Friday, 27 December 2013

Christmas with the Old Farts.

When I mention the Old Farts, I am usually referring to my parents. I have called them the Old Farts since they were middle aged, so it has never been a slur but more a family joke and uttered with great affection. This year, I was lucky enough to have a double dose of Old Fartiness, because I was not only with my parents but I also spent half of Christmas Day with 105 genuine old Old Farts.

Two years ago, my sister went to visit her in-laws over Christmas, so my mother, father and I decided we would do something for charity, as it was just the three of us. I say we decided... actually my mother volunteered us and then told us we were all going to help the local Vicar with her Christmas lunch, for the elderly and the lonely. My father, in slightly 'bah humbug' mode, announced he was not at his best making small talk with a large group of strangers, and decided he was much more suited to doing the Meals on Wheels. He would be in his car and not have to talk to anyone for a few hours... perfect. So he was the driver, I was the waitress, and the partnership worked very well. We would find the address of the Meals on Wheels recipient, I would jump out, and as my Father parked the car, I would take the meal inside, have a little or a long chat (depending on the person), run back to the car and we would go to the next person on the list. Dad then drove home whilst I joined my mother back at the Village Hall to help serve drinks and food to the guests. My fathers' only responsibility, once home, was to turn the oven on ready for the turkey and then remember to come back to the Village Hall 3 hours later, to take some of the old folk home. Unfortunately Dad, exhausted from his driving exertions, promptly fell asleep as soon as he sat in his armchair, and not only forgot to turn on the oven but forgot to come back to the Village Hall. Lots of shuffling pensioners waited impatiently for their chauffeur to return, and after a frantic phone call he turned up, irritable and bed-headed from his afternoon nap! But we all agreed that we had really enjoyed it, so when my sister told us she was away again this year, we decided to volunteer anew. Unfortunately, my mother wasn't feeling a 100% on Christmas morning, so my parents stayed at home to prepare lunch whilst I went off in search of the other Old Farts.

We all met at noon in the reception area of some private flats, that had allowed their space to be turned into a 'pop-up' restaurant for the day. Waitrose had very generously donated £1,500 to the Charity and also provided the tree and decorations, so the space looked stunning. We had about 8 volunteers in the kitchen and maybe 12 of us on the floor, each with very specific jobs. Initially, I was given the job of Waitress, but the Vicar soon realised I was better suited to Greeter, Stick and Zimmer frame organiser, Name Tag Writer, Barmaid, Loo Escort, Raffle Ticket Seller, Quiz Master, and basically anything that involved talking. I wonder why? But the old dears, especially the women, love a good natter so it was a good match.

As I poured more and more sherry, things got quite animated and one table of 5 men, all over 80, got so rowdy I labelled them the 'naughty table' (which they loved). But as the day wore on, I began to get a little worried about the amount of alcohol being consumed and asked the Vicar if any of them had driven to the venue. She laughed and said that considering the average age was about 92, she didn't think so. When I then suggested going round the room, asking everyone to put their keys in a bowl just to be on the safe side, she put her arm around me and said, "Juliet, I'm not sure if you were around in the 70's, but asking a group of strangers to put their keys in a bowl, meant something else entirely!" Haha… our very fruity Vicar.

So, apart from the 'naughty table' becoming a little frisky, there was only one man I had to give a slightly wide berth to, and his name was Kevin. Two years ago, Kevin took a bit of a shine to me, and would grab my arm or leg every time I passed his table, quickly becoming a little more amorous than I would have liked. He became so 'touchy feely' that the Vicar refused to let me drive him home on my own, in case he 'tried something'. Haha. Kevin was 70 and in a wheel chair... I'm still not quite sure what the Vicar thought he was going to do!! But this time Kevin wasn't quite so shy with his advances, and after asking all sorts of awkward personal questions, he put his hand on my bottom and demanded that I take him to the bathroom. Um. Now there are rules we have to follow in these situations... the women take the women to the loo and the men take the men, end of discussion. I tried to explain to Kevin that he needed a male helper, but he was having none of it and shouted out quite dramatically that he wanted Juliet, or no one! Why men I've dated can't be quite so loyal, I don't know. It took a quiet word in his ear from the Vicar for him to back down, and the rest of the afternoon he behaved like an angel.

I did make a very special friend during lunch though... the lovely Scott. After giving him a few extra sausages with his meal, he began to follow me around the room, occasionally nudging me and looking at me with the most handsome dark brown eyes. He was a guide dog. A beautiful shiny black labrador who obviously had a thing for chipolatas wrapped in bacon. He was owned by the equally divine David, a blind man in his 50's who was so charming and kind, I was tempted to hang out with him for the rest of the day.

There were some other wonderful characters too; A 90 year old Jamaican woman called Phyllis, who had come over to England almost sixty years ago. She was very shy and softly spoken until she won the raffle an hour later, and leapt out of her seat with a loud whoop, exclaiming “I've won, I've won, I've never won anything before!”; Another lady called Edith was 102 and the best dressed in the house. She sat very demurely, in a beautiful red crepe tea dress, handbag tightly held on her knees, and every time I went over to check on her, she would take a sip of sherry and tell me about another operation she'd had. The elderly do love talking about their health, and I may not have learnt all their names but I certainly knew who'd had what done; There was Doris in her late 80's, who loved to dance and had turned up in a matching sequin shoe and dress ensemble with an elaborate feather fascinator perched on her bouffant. She would disappear every 20 minutes and I got a bit worried, so when she left the room the next time I followed her, finding her happily dancing around outside whilst puffing on a cigarette; Albert was another Centenarian but incredibly grumpy. He complained about everything, from the music to the drinks, and when I put the Christmas pudding down in front of him, he looked at it it with disgust and said, “I hate Christmas pudding, always have... Get me some cheese and biscuits would you?” I laughed and said, “Albert, we aren't in some posh London restaurant where you can order a La Carte. I'm afraid its Christmas pud or nothing”. He harrumphed and dismissed me with a wave of his hand. I only just managed to crack a smile from him later on, when I went round doing the raffle tickets and seeing his £5 note on the table, picked it up, put it in my pocket and said, “Oh Albert, you shouldn't have... I know I'm a good waitress but this is just too generous!” I saw a slight quiver of a smile on his lips and then he banged the table and shouted, “Raffle tickets!”.

It was amazingly successful and most of the Old Farts seemed to have a really good time. There were some lovely lovely people there, guests and volunteers both, and I just hope they are all there in two year time when I do it again. From what I gathered, there will be another twenty guests reaching their hundredth year by then, which is just staggering. But if they are reaching that ripe old age by being a little saucy, drinking too much sherry, wearing beautiful dresses, having the odd fag, dancing, and being incredibly grumpy most of the time, then I'm all for it!

Monday, 23 December 2013

A Christmas song.

It was early November, and I was wandering through my local supermarket when my ears pricked up on hearing a rather unusual sound. I stopped in my tracks and gripped my shopping trolley a tad aggressively as I realised the tinny tune playing in the background was Mariah Carey's, “All I Want for Christmas is You”. I'm not sure what was more irritating... the fact that a Christmas song was playing in November, or that it was Mariah Carey.

Mariah Carey released that incredibly annoying song nearly 20 years ago and made an absolute fortune from it. But the appeal of a good Christmas song never seems to wane, apparently, because that festive ditty has earned her £455,000 this year, having sold more than one million copies in the UK, in the last month alone!! It seems George Michael and Shane MacGowan never need to work again either, as their respective festive songs, Wham's “Last Christmas” and the Pogues/Kirsty MacColl duet, “Fairytale of New York”, have also made them nearly half a million pounds each this Christmas. Hmm, maybe I need to write a catchy Christmas jingle instead of a blog!

