Before we moved (back) to the centre of Gloucester, the husband and I lived in a village on the outskirts which we used to joke was like Wisteria Lane. I wrote about my doubts regarding moving to suburbia (Suburban bliss) for a second time and have now learnt my lesson. Suburbia is not for me. But my reasons for moving there in May 2010 were still valid when we moved on and after a lot of searching, we found a house that met our desire for a family home but within a more cosmopolitan* area. We live in a Victorian townhouse within a very short walk of an industrial estate. I like that mix. I like that while the house next to us and the ones opposite are the same style, the entire street isn’t the same. It’s little things that kill the repetition of our old village; just about every house has been extended or remodelled in some way and each has its own story.

Really we are still living in a suburb. It takes about a quarter of an hour to walk to Gloucester docks and nearly 25 minutes to The Cross. But it feels different to us. For me it’s the fact I don’t have to cross a major road to get into town and that it’s about as easy on foot as it is to drive. We go into the city a lot more since moving.

It’s not our street that is Stepford-like so much as our house. When the remake of the film came out in 2004 I found myself hankering after certain aspects of that life. I loved the light airy houses that were sparkling clean yet looked comfortable and welcoming. I liked the sense of neatness and order whilst still being lived in (cupcake anyone?). I’m also rather a fan of 1950s fashion to the extent that I wore a circle dress with full underskirt when I married the husband.

We had set the target of finishing our house for our wedding reception and while we didn’t manage it, the transformation was incredible. The house we bought was a bit scruffy round the edges with dark carpets and ugly bathrooms. It was warm and welcoming but it was dusty old house cosy and what I wanted was light and bright cosy. I think we achieved it with a cream carpet throughout and a soft palette of duck egg, lilac-grey and off-white. I baked my own wedding cake (plus cookies and mince pies) and I felt fabulous as I descended my stairs in the sudden quiet (my stepsons had left with the husband) of my lovely house.

We utterly trashed it over the course of the wedding and Christmas and as I cleared up I wondered what I’d do next. I guess I had seen what was possible. I found myself on the Good Housekeeping forum on Mumsnet (lord knows how!) and discovered an American website called Fly Lady. The gist is short bursts of cleaning but what seems to work is the desire of the people on those threads (Mumsnet NOT Fly Lady) to live lives that are a bit, well, tidier.

The issue I took with Fly Lady was that it felt like a step back from feminism. It’s all very female focused and while I wanted to live in a Stepford house I had no desire to be a Stepford wife! I am far from alone in feeling this way but I think to end up in a place where you discuss the virtues of microfibre cloths, you’re already at the point of screaming no more and willing to try anything.

So I gave it a go. I shined my sink and slowly started changing my habits. I gave it a few days before I told the husband and after a few more days he remarked on how different the house was looking. It wasn’t that it was particularly dirty or messy before but there were lots of little things that make the heart sink; a pile of paperwork to sort, a jumper that needs hand washing getting in the way and a sink full of dirty dishes.

He’s joined me. He finds it harder to multitask (empty the dishwasher while the kettle is boiling and so on) but is giving it a good effort.

It’s nice.

I mean, I’m not going to pretend that cleaning is something fun but by doing it in short bursts and being less of a perfectionist about it means a surprising amount gets achieved and it is much more relaxing when you aren’t cleaning. So far we’ve only got the ground floor continually tidy and are perhaps two thirds there on cleanliness but I know we’ll have the whole house there in the next month (crucially when the last of the tradesmen have finished).

What I like is that it feels manageable. I think a house that you can’t manage indicates a life that you can’t manage. When I saw piles of laundry it was a visual indicator of where my life wasn’t in control. Sure I have OCD (sadly not cleaning related) but the husband doesn’t and I’ve seen a change in him. He still can’t find anything but he seems less grumpy about it. He’s also more willing to pitch in, I think because the difference is apparent. When the kitchen is almost tidy and pretty clean, a few quick tasks by him makes it look fantastic.

Funnily enough, my concern that this path was counter-feminist was completely wrong. My relationship has improved and I feel that keeping our home nice is something we’re doing for each other. The husband is doing the most housework I’ve known him to and he’s doing more and more without being asked.

All this fits within a wider life change I’m pursuing at the moment. It’s very much about the family I’m trying to create and I’ve decided it’s something I need a separate blog for as I feel this one has started to slip away from wider reflection and I want to get back to critiquing the world around me. The stuff that’ll keep my mind from going Stepford! If you’re interested in following my new blog, you can find it at Highlights and Hunter Wellies.

Next week I’ll write part two of Bulgur Wheat and Boys with Guns. For now I’m off to empty the tumble dryer. Then maybe I’ll read another newspaper because really I ought to be using this column as my soapbox for budget cuts and SOPA, not housework!!!

