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Saturday, 12 September 2015

Washing my Hair with Nettles Review

Washing my Hair With Nettles


Washing my hair with nettles, a collection of poems by Emilia Ivancu, newly transported from Romania by Diarmuid Johnson's voice, grants us entry into a delicious new world of mystery and wonder. Her poetry might be rooted in cultures of myth and symbolism but reading poem after poem, I have been struck by the brutal and searing realism of her lines, returning over and over to the darkness fluttering at the edge of human consciousness. But Ivancu's poems also illuminate our path, giving us clues about how we might harness these dark forces to reveal the possibilities they conceal.


A fortnight in the South of France at the end of July brought a rare luxury of dipping in and out of the collection, allowing Ivancu's imagery to slowly percolate my consciousness - only possible when a certain extreme of 'doing nothing' or a state of 'being mode' has been achieved. After all, holidays are our modern micro-versions of where we practice a speeded up natural cycle of growth, decay and rebirth to emerge renewed and refreshed. To paint the scene- I read the title poem 'washing my hair with nettles' pool-side, sheltered by grape vines jostling and twirling around the beams of a crumbling outhouse and accompanied by a soundtrack of cicadas and starlings dancing across the blue sky above. I was struck by how much these poems in the collection spoke to me during this holiday, a break which comes at the end of a tough year where I have been forced to mine new strengths and go right to the depths of what it means to be 'me'.


It is in this mental and physical space that I listen to Ivancu talking of 'dreams born of nettles' of the sting and pain we must undergo to achieve the prize of silken water that allows us to achieve our authentic dreams. I think what she is saying is that we must undergo the pain, the sting and burn of life before we can see the possibilities and beauty it holds. The theme continues in 'Each Step Reveals a Sign' - 'you shall learn to read them; only when you have been taught; to shut your eyes; so that night may illuminate your path'. Ivancu suggests it is by using darkness, not light, we will be guided through life and able to see more our way more clearly. Next 'In Every Garden' 'In every garden there ever was in Eden a serpent still remains; Just as between the pages of each book there lurks a demon; And the demon strikes us poised to strike.' Suggesting that we can't avoid the darkness of life but that we can and should harness it to grow stronger and more resilient. The Two Questions 'How much a man can lose in the space of a single day; What can man recover in the space of a day' as well as the 'Man is a Boat', 'The Air is All I Have', 'Carrying the Sky on our Shoulders' all time and time again remind of us of the heavy weight and delicate fragility that simultaneously dog the human existence.


Submerging myself in this collection was the perfect companion to my meditations on renewal during my two-week break. Ivancu's words and phrases provided respite but also new ways of thinking about my own struggles to bend, twist and adapt to a reality so often governed by the rules of others. The collection is a door-way to unfamiliar traditions of mystery and wonder but the parallels of Ivancu's poems to our common existence and solitary internal battles are an exquisite reminder that our own personal struggles can and do mirror the universal experience. As she reminds us 'The Air Is all I have' - all we all have. No matter who we are or what world we have constructed for ourselves, the existence of each of us depends on that simple inhale/exhale of breath. It seems to me that once we really start to grasp that, everything else falls away and we can start to learn how to really live.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Running Spots

Running in Geneva is something else! I've been keeping up my runs while away for these four weeks in Geneva and I'm very proud of myself for doing so! I am starting to understand why people become hooked on running. For me it is becoming a little parenthesis in the day where I can take myself off, for a bit of reflection, for solitude. I'm not sure where, but a few months back, I read somebody say that 'you never regret a run' and it's stuck as my motto. It has got me out of the house on many a day when my mind and my body are trying to tell me that I would much rather lie in front of the telly or in the garden with a good book.

In Geneva I've taken to wearing my bikini under my kit and I've been running 5-7km around Lake Geneva (which takes you a decent distance away from the crowds of the city centre) and rewarding myself with diving into the crystal clear azure water of the lake, finding quiet and tranquil spots far from the crowds of tourists and noisy teenagers. I've spotted a glittering mosaic of interesting things on these runs. Besides the general environment of breath-taking vistas of the glistening lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains there are the many people and sights that I have seen. Watching the silhouettes of people dancing, running and jumping as the sun sets behind the famous jet d'eau spurting fine fronds of water skywards. The colourful flower displays inexplicably imprisoned behind metal and wooden barriers, perhaps to discourage the public getting too close. The white sails of the yachts and boats moored at different points around the lake flapping and flying in the gentle breeze. Watching clouds roll and build over the mountains, getting progressively heavier and the clatter of thunder and flash of lightening in the distance as I run as fast as my legs can carry me.

