Should you leave home?

I feel like I want to open this post with a refrain like “I hate to be negative but…” or “I don’t want to turn this blog into a stream of disagreement,” but neither of those things are strictly true. With that dose of honesty out of the way, I have to disagree strongly with this article that Medium threw up on my front page today. The concise message of the post is that one needs to move away from one’s home town in order to live an interesting and meaningful life, and be an independent expert in one’s field. The key phrase is “At home you’re always only an outgrowth of your perceived past.”

Remove the terms “at home” and “only” from that sentence and it stands, but of course it’s not really the same thing. The idea that moving somewhere else places you in a greenfield where you can independently metamorphose free of links to your past is a myth. It’s a myth sold by marketers, travel bloggers (who are a subset of marketers) and lapped up by young people that’ve not yet had the fortune of accumulating significant life experience.

There are many things you can do to try to make a dramatic and lasting change in your life. Moving is certainly one of them. Changing your physical appearance is another. At a certain point in my own life I wanted to cease being a passive and depressed young man, so I cut off all my hair and moved on. But making these changes doesn’t erase your past. You don’t have to let it bind you, but ignoring it and pretending it isn’t there probably isn’t going to make you a better or more successful person.

The author goes on to say that when you move you’ll be judged by what you produce, and on your merits. Perhaps barring people who come from very small towns, I don’t see this as being necessarily untrue for any given person’s city of birth. My hometown‘s a reasonably-sized city, although it’s often denigrated for a small town mentality, but even there I was judged by other professionals on my competence, presentation and resume. Generally speaking, no-one would have reason to know anything about my past.

There are of course people who won’t judge you on your merits, but by other criteria. If you move, this will be equally true for the place you move to as for the place you move from.

So go on and live, love, grow. Move around the world if you want. Don’t let this act fool you into thinking that you’re “leaving the past behind.” The act may help you change – but we’re all changing all the time. For all that changes, your past is still going to be there.

Breakfast means oats

I think very nearly every frugal blogger loves rolled oats. This is a bandwagon I have to admit to jumping on. Although I used to eat eggs for breakfast back when I was getting huge, nowadays I’m muesli man. It helps that I’m living in the country where the stuff was invented.

I still love a good serve of scrambled or fried eggs with bacon, but it’s a weekend breakfast thing now. Oats are faster to prepare, which is pretty important when you’re as slow in the mornings as I am. I want to share with you my personal recipe for a very tasty bowl in the mornings.

It’s simple – mix up 2x500g boxes of rolled oats, about 150g each of slivered almonds, shredded coconut, and diced dried fruit (I usually use apricots), and 50 grams of lightly chopped roasted pumpkin seeds. Keep in mind I say 150g of almonds, etc., but of course I don’t measure and really just throw in an amount that looks good. Keep it all in a big tub and you’ve got breakfast for a couple of weeks.

To get the best out of this recipe, you’ll need to remember to put it in a bowl and soak it the night before (leave it in the fridge). I soak with just enough water to cover, with a squeeze of lemon juice. Milk would probably work just as well. The soaking does something to the texture that makes it creamy and delicious. I reason that it’s all the shredded coconut doing its thing. In the morning, pour over some milk on top, mix it and you’re good.

That’s it! Easy, delicious, healthy.
muesli ingredients

A simple living challenge: simplifying cooking

I like cooking. I can’t claim to possess a special talent for it, but I do quite a lot of it. If I was more talented at it, perhaps I would spend less time cooking, simply because I’d be more efficient. My most-often used style of cooking is generally to take a lot of different vegetables, perhaps some meat, throw them together in a big pot and stew with some liquid/broth/tinned tomatoes. This is great because eating lots of vegetables is good for you. This is not so great because all the flavours kind of blend together, and while sometimes that’s fine, sometimes it’s just kind of muddled. Furthermore, chopping all those vegetables takes most of the time.

