Sunday, 26 April 2015

Another trip to the Netherlands: Cycling and a Chateau

We spent last weekend in Netherlands again, the second time Kate and I have been there in 2105. This time we went along with my husband to stay in Valkenburg near Maastricht so that he could take part in the Amstel Gold cycling event.  I wasn't terribly excited by this idea when he first suggested it, not knowing very much about Maastricht and the surrounding area, but actually I was pleasantly surprised.

Valkenburg, a pretty little town which is considerably hillier than the rest of the Netherlands, was heaving with cyclists sitting on cafe terraces and enjoying the sun when we arrived on Friday afternoon.  The Amstel Gold event is very popular with a 'leisure' ride on the Saturday followed by a professional race on Sunday.  Husband joined the queue to register for the 125km ride.  Leisure? Why don't I join him on these events I hear you ask?  No chance - my limit is about 10 miles and I'm a bit too wobbly on a bike and scared of traffic.

All of the hotels in Valkenburg were full so we ended up staying in a very swanky chateau hotel nearby.  It is the most luxurious hotel we have ever stayed in and wasn't cheap so we only stayed one night, moving to a more modest one in Maastricht itself on the Saturday evening after the race. Our 'apartment' was spacious and beautifully furnished, though I'm not sure they'd have been too happy if they'd seen the bike in the hallway.

So Kate and I spent a lazy Saturday morning in this apartment lounging around in our complimentary bathrobes.  Then we explored the grounds where, in addition to the established statues and gardens, there was a sculpture exhibition.

My favourite was this revolving giant Easter egg.

I also liked this metal butterfly - it reminded me a little of the Angel of the North

And, for Kate, there was an opportunity for a bit more science revision.  You can see a tiny inverted image of yourself in the centre of the eyeball.

We also liked this big apple.  The gardens were beautiful and it was a lovely morning so we didn't mind when we had to check out at lunchtime and wait until the ride was over.  We made a picnic in our little kitchen and ate it in Rose Garden - no roses yet but it was a peaceful spot where we enjoyed the sun until husband returned triumphant, having completed his 125 km without too much difficulty and pleased with himself as he was able to overtake others up the hills, having had much practice at this on his usual rides in North Wales.

On Sunday we drove back through Belgium, stopping off en route to have lunch with my cousin and her family who live south of Brussels.  It was great to catch up with her as we only manage to see each other every few years when our visits to Northern Ireland coincide. 

A lovely weekend and a good end to the Easter holidays.   

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

An Easter Eggshibition and The Year in Books: April

Sorry about the bad pun.  A quick post before our short break to Belguim and Holland.  When we were in Northern Ireland we visited this Easter Egg exhibition in First Lisburn Presbyterian Church.  Local businesses had produced these contributions to the display which aimed to encouragepeople to visit the newly-refurbished church.   We went along with my sisters and the children and my daughter took these pictures which I thought I would share.  Really impressive and inventive display.

And now another late post for Laura's lovely Year in Books link up.  This month I have been reading Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, a best-selling first book by an unknown author.  I'm slightly curious about how she, a 20-something student,  managed to be in a position where she was given a huge advance for a book and had nine publishers competing for it. How did she get their attention in the first place, when many successful authors, including J K Rowling, are rejected at first?  Did someone spot her when she was doing the Creative Writing MA at UEA?

What is different about this book is that she gets into the head of Maud, her central character, who has dementia, and writes a convincing account of life and events from her point of view.  My mother-in-law had dementia in her final years and much of Maud's behaviour is familiar: leaving the gas on; going out at odd times; attempts to continue with routine activities like cooking and shopping but getting in a muddle about it.  My aunt, who suffered from dementia, once tried to make a ham sandwich for her son with the blood-soaked absorbent paper at the bottom of a plastic supermarket meat tray: she still saw it as her job to feed her family even after the roles had reversed.

What Healey does so well is to show that for Maud, her actions, which frustrate and baffle others, are actually entirely logical in her mind.  She confuses past and present all the time. Her friend Elizabeth is 'missing'. She's actually in hospital, but Maud, who is in English Lit teaching terms, an 'unreliable narrator' never grasps this. Maud confuses the fact that Elizabeth is missing with the disappearance of her sister Sukey in the post-war years, an event that Maud is able to remember in vivid detail.  This means that we, as readers, can understand why Maud says something about Elizabeth which seems ridiculous to her daughter, as we know she is referring to Sukey.  What is also well observed is the reaction of her daughter Helen: Maud notices her eye-rolling and her desire to get away. This reminds me so much about how we were with my mother-in-law and I feel ashamed.  It seems that Healey drew on her own family's experience with her grandmother to write the book.  It must be slightly uncomfortable reading for her mother, if Helen is based on her.