Other than Christmas pop songs blaring out from every shop you step foot in, you also have the traditional carols, of course. Now I love a good carol and I also love a good sing-a-long, so what could be better than a traditional carol service? Several years ago, I went to the 'biggest and best' carol service in London, at St. Paul's Cathedral. I queued up for almost 2 hours and then cried off and on for the next hour because it was probably one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced. Candlelit throughout, the Cathedral simply looked extraordinary, warm twinkling light bouncing off every surface, elaborate flower arrangements trailing into the aisles, while the cherubic faces of the choirboys glowed as their voices reached exquisite levels, soaring though the aisles. Every time I tried to join in the carols I would get choked up, it was ridiculous. I think I managed to croak out the first verse of 'Once in Royal David's City' and then I pretty much gave up and listened. So, this year I thought I would go to a more low-key carol service, one without a choir or flowers or candles, just a simple service where I could sing as loud as I wanted and not get emotional.

I decided to go to a lunchtime service in a small church opposite the design studio where I was working in central London. I thought it would be full of local older residents but was amazed to see the church full of 20 and 30-somethings, people from offices I presumed, having decided that an hour of Christmas cheer was better than a sandwich in front of their computers! We were greeted by a very jovial vicar and his helpers, handing us glasses of mulled wine and mince pies, and even though there weren't any elaborate flower arrangements, candles or decorations, the convivial feeling made up for it. There were no hymn books but a very modern screen at the back of the church with all the words on, and everyone sang loudly and enthusiastically. I may have been singing a little too loudly because I would occasionally get bewildered glances from my neighbours. Or it may be because I was attempting the descant part of the songs, when my voice really isn't made for that kind of soprano.

It's an embarrassing admission. Usually young choirboys sings this part of the carol because, well, they are good at singing and their voices haven't broken yet, but from a very young age my sister and I have always attempted it as well. When we are in church together, we give each other a 'look' just before the last verse, challenging each other to sing the descant. Of course, as soon as one of us can't quite reach the high note, we get the giggles. So when the descant of all descants in the hymn, 'O Come, all ye Faithful', began playing at the lunchtime service, I immediately grinned to myself, knowing full well I was going to give the unbelievably difficult verse a go, and sod my neighbours. It started off well but then went rapidly downhill when I reached the fifth line beginning, 'Gloor-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ooory'. Using the word 'shrill' to describe the noise that came out of my mouth, is an understatement. It sounded like a cross between a screeching cat and that thing you do when you wet the rim of a wine glass and run your finger around it to make a noise. But I persevered. I kept my eyes forward and continued valiantly until the last note, aware but ignoring the nudges and muffled laughs beside me. It's Christmas dammit, and I was going to siiiiing!

If you are wondering what on earth I am going on about, I have attached a link to the Kings College Cambridge choirboys singing the hymn. 

If you play the recording from the 2:14 minute mark, you will hear what it should sound like! Happy Christmas xx

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

To Decorate or not to Decorate.

There are some things that you just don't bother with too much when you live on your own. Even though I love cooking, I don't come back from work and create a gastronomic delight every single night. Even though I love getting dressed up, on the days that I'm working from home or writing, I may spend half the day in my pyjamas (ok, the whole day). And even though I adore Christmas, sometimes I think, is it really worth buying a Christmas tree and putting up decorations when I'm the only one that's going to see them?

Until yesterday, I was content with a poinsettia and a wreath on the door, but after spending the weekend at my parents and my sister's house, and seeing how pretty everything looked and smelled, I've changed my mind. Both houses looked so beautiful, trees twinkling, warm light reflecting off the baubles, the crackle of the fire and the comforting smell of pine, the idea of not having decorations filled me with horror. My mother and I decided on a simple New England theme for the tree at their house... we lived in Massachusetts for nearly 10 years so my Mother has a beautiful collection of handmade wooden decorations. We used those, red apples, a few gold and red baubles, some birds (not real) and strings of white fairy lights. Small pine cones trailed down the staircase and dried red berries and leaves sat atop paintings. My sister, similarly, has gone traditional but with a slight Scandi twist. Red, white and gold on the tree with handmade stockings over the fireplace and rustic wooden decorations. The dining room was lit only with candles and on the table, a beautiful white and red linen tablecloth, glasses and cutlery sparkling in the light and a simple wooden wreath as the centrepiece. Absolutely stunning.

So when I got home last night and looked, forlornly, at my cold dark flat, I decided it desperately needed Christmassing. I woke up this morning at 7am and planned my theme. As I am just a teensy bit infatuated with everything Nordic, from Jo Nesbo books to Borgen, to watching Pilou Asbaek in complex Danish thrillers and planning trips to see the Northern lights, I am feeding my obsession further and going full on Scandi style... simple white lights, white tree decorations and delicate white ornaments, with a minuscule hint of red and maybe some freshly baked Nyakers Pepparkakor (ginger biscuits to you and me) to put on my candlelit wooden table. I might even buy a Sarah Lund Faroe Isle jumper to wear while I look at my beautiful flat and watch the Norwegian film, Headhunters.

Now all I need is a Pilou lookalike to snuggle with on my reindeer skin sofa! Gosh, he even matches my colour scheme, good boy!

Postscript (later that day): If one is going to attempt to decorate in traditional Scandi style, it would help if your flat is white and minimal. It doesn't really work if you have blue walls, lots of paintings and photographs everywhere. I decided also to opt for an alternative Christmas Tree and made my own out of eucalyptus branches, berries and pine twigs. The only thing I managed to make work were my baubles on the curtain rails! Here is the result…

I then got very distracted looking at bearded men online and patterned jumpers… but then I found this which made me smile. Scandi ponies... what could be more adorable?

Friday, 6 December 2013

A very British Thanksgiving

Take an American national holiday, transport it half way across the world to my Aunt and Uncle's house in the English Lake District, add 17 family members, 8 from the States and 9 from the UK, cook a traditional fare of Roast turkey followed by Pumpkin pie, get tipsy, play silly games, and you have all the makings of a very British Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving was first celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World, in 1621. The feast lasted three days and was attended by 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims. Basically, us Brits went over on the Mayflower, landed on the East coast and thought, “Ooh this place looks nice, shall we stay?”, but we hadn't really thought it through because our crops failed, we couldn't feed ourselves and nearly died. If it hadn’t been for the lovely local Indians helping us out, none of our American friends would be here. Phew. When the nice Pilgrims finally had their first decent harvest, they thought, “Oh crap, did anyone remember to invite the neighbours?” and begrudgingly had some of the natives round. Of course, it all went horribly wrong after that... a little bit of land stealing and a teensy bit of row... but hey, let's not worry our little heads about history and just enjoy the holiday. For most people nowadays, Thanksgiving has become a time to celebrate the family and give thanks for what we have, and that is exactly what we did.

As there were so many of us, we couldn't all fit in the family house, so we spread ourselves across the tiny village. Aunts, Uncles and cousins were in the local pub, my parents were in a self-catering cottage, and my friend and I were in a rented attic flat overlooking the lake... in fact, there probably wasn't 50 feet without one of us in it. Of course, all our social stuff and meals happened up at the house, we just used these other accommodations as places to escape for a bit of peace and quiet... I mean sleep. Haha, well you can just imagine what 17 people round a dinner table sound like?