* By Gloucestershire’s standards.

 
 
I’ve written about Turkey before. When I was there in September I wrote a blog on The Art of Drinking Tea but there is a lot that went unsaid, in particular I needed to confess to my then fiancé now husband and mother.

My mind is on Turkey due to today’s dinner being a soup dish I’ve been reworking for a cookery course I’ll be teaching on Turkish cuisine. Part way through eating I remembered the miniature bottle I’d brought back for the husband and had been saving for when I eventually started cooking Turkish recipes.

I had high hopes of Turkish food and it certainly delivered. There were elements of Greek tastes but for me it took me back to the Iranian restaurants in Kuala Lumpur where I would eat with my Persian friends. It used to surprise and amuse me that these intelligent and cultured men would only eat Iranian food* but it gave me the chance to become familiar with the complexity of Middle Eastern food. Sure there were a lot of kebabs but they were unlike I’d ever tasted and the salads blew my mind.

The surprise lay with Turkish wine. I’d had Raki before and was a fan and Efes the national lager was much as any other lager in a hot country, excellent in chilled glasses and nondescript merely cool. I’d never even heard of Turkish wine. This led me to think badly of it. After all, I’d never heard of Thai wine and that was not a pretty discovery. Turkish wine doesn’t have sophisticated origins and had I known them before hand I may have judged it harshly. For it was only after many nights drinking the stuff that I learned that the grapes grew on public land, were harvested by villagers and produced in factories. I asked somewhat hopefully whether they used casks and got a quizzical look.

Nevertheless it’s lovely stuff and the Shiraz-Merlot blend I brought back was smooth, complex and with perfectly balanced tannins. A look on Wikipedia (I’m terribly glad that SOPA looks to crumble to dust) and I see that Turkey is the world’s fourth largest producer of grapes. I think we’re missing out on something frankly and am surprised there isn’t more on the British market.

But this isn’t a blog about wine, although it is about two men I have drunk wine with. It’s about me finally feeling ready to write about something I have been battling with.

In 2008 I moved to Malaysia. Early on I was approached in the street by a man eager to talk to me. This wasn’t uncommon for me as being Caucasian I stood out somewhat and novelty seems to attract wherever you go. Usually I smiled a no but for some reason I stopped. The romantic in me likes to think I sensed a friendship destined to happen. His name was Hussein and he became my best friend for the few months he was in Kuala Lumpur. It took a while for his story to emerge. His reluctance became clear once I learned it all. Hussein was an Iraqi Kurd who had forged a passport and fled. He considered himself Iranian for that was where he was born and grew up but ones paperwork has the final say.

It all sounds rather dramatic but for the most part we were just two people. We went to the zoo, we drank white wine in touristy bars and we talked about philosophy. He had trained as a cardio researcher and when I told him the far less dramatic story of the breakdown of my marriage he took my hands in his and said that all of life’s answers lay in the heart; that the ups and downs of life were the ups and downs of our heart rate and when the turmoil of joy and anguish isn’t evident we’re dead already.

His plan had been to take advantage of Malaysia’s hospitality to refugees passing through and seek a visa for a new future in Australia. It was rejected and he was deported. I grew up the day we said goodbye. He thought he was going to Iraq to face death.

Imagine my joy then when several months later he got in touch via Facebook. He’d joined the Americans and was pictured in uniform carrying a gun. He’s since disappeared but I’m hopeful that he’s ok.

Between him and Ali and experiencing racism at the hands of Arabic men during my time in Kuala Lumpur I unexpectedly found myself taking sides politically. The Iranians I knew were so charming and educated, they were the good guys right? After all, Iranian Ali said that it was a mistake on the part of his government that the likes of Hussein got sent to Iraq and that Iranian Kurds were his fellow people.

Jump forward three years and I’m making another friend. Süleyman was a Canadian raised Turk who moved back to the country he’d left as a child. A few drinks down and we’re chatting about his early experiences of Turkey. He makes me laugh and as I’ve visited Canada a couple of times and have relatives there, we find a fair amount of common ground.

Except that my teenage years where I played with guns were very different. I shot at targets. Süleyman shot Kurds.

I grew up a whole lot more that night. I learned that I couldn’t travel the world making friends with interesting people without facing up to the complexity of reality.

Süleyman wondered why I was so quiet. I said I didn’t think the Kurds were so wrong and that they surely had the right to live if not inhabit the world in the way the Turkish government saw unfit. A stupid thing to say but then I’ve broken enough laws in Malaysia and I have the bad habit of being blasé. He studied my face and shrugged.

‘Did you know any...’

‘Yes.’ I cut him off.

