Friday, 22 December 2017

2017 in numbers

My year...
4 months living at my parent's house, plus the whole previous year of course (thanks M & D)
12 visits to Airbnb's
4 nights in Premier Inns
7 months living at my friend Katie's cottage (eek, thanks Katie)
4 mice caught while living in Katie's cottage
9 months house-hunting in Somerset
19 properties viewed and rejected
2 visits to new cottage before putting in an offer
9 weeks from initial offer to moving in
6 weeks living in my new cottage in Frome (hurrah)
4 other terraced cottages in my row
1 converted mill on my road
4 big Georgian houses on my road
1 bigger Georgian manor house on my road (with swimming pool to boot... hello neighbours!)
2 Dachshunds, 1 Schnauzer and a King Charles Spaniel living on my road
7 visits from neighbours since moving in
3 weeks waiting for internet to be connected (BT... what a surprise!)
2 days having my electrics re-wired
2 days having my plumbing sorted out and new boiler installed
1 week waiting for plumber to come back and fix strange noises coming from new pipes
3 days having my oak wood floor laid
3 weeks waiting for oak wood floor man to come back and fix oak wood floor
8 visits from builder
1 wall removed
1 visit from decorator (eye-watering quote only)
3 visits from carpet fitter (sample books only)
1 visit from landscape gardener (to talk about fences)
2 hours carpenter spent fixing rickety stairs
2 more visits from carpenter (to discuss my designs for shelving and other odd jobs)
30 minutes carpenter took to explain he was now unavailable to do the work for me
2 hours spent sulking after visit from carpenter
9 different white vans parked outside my cottage (on different occasion I hasten to add)
50 cups of tea made for workmen (at least)
8 packets of biscuits consumed by workmen (at least)
13 boxes, 2 suitcases and 5 bin bags left to unpack
1 week spent in Wales, writing my book, on my own
2 weeks spent in Thailand, on holiday, with girlfriends
5 birthday parties attended
8 drinks parties attended
5 BBQ parties attended
7 dinner parties attended
23 new friends made
12 visits to the theatre (3 in London, 4 in Bristol, 3 in Bath, 2 open-air in Somerset)
38 visits to pubs and restaurants
21 films watched at Babington House (blimey)
1 drive-in film watched at Babington House
11 creative workshops attended at Babington House
8 people (at least) who have got bored of me talking about Babington House
23 books read
14 blogs written
3 trips to the seaside
5 months ill with Rheumatoid Arthritis (hideous)
3 months not working because of Rheumatoid Arthritis (even more hideous)
5 visits to Rheumatologist
3 visits to Occupational Therapist
7 visits to Physiotherapist
12 visits to GP
3 visits to knee surgeon in London
14 blood tests taken
1 visit to Dentist
7 visits to Acupuncturist
12 visits to Pilates rehab
1 foam roller class attended
3 meditation classes attended
101 consecutive days spent doing at least 20 minutes meditation
24 pills taken daily (holy moly!)
3 hair cuts (not enough)
2 manicures
3 massages
12 Congratulations on your new home cards received
18 Christmas cards received
1 Nativity play attended
2 Carol services attended
17 presents wrapped
107 minutes spent writing this blog
12 words and 1 letter to say: Have a wonderful Christmas and a very Happy New Year, love Jules x

Monday, 11 December 2017


The last 9 months of house hunting has taken its toll on me mentally and physically. I began looking at properties armed with a huge checklist, great expectations and oodles of enthusiasm but as the months passed and I saw nothing I liked or could afford, I grew weary. My priority list got shorter, my patience dwindled and I began to dread looking at property websites. The butterflies in my stomach stopped fluttering when I answered the phone to estate agents and I began to ignore the "For Sale" signs as I drove around Frome. I was down in the dumps.

So, when I first viewed the property I have now bought, a cottage that was way above my price range and didn't have many of the things on my checklist but was, very importantly, in one of the most beautiful areas of Frome, I didn't hold out much hope. But as soon as I walked through the door it felt good. It had prospects. It was hideously decorated, had terrible light and was in need of a lot of TLC but I knew I could make it beautiful. So I made a ridiculous offer, £20,000 under the asking price and crossed my fingers. My position helped... I had nothing to sell, all my stuff was in storage, I was renting a room at a friend's house, I had a large cash deposit and I had a pre-approved mortgage, so I could potentially move really fast. And that's exactly what the sellers wanted. After a nerve racking 24 hours wait, they said yes.

It took only 10 weeks from my initial offer to me moving in on November 10th, an incredibly short period of time that surprised even the estate agents. My brilliant solicitor discovered a number of shortcuts, from paying Mendip Council a private fee to speed up paperwork (£30), to getting cancelled appointments for surveys and buttering up my mortgage provider, so I was moving in before I had time to catch my breath. By then, of course, I had been living with this damn Rheumatoid Arthritis for 3 months and was finding everything very difficult. Having no energy and in pain all the time makes a somewhat stressful period even more so and the hardest thing for me was relinquishing control and asking for help!!