In fact, we never quite managed 17 people round the dinner table, I lied. Every mealtime had one or two people missing, and the reason for their absence, was not getting stuck up a mountain or lying sozzled in a cosy Inn after one too many local brews... what prevented a complete gathering was the onset of the great British cold. It spread through our group like the Black Death imparting its symptoms in various degrees of disgusting. When my friend and I arrived, there were already bottles of cough medicine and cold remedies dotted through the house. Sniffs and coughs could be heard from various rooms as you grabbed handfuls of toilet paper and hacked your way through conversations. My friend and I had arrived with full on chest infections and revolting phlegmmy coughs, and would wheeze ourselves up the hill every day to the house, thinking our lungs would explode. In fact my Doctor, just the day before, had said that the worst thing I could do was stay in a cold damp place and go for long walks. Um

Nights were worse, of course, lying down immediately brought on coughing fits and chest rattles. Thanks God, my friends' room and mine were either ends of the little flat we'd rented because the noise was something else. But as well as all the ailments, for me, being in a strange bed is never conducive to a good nights sleep, unless I'm drunk or in a posh hotel. This bed was absolutely enormous, bigger than a deluxe luxury Kingsize and quite off-putting because I didn't know where to sleep in it. I began by opting for the side nearest the bathroom, so I had immediate access to the loo and in easy reach of my tissues, inhaler, throat lozenges, painkillers and water on the bedside table. But this was obviously the side that most people decided to sleep on as well, and it therefore had a weird incline that was very uncomfortable. There was also too much space behind me... it felt as if someone could sneak in, lie down behind me and I would never even know, which started to give me the creeps a little, so I then tried the middle. I wedged all the pillows either side of me so I was cocooned but because of the fairly frequent peeing and the coughing, I had to excavate myself from this nest and heave myself over to the side of the bed each time I needed something. It was exhausting! Exhausting and painful because by now, I had been coughing so violently and for such a long time that my cousin was sure I had pulled an intercostal chest muscle, and every time I moved in bed I would let out a loud groan. What the owners downstairs must have thought, God only knows!

My cousin had made her diagnosis earlier that evening. We had all been playing this particularly hilarious game of what can only be described as Chinese Whispers with acting (more on this later), when I felt as if I was having a heart attack. My friend had noticed earlier, that whenever I coughed violently I would grab my left breast, not something that's easily ignored. He asked what the hell I was doing and I said, “Oh I occasionally get this thing where it feels like I've trapped my lung in my diaphragm”. I thought this was quite a good description of the sharp pain I was getting but from the look on his face, this was not so. When the pain kept happening, my cousin deduced it was probably a pulled muscle caused by coughing, and she would help fix it. She is a yoga teacher and trained masseur by the way, so I was in good hands. However, when she began massaging my actual breast, digging her fingers deep into the tissue, I realised it might look a bit odd to anyone coming into the kitchen. I apologise now for possibly scarring my two 17 year old male cousins for life, at the vision they saw when they entered the room. Their hasty retreat and eyes on stalks said it all really.

The game I mentioned in the earlier paragraph, was one that was created many years ago at a large family party, when we all lived in America. We have quite a few thespian 'luvvies' among us and a simple game of charades wasn't really challenging enough, so Chinese Whispers with acting was born. Take your group and divide into two teams. One team goes in one room, and the other in another (make sure the rooms are comfortable because the game goes on for some time, in our case 4 hours). One team thinks of a scenario that can be easily acted out, say for instance, changing a babies' nappy. A member of the opposing team is called in to your room and the scenario is acted out to them, silently. Hopefully the acting is of a sufficient standard that the opposing team member understands what it is you're doing, because it is then their job to act out the same thing to the second person in their team, and so on, until the last member of their team has to guess what the scenario is. Hence, Chinese Whispers with acting. Genius. There are only a few things that can go wrong. One – the first team member has no idea what you are acting and simply repeats the movements they have seen with no comprehension, making for a very odd outcome. Or, two – the first team member misunderstands what you are doing but acts it out to their next team mate, fully confident they know what they are doing. When this happens several times in one Chinese Whisper, you can only imagine how funny it is for the original group watching. Such a thing happened with us. The original scenario was someone shearing a sheep, but as it got acted out, each of us thought we were doing different things. The sheep suddenly metamorphosed into a young calf being lassoed by a cowboy. I then interpreted that as a hunter chasing down a wild boar, rolling around the floor and so on, until my aunt came in the room and threw herself across the carpet thinking she had let some wild grouse escape. Madness. But seriously, open some wine and try this game... it is one of the funniest things you will ever do.

The next night was Thanksgiving. 16 of us round the table, one partially alive cousin in a sick bed somewhere, and two dogs. The pub had cooked the main part of the meal for us and as we went to pick it up, we wondered why everything was in army quantities. Maybe the kitchen staff really believed all Americans ate twice their body weight in food every mealtime, because the turkey alone was the size of a large sheep. We had a vat of gravy and an industrial size tray of stuffing. I can honestly say that after serving up the meal, we ventured back into the kitchen and it looked like we hadn't served up yet… the food hadn't reduced in quantity and the prospect of eating turkey for a week didn't fill us with joy especially as it wasn't even Christmas. We had that to come! Thankgiving is a weird holiday, because you eat pretty much the same as you do on Christmas Day, only 3 weeks before! My cousin and I did make a very traditional Pumpkin pie though, but as we weren't entirely confident it would be palatable, we also had back up puddings of Treacle Tart and Mince pies. We realised one of our younger American cousins didn't know what these were and as we began to describe them, we got the giggles, because they sound utterly disgusting. Mince pies… um, sweet mince meat and suet in pastry cases. Treacle Tart… um, stale white breadcrumbs in thick syrup in a pastry case. Then we told him about Bread Sauce… um, stale white breadcrumbs in thickened milk. Bread and Butter pudding… um, stale white bread and butter with hot milk, eggs and raisins. Summer pudding… um, stale white bread filled with fruit. Our cousin looked horrified and he shouted, "Oh my God, all you guys eat is bread and minced meat!". Fair point. 

Apart from the silly games and amazing meals, there were long walks (which unfortunately I couldn't do because I would die), lots of time spent in the kitchen, cooking and chatting and catching up with various new and old family members, and long afternoons dozing, reading and hanging out in front of the fire. And on our last night together, we all trooped down to the pub. Now our family is quite infamous with the villagers. We have been coming up here our whole lives in various sized groups for holidays and celebrations and I guess we have made quite an impression over the years. The get-togethers are always full of interesting and varied characters, and no matter how much we think we're being quiet and laying low, the locals think differently. Some years ago I had about 8 friends up from London, and as we casually walked into the pub in our slightly non-country clothes, the landlord shouted, “Watch out, it's the cast of Big Brother”. Another time I went in with some girlfriends, grinned at the landlord, and he shouted, “Lock up your husbands!” We've had lock-ins, where we've drunk the bar dry and had to go and replace the stock the next morning, and darts matches that have almost come to blows. I've also been propositioned several times by an 90 year old rascal that lives down the road, so you never know where the evening will take you. On this visit, the only slightly unusual things were my cousins boyfriends' rather fine 'Afghany-style' beard and my other male cousins splendid felt poncho. Nothing odd at all. It was simply the perfect place to be, with great food and great company.

The five days spent with the family has been amazing, and gathering in the house that we have all known and loved for years has been very special. The house has changed very little over the years but it's seen new faces and watched the family shift and grow, coming together and going home again. I sit here on my last night, as the house is buffeted by 80 mph winds and the power flickers on and off, and listen as it creaks and groans with the movement. The poor house sounds like it's caught our dreadful cold, it definitely seems to breathe easier when it's full of life and laughter. 

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Winter Cold.

It is virtually impossible to live in London, travel on public transport AND avoid catching a cold or flu bug at this time of year. As soon as the temperature drops and the displays in chemists windows change from sun cream and lip salve to tissues and nasal sprays, you know illness is imminent.

