Monday, 26 January 2015

Le Matte de Shower

Actually, French for shower mat is 'le tapis de douche' but I like my title better...

This is a drafted post from last summer , heavens, September 2013! when we were camping at Loche in France. I can't tell that I ever wrote about that trip, only about some of the books I read while we were in the Loire Valley. It was just after our first invitation to cat sit in Nice and we literally flew home, spent one night at the house, packed the van and started the journey down to Dover to catch the ferry to Calais. We'd booked well before we knew we'd be going to Nice so it was all sandwiched in at the last minute. I don't know anyone else who goes to France for three weeks, flies home and then goes back to France for two. That seems to me to neatly describe our life these days: periods of manic activity followed by a month or two of collapse. 

Anyhow, for those of you who have not experienced motor home travel one of the features of most caravan parks is a shower block (the French aptly call it a 'sanitaire') which also provides toilets, laundry and dish washing facilities. The housekeeping of said facilities varies from site to site, most being fairly pristine I'm grateful to report. But no matter how clean there is always the 'wet foot through clothes' moment. Unless you can stand on one foot for longer than I can, whilst juggling toiletries / towel / clothes when provided with limited shelves/ hooks /seating. One likes to keep the towel clean so it can't go on the floor and the water would simply soak through anyhow.

I just hacked around the rectangle then tucked the edges under.

So, I brought a sewing project with me to Loches. It involved hand towels from our enormous  inherited collection and rescued umbrellas which I had a weakness for the first year or so I was retired, along with single gloves. I'm over the glove addiction but must admit umbrellas still call to me in their pitiable dead-spider way, particularly if they are colourfully marked spiders. I prefer hoods myself, with a drawstring (which looks stupid) or spare scarf tied around the outside to hold it on; few umbrellas can cope with the gale force winds we have around here. But enough about the weather. 

My project simply involved sewing together the plastic fabric of the former umbrella to the absorbent terry cloth of the hand towel and voila - a shower mat was born! They work great. I've since gone around with the sewing machine as my hand stitching was a bit haphazard and didn't hold up well with machine washing. 

I do get a ridiculous amount of satisfaction from making stuff like this.

Friday, 23 January 2015

My Instincts were Right!

Four and a bit years years ago I wrote about my experience with using a financial advisor. I talked about all the reasons he did not impress me and I stopped using him after about three months.

Bill sent me a link to a news story about this man and there are any number of headlines online about him.  I gather he told some of his clients that he was investing their money in a property scheme in India but in fact he was running a Ponzi scheme and took a total of £2.6 million pounds from (reports vary) between 37 and 41 people.

  1. Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation where the operator, an individual or organization, pays returns to its investors from new capital paid to the operators by new investors, rather than from profit earned by the operator.

I'm grateful that I got shed of him when I did.  I doubt I would have invested in his property scheme but then he always did give me the creeps, for all the reasons I wrote about earlier. I don't think my intuition is terribly fine tuned, but I do recognise inconsistent behaviour and dubious ethics when I see them. And I've always believed that if something seems too good to be true...give it a miss. I'm fairly risk averse, I'm afraid.

I do wonder at the people who get caught out by shysters like this man. Are they completely unobservant? Greedy and unethical themselves? Or impossibly naive?

I hope you've never been caught out - I do hear stories about people who have been.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Social History of Trash

Waste and Want - a social history of trash, by Susan Strasser, was one of the weirder book titles on my Amazon wish list and Simon kindly obliged me. I finished and Bill is now reading it. I learned a number of amazing / obvious things:

The practices of housewives shape society and have a major economic impact. Back when women worked almost exclusively in the home with little spending money of their own, they - and their children - made pocket money by selling things like rags (made into paper before wood was used) and fats (for soap and candles - though many housewives made their own). Pedlars literally 'traded' door to door, offering household goods to homemakers far from shops but also collecting recyclable goods that their employers sold on to scrap dealers. A housewife might not have enough money to buy a new implement, but she might have goods for which she could trade part of the price.

There was a day when clothing was patched and re-patched until the textiles were altogether hopeless. Fabric and clothing were expensive before industrial times, being very labour intensive to produce.

If homemakers didn't need the cash, such re-sell-able items were given to servants or put out for poorer families to find in their scavenging. Many children scoured the streets to find such things to add money to their family income; they were called 'swill children'.

It is typical to put one's waste items on the periphery of one's property. It seems obvious that trash bins are set out for collection near the street and they are generally kept outside of the home in the mean time. Things on their way to the trash sometimes reside for a while in attics, basements or garages...(or at least that is what Bill hopes).

