A Tale of Two Views

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness ~ Charles Dickens

Autumn again…its approach signals a great deal of personal reflection for me and it seems this year is no different. My birthday is in this season, I am Libran, the only inanimate sign in the zodiac. As Librans we are supposed to be able to stand back and look at matters impartially! Yeah right! Did you know that some astrologers regard Librans as the most desirable of types?Well, we are *special* because Libra represents the zenith of the year, the high point of the seasons, a harvest of all the hard work put in earlier in the year. I don’t suppose it’s any co-incidence that the Autumn Equinox also represents balance between day & night.

It’s pretty clear to me that I have always strived for balance in my life and that my most challenging times have been when balance is absent. I definitely do not have balance in my life at the moment and yet uncharacteristically I seem to be coping quite well. Other people’s problems and worries seem far greater than mine, putting my troubles and woes into perspective.

So why do I not have balance?

Consider these two views:

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Last weekend I was staying in a beautiful hotel, eating delicious food, blessed with warm, unseasonal weather, in the stunning Wiltshire countryside (should I mention the company I was keeping?). This weekend a trip to the local amenity tip (sorry, recycling centre) with piles of garden waste from the previous day! That is quite a disparity!

For the moment these two parts of my life are distinctly separate but what needs to happen is integration and I don’t have a bloody clue how to go about this!

 Is it the best of times?

It’s certainly not the worst of times.

Am I wise?

Or am I foolish?

Eat, Pray, Love, Hope

Someone told me yesterday that a blog post was well overdue. He’s a good friend, a wonderful friend and I have shared many secrets with him (and him me), late night conversations, tears and laughter.  Our pasts have included ex-partners with similar traits and we understand each other…

Eat, Pray, Love – one of my daughter’s favourite books and a go to film for restoring a good mood. It’s also responsible for her fascination with Bali. This feisty, young, feminist woman was seduced by a book about the pleasures of eating good food, about meeting people, about looking at yourself and learning, about using travel to heal and about finding love…I digress, but bear with me.

My friend lives in Bali (see the connection now?) and despite moving there in 2012 he makes more effort than people on my doorstep to keep our friendship alive. He’s asked me to go and visit him many times. The invitation has always been on the table. One day in October 2014 he told me that it was likely that he was returning to the UK and if I wanted to visit it had to be soon(ish). Oh shit! I hate being put under pressure to make expensive decisions AND I was in the middle of having work done on the house.

This is how the decision process went…

Oh shit.

Oh shit, how can I not go?

Oh shit, the daughter will hate me if I go to Bali without her.

Oh shit, the son won’t want to go!

Oh, bugger I can’t take one without the other and still enjoy myself.

How can I afford it? I could afford to take myself (just) but not three of us.

Bollocks- I can’t go.

Fuck it, I have to go! We’re all going. Decision made…

Steamed Duck
Steamed Duck

EAT – He constantly share photos of food with me. I wake up in the mornings to photos of what they had for dinner the previous night. The food looks incredible.

PRAY – I am praying that Mount Raung behaves itself. The ash cloud from the erupting volcano is playing havoc with flights in and out of Bali.

The Bali Squad
The Bali Squad

LOVE  – I will be with people who I love.

HOPE – We all long for genuine human connections and without it our lives can feel very empty. I have a beautiful family and I have lovely friends and I am grateful. Every.Single.Day. I know the trials and tribulations that my friend in Bali has been through and I know he has found the happiness that he deserves. I have shared my internet dating horrors with him, I have spared him some of the details, but this morning he said “There’s a normal one out there somewhere for you”. I hope he is right.

Finn’s Beach Club ~ Bali

“People tend to think that happiness is a stroke of luck, something that will descend like fine weather if you’re fortunate. But happiness is the result of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly.”

― Elizabeth Gilbert

So that’s it…I am going to Eat, Pray, Love, Hope, and participate relentlessly.

Will You Smile With Me?

Last year I took the conscious step of trying to heal myself. This year I want to smile more.

Today I was reminded of something that I used to do whilst my daughter danced at The Urdang Academy in London.

The Great Hall at The Urdang Academy.
The Great Hall at The Urdang Academy.

Every other weekend we would travel to London for her classes. She saw very little of the city; we would travel up, she would spend 8 hours in a dance studio, eat and travel home, but I got to explore, shop, eat and observe. I used to try and make eye contact with people, endeavour to walk round with a smile all day just to see if I could get a smile back. It was VERY hard work!

