Culture (Inspire)

Liquorice and Lava – 3 nights in Iceland

April 29, 2016

 

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I like planning special things for my birthday and this year was no different.  When my boyfriend asked if there was something I wanted, the answer was a short get-away to a destination that’s been on my wish-list ever since seeing the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Iceland.  Our ‘mini-break’ was so successful that I wanted to share all the details with you in case you’re thinking of a short stay there yourself.

I had been thinking about a healthy Nordic trip for a while, but we were dissuaded by the cold weather, dark skies and potentially outrageous expenses.  We get enough of all those things in London.  However, after reading an article in Elle UK by Susan Ward called Into the Wild (which I can’t seem to locate online) that waxed lyrical about scenic drives, breathtaking sites, and delicious food, we booked plane tickets from London for a 3-night stay (all we had time for) in the land of fire and ice.

I got straight down to some research to ensure not a minute was wasted or an icelandic delicacy untasted during our short stay.  Not surprisingly, there weren’t many suggestions online for trips to Iceland of less than 10 days duration, and with good reason.  There’s A LOT to see in Iceland, ideally at a relaxed pace.  It’s a photographer’s (and geologist’s) dream.  Nevertheless, I was determined to get a good taste of what the country has to offer on a condensed schedule with a view of making my carbon footprint more validated on a longer trip in the future.

The Elle UK article (mentioned before) was helpful and served as a great guide to layout the overall itinerary.  It described two ways to venture away from the capital of Reykjavik for some nature – SouthEast towards Vik or NorthWest towards the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.  Beyond that we talked to two couples we knew who had been there, one of which had stayed in the Elle-recommended Hótel Búðir, which doubly convinced us to head in the direction of the aforementioned peninsula (a 2.5 hour drive from the capital).  Our other friends put us in touch with local mates who confirmed that my hotel and restaurant choices were sound and provided some useful links to locate thermal pools and check weather.  I had a quick browse of a few blogs and then got booking based on the final criteria: must bathe in thermal waters, must eat well, must see some stunning scenery and must stay in a hotel with a nice view.  We purposely didn’t get our hopes up about seeing the Northern Lights.  As luck would have it, there was a spectacular display the evening before we arrived (April 14th), which was unusual given the peak times of the Autumn and Spring equinoxes.

One thing that was certain was that we were going to have a great time. I heard not one negative comment about Iceland from all those approached, except to be careful when opening car doors because the wind can be so fierce it will blow your car door off (yup – it’s the first bullet in the guide to driving in Iceland that we received from the car rental company and makes you think twice about spending that extra bit on car insurance…)  We met lovely people, ate well, relaxed, felt adventuresome and drank pure Icelandic water everyday.  What more could you ask for?

I always travel with a view of getting a good taste of the local culture and learning more about the healthy habits of those who live there.  I learned a lot about healthy eating during my time living in France and Italy and I’m always reminded that travel is a great way to broaden your perspective about diet.  I recall watching a Channel 4 documentary on the World’s Best Diet and Iceland topping the list for its fresh and high quality fish, meat and dairy products.  I mention liquorice in the title of this post simply because the candy version of it is found everywhere as in most Nordic countries (perhaps the bittersweet taste is appreciated in the cold weather?), but in more abundance was nutrient-dense, healthy food that made me feel great. A lot of the food, such as their famous steamed rye bread (rugbrauð), is also cooked underground using geo-thermal energy, which is an incredible concept.  I have provided a list below of healthy Icelandic foods with links to learn more about them. There is also a plethora of local delicacies for the more adventuresome that I didn’t feel the need to sample such as fermented shark, puffin and stinky skate, rumours of which have no doubt put many people off the idea of Icelandic cuisine, but don’t be discouraged, I tasted some of the best food of my life here.  Sadly, Rick Stein’s special episode on his weekend break to Iceland on BBC2 debuted after our return, but has certainly helped me create a wish-list for next time and has got me even more interested to read up on the history of Icelandic cooking.

Here’s our itinerary:

Day One (Friday)  – Blue Lagoon and Hveragerði

Departed London Heathrow on the 8:15Am BA flight to arrive in Keflavik airport by 10:15AM (3-hour flight).  Picked up rental car (a 5-minute walk outside of the airport if you book with Go Iceland – we had to ask where to find them at the information desk).  Drove 20 minutes to the Blue Lagoon (FYI – the sign is not blue) where we pre-booked (this is a MUST) for 12 PM entry.  We booked the cheapest entry tickets (40 Euros) to the lagoon (this option does NOT include towels so we brought our own and you still have to queue up when you get there next to a lot of Americans).  We spent three hours at the lagoon and I opted for a 30-minute (65 Euros) in water massage, which was very soothing but not the world’s deepest massage (still I was thankful to shut my eyes for 30 minutes – the sun was BRIGHT – bring sunglasses and sunscreen).  This was a total highlight of our trip and a great way to relax after our flight and before journeying on.  We loved the mud mask bar (you get this as part of the basic entry, but you don’t get the algae mask unless you pay 15 Euros more.  Worth it? Probably not).  If you go with a member of the opposite sex, arrange to meet on the other side of the changing rooms to enter the lagoon together.  Once you lock up your stuff, shower naked, and slather your hair with loads of conditioner, they don’t like you to exit through the entrance.  Exit lagoon side – there’s a cafe area there where you can hang your towels (or your robe if you get the slightly more expensive package or book a treatment) and buy some overpriced food (I had the sushi) if you’re peckish.  If you’re not getting a treatment, 2 hours is probably enough time to relax in the mineral-rich water, but there’s also space to lounge indoors and read for a bit.  We left by 3:30PM feeling full of minerals, squeaky clean and thirsty (you must hydrate while here).  As far as I was concerned, my birthday mission to swim in thermal water was accomplished, but there was more to come.

We got in our KIA c’eed rental car (we chose the cheapest model, knowing we wouldn’t be driving anywhere too extreme and the weather forecast was good but I’m sure a 4×4 would be more fun) and drove 40 minutes to Hveragerði where I had booked us in to the Frost and Fire hotel (rate was 137 GBP per night on hotels.com).  I read a lovely review of the hotel in this great summary by Guide to Iceland  – they had me at ‘boil your breakfast egg in a hot spring.’  The smell of sulphur pervaded as we got out of the car, but I didn’t mind.  We loved our room with a view of the river and managed to get a 6:30PM dinner reservation at their onsite slow-food Restaurant Varma, which was our best meal of the whole trip.  I had the starter of liquorice lamb with rye croutons and anise sauce, followed by arctic char with butternut squash as a main (fish of the day).  The crowd-pleaser was the decadent dessert of hot spring cooked chocolate cake with whiskey salted caramel mousse and salted caramel ice cream.  Thanks to our 5AM start and our long soak in geothermal waters, we fell asleep (in daylight) by 9PM.  The bed was comfy.

Day Two (Saturday) – Hveragerði, The Golden Circle, and Reykjavik

We woke up around 6AM, put on our bathrobes and immediately made our way to the heated geothermal swimming pool.  It was raining outside, but the pool was oh-so-warm.  Then we had a soak in each of the two hot tubs surrounded by hot springs and misty mountains.  After showering we made our way to brunch by 8AM and spent an hour feasting on home-made sourdough fruit bread, steamed rye bread, skyr (the local yogurt) with home-made preserves, home-made muesli and many other treats.  And yes – I boiled my morning egg in a hot spring outside.  This was the best free breakfast I have ever had.  A real birthday treat.  Before checking out, we asked the hotel staff for some advice and they told us about a brisk 30-minute walk around the hotel grounds and gave us very easy to follow driving directions to make our way around the key sites of the Golden Circle and on to our final destination for the evening in Reykjavik.  This is the day we were thankful to have rainproof gear and warm layers.

We visited the Kerið Volcanic Crater, the Skálholt Church, then to Geysir to see Strokkur, and finally to Gullfoss waterfall (very impressive) – it was like a treasure hunt interspersed with scenic driving.  Before leaving we got into the wrong rental car (luckily we realized before buckling up), found our actual rental car, and prepared for the final 30-minute drive to the capital where our Air B’n’B awaited us.  We had some great tunes for the car ride and listened to a fair bit of Icelandic radio (favourite moment = when Solid as a Rock came on – it became our trip anthem).  The best part was stopping for tomato soup at Friðheimar in Reykholt (after the church and before Geysir) – a total gem of a place that we would not have discovered if it wasn’t for the recommendation from the receptionist at Frost and Fire hotel.  It’s a big greenhouse (farm, really) that specializes in all things tomato and was the most tasty lunch experience I’ve had in a long time.  It’s not to be missed (make sure you try the olive  bread).

Driving into Reykjavik and finding our Air B’n’B was so simple.  There were several parking lots nearby and I recognized the house from the photos on the website immediately.  It took no time to feel at home.  The other people staying at the property were warm and friendly and we were so impressed with how charming and clean the place was for such a reasonable rate (85 GBP per night).  We had a little nap and then made our way to the nearby Harpa Concert Hall for my pre-booked birthday dinner at Kolbrautin, which has affiliations with the River Cafe in London and does Icelandic food with a Mediterranean flare.  We went for the 5-course tasting menu, which was delicious, but we found that the restaurant itself felt a bit to stiff and cold (it was literally cold – we were needing our layers).  It’s a shame, because the view was spectacular but in retrospect I should have gone with the Elle-recommended Kopar, which was my gut instinct, or the highly recommended Grillmarket.  We passed out by 11PM, bellies full of scallops, burrata, lamb and more delicious sourdough bread.

