Monday, 2 June 2014

Gorging on Colour

You may be pleased to know that there wil be no nostalgiafest today. For reasons known only to my parents, they decided to give the Samaria Gorge a miss. Given my brother was only 6 and the gorge 16km long, perhaps they were wiser than I knew. Anyway years later their idiot daughter found herself getting up at 4.30 to go for a gentle stroll in the mountains. Not just that but persuading a pre teen and a mad saffa to do similar. 

I don't often see sun rise and here it is a visual delight, a light show to rival any I've seen; the black-white limestone screen of mountains with a rainbow projection. As we hit the Askifou plateau we had reached the yellow/green stage and the cornfields waved in coloured empathy. As the coach doors opened it seemed that the fragrance also coloured the air. Mint green as invigorating as the breeze. 

We needed to go higher and the greens turned to blue; likewise mint turned to pine. We had clearly reached the Cretan alps. The White Mountains stretched high above us, dizzying in aspect, but our path led down. The entrance to the gorge gaped and we disappeared one by one, carefully, slowly, into the resinous gloom.   

The going was hard underfoot but looking up was breathtaking. Between the black green Calabrian pines and bright blue, the sheer sharp white mountains soared.

Still, down we went and the trees oddly started to thin until the rocks showed through, a dry, dessicated white. In parody of the tumbling froth, the stones sat in mid movement on the river bed. Many hands had created works of art from these pebbles, piling them up from large to small. Even the tree branches were covered in pebble 'moss'. It seemed that these sculptures were the only way to reduce the magnificence of the mountains to human scale.

Further down the gorge and we found the rainbow's end. The endlessly high walls were golden; liquid gold flowed over the pebble nuggets. Criss-crossing the pure stuff, the burbling echoed our giggles. By the eighth kilometre the laughing was more hysterical but, still, we laughed. The prize was the iron gates, where the ravine was a mere three metres wide. The rickety wooden path bridge carried us through the gap.

However, despite all that had gone before, the best was yet to come. The geological story that the rocks were telling us, and everyone who listens, is endless. They relate the power of the earth, the compressing heat, the lives of the fossilising creatures within - everything both in its place and transforming into something else. Like the piled pebbles and wobbly people, balance is sweet. 

And so, what about the end of our journey? We had traversed the longest gorge in Europe, lost most of our dignity and anticipated the muscle pains. But I salute the sanity of my parents for allowing me to find this gorge, myself, the hard way. 

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Holiday Pinks

It's that time of year again; when London and I spend time apart to 'find ourselves' or 'take a break' for the good of my health and sanity. Recent trips away have revolved around significant birthdays - not the one on Decenber though, that was just bloody minded contrariness - so it was nice just to book and not worry about being another year closer to mandatory tummy control bikini bottoms. 

Crete was the choice of the youngest travelling companion. A dour doom merchant of drama queen proportions.  Or a pre teen Yorkshire Saffa ... Middle name 'caaaan I have a saaaaandwich?'. For as long as I've known him he has been obsessed with Greek gods so I was determined to bring him to the place where history, myth, civilisation combined to change my life at the same age. 

It was also my first time on a plane, first time not on a windy tent holiday and the first time I experienced the sea as a gentle warm blue bath. It was also where I had my first holiday romance. So it was a pretty momentous holiday by anyone's standards. 

My dad had worked some legalistic miracle for the hotel owner - or indeed had his own romance - but we somehow got invited to a family christening way up in the fragrant spiky island interior. This solemn ceremony in a tiny ancient chapel led to an explosively festive affair which carried on way into the night. A group of kids welcomed me and my younger brother, as we giggled at the ridiculous dancing adults. Music filled the air as thickly as the scents of the rosemary roasting lamb over the fire. 

In this atmosphere the beautiful young man and I kissed, and we held hands for the rest of the evening. When ever we saw one another in the hotel kitchen we would smile shyly and I imagined a life in permanent sunshine with him. At 12 the hopeless dreamer could hopelessly dream. 

So when I heard the voices and traditional music last night - as well as seeing grown adults dancing with red faces, I was transported to another time and place. Where holidays experienced as a child were actually life changing and inspirational. 

Still, even now, the child in me imagines the sea and rocky inlets sheltering ancient traders and fishermen, the purple mountain crags jangled with goats bells...whilst the lithe young men practice bull fighting and the bare breasted women waved snakes. 

