Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Challenge Number 32 – Swim 40 lengths of Energise pool (can be in more than one session)

The point of this challenge was to make me take up regular exercise again, in the hope that maybe, just maybe, by the end of the year I would in fact be able to swim 40 lengths of a pool in a single session.

But this is me we are talking about and I have always been good at finding excuses not to take up regular exercise. Knee dislocating, for example. Or the fact that I am ungainly and unfit. Or that exercise requires some sort of physical effort on my part. Exercise has to be very convenient for me – I prefer it to be on my doorstep if possible. I don’t mean that I will literally only exercise on my front doorstep, but I don’t like to have to travel far to do any kind of sporting activity. For me it sort of destroys the object of exercise if I have to use a car to get there.

I didn’t do too badly in my last few years in London, where I forked out for membership at the gym in Crouch End, and did actually use it from time to time (every day, for example, when our bathroom was being refitted and I needed somewhere to have a shower). The gym was located ten minutes’ walk from our flat and could be integrated into my journey to or from work. As I was working freelance, I could be very flexible about my hours and therefore go to the gym at quieter off-peak times. This was when all the local celebrities did their work-outs, which also gave me a good incentive for going. One morning for example, newsreader Dermot Murnaghan was on a bike next to me, actor Simon Pegg on a treadmill opposite, and Peter “Malcolm Tucker” Capaldi on a stepper to my right. It kind of made me feel like I was somebody important too, even though one look in a mirror at myself in shorts would do a lot to dispel that belief.

But as soon as we moved to York, things kind of slid downhill on the exercise front. There were no gyms or pools in walking distance from our house once the Barbican was demolished. I was working at the university, but the grotty university sports centre just smelled of teenage testosterone (and didn’t have a swimming pool). The fancier David Lloyd gym next to campus cost more than our London gym per month and was the wrong side of the university for my walk to work. I couldn’t go in my lunch hour as my team were expected to eat together every day, as we were all working in offices in different buildings and didn’t get to see each other otherwise. 

As I say, it doesn’t take much to create myself a suitable excuse to avoid exercise.

We did do quite a lot of walking out in the Yorkshire countryside at least. And as I mentioned above, I did walk to work and, briefly, own a bike. The sparkling new Energise finally opened when I was pregnant, replacing the hideously grotty Edmund Wilson as our nearest swimming pool, and it was nice enough to entice me straight away. I did manage to go most weeks until I got too bulky to fit behind the steering wheel of our car. (Unfortunately, “nearest” is still far enough away that I have to go by car.)

But then we had Charlotte and nothing we had ever done before would be the same again. I look forward to her being able to walk far enough to reinstate those regular hikes in the Wolds, Dales and Moors – for now, the paths aren’t pushchair friendly, and she weighs far too much to fit into any form of carrier.

In a bid to regain some sort of physical form, I did decide to take up Aquafit at Energise just after Charlotte turned one. I was going to go with a friend on Tuesday mornings. Once I’d overcome the psychological battle of making this decision, I took action - I managed to get Charlotte settled into the Energise crèche a couple of times, booked my first Aquafit session for the following week - and promptly wrecked my knee that very evening.

So that was that. My knee is still, a year on, puffy and painful, so Aquafit is still out of the question. But swimming isn’t, hence the challenge.

40 lengths of Energise pool took three sessions. The first two of these happened in June, the final one last night, in late December. Which says it all about how regular my "regular exercise" has been. I have taken Charlotte swimming numerous times in between, but swimming with Charlotte involves me standing in the pool while she sits on the side emptying a watering can over my head, and no actual swimming.

I don’t know what happened in those lost months that made this challenge take such a frustratingly long time to complete. It was partly the pool opening times – weekends are packed out with kids, and the evening sessions often don’t start until 8.50pm, which was OK in June when it was still light, but once it was dark by half eight, I usually collapsed onto our sofa, unable to be prised off it. And there is no way I could fit in a morning swim before Dave has to leave for his train. And there aren’t any public sessions in the daytime when it isn’t Charlotte’s lunchtime and when the crèche is open. (Once again, see how good my excuses are?)

However, the timetable at Energise has just changed to include a women-only session at 7pm on Tuesdays, which is what I went to last night. It worked out really well, so I am actually a little bit hopeful that I may manage to keep this one up in the New Year. Though there are only two categories of swimmer at women-only sessions and I don’t fit into either. There’s the very middle-aged, very overweight ones who swim breaststroke two abreast up and down the pool, engrossed in conversation and moving so slowly that they might as well be going backwards. And then there’s the super swimmers in the laned off area, who race up and down in an effortless front crawl that thoroughly puts me to shame. I am in between, willing to get out of breath and go as fast as I can, but that fast is a good swimmer’s slow. Plus I like to swim on my back, so need a clear run. But I managed to find a little niche for myself last night, so here’s hoping I can do so again after the Christmas holidays. No more excuses. .

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Update - And More Bread

I have been asked by a friend to republish my list of 40 challenges, with the ones that I have completed crossed off. So here you go. As you can see, there are about eleven left to go. Some of these are booked, some are ongoing, some are tantalisingly close to being finished, and at least two are looking pretty hopeless at this stage. But I am spending every spare moment obsessing about them at least.