My sister and I were brought up to be resourceful, practical and independent women... my parents wouldn't let us leave home until we were capable of at least changing a tyre, unblocking a loo, re-wiring a plug, painting a wall, building a fire, reading a map and working out our finances so I have always managed to do things on my own and have not had to rely on anyone to help with day-to-day things. 49 years later and I am physically unable to do anything that requires lifting, carrying, hammering or screwing, so I had to get friends, family and removal men to move me in and shift things around the house, I've had to get builders in to knock down walls and rip up flooring and I will have to get decorators in to help me paint the house. It's terribly frustrating because I'd usually be doing all that stuff myself and now I have to stand around and watch someone else do it. Arghhh. I never knew I was such a control freak!

Thank goodness I have had recommendations for all the amazing workmen I am using and they have been brilliant. One friend who lives four houses away has pretty much imparted her whole tradesman database to me, from tree surgeons to wood floor specialists. Thank you Lizzie! Frome is a small market town with a large community spirit and many passersby have stuck their heads round my open front door or peered through my window to: A, have a good nose or B, offer opinions, suggestions or impart local knowledge. After the first few days, I had already met almost all of the neighbours on my road and have been round for coffee to a fair few. 

My small stone-fronted cottage is at the end of a row of 5, halfway down a narrow lane flanked by dry-stone walls. Although it was only built in the early 80's, which is certainly not very old for this part of town, its clever design means it blends in well with the surrounding Georgian houses and converted wool mills. Location is everything too, and being in a conservation area means nothing hideous can be built and no additions or alterations made without strict consent. It is a beautiful spot... I overlook several grand Grade II listed houses so my views aren't bad, and it's a quiet too, most of the time, which as my family and friends well know, is high on my list of priorities. The only times it's not that quiet is first thing in the morning when kids are going to school and dogs are having their first walk of the day, and in the afternoon when kids are being picked up. As my road is a cut through for foot traffic it can get a little boisterous. At the back, the gardens are mostly walled which is very pretty to look at but which can also amplify noise upwards and outwards, so again, at times it sounds like a distant barking dog is actually in my garden but I can't say I wasn't warned... many months ago I was told that if I didn't like children or dogs, then I shouldn't move to Frome! Fair enough.

After 4 weeks, I am still camped out in one of the small bedrooms upstairs. I haven't been able to unpack because there is still a fair amount of dust and chaos. There is still dust and chaos because the floor was bare cement until last week and had to be levelled, a wall had to be knocked down and a boiler had to be removed. I can't unpack more than immediate necessities because I have to decorate and that means trying to keep everything covered and only moving it from room to room as one gets finished. I need to re-plaster some walls and ceilings, put in a new downstairs loo and sink, put in a new upstairs loo and sink, re-tile the bathroom, install a shower, replace 3 windows and 3 doors, and then decorate. And only when I have decorated can I lastly, but not leastly, lay new carpets on the stairs and upstairs. Phew. 

Of course I need furniture too. All that remains from my London flat is my mattress, a chest of drawers, a sofa and a bookcase. I also need a cooker, a fridge and a washing machine and this would all be fine and do-able if I had the money to pay for it all, but again, due to this buggery Rheumatoid Arthritis, I haven't been able to work, therefore I haven't been able to earn money and so I can't pay for anything but the immediate and the crucial. I considered heat and a floor to be essentials so the rest is on hold. Even my amazing builder agreed to work cheaper for cash but he can only squeeze me in between his other more important and better paid jobs. So I sit and look around me and have an every-growing list of things I could and should do, but when I attempt to do them, get beaten back by the pain. Or I work through the pain and then can't move the following day. Neither is a good option.

But I will get there. My cottage will be finished eventually and my doctors will find a drug that works. I am forever hopeful and I suppose that's all that matters. It goes without saying that once I do have both these things figured out, I will then be able to invite my friends and family to stay. I miss having people in my home, laughing, chatting, eating and drinking, because that's what keeps me sane. I love entertaining and I love hosting so not being able to that right now is frustrating. But keep your diaries free for Spring 2018... hopefully by then my body will be fixed and my home will be open.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Beds, bugs and Bruno.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, last week I found myself with nowhere to stay. For the last few months I have been living with a friend in her gorgeous cottage in Somerset but as her boyfriend was coming to stay, we agreed I would vacate the premises for the week while he was here. I had arranged to visit friends and family in Yorkshire and Cumbria but at the last minute I had to stay in the area rather than head up north, and suddenly realised I was a bit stuck.

