La Bella Venezia

Yesterday we returned from a week in Venice. Yes, that’s right, a full week in the place most people visit for two or three days at most, pausing only long enough to tick off the main sites (Rialto, St. Mark’s Square) and do the main tourist attractions (gondola ride, selfie in front of the Bridge of Sighs). But if you take the time to spend longer than the average tourist in this amazing place, you will really reap the benefits.

Besides being beautiful, with its labyrinth of canals, colourful buildings, lively squares and narrow passageways, Venice is steeped in history. One only has to stick their head into the stunning Frari Church or Scuolo Grande di San Rocco to get a flavour of what the city has to offer. And it doesn’t stop there. The different areas all have their own unique charm, from San Polo (where we rented a lovely Airbnb property and found a gorgeous sandwich shop/bar which we frequented for a beer and glass of Prosecco most evenings) to Castello (where we returned to a wonderful restaurant near to the famous Arsenale – former ship yard and armoury – where we dined on our honeymoon last year) to the Jewish Ghetto and Giudecca, which both have a completely different, but no less charming, vibe compared to the other parts of the city.

This year, the Venice Biennale festival includes modern art, with a huge display of artworks to explore in both the Arsenale and Giardini. A two day ticket costs only 25 Euros, which is well worth the money. There are also a huge number of other galleries and exhibitions (both permanent and temporary, to coincide with the Biennale) running across the city, including new exhibitions by Damien Hirst and David Hockney (neither of which we saw, sadly, as we ran out of time).

And then there is the beach. On my previous two trips to Venice, both less than three days in duration, I didn’t make it as far as the Lido. But with a few days more we were able to hop on the Vaporetto (water bus) and make the half hour journey on two occasions. It’s not the best beach in the world, and it is very busy during the summer, but there are still plenty of sun beds and umbrellas available to rent and it offers respite from the searing heat and busy streets in the city, when sightseeing gets too much.

I need not linger on the food (it goes without saying Italian food is divine); suffice to say if seafood and ice cream are your bag, you will not be disappointed in Venice. I’m pretty sure I’ve come back at least half a stone heavier, but I don’t regret a moment of it!

Advertisements

Update from Gare du Nord

Last week I didn’t go to the Gare du Nord for what has become my weekly visit. I had a cough and wasn’t feeling myself, and as it’s so vital to bring positivity to that situation I decided to stay away. Tonight I knew for sure that was the right decision, as I felt recharged and was looking forward to going back. I had the last five sleeping bags from my fundraising effort to take down there, along with a bag of brownies, oranges and fruit that I picked up on the way to work this morning. As soon as I arrived the food was hoovered up in seconds! On Tuesdays the charity provides hot drinks but not hot food, so people were hungry. As it took some time for the drinks and donations to be handed out, I stood to one side with the sleeping bags. I got chatting to a man called Abdamune Sidiq [sic] from Sudan. He told me how last week the police took away his blankets, and since then he has got sick. This made me really angry, and even more glad that we created this petition last week to try and stop the police taking away people’s sleeping bags, even though I don’t know if it really made an impact.

Tonight, in addition to the normal donations there were 100 goodie bags for St. Nicholas (here in Belgium they celebrate Sinterklaas coming on 6 December – our office is full of chocolates!) from the students of ISB Service Learning/CAS. They were full of sweets, and it was so lovely seeing people patiently queuing up and then sharing the contents of their bags with others – I was given sweets by three people, they must have thought I needed fattening up! There was a happy atmosphere despite the cold, and some new faces too, although I didn’t see my friend Bakare, which has worried me a little. I hope he’s okay.

So all in all another positive experience, although it’s true that people are getting sick now that the temperatures have dropped, and even though we try to bring as many sleeping bags and warm clothes as we can, there is always a need for more. I’m worried for these men as winter progresses, what will they do and where will they go when it starts to snow? Surely they can’t sleep in the park then? All we can do is try to keep their spirits up, their tummies full and their bodies as warm as possible, and hope this is enough to get them through. I’m so happy that from January they will have more support from Unless, the wonderful new non-profit organisation which has raised money to rent a nearby building, where people will be able to have hot showers and get their clothes laundered. Hot food will also be available five times a week instead of the current twice a week arrangement, which is just fantastic. They are seeking donations to raise the monthly running fee of 5,000 Euros, so if anyone is feeling generous as Christmas approaches, I can personally guarantee this would be a brilliant and worthwhile cause.

