Saturday, January 31, 2009

Is there a Ten Step Program for Plan-aholics?

As I was walking back into our house today after a shopping trip into Reading, I noticed that the crocus I was waxing lyrical about in my last blog entry on Thursday are not crocus at all. I was confused by the all the gorgeous greenery in the pot, amongst which are some crocus leaves. However, the crocus themselves have not actually bloomed yet; the pretty white flowers are snowdrops. Anyway, be they crocus or snowdrops, any flower blooming this time of year in England is still a sign that Spring is on the way!

For the first time in ages this week, we had a weekend to look forward to with virtually no plans at all. Now, two whole days with nothing booked in the diary had felt wonderful a few days ago, but as we approached the lovely expanse of time in front of us last night, the idea was actually making me quite nervous. Normally we are booked up months in advance and a free weekend was such a unique concept that it really threw me for a curve. I have always known that I was born without any spontaneity genes but I did not realise I had become quite that uptight. I think perhaps I need to work on planning just a little less in advance!

Having said that, our ‘unplanned’ weekend has ended up being pretty full so far. We went shopping this morning for some clothes for the 21st Century Husband, and had a very successful excursion indeed. After lunch, in the spirit of trying to be a bit more spontaneous, I decided to do some unplanned baking. I’ve always got the wherewithal for a cake in the store cupboard (there’s that planner in me coming out again!). I made a Cherry and Almond Loaf from ‘How To Be A Domestic Goddess’ by Nigella Lawson, a wonderful book with loads of foolproof recipes for fabulous cakes, cookies and pies. Everything I have ever made from this book has turned out beautifully and the Cherry and Almond Cake is no exception. It smelled so good we cut it whilst it was still warm and although this meant it was a bit crumbly, the taste was not impaired in any way. Delicious! ‘How to Be a Domestic Goddess’ is without a doubt the book I turn to most often when I am baking, and I highly recommend it. One of my favourite recipes is the first recipe in the book – a delicious Madeira Cake which I make really regularly. The Lemon Loaf Cake is gorgeous too, as is the Almond and Lemon Cake. Actually, I could go on for ages listing delicious recipes from this book!! If you like baking, you should definitely have a copy.

We were also looking at cars for the 21st Century Husband again this afternoon. We’ve seen a couple we really like, so there will be more test drives next week. This car saga seems to go on and on – we have never before had such a problem choosing a car. Why is it when you are in a position to buy something that you often struggle to find what you want? Although we will keep the car the 21st Century Husband has at the moment as it is very reliable and still looks good, it is only 6,000 miles away from the 100,000 mile mark on the clock so it really is time for a new one. I’m hoping and praying we have finally found the right car at the right price.

It’s a typically grey winter’s day here in England, quite cold and damp. Everyone is ready for some longer lighter days and some warmer weather, but I think we’ve got a while to wait yet. They are promising snow next week, but as usual the weather forecasters are getting all worked up about something that will probably be nothing, except in very remote areas. I think they are right about it being cold though, as the temperature seems to be dropping by the minute. It’s definitely a good weekend to cosy up at home without plans. Actually, I’m enjoying being a bit ‘plan-less’. Note to self, ‘plan more weekends without plans!’ …or is planning to be plan-less just further evidence that I’m a ‘plan-aholic’?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Spring is Coming

It may be icy out there, and the weather people in England may be promising us the coldest temperatures in years over the next few weeks, but beside my front door is a sign that no matter what, Spring is coming. Not only are the bright green leaves of my crocus coming through the soil, but if you look at photograph carefully you will see two white flowers beginning to bloom. (They are at roughly six and nine o’clock in the photograph.)

Crocus are my favourite Spring flower. When I was a little girl I had a book about Easter and there was a character called Trader Bunny in it. The story is lost in the mists of my memory but I remember that he “could not bear to see anyone cry” and that he had a thing for crocuses – purple ones to be exact. I think there was something about an Easter bonnet in the story as well, but as I have been unable to find the book in my parents’ things, I am afraid I may never know. Suffice it to say that I have such lovely memories of my Mom and Dad reading the story to me that ever since then I have loved crocus. I always try to have some either in the garden or in pots, or both. Actually, I have some tulips coming through in another pot by the front door as well, although it is just the tiny shoots starting at this point. It’s wonderful seeing these lovely promises of Spring as I walk in and out of the front door.

Days like today are such a treat. Although it was bitter cold, it was sunny and I love the sunshine. I used to get teased about the “April showers” rhyme and lots of people said I must like the rain because of what it said, but I never really have – except if we are all at home and I can hear it on the roof while I am lying in bed. Now that is cosy. But I am definitely a fair weather girl, that is for sure.

It’s easy to get discouraged this time of year. It still gets dark pretty early, it is cold and often grey outside, but these little shoots of green promise remind us that Spring is on its way. It won’t be long now!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

New Isn't Always Better....

Everything these days is supposed to be newer and better, but most new stuff only lasts five minutes. Gadgets have moved on so much in the last fifty years. I wrote last week about my fabulous new Scooba, which is as I write this washing my kitchen floor. Well this week I want to write about something that was a new gadget long before I was even born.

The picture is of my Cake Breaker. It belonged to my mother, and to her mother before her. Manufactured by a company called C J Schneider Manufacturing Company in Toledo, Ohio sometime in the early part of the last century, this little gadget is one of the most well used things in my kitchen. It “slices” cakes beautifully. You simply insert the cake breaker where you would slice in with your knife, on both sides of the slice of cake, and then the slice lifts out perfectly – even if you are slicing a really ornately decorated cake. The insert reads “Simple as 1-2-3 Cake Breakers by Schneider. A remarkable table accessory that breaks cake in even, beautiful potions, free from crumbs, leaving the most delicate frosting or filling intact.” Talk about truth in advertising – that is exactly what it does – and has been doing in my family for the last seventy years.

I did a bit of research on these cake slicers and it turns out they were fairly widely marketed in North America. In fact, I even found a few on eBay, although how anyone can bear to part with theirs I have no idea. I have to confess I really feel that is what is missing these days - companies that make things that do what they say they will and that last for longer than a couple of years.

