Big pleasure from small things

Hello, friends. I have returned from France and recovered from jetlag. (I’m not good with jetlag.) Later this week, I’ll publish an article about how much my cousin Duane and I spent during our ten-day drive across Normandy and Brittany, but today I want to share one small epiphany I had on the trip.

J.D. geeking it up with Proust stuff

I am a Proust nerd so was happy to stumble upon Combray

Midway through our excursion, we heeded a recommendation from a GRS reader and stayed the night at the Royal Abbey of Our Lady of Fontevraud, a former monastery founded in 1101. Although many old buildings remain (and guests are free to explore them), the site is no longer an abbey. It’s a fancy upscale hotel and a Michelin-star restaurant.

Duane and I typically prefer to stay in simple rooms when we travel. We don’t need fancy. For us, a hotel is a place to sleep, not a place to be pampered. Our aim is to spend less than €100 per night (or €50 per person). We do make exceptions, though. (On this trip, we also paid extra to stay the night on Mont Saint Michel.)

In this case, we thought the hotel was nice and modern, but at $193.57 for the one night, we wouldn’t do it again. That’s way too expensive for us. And the restaurant was even more expensive.

Duane would have been perfectly happy eating crepes or galettes (which are savory crepes) at a regular restaurant in the nearby village, but I’ve always wanted to eat in a Michelin-star restaurant, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. I mean: It was right there in the same building as our hotel.

“I’ll pay tonight,” I told him. “Ignore the prices. I’m making a deliberate decision to do this. You just enjoy the meal. Don’t worry about the cost.”

We did enjoy the meal. It was a fixed menu at a fixed price, although we could add options. (Duane added mushrooms and I added a cheese plate.) The food was fun and fancy. Here for instance, is the pea soup with “bread”:

Fancy soup at a Michelin-star restaurant

Pea soup with “bread” as a first course

In the end, I spent $267.41 for our meal. That’s the most I’ve ever paid for a meal in my life. But was it the best meal of my life? No. It was good — don’t get me wrong — and I loved experiencing how a superstar kitchen combines flavors, but this wasn’t even in the top twenty meals I’ve ever eaten. There are several restaurants here in Portland that I’d prefer to dine at, and they cost much less.

But I don’t mean to grouse about how little enjoyment we got for the money we spent. Just the opposite, in fact.

When we reached our hotel room after a long day of driving, I needed to freshen up before dinner. I went to the bathroom to wash my face. “Wow,” I thought as I scrubbed down, “this soap smells amazing. I love it.” This is a strange thing for me to think. I’ve never had positive feelings for soap before in my fifty years on this Earth.

When I’d finished, Duane took his turn in the bathroom. “Did you smell that soap?” he asked when he was done. “It smells like wood and smoke and spice. It’s fantastic.”

“I thought same thing!” I said. “I’d buy some. Maybe we can find it when we get to Paris.”

“We sound like a couple of gay men,” Duane said and we both laughed. (He can get away with jokes like that because he is a gay man.) We forgot about the soap and went to dinner.

In the morning, as we were checking out, we noticed that the soap was for sale in the hotel lobby. On a hunch, I googled the manufacturer. Sure enough: The soap was produced by a small company only three kilometers away.

“Let’s go buy some soap,” I said. We hopped in our rented Peugot 208 and made the short jaunt to the soap factory.

Sidenote: We knew nothing about the Peugot 208 before we picked it up at the rental company. Turns out, it’s an awesome little car. France is filled with awesome little cars. Unfortunately, none of them are available in the U.S. because the car manufacturers don’t think they’ll sell well. Americans like big trucks and SUVs. This makes me sad. I’d gladly purchase a Peugot 208 as my next vehicle.

We spent about half an hour looking at (and smelling) the different soaps. A friendly French woman answered our questions and taught us how to better get a sense of each soap’s scent. (“You need to step out of the shop,” she said, “and let the soap get warm in the sun. Then you’ll know how it really smells.”)

In the end, Duane spent €20 on soap. I spent €40. We both believe it’s money well spent.

Fancy soap in rural France

Fancy soaps for sale in rural France

“I can’t believe I just made a side trip to buy soap,” I said as we resumed our journey toward Amboise. “But I feel like this is a small thing that will improve my quality of life. Kim and I currently use watered-down liquid soap from a dispenser. I don’t like it. Now when I come in from working in the yard, I’ll actually enjoy washing my hands. It sounds stupid, I know, but it’s real. Plus, it’ll remind me of France and this trip with you.”

“It doesn’t sound stupid,” Duane said. “There are lots of small things that make life better. I don’t think we pay enough attention to them. Sometimes you can get big pleasure rom small things. More pleasure than from big things, in fact.”

“Do you really think so?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Think of your brother Jeff. He likes gourmet coffee. I’m happy with a cup of coffee from McDonald’s but he’s not. Every morning, he gets a lot of joy from a fancy cup of coffee. For me, I enjoy having a clean car or a clean house — especially since I don’t clean either one very often. I’ll bet you can think of all sorts of similar examples.”

As we drove, I thought more about the pleasure we get from small things. Duane is right. There are certain tiny actions and objects that make my life better. Here are some simple examples:

  • I like using everyday items I’ve purchased while traveling: band-aids, jackets, t-shirts, underwear, etc. I like being reminded of my trips.
  • I wear two cheap turtle necklaces. I bought one for ten bucks in Hawaii. I bought the other for two or three bucks in Ecuador. I love them.
  • Like many people, I have a favorite mug. I also have a favorite whisky glass. Each probably cost less than ten bucks, but they make me happy whenever I use them.
  • Kim and I own several pieces of art produced by family and friends. None of these was expensive. (Some were given to us free.) We enjoy having the constant reminder of their creativity.
  • One of the reasons I enjoy gardening is that every year these inexpensive plants bring my pleasure in a variety of ways: pretty flowers, tasty fruit, vegetables for meals I prepare.
  • Most of all, I love to walk. It costs me nothing but gives me so much. I like being outside. I like exercising. I like the time for meditation.

It occurred to me that these are examples of conscious spending in action. When we identify small, inexpensive items and behaviors that make us disproportionately happy, spending on them allows us to get more bang for our buck. This also what Marie Kondo means when she talks about only keeping possessions that “spark joy”.

I’m unlikely to ever again in my life be so enthusiastic about soap. But I’m glad that Duane and I allowed ourselves to make a small side trip to buy this stuff. Now that I’m home and have the soap in the bathroom, it really is a small thing that gives me big pleasure. (Fortunately, Kim likes the smell of the woodsy soap too.)

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