My hygge life – let there be light

Winter 2017

I’m a big believer in hygge, which was something that I thought only I knew about, hah, until it went viral in 2016.

Since I am a winter snuggler, hygge is key to helping me get through the dark days that are now upon us, both literally and figuratively.

There’s no real translation for hygge – it’s kind of welcoming and happy, a feeling of wellbeing. A thing that produces that feeling is hyggeligt, while a cosy nook where you can curl up and feel hyggeligt is a hyggekrog. It can be the long, light evenings of summer, or the dark, interior days of winter.

Hygge also means something different to everyone: it can be modern, kitschy, family-oriented, colourful, loud or quiet – whatever makes you feel good. My hygge is quiet, a bit shabby, solitary, countrified and – importantly – light.

Light is crucial to my wellbeing because I suffer from SAD. But I also live in a medieval stone house as dark as a cave. I tried embracing that with rich colours and heavy woods but it only made me miserable. So over the past couple of years I’ve worked hard to make the house brighter and whiter. We now have white walls, white ceilings, white beams, cream and off-white throws, cream leatherette furniture, cream nubbly cotton curtains, cream rope tiebacks, huge canvasses with beach scenes (mostly white) on the walls, large mirrors, driftwood frames and white vinyl flooring with a driftwood effect. Everyone who enters the house remarks on the brightness, which is unusual in a house with tiny windows, deep sills and heavy beams.

All that white could seem stark, but it isn’t. International modern isn’t my thing and there’s plenty of texture – fake-fur throws, sheepskin rugs, embroidery, chenille, velvet, crewelwork and Japanese paper. Some of the walls are rough-plastered, while others are painted stone, giving different textures and plays of light. I also have hearts everywhere (to remind me to be nice). Hearts made of wicker, hearts made of dried flowers, of wood, of slate, of hand-made ceramic, with my favourite image of a dragonfly embossed on it and a grey ribbon to hang it up.

There are many, many lights (mainly with LED bulbs now) – a pastel tole chandelier; huge paper cylinder floor-standing lights, which are placed up high in order to bounce light off the ceiling; spotlights; lamps; fairy lights, which remain up all year; a SAD lightbox in a window recess, pretending to be sunlight; and daylight-spectrum fluorescents. Right now, in the Christmas season, there is, of course, also a tree, decorated with silver, gold and white baubles and winter-white fairy lights.

Candles too are important for hygge. I buy cheap textured ones from a shop called ‘Action’, which cost about a euro – I think they are sand-cast, and the wax is like nubbled rock, so they remind me of the coast. There are also scented candles: lavender, white cotton, apple-cinnamon and – my ultra favourite, Tea for Two by Artisan Parfumeur, which is an annual treat. This winter, the DH also bought me fake candles and nightlights, which are pretty cool things – the freestanding ones are actually cast in wax, while the others give a very realistic flickering flame effect, hidden in cream glass nightlight holders. Each morning, I take care to light a scented candle with my morning coffee and chocolate-chip biscuits, to help ease me gently into the day. The curtains remain shut until it gets light, or 10.00am, whichever comes sooner – it won’t get light today, nor for the next three days, so it’s much brighter inside the house than outside.

The day also starts with rekindling the wood burner, usually from embers as it keeps in overnight. The DH does this and makes the coffee, while I walk the dog down the lane and get a barrowload of wood from the barn, which we both unload before sitting down to breakfast. There is something deeply atavistically satisfying about coming in from the cold and frost, wrapped up like Dr Zhivago, and finding the leaping flames of the fire and the smell of coffee. The huge metal trunk filled with logs for the day also gives me a sense of wellbeing, knowing I’ll be warm all day.


Tip of the day – cleaning caddies

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If your house, like most houses, has more than one floor, consider making yourself cleaning caddies that have a permanent home on each floor.

Our house has a converted attic, so it’s three stories high – one of my huge extravagances is having a vacuum cleaner on each floor: no more lugging this heavy appliance up and down the stairs. I also have a broom on each floor, and a cleaning station: one in the kitchen island, one under the bathroom sink and another quick-clean one on the top floor, which is just a nice vintage wicker basket lined with oilcloth and filled with cleaning products.

These include window cleaner, squeegee, bin bags, dustpan and brush, wet wipes, a microfibre dusting cloth, home-made air freshener in a spray bottle, a ‘feather’ duster (made of microfibre loops), kitchen roll and lavender oil.

The basket is a tall one designed to hold wine bottles, so it holds the taller products very well, and it has a big looped handle, so is easy to pick up and move from room to room. Our top floor contains our bedroom, library and photographic studio but there is no water, hence the wet wipes, which I use for dusting – elsewhere, I dust with a wet microfibre cloth.

The station under the bathroom sink is an old shoebox that contains loo cleaner, white vinegar, scented cleaning alcohol, anti-bacterial wipes and home-made cleaner/degreaser. Because we have a septic tank, I avoid using bleach products. The kitchen caddy is a big plastic slide-out drawer, with wet wipes, microfibre cloths, essential oils and falun for sprinkling on the floors – the whole thing can be whipped out and placed on the island unit for easy access.

