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SWB on the eating habits of others…

I heard once of a chap who’d completed a PhD on ‘The vocal inflections of Presbyterian Clergy in the North of Ireland.’ Surely then, if such obscure topics are acceptable subject matter, I could propose a doctorate on ‘Differing Approaches to the Buffet Breakfast in Continental Europe.’ Having just spent a fortune staying in two different hotels, I believe I am fully equipped to being my studies.

Here are a few weird things I noted:

  1. A man wolfing down a KETCHUP sandwich. Boke.
  2. Putting fried eggs, baked beans and bacon on a plate, with a pastry popped casually in the side, where it could get covered in the grease and sauce. I had to avert my eyes.
  3. Eating coco-pops out of a coffee cup. Other crockery was available, so this mystified me.
  4. The over-eating of pork products. Now I love sausages and bacon as much as the next carnivore, I saw a man, who appeared to be in rude health, tucking in to a plate of at least ten bright red mini sausages (not at all like our good Irish chipolatas) and a few rashers on the side. It resembled a coronary on a plate.

On to some other observations. I do hate to generalise, but the organisational skills of the Germans are unparalleled in the dining room.

I tend to be like a blackbird, skiting hither and thither, deciding what to gorge upon next. Germans hold no sway with this haphazard approach. Instead, they adopt a leisurely, but thorough swoop and grab, setting everything out smorgasbord style before they dig in. I admire this tactic, but in my impatience to get at my food and coffee, I wouldn’t have the discipline. Except of course, that it’s not really coffee is it, in a Spanish dining room. It’s just a warm, brown liquid secreted by a machine, which bears no resemblance to a café con leche in a local café. If one accepts that it is just that, a warm milky beverage of brownish hue, then one isn’t too disappointed. It has taken me a while to accept this, but I think I’m finally there.

The Catalans take their breakfast of Catalan toast very seriously. Slicing baguette, rubbing it with tomato and raw garlic, dusting with salt, before carefully slicing fuet on top. I saw quite young children preparing it for themselves and admired their dedication for something which was going to vanish in three bites.

On to our Gallic friends, the French. They’re powerful for the dipping, are the French. I hiked with a chap in the mountains of La Réunion, and watched as he dipped a cracker into a cup of water. Why, just why? My children were similarly bewildered as they observed grown men, (often bearded and muscular) submerging whole pain au chocolate pastries into cereal bowls filled to the brim with hot chocolate. There was a shocking amount of drippage, involved.

Let us now consider croissants. May I ask, if it is not impertinent, how you eat yours? I prise mine apart with my fingers, then smear on butter and jam, before applying it to my face. I believe this is good practice, where croissants are concerned. Not, apparently for the French, who set about it with a KNIFE AND FORK. Now, if it were to be of the savoury variety, filled with Emmental and jambon, this would be acceptable; (who needs molten cheese running down their wrists of a morning?) But for a SWEET croissant? Catch yourself on.

An entire sub-section of this post could be allotted to the eating habits of teenagers at the buffet breakfast, especially teenage boys, as what they can put away before ten is something to behold. One young lad sat down a bowl of boiled rice with two hard-boiled eggs plonked in; a selection of pastries (five at a rough estimate) and a dinner plate full of watermelon. I would hate to have been cleaning up his bathroom after that.

And don’t get me started on the watermelon. Regardless of the nationality, they were all MAD for it. The poor staff would leave out a fresh tray and have to race out and replenish it within minutes. They must have had a specific waiter for the melon alone. ‘Quick Luis! Scoot out there with another before there’s a riot! I heard theres a family from Belfast in for breakfast today!’

Again, they adopt the cutlery approach to this. I watched a German lady work her way through a large plateful as her dessert one evening, taking one careful mouthful at a time. She was of course, svelte and sophisticated, the type who didn’t even have ‘pool hair’ when she was in the flipping pool. She also appeared to swallow the pips, unlike me, flicking them out with my nail (on the table, not the floor mind, in case you think I’m a total barbarian) before I started slurping.

Another pet peeve is folk arriving to the dining hall with extreme body odour. You can be as posh as you want with your croissant, but if you can’t hop in the shower, or at least change out of the tee-shirt that you’ve obviously SLEPT IN, then be off with you. Standing behind some fecker at the toaster who stinks to high heavens makes my stomach heave. I realise that Spain suffers from water shortages, but not washing yourself is an extreme response. Perhaps I’m more sensitive to this after Covid, and I had forgotten how much I liked certain aspects of the restrictions. I’d like to impose a rule which should be displayed prominently on the restaurant door: ‘Clean Your Pits and Bits Before Admission.’

I’m sure many of you have your own idiosyncrasies when it comes to the buffet breakfast, so don’t be afraid to let me know. Back home now from my jaunt and recovering from my first (and Please God make it the last) bout of Covid, I could do with all the craic I can get.

 

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SWB on traversing the Continent

‘You have to stop this nonsense and hire a bloody car,’ said my friend Rhaiza, when I told her of the onerous journey we took between Perpignon and Girona. I’d like to be able to say that it started auspiciously enough, but it didn’t, except perhaps in my head. Despite being a miserable auld bastard, I can be stupidly optimistic at times and had been excited about taking the famous TGV. I had visions of sipping a chilled Sancerre whilst being whisked along at terrific speed, before being deposited at a gleaming platform at Girona. Damn the French though, because after numerous attempts to book train tickets,  LSB saw that their rail workers on strike. Pro-active gent that he is though promptly found a solution and discovered the comically named ‘BlaBlaCar’ which could have us whizzed across the border in just over an hour. ‘Grand,’ says I.

