Wednesday, 19 April 2017

100 Essentials #1 Crockery

This 100 essentials thing has definitely got me thinking about what I both want and need in terms of possessions. I am slowly working through Francine Jay's list of 35 kitchen items and deciding what would make my list. I am not going to post about everything on the list, but thought it might be helpful to think out loud about some of the more important items.

The first two of Francine Jay's essentials are a plate and a bowl. I am cheating - no, not cheating! My list, my rules! - and treating basic crockery as a single item. For me this means a dining plate, a side plate, and a bowl. I can see that a single plate could work if it was the right size. However, we recently replaced some old and chipped crockery with a set that I love, but the large plates are too large to work for everything, and the side plates too small, so one of each it is.

I love the shape of these, square but curvy, and the simplicity of the white. They are stoneware and feel solid without being over chunky. They are part of Marks and Spencer's Andante range, but looking on their website just now it seems they may have been discontinued. 

So, if it was just me, and down to essentials, this set of two plates and a bowl would do beautifully. 

But ... we have far more crockery than just one of these place settings each. How to distinguish what are sensible extras and what are excess?

To start with, we have eight place settings. Extra, but not excess. We usually cook a roast dinner on Sundays and although most weeks someone will be missing it is not uncommon for us to end up with eight - five of us, two daughter's boyfriends, and my brother. So at this stage of our lives, being able to cater for eight is sensible.

On top of the eight place settings, we have another complete set of crockery. M is Jewish and has always kept dual sets, one for meat meals and one for milk. Although in most respects he is far from keeping fully kosher and does in practice often end up mixing meat and milk, he still feels strongly that he wants to maintain the dual crockery. Our "milk" set is from the well known Portmeirion botanic garden range. There are half a dozen dining plates, and anything from two to four medium sized plates, side plates, cereal bowls, and pasta bowls. On top of this are serving bowls, tea cups and saucers, milk jug, tea pot, sugar bowl, toast rack, and probably more that I have forgotten. Some of this should definitely count as essentials or extras, needed for our particular circumstances, but somewhere along the line it is straying into excess. But where? That rarely used tea set? 

And it doesn't stop there. We have a ton of IKEA plastic plates, bowls and cups, essential while we had young children, but with our youngest now almost eleven most (if not all) of these are now excess. Then there is a nice set of Beatrix Potter themed china given to one of our now adult daughters as a child, plus two or three more decorative plates that I can't quite bring myself to part with. Maybe I should keep the Beatrix Potter set and let go of the rest? 

So the bottom line in our crockery cupboard(s) seems to be:
Essentials: Dinner plate, side plate and bowl for each member of the family (dual sets)
Reasonable extras: Dinner plates, side plates and bowls for guests (8 place settings in total); Beatrix Potter child's set for sentimental value; a couple of plastic plates, bowls and cups for cooking purposes (I often use them to rest utensils on, or for mixing small amounts of dressings, for example)
Excess: Most of the plastic plates, bowls and cups; pretty but unused plates. If I am honest, also the Portmeirion tea service, but I can't quite bring myself to bite the bullet on that one yet. The excess would have been worse, but I did have a clear out quite recently and only kept what I thought I needed!

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

Before our recent visit to the city of Trieste I borrowed Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere by Jan Morris from the library, meaning to give myself some feel for the place before we went. Time ran away with me and I didn't manage to read much before our trip. A few days ago I picked up the book again and fell in love with both her writing and Trieste itself. The deep understanding she brought to her account of a city she had known and loved for over fifty years gave perspective to the glimpses that I had seen in our short visit and left me determined to go back and get to know it better.

