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THE SIMPLE LIFE     Sometimes it takes something very familiar to help you make sense of things. Like dinner the other night at my mother-in-law’s. Driving home with a boot full of fresh produce and left-overs (my husband’s family is from Greece), I suddenly had a clear view of how over-stocked my life is. Too much food in my fridge. Too many cars parked outside my house. Too many coats, shoes and handbags. In other words, too much of everything and with it, a sneaking suspicion that most of what I’ve gathered around myself in a material sense isn’t giving me a greater guarantee of happiness.

If there was ever an argument for a simple life being a happy one, it’s the house and garden created by my in-laws. It’s a working model of efficient living, sitting out in the Melbourne suburb of Burwood, set up nearly forty years ago by two people who understood how to run a farm where farming was tough. Arthur and Lemonia have only what they need set out in a way that would make any time-and-motion expert ecstatic, (my father-in-law shakes his head when he sees how far from my house I’ve decided to stack our wood pile). Their Burwood house and garden purrs along frugally, generating no excess unless you count that fresh produce and those left-overs in my boot. So how do you explain their two kitchens?

One is where you’d expect it, inside the house, fabulous and renovated. And then there’s the old kitchen, which never made it to the skip but was instead installed in a little shed behind the garage. When we go over for dinner, we troop up the driveway and settle into the cosy old kitchen complete with the old oven and old television. In fact we often visit without going into the house (and joke that they should rent it out).

Strangely having two kitchens is a sign of a simple life. To begin with Arthur and Lemonia didn’t throw the old one out but went to great pains to install it somewhere close to the main activity centre – the back yard. This is where most of the work is done each day so having your kitchen out in the garden means you can keep an eye on those stuffed peppers while you hang the washing or mound the leeks. It’s also where you entertain your immediate family, close relatives and friends. And when important visitors are expected, the new “inside” kitchen is essential. Gathering there to sip coffee and eat homemade Greek shortbreads, the gleaming cabinet and lace curtain setting offers all the respect that’s necessary.

For Arthur and Lemonia, sorting out what to do with the old kitchen has been just one moment amongst forty years’ worth of similar decision making about their possessions. Not that they’ve had to deal with anywhere near the volume of goods most of us have collected around us, but each time they do, they’re making a decision based on whether something is still useful to them, better given away to someone else, or binned (like my husband’s Bruce Lee posters).

If my in-laws have luxuries it’s because their children have foisted these upon them – the big screen “inside” television with a remote that I find terrifying, the split system air-conditioner, a leather lounge suite. The children give because they want to show their love and gratitude but if you look at things without emotion, apart from the cooler air in summer, Arthur and Lemonia are not any happier because they have a bigger screen or a newer couch to sit on.

Finally I get to the point. Having stuff doesn’t make us happier. Likewise with replacing our old stuff with newer versions. If you don’t believe me, let me tell you about Arthur’s old gold velvet lounge chairs. Now positioned outside on the back veranda, they attract a lot more bottoms than the fancy new leather suite inside the house. So if there’s a mantra to guide us to a simpler – and indirectly more sustainable way of living – then it’s probably to keep things basic and fight the urge to upgrade every time someone waves something new in our faces.

Text: Elizabeth DeFriest

Photography: Anna Sapountsis