Anxious not to miss the coach, we took a taxi to the station; a short trip, which nevertheless cost almost 40€. I thought taxis were cheaper on the continent, but have been swiftly disabused of that notion. Such was my keenness to be on time, we were there an hour before we were due to depart. The kids’ faces were a picture. ‘Sure never mind, we shall have a lovely lunch,’ I told them. My optimism again was ill-founded as my salad of limp lettuce and burrata was not improved by an astringent dressing, reminiscent of Jif lemon. Stevey’s mediocre burger deal came with a beer, which he was pained to discover was a Budweiser. I believe he has since contacted the French Department of Agriculture and Food for such flagrant abuse of drinks standards on public transport.

Prior to lunch, the Older Child and I sought the toilet facilities, handily located two escalators down in the basement at the end of a corridor. I was unnerved to discover that it doubled as a refreshment spot for local prostitutes, one of whom was having a wash at the sink, frock around her knees. ‘In we go now!’ I said breezily to the child while I bundled her into a cubicle. Her wee eyes were out on stalks, ‘Try not to touch the seat when you sit down!’ I advised, as it was none too clean looking. We washed our hands to the sound of the street walker yakking loudly into the sink, before removing a set of dentures and giving them a good rinse.

When we headed out to catch the coach, the departures board said that it was 37 degrees and I was feeling every one of these, especially when I burnt my thigh against a metal railing. On the appointed hour there was no sign of any bus. LSB’s phone chirruped as he received an e-mail to say it running forty minutes late. ‘Toujours en retard,’ They’re always late, said a French lady, dancing herself with a copy of Hello magazine. She still managed to look refresh and unruffled, in contrast to myself who resembled a tomato left to languish on the barbecue. ‘I suppose I’ve time to have a pee then,’ said LSB. I advised him to proceed with caution. The Small Child announced that she needed to go too, and the Older One thought she might as well tag along. ‘Don’t let them touch anything!’ I warned. I continued to stand at the pitifully unsheltered terminal, ankles throbbing from the hot tarmac.

They weren’t away five minutes when a BlaBlaCar drew in. The crowd surged forward. I rang LSB, worried we’d have endured all of this for naught if it sped off.  He sounded a bit peculiar on the phone, but I assumed that he was otherwise engaged, trying to chat and pee simultaneously. It wasn’t our coach anyway., so I sought the shade again. LSB emerged looking a trifle perplexed,  his tee-shirt even more sodden than before. Turned out, some auld fella had suddenly appeared, lad in hand, while he was at the urinal. LSB was shocked to see that he was vigorously pleasuring himself and clearly wanted a spectator, if not an active participant in the act. I had rung at precisely the moment LSB was trying to discreetly urge the kids to stay in the cubicle while he warded him off. ‘Did they see anything?’ I hissed, but he reassured me that he managed to look threatening enough to get the reprobate to scarper before they emerged. It could only happen to us.

Happily our coach arrived shortly after. We were beyond to find it had air-con and a friendly driver who sunk his foot on the accelerator.  It wasn’t too long before I was sipping a splendid Verdejo in a Girona bar while the girls munched Nutella crepes. Meanwhile LSB had a much-needed siesta. ‘It’s going to take a lot of beer later to blot out that journey’  he said as he closed his eyes.

 

 

 

 

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SWB on Love and Other Stories…


You may have missed it, what with Boris and his crackpot cabinet dominating the headlines recently, but over here Stormont may be contemplating doing something decent for a change. I know it’s quite unlike them to bring in sensible legislation, but they want to increase the legal age for getting married to eighteen, in line with the rest of the UK. By some quirk, as is often the way here in NI, sixteen and seventeen year olds are legally allowed get married, provided they have parental consent. I was incredulous to read that about eighty couples did tie the knot in 2019, with one or either parties under the age of eighteen. I’m a teacher for flip’s sake. I hear teens talking pure mince day in day out, and to think that the same youngsters might be considering marriage, makes me feel a wee bit ill. I was trying to imagine how I’d react if this scenario were to unfold with some of the kids I’ve taught. I’d be all, ‘Well Michael, have you any nice plans for the summer? and he’d be like, ‘Yeah Miss, I’m taking Lucy to see Tiësto at Belsonic, then we’re down the City Hall on Tuesday to get hitched.’ I’d be like, ‘hold on a minute til you tell me that again.’ “Tiësto?”

Anyway, I was on U105 taking about this very issue with John Daly on Wednesday morning, and I fear I may have come across as a curmudgeonry old git about marriage as a whole. ‘Why would anyone want to shackle themselves to another person so young?’ I fumed. When Daly asked what I might do if a teenage daughter of mine came home and announced their intention to wed, I went full-on Dickensian and said I’d lock her in the house until she talked sense. Seriously though, what possible life experience can a young person have to make them contemplate that level of commitment?

