Thursday, November 21, 2013

Singing the praises of curtains

Last night Brussels saw its first snow of the year. I love winter. I love the snuggly-ness you get inside, with blankets and hot water bottles, cocoa and mulled wine, and lots of pies and stews and solid, hearty, wholesome food. I love listening to the sound of the rain and wind outside, while burrowing deeper into the duvet. Inside seems even cosier when outside is so inhospitable.

However, keeping inside cosy while outside gets colder and colder is not easy. Or cheap. This is our first full winter in our new flat, as we moved in last January, and the one thing I have to say is: Curtains make a HUGE difference. First snow last night, we still haven't turned on a single radiator. This is inducing a probably appalling level of smugness - ooh check us out, we still haven't turned on the heating. I need to tone this down, I think. Of course, this is not a massive feat of endurance, as we have occupied flats above, below and either side of us, so the insulation is high from the start.

So. Five things we are doing to keep the heating off, and two things I want to add.

1. Curtains.

Curtains curtains curtains. I can't stress enough even how much difference hanging a thin pair of net curtains made when they finally went up last spring. Lined curtains are orders of magnitude more effective yet. Hang curtains. Ours are homemade, and cost me a total of €350 for four pairs of wall-to-wall floor-length curtains, two of them lined. And €120 of that was the first curtains, before I figured out the shortcuts.

2. Blankets.

I know I'm all about the decluttering these days but I still think you cannot have enough blankets. Heaped on the bed or draped invitingly over the sofa, snuggle under blankets anywhere and everywhere. Soft, warm, and a warm glowy feeling of 'I made that'. I have several crocheted blankets and the warmest by far is the one using Lucy's Ripple Pattern (from Attic24), which has the added benefit of being super easy.

3. Jumpers.

An old but a classic one. Put a jumper on over that t-shirt. Or if you're already doing that, add a vest underneath. No picture unfortunately - but it's on my to knit list.

4. Feets.

We lose much heat through our feets. House shoes, slippers, woolly bedsocks. Keep your tootsies warm and the rest of you will be fine.

5. Opening windows.

Yeah, might sound crazy, but make sure you open your windows at least once a day and get a good air flow through. Cleaner air means better lung health for you, less moisture creating mould you'll just have to clean off, and lower moisture levels also mean that it takes less energy to heat the air in your home. I know, the heating isn't on. It still makes a difference - the impact of the warm water passing through pipes to the bathroom, of having the oven on etc are magnified.

Still to do: Rugs.

I've been looking around at rag rugs and so on for a while. Definitely something I want to have a go at. Even with socks on, I can feel we're losing a fair amout of heat through the floor especially in certain places (ie where you can't feel hot water pipes serving as free underfloor heating).

Still to do: Draught excluders.

This is something I hope to get around to sooner rather than later. I can't feel a draught under the door to the rest of the building, but I can see light under it. Just not yet sure which side is warmer... This is an important point to ascertain before adding insulation.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lemon barley water

One of the things I wanted to turn my hand to this year was making drinks. I've been looking for something fairly straightforward to start out. After a little searching, barley water seemed an interesting possibility.

Not being sure how I would like it - having been brought up with the commercial version - I just made a small portion but I found it so lovely that I'm going to make a bigger batch over the weekend. It tasted a little odd but not unpleasant. In fact the best word I can find to describe it is 'soft'. Which just sounds weird, but trust me, drinking this felt soft. And also nourishing, the way drinking hot vegetable soup when you're a bit under the weather feels.

I've seen variants online using citrus peel, root ginger and fresh mint in various combinations and permutations, so I'm looking forward to some more experimentation here.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Slow lunch breaks: A museum/gallery exhibition

Since setting out to do these slow lunch breaks, I've been trying to think about places to go and things to do within easy reach of my work. I thought: I wish there was a museum or an art gallery nearby.

Guess what? I had entirely forgotten about the sizeable museum complex in the middle of the park. Yes, the one I've been going walking and running in. They have an art museum, a military history museum, and even a car museum. (Yes. Random.) I checked it out, and their temporary exhibits are usually only €3-4 for under-25s, so I met a friend who was in Brussels on holiday and we went around a design exhibition during my lunch break.

