Why my books have to travel with me around the world

You might expect international teachers to travel light – but Liz Free can't be separated from her book collection

Liz Free

This international teacher says that her expanding book collection has to travel with her wherever she goes in the world

In 2006 I made my first foray into international education, as I headed to the States.

Optimistic, but slightly terrified, I boldly strode into the unknown. Maybe shuffled is a better description, as I was slightly weighed down by books.

Books. I love books; heavy, weighty, weathered or worn. I love them all, and I keep them all. This is a problem for an international teacher.

Can a teacher have too many books?

No one ever talks about "the chains we wear in life" when it comes to international relocation, but don’t we all have chains of sorts (hopefully it’s not just me)?

Mine started as the books I couldn’t leave behind and has now morphed into more books collected along the way, bookcases (I have, rather embarrassingly, purchased identical but expanding Ikea Billy bookcase sets in five different countries) and the need for more and more space.

The importance of books, as my investment in them has mapped my life journey, has increased. They have pride of place in my home; whichever country I am in.

And, of course, I now how rituals associated with the packing and unpacking.

Order and chaos

My dyslexic husband once organised them by colour and height, which very nearly created a global marital crisis. I now have designated family responsibility for the Dewey system of unpacking of all books.  

Considering this homage to my internationally weathered and travelled adornments, it would be remiss not to have a suitably literary spin to this article. So, in true Dickensian style…

Marley’s ghost declared, "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."

I now wear over 30 boxes of books.

How did this happen?

How did this start? I arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, with 10 boxes of books; dutifully shipped, passed through customs and taking pride of place in the USA.

They included my old A-level and degree texts that I had pored over for what felt like a lifetime at that time. From Dickens, to my favourite writers, the Brontes, and more recent texts of Capote and Syal and Hosseini. I loved, and continue to love, these books.

I had considered leaving them behind as I have circumnavigated the globe. But this felt like a betrayal of sorts and the "what if?" question loomed large. What if I needed them?

I had already made the investment in their purchase so should always be ready to use them at any time. I did not think for one moment that this would set a precedent and career commitment to books that would, quite literally, follow me like Marley’s chains.

It did not stop at 10 boxes. As I travelled the world and collected beautiful new books, so did the number increase. I felt guilty at the prospect of letting the new ones go, of not revering them as much as the others.

Equally, the old books had already been such an investment for me, I could not possibly just let them go.

In too deep

I am invested at every level. Denial of the books is a denial of the chains I’ve forged.

What started as an inconsequential endeavour has resulted in a mild obsession, commitment and approach to global relocation, flying in the face of the footloose and fancy-free international teacher. It is costly, time- and space-consuming, but I am now so far in, there is no way back. 

So, what have I learned and what would my advice be to budding international teachers out there? Remember, the seeds you sow now travel with you – and buy a Kindle!

To my fellow international colleagues, I would love to know the international chains that have bound you and travel with you throughout the world. Is there a global economy in the things we carry?

Liz Free is CEO and director at International School Rheintal (ISR), Switzerland, an IB World School.

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