31 July 2018

Seattle and Europe: house & garden love!

I have a dream of weaning myself off house magazines. I think they're a bit like fashion magazines for anorexics: they feed us with house envy, and with a longing for what we haven't got.

Wanting what you haven't got is a sure-fire way to unhappiness. It's bad for personal finances, too. It's good for businesses who peddle homeware and renovation supplies, though.

But we all have to live somewhere, and many of us innately want to have attractive surroundings. On our recent overseas trip, I took the opportunity to indulge in these. Prepare also for more than a spattering of gardens.


In Seattle, I stepped inside my dream home magazine. At least in the suburbs I wandered with my children, nobody had torn down their craftsman home to put up an eaveless box with vast quantities of double-glazed windows. Instead we saw sweet wooden house after wooden house, each a bit different and colourfully painted.

There was a bit of the kiwi about them, except it was the type that shows up more in vivid stylized paintings of wooden New Zealand houses than in reality. It was a supercharged scene of colourful historic houses, and gardens that struck an unusual balance between style and wilderness.

The people who built these houses cared for their curvaceous details, and so do today's owners. These are loved houses. They are also extremely expensive - Seattle has hugely pricey real estate.

The gardens boasted flowers, texture, colour and a bit of wildness. The sections were small, the lawns were tidy and the plantings were generous. They looked so unlike New Zealand gardens! This might be because the winters are much colder there, and they have access to plants that we don't (and vice versa, of course).

Why restrict your garden to your own property when the berm is available?

Me pretending I live here.

But many of the plants were familiar, and the differences were less about content and more about style. It made me realise that as with clothes, we obviously follow the crowds with gardening and do what others are doing, without being remotely aware that we are being sheep.

The bees were loving it.


I can't even remember what made me aware of this darling little French alpine town, or that I wanted to go there. Something I read years ago, I suspect. When I saw the hassles we'd have to go to get there by train from Vienna, our previous planned stop, I wondered if I was mad and my children would be undone by the hours we had to spend on the train and the changes we had to make.

Mont Blanc towers behind Chamonix
We ended up hopping from Vienna to Innsbruck, at the foot of the Austrian Alps. There we stayed two nights and were stunned by the beauty of the mountains, which in hindsight paled in comparison to Chamonix's! Then we began about a 12-hour train journey to Chamonix, right across Switzerland, including two missed connections and a whole lot of worry about whether we'd really get there in time to sleep in a bed rather than on a footpath.

But by the time we got on the last train, the "Chamonix Express", we were utterly sold. This was a slow (non-express) narrow gauge railway that climbed and twisted through enormously high snowy mountains. I could not believe the scale and beauty of them, the altitude of the little villages - most of which we stopped at - nor the  sweetness of the wooden Swiss chalets. Even the newly-built ones looked like something from the "Heidi" television series I used to watch.

Our clean little train had enormous windows, and if we could have reached out of them we would almost have been able to stroke the conifers and ferns and cool our hands under the small waterfalls. This was a land of dense forest, some green pasture, towering snowy peaks and well-worn rock. And very large stacks of firewood.

I will never go on a lovelier train ride. I doubt there is one. It was very cheap, too.

But to the houses and gardens of Chamonix. This is another planet of housing, as pretty as it gets and built to keep people warm and uninundated by the undoubtedly copious winter snow. The houses crawled with roses and clusters of bright flowers.

The house we stayed in - a former sheepfold, which was (and is) no doubt
much needed in this place in winter. if you are a sheep. The stone walls
were about half a metre thick!

The mountains hang decoratively in the background.

The view from our flat.
As I wandered the narrow lanes between the houses - and nowhere seems to be more than 15 minutes or so from the town centre - my eyes gobbled up the vegetable gardens. I love to see others' vege gardens, especially lavish foreign ones! We are all united by our bellies, and I saw that people everywhere love to grow things and create beauty.

Here we were 1000 metres closer to the sun, with the 4,810 metre-high permanently snowy Mont Blanc decorating the sky nearby. All around were snowy ranges, and often the colourful sails of paragliders flying off the mountains (there are gondolas ascending them).

The air was clear and bright, and cleaner than clean. Next to Mont Blanc, an enormous blue-grey glacier rolled down towards us. And the humans clipped their roses, watered their flower pots, plucked their strawberries and considered what to serve with the salad greens that emerged from the soil they tended. Perhaps one of the 50 or so cheeses in their small local supermarket?

