Thursday 11 February 2010

Baby it's cold outside.....

February is undoubtedly the worse month. Well it's definitely my worse month. The end of winter. The end of civilisation, it drones on and on. Endless dull, damp days, the threat of snow a blessed relief from the low-hung sky; a dismal sun glimpsed like a 40 watt light bulb from behind a shower curtain. It's grim up north, down south, east and west. And this particular ragged end of winter seems worse than usual, as if summer belongs to another generation, someone elses memory found pressed like a buttercup between the pages of a dog-eared Enid Blyton book, before the library banned them. A time long, long ago in a land far away, when the hot, sticky heat smelt of ripe tomatoes and Ambre Solaire and yellow-parched grass pricked the back of bare legs, a humming bee buzzing just overhead. Aaaaah, 1976......that was a summertime when the weather was fine.

Happy daze indeed, but I fear summer will stay on hold for a few months more. That's why I'm off. I'm heading for the hills, the Nilgiris Hills that is, in Tamil Nadu, south India. And I can't wait. I was concentrating so hard on booking guesthouses and Bamboo lodges and sleeper trains, I'd sort of lost sight of the bigger picture ie: I'm going on holiday. It will be a mixed bag of low budget, shabby-chic and old-colonial-drinks-on-the-terrace sustainable tourism ending up with a bit of hippy-on-the-beach relaxation in Goa (think Mediterranean summer, light on the cost, heavy on the palm trees).

I first went to Goa an anxious, naive, 19 year old not even armed with a backpack. My boyfriend, a seasoned traveller of the over-land sort, insisted I jettison everything I owned. So, packing nothing more than a spare pair of knickers, a years worth of 'the pill' and as many boxes of tampons as I could carry in my. . . . . shoulder bag, we set off. I was supposed to be starting my degree at art college in London. This was a time before the invention of the gap-year so I lied to the tutors and told them I had been offered an opportunity of a lifetime: to stay with my Uncle who was working in Asia, an opportunity I couldn't possibly turn down, a once in a lifetime experience but I so wanted to go to their college what was I to do? 'Go' they said, 'of course you must,' they said, 'we'll hold your place' they said. So I went. That truly was a year of magical thinking and was to shape everything that came after it. 20 years later I went back to India, this time without the boyfriend but with his son instead. The father flew out to Manali, northern India, and we celebrated the son's tenth birthday.

Now I have a friend who lives in Goa with an open house and an open invitation. She is in the bikini business and as an ex-nanny who once worked in LA, there is nothing that woman doesn't know about beachwear. It's a good ......minute walk to the beach so after such early morning exertion it's time to enjoy a hearty breakfast at my favourite beach side cafe where they make the best Eggs Florentine and an excellent cappuccino, enjoyed under a shady canopy, watching the waves lap the half-moon curve, the sand already between my toes. A world away from my first visit to the once Portuguese state, where we subsisted on bhaji and 'ommolette', the culinary highlight being a coconut cake and a 'Nescafe'. And, after many hours sat staring at the sea or watching the palms sway overhead, back-dropped by a bright blue sky, under a heavy canopy of hashish, we would dream of sitting on cushions, eating Marmite toast and hot baths; luxuries we'd learned to do without on our quest for enlightenment. Oh happy daze.

Top tip: Turn up the heat with home-made chili oil. Toast dried chillies in a pan, add to olive or groundnut oil, whizz in a blender and pour on ......everything.

Young at Heart takes a trip......normal service will resume after March 9th.

Friday 5 February 2010

Coming Down To Earth

I went to see the movie Up In The Air and I really enjoyed it. Aging delightfully, gorgeous George Clooney was just that (refreshingly grey haired instead of the ubiquitous auburn glow men-of-a-certain age so often sport these days), there's a bit of the unexpected and some of the lines were laugh out loud, in a good way. I don't want to spoil the plot but there's a bit where the young girl says to the old girl something like: 'I hope I look like you when I'm your age'......which had me rolling in the aisle because I've heard that phrase myself. More than once. What do you say? What is the correct response to the back-handed compliment, made with all the naive vim and vigour only the young can get away with?

