Tour de France

June 15, 2018

french maps

So, we’re setting off today with our bikes via 5 trains (including one sleeper), 24 hours, and an exciting ‘you may well not die’ bike ride through central Paris. We’re going to be doing a week or so of what I hesitate to call cycle touring, because I associate that with the sort of people who think nothing of 90km days, sleeping in bus stops, and crossing continents alone equipped with nothing but a bike, a map they picked up in a garage and a bag of jelly babies in their back pocket.

Our own plans are resolutely non-epic: approximately 30 miles a day, long lunches, sleeping in hotels, plentiful stops for cake and coffee – in short, cycle pootling, or in other words a holiday with a bit of cycling attached. Hopefully it will be enjoyable, because it’s costing approximately what we’d have paid for a fortnight in Barbados, once we’d booked all the trains. Also, I could now go on Mastermind with ‘taking your bike on European trains’ as my specialist subject.  We’ll have to tear ourselves away from the hares, which are being particularly adorable at the moment, and the garden which is just getting going (when the hares allow). Actually, I have no idea why we’re going on holiday at all, now I come to think of it, but it’s too late now …

I am also NOT taking my laptop so there won’t be any blogging for a bit. I’ll undoubtedly be tweeting and (if you’re desperate) posting carefully curated pictures on Instagram. Hopefully we will come back tanned, toned and ready to take on the world. Always assuming we make it through Paris on day one.

Wish us luck.


Oh, Sugar Sugar

May 9, 2018

I have to admit that when the recent stushie over changes to the Irn Bru recipe blew up, I might have rolled my eyes a little as desperate consumers allegedly started stockpiling supplies of the old version. Similarly, I had little sympathy with those distressed over the reformulation of Ribena apparently ruining their lives. That was until I settled down on the sofa a couple of evenings ago with a nice refreshing ginger beer and I came in for a nasty shock.

Old Jamaica – my gingery tipple of choice – have responded to the sugar tax by reformulating and it’s not an improvement. It’s not so much the taste, as the fact that it now seemed to have a distinctly soapy texture to it. It was startlingly high in sugar before, so I can see why they’ve done it, but the end result is distinctly not for me.

I’m in two minds about the whole thing, now. While I don’t quite buy the current ‘sugar as the root of all evil’ argument on balance, I think the sugar tax is a good thing, if only because the soft drink companies fought so hard against it. Yes, it would be better if kids – and, indeed, me – mostly drank water and only had fizzy drinks as a special treat, but the obesity (and tooth decay) crisis is happening now, and changes like that would take decades to bring about, so the fact that my occasional soft drink of choice has been ruined is really neither here nor there compared to the likely impact on the wider population’s health (it’s telling that, round here, all soft drinks are referred to as ‘juice’…).

It’s a shame that the approach most drinks companies have taken is to replace sugar with the cheap fix artificial sweeteners, rather than gradually just dialling down the sugar but that’s the way of the world. So I’m not going to claim my life is ruined or it’s the end of the world as we know it. But the fact remains, the new version is no longer the pleasure it once was and I need the occasional sweet gingery kick in my life.

Twitter, ever helpful (or ‘helpful’) has made a number of suggestions, including many people urging me to start a ginger beer plant and start brewing my own, in case Project Sourdough ever got too easy.* While this strikes me as likely to provide excellent blogging material, not least because it comes with the distinct possibility of explosions, I’m not so sure it will result in anything actually drinkable.

For now we’re auditioning Belvoir ginger beer as our alternative which is very pleasant, naturally much lower in sugar, and approximately three times as expensive than the Old Jamaica ginger beer, which is probably a good thing as we’ll drink less of it. Even so (at the risk of becoming someone who I’d roll my eyes at if I heard myself on the news) I kind of wish we’d stockpiled the original while we had the chance …

* just to keep the magic alive, I managed to completely forget to add salt to the last loaf until the very last minute. These things are sent to remind me why I shouldn’t contemplate taking up another project, particularly one with explosive potential.

