Saturday, October 30, 2010

Teeth and the cake

Yesterday was my birthday – pause for a quick roll of drums. Amazingly I seem to be 45. I say amazingly, as in my mind I am just past my student days, a mental aberration which is intensifying as I read my way through Stephen Fry’s, ‘The Fry Chronicles’, detailing his life at university.

The past fortnight has been in the nature of an ongoing festival of parties, dinners and outings for all sorts of occasions to the extent that I rather feel as if I have been on a celebratory high for weeks, so yesterday’s birthday came as a culminating moment. I had a lovely day and felt very spoilt and cosseted by the human members of my family.

The dog, in contrast, rose to the drama of the moment and leapt onto the kitchen table where he devoured the remaining half of my birthday cake – he spent the rest of the day lying his basket looking very sick and sheepish – as well he might. Irritating though he is in many ways, he is not normally a food stealer, knickers yes, food no; but he does have a bad track record on the birthday cake front having previously guzzled his way through a significant portion of a lavish cake made for my mother. Unfortunately, on that occasion he got to it before any one else did. Fortunately, it was a square cake and with a few flicks of a large knife that I had seized with the intention of disembowelling the black fiend, I was able to convert it from a square to a circle, albeit with interesting markings round the edges where I had attempted to disguise the canine teethmarks.

Birthday euphoria vanished pretty quickly however as I flossed my teeth this morning – a birthday always brings on a raft of new resolutions such as regular flossing I find. To my horror, during this particular flossing frenzy, half a tooth fell out. This has not unnaturally sent me into a morose tailspin with my thoughts running along the lines of this is what happens once you cross the 45 year old line – your teeth fall out. Have therefore decided to abandon all the healthy living birthday resolutions such as flossing as they obviously only usher on the inevitable at speed – instead I am going to focus on the good living resolutions which will definitely be more fun emphasising as they do, wine, chocolate, and regular bouts of hysterical laughter and wild partying.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Brad Pitt and I, we're just so alike

I am currently on true missionary form – in my case this fever overcomes me when I find a book I love and am not happy until I have given a copy to everyone I know, and/or persuaded them to read it. Brother no.2 has already received his birthday copy and the remainder of the male members of my family better brace themselves for the oncoming thump of delivery. I specify male members of my family, partly because I am long on male relations with three brothers, but also because I am always delighted when I find a book that I think has universal appeal. I am not being sexist on this but I do think men and women do in general read predominantly different books.

The chosen book is ‘The Tiger’ by John Vaillant – a non-fiction account of the hunt for a man-eating tiger in a remote area of Russia. It couldn’t have sounded less like the type I thing that I normally enjoy but I was lured into the purchase by my fabulous local bookshop Pages and Pages. In a plug for independent bookshops, though I do admit to the occasional guilt ridden brief fling with Amazon, in the end I love having a local bookshop with staff who read the books with enthusiasm and persuade you into the unknown.

The book is set in a region that immediately had me reaching for the atlas as to my shame I had never heard of it before – Primorye Territory – and if you are smirking with pleasure that you can pinpoint the place on a map, all I can say is that you were paying more attention than I was when the topic of the Russian Far East regions was covered.

What I found most extraordinary about the book was that it recounts the events of December 1997, but as I was reading it I felt as if I was entering into another time, perhaps a century ago, rather than reading about things that were happening thirteen years previously. Descriptions of daily life and the background of participants in the drama create a world that was different in almost every respect to one in which I was inhabiting in London in 1997.

I am now completely exhilarated to find that Brad Pitt’s production company bought the film rights to ‘The Tiger’ back in August, and I feel vindicated in my enthusiasm for the book. Obviously I am not going to go head to head with Angelina on the physical front – am happy to hand that crown over graciously, but it is a comfort that Brad and I have got literary enthusiasms in common.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Snow and Rain - must be time to do the Time Warp again

I can hardly move – and I can report, with a note of triumph in my voice, that this is not because of the stresses and strains of the debut netball game, nerve wracking and physically challenging though that was. The muscle burn out is actually as a result of over enthusiastic dancing last night. We have been uncharacteristically social over the last couple of weekends, with a Financial Markets dance last night in Melbourne and a surprise 50th for a great friend last weekend. The band at the dance last night judged their target market pretty accurately in terms of playing songs that were guaranteed to have the comparative oldies mouthing along. We finished up with the Rocky Horror Show and ‘Let’s do the Time Warp again” which brought back vivid memories for me of being a teenager in Glasgow and lining up as a gang to ‘Jump to left’ and ‘Step to the right’ the all the way down the hallway at one particular party.