Day Three – Rekyjavik, Stykkishólmur, and Hotel Búðir

After a quick internet search in bed, I mapped out a nearby venue to get some breakfast at Bergsson Mathús.  We splurged on their complete breakfast, which included a boiled egg, sourdough bread, hummus, skyr with muesli and preserves, prosciutto and fruit.  After all, we had a 2.5 hour drive in front of us.  All was sublime.  I also noted how every breakfast we had and cafe we visited offered cod liver oil with little shot glasses – the two most common brands were Lysi and Dropi (a bottle of which will set you back 35 GBP because it’s that pure).  If you’re not familiar with the health benefits of taking cod liver oil daily, then look into this, especially if you suffer from joint pain, depression or lack of sunshine – cod liver oil offers Vitamins A and D and omega-3 fatty acids.  We strolled around the capital for an hour and visited two key sites: Hallgrímskirkja church and Reykjavík Roasters for the best cup of coffee (I’m not a coffee drinker, but when in Rome…)  We found Reykjavik to be charming and cheerful but our minds were on getting into the countryside.  After a brief visit to the Tourist Information centre to get a new map and make sure we had planned the best driving route, we were on our way to hopefully drive up to Stykkishólmur (town where scenes from Walter Mitty were shot), go for a swim in one of many outdoor thermal swimming pools along our route, do a bit of seal-watching and then end up at the long-awaited Hotel Búðir.  The drive out of the capital was simple enough but we weren’t expecting the long stretch of road that was an underwater tunnel or the drastic change in weather as we went from sunny and blue skies on one side to wind and hail on the other.  However, as everyone told us, the weather is unpredictable in Iceland and can literally change from one minute to the next.  Luckily this happened several times for the better.  There was about one minute of driving through wind that created a snowstorm where we got very nervous, but before we knew it, it was calm again.  When we finally arrived at Stykkishólmur, the winds were so strong that we could barely get out of the car.  Luckily I had done some research into hotels on the peninsula and recognized Hotel Egilsen (known for its storytelling hour and cocomat beds) as we pulled in.  Despite the stormy weather outside, folks indoors were calm and cool and the hotel receptionist pointed to the only place open for lunch that late right across the street at Narfeyrarstofa where we served by the charming Gudrun who advised us on a shorter route to our final destination and looked up the wind forecast for us to assure us we would be safe.  Needless to say, more thermal pool swims and our plan to drive around the entire peninsula sadly went out the window – we had just enough time to get to where we needed to be before a snowstorm started.  Our lunch was delicious – I chose the creamy seafood soup (more like a bisque) while my boyfriend had one of five creative burger choices (apparently the ‘mafia’ burger – containing sun dried tomatoes – is the best one, but he went for their classic).  A local family next to us ordered the dessert of chocolate pots and hot chocolates, which smelled heavenly, but we were too full and ready to get on the road.  We skipped out on the library of water there but had a quick look through the window of the embroidery shop which was transformed into a pub for the scene from the Walter Mitty movie.

After a somewhat tense 1-hour journey – the landscape is both mesmerizing and intimidating to city drivers – we arrived at Hotel Búðir and it was everything we had anticipated.  Completely isolated and wonderfully cozy on the interior, with impressive views all around, this hotel is special.  Sadly the snow created a view that was more blurry than breathtaking but we didn’t let that keep us from a short wander around the grounds.  We were told the kitchen would close at 8PM so, still full up from lunch, we ordered just two small plates off the menu – the salmon tartare starter and the chocolate fondant dessert – both were a treat for the eyes and the tongue.  And there was more sourdough bread with garlic butter – impossible to resist. We stayed up late reading and watching films, hoping we might see the Northern Lights, but it didn’t happen.

Day Four – Hotel Búðir, Reykjavik and back to the airport 

We woke up early on our last day for breakfast at 8AM (another nice selection of bread, smoked salmon, skyr and of course cod liver oil) to full on sunshine and breathtaking views.  We had one more quick walk around the property and we were wishing we had more time to spend on walking and staying in this isolated corner of the world.  The friendly receptionist told us that she enjoys being at this hotel so much because she can feel a special energy coming from the nearby glacier that’s on the border of the Snæfellsjökull National Park (on a really clear day, you can see it from reception).  It’s no wonder that the hotel hosts many weddings and special events – it’s a beautiful and powerful place.  The weather was perfect for our 3-hour drive back to the capital where we were determined to have one more quick walk around and a much lauded hot dog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – a tiny little stand by the harbor that would be easy to miss.  Our journey was smooth and easy and left us with an hour to find a dog.  I normally avoid pork, but I had a nibble.  They were so good my boyfriend went for seconds (with all the toppings).  We then got back in the car for our final 40-minute drive to the airport to catch our 3:25PM flight to Gatwick airport  (we flew Wow! on the way back because BA only has two flights per week).  Things got a little hairy when we realized we had driven by the last petrol station and needed to back-track to fill up the rental car, but things went smoothly (minus getting charged for an extra carry-on by Wow! – n.b. you can literally have ONE bag only – no extra laptop case or purse!) from there.

All in all, it was a great trip and will help to make the next one more special.  Next time I will be guided by less touristy natural lagoons and hot springs since bathing was my favourite thing and perhaps work in a bit more out-door adventure.  There are tons of tours and outings to choose from if you don’t mind group excursions, such as glacier hiking, scuba diving and helicopter rides over volcanoes, but we kept it simple.  I will also be guided by any opportunity to learn more about Icelandic cooking and food since, in my (and Rick Stein’s) opinion, Icelandic chefs have got it right!

Summary of key suggestions:

  • Rent a car.  At least get gravel insurance (the handsome man at the car rental place said that 4/10 people return cars damaged.  And yes – sometimes doors get blown off cars because of the wind…)  You don’t need a GPS – a map will do
  • Check the weather – it changes constantly and you need to be mindful of how strong the wind is before you get on the road – cars do get blown off the road in some conditions/areas.  This website was recommend to us: http://en.vedur.is
  • Book ahead for the Blue Lagoon and watch the little video on their website about the experience so there are no surprises.  Some people are surprised to find out it’s man-made.  I didn’t care – it was still a wonderful experience but next time a visit to a natural volcanic lagoon is a must
  • Bring sunglasses and a towel to the Blue Lagoon if you get the cheapest entry option
  • Don’t get your heart set on the Northern Lights – they are elusive – let it be a pleasant surprise if it happens
  • Bring a water bottle to refill continuously – the water from the tap is pure and wonderful!
  • Eat Out- the food is wonderful in Iceland, but be prepared to splurge (pretty much London prices)
  • Create a good music playlist for the car journey (maybe a little Sigur Ros?)
  • Pack for all weather conditions (especially rain) and buy one of their wonderful jumpers (regret that I didn’t!)
  • Go for 5 days minimum if you can and fly BA both ways if you can – our flight over was much nicer than the one back!

Hotels

  • Frost and Fire Hotel – our favourite (best brunch and hot tubs!) just 30 minutes outside the capital
  • Air B’n’B – a nice selection in the capital and a good alternative to corporate looking hotels…
  • Hotel Egilsen – we didn’t stay here but it’s on my list for the next time we go to Stykkisholmur – they have coco-mats, storytelling and brownies in the afternoon
  • Hotel Búðir – truly unique and wonderful hotel if you want to feel what it’s like to be at the edge of the world (2.5 hours from capital)
  • ION Luxury Hotel – we didn’t stay here but it was recommended in Elle – views and spa look amazing, but reviews suggest it’s a little stuffy
  • Reykjavik Marina Hotel – Rick Stein stayed here – lovely views of the harbor

Restaurants

  • Restaurant Varma – our best culinary experience at the Frost and Fire hotel
  • Kolbrautin – fancy and delicious but a little stuffy at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik
  • Grillmarket – everyone recommends the tasting menu here (prepare to spend a lot) in Reykjavik
  • Kopar – Elle-recommended and looks great (wish we went here!) in Reykjavik
  • Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – the best hot-dogs in Reykjavik
  • Narfeyrarstofa – delicious wholesome food served by lovely Gudrun  in Stykkisholmur
  • Reykjavík Roasters – best coffee in Reykjavik
  • Friðheimar – tomato soup heaven in Rekyholt
  • Bergsson Mathus – best brunch in in Reykjavik
  • The Laundromat Cafe – another great brunch place in Reykjavik that we didn’t have time to try
  • Dill Restaurant – one of Rick Stein’s visits – looks amazing!
  • Maturg Og Drykkur – Rick Stein learned about cooking with butter and whey here (wish we had known about it!)
  • The Sea Baron – If you want to try some of the local (smelly) specialities or fish kebabs – on our list for next time!
  • Fjorubordid Restaurant – Rick Stein had a delicious langoustine soup here (although I bet the one I had in Styykisholmur was just as good!)

Sites We Saw

  • Blue Lagoon
  • Hallgrímskirkja
  • Snæfellsjökull National Park
  • Snæfellsnes Peninsula
  • Harpa Concert Hall
  • Kerið Volcanic Crater
  • Gullfoss waterfall
  • Skálholt
  • Strokkur
  • Library of Water

Health Food

Memory and Time

January 26, 2016

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Time itself may be inexorable, indifferent, but we can personalize our own little segment: this is where I was, this is what I did. – Penelope Lively

Every winter for the past ten years, I have returned to my hometown near Boston to spend Christmas with my family.  While the house my parents live in is not my childhood home (they moved to a bigger home when I went off to University), I am nevertheless confronted by an accumulation of relics from my past.  No matter how far I’ve traveled or how many life-changing experiences I’ve had since moving to Europe, the objects I’ve saved in my parents’ home trigger crystal clear memories of an earlier Kate and the American life that I left behind.

And while for the past few years I’ve been completely absorbed in the process of de-cluttering and reducing the amount of physical objects in my possession, I have found that there are certain objects so infused with memory that they deserve some kind of formal farewell or testimonial before sending them off to a new home.  It’s true that the memories mean more than the actual things and I do hope that my memory stays strong and clear until I die, but just in case it doesn’t or just in case future generations want to know a little about the lives that preceded them, I thought I would write a story for each object I came across that seemed to play an important role in shaping who I am today.

