Minimalism and why it doesn’t work

I’ve been seeing a lot of blog posts about ‘Minimalism’ lately, and they’ve been jarring my nerves for a while. Ever since I was a little girl, I was taught to only buy what I indeed needed, and to recycle or give away things which I did not need any more. This, after all, is mere common sense. Yet these days, plain common sense is so rare, that people seem to need to gird it in newer fancy words, and make a fuss over it, in order to distinguish themselves.

Minimalism is a trend which has been slowly infecting our Maltese shores, among others, during the last few years. The precepts of Minimalism embrace the aim of achieving freedom through the voiding of materialistic trappings which are accumulated in relation to a capitalistic-minded society. Originally, the onset of Minimalist per se originated as a term describing visual arts in the post-war Western world of the 1960s and 1070s.

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Personally, as I said, I understand the concept in moderation, however putting an unneeded emphasis on it, not to mention trying to adhere to its more extremist tenets, only ends in showing up that the Minimalist agenda is not only unpractical, but actually going against its own targets. While, of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with owning material possessions, equating one’s own personal value with how much money is in one’s bank account, what car one drives, or what mobile phone one uses, is obviously self-deceiving. This however, is not the issue which is actually tackled by Minimalists, whose main tenet endorses having no more than 100 possessions in total. One could for example, still own and brag about only a few costly items, while having less than 100 ‘things’. So, in actuality, having a few items does not necessarily mean disassociation from the idea of material gratification. Attaching meaning solely to ‘things’ rather than people, personal experiences, or emotions, is the seeming crux of the Minimalist credo, and yet, having chucked all but a few of one’s possessions in the bin, does one really end up forsaking the company of his/her pc, or the fascination of an XBOX (if one keeps one of course), for human contact? Not likely.

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Others maintain that Minimalism targets excess, that it leads to better prioritisation, and that it ultimately leads one to spend less. It advocates discipline and de-cluttering, yet its oppressive regime and illusion of control sees one stressfully trying to get by without certain commodities, which, instead of leading to some kind of transcendental ‘freedom’, actually ends, in many cases, by causing an even bigger backlash of ‘materialism’. Minimalism is anxiety-inducing in that one ends up feeling a failure if one cannot conform to it. Optimising the use of minimal products can lead one to over-technologize one’s lifestyle in a bid to use tools or IT systems which do more with less, leading to the conclusion that Minimalism is a movement targeted towards those who are well-off, and not towards the majority, since it also actually results in more money being spent. Once you chuck something you are keeping in case you might needed it in the bin, you cannot get it back – meaning that you’d have to re-buy the item when you actually do need it. Again, this goes against the aim of ‘spending less’ targeted by Minimalism.

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Yes ultra-capitalism is a sickness. We are not our things. Yet, if the other end of the spectrum offers only extreme austerity promoting a Spartan repressive lifestyle, this is just as detrimental. In the end, human beings need to express themselves, they need to optimize their own style, and feel free to overindulge in moments of tension, in order to be fully at peace with themselves. 

Minimalistic decor can have a therapeutic effect, especially if one suffers from OCD-related problems, however there is an invigorating liberation in a spontaneous carefree use of space. Feeling comfortable and at home in one’s own personal space definitely leads not only to creativity and freedom of expression, but also to a more inspiring and eclectic outlook. Wealth is not how many things you have, or how expensive they were, it is the ability to have options and to be able to fulfill them.

If you want to give more worth to important things, try creating certain tools instead of using mass-marketed ones. Try to jazz up or individualize your space instead of latching onto an easy conformity. Re-use and re-cycle instead of chucking out ‘outdated’ stuff you haven’t looked at in a while. Don’t limit yourself or your options. Instead, embrace a more positive and DIY attitude.

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Clutter and chaos is not something to strive for. On the other hand, living in a wasteland is not conductive to an energetic outlook either. In the end, extremes are not beneficial to anyone. There is nothing as healthy as balance.

