Pondering the lives of others and finding a sense of gratitude

Due to my natural sense of curiosity about other people and the way they live, I often muse about who might live in the homes that I pass each day while walking my daughter to and from school. I pass varied types of dwelling, from the small, compact prefabs (hurriedly built just after WW2 in the 1940s that were only intended to provide temporary accommodation to the thousands of people displaced during the war years yet are still standing strong) to larger family homes.

I often pass more mature and elderly people tending to their gardens, many of whom seem keen to exchange a smile, sometimes a few words and they often like to coo over the baby. I sometimes wonder whether they live alone, perhaps they always have done or are widowed after decades of living happily with their soul mate? Perhaps they have grown-up children that they see regularly, or who have spread their wings far and emigrated abroad? I ponder over what they did to earn a living when they were younger. Of course I don’t know these people well enough to ask the questions, but I can’t help but wonder just the same.

Social history has always fascinated me, particularly from WW1 onwards. I enjoy reading novels set in 1930s and 1940s England, mostly ones featuring ordinary life for working class or middle class families. When I’m finding things particularly challenging whilst caring for my three (albeit mostly delightful) children aged five and under, it sometimes helps to think how much tougher it must have been for women a few generations ago, without the conveniences we now take for granted. I can scarcely imagine daily life without a dishwasher, washing machine, microwave and all the other appliances which help make daily life run smoothly and efficiently.

A couple of years ago, I was fascinated to stumble across an article in our local newspaper about VE Day celebrations in our town of Ipswich. Our road was mentioned by name and there was a small black and white photo (see below) of a street party taking place on our road, from the looks of it right outside our house! The celebratory food on the tables is pretty humble fare, mostly sandwiches and simple cakes such as jam tarts, due to the fact that food was scarce and rationing still in force in the UK at that point. Somehow, though, I suspect that the sense of overwhelming relief and joy these ordinary people had that war was over more than made up for the basic food spread.

DSCN0017

Naturally, seeing that photo sent my mind into overdrive, trying to imagine who was living in our house during the war, imagining them having to dash out to an air raid shelter in the back garden in the middle of the night perhaps? Wondering where their nearest small grocery shop would have been, where they would have walked daily to shop for simple foods to be eaten the same day due to the absence of a fridge, let alone a freezer. Picturing them anxiously picking up letters from the same spot as our own doormat currently is, to see if they contained news about a loved one fighting overseas in the armed forces during WW2.

Although our home has been extended (it is a chalet bungalow extended both to the rear and with a bedroom and bathroom added into the loft space), it was originally a modest 2 bedroom detached bungalow. These days, bungalows are particularly popular with elderly people, but back in 1938 when our home was built, it was common for large families to squeeze into small homes so there could easily have been a family living here.

Taking a little time to think about the lives of others, especially those who face more obvious hardship, somehow makes me feel better about my own situation. This sounds a little mean and selfish, I know, but it isn’t as if I wished the hardship on anyone else and I use it to remind myself to stop getting dragged down by what are relatively insignificant things. When I find myself inwardly groaning at the prospect at loading the washing machine with yet another load of clothes, I can remind myself that at least we are privileged enough to own a washing machine and don’t have to wash all of our clothes by hand as our great-grandparents would have. Also, being a bit of an introvert who craves a bit of personal space, I am very glad indeed that I don’t have to live in a tiny home with 8 or more children (even, gasp, without an inside toilet) as was pretty standard a few generations ago.

So really, I end up with a deep sense of gratitude for all that I have and appreciation for everything present in my life that makes it easier. There’s a lot to be said for wanting and appreciating the life that we already have, rather than focusing on everything that we don’t have and desire.

Do you also have this sense of curiosity about other people and how they live? Perhaps a more apt name for it is plain and simple ‘nosiness’! I prefer to see it as taking a healthy interest in the world around me though 😉

 

 

My time living in Italy and an introduction to the ‘bella figura’ concept

As an eighteen year old, I decided to take the opportunity during my gap year before starting university to spend time in Italy as an au-pair for seven months. Italy had long held an allure, based on what I had seen on travel programmes on TV, the sound of the language (not that I’d ever had a single Italian lesson, mind), not to mention that pizza, pasta and ice cream were amongst my very favourite foods.

