SWB Rejects Black Friday

So last week I clicked on an advert for fancy shelves I’d been ogling for a while on my Instagram feed. My collection of books is steadily increasingly (I blame the second-hand shops on Botanic for my most recent haul) and I want to be able to store them effectively. ‘Oooh,’ says I to myself. ‘A deal! How serendipitous.’ Except it wasn’t. While the initial ad lured me in with 50% in bold font, most shelves I looked at had a mere 20% discount and were still so over-priced that I wouldn’t even entertain buying them. The books will remain in teetering piles on the floor then.

It will be the same in the shops and I guarantee you that if you’re in the town today you will see promotional material displayed willy-nilly, but on closer inspection will find that many items are hardly reduced at all.

And if they ARE discounted, you need to consider whether they are still worth buying. ‘Which?’ magazine award ‘don’t buy labels’ to items which they deem duds, and a waste of money, whether they are heavily discounted but are in fact duds or not. Black Friday Deals rely on the assumption that consumers will buy on impulse, and perhaps haven’t done their research and think that one TV or fridge freezer is as good as the next.

According to Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis, ‘if you weren’t going to buy it, but do it only because it’s half price, then you’ve wasted 100% of your money.’ Now that’s hardly rocket science, yet I can see how it happens when the furore and panic that surrounds Black Friday deals mounts and so people panic shop, for fear of missing out. Don’t give in to corporate greed and allow them to suck you in!

I’ve been thinking more and more about ‘conscious gifting’, taking the time to ask friends and family what they really want. I’ve collected items for umpteen school fairs and ballot prizes over the years, so I’ve see first-hand the unwanted and unopened gift packs of toiletries that people have donated. Undoubtedly, this is the sort of generic item that will be snapped up by folk trying to get ahead with their Christmas shopping on Black Friday. A colleague who moved house recently found a huge box in the roof space, which was crammed with bath products, all still in their packaging. All that money for a quick ‘thank you very much’ before it’s fired into a cupboard to add to our never-ending clutter.

If ever there was a time, then surely it’s now, to ask the people we buy for what they’d really like. Maybe it’s their favourite lip-stick (Mac in ‘Fast Play’ if you’re asking), or fancy coffee, or maybe it’s new socks. SOCKS? I hear you say, has SWB become so Grinch-like and boring that she’s advocating we all buy each other SOCKS? Hear me out on this though. Socks are useful but I’ve never said to myself, ‘I’m away out here to treat myself to a nice pair of feet warmers.’ I like to have toasty trotters so I’m always happy to receive a few pairs.  And it’s actually become so cliché to give socks as gifts that it doesn’t happen as much anymore, making recipients of socks even more grateful.

My message is this- stop buying stuff you don’t need, or if it’s a gift, something that wouldn’t want yourself. If it’s not a ‘hell yes!’ then it shouldn’t be coming home with you. Support the small businesses where you can, our growers and grafters, our potters and painters and those who have turned their passion into livelihoods. Instead of investing our hard-earned cash into something bland and generic, let’s support the real heroes of the high street, those whose sole purpose isn’t greed but a desire to see the world in a more imaginative, colourful way.


SWB on taking it slow in November

Do you know what has only just dawned on me? The first two letters in November are ‘NO’. I’m taking this to mean that we say a big NO THANK YOU to anything which doesn’t serve us this month. Sure haven’t we all enough to be doing, working and ferrying youngsters about, all the usual stuff, as well as avoiding the news lest we’re just catapulted into Nihilistic despair. Darker are the nights and dreary are the days and all too easily your mood can go to shite as the gloom descends. SO here’s what I’m saying ‘no’ to this November so that I can exhale and let my mind and body say YES. (Not in a Meg Ryan way but sure wouldn’t that just do us the power of good? Anyone want to mind my menagerie here and let himself and me away for a night? No takers? Well, one can dare to dream.)


I digress. Firstly, it’s a big NO to doing MO-vember. Life’s sufficiently trying without Himself running round looking like a 1970’s West Belfast blanket man. We’ll make a donation to this excellent cause and be done with it. There’s not many can rock a moustache IMHO, except perhaps Bear Grylls; but he doesn’t count as he’d still look attractive boasting his handlebar moustache while drinking his own pee in the Outer Mongolian outback. What LSB CAN rock however, is the sexy stubble look, and he’s taken to visiting the Turkish barbers for a shave once a week. He looks the business and I’m all chuffed because he doesn’t get the razor out and clog up the sink with a million little bristly hairs.


