Thursday, 30 June 2011

Mum's Gone to Montreal with Wills and Kate

Having hopefully experienced the fabulous toilet facilities in the Museum of Civilisation in Ottawa on Friday, the Royal couple's next stop on their Canadian tour will be Montreal on Saturday 2 July. They won't be staying in a hotel as they are travelling overnight on HMCS Montreal to Quebec City. Such a shame as I could have recommended the Marriott Chateau Champlain in Montreal, affectionately known as the cheese-grater on account of the windows .

I have stressful memories of arriving in Montreal, a huge, rather overwhelming city, all because of the damn SatNav woman who directed us through a tunnel just as we were approaching the city centre: the signal disappeared but we had to choose between two roads while we were in the tunnel. We chose the wrong fork and proceeded to drive back out of the city. When we eventually saw the cheese-grater it was like we'd reached nirvana, albeit a concrete, corporate one.

The best bit about the hotel, apart from the funky windows, was the restaurant, and, in particular, a delightful  Italian Des Lynam looky-likey waiter called Ezio who made a fuss of Rory and plied me with Italian wine while reminiscing about his family back home. On one night there was a violin-player who worked the tables and, despite it all being a bit embarrassing, I couldn't help joining in with Volare and Begin the Beguine. He was an odd chap: he had a manic grin and was a tad thyrotoxic, Dougie diagnosed, from his rather bulging eyes. But he played a decent fiddle.

Montreal has to cope with extremely cold temperatures in the winter, so much so that they have an underground city, with walkways and shops in between many of the Metro stations. There was a metro station underneath our hotel: we were able to take the elevator straight down to the basement and hop on a train. Having lived for a few years in London, I always take charge when we're faced with something similar in a foreign city. Dougie has often said he wished my innate sense of direction on a metro network could be replicated above ground. Harsh.

The hotel is next to the Bell Centre, the home of Montreal's hockey team but also a great indoor concert arena. When we were there we managed to secure tickets to see Rod Stewart: a great night which even Rory enjoyed despite being the youngest there and surrounded by women of a certain age dressed in skin-tight leopard print (not his mother, I hasten to add). If William and Kate had been there on Saturday night they could have popped along to see Katy Perry performing but apparently they are shooting off early after a cookery workshop. Shame.


Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Mum's Gone to Ottawa with Wills and Kate

I'm sure it was an oversight that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge neglected to seek my advice before their tour of Canada. However, I am a generous woman and I have decided to share with them my unsurpassed knowledge  of some of the cities they will be visiting, based on a two-week fly-drive in 2008.

William and Kate's first stop will be the capital, Ottawa, on Thursday 30 June. Our drive to Ottawa was via the scenic route along Highway 60 through part of the Algonquin National Park. This national park is part of the Nipissing District of Ontario. It might have been "Ni pissing" for them but I remember needing to stop fairly frequently after an excess of coffee at breakfast.

The royal couple should be warned that this is bear country and I told the boys at the time that if you come across a brown bear you should stay still and with a black bear you should run away. But then I couldn't remember whether that was the right way round. However I was more worried about some of the health hazards you could encounter when you're in the back country. It said in my book you should be careful not to get "beaver fever"; Wills and Kate, take note.

Keep that bloody bird away from me!
What else did I glean from my guide-book reading at the time? In 1864 Queen Victoria had to decide which town should become the capital of Canada. Legend has it she picked Ottawa because of a watercolour painting she admired of the countryside outside the city. A more likely reason is its position between the English and French populations. Another gem was that Ottawa, although the capital of Canada, has been dubbed one of the dullest cities in North America. I have to disagree. Ottawa is a lovely city: a mix of London and Edinburgh with some very British parliament buildings.