So I was all doom and gloom, citing divorce statistics and  saying how marriage is tough, yadi-yadi-ya, but then listener Yvonne rang in, saying she’d met her husband at the local youth club when she was seventeen and they got married the following year.  They’ve just celebrated their forty-second anniversary, which makes me look like I’m talking out of my backside.  She sounded well pleased with her lot and said he’s a great fella who gives her no bother at all and even gets the hoover out sometimes. (Sounds like a keeper to me Yvonne. LSB took the hoover last week to suck the ash out of the wood burner and I had to hose the flipping thing down out the back and the house still smells all ashy and sooty and horrible. When it comes to housework, LSB should leave well alone.) They seemed like a really happy couple, which goes to show that you never know how things are going to work out, and who on earth am I to pass judgement on anyone else?

I do maintain though, that if you fall hard enough for someone when you’re only eighteen, then why rush into marriage? If you’re so very taken with them, then the chances are you’ll still be together when you’re twenty-one, at which stage the marriage won’t seem quite so Old Testament.

Happily, this issue never arose for LSB and myself. If I’d been sixteen when we first met then he’d have been twelve, which would have been a different sort of a business altogether. On our first date he told me he was twenty three when actually he was twenty two and when I found out and realised he was almost four years younger than me it was quite a shock. ‘You’re an embryo!’ I recall telling him, with some vehemence. When we did take the plunge I was thirty-one and he was twenty-seven, which was still younger than the average age to get married in Ireland, which is between thirty three and thirty five.

That’s enough of the statistics for now. What I want to get across, is that at heart, I’m a huge romantic. I love hearing about how couples met and when and where and all the pitfalls which befell them before they hoofed it up the aisle (or indeed if they did at all). Do you want to know my favourite bit of the movie ‘When Harry Met Sally?’ It’s when they show the interviews with all the elderly couples who share their stories. Sometimes they’d been together forever, or maybe they’d fallen in love as teenagers and been reunited in later life. Each one is priceless, and all of them make me a bit teary.

What I’m trying to articulate, is that everyone’s story is different, and they’re completely entitled to it. And if you met your partner when you were both very young then I’d love to hear it. You know where to find me!

 

 

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SWB contemplates the summer

I took the head staggers last summer. After two years of Covid restrictions I was suffering from many things, but primarily it was over-exposure to children. I took to the Internet, frantically googling summer camps and signed them up to seven weeks of back to back activities. Come August, I had almost bankrupted myself. The children had summer scheme fatigue after it, and said they needed a holiday after the holiday, having been trailed hither and thither every day.  I felt it was important to introduce some routine after lockdown, but looking back, I see that I did rip the arse out of it a bit. This year I’m having to reconcile myself to being more pro-active when it comes to entertaining them. 

 

Happily, I’ve managed to book them into a course in Avoneil Leisure Centre for the first week of July and I’m hoping that Kinedale Donkey Sanctuary will run a camp in in August. We’re also away on holiday for a couple of weeks. That still leaves a month though, and I’m not sure that benign neglect as an approach to childcare is going to cut it. Pray tell me, exactly how does one prise children from their screens without having to listen to them bleat ‘I’m bored’ every ten minutes?   

 

I’ve wracked my brains and below is a list of a few ideas to keep the girls happy and make me feel better about my lackadaisical approach to parenting.  

 

  • Create a campsite experience in the garden. Pitch a tent,  roast smores over a BBQ and sleep out. I’ll camp too, less they get frightened, but I can just cart out all the snuggly bedding from the house so it won’t just be a thin karri-mat between me and my patchy uneven lawn. I always find camping more bearable when one has access to one’s own toilet facilities.  
  • Have a toy and book swap. Other people’s stuff always seems more interesting than your own and last year a friend invited us to spend a happy afternoon rifling through bags of cast offs. We dropped a bin liner of unwanted items to Oxfam and did a spot of decluttering ourselves. This was a much more palatable experience than traipsing round Smyths while the kids ogle some plastic shite we don’t need.  
  • Spend more time at the beach. One of the joys of living in Belfast is that one can reach sandy shores in well under an hour. I stayed with a friend in Portstewart this weekend and I felt mighty replenished after only a brief spell by the water’s edge. Growing up in Bangor the sea used to not only be freezing but full of sewage too. There have been huge efforts to clean up our coastlines so if you can thole the cold, the water is a much more tempting prospect. That’s a few day’s out sorted then.

Now, here’s what NOT to do: 

  • This ‘savvy saver and mum of two’ Emma Stretton shared her suggestions for keeping the children busy in the Mirror. One of her recommendations was taking the kids to Ikea for a ‘fun day out.’ One of the reasons why I HATE an Ikea trip so much is precisely because people like Stretton take their children there just for the craic. When I’m trying to note down the dimensions of the Söderhamn sofa with one of their futtery little pencils, the last thing I need is a squawking youngster in my ear. I also think it’s a short-sighted plan: who can push a trolley through Ikea’s Marketplace without filling it with napkins and glasses and picture frames? Trust me, this is not an excursion for the fiscally challenged.  
  • Stretton also suggests baking, which I am going to strongly advise against: step away from the whisks and the bowls and the Magimix. I am still battling a banana bread belly from 2020, and while I love the smell of a Victoria sponge wafting from the oven, the washing up afterwards negates the enjoyment. The more conscientious parent may argue that baking improves literacy as their offspring read recipes, and develops mathematical skills as they measure ingredients.  I’m past caring. They can measure some water and cordial into an ice lolly mould and that’ll do them. 

