Friday, February 27, 2009

You Learn Something New Every Day

I don’t often find myself in over my head - but when I do it always leads me to an important life lesson. Take yesterday evening for instance, when the 21st Century Husband, Teenager and I found ourselves in the gallery of Foyles, a wonderful bookstore on Charing Cross Road in London, awaiting the start of a reading of “The Letters of Samuel Beckett 1929-1940”.

This is not the sort of place you would generally find me. I mean, you might find me in a bookstore, particularly one like Foyle’s, but you probably would not have found me at a book reading quite like this one. I love books and reading, but I hardly consider myself to be an academic - and this book is definitely the sort favoured by those of a very academic disposition indeed.

So how did we come to be sitting in such an unlikely setting? Well, a few weeks ago, the 21st Century Husband received an invitation through his university alumni to a reception to celebrate the publication of the aforementioned book. I was about to discard it when I saw that this celebration included a reading of some of the letters in the book by Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan.

I have to confess that at this point I had absolutely no idea who Samuel Beckett was. The only famous Beckett I was even aware of was Thomas à Becket and not only was his name spelled differently, but he lived some centuries before Samuel. However, I am a huge theatre buff and I was very keen to attend a reading by two such distinguished actors - as were the 21st Century Husband and Teenager. So, we booked our tickets and put the date in our diaries.

It was not until the day before that I remembered I still had absolutely no idea who Samuel Beckett was. Concerned I might find myself in a rather awkward position due to this lack of knowledge, I did some last minute research. Thank heavens for Google!

It turns out Samuel Beckett was a very important twentieth century writer, poet and playwright who led quite an interesting life. As an avid reader, I’m very surprised I have not come across him before. It did not take me long to discover that the connection between him, Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan was that the latter two were about to open in one of Beckett’s most famous plays, Waiting for Godot. The book of letters itself was - in circles far removed from my own - a long awaited first volume of an anticipated collection of four. And here I was just going along to see the actors. Gulp.

On our arrival at Foyle’s, we had managed to get seats in the second row of chairs. I had purchased a copy of the book and, in a desperate attempt to look like I belonged, had my nose firmly in it. When I looked up as the panel and the actors arrived, I noticed no one had sat in the chairs reserved for guests in the front row, and that because of this we were effectively front row centre. The gallery is a relatively small room and in such an intimate setting this placed us less than a couple of yards away from the slightly raised stage area. I do like to sit close to the front when I go to the theatre as it means I can see the actors at close range. However, perhaps rather unfairly, because of the stage lights they cannot see you. This was not the case last night. I was little more than an arm’s length away from two actors I have admired for years and not only could I see them, they could very clearly see me. (Why had I worn that fuschia blazer??) Gulp again.

However, before long I was feeling very relaxed as it was clear that everyone involved loved their subject and were determined to make it come alive. In fact, the readings were so entertaining that I found myself wanting to know more about the writer I had been virtually ignorant of until the day before. Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellan and director Sian Mathias all read various letters written by Beckett - and the context of these letters was made clear by Dan Gunn and George Craig, two of the editors of the book. It was brilliant. I was so absorbed that when Ian McKellan read a letter Beckett had written about the death of his father, I was embarrassed to find myself brushing away tears. I was reassured to see Patrick Stewart was doing the same thing. On a happier note, his readings of some of Beckett’s more humourous letters were the highlight of the evening. It was one of the most interesting presentations I have been to in quite some time, and one I will remember for a long time to come.

It was an amazing opportunity, not only to see two much admired actors perform in such an intimate setting and to learn something new, but for another reason as well. On the train journey home I found myself pondering what I would have missed had I discarded the invitation to the reading as I so nearly did. My rushed sifting through of our post could have meant that I would have missed out on something I not only thoroughly enjoyed, but that we will be talking about for years to come. It has really made me think. What other opportunities have I thrown away? How many do I miss as I rush through my life? Would slowing down a little and being more aware of the present moment benefit me in ways I could only begin to imagine?

I’m pretty sure I already know the answer to that question - and I intend to find out if what I suspect is true by making a concerted effort to slow down and be more mindful. I’m also going to remember to keep stepping out of my comfort zone. After all I would never have thought I would find the letters of an author I was not even vaguely familiar with so interesting. In that spirit, although Waiting for Godot does not really sound like my kind of play, I have booked tickets for us to go and see it - something I would never have done before. If it is anything like last night, I’m going to love it.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Being Flexible with Tradition

Tuesday this week was Shrove Tuesday, the last day before the beginning of Lent. Historically Christians gave up meat, fish, eggs and milk for the forty days of Lent, to remember the time Jesus spent fasting and praying in the wilderness before he was crucified. (Not many Christians eschew all those foods during Lent now, although many still choose to give up something in the hopes it will help them to focus more on God.) The tradition of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday arose out of the fact that wasting is a sin, and all those foods being given up for Lent would need to be eaten before it began. Well, one of the best ways to use up eggs and milk is pancakes, hence the development of Pancake Tuesday - something that is now celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike.

When I was a little girl, the local church would have a pancake supper on Shrove Tuesday and my parents and I would go there every year. It’s one of my earliest memories. But as I grew older, life got busier and often Shrove Tuesday passed without pancakes. So I re-instituted the tradition when my son was born. I got pretty stuck on the idea that pancakes were for breakfast though, which made it very hard to keep the tradition on busy mornings. We get up very early during the week, and I don’t know about you, but making pancakes at six am is not my idea of fun! So once again, the tradition got sidelined.

Finally this year I realised that there was no reason we could not have a pancake supper like the ones I remembered from my childhood. Pancakes are really not difficult to make even if, as I was on Tuesday, you are catering for different people at different times. The pancake mixture is easily made up and stored in the fridge for an hour or so. As it was our main meal of the day, I also served bacon.

Even though I live in England, it is the North American style pancakes I remember from my childhood that I like to make for Shrove Tuesday. (In fact, it is this sort of pancakes I make nearly all the time.) English pancakes are more like crêpes in my opinion and whilst I love them as a dessert (particularly the 21st Century Husband’s Crêpes Suzette), I don’t think of them as proper Shrove Tuesday pancakes.

Last year when we were visiting my cousin Esther, she gave me a marvelous pancake recipe. I always used Bisquick or pancake mix in the past, but not anymore! Esther’s recipe is the most delicious I have ever tasted. It also works very well if you want to make the pancakes in batches to serve all at once, keeping them warm in the oven. Some pancakes wilt under these conditions, but not Esther’s.

Just in case you fancy a belated Shrove Tuesday celebration - or perhaps a long lazy brunch this weekend - I’ve included Esther’s recipe below. Happy Belated Pancake Day!