I discussed this novel at my bookclub and one member, who works with dementia patients, says it is a very accurate portrayal of the condition.  And that is what it is - very well written and original book. Did I enjoy it? Yes, though I preferred the next one I read more Colm Toibin's Nora Webster.  But more of that another time.

My next book was recommended to me by Annet, the teacher I stayed with in the Netherlands.  She gave me a battered paperback school copy.  It's The Music of Chance by Paul Auster.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Easter Weekend...

was spent in Northern Ireland with two of my sisters and their families.  We enjoyed catching up, eating chocolate, drinking wine and, for once, the sun came out for us.  We spent Easter Sunday in Dad's now empty house in Ballyronan.  It was very cold when we arrived, but we lit a fire and sister's practical husband persuaded the boiler to light.  I have a mixture of feelings returning: sadness, nostalgia and, this time, a kind of resignation to the inevitable passing of time and the need to let go. We know that we can't leave it empty forever but, for now, it's good to be able to return.  I cooked Sunday lunch and we took the children to play at the marina which was busy with daytrippers and people staying in the caravan park.

Here a few pictures from the weekend.

On Easter Saturday we were trapped in my sister's house in Dromore as the road was closed for the Circuit of Ireland Rally car race.  This entertained some members of the family, but not all of us. So we had an Easter Egg hunt for the children with clues like this around the garden.  My big girl joined in and had her own share of the chocolate.  I spent a large part of the day sitting in the sun reading, only mildly distracted by the roar of race. ('Nora Webster' by Colm Toibin - am planning a books post soon)

Ballyronan Marina on Easter Sunday.  We walked to the 'lighthouse', at the end of the pier and this is the view from there. There's no light, just a concrete tower, but it was always the walk I did with my mother.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

M is for....March, Mindfulness, Minimalism and... Mountain

M is for Mountain: Moel Famau in North Wales

March is nearly over but just time for a brief post to summarise my current preoccupations, many of which begin with the letter M...

M is for Mummies.  This week I had a night out, a pub meal and rather too much red wine with the friends I made when we moved to our village.  My daughter was a 20 months and I'd left my job and all my social circle in Norfolk - I was afraid I'd be lonely.  But then I discovered Toddler group in the village hall: she found friends and so did I.  We spent the next few years going on outings as a group: Chester Zoo, the Ice Cream Factory, the little train in Grosvenor Park; it was a very happy time. The children don't see so much of each other now, but the mummies keep in touch and I enjoyed catching up.

M is for Marie Kondo. I've just bought this book which I've read about on other blogs.  My husband thinks it is hilarious that I'm buying a book about tidying up.  I'm hoping it will help me in my constant quest to create order at home and deal with clutter, something I find nearly impossible to do.
One of my mummy friends has a home which is perfectly clean and tidy at all times.  We make fun of her obsession with order, but there is a part of me that is envious

M is for Minimalism. I've been reading Clare's blog Just a Little Less for a few years now and like her pragmatic approach to living with less.  Her recent advice on how to involve partners is helpful though it's not going to be easy as my husband is a bit of a shopaholic, forever ordering online cycling clothing, accessories and all sorts of other stuff he doesn't really need.

M is for Mindfulness.  Along with minimalism goes mindfulness.  I need to tidy my mind of clutter too: stopping overthinking and worrying about past failings or future scenarios that may never actually occur.  And, again, I've acquired a book to help me, borrowing this one which offers an eight week course and a CD to help.  I'm starting this week. Let's hope no one else reserves the book before I complete it!

M is for Meditation. I've never had much success with meditation, a key part of  mindfulness. One evening, in a yoga class I attending. we were asked to sit as a group in the dark around a candle and meditate.  I just found it embarrassing and wanted to giggle.  But I'll give it a go if it helps.

M is for Mountain.  One psychological technique I am good at is visualising.  Except instead of visualising my future successes, I tend to vividly imagine bad things that might happen or things that did happen to others. I've blogged about this before here.  This week I was deeply shocked by the plane crash in the Alps, feeling particular empathy for the parents of those children who were returning from a school trip. I found myself creating a mental film reel of the horror inside the plane as it headed for the mountain.  Does anyone else do this?  It benefits no one and makes me sad, but I cannot stop myself.

M is for Moel Famau, a mountain in North Wales, not too far from here.  I'm planning to climb it this week with my neighbour and the dog.  I might even manage to drag the teenager along if the weather is good. Nothing like a bit of mountain climbing to get things into perspective and turn off my busy mind.

The last time we climbed Moel Famau was with some friends in 2009.  The Mr Grumpy T shirt is still being worn....

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Just another Manic Monday..

