…some in-house work, hence the disappearing act. As soon as the shock of going into an office again wears off, I’ll be back!
The lovely and the unexpected that I experienced this weekend in London and Paris:
- the catering manager who, when asked to help open bottles of champagne at a 50th birthday party, said he couldn’t because he had a ‘bad wrist’;
- the Eurostar train manager who told us that we had stopped because there was something on the line and then said that we could start again, but only very slowly, because the driver was ‘keeping an eye on the rails to check that they were all right’. In the dark at 9pm?! How? Very reassuring;
- finding out that coffee was now €4.50 ‘en terrasse’ (and we’re not talking Champs-Elysees here) and, in some instances, disgusting;
- complaining to someone on the 91, on the way to St Pancras, about his loud music and being supported by fellow passengers; hurrah!;
- sitting on the back of a Vespa to cross the Pont des Invalides in the sunshine after lunch in the Jardin du Luxembourg; I’m not sure life gets much better than that.
One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to learn to swim front crawl. Swimming for me is both physical and mental: physical because I love to churn up and down for 30 lengths, preferably in the open air at the Hampstead Lido under an early morning summer sky; mental because, rather oddly, it helps me think and relax since, after about three hundred metres my brain switches from worrying to wondering.
But in the last two years I have been practically banned from one of my favourite activities after I was diagnosed with an extruded disc (in brief, and not too graphic terms, the sticky stuff between my vertebrae is, well, leaking) and breaststroke, the only one I can swim, makes it worse. Since being in a pool makes me happy in a way that no other sport can (even goggle-ringed eyes, communal changing rooms and the smell of chlorine don’t put me off) I have to learn another stroke.
Which is why, yesterday evening, I found myself sharing a lane, a thirty-minute swimming lesson and an instructor with seven other adults. Thirty minutes didn’t sound very long to me but after several breathing exercises and a few lessons in how to move arms, legs and head, I was exhausted. Not as exhausted as the poor woman who, after ten minutes with her head in the water without goggles, abandoned ship but much more than I expected to be.
I was also frustrated. Water has always felt like my element; my Dad taught me to swim when I was very small and whereas some people love to pound pavements, or kick balls, I prefer sticking my head underwater and feeling myself glide. And here I was not only not gliding, but practically sinking as I tried to combine the three bits of the stroke. It was horrible, like being back at school and yet worse, because in this instance I wanted the teacher to pay attention to me, not ignore me, I wanted her to see that, honest, I knew how to do this, and this was just a temporary blip. I sometimes wonder if I will ever stop hoping for that elusive gold star…
Every so often, whilst waiting for my turn to practice, I would swim a few metres of breaststroke. And it felt wonderful, like being let loose with an Audi after a few minutes of driving a tractor. I’m not suggesting, by the way, that I have pretensions to being an Audi, just that I was certainly a tractor in comparison when learning to crawl: unwieldy, inelegant and slow.
But, at the same time, amid the frustration and the floundering, I felt a small moment of contentment, even pride. Despite public humiliation, physical exhaustion and water being kicked in my face, the sort of horrors I shied away from at school, here I was, 43 years old, still willing to submit myself to embarrassment and discomfort in order to learn. And for no purpose other than to please myself. I should give myself a gold star just for that.
I have been back from Spain for almost as long as I was there, which seems very weird when I think of how little I have done since January. Painted a wall, completed my tax return, applied for the few jobs that are out there…and, it seems, eating. Yes, eating so much that when I tried to sit down in my ‘fat’ jeans yesterday my best friend asked me if my back was hurting, such was the look of anguish on my face as I tried to bend. No, it was just my jeans’ waistband digging into the flesh that wasn’t there when I bought the wretched things.
Though I know I’m not eating loads more, I know that my habits have changed enough to have an effect. First, I’m not climbing up and down a hill four to six times a day, second I’m eating two or three course dinners at weekends instead of snaffling a couple of tapas and third and, probably the most telling, it’s been a really long winter and I’ve made good friends with toast and cake. Such good friends that my very skinny and very expensive 30″ jeans have long been consigned to the ‘possibly sell on eBay‘ pile, whilst I’ve been reduced to the ‘when I need another inch or two of leeway’ pair. And even they are now rather too skinny.
So today, inspired by the beautiful sunshine and the prospect of swimming lessons from tomorrow (to learn the front crawl) I decided it was time to shed my clingy friends toast and cake and meet my summer companions, grilled protein and green vegetables. And I also decided to face the truth: I bought a set of bathroom scales.
I should add that I have only had the sort of waist that can be comfortable in 30″ jeans for the last two or three years. When I split up with my ex in 2007 I left behind many good and bad aspects of my former life; my appetite for one. I became a fridge grazer and that, combined with misery, saw me shed 20 odd pounds, or ten kilos or so without even trying. I haven’t been that thin for years, not since I did my final exams, and although I was probably a bit too scraggy, I rather enjoyed the thrill of wearing the sort of clothes that had always been denied me in the past. Suddenly I was a 10-12, not a 14-16 and it felt rather lovely. Somehow being skinny tasted better than food. And, yes, I have just realised that I’m echoing Ms Moss here…
It all began to creep back on last year, but not in any significant way, and it seemed that I was going to stay a 12, and not jolly my way back into the L categories. But somewhere along the way winter, not enough exercise and being at home all day (going to work in London is a form of exercise in itself, especially if you use the Tube) did for my mini-skinny moment. So today I decided it was time to a) weigh myself and b) honour the sunshine and start eating for spring.
