When I was a kid I always wanted a gypsy wagon. I didn't know anything about what might be inside, but I could imagine it: everything in cupboards and shelves, pots and pans and maybe bundles of herbs hanging from the ceiling, beds in bunks like a ship. And that painting! All the beautiful painting!
I imagined heading off along the roads, the horse clop-clopping, the wagon swaying a little as I went. For some reason, at this part I imagined the morning sun coming down, and mist rising from the fields. Ah! The open road, the tiny house.
There are a lot of people nowadays showing interest in Gypsy vardos, as the traditional wagons are called. You can buy plans for them and find detailed descriptions of how to build them and decorate them all over the place online (see below); the Society for Creative Anachronism, among others, has sparked a movement to build vardos, including ones that you can hitch to your car. Britain is full of restorers of old vardos and even places you can rent them (horse-drawn, no less) as holiday accomodation, complete with traditional bed-cupboard, tiny stove, and hayrack on the back for the horse. But back then, I only had my imagination - and books.
The Adventures of Perrine, last published in 1941, is a story about a girl whose parents die and she has to travel to a distant city to find her uncle, with hardly any money. As a kid I read over and over the part where she spends a few weeks in a tiny hunting-hut, on an island in the marsh, with a little plank-bridge you can pull up so people don't show up unexpectedly. (She even ends up making her own shoes out of marsh-grass and ribbon).
I suppose I've had a lifelong obsession with tiny houses, despite living with people who like to sprawl. Ship cabins, or even better, the tiny cabins of boats, appeal to me: everything is in its place, there are shelves and cupboards for everything, the beds are built into the walls, and it's all so...snug. The part in The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), when she takes up with the boat people? I really liked that. There was some dumb Doctor Doolittle spinoff I read when I was a kid, I think it was called Dr. Doolittle and the Pirates, which completely captivated me because they sail away in the pirates' ship - and you get to see the cabin belowdecks, with rich rugs, treasure, and piles of fruit (and of course the requisite bunks).
Maxfield Parrish's Ali Baba: the light is reminiscent of the light in my dream house, below.
For much of my childhood I had this recurring dream that there was this really tiny house behind the storage shed at my school. The house was so tiny (no more than 3 feet wide and 4 feet tall) that no one but me noticed it. I would go inside and it would be full of the most marvelous treasure - chests of jewels and yards upon yards of shining, brilliantly-colored silks; feathers, ornately embroidered ribbons, diamonds. It was so tiny I had to crawl in, and once in I could barely turn around, it was so stuffed full of wonderful things: but that was much of the magic of the thing.
The treasure cave in Pirates of the Caribbean, while beautifully done, didn't ultimately make me drool. Why? Possibly because of size. The treasure in my tiny house, and in the silly book, were all so near at hand, it felt completely personal - completely mine. When I used to read Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, I never imagined the cave to be vast. It was large enough to hold a lot of treasure, sure, but only if the treasure was piled up against the walls, taller than me. In my mind that treasure had to be all around to be really magical. If it simply lay all over the floor in discrete mounds, why then it wasn't nearly as impressive.
Jay Shafer, an architect and certified "claustrophile", has been building tiny houses for years now (in fact, he's now been on Oprah, so I won't talk about him too much). His Tumbleweed Tiny House Company makes plans and kits for houses that are sometimes less than 100 square feet, yet with all the comforts of home. The designing that goes into fitting it all in together, the storage planning, and the end result - with its sense of airiness and comfort - is impressive. It appeals to that shipboard part of me, the one that likes the shelves and cupboards. The fact that he actually lives in one of them (100 square feet) is a tribute to his interest in the thing.
His little houses remind me of some of the tiny traditional buildings I saw in Norway, with a narrow footprint and the sides bumped out higher up. I think one of the reasons, besides ecology, that Mr. Shafer's houses have been taking off is that people find tiny spaces comforting. Remember the "Child Caves" I described from A Pattern Language? It seems that we never really grow out of that urge.
The wonderful bathroom from Bony Legs, which is a retelling of Baba Yaga with great illustrations (especially the cover).
Back when people still read to me, someone read me a Baba Yaga tale, complete with the iron teeth and the fence made of bones, the only thing I could think of was how absolutely cool it was to live in a little hut on chicken legs! And I don't think I'm alone, because that Baba Yaga thing simply doesn't go away. Joan Aiken, in her marvelous book A Necklace of Raindrops, tells a story about some traveling musician brothers whose car breaks down and they go looking for a place to stay for the night. After a number of unpleasant adventures, they meet a woman who lives in a chicken-legged hut, who tells them that if they can find the egg her house has laid (she wants it for supper), she'll give them a bed. But by the time they get the egg and bring it back, it's cracked. It breaks in half and a little house jumps out - and they go live in that, traveling around and playing music.