I am quite used to scrabbling around trying to find places to stay while I've been house-hunting. Over the last year I have stayed in practically every Airbnb, B&B and Pub in Bristol, Bath and Frome. Some have been more expensive than others because they've been conveniently positioned to wherever I've been working, others have just been cheap. But I have never had to find somewhere with only a few hours notice that would be ok to stay in when ill. My RA has been particularly hard to deal with because of the chronic fatigue, nausea and pain... it leaves me utterly incapable of doing anything for more than a few hours and I have spent much of the last 8 weeks in bed. My lovely cousin had offered me a bed but her household had come down with flu and because my medication lowers my immune system, that was out of the question. So it was a tricky one. I could hardly ring up some of my newer friends in the area and ask to stay when I would have immediately turned up at their house, said hello, and then needed to sleep. Not the most social of things to do. I also needed to be close to Frome because of some appointments so it narrowed my search somewhat. After some panic googling, I found a place near Shepton Mallet, a town I have subsequently learnt is referred to as 'Shit and Smell it' by locals as it is often said to be one of Britain's worst places to live. No wonder the pub I found had rooms available.

For £35 a night I was offered a double room with ensuite bathroom and breakfast was included. Now I have never stayed anywhere that cheap that wasn't utterly horrific. It didn't disappoint. The pub itself was next to one of the areas busiest roads and in order for the guests not to be kept awake by the constant stream of traffic, the windows were painted shut. It made no difference, in fact, because there was also the constant hum of the kitchen extractor fan just below the bedroom window, extracting, by the smell of it, old cooking oil. I also found myself being jolted out of bed every 5 minutes by a loud hollow bang that reverberated around the room and made the bed shake. I discovered what was making this loud bang when I bravely entered the main bar downstairs, a few hours later.

There was only one man working in the pub, who seemed to be responsible for not only manning the front desk but also serving drinks, taking food orders, and probably cooking the food itself. I use the term 'food' loosely. The extensive menu (4 pages, large bold type) consisted of things that had once been frozen and would now be fried... Chicken and Chips, Fish and Chips, Chicken nuggets and Chips, Fishcake and Chips, Deep fried Camembert, Deep fried Prawns... you get the idea. In fact, the only thing on the menu that wasn't going to be engorged in boiling vegetable oil was Sausage and Mash, so that's what I ordered, careful to request that my sausages be cremated (I didn't want to risk food poisoning on top of everything else!). Were there any vegetables I asked? The man frowned and said, "Well it comes with mash". O-kay. What worried me was the speed in which my meal arrived. Yes, I was the only one in the pub, but still, to cook sausages from scratch in under a minute was a bit of a concern. Maybe they too had been fried. The sausages did not taste like any kind of meat I'd ever had before and the mash, well it took me back to my school days... watery, cold, lumpy and drowned in lukewarm gloop that I guessed was gravy. It was utterly revolting but at the eye-waterning price of £10.95, I felt obliged to at least have a few bites. I could hardly complain and send it back because it really wasn't that kind of place. It would have been replaced with something equally horrific anyway!

I did discover from the receptionist/barman/cook what the banging noise was, however. "Oh, your room is above the men's toilet," he said. "It's the door banging every time someone goes in for a pee". Oh how lovely. "But it bangs every few minutes," I said, "and there doesn't seem to be anyone else here but you and I." "There's everyone in the kitchen," he replied, gesturing to the door with his thumb. Everyone in the kitchen. Surely everyone implies quite a few people. What on earth were they doing in there? Certainly not preparing gastronomic delights for everyone in the pub!

My night was not spent sleeping. I had become used to the traffic noise and once everyone in the kitchen had left for the night, the banging loo door also stopped but what kept me awake were two things; The stifling heat and the motion sensor light outside. The heating was kept on high throughout the night and as anyone knows from staying in a cheap hotel, the sheets were also cheap, which meant polyester, which meant sweaty. I couldn't open the windows so lay there suffocating. Then there was the incredibly bright motion sensor floodlight that was triggered every few minutes and invaded the room like a spaceship, glowing menacingly through the very insubstantial paper-thin curtains. It meant that there were either creepy Shepton Mallet low-lives walking around, about to break in and attack me, or there were wild animals! Listen, I was ill and sleep deprived so my imagination was slightly overactive. The lights also attracted a myriad of giant moths and insects which hit the window with such ferocity, I thought they would break the glass.

