16 Decluttering Tips for Families

There is a common struggle that arises when it comes to trying to simplify our lives, and it comes in the shape of other family members. Decluttering may make perfect sense to you, but do your loved ones agree?
In my journey towards becoming a minimalist, I have had to accept that the stereotypical image of minimalism is not what you will find in my home (see second photo below) – not with three children aged eight and under as my companions in life. However, chances are these days that if you give me a 15 minute warning that you’re going to drop in for a coffee, I can get my home looking reasonably ‘guest ready’ by the time you arrive.
This is one benefit of decluttering that has been apparent to both myself and my kids when it comes to tidy-up time, so my path towards minimalism is one that I feel able to continue walking down with their mutual awareness of the ease it is bringing.
Yet creating a new family mindset does not happen overnight – there must be a mental readiness to let go of our possessions before the physical letting go even happens, and just the idea of getting rid of something that has potentially been in your lives for years (even if has been unused and unloved) can come as a shock to some family members.
Considering the varied reactions to the idea of decluttering, I have compiled a few ideas to get your family into the frame of mind for the task ahead – practical solutions for the child who might not know where to start, through to deep and meaningful discussion points that can help you understand why both children and adults alike struggle with the idea of parting with their possessions.
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Family Clutter
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Family Minimalism
1) Easing in
Firstly, see what your family members are prepared to part with without much fuss – some items will be obvious to them once they realise they don’t have to keep something just because they can (e.g. toys that are broken or defaced).

You yourself must be open to modifying your view of ‘quality’ where children’s toys are concerned. When your 4-year-old wants to get rid of the expensive, wooden play sets (that they rarely play with) but keep the cheap, plastic one (that they frequently play with), your view of quality may have to reflect the value of their play rather than the value of the item – there will be plenty of occasion to discuss the concept of quality and environmental concerns further down the line when it comes to gift-giving and receiving (see point 3).

Grab a couple of bags, give everyone an incentive (one that works for us is promising to snuggle up on the sofa for family film night in our less-cluttered living room that evening) and ask the kids to fill one bag with anything broken or otherwise not suitable for donating, and another bag with items to pass on to the charity shop.

2) Give logical incentives where possible

My son was aware that he no longer wanted some of his Lego sets but the thing that helped him to let go of it was telling him how well it holds its value – that if he sold it, it would help him save up for the new computer he wanted. He didn’t look back after that!

Where you can, find other logical incentives to lend inspiration and reasons for your family members to join you.

A couple of ideas:

Perhaps your child wants somewhere to display their nature collection yet has a shelf or chest of drawers covered in clutter in their room – is this the space they seek?

Maybe your child has been asking for new clothes or shoes even though they don’t really need any (like my 4-year-old daughter!) – could you get rid of a whole bag of old or unworn clothes in exchange for one special item of clothing they really want?

You are sure to find a logical incentive that works for you and your child.

3) Discuss big concepts like ‘need’, ‘enough’, ‘abundance’, ‘poverty’ and ‘quality’

When we start decluttering we quickly realise that we have much more than enough. Just because the issue of clutter may be a ‘first world problem’, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem – and this first world problem is often the result of third world problems (and vice versa).

There is a balance to be had, and accompanying the physical act of decluttering is a lot of reflecting on what is really important in life and how privileged we are in a consumerist society.

When we reflect on aspects of consumerist culture, we find ourselves in discussion about huge global issues – environmentalism, throwaway culture, cheap labour and quality rather than quantity, to name just a few.

Once they’re aware of the level of lack that some children in the world live with, you may be able to encourage your child to part with some toys for charitable causes – they may recognise their abundance and be more willing to part with it if it is about giving. This would work best if passing on directly to children – such as to a local women’s refuge or to children fleeing war.

This isn’t about instilling guilt for their privilege (like the proverbial “You should eat up your dinner – there are starving children out there who would love that meal right now!”), but about recognising our true needs, our impact on other people and the planet, and how we can therefore make wise decisions about what we choose to own and de-own.

4) Be brutal!

If the mess = stress, let your family know that you WILL be removing items from your home for the sake of your health and well-being. I correctly identified clutter as being a huge cause of daily stress that I could no longer sweep under the carpet.

At one point I became so overwhelmed with the mess in my home that I had to lay down the law and openly accept that my well-being (and therefore my children’s well-being) depended on decluttering.

This directly works for the children too, even if they don’t recognise it as such – quite often the mess is because they have so many options for what to play with, yet the options become overwhelming and lead to distraction. Which means you’d be well advised to . . .

5) Limit your options

It’s the difference between owning two jigsaws at a time or ten. I’ve found that when the children have two to choose from, they sit and complete them – and when they have ten, they end up tipping all the puzzles out onto the floor and then become too bewildered to do anything. Just like how I feel during the rare occasions I step foot into Asda and freeze up in the face of too much choice – how many different flavours?!

Choice is not necessarily a luxury – it can be an enemy of efficiency.

We can give our children plenty of opportunities without overwhelming them with choice.

6) New for old
Relating to the above – yes, they would get bored with just the same two jigsaws or board games to choose from all the time. Hence, once in a while, we will donate one to a charity shop and buy another in its place (preferably also from a charity shop to limit the consumer demand for brand new toys).
This is one way we can start turning around the novelty that comes with consumerism – rather than accruing more and more, we donate and swap. The novelty is no longer about getting something new just for the sake of it, but in getting something new-to-you in a conscious manner.
We still consume but in awareness and with intention: do we really need what we buy? Does what we already own still fulfil its purpose? What buying choices can we make to limit our consumer footprint?

Try implementing this ‘something in, something out’ rule, so that at the very least the number of possessions you own isn’t rising. You might want to tailor this  – “Something in, two things out” can also be a manageable challenge, especially during the early days of decluttering.

7) Clear the clutter before birthdays/Christmas

Similar to the last tip, these are good occasions to think about what you already have, think carefully about is needed and/or wanted, and make space for the new.

I do not worry about the influx of new items that is likely to end up in our home over Christmas or birthdays if we’ve ensured that everything we already own is being loved and utilised, and that we are creating space where possible.
Anything that is broken or in otherwise unacceptable condition can be thrown away or recycled; we discard duplicate/similar items where one alone would suffice; as the children grow, we pass on anything that seems too young for them; if things are unused, we can donate or sell them.
This also allows us to receive graciously from those who do want to give physical gifts as part of their celebrations – while it is nice to have other people understand our lifestyle decisions, we do not need our friends and extended family on board with our minimalist lifestyle if we’ve done the real work at home and within ourselves first.
8) Gifts for minimalists
The above said, it helps to signpost people if they do want to honour your lifestyle and give something appropriate.
If asked what the children want for birthdays or Christmas, I think carefully – yes, there are some physical possessions we all still desire, but these are limited where possible and we think carefully about the value they will have in our lives (e.g. this Christmas I have just bought my children one ‘big’ present each – my 8-year-old son a Nintendo 3DS, my 4-year-old daughter her first proper cycle, and my 2-year-old daughter her first scooter – things that will last and be used well beyond the festive season!).
I’m finding I’m having to be increasingly creative about giving presents to other people seeing as it fills me with dread to think that I might be cluttering up someone else’s home.
However, there are so many options these days and my preference for both giving and receiving is in experiences and consumables. Consumables could be a luxury food hamper, an eco-friendly toiletries set, homemade sweets or chocolates, a gift voucher for a favourite supermarket or clothing for the kids to grow into. Experiences might be days out, an annual pass to your favourite local attraction, a theatre trip or money towards an outdoor activity residential. These are just a few of the many and varied things that could be enjoyed.
And what are we more likely to remember? A token gift for the sake of a gift that didn’t really mean anything to us, or something that creates joy and lasting memories?

9) Space-saving

Allocate a certain amount of space that a child’s personal possessions can take up and place limits on what is in your home at any one time. If their possessions start encroaching into places they’re not supposed to, discuss what needs to be done about it.

Some families ask children to limit things to their own bedroom, whilst others keep the bedrooms clear of toys and have a dedicated playroom where toys must generally live and stay. Others again (as we do) keep toy storage in the general living area but have a set of storage cupboards or drawers that must keep everything contained when tidied away.

As we progress on our decluttering journey, we may find that we have an abundance of storage solutions that were previously full of stuff. This means that those items we do decide to keep can have their own home and, ideally, be hidden from view until required.

10) The myth of “I might need it someday!”

No and no again. If stuff is encroaching onto your sense of calm and happiness, this scarcity mentality for what you might (but probably won’t) need tomorrow doesn’t help your peace of mind.

In most cases if we need an obscure or little-used electrical appliance, we can probably borrow one. This is where community organisations such as LETS (Local Exchange Trading Systems) come in, where people share both skills and goods. Having less may make us occasionally more dependent on others, but this is a factor of community-building.