These are just some of the sights already seen. Once I've covered enough distance, I will settle down on a rock and dry in the sun. This is the perfect time to take 10 minutes mindful reflection and to bring some stillness and rest into the day. Following this, I will settle down to the novel that I'm currently demolishing until the sun goes down. My 5km + walk home means that I am pushing myself towards a total of 10km so that even if I'm not running the whole thing, my mind and body are getting accustomed to these sorts of distances.

I've decided that running when visiting a new place gives a new perspective and a different way of interacting with your environment, it is something that I plan to continue for years to come.

I'm just off on this afternoon's run..... wonder what I'll see?

A Swiss Summer

I have spent the last three weeks in Geneva, Switzerland. I am taking a 'petit pause' from real-life and I've decided to grasped various opportunities that have conspired to allow me to dedicate a whole month to breathing life back into my deflated French. I've always been a Francophile, somehow feeling at ease and at home in a French speaking mileu and what's more, I love the puzzle and challenge of practising and learning a new language. It's like a never ending crossword!

I studied French at university, along with Spanish and Politics. I had neglected my French since my graduation in 2004 and I realised that if I didn't do something soon, I would lose a skill and a very solid basis in a language in which I had invested over 15 years of study to achieve a degree level standard. So, for the last three weeks I've been in class at 8.30 every morning, plunging myself deep into the curiosities of French grammar and re-immersing myself in the wonderful world that is the subjonctif! I'm all too aware that this is just the beginning - if I truly want to master the language it will take a commitment to self-directed study. That said, I have been both pleased and frustrated in equal measure at how in just three weeks I have felt the memory of this dormant language begin to unfurl, to spread its wings and to stretch out its limbs in my mind. But it feels like a patient who has been bedridden for weeks and is just feeling well enough to take its first tentative steps into the light. Yes everything is there, the legs, arms, skeleton and muscles are all intact, but they are stiff and sore and weak. They need to take things slowly but to be used more and more each day to return to their former strength. That's how I feel about my French after these three weeks. I know that I have a particular aptitude and interest in languages but I am equally, painfully, aware that unless I build up my strength, practise and use my French by actually living life in French, I may never reach my goal of being a fully functioning fit and healthy specimen, I may be stuck faltering, taking tentative and wobbly steps rather than progressing confidently and with strength and self-assurance. What this short period of immersion has taught me is that I love learning, speaking and reading French and while fluency may be the ultimate goal, there is much enjoyment on the journey towards that goal. If it takes a life-time, so what - we're allowed to dream! Having this opportunity has reignited my determination to continue to practice and strengthen my ability in the language - who knows where it will take me!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Queridas Quesadillas!

For a while now I've been meaning to share my love of the little miracle that is the Quesadilla. If you haven't tried them, firstly WHY NOT? And secondly, GET ON WITH IT. The fun with these little cheese-filled parcels of wonderfulness is that the combinations are endless and they are cheap, so cheap. Basically you take a normal tortilla wrap, put it in the frying pan without and oil, grate in cheese plus whatever other ingredients you can find or tickles your fancy. The cheese acts as a glue to bind the parcel together. Yes, ok, so they may be the single handed reason why I can't seem to get any of my shorts over my thighs but hey, life's for living, right? A few of the concoctions I have come up with so far:

  • Sunday's left over chicken with cheddar and spring onion
  • Spinach, Feta and Cheddar
  • Olive Pesto and Cheddar
  • Goats cheese and red onion jam
  • Chorizo, Pepper and Feta
The options are infinite and they are definitely my new favourite guilty pleasure, comfort weekend lunch - yum!!


Vintage Heaven in Hay

What fun was had two weekends ago when I was drafted in as a last minute 'model' for Hay's Got Vintage. I loved dressing up in a beautiful vintage frock, something I would never have considered putting together myself but that I loved every moment of wearing. It was a lovely feeling to be wandering around idyllic Hay, in the sunshine with a pack of impeccably dressed ladies, being stopped at every turn and told how fabulous we looked - doesn't happen every day that's for sure.  I was inspired to buy a frou frou underskirt which I have since enjoyed putting with my existing wardrobe to give it some oomph! The less said about my other purchases the better, just that there were a few and that one of them is a fantastic Burberry Porsum 'flasher' mac
à la Audrey in Breakfast at Tiffany's! Thank you to the sublime fashionfarmerblogs@blogspot.co.uk for letting me join in!