Safe to say, I felt and looked much worse in the morning than when I had arrived, but I was hungry, needed to force down a bit of breakfast so I could take all my medications, and only then could I try and sleep again. Breakfast was served between 7am and 8am, an incomprehensible time slot that definitely did not appear to be designed for the average tourist or holiday maker. And guess what... that's exactly what was not in the breakfast room (I say breakfast room... it was in fact the same room I'd eaten in the night before). Four of the tables were occupied with pairs of big burly men in workwear. I don't mean that in any derogatory manner, it's just a fact. Overalls, boiler suits and jeans, covered in an array of paint, plaster, earth and god knows what else. They all stared at me as I staggered over to a vacant table... not in an appreciative "Ooh it's a woman," type of way, more of a "Jesus, what has the cat dragged in!" kind of way. I was not looking my best. Matted hair scrunched into a topknot, dark circles under my bloodshot eyes and a deathly pallor that normally would have put the average person off their hearty breakfast, but not these chaps. A cursory glance and they went back to shovelling great forkfuls of baked beans, fried eggs and sausages (probably mine from the night before) into their mouths! But where had they all come from? They certainly weren't here the night before... or maybe they were, and had been the ones triggering the light through the night. I didn't really care to be honest, I just needed food. There was only one thing on offer, a Full English, which didn't surprise me because it's fried after all. I managed a few mouthfuls of molten lava-hot beans and a few bites of burnt cold toast before the queasiness took over and I departed as quickly as I'd arrived. I headed for my room, collapsed on the bed and amazingly managed to sleep for the rest of the day. And then, even more amazingly, I slept through the night.

It's a fantastic feeling to wake up and feel better. Well, not better better, but I had managed to sleep on and off for more than 18 hours and the never-ending fatigue had suddenly lifted slightly. But I knew I couldn't do it for another night, not with the prospect of banging door, the bright light, the heat and disgusting food, so I decided to go upmarket (upmarket meaning anywhere but here) and booked myself into a Travelodge. Basic, clean, quiet. The only slightly off-putting thing when I checked in were the two ambulances parked outside the front entrance. I asked the receptionist what was going on and she just pulled a sad face. Oh God. She handed me a key, then took it back, pulled another face and scratched her head. "I'll put you on the top floor, right at the end of the corridor so you won't hear anything." Oh God. I walked to the room trying not to imagine what on earth was going on elsewhere in the hotel, and just to be on the safe side, dug out some old fluff-covered earplugs, drew the curtains and fell asleep. I didn't hear anything, I didn't see anything, and I didn't feel anything.

I left the next morning feeling a little more revived but halfway to Frome, realised I had left my hot water bottle in the bed. Now I don't care about the rubber hot water bottle itself, it is the hot water bottle cover that I care about. It is a very old, very shabby-looking, brown, furry, hot water bottle cover that all my friends know about because it has traveled with me for the last 20 years. His name is Bruno and he is a dog. Even boyfriends have had to fight Bruno for space in my bed, sometimes a little bewildered when a foot meets fur instead of skin. Bruno is there all year round you see, through spring, summer, autumn and winter and I don't care who knows it. But now I had left him behind and wasn't going to be back in the area for a few days. My Mother urged me to call the Travelodge and get them to keep him safe for me. I felt a little idiotic but I rang and spoke to the same receptionist who had checked me in the previous day. "Yessss, we found it," she said laughing, "But the cleaner had quite a fright when she stripped the bed. She didn't know what it was." "Yes, that's happened to me before," I said, remembering similar scenarios. "But then again," I added, "You must have had weirder things left behind." "Oh my God yes," she said, "But we don't talk about those!" I laughed and then remembered the ambulances. "Was everything ok with whoever was ill by the way? The ambulances?" There was a slight pause, and then she said, "What ambulances?" I guess they don't talk about those either!

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Hidden Illnesses

Over the years I have had a lot of different illnesses and operations, and I've noticed that people react very differently to ones that are obvious or visible, like a knee replacement or a bug that might leave you pale and sickly-looking, and those that are invisible, such as depression or something affecting your insides. The hidden illnesses may not leave physical scars or change the way you look but they can be far more debilitating and have more of an impact on both your daily and future life.

I have many physical scars from surgeries but I also have the physical memories of get well cards, letter and emails. The hidden illnesses certainly don't get the same level of attention and I think it's mainly because they aren't obvious and therefore probably not talked about as much. Unless you walk around with a sign most people are oblivious.

I was diagnosed with severe autoimmune disease 8 weeks ago, a hard-core, life-sapping illness, often referred to as Rheumatoid Arthritis. It is not, as many people think, quite the same things as having a few swollen joints after eating spicy food, or having a crooked finger or toe. When it is severe, it is a chronic and progressive disease that causes inflammation throughout the whole body. Yes, it affects the joints and is incredibly painful but the reason it can be so debilitating is that your own body's immune system starts attacking itself. A normal immune system attacks outside invaders in the body but due to a bizarre re-wiring, the immune systems of people with RA fight themselves, which is a bit silly, and a bit crap.

A few months ago I woke up with a shooting pain in my right hand and wrist. It was very swollen and hot to the touch and I couldn't move it without screaming in pain. I thought back to what I'd done the previous day and realised I had attempted a bizarre new manoeuvre in my Pilates class and hung upside down on a trapeze for several minutes, alternately gripping the bar with my hands or feet... I thought maybe I had ruptured some tendons. I took myself off to A&E, they took an x-ray and agreed that as nothing was fractured, then it must be torn tendons. On with a soft cast, and 2 weeks later, a visit to my GP. My GP was puzzled. She didn't think it was tendons. In fact, she didn't think it was anything that I'd done physically and immediately sent me off for blood tests. A few days later she rang and told me to come and see her. I made an appointment and she very slowly explained what the blood tests had revealed. Acute Rheumatoid Arthritis. I, like many people, thought that Rheumatoid Arthritis was a few painful joints and I simply shrugged it off, thinking it would get better in a while.