Esther’s Pancakes

1-1/2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt (I use about half a teaspoon)
3/4 cup sour cream or plain yogurt (I use half fat créme fraîche)
1 cup milk
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup butter, melted

In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients. In a separate bowl, combine the eggs, sour cream, milk, and melted butter. Add all at once to the dry ingredients, stirring just until combined. Cook on a hot, lightly greased griddle or in a frying pan.

Serve with maple syrup.

A Colourful Visitor

On my way back from the appointment with my personal shopper, Sara, on Tuesday, the 21st Century Teenager called me on my mobile phone.

“There’s a pheasant in the garden,” he announced.

I was a bit taken aback. There are quite a few pheasants in the countryside and woods near to us, and I had even seen a pair in the front garden of a house near to us recently. But we have six foot fences round our back garden and gates at the front of our house and pheasants are not notorious for their flying skills. You usually see them running instead, and they are more than a little clumsy. Pheasants also have a reputation for being a bit stupid - I have watched in horror as they have run right into - instead of away from - cars traveling in front of me. The fact that some people find them delicious also makes their existence very risky indeed, causing them to avoid populated areas.

I say to some people because I simply cannot bring myself to eat game. I ate pheasant once. It was cooked by a dear friend of mine - shot by her husband - and was served as something very special indeed. I was horrified as I really like pheasants. I think they are pretty. But I loved my friends and did not want to hurt their feelings. At first I was fine as it looked much like dark chicken meat - although I have to confess it tasted a bit strong. Then my friend said, “Mind the shot though, won’t you. You can break a tooth on it.” It took me a minute to realise shot meant scattered bits of bullet. That was it for me. I cut the rest of my pheasant up in very small pieces and hid it under my vegetables when no one was looking. Poor little birdie!

I was eager to get home to see the visitor to our garden. Worried that I would not believe him if the bird had gone by the time I got home, the 21st Century Teenager set about taking photographs. Luckily the pheasant was still here when I got back - and I was delighted. In the end he stayed with us for over two hours, eating some of the food that had fallen down from the bird feeder. He seemed quite comfortable and was certainly making himself at home, walking up and down our large garden - and even round the corner into the L-shaped bit. So I very slowly and quietly went outside (he pretended to ignore me at this point but I think he knew what I was up to) and put out more food on the ground for him. I had no sooner got inside than he walked over and began to eat it.

He spent some time after that wandering round, enough time in fact that I began to worry he might be unable to leave. But then I looked up from my writing and he was gone - over the fence and away. Perhaps pheasants are better flyers than I thought!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Life Beyond The LBD

I’m always a bit nervous trying new things and today was no exception. Faced with the prospect of a new season of dinners and black tie events looming, I needed to go shopping - and I needed someone to help me step outside my comfort zone and not buy the same thing all over again. So I decided to enlist the help of a professional shopper.

By the same thing, I mean little black dresses. I have a terrible habit of buying tasteful little black dresses (LBD for short) - and yet the dresses I love the most are not always black. In fact, the two dresses I have kept the longest and worn the most are mauve. They are so comfortable and flattering, I keep notes for these two dresses - what events I have worn them to and who was there - so that I can wear them again and again without anyone ever noticing. You don’t have to do that with a LBD - there are so many of them at most events that people don’t even really register them anymore. And although I would never advise someone against wearing an LBD as they really are classic, if you want to stand out, black is not really the colour to choose. Not, that is, unless you are going to choose an LBD that really is little - think Liz Hurley and the safety pin dress - in which case you definitely will be noticed - but not necessarily in the way you would want to be. And anyway, I don’t have the body for a safety pin dress!

I am very lucky to have several closets full of formal dresses, but it is getting to the stage where many of them are several years old. Even though they are classic and would still be in style, I really wanted some new things. Aside from my dress and hat for Ladies’ Day at Ascot last year (okay, I bought two blazers too), I really have not bought any serious formal wear for quite a while. It was definitely time to go shopping.

I was not sure whether to be excited or nervous as I headed off to one of Britain’s largest department stores to meet my personal shopper. The store I went to carries a lot of famous lines so I knew I would be spoiled for choice - but I always struggle with fit so I was a bit worried. I’m only a size 14 (that is an American 10) with a small waist. However my voluptuous hips and bosom do present some challenges.

I need not have worried. I was met by a very professionally dressed lady named Sara who was really nice. She took me round the store, asking me questions and suggesting things. After about twenty minutes we headed off to a private fitting room with our arms full of dresses - many of which I would never even have considered trying if I had been on my own.

The best bit about the private fitting room was that it was huge, with three big mirrors. (In fact, a couple of times it felt like there were too many mirrors. It is not always a good thing to be able to see yourself from behind!) There were clothes rails and shelves so that I could spread out and be organised. Once I had put the first dress on, Sara went off to find me a new bra to suit it, and new - well - I guess the best word for them would be “foundation garments”. She came back with a strapless bra - having amazingly guessed my size correctly simply by looking at me fully clothed - and the smallest pair of spandex underpants I have ever seen. She assured me they would reduce the size of my waist, tummy and hips by at least a half inch. I was not even sure I was going to be able to get them on. Thankfully she left the room whilst I made the attempt. In reality, it did not take as much effort as I had feared as they were quite stretchy. Alarmingly, they went all the way up right under my bra but they did exactly what she had promised. They were anything but glamorous - it was definitely a Bridget Jones granny pants moment - but the clothes were fitting me like a glove.

I tried on dress after dress, making a rail for “maybes” and a rail for “absolutely nots”. All the while, Sara bustled round bringing me shoes, bras and accessories. I never had to leave the fitting room once. At no point was there a hard sell, and the items Sara brought me went across all price points. She even brought me a pair of fabulous pumps with a gorgeous little cut out on them marked down to half price.

After a not unpleasant two hours I had chosen two outfits complete with shoes and undergarments. One of the dresses needed altering, so the tailoring lady was sent for and duly arrived, taking in the sides and shortening the straps. After that, once I had changed back into my own clothes and gotten all my things together, my purchases were carried to the till for me, carefully wrapped and rung up. There was not an LBD in sight.

I left exhausted, but extremely happy, with a really good start on what I needed. If my experience is anything to go by, personal shopping is the way to go. Most stores do not charge for this service and it definitely encourages you to look at yourself and fashion through different eyes. You also get great advice, tips and access to a tailor so that the clothes look just that little bit better. I’ll definitely be going back again.

Monday, February 23, 2009

More than Just Mona

Every time I visit the Louvre I seem to be in a hurry. The first time was when I was sixteen. I was dropped off with the other students on my tour and told we had an hour to go round this famous museum. A hour? How can you do the Louvre in an hour? In desperation, I headed straight off to see the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo - and yes, I ran. While subsequent visits have not been as rushed as that one was, they have always been taken at a brisk pace. Even when I showed my parents the treasures of the Louvre seventeen years ago, we took the option of the quick tour, concentrating once again on the two most famous treasures housed in what used to be the home of the French kings and queens. Subsequent visits with the 21st Century Teenager (even before he was a teenager) were always quick ones. So when he and I had the luxury of an afternoon (yes, a whole afternoon!) to visit the Louvre last week, we decided that just for once, it was going to be a longer tour.