Eurovision memories - Copenhagen 2014

The Eurovision torch will never go out…


On 16th May 2014, Concita Wurst captured our hearts and was rightfully crowned ‘Queen of Eurovision’. It is a richly deserved accolade that sums up the essence of Eurovision as a beacon of equality, tolerance and flamboyance. But we’ll come back to all of that…

For our circle of family and friends however, Eurovision has another Queen, a Queen whom those of us from Birmingham, know has reigned supreme for decades and whose crown was in place long before Concita grew her first wisps of facial hair. Her name is Judith Mullineux. She happens to be my mother, but that is of little import to all things Eurovision. At Eurovision she is not wife, not mother, not sister or daughter, it is a place where she sparkles, centre of the buzz and brouhaha, adding light and sparkle to the party. In fact family attendance has traditionally been positively discouraged. In cahoots with partner in crime Malcolm, she has attended every Eurovision since it graced the National Indoor Arena in Birmingham in 1998. Since then she has faithfully followed the contest to whichever city it rolls into in its annual celebration of all things glorious, glamourous and glitter-fuelled. She is a font of all-Eurovision knowledge able to name every winner, runner up and loser the contest has produced. She also has an uncanny knack for celeb spotting, once famously trying to adopt Jessica Garlick to replace me as her much more worthy daughter.

This year however, brought a significant birthday and Judith made the nervous and slightly uncomfortable decision to allow myself, my father, my husband and our very dear friend Rhys to crash her Eurovision weekend in Copenhagen. See, she was aware that we had been in apprenticeship for the last few years, slowly earning our Eurovision stripes and this year, finally, fretfully she decided we were ready. My husband and Rhys are lifelong friends and each May we congregate at Rhys’ house for a Eurovision party replete with quizzes, Euro-cuisine and, often, Cher. It seemed the natural next step that our shared Eurovision fervour should at some point earn permission to attend the main event. So the perfect storm of a big birthday, a Scandi venue and an appropriate level of Eurovision training meant that 2014 was the year that we would graduate from Euro-apprentices and fly as fully fledged Eurovision fans.

Before we left we were given strict instruction about how the weekend would ‘work’ and how we were to behave to keep up the gold standard. On arrival in Copenhagen, we had travelled from Cardiff, while Judith and her entourage had travelled from Birmingham so we had agreed to rendez-vous at the central station. As we settled in the café for a drink I revealed the Concita ‘beards’ I had painstakingly fashioned out of felt and elastic. As we donned them, Judith visibly relaxed and a look of pride flickered in her face, she had done it, she’d passed the magic of Eurovision on to the next generation – she could see that we really ‘got it’ and that we would add to and not detract from the fun she had planned for the weekend.

Steffan, Rhys and I shared a beautifully boho and impossibly stylish flat rented to us by Andreas a mysterious musician and coffee shop owner in the XXX area of Copenhagen. Due to the prohibitive prices of eating out we dined on the glamourous fare of humungous sweet and sticky Danish Pastries, Pizzas and Prosecco from the strategically placed Netto across the road and Steffan’s Place hotdogs (we loved the name for obvious reasons!)- modest pickings but honestly some of the best tasting food we’d ever eaten. The weekend was everything we had hoped, fuelled by cheap Prosecco it was a blur of excitement, fabulous outfits, fantastic entertainment, stylish surroundings, bicycles and fizz. In terms of Eurovision itself we had bagged a bargain by winning tickets to the ‘Jury Final’ which was every bit as good as the final. Judith, naturally had tickets to the Semi-final, the Jury Final AND the real bonafide Final, like I said, she’s a pro. So while she disappeared of to the main event in a cloud of Union Jacks, the rest of us spent Final night in a bar in central Copenhagen due to the drizzle which put us off watching it on the official Eurovision screens. We couldn’t have hoped for a better venue – the atmosphere steadily built from a gentle buzz to a glorious crescendo as the final went on and a fabulous live band played, while the votes were counted.

It was then that the magic happened, vote after vote after vote rolled in for Concita. Country after country declared their acceptance and appreciation with two small words – ‘douze points’. In that moment when she raised the trophy above her head, Concita’s victory summed up everything that makes me proud to call myself European. In that moment, we proved ourselves to be a continent of peace, tolerance, acceptance, and togetherness. What a sharp contrast to the dark and depressing lurch to the right the following week in the Euro-elections. By passing on her passion and giving us permission to partake Judith had allowed us to experience the beauty that is a contest that manages to combine the the quirky, the original, the beautiful and the downright silly and celebrates every single moment of it. Eurovision is about being yourself and being proud of that. It is about friendship and fun and laughter. So thank you Judith, the torch has well and truly been lit for us, the next generation…. See you all in Vienna!