1. Climb Snowdon (by train is allowed)
2. Learn some BSL.
3. Translate at least one chapter of a book from German to English.
4. Perfect (= be able to bash out) a Beethoven piano sonata.
5. Grow something new.
6. Drink cocktails in a glamorous dress and non-clumpy shoes.
7. Eat lobster.
8. Eat at a 2-Michelin star restaurant.
9. Do pilates every day.
10. Do something for charity.
11. Eat something differently coloured for breakfast every day of the week (for a week).
12. Get our attic fixed.
13. Learn enough about something in York to be able to give a guided tour of it.
14. Snog on the back row of the cinema...
15. Learn something crafty, e.g. knitting/quilting/ oil painting.
16. Write a short story.
17. Keep a challenge blog.
18. Have a crazy hair cut/colour.
19. Visit Clifford’s Tower.
20. Solve a moderate level Sudoku.
21. Attend a live sporting event.
22. Read a novel by Dickens.
23. Get in the Deal Or No Deal audience (= to be a pilgrim).
24. Attend a cookery course.
25. Visit somewhere German-speaking.
26. Visit an island.
27. Visit both Clapham Junction stations.
28. Swim (BATHE) in a natural body of water. (Skinny dipping optional.)
29. Make jam or marmalade.
30. Take Charlotte to an aquarium.
31. Take Charlotte on the North York Moors railway. (= Changed for make and ice Charlotte a birthday cake)
32. Swim 40 lengths of Energise pool (can be in more than one session!).
33. Build a piece of IKEA furniture all by myself.
34. Bake 40 loaves of bread in a year (not all of them in a bread maker).
35. Go on the Settle-Carlisle railway.
36. Spend a day as a yummy mummy (=yummy family) in Crouch End.
37. Take Charlotte to see both her parents’ home towns.
38. Take Charlotte to see the Queen and/or the Olympic torch.
39. Learn to count to 100 in Welsh (and three swear words).
40. Make a Christmas box for a needy child.

And here are some more contributions towards Challenge Number 34:

Loaf 22

Loaf 23: Spelt and honey loaf (the recipe book says the loaf is meant to be sunken in the middle)

Loaf 24: What happens when you use a packet of yeast that has been open too long. An inedible brick.
In the background you can see jars of my green tomato chutney, made with my home-grown tomatoes.
It's still maturing.I haven't dared try it yet.

Loaf 25

Loaf 26

Loaf 27: Chocolate and Banana Bread again

Loaf 28

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Challenge Number 25 – Visit Somewhere German-Speaking

The outcome of this challenge reminds me very much of Hale and Pace’s Yorkshire Airlines sketch. “Departing Leeds International Airstrip, touching down 20 minutes later at Leeds International Airstrip. Because if it’s outside Yorkshire, it’s not worth bloody visiting.” I absolutely love this sketch. If only because the air stewardesses serve out the mushy peas in exactly the same way that my mother – Leeds born and bred – used to spoon out stew.

My challenges are now at their compromise end stage, which means sticking to a tight budget. So yes, wherever my “somewhere German-speaking” was, it had to be in Yorkshire. We hope to make a trip to Germany, Austria or Switzerland next year as a proper holiday, but it is unlikely to be before my 40th birthday, which is now getting dangerously close.

Why am I so desperate to visit somewhere German-speaking? German used to be a big part of my life and steered the course it took for a few years. Now it’s a language that I claim to speak well but which in reality is hopelessly out of date and out of practice. So I need to go out and use it if I am ever to reclaim my long-lost knowledge.

My lovely friend Claire suggested I complete the challenge by having a night at the German Christmas market in Leeds, promising me from previous experience that it would be “awash with Germans”. So last Monday night, as soon as Dave got in the door from work, I shoved Charlotte in his direction and hopped off down to the station to meet Claire and get the first train out of York thereafter to Leeds.

What a fun night we had. I would almost say that the Leeds Christmas market had encapsulated more of the features of a German Christmas market into its confined space in Millennium Square than a Christmas market would do in Germany. Because in Yorkshire, they have sort of made it a Christmas market meets Munich Oktoberfest. They have the nice twinkly wooden houses selling scarves, ornaments and toys, and lots of stalls selling Glühwein, Wurst with Sauerkraut, and numerous varieties of Lebkuchen and Schokokuss. And then they have a gigantic in-your-face beer hall. Which was packed to the rafters with revellers. The wall of noise was quite a shock when we entered, as the stalls outside had been largely deserted on a Monday night.

Claire and I bought ourselves a couple of beers and squeezed on to the end of a table. And oh, what beautiful beer. There is plentiful fine real ale brewed locally in York, but nothing is quite so smooth and sweet as a perfect, pure helles Weizenbier bottled in Bavaria. We drank it very quickly. And then had another. This was only going to lead to trouble for two mums who can usually barely manage a swift half without falling asleep. (Though I may just be speaking for myself here.)

Then the oompah music started. A band came on stage dressed in Lederhosen and red waistcoats, claiming that they were “a German band from Austria”. No one in Yorkshire seemed perturbed by this description. They soon had everyone swaying on the benches, bobbing up and down and raising their hefty Krüge, though large signs warned us that dancing on the tables was strictly forbidden. They played well, filling the air with lusty Volksmusik for twenty minutes, before switching to a disappointingly English repertoire. Though they would sing Happy Birthday in German to anyone who asked.

