Exchange- not always Fair

The cross channel ferry, in this last week of summer term is full of excitable teenagers; two groups, seemingly, occupying every part of the ship, circulating round and round, galumphing through the bars and lounges, spreading over seating areas, thronging into the tiny shop, the games area and the restaurant, exclaiming, playing music, shrieking when they see each other. They rush past us in twos and threes. ‘I wanna buy something!’ ‘Let’s go outside!’ ‘What shall we do now?’
After coffee we descend to the salon with its recliner seats to catch up on some sleep, but it is full of adolescents, rucksacks, sweet wrappers. We are rushed at by their beleaguered teachers, whose dubious pleasure it is to shepherd their charges and bring them back unscathed.
Foreign exchanges were available when I was a schoolgirl, too; only as my parents were unwilling to pay for them, I’d be among the handful of girls who stayed behind and attended school. I can’t recall what we did, we leftovers. Revision, perhaps or some extra language study and conversation. I pity the poor teachers who were saddled with us, who had to find us something to do!
I offered my own offspring an exchange each, which was rejected by Offspring One, who harboured fears of being incarcerated with a strange family and having to eat a sensible, healthy diet. He chose to be a leftover. Offspring Two, however waited for the optimum moment to remind me I’d agreed to a French exchange, then when I enquired the destination, coolly told me ‘Canada’.
The exchangee came to us first. Catherine. She was not Canadian, but American, from Texas originally. She was tall, world-weary, unimpressed. She was an ocean away from my daughter. We served meals, attempted chat, remained polite while she chewed and made acerbic remarks.
Husband suggested a weekend trip to Paris. We packed our tiny Peugeot 5 and took a ferry across the English Channel then drove down, stopping on the outskirts of France’s capital in a budget hotel and taking two rooms. We got a double decker train into Paris to take in the sights: The Louvre, The Tuilleries, Notre Dame and The Tour Eiffel-sending the girls up and staying down ourselves to save money. They trudged after us as if dragged on leads. Next day we visited Fontainebleau and Versailles before heading home the way we’d come.
On the return ferry we bought meals from the self-service restaurant, where Catherine [and also Offspring, who followed suit] chose a meal and a desert. At the table our protégé ate one or two mouthfuls of the meal and pushed it away before tucking into the pudding.
‘Are we gonna eat again on the ferry?’ she drawled, chewing.
Husband frowned into his newspaper. ‘No’ he said, without looking up.
At last we arrived at Portsmouth. ‘That was cool!’ she suddenly said as the wheels rumbled down the ramp, showing enthusiasm for the first time. If we’d known she was to enjoy our descent from the gaping mouth of the ferry so much we could have saved ourselves a packet.
We did nothing else with Catherine, leaving entertainment to the school to provide. Offspring confided that Catherine had raved and boasted to her classmates about her French trip.
After she departed, Offspring prepared to make her own visit to the host family-Catherine’s own parents and sister. I sat down with her to share my hopes for her ambassadorial role, expressing my desire that she behave with impeccable manners, a desire that she asserted she understood very well. She went.
Catherine’s parents were charming to my daughter, taking her out and about, to Niagara, amongst other places. Offspring got on very well with Catherine’s younger sister as well as most of the Canadian schoolgirls and had a most enjoyable time.
And that was that; many lessons learned-and not only French!

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Escape to [another] Country

On Monday we are to escape this troubled isle for a couple of weeks. For although the current political squabbles in the UK are akin to observing a satirical comedy there will be some relief to be away from it all for a while.

Underneath the farcical antics of our politicians, however there is a ghastly, seeping horror of gradual decline; while they continue to wrangle, argue, bluster, lie and boast, most of us are powerless to intervene, still less to mitigate.

We know what our closest neighbours think. The Dutch, especially are incredulous at the decision of [some of] us to leave the European family. The French have held up their hands: ‘Zut alors!’ and then washed them of us-and who can blame them?

And then there is the USA. Those who’ve squawked about ‘slavery’ in a ridiculous diatribe about the EU [the increasingly mad witch-like Anne Widecombe] seem to think nothing ironic or wrong about enslaving ourselves to America; accepting their disgusting bleached chicken in exchange for the NHS? Where is the so called ‘freedom’ in all of that?

I’m still waiting to hear ONE explanation or ONE benefit that will be gained from leaving the EU. Meanwhile the buffoon who is most likely to become our next prime minister continues to stutter, pretend and joke his way to success amidst an unwavering, simpering, ignorant band of supporters, in true Trumpesque fashion-an echo of US, dogged ignorance.