I remember my father suffering from RA around the same age when we lived in America, and he had been treated, very successfully, with gold injections! I had never talked to him about it at great length because I had been away at University and by the time I was back, his symptoms had almost disappeared. He never spoke of the initial diagnosis and how it had affected him. My mother never spoke of the months spent helping my father get dressed because the pain was so awful. My sister never told me how shocked she had been, seeing my father bent and crooked and walking with a stick, aged 50. I was oblivious to it all, until now.

Unfortunately, the gold injections my father had are not the most common form of treatment used nowadays (as you can imagine) but as Rheumatoid Arthritis has no cure, it is one of the most heavily funded and researched illnesses. As a result, there are many ways for it to be treated with different drug therapies. You are never actually cured of the disease but most people do go through stages of remission and can have years where the disease lies dormant. The first 3-6 months are the worst I am told. The Rheumatoid specialist I saw a week after my initial diagnosis was very clear about that. Be prepared because it spreads through the body like an out-of-control wildfire, getting much worse before it gets better. It swells your joints and heats your body and feels like flu most of the time. A dull ache in the bones, an ever-present roaring headache, nausea and dizziness and a chronic fatigue I never thought possible. Without doubt, I have never felt so ill in my life. But it is hidden in my body, and apart from the lumps on my wrists, the puffy hands and knees, a bit of a limp and the red flush from the steroids, I look fine. Tired but fine. Rosy cheeked but fine. And because I look fine, most people think I'm fine.

I haven't been able to work for 4 weeks now. My doctor said I should stop working for 3 months but as a self-employed designer that is simply impossible. If I don't work, I don't get paid. If I don't get paid for a period of time, then my whole life falls apart. Initially, I thought I could strap up my hands like a boxer and carry on as normal but this illness has caught me by surprise. The exhaustion is overwhelming. By the time I have showered and dressed (very slowly using my left hand only), I feel as if I haven't slept for a week. Many mornings, I have barely been able to get out of bed as the pain soars through my body. Some days I can't move my fingers and other days I can't move my hands and some days I spend the morning with my head in the toilet bowl. My wrists are in soft casts much of the time, so I don't accidentally bend them and cause torturous lighting bolts to shoot up my arms and down my fingers. I have an additional complication and that is Sjogren's disease, an irritating infliction which causes extreme dry mouth and dry eyes. I hate it, and hate that if I don't constantly chew gum or suck a sweet or have a litre of water at my side, my mouth feels like a desert and my eyes itch and burn.

The pills are a work in progress too. I have no idea at this point whether the numerous medications are causing ill effects or it is the disease itself. The side effects, from what is essentially a low dose of chemotherapy, are horrendous... mostly nausea but with the added fun of vertigo and ringing ears, something that I can only associate with clubbing in London! It's impossible to try and describe how all this feels to someone that has no experience of it, and I hate myself when I text friends and moan about how shit I feel. Poor me poor me is one of the traits I despise but if someone asks me how I feel, I can't lie about it. The worst things is having to try and do anything for myself when my left hand is the only functioning one. And I am not left handed. I can no longer clean my teeth, brush my hair, pull up my jeans, do up buttons or make food with my right hand. I cannot grip you see. So imagine how long things take. I end up with toothpaste by my ear, my hair in knots and my shirts skewiff. It's ridiculous. And apart from people who have damaged their wrists, fingers or hands in the past, the only people that can relate to this are other RA sufferers.

I was advised to join an RA community online by my rheumatologist. Not only are there thousand of people that have gone through, or are going through the same thing but they can offer support, suggestions and advice that you might not get elsewhere. My family have been amazing which goes without saying and I truly cannot thank my mother and father enough for their hospitality and the offer of a bed and love whenever necessary. But the timing is shite. I am in a new chapter of my life, working for new clients and meeting new friends in Somerset and it really isn't the easiest of things to explain. I have had to cancel bookings and nights out, weekends away and dinner parties. I meet new people and wince when they shake my hand. I go to the cinema and can barely keep my eyes open. I try to go swimming and can't swim... treading water for half and hour like an idiot because I can't use my hands. I do get peculiar looks I must say. Some friends have been amazing, always there, always asking, always offering and always there at the end of the phone. Some have gone beyond... offering beds, bringing round food and books and cards. And others have problems of their own, their own health to look after, their own pain, their own suffering, and we trade paragraphs of support and  love via our phones.

