Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Frugal Times - Part I Household stuff

It is an interesting moment in our lives. I use the plural as I know I am not alone. The world economy, the real-estate breakdown, the plummeting of the stock market, the many firings occurring in the auto and other major industries. We're waking up to a world that is no longer rewarding us for buying lovely cheap toys and clothes made in China. Somewhere along the line, I've lucked out -- perhaps -- in that I never really bought into this version of reality. First off, I chose to stay in Europe rather than go back to the US, be it to Seattle or the New York area. And, rather than pursue the obvious post Princeton route to NYC and a financial sector job, or perhaps business school, I joined my husband and started a cooking school and a b&b. I opted for a less traveled path already fifteen years ago. In doing so, I opted to hold onto my "poor starving student" skills, and continued to live simply, avoiding--if not banishing--the spending habits and expectations of many in my generation.

Early on, as the business was just beginning to build and life was still very tight, I simply never went into any of the lovely boutiques in Arles. As compensation, I became an adept at the local second hand clothing stall at the Wednesday market to satisfy whatever spending cravings, or acquisition cravings I had. For other flea market explorers, the pleasures of the inexpensive treasure are well understood, be it that lovely mirror at 50E, or the elegant Jill Sander gray wool slacks at 2E. My fingers were quite sensitive to texture and quality as they roamed through the heaps of clothes piled willy nilly on the outdoor stalls. I have a pile of cashmere sweaters (ditto at 2E/piece), Erick has the entire rainbow in silk shirts, short and long sleeved, I've lovely lined linen jackets, hand-knit sweaters for every occasion, and the periodic pair of jeans or easy summer dress. My children were clothed from my finds, my au pairs adored what they found, and, often, I'd find a little something for a friend here and there. At 2E a piece, I grabbed it and passed it on as a little gift from the universe.

Sunday mornings were often spent at the Nîmes flea market where much more was available. There, over the years, for a song and a smile Erick and I acquired electric adapters, a couch, iron beds, a set of plates and salad bowls (or three), iron pans, le creuset style, heavy cast-iron casseroles, two satin down quilts, iron plant holders, a screened cheese cabinet, a hexagonal bed-side table, lamp shades, art books, literature primers,... And, as soon as Leo was on his feet and mobile, he plunged into the boxes of matchbox cars, McDonald's happy meal toys and other objects enterprisingly being sold by small boys for a Euro a piece! (creative highway robbery!). We felt the shift from the franc to the Euro most keenly at the flea market. By psychological preference, prices are kept simple. What was 5 francs, became a Euro, or in the case of happy meal toys, what was 1 franc became 1 Euro! (FYI, 1Euro is officially 6.55957 francs).

Paying full price for anything, or owning something new was an anomaly.

When I first met Erick, his house was pretty barren. His past girlfriend had removed her things, and there really wasn't much left. So, there was a void to be filled. And I, fully in my nesting and settling period, went to it with fervor. I painted, I organized, I arranged, and I filled. Then, furnishing the bed and breakfast became necessary and there we were able to put some fun flea market finds, as well as sturdy basics and simple closets for ranging the clothes, etc.,

Now however, both my closet and my home are saturated. I'm in need of nothing. Truly. It's almost embarrassing to count the number of shoes I have (though in my defense, these include shoes I purchased in Seattle 15-20 years' ago and carefully re-heeled along the way), and I admit that some clothes don't see the light of day but once in a season. I have the excuse of explaining that I've not changed size (excepting pregnancies) since college, and so my now extensive wardrobe is an accumulation and blending of 22 years of my life. Nice excuse, no? In any case, my house is only so big, and more than what I've already put into it, would be impossible to place. My art photo collection has had to be put in a drawer to make place for kid photos. Space is what it is -- plenty for living in, but now full. Trends are converging -- I need nothing, I crave more simplicity, and my means for purchasing any and everything have diminished.

