Seldom Said

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Lost In Time

We woke up yesterday morning to find that it had snowed overnight here on Long Island. Only a few inches, but given the incredibly clear conditions the previous day, it still came as a bit of a surprise. To me, at any rate; probably just another symptom of my spatio-temporal dislocation.

I now have absolutely no idea what time or day it is. Which wouldn't be a problem, except my body also seems to be completely clueless. I'm getting more sleep than I'm used to at home, but feel tired all the time. I'm eating well, and at regular intervals, but feel hungry all the time. Even my digestive system is confused. It feels like my mind is subtly out of phase with my body.

And it's not just a physical sensation. I'm reading tweets and emails as usual, but everything seems to be happening at some significant remove. It's as if I'm observing my normal life through a time tunnel, from some indeterminate time in the future. Replying to an email makes me feel uneasy, like I'm breaking the laws of physics.

Perhaps my natural sense of dislocation is being exacerbated by the equally natural chaos that is gripping my brother and his new family at the moment. Having a tiny baby in the house turns your world upside down, and little Max was in a thoroughly disruptive mood yesterday - and the previous night.

When we did manage to get out of the house, I felt much more anchored in reality, even though the surroundings were subtly alien in so many ways. My dad, my brother and I went for a bitterly cold, but very welcome walk around Babylon in the snow, hoping to take some pictures.

This is one of the things that I most enjoy about visiting new places: wandering around and noticing the small (and not-so-small) differences that tell you you're "not in Kansas any more". Here, it's the wide streets, the construction of the houses (they're almost all made of wood, rather than brick), the fire hydrants, the mail boxes and the way that street names are displayed: vertically, on a square-sided pole at the street corners.

Looking forward to more of this today. The snow's still here, but the sun is shining again and I think (hope!) our hosts had a better night's sleep. Time to explore...

Monday, February 21, 2011

Land Of The Big

The thing about America that always gets me is the unexpected scale of things. I know, I know: it's a terrible cliche, and I shouldn't really be surprised. But still...

Maybe the supermarket that we visited yesterday - the wonderful Fairway, in nearby Plainview - was just exceptional. The store wasn't so huge, I suppose, but the height of the place made it feel more like a B&Q Warehouse than a Tesco megastore, and the sheer volume and variety of produce on display was mind-blowing.

It was a veritable cornucopia. Apples stacked several feet high. A huge display of coffee beans, with maybe two dozen barrels (yes barrels) of beans. Practically a whole aisle dedicated to milk, including two cabinets of soya and other non-dairy milks. A huge tank of live lobsters. Machines to dispense your own freshly ground nut butter (four or five varieties - I went for almond). More than a dozen varieties of olives, displayed in huge buckets.

Or maybe it's the wide open spaces here on Long Island. My brother also took us to Robert Moses State Park, on the south shore. From the roads and pavements (sorry, streets and sidewalks) of Babylon, where he lives, to the bridge across the (misleadingly named) South Bay, it all felt so vast and empty. And the beaches stretch for miles and miles. And the ocean... well, you get the picture.

I think we're going to a mall today. Not sure how it'll compare with the mall-sized department stores that I visited in Tokyo, but we shall see. I'll do my best to be nonchalant about it, but I'm making no promises...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Transatlantic Journey, Hurrah!

I'm visiting my brother and his family this week, including my month-old nephew Max. This is a more serious undertaking than it might sound, since they live on Long Island, just outside New York.

It's my first visit here - I've been to the US before, but always with work - and it was my first long-haul flight in several years. As ever, the time I spent flying was more than matched by the endless hours hanging around in airports. Alice dropped me off at Manchester Airport at 11am; I met my dad at Heathrow shortly after 2pm; when my brother met us at JFK it was after 1am.

We'd actually landed a hour and a half earlier, after an unpleasant rollercoaster ride of a final descent in 40mph+ winds. US Customs and Immigration can never be accused of speediness, but their performance on this occasion seemed to go above and beyond the call of duty.

The flight itself was fine. When you're used to the indignities of short flights with the likes of Easyjet, BA 'World Traveller' feels pretty luxurious, I can tell you. Plus I got to watch Megamind, which was excellent.

All in all, a long and tiring day, but I had cuddle with baby Max, a delicious meal and a comfortable bed waiting at the end of it. Definitely worth the wait!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Treasure Box

Treasure chest
Sat on the rug in our living room
Her face a picture of delight,
My infant daughter lifts the lid
Of an old wooden box.

A treasure chest! What waits inside?
Pirate gold or a hoard of gems,
Ancient scrolls or spices rare,
Or perhaps a secret map?

The box is old and made by hand,
Its surface worn by years of use,
With signs of its maker's craft incised
In careful lines around the joints.

Its latest discoverer's eyes light up
At what she finds inside:
A wealth of buttons, colours bright,
Of every shape and size.

