From Paris to Nowhere


in Journeys • Illustrated by Estelle Guillot


Paris, C’est Cher! 

For 18 years, I lived with my (now) husband in a charming old artist atelier in the 6th arrondissement in Paris. My home was a short daily walk from the Jardin du Luxembourg with its spring blossoms and fall foliage, and lay in the shadow of the Tour Montparnasse, where I not once felt tempted to ride the elevator up to its panoramic observation desk. 

 My (then) boyfriend and I moved into the paint-peeling atelier during the summer of 2001, just after my college graduation, and we were expelled in the winter of 2019. Not because we hadn’t paid our rent or behaved abominably. Our landlord and neighbors liked us, the quirky Dutch-American couple who sometimes forgot to water the plants in the alley yet never blasted music — except for once on Halloween. We were expelled because we couldn’t afford to buy the atelier our aging landlord wanted to sell. The two-story house measured only 50m2 (540 feet, 2 inches), sighed under serious mold problems, illegally lacked a kitchen exhaust vent, had ghosts living in the creaking wood, and was poorly insulated against heat and cold, but its market value still neared a million euros ($1.14m) — Paris, c’est cher! My husband and I were both writers, freelancers, foreigners in France, and no bank would give us a mortgage. Our only option was to move out.  


With no idea of where we could go, I began to assess the possessions we had accumulated over 18 years. We had six months to pack, so there was no hurry, but focusing on a practical task is like magic; it stops my mind from worrying. Before boxing everything up, I would downsize our belongings like a Marie-Kondo pro — a very sensible goal. 

My approach was random. I heaped the contents of my top dresser drawer onto the bed and sorted through my rainbow of tights. It was easy to get rid of the ripped ones and the what-on-earth-were-you-thinking zebra stripes, but before picking what skirts and dresses I would keep, there was no way of knowing what nylons I might need. Soon, I got stuck in the muck of indecision.  

Then came the shame of owning, for example, a collection of male-gaze-inspired lingerie I never wore because cotton panties were better for my health and more comfy and better suited to my culture-critical mind and my husband didn’t care anyway — we always slept nude.  

In the following days, I moved items out of the closet, yet not yet out of the house, because most things came with a story. Here was the Polish wooden chess set I’d bought on my philosophy student exchange trip to Krakow. There were the sheepskin pillows musician-friends had fallen asleep on after boozy dinners at home. And the ancient paint-smeared cassette player was the music box my deceased father had given preteen me. Getting rid of it meant getting rid of recorded Top 40 hits, my crush on Whitney Houston, my youth, my father’s love. 

Downsizing proved particularly slow when it came to the wide, dusty shelves in the living room that rose so high they seemed to support the ceiling. My books were a chapter of my identity.  

I felt overwhelmed by what I’d squirreled away over the years. How many pairs of shoes does one person need? Why had I stuffed a globe-light into the back of a cabinet once it lost its rightful place in our home? How had I become so irrationally attached to things, thrifty and conservative, clinging to the past?  

Observing my clutter, cluttered my mind, and I grew angry with myself. Here I was, spoiled to the bone with excess possessions and wasting my time on deciding whether the never-used aluminum egg poacher should stay or go. My stuff was sabotaging my life.  


My husband, let’s call him Daniel because that’s his name, watched my poor progress and sulked. He couldn’t accept that another person’s choices determined his life. He didn’t want to give up the home in which he’d felt so inspired.  

I, too, had worked well in our atelier, despite the mold and creaking. A creative energy permeated the space. Before us, a singer-songwriter had occupied the house, and before her, the landlord’s mother, a sculptress. I had written my novels at the tiny desk in our bedroom under the slanted roof and would surely miss the home in which we’d built our life.  

But secretly, I was also relieved we were forced to move. Enchanting as Paris remains to visitors today, it had become a hard city to live in. It was the time of the Charlie Hebdo shooting and the Paris terrorist attacks. Of erratic suburban riots, increased traffic jams, and the Yellow Vests Movement. Sirens cancelled out the cherished birdsong from our alley and spray-painted slogans grew like moss on the walls. 

Noise and anxiety moved in even next door. After a DJ became our neighbor, drug dealers delivering goods for his afterparties sometimes knocked on our door by mistake.  

