what hardship befalls me, I can look back and remember that I had (and enjoyed) that crazy experience at age nineteen.

I also learned that it doesn’t take much in the way of material things to have a happy life.  I may not remember all of my German, but that lesson has stuck with me like glue.

What experiences led to your wanting to live a simple life?  Please share!

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