Monday, March 31, 2014

Steam glorious steam

Something that is really not helping me cope with current stress/workload levels at the moment is that I'm not 100% well. I've got bronchitis/the lurgy/plague - whatever it is, I've got a nasty cough (as all my colleagues in the open-plan work space can now testify!)

I made many cups of lemon and ginger tea today at work and found that the steam from the kettle helped ease my breathing/soothe my lungs somehow. So when I got home from work, I sat down with a pan of steaming water and a towel, and sat inhaling the steam for a good while.

Oh my god. How has it taken me this long? It's AMAZING. It's so relaxing. I felt as if I was falling asleep, and my breathing was much easier. I wish I could walk around all day with my head under a steam-filled towel, it would make so many things simpler. (Although perhaps not all. Crossing the street, say.)

I am a definite convert to the steam. Plus it's all lovely for my skin as well. Double bonus. Have you got any favourite home remedies for a cough?

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Little things

Thank you for your kind comments on my posts!

As my working days have continued to be long and tiring, I've had little energy for new projects at home, but have savoured all the more the elements of a simple life which are already built into my surroundings.

The flower seeds I sowed last week have germinated with a much higher success rate than the herbs earlier this month - the sunflowers in particular are racing upwards and will very soon need planting up. The herbs are just about showing their first pair of true leaves - although several oregano seedlings feel afoul of a pest I identified thanks to t'internet as fungus gnat larvae, which I suspect are due to overwatering. (When I noticed the dead seedlings and the transparent wormy-thinks, and then found out what they were, I became a bit paranoid and spent longer than is healthy stooped over my seedlings with a tissue in one hand and a wooden toothpick in the other, removing and squishing all the larvae I could see.)

Though the days are warming up, the evenings are still cool. Most of the blankets are now in the linen cupboard but this one is draped over the back of the sofa. It makes me smile everytime I see it. This is the first blanket I ever made. There is a bit of a story - when my mother was little, she started making a crochet blanket to give to her grandmother. She never finished it - she gave her grannie a bag of squares, the rest of the yarn and the pattern - so making up a whole blanket with the pattern felt like finishing something inherited. It's mostly made from scraps from never-finished projects which I carried up to uni with me, all different weights of wool and totally different colours, but I love it.

My knitting and cross-stich tablecloth embroidery sit by the sofa in their new basket, which means they are tidily collected together but easily to hand if I feel up to a bit of crafting in the evenings. Somehow, I've still been able to put aside a few bits and bobs (spare coffee mugs we never use etc) for decluttering, and every day I am grateful for Project 333, as staying on top of the laundry and ironing, as well as getting dressed every morning, is kept manageable.

Finally, the daily tasks of doing the washing up and making the bed keep me grounded, reminding me that the stress at work is (hopefully) transient while the rhythms of home and family go on. (Don't ask that me about the rest of the housework.) 

How about you? What is making you smile today?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Long time no see

Did ya miss me?

I've been offline for a while - it has been supremely busy at work, and by that I mean working until 9 or 10 or later. It's going to be very busy for another two or three weeks, so I may only be posting intermittently in that period. Please bear with me!

Scandinavian-inspired cross stitch snowflakes to edge a new tablecloth

The busier I get at work, the more and more I value in particular my weekends as time when I can really slow down. Getting out of the house for walks, reading an actual physical book (The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot) over pots of tea and indulging in some embroidery really help me recharge my batteries, as does spending some really quality time with my boyfriend and catching up with friends and family by phone or over a coffee.

Herb seedlings

I've mentioned before that when you work long hours in a fast-paced job, things that 'make themselves' are particularly valuable. Soaking dirty whites in baking soda, for example, or hanging laundry on a line, or leaving bread to rise or yoghurt to incubate. After an initial investment of only a few minutes, you have the satisfaction of knowing that even while you are working or sleeping, these activities are ongoing. It helps me feel that home and work life are not totally incompatible. My seedlings have been brilliant in this regard - after the initial planting one evening after supper, my only investment is a splash of water as I rotate the tray each evening, and I get the enormous fun of checking to see how they are growing. The basil is growing the most enormous leaves, the oregano are all unfurling a second pair of tiny leaflets and the one lavender seat that has germinated is racing upwards at an almost alarming rate. At what point should I pot these on?