There are two approaches to the winter cold. The Preventatives will start taking echinacea as soon as the leaves have left the trees, eat a diet of kale and oranges for the entire winter period, wash their hands whenever they hear a sneeze, and apply antibacterial hand gel at ever opportunity. They are the ones that get on the tube with their gloves still on, not touching anything and holding a newspaper firmly in front of their faces as a germ barrier, whilst the rest of the carriage coughs and splutters around them. Then there are the Inevitables. These people are realists, they know that no matter what they do, they are going to catch something. It's just a matter of time.

As I sat on the tube last week, on my busy commute to work, I would hazard a guess that 1 in 3 people had a cold of some sort. You have the Hackers, who look completely ok on the outside and may happily sit there for a few minutes showing no signs of distress, before suddenly exploding into a wet, rasping dog bark, deeply gutteral and disgusting. I know this one intimately because I have been in possession of such a revolting whoop for the past 2 weeks. Those in the vicinity of such a cough, look completely startled as it erupts from nowhere, then stare or tut in total horror whilst trying to move away into the few millimetres of unoccupied space. You have the Snotters, who sit there for minutes at a time, blowing never-ending streams of mucous into wet soggy tissues. If you're very unlucky, you may be sitting next to or opposite one of these people and be in possession of an unfortunately high gag reflex. Nothing makes me heave more than someone looking into their tissue after blowing, or hearing the squelch of snot escaping hankie. Oh God, here I go again just thinking about it.

As well as these two major groups, there are also much less offensive characters. The Dabbers are the ones with the inflamed red nostrils, who, having taken a strong decongestant before breakfast, now have to contend with a gentle flow of water-like substance, dribbling out continuously. Everyone's thinking the same thing... where the hell does it all come from? Then there are the Ticklers with their persistent throat clearing and embarrassed little 'ahems'which are not only incredibly irritating but make you want to shout, "For God's sake, cough properly!" There are the Deaths Doors, suffering with internal symptoms of headaches and aching bones, who sit there pale and pathetic, letting out the occasional mild groan as they slowly sink down into their seats, wishing the world would end. And finally there are the Sniffers, who for some reason, have not realised they have a runny nose, not brought a bloody tissue with them and therefore have to sniff for the entire journey. The Sniffers are the most annoying people in the world because they also seem to be the ones that wear headphones, so they have absolutely no idea how loud they are sniffing, as they listen to their music at bone shaking volume, inches from your head. The combination of loud snorts with the 'tsk tsk' from headphones is enough to make me leave the tube, seriously. Sniffing is my nemesis.

Last week it came to a head, when a man standing next to me began to sniff loudly, accompanied by the wiping of his nose on the back of his hand. Disgusting. He also had earphones in and seemed to be listening to YMCA, from what I could discern from the distortion. I took and instant dislike to him. As more and more people got on the tube, and compressed us into 'lambada-like' positions, I was trapped somewhere under his armpit, whilst sharing his terrible choice in music. He suddenly gave a really loud revolting throat sniff, followed by a wipe on the hand, another sniff and a thumb and forefinger to the nostrils. Without thinking I let out an, “Ugh”, followed by a, “That's disgusting”. Oops. A couple of people sniggered, but of course, Mr. Sniffer hadn't heard what I'd said, he'd only seen my lips move. He looked at me, which wasn't difficult as his eyeballs were only a few millimetres away from mine, and raised his eyebrows quizzically. I looked down and noticed his shoes, which were really nice brown brogues, and pretended I was invisible. He then took out his earphones and said, “Sorry, did you say something?”, in a deliciously deep husky voice. I looked back up and met his, really rather beautiful, blue eyes. Oh no, be strong Juliet. “, I just wondered if you needed a...”, I said, quickly grappling in my coat pocket for a tissue. Unfortunately, I produced a well-used crusted piece of kitchen towel, rather than the pristine tissue I had put in earlier. He looked down at my hand, pulled a face, and turning slightly, jammed his earphones firmly back in, giving another sniff for good measure. Just as I was remembering I used to rather like 'The Village People'.  

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Photo Shoot.

Many people assume that being a graphic designer is quite a glamorous job, especially when I say I'm dashing off to a photo shoot or something. They might imagine me surrounded by champagne-sipping supermodels, rock music blaring in the background whilst a handsomely brooding photographer alternates between taking pictures and shagging everything that moves. I too would like to imagine that scenario, but believe me, the reality of my job is anything but glamorous. I do not art direct humans or anything vaguely alive. In fact, I make my living shooting very deceased meat and fish fillets under glaring hot lights, the air thick with pungent aromas you would rather not be smelling at 9:30 in the morning, whilst the harassed client 'ums' and 'ahs' in the background, unable to make the simplest decision about which chicken breast is more attractive.

Wait… let's go back a step. Picture yourself in the supermarket, browsing the aisles for something easy to bung in the oven for a hassle-free supper. Of course, you usually cook everything from scratch, buy organic and spend the weekends browsing farmers markets for local produce (of course you do). You also can't wait to get home from a long and hideous day at work to spend the next 4 hours creating a masterpiece of gastronomic delight that maybe only you or your partner are going to eat (of course you do). But sometimes, on very very rare occasions, all you want to do is pour a massive glass of wine and wait for the delightful sound of a ping or buzzzz. That is where I come in. Welcome to the enchanting world of food packaging. 

Now I would love to tell you that I only design the high-end bistro products that adorn the shelves of Waitrose or M&S. The luxury ready meals for two, that cost the same as feeding a family of four from scratch, for a week. The sort of food shown in TV ads, oozing and melting in glorious close-up, while the sexy voiceover describes every ingredient and process in intimate detail, making your mouth water and your eyelids grow heavy with desire… food porn basically! I would be so proud to tell you that is the sort of brand I work on… but again, the reality of how I make my money is not high end food pornography, but more a cheap quickie down a dark alley in Soho. However, even though the brand may not be luxury, the food inside the packet is pretty much the same as it's posh cousin, just with cheaper clothing. And when you are on a photoshoot, the product has celebrity status no matter what box it comes in. It is the star… primped and preened for hours, longer than any actress in hair and makeup, and as with any star, it has an entourage.

Firstly, we have the photographer, the amazing genius photographer who can make a lettuce leaf look sexy from the right angle and with the right lighting; then there's the photographers assistant, who not only has to set up all the equipment, but also has to make delicious coffee and be able to keep up morale when we are shooting the same piece of limp fish for the 30th time. We have the stylist, or rather the magician, who, armed with airbrush, superglue, tweezers, scalpel, paintbrush, food colouring and vaseline, is capable of turning a rather pale, ugly bland piece of protein into a plump, juicy, mouthwatering morsel of manna from heaven. Then there is me, the art director. My job is to stand behind the photographer, the assistant and the stylist saying incredibly important things like, "could you glue another crumb to the right hand side of that bigger crumb" or "the flakes are looking a teensy bit dry, could we spritz it please?". It's very very very demanding! And when everything looks just perfect, the client is beckoned, they say 'yay' or 'nay', and we shoot. 

This process, from the time the product comes out of it's box, to the first click of the shutter, can take anywhere from 2-6 hours. I know, utter madness! But it's all about the preparation you see. The cooking instructions on the back of the box may simply say, 'Pre-heat oven to 200ºC. Place fillets on baking tray in the middle of oven for 14 minutes, turning occasionally', but that is not what we actually do. Oh no. We may boil, microwave or deep fry the product to get the look we want. We might not cook it at all but simply thaw it, so it retains its shape. We can garnish and add tasty accompaniments but we do have to use what's in the box, and as one photographer said to me recently, "we can't always polish a turd, but we can roll it in glitter". Lovely. But once all this prep is done, suddenly everything happens at lightning speed. We may have only an hours' window to take all the photographs we need, before the product begins to change... slowly melting and sweating under the intense heat, or drying out completely! Even an airbrush-weilding stylist can't make an hour old, dry flaky piece of cod look appetising!! 

