The winter solstice sunset seems a fitting photo to head this post, which will almost certainly be the last one I write from Asturias. If all goes according to plan, next week we will be moving to our new home in northern France and taking the first steps in our next Grand Adventure; yes folks, Wallace and Gromit have nothing on us!
Let me explain. We aren’t leaving Asturias because we are unhappy here ~ far from it, in fact. I have written many, many times about how much we love it here and what a privilege it is to live in this natural paradise, surrounded by utterly stunning scenery and wilderness, revelling in a benign climate and welcomed and accepted by such warm, friendly people. In truth, I never expected Asturias to get under my skin quite as much as it has and for us both, it will always be one of the most amazing places we have ever experienced.
That said, we only ever planned to stay for five years. Much as we love it, this is not the right place for us to grow old and we always knew there would be another project to follow, provided we didn’t leave it too long ~ better to do it while we’re still fit enough and mad enough. We had hoped to stay until next summer but as we want to remain living in the EU, Brexit has sadly forced our hand. To retain the right to residency in France, we have to be there by the 31st of December; it’s been a bit of a nail-biting scramble but thankfully we will just squeak in. Moving house is a stressful business at the best of times, but to be moving country as well with all the chaos of Brexit, Covid-19 and Christmas in the mix feels like complete madness! Still, we have a habit of doing things the hard way and I think it helps to keep us feeling sharp and alive (if slightly frazzled).
I don’t want to say much about our new home as there will be plenty of that to come in my future wafflings and musings; suffice to say for now that we are very, very excited about returning to Mayenne and as we have lived in the area before, there is a lovely sense of ‘going home.’ There is a pretty stone cottage, a blank canvas of a (flat! 😲) garden and a parcel of broadleaf woodland all waiting for our attention; no big renovation jobs this time but plenty to keep us busy in the coming years. The less challenging topography means I will be back on my bike again and I’m really looking forward to cycling into the nearest small town for bits and pieces of shopping. In fact, we have the chance to really increase our green credentials all round which pleases me very much. The poor old car will be practically put out to grass.
We’ve been fairly nomadic through our years together but we have never believed in looking back; it would be all too easy to feel a crushing sadness at the thought of leaving such a beautiful place, but that’s not our way. We will be taking so many happy memories away with us, so many incredible experiences; our lives have been hugely enriched by our time here and we have learnt much about many things, including ourselves. I have no doubt that the sound of a cowbell or whiff of eucalyptus will bring me back to Asturias, in spirit at least, for the rest of my life.
The next couple of months are going to be fairly crazy as we move ourselves northwards in stages. The priority ~ as always ~ will be to get a vegetable garden started and we are already making lots of plans on that score; at least the Mayennais climate holds no surprises for us so it shouldn’t be quite such a steep learning curve as the one we had here. I’m going to miss frost-free winters and that abundance of peaches, though!
My blog is going to have to take a back seat for a while but, like a certain Austrian actor once famously said, I’ll be back! In the meantime, I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone who has taken precious moments out of their lives this year to read, like or comment on my posts ~ I am genuinely touched and grateful, it means the world to me. I hope that everyone can enjoy a happy and peaceful festive season despite the difficult circumstances, and that 2021 will bring us all a year with less disruption and uncertainty and many wonderful things to celebrate.
The last word, however, must go to the place we have been proud to call home since May 2016.
This morning I went for a 5k run. It’s nothing to brag about; I’ve run that far many times before and for millions of runners far more talented, committed and athletic than myself, that distance is little more than a warm-up. However, this was a really special 5k which is why I’m writing about it: the wwwp5k, an invitation to join in something a bit different with the WordPress community. The challenge is to walk, run, hop, skip, swim (or whatever) a distance of 5k at some point during December as a grand celebration of reaching the 2020 finish line. I’ve never taken part in anything quite like it, but as I’ve been downright lazy all through autumn where running is concerned, it seemed like the proverbial kick up the rear end I needed so I signed up, laced up and went for it.
Regular readers will know that where running is concerned, I tend to blow hot and cold. Actually, on reflection, perhaps lukewarm and cold would be a more accurate description. Despite being married to a keen and very talented runner, I had no interest whatsoever in doing it myself until at 46, my doctor recommended running as the best (albeit also the most difficult and painful) way to fix a herniated spinal disc. I thought the man was completely bonkers but since the alternative was to see a scalpel-wielding orthopaedic surgeon, I decided to give it a go. In the beginning, I couldn’t run for 30 seconds without stopping and the pain was so excrutiating, I cried most of the time. It was awful. I hated it. Every last minute of it. That said, by the time my appointment with the physio came through eight weeks later, I was 95% fixed: good medicine, indeed.