In short: I was sick of living in a polluted city ruled by fear, anger, injustice, and despair. I wanted out. I wanted air. Losing our home could be an opportunity.  

Trash Gold 

Once I got Daniel involved with my very sensible goal, minimizing our belongings became more fun. We turned the job into a challenge: Every day we each had to get rid of one thing. We hauled books to secondhand stores, ferried fleece blankets to the refugee donation center, fed the recycling bins outside with syllables from my semester at the Sorbonne. Each time we unburied something ripe for the garbage we yelled, “Trash gold!”  

Because new things were forbidden from coming into the house, I stopped going to the Sunday book sales at the American Library and the seasonal sales at Le Bon Marché. It saved me time, money, and attention. Limiting what I owned lightened my cognitive load. I felt motivated. How much more could I discard?  

The goal became concrete when I ordered our cardboard boxes: Everything we kept would have to fit within. Objects demanded a defense. If neither Daniel nor I endorsed the metal penguin cocktail shaker I had dusted for 18 years and used only a handful of times, it would not make the cut.  

Sentimental items remained hardest to part with; they were adding meaning to my life. I dithered and stalled, until I realized that the meaning existed mostly in my mind. I photographed the Israeli mosaic jewelry box my mother had gifted me, the leather jacket my grandmother had worn, the Lufthansa metal cutlery my father had once collected. And I jotted down their stories. With my memories and pictures safely in the cloud, I could dispose of the items’ physical manifestations.  

Yet what to do with the merely beautiful? With the handcrafted leather-bound notebook I bought in Florence a week before our wedding? Well, beauty I wanted to keep in my life, no matter how inexpressible the need for it seemed. Beauty received my full defense. 

Live Nowhere 

As we uncluttered our soon-to-be-lost home, Daniel and I went back and forth about where we should live. Finding another place in Paris was out of the question. Rent protection had kept the city affordable for us and moving into a new house meant paying twice as much. Even then, there was little available. And how would we find an apartment we loved as much as our atelier? Daniel, too, felt ready to say goodbye to Paris.  

It didn’t make sense for us to return to the U.S. or the Netherlands. We both liked keeping a distance between what had shaped us and who we had become. I wrote more freely when I was the stranger, the observer. By not fitting in, I felt at ease.  

Fortunately, we could work from almost anywhere in the world. We considered moving to Italy, where we got married on a vineyard. To Portugal, where tax and immigration laws were hospitable. To the Greek islands, where life — when the forests weren’t burning — was simply good. But we couldn’t settle on an affordable place where we would enjoy all seasons. Perhaps we hadn’t seen enough of the world to know where we wanted to root.  

That’s when an idea came to me. Why not postpone our decision and look around? Leave our stuff behind? Live nowhere and travel the world? 

Perfect Candidates 

Most modern (digital) nomads are in their 30s. They’re disenchanted with a 9-to-5 career and look for more authenticity or thrills. Daniel and I weren’t young anymore. We were unaccustomed to backpacking, dorms, and long-haul buses. We depended on private bathrooms, firm mattresses, fresh fibrous vegetables, and most importantly, quiet time to write. Could we find that without a home base? If not, what were we willing to sacrifice?  

Seen from a different angle, we were the perfect candidates for a nomadic life. We had the privilege of owning passports that gave us access to most countries in the world. We were healthy and able-bodied. We had no kids, no pets, and no parents (then) who relied on our care. We’d saved some money. We had inexpensive Dutch health and liability insurance that covered us worldwide. And because we’d waited — stupidly — to become rich first, so we could travel in style, we’d postponed visiting countries we’d long longed to see: Vietnam, Egypt, Mexico, Thailand, Morocco, Japan.  

Once I calculated how we could practically and financially pull off a life of slow travel, Daniel jumped on board. We were no longer on the verge of losing our comfortable life in Paris; we were at the start of a great adventure.  

The Loser as Champion 

Downsizing what we owned took on a whole new meaning after that. Renting storage space was costly, so most of our furniture would have to go. I sold our couch and filing cabinet on E-bay, asked the volunteers at the refugee donation center to pick up our kitchen island, and made an appointment with the Parisian garbage men in the future to swing by for our mattresses and bed.  

