Christmas shopping is here again – woohoo!

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It seems like yesterday that I was making lists, fighting my way through hordes of anxious shoppers and filling my Amazon basket to groaning point, but somehow Christmas shopping has come around again.  Each year I vow that I will be incredibly organised and buy presents throughout the year so that when the week before Christmas arrives I am not running around like a headless chicken, but as usual I am seriously behind.  In fact the only thing I have done so far is write this, which doesn’t really count.

One of my friends buys all her presents and wraps them by mid September and keeps them locked in a cupboard until she puts up her Christmas tree and “hey presto” they are all ready to be set out.  Apart from the fact that I am still reeling from getting people ready for the beginning of a new school/uni year in September,  that would never work in my house.  Teenage Daughter and Son would quickly pick the cupboard lock and proceed to shake and count all the packages with their names on them.  There is also the problem that something which was a “must have” item in September might have gone out of fashion or favour by December.

I generally end up asking family members for ideas at the last minute, choose something from the list and pray that it hasn’t sold out on Black Friday or even worse, the Amazon last day for delivery before Christmas hasn’t passed.  Canvassing the family this year at dinner met with mixed results, a few years ago Teenage Daughter might have asked for a pink plastic unicorn castle but this year she said succinctly “money”, no doubt to fund her newly wild life at uni,  while Teenage Son has requested polaroid film (who knew that the ancient polaroid camera stuffed at the back of the coat cupboard would make a comeback).  Husband on the other hand said  helpfully “why don´t we not do presents this year?” which was met with howls of outrage.  This is all very well but there was always something wonderfully exciting about having huge, badly wrapped boxes of plastic toys under the tree,  not to mention the squeals of delight as they were ripped open.  This year looks like it might be an envelope and a few small boxes.

My other seasonal job is to take on the mantle of Father Christmas as the procurer of items for Christmas stockings.  The tradition of stockings in our house is sacrosanct and my feeble attempts to suggest that TD and TS are too old for stockings are firmly squashed each year.  This means many visits to quirky, out of the way shops or Urban Outfitters, to buy amusing, small items which will both fit in the stockings, not get the recipient expelled from school (Cards Against Humanity was a close call) and make a satisfying clanking noise when unpacked on Christmas morning on our bed.

Along with planning food and entertainment, it all seems an insurmountable task,  but I am going to start making lists, head for Oxford Street, spend hours on Amazon and who knows, I might actually get everything done before Christmas.

 

 

 

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Different travelling styles

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As I sit, poised on the edge of my seat, my left eye twitching, clutching my wheely and passport ready to bolt for  the gate where our plane is now boarding, I realise that travelling with Husband is probably not good for my blood pressure.

There are two types of travellers, those who like to arrive at the airport in plenty of time, to perhaps browse in duty free or visit Starbucks and keep stress to a minimum, and those who are quite happy to draw up outside the terminal in a taxi as their flight starts to board, saunter through security and dawdle to the gate as their name is being called over the tannoy.

Now I am not saying that one way is better than the other, but as a member of the first group, and Husband a fully paid up member of the second more, devil may care community, things can get rather tense when we travel together, as we frequently do.

I like to leave home with plenty of time built in for traffic jams, late taxis or just Acts of God.  Husband will frequently ring to say he is leaving the office for the airport when I have already cleared security.  Luckily I always make sure that I have all my documents with me so that if he misses the plane, I can still travel.  In fairness he has only missed two flights, one due to the fact we had forgotten the clocks moved forward an hour that day and the other because he got lost on the Japanese train system somewhere between Kyoto and Osaka  (easy to do when you don’t speak Japanese).

Part of the problem is the fact that we hardly ever travel with check-in baggage but carry our lives with us in carry on bags.  With the low cost airlines, once the overhead lockers are full, anything left over is put in the hold which adds to the journey time at the other end as you are forced to hang around the baggage carousel waiting anxiously for your suitcase to appear.  So getting your wheely on board is vital to ensuring that you go straight from the plane jetty onto a train or into a taxi.  As stowing the luggage is done on a first come, first served basis, sitting in the lounge finishing an email or wandering blindly away from the gate while on the phone can be the difference between a breezing onto the plane and having the luxury of placing your bag in the bin above your head or frantically forcing your way down the aisle looking for a non existent space to cram your possessions into, at least 19 rows away from where you are sitting.  Teenage Son and Daughter now insist on carrying their own documentation if they are flying with us, so they can board when they like and not wait anxiously for Husband to appear after he has vanished in a puff of smoke while taking a call.