Just like in London they have a Changing of the Guard ceremony on Parliament Hill.  It takes place at 10am and I remember on our first morning in the city we were grabbing a very quick breakfast at 9.30am when, in the distance, through the window, we could see the pipes and drums marching past the hotel.  If only we'd waited, we could have just stood at the front door of the hotel, or even hung out of the bedroom window to see the spectacle. But, toast in hand, we'd missed it. To add to our irritation, by 10.30 we eventually set out, walking towards the river, we heard the pipes somewhere behind us. Of course, the soldiers were marching back again, past the hotel we'd just left. So we'd missed them...twice!

I have fond memories of this city, it was so clean, plenty of drinking fountains everywhere, easy to walk along the river without having to dodge the traffic. We walked over the river which took us from the English city of Ottawa to the French city of Gatineau, the border between the states of Ontario and Quebec. We spent the rest of the morning at the Museum of Civilisation in Gatineau, only because we had free tickets for it as part of our fly-drive package. So glad we did. The museum was fantastic, a beautiful building itself and plenty of loos on every floor, all sparkling clean. That's how a museum should be. A high loo ratio. We learned all about the history of Canada from the first settlers onwards and whereas in other museums there's a tendency to glaze over after a while, this place was spot-on with how to amuse all ages.

It was on the way back over the river that one of the most memorable incidents of our holiday took place. Apologies if people have read this before but I can't write about Ottawa without plucking this out of the archives.

It was while we were ambling along in Ottawa that we kept seeing little furry animals popping out of holes near the river bank and along the canal. They were quite chubby, with reddish brown fur and probably measured about 2 ft in length. We sat at a cafe by the canal trying to decide what they were. In the end I plucked up the courage to go inside to ask the cashier.

"Can you tell me what the little furry animals are outside?"

"Sure", he replied, "They're groundhogs"

"Groundhogs! Like in the film, Groundhog Day?"

"Yup, that's right, we have hundreds of them round here".

Who'd have thought it! I was very excited when I returned to the boys to tell them. We gave Rory a quick synopsis of the film: Bill Murray gets stuck in time during Groundhog Day and has to replay the day over and over again.

Dougie then smiled wickedly and said,

"I dare you"

"Dare me to what?"

"Go back into the cafe and ask him again".


Saturday, 25 June 2011

I've been given the cold shoulder

It happened first in 2008 for months: now it's happened again. I can't understand it. I didn't do anything wrong, can't think what might have caused it but I do know that it's painful and so frustrating....

This shoulder isn't just cold, it's positively glacial. Ok, it's frozen. Yup, having experienced months of a left frozen shoulder a few years ago, it has returned and this time it's my right shoulder. It's an odd condition and goes through three stages - freezing, frozen and thaw, lasting up to three years. At the moment, according to the physio I visited on Thursday, I am coming to the end of the freezing, painful stage but now that the joint is stiffening up I'm becoming frozen. I feel a bit like Sid and Manny from Ice Age, desperately trying to out-run the impending tomb of immobility.

The main difficulties are bra-fastening, armpit de-fuzzing, hair-drying and generally putting clothes on. Ironing is a bit tough too but I can live without that. Bedtime is also a problem. I have positioned a big cushion down the middle of the bed so I can rest my arm on it. Dougie thinks this big divide is sending him a coded message: he peers over the Maginot line now and again with a wistful look in his eye.

I sat last night watching Andy Murray at Wimbledon and said, "I couldn't do that".
"Hmm", replied Dougie, "I agree, with your arm you couldn't play"
"No," I said, "I don't think I could throw a sweat-band into the air".

It's true. It's that sudden movement which is an absolute killer. I stupidly swatted a fly with a tea-towel the other day and the pain was so intense I was screaming in agony. It's short-lived pain; shoots up your neck and down into your fingers but 30 seconds later it goes away.

So what do I have to do to cure it? Gently, gently, advises the physio. She recommends hot baths and microwave wheat bags. Excellent. On Thursday she gave me some ultrasound treatment and massaged my shoulder but has suggested I lie on my back with my hands behind my head and.....well.....just lie there.

