Friday, 5 December 2014

The Ghosts of Christmas, Past and Present


Love it or loathe it, Christmas cannot be avoided in this part of the world, and I do love it, much as I dislike ongoing Christmas creep.  I know retailers need to profit from the orgy of spending we embark upon every midwinter, but I refuse to have much to do with Christmas until the beginning of December.  From then on, however, I embrace it enthusiastically.  The special excitement and anticipation I treasure from my own childhood has never deserted me and we all need to nurture our inner child.  I would always celebrate Christmas even if I didn't have a family but I know I am lucky to be part of a large combined family and there is always a lot of love around at Christmas.

As a child growing up as part of a large Irish Catholic family (now scattered to the four winds) on the outskirts of a large city in the North of England, Christmas was very much a time for church and family and with numerous aunts and uncles and 18 first cousins all living in the same city there was so much fun to be had just spending time together.   I'm sure there were tensions amongst the adults (I know there were tensions amongst the adults - my own parents, shockingly, separated and divorced; the family rift never healed), but we children had a wonderful time and no doubt drove our parents to drink.  Well, as I said, we were Irish.


I have strong memories of cold houses with ice patterns blooming on the inside of the window panes, our breath misting in the bedrooms as we dressed hastily in the mornings, the small, artificial Christmas tree being brought down lovingly from the attic to the sitting room on Christmas Eve and festooned with ancient baubles, the same ones every year, and a string of coloured Christmas lights with a fairy on top - there was always fierce competition to be the one who put the fairy on top.  I remember being woken from a deep sleep at 11 o'clock at night, bundling up into warm clothes, then the long freezing walk to church for Midnight Mass through the clear, frosty, starlit night, cold red chapped knees and rosy cheeks glowing, then back to bed longing to wake up to the weight of the freshly-filled stocking, stuffed with fruit and nuts, chocolate money and tiny treats lying across my feet, and just one very special, much-longed for new toy.  


At eight years old, I was actually secretly disappointed to be given this gorgeous book which I now treasure and will pass on to my grandchildren... 



  
... but I was thrilled to find this baby doll at the end of my bed one year (she had more hair then) and  I wish I could remember what I called her all those years ago.  But what I really, really wanted for Christmas was a kitten and that I couldn't have, my father being allergic, or so he said.  Of course, ever since I have collected cats and currently have three sharing my life and scratching the furniture, part of my animal family, and books and children have continued to be a huge part of my life.


Now my partner and I have a big combined family of seven young adults, many with partners of their own and one living in another country with his small daughter and Christmas has evolved to accommodate our new circumstances.  We no longer focus on Christmas day as, with so many families in the mix, we all need to be flexible and we would hate the children to feel they have to come, so we just try to spend time with as many of our children as we can reasonably see in the run-up to Christmas and spread the pleasure of a big family Christmas.  It works for us.


Wednesday, 29 October 2014

But I had other plans!

The years fly by. The clocks have gone back, hallowe'en and bonfire night are fading memories and it is officially open season on Christmas in the shops, although last Christmas still seems very fresh in my mind. Where does the time go?

Every year is a new chapter, a clean page with nothing yet written/scribbled on it, an empty calendar and diary to fill up, a new list of things I would like to do, achieve, finish, start, and the inevitable fact that life will take its own course no matter how I try to impose my own agenda upon it. As John Lennon so famously said "Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans."


The seasons come and go, the birthdays become increasingly improbable and I can start to look back on the life already lived, the two thirds of life I have already had if I am lucky? enough to live out my natural life span and I can start to see the shape of my life and also the unexpectedness of it. Life is like a river, it picks you up and sweeps you along. I wonder where it will set me down next?


So, as the year winds down, I am thinking about what has happened, the things which have mattered to me, the highs and lows. This has been a year of painful and stressful dental and oral surgery which is now thankfully coming to an end. Sometimes it feels that life is the bits I squeeze in between sessions in the dentist's chair! There are worse things.

My partner's father is adjusting to the changes in his life, the loss of his independence, although it seems unlikely he will ever be able to go home again. More frail than ever, he is still hanging in there. It's difficult.


The children are all doing OK and that is the best thing. They are all finding their paths in life, the things and people they need to make it satisfying, riding the tiger. Now that summer is over they are making plans to visit, spend some time with us, although Christmas is going to be very different this year as they redefine how they want to spend their holiday. We might even have Christmas off for the first time in over thirty years. 