I recognize that some feelings and urges are age-related. When nesting, birthing babies, etc., it is hard to not acquire furniture, household items, 'practical' objects, etc., At my current age (42) I am feeing a certain level of stuff fatigue, alongside a need to face the hard facts of what is coming into my bank account and what must go out.

Caring about organics, the environment, how we live day to day I do what I can in my own small way to reduce my footprint. For this, I have the good education of an early environmentalist: my mother. From childhood we recycled newspapers for logs in the fireplace; we turned out lights and kept the heat down, learning to wear sweaters and slippers throughout the winter; we wore hand-me-downs from every direction (I'm the youngest of over 20 cousins... so you can imagine the boxes that arrived year in and year out to cloth me); we even used non-perfumed and super basic toilet paper and paper towels. Real cloth napkins with napkin rings were preferred to paper, and the house was furnished with furniture from the grandparents, or re-furbished pieces my mother found at a home for the blind in the early years of her marriage. Neither these, nor the rugs, nor the lamps, were changed during the length of my childhood. My mother never fell for the re-decorating craze of the 70s. We cared for the trees and the plants around our home, we took garbage bags with us whenever we went camping or hiking and picked up the leavings of other less-attentive humans. And we washed our clothes in cold water. We also cooked from scratch, and ate two vegetables per meal, but that's another story. Left-overs were a weekly challenged that my mother rose to, and I follow in her footsteps. Necessity encourages creativity.

I have all this life experience in me, and, have been able to add to it composting and recycling which are now encouraged and possible in my neighborhood.

So, this year has brought challenges, but not necessarily in a bad sense, to adapt and improve our way of life. Simply living in Europe has had a strong effect on my boys. I have raised them in a world where I believe it has been easier for me to convey as "normal" a lower level of materialism than they might have seen living in the US. In any case, I certainly haven't needed to have major arguments about reducing their pocket cash. An article in the NYTimes this fall was particularly striking on this subject, presenting families who'd always had lots and had given lots to their kids, but now, with the father out of work, suddenly the 150$ sneakers/jeans/purse/ipod are no longer possible, and the kids are apparently completed shell-shocked by this change of circumstances. I read these articles and at times think, that could have been me. I come from the same neighborhoods, went to the same schools, but then I shifted directions and entered an alternate reality.

No, my boys have always known that there was not a nintendo game, nor a game boy, nor any expensive whatnots in their immediate future -- which doesn't keep them from wishing, yearning, aiming towards a time when they'll have their own funds for these toys, they are human after all. For their clothing budget, being boys helps. They are completely ok wearing hand-me-downs and one or two pairs of shoes per year. Meantime, I'm working at teaching them all those skills my mother taught me: turn off lights when they're not in use; wear slippers and sweaters throughout the winter, and snuggle under those flea market down quilts. They are far far from perfect, and yes, the elder would like presents when he reads a book, and enough pocket cash to buy himself his own computer. And my younger comes back from his daddy's with a little something nearly each time, be it a matchbox car or a transformer. And I get the comments, "why can't you buy the sweet yogurts? or the packaged cookies?" But I am grateful that they have the innocence and grace to be thrilled if I take them to the cinema, or out for pizza, both having become very rare occasions. They're also adept at hanging out laundry on the line, and folding it when they bring it in. I'm working on their sorting it and distributing it around the house. Hopefully that will come.

All in all, I'm pretty proud of the particular version of reality that they are living and experiencing. I need to work a bit more on the development of their awareness that good things come to those who work hard for them... but that hopefully will come with time. I know that I'm caught between the generation raised by those who'd experienced the depression, pushed to work for everything they received in this life, and mine who had much offered them, and much expected of them, but truly, a very easy ride for a good chunk of this life. I'm amazed at the quantity of stuff that kids have in the US, and at the same time, by my own expectations and desires. I'm trying to be neither too extreme, nor a hypocrite. So far, so good.

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