Let's just hope things start to improve. It has been 8 weeks so far and the latest blood tests aren't so good. Worse inflammation, worse pain, worse. I have been at my parents house for a few days each week, and know I can relax here without worrying too much. I'm not asking for sympathy or even empathy, I'm simply asking for understanding.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017


I surprised myself by humming this morning. I literally stopped in my tracks when I heard the slightly tuneless noise being expelled from my lips and thought, how interesting, I can't remember the last time that happened.

I equate mindless humming or singing in the morning with being happy. I was so surprised by it happening to me because for the last few years I have woken most mornings in pain and the first thing that enters my head is how many pills I have to swallow. The next thoughts are where I'm working, how far I have to drive, or the endless quest to find a home.

So, why was I suddenly humming? My circumstances haven't changed but there is something I've been doing for the last 2 weeks, upon waking, that seems to have completely altered my early morning mood. Meditation. Ok, I know what you are thinking... another person banging on about finding inner peace, omm-ing their way through life without a care in the world but I swear to God, it's the only thing I can put my altered mood down to.

I've tried meditation before without much success. When I was in Sri Lanka in 2004, I sat for an hour every afternoon with a local Buddhist monk from the village. I desperately tried to sit still, to stop my mind from wandering, and every single day I would get utterly bored and frustrated after about 10 minutes. I would get distracted by anything invading my senses... a dog barking in the distance, the shouts of the fishermen, the smell of cooking, wind blowing my hair in the wrong direction, even an ant crawling across my toe. I remember twitching my toe to get rid of it and it just kept crawling higher up my foot. I opened one eye to spot it and kill it, only to find the monk staring calmly at me, sightly shaking his head. I squeezed my eyes shut again and let the pesky ant continue its journey until I could bear it no longer and shot my leg out, shaking my trouser leg with a squeal. The monk did nothing. He sat there is such a state of focused bliss that I wondered what it would take to make him react. How did he do it, hour after hour?

A few years later I went to a meditation class in London. A group of about a dozen of us sat cross-legged facing a statue of Buddha, with some lit candles and an incense stick burning. I was fine for the first 5 minutes, focusing on my breathing and feeling quite calm. Then I got annoyed by the smell of the incense... it was too strong. The background music of chimes was increasingly irritating and the woman next to me was breathing so loudly it sounded as if she was gong into labour. No this wasn't going to work. My mind was too restless, I had too many things to think about, and once again I gave up.

In recent years, mindfulness has taken over from meditation as the thing to do. But it really is a clever re-brand of an ancient practise. The only difference really is that mindfulness can be practised anywhere at any time. It is simply being aware, being in the moment. You can practise mindfulness drinking a cup of tea, for instance. Instead of having a couple of sips whilst thinking about what you have to do next or what plans you have for the following day, simply focus on drinking the tea... the smell of the tea, the taste of each mouthful, the sensation of the warm liquid in your mouth, of swallowing the tea. Many people have moments of mindfulness when they taste something utterly delicious and have that Mmmm moment when all your senses are heightened by the taste. It sounds ridiculous but that is what mindfulness is about. Taking a minute to just be in the moment. Mindfulness is a form of meditation therefore. Meditation being the ultimate practise of being able to calm the mind, slow the breathing and concentrate.

So I began trying to be more mindful, to focus on the things I was doing, rather than letting my mind race all the time. Going for a walk and not talking, eating and really tasting the food, slowing everything down. And then I was told about an app for the phone that did guided meditations. You didn't have to sit for an hour in total silence, you could listen and be guided into different forms of meditation to help you keep focused, which I have to say, sounded a bit more like it.

So for the last 2 weeks I have been listening to a different guided meditation each day, for at least 20 minutes, as soon as I wake up. I do not leap out of bed and thrown myself into a lotus position on the floor, I simply rest my phone on my chest and lay perfectly still. The app is called Insight Timer and is a global community of experts with over 12,000 meditations. I do have my favourites already because there is nothing more annoying and distracting than a voice suddenly telling you what to do if they have a horrible speaking voice. So that is number one for me. A lovely calm voice. Secondly, I like ones that focus on breathing. As soon as you slow your breathing down, the effect on your stress levels is overwhelming. I also like visualisation ones although some I've listened to end up making me laugh. There was one I tried a few days ago, where you imagine yourself on a white sandy beach, waves lapping at your feet. That was fine, nice slow breathing to the sound of waves. But then suddenly she told me to get into a boat and float over to a deserted island, to get out of the boat, find a path and walk through a rainforest. In the rainforest was a clearing with a pool of deep water. She told me to take my clothes off and get into the pool of water. And then I started giggling. Of course my brain could not ignore the questions that came into my head... were there sharks in the water? How did the boat know how to get to the island? What if it missed the island on a weird current and floated out to sea instead? Who else was on the island and could they now all see me naked?

So, you see, not every single one does the trick of calming and focusing but I'm very much enjoying experimenting. The latest one, that I did this morning, involved me picturing bright balls of light, zooming and spinning around my body. That was quite nice. I actually felt a tingling sensation for at least half an hour afterwards... but that might have been my new medication instead!!