Last week’s Birthday Bash was held in a shearing shed in Mudgee, a country town about 3 ½ hours outside Sydney, renowned for food and wine. The omens were not looking good as we drove out to Mudgee over the Blue Mountains. I assumed the large white flakes whirling around the car were some bizarre type of Antipodean blossom, it transpired however that we were travelling through a snow storm. Australia does get snow – witness all those devastatingly good looking Aussie ski instructors haunting European ski slopes, but not usually in October. Australian snow also generally falls in places like the evocatively named Snowy Mountains, those early explorers not being lost for a descriptive name or two, rather than the outskirts of Sydney. Turning the car heater to full, I mentally reviewed my outfit for the shearing shed shindig – and tried to work out whether the trusty black dress would lend itself to layering with every other available garment in my overnight bag including pyjamas – fortunately also black. In a moment of foresight based on a pretty grim forecast of low temperatures I had unearthed a pair of cashmere tights my mother gave me some years ago – I think probably when we lived in the coldest house in the world in Rye, New York, as I can’t think even in the most absent minded moment she would have judged them a suitable gift for the Sydney climate. As it was I shouldn’t have lost faith with our hostess who had imported heaters and created a spectacular, romantic setting for the evening.

Snow aside it has been a red letter week on the weather front for New South Wales, the state of which Sydney is the capital – I do apologise for treating everyone as geography retards but I am never sure who knows what about the Australian state and federal set up – though I am anticipating that after Oprah transfers her whole show down under in December, Australia will move centre stage on the American radar. Anyway back to the weather – this week New South Wales moved 100% out of drought. Given that since 2001 there have constantly been districts suffering drought or rated as marginal, and that this time last year 95% of the state was judged to be in drought, suddenly being flush with water is an amazing concept and there are stunning pictures of areas of wetland and marsh in central districts flooding, with bird and plant life miraculously being restored.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Netball and the woman

I am about to enter into a new era – I don’t know if you have ever noticed that in surveys there are a number of cut off points and one of the key ones apart from gender is that those aged 44 and under are generally grouped separately from the geriatric 45 and over. Having always mentally classified myself as a ‘bright young thing’, it is something of a shock to discover I am teetering on the edge of the '45-60’ group.

One of my resolves as I get older is that I should try something new each year and step outside that famed comfort zone revolving round a good book in the bath. I can see the danger in this approach as previous efforts in this direction have resulted in bedroom cupboards stuffed with enthusiastically trialled, and now completely abandoned objects. The half finished tapestry celebrating the marriage of Charles and Diana gives you an example of the kind of time scale of hobbies gained and lost I am talking about here. Other mementoes include knitted scarves in the early stages of germination, basic Japanese grammar books and yoga mats.

Part of my angst on the age front is because I am off this evening to play my first Seniors Netball match. The first time one is classified as a ‘Senior’ is a somewhat shocking experience – what’s wrong with calling it ‘In Her Prime’ Netball for goodness sake?

I am in fact completely petrified as I have never played netball in my life – howling gales and prevailing winds dictating that hockey was the more popular option in my Glaswegian school career. Not only have I had to squeeze myself into a tight fitting lycra number with a skirt so short that my thighs have turned pale from fright – and I have visions of spectators having to cover their eyes in horror, but worst of all I have very little idea what to do with the ball if by evil mishap it is thrown in my direction. Over some years of spectating at respective Drama Queens’ games I have gained some idea of the rules. One of the main areas of concern, apart from my rudimentary ball handling skills, is the rule that within netball once you have caught the ball you have to come to a pretty immediate halt - or be blown up by the umpire for ‘stepping’. I can tell you right now that if I am hurtling down the court at full speed and have the misfortune to connect with the ball, given I am a creature of some momentum, there is no way in the world I will be able to come to a complete halt – it would be like pushing a fridge down a 45 degree slope and expecting it to stop and pirouette.

