What the French can teach us about simple living 

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Beautiful Bonifacio, Corsica

The second epidsode of Kristin Meinzer and Jolenta Greenberg’s By the Book podcast offers listeners a full-on, no holds barred insight into the best-selling book French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Giuliano.

Meinzer and Greenberg baulk at Giuliano’s ‘don’t get fat’ rules, especially her initial ‘rebalancing’ weekend, whose leek broth is found by the pair to be both unappetising and punitive. Indeed, Meinzer and Greenberg remark upon the way in which the book evokes memories of their past issues and struggles with food.

This doesn’t sound terribly healthy or chic, does it?

Ode to a French lifestyle

In fact, FWDGF is more an ode to the French lifestyle than a diet book per se. In it, Giuliano extoles the virtues of ‘la vie en rose,’ reminding us that a life lived well – but without excess – is the best life of all.

Indeed, Molière is reputed to have written:

Great is the fortune of he who possesses a good bottle, a good book and a good friend.

This reminds me that there’s something else the French can teach us: living simply also means living well.

Living simply also means living well

My oldest friend and her husband own a traditional French house in the Limousin region of France. In a small hamlet on the edge of Cussac, my friends enjoy long spells in this quiet, beautiful and unspoilt part of the country. Here, the pace of life is in sharp contrast to that of the British suburbs.

Life at a slower pace

In the rural district that is the Haute Vienne, there is a great deal less rushing around. Admittedly, this is likely to be the case because the industry and commerce that drive the engine of France are situated elsewhere. Nonetheless, there’s something about the Limousin way of life from which we can all learn.

The sharing economy, French style

In Cussac, neighbours share home-grown vegetables and fruits, as they enjoy a glut of fresh produce in the summer months. It is not unusual to arrive home to find a bowl of fresh cherries or bag of green beans on the doorstep. In the same vein, when my friends first ventured into their cellar (la cave), they discovered ancient jars of bottled vegetables and fruits, evidence of the tradition of preserving and bottling that is commonplace.

Further, neighbours come together occasionally in the evening to share a glass or two of ‘pineau de Charente’ and to share family news of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

If you can’t get the petrol mower going, someone will no doubt step in. Likewise, the ruby geraniums on the windowsill will not go unattended if you are away for a few days. And don’t forget to close the shutters! The daily ritual of opening and closing shutters is ‘très important’.

Make do and mend comme les Français

Here, consumerism is far less in evidence, as the make-do-and-mend culture is deeply embedded. This is especially true when it comes to home decor and clothing. Here, the nearest IKEA is some kilometres away in Bordeaux and no-one has heard of H&M, Top Shop or New Look. Fast fashion seems ridiculous when living modestly and living well is the name of the game.

Coffee the French way

Coffee is a straightforward pick-me-up in Cussac. No latte-mocha-frothy-syrup-two shot-grande-whipped cream extravaganza here. You might get a cappuccino and you’ll certainly enjoy a glass of water with your elevenses. That’s it.

Community life

There is a strong sense of community, as you would expect.

The library is the place to go for ‘L’internet’ and where you catch up on village news. The bread man arrives in the hamlet on a Tuesday morning with fresh baguettes for 1 Euro. On other days, a walk up the gentle incline to the village brings you to the boulangerie or supermarket (take your own bag for the bread and your shopping trolley to wheel everything back).

In the summer, local fetes bring the community together when table-top sales and ‘vide greniers’ (literally “empty lofts” ) co-exist with stalls selling local honey, vintage cotton, sausage and potato meals, and home-grown produce and plants. Merry-go-rounds for the little people offer a pastime enjoyed by kids for time immemorial. In the holidays, there are firework displays, live entertainment and picnics when the sun goes down.

These gatherings take place in locations with beautiful sounding names: Oradour sur Vayres, Champagnac la Rivière (my favourite village name), Rochechouart (amazing Chateau and fabulous local restaurant, Le Roc de Boeuf) and Saint-Mathieu.

Rose tinted spectacles?

This all sounds idyllic and it is. Romantic, even. And, yes, I’m painting you a rosy picture. But this is real, too, for the people who live and work in this little corner of la belle France. The gentle daily routine of French folk is now enjoyed by quite a few ‘Anglais’ who also now inhabit this peaceful spot. These English neighbours know a good thing when they see it.