It’s a NO to going out in town. Lynette Faye was on the money on this when she posted about the dire state of affairs on Twitter at the weekend. I can’t be doing with this caper, so if I go out at all it’s going to be on the good old Ormeau so I can leg it up the road when I want to. The days of fruitlessly ringing for a taxi are GONE, I tell you. Frankly, the stress of trying to get home outweighs any of the enjoyment had, so unless someone volunteers to drive, I’m either staying local or staying on my sofa. End of.


It’s a NO to festive shopping and in particular, Black Friday and ‘fear-of-missing-a-bargain’ nonsense.’ I HATE all the e-mails flooding my inbox and the panic shop that they are supposed to prompt. I’ve wasted time and money on this before and I’m not doing it again. I refuse to go down the middle-class Boden and Joules route, paying excessively for a tee-shirt because it boasts an appliqued sloth. Rarely are the bargains worth the effort. The fabulous duo at Order In The House are posting great gift ideas which support local businesses and won’t clutter up my home, so I may get on to that. But not now. And not yet. Not during my NO month.


It’s a massive YES to nourishing the soul. I’m inviting rituals into my life; I’m lighting my candles and toasting my toes at the fire. I watch an episode of Malcom in the Middle with the girls before a chapter of Judy Blume (our favourite is Superfudge, but we’re presently on ‘Are You There God It’s Me Margaret’) before bed. They need the quiet time too. I’m refusing to do anything in my free time which doesn’t lighten my mood and unburden the spirit. Too much? Perhaps. But I’m enjoying myself, and to paraphrase Father Fintan Stack in Father Ted, ‘I’m having my fun and that’s all that matters.’ With the Christmas season comes inevitable traipsing, and there are invitations to which we just can’t say no. My rationale is thus to say no now and conserve energy.


For the next six weeks I’m doing a writing workshop with the poet Anne McMaster. It’s called ‘The Dancing Light’ and is every bit as magical as it sounds. For two glorious hours a week I hang out with creative souls and we let our ideas bubble to the surface. November, we have decided, should be a time of contemplation, a pause before the frenetic hither and thither of December. I have carved out this ‘me time’ and trust me when I say it’s golden. When I log on to Zoom I feel tired and lacklustre, but within a few minutes I feel a creative surge of energy, as though Anne has taken metaphorical bellows and sparked a flame within.


Nourish your souls dear people. Make the time and relish every second- I refuse to just put the time in until Christmas. Every day is precious, let’s find ways to make each one count.


*Thanks to Anne McMaster for letting me use one of her photographs from Rosehill Farm near Garvagh. I chose this photo because it illustrated what we talked about last week. Winter may strips trees back, but a stark beauty remains.








LSB can’t believe it’s not butter

There’s always the worry, isn’t there, when one is as vocal as me the topic of recycling, that one will be caught out and held to account.

The very thing happened to me yesterday, when LSB remarked that he and the girls play a fun game of a morning, while I am upstairs, otherwise engaged doing my toilette. The game they rejoices in the name of ‘Is this butter?’, so called because of the number of times they open a tub of Lurpak, only to find concealed within some forlorn sausages (mouldy), a small pile of fusilli (mouldy) or this week’s treat, elderly baked beans, and you’ve guessed it, not only mouldy, but potentially growing another life form.*

It pains me to admit it, but I’m a wishful user-upper, a wannabe zero-waster, and perhaps just an aspirational arse. I’m forever scraping out whatever’s caked to the bottom of the pot and telling myself earnestly that it will form the basis of tomorrow’s lunch, then forgetting all about it. It really isn’t good enough, especially since I was on with Frank on Thursday morning, chatting animatedly on ways to eke out** dinners such chicken tikka-masala and spaghetti bolognese in these fiscally fraught times. And do you know what he had the cheek to tell me, live on air?

