Simple Living, with Cheese

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Sept 2013 007

My apartment has been filled with blessed silence the last few days. On Monday night, I lit candles, slowly ate dark chocolate, drank a glass of white wine and read a book, all while listening to piano music. I felt more relaxed than I had in weeks.

Ely is gone.

For three week, Kristina and I hosted Ely, a young woman from the community of Libertad on the Caribbean coast. She was in Bogota for the very first time to attend theatre workshops. Ely is dynamic and creative, full of energy and life. I am glad that I had the opportunity to get to know her, learn about her life, and provide her a space in this crazy city.

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I am also an introvert. Ely is not. Cultural concepts of being alone and needing space are also very different between the coast and Canada. I have lived on the coast- I understand that a life lived alone is not seen as normal. Even in Bogota, lines are always shorter than they appears because accompaniment, whether to the bank or the grocery store, is the norm.

Every time I sought solitude, to read a book or just be by myself, I felt guilty for leaving Ely alone, with nobody to listen to her stories or simply sit with her. I did not want to be rude, but I also found it exhausting to hear every detail of her day, for hours. (As an aside, this is why I will never be a parent).

When I am truly honest with myself, the experience was not simply a challenge because of cultural differences, but also lifestyle. When I moved to Bogota from the coast, I used to wander from room to room, in awe of living in a place with more than two tiny rooms. It was a miracle every time water came out of the taps. And then I could drink it!

Listening to Ely shriek in the bathroom about the hot water in the shower reminded me how different my life is now. When she mentioned cooking over an open fire, I cringed a little as I showed her how to turn on our beautiful gas stove. When Ely burst into incredulous laughter over the coffee grinder, the kettle and the French press, all to create a single cup of coffee that she finds much too bitter, I realized how far away from simple living I have come.

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I once played a personality  board game with some family members. Each person took turns reading out loud from cards describing different personality traits; everyone else voted on which trait best described the reader. I was kind of surprised, but then not really, when everyone unanimously voted me as the hedonist of the group. That is, I like the good things in life:delicious food with complex flavours, beautiful art, clothes, good books, rich conversations, coffee in bed. These all form part of my definition of a well lived life, so much so that I worry about being pretentious.

Is it any wonder that over time living in Bogota, simple living seems to have disappeared from my life? When I lived on the coast, treats like dark chocolate and ice cream were seldom and I used them as rewards for cohabiting with mice. I haven’t stopped rewarding myself since. I have not, however, seen a mouse in over two years and the wonder of a grocery store with imported cheese, flush toilets and free Friday night movies have become routine.

It is easy, though, to get caught up in a legalistic set of rules. After all, is it a bad thing if I can create delicious food everyday within my budget? Or should I be eating more Colombian, because I live here and a family of four Colombians can also eat on my food budget? Cheap food is a whole other issue- cheese may be on sale sometimes, but what about that free trade agreement? Does being a vegetarian most of the time cancel out my environmental footprint when I have extra long hot showers?  I bought my coffee grinder at a thrift store and my mini food processor (the new love of my life) with points at the grocery store; does that nullify their existence in my house?

What is essential to living a good life?  For Ely, people, especially her family and community are the most important. The rest are just things. Yet ownership of things demonstrates global structures and economic privilege. Poverty is not romantic. Ely’s sister, for example, now lives in Bogota alone, so that she can earn enough money to send back to her two year old son in Libertad.

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Personally, my essentials include a space of refuge where I can be creative and comfortable. I like being able to be an introvert. I do think, however, that it is very easy for me to get caught up in my ideal comfort zone that I forget the structures in place enabling that zone. When I overlook that, I then forget to open myself and what I have up to others, even when it makes me uncomfortable. Community is important, whether I am an introvert or not. Ely might not like my coffee, but the act of sharing it with her is still a good thing, even if it doesn’t undo privilege.

I’m still trying to figure out the rest (alone, with candles).

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