What can we learn from this slower way of life?

The time spent lovingly tending gardens is tremendously good for us. The gentle business of hoeing and mowing fills up our ‘Vitality bucket’ (as Jonathan Fields* calls it), giving us a daily dose of nature’s health-giving vitamin D and some gentle exercise. The result of those labours – dark green and boldly coloured veggies – can’t do us any harm either, especially when food miles is no miles at all. We can perhaps dispense with the leeks, if you prefer.

Neighbourly cooperation fills up our ‘Community bucket’ and time for mutual support and kinship tops up our ‘Contribution bucket’.

Enjoy the slow rhythms of life

So, as my friends prepare to depart for their summer ‘en France’, it’s good to remind oneself that the slow rhythms of a French summer can be enjoyed wherever you are.

Set the table for a leisurely lunch. Hang your clothes to dry on the washing line, instead of reaching automatically for the tumble dryer. Walk into town to go to the market. Write a thank you note for a friend. Stop by and chat to a neighbour as you pass by. And enjoy the best that life has to offer.

Just enough; not too much. It’s the French way.

*Author of How to live a Good Life: Surprising Science, and Practical Wisdom


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The love that flourishes when you let go of stuff

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There’s bound to be something among the things you own that you really love. Some people love shoes (and are famous for it); others love clothes or have a signature scent that they truly adore (and which others associate them with). The list goes on.

“Love begins in a moment, grows over time and lasts for eternity”

I love rings. I always have. I own my paternal grandmother’s wedding ring that she first wore on her wedding day in October 1932. Having had it cut off because of dupuytren’s contracture, she kept this simple band of gold then had my birthstone set into it for my 18th birthday. It has little monetary value, but I enjoy wearing something today that my grandmother wore decades ago.

Can you be a minimalist and still love stuff?

Everyone’s definition of a minimalist lifestyle differs. My minuscule keepsakes take up no room but I value owning a bit of family history (and I wear my rings frequently). I suppose that’s the point: if the stuff you keep adds value to your life, then enjoy it. Use it. Wear it and let it bring you joy.

You may fill your home with stuff but it won’t fill your heart

We all know that the acquisitive pursuit of stuff can lead to anxiety, debt and emptiness. You may fill your home with stuff but it won’t fill your heart. On the contrary, clutter can be detrimental to wellbeing. That’s why decluttering is such a powerful tool.

Furthermore, the kind of love that flourishes when you let go of stuff is truly remarkable. It changes lives.

With This Ring

Bearing in mind my love of rings, I find Ali Eastburn’s story remarkable. Eastburn attended a women’s retreat when she found herself asking what might happen if she sold her stuff to help others. She then had the most daring and radical thought of all:

“I bet if I sold my wedding ring I could feed an entire village in Africa.”

Well, she did sell that ring and went on to found her charity, With This Ring. Eastburn’s own ring funded the drilling of a well in Africa, but the charity has since grown to change the lives of so many people through acts of generosity and love. Eastburn’s donation didn’t just change the lives of other people; it changed her own, as she was finally able to end what she called ‘an insatiable love of stuff.’

The Hope Effect

Joshua Becker is best known for his writing as the founder of Becoming Minimalist. However, the charity he founded is likely to have a more profound legacy. The Hope Effect seeks to implement family-based solutions for orphan care around the world. With a ‘two-parent’ style home, the charity’s mission is to transform the lives of children who would otherwise experience institutional care. How much hope and love abounds when ‘stuff’ is no longer the focal point of people’s lives!

The experientialist approach

Using your precious time and resources in the pursuit of activities or experiences (as opposed to things) will ultimately provide far greater reward than the short-lived rush of pleasure experienced when buying something new. Even better, enjoying activities with others helps build social bonds, which are a very important ingredient to wellbeing and happiness.

The month of love

Whilst February may be the ‘month of love’, June is traditionally the most popular month for weddings. A quick search on the web explains that, since the goddess Juno was the protector of women in all aspects of life (particular in matters of matrimony and childbearing), a wedding in Juno’s month was considered most auspicious.

This summer, my husband and I celebrate 20 years of marriage. We had so little when we started out so, inevitably, embarked upon the pursuit of ‘more and better’. Only now do I truly understand that love can flourish even more when you let go of the things in your life that no longer add value.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll take a closer look at that little pot of rings I keep at home. Letting go of them would no doubt generate more love than wearing them on my finger ever could.