In the intervening eight years, I’ve run many times over distances up to half-marathon (21k / 13.1 miles); I’ve taken part in races in the UK, France and Spain, some for fun, some for charity, some very serious and competitive (not for me, you understand: I just faff about at the back chatting to like-minded folks while the true athletes do their stuff up front); I’ve run up hills and down dales, through towns and cities, beside estuaries, along promenades and seafronts and muddy country lanes, across fields, beside rivers, on beaches; I’ve run in a pink tutu, sweltered in the lightest of vests and shorts, frozen in many layers, wrung water out of sodden trainers; I’ve been escorted to the finish line by a police motorbike in Villaviciosa and was overtaken in the last few metres of the Mayenne 10k by a giant Lego man. I’ve met some incredibly wonderful and inspiring people and I’ve learned a good deal about myself. Yes, it’s certainly been an adventure!
I’m not a natural runner and I still don’t really enjoy it but I persist (on and off) for two reasons:
(1) I think it’s good for me and that is backed up by a fair bit of scientific research. I believe passionately in doing what I can to take responsibility and care of my health and well-being, and running is a fairly simple* way of ticking many boxes. (*By ‘simple’ I mean it’s not complicated; it certainly isn’t easy!).
(2) I always feel better after a run. No matter how reluctant I am about putting on my trainers and getting out there ~ and anyone who has ever experienced a cat or dog stubbornly digging in their claws when they don’t want to be moved will have the right mental image here! ~ I’m always glad I did it afterwards. A favourite mantra for reluctant slowbies like me is that ‘every run is a win’ and it’s that psychological boost as well as the obvious physical benefits that make it all worthwhile (I think).
That said, I have a terrible tendency to ditch the running habit during the autumn months; it’s becoming a bit of a repeating pattern and as we slide into winter where dark days and wet weather present themselves as easy excuses to stay by the fire, I am happy to hibernate and vegetate unless something comes along to spur me back into action. Last summer, I pushed myself uncharacteristically through ten weeks of hard training, determined to finally break the sub-hour barrier for running 10k that has eluded me for years. In the event, at the Ribadesella 10k race in September, I missed it by seven seconds and went into an almighty running sulk until the chance to run in the brilliant Castrillon 8k just before Christmas shook me out of my apathy. I mean, who wouldn’t want to run a tough race in torrential rain and 50mph winds, especially as the 8k is a misnomer and the actual event was a fair bit longer? To be totally honest with you, the main draw for me was the amazing slap-up feast afterwards!
After Castrillon came the Luarca fun run for San Silvestre (New Year’s Eve), a 3k dash round the town under the Christmas lights (at my best race pace ever) and then in February, the La Fresnada ‘Gran Cita de los Runners’ organised by our friend Jose Jorge Fernandez of Asturias SportNature, where I ran a 5k, lumbering in second from last but setting a personal best time. I was on a roll and determined to get that wretched sub-hour 10k business over and done with at a very local race by the sea on 21st March, where the prizes are piles of crabs and Asturian cider! Roger had done it the previous year, so we spent a very happy morning walking the route to help me plan my campaign and enjoyed some fantastic scenery into the bargain.
Ten days before the race, I went out on a training run in torrential rain, willing myself to run each kilometre faster than the previous one; I returned home soaked to the skin and very tired but chuffed with my times . . . only to hear that a State of Alarm had been declared in Spain, the race was cancelled and we were heading into seven weeks of total lockdown. After spending the best part of two months doing all my running in the barn, which was both mind-numbing and knee-numbing exercise, I have to admit I’ve never really found any proper motivation to get back to it regularly; once the initial euphoria of being released back into the fresh air and wide open space was over, I’ve been finding far too many reasons not to bother.