I couldn’t wait for John Lewis to deliver the scales so I went, if you’ll excuse the awful pun, to the other end of the scale…to Argos where the same ones were all of 1p cheaper and immediately available. I came home, followed the instructions (oh, yes, they have printed instructions), took off all my clothes, put the scales on a flat surface and stepped up. When I looked down I realised why they now sell them with magnifying glass covers: I couldn’t read it.
I fetched my glasses and tried again. Twice. Because although I feel like I’ve doubled in size, I have actually gained all of seven pounds, or three kilos and am now 11.5 stone, 73 kilos or 0.073 of a metric ton (don’t you just love computers). That’s more than I want to be but not as much as the 12.5/79/0.079 I was imagining. After three months of barely any work, of barely any jobs to apply for, and in the week when I have started doing exactly what I didn’t want to do – eating into my savings – at last, some good news! It’s so not important, it’s so trivial but, at a time when so much else is beyond my control no wonder I care about my waistband.
…or How to Treat Yourself When You’re Broke. In Spain my morning routine was very simple. I’d get up late, as ever, rush to my Spanish class (either washed or unwashed depending on the previous night’s events and whether it was warm enough to be naked in the bathroom) and spend two hours wrestling, rather happily, with the intricacies of the subjunctive.
Then, at 11.30 we had a thirty-minute break and, although the school was a good ten-minute run from the nearest decent cafe, Maia and I still dashed down the cobbled streets and across the Albaicin, for a café con leche (or a manchada, slightly weaker version) and, in my case a medio tomate (half a roll, toasted and rubbed with crushed garlic and crushed fresh tomatoes) and in hers a medio tomate with jamon serrano. We never had to shout out our orders to Pepe, the small round man who rules Bar Aixa, since after the first few times he remembered it perfectly. So we’d pull up a couple of stools and watch as he threw a couple of saucers, spoons and sachets of sugar in front of us. Then a few minutes later two small glasses of hot espresso would appear, he’d add a little cold milk, then lots of hot and shortly after that he’d bring out our tostadas.
We only had about five minutes to enjoy the coffee and to eat our tostadas but somehow it never really felt hurried. We’d make stilted conversation with Pepe and the other bar staff, use up goodness knows how many little Spanish napkins from the metal dispenser (the floor was always covered in them), and talk talk talk. It was blissful, a perfect noisy place to have just enough coffee and just enough food to keep you going for the next two hours before lunch.
On my return home from Spain I was stuck in Malaga airport for several hours (it was December 21st…) and having left Granada very early that morning, I needed a coffee. It would, I thought, be my last chance to have a proper Spanish café con leche. But this was an airport full of expat Brits and the only coffee available came in tall coated cardboard cups and was more foam than flavour. I couldn’t believe it; my last chance for my favourite coffee and it was disgusting. I vowed never to drink coffee from cardboard again and, three months later, I’ve managed to stick to that.
And now I am back in a city full of places to drink coffee but I don’t want foam, steam, or syrup. I don’t want a choice of small, regular or tall, or of latte, cappuccino or flat white. I just want a café con leche. But even if there is, I accept, tons of good coffee in London I have yet to find anywhere that serves it in the Spanish way. What’s more I’m also broke so I can’t go and search out the best alternative because I can’t afford it. So, longing for my daily treat, I decided to start making my own.
I have always always failed to create anything approaching a shop-bought latte or cappucino at home, not having the required steaming equipment but, with a bit of effort, I seem to have got damned close to a café con leche. Take one small 2-cup Bialetti machine, 2-3 scoops of strong espresso, Brita-filtered water, a bit of cold milk and lots of hot and, ¡que bien!, un café con leche worthy of Pepe.
I may not have the Albaicin, I may not have Maia to sort out the world with me and I may not have Pepe to serve me but I can still have my little bit of Granada every day.
There I was thinking shopping lists and reminders. But no. My friend decided to immortalise me as a chalk cartoon. I love it and can’t bear to rub it off yet but since I will, eventually, I thought it needed to be made permanent here. She also encouraged me with a rather pertinent work suggestion, but that’s for another blog, a daytime not midnight one…
I have discovered the secret of true DIM happiness: rollers! Why did I ever use a paintbrush? My wall is smooth and finished after two coats from what is, essentially, a magic foam sausage. I am a convert to all things roller and, now that it looks a bit less patchworky, I think I’m a convert to blackboard paint. Ta-dah…!
PS And if you’re wondering why there’s always a chair in these pictures, it’s because I use it as my stepladder!