I also recently came across the 20/20 rule – that most things we get rid of today can easily be reacquired in less than 20 minutes for less than £20. This makes all the more sense if the thing you’re dithering over can be sold on in the first instance and you might not ever need it again anyway.

There are just a few things that I rarely use that I DO keep just in case I need them tomorrow – a small tool set, a sewing kit, a limited supply of stationery. These are things that you KNOW will be required one day in the daily wear and tear of life.

As for 101 glass jars to re-use or something that “looks like it might be part of a craft project” – unless you’re going to make everybody jam for Christmas or are an avid crafts-person who is regularly utilising random bits of shiny card and off-cuts of ribbon for your creations, just ditch it (please read this as: recycle or pass it on to someone who really would use them).

11) Travel!

Or just get out of the house as often as possible. It’s hard to let the clutter weigh you down if you can’t see it!

But seriously – travelling isn’t just about freedom in terms of escaping the daily grind of a 9-5 job or the school run, it also teaches us how little we really need to get by and be happy.

When you’re living out of a suitcase in simple accommodation and focusing on exploring the big wide world, it really puts our home lives into perspective. And if you’re away for more than a couple of weeks, you actually start to forget what you own at home – truly breaking the grip of the sense of ‘possession’ over these inanimate objects that are not actually adding any value to your life.

Draw your children’s attention to this as well – maybe even while you’re away! See what both you and they actually miss from home. I bet neither of you can actually remember what all of your possessions are – thus, are those things truly loved and needed?

12) Suggest a trial

If you’re finding some of your family are particularly resistant to the idea of decluttering, you could suggest a trial period where you store little-used items away for a set period of time. You might want to box things up and put the boxes out of sight (therefore out of mind) in an attic, spare room or garage – just make sure they don’t stay there! Put a note in your diary for 3 months, 4 months or even 6 months down the line to move them on.

Try to do this with items belonging to every family member, rather than just those who are finding the process challenging – it’s not about putting anyone on the spot and it shows that you’re all in the same boat.

If the items are not needed or wanted during that trial period, you can then make the joint decision to part with them. Don’t go back through the box again though (only the person in charge of sorting the items for charity, selling on or the bin should see the items again) – invariably, children will say they really want the thing they haven’t even noticed was gone for 3 months.

Be conscious at the start that the things you box up to potentially get rid of are already unloved or under-used items, and 3 months without them should prove that is the case.

13) Celebrate your wins

If one of your children seems keen and another doesn’t, be grateful for engaging at least one family member!

In our household, if my son gets rid of something it can inspire my 4-year-old daughter who is usually more reluctant: she may say “Actually, I want to get rid of this!”. Alternatively, she may say “Please don’t get rid of this, I love it!” If it’s the latter? Rejoice that she’s able to discern what really makes her happy (even if a 4-year-old’s choices sometimes seem odd to us!).

Rather than looking at what still needs to be done, give thanks every time an item is parted with and with each bag that goes to the charity shop – it might be a low process but at least there is progress!

14) Find your ‘Why?’ together

This is not about throwing perfectly good things out, it’s about moving towards something better.

There are lots of reasons why you might want to declutter your home. Perhaps your large house is unmanageable and you want to downsize? Perhaps you want to travel full-time? Perhaps you need to free up an extra room to make into a studio or guest bedroom or in preparation for the arrival of another baby? Perhaps you just want more space to build dens and engage in rough and tumble play? It probably has something to do with your inner vision of what an ‘ideal family life’ looks like.

Whatever your why is, deciding on it as a family or discussing the benefits of it as a family can help you all join in on a shared goal. Whenever there is resistance to the process, you can return to your reasons why and find renewed motivation to work together towards your aim.

15) Dig deep
There are many psychological barriers to decluttering and minimalism that people may not even be aware of, subconscious beliefs that drive the course of our lives without us even realising we hold those beliefs.
Those who have had to scrape by just to pay their bills or who have lived through a dramatic economic downturn may have adopted a ‘scarcity mindset’, holding onto things today just in case they should fall on hard times tomorrow.
From a young age, children are taught to use comforters to satisfy their basic needs – utilising an inanimate object for their emotional comfort rather than seeking the warmth of another human being.
These barriers can generally be ascribed to fears of loss (conscious or subconscious) which lead us to cling to anything we can attach emotional or economic significance to – and whatever sentimental or financial labels we attach, if the underlying feeling is anxiety rather than joy, there is work to be done.
So is it any surprise that the idea of parting with our possessions can cause such resistance?
The good thing is that we can make these barriers conscious, question their purpose in our lives now, and break the cycle. Whether people are ready to hear this or not is another thing – I offer this as an idea, but will leave you to decide if your loved ones are ready to reflect on such matters.
(Please note, if you’re concerned that someone close to you actually suffers from obsessive compulsive hoarding, this is another matter entirely that needs to be dealt with by a qualified mental health practitioner – bringing up the issues above may be very distressing. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and urge them to seek the help they may require).
16) Be the change you want to see!
 
If you’re really in it for the long game, this is above all the best way to inspire solidarity. I have read stories of some spouses taking over 5 years to catch on to the benefits that clutter-clearing brings.
So, if all else fails, continue to stay on top of your personal path and where you do have authority over an area to declutter (e.g. maybe you do the most cooking, therefore require the kitchen to be as efficient and uncluttered as possible).
Decluttering isn’t just about making space in our homes – it affects the way we look at all areas of life, seeing where we can simplify in order to experience more physical, mental, emotional and spiritual spaciousness.
When you have successfully completed your personal declutter of physical possessions, move onto digital clutter, then mental clutter and social clutter. Be the example and enjoy your own simplified life as best you can even in the midst of others’ stuff.
When those around you notice the rewards you have reaped from your decision to live more simply, just maybe they’ll catch on?
Do you have any of your own experiences or tips to share? Have you successfully (or unsuccessfully?!) put any of the above suggestions into practice? Feel free to let me know in the comments below, I’d love to hear from you.

From Clutter to Clarity

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Something pivotal happened this year in our journey to be ‘free to be family’.

I recognised a long time ago that a great source of daily stress as a single mother, home-maker and home educator was the amount of clutter I was surrounded by. My ideal home-life was locked away in a land of dreams, somewhere behind the mountain of washing, the sea of shiny plastic tat and the pyramids of paperwork. Yes, I tried to make it fun (Look at my abundance! The evidence of a lively family life! The gorgeous, glittery, sticky mess of my toddler exploring the overflowing craft supplies again!), and yet . . .

Disclaimer: this post includes associate links to relevant resources.

Much too often, the need to clean up got in the way of actually playing and connecting with my children. Before I could even clean, I had to tidy. Whole days could be spent just moving and organising our possessions – whole days of feeling guilty because instead of spending quality time with my children, I was grizzling over all the toys and paper and other miscellany that had accumulated everywhere.

I’ve never considered myself a big consumer, yet the evidence of a typical life in a consumerist society was on display in my home – as well as the evidence of a frugalista’s inability to say no to freebies and hand-me-downs.

Catching the travel bug instigated the desire for less, a realisation that both myself and my children could relax when on the move in a way we couldn’t at home. The simplicity of living out of a suitcase in sparse hotel rooms!

So, inspired by a vision to ultimately be free to pack it all up and fit my life inside a camper van if the whim occurred, I returned from my first trip to Morocco in 2010 with a desperate need to declutter. On subsequent trips to the developing nation I also noted the benefits of having non-materialistic children who were grateful for the simple things in life.

I’m not a hoarder by any stretch of the imagination, yet it still seemed like I was unduly hemmed in by material possessions. I recognised that personal freedom involved ensuring that these possessions lessen their grip on me.

Quite apart from whether we choose to travel or not, the root of it was that I wanted a family life that was as happy and harmonious as possible – and I had identified that a home full of the distraction of ‘stuff’ was not helping me to achieve this aim.

I had found my ‘why’ for decluttering but I had not found my method.

Having been making trip after trip to the charity shop with donations for nearly 5 years, yet still feeling overwhelmed by the amount of clutter I was surrounded by, early in 2016 I decided to implement the Konmari technique of decluttering and tidying. It showed me how half-hearted, sentimental and unmethodical my previous attempts to remove the clutter had been – I had been trying to fix my disorderliness in a very disorderly way.

The Konmari method was developed by Marie Kondo, an organising consultant whose book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying would suggest that she has an obsessive compulsive need to tidy and organise. Some of her suggestions seemed odd (I’d certainly never ascribed animism to the contents of my underwear drawer), yet I decided to trust the system and see where it took me. Nothing to lose after already spending 5 years of my life attempting to achieve a more minimalist lifestyle.

The basic method with the Konmari technique is to hold each item individually and decide whether or not it brings you joy. It’s an instinctive and intuitive process and, while it doesn’t float everyone’s boat, I love it. It is a clear indicator of what we really want to have in our homes – the place that should be our sanctuary.

