Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Happy Birthday Will

Today is the 450th anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth... so Happy Birthday, three cheers and hurrah! Here are some images I found of the man himself, just to remind you of his devilishly handsome good looks (um)!!!

The 1st and 2nd pictures are representations we are fairly familiar with, however, the other images are a little disturbing. The 3rd is a modern portrait of the man… a hideous painting where the artist has left his moustache and beard unattached on one side! Just odd. And I can't stop laughing at the 4th image. It's an artists impression of how Shakespeare would look now, if he lived in trendy East London. I love it!!!

But on to more serious matters… Shakespeare was amazing and very deserving of celebration today. We cannot ignore his brilliance with words and how his writing has influenced so much of our modern language but what I didn't realise, before doing a tad of research, was quite how many of our every day expressions were coined by the man himself, hundreds of years ago. Here are just a few…

A laughing stock (The Merry Wives of Windsor)
A sorry sight (Macbeth)
As dead as a doornail (Henry VI)
Eaten out of house and home (Henry V, Part 2)
Fair play (The Tempest)
I will wear my heart upon my sleeve (Othello)
In a pickle (The Tempest)
In stitches (Twelfth Night)
In the twinkling of an eye (The Merchant Of Venice)
Mum's the word (Henry VI, Part 2)
Neither here nor there (Othello)
Send him packing (Henry IV)
Good riddance (Troilus and Cressida)
I have not slept one wink (Cymbeline)
Heart of gold (Henry V)
Own flesh and blood (Hamlet)
Play fast and loose (King John)

There are dozens more but this one has to be my particular favourite and something I must say to myself on a weekly basis…

To thine own self be true (Hamlet)

Thanks Mr. S x

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Morning

The following sentence is a vast understatement. I am not a morning person. In fact, I'm so far from being a morning person that my Father has actually advised boyfriends, in the past, not to "do" anything or "say" anything to me until at least half an hour after waking, possibly with a cup of tea in hand, as a peace offering. Whatever you do, don't be cheerful or talkative!

On family weekends and holidays, my nephews were so terrified of being the one chosen to wake me up, that I would hear their hushed but frenzied arguing outside my door, and furiously scream out, "I CAN HEAR YOU, YOU KNOW!!". My Mother and Father still ask me if I would like to be woken up for breakfast when I'm staying at their house, knowing that if I say, "Yes please", they are not likely to be met with sweetness and light. A soft gentle tap on the door at 8am sounds, to me, as if someone is trying to knock down the door with a battering ram, and I usually respond to a, "Good morning darling", with a loud grunt of irritation! I know, I am a complete cow.

It might stem from childhood… my hatred for waking up. I was one of those children that needed multiple reminders to get out of bed. Each time my parents came into my bedroom, finding me unmoved, their voices would become increasingly laced with volume and frustration until, as a last resort, my Father would come in with a cold wet flannel and rub my face with it. Haha. It was worse in winter, however. Our house was so cold that we survived the nights with hot water bottles and excessive bedding. My sister and I would put our school uniforms - including knickers and socks - over the radiators the night before, so that they would warm up as the heating came to life (for a few seconds) in the morning. We would fling back the covers as quickly as possible, grab our clothes off the radiator and drag it all back to bed, getting dressed under the heavy warmth of the sheets and blankets. We would emerge from our cosy cocoons, crumpled and skewiff, our hair standing on end from the static of the undercover battle. So you can imagine why mornings might equate to an uncomfortable memory and may be the reason I want to stay in bed as long as possible.

I am so much better when I'm allowed to gradually introduce myself to the world at my own pace, with no interruptions or annoyances… no chivvying, no conversation and no noise. Bliss. But it's hard to find complete quiet anywhere these days. Even at my family's house in the Lake District which is surrounded by trees and fields and not a car or city noise for miles, I remember being woken at 5am one morning by a particularly vocal sheep. I groggily got out of bed, opened the window and actually shouted at it to be quiet! One of my most embarrassing 'grumpy wake-up' experiences happened when I was staying with my Aunt and Uncle in New England. It had been a late night and the house was blissfully quiet the next morning until I heard the piano being played downstairs. I say 'played', it was actually one note being hit repeatedly, very loudly. This continued for quite some time until I was gritting my teeth with irritation. I stomped across the bedroom, out onto the landing, and leaning over the banister, shouted, "Um hello! Whoever is down there, if you are going to play the piano first thing in the morning, at least play a bloomin' tune, rather than just 'plinking' the same note over and over again… it's soo annoying!" There was silence. I waited for a moment and then shouted, "Hello?" Another silence, and then a man's voice (sounding somewhat distant and terrified) said, "Yes hello, um, I'm the piano tuner. I won't be much longer. Sorry." Oh. My. God. Embarrassment does not come close to how I felt, and all I could say was, "Ok, thanks so much", and sloped back to my bedroom with my tail between my legs, utterly mortified.

