Tuesday, 31 January 2012

La Plume de Ma Tante est dans le Tupperware Box

Rodin's 'The Thinker' wondering
what he should have in his packed lunch
Not since Harold stood with both eyes looking out over the English Channel in October 1066 has a French invasion been so fearfully anticipated.

I was thinking this yesterday as I stood in front of a selection of pates and cold meats in Tesco, wondering what to buy for our French exchange student who arrives tomorrow. As I stood there, deliberating over a packet of Brussels pate and wondering if he'd mind that it wasn't from France, I was joined by a friend of mine who is also having a French boy to stay and was therefore looking equally stressed. We both had croissants in our trolleys.

It's a dilemma. Do I try and give the young lad some traditional British fare, so that he is immersed in our culture and heritage, or buy some French treats to make him feel at home? A bit of both, I think. Hence I'm cooking a beef stew and dumplings for his first meal tomorrow night but have bought him his favourite chorizo sausage for his packed lunches (though it's Spanish, which kind of muddies the water.)

The packed lunch saga has been my main worry, truth be told. Rory, for the last few years, has been allowed into town at lunchtime so his midday meal is a Greggs' steak bake or a bag of chips. But the French students will be on trips to Cambridge and London so I have to supply a pack-up. It took me an hour today to hunt out a Tupperware box; twice as long to find the corresponding lid. I've bought Walkers crisps in every variety plus some traditional British treats, namely Club biscuits and KitKats but then went off on a tangent picking up Port Salut and Boursin cheeses.

Maybe he'd like a chip pizza like this one we had in the Dordogne in 2010.

I may just open the fridge, point, and let him choose. Let's face it, there will be a considerable amount of pointing going on unless Jean Pierre speaks good English. By the way, Jean Pierre is his nom-de-plume (wow, did you see what I did there? Even thinking in French now). As I mentioned in a previous post, The French are Coming, I don't want him googling himself and becoming anxious about his host family.

I daren't tell JP I studied French at A level. That might lead him to think I'm able to speak the lingo when, in fact, my spoken French is pitiful. Give me a copy of Voltaire's Candide and I'll make a decent fist of summarising the story, but ask me to use verbs and string a sentence together and I'm scuppered. I was always a bit of a noun girl: liked to memorise the words in my vocabulary book. I remember 'le mouchoir' is a hankie and 'le parapluie' is an umbrella but ask me to say, "I have lost my hankie; maybe it's where I left my umbrella" and a long silence will ensue.

Having said that, I was quite proud of myself last night watching University Challenge. Jeremy Paxman asked the following question:
 "Putting the English preposition 'in' into the French word for 'an inn' gives the name for which fruit, eaten as a vegetable?"
 Both Manchester and Newcastle University contestants said, 'pineapple' and 'tomato' respectively, but I shouted out 'aubergine' and was correct because I knew the French word for an inn is 'une auberge'.

I may try and tell this story to JP tomorrow evening but, I fear, it may lose something in translation.


Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Going for Gold

2004 was an Olympic year. In Athens, finely sculpted bodies were pushing themselves to the limit to be ‘faster, higher, stronger’ while on the Mediterranean island of Menorca my body, seemingly sculpted with a blunt shovel, lay on a sun lounger, just about managing to turn over the pages of a book and stretch out for the brightly-coloured cocktail beside me.

Like most people in the hotel complex in Punta Prima, I had been making the most of the all-you-can-eat buffet at breakfast and dinner, often getting a little peckish at lunchtime too. After a few days of ensuring I was getting my money’s worth, I realised something had to give…before the sun lounger did.

Both my husband, Dougie, and eight year old son, Rory, were putting me to shame on the exercise front. Dougie was making a decent stab at becoming an Olympian, joining all the other competitive dads in the organised sporting events at this cosmopolitan resort. Huge national fervour took hold and communication barriers were overcome using the common language of shrugged shoulders, plenty of shouting and the constant peep from the referee’s whistle. The Italian men encouraged my Scottish husband to join them in the fiercely-contested volleyball and basketball tournaments. The Italy/Scotland team triumphed and Dougie, the big kid that he is, raced up to the stage that night to collect his medals.

Rory was just as active, spending a couple of hours each day in the Kids’ Club. We would watch him walk by in his yellow baseball cap, on a scavenger hunt or en route to the football pitch with his little friends. He would then spend the afternoon with us: leaping in and out of the pool, badgering his dad to throw the splash ball to him and clambering on and off his inflatable shark.

Did the spirit of the Olympics encourage me to partake in some exercise? It was Pedro, the archery instructor, whose torch eventually lit my fire. I had seen the tousled mop of dark hair belonging to this Spanish god and noticed he ran a class each day. I thought archery might suit me: not too exhausting, unlikely to make me perspire in an unattractive manner and pleasingly situated far away from the volleyball court.

