Monday, 13 September 2010

Bristol Green Doors: A Greener Option

The idea was simple. For one weekend across Bristol, homeowners opened their front doors to the public, welcoming them to see how they had taken steps to a more eco-friendly and energy efficient approach to home life. 
If you were expecting cliches of 'Green Living', Bristol Green Doors quickly dispelled all notions of stereotypes at the porch.
The eco-friendly homes of the initiative emphasised the eclectic mix - the varied and diverse aspects - of ethical approaches to everyday living for real people. By 'real', I mean people that have kids, jobs and mortgages.
The hosts were warm, but quintessentially down to earth.
Sitting in the Sarah's living room (York Road, Montpelier), I was envious of her draught-proofed french doors, sky lights and huge windows that let in streams of light from the densely green garden.
It turns out that whilst the builders were fitting the under-floor insulation with Celotex (, she was heavily pregnant and accessing the adjacent kitchen via an obliging plank.
Clearly, undertaking an environmentally sound & energy efficient building project does not only require bundles of admirable vision and determined forward-thinking but nerves of steel.
I could empathise with anyone who left a selection of the homes feeling thoroughly underwhelmed. Most measures taken are largely invisible - insulation in the walls is undoubtably a wise, cost-effective and eco-friendly method of keeping your home warm, but you can't see it. Resin between the cracks in wooden floor boards to keep out up-lifting drafts - smart, certainly, but no show-stopping extravaganza.
But in Subtly's defence this is, perhaps, a positive thing. This weekend, ethical living and eco-homes have been offered forth, blending in very neatly with the original architecture and existing lifestyles of the houses and their occupants.
But everyone loves a spectacle, and Bristol Green Doors does not disappoint.
Ushered through to the dappled sunlit patio of Simon's garden (also York Road, Montpelier), his emphasis on ethical living is placed here. He does this for a living ( but, among many things, he's made a working studio on a raised platform with a rooftop garden - notably sporting pumpkins, beans and sunflowers. Naturally, it's complete with solar panels to supply the water pump.
The final property I visit is owned by Footprint Building ( (Lansdown Road, Clifton) who are currently renovating the Victorian house with modern eco-friendly building methods and materials. Judging by the kitchen and the finished en-suites, these certainly haven't had a negative impact on style.
Al, Director of Footprint, enthused me with his energy. "Weekends like these are heightens the reality that there is a rapidly growing market for sustainable construction and energy efficient living."
Shamelessly ear-wigging others' conversations, a couple walked in and seemed to confirm Al's confidence; they are renovating their own home and were "going around, asking questions and getting more ideas."
The Bristol Green Doors weekend made it abundantly clear, in these well-loved homes, that there are simple measures that can make a big difference - for everyone.
It's a wonderful penny dropping moment when you encounter a good idea in practise and think, 'Oh! I could do that!'

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Return

I am back in the UK.

I feel restless, not to mention COLD.

I have a few round up blogs I'd like to post shortly, but these may take another day or two. Now I'm back, I need to throw myself vigorously into the task of finding a job.

I am not used to the food in Britain anymore and I keep going to talk to strangers who provide services (taxi drivers, waiting staff) in Arabic.

I was taken aback when a woman spoke to me on the street asking, 'sorry Love, you got a spare fag on you?' I gaped at her for a moment. I didn't know her! And she was a local?! Why was she speaking to me? 'No, sorry,' I mumbled after a pause.

I was caught in a downpour the other day and fell into a mild meltdown - what did I used to do? Power on to get home or hide until the dark clouds and cold water went away? There's nothing more soul destroying, I have remembered, than wet feet.

Backwards culture shock. I had no idea it existed until I was in the depths of it.

'Buy One?'

I won't ever know her name, but this little girl lives in Dahab.

She spends her days marching and scrambling over the edges of the man-made bank of the Red Sea (where restaurants & cafes jostle for space along the shoreline) with a look a fierce concentration.

She stops occasionally to thrust friendship bracelets in holidaymakers' faces, demanding they 'buy one?' in a (I'd guess) 4 year old's most commanding tone. I have always refused them, with (I hope) a kind smile.

Yesterday, as the sunset approached, she jumped onto my sun-lounger where I was precariously perching, in a vain effort to catch the very last rays of the sun.

'Sahlan,' I said, smiling. After the usual, 'buy one?', 'la, shukran,' she didn't leave but stayed seated, apparently interested in Steve taking photographs (of the scenery that I would have attempted sooner if I knew, say, even how to hold the camera right).

She was full of a restless energy. She spoke simple Arabic, which made conversation much easier.

I noticed the small bag that never left her side. It was a treasure chest of plastic, colourful jewellery. For sale, of course.

She played with the pink cotton friendship bracelets she was clutching, before carefully placing them down with her bag and reaching out demanding the camera - with a huge, almost sly, smile.

'Soura?' I said. I wasn't surprised she wanted to take a photograph; the day before I'd seen her and she'd stopped at us, looking at us through a pair of binoculars - enjoying the new sights from both ends. It was charming to see, but equally desperately sad. Things like this were novel to her.

She nodded, and took the camera. Her little fingers couldn't press hard enough to take the photo but, after some gentle coaxing, was clicking away with paparazzi gusto.

Her elder cousin (Naliah) arrived some way into the impromptu photoshoot.

Naliah was more effective than our attempts to regain handling the camera. Between barking instructions at the little girl, she explained to us that she'd thrown the last camera into the sea.

It was given back immediately, with a venomous scowl at Naliah. I thanked the little girl for taking all the soura with a little baksheesh (some loose coins from my purse).

Soon we were sitting making staccato conversation in Arabic and English (their English was far better than my Arabic, naturally), pawing through Naliah’s larger, more colourful collection of friendship bracelets.

It wasn't until the little girl, quite forgetting to look thunderous anymore, had tugged the loop atop one of her bracelets onto my middle toe, fondling the trailing strands of cotton, that I asked in surprise, 'did you make these?!'

Yes, they had. Steve and I took immediate interest in them.

After some light haggling for propriety's sake, we bought two.

Naliah pulled out some cotton reels from her bag and offered to wrap one of Steve's dreadlocks - almost as proof that the they were definitely her own handiwork.

She was resourceful too. In the absence of any scissors to cut the cotton, she jumped down onto the shore & started searching for sharp rocks.

As she set to work on his hair with the roughly-cut cotton, the little girl had taken my unemployed sunglasses and placed them on her small nose.

She looked fantastic, her small face swamped by obscene 70s-dad-inspired sunglasses, framed by the curls that hadn't been swept up in her plait.

I offered them both the abandoned remnants of my pizza (a bad move - I was leaving shortly for the overnight journey to Cairo & I thought I needed some stodge. I managed two slices).

The little girl didn't seem so much interested in eating the pizza as the opportunity to use a knife and fork. I rearranged them in her hands - after she initially tried to pick up an entire slice with the knife.

She set about clawing the slices to pieces before opening her mouth as wide as she could - I leave it to you to imagine her expression - and putting in a tiny piece of the base. She ate it, open mouthed, grinning.

Naliah tied off Steve's wrap and they made to leave. The sun had now set, and the Ramadan feasts were beginning.

I dug into my bag and gave the little girl the only pen I had on me. I know that having a pen doesn't equal the privileged status of The Literate, but it does potentially allow them to participate in lessons and practise their writing at home.

I shall never meet them again, but I am glad we spent our last sunlight hours in Dahab with them. Soura, bracelets and a wrapped dread are our only tokens of their existence, but I hope whatever fate befalls them as they grow into women, they will be safe, well-fed and loved.