Who I am and what I'm doing

I love food, music, fashion, art and culture. I also love to write and never do enough of the above things, especially in London and so in 2011 I thought I'd create a blog and attempt to do one thing a week that I'd not done before in London - whether it was a show, an exhibition, a class, a course, a dating evening - whatever. At the end of the year I completed my challenge of doing 52 new things.

In 2016 I am doing the challenge again but this time, its all about learning something new each week. So I'm going to go to a different talk, lecture or workshop each week and learn something and educate and inspire myself!

Friday, 6 January 2017

Week 53 - my learnings and the top ten

When I finished last week's blog, there was a palpable sense of relief.  Ahhh it was like that feeling when you fall spread eagle onto the couch after a mammoth day of non-stop running around.  Its that wave of respite and sense of achievement.  But thank goodness its over.  I am utterly glad that I did it, I don't regret it for a minute but man alive did I struggle with it.  It was not easy in the slightest but there was no way I wasn't going to finish it, that's just not me.  But I'd be kidding myself if I said I was never going to do something similar again.  I think I'm just a bit like that - I thrive a bit on being manically busy with tasks and projects.  I've always tried to fit a million things in and I don't think I'll ever change.  I've already had ideas for more projects sheeeeesh.....but they are for much later.

So I thought I'd trawl back through the last year reminiscing and reflecting on what I liked the most.  Having written down a few of my favourites, I've actually realised that I really did enjoy quite a lot of the things I did, at least half, if not a few more, which I think is pretty good. There were some I really didn't like, but very few and I would say that I'm now an expert in what makes a successful workshop or masterclass.  For those that wish to know, the year cost me just over £1600 which is just over £30 per week.  It would have been a lot more if it hadn't been for the generosity of an awful lot of people giving me discounts.

So, to my top 10 and whether I will return to any of these pursuits. It was hard to limit it to 10, there were a couple more that I really loved but here is the final list:

1. Perfume making at The Experimental Perfume Club
2. Pasta making with Burro y Salvia
3. DJing at On The Rise Academy
4. Playing poker with Capital Casino Events
5. A 5x15 lecture on the "food fight"
7. Bookbinding at St Bride Foundation
8. Clay pigeon shooting at English Shooting
9. Playing the Harmonica courtesy of The Indytude
10. Coping with Imperfection at The School of Life

Without question perfume-making was my favourite, its the one I've always gone to when people have asked me what I've loved throughout the year.  I have a really keen sense of smell and I loved using my nose to create something.  Plus it was the perfect workshop and Emmanuelle, the teacher was wonderful.  

Pasta making was just an utter delight.  I loved everything about it and it made me feel completely at ease.  I really love cooking and feel comfortable in my kitchen and this was an extension of that.  I do now have a pasta machine although it has not yet been used.  Believe me it will in 2017.

Oh to be able to DJ.  What a joy that would be.  Plus it just is fucking cool.  But....only if you do it well.  I certainly couldn't master the art in a day, its bloody hard, but what I did learn from Jay is the real way to DJ with skill.  Not just using the technology to fluidly mix the end of one tune into another but knowing every tune inside and out and being clever with every mix.  It really is an art.

Poker night at my house was awesome.  Our teacher, Jacqui brought the whole set up and was just a brilliant laugh.  I'm sitting here trying to work out if I still remember how to play....hmm....I think I do, maybe just a quick refresh and then I'm good to go.  If anyone fancies a poker night let me know, I'm in!

My number five is the first and only talk on the list and it is all the more poignant now since the reason its on the list at all is because of the late, great AA Gill.  What an absolute phenomenal speaker he was on the subject of food.  He was effortless, dry, witty, opinionated and erudite.  I feel very privileged to have seen him speak.

My class at the Swiss Cottage Climbing Centre was actually very frustrating, there was another person there who was incredibly annoying and held a lot of the class up for me.  However once I started to climb up the wall, it didn't matter and I didn't care about him.  I was just focused on the task and was surprised how much I liked it and wasn't fearful at all.  I've been invited back to do another session and will do so with relish.

The Bookbinding workshop was another one that just worked so well.  It was a small class, lots to do,  creative and super relaxing.  It was also one of the most satisfying classes with such a lovely result at the end of it.  

