About GiddayfromtheUK

A 40-something Aussie sheila who packed her swag and moved to the UK in 2004, I write Gidday from the UK which provides a glimpse into the 'everyday moments' of my expat life.

Setting the tone

This morning I was lying in bed listening to the radio. English TV presenter Davina McCall was being interviewed and she mentioned that she ‘loves a new year’, that it was a time of ‘getting on with it’ after the world winding down over the Christmas period. I found myself nodding in agreement from beneath the duvet.

There is something insistent about a new year, isn’t there?

Wherever I am at this time of year, whether Down Under with family in Melbourne or at home here in London, I like to give a nod to the year just gone. This time around I’ve been enormously grateful for the time and space that my end-of-2016 redundancy has given me. 2017 has turned into something of a watershed year. It’s been a year during which I wondered how a life without a job – and the structure that a job brings – might look. It’s certainly been a year of reflecting and exploring what I’m passionate about.

And the first of these is reading.

Yes I’ve been indulging my passion for the written word, reading like a mad thing and finishing the year with 118 books under my belt. At the same time, I’ve tried to challenge myself by reading more widely and I’ve tackled books that have been confronting, uplifting and gripping. Some have been boring, some have been surprising. But for the most part, they took me to new places, immersed me in new stories and left me curious, inspired and hungry for more.

Then there’s learning.

I’ve introduced myself to the world of MOOCs, embarking on the first structured learning I’ve had in over 25 years. I relished the return to economics and development – a subject I loved at high school – and dived into the untested waters of democracy and development in Africa and an introduction to philosophy. It inspired me, taught me, challenged me and frustrated me. What I didn’t expect to learn is that I have a better capacity for self-discipline that I thought.

I’m also passionate about making a difference. Regular readers might remember that in June, I took on my first non-executive director role by becoming a school governor – answering a personal calling to support and guide the young people who will live in the environment/society we are leaving in our wake.

I’ve also been travelling, exploring places like York, Edinburgh and Muscat (Oman) for the first time as well as revisiting old haunts – Oxford and Canterbury in the UK and then Paris with Lil Chicky in November. And on the home-front, I’ve shone some light into a few culinary black spots and added some new made-by-me staples to the Gidday pantry.

That’s not a bad year. It has certainly been a busy and stimulating one so like everyone, I enjoyed the luscious slow-down of the pre-New Year week. But once I could see January on the horizon, just like Davina I was itching to get stuck in again.

So it’s time to tackle 2018.

I’ve already added a new batch-recipe staple to my culinary repertoire – a delicious chicken bhuna curry – courtesy of a pre-new year visit to the Waitrose Cookery School.

bhuna curry montage

Left: The version I produced under supervision (with some sticky rice and made-by-Kym chapati); Right: The batch made at home was an absolute treat. The three leftover portions froze beautifully and kept me well-fed for a week.

I’ll be continuing to expand my aesthetic horizons this year and am off to the V&A Museum next Tuesday. What’s new about that? I hear you say. Well, I’ll be off with my brand spanking new V&A Museum membership – a Christmas present from Mum – tucked safely in my pocket.

VAM membership pack

The membership pack was almost as much fun to open as the promise of free exhibitions and other membership perks!

On the reading front, I’ve signed up to read 70 books for the year on Goodreads – including something from all 50 themes on the PopSugar Reading Challenge 2018  list – and am looking forward to some unexpected gems from my V&A Book Group. And after a few years of donating, I’ve finally made the acquaintance of the bookshelf at my local charity shop.

Book stack

I loved Byatt’s The Children’s Book (a V&A Book Group read from last year) so was chuffed to find Possession on the shelf. Grenville and Amis are authors I’ve never read and let’s face it, at less than £1.50 per book, I can afford to explore some new literary horizons.

I’ve also taken my first steps towards being a property investor, attending a 3-day strategy builder course last weekend, booking in for some courses on Buy-To-Let and Multiple-Occupancy over the coming months and getting stuck in with some research.

And of course my governor activity will continue in earnest as we embed last year’s initiatives and embark on some exciting new projects in 2018.

So with all of this setting the tone for the year ahead, I’ve bought some new stationery…

Stationery

Setting the (b)right tone for the year

Isn’t it lovely?

*sigh*

It’s going to be a bright and shiny 2018 peeps – I can feel it already!

Sacred places

Christmas is done for another year and we are coming to the end of that strange hiatus before the new year begins and life gets going in earnest again.

It has been four years since I spent a Christmas at home and flying solo meant that I could plan a completely selfish day, with absolutely no-one to please but myself. The day was filled with favourites: foodie treats (croissants – check, duck-fat roasted potatoes – check, Pat’s mango fruitcake – check), chats with loved ones Down Under and some Singin’ in the Rain (so full of joy and well, Gene Kelly peeps, what’s not to like *sigh*). There was also a luscious stretch of comfy-couch reading and some seasonal happy telly in the form of the Strictly Come Dancing and Great British Bake-off Christmas specials.

This year, the big day also fell smack-bang in the middle of a marvellous six days cocooned at home. I spent many glorious hours snuggled under a cosy throw catching up on movies I’d meant to see and snacking on cheese and home-made fruitcake (not together). And there was plenty of time to indulge in my favourite thing to do – reading. As far as I am concerned, there’s nothing like losing yourself in a good book and for six days, I found myself utterly engrossed in a tale of adventure, mysticism and history – From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple.

