Doing the Green Thing

I’ve been wanting to write this a long while – gathering thoughts, memories, photos – and trying to work out how to write it in a way that doesn’t come across as too much ‘look-at-me-aren’t-I-good?’ – and then I read this by the genius Melissa Harrison, and realised whatever I wrote will be futile and meaningless.

But I’d already thought my thoughts and gathered my photos – so what the hell, write it anyway.

Here’s my new soap dispenser, Joseph and Joseph, from John Lewis. One of our little efforts in the war against plastic. We can now get a refill of hand soap at a couple of local shops, ditto washing up liquid and shampoo.

Life has made it convenient for us, with the shops right there on our high street (we are peak South London gentrification after all) – so I can do it without feeling like it’s a hair-shirt thing.

I don’t have to be a martyr to the cause, and yet I never need buy a bottle of shampoo again. It’s a weird feeling – but freeing, somehow.

I used to feel reassured every time I bought new cleaning products or toiletries; somehow as if owning more of this stuff shored me up against domestic chaos: look, I have Windolene and Mr Muscle and oven cleaner and a range of wipes and dusters and sponges.

I am a real grown-up with a cloth for every occasion, and good tea towels still in their wrappers. I’m not like my eco-conscious parents using my dad’s old pants to polish shoes. I refuse to reuse my old pants; they go in a clothes bin and presumably get turned usefully into rags somewhere far away where I don’t have to think about it.

But. But. That doesn’t work now, does it?

Now everyone cares about it. Now it’s not just the weird hippy stuff my parents did. We’ve gone back to glass milk bottles, we have keep cups and shun straws. We’re all doing our bit. And we all know that not everything we put in recycling bins ends up where it’s meant to.

I like the bonus feeling of less stuff cluttering the cupboards, of not accumulating new hand creams and shampoos just because I feel compelled to spend my money on something.

Owning those objects no longer feels like a proof of adulthood – rather, paring back makes me feel I’m shedding layers, freeing myself of unnecessary tat for the next stage in life. Not just sending plastic to the recycling, but stopping it even getting on my shelf in the first place.

It’s not actually a smug look-at-me feeling it feels calmer and more internal than that: but it must be look-at-me too, otherwise why would I be writing this blog, if not to show off how good I am?

What about the bits we don’t want to deal with, though? Here’s our new bamboo toothbrushes, but guess what, I don’t like them. I want a proper hard bristle brush that will make the back of your mouth feel really clean. This one just doesn’t feel right in my mouth. Same goes for the wooden washing-up brush; it looked the part, but the bristles got messed up too quickly and within weeks we had to chuck it.

Here’s my zero waste cupboard with chia seeds for my breakfast cereal, nuts and dried mango for snacks, all bought in Tupperware at the local shop. But if I have this to snack on why am I still buying Graze boxes?

And I vowed this year to stop buying palm oil products, but they still creep into the house – I might do ok with spelt oatcakes and palm-oil-free peanut butter, but what if I buy mini rolls for the kids? If I think of orang-utans every time I reach for the mini rolls, will I shame myself into not buying them? And will the kids not mind if they are given fair trade choc buttons instead?

So, what next? One minute we are told the individual small actions make all the difference, en masse; the next we are told none of it matters if governments and fossil fuel giants do nothing, and we wring our hands and keep recycling, or sit in paralysis and worry.

I’ve already done the ‘big’ thing in my life – I haven’t flown on a plane since 2013 and I see no reason I’ll fly again next year or the year after – how long before I’ve ‘earned’ the right to have a flight? Do I ‘deserve’ one return flight to somewhere I really, really want to go one day, like Venice, to offset all the flights I haven’t taken?

What about all the people jumping on planes every few months or even weekly? When does that stop being acceptable, and who am I to say my friends shouldn’t get to visit their families and loved ones around the world?

These are all choices I made long ago, so for me personally there’s no big struggle in giving up flying – I knew once I’d ticked off the major transatlantic places I most wanted to go, I wouldn’t feel a massive pull to see more of the far-flung places, and I haven’t regretted that; there are plenty of places closer to home I wanted to see and I’ve seen and done many of them.

Plus travelling shorter distances with small kids is much more conducive to our family life: we’ve found what works for us and largely stuck to that. So, in absence of any other solutions, I’ll keep on with the Tupperware and keep cups, and maybe we’ll get the train to Venice one day.

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Breton Stripes & Gripes

Summer feels a long time off, but I was determined to get another blog under the belt this month, and I didn’t want to let our summer holiday go by unnoticed.

It was a first time abroad for the smaller girl, a proud holder of an EU passport for a while longer, the first time we’d been on Eurotunnel since 2014, and a different kind of holiday in many ways – the first buggy-free, but at the height of a heatwave, the idea of doing the kind of hikes we are used to in UK holidays was off the table. Oh and there was going to be camping. That was new.