While we were in Trieste I knew I liked the place. Although it doesn't have the Renaissance beauty of many Italian cities, there was something about it that I couldn't quite put my finger on, something attractive. I put it down to Trieste being a sea city - always a good thing for me - and the sense of it being slightly different to the rest of Italy. Trieste is in the far north east, round the coast from Venice and only a few miles from the Slovenian and Croatian borders. Although its population has always been largely Italian, and for most of the past century Trieste has been part of the Italian state, its glory days came in the nineteenth century when it was the chief port of the Austrian Empire. As a result the style of much of the city's architecture is more central European than Italian. Trieste was incorporated into Italy after the First World War, came briefly under direct Nazi rule as part of the Austrian province of the Reich, and was a stateless buffer zone city between Italy and Yugoslavia under Allied Control for several years after World War Two, before being returned to Italy in 1954. During the twentieth century the city was popular with writers. James Joyce wrote some of his greatest works while living in Trieste, and it boasts a number of well-known Italian authors including Italo Svevo and Umberto Saba. Another point in the Trieste's favour is that it is the centre of the Italian coffee trade!

Jan Morris also credits the city's present self as being the result of its unusual history but I think her conclusion nails what is special about Trieste; it is an extraordinarily nice city:

"The elusive flavour that I enjoy here is really only the flavour of true civility, evolved through long trial and error. I have tried to get the hang of many cities, during a lifetime writing about them, and I have reached the conclusion that a peculiar history and a precarious geographical situation have made Trieste as near to a decent city as you can find, at the start of the twenty-first century. Honesty is still the norm here, manners are generally courteous, bigotries are usually held in check, people are generally good to each other, at least on the surface. Joyce said he had never met such kindness as he did in Trieste. Mahler just thought its people 'terribly nice'."

And yes, even in two days this was our experience. Everyone we spoke to was pleasant, friendly and helpful. One evening we ate in a restaurant where the owner saw us poring over the menu - usually I can manage to decipher Italian menus but the Slovene / Croatian influence had me beat - came out and translated the entire thing for us. It transpired that he was an enthusiastic Anglophile, a Manchester City supporter and with a passion for 1960s English music. The welcome could not have been warmer and when we left after our meal there was much handshaking. When we visited the Jewish Cemetery an Italian gentlemen (we later discovered he works in the synagogue office) who was guiding two French tourists there saw us struggling with the geography of the cemetery and helped us to locate M's uncle's grave. At the Jewish museum, the curator went above and beyond in finding confirmation that M's uncle had indeed been in Auschwitz and been liberated, having burial records checked for us, giving us leads to follow up, and filling in information about Trieste during the war. She could not have been more helpful, and again the help came with genuine warmth.

Jan Morris calls Trieste the "Capital of Nowhere", representative of all people of "humour and understanding" from wherever they may come:

"There are people everywhere who form a Fourth World, or a diaspora of their own. They are the lordly ones. They come in all colours. They can be Christians or Hindus or Muslims or Jews or pagans or atheists. They can be young or old, men or women, soldiers or pacifists, rich or poor. They may be patriots, but they are never chauvinists. They share with each other, across all the nations, common values of humour and understanding. When you are among them you know you will not be mocked or resented, because they will not care about your race, your faith, your sex or your nationality, and they suffer fools if not gladly, at least sympathetically. They laugh easily. They are easily grateful. They are never mean. They are not inhibited by fashion, public opinion or political correctness. They are exiles in their own communities, because they are always in a minority, but they form a mighty nation, if they only knew it. It is the nation of nowhere, and I have come to think that its natural capital is Trieste."

I would like to think that I may be a member of this nation of nowhere and as such can claim a little part of Trieste for my own.

Monday, 10 April 2017

100 Essentials

I can't claim to be a minimalist but I like reading about minimalism. It inspires me to get more serious about decluttering, though that mostly translates into doing a modest amount of decluttering rather than none at all. For my latest bit of inspiration I have been reading 100 Essentials by Francine Jay, in which she lists one hundred items which she considers to be her basic essentials - if she owned only these things she would have everything she needed in order to function well. She divides them into three categories: a simple kitchen (35 items), a capsule wardrobe (35 items), and a minimalist home (30 items).