From the Holy Mountain

When From the Holy Mountain was published twenty years ago in 1997, I had just started travelling. Egypt had been a passion of mine since I was 14 years old, so much so that a career as an archaeologist had held quite some allure. Unlike others I knew who’d set off post-Uni to backpack around Europe, I went to work, saved my pennies and splashed it all on an escorted group tour through Egypt.

Over two mind-blowing weeks, our tour group travelled between Luxor and Aswan listening to stories of ancient rituals and dynasties, wandering through temples and bazaars and scrutinising endless statues and heiroglyphics. We then returned to Cairo for a couple of days and early one morning four of us took a camel ride up through the dusty streets and around the great stone peaks of the world’s most famous tombs, the mighty Pyramids of Giza.

The next day our bus made a stop there on the way back from Memphis and when our guide mentioned that we’d have enough time to go inside, I jumped at the chance. To my astonishment, the rest of the group elected to stay by the bus taking photos so I joined the file of tourists entering the shaded entrance and climbed determinedly up the stone ramp to the inner chamber.

After fifteen minutes the corridor narrowed until it was only wide enough for one person to pass through. I waited patiently until it was my turn to ‘duck-walk’ under the couple of metres of low ceiling-ed passage before the chamber. I stood, stretched my legs gratefully and moved away from the entrance to let a waiting group leave. As the last person crouched into the low space behind me, their exit stemmed the incoming flow of visitors for a couple of minutes and I was left alone in the chamber. In the dim light, a broken sarcophagus hunched darkly to my right as I gazed upwards to the chamber roof soaring above me. My skin prickled and I stood awestruck by the stillness, by the silence and by the sheer moment of standing under something built 4,500 years ago.

Had I read Dalrymple’s tale back then, I would probably have wanted to spend much longer and venture much further afield than my two weeks allowed. Twenty years later, the part of the world he writes about in From the Holy Mountain fascinates me. It was home to the grand and glittering Byzantium, an empire that stretched from Greece and through Constantinople (now Istanbul), crossing the Bosphorus into the vastness of eastern Turkey, turning south through Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine and finally swinging west across the Sinai Desert into Egypt.

Following in the footsteps of two 6th century monks, Dalrymple’s memoir took me on a five month pilgrimage from Mt Athos in Greece to the Great Kharga Oasis in Upper Egypt. His historic references and stories – taken from accounts of John Mochos and Sophronius’ journey – added a fascinating richness but more than that, Dalrymple’s vivid prose brought to life the distinctive landscapes and peoples he encountered along the way. Scattering these amongst his own discussions, interviews and reflections created this wonderful sense of being alongside him as he travelled. This was his pilgrimage, a chance to slake his obsession with the monks’ journey he had read about years before – and it reminded me of mine taken in the shadow of a 13 year love affair with Egypt all those years ago (albeit mine being much shorter than his).

I stayed buried in Dalrymple’s story of civil wars, displaced peoples and sacred places for almost a week, the memories of my first adventure flooding back and the itch to travel welling inside me. I felt like I was on a wonderful journey and that my life was richer for having read this book. As I closed the final page and added this extraordinary travel memoir to my literary favourites, I made myself a couple of resolutions – to learn more about these ancient worlds and to get Dalrymple’s In Xanadu onto my to-read list.

So here’s to a 2018 full of sacred places to discover and new worlds to explore – have yourselves a happy new year peeps!

The best bits of Paris

In November, I met up with my sister in Paris.

An opportunity had come up for her to attend a conference there and after some last-minute hunting for flight (her) and Eurostar (me) deals, considerable fossicking around on accommodation websites and much emailing, we managed to cobble together a pretty fabulous rendezvous for ourselves.

It was not my first trip to the City of Light – that was way back in 2000, and I’d been three times since (as a tourist, that is) – but this was the first time I’d visited so late in the year.

Temperamental to the core, Europe’s grand old dame put a pretty formidable foot forward, for the most part shrouding herself in icy-grey light and a bone-chilling wind. Occasionally she would toss her drab cloak aside, yielding a few hours of brisk blue sky before her grey mood returned. But Autumn had smeared its dazzling colours over her tree-lined boulevards, smattering her towers and turrets with its trademark reds, oranges and golds. We were enchanted.

Autumn

L to R: Jardins du Luxembourg; Les Jardins du Pont Neuf (taken from the Padlock Bridge); behind Notre Dame Cathedral

I mentioned before that this was not my first trip to Paris but for Lil Chicky it was. As with all first times, there are must-sees-and-dos so a long[ish] list made its way across the world and based on what I knew – and a rather tight planning window – I made us a bit of a plan.

Disclaimer: I do not profess to know Paris well, not like some other people I know. But those ‘others’ have given me some cracking recommendations for my previous visits – my last trip was in 2013 and involved pootling around some lesser known places in between hours spent reading in sun-drenched parks or lingering at outdoor cafes watching the world go by.

So here was my dilemma: How should I balance the new versus the I’ve-seen-it-before, the I-need-to-see-everything against quiet moments of contemplation and reflection that for me make Paris…Paris?

It turned out to be easier than I thought. It had been so long since I’d done the first time things that it was a real treat to go back and do them again. And in most cases, we managed to add a little something extra. So hang on to your woolly hats peeps, here’s your armchair tour of my best bits of Paris.

The Hop-On-Hop-Off (affectionately known as HOHO) bus drove us around the city sights for a couple of hours on Sunday morning and we got some great photos particularly of the ferris wheel on the Place de la Concorde and the Eiffel Tower.

