Week-end: lounging

A fluffy black and white cat sprawls across the top platform of a floor-to-ceiling grey plush cat tree, like a lazy gargoyle

The good

Two days off! And another one on Monday. I have been napping, writing, watching figure skating, planning a holiday and getting my hair cut. It’s much less straggly now, although if I don’t blow dry it then it still curls the wrong way at the bottom. Also the plumber came and replaced the kitchen tap. The new one doesn’t drip. It’s wonderful.

The mixed

I have the time to write. Where is the energy? And the motivation? I’m doing my best to trust that all this napping and skating-watching (and napping while skating-watching, sorry again Roman Sadovsky, though since that free skate turned out to have dropped him out of the medals when I woke up again maybe he’d rather I didn’t watch it) is going to get me to a place where I can write enthusiastically and freely, but that’s advanced practice.

The difficult and perplexing

Still tired.

What’s working

Well, the new kitchen tap. The shower is still temperamental, though cleaning the head with vinegar has helped a little.

Reading

I started The Paris Apartment (Lucy Foley) on the train home from York (did I say that last week?) but haven’t got any further with it. I got slightly irritated by the sheer profusion of unnecessary cliffhangers (oh no! she has been hit by something heavy and sharp! two chapters later, it turns out to have been a cat jumping on her!) but will probably pick it up again on another train journey sooner or later. I’ve been dipping into Atlas of Imagined Places (Matt Brown and Rhys B. Davies), which is great fun, even if it’s making me painfully aware of my lamentable lack of pop culture knowledge. This is bound to feature as a Reader’s Gazetteer special when I’ve done a bit more dipping. And, in Sunday afternoon Christian reading, I’ve just begun Intimate Jesus: the sexuality of God incarnate (Andy Angel).

Writing

I finished the first draft of Starcrossers. Hurrah! It’s three and a half thousand words too long and I could easily make it longer. Oh dear. I’m going to let it sit for a month and see what’s to be done about it in December.

I also began a blog post about the Belgian Coastal Tramway, which I’m hopeful you’ll see sometime in the next few weeks.

Making

Return of the mystery patchwork (finally remembered to look in the fabric box in daylight, allowing me to cut out the last six patches and the wadding.

Mending

Darned some different bits of my black jeans. And one of Tony’s T-shirts.

Watching

The Sheffield Grand Prix. One of my friends got tickets to be there in person. I’m very jealous.

I would say, Twitter imploding, but actually I’ve only been following it at a distance. I haven’t really enjoyed being on Twitter since 2016 or so: this may be a prompt to step away. My favourite time on the internet was really round about 2009 or 2010 when LiveJournal was still thriving and Dreamwidth was just taking off so there could be two versions of the exact same post with two equally interesting conversations happening in the comments, and when blogs were still where it was and nobody had yet invented the algorithm. You can probably tell.

Cooking

I made a really good macaroni cheese on Friday. Using actual macaroni helps: it has that lovely squidgy schlick-schlick texture, which you just don’t get with penne. (I usually use penne, but I picked up a packet of macaroni from the side of the path a few weeks ago – I would be disowned if it ever came out that I left good food lying on the ground – and have been working my way through that.)

At the moment I have a turkey carbonnade in the slow cooker. I can’t see that this is any different from an idiosyncratic bolognese sauce, but never mind that. We’ll see how it tastes in a couple of hours. I have made polenta to go with it.

Eating

Our corner shop has become a Co-op and stopped selling plain Bounty bars. Disgraceful. It does, however, sell rather good orange chocolate.

Noticing

A flock of gulls flying overhead in a shallow V-formation.

In the garden

My Japanese anemone is attempting to bloom!

Appreciating

Lie-ins. Naps. Sleep in general, basically.

Acquisitions

Tickets to Avignon (on y danse, on y danse). The idea is that we get a bit of winter sunshine when I really need it, and in the meantime it’s something to look forward to.

And Molke had a sale so I’ve ordered some more bras.

Line of the week

We’ll be taking the TGV to Avignon, but I enjoyed Slow Travel: Europe by Train in the January 2008 issue of Hidden Europe.

We really mourn the passing of Eurostar’s old route into London where the train crept through Brixton on an ancient viaduct, screeched round tight curves past Battersea’s back gardens and trundled through a metroland full of bourgeois comforts: shiny Ebbsfleet will surely never be a match for Penge East, Sydenham Hill or sedate Shortlands.