Wooden bowl/cheese board with coconut oil

How about you? What are your favourite tasks that do themselves?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Grow your own solar panels

Only a few days, and the basil is positively bursting upwards. I am now turning the tray every day to prevent the seedlings from growing wonky, and I am always amazed by how quickly they turn their surprisingly broad leaves towards the fun - nature's solar panels, turning sunlight into energy. It's very exciting, I shall need to find something in which to pot them on.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Project 333: Month Two

I've completed the second month of Project 333 and am now into the third. I have not only managed to stay at 33 items, I've actually gone down - the blue jumper I knitted went in, prompting a black shirt that coordinated with almost none of my other clothes to go out. And then I got sick of tugging at my pink strappy top, because the top rides down and the bottom rides up, so that went into the bag for Les Petits Riens. Now I lack a colourful strappy top, but I can't actually remember if I own one, so I will wait and see what comes out of the basement in a month's time.

This is not at all a hardship, and I am finding that the conversations I have about my clothes go something like this:

"Ooh new top?"

"No, old top"

"Well, it looks lovely."

My favourite was a colleague asking if my trousers were new - they are the same trousers my parents bought for me when I went into the sixth form at the age of 16. I've occasionally had to mend a seam or adjust the length, but washed and pressed they still look very smart. Shows the value of good-quality clothes and durable fabric, I think. In fact, it's become something of a game - see which clothes I can make colleagues think are new simply by pressing them neatly and wearing them proudly.

However, as I move into the third month, I'm not finding new creative combinations any more and I am really feeling that the 33 items I chose limited this - although perhaps that's a bad workwoman blaming her tools? I am going to try to increase the number of combinations in my next 33. At present, there are quite a few items of clothing that can only go with one or two others, and in the playground of my wardrobe, everyone should be able to play together.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Dangerous thoughts

Ooo-er. Should I? Dare I?

I have been lamenting the lack of decently-sized allotment gardens in this part of the city for some time. There are a few teeny tiny ones down at the local collective garden, but less than a metre square and only two or three of them. Not really what I'm looking for.

My next thought was garden sharing - there's a website ( which links up budding gardners with people wanting to share unused garden space. (Note: I have not used the site so cannot comment on its reliability etc). I periodically check but nothing ever comes up this central, it's mostly further out in the suburbs.

But a chance discovery informed me that Brussels Environment - an organisation that covers a range of environment-related activities here from maintaining the public parks to running information campaigns promoting seasonal eating to collecting and composting the city's Christmas trees every January - offers 'family gardens' (ie decent-sized allotments) in various nature reserves, one of which is just at the edge of the city and served by a bus route. And the waiting list is only six months.


I think this is one of those times when I need to hold myself back - I've only just planted the first seedlings of my container garden on the balcony, so it would probably be a good idea to build some confidence and test my commitment with that before taking on an allotment garden I would need to visit every weekend.

But it's very very tempting...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Blogs: Simple living inspirations

I have realised that my blog does not accurately reflect my inspirations. A recent comment from a reader about how great a fan I seem to be about a particular blogger gave me a moment of pause - because in fact I don't follow that particular blogger. I thought this blog should better reflect my influences, by perhaps taking a moment to tell you why they inspire me.

We all need simple living inspiration - blog porn that we can drool over while we ignore our humdrum, cluttered, modern surroundings. It helps us to articulate where we're going and how we're going to get there. There are a huge number, many of which I am only just discovering, but I wanted to share some of my favourites. As I have quite a few, I'm breaking them down - some blogs I go to for the crafting, some for the recipes, some for home beauty treatments, some for budgeting tips, some because I really relate to their journeys. Here are three of my favourite blogs for thought- (or envy-) provoking posts and inspirational pictures, reminding me of the life I want to lead.

You can't really talk about simple living blogs without mentioning Rhonda's blog Down to Earth, it's almost an institution. Her gentle musings on the meaning of simple living, the joys to be found in your own home, and the important things in life; her encouragement of people starting out on this journey; and her simple tutorials for getting started - whether baking bread, making soap, using green cleaners or brewing ginger beer - are a godsend for the wannabe simple-liver. My sister has just bought me Rhonda's first book for my birthday - but it's waiting in the UK for our next meeting so I can only bite my fingernails with anticipation.

Purple Pear Farm -

Kate and her partner Mark live on their farm in Australia raising animals and plants and kids, not necessarily in that order. Enough land (and commitment) to take on the challenge of raising animals is a long way away for me but I really enjoy the peeps that Kate offers into the running of their farm, from organising birthday parties (oh how I wish I was ten again so I could have one of their parties!) to moving pigs from one area to another. Kate's blog makes me wish we were neighbours so I could ask her over to help me out with a difficult gardening challenge, or an epic jam-making session, or just a knitting bee.