Should we keep the flatscreen TV or would two years in storage make it obsolete? What about the survival rate of fragile designer lamps? 

We blanketed and bubble-wrapped our Norwegian ergonomic desk chairs, the unpolished oak drawers, and our green-glass table top. We also packed forty boxes of books.  

Before I stowed my personal stuff, I went through the keeps one more time, trying to discard as much as possible. I imagined our future home as a clean slate, all surface areas empty. 

We invited friends to take whatever they wanted. The professional speakers from Daniel’s career as a music producer went to a friend musician. Small appliances moved in with the neighbor (not the DJ). I delivered Halloween outfits, bracelets, and stationery to my nieces in Holland. How lucky we were that people wanted our stuff! It was easier to part with things knowing they had found new homes. 

I made several trips to transport the last rejects (candelabras, photo frames, books, rain boots) to consignment shops and charity collection points. I had no car and delivered everything on foot. Each time I carried a load, I felt the weight of my attachment and the joy of liberation upon my return. As the loser, I was the champion. I was no longer the same person in the end. 

Joy and Gratitude 

Daniel and I left Paris in February 2019 with a backpack and a carry-on roller bag each. Three months later, tired of hauling our luggage over the Venetian bridges and cobblestones, we downsized further, getting rid of items we had barely used. Ever since, we’ve lived out of medium-sized backpacks, purchasing what we need on a Moroccan souk or in Bangkok’s Chinatown. 

Unless you explore remote villages undiscovered by tourists, you can get necessities pretty much anywhere. We bought secondhand sweaters when Mexico City in the summer proved colder than expected and left our wool layers behind when they became obsolete. We rented snorkeling equipment on the Red Sea, borrowed hotel umbrellas in Seoul, and read books on our electronic devices everywhere, which, I admit, took some time getting used to — I miss the smell and feel of paper in my hands. I also miss fashionable leather boots and my Norwegian ergonomic desk chair. But of all the challenges I encounter on the road, such as eating healthily, replacing hacked credit cards, or dealing with delayed visas, living out of a backpack is one of the easiest to overcome. There is joy in being selective and carefully picking each item I carry on my back. There is gratitude in feeling light.  

Maximum Flexibility 

You may wonder how we manage a life of long-term travel or decide where to go. The short answer is: we live frugally, travel slowly, and remain flexible, grasping opportunities that come our way. We stayed in friends’ houses in Zurich and Los Angeles when they were on holiday or offered us their spare floor. We sublet an apartment from an expat in Oaxaca for two months. We applied to artist residencies that offered to host us for free. We went to Malaysia in the off-season and negotiated long-term deals on Greek islands.  

One year into our travels, the spread of COVID-19 became an issue. We were in Siem Reap, Cambodia, at the time and anxiously watched the news. Our original plan was to travel on to Laos or Myanmar, but we didn’t want to be trapped there in case we fell ill or had to quarantine. Should we return to Europe instead? But there the virus was at its worst. Could we find a refuge closer by? 

After a long debate, we decided to wait it out in Hoi An, a coastal city in Central Vietnam where we had never been before. Three days after we arrived, Vietnam closed its borders, and three days later the WHO declared the outbreak a global pandemic.  

In retrospect, we made the right call and safely stayed in Vietnam for eight months. We would have stayed longer had urgent family circumstances not called us back to the United States in October 2020. Daniel and I cared for my father-in-law in Florida for several months. Although our version of homelessness had made me feel vulnerable at first with the world shutting down, our maximum flexibility in times of crises proved to be a huge advantage, enabling us to be where we were most needed.  

Do I miss having a home? Yes. Am I sometimes overwhelmed by the constant task of planning the next roof over our heads? Absolutely. But these feelings aren’t strong enough yet to make me settle down. I wrote part of this essay from a room with a view of the Korean mountains (generously provided by the Toji Cultural Center), and another part from a traditional wooden house in Kyoto where the frosted glass in the windows turns passersby into ghosts.  

Every place I inhabit enriches my life and makes me feel like a child again, wondering about all the daily differences I notice. Regret comes only when I think of our stuff in storage. I wish I’d gotten rid of more when I had the chance.•