Saturday, 22 April 2017

Creative with Chillis

Being creative with chillis...

Or, making sweet chilli sauce, because living in France where curry is not really A Thing, and the Breton version of ready-meals are not really My Thing, and because that made me start cooking more than I had previously which was, to be honest, quite a lot but then I started cooking as much as possible from scratch because then I would know exactly what was in the food that I was eating, even before health issues kicked off and made me even more aware of  the benefits of good nutrition...

And because cooking is creative and being creative is good for the brain...

And fun...

And don't the fresh ingredients in the photo look gorgeous? Almost like an oil painting by JMS of whom more will feature in later posts... 

And I am reminded of Tracy, with whom I once worked, who was a skilled artist and once, for an 'A' Level Art course, produced a set of works featuring tomatoes and peppers using many different media and techniques and styles that was so good I was deeply impressive. And envious.  

So, Sweet Chilli Sauce:

2 large red peppers, skinned if you can be bothered, I can't
3 red chillis, I used 4 and it was HOT
4 de-seeded little tomatoes
5 cloves of garlic
Nice piece of  peeled fresh ginger
See above

Place the fresh ingredients in a blender and blend.

Like this....

Then gather:

6 fl oz white wine vinegar
1/2 lb sugar
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

and pop it in a pan with the blended fresh ingredients...
bring to the boil and then simmer quite hard for 25 minutes until it's been reduced to a thick, glossy, gloopy sauce...

and then pour it into sterilised bottles and seal.

et voilà

The sauce that I made today is eye-wateringly hot and so will probably be used in a stir-fry with a lot of olive oil, or drizzled over salmon steaks while they're roasting in the oven.

That's the thing with cooking, it's never the same each time that you do it and you never know what to expect.

A bit like life, really.

Circuit training green-style

Yes, the title is a play on words. 
Words are My Thing now that I am working to extract the IT from my DNA, no mean feat after forty years working with technology but I am making progress. Some days I do not even think about cyber security and malware and complex code written to steal an identity, the contents of a bank account, a digital life.

Working on the mind, and working on the body.
In the nine years since I returned to the corporate cage my body has aged considerably. Cancer aside, all of that time sitting at a desk has not been good for me and added to the stresses, well, I am not fit and healthy. 

Time to address that.

And where better than the Green Gym outside my house?  

So most morning (and some afternoons, depending on who is around and how much I care to exercise in public and surrounded by over-friendly dogs), I step out in my now-customary black trousers and white T-shirt, and enjoy my exercise al fresco.

Starting with the old wooden bench which is a perfect height on which to step up and down, thus working the muscles that support my knees which are, after years of skiing and riding, quite without cartilage and which were, four years ago, threatened with replacement. I am keen to hang onto my body parts for as long as possible so I work on my leg muscles a lot.

Moving on to the sundial. It was built and decorated by the people of Drayton to celebrate the new millennium. During the summer evenings the local youths often hang out here, as  can be witnessed by the empty beer bottles, cigarette ends and general rubbish that they leave behind. I usually arrive armed with a carrier bag and while others are tutting and shaking their heads and complaining, I set to work to tidy it up. And then I do my calf stretches on the wall, while checking out the horses and ponies in the neighbouring field.

And on to bench presses...
Unless one of the local chaps is sitting on the bench, in which case I usually stop, sit and chat with him because socialising is an exercise that is good for everyone and he always teaches me something new, or shares with me some story from his long and well-lived life.

This is followed by another old bench. This one is by the pond so as I stretch my hamstrings and do some step-ups, I can check out the year's tadpoles and look for newts and even, as I once did, gaze with awful fascination at a large leech hanging out in the water.

And if that piece of gym equipment were ever to be occupied, there is another one nearby.

I love ballet.
Not to do it, you understand, although I surely would if I could, but to watch with wonder and admiration the fitness of the dancers and how supple and toned they are. And so I do a few exercises at the barre and have, in a box in the conservatory where I am storing my belongings as I pack for my return to France, a ballet barre of my own to be installed when I move back. But it won't be as nice as this one, I think.

Pausing to smell the flowers...

And onto the running track.
It is not long, my running track because I am still working on strengthening my heart and lungs after the tumour treatment which, in the course of killing cancer cells, clobbered my heart somewhat and reduced it to 50% capacity. So I run slowly along the track.

If you look closely you can see the nearby cycle track.
In truth it's the road to Sutton Courtney but it's popular with pedallers at the weekend.

And onto the next running track where the dog is usually ahead of me and waiting.