I thought this book would be an interesting read, but in the same way that I might read about trekking in the Amazon or flying to the moon - fascinating to see through someone else's eyes, but not something I could ever personally aspire to achieve. In fact, thanks to her gentle approach I found it much more accessible and relatable than I expected. She does not advocate only owning 100 items; some of the "items" are multiples, so flatware (knife / fork / spoon) is counted as one, as is underwear. She also only looks at her own property as an individual - other family members obviously have their own stuff.

The 100 items are a base, literally "the essentials", to which it is fine to add considered extras. For example, although she only counts a single bath towel, if you often have visitors staying then spare towels would be sensible extras. The aim is not to stray into excess; if you never have more than two visitors staying at once then four spare bath towels would be excess. She defines extras as "an expansion that can wax and wane as you see fit". They may be items relevant to a particular living situation, such as garden tools or a snow shovel, or items that are not strictly necessary but which add significant value to your life, such as books, materials for hobbies, or sports equipment. Anything beyond this, the nondescript and rarely used (or unused) stuff is excess.

The concept of 100 essentials really appeals to my list-loving nature and I think I would find it genuinely useful to come up with a list of my own. When decluttering I have difficulty working out what is important and useful, and what is just "stuff". I read Marie Kondo's Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up and was all enthused, but it took only a couple of attempts to realise that the KonMari method is not for me. I was overwhelmed and no joy was sparked. I am hopeful that I would do much better tackling it from the other direction; with a checklist of what I actually need (and value) I would be able to look at the stuff and divide it into essentials, extras and excess. As Francine Jay puts it, "100 Essentials gives us a powerful lens with which to evaluate the material world". I can see in theory that it would. Putting it into practice will be a challenge, but I think it is worth a try.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Back Again!

October? I haven't been here since October? I knew it was a while, but not that long! We have done quite a bit more travelling since then. In February we went to Edinburgh with our 10 year old, did a whistle stop tour of the city and visited yet another zoo. Edinburgh Zoo had been on her wishlist for some time as it is the only zoo in the UK which has giant pandas. The female panda Tian Tian was in her private den, but the male Yang Guang was just finishing a snack. He took one look at us, decided we were boring and went to sleep.

Over the last two weeks I have been on two contrasting journeys. First to Northern Italy, taking DH on a surprise trip to celebrate his 60th birthday. His uncle and grandmother spent time in the city of Trieste during the Second World War, before - or so we assumed - being sent to Auschwitz. His uncle survived and returned to Trieste, dying there in 1947; his grandmother did not. I knew he had always wanted to visit his uncle's grave, so this was an emotional and memorable journey as well as a celebration. We were also able to find out more specific information, filling some gaps but also leaving questions.

This week I took my 18 and 10 year old daughters to Disneyland Paris, which could hardly be a more different type of holiday.  DH and I took our two eldest daughters when they were young, and he has no desire to go back - he just finds it exhausting and it is really not his cup of tea, so he opted out of this trip as he did when we went two years ago. This time round our timid small daughter had become much braver and we were able to go on a lot more of the rides. Much to our surprise she has even decided that rollercoasters are fun, so long as they are not too fast and scary. She had a lot more stamina too, and my Watch told me that over the five days we were there we walked over 40 miles.

Not much has changed in the last six months. My 18 year old is still loving life at university and finding it hard to believe that she is nearly through her first year. My adult daughter is busy adulting - I am still shocked that I have a 22 year old. The littlest one is still little in size but noticeably maturing in other ways, become more independent and capable. DH and I are enjoying our semi-retired lifestyle, working part time and trying to get out and about as much as possible, whether that is local walks or trips further afield. All in all, life is good and there are many blessings to count.

Sunday, 30 October 2016


We became Dubliners for three days at the beginning of the week, thanks to ridiculously low priced tickets from a budget airline. M had been to Dublin thirty years ago, but I had never been to Ireland before. We loved it! A lovely relaxed place to explore, with incredibly helpful and friendly people.

