Do you make the most of your local museums and galleries? Read about why you should!

How to Enjoy Where You Live and See It Through the Eyes of a Visitor

When we take holidays to locations away from home, it’s usual to research places of interest in the local area. Museums, art galleries and parks often feature as possible destinations.

Yet for some reason, many of us are less likely to take full advantage of the facilities that exist in our home towns and cities. I’m pretty sure that there is a syndrome describing this very phenomenon, but it escapes my recollection right now!

Perhaps if we made an effort to make the most of all the offerings on our doorsteps, in the way that a visiting tourist would, we would view our localities with fresh eyes and a greater sense of appreciation? Obviously, larger cities are bound to have a wider array of offerings, but even smaller towns often have a surprising range of options.

Making the Most of What’s on My Own Doorstep

Despite living in or close to my current town for most of my life, I only visited the main museum for the first time a few years ago- aged well into my thirties! There was lots there to engage my young kids, plenty of interactive displays and an impressive range of stuffed animals. A huge woolly mammoth model was a big hit with my son.

Recently I read about an art gallery in our town, which is small and only holds one exhibition at a time. The current exhibition is about the history of our town which is something that interests me as I’ve always been fascinated by social history. So I took my eldest child along one afternoon to check it out.

Finding Out About Local Life in Days Gone By

I had never been to the art gallery and I’m not even sure how long it’s been open for. It is located just a few doors away from the main museum. On arrival at the art gallery, we were surprised to find it completely empty apart from the lady working there who welcomed us warmly. There were numerous paintings on display, all painted by the same artist from the Victorian era. It was fascinating to observe familiar streets that I have walked or driven along portrayed in their former states, complete with historical details such as horses and carts, Victorian ladies and gentlemen dressed in their formal finery. Many shops were recognisable, albeit with their former names and selling completely different wares in the past.

We had a little time left on our car park ticket so walked the few doors down to the main museum for a quick look around. This was surprisingly quiet, too. My daughter played in the interactive Egyptian area while I pored over the town’s history display. It’s hard to imagine how life must have been for residents here over the past few hundred  years, but the detail given in the photos and text helped me to visualise it.

Appreciating Local Architecture

We enjoyed the short walk back to the car park as the museum is positioned in my favourite part of the town, close to the largest park. The houses and other buildings in the streets surrounding the park are beautiful with rich period details, mostly Victorian but also Edwardian and Georgian. Most of the owners have preserved their homes well and their appearances have probably changed little since they were built.

I would wholeheartedly recommend that anyone makes the most of their local facilities, whether they have always lived in the area or recently moved there. It feels good to forge a stronger connection to the place you live in. We pay for their maintenance through council tax so it makes sense to utilise them. If too few visitors make the effort to go to them, perhaps they will in time be closed down…’use them or lose them’ as the saying goes.

There are also quite a few independently owned cafes and tea rooms in our town centre that offer a more personal, unique experience (often with local artists’ work decorating the walls) than dropping into one of the same old chain cafes. I will make an effort to frequent these more often.

How about you? Do you have many local museums and art galleries. Those of you in large cities are probably spoilt for choice. Perhaps you always intend to visit them yet somehow never get around to it? I would love to hear about ones you have visited or at least intend to. I love it when readers share their thoughts so please don’t be shy.

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Be inspired to enjoy your meals with Italian style!

Be Inspired to Enjoy Your Daily Mealtimes… Italian Style!

When I spent my gap year as an au pair in Italy, the family I worked for happened to live in and run an hotel. A rather historic, opulent hotel that Italian royalty used to holiday at in the distant past and celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor have stayed at.

Restaurant Dining Every Day

During the first couple of months of my stay (still classed as summer season), my host family chose to eat their meals in a corner of the main hotel restaurant in which the hotel guests dined. This allowed me to indulge in my people-watching hobby very well, as I (inconspicuously, of course) observed the comings and goings of couples and families that were staying at the hotel. Many of them were wealthy, with luxury sports cars parked outside the hotel and often were dressed head to toe in designer clothes. Guests from multiple nationalities came to stay, and I enjoyed trying to figure out where they were from based on their appearance and trying to identify the language they spoke. Anyway, I digress.