146698-help-from-my-friends

Santa’s little helper

After all the logistical challenges I faced in organising it, I’m delighted to report that yesterday’s festive lunch was an outright success – so much so, in fact, that I’d go so far as to say I’d consider doing it all over again next year. There was festive cheer in abundance (assisted in no small part by an impromptu appearance from Santa Claus and his talking Christmas tree assistant), the pub itself proved to be the perfect Christmassy venue and, despite the lack of turkey, the meal was nothing short of stupendous. All in all a fantastic way to kick start the festive season.

What I loved most of all about yesterday was looking around the room and seeing friends making new connections with people they hadn’t previously met, who I had deliberately sat them with because I had a feeling they would hit it off. It was lovely knowing I had played a part in bringing people together, and the smiles on everyone’s faces from the moment they arrived right up to the moment they left will stay with me for a long time to come.

I was also pleased with the reactions to the presents I selected for “Santa” to hand out – an assortment of retro toys I knew most people would remember from their childhoods, including whoopee cushions, rubix cubes, scented bubbles and slinky springs. One friend who works as a therapist with children was particularly pleased with her silly putty, which she said would be perfect to use in her therapy sessions. In short, I really couldn’t have asked for more. Ho, ho, ho!

Food glorious food

My love affair with food is a long standing one, but in recent days I’ve been teetering on the brink of overdoing it with foods so rich and fatty I was starting to feel unhealthy. Take last night, for example, when I was treated to an early birthday dinner by my best friend. After consuming a fair amount of cheese and red meat earlier in the week I decided I would order neither. And yet, when the waiter came over, I found myself ordering deep fried brie followed by duck in red wine sauce. When it arrived, the wedge of brie was almost the same size as one you’d buy in a supermarket, but did I leave some of it? What do you take me for? By the time I got three quarters of the way through the duck, however, I had to admit defeat – a rare occurrence, as those that know me will attest to.

Today I decided to start afresh with the healthy eating plan. At lunch we all went to an Italian restaurant for someone’s leaving do where I was determined to order a salad. But as soon as I clocked the £8.95 lunch deal – applicable only for pasta and pizza – I shelved my plans for a salad and went for a pizza instead. Lashings of melted cheese? Tick. Bloating and self-loathing on the side? Tick. In short, it seems I have a serious problem with self-control where food is concerned. But never mind, it’s nothing that cooking an indulgent three-course meal for friends tonight won’t cure….

Dating degustation

It is half past six in the evening and I am running late. My head is protruding from the armhole of my top and my arms are flailing in the air trying to rectify the erroneous dressing error as I cross the hallway and bump into Harry, one of my house mates. “That’s an interesting look,” he says with a smirk. I glare at him and gesture for assistance, which he provides. “So who’s the lucky man?” he asks as he extricates my head from the unforgiving elastic tube and reinstates it in its rightful orifice, managing to avoid an accidental grope in the process. “Danny,” I say, avoiding eye contact. “We, um, met last weekend – in a bar. Anyway, thanks!” I duck under his arm and run back into my bedroom, closing the door behind me and resting my head on it with a sigh. You see, the truth is, I didn’t meet Danny in a bar. I met him online. And the thought of that fact becoming public knowledge makes me want to be physically sick. But never mind that. I am late and, online date or not, I’d better get going.

Dim Sum Danny

I walk into the dim sum restaurant with flushed cheeks from running. “Can I help you madam?” asks a passing waiter. “Yes, I’m, er, meeting a friend,” I say, casting my eyes around with an air of desperation. “Aha! I think that’s him!” I say, peering into a dark corner and taking the risk of striding across the room towards the shadowy figure who is sitting there, his head buried deep inside the menu. “Danny?” I say, and the figure rises by way of greeting. I am at once struck by his height – or lack thereof. I’ve heard of people who embellish their profiles on dating websites, but this is ridiculous. He said he was five foot eleven but he can’t be a millimetre over five eight – I know because I’m five nine, and I tower over him in my two inch heels. “Catherine,” I say, extending my hand. He clasps it in his, which has the clammy texture of the fish we are soon to eat, and I know at once I have made a terrible mistake.