Sunday snippet

From the end of Starcrossers:

We went beyond the farmland. We went all through the delta down to the sea, and then turned towards the moonrise until we caught sight of the high mountains. Then we returned to the city, Crew and Containment alike talking of where we might go next, and all of us were welcomed into the homes of our new acquaintances, where those who’d stayed at home were eager to hear what we’d seen.

This coming week

Another day off. Two days of tech support. Thursday, an appointment in Ely and a night at the opera in London (the appointment was scheduled two days ago and has stymied my beautiful plans, but I can still do both). And that’s as far ahead as I care to think for the moment.

What about you? Anything you’d like to share from this week? Any hopes for next week? Share them here!

Week-end: the higher the brow the harder they fall

A stone sill a great height over a city has arrows and town names and distances carved into the it; one of those is '230 - Londen'

The good

The Kickstarter for Bicycles and Broomsticks is live and is nearly half-way funded only a few days in. I have written a story! My story will be published! People will read my story! In a year when I have more writing-imposter syndrome than usual, this is a good feeling.

We had a lovely time in Belgium, with a further two and a half days in Brugge, an hour people-watching in Brussels, and the comparative glamour of Standard Premier class on the Eurostar home.

Today, by contrast (but equally good), I’ve cycled ten minutes up the hill and slightly less down again (eating croissants and discussing questions of theology in the middle), and walked 5km in one hour, and watched Filippo Ganna cycling 57km in one hour, and pottered in the garden, and generally had a nice quiet day.

The mixed

Home trains. We got off the Eurostar to find that nothing was running to Ely, so we got on a slow train to Cambridge, then discovered that the next train to Ely was in fact running. And on Tuesday I miscalculated my tickets and had to buy a single to go with my super off-peak which I’d left it too late to use. Plus the fact that as things turned out I didn’t really need to go to London on Tuesday after all, except by the time I knew that I’d booked tickets to something I actually did rather want to go and see, so…

But! The Ely-King’s Lynn line is finally fixed, and the timetable restored, so I can get a train straight through to work in the morning, and I have two through trains per hour in the evening. Which is all marvellous.

The difficult and perplexing

My RSS reader came up with an error for Cate’s Cates this week. Catherine was a joyous, kind, witty, and eclectic internet presence; she died very unexpectedly earlier this year; and now a little more of what was left is gone.

Being eaten alive by mosquitoes in our room at Brugge. The bites are fading now, but at one point I had three on my right cheekbone. Fortunately the place also had a very flattering mirror and I could pretend it was a tripartite beauty spot, a mark of distinction, rather than untimely acne. The ones on my arms and feet were really itchy, though.

And I continue to be a zombie outside daylight hours.

What’s working

Well, not doing things outside daylight hours, but that gets increasingly difficult. I’m not even doing terribly well during the daylight hours, though Radio 3 is helping.

Promising myself I’d do an hour of admin and then stop (and setting a Forest Focus tree to enforce both).

Snag tights (the only snag, ha, is that all my other tights are infuriatingly ill-fitting by comparison). I was particularly pleased by the white-fishnets-over-black-opaques combination.

Reading

Very intellectual this week. I had put The Master and Margarita on my e-reader some time ago, and began that on the Eurostar home; I’m about a quarter of the page count and two decapitations in. Then I finished Art and Lies yesterday. Very good, impressionistic, visual, disquieting. (Note: all the content notes.) I couldn’t quite face going back to The Master and Margarita and more potential decapitations, so I started Sisters of the Vast Black (Lina Rather) which is delightful so far. (Nuns! IN SPAAACE!) Last night I was feeling too exhausted for anything new at all, so put on my pyjamas and lounged on the sofa with The Fellowship of the Ring (and the cat on my lap). I’m pretty sure I fell asleep like that.

Sewing

I got five badges (see Acquisitions, below) onto my camp blanket despite the best efforts of the cat.

Watching

Today, Filippo Ganna’s Hour Record, the end of the Lombardia, and highlights from the Singapore Grand Prix. At other points in the week, the keyboard finals of the BBC Young Musician of the Year, Star Trek: Lower Decks, and quite a lot of quiz shows from BBC iPlayer.

Looking at

Art in the Groeningen Museum in Brugge. I will never now be able to unsee The Judgement of Cambyses. There was some Bosch in there too, about which all I can say is ‘it was smaller than I expected’. But there were also things that I remember and enjoyed looking at: St Luke Drawing The Virgin Mary, for example, where the poor Madonna is trying to feed the baby Jesus, who is distracted by St Luke in the way that babies are. And a couple of really striking late nineteenth-century landscapes.

