Ten? We are all Doomed-

Smug about your diet? Getting your five-a-day in? Well don’t be, because now you are advised that this is not, has never been enough and you should be cramming ten…yes ten helpings of fruit and/or vegetables down your gullet each and every day.

Great. Actually I’ve been quite smug myself. We’ve never been ones to load the trolley with ready meals and have tended [especially since the heady, time-rich days of retirement] towards cooking from scratch-not going as far as making our own pasta or blending our own garam masala, but we don’t buy sauce mixes or shop soup and we’re fond of vegetable-rich meals and salads and we’ll snack on fruit rather than cakes or biscuits.

Now, however it transpires that we haven’t done enough on the vegetable front. What sort of time though, is this to tell us, when we’re never going to see the front of sixty again and all the damage, the degeneration and the eroding of protection has been wrought throughout our only five portioned/meat-and-two-veg/subsistence diet? Presuming that it is now too late to undo the shocking abuse of more than sixty years that neglecting to have ten veg and fruit things has done, should we continue to follow the subsistence, ‘five-a-day’ regime? Or can we mitigate the ominous, brewing health catastrophes by swallowing fifteen or twenty helpings of cabbage, kale and tomatoes each day?

And take care, reader not to simply gollup piles of fruit down or swig ten smoothies every day, because fruit, my friends is sugary and calorific, leading to an expanding girth before you can say ‘Jabotacaba’. We are advised to ration our fruit intake and turn instead to sober lettuce and sprouts.

Wait, though. A glut of helpful news columns has emerged, explaining how to insert the extra portions into our daily trough. We can add spinach to our spaghetti, have another veg on our plate [we’ll need bigger plates] and snack on fruit. It all begins to seem exhausting.

On a more serious note, all these fresh fruit and vegetables do not come cheap. Here is yet another few miles plugged into the rich-poor divide. How many fresh items are there in the food bank basket at the supermarket? For those whose main issue is how to prevent their children from going to bed hungry, plying them with ten fruits and veggies must come a long way down the list of worries. Keeping healthy, then is a preserve of the comfortably-off, as are most things.

What on earth will happen to fast food outlets? The kebab houses will be alright-there is always a lettuce leaf and some shredded cabbage in the pitta pocket; but fish and chip shops will need to double up their mushy pea portions and MacDonalds will have to sneak mustard and cress into the Big Macs-or whatever it is they serve.

Watch the space. In a few months’ time we’ll either be told that eating too much cabbage is killing us [well the noxious gases produced may well do] or that ten portions are not enough. In the meantime, I’m off to the greengrocers…

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[Not] All about Mexico…

So, Mexico then. We’ve had a short, winter sun break there. Of course I realise my impressions are not too representative, since we’ve only looked at a small, sanitised-for-tourists part, but here are some observations about this much-maligned and despised by reactionary Americans country.

Weather

                The eastern coast on the Gulf of Mexico, the principal tourist destination, is termed part of the Caribbean and rightly so, since the climate, like most West Indian islands is warm, tropical and cooled by a breeze. During our ten days there was one overcast day with the occasional five minute shower. It was, however still very warm-a perfect destination for those of us who’ve tired of our harsh, British winter temperatures.

Interior

                We did venture inland, albeit in the care of the [excellent] tour guides running the excursion. I was as fascinated [being possessed of a writer’s nosy nature] to see the villages with their pastel-hued cottages and the thatched, traditional Mayan homes as I was by the ancient archaeology of the site we went to visit. The open countryside was tropical forest and extremely flat. Here, away from the coast it felt much hotter.

History

There are many fine archaeological sites to visit but we opted for Chichen Itza since it’s the best known and was nearest to our resort. It has been very well excavated and restored, extensive and the only drawback is the cacophony of howler monkey calls fabricated by the stallholders using wooden devices for the purpose of attracting attention to their wares. Our tour guide was experienced and knowledgeable. We went on to the beautiful city of Valladolid, where the colonial buildings lining the streets make for an elegant setting, no more so than our lunch venue in a wonderfully restored Spanish style house with a palm-shaded courtyard.

Mexicans

                All those we encountered were friendly, cheerful and helpful. This applies not only to the hotel staff, who you might expect to have been indoctrinated with a corporate hospitality vibe, but to people we met when out and about in the town, helping us when we were consulting the map, serving us in bars and using public transport [which was efficient and very cheap]. Mexicans, on the whole are smallish, an attribute that I find particularly endearing being somewhat height-challenged myself.