We could have stayed there all night, but some sense had to prevail so we went in search of food to mop up our beer. Next door (of course!) was an Alpine chalet restaurant (there are a few Alps in Germany, I suppose) serving exceedingly hearty German fayre. Claire (who claimed the extent of her German was “Wo ist die Jugendherberge?”) entrusted me to choose from the menu on the proviso that I had to order in German. The beer gave me the confidence to do this without flinching, though not before double-checking that our waitress was actually German and not from Barnsley. And the food was mm-mm-mm! Which is not something I found myself saying very often about German food when I lived there, unless cake was involved. But seriously, these were the best Käsespätzli and Kartoffelknödel I have ever tasted, served with tender roast pork, delicious cabbage and a suitably vinegary salad on the side. And another Krug of beer. The waitress insisted we have dessert and we were unable to resist her recommendation of a raisin and almond pancake that came with a gigantic bowl of Apfelmus baby food. I was in heaven.

We rolled home like barrels, as you only should after a night of Volksmusik, and felt more than slightly the worst for wear the next day. But I had spoken German, and eaten and drunk authentically, which is all I would have asked of a trip abroad. And I hadn't had to take a toddler with me or endure a flight on Ryanair (or Yorkshire Airlines) to get there. Thank you, Claire, for a wonderful idea. And thank you, Leeds, for unexpectedly coming up with the goods. But please, sort out your spelling. As far as I am aware, Christkindlmarkt shouldn’t have an E in it anywhere.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Challenge Number 23 - Get In The Deal Or No Deal Audience

I can’t be the only new mother to have had a Deal Or No Deal phase. When Charlotte was just a few weeks old, several inches of snow fell in a single morning and lay on the ground for six weeks. She had also just been hospitalised overnight with a severe bout of gastro-enteritis, which left her with bad reflux, so that unless we held her upright for a long time after each feed she would bring the whole lot back up again. The snow meant it was impossible to get our pram or car out of our road, and I was too weak and wobbly with hideous post-birth infections and post-partum hyperthyroidism to be able to carry her in a sling, so I was effectively housebound.

By four o’clock each day I would finally cave in and turn the television on to watch Deal Or No Deal. I’d never really watched it before, apart from whenever I had been to visit my grandmother in the Lake District. She had got completely hooked on it during the last few years of her life, taking great pleasure when people got greedy and came unstuck. “He could have had £14,000 but he’s going home with 10 pence. Isn’t he stupid?” she would say severely. Deal Or No Deal hadn’t yet been conceived during the years I worked as a subtitler for the deaf and hard-of-hearing on Channel 4 programmes. Countdown and 15 To 1 were our staple afternoon fodder back then. No doubt Deal Or No Deal would have been utterly tedious to subtitle day after day, with capitalisation issues over “pilgrims”, “East Wing,” “West Wing”, “Walk of Wealth”, “Dream Factory”, “Banker”, “Five Box”, “Power Five” “1p Kiss”, and “Death Box”, and shortforms required for “I’m ready for the question, Noel,” “It’s an amazing offer”, “member of the 1p Club”, “Let’s hope it’s a blue”, “curse of the newbie”, “play on with honesty,” “first male quarter of a millionaire” and Noel’s unnecessarily sinister opening line, “22 boxes. A quarter of a million pounds. Just one question.”
Our back yard, early December 2010

Yet to watch, it is strangely addictive, as it varies so much from day to day. So for a few months, Deal Or No Deal was my vice, my secret guilty pleasure, my daily slice of mindless entertainment, where I would put my feet up and cuddle my baby. Once Charlotte could sit up independently, she clearly started to recognise the theme tune, and would clap along with the audience and squeal excitedly at the Jackpot Joy sponsorship cartoons at the start and end of every ad break. I realise this makes me sound like a terrible mother. I won’t even try to contradict you. But these were desperate times.

I’m not sure that the desperate times are over, but my Deal Or No Deal phase definitely is. Nowadays, if we watch television together, Charlotte has me on a strict diet of CBeebies and Pingu, Thomas The Tank Engine and Peppa Pig DVDs.

Anyway, I was nonetheless very tickled when a friend from my NCT group set me the challenge of getting myself in the Deal Or No Deal audience to watch an episode being filmed. Obviously to be a competitor was completely out of the question, but getting in the audience simply involved filling in an on-line form and waiting. After a few months I got a phonecall from from the production team inviting me to attend a recording on 23rd November 2012. I accepted, checked I still had some black clothes that fit in the wardrobe, and booked myself a night in a Bristol Travelodge.

Only I couldn’t go, when the time came. We’d spent ten days of sleepless nights with Charlotte suffering from flu, and then poor Dave went down with it with a bang. He tried to battle on for a couple of days but by the Monday of last week he was flat out in bed with shivering chills, ferocious sweats and a violent cough, literally unable to do anything. Exactly as Charlotte had been the week before. He just looked dreadful. He really isn’t a malingering sort - this wasn’t man flu, it was the real, er, “deal”. After three days he had shown little sign of improvement, so there was no way I could leave him in sole charge of Charlotte, who by this point had picked up considerably and was running us ragged again.

So I cancelled my trip, and it’s my first proper challenge failure. Time to demonstrate maturity and embrace this failure, accepting that life does not always go according to plan, especially when you have a young child. I’m 40 quid down as I had paid a lower, non-refundable room rate in Bristol. (Annoyingly, if I hadn’t tried to save money, I’d have got my money back.) Thankfully, as no cheap advance rail fares had been available and I was going to have to pay a walk-on fare anyway, I hadn’t yet forked out for a train ticket. And even if everyone had been well and I had actually managed to set off, I still might not have made it, as flooding in the Midlands and South West severely disrupted train services to and from Birmingham New Street and Bristol Temple Meads stations that week. The challenge was probably doomed from the start. It’s not worth re-applying to be in the audience again at this point. I think I am more gutted about missing out on an uninterrupted night’s sleep in that Travelodge and my first lie-in for two and a quarter years than anything else. Besides, did I really want to trek all the way across the country to see Noel Edmonds in a bad shirt? Truth be told, probably not. And if I had gone, I’d have had to sign a confidentiality agreement and so wouldn’t have been allowed to blog about the experience. Whereas as I haven’t seen anything, I can write all that I like. My freedom of speech is intact.