So that’s my plan to prevent boredom and a keep clean kitchen. Does anyone else have any ideas?

 

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SWB is looking for a non-chemical reaction

Wait til you hear what I was chatting about with Frank Mitchell on Monday. A new love tonic, that you take as a pill or squirt up your nose to put a bit of ‘va va voom’ back into your marriage, or fan the flames of a flagging romance. I tried explaining it to LSB. ‘Do you mean Viagra?,’ said he, but I explained that this isn’t medication for malfunctioning penises, rather for malfunctioning relationships. ‘Hopefully we’re all right then,’ he said, still looking rather wary.

It all sounds a bit like a dystopian fantasy if you ask me, but apparently some struggling couples in the US have already undergone trials to see if it can help them, so it could be available here soon too.

I’m skeptical, of course. Surely if one needs to self-medicate in order to feel kindly disposed towards their partner, then they might need more than a pill? Big pharma would have us believe otherwise. They suggest that we already take a cocktail of chemicals for a myriad of issues- be that the contraceptive pill, HRT or anti-depressants. They are purporting that within a few years ‘love potions’ will be available over the counter to put a bit of fizz back into relationships which have gone a bit stale: it’s being likened to a glass of Prosecco on date night- to inject a wee bit of oomph.

I would posit however, that there could be more traditional methods to keep a partnership alive, without having to visit your GP for a miracle cure. Long-term relationships take proper graft to keep them going, which is just a rather depressing fact. One could argue though, that anything worth having is worth chipping away at. Relationships need compassion, kindness and a hell of a lot of compromise, especially if there’s children involved.  Sometimes, you have to bite your tongue, take yourself out for a long walk or meet a friend. I don’t think a pill is going to negate the rage which sticks in your throat when the frigger leaves a wet towel and a pair of sweaty jocks on the bed.

The journalist Judith Woods argues that 21st century problems require 21st century solutions. She reckons that if you need something to get you in the mood for some Friday night nookie then what’s the harm? Now you’re going to think I’ve gone all conspiracy theorist on you, but is this not another way to anaesthetise ourselves against the trials of modern life? Think about it: childcare costs, soaring energy bills, petrol bills. We’re not automatons- it’s not easy to come home, switch off and bring your ‘A Game’ into the bedroom when you feel like a pile of reheated shite. Having said that, if I thought LSB had to  spray some oxytocin up his nostrils before he fancied getting jiggy with me I’d be affronted.

So I have a suggestion. What you need instead is a good night out. It had been a while folks, since LSB and myself had the craic and danced like we were in our twenties again. But last week, it actually happened, when one of our favourite bands The National played Botanic Gardens last Tuesday. We booked a babysitter, ditched the car, (mid-week be- damned!), and off we hopped.

For nostalgia’s sake we stopped for a drink in The Jeggy Nettle as when we met we were both living in rentals in Stranmillis. Almost all of our dates were in Zinc, as it was then, and he’d have a Guinness and I’d have red wine, so it was only right that we stop there to reminisce. It was absolutely rammed, and when I asked the server what the wine was like she said they had a terrible selection but the sauvignon was better than the Pinot Grigio. It wasn’t great. And it was warm. But it  didn’t matter. What mattered was that we were out, together, and at a gig. The National came on stage a few minutes after we arrived in Botanic. We high-five friends we hadn’t seen in ages, beetled our way to the front and sipped pints, singing along to BloodBuzz Ohio and Fake Empire. It was magic.

We don’t need love pills; we just need conversations which aren’t about transfer tests, and who’s taking the kids to gymnastics and football. We need to remind ourselves why we got together in the first place and feel that buzz again.

I think the pills are a short-term fix for a long-term problem which if one were continue to neglect, might only grow worse. So forget the chemicals and get the f**k out of the house. That’s my take away from this.

 

 

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SWB is all bizz about Bangor

I wonder what your mind conjures when you think of the word ‘city’? Art galleries perhaps. A thriving town centre with quirky independent boutiques. Hip restaurants and cocktail bars. So I ask you, how many of these spring to mind when I say ‘Bangor County Down’? 

I’ve heard it touted as the North Down Riviera, and granted, from certain angles on a bright sunny day, the Marina can look impressive. The sea front could possibly look pretty too, if seen from a distance of several nautical miles, any closer and it’s suddenly less Cannes and more zombie apocalypse.  

While at school I was asked to compete in a Public Speaking Competition in the Town Hall. It was called something highly imaginative, such as ‘Why Bangor is Brilliant’. Contrarian that I was, I chose instead to complain about the lack of amenities for young people and lament the rundown state of Queen’s Parade. Twenty years on and if anything, the seafront is in an even more dilapidated state than it was back then. Yes, there may be the cute little artist pods known as Studio 24, but to me, this is equivalent of brightening up your tired living room with a few bright curtains, and maybe, at a push, a rug. Surely, this would be the very spot for the aforementioned hostelries, and would bring some much needed vitality into the town centre?