The Louvre is composed of three galleries - Denon (which houses the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo), Sully and Richelieu. Knowing full well there was enough in each gallery to keep us busy for several days, we decided to concentrate on Denon once again. The Louvre has changed a lot since I first saw it as a young girl. There is the great pyramid to start with. Opinion is still divided on whether this is a masterpiece or an eyesore. I think it is amazing, but I do believe it looks very odd at the centre of a centuries old palace. Underneath the Louvre itself there is now a shopping concourse leading to the museum galleries. L’Occitane, Sephora and Molinare compete with other retailers for your custom. It’s a strange juxtaposition of old and new, commercialism and the arts.

But back to the place itself. In my experience, this famous museum is always crowded, and the day of our visit was no exception, but there was something wonderful about taking our time and wandering through the galleries. Of course, we could not bring ourselves to miss the Mona Lisa, nor the Venus de Milo, but we took the time to wander to them slowly, really looking at the other displays on our way. It is ironic how these two pieces steal the attention from the other masterpieces that surround them. In the gallery that houses the Mona Lisa, there are also several other incredibly beautiful works of art, some by famous artists. Yet these are practically ignored by the hoards of people struggling to get close to da Vinci’s painting, holding their cameras above their heads trying to get the perfect shot. It’s like watching the paparazzi, except for once their prey is not trying to get away. She just hangs there serenely smiling out at them.

So many people are rushing, pushing and hurrying through this amazing place, it was a very strange feeling indeed to be taking our time. There were a few others like us, including the students who sat drawing sculptures or copying paintings, and the people we saw who sat staring at particular works of art, studying them carefully. Whether this was for purposes of education or pleasure is known only to them. As for us, we took our time and really saw the treasures of the Denon gallery. I noticed for the first time how clearly these treasures, particularly the sculptures, illustrate the fact that the idea of thin = beauty is an extremely recent concept. Every sculpture of the female form we saw was voluptuous. It was incredibly reassuring!

As we made ready to leave after a wonderful afternoon, I found myself reflecting on how my attitude to visiting the Louvre had, until today, been frighteningly like my attitude to life in general on busy days. Up to now, I had always rushed through the Louvre and as I did so, I had missed many beautiful things. Similarly, on busy days, I tend to hurtle from one task to the next, my eyes on some unseeable goal, impatient to complete the tasks at hand. I wonder now how much I have missed on those days, and I have resolved in life, as in the Louvre, to slow down.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sunday in Montmartre & On The Champs Elysées

There is so much to see and do in Paris, from early in the morning until late at night. Even on a Sunday, this city is buzzing with activity. Last weekend we spent a lazy Sunday exploring some of our favourite parts of this marvelous city.

We started off with a light breakfast in a small café on the Avenue de la Grande Armée. It was a typical French breakfast - café au lait, hot croissants and tartine (crusty French bread with butter and jam). It’s a simple start to the day but an incredibly delicious one. We then headed off on the Metro to the amazing Paris district of Montmartre.

The Paris Metro is quite easy to get around on once you get the hang of it. The secret is to know not only where you want to go, but also the name of the station at the end of the line your destination is on (in the direction you are going). You can buy tickets for unlimited travel on the Metro as well. We bought three day tickets - but you can purchase anything from one day right on up to annual tickets - the more days you buy, the cheaper your ticket proportionally becomes. If you are staying in the main part of Paris, you need only buy a ticket for Zones 1 and 2.

We were staying near to Port Maillot so hopped on the metro there and travelled to Auber, which is at the bottom of Montmartre. If you want to see the famous Moulin Rouge, get off one stop earlier at Pigalle, but I recommend you get back on the Metro to travel to Auber. It is not a long walk, but it is the red light district!

Once we had arrived at Auber, we began the long climb up the winding streets heading for the beautiful Sacre Coeur. Not for the faint of heart, Montmartre is almost always crowded and noisy and it’s uppermost point is reached by way of what seems like a thousand stairs. There is a funicular running up and down the side of the hill, but the queues are so long that even the most unfit of visitors usually abandons waiting and braves the climb. Sadly this climb involves fending off many touts and pickpockets, keeping your eyes open on all sides and avoiding all the people trying to either block your way or get your attention. The latest trick in Paris is the “dropped ring” - whereby someone stoops down and seems to retrieve a gold ring from the ground and then thrusts it in your face asking if it belongs to you. The ring has actually come from their sleeve and this tactic is designed to distract you so they can steal your bag or pick your pockets. Just grab on to your things and push past them so that they cannot take what is rightfully yours. Groups of touts will often block your way trying to get you to buy things - but again the best policy is to power on through - putting your hand up in front of your face if necessary in order to move them from your personal space. A quick “Non, merci” normally disperses them. All this is quite ordinary in Europe, but always comes as a surprise to me. It is worth braving all the nonsense though as you are rewarded with the vista of one of the most beautiful churches in the world, and a view over Paris which cannot be beaten.

Whether you are a Christian or not, it is hard to fail to be moved by the Sacre Coeur. The beautiful white facade leads to more gorgeousness within. Don’t forget to look up - the ceilings are quite amazing. This is a much lighter and brighter church than the famous Notre Dame. For this reason it is a much more uplifting place to visit. It’s a bit like Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral in London. I always come out of Westminster Abbey feeling very depressed and tired, but St Paul’s Cathedral lifts you up and makes you feel wonderful. Having said that, the rose windows at the Notre Dame in Paris are well worth seeing and Westminster Abbey in London is so historic you really don’t want to miss it either! Anyway, I always come out of the Sacre Coeur feeling somehow energised, on both a physical and spiritual level. Incidentally, for an even better view of the city below, you can climb to the top of the Sacre Coeur, although I have yet to actually try this as it seems a very long way up - particularly after the climb to get up to the church.

After you have visited the Sacre Coeur, you can walk round the back towards the artists’ quarter. Before you have taken more than a few steps, the first of the artists offering to draw your portrait or do a caricature of you will begin to approach you. They are friendly souls and really don’t mean any harm. I’ve never availed myself of their services, being rather put off by the length of time it takes to be drawn! If you do have the time and inclination to sit for a portrait, it is probably better to wait until you reach the actual artist’s quarter itself - the square absolutely full of artist’s easels and wares - before having a portrait done. This way you can see the previous works of the artist before you choose them, and you can usually sit down whilst being drawn - neither of which you can do if you choose a wandering artist, although the prices do reflect this.

There are paintings of every description in the artists’ quarter - priced to suit just about any taste and pocket. Most of the artists even take credit cards these days. The square is lined with cafés and galleries as well. You could spend hours up here, although I usually find that the crowds are so intense that after an hour or so I have had enough. We spent a very pleasant morning here on Sunday though.