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Lost and found

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I thought I was losing it yesterday when I couldn’t find my keys (my entire set, for house and car, which are kept all on one key fob).

Has anyone seen my keys?

It was the first day back after the Easter holidays, so we were keen to be on time for school and work. Just prior to our normal departure time of 07:20, I looked in the zip compartment of my large tote bag and my keys weren’t there.

I remembered that I’d used a different bag over the weekend. Maybe they were in there?

Nope!

Pockets?

Nope!

Anywhere else? NOPE!!

My husband, Andrew, dug out the spare set of car keys, so we left the house not knowing if my own set was in there or not.

Hunt the keys

On returning home, the family game of Hunt the Keys began. We looked in all the obvious places, then began to look in the less-obvious ones.

Andrew asked me to think. Think about what I was doing the last time I remember having them. My mind was a blur. Remember that post about being present? I couldn’t even recall if I’d used the keys the previous day.

Think!!!

Are they in the bin?

As it happens, Monday is refuse collection day in our corner of Kenilworth. It was ‘grey bin day’ (the fortnightly collection for rubbish that goes to landfill). So, Andrew had pulled the bin back into the garden before its contents could be irrevocably lost.

After turning the entire house upside down, with reluctance, I donned my yellow rubber gloves and started going through two weeks of rubbish. This is a horrid job and I won’t go into details but it caused me to notice the bulky items in the bin that could not be recycled.

New-found insights

What do we really chuck into landfill?

As I searched through our household waste for the missing keys, I began to notice more closely what we threw away (rather than recycled).

In addition to cellophane wrapping (about which I wrote here), the three most noticeable categories of rubbish were:

  • Tetra Pak cartons (from juice, almond milk etc.), which we cannot recycle in our fortnightly collection
  • Polystyrene containers (fruit packaging)
  • Disposable feminine hygiene products and cotton wool pads (from the two ladies in the house: me and Amy)

Seeing two weeks worth of trash in a single location made me really take stock.

If we, a little family of three plus Cockapoo produce this much in just two weeks, imagine the vast quantities across our town, throughout the county and across the entire nation!

Yeah, we need a change, yeah…. Do it today*

I have to make some changes.

We are already recycling a greater volume of items than we throw away each fortnight but I know I can still do more.

Decision time

I’m going to redouble my efforts to make my own nut milk. It’s more expensive than the Tetra Pak option, but I’d like to see our personal contribution to land fill go down.

I will consider if juice in a recyclable carton is better than Tetra Paks. I’d welcome any views on this. Do you juice your own or avoid juice altogether?

I’m going to redouble my efforts to buy more fruit and veg loose.

Finally, I’ve ordered a Mooncup and will revert to my muslin cloths for cleansing my face, rather than using wasteful cotton wool.

What about those keys?

After all that searching, I went and sat next to Andrew who was working away in the study. And then it hit me. I knew exactly where my keys were.

I had placed them carefully in the glovebox of our family car the previous morning when we went for a dog walk. We had discussed it at the time and we both knew I’d done it. However, we had both completely erased the fact from our short term memory.

I didn’t even need to rush outside and retrieve the keys. I knew they were there.

Lessons learned

At least the experience had taught me some valuable lessons and might just nudge me further towards some more eco-friendly purchases.

In the meantime, maybe I need to buy just one small thing.

Does anyone know where I can get one of those ‘find my iPhone’ devices for car keys?

*Lyrics from Heather Small – Proud

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When minimalism met consumerism: my visit to an amazon fulfillment centre

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How does it feel when (as a minimalist) you get a behind-the-scenes look at the self-styled ‘earth’s most customer-centric company’?

Today, with my husband, Andrew, I visited an Amazon fulfillment centre at Rugeley in Staffordshire. Here’s my account of our visit.

Retail that makes Costco look like a corner shop

The Rugeley site is 1 of 13 in the UK (and there are around 100 such sites worldwide). Anyone can book to visit and I’d recommend it if you’re a school teacher or Business student studying Operations Management. It’s an interesting experience, made enjoyable by the pleasant drive through the pretty city of Litchfield with its medieval cathedral (the only one in England with three spires).

