Sunday, October 23, 2011

To Do Or Not To Do ? That Is The Question.

Yes, yes you want more France/Spain posts but I'm getting ready for my annual migration to warmer climes so haven't time for all that. They will come. And jolly good they will be too !

For this snowbird, today is Florida Departure Day minus 3 which according to my 'to do' list, means washing clothing for the trip. I don't mind D-3 as the machines do all the hard work. If I had to nip down to the local fast flowing river and bash my clothing on a large flat rock, then I'd have cause for complaint.

Ahhhh my awesome 'to do' list. I'd be lost without it. It was developed over the first few years of my winter trips to Florida and by now, it needs very little tinkering to keep it up to date. As you might guess, it's quite a list, as going away for 6 months does require a lot of actions and I'm just thankful that when I started doing this about 11 years ago, the internet and direct debits had progressed to such an extent that it made the whole thing possible.

Most of the items relate to stopping or suspending services, getting refunds for others and generally making sure that I have everything I need for getting to and living in another country for 6 months. The most important of these 'to does' was to get medication for such a long period. I take 6 prescription pills a day for my heart issues so that's 1068 tablets. I'm always worried I'll be treated as a drug mule but so far, it's never been a problem. I guess those dogs can't sniff statins !

Having to be 'out' of America for longer than I'm in it (to stick to the laws of both countries) means my departure dates get later and later every year. At some point I'll need to only go for 5 months or less so that I'm actually leaving BEFORE winter arrives in England. Mind you, with the summers we have here, that could be mid July !

As an aside, one item not on my list is to prepare for Halloween. What a non event that is. I think it's yet another 'holiday' made up by stores to sell the most bizarre items you could ever imagine. I'm not sure which countries 'celebrate' Halloween but if a visitor from a non participating country visited friends in a participating country, they'd think they'd all gone mad. I mean who in their right mind dresses up like a blood splattered zombie and walks the streets at night ? Ok APART from Michael Jackson in his later years. Or Michael Jackson today I guess.

Too soon ?

And I can't remember the last time any kids came to my door. Maybe they are put off by my ASBO or my name still being on that register. Cheesed me off really as it meant I had to eat all that fruit and veg myself. The only fireworks I heard were about a week earlier and I think those were at someone's birthday bash three streets away.

So all in all, and despite what we saw on tv, Halloween came and went like a thief in the night. A very quiet thief who stole nothing and just came for a look see. It came, it went, it never happened.

Back to my list and as most get actioned on D-1, then tomorrow (D-2) is a bit of a calm relaxing day. I was due to go into Leeds to have my annual eye sight test but as it was a stupid appointment to make so close to leaving for 6 months, I've just cancelled it. If it's dry, I may use the time to give the car a last wash before it goes into the garage - although that's actually not on my list as it doesn't really matter if it gets washed or not. I can't drive it any more as the SORN is now in place and I've already sent off for the tax disc refund.

It'll really only be when I step outside of Orlando airport on Saturday evening that I can relax. All the preparation, packing, travel and immigration/customs formalities will be over and I can look forward to winter with my friends in sunny Sebring, Florida.

Now then, does my visa run out in 2011 or 2021 ? Where's that list.............

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Be Prepared To Be Amazed !!

1776. A date known to everyone around the world and a few Americans too. A magical date.

But did you know it's also a magical number ? Ahhhhh, no, I bet you didn't. Well it is. It's magical in the sense that it's the only number with another number hidden within it. Ahh, got you interested now !

Take 1776 and divide it by the number of states beginning with M (8), add the number of Presidents (44), subtract the number of people who find Will Ferrell funny (246) and multiply by Paris Hilton's IQ (1) and you end up with......drum roll........20.

Today's date. Amazing eh.

You want more ? Ok. Today is a Thursday. Thursday 20th October. This only happens once every 823 years so put this as your status on Facebook and impress all your friends !

Go on, you know you want to.

Speaking of such things, I experienced a series of normally unrelated events over the last few days which combined in a bizarre way to create an interesting timeline.

First of all, on Monday I went through the checkout at Sainsburys and got a 36p voucher as they compare their prices against those at ASDA and said I'd effectively paid 'too much.' I went back into the store to spend it right away and the only item I could find at that price or less was a budget bag of own brand toffees.