Cue a post on my WordPress reader about the wwwp5k which I totally dismissed at first, as is my wont; however, a persistent little tickle in my hindbrain had me eventually going back to check the details and realising that this was, in every way, a gift. I generally run 5k in around 30 minutes so the chance to get out into the beautiful ~ if scarily steep ~ local countryside again and spend half an hour or so enjoying moving my body in the mild weather to the sound of cow bells and birdsong (they never stop singing here) seemed like a good one to take. When used properly, the internet is a wonderful thing and I love the idea of connecting with the WordPress community in this global, all-inclusive, just-for-fun activity. I get a huge amount of pleasure from writing my blog, even more from reading other people’s and I have to say, whenever I’ve needed technical support, the WP team have been amazing . . . and no, I’m not being paid to write that! Blogging is creative, inspirational, sometimes challenging, always enjoyable and completely enriching so it felt like a real privilege to be able to take part in such a challenge. The only hurdle for me was the request to take a selfie at the end and post it because we don’t have a smartphone and I could hardly run with a chunky camera swinging around my neck. Enter my pet running star and erstwhile long-suffering coach who offered to do the entire route on his bike ~ after his own much-longer-than-5k morning run, of course ~ and take photos at various stages. I ran from home but opted to start the official 5k in the village as it meant finishing on a long sweeping downhill instead of the impossibly steep climb up our lane (yes, I’m a wuss). So, here we go . . .
Wow, even I have to admit that was great! To anyone else planning to do the wwwp5k, best of luck and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. To everyone at WordPress, thank you and maybe see you again next year. Finally, to any other bloggers or their family and friends (including mine, of course ~ you’re all invited to participate, too) who are toying with the idea of having a go . . . there’s still plenty of Decemebr left! 😉 Have fun and happy fives to all!
I’m not a gambling woman but I wouldn’t mind putting money on the fact that mankind has used food in celebrations for the whole of our history. It’s such a fundamental, human, life-affirming thing to do, to come together to share meals in an atmosphere of giving, gratitude and generosity, forming and strengthening bonds and creating and deepening traditions. Christmas is, of course, no exception to this, and food rightly plays a central part in many people’s celebration and enjoyment of the festive season. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing . . . but I’d like to make a gentle plea that we try to eat, drink and be merry without stressing ourselves, creating piles of waste or generally wrecking the planet.
To be honest, I nearly didn’t write this post; having done a lot of research and reading, mostly around food waste, the shocking statistics left me feeling sad and despondent. I’m not going to repeat the figures quoted in previous posts, but just share one new one: in the UK, 130 million Brussels sprouts are wasted at Christmas. One hundred and thirty million. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to imagine what that even looks like. It feels like a complete and utter lack of respect for every part and process of the journey from field to fork, so much work and energy spent producing a fresh, wholesome vegetable that is simply thrown away. Now, I like my writing to be grounded in reality ~ life is not about unicorns prancing in sunlit uplands, no matter who might think it ~ but I do like to weave a general uplifting thread of hope and happiness through my musings and I have to admit, I’ve really, really struggled with this one.
Sprouts are one of those foods that people tend to love or hate; sifting through studies and surveys, it seems a third or so of British adults like sprouts and can’t imagine Christmas dinner without them. That’s great! However, the maths says that the other two thirds don’t, and I suspect that is part of the problem: people are cooked or served a vegetable they don’t like and won’t eat and therefore it goes to waste. What a terrible shame when there is such a wealth of options for seasonal green vegetables to choose from. We can’t grow sprouts here as the climate is too mild but with leeks, spinach, chard, cabbage and kale in the garden, we don’t miss them at all. In an earlier post, I suggested that we should not be tyrannised by traditions that don’t serve us and this is surely one of them; if you don’t like sprouts, don’t buy them but choose something you enjoy instead. If frozen peas are your thing, then have frozen peas; the Vegetable Inspectorate is not going to be knocking on your door on Christmas Day and it makes so much more sense to opt for foods you will eat and enjoy rather than something that could end up being wasted. It’s a win-win, surely?