It was an incredible experience to spend seven months in il bel paese and immerse myself into the lifestyle. It was certainly the experience that really opened my eyes to ways of living a more chic existence through incorporating a number of small yet significant changes into my daily life.

The family I stayed with didn’t have a typical set up from an au-pairing perspective; they owned a hotel on a promontory almost completely surrounded by the sea and took residence on the top floor. The family comprised three generations- the seven-year-old boy I had to look after and teach English, his parents and the paternal grandmother, great aunt and uncle. Although an au-pair typically lives with her host family, I was allocated a room in a small annexe on the hotel site. Alas, it was on the ground floor so was missing the incredible sea views that the family enjoyed, but I could hardly complain as the sea was virtually on my doorstep. The hotel was located on the edge of a large, historic town full of beautiful old buildings, quaint cobbled streets, a cathedral and a harbour- see the photo above. Yes, I felt sure  that I’d chosen a great placement the day that I arrived!

It’s true that I’m a little introverted and tend to avoid large group situations and most very noisy places, but had to overcome these natural tendencies as I found the Italians in general to be very sociable people who love large gatherings with family or friends. Perhaps because of the groups often being large and needing to be heard, people often spoke quite loudly and gesticulated with their hands a lot. I found the gesticulating with hands to emphasis points quite endearing and found myself doing it too, after a while! Despite my natural preferences I was pretty grateful that the Italians are a sociable and welcoming bunch on the whole because it made it easier for me to pick up the language, make friends and build up a social life, without which my time there would have been pretty lonely.

The same day that I arrived, after unpacking my belongings, I was invited to join the family to ‘fare la passeggiata‘ – this transpired to be a late afternoon/ early evening walk around the neighbourhood. It didn’t take long before I realised that everybody else seemed to be out doing the very same thing- this daily walk was a chance to socialise (as various friends and often extended family members would be encountered during the stroll) and everyone made an effort to present their best self. Even though the majority of people had probably been at work all day and they would just be heading back to their own homes for dinner after the passeggiata rather than to a restaurant, they all looked very smart, with women wearing either dresses, skirts or a nice blouse with trousers or jeans. Men invariably wore shirts or polo shirts with trousers or smart jeans, no shorts. A lot of women wore a noticeable amount of jewellery- not in an excessively flashy way, but enough to be noticed. The shoes that people wore were smart, mostly leather rather than trainers. Even though it was the end of the day everyone’s hair looked immaculate so they had probably re-done it specially before leaving for their walk.

I can’t deny that this experience of ‘fare la passeggiata’ was quite an eye-opener for me, who was still wearing a printed sundress more for daywear than evening wear (and not the sort of dress I spotted the Italian ladies wearing). I felt distinctly underdressed and wished I had made more of an effort with my hair (more than a little windswept from not having been brushed since that morning) and worn a bit of jewellery. Still, at least I knew for next time!

This evening passeggiata was my introduction to the Italian concept of creating ‘la bella figura‘, loosely translated as ‘looking one’s best’ or making a positive first impression and extends to putting one’s best face forward in any situation. Kristi Belle explains this concept and much more about living an Italian lifestyle in her wonderful book. I would highly recommend a read of it if it interests you.

There will be more posts about my experience of life in Italy and what I learned about how Italian women create la bella figura. Please add your email to the box on the right to follow my blog and be notified of future posts —>

 

Hair colouring and styling on a modest budget

Nothing beats that wonderful feeling of just having had your hair done and walking out of the salon knowing that your hair looks its best, does it?

Every now and again I decide that I am bored with my hair colour. I can’t claim to have ever changed to particularly exciting or wacky shades, and the pattern seems to be that in the summer I enjoy my hair being a dark brown shade when my skin darkens a little. Then when my skin pales in the autumn, I find that going a lighter, blonde shade is more flattering and I look less ‘washed out’ than I do with dark hair over the winter.

When I used to get a full head of highlights in a hair salon, I was usually pleased with the end result but found it a less pleasurable experience to pay a huge sum at the end. When your hair is classed as ‘long’, which generally includes anything below shoulder-length, you generally get charged more (I guess due to extra long lengths of foils being used and it taking a little longer to carry out). I found that £80-£100 was pretty standard to be charged, especially if I was having a trim as well.