Our 10 year old is on a mission to visit the zoo whenever she goes to a new city, so we agreed rather reluctantly to include Dublin Zoo in our schedule. It proved to be one of the nicest zoos we have visited, beautifully landscaped and with animals who seemed as chilled and friendly as the people. One super-relaxed grandmother gorilla had even settled down for a nap right next to the glass separating her enclosure from the human visitors, apparently oblivious to the horde cooing over the snoozing baby gorilla in her arms.

We visited Dublin Castle, only to find ourselves in the middle of the set of a TV series about the Easter Rising of 1916, populated by authentically costumed extras who were staving off boredom with rather anachronistic mobile phones and paper coffee cups. We didn't get to see any filming unfortunately - all the extras knew was that they had already been hanging around for a long time and nothing seemed to be happening!

Other highlights were the trams (our hotel was some way out of the centre on a tram route), a build-your-own-stir-fry Mongolian BBQ restaurant, and a walk-in science workshop where N learned to solder and built an electronic voice recorder.

Even the weather smiled on us, with no rain and a respectable amount of sun.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

All I Want For Christmas Is ...

... this beginner's lace making kit, because I have been watching lace makers at work and I really, really want to play! This year we have been running a textile art project at the archive, encouraging people to create textile pieces inspired by documents in the archives. The project ended with a series of exhibitions at which a local lacemaking group gave demonstrations. It wasn't until the third and final exhibition that I started seriously watching what they were doing and having a go at basic stitches on a pillow set up for beginners to try. I got hooked.

I like crafting in various forms, but I am definitely more inclined towards crafts with a pattern to follow as I don't have a creative imagination. I don't mind things being intricate or fiddly so long as I know what I am supposed to be doing, and I think I could have a lot of fun making lace. I also like the historic element to the craft. Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire were two of the three main centres of handmade lace in England (Honiton in Devon was the third), and I know there were lacemakers among my Buckinghamshire ancestors.

Not only will I get to make pretty things, I can also collect pretty bobbins. I am trying to declutter and  become more minimalist (although I have a very, very long way to go), but bobbins are small enough not to become a clutter monster and larger projects need a considerable number. I love the idea of using bobbins which are either meaningful or decorative or both. A few I have my eye on are this commemorative Magna Carta bobbin, chirpy Christmas robinscanal art bobbins (these are already painted, but a friend has started doing canal art and she may be getting some bobbin commissions), Jane Austen, and ... well, a glance at this site shows just how easy it would be to get carried away!

Instructions have been issued to He-Who-Hates-Christmas-Shopping and I now just have to wait patiently for a couple of months and hope that I don't forget all the helpful tips and information I was given by the lace demonstrators.

Friday, 14 October 2016

And ... Three Months Later!

July? Three months ago? Really? So ... five things from the last three months as a catch up.

1. A lovely family holiday in Italy, with all the family except senior daughter who does her own thing these days. We have visited Lake Garda before, but had forgotten how stunningly beautiful it is.

2. Middle daughter left for uni in September and is now in a northern city studying Italian and linguistics. So far she is loving it, enjoying both the social life and her courses.

3. Middle daughter also celebrated her 18th birthday and an amazing set of A level results. As she eats dairy free we tracked down a hotel in London which provides both gluten free and dairy free afternoon teas for a celebration mother-and-daughter tea. A nice touch was that when they realised we were celebrating they brought her a beautifully presented mini-birthday cake. Definitely recommend the 108 Pantry at the Marylebone Hotel for anyone looking for a gluten free / dairy free treat.

4. We have been working on the house and managed to redecorate both small daughter's bedroom and our own. Quite a bit of decluttering was achieved too.

5. I took small daughter to a family lecture at the Royal Institution on giant lasers. She has now decided her future science career should be physicist rather than chemist.