The restaurant was a truly stunning room, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the azure Mediterranean sea. The tables were simply dressed with pristine white tablecloths, pure white crockery and polished silver cutlery. Each diner was provided with a starched white linen napkin. A vase of fresh flowers, usually roses, was placed in the centre of each table.

Italian style mealtimes

From the first day, despite being seated in a restaurant, it became apparent that my host family followed pretty standard Italian meal traditions (at least for the region I visited), which I shall describe for you.

There was a bread basket placed on the table almost as soon as we were seated. For my host family this included breadsticks (grissini) and locally-made fresh, crusty bread which was eaten plain, never spread with butter or dipped into oil or anything. On my first day, I almost asked for butter but stopped myself after observing that the other members of the family, even the little boy, ate it plain. There were large bottles of mineral water, always a choice of either still or sparkling. The family would usually eat a piece of bread or perhaps two each and sip water while waiting for the first course to arrive.

About the Courses…

The primo (first) course, almost always consisted of pasta, or occasionally a risotto (made from arborio rice) or a polenta dish. Fortunately, I’ve always been a fan of pasta so it didn’t bother me to eat it every day, but they successfully varied it by cooking many different shapes and types of pasta, from long spaghetti to shorter penne and orecchiette to tiny orzo. Plus, different sauces were added to the pasta. Most often, it was sugo al pomodoro, a basic but delicious homemade tomato sauce, and sometimes meaty bolognese. During my stay there, I had my first ever taste of green pesto sauce (made from pine nuts, olive oil, garlic, basil and parmesan). No exaggeration, that first bite of pasta al pesto was sheer, unadulterated bliss and I couldn’t believe I’d been missing out on it my whole life! Sadly though, no pesto I’ve had in back in the UK can compare.

There was always freshly grated parmesan in a bowl with a tiny spoon to sprinkle over the pasta ourselves. 

The main course, known as secondo, comprised a piece of meat or fish, maybe steak. The fish usually had bones, sometimes was a whole baked fish so I had to learn quickly how to deal with removing those bones. Sometimes they even had an omelettte or a couple of fried eggs with a side dish of vegetables (contorno) or salad. For every meal, olive oil and/ or balsamic vinegar was present as the salad dressing and often drizzled over other vegetables, too.

Sweet Treats

With regards to dessert, this was usually just a bowl of fruit from which we all helped ourselves, sometimes to several pieces. This is a ritual I’d like to start with my own kids as it certainly helps ensure the five-a-day get consumed. Only occasionally, perhaps once a fortnight, would there be a different type of dessert such as creme brulee or a selection of choux pastry delicacies purchased from a local specialist shop. However, plenty of Italians  clearly do possess a sweet tooth, as lots of them buy a gelato (ice cream) from one of the many gelaterie in town. It was often an afternoon treat for me to buy one, too, when I wasn’t working (between 3-6pm).

What I’ve detailed above was standard procedure for both lunch (starting at 1.30 or so) and dinner (from 8.00). If people were feeling less hungry, they sometimes opted to have a very small portion of pasta. Perhaps it sounds like a lot of food, but Italians are not big breakfast eaters. Adults often consider coffee a breakfast in itself, perhaps with a croissant. Plus, generally speaking they do not snack a lot between meals. When I was invited to eat at several friends’ homes during my stay, I found the types of food and number of courses to be similar each time.

When the main tourist season finished and the restaurant closed (apart from breakfast time), my host family instead opted to take their meals in a small private room. The types of foods consumed and the courses remained the same, though. As did the beautifully laid table complete with fresh flowers and starched napkins.

Inspiration for my Family’s Mealtimes here in England

When I make the effort to set our table at home in an attentive, beautiful way, it sure seems to make the meal more of an occasion and makes me feel as though I want to slow down and enjoy the experience more. When we eat outside al fresco in the summer, my eldest daughter enjoys picking a few flowers from the garden to place in a vase and fills a jug of water with ice cubes and lemon slices. This, along with a pretty tablecloth really enhances the experience for all of us, even the children (as a bonus they tend to eat better, too).