Dougie walked into the bedroom early this afternoon and I was flat-out and drifting off:

"What are you doing, you lazy tart? I thought we were going to put all the things back in the kitchen?"
"Do you mind," I replied sleepily, "I'm doing my exercises".

"Another good tug should do it"


Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Choosing to Die - My thoughts

Yesterday I watched the BBC documentary, Terry Pratchett - Choosing to Die, where Sir Terry Pratchett explored the contentious issue of assisted suicide. The programme has created much controversy, in particular for filming the final moments of Motor Neurone Disease sufferer Peter Smedley, drinking his glass of poison at the Swiss clinic, Dignitas.

My own father died of MND in February this year so this was a hard programme for me to watch. But watch it I did. I have great admiration for Peter Smedley and his wonderful wife, Christine, and I defend their decision to wish to avoid a protracted illness, by ending his life far sooner than necessary but when he was still capable of travelling and physically able to take the liquid which would kill him. However I can't help but wonder what the years ahead would have been like for this gracious, charming couple if they had decided to wait and see.

My dad was diagnosed with the disease in 1994 at the age of 60. I remember hearing the devastating news and, at the time, expecting his life to be over in a couple of years, at most. In fact he lived until 2011, dying peacefully in a hospice at the reasonably ripe old age of 76. In those years he saw the birth of my son, Rory, sat with him completing jigsaws, helped him to draw, read him stories, watched him grow up to be a young man.

His life wasn't easy, he was virtually immobile in the latter years, but he never wanted his life to end. He endured the indignity of requiring help from carers to wash him and see to his needs, but was then able to sit in his wheelchair, paint, complete crosswords with my mum, watch the TV, listen to music, laugh and be part of a loving family.

I'm so grateful he didn't decide to make things easier for everyone by choosing to end his life early; he would have missed out on so much. He knew the prognosis but, with the support of everyone around him, lived the life that was given to him to the best of his ability. In his final weeks he received care from excellent Macmillan Nurses and at the end, St Oswald's Hospice in Newcastle upon Tyne made sure, with their outstanding palliative care, that he didn't die a painful death. Mum was with him and he just slipped away.

I know there have been complaints about the BBC programme but I found it a very moving film and one which was also balanced. I cried watching Peter taking his own life, his words, "I understand" a constant reply to the questions he was asked regarding his decision. I felt desperately frustrated for the younger man, Andrew, an MS sufferer, who took the same decision to die when, to me, he seemed so full of life, enjoying the sights of Zurich. I wanted to shout, "Stay and enjoy Zurich! Savour every last drop of your life!"

But there was another man who was filmed who seems to have been forgotten in all the post-broadcast debate. Mick, the former taxi-driver, had been suffering from MND for seven years and had made the decision, with the support of his wife, to not take the suicide option. His wife wanted to care for him, they would take it in their stride and they had a fantastic hospice which would be there to care for him. His decision was just as brave as Peter and Andrews': the progression of his MND is likely to be very hard for him. 

I'm not entirely sure where I stand on the idea of euthanasia. I defend Peter and Andrew's decision to end their lives, I think it sad they should have to travel to Switzerland in order to do this, but I'm also very wary of rushing into providing such a service as a matter of course here. If it had been available in the UK, if it had been the norm to have such an option, would my father have worried about being a burden and therefore taken his own life early?

I think, while the debate continues, the government should support palliative care services in this country so that they aren't just relying on charitable donations. If everyone had good access to the kind of care my father received, then seeking an early date to shuffle off this mortal coil might not be so critical.


Monday, 20 June 2011

Mum's Gone to the Moulin Rouge

Well, not quite the Moulin Rouge, Paris, but it was South Lincolnshire's equivalent, courtesy of the annual Spalding Midsummer Ball.