Bridge and Eiffel Tower

The following afternoon we joined a small skip-the-line group (skip-the-line is so worth paying for – I will never live in Britain long enough to love a queue), so were on la Tour Eiffel just as night fell. The city lit up before us and with the tower glowing and sparkling above us…

Eiffel Tower

Far right: Standing on the second level as the light show happens.

…we got the lift right up to the summit (a first for me, very windy and VERY high – over 1000 feet!). We treated ourselves to a [plastic] glass of [expensive] champagne to toast our efforts – it would have been rude not to.

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One morning we spent an hour visiting the stunning Sacre Couer Basilica in Montmarte…

sacre couer

…then strolled through Place du Tertre, its cobbles dappled with easels and Autumn colour. We walked back down the hill of Montmarte via Rue Lepic, stopping to admire the local art and architecture along the way…

Montmarte Artists

…before pausing opposite the Blanche Metro at the bottom for a cheeky photo of the Moulin Rouge. Many years ago I went to a show in this area but have never stopped here during the day – the Pigalle district doesn’t look anywhere near as risque in the daylight.

Moulin Rouge

On a another afternoon we wandered up the Champs Elysees to the Arc du Triomphe…

Arc du Triomphe

…then climbed the 284 steps to the top for the most spectacular views of both Paris and the star-shaped Place Charles de Gaulle below us. We booked our skip-the-line tickets just as we arrived so were able to show them on our phone and walk straight in and up. Definitely my top pick for Paris views.

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On our last morning we spent a few hours at the Louvre Museum wandering through the extraordinary palace building and admiring a few of its most famous exhibits…

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…as well as some not so famous ones (yet!).

Statue.

I laugh out loud every time I see this photo!

We visited the breathtaking Notre Dame Cathedral…

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…and the 13th century royal chapel on the Ile-de-la-Cite, Sainte-Chapelle.

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Map in hand we stalked the famous, and infamous, at the Pere Lachaise Cemetary…

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…and throughout our stay in Paris, found a few ways to honour those that we’ve loved, and lost.

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A month has passed since I let myself into the snug hotel room at Villa Pantheon and hugged my sister hello. We went on to create so many wonderful memories. For five days, we ambled through the boulevards, avenues, gardens and alleyways of Paris together. We walked until we didn’t think we could walk anymore, falling into our beds each night with aching backs, feet and legs only to get up and walk all over the city again the following day. We drank wine, got lost and explored (not always in that order). We laughed – sometimes until we cried (there may have been a ridiculous hat involved) – and ate far too much cake than is considered good for a person.

Paris cakes

L to R: Our trip to the fabulous Angelina on Rue de Rivoli (with special Aussie friend); our discovery of an Angelina outpost at the Louvre and its location-themed special; this absolutely divine tarte tatin at Brasserie de la Tour Eiffel was scrumptious – the cake of trip for me!

But above all, we surrendered to the joy of simply being together…

Arc du Triomphe Paris 2017 2

…and that peeps was definitely the best bit of Paris.

Breath taking

It’s Sunday and again, the world seems to take a breath and sleep a little later.

It was quiet just after 8am when I was roused from sleep. I lay cocooned beneath the covers for a few indulgent minutes, burrowing into the warmth while I drifted gently towards the morning. No radio alarm. No noise from the neighbours. No sporadic chatter from passers-by on the footpath outside. No rise and fall of traffic hum in the street. Time to wallow in the quiet stillness, in that sweet, sweet spot – you know the one – before nature calls, the covers are thrown back and the day begins.

I finally sat up, swinging my legs over the side of the bed and into my slippers. There was an unusual stillness in the air and my heart skipped hopefully as I padded towards the window and drew back the heavy curtain.

Before my eyes lay a world transformed: Fat white flakes swirled down from the insipid sky and settled softly over a garden already shrouded in white. It was a scene of such silent and untouched beauty that it was a few seconds before I realised that I was holding my breath.

It was snowing…

Snow on the Gidday patio

Snow on the wall

Snowy trees 1

I stayed by the window for a while, feeling the smile crinkle the corners of my eyes and child-like wonder fill my heart.

The MET office has been forecasting snow in the UK for a few weeks but a fall and subsequent settling like this in London is unusual. Just last week, a flurry of snowflakes wafted around me as I walked to a meeting and I thought that might be as much as we were likely to get until the New Year. But this is proper snow (for London anyway), one that took a deep breath in the dark hours of last night and then covered my Sunday in a blanket of white.

Snowy trees 2

Snowy rooftops

Even the neighbour’s cat has been over to explore…

I know I won’t be alone in my snow-posting today (and not everybody will have such romantic notions as I do) but I can’t help myself. There’s something magical about it, the way it quietly transforms the world. I can see the snow still falling from my spot here on the comfy couch and I keep interrupting my tapping to wander over and gaze out the window again.

Days like these fill me with a quiet, simple joy and there’s always room for a bit more joy in the world.

So stay warm peeps and have a breathtaking Sunday.

The busy-ness of life

Gidday peeps!

Sorry I’ve been lax on the posting front of late. It’s been a bit busy since I got back from stopping in Muscat seven weeks ago and while I managed to have a little rant about burgers in my last post, finding the time and head space to craft something more has proved a challenge. But I wanted to let you what’s been happening here at Chez Gidday.

First things first – I finished my fourth MOOC, this time on Democracy and Development in Africa, on 14th November and achieved 94%.

Hurrah!

