The Island

We went to an island that had the hills and valleys of the Yorkshire Dales, with the dramatic coast of Cornwall, and the slightly ugly but real houses of Wales. It was perfect, and very unspoilt, so to be honest I don’t want to tell you where we were. But that feels a little mean, so I will tell you the name in a later blog—unless you can guess already? I will give you some clues.

We left home last Monday, to catch a flight from Gatwick. I worried about Coronavirus, and wrapped my scarf around my head and face, so I resembled a sort of paisley Egyptian mummy. It was very hot! We jostled shoulders with hundreds of people, and I wondered if hand sanitiser—which kills bacteria—was any protection at all against a virus.
We flew to the island, and most other people hadn’t checked in any luggage, so collecting our bags was super-fast. The airport was tiny, and we went straight to the Avis desk, where a friendly lady gave us the keys to our car and told us not to put in too much petrol because the island was too small to need much. She had a sort of Liverpudlian accent, which took me straight back to being 17, and visiting my sister when she studied at Liverpool Uni.

We drove to the Airbnb, which was right opposite the beach, then walked to the town. The main street had all the big-name shops: M&S, Topshop, Next, Clarks; surprisingly it also had customers, and it reminded me of twenty years ago, when High Streets weren’t full of boarded up windows and Poundland. I realised that probably the hassle of internet shopping/delivery when you live on an island, means that real shops, with real products, are how most people shop. It was rather nice.
We drove around the hills behind the main town. The roads were brilliant, and Husband enjoyed the drive and went slightly faster than I hoped. (A big clue here!) The island has no national speed limit, so although there are restrictions in the towns, an ‘end of speed limit’ sign means just that: there is no speed limit. We drove up a mountain, with ragged-looking sheep and patches of white snow gleaming, and views across the sea to the mainland. It was beautiful and wild and absolutely freezing cold.

The island has fairies (this was in the guide book, so it must be true). They are not the tiny flighty girl-fairies of picture books, with their long hair and floaty dresses and shiny wings. No, these fairies are about 4ft tall, with pointy hats, and they cause no end of trouble, especially if you don’t show them respect. They are referred to as ‘Themselves’ and have been known to steal babies and bring bad luck and all sorts of other mischief. I made a huge mistake in reading this section of the guide book to Husband, who then spent the next few days pointing out every person who could, possibly, be a fairy. To be honest, there are an unexpected high number of very short people on the island, most wearing bobble-hats, some sporting long beards (mainly the men). It made me giggle, which was very bad as it encouraged him.
Can you guess where we were? I will give you some more clues in my next post.
I hope you have a fun day. Take care.
Love, Anne x


Should you ask for a miracle when you’ve been given a brain?

Let me set the scene for you: The church service has finished, and people are shuffling their chairs into small circles, ready to take communion. There are small round tables in strategic positions, and someone is quietly walking around, placing silver dishes of bread and small glass cups of wine on each one. (Actually, to be strictly factual, I believe the small glass cups are cocktail dishes, designed for jellies or ice-cream sundaes. And the ‘wine’ is indefinable fruit juice, because this is a Baptist church and they don’t have alcoholic wine for communion.) The bread is gluten free, so that everyone can share from the same loaf.

I sit, in my circle, and look at the other people. This is a mistake—perhaps my head should be bowed in prayer, and I should be oblivious to the people I am about to share a cup with, but I’m not. I notice that at least four people in my group have colds, one lady is stuffing a tissue up her sleeve while we wait, others have red noses and watery eyes and hoarse coughs. I find this stimulates me to pray, but again, not perhaps the prayer I should be praying. I am not praying for my fellow worshippers, not asking God to heal their illnesses, to give them comfort from the sore noses and uncomfortable throats. Nope, I am asking for a miracle. I am asking that could I please, please, be protected from the germs that are about to be shared along with the indefinable fruit juice in the glass cup/jelly dish. Because I have a really busy week coming up, with a book sale, and three different occasions when we’re having a number of people for dinner and I need to cook, and a rather nice event with my family which I don’t want to miss, so please God, please protect me from the cold germs and the flu virus, and anything else that is about to be consumed in the indefinable fruit juice.

Then, as I prayed (my rather selfish prayer) I realised that God had given me a brain and a dollop of common sense. My brain told me that sharing a cup (of indefinable fruit juice) with a bunch of people who were clearly suffering from one lurgy or another, was plain stupid; especially at the start of a particularly busy week. I did not need a miracle (ie to be protected from the germs which I would certainly consume with the drink) I needed instead to use my brain, and not drink it. Perhaps being given a brain was the miracle (brains are after all rather wonderful, with their grey sludge and electrical currents that control every part of us).

