An argument for writing letters



Over half term, Teenage Son decided to dig out my old SLR camera to marvel at the fact that it needed film and you had to wait to have the pictures developed.  He had been rummaging around in my desk for about ten minutes when he shouted downstairs saying   “Come quickly. You have to see this!”.  Naturally I was concerned that he had found something embarrassing in amongst my papers, and so I hurtled up the two flights of stairs ready to wrestle away from him whatever incriminating photo or letter he was clutching.  But as I bent double on the landing, getting my breath back, he shoved an old file under my nose.  “Have you seen this?” he asked.  Looking at it, I realised it was a file that my mother had given me a couple of years ago when she was clearing out her house.

I had obviously been distracted at the time and had put it straight into my desk without opening it.  Inside were a stack of drawings and paintings I had done as a child along with press cuttings of a competition I had won, a few swimming certificates and some letters and envelopes.   Teenage Son and I sat down together and went through them all, laughing at my early attempts to draw various animals and marvelling at some old American Jack and Jill comics from the 1930’s that my mother had kept from her own childhood.

Eventually we came to a bundle of airmail letters written by me to my parents over the years that I was at boarding school.  We read through them all,  wading through tales of unfair detentions, midnight feasts, dormitory floods and as I got older, trips to London and dances.  There was one particular letter which he particularly enjoyed which began,

” After two years of trying, we finally managed to break into the food storeroom and filled two pillowcases with pots of peanut butter, Wagon Wheels and mini cheesecakes.  There should be enough to last until the end of term.”

Teenage Son was fascinated to hear my own teenage voice coming through in the letters and more worryingly for me, to see that his mother was not the angelic teenager she often makes herself out to be.  It made me realise that so much of our communication with him and Teenage Daughter, while they are away at school, is done through Whatsapp, Skype and telephone calls.  Thirty five years ago the first two methods didn’t even exist and trying to ring Madeira where my parents were living, involved booking a reverse charge call 24 hours in advance from the school phone box. No easy feat.  So we would write letters which would take up to two weeks to arrive and whatever news they contained was old.  But they could be kept and reread by torchlight after lights out.   These letters have given my children the chance to see a little piece of my past and to read about the things that I was interested in, what my worries were, who my friends were and what my day to day life was like.  The trouble with Whatsapp and Skype is that while they are wonderful for keeping closely in touch, helping with homesickness and dealing with dramas, they cannot be kept in the same way that letters can.

After reading through all the letters, Teenage Son declared that he wanted to start writing to us from school and has asked us to write back, not just for the excitement of receiving a letter at breakfast but to keep them.  That way, some of the scrapes, mischief and dramas of his time at school can be recorded for his own children in the future and to jog his memory about old friends and teachers, as the battered old airmail letters he discovered in my desk have jogged mine.




When in Madrid…


One of the slight inconveniences of living in Madrid is that you cannot leave the house without being immaculately dressed, perfectly groomed and in full makeup.  After spending 26 years here you would have thought that I might have learnt that important fact of life, but no.  This afternoon I made the rooky mistake of taking the dog for a walk in our vast local park dressed in an extremely holey T shirt which is really only fit for making dusters out of,  and a pair of old cropped jeans which snagged on something as I got out of the car leaving one bum cheek exposed.  I was wearing nice knickers but that is besides the point.  When I heard the unmistakeable sound of ripping fabric, I should have got back into the car and returned home to change into something charmingly casual but sporty, done my hair and checked my makeup, not carried on walking into the park thinking “It doesn´t matter.  I won´t see anyone I know”.

I headed off the path into the wilder part of the park and was walking along while the dog was snorting and bounding around in the long grass when I heard someone calling me.  To my horror I realised it was one of my neighbours.  She of course, was perfectly coiffed and made up to the nines and after casting her eye over my less than perfect outfit asked if I was alright.  What she was really saying was “what on earth are you doing out of the house looking like that”.  I decided to follow my grandmothers advice of “never explain, never apologise”,  gave her a beaming smile and said  “yes I am fine” and marched off deeper into the park with my bum cheek burning in shame.