“So how was dim sum Danny?” Harry asks the next morning as I shuffle into the kitchen. “Urgh, don’t ask.” He raises an eyebrow. “How can I not now you’ve said that? Come on, spill.” I pick up the milk, sniff it and pour it over my cereal, then take a seat opposite Harry at the breakfast bar. “Well for one, he lied about his height. I expected someone two inches taller than me, and got someone an inch shorter – which, given I’d turned up in two inch heels, was pretty embarrassing when we went out for a cigarette.” Harry wrinkled his nose. “I thought you’d quit?” I shrugged. “I did. But trust me when I say this guy was so awful I had to smoke. I was hoping it would give me a breather, but he insisted on coming out with me. He put a cigarette in his mouth the wrong way round and lit it, then nearly coughed up a lung. Worst date ever.” Harry sits back in his chair, his brown eyes twinkling with mirth. “Poor Catherine,” he says, “better luck next time eh?”

Adventurous Al

Next time turns out to be a week later. I have been set up on a blind date by my friend Sally. After my previous online dating disaster she has assured me that Alistair, or Al as he likes to be called, is an absolute gentleman. “Hello,” says a deep voice from behind me. I drop my cigarette and stub it out, attempting a surreptitious waft as he leans in to kiss my cheek. As he pulls away I note his high cheekbones, full lips and brown wavy hair, mentally ticking off my check list. Not bad. “I hope you don’t mind,” he says, and I detect more than a hint of the aristocracy in his voice, “but I took the liberty of choosing a restaurant.” I laugh a high-pitched, girlish laugh, quite unlike my usual dirty one. “Not at all,” I say. Before I know it he’s flagged down a passing cycle taxi and we are whizzing through the streets of London, the wind in our hair. Five minutes later we arrive outside an opulent looking restaurant, its windows bedecked with heavy velvet drapes. Al steps down from our ‘carriage’ and holds out a hand to help me down after him. “Shall we?” he asks, gesturing for me to take his arm. We enter the restaurant and are led to a beautifully decorated table, at which we sit in matching high-backed thrones. Alistair orders a bottle of expensive wine and begins to tell me about his career as a property magnate. When he takes a breath I take a sip of wine and open the menu, but he puts a hand over mine and shakes his head. “Can I help you sir?” says the waiter, appearing beside us. “Yes,” says Alistair, “we’ll have tasting menu C, please.” He pauses and looks over at me. “You’re not allergic to anything are you Catherine?” I shake my head. “No, but…” Alistair closes my menu with a snap. “Good,” he says, and the waiter scurries off into the kitchen.

“He made you eat crickets?” Harry is laughing so hard there are tears in his eyes. “Deep fried ones, yes – in a salad. And a main course of crocodile kebabs – which, so you know, are revolting, like chewing on giant pieces of gristle. I might have got over the first two courses, just about, but the third one was the final straw.” Harry puts his coffee down and steels himself. “What was the third course?” I look him straight in the eye. “A chocolate dipped scorpion.” Harry collapses onto the kitchen surface. I put my head in my hands.

Standard Steve

Two weeks later and without so much as a sniff of male attention in the meantime I am back on the dating website, and have three consecutive dates lined up for the rest of the week (which Harry, in whom I have now confided about the online dating, is calling ‘the dating triple header’). First up, Steve, who ‘likes Italian food’ and ‘works in I.T.’ Hardly the most exciting credentials, granted, but Al’s knocked the wind out of my sails somewhat on that front, so safe is good for me. Or at least that’s what I thought. Now, as I take my seat in the window of Strada on Clapham High Street, I’m having second thoughts. “Shall we get the house wine?” Steve says, fiddling with his tie as if it’s threatening to choke him. “I don’t mind,” I say magnanimously. “You decide.” He calls the waitress over and orders the wine, but not before he’s pointed out the fingerprint smears on his wine glass, or commented that the thermostat seems to be set too high. In fact, by the time our main courses arrive – seafood spaghetti for me and a margherita pizza for him, because, he tells me in one of his scintillating asides, he has so many allergies he really doesn’t trust anything else – I know more about food hygiene than I ever thought possible.

“How was Steve?” Harry calls after me when I arrive home. I hurl myself on my bed and groan.