We took a drive down to Bangor a couple of weeks ago, to take advantage of both the sunshine, and the fact that a kind friend had taken the children off for the afternoon.  As we drove down Main Street, I let a gulder out of me when I looked out of the passenger side and saw a boarded up shop front where TK Maxx used to be. There’s no Eason’s anymore either, or Dunnes. ‘I bet you can’t even get a decent ice cream anymore,’ I grumbled. 

When I was wee, my mum used to take me to Papa Capaldi’s on a Friday evening, by way of a bribe for forcing me to attend the Girls’ Brigade in Trinity Presbyterian Church. (How I hated it: swapping your school pinafore for a navy tunic complete with massive navy knickers and then making an Easter basket out of an old Flora Tub. Two scoops of honeycomb ice-cream and hot fudge sauce used to help erase the memory for another week.) Anyway, Papa Capaldi’s is long gone. As is Vesuvios, a pizzeria that used to be above The Palladium where we used to go in sixth form, ordering cheeky bottles of house red to accompany streaming bowls of spaghetti carbonara. It was tremendous fun and easy on the purse, as befitted a group of teenage girls. There is a distinct lack of decent eateries now, unless one wants to sell one of their kidneys and visit The Boathouse.  A colleague took her husband for his birthday recently and nearly dropped when she was handed a bill for £250. At that price she’d expected to be up for the night as well, and then served a champagne breakfast.

Looking at the shoddy excuse for a seafront now, it’s hard to believe that I used to have lovely evenings out in Bangor.  I remember with fondness bopping about to ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and ‘Cotton Eyed Joe’  in The Windsor and Calico Jacks. My friends and I would leave before the hoards were tipped out of the pubs at one o’clock, before walking home for a bacon butty and a cup of tea, lovingly prepared by the Mothership. I would always tell her that we’d got a taxi home, because even though it was only a mile down the road, I was strictly forbidden from returning, lest I was ‘set upon’. Sadly this hasn’t changed, and it’s still a regular occurrence.

But perhaps, (and I’m going to embrace optimism for a change,) now that Bangor has been bestowed city status, it may finally reach its potential. Surely this should finally deliver a boot up the arse to the North Down and Ards Council, who seem to squabble endlessly about the town centre and let it languish instead of making any changes. 

Thankfully there are some people who are determined to put Bangor on the map, namely Alison Gordon and Kieran Gilmore, founders of the Open House Festival, who have done just this. They have worked tirelessly to bring a world class acts to Bangor and liven up our summers. If this is what one couple with vision and perseverance can do, imagine the change  a collective of enthusiasts could bring about. In 2014 I took LSB to see the American Band The Barr Brothers play as part of ‘The Beach House Session.’ Tucked in behind The Starfish Café in a converted garage with surfboards on the walls, it was one of the most intimate gigs I’ve ever attended. ‘I can’t believe we’re in Bangor!’ I kept telling LSB as we strolled hand and hand home along the Ballyholme promenade. 

The Aspects Festival is another reason I come back to Bangor every September. This festival celebrates Irish Writing and I have been lucky enough to see Seamus Heaney when he read from his Human Chain Collection back in 2010.  I’ve also attended workshops with Bernie McGill and Patsy Horton in the North Down Heritage Centre, and last year was raging to miss a It also had a paddleboard and poetry event last year, unfortunately I missed due to not having my sea legs at the time.

Ian Sampson once suggested that if Belfast were Manhattan then Bangor would be Brooklyn, with its hipster bars, The Goat’s Toe, Salty Dog and Rabbit Rooms. I thought he’d got a bit carried with himself, but great things can happen when a place finds its niche, the people work together and have a vision for the future.

Bangor as a city may seem a little bit strange at first, but upon reflection it may just be the very boost it needs to put North Down on the map. 

 

 

 

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SWB and the Truth about Pets

I’m not going to lie to you. We got over-excited. I got over-excited. We don’t have the time, energy, or frankly, the funds, to own three animals right now. Don’t get me wrong; I love the dog and the cats to bits. The dog infinitely more, because she’s loving and sweet and she returns our efforts with affection, unlike the cats who are as transparent as f**k, only sidling round your legs when they’re after their fifth meal of the day. The dog is genuinely grateful for any attention she receives, and curled up beside me, as she is now, it’s hard to imagine there’s any badness in the world at all.

But wait til I tell you. Last week the three of them* conspired to be total melters. We’re still recovering, to be honest. We’ll start with the cats. We don’t have a cat-flap: there’s probably no point, as the rotund cat, (who goes by the name of Bramble,) probably couldn’t get through it, given his girth. But we’re rarely out that long and we have a litter tray, lest they take short. But on Monday, the fat cat took umbrage. LSB had the temerity to mix-up his routine of a morning, and visit the gym before twelve. He nailed a few work issues from his desk at home, took himself out  for an hour and returned, feeling well-pleased with his productivity, only to find a massive dump left in the bedroom. On my V-pillow, on which I like to recline to read. Can you imagine coming home and finding that? Bramble decided that nature called and had chosen to defecate extensively, just to let his feelings be known.  Frankly, he was telling us, we should never leave the house.