This was quite a hard going course in terms of workload. In each of the seven weeks we were asked to complete several pieces of work – a mix of video lectures and interviews, reading, questions, discussions and essays – which was then capped off by a 3-part exam in the last week. Let me tell you there were many times when I cursed myself for signing up in the first place and then for not being able to walk away and let it go.

But in catching up with a close friend a couple of weeks ago, he complimented me on my commitment and acknowledged my self-discipline as a real strength. Interestingly, one of my reasons for doing these MOOCs was to ensure that my self-discipline ‘muscles’ stayed active. So I’m glad I stuck with it and am proud to say I have the certificate of achievement – as well as a whole lot of new ideas and opinions – to show for it.

My school governor role has really taken off as well. I’ve been attending the monthly marketing meetings as well as making my first visits with each of the dance and the drama curriculum leads at the school. I’ve also spent a day and evening completing my new governor induction training as well as the mandatory safeguarding training. So I’m now in the thick of it and really enjoying it.

Speaking of getting into the thick of it, I took part in an intensive 3-day Property Investment seminar at the beginning of November and also attended the Rethink Mental Illness Members Day the following weekend. Both are areas I’m very interested in exploring over the coming months. Needless to say I don’t think there’ll be any more MOOCs for a while.

Then amongst all of this was my usual smattering of out-and-about-ness.

On the culture front, I had my first ever visit to the Affordable Art Fair

…and spent another afternoon at the V&A immersed in their latest exhibition Opera: Power, Passion & Politics.

Both are areas I know little about so I really enjoyed having my eyes and my ears opened and my cultural horizons challenged.

The last seven weeks has also produced a couple of excellent theatrical highlights with the Donmar Warehouse’s production of The Lady from the Sea (by one of my favourite playwrights Henrik Ibsen) and INK (the story of Rupert Murdoch’s purchase and transformation of The Sun newspaper in the UK). And as regular Giddayers know, I love dance so it was with great delight that I went to see BalletBoyz’s Fourteen Days (and was especially moved by the intimacy of Christopher Wheeldon’s piece, Us). Then last weekend I was completely mesmerised by the provocative musical Cabaret that is touring regional theatres in the UK at the moment (and stars singer Will Young as the irrepressible emcee).

Literary-themed events got a look-in too with a walking tour of Fleet Street – called Publish and Be Damned! – on a rather chilly Saturday.

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There was also the chance to listen to readings from the Man Booker Shortlist authors the evening prior to the announcement of the prize winner, the British Library’s annual Equality Lecture by Professor Mary Evans and Gresham College’s free lecture on the wonderful Jane Austen, the last a welcome follow up to the Jane Austen exhibition I visited in Oxford earlier this year. I also went to some fascinating talks about The Future of Work, Artificial Intelligence, The Fight Against Alzheimers and The Future of our Digital Selves.

But amongst all of this, there was one lowlight.

As a long-time Agatha Christie fan, I had been looking forward to seeing Kenneth Branagh‘s remake of Murder on the Orient Express. But it had a different storyline and while the cinematography was gorgeous, the whole film was a bit ponderous and suffered from style-over-substance syndrome. As far as I am concerned, no-one writes Christie better than Christie so in tinkering with her work, Branagh’s effort left me feeling a bit flat.

And then last week I squeezed a 5-day rendezvous in Paris into proceedings (more on that later)…

…so maybe the word smattering was a bit of an understatement.

Not to mentioned that December 1st is only two sleeps away – when I get to open the first window of Mum’s annual advent calendar and put up the Chez Gidday Christmas tree…

*excited squealing*

So stay tuned. There’ll be more Gidday adventures coming to the blogosphere soon!

My beef with boards

I am a burger lover from way back. Not the global-fast-food-chain type of burger but full, messy fish-and-chip-shop burgers.

Long sun-kissed days on the beaches of my childhood and adolescence in Australia – Bribie Island and Caloundra just north of Brisbane; Mills, Seaford and Point Leo beaches in Victoria – were regularly rounded off with a visit to the fish and chip shop on the way home. For me, despite all of the feverish battering of frankfurters, fish fillets and potato cakes behind the counter, the hamburger always reigned supreme as the most satisfying of post-beach eating. Watching the staff flip and griddle in the searing heat before cramming that soft white bun chock full of scrumptious stuff – lettuce, cheese, tomato, fried onion, streaky bacon, a fried egg, beetroot and a beef patty – was a joy to behold.

(My mouth is watering even as I type this.)

Aussie beetroot burger

Back then, my burger would come wrapped in a piece of something like thin baking paper and was then tucked and folded into a white paper bag. My portion of hot salty chips came separately wrapped in butcher’s paper and my fingers would have eagerly poked a chip-sized hole in the parcel before I’d even left the shop.

Anyway, back to the burger.

Preparing myself to take that first luscious bite, I’d lean forward and peel back the top of the bag. Holding the burger with both hands and squeezing it from the top and bottom – to ensure it fitted into my mouth – I’d take a huge bite to get the full medley of delicious flavours.

(Mouth is continuing to water.)

Wrapped snugly in its white paper bag, any renegade hamburger juice (I think you call this fat) would dribble back into the bag, leaving my hands relatively clean. And keeping a firm hold on the burger with one hand, with the other I’d pick out the smaller crunchier chips to munch on while shoving the longer, fatter chips into the burger.

Don’t knock it peeps, it’s an art form. And it’s bloody delicious.