It was quite hard to switch from full-speed to slower during the break, but I am really finding that taking a proper break at lunch means I come back refreshed, feeling more positive and more able to tackle whichever crisis or challenge has arisen in my absence.

Interesting too to find out about Henry van de Velde, who was significant in the development of Art Nouveau, was heavily influenced by the UK arts and crafts movement, and was pivotal in the recognition of design as a branch of the arts in Belgium. There were some truly hilarious pictures of his wife posing around their house as if cooking or doing housework in a medieval-inspired floor-length dress that looked like a huge potato sack, which they were promoting as a more rational and practical type of clothing than the contemporary restrictive corsets etc. I'm quite glad we ended up going another route, those acres of fabric and drooping sleeves would have been highly impractical for just about everything. The picture below is taken from the Boston University website, you can find the page here, and I think you get a pretty good idea!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Ta-da! (And only one week late...)

Ta da! Very thin edging, as I only had a teeny tiny amount of my dark handspun yarn left but it definitely brings the whole thing together more and defines it a little. All in all, I'm quite happy with this. I hope my friends and their little baby will agree.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

A slow Saturday

:: Shelling more pumpkin seeds - this is two pumpkins' worth ::

:: Winding homespun yarn into a ball ::

:: Edging the baby blanket ::

Friday, November 15, 2013

My secret weapon

The last two days have been mad - it's been a big conference at work, where all the network contacts from across Europe and around the world get together with lots of training and presentations and networking meetings. The talking goes on well into the night, and the conference-bit starts early, so for example I was at networking drinks in a hotel bar until 2am but still had to be functional at a briefing at 8am.

Thank goodness this doesn't last but it is very intense, and many of my routines and 'slowing down' efforts just go out of the window for a couple of days. But one thing I have kept on top of - I have still managed to do almost daily loads of laundry, so the pile-up of housework is nowhere near as bad as it could have been. My secret weapon is a washing machine with a timer function - I could load the machine and set it before leaving the house, and set the cycle to finish when I came back to the house to change before dinner. I felt very virtuous and efficient and organised! I love this machine - a bit too much, probably.

But things have finished up now and I'm looking forward to slowing down over the weekend.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

(Nearly) Free pumpkin seeds

So you know pumpkin seeds? Go for HUGE (well, more than most seeds) sums of money? They're yummy in many things including homemade cereal but also quite pricey.

We've been eating pumpkin a lot recently, and I was looking at the scooped-out flesh, full of seeds, thinking: pumpkin. Seeds in a pumpkin. You can see where I'm going with this, right?

So we've been washing and drying the seeds, then prising open the pod-type things to remove the seed inside. It's a bit of a pain, really - takes a while and you don't get many seeds at the end of it (or as my boyfriend said as we sat up removing seeds at 11 last night - "you can see why they cost so much!") but why throw away something as yummy as pumpkin seeds? When we already paid for them when we bought the pumpkin?

The method, so far as there is one, is wash mostly clean, dry on some paper towel on a rack, then when totally dry prise open with a sharp knife and remove the seed. There is a knack to getting them out whole, rather than in fragments, but I'm not entirely sure what it is. It's still a bit hit and miss, to be honest. Can I call this learning a new skill? I wonder if my grandmother knew how to depod pumpkin seeds?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Decluttering Facebook

As I am becoming more confident in applying what for lack of a better umbrella phrase I shall term ‘the decluttering philosophy’ to my physical possessions, I find myself almost without realizing applying them also to online activities. 

I am pretty much squarely in ‘the Facebook generation’ – I use Facebook daily and find it really useful to keep in contact with friends who move jobs and homes fairly frequently. If I tried to keep their contacts in an address book it would always be out of date, email addresses change as people upgrade the quirky msn or Hotmail account of their teens for something more professional-sounding. The only sure way to be always able to check which city they live in and send a reliable message is through Facebook. 

All in all, Facebook really helps me to stay in touch with old friends I would otherwise lose track of – but I also have many many contacts on Facebook who are not really close friends. People I met at uni, people with whom I went to primary school and no longer have anything in common, people who knew people I was friends with. Recently, while checking Facebook, I have started to ‘declutter’ these people. I’m not passing any kind of comment on them – I’m sure they are all (or mostly) lovely people – but frankly if I can’t even remember who they are or how I met them, then they’re just cluttering up my Facebook. 