Funnily enough I can see that our offspring are following in our footsteps.  Teenage Daughter has always been slightly dippy when it comes to travelling, although we recently discovered that she needed glasses.  This may explain why she couldn´t get to grips with the London Tube system as she was completely oblivious to maps on the wall or directions to the various platforms.  ¨Wow, is this what everyone sees?¨she asked as she put on her new glasses for the first time and the world swam into focus.  She, like her father is very relaxed about timings and thinks nothing of popping into Lush to buy a few bath bombs while she only has 20 minutes to get across London to catch a train.  Teenage Son on the other hand is a whizz at getting around and can plan and execute a journey using multiple modes of transport and like me, prefers to travel with plenty of time in hand.

The slightly annoying thing is that both Husband and Daughter always seem to arrive in the knick of time while I have been gnawing my fingers to the bone waiting for them.  I think the only solution is to  take Teenage Daughter´s advice.   ¨Chill Mother¨ she says as I am spluttering about timings.  So henceforth I will ¨chill¨ and travel in splendid imaginary isolation and board the plane while still in my comfort zone and let the more relaxed members of the family waft on board when the mood takes them.

 

 

 

 

 

Comparing Vices

 

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The sales are here again and with them comes the temptation that faces me every winter.  The seductive pull of a new coat or jacket.  Some people can´t help buying shoes, others are addicted to jewellery but my vice is coats.

I have to admit to owning two whole wardrobes full of coats and jackets.  The coat cupboard in the hall is full to bursting point and guests have to leave their outer garments on the chair in the entrance as no more can be shoehorned in.  Every so often Husband flings open the cupboard door and loudly counts the number of coats squeezed along the rail.  ¨Do you really need all these?¨ he asks, and I am forced to defend the fact that I wear every one of them, I have a coat or jacket for every conceivable situation or weather event and anyway two of them are his.

Of course this doesn´t mean that when I am out shopping my eye doesn´t still stray to the coat rails.  I even enjoy buying coats for other people.  Teenage Daughter and I spent a wonderful morning on Oxford street buying her a new jacket  which was the perfect excuse for me to browse through acres of temptation and indulge my habit although vicariously.  At least I am aware of my addiction, I now think very carefully before giving in to the siren call of a new coat and any new addition to the cupboard has to fulfill the strict criteria of being something completely different to anything I already have or replace a threadbare or moth eaten veteran.

Husband actually doesn´t have a leg to stand on when it comes to commenting on my coat habit.  He is in the grips of a far stronger addiction – buying kit.  By kit I mean anything that can be worn, ridden or layered while training for a triathlon.  He has more running tights, swimming goggles and road bikes than Emelda Marcos had shoes.  Not only that but huge piles of kit is packed into everyone else´s suitcases whenever the family travel together.  Teenage Son and Daughter are now used to unpacking at our destination and finding a pairs of cleated bike shoes, the odd wetsuit and some running shirts squeezed into their bags.  Walking past the Asics or Adidas shops in London is fraught with the danger that he will nip inside and emerge clutching bags full of running gear.  When challenged he will admit his kit habit is at least as bad as my coat vice but his goes on all year while mine is restricted to the winter months.

At the moment there is no hope in sight as his ironman isn´t taking place until June and I fear that the whole house will disappear long before that under drifts of manmade fibres and spare cleats.  I on the other hand have my eye on a very snappy little jacket which will complement my collection perfectly and after all, what is one more coat?

 

 

When Cake Porn Disappoints


 

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After the excitement of the the summer final of the Great British Bake off, a very English TV programme a bit like Masterchef but with the contestants having to produce amazing, gravity defying, mouthwatering confections, my enthusiasm for baking has been reignited.  This is potentially a disaster for my ongoing weightloss strategy but I keep telling myself that I am only going to bake the cakes, not actually eat them…

We already have an established baker in the family.  The first thing that Teenage Daughter asks when she returns home for the school holidays is not what plans there are for the coming weeks but whether there is any self raising flour and icing sugar in the house.  She then proceeds to sift, knead and ice on a daily basis until every shelf in the kitchen is groaning with baked goods and the whole family has to fight appalling temptation every time they go in there to get a glass of water.  She normally makes cupcakes, brownies and sometimes banana loaf  which are always beautifully decorated and professional looking, but occasionally the recipe books are dug out and some extraordinary new cake is attempted.  We have munched our way through rainbow cake which was delicious but resembled a badly knitted hat and a few sponge cakes which frankly were more like intermediate ski slopes.   So here´s a question.  Why do our more ambitious baking attempts never look like the pictures in the book?