Then on Tuesday I went to see the Fashioning Masculinities exhibition at the V and A. A few of my friends had been to this and enthused. And it’s closing soon, and I can’t get to the V and A and back in a lunchtime (I’ve tried), so I thought that since I had to go to London to pick up my laptop, I might as well make an afternoon of it. And a fascinating afternoon it was. Although in some ways it was just as interesting looking at the other exhibition-goers; some of them were dressed very strikingly indeed.

Cooking

Caldo verde, sort of, and an attempted Black Forest sponge pudding from the remains of a chocolate tray bake and the end of a jar of cherry jam. I think I might have done better to bash the cake up more and mix in a little milk. But it was perfectly edible.

Eating

The most delectable waffle I have ever tasted. It was most beautifully light and it came with cream, ice cream, and kirsch-soaked cherries. I ordered a pot of coffee alongside it and that came with a macaron and a hard almond biscuit. This was at a café in Brugge called Carpe Diem.

We also ate some mussels and shrimp croquettes, and I had a thing called Croque Boum Boum for lunch on our last day (it’s a toasted cheese and ham sandwich with bolognese sauce on the top), but it’s that waffle that I’ll remember.

Drinking

Beer. I am a bit thrown by the way Belgian menus don’t tend to include the alcohol percentage, and tended to stick with known quantities for that reason. I did, however, risk a Tripel Karmeliet knowing that it was going to be pretty deadly.

And a lot of coffee.

Moving

I climbed the belfry at Brugge. Over three hundred steps. On the whole I prefer the one at Ghent, which has dragons, but I’m glad to have done it. I ended up at the top when the carillon was going for the hour, which was quite a thing. Couldn’t help but think of The Nine Tailors

Noticing

Golden sunlight and long shadows, and the sharpness of the demarcation. A tiny two-spotted ladybird landing on my hand. The stars, when I went out to pick some rosemary last night.

In the garden

Apples, loads of them. Pears, quite a few of them. Today I pruned one of the apple trees and cut a load of wisteria and the vine back.

Appreciating

The fluffiness of the cat. The honesty and curiosity of the Way of Breakfast group. A weekend in which I don’t have to do anything much.

Acquisitions

I was very pleased to find cloth badges for Oostende, Wenduine, De Haan, and Littoral Belge at a flea market stall in Brugge. Then, in a souvenir shop, I found a Brugge badge that I preferred to the one that I’d already got, so I bought that one. Anybody want a Brugge badge?

Picked up Susan Sontag’s Notes On Camp from the V and A.

Hankering

More Snag tights. And I am still thinking about jeans. (Both my pairs of jeggings have worn through, too.)

Line of the week

I said last week that it ought to be Art and Lies. This week it is, although it was hard to find a single best line; so much of it is short, bright, fragments that don’t look like so much on their own, but cumulatively are utterly dazzling. However:

The crescent curve of the train mows the houses as it passes, the houses disappear behind the moon metal blade of the silver train.

This coming week

I have finally got all the ducks lined up in a row for a work project that’s needed doing for a long time. On Monday I’m beginning another writing stint. Saturday we’re going to see friends. I want to have the energy to enjoy all those things in their different ways.

Anything you’d like to share from this week? Any hopes for next week? Share them here!

Week-end: don’t Knokke it

A tram showing destination 'Knokke' passes a station built with a steep roof and text 'Coq Sur Mer'

The good

I have fulfilled a reasonably long-held ambition and travelled almost the entire length of the Belgian coastline by tram. (Belgium is as far as I am aware the only country where this is possible). This is part of a most welcome long weekend away. I’ll write more about it when I’m back.

The mixed

I really do like tutoring, and I had the opportunity to do some this week. But my goodness, it doesn’t half take it out of me, and I spent the evening swaying gently to and fro and conversing in monosyllables.

The difficult and perplexing

Tired. Tired all the time. Really feeling it at the moment, particularly when I encounter too many people and too much noise, and had an embarrassing tearful delayed introvert meltdown in the high street on Sunday.

Plus, of course, The News.

What’s working

A warm bath. With a bright green jasmine-scented bath room. Also the WordPress app is a great improvement on trying to do this in the mobile browser.

