Archive for February, 2011

27th February
written by Randy

One of the things that makes this modern minimalist movement possible is multifunction electronic devices — basically, computers. These days your computer can be your phone, your mailbox, your photo album, your library, your radio, your television, your movie player… and tons more.

The ability to turn one device into a replacement for all those other things has the potential to greatly declutter your life. But it also brings with it a new kind of clutter. Included with a computer you also get boxes, manuals, software discs. And then all of your peripherals all come with more boxes, manuals, and software. Then you buy still more software, which comes with more boxes and manuals… and license codes that need to be saved.

Every camera comes with a different battery charger, and three different cables. Every music player has a sync cable and headphones. And all of those extra cords and connectors all get saved, cluttering drawers or boxes or shelves.

Today I purged the bulk of that mess. All of the boxes are gone. Most of the manuals are gone. Instructions and warranty cards are gone. All but the most important CDs are gone.

All that remained to be dealt with was a big pile of cables and adapters. For those, I used a false book — basically, a small box, designed to look like a book. I filled the false book with all of the adapters, cords, cables, headphones, and accessories that I felt needed to be kept, and now they’re neatly tucked away, out of sight where I never have to see them unless I want to.

Having all that “junk” out of my drawer left the drawer nearly empty! In fact, most of my desk drawers are rapidaly approaching a state of “empty.” The desk was perhaps the worst of my clutter spots. As I wrangle it under control, I grow closer and closer to the point where I’ll be ready to do an actual count on my possessions.

Maybe in a few more weeks. There’s no rush — I’ve got until the end of the year to get down to 100 things. Of course having an actual count is really going to put a lot of things into perspective…

22nd February
written by Randy

I’ve been home for 10 days now, which is the longest I’ve been in one place since November. For more than two full months, now, I’ve basically been living out of a backpack.

I had two brief stops at home in December, which allowed me to make changes to my packing strategy, before spending 30 days overseas. Each time I was able to apply things I had learned, and improve my experience.

The experience has been immeasurably helpful in understanding what I’m getting into with my 100 things challenge. I’ve got a much better idea what’s necessary, as well as what’s simply not necessary at all.

I had packed an additional pair of pants — gray dress pants, in case I decided to attend something fancy. That never happened, but I did wear the pants one day, half way, just because I found it necessary to launder my jeans after two weeks.

I did get more use out of the one dress shirt I had packed. I chose one in gray, which was a good versatile color choice, but the shirt itself was too “stylish”, making it less versatile overall. Also, having one dress shirt and one pair of dress pants, I should have chosen them in different colors. Gray with gray wasn’t good planning.

In getting down to 100 items, I think the most versatile solution is going to be pants in gray — most likely as part of a suit — along with one or two pairs or jeans. I’ll probably stick with just two dress shirts, one black and one white. And I’ll probably make use of one or two sweaters as layering options, to turn those few garments into multiple outfits. I’ll need a couple of shirts for warm weather as well, but I’m going to wait until it warms up before worrying about that.

I’ve already described my strategy with undergarments, though I’ve found REI brand t-shirts, underwear, and socks all to be higher quality and more comfortable than the Under Armour brand products I started with, so I’m cycling the UA stuff to my workout gear, and any new purchases will be REI brand. Granted, I probably won’t be making any new clothing purchases for quite some time.

Every day I remove at least one item from my closet. A this rate, I’ll reach my minimalist wardrobe pretty quickly. I had a lot more than I ever realized, but it’s finally getting notably empty. I expect that within a few weeks, I’ll be ready to do a count of my clothing, even if I’m not yet ready to do a count of everything else…

13th February
written by Randy

As a follow-up to last year’s goal of learning Italian, I began this year by spending 30 days in Italy, using the Italian I learned. This was also a big starting point for one of this year’s goals: visiting 20 cities in Europe.

I landed in Rome. Then, I visited Pisa, Florence, Milan, Turin, Genoa, Verona, Bologna, and Venice. From Venice, I took a short break and flew to Barcelona for a few days. Then, back to Venice, down to Bari, over to Naples, Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri, and then back to Rome and home. Depending on whether or not you count Pompeii, that’s either 14 or 15 cities. For now, I’m going to call it 15, but I’ll aim for going over 20, just to keep things on the up-and-up.