A slightly different version of my article was published in the online magazine LivingInMalta.

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Exploring Gent – Tips on where to go!

Hi guys, just got back from a two-week stint in the Lake District, UK! Was so amazing! I really want to write all about it but since I had already started writing about my previous trip in Belgium, I’d rather finish telling you all about that first. So, here goes!

During our third day in Belgium, we explored the medieval city of Ghent. Ghent is called the ‘Flower City‘ because of its fertile soil and flourishing colorful greenery, however personally I’d rather call it ‘Little Venice’ or ‘the City of the Canals’, because, of course, it is riddled with picturesque winding canals, just begging to be explored through a boat ride (which in fact, I actually did… more about that in another blog post).

The largest canal is called the ‘Sea Canal’ and it actually links Ghent to the port of Terneuzen in the Netherlands, thereby providing a great route for exporting products made in Ghent, most especially textiles. The canal is, of course, man-made, and it was constructed in 1827.

Wherever there are canals, there are of course bridges. Ghent, being a completely medieval cobbled city, is endowed with some magnificent stone bridges. The largest one, and the one I made a point of traversing, was the Saint Michielsbrug, which is an imposing stone arch in the middle of the city, and which was built in 1909. From the bridge, one can admire a magnificent view of the city center, with its gothic Cathedral and Baroque Town Hall. Not to mention all the cute medieval houses and many of the other canals! So very romantic!

Perhaps not so well known, is the so-named ‘Graffiti Street‘, which is, actually, a narrow winding street full of the most artistic and eccentric sprayed paintings imaginable. Unlike the rest of Ghent, this is a modern addition to the other-wise historical town. Yet, it does not detract from the town’s medieval charm. Rather, it adds some special quirkiness and color. It is actually quite hard to find and we had a merry time exploring the winding hidden alleys of Ghent while trying to find it!

No one can visit Gent without admiring its Stadhuis, or Town Hall. Built in the late flamboyant Gothic style, in the 16th century, the Stadhuis of Gent is quite large and contains a chapel, a throne room, and an arsenal hall. And talking about gothic architecture – make sure you also visit Saint Bavo’s Cathedral! The photos say it all!

Last, but certainly not least (before the boat ride, that is), we climbed up the many stairs to the famous Gent Belfry Tower, which is the tallest building in Gent. The view from up there was simply breathtaking and quite well worth the climb!

P.S Don’t forget to also take a look at the Gravensteen Palace which is a real fairytale castle! It also served as a location for the filming of the T.V series ‘The White Queen’, which I love by the way. 

More about this trip will be written in future blog posts.

Please note that all photos are originals taken by me on site (apart from these last 3 of the Castle which were taken by my other half).

 

Antwerp – The Cult of the Phallus…

Hidden behind its Catholic exterior, each medieval city hides another face. The face of its pagan origins. Before the Gothic Cathedrals, the religious paintings and the traditionally approved cobbled towns we see today, there existed other beliefs, other modes of life, other realities.

This was most apparent when, after visiting the current historic center of Antwerp, with its magnificently decorated Town Hall and its awe-inspiring Cathedral of Our Lady (described in my previous blog post), we made our way to the Het Steen, or Steen Castle, which is the oldest building in Antwerp, and which used to be the previous center of the city.

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The Het Steen, also known as the Fortress of Antwerp, was built in the Early Middle Ages, after the Viking incursions. It stands on the banks of the river, and serves as the current Museum of Archaeology. 

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As one walks towards this Medieval Castle, with its witch-hat capped towers and rounded windows, the first thing one is faced with is, funnily enough, an enormous statue of a man with a GIANT phallus. Other, smaller people gasping and pointing at the phallus are also part of the statue’s tableau. Honestly, when I saw it first I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. It really jarred with the rest of the medieval atmosphere. It had nothing to do with the Catholic medieval town.