We changed the subject. We drank into the night until he passed out on the mat we’d dragged to the rooftop.

Only then did I let myself cry and feel stupid for being so ignorant.

Less than a week later I was in the middle of nowhere, alone with a man with a handgun.

* And Nandos. But everyone eats Nandos.


This is Hussein with Josie. I saw Josie at the zoo and got all excited at a pink giraffe so he bought her for me. We called her our baby and I said I should be the one to raise her. Very earnestly he told me that this was not how custody operated where he came from. I try not to think too much about the months we got to see each other whenever we wanted. Right now I don't even have an email address. I'd love to see him again one day. I doubt I ever will.
 
 
This week I read that a great way to get hits on your blog was to put the phrase sugar cube (1) into the title. I confess I read this on twitter and didn’t give it more than a cursory glance but it interests me to contemplate what makes us click on one link over another. The biggest influence on whether I’ll click on a link from twitter relates to the author. If the person posting is it is a friend or someone who has made me laugh or think in the relatively recent past then I’m more likely to click. Then there are the cleverly worded tweets; the ones that perhaps feature a play on an established idea or phrase.

Plenty of research suggests that numbered lists and how-to guides rank highly for people and I suppose I fit this pattern as well with ‘Five ways to creating a magical Christmas’ probably influencing me more than ‘A magical Christmas.’

Not that this kind of thing affects how I title my own blogs. Possibly because I don’t make any money from doing this, I’m not driven towards attracting traffic. It’s nice of course but I prefer one comment to eleventy page views, a reference on twitter to a surge in hits. To be honest I’d feel a bit strange about trying to phrase a title to influence clicks. It’s not that I don’t care - why else would I announce blog posts on twitter? – but that to do so would feel too overtly as though I was working on it and nothing kills joy quite like something becoming work. I love creating recipes but since I’m putting together cookery courses at the moment it suddenly feels far more strenuous and far less intuitive.

I like to go with the mood. Just as I like stories that go off on a tangent and serve little purpose beyond amusing me. For instance, when I was growing up there was a strange cupboard in my room. It was full of curious things my parents had stowed there. For some reason there were sugar cubes (2) and I used to suck them until my mum told me my teeth would fall out. I didn’t really like them but the horses in the books and annuals I obsessed over seemed to feature them a fair bit and I wanted to know what the fuss was about.

In fact the first time I really consumed sugar cubes (3) was last September in Turkey. Wherever I went I was given small glasses of strong tea that needed sugar to make it palatable. They came in large pastel coloured boxes that sat quietly next to computers and phones, as a vital part of conducting any business.

Still on my sugar cube (4) to do list is drinking absinthe because I do love a good ritual...

The classic French absinthe ritual involves placing a sugar cube on a flat perforated spoon, which rests on the rim of the glass containing a measure or “dose” of absinthe. Iced water is then very slowly dripped on to the sugar cube, which gradually dissolves and drips, along with the water, into the absinthe, causing the green liquor to louche (“loosh”) into an opaque opalescent white as the essential oils precipitate out of the alcoholic solution. Usually three to four parts water are added to one part of 68% absinthe. Historically, true absintheurs used to take great care in adding the water, letting it fall drop by single drop onto the sugar cube, and then watching each individual drip cut a milky swathe through the peridot-green absinthe below. Seeing the drink gradually change colour was part of its ritualistic attraction. (Credit)

Doesn’t that make you want to just make like Van Gogh and go chasing after colour and expression, casting body parts as you go?

No? Just me then?

Truly, you don’t what to go crashing into a starry night above swirling olive trees and just lose yourself in an orgy of abandonment in Arles fuelled by mad nights with the impressionists in Paris?

Ok, I’ll let it go.

I guess ritual is the key here. This blog is a ritualistic activity and I play to my own rules. To play out my ritual according to a set of precepts is to deny the very pleasure I take from creating it.

By now you must be wondering about who invented sugar cubes (5) and if you aren’t then I need a fifth thing as I started with my title. The first four free flowed like the bra burning cousin of the cube; the one the family talk of in whispered tones, you know... loose.

Well it was Jakub Kryštof Rad in 1841. He was the director of a Morovian sugar factory and at that time sugar came pressed into cones that you hacked pieces off. Allegedly his wife was clumsy and after cutting herself asked why it didn’t come pre-cut.

True story.

Twitter to horses to see to absinthe to a cack handed wife. 5 top ways to integrate sugar cubes into a blog.

 
 
The triumph of hope over experience was Samuel Johnson’s take on remarriage. In many ways it has been my greatest demonstration that I am truly one of life’s optimists. But really I see optimism all around. Happy New Year, Happy New Year. So many emails, so many greetings. It’s January, so let us start over and start afresh.