To miss-quote The Eagles, the lines on the mirror are the lines on my face, there's no getting away from it. So I suppose there comes a point, it would seem, when looking good eventually gets tacked onto 'for your age'. As the years pass it's unavoidable. I do it myself with Dames Judi and Helen, Marianne Faithfull, Julie Christie and many more top women who look great....for their age. Although right now, with the temperature dropping and the threat of more snow overhead 'you look alive for your age' might be more appropriate. I scrutinise necks, jaw-lines and upper arms, counting the lines like rings on a slice of aged oak. I applaud the 'laugh-lines' of others and salute the celebrity brave enough to wear a frown. It doesn't help to be confronted by my bathroom shelves, buckling under the weight of age-defying lotions and potions apparently able to stop the 7 signs of aging. Only 7? Suckered into buying toning, tinting, body-sculpting creams that promise a younger, smoother brand new me.

But I'm not up in the air about that. Who doesn't enjoy a bit of pampering, a soak in a rejuvenating seaweed bath, or the heavenly scent of body oil infused with Moroccan roses, whether they work miracles or not. We're all grown-ups, do we actually believe that the lovely Liz Hurley is really a stranger to the needle, and maintains her radiant look on just a thimble full, albeit a highly nutritious, organic, grown-in-her-garden thimble full, of watercress soup? Looking good, or the belief that one is making oneself look good, does raise our spirits. So we feel better. So we look better. It is of course different for men though. For them old, fat, grizzled equals shaggable (see Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, imagine Cathy Bates pulling Jake Gyllenhaal in a similar roll....) as the song says, 'Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved.' Apparently, lipstick sales surged after 9/11, a phenomenon first noticed during the Great Depression. Red lipstick, heels and a great rack, mad men are mad for it.

Top tip: Laura Mercier's Poppy lipstick will put a smile on anybody's face.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Let Me Eat Cake

With age comes wisdom and what I've learnt is.....don't fight it, bake's the only way to get through the winter. I've had two massive attacks of cooking fever in the last two weeks, both of which were super successful: Nigel Slater's chocolate hazelnut cookies (dangerously addictive) and Lucas Hollweg's orange and almond cake, both sinfully easy to make too. But why have I taken up the wooden spoon? Because for me, it is the ideal way to calm down and carry on when it all gets a bit overwhelming. Plus, in the case of the orange and almond cake, it makes the kitchen warm and citrusy.........always good on a wet Wednesday afternoon in January.

So, armed with a stack of soft-baked, chocolate hazelnut cookies, I am able to return to the fracas masquerading as my life at the moment, and help my slightly over-excited friend plan her slim, elegant, fortysomething wedding (without turning into bridezilla), get my mother safely into India while keeping my son safely out of Helmand Province (which knocks undone homework into a cocked hat) and attend to the business of working, paying bills, going out, staying in and keeping warm.

The travel plans to the jewel in the crown are coming on a pace but I am not a travel agent for good's quite stressful. I am more used to travelling with an idea and a map than an itinerary and a timetable, but with a 72 year old in tow I felt that booking early to avoid disappointment was the order of the day. However, despite getting a supremely lucky break on very cheap BA flights, and almost unravelling the mysteries of India rail, the final leg of our journey from Hampi to Patnem has fallen foul of a slight technical hitch: I booked the sleeper train to get us there no problem, unfortunately the AC part of the the train to get us to Goa is full....forever it would seem. And although I would be happy to travel the eight hours with just the breeze in my hair, without AC, I have visions of it all going a bit Passage To India, my mother coming over all Mrs. Moore and no Dr. Aziz on call. Still, when plans don't fall into place, the adventures can begin and nowhere is the saying, 'it's the journey not the destination' more appropriate than in India.

Top tip: guarantee to be in the youthful minority, go to the matinee of anything at The National Theatre