There is also a definite plus to this – the more I unfriend people who, honestly, aren’t actually friends (eg the former room mate of an ex-boyfriend), the more my news feed is filled with news of people I genuinely want to stay in touch with. It’s prompting me to reach out to them more, respond to their news and take the initiative to restart a correspondence or meet up in person.

Monday, November 11, 2013


It is, I think, absolutely essential to have a day like November 11th set aside for remembrance - an important reminder for those of us whose lives are now so distanced in time and geography and comprehension from war and what it does to people. However, I increasingly take issue with how this remembrance is articulated. This is not (or should not be, I think), as I am hearing more and more, a day to remember and thank 'British servicemen and women' who risk(ed) their lives.

When I was at school, this was a day to remember all those who lost their lives in war. Whichever flag they happened to fight under. When did this change?

This should be a day when nations come together to remember what happens and what can happen again. To remember that war does not solve problems, but only creates them - every schoolchild who studies history will be able to tell you that World War One and how the Versailles settlement handled the fate of Germany was a major factor in Hitler's rise to power.

To remember not only those who willingly go into battle - whose courage and selflessness I am not sure I could match - but those whose lives are stolen and destroyed and utterly overturned by war, as casualties, witnesses and refugees. Of the people, families and cultures who are never fully whole and bear the scars in some form for generations.

Above all, this should be a time to regret that war continues to this day. That almost one hundred years after a war so terrible and so pointless that it was termed 'the war to end all wars', there are still many people enduring conflict and all its attendent horrors - disease, hunger, displacement and despair - across the world. That many, including children, are forced to wield weapons against their will. 

I feel that somehow the November 11 festivities - yes, there is an annual Festival of Remembrance, which I find an entirely contradictory phrase, complete with military displays and processions and lots of jingoistic music - is being turned into a celebration of the UK's military history and might. I'm not the only one, and was very struck by this Guardian article by Harry Leslie Smith. I would like to see an approach that honours the bravery and sacrifice of military servicemen and women - but which also questions the decisions that sent those men and women into battle. I don't think that pomp and circumstance is appropriate. I particularly want to remember that every death for which the British armed services are responsible is just as much a tragedy as every British life lost. Each one is someone's child. Just because they happen to be German or Argentinian or Afghani should not mean that we do not honour and mourn them equally.

On Passing The New Menin Gate, by Siegfried Sassoon (1927)

Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
the unheroic dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,-
Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?

    Crudely renewed, the Salient holds its own.
    Paid are its dim defenders by this pomp;
    Paid, with a pile of peace-complacent stone,
    The armies who endured that sullen swamp.

Here was the world's worst wound. And here with pride
'Their name liveth for ever', the Gateway claims.
Was ever an immolation so belied
as these intolerably nameless names?
Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime.

Pictures from Wikipedia

Saturday, November 9, 2013

(Decluttering in) The land of tea

I am currently in the land of tea - and discovering that you can continue to declutter one item a day even whilst travelling! I had intended to simply suspend the one-a-day rule whilst on the move but no - when travelling, I use different bags and purses and things. I find clutter. I remove it. Ta da. It feels good. I'm finding as I go on that it gets easier and easier to let things go, and I feel more comfortable with the things that are left.

In one of the decluttering blogs/videos I have been perusing - I can't remember where, if anyone reading knows please let me know and I will add a link - I came across the idea that clutter talks. Clutter speaks to you. You allow stuff to become clutter because you can't or don't want to make a decision about what to do with it, so you put it down and every time you walk past it, it says: 'I'm here! I'm still here! You need to [read/file/respond to/find a home for/get rid of/etc] me!' At first, this is a quiet reminder but it builds, and the more things you have, the more your home or work space becomes a cacophony of reminders for things you need to deal with. It becomes overwhelming, so you switch off, go away, or focus on something else. The chorus of chaos continues.

Each item that I am decluttering - however small or seemingly insignificant - simultaneously removes one voice, one instrument, one (dis)harmony from that orchestra of mental as well as physical clutter, and at the same time makes me feel more confident about my ability to deal with everything else. 

