Friday, April 27, 2007

Everybody in the world should live like they do in France

We just got back from a quick trip to the South of France.

*inhale*. *exhale*.

It was necessary trip which involved 1) lots and lots of clearing out of stuff from my boyfriends father's house; 2) dodging the odd gigantic hornet; and 3) bursting our brains with the stress of liasing with local officials when neither of us spoke the other's language. Fu-u-un.

But in between the hard stuff, we were slowly drawn into the charm of this place. We walked and drove around marvelling at the stunning, raw beauty of the landscape. Fresh drinking water trickles down the sheer rock faces and is collected at a particular spot by locals who haven't yet got plumbing in their homes. The sheer mountainsides are covered with dark green pines and lighter green trees, so neatly arranged they could have been planted in perfect rows. The forests and streams hum and splash with life.

And the villages are breathtakingly lovely: built of a light-coloured stone, so that everything has a cool, clean, fresh look; timeless as an afternoon game of boule. The towns are characterised by plane trees lining the streets and dappling the squares, and the countryside is dotted with cyprus trees like upward brush strokes, pointing to the blue sky.

One afternoon we stumbled on the market in the local square where we were staying, and it was such a pretty spectacle, it seemed unreal. Well-dressed people wandered unhurriedly, tasting artisan cheeses and mushrooms and honey, smelling the wares of the lavendar distiller and enjoying their weekly ritual of purchasing their groceries from local producers.

We also saw some Roman ruins, an amphitheatre at Nîmes and one of the best remaining Roman aqueducts in the world, at Pont du Gard. All the time I was marvelling at the fact that the Romans did actually invade and occupy France, just like in the comic books. I am ashamed to say that 90% of the history and geography I know has come from Asterix and Obelix comics. Though I must say, they have served me well in this part of the world.

I couldn't help smirking at my memories of those "indomitable Gauls"; and thinking that some of that proud, patriotic spirit was evident in the people who live there now, who are defiantly preserving their traditional way of life. An example? You don't pay for parking between 12 midday and 2pm. Because everybody has gone home for lunch, including the parking officers. Now that is the way it should be everywhere.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Big Fat Banana Splodge Cookies

These are not attractive cookies, I don't mind telling you. The first time I made them, I was put off by their lumpy, bubbling, festering ugly-kid looks.

It didn't stop my boyfriend polishing off the lot, however, while my nose was upturned. This time around, in the name of scientific advancement, I taste tested them myself. They really are quite good.

175gm butter
3 small ripe bananas, sliced
2 eggs, beaten
100gm demerara sugar
100gm porridge oats
175gm plain flour (I used spelt)
1/2 tsp baking powder
200gm of whatever chocolate you happen to have lying about the place
(I like a mix of dark and white Green & Blacks)

Mix the butter, bananas, sugar and eggs together with a blender (or by hand if you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way). Add the oats, flour and baking powder. Chop the chocolate up into small bits and add to the mix.

Scoop hefty teaspoonfuls of mixture onto a greased baking tray, with LOTS of room for spreading (these ugly mofo's love to stretch out). Bake for 15-20 minutes at 175 degrees celcius, or until golden.

Close your eyes and take a bite of warm, gooey, chocolate-banana flavoured goodness.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

London Rag Lights Up My Morning

The British press do a great line in putting a negative spin on virtually any story you can throw at them. This morning: Cig Ban Will Lead To Blaze Death Chaos! or something of that nature, in the reliably sensationalist Metro paper. Apparently, the impending cigarette ban will lead to more people smoking in their homes; which means more house fires and more deaths as a result.

Smokers? I'm sorry, but I don't care if you die in a fiery inferno, sparked by your own supidity and laziness. One dead smoker is one less a**hole making my journey to work/trip in the elevator/lunch at the pub that much stinkier.

In other news, Bob Fossil got on my 43 bus this morning. And I am happy to report that his hair is still very much in character.

Monday, April 16, 2007

I've gone a bit country since I met you, baby*

I seem to remember thinking to myself, at age approximately seven, after being given a square of cheese at a grown-up's party: "I am never, ever going to like tasty cheese, come what may". And now? Now I can often be found in the kitchen, cutting and eating slice after slice of that mature yellow goodness, sans cracker, just for sheer love of the stuff.