I don’t mean to dwell on the past.  Quite the contrary – I’m good at closing doors and moving on.  But I’ve always loved learning about people and their pasts and reading memoirs, and I thought this could be a stepping stone to a potentially larger project.  I also realized that the most valuable relics from my past that I came across were hand-written letters, poems, post-cards – things that oozed the nature and character of the person behind the pen.  Words are a powerful means of conveying a life and a time lost and I want to continue in that tradition, even if I must do so digitally.  Some of these relics I will save, but others I can write about and then let go.

I might also add that I’ve always been intrigued by how we human beings unconsciously or quite consciously document our lives.  This was the topic of my Master’s dissertation for my Media Studies course, completed just ten years ago at a time when social media and digital photography were just starting to eclipse less public forms of documentation.  Instagram didn’t exist then and neither did iPhones.  I predicted, based on ethnographic research, that people would not entirely abandon traditional self-documentation via traditional media like scrapbooks, photo albums, SLR cameras and diaries, but would continue to combine them with digital forms of self-documentation.  I was somewhat right, but I didn’t realize just how much things would change over the next decade.  I didn’t realize that nearly every photograph I took would be on my phone and shared in ‘real’ time and that photo albums would become a thing of my past.

Part of me really loves this reduction in the need to keep physical reminders of my past (so long DVDs, farewell CDs, goodbye to boxes of photo ‘doubles’ that will never be looked at) – I feel lighter and more free with every possession I shred or release back into the world for someone else to explore.  But another part of me relishes the smell of old photographs and the connection I feel to my former self when turning the pages of an old coloring book or reading poems I wrote as a confused teenager.  It is perhaps my parents’ keepsakes that are the most meaningful and precious – an anniversary card my mom wrote to my father back in the seventies when they were younger than me, a signed copy of a book of poetry by Robert Frost, black-and-white photos of my dad and his brother dressed in cowboy costumes in the late forties that my now deceased grandfather took with his cherished camera.  They give a tangible sense of a life well-lived, a journey and consistent change.

So let this be the beginning of a series of posts on the topic of memory and the past and celebrating a life well-lived (so far).  I’ll theme them ‘Objects from my Life.’  And I’ll decide what items will stay and which can go.

And before I close this post, I have provided a passage below from a book by Penelope Lively called ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time’, which found me at the new Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road one day as I was having a wander around after teaching.  I didn’t purchase the book at that moment because I was trying to reduce the number of books I own.  I nearly bought it as a Christmas gift for my parents (the book is described as a ‘view from old age’ rather than a memoir) but I didn’t want them to think I was hinting at their growing old or unknowingly gift them a depressing read.  So the book sat in my Amazon shopping cart so I wouldn’t forget the title.  Until one day (New Year’s Eve – my first day back in London), I was pulled into one of the charity shops on the way to the train station in Twickenham and low and behold, there it was sitting on the shelf in sparking new condition for 2 quid.  So I bought it.  I was meant to read it.  And I just finished reading the section on Memory and must share these brilliant words:

“The past can be conjured up by the appropriate aroma, much as supermarkets seek to induce a spending appetite with the smell of newly baked bread, and house agents urge us to woo prospective buyers with a waft of fresh coffee.

But it is not that memory is scented, rather – if the Proust phenomenon exists – that smells evoke a time, a place.  That moment has not gone, can be recovered, because an experience in the present brings it back; my London garden is tenuously linked to what was in 1942 a Palestinian hillside.  This is the sense in which memory is the mind’s triumph over time.  The same has been said of history, and I relish both concepts; it is as though individually and collectively, we succeed  in seizing hold of what is no longer there, that which should be unavailable, and making it miraculously permanent and accessible because it matters so much, because we need it.

We are robust about time, linguistically, we are positively cavalier about it – we make it, we spend it, we have it, we find it, we serve it, we mark it.  Last time, next time, in time, half-time – one of the most flexible words going, one of the most reached for, a concept for all purposes.  Time is of the essence, or it is quality, or time will tell.  We talk about it…all the time, I find myself writing.  There.  But when I think about time, I am awed.  I am more afraid of time than of death – its inexorability, its infinitude.  It is unthinkable as space – another word we tame by making every use of it.  And in old age I am time made manifest; sitting here, writing this on a summer afternoon, twelve minutes past three, the watch hand moving relentlessly round, my weathered body is the physical demonstration of passing time, of the fact that eighty years have had their way with it, that I ain’t what I used to be.  I have lived with time, in time, in this particular stretch of time, but before too long time will dump me; it has far to go, and we don’t keep up with it.  None of us, ever.

Fifteen minutes past three.

Impersonal, indifferent; it neither knowns nor cares .  It sweeps us along, the ever-rolling stream and all that, nothing to be done about it, but we do have this one, majestic, sustaining weapon, this small triumph over time – memory.  We know where we have been in time, and not only do we know, but we can go back, revisit.  When I was nine, I was on a Palestinian hill-side, smelling rosemary (and collecting a wild tortoise, but that is another story).  Time itself may be inexorable, indifferent, but we can personalize our own little segment: this is where I was, this is what I did.”

(pp. 157-158, ‘Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time,’ by Penelope Lively).

Big Magic

November 27, 2015

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This week I was lucky enough to go see Elizabeth Gilbert, one of my favourite authors, speak live in London at an event through the How To Academy. Elizabeth was here to promote her latest book, Big Magic – Creative Living Beyond Fear, which has received a lot of media attention.  I’ve had the privilege of hearing Elizabeth speak live in London before several years ago after she had written the ‘sequel’ to Eat, Pray, Love called Committed.  I remembered fishing feverishly around in my purse for a piece of scrap paper to record the exuberantly and graciously delivered pearls of wisdom that flowed effortlessly from her lips.   It was the same experience for me reading Eat, Pray, Love – endless underlining and highlighting, savouring quotable passage after passage written by someone who seemed to speak the language of my soul.  When another opportunity arose to listen to her live, there was no doubt in my mind it would be time and money well spent.  I was right.

As part of my ticket purchase, I received a free copy of Big Magic, which I have had to try very hard not to buy another copy of before the event so I could sneak a peek.  The book in all its colourful glory is waiting for me to delve in (perhaps this evening),  but before I even get started on it, I thought I would share some of the insight Elizabeth gave at this talk that already has me beaming with excitement for the year up head and ready to fully embrace my word for the year – Creativity.  This means that I will be giving more energy to the part of my life that gets my creative juices flowing, the part of my life that is about fulfilling my unique purpose and birthing projects that come from the heart.  Currently my creative calling is coming from yoga teaching, photography, writing, music and cooking but I want to hone in one special project and take things to the next level.  I have a feeling that ‘creativity’ will be high on the agenda for many of us in 2016.  There seems to be a real buzz of inspiration in the air, so here are a few nuggets of wisdom I took home from Elizabeth’s talk, which have reminded me why it’s important to focus on this area of our lives:

Ideas find us, we don’t find them – ‘have one foot in the real world and one foot with the faeries’ to find your calling

While I haven’t read the book yet, the title (and cover) lends one to think that it’s going to be fun.  It’s likely going to be an imaginative read rather than a how-to on writing your first book or starting a creative project.  This is precisely why it interests me.  Elizabeth had me at the get-go when she spoke of how several book critics have tried to downplay the lightness of her approach (for example, the way she personifies ideas, suggesting they have souls of their own and choose us) and referring to her illustrations as ‘metaphors.’  There’s no doubt that Elizabeth is a serious writer, but she is also a believer with a deep connection to the mystical.  She knows how to put her finger on those moments in life that defy logical explanation and press the pause button so we can delve deeper.  Believing that ideas have lives of their own and choose through whom they will be manifested makes the process of creation (not to mention life!) so much more inspiring, exciting, and yes – magical.  It reminds us to abandon projects that ‘lose their pulse’ quickly and respond to the ones that beg for our attention.  Don’t let anyone suck the magic out of your passion or your interpretation of how creativity works – let the faeries in.

Screw perfection and embrace the fact that ‘I’m just doing what I can with what I have’

After posting a question on Facebook asking her fans what stands in the way of the pursuit of creative projects, Elizabeth found that two major things came up: Fear and Lack of Time.  We fear criticism and judgement or we think we’re not ‘good enough’ to do the creative things we’re drawn to (probably because someone told us that once) so we abandon them.  I know that I felt this way for a long time about writing and sometimes even feel this way about teaching.  I was a good student at school, but often it only takes one teacher to criticize your work and deflate your passion balloon.  I had a real interest in minerals and gems and collected them as a kid but my 5th grade geology teacher managed to squash that curiosity by testing me in front of the class on rock formations in a mathematical fashion I didn’t understand.   My 30th birthday, however, was a real turning point in my life and is precisely when I decided that I could be ‘good enough’ at something to make a difference.  Could I use an editor for my writing?  Absolutely – and that’s what authors do.  But what if I just started writing again, from my heart, and see what happens? Could I be more advanced at yoga postures?  Absolutely – but I’ve got a handle on the essentials and ten years of personal experience and training that make me a great teacher so why not start spreading the joy of the practice?  And who better than a best-selling author who still gets harshly criticized to drive this point in even further? Thank you Liz for the reminder to not abandon ideas because we’re afraid we can’t be ‘the best’ or when we think we could offer more – you probably already have a lot to share and bring into the world hiding behind your fear.  Just get started.

Sometimes making time for creativity means saying no to the things you want to do, not just the things you don’t want to do

So that other issue to do with time?  It’s about setting boundaries and carving out space to prioritize your creative projects.  But setting boundaries comes with a cost.  A lot of us have trouble saying ‘no’ full stop but I have found that saying no to some (but not all!) fun social engagements and putting down a few of my beloved hobbies like piano to focus on others (maybe just temporarily), has been the only way to stay focused.  And when you feed a part of your life that has been asking for water, fully and with passion, you are so rewarded that you often forget about all the other stuff you’re not doing.