And yet more treasures wait for her:
A curtain hook, a piece of chalk,
Hairgrips, buckles, safety pins
And an old school badge.

I sit and watch my daughter play
With a smile upon my lips
As memories of another time
Fill my eyes with happy tears

I think of when I was the child
With eyes brimful of wonder
Sitting on the floor to play
With my mother's button box.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Happy New Year!

Having failed to get my act together last year, I thought I should make the effort this time to do my customary round-up of the preceding year.

Frozen Snowy garden The year began, much as it ended, with some spectacularly wintry weather. After icy fun and games with my lot over Christmas, Alice's family joined us to see in the New Year and we all had a lovely walk at Dunham Massey on New Year's Day. Soon after that the Big Snow arrived. I've never seen so much snow in Manchester! On the day it started, I made it to within a couple of miles of work before giving up, then crawled home at a snail's pace; Alice had a similar experience. Several days of chaos on the roads ensued, which made me glad that I can easily work from home.

Dovestones resrvoir For Alice's birthday at the beginning of March, we had a fantastic (if icy) walk at Dovestones Reservoir on Saddleworth Moor. Glorious sunshine, splendid views, tasty sandwiches: happy family! The following weekend it really felt like spring had sprung, but by the end of the month we had hail showers. Don't you just love the British spring?

My cousin Sally's first novel also came out in March; a pretty splendid achievement in itself, which seemed even more momentous after the ordeal she'd suffered courtesy of Thames Valley Police. They even confiscated her only copy of the novel for a while! And the fact that she dedicated it to my mum and (coincidentally) published it on my Dad's 70th birthday made it an even more exciting occasion for me.

Sadder news came at the end of the month, when I learnt that my much-loved Italian great-aunt, Zia Laura, had died. Since my grandfather died before I was born, she had always been my closest link to my Italian side of the family. When I was a kid, we regularly spent summer holidays with her in Cannero, beside the beautiful Lake Maggiore, and have continued to visit her and our other Italian relatives ever since. A wonderfully warm person, with an infectious sense of humour, her simple but incredibly tasty home cooking was an inspiration. Buonanotte, cara Zia.

Beach In April, we were much diverted by the impending General Election, but did manage some splendid walks in Styal Woods, along the Bridgewater canal near Dunham Massey and at Tatton Park. We also had a very enjoyable trip to Formby, where we were impressed by the magnificent dunes and the wide beaches, but failed to find the elusive red squirrels.

Polling station (way in)We started May with a fun trip to the steam rally at Flixton. The weather didn't look promising, but there were enough sunny spells to make me wish I'd taken a camera. Then it was time to vote - and a brief moment of (almost) fame when one of my photos was used by Flickr for their blog entry about the election. In the middle of the month I did the Great Manchester Run and was very pleased with my time of 48:30. Thanks to everyone who sponsored me!

Teatro Romano Bee orchid At the end of May we went on a family holiday to Tuscany, renting a converted farmhouse surrounded by olive groves in Villamagna, high up in the Florentine hills. We started the holiday well, with an excellent excursion to Fiesole and a had couple of trips into Florence, visiting the Ponte Vecchio and cathedral. The highlights of the holiday, however, were some wonderful walks above Villamagna, where we enjoyed the countless wildflowers, lizards, butterflies and more peculiar insects, plus splendid views of Florence and the surrounding hills.

Happy In June, Iestyn had his face painted at nursery to display our allegiance in the World Cup, but our enthusiasm was short-lived. We did make the most of the hot weather, however, including a particularly memorable afternoon in the garden involving the paddling pool, a slide and the neighbourhood kids.

Rothschild's Giraffe We started July with a trip down to my Dad's in Bedfordshire. After a very enjoyable day at Woburn Safari Park, we had a joint birthday party for Dad and my brother. This was a great success, well attended by family from both sides. Later in the month I had a fantastic walk on Derwent Edge in the Peak District, with my good friend Andy and a surprisingly well-behaved Aurelia on my back. I also took Iestyn to see Toy Story 3 (which was magnificent) and ended up blubbing even more than I did at the start of Up (sniff).

Lough Tay Brittas Bay Iestyn and I both celebrated our birthdays in August, but the main focus of the month was a trip to Ireland, where we rented a cottage for a week and then spent a delightful few days staying with my cousin. The weather wasn't always kind to us, but that didn't stop us enjoying the Wicklow Mountains and beautiful Brittas Bay. I particularly enjoyed a cold but sunny walk in the hills above Lough Tay and a glorious day trip to Howth, but the relaxing time that we spent enjoying Jane and Brendan's magnificent hospitality was the real highlight of the holiday.