Next Time, we’ll Start an Actual Fire…

February 9, 2018

Things people say to you when you tell them you’re planning a pop-up parklet in a few parking spaces in Edinburgh for the Firestarter Festival:

‘Cool! Sounds fun!’

‘Why would you do that?’

‘Don’t you have a proper job?’

‘Have you done a full risk assessment?’

Things people don’t say to you when you tell them you’re planning a pop-up parklet in a few parking spaces in Edinburgh for the Firestarter Festival (but you wish they had):

‘Have you checked the alignment of the sun?’

parking spaces before

Before …

pop up park after

After …

So it turns out, St Andrews House casts a deep and brooding shadow over the road in front of it. And that on a bright, sunny, but baltic February day in Edinburgh, when you are standing deep in that shadow, staring out at the sunshine warming every other corner of the city, with the wind funnelling between the massive somewhat Nazi-esque frontage of the building and Calton Hill, you will be very glad, very glad indeed, that you chose to wear All The Merino in preparation for the day.

Sunshine Calton Hill

Sunshine on Leith and, indeed, everywhere in Edinburgh except us

That said, Scots are a hardy bunch, and also well supplied with thermal layers and turned out to be prepared to play musical instruments, fix bikes, stand around cheerfully chatting and generally making the most of it with only a few yearning glances towards the sunny sheltered patches we could have set up in, had we thought it through. We had some good conversations, made some useful connections and while we’ve clearly got a bit of a learning curve before we perfect our tactical urbanism, we can chalk this one up at the very least as a useful learning experience

hardy musicians

And lesson number one is that next time – even if we don’t actually start a fire – we will be looking for nice sheltered suntrap for our next location. Which means (as someone pointed out, cheerfully) inevitably, it will rain.

Confess, you’re a Gazelle

December 13, 2017

You know, we complain a lot about the horrors of modern air travel but you have to admit that it’s an amazing achievement that you can wake up in a city in one continent and go to bed six time zones and a third of a planet away in another. And it’s even more of an amazing achievement to do it the day after the odd flake of snow has hit Heathrow and the resulting chaos is still working its way through the system. I will spare you the gory details (nobody wants to read about someone else’s air travel nightmare any more than they want to read about someone else’s actual nightmares) but suffice it to say I now understand why sleep deprivation is such an effective interrogation tool. After 24 straight hours of being awake I would have pretty much confessed to anything if I could have managed to string a coherent sentence together. Fortunately our long suffering brother in law was willing to pick us up from the airport at midnight – by that point, even if the car rental desk had still been open, I don’t think we could have found our way out of the parking lot let alone across the city.

Still, we are here, we have had some sleep and we are about to have more, it is snowing (although nobody in Minnesota is excited about snow, it would be like us getting excited about rain), and we’ve already been out to eat twice in less than one day. It is also very, very cold, but I gather we could be getting that at home…

upside down Christmas lights

Oh, and when Americans put up Christmas lights, they don’t muck about. I didn’t get the photo of the house whose front garden was crammed with giant inflatable figures (and I mean giant – some of the Santas were towering over the house in a way) but I suspect it will be haunting me in my dreams.

Jingle Hell

November 13, 2017

Stopping at the shop on the outskirts of Bigtown this morning for the paper, I was repelled back out the door by the sound of Christmas music. I know that railing about Christmas music in shops (in November!) is a bit like railing against it being Monday, or self-service tills, or the book you were reading and you thought still had a chapter to go suddenly ending leaving you with a chapter’s width worth of book club notes and plugs for other books (seriously, though, publishers – stop doing this. How would you like it if the last two biscuits in the packet, which you had been counting on to accompany your morning coffee, suddenly turned out to be plywood models* of other biscuits in the biscuit manufacturer’s product range?) but it was combined with a hefty queue, made worse because the shop has installed a self-service till so now only puts one person on the other tills to deal with the people who want to buy lottery tickets or booze or tobacco or a bacon roll or buy a newspaper with a voucher or top up their electricity meter which, given the particular demographic this shop serves, is basically everyone.