Busy Ben

Ben, a chartered accountant working at a firm in the City, had no sooner established contact with me online than he was informing me how busy he was. He simply couldn’t fit me in this week, he said, unless I could meet him for lunch on Thursday? And this is how I came to be smoothing down my smartest pencil skirt and sipping on a margarita (not the pizza kind) in a posh rooftop restaurant at Bank. When Ben walks in he spots me at once – not a great challenge considering we are the only two customers here. He is handsome, in a generic businessman sort of way, with silvery grey strands peppering his dark hair. He has a reassuringly firm handshake, too, and his shoes are shined to within an inch of their life. “Sorry I’m late,” he says, and pulls out my chair for me to sit back down. The waiter comes over to take our order and I’m relieved Ben doesn’t do an Al and order for me. “So,” he says, sitting back intertwining his fingers. “Catherine.” I smile and attempt to look alluring. “Yes?” I say with a swish of my hair. Ben and Catherine, I think to myself. That does have rather a ring to it. I take a sip of my margarita and maintain eye contact. The waiter brings a plate of amuse-bouches and I pick one up and attempt a seductive sweep of my tongue around the caviar on the top. “I’ll be straight with you,” Ben says. “I’m looking for a lover, not a wife. I already have one of those, and believe me one is quite enough.” It is all I can do not to spit the caviar across the table. Instead, I down my cocktail, pick up my bag, and walk out.

Dangerous Dave

Although there is really nothing I feel less like doing than go on yet another disastrous date, it’s too late now to back out on Dave, an actor who owns a flat in Chelsea. As I wait for him to arrive in a classy French bistro in Chelsea I am trying to convince myself this one will be different. And he’s different all right. So different, in fact, that the moment he walks into the restaurant I wonder if he’s ticked the right gender box on the ‘looking for’ section of his profile. “Hi,” he says, pulling me into an uncomfortable embrace as if we were long lost friends rather than first time internet dates. “Hi,” I say, staring back at him, my mouth agape. We sit down and begin making small talk, but all I can think about is how, well, effeminate he is. As well as wondering whether he waxes his chest. “Would you like a drink, sir?” the waitress asks. “No, thanks,” he says, “I’m on antibiotics so I’ll just have water.” I shrug, drain the dregs of my second glass of wine and order another. An hour and a half later I stumble out of the restaurant and turn to say goodbye, but Dave is dragging me into the wine bar next door. “What are you doing?” I protest, but we’re inside now and he’s ordering cocktails. “I thought you weren’t drinking?” He shrugs. “Screw the antibiotics. I fancy a drink now.”

“You went back to his place? Even though you thought he was gay?” Harry is not impressed. “What? At least I came to my senses before I slept with him.” Harry sighs. “Catherine, he could have done anything to you in that state. It’s a wonder you made it home.” He’s right, I know, but I’m feeling crap enough as it is and I’m not ready to admit I’ve been stupid. “Well I did make it home, okay Dad? Now leave me alone.”

Long lost Leo

Leo was a holiday romance I had in Spain last summer. I use the term ‘romance’ in the loosest possible sense but nonetheless, when he called me out of the blue the day after my date with Dave, I was at such a low ebb I thought it couldn’t hurt to meet him for a drink after work. So here we are, in a busy Covent Garden cocktail bar with music playing so loudly we can’t hear one another. I’m still feeling queasy from last night and, if truth be told, I’m already starting to think Leo should have lived on in my memory instead of reality. A brash Essex boy, it’s evident he’s trying to live up to the Only Way is Essex stereotype. Frankly, it’s a relief when I catch him eyeing up the group of girls next to us, and it makes my swift exit and subsequent trip to McDonald’s on the way home all the more justifiable.

Cheesy Charlie

I was on the verge of deleting my dating website account when a message pinged into my inbox from Charlie. His messages were so sweet and non-threatening I thought it couldn’t hurt having one last date, and now we’re sitting in the fondue restaurant sharing a giant pot of melted cheese and a bottle of red wine I’m feeling quite content with my decision. Until, that is, he pulls a piece of crumpled paper from his pocket and begins reading me the poem he’s written especially for our date. And proceeds to tell me he’s in love with me. Needless to say there won’t be a second date.