Let’s talk turkey. I have recently completed a 30-day vegetarian challenge and to be honest, it was a breeze; I don’t eat much meat anyway and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, especially experimenting with some new veggie recipes and rediscovering old dishes we haven’t made in ages. Now I’m back to my former flexitarian ways, enjoying occasional meals of good quality meat which started with a local, organic, free-range chicken roasted with all the trimmings to celebrate my birthday. Personally, I believe that a roast dinner is a thing of great glory when it is done well . . . and there is the problem: it isn’t an easy meal to pull off, relying as it does on precise timings and temperatures and juggling a range of culinary processes to ensure everything arrives at the table at the same time. Enter Christmas dinner, and a nation where many people actually do very little cooking through the year, trying to produce the mother of all roast dinners centred on wrestling something resembling a baby ostrich in and out of a hot oven. Turkeys are relatively huge; they require large roasting trays, wide foil, a lot of oven space, a very long cooking time and at the end of it all, unless you’ve stumped up for a super duper delicious free range number, you end up with meat that is often bland and dry. To make things easier, many people opt for a turkey ‘crown’ which is basically a limbless bird; I understand the reasoning but to me it seems a bit weird, and stranger still that you can now also buy a turkey crown with ‘added’ legs. Mmmm. If you enjoy turkey, fine; it’s traditional, after all, and can be lovely. However, if it means ending up feeling stressed on Christmas Day (as surveys suggest many people do) and piles of leftovers going to waste, then have something else instead. One of the arguments for turkey is that it feeds a lot of people but so does a good sized roasting joint of other meats and, given that turkey is not a cheap option, it might be better to go for something different. In all our years together, we have only ever had turkey on Christmas Day once; in other years, choices like a rib of local pasture-fed Welsh beef did us proud and helped to support farmers and butchers in the local community. One year, in deep snow, we famously had a barbecue. I know people who have dispensed with the whole idea of a grand Christmas roast and had a marvellous time on good old bangers and mash instead and others who pack a special picnic every year and head off to a beautiful spot to eat it. Traditions can be great but some of the best are the ones we make ourselves.
Speaking of making things, one of the aspects of festive food that saddens me is the extent to which so much of it is bought ready-made. Yes, I know I’m a keen cook and I appreciate not everyone shares the pleasure I get from cooking from scratch, but I think making your own stuffing, bread sauce, gravy, mincemeat and mince pies, pudding, cake, biscuits, chocolates or whatever is a wonderful thing to do for several reasons.
#1 It’s economical. This applies particularly to foods like stuffing and gravy which are really made from scraps and these days I tend to make mincemeat and Christmas pudding from whatever is knocking about the house rather than buying a set of specific ingredients. Even if you push the boat out and buy pricey ingredients, you will end up spending less than for the equivalent ‘luxury / handmade’ article bought from the shops . . . and end up with something far, far superior.
#2 You can choose your ingredients. Many people (including a lot of the children I taught in the past) don’t like certain festive foods because of particular ingredients or flavours, so if you make your own, you can tailor dishes to suit different tastes (as well as to any specific dietary requirements, of course). If you’re not a fan of sage, leave it out of the stuffing; if nuts upset you, don’t put them in the mincemeat. If you can’t stand Christmas pudding, make something else for dessert, something that will delight you and make you purr. You can also be a choosy consumer; having spent a fair bit of time perusing the ingredients lists for a range of ready-made or packet mix Christmas foods (I know, I should get a life), I’m pretty horrified at how many of them contain palm oil. We have managed to produce delicious stuffing, mincemeat, pastry, pudding and cakes for centuries without it so why is it so necessary now? It is an ecological nightmare and I refuse to buy anything that contains it until 100% of it is guaranteed to come from a sustainable source that doesn’t harm people or nature; yes, it’s a personal thing (and I’m certainly not trying to preach here) but principles matter ~ even at Christmas! Gravy is another one. A good quality piece of well-seasoned meat will release wonderful juices which put over heat, sprinkled with flour and whisked with vegetable cooking water or homemade stock makes fabulous gravy. Gravy granules and stock cubes contain a list of ingredients that puzzle me and it seems especially curious when certain brands describe them as ‘real ingredients.’ These include things such as monosodium glutamate, hydrolysed vegetable protein, permitted flavourings, maltodextrin, modified starch, flavour enhancers, emulsifiers, disodium 5’ribonucleotides, colouring, potassium iodate, sodium inosinate and guanylate. Real ingredients? Really? Give me meat juices, flour and vegetable water any day ~ plus a splash of wine or dollop of cream if I’m feeling decadent. So what if homemade gravy is a bit lumpy or lacks the colour and gloss of this commercial stuff? It’s Christmas, time to be kind to ourselves and choosy about what we put in our bodies.