After walking back down the hill or taking the funicular, you can take the metro from Auber to just about anywhere. Another great place to go on a Sunday is the Champs Elysées. There are more local people out on the Champs on a Sunday, and this makes people watching even more interesting. If you want to start at the bottom and walk the length of the Champs Elysées, try getting off the metro at the Tuillleries or Place de la Concorde (known in the Metro as just ‘Concorde’). We are standing just across from here in the photo above. From here you can walk all the way to the Arc de Triomphe. It’s a little over a mile and a quarter, but it is a fantastic walk. You can climb up the Arc de Triomphe as well, which is a very pleasant way to spend an hour or so as the climb is divided into sections, with floors of things to look at about the Arc’s history in between the stairways. The view from the top is wonderful.

Lined with shops, cafés and restaurants, the Champs Elysées has been the place for the fashionable to see and be seen since the late 1700’s. Shopping ranges from the inexpensive (at Monoprix) to the very expensive (at luxury boutiques like Louis Vuitton). Not all the shops are open on Sundays, but this makes it great for window shopping and much safer for your budget! Dining ranges from fairly expensive to very expensive, but there is nothing like sitting in a restaurant or café overlooking the Avenue. A great place for lunch or dinner on the Champs is Pizza Pino (just near the Metro stop Franklin D Roosevelt on the corner of the Champs and the rue de Marignan). Their delicious food offers great value for money and the staff are very welcoming and friendly. The 21st Century Husband has been eating here since he was a student twenty years ago, and their Escalope Milanese is one of our family favourites. Or try the French version of fast food just off the Champs Elysées on the Rue de Marignan at The Entrecôte. We always have their famous ‘Formule’ - a delicious walnut salad followed by beef steak and French fries with the most delicious sauce. The fries are unlimited - as is the sauce - so feel free to ask for more!

If you are anything like we were you will return to your hotel exhausted after a day like this, but it is worth it. We walked for miles but had such a lovely time. I do suggest finishing the day back at your hotel as we did - by cracking open a bottle of champagne (purchased earlier and chilled with ice in the hotel sink) and drinking a toast to the wonderful City of Light.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Afternoon Tea à la Français

Afternoon tea is very much an English institution, and something the 21st Century Husband and Teenager really enjoy. Ok, I have to admit, I love it too! So even when we are abroad, we enjoy finding somewhere to take tea. Of course, this is not something we do every day as it is extremely hazardous to your waistline - as you can see from the photograph above!

The French don’t officially take tea in the afternoon the way the English do, but if you visit a French cafe or restaurant around four o’clock, you will often see people requesting a table for “un petit dessert” which they have with a cup of tea or coffee. So we English really are not that different from the French in that respect at all.

One of the best places in Paris to take afternoon tea but still stay true to French ambiance is the wonderful Le Fouquet’s on the Champs Elysées. The 21st Century Husband introduced me to it some time ago, and we try to make at least one visit there every time we are in Paris.

Le Fouquets has been an institution since 1899 and its iconic red awning has welcomed everyone from Churchill and Chaplin to Jackie Onassis and Theodore Roosevelt. Of course, Le Fouquets serves wonderful full meals, but if you arrive at the right time in the afternoon, they will happily serve you coffee or tea and “un petit dessert”.

The selection of “petit desserts” is quite staggering and they are anything but petit in most cases. The most famous of these is their Fouquet’s Millefeuille, a chunky tower of crisp pastry layers sandwiched together with thick layers of creme patisserie and served with a raspberry coulis. As well as tea or coffee, Le Fouquets makes wicked hot chocolate that is really almost like liquid chocolate melted in a cup. As if this were not sinful enough, the Viennese version of this treat even comes with cream!

Le Fouquet’s is beautiful, with luxurious red decor and plush red and gold curtains. Photographs of the celebrities and statesmen who have visited line the walls and the atmosphere is one of relaxed and cheerful elegance. Comfortable booths are available, and some of the tables even have sofas for seats. There is a formal dining room on the second floor. Le Fouquet’s is so famous that this thriving restaurant has been designated an official Monument Historique, and it is still popular with celebrities. However, the staff are so discreet and the seating arrangements so intimate you would be hard pressed to spot one of them. Furthermore, in my experience you are treated politely and made to feel special whether your photograph would be welcomed on Le Fouquet’s wall or not. In the fine weather, if you don’t mind being seen, you can even sit at one of their highly coveted tables outside on the Champs Elysées watching the world go by.

It’s definitely a treat with tea for three coming in at nearly 76 Euro (that’s about £74 or US$97 at today’s exchange rate) but it is such fun and so delicious I highly recommend it. Le Fouquet’s is proof positive that although our cultures are quite different, both the French and English have to agree that there is nothing like a nice cup of tea alongside something delicious to perk you up in the late afternoon. And if we can agree on that, I’m pretty sure we can agree on almost anything!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Here I Am Once Again

Once upon a time, a long time ago, there was a sixteen year old girl who dreamed of becoming a translator. She was studying four languages in high school and her favourite was French. When the opportunity arose for her to travel to Paris on a school trip, she leapt at it. At first, her parents said no, but then they relented, and she found herself traveling to the City of Light with a group of other students one rainy Saturday morning in the early 1980’s.

In the week she spent there, the girl fell in love with Paris. From the Eiffel Tower rising up above the Champs de Mars, to the Tuilleries with their fountains and gardens, to the Arc de Triomph sitting resplendent at the top of the Champs Elysees, everything seemed magical to her. The cobbled streets entranced her, the people - especially the fashionable ladies along the Avenue Montaigne - fascinated her, and the food dazzled her taste buds. It was such a city of contrasts - the beautiful and the ugly, the rich and the poor, the old and the new juxtaposed everywhere. She was besotted.

This was the girl’s first trip outside of North America, and at the time foreign travel seemed such an expensive luxury that she worried she might never return to the City of Light. The thought made her incredibly sad. And so, as she sat on the bus the morning the left the city on the way to the airport, she prayed fervently that God might let her return just once more to this amazing place - this Paris she had fallen in love with.