It usually starts the same way, with Teenage Daughter pouring over a Nigella Lawson tome or something more traditional such as Delia.   A picture of what can only be a heavily photoshopped cake is chosen and the work begins. The huge array of ingredients are assembled, substitutions are made (when vital things such as essence of Himalayan violet just can´t be found on the shelf of a spanish supermarket), hands are scrupulously washed, the oven turned on and the dog is turfed out of the kitchen to stop him from licking any surface that might be used for rolling or kneading (or anything that is in the process of being rolled or kneaded).   I am normally called in to act as sous chef to perform the more boring and menial tasks such as greasing and lining the cake tin and finely chopping any ingredients which the baker doesn´t have the patience to attempt.  We both keep checking the recipe book to make sure we follow the instructions to the letter and after what seems to be the equivalent of assembling one of Professor Snape´s more demanding potions, the cake tin and its precious contents are slid into the oven.

At this point high fives are exchanged and optimism runs high.  We both peer through the rather murky oven window nervously to assess the progress of our creation and after about 30 minutes Teenage Daughter declares it time to test the cake to see if it is done.  The oven door is ceremoniously opened and the cake tin is extracted.  This is normally followed by stunned silence as the six inch high masterpiece we are expecting is nowhere to be seen.  In its place is a rather uneven two inch imposter which bears absolutely no relation to the photograph next to the recipe.  ¨Never mind¨ I always chirp, ¨I am sure it will taste delicious¨.  The wizened offering is then taken away to be lovingly decorated and then devoured by the rest of the family.  For a while we were convinced that our failures were due to the oven (too hot, too cold, too strong a fan), then due to the altitude (Madrid is at 700 metres).  My Mother even came up with the ingenious idea of using smaller cake tins so the rising mixture would have nowhere to go but up, but even that trick was doomed to failure.  The truth of the matter is that we are either rubbish bakers or the recipes were never going to turn out like the pictures.

After many such disappointments I feel that there should be a law passed which would force the writers of cake recipe books to attach a warning next to their totally unrealistic photographs.  ¨The cake in this photo may appear larger, taller and more even, than it will in real life¨.  That way a large proportion of the baking population will not be cast down when their lovingly prepared creations do not resemble the skyscraperlike cakes in their cookbooks. Teenage Daughter always takes such setbacks philosophically and returns to producing her tried and tested recipes.  But there are only so many scones and cupcakes one can make without the temptation to start leafing through the cook books again…

 

 

Photo sourced from the internet for illustration purposes only.

 

 

 

The Plank and other Tortures

6029ee01dfb0d2f6fe468a9bf3ef6d30When I first started going to the gym decades ago, people used to talk endlessly about their abs or lack of them and half the classes on offer seemed to be ¨Bums and Tums¨.    I have fond memories of lying in a class and doing endless crunches to strengthen my tummy area.  The wonderful thing about crunches is that when you become exhausted, you can just lie on the floor, stare at the ceiling and get your strength or motivation back.  No longer.  The whole bums and tums landscape has changed and has been renamed ¨Core and Glutes¨.  Glutes isn´t so bad, you still end up doing leg lifts like a dog next to a lamp post and if the exercise starts to burn, you can miss out the odd rep when the teacher is concentrating on some other poor class member.  Core however is an entirely different matter.  There has been an insidious and in my case, entirely unwelcome addition to the exercise arsenal wielded by trainers and teachers – the plank.

The plank, I am reliably informed, is a far superior exercise to the crunch because it exercises so many more muscles at the same time, including arms, back and legs while really strengthening all your tummy muscles.  That may be so, but Core classes have become a horrendous endurance test.  You have to assume the position (plank that is) and then stay there for often well over a minute.  This sounds easy enough but for the even slightly unfit , the shakes set in at about 40 seconds along with extreme sweating and a face the colour of a plum.  To make matters worse, if you give up, you are seen by everyone collapsing onto the mat with a loud squelching noise –  highly undignified.  The problem is that it is nearly impossible to cheat and I am sure that is why the trainers use it.