Even though we don’t manage to sit down and eat an evening meal together as a family every single night, reminiscing over the mealtimes I experienced with my host family has inspired me to renew my effort to make dinners a more positive and pleasurable experience for my family, too.

Actions I plan to implement:

  • Move the vase of fresh flowers that I usually have on the kitchen worktop to the kitchen table before I serve dinner.
  • Cover the table with a clean, pretty tablecloth just before family meals (rather than the scruffy one that protects the table from my eldest daughters’ glue and sticker attacks).
  • Make dessert be a ‘fruit course’ similarly to what I experienced.
  • Experiment cooking different types of vegetable side dishes.

I hope you enjoyed this insight into eating meals the Italian way.

I’m fascinated by how people live their lives in different countries and cultures, so if you live outside the UK, or have lived elsewhere, I would really love to hear what mealtimes were like there, please do leave a comment. I really love hearing from readers, whether you read my blog regularly or it’s your first visit here 🙂

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Do you prioritise your priorities?

Do you Prioritise your Priorities?

I know already I’ve blogged about to-do lists and getting stuff done fairly recently. But a couple of weeks ago it dawned on me that the days and weeks are zooming by, the year doesn’t feel at all ‘new’ any more, yet I didn’t seem to be making much progress on anything that I really wanted to. The sense of dissatisfaction and annoyance that resulted at the end of most days prompted me to find a solution.

Writing

One of my priorities this year is to write more. Both continuing to write blog posts once a week, as well as working on a lifestyle book. I’d been just about keeping up with the blog posts, but had barely spent any time on the book despite having planned out all the chapters.

Part of the challenge is that I don’t have any childcare for my fifteen-month-old baby, but it was time to stop using that as an excuse and work around it. Thankfully, she has been sleeping much better recently and has set nap times. I have now allocated morning nap time to write every day. Perhaps it’s not the best way to do it, but I aim to write 500 words daily. That may sound paltry to full-time writers, but if I manage it consistently from Monday to Friday it equates to 2,500 words a week or 10,000 words a month. Well on the way to completing a whole book within the space of a few months. From acorns great oak trees really do grow!

Exercise

Although I’m not completely sedentary, I hoped to increase my exercise levels a little this year. On weekdays I always achieve 16k steps minimum just from doing the school and nursery runs as well as generally running around after my toddler. I decided to make the journeys a little more effective by sometimes adding a little sprint (with the pushchair) from our house to almost the end of our road. To ensure I don’t get lazy and opt out of the sprint I often deliberately leave the house a couple of minutes later than it would take to walk it. Sometimes I add an additional short sprint a couple of minutes after the first one, creating my own interval training in a way.

Reading about Jennifer L Scott’s rebounding at home post recently instantly appealed. Like me, Jennifer has three young children and she admitted that finding time for regular exercise can be tricky. She explained how she had recently bought a rebounder (or mini trampoline designed for exercising) and found it was perfect for fitting in short bursts of exercise into her day.

I was instantly convinced after reading her post and ordered a rebounder. Often I simply jump for a couple of minutes, but have found numerous rebounding workouts on YouTube which are good to follow sometimes, too.

Sometimes I jump whilst watching a film or TV in the evenings to make it more of a productive use of my time.

Getting  everything else done…

Before I stared planning for my priorities, I tended to do house-related chores such as hang out loads of washing and put dry washing away as soon as I noticed it needed doing, ditto for making phone calls and sending emails. But now, these chores simply have to fit in around sacred writing time. Who cares if there’s a pile of dry laundry to be put away? It can wait. I won’t feel any worse for leaving it a couple of hours as it can be fitted in at any point during the day while my kids are awake, but the same can’t be said for my writing which is why I have to carve specific time out for that.

How about you? Are you managing to find time for the things you decided were important on the first of January? If not, perhaps it’s time to take stock and revisit your priorities so that you can be sure you really do priorities them.