Now, because of the so-called ‘special relationship’ we are to be drawn in to the row with Iran- having to be allied with the US instead of Europe. Why must we have the ‘special relationship’ with the USA, when our closest neighbours are within shouting distance? Surely those on our doorstep are the best allies? We must tow the line with America because we have to beg for trade deals-where’s the ‘freedom from slavery’ in that, Anne Widecombe?

So despite the plummeting pound [again] we are off  to cycle our way into the relative peace of the French countryside, free of news, interviews and debate. And there is still time for a couple of trips before the [next] supposedly definitive date when the UK ex-communicates itself. After that-who knows what we’ll need to do to leave these beleaguered shores? Our wonderful, efficient E111 health cards may not apply. We may need special driving permits or visas. We may be compelled to join a special queue for outsiders going in or coming out.

Above all I’m hoping that within my lifetime we can return to some kind of rational, measured, cooperative political system that doesn’t pander to rich, white middle-class old Etonians and their fawning, job-hungry cronies. One that favours reason, fairness, empathy and basic humanity.

Will populism become wearisome? Will the drawbridge be cranked back down? Will human rights begin to matter again before I croak? What do you think?

Answers on a digital postcard [below in the comments box]. Au revoir!

 

 

Festival Fever

Glasto

The Glastonbury Festival, at Pilton in Somerset, south west England, is the mother of all music festivals-the largest in the world.

I went to it once, in the nineties. Bjork was headlining and Elvis Costello was near the top of the bill. From where I stood, Bjork appeared as a miniature doll in a pink dress about half a mile away, beyond a sea of surging festival-goers. And while I liked much of Bjork’s avant-garde material she was not best suited to the venue. Elvis Costello and the Attractions were thrilling, though, ‘Pump it Up’ throbbing out across the crowd in a stirring morass of sound.

We watch snippets of Glastonbury on TV each year, although more and more of it elicits incomprehension or snorting derision as current tastes in music diverge further from our own. This is a time-honoured process and guaranteed to both irritate and delight the young; the ‘things ain’t what they used to be’ tradition.

But they aren’t what they used to be. The festivals and outdoor music gigs of my youth were attended by the young. I could go and watch the most popular and biggest-selling bands on my Saturday job pay. I got to see Fairport Convention, 10cc, Chicken Shack, Led Zeppelin, John Heisman’s Coliseum, Pink Floyd and very many more iconic musicians and could afford it all [including transport, food and drink] on my meagre toy shop salary of twenty five shillings per Saturday.

The crowds flocking into Glastonbury and all the other festivals of the summer are twenty and thirty somethings or older, middle class and often with their children in tow. The festivals have changed, become more corporate, more mainstream, more media-led. They are gargantuan circuses of food, entertainment and marketing. Am I alone in feeling nostalgia for the crude outdoor setups of my teenage years?

Glastonbury is still a phenomenon, a treasure of the English summer-this year’s event mercifully mud-free. And for 2019, supposedly ‘plastic-free’ too; except that it wasn’t. Photographic images of the mountains of refuse left from the event are testament to the failure of this lofty ambition. Yes-there were water stations [so woefully stretched that campers were unable to use the showers], saving a few plastic water bottles, but the burger vans and bars were clearly not on board with the plan. There is also an issue with tents being left-in a condition rendering them un-recyclable. One cunning Dutch entrepeneur has invented a ‘cardboard’ tent, which may be a solution in the future, although it seems doubtful.

This weekend sees the staging of our town’s own, homegrown, humble music festival, free to attend this year and hopefully funded from stalls and sponsorship. Most of the musicians are local, as are the stalls, the volunteers and the attendees. The weather [which can make or break the event] is set to be fine. The women’s football final does not include our home team [the football having destroyed last year’s attendance]. What can go wrong?

 

 

Decline but not ready to Fall…

Attaining an age where there is more of my life behind me than in front of me sometimes prompts me to ruminate on what lies ahead.

I don’t feel that this is a morbid activity-more of a philosophical wander through aspects of life, although not its meaning. Speculation over the meaning of life is pointless, since there is no necessity for a meaning. You only have to watch Professor Brian Cox’s brilliant series on the planets to realise that the fact of our existence is happenchance.

But I do an occasional mental stocktake of how my life is. Occasionally this will be dominated by physical difficulties and health problems. There is an inevitable deterioration in the functions of bits of me, such as the joints or the digestive system-and these bits demand to be treated with more care than in earlier years.

More complex is the changing of mindset. I begin to understand some of the oddities and anomalies that became commonplace when communicating with my parents. I notice that I have become more fearful about some activities, less concerned about others. I must, for instance discipline myself to be a relaxed passenger in a car, otherwise I am aware I could become un-transportable! On the other hand I take a perfectly unconcerned view of ceasing to exist-providing this does not happen too soon!