‘Helen,’ he says, interrupting my spiel, ‘you’re obviously very accomplished in the kitchen, whipping up these fancy meals of an evening!’ I swiftly disabused him of this notion, telling him that my culinary skills have dwindled to nothing of late, since time, lack of imagination and fussy eaters have leached away any enthusiasm I once had. ‘I rely heavily on bought sauces,’ I told him frostily, ‘and jazz them up a bit with a few herbs and extra garlic and ginger.’ Well, some listeners took umbrage with that too, when I said I chopped up the aromatics and fired them in the freezer for easy access of an evening, (about what exactly their issue was, I am still unsure.) I started on the ‘chop, bag and freeze’ after finding too many knobs of ginger lurking at the back of the fridge like some wizened appendages, and one can’t be having that if one is apparently opposed to waste.

But do you know what pisses me off no end? So much of household recycling falls to the woman of the house; it’s we who are micro-managing the clothing, the laundering, the shopping and subsequent sorting of the by-products. It’s the fridge blindness and overall vagueness of my husband when it comes food in general that shreds my nerves.

Case in point, say I were to lovingly prepare him a bowl of strawberries and sliced pear for a late afternoon snack while he’s writing away at his code, or whatever the f**k he does at the computer. ‘Oh, lovely!’ he’ll say, horsing it into him. But it would NEVER cross his mind to source such a snack for himself. Same with the lunch items. He’ll take the most cursory glance at the front of the fridge, then leg it down to the Super Spar on Sunnyside Street to buy sausages and chips. I falls upon me to yell, ‘THERE’S CHILLI CHICKEN CHUNKS BESIDE THE YOGURTS IN THE FRIDGE,’ as I race out to work. In his defence, he says that he’s so melted ushering me out the door making sure I have my phone, keys, wallet, laptop-bag and my coffee, (hot in my little flask); THEN switching his attentions to the children and the dog, that he’s almost passed himself by lunch time.

Anyway, what I started off to say was this: sometimes I’m rubbish at the whole shebang. It’s damn near impossible to be zero-waste in this world, but one reason I do try to recycle so much is to assuage my guilt for how un-green I am in other departments. You can’t do it all, and sometimes I don’t manage any of it. Cleaning, tidying and decluttering are my absolute nemesis. But I can still persevere. Any ideas welcome!

*The Mothership was on the blower and suggests placing leftovers in jam jars so one can clearly see the contents. Bon Maman jars are particularly good for this since they are wider and also aesthetically pleasing. One day I will strive towards this level of organisation.


**Can I have a big drum roll please for LENTILS? I routinely throw half a cup of red lentils into Bolognese and curry. They thicken up the sauce nicely and with the addition of extra veg means I can reduce the amount of meat without it being too obvious. In my pre-lentil days, anytime we made curry there was often wastage in the form of a gloopy sauce with a few sad bits of onions floating about in it. Now what we are left with is of a more dahl like consistency and its super tasty.




SWB goes back to bins

Can you imagine, what with all the awful stuff happening in the world right now, the added horror of not having your bin collected? I’d be pure raging. That’s precisely the situation facing many residents in the Lisburn City and Castlereagh Council Area. I hope the tossers at the top start prioritising what’s important and rewarding the workers who help us manage our waste, before the situation becomes truly disgusting, with bins lying for weeks without being emptied. One would imagine, what with the proposal for a twelve and half percent hike in rates, that council workers on the bottom rungs might see a share of this. Yesterday I was chatting to John Daly, who was standing in for Frank on the U105 Phone-In, about how to manage our rubbish and our recycling in the home, so that we don’t consign mountains of waste to landfill.

Here are a few of the points I made:

I saw a request on Facebook for bedding donations for Almost Home Animal Shelter. I had an old duvet, a couple of pillows and some elderly towels, so I thought, now there’s the very place! The Mothership doesn’t like to think of animals being chilly, so she had a root about the hot press and gave me some items of which she was looking rid. The Small Child also contributed her old dressing gown. A delightful volunteer arrived at my door and was delighted with the rake of stuff we had. She sent me a photo of a cosy bed yesterday, made up for a little dog called Bella, complete with colourful dressing gown. This is a brilliant way to recycle bulky items which would otherwise end up being turfed into landfill. It’s a win-win for wee creatures everywhere.

