Saturday, 27 May 2017

Grand houses, heavenly gardens and chilli knees.

While I am house hunting in Somerset, I am lucky enough to be sharing my friend Katie's cottage. Her cottage is a gatehouse cottage at the entrance of a long treelined drive leading to a grand Georgian Manor House, surrounded by ancient woodland and rolling green fields. Katie is a great friend of the family that live in the big house and so is in the privileged position of being allowed to wander their impeccably kept formal and romantic gardens, stroll the long avenues of wisteria and lime trees, visit the walled gardens and orangery, and swim in the swimming pool. Her own cottage garden is a little sanctuary of calm. Apart from the occasional car, a honk or two from next doors goose, the cluck and caw of the chickens and a few quacks from the ducks, it is pretty much silent. After being here for 6 weeks, I am officially ruined for anything else.

To buy a property like this would cost a fortune. To be lucky enough to have neighbours as lovely as hers would be miraculous and to be surrounded by such beauty would be unimaginable. I was brought up in a stunning village in Hampshire so the countryside has always been in me. I knew I wouldn't live in London forever and many of the people I've talked to, who have made the same move from urban to rural, wish they'd done it years ago. I have an inexplicable happiness here that is only achieved by nature. Last night, Katie and I took advantage of the early evening sun and went for a swim in the pool, and as I floated on my back I looked up at the blue sky and watched the tops of the tall lime trees sway in the breeze and I honestly thought, could anything be more blissful. The swallows were diving close to the pool's surface, chasing mosquitoes and midges, and there was not a sound apart from birds chattering and the buzz of bees. The only colours were the intense yellow-green of the rustling leaves, the soft blurred blue-green of the surrounding fields and the solid block of cyan sky. What a lucky girl I am, I thought, remember these moments.

Earlier in the day I had tagged on to a garden tour given by the head gardener and learnt a bit more about the family and history of the house and garden. I was at least 30 years younger than the group of white-haired garden lovers, hobbling with sticks and Zimmer frames around property, but I was totally swept up in their passion for everything they saw, asking the Latin names for mysterious wild orchids as they touched the petals with gentle knarled fingers, rubbing leaves and holding them to their noses, telling me stories of their own gardens. I want to grow flowers and watch the birds and bees enjoy my garden but sadly that is one of the trickiest things to find in my search for a home. Many of the period cottages in Frome used to share a space behind their houses, using the communal large courtyards for pigs and chickens, growing vegetables and washing clothes, and subsequently, these spaces have been divided into a warren of allotment style gardens, often displaced from the house. I have seen at least 8 cottages where I have looked out of the kitchen window to a beautiful sunny terrace to be told that it does not belong to the house, but the one next door. On several occasions I have walked out of the back door and found the property's garden 50 feet down a shared walkway. I love community but I don't want communal and I don't want to compromise on my four essential P's: Prettiness, privacy, peace & quiet and parking. But the longer I stay in this heavenly cottage of Katie's, the harder it gets. Sun and summer will only make it harder to leave so I have to stay positive and I have to keep looking.

And now from one extreme to the other, I go from nature to science. Actually its the science of nature. I have, once again, been used as a guinea pig for a new pain treatment. A new pain treatment for us in the West but I think it has been used for centuries in tribal communities around the world. It is the glorious chilli. To be more accurate, it is using the chilli pepper's intense hot and spicy qualities as an analgesic. It has been used for quite a few years on surface pain but now some of the more experimental hospitals have been trying it on deeper nerve pain. One of these hospitals is the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, a hospital I spent weeks in last year, and even now, seem to visit more frequently than my friends! My knee surgeon suggested the treatment might work for the nerve damage in my leg. The big surgery I had a year and a half ago was successful in relieving the pain of the misalignment of my knee and lower thigh, but now I am left with the pain from the surgery itself... a few areas of intense sharp pain that I cannot seem to get any relief for, no matter what pain medication I've tried. I don't like the idea of having steroids and cortisone injects under my kneecap every few months so I decided I would agree to the chilli patches.

Who knew that chilli could be classified as a deadly weapon. The medical strength capsaicin they use is scary. It is one hundred times the strength of a habanero pepper and has to be applied to the patient in an operating theatre. The clinical nurses wear masks, goggles and 3 pairs of surgical gloves, as well as scrubs... just in case a drop of liquid escapes. And this is going on my knee? Okay then. I was prepped and pre-warned of what was going to happen. I would be given a hospital gown and socks to wear and the application would take place in a chilled room (to lessen the intense burning feeling of the capsaicin). Apart from the area being treated, I would be covered in warming blankets. Then the capsaicin would be applied to the painful area, it would be wrapped in bandages and I would be left for an hour. During that time, the intensity of the chilli would increase to almost unbearable but not to worry, morphine was close by. Oh good. Allergic reactions were common, swelling was normal, and the leg turning red or purple also happened a lot. If I went into anaphylactic shock, they had adrenalin ready as well. Good to know.

Everything happened as they described but just before I was wheeled in to the treatment room, they said they'd had a call from my surgeon, asking if they could apply the capaiscan to both knees. What? They explained that it might also help the pain in my right knee, the one that hasn't had surgery yet. The nurses explained that with both knees being treated, I would be very uncomfortable indeed. They hoped that was all right, and I duly signed my consent. Here's where it went weird. Both knees were treated and I waited for the burning to start. 10 minutes went by and I felt the merest tingling in my right knee, nothing in the left. 20 minutes, holy crap, hot right knee, nothing in the left. And so it continued. By 50 minutes, I was grabbing the bed as my right leg swelled, turned red and felt as if someone had poured burning oil over it. My left knee felt nothing. It was extraordinary. I mean I knew the nerve damage from surgery had left some areas numb but this was just odd. No reaction at all.

The nurses were absolutely bewildered as they took off my dressings. My right leg had almost doubled in size, it was bright red from mid shin to mid thigh and was on fire. On fire! My left leg was the same size and colour as before and I felt nothing. What does that mean exactly? Well, that's just it, no-one really knows. It's an experimental treatment for my type of pain but to see one leg react and the other not, has flummoxed the medical staff. 7 days later and there's not much to report I'm afraid. There doesn't seem to be any relief in pain which is a bit rubbish but will I be a guinea pig again? Of course I will. Squeak.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Rodent review.

I was greeted at 7:30am by one large stiff mouse on my kitchen counter. The good thing about getting a professional rat-catcher is that they know the most efficient way to kill... and just in case any of you would like to know how to set the most effective mouse trap, you put the food end of the trap right up against the wall because then the mouse has to come from the side, and their death will be fast and accurate. I do apologise for being so graphic but it's a handy tip!!

The mouse in question was large. 5 inches long in the body large. I didn't know quite what to do with it because I thought it best to leave it in-situ for Simon, the rat-catcher, to see. So I happily cleaned the counter top around it and made breakfast. Some people might find that absolutely disgusting but funnily enough, I'm not actually that squeamish when things are dead (I'm sure you remember my taxidermy course when I actually gutted and stuffed a mouse - Midge now adorns the top of my Christmas tree as a rodent angel) so eating a bit of toast with a mouse corpse inches away from my head, didn't faze me at all. Oh, I forgot to say how I knew it was a mouse and not a rat. The difference between a rat and a mouse is the tail. If the tail is the same length as the body, from bum hole to nose, then it's a mouse, but if the tail is longer than the length of the body then it's a rat. Good to know. There was also a second large mouse caught in the shed so I'm hoping that's it now. But just to be sure, Simon left 6 traps in the house and he also put a motion sensor camera in the attic.

From the first night of being in the cottage, I noticed peculiar noises coming from the attic. They sounded like something bigger than a mouse but I was reluctant to put a trap up there in case it was squirrels or bats or birds. Simon even told me a story (he has some great stories) about a badger being found in someone's attic. A badger! The mind boggles... how on earth? So, he will check the camera for activity on Monday morning but I'm dreading it. What if there are no living creatures up there and some random ghostly face pops up on the screen instead? I mean it is an old cottage, someone must have died here at some point. Oh God.