At the risk of sounding very old fashioned, I do think we could learn from the good old days quite a lot. We need well built things that last, especially in this market, where money is tight and the economy is fragile. Sadly, I’m not sure that is going to happen on a wide scale any time soon. Never mind, at least I’ve got my cake breaker to comfort me!

Sunday, January 25, 2009


My long blond hair has always been something of a security blanket for me. For the last twenty plus years it has been long, and but for my early childhood and a three year period when I was modelling in my early twenties, it has always been long. As a child of the sixties, one would have imagined I would have long, flowing hair, but my parents were anything but hippies and my Mom held a strong belief that long hair was difficult to care for. Added to this was an unfortunate accident between me and a pair of scissors (that were only meant to cut paper but were unfortunately more than capable of cutting hair) and I was stuck with short hair until I was nearly ten years old. For most of that time I had a “pixie cut”, which did look cute, but which I absolutely abhorred. I had not meant to cut my hair when I was two years old, I had been cutting some paper and watching television at the same time. My mom was with me but, having had two wisdom teeth removed the day before, had nodded off on the sofa. When she awoke I was distractedly running the scissors through my hair and watching television at the same time. I have no idea what I was watching, but clearly it was either very interesting or very disturbing. My Dad whisked me off to our friend Jenny, who was a hairdresser. On seeing my hair, she promptly burst into tears. Although I do not remember cutting my hair, this is a memory that is as vivid today as if it were yesterday as it was the only time I ever saw Jenny cry. She was like a second mother to me until she died about ten years ago, and a relationship of such duration always involves sorrow as well joy, so that is saying something!

She somehow managed to “do something” with my hair but from that moment onwards a pixie cut was the style of choice for me (not my choice I hasten to add). I dreamed of long flowing hair – an impossibility I was now informed as I had “cut all the wave” out of my hair. I know my Mom did not mean to be unkind, it was just her already strong prejudices against long hair had been joined by the horrific memory of my unintentional naughtiness and short hair seemed the easiest solution. By the time I was nine I was determined to have long hair, but several years of interesting versions of layering encouraged by those who still preferred the pixie style meant that I never really got my long flowing locks until I was about fourteen. Once I got them I hung on to them for dear life, and at one point my blond hair hung well below my bottom.

In the early eighties, I was eager to bolster my flagging self esteem by taking a modelling course. No one was more surprised than I when the owner of the school, who was also an agent, suggested I might like to appear on their head sheet. The only contingency was that my hair was out of style and a shoulder length cut was recommended. I was horrified, but the promise of fulfilling what seemed an unlikely dream (I was, and am, only five feet two inches tall), beckoned and I consented. I did some photography modelling, a bit of video, and a lot of runwaywork in shopping malls, hotels and other large venues all over southern Ontario. All throughout this period, my hair got shorter and shorter, culminating in the look you see above. It must have been popular as I placed in the top ten for “cover look” at a Canada wide modelling competition sometime in the mid-eighties. But I was never really happy with it. In the real world (without stylists) I always struggled with it and felt a keen sense of loss about my lovely long locks. I had realised that I was never going to be the next Cindy Crawford, but modelling paid well (when I could wrestle the cheques out of my agency who were always late payers) and I stuck at it for a while. Eventually though, my focus on moving to England became more important, and I decided other work might provide a more stable income. The first thing I did on leaving the agency was begin to grow my hair. When I left Canada a few years later, it was well below my shoulders and has stayed there ever since.

All this is a round about way of saying that I have finally consented to a slight change of hairstyle, which for me is a hugely big deal. I have a side parting and the front bits of my hair had always tended to break, so I suggested a few layers at the front to my hairdresser Jo. I had also noticed the back of my hair had quite a lot of split ends, and Jo confirmed that a “good cut” of about two inches would really benefit it. This would still leave it some inches below my shoulders except at the front, where the shortest layer would still allow me to put my hair back easily. Although I had thought about it for some time, it was a bit of an impulse decision in the hairdresser’s chair yesterday afternoon. I did have a few moments of trepidation. The look on my face as she began to cut made Jo gently turn the chair so I could not see the mirror and when I picked quite a long piece of hair off my trousers I felt a little sick. In the end though she did an amazing job. Miraculously my hair looks thicker even though there is less of it, and if I tuck the front layers behind my ears you can hardly tell I have had it cut. Conversely, if blown dry forwards towards my face, my hair lifts my strong jaw and according to everyone who has seen it, makes me look younger, much to the horror of the 21st Century Teenager who is already fed up with people asking if we are brother and sister. Needless to say, he is encouraging me to “grow it back”!

Although it was a wholly successful experiment, I have had some moments of regret. My first glimpse in the rear view mirror of the car made me think of a take on a silly movie of a few years ago and caused me to remark to the 21st Century Husband and Teenager - “Dude, where’s my hair?” They just laughed and pointed out there was still rather a lot of it. It does have a huge amount more body and shape and on the whole I am very pleased with it. The fact that so many people have told me it makes me look younger has helped too!

This experience has definitely confirmed that my hair is a whole lot more to me than just an accessory. The nine year old inside me who rebelled by growing her hair long is still alive and well, and wondering why on earth I would mess with even an inch of my long locks. But the older version of me realises that you can improve on something that works and that sometimes you have to give up a little in order to get an awful lot back. I will publish some photos in the next week or so, but the change is so unremarkable it would probably be nearly un-noticeable unless you were in the habit of seeing me on a daily basis.

I’m proud of myself for having the courage to change and I have to admit, I love the results. I am looking forward to when it grows an inch or so as I think I will feel even more comfortable with it but I will keep the layers for a while as the positive comments I am getting have made me think that is a very good idea indeed. As to whether a change is as good as a rest, I will have to let you know!

