A new way to read books

A first-world problem I think many of us can relate to is that of being a hard person to buy gifts for. Independent-minded people with good salaries tend to just go out and purchase the things they need, resulting in dear wives/husbands shaking their head and wondering what could possibly be a good gift for their significant other. I always loved receiving books as gifts. Due to the whole cutting down on ‘stuff’ effort, though, buying books became something of a conundrum. If I like a book, I tend to like to hold on to it for reference and re-reading, so reading and then on-selling/giving away was not my preferred solution.

Dear Wife, after a gentle suggestion from me, gave me an ereader for my birthday this year. I don’t want to be a shill, so I won’t tell you which one unless you ask. It’s great, though. I have been taking it just about everywhere. It’s about the same size as a small paperback, and probably about the same weight. Certainly lighter than many of the tomes I read.* Now that I’m unworried by the concern of physical possession/storage/delivery/carrying around of books, I have been reading a lot more. It’s fantastic.

The next step is trying to figure out how to subtly let people know the details of how they can get me ebooks as gifts rather than the dead tree kind…

*Humblebrag! I’m the serious sort, look at the big heavy book I carry around!

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

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.

Preserving food

One area of slow living where I have had some success has been my development of an interest in food preservation. This is a skill that has very rapidly fallen out of favour due to the now widespread availability of refrigeration. The benefits to slow living should be apparent:

  • Turn a useful skill into an enjoyable interest
  • Spend time accomplishing satisfying tasks with family and/or friends
  • From the financial independence angle, less dependence on refrigeration
  • Ability to buy in large quantities foods that are on special (or in season, if growing your own) and save them for later in the year.

There are two primary recipes that I make, and a couple of others that I’ve had success with. The most success I’ve had is with this recipe for easy kimchi from Maangchi. My wife loves it, and I also like it a lot. We prepare it together. It takes some time, but it’s not particularly difficult. The kimchi has multiple uses, of course – what I understand is the most common and traditional usage (I don’t know any Koreans, actually) is as a side dish served with a main meal. But you can make it a substantial snack in itself if you like the bold flavor, just serving it up with rice. My favorite is using it to make kimchi hotpot or soup – all you need to do is add several big spoons to a fairly mild stock to make a delicious spicy soup, to which you can add mushrooms, chicken, or whatever else you fancy.

The second recipe is just simple pickled radishes. Radishes weren’t something I ate a lot of back in Australia, but since moving to Switzerland I’ve noticed these gorgeous bunches of thumb-shaped red radishes with white tips everywhere. Since they’re so plentiful and cheap, I use a simple recipe to bottle them with peppercorns and caraway seeds. They’re great on sandwiches, in a salad, or on biscuits with cheese as a snack.

My other successes have been fermented chillies/capsicums and ginger beer. The fermented chillies came about when I actually wanted to make a hot and thick sauce, however, I don’t have a food processor or blender to complete it that way. I modified this recipe, I added some capsicum and didn’t strain out the solid bits at the end. It’s more of a relish than a sauce that way, I guess. It tastes good on eggs, added to mashed potatoes, or as a topping on meat.

The ginger beer is one I haven’t actually made since leaving Australia. Unfortunately the recipe I used to use has been taken offline. Again, it’s fairly straightforward, but takes time, and it requires suitable containers that I don’t have here in Switzerland. I made a few batches, with varying success in the carbonation. Still, although delicious, since I don’t drink a lot of sweet drinks each batch took me some time to consume.

What are your best recipes for food preservation? If you try any of the ones I’ve linked above, let me know if you have success! How do you economise on the sometimes substantial equipment necessary for more adventurous food preservation? Also, has anyone out there managed to either downsize or remove their fridge because they’re so pro at keeping food the old-fashioned way?

Something to change your perspective

Going through a pregnancy can change your perspective. I’m not going to talk about the obvious things today, though. Nothing too deep and meaningful here about our place in the world, or getting acquainted with the idea of caring for something completely helpless for a substantial period of time. I’m going to talk about walking: specifically, walking around with a pregnant woman. I’m sure you can believe that this topic ties in nicely with ‘slow travel.’