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Later, I was told that the statue represented the Scandinavian god Semini. He was a god of fertility and youth, to whom women traditionally appealed if they wanted children. To be honest, I found this quite strange as usually fertility deities tend to be female (for obvious reasons). However I was so speechless while being confronted with that statue with its… er… protruding parts, that I couldn’t really do anything except laugh. Anyways; it seems that Semini was the original god of the town of Antwerp, whose inhabitants were referred to as ‘the Children of Semini’. When the Catholic church established its hold on the town, they reviled Semini, and his cult. Of course, I imagine that the people continued to pray to their god in secret, and later on, when society permitted it, erected this statue in his ‘honor’.

After visiting the Het Steen, we spied the beautiful Standspark, a serene green park with a celestial lake and a number of tame waterfowl, and decided to take a walk and relax while surrounded by nature.

It was quite romantic and a much needed break our sightseeing.

 

The Treasures of Antwerp Square

If you think about it, the Flemish mush have been very neat people. I say this because when I was in Belgium, each of the major Flemish medieval cities was structured in the same way. Be it Ghent, Bruges, Brussels or Antwerp – each of these cities, built during the middle ages, sprawls around one large main square which is surrounded on all four sides by important buildings built in a gothic architectural style. Each square in each city has a Town Hall, where decisions about the city were taken by the Town Major, important meetings took place, and where people even got married (and still do actually). There is also always at least one cathedral, usually sporting a very tall tower with a magnificently crafted large clock at the top.

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This is the Town Hall, or City Hall in Antwerp, also called the Stadhuis. It stands on the western side of Market Square and was built in the 16th century. Its facade is richly ornamented and quite impressive, decorated with various well-crafted statues. Unfortunately, we couldn’t actually get inside the Standhuis because there was a private wedding taking place, and access was, of course, prohibited unless you were invited. So, we turned right around… to be confronted by the majestic Cathedral of Our Lady on the other side of the square.

 

Hauntingly gothic on the outside and beautifully baroque on the inside. I can never have enough of visiting Gothic Cathedrals! And no, I am not Catholic, it’s the art and architecture itself that I love. Those people invested everything they had in their cathedrals, it was the place where they went to dream and hope for a better tomorrow. In a world of misery, pain, and poverty, peasants had nothing else beautiful to look at. Imagine, even today, when we have all our geegaws, out plasma screens and hi-tech computers, when we all know how to read and write and are able to amuse ourselves, even NOW we are awed by these amazing gothic structures… now imagine people who have absolutely nothing – how THEY must have felt when entering a place of such incredible breathtaking beauty!

Anyways, hehe yes I love art and I love architecture.

 

Moving on, the Cathedral is full of paintings done by Rubens, the artist whose house I had visited just before (see previous post). And just look at that stained glass!

 

Oh and by the way, did I mention all those other historic medieval houses around the square? Today, most of them are restaurants and pubs, but they still contain their original magic. Imagine having a drink in a 600 year old bar!

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In conclusion – 10 points to Antwerp Square!!

Antwerp – Visiting Ruben’s House

The first place we visited while in Antwerp was the Rubenshuis or ‘Ruben’s House’. I am, of course, referring to the well-known Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, who is considered to be the most influential artist of the Flemish Baroque tradition. Rubens lived in this house during the early 17th century. He actually designed the house himself, in the Italian Renaissance style.

The layout of the Rubenshuis consists of the house proper, the artist’s studio, an interior courtyard, and a baroque garden (personally, this was my favorite part of the house).

The house today is a museum containing many of Rubens original works (even his famous self-portrait, which is astounding), as well as many artworks done by his contemporaries. 

I do not draw – I wish I had this talent, but I really don’t. However I love art and I appreciate the great talent and dedication owned by the truly great artists. In this respect, Ruben’s House left me in a truly awe-induced state. The paintings, the sculpture, the beautiful period furniture – they transported me back to another time, when artists, philosophers and people of all types met in this amazing place to talk, debate and to create works which would continue to amaze and inspire us long after they were gone.

