Friday, December 17, 2010

A Donkey's Christmas

Well, here it is: Black Friday.
Apparently, this is what today is known as in the hospitality trade as one of the busiest days of the year, when venues are packed to the rafters with drunken carousers on office Christmas 'do's'. The Husband is going to his second one today, and had the ill-grace to complain that he didn't really want to go as 'he had a lot on' and 'could have done with a full day at work and come home at the normal time'. Really? R-E-A-L-L-Y? Not a good thing to say to someone who hasn't had a sniff of a works do for years, nor the prospect of one in the near future. I actually used to really enjoy them - probably because I got on well with most of my colleagues and actually miss that sort of non-complicated work-based relationship, you know the one where you discuss work, life, kids, holidays without the feeling that you have to pursue the friendship any further than those friendly chats at the table, in the pub, or over a desk.
I am not very good at friendship. I am a poor friend. The two close friends I have had died tragically young, one by their own hand during a severe bout of depression, the other of a cancer almost certainly brought on by a rigorous diet of alcohol and cigarettes. I failed both of them near their end - not at all deliberately - but by failing to realise the seriousness of their situations. No empathy, you see?
I'm a pretty poor mother, wife, sister- and daughter-in-law too, if it comes to it.
Nowadays I keep pretty much to myself, but I do occasionally miss having friends.
Actually, I am not totally friendless, having a one-time colleague that I meet on a fairly regular, if sporadic, basis. But our meetings have become much less frequent over the past six months or so largely, I believe, due to pressure of work, but also I think because I am lacks-a-daisical in pursuing friendship. I don't put in the required effort. I don't wish to impose on a hectic life, and I guess that could be construed as remoteness, or lack of caring.

I think I shot myself in the foot a bit on this: They contacted me this week to see if I fancied meeting up for lunch (and it would have been a Christmas lunch of sorts!) but only gave two days notice which, forgive me if I'm wrong, I felt a bit annoyed about. I felt that I was being 'fitted in' and in a tiny fit of self-important pique, I played the 'up-to-my-eyes-in-it' card, which I was...but REALLY! How pathetic!
So - no Christmas meet-ups for me, nor any cards addressed to me in my own right.

So Black Friday it is, and for me it represents the beginning of the White Noise and Shapelessness of the 'festive season'. The children have finished school, and when the Husband rolls in a bit later (neither too late nor drunk, he prides himself on his self-control too much for that!), that'll be it until January 4th when Normal Service resumes. I can feel my sanity spirally rapidly away from me even as I type. Daughter #3 has her boyfriend round: no doubt he will be another regular mouth at the table over the Christmas break, since she seems joined-at-the-hip with him, and has for the past year (he's actually a fine young man, witty and intelligent).
The Bright-Eyed Boy is currently playing on his X-Box, and I envisage even more of the same as the Husband asked the In-Laws for another game for him, and we have one for him too.
I am also exiled from the 'study' where I work on a daily basis during the evenings, weekends and holidays as the 'family computer' is there.
I did set up a 'satellite' study (up in our bedroom), but it all desperately needs dusting and hoovering because housework just isn't being done anywhere in the house at the moment and, really, who wants to sit in one's bedroom during the day?
Additionally, it's north-facing, so rather dismal in the winter months, plus the desk/chair combo gives me fearful back/hip ache.
I keep thinking of things we (don't) need to make the celebrations go with a swing: a nice tablecloth and napkins, crackers, mistletoe, mince pies......and I have a running list to add to and cross off stuff as we go. It seems endless.

I used to have so much more energy for it all than I do now, and I think I must have set a precedent in the past, because I now get asked if we're having mulled wine and baklava on Christmas Eve, or a curry feast with pickles and poppadoms on Boxing Day.
I just can't be bothered to organise any more. I know the Husband would happily do it were I to ask, but why should it be me that instigates, or even thinks to instigate action? Where's the initiative? I do know, by the way, that that is a mealy-mouthed attitude, and all to do 'unknown unknowns', to borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld

In truth, I don't think I did myself any favours by cutting right down on the wine over the past couple of months. Actually, that's not true - I don't get the palpitations or hot flushes half as much nowadays, but mentally I feel much more on edge and tonight I just feel plain gloomy - and not a drop touched! (Nor likely to be either as I am on taxi-duty).
Why do people keep wanting stuff from me?
Why can't they just leave me alone?
If I had my way, I'd curl up in a corner until summer comes.
I know I am becoming more and more isolated as the years go by, but it's just less exhausting that way. Eeyore!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Christmas. Ho ho ho.

Christmas looms ever larger and this year, more than ever before, I feel ambivalent about the whole thing.
I am, I have finally admitted, a pretty unsocial creature: I enjoy my own company, I enjoy reasearching and writing up my PhD, I enjoy a routine of sorts.
I dislike banale conversation - the sort that erupts as people flap their gums to fill the silence, I dislike the mindlessness of television and I dislike chaos.
That's not to say that I sit here surrounded by pencils in a neat row, or that my books are alphabetically lined up on the shelves. Not at all - my 'study' (ahem!) is a model of lawlessness, but it is my lawlessness. Similarly, the plates that are on the work-top in the kitchen, the breakfast pots, are mine. I am not uncomfortable, because I can lay my hands on any volume I like within moments and I will either use my crumpet-plate for my lunch or stack it in the dishwasher.
I can't cope with mess that isn't mine, and there's a lot of it about at Christmas. But if I were to say that shoes and glasses and crumpled paper strewn about made me feel uncomfortable, I would, quite rightly I suppose,be accused of being uptight and pernickety, and lacking festive spirit.

Through general boredom, I also tend to drink rather too much at Christmas - not get steaming drunk, but generally end up feeling below par and somewhat self-disgusted. Ditto eating.
I feel, once the schools close and the Husband finishes work, that I enter a sort of limbo, and I think a lot of people feel like that. Speaking to others it would appear that the first week of Januaryrepresents a real epiphany (no pun intended) and the refrain, spoken with a sigh of relief, is that indeed it was lovely, but it's nice to get back to normal.
Yea, it is that normality that I miss at Christmas. You see, because I work at home, I guess that I subconsciously feel that the house is my territory, and I resent people camping on, and sullying, my patch (yes, I know, how selfish and crass of me, I know it's their home too and I love them all dearly).
I also dislike intensely the expectation that I am responsible for feeding people ("What's for tea?" "You tell me!"), and am slighly nauseated by the constant munching that accompanies Christmas. I do love eating, but not really at home. I am bored by my food, and by the whole process of shopping/cooking.I resent it immensely. And I hate going into the shops and seeing row upon row of coleslaw, mince pies and Quality Street leering at me.

I am depressed by the whole grubby house/home thing which I can ignore during most of the year, but deprived of any mental stimulation, I tend to notice smeary windows and cobwebby corners and feel intense hatred towards them without any motivation or desire to do anything about it.

So I will end up feeling bored, grumpy, slightly ill and resentful. Not a good combination, and not one conducive to cheery fireside evenings.
Every year I scrabble around in an attempt to preserve my sanity, and this year I have a little side-project lined up: to get to grips with the ideas and works of Galen, the Roman physician.
Whether this will prove to be absorbing and fruitful remains to be seen: what I really need are some totally noise-cancelling head-phones so I can block out the TV, but remain, semi-socially, in the room. I am not hopeful.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

A Bit of a Mess

I have to say at the outset, the Husband does not expect me to 'keep house'. He recognises that washing, cooking, cleaning and child rearing is a joint effort that one contributes to as and when required, and is not the default task of one parent or the other.
It's just as well, because my efforts at 'housework' (and here I'm talking about anything from de-crumbing the kitchen worktop to weeding the flowerbeds and spring-cleaning the attic) have got fewer and more desultory with each passing year. And so have his.
When we first married (fifteen years ago today!) and bought our first house, we had so little in the way of furniture and possessions that maintaining the cleanliness of our austere and minimalist environment took a joint hour every Sunday morning.
As time progressed, and the children arrived, we acquired more 'stuff' and as our careers zigzagged and progressed, time became more and more limited and mere housework got lower and lower on the agenda. Sunday mornings got swallowed up in footie and rowing practice, walking the dog, homework sessions, preparation for the week to come and the hoover and duster (let alone the lawnmower and paintbrush) saw action less and less often.
Usually we have to have an imminent 'visit' to spur us into action, but then we have to shelve a more important activity to fit it in. Having given the house a bit of a blitz, we're generally content to let it go for a few months.
Now, we're not complete slobs....the laundry is still rigorously done (in fact, TOO rigorously....where does it all come from?), the plates, cutlery and pots are blasted in a hot dishwasher every day, and the bogs get bleached as often as required, but the less pressing (to us) tasks like vacuuming up the dog-hairs, or washing the kitchen window-sill with soapy water, or dusting just gets left. Everyone has clean clothes and hot food and is (relatively) ready to go to where they have to go, when they need to....but that's it. the fluff-wads and tea-stains accumulate, not because we don't care - we just don't have the time to address them.

My research is at such a stage that I now sit down at 7.30 in the morning, and often don't stop until the children get home at around 4 - 4.30pm. (No, that's a lie....sometimes I have to stop because my head is buzzing and I have written myself into a stupor).