Food, flowers and great beauty - I was very happy.

Parisian gardens

It was not the gardens themselves that grabbed me in Paris. We are spoiled in Hamilton when it comes to impressive gardens, and in Europe I repeatedly thought that public gardens and palaces needed a team from Hamilton Gardens to come and advise them on style and maintenance. But I there were a couple of quirky things that caught my eye:

A scraggy vegetable in the shadow of the Notre Dame.

A goat in the Tuileries garden, central Paris. There was a slight bank and the grass
needed to be kept down. Why are you laughing? What's wrong with a goat
 in one of the world's most famous gardens?


Oh, the Oxford and the Cotswolds - is there anywhere in the world that does gardens better?

Magdalen College, Oxford.

Oxford Botanic Gardens

Christchurch College

Ebrington village, Cotswolds.

A vegetable garden in St James' Park, London. Buckingham Palace is at the opposite
end of the park.

Once my young nephew said "We speak different languages, but we all smile the same". Wise words from a little boy. As I travelled, I noticed that we definitely speak different languages, but we all like to grow things.

24 July 2018

Being pushed head-first into Stoicism

I first read about Stoicism on the Mr Money Mustache blog. Get ye there! I love his blog. By Stoicism, I don't mean the common sense of being stoic. That's just the barest edge of the concept. I mean the philosophy and way of life called Stoicism, which began with ancient Roman philosophers, and even an emperor.

Before I took my children off for big trip in May, I'd decided that when I got back, I'd look into it further. Then, fate took matters into its own and thrust me into Stoicism, perhaps a little bit more brutally than I'd prefer.

Just a random old city wall.

The thrust came in the form of having almost none of my belongings for 12 days. When we arrived in Rome from Seattle, via three flights, our bags were not on the carousel. My son had his, which consisted only of a jammed-full school bag that he took as carry-on luggage.

My well-aged backpack.

A change of clothes was much required in the 30 or so degree heat immediately after travelling 20 or so hours from Seattle. We were not at all fresh. So we found a market and bought the first things we remotely liked, thinking it was only a day or so before we had our own gear.

In the end we travelled to Southern Italy (Salerno), Venice and then Vienna before our bags were returned. Let's just say that Italy is not the easiest place to negotiate things like getting two bags back.

What I learned

If you have a bed, a shower, soap, water and food, your basics are covered. The three of us sleeping in the same room on two beds in our Rome airbnb were living in greater luxury than most humans ever have. We had running hot and cold clean water, glass windows, blinds, toothbrushes, clean towels and no live insects on us that were not microscopic (I have read that we all have minuscule ones on our eyelashes). We even had our very own clean bathroom with a bidet and toilet paper. Complainers, get over it and get on with it!

Our room in Rome.

We also had money to buy whatever we needed. When it came to clothing and toiletries, Lufthansa was paying us back.

Thinking about how bad things could be, and how much better off you really are, is a tenet of Stoicism.

There is a saying that Shit Happens. This another tenet of Stoicism: that bad luck happens to everyone. People are sometimes rude to you. Things go wrong. It is nothing personal, so get over it and instead use the energy and mindspace in more happy and productive ways.

So when it did happen - again and again on our trip, aside from the missing bags - I got over it reasonably quickly.

Almost all of our unpleasant things were outside our control. Indeed I spent so many days and hours worrying about all the things that were inside our control that those things were mostly sorted. We were never unavoidably late for a train, or couldn't find our lodgings, or were overly hungry or thirsty, or out of money.

Stoics distinguish between things they can control and things they cannot. In the latter case, they do not worry about them or expend energy on them. Which is why I love not watching the news.

And then at home ...

Last week I went to the supermarket. I saw a man holding up his son, mostly by putting his arm around him or walking with the boy between himself and the trolley. The son was a tall, slim boy like my own son, probably in his early teens. He tottered unsteadily on his toes; under his tracksuit pants was a nappy; his expressionless crossed eyes marred what would have been a handsome face; a strand of saliva dripped from his chin.

All the while the man chatted kindly to his boy; at the checkout he stroked his cheek lovingly.

I sniffed and looked at the ground and hoped nobody would speak to me, or I would cry.

My bright-eyed clever children were at home. I live a lucky life of luxury and privilege.