Soule Mama -
Amanda Blake Soule's blog is the ultimate visual feast, if like me you cannot get enough of pictures of quilting and knitting, home dairying and whatever happens to be on the kitchen table at the time. And they have sheep about to lamb! If planting seedlings is so exciting, what must your first lambs feel like? It's reassuring that even someone as far along their journey as Amanda still has new things to discover, but mostly I just love the colours and textures of her home and family life.

Monday, March 10, 2014

It's ALIVE!!!


Can you see? CAN YOU SEE? Two teeny tiny little oregano seedlings. They weren't there last night, but in the last 24 hours - poof! Magic! Life appears.

Can you tell I'm a little bit excited about this? Just a little bit.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

My weekend in pictures

The first time the laundry can dry outside

The supermarket coriander pot (cheaper than buying it cut) in a new pot from the brocante yesterday

My current knitting project in its new home - basket from the brocante

New milk jug from the brocante! For ages I've been wishing I had something like this so the milk didn't sit out of the fridge for ages when there's a pot of tea or coffee on the go. Isn't it purdy?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Permaculture in pots

When I bought my first ever batch of vegetable seeds, I hadn't put any thought into designing my balcony garden. My focus was on reducing my epic wishlist to something a little more manageable.

However, since my seeds have arrived, I have started putting a little more thought into how and where I am going to plant them, and this has led me to think about the design of my little corner slightly differently.

I am not very familiar with the principles of permaculture but I have generally associated them with rather larger-scale enterprises than mine. Moreover, my record with plants is not great - what is the opposite of green-fingered? - and I'd rather start small and build up, so embracing sophisticated new systems seemed just another complication.

However, I've been doing a little reading and a little browsing and I'm intrigued by the permaculture design priciples, and by some of the examples of applying them to even a single planted pot (Exhibit A). It is most definitely possible to encorporate at least some - if not all - of these in a balcony garden. I've done a little musing and a little research, and slowly my end-goal is taking shape, along with a clear set of slow and simple stages to take me from here to there.

One of the things I am particularly excited about including is biodiversity. At first I thought that there could not be any wildlife up here, several stories up in a built-up area. But it seems that insects can cover a wide surface area, there are several parks within a few km of my flat and I know of at least one bee hive within bee-flying range, so my flat could definitely attract bees if it had the right plants. While soil in pots will surely never be as diverse as that in the ground, there's no reason I can't make my little balcony a wayside inn for insects travelling between green spaces.

I already had some bee-friendly plants in my list - lavender being the best example - but I thought I should maybe think about improving my balcony's appeal to wildlife.

One of the principles of permaculture is to create a yield. At first glance, that means a crop such as beetroot or radishes, but the more I think about this, the more different kinds of 'yield' I am identifying. There's the fun of this whole adventure, experimenting with plants I have never tried before. There's the development of skills to care for and manage a range of plants. There's the improved aesthetic of my little outdoor corner, something I will definitely appreciate on warm weekends. And why can't flowers be a yield or a crop just by themselves? Whether enjoyed outdoors, cut for a vase or for a gift, or even eaten, there are clearly many ways to benefit from growing flowers.

That's me convinced. I've put in another seed order for a few bee-friendly flowers, favouring those which are edible in some way (homegrown sunflower seeds, anyone?) and trying to include a range of plants of different heights - some bushier, some tall, some ground-cover.

By planting mixtures of flowers, herbs and vegetables together, I will be able to create tiny little modules of biodiversity. I hope to add some sort of improved birdbath as well (still mulling on the best way to do this).

I think that's definitely taking on enough for the first year, although the temptation to keep adding another plant or concept here and there is very tempting. There are several steps - such as growing heirloom plants and saving seeds, or making my own compost from kitchen scraps - that I definitely want to try and will make the whole endeavour more cyclical (and also cheaper in the long-run) but I expect this year will be enough of a challenge as it is.

In the meantime, though, I've had a go at my design for the 'end-point' (or at least an interim point!) and I thought I'd share it with you.

My apologies for the shite drawing - although I hope at least you can tell which are the sunflowers - but I think you get the idea of using height, both the height in the space and the height of plants. There's a minarette apple tree to the right, and climbing plants - perhaps peas and honeysuckle - on the trellis and wire strung either side of the concrete pillar (which is otherwise just a block to sunlight). There's a flat bit on the right of the apple tree pot which is supposed to be a shallow pool of water tucked in between some bee-attracting plants. This is obviously a long way off, and there's more balcony I haven't tried to capture, but on the whole I'm very pleased with what I've mocked up. This is just the beginning of my permaculture design journey, after all!