You know you’ve found your calling when you’re prepared to eat the ‘shit sandwich’ that comes with it

This wasn’t the first time I heard Liz speak about the ‘shit sandwich’ that comes with the decision to pursue your creative passion as a kind of test of your dedication.  If you want to write but can’t handle the ‘shit sandwich’ of criticism or endless editing or long days spent at the computer screen, etc. that comes with it, then you might not get very far.  If you really want something, you’ll eat the ‘shit sandwich’ that comes with it and sometimes that’s saying no to things that will eat into the time you need spend on that creative idea begging for your attention (which will probably feed your soul more than anything else).  So ask yourself, ‘how are you going to navigate the part that is not satisfying?’

It’s OK to indulge yourself – your creative pursuits are not FOR anyone

You don’t need to make money from your creative project or justify it.  You don’t need to refer to it as a guilty pleasure.  It’s OK to take time to do the creative things that bring you joy simply because they bring you joy.  Indulge yourself.  It’s really OK.  And it will probably make you a better person to all those around you.

Your creativity might come from a dark place – it’s not all roses

When asked about her experience of depression (described beautifully in Eat, Pray, Love) and how that has shaped her life, Elizabeth reminded us of the blessings in life that often come in disguise and the need to be thankful for the good and the bad.  She said that her ‘journey’ out of depression was ‘creative, spiritual and psychological’ and required her to become a ‘scientist of her own experience’ because ‘anxiety and depression BEG you to think creatively.’  She reminded us of the importance of ‘looking for cells of light within the darkness’ and ‘turning your own life into a work of art.’

Your parents can give you something, but they can’t give you everything 

Just a few weeks prior to this event, I completed a teacher training for pregnancy yoga, a form of yoga that celebrates the female body, embraces a softer approach to movement and honours the absolutely magical qualities of the womb not only to create life but also to symbolize and bring awareness to the energetic home of our creative centers.  I kept thinking – it must be the most magical experience to bring life into the world and to then nurture that life, but then what?  Liz talked about how her parents gave her a beautiful childhood.  Not every child in the world gets that.  But if we managed to survive and grow into adults, that’s already something pretty special.  Because, as Liz said, our parents can’t give us the whole picture.  They can give us a lot, but then we have to fill in the missing parts, which is what makes us unique individuals.  This is exactly what she did (and what I did) by traveling and seeking out teachers.  Don’t give up on life – even if you’ve had a rough start.  Things can change and we change.  I too had loving parents whose passion for their careers no doubt encouraged me to pursue a job I love, but who I am today is not only because of them, it’s because of all the experiences I subjected myself to and all those teachers I attracted to feed my curiosity about the world beyond my hometown and beyond this planet.

Oprah really is amazing

Elizabeth gets to work with Oprah a lot so the interviewer asked her – what’s she like? I have been a big fan of Oprah ever since I was little so I was bemused.  When Oprah was on TV, she had our undivided attention and often our hearts.  She provided real topics to discuss at the dinner table.  She allowed us to get emotional. Turns out she’s as cool as she appears on her show, with a unique ability to shine the light on the creative souls that others may not see and to give them hope and encouragement to pursue their dreams.

Thanks for sharing your stories and your beautiful wisdom Liz.  I can’t wait to read your book.

Oh – and how do you know when you’ve found your creative outlet?  Elizabeth explained ‘big magic’ as ‘the happiness that comes when your genius is working well for you,’ when you are ‘in the zone.’  For me, that’s teaching yoga, that’s writing, that’s photography, that’s engaging with music – I can’t wait to keep playing and creating.  If you haven’t found yours yet, don’t give up.  Look for the things that bring you alive and maybe get a copy of this book…I have a feeling it’s going to be great.

 

Letting Go

November 13, 2015

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Here we are again it seems at the beginning of another cold season, nearing the beginning of another new year. I’m getting ready to start over and I’m writing this blog about that.

At the beginning of 2015 I decided that my word for the year would be CLEARING. It dawned upon me that it’s because ‘clearing’ is a natural precursor to next year’s word…CREATING. And then it occurred to me that I always will be (and want to be) in a cycle of clearing and creating because the two concepts are symbiotic. I have slowly adopted a clutter-free maintenance system of one item in/one item out when acquiring new things, and the same should go for projects. I can only spin so many plates at once, and some projects might be best shelved really. We simply cannot carry an entire past of unfinished or outdated projects with us through life – it gets too heavy – and I am sure that weight is not good for creating something new.

I got thinking about this on one of those days teaching abroad in Mallorca that was supposed to be a writing day but insisted on being a beach day. I was sitting by the water watching the waves roll in and out. At the same time, there was a small boy working hard to build a sandcastle. He was 100% focused; nothing was going to distract him from his methodical construction. Until a big, angry wave did just that and wiped away his entire creation.

Was he upset? Oh you better believe it. Inconsolable, hysterical and furious would describe what he was. He lashed out at his parents; he kicked the remnants of his fortress down; he could not believe how unfair the ocean was, especially when he was so close to finishing. Well, clearly this boy needs a good lesson in non-attachment I smugly thought, as if being a yoga teacher (and master de-clutterer in the making) makes me an expert in this field. Not true. Not yet at least. I felt his pain – it was such a nice castle he had built.

I had a similar experience the next day, however this time it wasn’t a sandcastle getting washed to sea, it was nearly myself, in a non-yogic panic, failing to swim stronger than the mounting waves which had seductively carried me a bit too far away from the shore. I’m pretty sure I was a mermaid in a past life, but still, my breast stroke has never inspired confidence. I managed to get back to the beach, but it was enough of a taste of the power of nature and the vulnerability of being alive to remind me that I’ve got some control over how my life pans out, but I have clearly not got control over everything.

So where am I going with this? Well, we’re approaching American Thanksgiving at the end of the month and it’s always a great occasion to be thankful for the things we normally take for granted, and this year after my incident in the ocean and a rocky flight following that, I am especially happy to have more time to write and play on this planet. But before that I want to note that we are also at a good time of year for letting go as Autumn helps us transition from summer to winter by turning the leaves miraculous colours and then helping them to let go to decompose and make room for new leaves for next year (and pretty pictures for my Instagram).

During what has now effectively been about three years of de-cluttering and simplifying my surroundings, it’s the letting go bit that gets in the way of clearing out thoroughly. Not letting go is also something that can make us quite miserable. Holding on to resentment, harbouring ill feelings, regretting past mistakes – these are obviously toxic ways of holding on. But I also hold on to things I spent money on and feel bad I haven’t used/worn enough and projects I started that I want to complete but just haven’t found the time for – and these things can also disrupt our flow. And so I have to constantly remind myself that when I get rid of something old (and that can be an obsolete possession or a negative thought), I am actually making space for something new, something unknown, a surprise. And I am embracing the present moment.

To add to this, I promise myself that there will always be new things to acquire, to inspire, to fill my days (and I avoid watching any films or TV series with post-Apocalyptic themes to convince me otherwise). Because the day after I nearly got washed away by a wave, I went back out into the ocean and kept swimming. And on that same day the little boy got his shovel and pail (‘bucket and spade’) back out and started digging up new sand. And my friend who lost all her digital photos on her phone from the past three years? Well, she started taking new ones (and now her storage is maxed out again). So I am asking you to ask yourself these questions this month – what are my most meaningful projects, possessions, and passions? How can I make more room for them and get rid of the things that simply aren’t serving me anymore/in this moment/now? Who might actually really use/benefit from/enjoy these things? What might I be blocking from entering into my life by clinging to the past?

Chances are that when you put less on your plate, less on your schedule, and less in your closet, you will make the most of those things you have and will be more focused, so you will also waste less over time and feel more grateful for what you’ve got. This is what is really driving me to let go. This weekend I tackled under the bed where I was storing a perfectly good duvet, pillows, towels and sheets (for what? my future mansion in London?!) when I know there are people collecting such items for people without homes this winter. Those are getting donated. I put a battery in an old watch I haven’t worn for two years and brought it to a second-hand shop who sold it to a person delighted to find an affordable birthday gift for someone (I imagine). I have shredded old diaries (the kind that are just calendars), passed on books I haven’t read that I know are more relevant to someone else’s current situation than my own and I cut half my hair off to remind myself that change is good (it’s grown back better and faster than ever before). I am accepting that I don’t have to drag my past through my life with me to validate my existence and things are starting to flow.

I appreciate that I am not the first person to discover the joy and peace that can come from letting go (or the catchiness of that phrase). It’s been written about a lot (before Frozen), and perhaps no where more beautifully than in texts like the Tao Te Ching and the Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali so here’s a quote to keep you thinking:

All life is a passing show. If we want to hold it, even for a minute, we feel tension. Nature will try to run away; we will try to pull it back and keep it. When we want to keep it, we put up barriers which ultimately cause us pain. Even with our own bodies, if we don’t want them to change, trouble will come. We will buy all kinds of make-up, creams and wigs to retain our “youth.” If only we learn to enjoy each change, we can recognize the beauty even in aging. A ripe fruit has its own beautiful taste. When we just allow things to pass, we are free. Things will just come and go while we retain our peace. – p.106, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda

Salute the Sun

September 1, 2014

Salute the Sun

This incredible sunset is reflected on the facade of the church (and museum) of Santo Spirito in Florence.  While I do not affiliate myself with any religion, there is something special about happening upon a structure like this when aimlessly traversing city streets that stops you in your tracks and makes you look up, breathe, and notice the light.  I hope that is what resonates in this picture – a sense of sacred space illuminated by the sun.

September was a busy month and I got the sense from many of my students (not to mention myself) that it was stressful too.  In September, schedules pick up again after the summer and we get caught up in planning ahead by filling our calendars.  We quickly forget the spacious summer months and surge ahead just when nature is asking us to slow down. If that sounds familiar, then I’m giving you a few things to reflect on to keep that summer sun shining within even when skies turn grey. You’re going to need it for the winter.