#3 It’s enriching. I’ve said before how creativity is empowering and this is true of making foods and dishes yourself rather than being a consumer. I’m not sure how we arrived at a point where it’s possible to pretty much buy an entire Christmas dinner off the shelf but I think that many people deny themselves a hugely important and beneficial sense of achievement and pleasure by not having a go at making at least a few bits and pieces at home, especially when much of it is so simple. Take stuffing, for example, which ~ trust me ~ is the easiest thing in the world to make. Start with a large bowl of breadcrumbs: these are best made from stale bread (we freeze bits and pieces until we’ve gathered enough), and if you don’t have a food processor, just rub it, crusts and all, down a cheese grater. Lumps are fine, no finesse required! Cook a chopped onion in butter or oil until soft and stir into the breadcrumbs along with plenty of salt and pepper and a pile of chopped fresh or dried herbs of your choice. At this point, you can also add anything extra you fancy such as chopped fruit, nuts, mushrooms, celery, spices or citrus peel. Go crazy, it’s your stuffing! Bind with an egg, adding a drop of hot water if the mixture is dry, and you’re done. Yes, it takes a few more minutes than opening a pack of ready-made fresh stuff or pouring boiling water onto a packet mix, but it’s so much more satisfying and the result will be truly delicious. It used to make me smile when we still had sprogs at home how the last few crumbs of stuffing were what everyone fought over.
#4 It’s fun and inclusive. No-one should feel stressed about feeding themselves and others at Christmas (well, at any time, to be honest); no-one should have to get up at 5am to stick the turkey in the oven and then spend the next few hours fretting about it; no-one should end up being a frazzled martyr in the kitchen while everyone else is busy being festive elsewhere. For many years, I have used Delia Smith’s reliable recipes as good starting points in the kitchen and her famous 36-hour countdown to Christmas dinner has undoubtedly helped many people cope with the complexities of feeding a hoard. However, I do smile at the few ‘free’ minutes allowed for the cook to enjoy a glass of pre-lunch bubbly between turning the chipolatas and boiling the sprouts. Apologies and big respect to Delia but my take on that one is this: open the bottle earlier, pour everyone a glass and give them a pinny to go with it. Get all hands on deck and everyone involved, or at the very least, stick a few seats in the kitchen and invite everyone in. With appropriate supervision around hot and sharp things, there is no reason why children can’t get busy, too. Yes, it may well be chaotic and noisy and cramped, but that’s the whole idea. Play some music, chat and laugh, let the fun start here . . . sociable cooking is a truly wonderful thing to do.
#5 It gives you control. This might sound like a strange one, but the more inclined you are to do your own cooking for Christmas, the more confident and in control you will be. That allows you to choose which bits of tradition you are going to keep and celebrate, which you plan to change and which to ignore. For years, I persisted in making a traditional Christmas cake decorated with frosted icing and reindeer frolicking through a forest of fir trees until I asked myself why I was doing it. Since Roger doesn’t like fruit cake, I don’t like marzipan and icing and the littles were more interested in the plastic tat on top, it seemed like a pretty pointless activity. Discovering a wonderful recipe by patissier Eric Lanlard for a rich and luxurious cake full of dark chocolate and topped with jewelled glacé fruits (not a plastic reindeer in sight) was a eureka moment and I never looked back. Where a Christmas pudding is concerned (previously always made at the end of October), nowadays I tend to leave the decision to the last minute ~ to make or not to make? It depends totally on how we feel and I have to admit, I’ve yet to notice any difference between the properly matured version and the ‘throw it together on Christmas Eve’ number. We have never subscribed to the idea that Christmas dinner must be on the table by a specific time, preferring to drift slowly towards it in a relaxed fashion (easier if there’s no giant turkey involved). When we had children at home, there was never any chance of eating at lunchtime as is often the tradition, since late morning would find the cooks and their helpers wandering about in pyjamas and the vegetables still growing in the garden! These days, with just the two of us, we tend to go for a long walk somewhere, armed with a flask of coffee and mince pies, then prepare our midwinter feast together when we feel like it . . . and yes, that bottle of bubbles is definitely opened before we start.
#6 It gives you possibilities for simple gifts. One of my grannies used to shake her head over the excess of expensive Christmas presents that had become the norm, saying that in ‘her day’ people were happy to give and receive small handmade gifts such as a pair of knitted gloves or jar of homemade jam. I’m definitely with Gran on that one: homemade foods can make lovely, personal gifts which tend to be acceptable to everyone and are far more meaningful than anything bought. There is a wealth of possibilities: preserves like jams, jellies, marmalades, butters, pickles, chutneys, bottled fruits, oils and vinegars, biscuits, shortbread, gingerbread, chocolates, truffles, small puddings and cakes ~ a double layer of foil wrapped round a large tin makes a brilliant mould for mini Christmas cakes. There are many beautiful ideas for wrapping and presentation (eco-friendly being the best, of course!) and if something homemade lacks the predictable, banal perfection of a commercial product, then so much the better. It’s an individual and unique gift, made with truly ‘real’ ingredients and something you won’t find on any food label ~ love.