Generally speaking, people don’t seem make eye contact in big cities. New York was different. Or maybe New York was different because WE were different, we were on holiday, we were happy, we were smiling and people respond to that. So here are some things that make me smile:

My children make me smile; they make me cry too, but mostly smile. I cannot think of a better reason to smile.

My friends make me smile; they also make me laugh, proper belly laugh spit out your drink laugh and last year in my ‘healing phase’ I found a new friend. I also found new friends that I haven’t met yet; lots of smiley faces have been shared. Thinking about people like this and remembering conversations- that makes me smile.

When I walk to work and drivers slow down to let me cross the road safely; THAT makes me smile. I have three difficult junctions to manoeuvre across when walking to work, some days the drivers don’t even bother to indicate and I spend ages hesitating at the side of the road. On other days I hit the jackpot and get let across all three. That’s a good start to the day! They can’t know that I got hit by a car when I was fifteen and spent months in hospital. They just slow down and take a brief pause in their day for me.

I have to give cake away!
I have to give cake away!

Cooking & baking make me smile; I ‘stress bake’ which means that if life is challenging I go into the kitchen and bake.I find it therapeutic. If the urge to bake happens when there aren’t enough people in the house to eat the resulting baked goods I give them away; take them to work, share with friends. I hope that makes them smile too.

Thinking about our next adventure coming up later this year, now that really makes me smile. More on that coming soon.

Some of my memories make me smile now and that’s a good thing because it means that part of my self-healing has taken place and it’s time to find more reasons to smile.

So what makes you smile? take-a-smile

New York ~ People & Food, Inextricably Linked

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Flying is boring, you have to get to the airport hours in advance and in our case the plane was delayed and we ended up sitting on the tarmac for an hour at Heathrow and then again at JFK when we landed. All this is bad enough, but when someone in close proximity (that’s most people when flying economy let’s face it) has poor personal hygiene it’s enough to try the patience of a saint.

I had been warned to make a run for immigration at JFK as soon as we landed and were allowed off the plane, but to be fair we had no energy, 10 hours sitting down with only airline food had seen to that. I was expecting difficulties here; my sister had been interrogated when travelling as a lone parent going into the USA. During this ordeal she was separated from my then very young nephew and she vowed never to visit again because of it. My anxiety levels were rising whilst trying to retain a cool, calm collected exterior for the benefit of my children! I’d like to offer a big thank you to Juan, the official who greeted us with smiles and courtesy after a VERY long wait.

Tired and hungry we arrived at our destination 710 St Nicholas Avenue, Harlem, NY 10031. Oh, this was also another of my worries- what was the apartment going to be like? It had good reviews and looked beautiful on the website but what if it was fake and we had nowhere to stay? This was possibly a little irrational, but you can see why I had a few sleepless nights beforehand. As you can see, we were staying in Harlem and many, many times when mentioning this to friends, family and others they drew a sharp intake of breath. What if they were right and my instincts were wrong?

Our host Michael was just wonderful, as was Tracy his housekeeper- her friendly smiling face and welcome “Hello, this is home” was enough to feel the stresses of travelling leave my body and that is where I left them for the rest of the week, on the steps of a beautiful brownstone building! The apartment was much bigger than the photos conveyed, my daughter fell in love with New York when Tracy showed her the door to the terrace (here’s the photo, #8) at this point she said “I want to live here” and I know that one day this will break my heart.

What about the neighbourhood? What is Harlem like? One of my most everlasting memories will be how friendly, welcoming and genuine people are in New York and in Harlem in particular. People smile, they say hello, good morning and pay you compliments time after time (to be honest these were mostly, directed at my daughter). I was told that I had a beautiful family by a complete stranger- imagine how that made me feel? We should try & make gifting compliments to strangers a more acceptable and common practice in the UK, it’s very uplifting whether you are giving or receiving the compliment! They initiate conversations with real interest in hearing the answers, that is culturally quite different here. The toughest looking young men will offer you their seats on the subway. I never felt isolated, like I have at home and I never felt unsafe, as I have done in London. If I have one complaint it would be the assumption that New Yorkers make that everyone from England is interested in Football- they would ask what part of the UK you are from and launch into conversations about this team and that team and to us that was like speaking ancient Greek!

My biggest worry about travelling to New York was how my son would settle. Any changes to a normal routine can throw life into complete turmoil, but we had over a year to prepare him and it worked out well! He responds well to calmness and the apartment, beautifully decorated by Michael had such an aura. The reassurance of some familiar foods like Cornflakes courtesy of Fresh Direct also helped although more adventurous types could find about a million different types of breakfast cereal on this site! All food was ordered in advance from the comfort of my own home and delivered bang on time for our arrival.