I am the 21st Century Housewife

It has come to my attention that there are folks out there - even here on blogger - who are calling themselves the 21st Century Housewife. Of course, all of us who are housewives in this century are 21st Century Housewives. However, I do feel it important, for everyone's protection, to assert that since 2003 I, April Harris, have held the copyright for the title 21st Century Housewife and anyone else referring to themselves as The 21st Century Housewife is doing so in contravention of the Copyrights Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Fashionably Green

Bloomingdale’s iconic paper “Little Brown Bags” gave birth to a range including “Medium Brown Bags” and “Large Brown Bags”. These were free with purchases. Eventually they became so collectable that Bloomingdale’s began to manufacture laminated plastic versions. I was not very keen on these, but when I was in New York recently I came across a new addition to the family which I am very taken with. In the spirit of being green, Bloomingdale’s are marketing canvas versions of these wonderful bags. I immediately snapped up a medium canvas bag, and I have been using it non-stop ever since we got home. It even has a small zipper pocket at the top for keys etc. Hats off to Bloomingdale’s for making a fashionable addition to all the eco-friendly bags out there!

I am trying to be as green as possible, which is hard for someone who spends so much time on airplanes. At a recent Ideal Homes show I took a “How Green Are You Quiz” and my results were tallying up very well until I was asked about flying. Suddenly I was a complete ecological disaster. My other results were so good however that the nice lady doing the quiz said I should just ignore my air miles and concentrate on the good I was doing with everything else (recycling, taking my own bags to the supermarket, using eco-friendly light bulbs etc). I really liked her attitude. Instead of making me feel bad about the one less than perfect thing I was doing, she kept the emphasis on the positive. And anyway, as the 21st Century Husband says, “the plane is going anyway, with or without you on it”. I couldn’t give up travelling, even for the sake of the environment. It’s selfish, but it’s true.

I do try to run our house in as eco-friendly a way as I can. I wash at low temperatures, use the dryer as little as possible (I just have to dry my towels in there, I can’t stand scratchy towels), and try not to use too many chemicals to clean the house. We are lucky that our house is a new build, so it was built in line with new energy efficiency programmes, which makes it a bit easier to be eco-friendly from the start. I think you can only do your best though. I mean, it is impractical to suggest changing every single light bulb in your home to energy efficient bulbs overnight – it would cost a fortune. Almost all the bulbs in our house were energy efficient when we moved in so that made it a bit easier. It does take a while to get used to the new bulbs though. They just are not as bright as their predecessors and it can make it difficult to see when you are sewing or matching socks. On the plus side, they cast a very flattering light so that can work to your advantage! They also save tons of money in electricity bills. I pay less for electricity now than I did five years ago, and the prices have gone up!

My best tip for being eco-friendly is white vinegar. It’s amazing what you can clean with white vinegar. I wash windows, mirrors and even my kitchen floor with a mixture of white vinegar and water. I keep some in a spray bottle to make it easier. If you don’t like the smell of vinegar you can just pop a drop of essential oil in with it . I tried some of the new eco-friendly cleaners but the only ones I am really keen on are the Method brand. I adore their Tub and Tile cleaner. It smells like a spa. No more coughing and choking while I clean the shower for me! (You have no idea how much I miss my cleaning lady but I just can’t find anyone who measures up to her.) I found many of the other eco-friendly products worked, but you needed a lot of the product to make them do so. Ecover comes a close second – although I have never tried their washer products. I’ve always been nervous about whether they work properly, but you never know until you try!

I think that is the most I have ever discussed cleaning on this website, as it isn’t really what this site is about at all. I just kind of wandered into the subject by mistake when I got talking about being kind to the environment. Sorry about that.

As for other areas of my life, I do try to be green. I walk to the local shops and the post office unless we are having a typical British rainstorm. I’d walk to the gym if I could but the closest one is six miles away so that is a bit impractical. I recycle almost everything that is recyclable and I try not to waste food. Sadly I do buy air freighted produce – sometimes I just can’t resist asparagus in January – but I try to buy local foods whenever I can. The milkman delivers milk to the doorstep three times a week and I shop online when it’s practical. So I suppose I do okay.

And that is the point really, if we all just do our bit, it will make a huge difference. If you try to do too much, you’ll get discouraged and give up and that won’t help any of us. So when it comes to being eco-friendly I think the best advice is to do things in moderation and try your best. Actually, that is pretty good advice for life as well!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

My Robot Helpers

Remember the Jetsons? It was an old cartoon series that featured a family who lived in the future. They lived exactly as the writers in the 1960’s (and later in the 1980’s when new episodes of the series were made) thought people in the future would live. The father, George, worked three days a week at Spacely Sprockets. His wife, Jane, was a housewife and they had two children, Judy and Elroy. They also had a fantastic robot maid named Rosie. Aside from the few times that she broke down with disastrous consequences, Rosie was an amazing asset to the household and as far as I can gather did pretty much everything around the house. Let’s put it this way, I never saw Jane with a vacuum cleaner in her hand! I thought Rosie was wonderful and when I was first a housewife I always joked that I’d love to have a Rosie round the house. Well, believe it or not, I now have two – except their names are not Rosie and they don’t look anything like her.

The one you see above is my newest acquisition. He’s called Scooba. He cleans hard floors independently. This makes me incredibly happy as the job I hate most round the house (next to cleaning toilets) is washing the kitchen floor. Now Scooba does it for me. All I do is fill him with water and a bit of white vinegar, press a button and he’s off. He beeps when he has finished and then all I have to do is empty the dirty water chamber, give the whole thing a rinse and plug him back in to charge. My kitchen floor is left sparkling clean with virtually no effort and no chemicals.

I also have another robotic cleaner which looks remarkably like the one at left with just some slight structural differences as he does not have to hold water. Oh, and he is silver instead of blue. He’s called Roomba. He is actually my second Roomba. The first one came into our lives about three years ago, purchased at an “Ideal Homes” show. I must admit I had my doubts when we first purchased him, wondering how it was possible that a small robotic device could actually vacuum for me. The 21st Century Husband and Teenager were not to be deterred however, fascinated as they were by this piece of technology. Well, I’m incredibly grateful they insisted because he was one of the best purchases we ever made. He is unfortunately deceased, having worked himself quite literally to death over a period of three years. It was the flat we stayed in while waiting for this house to be built that killed him. It appeared to be clean, so I set him to work just to maintain the standard. Turns out the carpet had never been vacuumed properly and he choked to death on the build up of new carpet fibres. It was rather sad really. You shouldn’t use Roombas on brand new carpets. They can’t cope, bless them. My new Roomba is the next generation and, although I hate to be disloyal to the memory of our first Roomba, he is a bit more advanced than the previous model we had. He works a lot like Scooba, except on carpet instead of hard floors. Instead of just a plug, he has his own charging dock which he can actually locate for himself when he needs a bit more juice provided he is on the same level of the house. The only thing he cannot do is the stairs (he has no legs, but then neither did Rosie!) but he can clean the landing upstairs as he senses the abyss of stairs below him and stays away from the edge. It amazes me every time I see him do it. All I have to do is press a button to get him going and then empty the dirt chamber and clean his brushes between rooms.