Anyone fancy a spot of can crushing? You know all about my foibles when it comes to bin-hoking and can-collecting, but this week LSB took a boot load of cans up to Bryson House in Mallusk and got £20 for his trouble. This is an excellent fund-raising idea for any sports or youth clubs. All they need are fizzy drink enthusiasts, somewhere to store the cans so they don’t get all wet and dirty, and a van to transport them up to Mallusk. Check here for details.

Many’s a time I’ve mentioned this before, but I save crisp and sweet wrappers, toothpaste tubes and coffee bags for Terracycle, through Kicks Count NI. I drop off my bags at the Conservation Volunteers on the Ravenhill Road when I’m down that way (I don’t be going down one errand, no siree!) Click on the link above to find hints, tips and local hubs for collection. It may sound overwhelming at first, but by siphoning off just a few difficult to recycle items, you will see a significant drop in your black bin waste.

You may also want to consider the following:

Trot to the Co-op with soft plastic wrapping that you can’t recycle at home. Rosetta has a wee box you can fire these into, and I save up all packaging in a bread bag. (I’m talking plastic wrappers for pasta/rice and the film off punnets of fruit and vegetables.)

Drop excess plastic bags and packaging off to charity shops; they always seem grateful to receive them.

Eliminate waste at source by bringing your Keep Cup to coffee shops or sitting in while you sip.

Give the Refill Quarter shops a blast, and try the Body Shop in town which now has a facility to bring your own containers and fill them up in the shop. I’ve taken takeaway boxes the butchers in Forestside in the past and they’ve been happy to fill them with mince for me, so I haven’t needed to take plastic bags.

Switch to reusable period wear like WUKA pants, or try a moon cup if you can stomach it. Personally this was a no-go for me after I kept getting them stuck and was almost taking myself to A&E one a couple of occasions to have the f**king thing extracted.

It’s still a source of huge irritation to me, but here in Northern Ireland we don’t have the same system for recycling everywhere, and the advice given is often confusing and misleading. For a comprehensive list of what can go in to which bins, we can access the Binovation app. This is certainly applicable to Belfast, Bangor and Ards, but I’m not sure about the rest of the six counties. My friend Mary who works for Belfast City Council, tells me that if we wash out our containers at home and provide a higher quality of material, then we will see more products made from our recycling created here in Northern Ireland. This sounds like it has the potential to boost businesses here, so maybe we could get in on some of the growth that the Tories have been banging on about at the party conference all week. ‘Green Growth’- now that doesn’t sound like rubbish to me.


SWB Looks Up…

‘I always feel that autumn officially begins on the first of October,’ opined the Older Child this morning, (and again at tea-time) and I agreed that she was probably right. She’s a nice wee thing, now almost eleven and facing the horrors of transfer test, but she’s coping well with the ordeal and just takes issue with the profanities I utter when I see the papers. This week’s clanger was when I exploded, ‘A Bird Came Down the BLOODY Walk?’ when I saw that some clampet had chosen an Emily Dickinson poem that’s used to be featured on the CCEA GCSE syllabus for a comprehension. For ten and eleven year olds.


Anyway, I won’t dwell on the matter, aside from to say that it’s very stressful and I’m not the sort of the individual who can thole stress easily. This, I demonstrated, when I had booked a massage for my banjaxed shoulder at 3pm on Friday, at which time I was standing in Wyse Byse on the Cregagh Road weighing sweets from the Pick n’Mix with the children as a treat. That’s right, I completely forgot about my OWN treat, and there I was, blithely discussing the merits of Gummy Bears over Midget Gems when I was supposed to be on the table having a go going-over so I was fit to run this weekend.


Appointment missed, I thought feck it, and instead fired a hot water bottle onto my shoulder when I came home. Happily, I was fit to do my parkrun on Saturday, and I have to admit, it was MARVELLOUS. I have not been feeling good about myself of late. I’m still carrying weight gained in lockdown, which is going nowhere fast given my penchant for a Nico’s Pizza (Spinachi, is my current favourite). This delight is further improved when one dips the crusts in mayonnaise. The size ten clothes in the wardrobe may well be consigned to an ‘aspirational box’ to be stored under the eaves until I catch myself on.


But the thing about parkrun, is that weight doesn’t matter. It’s just about getting yourself, (and your lardy ass) around the course, and chatting as you go. The girls do it too now and fly on ahead. Yesterday The Small Child said she’d had enough after two km, but on went the Older one, and sailed through to come in three minutes in front of her wheezing mother. I’ve tried never to be an annoyingly smug parent, but I couldn’t help pointing and announcing to fellow runners, ‘That’s my daughter!’ as she flew by.