I believe, where possible, in having attractive cleaning materials and equipment. God knows, cleaning is boring work, but it is sweetened a little by my pink, blue and green floral brooms with coloured bristles, dustpans decorated with ladybirds and cupcakes, and nicely scented cleaning products

Task of the day: window cleaning

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Blurgh. Window cleaning is a tough job and not one I much looked forward to until about a year ago, I hit on a solution – clean one at a time.

Voilà. I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me earlier. I’m used to splitting up other jobs, after all – I don’t vacuum the whole damn house in one go. Now that I do one window or one room at a time, window-cleaning seems like less of an uphill struggle.

Your mileage may vary but I now clean the windows in a multi-part process, and the squeegee is my friend. The tools are:
* household cleaner and squeegee
* window cleaner and squeegee
* kitchen paper for drying
* newspaper for polishing

Spray household cleaner all over the window and use the sponge side of the squeegee to thoroughly soap up and scrub off all the dirt. In this household, that includes dog snot, cat snot and fly shit – yours may include toddler nameless sticky stuff, mud, etc.

Use the scraper side of the squeegee to scrape off the suds, in a downward motion. Mop up the run-off with kitchen paper.

Repeat the process with the proprietary window cleaner of your choice and use the second squeegee to soap up and scrape off the suds.

Dry all around with kitchen paper. Now quickly polish, using scrunched-up newspaper. You can also use a clean microfibre cloth but newspaper has the advantage of leaving a fine layer of printer’s ink on the glass, which helps to prevent dirt from adhering.

Here in rural France there are no visiting window cleaners, so I have to do the outsides myself too. Luckily, French windows open inwards, so it isn’t too much of a chore. Frequently I give them a last blast with a hosepipe too.

I hope it goes without saying that you should do windows in dull weather, or on the shady side of the house – if you clean windows in sunlight, the products will dry on the glass before you can get them off and you’ll end up with streaks.

Rinse the squeegees off afterwards.

Brand of the day – Briochin

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Briochin is a French household ‘natural’ products brand – they make all manner of cleaning products with a retro, olde-worlde look and feel.

The packaging is generally retro, usually navy-blue cardboard with white lettering and most of the products are certified by Ecocert as not harmful to the environment. I value them too for their pleasant, natural smells, often based on lavender.

Among the Briochin products I have permanently in the house are liquid black soap (savon noir liquide); cleaning vinegar at 14% solution; bicarb and lavender oil, but they also make wash powders and liquid clothing wash; hand wash, surface cleaners, etc. The range, originally confined to one or two products, is being expanded all the time.

You can buy Briochin products from supermarkets and DIY stores, and the company’s website.

Fragrance review: White Shoulders, vintage

White Shoulders – a name to get right up the nose of the Civil Rights Movement if ever there was one – was created in 1943 by Evyan. It has head notes of aldehydes, white flowers (gardenia, jasmine, tuberose, lily-of-the-valley, lilac, lily and orris) and a drydown that contains amber, benzoin, musk, civet and oak moss.

Just one look at those ingredients and you know it spells trouble. Civet is no longer extracted from civet cats, for ethical reasons, though the smell can be substituted by various civitones, created in the lab. More troublesome now is the addition of oakmoss, which is being strictly restricted by the authorities as an allergen. Less oakmoss means less depth and the modern fragrance is apparently something a shadow of its former self.

However, it may still be to your taste because the vintage version (my bottle of EDP dates to the 60s or earlier) is a massive powerhouse of a fragrance that many might not like. Far from the dainty white floral you might imagine from the name, this is a full-on indolic (skanky) white floral that punches you in the face, while the musk and civet make it animalic and sexy. With that toned down in the modern version, it’s probably worth a look if your taste runs to lilacy, clean and powdery florals.

The modern version is good for office wear, weddings and other non-sexy occasions, and suitable for teenagers. The vintage, more womanly fragrance is unsuitable for things like funerals and trips to the gynecologist, unless you want to get more than you bargained for!

White Shoulders is widely available online and from general drugstores. Vintage versions are best picked up on Ebay or Etsy.


Product of the day – falun

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Falun is a pretty esoteric French household product. I first came across it at a garden fête and quickly got addicted. I buy a few tubs of it per year and in between, I make my own from scented sand.

So what is it?  Falun is a type of absorbent limestone. Sold in the form of rough sand, manufacturers impregnate it with fragrance. You can use it for all sorts of things – sprinkling on floors or carpets to freshen them prior to vacuuming; in small jars or tubs in your wardrobes as a moth repellent, and at the bottom of ashtrays, if you smoke, to kill that ashtray smell stone dead.

As it comes, in the pot, it’s very strong. I often decant about a tablespoon into a tub of bicarb and use it that way instead – it’s more than enough to scent the house.

One time when I ran out and couldn’t get to the garden fête, I made my own instead. Since we holiday in Brittany every year, I brought back about a kilo of fine sand from the beach. I washed this multiple times, then soaked it in essential oils, using the cheapest I could find – usually citronella and lavendin. It has pretty much the same effect as falun, although the sand is not as absorbent.

You can order falun from Histoire de Rose and it’s also sometimes available on Amazon.