A confessional post from our regular writer Leila Benzo about her adjustment to living in a small flat in Paris.
Before I moved to Paris we lived in the middle east, where interiors were spacious, ceilings high and every living area had the room to breathe. Then we moved back to Europe and stayed with family, and my two little ones, which might sound claustrophobic but it wasn’t because they had big houses. The next stop was Paris. Of course, we couldn’t afford even a one-bedroom flat in the city so we went to the sleepy suburbs – just to find an affordable two bedroom apartment.
I didn’t like it but I found a way to accept it
The first thing I thought, when I walked into our new home, was ‘wow, it’s tiny’. I felt like I just stepped into a room which ended straight away. In every room, I could only take a couple of steps from one side to the other. The next few thoughts I had were of dread and despair, as I wondered if I’d ever get used to the lack of space. I decided quietly to myself that we’d move within 3 months. 18 months later we are still in the same apartment. I did get used to it, I didn’t like it but I found a way to accept it. I had to, to get through my days as a stay at home mum with a two-year-old toddler and five-month-old baby.
I was waiting for my delivery to arrive from England, all our toys were coming, and I thought that would entertain the kids more. I had already ordered some furniture from IKEA which took up most of the space in the flat and I was about to receive a few more small pieces of furniture and many boxes of stuff. Stuff… so much stuff. When it arrived, I was excited. The kids seemed happy. I don’t think they ever had a concept of interior size. For them everything was big, because they were so small.
Now, when I say small what I am actually talking about is 50 metres squared, which consists of 2 decent sized bedrooms, and a small living area which is half taken up by a massive round dining table and 4 hideous chairs that we can’t remove because it came as a half furnished flat. The miniscule kitchen has two tiny cupboards and a piece of workspace about 30 centimetres wide; big enough to put one plate on or a pile of things which can topple over and crash to the floor, which they do every day.
As soon as anything is put out of place anywhere in my home it turns into an instant mess. The most daunting of tasks is the laundry because there is no drying space, or place for a laundry basket. We have a bathroom, not big enough for cat swinging, which we now have our clothes washer/dryer in. Baths are so much more relaxing when you can hear washing whizzing around on a spin cycle, don’t you think? Sometimes I feel like the whole room is going to blast off into space; there’s that much energy flying around it.
Doors have become my enemy; they swing around me everywhere I go. We have 7 doors in our tiny home, but not just any doors; doors with huge sharp square handles on them jutting out ready for the attack.
As I used to walk past these door handles 100 times a day in my mummy aerobics (housework) I was guaranteed to be speared in my forearms at least 4 times per day. The handles have scratched my skin, bruised my flesh and even drawn blood… Yes, blood! I have tried, mentally, to make peace with them – to forgive and forget. I have even tried wrapping them in tissue and sticky tape which did work for a while. But, now I have learnt to always be aware of the exact distance and angle of each door as I move around it. I slow down as I approach handles and I swerve closely missing them. That action has taken me an entire year to learn, and perfect, so now I only get hit by handles once a week maximum.
In our town, every Thursday evening, people leave things outside their houses on the street. I’ve seen furniture, toys, kitchen stuff and lamps. I love a bargain, and freebies even more, so I have collected many things from the streets including side tables, Ikea chairs and a children’s desk. I’ve cleaned them, thrown covers over, and felt very proud of my finds.
Unfortunately, with little floor space it was difficult to find the right place for my new furniture and soon the flat became engulfed with other people’s rubbish. Then ‘ding dong!’ Post, ‘oh how nice – a gift.’ This seems to happen a lot when you live far away from family. Gifts come in the post, quite frequently, every time there’s a birthday and often for times of celebration such as Easter and Xmas. Our home soon became even tinier with all the new things which I just didn’t have
Our home soon became even tinier with all the new things which I just didn’t have the space for. I kept moving things around, like a jigsaw puzzle with too many pieces, and stressing out about needing more shelves, more storage! The cave downstairs was full to bursting point and we had just enough space to walk around the furniture in our actual living space.
The kids would move things and put their toys everywhere. When the baby started crawling, then walking, nothing was safe and the mess was constant. To make things worse I had no method of tidying or organising. Every evening I’d see a scattered mess in front of me, I’d collect everything I could see in a shopping bag and put that bag to one side of the room. I’d collect a new bag of stuff at the end of each day, so I had a collection of shopping bags, all half full of random objects. My plan was to one day look through the bags and sort through everything. The fatal flaw to this method was that I never sorted through the bags and all the objects were hidden and ‘lost’.
I started talking about needing to move; what we needed I thought was more space for storage!