As Pedro stood very close behind me, placing his arm on my arm, he helped to pull the arrow close to my cheek and whispered instructions into my ear:

“You need to have a firm grip, Senora…..now gently ease it back….steady…steady….now release”.

The arrow sliced through the air and landed, ‘thwack’, straight into the central gold section of the target.

“I think maybe you have done this before?” he enquired with the hint of a smile.

“Oh no,” I replied, breathless. “This is my first time.”

“I think Senora is a natural.”

"Do you? How marvellous! In that case, may I ask you one thing?”

“Si Senora.”

“Do I get a medal?”

This is an entry for the Tots 100 travel-writing competition in association with Thomson Al Fresco. Al Fresco has 54 holiday parcs across Europe, each offering plenty of fun activities for families (including archery!).
If you would like to enter the competition, you can find details on the Tots 100 blog. 


Thursday, 19 January 2012

Opportunity Knocks Revisited

Did you see The One Show last Friday? They were revisiting the famous talent show, Opportunity Knocks. While I was watching the interview with former child star, Neil Reid, and listening to some of the acts who had won in the 70s and 80s, I had to pause and rewind the programme to take a photo of the presenter Hughie Green beside the scoreboard.

With 86 on the clap-o-meter, there was the name Eileen Brennan. My mum.

I think I once mentioned this in a post a couple of years ago that  Mum, as well as appearing on TV in 1959 singing Habanera from Carmen, sang on Opportunity Knocks in 1971.  So when I saw her name suddenly flash up on the TV, I rang her to see if she was watching. We reminisced about the whole event and laughed about how I had been told, as a 7 year old, to keep it a secret that Mum was going to appear on the show, yet I happily wrote about it in 'My News' at school, so informing the teaching staff of my mother's forthcoming appearance.

I asked Mum to write down her memories of the occasion and here they are, complete with some photographs which were taken in front of the TV screen in 1971, just as I did last Friday.


" It all started when my husband, John, wrote to Opportunity Knocks, without my knowledge, to try and get me an audition - which was successful!

In January 1971 auditions were held in a ballroom in Whitley Bay, on the North East coast. The place was packed: singers, dancers, bands, novelty acts. What a buzz. Halfway through the day, they ran out of film for their camera so John kindly stepped forward and offered to go out and buy more (clever move).

A couple of months later I received a letter to say I had been chosen and was to appear on 4 December 1971. Wow. I had to take two dresses so they could choose one for lighting purposes. After all the songs from the audition, Habanera, Ave Maria, musical theatre numbers, they chose a Northumbrian ballad, Blow the Wind Southerly, a song which Kathleen Ferrier made famous.

We travelled by train to London, then a taxi to Thames Television at Teddington Lock. The recordings were made on Saturdays so we started rehearsing on the Friday.  I must say I loved rehearsing with a large orchestra: standing in front of them was fantastic. During the show itself the music was piped through a box on the stage; the orchestra were in another part of the studio. A little off-putting, but we coped.

The Saturday was a full and exciting day: rehearsals, make-up, microphone testing. Everyone was so friendly, all the contestants lapped up the excitement. My set was shaded in green and turquoise so my dress was chosen to blend in with those colours.  On the set was a rowing boat they had brought in from the river. Oh my God, I thought, I might have to sit in it and pretend to row. No, I just sang with an upright mike.

The star of the show, a young boy called Neil Reid, who had won previous shows, sang 'Sunshine of Your Smile'.  I think the rest of knew then we didn't stand a chance of winning but it didn't deter any of us from giving our best.

John enjoyed the experience too as he was my sponsor and had to chat and introduce me to Hughie Green. They chatted about architecture and what our children would be getting from Santa Claus. John was very eloquent and looked great on TV. Being introduced as a 'wife and mother' from Newcastle, I was neatly put in my place. I imagine someone in their 30s now wouldn't be pigeon-holed as a housewife.

It didn't take long for the results to be shown on the clap-o-meter, none of the waiting and heart-stopping carry-on they do on shows now. Show over, it was off to the Green Room for drinks before heading home.

After the show I was invited to become part of a Northumbrian group of singers and dancers who performed locally on TV and for civic occasions (entertaining a group of Russian visitors, for example). A highlight of my time with the group was in 1975 when we were invited to America to perform at the Iowa State Fair.

Looking back I am grateful that opportunity knocked for me; it was an experience I will never forget."


Monday, 16 January 2012

The French are Coming!

This weekend was mostly spent  trying to sort out the spare room in preparation for a French invasion. Rory's school are participating in a student exchange and, despite me thinking he wouldn't be keen, our son was well up for it. I suspect this may be partly due to the following:

a) the trip is a joint affair with the local girls' grammar school.
b) the age group is 16-18
c) the host school is located in the balmy south of France.

