Category Archives: Gouache

A Debt-Free Life Finale + Custom Illustration Giveaway!

moneystory-elephantEvicting the roommates was a swift affair once I called in the big guns. You’ll remember from last time that they had stopped paying rent and the situation was dire. M flew in from Seattle to “negotiate” (a punched hole in the wall was involved as I recall – the Czech girl’s boyfriend was the temperamental sort). I was cowering somewhere out of sight and didn’t witness the event. The couple left with a string of muttered Czech words trailing behind, cursing my name, I’m sure. Freed from thongs and mountainous cigarette ashes, I advertised for a new roommate, and a lovely woman who loved to clean moved in. Though we became friends and our apartment looked less destitute, by now, my whole experience in my beloved city seemed…wrong.

Yes, I loved my job working on the Pottery Barn catalog, and happily arranged photos of sofas and sconces into layouts. I sighed with contentment every morning as I entered the beautifully designed office space, and I delighted in pow-wowing about various shades of the hue du jour with the Color Manager (it’s true, there was actually someone with that job title and her main responsibility was to make sure the colors looked right in the catalog). But the pay left a lot to be desired, and the truth was that I really wasn’t the type to climb the corporate ladder.

As for my second job, I convinced myself that my moonlighting gig as a dispatcher for a community safety program was a good use of my time — it entailed recording activities in the downtown area while rovers/safety officers roamed the streets or “beats” to make sure that all was kosher. ”Beat 1, report condition, over,” I would say authoritatively into a walkie talkie while sitting in a small office in downtown, and the walkie talkie would crackle, “All clear, over” or “Code 235, over” (translation: drunken homeless activity resulting in injury, call an ambulance asap). Etcetera. Food stamp dissemination days were raucous and dangerous. The pay, as you can imagine, was laughable.

All I seemed to do was work. And still, I was broke.

**

When faced with debt, there are only three rational steps to take:

1. Reduce spending

2. Increase incoming funds

3. Both of the above

But if humans were rational creatures, none of us would be in debt or overweight or anorexic or in unhealthy relationships. We would all live in clutter-free homes and crime wouldn’t exist. Procrastination would be a myth and therapists would be obsolete. We are irrational beings, filled with emotional compulsions, habitual impulses, family values absorbed or scorned, social influences, primal needs and wants, the propensity to find justification — all these factors are viewed through the various filters that are like fun house mirrors. They warp and twist and distort the simple equation of rationality. It’s what makes us wholly fallible and profoundly creative.

I was doing my best at being rational and taking all the correct steps: I’d cut all the non-essential spending I could, worked two jobs, nixed my social life. Yet, I could constantly feel the familiar and tantalizing tug of “maybe if I buy that [insert some shiny object], I’ll feel better. I deserve a little something for working so hard.” The more I resisted, the stronger the irrational pull. It was only because of M and the astronomical guilt I felt about his generosity that I didn’t succumb. Okay, I did succumb once in a while. But rarely. Despite my efforts, though, I wasn’t making fast enough progress on my debt-reduction plan.

I hadn’t fooled anyone and I knew that the San Francisco life I originally tried to create was like visiting the Hollywood studios. The artfully constructed sets look great from the front and on the surface, but a quick peek would show you that there was nothing behind them — just the backside of the cheap plywood structure hastily erected and a tangle of messy wires. I’d dismantled my little land of make believe and it didn’t feel liberating at all. Just empty and sad. I needed to learn how to build real things. Solid, immutable, deeply valuable things.

It was time to leave San Francisco. M and I had been discussing the possibility of my joining him in Seattle and I figured that if I was avoiding all social contact in SF, I might as well move to a more affordable place where I knew no one save M, and earnestly work on getting rid of my debt. So in March of 2002, I said a solemn and defeated good-bye to the city of lights and headed to Seattle.

**

I am going to fast forward here because I feel like I need to get to the point. The next phase was a lot of slogging through. So much happened, mostly bad, and M and I teetered on the edge of dissolution for many years. We lived together in one frightening apartment after another (I’ve since discovered that it’s his specialty to find scary living quarters, but they were cheap). With the dot com debacle, jobs were scarce and M had trouble finding work. I was lucky enough to interview at several good companies and worked an insane night shift position that paid the best out of my options. We had no car so I rode a bus across town at 11:30pm to basically babysit petulant workers unaccustomed to supervision, then I took two more buses after I slept a couple of hours to tutor rich high school kids in English literature. While working the night shift, I became friends with the grocery clerks at the Safeway down the street because I had nowhere else to go at 3am on my breaks. I was intrigued and inspired that my friends had saved up enough money to send their kids to college with their cashiering job, and seriously considered applying myself and punt the tutoring job. However, I was promoted to a daytime position after a year so I put the cashier idea to rest.