Truly Rubens, I salute you!!

The Streets of Antwerp

Waking up in Ghent is an experience in itself. Our room at the B&B we were staying in, was only a couple of floors up, however the night before, I had purposefully left the curtains of the two large windows open, so as to be able to see the sun rising over the medieval streets. I say ‘we’, but I really mean me. The bf started grumbling as soon as the first shaft of light hit the pillow, so I had to get up and close the curtains, however (and this had been my intent all along) I took the opportunity to take a couple of photos before going back to bed.

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The cobbled streets were silent and deserted. As I watched the alley across our room, an early-bird (possibly a baker judging from his overalls) locked his house behind him, got on his bike and pedalled off to work. Cars, of course, are not permitted within the small historic streets of Ghent. Only bikes. And boats of course. Did I mention the fact that Ghent is full of canals? Like Bruges, some actually call it the Venice of Northern Europe!

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More of that later. After another short nap, I heard the landlady tapping at our bedroom door, signalling that she had left our breakfast tray outside. As I opened the door, the scent of newly-baked bread almost made me swoon (she later told me that she went expressly for it at the baker’s at around 5.30am each day – blessed lady!). There were pots of jam, some delicatessen items, hot milk, eggs (we could prepare them on our small stove in the kitchenette as we preferred), etc… I must say it was one of the best breakfasts I ever ate. Obviously compounded by the peaceful medieval view from the breakfast table! As we ate, we planned our day, which we were going to spend in Antwerp.

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Antwerp, another Flemish medieval city in Belgium, is actually a port city, and its port is one of the largest in the world, ranking second in Europe. Its origins date back even before the 14th century. It has a large number of historical landmarks, not to mention cultural ones, since the artworks created by its famous 17th century school of painting (not to mention other arts such as weaving), were sought after throughout the world. Unfortunately, we knew we would be unable to visit as many of the places we were interested in as we would have liked, since we only had one day to spend in Antwerp, however we fully intended to try our very best.

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After taking the train from Ghent to Antwerp, while leaving the train station, I was immediately enchanted by the beautiful flowering streets of this sweet city. Colorful flowers and plants flourishing in the warm spring sun, decorated every corner, as people from every imaginable country, ethnicity and nationality thronged the pavements. Shops sporting popular brands abounded, however to be honest I was more drawn to the tall medieval gothic-style buildings which majestically reared their sculptured facades right next to them! It seemed like there was so much to see! Everywhere I looked, the past sat right next to the present, and the mad cacophony of everyday life vied with the dreamy awe galloping through my senses.

Suddenly, incredibly, I heard a burst of classical music. It was a grand piano! Yes, right there in the middle of the street! A street-artist had somehow transported his enormous polished piano amidst all the flowers, gothic palaces and grand stores, and was playing a sonata as though his heart would break. Tourists, locals, and passers-by thronged around him clicking away madly at their cameras and mobile phones. Talk about live street-art!

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And we hadn’t even visited any of the places on our itinerary yet!

… more to come in a later entry!

P.S All photos are originals, taken by me on site.

 

Ghent by Night

Ghent by night is a magical place. We arrived from Brussels Airport by train at around 8pm, then took a tram which left us very near our B&B. Actually, the tram left us right in front of the Gravensteen, which is a medieval castle right at the heart of the tiny cobbled city. The Gravensteen, originally built in 1180, had served as the seat for the Counts of Flanders until the 14th century, and was brought to life again in 1885 by the City of Ghent, which renovated it.

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Needless to be said, the sight of those historic ramparts glimmering like a fairytale at 9.30pm, was a real sight for sore eyes, especially after a journey consisting of a tiring 3.5hr flight, 1hr train, and the 10min tram.

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We were travelling with only our hand-luggage, since we were staying for a romantic long weekend in Belgium, however we were so tired, that these actually seemed to weigh much more than they did.