Food

Everything we ate was delicious. The hotel breakfasts and dinners were a spectacular plethora of everything comestible you can imagine, so much that three meals daily would have been impossible. We especially loved the variety of fruit, vegetables and salads available although one could easily have lived upon burgers and chips [fries] for the entire time-as indeed many seemed to. I am still a little uncomfortable with the ‘all-inclusive’ mentality, where anything is served at any time to anywhere, so that if I am reading on a beach I still prefer to get up and find sustenance for myself rather than be waited on. I realise this is a dated attitude and we were, to an extent berated by the waiting staff themselves for under-consuming…

So-to conclude. We did not venture into the lawless, violent lands of the drug cartels. We eschewed the west coast and the south, where heartless kidnappers commandeer innocent travellers and ransom them to their families. We met nobody who wanted to burgle, extort or shoot us at close range. Everyone we met was lovely. Some people are nice and some are not. QED.

2016? Sleep on it…

Christmas-yes it’s lovely, yes it’s festive. There is a warm, fuzzy glow everywhere-in the shops, in the pubs, in the cafes, along the streets and in the homes. We decorate, we shop, we cook. We send cards and receive them, exclaim over seldom contacted friends’ messages, speak to long-distance relatives. We deck the halls. We peel, chop and baste. We make table decorations, lay out crackers, pass things around, pour drinks, make toasts, watch the Queen/don’t watch the Queen,  play games, hand out gifts, open gifts, watch TV’s lack-lustre, festive offerings, crash out, wake, get up and begin again.

We eat too much, drink too much, feel bloated. In the mornings there is a swathe of last night’s glasses bearing dregs, demanding to be washed; and chocolate wrappers festooning the surfaces along with crumbs and pieces of nut shell. The dishwasher groans as you heave open its door, its bulging contents demanding to be dispersed.

I look forward to Christmas as much as the next person, preparing and anticipating but then when it comes all I really want is for it to be over. It belongs to children, this winter celebration with its pretence of magic and if you’ve access to a small child there is pleasure to be got from their enjoyment-otherwise there is a tendency towards anti-climax.

Nobody should wish their life away, especially when what remains is dwindling but 2016 needs to be behind us. It has been the year the world turned grim, forgetting any lessons history should have taught and returning instead to crude, emotions-led political decisions, territorial feuds and downright bestiality.

I’ve said before that I don’t do resolutions but planet earth needs to do some. There is an alarming deficiency of concern over climate change as we are about to be plunged back into over-reliance on fossil fuels. Genocide and brutality abound within and outside of conflict zones and how on earth is any of this to be tackled if we exacerbate hostility to foreigners and visitors by cutting ourselves off?

Though not a fan of cold weather I’m feeling introspective at this, the dormant part of the year. Yesterday the frost painted a stunning picture of a tree on our bedroom window, reminding me that there is still a lot to love about the world around us if we choose to preserve it. In winter nature reins in, hibernates, repairs and prepares. We should do the same, appreciate and cherish what matters the most. So I’m not going to feel guilty for spending time doing very little; for watching the garden birds or staring at a view or sitting quietly and thinking-because it’s just me doing what the season dictates and having a dormant spell until spring rushes in and stirs everything up!

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Happy New Year, Anecdotage readers-here’s to better things in 2017!

 

Travelling Hopefully on a Train

Unlikely as it may seem to many I have grown to like public transport. As a child in the fifties of course it was a great thrill to board a train or a bus. Trains, in particular were glamorous contraptions with long corridors and compartments with sliding doors. I loved tumbling into an empty compartment, fighting for a window seat and sitting on the prickly upholstery. The windows could be opened and bore only a warning not to stick anatomical parts out [especially in the approach to tunnels!].

When I began working life in London I endured a gruelling commute consisting of a 20 minute walk plus a train journey plus a tube journey plus another 15 minute walk. The tube, in particular was an unpleasant experience not unlike standing in a crammed cattle truck. There was never a seat but no chance of falling over due to the bodies on all sides. The station I alighted at, Vauxhall was a dismal, dirty drift of tarmac and I was delighted when I was able to change both my job and my place of residence.

