From familiar to strange

Around this time twenty-five years ago, in October 1990, I attended my first anthropology lecture at St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth. A fresh-faced 17-year old, I was immediately hooked on this new subject I had chosen to study at university. In that first lecture, Professor Eileen Kane, the glamorous Irish-American head of department, told us that by studying anthropology the strange would become familiar and the familiar strange. We would soon see the cultural logic and appropriateness of far flung habits and customs that might on the surface seem weird and bizarre to our Irish sensibilities – polyandry, witchcraft, the Kula Ring – and we would start to see the weirdness in cultural practices we took for granted – Christmas, school, organised sports.

It was a memorable first lesson in anthropology and I’ve thought about that phrase – making the strange familiar and the familiar strange – quite a lot over the years, especially when I’ve found myself returning home having lived abroad and experiencing what might be termed reverse culture shock. Japan, Nunavut and the UK became normal and ordinary to me and, when I returned to Ireland, life, customs and habits felt strange and unfamiliar.

I’ve been feeling the same way this summer, having returned to the UK, the country that has been my home for a decade. The feeling of strangeness and unfamiliarity comes partly from living in a house in suburbia for the past few months and partly because as I revise the book I’m currently writing I reflect on how moving onto and living on a boat at one time seemed such a strange and exotic thing to do. But now the boat is our familiar life and life on land, in a house, has become strange.

Perhaps the thing that most encapsulates that strangeness is my altered perceptions of space, and in particular how much space an individual or family require and how that space is utilised.

By anyone’s standards, our home is tiny. Carina is 36 feet (11 metres) long and at her widest 11 feet (3 metres) wide. Four of us live in that space, including one who is 6’2” and built like the proverbial brick s**t house. But it no longer feels like such a tiny space to us. We have adapted to it and transformed it into a home. We have space to stow our belongings and space to eat, sleep, play, work, relax and even entertain. We have adapted to the space and made it work for us.

So I’ve felt like a visitor from another planet at times this summer when people have, with reference to what seem to me to be incredibly spacious homes, made comments such as ‘It’s not big enough’, ‘We need a bigger house’, ‘It’s not much’. I look around at these spaces that are huge in comparison to Carina and wonder what exactly people need more space for.

I’ve also been hyper-aware of the utilisation of space. Or, to be more correct, the under-utilisation of space. Given her size and our number, each space on Carina has a purpose or multiple purposes. Most people here in suburbia own sizable gardens. But few home owners make productive use of those gardens. One of my few regrets about living aboard a regularly moving home is that we don’t grow any food. I’ve always enjoyed growing food (with varied success) and this summer I find myself looking longingly at ample suburban gardens, transforming them in my mind into attractively productive food plots.

Other things feel alien too – the length of time and distance people commute to work; how success is measured; how often people feel the need to shower (you think I’m kidding!); how complicated and full of time-consuming activities many peoples’ lives seem to be. But the thing that has bothered me more than anything else this summer (I need to stop saying ‘summer’. I realise we are now firmly in autumn) is waste.

Sure, we produce waste aboard Carina – plastic packaging, tin cans, paper – but the quantities of waste we produce are far less than what we are currently producing in a house in suburbia. Aboard Carina we buy little and often. I realise that our consumer choices are partly dictated by geography. Living in southern Europe probably has as much to do with the amount of waste we produce as living on a boat. We buy fresh bread from the baker (unpackaged), fresh fruit and vegetables from the greengrocer (unpackaged), meat and cheese and dairy products from the general store (packaged). And in certain places on our travels we’ve been lucky enough to forage fruit, vegetables, herbs and shellfish and we’ve fished or been given fish by friends and other boat owners.

With our small living space and frugal environmentally-orientated lifestyle, we are conscious of the waste we produce. In suburbia, certainly in this particular suburbia, waste is pernicious. Food in supermarkets is far more heavily packaged than in the greengrocers, butchers and bakers. And, where we are currently living, without a car it is difficult to shop at places other than supermarkets or chain stores.

The cycle of plastic waste is disturbing – in the front door, through the house, out the back door and into the recycling bin. I think I am less disturbed by the amount of waste than by the fact that it’s taken for granted. Recycling has become normalised, but reducing is more difficult. Having lived around other frugally-minded sailors for the past year or more, I have grown used to minimal waste. The disposal of waste from the boat is annoyingly cumbersome. Certainly on smaller boats there is no room to store separated plastic, glass, metal and organic waste, and carrying it ashore by dinghy in search of bins in which to dump it is a royal pain in the ass. It’s far easier not to produce the waste in the first place. So we opt for unpackaged or minimally packaged produce. It’s easier on us and easier on the environment.

We have now set a date for returning to Carina. When we step aboard the girls and I will have been away for five and a half months. I’m sure UK suburban living will have seeped into my bones and I will find life afloat strange all over again and it will take some time to readjust. In the meantime I will continue to seek out strangeness in the once familiar and familiarity in the once strange.

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