We got stuck in a horrible tailback at the tunnel – the hot weather meant it couldn’t run at full capacity, but after a few hours hanging around we were across the channel and heading to our first stop in Rouen.

I remember being very impressed by Rouen as a teenager, and the cathedral is certainly epic. It didn’t quite have the romance I remembered, but then that’s probably what 25 years difference makes. The hotel was outside the old town and was fairly unglamorous, but if I’d known it was one of the better nights sleep of the holiday, I would have given it more credit!

The next day certainly delivered on romance and drama, as we drove to Mont St Michel – somewhere I hadn’t been for even longer, a holiday when I was 4 or 5. I knew it was a tourist trap and crowded and on a full-on heatwave day, likely to be hellish, and yet, and yet, how could you not want to go into a place like that?

The winding lane up through the ‘town’ was not quite as I remembered it – it had become my childhood blueprint for ‘medieval citadel’ and I’d forgotten how much of it was actually tourist tat shops, and restaurants that were all full (we had lunch in a place a bit like a French version of Upper Crust – although of course the baguettes were much better – as it was the only place not turning people away).

It was still ridiculously pretty, and thanks to the narrow streets and high walls, there was some welcome shade. Plus, I’d worried the girls would find it dull and too hot to enjoy themselves, but luckily they loved it as much as I had at the same age. (Phew!)

I failed to take any photos of the winding lane or the cute alleyways – minus points to me, it must have been the heat- but I did take one of the view across the sands which was rather impressive:

From there we went to the campsite – one of those sprawling enormous ones which the Eurocamp brochure would have praised for its family-friendly facilities and fabulous entertainment, whereas my parents would have gone for the ‘quiet, shady sites with larger than average pitch size’ and given this one a big swerve.

Luckily, our tent was on the very edge of the site and a long way from the night time fireworks and open-air live music – although a bit dwarfed by an enormous hedge around the perimeter which made it feel a bit like we were next door to an angry Leylandii neighbour.

We were also cheek-by-jowl with some very tiny shoddy-looking caravans, though with a sunset and rainbow like the ones below, you can’t really complain, can you?

Well, of course you can complain, and we are born middle-class grumblers who would like to be well away from other people and not have to use toilet blocks, but the girls loved the water slides and sleeping in the tent.

Eurocamp give you proper beds rather than camp beds these days, but beds that have sat in a tent for a while get a bit rickety and creaky, and over-excited children take a long while to get to sleep, so we all slept badly the first night, and as we were so shattered, fairly well the second night – that was the second good nights sleep of the holiday.

Then it was on to the gîte, the bit we’d been really looking forward to after the camping – proper beds, proper showers, a hot tub – and it really was idyllic. (First photo is the instagram moment, a moss and fern-covered staircase leading to nowhere).

It was also the place to go if you like hydrangea (luckily, I do).

At this point, the heatwave receded for a few days, in Brittany at least, but if you’re staying in a thick-walled farm building with bedrooms in the attic with tiny velux windows, at night it’s beautifully cool downstairs but hot as an oven upstairs.

It felt like a terrible con to be staying somewhere so lovely and to sleep so badly every night.

We managed to make the most of our days, despite the disturbed nights – the most memorable place for me was Huelgoat – probably because it was most like our typical British holidays – and it was shady.

It’s an amazing wooded gorge which is full of weird rock formations, including one of those mythical rocking stones you can supposedly move with one hand (you can’t). This was probably the longest walk we did the entire holiday, very different from previous years.

Our other major day trips included Carnac – amazing to see the standing stones and very doable with small children, despite the heat, thanks to being able to go round the site on a small train. You can also get off and walk, though as at Stonehenge, you can’t get too near the stones.

Then we did the afternoon on the beach at Carnac, but the lack of shade made it a bit of a struggle – the same with Le Pouldu which had been recommended as a good beach. Found myself wishing for a good old British windbreak…

On the last day in Brittany, we found the perfect balance – another scorching day, but we went to Lac le Guerledan, where you can hire pedalos, and swim, and afterwards (oh joy!) sit under a tree in blissful SHADE to eat ice creams.

Then we stopped for one night en route home in lovely Honfleur….

– if there is a more chocolate-box perfect (or Normandy biscuit-tin perfect) place, I don’t want to hear about it.

And the B&B place we’d booked rather uncertainly after failing to find a ‘family friendly hotel’, turned out to be an amazing apartment to which we had our own private entrance, and beds which delivered a final heavenly night’s sleep, followed by breakfast cooked by the owners in a courtyard garden below.

That was the point I started to wish we’d booked another night or two – but it was time to go home. À bientôt, Bretagne.