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celebrate Valentines day

Valentine’s Day (my take on it)

Do you celebrate Valentine’s day with your loved one?

Perhaps this post should come with a warning that it definitely won’t be all gushing about how wonderful the fourteenth of February is. That way, you have the choice to skip reading it!

I’m in two minds about it, really. On the one hand, I dislike how hugely commercial it has become- even our local florist shop replaced their Christmas window display with a Valentine’s display in the first week of January. Although, to be fair, flowers and plants as gifts don’t bother me, unlike the piles of tacky soft toys and plastic tat that grace the pound shops and supermarkets at this time of year. Contemplating the environmental impact that many of these quickly discarded, mass-produced items will have is a concern in itself. It goes without saying that prices of flowers and restaurants are inflated sky-high around this date, too.

My other issue with it is the ‘enforced romance’ aspect. Should people really need a specified day to prompt them to treat their loved one? Do they buy gifts and make an effort because they feel they should, because society dictates so? It seems far preferable to me that partners choose to surprise each other with little gifts on random days because they spontaneously feel like it, perhaps they spot something that reminds them of their loved one.

The reason why I’ve never been a fan of being presented with a dozen red roses is precisely because they are a cliched symbol of love. Zero imagination or thought need go into them, especially on Valentine’s day as identical bouquets of them are available everywhere to pick up mindlessly. My dear husband knows very well by now that I prefer to be given almost any other type of flowers than red roses- I happen to love yellow or pink roses, though. He is fortunately very thoughtful when choosing flowers for me and always selects ones that he thinks I will particularly appreciate.

However, the end of the day, it is supposed to celebrate something positive: love. In a world that often seems to be filled with depressing news (endless violence and crime), love can surely only be a good thing to encourage. Plus I admit that I do enjoy marking special days and events, including Valentine’s day. I just prefer to do so in a low-key way. I tend to have fresh flowers in the house most of the time anyway, selected by myself, so my husband usually gives me a card and a small box of my favourite type of chocolates (which is invariably well received).

I give my husband a card, too and in recent years I have made him heart shaped chocolates in a silicone mould. Our two eldest children love helping to make them. Usually we melt large bars of milk and white chocolate then gently swirl the two colours together a little in a bowl, before pouring into the mould. This results in a pretty marbled effect in each chocolate.

Some years we put our our indoor decorative tree and decorate it with hearts and other Valentine’s themed items. We re-use the same ones each year and never replace them with new ones.

We have always made more of a fuss about each other’s birthdays as they seem more personal, special days.

How about you? What’s your take on Valentine’s Day? I appreciate lots of people love it and it certainly adds a little fun to what can otherwise be a cold and dismal month.

 

Reasons to embrace the arts

Reasons Why You Should Embrace the Arts

The older I’ve become, the more I’ve grown to appreciate the value of the arts and realise the significant effects they have on me.

Annual trip to the Ballet

For the last fifteen years, the Russian State ballet of Siberia has included our town in its extensive tour every February. The first year that I noticed an advert for it, I mentioned it to my sister suggesting it as a possible birthday present for our mother. She agreed so we booked tickets, not really sure what to expect as we had never attended a ballet before and we weren’t sure if we would really enjoy it.

We were pleasantly surprised. By chance, our tickets were down in the stalls close to the front, where the large orchestra is positioned. Sitting so close to the orchestra and their moving Tchaichovsky instrumentals, while we watched the incredibly graceful, expressive ballet dancers acting out their story on stage was mesmerising. Since then, my mother and I haven’t missed one and they all have a similar impact on us.

Other shows on offer locally…

The same local theatre offers a good range of visiting performers and we have been fortunate to have enjoyed shows ranging from the west end Cats show, Irish Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, The Sound of Music, as well as Abba and Queen tribute bands. Varied, but all thoroughly enjoyable in their own way.

The benefits of attending live theatre

Somehow, opening the mind to different types of performances has a mind-broadening effect and gives a sense of fulfilment. Sure, that’s just my subjective opinion, but interestingly Science Daily reported a few years ago that attending live theatre increased tolerance and empathy as found in a group of students who took part in the research. Tolerance and empathy are attributes that seem to be in increasingly short supply these days, so perhaps all schools should aim to take students to watch plays or ballets from a young age.