Then burgers got a bit specialist with the advent of the American diner craze. Johnny Rockets was big for a while when I lived in Melbourne and other like-minded establishments flourished with their flashing jukeboxes and dancing waitstaff, their shakes and sodas and their baskets and bags – baskets for burgers and bags for chips.

So burgers became a dine-in experience but still with a hands-on approach

Fat Bobs

Currently Fat Bob’s in Melbourne, Australia serves their mouth-wateringly amazing burgers wrapped in foil (retains the heat – clever!) in baskets with the fries alongside. Yes, I travelled across the world for this and it was worth every jet-lagged minute.

Then burgers went gourmet. They came on plates, with knives and forks, and with  buckets for the chips and special dipping sauces.

GBKburger+fries+onionrings

GBK (Gourmet Burger Kitchen) in the UK is one of my favourite places to eat over here. The burgers are really delicious: a wide range to choose from – which is fantastic now that I don’t eat red meat – and full of great ingredients. (Loads more than the usual offering of some shredded lettuce and a wisp of tomato sauce on a sad white bap that falls apart as soon as you look at it but that’s a rant for another time.)

But I find it impossible to pick the burger up. And in the unlikely event that I manage this, I can never manage to a) squash it enough to take a proper bite and b) avoid the ingredients spilling out.

So a knife and fork are a necessary evil here but happily, the burgers come on plates that are big enough for me to decimate my burger and to tip my chips out of their bucket to join the general melee.

But things go awry when burgers come on boards.

Six months ago, my favourite local restaurant starting serving their burgers on long narrow boards with the burger on one end and a metal bucket with chips in it on the other. Even if I take the chip bucket off, there is not enough room to cut into my burger – which is definitely a knife-and-fork job – and tip a decent amount of chips onto the board. And let’s not forget the ‘thoughtful’ paper – that which lines the chip bucket (why?) and that which lies beneath the burger. After much knife-and-fork wielding, the latter is at best, in the way or at worst, in shreds.

And they are not alone…I found loads of pictures on the internet like the one below.

Burger on a board 1

I mean, what is the point of this? A board is not a nice thing to eat from – no matter what Jamie Oliver and the like profess. And what’s with that stupid salad garnish stack – it’s taking up valuable room and unlike the mug (again, why?) of chips and the condiments pots, it cannot be shifted onto the table.

Interestingly, when I mentioned my frustration to the owner at my local restaurant (I know them well) and requested a plate, he was completely surprised. They had decided to change it, he told me, because they thought it would look nicer for customers. More a case of overthinking the style and completely screwing up the customer experience of eating it methinks!

I wonder when the last time they ate their burger and fries on the board – rather than a plate – was. I suspect they haven’t – or maybe other customers are not as incensed / vocal about this – because when I popped in last weekend, my roasted vegetable and goats cheese burger came out…on a  board.

So much for the voice of the [lone] customer. I’m tempted to persist because it does really irritate me. But can I be bothered? Perhaps I need to let it go, to chalk this up to a small and insignificant battle that’s not worth getting het up about.

Hmmmm…

In the meantime, would someone please get me a plate?

The art of stopping

It’s been a while since I posted and here’s why.

I’ve been on holiday.

Again? the regular readers among you might say.

Yes I know. So far this year I’ve been to York, Edinburgh and Oxford, spending a few days in each and discovering lots of lovely things to see and do.

But this was a different sort of holiday. It was a holiday with the sole purpose of stopping.

It’s been fifteen years since I learnt how to stop. Until then, I thought holidays were for doing – visiting new places, seeing new things, eating new food and learning new stuff. They weren’t for stopping. I couldn’t understand why people didn’t fill their time off with loads of stuff to do. But in 2003, after a fraught and exhausting year – and bolstered by a redundancy payout – I fled to a resort on Koh Samui for ten days.

For the first few days, I did little more than park myself on a sun-bed and alternate between reading, dozing and gazing absent-mindedly out to sea. My mind started to empty and my body stilled. By day three, something unusual had started to emerge – boredom.

I am an inquisitive person. I love ideas and learning and I’m always off to meet new people, listen to new ideas and think about all of the ‘what-ifs’ in life. As a result I’m rarely bored. But for the first time in my life I could not summon the energy to deal with anything new. Just the thought of exploring beyond the hotel felt completely overwhelming. So I stayed where I was, wrapped in the island’s pre-monsoonal September lethargy, mentally antsy but too tired to do anything about it.

By day five, stripped of all but the most essential social contact and stimulation, I slipped quietly into this feeling of incredible peace. My mind stopped chattering quite so loudly, the tension melted from my limbs and shoulders and I started to notice things. The warm breeze brushing my skin as I lay on the lounger. The sand crunching between my toes as I walked towards the sea foam rippling along the shore. The water sluicing through my hair as I plunged under and then broke back through the surface, tasting the salt on my lips.

Everything felt still and serene. Boredom had given way. Suddenly I understood – this was stopping, this was why those people did what they did – and for the remaining five days, I slept like a child – long, deep and restorative – for the first time in my adult life.

And so this holiday – some fifteen years later and one of many since – was about stopping, finding some stillness and surrendering to my favourite things – the feeling of sun on my skin, lots and lots of reading and some epic sleeping. No going out. No ‘discovering’ the city. Actively avoiding any engagement with those people who assume that being on your own means you’re up for a chat. Nothing remotely effortful or stimulating. Just me and my trusty Kindle.

I spent eight days and eight night in Muscat, or more specifically at the Grand Millennium Hotel in Muscat.