So I admit it, I not only have a problem waking up, but it is doubly worse when combined with noise, be it before, during or after sleep. All my friends and family will contest to this as they have all been witness to it. My friends with children know that the volume level on electronic play things is better when low or turned off, if it near to where I'm slumbering. I have been known to play hide and seek (mostly hide) with certain irritatingly noisy toys, which is a great game for the children and sanity for me. But you know, I'm fine with constant noise, say an electric fan, heavy rain or rustling leaves. What I'm not good with are the sudden, unexpected noises… someone sneezing or coughing in the next room, a sudden blast of a car horn, a creak in the floorboards or a door slamming. I am such a light sleeper that the merest groan of my neighbours fridge will wake me at 4am! It's incredibly frustrating, how easily I can be roused by the lightest of noises. So many nights' sleep are cut short by a yowling fox or the beeping of a lorry's reverse lights, that I simply cant remember the last time I had 8 hours of luxurious unconsciousness. And of course, I can't choose my work hours which is why weekday mornings are always a problem. I hate hate hate getting up early.

I recently posted a question on Facebook… What is your average weekday morning routine? This was mine:

7:20 Wake up
7:25 Shower
7:40 Make breakfast and lunch
7:55 Dry hair, put on make-up, eat breakfast
8:25 Get dressed
8:35 Leave house
8:45 Get on tube
9:20 Get off tube
9:30 Start work

What I didn't mention, were the certain weird things I do to make mornings more tolerable. I don't hit the snooze button because that is putting off the inevitable. I only, ever, want to hear my alarm once... more than once and I would have to go and retrieve my alarm clock from next doors' garden! My shower time looks fairly long, at fifteen minutes, but the first ten of those are actually doing a few downward dogs and a bit of dry body brushing… and if you don't know what either of those things are, be careful when you google it! The rest of my shower time is simply me standing very still under my pathetic dribble of a shower. I always make my lunch to take to work (because I save about £30 a week), and I always have breakfast at home (there is nothing worse than smelling someone's instant porridge or bacon butty wafting over from the opposite desk!). I also, almost always, lay my breakfast out on a tray, with a napkin and silverware, and take it back to bed. This is odd, apparently. I once called a  breakfast radio show to share a story about arguments on long car journeys (cue 'knowing' laughter from my sister and parents), and they asked where I was calling from. I told them I was in bed, having breakfast. Of course, they thought it must be a birthday or an anniversary treat but I told them I had breakfast in bed every morning. There was a collective, "Oooo-ooo-ooh", from the radio team, and after much laughter, I realised that perhaps it did come across as being a little opulent. I think it stems from having the ultimate luxury years ago… breakfast in bed at a stunning hotel. You wake up late, laze around in a huge bed with crisp linen sheets and someone brings you a tray, laden with goodies. Ahhh. Also, my Father used to bring us breakfast in bed some Sunday mornings so, for me, trying to recreate that experience, every day, makes life a bit more civilised and makes me, a bit happier. Much better than just grabbing a piece of toast as you head out of the door. Go on, try it for one day and see how you feel. Of course, there is always a downside to this treat… someone not used to this way of eating breakfast, my occasional boyfriends invariably spilling boiling hot coffee over the sheets and themselves or dropping crumbs in the bed. And that, is very irritating indeed!

The rest of my morning is pretty standard I think… hair drying, putting on make-up and getting dressed. Oh, I do always lay out my clothes the night before, and even check the weather forecast to make sure I'm not over or under layering for the following day. Is that a teensy bit OCD? Again, maybe I am regressing back to the days of having my school uniform out and ready on the radiators every morning, or maybe, it just saves time and the brain ache of decision making.