Monday, 14 August 2017

A left-handed diary entry.

I am currently typing this with my left hand and I am not left-handed. It will take me much longer than normal to write my blog but as my car is in the garage today, I am housebound with nothing better to do.

I am not one to drone on and on about my ailments. I only really talk about it to my family or to friends that know that I'm not going to drone on and on about it for too long. If people ask, I tell them but most of the time my pain is recorded in my writing. My pain diary. It is not a happy read. In fact, it would be silly to ever read it back because it is page after page of pain and painful thoughts. I get it out, every few days, and write about what hurts and what doesn't, what treatment I'm having, what pills I'm taking. I write it down and get it out of my system so that I'm not consumed by it and so that I can lead a normal life most of the time. It is my therapy.

I have kept a diary since I was a young teenager. I wrote about growing pains, wanting a nose job after someone called me Concorde, about having knock knees and pigeon toes. I wrote about being so flat chested and skinny that people still thought I was a boy at 14. I wrote about certain horrible school teachers, being annoyed with my parents and being more annoyed with my sister. I wrote endlessly about trips out with the family and how long the car journey took. I wrote in ridiculous detail about lunches and suppers and meals out, recording what each person had ordered and if they'd enjoyed it. We had a VHS recorder and the first video shop had opened in town so every single video we rented was written about and analysed, from storyline to enjoyment factor. As I got older the diary entries became longer, my writing became smaller and extra pages were inserted and taped in place. I had started writing about boys!

My mid-teen diaries bulge with information and are held together with elastic bands and string. I wrote about fancying boys and wondering what it would be like to kiss them. Ten pages about a particular boy, listing what he wore and how he looked, writing down every word he uttered to me. And then, only days later, that boy would miraculously disappear from my diary, to be replaced with a new crush, a new name. I was at a private girls school at the time so interactions with boys were sparse. We knew the local village boys but they were just irritating. We had family friends but they were like brothers and then we had the all-boys school that we had monthly disco's with. I can feel the awkwardness with such clarity when I read these diaries back. Excruciating verbal exchanges, embarrassing slow dances and nervous wet kisses. I wrote about my first proper French kiss after a night out at a roller disco and being caught in my parent's car headlights as they came to pick me up. I wrote about meeting my first proper boyfriend and being allowed to hang out in his bedroom. In my house, boys weren't even allowed upstairs so many pages were devoted to this brand new territory. But the pain was always there too. Of being let down, being disappointed and being lied to. My girl friends, a very tight group, began to split apart when boys became more of a focus. I wrote about betrayal for the first time, of how hurt I could be by my friends.

And as the years went on, I wrote about more serious boyfriends, about music and bands, getting my first car, going to pubs and weekends away. But the pattern of my writing started to change. There were no longer daily entries, logging my every movement and thought, I now wrote in chunks of time, of particular upsets, of meaningful events. As I entered my early 20's, there were months of blank pages and then suddenly an eruption of emotion would appear, a flurry of hurried angry words, written with such speed and angst that the paper is ripped and tears have blurred the words. Pain and emotion became the focus of these entries. Why became my most overused word. As life became busier, larger gaps appeared. No diaries for 1988, 89 or 90, when I moved to America. I began keeping larger sketch books with beautiful hardback covers and writing would be interspersed with drawings, lists or memorabilia stuck into the pages. Odd sheets of folded paper will sometimes fall out of these books, as I pack them in boxes when I move from house to house, and I will unfold them and find a sad paragraph, written on a whim. There are also letters and cards I've written that remain unsent, and they always unsettle me a bit. I re-read them and wonder if I should send them to the people that hurt me, now, after all these years? I don't.

Someone once told me, my surgeon I think, that people don't remember pain. Your memory of pain subsides, it's something the brain does to cope. Your memories of happiness remain though, and I know, between all the gaps in my diary entries, the hundreds upon thousands of days where no words are recorded, that I was, and am happy. There is no pain in the blank pages and those days far outweigh the painful ones I am relieved to say. I still write about loss and pain and frustration but I also write about love and life and adventure. There must always be some light in the darkness I think. Writing is my catharsis, even today, when I have only one working left hand and six paragraphs have taken me 3 hours. It's ok though, I don't mind. Maybe at the age of 49 I can teach myself to be ambidextrous. That would be handy.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Country members clubs and the hunt for a home.

I knew of Babington House before I came to Somerset. I had heard of the grand old manor house sitting in 8 glorious acres of woodland, surrounded by manicured lawns and peaceful lakes. I had also heard of the all-year-round outdoor swimming pool and the grass tennis courts, the croquet lawn and the cricket on Sundays. I had heard of famous rock stars and actors flying in from London by helicopter and the car parks filled with Bentleys and Jaguars. I also knew it was a members club, a members club I wanted to join. Ok, so my 30 year-old gold Toyota with its coat-hanger aerial and numerous dents might look a little out of place amidst the shiny supercars but I’d heard someone say, only last week, that, “Driving a new car in the country is so nouveau riche, the older the car, the better darling.” Well that’s all right then.