And so, dear reader, I did not share the communion cup. I truly hope that I didn’t offend anyone by passing it along the line, I hope that no one felt I was being aloof, or setting myself apart, because I wasn’t. I simply decided to use my brain and not risk catching a germ that I don’t have time to fight.

What, I wonder, would you have done?

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I wrote this several months ago, before I was even aware of Coronavirus. I didn’t post it at the time, thinking I would save it for later. It now seems so poignant, I decided to share it.

Victoria and Albert Museum: Fun without a Deadline

One of my Christmas gift vouchers was a trip to a London museum/gallery and lunch, with Jay. We went on Saturday.

We caught the train to Victoria, which was one of my favourite bits of the day—because I was alone with my son and we chatted, and mothers love this sort of thing when their children are grown-up. (It was sometimes fun when they were little, but less reliably, as the stress of tiny bladders and possible tantrums tended to cloud things a little.) We then walked to Rocca in South Kensington for lunch. Jay chose the route, and suggested that we nip across the road, ignoring the lights, a few times, and I wondered how this trait could possibly be inherited and told him he reminded me of his father (not in a good way).

Rocca turned out to be a very nice little Italian cafe. I had a very tasty lasagna, with a slightly old salad, and drank fizzy water and a coffee. It was very pleasant, with the other tables filled with families (a few mothers struggling with the whole tiny bladder/tantrum stage of parenthood) and students. Our waiter was nice and smiley, and it was a lovely relaxed meal.

We walked to the V&A museum, which you might remember I visited last year with Husband (who compared it to a jumble sale full of tat). I rather liked the eclectic mix of stuff, and was keen to visit again. I also wanted to check if people wore gloves in 1760. I am writing (very slowly) a story set in 1760, and gloves were a key element, but I wasn’t sure when they became fashionable. The V&A is good for these kinds of facts.

The map showed the 1760s displays were on the third floor. We walked up some stairs to the first floor, where the stairs stopped. We wandered through the displays, looking for an upward staircase. This was fun with no deadline, so we weren’t trying too hard. We saw lots of fancy religious icons, and some very elaborate tankards and lots of silver. One artefact was a silver ‘coffin’ (not called a coffin) where they think the remains of Simeon (old man who saw baby Jesus in the temple) were placed. People were big on things like that once upon a time. There was also a wonderful library, which we could peer at from the doorway but we weren’t allowed inside. But no stairs. It seemed impossible to reach the third floor from this section. We retraced our steps.

The ground floor had some cool statues (why are they always naked?) We found some different steps, and started to go up. The second floor had some 1760 displays, so I stopped to look at those, and managed to find evidence that people did wear gloves. I photographed some of the other clothes, and looked at a reconstructed room from 1760. There were also interactive displays, where you could design patterns, or tie a cravat, or wear a hooped skirt. Jay tested them out, but wasn’t impressed (I think they were aimed at 10 year olds).

We went up to the third floor. There were no displays from 1760. I think they must have hidden them. We saw a model of the Crystal Palace (which apparently was in Hyde Park, not Crystal Palace—is that correct? I had my doubts about the reliability of the museum and locations/maps).

We left, and discussed whether to walk back to Victoria, or take the underground, or catch a bus. Jay checked bus times on his phone (my children are so clever, who knew such a thing was possible!) and told me we needed the C bus. We waited at the stop, and Jay checked I had ‘something to tap’ because apparently you cannot pay with real money on buses anymore.

The bus arrived. Jay tapped his phone, I tapped my credit card. Absolutely no idea on the cost, or how the bus knew where we wanted to go—all very future world. We then worried that perhaps we were supposed to ‘tap-out’ when we left (because apparently this is a thing) so we decided to watch the other passengers. None ‘tapped-out’.

The bus stopped outside Victoria Station 3 minutes before our train left. We ran. We caught the train. It was a nice day.

I hope you have a nice day too. Take care.
Love, Anne x

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Train to Jūrmala, Latvia

Train to Jūrmala

Last week, we were in Riga, Latvia.

I had read that Jūrmala was a good place to visit from Riga, and we had a day when Husband wasn’t working, so I persuaded him that he would like to go. We walked to the station, which is on the edge of the Old Town, near the zeppelin hangers that house the central market. The weather was dry but cold.