I don't know what this young chap will take away from this holiday. Already his swimming confidence has grown, apparently the food is divine, and today he will walk the longest gorge in Europe. But nothing is more important than the opportunity to learn, travel and be inspired. 

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Contrary Exercise

On March the 17th I did something I've never done before. Something so perverse as to be at the edge of my ability to comprehend why anyone could be so insane as to think this was a good idea.

I bought exercise clothes.

To be fair this wasn't a whim. In a moment of actual insanity I conceded that it would probably be a good idea to do some actual exskdjj. Exskdjhl. Exasdl;; Exe. R. Cise.

See, I can even say the word!


Exe. R. Cise clothes. Yes, mine!
Now having not ever done this nonsense before I had no idea what to get, so off I toddled to Primarni to get something that was a) cheap as I would only wear it once because honestly I won't make the same mistake twice and b) vaguely suitable. Think Sporty Spice meets a kebab van. It took me about ten minutes to work my way to a corner of the Oxford Street branch in a place which had disturbingly lurid colours and excess lycra.

Fortunately they had stuff suitable for geriatric size and I sauntered back to the office happy in the knowledge that at least one day I can tell my grandchildren that I'd thought about exercise. Once.

What I didn't realise is that Clare, being the enthusiastic (read: insane) type was also out shopping. She'd bought a) some things called weights which looked suspiciously like something from the kinkier corner of the sex shop on Goodge Street, b) two mats, one each, which would make exercise somewhat more comfortable and c) things called ankle weights which definitely must have come from said sex shop.

So I tried them on.

Okay maybe they are actually tags to track whether I'm exercising. I didn't at all feel silly wearing them. No sirreeeee. The plan was set at 7am we would head for the roof terrace and my date with destiny.

I put the number of the paramedics on speed-dial.

The very next day... Well I was up on time, whilst the Jane Fonda of E14 was a little late. Something about it being the middle of the night. At least that's what I think she said. The plan was simple, she'd chosen a torture regime exercise plan from miCoach in the my-flatmate-is-a-lazy-mare-who-refuses-to-exercise section of the site and synchronised that with her iTorture as it should now be known.


I think it's fair to say that if you get fit from laughing I will be taking Gold at the next Olympics in everything. Imagine a hippo at her first pilates-meets-ballet session and you won't be far wrong. In lycra. Obvs. But here was the strange thing. Whilst my body was telling me I'd been doing things I shouldn't be doing I actually felt fine. No. Better than fine.

I actually felt good.

Weird. With that in mind I showered, dressed and headed off to W1 for a day of tribulations. Disappointingly I was offered a seat at Mile End. On the Central Line. By a lady. Pfft. But on the bright side I'd fair bounced to the station. In my head I was thinking that wasn't too bad, but let's face it, hardly motivation.

Later that evening I was off to the WI where I knew I was going to have to do the introductions which may have influenced how tidy I was. Classical was how my look was described by one of the lovely ladies. It was a great evening with a really interesting speaker and all was well in the world...

Until that is I was chatting with one of the other committee members towards the end of the evening when she dropped the napalm coated bombshell that was:
"Victoria, are you expecting?"
And there, in those four words lay my incentive. It was time I went down a dress size and never got offered a seat on the underground again! Ever. Well, maybe not ever, but just not because I look pregnant.

The next morning at 0650 hours I was ready. And at 0700. And at 0710. I realised that maybe Clare wasn't going to get up so with my own plan loaded on miCoach I headed to the roof to exercise. On. My. Own.


And it was fine. It might have taken my a bit longer as I had to look at the little videos to see what the hell I was supposed to do, but exercise I did. Triumphantly I wobbled back downstairs to cool off and scoff the cake I'd brought back from the WI the previous evening. Never has a piece of cake tasted so good! When I say piece I obviously mean two pieces.

Originally I set the plan so that I would work out on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but obviously starting on the wrong day knocked things out so Saturday was the last day of my first week. Amazingly I again did it alone. More specifically I got up, made dough for bread, put the first load of washing in and then bounced up to the roof for exercise the third. Crikey.

Monday would be the first day of the new exercise week and also I thought would test my resolve... It was barely above freezing and frost was everywhere. Fortunately I am well insulated, northern and slightly bonkers.

It was a little fresh and I did make sure I was in a patch of sunlight to get some warmth. Plus the frost made things a little slippery, but oh the air was glorious. And I felt annoyingly good about myself as I desperately struggled to do what is actually quite a simple routine.