Well I mean I wasn't going to add more money to it so you try finding something for 36p in a supermarket ! Even a bag of chips/crisps was 37p.

Next, on Tuesday evening, I opened the bag and had the first toffee. I chewed down and after a few seconds I 'hit' something solid. I took out the toffee and stuck to it was the gold crown of my bottom right molar. Opps.

Wondering why I wasn't getting excruciating toothache, I rang my dentist's office to get an emergency number but as it was after 8pm, I was pretty much on my own ! All I could get was the number for B&Q (US = Home Depot) with the recommendation to go get a set of pliers. Lush.

Spookily enough, I had scheduled my 6 monthly checkup appointment with my dentist at noon the next day so having put the crown into a tissue, I decided to wait. Thankfully I never did get any toothache but I didn't want to risk any so didn't eat or drink anything till that appointment as my tongue could feel a HUGE hole where the crown used to be.

(I did check the internet for dental gold prices and was shocked to discover that my 2g crown was only worth £38.86).

Thinking I was going to have injections and painful drilling at best, I went to see the dentist at noon yesterday. That's when I learned that there was a layer of solid dental 'concrete' in the tooth covering the nerves and so I was never in any danger of getting toothache. The gold crown then sat on top. So no injections. No drilling. The dentist simply checked things out and then plonked the crown back on top of the tooth, sealing it with some material that was hardened immediately with a lovely blue light. Sorted.

Best of all no new crown was needed. Despite being in a dental plan meaning I don't pay any extra for most procedures, a gold crown would've cost about £600 and I'd have had to pay about £125 of that. Ouch.

That could've been a very expensive toffee and considering I only got it as a 'freebee' from Sainsburys, then I'd have been very miffed if it had ended up costing me £125.

So there you have it. All that glisters may not be gold but it can be when it's stuck to a toffee.

Add that to the amazing info about 1776 and COULD this blog BE more educational ?

I don't think so.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Food For Thought.

Last night I was reading the early chapters of Chris Evans' autobiography (the first part - It's Not What You Think), thanks to Daphne who loaned it to me.

He was talking about his school days and many of the incidents he mentioned from his time at grammar school reminded me of my years at boarding school. I was going to blog about them today but having slept on it, I don't think digging them up would serve any purpose and anyway, I've 'skimmed' over a few of them in previous blog posts so it's probably best to let it go at that......and certainly not mention any names. I mean what would be the point ?

Fr. McConville you sadistic bastard !


But Chris also mentioned the wonderfully satisfying food his mum used to cook as he was growing up.....simple, healthy meals that few mums have the time or inclination to cook these days. It got me to thinking about memorable food I've had throughout my life, not necessarily because the actual food was any good but mostly because of where I was at that time in my life.

Despite my current youthful looks and personality, you may find it hard to believe that food rationing was still in force when I was born. I've no idea what this meant to me as I've very few memories of the 50's but looking at photos, I don't seem to have missed out on my calories ! We certainly didn't bypass rationing by eating out (a little remembered fact is that restaurants were exempt from rationing but they had very strict guidelines - no meal could cost more than 5 shillings; no meal could consist of more than 3 courses; meat and fish could not be served at the same sitting) but being country folk, I'm sure supplies of milk and eggs and other staples were more readily available to my parents than was strictly legal at the time.

So my first food memory would be the awesome hot soups/stews that would be waiting for me when I'd come home from primary school on winter days. These were made with fresh ingredients all washed down with a glass of creamola foam, a made-from-powder drink that is making a comeback these days. In a scene straight out of a Dickens novel, I'd sit on the floor by the open fire, bowl in hand and, while watching the hot embers floating up towards the chimney from the burning peat 'logs', I'd gently thaw out by enjoying mum's wonderful soup.

Now despite what I've said in the past about my 7 years at boarding school, there were times I actually enjoyed myself there. Very few times I have to say and one of them was when we were in the school dining room. Ok let me set the scene as I remember it ; the large dining room was full of long tables, each with seating for about 10 boys, 4 at the sides and one at each end. It might have been 5 per side but it doesn't matter now. A senior boy would be at the head of the table and his job was to dish out the portions to the boys at his table, making sure he got the largest portion of anything he liked. Oddly enough, my memories of the food started when I became a senior and had my own table ! Hmmmm Anyway, most of this food was standard school fayre but two items stick out for me - porridge and fadge.