No, I never became a translator but yes, the girl was me. Life took me in a different direction but I am very happy that it did. The way the prayer was answered never fails to make me stop and be thankful every time I arrive in this magical place. You see, I cannot even be sure now how many times I have returned to Paris. I remember the first time was in the late 1980’s but since then I have come here at least once a year. So that would make this roughly my twenty-first visit here. God is amazing.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Stepping Out of My Comfort Zone

My husband had some serious reservations about me posting the photograph of our study on Wednesday. Frankly so did I. It took me firmly out of my comfort zone, but I figured honesty was the best policy. It’s all this pretending we have got it all under control when we have not that makes it so hard for women. We end up making each other feel inadequate as we hold our own achievements up against those of our friends and acquaintances. Funny how we always come up short when we do that! Housewives are particularly prone to this problem, and it can only make us feel utterly miserable. You walk into a house that looks absolutely perfect - completely tidy and spotless - and compare it to your own - not even considering that the woman whose house it is was probably a frenetic tornado of activity getting the house like that (there may even have been tears), children will have been threatened with dire consequences should they mess it up and well, if it is anything like my house used to be, I really would not try opening any of the closet doors for fear of serious personal injury. None of us is perfect, and if Wednesday’s photograph gives you any comfort, than I will be very pleased indeed. I do feel compelled to add that it is looking quite a lot better in there after a bit more effort. I will post a photo before long to show you just how much better - but not yet! I just hope it helped to be reminded that no one is perfect.

This is why stepping out of your comfort zone is a good thing. It almost always helps someone - be it yourself or someone else. Sometimes it does not seem very helpful at the time, in fact it can be downright painful depending on the circumstances, but it is SO worth doing. Take the photograph above for example.

This was me, kissing the Blarney Stone last year. It was not an altogether pleasant experience, climbing up a narrow spiral staircase to the top floor of a medieval castle nearly 90 feet above the ground, only to be hung backwards over the abyss to kiss a dirty old piece of wall. Until the installation of those bars you see underneath me, it was very dangerous indeed. Seriously - people died.

And why would you want to kiss a dirty old stone? Well, it allegedly gives you the gift of eloquence. My Dad used to talk about the Blarney Stone all the time when I was a little girl. I don’t know why he would have needed to kiss it actually as he already had the gift of the gab. I like to think I inherited that gift from him and would have no need to kiss the stone for that reason either. I did, however, want to do it in memory of my Dad as he had never had the chance and the story had been such a big part of my childhood. Let me tell you I had some serious doubts, particularly as the elderly Irish gentleman who holds on to your hips as you hang over the abyss lifted me further backwards so I could get closer to the actual stone (which is part of a wall and very hard to distinguish when you are hanging backwards some ninety feet up). I appreciate it would be difficult to fall through iron bars, but hanging back as far as your waist being hung on to for dear life, you cannot imagine what goes through a person’s head.

The best bit is, I had to do it twice as the 21st Century Teenager’s photo did not turn out first time. I was quite happy to leave photo-less but both he and the Irish gentleman insisted I do it again. As I had not yet risen up from the stones, I was in no position to refuse as he forcibly lifted me backwards once again. I breathlessly protested we could just pretend, but no, I was lifted further back than the first time and kissed the stone for the second time. Let’s just say I am NEVER doing that again.

But the point is, I did it. I stepped out of my comfort zone and I am really glad I did. It was so satisfying to do something tangible to remember someone special and I’m less afraid of heights than I was before. It’s hard to get much scarier than leaning backwards over a 90 foot drop as far as I’m concerned. I also reinforced my own conviction that if I want something, I go for it. The other times in my life when I have stepped out my comfort zone have been similarly productive.

Immigrating to England by myself at 23 was a huge step out of my comfort zone, but it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Climbing up Mount Vesuvius, and continuing as close as we could get to the top when a blizzard started, was another step I will always be grateful I took. I leaped miles away from the edges of my comfort zone when I spoke the Eulogy at both my parent’s funerals, but I felt satisfied that they were given the best send off I could possibly achieve, and let me tell you I will never be even remotely nervous speaking in public again. Even if I had to speak in front of statesmen or princes, it could not possibly be as hard for me as those two speeches were.

Now there are steps outside my comfort zone I will never take - like skydiving and bungee jumping. I will never understand the point of those two activities and frankly I’m happy to stay ignorant of it. I’ve never been an advocate of doing things that are truly physically dangerous and I would never advise anyone to do anything that threatens life and limb.

But, and this is a very big but, I highly recommend seeking opportunities to step outside your own comfort zone - and if you are presented with an unwelcome opportunity in difficult times - embrace that too. You will be stronger, more content and a better person for it.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

To Do or Not To Do? That is the Question.

Ever made a To Do List? I avoid them like the plague. There is something terrifying about actually writing down all the things I need to do. I’m afraid that the list would get so long, it might take on a life of its own and devour me.

Besides, it’s kind of fun to sail by the seat of my pants, trying to remember all those things I really ought to be doing. Usually they pop into my head just as I’m starting one of the jobs that would be on my To Do List (if I had one actually written down). I then promptly forget exactly what it was I was about To Do, only to start doing the thing I’ve just thought of. But then the same thing same thing happens again, and I end up starting something else. It’s a vicious cycle and not usually a very productive way of working.

As a result, I still have not got on top of the clutter in our new house. I can’t even really call it new anymore as we have been here over a year. And yet I still have not gone through everything and got it sorted out. We have some rooms that are beautifully organised, but they are few and far between - and the study in particular (that is the room pictured above) is a sore point that is beginning to irritate not just me, but the 21st Century Husband as well. And if it is irritating him, it has to be bad - it takes a lot to irritate the 21st Century Husband.

You see, although I have my library upstairs to work in and the study is supposed to be for the 21st Century Husband, we have both recently found ourselves working in the dining room as there is no room in either the study or the library. The study is filled with clutter, and the library has the clothes horses on which I am drying our freshly washed clothes in it. (All this environmental friendliness is killing me. I may soon have to start using the tumble dryer every day.) As a result, there are now papers spread all over the dining room table, in the room that actually faces the front door. Not good.

So if I did have an actual To Do list, it would read:

To Do
1. Sort Study
2. Sort Library
3. Move things from Dining Room to Library and Study
4. Realise the To Do list needs sub-sections

Yes, that’s right, sub-sections. Because there is no way ‘Sorting the Study’ is one job. If it were I’d go in there and not come out till Christmas. It is not just my paperwork in there, it is seven years worth of my poor parents’ paperwork as well. When they died last year, I brought it all back home with me and every time I touch it, it makes me sad. So I leave it alone. I’ve just sorted out the stuff I really have to, for taxes and things. Not good. The cloud of sorrow looming over “the stuff” is beginning to live and breathe.

I would need to divide the To Do list (if I had one) into smaller chunks so it looks something like this.

1. Sort huge box blocking door of study
2. Sort piles of paper blocking the way to the desk
3. Sort through piles of paper on the top of the desk
4. Work up courage to go through first box of paperwork from Mom and Dad


The problem, I have realised, is that I don’t just have clutter, I have metaphysical clutter. And that is the very worst kind. Metaphysical clutter is heavy - not just physically but emotionally. We moved in such a rush, at such a horrid time - my Dad had just died and my Mother was dying - that I really cannot remember where anything is. I open drawers and am surprised to find things I have been looking for for absolutely ages - but I still can’t find my two handwritten recipe books that contain some of my precious family recipes. I remember clothes I know I have not given away and search for ages, only to give up when I simply cannot locate them. I cannot find the keys for two of my Dad’s strong boxes - but I have opened them since we moved so the keys are definitely here. It is driving me crazy.