The other infernal addition to many gyms is the TRX.  This is a sort of strap that is attached to the ceiling or the wall and has two handles.  The idea behind it is that pull yourself up from various contrived positions on the floor and therebye work your upper body.  What no one seems to have taken into account is that it is all about body weight.  If you are one of the gym members who lives on wheatgrass shakes and steamed vegetables, I am sure it is a wonderful idea to pull yourself up out of a low lunge fifty times.  But for those of us who live on gin and tonic and slabs of chocolate,  the effort needed to haul oneself up repeatedly without bursting a blood vessel in the eye or finishing your workout and realising you can no longer lift your arms, is just too much.

With these appalling new developments in fitness blighting my visits to the gym, I have decided to go retro and with the help of my female personal trainer have come up with a workout which should achieve all the same goals without quite so much pain and humiliation and take me back to those heady early days at the gym when Jane Fonda was doing her thing.  Infact it is a workout which would not look out of place in the 80´s or 90´s but hey, once I get my legwarmers and sweatband, I will at least look the part.  And who knows, perhaps in a few years, my exercise routine may come back into fashion.

 

Cartoon taken from the internet for illustrative purposes.

How to get rid of mice

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There is nothing quite like arriving at one´s holiday home, dropping the suitcases in the hall, opening the curtains, filling the kettle for a cup of tea and opening the cutlery drawer to be faced with a sprinkling of mouse droppings.   After an outraged squawk I opened the other kitchen drawers to find that the mouse, and what appeared to be its entire extended family (there were a lot of droppings) had decided to use the all the drawers as a selection of bathrooms.  Under the sink they had cunningly constructed the equivalent of a substantial self build property out of dishwasher tablet boxes and a pile of old dusters.  The strange thing was that there was no one in residence and all the droppings were extremely shrivelled and dry.  After a massive clear out and an inordinate number of dishwasher cycles to make sure everything was suitable for use in a kitchen again, I announced that we needed to buy a mousetrap.

There was a stunned silence from the family followed by shrieks of outrage from Teenage Daughter and Son.  “Don´t be so cruel, the mouse isn´t doing anyone any harm!”  It was only when I pointed out that they might not enjoy spaghetti bolognese seasoned with mouse droppings, that they were prepared to consider a trap.  “But it has to be a humane one”.

Anyone who has spent any time in rural France will know that humane mousetraps are like hens teeth.  All the ironmongers stock the good old fashioned Tom and Jerry mousetraps but ask for a humane trap and you will be met either by a gallic shrug or hoots of laughter and some rather choice comments about mad englishwomen.  After a few fruitless and embarrassing shopping trips, I finally tracked down a suitable trap.  It was a small steel box with a door on a spring.  The idea was that we would bait the spring with some cheddar and the mouse would march in, help himself and the door would clang shut behind him.  We would then carry him into the woods and release him wherebye he would swiftly return to the house, which let´s face it, is much more comfortable than a windy, damp forest.

That night, Teenage Son threaded a pungent piece of  cheese onto the trigger and carefully placed the trap in the corner of the kitchen.  We all went to bed and spent the entire night listening for the distinctive clang that would announce that the mouse had been captured.  The next day dawned but the trap was empty.  “As it is a french mouse, perhaps it prefers french cheese” suggested Teenage Daughter.  So she set the trap with Beaufort.  The next day dawned to an empty trap, and the following day.  After a week of fruitless trap setting we all forgot about the mouse and as no more droppings appeared, we assumed that it had found the kitchen rather dull and returned to the woods.

It was only at the end of our two week stay that we found out what had happened to the intruder.  Husband had run out of his very strong Nespresso capsules and went to the cupboard where further supplies are kept.  To his disgust, he found that the mouse had stumbled across the coffee stash and had nibbled its way into every single capsule.  There was coffee strewn all over the bottom of the cupboard but it was clear that a large amount had been consumed.  The poor mouse had probably had to deal with a very bad trip on a huge amount of caffeine.  I can only imagine that having munched its way through so much coffee,  it frantically ran around, suffering hallucinations and heart palpitations and eventually made its way outside, vowing never to return to our house of excessively strong coffee.  The humane mousetrap is now an ornament on the kitchen shelf as a reminder to other potential rodent intruders but personally I think coffee overdose is just as good at dealing with any mice thinking of making my kitchen their home.

