This is not a sugar bowl.
Well, okay… it is, in fact, a sugar bowl. But it’s not just a sugar bowl. It is so much more than a sugar bowl. It’s a symbol. This Denby Imperial Blue covered sugar bowl is a symbol of adulting.
Are you done laughing at me now? Finished? There’s still a smirk on your face. Wipe it off, please. This is a serious story. I’m serious! Stop it!
The story of how this sugar bowl has taken on so much meaning goes far back. Way, way back to before we ever even thought of having a baby, before The Mister and I were even married, before I moved to Ireland. In its typically atypical fashion, our relationship went straight from long distance to living together in a foreign country. I graduated college into a mini-recession. Entry level jobs were scarce, especially if you wanted to avoid the soul-sucking black depths of sales or call centres. After a very depressing few months of moving back home from college, I accidentally stumbled on an ad in the back of The Economist for a graduate programme which captured my attention. The Brussels School of International Studies (BSIS) was a relatively new school set up by the University of Kent on the campus of Vrije Universiteit Brussel (The Free University of Brussels, also known as VUB). It was fairly unique in its willingness to admit students to their LLM programme in public international law without requiring a prerequisite law degree. In Europe, access to the legal profession is most often acquired through a course of study coupled with a traineeship run by the legal governing body of that country, often done after acquiring an undergraduate degree in law. In the US the law requires a further three years of study to achieve to achieve the post-graduate Juris Doctorate before being admitted to the bar. International law, however, is a very different area of study and only a university which specifically caters to the study of international relations would understand that an undergraduate degree related to any field of international relations is just as relevant as a law degree. So that tiny 1×3 inch advertisement changed my life.
What does this have to do with a sugar bowl, you ask? Have patience, my little one (Hawkeye’s new favourite expression).
Not only was I eligible to apply to study for an LLM in BSIS, but their semester system as they had it at the time allowed for off-season enrollment in January, in essence letting me complete the required modules in reverse order of students admitted in September. I did not have to wait a whole year to start my new adventure. Having decided on a course of action and being relieved of the duty of finding “a proper job” I found temporary employment as a cashier in Barnes & Noble and prepared to move to Brussels. At this point, The Mister and I had been dating each other for a year and a half, and we had maybe spent a grand total of two months of that time physically in each other’s company. The Mister was, himself, at a cross-roads in his life, having left college to spend time at home to help his mother run the family business and support his father who was ill at the time. Although I tried not to push the notion strongly myself, I was delighted when the The Mister agreed to move to Brussels to live with me, or at least spend as much time in Brussels as possible – something much easier to achieve for an EU passport holder than it was for me at the time.
Life, of course, likes to throw curveballs, and a month before my flight to Brussels for the start of the January term I got a call from The Mister to tell me that his father had died. As is often the case with terminal illness, it was not unexpected but nonetheless shocking. I flew over for the funeral, met all of his extended family for the first time at the funeral service while reeling from a sleepless red-eye flight, and insisted that he take as much time in Ireland as needed to look after his mother and sister before coming to Brussels.
In the end it was his mother, Nana, who pushed him to stick to his original plan as much as possible. So after a little bit of back and forth travel, The Mister settled in with me in a rooftop flat in Brussels.
It was our first home together. It was in many ways my absolute first home away from home for which I was solely responsible, as all of my previous accommodations away from home had always been arranged through whatever school or university I had been attending, even if it was not located on campus. Here, we were solely responsible for our lease, our rent, our utilities, and everything else that went along with living together away from our families.
So there we were, trying to adult together for the first time. Although I had a ready-made network of contacts through BSIS, I was still adrift early on in a foreign country where English, although easily available, was not the local language. My barely passable French let me order food in restaurants but for everything else I relied on Brussels being the de facto EU capital full of expats and politicians all using English as the working language. It was in no way similar to my time spent living in the UK. And there was The Mister, adrift in his own way, grieving and suddenly directionless and in a foreign country without even that safety net that I had of belonging to a university network that gave me purpose and brought me into contact with like minded people.
And together, we were adrift in a new phase of our relationship, not only sharing the novelty of actually being able to be together constantly, but actually living together, sharing the same space, learning each others physical faults and habits that can never be translated through phone calls or email correspondence. Brussels was where we crossed that important relationship watershed: letting him see me with my glasses on and without my make up! In short, we were all on a steep learning curve, still in our early twenties, still establishing our own identities while navigating foreign waters and a new aspect of our relationship.