Routine day. That's what many of the entries in my one-line-a-day diary have said recently.  Our lives are dominated by routine and a secondary classroom teacher's routine is dominated by the timetable which establishes a very strict routine. The weeks pass by and all the Mondays begin with an A level class and end with a double lesson of year 9, which has been hard work recently as we are all weary and ready for a holiday.  And all the Tuesdays... So I feel recently that I have been a work-induced coma. (Thanks to Angel Jem's City Cottage for that phrase which describes exactly my present mood.)  I'm keeping going: turning up; teaching lessons; marking books. It's hard work at this time of the year - lots of dull examination paper practice, which isn't much fun for anyone.  And then there's the self-imposed tyranny of my routines at home: dog walking; washing machine filling; sock-pairing; healthy meal cooking.... There have been a few days recently when I've just wanted to crawl under the duvet and stay there.

Now I suppose routine is good: there is, at present, no major trauma in our lives to disrupt things; I should be thankful for what I've got etc.  But I don't seem to have the energy for anything else but routine obligations.  I've been wanting to see the latest 'Marigold Hotel' film but I reckon I'd fall asleep if I went out after work. I'm not even reading much.  Or writing this very often.  And I've had a range of minor ailments: sore infected eyes, a blocked ear and a nagging pain in my neck and shoulders which is aggravated by being on the laptop or reading.  So I'm feeling sorry for myself.

This morning the sun is shining and I'm determined to pull myself together.  I'm taking a break from the marking routine this weekend and am going to do some things to lift my mood.  First I am going to clean the house properly and tidy up - clutter is getting to me.  And I'm going to get out in the garden, do some digging and plant some seeds.  At least spring is well on its way now.  I might even get round to seeing that film.

And there's one routine thing I do for myself.  On Monday evenings, I go to choir practice.  This week we've learnt The Bangles 80's song 'Just another Manic Monday' which I've been singing in my head all week.  Very appropriate.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

A Glimpse of Spring

I eventually got out in the garden this weekend to do a bit of much needed tidying up, pruning and lawn mowing.  Saturday was beautiful and I hoped more warmish days would follow. Today is damp and cold again though so I haven't got any further. I have enjoyed watching spring from my kitchen window though.  In the tall trees on the farmland behind our garden, lives a colony of crows. What is the collective noun for crows? A congregation? A caw? (Just googled and one of the alternatives is 'a murder of crows'.)  They have been nest-building and I have enjoyed watching them carrying twigs, twice the length of their body, which they are using to create huge structures high in the branches.  Not everyone likes the crows: they are noisy and the farmer occasionally shoots at them with an air rifle like my dad used to.  But they fascinate me and the noise is not that unpleasant.

I've also bought a new birdfeeder in the hope of attracting more small birds.  I filled it with niger seed which promises to attract a 'charm' of goldfinches.  Or 'a troubling', which is an alternative collective noun for them, though I prefer charm as I love theses colourful little birds.  Perhaps the crows are scaring the smaller birds away.  Is that where the name, 'a murder of crows', comes from, I wonder?

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Let there be Light

Image result for images muna alfrink lightLast week I spent my half term break with a colleague and a group of students, including my daughter, at MUNA, a Model United Nations conference, at Alfrink College in the Netherlands.  The poster above introduces the theme and slogan of the conference which aims to open the minds of the students to issues in the world around them. This is the second year I have been on this visit and, yet again, it was a fantastic experience.  There were 375 students involved, many from local schools, but others had travelled from the UK, Spain, Germany, France, Sweden, India and China so it was truly an international conference.  We stayed with host families and, once again, I was welcomed by Annett, an English teacher at the college, and her family.  I had a lovely time there, enjoying her hospitality and friendship. We also met and shared a meal with the staff from the other schools.  Our students also enjoyed the social side of the trip, including the very loud MUNA party which was a less pleasurable event for the staff.

The main aim of the week was to introduce students to the work of the UN.  Each student represented a country and they then research issues, draft resolutions and participate in debates.  My daughter Kate represented Canada and debated human rights issues such as Child Forced Marriage.  She was a bit reluctant to speak up at first and rather overwhelmed by the older more confident students but did learn a lot from the experience.

We also visited Amsterdam and took students to the Anne Frank house, a very moving experience.What I found most poignant were the pencil marks on the walls showing how Anne and her sister Margot had grown during their time in the annexe.  I was very proud of our students who didn't rush through the house as they usually do on museum trips, but absorbed it all quietly and respectfully.

I'm hoping to return to blogging more regularly now spring is on its way.  It's lighter now in the mornings so I'm starting to emerge from my winter hibernation and am rising earlier.  I love light mornings and enjoy that quiet time before others emerge.  It's my favourite writing time,