The food highlights of the holiday are linked closely to the people we met. The best food was to be found where the people were most friendly.

Why do you think this would be so?

Here are some of our food memories:

Molly’s Cupcakes with toppings lighter and less sweet than the UK equivalent, the desire to eat your way through their varieties will be Berry Cupcakestrong. Don’t say I didn’t warn you! You are encouraged to stay, wait a while, chill and relax. There are even board games available for you to play at the tables; water is readily available for you to help yourself to. A cynic might say that the longer they keep you there, the more you would spend, but they do not need to do this as their product speaks for itself. The store has a lovely relaxed feeling and the cakes are beyond wonderful. I cannot go through the rest of my life without having another at some point.

Carroll Place, 57 Bleecker St, Greenwich Village Recommended to us by a (handsome) friendly local. Apparently, this is a chain restCarroll Placeaurant and had only been open a couple of weeks but I would never have thought so. The vibe is quite young and trendy, but I am neither and did not feel out of place. The waitress was lovely and although we made a mistake ordering my son’s meal it was no trouble at all for them to re-cook it. The food was delicious, simple, Italian gastropub.

Il Brigante is a small trattoria-style Italian restaurant in South Street Seaport. Much of this area is still recovering from Hurricane Sandy but the restaurant offers a friendly welcome and delicious food. Although we didn’t travel with young children we could see that they were given raw pizza dough and semolina on a plate to play with and I thought this was charming. WP_000192 The waiting staff were attentive and friendly and the food was the best meal we had in New York. I have read that the owner refuses to have a microwave in the kitchen, never buys any frozen produce and does most of the shopping for the restaurant himself! The food tasted clean and fresh so I would imagine this is all true. We went back again for our last meal in the city, that’s how much we enjoyed it.

Branson Got Juice Luckily this was just a few doors down from our apartment! I’ve never tasted smoothies and juices like them. My favourite was Morning Delight: Cider (not cider as we understand it in the UK – more of an unprocessed apple juice), Pineapple, Strawberry, Banana, Whey Protein (Strawberry) and Flax Seed Oil. If we had a day when colour had been missing in our diet these were a guaranteed pick me up. We visited many, many times.

Ciao Bella, 22 E 92nd Street, I was craving Gelato and this is just a short walk (short being relative to the amount of walking we did during the week) from Central Park. Serving staff were patient and friendly and you could try any amount of flavours before choosing. Seating outside allowed for you to relax and enjoy the Gelato and indulge in a spot of people watching at the same time. I’d say it’s in quite a wealthy area. The food memory is marred slightly here by the elderly customer who just glared at my son when he asked a simple question. What did he ask? I imagine that you think he asked something intrusive or perhaps inappropriate but he said “May I get the door for you, sir”!

Ladurée Now I love macarons and yes, they are expensive! WP_000186We took advice from TripAdvisor reviews and selected our flavours. It was a bit like playing a macaron version of Russian roulette. To the person who described the Orange Blossom flavour as orgasmic I would have to query your experiences! You are so wrong; drinking a shot of perfume would have the same effect. The rest were lovely though.

We had one really negative food experience at Ellen’s Stardust Diner. We were not expecting great food, just reasonable basic American Diner fare. We visited here for the entertainment which we had been assured was worth it. Normally, I would live by my mantra “if you can’t say anything good, say nothing at all”. But in the interest of your well-being I feel that it is my responsibility to warn you. You should visit here only if you like your food beige. My son’s meal came out wrong & was sent back not once but twice, the second time it was stone cold. Our other meals were also sent back as they barely reached room temperature. They did discount our bill by 20%, but we only ate about 10% of the meal overall. The singing by the waiters and waitresses was overly loud, confusing volume with talent and the person going round begging for tips with a bucket and tambourine couldn’t keep time with the music. Hideous place.

My one piece of advice if you are travelling to New York as a tourist would be to plan your days carefully and if good food and nice people are a priority then research a little beforehand and have an awareness of where you would like to eat during the day.

Obviously, every holiday has to come to an end and that means another long journey home. On the whole it was a more peaceful flight but did not start well. Just as the plane was boarding my daughter lost a stone from a vintage ring that she had purchased in The Market NYC understandably she was distraught, not only was it her single most expensive purchase but it was beautiful and irreplaceable too. Two British Airways stewardesses and a fellow passenger crawled around the floor and lifted seats helping us to search for what seemed like a needle in a haystack. To the man I will never see again THANK YOU so much for finding it!

I would love to go back at some time so please share your people & food memories too…