Now, I appreciate that hairdressers often do a great job and have to earn a living, and when I was earning a full time salary I didn’t mind paying that price (too much). However, now that I am a stay-at-home-mum only working a few hours a week in private tuition, we have less money coming into the house and it makes sense to cut back on discretionary spending such as hair and beauty treatments.

In our town, there is a further education college that runs hairdressing courses. There are two levels of study: NVQ2 and NVQ3. The NVQ2 is the basic level of hairdressing qualification and towards the end of it, from April-June, the students have almost qualified so I am happy by then to book in for a hair colour treatment. Even better though, the NVQ3 students have already passed the NVQ2 level of study and many of them already work in salons as hairdressers – they may have their sights set on becoming a salon manager or acquiring additional skills in hairdressing to add to their bows. I must admit that for something as skilled as highlighting, especially as I have long hair and sometimes ask for two or even three colours to be woven in at once, I tend to ask for an NVQ3 student to carry it out. When you call your local college hairdressing department you can ask when the NVQ3 classes are to ensure you book for one of those if it’s your preference.

The main benefit of having your hair done by a student is obviously the low price. On my below shoulder length hair, even with 2 different colours woven in I don’t pay more than £25. If the student who does my hair does a good job and/or has a friendly, pleasant manner, I make a point of slipping them a tip too, mindful that they are students (or recently qualified hairdressers).

Understandably, lots of people are rather horrified at the prospect of a lesser qualified person setting to work on their precious tresses. There’s no need to be afraid, though. Overseeing every class is a tutor, who I have found without exception to be very exacting and sets high expectations of the students. She checks over the initial consultation and will voice any concerns she has before the colour etc is mixed. I have to say that on a few occasions the tutors (who are themselves highly experienced hairdressers) have made some thoughtful and valuable suggestions about my hair, that I hadn’t considered previously and led to a better end result.

So this is all sounding great, right? Getting your hair coloured at a snip of the salon price, are you wondering what the downsides to be mindful of are?

The main one is the additional time to allow for the treatment to take. The nature of the student needing to consult with their tutor at every stage, often having to wait while the tutor is occupied with other students, means there is extra waiting around. Plus of course, the fact that the student is less experienced means that certain procedures such as foils can take them longer to do. Personally though, I am quite happy to sit and read a book or magazine and see it as a treat to get some time to myself!

The second thing to factor in is that colleges only open during term time and have long summer holidays. So from mid June to mid September you probably won’t be able to get yourself booked in there and will need to either wait it out or make alternative hair treatment arrangements.

Still, for myself, the benefits outweigh the inconveniences, especially considering the money I save each time. I enjoy speaking to different students as well, most of whom express gratitude that clients such as myself make the effort to attend the college to get my hair done, as they can’t pass the course without carrying out a certain number of treatments on real people.

Simple trims and cuts I usually ask my mother to do, as well as for simple home dye kids when I apply a whole-hair colour. I should mention that my mother did actually train as a hairdresser many years ago before her current career, but wouldn’t feel comfortable attempting foil highlights as it isn’t a procedure she was ever taught.

Do you spend a lot of money on your hair? Perhaps you would consider giving your local hair college a try, too? If you are a non-UK reader, I imagine that there are similar setups with hairdressing colleges needing members of the public to come in and work on. Perhaps you have your own moneysaving hair tips to share- I would love to hear them.

 

 

Decluttering: how to go about it

Wouldn’t most people agree they feel better when their home contains less rather than more ‘stuff’?

Owning a surplus of personal possessions may well be considered a first world problem, but anyone feeling overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff surrounding them would agree that it can affect their quality of life nonetheless. Incidentally, a large percentage of Europeans on the continent reside in modest apartments so tend to have to be more organised and selective about what they allow through their front door in the first place to enable their compact homes to stay feeling chic and comfortable. I certainly noticed that the homes of Italian friends I made whilst living there were pretty tidy and not overly cluttered.

Having an excess of personal possessions makes it difficult to contain things in their designated storage spaces and leads to a disorganised environment. See my recent post here on organising your home.

Fortunately, I have never been too much of a hoarder and find it relatively easy to let go of most unnecessary items. However, when I read about minimalist living, I realise I’m far away from living a minimalist life. I follow Joshua and Ryan known as ‘The Minimalists’ on their blog at theminimalists.com. It’s all very inspiring reading, if a little extreme for me- one family I read about decided to stop giving any Christmas gifts, even to their children. I know for certain that this would go down like a lead balloon in our household!