It is sods law that in Madrid if I leave the house looking anything less than perfect I will be seen and judged.  Not so in London.  I could go outside dressed up as Jack Sparrow or even in my pajamas and nobody would bat an eyelid.  There I am quite happy to pop down to the local shop for a pint of milk with no makeup on, whereas here it would be social suicide.  Grooming is very high on any self respecting Spanish women´s  agenda including regular mani-pedis, a weekly blow dry and the most vicious waxing regime it is possible to imagine.   England is definitely more relaxed about such things.  Having been to a couple of weddings and parties in England recently, it was interesting to see many cracked heels and acres of rough skin being paraded around in summer sandals, a complete nono in any social event on the Iberian peninsular.   In the UK it is quite acceptable to stop dyeing your hair and go grey while in Spain it is unthinkable and even some men dye their hair well into their seventies.

The school run here is a sartorial minefield as well.  All the mums appear dressed to kill with Gucci and Versace being paraded around while they seem amazingly comfortable in the most vertiginous of heels.  I as a newbie, frequently used to turn up fresh from the stables in breeches and boots.  The looks of incredulity and wrinkling of noses I received were no doubt deserved as I am sure the aroma of “eau de cheval”  followed me around, but pretty quickly I realised that if I was going to make or keep any friends I had to toe the line and turn up looking vaguely put together and not as though I had been mucking out five horses and galloping hard across country.

Which way is better?  I am not sure, there is something to be said on both sides.  The spanish way forces you to maintain minimum standards of grooming which has to be a good thing and on the UK side it is lovely to think you can be a little more relaxed when leaving the house.  I have come to the conclusion that “When in Rome…”, so in Madrid I try to blend in by keeping up with all grooming appointments, getting my clothes ready for the next day and generally wearing a reasonable heel.  While in the UK I can relax a little and can be seen in Waitrose wearing flats and minimal makeup.  Today´s  encounter in the park has just reminded me not to get my countries mixed up and to chuck out any items of clothing that are better suited to being made into rags than shocking the residents of  either Madrid or London.

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Tuk Tuks and Temples


Ta Nei


Our first day in Cambodia began at the  fairly reasonable hour of 7.30am.  Luckily the Coffee Fairy had flown in with me and was on duty (see earlier posts) which made the daunting task of waking up and staggering down to breakfast a little easier. Our Khmer guide Manay was waiting for us at reception and with a peremptory wave of his hand he summoned our tuk tuk for the day’s excursion. The tuk tuk, driven by its owner Mr An, was extremely smart with frilled, white satin cushions and a cool box filled with bottles of cold water and jasmine scented cold towels to wipe our hands and faces after each temple visit.  Husband of course insisted on giving himself a full flannel bath whenever he was handed one of these towels much to the amusement of Mr An.


Husband, Mr An and Manay


We set off into the morning rush hour of Siem Reap. The roads were buzzing with hundreds of mopeds, tuk tuks, bicycles and the occasional car and pretty quickly we realised that there are no road markings, no give way signs or traffic lights at any junction or intersection. All the drivers just go for it, keeping a close watch on everyone else and weaving in and out of each other. It is all done with great good humour and politeness and there is very little hooting. The mopeds generally had more than one occupant and I regularly counted four and once five people on board, including two small children.  Mr An carefully wove his way through the apparent chaos and after twenty minutes we arrived at our first stop.

I have wanted to visit the temples of Cambodia ever since Lara Croft in Tomb Raider crept through the ancient stone door which was overgrown with unworldly looking tree roots, and the first temple on our itinerary was the very same one.  Ta Prohm is  amazingly well preserved with wonderful doorways and corridors still intact. The element that makes it unique are the four or five Spung trees which have insinuated themselves between the giant blocks of stone and whose roots resemble the tentacles of some  giant alien. Above us in the uppermost branches were five or so enormous beehives, hanging like brown banners, each at least two metres long.

