What you can learn to live without

As I get ready to wire home a big chunk of change to pay my student loan for a few months, I am amazed at my ability to save so much money in such a short period of time. This is particularly miraculous given that I have never made less money as a teacher… or paid more in rent. I am a miracle-girl.

The bottom line is that living here is providing me with a world-class lesson in living with less. (My mom will be so proud). Living in Barcelona has taught me how to live without:

1) A toaster.
We actually grill our bread (fresh baguettes from the little grocery store across the street) in a grilling pan on the top of the stove. We apply a thin layer of olive oil and grill the bread for a couple of minutes. This is the best toast EVER and we often top it with nutella or brie (nutella actually comes from Spain so it is inexpensive… as is the brie made in nearby France).

2) Target.
Over seven years in Monterrey, I must have spent thousand of dollars at Target in McAllen (just to be clear — I am aware that I was, by no means, the Target-shopping-champion). Just being in that store created a need in me to own things. Big and small things. Sparkly things and plain things. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on the day) there is no Target or close equivalent in Barcelona. We have Carrefour and Ikea but they are both VERY far from our neighbourhood and our big department store “el Corte Ingles” (the English Court) is VERY expensive. What all this means is that I am not tempted to buy a food processor that I will never use… or more cute things for the house.

3) Space.
On a related note… if I did acquire tons of “cute stuff” for our apartment, there would be absolutely nowhere to put it. When you are living in 45 square meters of space, you have to make some hard decisions about what is important to keep and to have. We are currently utilizing almost all of our storage space: two medium-sized closets in the bedroom (with two sets of drawers built into the closets), storage above the bedroom closets (which only dee can reach), two additional closets in the “foyer” (a bit too grand a word for the space inside the front door) and some storage shelves in the bathroom. The kitchen is a true galley kitchen and has enough cupboards for our dishes and food items. We are almost full to capacity… and neither of us wants our surfaces (dining room table, two coffee tables, book shelf and shelves on the far wall of the living room) to be cluttered with stuff… giving our apartment the appearance of a flea market. In truth, it is actually quite freeing to have less space as I am forced to make good decisions about what to buy (almost nothing) and what to keep (that which is not exactly right for its purpose or no longer useful must go). I have a little collection of ceramic bulls (it’s a Spanish thing) that DP kindly tolerates… but almost everything in the apartment is fulfilling a function. When you look at the issue of space from a cultural perspective, it is clear that where you were raised shapes how you think about space. In North America, we have a lot of space… oodles and oodles of wide open spaces. We are always spreading out, both literally and figuratively. In Europe, however, there is just no room to spread. Every square millimeter of the city is spoken for and has been for hundred of years.

4) A full-sized fridge.
We have an apartment-sized fridge with a teeny-tiny little freezer. This is the same fridge that many residents of Barcelona have in their teeny-tiny apartments. I have a friend who actually has an enormous full-sized fridge in her apartment (I know this is true… and not some crazy urban myth… because I have seen it with my own eyes) but she has absolutely NO kitchen counter and precious little cupboard space. I’ll take our wee fridge over that arrangement any day. What the tiny fridge means is that we do not pick up groceries for a week and it is quite uncommon for food to go bad or to waste as we never have that much in the house. DP, who has been the primary cook since his arrival in BCN, has been in the habit of picking up groceries every day. He decides what he feels like making and heads down to one of the two markets close to our apartment to pick up fresh vegetables and fruit. Sometimes, he buys these items at a little market stall or store. We buy our meat (mostly chicken) and fresh bread at “Super Sol” which is the small grocery store right across the street from us. When we realize that we are low on staples (diet coke, sunflower seeds, milk), we “stock up” and carry these items home in one of the Virgen de Guadalupe mesh shopping bags from Mexico. I am fascinated by the various methods that people utilize to transport their goods here. Our big-fridge friend just told us that she finally bought her own granny-cart. The granny-cart (not its official name) is a covered cart on wheels and we see people (primarily older people) all over the city using their carts to pick up groceries and run their errands. You can buy a solid coloured cart or opt for one with a pattern – plaid seems to be a very popular choice. Some carts come with two wheels while others are equipped with four. The granny-carts are hauled down stairs, pulled along sidewalks, into stores, and onto the metro… and home again. In our local grocery store, there is even a cart storage area where you can lock your cart up securely. We don’t really have a use for a cart as the grocery stores and markets are so close to our home… this means that we will not be faced with the horrible dilemma of where, in our apartment, we would find space for the cart.

5) New clothes.
I have a LOT of clothes from my Lane Bryant days. When I moved to Barcelona, I used every penny of my shipping allowance and brought with me a HUGE wardrobe of clothes for all four seasons. While I could stand to own a couple more pair of pants (especially now that Barcelona is cooling off), I am “making do”… rotating through my skirts and pants so that I don’t get too sick of any one article of clothing. (I imagine my fashion-minded grade 7 and 8 students are grateful for my attempts to mix things up a little too. There is almost nothing more boring than a teacher who always wears the same thing every day. If you think I am kidding about this, you must not be a teacher). I am just not buying any new clothes. Did you know you could do that… simply not buy any? Of course you did… but me… not so much.

6) Music on CD.
My shipping/baggage allowance simply did not cover my large CD collection. CDs are really heavy… especially in their little cases… but life without music would be very sad indeed; the problem required a creative solution. Before I moved to BCN, I downloaded all of my music onto my i-pod and purchased a dock (like a little stereo system for mp-3 players) called an i-groove. With my i-pod, i am listening to albums I have not heard in years, as well as choosing much beloved songs for the play lists that I find myself a little bit addicted to making. When I learn that an artist I like/love has released a new album, I listen to the tracks at the i-tunes store site. That way, I can make an informed decision about the purchase and then download the music onto my computer and i-pod. So far I have bought only 2 CDs… Corinne Bailey Rae’s eponymous album and “Stand Still, Look Pretty” by the Wreckers which is Michelle Branch’s new country duo. I keep a list of albums and single songs that I am interested in buying but I make sure that I am absolutely certain first. Buying music online also means that I do not have to find storage space for physical CDs. Win-win.

7) Television.
We watch our collection of movies and TV series on DVD on one of our computers propped up on a folding chair in our bedroom. This solution is portable and comes with no exorbitant hook-up fees. I get my news from the internet and we continue to go to the movies at least once a week.

8) Silence.
I am constantly amazed by the human capacity to adapt. People become accustomed to things, for good or for bad… it seems like there isn’t much that humans can’t manage to live with once they get used to the situation. I have said, in previous blog entries, that BCN is a LOUD city and I am sure that those of you who live in large cities are nodding your heads saying, “Yes, we understand.” Here’s the thing… I am talking about a “loud” like nothing I have ever experienced and I am afraid that you may not know what I mean… unless you have visited Cairo or India (which, ironically, I have not yet but I sense that these places are BCN kind of loud). BCN makes the volume level of street life in Mexico City seem like a whisper… a sweet little lullaby sung in a hushed voice. Every damned thing is too-too loud here… the level of “normal” conversation… people fighting with their partners in public… jack hammers and construction everywhere… dogs barking… mopeds racing through the streets (and right through stop lights) and the garbage trucks that remove the garbage from our neighbourhood dumpsters every morning about 3:00 a.m. Even the sirens on the police cars and ambulances are louder than they need to be. I hate how loud it is… I always close our balcony doors when I get home from school because I am terribly annoyed by the sounds of rush hour traffic. And yet, each day, I notice the noise less and less. One grows accustomed…

…and one definitely learns to live with less.

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