I'm now beginning to wonder what it would feel like to reach 'clutter silence'? To have no more reminders that I am avoiding? The first time I thought about having nothing left on my 'to do' list, no more superfluous stuff in my life, it was utterly terrifying. What would be left? But now I find it increasingly intriguing. When everything else gets taken away, what is left will be - me. And the things that are most important to me. I'm quite curious to see what that feels like.

But I don't think I'm quite ready for that yet. One step at a time.

Picture from Wikipedia.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Building habits

Welcome to everyone who's stopped by from Rhonda's blog at Down to Earth! Thanks for visiting. I hope you enjoy some of my ramblings about trying to live a simpler, slower life whilst working in the hubbub of European policymaking in Brussels, Belgium.


Do you know what's weird? 

A year ago, doing the washing up was a HUGE hassle. I'd set up my laptop on a nearby surface to have something on in the background - an old period drama on youtube or a music playlist. I'd put it off until the last minute, which meant going to bed really really late. It always seemed such a bummer and it would take me thirty, sometimes forty minutes.

Now? Washing up takes me ten minutes, fifteen tops, and I barely notice it. It feels more like two. I don't even need to think, I just do the washing up and then I can cuddle up on the sofa under a blanket and unwind from the day. No distractions, no (or less!) procrastination.

When something is habitual, it doesn't take willpower to do it. This is why my kitchen surfaces are always beautifully clean - I wipe down surfaces every evening after I do the washing up - but my bathroom isn't - I rarely push myself to scrub the bath-tub.

So this month I've set about learning a habit. I really like Leo Babauta's guide. Don't be too ambitious, make it impossible to fail. My new habit is to wipe down the bathroom surfaces every morning just after I have brushed and pinned my hair. It's super easy, three minutes. And guess what, it gets easier - if I wiped a surface yesterday, it doesn't often acquire major grime over a 24-hour period, and it's super easy to wipe it today. So easy that I end up wiping down some nearby tiles or the edge of the bathtub or the mirrors most mornings. Weirdly, by telling myself I only have to wipe the sink, in reality I'm cleaning half the bathroom daily, whereas if I tell myself to clean half the bathroom, realistically I won't even wipe the sink.

So I'm looking forward to the point when the habit is so ingrained and the bathroom so clean that it will always be sparkly and, like the washing up, I'll barely notice cleaning it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Slow lunch breaks: Running

Does this count as slow? Only in comparison to the other runners!

I never get enough sport - a common thing among people in my line of work, I think. Especially in Brussels, where for some inexplicable reason swimming pools and accessible sporting facilities are open from 8 in the morning to something like 6 or 7 in the evening. I regularly leave work after 6.30 or 7, so paying to have access to the swimming pool for ten minutes never feels like a good plan.

I have of course tried to get up earlier in the morning and go for a run but, well, who wants to get up and go out for a run when it's dark, cold and drizzley?

A better option is to do some activity in the middle of the day. A colleague of mine is part of an informal running group who meet in the park by my work every day around lunchtime. I've been meaning to join them but have just not got it together. But this week I finally did get my kit on and get out. And they are FAST! Even their 'slow' pace to accomodate me (I am grateful they were so thoughtful) was waaaay faster than my usual jog. But they were very welcoming and it felt so good and alive - the wind in my hair, the rain on my face, the smell of dying leaves. Definitely one to be repeated.

(Oh. No picture. Trust me, you don't want a picture.)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013


It came out pretty well, all told - I love the textured, patterned squares in one colour, they came out really well. I think that if I were going to use a contrast colour, I should probably have used more of it. I'm pondering whether or not to crochet a border around the edge in the dark brown, maybe bring the colours together a little more... But all in, not bad. A lovely gift for our friends and their young son, and more stash busted - which is decluttering but more fun!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Slow lunch breaks: Ice skating

Can you think of any activity which is a more complete break from sitting staring at a screen than ice skating? Wind in your hair, sense of exhilaration... I couldn't, so this was my next 'alternative lunch break' idea. I've got a long list, starting with going for a walk in the park, and I'm looking forward to sharing them with you as I try them out.