“I just don’t get what’s wrong with me,” I say the next day, slumping into an armchair in the sitting room. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” says Janey, my other housemate. “You’re just not picking the right ones.” A crash from the kitchen alerts us to Harry’s presence. “What’s he doing?” I ask. “He’s been in there all afternoon.” Janey smiles. “He’s got a date. He’s cooking for her.” She winks at me. “So how about we make ourselves scarce and go on a girls’ night?” I frown. “A date? With who?” Janey shrugs. “I don’t know. Does it matter?” I pick up the television remote and start flicking through the channels. “No, of course not.” At seven o’clock I’m putting the finishing touches to my makeup when I hear the front door slam. “Janey?”The lights are off in the landing, but there’s something flickering in the stairwell. I walk over and see a smattering of tea lights leading the way down the stairs. Intrigued, I follow them. When I reach the bottom of the stairs I’m gobsmacked to find Harry, dressed in a dinner jacket and bow tie, holding two glasses of champagne.

Home run Harry

“What the…?” I begin, but Harry puts a finger to my lips and hands me a glass. He leads me by my free hand into the living room, which has been transformed with candles and a beautifully laid table. “I’m staging an intervention,” he says, and I raise an eyebrow. “All your dates have been disasters. So from now on I’ve decided that the only person you should be dating…is me.” He disappears into the kitchen, leaving me open mouthed. And when he returns and puts a plate of delicious looking steak in front of me he adds with a wink, “why have a burger when you have steak at home?”

Foodie

This evening I’ve offered to go and cook dinner for my best friend, who has been in plaster from her ankle to her thigh for the past few weeks with a hairline fracture (and who, as an aside, lives on the third floor of a building with no lift-bad enough without a heat wave, unimaginably horrible with one).

After a few post-work Pimm’s with colleagues the conversation turned to what I planned to cook for the aforementioned dinner. Clearly given that a) it’s already 7.10pm as I write this and b) my kitchen capability may be marginally impaired due to having imbibed several glasses of Pimm’s prior to the act of cooking, it needs o be something simple-most probably a stir fry almost identical to the one I’ve been eating for dinner every night so far this week.

This lack of culinary imagination leaves me feeling that I’ve let myself down. I wouldn’t say I’m a good cook but, provided I have a recipe in my hand I’d say I am at least a competent one. The problem is I’ve grown lazy, and at the end of a long day I tend to revert to type and cook whatever comes to mind most readily instead of taking time to consider a more exciting option.

I’m hoping beyond all hope that when I  move into my new pad next week I will take the time to reignite my passion for creativity in the kitchen, because once I start I often find it very therapeutic. As with so many other things in life it’s all about getting into a routine that after a while feels completely normal instead of feeling like an effort.

Put simply, it’s time to ditch the packet noodles and branch out into more exciting fare. Life may well be too short to stuff a mushroom, but it won’t kill me to stuff the odd pepper once in a while.

Living below the line – for real

Last night I caught the tail end of a TV programme about people in this country who have to feed their families on less than £2 each a day. According to the programme, recent research estimates that nearly five million people in the UK are struggling to feed themselves properly and eat nutritiously.

Watching the families’ struggle had a sobering effect on me, and made me realise just how fortunate I am. It also got me thinking about the poverty divide, and how so many people wrongly claim to be on the wrong side of it when really they’re nowhere near.

So often people – myself included – say they have no money, and yet no sooner has the breath escaped their lips than they are buying their daily speciality coffee and Pret a Manger salad. Admittedly such purchases are often the difference between being in the red and being in the black, but real poverty is about far more than having a few hundred pounds to pay off on your overdraft and/or credit card.

Real poverty is parents going without food to ensure their children don’t, or families having to swallow their pride and visit food banks so they have enough to survive. Real poverty is scouring the marked down section in the supermarket out of necessity every single day rather than to secure the odd bargain now and again. Real poverty is having to choose between heating and eating.

So next time I’m about to complain about not being able to afford a night out (when I’ve only just had a night out), not having savings (when, even after my recent pay cut I’m still able to afford £150 each month to pay off my credit card) or not being able to afford holidays and clothes (when I go on plenty of the former and have more than enough of the latter as it is) I’m going to stop and think about the families on that programme. I’ll put myself in their position and imagine what it’s like to struggle every single day just to put food on the table and keep the house heated. And I’ll keep my mouth shut.