The benefits of listening to classical music

Certain types of music move me in a similar way. All through my childhood and adolescence, I grew up in a home hearing classical music several times a week as both my parents were fans of it. To be honest, I didn’t much care for it at the time, finding it dull compared to my preferred pop and rock music.

Yet now, I can’t deny that it somehow has a profound effect on me. I don’t listen to it all the time, but if in need of a little inspiration then classical music helps me find it. I find it awe-inspiring that some of the complex pieces were composed hundreds of years ago. I also find it has a calming effect on me and it seems I am not alone in feeling this way. The Readers Digest published an article featuring 10 Wondrous things that happen to your body when you listen to classical music. Amongst those were feeling more relaxed and productive. More than enough reasons to persuade anyone to give it a try. For a complete beginner’s introduction, I recommend either tuning in to a classical radio station such as Classic FM, or search YouTube for ‘best classical music mix’ or similar.

A classical Italian experience

Some years ago, my husband and I toured Italy one summer, visiting several of the major cities. While we were staying in Rome, we were taking a stroll after dinner one evening and soon after tossing the obligatory coin into the beautiful Trevi fountains, happened to stumble across a large piazza where a classical music concert was about to be performed. Chairs had been set up in rows, many of them already taken but there were still some free seats, and after a friendly lady explained that it was a free performance for the public, we sat down. It’s difficult to fully describe the atmosphere as we sat there in the moonlit, balmy July evening, with the loud, passionate sounds of of Vivaldi and Verdi echoing all around us in that historic piazza. A romantic, special evening to remember for ever.

Foreign Language Films

World cinema is another way of broadening the mind. Through my local library (as well as a small independent cinema that shows many foreign films) I have been able to access many foreign films in different languages. The ones in French and Italian have the additional bonus of helping me brush up my language skills but I have enjoyed subtitled films and series in many different languages. It’s surprising just how many countries have thriving film industries, even if they are relatively small-scale compared to Hollywood. Watching foreign language films, even if they are fictional, gives a fascinating glimpse into life in different countries.

Do you spend much time seeking out the arts in your life? I would be interested to hear which ones appeal to you the most.

How to enjoy life's simple pleasures

How to Savour the Simple Pleasures of Life

Although we all enjoy celebrating and anticipating the big events in life, such as birthdays, Christmas, holidays away from home etc, it’s important to be present in the moment and enjoy the simple luxuries that we can partake in the everyday, too; the petits plaisirs as the French would call them.

In one of my favourite films, the French movie Amelie, I love the way that each character is introduced by listing three simple pleasures that they appreciate in life. It’s prompted to make me compile a list of my own simple pleasures. Here they are, in no particular order:

Hot showers with a lovely scented shower gel. A perfect way to start the day and help wake me up up properly. My current favourite is Black Orchid scent by Palmolive- all the better that it’s a bargain! (See post on my favourite bargain beauty buys here).

Slipping into clean bed linen– all the better if it’s been air dried outside.

Listening to the sound of the rain drumming onto our Velux windows in the bedroom while I’m tucked up in my warm bed. The rhythmic sound often sends me to sleep.

The huge old oak tree at the bottom of our garden- at a guess, it’s 200 years old. I love watching it change through the seasons, the different coloured leaves, watching different birds rest on the branches and make nests within it. Every time I look at the  many branches and the thick, sturdy trunk it awes me to think that something so great can grow from a tiny acorn and like to think of this metaphor being applied to other things in life.

Flowers– I adore all types of fresh flowers as detailed here and try to have fresh flowers in the house as much as possible. It lifts my spirits to see flowers growing in gardens or the wild. At the moment we have cyclamen and pansies in our garden and in a few weeks there will be crocuses, snowdrops and daffodils signalling the start of spring on its way.