I’m going to have to work for a while to pay for this trip, and to save some money for the next one. I probably won’t be doing another month-long trip this year, so visiting six more cities in Europe isn’t going to be as easy as it might sound in comparison to this one. But anyway, the goal is the experience, not the statistic.

Now, about Italy…

I was surprised to learn that Italy is very much not a modern country. It’s not at all what I expected. Hotels with internet access are hard to find. Televisions are old and often don’t work. In many cases, there is no heat or air conditioning, and when there is, it’s often inefficient.

Most businesses start closing between 5:00 and 7:00 pm, and after that, you’re lucky when you can find a restaurant or pub open… everything else is closed. Didn’t get something you needed? Oh well. Wait until tomorrow.

Life in Italy is extremely noisy. Italians talk very loud — so loud, in fact, that when I spoke to them in my normal voice, they didn’t even hear me. Their phones are loud. Their ringers are loud. The streets are filled with noisy scooters and mopeds and jackhammers, reverberating through the brick and mortar canyons created by large buildings and narrow streets.

Also surprising, and saddening, the country is in a sad state of disrepair. It’s not surprising that with so much there that is “old”, much of it is in need of maintenance. But what is surprising is how much of it was just covered in litter, dirt, and graffiti. From the moment you arrive in Italy, it is glaringly obvious that Italians just don’t take much pride in their environment.

Moreover, they don’t have nearly as much pride in themselves as I was expecting. There is a certain stereotype of the fashion-minded Italian, especially in Milan — one of the capitals of the fashion world — but the majority of people I saw were not dressed with any more care than anyone else, anywhere else in the world. And especially in Milan, I was surprised to find that most people had nothing at all in the way of fashion. Not that it matters, of course, just that it was a surprise.

I’ll just mention one more disappointment. The food. The typically “Italian” foods that I expected to indulge in turned out to be quite the opposite of my expectations. From Rome south, all the places with a food reputation turned out to be the places where I had my worst meals. Naples — birthplace of pizza — had some of the worst pizza I’ve ever eaten. In Rome, Naples, Bari, Sorrento, and Capri, the food seemed no better than an average boxed Italian dinner here in the US.

Of course it wasn’t all disappointments. There was also a lot to like…

From Florence north, I had some of the best meals of my life. I had amazing pizza in Genoa. The tortellini bolognese in Bologna was like something from a dream. And in Milan I got the most amazing serving of lasagne I’ve ever had in my life. Oh, and let me not forget that every dessert I had in the north was worth writing home about.

While the big cities were mostly dingy, decayed, and crawling with indigents, I found most of the smaller and/or less-popular cities to be beautiful, friendly, even magical places. In particular, if you ever want to die of a dreamy romantic overdose, spend a week in Verona followed by a week in Sorrento. Those are two of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen, both filled with wonderful, pleasant people.

In fact, speaking of the people… Italy may have its defects, but the people are not one of them. Almost everyone I encountered during my month-long adventure through Italy was polite, friendly, and warm. You might not think so at first, because Italians carry themselves differently than Americans, but once you adjust to the cultural differences, you quickly find the Italian people to be the country’s best asset.

All in all, in spite of several complaints, I want to be clear that I really did come to love Italy, and I definitely enjoyed myself there. I will certainly return. And now that I understand how things work, and have seen such a variety of places there, I’ll know where to go and what to do next time, so I can enjoy myself much more.

Venice St. Peter's Square

Genova Bari

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7th February
written by Randy

I’ve done an incredible amount of traveling in the past few months. And it hasn’t been the recently trendy “permanent travel, professional blogger” kind of travel, where people basically move to a new part of the world and then stay there for a few months.

No, I’ve been doing the hard kind of travel: sleeping in a different city every night, carrying everything with me on my back all day. Going back to mid-November, the longest I’ve been in one place was a week in my new apartment. But I’m learning a lot.