Clay pigeon shooting was just a couple of weeks ago so it's still in the forefront of my mind.  I had a great time, maybe more so because I was good at it, but it's a good laugh and definitely a fun thing to do with a group of mates.

I've always always wanted to learn to play the harmonica and I did kind of do that in a couple of hours, but as with anything if you want to be really good at it, you have to practise.  I think that was the issue I had with a lot of the weeks and none more so here.  Its no good learning certain things in a day, it has to be an ongoing process.  Whether I will do that with the harmonica is unknown but I still had a great introduction to it.

Finally, last on my list is the coping with imperfection class I went to at The School of Life.  This is perhaps an odd addition to the list as I didn't particularly love the session the way I did with other weeks but it is the one that inspired me to write a very honest, vulnerable and open piece of writing about myself.  Plus it made my Mum cry so if the purpose of it was to have touched at least one person then I achieved something good.

So there you have it, my challenge to learn one new thing every single week in 2016 is complete.  I got pretty stressed a lot of the time but I did learn a great deal and also had a lot of fun throughout.  I have no idea who has been reading the blog and what a lot of you have thought but I did it for me and I'm happy which was the most important thing.  However, if I have inspired anyone or at least given some enjoyment to those out there reading then I'm doubly happy.  Thanks for all coming on the journey with me.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Week 52 - learning an Indian head massage course

So quite clearly I'm ecstatic.  The end of this challenge has come and I couldn't be more relieved.  However, I don't want to detract from this final week of learning so I've decided I will do one more final post next week, summing up the entire year with a top ten and my final thoughts.  
In the meantime week 52 was a lovely, relaxing way to end my project, although, I have to say it was a lot more relaxing for my friend Nicole than it was for me.  My final foray into endless learning was a course in Indian head massage.  Fortunately for Nicole I had to take someone with me to practise on and learn all the techniques.  

Massage was one of those things I had on my list at the beginning, I knew I wanted to do some sort of course as I've always had very strong hands and am fairly intuitive with massaging other people.  I'm also obsessed with having them myself so feel like I know what works and what doesn't.  An Indian head massage course was perfect as you can do it in a day and you don't have to deal with massage tables, oils and all the undressing kerfuffle.  Its just nice and easy.

I did the course with London Therapists at the home of the owner, Claire Mendelsohn.  She was very  warm and welcoming to both myself and Nicole and set us up in her teaching room where the beautiful sunshine poured in.  She told us briefly about the history of Indian head massage, the benefits of it and how it has been practised for over 1000 years.  In India everyone learns about massage; babies are given them daily from birth until they are three years old and weekly after that.  It is an integral part of life and Indian head massage in particular springs from a rich tradition of family grooming. Originally, it was developed by women using different oils on their hair to keep it strong and lustrous.  These days, barbers use some of the same techniques with their male clients and also tend to offer them "champi" (head massage) as part of the treatment.  The word "shampoo" actually comes from this Hindi word meaning "massage of the head".

We then got straight into it.  Nicole made herself comfortable and Claire took me through everything.  She would demonstrate a few moves and then I would copy, with Claire making sure I did each one absolutely correctly.  There are three stages of an Indian head massage. The first stage is working on the neck and shoulders with nine different steps, each one being repeated three times and on both the right and left side of the spine.


Its funny, whenever I have given a friend a massage in the past, I've used loads of pressure and just done what I've felt comfortable with, most likely doing things that I know I like.  But, here, even though I know Nicole likes quite a lot of pressure, I did feel a little nervous and slightly tentative with each stage.  I'm sure it was just because I wanted to perfect and understand the proper positioning of my hands with each move, before using all my strength.  Each move has a particular placement of the hands and all relate to the meridian theory which is that energy circulates and nourishes a person through specific pathways (or meridians).  So these movements trace the meridians of the head and face, which help balance the body's systems and strengthens the flow of energy around the body. 

The second stage of the massage concentrates on the scalp and this is the stage where several of the techniques might be used when you go to the hairdressers.  I think I'm probably in the minority when I say how much I hate going to get my hair done.  Its utterly boring for me sitting there for so long having my hair mangled with, I don't enjoy the sitting around doing nothing, but I do enjoy having my hair washed with the expectation that a massage comes with it.  More often than not its disappointing but just sometimes, its a delight.  Anyway, I tapped, scrunched, brushed, rubbed and plucked at Nicole's scalp and then moved onto the final stage of the massage; the face.  This part was the easiest in terms of technique and knowing instinctively how much pressure to apply.  

