Thursday, 12 August 2010

Displacement activities

There are times when I am faced with the undeniable truth that that I have my priorities all wrong. A quick survey of my current circumstances reveals panic-inducing numbers of tasks and chores that urgently need my attention. Inevitably, there’s the vast quantity of regular household chores being ignored. There's the ironing. There’s always the ironing. At the moment, I’m relying on the ‘iron-on-demand’ system. Similar to the ‘just-in-time’ production management approach developed by Japanese car manufacturers in the 1980s this means that a) I struggle to find something to wear to work without hurtling around the house first thing in the morning looking for the ironing board or b) I’m wearing the same forgiving crease-free trousers all the time.

There’s the oven, which is so filthy at the moment that I could incubate funghi in the bottom of it. We have visitors arriving at the weekend and as I can’t assume everyone has the same lax attitudes to housework as I do, I really need to clean the oven. I think back longingly to the decrepit, solid fuel Rayburn we had in Cumbria.  On the outside, it was always covered by a particularly noxious mix of coal dust and grease, because it was old and the flue was a little loose, allowing clouds of soot to escape towards the cooking plate. But Rayburn ovens never need cleaning. You just let the dirt in the oven carbonise in the constant heat and brush out a few innocuous piles of black charcoal flakes now and then. There’s also inevitably a certain amount of remedial dusting, hoovering and bathroom cleaning to be addressed before the arrival of visitors. Plus, relaxing in the sitting room yesterday I idly glanced across to the window and was reminded that the curtains we hung ‘temporarily’ 6 months ago, still have a foot of lining dangling beneath them. It’s chastening just how blind you can be to the half-finished, messed-up things lurking in your home. It’s only with the prospect of visitors that you start seeing everything that needs to be done just to maintain the pretence of being civilised people.

On top of this, we are still in the thick of the agonisingly slow and painstaking process of sifting through boxes of belongings in an attempt, finally, to match the amount of stuff we have to the amount of space available in our flat. This process seems to have been going on for years and consists mainly of taking bubble-wrapped objects out of boxes, unwrapping them, saying ‘oh, I’d forgotten all about that’, then wrapping them up again and putting them into a different box. Although I know we have disposed of lots of stuff, I can’t see any evidence of this in the number of crates and boxes stacked up around the flat. Many of these boxes are in our guest room, so there’s some sense of urgency. At present, I actually have a heavy-duty lawnmower in my study, waiting for us to put it on Ebay. Unfortunately, before we do that, we have to take it down 3 flights of stairs to the communal back garden to make sure it still works, as it sat in a storage unit for 2 years. But in order to check that it works, we need some petrol, which means remembering to go out to a garage with an empty petrol can. You can imagine. The damn thing has been sitting there for 3 months. We were supposed to be selling it at the beginning of the summer, when most people think about buying lawnmowers. Sometimes when I can’t stand having it in my study any longer, it gets trundled out into the hall for a few hours for a change of scene then trundled back into my study again. It’s starting to feel like a silent, mechanical pet.

Who needs a puppy when you have a lawnmower!

On top of household demands, there are the inevitable half-finished craft projects sitting around mewling for my attention like neglected, half-starved children. The length of fabric bought about four months ago to create some curtains to hide some shelves in the kitchen, bought to tide us over until we got the kitchen ‘done’properly. I have a pair of navy linen trousers I ‘ran up’ for my holidays, but didn’t get finished in time. To be wearable, they need hemming and pressing. By the time they’re finished a) it will be winter and too cold or b) it will be next summer and I will probably have put on more weight and won’t be able to get into them.

So as you can see, there are plenty of important things I could be doing. And what do I spend my time doing? I made my own baguettes.

I can come up with no reasonable justification for this absurd use of my time. I supposed I was trying to recreate the relaxed feeling of being on holiday in France earlier in the summer. There has been a disappointing contrast between the baguettes we ate on holiday - crusty, soft but chewy crumb, tangy yeast taste - and the baguettes we’ve bought since then - fluffy, tasteless cotton wool. I suspect the main reason I decided I just had to bake my own baguettes was as a displacement activity, so I could avoid the scary list of stuff I am supposed to be getting on with.