Children have always scavenged for spending money. I remember collecting the odd pop bottle I found for the 5-10 cent deposit that I could spend on candy. Bill remembers paying for movie admission with jam jars. Which explains the name of a local small theatre called the JamJar Cinema - I always wondered about that!

I was amazed to learn that sorting trash was a common requirement before World War II, not just a recent innovation as an environmentally friendly practice. Re-cycling trash - indeed just collecting trash - has always been a profitable business. Said businesses haven't always been particularly ethical in the manner of disposal and lower socio-economic locations have always born the brunt of disposal.

I remember dumpster diving being discussed in The Tightwad Gazette. This isn't something I've ever done much. A friend and her dad used to find bits of jewellery behind the mall near her house and she mentioned cases of food on the odd occasion. I've walked past the back of Subway and seen enormous plastic bags full of bread loaves in the trash bins. The amount of food wasted by commercial concerns has always seemed wrong to me. Dumpster diving is classed as stealing in the UK, but trespassing is the greater difficulty; most garbage bins are on the private property behind the premises, often gated. I recently saw a comment remarking about grocery stores having collection points for food banks at the front of the store at the same time they are filling their trash with discarded food in the back of the store.

Two terms were discussed at length at the beginning of this book, one familiar and one new to me. In fact, in one of those many little coincidences I encounter when reading a lot, I just now was reading a magazine interview with Annie Lennox (Vivien brings me her magazines which I read and pass on to Lucy who passes them on to the waiting room at the hospital where she works). Lennox mentions that these days we're always looking for the latest new thing whereas in her (my) grandparents' day whatever they had they kept and re-used. They were looking for value. Lennox says she thinks that's important. Not what you'd expect from her, eh? Maybe we all start looking for more value as we approach 60?

In Waste and Want Strasser talks about 'stewardship', about valuing the material something is made with and valuing the labour, the time and the skills that went into making it. Dictionary definitions of stewardship talk about careful and responsible management of something; protecting and being responsible for something. Responsibility is obviously a major component of stewardship. Valuing and re-using what we already have doesn't seem to be the mainstream these days, but it is definitely what feels right to me. Mechanization has removed much of the skilled labour once required and so much is made from convenient but uninspiring plastic or fiber board; I can see why it's hard to value these cheap new things. This is one of the many reasons I prefer old things and buying secondhand to get them. 

Strasser also talks about 'bricolage' and 'bricoleurs', terms I'd never met. Apparently the former is French for 'tinkering' but Strasser uses it as making things from what you have on hand. The Tightwad Gazette taught me to make Halloween costumes from what I already had, to cook from the ingredients in my kitchen (something I should have learned from my Mom, who made amazing meals from scratch). Strasser talks about the days when people kept parts and bits they knew would come in handy for future repairs or other projects. She talks about the skill set that is now largely lost, the knowledge of how to fix things. 

As a child I remember bragging that my Dad 'could fix anything'. I grew up watching him build shelves and stairs, make the refrigerator and the toaster work again, do all sort of automotive repairs. He and Grandpa both understood how things worked. My confidence in my Dad's ability to put things right was one of the corner stones of my childhood security since I knew we didn't have a lot of money. Maybe that's why I so love this idea of bricolage. Any fool can throw money at a problem; it takes a bit of ingenuity to find a different solution, a more hand made one.

I was disappointed to read that even as early as the late 19th century women purchased fabrics to make patchwork quilts. I'd always imagined that paying a small fortune for coordinating fabrics to cut up and then sew back together was a relatively recent development. However, according to Strasser women often at least supplemented their collected bits with new fabrics and almost no quilt that survives today can't be tied in with a published pattern which may even have come with the pieces cut and ready to sew. 

One of the reasons silk dresses have survived far more frequently than linen, cotton or wool dresses is not just because they may not have been worn as often, being special, but because silk wasn't recyclable as these other materials were. As mentioned earlier, paper was originally made from the plant based fabrics; wool was put onto fields for fertilizer, something I'd not heard about before.

My former job threw some interesting experiences my way, one of which was to tramp through a landfill site (I had to buy special safety shoes to wear!). It didn't smell great, but the odour was not at all the worst part of it for me. The sheer volume of recognisable items being bulldozed was insane, things that didn't look like rubbish to me, at least no more rubbish than they were brand new. A person could have started a new Toys Were Us chain from all the plastic toys I saw. They looked 95% OK, just not perfect anymore. Clothing, paper, all sorts of things that could have been saved from landfill with a bit of effort. The worst for me was the idea that people spent hours of their lives earning money to buy things that were casually discarded; that limited resources had so little value for most people. The landfill seemed to me evidence of a lot of what's wrong in the world: greed, ignorance, sloth.

