Christmas shopping is here again – woohoo!



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.




Different travelling styles



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



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



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.




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.




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.















Sorting Family Photos





Life and photography having gone digital, I now have approximately 2000 photographs on my computer which I need to sort out.  It is one of those jobs which should be enjoyable but there are so many to wade through.  The whole process is fraught with difficulty.

The first hurdle to overcome is that the moment I start to look at old photos, the memories come flooding back and inevitably I start going through them slowly, smiling at how small and blonde the children were, or how young everyone looks.  This then leads on to how young I looked (sob!) and the energy that seems to jump out of the picture as I am cheerfully dragging the children out for another extremely long hike when the poor things had only just learned to walk.  Husband (again looking absurdly young) can be seen assuring them that the walk will only last half an hour.  Unfortunately they learned very quickly that he has a very skewed idea of how long half an hour is supposed to last and we have struggled to get them to walk for more than 10 minutes ever since.  So after hours of scrolling and clicking on photos, I have only managed to add the odd caption or merge the occasional file but have completely failed to put them into any sort of order  or even better, put them into albums which is my ultimate aim.

The next problem with digital photos is duplicates.  I have hundreds of examples where I have taken three or four photos of the same thing.  Each photo is slightly different and I spend ages switching back and forwards between them, trying to decide which is the best one and which I should delete.  Once I have decided on my favourite I then lack the ruthlessness to delete the rest, fearing that I might want to use those pictures in the future (I have no idea for what).

The one instance where I am merciless with the delete button is with photos of me.  I actually appear in very few as I am generally the person taking the picture,  but every so often someone offers to take a picture of the family and I make an appearance.  Unfortunately most of these occasions are after I have been taking part in some strenuous or terrifying activity such as downhill mountain biking in the Alps or steep offpiste skiing.  I am wearing no makeup, my hair has been encased in some form of helmet, I am wearing deeply unflattering clothing such as lycra bicycling tights or vastly padded skiwear and my expression is one of wild terror or soggy relief at having survived whatever we have just undertaken.  It always seems that everyone else in the picture looks perfectly put together and completely unaffected by the near vertical descent we have just made on our bikes or the zip lining over a bottomless gorge.  Needless to say, these pictures are swiftly consigned to the trash while I hunt for more suitable examples where I am at least dressed vaguely normally and perhaps even made up and wearing a heel.  Sadly, these are few and far between, so some of the less flattering ones have been kept for the sake of having some family pictures where we all appear.

I think the solution is probably to use Photoshop to transplant my coiffed and made up head onto my body in some of the more exciting family pictures but I suspect that my relaxed and benign expression may look a bit odd in comparison with some of the earlier pictures.  Hopefully only I will notice!