Rory will be travelling via Eurostar and TGV in March to stay with his French counterpart but before I can even get my head round this, I have to steel myself for a young man, aged 17, coming to stay with us. I shall keep his name private: don't want the poor soul googling himself in the next few days and discovering his host's mother is one slice short of a baguette. In any case, Dougie seems unable to keep the boy's name in his head and keeps referring to him as Jean-Pierre and imagining him hanging out of the bedroom window wafting the smoke from his Gauloises.

The two boys have now begun to MSN/Facebook chat/message each other and this is providing some useful information. His favourite foods are 'meat, vegetables, raspberries and cornflakes.' My question as to what he would like in his sandwiches on the days they go on trips, elicited the response 'chorizo'.

'Jean-Pierre' will stay for a week and most days he will go on organised visits with his French group, Cambridge and London being the highlights. However we still  have a full weekend to fill and I haven't the faintest idea what to do with him. He lives on the south coast of France, near Marseilles, so surely has access to some very chic resorts and picture-postcard Provencal towns. Not sure Skegness will cut the mustard but possibly the empty vastness of our North Norfolk coast may appeal? Or do I just leave him to sleep, like my own son, until the vaches come home?

I remember being offered the chance to go on a French exchange when I was at school and declined as I was too scared. Dougie, however, exchanged with a German boy, Wolfgang, in 1978, when he was 14. It was all going swimmingly until the weekend during Wolfgang's stay in Edinburgh, when Dougie's parents invited another Scottish lad, his parents and accompanying German student for a meal. The four boys amused themselves in the garage playing with the Scalextric track while the four adults sat demurely having tea. Dougie tells me the German boys were 'being annoying' and things became a little heated. Wolfgang trotted back into the living room where the adults were sitting and asked,

"What means 'Fuck Off'?"


Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Mum's planning to go to Sweden

It's that time of year; holiday planning. As usual we have been all around the globe over the last few weeks considering where we fancy going this summer and seem to have plumped for Sweden. Why?
  • Denmark was fabulous last Easter: loved the Scandinavian vibe so would like to see more.
  • Still influenced by my dad's stories of his trips to Sweden in the 1950s.
  • With all the Stieg Larsson mania there is at the moment, Sweden seems a hip place to go. In fact there are numerous 'Millennium Tours' available for fans who want to stay in a hotel near Lisbeth Salander's apartment, drink in the bar frequented by the Millennium journalists and travel several hours in a train to go to a town which near-enough matches the fictional town of Hedeby.
  • Last year was lovely doing nothing on a beach in Portugal but we did become a bit restless; touring a country will be far more interesting with plenty of blog-fodder.

Now we have to decide which bits of Sweden we should visit in a two-week period. I'm trying very hard not to try and 'do' everything: we want to have some stops of at least three days to avoid it just being a race around the southern half of the country. But which parts to leave out? Should we include Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo or just two fo the three, leaving time to chill by a lake or a beach? I asked on Twitter about the logistics of doing all three cities and got some helpful advice from @Davtel in Stockholm about driving times and a suggestion from @KaisaLarkas in Finland to add a boat trip to the itinerary so we could visit Helsinki too.

We are almost certain we'll fly cheaply with Ryanair from Stansted to any of the three cities: fly to one and come back from another. Having saved money there, we can splurge a little on the hotels. I keep mentioning interesting hotels to Dougie, carefully avoiding showing him room rates. So far we are looking at two classy joints in Stockholm each with a different story to tell: the chic Hotel Rival, partly owned by Benny Anderson from ABBA or Hotel Nobis, a new hotel in a grand building which used to be the bank where hostages were held captive in 1973, leading to the term the 'Stockholm Syndrome'.

Malmo keeps coming on and off our itinerary. I'd like to see the Turning Torso building and Dougie is amused by a Wikipedia entry which states that the Malmo town council have passed a law permitting women to swim topless in the public baths. As one council spokesman put it: ""We don’t decide what men should do with their torso, why then do women have to listen to the men. Moreover, many men have larger breasts than women".

Mind you, as both Dougie and Rory are wondering about the nudist beaches and the Swedish liberal attitude to sex, I have drawn their attention to the introduction in The Rough Guide to Sweden which states, "Sweden isn't populated soley with people waiting for any opportunity to tear off their clothes and make passionate love under the midnight sun.....You'll doubtless see people sunbathing naked but this state of affairs is not an invitation for a love-in". Take note, boys.

The Rough Guide is giving me lots of information and, as it only arrived yesterday, has caused even more changes in the itinerary. I'm dipping into it for the detail but we've also got the DK Eyewitness Guide for the pictures. A perfect balance.

One thing we are definitely going to do is hire a decent car and spend time checking it over so we don't, like we did last year, set off with bits dropping off it and find our spare tyre has a huge gouge in it. I'm sorry if that means less funny stories but I can assure you we will get lost frequently and fight even more frequently so there'll be a good smattering of schadenfreude to make up for it.