The Husband disappears off to work at the same time to his highly stressful and unenjoyable job. Come evening time, 6pm, we sit down to a meal (usually some form of pasta bake or casserole - never, ever, complex or time-consuming) and afterwards generally nothing much happens unless the Husband goes to the gym (mercifully he has stopped his relentless rowing regime) or I go to my language night-class. I suppose we could fit some 'housework' in then......yeah right! That ain't EVER gonna happen!

Why blog about this today? Well, as it is our anniversary, the Husband secretly booked a trip to London, where we will go to the British Library, the National Gallery (both his suggestions, bless him!) and to see a classical concert in St Martin-in-the-Fields. Wonderful! I am so looking forward to it! Daughter #2 is coming to stay at ours (c/w the Bouncing Babba) to look after the young 'uns and will sleep in our big bed. OK.....that entailed me having to wash the one remaining decent bed-sheet (currently in use) and finding it has a rip in it. Actually, I knew that, but was ignoring it.

Drove to a nearby shopping mall this morning to look for a cheap bedding set, but they didn't have anything in super-kingsize, and as I needed proof-read and email my latest portion of work off to my supervisor before lunch, I couldn't afford any more time out. I'm fear that I am actually going to have to do some 'mending'!
My lovely In-Laws will be also round tonight to bring us a card and their best wishes (bet they didn't expect us to last, ha!) and I am conscious that, by their standards, the house leaves much to be desired in the cleanliness stakes. My M-i-L is one of the last generation of stay-at-home mothers (actually, she is fairly unusual in her generation too - many of her contemporaries work at least part-time) whose day has been devoted for 40 years to the daily rhythm (grind) of housework and cooking. Her one-time remark to the Husband was that, if a woman was out at work, she was not doing a proper job at home. Quail!
I don't think she quite realises the amount of time I spend on my work (which is mostly produced on the laptop in the front room 'study') and probably wonders (though she is far too polite to say so), given that I am at home all the time, why the house is so filthy. (I've caught her examining my plug-holes and the inside of my kettle, you know....)
By and large I don't care, but I would really like to care less. It seems really unfair that any shortfall in the household cleanliness will probably be down to me somehow, because I'm the woman.

Just because I am, doesn't mean that I have any interest in housework, soft furnishings or the like. I guess I'm not very nurturing. Don't get me wrong, I am capable and caring, but will not be whipping up tempting little snacks, plumping any pillows or bleaching the paintwork.

The Husband once called me unsympathetic, but my response was 'I will sit up all night with you, and dose you with medecine and run you to the hospital if you need me to. I will wash you and feed you and make sure you are comfortable. Just don't expect any snuffling and maudlin noises of empathy. That's not my style. I am not your mother.'

I am not going to look at the overcrowded worktops in the kitchen. Granted it would only take a couple of hours to clear them (and the cupboards bulging with out-of-date dry goods), but it's time I just don't have. Nor, in truth, do I have the inclination. What I would like is a cleaning fairy, and I've told the Husband this. He said he'd rather do it himself than pay someone to come in....but that isn't very likely, seeing as he has even less time (and not much more inclination) for such matters than I do! Impasse.

The house is a cluttered mess.
But it is of our (mostly my) making: the books piled high threaten to take over every surface, but that's the way it currently is.
At the moment, this house is my office, my library, my laboratory, my reasearch my all-consuming passion. Time will come, I suppose, when I'll consider cleaning the windows a profitable and attractive way of passing an empty hour. Or not.
I know when I visit houses that are as mad and cluttered as ours, I feel an overwhelming sense of relief and I hate 'show-homes' where no-one has any of their 'stuff' on show and everything is pristine. What I really dislike is when people act like their homes are really disgustingly dirty when there isn't a smeary window or sticky cupboard front to be seen. I know their game!
However, it would be extremely nice for a change to snuggle down in crisply clean sheets (not prepared by me though!), next to a bedside table that was not covered with fluff-wads and tea-stains. Just don't move the books.
Any offers?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Alone in Paris

Back from Paris, and contrary to our fears EVERYTHING was working as per normal. In fact so efficiently, that on arrival at the Gare du Nord, we made our way to the metro just as a train arrived, boarded it, made our way to an interim station, changed lines and arrived on the platform just as a train arrived again. Consequently we got to our hotel, in the east of the city, less than thirty minutes after arriving in the capital. The hotel, a Novotel, was functionally fine (although it appeared that the interior designer had previously worked on the set of the Austin Powers movies) and the self-service continental breakfasts were epically satisfying and a good start to the sight-seeing day. The weather was extremely kind to us, save for a torrentially wet start to Saturday that cleared by lunchtime, and walking through the falling leaves of the Tuileries was a delight, as were the chocolats chauds that we availed ourselves of in the various cafes we frequented. I won't bother to detail the itinerary, except to say that the highlights - for me at least - was the lovely autumnal light, the bustling market next to the Montparnasse cemetery, the cemetery itself, the view from the top of the Montparnasse Tower, onion soup near Montmartre, the brilliant white dome of the Sacre Coeur against the azure sky, the Eiffel Tower sparkling on the hour and a (very) quick visit to Shakespeare and Co. bookshop on Rue Bucherie. I could have spent a lot longer looking around this last, but as the Husband and two children were waiting outside, I made it a brief visit.
Too brief, and yet again I feel like I'd been sidelined. Nor did we visit Les Deux Magots or Cafe de Flore (which I'd wanted to do last time we were in Paris, godammit!). Fair enough, I suppose, the guidebook did contain a warning about the prices charged for a cup of coffee in those places. But still - there's a limit to the amount of times I actually want to see the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe.
Once is quite enough for me - likewise the rather bland civic architecture of places like the Madeleine, or the Pantheon or Les Invalides. Impressive in scale, yes, but not what makes up the real essence of a city. Paris is just SO big that macro-scale sightseeing just doesn't work for me. Everything is so far apart that you either have to metro it across the city, popping up like surprised moles at an adjacent station, or (as we did this time) sit for an inordinate amount of time on the open-topped tour bus and it contended with the Parisian traffic, which takes an age. I'd hoped that we would indulge in a little micro-scale tourism, taking an area and patiently exploring it street by street and getting to know some of the city's character. I'd picked the area near the Luxembourg Gardens, pinpointed a few destinations and interesting novelties, but alas it fell by the wayside. The only thing remaining of that itinerary was Shakespeare and Co. and a curious little Melkite Catholic church (which in truth was rather a let-down) St Julien le Pauvre.

I'd also managed to choose completely the wrong footwear. Having bought a pair of 'proper' walking boots to replace the ones I'd got last year (that never, ever got any comfier despite the saleswoman's assurances), and I thought I'd broken them in sufficiently to take abroad, having walked into town in them a number of times. They certainly didn't rub at all, and we weren't -on account of the open-top bus - doing an unfeasibly large amount of foot-slogging, but by mid afternoon the left boot was feeling agonisingly tight across the top of my foot, and causing it to go into spasms of cramp. I can't understand it, other than reason that the left boot has been made somewhat smaller than the right. The Husband thought it was something to do with the peculiar anatomy of my foot, but as I pointed to him, I've never had this particular problem before - not even with last year's boots which were patently a size smaller than they pretended to be!
The lasting legacy has been a numb side to my left big toe, and I find that my knees, which became increasingly stiff in Paris, have almost now almost entirely seized up, especially the right one.
It's incredibly hard to stand up at the moment - I don't think it's the joint itself, rather the ligament arrangement around it. Support doesn't seem to help and I'm a bit worried about restricting the blood flow. Coupled with a diagnosis a couple of days after we returned (during a routine appointment and on my birthday of all days!) of rather high blood-pressure (probably hereditary) I feel that I am getting old, creeky and about to fall apart at the seams.

Having been delighted about visiting Shakespeare and Co., I was eager to tell of my experiences, but realised there was actually no-one to tell. No-one I know has heard of it, and if you have to tell someone what it is before going into raptures, it kind of removes the pleasure of relating your story. What I really wanted was someone to say 'Oh wow! What was it like?' But no.
Once again I find I am the only person living in my world.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

En Vacances en Automne

Our Autumn city-break looms.
This year I am a wee bit less enthusiastic about going away as our destination is Paris, currently gripped by protests and strikes. Unfortunately, the day we travel has been declared an industrial day of action, so there is the prospect of arriving (DV) in the centre of Paris and being unable to get the metro to our outlying hotel. We chose one well out of the centre for financial reasons: they're so much cheaper than hotels in the city-centre. We also chose one from an international chain as (a) they're one of the only places you can get a reasonably priced family room (the two youngest still being fairly happy to share accommodation with us - we couldn't afford it otherwise) and (b) the buffet breakfast facilities mean that you can stoke up for the day ahead on endless croissants, ham, cheese, jam, cereal, yoghurt and coffee. I've looked at maps and have worked out that it's about 6km from the Gare du Nord to our hotel - not ridiculously far, but far enough to walk at the end of a day of travel, and probably in the dark. There exists also the possibility of a taxi, though I imagine that if the metro is on strike, or running limited services, the taxi queues will be ridiculous.

