The moving-in blues....
When moving into a new place I sometimes find myself still struggling to feel at home weeks later. It’s one thing to spend time getting to know a new area, but feeling settled in the house you live in can sometimes need to happen faster. It affects your mood, how well you can relax, and impacts on your mental health.
Turning 30, I had a realisation. I had moved house as many times as I’d had birthdays. Not because I am a terrible house mate (or at least, no one’s said anything….) or a care-free nomadic type with commitment issues. Although I may have dated a few of those. Nope......it’s just that I am from that generation. The generation who get ‘gigs’ instead of jobs. The generation that forked out 3 year’s salary on an education. We are the little worker bees, living moment to moment in the big cities, hunting down jobs that will (one day) mean we can afford to move back out of cities. We need to ‘zone’ our 3m² rooms, and brought a window box we refer to as the 'garden'. Meanwhile, our parents live in grand suburban mansions, purchased for £10 in 1975.
Although the transience has felt constant at times, most of the ‘moves I have known’ have been temporary. Rentals over summers, 6-month tenancies for 6 month job contracts. There also may also have been a couple of co-habiting romantic ‘abort-missions’ along the way.
But even with all that hassle, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Like everything you practice, what happens eventually is that you get better at it. Nowadays, I can have a new place looking and feeling like it’s always been mine in a matter of hours. There is a definite knack to it, and it doesn’t involve investing a lot of time or energy. It’s mostly about the preparation: and I don’t mean the packing. The secret to an instant home is simply to make it feel familiar.
Creating a sense of familiarity has not always been my focus when moving in to a new house though. After all, if it’s a new place, why would I expect it to feel familiar? My change of heart came about because of one particularly memorable move, when I lost something treasured.....
Now, I know what you’re thinking. What on earth is a counterpane? Well, it’s a sort of sheet thing you put over your bed. Not quite a blanket, not quite a quilt…but it does a similar sort of job. Your grandma probably has one. Its 17th century terminology and I’m not proud of it, but I’ve looked it up and a counterpane is what it was.
I never said I was cool.
It was actually pretty horrible, a heavy old thing. If I had to sum it up in a single word it would be ‘1976’. It was a hand-me-down and probably not my most aesthetic moment. But I have to give it its dues, it had kept me warm many a long night in the face of Victorian plumbing and, critically, it was very comfy. The crucial thing to note here is not my poor taste, but that I was used to that counterpane being there when I got home everyday from work. It was reliable.
‘The day I lost my counterpane’ was a sad story that I told for many years. But it did make me wonder why losing such a raggedy old thing bothered me. Which brings me back to my point about how to quickly make a space your own. In order to create a sense of familiarity in a new space, you need to trick your brain. And to trick your brain you need to use a shortcut....your senses.
Traditionally there are five senses - taste, smell, sight, hearing, and touch. It turns out, however, that there is a lot of debate on the exact number. I’m not talking about the 6th sense here either (great film though). No, the more recent discoveries in the world of senses are called things like ‘proprioception’ and ‘vestibular’, which is probably the reason they haven’t caught on yet. It's a complex subject, but what is certain is that we all use them, and its how we explore and to ‘make sense’ of the world.
Taste, Sight, Smell, Hearing, Touch.
Of course, we don’t all have exactly the same senses, and even when we share the same sense we don’t have the same experience. You might have three of the senses, or favour one in particular. Great perfumiers have a good nose. Musicians will use hearing or touch when they play. There are incredibly lucky people whose entire job involves the testing of chocolate bars......masters of their sense of taste (Jaloux, moi?).
My preferred senses are sight, hearing, and touch. The important thing here is to explore which of your senses you use most and prefer. Does oven bread make you feel at home, or certain colours instantly cheer you up? Maybe the taste of strawberries is your short-cut to the summer? That would be smell, sight and taste respectively, although there are many crossovers between the senses too. The experience of eating an orange is about the colour, the taste, and the smell, so we tend to use them like co-ordinates on a map to explore an experience. If you are a visial learner you will probably favour sight a little more, and if your a kinesthetic type then touch is probably key for you, and so on.
You can use these senses to cheat on your brain, and unlike most relationships, your brain will thank you for it. The secret is to take the sense and give it something familiar that it associates with 'being at home'. The more you engage that specific thing with your senses whilst at home, the more that thing becomes home.
Not to keep harping on about it, but my counterpane was really soft, heavy, and warm. That appealed to my sense of touch….it made me feel cosy. So even though the pattern was awful, the touch of it felt like home. This is a phenomenon known as haptic memory, or touch memory. You know something by how it feels, rather than how it looks. I only had to take that old counterpane out of the box and throw it on a bed, and it would instantly become my bed.
The more that you appeal to your senses, the more familiar your home will feel, and the more transportable that feeling will become. When moving it's really tempting to buy new things and decorate the space out from scratch. You feel like you want to put your stamp on it....but if settling in faster is your goal, it might actually be more productive to wait a few weeks until your already in sync with the new environment.
My top tip would be this: think about each of your senses, and find something that will instantly make that sense feel good. We often give a lot of attention to just one or two, but something can look and sound good without feeling good, so be mindful of senses like taste and touch, and how they can trigger a 'homely' vibration in you. Satisfying all your senses at once is the magic key to putting yourself right at home, straight away.
