The Expat and the Art of Tidying Up

“Mummy, I hugged this for a while but it doesn’t Spark Joy! What should I do with it?”

The online world is ablaze right now with the fabulous, teeny-tiny package that is Marie Kondo. If you haven’t read the book, seen the Netflix show or stumbled across the multiple Facebook/Instagram posts, she is a Magical Elf, no, sorry – a lovely, passionate Japanese woman who has made it her life’s work to help you and me clean up. To be honest, though, it is really a sneaky form of minimalism that catches you unaware. She asks you to only keep those items that “Spark Joy.” When you really get into her work and set forth upon your own stuff with this new approach, you realize: A. just how much cr*p you own; B. how much of it no longer Sparks Joy and that you are hanging onto for various guilty reasons; and C. how impossible it to get rid of said cr*p in Switzerland. It is really, really tough!

Let me explain… We came to Switzerland in a mad, whirlwind rush. We took a city break and walked away with a contract (as you do!). When it came to moving, a small army of burly men packed up the whole house in a day and magicked it/drove it to Switzerland. Only at the other end did we realize how much cr*p had followed us over the border and how hard it was to get rid of it!

Rubbish/garbage here is an interesting beast. You must buy special bags to dispose of anything (from last night’s dodgy takeout to broken plastic toys). Each bag costs a few francs, so you really do think before you throw anything away! In my community, large items require timely roadside disposal with a magical green sticker that for some unknown reason is sold by chemists. Usually this works unless some evil goblin steals your sticker and you get into trouble for roadside dumping.

Then there is recycling. This works if your items-lacking-Joy are paper. Let’s face it, many of our paper items spark no joy (speeding fine, I’m looking at you) but generally have to be kept (booooo! Adulting!). If your item is metal, you are in luck with a semi-yearly collection, so the item can look forlorn in the cellar for ages (then you forget about it and miss the darn collection date).

Next there are the fantastic Brockis– our weird and wonderful secondhand shops in Switzerland. They will bring a truck for huge piles of your cr*p but it could cost you dearly. My technique is to visit them regularly, heaving giant, fully loaded paper bags from the supermarket. The check-in process is somewhat humiliating, however, as they sift through your cr*p and reject the unworthy-of-sale. Your cr*p has been rejected by the Brocki! My husband’s shirts were rejected, a possibility I had been warning him of for ages. The next trick is trying to leave the Brocki without buying any more cr*p! Put that strange lamp down and walk away!

Then, of course, there is our beautiful expat community that come to the rescue. With items of clothing and toys being so expensive here, there is a hot expat secondhand market, fueled by the power of Facebook. Here we carefully photograph our children’s old equipment and clothing and post it, in the hope that we can once again get into the cellar space/garage, currently overflowing with the detritus from our children’s last developmental milestones. E-bay has yet to fully arrive and the Swiss equivalent, Ricardo, can be odd and a tad scary to the expat whose grasp of the language makes local transactions tricky and confusing.

Then there is the terror of the next move. Expats don’t need the motivation of Marie Kondo. The horror of packing up all the cr*p we don’t need and paying for it to be shipped to a new location is a great motivator. I can’t be the only one to witness the last minute open-house/Facebook multiple postings that try to jettison the baby bouncers, play pens, sterilisers and millions of toys at the last minute. This thought alone helps me to keep filling the paper bags for the Brocki.

There is, however, an upside to this. I have discovered – as I am sure you have too – the huge generosity of the expat community with their stuff. A new person arrives in this land and we will help them out with anything that we have spare. A new teeny-tiny person arrives, and every mum digs around in the cupboards and cellars for things-that-will-be-useful. Cries of help that ring out on Facebook are rarely unanswered. This is the best, most caring community I have ever been a part of. Our clutter can Spark Joy and genuinely help others. That is a real joy.

By Tammy Furey 

Tammy eases the expat parenting experience through coaching, yoga and teaching throughout Switzerland. She also writes, blogs, gives talks, teaches English, does the washing, doesn’t hoover enough, and parents Missy M! Find out more at

Illustration by Laura Munteanu

Laura has studied journalism and advertising, and has worked as a journalist and an illustrator. She has illustrated for magazines, websites, charities and diverse campaigns. Laura also designs jewellery and has had her jewellery and art exhibited. She lives in Zurich with her husband and ten-year-old daughter.

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