I've been feeling suffocated lately. It's that feeling you get when all the clutter in your apartment comes together in your mind like a bad dream.
It's strange because my wife and I always saw each other as minimalists. We were never "things" people. But the more we read about the impact of how you live your life on the environment, the more we began re-evaluating just what kind of people we really were. Add in two small kids and you can probably visualize the problem.
Case in point: a few days ago I was on my way to the bathroom on an urgent mission. That's when I stepped on a toy truck (usually the truck runs over you, but not in our household). Anyway, the truck shattered, denting the wall. If you're a lover of toy trucks, weep away. But the toy truck wasn't the only victim. I also went down — hard.
Now then, be advised we really do work hard to try to keep our house peril-free. But no matter how hard we work, toys outsmart us.
My truck incident led to an existential (if not executive) decision: clean up the house. That can seem like a pretty humdrum subject, particularly if you're a parent, but some authors have made millions coaching the art of household cleaning.
I recently read an interview with Japanese organization consultant Marie Kondo, whose book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing," has sold millions. Kondo laid out her domestic order master plan, satisfaction (as well as peace and serenity) guaranteed. According to Zen thinking, the reordering process bolsters self-esteem, frees up the mind, breaks up unnecessary attachments to the past (and past things), and leads you to treasure the things you already have, reducing the impulse to buy more.
My wife and I often look at websites to get inspiration against wastefulness. We read about how to limit what we discard and how to recycle intelligently. We try our best to follow the zero waste 5R rule: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot.
Our house purge began with an agreement on criteria on what to keep. We started with the closet. Anything we hadn't worn in six months was doomed, no nostalgia allowed.
It's hard to justify holding on to a 20-year-old t-shirt with the words "I'm even better without a shirt." It's cruel world, I know. Things you could wear once-upon-a-time just don't fit anymore — the body changes. The un-wearable stuff just languishes, wasting space.
So far, so good. But getting rid of something doesn't mean throwing it away. Whatever got kicked out of the closet needed another home. We solved the problem by telling friends and relatives what we were up to, so that most everything we tossed had a hand-me-down owner.
Designer clothes I didn't need anymore, having lost weight, went like hotcakes. Baby clothes went to our maid Elena, who sent them to her daughter in Romania, who has two young kids, works at a call center and earns €200 a month. When she later showed us a photo of her daughter's kids wearing the same clothes as my babies once did, I felt truly good.
Even toys (minus the truck) found new homes. We were never much on giving our kids toys, preferring other kinds of presents, but birthday gifts from friends filled in that gap. Whenever anyone asks us what toys to buy for our kids (we have a boy and a girl), we politely reply that we don't have any set rules, aside from one: nothing battery-powered.
Most classic toys rely on a constant stream of batteries. They're also easy to break. Giving them away isn't easy. We solved that by handing them off to a local kindergarten that was happy to take them.
We exchanged preschool books for books we didn't have. One brittle old book had a dedication from the author to his niece, dated 1963. That also made me feel good: the idea that the old was being kept alive and circulated.
Things no one would take ended up in second-hand stores or with charity organizations. One such organization has a store inside Rome's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). I took them a painting I hated, which was sold to buy school supplies for African kids. I also brought them vintage computer parts, vintage lamps (read ugly lamps), and an assortment of kitchen gadgets I bought (convinced they were essential) but rarely used.
Out the door went table settings and cutlery that never really fit in to our lifestyle (remember those ostentatiously colored place settings and chopsticks you got as wedding gifts?)
We even gave away unused diapers. Diapers are incredibly wasteful in environmental terms. Their absorbent lining is made from plastic, wood pulp and chemicals. Use-and-lose diapers need 500 years to fully decompose. On average, Italian families go through more than 6,500 diapers annually, that's more than 1,000 kilos, which is no joke. To limit diaper consumption, I trained my daughter to use the bathroom early on. It's working.
We also cut back on adult personal hygiene products. Soaps, beauty products and detergents are also environmentally hurtful. So we decided to make our own. Most use hygiene products depend on three basic ingredients: boric acid, sodium bicarbonate and wine vinegar. I make my own toothpaste by mixing bicarbonate with cocoa oil. Cyberspace is teeming with recommendations and video tutorials.
My old-school father was predictably skeptical — until he tried my toothpaste. Since then, I've been inundated by calls from him wanting to know more. This choice helps you cut down on tubes, bottles, containers and all the plastic they contain. As for laundry detergent, cheap, vegetable-based Castile soap and water does the trick.
To square the circle, I dug into my food supply. That might seem easy, since food is perishable, but all kinds of cans sit in cupboards years after their expiration dates. Not to mention the half-empty boxes of pasta or rice that sit in cupboard purgatory.
My advice is to forage around for what's still usable and organize a buffet dinner around what you have. It's fun and you free up more space.
As for what to serve, try chicken satay. Satay was born in Java centuries ago, and has since made its way around the world. Anything on skewers is perfect for a stand-up meal. Add salad and cold rice, with some beer or prosecco from Valdobbiadene.
"Housecleaning" Chicken Satay
— In a bowl, mix the soy sauce and peanut butter and stir so they blend.
— Add the shallots, lime and lemon juice, the hot chili sauce and grated ginger, stirring the mix. Then add the teaspoon of curry powder.
— Soak the skewers in cold water so that there's less chance they burn in cooking. Cut the chicken into strips and stick it on the skewers to crate a zigzag, wave like pattern.
— Stick the skewers into the mix and then place them in a glass container. Refrigerate to marinate overnight.
— The next day, remove the skewers and place them on a baking sheet. Let them grill in the oven at maximum heat for 15 minutes.
Serve the skewers with some lime juice, all the while proudly surveying your newly cleaned out home in all its uncluttered glory.