I don't like having to plan with worst-case scenarios in mind, but this time I just have to.
What if the protests turn to riots (police, tear-gas etc.)? Go in opposite direction immediately.
What if the tourist attractions are shut tight? (I know the Eiffel Tower was last week)
Plan stuff that just needs to be walked through and looked at (Champs Elysees, Montmartre, plenty of churches...).
We will make the most of it, whatever the situation is, and if the worst comes to the worst, we have the trusty credit-card to bail us out.

It's funny the reaction I seem to get when people ask what I'm doing half-term and I reply 'Oh I'm going abroad (to Milan, Barcelona, Rome wherever..)'. I get the strangest 'old-fashioned' looks that rather convey the impression that they think 'It's alright for her!' or 'Hmmmph!'
This really p*sses me off!
All our planning is done on a shoestring, on the internet hunting for cheap fares and accommodation, cashing in the Tesco Clubcard vouchers for Airmiles, buying railcards, saving month by month for our trips throughout the year.

You see, it's a question of priorities: Some folk believe that having a pristine home, furniture and stuff is important to family life. Some folk (like us) prefer to spend carefully set-aside money on broadening their children's minds and horizons which, unfortunately cannot be done by plonking them on a DFS special in front of a 42" plasma travelogue, or dragging them around the local attractions (again).
Daughter #3 and the Bright-Eyed Boy are fairly well-seasoned little travellers by now. The first trip to Rome (about 5 years ago) was done with (our) fingers crossed, but they were both so good, trotting around with their little back-packs on a ne'er uttering a single word of complaint. They seem to love the continental lifestyle and atmosphere as much as we do, and it's a real pleasure and privilege to be able to take them along.

However there seems to be an undercurrent of envious Schadenfreude when I say we're off to Paris - a general smirking that things might not run smoothly and maybe we shouldn't bother going.

Nonsense! Say I: We will not be put off! We shall prepare for the worst, and expect the BEST - as always.

And when we get back, I'll show you our photos...and you can show us yours.....he he he!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Thank Goodness It's Monday!

Although I am generally a fairly upbeat person, the sheer grind of day to day living occasionally gets to me, and it generally gets to me over the weekend. When it gets to Friday evening, I feel a tangible sense of relief that Saturday and Sunday lie ahead - we open a bottle of wine, dine late, watch a film and relax. Saturday morning, croissants and black coffee over the paper and a general sense of well-being: I read the recipes in the magazine and vaguely make plans to cook something tasty or go into town and browse the bookshops.....but soon thereafter the good mood begins to slip a bit. I think the problem is that there is so much routine maintenance to do: the Bright-Eyed Boy needs transporting to and from his football practice, Daughter #3 tends to go rowing and returns home boyfriend in tow to take root on the front-room sofa for the rest of the day, so no-one can really access the house-computer because they are watching some teen-drama reruns on iPlayer. Daughter #2 often texts to try and lure me into town with her so she has some company, and sometimes I capitulate.
There are generally a couple of massive washes to do - all the school uniform, sports kit and the Husband's work clothes find their way into the laundry basket overnight and require immediate attention if they are to be returned clean to their owners for the following week. A deal of time is taken in putting it in, and extracting it from, the machine, hanging it up, then taking it to the tumble dryer later on, and finally folding it to avoid creasing. Not to mention the redistribution and putting away.
The Dog requires walking too.
Saturday lunchtime, and if I haven't managed to get out, my good mood has curdled somewhat and I don't feel inclined to cook anymore..
The B-E-B returns home hungry and generally a bit cranky ('hangry' = hungry + angry) if he hasn't been picked to play in the team match the following day, turns on the telly and stations himself in front of either sport or endless repeats of the bloody Simpsons.
The Husband either goes to the gym or opens up his laptop to tackle the workload that threatens to swamp him or turn him mad. The day slides into evening and I get uneasy that I haven't done anything worthwhile. I can't really do any of my academic work without isolating myself at the bedroom workstation that I set up last year - and who wants to sit up in their bedroom on a Saturday afternoon? I can't read anywhere - I need silence to prevent getting distracted during the tricky bits and the constant hum of the telly, and music of different genres coming from the front room, plus the constant trotting up and down stairs that goes on is not conducive to study in the least!
Tea usually consists of pizza, and after a couple of accompanying glasses of wine, I am slumped, fretting at where the day has gone.
Sunday morning: generally up early for either football, rowing or Mass - if I can persuade anyone to go (an increasingly difficult task nowadays, I'm afraid). If the weather is good I will make the effort to walk into town for a coffee when the shops open at eleven, returning home shortly after lunchtime.
Thereafter, there is a noticable decline in the household mood: the Husband and I set about the tasks that need performing before Monday morning; shopping for packed lunch ingredients, ironing (taken in turns), preparing dinner for as many people as are present, persuading the children to do their homework....and before long evening has fallen and we're sitting down to Sunday dinner, usually consisting of a large home-made pasta bake or a roast dinner if it's winter time. I do manage to stir myself to do that. The puddings are a major and much-treasured feature - the Husband actually enjoys trying out pudding recipes and has had a number of triumphs in this department (especially in the bread-and-butter pudding department - his chocolate and rum version is awesome!). I encourage this. It's frankly one of the best bits of the week.
After dinner, a pause while we find out what homework is still outstanding, hard-boil eggs for pack-ups, transport Daughter #3's boyfriend home, lay out school uniforms and pack schoolbags for the following day. By nine o'clock it's all done, but so is the weekend! All done and gone!
And then comes Monday, the work and school week lies before us and we look longingly towards Friday night and its promise of scant rest and respite.
But secretly, I love it when peace and quiet returns to the house. The Dog gets an early walk, then I go over to the shop and buy a single pain au raisin, put on a pot of espresso and turn on Radio 4. I review my emails, a couple of blogs and the news headlines then exchanging the radio for a CD of subdued classical music, I settle down to read or write for the rest of the day, keeping an eye on the clock until its time for the wanderers to return.
I am put in mind the scrap of a poem by the poet Sappho, written about 600BC where she addresses the evening star ('Hesperus') who brings home all the things that dawn has scattered 'the sheep, the goat, the child to its mother'. Thank God it does!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Flick the Switch

I am very reluctant to turn the heating on.
In my head, summer is only just over, so no way am I going to cave in and turn it on.
However, back in reality, it was still firmly dark at half past six this morning.
It's grey. It's miserable. The washing is hanging up on drying racks in the bathroom nowadays (the sun's angle is so now low that the back garden sees only a sliver of it on a good day) and unfortunately stays damp and starts to smell a bit funny after a couple of days. Not good.

Sitting at my computer in the front room, I'm a bit chilly and have goose-pimples on my arms.
Sometimes I wrap myself in a big lambswool shawl, but that looks a bit mad, especially as I can be seen clearly from the pavement. The room itself is south facing and gets whatever light there is. The days are long gone when I had to move my laptop and books into the north facing dining room to stop overheating and sit with the french windows open for the breeze - it's dark and gloomy in there today.

So I guess I'm going to go and turn it on and let everything heat up a bit.

It's admitting that summer's gone.
But there you go.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep

Went to visit my old friend's grave today. I haven't been back since she was buried fifteen months ago. I was pleased to see that there was a lovely headstone, engraved with a kingfisher (her favourite bird, the sight of which once persuaded her in the depths of despair away from the river), a loving dedication and the full text of Mary Elizabeth Frye's poem 'Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there, I do not sleep....'

The sun was shining, a gentle wind was blowing small clouds across the sky.

I am not ashamed to say I did just that.

R.I.P. my dearest friend....

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Ouch! Why Sometimes We Should Ask Questions....

I have just returned from the dentist, having had a small filling replaced. The side of my mouth is numb: it was my choice to have an injection, not having the highest pain threshold in the world - the dentist thought that the discomfort of the injection would probably be greater than that of the drilling, but it wasn't really uncomfortable at all.

Over the years I have had a variegated relationship with the dental profession.
I had a feeling that the dental treatment I had in my youth was largely unneccessary, and this was indeed confirmed when I asked some questions a year or so ago. Puzzled by the fact that my own children's teeth were filling-free, and that when I was young my access to sweet stuff and fizzy drinks was even more restricted than theirs, I wondered aloud why I had a mouth full of ugly amalgam fillings when as a child/teenager I was regularly seen by our dentist.

Apparently - my very honest lady dental sugeon tod me - it's all to do with how dentists were paid in the sixties and seventies - they received money for work done: a tooth left unfilled was lost revenue, so my probably sound teeth were drilled into to get them cash.
If I spent a lot of time thinking about this I could get really mad: I have been exploited for money - not exactly maimed, but needlessly 'treated', filled with mercury.
I don't have (except for my incisors) one unfilled tooth in my head and, of course, fillings don't last for ever so I am a docile cash-cow that is obliged to drop in for 'milking' every so often.
The Husband's mouth is an even more extreme case: at least my fillings are discrete and I can floss around them. He has what I believe was referred to as the 'Australian trench' method of filling, whereby adjacent teeth were drilled and a slab of filling laid between the two, with no attempt to conform it to the individual tooth. He too, like me, has to go to the surgery regularly to have crumbly bits shored up and replaced. Thank goodness for the National Health Service!
My M-i-L's teeth are, and always have been I believe, in pretty poor condition, but for some strange reason she has opted to have her treatment done privately. I'm not sure if it's a good idea - she has spent hundreds (if not thousands) of pounds over the past few years on extensive treatment that doesn't seem to have benefitted her one bit. But of course, a private patient is another, far more bountiful, sort of cash-cow. Tell them they'll need some complicated stuff done and they'll mildly cough up.