I’m not a fan of New Years Eve as a rule. I find that events loaded with expectation rarely deliver. As it happens the New Year’s Eve just gone was probably my favourite to date; the husband and I played board games with my mum, my brother and his girlfriend. It was meant to be a quiet night in but there were impromptu cocktails at a bar that delivered on both concept and glass contents and a near miss as we almost set a footballer’s balcony on fire with a paper lantern (he’s a neighbour of my mum’s, were weren’t roaming the streets of Manchester in search of ASBO’s).

But I love the early weeks of a new year. Optimism is all around. Plenty of us wrangle with self doubt and undercutting much of our ability to step out and be brilliant is our perception of the past. It’s not our fault, we’re conditioned to be nice and to not show off (girls more than boys). When I’m working with my life coaching students and clients I often ask them to list their achievements and qualities without qualifying them. It’s surprisingly challenging.

When I look at my list of the 30 things I hoped to achieve before I’m 30, many seem silly. I qualify them. Take for example my wish to go to Russia. I want to qualify in so many ways to play it down. Firstly, I used to say ‘but it was so long ago.’ What is daft about this is that following my visit in 2002 I returned in 2008, ‘but it’s easy when you’ve been somewhere once.’ I felt that it didn’t count that I was on a university trip (the first time) or that I took a taxi instead of public transport (the second time) and even then was travelling with a group. I berate myself for only knowing the word for thank you and not learning any more.

But I went. As a teenager looking out of a rainy window over the Vale of York, I promised myself I’d go to Russia. That I’d see palaces and have adventures. I succeeded. At The Catherine Palace (summer residence of the Tsars) near St Petersberg I saw a (reconstructed) room with walls of amber which both dazzled me and confirmed my dreams of a world full of wonder. Then, one evening as our fellow students were discussing where to find culture, a guy I had previously not noticed grabbed my hand and pulled me into an alcove. I had been selected by him on the grounds of being the person most likely to be up for a laugh.

We paused at the top of some steps of what appeared to be a bar just as the owner looked out. We were encouraged inside, we saw live music, we made friends and we drank a lot of vodka. We had missed the subway home so got a taxi to a hotel where initially I was accused of prostitution (“if you are students on holiday where is your luggage?”). We headed out early for campus and found ourselves in a square where Goldeneye was filmed. It was deserted and beautiful. Everyone assumed that we’d hooked up of course but we knew we’d experienced something more exciting.

That took effort. It was a challenge to remind myself that I had an amazing adventure in St Petersberg one night. A challenge to remind myself that I can and have realised my dreams. So much easier to play it down, to say I didn’t do anything special and why put myself on the line when I may not succeed.

But in the early weeks of January we are better at being hopeful. While we may berate ourselves for our perceived shortcomings, we often subscribe to the surge of optimism that’s all around and start diets and plan trips. While I make changes year round (my September trip to Turkey was conceived around Easter), I make more at this time of year. My resolutions as they are have been made with the husband (start a joint savings account and see more of our friends).

If you pay attention to the advice trotted out then we want to be making small changes that we can keep, meaningful changes that work towards fulfilling our greater goals and oh I forget, I’m yawning so much.

Don’t be boring. Just because we won’t stick to most of it isn’t a reason to go big, go crazy. I’ve been accused of being flaky in the past because I start lots of things and abandon many. But I finished the PhD, I’m still writing this column, I’ve spoken to the same man nearly every day for almost five years and he’s still my favourite person in the world. I don’t fear getting things wrong or making mistakes. I know I have a wonderful marriage and am confident it’ll last until one of us dies precisely because I got it so wrong in the past.

I am trying with the small changes I admit (I’m dallying with Fly Lady cleaning) but I also mean to go big. In June 2010 I wrote about my 30 before I’m 30 list. Since then I have got a tattoo, bought a corset and taken a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park but there are still ten things on my list.

1)    Publish a book

2)    Have a baby

3)    Cook a multibird roast

4)    Go to an airport and take a flight chosen on the spot

5)    Watch a sunset and a sun rise without going to bed

6)    Make a film or documentary

7)    Ride a motorcycle

8)    Take a photo worth framing on a large canvas and hang it in my home

9)    Be suspended by rope

10) Buy an entire animal (eg. a pig) and cook it

Some of these are already being planned. I’m cooking a multibird roast at Easter (done myself, not one of those Aldi jobs) and there is a pig at my uncle’s place fattening as I type. Others I fear are too aspirational but it’s January and actually hope doesn’t need to triumph over experience for experience has taught me that when you really put your mind to it, great things are possible.

Happy New Year, may your dreams come true and your adventures be plentiful.