It’s amazing how quickly the ‘stuff’ gradually creeps into our home though, slowly disordering the previously organised cupboards, drawers and furniture tops. Once or twice a year I tend to treat decluttering and organisation as a project, setting aside time to work through the rooms in turn until I am satisfied that they are pared back to a level I am comfortable with.

It’s easy to become blind to certain hotspots of clutter that build up in our homes, simply because they are there so much of the time that we cease to notice them. I always remember a great tip that Fiona Ferris suggested in  in one of her wonderful blog posts  is to take a photo of the rooms in your house so that you can view it in an objective way. Trust me, you will soon spot the clutter hotspots in the photos and be motivated to sort them out!

When Marie Kondo’s book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up’ launched in the UK, I couldn’t resist heading out to buy a copy and devoured it all practically in one sitting. Marie has a wonderful way of explaining why it is important to fight the clutter and describes in clear detail her recommended methods of decluttering. When I read it at the time, it did make perfect sense. Her approach is to gather all similar items from around the house together, eg books from all rooms should be brought to one location, then sorted individually by handling each one and asking whether it ‘sparks joy’. If the answer is negative, the object should be discarded.

Although this all made sense in theory, I found it just didn’t work for my family in practise. I found it overwhelming to have a huge pile of books, or clothes or whatever all taken from their usual storage area and felt pressure to get the job done as quickly as possible to restore the order and with young children there are fewer opportunities to get this done, as well as frequent interruptions. I prefer to concentrate on a room at a time and realistically this often means just one cupboard or drawer at a time. Doing it this way gives you an instant boost when you stand back and admire the perfectly organised drawer or cupboard (or is that just me…?). I don’t necessarily remove everything from an area either, but still try to touch each object and make a quick decision as to whether I should keep or discard it.

‘But it might come in useful one day…’

One of the most common stumbling blocks that makes us hang on to items is the thought that we might need them one day, even if we already have plenty of them already. I think it was in Marie’s book (though could be incorrect on this) that I read you can make the deciding rule be: if the item would cost £10 (or equivalent currency) to replace if you ran out, then let go of the excess items you hold. Bear in mind that you are unlikely to have to shell out up to £10 very often on these items in reality if you are contemplating getting rid of them at all- most likely you won’t ever even notice they’ve gone.

I used to have stacks of hand towels, some past their best or really not to my taste, but hung on to them ‘just in case’ I needed them one day. Well, after I read that rule it made it far easier to give myself permission go ahead and get rid of the extra hand towels- I only have five in total now, two of which will always be use in our two bathrooms. It sounds silly, but looking at the clear, uncluttered storage basket where I keep my hand towels gave me a great feeling after I decided to get rid of the extra ones.

Personally, I used to find it difficult to part with my children’s countless drawings and paintings and worried I might regret discarding them when they are grown up. This may strike a chord with other parents. I felt guilty getting rid of them, but trying to store them all was proving overwhelming. Then I read about a solution online: take a photo of each little masterpiece, store digitally with a separate folder per child and subdivided into years. Then you have access to them forever, without taking up precious physical space in your home.

Next issue: where to pass on items to be discarded?

Ever since travelling to Kenya a few years ago and witnessing abject poverty with my own eyes, I gained a fresh perspective on waste. It seems rather criminal to throw unwanted but usable items in the rubbish bin (and on to landfill) if someone else can make use of them. Here in the UK, there are several options to pass on unneeded belongings. Charity shops accept clothes, bags, shoes, often books and other items. There is also Freecycle, where you list most types of items up for grabs on a message board for your local area and folk who can make use of it get in touch. For food products with a reasonable shelf life, food banks located in most supermarkets are always glad of donations to pass on to people struggling to afford enough food. Alternatively, you could explore options to advertise items for sale- your local Gumtree website, Facebook selling sites or Ebay are good starting points. For overseas readers, I’m sure you have similar versions of these organisations that you can get in touch with.

Less really is more. Decluttering an area really does result in a great feeling of satisfaction. I hope this post has inspired you a little to embark on organising your own home if it needs doing?