A colleague of the Husband's, who had not been to the dentist for a few years needed, to re-register with the NHS to get treatment for an aching tooth. He decided in the interim to go private because of the discomfort, and was told that he needed the tooth extracting, a post inserted into the jaw and a porcelain cap fitted for £600. Coincidently, he found himself, almost immediately after, registered with an NHS practice and (horrified) popped along for a second opinion. He emerged from his 20 minute appointment having had a clean, descale and a small filling. He was charged £46.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Order Returns

I am feeling a great deal more cheerful now. Yesterday (Monday) was a far less stressful day, despite the Bright-Eyed Boy forgetting his packed lunch, panicking, and me having to drive over to the school to drop it off. I made Daughter #3's orthodontist appointment as soon as they were open and that left the rest of the day to devote to academic progress. I did a few symbolic things: Hoovered the floor in the 'study' (the parakeet and the children tend to make a mess), damp-dusted the desk, tidied away the loose papers into box files, put on some Julian Bream classical guitar music, made a good strong pot of espresso and sat down to work. And my! Did it feel good!
The weather was appalling: totally grey with continuous fine rain. The garden looks like a tropical rain forest, like looking into a green box - the vine has gone crazy (no sign of grapes whatsoever) drip, drip, dripping rain onto the patio furniture that we have used maybe twice this 'summer'.

Inside I felt snug and smug, and ready to write.
I spent all day on my thesis - until the B-E-B came home at half four - then spent another half-hour listening to a programme on the life and forthcoming beatification of John Henry Newman.
By dinner time yesterday evening I was calm and restored to my more usual sanguine frame of mind.
All that had been needed to restore order - it seemed - was some time for myself.
It's NOT selfish, because everyone else around me benefits. I even managed to cook dinner without too much dark muttering and wished the Husband a good training session at the gym when he departed at 8pm (not to return until 10!).
And today is more of the same. I feel the wrinkles being ironed out of my soul by the rhythm of work: for me calmness and mental wellbeing comes from gentle routine. I often think that I would be suited to a life in holy orders, except I'm not sure that I would like living in close proximity with strangers. Maybe an anchoress? But then I would miss company occasionally - even now I sometimes have to trot of into town to grab a latte and read in a coffee shop - I don't require interaction, I would be truly annoyed if someone tried to engage me in conversation - just the presence of other human beings.
Maybe a cenobitic order, where the residents spend much of the day alone in contemplation or work but then come together to dine?
But I am wandering . I need my family as much as they seem to need me. The last really bad dream I had was asort of inner locution which asked 'when do you know that your children have truly grown up?' The answer that came - and thinking of it even now I can feel tears welling up - was 'when the last soft toy is packed away'. Fortunately the B-E-B's room is decorated and draped with an assortment of toy monkeys, and even Daughter #3 still has two of her cuddly dog collection on her shelf (under the glowering gazes of 'Slipknot' and 'Bullet for My Valentine'), and one 'Ugly Doll' (ChukkaNukka, I believe) to cuddle in bed! Thank goodness!

Monday, September 13, 2010


Well, the children are back at school, and the Bright-Eyed Boy has made the existential leap from junior to senior school with only the most minor of hiccups (slight panic over the PE kit, forgotten pack-up boxes or exercise books). We sit back feeling slightly smug.
I am trying very hard to get back into full academic mode after a summer of generally slacking off and reading pulp-fiction (see another of my blogs more books than sense) and not doing much in the way of intellectual stimulation. It's actually proving rather difficult, as I seem to have lost the thread of my thesis and spend some time scratching my head wondering what precisely I am trying to prove, and how am I going to go about it. I keep postponing getting really pitched in, convincing myself that a trip to the library is required (not really!), that a trip to town is neccessary (not at all!!), that I need to start a new blog (which I have and it's called I wish I was a better Catholic....hardly neccessary but something I felt I've wanted - nay, needed to do to prod my wilting faith). Even this post is by way of procrastination and deferral, convincing myself that it helps limber up the writing facility - which, actually, it does.
I'v got a couple of weeks to put down a couple of thousand words, so I'm feeling fairly optimistic about meeting the deadline, except I've noticed that stuff keeps getting in the way.
Daughter #3's fixed-brace has been fitted and has been the source of much discomfort to her. Not only that but the wires keep coming out of the little bracketty things and try as we might, the Husband and I just can't see to get them back in. In the two weeks that the damn things have been fitted, she has been back twice for minor repairs, which neccessitates her taking time out of school to walk to the orthodontist and back again. This week I can't factor it in as (ironically) I have to go to the dentist for a filling, which obviously carves a slice out of the working day.
The weekends seem to be a continuous stream of activity: the B-E Boy has football practice on Saturday mornings and Daughter #3 often goes rowing. It's the back end of the regatta season so two weeks on the trot, there are regattas to factor in, plus a foorball match for the Boy (if he gets picked, which sadly, is becoming less and less often, much to his upset). Daughter #2 has decided that she will entertain no other baby-sitter for the Bouncing Bubba, so I had to watch him on Friday afternoon while she popped to the doc's, and again on Saturday night when she and the Son-In-Law went out to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. They all arrived chez nous rather early, just as we were just starting tea. Daughter #1 had just turned up from London (via Leeds) and was keen to discuss her ever-more complicated life. We'd only just got back from a tiring day getting soaked on the banks of the River Aire.
Unfortunately, the B-B decided to start grizzling as soon as his parents trotted off, so I was sitting there feeling totally frazzled, nursing him as he squirmed and moaned, and trying to converse matters of the heart (not simple) over a crescendo of 'mummymummymummydaddymummmy' and wondering whether I'd ever get any peace.

Somehow - and it may have been the extra glass of red wine - I woke up the next day feeling very, very sorry for myself indeed. I'd spent much of the previous week encouraging, servicing and minding....and the prospect for Sunday was pretty much more of the same: ensuring homework is done, laundry, feeding kids, keeping an eye on amorous teenagers....
And do you know, I'd had enough!
The National Antiquarian Bookfair had been at the racecourse from Friday 12 noon to Saturday 5pm. I'd been really keen to go - I love old books and a colleague of mine had told me it was a good opportunity to see some outstanding stuff: the postcard advert had been on my desk a while. But what with the child-minding and regatta attendance, I never got the chance. It felt so unfair - I'd been bending over backwards to accommodate other people and felt I'd been trampled underfoot without so much as a thought - the one thing I had wanted to do, for myself, - a once a year opportunity - had come and gone. I lapsed into self-pitying tears and wailed that I felt like some sort of facilitation-bot. the Husband sprang out of bed in consternation and said that if he'd known, he would have taken the girl to the regatta and I could have gone to the fair. But, as I pointed out to him, that would have made me look like a prize twat. It's a sad fact that not only do you have to do the parenting bit, but you're supposed to look like you're enjoying it too!
I just feel somewhat down at the moment. I work as hard as I can on this thesis (present half-hour excepted) and it brings in as much money (thanks to my funding) as a pretty well-paid part-time job. I also do most of the laundry, washing and cooking (because I'm here on site, so to speak, and it would be curmudgeonly not to) and act as chief child-co-ordinator, motivator, and PA. But what I do seems to counted as 'just what Mum does' and can be interrupted ad libitem to bring in lost jumpers, arrange dental appointments, taxi and baby-sit. Not only that, but any notion of time-out is never rears its head.
The Husband has embarked on a training schedule to prepare him once again for the indoor rowing championships (fair enough), but that means many weekday evenings he is absent. If he's not at the gym, he's quite often away on site visits and home late.

I think the Husband was quite shocked, although he knows that I am a reluctant parent and don't thrive on a pure diet of parenting duties. He's far better at kenosis than I am, but then he's only had to deal with the childhood of two of the children. I spent the rest of the day feeling quite wretched, upset, distant and a bit mad. I don't deal well with stress. The only effect it had was the Husband was walking on eggshells, making eyes at the children and mouthing words like 'Your Mum's a bit upset', without saying why exactly that was the case. So now the children think that I'm some sort of nutter that gets wound up and tearful over nothing.
No, it's not nothing! I feel like I am being ridden over rough-shod and the riders are looking behind at my mangled psyche tell each other that Mother's not looking too good! I wonder why?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Ouch! The Difficulty of Trusting

I've been suffering from exhaustion since our return from holiday, as has the Husband. So much so that we'd been wondering if we'd picked up some sort of virus that has made us incapable of staying awake much later than nine pm! Probably not though: I think in fact that wonderful as our vacation was, it was in no way restful, and that we succumbed to the temptation to fit too much in. So the price for that is a bone-deep weariness that refuses to budge.
It's been (and promises to continue being) a weird sort of week. Daughter #3 has had two of the four teeth removed in preparation for the application of the 'train-track' braces that will allegedly correct her rather eccentric dentition. She doesn't look like she has an 'overcrowded' mouth, but we are assured by the orthodontist that a few years down the line, if uncorrected, she will suffer from more teeth than mouth. But he would say that, wouldn't he? It's in his financial interests that children come to him to have their teeth straightened and aligned. Although he seems a reasonable and honest practitioner, every child under his care represents a big fat pay-check from the National Health Service (even more so, if we'd gone to him under his private incarnation). And there seems to be an element of fashion involved: almost every child in my daughter's year appears to sport a mouthful of metal. Braces were around when I was a young teenager, and indeed I wore them for a couple of years, but they were the sort fitted to a plate by our family dentist, rather than as the result of a drawn-out referral process.