Of course, you still need a traditional vacuum cleaner for heavy cleaning, and also for furniture and to get into those pesky edges. Roomba is more of a day to day tool to keep things up to a good standard. But it is nice having these robots round the house. Used properly they can keep your floors clean virtually all the time. Due to my hatred of the dreaded task, My kitchen floor used to get washed once a week if it was lucky. Now it gets washed and sterilised every couple of days, with virtually zero effort on my part.

I feel very Judy Jetson-esque as I watch my little buddies racing round the house. I’ve even been known to talk to them, which does worry me at times. But as they talk as well I can’t see that it is that bad. Every once in a while there is a little mechanical “oh oh” sound if one of them is stuck or needs a bit of extra help. Roomba even speaks to me if his brushes are dirty. He has a woman’s voice though and she tells me in five different languages – which by the time you get to the third one is a bit annoying. I don’t know how he can have a woman’s voice – despite my memory of Rosie, these little robots have always seemed very male to me. I have no idea why but they do – as you can tell by my constant reference to them as “he”.

I often wonder what the housewives of days gone by would make of these space age additions to my household. When I think of what it was like to clean when I was little (not that I did much of that, but I watched my Mom!), it seems almost too futuristic to be true. I have to say that I can’t recommend them highly enough. You do have to keep the dirt chambers empty and perform a little routine maintenance, but it is no effort compared to what you would have to do if they were not there. They have absolutely changed my life. In fact, I’m hoping to add to our robot family with another Roomba for upstairs so that I can have them all going at once. Now if I could just find a robot to clean the toilets….

(If you would like a Roomba or Scooba of your own – or even a little robot family – go can to the Domotec website. Just click here to have a look.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Dawn of a New Era

Watching the incredible events unfold yesterday in the Mall in Washington made my heart sing. The inauguration of Barack Obama surpassed even my wildest imaginings, and the fact that he went straight to work afterwards gladdened my soul. No, I’m not an American, but as a citizen of the world I found that President Obama’s words spoke to me in a way that was not only inspiring, but also challenging.

This is a man who speaks hope, and hope is really the only language that gets anything done in this world. Without hope, all striving seems futile and it is hard to work up the energy to even try. With hope, you can achieve anything – even the seemingly impossible. America is lucky to have such a man to inspire this generation. Of course, it is impossible to completely agree with anyone’s politics or policies, but as a statesman, Obama certainly has the power to inspire and I have no doubt his presidency will leave America a better place.

Of course, it helps that there is an aura of glamour attached to him. He is young and his wife Michelle is beautiful, fashionable, intelligent and supportive. Actually she probably would have preferred I used those adjectives in another order, but they are meant as compliments nonetheless. I am inspired not only by how she puts her family first, but also how she manages to be of service in the wider world. Describing herself first as “Malia and Sasha’s Mom”, she says “My first priority will always be to make sure that our girls are healthy and grounded. Then I want to help other families to get the support they need, not just to survive, but to thrive.” For all the glamour that seems to surround the President and First Lady, one gets the sense that these are very down to earth people.

It saddens me that there are not more people in the world as enthusiastic and determined as Obama is. It would be nice to have a leader who was an inspiration. While The Queen inspires me, I have to confess that Gordon Brown most certainly does not. It would be wonderful to have a leader who had the hope and presence of President Obama, instead of just a dogged, blinders on determination to make things better just for the moment. While he frantically plugs up the holes in the dyke, the water builds up behind and threatens to overwhelm us all. I sense no spirit of hope around him.

Now, this is the first time I have ever been political on this website, and I certainly do not wish to offend. I’m hardly a great political analyst and I’m only speaking from my heart. The point I want to make is that what I saw and heard yesterday made me realise that we are all going to have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps if we are not going to be swallowed by the gloom and pessimism that now seems to surround us every day. We must take action, we must be determined, but above all we must have hope and faith. Not only that, but as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, we have a duty to inspire the young people in our lives and not allow them to be caught up in hopelessness and futility. Particularly in the United Kingdom, where so many of our youth feel disenfranchised and discouraged, we need to eat, breath, speak and sleep hope. It’s the only way we will be able to make Britain great again.

If you want to read President Obama’s inaugural speech, it is posted on the Obama Biden website. You can see it by clicking here . Whatever your politics, it is well worth a read.

It’s fitting that the last thing I’m going to say about this is how thrilled I am to see a black president in the White House. It has been a long time coming and is cause for great rejoicing but whatever colour he is, Barack Obama has the soul of a great leader. I hope his election will help us to stop labelling people by their colour and see them simply for who they are and what they can achieve. It does not make any difference where you come from or what colour your skin is. Everyone can be great. And being great doesn’t have to mean being famous. Being great can be as simple as doing your best and being of service. And that is something we can all do.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Wonderful Weekend

The weekend absolutely flew by, but it was really a lovely couple of days. It was great to see our friends. We went for two lovely walks, one through the forest near our house and one down by the lock. I made a very successful dinner on Saturday night. We started with the 21st Century Husband’s famous champagne cocktail. It consists of Cointreau or Grand Marnier, Brandy and of course champagne. He always mixes it by eye, and says only that you want “more Cointreau than Brandy” so it is very much his speciality. It never tastes the same when I make it! If you want to try it, I suggest about 3 tablespoons of Cointreau and one of Brandy topped up with champagne. Be warned, it’s strong! For dinner I made salmon mousse followed by Nutty Pork Chops, new potatoes and salad. Dessert was my Grandma’s Lemon Pudding (see my Recipe of the Week for October 29, 2007 on ) and of course we had cheese and Port to finish. We then played tennis on the Wii which was really funny. It was a wonderful evening.

