Saturday, July 18, 2015

Our best holiday ever

This is me with Nicolas Jaeger, 'chef du cave', a wine mega-star who introduced us to Alfred Gratien champagne, on the holiday of our lives.


Our campervan is a total money pit.  It probably should be illegal to spend the amount of money we have spent on it.  But we have just been on our first foreign holiday with it and it has come into its own!  It's a driveable micro-home.  We have come back total Francophiles, the love affair that I never really had with France has just been ignited.

The holiday started off very well too.  We can heartily recommend travelling to France in June (prior to the kurfuffles) and in particularly on a Sunday morning which was when our Chunnel crossing was.  I drove the van there - only for the third time and it was a dream.  No traffic, singing 'Don't stop me Now' by Queen at the tops of our voices, joy of joys.  And then France swept us off our feet.  She started full on, with a smacker on the lips - believe it or not at a service station near Calais.  I had argued with hubby that you get amazing French food wherever you are, even at service stations.  He protested.  I insisted.  Anyway we went in and for eight euros (£6) I had the most delicious gnocci in cheese sauce with a delectable regional cheese topping.  Divine.  I'm not kidding.  You can't eat anywhere like that in the UK, never mind at a service station for less than a tenner.

Then we had our first experience of a French toll.  Yes even that was ok, we had a very helpful smiling attendant who stopped the beeping and helped us pay.  (This was not typical though, a later toll experience was a low light of the trip).

We had already decided to stay in Epernay for one night on our way down to Burgundy, so we arrived at the campsite municipal.  There was no toilet paper provided, or soap, no views.  But it was by the river and about 30 minutes walk into Epernay.  The staff were helpful and there were good brochures at reception.

Our book that we were heavily reliant on did very well indeed.  A beautifully written book, with great detail on every appellation of wine.  It was 'French Wines' by Robert Joseph published by my favourite publishers - Dorling Kindersley. This book was essentially our bible and Robert Joseph our guru.  Burgundy is his favourite wine region which is why we went there, Volnay his favourite wine so we went there.  We didn't agree with him on every detail of course, and I'm starting to wish I got their matching 'French Cheeses' book, hundsight is a wonderful thing...  In the wine book that we did have, Joseph recommends the Castellane champagne tour.  They have a big unused water tower which overlooks the town and is a great landmark, hubby wanted to climb up it and get views of the town so we did.  But by the end of the tour I was pretty convinced that champagne was a huge capitalist conspiracy - a total con and snake oil sale at its finest.  Their massive complex was just a huge cold factory - with clinking machines churning out the end product just like every other manufacturing outfit I've ever worked in or been unlucky enough to walk into.  They showed us the process - which is essentially adding sugar - something I did to poor wine when I was seventeen when camping to make it taste nice.  They eventually led our group of twenty into an enormous hall with a bar the length of an Olympic swimming pool, with shiny ceramic tiles so our voices echoed round.  This was where we were going to do the tasting.  Funnily enough it didn't taste very nice.  I got hubby to finish mine.    I thought that I would be put off Champagne, my favourite drink, for ever.  Husband saved the day, with a spot of what can only be described as holiday optimism.  Joseph had also recommended a tour of Alfred Gratien champagne producers.  Husband said 'the smaller producers will be much better'.  I didn't believe him.  We rang them and husband spoke to a man who would give us a tour in a hour's time.  I had to admit it sounded promising.He was the 'chef du cave' or wine maker it turns out.  And what a master stroke the visit was.

We found the building, non-descript near Rue de la Winston Churchill (of course) on the back streets of Rue de la Champagne in Epernay.  There was no obvious reception or office, just an enlarged photograph of the founder, Alfred Gratien in a window.  A man simply waved us into the warehouse.  There we met the incredibly friendly, more than helpful, total legend, that is Nicolas Jaeger.  He was immediately welcoming and so generous with his time.

Straightaway he took us to the oak barrels.  He told us the history of the barrels and the wine house.  The different wines that make up the champagne get stored in these old oak barrels which had been storing Chablis from Burgundy (where we where to later visit).  Nicolas was the fifth generation of Jaegers to have the prestigious position of 'chef du cave' or winemaker. The owners had invested a lot in the house he told us, yet they still had only five members of staff (all of whom bar his wife we met).  He was proud to call himself the winemaker, which was such a contrast with the other producers we went to where we never even met the 'chef du cave' as they were too busy.  He took us into the cellars and on to the tiny 'production line' where we saw him direct the quality control, gently admonishing staff for putting a label on skewiff.

He told us where the wine went - an impressive short list: Lufthansa first class cabins, the Wine Society in the UK and Berry Bros and Rudd - again in the UK.