On to Monday night then. I was fast asleep, as indeed one tends to be at ten past two in the morning, when the dog woke me with her plaintive crying. On went the slippers, coat thrown over the jim-jams and down the stairs we went so she could relieve herself in the moonlight. And then she disappeared. She was prone to taking off through the hedge and into the field behind us a while back, until LSB, (at considerable expense and effort) erected a fence. She has since found another hole somewhere, and away she went. Now, I’d had the foresight to put her collar on that has battery operated lights (rechargeable, I might add), so I could see the wee red lights flickering in the field beyond. Into the neighbour’s garden I went, calling her softly so as not to wake anyone. My entreaties went unheeded, and it was after six before she returned, after Himself and I had taken turns to walk the roads.

I’m telling you all this to make you thoroughly interrogate your levels of stamina before you cave to your children’s pleas and get them a pet. Much as we adore our animals, (and trust me, we do, otherwise we’d have got shot of the bastards by now), they cause no end of strife. A girl in work was talking about getting a pup today and I counselled against it. My very good friend looked at me like I’d had a stroke. ‘But you LOVE animals,’ she said. As a student, she once had to persuade me to give a vagrant back a terrier puppy which he was carting around in the front basket of his bicycle, outside Maggie May’s on Botanic Avenue. I was cradling the pup in my arms and was wondering whether to call it Pippa or Penny, when she suggested that I might ring the Mothership first and check if it was alright. The Mothership told me to put the pup back in the basket IMMEDIATELY and that was the end of it. When I was telling this girl to enjoy her current dog free existence, my old pal found it very odd indeed. But maybe the Guardian had it right when in the Saturday’s Weekend section’s article on 60 ways to make you happier, number two on the list was walking a dog. Not your own dog, I might add. A dog which you find on borrowmydoggie.com. If you’re thinking about getting an animal, test drive it first. Enjoy the benefits of a purposeful stroll with a canine companion, without the kennel bills, the hair-strewn furniture and the nocturnal wanderings. And if you’re seriously contemplating life with a pet, you can have this one for two weeks in July as a tester. Don’t all jump at once…

*Izzy (the wee tortoiseshell cat) didn’t do anything dreadful, she just kept up her sustained campaign of climbing over us in our beds and knocking things off the dressing table until we get up and feed her. (Usually at around 6am).

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SWB takes her long-awaited trip

“Did you get pick-pocketed on the Ramblas?” It’s the first thing everyone asks when you say you’re Barcelona-bound. It’s sad that the Catalan capital is now synonymous with thieves as opposed to all the other joyous things about it, but there you go. Anyway, we don’t get pickpocketed because we stayed well clear of the Ramblas, Park Güell, and the Sagrada Familia. We just can’t be arsed with all that lark. But happily, we holidayed in the district of Sarrià, which has so many of its own attractions that we didn’t need to venture any further. We didn’t get on a train, or the underground and instead, hopped on buses, jumped in a cab or dandered along, punctuating our journey with ice creams or a cerveza in the square. There was A LOT of  sipping chilled verdejo on the terrace, and this suited me just fine. And people were always coming over to chat, which made me feel like I was on back on the Ormeau, except the sky was cerulean blue and instead of the greyhound at our feet we had a portly English bulldog.

We didn’t go to Barcelona with the intention of dog-sitting, but when I rang my friend Rhaiza to suggest a visit, she offered me her flat since she had booked a trip at the same time. This worked out extremely well, as we paid for two nights in a hotel and spent the remaining three in her bijoux apartment. It was bliss, I tell you, bliss. Rhaiza showed us around on the first day and thus we acquainted ourselves with the locale and she directed us to all the best cafés and restaurants. I can be very annoying on holiday, almost as annoying as I am at home. My principal complaint is that I hate being, as I keep telling LSB, ‘on the periphery.’ I hate coming across like a tourist, blundering around looking bemused, and eating rubbish masquerading as local cuisine while the locals dine on superior cuisine in the place next door.

 

Another annoying thing I do on holiday is switch off. Once I’ve landed, and find myself free from the demands and drudgery of  life at home, I enter an almost somnambulant state. Once again, poor auld LSB, because it’s up to him to consult bus timetables and maps while I wonder along gormlessly in his wake. It could, of course, be weaponised incompetency, just like him and the laundry at home, when he fucks in a navy sock with the whites, and everything ends up a wishy-washy blue. But he brings the role on himself as he’s very good with navigation and timings, so I leave him to it. Anyway, you too can be good at sussing the bus system in Barcelona as like New York, it’s based on a grid system: V for vertical and H for horizonal. We were flying about the area no problem at all, and at no point, unlike a recent experience in Belfast, did I hear a fella yell, ‘BALL BAG!’ out the window at his mate.

 

Three brilliant things to do in Sarria

Visit the CosmoCaixa museum.

Almost Guggenheim-esque with spiral ramp by way of a staircase, this is no ordinary science museum. It boasts a replica of a sunken Amazon forest, complete with an Aquarium with comical looking stingrays, turtles  and massive pirarucu fish. Looking up, birds flapped around happily, (don’t ask me what they were, but one looked a bit like a flamingo) and a capybara was rooting about in the shrubbery. The children, of course, weren’t content until they’d bought a toy capybara in the  gift shop. ‘What’s his name?’ I enquired, expecting something of a Latino bent, like Rodrigo or Pedro. ‘Nigel’ came the reply, which makes him sound like an insurance salesman in Wolverhampton. (The other child bought a stuffed penguin, who rejoices in the name of ‘Mr Waddles’.)