I know what you're thinking... you can't believe it takes 5 people, 8 hours to photograph a bit of fish! You're also probably realising why it never looks like it does on the package, when you cook it at home. Sorry about that. Well next time you're in the supermarket, taking a good look at that delicious-looking food shot on the label or box, remember it's your money that's paying for me to stand around a hot studio, making a fish fillet look that good! Thanks everyone... the next organic, locally sourced, free-range, fresh corn-fed farmers market chicken fillet, is on me!

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Back on the Dating Horse.

There is no quick fix for a broken heart, but with the help of family and friends I have managed to get through the last few months without having a complete and utter breakdown... which is good. When a friend suggested a blind date with a friend of hers, however, my gut reaction was to think it was all a bit too soon, but I changed my mind when I realised that wallowing in self pity wasn't going to get me anywhere, and decided there was no time like the present to get back on the proverbial dating horse. Maybe it would cheer me up if nothing else.

I should have gone with my gut. This particular horse had not only been in his stable a little too long but he wasn't totally broken in either.

My friend first described my date, in a text: "He's an apple farmer, 52, not a looker, a bit nerdy, but solvent." Wow. Then I got a second text: "And he has no baggage, bonus!" Gosh, she was really selling him! As the days went by, the sense of impending doom got stronger and stronger but I brushed it aside and tried to imagine the evening, not as a date per se, but as a pleasant interlude with a stranger... and my friend. Oh didn't I mention that? On my request, my friend was coming too. Just the three of us on our date. Not weird at all!

The pub where we had a arranged to meet was all the way across London, so I decided to drive. The only downside to this, I realised fairly soon, was that I couldn't anaesthetise the evening with alcohol. I got there 15 minutes early and chose to wait in my car opposite the pub, until my friend arrived. She was rarely early so there was no danger of me missing her. I put the radio on, reclined my seat and people watched, keeping a particularly beady eye out for a slightly apprehensive-looking 52 year old man. I waited and waited and saw neither my friend nor anyone resembling an apple farmer. Not that I would know what an apple farmer looks like exactly, but I suppose I was expecting a man in jeans and wellies, with slightly ruffled hair and twigs clinging to his jumper. 20 minutes later I spotted my friend going into the pub so I parked my car and went in.

The first thing to irritate me was a text message from my date to my friend. As we sat down and took off our coats, she looked at her phone and said: "Uh oh. He's going to be 40 minutes late." 40 minutes!! Grrrrr. For me, this is a massive pet peeve. There is nothing more annoying than someone being late... unless of course there is a damn good reason. His message didn't report a horrendous accident, nor a health-related episode, he had simply not worked out his journey properly which showed a blatant disregard for others. Rude! (Not to self: Ranting like this is not only counterproductive but I am beginning to sound like my Father.) If I had been on my own I definitely would have left, so it was a damn good job my friend was there, being the apex to my dating triangle. It meant I was able to have a relaxing glass of wine with her and find out a little more about my date, before he arrived.

I began by asking how she had met him. I was expecting a story about him being an old friend from Uni or meeting at a party or something, but it became very clear that I was on the end of a very long list of women that had been set up with him, my friend included. What? My friend had met him while he was on a date with another friend of hers. What? The date with the other girl hadn't worked out and so he asked my friend out. WHAT? But my friend, nor any of the other women had had a second date with him. Oh My God. Not only was I astounded that she hadn't imparted this fairly important bit of news to me before, but it seemed as if the likelihood of me "clicking" with this man, after so many had rejected him, was fairly remote. I asked her what was wrong with him... why had all these women decided he wasn't for them? My friend paused, ummed and ahhed for a minute or so, refused to make eye contact, and finally said: "Well, he's just not very sophisticated. He doesn't really like eating out, actually he doesn't really eat at all, and he's not very generous. Um, he's been on his own a lot so his social skills aren't brilliant either, but... he really wants a wife and lots of kids!" "Oh bloody hell," I said laughing, "I can't even have children, plus I live and breathe food, and am terribly sociable... how on earth could you set me up with someone soooo incompatible?" She grinned at me. "Well, you never know. You just might see something in him that we didn't!" My friend, the eternal optimist.

We decided to order some food while we waited for him, and I went to the loo while there was a hiatus in the proceedings. When I returned, there was a man sitting at our table. It took me a moment to realise this must be my date. It was as if a slightly mad looking professor had stepped off the pages of a 1950's medical journal... stiff burgundy cords, navy wool jumper, tweed jacket, a ring of brown curly hair below a shiny pate, and bi-foculs sitting on a face so pale, it was hard to imagine he had ever been outside, let alone surrounded by fresh air and apples. This man looked 72 not 52. Oh dear. But I am always willing to see past the exterior and find out what's on the inside, so I took a deep breath, shook his hand and sat down, grinning manically at both my friend, and him.

As well as being obviously mismatched, there were also a few external factors working against us... the first, was volume. As I began to speak, a band suddenly started playing at the end of the room. It was not a gentle accompaniment to our chitchat but rather a loud squawking, which entered the brain with such a hammering it was as if a large woodpecker was strapped to my head. I also seemed to be the only person in the room whose chair was faced away from the band. It quickly became apparent that the rest of the room consisted of the groups' friends and family, whooping and clapping their way through the set and seemingly looking straight at me as they directed their gaze towards the stage. It was very very off-putting. This noise also triggered the second and third problems. The second, was that we couldn't hear each other above the music, which resulted in my date leaning so far forward he was practically eye-level with my cleavage, whilst cupping both hands around his ears and screaming, "SORRY?" whenever I said anything. This is when the third problem arose. Each time my date shouted something back at me, it was accompanied by a tiny spray of spittle, which occasionally entered my mouth. I clamped my lips together, tried not to look too horrified, and sat as far back in my chair as possible. Of course, this just made matters worse. Compensating for my distance, my date scooted his chair closer, studied my breasts more intently, shouted louder and sprayed more. I frantically grabbed the waitress as she passed our table and said, "I'm so sorry, we really need to move out of this room". She must have seen the exasperation on my face, because she nodded kindly, patting my shoulder.

My friend then casually asked where I had parked my car. As she explained the residents parking, I realised, with horror, that I had parked in an illegal space which meant a parking ticket was imminent. I swore, jumped up, grabbed my bag and coat and ran out of the pub without so much as a 'goodbye'. Luckily there was no ticket when I reached my car, but it did take me a further 15 minutes to find another space. My friend and date must have thought I'd done a runner, after all, I had grabbed my coat and handbag when I left the pub, when all I really needed were my car keys... was I tempted in those 15 minutes to simply drive home and not go back? Noooo, don't be silly. It hadn't even entered my mind!

When I returned, my friend and my date were sitting at a new table in a quieter part of the pub. Phew. The only downside was that we still had no food, so we complained to our waitress. At this point, she was clearly a bit fed up with us but ever the professional, she put on her warmest fake smile, apologised and went off in search of our order. Moments later, another waitress arrived and plonked down a plate with a small pie on it. My friend and I looked at it with bewilderment because what we'd actually ordered, was a venison shepherds pie, supposedly big enough for three people to share. This pie was tiny... surely our waitress couldn't think this minuscule puff could feed us all? Ridiculous. My friend and I got the giggles because it was obviously a mistake, but what made it more hilarious was that my date was holding his knife, studying the pie very seriously, mentally dividing it into thirds. Once again, we beckoned our waitress over and pointed forlornly at the pie. "Oh God," she said, "That's not yours, I'm so sorry", and sighing heavily, took the plate away. Heated words were exchanged behind the bar and then the manager came over. He proffered huge apologies, explaining that our food would be with us shortly, and added that he would not be charging us for the meal. Well, that's good. As he disappeared in one direction, from the other, came our waitress. She repeated what the manager had said and asked if there was anything she could do? "Maybe some drinks, while we wait?" I asked, giving a cheeky sideways glance to my friend.

