Simplifying is all the rage now.
When we first moved to France, one of the things Roddy and I were looking forward to most was living a slightly simpler way of life. Not because we had read the latest magazine articles and wanted to be up to date, but because we both firmly believed that it was the way we wanted to raise our family and live our lives.
Materialism starts to rear its ugly head as soon as children begin school; it slowly gains momentum as they enter the teenage years and by the time they are young adults it can be a beast at the door that is difficult to ignore. It’s hard to make it go away altogether, particularly as we live in a world of technology and an era when people have more than they ever have had before, and have the means to see what else there is to be had. But what we wanted to do was at least allow our children to realise that there is so much more to appreciate in everyday simple surroundings and that beauty can be found in the strangest of things and places.
If we really open our eyes and notice what is around us we will see so much more, the minute detail that a cursory glance completely ignores.
Above all else we really wanted to show them that one does not need to spend, spend, and then spend some more, in order to enjoy oneself.
The minimalistic lifestyle is fast gaining momentum, but is it here to stay or is it just a trend? One of the key elements of minimalism is to get rid of anything that adds no value to our life, to make room for things that do.
Decluttering, another movement much talked about, can be extremely beneficial in many way, plus it leaves us feeling more positive and apparently it has many health benefits. I mentioned this to Roddy this week, and he jokingly remarked that the less he has to misplace, the easier life becomes – and I think he has a point.
But do we need to follow the latest ‘in thing’ to lead a contented happy life? Do we have to say goodbye to two-thirds of our possessions in order for us to be more open to appreciating life’s everyday pleasures?
I think the things we own should make our lives easier and should make us happy, but I don’t think we need an abundance of material things in order to live well.
In France I truly think it is easier to live a more down to earth, simpler lifestyle. Perhaps it is because nearly everyone else who lives around us is of a similar mindset – even if they are often not in the least bit aware of it. Of course though, you don’t have to live in France to enjoy this existence, you can live anywhere, but it really seems that the people here truly understand the values of where and how they live, and appreciate it for what it is. It may be that as a country of such ancient values, one that has felt the tread of the invader’s foot so many times, that the French DNA has a twist to it that allows people of le pays to accept, live and simply rejoice in what they have, and not lean particularly towards the material world. In many ways the very self-sufficiency of every house-hold’s potager is ample proof of that mindset. As is the die-hard habit the French have of tucking away banknotes under a mattress for rainy days.
I often get asked “how can I live a similar French lifestyle?”
I’ve thought about this long and hard before I decided to write anything. Because there are no hard and fast rules, and because I can’t tell you how to live your life – what works for one may not work for another, and every family has different needs. However, what I can do is tell you what works for us. We are in many ways a typical modern family, juggling work, running a home and paying the bills. We have five children aged from 10 to 20 and as a result there is an abundance of after-school activities. We don’t have gardeners or cleaners or nannies and like most people we seem to have less and less free time, and if we’re not careful everything becomes a frantic rush; but when I get to this stage the warning lights come on, and I have to ‘stop and look around’, to remember what is really important, whether it’s family life, healthy living, or just making the most of the simple pleasures that come our way.
Hand in hand with all of this is understanding that most of the simplest things in life are in fact some of the greatest luxuries in the world. In our case this might be being able to smell the roses, listen to the birds singing, collecting fresh eggs from our hens, or eating fruits and vegetables straight from the garden – still warm from the sun.
We don’t need constant blue skies and sunny days to enjoy the great outdoors, but twenty minutes of fresh air really does revitalise us. There are many days when I spend far too many hours at the computer, when work calls or when I knuckle down and get to grips with the housework. By the late afternoon, once I have finished the taxi-service of the various school runs, I always take time to spend some precious minutes outside.
Perhaps it will be sunny and I will do some gardening, as I strangely find pulling weeds rather therapeutic – I can easily get completely lost in a world of plants, as anything to do with gardening is a salve for my consciousness when it feels a little frazzled. Muddling about in the flowerbeds gives my head some space in which I can be a calmer person, and it also lets me be creative at the same time.
Or maybe it will be overcast and dull, and a walk in the fields with the dogs is in order. Maybe I will be joined by one or more of the children.
We might pick a few wild flowers, a simple bunch that we can pop in a vase on the kitchen table.
Sometimes we’ll talk non-stop, reflecting on the day, and at others we’ll continue along in silence for a while, deep in thought, completely at ease with each other’s company as we simply notice our surroundings.
The bare earth of winter is now smothered in spring’s green vegetation; sunflowers have been planted all around us again this year.
There are acres and acres of wheat and barley slowly ripening in the warm sun.
The vines in the little vineyards we pass on our favourite route are supporting young bunches of grapes; these are purely for private consumption, as is so common here. The farmer usually has a small area of vines, just enough so that he can make sufficient wine for the year, even if it’s usually a fairly rough vin de table!
But it will be enjoyed, and it will accompany hearty home-made food and it will be drunk in the company of friends and family – above all it most certainly will not be consumed in a hurry. Every sip of such a basic wine should remind the drinker of the time, effort and love that goes into the bottle. Every time I pass this little vineyard it reminds me precisely about the basic style of living that I love the most, a way of life that hasn’t changed much for decades, and I hope never will. To see this in its truest form, one has to visit a chai on a vineyard, and listen to the tale of its wine as the scent from it curls enticingly under your nose from a glass held in anticipatory appreciation. When the winemaker finishes their discourse and you can finally taste the wine, you find yourself tasting the story, not just the alcohol.
I am a huge believer in focusing on all that is positive. Take snails for example! A strange thing to consider for sure, as I don’t actually like snails much as they tend to munch on everything they are not meant to, and in many cases they do untold damage in the garden. As a moot point, just today I found my coriander (cilantro, I believe in many countries) completely finished, not by us but by the terrestrial pulmonate gastropod molluscs that like to live in our garden! I don’t put down poison because I believe it does more harm than good; instead I remove every snail I find and send them on a little vacation, way down to the bottom of the garden where they can take their chances in the compost heap amongst the chickens!
However, earlier this week we had a much needed couple of hours of rain. When it ceased mid-morning I glanced out of the kitchen window and saw a snail slowly making it’s way across the glass. I wandered out to remove it and then I noticed more, many more, the rain had brought them out, they were on the shutters, sliding across leaves, moving slowly on the wet soil. Instead of my usual routine of picking them up and removing them, I watched for a good five minutes, appreciating their sedate progress and considering whether or not they can be beneficial to the garden. Can they? Yes of course. In a natural garden they are part of the balance, they provide food for all sorts of mammals, birds and insects.
The moral of this story of course is that something that normally causes damage and annoys me can also sometimes be incredibly peaceful and bring a smile to my face; it might sound bizarre to be watching a snail, but isn’t it just another of life’s simple pleasures? Like the smell of sweet summer rain,
poppies beside the road
or that perfect evening light.