We also had to learn how to be grown ups. Whether together or separately, there are life skills that are essential to living on your own that, in the modern era, are often taught haphazardly to younger people. Eight years of combined boarding school and college dining halls left me with almost no experience in cooking. It didn’t help that we did not have a proper cooker in our little flat but even if we had, I was (and still am) hopeless in the kitchen. The Mister, meanwhile, had much more experience living on his own in Dublin but in the habit of many college-going young people in Ireland, he was home every weekend, toting his bag of dirty laundry to his mother. So our respective delegation of household chores was split early on based on our own individual experiences, strengths and weaknesses.
We also had to learn to live within our modest means. I was entirely supporting myself through the well-established American system of subsidised and unsubsidised college loans. The Mister, after some time, was able to find a job that did not require French or Flemish. Our families helped out in their own ways. So in the time-honoured tradition of many new couples starting out living together, we brought some essential things from our homes, and acquired the rest of our necessities in cheaper places like Carrefour and, of course, the ubiquitous IKEA.
Yes, we’re finally getting to the sugar bowl.
Certain items are absolutely necessary to a new home, even if it came with a miscellaneous and random assortment of items like a bunch of plates and cutlery but no cups. We had to purchase bed sheets, pillows and pillow cases, a shower curtain, mugs, bowls, etc.
Other items are luxuries. Nice to have, but not necessary to get by. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how we ended up with a re-purposed Nutella jar for a sugar bowl. We were still young, with high metabolisms (and three flights of stairs to keep us fit) and I loved chocolate. Once emptied of its delicious chocolate goodness, the glass container with its plastic lid seemed like a practical storage solution for sugar, rather than constantly scooping it from open paper bag on the shelf. Subsequent empty nutella jars became drinking glasses, but the first one became our sugar bowl.
That “sugar bowl” remained in our kitchen for almost fifteen years. It made the long car journey with us from Brussels to Ireland, and continued to move with us from apartment to apartment, until we settled in our last place where, until recently, we had been living for eight years.
At some point during that time, on one of her occasional visits, my mother asked me with some hope if I wanted to get something nicer for our kitchen, like maybe a new sugar bowl? But I was pragmatic. Or I was tired, I can’t remember. We were still living in rented accommodation and I wasn’t particularly interested in home decoration and it just seemed like an unnecessary item when we had something that suited our purpose so well. The Nutella sugar bowl stayed.
A year and a half ago, however, the plastic lid finally succumbed to its old age, cracking in the middle. Some action was required. “Hey, you know what?” I said to The Mister, contemplating the cracked lid. “We’re, like, proper grown ups now. We could actually buy a real sugar bowl. What do you think?”
He looked at me, horrified. “Whoa! I know we’re older now, and have a baby and all, but that sounds like a step TOO far!”
I laughed at his joke, because that’s why I married him. And then I went out and bought a new Nutella jar. I will admit, I may even relived my juvenile days by eating a little bit of it straight out of the jar with a spoon. (But not too much. Middle-thirties metabolism and all that.) The original glass jar from Brussels remained, now capped with a new lid.
Fast forward a year, almost to the day, and we had just put down the initial deposit on a house, beginning to navigate the exhausting and treacherous journey to closing. I was in the kitchen making a cup of tea, stirring in some sugar when a thought popped into my head.
“You know what the first thing is that I want to do if we succeed in buying this house?” I directed at The Mister. “I want to take the obligatory keys selfie before the front door.”
“Ok,” he replied neutrally, quite used to my habit of blurting out whatever is running through my head at any point in time.
“And then I want to go and buy a new sugar bowl. I mean, a proper sugar bowl. Not a Nutella jar or something.”
“Ok,” he nodded, understanding that this was Important To The Wife, but not necessarily in what fashion.
“I mean, we’re in our late thirties, and we’ve been married forever, and we have a baby and we’re hopefully buying a house together, and I think it’s time to actually try and live like we’re adults, or at least start pretending like we’re adults and like we know what we’re doing.”
“Ok,” he repeated a third time with a laugh this time. “Sounds good.” It didn’t really matter to him, but he understood that it mattered to me.
Fast forward again to last month, and there I was, going into every homeware store I could find, looking for that perfect sugar bowl. Well, actually, I was looking for any sugar bowl. It was turning out to be a challenge. I had thought it was going to be a simple errand, pop into one of my favourite kitchen shops and just pick one up, and voilá! The Sugarbowl of Adulting would be there waiting for me. The selection that greeted me however was paltry. Most places had just one or two options, none of which were to my taste. I even asked the staff and they all shrugged helplessly. “We just don’t carry them much anymore. This is all we have.”