I have become ultra-observant, some would say nosy; I understand the stereotypical, curtain-twitching old lady persona. I note and appreciate feelings like ‘comfort’, which has risen to near the top of my cravings, my must-have for a happy life. A good night’s sleep is not to be taken for granted; a pain-free long walk or a cycle ride is a blessing.

I become absorbed by current affairs and make [admittedly] feeble attempts to throw myself behind causes. I like to spend long hours in our garden, pottering, tinkering, looking and tending. I am patient with my small grandchildren.

I’ve become fond of art. I love the discussions my Book Club has, which take all kinds of directions and are lively and absorbing. I love my dance exercise class for we old ladies [and gents-if they came along]-optimistically called ‘easy aero’].

I dislike some aspects of modern technology, such as the effects of social media on social gatherings. But I remember my parents railing against [in no particular order]: automatic washing machines [‘they don’t get things clean’], video recorders [‘why would we want one of those?’], telephone answer machines [‘we are too old to manage those things’]. Later on, in his nineties, my father learned to use a PC and write and send emails.

So no, I do not fear the reaper, but I do fear memory loss, loss of independence, incapacity, loneliness.

Oh-and by the way, Facebook-I really am not interested in ads for pre-paid funerals. When the time comes they can do what they like with me-as long as they have a cracking good party while they laugh about my eccentricities…

 

 

 

Mad Malls or Sad Streets?

I grew up in a series of three small villages, each of which was served by one, modest grocery shop. The first, which I was sent to from age four, was a minute, dark, cavern accessed by a house door and called ‘Mrs Russell’s’. She had a big old, dark wood counter, sold everything, including cheese by the slice-which she cut from a cylindrical block with a wire-and ‘Fruit salad’ or ‘Blackjack’ chews at four for a penny; also ‘Eiffel Tower’ lemonade powder which she ladled into a paper bag so you could tear off the corner and suck the powder from it directly.

When I lived in Putney, south London in the seventies, Tesco had a store in the high street which still used counters to serve shoppers-and not a trolley or a basket in sight.

In the UK shopping streets are dying and our own, small town’s high street is no exception, with fourteen coffee shops in one relatively short stretch [making local headlines], too many salons, too many tattoo parlours, too many charity shops and most crucially-too many empty shops.

If shops are empty it can only mean that the rents and rates are much too high. Some of the premises have been languishing unloved and uninhabited for so long that vegetation has taken root inside the windows and you could be forgiven for thinking the shop was selling weeds [like the old dead wasp joke].

We are all too used to supermarket shopping; too used to dashing in, picking up packets of this and that and dashing to the checkouts.

But I believe the only way to revive town centres is to return to smaller stores and  specialist stores like greengrocers, butchers and bakeries. Towns that have such shops are mostly thriving. It would also begin to address the horrors of the plastic mountain we are constructing. Once, people took a shopping bag to the greengrocer and the assistant would pile the items straight into the bag. You would take the bag home and sort the items out at home. Nothing bad happened. Some of the vegetables may have needed washing-a chore that should be done whether they’ve been bagged or not.

Meat or fish would be wrapped in some paper. Bread was the same. Milk got delivered in glass bottles. Cakes were placed into a beautiful cardboard box so that it really felt like a special treat when they were bought.

Aside from these essential shops I’d love to see some real recycling, some ‘upcycling’, a repair-anything shop and a swap shop-or perhaps all of these in one, bigger store.

But all of this would take much more imagination, foresight and gumption than we are ever likely to see from our local council, who would far rather leave shops empty and falling into ruination than lower the rates [or better still, waive them for an innovative project].

Perhaps you, reader have a wish list for your local shopping centre. What would be on it?

Consumer Conundrums

P1070560

It all started so well. When the parcel containing my new, cotton and linen mesh produce bags arrived I was thrilled with them; a set of six assorted sizes with drawstrings, that I would be able to use for loose vegetables and/or fruit in the supermarket. The bags even came in their own, cute and beautiful bag!

Armed with these and my usual eclectic mix of shopping bags-for-life from an assortment of supermarkets in various countries I set off to Tesco, which serves our grocery needs on a weekly basis.

Taking my usual route through the store I come to vegetables first. I ignore the pre-wrapped, bagged and boxed veg to head for the loose items. I can select broccoli, leeks, onions, courgettes, carrots, peppers and potatoes. Very good. I choose broccoli, carrots and potatoes, although the loose new potatoes, partially concealed behind a mountain of slickly and thickly bagged ‘Charlotte’ ones are somewhat beaten up and greenish. I do my best. Then I move on to the remainder of the shopping.

