slow life changes
I don’t know why I said that. Must be the extra kicky positivity of this week.
We are so glad to be home. The first thing I did after I kicked off my dirt-stained, well-worn leather Doc Martens boots was to grab my hastily retreating cat Richie and press my nose into his fur and cheek for a good long minute till he mewed. That’s enough, human. Reluctantly I let him go and lunged for my other cat Carter. He narrowly escaped.
As we unpacked all our newly acquired goods - beautifully crafted bowls (my weakness), bergamot scented candles, a dragonfly artwork from Tallinn, Estonia - we also unpacked some life inspiration that moved us when we first heard it. Since then, it has occupied our morning thoughts in the shower as we prepared to head to the office, and stayed with us long after we were done with all the bustle of work.
We’d spent 3 weeks in North Europe circling Estonia, Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Denmark’s major cities. Even though we spent a very short amount of time in each major city, the spirit and culture of Northern Europe were so drastically different to our own that it left quite a strong impact on us.
Owning just the right amount of things
The Swedes have a concept of “just right”. This applies to everything from how you dress to how you behave in public. This means that you shouldn’t be the drunkest person in the room or the most outrageous, a sort of “fitting in” that encourages respect for others whilst having your own personality show.
“Just right” also covers material goods. The Nordic folk aren’t particularly materialistic. Think about what you own right now - do you have items just for the sake of having something nice? I have 3 sets of cutlery, 1 for everyday use and 2 full sets for guests during special occasions. It hardly seems necessary. At some point of time the items I wanted to own weren’t functional anymore but sheer excess. I hung on to clothes I love but clearly haven’t worn in the last 2 years. I own a dozen types of different bags when I only use maybe 3. My shelves are littered with beautiful shoes I feel very possessive towards but never wear because honestly I stopped wearing heels years ago and now just wear my Stan Smiths or Vans every day.
I’m humbled into thinking more about this concept and how it affects the environment, my finances, and the cluttered space I live in where I feel overwhelmed by what I own. Of late, I’ve stopped buying clothes and shoes altogether. Most of these impulse ‘‘buy and throws’’ started when I could afford it. Looking back I don’t even want to think about how much money I’ve wasted on stuff. Slowly my partner and I have begun packing up excess clothes and items to give away, instead focusing on items we need and that make our house feel more homely and comfortable.
Recycling & Reducing Trash
Starbucks cups are not recyclable. I didn’t know that!! This mean billions go to landfill each year. The U.S discards 60 billion paper cups a year, the U.K 2.5 billion. The coffee cup is made from cardboard which isn’t recyclable and takes 20 years to decompose.
I became a little obsessed with this information. I have a pretty vigorous coffee habit which I feed at least twice a day, every day, all year. That’s 730 Starbucks (or other coffee brand) cups a year. Are you shocked by that number? I’m not. In the face of 60 billion cups, it felt tiny. What I am shocked by is thinking about that in context of how much garbage one person generates overall.
It’s really hard to maintain minimal trash. Sweden does this really well, to the point where the country has to import neighbouring country's trash to keep its recycling plants going. Since thinking about this issue I’ve become more conscious about noticing how much trash I generate. When I travel, I’m amassing luggage tags, takeout containers I can’t reuse, subway tickets, plastic water bottles. When I’m home I cook a lot, every week I’m buying and tossing foods in plastic bags and containers without thought. I’m tossing out cat food tins, wrappers, receipts, food packets, jars and scraps every day.
This has reduced a little since I started being a little more disciplined. Instead of buying everything at the supermarket out of convenience, I buy my fresh ingredients at the wet market and carry my foods home in a large IKEA bag. This means no more plastic bags of onions or packets of vegetables. We don’t have bulk bin stores here, so things like beans, spices, condiments, sauces, oil and milk are still bought in packets, tins and jars.
Besides reducing trash, I'm taking extra effort to look at packaging that can be recycled and sorting them out separately when tossing things. In Asia, most high-rise building blocks are outfitted with a garbage chute so you can send trash down the block from many apartments effectively. Unfortunately, this has also bred the behaviour of tossing garbage instead of recycling as there's only one central chute and no recycling stations.
And for that coffee habit? I bought an insulated thermos that works for both hot and cold drinks which I’ve kept with me every day. While it comes with a café lid I opted for the loop handle so I can take it with me on travels. For anyone who has ever been bothered by the number of plastic water bottles they consume while travelling, it’s a great reusable option.
