Saturday, August 01, 2009

The "S" word

The next installment of how I met my husband is coming soon, but just in case y'all are getting sick of sighing reminiscences, here's what's on my mind now.

My "s" word has five letters:


We have tons of it. I wage a constant battle against it, and at best, on most days, I reach a stalemate. It's not that our apartment is all that messy, disorganized or grungy; we clean, we sort, we put things away. It it simply packed to the bursting point with stuff.

This isn't an unusual hardship, I know. Urban-dwellers across the planet have the same problem, and a family of three in a 600-square-foot living space with reliable plumbing is luxury to nine-tenths of the world's population. But I grew up in a small American town where space is cheap enough to build three-car garages. When I was a kid, we had entire rooms in our house that we almost never entered. There was no reason to. The guest bedroom was for when we had guests, or when my mother needed to set up the sewing machine. And there was plenty of room for storing absolutely everything. Two huge boxes of Christmas ornaments? No problem! Toys from my parents' childhood? Put them in the attic! Ten years of back issues of the New Yorker? There are bookshelves aplenty upstairs!

I miss that. A lot. Now every time I buy something I face the question, where will it go? Our apartment is like a giant Tetris grid, and when a new item drops from the heavens, we have to scramble to find just where it will fit. Sometimes my (admittedly fragile) cool deserts me and I just can't take it any more. I start pointing out all the stuff and deem it too much. I suggest ever more drastic and unreasonable measures to get rid of it as my husband's patience with me runs out.

"That bookshelf! It's filled with CDs, so many that it is sagging! They're so ugly, I'll put them all on the bottom shelf and let le Petit take care of them..."

"Do you honestly need to keep all these postcards? I'm sure if I just recycled them you wouldn't even notice."

"If I have to look at that bag of shopping bags [my most hated object in the house, the dreaded and dreadful sac des sacs] one more minute I'm going to throw it out the window!"

And the worst thing I can say, of course, is:

"That's it. We're moving."

(It's always been an empty threat, but now that I've remodeled my kitchen, I am careful not to go quite that far.)

Clearly, all this stuff is taking up too much room in my own head. So what if our bookshelves sag and we can't actually walk out onto our (otherwise minuscule) balcony? Our household is fairly shipshape for the number of square feet at our disposal. If we didn't read and collect ridiculous numbers of books and CDs, if I didn't draw and weave, if le Petit wasn't so into jigsaw puzzles, in short, if we weren't such fascinating people, we'd have more room but our lives would be emptier, too.

It wouldn't bother me if I weren't so American about it. As a good friend of mine, a French woman who is married to an American man, said to me the other day, "Whenever I used to come back from the US and compare our tiny apartment where we were living as a family of four with my in-laws' enormous houses, I'd wonder, what are we doing here?"

We went on to agree that the other side of the coin is precarity: in the US if you get sick, lose your job, overextend yourself while buying the house or the things to put in it, you can suddenly you find yourself with no safety net. Here in France, I know no one (yet) who is severely touched by the financial crisis. Back in the US, I have friends who've lost jobs or who are trying to dig themselves out from crushing debt, who are calculating the months they can live off their savings or are considering walking away from their house and their mortgage. It isn't just the stuff, of course, and the causes are many and varied. I suspect, however, that all this stuff creates a cocoon of false security. It looks like prosperity, and it feels like prosperity, but it is a mirage.

In the meantime we're learning that all this stuff is unsustainable on a planetary level. The energy and natural resources that it takes to produce and transport it all are finite, and with the population growing and the atmosphere heating up, the entire Earth is looking more and more like a giant Tetris grid, and one, alas, where none of the filled-up rows ever disappear.

But (oh, the irony!) we've got to buy more to get out of the crisis (and that's where my understanding of macroeconomics ends). So shopping is also virtuous and necessary. And I'm the first to admit I get a rush when I find the perfect [insert miracle organizational item] at IKEA. My wardrobe is tired -- I should know, given the time I've spent reorganizing the closets lately -- so I'm planning to swing through the local clothing boutiques at lunch this week, although fashion-challenged as I am, I window-shop far, far more than I buy. Le Petit also needs some new pairs of pants. I'm no fashionista, but I can tell when my toddler's grown out of or torn through the knee of a pair of overalls. The clothes he's outgrown without wearing them out will go into yet another box for our basement storage unit, which is beginning to look like the Great Wall of Cardboard.

The battle continues.


Isabelle said...

You won't be surprised to learn that after having spent a few days at his sister's 5,000 square foot house, my husband completely freaked out when he saw our relatively messy apartment!
I told him that it was for sure easier to keep a tidy home when you have so much space...
I hate cluster too but we don't have much of a choice here, so we just have to live with it.

Sylvie said...

I'm right in the midst of half-moving, which is worse than moving because you don't move everything. But you have to look at everything and decide to take it or not. Hell!

Parisienne Mais Presque said...

@Isabelle - I know, there's just a level of background clutter than you can't escape, whatever you do. My husband has lived in apartments all his life so it doesn't bother him; I'm the one who has unrealistic expectations.

@Sylvie, when in doubt, err on the side of leaving it in Seattle. Trust me, as small as you think a Paris apartment is, once you arrive, it'll feel a lot smaller. Speaking of which, have you found a place yet and when do you arrive?