Aside from the rainforest, there are exhibitions about the sun and another on climate change and the Arctic. I swiftly moved on, past the harrowing statistics about how f**ked we’re going to be if we keep burning fossil fuels. I felt terribly hypocritical because there’s me calling myself an environmentalist and sure didn’t we all take a Ryanair flight to get there in the first place. There’s my green credentials straight down the toilet.

 

Carreta de Aïgues

I do enjoy a mountain walk, especially if it’s flat. And this is what ROCKS about La Carreta, because it’s a ten kilometre path AROUND the mountains, so although there’s a steep, (but mercifully short) trek up to it, it’s all rather pleasant once you’ve got your breath back. Unfortunately it attracts proper sporty types;  cyclists in all their lyrca’d glory, and fell- running enthusiasts, sinewy and svelte and not even having the decency to sweat. Then when you’re back in the square, chowing down the aforementioned tapas and gelato, you see them racing past again. I’d rather not witness this sort of caper when I’m sipping a Prosecco at two in the afternoon, but what can you do.

Tibidabo Amusement Park

I’m not a fan of amusement parks in general because the rides make me vomit, but the wee ones fancied taking the funicular up to see the Big Wheel on the mountain, and thus I acquiesced. I read a review which claimed that the rides were better suited to ‘younger children’, so I thought I might be ok. I wasn’t.  Perhaps the rides themselves aren’t on the same level as say, The Oblivion in Alton Towers, but it’s the fact that they swing out OVER A CLIFF that sent my stomach churning. Anyway, LSB enjoyed the big swingy things and let out a good auld West Belfast ‘YEOOO’ as he whizzed by me. I think I’m still recovering from the Log Flume. ‘Going round again?’ asked the sprightly chap after we’d been round once. ‘NO WAY,’ I yelled, staggering out, followed by a soaked but disappointed LSB. I actually quite enjoyed the whole experience.

In short, I loved every second of the trip and am planning my next one. And staying at a pal’s house is definitely one way to save if you’re feeling the pinch. The hotels cost a fortune which leaves much less pocket money for all the lovely wine.

 

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SWB on when a plan finally comes together

It’s 3-45am in Dublin Airport, and apparently we’re in the fast track lane. However, we haven’t moved an inch. The air is tight with the frustrations of hundreds of passengers all crammed together, hot and breathless under their face masks. I feel sweat run down my back in rivulets and gather at the base of my spine. ‘If you can’t say something helpful, just keep your mouth bloody well closed,’ snaps the girl behind us (who bears an almost freakish resemblance to Peter Griffin in Family Guy) to her travelling companion. Suddenly security opens and the queues shuffle forward. They are mercifully efficient and soon we are disgorged through to the departure lounge where I think longingly of coffee, until I see there’s at least a twenty-minute wait between me and a latte. LSB’s eyes wander towards the bar and I can almost hear his brain trying to compute whether it’s too early or too late for a Guinness. Either way, the bustling mass in line for their pints seems to put him off the notion.

And yet, I am not oozing my usual anger and impatience because despite it all, I am here, and even making it to Dublin to fly to Barcelona feels like a miracle. I will be meeting my friend Rhaiza for the first time in two years. I haven’t seen   her daughter since she was four, and next month she turns fourteen. This all feels very wrong. It has been a marathon to get to this point with both parents finally catching Covid and my dad ending up in hospital. All this when my brother made it back from UAE for the first time in three years. For over a week my stomach has been in a swirl, and I’ve been demented. ‘You can’t smell burnt toast, can you?’* asks LSB, when after a lengthy search, he relocates all the passports, which he diligently left on the table, and I have swept into the blue recycling bin with a pile of newspapers the day before we leave.

Incredibly, our Ryan Air flight gets us into Barcelona ten minutes ahead of schedule. The airport feels almost empty compared to Dublin and the sky is a dazzling blue when we step out to hail a cab. There is initial confusion when I tell the driver to take us to the ‘Attico’ district in Sarrià, and he looks bewildered. I show him the address and he informs me that ‘Attico’ means ‘the top floor’, so I just sit back and let him drive, without embarrassing myself further.  Upon reaching the apartment block I am practically out of the car before the driver has the brakes on, leaving LSB to pay up. Too impatient to wait for the lift, I run up nine flights of stairs by which stage I am almost too breathless to even manage ‘Hola’ as Rhaiza opens the door. The others have beaten me to it and as we all pour in, Jason the bulldog jumps joyfully around our feet and the preceding week of chaos melts away.

Follow up post coming soon on the delights of the Sarrià area where we stayed.

*apparently a sign of stroke. I did not know this.

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SWB Feels the Squeeze

I rang The Mothership yesterday and she had a quare laugh to herself, at my expense. I’d called to tell her that on Saturday morning I’m going to be chatting to Will Leitch on ‘On Your Behalf’ at Radio Ulster at half past ten. We’re talking ways to reduce spending, as the gas and electricity prices rocket and we all feel the pinch. You should have heard the laughs of her.