After a seven hour flight from London, during which I managed to watch the entire season of Big Little Lies (indulgence number one – done!), I checked into the hotel, unpacked my cabin bag – after all bikinis, sarongs, a pair of flip flops and a few things to wear to breakfast and dinner do not take up much room – and headed to the rooftop pool.

Panorama from rooftop pool 1

I spent every day there…

Muscat poolside

I read. A lot. I caught up on two issues of New Scientist magazine, lingered among the pages of the latest issue of 1843 and devoured seven books.

Muscat books

Each day I snoozed, ate lunch by the pool and went for a few gentle swims with the call to prayer wailing soulfully across the city in the background at midday and then again around mid-afternoon.

Late afternoon, feeling sun-kissed and sublimely relaxed, I returned to my room to shower, check emails, post (smugly, I must admit) on social media and linger for a while over the view.

Muscat sunsets

Dinner was either at the Taybat buffet (there was lots of variety so it was easy – and effortless! – to eat six of the eight dinners here) or at its a la carte seafood restaurant.

Muscat Fish Restaurant

Essentially it was about lots of delicious food with some happy Kindle-time between courses…and no alcohol. (The hotel is ‘dry’.)

When I got back to my room, I’d jump into the big comfy bed…

King Room 1

…and watch a couple of episodes of my ‘downloaded from Netflix’ box set, Thirteen Reasons Why. (I recently read the book – both it and the TV series were great!)

When that was all over – sooner than anticipated due to some profligate binge-watching – I then moved on to discover just how addictive US series Elementary – starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Lui – could be.

I did this for eight days and eight nights.

And then early on Sunday morning, I headed back to the airport for my flight home.

Muscat going home

It’s taken me a few days to feel hungry and sleepy at the right times again (Muscat is three hours ahead of London so I’ve been waking up at 5am) but I can safely say that the stopping has worked. I feel super alert, completely rejuvenated and full of energy – ready to tackle whatever’s coming next.

Here’s also hoping I’ve soaked up enough vitamin D to ward off any feelings of SAD-ness over the winter months…

An hour to spare

On Friday afternoon I was in Euston with a couple of hours to spare before meeting a friend for dinner near Kings Cross. Thinking that lingering in a cafe over a single coffee for so long might be pushing my luck, I hit on a fabulous idea – popping in to the British Museum.

I first visited the British Museum in 2000 and back then, barely covered the Egyptian Galleries. Since then, I have been to see specific events or temporary exhibitions but have never taken a look at the other permanent galleries. So brimming with inspiration and purpose, I trotted down Woburn Place, through the dappled shade of Russell Square and in twenty minutes, strode through the shaded museum entrance, dropped some coins in the donation box and collected a map.

With just over an hour to spare before I needed to leave, I decided to follow the ‘if-you-only-have-an-hour’ highlights route suggested on the map. I figured this would do two things.

The first was to get me in front of famous stuff I knew about – like the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Sculptures (I’d only known these as the Elgin Marbles before Friday’s visit) – and some famous stuff I didn’t know about. The second bonus was that it would take me through a range of different galleries so I could take a squiz and decide whether I was inspired enough to pay another, more focused visit.

I got around to just nine of the twelve objects on the map mainly because I kept stopping to look at other amazing things along the way. So the highlights trail* also did a third thing – it almost made me late! Here’s what happened.

As I’d entered from Montague Place, I was in position to tackle the trail backwards which meant making my way to the ground floor. My first stop was at the end of Room 24 to admire this awesome Easter Island statue, Hoa Hakananai’a* (below right). I then headed out into the Great Court and took a right turn into Room 4 for the Rosetta Stone* (below left) which proved quite difficult to a) get close to and b) take a decent photo of. Continuing on into Room 18, I found myself surrounded by the Parthenon Sculptures* (below middle) – it’s a huge room and this is definitely one worth coming back to with plenty of loitering time.

Brit.Mus. Rosetta Stone+Parthenon+EasterIs.

As I headed back out of the long, marble-lined gallery, I took another right turn to explore a whole load of these amazing carved Assyrian reliefs* in Room 10.

Brit.Mus. Assyria

With four highlights done, I was feeling pretty pleased with what I’d seen so far.

Next I headed across the Great Court and through the shop at the museum’s main entrance from Great Russell Street. My next target was Room 2a, home to the Waddeson Bequest. This collection is comprised of 300 objects donated to the museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild in 1898. I was here to see the medieval Holy Thorn Reliquary* but this was where I started to go a little off-piste, distracted by other treasures like the Palmer Cup (below left) from 1200-1250 BC and a gilt brass hunting calendar from the 1600s (below right). Unfortunately neither photo does justice to the wonderful detail in these two pieces.

Brit.Mus. Palmer Cup + Gold Hunting Calendar

Finally I reached the cabinet holding the Reliquary and I realised why this piece was heralded as a highlight on the map. I gazed open-mouthed for several minutes, awestruck by the extravagant jewels and pearls lavished all over this small gold piece.

Brit.Mus. Holy Thorn Reliquary

I trotted back out to the entrance vestibule and headed upstairs to Room 40. I’d never heard of the Lewis Chessmen*, despite them being billed as ‘the most famous chess set in the world’, and I have to say I was delighted to make their acquaintance upon my arrival.

Brit.Mus. The Lewis Chessmen

I passed into the next room (41) en route to my next highlights stop only to find myself surrounded by all sorts of treasures from Sutton Hoo. I couldn’t resist lingering over the re-constructed drinking horn (below left) and the slightly Muppet-like figurehead from the prow of a Viking ship (below right).