Until then, at least I know I can rest safe in my bed without James Herbert's The Rats book popping into my head every few minutes. I will never forget the scene of a man in a tent being eaten alive, from the inside out! Or the memory of my horrific journey in a Vietnamese sleeper train, where I was trapped for 8 hours in the top bunk of my compartment, by a family of marauding rats. It was the first, and I hope the only time, I have seen a rat jump vertically! Absolutely, without doubt, the most terrifying thing that has ever happened to me. So, as long as the rats leave me alone and stay in the outside shed, and there is nothing more sinister in the roof than a small bat, then I will be fine.

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Rat-catcher.

The Rat-catcher, aka Simon, is Karen's brother-in-law. Karen is the caretaker of the estate cottages, and I am currently staying in one of the cottages.

This cottage is at one end of a very long tree-lined drive that leads to a rather grand old house. It is usually rented by my friend Katie, but as she happens to be skiing and cooking in Zermatt for a few months, she kindly offered to let me stay while she is away. So far, so good. The cottage is in a rather blissful situation, surrounded by ancient woodland and meadows on 3 sides. It is attached to the cottage next door, and the occupants of the cottage next door, make my stay even better. They have two gorgeous dogs and a small holding of chickens, ducks and geese, all of which roam freely. Everyone that works at the house and in the gardens is wonderfully friendly and kind and I have already had numerous visits and plenty of eggs. The only thing that has taken a dislike to me is the goose, who charges me and my car with unnatural brevity.

Until a week ago I thought the goose was my only enemy. I was wrong. I began hearing noises in the night that weren't explicable. Scratching noises in the roof, small pitter-patterings above my head and in the walls, slight creakings in the floorboards below. I thought I was imagining it until one morning I went down to the kitchen and saw a half eaten tomato on the counter top. I had been very careful to leave no food out because I know that being in an old cottage in the depths of the countryside, there are mice. But do mice eat tomatoes?

The following night I made sure everything was sealed and in the fridge... apart from a rather spicy 3-bean soup I had made and left in a saucepan on the hob. A mouse surely wouldn't climb into a high-edged pan and eat chilli would it? It wouldn't risk having a hot bottom for days on end would it? Indeed it did. The next morning I came into the kitchen and saw tomato-ey footprints all over the hob, across the counter and onto the floor. I then found a pile of kidney beans (they left the white beans and cannelloni beans for some strange reason) in between the washing machine and the cupboard. I found another stash by the cellar door at the bottom of the stairs. Holy moly. Now I didn't feel so cool. Understatement.

I texted Katie, in mild panic, asking what the hell to do. I rang my mother and asked what to do. I spoke to the next door neighbours and asked what to do. I hadn't slept because I now knew we weren't dealing with a cute little field mouse. We were dealing with something bigger, judging by the size of the red footprints across the house. Yup, it was rats. And rats are clever little buggers. When I spoke to the neighbours they seemed quite blasé about it, regaling me with stories about the dogs catching them or seeing them run up the drainpipes, or shooting them with their air rifle. But when it came to how I could get rid of them from the house, everyone was stumped.

And then Simon turned up. The rat-catcher. And he came armed.

My neighbours and I were very much against using poison. Poison is not only a horrible death but it can be eaten by other animals, not just rats, and we couldn't risk that. Plus, even if it was just the rats eating the poison, if the rat was then caught by a dog or cat, then it can poison them as well. So no, we forbade poison. The rat-catcher sighed at that news and came back with 10 mousetraps, 4 rat traps and a jar of crunchy peanut butter. They love peanut butter apparently. He went around the house looking for gaps in floorboards, holes in walls, spaces between window and windowsill, and set them all up.

I am now so on edge I don't want to go downstairs. Plus I've already forgotten where Simon has put all the traps so I'm afraid I will catch a toe in one. If I hear a snap I'm going to feel terrible (and my Buddhist credentials will be out the window). If I don't hear a snap then I will forever be terrified.
Ain't country living grand? I await the bloodbath.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Alternative Therapies

I have always embraced alternative therapies with gusto. I think it's because I have to take so many pills on a daily basis that if there is another way to make me feel better for anything else going wrong with my brain or body, then I will give it a try.

Over the years I have had all types of massage, I've practised yoga and pilates, been rolfed, had acupressure, acupuncture, aromatherapy, Ayurvedic medicine, Chinese medicine, colonic irrigation (ahem), craniosacral therapy, 5 rhythms dancing, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, hydrotherapy, lymph drainage, osteopathy, physiotherapy, reiki and shiatsu. I know it's quite a list but I honestly believe that all of them have helped. To a point. If you believe it will work, that's half the problem solved because as we all know the power of our brain is the best healer in the world. If you walk into a therapist's treatment room believing that it won't work, then it probably won't. 

But of course you have to be realistic as well. If you slip a disc, then eating ginger will certainly not miraculously pop that disc back into the right place, but it might reduce the inflammation around the injury and make the pain a bit more bearable. Even my knee surgeon suggested alternative therapies in conjunction with surgery and said poultices and natural plant remedies would definitely help with the healing process. So as well as my painkillers and hospital physio, I drank turmeric tea, applied oils and poultices to my knee, did hydrotherapy and gentle yoga. Is my knee fully healed a year on from surgery? No. Am I still in pain? Yes, but then again, I have a whacking bit of titanium bolted to my thigh bone so maybe I just have to be a bit lenient on my body and the capacity it has to deal with that. 

I continue to find ways that will improve the pain, and massage has been my absolute godsend. Your body tends to tighten up when it experiences pain and the tightening is very rarely in the place where you have had the initial problem. In my case, because I now walk differently, my muscles spasm in my glutes, my lower back, my hips and then all the way up to my shoulders and neck. I have a tension headache a lot of the time because I hold my body so rigid. So when I have a bit of spare cash, that's where I spend it. Luckily, I have found an amazing physiotherapist and masseur called Sara who lives on a farm and owns dogs and horses. She also does dog and horse massage therapy if you ever wanted to do a combo session with your pet! Ok, now I've made her sound weird. She's not weird at all. She's an ex-showjumper who had a terrible accident and retrained in something she knew would be beneficial to herself and her animals. She now runs her practise with an osteopath/acupuncturist called Steve, and I am a regular visitor.

When I first went to see Sara, over a year ago, her ginormous rescue greyhound Frosty used to lie or stand by the massage table. A lot of her clients found it relaxing to stroke Frosty while they were having treatment and Frosty seemed to like it too. What Sara didn't realise was that the moment she left the room, Frosty's nose would be in places that you really didn't want it to be, especially when you were face down on a table with nothing to hide your modesty but a pair of knickers and a towel. On hearing my squeals Frosty was banished from the room, and now looks forlornly through the window from the outside, wondering what he did so wrong, whenever I am there. Don't worry... he gets a lot of attention from me before and after the massage, and she still lets him in for some customers who don't seem to mind a wet nose in shadowy places. Sara has recently moved to a larger farm and it is now not that unusual to be watched, not only by Frosty, but by a couple of horses as well.  

In Thailand recently, I made great use of the local masseurs. They are mostly trained in traditional Thai massage, a practise that is done dry through a sarong, and involves firm pressure being applied downwards. Having been used to Swedish massage most of the time, I was used to long strokes being applied to the body using oils, so I wasn't sure I would like this variation. I had my first Thai massage a few days after arriving at the hotel and asked for medium strength thinking this tiny girl could do no harm. As she climbed on top of me I began to have second thoughts. She pushed so hard I thought I heard a rib crack and my poor boobs were flattened to such an extent, I'm still convinced they haven't returned to their normal form. I let out a pained groan which she obviously mistook for pleasure and carried on. An hour later I felt as if I had been run over by a lorry, and later that day, when I spotted a man hobbling across the sand and stopped to ask if he was all right he replied, "No I'm fine, I just had a massage!" 