We finally got our food at 10:30pm... an unremarkable dish of lukewarm stodge (thank god it was free)!! Not only had we been starving up to this point, but the conversation had been heading off in all sorts of odd directions. To make matters worse, even when we found some things in common, the lack of chemistry made everything so awkward, and my lovely friend, hoping this still might be a match made in heaven, carried on making some fairly inappropriate comments. He mentioned he liked am-dram and my friend said: "Oh Jules loves acting, she's amazing, you should see her do something". He mentioned that he was writing a book and my friend gushed: "Ooooooh. Jules is writer too, she's soo talented, you should read some of her stuff.". He said he liked the theatre and my friend said: "Oh Jules adores the theatre, she goes all the time. You should go". It was so embarrassing and it didn't matter how many times I nudged her in the ribs or kicked her under the table, she kept going. To top it off, I started talking about the perfect place to write a book... saying that I would love to take 6 months off and go and write my novel on a beach, in the Caribbean. My friend let out an excited squeak and said, "Orrrr, you could find someone with a big farmhouse in the country, and go and write it there!". Ha ha ha ha haaaaaarrrrrr. I kicked her... again.

It's safe to say, I did not feel that this date was going to be the first of many. We concluded the evening with suggestions of seeing a play together... all three of us! I then stepped towards him, to do the obligatory two kisses with slight hand hug to the arm, and he was so unprepared for this intimacy that he stuck his nose in my ear as I air-kissed one side of his head, and head butted me as I attempted the other side. I honestly had to pretend to cough to smother my laugh, it was excruciating! Oh God, the thought of having to date so many toads again fills me with utter dread, but dear readers, if I can at least amuse you whilst I continue this journey, then it's worth it.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

The Platform Fiasco.

I have become accustomed to being stared at occasionally, by a certain type of man, and not in a flirty sexy kind of way either. It doesn't happen often but when it does, it is usually so blatant that it's quite disconcerting. I ask myself... is there something stuck on my face, has my mascara run, is my skirt tucked into my knickers? All those questions buzz around my head but it's safe to say, it's usually none of those things... Some males just find me odd looking.

Whenever I have travelled to Asia, be it Vietnam, Singapore or India, the locals seem quite fascinated. With the average man standing at a very petite 5'4", with dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes and small features, it's understandable that they find a blonde, blue eyed, 5"10' white woman, with large... well, everything, quite intriguing. They aren't shy about their interest either. They have stared, pointed and sometimes stroked me, as if I was some kind of zoo animal on display.

But at 8:30am, standing on a London train platform waiting for the next overcrowded tube to arrive, being gawped at for no apparent reason is just a bit odd. The man in question was a tiny middle-aged Indian man, standing about ten feet from me. He looked me up and down very slowly and as I caught his eye, giving him my best "don't mess with me, I'm not in the mood" look, he turned away. Seconds later he was doing it again, but this time he stopped at my feet and there he remained, with a contemplative stare. Oh God, maybe he had a foot fetish or something. I looked around for my nearest exit and when I turned back he had sidled up beside me and was muttering something like, "manchoo, manchoo". Oh blimey, an early morning nutter, just my luck. He then grinned at me, frowned and pointing at me said, "You man chew?" Uh oh, I did not like where this was going. He then pointed down his own body and said, "I man chew!", and laughed really loudly. Oh. My. God. "I man chew, I man chew", he repeated, incredibly pleased with himself. Well good for you, I thought, stepping quickly to my left, we both like men, yay, but what you do in private is your own affair.

I turned away from him and shook my newspaper sternly, but he was relentless. "I man chew but why you man chew?", he asked, frowning. Suddenly I heard the most glorious noise, accompanied by a gentle breeze... the tube was coming. Salvation, escape at last. I moved quickly down the platform to make sure I was not going to get on the same carriage as him, and all the while my Indian friend kept shouting and pointing at me, attracting quite a bit of attention. The last thing I heard him say, as the train blasted into the platform was, "You pretty girl, no understand why man chew!" Oh for goodness sake.

I got on the tube and let out a big sigh, putting my bag on the floor as I stifled a giggle. And that's when I realised what the whole platform fiasco had been about... what my lovely crazy Indian friend had meant by "man chew". I was wearing what he obviously considered "Man Shoes"... a rather masculine, but terribly fashionable, pair of brogues!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Joy of Aqua Aerobics.

Aqua Aerobics class. Monday 7pm.

Class size: 30
Class length: 1 hour
Average age: 50
Percentage of women to men: 100%
Average breast size: 42 GG
Average weight: 200 lbs
Average water swallowed per session: 2 pints
Length of time spent giggling: 30 mins
Length of time making noises of exertion: 30 mins

Aqua aerobics is supposed to be one of the gentler types of exercise. Because my knees are, medically speaking, um... buggered, I have to be careful with the sort of exercise I do. I can't twist or lunge and I can't rotate my knee past 45 degrees, so tennis is out, any normal dance or aerobics class is out, and everything else I have to be a bit careful with. I can walk, hurrah. I can cycle, I can do Pilates and Yoga, if I miss out some of the really bendy asanas, and I can swim as long as I don't do breaststroke. I have lost weight this year and until I have my knee surgery, I damn well want to keep the weight off and remain fit, so I try and do as many varied things as I can. So Aqua aerobics is one of the safe ones. It's low impact, non weight-bearing, great for strengthening your core, and hilarious. Laughing is also great for your health and well being, as long as you keep your mouth shut whilst doing it. In a warm, chlorinated, and (most likely) germ and pee-infested swimming pool, it's not advisable to do anything with your mouth open. I usually forget how much I enjoy aqua aerobics until I get there, and then I grin for the entire hour.

The women in my class are big and joyous, and seem to be that way both in and out of the pool. I have been going to this class pretty regularly for the last few years, so I know most of them to say hello to when I see them around Balham. It does sometimes takes me a while to realise how I know them, however, as I usually see them half naked, bouncing around in 4 feet of water and not fully clothed, pushing a shopping trolley around Sainsbury's! They are probably on average a size 18-20, but don't seem at all body conscious, standing around the pool in pretty skimpy costumes, having a good old gossip. One lady is my favourite. A big beautiful Jamaican woman who always says, "Hello blondie" when she sees me. She has, without doubt, the largest boobs I have ever seen, and she certainly would not be in danger of drowning if she was involved in a hazardous water accident. What I love about her, is that in order for the aerobics to be more challenging, she always stands in deeper water, near me. Now, I am 5'9" and she is about 5'2"... on me, the water comes to just below my shoulder blades, but on her, the water comes up to her chin, therefore, so do her boobs. They are such massive flotation devices that she cannot see over the top of them. And her laugh is so infectious as she tries to push them down, that the whole class ends up in fits of giggles. The instructor, who looks like she has just stepped off the 100 metre track at the Olympics, and is so trim and toned it's quite nauseating, can't help herself either. All she can do, in between hoots of laughter, is to keep suggesting that she goes a bit shallower. "No, I'm fine my darling" she shouts back, "it's all good, it's all good". You can only imagine what happens when the exercises actually start.