(By the way, it's only just occurred to me that learning about permaculture principles and practicing them by applying them to my balcony is also another 'yield' from this exercise - as is my growing enthusiasm!)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Pots pots pots, or Container Gardening: Episode 1

As you may know, I have just bought a sample of seeds to start off my balcony garden. They arrived and I couldn't resist any longer - I planted some seeds after dinner this evening. SO EXCITING! I really really hope some of them will germinate. The next few weeks will be a little nerve-wracking.

As I don't compost my kitchen waste, I had to buy in the potting compost but I really didn't like the idea of buying plastic seed trays. A bit of googling threw up this fabulous tutorial on how to make seed pots from the inside of a toilet roll. I dug out all the toilet roll inners from the paper recycling and planted a selection of seeds.

Contrary to my expectations, the pots were super super quick and easy to put together. They're not perfect and some are uneven or a bit wobbly but they all seem to be standing up quite happily. The cardboard also seems to be great for wicking moisture up towards the top of the planting medium. The biggest hassle was trying to avoid spilling the teeny tiny seeds.

I will most definitely keep you posted on any visible progress here in the coming weeks. One thing is for sure, though - I am going to need more toilet roll.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ha ha!


As regular visitors may know, I have been struggling with this chaotic pile of spare stationary for a while. Tired A4 binders rubbed shoulders with beautiful unused notebooks and spare birthday cards, while the odd bookmark floated around:

Only a few hours ago, this is what it looked like. Now there is space... So much so that the assortment of spare screws, nuts and bolts next to it now looks like an eyesore.

This has been an area I've struggled with for a while. I feel it is wasteful to discard items I may need, and storing these could save me the purchase cost. On the other hand, this is clearly clutter of the worst kind - I trigger a minor landslide every time I need an envelope. I've dithered and dithered and dithered, and some reason today I just suddenly felt ready to tackle it.

One of the reasons I was holding onto this was even though I don't exactly get through a folder a month, I knew I needed a new organisational system for my paperwork. It was all a big higgledypiggledy and I needed to sort through, set up a system that kept important, archived documents somewhere safe and out of the way, and files I need to access regularly somewhere easy to reach. I didn't want to discard the files until I had sorted this out.

I divided this up into two stages - stage one was the paperwork filing system rework and stage two the stationery pile. I sorted the paperwork a couple of weeks ago, so no longer feel I need most of this. Following advice from you lovely people, I have divided the surplus into two piles - one for practical stationery and one for pretty things (notepaper I was given at the age of 12 and is no longer appropriate, postcards I picked up on my travels etc). The first will go to Les Petits Riens - I don't know if they can use it but if they can't no one in Brussels can - and the second will probably go to one of the local creches.

I am of course keeping some things - I am keeping the unused notebooks, some of which may be included in gifts and some of which I may use. (Anything not used by this time next year goes, though.) I am keeping envelopes and jiffy bags, which can be costly and which I use to send gifts and letters to the UK, and I am keeping nice birthday and Christmas cards. Craft tools (paintbrushes etc) have been collected into a box that was seeking a purpose.

The rest is gone - and now I have space! I must confess, it has already been partially invaded by stuff that's been lying around the living room, but that does mean I feel the gain in space in a room I use everyday rather than a cupboard used intermittently.

What's amazing to me about this is how challenging I found it for so many days when I wanted to tackle it - but suddenly one day I came home and just did it, after work and while dinner was cooking. It was so easy.

Now, how can I hold on to that feeling and build some more momentum?

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The tiny apartment

This post is part of a series on homes that inspire me, as part of mulling over what my dream house looks like and to help motivate my decluttering. Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

So far, most of the homes I've shared with you have been purpose-built, painstakingly designed and constructed with intention, reflecting the values and practices of the people living in them. Many are designed to make efficient use of limited space, with clever hidden storage.

Today, I am looking at the experiences of a young couple living in a rented city flat. And somehow they've made it so beautiful, I'm looking at the pictures feeling deeply envious at the sense of simplicity they've created.

These experiences are documented in by Erin in her blog - reading my tea leaves - which includes a running list (93 and counting) of survival tips for tiny apartments. I thoroughly recommend taking a dive into the archives of this, I'm finding it very interesting food for thought. There are a few points that have really resonated with me:

White. White everywhere. White walls, white doors, white cupboards, white sheets on the bed. I always used to think white was boring, that I didn't like spaces painted white. Between Erin's flat and Carmella's cabin, I'm realising that white means a calmer, more coherent background against which your best-loved items just sing.