I'm sure Bill thinks I'm slightly mental on this topic and I agree that I spend a stupid amount of my time walking to my paper recycling bag with bits, but I am mindful of what I send to landfill, which is why I wanted to read this book. I'm in no way Zero Waste myself, but I am completely amazed at what people throw away. 


Just recently (another coincidence) I was directed to this man's website showing the way he makes his living scavenging trash in Montreal. I'm grateful someone is prepared to do that to save some of these beautiful/interesting things from landfill.

I don't suppose you spend much time thinking about the implications of your trash, do you?

Monday, 19 January 2015

Plum Rich!

Bill and I went up to Seaton Delaval to our usual green market for the first time this year. I bought an enormous amount of food for only £62. We were about to drive off the street when Bill remarked, "We didn't want those plums..." There was a stack of boxed plums for £2 each that we briefly considered on our way to other offerings. 

When he said this, I remembered having bought a very large box of chestnut mushrooms for £1. I roasted them - it took several batches - then froze them in small bunches. We enjoyed the rich flavour of those mushrooms for nearly a year and could always tell if either of us had added some to a dish. We similarly enjoyed asparagus at nearly every meal for a week when I bought 5 bunches - at 10 pence each! They may have been past their best, but I certainly couldn't tell it. So, we did a u-turn and ended up buying 2 boxes of plums and 2 small containers of blueberrys (50 pence each). 

The blueberries went straight into the freezer while I focused on the plums. I went through them thinking I'd find mushy or rotten fruit, but instead I found 5.834 kg (nearly 13 lbs) of perfectly lovely plums ready to eat (just counting these we paid 31p/pound). I threw away (composted) 8 as too ugly to consider and there was another 3.061 kg (nearly 7 lbs) of plums to cook (counting all the plums minus the ugly 8, we paid only 20p/pound!). They aren't so much spoilt as beginning to dry out. I've no idea how they've been stored since coming from South Africa but I'm looking forward to having plums with our desserts for a while.

I tackled the older plums first and found that the dry bits were easily discarded and I froze a ziplock bag of the juicy remainders minus pits; unfortunately these are not 'freestone' pits but 'welded-in pits.  Most recipes call for fresh fruit but I'm happy to experiment with thawed frozen and I have my eye on Plum Flummery (love the name!) made with fresh or thawed plums. If that happens I'll be sure to let you know how it goes. If all else fails, they can always go into spice cake.

I looked up plum desserts that can be frozen and found some interesting ideas:

Plum and Almond Buttermilk Cobbler

Plum Cakes

Plum Crumble

Then, as luck would have it one of my favourite blogs Down to Earth did her usual fine selection of weekend links and thus I found North West Edible Life. I've been doing tons of catch up reading and one of the things that caught my eye was her no pectin jam

This is going to be my first Plum Project! 

Plums and sugar out on the potting bench in the save space in the refrigerator.

Friday, 16 January 2015

"The Simons'" New House

Simon and Simone closed on their new house just last week. It is a small, three bed, semi-detached former council house, with a large conservatory and a nicely private garden on a corner lot.  AND hard-wood floors and a wood burning stove in the front room. I think they made a really good purchase, finding a small house in a desirable location for about two-thirds the average house price in the village.

I don't know what I envy most: that enormous conservatory, the decent sized private garden, the hard wood floors, their soft close kitchen units, or the wood burning stove. I think I'll chose the latter two as they are the most achievable for us. Then again, I've done my best not to keep up with "The Jones's" and I'm inclined not to try to keep up with "The Kids" either!

The previous owner had completely refurbished the house with new kitchen, carpets, bathroom, closets, doors, the works. Unfortunately Simone wasn't fond of the purple bedroom or the pink floral conservatory; nobody cared for the cute writing on the walls.

They had only about five days with access to both the old rented house and the new one and Simone was keen to have everything 'perfect'.  She is German and on the Continent renting a flat is more common than owning a house. It took a while to convince her that buying was a good idea, but of course once she committed she was quite excited about having her own home.