I went ice skating with a colleague I want to get to know better. We found that timing is everything - timing with metro to avoid waiting for a train, and timing with when they kick you off the ice to refresh it - so my next trip will hopefully be better organised. It was also a fairly expensive lunch break - €9 - but as a rare treat, very lovely. It certainly blew away the cobwebs and woke me up for the afternoon. I noticed you can also get figure skating classes by the quarter hour for not much more, which would also be a lovely thing to try.

I didn't bring my camera so you'll have to make do with something nicked off the internet.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Crocheting a baby blanket

I am currently crocheting squares for a baby blanket. The baby in question is growing very big and will be one year old this weekend, so I have a bit of a race against time. I'm hoping I'll have enough yarn to do three-by-four, but it might end up being three-by-three.

The parents of this child, friends of ours, are very into homemade, environmentally-friendly and natural, and there are lots of handknits in that home. His mother Jo knitted me a pair of slippers for my birthday so I really wanted to make something for them and I thought a baby blanket in 100% undyed wool would do the trick.

 The dark brown wool is handspun - some from my stash, some from my first ever attempt at hand-spinning. I've been wondering what I can do with thick unplied singles, but this seems like a perfect solution. I have tried to choose raised patterns, so that there are some textures for the little fellah to explore. The off-white yarn is treated so that it can go in the washing machine, as well - handy for babies with sticky hands and multiple risk factors for making a mess.

Just peeking out in the corner you can see the DVD case of The 1940's House - one I will definitely NOT be decluttering! I'm really enjoying this series (again) - the journey and growth of the family who participate is really interesting to watch.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Homemade Toasted Muesli

Perfect breakfast, no? I'm really finding that switching back to yoghurt has made a big difference, but it does need something else and what better than homemade toasted muesli? In a recent tv programme on the Beeb, they demonstrated that when someone ate 100g of oats a day over a period of weeks, the levels of 'good' bacteria in his stomach increased, so yet more reasons to include a daily dose of oats in your diet.

The recipe I use is almost entirely 'borrowed' from this recipe from Amanda at Easy Peasy Organic - almost the only change I have made is converting it from cups to grams, but I thought I'd share it for all those people who have scales but not cup measures. All credit to her for developing this delicious recipe. Royalties, commissions and donations should be directed to her. The second change I've made is to replace most of the oats with rolled mixed grains (wheat, spelt, barley, corn, rye etc), which I find tastes better, but feel free to combine the two and just use oats.

Toasted Muesli
50g rolled oats
115g rolled mixed whole grains
150g-200g seeds and/or nuts
3 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp honey (or agave/maple syrup for vegans)
150g dried fruit
1/2 tbsp brown sugar
Dash of cinnamon
1/2 tsp vanilla essence

1. Preheat oven to 180C
2. Mix oats, grains, seeds and nuts in a bowl. Warm the honey and oil in a small pan, pour onto the oats mix and stir until combined. Add brown sugar, cinnamon and vanilla (optional).
3. Spread in a thin layer on a baking tray and bake 20-30 mins, turning frequently to prevent burning.
4. When cool, stir in fruit and store in an air-tight container.

(Original recipe here)

There are endless variations to this recipe, so every time I make it, it is slightly different. Different grains, different nuts, different seeds, different fruit. You could also try different oils, or replace the honey with agave or maple syrup (which would also give you a vegan muesli). This is delicious with milk or yoghurt and the addition of fresh seasonal fruit, or Amanda serves it with cooked apples as a kind of deconstructed apple crumble.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Inspiration from Green Gables

"I'm going home to an old country farmhouse, once green, rather faded now, set among leafless apple orchards. There is a brook below and a December fir wood beyond, where I've heard harps swept by the fingers of rain and wind. There is a pond nearby that will be gray and brooding now. There will be two oldish ladies in the house, one tall and thin, one short and fat; and there will be two twins, one a perfect model, the other what Mrs. Lynde calls a 'holy terror.' There will be a little room upstairs over the porch, where old dreams hang thick, and a big, fat, glorious feather bed which will almost seem the height of luxury after a boardinghouse mattress. How do you like my picture, Phil?" 