It’s not always possible to simplify our schedules so we need to be creative about creating breathing space, moments to unwind, rituals to keep us grounded, and routines to keep us feeling on top, rather than buried under, our growing to-do lists.  This comes naturally to us during the summer when the weather beckons us to idle away some time but it’s an effort when the year picks up and we spend less time outdoors.

When I have a mountain to climb (figuratively or literally), I always remember the ‘one step at a time’ saying.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed when we’re looking ahead and that’s because it pulls us from the present moment.  The present moment is where we can observe, where we are attentive, where we can breathe.  The breath is the gateway to the present moment so in many ways we’re taking things ‘one breath at a time’ (to quote a student of mine who says this is how he survived a stressful flat move and prevented getting emotionally overwhelmed).  When you focus strongly on every inhale and every exhale you take, it’s hard to get distracted by much else, even anxious feelings.

This is why I slowed every flow class I was teaching right down and got everyone to really focus on their breathing.  Our natural breathing pattern can tell us a lot about how we are feeling, if we’re in a state of anxiety or depression, under too much pressure, too stressed.  And likewise we can take control of our breath to use it as a tool to counteract those feelings. There are times when it’s excellent to slow down your yoga practice (around the Autumn Equinox for example) and I always find these are the times we feel the biggest impulse to rush and run.  The yoga mat is where I cultivate a lot of patience and tame my inner White Rabbit to drop the watch and stay in the now.

If you’ve ever attended a yoga class, you’re likely to have practiced a Sun Salutation.  Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar) are composed of 8 postures sequenced together and joined by the thread of the breath.  They are an excellent place to start when developing a home practice, especially one that you can incorporate into a morning routine to greet the first rays of sun (depending on when you wake up that is).  They are fantastic because once your body learns them, you don’t have to think about or get overwhelmed by choice of what to do on your mat.  They start with a strong standing pose, then an inhale to raise your arms to the sun, and you’re off, gracefully moving your body to your breath in a series of simple poses that get your blood flowing, your energy soaring and your being soaking up each inhale and exhale as nourishment for the day (read below for an instructional link).

This is my simple go-to practice when I have an overactive mind and am looking to slow things down, when I need a block of time to myself to soften my pace and feel at peace.  And this is why I love mornings – you’re much less likely to be distracted during the morning hours by people, tasks, and the general busy energy that increases as we approach noon.  Sun Salutations together with restorative yoga poses have been an essential part of my Autumn cleanse (more below).

Digital media can also pull us away from the present moment.  I was asked to write a blog last month about disconnecting from our mobile phones and computers and the timing was perfect.  We know when we’re being productive at the computer and when we’re using it as a distraction.  How many times do you actually pick up your smart phone to make a call? How does that compare to checking emails, playing games, and trawling the internet when you’re bored on a commute?  Do you ever leave your phone behind so you have no distractions?

Just the other day I was in a gym class and a woman answered her phone!  She didn’t even bother to leave the room or dismiss herself – it was assumed we would accept this as normal and that she could talk at a volume louder than the teacher regarding business affairs.  I felt less bad for the rest of us and more sorry for her not allowing herself even 45 minutes to be phone free and just in her body.  I put together some thoughts on this and 5 simple ways to have a digital timeout should you be addicted to your digital device in this blog.

Currently my iPhone serves two major purposes: photography (using the camera to capture moments of gratitude for lovely things in my life) and texting (to communicate with loved ones when I can’t see them in person).  Otherwise I try to save emails for designated work time at my desktop computer, don’t play games, remember to read books, and generally keep track of my phone use, cutting myself off when I know I am using it out of boredom and my vision starts to get blurry.  It’s an effort and I often fail, but I know it pays off in terms of creating space for my mind to breathe and obtaining mental clarity.

My suggestion this month would be to be a little soft with yourself.  Allow for some down time.  Even though the mornings are darker, allow yourself to wake up earlier to steal a few of those tranquil morning minutes when everything is a blank canvas and most of the city still sleeps (leave your phone in the other room).  Incorporate contemplative activities, such as wandering around an art exhibit (I thoroughly enjoyed the vibrant colours and shapes at the Tate’s Matisse cut-out show) or photographing nature and the Autumn foliage. Connect with your spiritual side – the side that takes you inward to reflect by taking long walks, creating a sacred space in your home or finding one in the city somewhere where the sun is shining.  Practice yoga in slow motion.

Finally, I am on day three of a 4-day Ayurvedic food-based cleanse.  The cleanse consists of a mono-diet of kitchadi (warm, cooked moong daal).  This is the fourth time I’ve done this cleanse and it never ceases to amaze me how much we resist foods that make us feel calmer and more centered, always reaching for a stimulant like caffeine or chocolate to keep us going, even in the evening when we’re meant to wind down.  This cleanse is all about balancing and training the body to have a set routine of eating for nourishment only.  It’s an incredible experience that teaches you a lot about how we often try to distract ourselves from the present moment by reaching for a mood-enhancing food and snacking.  No snacks allowed – just three set meals and over time you learn to dismiss the false hunger and allow yourself to be tired and rest.  You learn to surrender and hang up the towel before you over exhaust yourself.  It’s something that should come naturally so listen for those signals and be aware of when you’re ignoring the need to rest your body, your mind, your digestive system, you name it.

Summary (and links):

I love this video for a gentle sun salutation sequence.  Give them a try.  I teach this in my Beginners Yoga Courses, so sign up if you’re interested in more…

Tips and thoughts on digital overload – Surrender to Simplification and take timeouts from your phone (I’ll be taking my own advice)

And just for fun, here’s last year’s Autumn blog on why I love Autumn colours

If you want to learn more about kitchadi and cleansing in the Autumn, send me an email.

If you need a song to get you into that slow down space, try Devi Prayer from 108 Sacred Names (many thanks to Romee for recommending this peaceful chant that smoothed out my September)

Enjoy the sun when it shines.

Why I Cleanse

May 5, 2013

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A few years ago I embarked upon my first ever detoxification programme.  I don’t recall precisely what it was that motivated me to remove all toxic substances from my diet, but perhaps it was just that – an intuitive sense that there was ‘toxic overload’ in my body and I needed a fresh start.

It never ceases to amaze me how strongly the seasons influence my mood and appetite and Spring is a season I always associate with new beginnings.  I was born in April and have vivid memories of Easter-themed birthday parties, pastel-coloured paper plates and hunting for chocolate eggs amidst the yellow forsythia bushes in our garden.  The approach of April always instilled excitement in me for my birthday celebration, but now I look forward to it as a time to refresh and renew with a juice cleanse.

When you compare indulging in foil-wrapped chocolate eggs to depriving yourself of solid food for several days, you probably think it would be mad to prefer the latter.  But having now experimented with several different kinds of cleanses, I can honestly say that ‘spring-cleaning’ my body has played an essential role in my overall health and well-being, and worked wonders to help kick bad eating and lifestyle habits.

First of all, there are many types of cleanses and detox programmes out there, and let’s not be mistaken, some are conducted poorly, using the wrong method for one’s health needs, at the wrong time of year, with misguided objectives.  The purpose of this blog is not to give you specific instructions for cleansing, but rather to highlight why one might want to motivate themselves to embark upon a cleanse in the first place.

As I mentioned earlier, cleansing is an opportunity to refresh and renew your system.  It is also TEMPORARY.  In one of my favourite resources on how to lead a healthier, cleaner lifestyle, Clean, by Alejandro Junger, he defines a cleanse as a ‘distinct programme, done for a concentrated period of time, that puts the body in a more intense detox mode.  It has a start and an end date and a specific purpose.’

When I tell people I’ve just come off a cleanse (usually this is preceded by them asking me why I am glowing), they often respond: Oh God – how can you do that!?  Food is the source of life and happiness – I couldn’t survive without it!  Well, duh, neither could I!  Cooking is one of my greatest pleasures!  But while cleaning up our diet and our lifestyles in order to support our health should be something we strive to do on a daily basis, taking more extreme measures to actually rid our bodies of toxins is a very interesting, short-term experiment to get you thinking about what it is in your life, diet and environment that is literally polluting your body and mind.  In other words, defining, what is toxic to you?

In another great resource on cleansing, The 3-Day Cleanse by Zoe Sakoutis and Erica Huss, they define a toxin as ‘a poisonous substance that is harmful to your body.  There are man-made toxins such as pesticides and gasoline, and natural toxins such as those that result from the activities of daily living.  There are also toxins in the food you eat and the water you drink…If you don’t get rid of toxins in your body, they build up and damage cells and tissue, leading to diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease.’

Junger defines a toxin as ‘something that interferes with normal physiology and negatively impacts bodily function.  Toxins are of many different kinds, with totally different qualities, from an infinite number of different sources; just as varied are the complex mechanisms by which they cause irritation and damage.’  Later he adds, ‘Toxicity irritates tissues, damages our own cells, and kills other cells that we host in harmony and need for our health.’

While it’s absolutely true that the body has a natural detoxification system involving our very intelligent organs, unfortunately these systems can become impaired by the overwhelming amount of toxins we are exposed to today compared to our predecessors.  In Barbara Wren’s incredible book Cellular Awakening, she talks about this natural process and its many stages, including: toxicity being released into the lymphatic system, then toxic lymph draining into the blood, then blood passing through the liver (which filters out the toxins), then the liver excreting toxic bile into the bowel, and then the toxins being excreted from the body through the bowel.  When a body isn’t well (and these days, most are struggling), she says ‘toxicity can get blocked at any of the above stages,’ which is why sometimes we need to take more drastic measures to restore and re-balance our body’s natural detoxification functions.