#7: It reduces waste. With this one, I’ve come full circle from where I started with all those wasted sprouts. If we have a close connection with food and a better understanding of where it has come from and how it is produced then we are less likely to waste it. It’s not so easy to throw a pile of mince pies away if we have spent time and energy making them ourselves, rather than plucking them off a supermarket shelf. Making your own Christmas foods tends to enourage meal planning and shopping lists which in turn lead to less waste. It’s not just the food, either; if we are sourcing ingredients ourselves, we can make eco-friendly choices where packaging is concerned, too. The inclination and ability to use leftovers is also hugely important. I once watched in horror as the entire remains of a Christmas buffet of bought ‘luxury’ foods ~ including a side of smoked salmon ~ was swept off the table into a bin bag because the hostess refused to use leftovers; that food would have fed my family for a week or more. For us, leftovers from any meal are a wonderful opportunity to be creative in the kitchen and, at the very least, form the basis of tomorrow’s dinner. It’s amazing how a bit of roast meat, cooked vegetables, stuffing, gravy or whatever can be transformed by sheer culinary alchemy into heartwarming dishes (some sort of pie topped with creamy root mash is always a good crowd pleaser). Cooked meats, mince pies and Christmas pudding can be frozen perfectly well and safely for future meals. Leftover mincemeat makes a fabulous filling for baked apples, or a wonderful surprise at the bottom of an apple pie, crumble or Eve’s pudding; you can bake it into muffins or even stir it into your porridge. Many people have an aversion to boiling up bones but it is a simple thing to do and for me, does full honour to the life of the animal in squeezing out and valuing every last drop of nourishment. It yields wonderful stocks to use in soups, stews, risottos and gravies and can be successfully frozen for future use.
New research suggests that almost a third of Britons don’t know how Brussels sprouts are grown, as in they have no idea what a sprout plant looks like in a field or garden. Perhaps if as a society we could connect more with food properly at a very basic level, literally go right back to the roots of food production and understand the whole holistic picture beginning with the soil and weather, then we would be less inclined to be wasteful. Perhaps we could be more aware of what we are eating and make better, healthier and more informed choices at the point of buying. Perhaps we could rediscover the joy and freedom of being engaged and enthusiastic cooks rather than passive consumers. Perhaps we could come to an understanding that Christmas doesn’t have to be built around excess and waste. I don’t know. Maybe I’m dreaming . . . but having finished a post I nearly didn’t write, I am at least feeling more optimistic about the possibilities. I sincerely hope that those of us fortunate enough not to need the support of foodbanks this Christmas will cherish every precious mouthful and do complete honour to our festive food, ourselves and the planet. Happy Christmas cooking, everyone! 😊
What makes people happy? It’s a question I’ve been mulling over this week in response to a range of things I’ve been reading and it’s proved to be an interesting ponder. To be honest, it would be possible to spend a lot of time looking into it as there’s a wealth of research out there and some of the results are perhaps a little surprising; I fully expected to see people quoting factors such as close loving relationships or having time to do the things they really want to but listening to sad songs as a way to brighten their day was a bit less predictable! It comes as no surprise, I’m sure, to hear that spending time outdoors is one of my biggest happiness triggers so this week has literally been a joy, with woodland walks to enjoy the fresh autumnal mornings, bike rides from home with Roger and a picnic and time spent in the evenings appreciating some stunning sunsets. Completely free and just perfect.
One of my favourite articles, written by Lachlan Brown, identifies ten key elements for a happier life: stop taking things for granted; learn to be agile (flexible); be curious; remember how to play; try new things; serve others; experience life; work on your relationships; don’t try so hard; get your heart pumping. This list resonated very strongly with me because I feel there’s much overlap with the list of core values I identified for myself in an earlier post. The root meaning of happy and happiness in many languages is a word more akin to ‘luck’ so it was satisfying to find a common thread of gratitude running through so many articles and surveys. It’s been a terrible year in so many ways and it would be easy to feel swamped by fear, sadness, frustration and loss; gratitude doesn’t necessarily come easily when times are bleak but it seems that if we are able to find some, then it can have a positive effect on our mood and wellbeing.
