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From Doing to Being

What a whirlwind the last five months have been – buying and moving into our first home, undertaking and living in a small renovation, growing our first child, all while navigating a busy work schedule.

We are extremely relieved to have been extracted from the day to day realities of the mid-pandemic housing market – predatory real estate agents and practices, relentless hunting, overwhelming competition, excruciating evaluation of personal suitability versus actual value, saccharine offer letters and depressing rejections. In total we viewed 43 homes with our 17th offer being accepted. Gruelling.

What is not immediately obvious about renovating is that it requires a decision regarding e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. In the kitchen, that’s the layout, materials, appliances and fixtures, but also the colour of the grouting, lighting locations, type of cupboard handles, the design, quantity and height of electrical switches, et al. Many decisions are related to the intuitive functionality, rather than aesthetic feel, of the space – that is they’re really critical to making a space ‘work’. Multiply that swath of decisions by however many rooms you’ve been brave enough to tackle. So there is the physical work of construction (which we mostly outsourced) but also the mental work of conceptualisation.

Having survived the process I can, with knowing tongue in cheek, understand how some couples are completely broken by it or end up in therapy. Despite our share of painful conversations, M and I eventually came to recognise, and respect, that our differences establish a healthy equilibrium – where he is pragmatic with the ability to visualise things easily, maintaining the momentum of decision-making at the risk of an occasional wrong call, where I am more idealistic, reliant on samples to consider every possible variable to avoid making the wrong call, at the risk of delaying work. Toward the end, if it wasn’t urgent M gave me the space to deliberate, and if it was urgent I communicated any immediate concerns or simply let it go.

One other learning was just how much can go wrong. As experienced designers we expected hiccups… but not quite so many, or by so many different suppliers. Like the toilet flush plate, which was first mounted incorrectly by the builders, then once installed flushed excessively long (the store had paired a newer facade with an older mount) and had to be looked at by the brand specialist who managed to solve the problem but in the meantime fractured the glass plate, posting out a wrong replacement model, until finally the correct model was sent and installed successfully by M. Or the kitchen countertop, where the stone supplier discontinued the material we had selected, but failed to let the kitchen designer know, instead sending a substitute with an entirely different finish and colour. So here we are, 9 May and 16 weeks since our somewhat small renovation began and not a single room is 100% complete. Of course some element of global supply chain woes, price hikes and staff shortages related to the pandemic and its economic fallout have played a part in adding to the chaos.

Living in the renovation no doubt added to our burden. And while it was somewhat naive of us, it was also extremely practical (four months of rent and mortgage after home buying fees and renovation costs and before accommodating a child? No thanks). But for sure I did not think through the jeopardy of being 24 weeks pregnant and having both loos out of action, ducking regularly to our local supermarket for relief. Or having to be showered and dressed by 7am to avoid being caught in a towel by a builder. Or having to traipse up and down two flights of stairs between the attic (with prep space, sink and chairs) and the garage/garden (with fridge, oven and BBQ) to cook a meal. It was tough-going. And our naïveté was probably for the better, I’m not sure we would have otherwise had the stamina.

And all this while pregnant(!). Most first mums I know were extremely disciplined (healthy eating, vitamins, walking, yoga, pelvic floor exercises, etc.) and well prepared (reading, courses, baby’s room ready months in advance) in their first pregnancy. Which is maybe how I can shape a second pregnancy! Given the circumstances, M and I are extremely fortunate that things have thus far been pretty uncomplicated, made up in phases of very ‘normal’ symptoms*. And we’re also very lucky that baby did not feel compelled to arrive early. I’ve been on maternity leave since 4 April, five weeks ahead of my due date, which seems generous but at that point we were still packed up in 20+ boxes and yet to paint, let alone being physically or emotionally ready to welcome a newborn.