At this point, my income was over $60,000 and I was getting regular bonuses and raises each year. I covered all expenses as my repayment to M and that included rent, utilities, our phone bills, his gym membership and whatever he charged on his credit card. For two years, all I did was work and pay bills. By the middle of 2004, my student loans were paid off 5 years ahead of schedule. And in December of 2004, I opened my tracking notebook as I did every month, and I’d finally hit the magic number: $13,000. In one year and nine months, I paid M back in full — my $30,000 debt was gone. Two months later, M proposed.

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I often wished for a magic bullet while I was in debt and in the back of my mind I thought that if I looked hard enough, I’d find it. I wanted to pay it all off without anyone knowing, while maintaining a stylish appearance. No magic bullet exists, of course. Yes, I was blessed by M’s magnanimous nature, and if it weren’t for him, I probably would have continued accruing more debt at the rate I was going. He’s the hero of this whole story. In accepting his money though, I’ve wondered if I ended up paying a greater price: M may never fully trust me with money. We’ve talked about this. And maybe he shouldn’t. Maybe it’s an important awareness for both of us to have — that I am prone to trying to keep up with the Joneses, that I tend to fill emptiness and insecurity with material acquisitions, that it’s easy for me to revel in the brief high of feeling like I belong because I have the right bag, the right pair of jeans, the right smart phone.

It’s now been 10 years since I paid that last bill, and we’ve remained debt-free. To get here, I’ve had to find ways to make more money, spend less, lather, rinse and repeat. But the two most important ingredients for me, I found, were accountability and removing myself from surroundings that triggered my spending. As long as I kept my debt shrouded in secret and continued to interact with people that I wanted to impress, I kept digging deeper holes for myself.

It’s been hard, this unmasking. I’ve spent many years thinking about how I let my spending get out of hand, and beyond the usual explanations of wanting to fit in or the lesson of learning how to accept myself, I needed to understand how to stay debt-free. To create practical new habits. We make conscious and sometimes embarrassing choices to this end. We rent a run-down townhouse that fits squarely in our budget and drive a jalopy that is a far cry from the Lexus I declared I’d cruise around in when I was fresh out of college. But we bought it with cash and it runs just fine. We don’t use credit cards. Ever. We have savings and never touch it. I choose my friends carefully. Most of all, I listen intently for that tantalizing call to pretend to be someone I’m not — it’s how I know I shouldn’t be in a particular situation or with a certain person.

I’ve realized over and over that whenever I act out of a need for external validation, my life starts to veer off in the wrong direction. It hasn’t been just the debt. My health suffered by staying in jobs that sounded impressive. There were many bad relationships based on dating guys who fit the “right” mold, the kind of boys other people would approve of that I didn’t actually connect with. I ardently believed I needed to be thin to be accepted, so I dieted like a maniac. And on and on and on. The debt, however, was one of my biggest lessons to date. It was easy to buy an image on credit, to borrow the illusion of happiness with the best of intentions to pay it back later when I hoped my projected image and happiness would have solidified into reality. Except it didn’t happen that way.

I have more to say, but my story is at its end. I think there are many, many ways to go about eliminating debt if that is something affecting your life. My way was unglamorous and filled with shame for many years, but only because I made it that way. I believe it can be done with dignity. I’m clearly not a personal finance expert so I don’t have answers, but I do know this: most of my possessions now are humble or secondhand or wonkily handmade, but I’ve never felt richer. I have my health. And my family. And good friends. And time to create. These, I believe, are the true currencies of a rich and happy life. One more thought: after ten debt-free years, I am finally learning how to build real things. Solid, immutable, deeply valuable things.

perspective

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And now for the Giveaway!! With 2015 rapidly approaching, perhaps some of you have New Year’s goals or resolutions in mind? I have a piece of paper stuck above my sewing machine with the word “gratitude” — I’ve long stopped consciously noticing it, but I find it to be a helpful reminder when my eyes occasionally focus on it. I also like the word “perspective”. I wonder if you would like a customized illustrated word of your own? Or maybe a cute animal or a portrait of your child(ren) wearing an outfit? Amber brought up the custom illustration idea and I thought it sounded like loads of fun.

I would love to offer 10 custom 5 x 7″-ish illustrations. They will be original watercolors on coldpressed paper. To enter, it’s a bit interview-esque, but I liked this question that my editor asked me recently: “What would you like to be doing in five years?” For me, I’d like to be working on another book or two and have my own studio where I’m cranking out beautiful clothes and fun illustrations and much-improved photography!