I am after all still new to all of this insanity.

Fog lifting...
The madness was setting in as by Wednesday I was looking forward to my morning torture, which it was. I was on a roll. Or would have been if come Friday morning I was truly struggling to get moving. This was not good. By some miracle I managed to force myself to get going even in spite of the fact that thick fog was enveloping E14 making the Spanish Inquisition look a more palatable prospect than twenty minutes of exertion.

And yet...

I did it. I actually did it. And I felt very good about the fact that I'd managed to against the odds of my years of sloth.

Tomorrow. At 7am. I shall do it all again.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Of poo and worms

This week has been rather scatalogical. I was at my friends' house for the weekend and we got on to the topic of increasing yields in your garden. Then last night I went to a lecture on early medieval gardening in urban Rome. As a result, shit has been high on the agenda. Turns out you can't grow diddly without it.

As last year was my first ever foray into roof gardening I hadn't really thought about the quality of my soil. I threw seeds at it and enjoyed whatever grew. This year it occurred to me that the already dodgy soil had probably been weakened by last season's growing efforts. I also had very little joy with root veggies, and as Dave (my mate's hubby) pointed out, peas are pretty much weeds and will grow anywhere.

Pffft, so much for my green fingers.

He was also concerned about the lack of living creatures in my beds and so lovely Gill dug out some worms for me to bring back home. Most people leave friends' places with leftover party food or surplus alcohol. I had a Chinese takeaway box of worms in compost. Being of a squeamish disposition, I asked J to deposit them on upstairs for me and bury the little blighters before they became breakfast noodles for pigeons.

So this weekend we found ourselves digging the soil, watching out for my precious worms and flinging chicken shit at one another. Actually, to be fair that was a mistake and he happened to be in the way on my delicate sprinkling. As we started to dig the pellets into the rather damp earth, there was an unmistakable smell of, well, growing in the air.

After some Googling I dug some trenches for my spuds, whilst J got garlicking. I remembered to plant my jerusalem artichokes: who can resist farty soup? I also managed to do my bit for the bees who live on the other building and sprinkled some wildflower seeds on the other disused beds. This will also add colour, scent and interest to the other parts of the roof garden.

I also planted veg seeds. The weather is a little chilly as yet so I moved our greenhouse into a public part of the building, just behind the lift. It's a south facing glass fronted bit which is perfect for germinating. So I've popped the tomatoes (gold and red), dwarf beans, spinach and salad leaves there for the time being.

Amusingly we bumped into the noisy neighbour. He was dyeing his hair. What the actual f***? HE WAS DYEING HIS HAIR in the lobby area of our floor. He was maintaining his youth apparently. Was he hiding from the lady that was sharing a fragrant smoke with him earlier? I've no idea but PEOPLE!

Anyway after running off snorking we cleared up and admired the flowers.

Every time I look at what I've managed to grow with very little effort and skill, I am amazed. Even my rather rubbishy fruit bushes seem to be getting excited about the view, sun and warmth. From smelly, brown, wormy soil, our food appears. Which is why Spring has to be my favourite time of year; promises of colour and beautiful scents...and an epic salad.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Pink Pomegranate Plums

A very quick break from Carracci to jot down the recipe du jour:

Boil the kettle and make yourself a cuppa tea. In addition to this, make a cup of fresh jasmine tea, courtesy of your flatmate. Whilst it is brewing, take a punnet of Lidl's finest purple plums, wash, half them and de-stone.

Pop the plums in a small pan with cinnamon stick, star anise, whole cloves, zest and juice of a Satsuma; add a splash (a cup?) of pomegranate juice and the jasmine tea - without the spent leaves, obviously. The liquid should just cover the fruit. Bring to a gentle simmer, cover with a lid and bubble.

When the plums are soft but not disintegrating, turn of the heat and just allow to infuse. The smell is fab and the colour vibrant red/pink. Add sugar/honey to taste.

Oh don't forget to finish making your own cuppa tea, otherwise it will have stewed.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

The Venerable Bead...

Last week I had a bit of a disaster. Not the sort that involves environmental catastrophe, television appeals or chuggers accosting you as you walk down Holborn, but the sort of disaster which puts me in a bit of a morning strop.

My favourite earrings broke.