At some point during our house hunt I miserably complained to my mum, ‘I just want to get on with my life!’. To which she replied, ‘But this is life’. Touché, mum. Since we packed up our London home back in September 2020 it has been a wild ride. Most significantly, I’ve gained a deeper awe and love for my husband, as we’ve been exposed to experiences where I’ve had better insight into just how capable and committed he is. Simultaneously, it has definitely felt like eighteen long months with our belongings in boxes and personal interests on hold. With baby’s arrival, whenever that might be, we are ready to slow down and just enjoy ‘being’ for awhile.

*my experience of an ‘uncomplicated’ pregnancy included: tiredness, loss of focus, loss of breath, blood noses, foot cramps, fainting, back pain, Melasma (pregnancy mask), sciatica pain, heartburn, swollen ankles, choking on my own spit, snoring (M loved this one) and increased blood pressure, among other things.

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Dina’s Eggs

Roughly around week 6-8 of pregnancy, for two weeks and two weeks only, I craved any and all food that registered on my sensory radar. From the Jacket Potato that appeared in The Morning to the crisp memory of Dina’s eggs, served during our stay at Casa da Dina in Alentejo’s countryside. While waiting for Dina to kindly email through her recipe I tried out the first decent looking search result for Mexican eggs.

But Dina’s eggs are next level. They’re way richer and jammier due to the reduction of the tomatoes, creating a simple chutney of sorts which is then finally added to the eggs alongside jalapeño and fresh coriander. Recipe below, as shared by Dina.


So, here it goes:

The tomato sauce

  • 1–1.5kg tomatoes (good ones, plum or any other kind as far as they are ripe. Cut them in quarters or smaller. I peel them, but not totally. You can leave some skin on)
  • 800g  white onions cut in quarters (if too large cut the quarters in half)
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • olive oil
  • salt

In a pot (I use a wok) start with the olive oil, generous amount, then make a layer of tomato, followed by a layer of onions and  garlic. Repeat the layers until you run out of all the ingredients. Add the salt and turn on the stove. When it starts boiling lower the heat and cover the pot. Let it boil slowly for 40 minutes to an hour. And it is ready. Taste it to make sure the salt is good. It reduces a lot and you will see a lot of liquid.

You can make abundant tomato sauce and freeze it in small portions. This way you can eat your Mexican eggs anytime you feel like it and faster. You may use the sauce also in stews, etc. etc.

Now the eggs:

  • 2–4 eggs
  • 1 jalapeño (it depends on the size of the chili and the amount of eggs you are making. For both of you I think half is good)
  • 1.5tbsp  chopped coriander leaves (half of this amount goes on the frying pan the other half over the eggs once they are done and on the plate)
  • 3 tbs tomato sauce

On a frying pan pour a little bit of olive oil. Add the 3 tablespoons of the tomato, the coriander and the chopped jalapeño. Let it fry till the water from the tomato sauce evaporates (or else the eggs will turn really mushy and ugly). Pour the eggs on and make them to your taste. Once on the serving plate it is time for the rest of the coriander.

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Travel and its opposites

If, as we’re told, the point of exotic travel is to ‘create memories’, and if, as I would insist, our memories consist fundamentally of good stories, and if what makes a good story is some element of unexpectedness, it follows that the point of travelling is to be surprised.

Jonathon Franzen, from the essay Postcards from East Africa, in The End of the End of the Earth pg 181

In 2010 I was staying in the seaside village of Taganga, Colombia when I realised that my cash supply was running dangerously low and I would need to travel to the nearby town of Santa Marta to withdraw more. I passed over the last of my coins to the bus driver for the short trip and was soon wandering through the outskirts of the town. Finally locating a cash machine, I discovered that my bank card had been blocked due to a recent online purchase. Without any backups (lesson learned), or mobile phone, I was reliant on my own ‘smarts’ to dig myself out of the mess. Faintly recalling the details of a nearby hostel, I navigated my way and promptly asked to make use of the wifi. Connected, with a thick Aussie accent filling the headphones I was dismayed to realise that the microphone didn’t work.