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Hubby was hungry and I really needed to sit down (and admire Ghent-by-night). As we walked slowly down the main cobbled streets around the Gravensteen, young people and tourists thronged the many small bars and cafes dotting the landscape. Most of these, I was overjoyed to note, sported windows full of a myriad of different types of beers and ciders! What can I say – I simply had to stop for a drink! My other half took the opportunity to buy a cone of the famous Belgian chips, which, placed in (yes) a cone of rolled-up newspaper, seriously rivalled those of Britain… and the sauce! Omg!

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Thirst and hunger appeased, we walked on towards our cozy bed and breakfast. Actually, at that point I did not actually know what to expect from our accomodation. The trip had been a Valentine’s pressie by the hubby, who had arranged everything himself. As we rang the doorbell and waited in the nippy chill (it WAS around 11pm by this time), a sweet eccentric lady opened the glass door for us, while a black and white cat bumped jocosely around her feet. The Lady, we were to learn later, was a live-at-home artist whose Asian-inspired paintings belied the fact that she was a spiritualist and a Buddhist (she was Belgian, but had travelled extensively to Asia). Honestly, I wish I had had the time to strike up a real friendship with her, but we were there to explore Belgium and enjoy the weekend togather after all, not spend the time with our landlady hehe.

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The b&b was simply charming. There were only two rooms to let, and I admit, my love had once again shown he really knew me by choosing the one I would have picked out myself. It was called ‘The Peacock Room’, and it was decorated in a vintage chick style. The color was, of course, peacock blue, and the walls had been painted with a couple of interesting murals by the landlady herself. The double canopy bed was adorned with Chinese lanterns and wind-chimes. There was also an ensuite bathroom and a tiny kitchenette with a well-stocked fridge, and complete with a small collection of quirky teapots!! Cute!

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We were really exhausted at this point, so after a quick shower and some minor unpacking, we went to bed, obviously looking forward to the first day of our stay (as well as the home-made breakfast which the landlady promised to leave outside our door the following morning)!

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… more to come in another post

P.S The photos, of course, are originals and were all taken by me on site.

Outsider

I don’t know how old I was, when I first became  aware of the bubble.

Crouched in a hollow darkness, I always felt as if I was enclosed in a sphere of shadows. A liquid-like transparent force creating a barrier between me and the rest of the world. In slow motion, I moved within it, out of sync with every one else. Almost matching… almost, but not quite.

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Maybe it was the terror, that harsh violent presence which made me stutter and hesitate, which first created the circular protective barrier. Or maybe it was the cruel indifferent light reflecting off everyone else which first brought it into being. For sure, my awareness of it only strengthened it. My shield. My cage.

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For a time, I believed it had gone. Disappeared with a pop. Finished. For a time, I thought I was here, un-veiled, un-masked, just like everybody else.

Of course, I was wrong.

My bubble is still here. It is dark, dank, comforting. Like an old musty blanket I can clutch around me and slap over my eyes whenever I see something which should not be. I am still here, in a way. But really, I am not. Because I do not want to be. I am not with you. I am not with anyone. And no one is with me. No one looks at me. No one wants to.

In the end, the bubble does not make that much of a difference after all.

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How I deal with Depression

When I’m in a bad place (emotionally speaking) I always turn to things which comfort me. This summer, I could not turn to comfort food, since I am trying to keep track of my calories. I did turn to my one and only, however I really did not want to be too clingy – the poor guy needs his space after single-handedly taking care of all the house chores, etc for the past two and a half-months, so I had to lay off in that sense. And that, of course, left ‘comfort-books‘!