First, and most obviously, I am learning a lot about minimalism. I’m learning that no matter how cool a thing is or how good of a discount it’s offered at, the idea of adding its weight to my back keeps me from buying it 99.7% of the time. When I do buy something, it’s to replace something else which I will then dispose of. (The only exception has been a hair-clipper, which cost the same as a professional haircut, but is reusable.)

I’m finding it very easy to dress every day from a limited selection of clothing, and in spite of only bringing a handful of items with me, I now know that I could have packed even less. I’m very tempted to travel with no bag whatsoever on my next trip.

I’m also learning about taking opportunities immediately, rather than browsing, thinking, looking for something better or more convenient. In Italy, I’ve found that you will often return to a store or restaurant after very little time only to find it closed. And you may not find another one open for a long time.

So when I see someone selling water, I generally buy a bottle even if I’m not thirsty. If I see an ATM, I generally withdraw some cash even if I don’t need it. And when I see a restaurant, I don’t bother looking around town for one that might be better. Having learned to take what’s there, right away, has greatly improved my experience here compared to my frustrating first week in this country.

Quality also means a lot more to me as a nomad than it ever did before. Bad shoes make their presence known with every step. An awkward backpack will have your shoulders hurting before noon. And a poor-fitting shirt, jacket, pants, etc will irritate you at every opportunity. Those things end up in trash cans just minutes after a suitable replacement is found.

Italy is far less modern than I had expected, and that fact has made itself painfully well-known in the lack of Internet access. A month of prepaid data access for my iPad has turned out to be a great decision. Using a smart phone as my primary form of internet access for a month would have been a painful experience.

Of course that’s not to say that a month of using an iPad isn’t painful — it certainly is. Autocorrect is becoming my #1 enemy, mostly for the words it learns incorrectly. And after three weeks of typing against a glass screen, my hands really started to hurt. The last week has been hell. I’m going to strongly consider a MacBook Air this year.

The iPad also brings other complications. It’s large enough, and conspicuous enough that you don’t really want to take it out in a lot of places, so when it’s your only connection to the internet you often put off using it. By comparison, an iPhone is more inconspicuous when you need to check a map or confirm a reservation. And while I was able to find a no-contract micro-SIM for iPad in Italy, I was not able to get one in Spain.

Finally, I’m finding more and more value in being nondescript — blending in, rather than standing out. After ditching my terribly “American” loose-fitting coat and athletic shoes for a more snug, stylish jacket and more typically Italian shoes, people have begun treating me altogether differently. On arrival, people would walk up to me and ask “you speak English, yes?” Now, Italians stop me and ask for directions, the time, train schedules, etc, all in Italian, and seem surprised when they hear me respond with an accent.

It seems that throughout the places I’ve traveled, if you wear mostly blacks and grays, keep your hair basically short, and look people in the eyes as they pass, they will assume you’re just another passer-by. It probably also helps if you’re not dragging a suitcase behind you.

2nd February
written by Randy

With six goals for this year, it’s possible that I may be taking on too much — especially with the reality that marathon training will consume a lot of time and energy. We’ll see.

But I’m tired of putting off until tomorrow what can be done today.

I have always wanted to be a good dancer. At present, there is no question that I am not. In fact, I’m not even an okay dancer. I’m an embarrassment to dancing.

So that’s going to change. Just as with my running goal, dancing is an activity that has always interfered with my belief that I can do anything. The only way to fix that situation is, of course, to learn and practice and become a good dancer.

Like running, this will be a great physical activity for me. One that will, hopefully, help me to improve health, my stamina, my posture, and my grace. (And being a good dancer doesn’t hurt with the ladies, either!)

At present, I haven’t figured out how to measure this goal. Dancing is a vague description, and “being a good dancer” is very subjective. I need to figure out what kind of dancing I will do, and I need to set a target for success.

For the moment, I think it must necessarily be some form of “ballroom dancing” — that seems fitting for my James Bond world-view. And it seems to me that the most interesting, most popular, most attractive ballroom dancing happens in the Latin discipline.

I spent an evening learning cha-cha with a friend last December and really enjoyed it, so I’ll probably start with that. I’m going to need to define a criteria for success soon. When I return from Italy, I’ll look into what kind of dance events happen around the end of the year, and find one to sign up for.

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