Eating less meat
For all the times I’ve hunted for a city’s local must-eat when travelling, it never occurred to me to look for a vegetarian or vegan one. It’s too hard to go vegetarian on holiday, is my go-to excuse. And while that used to be very true for most places, I never really tried.
Vegetarian or vegan food is underrated not by meat eaters but by the lack of imagination of those who sell it. ‘Fresh’ and ‘healthy’ salads made with thousand island dressing (yelch), mushroom and corn aren’t really the standards by which anyone wants to spend the rest of their life eating.
A restaurant in Helsinki really opened my eyes to how tasty vegetarian or vegan food could be, and just how much imagination one needed to really make this shine. Meat is easy: a little sear, some char, make a tender marinate, it’s been done before. A good steak almost always tastes the same, doesn’t it? When I realised what Zucchini could do with beetroot and lentils, my taste buds and senses popped open and I’ve been hooked ever since to hunting down ingenious vegetarian and vegan foods anywhere I travelled to. Mahalo in Stockholm turned me on to buddha bowls, not just for the micro-nutrient trend but for the idea that every mix gives you something different every time. I’m constantly on Pinterest finding the best lentil meatloaf recipe, flipping through Ottolenghi cookbooks, puzzling over how to recreate the beetroot & tofu gravy in Helsinki or the red cabbage curry with brown butter in Copenhagen, and annoyingly, pickling everything I find from beetroot to cucumbers to onions because they add such an amazing pop to basically everything. And oh, if you have not yet tried sliced jalapeños in your tofu scramble, served with hash, it is life-changing.
“What do you do?”
One of our guides in Denmark remarked that when Danes ask, “What do you do?” They’re likely referring to what your passions are, or what you love to do, not what your profession is. Having a real hard think about what I choose to do with my time and skills outside of work, I’m frankly stumped. It still stumps me.
For someone who has spent the last decade chasing down a better job, pay check, or status, this was a bit of a wake-up slap. If you’ve been following my story this year, 2017 has been my wake up year. In January I took a forced mini sabbatical in Bangkok where I had to face myself and acknowledge that I needed a real change. In April I left a job I’d spent the last 4 years in. I emerged realising I had burnout. It wasn’t obvious till I had actually left the environment. I had been mentally stonewalled, devoid of imagination, and stagnated. I’d spent the last of my late twenties in this environment and it shaped a large part of who I was. It also showed me where I had to draw the line in terms of what I needed out of a job.
My partner frequently remarks about how in the last year at my previous job I’d become extremely cranky and prone to stress-related temper tantrums. I’d stopped cooking, spent weekends glued to YouTube as I “rested”, and dreaded Mondays with a hateful passion. All that has changed in the last few months. Having financial security is incredibly important, but what I realised was that stability is no excuse for feeling stuck with what you have if it doesn’t fulfil you in the ways you need.
In winter the sun rises at 6am and sets at 4pm in Denmark so people go to and leave work in the dark, never seeing sun outside. Hygge is the concept of cosiness despite that gloom, one spent with contentment, with family by the fire. There is no real direct translation of hygge in English. The closest I imagine is “Netflix”.
The Swedish concept of fika is based on a similar ideal with 3 crucial requirements: coffee, a sweet dessert, and the company of someone every day to discuss social events other than work. Not your phone.
Some of you have got your priorities screwed on straight and tight, and I admire everyone who has never had to go through these realisations which seem pretty simple and obvious. Today I’m appreciating more the time I spend at home, enjoying my space and making it cosier, as opposed to feeling like it’s a place I put my body in when there’s no place I needed to be. I’m appreciating the things I do at home from reading, to writing these reflections, to fiddling away at recipes and crafts. I’m appreciating the time I spend with people and getting to know them more, in lieu of hiding away and shopping online to clutter my home with stuff I don’t need.
I don’t hit all of these changes all the time. Some days I still eat meat. Not all the products I use are cruelty-free or even recyclable. Somedays I can’t avoid a non-recyclable paper cup. Trash still pile in my bin. But rather than beat myself up about it or going hardcore religious in cutting out everything from my life, I'm making conscious life changes slowly where I can hoping they’ll stay with me for a long time.