On a positive note, I must say the baguettes were amazing! Better than anything we’ve bought in the UK. Crusty, with a soft firm crumb, and full of flavour. They weren’t difficult to make. The significant factor is that you make a ‘poolish’ – a porridgy mash of water, yeast and flour, and leave that to sit overnight. I had a rather romantic idea that I would get up promptly and have fresh baguettes ready for breakfast time. However I misread the recipe slightly. I hadn't noticed that after the instruction: ‘let the dough rise for 30 minutes and then knock back the dough to 2/3 its risen size’ it stated: ‘repeat 3 more times’. Oh well. We had them for lunch instead. I followed the recipe exactly (amazingly for me!) but I did use a 50:50 mix of strong and plain white flour. I’d read somewhere on the internet that this was a good approximation of French bread flour. Anyway, the results were great and I was left with 2 baguettes to stash in the freezer.

Definitely a 'ta da!' moment

As an absurd way of spending my time, the ‘making my own baguettes’ episode ranks alongside this summer’s violet macarons debacle. This was my attempt at a show-stopping contribution to a chakra themed lunch - don’t ask – it was a Wild Women weekend in a yurt. I had been allocated the violet chakra. 7 hours in the kitchen, during a plumbing disaster which meant in order to empty the kitchen sink, I had to put a bucket under the u-bend and throw the contents down the loo. It took 2 attempts to make the macarons. The first batch of unmanageably friable, puny, flat discs were chucked in the bin. Out of the second batch I managed to salvage enough to cobble together a dozen sad little crumbly macarons of varying sizes. Never again and definitely not worthy of a photo. The sort of thing your 8 year old might bring home from school cookery classes.

Last week, I found myself making my own vanilla essence! Admittedly, this doesn't take a lot of effort: vodka, vanilla essence, vanilla beans, glass jar, shake then leave for 6 weeks. But nevertheless. Do I really have the time to make my own vanilla essence? Is that really a priority? However, if you are similarly at a loose end, by which I mean, so overwhelmed with things you should be doing that you need a displacement activity, the instructions are on Traveller's Lunchbox  here.


  1. you're definitely not alone in this type of "displacement activity" business...

    My house is in an unfinished state....but, after 24+ years of renovations... much of which we have done ourselves over the last years cuz we got sick of being fleeced by contractors ....we've both just run out of motivation it seems. Plus... this summer, I'm learning to golf and it takes up a lot of hours... not to mention is pretty physically demanding especially on the stinking hot days..

    My garden has suffered..the housework goes undone... absolutely had to vacuum yesterday after not doing it for ... oh,....let's see.... about 2 and half weeks....

    ANd...I, too, love to bake... and I know it is something I CAN I do it instead! It is nice to just mix up ingredients instead of dragging out paint and brushes...or going to the hardware store for things.... or ... well, even making the long lists of allllll the stuff that still needs doing around here. I should start looking for somebody to do the fiddly bits left to do..... but, even that seems daunting .... and I have a motorcycle for sale... here it is already should have been listed by May..... and yet it sits...... sigh........

  2. Ah, Bumblebee. Thanks for your comment. So nice to know I am not alone. Especially glad to hear about the motorcycle. Although I presume you don't have to keep it inside your house! As for the vacuuming - 2 1/2 weeks? A mere lightweight! I'd rather not admit in public how long it is since I vacuumed.....

  3. Well done on those baguettes, they look perfect. As for oven cleaning...I don't bother too much, just the door really until it gets really disgraceful. You could always do the cover up thing. Just put tin foil over the bad bits-shelves and bottom etc- until you feel like doing it.
    I've been promising to turn the spare room into a work room since we moved here 3 years ago, but there's always something else I'd rather be doing. Oh, and macarons are on my summer list as well!

  4. How good to discover your blog (via rachel at slow lane life) and find another expert in displacement activity! It's not that I'm lazy, I'm always doing something, it is just so often not the thing I should be doing. Baking always makes me feel domestically virtuous as does weeding. Clearly I am then so busy that I can't possibly do the business filing which has been threatened to topple over and submerge my desk in its lava flow for a year or so or write the work report which I promised myself I would do straight after the meeting to make up for the fact that I got so interested I stopped making any notes. Can hardly remember it now!

  5. Well I've seen it all now . . . .vanilla essence as an ingredient to make . . . . . well . . . vanilla essence :-D. The World's gone mad!
    Anne xx