Trains now have come to resemble buses-the utilitarian seats and the maximising of space to squeeze in as many travellers as possible in this age of too-many-people. Travelling jet-lagged and with that stretched feeling that not enough sleep bestows, we took a very early train back from the airport. Too tired to read I amused myself by observing our fellow passengers, most of whom were far more habitual train travellers than we are. They have long since become bored with the views from the windows. What do they do to pass this time they must endure each day?

A very large number indulge in eating and/or drinking. A woman with a number of bulging shopping bags withdrew one bag of sweets or crisps after another and set about each item with a determination that indicated none should remain, proffering the goodies to her companion opposite more out of duty than generosity.

Two teenage girls gossiped whilst one sipped from a giant, cardboard container of coffee and the other, her feet tucked neatly on to the seat beneath her arranged a fruit drink, a plastic container of prepared fresh fruit and a yoghurt on their table, working her way through all of this bounty with tiny bites of her perfectly white teeth and nodding at intervals while her friend talked. Does she do this every day? How can she afford it?

There is always, now, someone bellowing into their phone, unconcerned about the proximity of others whatever the subject matter might be. Others will be plugged into tiny devices to either listen to music or [and this astonishes me] watch films. As one who is barely able to see enough to text I wonder what kind of cinematic experience the little screen can provide?

We alighted at a provincial station where we were obliged to wait for the next train, stepping out into the freezing cold and back into 1950s Britain, where the comfort of a panelled, apple green waiting room provided warmth and an old fashioned café filled with an eclectic collection of objects served us a hot coffee reminiscent of the coffee of my childhood [ie nothing like coffee]. Long may these ancient, curious places remain!

Fiction Month-The Exchange [part 2]

Check last Sunday’s post for Part 1…

I ask Ava if she has any photos of Lucy and I am rewarded by her feverish, relieved smile as she replaces Matthew’s guilt-inducing image with that of her student daughter.

Plates of beer battered cod with potato wedges and mushy peas are delivered to a neighbouring table, momentarily distracting me with the waft of delicious, hot grease. It is what I would choose if I were lunching.

We three have less in common these days; now that our children have grown. Once, as young mothers meeting at the school gate, starved of adult company, we could never see enough of each other. When I look at them now I think how age is most cruel to the once beautiful; Beverley no longer the willowy, well healed style guru, Ava’s slender, elfin appeal grown brittle as a dried twig. Beverley didn’t understand Rob, she’d explained when justifying her adultery to me. He’d needed someone to talk to, someone to console him when things went wrong with the business. If I’d considered that she’d undertaken the consolation with a little too much enthusiasm I’d kept the thought to myself. In any case, Beverley was too embroiled in her own dalliance with Mr Smirnoff to care or even to notice what her husband did.

All that remains of the hot chocolate is a circle of glossy, brown sludge in the bottom of the mug, a last scraping I might attempt to access with the long spoon if I were on my own. Ava still has half a cup of cold, black coffee, impressive as ever in her ability to make a coffee last for the duration. She is reaching into one of the bags to bring out two small parcels wrapped in co-ordinating Christmas paper from Marks with matching gift tags. Not for her the ironed out, salvaged wrapping from last year or three-for-a-pound from Savers. I wonder why it is we’ve continued with this ritual.

We have exchanged gifts every Christmas since we met, the first few years’ offerings being humble, home-made items, sewn or baked or grown, rather than the competitive quandary the exchange has now become.

Beverley presents her own gifts. They will have been purchased from a craft stall or a tiny, beach front gallery; a driftwood photo frame, shell jewellery or a hand-thrown pot. They are wrapped with that artful carelessness she retains, as though she has scoured the beach for cast off paper and string. Ava plucks her package from the table and turns it in her red-tipped fingers, exclaiming how interesting it looks. I assume from the shape that she has the pot this year. Sensing their expectation I withdraw the two, identical parcels from my bag.

Infrequent as they have become, I have grown weary of these meetings; weary of these two self absorbed women and their confessional outbursts, the inconsequential chatter and the shadowy events that lie under each rendezvous like bubbling volcanic pools. I have extracted what I needed from them only as recompense for my services over the years as confidante, counsellor, shoulder-to-cry-on and keeper of secrets. Now I am ready to move on.