So today, I began - still sans To Do List - to work my way through some of the clutter - both physical and metaphysical - that is holding me back. And do you know what? Even without the To Do List, I really accomplished a lot.

I started with the drawers in my bedroom, and cleared out three bags of old clothes that either don’t fit or were mistakes for the charity shop. (By mistakes I am referring to the fuschia yoga clothes I bought a year ago. The fuschia t-shirt and jacket are great, but the fuschia trousers - not so much. The biggest part of my body is my hips and you should never put a colour like that on the biggest part of your body.) Okay, I know, my bedroom is nowhere near the study, but it’s a start. And after I worked up my courage working on our bedroom, I did broach the borders of the study, throwing away an entire bag full of bits of paper I no longer need (believe me, I double checked!).

So tonight I find myself exhausted, but somehow elated and also very sure of one thing. If I had written down everything I needed to do, I would never have had the courage to start. Sometimes To Do Lists are great, but other times, making them is a great excuse for not even starting. Sometimes you just have to get on with it. And for me, that time is now.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Anything to Make Life a Bit Easier

I have spent much of today trying to frantically catch up on the housework and the ironing. I am not one of those housewives who loves housework. In fact, I am not sure many of those exist these days. I’m a big appliance user, and the washer, dishwasher, Roomba (robotic vacuum) and Scooba (robotic floor washer) were all on the go today.

That is my Scooba above. My Roomba looks much the same, except he is silver. I have talked about them in my blog before - on January 21st - in my entry entitled Space Age Housewifery.

But it is not just when it comes to housework that I like to use appliances and gadgets. I use them in the kitchen as well. I would not be without my wonderful electric mixer, my food processor or my bread maker. But I also like the slightly smaller, more eclectic time savers you can buy to help with cooking.

For example, I love this little pastry brush my Dad gave me years ago. It’s made of a heat resistant material so you can use it on hot things as well as pastry. Plus you can wash it in the dishwasher. I also have a spatula made of the same material. It’s wonderful.

One of the best things I have found recently that helps in the kitchen are the amazing steamer bags shown below.

They come in a medium and a large size and you can steam just about anything in them using the microwave - even fish! What I use them most for is steaming small quantities of vegetables, like the asparagus in this week’s Recipe of the Week - Asparagus and Scallop Pesto Tagliatelle. I get mine from Lakeland. They have several stores, but the nearest one to me is Oxford so I order online at . Their service and delivery have always been great for me.

I’m always on the lookout for new and different gadgets to help make life easier and save time. So if you find any, do let me know!

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Perils of Energy Efficiency

Our home is a “new build” house. I love new build houses - in fact this is our third one. The thing I like best about them is that you move in to a home that is completely fresh and untouched. The walls are painted builder’s magnolia (a cream colour) and you start with a completely clean slate. The other really cool thing is that you cannot do anything at all in terms of decorating until the house has had time to dry out. This takes about a year. So you have the perfect excuse to just take your time and get to know the house before you break out the paint chips and wallpaper samples.

However there are two things you do need to do. Unless you want to live in a fish bowl, you need curtains. And unless you want to be looking at bare bulbs (which hurts your eyes) you need to choose light fittings for all the ceiling lights. Curtains are not so much of a problem - although they are expensive and it takes a while to get them designed, made and installed. As for light fittings - well, before the days of environmental friendliness and energy efficiency these were not much of a problem either. But they are now.

All new build houses in Britain are required by law to be energy efficient. To be fair, this has its advantages. Our 96% energy efficient house is a lot cheaper to run than one which is not as environmentally friendly. However, one of the things that made it so energy efficient was the installation of some very weird ceiling lights that cannot by law be changed. What makes it even more complicated is that you are not allowed to do anything electrical in your own house unless you are a registered electrician - which none of us living in this house are. So basically you need to choose fittings compatible with the weird lights. These are not easy to find. Factor in the number of light fittings we had to source - over twenty-five ceiling lights (we have a big house) - and you can see where this was a bit of a challenge.

Most of the light fittings we were allowed to have were, in my opinion, really horrible. I was not happy. Now I am a fan of ceiling lights that go flush to the ceiling, hiding all the cords. We could not have any of those in this house as they simply could not be installed due to the energy efficiency regulations, much to my intense frustration. For one brief moment I considered flouting the regulations and tried turning off the fuse for the lights to see if we could install some of my preferred lights ourselves. I immediately found myself listening to the burglar alarm make a horrible high pitched beep every sixty seconds to inform me that the power had been turned off. I wondered for a slightly hysterical moment if it was a burglar alarm or an energy efficiency alarm and prudently decided that I’d have to obey the rules this time.

In the end it took months of searching before I finally found some pretty shades that would work for ceiling lights from Laura Ashley, and eventually I found some environmentally friendly chandelier style lights for some of the other rooms at John Lewis and British Home Stores. But five of the lights - for the bathrooms - were proving a real problem. They were very strange, the light bulb virtually flush to the ceiling in a fitting that looked like an upside down lamp. This made installing any sort of a shade or decorative fitting very difficult. So every time we went into a bathroom or en suite bath, we were being ‘blinded by the light’ as it were.

Finally on Saturday, after over a year of searching, the brilliant 21st Century Husband spotted the light fitting pictured above. The colour is suitably neutral, so it goes everywhere, and the shells reflect the light from the energy efficient bulbs absolutely beautifully. I was shocked by the price I must admit - £60 for some metal and a few shells - but I was so thrilled with how nice they looked I bought five of them. Now every ceiling light in our house has fitting on it. Hallelujah! It’s taken us a year, but we’ve done it!

Oh dear, did I just say a year? I guess that means it’s time to start (gulp!) decorating!! I’ll just break out those paint chips and wallpaper samples...

Friday, February 06, 2009

When The Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get....Baking?

I’ve been snowed in this week by the worst weather Britain has had in eighteen years. This is not a problem in the 21st Century Housewife’s Kitchen. My store cupboards, fridge and freezer are always full. I grew up in Canada and rough weather was never a surprise during the winter months, so as a result I learned very early on that it is good to keep your larder full. It avoids having to go out in awful weather, and means that you are never without the things you need to feed your family – not just adequately, but well.

I did find that by Wednesday I was beginning to run out of original ideas for meals and I battled my way out to the supermarket, where I found a lot of other people also stocking up against the storms. I left with a full trolley, and everyone else must reckon this weather is going to last a long time, because I saw people leaving with enough provisions for several winters, not just a few weeks of snow. Perhaps they have very large families. Having said that, since the rationing of the Second World War, the British response to virtually any crisis is to stock up the larder. Shortages were so acute during that war that the fear of them happening again for any reason whatsoever has permeated its way through generations of Britains. Even now, over sixty years later, any disaster, real or imagined, results in a run on the shops and sometimes, even shortages of things like milk and bread.