Reading– I’ve been a bookworm for as long as I can remember. Everything about books is wonderful to me- from the feel of the crisp pages inside a book, roaming through libraries and bookshops containing shelves upon shelves of new books to get my hands on and get lost within. At any given time I have a stack of books waiting to be devoured, kept in a shallow wicker basket in my living room. Novels and non-fiction books about social history from WW1 onwards fascinate me in particular and pondering the lives of others who lived in the past gives me a sense of renewed appreciation for everyday conveniences such as our indoor bathroom, washing machine etc which I can otherwise take for granted.

Fluffy winter house socks- for some reason, I’ve never been a fan of wearing slippers. Fluffy winter socks are another matter entirely. Sliding them onto my feet on a chilly winter day, the super soft fibres warming and insulating my skin, feels like sheer bliss.

As I’ve said before, winter happens to be my least favourite season, despite the fact that winters in my part of the U.K. are pretty mild really. So it’s all the more important that I regularly remind myself of the simple pleasures to be grateful for.

What are you little luxuries that you enjoy on a regular basis? Please do share them. I would love to hear them as they may even remind me of some I’ve forgotten or introduce me to new ones.

How to spend less on your food or grocery shopping

How to Spend less on your Food or Grocery Shopping

Just a few years ago, our grocery bill used to be below the average spend for a family of our size. Gradually though, our grocery spends have crept up frighteningly fast.

Ok, some of the increase can be attributed to to the increase in the number of people we have in our household and the corresponding spends on nappies, fruit, snacks etc. But if I’m honest, we have become a bit lazy and allowed convenience foods to sneak into the trolley far more than they ever used to and those convenience foods obviously cost more. We don’t buy a ridiculous number of takeaways, but even these have been happening more frequently than they used to.

There’s no excuse for this really, other than perhaps for a few months when our youngest was a newborn and I was recovering from surgery. Bad habits snuck in and products that we bought as a one-off due to a promotional price became regular purchases at the standard price.

Anyway, it’s time to rectify the situation. Here are the steps I intend to follow:

Carry out a stock take 

Our freezer is pretty full right now. I need to grab a pen and paper and jot down everything contained within the drawers of it. There is quite a bit of meat and fish I suspect, plus some Quorn (a meat substitute that is vegetarian but we like despite being omnivores ourselves).

Our cupboards also contain a fair amount of canned vegetables, beans, packets of couscous and rice.

Meal plan

I need to sit down and plan which meals can be put together from the freezer and cupboard ingredients. To be honest, I suspect there are quite a few! Hopefully this will have a positive effect on our grocery bill for the next month as we eat out of the freezer and cupboards so buy less new stuff.

Although I usually meal plan a whole week, the dinners for different days often get switched around depending on what we feel like eating or if unexpected events crop up.

Use the slow cooker (AKA crockpots)

I have been a fan of slow cookers ever since buying our first one in 2004, the year that I first moved in with my now-husband. They are wonderful for several reasons.

Firstly, you can bung in all your ingredients first thing in the morning, or even the night before if you like (just refrigerate the ceramic pot overnight to keep chilled if you do so). Switch it on before you leave the house, then return from work at the end of the day to the scent of a delicious, cooked meal ready to tuck into. What could be better?

Secondly, slow cookers are economical because they use a similar amount of energy to a light bulb. They can be used to cook cheaper cuts of meat which, due to the lengthy cooking time, turn from tough to tender and meat literally falls off the bone.

Lastly, the nature of one-pot cooking means less clearing up to do after dinner. That can only be a good thing in my book!

Try out new recipes 

I have a ridiculous number of cookbooks. Yet we seem to eat the same meals over and over again. So, I intend to flick through some of the books and mark the most appealing recipes to try. There are lots I still intend to try in my newest purchase, 5 Ingredients by Jamie Oliver. It makes sense that if I use fewer ingredients in a recipe (as long as they aren’t ridiculously expensive ones, such as caviar and saffron ;)) the cost will hopefully be brought down, too.

Let’s hope that following these steps results in us saving money, eating more healthily and enjoying our food more.

How about you? Do you have any tips to share on reducing your grocery bill? I would love to hear them.