Below are some of the ways I appeal to my senses at home to help me fight house-move gremlins.
I divide this category into two. It’s what I’m looking at, and how I see it. The first part is to do with pattern, shape and colour. The second is to do with light.
Because my personal philosophy on the home is that it should be a natural environment, I work on keeping things simple and organic, but any aesthetic can feel homely and familiar.
The key visual elements I use are images. The same super-sized print always faces my bed, wherever that bed is. It means that I wake up to something recognisable, instead of having that disorientating 'where am I?' moment. I also like art and photographs that I have made and taken myself. Even if you don't feel like your winning a National Geographic photo award anytime soon, if you've taken the image yourself it will resonate with your visual memory. It will feel far more familiar than a random but artsy image taken by someone else.
With putting up your own art, it is amazing how even a simple line drawing will look great, once you have it in a frame! Word art, computer art, even something you made when your were a kid.....if its about you, by you, it will connect deeply with you and feel like home. Its tempting to be shy about your own creations or design or borrow a 'look' for your space that comes entirely from someone else. If you instead fill a room with your thoughts, art, impressions and ideas, its easier for you to live in, because its in sync with you.
Another factor when creating a 'familiar' room is light. Lighting changes everything. Lampshades are one of the first things I put up once I move in, because nothing says ‘new place’ like a bare bulb. Filiament bulbs and soft lighting (like candles), appeal to our sense of security, casting an ambience of cosiness.
Hearing as a sense is often overlooked in the home, where visuals take up so much space. I remember one morning lying on my bed in the summer with the window open and hearing the sound of someone downstairs in the kitchen, putting cutlery in a drawer. It was such an incredibly familiar sound.....and strangely comforting.
There are little notes playing all around our homes all the time. The sound of creaky floorboards, birds nesting in the garden, chiming doorbells. We barely notice them, but they form the soundtrack of our lives. You can use these noises just as well as you use visual elements to acclimatise to a space. The trick here is to transport the ‘micro-music’ of the home from one place to the next, by creating a backdrop of sound.
My favourite ways to do this are through wooden chimes, clocks, and fans. Bamboo chimes remind me of island holidays, which by itself is a BIG mood booster. I have ticking clock in the kitchen, a birdsong alarm clock, and I also use the radio.....having a regular radio station is basically comfort food for the ears!
I use a fan in my bedroom, which as well as being a familiar sound also doubles up as ‘white noise’ - very effective at drowning out unwanted neighbourly disturbance!
Years ago I decided to create my own house ‘perfume’, as a response to the fact that I realised the way places smell really affects my mood. Doing this is incredible for familarizing to a space, because scent association is strong. Even blindfolded you would probably know if you were walking past a McDonalds, a SUBWAY or a LUSH store. Scent is transportive, a kind of memory compass that can orientate you to any place in a second.
I use vanilla for the same reason that perfumiers love it: it’s a base note. A warm smell that works well as a backdrop for other scents (like your actual perfume). Other base notes are amber, musk, cedar and sandalwood. But - if you can handle something a little bit livelier - there is no reason that you can’t use higher pitched fragrances too. Rose, jasmine, lemon, apple or even chocolate work beautifully. I like to have soft scent, so I use a favourite candle that doesn't leave a musty afterglow. Like other perfumes it can take a bit of experimentation to find your perfect match, but it is well worth the effort. I also find that natural scent is less likey to go 'off' than something synthetic.
I also love perfumed flowering plants like Night-scented Stock and Jasmine. Both typically release fragrance more strongly in the evening. Kitchen herbs like basil and mint are lovely and summery too, and if your not a fan of eight-legged room invaders, mint is also reputed to be a natural bug deterrent!
Touch is another of the senses that tends to play second fiddle to the sight sense, but it is even more crucial for comfort. One of the recent additions to my life is a weighted blanket. At first glance it appears to be just a VERY heavy blanket (which is problematic for me, because my blankets tend to get used like a coat...... I sort of wear them around the house). The benefits of weighted blankets are a reduction in anxiety, and increased relaxation. This is based on the simple idea that the blanket creates pressure on your body....its like having a full-body hug.
I don't use weighted blankets for sleep though, and its not a great idea. The extra bulk restricts your movements, and you always want to be able to move around whilst sleeping (they are also not recommended during pregnancy or for children!) But when I’m feeling out of sorts, the pressure of the blanket over me as I’m bundled up on my sofa with hot chocolate works like magic!
This might be the easiest way to familiarise of them all, because the original and best form of comfort is......food. Tea, biscuits, beans on toast, fish and chips, cornflakes, the list is endless. It is also completely different for each person, depending on where you grew up, and how healthy you want to be (when it comes to comfort food, it is the one place in my life where green is not my favourite colour).
Due to an error in my childhood, I have a powerful affinity for fig rolls......so I make sure that whenever I am moving into a new place that I have a pack ready and waiting for me. It's not exactly haute cuisine, but it does the job of making me feel a little less frazzled and a little more zen-like. And tea, obviously.
Although it might be an unavoidable element of modern life, having to face numerous moves in an increasingly mobile world, that doesn't mean having to feel constantly unsettled. With a little bit of consious design it becomes easy to ensure that any new place always feels like it's your place.