I did get in the audience of Deal Or No Deal on Friday 23rd November, however. Dave took Charlotte upstairs for an hour and I sat and watched it at home, alongside a few million other people. For old times’ sake. And it certainly did make me a little bit nostalgic about those early baby days, and a tiny bit regretful that I hadn’t made it to the recording after all. Ironically, at the end of the show, Noel turned to camera and said “You’ve got to come down here sometime and experience the Dream Factory. It really does have a magic all of its own.” Maybe one day.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Challenge Number 24: Attend a cookery course

This safely wins the prize of my favourite challenge so far. I chose this challenge because I’ve always fancied doing some sort of cookery course but never have. Apart from Home Economics lessons at school, which involved a lot of homework drawing pictures of jacket potatoes, but not much time actually learning to cook. We made a few fairly useless things like baked apples, but I left home completely unable to make a meal for myself. Admittedly this could also have been avoided if I’d been a little bit more prepared to help out my parents – both of them good cooks - in the kitchen as a teenager. Obviously I’ve learned a lot since, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement, especially as I am having to cook for us almost every single day now we don't get to eat out much any more.

Whilst the most useful cookery course for me these days would be one entitled “How to Prepare Food That A Toddler Will Eat Without Needing It To Be Disguised By Baked Beans”, a little while back the regular weekly e-mail update from our local delicatessen pointed me to exactly what I was looking for. It mentioned a new cookery school being set up by Sara Danesin Medio. When Charlotte was just a tiny baby, Dave and I became hooked on a particular series of Masterchef, as it was all we could manage to watch on television during the one hour we had to ourselves each evening. Sara Danesin Medio, an Italian intensive care nurse who lived in York, reached the final, but ultimately her divine-looking cocoa and partridge ravioli lost out to the zany burgers of a bespectacled American called Tim. It was Sara’s food that Dave and I had salivated over throughout the entire series, at a point in our lives where we were having to live off Waitrose ready meals from the freezer because we were too exhausted to cook properly for ourselves.

And here suddenly was a chance to meet Sara, and learn from her. I sent off an enquiry via her website and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing an available date was found.

Ironically, when the day came I was almost as exhausted as I was when I had watched Sara on Masterchef, since Charlotte chose this week to get the coughing virus from hell, which left her running a fever bordering on 40 degrees and entirely unable to eat or sleep. Which meant none of us had been able to sleep. For nights on end. Not wanting to cancel, I left her in Daddy’s capable hands to have a far less fun day than he had been hoping for, and walked across town to Sara’s house for a warm and friendly welcome. Rather than setting up her own restaurant, Sara runs a dining club from home on Saturday evenings, Sara @ St Johns. She serves 12 covers, does all the food preparation and clearing up herself, and has only her husband on hand to assist with front of house. The menu is fixed and the wine is bring your own. Oh, and it’s booked up for the next year.

Three of us were signed up for the course. Once the other two had arrived, we set to work. Though it was actually Sara who did most of the work. She was understandably wary of letting strangers loose with knives and hot oil in her kitchen, despite her intensive care nurse qualifications. So nearly everything we needed was already measured out and chopped, and she did any hot plate, oven and hob work herself.

We spent the day making a three-course menu: aubergine parmagiana served with pesto, Taggiasche olives, vine-roasted tomatoes and a parmesan crisp; fresh egg pasta filled with spinach and ricotta and drizzled in a beurre noisette (burro bruciato) and white truffle sauce; and a vanilla panna cotta served with a berry and kirsch compote. Sara started with the panna cotta, leaving it to set in the fridge while we prepared the other two courses. These meant my first attempts at using a chef’s ring to make a vegetable stack, at making and rolling my own pasta, and at plating up “prettily”, using smears rather than dollops of sauces. Miraculously, while I wouldn't go as far as to say that I carried out any of these activities with aplomb, I avoided any humiliating disasters and was pleased with my efforts.
Aubergine parmagiana

My very own spinach and ricotta filled pasta

Cooked and served with a burro bruciato and white truffle sauce

Panna cotta with generous smears of compote (my greed wins over grace)

Sara made it all look so simple. And really, there was nothing complicated about what we were doing: every recipe could easily be replicated at home. Sara’s approach was all about touch, smell, feel and taste rather than science and technique. She had calculated the exact ratio of gelatine sheets required for the panna cotta, but once she had the mixture prepared in the jug, a sixth sense seemed to tell her that another half sheet was needed to get a perfect result. And talking of feel, the temperature of food or scalding water that Sara will merrily stick her fingers into without so much as a wince is really quite scary.

Sara also insists on good quality ingredients. The extra virgin olive oil she was using costs 15 pounds a bottle, but I have never inhaled the scent of or tasted one so utterly, richly exquisite. The eggs that she uses for her pasta have yolks of an astronishingly vibrant yellow which give a sunshine-like sheen to her dough. The Taggiasche olives we perched on our aubergine parmagiana looked like tiny brown pellets but took olive-eating to a whole new gastronomic level.