It means that what we are left with are items that we truly value and enjoy.

The method is not without its critics. Using a term like ‘joy’ can seem a wishy-washy concept when the problem and solution appears very practical. One criticism might be “Well, my clothes pegs don’t bring me joy, but I’d be stuck without them – what a ridiculous premise to base your decluttering on!”

Let’s pick this apart. The word ‘joy’ is usually associated with a high energy sense of bliss and, indeed, most of us do not look at our clothes pegs and feel quite so strongly about them. But let’s turn it around. Imagine if you came to hang your washing out and there were no clothes pegs. What then? What if you can only hang your washing out just the way you like it with those pegs? I will admit, I am quite particular about the way I hang the clothes out on the washing line (given that my ironing board was decluttered many years ago), and the pegs are part of a routine that does lead to the simple pleasure of having crease-free, air-freshened clothes. It is a very tiny part of the jigsaw that makes up my experience of living joyfully – but it is still a part of it and the jigsaw would be incomplete without it (and how annoying is it when you realise there’s a jigsaw piece missing?!).

We have to consider everything’s place within and effect upon the bigger picture.

All of these little things – the mundane everyday items that make our lives more convenient – they add up to comprise our own, unique version of what constitutes a ‘joyful life’. Other people may well be glad to declutter those pegs straight out of the ‘random’ drawer (you know, that drawer in the kitchen full of bits and bobs that have no real home? Apparently, everyone has one – until you decide to declutter Konmari-style!).

Similarly, Joshua Becker – a ‘rational minimalist’ and author of The More of Less – uses the concept of bringing joy to the decluttering process but covers his back from the criticisms aimed at Konmari by also including the concept of need – “If you love it or need it”. Unfortunately, I think the word ‘need’ can be even more vague in the decluttering process than the word ‘joy’. We can believe we need something, but do we really? Advertisers create needs where none before existed. ‘Needs’ have developed in consumerist societies that, in the grand scheme of things, are not needs at all.

A skewed concept of need also encourages the “But I might need it one day!” blockage that prevents us from decluttering effectively.

If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, there are many things taking up space in our lives that do not come under the banners of safety, survival or social well-being. And, as many luxuries as we have available to us, how many really assist us on the path to self-actualisation? I would suggest that true self-actualisation is better achieved with minimal belongings – and minimal accrual of other unnecessary cultural clutter. There are so many options that we have in an individualist culture to layer up our self-image and ego with both material and intellectual resources as if self-realisation is taking place, yet there is a big difference between self-actualisation and self-indulgence.

The other side of this is that we can consider what we really want to be surrounded by, what genuinely resonates with us and expresses our individual styles – not out of a false need to “keep up with the Jones’” or show off, but in order to feel in harmony with our environment.

With home décor, it may be an easy task to know what we really like and what we really don’t like. For more functional items, it is a time to reassess. I definitely do not espouse the Konmari habit of just throwing things out (how wasteful and environmentally destructive), but I do encourage people to really think about the replacements they make when items do come to the end of their life or otherwise become redundant.

When my toaster stopped working earlier in the year, I decided it would be nice to have the worktop space back (having reduced items on the worktop to just the toaster and the kettle) and I would do toast under the oven grill instead. It does the job without taking up unnecessary room, hence we’re still just using the grill – a much more multi-functional product than the toaster ever was anyway!

Likewise, when my kettle stopped working, I decided to boil water on the stove. However, this really wasn’t the most efficient way to make frequent mugs of tea, so I recognised that I actually quite like owning a kettle. This doubled as an opportunity to choose something I liked aesthetically (read: brings me joy to glance upon) rather than just buying something based on its price – so, a funky glass kettle that lights up the water blue it was!

Decluttering doesn’t just involve getting rid of what you already have – it means making more conscious, considered decisions about what you let into your home in the first place.

One of the best things about minimalist living when you’re on a budget is that you can invest in the few quality items that you really love rather than living by the false economy of spending less per item in order to acquire more. It also means that your sense of abundance is not measured just by the level of your income.

Buying new items only when absolutely necessary and reassessing habitual purchases means that I can afford to do something that is truly important to our family – travel. As well as the practical day-to-day freedom that decluttering has brought us in our home, it has refined our entire lifestyle in numerous ways.

We live in a privileged society, but our material wealth has a way of distracting us from what is actually important – it can distract some of us from even considering what is actually important, so entrenched is the social conditioning in which some people even consider ‘shopping’ a valid pastime. Is this what anyone truly wants to recall of their lives when they are on their deathbed?

Living with less has also increased our gratitude for what we have – consciously choosing that which promotes a sense of love and joy allows us to genuinely count our blessings. Freed from the lure of the next consumerist fix we can be free to follow our hearts, which invariably releases us to focus on our inner values and our relationships with other human beings rather than the pressure to conform and our relationships with inanimate objects.

Remember:

“Clutter is not just physical stuff. It’s old ideas, toxic relationships and bad habits. Clutter is anything that does not support your better self.” – Eleanor Brownn

Have you successfully decluttered? Do you want to but don’t know where to start? Share your story with me below – I’d love to hear what inspired you or what’s stopping you.

For further inspiration:

The Morocco I Love: 10 Things To Be Thankful For

Ben Yuosef Madrasa, Marrakech, Morocco, architecture, ceiling

I’m conscious of the posts I’ve made so far about our latest trip to Morocco not being particularly practical in nature, and possibly being a tad on the ‘grin and bear it’ side!

I’ve also been very aware of all my blessings since returning home and it’s been easy to complain about the things I find difficult in our ‘second home’. I have a love-hate relationship with Morocco that leaves me feeling conflicted and contradictory.

However, there are a number of things I’m already missing about Morocco. Obviously, I’m really missing seeing FreeToBeZ playing and laughing with her daddy; despite the infrequency of our visits, their bond is obvious and strong, and regularly brings tears to my eyes to witness.

But with the aim of providing some insight into the cultural cultivation that anyone can enjoy during a trip to Morocco, here are the 10 things that first come to mind about the pros of spending time there:

 

1) Embrace the Excitement

Excitement? Ok, read ‘chaos’.

At home in the UK, I could think of myself as a ‘chaotic’ person. My mind is always on the go, I don’t get enough sleep, I perpetually strive for a more organised homelife, and there is always physical, emotional and mental ‘clutter’ (I could use the excuse of children for all of these things – in the spirit of congruence, it’s not just that!).

When I get to Morocco, I don’t see myself as chaotic at all – the external world fulfils that for me!

Arriving two evenings before Eid for our last trip, it really achieved this label: I’d never seen the airport arrivals area so extraordinarily busy (and this was our 10th visit) and there were those people who were more observant of the queuing system-of-a-sort for passport control than others.

Out into the streets and into all the traffic; the constant hooting of car horns, the heightened sense of anxiety as you try to cross a road without being mown down, the people who have less concept of personal space and ‘rights of way’ than I’m used to.

Yet this makes any trip to Morocco immediately tinged with a sense of adventure. Your senses come alive – there is no way they can’t. And if they didn’t, you might find yourself in some undesirable situations thanks to your lack of alertness.

Morocco truly is a place of contrasts – from relaxing on the ponj of a laid-back host who you’ve spent a sedate afternoon enjoying food with, straight into a mêlée of being squeezed along crowded backstreets trying to contain your handbag and your children whilst dodging scooters. I’m sure my blood pressure must rise and fall with interesting frequency when I’m navigating Moroccan towns.

I say this and yet I’m so glad I know this. I’m so glad I’ve seen and experienced this side of the world and have the story to tell. I would urge others to make the trip precisely because of these idiosyncrasies of place.

 

2) Street Life

Every time I get back to the UK, I wonder at what ghost towns we live in. Where are all the people? Mostly stuck indoors or transporting themselves around in cars.

And when there are people forced together out in public – on trains, queuing for various services, in the supermarket – where is the chatter? Whilst I’m hardly one to complain (being someone who is generally shy to start up conversations with strangers), it strikes me that this reluctance to interact is not just personal but cultural; my traits have always felt at odds with my instincts.

Even in the ‘quiet’ suburbs of Marrakech, the streets are alive – there are always children playing and adults casually chatting with the kerb as their seating.

Whilst there are plenty of cars in Morocco, there are also those who travel by mule or donkey or horse and carriage, or market traders who transport their goods using a handheld cart, which enables those people to be more contactable and present with the pedestrians they share the space with.

There are many reasons for this difference that means it’s not a lifestyle easily recreated in the UK. The weather is often a big deciding factor in whether we’re outdoors or not, and yet there certainly used to be more suburban street life in English cities too.

Without going into the politics and cultural changes that have happened in the UK to destroy communities and encourage people to live more isolated lives, I love the fact that I can exit an apartment in Morocco and know without doubt that the street will be vibrant with the sound of children playing, animals braying and the calls to go praying.