After our walk on Sunday morning I made a traditional Sunday lunch, serving my new Winter Casserole Recipe (see this week's Recipe of the Week in the column on the right or on ), with mashed potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and vegetables.

When our visitors left late Sunday afternoon we set about getting organised for the week. Later we sat down to watch the wonderfully uplifting film “The Women”. We ate tea while we were watching - salad with pancetta alongside leftover meat and cheese. It was really relaxed and good fun.

This was the way I like my weekends - full of family, friends, food and fun. Especially this time of year, it is nice to spend time at home in good company, eating and drinking and enjoying yourself. It’s also a great way to avoid the credit crunch as it is so much cheaper than going out! Whatever, I am very grateful for a lovely couple of days!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Where did the week go (again!)?

How can it be Friday afternoon already? Where did the week go? But yes, a quick glance at my watch reveals that it is indeed 4.35pm on a grey Friday afternoon. I cannot believe we have arrived at this time so quickly.

I am definitely not ready for our visitors. Thank goodness they are dear old friends (old as in the amount of time we have known them, not in their age!) and they won’t mind a bit. I mind a little though, but I know I have to stop worrying so much about things like that. It is one of the many New Year’s Resolutions I made this year – in fact I tend to make this one nearly every year. It is always the first resolution I break.

The 21st Century Husband spent most of the week in Ireland on business. Despite being a corporate wife for most of the time we have been married, I really do not like it when he is away. And that is another resolution broken - not to mind so much when he is away. But I do, and that is that. I was very pleased indeed to see him when he returned last night.

It has been a hugely busy week, but a good one. I am really enjoying the new health and fitness club. I attended a brilliant Body Balance class there on Wednesday. Having heard that Body Balance was a fusion of Yoga, Pilates and Tai Chi, I was expecting a rather slow and easy class but was rather hoping for a bit more. Well, I got it. Body Balance is anything but slow and easy – it’s a dynamic version of the three aforementioned disciplines and extremely hard work. I’m still feeling muscles I didn’t know I had two days later. I love classes like that!

On Thursday the 21st Century Teenager and I drove up to Birmingham for his orthodontist appointment. I always enjoy our drives; they are a great opportunity for a good long chat and we usually have a lot of fun. I always treat myself to a real coffee – with caffeine – on the drive back home. My excuse is that it helps to keep me alert on the long drive, but really I just love a good latte!

Today has been very busy indeed. It was Review Day at the 21st Century Teenager’s school – the day they give out the results of the Mock (or practice) GCSE examinations and also discuss the student’s progress. . We were both very nervous on our way out to the appointment. The school is just about five minutes’ walk from our home and we set off together in plenty of time. Just as we got to the gates at the end of our drive, the 21st Century Teenager uttered an expletive I won’t repeat here and said, “I’m wearing my bloody slippers!” We had been so nervous about the results and getting to the appointment he had forgotten to put his shoes on. We both burst out laughing and it really relieved the tension. At the meeting, I was pleased with his results, although he does have a lot of work to do over these next few months. GCSE examinations put so much pressure on young people. I often wonder if they do more harm than good, but I accept that you have to measure progress and achievement somehow.

Since we got back I’ve been running round like a headless chicken trying to get everything ready without much success. I also went to the shops, and did a big shop for the first time in weeks. Admittedly we are having visitors for the weekend, but I did actually only buy things just for this weekend, and I was staggered by how much prices seem to have gone up. Mind you I was shopping at Waitrose, one of the higher end grocery stores, because I wanted everything to be special. I think next time I might go to Tesco or Sainsburys instead as I actually gasped out loud when I saw the total on the screen. I had not bought that much and I had spent nearly £200. I’m only cooking pork and chicken, not foie gras and fillet steak! Ouch.

Tonight we are off to the Club after dinner. The 21st Century Husband is meeting with a personal trainer for his gym induction. The 21st Century Teenager has his tomorrow morning. I don’t normally work out in the evenings but I’m going along as I might as well – and I haven’t exercised today so it will do me good. Hopefully it will help me to relax a bit – this week has been so chaotic!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Starting Off the Week

This is one of my favourite photographs from our visit to New York. The 21st Century Teenager took it when we were riding through Central Park in a horse drawn carriage. You can see from our faces how much the 21st Century Husband and I are enjoying ourselves. It is a great memory of a wonderful trip.

We did have the quiet weekend I was hoping for and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. I had a yoga class on Saturday which really helped me to feel balanced and settled again. For the rest of the day we just pottered round the house, and that evening we watched “Hancock” a very funny film about a slightly unconventional superhero starring Will Smith. It was a great laugh.

We slept so late on both Saturday and Sunday that we had brunch both days. I even made pancakes on Sunday, which is not something that happens very often! We stayed around home most of Sunday, except for a visit to The Club at Mapledurham, a golf and country club near us. We took a tour and have joined as health and fitness members. It does not seem quite as nice as The Branston Golf and Country Club, which we belonged to when we lived in the Midlands, but everyone was very friendly and the facilities seem quite good. They also have a small bar and restaurant with a varied menu. Plus it is reasonably close to us which is a boon as it seems that everything we do involves driving somewhere at least twenty minutes away. It does take a good twenty minute to get to the club but it is a straight-forward drive, and provided we don’t travel at rush hour, it is pretty traffic free.

Sunday after dinner I was delighted that we decided to do something we have not done since my Dad passed away. We all sat down and played Crib – or Cribbage – my favourite card game in the whole world. I remember watching my Dad and Grandpa playing cribbage on the very same table I have in my kitchen now, and desperately wanting to learn how it was done and be included. As it involves counting and math, I had to wait until I was about seven to begin to learn, and I remember feeling unbelievably grown up when my Dad said he would teach me how it was done. I played game after game with him, until I was good enough to play with the Master, my Grandpa. I was so thrilled the first time he played with me, and as for the first time we played three-handed Crib, my Dad, Grandpa and me, well, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I was all of eight years old. Grandpa loved Crib too. He had learned to play as a young lad in the trenches in France during World War One. Grandpa was funny about Crib. He didn’t mind losing the odd game, but if he lost more than two in a row he would usually decide it was time to stop playing!! Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed our Sunday night game, the 21st Century Husband, Teenager and I round the table where I first learned to play all those years ago. It’s a lovely way to remember people, keeping traditional games and stories alive. In fact, we all enjoyed it so much that it looks like it may well become a Sunday evening institution. I do hope so.