Simon called on his dad's wallpapering expertise and we went down with all the decorating tools that would fit in the car. We worked about four hours when we arrived, I foolishly put in a straight ten hour day on Wednesday. On Thursday I could manage no more than a bit of puttering with frequent rest stops. We packed up the car and left Friday morning as Simone was back at work and Simon was left to unpack boxes and assemble furniture.

Though the decor was all pretty new, my guess is that the owner hadn't done much cleaning since it had sold. She left the ovens, the dishwasher and the refrigerator absolutely filthy. It used to be the custom to clean the house you left, but apparently not everyone signs up to this courtesy.

The 'before' photos are very attractive if a bit twee. The Simon's were looking forward to putting their own stamp on the place. Simone's preferred colors are the bright warm colours of the 1970s. My guess is that Simon chose the cooler colours of the living and bed rooms. 

Simon was very excited about the shed that he will have for his woodworking; he makes some amazing things in wood. He bought some under-flooring that came in handing for moving heavy furniture over the muddy garden. The shed will be just outside the kitchen back door (as opposed to the conservatory back door) and I look forward to seeing the magical things he will make there.

In looking for before photos online, I found the "before-before pictures" and I find the comparisons fairly remarkable. 

Outside Front

For simplicity, I'll call this the 'first owner': 

The house sold in 2010, but this is actually a pretty 1960s look.
This will be a morning shot, as the house faces east-ish.

And this is how it was redone by "The Remodel-er". She replaced the garage with a large conservatory. And she added hydrangeas - a lot of them.

Living Room 

"First Owner": 

This brick shelf thing is pretty common in properties this age and though it is quite grim, the horizontal line does optically widen this smallish square room. The alcove to the left of the stove has straight lines and the one on the right, curved. There is a carefully camouflaged "wood" (steel) beam. These design features are all apparently common for the whole the street. Some council architect's bright ideas no doubt. 

"The Remodel-er" had a pretty good eye, I must admit.

The long, low, pale furniture, use of white and mirrors - not the mention the estate agent's wide angle lens - all make the room feel bigger than it is.

"The Simon's":

Simon and Simone have chosen a gorgeous colour instead of the white. I'm calling it teal; it is bluer in daylight and greener at night. The pale green blinds were left behind so they have time to figure out window treatments. Some of the white parts will remain. You'll have to use some imagination to see how it turns out, we obviously left them in the middle of their moving process.

Simon plans to take out the wall sconces and put up book shelves.

Simon plans to remove the wall sconces and put up book shelves.

That light in the middle of the room has the oddest switch I've ever seen: you hold down a button to dim the light, releasing it just when the light is out. It's not easy to get right and you can fiddle on with it through several cycles. That would be one of the first things to go were this my house!

Radiators can really complicate furniture placement!

Simone's 'throne'.

Simone's grandmother's furniture is massive - it makes me think of the Black Forest! They may find it a challenge to place in these small rooms. She mentioned 'getting rid' of some of it - not something I'd personally ever consider. But then I've been accused of buying a house to suit my Grandmother's furniture and I suppose most people do it the other way around...

Latest Update!

Simon sure worked fast getting those shelves and lights put in! Can't wait to see the stove fired up as well.

Bedroom 1

"First Owner":

Their bedroom may have parquet floors under the new beige carpet; then again it might have been linoleum (or even carpet?). There is no photo of the remodeled bedroom, but I can tell you it was a sort of magenta-purple. There was a large white dandelion shape stuck in one corner with fluffy seed stickers cascading across the wall...gone!

The tiny corner closet has been replaced with a massive Ikea shiny wardrobe. 

"The Simon's":

Simon was going to see about papering or painting the shiny surface of the wardrobe. Also adding a cornice (woodwork around the top of the wall).

Bill slaving away...

Ta Da! Mint green and Laura Ashley wall paper!

We thought this was rather like chinoiserie...(French for Chinese-esque).

Latest Update!

Oh wait, Simon did have a 'before' photo showing the purple walls:

This gorgeous washstand is one that Simon bought and restored. 

Bedroom 2

"The Remodel-er"

No first owner or Simons' photos. This furniture is all gone of course, replaced in part by a brown couch/fold out bed. This will be Simone's office / guest room. Out that window the view overlooks the neighbour's garden, an empty lot on which another house is to be built and a primary school. Also the foot path that leads to the pub (a quite posh pub, but stupidly expensive).

Bedroom 3

No previous owner photos. This will be Simon's guitar room (have I mentioned he makes guitars?) 

The wardrobe takes up about a third of the room, but of course storage space is valuable. 