I think I am very lucky because I find immense happiness in simple ~ and yes, often silly! ~ things. (Actually, at the risk of being an etymological bore, silly and happy originally shared the same meaning anyway.) I believe people are far happier when they are allowed to be themselves and there is a palpable joyfulness and zest for life in those who are comfortable in their own skins. I love it when people call me a ‘bit of a hippy’ because it sounds far more interesting and colourful than being a ‘bit of a dull grey person’ in my book. Scientists have found that people tend to become happier as they get older but haven’t yet been able to prove why; a favourite theory is that older people have had more experience at dealing with negative situations, but I wonder if it has something to do with the fact that as people grow older, they are more inclined to be their true selves?
Well, I don’t pretend to be a psychologist, armchair or otherwise, but I would like to suggest four things over and above the standard lists of ideas that I believe can bring a healthy dose of happiness to our lives. By the way, I’m not sure anyone can ever be too happy so even if you are cheerfulness personified, there’s no harm in adding a little extra here and there. First, I think it’s fun to disrupt our behavioural patterns and try doing things a little differently. This might be as simple as altering a daily routine in some way, maybe eating a meal at a different time, or eating it in a different place to normal, or tucking into something totally new. There are crazy little things to try such as brushing teeth using your non-dominant hand or walking backwards through the house; okay, you might now be thinking I’m definitely in the Realm of Silly but the point is, things like that make you smile (they’re also great brain gym). Our road trips to the UK are long and incredibly dull so we are always looking at some way beyond listening to music or eating ‘boredom’ chocolate to lighten the journey. Last time, we invented a game where we had to create simple phrases or sentences from English, Spanish and French but could only use the shortest word each time; so, for example, car would beat coche and voiture and flor would beat fleur and flower. Where words had the same amount of letters, we started introducing all sorts of weird and wonderful rules for sorting them; the whole thing was complete nonsense, but we laughed ourselves silly and it passed a good 100 kilometres or so of that endless motorway ~ or rather, autovía.
I broke my usual pattern of walks last week, heading down towards the village instead of up into the woods, to walk along the riverside track. Roger has seen a pair of otters there and I live in the (forlorn) hope of doing the same. It’s so different to my normal route, with the constant babble of the río Muñás and more open landscape of meadows, giving me literally a different perspective to my wander. It was interesting to pass through different wooded areas and contrast the range of species and stage of autumn they had reached with my usual arboreal friends on the mountain.
It was fascinating, too, to see the sun coming up behind the mountain from a different angle and to look up at our home from a position I rarely stand in. From there, it suddenly becomes clear that although the house perches above a village and is by no means isolated, there is nothing behind and above it but acres and acres of wilderness. I felt so refreshed and happy from doing something different that I ended up extending my walk by several miles!
I love the way that sometimes happiness can come from the most unlikely or unexpected circumstances. When I was invited years ago to join the now defunct ‘Vegblogs’ community, my initial reaction was a resounding no: the only writing I’d done for years was for study and work, I had no time for social media and was pretty rubbish when it came to doing new things on the computer or taking photos. It was only after reading some of the blogs and realising what a vibrant and diverse community of gardeners was contributing that I decided maybe I should have a go; after all, developing a few new skills would be a good thing and it would be refreshing to write for pleasure for a change ~ when was the last time I’d done that? Since I began, our gardens have changed several times, as has my blog site, but writing brings me so much happiness and pleasure, even if it really is a lot of waffle!
Then there’s litter. I’ve written before about how it is nothing like the problem in rural Asturias that it is in other places but I think the amount of litter in the verges has increased in the time we have been here (no cause and effect, I’d like to point out!). I have never understood how people can throw their rubbish out of a car window and it would be easy to feel sad, cross or frustrated but instead I’ve turned it into a positive situation. Every time I go for a walk, run or bike ride, I pop a small bag in my pocket so I can collect any litter I see on my travels; yes, stopping a run or getting off my bike is a nuisance but this is important. The litter is pretty predictable: beer cans, fizzy drink bottles, cigarette packets, crisp bags, chocolate wrappers and ~ weirdly and always in the same spot ~ sliced ham packets. I personally don’t consume any of those things but the least I can do is gather up the packaging and dispose of it; thankfully, most of it can be recycled here. Strangely, it’s an action that makes me very happy, not in a ‘look at virtuous little old me’ sense but as something positive and meaningful I can do to help care for the environment and planet. It’s also a personal contribution and service to the community; I’ve never been a front and centre socialite or committee member, but quietly gathering up litter on my wanderings is a small yet powerful gift I can make to all in this beautiful area.