So yesterday I had to sit and watch my child be...well....mutilated in the questionable quest for regularity. And it was horrible (though she was uncomplainingly and unflinchingly brave - bless her!) to see two perfectly white and healthy teeth being levered out of her jaw.....and the same will happen again this coming Friday. My toes were curling inside my shoes: it seemed so....wrong, and I seriously questioned why we were putting her through this ordeal.

But sometimes you have to defer to someone who knows better than you, even if you can't see the immediate need. If you put yourself in the hands of experts, you have to trust that they have gained expertise that is superior to your gut-feeling, or else there is no point in committing yourself to their care.

A similar situation has arisen with the Husband's sat-nav, which has me rolling my eyes. He decided that it would be a good idea to buy one as he often has to negotiate his way to distant offices and sites and is, by his own admission, not the best navigator, particularly when driving.

So a sat-nav seemed like a sensible option, and was bought, and installed. We decided to try it out on our way to the airport, but as soon as it gave my Husband an unexpected direction (turning off the motorway too soon), he had me looking at the road-map questioning the route it was taking us on. I told him what I thought was going on (two sides of a triangle rather than one) and he decided to press on until he thought he should turn off. And lo and behold! By remaining on what the Husband thought was the correct route we ran into road-works (that the sat-nav 'knew' about throught its live update facility) that lengthened our journey by more time than if we'd obediently trusted that sat-nav was right.

Have faith. Sometimes we aren't the experts we imagine we are!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Back Home

I'm sitting in the living room looking out at rain of monsoon proportions, beating against the windows.

It seems scarcely believable that at this time last week we were sitting in a taverna on the slopes of Mount Ipsarion on the Aegean island of Thassos, dining on the local Greek specialities ('fried pies', feta-stuffed courgette flowers, and cheesy garlicy mushrooms), looking across the shimmering, sun-blasted, rocky hillside. We did try to walk the path up the mountain, but the sun was just far too hot and before long sweat was literally pouring down our backs. Unwilling to risk either sun or heat-stroke we returned to the jeep, and took a joyous and breezy downhill ride back to our apartment where we splashed gratefully into the clear sea, not 50m from our front door.

So once again the family summer holiday recedes into the rolodex of memory, leaving a miscellany of impressions, sensations and atmospheres.

We had an absolutely wonderful time - probably the most enjoyable holiday yet. We'd booked it independently in the January of this year, the Husband diligently researching suitable apartments on the island and finding a gem on the outskirts of the main town Limenas.

We arrived via a flight from Manchester to Kavala, a taxi-ride to the port of Keramoti, and a 35 minute ferry-ride across the narrow strait to the pine-clad island that rises straight out of the sea to the summit of Ipsarion some 1800m high. Our landlord was waiting for us and carried us and our bags to our holiday home. We were more than impressed. The property was newish, immaculately clean, air-conditioned (essential) with a balcony that overlooked the sea.

Having settled in and unpacked we made our weary way into town, but as we'd been up since 3am that morning, we scarcely managed to make it further than a proximate vine-covered taverna, where we gratefully sat and watched the sun going down whilst drinking a big glass of ice-cold Mythos beer.

I'd actually forgotten how huge the portions of food generally are in Greece, so we somewhat overestimated what we'd be able to manage to eat and started to struggle mid-main course. We were exhausted too, and stumbled early to our beds along a little beachside path that passed a tiny chapel (St Basil's?) where the oil-lamps burned all night in front of the icons. Its door remained unlocked at all times too, and the faithful could help themselves to candles to light under the 'candle canopy' in the front porch. The unselfconscious piety of the Greek people is moving - it was a source of wonder to me when we once stayed on another Greek island that the many little roadside shrines twinkled in the darkness, the elderly women who tended them (and it seemed to be only women) ensuring that the icon-lamps were kindled at dusk.

It would be pointless recounting our every activity during the week. We spent time on lovely beaches and in tiny coves, sitting in the shade in a bar on the old trireme harbour eating homemade bread and dips, driving up into the mountains (in the rackety old open top 4-wheel drive that we'd hired from a most accommodating and genial local company), exploring churches, monasteries, villages and the many neglected ancient ruins that lay strewn carelessly along the roadsides. We ate (and ate and ate), sometimes breakfasting on yoghurt and honey on the balcony, sometimes paddling down to the very local taverna for strong coffee and hard-boiled eggs, at other times exploring the menus and wine-lists until we'd reached total satiation. The food is so very cheap that even our most expensive meal (which came with complementary watermelon and coffee) complete with beer, wine, soft drinks and water, came in at half the price of an average meal in Sardinia.

We had forgotten how much we loved Greece. We love Greece, and when we returned home it was with a real sense of nostalgia for the holiday week, an aching longing to return and enjoy this vibrant and generous country.

But now I'm looking out on a rainy, tangled, green garden and wishing instead it was an olive tree studded shoreline against a turquoise sea....

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Holidays for Good or Bad

The weather is strangely oppressive, with its lowering, uniformly grey skies from which the occasional drops of water randomly fall because, I suppose, the humidity gets to 100%.
We're into the school holidays now, as witnessed by the groups of children being shepherded around the city centre by
a) determinedly jolly dads, intent on the family having a jolly educational time (they'll probably return - much relieved - to work after a week or two),
b) tight-lipped mothers for whom this enforced jollyhood precedes a further month or so of desperate child-minding, and
c) bewildered grandparents (usually grandmothers), dismayed that they have been dumped on (from a great height!) by working parents with no paid child-care in place.
I witnessed an excellent combination of a) & b) today in Caffe Nero, where the Bright-Eyed Boy and I were enjoying a lazy coffee and newspapers experience, Daughter #3 having signed up to a week's-worth of rock-music day-schools (where she is having an 'awesome' time apparently).

An aforementioned mother, on entering the coffee-shop, immediately slumped into the nearest comfy chair and assumed an expression of blank-eyed despair. Jolly Father seemed intent on letting everyone around know what a fantastically Jolly Dad he was by addressing his two young-ish children in an over-loud 'public' voice and explaining to them why they couldn't fill themselves with chocolate, buns and coke 'Because, you see Callum, too much sugar is bad for you and you might feel sick, and then and then we couldn't go to the Viking Museum.' No-one was particularly impressed, least of all the mother who passed her hand over her eyes and looked as if she wished the whole bunch of them would disappear in a puff of smoke and leave her with a nice big gin and tonic. Or am I projecting?
Summer holidays, as I am only too well aware, start off - like the Road to Hell - with good intentions:
We won't get cross, or irritated, or bored.
We will maintain a cheerful and upbeat dialogue with our offspring, regardless of their response (or lack of it).
We will not cave in to demands for any sort of stuff.
Food will be simple and nutricious and non-negotiable in either timing or content.
We will simply ignore bickering and wind-ups.
Entertainment will be cheap, and worthwhile. No DVDs, computer or console games.
We will arrange fun and creative play-dates with similar-minded friends and their children.

Like hell we will!

Children can spot a weakness at a hundred yards, can organise a concerted attack that saps not only morale and determination, but ensures that after the first holiday week that the days are running according to their own specific agenda. All bets are off as they loll in front of the telly snuffling their way through Twix wrappers, Fanta and Wotsits before leaving a trail of cheesy dust over your laptop keyboard because they're arguing over whose turn it is on Mousebreaker and you can't stand the noise. And certainly not the prospect of anyone else's brats either!

Been there, done that, washed the damned teeshirt!

I am so glad that my two youngest have got to the age of comfortable, mutual accommodation, can generally get on well, can take turns, are reasonably grateful, polite and sort-of helpful. SO VERY GLAD!

I used to absolutely dread the school holidays (as this blog has probably previously revealed), but we actually seem to have turned some sort of corner over the past couple of years and their increasing independence and maturity is a boon and a blessing. We jog along nicely - they understand that each member of the family (and not just them!) NEEDS their own space and time, that mum isn't a wish-granting automaton, that money is finite, and that eating your cake precludes still having it. If only the dog was so perspicacious!