Brit.Mus. Saxon Horn + Ships Prow

I continued on, walking the length of the east wing and paused briefly at the end to admire some Iranian metalwork* before turning left to reach Room 56 and the very old Royal Game of Ur* (2600-2300 BC).

Brit.Mus. Royal Game of Ur

I was walking through the gallery on my way to the next highlight when I was struck by the Homer Simpson-esque countenance on this statue of King Idrimi of Alakah (1560-1500 BC). Then I drew closer to discover the intricate cuneiform etched all over it.

Brit.Mus. King Idrimi of Alakah

I found a lot to admire in this section of the museum and made a mental note to return for a more leisurely nose around. I definitely want to find out the stories that lie behind these glazed bricks from the Throne Room of the palace of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (605 – 562 BC), this tiny gold chariot (below right) and many of the other things I spied as I whizzed past.

Brit.Mus. Lion tiles + golden chariot

Back on the highlights trail again, I headed around to Room 70 in the west wing to check out the Portland Vase* (below), the Roman inspiration for the iconic Wedgwood design.

Brit.Mus. The Portland Vase

After a short walk around the display cabinet, I about-faced and headed back towards the north stairs. I was intent on getting up to the Japanese Galleries to pick up the trail again but could not help but pause at the sight of the stairwell full of Roman mosaic floor tiles (below).

Brit.Mus. Roman mosaics

I headed up to the Mitsubishi Corporation Galleries on Level 5 to eyeball this Samurai armour* from medieval Japan (below right) but got waylaid – I know, again – by this strange-looking clock (below left). Seeing these two exhibits side-by-side in the montage below makes me think of Star Wars.

Brit.Mus. Japanese Gallery

Glancing at my watch, I realised that I needed to get going to ensure that I didn’t leave my friend waiting. So I kept my head down and my eyes averted as I walked down the stairs again – but to no avail.

Brit.Mus. Large standing buddha

This is the Amitābha Buddha and she stands almost six metres tall in the lower portions of the north stairwell. She was spectacular. I had to stop.

And then I was coming down the final flight of stairs when my gaze fell upon these glorious glazed roof tiles which would have adorned the ridges of a temple complex in northern China during the Ming dynasty period (1400-1600).

Brit.Mus. Ming Dynasty Roof Tiles

And with that, I finally made it out the door and, with a bit of legging it, got back to Kings Cross just in time. Prosecco is a fine motivator indeed.

Phew!

So that was my hour of highlights at the British Museum. It has definitely inspired me to return for a meander around Assyria, Mesopotamia, Japan and the Parthenon when next I have an hour to spare.

After all, I already have the map.

Bread and philosophy

I’ve been stretched out of shape this week.

Since June I have been immersed in an Introduction to Philosophy course. It’s a MOOC (Massive Open On-line Course), a learning format that is starting to make inroads into the way we learn, and is offered by MITx via edX, the non-profit and open-source platform founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012. It offers a wide range of courses and programs from many of the world’s leading universities and institutions. I did a couple of shorter courses earlier in the year but the content weight and length of the Introduction to Philosophy course was a much bigger challenge for me.

After twelve weeks, eighteen lectures and three written submissions, on Thursday I received my final mark (88%) and my certificate.

Intro to Philosophy certificate

It’s been a long time since I’ve undertaken a lengthy period of formal study. Even though I’m not working at the moment, setting aside 6-7 hours each week – sometimes more when a written assessment was due – has been challenging. Much of my impetus to keep at it was the fear of falling behind and potentially having to find double the time the following week.

It’s also been a subject that’s really tested me. Contrary to what you might think, the course was not about what I believed about God, knowledge, consciousness or identity but rather reading a range of arguments about these subjects and assessing them rigorously using a particular structure.

I’ve always loved learning and when faced with difficult concepts, I usually get through by applying myself to pulling the topic apart and putting it back together again. But there were a couple of weeks – thankfully not in a row – when I floundered. I couldn’t see the point of the arguments and engaging in the discussion forums/asking questions made me even more confused. In the end, surviving all of my harsh self-talk required an exercise in generosity. I surrendered to the feeling of ‘wandering in the wilderness’ and tried to trust that I would eventually work it out. As the weeks moved on, the fog did clear a bit and I was able to pick up the pieces and put them together again.

I am proud of receiving my certificate. However more than that, I’m proud of sticking with it, not letting the feeling of being completely clueless deter me and of finding a little generosity of spirit in myself to get me through the difficult bits. And I feel different – more open, more aware, stretched in a new direction.

Speaking of difficult bits, on Saturday I stretched myself in another direction, this time to take on my battle with bread.

About seven years ago, I started my relationship with bread by making hot cross buns. I’m allergic to oranges and all of the hot cross buns here in the UK contain mixed peel (even bakery-bought ones). So I thought it would be an excellent thing to be able to make my own. So with recipe in hand and wielding my spatula, off I went.

The first batch of buns I made were amazing – mouth-wateringly fragrant, absolutely delicious with a cross on each glossy crown.

Since then I’ve attempted several more batches as well as a variety of other loaves. I love the physicality of making bread – my fingers pulling and stretching as they knead, seeing the magical doubling of the dough as it proves and the oh-so-glorious smell as the fresh bread emerges from the oven. But none of these have reached the dizzying, delicious heights of that first batch. So I decided that I needed to go back to basics and booked myself into the Beginner’s Bread Bakery at the Waitrose Cookery School.