 

3) Fresh Food

Between buying fresh croissants and crepes for a matter of pennies from a local patisserie and sipping on freshly squeezed orange juice from the deliciously sweet native citrus fruits, breakfast food here is imbued with an energy and vibrancy that I just don’t get from our usual morning routine involving a box of cereal and a carton of a long-life dairy-free milk alternative.

Combined with the fact that they make bloody good coffee in Morocco, and the start of the day is usually a good one.

Whilst out on the town and for just 4 Moroccan dirhams (about 30p) you can enjoy a tall glass of freshly squeezed orange juice in Jemaa El Fna square – at that price, there’s no excuse not to!

FreeToBeZ with her avocado ice-cream whilst I down a fresh orange juice (Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech)
FreeToBeZ with her avocado ice-cream whilst I down a fresh orange juice (Jemaa El Fna, Marrakech)

There is also an amazing array of different fruit juices and smoothies made to order in many restaurants and cafes that we just don’t find back home unless we were to head for a specialist (expensive) juice bar. And, saying that, I’m not sure I know where to locate one of these in my local area.

Not to forget the figs, olives, almonds and other native foods that are much better in their fresh form than anything you buy in packs at the supermarket.

Whilst it can often be a hand-to-mouth lifestyle that ensures many people here eat fresh produce, there is also less emphasis on the supermarket and more emphasis on market culture and seasonal goods.

Many people in the towns also seem more inclined to go out in the mornings and bring fresh breakfast in rather than expecting shelves, cupboards and fridges to be stocked. And FreeToBeB – brought up eating daily-made bread in the family’s traditional outdoor, earthen oven – is often surprised that I’ll happily eat yesterday’s bread in preference to buying the freshly made breads each day. Even against 24 hour old Moroccan flatbreads, our long-life sliced and packaged loaves just can’t compare.

FreeToBeP in 2011 'assisting' our hosts with the daily task of bread-making
FreeToBeP in 2011 ‘assisting’ our hosts with the daily task of bread-making

Yes, we may be able to buy freshly prepared food in some shops back home – but the ubiquity and low cost of it in Morocco makes it the easy choice there, whilst it may be the more expensive and less convenient choice in the UK.

It really brings home to me how lifeless are some of the packaged foodstuffs that are supposed to sustain and satiate us. The difference is also reflected in the cooking and the sharing of food – this is only a thought, but I’d say that the way in which Moroccan people are proud of their cuisine as they earnestly encourage you to share in their meals (“Koul! Koul!” – “Eat! Eat!”) is a reflection of the true life force apparent in their food resources.

 

4) Retailing the Rainbow

OK, so this is a matter of whether you are in town or country. If I think about the natural environments around me, nothing beats the sight of green, green England as we come in to land after a North African excursion. How fresh and lush and brimming with life it appears; I missed this usual view as we came into land at nigh on midnight earlier this month. I wonder if Moroccan people love their ochre landscape as much as I love my green?

However, take to the high street and the drab, dispirited monoculture of a typical British town is apparent. I don’t care how well a chain store thinks it’s dressed its window, it’s not a patch on the flood of sights that comes with a walk amidst the market of a Moroccan city.

Whilst I’m not a keen shopper and would rather not focus on material goods, I love wandering the souks of Marrakech and being charmed by all the colour and glitter and exuberance around me. Yes, you could purchase something as a reminder of your visit, thinking that the vitality of the items will remain, but – just like the picking of a flower – something of their life-force invariably falls away once they are set apart from their original backdrop.

Every shade of the rainbow is everywhere to see and the beautiful clothing and jewellery makes a feast for the eyes. The joy isn’t in purchasing single items of these delights but in seeing them all together in a jumble of hues and patterns and textures: piles and piles of unabashedly embellished and gleeful garments in the clothing stores, small shops crammed to the ceiling full of shining thuya wood products, ceramic diningware decorated in intense colours and swirling patterns, florid and flowery offerings at the textile merchants . . .

A shop of scarves and soft furnishings in the souks of Marrakech
A shop of scarves and soft furnishings in the souks of Marrakech

. . . Not to mention the scents wafting from spice shops and cosmetic sellers. From the bright and showy pyramids of turmeric and cumin, to the smoke of incense blooming from a stall of hammam products, the combination of the sights, smells and sounds of the souk come together to remind me of the beauty and vivacity of life.

The effect is kaleidoscopic and I could spin myself around admiring it all for hours.

Jewellery, Marrakech, Morocco, souk
A jewellery shop in the Marrakchi souks.

To see more of what I mean, you might like to visit my Pinterest board ‘Morocco’ dedicated to the delightful side of this country of contrasts.

 

5) Mañana

While this can sometimes be frustrating, if you want a peaceful break free of pressure, it’s helpful to take on the Moroccans’ mañana attitude.

It’s a good attitude to adopt for any family break (emphasis on the fact that a holiday should indeed be a rest from the usual daily grind!) and taking it on in Morocco will ensure your increased immunity against impatience at the sometimes slow and seemingly unreliable pace at which things often appear to get done here.

You can be asleep at any point of the day here (or up and about at any point during the night) and it’s perfectly acceptable. This is particularly true during the long, hot summer days.

Things get done when people feel like getting them done, so little does the structured, time-bound mentality of what I would consider a ‘usual’ working day penetrate many people’s lives here. And yet – everything gets done.

In the words of Lao-Tzu: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.”

I’ve spent a lot of time in Morocco just waiting. And often not even knowing what exactly I’m waiting for. Just knowing that in order for the next thing that needs to get done to get done, I must bide my time and trust the process. From a world of appointments and general punctuality (I shall never again complain about the length of wait at a dental practice), I could see this as a con rather than a pro of my time in Morocco – but it’s yet another practice in mindfulness.

I’ve had time to sit and reflect, hence why so much writing comes of my trips. I’ve had time to sit beside my demons of impatience and judgement and talk them into angels of patience and acceptance. I’ve had time to savour the food at my lips instead of rushing the routine of mealtimes. I’ve had time to sit and listen and absorb the social discourse around me, more rather than less intriguing for its unintelligible vocabulary.

And it has taught me that there is time. It is ‘stuff’ that gets in the way back home. Stuff I would rather relegate to the recycle bin so I can sit and just be with my children, sit and just be with my self.

 

6) Moroccan Hospitality

The people of Morocco are famed for being some of the most welcoming, hospitable people in the world. Indeed, a recent study by the World Economic Forum found Morocco to come 3rd in a report of the most welcoming places for foreign tourists to visit.

It’s taken me a while to get over some of my typical British politeness and make the most of this. Indeed, what may be considered more ‘polite’ over here can be seen as a snub to your hosts over there, especially if you refuse a glass of the ubiquitous sweet mint tea whilst everyone else is cheerfully partaking.

Family-sized cous cous during a trip into the Atlas Mountains in 2012. Clockwise from top: my father, me, FreeToBeP, FreeToBeZ's auntie, two of FreeToBeZ's cousins, FreeToBeZ's grandmother, FreeToBeZ, and a family visitor.
Family-sized cous cous during a trip into the Atlas Mountains in 2012. Clockwise from top: my father, me, FreeToBeP, FreeToBeZ’s auntie, two of FreeToBeZ’s cousins, FreeToBeZ’s grandmother, FreeToBeZ, and a family visitor.

That said, there have been times when I’ve been embarrassed by the level of generosity we’ve been shown, especially when it’s been unplanned and I feel we’ve had nothing to give in return.

We once had a really sweet guy named Hicham guiding us around Fez (he was a school teacher on his summer break and was with us as a compassionate companion rather than a guide looking to make money out of us). On our second afternoon with him, he took us back to his parents’ home for a meal. It was an elaborate meal and was followed by their encouragement for us to take a post-meal nap by curtaining off an area of their living quarters so that the ponjs (Moroccan sofas) could take on their alternative use as day beds. So we – strangers to them – passed an hour or so privately chilling out in their living room.

As if this wasn’t enough, before we left, the matriarch of the house (who must have already spent hours preparing food in the kitchen) then insisted on pressing various items of costume jewellery and cheap but pretty bracelets into the hands of myself and FreeToBeZ – even after FreeToBeZ had already broken one such bracelet, tiny beads bursting across the tiled floor. I frantically tried to reject the jewellery in embarrassment (I should be bringing the gifts as a guest!), but our hostess wouldn’t have any of it; smiling and laughing and nodding, she insisted I take her offerings and I eventually accepted as graciously as I could amidst my discomfort.

I also get worried every time I ask to change FreeToBeZ’s nappy in someone’s home. I’m always just looking for a patch of floor that they’re happy for me to change a soggy or dirty disposable nappy upon, and am invariably asked if I wish to give my daughter a full strip wash at the same time, usually accompanied by the lady of the house rushing to find soap and towels.