The bouncing of my companion, as we begin to jog underwater, causes mini tidal waves to sweep across the pool, half-drowning not only her neighbours, but herself as they hit the side and return to where they started. Gallons of water escape as we jump and splash in unison. The male lifeguards grin and stare, completely transfixed, as 30 pairs of breasts brake the surface ever few seconds, with such ferocity, that it's probably better than watching the Orca's at Seaworld. It may all sound like fun and games but it's actually really really difficult, and that's where the other noises come in. Trying to do boxing punches and karate kicks with the resistance of water is bloody hard, and I'm sure some of the older ladies in our group, have let a water bubble or two escape with the exertion of it all. On top of all that, Miss Olympics decides to throw in foam dumbbells to make the water resistance even harder, making us pump them rigourously, as we are forced to "run" up and down the pool. Now don't be ridiculous, no one can run underwater! We looked like complete and utter morons, groaning and grunting and we slow-moed at no miles an hour. I started to get the feeling that our instructor was just making us do things for her own amusement and that just possibly, at the same time as I am writing this, she is tweeting, "You won't believe what I got them to do in the pool today? Running! I know... LOL!"

The last exercise began with an inverted cross, face down in the water with our arms outstretched. Then we had to tuck our legs into our chests whilst pulling the dumbbells down and underneath our feet. This movement, we were told, would bring us upright, bobbing happily in the water. If the description sounds confusing, you should try doing it. Not one of us managed it without half drowning. Dumbbells shot up into the air as we lost control, spluttering and gasping whilst swallowing large gulps of water as we laughed uncontrollably. It was a complete disaster and our instructor simply shrugged and sat down on the bench, her work done.

So... if you've never tried it, look up your nearest swimming pool and see if they do Aqua Aerobics classes. I guarantee you will laugh your arse off, and even if you don't, you'll get a pretty toned one!

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Post Holiday Blues.

It happens every time without fail. I go on an incredible holiday or a longer adventure, and when I return - after the initial euphoria of seeing my friends and family, and the telling of amusing stories and dangerous antics have faded a little - I am left with persistent jet-lag and a serious case of post holiday blues. What's slightly troubling is that even a weekend away in Wales last week, left me feeling mopey on my return to London. I didn't want to be back, I didn't want to go to work and I didn't want to be faced with the reality of being single again in London, and not having a dog... long story!

Now, don't get me wrong. I love London, I love my life and I really do love my job, but it all looks a little lacklustre when you return from somewhere amazing. I know I'm not alone... everyone goes through the same thing. My friends with kids hate coming back from holiday, to the same old routine of packed lunches and school runs. Other friends that work in London, know that their fresh, tanned faces will soon be creased with stress, and haggardly pale from too many late nights and impossible deadlines. We all feel it... but how many of us actually come back and decide it's time for a change, that we can't do the same old thing anymore, and that we must do something about it? You may have been on a diving holiday, and decided on your return, to pack up your desk job, get your PADI Divemaster qualifications, and go back to the Caribbean to teach. You may have done a yoga class on a beach in Thailand and realised that was what made you truly happy. Several friends of mine have made that leap, turning their passionate hobbies into their profession, and they are some of the happiest people I know. But they are brave... they took the leap. They jumped and the net appeared.

My passions are obvious to anyone that knows me... writing and traveling. I am so transparent with my desires, it seems, that on more than one occasion earlier this year, when I was going on all those tortuous dates with strange men, one of them said how I completely changed when I talked about traveling, that my face lit up and I was like an excited puppy. They could see that's what I truly loved. One blind date rudely labelled me a commitment phobe, wondering why I was even dating when it was obvious to him, that I would never truly be fulfilled settling down with someone, because I would eventually get bored and disappear off on an adventure. Harsh! I know my last boyfriend was worried about my wanderlust nature. He believed I would never be content spending a week in Ireland, if I had the opportunity to go to South America for a month. He was wrong. Adventure can be found in the next village, not necessarily thousands of miles away.

But why does it have to be so black and white? I love traveling, yes. I love being in love and having a boyfriend, yes. And I am fully committed to both. Why does it have to be either, or? I was told by a friend at the weekend, that maybe I was looking in the wrong place for love, that internet dating probably wasn't where I was going to find my adventurous male counterpart, my Bear Grylls, Mark Anstice or Bruce Parry. Hmmm Bruce, yum ... sorry, I lost myself for a minute there. But I'm hardly going to meet my hunky explorer in the Balham Sainsbury's or my local pub, am I? They're probably already wading through crocodile infested waters in the Amazon or eating horse testicles in Outer Mongolia! So where do I find them? Well... whilst traveling most likely, and there I am, back to square one. 

I have had boyfriends, in the past, that have shared my passion... maybe a little too much. One lovely guy decided to get a desk job in the city, and settle down after spending most of his life commanding his own ship in the Navy. We lasted 6 months. He broke up with me simply because the pull of the ocean and sense of adventure was too strong, and he returned to the sea and his ship. Another boyfriend traveled to the West coast of America to follow his dream and left me utterly heartbroken. Yet another, claimed he had put his adventurous and wandering nature behind him, but managed to manifest his passion for "international relations" with the girls themselves rather than the countries! I haven't had much luck!

A few years ago, after I was told I couldn't have children, I went through a bit of soul searching... a sort of, why am I here, type philosophising. I decided that I wouldn't waste my time feeling sorry for myself or thinking that my life wouldn't be full without children, and I would make it mean something instead, and do things I really loved. I signed myself up for a creative writing class, decided to do some voluntary work, and put aside a month a year to travel. I was also convinced I would meet a fabulous man along the way. Maybe I would meet a man whilst volunteering and traveling. I rashly chose Medicine Sans Frontiéres, or Doctors Without Borders. This is an international medical humanitarian organisation, helping people around the world, regardless of race, religion or political affiliation. They are usually based in remote areas, and rely on motorbikes to get medical supplies to those in need. In my ridiculously romantic head, I imagined a handsomely rugged doctor, racing through the desert on his old Triumph, his cotton scarf billowing out behind him, thwacking me in the face as I rode pillion behind him, clutching both him and the bag of life saving medicine! Ohhh, it's like something out of a movie. Ok, it's safe to say I didn't get past the first interview! Not because I'm not a Doctor... which I know you think may have been fairly crucial, but because I couldn't honestly get through the initial questions without crying! I was asked how I would cope with sick or dying children, war-torn countries, devastated lives, and be able to face such harrowing scenes that they would imprint on my memory for the rest of my life. "Oh my God" I said, welling up, "I couldn't bear it". Not a good start. Therefore, volunteering for a cause, unselfishly helping others in need... great. Volunteering, in order to meet a man... not great. 

I have thought long and hard over the past few years, about how I could combine my passions with making a living. I spent months re-writing my travel stories, sending them to every publication I could think of - Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, travel magazines, in-flight magazines, and all the women's glossies - and I was amazed at how many took the time to respond. Most were very sweet and complimentary, encouraging me to keep writing, but all saying the same thing in the end, thanks but no thanks. A travel writer is a very tough and oversubscribed field. Lonely planet told me that most of their writers do it for free, and Conde Nast Traveler said they had over 200 freelance writers on their books, all with journalism degrees. Oh. I think you have to be incredibly lucky and possibly know someone that knows someone to make it. I am still positive it will happen though and I am still incredibly committed to following my dream.

I have already started planning a few trips for next year, and of course, I am still on the lookout for my adventurous, passionate, soulmate. If I met the right man, I wouldn't cancel my travels, no, no, no... but I may just be booking a double room rather than single. 

Friday, 20 September 2013

My Amazing Team.

While I continue to share the frivolous descriptions of my life and travels, my other Alaskan companions are doing the incredible job of writing the fascinating and factual stuff about our trip. They also have some stunning photos. 

I think they will be updating their blog every few days but the beginning of our adventure is there already, so please have a look:

Monday, 16 September 2013

Homeward Bound.