After fully exploring Ta Prohm we climbed back into the tuk tuk and headed off to a much less visited temple called Ta Nei. It is down a dirt track only accessible by bike, moped or tuk tuk so the tour buses don’t reach it.  We were practically alone as we clambered over giant fallen blocks of stone and walked through passageways full of ancient carvings.  By this time, the temperature must have hit 38 degrees C  and Husband made full use of the cool towels and water offeredby Mr An on our return to the tuk tuk.

The next temple was much larger and had been well restored by the chinese. We decided to climb the ancient stone  staircase to the top which frankly scared me to death. All the temple stairs that we encountered in Cambodia are very tall and narrow so you have to go up and down sideways. It also makes them extremely steep and the staircase in this temple was at least 20 metres high.  Going up was nervewracking  but worth it. We scrambled to the top to find an amazing view of the jungle and we were able to visit the towers on its summit. In one we found a golden Buddha and a little old man who offered us some incense to burn.  Having paid our respects it was time to gird our loins and go back down the near vertical stone staircase. Husband and Manay started down apparently unmoved by the fact that any misstep would lead to instant death. I on the otherhand, had to descend like  an arthritic crab, shaking and clutching onto the stone blocks at the side, trying not to look down.  After what felt like hours, I reached the bottom in one piece albeit with very wobbly legs and was feeling extremely proud of myself when Manay mentioned conversationally that monks in their seventies would think nothing of zipping up and down the same staircase on a daily basis when the temple was in use.

In all we saw five temples that day. Each different from the last but still staggering in their scale and state of preservation.  It had been hard work climbing steep steps and scrambling over ruins and even Husband was  looking a little wilted when the tuk tuk suddenly veered off the road and after bumping down a dusty track came to a stop on the banks of the enormous moat that surrounds the ancient city if Ankor Thom.  Manay motioned us towards a gold leaf adorned gondola with our own pilot who would scull the boat along the moat as we sat under a small awning.

As the sun set over the water, a million cicadas began to sing and Manay handed me a stiff gin and tonic and Husband a cold beer.  It was the best possible  end to an extraordinary  day.


Sunset over the Ankor Thom Moat


Bangkok in 24 hours



We landed in Bangkok after a fairly uneventful flight apart from endless hours of turbulence. Husband as usual slept through it all, snoring delicately while I clutched the armrests and whimpered whenever we hit a particularly vicious air pocket.

We breezed through immigration and baggage reclaim and were whisked to our hotel in an airconditioned van, weaving in and out of the gaudily coloured tuk tuks and shocking pink taxis until we arrived at the Hotel Siam right on the Chao Phraya river.  Stepping outside is exactly like stepping into a steam room fully clothed. I thought Madrid was hot in July, but it has nothing on Bangkok in May!  Luckily our hotel was fully air conditioned and after Husband had gone to the gym and I had accidentally fallen asleep while checking my emails, we jumped on the hotel’s boat to take us to dinner.

The restaurant had the rather unprepossessing name of Steve’s Bar but had been recommended as a good local Thai eatery.  Husband’s head began to loll as we sped up the river, inspite of  the amazing view  and my sharp intakes of breath due to a few near misses with small ferries and a couple of enormous barges. Steve’s Bar turned out to be a rickety shack on the river bank and after clambering off the boat, we left our shoes outside the door with thirty other pairs and sat down to some outrageously good pad thai and even some wine.

The next morning we were picked up by our smiling guide Ta, who made sure that we were correctly dressed for visiting the temples with covered shoulders and over the knee dresses for the women. Luckily you can rent a sarong if you only have shorts.