The autumn term is long and can clean knock the stuffing out of you. The dark nights always catch me unawares and my endorphins don’t just dwindle, they seem to plummet. The Guardian featured a lovely article last week on ‘How to Feel Awesome’ and I was like, ‘Yeah right,’ but some of the advice was sound. It mentioned how joy can be found in unlikely places, and I felt a little bit of awe as I ran through copper leaves this morning, and equally thrilled when I picked up a red and pink scarf and knee length boots in Concern on the Ormeau too. The boots were displayed aloft and spotted by a fellow charity shop enthusiast who kindly passed them my way. ‘You must always look up!’ she told me. How very true, and one of the points Anne Lamott makes in her Ted Talk. So keep looking up and the world may look brighter when you look down again. I hope so anyway!

More on charity shops here.




SWB and the overwhelm

A friend of mine posted on Instagram that she tends to ‘malfunction in September.’ ‘You and me both!’ thought I. Anyone else struggling to adjust to the pace ? I’ve been more clumsy and disorganised than usual, prompting LSB to inquire, ‘How much wine did you have last night?’ after I had hit the milk a clatter and sent it flying all over the counter. The unfortunate dog got a good dowsing too. ‘I’ll be bathing her later then,’ said Himself with a sigh.

I blame the Small Child, for generously sharing her ‘back to school cold’. I felt ghastly last week, and on Monday shuffled down the stairs, red of nose and hoarse of throat. LSB handed me a cup of coffee which I took over to the sofa. Next thing I knew he reappeared. ‘I thought you’d left! I said, about to admonish him for being late. ‘I’m back!’ he replied, and yes indeed, it was ten to ten and he’d even taken the long route to give the dog her walk. Meanwhile, I had come downstairs and needed a doze to recover from the exertion. Nothing else for it but to pop my coffee into the microwave and return to bed, where I stayed until two o’clock. Might I suggest stocking up on the Berocca and wiring it into you pronto, because this strain of the cold is a bad’un.

One of the myths of parenthood is that ‘it gets easier’, but I’m not convinced as I think it just changes. Now, with my girls aged nine and ten, I struggle a bit with their nonchalance at the school gates. Today I thought back to the first time I left my eldest for a ‘settling in session’ at creche when she was eight months old. After I handed her over, I told the girl in charge of the baby room that I was ‘a bad mother’ for ‘abandoning’ my child (ever the dramatist.) She reassured me that no, I wasn’t a terrible person, and sent me on my way. I still think of her fondly.

To distract myself, I went into Graffiti for lunch. I ordered a bowl of mushroom soup, and tried to make my crying as inconspicuous as possible, though I’m not sure how well I succeeded, especially since it’s an intimate sort of a space. Soup supped and tears shed, I set off to collect the baby, (early) who seemed quite unperturbed by my having deserted her. More perturbed was I, when I looked in the car mirror and saw that I had black chunks of mushroom lodged in my teeth, so I looked like I’d left the creche aged 32 and returned a red-eyed crone with severe tooth decay.

Let’s just accept it- parenting is a head-wrecker. So whatever stage you are at right now- whether that be dropping babies to creche, or children to school or students to university, it’s quite acceptable to feel a bit unhinged. The true extent of my madness was revealed on Monday when I watched the Queen’s funeral and found myself in tears. I snivelled when her ladies in waiting arrived, looking bereft. I welled up when I saw Edward dabbing his eyes with a pristine linen handkerchief. The picture of the wee corgis later almost undid me. I caught LSB looking at me as though thinking ‘Who the hell have I married?’ I’ve never been one been filled with patriotic fervour but I did like the Queen. Imtiaz Dhakar did a beautiful reflection last Wednesday which was beautiful and tackled some of the thorny issues around royalty. It’s worth a listen.

Anyway, if you are feeling the overwhelm right now, I think it’s quite justified. There’s a lot going on and it’s also far too warm for flipping September which is making my hot flushes even more feverish. Hopefully I’ll be functioning better by October, but I doubt it.