Then the tasting.

We were ushered into a beautiful room on the first floor.  White washed with shutters on a marvellous enormous window, overlooking those typical French red rooves, with a large dining table and a sink in the corner.  We sat down, it was just the three of us.  Such a contrast with the monster of a room for tasting Castellane.  In this intimate and spectacular environment with the most charming of hosts how could the wine not taste nice?  Well...it couldn't.  But our expectations were exceeded.  I will run out of superlatives.  Sublime, divine, unique.  You will not taste a nicer wine. Meeting Nicolas Jaeger was the icing on the cake.   The experience of a lifetime.  Needless to say husband is getting membership of the Wine Society for his birthday.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Napoli, Leek - Is this the best restaurant in Staffordshire?

Leek is now our home town - for me for the second time.  It is now up and coming with plenty of nice pubs - our favourite being the Earl Grey on Ashbourne Road - cafes and restaurants.  But the most famous reviewing website does not seem to appreciate the wonderful food of the Napoli.  Not only is it not in the top ten restaurants of Leek, it's not even in the top twenty!  It has to be in my opinion the best restaurant in Leek and probably Staffordshire too.  It makes me wonder about the appreciation of the reviewing public on that website, have they got any taste?  I've had a run in with that website before - when I ate inedible food at a restaurant that we had picked for its reviews, I put a critical review up on the website and they took it down.  Disturbing or what?  Consequently I do not trust THAT website.

Back to the Napoli.  We tried to go on Saturday, but there was no space, which was an encouraging sign.  This week is our anniversary week - it's ten years since we met, nine years since we got engaged and eight years since we married!  Plenty to celebrate.  So we decided to go out on Monday night.  Early.  6.30pm.  We were the first ones in there.  One of the things that the reviewers complained about online was the service.  I was expecting slow.  Yes, my prosecco glass looked like it had lipstick on it and I know you should mention these things, but in the grand scheme of enjoying the evening it felt like a minute detail. I didn't catch any awful diseases, I'm still standing and a bit of lippy perhaps helped my complexion.  Well you never know.

The prosecco was delicious, so refreshing, a perfect apperetif - my favourite drink.  And I loved the menu.  It felt authentically Italian, nothing with chips, a lovely and diverse choice of pizzas, similarly with pasta.

Hubby had the meat platter to start with.  His one (very minor) gripe was that the dish should be called 'anti-pasti' as there the meat (perfect) was accompanied by a generous selection of olives, cheese and artichoke.  I had King Prawns in wine to start.  Absolutely gorgeous.  Perfectly cooked and I polished off the sauce, practically licking it off the bowl. 

 I was going to pick seafood spaghetti for my main.  But decided this was a lose-lose choice.  It was my dish of choice at our old local  Italian restaurant in Chapel Allerton - Casa Mia.  But I decided not to go for it; if it was good I would be disappointed I hadn't gone 'off-piste' and been more adventurous.  If it wasn't good I would also obviously be annoyed. So I took a risk to start with - I went for the special from the board: ravioli stuffed with taleggio cheese, courgette and peas with a hint of lemon.  It was to die for.  Perhaps the best pasta dish I have ever had.  Hubby had the sausage and marinated brocolli pizza.  Again delectable.  An inspired combination.  To finish I had raspberry pannacotta which was great, hubby had a shot of amaretto with Miscos truffles.  Stunning.

Thanks so much to all the staff at the Napoli, we loved it so much and wonder with awe, whether we might have such a gem in Leek that it beats Italy at its own culinary game!  Needless to say, we'll be back.  Probably very soon.
  

   

Friday, March 06, 2015

New phase

We have moved house - from Leeds to Leek!

This could be one of the best things I have ever done.  It is great, I am back close to friends and family and my home town, living (temporarily) in a little bungalow walking distance from Leek town centre.

I am back to my old self and full of beans, not eating processed food, making meals from scratch again.

Work is going ok, I am hopefully going to be teaching meditation and training and researching dementia - working from home. I started a Facebook chat on our Facebook 'Dementia Study' group and my blog viewings were 400 yesterday! 

Yes, the past few years have been tough but I am through it now and ready for this new phase.  Loving it!

I should talk for longer now that it's all good news, after all my mantra is 'Write your sad times in sand, your good times in stone'. But I feel like I'm bragging about my life.  Just because I'm doing well right now, doesn't mean everyone else is.  But on the other hand I've had a tough ten years - tougher than most people get in their lifetime. As BC said to me about the good things: 'You deserve it!.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My Favourite Three Post-it notes

Most dedicated students love a bit of stationery and despite my dubious student status, I do love my office accessories.  I could spend hours in Paperchase picking different coloured pens and perhaps my favourite writing supplement is the coloured post it note collection.  Hence my (subdued) joy 13 years ago when this was part of me turning a corner in dealing with various losses at that time. 