“What? Does no one use sugar bowls anymore?” I asked, mostly rhetorically in the third shop I visited. “Is it like a big conspiracy or something?”
“They’ve gone out of fashion,” the lady trying to help me replied.
I began to get desperate. I didn’t want to order it online. We were due to move into our house within a week at this point, and I was determined that there would be a brand new sugar bowl in the house before our official move in date. It was an irrational, illogical desire, but I was determined to make it happen. The Mister was almost certainly rolling his eyes at me internally, but left me alone when possible to continue my search, knowing better than to interfere in what had taken on the proportions of an Epic Quest for The Sugar Bowl of Adulting. Eventually I realised where I needed to go.
Somewhere between packing and hundreds of errands, I found my way to the bottom floor in Arnotts, carefully circumnavigating their entire kitchenware department in search of their sugar bowl options. I found a few, almost all of them from a single brand. I dutifully took photos and sent them to The Mister, asking him if he could pretend to care and tell me which one he liked the best. I knew one of them would end up becoming The Sugar Bowl of Adulting, but even still, the limited selection continued to puzzle me. I asked one of the employees circulating around why this was proving to be so difficult.
“Is it a conspiracy?” I joked again. “I’m just surprised this is so hard.”
“Oh absolutely,” she replied, nodding her head knowledgeably. “Sugar is the new cigarettes. It’s like you can’t buy a new ashtray anymore. Years ago they used to be everywhere but now you have to go looking. No one wants to keep sugar on the table now so sugar bowls don’t sell anymore. It’s like the new cancer.”
I must have looked like a fish momentarily, standing there with my mouth open, having been convinced up till then that it was still just a coincidence. Some sort of bad shopping karma on my part. Her assertion had a sort of logic to it, on reflection, but it felt completely alien to me. I briefly contemplated that this must be exactly what lifelong smokers felt as cultural trends slowly marginalised and pushed smoking out of the shared social spaces into designated areas. While non-smokers like me rejoiced (ok, still rejoice), smokers saw their habit changed from being a normal part of life to something that required skulking around doorways. I can now imagine an instinctive sense of rebellion kicking in for people affected. A defiant sort of defensiveness – I knew it was a bad habit but now that you’ve forced me to change my ways I’m going to keep smoking just to spite the universe. The lady’s words triggered an irrational sense of resentment in me toward society, like it was trying to tell me “oh, you still insist on putting that vile sugary poison into your body at the dinner table? Ok, then. You have to do it in shameful secret, ordering your requisite paraphernalia from specialty shops online that cater to fatty irresponsible people like you.” I felt a perverse sense of pleasure at identifying my selection to the assistant.
“I’d like this one, please.” I pointed to the display model of the blue sugar bowl which had now been husband-approved. “But I can’t find any of them on the stock shelves.” The sales assistant looked around with brisk efficiency, checking the rest of the vast Denby display range before coming back to me. “It looks like we don’t have any more of them in stock so you can take that one.”
It was fate, I figured. I picked up my selection with two hands, afraid of dropping it, and carefully carried it to the register, where I made sure the cashier understood the importance of wrapping it up as tightly as possible in extra layers of bubble wrap. I wasn’t risking the only remaining The Sugar Bowl of Adulting now that I was so close to having it in our new home.
When I got to the new house, full of noise of renovations and garden clean up, still echoing from the emptiness that comes with lack of furniture, I unwrapped it carefully and showed it to Colin. He humoured me with his congratulations on my success. I’m certain he still didn’t get it, but he understood that it mattered to me. Despite all the silliness this unexpected quest had spawned, it really did feel important to me as I filled it up with sugar from the open packet and placed it up on the shelf with the coffee and tea selection that we already had in stock at the house.
So there it is. Our new sugar bowl. The Nutella jar has now been converted into another glass. The lid has been recycled. There is no going back to our college days.
Yup, we have a car, a kid, and our own house. Whether we want to admit it or not, we’re grown ups now.
I have sadly been unable to re-establish a steady posting schedule yet. This blog is a joy for me and I do not intend to give it up. I have loads of thoughts and ideas exploding from all my brain cells, but it will take me some time to find a new routine that works, so please bear with me in the meantime for my tardy writing. ~ Rose