Ava thinks the parcels look the same. They look like books. Is it a novel? Do they have the same gift? I nod. The same book?  Yes. Is the author someone they’ve heard of? I’m still nodding. When she tells me she hopes it ends happily because she can’t bear sad endings I say she will have to wait and see. Bev has shown little interest and has stowed her holiday reading away in the leather appliqué satchel she brought and stood up. I’m guessing she is anticipating her first, warming, reassuring slug of liquor of the day as if she were going to meet her own secret lover.

Ava straightens and tuts, rearranging the silk scarf around her neck, smoothing her blond, highlighted hair. I wait for her to say she must look a sight but she gathers her bags and reels off a list of appointments she has before picking Matthew up from nursery; travel agent, chiropodist, the returns counter at Burberry. She wants to know where I’m parked because we can walk together and I know she is anxious to find out if I think Bev suspects anything. I could tell her that Beverley wouldn’t notice if a bomb exploded here in the café but I surprise her, instead by deciding to stay here, in my seat, alone at the table.

Then they are gone; the farewells said; the promises to meet again soon and the air kissing are all done. I don’t need to consult the menu before returning to the counter, since the seductive, lingering aroma of cod and chips is pulling at my senses and cannot be ignored. I am happy to sit alone now while I wait for my lunch, and contemplate a future which exists without Ava and Beverley but with a significant upturn in my fortunes, now that the royalties for ‘The Exchange’ are flowing in such a satisfying way and my account is inflated by a substantial advance for the second novel. Is it a sequel? No. I have said everything I want to say about those two parasites. They can edit their own future. I’m still working on mine.

Fiction Month 4-The Exchange [part 1]

The Exchange

            I am first. I am always first; always too early. I don’t mind. Getting here before the others gives me an opportunity to peruse the cakes and pastries at my leisure without the pressure of pretending disinterest. By the time they turn up I’ll have chosen; even, perhaps have consumed something. I’m leaning in favour of the ‘special’, a slice of Christmas cake, a rich, aromatic slab speckled with fruit and topped with a glistening, tooth tingling band of white icing and a dark green fondant holly leaf.

On the other hand, if I buy it now I may not have finished devouring it by the time one, or both of them appear, which would present an unseemly image. I should wait. I exert a seldom utilised self control, and having made a mental note of my preferred option I go straight to a table-the only remaining table, which is next to the toilets.

There are diners who are perfectly at home eating alone, able to consume an entire meal in solitude without appearing uncomfortable. They pull out a phone or a tablet with what seems like an endless deluge of emails, texts or photos, or they have some absorbing task to complete. I could take out my phone, but then I’d have to feign interest in the one text I’ve received today, from ‘Store 21’, alerting me to their ten percent off day, a snippet of information I have already viewed and which is unlikely to sustain my interest for the unspecified period I must wait. I fall, instead to studying the menu and have read it all through twice and memorised it before I spot Beverley weaving her way through the tables towards me.

While her sunglasses are incongruous on a winter’s day in the gloom of this dark corner of the café by the lavatories, she is dressed in her customary way, in flowing layers and expensive fabrics. She is a tall, statuesque woman and can get away with this look in a way that the shorter and dumpier of us cannot.

I rise to greet her and we embrace gingerly, like wary politicians before she discards her tweed cape and sinks down on to the seat. She is forcing a wan smile, which may indicate tiredness or something more sinister. When she tells me that Ava will be late I can only smile. Ava is late in the same way that I am early-by default. Not wanting to share too much before she arrives we talk of the weather, the traffic, how busy the shops are. I know my eyes are straying towards the menu as my stomach growls in an impatient demand for the cake, although Beverley is occupied in checking her phone to see if Ava has called again.

Then she is coming in, bumping tables and customers with assorted bags, turning this way and that as she scans the café for us. For a few moments I observe Ava, taking in her discomfort, her small, breathless panic as she stares over the heads of the assembled diners until at last I relent and offer a wave.

She bustles up, all puffing and blustering excuses. ‘What a busy life I lead’, she seems to say, though the bulging bags of her purchases tell a different tale. She is so sorry to have kept us waiting and only wants a black coffee. She places a solicitous, manicured hand on Beverley’s arm and inquires if she’s alright because she looks tired. I volunteer to order, more a ploy to ensure the capture of the Christmas cake than a magnanimous gesture, returning to the table to find them already engaged in showing each other photos on their phones. In the competition of life’s successes Beverley has scored the giant prize of acquiring a grandchild.

They turn to me-a diplomatic nod of interest in my unglamorous existence. Has George retired yet? Is Jacob working now? Still living at home? Such a shame.