I forgot to mention where these torturous massages actually took place, because despite the pain, the setting was heavenly. On arrival at the spa I was taken to a changing room, stripped to my smalls and wrapped in a cotton sarong. I was lead outside and told to cleanse my body of its impurities by alternating between a steaming eucalyptus sauna built into a rock face, and a freezing cold plunge-pool with a waterfall cascading down from above. When I first entered this dark cave I noticed 3 fluorescent pink blobs in the far corner and realised it was a girl in a tiny neon bikini. Where was my bikini I thought... oh my god, how embarrassing. I held my sarong in front of me and we began chatting... as you do. She told me she was from Abu Dhabi and was here in secret with her boyfriend for a long weekend. They had rented a beachfront cottage and were going to do everything she wasn't allowed to do in her own country.... which is pretty much everything! I saw her a few days later running down the beach with her boyfriend, literally whooping with joy, and when she saw me she ran over and kissed me, explaining that the best thing on earth was being able to feel the sea air on her skin instead of wearing a hijab the moment she left her apartment. I had never thought about that before. The hijab provokes many feelings but not being able to experience one of life's little pleasures – feeling a cool breeze on bare skin – surely no one should be denied that.

After the cleansing I was lead by the hand, up fifty steep stone steps to a stilted bamboo treehouse. Inside, the room was beautiful. Draped white mosquito nets hung from the high thatched roof, a pristine white cotton sheet was laid over the massage table and beside it were small bamboo tables laden with oils and candles. The room was completely enclosed apart from one wall that opened – floor to ceiling – onto the rainforest. It was like being fully immersed in nature, a giant wall of green. As I lay on the table it began to rain and I couldn't remember ever feeling quite so content as I did at that moment. Despite the ferocious massage, I did return, twice actually. We managed to communicate that the next time I came she would use oils and be more gentle, and I'm very happy to report that she was.

When I moved islands to Koh Lanta, I met up with friends again and we stayed in a beautiful hotel in a secluded cove. The massages here were on the beach in a tiny thatched shack. The girl was even smaller than the previous one but managed, once again, to force me to cry out in agony from her brute strength. This time my toes and fingers were cracked which came as a, not wholly unpleasant, surprise. I was also aware that my oohs and ouches could be heard by the whole beach so became slightly paranoid, biting the pillow rather than making any noises. It certainly wasn't as good as my first massages but then again, for the equivalent of £10 I certainly wasn't complaining.

Now I'm back in Blighty I have returned to seeing Sara but with one small difference. In addition to my hour's physio massage she suggested I have acupuncture with her partner Steve, in the more painful areas of my knees and back. I'm not sure I will ever hear these words said out loud again, nor do I want to, but as Sara finished her treatment she stood at the adjoining door and shouted, "Steve, how do you want Juliet? I've got her face down and naked on the table right now! Will that do you?" 

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

From A to B via F, N and P

I left Paradise yesterday and as there is only one way off the island, they arranged for a speedboat to take me to mainland Krabi. There I was to be met by a private car who would take me to my second hotel, Narima on Koh Lanta. Sounds simple enough right?

The speedboat took 20 minutes and we arrived at a quaint-looking fishing village with a rickety old pier. The boat skipper took my bags off the boat, waved goodbye and off they went. It was only then that I wondered if I had told them the right Pier. I mean my Thai accent is not the best so me saying Thalane pier to someone with minimal English could be bloody anywhere. I waited ten minutes and still no car came to pick me up. Life was going on around me; teenagers fixing mopeds, fishermen mending their nets, bored looking women sitting around fanning themselves and waiting for non-existent customers to buy a fizzy drink from their wooden stalls.
I approached one of the teenagers and said "Thalane pier, yes?", gesturing around me. "Yes" he said, "No problem". Oh you see, that worried me. Saying yes and stopping there, is a good thing, saying no problem afterwards always means there's a problem.

I decided to ring the hotel and then realised the number was on their website, and did I have internet access on my phone in the middle of nowhere? Of course not. So I approached the teenager again and by miming and pointing and writing on my phone, he understood I needed to use him as a go between, which he agreed to do, with a small bow. He found the number on his phone and rang them using mine (he's not an idiot) and after a very heated conversation with someone at my hotel, he gave me back my phone and said. "They come. You wait."  No more explanation was offered so I thanked him profusely and waited under a shady tree.

After another agonising 15 minutes a car showed up. The driver was laughing and said, "This old Thalane pier. Is where they drop off fish." He paused to giggle maniacally, "Haha, so you great big fish. Catch of day". More hilarity. I deduced, therefore, that there was new Thalane pier which was 20 minutes down the road, and old Thalane pier, which is where I had been dumped like a giant cod. At least I wasn't knocked out and put on ice!

We began our journey and I assumed that my transfer was only an hour or so but after a very un-scenic 60 minutes on a main road, I leant forward and asked the driver how much longer. 2 hour. Oh blimey. But it wasn't completely uneventful because immediately after I asked this question we got stopped by the police. There was a road block and we got pulled over. I suddenly panicked. I knew I had nothing illegal on me but you hear these horror stories don't you, where you are an unintentional drug mule and 2 tons of cocaine is suddenly found in the lining of your suitcase. Don't they shoot people in Thailand for drugs? Oh my god. What if they find my numerous bags of prescription medications and think it's illegal. Oh my god. So the door was flung open and the policeman just peered at me. He leaned in really close too and sniffed. I lowered my eyes because I thought this was showing respect and he moved my bags around a bit, looked in the boot and the glove compartment and waved us through. I honestly nearly pooed myself but then I thought, that was such a lazy search, he didn't even check my sponge bag! I felt quite put out that he thought I looked respectable or something.

Two hours later, after a very hectic ferry ride and some treacherous roads filled with mopeds and tuk tuks, we arrived at Narima. N for Narima. N for noise. Yup, my favourite sort of welcome.

Noise comes in 3 forms at Narima; babies, barking and buzzing. Narima is child friendly beyond being child friendly. They are so child friendly that I have a baby in each of the bungalows to my front and either side. Screaming babies. I think I arrived at a really bad time... nap time or feeding time because I honestly was thinking the worst and then suddenly it stopped. Today I positioned myself down the beach away from the swimming pool and that seems to be out of shrieking distance. The barking is not too bad if I'm honest either. Stray beach dogs wander from cove to cove and tell each other where they are or what they've found by barking. But they start early at about 6am. The buzzing is the never-ending stream of whining mopeds bombing past the hotel on the little road at the back. Luckily the beach is below the cliff so during the day it's only a faded whine.

Oh I almost forgot the call to prayer. Most of Thailand is Muslim so you would expect the occasional mosque. But the megaphoned Adhan was totally unexpected at 5am this morning. I sat bolt upright wondering where I was and who was shouting at me in foreign tongues. Just as I had dozed off again then another one started at 6am... along with the dogs, just to ensure you get no lie in at all. Grrr. This happened to my mother, sister and I when we were in Marrakech. We spotted a beautifully decorated minaret next to the roof of our Riad. The next moment we nearly fell over from the sonic boom emitting from the loud speakers just a few metres away, as the call to prayer started. Instruments of torture they were.

So that's the noises ticked. I was very perturbed last night after my long journey, but today, after some sun, some snoozing and some snorkelling, I'm amazingly chilled by the whole thing!!! Just wait until tomorrow morning, then we'll see how chilled I am.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

You fatty.

I have traveled quite a bit in Asia and it never fails to leave me utterly speechless when a complete stranger comes up to me and says, "You very fat," accompanied by a giggle and a big grin, as if they've just said something really complimentary.

This morning, I was limping down the beach and shouted out "sawade" (hello) to one of the female gardeners I see every morning. She came straight up to me, put down her rake, looked me in the eye, squeezed my arms and mimed a very large fish, holding her hands either side of my hips. "You big fat lady," she said with a toothy smile. She then grabbed my hips and squeezed them with affection. I was dumbstruck, which doesn't happen very often, and simply smiled and shrugged. I mean, what do you say to that?

I'm under no illusion that I'm overweight. I see it in the mirror every day and wonder how I can get back to the weight I was. I can barely limp up a flight of stairs right now because my knees still don't work properly, and it's doubly hard to exercise when I have to continually move around between several houses on a weekly basis, starting work early and finishing late, with no access to a swimming pool (my least painful physio) and no routine to speak of. It's just hard. Not impossible but tricky. I eat very healthily,  I don't drink much alcohol anymore (cries of horror from my friends with that comment!), I don't snack and I drink 2 litres of water a day. My body, funnily enough is probably the healthiest it's ever been. I feel fabulous in myself, I just can't seem to shift the weight.