But the most embarrassing part of this particular crisis in the United Kingdom is that we have been snowed in not by feet of snow but, in most places, by less than a foot. Even more cringe worthy is the fact that here in West Berkshire where I live, we have been snowed in by even less than that. This is not because we are lacking in back bone, but rather because we are woefully unprepared as a nation for weather of this type. Actually, we are rarely prepared for any weather. We discuss it constantly, but this is a country that seems to consistently receive the “wrong kind” of snow or rain, causing huge problems with transport. Similarly the use of air conditioning in private homes and even public buildings if rare (it has only just been made a standard feature on most cars in the last five years) because, it is maintained, it is only warm for a few months each year so a few weeks of comfort are just not worth the investment. So it is no surprise that as we only get heavy snow once every few decades, it is believed that we have no need to invest in enough snow plows and even the adequate supplies of salt and grit that could get us through a crisis like this. And it is the latter that has caused all the problems this time. Our city councils are running out of salt and grit, and have had to ration it to only the major roads. They have delayed sending out the gritting trucks until the last minute on many occasions in the hope of saving the salt and as a result many schools have been closed for four days this week, people are unable to get into work and the country has, if not ground to a halt, considerably slowed down.

As someone who grew up in Canada, I find it very embarrassing to admit I have been snowed in by such a tiny amount of the white stuff. But although I have walked through blizzards in my time, I am hardly encouraged to venture out as I watch cars slipping and sliding all over the roads on the evening news and hear about accidents and people getting stranded. So this has been a week for turning inwards. The 21st Century Husband is able to work from home part of this week, and indeed has been doing so. This week he has put in over sixty hours as our home became a satellite office. The two hours he has not had to use to commute (and it would have taken a lot longer than that in this weather if it were possible to get in at all) have been used for work, video conferences and yet more work. The 21st Century Teenager has been struggling to keep up with his schoolwork without the benefit of any teacher contribution, a challenge in this very important last year of senior school before sixth form. And I have carried on as usual, with the exception of the fact that every appointment I had this week, bar one, has been cancelled.

Strangely enough, I have often found myself in the kitchen. I have been baking more this week than I have in several months, and at the moment the second of two cakes is finishing baking in the oven. Baking is something I have always loved, partly because I love pleasing others with tempting treats and partly because I love those same treats just as much myself, but it is not something I do that often due to a lack of time. Baking is so much fun for me it feels like an indulgence, even though as someone who writes about food and lifestyle I could easily get away with classifying it as work.

As I thought about it, I began to remember that baking was something I often did with my Mom on snow days when I was a little girl. While blizzards raged outside, we’d turn on the oven and mix up something yummy. It was usually cookies as I recall, often my Grandma’s handwritten recipe for something called Bachelor Buttons, which regrettably seems to have been lost. (The recipe was easily sourced on the Internet, but the handwritten copy is not so easily replaced.) I remember the warmth of the kitchen, the delicious smells emanating from the oven and the cold feeling of my nose and hands pressing up against the small square windows that decorated our front door as I waited for my Dad to get home out of the storm so he could taste our baking.

So maybe that is why, during this week when the familiar has shifted and the entire nation has found itself held hostage to capricious weather systems and a lack of forward planning, I have sought comfort in the warmth and familiarity of my kitchen. I’ve cooked and baked in a lot of kitchens over the years, but many of the things that surround me in my kitchen today are from the kitchen I baked in all those years ago. And I still get the same feeling of satisfaction when I can offer someone cold and hungry a nice cup of tea and something delicious to eat that I did when my Mom and I would serve tea and cookies to my Dad when he got home.

There is a huge pleasure in providing not just sustenance but nourishment and warmth for our families and one of the easiest ways to do that is through baking. I find it tremendously comforting. At least it takes a bit of the sting out of the embarrassment of being snowed in by hardly any snow at all!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Once again this morning we awoke to snow, and once again schools and businesses were closed and roads were impassable. As you can see from the photograph, it doesn’t take much snow to make things grind to a halt here in England. Frankly, it is becoming embarrassing.

The amount of snow you see above made roads in Berkshire nearly impassable as council official were “caught unaware” and did not send the gritting trucks out soon enough. By the time they were sent out it was far too late and roads were frozen and dangerous. Caught unaware? They have been saying it was going to snow on Thursday for the last three days! I wonder if the dwindling supplies of salt had anything to do with their decision to delay sending out the gritting trucks?

Monday’s snowstorm was dreadful, and it was understandable that people would find it nearly impossible to get to work. But even after things improved on Tuesday, a huge number of people stayed home. Then when we got hit again on Wednesday, they were forced to stay home again. And then it snowed again today.

Of course, those people who can work from home are in a much better position than those who cannot, but on Monday the eagerness of some of those who could not work from home to look on it as a day off has amazed me. While my husband worked incredibly hard from home (putting in over fourteen hours in total), I watched others outside playing in the snow on the news. Yesterday, the only day this week my son’s school has been open, before the snow had even fallen, many teachers were telling students to “expect a snow day” today. In the event, it did snow and the roads were terrible, but people seem to be hoping for more so they can just stay home.

To be fair, some areas of the UK were really dumped on, getting up to 25 centimeters of snow. Yet even those areas where only a few centimeters fell were rendered impotent by the sheer lack of provision for something as simple as a snowstorm.

What makes it worse is that many folks here just simply do not know how to drive in the snow due to lack of experience. And to be fair, when would they get that experience? This is the worst snow we’ve had in eighteen years. But this inexperience made the roads even more dangerous than they were rendered by the inclement weather. Many people were driving too fast and simply did not know how to regain control of their cars when they skidded. When I ventured out today I saw many cars with snow still sitting on their roofs because people had not bothered to clean them properly. That is a hugely dangerous thing to do as the snow can slide down the windscreen and blind you or fall off and hit another car. On Tuesday my husband’s windscreen was hit by a huge chunk of snow and ice falling off a truck as he drove down the M4 on his way to work. So many of the things that are simply common sense to someone who is used to snow don’t even occur to many folks here.

I have been saddened by the way Britain seems to have simply given up this week. In a way, the total lack of preparedness for this sort of event has almost forced us to. Unfortunately, a quick Google search of the world’s press does not show us in a very favourable light. Time magazine reported that “Britain’s international humiliation was complete” when the Prime Minister was diverted towards answering questions about the snow during a joint press conference with the Chinese Premier. Papers from Australia to Toronto to Germany are making fun of us. Our excuse seems to be that this volume of snow falls so rarely it is not worth being prepared for it. Well the amount of money lost by businesses here in just a few days would pay for a lot of snowplows and grit. Even if we did not use them every year, just one repeat of this event would make them pay for themselves.