We began the day at Wat Pho and after buying our tickets crept into one of the temples where sixteen monks were chanting. They sat to one side on a slightly raised area facing the stunning golden Buddha.  The complex of Wat Pho was delightfully empty and it was easy to appreciate its extraordinary beauty. Around every corner is a gallery of golden Buddhas or an exquisite statue or temple. Gold leaf is used everywhere and the level and intricacy of the decoration is astounding.

Our next stop was the Grand Palace but in contrast to Wat Pho it was heaving with people. The majority were groups of chinese who were clutching a forest of umbrellas against the sun and selfie sticks.  Ta squared her shoulders and warning us of the danger to our eyes from the umbrella spokes, forged a path through the masses, batting at the odd aggressively wielded umbella or obtrusive selfie stick.  She even told off a young american woman who had bared her shoulders.  “But it’s sooo hot!” complained the tourist, to which Ta replied “Yes, well we are all hot. Cover up!”.  Once we got used to the crowds, the Grand Palace was no less beautiful and we enjoyed Ta’s tales of the various kings who had built it and the mythical creatures that are depicted on the walls.  Our visit to the Emerald Buddha was greatly enhanced by the spectacle of the diminutive doorman smacking a tall american man on the bottom with his sign for inadvertently sitting on a donation box.

Leaving the Grand Palace, we walked in the punishing heat through a bustling market to the river and jumped into our own long-tail boat for a trip along the Klong which is a canal that becomes quieter and more peaceful the further along you go. We passed small floating markets with women cooking and selling food from their tiny boats to the local people doing their shopping. Then as the canal became narrower, we saw ramshackle  wooden houses on stilts often leaning precariously over the water while their inhabitants went about the daily business of cooking or washing.  At one point an enormous monitor lizard sat on a wall sunning itself as we chugged past.

We just had time to visit Wat Arun with its marvellous spires covered in chinese porcelain and rows of chinese lions.  Ta then took us back to the river where we caught a ferry to the opposite bank and made our way to a restaurant.

Lunch consisted of a delicious green curry in an air conditioned restaurant back on the bank of the main river which felt like the height of luxury after the gruelling  heat outside. We had time to properly cool down and rehydrate before we said goodbye to Bangkok and Ta took us to the airport for our onward flight to the next part of our trip, Siem Reap in Cambodia.


The Correct Dose of Caffeine

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After many years of drinking coffee in the morning I have passed the point of denial and can freely admit I am addicted.  The ironic thing is that I used to loathe the taste of coffee and only started drinking it to thaw out my hands after riding outside in sub zero temperatures in winter.  One thing led to another and now 20 years later it is the first thing I crave in the morning apart from another couple of hours sleep.

There is now a well established protocol which involves me blearily checking my watch as I try to surface from the depths of slumber at what I consider an ungodly hour, while the Coffee Fairy formerly known as Husband, cheerily bustles round the bedroom and asks if I  would like a cup of coffee.  This is generally met with an affirmative grunt unless it is before 6am in which case it is met with a groan.  There is an understanding that the Coffee Fairy does his job in return for certain favours which sounds rather exciting but normally means sending anything he has forgotten to the office or taking his road bike to be serviced.

This first shot of caffeine is completely necessary to turn on the lights in my befuddled brain and get the show on the road.  It is quite a small dose as it is always instant coffee with a splash of milk.  However, once the Coffee Fairy has fluttered off to the office, I have had breakfast and walked the dog, it is time to proceed to the main event.  Every weekday at 8.50am,  I drive to the local cafe and order myself a cafe con leche (long on coffee and short on milk), sit down with one of my closest friends and discuss our children, potential business opportunities, the state of the world and the length of our to do lists. This takes about an hour and we normally get through two coffees each.

This doesn’t seem like much, but two cafe con leches packs a mean punch and over time my body has come to expect it.  If for any reason we only have time for one coffee, the morning seems perfectly normal but I don’t seem to make much headway with my usually endless list of errands and I have noticed that everything from filling up with petrol to writing emails seems to take longer.  A two coffee morning, on the other hand, seems to fly by with me manically driving from errand to errand, talking 30% faster than I would normally and zipping round the supermarket in record time.