This in itself isn’t a problem. What is a problem is someone assuming that this is what one wishes to do without both parties having a mutual understanding about what is about to happen . . . But this is a whole other story . . .

However, I will never forget how observant and human some people have been about genuine needs.

For a week during a stay in 2013, we were accommodated by local people in two different cities when all the rooms were full at the inn.

I will never forget the relief of hearing that Halima, a bolshy and outspoken Rifian lady in Al Hoceima, had kindly offered us her sitting room to stay in when it was nearly midnight and we still hadn’t found a bed for ourselves. As she walked home on that hot August night, she saw a family taking shelter on an empty shop floor and spontaneously opened up her home. We paid her more generously than I am generally willing to pay Moroccan hotels – and I can’t even be cynical about her intentions of inviting us (knowing that some people here see a European person and simultaneously see money); for when she first saw us she thought we were entirely a fellow Berber family, and not just because of FreeToBeB’s ability to claim this (it turned out she thought all European women used pushchairs for their infants – FreeToBeZ worn closely to me in a sling was enough for her to decide to distinguish me as a fellow Berber woman!).

Pretty much the same thing happened again just 3 nights later in Chefchouen, and we spent a wonderful 5 days relaxing in the spare living quarters of a kindly older widower.

If anything, it has given me all the more faith in travelling ‘on a wing and a prayer’, not to mention faith in the kindness of humans who have not been jaded by the ‘stranger danger’ mantra so prevalent in Western societies.

 

7) Simplicity

I’m all for a more simple life. It takes a lot of discipline and a big change of perspective for someone brought up in a commercial culture. And, whilst I often complain about how difficult it is to cook on a single ring over a gas bottle or to have a proper wash with just a bucket of water and a jug, in reality it’s only difficult because of all the luxuries I’m used to. There is no excuse to go hungry or to not be clean when you have the means at your disposal.

OK, if I actually lived in Morocco I’d ensure I have a decent electric oven with at least 4 cooking plates and a wet room big enough to install a ‘proper’ bath, but – as with camping – it can be good to get back to the simple life, even if it is just a way to truly appreciate what we take for granted in our own homes in better-off countries.

I tried to embrace the simple things in life as much as possible during our latest visit (see Embracing the Ennui: Retreat, Respite and Relaxation), as I’d previously struggled with it during visits to FreeToBeB’s mountain home.

For all the daydreams of a ‘back to nature’ lifestyle of self-sufficiency in an unspoilt landscape, reliant on community and surviving (literally and economically) on home-grown produce . . . the reality can be harsh. Yes, being amidst the Atlas Mountains and a group of people I was unable to verbally communicate with whilst they clean sheep innards is very different to, say, joining a vegetarian English commune in a field in Devon, but the point is valid: romantic, rose-tinted ideas of ‘the good life’ are naïve and impractical.

In order to enjoy a simple lifestyle, the first step isn’t necessarily about diving into the embodied experience of it but in changing your perspective of what is already around you and slowly forgoing the things that don’t genuinely serve you.

Since returning from our latest trip, my de-cluttering project has resurfaced with a vengeance. There is a tidiness to the simplicity found in Morocco. Not only is the home tidy due to lack of ‘stuff’, but it makes everything else seem tidier – easier. Rough play with the kids becomes an almost anytime possibility when there isn’t a floor full of toys to trip over or various breakables dotted about the living space that douse the fire of playful spontaneity. True presence and communication with the people you are sharing your space with becomes more attainable when one isn’t constantly distracted by the ‘things to do’ that come with living a complex, modern life.

For all the talk of ‘modern conveniences’, many things that are supposed to make life more convenient actually make it more complicated, or at least less fulfilling. We race around partaking in ten quick and convenient habits when – psychologically and spiritually – we may yearn for two more involved jobs performed mindfully.

Honestly: I would rather spend a morning engaged in bread-making with my peers as the children run around together than to spend half an hour in isolation preparing ingredients for and later washing up the equipment needed to bake bread in a machine, potentially in a rush whilst trying to get the kids out of the house for a social ‘appointment’. This concept of making an appointment to pop in and see your friends is something else that is alien in Morocco – again, it comes down to ideas of convenience and inconvenience. And this is why I operate an ‘open home’ policy with my friends (that is, proving this point, rarely taken up) – I never want my friends to see their presence as an inconvenience to me, to think that I might have better things to do alone than could be gained from connecting with another human being.

We’re social animals; and in the vast array of things to do, places to be and material matters to attend to, this basic fact is becoming lost in ‘developed’ nations.

When material possessions that are surplus to genuine needs are set aside, we may actually appreciate what is truly necessary for a whole and healthy life.

 

8) The Joy of Children

In many ways, I can relax in Morocco with kids in tow.

I will soon be posting my top tips of things to take into consideration when travelling with children in Morocco (mainly about the not so relaxing stuff!), but one thing I can say with confidence is that no-one will mind you bringing your kids. If anything, people in Morocco generally take great joy in children and, when I travelled without FreeToBeP this summer, he was very much missed by those who expected him to be with me.

From breastfeeding an infant to having my kids become over-excitable whilst out and about, people here look upon the natural and typical behaviour of young children with endearment and acceptance. I have no fear of any tut-tutting as I breastfeed in public or while my toddler has a loud meltdown. And thanks to the relaxed state of mind that this lack of tut-tutting fosters in me, my children are also more relaxed, ergo I have less fear of my children even having said meltdowns.

Children playing in the streets late into the night is a common sight and sound. On hot days when families have been indoors having siestas, the whole family may come out at night to enjoy the street life, and this fits in well with my own relaxed attitude about bedtimes (whilst we have a routine, we do not have a schedule!).

Many so-called ‘attachment parenting’ beliefs and practices I try to live by are taken for granted here – there is no label, just women doing what they have always done to birth and raise their children naturally (homebirth, breastfeeding, babywearing and bedsharing). These are all things that I instinctively felt drawn to do as a mother that have been overshadowed in Western societies by the medicalisation of birth and the commercialisation of babyhood.

This is not to say that I agree with all the parenting practices that are at play in Morocco. I know that the ‘good’ behaviour of many Moroccan children is less about respect for the parents than fear of The Stick (physical punishment both at home and in school seems to be a socially acceptable tool for eliciting cooperation from a child).

And yet the positive bonds of family and community are obvious – the shared laughter as families gather together in their living quarters during and after evening meals; the acceptance of children as part of the community after the 9pm watershed; the ease with which the people here will pick up and dust off crying children who are not their own; or merely the planting of kisses and tousling of hair performed in the unselfconscious manner of those who are comfortable being around and showing affection towards the younger members of our human family.

 

9) Flora and Fauna

Whether out in the wilds of the mountains or in the centre of bustling Marrakech, there are plenty of sights to see for those interested in animals and plants.

FreeToBeP picking an orange earlier this year
FreeToBeP picking an orange

If you’ve got young children in tow, excitedly spotting horses and donkeys will soon become second nature in both town and country.

Whilst in the city much of what you see can’t be classed as ‘wildlife’ and there is often suspect animal welfare, it can’t be denied that there are novelties to be enjoyed.

In Marrakech alone, there are plenty of intrigues for anyone interested in natural history. Merely taking a taxi into town, budding botanists can spot palm trees (this might be more ‘exotic’ for some than others; here on the Jurassic Coast we’re already quite spoilt for more Mediterranean plants and trees), orange trees, olive trees, Damask roses and various succulents surviving in the arid soil.

If that’s not enough to satisfy your thirst for greenery, Marrakech boasts a number of gardens that can be worth a visit. Whilst I primarily wish to share information about things you can appreciate for next to nothing, I would gladly part with a few pounds again in order to revisit the Majorelle Gardens.

A visit to the pool of Marrakech Manara will grant you a view of half-tame fish which come to the surface to be fed.

Storks roost on the roofs and wide walls of tall buildings, including the minarets of the mosques.

Mules, horses and donkeys are common sights at the roadside and upon the roads, and camels are brought into the cities as tourist attractions (but the obvious thing to do if you want authentic camel memories is to make the journey to the Sahara).

Jemaa El Fna in the daytime can be like taking a trip to the zoo: snakes, monkeys, birds and other creatures are taken for display – you can look at these from a safe distance (safe from being encouraged to part with money that is) or for a small fee can have your picture taken with them.

In the mountains I have seen some beautiful butterflies and huge, sleek millipedes, as well as snakes, scorpions, and the evidence of wild boars.

The mountains can be quite colourful in the springtime with swathes of flowers.

A carpet of springtime flowers in the Atlas Mountains
A carpet of springtime flowers in the Atlas Mountains

The cacti of the prickly pear is also easily spotted along roadsides and around villages – the abundance of them is evident in the amount of fruit that is left unpicked (think of them in terms of the humble British apple tree!). There are also many herbaceous plants which the local women pick in order to use for medicinal purposes.