I will keep the giveaway open until Christmas and will announce the winner the next day. I don’t need to mention that international folks are more than welcome by now, right? Good luck!

Thank you for reading
My tale of money matters
Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

P.S. My mama is in town and ’tis the holiday season, so I will take next Monday and Wednesday off. Merry, merry!

To be Shiny

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Last week, when I shared the Hudson pants, I was surprised by the number of people who commented on how harsh I was being about my (let’s face it), um, strong calves and other body parts. Of course, I appreciated how kind and encouraging the commenters were being, so I’ve done some thinking about that since then, prompted also by a conversation I had with K a few days ago. Here’s how the conversation went:

K: Mama, when you were a kid, did you have certain characteristics that you thought you would have when you grew up?

Me: What do you mean?

K: You know, did you think you would become beautiful or talented or something? Can you name three characteristics?

Me: Hmmmm…I don’t know…what do you think are yours?

K: Funny, musical and smart!

Isn’t that amazing? No hesitation whatsoever. And did you notice that I paused and deflected answering the questions? When pressed, I finally said, “smart, nice and creative”, though honestly, I wasn’t half as introspective as K is at her age so I was probably thinking about looking like Barbie. I noticed that something inside of me balked when I listed those descriptors. I’m sure it’s my Asian upbringing and general societal mores that frown upon tooting one’s horn, but I had a really hard time declaring positive qualities about myself.

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At the same time, I find it second nature to point out my less than perfect attributes. Though I am much more comfortable with myself now than I’ve ever been and therefore can openly talk about any “deficiencies” with what I consider gentle mockery, I’m also aware that it’s a sort of preemptive shield. If I say it myself, I keep my fingers crossed that no one else will.

All this reminds me of a moment from a few months ago, when K saw a book I’d checked out from the library titled “Shiny, Beautiful” or some such (it was about hair — my tresses could use some boost in the shiny, gorgeous department). She read the title aloud and said, “I feel beautiful all the time, Mama.” I hugged her and laughed with delight at her confidence but a teeny tiny part of me thought that she shouldn’t go around saying that in public.

But why?

She is beautiful. She should feel beautiful all the time. We’re all beautiful in our own, unique ways. We know this deep down, but we’re not allowed to say it, really. I’ve been thinking about how scared I am of standing out, of being shiny. I sometimes wonder if I’m reinforcing in K the same withholding I’ve absorbed for decades. I’m an old hat at ameliorating and I try to quickly utter something negative about myself, believing that it will put others at ease. It probably does though sometimes it has the opposite effect, but it feels like it chips away at an important part of me. Does that make sense? That tenuous line between self-deprecation (not good) and self-acceptance (good). The ubiquitous Marianne Williamson quote holds steady because it rings so true:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?

And this is endemic among women. We’ve become masters at downplaying. We get fearful of envy and jealousy. Of outgrowing or losing friends and loved ones. Of not being able to handle “success”, however we deem it. Or, most terrifying of all is that we will embrace the belief of the brilliance, the gorgeous, the talent, the fabulous, and discover that it was all a self-help, mumbo-jumbo sham and that we’re less than we’d ever assumed. Somehow, I don’t think that’s the case though.

beautiful

All the people — women especially — that I admire are the ones who are shiny and unafraid to be shiny. Not in a gold-plated-veneer way, but in a truly luminous and complicated sense, like the multi-layered sunrise I caught in the nick of time after climbing Mount Fuji all night (a pretty entertaining tale that I’ll share at some point). Brassy, bravado-infused glitter that doesn’t seem genuine tends to make me feel uncomfortable, and I do end up feeling inferior or somehow competitive. But the ones that really shine? They don’t go around announcing that they feel beautiful all the time, but you sense it in their word choices, their energy, the way they reach out to people unafraid to be exactly who they are. When someone is unapologetically themselves and I’m around them, I feel a little bit shinier too. Thoughts to ponder. I don’t have any solid answers on the how of achieving this luminosity, obviously, but I like to ruminate. And in the future, I will be much nicer to my calves.

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Happy Friday + Randomness

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Happy Friday! I’m dragging my feet on the girl-transforming-into-werewolf costume for K and my pleas for her to wear the ninja costume tonight are falling on deaf ears. I obviously need to re-evaluate who’s the boss here.

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A random comment on the age-old game of tag by K:

I’m not that into being “it” these days. I’m totally over it.

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Alright, I better see if I can muster the energy to focus on assembling faux fur…Have a great weekend, friends!