Porridge ? Hell yes. At least the variant we got at Garron Tower. It was very gloopy and very, very sweet, due to the fact we had a seemingly unending supply of sugar to sprinkle over it. Bad teeth ? Us ? Never !

And as for the fadge, or potato cakes....oh my God I can still remember it so vividly now. The hot soft square slices came heaped on a large platter smothered in butter and the boys at my table were lucky if they got one each when I was serving ! I've never had any to match them since those days and the dry grilled ones you get in cafes now are a pale imitation. Literally.

When I moved to Leeds in 1973, I got a bedsit in Harehills, a well dodgy area of the city. I was, and still am, a Leeds United fan and so I'd go to all the home games at Elland Road. Back then I had a motor bike although, as it was a Honda 50, it was more like a push bike with a lawn mower engine. Anyway my route took me past a chippy called Cantors, on the corner of Chapeltown Road and Harehills Avenue. I'd always have a (fleur de lys) steak and onion pie and chips or if they didn't have any of those pies, I'd have a steak and kidney one and pick out the bits of kidney ! Then I'd ride to the ground, park up and eat my meal before walking the short distance to the stadium.

In those happy pre heart attack days, I was always impressed by the portions they served up at Cantors - they didn't mess about with little bags for the chips and just tossed a load onto the white paper sheets, added the pie and double wrapped the lot up to go. This is a classic case where the food itself wasn't memorable. Far from it. I used to have to play 'hunt the meat' and often I'd get a pastry pie with little or no meat in it. It was just the 'occasion' that sticks in my mind and, as Leeds were the best team in the country at the time, the whole process of going to watch them with a belly full of Cantors pie and chips will always remain with me as a happy food related experience.

( I researched Cantors for this post as I was impressed it is still in business after at least 38 years. What I found astonished me. It was known as a popular Jewish fish and chip shop back in 1940, 71 years ago ! Can I pick 'em or what ?! )

That takes me up to my mid 20's but I think this post has been long enough so expect a Part 2 sometime. If anyone reading this has food/location/event related stories to tell, feel free to add them as comments. I just love the idea that a food memory doesn't have to be down to the actual food being special or outstanding.

It's why it has remained as a memory at all that makes it special AND outstanding.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

It Comes To Us All.

I was in Tesco's today getting just two items and so, as I approached the checkouts, I decided to make use of one of their self scanning units.

Now I've always regarded self scanning as a technological mixed blessing. If the other staffed checkouts are very busy and I've only got one or two items, then it makes sense to do a self scan. On the other hand I've known these machines to "act up" and if I see a checkout line with only one person in it, I'll slot in behind them rather than risk finding an hormonal scanner that is having a particularly bad day.

I just don't need the stress.

Anyway today there were several self scanners tempting me to approach them by being devoid of customers. I took the bait.

I scanned both my items, chose the cash option, put in my £2 coin and whilst waiting for my change to be delivered, I heard several sighs coming from the little old lady using the scanner next to me.

With my purchases safely bagged and my change and receipt in my pocket, I looked across and noticed the lady was very agitated and almost on the brink of tears. The staff member covering the self scanners was dealing with another customer's problem and so I went over and asked if I could help.

"Can I help you" I said, trying not to frighten her with my height and bulk.

"I just don't know what to do" she replied, looking up at me with large slightly moist eyes.

"Well ok, what are you trying to do" I asked, gently.

"I don't know. I've never done this before" she said.

She didn't have anything on the scales and I noticed the scanner was asking for her to enter her card.

"Did you press the card option ?" I asked.

"Yes but I don't know where to put it" she said in a voice so pathetic it melted my heart.

When I looked down at her hand, everything became clear.

She had scanned her single item and managed to press "finish and pay" and when it asked for payment method, she had pressed "card". The scanner then asked her to "enter your card" and this is where she had lost the plot a bit as she was trying to find a large slot to actually push her single shopping item into the scanner.

Why ?

Well her single item was........a birthday card !!

Sunday, October 02, 2011

The France & Spain Tour 2011 - Day 5

The great thing about touring Provence is that you only need to drive a few miles to see wonderful scenery and picturesque towns. As another plus, in the space of these few miles the scenery can change from lush sweeping valleys to majestic gorges and the towns change from chocolate box quaintness to hill side medieval fortresses.