"It seems a very dull one," said Phil, with a grimace. 

"Oh, but I've left out the transforming thing," said Anne softly. "There'll be love there, Phil—faithful, tender love, such as I'll never find anywhere else in the world—love that's waiting for me. That makes my picture a masterpiece, doesn't it, even if the colors are not very brilliant?" 
- Anne of the Island, L M Montgomery

The timing of this has been rather fortuitous. Just as I decide that I really do need to do some decluttering, my friend Kaylie puts me in mind of Anne-with-an-'e'. I've been re-reading Anne of Green Gables (free ebook available here) and thinking about the place. Particularly reading the later books when she goes away and comes back to visit, you really get a sense that Green Gables is a very simple, in some senses sparse, house - but filled with love and beautiful memories. I think I might even go so far as to say that Green Gables symbolises what I want my home to be.

As I am moving about my house these days, I am trying to keep 'my Green Gables' in mind. Not necessarily Green Gables itself - after all, technology and life has changed since then and it is not likely that I am going to switch from using a shower to using a washstand - but to keep that ideal in mind of a home that is outwardly simple and inwardly rich, in which each item has meaning and function.

This has been very useful and helpful as I go about my decluttering. I find myself looking at something and think - well, it's not really in the way. There are only two items left on that shelf. And it's quite pretty. And a friend gave it to me. But then I ask myself - if I were setting out to construct and furnish my own Green Gables, would I include it? If the answer is no, then there is no place for it in my home. It's quite a handy trick, I find - embracing all the concerns about keeping practical things that improve life, beautiful things that enrich life, and tokens from special moments and special people - and letting go of the rest. If I would feel comfortable putting it in Green Gables, I know it has a place in my home.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Decluttering is an exponential function

Since my realisation that I'm really a bit of a hoarder (slight understatement), I've been trying some different methods for decluttering, and I've found a sustained method that seems to be working so far, which I thought I'd share with you.

I'm essentially following the example of 365 Less Things in that my goal is to remove one thing each day - into the bin, or into the assorted piles which desperately need to be shifted. (One for the second-hand book shop, one for the second-hand clothes shop, one for the second-hand games and DVDs shop etc. I'd love a Help the Aged or similar nearby where I could just drop everything.) However, I'm not stopping there - most days I am discarding more than one thing, sometimes ten or more. I'm finding it easier and easier to let things go - although it's still a wrench, even for the most ridiculous things. (I honestly spent the best part of ten minutes debating whether or not to throw out a half-used bottle of body oil bought about eight years ago and not used since.)

I'm not being systematic, not focusing on areas of the house or anything like that. As I go about my daily routines, at some point my eyes light on something and I think: I don't need that, it doesn't add anything to my life, it should go. My bathroom cupboard, for example, has been denuded of, amongst others: assorted bottles of lotion, oil, gel, perfume, make-up etc which were not being used and were also hideously old; assorted homemade lotions which were not being used and were turning worrying shades of green; hair scrunchies which had lost their elastic and were not being used; and assorted plastic jewellery items which (guess what) were not being used. In fact, I think something like 90% of my bathroom cupboard just never gets used.

This is so far having two positive feedback loops. The first is that the areas which I use most often are naturally where the impact of this approach is being felt. Each time I open my bathroom cupboard to pin my hair or similar, the items left are glaringly obvious, and increasingly look redundant. The rate of decluttering seems to increase exponentially.

The second feedback loop is that these high-traffic areas contrast increasingly strongly with areas I rarely use (spare room, linen cupboard, cellar), so I am increasingly struck by how cluttered they are and how many things could be disposed of.

I'll be sharing my tips soon on the psychological method I am developing to persuade myself to let things go - in contrast to this spatial method - but I wanted to share with you this very simple and slow decluttering method. Rather than taking on a daunting challenge of even setting a 10-minute timer, the process of only requiring myself to discard one item a day means I feel no pressure, and with items with emotional attachments I can build up to it - each day I look at it and each day the question mark shrinks a little until finally I have no remaining qualms about letting it go.

I am feeling noticeably lighter and like I'm breathing better, weirdly - but also increasingly aware of my clutter and increasingly keen to get rid of it.


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