SWB gets stung

Last week I was subject to the vicissitudes of life. It all began well enough. On Tuesday, I took myself and my friend Irene to the Lisburn Road for a recce of the second hand shops. I’ve hardly shopped at all recently so I was all excitable. The first thing one notices on the Lisburn Road, is the number of people wearing gilets. ‘Shall we count them, just for the craic?’ I asked Irene. ‘Yes please,’ she said, ‘T’wud be a shame not to.’ We parked at Oliver Bonas and had already spotted three by the time we hit Action Cancer, in which we saw a gentleman in a very fetching waistcoat in vivid hues. ‘Double points for that,’ said Irene.

At what point, we pondered, do gilets stop being bodywarmers? Is there some sort of demarcation line between county borders where one adopts the term gilet? It was always a bodywarmer for me growing up in Bangor. Anyway, this is the sort of thing that keeps me up in the wee hours.

Things got serious then in Déjà Vu. I couldn’t be kept from the rails of absolute loveliness – dreamy dresses and fantastic frocks. I had left the house with a plan, which was to purchase ONE brightly coloured dress. Needless to say, I didn’t stop at one and plundered through the rails like a creature let out of a cage. It was marvellous. I may have bought three, and a cardigan. Plus a necklace. It’s as well I go to my work, as the Mothership would say.

Later on I poured a G&T, and did an online poetry workshop with the brilliant Anne McMaster from up the country in Garvagh. This summer I’ve given myself over to hedonism in these sweltering days, which aren’t conducive to concentration; this was just the ticket and it breathed life into my writing routine which had all but flatlined.

Tuesday then, was a delight in every way. On to Wednesday. ‘I shall walk the dog,’ I told LSB, since he’s been doing everything of late, including walking her early during the heatwave, so she didn’t roast the paws off herself. Off I set, with the Radio Four book of the week, (Flatmates by Beth O’Leary, great fun and beautifully read) in my Airpods. Tilly stopped at the bottom of the hill and fixed me with one of her beseeching stares, which is dog-speak for, ‘Could we take a wee hike up the glen?’ Sure why not? I told her, since it’s beautiful, especially on a bright morning when the sunlight filters down through the trees, creating what the Japanese call ‘komorebi’.  As far as natural phenomena go, it’s ever so lovely, and uplifting even to a spirit as jaded as mine.

So up we went and down we came and were rounding the corner towards home when horror of horrors, the dog let a powerful cry and took a leap and I yelped myself, for hadn’t a wasp, or some other fiendish bastard of a creature come flying out of the hedge. It attached itself firmly to my lip and couldn’t be shifted. The dog stood cowering, tail between her legs, while I swatted and leapt, all in vain, even dropping the bag of litter I’d gathered. A man in a van drove past and slowed down. ‘Thank God!’ I thought, ‘this gent has come to my aid.’ Alas no, he sunk his foot on the accelerator and roared off. Finally, I dislodged the wasp and felt my lip throb and tremble. Still the dog shook. I lifted her lead and proceeded up the road, Radio 4 still blaring in my ears. Peering in a car mirror I saw my lip was twice its usual size. Then I spied a kindly local lady walking her dachshund (also called Tilly). Seeing my dishevelled state, she asked if I was alright. “No!’ I wailed, bursting into gulping sobs. I’m still terribly embarrassed when I think of it. I had been stung by a wasp, (twice, I would discover later as there appeared to be two sting marks,) but it’s not exactly a trauma. ‘I’m not usually such a dickhead,’ I stuttered between sobs, but to be honest she didn’t seem to think I was being dickish at all.

Anyway, it was horrendously sore. Later I wanted to nip over to an event in The Duncairn Centre in North Belfast. ‘I’ll take you,’ said LSB, clearly thinking I shouldn’t be let behind the wheel in my distress. Over we went to find it strangely quiet. ‘It’s the 24th this thing is on, isn’t it,’ I asked the lady at the desk. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘but today’s the 17th.’ I was a week early. Not only that, but I was actually a week ahead of myself, thinking it WAS the 24th. LSB was lovely about it, but it can’t be easy being married to a cretin.

Anyway, watch out for wasps. I have in the past, been a bit dismissive by people who overreact to them, but now I want to say ‘I feel your pain, shout all you like.’ And if you do get stung, head over to the Lisburn Road. That’ll cheer you up.


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.



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.






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!