To get right to the point: I’m a decently fit individual and walk around at a reasonably quick pace. DW* ambles about at a much slower pace at the very best of times. She’s not quite as athletic as I am, in addition to having much shorter legs. You will surely understand that being pregnant has somewhat exacerbated the difference between our movement speeds.

I confess that in the past I’ve been impatient with DW’s habitual easygoing stride, but now that she has a genuine excuse for it I’ve begun to adapt. I made particular plans to accommodate this on our recent travels. One of those travels (this was fairly early in the pregnancy, admittedly) was an all-day hike in the Gruyères region. Another was sightseeing in Spain. These plans meant making sure to leave enough time for rest periods. While sightseeing, it meant deliberately avoiding trying to see everything across any given city with a giant, day-long walk, but rather to focus on a smaller region and leave out the cross-city march. I intentionally reminded myself that we were not in a hurry, and that the experience of travel could be worth just as much as the destination. This last part is admittedly considerably easier when hiking to a cheese factory than it is while commuting to one’s job.

Gradually getting used to a slower pace of movement is doing me good. Not that I need to argue from authority, but slower walking has an advocate in a certain author who is widely influential on the topic of robustness. I’ve found it helpful to remind myself that rarely do I have anything so pressing that it necessitates walking quickly. Walking fast has its place, but I don’t need to do it all the time. A slower pace seems to make quite a difference to the way I feel about myself and the world: when I’m consciously moving slower, I feel more contented and relaxed than when I’m moving quickly.

All of this has nothing, specifically, to do with a pregnant wife, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I’m just observing that, for me, this was the trigger for my recognition that slowing down a little has benefits in multiple areas. Walking is something most of us do frequently, so consider being mindful of your pace and thoughts while you do it.

*DW = dear wife, or if you prefer, distinguished woman.

A simple shampoo (things I did today to simplify my life #2)

hair careAfter avoiding all kinds of DIY personal care products for quite some time, I was finally given a kick towards simplifying my hair care by this article. I have begun to wash my hair using a solution with baking soda, and conditioning using apple cider vinegar. This is something of an experiment, and I can’t say I’m completely sold on it yet. With that said, it’s working out… OK. I can’t say I like the feeling as much as commercial shampoo, but yet the skin on my face seems to be less dry as well… Related, perhaps?

My real concern is dandruff. I confess to needing to use Head and Shoulders most of the time. Now, my experience with the natural shampoo has left me with far less of a problem than regular, not-anti-dandruff shampoo, but it’s not quite as good as the H&S. Anti-dandruff shampoos come with a much larger price tag than the regular stuff, though, so if I can cut down on its usage that’d be fine.

I may yet come to some kind of halfway-house routine, where I use the natural stuff twice a week and the H&S once, but at the moment I’ll continue to use the baking soda and see how long I can keep it up for. It means less environmental waste through packaging, more money left in my pocket, and fewer questionable chemicals floating around in my hair and drifting down the drain into the ocean.

Also topical: after she saw my success descaling the kettle with a 50/50 vinegar and water solution, DW* experimented this week with using vinegar to clean various surfaces around the house. She was much surprised and pleased with the efficacy. This is great, because as I’m sure you’ve noticed household cleaning products can prove to be a bit of a hit to the hip pocket when you need to restock them. Finding a four litre bottle of plain white vinegar should be substantially cheaper, not to mention it’s probably less harmful to the environment.

If you’d like to discuss your experiences with DIY personal care or cleaning products, post to the comments!

Update: After scheduling this post, I continued to use the baking soda and vinegar combo, but it’s just not doing too well with the dandruff. So what I’m doing now is alternating back and forth between the natural stuff and the regular H&S.

*DW = dear wife (or perhaps distinguished woman, if you prefer)