Reading

Art and Lies by Jeanette Winterson. Not sure what’s going on but I’m enjoying it.

Mending

I started darning a sock but didn’t get very far.

Watching

I forgot to mention Dune last week. I didn’t fall asleep, which is an improvement on all my previous experiences watching any adaptation of Dune (Tony’s university tendency to start showing it at eleven at night after a bottle of wine really didn’t help here) but it’s still somewhat slow. This week, I managed to watch the end of the women’s world championship road race (really cheered me up on my miserable Sunday afternoon) and the beginning of the men’s.

Looking at

The Gold exhibition at the British Library. Some beautiful manuscripts there. I was charmed by a beetle in a gold margin, and spent some time looking at golden cross-hatching on a picture of Our Lady.

Plus bits of Brugge from a boat, and bits of the North Sea from a tram.

Eating

I’ve just had some excellent spaghetti with seafood. Yesterday I had Flemish beef stew. No waffles yet; this feels like an omission. And on Thursday night we went for sushi in London. Very tasty. I’m not sure I’d ever tried green tea ice cream or sesame ice cream or indeed chestnut ice cream before now.

Noticing

Some gorgeous Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture (in among some dismal high-rise seaside flats). A lot of dogs.

Appreciating

Our attic bedroom across the road from Brugge cathedral. Continental coffee. I like being able to order plain ‘coffee’ (or koffie, café, Kaffee, etc) and receiving something really nice, no further questions.

Public transport. I travelled from one end of a country to another in two hours for €7.50.

Acquisitions

I got a Brugge badge for my camp blanket. Spent far too much money on books in Ely cathedral shop on Sunday. (One was something I’d intended to buy in August, but still…) And ordered and received some new underwear from Molke.

Hankering

As I notice a hole at the edge of the last patch but one on my black jeans, I once again consider acquiring a pair without elastane, and possibly with an expensive brand name…

Line of the week

Ought to be from Art and Lies, but I didn’t bring it with me. Have a line from Cyclist magazine instead:

I could stand here all morning, lost in a sea of beauty, the mountains tugging at the very fibres of my soul. But yet I am man, I have simple needs, and it doesn’t take too much talk of coffee and cake at the bottom of this descent to lure me from my reverie.

This coming week

I return home, go to London both more and less than in an ideal world I would, and probably do some laundry.

Anything you’d like to share from this week? Any hopes for next week? Share them here!

Week-end: equinoctial

A broad sky dappled with white and, nearer, pearly grey clouds

The good

A small family gathering: my mother stayed overnight on her way back south, and the in-laws are staying just up the road. I don’t think we’ve seen them all in the same place for the best part of a decade. We had a very nice morning chatting and eating cake, celebrating Tony’s birthday.

The mixed

A palimpsest of red letter days: the equinox, Tony’s birthday, Bi Visibility Day, the uncompromising autumnal nature of it all and the corresponding wondering about where this year has gone (answer: same as it’s been every time I’ve wondered this).

The difficult and perplexing

I’m really feeling the diminished daylight. It’s difficult to get up in the dark for my office days (and the Great Northern line still isn’t running properly, adding an extra half hour to change at Cambridge in the mornings) and on my work-from-home days I haven’t managed to get out of bed early enough to get a morning walk in.

What’s working

A little at a time. A picture a day. Or, at least, every day that I can.

Reading

Barely anything this week, though I am keeping up with Clorinda. As compensation, I’m going to mention a couple of things I read earlier and then didn’t write about. Firstly, Dust Tracks On A Road, Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography. I get the impression that this was not the best place to start, though I also feel the writer of the introduction (this is a Virago paperback edition) wanted it to be a book that it was never going to be. Also, Tristan and Isolde (Gabriel Bise), a rather odd book which took as its starting point illustrations from a manuscript version in the Duc de Berry’s library and then tried to tell the story with explicit reference to what was going on in the pictures. Sometimes this felt rather like reading a medieval Hello! (“Wearing golden crowns the royal couple stood side by side, Mark wearing a full red cloak lined with vair, Isolde in a pink robe embroidered in gold. Between them, the priest in his blue cape blessed their joined hands while reading from the ritual of the sacramental texts. Behind the king, in a green coat, Tristan shared with Curvenal the anguish which afflicted him…”) and occasionally went all the way into unintentional farce (“disguised as a pilgrim, [King Mark] went with his retinue to the land of Logres. Wearing his gold-crowned helmet he easily disposed of those knights who happened to obstruct his path…”). Really I’d have preferred a straight translation of the actual text in the Duc de Berry’s book.