Having heard back from friends on Facebook, I do realise I may be alone with my slight quirks. Apart from my friends getting up between 5 and 6am because of children and pets, or early cups of tea because of insomnia, no one replied with anything that unusual. Maybe everyone is keeping quiet because it's better not to expose oneself too much, leaving a little to the imagination… I realise I have completely shot myself in the foot for any prospective love interests, unless of course you like a grumpy, well fed woman who brushes herself and does naked yoga. Ok, don't answer that!

Saturday, 12 April 2014

New Orleans

After our first night in New Orleans - a mighty taster of what the city had to offer - we were feeling a little bit delicate the following morning. The lateness of the hour we got to bed might have had something to do with it because it's very easy to lose track of time here. There doesn't seem to be a cut-off point for anyone… a packed street with jazz bands playing on every corner and people spilling in and out of restaurants and bars, singing and dancing, is as normal at 5am as it is at 5pm. 

We were having a lovely quiet dinner with old friends of Stuart - Jack and Katie - and before we knew it, we were back at their pub Fahy's, being bought drinks by all their loyal and very generous customers; from there, Katie took us to The Spotted Cat, a favourite little jazz bar, for more drinks and dancing; an hour later we were whooping along to an impromptu jazz band on the street, an amazing group of young teenage musicians, mostly self taught, busking away for a few dollars and huge applause; then we were drinking whiskey with a group of locals, watching the world go by and suddenly, it was nearly dawn. Oops. 

Some were feeling a little rougher than others the morning after the night before and, not mentioning any names, only two out of three managed to get out of bed and go for breakfast across the road. Luckily, we had the Ruby Slipper restaurant on our doorstep, serving the best brunch I have ever had. Truly. So good was the food at this place that we ate there 3 days in a row! 

Later that day we met up with our friends Mike and Diana, and the rest of the wedding party, for a spot of glass blowing. Yup, glass blowing. I need to remind my dear readers that the couple getting married in New Orleans are the same couple I went to Alaska with last September. They are not only great friends, but they plan the best adventures too. So the wedding was always going to be incredibly creative and special, and because so many of their friends and family were traveling in to Louisiana from all over America (plus one little Brit), they wanted to make the time together really fun and different… not just a wedding day together but a whole experience together. Hence, a bit 0f glass bauble making. Much like saunas, that help you sweat out toxins, I think the heat of the furnace helped extract the alcohol from my body from the night before. Also, sunglasses were compulsory so no one noticed the slightly bloodshot eyes either. Phew. We all made lovely ornaments although I decided to be a bit different with my colour, only dipping the tip. 

In my mind it would look beautifully minimal, but in reality it looked as if someone had had a quick wee on the end of it! I won't show a picture because it might be present for someone and I don't want to ruin the surprise!

The next day was wedding day and, from the first second, I felt so incredibly privileged to be there. Mike and Diana had managed to get permission to have their nuptials at Preservation Hall, an incredible music venue, celebrating traditional New Orleans jazz. Not only were we seeing our friends get married at this historic place but we had the Preservation Jazz band playing for us throughout the day as well. These musicians were a joy… they basically stay in the band til they drop dead (the drummer, Charlie, was in his 80's), passing on their knowledge to the next generation. Here is a photo of some of the musicians in the 60's and then the band at the wedding.

As soon as Diana came into the room, I'm not sure there was a dry eye. My friends have known each other for decades and so it was just amazing to see them finally hitched. A real joy. The vows were beautiful, the drinks abundant and the food, well simply unbelievable… unbelievable because Mike and Diana are vegetarian, and we seemed to be eating very traditional Louisiana dishes. As I mentioned earlier, all Southern food seems to involve meat and if not meat, then fish. Diana had somehow managed to recreate (with the clever caterers) all the traditional meat and fish dishes without using meat or fish! Hmm. 