You can tell how unnerved I am by the whole prospect in that I have done a complete 360 degree turn on the procrastination front. Usually I do anything else rather than sit down and write, washing baskets get emptied, suppers half cooked, nit checks performed, toenails cut – you get the picture. By contrast here I am writing when I should be climbing into the netball outfit – anything to delay the evil lycra donning hour - perhaps growing old gracefully might be a happier option?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Coffee and a bookshop. What does it for you?

Amazingly we have just notched up a world record in terms of address book entries for the Lings. As of August we will have lived in the same country for over five years which beats our previous record set in London nine years ago. I am actually feeling rather unsettled by this realisation, though I would hasten to add I have no desire to start back into the rounds of international manoeuvres and jump yet again into another strange school system complete with a maternal dress code that I am guaranteed to fail.

Thinking about our various moves has made me realize that there are a number of factors that I now regard as essential to my domestic harmony on the expat circuit – or to be more particular what keeps me happy, in the sense of where we live. Obviously the biggest factor is going to be friends but there are a number of physical elements that really drive what makes a house, home for me and by implication the family.

So here goes in no particular order with my wish list for wherever we live:

Must be near an international airport for those inevitable Thelma and Louise escape type fantasies that I run in my head. There is no point imagining myself flinging open the taxi door and shouting grandly, “Take me to the airport and make it snappy” if it is going to take three days to get there.

Likewise got to be close to a bus stop or train station. Had I wished to qualify as a taxi driver I would have done something about it by now. I have no desire to qualify merely by default, based on the number of hours shuffling teenage members of the family to and from their social and sporting engagements.

Top of the list has to go to a cafĂ© or coffee shop to which I can escape with book/newspaper on a regular basis. The quality of the coffee is not actually a prerequisite on this one, witness I spent a great amount of time in America in Starbucks. In Sydney where they take their coffee seriously I am spoilt for choice, though I have to do a plug for my current favourite, Arena’s Deli in Mosman where I get a fabulous life reviving cup of coffee every morning, and a chat with Joseph the affable proprietor as a bonus.

Being walking distance from a library, post office and bookshop is something that has always been high on the list. I am now adding in close to a decent cinema. We have a fantastic local independent cinema, complete with a Wurlitzer organ to add to the impressive atmosphere.

I also love being close to the sea, coming from the UK where you are always relatively close to water, I think I would find it hard to live somewhere completely landlocked. Sydney Harbour is a back drop to my daily life at the moment and gives a boost to my day whenever I glimpse it – even on a grey, morose day like today.

Having looked back at the list – I can now see I am calling down the hands of fate and it is guaranteed the next place I will find myself living will be in the midst of a Mongolian Desert and how you will laugh at the thought of me looking wistfully round the steppes (not sure I am geographically correct here) for the nearest library and coffee shop.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Tact and the Man

Women are apparently reputed to use a far greater number of words than men on any given day. I have come to the conclusion that most of this is attributable to the fact that women generally think before they speak, engage brain as it were, and also try to convey any negative message as gently and humanely as possible.

It may have been some 11 years ago but I still remember with blinding clarity the young male doctor at one of the big London hospitals with whom I was discussing whether Drama Queen No. 3 should be induced as she was showing signs of being big and late just like DQ Nos. 1 and 2. I mentioned I didn’t want to be induced if it heightened my chances of having a caesarian. The doctor flicked me a quick glance and responded with the flattering remark, “Oh no, I find women of your age are a bit like old bangers. Once you get them cranked up, they just keep rolling.”

Fortunately by 39 weeks pregnant you are not at all sensitive as to how you look, other than large, however I have always cherished the vision of myself as an ‘old banger’ and look at car scrap metal yards with a certain fondness and kindred spirit.