Even cleaning tools should be aesthetically pleasing. This is something of a revelation for me - of course! Why shouldn't you have scrubbing brushes with an elegance and simplicity, instead of a cracked neon yellow plastic monstrosity?

Things are more fixable than you think. I'm embarrassingly nervous about DIY - I've never done it and I'm terrified of doing it wrong, even painting a table would freak me out, but Erin is clearly the kind of person who rolls up her sleeves and gets to work with the screwdriver/paintbrush/etc. This is definitely something I want to challenge myself to have a go at... if only I knew where to start...

And finally - I really need to clean my windows.

Pictures from used by kind permission.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Slow Living 2014 - February

This year I am again joining Christine over at Slow Living Essentials in her monthly stocktaking. February has been a bit of a rollercoaster, as you may be able to tell - I'm loving the gradual building up of the slower, simpler life - the way I can encorporate new skills and new routines into my life - but am finding the conflict with my job frustratingly difficult to manage. 

{NOURISH} Yoghurt! This month I experimented with making my own yoghurt and found it so easy and so fun that it's fitting in very easily and naturally with my routines. I have taken your advice to make two or three jars at a time - they last a week or two just fine in the fridge, and it means I only need to make yoghurt once a fortnight or so. Plus it's so much cheaper! Homemade yoghurt is around €1.28 per litre, while the shop-bought was costing me around €3.36 per litre. Big difference - if I eat around half a litre of yoghurt a week, making my own yoghurt for a year would save me about €50. Not bad...

{PREPARE} Not much here, I'm afraid... What can I preserve this time of year?

{REDUCE} Making my own yoghurt has meant reusing glass jars, so one less glass jar and plastic lid in the recycling/landfill every week. I've also kept the various things I dropped and broke this winter - a pie dish, a plate, an oven dish - to use in the base of pots when I plant things up later this spring.

{GREEN} Not much progress here either - I still use mostly homemade cleaners and beauty products, our heating has only been turned on three times this winter (all occassions purely for the benefit of guests) and our electricity usage is less than half the average for comparable households (young couple, no kids, in appartment), at least according to our energy supplier. I'm not really sure what I could do from here - any suggestions?

{GROW} I BOUGHT SEEDS!!!! Hahahaha... Progress on this, finally! I'm so excited. I still need to get the actual pots and the potting compost, but I should be able to plant something in March. I decided to order online from a UK supplier, largely because I know the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society (who have a fabulously useful website) is a good bet for beginners. It's awarded to plants that grow reliably without being too fussy about growing conditions or being prone to particular problems. I hope to be self-sufficient in radishes by the end of April. (Mine is a small dream.)

{CREATE} Much going on here, as always! Finished the blue cardigan, now already stuck into a scarf for a colleague, with birthday makes lined up.

{DISCOVER} It might sound naff, but I feel that the growing daylight hours feel a bit like a discovery. It's so cool and I'm not sure I have ever been so acutely aware of the extra minutes of light, the extra mood boost from a few minutes of sun. It's been drawing me outdoors more, to rediscover the city I live in.

{ENHANCE} Really enjoyed my father's visit at the end of February - it's so rewarding to spend time together just chatting, and we had a good laugh and a long walk in the sunshine, both things I desperately needed after a tough week at work.

{ENJOY} Barring the last week of the month - always a tough one at work - I am, you know. I really am enjoying all of it. Even the ironing and the washing up. Life is good when you let yourself live it. (Note: must remind self of this in last week of month.)

If this month had a motto, it was 'turn your face to the sun' - seek the joy and the warmth and the welcome.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A very welcome guest

It's been a very full and uplifting weekend - one I really, really needed. A lovely visit from my father, with a trips out to Leuven and a long walk through the forest at the edge of Brussels and endless cups of tea. Plus I get to trot out my favourite blanket for the spare bed.

I really enjoy having guests. It's also lovely getting the flat back, and being able to do all those little domestic tasks which you put on the back burner while you have visitors, but I love having people to stay. Making the bed, preparing the room, stocking up on nice food to give them, being able to offer homemade blankets and breakfast cereal and yoghurt and so on, and taking them around to different parts of Belgium, with medieval cities and beautiful forests and old churches and lots of Belgian beer!

It's remarkable how much of a difference a month makes - we last went to the forest a month or so ago, and in that time the most obvious change is the sound - before it was still and quiet, and now it's full of birdsong. Everywhere you looked was at first glance still winter-bound and barren but a second glance revealed buds along the branches of trees promising a burst of colour shortly. I reckon in another couple of weeks the leaves and first flowers will be appearing.

And you? What did you get up to over the weekend?


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