Last year the theme was Boogie Nights and we disco-danced to The Real Thing under spinning glitter balls. This year the theme was very ooh-la-la with can-can dancers, a cocktail bar and sumptuous red and black decor. Each table had as a centrepiece a funky transparent leg filled with tiny LED lights. The corridor leading to the main room had been designed to look like the dressing rooms of the Moulin Rouge: individual tables adorned with mirrors, bottles of perfume feathers and sequinned gowns. An incredible amount of hard work by the committee to see that every detail was perfect.

Our annual jaunt to the ball, for what must be our 10th year in a row, is always the highlight of our dwindling social calendar. I still remember our first one: our table consisted of fellow parents from Rory's primary school. Dougie didn't pace himself that night and I watched, in shame, as he returned from a visit to the gents and proceeded to sit himself down at someone else's table and start supping at their wine. Meanwhile the whole of our table waved to him from 10 feet away. He was hurriedly removed from the room by me and bundled into a taxi before he embarrassed me any further. The next year one of our friends created a special placard for the back of his chair to aid his navigation. I've kept my beady eye on the bugger ever since, although our pals think I don't give the old boy any slack; they ask me every year if I've brought my big hook with me.

This year Dougie behaved impeccably apart from a worrying incident when his wedding ring became caught on a key-ring which is sewn into the lining of his sporran. Inevitably this precipitated raucous laughter and 'got your ring caught in your sporran' innuendo abounded. Meanwhile he was getting very hot and bothered, rummaging around in his crotch region for some considerable time and putting up with even more jibes as the chaps at the table were waiting for the seemingly reluctant scotsman to contribute to the kitty.

The evening didn't go smoothly for me, either. Dressed in a black satin dress, complete with elbow-length black gloves, there was some debate on the table about whether I should attempt to eat the meal with gloves on or off. No-one was quite sure of the etiquette regarding this, although there were plenty of ribald comments regarding my need to be gloved-up for any frolics after the ball was over. I decided to keep them on for the starter then removed them when I paid a visit to the ladies as the idea of wearing gloves for that activity just seemed wrong. When I came out of the cubicle I noticed the dye from the gloves had seeped out onto my hands and arms: I looked ridiculous with black fingers and blue-black forearms. You should have seen me, standing at the basin for ages scrubbing away at them like a demented OCD sufferer. As the black dye poured down the sink, I suspect I was given a very wide berth by the other ladies re-touching their lippy nearby.

I stayed in the shadows for the rest of the evening, apart from a few goes on the Gift Tree where, for a tenner a pop, you were guaranteed a prize. I was angling for a Kindle, or even a teddy bear like last year, but came away with vouchers for a cut and blow dry, a portrait sitting, and a bag of Toyota car-cleaning products. Not a bad haul and happy to have supported the charities Action Medical Research, Macmillan Cancer Support and Spalding Special Schools Federation.

Verdict on the ball? One of the best yet. Room looked fabulous, seating arrangements much improved from previous years, food was spot-on with perfectly cooked chicken served to 500 guests and the biggest puds I've ever seen....and Dougie stayed on his own table all night. Result.


Tuesday, 14 June 2011

My Father's Legacy

My Dad died in February so all this talk of Father's Day is difficult for me. The theme for The Gallery this week is 'Dads' and over at Tim's blog, Bringing up Charlie, there is a Fatherhood Festival to highlight the publication of his new book, 'Fatherhood: The Essential Guide'. Tim understood my initial misgivings at joining in the Dads-fest but enlightened me with the information that the first ever Father's Day was a daughter's tribute to her father. That made me think quite hard and I realised that rather than trying to ignore the day and the sentiments surrounding it, I should embrace it and celebrate the life and love of a very special man.

My dad was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease 18 years before he eventually succumbed to the disease. In that time he became gradually weaker with initially his legs and then his arms losing their function. As a former architect, my father obviously had drawing skills but had never really painted or sketched for pleasure since he had been a child. So he took up painting as the MND took hold of him. Watercolours, charcoal, pencil, pastels were the mediums of choice. Often painting from memory or from photographs, his talent for art gave him and the family immense pleasure. In the latter years it was a struggle for him to draw; he would have to steady his crippled right hand with his equally immobile left hand, my mum would place the drawing implement in his hand to get him started, he could only paint for a few minutes at a time before tiring.