Now I ask you, is there any possible way it could get better than hatching your hut out of an egg?
Later, I read Ursula LeGuin's "Darkness Box" (from The Wind's Twelve Quarters), which is a memorable story anyway, but the initial character, a child, lives with his mother in a Baba Yaga-type hut (complete with herbs from the rafters and all that). That did it - my mind was made up: I wanted one.
But I was bound to disappointment.
But there are other possibilities, always more, just beyond the horizon. What about a cave? A nice, dry cave with little alcoves in the walls for you to put your stuff. Think of Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - wouldn't you like to go stay with him for awhile? Here's an excerpt, in case you don't remember, or didn't read it:
"It was a little, dry, clean cave of reddish stone with a carpet on the floor and two little chairs ("one for me and one for a friend," said Mr. Tumnus) and a little table and a dresser and a mantelpiece over the fire and above that a picture of an old Faun with a grey beard. In one corner there was a door which Lucy thought must lead to Mr. Tumnus' bedroom, and on one wall was a shelf full of books."
They go on to have a very snug-sounding tea (which I have to include because it compliments the scenery so well):
"There was a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them, and then sardines on toast, and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake." ..And, of course, nice hot cups of tea, and a fire.
And all this appears again in the Beavers' house, so snug and full of Wellington boots and nets and things. I sigh, just thinking of it.
Now that I've grown, I know better than to believe I can fit myself and all my stuff into that kind of a tiny place, which is probably a shame. But I still have my foibles. Take, for example, the concept of the bed-cupboard. I don't know where I first got this idea, but think of having a bedroom where your bed, that messy thing with all the lumpy bits, is built into the wall. With little doors you can close if you want to be really snug (there's a thin line between claustrophilia and claustrophobia, though). In any case, then the rest of the room is free to be comfortable, right? Not just four walls around a large piece of messy furniture. Also, with a cupboard the bed itself becomes this really secret, snuggly place.
Perhaps I'm someone who particularly likes boxes, places to store things and hide things; decorative compartments. Perhaps there's some Freudian connection I'm not getting here, but I think, I think it might simply be a human desire: to have a secret place, to hide.
This desire to be in a cave or a box seems often to be associated, for adults, with our beds. I once lived, for a couple of years, in an apartment in San Francisco which had a Murphy bed, which, although it was the height of cool (my friends couldn't believe it), was just not the same. The problem with a Murphy bed was, the bed got to hide away, not me. So ultimately, though I liked the Murphy bed, it didn't fulfill the need (though it did have this cool closet behind it that you could go into when the bed was down).
Now, a Chinese marriage bed...that could really be a place to hide, the best kind of decorative box...to store yourself, when you're deactivated.
It's been documented, this urge to be contained (aside from the obvious Freudian interpretations, of course). Temple Grandin, an autistic veterinarian who is famous both for being the subject of Oliver Sacks' Anthropologist on Mars and for leading the movement to eliminate cruelty in the meat industry, invented a machine which is now used in all kinds of autism facilities to calm people when they are suffering from tension. She calls it the Squeeze Machine. You lie inside it and it essentially delivers pressure like a hug, but without the difficulties of being touched by a human being, and according to Oliver Sacks it is surprisingly satisfying. Perhaps living in a tiny house could deliver some of the same satisfaction?
I often wonder, now that I'm a boring adult, if I had found the perfect little house, how long the love affair would have lasted. Would I have become one of those people who live the sort of spick and span lifestyle that the space demands? Perhaps I could end up like the little old lady who lived in a pumpkin, or a peach-pit, or something. And what about my collections? I could be like those souls who have a tiny house - and then a storage unit for all the other stuff.
Perhaps that's why I started the Cabinet, so I could collect all these amazing things without having to put them in my house. The Dream House - no, Palace, now - that is my Cabinet is beginning to grow beyond the bounds of houses, to include ideas, geographic locations, whole armies of saints.
Ah, well, it's getting late, and I'm starting to natter on. Perhaps I'll just go climb into my Cabinet, shut the door, and admire the treasures contained within. Thank you, once again, for joining me here.
Further reading about the Rom
UK dealer selling original caravans
Lots and lots about gypsy wagons.
A list of links for information on learning about(mostly new) caravans being built and restored.
Horse-drawn gypsy caravan holidays in New Forest, UK
Jan Yoors left home at the age of twelve to join the gypsies, and stayed with them, on and off, for ten years. His deep penetration of such a closed society he describes in his books The Gypsies and Crossing, which talks about the Rom experience during World War II.