I went to see an experienced colleague, let's call him N and he said what felt like magical words then.  He said to help me with my current losses I needed to go back to when I last experienced a loss (not this set, the time before).  Go back to how I was feeling then.  I saw this character in 2002 after my ex left.  I went back to 1999 - a great aunt had died.  I felt the loss keenly being a sensitive soul.  Having said that it was not the biggest loss of my life, of course not, there were many people much closer to her than I was.  Then he said he wasn't really interested in how I felt, I would feel the feelings of loss - despair, sadness, grief, guilt, anger and other negative emotions.  He wanted to find out what happened next.  He said write down on three post it notes the things that happened next, as I recovered from the loss of Great Aunty O.  On one post-it note I wrote down the first healing thing - time.  The second was safety.  The third was emotional support. Back with Aunty O it took me three days to recover to my 'normal' self.  How long would it take to get over an ex? They were all pink post it notes.  I still remember them clearly.  With my scrawl.  Little did I know how much they would help me again.  For N said that it was these three things, that had occurred before, that would help me again.  And he was right.

Time

Firstly there is time.  Time is arguably infinite.  But with the passage of time, negative things can feel less intense.  'Time is a great healer' is the mantra we all know.  But also with the passage of time you can experience other losses - you may deteriorate in mental health, who knows.  'Time flies when you're having fun' is true, and the reverse is also true.  'Why should I get up in the morning?' when time goes so slowly when we are experiencing many losses.  It goes in slow motion at times of great stress and loss.  Time is a slippery fish.  With my Mum's death for two years - 18 months before she died and six months afterwards - I just took one day at a time.  Taking one day at a time means not making any big plans or changes.  You get into a routine as much as you can.  Can we control time? Time is money.  We can measure it but I'm not sure it's under our control.  The other thing that is very helpful with time management is meditation.  Relaxing whenever you can, helps regulate the pace of life.  So if life is going slowly (a difficult patch) you can heighten your pleasure by employing a spot of 'mindfulness' - appreciating the little things in life, the scent of a flower, the view of a garden or sky, the stroking of a pet. 'This too will pass'.

Safety

Safety.  Money can buy you this.  It's a roof over your head, food in your belly, tea in your cup.  It's security.  We are lucky to have our house protected by CCTV cameras, they help me feel secure and safe at home and they deter burglars. It's warmth.  Make sure you put the heating on when you get cold, put a jumper on.  See people: 'Safety in numbers'.  If we feel safe and secure we are also hopeful and optimistic about the future.  Safe as houses.  See your friends in their homes.  Invite people to your home.  Switch off the news.  Some people argue that the media propagate fear, it sells.  Pursue stability.  Find your rock.  What does safety mean to you?

Emotional support

Love from other people.  If your friends and family can't provide this, then contact the professionals.  If you feel suicidal ring the Samaritans.  There is also Cruse - they talk to people three months after a bereavement, not immediately.  Talk to your GP.  Ditch all your leech-like friends, the ones who are a burden - you can always pick them up again when you've recovered.  People may help you unexpectedly.  Savour these miraculous events.

So how long does it take to 'get over' the death of a loved one?  How long is a piece of string?  Longer than three days for your mother I would say.  I'm aiming for two years to feel back to 'normal' whatever that is - so October 2015 here I come.

What would you write on your three post it notes to help your future self recover from a loss?

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Free dementia care for all

Care should be free for everyone, it is a human right.  The cost of this would probably be about £45billion in the UK, raising income tax by 10%.  Personally I think this is worth it.  I want to start by making all dementia care free - FOR everyone.  If I get enough support in this I will set up a lobbying group for this purpose and spend the next year or so drilling up support for it.  At the moment there is a terrible anomaly in the UK system.  If you get cancer all your care is free.  If you get dementia you have to pay.  Why, why, why is this so unfair? We need people in all walks of life to join us in this campaign - lawyers, doctors, politicians, academics, voluntary sector, carers and people with dementia themselves.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Three amazing things

1) Love is the most amazing thing in the whole world - I am hoping to publish some work on it in the dementia field.
2) Truth is also amazing, can we love each other if we don't trust?
3) Freedom is also incredible.  If we are free it is easier to love.  Is love possible if freedom is denied?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Ten lessons I have learnt since Mum died, a year ago

Mum died from breast cancer a year and a month ago.  She was given two years to live about 18 months before that.  The past two years could be the toughest I have been through, but how have I got through them?  To answer this, I have done one of my favourite things - compiled a list - that I hope will be of use to others.  