I had my thryoid gland removed when I was 21, and was told by my surgeon that my body would never be the same again. I would struggle with weight and tiredness and I would feel the cold, because the thyroid gland's only job, but incredibly important job, is to figure out how much hormone to produce for your organs to work properly. Imagine it as a car engine, which sets the pace for your body to function. Without a thyroid, without a metabolism, your body shuts down, so I take 3 pills every day to fool my brain into thinking everything works just fine. What I can't do is raise my own metabolism through exercise, so the process is just that much more complicated. Anyway, I never lose hope, and once I have my new home, I can find my groove again, my routine, and all will be good.

But I digress. I worked in Singapore a few years ago and clearly remember a group of young teenage girls pointing at me and laughing behind their hands. We then had to get in the lift together and I basically worked out that they were laughing at how big I was, compared to them. I mean I do stand out in Asia being nearly 5' 10" but to be large as well, was utterly freakish to them.

In Vietnam, I had a guide that took me on his moped for a few days, driving through small remote villages where they'd only ever seen white people on tv. The whole village would emerge to see this strange pale-eyed, white-haired, fat person, clinging on the back of this tiny bike, boobs and bottom jiggling with abandon. I would have laughed seeing me, so I can see how amusing it would have been for them.

But when I was in India, over 15 years ago, being overweight was still seen as a status symbol. At that point I was probably a size 14 so not obese in any shape or form but to them I was huge. Their thinking was that if you are fat, you must eat lots. If you eat lots, then you must be rich, and if you are rich then you must be important or born of a high caste. Thank god this attitude has changed but when I was there, they saw me and made the assumption I was a rich important English lady. Indian tourists would ask to take my photo, as I was trying to take photos of palaces and shrines, so somewhere in India I am in the family photo albums of at least 30 people. Very odd.

In Cuba also, a country that still has communism and ration books, you don't see many overweight people. I was walking down the street with my guide's arm around my waist (Cubans are very tactile), when a man came up to us and whispered in his ear. They both laughed uproariously. I asked what he'd said and Roger, my guide, translated it. "Keep hold of that one, if she can afford to eat that much, maybe she can pay for you to get out of Cuba". Hilarious.

In Sri Lanka, I was in an Ayurvedic Spa for several weeks, and as part of the treatment process, a doctor spent the whole first day checking me over, and I mean checking every nook and cranny, in order to work out my treatment plan. I was handed a 4 page document, which was fascinating, but she then covered the papers with her hand and said, "Basically, you fatty, Miss Juliet". I was also told by the two sisters who massaged me every day, that massaging me was like making bread. Haha. Thanks.

I have always had comments about my size wherever I choose to visit, but they are never said in a mean way. If English had been their first language then I would expect a more subtle choice of description; Plump, chubby, chunky, well-rounded, curvy, big, even. A bit of tact goes a long way but as 'fat' is probably the only word they have been taught, then 'fat' it is. It's actually quite refreshing to be slapped in the face now and again by a three letter word.

I get judged around the world and there is no point trying to explain why's or wherefore's. I just smile graciously and hope they like me anyway. "That fat lady. She nice".

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Sensory overload.

When you have stayed in the homes of friends and family, and in airbnb's and guest houses for the last year and two months, you begin to crave only one thing. Quiet.

I've never been good with noisy neighbours, barking dogs or screaming children but now, more than ever, I yearn for silence. I lived on my own in London for 13 years and I always knew I could come back from work and switch off. I could wander around the flat naked if I so pleased. I could make up dance routines to silly pop songs, I could experiment in the kitchen creating exotic dishes, I could have a bath long enough to crinkle, and I could lie on my bed for hours on end and stare at the ceiling in my own little day-dreaming world. I could do anything I pleased in the comfort of my own home and not have to apologise or explain.

My last 14 months have been full of busy households and complex rules. I never know if a new airbnb will let me use their kitchen let alone if they have a terrible toddler hidden in the next door bedroom. There might be an over-familiar cat on the premises (I'm allergic) or a small yapping dog who likes to wake the residents at dawn. But there is never ever total quiet. There's always the noise of other present humans and sometimes I tiptoe around the spare rooms because I actually don't want my host to come and check on me and force me into yet another awkward chat about what I do or where I'm from.

I used to love small talk. I could small talk for England and yet now, when small talk is forced upon me in my after-work time, I just want to get as far away from it as possible. It's different at my parent's house obviously. They know me well enough that when I say I'm just going to read for a bit or tell them I'm doing my physio or write or do some work... it's a much bigger statement of fact because I'm actually saying, I'd just like to be on my own for a while please. And they get it.

My only other safe haven, my sanctuary and my chosen place to scream and shout and sing at the top of my lungs with no one to judge me, is my car... my gorgeous, gnarled, weatherbeaten, golden goddess of a saloon car, with her comfy fabric seats and a radio that only manages to tune into local radio stations when I twiddle the coat hanger aerial in the right direction. Here I can listen to audio books on an actual tape deck (young people, ask your parents what that is), I can swear at stupid drivers, talk to myself in funny voices and wind all the windows down and pretend I'm in an 80's music video, lip-syncing to classic rock!

So when I booked my trip to Thailand with my two friends, there really was only one requirement. Quiet. Quiet as in nature quiet. I don't expect the weather to turn off, for the birds to pipe down. I don't want the tides to stop or the leaves to still their rustling. I just don't want raucous beach bars and noisy neighbours.

Paradise resort is called paradise for a reason. It's tagline is 'back to nature' and that is exactly what you get. It's almost as if everyone that arrives here signs an agreement to shhh. Except of course the woman in the room next to me!! She didn't get the memo about it being back to nature, wasn't told to shhh, and could be heard by the 40 other guests from one end of the resort to the other. It's amusing to watch a middle-aged drunk woman make a fool of herself for a day or so, but after that it gets very tiresome. Having been in the room next to her for 2 hideous nights was quite the bad luck but I was re-housed swiftly, with many Paradise apologies and the day after that she left the resort proclaiming she was bored! The island and the guests sighed with mutual relief and now all is calm again.

My day is noisiest at 6:30am when I hear the first deep hoots from the hornbills in the trees surrounding my room. I thought they were monkeys at first and got quite excited until the manager told me, "No monkeys here", as he laughed with a similar hooting noise.
The hootings rapidly turn to squawks as the hornbills defend the female's nest from pesky squirrels. They flap and snap and hop from branch to branch sometimes miscalculating and landing with a thump on the thatched roof above my head. This wakes the tree frogs who beep beep their good mornings and then the rest of the bird and insect worlds join in.

As the day begins to warm up the rainforest quietens and I can hear the waves lapping on the beach. I don't put my air conditioning on because I would miss half the sounds but I have the gentle tick whir of the ceiling fan. The first human sounds I hear are the soft flip flops on the cement path outside as a few early risers head for the yoga pavilion. I haven't quite made the 7am class yet, preferring to lie with all my doors and windows open, a coffee in hand, and wake up gently with the forest creatures.

Around 8:30 I leave my sanctuary and have breakfast at the beach restaurant, then head for a tree-shaded sun lounger. And then that's it. For hours and hours all I hear is the sea, a few fishing boats and muted conversations in foreign tongues. No one is loud here. There are no rowdy beach games or screaming kids. There are no barking dogs or whining mopeds. There is nothing. I have ended up moving myself closer to a gorgeous gay couple because the sound of them speaking Italian to each other lulls me to sleep. I have told them this and they love that their language is a lullaby. I am also enjoying small talk again. Small and quiet small talk. There is the occasional creaking as someone eases themselves into a hammock or a splash might be heard from the pool. A kiss might come from one of the honeymoon couples, or the soft slap of hand on oiled skin from the spa. Pages of books being turned and the pft pft of sunscreen being sprayed are the loudest it gets. And then as people grow beach and sun weary, they pad their way back to their rooms for showers and siestas. The hum of air con units being turned on, doors being opened and closed, and the occasional swoosh of a brush as the gardeners sweep up dry leaves.

And then the heavens open. 4 inches of rain can fall in a single hour. It's loud and awesome. Solid sheets of water cascading through leaves and thundering onto the thatched roofs. Inside the room it's deafening and exhilarating and suddenly it stops as quickly as it started as if a giant tap has been turned off and only the drips and plonks and plinks remain. Once again the rainforest surges with life until the sun goes down and then only the cicadas are left, rubbing their legs together in the dark. Then the clack of shoes as guests head back out for dinner, jumping to avoid the puddles.