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Some books are a guilty pleasure. As the years roll by, I read them again and again at studious intervals, associating certain books or book series to certain mind-sets. Now, don’t laugh at me, but I actually have a book which I like to read each year when the first big storm hits after an arid summer. The book in question is ‘I Capture the Castle’ by Dodie Smith. There is also a series of books I read when I’m feeling particularly witty or frolicksome (mainly Neil Gaiman), and books I just love to read at Christmas-time, because, you know, they put me in the mood. Whenever I am about to travel on holiday, I also try to find books with a story based in that particular country, and I always manage it! I really had a field day when I went to Venice (why do books set in Venice always seem to be erotic romances?), and of course, the UK is easy. And so on.

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Since this summer was a terrible one for me, as I had to spend most of it in bed and in pain due to health issues, I obviously gravitated towards those books which comforted me. The 10-book part series I read, is the one which first introduced me to epic fantasy books, and the one which made me fall in love with that style of writing when I was 13 years old. I am speaking about David Edding’s Belgariad (first five books) and Mallorean (another 5 books).

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Recently I discovered that these book series are considered to be YA. They were actually written in the 1980s, a time when the term and concept of YA novels wasn’t thought of yet. So even though some readers may consider them to be YA, I do not, as they are certainly not as vapid, mediocre or predictable as YA books usually are (yup, you got me, I hate YA books in general, though there are exceptions).

The plot is basically a bildunsgroman, that is, a coming of age story. We see Garion, a naive boy living on a farm, realize that the world, and the people around him are, and were never, what he believed them to be. The world is complicated, mysterious and wonderful, and Garion finds that he himself is a very special person, destined to change the course of the known world forever. I am not going to go into any more details as I do not want to give any spoilers. Suffice it to say that I really love the cast of characters presented by Eddings. Their repetitive banter may irritate one after a while – still I read all the 10 books in around 3 weeks (remember I’m house-bound here), so one must take that into account. The books are not as lengthy as the tomes I am used to, and the old Maltese Pound price tags attached to the covers make me even more nostalgic, remembering how happy I was about buying these first books out of my own pocket money. Books which, for the first time, no one had chosen for me because they were ‘what children read’, but which I had chosen for myself, deviating from the norm. 

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If you haven’t read the Belgarion and the Mallorean, I strongly suggest you do. They are not as popular or well-known as book series like Robert Jordan’s ‘Wheel of Time’ or George R. R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ (Game of Thrones), but they are still worth a read. Then again, I’m biased, hehe…

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Solitude

When you’ve been bedridden for a long time, the sun only a memory, the fresh moving air of the big outside a far-off luxury, your state of mind inevitably changes. You start inventing small everyday rituals and tasks for yourself, not as a way to make time pass, though that’s a part of it, but as a way to keep your mind occupied and your life on a structured path. Being so cut off from everything and everyone also takes its toll. Now, I’m an introvert – I literally hate people, well most of them anyways. However this still gets to me. Ever since I’ve been in here, I started to loose time. To forget things said and done. I would think I’d told someone about a hospital appointment, when in reality I would have done nothing of the sort, and the conversation would have taken place only in my head. Similarly, I would forget physiotherapy appointments, thinking I’d changed dates.

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When you loose your notion of time, something transcendental takes place. It’s like you’re in a world of your own, with its own rules of time and space. Your bedroom becomes the universe, and anything extraneous is only a passing shadow. The mirror of a dream which was real, once upon a time, long long ago.

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Perceiving that one day, perhaps, all this will end and I will once again be part of the world outside is a far off glimmer. I know I am supposed to hope it will happen soon, but I cannot see it. I cannot imagine walking in the street, catching the bus, being in a roomful of people, many of them whom I’ve never ever met before. Strangers. I cannot fathom not feeling the humid warm recycled air of my house. Not being able to rest in bed whenever I feel pain, or tired, or just too depressed to even face the light coming from the balcony. 

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Falling into the soft embrace of tears each time any little inconsequential thing takes place, each time sadness disturbs the placid waters of my day to day life – I am not fit for normal human company. Will I ever be again? Will I ever go back to what I was? And even if I heal physically, will I be able to interact with strangers in a foreign environment, or worse with people who think they ‘know me’? 

Do I really want to?

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