There have been mornings when for reasons seemingly beyond my control such as meeting another friend after my usual coffee stop, I have had three cafe con leches.  This unfortunately crosses the line of what my body is prepared to put up with.  On three spanish coffees, I am unable to stop talking, I drive everywhere over the speed limit and my whole body seems to hum.  The good side is that my kilometric to do list is normally taken care of by 11am.  The downside is that anyone ringing me up to arrange to come and fix the washing machine will get my entire life story and later I am unable to get to sleep until about 2am probably because my heart rate is double what it should be.

The opposite problem to too much, is too little.  These are the times when for whatever reason I don’t get my caffeine fix in the morning.  This does happen sometimes if Coffee Fairy is away or I am in London.  Life will appear to carry on as normal but by 3pm I start to get a pain behind my right eye and by 5pm my eye is twitching and I am in the throws of the headache from hell.  It is about this point at which I realise my foolish error but by then it is too late in the day to remedy the problem with a coffee so a large ibuprofen has to suffice.

Every so often I consider going on a detox and joining the ranks of sensible people who sip herbal teas and are probably fifty times healthier than I am, but frankly I enjoy the buzz that my coffee addiction gives me and as long as I get the dose right I think it is a positive contributor to keeping the household running smoothly.  It also keeps the Coffee fairy on his toes which has got to be a good thing.

Pink Jobs vs Blue Jobs

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As I stood this morning, monkey wrench in hand, taking apart the boot of my car to gain access to the battery, I began to think about the distribution of  the jobs in our household.  It has always been a fairly traditional setup with Husband going out to bring home the bacon and me staying at home with the children, but over the years I have noticed a certain mission creep in terms of the jobs I am doing around the house.  We have always jokingly called them pink jobs and blue jobs.  For instance, taking out the rubbish has always been a blue job and chauffeuring children to parties has been a pink job and that has always worked fine.  But lately things seem to be getting a bit mixed up.

Only a couple of days ago, I found myself at the local building supply yard buying cement, sand and discussing how many bricks we were likely to need for a job we are having done in the garden. Husband meanwhile was busy at his pilates class.  Admittedly it is a special class for triathlon training but you see my point?

I am now the person who knows how the central heating works, and how to restart the boiler,  how to programme the various electrical devices such as smart TVs, the garden irrigation system and how the pool pump works, I even do the basic car maintenance.  On the other side of the equation, Husband is much more sensitive to general order and tidiness around the house while I am much more laissez faire, probably because I am either under the bonnet of a car or wrestling with a deviant sprinkler.  He is a whizz at booking flights and making travel arrangements while I would leave everything till the last minute and it would all cost twice as much if it was left up to me.  He is also always happy to walk our extremely energetic dog.  It really doesn´t make a huge difference who does what, but it did occur to me that if I dropped off the face of the earth, life at home could become a little difficult for Husband.

After years of trial and error, not to mention dealing with droves of extremely sexist Spanish builders and repair men, I can now hold my own in discussions relating to the relative efficiency of condensing boilers versus heat exchange pumps and such gems as how often to change the sand in the pool filter.  The only thing I have flatly refused to get involved with is the use of the chainsaw.  I now have years worth of accumulated knowledge of how to keep all the various pieces of machinery in our lives running smoothly.  Where and when to kick them, how to dismantle and try to fix them and when to give up and call a technician from the endless list on my phone.