I stayed in my room last night, missing dinner, because I was trying to remember what this noisy silence sounded like. Away from the cities and houses. Away from cars and buses. Away from computers and mobile phones. And I tried to store it in my memory bank so I could bring it back when I next needed it.

I only have one more day left in Paradise and then I head for Koh Lanta. But let's hope paradise awaits me there too.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

It started with a bell.

Like Pavlov's dog, the tinkle of a little bell makes some of my sun-lounging neighbours leap up from their horizontal slumberings and head, zombie-fashion, to the little thatched beach bar for a happy hour tipple. Happy hour can be at 10am here so these are very hardy imbibers.

I am in a very small remote boutique resort built within a nature reserve, on an equally small island, surrounded by stunning limestone cliffs, in the Andaman Sea in Thailand. The individual bungalows and studios are dotted throughout the lush rainforest with only hornbills, tree frogs and black squirrels for company. My company, however, are two of my closest girlfriends, and as the resort is very dreamy and romantic, attracting many a honeymooning couple, we are rather an incongruous trio!

I'm not sure people have quite worked us out. We decided to splash out a little and got separate rooms rather than sharing. We also booked independently so our rooms aren't even close to each other. I then made up a very ill husband in order to get a hideous drunk guest to shut the hell up at 4 in the morning. It's so much easier to tell an inebriated middle aged woman to stop singing and shouting in the adjacent room, if you make up someone that is literally at death's door and can't take the noise. She can't get cross because it's not you that's complaining but your dying husband! The fact that the next morning my gravely ill partner was nowhere to be seen, just added to overall confusion.

I had complicated matters further by emailing the hotel staff a few weeks prior to our arrival, requesting a very quiet room but that was still in hobbling distance to the beach and restaurant. Not knowing which request to prioritise, I was given a beautiful room at the back of the property, right at the top of a hill. We realised, pretty quickly, that it would be impossible for me to limp up there several times a day, so they put me in a different room, on the flat and only a second's walk to the beach.

Unfortunately this second room was next door to the only drunk on the island and below another very active family. Quiet it was not. So after another reshuffle I am now in a one-storey room that's quiet, and on the flat. Hurrah. The drunk woman has also left the island. Hurrah hurrah.

But back to the little bell. I have now learnt that it is not rung simply to advertise cheap drinks, it is also rung by the cleaning girls as they approach your room, to warn you of their approach in case you are up to something in your room. No chance of that with us three solo travellers but as I mentioned before, there are quite a few honeymoon couples here. I'm sure it's so much nicer to hear the tinkle of a bell while you are in flagrante, than housekeeping just walking in unannounced.

The third type of bell tinkle is the turn down service. I have only just discovered this because I spent the evening trying to write in my room rather than at the bar and restaurant. My lovely partners in crime left the island today to do a bit of island hopping so I have another 5 days here on my own. By choice, I hasten to add. I wanted a bit of time before meeting up again on another island, to read and write and sleep and do yoga. Just a bit of time to switch off completely. So as I was scribbling away this evening, on my little patio, I heard a little tinkle outside my door. Then another tinkle, louder this time, before the door was flung open and in came a sweet young boy who bowed deeply, placed a lit citronella candle in my lantern, turned down my bed covers and arranged the mosquito netting. Never will a ringing bell be more appreciated.

I am going for my first massage tomorrow and as anyone who has followed my travel blogs know, I always love a local massage. Some are more successful and relaxing than others. I am hoping it resembles my luxurious Vietnamese or Sri Lankan massages rather than the traditional Chinese massage I had in Singapore, where the masseur literally wrestled me into unfathomable positions before I was slapped punched and pinched half to death.

I will keep you posted.

Sunday, 4 December 2016

It all started with a black cat.

It all started with a black cat. A black cat that had disappeared from my landlady’s house 2 years previously, and then miraculously reappeared the night I came to stay.

Pip, the Airbnb owner, had been telling me about her missing cat because I’d noticed a cat flap in the kitchen. Her beloved moggie had just upped and left one day. She was convinced nothing sinister had happened because a few people had spotted it from time to time, up a tree or in their back garden, so she just hoped that one day it would get sick of its extended holiday and come back to her. Fast forward to 2am.

I had been trying to get comfy in yet another strange bed, tossing and turning, getting the pillows just right, when I realised I needed the loo. I blindly fumbled my way across the room, trying to remember the layout of the place, and opened the door, taking a tentative step forward as my eyes adjusted to the darkness. My foot landed on something soft and squidgy, which immediately let out a blood-curdling high-pitched meowl, and a shadowy black blob shot down the hall. I, meanwhile, jumped two feet in the air, let out a startled cry, lurched forward, banged my head on the bathroom door and almost fell down the stairs. I had just righted myself when Pip came out of her bedroom. She flipped on the hall light, and ignoring me completely, dropped to the ground with an ecstatic groan, scooping the furry blob into her arms and burying her face in it. It was her black cat, returned from wherever it had been partying for 2 years, in time to try and kill me. Pip was looking at me as if I had performed a miracle, telling me I was her lucky charm, how amazing this was, how she would never ever forget this night. And so it turns out, nor would I.

I’m glad Pip thought I was her lucky charm because it certainly wasn’t reciprocated. Her black cat triggered a series of events for me that have yet to end. I have never been superstitious of black cats crossing my path before but this bloody creature has, subsequently, made me touch wood, cross my fingers, pick up pennies and avoid ladders and umbrellas completely! You see, most people believe bad luck comes in three’s…. I’m now up to ten, in the space of ten days.

1. My computer
The following evening when I got back from work, I walked into Pip’s kitchen and the black cat was upon me, purring like a tractor engine, winding itself through my legs and trying to jump on my lap as I was eating my supper. The thing would not leave me alone. I stupidly stroked it a few times and then even more stupidly touched my face. As people allergic to cats well know, this is a rather silly thing to do because the moment the cat dander touches your skin, you itch, and then after the itching, your eyes might swell up. Yay. I extracted myself from the cat and went up to the bedroom just as my eyes were going a bit puffy. I turned on my Mac laptop and watched in squinty horror as the screen went dark and an unhappy face appeared. Oh dear. I looked at it for a few seconds and the unhappy face changed to a Do not Enter sign. Shit. But I didn’t panic, I like to think I’m quite nifty with a Mac so I did all the things you can do to reboot the system, launched a problem sorting page, did an internal check etc. but still, every time I restarted it, the unhappy face returned. Time to call Apple.

Long story short, Apple told me, in no uncertain terms, that my computer was buggered. I would need to take it to a genius bar in-store, and they would be able to restore my hard drive from my back-up. I did have a back-up drive didn’t I? I’m sure you think I’m about to say I didn’t, but have faith lovely people, I did have a back-up drive and I had actually backed up my whole system and all my work, files, photos, music etc. only a few days before. All I needed to do was take my laptop and my external hard drive to the store and they would do the rest.

To explain what happened next, I need to use the analogy that my laptop and my back-up are like the Queen and Prince Charles. They never fly on the same plane in case it crashes because then the heir to throne is lost along with the current monarch. Not good. So my laptop is the Queen and my external hard drive is Prince Charles. In this analogy, the plane crashes.

2. The break-in
The next day I drove to London with my precious cargo of laptop and back-up drive in my car. I was meeting my friend in Islington to see the ballet so I drove through London and managed, miraculously, to find a parking space right opposite the theatre. I had packed my computer and back-up at the bottom of an overnight bag and then had hidden the whole thing under the passenger seat, on the advice of Apple, I hasten to add. When I explained the age of my car to them, they were worried the cold of the boot might damage my Mac further, so suggested I keep it inside. I hesitated for a nano-second as I got out of the car, realising it wasn’t exactly sensible leaving my laptop and back-up together, but also knowing that the appearance of my car would put off the majority of passers-by. I love my car but I’m possibly the only one that does. She is over 30 years old, is covered in scratches and dents, looks like an 80’s mini cab and has a coat hanger for an aerial. Inside the car was an old sleeping bag, a trillion empty coffee cups, bags of rubbish, my crutches, several old coats, scarves and a dirty towel. To be honest it looked like I slept in the car rather than drove it around, so I didn’t for one second think this was an appealing target compared to the Mercedes and Volvos parked around me. Wrong.