At the station we found a ticket booth where the woman spoke a little English, and we managed to mime that we wanted return tickets to Majori. Jūrmala is the Latvian for ‘seaside‘ and there are several stations along the coast, with Majori being in the middle. I used my phone to photograph the timetable (because I have seen my children do this sort of thing). Finding the correct platform was more complicated, but we found a timetable that showed platforms, and then followed signposts to platform 3. If they had announced a change of platform over the tannoy, we’d have been stumped, and possibly ended up in Russia. But the sign on the platform showed we were at least travelling in the right direction, so we climbed the steep narrow steps up into the carriage, and sat down. A doorbell sound announced the doors were shutting, and we eased away from the station.

I like catching trains in foreign countries, watching the changing scenes through the window. I used my photographed timetable to check the stations we passed through, so we would know when to get off. As we left Riga, we saw many apartment blocks, small industries, red-brick factories. The houses varied, some must once have been grand, with towers and pillars, but all were faded now, the painted plaster cracked, weeds filling the dried gardens. Every wall we passed was decorated with graffiti, none of it clever. Tall brick chimneys piercing the blue sky and modern warehouses swept past the window.

Then we plunged into woods of pine trees, and out the other side. The land was flat, not a hill in sight. As we drew near to Majori there were more forests, and large houses nestled amongst the pine trees.

Majori station is next to a flooded river. One side of the platform is a road, the other is the river. You could see the railway as it curved away from the town, past the tall bulrushes and the fishermen. We left the station, and walked into town.

The town has echoes of the Jersey shore in the US, with painted houses and little shops, and a sandy beach with a long boardwalk. We had a quick lunch in a cafe (De Gusto—a pretty little cafe with nice pastries and good coffee). The walk to the beach was signed, and we set off along the boardwalk.

The beach was sandy, the sea calm, the wind cold. To our left were houses, right up to the weeds that lined the beach. They were large, ugly 1950’s constructions, and mostly deserted, with peeling plaster and boarded windows and brambles growing up to the doorstep. I decided they were Russian-owned holiday homes, abandoned in 1991 when the Latvians defended their land against invasion, the Russians refusing to sell them in the belief that one day they would return. Husband informed me they were more likely owned by a developer, who was waiting for them to become completely derelict so that renovation was impossible and he would get planning permission to demolish them and build modern holiday homes and hotels. I prefer my version.

Among the ugly buildings was an ugly look-out tower with radio masts and a high window and speakers for broadcasting instructions. This was the police station, and a man in the window was guarding the safety of everyone on the beach. There was also a cubed building, right on the sand, with a large picture window facing the sea. It was a cafe, large extractor fans whooshing the smell of fried potatoes onto the beach, the steamy windows showing hazy images of tourists huddled inside with mugs of coffee. But the best part was the position, which was below the tide mark, so at high tide, the people inside would be trapped, and they would have to sit there, watching in horror as the sea swept up the beach, past the door, trapping them inside for a couple of hours until the tide went out again. It would, I felt, be great fun to come back at high tide, and watch them as they gradually realised their mistake—but perhaps that’s a little mean of me.

We went back to the main street and walked along it, peering into gift shops and cafes and windows displaying knitted goods and thick coats. At the end of the street was an ornate church, gleaming in the sunshine and looking for all the world as if it had been flown there from Disney Land. We walked back to the same cafe we had lunched in, as they had the freshest cakes. We had tea, and I chose a rather too sickly white chocolate eclair, and Husband chose a completely delicious apple cinnamon tart (why does he always choose better food than me?) Then we walked back to the little station, and watched the train as it wound its way back along the curve of the river, until it reached Majori, and we clambered aboard, ready to return to Riga.

I hope you go somewhere nice this week too. Thanks for reading.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

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St. Peter’s Church, Riga

 St Peter’s Church, Riga

One of the landmarks of Riga Old Town is St. Peter’s Church; the multi-layered barrel-shaped spire can be seen from almost anywhere. This makes it hugely useful for lost tourists trying to find their bearings, and I have often been grateful to the church for its distinctive hugeness. But I have never ventured inside. The weather was dry but cold, and I had at least an hour before Husband finished at the office, so I decided to join the few woolly-hatted tourists through the heavy doors, into the church.

The door is not particularly welcoming, as it is very heavy and very determined to remain closed, but I managed to struggle inside. The signs (in various languages) and the woman behind the desk (in determined Latvian) were also not terribly welcoming, but having defeated the door, I was not to be dissuaded. I paid my €3 and was allowed through the glass barrier into the main sanctuary. Another woman called me over, insisting on inspecting my ticket. There was clearly a lot of angst over non-paying tourists visiting this church. Guess they have big overheads.

 Inside, there are a few things to look at, plus a tower to climb (if you pay extra). I was content to simply be inside and wandered around. Brick pillars hold up the high arching roof, and organ music hummed from speakers. It was a peaceful place to be (maybe noisy tourists object to paying for entry, or are dissuaded from visiting by the two grumpy ladies and the spiteful door).