The house has been on the market most of this year but despite receiving an offer for it, we haven't sold. There is still uncertainty about where and how we want to live and I think we need to spend more time researching. Getting it wrong is an expensive mistake.

Sailing into Venice and Stockholm has been memorable, not always for the right reasons. The sea can be treacherous and should never be under-estimated - it could easily have been us, as well as our lunch, that ended up in the sea.  Our own small boat is over-wintering near Stockholm and I am looking forward to spending more time in Sweden and possibly Finland next year. I hope we will revisit Venice too, but the next trip will not involve living on a small boat with four other people and potential near-death incidents! 

What sort of year have you had so far? Did it go the way you hoped?  What are your hopes and dreams for next year?

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Sadness


Relentless rain is falling today and I am feeling sad.  End of summer sad, back to reality sad but mostly sad for my father-in-law.  We should have been in Wales with him this week, enjoying a family get-together, but a stroke has intervened and taken his independence away from him.  At 97 he was doing so well, driving himself around locally, swimming regularly and having some social life. My partner is with him now, trying to sort out his end-of-life care, always a difficult and fraught time as I know only too well, having been there so recently with my Mum.

So, I'm thinking of him now and hoping that things will come together for him this week, that he can leave hospital and move into the next, the final stage of his long, long life.  Hoping that we can all somehow make it as easy as possible for him.


Here's some autumn flowers for John and beautiful piece of music, exquisitely played by Yo-Yo Ma.






Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Sailing into trouble - Sea and Sky

Surprisingly, there was little indication of what was brewing as we sailed up the Venetian Lagoon towards Chioggia.  Weather is fickle and can change so quickly, but we had a peaceful meander that day.


Just us...


...and them...


...the sea...


...and the sky.

This is what I go out on the water for!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Lunch is in the Sea

Travelling alone across Northern Italy by train and bus, armed with only a toothbrush and a dozen words of Italian, was not on the agenda when we agreed to join friends for a sailing trip to Venice and the Venetian Lagoon on a charter boat.  I had jumped ship!

Fishing boat - Chioggia
The previous day had started pleasantly enough with a wander round the old fishing town of Chioggia, investigating the street market and drinking delicious Italian coffee, watching the street life.  There was a strong wind blowing though and we both wondered if sailing back to our home port was viable in such rough conditions. However when we arrived back at the boat and started preparing lunch, we found ourselves underway! Without consulting anyone and anxious to get the boat back in time, the skipper had simply set off.  

Surprised and apprehensive, we took the french bread rolls up to the cockpit in a plastic bowl and started to eat lunch, anxiously watching the harbour mouth to see what conditions were like at sea. With layer on layer of white water ahead, I voted to turn back now, before we left safe waters, but in a group the consensus rules and only one of the others was concerned as apparently it is not uncommon for conditions to be at their worst at the harbour mouth, but to settle down once out at sea.  We donned the flotation jackets but with no safety straps provided to hook onto the boat, we had simply to hang onto any fixed bit of the boat we could find.  I wrapped my arm firmly around a winch as a huge wave, over 7 feet high, lifted us over the sandbank and tossed us down into the churning, boiling sea - the heaviest I have ever seen, or wish to see again at such close quarters.  


With the bowl of sandwiches proving a distraction from the grim business of hanging on for our lives, one of the girls took the executive decision to dump our lunch, bowl as well, into the sea. She crouched beside me, silent and pale, an accomplished sailor unlike me, and way out of her depth. Trembling with fear, teeth chattering, I clung to my winch.  The skipper refused to turn back. The huge wave at the harbour mouth would, he insisted, turn the boat over if we tried to return and there was no way back.  He handed the wheel to my partner, the only other man on board and luckily an experienced sailor, and disappeared down below to sort out the navigation.  By the time he returned we had mutinied, and to a man and woman had decided to go back, whatever it took, rather than face many hours in such dire and dangerous conditions with an uncertain outcome.  


My partner took charge and somehow managed to find a tiny window of slightly flatter water to turn the boat swiftly, avoiding capsizing it which could have flung any or all of us into the sea - a huge wave hitting a small boat sideways-on is the biggest danger.  He then skillfully surfed the waves back into safe waters to the enormous relief of all on board.  Later, we took the safe route back through the canals to Venice, a route which had previously been discounted on the grounds of depth, but which turned out to be perfectly negotiable.  We never did get lunch that day but we really bonded over supper that night!


