Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Slow but mobile?

After a year in the UK, I'm now back in Brussels for a brief stint. It feels really good to be back! 

I don't know if it's the time of year or something about Brussels, but here I am, reviving the blog and seeking some slowness again. I think you feel you can have a slow life in Brussels, while London doesn't allow for that possibility. Here, there are more parks. You can walk to work. There are farmers' markets in every square. The main thing though is the size - it no longer takes forever to get from A to B, and you can genuinely ring up some friends on Saturday evening to propose a dinner party and be sitting down together within the hour.

There are some aspects of this life I can dive straight back into. Seasonal cooking! I've been squashing (see what I did there) as many different variants of pumpkin into my recipes as I can, and discovering new types along the way. (Spaghetti pumpkin - so easy, so yummy, so versatile...)

But many other aspects are harder to embrace when you find yourself changing jobs, home and even country every 6 to 12 months, which is the situation I am currently in. I absolutely love my job, both what I am doing now and the future prospects it offers, but the scheme I am on gives me no control over where I go and no ability to plan ahead. I get rotated every six months, and I am told 6-8 weeks beforehand where I will go next.

This means that things involving long time-periods (like brewing fruit wine), or space for storage (like homemade jam) or equipment (like a sewing machine) or bulky ingredients (like soap-making) are pretty much out. It does not make sense logistically, financially or for my sanity to lug large quantities of oil and lye around.

The one thing I have brought with me is my knitting. Needles do not take up much space, and I no longer have a stash of wool. 

But all the oh so many things I really want to do - and which I could very feasibly do in terms of time if I were living here longer - just don't make sense. A fruit tree in a pot - what do I do with it when I leave? Build a small worm-compost box - ditto.

How do you manage this compromise? Any ideas for more mobile simplicity?

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Where have you been all my life?

My efforts at simple living 'last time around', before I left for London, now seem to be to involve huge amounts of research and effort for small things. Where - WHERE - could one buy a bottle brush? Or fuller's earth? Or a handy basket? Or a cheesecloth? 

The basic equipment and ingredients were so hard to find. But in the time I was gone, dear Brussels, you went and got yourself not one but two branches of Dille & Kamille.

I mostly know the brand because their cloth bags seem the latest hipster accessory. They are EVERYWHERE here. Which put me off slightly, but then I ended up on their website (I forget why) and I realised that I HAD to come at my earliest opportunity.

I went today. There's shelves and shelves of different kinds of brushes. Liquid and hard soaps, candles, cooking implements, jam jars and bottles... I was in paradise. 

Friday, September 9, 2016

The things that matter

My mother is in hospital recovering from open-heart surgery. It's been a long, long week, most of it spent at the hospital.

I am grateful that my mother is doing well.

I am grateful to her fabulous surgeons.

I am grateful for the hospital cafe providing injections of tea and sugar.

I am grateful I have my sister with me, that neither of us has to walk this path alone.

I am grateful for the people I love who flood me with texts and calls.

I am grateful for home, a place to come back to and rest at the end of each day.

I am grateful to work for someone who urges me to work from home, take the day off, go to the hospital and don't worry about the deadlines.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Living well and with style without breaking the bank: "Orchids on your budget"

After an adventurous year with a new city, new career and many new challenges, I've been reflecting on what simple living means to me now.

The importance of living well on a budget, setting money aside to save for future goals and rainy days, is as important as ever. The career move I made last year meant moving to a more expensive city at the same time as taking a significant salary cut in order to 'start again' at entry level. Budgeting has become more challenging.

At the same time, the opportunities that this move has offered me in terms of building relationships and seeking new experiences - growing and developing as a person professionally, intellectually, creatively and emotionally - are immense. I want to take full advantage of them, of this moment in my life, but I have even less resources (time and money) at my disposal.

Many of the examples, blogs and books I have looked to in the last years demonstrate the importance and value of taking time out of the 'rat race', the value in reconnecting with the slower rhythms of the natural world rather than the rapid movements of popular culture. But much as I am drawn to many of these, and can often find elements to incorporate into my approach, it's hard to get away from the idea that they don't quite fit the moment I am in life. 

I know I'm oversimplifying, but it often feels that I am looking at a model of 'leaning out' of modern life - a move from urban to rural, from ambitious careerism to putting work second, an emphasis on time-intensive crafts and home-cooking. In a word, old-fashioned (and I don't mean that at all pejoratively, but as an approach which rediscovers and celebrates what sometimes forgotten or abandoned skills and tasks can offer us today.) 

What I am increasingly looking for is a model of simple living that enables me to 'lean in' - follow my professional ambitions, enjoy the best of city life without losing touch with country pleasures, and to live not just inexpensively but also with style. I want to be able to enjoy the high cultures of the city and the sports of the countryside, to present myself well at the office and enjoy feeling chic in my down-time, and to enjoy international travel today without making it impossible tomorrow.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have found a book which exactly bridges this gap. Which reaffirms the importance of budgeting, living below your means in order to save, and of exploring inexpensive pleasures. And which also argues it is possible to do all of this, and still have 'orchids', or rather to incorporate some luxuries into your life. 

"Orchids on your budget; Live smartly on what you have" was written in 1937, advising the ladies of New York that a reduced income doesn't mean they have to give up all hopes of being well-dressed, of entertaining in style and having the occasional orchids. The author, Marjorie Hillis, was assistant editor of Vogue and seems to have been a fascinating woman.

In many ways the advice offered is not new, and will be very familiar to many of us. Focus on big expenditures like what you pay for your home, and prioritise either size or location, but not both. Down-size and declutter as much as you can. Decorate using second-hand items, homemade bits, finds from thrift stores, and make it chic using a simple colour scheme. Look after your clothes, make sure they are properly maintained, cleaned and mended. Learn to cook well using inexpensive, local or seasonal ingredients.

The difference is that she focuses on style, panache, glamour. On building a wardrobe that is easy to maintain and chic, for example. She advises reading fashion magazines as you would an exam textbook to distil the key trends and using that to add a few inexpensive touches (eg an accessory rather than a full suit) to a capsule wardrobe so you look up to date without spending much on clothes you won't get much wear out of. 

Most of all, I loved the tone of the book, the witty and acerbic voice of Marjorie Hillis advising me to make good use of what I have, rather than complaining that I can't have more. My favourite quote is on her advice that everyone should have a hobby, should seek interesting things rather than waiting for them to find you: "Be a Communist, a stamp collector, or a Ladies’ Aid worker if you must, but for heaven’s sake, be something." For another taste of her 'voice', there's a good article on her earlier book "Live alone and like it" here

I enjoyed the independent, forward-thinking approach to women in the workplace - Marjorie Hillis also wrote a guide to 'spare women' on how to 'Life alone and like it', and urges women to see how they can earn something to support themselves or help the household budget go further, whether by going out to work or making use of their skills and resources in the home. One chapter is entitled 'Can you afford a husband?' - her sense of humour is apparent throughout.

She argues a lot is in attitude - the importance of enthusiasm, of creating fun for yourself and others rather than dwelling on what you wish you had, comes back again and again throughout the book. It's a fantastic complement to what has been written about slowing down, budgeting and 'making do and mending', but with added glitz. For anyone worried that living on a budget means giving up too much, this is a great source of tips for living glamorously on a shoestring.


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