Sara’s kitchen is spacious and light, but not full of fancy pans and gadgets. She has an Aga, but otherwise everything else was prepared on just two gas hobs. The most complicated thing she owns is a Thermomix, a small plug-in pot whose website claims it “weighs, grinds, purees, simmers, steams, emulses, crushes, kneads, minces and maintains chocolate at 37 degrees”, presumably while doing the washing up, defrosting your freezer and clearing out all the spices past their use-by date in your store cupboard. She had used the Thermomix to prepare an incredibly dense tomato and shallot sauce for the aubergine parmagiana, though she insisted that the sauce could just as well be prepared in a pressure cooker or on a low heat on the hob. A slightly battered pasta machine, her grandmother’s wicker ravioli scoop and a black angled spotlight above the Aga (which Sara nicknames the “gynae light”) complete the set-up.

I learned so much from my time with her. That large knives are actually less dangerous to handle than small ones when chopping vegetables. That you should source vanilla pods online. That it is almost as quick and far less messy to make pesto in a pestle and mortar rather than in a food processor, and that if you keep the mortar in the freezer, the pesto will turn out a brilliant emerald green every time. That a mix of parmesan and pecorino cheese are perfect for pesto. That the basil leaves we grow over here bear no resemblance to the tiny ones used in pesto by the Genoese. That parmesan crisps are simply grated parmesan scattered into discs, put in the oven for 3 minutes, peeled off the baking tray at just the right moment and shaped over a rolling pin. That if you salt and drain slices of aubergine for a couple of hours and then wring them out in your hands and deep-fry them, they won’t absorb gallons of oil and will taste exactly as aubergines are meant to. That when it comes to garlic, using less rather than more is enough to give a magical, subtle flavour which makes it somehow all the richer. That when chefs say “Add a little bit of salt” they generally add about ten times as much as I would have thought to. That the perfect consistency of pasta dough has been reached when the ball is as soft to caress “as a baby’s bottom”. That when pasta is stretched out and thin, it is unbelievably elastic and robust. That breadcrumbs can be like powder. That a sprinkling of semolina flour helps fresh pasta to dry and not to stick to surfaces. That if you coat the entire interior of a filled pasta shell with egg white rather than just the edges, the pasta is less likely to spring a leak on cooking. That it is a lot easier to extract panna cottas and parmesan crisps from silicon bakeware. That listening to the sound of butter melting in a frying pan allows you to determine when you have reached the perfect point to begin a beurre noisette sauce. That you should cook pasta in lots and lots of water. That no restaurants ever make their own filled pasta fresh for you – at best they may parboil then reheat them for your plate.

Sara’s tales of working in restaurants made me really understand why she does what she does, sticking to running a small and intimate dining club where the guests can be like family and she can control everything she serves from start to finish. It’s well-documented that restaurant chef life can be full-on, exhausting, male-dominated, and rife with fiery tempers, filthy language, bullying and more than occasional drug use. You might have to spend an eternity chopping vegetables at a work station before you are allowed to show any creative flair of your own. Sara is immensely gifted and incredibly hard-working. She was plainly a brilliant nurse and she is also a brilliant chef and gives everything she attempts her all, yet she is also resolutely determined to maintain a quality of life and a work-life balance, to be there for her family and to see the world. It was a real lesson to me to see this, knowing that I haven’t often found true happiness in the work place, as I battle on with these 40 challenges in my own bid to discover where I want to go next.

We ate the food we had created at various stages throughout the day, glad of a sit-down after long periods on our feet. Sara’s tabby cat Zorba sat outside the kitchen patio doors, peering in at us jealously. Apparently he likes nothing more than a plate of pasta and courgettes. If Sara had cooked them, who can blame him? We washed down lunch with a beautiful Piedmont Chardonnay, asked any foodie questions we had, and listened to Sara’s stories. She had also experimented with a sort of ravioli that contained the yolk of a quail’s egg on top of the spinach filling. The idea of it is that the egg doesn’t cook through or scramble, so that when you cut into the pasta, this glorious yolk comes oozing out all over your plate. Needless to say, when she sat down to try it, she had completely nailed it. With our post-prandial coffee or herbal teas, Sara also fished out a box of home-made hazelnut meringue cookies that were little crunchy mouthfuls of heaven.

“Little” is definitely part of Sara’s ethos when it comes to serving the finer, richer foods in life. Cream, butter and sugar are all delicious things, but left unheeded they clog up your arteries, and Sara has seen plenty of the consequences of that during her twenty years working in intensive care. So keep dessert portions small, and keep exercising to burn them off was definitely her message. I took away so much from my day with her, including a free bag of star and moon shaped pasta for the poorly little lady at home. I know and hope that we will be seeing a lot more of Sara Danesin Medio in the years to come. I’d better get my dining club reservation in now.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Challenge Number 14: Snog on the back row of the cinema

Thanks to Beth for setting me this challenge, designed - I’m guessing - to release my inner teenager. I’m fairly sure it’s something I’d never done before. Certainly not when I was a teenager - the town I grew up in didn’t get a cinema until after I’d left home, so until I learned to drive I had to go to see films with the unwelcome chaperones of my parents. And the teenage me, in attendance at an all-girls’ school, didn’t get to meet many boys to snog. I’ve probably been guilty of some flirtatious fumbling in a cinema screening at some point in the dim and distant past, but never at the expense of missing a film, and never on the back row. Partly because all my boyfriends have been short-sighted (hm, a coincidence?). But mostly because the back row was always a no-go zone for me. I saw it as somewhere that the bad kids hung out and too far from the screen for my avid film-going eyes. I love going to the cinema, and just want to immerse myself in whatever is happening on the screen. Dave and I used to go up to three times a week in our pre-Charlotte days. When Charlotte was little, it was my weekly treat to take her to the Big Scream at City Screen on Wednesday mornings, and watch a current release in a cinema full of wailing, bawling babies. There I frequently used to sit on the very front row so I could put her down on the floor and let her roll about after bits of fluff, crumbs of rice cake and other babies’ toys. If I was really lucky, she’d drift off to sleep, curled up with Stripey under a blanket.