A last resort, I asked if I could borrow some cash to call from a local payphone. To which the attendant replied that they would need to check with the manager. Shortly the manager arrived and… ‘Evan?!’. The manager, it turned out, was a Californian I had studied with in Sydney back in 2005, both of us as exchange students. He, of course, happily lent me the money and within 30 minutes I’d spoken with the bank, had the hold on my card lifted, withdrawn cash and returned the borrowed money with a wild sense of wonder at the smallness of the world.

My eleven year old memory emphasises that travel is not manufactured experience, as rampant tourism and the plethora of City Guides might have us believe. Real adventure exposes you to the elements, to learn something surprising about a new place, or possibly even yourself. Conversely, a form of overly planned travel that I’ve come to appreciate in recent years is one that serves an entirely different purpose – one of rest. Both are totally valid, and necessary, in balance. And both are a privilege, though neither require travelling far from home to experience.

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Pandemic policy update

It’s been awhile since I posted an update on Coronavirus restrictions, because it feels as though barely anything has changed. I’m pleased to stand corrected, there is some slow progress.

Today’s national pandemic policy

Status: Partly loosened strict lockdown

• daycare centres and primary schools are open *
• secondary schools taught remotely, but can offer one in-person class per week *
• adults can participate in sports activities at outdoor sports facilities in groups of up to 4 people *
• retail stores can offer click and collect, as well as appointments booked at least 4 hours in advance *
• contact-based professions (hairdressers, driving instructors) open *
• the curfew has been shifted back to 10pm *
• funerals may be attended by no more than 50 people *
• weddings may be attended by no more than 30 people *
• do not travel abroad and do not book trips abroad until 15 May *
• only go outside with members of your household, on your own or with 1 other person
• no more than 1 person aged 13 or over at your home per day
• visit no more than 1 other household per day

• work from home. Only people whose presence is essential to operational processes can go to work
• masks to be worn in indoor spaces
• public transport should be used for essential travel only
• food and drinks establishments are closed, takeaways excepted
• all museums, zoos, cinemas, amusement parks and other public spaces are closed
• no alcohol sold after 8pm

*revised from the previous policy update

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Having and Being Had

Having and Being Had is a fantastic book to read in your 30s, being both topical and refreshingly honest. Characteristically, Eula Biss rigourously weaves personal narrative with secondary research, in short chapters that make for an easy read, as she grapples with the purchase of her first home. An exemplary chapter below:

Moral Monday

Today is Moral Monday, I hear on the radio. A priest and a rabbi are staging a protest downtown with a giant camel and a giant needle, a reference to Jesus saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” I pause over this, wondering if money can really be so corrupting that just having it is immoral. I have my doubts, but I also have money.

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Crossing the threshold

I have lived in rental properties all my life – for the entirety of my childhood, and for the seventeen years of my *officially* adult life. Before we moved to the Netherlands, MR suggested that we buy, rather than rent, a house. It took me awhile to come round to the idea, foreign as it is, but we are now looking for our own home.

On arrival we were ignorant to the state of housing here. We have since learned that houses are, comparative to London, somewhat reasonably priced and in decent condition, and that one hundred percent mortgages and home-owner tax benefits are available. Breezy, no?

Poster by Ruben Pater

We have also discovered that the demand for housing far outweighs the supply. I don’t know the exact details, but I believe the crisis emerged loosely around 2015 as a result of a parliamentary pause on building to minimise environmental impact. Particularly in the Randstad, this has resulted in 8-12% over-bidding as the norm and property values literally doubling since 2015 – check any address on the government’s value register. Skyrocketing prices in Amsterdam have compounded, in part, due to the rise in foreign investment and the doubling of tourists per year from four to eight million between 2004 and 2017 (read more).

Poster by Ruben Pater

Contextual complexities aside, the present possibility to own our own home feels life-changing for me. I was raised by a single mother on a receptionist’s wage, although her parents – who were generous with us in care and finances – were comfortable. This goes some way in explaining the conflict between my middle class values and my working class psyche. But, as Eula Biss points out, defining class is a tricky task.

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