My friend and I were in an ebullient mood after the ballet and planned on driving back to her flat in Notting Hill and having a little booze-up in her local pub. As we approached the car, my friend commented on the mess inside and I was about to defend my gorgeous Gigi (aka The Golden Goddess, aka my car), when I realised the window had been smashed, all the seats had been pulled forward, everything had been dragged through from the boot and yes, you guessed it, my overnight bag had been stolen from underneath the passenger seat. Nooooo!!!

The Police came very quickly and were brilliant. I had begun to be slightly hysterical as I remembered exactly what had been on the computer. And then more hysterical when I realised all the stuff on my back-up, my Prince Charles, had gone too. There was a chance some of it was on iCloud but I couldn’t be sure. CCTV was called and were sorry to announce that that particular street camera was not working. Forensics were called but at the last minute they were diverted to a stabbing. Even though it was a busy street and opposite a busy theatre, not one person had seen anything! The police wrote down as many stolen items as I could remember in my shocked state and my friend even went looking around the nearby streets, convinced the thieves would have taken the computer and chucked the rest of it. But no, nothing was found. I immediately launched the tracking device on my iPhone and was able to write the burglars a message. As soon as they attempted to turn on my laptop, they would read the following;
Dear burglars, if you are reading this, the Police and I have already traced your location. Oh, and by the way, you have stolen a Mac that doesn’t actually work. Haha!

3. The dead car
The police left and my friend and I decided that a stiff drink was now even more essential so we cleared away most of the broken glass, put everything else in the boot (ironic) and started the car. The car wouldn’t start. It was completely dead. I knew what must have happened... the burglars had smashed the window, triggering the immobiliser, and if you don’t turn the immobiliser off within 5 minutes, the whole system locks up. I mean it’s clever because it deters people from actually stealing the car, but now I couldn’t bloody drive it myself. I was hysterical again for a moment before I called the AA. They said they were terribly sorry for what had happened and would try and get there within the hour. An hour!!! I exclaimed. But we’ll freeze to death and I’ve just been robbed... please, you can’t leave us here alone, so late at night, in this terribly rough neighbourhood (in my mind, Islington was now a dangerous ghetto). My dramatic and embarrassingly pathetic female plea seemed to do the trick and the AA man was with us within 10 minutes. He fixed the immobiliser and wrapped sticky plastic around the smashed window so we wouldn’t freeze, and we finally headed back to West London. But of course, by this time the bloody pubs were closed. Typical.

4. No insurance
Even though I had the tracking device activated on my computer, modern thieves aren’t that stupid. They haven’t turned on my Mac and they probably never will. I imagine it’s already in Africa or Asia where it will be wiped and sold on. My back-up is gone as are over 3,000 photos, all my design work and portfolio, and worst of all, my writing. My novel, my unposted blogs, my travel stories, my journal. In seconds, 20 years of my life disappeared. Even a 2 hour conversation with the Apple support team could only get a few photos back. Nothing else. Apparently iCloud doesn’t always work. Bad luck they said. Macs are clever little buggers but don’t rely on the sodding cloud. You can always rely on Prince Charles, of course, just never let him leave the house.

I rang my car insurance and guess what? Electronic items such as computers, phones and cameras aren’t covered by most policies. We then checked my father’s home insurance (as that is where I have been living on and off for the last year) and we stupidly and with ridiculous honesty, told them the bag had been under the passenger seat and not in the boot. Sorry we don’t cover items stolen from inside the car, they said, we only pay out if they are locked in the glove compartment or the boot. Bugger! Even my parent’s cleaning lady, who is an ex copper, told us to lie to the insurance people but it was too late, it was done. I started to tot up everything that was missing. How much money I would need to replace everything. The Mac and back-up alone were about £1600, but then I began to list the perfume, make-up, skin creams, the Nike trainers and cashmere jumper, the stupidly overpriced moleskin notebooks, my expensive cotton pyjamas. I may not look it half the time, but I realised I have rather expensive taste. As I underlined the figure of £2,400, I came to the conclusion that lying to insurance companies is a much better way to go.

5. The boiler
A few days later, with broken car window fixed and many friends and work colleagues coming to my rescue to try and get as much of my portfolio, writing and life back, I was in London, once again, but this time I was in my Balham flat going through the inventory with my tenants on their last day. They have been the best tenants and I would have kept them on except for the fact that I have decided to leave London for good, sell my Balham flat and relocate to Somerset. Everything is going swimmingly. An offer has been made on the flat, and after the slightly stressful middle bit with estate agent and solicitors and endless paperwork, we are merely days away from completing (crossed fingers, touch wood). But as I stood chatting to my tenant in the kitchen, I realised how bloody cold the flat was without all their stuff in it, so I went to put the heating on. Hmmm, that’s strange, it’s not starting up as normal. I checked everything, asked the tenants if they’d twiddled or done anything strange, turned it off and on, and eventually it clicked and began to work. A few numbers and letters flashed up on the little warning screen but nothing to worry about eh?

As it was going to be one of my last days in the flat, and possibly Balham, I decided to treat myself to breakfast in the best Australian cafĂ© in London called Milk (Aussies really have breakfast down to an art form). After scoffing poached eggs, crispy pancetta, sourdough toast, avocado salsa, burnt butter hollandaise and a few latte’s, I returned to the flat. Stone cold. Hmm. I switched a few things off and on again, turned the power off at the mains, checked the fuses in the wall and the plug, checked the thermostat, but nothing was happening. I had only that morning told the estate agent that I would be happy to show the new buyers round and explain how everything worked, but now the bloody boiler wasn’t actually working. Panic! A quick ring to British Gas and luckily they can come round on Monday and take a look. Please, please, please... let it be something minor (crossed fingers, touch wood).

6. The bed
An hour later I had a screwdriver in hand and was attempting to dismantle my old wooden bed. My friend was coming with a rented van to move the last few big pieces of my furniture out of the flat so I was trying to be helpful and have everything ready for him. I heard a weird creak as I undid one of the big supporting bolts and as I bent down to look what had happened, my door buzzed. I let my friend and his mate in and they helped me with the last few bed screws. Suddenly, as they lifted the bed away from the wall, we heard a loud crack and both side panels split in two. We all just looked at it, completely dumfounded, not entirely sure how it had happened, but one thing was clear, the bed was destroyed. My tenants had been seconds away from landing on the floor so God knows what they’d been up to! But at this point, there was no reason to be dismayed. When so many crap things happen in the space of a few days, you have to laugh don’t you? On the plus side, there was one less thing to load into the van!

7. The parking ticket
My friend and I had finally emptied the flat and filled the van when one of my old neighbours, a large lolloping character called Sag who also has the unfortunate affliction of being wall-eyed, dragged himself over to where we were standing and said, “You’ve got a parking ticket.” As neither my friend nor I knew exactly which one of us he was looking at, we both looked at our windscreens. Of course, it was mine that had the violation. I ripped it from the windscreen using every swear word I knew, and looked at the explanation for the penalty charge. It said I was parked without clearly displaying a valid parking permit. We all looked at my windscreen, and there, dangling from my front mirror, was my bright pink parking permit. Only a blind traffic warden could not have spotted it. I was furious and screwed it up and threw it on the ground, immediately picking it up again and smoothing it out on the car bonnet… I’m not that much of a rebel. Sag looked at me, I think, and helpfully suggested that I don’t pay it. “Of course I’m not bloody paying it,” I shouted, “They’re all bloody idiots. ID-EE-OTS!!!” I looked around furtively, just in case a warden was lurking somewhere, and let out a loud guttural growl. £105 fine for parking legally in my own parking space. Honestly, could this day get any worse?