There was a display showing a massive bell, the Peace Bell, which is a feature of a multi-national festival of competing choirs. Next to the giant bell is a giant rooster, which was once the weather-vane on the steeple, but now shelters inside. (It was made in 1690, so has earned a rest from the elements.)

The main sanctuary had various paintings and sculptures, of people who looked religious but I’d never heard of them so possibly not. A local artist, Laine Kainaize, had an exhibition of paintings. They were simplistic in style, and full of colour and I liked them (but not in my house).

The rear of the church was dominated by a statue of Roland. I don’t know who Roland is, and reading the plaque, I’m not sure anyone else does either! A copy of his statue stands outside one of the guilds, like a lucky charm; but like the ancient rooster, he has been retired to the shelter of the church. He stands with a heap of rubble, which I think are bits of the church which have fallen off.

The question that always begs an answer in a church is: does anyone pray here? Did the sanctuary feel holy? The high ceiling and warm architecture do inspire a feeling of holiness/prayer, but the atmosphere is rather shattered by the grumpy money ladies gossiping at the back. Perhaps, in days gone by, this was a place where people honestly sought God’s will. Today, I’m not so sure—but how much can a mere building convey anyway? Surely a church—any church—is the people who attend, and I wasn’t there for a service, so I cannot comment.

If you have €3 and an hour to spend, there are worse things you could do.

Thanks for reading. I hope you find somewhere to pray today.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

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A Cafe in Riga

I am writing this in a cafe in Riga. Going to a cafe on my own and buying a coffee is fairly high on my scary list, so I am feeling somewhat tense, but there were no real options. Husband was at work all morning, and has returned to make phone calls and I know from past experience that these will be very loud/shouty and the chance of being able to concentrate and write to you is tiny. So I left, and found a cafe that looked empty and might not mind a lonely blogger making a coffee last an hour while they type. And I am very keen to write this, because I want to tell you about my morning. I was brave this morning too.

I walked to Modes Muzeja Kafejnica, which is the fashion museum and cafe tucked away behind St Peter’s Church. This is the first cafe in Riga that I have dared to visit on my own (at some point this will be normal) and I had passed it yesterday. It looked so pretty, I was determined to go in. As soon as I stepped inside a lady in an old-fashioned apron and cap welcomed me and showed me to a round wooden table and sofa. I was given a multi-lingual menu; old-time dance music was playing and I felt like I had stepped back in time and should have been wearing a long skirt and lacey blouse with a fat broach at the collar. But I wasn’t. I was wearing jeans and boots and a thick ski jacket that I folded onto the seat next to me and opened the menu. The cafe served drinks and cakes—this was so my kind of place.

I ordered at the counter: a filter coffee which customers pour themselves, and an eclair. There were several types of eclair and I chose one dusted with icing sugar and oozing with cream and strawberry conserve. It was delicious.

Pictures of fashion throughout the ages were strung from the ceiling, reminding me of pictures in books from my mother’s childhood—little girls holding puppies, suited gentlemen with cigarettes, while the women fluttered fans and eye-lashes over their pearls. It was all wonderfully art deco 1920’s. It even smelt 1920’s, with a sort of fruity floral undercurrent.

There is a discount if you buy a museum ticket, so when I had finished my coffee and daydream, I paid for both at the desk. The girl suggested I could leave my jacket on a peg in the cafe, but I am too foreign to trust things like that, so I thanked her and left, hugging my bulky jacket with gloves and hat to my overheated body like some sort of nervous sweating snail.

The entrance to the museum was slightly confusing, with a man who seemed to be shouting at a woman in a ticket booth—but he may not have been shouting, Latvian tends to sound cross. I waved my receipt over his shoulder, so the woman could see I had paid. The woman checked it, and offered to hang my jacket in the wardrobe (I’m not sure if I had pushed in, I hope not. It’s easy to be rude by mistake when you’re foreign).

I walked into the museum (still clutching coat and gloves and hat) and was greeted by glass display cases of dresses. They were long with bouffant skirts and the little girl in me wanted to try them on and twirl. Especially as dance music was playing—ideal for twirling in flowing skirts.

An old movie was showing on a television. Screens projected images of clothes. Glass cases displayed gloves and fans and shoes. There was a tiny carved table holding a sewing basket, and velvet drapes covered the walls (Oh! I so wanted to twirl!) I wandered along the row of dresses, staring at the tiny waists and tight sleeves and laced necklines.