Then I went to the library. I heard the librarian showing a child how to search the online catalogue by author. They were trying for Roald Dahl, that most wonderful writer.

"Do you have a computer at home?" asked the librarian.

"I think so ... it's a CYFs house", said the girl, who looked about nine.  (CYFs is Child, Youth and Family - she had been put in a foster home.)

Afterwards the kindly foster mother told me she'd just arrived last night.

How would that feel?

The book

Not only were all our needs perfectly satisfied even without luggage (although perhaps not all our wants) but we even had electronic devices and a way to charge them! So in Europe I took the hint - after all, we were in the land of Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic emperor - and purchased an iBook on Stoicism on my second-hand phone bought for $40 from a 12-year-old who was upgrading.

Brief outcome: this is one of the most helpful books I have ever read. It's The Art of Living by Sharon Lebell and Epictetus. It's easy reading.

A book, a movie and a body down a toilet

I also bought, for $1.99, Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. It's a 200-year-old American classic I kept reading about, so thought it was about time I read it. The guy's a bit full of himself, and I skipped bits, but came across some real gems. He was a Stoic, whether he knew it or not.

As we had just come from the Colosseum and other monuments built by slaves for rulers determined to boost their own egos and secure their ongoing power, this sentence of Thoreau's really grabbed me:

“As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby, whom it would have been wiser and manlier to have drowned in the Nile, and then given his body to the dogs.”

(In a similar vein, I watched the movie Captain Fantastic on the plane. Watch this movie! I loved it. The wife, a Buddhist, asked for her body to be cremated and flushed down the toilet in a public place.)

Greek temple at Paestum, Southern Italy, a few thousand years old.
Malaria was one of the main factors that ended this outpost Greek civilisation.
The humble mozzie is so very powerful.

My boy's photo of the Colosseum, through a fancy filter on his second-hand iPhone.

We need to take great care about what we elevate in status in this world: it should not be buildings or clothes or cars or status. There is so much more.

So please don't think that the travelling we just did, with its terrible production of greenhouse gases, is anything to strive for. I think Marcus Aurelius and Thoreau would instead say something like "Be happy with what you have, and tend to your family, your friends, your garden, your community and your highest good with joy and gratitude".

Because one of the biggest things I've learned by going away is that home is a very good place.

6 July 2018

How eco-friendly is Europe?

Hi there,

I've just returned from a longish greenhouse gas-glugging trip to the US and Europe. One of the things I was interested in from the outset is how eco-friendly these places are compared to NZ. How are these old, beautiful countries dealing with things like too much packaging and greenhouse gas emissions?

I'm not an expert judge, and as a tourist and a non-expert could only observe the surface of what was around. But here is what I noticed.


People love to grow things, everywhere. I adored the extensive vegetable gardens and orchards I saw from the train in Italy. They fill peoples' backyards. Everywhere there were allotments for apartment dwellers, and in Chamonix, the most beautiful town I've ever seen, the vege gardens are out the front. Fantastic! I even saw a vegetable garden outside the Notre Dame. It needed compost and mulch.

In Seattle, if you have no space for a vegetable garden, you just plant it on the street berm.

One of the struggling slightly raised beds next to the Notre Dame in Paris.


Firstly, why does this matter? From the June 2018 National Geographic magazine: "On some beaches on the Big Island of Hawaii as much as 15 percent of the sand is actually grains of microplastic".

I was an ignorant foreigner! I repeatedly sinned by doing the wrong thing in shops. For example, in Italian supermarkets, every single produce item had to be put in a plastic bag, weighed and stickered in the produce department - even down to a single onion or banana! The idea of having produce weighed as it goes through the check out has not caught on, and you either do it yourself or there is a person who stands in the produce department weighing it for you - but you can never really tell which it is. Perhaps the weighing man has popped out the back, or perhaps you have to do it yourself.

The produce bags did seem to be "biodegradable", although whether they actually biodegrade or just turn into minuscule pieces of plastic, I don't know.

If you take your own cloth produce bags, which I did at times, the stickers won't stick, and then you hold up the checkout while the operator goes to reweigh it for you.

I also would not wear gloves. What gloves? The plastic ones that are provided for customers to wear while they are selecting their fruit and vegetables! Presumably this is so they don't put germs on the items they leave behind. There is a bin to put them in when you've finished.