Soon we are flying to Greece for a family week of exploring by jeep, swimming and sunbathing in off-the-beaten-track coves,, chilling out, eating and drinking in the local tavernas. And do you know, I am really and truly looking forward to it! We deserve this break - we really do. It's been a hard-working year for all of us: it's definitely time to kick off those shoes and relax, drink wine (or Coke) and watch the sun go down over the harbour.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Last Day at Junior School

It is the Bright-Eyed Boy's last day of junior school today, and I am besieged by a lot of different emotions.

Sorrow - he is the last of my children, and his passage to senior school signals pretty much the end of his childhood and the intimate ties that have bound us for the last eleven years.

Joy - that he has had such a happy start to his scholastic career (even with the minor wobble when he had his anxiety attacks last autumn) in a caring and supportive environment and is blossoming into a lovely fellow.

Relief - that the monotony of the school-run (through a less than salubrious neighbourhood) has finally ended, and we no longer have to negotiate sullen dead-eyed youths and feral dogs on the walk to school.

Nostalgia - that in a few months time I will be remembering the school nativity plays, parents' evenings and trips out in a golden haze - I am doing that even now!

Anxiety - that he won't find the transition to 'big school' the adventure he currently imagines it to be and becomes unhappy.

Trepidation - now that I have two extra hours tacked onto either end of my working day, will I acquit myself of my academic duties, or am I (as I suspect) a complete lightweight.

Worry - that he won't be able to manage to crosss the roads safely, tie shoe-laces, catch the bus home etc.

Fondness - for all the others parents who I've been seeing on and off for the past seven years, and for some of whom this is also the last day at the school gate.

Life goes so quickly - too quickly - and I am reminded of the feeling I get when I return from holiday, that I could have enjoyed it all so much better if I'd put in a bit more effort, concentrated on enjoying the moment rather than looking aheat to what was next on the schedule.
I feel that way about their childhood. I was always so selfishly caught up in how difficult I found it to be a mother that I often wished it away, wished they were older, more independent. I never took into account how difficult it must be to negotiate the business of growing up. The little things were left unnoticed, swept away in my haste to get it all over with, to move on. I look at the childish cartoons on the fridge, the old school photos, the discarded toys and heartily wish -oh wish so much! - I could re-run the last thirteen years (since Daughter #3 was born) and do it all again but BETTER. Do it for them, not me! Regret is a terrible, heart-churning thing!

I shall try my hardest to be a better mum to them as they get older - God knows, they deserve it. They are great children and I am so proud of them and love them all so much. I have been given a great gift in my family, and it behoves me to treat it like the jewel it is.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Milandering About

Milan was an absolute revelation! Completely unlike anywhere we've been before. It's a real working city that keeps its treasures quietly to itself unlike say, Rome or Venice, which have their wares conspicuously on display around every corner. You have to WORK at Milan, rifling through the side streets and the guidebook to unearth delights which reveal themselves unexpectedly, like the cool green courtyards glimpsed from the outside of four-square, hulking buildings. Milan is turned in on itself, but in a good way, and we loved it! The Duomo square is, of course, spectacular and the Galleria Vittore Emmanuel II fascinating in its unashamed slavery to image and expense, but the things we enjoyed were a little further off the beaten track: the Navighlie area, Bohemian bars with lavish buffet snacks looking out onto the canals (yes! Milan has canals); the darting, wheeling house-martins around the 4th century basilica of San Lorenzo alle Colonne; the jasmine hedges that lined the streets near our hotel; the pasticcerie with their displays of tarts, cannoli and barquetini.
We did make it up to Lake Maggiore: the weather improved rapidly throughout the morning of day two, so we hoofed it to the station and found ourselves on the 12.43 Domodosula (sp?) train and disembarked at Stresa. It had got hot, so we were content to stroll along the panoramic promenade taking in the (only slightly misty) mountain and lake views, stopping for a cold beer and paddling in the icy waters. After arriving back in the centre of Milan in the early evening, we had a minor restaurant crisis. This involved seating ourselves in an interesting looking place near the canals (recommended in the guidebook!) asked for the menu over our aperitives and found....NOTHING we fancied eating!
The evening before we had gone to a lovely restaurant and sitting in the vine-hung courtyard, eaten local specialities such as osso buco and risotto Milanese (made with saffron, totally delicious). This canal-side restaurant seemed to have had...shall we say an 'Experimental Chef'. Finding that there was nothing that the children would even contemplate (and they are good, hearty eaters) we made our excuses and sidled out after settling the drinks bill. By this time we were really hungry as we'd last had a sandwich on the train up to the lake many hours ago. It's never good trying to decide on where to eat when you're tired and hungry, plus the restaurants were fewer and further between than in Rome. We ended up walking a couple of miles to one that the Husband had read a favourable review of in the 'cheapies' section of our book, but we were SO glad we did! Named L'Oca Giuliva (The Happy Goose) it was an homage to all things goose-like. Small, with dark wood cabinets housing the desserts (typically Italian), cosy tables, goose figurines and images everywhere, and a most attentive maitre d' who seemed to come from another era in his long white apron and neat moustache. The food was gorgeous, none too expensive, and the wine copious and intoxicating. We must have spent sufficient as the waiter brought us a digestivo on the house before we wove our way, via the metro, to our hotel. Alas, it was over far too soon! But we decided there and then that we most definitely WOULD be returning to Milan before too long.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

An Impostor in Milan

May is racing by: next week will be half term again! Our lives seem to be measured in these six-week increments, dollops of time. I have been so busy on my PhD stuff recently, having undergone the 'upgrade' panel ( a not-too-painful grilling on my programme and the whole process in general) and delivered my first-ever seminar paper. As usual, I veer between elation that I am actually doing doctoral studies (and getting paid for it!) and extreme pessimism about my chances of completion. I feel sure that I'll be unmasked as an intellectual fraud sooner or later, but recently someone drew my attention to the psychological condition known as 'impostor syndrome' the symptoms of which sound eerily familiar. I am obviously mad. Bwahahaha!!!
Daughter #2 has creaked past her quarter century and we celebrated with a lovely Italian meal on one of the hottest days this month. Sitting outside, under sun canopies quaffing rossofreddo and working our way through the 'taster' menu, we agreed that it was a most civilised way to proceed. Later on we continued by finishing off a bottle of prosecco and some Lavazza coffee ice cream while the husband and Bright-Eyed Boy broiled at a football tournament near Hull.

Daughter #3 became a teenager a couple of days later, which was marked by the arrival of a new electric bass guitar (black and sparkly) which now occupies pride of place in the front room.

Her regattas continue on a pretty regular basis and we're now finding the entry fees and the petrol used in getting to them a pretty major expense. Never mind the early starts and whole days devoted to just standing around on river banks! Hey ho!

We're going to Milan soon, which I've been unable to get excited about - I've just been too damn busy - a fact noted by the Husband who remarked tartly on my apparent lack of enthusiasm. it's not that I'm NOT looking forward to it: I will, on the day when I'm setting off toward the airport. I don't really think Milan has a big enough historical centre to warrant more than an outline itinerary (the Parents tell me it's just one long street, really), and we're only there for one full day, plus two halves either side. The Husband is keen on taking the train up to the mountains, which would be lovely, but I'm against booking it in advance in case the weather isn't favourable for that sort of trip (low cloudbase), or there turns out to be more than enough to keep us occupied in the city itself. I am totally, totally uninterested in the Milan fashion scene/shops so that means a lot of Milan's popular appeal is wasted on me. Let's see what it's like: it's not Rome, or Venice, or Florence, or Barcelona, as I keep pointing out - it's Milan: let's take it as we find it.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

G-g-g-golden Years

Daughter #3 is twelve years old, going on thirteen. A clever, quick- witted girl, very into her guitar, social-networking and rowing, part of a circle of interesting, quirky friends - including a 'boyfriend'. She's busy, independent, mature and reflective. In short, she is nothing like I was at twelve.
I can't really even remember being twelve: I have no idea what I was like, or what I liked. My memories of that time are sparse. I can remember (just about) being in the second year at 'big' school, and some of my teachers, but I can't remember what I thought about my life. I can't remember what I did at weekends. I don't remember meeting friends and hanging out, nor playing, although I can remember clearly the great times I had a couple of years earlier aged eight or nine,with a gang of friends, roaming about beech woods, throwing bamboo spears and making dens, before we had to move up north. Those earlier days have assumed a golden haze of nostalgia: it was a totally safe environment where we were permitted to wander within the extensive college grounds from dawn till dusk, the little enclave of staff-houses provided a ready made circle of friends and other homes to play in. In bed at night I could hear the owls hooting and the foxes shriek. My parents didn't bother me (or bother about me) too much and, I guess, I didn't bother them.
In moving north, our lives altered radically. My parents moved from spacious staff accomodation to their first mortgaged property. The house was new-build, a bungalow, small with plasterboard walls, at the end of a cul-de-sac, adjacent what was called in those days, 'council houses'. We were now under each others' feet. I was confined, and thus under constant scrutiny.
I no longer roamed on my bike - I knew no-one in the area anyway. My parents spent a lot of time getting the house and garden to their liking. We spent a lot of time in garden centres at the weekend. I started at a new school for the last two years of juniors and made a couple of friends who lived in surrounding villages. I only really saw them at school - my mother didn't drive, and my father worked long hours in a career he relished.
I think I spent a lot of time reading and drawing: I can't really remember. My bedroom, which had been tastefully decorated without any consultation with me was seen as part of the house in general and it didn't feel like mine. It was no sanctuary from the world, not like my untidy old two-windowed first-floor room that overlooked the length of the garden and onto rolling cowslip fields and copses.
I think I was pretty depressed at twelve, actually feeling that the best part of my life was already over, all freedom and friendships gone. All around me seemed dull, boring, sterile, pointless. I can remember meticulously copying a Leonardo drawing one day and then distinctly thinking 'what is the point of this?'
I can't even remember what books I read, although I do remember that my father ferried my mother and I down to the library every Monday night. I can recall its smell, a unique disinfectant/floor polish smell and the child-unfriendly demeanour and hauteur of the white-haired chief librarian to whom we gave the nick-name 'Snowdrop'.
Did I enjoy school? I think so, although my chief delight was to invent imaginary histories for the oldest pupils, who we considered awfully sophisticated, rather than any true interaction.
How on earth did I spend my time? I can't have spent it all in solitude, surely? But in truth I cannot recall any play-dates, or proper trips out. I have no photographs of myself at that age - I forfeited all rights to that sort of thing when I stormed out of the house at eighteen, never to return. In fact, my memories of my entire teenage years are sporadic and patchy at best. I can recall an odd scene from a holiday, or secretly applying make-up in the public toilets, or walking up the farm-track with the dog, but I think that in the main my life was just so dull that I failed to archive it for future reference!