It is another busy week. I’ve already had a session with my personal trainer today, and I’ve got yoga again this afternoon. The 21st Century Teenager has an interview at a Sixth Form College tomorrow and Thursday we have to drive to Birmingham for an orthodontist appointment. I’m also getting ready for the weekend, which I am really looking forward to as our friends are coming to visit. It’s all go!

Friday, January 09, 2009

Where did the week go?

We had a wonderful journey back home from New York. The limousine collected us late Monday afternoon, and we went to the British Airways lounge at JFK on arrival where we were offered a pre-flight supper so we could sleep in flight. Our flight was on time and everything went really well. In fact, we arrived back at Heathrow airport earlier than expected, but luckily we went straight in, no nausea-inspiring circling for us! The driver was waiting to collect us on arrival and we were home before nine o’clock in the morning on Tuesday. Fabulous!

Tuesday was a bit of a difficult day for me as it was the first year anniversary of my Mom’s death. I do miss her so much. I still find it hard to believe my parents have gone. I found my Mom’s old scissors in her sewing kit the other day and it was such a strange thing as I could just see her standing there using them all those years ago. With moving house around the same time as my parents passed away it has meant that it has taken me a really long time to go through things, and I keep finding things that remind me of my parents on an almost daily basis over a year after their deaths. It is nice in one way and very sad in another.

Since we got back from New York it has just been an absolute blur of activity. The 21st Century Husband is back at work, and the 21st Century Teenager is in the middle of trying to finish his GCSE coursework. (GCSEs are state set exams every Year 11 has to take in England.) He missed a deadline this week, causing me to nearly have a nervous breakdown, but luckily his teacher has given him an extension. I do think that the stress they put on young people here educationally is quite staggering – but I have to confess I often wonder if it isn’t harder on their parents than on the young people themselves! As for me, I am trying to get the house organised again, particularly the study, which has not been right since we moved in. It has become a bit of a catch all for boxes and lots of “stuff”. I’m also keeping very busy with my writing, having rather neglected it over the Christmas and New Year period.

It was wonderful to get back to exercising properly this week. Everything except yoga has started up again, and that starts again next week. I am so much more balanced, physically and emotionally, when I exercise. It makes such a difference to how you feel, not to mention how you look – and apparently there are all sorts of other health benefits we can’t see – like the cells of people who exercise apparently act ten years younger than in those who do not. It works for me! We are off to look at a local health club this weekend– I am hoping to persuade the 21st Century Husband and Teenager to join me in more exercise.

It has been so cold here! We really are not set up for extremes of weather in England and the cold weather has caused chaos in places. Luckily it has been okay here – just the odd dusting of snow and very cold weather. I’m feeding the birds and the squirrels extra as I can’t imagine how cold they must be!

We’ve got a quiet weekend planned which I am very pleased about. There is lots of work to be done but I’m hoping we will get a chance to relax in between.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

4th January 2009 - The Birthday

Today was the day – the 21st Century Teenager’s Sixteenth Birthday – the main reason for our visit to New York. We started off with breakfast. Our Starbuck’s breakfasts are becoming a habit, especially as there is a branch right in the Waldorf Astoria hotel where we are staying. You can take your food into the glorious lobby and sit in the numerous sofas scattered around. It’s also the only place you can get free internet access in the hotel so we usually take our computers along with us. It has been incredibly difficult trying to keep my blogs updated this trip as the WiFi at the Waldorf is not the quickest, and has a habit of dropping out occasionally, just at the most inopportune moment! However should the WiFi drop out there is plenty to look at in the lobby. There are two lobbies, one on the Park Avenue side of the hotel, and one on the Lexington Avenue side. These are joined by a corridor lined with gothic columns where you can find the rest rooms and a small room where you can pay to have your shoes shined within an inch of their lives. It’s well worth the $7 charge – I have never seen the 21st Century Husband’s shoes look so shiny! The Park Avenue lobby is where the majority of the Christmas decorations were until yesterday. Magnificent trees towered overhead, and hundreds of poinsettias lined the stairs on each side of the lobby. Today the trees and poinsettias are gone, replaced with a round floral display that is over ten feet tall. The lobby on the Lexington Avenue side houses the famous Waldorf Clock, and is also home to the reception and concierge desks. Tucked in on one side is the Peacock Alley restaurant where we had a marvellous dinner last night. It is named Peacock Alley because when the Waldorf Hotel was joined to the Astoria Hotel many years ago, people from high society used to like to walk up and down in their finery – a bit like peacocks!

The 21st Century Teenager had some birthday money in dollars and had decided that he wanted to buy one of the new iPod nano-chromatics at the Apple store on 5th Avenue. So we headed off in a shiny yellow taxi. This was our third visit to the New York Apple Store (we are sad, I know!) and it really is the most fantastic Apple Store I have seen. A glass cube rises up out of 5th Avenue, just in front and to the left of FAO Schwartz and across from The Plaza Hotel. The Apple logo hangs suspended in the cube. When you walk in you can either walk down a circular staircase or you can go in the amazing round glass elevator to the shop floor downstairs. Although I’m not a big fan of elevators, I could not resist today. It was just the three of us in this very funky elevator. It was like something out of “Get Smart” (in fact we all started humming the theme tune on the way down and then burst our laughing which did get us some very funny looks)! Once we had arrived on the sales floor, it took some time for the birthday boy to decide what colour of nano-chromatic he actually wanted. In the end, he decided on a red one, as not only does it look very great, but Apple give a donation to the Red Charity fighting AIDS in Africa for every Red nano-chromatic purchased.