After the wedding, Mike and Diana did the traditional parade through town. Whoops and applause greeted them everywhere and people threw multicoloured beads down from the balconies as we passed, turning the glamorous pair into bling laden, disco queens. We then all gathered for cocktails at a hotel with a real carousel in it, and then at midnight, ventured back out onto the streets for chicory coffee and beignets… heavenly deep fried dough smothered in icing sugar. By that stage of the night, I assure you, the only thing that will keep you going is caffeine and sugar!! Our last port of call for the dwindling party was a final nightcap at one of the oldest piano bars in the city, called Lafitte's… Jean Lafitte being the infamous French pirate that joined forces with his former enemy, General Jackson, in order to kill as many of the invading British armies as possible, back in 1815. Boooo hisss!

The following day was a bit of a blur… although I do remember food (it's hard not to) and a ghost tour!! Yes, we had a proper ghost hunter and historian in our midst, a wonderful lady called Karen, who's haunted B&B I stayed in on my last night (more of that later). She is able to get access to all sorts of hotels and restaurants, cellars and roof terraces, that no tourist ever can, purely to tell us the history of the city and what ghosts are still lurking there. I also love the real estate signs… they are very proud of their spirits!!!

Karen also practises Voodoo. Now, a big misconception of Voodoo is that it's used for evil. Films love to show possessed black women sacrificing chickens or sticking pins in small dolls, casting spells and speaking in tongues... but Karen explained that most of those practises are actually called Hoodoo. Hoodoo harnesses supernatural powers and magic; Voodoo is the spiritual branch, the religion, with Gods and saints. It was brought to Louisiana from West Africa during the slave trade and is still widely practised today, so we were very lucky, not only receive a blessing from Karen, but also a gris gris bag, a small amulet protecting the keeper from evil spirits and bringing luck. Every time you pray for something to happen you tie a knot in the ribbon of the amulet. I'm just worried my ribbon isn't long enough!!!

The girls and I also visited the famous New Orleans cemeteries. They are the 'above ground' graveyards' that have such an eerie beauty to them. Our guide managed to have a quick ciggie and coffee before out tour began (having a hangover himself… I'm starting to see a pattern here) and was a very amusing character, giving us the history, folklore and all the local gossip in one go. 

Here's an interesting titbit… Many New Orleans families still own the crypts here, but there are so many bodies buried inside that they now have to compact everything. So, they have the funeral, the coffin goes in the slot, then months later, when the body has decomposed, the caretaker comes back, opens the crypt, gets rid of the coffin, breaks down the skeleton and puts the bones in a labelled ziplock bag. Charming! 

As my trip came to an end, and everyone started to depart for home, I managed to squeeze in a swamp tour in the Bayou, outside New Orleans. The boat trip was wonderful and, although it was cold for the time of year, I saw egrets, alligators, herons, and the cutest looking racoons. 

also saw many signs of the devastation that hurricane Katrina caused back in 2005… huge areas in the poorer parts of New Orleans have still not been rebuilt, and traveling down river, you suddenly come across cars, boats and fridges high up in the trees, evidence of the extraordinary high tide the hurricane caused. Katrina is still talked about… it was the most devastating hurricane America had ever seen and leaves its scars to this day. Some homes still have a large 'X' spray painted on the exterior walls, with numbers and letters scribbled in each section. These were a morbid way of quickly marking the date, time, body count (living or deceased, human or animal) and hazards (flooding, rotting food, gas leaks, rats) at each property, left by the search and rescue teams. Utterly horrific.

My last night was spent at Karens B&B, a property I would never, willingly, have stayed in, had I known (prior to booking) it was haunted. Mike and Diana adore ghosts, and if you remember my blog about Alaska, you will remember their excitement about seeing, feeling and sleeping with the spirit world! I should have known they would recommend the most haunted property in New Orleans. In fact, I have just this second googled Dauphine House, and before you even click 'OK' in the search window, it comes up with "Dauphine House B&B haunted", haha. Why didn't I google it before? Well, why would I… I didn't know it was haunted!! So I arrived, slightly, but not overly, terrified. The thing is, Karen is soo lovely and soo warm and welcoming that I just couldn't imagine anything bad happening in her gorgeous home, so I felt fine as I unpacked and settled in… until I decided to have a bath. 