Moroccan Flora
Moroccan Flora

We have had our curiosity piqued by the array of insects we’ve spotted, all the more enticing to look at precisely because we don’t know if they’re things that could bite or sting us. Judging by the way I’ve seen some of the locals react to the sight of a spider – and assuming they don’t just have tendencies towards arachnophobia – I think it’s probably safe to say that there are resident arachnids that could cause harm to humans. And I’ve already detailed our encounters with cockroaches.

Moth, Morocco
A spotted moth (official name unknown to me!) in the mountains

I also have a ‘thing’ about birds (not sure if this grew from my childhood YOC membership or a more primal, psychological desire to ‘grow wings’) and have noticed many species of birds that I am unfamiliar with. I only wish I could use more informed, naturalist terminology to explain what I’ve seen! (If anyone knows more about the wildlife of North Africa, please do get in touch.)

Thus my next step is to find the Moroccan equivalent of my trusty ‘British Wildlife’ book.

 

10) Sun, Sun and Sun!

Last but definitely not least: glorious sunshine and dry heat is a huge plus point.

In Morocco I can pretty much forget that I’m medicated for asthma. The dry heat is really good for my lungs and barely a wheeze escapes me.

Yes, it can get too hot during the day, but the simple solution to this is that you adjust your expectations about what happens when. During our summer trip we were getting up during early afternoon, having an extremely late breakfast, eating lunch at teatime and then heading out for the ‘day’ when it had cooled down a little (to about 36 degrees Celsius that is) at around 6pm.

Whatever the thermometer may say, I find the dryness of North African heat much more bearable than the humidity of a ‘hot’ day in the UK. In my opinion, a dry and clean 35 degrees is much preferable to a sweaty 25 degrees!

Aside from general sun-seeking and the knowledge that both your physical and mental health are being given a boost thanks to the production of vitamin D and serotonin, the other bonus is in the small joy that is knowing your clothes will be bone dry within the space of a couple of hours after washing them.

Yes: simple pleasures.

 

In writing this, it would seem that the love-hate relationship I maintain with this country really is due to focusing so much on the contrasts and comparisons that a more objective view is obscured. For wherever you are, there are pros and cons, highs and lows. For whatever nuisances and inconveniences exist, there are so many things in this world that have the power to brighten our day.

Looking back on this list, the things that have the power to uplift – the things that really matter – are invariably day to day experiences that cost nothing, yet lend to us a wealth of spirit that can make any place a pleasure.

On this note, I’m off to make myself an avocado smoothie and eat some self-imported Atlas almonds . . .

Paltry Packing (Part 2): Our Personal Packing Plan

bag icon

As I mentioned in last week’s article – Paltry Packing (Part 1): 10 Tips for Travelling Lightly – FreeToBeZ and I are shortly going to be heading to Morocco for a 10 day trip to visit FreeToBeB.

This visit includes the festivities of Eid El Fitr and invites to two weddings (not 100% confirmed; this is Morocco we’re talking about – “in two weeks” could just as easily mean “in two months”).

We’ll be going with just two small backpacks and a handbag.

I fully intend to have a Mary Poppins-style experience when removing my belongings from my bags at my destination, with much more than seems possible packed into our modest hand luggage. Yes, I’ve trimmed back a lot in order to travel lightly (so it won’t seem as if everything but the kitchen sink is in there) but what should be apparent is a sense of what is truly necessary for us.

We’re flying with Ryanair, who are notorious for being stingy with baggage allowances. Therefore, I decided on the backpack option rather than going for my usual cabin-sized suitcase – I’m not going to risk them charging me an arm and a leg for chucking my carefully crafted ‘hand luggage only’ trip into the plane’s hold just because a cabin bag’s wheels take me 5mm over the maximum allowed dimensions or something.

Having a backpack on my back is also a lot easier to handle than needing a spare hand to wheel/carry a small suitcase around.

On the plus side, Ryanair have recently made an allowance for an extra, small bag per passenger as well as the usual cabin bag allowance. The additional small bag allowance fits the dimensions of my usual handbag perfectly.

Both FreeToBeZ and I are each allowed to board the cabin with a 55x40x20cm bag and a 35x20x20cm bag.

FreeToBeZ’s toddler-sized backpack actually fits the dimensions of the latter, so for our return journey I’ve factored in the option of another bag (a fold-up one which will be taken, outbound, in my main bag). This will come within our hand luggage allowance yet ensure we have an appropriate carrier for our return journey for any gifts or other purchases we may wish to come home with.

Our spare, foldable bag that can function as FreeToBeZ's main hand luggage for our return journey if we need extra room for purchases we've made at our destination.
Our spare, foldable bag that can function as FreeToBeZ’s main hand luggage for our return journey if we need extra room for purchases we’ve made at our destination.

In the case of not having the option of the additional small bag, I usually take a small shoulder bag – big enough to fit the important and valuable possessions (e.g. passports, boarding passes, purse, phone, ipod, medication) yet small enough to discreetly tuck under a cardigan or coat so as not to be penalised for taking on extra items that won’t fit into my already crammed cabin bag.

 

So, here’s what we’re actually taking with us:

MY BACKPACK

luggage, travelling lightly, packing lightly
My main luggage

This is a ‘laptop’ backpack (i.e. a slim backpack that has a compartment specifically to fit and pad a standard-sized laptop computer, plus a main compartment, a smaller compartment on the front, and two pockets). Its dimensions are 50x30x20cm.

Clothing and accessories:

  • Flip flops
  • 2x pairs of knickers
  • 1x pair of socks
  • 1x bra
  • 1x leggings
  • 1x thin, light summer dress
  • 1x thin, light long-sleeved kaftan-style top
  • 2x short-sleeved tops (for either under or outer wear)
  • Neck scarf
  • Maternity belt

Toiletry bag:

  • All-in-one shampoo/soap/body wash bar
  • Olive oil soap bar
  • Salt of the Earth travel-sized deodorant
  • 2x folding toothbrushes
  • 2x disposable razors
  • Electric shaver
  • Tweezers
  • Mini nail clippers
  • Spare glasses in case (that’s both ‘in a case’ and ‘just in case’! I’ve always been fearful of broken glasses whilst away from home as the extent of my short sightedness deems them an absolute necessity. FreeToBeZ once accidentally flung my prescription glasses overboard on a ferry from Motril to Al Hoceima after whipping her hand up to point at something. They RIP in the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, this is definitely one of my more sensible packing policies.)

(NB: any liquids/creams are to go in a separate, clear zip-lock bag in my handbag for airport security)

First Aid bag (small plastic bag stored inside toiletry bag):

  • Pregnancy multivitamins
  • 5x individually wrapped antibacterial wipes
  • Individually wrapped plasters of various sizes
  • Paracetamol (just a few to get by as these can be easily purchased at my destination)
  • 2 packs anti-diarrhoea tablets
  • 6x sachets rehydration treatment
  • Sterilising tablets
  • 2x wound dressing pads and first aid tape
  • Small roll cotton wool
  • First Aid guide leaflet

(NB: any liquids/creams are to go in a separate, clear zip-lock bag in my handbag for airport security)

Miscellaneous:

  • NHS maternity notes
  • Pad of paper and pens
  • Travel towel
  • Hair towel
  • 3x muslin cloths (as quick-drying hand towels and also to use to cool down: drench in water and place over body if necessary).
  • Nightlight
  • Torch
  • 2x plug adaptors
  • Mini speaker (gift for FreeToBeB)
  • Old smartphone, charger and accessories (gift for FreeToBeB)
  • Spare, foldable bag (48x31x15) for the return journey (this will count as one of our main cabin bags on the way back if we decide/need to use it)

 

FREETOBEZ’S BACKPACK

luggage, travelling lightly, packing lightly
My daughter’s main luggage

This is a small toddler backpack, dimensions approximately 31x25x16cm.

  • 8 disposable nappies
  • Pack of toilet-training wet wipes (smaller pack than standard wet wipes)
  • Small changing mat
  • Spare, lightweight shoes (plastic, slip-ons)
  • 3x thin short-sleeved tops
  • 1x thin long-sleeved top
  • 3x leggings
  • 2x socks
  • 3x knickers
  • Hair fasteners (bobbles and hairclips)
  • Small soft toy
  • Small toy
  • Paper, crayons and stickers
  • 4x mini board books
  • ‘Travelling treasure sack’ (a small bag which includes small trinkets found around our home such as old jewellery, crystals, coloured feathers, plastic rings, etc, to keep FreeToBeZ occupied with ‘new’ things).

MY HANDBAG

hand luggage, travelling lightly, packing lightly
My handbag (additional allowed piece of hand luggage)

This has three compartments and three small pockets, which makes it really practical for staying organised. Its dimensions are 30x20x20cm.