The journalist Gaby Hinsliff recently wrote about the joys of being a ‘happy amateur’ and I have to agree that, in a world where success and being the best are such driving forces, there’s a lot to be said for just having a go and having fun in the process. There’s nothing wrong in setting challenges or having goals to aspire to, or to try doing things to the best of our ability, but it’s also important to keep an eye on truly living our lives rather than constantly striving to win at life’s game. What a shame and a waste it is if we feel we can’t have a go at something because we’re scared of failure or ridicule, when doing that very thing, at whatever level, could have such a positive impact on our well being. I love tooting on my recorder; I’m certainly no virtuoso and I squeak out excruciating mistakes and duff notes all the time . . . but the sheer pleasure I gain from immersing myself in music, in doing something purely for the sake of it (even if it is very badly), is wonderful medicine indeed. Creativity is very empowering; when we make or do things for ourselves instead of relying on others, it brings a tremendous sense of liberty and achievement which in turn engender happiness. So go on, whatever it is you fancy doing, then do it! It doesn’t matter in the least what anyone else might think because if it makes you feel good and brings a smile to your face then nothing can touch you. Perfect is overrated. Living life to the full is priceless.
Finally, I would suggest that there is much happiness to be found in very simple things at home if we take the time to look for them. How often do we do things during our day completely on autopilot? The familiar act of making and drinking a cup of tea or coffee (or whatever your preference might be) can be transformed into an immensely pleasurable experience if it’s done with mindfulness ~ or if you’re not keen on that concept, with a focus and concentration that allows us to indulge all our senses. Just stopping to take a few deep breaths or have a good stretch can shift our mood into an upward spiral of contentment. One of the biggest positives to come out of Covid-19 must surely be the change that lockdown has brought to many people’s perception of ‘home’ and a fresh awareness that it can be somewhere to work from and educate in, to take exercise and be creative, to relax and enjoy. To be.
In the 1970s, the King of Bhutan introduced the Gross National Happiness Index as a measure of his country’s wellbeing; unlike GDP and the eternal mantra of ‘growing the economy,’ it is a concept that implies that sustainable development should take a holistic approach. GNH is based on nine domains ~ psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards ~ which contribute to the wellbeing and ‘good life’ of the Bhutanese people. I think this is an enlightened and inspired view which recognises that there are many more factors contributing to a happy society than money, and it’s a concept reflected in the Happy Planet Index which gives a fascinating comparison of how well nations create long, happy, sustainable lives based on factors far beyond GDP and GNP. Now at this point, of course, there are people who would say that money is important and measuring wellbeing is a bit of a soft, fluffy bunny, airy fairy and ~ dare I say, hippy? ~ idea . . . but is it, really? There are many studies reporting how better levels of health, wellbeing and life satisfaction are seen in countries who don’t dominate the ‘big economy’ league and that it’s time to shift perspective. Some countries are already doing that; in fact, Costa Rica ~ dubbed as one of the happiest nations in the world ~ has been doing it for 70 years and more recently, countries such as New Zealand and Iceland have prioritised wellbeing over monetary wealth through various budgets and frameworks. Maybe now would be the perfect time for a global happiness manifesto?
This month, our grandchildren are counting down to Christmas with ‘kindness’ Advent calendars which I think is a truly lovely idea. They in no way diminish the excitement, magic and sparkle of the season but shift the focus from getting to giving through simple creative activites each day.
1: Share something
2: Write a letter to someone you haven’t seen for a while
3: Put some seeds/pieces of apple out for the birds
4: Think of 3 things you are grateful for
5: Make some mince pies
6: Give some mince pies to your neighbours
7: Give a hug!
8: Think of something you admire/like about each family member
9: Pick up some litter
10: Put a coin in a charity box
11: Say thank you to your teachers
12: Make a card/note to put in charity shoebox
13: Smile at at least three people!
14: Put some water out for the wildlife, especially if frosty
15: Learn “Merry Christmas” in another language
16: Help someone (e.g. with a chore)
17: Give something away
18: Finish filling charity shoebox and hand in
19: Make some planet-friendly decorations
20: Give a compliment
21: Call/video call someone
22: Choose something to give to the food-bank
23: Wish someone a “Merry Christmas”
24: Read the Christmas story together
Part of me thinks we should all have one of these, because there is much happiness and contentment to be found when we move from me to us and develop a stronger sense of connection, kindness and community through simple human acts. These children are the future and I can’t help feeling optimistic about the prospects for humanity and all other life on the planet if they learn to count their wealth in such meaningful and holistic ways. It makes me a very happy hippy indeed! 😊