Cycling onwards into town to the tune of Winter Wonderland, I was forced to use WH Smith’s where the standoff continues between the people of Bigtown and head office over the self-service tills, so the queues are equally long but where – undoubtedly due to some bureaucratic error – there was no Christmas music, except for the loop of Winter Wonderland which was by now irrevocably stuck in my head.

There’s much I miss about Papershop Village, including the ride there (something I failed to appreciate as much as I could have done at the time), the mordant humour of Papershop Bloke, the wry amusement of Papershop woman, the sweeties for sale by weight in little paper bags – but most of all the certainty that they would never ever install a self-service till and that hell would definitely have frozen over before they played any Christmas music.

It is at this time of the year that I constantly give thanks that I do not work in retail.

Sorry if you’ve now also got Winter Wonderland stuck in your head.

* Unless they’re Rich Teas, of course in which case it would be an improvement

When Will I Ever Learn?

October 3, 2017

new shoes

We’ve been here before, but my beloved granny biker boots have worn out after just three* years. Did I buy a spare pair at the time (at least once I’d worked out how comfy and brilliant they were)? At £100 a pair, I did not. Did I start half-heartedly looking for a pair once the first crack appeared and find some on clearance but then not get around to actually buying a pair until they had sold out in my size? I did. Did I foolishly trust Dr Martens to keep selling the same design of boots for women year after year as they do for men? I did. Was I wrong to do so? Well, what do you think?

It turns out that the Gayle boot has been through a couple of revamps since I bought my pair – first they came out with a tweed version (hmm, not sure, I like tweed and all that but it’s not exactly boot material) and now that’s finished and they only come in with a fake fur lining. Clearly we flibbertigibbet women need to have our tastes titillated with a new version of something every six months or we move on. Or something. This woman would like to just be able to buy the thing she wants to buy when the old thing wears out. Then again, given how often I buy shoes, any company attempting to boost its profits by catering to me is on a hiding to nothing.

Perhaps if I wait long enough, the old version will come around on the guitar again, but meanwhile I’m lost without my boots and the smarter pair I bought hoping to replace them (in Clarks of all places) have too pointy a toe for my foot-shaped feet and are giving me grief so I can’t afford to wait. Indeed, a furry lined boot does sound quite nice for the winter, even though I’d still prefer to have the choice. And at (now) £125 I still don’t think I’ll be investing in two pairs in case the next iteration only comes in satin, or is see-through, or has four inch heels…

* Three years is pretty good for Dr Martens in my experience, which I seem to recall had an 18 month cycle of 6 months of agony as you broke them in, 6 months of blissful comfort, and 6 months of the growing realisation that you had walked through the bottom of your Bouncing Soles and it was time to start the process again. Of course, these days I walk hardly anywhere because I cycle instead which might explain their longevity.


August 30, 2017

So, as those who follow me on Twitter will know, I have got some new glasses.

To be strictly accurate, these are my spare glasses – I need two pairs because I can’t function without my specs and so I need some to wear while my other ones are being reglazed with the new prescription. However, it did occur to me that I’ve been wearing the same (increasingly hard-to-obtain) style of glasses for about 20 years now and it might be time to experiment with a different look.

I’m still not 100% convinced, although the reaction has largely been positive (at least nobody has openly laughed at them, but then again they could just be being polite). They’re quite heavy compared to my old frames, and even though they are apparently what all the cool kids are wearing these days, to someone my age they still look irrevocably like NHS specs… Plus I have the sneaking suspicion that they would not handle being run over by a tractor.

But we must move with the times, even if it does mean learning to do a selfie without adopting an expression that is a cross between ‘how does this phone thing work?’ and ‘who is that middle-aged woman on my phone screen and why is she wearing my hat?’

More on the latter this weekend. And possibly also the former.