The application process, for such a house, is quite lengthy. You have to fill in a very detailed questionnaire and then write why you think you would be a good addition to the club, something I am terrible at. Self-promotion in general is very un-British and I have never been able to tell someone how brilliant I am, even when I’m trying to woo prospective clients, so I simply wrote that I was very friendly and liked meeting strangers, which on reflection, could similarly describe a family Labrador. I did, however, get nominated by two wonderful friends who wrote glowing recommendations and said things about me which I didn’t even know. Whatever happened in the committee meeting, they liked what they read and I was in. Hurrah. I was notified officially, a few days later by email. I was also notified that the application fee and my first month’s payment would be taken from my account the following morning. Let’s just say I hadn’t properly done my research and was unaware of a joining fee. Let’s also just say that I will never divulge exactly how much this fee was, only that it still gives me palpitations knowing that I may possibly have been able to upgrade my car for a similar amount.

But I have already – only 2 weeks into my membership – found it to be worth every penny. I am swimming most days and have signed myself up to pretty much every film screening and event that is on offer. This morning I did a life drawing class in the library. All the rooms are beautiful, a sort of upmarket shabby chic, but the library for me is a dream of a room. I live and breathe books so being surrounded by thousands of ancient and modern tombs whilst drawing a beautifully-lit nude model, draped over a chaise longue in the middle of the room, was really rather wonderful. There were only 5 of us and the teacher, who is also a brilliant local artist. I hadn’t done any life drawing in over ten years and was a little nervous where to start. Committing dark charcoal to white paper is scary but with his guidance and suggestions and his very astute understanding of what I wanted to achieve, I just let go. I would have paid a lot of money to get such focused teaching for 3 hours but this was free.... part of the perks of membership.

I could go on and on about how wonderful this place is but I won’t. I think it’s very easy to become a Babington Bore and that would be very tedious. It has, however, influenced me in a way that I hadn’t expected. My search for a house.

When I began house hunting in January I had a list of about 15 things that I wanted in my new home, everything from wood-burning stoves to garden sheds. Subsequently, my wish-list has been whittled down to 3. I call them my 3 P’s; Parking, privacy and peace & quiet. It doesn’t sound like much but you would be surprised how difficult it is to find. Here in Somerset, those 3 little P’s seem to be asking for the world. I am also exhausted with people telling me I have to compromise. Surely I can’t compromise on my 3 P’s, it’s all I have left.

Take for instance a property I saw yesterday. The estate agent had already warned me that he wasn’t sure it would be right for me because it was on a busy road in Frome. I wanted to see it anyway because with that damn C-word buzzing in my ears, I thought maybe a busy road could work as long as the bedroom was facing the back and the garden was quiet. The house was lovely and it ticked all my boxes... wooden floors, original sash windows, butler’s sink, a bath (don’t get me started on how many properties only have a shower room!) and there was even a wooden studio built in the garden. Ooooooh. I began to get excited. The bedroom was unfortunately road-side but maybe I could wear earplugs and get used to it. The owner asked me what I would compromise on and I rolled my eyes. I told her my 3 P’s and she looked crestfallen. I explained that I could probably deal with the road noise and she sighed and shook her head. “Do you like animals?” she asked. Oh God. I imagined she might begin telling me about noisy dogs or chickens but it was worse. The next door neighbour had turned the back room of their house into an apiary for their 4 parrots, and said parrots had a habit of imitating different mobile phone rings. Just then I heard a ‘Brrr, brrr” like an old fashioned telephone coming from next door. The owner said it took her 3 months to stop dashing inside to answer the landline, when it was in fact the bloody parrots. Again, to show willing I said I could probably get used to it until I heard a weird humming from the other neighbour’s garden. This humming was the sound of 3 large filter pumps attached to their 3 ponds. It sounded like a loud generator and was on, according to the owner, 24 hours a day. “Would you get used to that as well?” she said glumly. Only if I pretended I had permanent tinnitus.

I now think that my 3 P’s might have to go too. Having seen over 2 dozen properties in 6 months, it seems that none of them have even my basic needs. I’ve only had butterflies in one cottage which I offered on immediately, only to find out they’d accepted the offer right before mine. Timing is everything here. You need to see the properties before they are even listed to be in with a chance. So I’m going to slash my list again to only one thing. Parking? No. Privacy? No. Peace & quiet. No. My only requirement is that it’s close to Babington House.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Grand houses, heavenly gardens and chilli knees.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Rodent review.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Rat-catcher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Alternative Therapies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

From A to B via F, N and P

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 29 January 2017

You fatty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 28 January 2017

Sensory overload.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 26 January 2017

It started with a bell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will keep you posted.