Writing

More on Book Bus Stories, which is really starting to come together, and a light pass over Starcrossers, which I now know how to cut down to fit into the word limit.

Mending

A visible darn on the elbow of a short stripy blue dress and an invisible mend, picking up a ladder in a little gold cardigan. A couple more subtle darns on one of Tony’s T-shirts and another one on the dress with constellations.

Listening to

The Queen’s funeral. Rather a pedestrian selection of hymns, I thought (much as I love The day thou gavest, I associate it more with Evensong, possibly coupled with an address by Reverend Whatsit from the Missionary Society, and I’m really not sure about descants at a funeral) but the choral stuff was excellent.

Watching

The world road cycling championships, selectively and rather behind the times. Getting up to watch it live isn’t really an option this week, but I’ve enjoyed seeing it in chunks during the evenings. I really do like the mixed relay time trial; it’s a pity it only happens once a year. Now I’ve got the women’s road race on in the background and am enjoying glancing up to see pleasant views of the Australian coastline.

Household

Hanging some family pictures: two of my great-grandmother’s watercolours featuring the great-aunt I’m named after (she doesn’t seem to have painted anybody except her own children; everything else is landscapes); a painting of Kirkstall Abbey which has on the back a list of every address where it’s hung since 1915; a painting of a great-great-great-aunt as a child (and about time: that one’s been sitting on top of the piano for months). Of course I’d forgotten about a framed prayer and a shield of Trinity College Cambridge, and will have to get some more picture hooks.

Cooking

A very large apple crumble.

Eating

Cake. Also Tony cooked venison on Sunday, which made quite a change.

Moving

Special arrangements for the Period of National Mourning meant that Sunday’s regular communion service happened at 4pm, so for once I got a Sunday morning ride in. My usual route heads out to the north-west and proceeds along a series of right-angles. When I get fed up I turn around and go back again. Consequently I am bound to get both headwinds and tailwinds at some point in the trip; this time it was a headwind on the way out and a tailwind on the way back, which, because of the way the hills work, is by far the most fun, and I beat all my Strava numbers in an entirely undeserved manner. Also there was some excellent fenland sky going on (see photo at top of post).

Noticing

Cyclamen under the hazel trees. I do love cyclamen – only the tiny mauve wild ones, though.

In the garden

Still apples, still pears, and a handful of runner beans.

Appreciating

Tailwinds. Family. The comforting delicate web of internet connections.

Acquisitions

The Ffern Autumn 22 perfume arrived. It doesn’t particularly seem to work on my skin, though: pleasantly citrusy for an hour or so, and then gone. I think I’ll work through the sample and return the full bottle.

Hankering

I want one of those plywood contraptions that you put on a table to make it into a standing desk, with your laptop on the highest shelf, your keyboard and mouse halfway down, etc. Not sure that this would actually work with any furniture I actually own, but still, I note this. I also have a hankering after hand-knitted socks, being jealous of my knitting friends. I don’t want to get into knitting socks, though. Etsy may be the answer here. And opera tickets.

Line of the week

From the latest Hidden Europe:

Just south of the estuary of the Adige we come to the Po Delta, where a braided maze of waterways has over the centuries shifted position, leaving spits, sandbars and brackish backwaters where the low line of the horizon is broken only by myriad migrating birds.

Saturday snippet

Having some fun with one of the Book Bus Stories:

He had toiled down to the Riviera, and meandered around Juan-les-Pins and Antibes and Nice in a state of mind as blue as the famous train that had taken him there.

This coming week

A busy work week, and then the Eurostar to Brussels for Brugge and the Belgian Coastal Tramway. I’d like to catch up with Embroidered Sunset, keep going with the drawings, and maybe listen to some music in the evenings.

Anything you’d like to share from this week? Any hopes for next week? Share them here!