Nowadays, as we don’t have readily available baby-sitters, Dave and I usually have to do a split shift if there’s a film out we fancy – I go on a weekend afternoon, and he goes on a weekday evening after work, and eventually we get a chance to have a conversation about what we’ve seen. (“What did you think of it?” “It was quite good.”) So this challenge was always going to be one of the more difficult to organise, assuming that it was my husband I was meant to be snogging. It might have been easier to take myself off to the flicks and launch myself at a random stranger, but this may have resulted in me being arrested and Dave being rather cross. It also had to be a film that we didn’t mind missing bits of.

I have a couple of friends that I do baby-sitting exchanges with from time to time, so having baby-sat for my friend Sally and her husband to go out for dinner earlier in the week, we suddenly had the offer of a night out. Cinema screenings are always awkwardly timed for toddler world – 6pm showings are too early, as the toddler is still up and about, needing tea, bath-time and stories. (You see, by “baby-sitting”, we mean going round to sit on someone else’s sofa and watching their telly - especially if they have a better Sky package - while the child in our care is sound asleep upstairs.) But the next round of screenings at 9pm is pushing energy levels and means a very late night if you know you’ll be up before dawn the following day.

But we hit the snog jackpot with James Bond 007: Skyfall. A film that we reckoned would probably have the same plot as every other James Bond (so therefore not requiring much concentration), that would contain Daniel Craig taking his top off, and that was still so new and popular in cinemas that it had extra showings at suitable times, including one on Sunday night at 8pm. Perfect. We had two free tickets left on our City Screen membership to use up and could reserve two seats on the back row online. So off we went.

Sorry, folks, there’s no photographic evidence of this one. And really, I don’t want to go into details for fear of being nominated for the blogger’s equivalent of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards. (There was no sex, I hasten to add.) If I ever write a novel, it won’t be a romance. It’s not in my nature. Having picked up a revolting cough from our resident toddler, Dave and I currently sound like we belong in a consumption clinic, and are now so middle-aged that snogging generally gets interrupted by comments along the lines of, “Why did you put so much garlic in dinner?” “Yuk, that cough sweet tastes disgusting”, “Take your glasses off, they’re digging into my cheek” and “Have you quite finished?” The screening had sold out, so instead of being full of pubescent reprobates, the back row mostly contained responsible looking people that probably hadn’t wanted to be there, or who had picked it because they knew it was the one spot where they wouldn’t have someone kicking the back of their seats. We felt slightly abashed in their presence. To make matters worse, there was a spotlight positioned directly above us.

But unbelievably, a smooching Dave and I weren’t the most annoying couple on the row. The prize for that went to the German girl sitting next to me who (judging by the inane questions she kept asking) had plainly never heard of James Bond and seemed under the illusion that it was a slapstick comedy. She guffawed loudly every time someone fell over: either as part of a death-defying stunt, a passionate clinch, or a non-death-defying death. I’m not going to reveal the plot to anyone who hasn’t seen it, but there’s kind of a sad bit at one point, and she chortled her way through that too. And when she wasn’t chortling she was remaining oblivious to all the cutting one-liners, squealing at scorpions and Tube trains, coughing even more loudly than us, doing her hair, taking her very complicated lace-up stiletto shoes on and off, or wriggling around under her scarf. She was using the scarf as a makeshift blanket, having seen fit to come out in the world’s skimpiest dress, despite the temperature being about minus ten outside. It wasn’t minus ten in the cinema (and surely not with that hot and steamy couple sitting next to her!), but Germans are very good at finding draughts.

So yes, last Sunday night, I was a very middle-aged teenager. Thank you to Sally for baby-sitting, and thank you to Dave, my long-suffering and lovely husband, and very fine kisser. x x x

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Challenge Number 40 – Make a Christmas box for a needy child

 My friend Izzy set me this challenge and it’s been a lovely thing to do. The sort of thing that gives you a little warm glow inside. I am sending a box through the Samaritan Purse charity’s Operation Christmas Child scheme, and will be handing it over next week to Southlands Methodist Church down the road, where we attend a toddler playgroup on Wednesday mornings. It’s not normally in my nature to think about Christmas in October (despite the various efforts of high-street shops and mail order catalogues) but the boxes have an early deadline to allow for shipping.

Putting a box together is simple and fun. You basically decorate and fill a shoebox with a few small presents for a child, specifying age and gender if you wish. The charity’s website or readily available leaflets give gift suggestions for various different categories (e.g. education, play, hygiene), and you are asked to choose gifts from each of the categories. The gifts should be new rather than second-hand. Chocolate is a big no-no, but sweeties are allowed if their best-before date is after March 2013. Liquids, toy weapons and novels in English are also forbidden. You pay a £2.50 donation (online or in an envelope in your box) as a contribution towards shipping costs. If you pay online you can then download a unique barcode to put in your box so that you can subsequently find out where the box ended up. From the UK, it’s likely to be a destination in Eastern Europe.