The order arrives; black coffee for Ava, cappuccino for Beverley, hot chocolate and the cake for me. There is a slight pause as we all regard the cake, before I lever off the first, sweet, rich forkful.

Ava is asking Beverley how Rob’s business is going now, since he had to reorganise and lay off staff. Bev removes her sunglasses and rubs her eyes, bloodshot and dark ringed. The business is ‘ticking over’. They’ve begun looking for a smaller property in a less expensive area, seeking to down-size, to release capital. She speaks to Ava, avoiding my gaze. I am allowing a chip of hard, sugary icing to melt on my tongue, recalling how I visited for coffee one morning and found her in the kitchen, working her way through the contents of a vodka bottle with a determination that had eclipsed her memory the invitation. The failure of the business is not the sole reason for needing to release capital.

She straightens, takes a sip of the creamy cappuccino. In an abrupt change of subject she questions Ava about Matthew. Does Ava have any recent pictures? Ava reddens as she fumbles with her phone, then hands it across the table. Bev studies the photo of Matthew for what seems like a screen bite as Ava glances at me, eyes wide in her frightened face. Matthew is only two, an ‘afterthought’ as Ava describes him. Holding out the phone, Beverley frowns at the tiny sparrow of a woman opposite her and declares she cannot see anything of Steven in Matthew and I’m thinking, no, because there is nothing of Steven in Matthew-a fact that Ava confessed to me prior to his birth when faced with the dilemma of whether to tell her husband he was not the father. I lick my finger to sweep the remaining crumbs from the plate, wondering how three years can have passed since Ava blurted the tale of her sordid affair out to me in a moment of tearful desperation. What should she do? Should she tell Rob he could be the father of her baby? I’d advised her to leave well alone-after all he might not be the father. Who would know? She was frantic, sobbing. The child might resemble her friend’s husband; and of course, now he is older, he does.

To be continued-Part 2, the conclusion in next week’s post…

A Restaurant Digest

Once upon a time in a previous life I dreamed of luxuries. These luxuries included such things as unaccompanied expeditions to shoe shops and/or clothes shops, attending the cinema and the theatre, stopping for coffee in cafés, having holidays, spending nights in hotels, visiting salons and, above all, eating out. [This was a life in which any journey must be prepared for by making sandwiches to eat in a lay-by].

In subsequent lives of course I have done all of these luxurious things. The clothes shopping is commonplace as is the coffee stopping. A salon visit is a regular part of life. Hotel stays are occasionally taken.

Despite all this, dining in a good restaurant remains the Holy Grail of luxuries to me.

I’ve posted my feelings about the fare in fast food chains before [Muckdonalds and Yucky Fried Chicken]. Macdonalds does at the least provide free internet and their coffee is acceptable, but their dining experience has to be one of the most impoverished and unsatisfying that exists.

Restaurant meals are about more than the food. Plastic trays with pouches of nasty, salty, fatty little chip sticks and polystyrene boxes containing polystyrene buns sandwiching rubbery, chewy little circles of something grey and burger-ish, the remains of which are to be taken by the consumer and dumped in a bin themselves; to view this activity in a place designed for ‘eating’ presents a vision of Hell. And yet Macdonalds is crammed with customers every day-in Gothenburg, where we stopped to get internet and a coffee, the place was thrusting with hordes of punters of every nationality-those who prefer this ghastly encounter to eating a sandwich on a park bench.

Some of the most enjoyable meals you can have are in modest, unknown, unadvertised cafes, cooked by untrained heros of the culinary world; like the meals we’ve eaten in Portugal, where you are plied with gorgeous nibbly things like olives and dips to sustain you while you peruse the menu and then a big box of fish is brought to the table for you to select your fancy. It will be simply cooked and presented with home-made chips, a salad and some bread.

Or a beach café in Thailand which serves up Tempura vegetables as a starter and the freshest, most appetising vegetables and seafood you can imagine, besides producing an addictive mango smoothie from nothing more than mango and ice.

So don’t serve me anything in a poly-box, or on a shovel, or on a dirty piece of wood or in a tangle of barbed wire [all of these methods of serving meals are being used as I write-including pork loin chops in a urinal]. Give me a plain, clean china plate and simple, beautifully cooked food served in a friendly, un-smarmy, unobtrusive way. OK?