I had asked Karen not to tell me anything, pretending that my room was void of any ghostly activity, but as I sunk down into the deep warm bubbles of the roll-top bath, I had a very funny feeling that I was being watched and kept looking over my shoulder. It wasn't a cold draft or a movement but a very palpable sense of someone standing in the doorway. And it wan't a sinister or a pervy peeping Tom type presence... it felt like a young girl, simply curious about who was in her room. Ok… I can see your eyes rolling now. Listen, I am the first person to be skeptical about this sort of thing but I also know what I felt and this was odd enough to shorten my relaxing bath time, and have me in my pyjamas and in bed fairly swiftly. The second thing I noticed was an odd sensation on the left hand side of the room, a sort of cold dense cloud, definitely male, that had me sleeping so far to the right of the bed that I was in danger of falling out. Nonetheless, I slept deeply and woke with all my senses and body parts intact. I mentioned all these things to Karen when I saw her, later that morning, and she was overjoyed but before we could talk it through in depth, my taxi for the airport arrived. Boo. I will send her this blog and see what she says but in the meantime, you might want to watch this film, made of her and her house, that I found on YouTube.

Ok, I have only just watched this link myself… I hadn't wanted it to influence my writing in any way, but now, all I can say is… spooky!!

I loved loved loved New Orleans. I met up with old friends, met some wonderful new ones, went to the most fabulous wedding, listened to glorious Jazz, ate delicious Southern cuisine, learnt some history, heard some stories, experienced the Bayou, and went to bed with a ghost. What's not to love? 

But now that I have had a taste for the Southern States, I want more… I want to hear country music in Nashville and Memphis; see the beautiful towns and Islands of the Carolinas; I want to drive down to the Florida Keys and see where Hemingway wrote; feel the Latin vibe in Miama, and slow down in Georgia. I do need a Louise or a Louis to my Thelma, however… road trips should never be done alone!

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Deep South

My first mistake on traveling to the southern states of North America, happened before I even got there. When I announced I was going to a wedding in New Orleans, pronouncing the much loved city as 'Nyoo Or-lee-ans', two American friends recoiled in horror. According to them, annunciating every syllable is akin to an American in London saying 'Ly-ses-ter' Square instead of 'Lester'. Ugh! So for anyone visiting our american cousins, New Orleans should be pronounced 'Noo Orlans' or 'Norlans'. I thank you.

My arrival for the 'Norlans' wedding was preceded by a visit to my friend Alex and her family in Houston, Texas. It was a horrendous trip with 3 flights, two layovers and a delay, resulting in an 18 journey and my friend collecting a bedraggled, bleary eyed, crumpled body from the airport. I managed to take in very few surroundings on the way back to her house and woke up from a delightfully long sleep, in a beautiful guest room, in a stunning house, in a quiet street... just like Wysteria Lane, ahh. 

Here are some of the things we did during my stay...

Singing and dancing with the kids.
Being asked to participate in the kids’ music class sounded like my worst nightmare (children + noise + jet lag = pain !!), but once I was handed the Sound of Music song sheet I perked up dramatically and sang "Whiskers on kittens…" as loudly and enthusiastically as I possibly could. I hadn't realised that we were also supposed to be supervising the children as well as singing, until Alex shouted at me, waking me from my musical reverie, and asked if I wouldn't mind stopping her young son from throwing himself out of the window. In the second half of the class I was asked to help Alex's daughter make a drum. Once again, I became a little too involved with the wax crayons and sticky tape and didn't notice Alex's daughter walk off out of sheer boredom. I carried on oblivious, until I was the proud owner of a rainbow and heart designed plastic drum… yes, of course I gave it to her daughter (a little reluctantly I admit). It was not quite what the teacher had in mind.

Houston Zoo.
I have never been a huge fan of zoos but, being half term, it seemed a perfect distraction for the kids. On reflection, it was a terrible idea because every other Houston parent had decided to take their children there as well. It was overcrowded, hot and loud and although we got a buggy for the kids to be pushed around in, tempers were still a little bit frayed. Alex definitely saw 'Auntie Doodie's' disciplinary skills kick in, which my friends in England know only too well. The Mary Poppins accent definitely didn't help much and only seemed to amuse other people, as they overheard things like, "If you insist on getting out of the buggy while it's still moving, you're going to get your legs trapped under the wheels… then I will probably run you over, break all your bones and you'll be in a buggy for a lot longer than you originally wanted! Now sit down please!" The only saving grace, in the form of bribery, was ice cream… and a horny male monkey, in Monkey World, bonking his mate. Both seem lighten the mood, I find.