He helped others find solace in painting. At the day centre hospice he visited each Wednesday, he ran an art class for other patients with terminal conditions, several of whom created beautiful drawings for their families to treasure only weeks before they died.

On the night my dad passed away my brother brought my mum back to her home. She stood in the hall and exclaimed, "How am I going to cope now he's gone?". My brother held her close and then pointed at the walls in each room "He's not gone", he said, "just look around you. He's everywhere".

I took  photographs of a selection of his work: some are at my parents' home, some here with me, all treasured. There are paintings of the quayside in Newcastle, bulb fields in Spalding, Emmanuel College, Cambridge and Mont Saint Michel, France. They should be posted below as a slideshow but let me know if you can't see them or click on this link to see pictures separately


Friday, 10 June 2011

Island Girl

This is my new island. It's a bloody big one. If you stand at one end you need semaphore to ask someone at the other end to pass the salt. Husband is having depraved thoughts which seem to involve me sliding my derriere across the induction hob. Best move the knives first.

We seem to be getting there. Week 5 has consisted of the floor tiler and the decorator dancing round each other. Today, however, I have had men flocking round me. The carpenter came to finish the plinths, the electrician turned up to do the remaining sockets but they have had to work round the decorator who has covered all the surfaces with dust covers. I think the tiler has been shoved in the pantry to get out of everyone's way. It's happy chaos.

As I type, the big kick-ass American style fridge-freezer has arrived. There are five men huffing and puffing as they try to lift it up the steps and through the French doors. To you. I can't look. This is the item Rory has been waiting to see for over a month. I reckon there will be much slush-puppy-making going on with the crushed-ice machine. My worry is that this is a huge wodge of stainless steel which is going to show up every finger mark. And I'll have to find somewhere else for our collected fridge magnets to go - if the family think they are getting put back on this beautiful beast, they've another think coming!

When will it be finished? I'm hoping middle of next week as my mum is coming down from Newcastle on Thursday to visit for a few days. It may turn out to be rather like '60 Minute Makeover' with my mother cutting the ribbon as she comes through the front door just as the kitchen fitters quickly shuffle out the back.
We should probably open a bottle of champagne to celebrate - if only I could find the glasses. I know I put them somewhere...


Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Flying High

Do you remember the British Airways adverts some years ago which featured the Flower Duet music from the opera Lakme by Delibes? One of my readers, the lovely, funny Marion who lives in Panama, emailed me a link to an amusing alternative version. It reminds me of the Cheap Flights parody by Fascinating Aida which I've seen lately: beautiful voices, witty lyrics.

See what you think of this one...


Monday, 6 June 2011

Mum's Gone to the Airport - Trish's Top Travel Tips

I think we are all familiar with most travel tips regarding air travel: colouring books for children, pashminas and loose clothing to counteract the cold and trapped wind (you didn't know that?) , roll up your knickers and stuff them in your shoes (this is luggage-packing advice, not a suggestion of fun things to do on a plane).

What you really need are some essential tips that the magazines don't tell you. This is where I come in with Trish's Top Travel Tips (ah, the joy of alliteration). Today's lesson is 'Airports'.

1. Hand Luggage or Hold Luggage?

If you're going on a two-week family holiday then bite the bullet and pay for as much hold luggage as you are allowed. If this is your well-earned summer break you want to have as many pairs of shoes at your disposal to make your vacation as pleasurable as possible. Remove some of the kids' toys and replace with sandals in all colours.

If it's a short break then you can save money and time by only taking carry-on luggage but, be warned, you will spend the weekend in shoes which pinch and you'll be fed up of the black and white clothing combo you've chosen. You will also have to suffer the ignominy of carrying all your lotions and potions in a very small transparent bag. Do you really want your teenage son and the rest of the travellers in the security queue to snigger at your ylang ylang massage oil, G-Pulse lube and haemorrhoid cream? Don't think that decanting the stuff into anonymous plastic bottles will help: you will only live to regret it when washing your hair with something decidedly slippery.