Lunch was at our new favourite place, The Russian Tea Room. As it was Sunday they were serving brunch. The 21st Century Husband had the Eggs Florentine he had enjoyed so much the last time. The 21st Century Teenager and I decided to have their Pecan Pancakes with Allspice Syrup and Fig Honey. I have to say they were the most amazing pancakes I have ever tasted. The syrup was maple, but spiced in a delightful way, and the fig honey was a real symphony of flavours. I would never have thought to put nuts in pancakes, but believe me, it works! We spent a lovely hour or so eating our brunch, drinking our tea and revelling in the wonderful surroundings and history. I have heard that royalty have dined here, that Rowan Atkinson, the British comedian, was married here – and that Madonna was a coat check girl here before she became famous. The history of the place is just palpable – you can almost see the shadows of diners long past out of the corner of your eye. It is everything I dreamed it would be when I promised myself as a child that one day I would eat here. I was reading a book set in New York, the title of which escapes me, but the author’s vivid (and I must say very accurate) description convinced me that life was not complete without a visit to this wonderful place. I am so pleased to have been twice and I hope to return many times in the future – it is definitely a family favourite.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the Fifth Avenue area, around Rockefeller Centre and in and out of the fascinating shops that line this famous street. We got back to the hotel in time for a glass of champagne and some nibbles in our room. Then we all got ready for our big night out at the Rainbow Room. We took a taxi to Rockefeller Centre and were escorted by an attendant to the elevator which went straight up to the 65th floor. I think my stomach stayed somewhere about the 20th! We walked out into a very crowded lobby, which did surprise me as I was expecting something understated and elegant, but instead I was greeted with chaos. Luckily we were seated by the window at a very nice table. The view was stunning; I was just shocked at the sheer number of people we were sharing it with. The service was not very good, and we waited a long time for just about everything, including our glasses of tap water. The look on our servers face (he called himself our “captain” which is apparently New York speak for head waiter) when I asked for tap water was quite something. In the first place I try not to drink too much bottled water as it isn’t good for the environment, but I certainly was not going to drink it here as it was between $13 and $17 dollars a bottle. Frankly I would rather put that amount of money towards the wine! When he finally got round to bringing our water and our wine we were able to order. Luckily, the server’s (sorry, captain’s!) lack of finesse was more than made up for by the wonderful food. It was quite something eating our dinner looking out over the New York skyline. I had a traditional New York Shrimp Cocktail for the first time – five huge shrimp served on crushed ice with a dish of spicy sauce, just like my Mom used to make! The 21st Century Teenager had a lentil soup and the 21st Century Husband had Calamari – which the 21st Century Teenager and I could hardly look at as it contained several whole baby squid, breaded and fried. He did say it was delicious though. For main course the birthday boy had a steak – which was sadly overcooked (a rare thing indeed these days!). The 21st Century Husband and I had veal – Marsala and Scallopini respectively. It was very good indeed. We decided to forego dessert, both for reasons of being full and also because our bill was already rapidly approaching $300. I have to say it was not the best meal or service I have ever had, but it was something very special to eat in the famous Rainbow Room. I have to say I am delighted we did as I found out as we were leaving that it is closing on 12th January – after being in business since 1934 – because of economic troubles. So it is a wonderful thing that we went!

After another hair raising ride in the elevator – my stomach definitely arrived downstairs after I did - we wandered back to the Waldorf Astoria. New York is beautiful at night, and there are so many police around that provided you don’t go down any side roads it seems to be very safe. We retired back upstairs to our room – which I forgot to mention is on the 13th floor, but with a beautiful view (see the photograph above) – and had another glass of champagne to toast a wonderful day – and a wonderful sixteen year old!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

2nd January 2009 - Enjoying the Big Apple

We started the day with breakfast at Starbuck’s again. Having given up caffeine, I had my second latte in two days. I think I might be letting myself down a bit, but it tastes so good I just don’t care!

We headed off to Macy’s. The shopping was great. Not only are their sales amazing, but it is easy for all of us to find things that fit. We had great salespeople as well, and once one of the chaps knew Guy and Alex’s size, he found us some bargains that were really quite incredible. The only thing I don’t like about Macy’s New York is that although it is beautiful on the surface, with amazing Christmas decorations, the actual store is very old, and beginning to fall apart. In particular, the ladies’ rooms are just awful, and I’m told the gents is not much better. At Saks Fifth Avenue, the ladies’ rooms are positively luxurious, but at Macy’s, you would just rather not be in them. It’s a shame. The ladies’ rooms in Macy’s San Francisco are beautiful. It kind of spoils the whole shopping experience. But we really did well on the bargains so it was worth it.

After a brief stop back at the hotel, we headed to Rockefeller Centre as we had a tour of the NBC studios at 5.30pm. The taxi driver laughed at us as we were taking a taxi only two blocks – I had not realised how close the Waldorf was to Rockefeller Centre. On the plus side, the taxi driver pointed out St Patrick’s Cathedral to us, and suggested we might like to have a look around. We had time before our tour, and I’m so glad we took his advice. It is a beautiful cathedral, and as we always do, we lit a candle at the chapel of St Joseph, the patron saint of my Mom’s dear friend Jenny, who was always like a second mom to me. Ever since she died, I have lit candles all over the world for her – now I light them for her and for Mom and Dad as well. I’m not a Roman Catholic, but some of their traditions are very comforting, and at the end of the day we all believe in the same God.

It was soon time for our tour, which was very enjoyable. We had toured the NBC studios on our last visit to New York a couple of years ago, but this tour was different enough that we all still found it very interesting indeed. I was thrilled to get to sit in the Saturday Night Live studios (last time they were setting up for a show and we had to peer through the windows). I have always loved Saturday Night Live - particularly back in the days of the Not Yet Ready for Prime Time Players!

When we came out it was dark, and the decorations at Rockefeller Centre looked amazing (the 21st Century Teenager and I are pictured by the huge Christmas tree above), as did the stars all over the front of Saks Fifth Avenue. There is a TGI Fridays just opposite from Saks and we had a super meal there, eating far too much and enjoying every bite. Following the advice of our taxi driver from earlier, we walked back to the Waldorf and had a nice drink in Sir Harry’s bar before we headed upstairs to bed. It’s been another super day in New York City.