  • See-through bag of liquids/creams for presenting at security – 3x inhalers (asthma treatment); 100ml toothpaste; 100ml children’s sun lotion; 30ml antiseptic cream; 20ml Arnica cream; 10ml patchouli essential oil (my ‘perfume‘); 10ml tea tree essential oil (for First Aid kit and general antibacterial use); 20ml Rescue Remedy; 2x 50ml hand sanitising gel; 100ml handcream; 10ml lipbalm; empty 100ml spray bottle (for spritzing ourselves with water in the North African heat)
  • Travel documents in a plastic wallet – in here I keep our passports, plane boarding passes, coach or train ticketsaccomodation documents (if applicable), EHIC cards, travel insurance documents, copies of our main passport ID pages, international driving permit, and a card of useful numbers in Morocco
  • Purse (emptied of loyalty cards and other such things that are useless on foreign soil; ideally restocked with cash)
  • Smartphone (including Kindle app full of potential reading material) and charger
  • Ipod, earphones and USB lead
  • Digital camera
  • Sunglasses (in their case)
  • USB stick (loaded with any work I need to do – in Morocco, I have the option of using an internet café or FreeToBeB’s notebook laptop)
  • Pen
  • Eyeliner
  • Lipstick
  • Tangle Teezer hairbrush
  • 2x packs of travel tissues
  • Plastic bags for rubbish, FreeToBeZ’s dirty clothes, etc.

PLASTIC CARRIER BAG

This will contain food and drink for the journey. It is certainly not packed 6 days in advance, but will consist of something like:

  • 2 x 500ml bottles of water
  • 2x small cartons fruit juice
  • Homemade sandwiches in sandwich bags (enough for lunch and a later snack)
  • 4x packets of crisps
  • 2x apples
  • 2x satsumas
  • Packs of dried fruit
  • Flapjack
  • 2x Kinder chocolate bars (FreeToBeZ’s favourite)

ON THE JOURNEY

To purchase in the departure lounge:

Mineral water for the plane journey – pricey, but not as pricey as on the plane!

I intend to bring enough snacks to take us right through the day, as we will be eating a main evening meal once we arrive in Marrakech (usually at a street-side restaurant in a suburban area where we eat a family-sized feast for all of about £4).

What I shall wear:

  • Underwear (this should go without saying, but you never know!)
  • Travel socks
  • Abdominal support band (3 pregnancies later . . . :-/ )
  • Leggings
  • Strappy top
  • Thin, light, ankle-length summer dress
  • 2x thin overtops / cardigans
  • Neck scarf
  • Sun hat
  • Ankle boots (slip-on Doc Martens – practical, comfortable and hard-wearing for any walks or scrambling in the mountains we do).
  • Pouch sling (if FreeToBeZ wants to be carried on my hip for any distance)

What FreeToBeZ will wear:

  • Short-sleeved dress
  • Long-sleeved top (under dress)
  • Leggings
  • Thin jumper or cardigan
  • Socks
  • Sunhat
  • Casual summer shoes (Clarks Doodles – nice and light but good for walking in due to being fastened up securely).
Travel clothes, travelling lightly, packing lightly
Our clothes and shoes for the journey – saving on luggage space by layering it up and wearing the bulky boots.

AT OUR DESTINATION

Shopping trip

To give you more of an idea of how I’ve managed to keep our packing to a minimum, here is also a list of the things we will purchase on our first day in Marrakech (just from a local hanout – a general shop found in both urban and rural areas selling everything from loose pasta to women’s sanitary products):

  • Disposable nappies
  • Wet wipes
  • Toilet roll
  • Tissues
  • Shower pouffe
  • Batteries (spares for camera, shaver, etc).

If you’re going to be somewhere that is inhabited by other people, there will always be a way to find most of what you need – or you’ll figure out the locals’ methods of surviving without the things we deem so ‘necessary’ in more privileged societies.

There are a number of other things that could be purchased at our destination if I wasn’t so principled (fussy?), and this includes toiletries such as sun lotion, toothpaste, shampoo and soap – you can find the standard brands of many of these things in many parts of the world, but you won’t necessarily find your favourite natural and/or eco-friendly products.

However, there are numerous natural body care shops and argan oil cooperatives in Morocco where I could potentially find many toiletries free from harsh chemicals, and this is something I hope to explore further on my next trip (watch this space!). For now, I will take my usual Green People suncare product and handmade, SLS-free shampoo/soap bar.

As for those wedding invites . . . FreeToBeB is encouraging me to purchase a takchita, (a traditional Moroccan dress) to wear to the weddings, of which there will be plenty to choose from in the Marrakchi souks. We can also purchase any wedding gifts over there too.

Things I’m doing without

There are some items of ‘utility’ equipment that I have to make do without when going down the ‘hand luggage only’ route, namely my nail scissors and my trusty multi-tool which includes a penknife.

My multi-tool usually resides in my handbag –  it usually comes everywhere with me (except on this trip!) and I feel quite lost without it. However, if it was truly necessary, I could always purchase another one over the other side.

I’ve also factored out swimwear and nightwear for this trip.

FreeToBeZ is young enough to get away with not being too modest if she wants to splash about in any water, and I’m not particularly bothered about donning my swimsuit whilst pregnant.

Full nightwear is rarely desirable during sweltering Moroccan summer nights, yet I’m taking daywear that can easily double up as nightwear, including a very thin but large neck scarf that can be used as a cover for FreeToBeZ if she is without clothing yet bothered by mosquitoes in the night (whilst Morocco isn’t a malaria risk zone and mosquito nets aren’t required, they can still be quite pesky for some people).

 

Obviously, we all have different preferences as to what we like and ‘need’ in our lives, and what feels necessary to our personal circumstances at the time, so these lists are just a guide to how I’m personally limiting our load. I can’t imagine many people need to be concerned with packing a maternity belt to ensure their comfort!

The important thing is that I look at these lists and can think of nothing I desperately need or want in addition to them – at least nothing that I won’t be going without anyway, irrespective of what I pack (I’m thinking of my bath and half of my usual kitchen equipment!).

My hope is that in sharing our personal packing plan, I’ve provided you with some ideas of how it is possible to travel with both a child and a truly light load.

Happy travelling lightly!

Please feel free to comment on this post below. Let me know if any of this has come in useful for you (or not!) or if perhaps there’s anything you’d cut back further or substitute?

Next week: depending on both inspiration and an internet connection, I will be blogging live from Morocco next week 🙂

Paltry Packing (Part 1): 10 Tips for Travelling Lightly

It may seem hard to conceive, but my 2-year-old daughter and I are about to embark on a 10 day trip to Morocco with just a handbag and two small backpacks as our luggage (her toddler-sized backpack being particularly small!).

Our luggage for 10 days abroad: a 'laptop backpack', a toddler backpack and a handbag.
Our luggage for 10 days abroad: a ‘laptop backpack’, a toddler backpack and a handbag.

And, no, despite our family ties over there, we don’t keep a second home in Morocco stocked with belongings and necessities.

Whilst my confidence in our ability to travel this lightly stems from my knowledge of the country and the frequency of our visits, I believe a light load is possible for anyone with a little forward planning.

This time, for me, packing lightly is necessary thanks to my advancing pregnancy (I shall be nigh on 6 months pregnant) and the realities of travelling with a 26 month old whose preferred form of transport is to sit on mummy’s hip. Previously, a Mei Tai sling was our travelling carrier of choice, but the baby bump no longer allows for this.

I write this post from the perspective of my forthcoming trip, which includes a plane journey. This makes things all the less flexible. If your own trips don’t include such restrictions on baggage allowances, take from this what you will and adapt any of these ideas to the nature of your individual journeys.

You may have the luxury of your single backpack being a 35 litre hiking rucksack – for many, this could still be considered ‘travelling lightly’ (if the piles of suitcases on some airport trolleys are anything to go by).

So, without further ado, here are some of my tips for ensuring a jolly journey without all the baggage:

 

1) Head for the sun

Forget all the “Just in case it’s cold” wear!

Less clothing may not be so much of an option if you’re planning to trek around the Outer Hebrides or have Iceland as your destination. However, assuming that most people tend to head for warmer climes on their family travels, this tip sticks.

Thin and light clothing is a necessity for warmer weather, and it’s also a necessity for travelling lightly. Once these are neatly rolled up in the bottom of your backpack, there should remain more than enough room for the other items that you consider necessary for your trip. But perhaps only if you also follow rule number 2 . . .

2) 2 changes of clothes + some domestic duties = a light load

Based on rule number 1, this shouldn’t be too much of a feat – after all, the lighter the clothes, the easier they are to wash and dry.

In Morocco we usually have to handwash our clothes (I take very little credit for this – FreeToBeB tends to eagerly take on this responsibility), yet you may well have the luxury of staying somewhere with a washing machine or laundry service. Either way, the stress saved in not having to cart heavy bags around is worth a couple of hours of domestic labour.