Please add your email to the ‘follow’ box to the right if you haven’t already for notifications when my twice weekly blog posts are added. Thanks for reading! 🙂

Organise your family’s home: a place for everything…

…and everything it its place. That’s how the saying goes, and it makes total sense to me.

As our family has grown to having three children, so has the influx of ‘stuff’ into our house. Before having children, when I look back I was quite a house-proud person and most of the time found it fairly straightforward to keep the house tidy and in order. Fortunately, my husband was made from a similar mould and is naturally tidy, too.

However since the number of people living at home has expanded, it has become more of a challenge to maintain order, partly because each of our little people have a certain quantity of clothes and toys, and also because they often seem intent on causing mass destruction to the order of our home. Honestly, it has to be seen to be believed just how much chaos three little people can wreak in a very short space of time.

Anyway, the problem was easily identified, what strategies can we apply to resolve it?

Declutter regularly, especially before Christmas and birthdays:

Making some time to regularly go through your home to declutter is important. Just before Christmas and birthdays are particularly pertinent times to do so, as an influx of even more ‘stuff’ is likely to occur on such special occasions.

Toy rotation:

When kids have piles upon piles of toys, it can stop them appreciating (or even noticing) all that they have. We have had success with tucking away some birthday and Christmas gifts in high cupboards, allowing the kids to play with the toys left available to them, then periodically changing which toys are hidden away and which ones left out. Even if they are disappointed to temporarily ‘lose’ particular toys, this is usually overshadowed by the joy of being presented with ‘new’ ones. Of course, it’s best to make the child’s absolute favourite toys that they are attached to available permanently.

Ask family for specific or ‘experience’ gifts:

When Christmas or birthdays approach, relatives often ask if there is anything in particular the kids would like. This is a great opportunity to take stock of what they might really like to be given (it will lighten the load of what you have to buy for them, too). Give them the details of which toys, clothes, books etc would be appreciated with details of where to buy from if necessary.

Another good idea is to ask for ‘experience’ type gifts rather than physical items. Examples of these could be local zoo membership, or classes to something the child particularly enjoys such as gymnastics. This will reduce the amount of things in your home to have to store.

So, once you have decluttered and so pared back your family’s personal possessions to a more manageable quantity, you can set about reviewing your current storage arrangements. Cast a critical eye over cupboards, shelves and other storage spaces. Is the space adequate? Could it be moved to a more logical place?  If storage is is intended for kids, are they able to reach and access it themselves?

When you are happy with the storage places, it is time to give them the best possible chance of staying organised. My secret to this is simple yet effective: labelling.

It was my husband who first introduced me to the humble labelling machine. At first, I though it was a little geeky to be honest, but once I saw the possibilities for helping to keep our home tidy I was won over by it. In case you’ve never seen once before, its a small handheld device which you type words into and can then print off a peelable sticker and apply directly onto the surface to be labelled.

You can see below a couple of examples of areas that have been labelled. The first pic is the back of the understairs cupboard door, where hooks at the kids’ height are labelled ‘winter coats’, ‘bags’ and ‘jackets’. For even younger kids who can’t read, you could take photos of the relevant items to print off for them to identify instead. the second pic is a section of one of my kitchen cupboards, where I used old mushroom containers from the supermarket to store small items then labelled them clearly. Doing this makes stuff more accessible and more likely to be used, too, for example photo albums. We have labelled the spines of our photo albums so can clearly see which holidays etc they relate to so are more likely to pull it out and enjoy looking through.

 

I hope some of these tips were useful to you. If you’re interested in buying a label machine, they are available in office supplies store plus on Amazon.

In my next post I will go into detail about how to declutter your home, sharing the methods that work best for me.

I would love to hear any home organisation tips that you have to share, too.

 

 

‘Dwelling Gawking’ (AKA ‘property porn’)

OK, I’ll confess. There are few things I love more than to be nosey and look inside people’s homes. It seems I’m in good company as many people express a weakness for ‘property porn’ and numerous TV programmes are dedicated to it here in the UK. Perhaps it is something you can’t resist, either?

So when I discovered the website http://www.dwellinggawker.com a number of years ago, I was really pleased. It’s basically a site full of links to homes around round the world, most of them beautiful and inspirational. There are various categories you can search in, such as ‘small spaces’, ‘before and after’ or you can search for country names. I suspect I have probably idled away a fair few hours on here over the years.