On my most recent detoxification experience at a health and healing holiday retreat centre in the Philippines, I followed a 6-day juice cleanse where I drank 5 vegetable-based juices per day, supported by natural supplements including Probiotics, Digestive Enzymes, Blue Green Algae, Cold Pressed Virgin Coconut Oil, a Natural herb formula for brain function and an Electrocolloids Drink (to restore electrolytes), as well as drinking plenty of water.  Unlike self-proctored cleanses I had done previously in my home in London based upon research online and the resources mentioned in this post, the experience at The Farm was very different.  This is primarily because I was completely removed from everyday stresses, in a secluded, hot, and beautiful environment as opposed to cold, damp London.  Instead of having to prepare my own juices (which you can read more about in my blog post on My Kitchen Family) and think about appropriate timing, they were made for me.  I never experienced hunger or fatigue and I believe this was because I never experienced stress.  My days were filled with lounging by the pool, soaking up sunshine, reading good fiction, socializing with my best friend, practicing yoga, taking walks in nature, getting plentiful rest and enjoying some of the most incredible and indulgent detoxification treatments.  I was also under medical supervision the whole time and near to support should I experience a ‘healing crisis.’ My cell phone and computer were far from sight.

Cleanses don’t necessarily have to be juice-based.  In Ayurveda (ancient Indian science of life), doctors and therapists will prescribe regular periods of detoxification known as panchakarma, where you follow a very simple food-based cleanse, consuming mostly warm, cooked kitchadi (mung daal with many healing spices such as tumeric) that is also aimed at giving our organs a break and eliminating waste materials from the body.  My Autumn cleanse (I strive to cleanse twice per year) is inspired by this method as it involves warmer, more therapeutic foods and guidelines that are easier to follow in the London climate.

The most effective cleanses will also involve complementary treatments like colonics, enemas or colemas, which help to rid the body of the toxins that get released when we slow down our digestive systems and let toxins release.  They will also encourage techniques like skin brushing, hot and cold showering, Epsom salt baths,  castor oil packing and tongue scraping.  In the Philippines we had 2 colonics and 2 coffee colemas on alternate days, as well as daily spa treatments including coconut oil scrubs, charcoal treatment on the skin, skin Kayud treatment (scraping of the body with a seashell to improve movement of the lymph), Thai massage, Salt baths and coconut milk baths.  Cleanses don’t need to be done in such luxury, but my finding is that, if you can (I was lucky to find a generous discount for this one), it’s definitely preferable and more effective to cleanse in a peaceful and supportive environment, completely removed from your normal daily routine and surroundings.  Cleansing can be quite a challenging, emotional and intense experience and should not be taken lightly.  Chances are, the money you spend on doing it right will pay off in the end in terms of not creating more stress for your body and easing up payments on medical bills in the future…

So how do you know when you’re run down or need a clean canvas?  Start by asking yourself questions like, how do I feel when I get out of bed?  Energized or groggy?   What are your thought patterns like – negative or light?  How does your skin look – glowing or dull?  How does your body feel – heavy or vibrant?  How many times have you gotten ill in the past year?  Chances are, after a long winter of comfort eating, staying indoors, and possibly working too hard, most of us are in need of a re-boot.  Common signs of toxicity in the body are: Fatigue, Headaches, Bowel Irregularities, Allergies, Weight Problems, Depression, Anxiety, Skin problems, Sinus issues, Bloating after eating, Constipation, Muscle and Joint Pain, etc.  Sound familiar?

Is a cleanse going to solve all these problems instantly and eternally?  Probably not, but some people do experience this.  Everyone will have a different experience depending on their individual conditions and the degree to which they are leading a toxic life.  Will a cleanse build my awareness of what I can be doing to be feeling better?  Absolutely.  Whether you are embarking on a short cleanse or simply trying to clean up your act in small ways every day, keep in mind that changing habits and healing illness and toxicity in the body can take time and should be a lifelong objective.  So if you’re in it for instant weight loss for example, you might experience this as an immediate result, but you are depriving yourself of noticing and possibly experiencing the more profound outcomes.  Maintaining healthy weight, good skin, high energy, etc. is down to you carrying all of your observations and good habits with you to feel good all year round.

Here are just a few wonderful outcomes I have experienced from cleansing:

  • A massive awakening and renewal of my sense of smell, taste, sight, hearing and touch (you become more sensitive to both the bad and good stuff – and thus more aware of sounds (like traffic) that are stressful to the system and textures (like cotton as opposed to polyester) that are more loving to your skin
  • A new awareness of toxic chemicals that sneak into our food and beauty products.  You  might taste the pesticides on your produce or be disgusted by the chemical scent of your body lotion for example.  I spring-cleaned my bathroom cabinets of all unnatural, non-organic products after my first cleanse and it made a huge difference to how I felt.  You might even start to make your own (check out my friend Amanda’s blog for a great recipe for home-made deodorant) as you increase your awareness of how the skin itself is a detoxing organ
  • A greater affinity for the fresh, alkaline, naturally cleansing foods that become abundant in the Spring and less cravings for the foods that you know slow you down (processed and refined carbohydrates, sugar, alcohol, coffee, etc.)
  • Better portion control – when you remove solid foods from your diet for a period of time, you realize how little we savour and chew our foods and also how little we require to survive.  Transitioning from warm weather and the country back into colder, city environments, will naturally have you wanting more food and possibly warm foods, but you are unlikely to binge after a cleanse if administered correctly
  • You realize  how much of your day (and energy) can be spent thinking about, preparing and digesting food – suddenly your days become longer and less complicated when you remove this from your routine for a short while!  You might simplify your cooking moving forward
  • Your ability to listen and be compassionate might increase – my eyes and ears actually feel bigger after a cleanse and my mind less cluttered with toxic thoughts about myself
  • You feel more centered calm because you are forced to slow down and hit the pause button; you realizing taking things slow feels good
  • You start to really comprehend how the digestive system and our bowels work (miracle system!), which can result in you treating your body with more kindness by feeding it foods that digest easily and make you feel good – once you’ve finished a cleanse, you’ll be more likely to make better choices so as not to un-do all the good you’ve done
  • You realize how much we turn to food for comfort and how we use it to sustain ourselves through stressful situations and might start to explore other methods of de-stressing like yoga and meditation, exercising or partaking in more cultural activities
  • A higher appreciation and more focus on getting good rest and sleep, watching less television and exposing yourself to less toxic media!

And here are my key pieces of advice when considering a cleanse:

  • Do your research!  Don’t just jump on the cleansing bandwagon because someone told you they lost a lot of weight from a cleanse and you want to lose a few extra pounds fast.  Define your motivation and objectives and make them meaningful and lasting ones.
  • If you are doing a juice cleanse, ideally do it in the Spring months and somewhere warm – it will be less shocking on your system and you’ll be less inclined to dream about comfort foods!  Although keep in mind that a long-haul flight somewhere can be toxic and dehydrating to your body, so work in extra days on either end to ease back home and into the detox environment
  • Think about the right cleanse for your body and your needs – there are many different approaches out there and you need to choose the one that resonates with you the most.  Trust your own instincts in terms of level of severity, timing and length
  • Do your first cleanse under supervision of someone experienced and knowledgeable on the topic

Kimchi, Jujubes and Citron Tea

May 5, 2013

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Recently my eight-year-old niece Alex had to complete a homework assignment on the topic of her heritage.  Auntie Kate, she asked me, am I a little bit Korean?   You might wonder how on earth my ginger-haired, blue-eyed niece of Irish/Italian-American descent could be mistaken to believe her roots traced all the way to the Far East, but her intuition was not so naive.  Her Auntie Mandy (my sister) was adopted from Seoul, South Korea.

I recall that when I was Alex’s age, I was also curious about my sister’s origins and how that might play a role in shaping my own ethnic identity.  I was intensely proud of my talented and beautiful older sister Amanda (lovingly nick-named Mandy) and took every opportunity to boast my knowledge of her first nationality.  Silly school kids would assume she was of Chinese descent (the most ethnic restaurant we had in our small, American hometown was a Chinese-food restaurant run by a family with her same hair colour) and ask me if she spoke English.  She’s NOT Chinese! I would exclaim.  She is from South Korea and duh – of course she speaks English!  She’s American!   The only confidence I lacked was in knowing – where am I from?  And how can she be two nationalities and I only one?

Growing up in a family that has little knowledge of its ethnic origins (I blame this partially on my father who, despite his alabaster complexion, has stood by a belief  his late Auntie Hitty planted in him that we are exotically part Abenaki Indian and feared finding out that we were actually of standard Irish descent like most inhabitants of my town), I was far more interested in my sister’s background.  I too wanted to be linked to a place far far away and recall my parents inventing the possibility that I was actually Dutch to appease me.  This was after watching a film at Epcot centre in Florida about the nations of Europe in which I spotted a little blondie like myself in wooden clogs who could have been my distant cousin.

That worked for a little while until my 7th grade homework assignment came around (I was 12): prepare a dish linked to your cultural heritage and bring it into class to share with everyone.  No doubt the assignment was meant to inspire and remind all of us Americans that we are, in fact, descendants of Europeans, Asians, Indians, you name it.  A ‘melting pot’ or what was more politically corrected to be a ‘salad bowl’ of nationalities and ethnicities.  Unfortunately, all my mother and I could come up with based on our limited knowledge (or assumption we were of English descent) was fruitcake.  I was terribly disappointed by my rather dull contribution – no one touched it and it didn’t touch me – how could I be from a culture that put fruit in cake that didn’t really taste like cake?

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not like I had some kind of advanced, refined palette for exotic and spicy foods at a young age.  Quite the contrary.  I was an extremely unadventurous and picky eater and spent the better part of my childhood oscillating between hamburgers, pizza, bagels, cereal and cake.  My father still reminds me of the embarrassing time my friend’s mother had to pick the peanuts out of their chunky (as opposed to smooth) style peanut butter in order to get me to eat lunch at their house – oh for shame.  But I do remember a curiosity about other foods, particularly the ominous jar of kimchi (fermented Korean vegetables – usually cabbage) that sat idle inside our refrigerator…

You see my mom used to organize little presentations at our school to teach my sisters’ and my classmates a little bit about Korean culture, since it was a very special thing in our town to have this kind of diversity and it would have been silly not to recognize it.  My sister would come dressed in a traditional Korean hanbok with beautiful embroidery and colours that had all the girls jealous and all the boys instantly in love.  You see, because aside from my sister, South Korea produces many beautiful and awe-inspiring things.  My understanding of the scope of this beauty, however, was minimal up until recently when I finally got to visit Seoul for the first time three years ago to see Mandy who has been living there for the past five years.