1) Everyone is different and every experience is unique
Every person is different, every death is different and every reaction to a death is different.  We are all unique, this is the spice of life and what makes life so incredible.   I asked a psychologist years ago when someone died 'If I'm like this when this acquaintance has died, what am I going to be like when my Mum or Dad dies?'.  He said 'It's impossible to say as each experience is unique'. Other family members have reacted in diverse ways to Mum's death, friends have responded in varied approaches, we all had varying experiences at her funeral.  I wanted to hug everyone so I was determined to 'make the most' of the event.  I barely shed one tear.  Others were crying buckets.  That doesn't mean I'm repressed, my emotions are coming out at different times, both before and after the funeral.
2) Writing down experiences is helpful
I save my blogposts here as draft; only I can see them, they are not published when I don't want to publish them.  Looking at these draft posts is a great source of comfort and gives me a sense of achievement and time passing.  I also mark each day out of ten in my diary, I can see patterns of mood and how long I might be sad for, and for how long I am content.  By doing this one can get a sense of recovery from trauma and suffering.
3) The best way to die is ... six of one and half a dozen of another
In other words there is no 'best' way to die.  Yes you can die in your sleep (as one relative has just done) but family and friends are denied a goodbye or send off.  Or you can have your celebrations and long goodbye but you get to see suffering and distress too.  We can't pick how we die (thank Goodness) so no point worrying about it.
4) Grief has many forms - ask for help
And sometimes it comes up and bites you on the behind when you are least expecting it.  Anguish, emotional pain, guilt, regret, sadness, anger, fear, frustration, despair - all come from loss of one sort or another.  Those of us who have felt grief have been there.  Perhaps try to name it, perhaps try to share it with someone.  Do what works for you.  This will be difficult, asking for help is the most difficult thing us independent human beings do.  Do not suffer alone, there is no point in that.  Have a list of people or organisations you can ring 9-5 Monday to Friday and a list of people and places you can ring out of hours.  Don't struggle in silence.
5) Take each day at a time
If this is a struggle, take each hour at a time, each minute at a time.  Just get some fresh air, a few deep breaths, focus on a part of nature - just spare a few seconds of 'me' time.
6) Count your blessings
On a good day this will be easy, on a bad day harder.  Appreciate the little things in life; the sunshine, the changing seasons, your own sense of touch.  Count three blessings on a bad day, fifteen on a good day.  Record them and you can read through them on a bad day and then you have a new blessing.
7) Do what works for you
For some work is a great healer - they throw themselves into it, for others they need a lot of time off the supposed 'rat race'.  Some enjoy being alone and meditation, others love the company of friends and family.  Regular exercise is a tonic for the motivated, sleep can help the stressed and tired.  Try to work out what makes you tick and gets you on the road to recovery.  Pin your lists of what helps you on your fridge so you are reminded daily of the little things you can do to help yourself.
8) Have no regrets - banish guilt
Easier said than done this one, but focus on the positive memories and your achievements.  You can't help others if you're not well yourself and if you are burdened with a shedload of guilt and regret you may punish yourself and isolate yourself further from the things that help.  Guilt is a terrible emotion and if you have problems with strong negative emotions like anger, fear, guilt, bitterness and extreme sadness - especially suicidal thoughts then you need to talk to the professionals urgently.  Contact your GP or out of hours services if this sounds familiar.
9) Celebrate and commemorate
The rituals of life, death and bereavement have been a great comfort to me.  We had a big bash for Mum's birthday before she died which was fabulous.  Luckily for me, I had an experienced friend by my side when Mum actually died a few months after the celebration. Our friend had experienced death first hand before, unlike me, so was able to suggest lovely things. We placed a small posie of flowers in Mum's hands as she was dying, read her poetry and spoke to her.  It was a good death in the end. But we were very fortunate in that regard: Mum died quite fast, in the late morning when we could be there.  She died over the course of about two hours. 
 We have commemorated Mum's life in several ways and according to her wishes which is also of great comfort. We scattered her ashes on her Birthday,a great occasion. We have published her book of poems and set up a fund - Wellsprings Healing Arts Fund named after her inspirational book.  On the anniversary of her death last month myself and my brother spent precious time together.  Planning ahead for these events has been beneficial.
10) Keep in touch
You can't beat face to face contact with human beings.  If you can't manage that - but you need it, try sending a text to someone to book a telephone chat in with them.  With our busy lives this may be the only way we can talk.  These social interactions and social relationships will help build up your resilience ready for the next thing life will throw up.