And to the bench for a five minute meditation, sometimes ten minutes, if that feels right. Often interrupted by the chap who has the allotment closest to the fence who likes to take a break from digging and chat. And here to so some leg raises which are really good for arthritic knees.

The dog also meditates...
His ancestors are from Tibet.

A shortcut through the organic food hall where, in summer, I am often handed a lettuce and a few vegetables, this happens to me wherever I go, not sure why, I certainly do not look as if I need feeding up.  

To the almost parallel bars, where I stretch out and consider trying to push myself up by my arms but wisely decide I am not ready for that yet. Note the notice board on the telegraph post and the old pump that reminds me that we all age, some of us more decoratively than others!

And so, back to the green and a cool-down as I walk under the walnut trees and back home,
It took me a while to get used to people seeing me working out in public like this. And as luck would have it, it's usually the more serious-minded, less fun-loving locals who catch me at it, but I have learned not to care what people think of me as long as I am kind, decent and honest so...

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Different rivers...

All my life people have been saying, "Never go back".

And I suppose they're right, if 'going back' means trying to return to a time and a place in the past and expecting it to be unchanged..

So why am I 'going back' to Brittany now?
Well here's the thing.
I am returning to Brittany, but I am not going back.

So much has happened since that stressed-out, exhausted little Mouse arrived in France all those years ago, so much happened while I was there, and so much has happened since I left, that I can hardly recognise myself as the same person. So I am not going back, a different version of me, an older, wiser, more worn me, is going to have a new adventure in a place I know.

As someone once told me, "You cannot step in the same river twice".
But I think you can return to the river to paddle your canoe in new water.
Does that explain it better?

Tuesday, 18 April 2017


It's a poor picture, my camera lens was steamed up but this is where I have spent a great many weekday mornings since last June.

The pool is small, but I am no Olympiad, and it is sometimes crowded, and that's another trick I've learned, to take the busy, the irritations, the annoyances on the chin because there will be other times when things turn out just fine and you get a whole pool to yourself.  

So this is where you'll find me during the week.
Half an hour of swimming as I enjoy some podcasts on my waterproof MP3 player, sometimes longer, if the pool is empty. A couple of sessions in the sauna and steam room during which time I pretend to be in a forest in Finland. Maybe the jacuzzi, if I'm feeling particularly relaxed.

Some days there will be coffee and a chat with a fellow swimmer, some days I like to slip in, swim in silence and slip out again.

And that is what I am working on right now.
The relaxing, the letting-go of the busy-busy, the listening to the inner voice that tells me how best to spend my time. The not feeling obliged to be doing, the permission to simply be.
Goodness it takes some getting used to!

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Fast forward ...

It's Easter?
What happened to the days, the weeks, the months?

And that is kind of the theme around here...

Time, how it can get away from us, how we never have enough of it, how we need more of it, how we waste so much of it.

Those of you who read my previous blog, A Mouse In France, will know that in 2006 I quit The Rat Race, bought a house in Brittany and moved to France to find a healthier, saner, kinder way of living. 

And that in 2008 I was tempted to leave it all for a fascinating new job in cyber security, and so, after much heart-searching, I left France and moved back to Oxfordshire.  

And that it was challenging and very rewarding work, and I did a lot of good and protected a lot of people and corporations from cyber criminals and their malicious code and trickery. The work, I loved, the corporate culture, well, that was a different matter. 

Sometimes I look back and it feels as if I fell down the rabbit hole and entered a weird and twisted reality. Suffice to say that eight years of that life as a Lab Rat almost killed me.

So, here I am again.
About to quit The Rat Race and move back to that house in Brittany,
Older and wiser.
I'm no longer a mouse, I'm more of a little warrior woman now.

Time, it's very precious and we should spend it wisely.
N'est-ce pas? 

Saturday, 28 January 2017

My Little Castle

Yes, well, January may not be the best time to chose to go away in this country but I have adopted the habit of taking a break during the first month of the year and so ...

This is Shute guesthouse, owned by the Landmark Trust and rented out to visitors.
Or, as I came to call it, my little castle.

I wasn't entirely sure when I first arrived.
Am I alone in feeling uneasy on the first night in a strange place? 
I've been to beautiful hotels, guesthouses, friends' homes, all over the world and that first night is always a time of feeling out-of-place, not-quite-right, ill-at-ease. So much so that I have been known to consider checking out in the middle of the night and making my way home - not always practical or feasible if I am in Iceland or, as once happened, a luxury hotel next to the beach in Tel Aviv.

Call me nuts...