‘Is this an April Fool’s joke,’ says she. ‘You, on the radio, talking about SAVING money?  Who’s going to listen to someone who’s never off the Ormeau Road, having her dinner?’

‘Well, that’s just where you’re wrong,’ I told her, ‘because while I love an evening out, I’m very good a cutting corners elsewhere.’

That much at least is true. On Thursday night I had a dress on me that I bought in 2018 off a sale-rail in a Dublin boutique, with a pair of boots I picked up for a fiver in the Hospice Shop. ‘Rewearing is caring,’ I told the Mothership. ‘You’re telling me,’ she said. ‘I’ve clothes up there in the wardrobe that our twenty years old, at the very least.’

But it’s not just The Mothership’s frugality when it comes to buying clothes that she’s passed on. She’s also runs an EXTREMELY energy efficient home, and has passed those traits along to me.  I’ve LSB’s head turned as I run round the house switching off all the lights when he leaves them blazing away. He has the place lit up like Blackpool Illuminations, and also never turns off the radio when he leaves the room. It makes me twitch.  I, on the other hand,  won’t run the tumble drier unless it’s absolutely essential. I pluck chargers out of their sockets as soon as my devices are at full capacity and I only ever half fill the kettle for a cup of tea. I also eke out all our curries and pasta sauces with lentils and hidden vegetables to bulk them out so we get an extra lunch or dinner.  ‘I’m really very conscientious,’ I said, as I regaled the Mothership with all of this. She made a non-committal ‘Hmm’ sound.

Hard woman to please. Anyway, here’s another few suggestions below, some of which I’ll be mentioning on the programme.

Car-pooling. The week before last I travelled to work with a friend, thus saving money on petrol and reducing air pollution. A happy by-product of this was that it eliminated the stress of parking. I hate parking, and didn’t realise just how much until I was spared the ordeal of it for a week.

Eating out. Of course we want to support our local cafes and restaurants, but if you feel like trying a more expensive venue, opt for going out for lunch instead of dinner, or go for a pre-theatre menu. If you fancy a tipple along with your meal, it’s also much easier to get a bus during the day instead of paying for a taxi later in the evening. Often the quality of the service is much better at a less busy time and your can actually hear your dining companions, if you’re like me and are a bit deaf. I HATE having to shout to be heard over blaring music. (Yep, I’ll lift my zimmer on the way out.)

Spending time with friends. Seeing people you care about shouldn’t be about wowing them with a four-course meal with fillet steaks and a bottle of Bollinger. (As if. Come to mine and it’s invariably a chicken curry, though there may be a nice piece of cheese from Indie Fude.) But seriously, going all out when you have people round only piles on the pressure and makes them resistant to hosting in return. If you’re a busy person and perhaps a working parent, just keep your expectations low and enjoy being with your guests.

Birthday gifts. Well, these can be an arse-ache when the kids are at primary school and you have half the class coming to the party. A mum in our daughter’s class suggested giving a fiver in a hand card card. How we embraced it!  It saves the aggravation of trailing round Smyths  and your stay mercifully clear of wrapping paper and plastic shite your child never wanted in the first place.

Check out Freecycle on line before you buy. There is a brilliant Freecycle scene here in Northern Ireland; and it’s where I got most of my hall furniture and a child’s bed.

Changing how I shop.  ‘Swap don’t shop’ and ‘rewearing is caring’ have become my favourite mantras. It’s important to dispel the notion that people, (usually girls,) feel that they have to have a different outfit for every evening out, and this has been exacerbated by Instagram. As a result, many young people subscribe to the notion that if it’s been worn once, then it’s finished with. What a nonsense! The earth can’t keep up with this idea, and so it’s time we consider other options. I love a good clothes swap, and recently attended one at the Lyric Theatre, hosted by  ‘The Homeless Period.’  It’s also an opportunity to do a clear out, and who doesn’t need that? ‘The Wardrobe’ on the Newtownards Road also hosts these, and it, along with Déjà Vu on the Lisburn Road, are excellent options for good quality second hand clothes. They are also on the look out for decent outfits which are still in good condition, so it’s worth approaching them with that outfit you bought for a wedding and know you’ll never wear again.

Recently I’ve become  obsessed with selling clothes via the Vinted app. It’s easy to use and I post the items off in recycled packaging, which gives me no end of pleasure since our house is full of it. My best (and only purchase from Vinted so far) was a warm winter coat from Next which I bought for £10. The buyer pays for the postage and I find this an easier way to sell than e-bay.

Insurance. Another quick way to keep a few extra pounds in your pocket is to challenge your home or car insurers when they send you the renewal letter. I never pay automatically; I pick up the phone, tell them I’m one of their loyalest customers and ask if they’ll do me a better deal. I usually save about £40 immediately, which I feel smug about for approximately five minutes until I remember that I need to get petrol. Back to that car pool idea then…

Seriously though; this is a dire situation for many and I appreciate that the struggle is going to be real. We will definitely be staying in more, especially if we want to afford a holiday. With that in mind, there are some lovely ideas in today’s Guardian about making your home a calmer place where you feel happy and relaxed. I know those adjectives may seem at odds with our current world climate, but as I said in last week’s post, we have to grab the good vibes where we can, and as programmes like The Home Edit can show us, some bright colours and a bit of organisation may just give us a tiny bit of the peace we crave.