I rose early the next morning and set out alone for Grado where we had joined the boat, unwilling to expose myself to such potential danger again and looking forward to a trip overland under my own steam. My partner felt he should stay with the boat and see everyone safely back as the sea was still very unsettled after the recent storm. 



St Marks from St Elena
I thoroughly enjoyed my early morning Vaporetto trip across to St Marks Square where I found myself a front row seat on a trip up the Grand Canal to the railway station, negotiated the pitfalls of the Italian ticketing system, took a train across Northern Italy, nearly missed my stop, somehow managed to communicate with a fellow traveller who spoke no English at all, but helped me find my way by bus to Grado and back to the market square where we began our adventure a week before. 

Sitting with coffee and a croissant, I decided enough was enough and booked myself into a hotel for our last night in the Venetian Lagoon, a small cosy room with my own loo and shower and a bed that I could stretch out in and get out of without hitting my head!  Utter bliss.  The others arrived later that evening after a long but relatively uneventful trip, cold, tired and wet.  We shared a final celebratory meal together and, relieved, went back to our everyday lives.  



The holiday from hell or the holiday of a lifetime?  A bit of both perhaps but two firm decisions have been made.  One is that we will only sail alone, on our own very sea-worthy boat, make our own decisions; and the other?  To learn Italian!

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Empty Nest (and garden flowers)


My oldest son visited at the weekend with his new young wife, the love of his life now, his lodestar, filling the house with their energy and optimism, eating more than I could possibly imagine, playing with the dog, walking, laughing, chatting, loving, sharing.

Then they were gone, as though they had never been here at all, the house a thousand times more empty than before they arrived.

And I sat for a while unusually quite alone, absorbing the silence, the stillness, had a cup of coffee, walked the dog, picked some flowers and waited for the emptiness to pass and my life to settle back into where it is now and for that to be enough.  

More than enough.

Friday, 29 August 2014

A Taste of Sweden - Trosa



It was a chance meeting with Arno and Gita, a tricky mooring and a vicious tree attacking my partner as he helped them tie their boat up next to ours on the rocks at Ringson (followed by a compensatory gin and tonic on their boat) which led us to Trosa, a very pretty little town with a strong New England feel.  I think you can really see how Swedish style influenced building in parts of North America.


This gorgeous house reflects its surroundings, the light green of the roof tiles picking up the light green of the larger tree, while the colour of the railings and the small tree in the front garden are picked up by the window frame in the eaves, all sitting tranquilly beside the river.


Our favourite cafe, Kutter Konfect, which serves delicious coffee as well as hand-made marzipan and truffles.  The Swedes love their coffee and the quality is very high - a lovely, mellow flavour and just the right temperature. We never had a bad cup of coffee in Sweden - a real pleasure. 

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Another day, another mooring



I love the skies in Sweden, especially the evening skies just before the sun sets after a long, long summer's day.

It is rarely dark before 11pm and light starts creeping into the skies again by 3am in June/July, which I found rather unsettling. I don't think we really slept deeply at all.


We dropped anchor for the night in this quiet inlet...






...before heading to Fyrudden, a small pretty harbour, just a shop, a bar and a few houses...















...then on to Arkosund and a stunning sunset.  

We found ourselves caught up in a Swedish music quiz - we didn't understand the questions, never mind having the answers!










Nykopping at night. The night sky is rather painterly, I thought...


...and we could have showers and catch up with the laundry...




 ...then on to Ringson, an island in the Stockholm Archipelago where we learnt to moor onto the rocks, very popular with the Swedes, as you can then hop ashore and light a barbeque, walk the dog etc...









...before heading for the marina at Trosa, a beautiful little seaside town with a New England feel where we stayed a couple of days...






...then a long, so very hot day motor sailing which brought us to the beautiful island of Rastaholm on Lake Malaren, our favourite place of all, I think. Just idyllic...














...but, we had Stockholm on our minds again and the chance to sail into this stunning city, admiring the gorgeous Swedish summer houses built on the water...










... then a chance encounter with Andreas, a lovely German who had hit a rock (a common occurance in the Archipelago) and who needed a tow into Stockholm.  We took his line and towed him for 2 hours - 4 tons of metal just behind us, and no brakes, negotiating a lock, a bridge opening and heavy traffic coming into Stockholm...