Anyway, when I climbed the path at the side of the gatehouse and unlocked the heavy wood door the smell of faintly-musty, old-cooking, unaired-rooms was not welcoming and I really did consider getting back in the car and driving home. Except that it had taken me four hours to get to Devon and I had approached the journey much like a modern-day Columbus setting sail for the edge of the world, and I was not in a mind to retrace that drive back to the M5 and along the M4 and up the A34. 

Not without a cup of tea first.

I carried our luggage in, mine and the dog's, and dumped it by the front door. Ready for a middle-of-the-night flight, should that become necessary, and then climbed the stone spiral staircase to the top floor, because that's where the sitting room and kitchen are, at the top.

Two bedrooms on the first floor with a bathroom, sitting room and kitchen at the top.

And the dog loved the little window on the way up.
In fact, every time he padded up and down the stairs he paused to peer out.

And I was quite taken with the view upwards.

When I was first looking at houses in France my agent took me to a place in a field. It was, really, in a field. A stone house in a field. It was quite alarming, for one who had only ever lived on streets, to find a house in a field, and when I saw the bath full of dead spiders and the walls full of damp I was not keen at all, but it did have a spiral stone staircase and that almost sold me on it.

I am irrational like that.


 And then upstairs the sitting room was quite charming.
And once I had opened the windows to air the place and popped the kettle on for a cup of tea, I began to relax, a little.

And then I lit the stove.
I had bought smokeless fuel and kindling with me, be prepared, it was the wilds of Devon, after all, and I knew I would not be keen to venture forth to find shops, even if there should be any nearby, which I doubted.

There were, as it happened, but I had come with a siege mentality to this mini-castle and was happy to have brought all that I needed with me.

Pull up the drawbridge, I thought, we are safe and sound and none shall breach these walls!

Have I ever admitted to having a thing about fortresses?
Especially of the impregnable kind?

So the dog settled himself and got comfy. I knew that he would not be welcome on the chair, no-one likes smelly dogs on soft furnishings, so I had a waterproof rug and a throw for him.

And I cooked dinner.
Because cooking immediately makes me feel at home and relaxed, something to do with standing over a simmering pan and stirring...

I should have taken more pictures, suffice to say that the kitchen is in a turret and is tiny but perfectly equipped and spotlessly clean. Immaculately clean. Clean enough even for me, and I have been known to thoroughly clean kitchens in holiday accommodation before I will so much as pop a teabag in a mug...

And now I am giving the impression not only of being neurotically nervous but also obsessively clean, which I am not. I just like to be sure...

OK, maybe I am obsessively clean, blame the chemotherapy.    
When you are pumped full of poisons that destroy your immune system, along with your taste buds, the lining of your mouth, stomach and gut and all of your 'friendly bacteria', you tend to take food hygiene seriously.  

So, this is the window at the of of the stairs
Since it's the other turret you can see the size of the kitchen.

The third bedroom is in the tower.
I didn't take a look.
Truth to tell, I had so much trouble with the locks on the main door I wasn't keen to try opening up towers too.

So, there we were. Me and the dog.
Imaginary drawbridge pulled up, door locked, intruders barred.
Safely in our castle.
Fed, watered, walked and warmed.
Ready for a few days at the Jurassic Coast.

We would, I decided, stay after all.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Iceland Noir

I used to have very conservative tastes in reading.

The list of the books that I read last year shows that I have dipped my toe into more genres, especially of the dark and twisted type. Sometime in 2016 I discovered Nordic Noir and, having some Scandinavian genes on my mother's side of the family, and being a huge fan of Finland, I was hooked.    

And then I discovered a new, small publisher who was producing books from Icelandic authors and once I started to read them one thing led to another and before you could say Eyjafjallajökull  I was halfway up an Icelandic volcano on a horse.

Books have that effect on me.

So, last Wednesday I went to London to the launch of a book by the Icelandic author Ragnar Jonasson. And being a little shy I could not pluck up the courage to speak to him so my son took this photo of the author and me.

That was ok, I was happy to be there and quite chuffed to see Ragnar in the flesh and to meet Karen Sullivan of Orenda Books and a few other people that I know only in the virtual world of Twitter and Facebook.

And although I used to hate having my photo taken, since the cancer diagnosis, well, my priorities have changed and now I don't mind so much.

I'm just happy to still be alive and to have hair again...

And it was lovely to catch up with my son and to have dinner together after the book launch. We should do it more. we agreed, especially if I get another late-night tour of his favourite spots in Soho.

So here's to Ragnar and his latest novel, Rupture.

From the shy little old lady with a special affection for it