The most irritating problem of the constant mess and disorganisation was losing things and certain objects seemed to be always lost: nail clippers, lighters and pens. One morning during a screaming match over nail clippers, between the husband and I, I marched out of the flat to buy 8 nail clippers, 8 lighters and 8 pens. This, I believed, would solve the problem. I would put one of each thing in every room so it would be impossible to lose them again. This technique does not work, especially if you put all mess into shopping bags, to hide, every evening…
With no space, constant mess and an excess of belongings I retreated from my ‘mum duties’ and went on housework strike.
I had hit a very dark moment of despair in our living situation and I couldn’t see a way out. I started talking about needing to move; what we needed I thought was more space for storage! Our lifestyle was unbearable, and it was just getting worse. But that was all before I found out about the professional organiser: Marie Kondo.
Almost instantly Kondo’s book ‘the life-changing magic of tidying up’ spoke sense to me. I relaxed and felt air enter deep inside my lungs, into areas which had felt stuffy for a while. She wasn’t just speaking about how to organise objects and spaces but she brought up psychological issues about hording and my relationship with my objects. She advised that the first thing we should do is to imagine the space that we’d like to live in, try to feel it, draw it, create it in our minds as vividly as possible. Once we can focus on the space we want we can begin discarding.
The technique of de-cluttering, she explains, is one of discarding objects. We must pick up each object and feel the energy it gives us. If the object we hold makes us feel light and happy it is a positive object which we should keep, but if the object makes us feel heavy then it is a negative object which we should throw out. I used to have a problem with the idea of throwing things away. I was brought up to not waste things especially if they were expensive or of any value of any kind.
Kondo was giving me the right, and confidence, to go against my upbringing and make decisions based purely on my true feelings, which was liberating. I took great pleasure in filling up my first 5 bin liners of old clothes and toys which were too big and clumpy for my kid’s room. The immediate feeling of discarding was powerful and I could sense a change in the air of our home. Things started looking tidier and I felt the possibility of finding some kind of order.
After sorting the rubbish, from the things worth saving, I started organising the storage space. My new perspective on storage space was fascinating. Kondo explains that we should make our interior cupboard spaces nice areas to look at. Storage spaces should ‘spark joy’ in us. We should put all our small cupboards inside the big cupboards to use the space to its maximum capacity, yet making sure not to overcrowd it. Clothes should be folded rather than hung simply because it saves space. Kondo’s folding technique is so ingenious that it reduces the volume of the clothes and makes the storage space look great.
“I have space to breathe”
After months of thinking that I needed a new bookshelf I realised that I could simply turn the top part of my kid’s cupboard into their book storage space. I threw out a lot of junk from our storage and put their toy shelf unit down in the cave/basement to store our tools in. My discarding skill became very fast and accurate as I continued throwing out anything that caught my eye in a negative flash. Certain things I could not part with, as I didn’t have permission, such as my husband’s thirty or more old t-shirts which take up an entire box and shelf, even when I folded them into tiny rectangles! He just wouldn’t allow me.
Discarding things makes you empty corners, cupboards, and places that are attracting clutter, and in doing so you create more space, which appears to make your home grow slightly. For people like us, who live in a small space, the realisation of gaining space by throwing things away was revolutionary. One evening the husband came home and said “wow it feels empty in here.” I felt as though I had found the secret to eternal happiness: It was all about throwing things away with no guilt attached. That, and not buying or ‘finding’ more things that we didn’t actually need.
Since converting to the Konmari method my life is better. I have space to breathe, a book shelf which just displays the books I love and I even have a plant on a shelf and the space for a few ornaments. My home is now a place of relaxation and sanctuary.
The most important lesson I learnt from Marie Kondo is to respect every object that I have including the structure of the home. Each thing in my home has a purpose and a feeling, even if it doesn’t have a mind of its own, I have a feeling towards it which in turn gives it a feeling. If I discard an object I should acknowledge the job it has done for me up until that point and thank it for giving me what I needed at that time, which I now do every time I throw something away. The house provides shelter and is the most reliable and useful of all objects in my life, so I should show appreciation by looking after it properly.
I realise now that I am not looking after the house for my kids, or my husband, or myself; I’m looking after the house for the house! In looking after the house, and respecting our objects, I’m also creating a respectful environment in the home. The atmosphere is a lot easier since things aren’t constantly lost and we don’t have any tension, or arguments, about where things are or how our space isn’t big enough to service us. Instead, we have found a way to exist in what we have harmoniously, and with gratitude. We are even contemplating buying a home of around the same size, as it seems to provide us with what we need.
The energy from, and feelings towards, objects is something I had never noticed before I discovered Kondo’s philosophy but now I am highly aware of. I care more for my home and objects than I have ever done before. I have taken the activity of organising our space into my own hands rather than feeling swamped and controlled by clutter and disorder.
Marie Kondo changed my life, and I highly recommend her books on tidying and organisation to anyone who feels overwhelmed by mess, in a small living environment with little people in Paris.
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This post was written Leila Benzo, Mama in Paris, Teacher, Writer.
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