3) Dress to undress

On your actual journey from home to your destination – assuming it’s not already too hot where you’re travelling from (easy for me to say, I’m in England) – make ample use of layering your clothing. Cardigans and jackets can easily be tied around waists or attached to a bag if you find your temperature rising, and they make good bolsters if you fancy a nap as you travel.

This makes rule number 2 somewhat easier to bear as well – you might find you actually have more changes of clothes than your meagre luggage would suggest.

4) Purchasing power

Wherever you’re going, you won’t (unless you’re attempting something like an Everest expedition or a trek into a rainforest) be existing in a vacuum away from other people who need to eat, drink, dress, wash and do pretty much all the things we all need to do in order to survive.

Even in many rural areas, there will be outlets where you can buy things that you’ve forgotten or that you hope to purchase at the other end to at least make your outbound journey lighter.

During my first trips travelling with FreeToBeZ as a young baby, half of my suitcase was taken up with eco-friendly nappies. On our very first trip with her, I even took a hefty, heavy stash of cotton washable nappies (plus their liners and covers) and a huge box of Ecover washing powder.

Nowadays, I compromise my eco-ideals for the sake of my health and sanity: I’d much rather purchase standard disposable nappies when I arrive at my destination than cart a supply of my favourite type through 3 train journeys, a bus to and from a hotel prior to an early flight, only to eventually get them checked in (with a huge sigh of mental and physical relief) at the check in gates.

Really, when you’re travelling with kids, short cuts are a good thing, even if you have to suspend your usual, ethical purchasing habits. It took me a while to realise that being a martyr over some nappies was not a sensible idea.

5) Minimalist mindset

OK, this one is best cultivated over time in accordance with ‘living it’ at home as well.

Sometimes a sense of spiritual ascetism can be good, at least until it gets you where you need to be. You can rage against it when you arrive at your destination and bemoan all the things you wish you’d brought (if only that damn woman on that blog hadn’t extolled the virtues of travelling lightly!).

Yet, seriously, it helps to try to take on a more minimalist approach to life. I’ve found that travelling has helped instil that in me anyway. From the realisation that so many people in this world can function with so little compared to our Western consumerist lifestyles, to the desire to rid myself of clutter in order to ultimately fit my life into a camper van; there have been many opportunities whilst travelling to appreciate a life of less.

Without the distraction of your possessions, you can tune in to your travelling. Perhaps leaving all those entertainment gadgets behind will encourage you to spend more time sitting and talking to the locals? Perhaps without a huge array of clothes and accessories to choose from, you get up and go with more speed in the mornings?

However it works for you, it’s true that we have to leave many home comforts behind when we travel anyway: between you and the neglected suitcase, what’s a few more?

6) Downsizing

Wherever possible, take the ‘mini’ option.

If there’s one thing my clutter-clearing has been wary of, it’s been my well-stocked bookcases. I’ve always loved having plenty of reading material whilst away from home too.  In the past, this would involve at least 5 books in my suitcase for a week’s holiday.

Thankfully, we’re now in the days of the e-reader. Yet we can go one better than that: there is no need to even waste space on a Kindle itself – I ensure I have plenty of reading material on my smartphone’s Kindle app and away I go!

The smartphone also technically works for music, although I personally prefer slipping my ipod into my bag due to the battery life limitations of my phone, and at least an ipod doesn’t even take up the room of a single book.

What else can we downsize on?

Toiletries are an obvious answer, but you’ll be restricted to 100ml containers of these anyway if you plan on taking a flight with hand-luggage only.

I like to take my own toiletries rather than purchase them at my destination, as this is one ‘ideal’ that I won’t compromise on: I only buy toiletries free from harsh chemicals such as SLS and parabens, and I cannot even buy these in British supermarkets let alone North African corner shops.

I tend to bypass both of these issues by purchasing organic shampoo bars from an online shop that triple up as shampoo, regular soap and body wash.

7) Child’s play

All this is well and good, you may be thinking, but have we forgotten someone here?

My little traveller, aged 3, 2011
My little traveller, aged 3, 2011

In most respects, all of these tips work for children as well as adults. You may find it more difficult if travelling with a young baby or toddler (no chance just 2 changes of clothes are going to last long there!), but there are some simple things you can do to ensure the kids are catered for without loading your luggage with kiddies’ paraphernalia.

The trick is in packing for the journey itself rather than the destination – I find it easy enough to keep the kids entertained on foreign soil without the need for too much ‘stuff’ (you can always purchase things whilst there which may be both local and educational – FreeToBeP was fascinated with our host’s Arabic newspapers and asked if he could go out and buy his own, which cost the equivalent of about 30p). However, keeping them entertained is not so easy to achieve when you have a few hours trapped aboard a plane or train.

Firstly, I plan to pack my kids’ things in my kids’ bags. In the case of older children (who will also be able to handle heavier loads), entertainment may be as simple as a handheld games console or a tablet computer.

As for younger children, this is the chance to collect together all those little annoying plastic toys that have no real home. You know the ones? Originally the contents of a party bag or randomly accrued from some car boot sale or charity shop. Many of these toys fester in the bottom of the ‘miscellaneous’ toybox and by the time they see the light of day for your journey, your kids will either treat them as long-lost friends or as brand new acquisitions.

Either way, it’s a win.

I usually pack this odd assortment into something like a pencil case or small make-up bag, so they’re compact and contained, ready to get out when the restlessness starts kicking in.

8) Food glorious food

Unless you’re a glutton for punishment, it’s impossible to travel with children without thinking about how much food you might need to take for snacks.

Snacks also serve as good distractions even if the kids haven’t actually alerted you to any sense of hunger – many a train or bus journey has been calmed by the fortuitous arrival of a packet of crisps.

I’m very averse to paying the prices usually charged on trains, at stopover hotels, in the airport and on the plane for everyday food and drink items, thus tend to make at least one packed meal for the journey, as well as taking a variety of healthy and not-so-healthy treats to keep the kids sweet.

Rather than use my precious cabin baggage space on things that will have been consumed by the time we board the plane, I take a plastic bag full of the meals and goodies that I expect we might get through before arriving for our flight (and even on our flight if we’ll be travelling through our usual mealtime).

Some airlines allow each passenger to take on board a plastic bag of Duty Free purchases in addition to the usual hand luggage allowance. In this you can surreptitiously harbour your homemade lunch having restocked on overpriced bottled water in the departure lounge.

9) Compare the best deals on airlines

As well as their basic flight prices, check out how generous your prospective airlines are with hand luggage allowance.

If you’re finding it difficult to pack everything down yet are determined to avoid both a heavy suitcase and a heavy fee, it may be worth paying a few pounds more for the flight to go with the airline that has more generous hand luggage allowances, including the Duty Free bag allowance noted above.

Often, the ‘budget’ airlines will make up for their budget prices by charging a lot more for items that need to go in the hold or that require their own seat for the journey.

At the time of typing, Easyjet have a number of family-friendly policies in place, e.g. if you’re travelling with a child under the age of two, you can have two infant items put into the hold for free (such as a pushchair, car seat, travel cot, etc).

That said, I never used that service despite making 5 return trips with Easyjet whilst FreeToBeZ was an infant, as my own way of living lightly – which spills over into travelling lightly – is to make little use of all the baby paraphernalia we supposedly ‘need’.

Sling-wearing and co-sleeping are lifestyle choices that fit my travelling family perfectly, and do away with any sense of needing to lug buggies and travel cots around.

No waiting around at this thing the other end!
No waiting around at this thing the other end!

10) 1 adult, 2 children, 3 adult sized cabin bags

If need be, you can always go for maxing out everyone’s hand luggage allowance irrespective of whether each child needs that much luggage space and provided at least one of the children is capable of helping out with one of the bags. If you’re travelling as a couple, this obviously makes this option easier (depending on how many children of certain ages you’re juggling!).

Any child over the age of two will usually have their own seat on a plane and their own cabin baggage allowance to match an adult’s cabin baggage allowance. This means that you can feasibly take full-sized cabin bags for each passenger in your group – even if one of them is but a little shy of their 2nd birthday and is obviously incapable of carrying ‘their’ hand luggage.

 

To sum it all up, I love the following quote as I have learnt that it’s so true:

“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.” (Susan Heller, New York Times)

This fits my Paltry Packing philosophy perfectly – we invariably need a lot less than we think we’ll need, and anything we do need is best served by having the cash at the ready!

Next week: Paltry Packing (Part 2), in which I divulge our actual packing list and baggage restrictions for my upcoming trip and how I organise it ‘all’.

Do you have any other tips for travelling lightly? What do you find indispensable when it comes to travelling with kids? I’d also love to hear if you’ve managed to pare things back even more than me! Please feel welcome to leave your comments below.