Then I realised there was a corner where you could dress up in crinoline, and I wanted to. But no one was with me to take a photo and laugh with me, and I had already been brave by having coffee alone. Maybe next time.

The next room held more dresses—mainly from England, France and America. I didn’t see any Latvian clothes. Why?

It was all so pretty, the air smelt of lily-of-the-valley, music was playing, and I wanted to go into the glass cases and touch the silk and lace and velvet. They sort of lured you to touch them. Which is perhaps why they are displayed in glass cases.

The next room was a dark cellar. I began to search for a light switch, and a helpful lady told me to just wait, and look. (She said it in Latvian, but I think that’s what she said.) The display cases all lit up individually, in time to conversation and music. Each one was a miniature drama, the manikins placed so the words and music told a story, each one in the language of the country where the clothes originated from, with accompanying music by a composer from that country. One display showed traditional Latvian dress—a much simpler peasant outfit in coloured cloth. I still don’t know what the rich women in Latvia wore, maybe they imported their clothes from England or France.

I took some last photographs, and left. I loved this museum. I am also sort of glad that Husband was at work (not saying that he would have spoilt it or anything, but I think his interest in floaty dresses is probably less than mine.) If you have a 10-year-old daughter, or played dressing-up games for hours when young, then you must come to Riga and visit this museum. It is like eating smooth chocolate.

The cafe I am now in is also nice, but very different. It is modern, with hard seats, and instead of soft music it is playing loud radio that’s difficult to ignore. Especially as it sounds just like Terry Wogan, but speaking Latvian! I will finish my coffee and leave. Thank you for reading.

I hope you see something lovely today.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

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Return Trip to Riga

Return Trip to Riga

Last week, Husband had another work trip to Riga, Latvia, so I decided to tag along. (The wonderful thing about writing is that you can do it pretty much anywhere. At least, anywhere that’s not ugly. I cannot write in ugly places.)

The taxi took us to Gatwick, and we found the airBaltic desk and then waited a very long time for the staff to arrive so we could drop our bags. We had breakfast in Pret (I don’t especially like Pret, but Husband has bit of an addiction, so we found a Pret and I didn’t make too many comments). We also bought sandwiches for lunch, to avoid having to eat aeroplane food.

The flight was quite fast due a tail wind from Storm Dennis, and it took less than the three hours I was expecting. The airport is fairly small, so going through customs and collecting our bags was very quick. I wonder if that will change after the EU transition period has ended. We walked to the taxi rank, and remembered to check the prices on the back door of each taxi (see the blog I wrote last summer—the price of a taxi varies a HUGE amount, but the price is displayed on the back door. In Riga, you do not have to take the first taxi in the line, which is likely to be the most expensive one and shunned by locals).

We stayed at the Pullman hotel, which is situated in the old part of Riga. The hotel is modern, with a horse theme (not sure why). We were met by a life-sized horse statue in the lobby, and horse art is displayed in all the corridors and rooms. Some of it is quite nice. Everything else is grey and white. It’s clean, but not especially welcoming.

We found a restaurant on TripAdvisor and walked through the cobbled streets of Old Town, past the 13th century St. Peter’s Church, to Petergailis restaurant. It was only 6.30pm (4.30pm in the UK) but it felt much later. The sky was properly dark, the shops were mostly closed, and there were very few people on the streets. The air was cold and crisp, though there was no snow (which I had been hoping for). I was glad of my thick jacket, gloves and hat—and my flat shoes, because walking on cobbled streets is fairly brutal on heels. As we walked, I began to remember Riga. In my mind, it has become entangled with Krakow, as we visited both fairly close together, and they share cobbled streets and pretty buildings, interesting markets and a sad history. Gradually Riga emerged in my memory, I recalled the beautiful guild halls, and the striking churches, and the house with a cat on top which has themed most of the souvenirs.

Petergailis restaurant was perfect. It has a cockerel theme, and we had coffee on the terrace last summer, but the terrace has gone now, only marks on the wall remain. Inside was cosy but not too hot and as we were eating relatively early, it wasn’t too crowded. The menu was full of interesting foods I’d never tried, but not so unfamiliar as to be scary. They brought us breads with flavoured butter, and tiny glasses of pumpkin soup to taste. We chose different dishes and shared, so could taste each other’s food (this turned out to be a good idea, because Husband chose better than me). I drank a single gin and tonic, and lusted after the huge glasses of red wine on the next table, but knew that after a flight and a long day I’d have a migraine if I drank it. We left feeling full.

The following day, Husband went to the office after breakfast, and I wrote and explored the city. But I’ll tell you about that in another blog. Thanks for reading. I hope you eat some lovely food too today.
Take care.
Love, Anne x

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