Photo. Sourced from the internet for illustration purposes only

Creakiness

 

 

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One of the wonderful gifts that comes with double digit birthdays beginning with a 5 (or sometimes a 4), is the imperceptible onset of creakiness.  It is just so unfair, I have spent years going to the gym, skiing, running and trying to stay active and inspite of everything, my joints are starting to protest at what used to be perfectly normal activities.  Not so long ago, I would be very happy sitting on the floor crossed legged for hours at a time and could then leap to my feet in an instant to answer the doorbell, or stop the dog from vomiting inside the house.  Now sitting on the floor is vaguely uncomfortable and it can take quite a long time for me to stagger to my feet and return to a vaguely upright stance.  I recently rang a close school friend who answered on the ninth ring and confessed that it had taken her that long to get up from the floor where she had been wrapping a present.

Other symptoms of general decrepitude are also rearing their ugly heads.  Climbing the stairs is now accompanied by a strange clicking in my right knee, completely painless but somewhat disconcerting.   Bending over to stack the dishwasher is fraught with danger as it is quite likely that my back will seize up and I will have to hobble around like Quasimodo until I can get to a physio who will manipulate my spine into unnatural contortions and give me an eyewateringly painful massage in order to straighten me up.  And I am unable to look over my shoulder in the owl-like way that I always took for granted.

I am glad to say that I am not alone in the creaking and cracking of joints.  Husband, who has taken up Ironman triathlons in his fifties, is absurdly fit but after sitting down for more than 10 minutes, springs to his feet but then walks in a strangely neanderthal way for a few seconds until his back loosens up, and one of my best friends was told by an extortionately expensive consultant that the excruciating pain in her big toe was arthritis due to wear and tear and that she had better get used to it!  Not what you want to hear when you have shelled out the equivalent of a Prada handbag.

My physio has prescribed some exercises to try and improve things which involve me rolling around on the floor just after getting up in the morning.  All well and good in summer but I can’t really see me rolling out of bed to lie on the floor when it is minus 5 outside and the heating is struggling to warm the house.  The answer I fear, is to return to the activity that I used to attend before life and excessive travelling got in the way – yoga.  But which type?

A few years ago I signed up to a weekly Bikram yoga class with a couple of girlfriends with the intention of improving our flexibility and general well being.  The 40 degree heat and high humidity took some getting used to, but over a few months we all became far more bendy and able to contort ourselves quite convincingly enough not to have to hide at the back of the class.  The problem with Bikram is the sweat.  It is not just that you sweat buckets, but everyone else does too.  That may be just about bearable if you are next to a thirty something female who showers twice a day.  The problems begin when a shirtless, extremely hirsute, forty something man  thwaps his mat down next to yours  and starts doing deep breathing exercises before the class starts.  You just know that he is going to start pouring perspiration instantly, and not the fragrant type either.  The number of classes that I have spent breathing entirely through my mouth to avoid unpleasant whiffs was one of the reasons that I eventually gave up.

Another alternative is Hatha yoga.  No sweating is involved, although the worry that I might accidentally break wind when I am attempting one of the more challenging poses has certainly brought a gentle sheen to my forehead.  The Hatha classes I have attended have varied from very gentle with long periods of meditation, to what appeared to be a training course for circus contortionists.  You never quite know what a class will be like until you have tried it.  The problem with Hatha is that I very quickly get fed up.  I am so used to exercising in a way that gets me somewhere, with scenery to look at along the way, that staying inside a studio and only having my fellow sufferers to look at makes me wilt with boredom.

However, a quick Google of different types of yoga has given me a list of 20.  Some of the more unusual ones such as Kundalini which awakens the energy at the base of the spine, are probably not for me (see earlier Hatha worry) but there are still 15 or so left to try.  I will therefore be visiting various yoga studios until I find the class and teacher that can get all my  joints moving, keep me interested, not revolted and reach the holy grail of being able to touch my toes again.

 

 

 

Photo.  Sourced from the internet for illustration purposes only