8. The traffic jam

We headed out of London at 3pm, me in my car and my friend in his van behind me. It was a pretty good time to set off… early enough to escape both the rush hour and the 4x4 mums picking up their kids from school. We got onto the motorway and were only about an hour from my parent’s house when my friend rang my mobile to tell me we might hit a bit of a delay because of an accident he’d heard reported on local radio. No worries I thought... it won’t be too bad. At 7:30pm, my friend called my mobile again, sounding as if he was about to commit Hari Kari. Can we please stop and get some sustenance, he begged, we’ve been stuck for over 3 hours and by the sounds of it we aren’t going anywhere soon. There are two car crashes, one car fire and the ambulance that was called out has just crashed into the back of a lorry. You couldn’t make it up! We snail-paced it to the next motorway service station and both got out of our vehicles as if we were made of stiff board. We creaked to the main entrance and disappeared to the loo, meeting up again minutes later at the food area. I have never ever wanted junk food more in my life. Fried chicken, burger? I was literally drooling as I approached KFC and was about to place my order when the whole place went black. Power cut.

9. The black out
After about 30 seconds of pitch black and a few gasps and screams, the emergency lighting came on. A sinister glow took over the building as silhouetted people began to sit closer to each other and hold their bags a little tighter. I simply rolled my eyes and looked over at my friend in the adjacent burger queue. He raised one eyebrows as if to say, “Is this really happening?” I nodded back. I placed my order and 4 young spotty-faced teenagers looked up at me from behind the counter, as if they had only just noticed me standing there. “We can’t serve you, the computers don’t work” he said glumly, staring at the screen as it began to reboot. “Why don’t I get some food, while it’s still hot, and then you can come and get me when they computers are back up, and I can pay?” I suggested. They stared at me open-mouthed, their little noughties brains not computing this at all. “We can’t give you free food!” one of the girls said, tutting. I explained that I wasn’t asking for free food, I was simply trying to get something to eat before it all went stone cold. “I spose we could take cash if you have the exact change!” The first boy mumbled as the others looked at him aghast. “I don’t have any cash” I said, “Well, not enough anyway.” And that was the end of that conversation. They returned to look at the blank screen as if the world had ended.

My friend and I managed to club together enough change and buy some reduced-price prawn sandwiches. We could only pray that the prawns weren’t so old that we would be the next culprit of my run of bad luck and soon be doubled over and squitty as we sat in the remaining traffic jam. We finally got to my parent’s house around 8:30pm. It was freezing cold and dark and my friend and I were completely exhausted. My poor parents who had been all snug in the house, came out to help unload the van, and between us, we managed to get everything into the summerhouse… and the garage. I had been storing my things in my parent’s summerhouse for the last year. It wasn’t supposed to have been that long, the plan was for me to find a new home after a few months and move out, but I had changed plans halfway through the year and so needed to keep all my things at their house for a bit longer. With the addition of these last final bits of furniture, I had outgrown the summerhouse and was now entering into a completely prohibited area of my parent’s property... the garage. My father’s man-cave, his sacred space, his workshop, his escape. It was now the new home of my sofa bed and my chest of drawers. Eeek, sorry Daddy.

10. My eye
The following day, after a fitful sleep, I drove up to London again. I had been having a few problems with itchy eyes, blurry eyes and generally a bit crap eyes so I had to go to Moorfield’s Eye Hospital to see the specialist. After a few minutes, some tests, photographs and an exam, the specialist told me I had over-enthusiastic sebaceous eye glands, that were blocking my tear ducts, and that I would have to milk them. Excuse me? Yes, milk them. I don’t know how this happened or how long it’s been going on but I have never had a more extraordinary 10 minutes. Watching this very important man demonstrate eye milking will remain with me for the rest of my days. It seems improbable too, in this particularly awful annus horribilis (that is not a rude bottom ailment for those that don’t know Latin, by the way), I have cried a lot. My tear ducts seem to be in perfect working order but hey, who am I to question a specialist!

I am hoping that this is it. Ten things in ten days must be pushing the boundaries of bad luck for one person surely? But to be on the safe side, if anyone has a spare rabbit’s foot, a four-leaf clover or a horseshoe, then please send them my way. I’m easy to find, just follow the trail of disasters and you will discover me locked in a padded room until the God’s of doom decide to pick on someone else!


Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Madhouse.

It’s been 10 months, 9 days and 5 hours since my home address no longer existed. 10 months exactly since I moved to my parents house to recuperate from knee surgery. 10 months since I left London. I never thought I would still be here. My parents definitely didn’t think I would still be here. We are all in shock.

My Father’s old boys lunch club gathers every other Thursday at a local hostelry somewhere in Hampshire. They always choose a proper pub – no music, no video games – with good food. I only mention these gatherings because the first question they ask my Father when they’ve all got their drinks, ordered and sat down, is, So Peter, is your daughter still with you? My Father sighs dramatically and responds with a solemn hunch of the shoulders, Yes, she’s still here. They respond with understanding nods and sympathetic grunts. On the other end of the spectrum, when my friends ask me if I’m still living with my parents, and I pause and say, Yup, still there, my friends can’t hide their horror. What?? they cry, Oh my God, you must be going insane!

Yes I am. I am in my own personal Madhouse. It’s a sort of slow-burning insanity that builds up over the months and bursts forth in spectacular displays of tantrums, hysteria, crying and shouting. It’s not pretty but it is necessary. A volcano can’t stay dormant forever (ok some do, but let’s not dwell on those) and if I didn’t have a dramatic outburst of emotions every now and again, then it would sit and fester and smoulder and it would be a very dangerous thing indeed. Better out than in, some would say. I realise friends and family suffer the effects of these eruptions, like poor unsuspecting Pompeiians... covered from head to toe in verbal lava before they have a chance to escape, and I apologise to all. But as well as living in my own internal Madhouse, I have also stayed in some particularly mad houses.

Since last November, I have spent 4 months chez my parentals, followed by a sordid array of B&B’s, Airbnb’s, Guesthouses, Pubs and Hotels, not forgetting friends and family (but I couldn’t possibly say any of those were a little nutty otherwise I wouldn’t get asked back!). Let’s just say I have slept on air beds, camp beds, sofa beds, sofas, floors, bunk beds and sometimes no beds. I have been squashed into kids bedrooms, left to freeze in attic rooms, wheezed in damp basements and broiled in conservatories. I have been swathed in every kind of sheet, duvet, eiderdown, sleeping bag and blanket you can imagine. I have bounced around on hard mattresses, sunk into spongy mattresses, fallen off blow-up mattresses and been sent to heaven whilst lying on the most expensive mattresses ever made (you know who you are, you lovely lovely We just get everything from John Lewis, bugger the cost, people). I have been woken by cat mewls, dog barks, horse neighs, children screaming and babies crying and have drawn the bedroom curtains of these rooms, completely unsure of what I will find outside the next day. Views change from grey urban sprawls to green undulating countryside. I have stayed on main roads and down country lanes, 40 floors up and 2 floors down, rural farmhouses and modern blocks. I have seen it all, done it all, and am tired of it all. I want my own bed, my own space and my own home. I want to leave my parents house with them still liking me, and I want to be able to put them up in my home and look after them for a change (I don’t mean forever, you understand, I just mean the odd weekend!)

I spend, on average, 6 hours a week trying to find places to stay for the following weeks, when I may be working in London, Bath, Bristol or anywhere in between. I’m still freelancing and I’m still working all over the place so I need somewhere to rest my head that’s close by. Add in the tricky necessity of places that don’t have too many stairs (bionic knees don’t like stairs) and that have free parking (bionic knees don’t like public transport) and the choices become fewer. In London, free parking is as rare as conversations on the Tube, so to find a house with either a driveway or a parking permit, and which is available for the dates I need, is rare indeed. To then find one in hobbling distance from the design studio is even rarer. I then need to make sure I can actually eat. Many Airbnb’s won’t allow you to keep anything in the fridge, let alone use their kitchen or eat food in your room, so you then have to figure out where the nearest pub, cafe or restaurant is, and if you simply can’t afford to eat out, you have to be prepared to ingeniously smuggle in a cold sandwich and some grapes, in the hope they don’t catch you eating in bed or find giveaway crumbs on their eiderdown!

Changing beds every few days is tough because it always takes me at least one night to get used to where I am, the new sounds and smells, the bed and the pillows not being quite how I like them, the temperature always being too hot or too cold. Having to share a bathroom is one of my absolute bugbears too so I always try and rent somewhere with an en-suite. Coming face to face with scantily clad strangers in the middle of the night, half-asleep and staggering on creaking landings, blindly wandering down dimly lit hallways trying to find the lavvy, is horrendous. I hate seeing and interacting with strangers when I don’t want to, so being forced into these awkward situations is my idea of hell.