Since the advent of Pinterest and Instagram, there probably isn’t much that is truly unique to Dwelling Gawker, but I still enjoy using it. The search category options make it easy to search for something new and different.

I appreciate various different types of interior style, though my current favourite is Scandinavian. In particular, the use of natural materials such as wood and leather, the presence of natural light and pale colour tones and simple, uncluttered style appeal to me. The photo above incorporates most of these elements and has a wonderful sense of space, don’t you think?

As we have three young children, our house isn’t quite (or let’s be honest, anywhere near) the uncluttered, minimalist haven it would be if it was inhabited only by my husband and I. Still, I try my hardest to keep on top of the clutter and everything in its proper place. There will be more on home organisation and the tools I use to organise ours in my future blog posts, so please click follow if you haven’t already 🙂 Sign up link to the right hand side ->

Thanks for reading, see you again soon.

 

 

 

Celebrating festivals with a decorative tree

Since childhood, I have enjoyed marking and celebrating numerous festivals. I love the way that they punctuate the year in a fun yet predictable way and mean there is always an occasion to look forward to in the not-too-distant future. Note that we don’t necessarily celebrate in an extravagant way with huge parties or anything- often just in a token way. I prefer to celebrate more in terms of decorating our home in a themed way. More specifically, with a tree.

Of course, when most people think of decorating a tree, Christmas springs to mind. However, decorative trees are ideal for theming the home for multiple festivals and occasions.

Now is probably the time to explain that I wouldn’t dream of using a real, ceiling-height tree at any time of year other than Christmas. Instead, we have a two-foot, white-painted wooden tree to position on top of a table or sideboard. It was purchased from the UK department store John Lewis six or seven years ago and no doubt other stores sell similar ones. For creative types, there’s no reason why you couldn’t make your own from a carefully chosen section of tree branch with plenty of twigs to hang items from. It would be best to let it dry out first at this time of year though (perhaps in an airing cupboard to speed up the process) before spray painting white if desired, or simply left natural wooden coloured.

Halloween never seemed to be widely celebrated when I was growing up in the 1980s. Sure, some kids made an effort to dress up in costume to go trick-or-treating but walking through our local town centre recently I was amazed to see just how many shops had filled their windows with elaborate Halloween displays and were full of costumes and props for adults, children and even pets!

In the year that we bought our decorative tree, I sought out items to hang from it just as each festival approached. The pound shops were useful, particularly Poundland. From there, for Halloween, I bought a small string of battery-powered LED pumpkin lights and black-and-white skull print tinsel, to wrap around the branches. Then I got packs of small, multicoloured plastic skeletons and have added decorations to the collection produced by my children in recent years. I re-use the same decorations year after year, only rarely buying new ones for any occasion. Within the storage box for the decorative tree, I keep plastic bags labelled with the various festivals that we decorate the tree for; at present this includes Halloween, Easter and Valentine’s Day.

Now, I imagine that you are thinking that the mainly plastic type of decorations we hang on the tree for Halloween are anything but chic? I can certainly understand that point of view, and admit that if we didn’t have children living at home who get ridiculously excited about Halloween, I wouldn’t decorate the tree in the same way at this time of year. The Easter and Valentine’s decorations are decidedly more tasteful, I hasten to add! However, there is no reason why the tree couldn’t be decorated with a more general ‘Autumn’ theme if desired. Still, here’s our tree that was decorated earlier this week all ready for Halloween:

DSCN0006.JPG

As you’ll realise, Halloween is still almost week away, so it may seem premature to have the decorations up already. I admit to taking a slightly unusual stance in the respect that I always like to put decorations up early, but also take them down early. The anticipation of any upcoming occasion is certainly (a large) part of the pleasure for me. Anyone that knows me will be aware that even the Christmas tree and all other Christmas decs are taken down on the 28th December at the latest! I love being able to enjoy looking at the decorations in the interval before the celebration day arrives.

How about you? Do you decorate your home for different festivals and occasions? Does anyone else have a tree they decorate for anything other than Christmas? Perhaps I can decorate the tree for additional occasions than the ones I’ve mentioned…

Please add your email to the box on the right to follow my blog if you’ve enjoyed my posts so far. There will be new ones coming at least twice a week. Thanks for reading 🙂