To give you an idea of the scope and scale of the Rugeley operation, at its busiest, during a recent Amazon prime promotion, this site managed one order every 8 seconds. Here, we could witness shopping on a vast scale that makes a Costco warehouse look like a corner shop.

All the twos

This place alone, situated at the foot of gigantic cooling towers from a nearby power station, has 20 million product lines and 2,000 staff. Further, the fulfillment of customer orders persists 22 hours in every day.

Lots of little things

Our friendly and informative guide, Jo, told us that the Rugeley site didn’t handle everything Amazon sold, but focussed on the smaller items. We witnessed this from the many thousands of products we passed, as we were invited to undertake a walk-through of the various parts of the Centre.

Goods in

The first part of our tour was the ‘inbound’ section. That is, all the items coming into the fulfillment centre, ready to be sold, were there.

The random nature of the items on the shelves was a key talking point. In terms of the where these items are stored on the racks, there is no ‘right place’ as there would be in a library. Rather, the randomisation of items makes them more distinctive on the shelf. That means they are easier to pick, reducing errors and maximising the use of the available space.

A barcode-driven business

A barcode-driven business, this is an empire built on the ability to scan and store information. Once a member of the inbound team has found a suitable location for a new item, the product is placed on the shelf with its location recorded by the scanning of the product barcode and shelf label. Clever!

Row upon row of plastic and cardboard

What struck me at this point was the sheer number of items we could see that were essentially plastic encased in cardboard. There was everything imaginable from slug pellets to whey powder and coffee makers to drinking cups. But does anyone actually need any of this stuff? Even our guide talked about ‘buying tat’ and tat* is what this is.

[*If you’re unfamiliar with this slang word, ‘tat’ means ‘tasteless or shoddy items’]

Here’s where I was able to appreciate the scale of the operation, but – inside – I just felt dismayed.

What are we actually paying for?

As consumers, what are we actually paying for when we buy such products? Surely, the human and environmental cost of producing these items is even more vast than the warehouse from which it is despatched?

Statista.com says that, in 2016, Amazon’s fulfillment expenses amounted to 17.6 billion U.S. dollars, up from 13.4 billion U.S. dollars in the year before.

So, when we spend our hard-earned cash to buy online, we are paying for so much more than the product itself.

In the ‘goods out’ part of the tour, it was possible to see how the products that are picked come together. From the initial random dispersement of the items stored, here’s where items are gradually brought together into one order for packaging and despatch.

Here, I could see what we actually pay for when we place an online order.

We’re paying for the shipment from the manufacturer to the fulfillment centre (never mind the wages of the employees who craft the products from the raw materials the manufacturer buys). We’re buying the packing paper crumpled into the Amazon delivery box, as well as the proprietary box in which the products come. We’re purchasing the internal packaging that surrounds the product (polystyrene, bubble wrap, tissue paper). We’re funding the tape used to seal the box. And so it goes on. Oh, and I almost forgot. We’re buying whatever is inside that box, whose actual value can only be pennies at the most.

Grotesque parcels?

I asked a question: how it was possible to receive an item in a box that was clearly too large for the product? For exampe, we once received a selfie-stick in an enormous Amazon box that was so large we thought it was a mistake.

Amazon calls these mis-matched packages ‘grotesque parcels’ but I can’t help feeling there’s something grotesque about the whole thing.

Doing good?

Yes, these types of businesses provide employment to those who work in their fulfillment centre, as well as workers throughout the supply chain. Yes, sites like Rugeley support local charities. Yes, the company is supportive of educational programmes that means they offer to pay 95% of the fees of a college course to employees who want to reach their goals. That’s all great.

Good may be being done, but at what cost?

Slow shopping

So, as I reflect on today’s experience, it makes me even more determined to be mindful as I purchase what I need. I’ve written about slow shopping before, but now I value it even more than ever.

I suppose what struck me most was how this highly sophisticated and complex operation had been established to provide consumers with products no-one truly requires.

Delivering what exactly?

Today, we witnessed just a small part of Jeff Bezos’ mighty empire. Yes, it was an impressive operation, but it didn’t make my heart sing. If you look at the Amazon logo, you’ll see a smile from the A to the Z. Rather than delivering happiness, I suggest they’re delivering tat that none of us actually need.

I’ll think twice before I click that button next time.

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