Happy Halloween!
Will you trick or treat tonite?
Chocolate’s my fave

Happy Friday + Randomness

kimono-girls

Happy Friday! This little illustration is totally random, but these little kimono girls make me happy. I hope you’ve had a wonderful week, and are gearing up for a fun weekend. I’m keeping it sweet and short today since a certain 8-year-old wants me to sew up a rather involved Halloween costume.

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K on adolescence:

Mama, I hope I’m the kind of teenager that likes her parents…I hear teenagers are really mean.

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Have a lovely time
and wherever you may be
I hope you stay dry*

*It’s raining non-stop in Seattle. Ah, autumn….it’s funny, the rain has grown on me over the years.

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Third Grade!

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Today is the day. “I’m so nervous and excited, Mommy,” K has been telling me every few hours for the last week. Third grade! Somehow, this seems major in a way even kindergarten wasn’t. Time is stampeding away, and I am helpless and doddering in its wake. But the start of school brings with it the sensation of a fresh sojourn, renewed energy and extra time. I for one, could use all three.

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I made a dress. And last night I furiously worked on a cardigan she requested, because the weather’s been capricious lately. She’s equipped with a backpack from the GAP, a bento-style lunch box, aqua sneakers. We have a tradition to measure her height on the first day of school, and I can’t wait to see how much she’s grown.

I get so emotional on the first day of school…maybe even more than K.

P.S. I’ll show you the dress next week! K picked out the fabric and everything.

Happy Friday + Randomness

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Happy Friday! It can’t possibly less than two weeks until school starts for K. I have no recollection of the last month, and more to the point, I don’t know if I can sew up a new backpack/school bag for K for third grade in the remaining time. When I sat her down and told her that we might have to go BUY one, she was crushed. “But what about last year’s??” she asked. Apparently, the Oliver + S messenger bag I made last year was a huge hit amongst her classmates, and she loved telling everyone that it was handmade. It got pretty beat up and the shape didn’t hold up as well as I’d hoped. And really, that bag was a serious commitment, and I’m not sure I have it in me to make it again.

But never say never, perhaps I’ll surprise myself.

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K on profanity:

“Mama, I love saying the word ‘fox’. It sounds like a bad word, but it’s perfectly okay to say it.”*

*I recently discovered that she knows way more curse words than I thought. Then again, she thinks “darn” is a horrifyingly taboo word, so it’s very endearing.

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Have a lovely, lovely weekend, friends! My haiku is embedded in the illustration above, so instead here’s an illustration of autumnal fruits [shaking my head that summer vacation's practically over].

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Happy Friday + Randomness

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Happy Friday! First, thank you so much for all the kind comments last week, I’ve read them all multiple times!! I was delighted by how many people liked things as they are, and I also appreciated the suggestions. I will work hard on incorporating them! The four randomly chosen Drygoods gift certificate winners are: Dottie, Jing, Beccy and Grace. Congrats!!!

Second, the photoshoot was a blast! Keli generously allowed us to use her Drygoods Design studio (did you hear that they’re moving to a new gorgeous space?), and we were productive and tried a variety of ideas and time just flew — like that random bird illustration I have up there. Can you tell that I’m scrounging to come up with a relevant reason for that image? I just liked it.

Michelle (the photog) and Tristan (the stylist) deserve accolades of the highest order. In fact, they’re both exceptional at both photography and styling and organizing, and I found myself taking a lot of mental notes to improve my own skills. I really really love working with them. It made the photoshoot feel even more legit and lively having the editor and art director and an intern there as well. I learned so much. Tristan did a fun post on part of the cover shoot prep process and you can get some sneak peeks, though we’re all very careful about not revealing what the cover will look like. Day two at the light and airy Studio 207 today!

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K: Mama, when can I get my own ipad?

Me: When we think you’re ready, sweetie.

K: Aw man, that means, “never, and don’t even think about it”*…

She’s awfully bright, our little one.

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Happy, happy weekend! I have something a bit unscheduled for you on Monday and will push out the usual K outfit to Wednesday, when K turns – holy cow – eight!!!!!

We’re taking the train
Portland, we’re headed your way
Fun plans in the works!

 

Happy Friday + Randomness

happy-friday

As you’re reading this, we are most likely flying over several US states and rapidly approaching home. Family vacations can sometimes yield stories that become eyebrow-raising legends passed from one generation to the next, but aside from a couple of mosquito bites, ours was entirely painless. Not boring or forgettable, no, but solidly good. You know that feeling of slipping into a comfortable bed with freshly laundered linens and settling down with an engrossing book? Our holiday in the Midwest felt like that. M’s family spoiled us rotten.