Any suggestions of places to go still very welcome. Tack.


Thursday, 5 January 2012

Up Jacob's Creek without a paddle

I don't know if any of you have been watching the episodes of Celebrity Mastermind but in our house we are Sky plus-ing them like mad, for sheer entertainment value.

The nation's favourite reality TV star, Stacey Solomon (X Factor finalist, I'm a Celebrity winner and face of Iceland...the shop, not the country) was on Episode Two. I missed her specialist subject round where she managed 6 points for her in depth knowledge of The Inbetweeners, but tuned in just in time to see some classic answers in the general knowledge round.

For her first question John Humphries asked her what was the classic sparkling wine named after the region in north-east France where it originates. Stacey, bless her, paused and thought long and hard but when Humphries helped her with the words "a sparkling wine?" she answered with the words, "Jacob's Creek?"

Her knowledge of Britney Spears and the island of Ibiza helped her to gain a couple of  points before she cracked me up with her answer to the question "Which breed of dog includes springers and cockers?"  - "Cockapoo?"

Even though she only scored 10 points in total I thought she was brave, if misguided, to appear on the show. However she seemed unconcerned at her performance and cheerily announced she just wanted to 'do everything' before she dies. If this includes bombing on a quiz show then good luck to her and, as she was raising money for charity, she got a round of applause from us.

Wish I could say the same for poor old Michel Roux Jnr, Michelin-starred chef and Celebrity Masterchef presenter. In Episode Four he made the fatal mistake of choosing a specialist subject related to his job, the culinary bible which is Escoffier's Guide to Modern Cooking. Michel started badly, not knowing the London hotel where Escoffier had been based in 1899, and then imploded, only scoring four points. He didn't know his chestnuts from his raspberries and got his garnishes all muddled up. I'm convinced if he'd been asked to name the mixture of butter and flour used to thicken sauces, he would have passed on that too.


Monday, 2 January 2012

First-Foot Frivolity

Although we had done the Newcastle run the week before Christmas, we decided last minute to visit again for New Year to keep Mum company. There were plenty of people to look after her over the Christmas weekend and she was in good spirits on account of her grandson's first birthday on Christmas Day. But as New Year was always a happy time for Mum and Dad, parties and family get-togethers were part of their shared life for 50 years, I didn't want her to have a sad New Year's Eve. With this in mind, on Saturday morning we drove up a reasonably quiet A1 with a cool box full of Tesco Finest canapes, beer, Cava and a big vat of chilli.

My Auntie Pat and Uncle Alan joined us all for the evening and, buoyed by the success of this game at Christmas, we even had a few rounds of charades, the highlight being Dougie pretending to urinate over everything for a film which will forever be known as The Piss Family Robinson.

As midnight approached we channel-hopped between Jools Holland's jolly Hootenanny and the BBC reporting from the Thames with the usual inane interviewing:
"So where did you get those Union Jack hats?"
"I had to walk to the other side of the river: took me three hours"
"Well it was certainly worth it: well done".

Then began the annual debate as to who would be the first-foot. For the uninitiated, in Scotland and the North East of England in particular, a first-foot is the first person to cross the threshold on New Year's day who brings good fortune for the coming year. Rules have relaxed slightly in that the first-foot can be a member of the household but they must be outside before the stroke of midnight. Tradition has it they should be a tall dark-haired male.

There were three males in the house. Uncle Alan used to be a great first-foot but now his beard and hair are rather white, so he's probably more welcome the week before, and his chosen point of entry would be the chimney. That left Dougie and Rory.

It was at this point I decided to google first-foot traditions and discovered that the tall, dark man should not be a minister, grave-digger or a doctor. We never knew that. We've been using Dougie as a first-foot for years, not knowing he has been a constant harbinger of doom and pestilence. Bugger. So it was down to Rory to save the day. Not keen to move his backside from the comfy sofa, he was equally put out that he was to be shoved out into the cold and miss the final countdown. His moans were ignored and we ran around finding all the things he needed to bring with him: -

Coin - for prosperity - we gave him 50p
Bread/Cake - for food - a chocolate brownie
Coal - for warmth - he nicked a pretend one from my mum's gas fire display.
Drink - for good cheer - a bottle of whisky.

Once he had the whisky in his paws he looked a bit more lively and we shooed him out of the front door with a minute to go. The rest of us counted down, cheered, kissed, watched the fireworks and waited with bated breath for our first-foot. He seemed to take a while and I was worried he'd sneaked off with the The Famous Grouse so in the end I had to shout at him through the letter-box.

When he eventually walked through the door he was, indeed, a bringer of good fortune, with the biggest smile I've seen in ages and which, amazingly, I happened to catch mid-grin on my camera.

Happy New Year to you all and 'Lang may yer lum reek'.