I say simple, but wrapping up a shoebox isn’t actually that easy, I found. If anyone knows a way to do it neatly, then please share your secret with me. Hopefully the child who receives it won’t mind my battered, twisted Sellotape and torn, bunched up paper. I chose gifts for a girl aged 2-4, since this is the sort of child I know best, having one of my own at home. Inside the box (provided my choice of gifts is deemed suitable by the organisation), the recipient will find a rubber duck, some toothpaste, a toothbrush, a pair of bright pink earmuffs, two pairs of mittens, a hair clip, a wooden bracelet, a packet of Fruit Gums, a plastic shopping basket filled with material vegetables, a bouncy ball, a packet of coloured pencils, a novelty pencil sharpener and eraser, and a colouring book. The items were either toys that Charlotte had received duplicates of for her birthday, or were bought at Poundland, 3 for 2 offers at Boots and Tesco, on sale at the Designer Outlet, or from a friend who runs a toy stall at local Christmas fairs. No item cost me more than £1.35. I am not writing this to show you how ungenerous or impoverished I am myself, but rather to demonstrate that you can send some pretty good stuff without it costing the earth. 

The charity is a Christian one, so we are told that someone is likely to slip a booklet of Bible stories into the box before it is given to its recipient and then invite the child to a church-led follow-on programme. As a staunch atheist, I would rather that they didn’t, but it won’t stop me sending the box. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and to make their own decisions regarding religion. I would not deprive a child of some fun or useful gifts just because I don’t happen to share the organisation’s faith, especially if the alternative is that the child receives nothing. The Operation Christmas Child leaflet stresses that boxes are distributed to children “based on need, regardless of their background or religious beliefs” and that they are “an unconditional gift, asking for nothing in return”. And so long as that it is true and that the child is told that the gift has come from someone in the UK who cares about their welfare and well-being rather than directly from God (which would be a lie), then that is good enough for me.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Challenge Number 27: Visit both Clapham Junction stations

The first part of this challenge was completed in April. On Saturday, I got to complete the second. My friend and former subtitling colleague Sarah was over visiting from Auckland, New Zealand so I used the excuse of meeting up with her to complete another challenge. It was also a momentous day as it marked my first whole day away from Charlotte. I’ve managed a few hours on my own here and there (usually for hospital appointments related to all the tedious health complications I’ve suffered since giving birth) but never a whole day. And what a treat to spend it in London.

Up early as always, it was no bother to be on the 8.16am Grand Central non-stop service to Kings Cross, arriving exactly two hours later. A strangely nostalgic journey that I hadn’t undertaken in over three years. I felt slightly glum in its Hertfordshire section as we went through Stevenage (where my mother worked for many years in a primary school base for children with dyslexia) and Welwyn Garden City (where, aged only 58, she died of cancer in 2005 in the loving care of the Isabel Hospice). But then things became more upbeat as we hurtled past Alexandra Palace, which we used to be able to see from our lounge window in our beautiful Crouch End flat (the flat itself just a couple of streets away from the East Coast mainline), and through Harringay, our local station and the start of my commute for nearly four years, and Finsbury Park, home of a notorious imam, the Fleadh and Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.

Kings Cross was always a bit of a seedy dive when I lived in London. But look what they’ve done to it now:

They've moved Platform 9 and 3/4

And brilliantly, I stepped into this new and airy space and immediately ran into another friend and ex-subtitling colleague Stuart and his family, who were on their way to visit relatives in Hatfield. How reassuring to know that even though I’ve lived away from London for five years, I can see a familiar face as soon as I return. After a quick catch-up chat, I had a look around, bought an extortionate croissant and then set off down to Clapham.

The Victoria Line, the best route to take me south of the river, was of course suspended due to engineering works. Nothing changed there, then. So instead I took the City branch of the Northern Line all the way to Clapham Common. Quickly back into London mode, high on the stench of the Tube that hits you like a heat wall as soon as you enter a station, I tutted at all the tourists standing gormlessly in the ticket hall struggling to work the Oyster card readers, got cross with a further load of them standing on the left-hand side of the escalator, and then barged past several more who’d stopped dead as soon as they’d got on to the platform, blocking the way for everyone else. I walked down to the far end of the platform and then waited with my back to the wall for the much maligned Northern Line minute to elapse (it lasted four) and the next train to Morden to pull in. It was as if I’d never been away.

My reasons for doing this challenge were the year and three quarters I rented a room in a shared house in Clapham Old Town and the contrasts between Clapham life in North Yorkshire and Clapham life in London. I decided to have a trip down memory lane in the area around Clapham Common before heading to Clapham Junction. It’s now eleven and a half years since I moved on so it was interesting to see what had changed. Lots of new apartment blocks, a Boris Bike or two, a smattering of different restaurants and shops, and the pedestrianisation of Venn Street outside the Picture House which had allowed room for an exquisite food market to set up its stalls. But otherwise there were plenty of familiar places with happy memories (The Pepper Tree, Gastro, Carmen tapas bar, the Frog), and a surprisingly stubborn clinging on of a lot of the grot.

I wasn’t ever really qualified to live in Clapham as I was neither city slicker, famous (the actor Neil Pearson lived round the corner from me) or yummy mummy, instead being just an impoverished media employee in her first London home, but it was a great place to be based. It only took ten minutes or so on the Tube into town and I could even walk to work if I wanted (it did take an hour, through the back streets of Stockwell, round the Oval cricket ground, and then up through Kennington, but I liked the empowerment of walking in London – nothing could make it take longer than that hour, unlike the unpredictability of rush-hour public transport).