There is definitely a lesson to be learned from this experience, and despite the protests of those in government I think it might be that a bit of investment in the country’s infrastructure would not go amiss. If we have plans for disasters (and I do hope we have!) then why not a plan for what we do in the event of “extreme weather”? (And I don’t mean the one we seem to have adopted this time of just curling back up under the duvet.) Climate change is now becoming an undeniable reality - and it is not just global warming that is a problem. Winters are getting colder and even Canada had more snow than usual this year. Should we not take this as a sign that perhaps storms like this may become a more frequent occurrence in the future?

As more snow is forecast for Friday and next week, something will have to be done to keep our country moving. The situation is very worrying, with supplies of grit at critically low levels and worries for the safety of the traveling public at an all time high. No one wants to see people getting hurt struggling in to work, but we have to keep the country going, particularly in these days of economic downturn. Furthermore, what message does this send to our children as schools are closed day after day?

I’ll be watching the developments of tomorrow and next week with interest and hoping that it won’t be long before the UK will be back to business as usual. Because if we are not, I’m seriously concerned about the consequences to businesses and private citizens alike.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

More Than Just a Painting

Over the years we have collected quite a few paintings, prints and works of art, but it all started with this original acrylic painting purchased at an art sale in 1989. We did not deliberately buy this one as the start of a collection, it was just something we both liked. At the time it was almost prohibitively expensive. We were just starting out and it cost £60. Which brings me to an interesting story.

Back in 1989 when I met my husband to be, months before we saw this painting at the Sunday afternoon art sale, I was living in a shared flat in North London. He lived in a large two bedroom flat in South London, which he owned, but which was very expensive to maintain on his own. Up until a few months before we met, he had a lodger living with him, but the lodger had left and things were getting tight. Meanwhile, an old platonic friend of the 21st Century Husband-to-be was moving to London and her parents, who held him in high regard, had the bright idea that lodging with him might be the safest thing.

By this time, we had been dating for few weeks and it had been love at first sight as far as I was concerned, so this did not seem at all like the brightest idea to me. The idea of another woman living with my beloved horrified me. Interestingly, he had not actually said he was going to embrace this bright idea, he only informed me of it, but I did not think about that at the time. I thought only of how I could prevent it from happening.

Now the 21st Century Husband-to-be was in a very sticky situation at this point. On one hand a lodger would be an easy way to remedy a tight economic situation. But on the other, it could make our lives seriously difficult. It seemed far too early to talk about moving in together as we had only been dating for a few weeks. He did not want to scare me away. Of course, being a man, he discussed none of this with me.

Meanwhile, I was determined to do anything I could to make sure that the other young lady did not become the next lodger. However I was also conscious of the short time we had been together, and I had no wish to push this wonderful man I had just met away. And how on earth could I suggest that we move in together, as appealing as this idea was to me? For heaven’s sake, it was his flat and he had not asked me to, although I had to admit, it had been a long time since I had spent more than a night or two in my own flat.

Luckily, I am nothing if not creative - and I refuse to hear the word devious in place of creative here because my intentions were entirely honourable! It occurred to me that at this point (and it was to be the only point in our entire relationship this was the case) I was earning more than my wonderful new boyfriend. And if someone else could afford to pay him rent, well then so could I! After all, I was only required to give a week’s notice of my intention to leave my shared flat. And so over a pub lunch one rainy London afternoon, I proposed the business arrangement that shocked our friends and families, but pleased us both no end. I would move into my boyfriend’s apartment and give him the money he would have received in rent towards the flat expenses. It was to be a business arrangement, nothing more - at least not for the moment.

Thank goodness, he agreed instantly. I moved in the following week - just a little over a month since we had met - and paid £60 per week towards the expenses of running the flat - my “rent” as he liked to joke. Head over heels in love, I found this little joke quite funny for quite a long time, but after a few months, it began to worry me a bit. What must people think? By this time we were very much an item, and anyway, I was contributing a lot more than just the £60 as basically we were sharing everything. That was right around the time we found ourselves wandering round the art sale one Sunday afternoon.

We had actually been on our way to Homebase, a hardware/do-it- yourself store, when we saw the sign for the art sale. So it was quite a spontaneous decision to go in. Just as we walked through the door, we saw the painting propped against the wall, and both fell in love with it.

We had been to Paris together a few weeks before, and although we knew that the painting was not an accurate depiction of the City of Light (the boulevards on the banks of the Seine near the Notre Dame are just not that wide), something about it captivated us. But how to afford it? Even on my salary that was a lot of money. Suddenly I had an idea.

I offered to purchase the painting in lieu of my “rent” for that week and this offer was accepted. As we happily carried our painting back to the car, the conversation opened up about how the “rent” thing was making us both uncomfortable, and we made plans to open a joint bank account.

The rest, as they say, is history. So although it is “just a painting” painted by an artist who is still to this day unknown, it means an awful lot to us. Today, in it hangs in the kitchen - a huge room that is the heart of our home - and every time I look at it it reminds me not only of one of my favourite cities in the world, but also of all the wonderful times our family has had together over last twenty years.

Monday, February 02, 2009

A New Website and Lots of White Stuff

Today was the launch of the new-look 21st Century Housewife website.  Do please check it out at  

If you do have a look, you may notice that the Blog and the Recipe of the Week pages do not have as big an archive as before. This will soon be remedied as I gradually re-post the old entries to the new site. There are a couple of other pages that I have not yet moved to this new site, but most of these will return shortly. In the meantime, if you need an old recipe urgently just drop me an email on and I will gladly email it to you. It won’t take long till everything is back to normal - well, better than normal really as doesn’t this look so much better than before?!

Remember how on the weekend I said I thought the weather people were getting all upset about nothing when they were going on about the snow? Well I did a bit of a Michael Fish there! (If you are not from England, Michael Fish is a weather forecaster who, the night before a very serious wind storm in 1987, said that there was no reason to be concerned, the weather would not be that bad. There were tornados.) We have only had about two inches of snow here, but lots of other places in the UK had a lot more. In fact, apparently it is the most snow we have had since 1991. You can see what we woke up to this morning in the photograph above, taken from the front door before we opened the gates this morning. Our cars are further up the drive so you cannot see them in the photograph, but they were covered with snow.

Of course, we don’t cope very well with snow here in the UK, and even the snow we have here in the South East has caused mostly everything to grind to a halt. Schools are closed, the Ministry of Transport have recommended the cancellation of all but essential journeys and most buses and trains are not running. The good side of this is that we have had a Snow Day! The 21st Century Husband is working from home, the 21st Century Teenager’s school is closed and all my appointments have been cancelled. I love snow days; it’s so cosy having everyone home.

I’m not sure what will happen tomorrow as in some places the snow is still falling. Perhaps we’ll have another snow day. I think a lot of people are praying for that - especially the kids!