I was so struck by the beauty of Seoul and its rich culinary and artistic culture the first time I visited, that I planned another trip just this past April, this time bringing my best friend and fellow cohort when it comes to all things foodie.   Over the past two decades of my life, I started following in my sister’s footsteps by letting go of my fear to try new foods and becoming an adventurous eater.   This was aided hugely by living abroad in Italy and France and being forced out of my food comfort zone.  I also completely changed my diet to eat healthier, digestion-friendly foods after realizing the negative effect refined foods were having on my gut.  So by the time I got to Seoul, I was prepared to sample all of the many incredible dishes and treats that Korean cuisine has to offer (many of which boast health benefits), including all of the fermented (and initially off-putting items) like kimchi, as well as bibimbap, sambap, bulgogi, red bean paste, juk, duk, mugwort tea, citron tea, omija tea, jujubes and bingsu.  Suffice it say, there are few food items from South Korea that I don’t like and many things about Korean culture that I absolutely love.  My photo album from this trip consists mainly of photographs of food, a love affair gone wild and only just begun.

Just as my parents adopted my sister from South Korea over thirty years ago, I have adopted Korea through love for my sister and the enjoyment of Korean culture and food.  So in some way, it definitely feels like I’m a little bit Korean…and maybe my niece hasn’t got it so wrong.  If there is one thing that is for sure, it’s that food is a powerful mechanism through which you can learn more about a distant culture and country, but also yourself.  Even places criticized for their lack of fine cuisine such as Great Britain, where I have recently become an official citizen, have food culture.  There is certainly more to Britain than fruitcake (which I have grown to appreciate), but if my heart belongs to Europe and my passports to the U.S. and the U.K., then my tastebuds might always belong to Korea and I can only hope my parents are proud for growing a family with no boundaries for degustation even if they prefer to watch from the sidelines.

Happy 25th Anniversary River Café

September 11, 2012

Last week, when the sun shone consistently in London and temperatures were warm, was the perfect River Café week.  I know this not so much from being a frequent daytime diner at this famous London restaurant, but because for the past three years I have had the pleasure (and sometimes the jealous pain) to work in an office just above this riverside establishment, which serves the best of simple and traditional Italian cuisine.  My window overlooks the idyllic setting on the north bank of the Thames with a view onto the signature blue chairs and white awnings that protect ladies who lunch and their gelato from the rare but surprisingly strong sun.

Around 11AM during the summer months, the aromas of freshly baked bread from their wood-burning oven, grilled fish, and cooked vegetables and herbs from the garden waft through my window inducing a lunchtime appetite often far too close to breakfast and far too mighty for the minimal caloric requirements of my stationary desk job.  From my vantage point, I can intermittently look upon diners without them knowing, living vicariously through their primi and secondi dishes, their sometimes numerous bottles of wine, and divine dolce.  I can absorb the sounds of forks and knives tapping ceramic dishes and clinking wine glasses that conjure up memories of my summers living in Italy so palpable I can almost taste the olive oil.

Because part of my desk job is entertaining clients, I’ve also had the absolute pleasure of experiencing many delicious 2 or 3-course lunches there myself, none of which have ever failed to satisfy my hunger, delight my tastebuds or provide a feast of colour to my eyes.  Yes, I’m that girl covertly taking photos of her food with her i-phone just like I took photos of my Easter basket when I was little to preserve the beauty of what would soon be devoured graciously in front of me.  I’m not sure I’ve ever had such consistent satisfaction from one place, such incredible hospitality and flawless service, such authenticity and humbleness where, because of the celebrity clientele and attention of the press, there could instead be a massive ego.  I have no doubt that this is because the River Café, originally the canteen for the neighbouring architectural firm (Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners), was dreamed up by two women with a sincere love of functionality, food and Italy: Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray.  While Rose sadly passed away recently due to cancer, Ruth still owns the restaurant and can be seen throughout the day dressed in her white chef’s outfit, checking on her staff and guests, maintaining a presence not dissimilar to an Italian mamma who never wanders far from her kitchen.

On the wall next to the bar, there is a framed black and white photo of Ruth and Rose sat at what one can only assume is a table outside some sunny Italian trattoria or ristorante, perfectly content in their sundresses and at home in one another’s company.  There is something really special about that photo to me.  It manages to tell me a lot about two women I hardly know, their friendship, and the heart and soul behind the menu.  It also reminds me very much of photographs taken of my dear friend Tamara and me on several holidays to visit what we affectionately refer to Italy as: The Mothership.

I met Tamara roughly 8 years ago before moving to London from New York City.  She, like me, was partaking in a summer programme in Urbino (the Marche region of Italy) in an effort to soak up all things sunny and Italian before the summer ended.  When it came time to introduce ourselves to the rest of our advanced level Italian class, we chuckled when our bios seemed to mirror one anothers’ perfectly – two Franco/Italio-files with undergraduate degrees in romance languages, penchants for foreign films and literature and futures in London.  I had just come from a few weeks volunteering on organic farms in Abruzzo to perfect my Italian and Tamara was on a generous summer holiday from her role at the French Institute (Cine Lumiere).  It didn’t take long before we became two peas in a pod, accompanying each other on shopping trips for fresh peaches and ricotta cheese, spending afternoons sipping campari sodas in the sun and taking small hikes up the hillside to drink prosecco and munch on crisps while watching the sunset.  High on the bliss of Italian life (and pizza), we knew we would maintain the friendship (and try to maintain the essence of Italian living) when we were back in London in September.

Tamara in Verona

Me sat opposite Tamara

Two Springs later Tamara had now become one of my closest friends and, upon my 27th birthday in April, she gifted me two small cookbooks:  The River Cafe Pocket Books: Salad & Vegetables and The River Cafe Pocket Books: Pasta & Ravioli – explaining that they were the byproducts of one of the best Italian restaurants in London and sure to provide ongoing motivation to cook the way I had learned on the farms in Abruzzo, despite the lack of fresh ingredients.  She said, ‘one day when we’ve saved up, we’ll go to the restaurant ourselves,’ but for my first five years in London I could only know River Café through its brilliantly concise recipes that Tamara and I would replicate on the occasion of the ‘Italian film nights’ we hosted at our respective Battersea residences.  I continue to reference these books today – they are the perfect kitchen companion and capture the simplicity of Italian cuisine taught to me by the Italian mammas who ran the restaurants at the agriturismi where I worked.  I recall asking nonna Mirella after every delectable dish I tasted – yum – what have you put in this?  The answer was always the same: un po’ d’olio d’olive, un po’ di sale, un po’ d’aglio e basta!  A little olive oil, a little salt and a little garlic – and there you go!  My favourite recipe in the books?  Zucchini Trifolati – courgettes with a little basil, a little mint, a little garlic, a little olive oil (okay, a lot of olive oil) and there you go!  Heaven.

In 2009 when I was looking for a new job, I received a phone call for a role at a media company situated above the River Café – have you heard of it? At the time I couldn’t register that the River Café actually existed beyond the pages of my cookbooks and I mistakenly confused it with Riverside Studios, a cinema/arthouse just down the river.  I couldn’t visualize a restaurant sharing the location of an office and assumed the recruiter accidentally modified the name.  It wasn’t until my interview in the board room that I looked out the window and realized where I was.  My interviewer saw pure delight wash over my face as I admired the view and he mentioned that it was a great restaurant where they often took guests.  Let’s just say when I had to make a decision about the job, this was on my list of pros.

Three years later and I feel I have accumulated enough dining experiences – both actual and vicarious – to truly understand what the River Café is all about.  However, I am well aware that my 3 years pales in comparison to the 25 witnessed by the creators who on Sunday celebrated the longevity of a restaurant that continues to attract a crowd of devoted clientele.  I have no doubt there were many ups and downs along the way and that the result of many years of hard work has produced something potentially very far from the original intention. The history can be felt; the fine tuning of every last detail has not gone unnoticed – it’s something that can only be achieved with time and dedication.  Whatever the plan was, it has worked for me.

I feel blessed for the many times I’ve been able to choose a starter consisting of fresh greens from the garden, unbelievable raw mozarella or grilled calamari, a main of Scottish scallops or sea bass accompanied by vegetables or beans cooked in authentic Italian fashion.  I feel honoured to have dipped many a slice of bread in olive oil as pure as gold and spoiled to have experienced the wickedly decadent chocolate nemesis on more than one occasion.  But beyond even the experience of the restaurant, I feel lucky to have worked within a little pocket of London so carefully carved by the architects who modified the space, that it has become an oasis far from the chaos of the city.  I feel lucky to have taken my lunch breaks by the garden, at a picnic table or on a piece of lawn nestled within an area of London that feels like it’s bordering Italy.  It’s a space that inspires taking deep breaths, feeling fresh air, and appreciating life.  I love everything about it, including the nifty bike park where I can nestle my bike safely throughout the day in a what looks like a happy bicycle daycare facility.  Yes, in the summer months more than any other time, the River Café and its surroundings is a space that nurtures you and inspires healthy living, just like Italy.

So it’s on the occasion of The River Café’s 25th anniversary that I want to thank Ruth and Rose and the architects (Lord Rogers) who created this Londoner’s Italian piazza just outside my window.  We share a six-year history together, but your relationship with London started far ahead of mine.  When I came into work on the Monday morning after your big day, there was a silence outside, reminiscent of the winter months when the outdoor seating hibernates until the next year (and when I am less aware of the beauty beneath me).   The celebration that took place the day before left a visible and energetic mark.  You’ve set an amazing example that will inspire me (and surely countless others) in my future endeavours.  I hope one day there will be more restaurants like this one and more spaces in London that instill a higher appreciation of local food, urban nature and community, but for now you are one of a kind.