When visiting Italy, one thing I noticed is that plenty of good Italian meals aren’t necessarily complicated by a lot of ingredients. Having made this observation, I was struck by the idea of a ‘simple cooking’ challenge. The idea is to go for a week, or two, or some arbitrary time, and only use seven ingredients per meal that you want to cook. The number is arbitrary, really. I think I did a thought experiment thinking up meals with only five ingredients and got bored (onion, garlic, spices, you’ve used 60% of your allocation already!). Anyway, hopefully the seven ingredient limit would require you to focus on getting flavour and utility out of each ingredient rather than just relying on having a lot of flavours. The qualifications, of course are:

  • Cooking oil/butter or the like doesn’t count as an ingredient
  • Salt (or whatever plays the role of salt, like fish sauce) doesn’t count as an ingredient
  • All your spices taken together counts as a single ingredient (for example, you don’t need to count ground coriander, cardamom, turmeric and cumin as four ingredients)
  • You are allowed to make side dishes for any given meal, but they also must pass the seven ingredient test.

That last one might look like it defeats the purpose a bit, but this challenge is tailored for me, and my weakness is that I often cook just by throwing a bunch of stuff together in one pot. If I cook three dishes for a single meal that are all distinct and unique dishes, yet use different ingredients for each, I think I’m still achieving the goals I’ve set for myself.

So: since I usually cook three or four dishes a week, I think two weeks is a good timeframe over which I can challenge myself. Since I’m currently travelling, I can’t take up this challenge right away, but when I get around to it, I’ll document my experience.

Fast, strong, healthy

I’ve been through a few phases of fitness over the years. Like most of us, I go through various periods of having higher or lower fitness levels, and I’m going to collect some of my thoughts on the matter here.

When I was in high school I was more into endurance sports. The kind where you would train pretty much every day, sometimes twice a day. With my body type, this is the kind I’m probably more naturally suited to – that is, I’m an ectomorph who has never struggled with my weight. Well, that’s not entirely true, there have been periods where I’ve been underweight. Towards the end of high school I kind of left sports for quite a while and concentrated on other things, like study and video games. I was never terribly unfit, but I was rail-thin. Later I got into martial arts, and for a period, general strength training.

When I was strength training, I wanted to get stronger and gain muscle. Eventually, however, I realised that being big and muscular just wasn’t for me – my food bills started to get me down, I was sick of eating all the time, and my endurance was suffering. I didn’t want to keep my endurance at too high a level because burning all those calories would mean I’d lose weight! Plus, for no reason I’ve been able to understand, the dreadful soreness resulting from strength training never, ever left me. I read in some corners of the internet that muscle soreness goes away to some degree when you settle into a regular strength routine. Well, I was strength training regularly for several years and each and every day I pretty much felt like I’d been run over by a bus.

I still kept at the weight training, as well as martial arts, but I ratcheted up the latter and reduced the former. That was the point I’d probably say I was at my fitness peak. I was training for my sport roughly three or four times a week, plus strength training three times a week, and I’d probably fit in a run or a ride somewhere too.

Since moving abroad it’s been difficult to keep that up. I had a good collection of training implements back in Oz, but I’m not keen to pack my apartment with equipment during the time I’m here. So right now, I’m training with:

  • 2x10kg kettlebells (they were on sale at Lidl)
  • A few resistance bands
  • A pair of running shoes.

That’s it. That’s certainly not enough to maintain the 140 kg squat I used to be able to pull off. But hey, this blog is about simple stuff! So I don’t mind making a foray into some simple fitness ideas. There’s no amazing open-air gym around here, but there’s a place a 10-min walk away where I can do pull-ups, bar dips, and box jumps. It also has a good set of stairs for stair sprints. Quite some time ago I spent a while trying to learn some isometric strength moves like planches, so I’m starting to work on that again (although I find it incredibly difficult to make any progress). After a bit of attention to ankle mobility I can do better pistols than ever, and I’ve started building up my rep count for handstand pushups (against a wall).

I guess the place I’m at now in my life is that I’ve internalized that fitness means different things to different people, and it’s more than a matter of preference but also about your body type. I think it’s advisable to try to maintain a bit of everything, and you have to admit to yourself that pushing a long way towards one component (like strength, endurance, or flexibility) will come with tradeoffs from the other components. Even if you don’t want to admit this from a physiological standpoint, you have to admit it if you take into account the opportunity cost of time. That is, if you also work a job, have a family, etc., and don’t have an uninterrupted life of training-eating-sleeping. I had a road bike back in Oz, but I quickly realised that I absolutely did not want to invest the amount of time necessary to become a proficient road cyclist. It was still handy for reducing car usage though!