I loved it!

Over five wonderful hours, Laini took us through the rules according to bread: The science of the ingredients, the importance of exact measurements and temperatures and the stretchy, springy consistency of great dough. To my delight, my doughs proved and proved again and I managed to produce a range of delicious breads…

Garlic and Rosemary Focaccia

Foccacia montage

Here it is:  Proved, flavoured and about to go into the oven (left) and beautifully baked and cooling (right).

Pesto and Cheese Straws

Foccacia Straws montage

We used some of the focaccia dough after the first prove to flatten, fill and shape these deliciously salty straws to accompany the mushroom soup served for our lunch. I had two at lunch and then the other two that evening.

White Bloomer Loaf (and dinner roll)

White bloomer montage

What’s a baking course without a white loaf and here it is (left). We also learnt how to make a perfectly shaped dinner roll (right). It’s not as easy as it looks!

I also learnt where I had been going awry in my bread-making, namely the water being too warm (thereby killing the yeast before it even got going) and using flour instead of oil to knead the dough (according to Laini, adding flour during the knead makes for a very dense loaf). Needless to say I’m very keen to put these all of these new techniques into practice but I need to finish all of the bread I brought home first…

bread basket 1

I ate the two focaccia straws and the dinner roll that evening, enjoyed the crust of the white bloomer loaf with organic raspberry jam the next day and portioned three quarters of the focaccia for freezing.

So in the space of a week I feel like I’ve achieved a little mastery over two challenging subjects – bread and philosophy – and now have some sound points of reference to build on. I feel incredibly energised, eager to apply it all and excited to learn more.

Just goes to show what a little stretching can do.


For my other visit to the Waitrose Cooking School – Sliced and Diced – click here

The carnival is over

After an end to August that was bathed in glorious sunshine, Autumn has arrived under a bit of a cloud – literally. For several days now I have been pricking my ears at the sound of rain spattering on the kitchen skylight and have been caught in a few unexpected downpours (only to find myself sweating it out in my mac when the clouds lift ten minutes later). Suddenly layers – and umbrellas – are the things I need to be thinking about.

I was walking back from East Finchley on Monday afternoon – the sky drab with cloud and the air heavy with humidity – and decided to pop into Long Lane Pasture.

It’s been two months since I first discovered it during a geocaching exploit with stepmum-B. On a warm summer day back in July, we had plodded curiously along the grassy pathways, stopping to admire a bright flower, taste some small golden plums or wonder at an unusual plant. Profusions of ripening blackberries, just a few short weeks from plump purple readiness, lined the paths and we had been delighted to find a patch of cool relief under a draping willow tree by the railway fence.

LLP July montage

Since then, the blackberries have all but gone and with things having been mowed and generally tidied, it was clear that the volunteers had been hard at work.

LLP Sept (3)

LLP Sept (4)

LLP Sept (2)

This grass circle (above left) contains 17 different species of native grass which, apart from being hand-weeded, are left to grow wild.

And speaking of native, the middle picture below is a Guelder Rose (viburnum opulus), native to the British Isles and named for Gelderland, a Dutch province. It grows in hedgerows and still grows wild in the London Borough of Barnet although this particular shrub was planted in the Pasture. Birds love the berries but they are acidic and slightly poisonous for people.

LLP Sept (1)

I also got a gander at some rose hips (above left) – which I’d only ever experienced during my childhood as ‘jelly-in-a-jar’ – and all to the accompaniment of bees buzzing away industriously. On the way out I put some coins in the donation box by the gate to support the efforts of the volunteers who tend this little patch for the community.

I continued on towards home and as I passed Victoria Park, I noticed something unusual on the grass.

Victoria Park

No, the aliens have not landed. Rather over the last ten days, the park has been playing host to a kiddies’ carnival – rides, bouncy castles, you know the sort of thing I mean. I’d grown used to it on my morning walks. But on Monday it had vanished leaving nothing but the marked grass as testament to their stay. With the rain, it will no doubt green up even more quickly than usual but I was astonished at how much of an impact the ten days had made.

And speaking of astonished, the garden at Gidday HQ continues to surprise and delight, particularly given the absence of green-coloured-thumbs. Small sprays of roses keep bursting forth, the insects continue to buzz busily and a flourish of striking red poppies has cropped up along the garden fence.

ChezGiddayFlowers Sept17

I did not plant any of these but most days I wander out to visit them, enjoying their delicate freshness and vigour and wondering what other surprises might be in store. I’m also flabbergasted at their undaunted survival and the unequivocal claim they have made at the home of one so horticulturally-challenged.

Nature is a marvellous thing isn’t it?


As I type this, my feet are tucked into my cosy sheepskin slippers. The lounge room is noticeably darker without the sun streaming in and while the desk lamp illuminates the keyboard under my fingers, the floor lamp in the corner behind me casts soft light across the room. The days are already feeling shorter.

Yes peeps, the carnival is definitely over. Long summer days are already yielding to brisk autumn nights. The kids are back at school and daily commutes are crowded with the busy and the anxious again. The steady march of annual comfort telly – the flurry of The Great British Bake Off and the flounce of Strictly Come Dancing – has begun.

Nevertheless I’m hoping that it’s not quite over yet. A bit like the roses at Gidday HQ, just when I think they have finished their annual flowering, their scented petals burst forth again, enchanting me one last time.

Peach roses.JPG

So if you are looking for me, I’ll be the one still smelling the roses…and keeping my eyes peeled for a late burst of summer.