I had heard that everyone in France takes their own shopping bags, and that fruit was laser-tattooed instead of having stickers on it. Well, it ain't happening. There were quite a lot of reusable bags and baskets in France, but that was about all. I saw nobody with reusable produce bags; everything went into either pure plastic or paper bags with a plastic window. A lot of produce had stickers on it. Many people took plastic bags in the supermarket, although they often cost money.

The shelves were full of plastic-packaged food.

We spent a week in the UK and found a wealth of fantastic food. However, the packaging was terrible. I wish I had a photo of the fruit and vegetable section of Tesco Express, but it wouldn't be for the fainthearted. The supermarkets have taken on self-scan checkouts, and for easy scanning 99% of the produce is packaged (mushrooms, lettuce, broccoli) or stickered (e.g. apples) . Presumably this also creates demand for uniformly-sized produce because a big apple surely can't cost the same as a small one? This must lead to more food waste.

I did find an unpackaged onion, but this humble brown vege caused problems because I went to the self-scanner that couldn't weigh anything. There were weighing self-scanning checkouts, but they didn't take cards and I didn't have enough cash. I therefore had to go to a manned checkout to buy the lone onion.

In Seattle, the bags were paper (and they cost 10 c or something) and the produce was weighed at the checkout, however you presented it.

Our contribution

We made plenty of plastic waste ourselves. We stayed in Airbnbs everywhere, so could cook in the kitchen, but also wanted to make the most of trying local food, so generally one meal a day was from a restaurant (rare), bakery or cafe.

In one Italian patisserie I nearly had to fight not to have a slice of creamy cake wrapped in a bit of plastic so as not to smear, and put in a plastic container so as not to get crushed. The woman at the till wouldn't look at me as she took my money, and instead began a conversation with the person waiting behind me, and said that I was "complexio" or something similar. I gave up after that.

There are wonderful foodie places in the UK where you have a huge choice of things like Japanese, Mexican or sandwichy-type food and salads. These are reasonably priced and premade, and you choose what you want and take it to the counter. They are always comprehensively packaged in plastic, and you eat with plastic cutlery and throw the plastic in a bin on the way out. There must be hundreds of people through these places each hour.

This was a Japanese bowl in Seattle.

Maybe it's actually like this in NZ, too! I just don't eat out much here.


Yes, the recycling bins were impressive. Mostly you could separate waste and recycle it all. But this seemed  facile considering what was being produced. Convenience and economics were king.

The National Geographic article I mention above explains, though, that most of ocean plastic waste is from poor Asian countries with terrible waste management systems, and that the most important thing we could do is help them pay to collect and landfill the stuff. Instead there are vast quantities of dropped, uncollected rubbish washing into the rivers and sea. Not that there isn't plenty from western countries; it's just the volumes that differ.

It seems that collecting and managing plastic well, whether recycling it or not, is absolutely paramount to keeping it out of the oceans. I believe that using less is utterly important, but this is bigger than my righteous western ways. Desperately poor people can't afford a whole tube of toothpaste at once, and apparently in these countries the place is rife with discarded sachets of such things. That's all they can afford at one time; the sachets cannot be recycled; and nobody's collecting the rubbish. There may be discarded water bottles there, but there's no plumbing with clean, drinkable water delivering an alternative.

Just two days ago we were in Hong Kong. There is plastic packaging everywhere in restaurants and shops, but none lying around. There's a HK$1500 fine (NZ$300) for littering.

Clean energy

I'm not an expert on this. There were plenty of solar panels in Austria and Switzerland, particularly on farm buildings. In the UK we saw a vast solar farm, and across the Channel were patches of hundreds of windmills.

We saw electric cars charging on the street in Paris, and in driveways in Seattle.

There were city bike hire schemes in many places: Seattle, Rome (I think), Vienna, Paris and Oxford, at least. These are very cheap bike-hire schemes that encourage people to get around under their own steam. You grab one for an hour or however long you want, and it might cost $1.

We found these bikes parked all over the place in Seattle - for
example on the grass strip in front of a random house.
We hired and rode one, too. Unfortunately there
were three of us and only one bike per app allowed.
Did I mention the Seattle gardens? Oh, oh, oh. I took a million photos, and here are just a few. I love the way they nurture their old houses and don't knock them down for something shiny. A post is coming on them soon.

By the way, in Europe I only visited Italy, Austria, France and the United Kingdom. I would have loved to see what's happening in Germany! Good things, I suspect.

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