I suspect that if I was not around, most of the appliances would go on strike as they are used to being gently coaxed to work on a regular basis with each machine requiring a slightly different approach, not to mention the enormous numbers of different products they all need, from specialist hoover bags to ph reducing agent.  It probably makes sense for me to start compiling some form of house crib sheet incase I am away and the automatic gate won’t open or the lawnmower overheats.  Actually I should write a book with chapters, detailed diagrams and encouraging text.  That way, if I go on a week long silent retreat or stressbusting yoga holiday, I won’t return to a post apocalyptic scene with Husband surrounded by piles of smoking machinery.  But even if I do, I know the house will be spotless, the summer and Christmas holidays will be planned and booked and the dog will have been walked off his feet.




Fear of Needles

This morning as I paid our deposit on our summer holiday I realised that it was time to check up on the family’s travel vaccinations and see whether we need any top ups or new ones.  Getting injections is nobody’s idea of fun but I have to say that as a family we are particularly pathetic about it.  Husband blames it on me as he says that the “cowardice in the face of needles” gene comes from my side of the family and I am afraid he is probably right.

Apart from falling off a chair once during a blood test (I didn’t actually pass out), I am fairly stoic about being injected.  Although I have to admit that while I sit, waiting to be called in, the urge to bolt can be almost overwhelming.  I imagine myself saying, ” I am so sorry, I think I left the bath running. I will be back in a few minutes,” and then hightailing it out of there, never to return.

My brother and sister on the other hand, are fainters.  They  have both passed out during or after their vaccinations on numerous occasions.  Every time my long suffering mother would warn  the doctor or nurse that they would probably faint, the response would be “Nonsense, they will be fine!”.  This would be followed by silence as the jab was given and then a thud or a crash as one or other of them would hit the ground or a trolley full of medical equipment.  Once my sister passed out on top of my mother (who is only 5′ 1″) after removing her newly pierced earrings and nearly swashed her like a bug.  So I suppose it was to be expected when my own  little darlings were less than brave when injection time came around.

When Teenage Daughter was about eight, she needed a blood test and I decided to take her to the doctor first thing in the morning with her brother, foolishly thinking that I could drop them at school straight afterwards.  We were the first to arrive and as we went in to the “extraction room” my heart sank.  Instead of the usual smiling nurse there was a very grim faced woman setting up her things.   Surely the sensible thing to do with a nervous child is to talk to them and hide the enormous needle and syringe you are setting up?  But no, this sadist waved the injection around in front of Small Daughter who had begun edging towards the door.  Suddenly, with no warning the nurse grabbed her arm and began hitting it, obviously trying to raise a vein.  Daughter squeaked and tried to pull her arm away, to no avail.  The nurse swiftly inserted the needle while Daughter began to shriek like a tea kettle.  Small Son looked on in horror and after putting his hands over his ears, ran out of the room into the waiting room full of people shouting “no, no, noooo..”.

The blood letting seemed to go on forever but after what was probably only a minute, the nurse finally took out the needle.  Daughter kept on roaring and as we passed back through the group of people waiting their turn, I could see a desperate father trying to stop his own son from running off after hearing the sounds of horror coming from the extraction room. As we left, the receptionist suggested that I ring ahead next time so that they could arrange for us to have the bloodtest/injection in a  room further away from the waiting room so we wouldn’t upset the other patients.  After that, instead of taking the children straight into school, I took them  for an extended hot chocolate and croissant stop, to calm all our nerves.

Ever since then, any form of injection is a major drama with the need for bribes or threats to get either child to the doctor’s surgery.  Things are a bit easier now they are both at boarding school because if they need a vaccination, they are whisked off to the “San” with their friends for support (much more effective than Mother) and I just get the recriminations, moans about painful arms and gruesome details on Skype.

I have to admit that I was pleased when one of my friends complained over coffee that two out of three of her brood had passed out at their last vaccination and she had been forced to hang around the doctor’s surgery with them for over an hour to make sure it wasn’t an adverse reaction, while trying to explain to the nurses that this was a fairly normal occurrence.

It is nice to know we are not alone in our fear of needles and I live in hope that Teenage Daughter and Son will grow out of it, but  I suspect that is wishful thinking as I am still waiting to grow out of it myself.