First day at school! We returned home in September just in time for Iestyn to start school, which he seems to be enjoying so far. He also started weekly swimming lessons, which have gone very well after a slightly rocky start: at the end of his first lesson he jumped in the deep end without armbands and had to be rescued! Aurelia celebrated her second birthday with lots of pretend tea and cakes, served up on one of her favourite presents: a splendid melamine Emma Bridgewater tea service.

I started October with a miserable and persistent cold, but had recovered enough by the middle of the month for a fantastic (and long!) family walk at Styal with my friend Sean and his kids. One thing I didn't expect to be doing this month was baking cakes, but a competition at work to celebrate National Baking Day led me to baking two of them. The first (lemon and poppyseed) was popular with my colleagues, but caused some amusement, as I'd confused the date of the bake-off and made it a week early. Thankfully, this didn't put me off and I went on to win the competition with my torta di limone e mandorle (lemon and almond cake).

Questing Hogwarts Express Half term at the end of the month was an excuse for some excellent days out. I really enjoyed Chester Zoo, but did get told off for spending most of our visit looking through a camera lens. A day trip to the York, taking in the Minster and the National Railway Museum, was also a lot of fun. The main hall at the NRM is vast and has some wonderful exhibits, including the Hogwarts Express locomotive from the Harry Potter films and a Japanese Shinkasen. I also took the opportunity to talk to the friendly folk in the museum's archives, to find out if there was any truth to the family myth about a connection between my great-great-great-grandfather and Stephenson's Rocket. Not a sausage, I'm afraid.

Ghost! Alice also took Iestyn on his first trip to the theatre during half term week, to see a musical adaptation of Julia Donaldson's excellent Room On The Broom. He felt a little under-dressed, as much of the audience came wearing witch costumes, but very much enjoyed it anyway. We tried to persuade Aurelia to don a witch costume for Hallowe'en at the end of the month, but she was having none of it. Iestyn, however, loved wearing his ghost costume, which won him third prize in the Beech Road Park Hallowe'en costume competition.

We had a surprisingly good Bonfire Night: not many fireworks, but the rain stopped just in time. The kids loved the sparklers and the paper lanterns launched from Chorlton Green were fantastic! The aftermath inspired me, while running the following morning, to compose an impromptu poem, which has now become something of a regular feature of my weekly run.

Web of ice
The unprecedented (at least in my twenty-odd years living in Manchester) arrival of snow at the end of November came as a bit of a shock, but fortunately the white stuff didn't have quite the impact that it had at the start of the year. Earlier in the month we suffered a gale as well, which uprooted a tree beside Iestyn's school and led to the road being closed. Alice and I also had a rare trip to the cinema at the end of the month, leaving Iestyn and Aurelia with their grandparents; the latest Harry Potter didn't disappoint.

December was mostly about stress, snow and festive preparations. The stress was almost entirely work-related: Alice and I have both taken on extra responsibilities at work, which took a particularly heavy toll in the run up to Christmas. I'm still working part time, but at times it doesn't feel like it, especially since I started work from home on Fridays while Iestyn is at school and Aurelia is at nursery. I found that I was working every Friday anyway, so figured I might as well make it official.

How silently, how silently... Ice flowers (reprise) The second dump of snow appeared suddenly about a week before Christmas, but we didn't get any more after that and escaped the chaos that seemed to afflict the rest of the country. It was very cold though - Iestyn and I walked to the barbers one day and felt like polar explorers. The freezing conditions didn't deter us from us going to the theatre to see Winnie The Witch (where we again felt under-dressed) and having a quick poke around the Christmas market in Albert Square.

The festive preparations inevitably contributed to our stress levels, but it was all worth it in the end. Alice's parents came early and joined me and the kids in a trip to the revamped MOSI (as well as baby-sitting while I fought the stress demons). Alice's sister Gwen, with husband Ewan and kids Owen and Rhiannon, arrived on Christmas Eve and festivities were in full flow by the time Alice returned from work. We spent an excellent couple of days with them all; Iestyn and Aurelia particularly enjoyed playing with their cousins. New Year and the week preceding it were very quiet, but that was just what we needed.

Hope you all had a similarly splendid festive season and have plenty of good things to look forward to in 2011.

Thursday, December 30, 2010


Between two endings
And two beginnings
The dying year pauses to reflect
And take one final breath

This year, even Winter
Seems to be taking stock
Temporarily loosening
Her grip of ice and snow

While the kingly ghosts of Christmas
Diligently wear out their welcome
Outstaying family, outlasting leftovers
Lingering on and on

Treasure them
And the precious gifts they bring:
Joys and sorrows
Hopes and fears

And above all: love
Memories of past love cherished
Present love enjoyed
And future love anticipated

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Snowy morning run

Snowy morning
Fresh snow
Soft beneath my feet
Hushes my steps.
Still falling, it dances
Hovering on the breeze
Clinging to branches
Smothering stones
And drinking in the light
Draining the colour
From everything it touches.

Inconsequential thoughts rarely worth muttering out loud