Dinner, Texas style.
One thing you are guaranteed in Texas, is meat. Great huge slabs of beef and pork appear on every restaurant table, so as my 'thank you for having me' dinner, we decided to go 'down and dirty' at their local BBQ Rib shack. Enormous plates of gooey tender pork ribs, spicy re-fried beans and creamy coleslaw, washed down with icy cold beers. Yum! This sort of protein and carb-laden meal continued for most of my trip and I've just realised, I'm not entirely sure anything green passed my lips for the whole 10 days. Unless mayo-heavy 'slaw' or a single iceberg lettuce leaf garnish, count as one of your 5-a-day! The Southern States certainly don't seem to be very vegetable or vegetarian friendly!

The friendly neighbour.
We had been out for a lovely evening stroll around the neighbourhood, with the kids in pushchair and scooter, respectively, when Alex's neighbour appeared. Now, I haven't been set up by friends or family in years but whenever I am on holiday or traveling, someone always seems to know someone that would be 'perfect' for me romantically. On this particular occasion, the neighbour, on hearing of my single status, decided that an English Vicar whom her sister had briefly met in Greenwich (East London) at a Christening earlier that year, would be ideal. It's a long shot, but if anyone happens to be walking past the painted Chapel by the Royal Naval College, go in and have a look at the man in the dog collar for me... you just never know!

The road trip. (To describe a day-long drive as a road trip is a little far fetched but it sounds better, so go with it). 
Two days later, Alex and I set off on our road trip from Texas to Louisiana, planning only a couple of detours along the way. The journey should have only taken 5 hours but due to slightly shoddy planning, it actually took 8½. We decided it would be fun to see our first swamp and so turned off the highway trying to find a place called Lost Lake which, apparently, was a large nature reserve filled with alligators, egrets and all sorts of swampy things. Cool. But it remained aptly named... lost. It was on the map and the sat nav but we couldn't find the damn thing. We drove around and around for an hour and even asked in the gas station but no one had heard of it!! Somewhat puzzled, we decided to continue our journey into the Louisiana countryside and find somewhere else to stop. After a bit of googling we decided to stop in Breaux Bridge, a quaint little town close to Lafayette and famous for its bridges, antique shops and Po' Boys.

I always thought Po' Boys (shortened slang for 'Poor boys') were a Southern delicacy of sorts… a sandwich with a twist, possibly deep fried, as many normal food stuffs seem to be. I asked a lady in town, where we might find the best Po' Boys and she pointed up the road. We found ourselves in front of large wooden shed. 

On entering the shed, we found two tables and a formica counter. The black lady behind the counter looked at us warily - or not - it was hard to tell to be honest, because one of her eyes was looking at the door and the other at us. We aimed our order in her direction and I asked for the Chicken Deluxe and Alex ordered the Fried Shrimp. I remembered reading that the original Po' Boy was made with fried oysters but, to be honest, that didn't sit well with me on a hot day, even before eating it. We waited outside in the sun, with baited breath, until our sandwiches appeared. Oooh, the anticipation. Ohh, the reality. So basically a Po' Boy is a soft white baguette with a filling. Nothing "wow" at all. In fact, describing my sandwich as 'Deluxe' is almost criminal, as it consisted of a chicken breast, some grated cheese, a dollop of mayo, and my 'five-a-day' iceberg lettuce leaf. Disappointing is not the word I expressed at the time, but it will suffice here. Other than stopping for the loo and some dubious snacks, the rest of the journey was spent sightseeing from the car.

Our arrival in New Orleans.

We arrived in New Orleans later than anticipated but earlier than we had told our friend Stuart, so we were in time, thank goodness, for dinner with her and some of her old friends. The old friends, Jack and Katie, own one of the French Quarters' most popular hangouts, a pub called Fahy's, and our introduction to the French Quarter was a night, I can only describe as, um, slightly debauched… incredibly fun, incredibly liquid, and with the constant accompaniment of chatter, laughter and jazz.

To be continued…