Likewise, if someone had have pulled me away from my grunge-rock/indie-alternative worship in the 90's and told me that I would come around to liking country music, I probably would have given them some serious sass, before laughing hysterically until they left the room.

And yet...

I think it was Rabbit Fur Coat which brought me over to the dark side. I never realised country could be so rockin' and not at all twangy. But long before Jenny Lewis sung her way into my favours, I fell head over heels with the bluegrass soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou by the legendary Coen brothers. And then there is my recent dalliance with folk, sparked by my discovery of the Wainwrights. Folk, country, soul,, psychadelic-folk-rock: the blinkers are off, baby.

There are some extraordinary female vocalists out there who I have been ignorant of in my anti-country-snobbishness. Foolish, brain-washed, uncool me. I have been missing out on the broken, dirty rasp of Lucinda Williams; the sweet yet cool warble of Jenny Lewis, and the impassioned powerhouse of the lion-hearted Neko Case belting out a tune (and boy, does she belt). Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is my current favourite album.

I even have Dolly Parton's Jolene on my ipod. If my 21-year-old self could see me now, I am pretty sure she would be stunned into silence at my supreme uncoolness.

* My middle brother took me to see the Audrey's on my trip home last November, whence I fell instantly in love with their soulful, sultry country music. I stole the line from the "Banjo and Violin" lyrics, off Between Last Night and Us.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Food, food and more food

Last weekend was a rampant 4-day cooking fuh-renzy. Other people have cleaning frenzies. I just let the dirt/laundry/mouse droppings pile up and make another batch of muffins.

I was very proud of my ultra-gourmet dinner on Sunday night, made with the leftover roast chicken from the night before. Firstly, I cornered my boyfriend into peeling a couple of sweet potatoes into fine slices, before coating them in an olive oil/lemon/honey mix, and laying them out on a roasting tray to cook. I tell ya, it is well worth the faff when you get those lip-smacking honey-glazed sweet potato crisps out of the oven about 15 minutes later.

So those, the leftover chicken, some watercress, pine-nuts, avocado, and a few leftover roast potatoes - and voila. This was the most heavenly warm salad ever.

And for dessert? Bramley apples stewed with cloves, grandma style, topped with whipped passionfruit cream (also left over from making a birthday cake).

I spent the evening basking in the kudos, being worshipped as Nigella Lawson incarnate; only taller, blonder and minus those pneumatic appendages. I may be a tad slovenly in the cleaning department, but who cares when your tongue is being transported to gastronomic heaven.

Celebrating the Annual Shedding of the Winter Coats Festival (no sacrifice required)

Yes, yes, yes, the weather has been gorgeous, blah-dy-blah-dy-blah. It is rather funny to watch everyone come out of their dingy winter cocoons and emerge, be-sunglassed, into the light, all fresh and colourful and renewed.

Odd thing: my boyfriend and I were horsing around in a clear space in the woods (he was practising some wu-style Tai Chi, very Crouching Tiger) - when we were approached by a man in a long black coat, asking: "Excuse me, is this the pagan gathering?".

A beat of silence in the forest, broken only by the hammering of a distant woodpecker.

Uhh, no.. but I would be interested to know of any future pagan rituals going on in my backyard, High Druid Priest of the Forest Worshippers.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Hairy tales

Can I just make one thing clear to the reader: I detest getting my hair cut. I can think of nowt worse than having a weirdly-dressed stranger take my bag, wrap me in a tablecloth and guide me to a chair where I will have to sit still for a good half hour, with nothing to look at but my own miserable reflection.

I love having the new hair cut. I love walking out of the salon feeling incredibly self-consious, with luscious bouncy locks which will be history by afternoon. It's just the cutting of the hair which I hate, and the accompanying pre-cut and post-cut fuss. I hate the pre-wash in the uncomfortable neck-contour sink (whose neck? An ostrich?). I hate the nuclear-voltage blowdry where they deafen you whilst simultaneously scorching your scalp to a glowing ember.

Some hair-related things I have learned the hard way:

1. Don't go to a discount hair salon which is aimed at blokes (G.I. Joe's in Richmond, I am looking at you). I cried all over my colleague when I came back one lunchtime with a small boy's haircut (short on top, shaved at the back). It might have been cute on Mia Farrow, but I looked like a frickin' idiot.