Friday, January 02, 2009

New Year's Eve in New York

We had a wonderful journey to New York, with everything falling into place beautifully. The flight was super, and we even managed to get some sleep! We were met by the limousine driver at JFK Airport in New York City and the transfer to the Waldorf Astoria went really well. There was a lot of traffic in the city because of the New Year Celebrations at Times Square but we went round through Queens and got there very quickly.

Our room is very nice, although I have to say not as nice as the one we had at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, and more than twice the price. We went for a bit of a walk round the local area, and visited Grand Central Station which is always an exciting place. It was absolutely heaving and full of folks with lots to do. The 21st Century Teenager got lots of great photographs.

We were all very excited about the dinner we were booked in for at The Bull and The Bear restaurant at the Waldorf and rushed back to get ready in time. The Waldorf is the stuff of legend and I felt that we would be just about assured of a memorable meal. I had booked The Bull and The Bear Restaurant, as it sounded like it was just up our street, specializing in beautifully cooked steaks and a comfortable atmosphere.

When we arrived at the hotel in the early afternoon, it was suggested that as the dinner started at 8pm, we ought to show up at restaurant reception at about ten to eight in order to collect our tickets. Hoping for a memorable evening, we duly arrived at what we thought was the entrance at the requested time. However, apparently this was not the correct entrance, as a member of staff made strange gestures thought the window to indicate that we had to go back upstairs and back down another staircase. We did so and arrived at another entrance with several other couples - only to be met with another locked door. The staff members who could clearly see us from inside the restaurant appeared to be ignoring us. The corridor we were standing in was rather breezy and after a while we were all very cold indeed. Then two guests appeared out of nowhere inside the restaurant and were seated. We all felt very cross indeed and the 21st Century Husband knocked on the doors. The staff member who had been ignoring us waved at us indicating we had to wait. By this time, freezing cold, we were angry enough to knock again and when someone finally came to us angrily to say they were not ready, I enquired as to whether we should go to the bar upstairs. “Oh no,” we were told. “We are nearly ready.” Well, by this time I was too cold to be polite and was more than a little cross so I said, “Well, it’s freezing out here and I’m not very happy.” The lady shut the doors angrily, but seconds later a chap came back and opened them and we were finally admitted. Not a very good welcome I have to say.

It was clear they truly were not ready at all as we were led from one section of the restaurant to another apparently hunting for our table, although we were the only people of our last name to have tickets for the evening. We were finally sat, just across from the kitchens, but mercifully not in the same room as the musician who was already playing extremely loudly and slightly off key.

We were served a glass of champagne, but it soon became clear this would be the only alcohol included in the dinner (despite the price) as we were presented with a wine list. We chose one of the cheapest wines on the list, shockingly priced at nearly $100 a bottle. It was one we had before at our favourite Harris Steakhouse in San Francisco, but which had cost us less than half of what the Bull and The Bear were charging. The wine tasted just as we expected, but when we requested different glasses (the only wine glasses on the table were for white wine), it took the waiter some time to find different ones and they still were not appropriate for the heavy red wine we had ordered as they were simply a larger glass for white wine. I don’t normally fuss over glasses, but when the wine costs $100 a bottle, it suddenly seems awfully important!

The first course, which offered us a choice of butternut squash soup with braised beef, smoked salmon or a seafood selection was actually the best of the whole evening. The 21st Century Teenager and I had the soup and I have to say it was just incredible. The flavours were balanced and it was amazingly delicious. And I say this as someone who really does not like squash at all. The 21st Century Husband had the smoked salmon and commented it was both a generous and delicious serving. Sadly things went downhill from here.

The next course offered a choice of scallops or polenta with truffles. The 21st Century Husband and I ordered scallops and the 21st Century Teenager ordered the polenta. Our scallops were cold on arrival and that ruined the dish for me. I appreciate scallops have to be cooked lightly but they should still be warm when you eat them. As for the polenta with truffles – well, the 21st Century Teenager has eaten all over the world (truffles are one of his favourite things) and is not a fussy eater. But this dish defeated him, as he quietly whispered to me that it was “the worst thing I have ever tasted”.

By this time we were feeling very worn out indeed. The atmosphere had not improved, the entertainment was mediocre and the service was quite poor. I was praying the main course would be good. We had all ordered steak and to the credit of the chef, each steak arrived done as we requested it, despite our wildly varying requirements for the cooking of steak. The 21st Century Teenager had a beautiful medium well done steak, mine was medium and the 21st Century Husband’s was medium rare. The vegetables were cooked beautifully – tender crisp and delicious. The potatoes looked a bit grey, but were actually a beautiful garlic mash. However by this time the evening was beginning to go a bit sour, in fact some of the guests had begun to leave before dessert, and I have to confess that however nice the main course was, the price for it had been so grossly inflated it was almost obscene. We had been charged, in advance, $275 a plate for this dinner, not including the $100 for a bottle wine.

I know it was New Year’s Eve in New York, and I expected an inflated price, but $275 for something was clearly not worth it is not something you expect to see in this market. Bear in mind please that this comment is from someone who is used to prices in London, and who does not mind paying a lot for something of value, but who hates to feel like she is being ripped off. And last night I really felt I was being ripped off. I regularly pay upwards of £150 ($200) a person for dinner but only in places where I am made to feel special and welcome when I do it, and where the food is worth the price. I felt neither special nor welcome at the Bull and the Bear.

The promise of a trio of desserts made us hang in there but while dessert was tasty enough, the service and atmosphere were still so dire that more people had already begun to leave, not bothering to wait to see in the New Year, despite the promise of another glass of champagne. I have never heard so little laughter at a New Year celebration. Once we had finished dinner, we all decided to admit defeat and leave at 10.30pm.

By now, the slightly off key singing was becoming annoying and there was no celebratory atmosphere. In the end, we had much more fun watching the ball drop in Times Square on the television in our hotel room. And it was fun – being with the two people I love the most, celebrating the start of a new year. I’m feeling very blessed indeed, and really looking forward to exploring more of New York tomorrow.