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Towards the end of the week, we spent a couple of days at M’s family cabin in the southern part of Indiana, where we had no internet access. It was at once refreshing and unsettling because we’re such online junkies. They have a pretty lake on their expansive, woods-filled property and M and the kids had uproarious fun together in the water while my sister-in-law and I snapped photos (can you see M’s tiny head bobbing in the distance? Isn’t it oddly red?). We had a picnic by the lake; hot dogs were roasted, s’mores assembled.

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My father-in-law and I caught a blue gill fish using milk jugs instead of fishing poles, and the kids terrorized the frogs and crawdads (and making me squirm). My 11-year-old niece loved driving the all-terrain vehicle they’ve dubbed “The Gator”, and K pretended to drive it too.

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As far as vacations go, it was pretty perfect.

Usually I would have a quote or conversational exchange to include here, but I barely saw K for the whole week, busy as she was playing with her cousins and getting attention from her grandparents.

Wherever you are, I hope you’re having a solidly good time too. I might be a big jet-lagged, but I’ll see you back here on Monday!

Back to Seattle
Vacations go fast
Now it’s Ba-chan time….

correspondances estivales

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Some months ago, Isabelle of Lathelize invited me to be part of an utterly charming annual project of hers. She calls it “correspondances estivales”, which Google Translate mangled into “summer match”. Basically, it’s a handmade postcard exchange. Over an eight week period starting in early July, we are each assigned a different person for whom we create and mail out a postcard. The one you see above  I received from lovely Isabelle (a different Isabelle from the organizer, I’ve been informed, but no less lovely). Délicieux, no?

I don’t know about you, but I lament the decline of handwritten missives. I recently found a box of saved letters from my youth and was instantly transported to the past, emotions running high. One particular card from a dear, dear friend — the card was a Valentine’s Day one with a primitive illustration of two stick figure friends talking — lurched me into a state of unstoppable tears. She sent me the card while I was living in Japan, teaching English to high school students. She and I were roommates just before I left for my teaching position; we were actually roommates for almost six years. We’d met our Freshman year in the college dorms and immediately knew we were kindred spirits. People talk about chemistry in romantic situations all the time, but friendships have definitive chemistry too. We became good friends with two other girls and for the next three years the four of us lived together in various apartments. After graduation, she and I continued to live together in Los Angeles when the other girls moved on to other parts of the country. Our last shared apartment was ramshackle and disturbingly close to a strip club, but it was all we could afford at the time and oh, the adventures we had!

The card was filled with her signature hilarious escapades, but the words were tinged with sadness. I remembered how I sat in my little Japanese living quarters in the middle of a rice field reading her card from L.A., how viscerally I missed her and that rare kind of friendship in which you know you can be completely and unabashedly open with each other. As I get older, I find that it’s harder to find and keep those friendships, caught up as we are with marriage or raising kids or work or all of the above.

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All this to say, I’m so glad Isabelle is hosting this wonderful exchange of old timey communication. I sent a quick watercolor postcard to France (above), and I’m preparing to send my next one out:

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Thank you for including me, Isabelle! I think it would be fantastic if everyone spent a few minutes sending out a handwritten note to someone, anyone every once in a while. I love to see how people shape their letters, the quirks of their penmanship, the crossed out words. It connects us in a deeper way than any text or email or facebook comment, I believe. And connection…well, nothing quite measures up to authentic connection.

 

 

Travel Essentials

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I’m an overpacker. Always have been. When we went yurt camping last year, M derided me for insisting on bringing a rice cooker, but we totally used it, and I won’t apologize for my over-preparedness. Of course, I managed to not pack blankets or pillows, but only because the yurt website said that bedding was included (they were not. We had to make a jaunt to Walmart in the middle of our yurt trip so we wouldn’t freeze our buns off – glamping was never less glamorous).

We’re heading out to the Midwest this Saturday, so I’m starting to gather the necessities, and the urge to stuff our suitcases beyond capacity is niggling at me. As costs of air travel rise and amenities lessen, though, I’ve been reevaluating the way I pack. Normally, I would include several extra outfits, just in case. I’ve been known to haul seven pairs of shoes for a week-long vacay. Ditto for K. M tends to manage with very little.

I’m trying something new this time and paring down to the bare bones essentials. We’ll have access to a washing machine and dryer and in a pinch, strip malls and Target are only a stone’s throw away. As long as I have my extra eyewear, enough underwear, my non-negotiable gadgets (ipad, laptop, camera), a few key pieces of clothing and comfy shoes, I’m good to go. Oh, and a good book is critical.

What about you? Are you an expert packer? Any good tips on traveling light would be much appreciated!

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