Amazing wall paper; but the light fixture also casts shadows... too much going on there for me!


Bill and I disagreed about the shower; I thought it was just right, he thought it too small.  "Soak your cares away" (with soap bubbles) remains written above the egg-shaped tub, which must be about the worst design feature I've encountered - the tub, I mean. It is placed at an angle because it's actually too long for the wall. There isn't space to get a broom/mop handle between the ends and the wall. The only way to reach the gap behind the tub is to stand in it and bend in half or to lie on the floor and reach under each end. 

Ask me how I know that. 

I can't imagine working that hard for anyone other than Simon - probably not even for us!

The funny bit in the corner ceiling is echoed in the guitar room. Bill thinks the builder mis-measured something.
Mind, I doubt there is a perfect house in England...


No "First Owner" photos, but "The Remodel-er" knocked together the 12 x 7' kitchen and the 13 x 10' dining room to make this massive kitchen.  I love the double oven, the washing machine, slimline dishwasher and even the wine fridge (not that I'd bother with the latter - we all prefer red). I do not love the Amana (made in Iowa!) side by side with ice maker (in England!). Because of said ice maker, the freezer doesn't actually have more space than the one they left behind. 

Simon was also keen to replace the ceiling lights - about 10 of them, each with a 40 Watt bulb!  Ouch.

Aside from the small appliances (The Simon's have a turqoise toaster and kettle and a fancy coffee maker, of course), the kitchen remains largely the same.

"A house is made of Walls and Beams...A home is made of Hopes and Dreams"(plus hearts) ....gone!

Below is my photo showing the other end of the kitchen - even more massive cupboards/drawers, all highlighted with recessed lighting inside, out and along the floor. Bill liked these well enough to buy a string for our kitchen. I'll let you know if and when they go up (if they stay up). Be's colourful!

That orange is NEW...but first, the old.

Latest Update!

You can see those jazzy lights now - looks like time for a party!


"The Remodel-er" clearly loved pink and florals. Simone definitely hates pink, so it had to go. The floral blinds are still up, or were last week. I'm thinking it would be possible to cover them with a different fabric, but I've never attempted it, so I'm not sure. The blinds will have been quite expensive, so I'd not throw them out without some thought. 

What a difference blue sky and sunshine can make! I listened to the rain as I painted...much preferable to music in my book.

"The Simon's": 

Like I said, those flowers had to go...

Not much to show here other than one newly painted orange wall. The room gradually filled with boxes to be emptied and furniture to be placed. There is a wood dining table and chairs to replace the white rattan pieces shown above. Also a brown sofa across from what will be the single TV in their house. 

One coat of paint with a brush...kind of mod art I thought!

Much better with second coat!

Latest Update!

TV and modern sound system in place... I didn't follow the description but apparently it directs sound widely or something. I can see they've been hard at work all week. They're going to have a great house!

Back and Side Gardens

"First Owner":

I'm guessing the "First Owner" may have used this area as an extended drive, perhaps he parked a motor home here? All that sun makes me this this area has lots of planting potential. It is a north facing garden, but the southern sun obviously reaches that far side.

"First Owner" also liked roses, some of which remain.

"The Remodel-er" clearly loved hydrangeas. And garden furniture. And other decor...

Including a barbeque!

"The Simon's"

They bought two apple trees (Simone has a thing about apples) which will be espaliered against that wood fence and a 'weeping willow pear tree' (who knew there was such a thing?) which will take the place of something else stuck in the garden. I suspect some pink hydrangeas are going to disappear, both for fruit trees and for Simon's Shed.

"The Neighbours"

Have an odd sense of humour. 

Why would anyone want a toilet on top of their garage/house extension?

My only concern is that their neighbour has a toilet on his garage roof, for what purpose I'm not certain. Fortunately, the tall trees around their garden screen this foolishness from their house view. Perhaps they'll learn more when they go around and introduce themselves. 

Maybe that's why they got that good price on the house?

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Walk on the Beach

I hope to exercise regularly again. I've put it aside the last few months, needing that energy for major preparations for Thanksgiving and Christmas.  

A container ship approaching the Tyne.

It got put aside again when we went to Chester to help Simon and Simone move into their new house (though I would say I got plenty of exercise on those three days!).

I knew I needed to start slowly and that anything is better than nothing, so one day I managed a walk on the beach. When the tide is out and I walk all the way end to end it is about 3-3 1/2 miles. 

It is usually breezy and cold but always beautiful. I sometimes forget to appreciate how lucky I am to be so close to something this special.