So what will Daughter #3 remember of her early teenage years? I've always thought that the most important thing I can do for my children is to supply them with a repository of good memories, of good times had, great places visited, nice food eaten, fun. It was a good moment when she said to me on her return from rowing on the river one brilliant sunny day, that she'd gone up river in a single-scull and paused to look around her at the willowy banks and listen to the wind sighing and the birds twittering ".....and I thought,'this is what I really enjoy!'"
And I knew at that moment that I was maybe, just maybe, getting it right.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Vines and Tonsils

The Easter school break is dragging on for another week. There is absolutely no need for it: Easter sunday was over a week ago - we have celebrated accordingly, and now it is really time to get back to our daily routines. And teachers bemoan their lot!
Actually, Daughter #3, having competed in a race on the River Weaver near Runcorn in Cheshire, has gone down with a very nasty bout of tonsillitis. In fact, she was so poorly yesterday (Sunday) that I took her to the walk-in NHS clinic where we waited for nearly two hours, only to be told that she had a viral variant of the disease that would not benefit from antibiotics. When we emerged, the lovely sunny day had dissolved into a cool and blowy grey one. We had spent the best part of the day surrounded by the city's drug users who seemed to have all run out of their prescriptions at once!

The Husband is back at work today, mute with misery and apprehensive of a thankless day of stress and chaos. he seems to be missing his spring dose of foreign travel and, to that end, has been browsing the budget airlines for cheap fares and trawling Europe for city-break destinations. Valencia seems promising, but there is a dearth of reviews upon which he likes to base his decisions. By the time he decides we're going, I imagine the cheap flights will have been snapped up. Still, half the fun comes from the planning, and I'd be quite happy to go back to Rome again, or Barcelona, or Venice, or anywhere....
Because the girl was poorly, we failed to make it for the intimate meal we'd promised ourselves (no-one wants to look after a germy kid, nor would we expect them to) or have a fun day out on our last day together. We ended up spending the day pruning the grapevine back severely and spending a good couple of hours chopping the branches up into small enough lengths to fit in the green wheelie bin (they didn't all go in). I kept thinking of the passage in John's Gospel 'I am the true vine and my father is the vine-dresser: every branch that beareth not fruit in me he taketh away, and every branch that beareth fruit he purgeth that it might bear more fruit.' Well, if that's anything to go by, it'll be bearing grapes a-plenty! Still, it's done now and the whole area is a lot lighter and airier, as is next-door's garden, which fell into its shadow. It's one of my pleasures to sit under the vine in the summer and read, with a glass of wine to hand (not from our fruit, unfortunately), something I hope to do into extreme old age.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


We are heading into the Easter weekend, which I think is a lovely time of year. The daffodils are blooming, the blossom on the cherry and on the pear tree is about to come out, the little garden birds are picking up whisps of dry grass for nesting and the sky is a deep blue with wind-whipped, scudding white clouds. In fact, today is extremely chilly too, and the weather forecast suggests that snow may be a possibility in the very near future. The Bright-Eyed Boy certainly felt the lack of a hat on his walk to school today!
I am relishing the thought of a few days rest and relaxation: I've been working pretty hard on my thesis and although I don't seem to be making conspicuous progress (ie the word count is growing slowly), I feel deep down that I am getting somewhere with it. There's still so much to do, and I have a German assignment to complete, but I intend to take some time off studying. It seems to be dominating my every thought and move at the moment, and I am constantly aware that I am carrying around a mental list of things that need to be done and books that need to be read. I feel infused by the whole project, which is something that I simultaneously both enjoy and resent.

The Husband is thoroughly looking forward to a week off work - his job is so stressful and busy that a few days respite should return him to sanity - at least temporarily! He's decided to join the gym again which is a good sign: recently he has seemed too exhausted to motivate himself to do anything other than work and sleep. We shall have to make some time for leisurely meals and family trips out. I really want to go and see the forthcoming 3D version of Clash of the Titans, it reminds me of my childhood favourite Jason and the Argonauts, which largely formed my interest in Classics and the ancient world. Daughter #3 has a rowing competition this weekend which takes place a couple of hours distant. We shall load up the Dog and take her too, as a good walk by the river will blow the cobwebs out of her whiskers. When the sun was shining last Saturday, the Dog took herself out into the garden and lay down in the only small patch of sunny grass, just under the pear tree. Roll on the summer when she can lay full-length and sunbathe until she gets so hot that she has to move, panting, into the shade.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Online Perusal

Since my ruthless spring-clean-out of blogs I am pleased to say that I am squandering far less time online perusing the self-congratulatory bum-licking that persists in academic blogs of a Certain Persuasion. Also less time on blogs that just serve up dull lists of who's reviewed what. And much less time reading the mad ravings of bitter nobodies with teeny-tiny-teensie points to make that, frankly, no-one gives a fish's tit about. Ah! That's better! I can't say I've missed any of the ones that I've deleted.
But I do miss having something to read over my mid-morning coffee, and although I have had a look at a couple of news sites, I'd really like to find a blog that has something new to say of interest on a regular basis. A lot of bloggers seem to start off with good intentions and then, I guess, the novelty wears off or the pressure of work diverts them. Or maybe they run out of things to say. A couple I discovered haven't had any posts for months and are going to go in the second-wave of blog-culls soon.

The Times Literary Supplement is always good browsing, and the articles are sufficiently long to take up an entire coffee break. Having said that I don't think I'll be stumping up cash if The Times presses ahead with plan to charge for reading their online editions. The TLS writing's usually pretty high-quality too, which one might expect from people who....well, write for a living. The down-side of this is that most reviews end with book details, which makes me jump immediately onto Amazon, and then of course I have to look at my recommendations, and before long I've made an inadvisable purchase. If I'm honest, books are coming in faster than I can read them, a problem addressed in one of my other blogs ( in truth - just a dull list of books)
but if I'm honest, even that doesn't reveal the full horror of my morbid bibliophilia. I'm lucky in that my doctoral bursary covers the book bills, but some of the stuff I can't really justify. Actually, having said that I bought Neil Gaiman's American Gods on the strength of just having read up on the bicameral mind theory. Good justification, eh?

Still, all good things come to an end, as will my funding eventually and I'll be left, scratching and babbling vacantly, sitting on a midden of books. Even the husband, tolerant to the nth degree, looked around in a rather irritated fashion the other day and noted the colossal number of books scattered about. And this after he'd built two full-height, full-wall bookshelves to accommodate my stuff a couple of years ago. A lot of the volumes could go, the Classics text books in particular(but NOT my Loeb Classical Texts!), but I am loath to sell them at the risible prices they would command. I suppose I could donate them to my old university library, but it looks like the Classics department there is going to be run-down in the 'Ratnerisation' of the Russell Group and in favour of something less elitist like nail therapy or welding theory. So I'm going to hang onto them, even if it means boxing them up for storage in the attic. Maybe I could become an Amazon subsidiary seller.....but that means I'd be on Amazon even more, so any money I made would be ploughed back immediately into the Behemoth That Sunk Borders and is currently hammering nails into the coffin of many independent book shops. *shakes fist* Damn you, Amazon! Why do you always have to have the stock in at such reasonable prices!!! Just add the thrill of a package plopping through the letter-box and you've got me, quivering, in your thrall.....

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Another Bite of the Poisoned Apple

There seems to be - coincidental to my last post, which was largely based on an article in last Saturday's Guardian newspaper - a whole rash of items on 'feminism'.
The series Women, aired on BBC4 during the week, rounded up all the old-school (70's) womens' libbers and grilled them about what the feminist movement had ultimately achieved. I think that to a man (so to speak) that they were underwhelmed, to say the least. It was a bit of a shock to see them looking rather elderly, particularly as they are only slightly older than myself (Germaine Greer was sporting a shawl arrangement similar to the one that I myself don if a little chilly) and I remember their firmer - and, I have to say, somewhat more optimistic - features smiling out from the books that I once devoured so eagerly.