So I say to everyone, do some strength work. Do some endurance work. Make sure you work on your mobility and do a range of movements, even if people think you look weird. Do handstands in the park! Cartwheels! Hold a squat position in your office to stretch out your hips and ankles! Join other people to play a sport, because it’s often more motivating than training alone. Remember that being fit means getting sweaty, getting sore, and sometimes it means feeling relieved to lie down in bed because you don’t have to move those aching muscles anymore.

A year without a car

cars roads

I’ve successfully gone for a year with no car. I don’t feel this is really a grand achievement, since Switzerland is generally pretty damn good with public transport. That said, the regional and intercity trains are expensive. Nevertheless, it’s been a great exercise in patience. As I said in an earlier post, there may be some things that are different over the Röstigraben, but buses here does not always run on time. Plus, the timetables change multiple times a year, every time school holidays roll around the frequency gets reduced and then bumped up when they end.

Of course I’d like to pretend that I’m some kind of eco-warrior but really I’m thinking more of the opportunity cost of having ten to twenty grand of my capital tied up in a rapidly depreciating asset, when the public transport here services most of my needs adequately. Still, taking close to an hour to journey the six kilometres to work does wear me down. For this reason I’ve picked up a new toy, and I’m going to become one of those badass scooter commuters. Well, maybe. I’ll do a lengthier post on scooting around later.

No car leaves me with fewer hassles like parking, petrol costs, registration, servicing, and all the other things that make car ownership a joy. Of course, it’s traded for things like less flexibility and lengthier travel times. Still, while I’ve been here it’s been working out just fine. I don’t miss driving at all. I can admit I’d like the flexibility of a car, but making sure I schedule my time and holiday travel appropriately is a good exercise in discipline all of itself.

Away from home

So I missed an update last week. It’s been a busy few. DW has sailed off to visit parents, so I’ll be living a dirty bachelor life for a few weeks.

This raises a subject that is difficult to reconcile with ‘simple expat life,’ and that is family relations. With my family in one country, DW’s family in another, and our life in a third, well, it makes for a difficult situation all around. I don’t have a lot to say on the matter right now. I’m still pretty new at this expat business, so perhaps I’ll tackle it later down the line.

One of the few things I’ll note is that I suppose extricating oneself from family relationships does, to some degree, count as simplification. But whether it’s the good kind of simplification (something that allow you to focus on the important things) or a bad kind of simplification (removing an important thing) depends on your personal circumstances. In our family, relationships are pretty good all-around so I don’t particularly think losing out on family interaction is a good method of simplifying life. Still, I imagine that Skype, Viber, and such make this living abroad gig a lot more convenient than it used to be, insofar as regular contact with relatives is cheap and accessible.

Losing the ability to think

One of the things I hope to gain by simplifying my life is more time to just think and explore connections between ideas. I recall distinctly when I was stuck in a job I disliked I feared that I was losing my ability to think creatively. I was in the public service, and in a very hierarchical workplace, and I often felt that much of my job was just following processes. I did push for a move to a different area, one which required me to actually put my own thoughts and ideas into my work. Once I got there, I felt suddenly anxious – after so long just following templates, I worried that I’d be unable to really use my own brain to create any original ideas.

I haven’t really discussed this with many other professionals, but I suspect that it’s a problem amongst white-collar workers.

To go off on a tangent, though, I also wonder if this could be a side effect, somehow, of aging. I remember feeling somewhat connected, while listening to an interview with Ben Folds quite some time ago, to a comment about how deeply young people think. This interview was a long while back, I think perhaps on Triple J somewhere, and Ben was discussing the appeal of his songs to teenagers. Now, paraphrasing greatly, he was saying that he thought it was because his songs made real, and took seriously, the thoughts and feelings of teenagers. He further said that it is easy to forget how much you thought about stuff when you were a teenager. I recall, at the time, being perhaps only in my mid-20s, how correct that was, and indeed how furiously active my brain was in trying to figure out the world when I was in late high school, or entering university. I felt that I was slowly losing that – I no longer thought so deeply about philosophy, about relationships, or about why the world works the way it does. And it’s not that my brain is now occupied with other thoughts – I actually feel that now I just think less interesting thoughts in general!

In this way, perhaps trying to simplify my life is a way to try to regain something I feel I’ve lost. If I can make time for myself to just sit and think, rather than filling all my mindspace by clicking through to another blog, or scheduling another appointment, or at the worst making my mind fuzzy by having another drink, can I retrain my brain to come up with more interesting and creative ideas?