Now you have to understand that these earrings had been given to me by my lovely friend Sarah who lives in darkest Norfolk. They meant a lot. So I was a little upset, especially as there wasn't a television appeal with popstars wringing their hands in anguish.


I decided that I would pick up some new fish-hook earring bases next time I was near John Lewis, fix them whilst we chatted at the next London West End WI craft evening. A simple plan. Whilst I was there though I saw some little packs of mixed purple beads and thought "Ooh, I like purple", not that you'd think that from my purple ink, notebook, cardy and tights from the other week. So, I bought both and then promptly didn't do the earring repairs as, well, we had a committee meeting to so no craft. Mostly because the craft part involved chatting over drinks...

The very next day...

Clare: Don't forget your ticket!
Me: Huh, ticket?... *blank face*
Clare: The choir Christmas concert...
Me: Oh...

I really am hopeless. I'm not sure how I'd not put the entry in my diary. If I'd realised I was going to be going out I probably wouldn't have been nearly all in black with a purple cardy. But that gave me an idea. Over lunch I picked the bag of shiny beads, chose a few suitably purple bits and... Made some earrings. As you do.

And I really liked them.

Actually, what I really liked was the immediacy, I wanted a little something and it had to colour match because otherwise the fashion police (let's call them Clare for the sake of argument) would have me executed if they didn't work.

Harsh but fair.

On Thursday I went a-wandering as I needed to get some fresh air and escape my desk. As I wobbled slightly on Cavendish Square I decided to pop in to John Lewis again as the shiny things would distract me. And I could always have a coffee. Somehow though I ended up in the shiny bits part of the haberdashery and picked up a range of interesting looking mixes. In a flash of inspiration I realised I could just make up something to wear if my earrings didn't match.

Why had I not thought of this before?

Well, to be fair it has been over thirty years since I last made any, if you ignore the day before, so it's hardly surprising. I also knew that it would make a nice distraction and if we're honest I really needed distraction and something to cheer me up...

So later that evening as I sat and chatted with my flatmate I started making up a new set. Of course she couldn't resist. Imagine if you will a kitten and a ball of wool. Yep, that's her with shiny things. And it was a lot of a giggle. In total we made six pairs, though rather inconsiderately she is wearing one of them so they don't appear in this picture. Tssk.

On Friday morning, buoyed by the success I tried some of the earrings with what I was wearing. They just didn't quite work. Which meant it was time to test the theory... And it works. In the time it takes for the
kettle to boil and tea to brew you can make something to match what you are wearing (terms and conditions apply).

Oh this is good...

So I thought, okay, that's all well and good, but what about necklaces? Oh... shiny chain! I couldn't try anything out as I had a) work and b) agreed to go out last night, but this morning I stood in the Contrary Kitchen and as my tea brewed... Well I'm sure you get the idea!

Now it's not just me that's getting all excited about the possibilities, which means we now have yet more interesting bits to make in to interesting shiny adornments. So in a very short period of time our supply of nice bits to make nice things with has grown quite quickly, even more quickly when I realised that there was a specialist bead place in Covent Garden. Oh yes. Actually beadgasm.

So I visited, I wandered, I found some fabulous bits and pieces and then wandered out to head off to the Apple Market in search of a bag. Not that I got there, at least not straight away. I was slightly distracted by my flatmate discussing chip options. And then I looked up and saw the most glorious coat in Base Fashions, yep, clothing for ladies of a larger size, which is me. I had to go and look more closely...

Fortunately I was saved from being utterly extravagant with a dress by a suggestion of chips at the Rock & Sole Plaice on Endell Street. Fortunately, as it turned out, the chips and fishcake are much better than the puns. Though I did get the coat.

It was calling me. Really.

Anyway. Food eaten, gossip exchanged with best friend and flatmate, it was time to head off and pick up a couple of suitable bags before heading home to write and maybe make a few things. I might have got the order wrong...

So now here I am, I've written up the LWEWI minutes, I've written this quick blog post, I haz winez, so now, finally, I can do something with pink and green beads.

To match my scarf.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Homeward bound...

Shorter. And Yellow car...
Final days are always somewhat tricky. Actually, not tricky, just shorter. With a deadline you can't avoid no matter what. At least not without some considerable expense. The good news though was with a 17:20 flight we had until roughly 14:30 before we needed to be on a train and heading back to the airport.

What could possibly go wrong?