Freedom

August 26, 2012

Summer weather has come to London (she writes mid-August) and I have recently taken to cycling to work again.  It’s terrifying, perilous, and yet extremely exhilarating.  There are so many advantages to cycling instead of taking public transport: less time wasted wishing your life away as you sit in traffic on the upper deck of a bus that smells like someone’s hangover, a more dramatic exit from your desk-bound day job as you mount your bicycle of choice and ride into the wind (rain), and as a recent advertising campaign by Transport for London depicts so playfully in the above image, an awakening sense of freedom.

Freedom.  Doesn’t the word alone open your heart?  If you’re familiar with The Who’s Tommy, you might automatically have the urge to sing: ‘FREE – I’M FRee-HEE!’  It’s a word that inspires singing (maybe even shouting) from beneath your bike helmet and into the streets.  When you ride a bike to get around, you’re free from a timetable, free from having to stand in a crowd of impatient commuters waiting for your bus to arrive, and free from those buses that decide to ‘terminate’ early, unapologetically asking you to get off and wait all over again at a bus-stop only minimally closer to home.  No no, when it comes to cycling you’ll have none of that because you are the driver.  So long as your legs are ready and rearing, you might make it home in a third of the time your normal bus route would take and have worked in your exercise for the day too.  And it’s all down to YOU (and your tires)!

But there are also advantages to riding the tube, mounting the staircase to ride with an elevated view of busy London on a double-decker bus, or taking an overground train along a scenic route to reach your destination of choice.  A big difference between the two is that with public transport, you’re in the company of people.  And you know what?  People are interesting.  With cycling, you’re surrounded by people too, but they’re mostly encased in metal, poorly navigating vehicles that could kill you – the human bonding experience is limited, if not violent and unfriendly.   However, we often don’t perceive fellow commuters as people with whom we could converse because we are stuck in tunnel vision, displaying what I recently heard referred to as ‘screensaver face’ or have connected our ears to some kind of device with a screen that helps us tune out our surroundings.  In many ways, it’s as if we’ve relocated our bodies to another numb, seated posture away from our desks, whilst maintaining an invisible cubicle that imprisons us nonetheless.

So while enhanced social opportunities could be a pro vs. con to public transport, it seems to me that the biggest reward of commuting without freedom lies within the challenges themselves.  So the bigger question I want to pose here is how much of a sense of imprisonment do we impose on ourselves, and are we looking for control rather than freedom? For instance, the other day my bus terminated early because it decided to change destinations.  I was really not in the mood for that.  It was Friday.  I wanted to get to Whole Foods, to get home and rescue my organic delivery from potential vermin or fox who lurk around my doorstep.  I was looking forward to crashing on the couch with a nice rocket salad to watch River Cottage Veg Everyday, as you do on a Friday.  But the Universe had other plans for me.  And there was nothing I could do about it…or was there?

Rather than pace back and forth, mutter obscenities under my breath, stress about lost time, chew my fingernails, look for games to play on my iphone, start calling random people (all behaviours I have observed in impatient commuters), I put my bags down, planted my feet firmly on the ground, stood tall, looked around and took a deep breath.  I practiced not-doing.  Suddenly everything became very peaceful and I woke up.  I became present and it was nice.

When you actually open your ears and eyes to the world, you start observing some interesting things.  This happened the other day when, on a delayed tube journey, I overheard Woman A say to Woman B – ‘did you see that programming on fasting?’ To which Woman B replied, ‘yes – fascinating, but I’m not sure I could ever do it’ which then led to a 15-minute discussion about the confusion surrounding food and eating and fasting and feeding, questions I could answer, which got those little wheels in my head turning on another blog post on my experience with juice fasting and cleanses.  Inspiration.  From a delayed tube journey.  One time I even got a date from a tube delay.  I unzipped the invisible barrier around me to ask a fellow commuter on the tube platform what his plan of action was to get to central London and we both agreed to ditch the tube, share a taxi and later that day, he texted me for a drink.

So what’s the purpose of this blog?  To get a tune from Tommy stuck in your head?  Maybe.  To get you to think about cycling? It’s definitely worth a try.  But what about to challenge you to think about your commute and your sense of freedom a little differently?  You can gain a sense of freedom when you choose to cycle around the city but you can also borrow some of the alertness, presence and stamina you require when cycling and apply it elsewhere in life.

Because even though we may think we can CONTROL our commutes (drivers – you know you are guilty), no matter what route or method we choose, there will be hurdles and detours.  There will be little reminders that we actually can’t control anything.  And maybe in those moments we can accept surrender, take a little break.  Maybe breathe.  Maybe move our bodies a little.  Maybe talk to a stranger.  You’re not giving up, you’re just giving in a little, loosening the reigns.  When you can embrace this in any life situation, guess what results?  A sense of FREEDOM.   And eventually things start to fall into place.

So the next time you’re on your bike and you think it’s a good idea to use your super cycling skills to wedge yourself between bus and bridge railing to save 10 seconds, or you shove someone into the tube so you can squeeze into an already overpopulated carriage potentially causing someone to pass out from overheating or you lay on your horn because you are late and the person in front of you is driving so slowly they will make you even more late…maybe keep this in mind?  I guarantee it will reduce your stress levels massively, create a safer and more sociable environment around you and be truly freeing.

A Perfect Cuppa

June 5, 2012

We’re all gluten-free, caffeine-free and sugar-free these days, but sometimes when the skies are gray, a good old-fashioned afternoon tea is the only way to go.

Tea holds a special place in many cultures, but in England it’s an institution.  Afternoon Tea is a delicate ritual that works best in prestigious venues, such as The Ritz or The Dorchester,  where one is expected to conduct herself in a dignified manner with the decor to match.  These kinds of Teas are best shared amongst a group of close girlfriends on a special occasion.  I hosted one of my first birthdays in London at The Wolseley – it was a warm and sunny April day and the dress code was floral prints.  We indulged in tea and scones – known as a Cream Tea – and I was instructed to coat my scone with a decent layer of butter followed by clotted cream and then finally fresh, home-made jam.  My best memory of this day was a gift granted to me by my friend Tamara – a set of River Cafe Cookbooks (the origin of a long love affair with the restaurant to be blogged about later) and the unusual treat of sunshine.  We were, however, drinking tea like tourists.

Traditional tea choices in England are of the black variety (and here the green tea drinker in me confesses that there is nothing quite as luscious as a cup of fragrant Earl Grey) served with a decent amount of milk.  But tea is not just reserved for special occasions.  There is also the office tea ritual.  Brits love and rely on their tea and biscuits (bikkies) breaks when the afternoon or even a mid-morning slump hits.  If you don’t take a turn at the kettle, you’ll quickly find yourself out of the loop in any working evironment.  Popular combinations are a PG Tips, Tetley or Yorkshire tea paired with McVitie’s Digestives or Rich Tea biscuits, served in a mug you’ve likely brought in from home (and never to be borrowed by anyone else)!

I’ll never forget attending a focus-group on biscuit consumption for a famous British biscuit brand.  The women interviewed spoke of the pleasure of biscuit eating in a way that sounded dirtier – and much more fun – than sex.  One women confessed to a nightly biscuit binge.  She would pull out a package of her favourite biscuits and eat an entire sleeve after the kids were in bed.  Luckily she didn’t have the waistline to reveal her dirty secret!  In terms of a guilty pleasures, biscuits are to the British what ice cream is to Americans, and a national right at that!

Then there’s the concept of the Builder’s tea – a strong cuppa with a good amount of milk and sugar to soften the blow – designed to accompany anyone through a tough task at home and a necessary offering to any maintenance man.  My colleague once told me that he’d do any menial labour project such as painting, so long as there was a cup of tea and biscuit by his side (note to self if I one day marry a Brit).  Later that day I passed a man mending his fence – perched next to his exposed bottom was a cup of tea ready and waiting.  When life gets difficult, the Brits get the kettle boiling and the biscuits out.

When I first moved to London, I plunged right into the tea ritual.  But soon I realized that the caffeine/dairy/sugar combo was not doing me any favours.  I struggled as I appreciated the ritual, but not the side effects.   It’s a habit that I suspect is exacerbating some health issues for tea-centric Brits too.  But like milk and cookies to Americans, it’s too far engrained in the culture to drastically change it now.  And why would you?  The news consistently supports the healthy aspect of a good tea ritual in terms of providing antioxidants.  What they don’t point out is that tea gets drunk often in lieu of water, in doses far greater and manners far less elegant than what was originally intended when tea ceremonies were first introduced.  When you’re sat at a computer all day drinking tea, that’s a whole lot of dehydration going on.

Nevertheless, when you live in a country where it’s cold and damp most of the time, a cup of tea is comforting and feels right (not to mention a healthier option when compared to the UK’s other famous past-time of alcohol consumption).  It’s normally an excuse to interrupt what you’re doing with a tiny and often sociable pause.  In my eyes, it’s also a whole lot better than the daily Starbucks consumed from wasteful disposable cups or the Diet Coke addictions one sees all over the U.S.  So if you’re in London, I would say that on at least one occasion you should put aside all refined food fears and tea preconceptions and get stuck in.  You’ll learn a lot about England from just one sip and you’ll probably like it too.  I’d check out this website for the best advice: http://www.tea.co.uk/.  You might never pair a cookie with milk again – sweet things are much nicer with a sharp cup of warm tea.

But if you’ve been consuming tea and biscuits your whole life (and the majority alone at your desk at work to get you through the day), I’d suggest experimenting with a week of herbal teas and afternoon fruit snacks instead and see if those headaches or IBS symptoms disappear (or if you’re masking discontent at your job)…there’s no reason to put your ritual to a halt, but modifications can be made to make this a truly healthy and even spiritual ritual that one can continue to practice on a frequent basis!

When this blog departs from a London-theme, I’ll talk about tea rituals I have observed in other cultures that helped change my approach to tea drinking…

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