The Reader’s Gazetteer: V

Red-bound hardback copy of 'Villette' by Charlotte Bronte in two volumes, on an inlaid table

This isn’t quite the oldest work I’ve referred to in this series: The Annals of the Parish has thirty-two years on it. Villette the book was published in 1853; Villette the city has the sense of a long history. ‘The great capital of the great kingdom of Labassecour,’ it’s famously based on Brussels, and Charlotte Brontë’s experiences as a teacher there. At the time of publication, this was only twenty-three years on from the revolution that established Belgium as a nation. This seems to have happened, if rather longer ago, and not in quite the same way, in Villette too:

In past days there had been, said history, an awful crisis in the fate of Labassecour, involving I know not what peril to the rights and liberties of her gallant citizens. Rumours of wars there had been, if not wars themselves; a kind of struggling in the streets – a bustle – a running to and fro, some rearing of barricades, some burgher-rioting, some calling out of troops, much interchange of brickbats, and even a little of shot. Tradition held that patriots had fallen: in the old Basse-Ville was shown an enclosure, solemnly built and set apart, holding, it was said, the sacred bones of martyrs.

Labassecour seems to have been existing uneventfully – dare one say, dully? – for rather longer than Belgium had. All the same, there’s plenty going on beyond the walls of the school where Brontë’s heroine Lucy Snowe teaches. For example:

a concert… a grand affair to be held in the large sall, or hall, of the principal musical society. The most advanced of the pupils of the Conservatoire were to perform: it was to be followed by a lottery “au benefice des pauvre;” and to crown all, the King, Queen and Prince of Labassecour were to be present.

And the place itself seems impressive enough. On her arrival, Lucy passes:

a magnificent street and square, with the grandest houses round, and amidst them the huge outline of more than one over-bearing pile; which might be palace or church…

Unlike Brussels, it seems to be entirely French-speaking: Lucy Snowe has only one new language to learn, and never encounters the ‘should I in fact be attempting Dutch?’ uncertainty that I usually feel in the historically Dutch-speaking, more recently French-speaking, officially bilingual, capital.

There’s a lot of French in Villette, so much so that even this copy, printed in 1900, includes an apologetic appendix with all the translations. It’s effective, though: we never, ever, forget that we’re in a foreign country. Making it a language that we might be expected to know, or at least to be able to learn if we chose, makes it a country that we could plausibly visit. (Although even a little French reveals Villette to be ‘a little town’, and a little more makes Labassecour ‘the farmyard’. Which undermines things rather.)

And religion, my goodness. We are left in no danger of forgetting that Labassecour is a Roman Catholic country, and differences in religion are a major driver of the action in the second half of the book. Nor are we in danger of forgetting that this is something foreign to Lucy Snowe. I often found it uncomfortable reading, and I’m not even Catholic.

Which is all very well, but how do you get there? On impulse, from London. Lucy learns from a waiter that she can take a ship to the Continent landing at Boue-Marine, and boards one a few hours later. Landing in ‘the foreign seaport town’, she spends the rest of the night at a hotel, and then travels forty miles by road to Villette:

Somewhat bare, flat and treeless was the route along which our journey lay; and slimy canals crept, like half-torpid green snakes, beside the road; and formal pollard willows edged level fields, tilled like kitchen-garden beds.

Making allowances for Lucy’s pessimistic worldview, that’s a landscape I can recognise – from the Low Countries through which I was travelling last weekend, as much as from the Fens outside my back door.

And then she arrives in the dark, loses her trunk, and gets very lost: very easy to do in a new town, even if, pre-railways, she doesn’t share my propensity for exiting the wrong side of a station. Which has been one of the interesting things about reading this particular book. But I shouldn’t be surprised if the Eurostar stops in Villette these days.

Books mentioned in this post

Villette, Charlotte Brontë

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Daily Decoration: a swan a-swimming (not on the seventh day)

A flat wooden Christmas tree decoration with a swan and the figure 7 in gold on a green background

Today is not the seventh day of Christmas. But this is the only Twelve Days of Christmas ornament I have, and today I have seen a very large number of geese. Not a-laying, but a lot more than six of them. Two hundred, at least. I thought for a long time that they were swans, until four or five of them flew overhead, and the sound was wrong – honking, not the whirring noise that swans’ wings make – and the beaks were wrong. So the day’s wrong and the numbers are wrong and the birds are wrong, and none of them were either a-swimming or a-laying.

But it was great. You can’t argue with a field of two hundred waterfowl, and besides, I was out on a decent walk, an hour out, an hour back, and that’s something I haven’t done as much as I’d like this year. I’ve done a lot of quick morning walks – twenty-five minutes out, twenty-five minutes back – but not much new territory. I think part of that’s a hangover from last year. I got out of the habit of walking to places in lockdown, when the pubs were shut and the trains were for essential travel only, and so any walk had to be short and circular.