This is an eye-opener. We are hosting a BBQ and I want burgers, sausages, mushrooms, salad, tomato sauce and desert, besides the usual household stuff such as cleaning materials. It transpires that not one single item is plastic-free. The cucumber and the lettuce are vacuum wrapped, the burgers and sausages are in black plastic trays with plastic over the top, the sauce in a plastic bottle, the desert in a cardboard box [good] with a plastic window [bad]. The mushrooms are also plastic boxed, as is the sweet corn.

I wend my way to the checkout, where I explain to the kindly, smiling woman behind the counter that I have my vegetable bags and I hope this is ok. She continues to smile as she proceeds to empty the vegetables out of their bags for weighing and I beg her to stop! The bags weigh next to nothing and are mesh, for the contents to be visible. She is still smiling. ‘You’ve saved six bags’ she says, and I tell her that all I’ve learned is that everything is encased in plastic and we, the customers are impotent to solve the problem.

The interest of a young man working at the next-door checkout is aroused and I explain that a plastic-free shop is impossible here. ‘It’s the suppliers’ he tells me.

As I wheel my plastic filled trolley out to the car park I’m thinking this problem is bigger than all of us. Maybe you have a lovely, shiny ‘eco-shop’ in your neighbourhood where you can take your bags and containers and buy your [undoubtedly very expensive] groceries. We don’t. Our nearest refill, plastic-free store is in Dorchester, 34.2 miles away. We have supermarkets. Not everyone has access to fill-your-own shops. And not everyone can afford to shop in one.

In time, perhaps supermarket Waitrose, a five minute walk away will roll out their refill project in all their stores. Until then I can only do my best to reduce our plastic-wrapped purchases.

So I saved six bags.

Diary of a Consort

stillettos

Wincing, she sinks down into the pink, upholstered couch in her suite, reaches down to ease off the shiny, nude Christian Louboutin shoe with its killer four inch heel. The skin underneath has inflated into a padded blister. She sighs. At least there will be some familiar faces at this evening’s banquet.

This afternoon was a crushing bore of traipsing around, taking tea. Tea! Who likes fucking tea? Everyone knows Americans drink coffee! And she was expected to have some kind of orgasm over the tea set she was given. A tea set! Apparently it’s been made by some fancy British designer she’s never heard of. Oh yes-she went through the motions, said ‘wonderful’, claimed to know this Bridgwater person’s work. She rubs her foot. It might  make a Christmas gift for one of the staff, she supposes.

Then she’d had to trail after Don Fatso while he looked at golf trophies and had to pretend to be interested. As if! She’d have liked to have walked into Harrod’s store or to have sat in the front row at a catwalk show, or to have spent the afternoon in the spa, but no-she’d had to look at golf trophies.

No-there is still more than a week of this interminable tour before they can go home; more boring tea parties, banquets, politicians and their frumpy wives and husbands. More tedious hand-shaking, small talk, having to be entertained while he has his meetings, does his interviews, makes more embarrassing remarks.

She rises and limps to the dressing room, where rails of designer gowns swathed in dust covers jostle and shimmer, sighing as she runs her hands over the luxurious fabrics, pulling a sequinned bodice across her chest, remembering the last American wife who visited the palace and wore a cardigan. A cardigan!

Of course she’s made her own errors, like having her hair loose and wearing a floaty scarf for their arrival at that tiny, scabby airport, where she’d had to walk across the tarmac with hair and scarf across her face and then, to top it all he had to grab her hand again, like the last time and he knows how much she hates it; so at least the breeze gave her an excuse to brush his hand away and it looked like she was holding her hair back. Whenever she clicks the giant screen on there it is again-her image, her hair blown across her face, the silk scarf whipping sideways like a garrotte.

A glossy pink nail has chipped and she clucks in annoyance. Soon it will be time to ring through for a bath to be run, for the beautician to start her make-up, for the stylist to create the casual sweep of her hair, for the dresser to attend.

He’s in one of his moods this evening; pissed because he didn’t get to line up with Prince Harry and that bitch, Meghan! And not the other two, not William and Kate, either. She’s glad, though. It meant that there was no competition in the style stakes, not Kate’s skinny, model-like body, not Meghan’s dusky beauty, not either of their dewy, youthful looks. She peers into the mirror. Her own procedures have stood up pretty well to the travel and the late hours- with a little help from the beautician of course and that old hag, Camilla is no contest.

Not much more of this. Soon they’ll be back in The White House and she can go back to choosing the flowers and getting her summer wardrobe together. With luck he will be too tired and too busy to make any demands and maybe she should think about having her face re-lifted? That should string things out for a while. He can always buy some women in. She smiles into the mirror-as much as her lips will stretch…