...but we made it safely into Vasa Harbour in Stockholm, where we were found some scarce space - city harbours are popular in summer, but a crippled boat will always be a priority......and we ended our journey back where we started with an unlooked for extra two days in Stockholm, packed tight in Vasa harbour... w
ith an invitation to a wedding in Germany very soon!

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Scandi-style boat living

Cockpit living
"Not another cushion!" he grumbled as I clambered onto the boat carrying yet another shopping bag. Inspired by our visit to Millesgarden and Svenskt Tenn, I was a woman on a mission and the boat was getting a Scandinavian makeover.  Out with the drab and the utilitarian and in with the bright, bold and stylish. If I have to live on a small sailing boat for several weeks every summer, it is going to be a place I enjoy spending time! Cushions, duvets and curtains have gradually crept onto the boat over the past few summers, every change hard-fought, but now was the time to seize the zeitgeist and introduce colour. Glamping on the water has arrived!


My berth
We had arrived in Vastervik, a provincial seaside town five hours to the south of Stockholm, and the temporary mooring place of our boat.  Cold, wet and windy, we were marooned there for a couple of days waiting for the weather to change, giving me plenty of time to hit the summer sales.  New pillows and duvets arrived on the boat, together with bright duvet covers, cushion covers and a small blue and white cotton rug that neatly fits both in the saloon and the cockpit and which I cannot now image being without.  Citronella tea-lights glow in colourful glass holders in the evenings, deterring mosquitoes and adding to the ambiance - mosquitoes are ubiquitous when living on the water and being confined with one for the night in a very small space is to be avoided at all costs!

Anxious to avoid yet more shopping, he insisted we set out as soon as the weather improved, heading north towards the Stockholm archipelago and completely different way to see Sweden!

Monday, 4 August 2014

A Taste of Sweden - Millesgarden, Stockholm

Scandinavian design was the theme of the second day of our city break and we set off across Stockholm to the outskirts of the city and the wonderful house and garden of Carl Milles, sculptor and garden designer, and his artist wife Olga.  So much contemporary design has been influenced by their work, which flourished in the first half of the 20th century, and has some parallels to the English interior and garden design movement inspired by the Bloomsbury Group both at Charleston and Monks House in East Sussex and at Sissinghurst in Kent.




 



Carl and Olga Milles Breakfast Room






Anne's house (in the grounds)



Continuing the design theme, we ended the day back in central Stockholm at the hugely influential and incredibly expensive design store, Svenskt Tenn, and I made the discovery that my own interior design philosophy of mixing old and new, different styles, colours and patterns actually originated here with Estrid Ericson and Josef Frank, who, incidentally, designed the furniture in the rooms above at Anne's house in Millesgarden.

With many thanks for her inspiration and advice to Lucille at usefulorbeautiful.blogspot.co.uk who was in Stockholm shortly before me.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

A Taste of Sweden - Stockholm

As soon as the stitches were out and life began to return, I booked my ticket to Sweden to join my partner in Stockholm.  I knew that all I needed to do was get myself there and he would do the rest.  It was extraordinary how quickly all the difficulties of the past weeks and months vanished the moment he met me at Arlanda with a big hug and an unexpected beard!


Stockholm dazzled in the bright sunshine, city of water and light. Beautiful old buildings in muted shades of paprika, vanilla, saffron and pistachio line the waterways of the old town, Gamla Stan, the buildings packed together along the narrow streets and alleyways, with bars, cafes, shops and restaurants vying for trade, as we set off to explore.



We soon left the teeming crowds for the peace and quiet of the old Lutheran Cathedral, Storkyrkan.











The rest of the day was spent exploring the city on foot, the weather far too glorious for serious museum and church visiting.  We wandered from one island to another, crossing the bridges that link the islands of central Stockholm, each with its own particular charm and character.

Sodermalm lies directly to the south of the old town and is the residential, bohemian area.  Quieter and more low key than Gamla Stan, this is where young Swedes live and play and raise their families.


























Then back to central Stockholm for some serious window shopping and sightseeing.  



The windows of the Music Museum 




A quick look at Riddarholmen, the most ancient part of Stockholm


Before a wonderful Swedish meal back in Gamla Stan.