The lovely thing about travelling halfway across the world is that it makes life a lot more pleasant if you can stop off somewhere, breaking up your journey... and I don't mean layovers, which are hideous. When I was first invited to Alaska, I realised it was going to be a long, nightmarish journey of about 16 hours, and expensive too, but there are clever ways around ticket prices… buying separate tickets for each leg of the journey, can sometimes knock off hundreds of pounds. So with the help of my very generous Uncle, I got a return ticket to Minneapolis and then a separate ticket from Minneapolis to Alaska. It meant I could spend the first 5 days of my holiday with my family and get over my jet lag at the same time. Brilliant.

I have already written about the insane Minnesota state fair that I went to with my cousin and her friends, but the other lovely thing about spending time there was getting to know that side of my family so much better. Invariably, we only see extended family at weddings and funerals, birthdays and anniversaries, fitting in snippets of conversation between toasts and mouthfuls of food. So, being able to spend long, lazy days with my Uncle, Aunt and cousin and actually just talk, was lovely. Minneapolis was also hot and sunny, which meant afternoon swims in the lake behind the house, eating lunches on the Mississippi River and having cocktails and delicious dinners on rooftop terraces. On my return trip, my Uncle and Aunt even invited me to play golf with them. Oh dear.

It's probably the one thing my friends don't know about me, that I love playing golf. When I was 16, I was given lessons as a birthday present, and my Father and I used to play at a beautiful course in Leckford, Hampshire. I played pretty well I think, but when I left to study in America and as I moved around the country, golf became an expensive luxury and certainly not an activity art students found cool. So the only time I played, was when I was on holiday. I had to warn my Aunt and Uncle that my game was not up to scratch and hoped they were very patient. Suffice to say, I might as well have played the entire 9 holes with my putting iron, as my ball skimmed around the course only about 2 inches above the ground… or as my Aunt called these particular shots, worm-burners! I was absolutely dreadful, taking great divots out of the ground, and on one occasion, hitting my ball at a right angle, and having it land on the opposite hole's green, as two men tried to putt. But I didn't care, I was having a lovely time… zooming around a beautiful course in a golf buggy, in 80 degree sunshine and a gentle breeze. It isn't a bad way to spend the morning, especially when followed with a lovely al fresco lunch. I had a wonderful time in Minneapolis. It is a stunning city with beautiful parks, lakes and rivers, delicious food, and the added pleasure of meeting my cousin's new toddler for the first time. Adorable.

As we pushed and shoved my incredibly heavy suitcase into the car to go to the airport, I had a sudden flashback to Mel (the crazy gun toting lady we met in Alaska) and what she had said when she had read my Rune stones. She had been scarily accurate but the one thing she had said to watch out for, was delays in travel. Two days later, we had had to drive the RV at snails pace because of the stinky weather, and then the boat trip in Valdez had been delayed because of storms… so I was hoping these were the only occasions my runes were referring to, and nothing to do with my upcoming flight.

The first incident was at the bag drop. The bag handler actually groaned when he put my suitcase on the scales and told me it was 10 pounds over the weight limit. I would either have to pay an extra $150 or remove some items. Oh no. My uncle quickly whispered in my ear that if I tipped him well, he would let me get away with it, so I took out $5 and placed it, very strategically, on top of the counter. Well, it obviously wasn't enough because he just put his hands on his hips and raised an eyebrow. Oh dear. I unzipped my case and a mini explosion took place, shoes and underwear springing out from every nook and cranny. Thank God, I had managed to do some washing before packing, as no one wants to see crumpled smelly socks and knickers lying deceased on the pavement. "You got any jeans or bottles that you can leave behind?" the bag man asked, "Jeans are heavy!". Um. I looked forlornly at my suitcase and pulled out a very faded and torn pair of jeans, then a bottle of vodka that I had bought simply for the packaging. It was called Big Rack Vodka, 80% proof, and had a silhouette of a moose on a camouflage background. It summed up the 'shootin, fishin, huntin' aspect of Alaska perfectly. "I don't want to get rid of the packaging but you can have the vodka inside" I said, sadly proffering the bottle. "You Australians are weird…!" He said, grabbing the bottle and weighing it on the scales. Nope… we needed more. I took out lotions and potions, a muddy pair of trainers that definitely could be upgraded and we tried again. 10 lbs on the dot. He looked at me with sympathy. "Tell you what… put the vodka back in the case and I'll just label it HEAVY." Yay.

Once on the plane, the second incident occurred. I found my seat next to a tiny woman who was sitting in a lotus position. Annoying. As I sat down, I realised I couldn't actually get my knees behind the seat. I stood up and asked the man in front of me if his seat was reclined, but it wasn't. Weird. I mentally measured the space between my seat and the back of his seat, and looked at other seats around me. There was about 4 inches less legroom. What? The day before I had paid £25 to change my seat for a 'preferred seat' which I assumed meant more legroom, not less. I called one of the stewards over and showed her. She scratched her head and went off to get another steward. They returned, and took it in turns to sit down, scrutinising the seat and came to the same conclusion, it was smaller than normal and did have much less legroom. They both went off to see if there was a free seat and came back saying the flight was full, they didn't even have anything in business or first class. I could hear slight murmurings around me - suspicious passengers a few seats away, thinking I was making a fuss just so I would be bumped up a class - so I said loudly, "Look, I fly all the time and have never had this problem, I would totally sit down and be happy if I could fit my legs behind the seat but I can't, so maybe I could take another flight if this one is full, or maybe someone shorter could swap with me? What I can't do, is sit in a seat made for someone who is 5 foot tall, for 8 and a half hours. It's impossible". No one moved, no one volunteered, so the steward got the head steward who came and took a look and nodded that there was indeed a problem with the seat. For God's sake! Then the Delta representative was called and she came onto the plane. It was becoming farcical, we were already 10 minutes late for take-off and the passengers were getting fidgety. The Delta rep simply thrust two cards into my hand and said sharply, "Sit down". I looked at the cards: Two free alcoholic drinks, compliments of Delta. "Oh, that's very kind" I said, irritated, "But trying to get me drunk won't make me any shorter. Look!" and I attempted to sit down. "Oh, I see," she said crossly. "Ok, get your bags and follow me". So I did, knowing the only solution was to bump me off that flight and for me to take another flight the following day. I said to her, as I struggled with my backpack, "Just so I'm clear, you are admitting that this seat is faulty and Delta will pay for me to take another flight tomorrow, and will I get help with accommodation for tonight and taxis etc. as I have to stay another day in Minneapolis… because of Delta's error?". She was starting to sweat, we were now half an hour late. I heard a man say, "This can't be the first time someone has noticed this, the seat was obviously designed for a midget!" I could have kissed him. 

Suddenly, a man across the aisle stood up and announced proudly, "I'll swap", as if he had just volunteered his space on a Titanic lifeboat! Relief swept through the plane. Thank God. I took off my backpack and hugged him, realising at that moment he was a teeny tiny dwarf of a man, said thank you and sunk down into his seat. The bloody Delta woman stomped up the aisle looking very confused. "This very kind man swapped with me," I said, indicating the short man in my seat. Well, talk about a change of attitude… she shook his hand, thanked him over and over again, smiling and giggling, and then wrote out a compliments slip from Delta, for $200. What? $200! I could not believe it, nor could the guy. "I just got $200 for being short," he said euphorically. I was fuming. If I had squeezed myself into that seat, all I would have got was displaced kneecaps, but he got $200. I immediately started composing a 'shocked and bewildered' letter in my head… outrageous, treated appallingly etc etc., when the Delta rep cam back on board and handed me a compliments slip. Well, that's more like it, I thought. "I'm so sorry for all the inconvenience, and I apologise on behalf of the whole Delta team." she said warmly, and shook my hand. I relaxed back in my seat and looked down at the piece of paper. It was a £25 refund for my preferred seat upgrade!