Mama mia
So, the plan, vaguely head off to find a few simple gifts for those back in Blighty. The youngest offspring would be easy, the only sensible thing would be a faux roman centurion outfit. He is, after all, five. As we knew there were lots of gift shops, market stalls and street charlatans in the general direction of the Piazza di Trevi we headed there.

By the pretty route.

The Forum
Really pretty. We saw churches and streets, ruins and monuments, interesting windows, government buildings galore and goodness knows what else. To call it a circuitous route would be an understatement. The biggest happening upon was
probably the Forum which we initially found through a gap in a fence before realising there was a fabulous walkway that took is right through the whole area. I'm not sure how long we wandered and explored but, as ever, we were almost devoid of company from hoardes of tour groups so it was beautifully relaxed.

Eventually we headed towards the Piazza di Trevi in almost exactly the
Trevi, one last look
opposite direction to what had been planned before we went wandering. Even that route was somewhat meandering, after all it was warm, sunny and we had plenty of time and we used it finding a hotpotch of different places we'd never heard of but all that encouraged discussion.

The piazza was of course much quieter than the day before so we sat a while relaxing before heading off on the important job of locating something that was suitable. Even this went surprisingly well. Eventually we turned back with a vague idea of finding a spot for an early lunch. This would have been a leafy piazza near the Trevi if it hadn't been that they didn't start lunch outside until 12:30.

We'd decided on an al fresco lunch nothing else would do.

We passed several places, but none had the ambience I sought, until that is a flash of inspiration struck, there were several restaurants in the Piazza della Rotonda by the Pantheon, perfect! And only a few minutes away.

Haz winez...
Even the decision for the restaurant was simple, it looked good, it had customers and it had not too many tables outside. The clear view to the Pantheon and a couple of buskers with cello and viola da gamba was a definite bonus. So we sat, ordered pizza and wine whilst we watched the bustle of the world wander by.

It was idyllic.

Eventually the tick of time reminded me that we needed to head back to our
former hotel to collect bags before scampering to the Termini and our train to the airport. But not before having an ice cream. It was time to make like a cliché.

The upside was we discovered the secret to not being hassled by restaurant touts was to be stuffing your face. Who knew? The walk back was relatively direct with only a little bit of a diversion and even that was to make it easier to pick up the essential faux centurion outfit.

If we'd run we could have actually caught an earlier train, but we had plenty of time so waited patiently for the 14:52 and our ride out of Rome. But not before one final run in with a helpful beggar who felt he had to show me how to validate my ticket.

I managed not to actually growl.

So anyway, the airport is having a bit of remodelling. This means that we had to go to terminal 1 to check in but back to terminal 3 for our gate. It's around about a squillion miles away. But that's okay, we still had bags of time.

And there's the rub, there is no punchline, no "oops" moment, no chaos. We got to our gate, we sat for a while, the loos were clean and we boarded without a single scrap of drama.

Which was quite perfect.

I was a little more miffed getting back. As we left the sky ramp we were "greeted" by two official people that were obviously checking something. So I had my boarding pass and passport in hand to see what they said as we had *no* idea. It wasn't until one of them barked passport that I realised. So this is new. And as I said to the rude idiot, it really would have been helpful if you'd indicated we needed to show our passports there.

Because we still had to do it at border control.

Seriously, WTAF? As the elder offspring pointed out when he flew back to the UK via Manchester a few weeks ago they didn't have the same thing. Is this Her Majesty's finest just making all visitors and returning citizens feel as welcome as possible?

And then I got to border control. So I presented my passport, already irritated at doing it again and...

Official: Looks at passport, looks at me, looks at passport, looks at me...
Official: Are you sure this is you?
Me: Err, yes.
Official: Raised eyebrow
Me: It's ten years old and I've changed a bit...
Official: Mmmmm...

To be fair she was really nice. And it's true I have changed quite a lot as anyone who knows me closely enough to have seen my passport will attest! So we were back in Blighty and all we had to do was get home. Via the Piccadilly line. Joy. And reminders of all that makes this fair country of ours so tedious to live in...

So what of Rome? It's been years since I was last there and I'm glad I went back, more importantly I'm glad I could take me eldest there and imbibe him with the chaotic joy of Contrary Touring. I don't miss the beggars, but I did remember quickly how easy it was to blank them out. But I will miss, until the next time, the unadulterated pleasure of turning every corner and seeing something that simply makes you say...