Actually my idea of hell has been fully realised. It is waking up 2 hours before your alarm goes off in a stuffy and too bright room after having a terrible night’s sleep (which are too numerous to mention), followed by the inability to have a shower in the shared bathroom as one of the other guests is using it. While you wait for the other guest to use up all the hot water, and listen as they fart, cough and spit their way to an ablution conclusion, you decide to make yourself a cup of coffee, but there are only those tiny cartons of UHT milk on the tea tray in your room, so you make do with cheap instant black coffee that tastes like gravy. Once washed and dressed, you then face the stranger you saw half naked in the middle of the night, at the breakfast table and proceed to make the most monotone, monosyllabic and cringeworthy small-talk ever! I hate mornings, I hate talking in the mornings and I hate talking to strangers in the mornings. You get the picture.

Talking of pictures, picture the listing I saw for an Airbnb property in East Bristol; Stunning 1930’s house with original features, wooden floorboards throughout, generous south-facing bedroom with homemade Kingsize bed, shared bathroom, compact kitchen overlooking sunny garden, free parking, breakfast included, friendly owner and pets, £30 a night. Yes, that’s what I thought. £30? Too good to be true. I should have dwelt more on my first gut instinct and focused on the words; homemade, shared, compact and pets. Of course I didn’t query any of this because I was too busy thinking what a bargain I’d got. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Necessity never made a good bargain.” He was right.

I arrived at the property and was welcomed by the owner and her two cats. I love cats but I am allergic. I can pick them up and stroke them but then I must wash my hands immediately. Under no circumstances can I get cat hair in my eyes or up my nose. If this happens I very quickly turn into Shrek. So I usually have to email ahead just to check that the room advertised hasn’t had cats on the bed or pillows, otherwise I’d be in trouble. I was assured that the cats didn’t go in the room but as I walked into the bedroom of this particular Airbnb, I wasn’t so sure. All the soft furnishings seemed to have absorbed the smell of cat and kitty litter and I got that sort of itchy roof of the mouth thing as soon as I put my bags down. Oh dear. The bedroom was indeed large and sunny but the homemade bed was something else. It was a humungous wooden structure with giant metal bolts protruding out of it, dominating the room at over 10 foot square. It was a cross between a medieval torture device and Noah’s Arc. As well as the prospective splinter and bolt wound hazards, it was also 4 feet off the ground. Now I’m tall but even I had to launch myself onto it, an ungainly Fosbury Flop if ever there was. I then checked out the bathroom. Jesus. Neon orange from floor to ceiling with orange accessories, orange towels and even orange shower gel. The only things that weren’t orange were the bathtub, the sink and 3 rolls of toilet paper. I went back into the hallway and noticed a piece of paper blue-tacked to my door which had JULIET x 1 written on it. On the door adjacent to mine the note said JING x 2. Another door, I hadn’t noticed before, had no note and no door handle. I gulped and went down to the kitchen to put some food in the fridge. My hostess was making a cup of tea and we squeezed passed each other in the tiny galley kitchen, reddening as we came face to face. I asked her about JING x 2 and she said, Oh didn’t I mention there were other guests staying? You will have to share the bathroom I’m afraid. My face remained blank, I think. They’re Japanese though, so I’m sure they’ll be neat and tidy, she added helpfully.

Hmm. I’ve mentioned that sharing bathrooms with strangers is my pet peeve. It’s bad enough with your own family but no one should have to endure the hair and smells of people you’ve never met before! And now I was going to have to sort out a bloody rota with strange Japanese people. Ugh, so annoying. I went back upstairs and gently knocked on their door. A teeny tiny person with lots of hair answered and immediately bowed at me. Disconcerting. I sort of bowed back and asked if she/he spoke English. The reply wasn’t in a language I understood so I presumed that to be a negative. At least the tone of voice was high-pitched enough for me to deduce that the hairball was at least female. I then did that awful slow speaking and charades thing that I see other people do with foreigners and hated myself instantly. I attempted to act out; Me, bath, 10pm tonight, and then me, shower 8am tomorrow please. Ok? I asked. She nodded. You know what’s coming right? Right. At 10pm I went down the hallway to the bathroom and could hear someone having a shower. I went back to my room and sat on the bed for 10 minutes, straining to hear if the shower had been turned off. I waited and waited. At 10:40 I was pissed off. Firstly there would be no bloody hot water left, secondly I was tired and wanted to go to bed! I went to knock on the bathroom door and suddenly it was flung open, steam poured out, and a big-haired thing emerged, bowing and uttering strange words. I went in and promptly slid across the floor. There was about an inch of water on the linoleum and all of the orange towels were heaped, sodden, in the corner. Bloody hell. I went downstairs, tapped on the sitting room door and asked my hostess for more towels. More towels! she exclaimed, But there were at least 4 in there. I nodded and shrugged and said, I’m not sure our Japanese sister understands the complexities of putting the shower curtain inside the bath, there’s water everywhere. She rolled her eyes and followed me back upstairs, reaching into a hall cupboard on the way to extract more towels. She mopped the floor and left me to it.

Having a bath in two inches of water is not my idea of relaxing so I got out a few minutes later and brooded about what to do the following morning. My neighbours obviously had no comprehension of English, or time, and I worried about the same thing happening in the morning. I would just have to get up earlier. I had a quick pee and reached for the loo paper. Nothing. I swivelled around and all discovered all 3 loo rolls were missing. Oh bloody hell. I had a quick shake, opened the bathroom door, lent over the banister while trying to hold on to my towel, and quietly shouted, Hello?? You know what I mean by quietly shouted... that sort of loud stage whisper that you think is audible to someone downstairs, watching television, but that won’t be heard by the people in the bedroom behind you. The door opened behind me and 2 perfectly formed Japanese girls stood there, black long straight hair hanging to their waists, blinking at me shyly. Awkward. Toilet paper? I mouthed. There was really no point. I shrugged and shouted downstairs again, Helloooooo? One of the girls cleared her throat, Hello, she said. It was like hearing a pet talk. I wanted to coax more out of it, feed it treats to say something else but nothing was forthcoming. Then, thank God, my hostess came upstairs, took one look at the girls, then at me in my towel and said, What now? I grimaced. There’s no toilet roll, I said, I think they might have used it all. She stared into the bathroom and put her hands on her hips. But there were 3 rolls in there and they’re only tiny! We both giggled because it was so ridiculous. Suffice to say the girls said no more, bowed and shut the door. My hostess found more loo paper and went back downstairs and I went to bed. I slept as well as I normally do in a mad house and woke at 7:30am, grabbed my towel and headed for the bathroom. There was already someone in the shower. Noooooo! Half an hour later, one of the girls emerged and seemed surprised to see me standing there. She smiled sweetly as I slipped passed her. But you say 8am yes? she said quietly as I began closing the bathroom door. Oh now she speaks!

I went to work, came back to the house and spent 20 minutes trying to unlock the front door. The key just wouldn’t work, so I knocked and rang the doorbell and waited and waited. Finally the door was flung open and there stood a 7-foot tall, 20-something black guy, holding a basketball. I stepped back and looked at the front door, thinking I had the wrong house. Um, I said. Hey, he said, I’m Lindell, and he shook my hand, stepped to one side and beckoned me in. Um, I said, holding up the dodgy key. Oh, he said, You’ve got the key that doesn’t work, take mine. And he took his key off his key ring and handed it to me. I thanked him and followed him into the kitchen. Bad idea, no room. I backed out into the hallway again. And you are...? I ventured, poking my head around the door. I’m Lindell, I live here. And gave a me a look like, duh, I just told you my name you idiot. And he bounced his basketball a few times, grabbed an apple from the fruit basket and left. I frowned, sighed, grabbed my salad from the fridge and began to go upstairs, but there was another guy, barrelling down the stairs towards me. He jumped the last 3 steps and landed next to me, grinning. Hey, he said. Hi, I said. Cool, he said, and left.

I learnt from my hostess that the first guy was her lodger, the second guy was her son, I hadn’t met her boyfriend yet but he may be around later. I also found out that she usually rents out 4 rooms on Airbnb, not 2. I was lucky, she said, This week’s quiet.