2. Food

Do you eat before going through security or after? It all depends on the quality of the eateries on each side. Problem is, you don't know until you've passed the point of no return whether your decision is the right one. In Montreal and Madrid we chose to eat airside. Big mistake: only two food outlets we could find, both busy and food disappointing. In Copenhagen we feared a similar experience so grabbed a pizza meal deal at the first 7-Eleven we spotted, only to discover a whole smorgasbord of tempting treats on the other side. I have now learned my lesson and plan to google each airport before we travel and print out a map showing what delights they have. This will also be invaluable for indicating where the check-in desks and toilets are located so you can avoid having a marital tiff as soon as you arrive.

3. Drink

You will not be allowed to take a bottle of water through security so remember to buy some on the other side so that you have some refreshment while waiting at the gate in the long queue of people like you who refuse to pay for speedy boarding. Do not assume there will be a cheaper bottle if you just keep on walking. There won't be and you'll be left paying 2 euros for a teeny bottle from a vending machine: this will make you very cross, especially if you are Scottish.

4. Security

This is still quite an ordeal, requiring the removal of coats, jackets, boots and belts. My advice here is, if you're going to wear a belt, make sure it's superfluous to requirements. If you actually need a belt to keep your trousers up then you'll embarrass yourself. If you like being frisked, wear lots of chunky jewellery in odd places and the security officer will have you standing on a podium, poking you with her light-saber quicker than you can say 'Im not carrying a dangerous weapon, honest'.

5. Car Parks

Book your car park as far in advance as possible to save money. By all means choose a 'meet and greet' service, where they valet-park your vehicle, but only if you want your husband to hyperventilate as he hands over his precious keys. If you can't cope with the images of some young oik whooping it up for a fortnight in your SUV and wearing out the back seats, you will have to plump for the Long Stay Car Park and take the transfer bus. This will cause another domestic as your husband will choose a spot as far away from the bus stop as possible and, most probably, in a part of the car park not yet tarmaced  so your wheely case will topple over.

Make a note of which car park you have left your car in. This helps enormously at midnight when you return, optimistically wearing the flip-flops and sarong from the beach earlier that day.

So there you have it: airport advice from one who knows. Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.


Friday, 3 June 2011

Mum's not gone anywhere this week

This time last year we were sunning ourselves in Picardy, courtesy of Eurocamp. This year we are going nowhere; instead I'm playing at being the foreman and chief coffee maker while we have our new kitchen fitted.

As you can see we now have some units, temporary worktops and a jigsaw pattern of tiles which has given me an overwhelming urge to play hopscotch. However, unlike Dorothy, I'm not allowed to follow the yellow brick road while the cement is drying.

There are certain things I have learned, as we are coming to the end of Week Four of Kitchengate.

Do not, under any circumstances, flick through kitchen magazines once your chosen units start to arrive. It does you no good to be hankering after lime-green splashbacks and white acrylic soft-touch cupboards when you've already chosen a classic maple wood with chrome handles.

Microwave meals are only fun for a week. Prepare for the coming of the kitchen by cooking and freezing ahead. Imagining you will be constantly barbecueing in May is a tad optimistic.

Bedtime reading will consist of instruction manuals for new appliances. Most of these seem chiefly concerned with health and safety matters. Ovens, apparently, are hot.

If you choose a cooker hood above a central island, think ahead about the height of your ceiling and the height of your husband's head.

Dust gets everywhere and curtains are not an effective barrier.

Teenage boys are not woken by drilling and sawing at 8am, even if the work is occuring directly underneath their bedroom.

When the kitchen company tell you it will probably take five or six weeks to do the work, don't laugh at such an absurd notion......