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Swedish Death Cleaning: Downsizing and Moving On

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning

Moving On a Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home

I’m in the midst of filming yet another House Hunter’s International, my 30th episode! The young couple who have moved here from Arizona, just had a baby and the wife is attending the HEC Paris (Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales) — an educational organization that dates back to 1881 founded by the Paris Chamber of Commerce and Industry specializing in education and research in management that spits out the “leaders of tomorrow.” Meanwhile the husband plays “Mr. Mom” at home with little baby Rowan.

Space for the money is what they are seeking…and why? Because Americans are used to having lots of space and lots of possessions that need a place of their own. Of course, babies take up lots of space — crib, changing table, pram, high chair, etc., etc., etc. The husband, Tim, grew up in the countryside and is having a tough time acclimating to city life. Outside their window are other windows and neighbors in those windows whom he can see and who can see him. There no real trees to speak of without going to a park or strolling along tree-lined avenues.

During the filming we are joking, or at least I am, about how “space is over-rated” now that I’ve learned to reduce to one-fifth the space in which I used to live. How after living in Tennessee for 14 years, I was so bored that if I never saw another tree again the rest of my life I’d be happy! Ha! But, this is exactly the same conversation I have with most of our clients relocating from their spacious American homes — how to downsize and how to love it.

The Swedes figured it out and call it “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning” (a book by Margareta Magnusson) — described by the publisher as “a charming, practical, and unsentimental approach” to downsizing and decluttering. In Swedish, the term is “döstädning” — Dö is “death” and städning is “cleaning.”

This, according to Janet Hulstrand, co-author of “Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home,” “sounds either helpful or frightening, depending on one’s perspective — that is,” as she has noted whether the reader of the book is a “keeper” or a “thrower.” Janet herself is of Swedish descent, and describes the title of Magnusson’s book as “ever-so-slightly ironic/sardonic, as well as obviously quite provocative. (Those Swedes, they don’t mess around!)”

The Swedes arrived in the U.S. “with nothing more than a couple of trunks, a lot of courage, and the determination to succeed in a new land the way they hadn’t been able to in the old one, ended up with big houses, garages, attics, barns, and so on, crammed full of stuff that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren tended to feel very attached to, but were not quite sure what to do with.” It wasn’t just the Swedes that happened to! Just about every American knows how consumerism has taken over their lives and how possessions have begun to possess them, rather than the other way around.

The idea of “death cleaning” — or doing away with things BEFORE you die, so your survivors won’t have to do it, seems to be a very Swedish thing to do. Why they adopted this idea and no one else (is that possible?) is beyond me to understand, but it’s a good idea we all should adopt, especially if moving to France (particularly Paris) where space is at a premium.

When I moved to France, I traded a 3,000 square-foot home for a 1,400 square -foot apartment. It was a shock at the time, but it didn’t take long to not only get accustomed to it, but to enjoy having LESS…less space to clean and fewer possessions to deal with. When I got divorced, my daughter and I moved into a 750 square-foot apartment. Not only is that more than enough space, but I now enjoy my 400 square foot apartment in Nice just as much. I learned that space is NOT what makes one happy. Neither do possessions.

Janet and her co-author, Linda Hetzer, have a blog titled “Downsizing the Home: Lessons Learned.” They emptied out childhood homes of all that “stuff;” Janet moved to France and wrote a book about it. She and Linda claim that “‘Throwers’ relish clearing out and will empty a house quickly; ‘keepers’ want to preserve special things as well as memories, and will linger over the process. People who balance these attributes have come to the realization that the most valuable thing in a house is the life that has been lived there.”

My mother was always a “thrower.” She wasn’t Swedish, but she clearly agreed with “death cleaning.” When she died one month shy of the age of 98, one would think the house would have been overflowing with STUFF, but it was incredibly minimalist. We daughters had the task of cleaning out her house and making it ready for sale or donation, but there was so little to do, that it took less than a day to package it up and prepare it for pick-up. Of course, we went through it all first to keep what we cherished most. That amounted to old photos, some of her better pieces of clothing and a piece of furniture or two. She made our lives so much easier by being a “thrower” rather than a “keeper” — and that made her life easier, too, with so much less to possess her.

When you live in a Paris apartment a fraction of the size of your American home, you won’t have a choice, but to downsize, lest you suffer at your own “keeping” hands.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds - Paris, France

Adrian Leeds
Adrian Leeds Group

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P.S. Planning a trip to Paris in the summer? Now’s the time to find your apartment. Contact our Bookings Manager, Patty, and find your perfect home away from home now!

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