As a run up to the sailing holiday, I mentioned to Husband, in the tone of one proffering a rare treat, that I might get a bikini to replace the boring one piece. Instead of the expected glint of excitement in his eye and skip in his step, his brow furrowed and he said in a worried tone, “Won’t you need to shave off the body fur?” Aside from making me feel I should check myself into the Sydney Taronga Zoo Chimpanzee enclosure, double quick time, it has also had me checking my stomach in the mirror for fear of that obviously new and horrible manifestation of my 40’s, female stomach hair. I need hardly say he’ll be lucky to see an inch of uncovered flesh in the near future.

Other great sayings have included musings on the fact that apparently I do, “tend to swell up like a balloon”. In the interests of fairness I would admit that this statement is probably true, once you add in the puce with rage factor brought on by this candid assessment.

In the interests of family harmony – here’s my top tip to beleaguered males. The correct response to an unfamiliar dish appearing in front of you is not a suspicious poke and a muttered, “What’s this?” A cheery smile and, “This looks delicious. What is it?” will win the day. N.B. this approach can also be applied with notable success to new female outfits, no matter how startling to the male eye they initially appear.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Three Men (and Seven Women) in a Boat

Apologies for the radio silence due to a week’s sailing, and let me tell you after a week bobbing around on a boat I am now a dab hand at radio procedure. I can ‘Over’ and ‘Out’ with the best of them, though I am reliably informed that ‘Over and Out’ as a combined phrase marks you out as a sad landlubber. It’s my observation that sailing is filled with rules like this – not to mention vocabulary – for example if somebody in normal life said, “Tighten the Vang” to me, I’d be giving them a very nasty look indeed.

This is the fourth year that we have headed up to the Whitsunday Islands just off the Australian Great Barrier Reef in early October. It is the most stunning region in which to sail, with forested islands dropping steeply down to pristine beaches and rocky coastlines. The snorkeling is fabulous, at times you float in a cloud of fish and this year a turtle cut across me so close that we both jumped. The only slight downside is that owing to the very low risk of potentially deadly jellyfish we all end up wearing stinger suits – this year we kitted ourselves out in some all in one all black numbers complete with hoods. gloves and socks – suffice to say we looked like a bizarre cross between a SAS troupe and a band of Ninjas. Vanity, (and a big bottom), prevents me posting a photo, provisionally entitled ‘Thing One’, of myself in the kit, however as compensation I have provided you with a photo of the junior Ninja troupe storming a kayak.

This year we managed to persuade another family to join us for the week. I think we all approached the great nautical adventure with some trepidation; there is something unnerving about the thought of squeezing 10 people into the type of space more suited to an intimate embrace than a full on dual family holiday. It had all the potential for a sink or swim situation on the friendship front. However I have to report we managed to survive what we later discovered were common identified make or break situations for boat discord, namely snoring (though this one is a hands up from Husband as I am sure it wasn’t me), dodging chores, inability to cope with boat loos and their quirks – on which note I have a vivid memory of one of the Drama Queens at a tender age emerging from a pub loo in the UK after a week’s sailing and asking in a loud voice what she should do with the used loo paper, it’s amazing how a small child’s voice can penetrate a beery haze. We did however break the record this year on amount of water used– the high teenage girl ratio ensured multiple options on the shampoo/conditioner front. We also might have gone for the record in terms of cases of wine delivered to boat

In the enthusiasm of the booking the boat I overlooked the key point that the sleeping arrangements were going to ensure Drama Queen No.1 was going to be bunking down on the saloon table – a convertible table, though if it was a car we’d be talking a convertible Lada rather than Porsche in terms of comfort. She had baulked initially at the thought she might be sharing said table with small boy, however by the end of the week I worked out that owing to nightly movements of children/skipper/ and parents outed from their own berth by said children, all scruples had vanished and she ended up sharing the table with at least 4 out of the potential 9 candidates on a rotating basis.

The downside was that the weather, that after three perfect years of blue skies and dazzling sunshine we rather took for granted, was in contrast at times a tropical grey monsoonal sky with lots of wind and rain. The upside was that for the first time we saw whales, a mother and calf played around close to our isolated anchorage. Sitting in the dinghy, it was so quiet you could hear the exhalations as the whales spouted, at risk of sounding like an American Express advert – Priceless.