In the same vein, a riffle through the online TLS also revealed a review of a book by Natasha Walker entitled Living Dolls which explores the emerging New Sexism that purveys pink fluffiness to young girls and encourages them to base their sense of self-worth on their looks and, rather more sinisterly, makes sexual allure a necessary component. This Lolita complex is the 'poisoned apple' that is being handed to young girls today as an acceptable image of self.

Walker quite correctly identifies the virulent poison of advertising that promotes a feeling of permanent dissatisfaction, a dissatisfaction that, of course, can only be corrected by the purchase of the advertiser's product. This sense of looks-based anxiety and lowered self-esteem impacts not only on their mental well-being but also their intellectual life. A girl who is constantly checking out her looks and her notional rivals in the 'hotness' stakes is doomed to do poorly, not least because she is not giving her studies full attention! Added to this is the annoying tendency manifest amongst many teenage students to regard enthusiasm for learning as 'uncool' (this drives a couple of my colleagues to distraction: bright and promising girls shooting themselves academically in the foot for want of application) and you have a recipe for a generation of female under-achievers.

I think that this is now apparent enough that there are vestigial stirrings of discomfort amongst women who formerly considered that a fondness for glittery nail-varnish and killer heels would not have a negative impact on how they were perceived. Definitely time for a rethink.

Whilst girls are given the message that looks trump brains, or that looks (largely a matter of luck) equal achievement we are doing them no favours whatsoever.
It's not the message that I give my daughters, either explicitly by encouraging clothes-shopping or crass magazines, or implicitly by fretting over my appearance or wardrobe.

I hope I encourage them (and the Bright-Eyed Boy too, of course) to develop as people, citizens of the world, and to critically engage with those around them, judging each on their merits - not the way they look.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Poisoned Apple

I've never really been one for '-isms', considering them mostly to be strait jackets to broader thinking, but one that I might have considered subscribing to in its heyday is feminism. The raw, angry politicised approach that blossomed in the 70s achieved much in terms of equality of pay and rights and it seemed for a while that things were set fair for steadily continuous improvement over the coming decades. True, there were spectacularly silly aberrations, the refusal to use the words 'women' because it contained the word 'men', or 'history' for a similarly ridiculous reason, the deliberately strident, irritable and unappealing tendency to see any man as 'the enemy' because they happened to be male, a prickly hostility and lack of humour that betrayed lack of confidence.......just silliness, really, that undermined a lot of good work and was seized upon gleefully by anti-feminists. Still, it all seemed to even out in the end, the millennium turned and things were pretty looking good.
Then something happened. Women wobbled and took their eye of the feminism 'ball', and many seemed to metamorphose or become re-absorbed by the cult of femininity. I believe that the tide turned with an overconfidence in the power of irony.
The domestic goddess emerged: women who had the nous and intelligence to know better, re-invented themselves as 'ironic' retro-bakers, apparently happy to surrender themselves to floral-aproned afternoons, coated in butter icing and producing 'wicked' chocolate fudge cakes and madeleines for the gasping, swooning delectation of their audience. With a knowing wink, of course.

The pneumatic slut appeared: clad in insufficient cloth to keep a hamster decent, waxed, tanned, hair straightened and extended, they teeter in 'killer heels' from wine bar to wine bar getting more and more incoherently vociferous, groping and propositiong men in a horrendously insulting (and frankly, dangerous) copy of what they imagine to be 'laddish' behaviour, swearing and vomiting, because...well, 'we're up for a laugh aren't we, and why not?' With a knowing wink.

The gym bunny appeared: not a million miles from the pneumatic slut, equally waxed and tanned, but also toned and trim and teetotal, worshipping their bodies as temples, eyeing up the calories, carbs and salt, religiously devoted to three days of cardio, three days of weights and stretching. They can be seen in health-club changing rooms all over England, unsmilingly moisturising their taut exfoliated limbs. No knowing wink there though, it's a very serious business (and actually, not much irony either).

No doubt if questioned all would nod vigorously at the notion that they are indeed - oh yes! - liberated ladies: the fascinated obsession with their looks and the renewed fetishisation of the attributes of femininity is because they love to make 'indulgent treats', they enjoy casual sex 'as much as men do' (honest!), they want to 'take care' of themselves. The hyper-feminine behaviour that has emerged over the past decade is viewed from within certain female ranks as both ironic and self-originating. It's funny because, well, we're not really like that are we? Are we?
But strip away the unsustainable and invisible (because it isn't obvious to the observer) veneer of 'irony' and you are left with good old, fifties-style female caricatures. Cooking mummy; harlot woman; the ice goddess. Ooo-er missus! Look at her lovely buns!

Just consider for a moment the familiar images lined up on womens' magazine shelves for the appraisal of the impressionable; Nigella Lawson, Katie Price, Victoria Beckham to name a few. The clothing styles in a lot of shops; Kath Kidston, shoes that would make Chinese foot-binding an easy option, Playboy clothing for the pre-pubescent. The women that succumb to the images flashed at them by marketers have compounded and willingly tied themselves to the crass stereotyping that used to hold sway before feminism got its act together, women reduced to an existence as comforter, facilitator, sex-accessory and ornament.
For God's sake, what messages are being passed on to young girls on the brink of womanhood today?
That today it's cool to be a mahoganied, depillated, vamped-up cooker of buns, a mindless zombie subjugated to the kitchen, boudoir and the treadmill? Women, no longer using their energy to think and act, but to prink prettily, mesmerised by shiny things and subborned by time-consuming vanity; domestic bower-birds laying out their wares for consumption; silly geese, entranced and paralysed by their own self-imagined reflection in the mirror. Vacuity. This is what they should aspire to?
Ominously, this indeed seems to be presented as a viable proposition. By who? Other women? [Come on girls, we all love shoes and chardonnay and lippy don't we? Wink, wink.]
Or by men, oblivious to the ironic overlay, saying 'See? This is what women are really like after all......What we thought they were in the first place'.

How can girls behave in an intelligently female way when all they see around them are parodies of womanhood, as rooted in reality as the pantomime dame? Where are the good role models, women who have rejected stereotyping - the thinkers, the reformers, the activists, the fighters, the writers, the academics, the politicians, the astute, the editors, the pioneering, the brave? Their presence must be made more apparent!
It's difficult to bring up girls as people when all they see around them are hyper-feminised, hyper-sexualised golem, brought to life and sustained by the fickle breath of celebrity.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Restless in the Sunshine

I am feeling particularly restless today which can, for the most part, be put down to the weather. The sun is shining in a clear, pale blue sky and there is not a trace of the horrendous snow/rain/fog that has dogged us since before Christmas. It's picking out the smeary Dog nose-prints on the windows (where she stands on the back of the old sofa with her nose pressed to the glass awaiting our return) but I've also noticed that there are bulbs poking through the soil and every thing feels.....full of potential.
I've also reached a natural break in my chapter and don't feel (today at least) like striking out in a new mental direction, so I am going to wait until the post is delivered - I'm expecting a copy of The Travels of John Mandeville from the Book Depository - and then take a trip into town to find a suitable coffee shop to sit and read it.

I am a great fan of coffee shops, and enjoy the sense of pseudo-community that they engender. This has been late coming to British shores and really has only arisen since the appearance of Starbucks, Nero and Costa on the high street. When I was doing my OU studies, I used to go to the Cafe Nero in the centre of town when smoking was still allowed upstairs. the ambiance was slightly bohemian and it was not unusual to see people jotting in notebooks or working on papers. When smoking became a no-no, there was not much to keep me going there - it was a bit grotty really, so I decamped to the Starbucks situated upstairs in the large (now defunct) Borders store, and that became my regular haunt. This was slightly more upmarket: men in suits held informal meetings there and smart ladies with laptops availed themselves of the free wi-fi. I got to know the staff reasonably well and quite often preferred to work there, amidst people, rather than at home alone. When I travelled to Leeds University on the train, my penchant for arriving early meant that I could call in at the Nero en route, and one of my most enduring memories of this time is the day when I'd gone extra-extra-early (it was exam time and I was paranoid about being late) and watched the morning sun gradually turn the building opposite white-gold as I sat entranced, latte and croissant to hand, my revision notes laid out in front of me.

Since the demise of Borders and its Starbucks, a new Nero has opened and has recently become the place where, if I feel the need of caffeine, I end up. I can never understand women who won't go for a cup of coffee on their own. I was surprised by a survey done recently (by Woman's Hour, I think) that revealed just how many women feel uncomfortable on their own in public, which seems to me a shocking indictment of their autonomy. Why would you NOT go for a cup of coffee if you wanted one? Why would being on your own make you feel awkward? Are you so self-obsessed that you imagine that you are constantly being scrutinised, or judged as lonely or on the pull? Oh, get over it! I actively enjoy having the time to myself, to sit down, read, people-watch,'s one of life's pleasures. And one I think that I am going to indulge in later, I think.