Today’s walk wasn’t a new one. Coveney and back again: I’ve done that plenty of times, on foot and on my bike. But it was time and space to think about the adventures I might yet take. It’s tricky, obviously, with the Continent shutting down every few months. Maybe 2022 is the year we go down the Rhine. And I have this idea of cycling from Ghent to Aachen. And I’m less interested than I used to be in crossing one route after another off a list. That means going to places because I want to go to them – but knowing what I want to do can still be a challenge sometimes. It needs to be a bit more specific than ‘somewhere new’.

More than anything, I think, it needs a change in mindset. Adventure happens when I’m adventurous. And in the meantime, perhaps, I can be preparing. Getting my road bike serviced. Looking at maps. Going a little bit further, a little bit longer. Expanding my comfort zone a bit at a time. And in the meantime, there are hundreds of geese if I only walk half an hour from my front door.

Daily Decoration: Advent candle

A red candle marked with gold figures up to 24. It has burned down as far as the figure 19. In the foreground, a cardboard angel holds a banner saying FEAR NOT.

‘Ah,’ said Tony, ‘it’s the candle.’

‘Mm?’

‘Something in my brain said, ah, that’s Christmas. It’s the smell of the candle.’

He has a point. For those of us who spent a lot of time in churches in our childhood, candles smell of Christmas all by themselves; there’s no need to add pine or cinnamon and put it in a fancy jar. Although I’m not sure how he hasn’t noticed it before, because, as you see, I’ve been burning this one all through Advent. And in fact it isn’t Christmas yet.

We buy each other chocolate Advent calendars, but I get the candle for myself. I have a fairly well-defined set of preferences. Not white – which usually, as this year, means red. Not conical (I made that mistake one year and regretted it as the time to burn through each number increased daily). Not too hideous. This one’s pretty good, though it could have done with some blank space at the bottom. As things stand, I’m going to have to take it out of its bottle before I get down to 24 and put it in some sand or something. I’d rather not risk cracking the glass.

The bottle is something of a hero of antiquity. It dates from my student years – 2006, to be precise. It says so on the side, courtesy of an Exeter University Methodist and Anglican Society glass painting evening. 2006 was the year I graduated. This year’s Freshers were born the year that I was a Fresher.

This September we went down to the West Country: took the sleeper to Penzance and worked our way back up again on a selection of trains and buses. Excellent fun (I particularly recommend taking the open-topped bus around Land’s End). We stopped off at Exeter and went to Evensong at the university chapel, eighteen years (give or take) after we first met there. A lot has changed – the choir, for a start, is a lot more competent and a lot tidier than we ever were; the room where I painted that bottle has been taken out of use, except for storage – but I had a very strong sense that the important things were still the same.

The glorious ceiling. The high clear windows. Radcliffe responses and Greater love hath no man.

Or, perhaps, the same but more so. The singing better, the choir robed, the new scholars inducted with a formal blessing. The implicit inclusion of queer Anglicans made explicit.

A sense of a beginning.

Daily Decoration: Ljubljana dragon

Laser-cut plywood dragon set in a circle, with text 'Ljubljana' at the base

I only found out when someone mentioned it on Twitter a few hours ago, that today’s the anniversary of Patrick Leigh Fermor setting out on his epic foot journey to Constantinople. It’s rather pleasing, because I was thinking about PLF a lot when I was planning the journey on which I picked up this dragon.

My Grand Tour in 2018 was rather less epic than PLF’s journey. I only had three weeks to get it done in, though my budget was probably quite a bit more generous, courtesy of the Betty Trask Award. Going by train, I got some impressive mileage in. I didn’t get invited to stay in any castles, though I did end up having dinner with a coloratura soprano in Vienna.

But that’s by the by.

I loved Ljubljana, in much the same way as I loved Bratislava: they’re both capital cities that haven’t been capitals all that long; they’re easy to walk around, and hard to get lost in. Bratislava had the better food, and a cathedral with a wonderful eighteenth century St Martin in a pellisse. And trams.

But Ljubljana has dragons. They guard one of the famous bridges; there’s a legend about a dragon and Jason, of Argonauts fame. And actually there was some very good cake, too. And bendybuses. And a funicular.

I went to Ljubljana because two separate friends, both far more experienced than me in the art of adventure, recommended it. That was how I planned a lot of the journey: recommendations from people who knew what they were doing; places I’d always wanted to go to; things that looked good in Europe By Rail. A bit of wiggle room for emergencies, or just in case I wanted to change my mind. (I did, a couple of times.)