2. Having said that, hair grows - it is never going to look that great for long, or that awful for long.

3. You don't necessarily have to talk to the hairdresser while they work. It is such a relief to come across a naturally quiet one who doesn't want to chat endlessly about your holiday plans, in between regaling you with vivid tracts from her hectic social life.

4. It is worth putting on some lipstick and changing out of your tracky-daks. If you show up at the salon looking like a bogan, they will give you a bogan haircut.

5. Don't get stuck in a hair rut. I have had all lengths from lesbian crop to (the current) born-again hippy, and all colours from brown (bad) to fiery red (strangely good), to rediscovering my mousey roots (current). It takes time to work out what suits you best - and your hairdresser must surely be sick of cutting her millionth "long layers, please" for the day.

6. It's just hair. You shouldn't need to spend upwards of £40 for a haircut. You wouldn't spend £20 getting your nails cut, would you? Well, maybe you would. But I sure as hell wouldn't. That money could be going to more useful things, like a new CD or more chocolate.

* * *

It was OK in Australia - my littlest brother's girlfriend happens to be a fantastic hairstylist. Brilliant! Discount super-smart haircuts for life. Fingers crossed they get married and we have a permanent hair-fixer in the family.

If only my middle brother was going out with a music-label guru. Or a master chocolatier. I'm not fussy; either will do.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007


One of my many birthday presents - it was a bonanza turning 30, I tell ya - was some national book tokens. I love getting book vouchers. There is just something nice about going into your local bookshop and actually walking away with something to show for it.

As opposed to leaving empty handed after browsing aimlessly for hours, listening to every CD on the rack, reading unpurchased mags on the sly and drinking bottomless cups of coffee. Which is enjoyable enough on its own, but means you have nothing to read on the bus home.

So, the books I bought (and have enjoyed to varying degrees since) were:

1. Born on a Blue Day: A Memoir of Aspergers and an Extraordinary Mind by Daniel Tammet;
2. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters; and
3. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See.

All laid out for your viewing pleasure above. I am a graphic designer; I can't help judging a book by it's cover.

My favourite by a mile was The Night Watch. It is a beautifully written book that plunges you into 1940's London - right in amongst the blackouts, bombings, and night wardens. Every little detail, including the language that the characters use, adds to the evocation of that very different era.

The book is also made more interesting for being played out in three parts, moving backwards in time. The first part of the book is set in 1949; the second in 1944; and the final section in 1941. As you move through the book, the back-story to the characters lives and relationships is slowly revealed to you, and you piece together what events have taken place in the intervening years.

I think I have always had a bit of "lez chick-lit" snobbery about Sarah Waters, which I now see was completely unfounded. The fact that some of her characters are gay is almost irrelevant to the main themes, apart from adding a layer of intrigue in those less-tolerant times. However, the main focus is on the complexity of their relationships and their individual characteristics and situations. As with Brokeback Mountain, you get so involved in the humanity of the story, you forget any awkwardness you may have had about watching two men hug.

Speaking of men hugging, Born on a Blue Day was a fascinating memoir by a high functioning autistic savant. He can make massive calculations instantly in his head, has memorised Pi to the 22,514th decimal place, and constructed his own language. Slightly intimidating, I imagine, to talk to. What originally caught my interest was his description of seeing numbers as colours, shapes and textures which built a kind of landscape in his mind's eye. It seemed a lovely cross-over of the world of pure mathematics (completely alien to me), and the artistic world. Also, most autistic savants are emotionally restricted, but David has managed to build strong relationships with the people around him and comes across as rather lovely and gentle-natured - which could be down to his upbringing (his parents loved children and he was the first of eight).

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan was a little disappointing. I guess I was expecting another Memoirs of a Geisha or Sky Burial, you know: the sweeping epic and the intricate details of a completely foreign culture and time, with all the romance and wonder that entails. It was interesting enough, with the descriptions of foot-binding and other cultural practices, but the story didn't really grab me. It was presented as a study of the intimate relationship between a Chinese bride and her "old same", a special life-long female friend chosen by her family - a relationship which is in some ways more intimate than that she has with her own husband. It felt a little like a folk story, complete with unexplained gaps and moral overtones. I couldn't help feeling that, in the hands of a better author, it could have been a much more compelling read.

For now, it's back to the library. But not before I add some Sarah Winter to my (ever-expanding) Amazon wish list.
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