We experienced all these and more on our 2nd day of touring from our b&b base near Pernes-les-Fontaines. The 37 mile circular route started with us again driving east along the D28 through Saint-Didier and then the D4 past Venasque (see previous post). In the space of a few minutes we watched soaring cliffs give way to tree lined avenues as we made our way to our first stop at the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Senanque.

The 12th century Cistercian abbey has an unusual history as its community of monks peeked in numbers in the 13th and 14th centuries and by the 16th century, only 12 remained. The abbey was then ransacked by the Huguenots and finally when the last monk was expelled, Senanque was sold to a private individual. In 1854, the abbey was repurchased by another community of Cistercian monks and nowadays they exist by producing and selling lavender and honey.

Sadly we didn't visit when the lavender fields were in season but the by-products were on sale in the gift/book shop which also contributed towards the running of the abbey. It was just as well that I love the smell of lavender as with all the soap, perfume and the like, the shop was lavender heaven.

In the small foyer area was a cute sign informing dogs that they had to remain outside.

As the abbey is open for retreats, the main building was off limits to us and so without much else to see, we only spent an hour there before driving the 7 miles to the classic Provencal hill village of Gordes.

High above the Calavon valley, Gordes is another of the 'beautiful villages of France' and even after only two days in Provence, we were starting to realise that just about every village there was on the shortlist.

As recently as WWII, the village was a resistance centre and as with a town we were to visit in a week's time, it was punished in reprisal for local resistance fighters killing a German soldier.

The village is a typical mix of narrow streets with speciality shops and open squares with cafes, fountains and, in this case, even a castle....or castel.

We liked it. We liked it a lot.

After a morning of walking and climbing steep streets, by 1pm we were starving and found a lovely restaurant and had a leisurely lunch. After that we wandered around the village, went into a church for some reflection and then headed back to the car park. On the way, Daphne was looking at a shop when she realised an air grill under her was helping to set up a Marilyn Munroe parody. I took a photo but the slightly earlier view when her skirt was almost over her head will have to remain only in my mind. Probably best !

Nearby was a space between buildings with a view down over the valley. We also noticed a home having both a swimming pool and a lap pool which seemed a bit incongruous in an otherwise oldy worldy village. Having said that, we saw several swimming pools around Gordes.

After having had our fill of Gordes, we drove on the 12 miles to L'isle sur la Sorgue, a much larger and very different place. It is on the plain and is often referred to as the "Venice of Provence". But just as we left Gordes, we noticed a few cars parked up across the road at a viewing point and so we turned around and joined them.

And what a view it was. This shot really shows what a hill village looks like and although we visited many on our tour, we were never able to get such a clear view of any of them like we had here.

L'isle sur la Sorgue is an 'island city' lying at the foot of the Vaucluse plateau on the plains of Comtat Venaissin. The river Sorgue surrounds the city and canals run alongside the streets with picturesque bridges adding to the impression you've come upon a Venice lookalike. I guess it was too obvious for the city fathers to twin with Venice but it would've been a good match.

Back in the day, the inhabitants lived off crayfishing and the silk and paper industries used great waterwheels in their manufacturing processes. These moss covered wheels still turn and add another dimension to the views around the city.

The city is also known for its antique shops and we saw plenty of them with prices to match. Again away from the open squares, we really loved the narrow streets where we could enjoy the sights and sounds of the traders and cafes. And even some dogs.

We also went into the local 17th century church, Notre-Dame des Anges (Our Lady of the Angels) which was very ornate and as usual, a lovely oasis of peace and tranquility away from the hustle and bustle of the streets around it.

We all took photos !

By the time we'd walked back to the car, it was almost 5pm and time to close the circle by going back to the b&b to freshen up and then go off for supper. With the Pernes-les-Fortaines street fair now over and the roads around it open for traffic again, we had more places to chose from and ended up in a lovely restaurant not far from the Chinese where we'd eaten the previous night.

Again the meal lasted for almost 2 hrs and by the time we returned to the b&b, we were almost ready for bed. It had been another fabulous day in our part of Provence and we planned on hitting new heights the next day.

And we did.

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