Clapham High Street

Clapham Common tube station

Market on Venn Street

The church and paddling pool on Clapham Common

Clapham Common, scene of  the occasional "moment of madness"

I wandered round through the Old Town and on to inspect my old pad on Broadhinton Road. It looked exactly the same. Still right under the Heathrow flightpath. Still just down the road from a fire station and backing on to a recording studio. Still the most expensive space per square foot I’ve ever lived. Still the only place where I’ve found home colonic irrigation equipment on the bathroom shelf and where I’ve been burgled whilst fast asleep in my bed. But it was a beautiful house. A house where I wanted to feel more at home than I ever could, sharing with people who didn’t want me there and where I knew I would get evicted as soon as the landlady’s boyfriend moved in. I don’t know who lives there now, but as they bought the house for around 750K a few years ago, they probably are stinking rich and not very nice.

Clapham Old Town

Where I lived

Right under the Heathrow flightpath

Time was ticking along so I carried on past the Artesian Well down to Wandsworth Road and hopped on a number 87 bus to my challenge destination, Clapham Junction station. Britain’s busiest rail station. A total shithole. The only nice thing we ever did there was buy our double bed from the Warren Evans shop in its arches. It was pretty much unchanged from my last visit. From Wandsworth Road, you still go in via an unprepossessing shopping mall and after the ticket barriers through a dingy tunnel to get to the platforms.

The entrance to Clapham Junction from Wandsworth Road

The dingy tunnel

I instinctively walked up on to platform 11 where, a couple of years after I had left Clapham, I used to catch trains back to my flat in Earlsfield. On platform 11, I took the necessary photographs, had a good look at the Shard (a new building for me hovering on the distant city skyline), found some trainspotters (a permanent fixture at Clapham Junction, and my camera probably made me look like one), then hopped on a train to Victoria, to go on to South Kensington to meet Sarah and later on a couple of other former subtitling colleagues as well. 

Train to Earlsfield from Platform 11

My first view of the Shard


Looking towards the site of the Clapham rail crash of 1988

Battersea Power Station and the London Eye

It was a happy day, full of good food, cheese and cheer, the odd glass of wine, and the strange conflict of sensing a marvellous liberation whilst feeling like a part of me was missing. As I haven’t returned to work after having Charlotte (my research post at the university in York ended while I was pregnant), most people I know here don’t think of me as someone other than a full-time mum. It meant a lot to be with people that remembered me from the days when I was in gainful employment and with some level of professional skill.

And London – can’t live in it, can’t live without it. I wouldn’t want to raise a child there, but I hope that we can take Charlotte there more in the years to come, to see its brilliance, its buzz, its bullshit, its bloody-mindedness, its beauty. My journey to Clapham Junction was utterly therapeutic.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Progress Report: Halfway through

Whenever I tell anyone about my 40 challenges, they immediately ask how many I’ve actually completed. I find this difficult to answer since some challenges are still at the planning phase, others are partially underway but nowhere near finished, and others I haven’t even dared contemplate yet. Counting up through the original list, I reckon that 21 are completely finished with, so I guess that’s about where we should be halfway through. I’m pleased with all that I’ve managed to do so far, and have some wonderful memories already. But I am also acutely aware that time is slipping by and that I’m occasionally feeling swamped by all I still have left to do. I seem to have less time to myself than ever now, as Charlotte’s daytime nap has to be very limited in length, otherwise she won’t go to bed at night. And by the time she is settled in the evening I am too comatose to do anything other than stare at The Great British Bake-Off or DVDs of Frasier. It’s only going to get harder as winter approaches, when darkness will set in by half-past three and Charlotte may well ditch her daytime nap for good. It’s the challenges that involve writing, learning, thinking and – heaven forbid – piano practice that are proving the hardest to settle down to. Yet ironically they are the ones I want to do most.

And it doesn’t help that every single evening class I might want to take in York to help my challenges along (British Sign Language, pottery, oil painting, knitting) all seem to be on Thursdays at 6pm, which is when my pilates class is. Though making Dave leave work early more than one night a week to be here for Charlotte while I pursue my leisure interests doesn’t seem fair. Of course if someone were forward-thinking enough to run an evening class that didn’t start until 8pm, there wouldn’t be a problem. Apart from the fact that a lot of art classes are very expensive owing to the cost of materials.

And on a financial note, I have no idea how we’re going to be able to afford to go somewhere German-speaking before March, especially now we have to pay full fare for Charlotte on flights. I may have to cheat and just take myself to the cinema to see a German film (I think the wording of the challenge would permit this), if any happen to be in York over the next few months. A further cheat might be to extend my 40 challenges into my 40th year – beyond the celebratory lunch in a 2-Michelin starred restaurant.

But enough of the negative of what I might not manage, and back to the positive of what achievements I have actually made. Here is my first (and so far only) tomato:

It was very nice. I don’t hold up much hope for many more – there are a smattering of green ones on the plants, but as temperatures have dipped again, the sun has left our back yard for good until spring and the nights are threatening frost, I can’t see them managing to ripen before the plants wither completely. Green tomato chutney is probably called for.

And here is some more bread, which even I am starting to lost track of now... I haven't baked any for ages, so need to get myself back on the rails fairly sharpish to keep to schedule. These are loaves 17 to 21. So 21 loaves, 21 challenges. There's a nice harmony in that.