But all the time I was planning it I had to get around a voice in my head that was trying to tell me that this was the last fun thing, before… Before what? Well, before Brexit, before whatever horrors the next US election were going to inflict upon the world, before I lost my nerve.

And had Patrick Leigh Fermor, tramping across Europe and seeing the rise of Nazism on the ground, got into my head? Had Patrick Leigh Fermor, looking back on the adventures of his youth from the bitter experience of sixty-something (and a world war), managed to scare me, betwixt and between at the age of thirty-two, out of going? No: he was half the reason I wanted to go at all.

I can’t say that I saw a global pandemic coming. Sometimes the voice in my head tells me that it told me so.

But it wasn’t the last fun thing. It wasn’t even the last continental European holiday: we got to Lille the next year. It wasn’t the last public transport adventure: even this September we took the sleeper to Penzance and worked our way back up the West Country on buses and trains.

The Grand Tour wasn’t the last fun thing. And actually, by the end of the trip it was feeling less like the end of something and more like the beginning of something. I’d learned a lot about travelling on my own, about not actually having to speak every language, about when to rewrite a plan and how absolutely anywhere looks better after you’ve had a shower. And I’d learned that very often it is just as simple as deciding that you want to go somewhere, and going there. Here be dragons. Let’s go and see them.

If you want to read about my Grand Tour adventures in more detail, perhaps excessive detail, start here.

Daily Decoration: Dutch windmill

China windmill, white with blue sails and details, hanging by a blue ribbon from a brass knob

Finishing off the vaguely Dutch theme of the last few days with an actual windmill from Amsterdam. Amsterdam was a day trip: we were staying in Leiden and it was our first foreign holiday together since our honeymoon. (Really? Six years? But then there really wasn’t much money to spare for most of them.)

Most of our recent foreign holidays have been to the Low Countries. There’s a good reason for that: we only started gathering some disposable income once we’d moved to Cambridgeshire, because that was where one of the jobs was. Add to that my reluctance to fly (it’s not that I’m never flying again, but I’m going to need a very good reason indeed), a shared interest in cycling, and the proximity of the Harwich ferry and the Eurostar, and it becomes obvious that we’d visit Leiden, then Ghent, then Lille.

(Solo trips are another matter. More on that tomorrow. And we are still holding out for that rail tour alongside the Rhine.)

I wasn’t massively keen on Amsterdam. My experience throughout my travels (again, more on that tomorrow, probably) has been that I prefer the smaller cities. But I did like the Netherlands more generally, and I’d like to go back sometime when All This is under control. In the meantime, I’m exploring my own flat land.

Blue sky reflected in a straight, calm, river, with reeds and a grassy artificial dike on the right bank and overhead railway power lines on the left bank
Cambridgeshire.

Landing (Emma Donoghue) #EU27 project

Paperback copy of 'Landing' by Emma Donoghue, with a coastal scene and wooden blocks with pictures of an aeroplane, a compass rose, and a maple leaf

Four books into the #EU27 challenge, and for the first time I’ve managed to read something that was actually written in the European Union. Except, according to the cover, Emma Donoghue now lives in Canada. Oh well. She’s Irish, much of this book is set in Ireland, and people pay for things in euros. I’m going to count it. I’m also going to count it towards the Sapphic Reading Challenge, which I’ve been keeping up with but not, as yet, posting about.

Published in 2007 (the year in which I last travelled by plane, incidentally), this is a complicated romance between an Irish-Asian flight attendant and a Canadian museum archivist. And, while I’ve been doing a lot of escapist travel reading throughout the pandemic, I wouldn’t say that this was a book to induce wanderlust: it’s too clear-sighted about the trials of travel, and of being in love with someone who’s thousands of miles away. Though there’s a real affection for the real Ireland and for the fictional ‘Ireland, Ontario’ I didn’t find myself planning an expedition, the way I have with some other places.

I could add all sorts of tropey genre tags – long distance relationship, age gap romance, opposites attract – but they wouldn’t come close to conveying the depth of the novel. I would want to say that all of them add up to make for two interesting, complex characters. (And the supporting cast on both sides of the Atlantic deserves a mention, too: from the stoner ex-husband to the obnoxiously precocious god-daughter.) I wasn’t convinced that their relationship was going to last beyond the end of the book, but watching it get as far as it did was fascinating.