After going through each stage step by step, Claire sat back and allowed me to give Nicole the entire massage from beginning to end.  She even put on some delightfully generic "massage music" and I put on my delightfully generic "softly spoken therapist" voice and asked Nicole to sit back, relax and take a few deep breaths.  I used the notes only briefly to remind me of the next step, but I remembered every single stage, all the right hand placements and techniques, with just a few pauses and corrections as I went.  The whole thing takes around 20 minutes.  Nicole seemed elated by the end, having essentially had the massage three times and was very relaxed.  Job done, excellent reaction.  

Obviously in a way, I would have liked to have been where Nicole was sitting and am also devastated that I can't practise on myself.  However, I think its a really nice thing to be able to give someone and I love that I've learnt the proper way to give someone a decent and authentic massage. I feel like its a bit of a gift.  I also think its a great thing to have up my sleeve for bribes.  Ha! Shall we say £20? Start queuing up people.  

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Week 51 - learning clay pigeon shooting

Last week I discovered that I'm not great at doing rather intricate work with delicate, little tools.  This week I realised that I'm very good at shooting simple objects with a rather large, cumbersome tool.  I don't know what that means but go figure. Just to clarify, I'm talking about clay pigeon shooting.  I'm not sure what I thought about shooting before now.  Most probably I had very stereotypical images in my head of posh young men in flat caps and Barbour hunting jackets, or possibly groups of bankers and hedge fund managers on stags. Terribly clich├ęd I know. 

Nevertheless, I came across it in my "things to do" research and realised that I would actually like to do it.  My only other experience of shooting a real gun was in the Israeli army when I was sixteen and I learnt to shoot an M16.  I don't really remember my experience of that to be honest but thank God - even though it was a training exercise the idea behind it is fairly alarming.  Learning to shoot a rifle with the sole purpose of damaging a piece of baked clay is much more in line with my beliefs.  (Ignoring the fact that a similar gun with the same shells can and does still kill wildlife). At least here there is a sign.

English Shooting has been the home of the English School of Shooting in North London for the last 35 years and sits on original Royal hunting grounds that were used for hunting for monarchy such as Elizabeth I, Henry VIII and Edward VI.  As I drove down the gravelled path towards the grounds, I started to hear the recurring sound of a very loud, shotgun bang.  Even as I got familiar with it I still flinched a couple of times, walking down towards the clubhouse.   I met with Gary James Halls, the owner of the place who welcomed me in with coffee, biscuits and chat.  I could tell straight away that he's warm with a dry sense of humour but professional and a great brand ambassador for the sport.  

One of the instructors, Craig came to get me and we started my round of 25 shells straight away.  With some protective earphones on, Craig loaded up my shotgun with two shells and showed me how to hold the gun. 

I'm right-handed so the butt had to sit neatly on my right shoulder to help with the kick-back and then I had to have my right cheek resting on the side of the gun, left eye closed and following the clay as it was shot out.

We started off in some woodland area, where the clay is shot out totally straight, so theoretically it is the easiest to shoot.  Essentially you have to shoot the clay when it gets to the highest point.  We did eight clays here and I got seven out of eight.  Boom.  Loved it.  It felt really good hitting the target and seeing the clay explode in the air.  I felt a worryingly captivating feeling of power when I was shooting the clays.  Maybe its just that addictive excitement?!

Then we moved onto another section where the clays are shot out at an angle.  I found these a lot harder to shoot, but I still clipped a couple of them.  The trick is to keep the gun moving as you're shooting rather than holding it still, which is what I was doing at the beginning.   Finally, we moved onto the final section where two clays are shot out at the same time.  Nailed it!  I surprised myself really, I thought it would be really tricky but I managed it with ease.  

To my dismay, my 25 shells fired all too quickly and my session was over.  However, I smashed 18 shots out of the 25 and was really rather pleased with myself.  Its another thing learnt that I think I'd like to do again, hopefully with a nice group of friends for a fun outing.  The more people you go with the cheaper it gets and obviously you can always buy more shells.  

It was pretty quiet when I visited on a Sunday morning so I got all the attention from the instructor, but, I didn't see any groups of stags or well-to-do gents in their shooting garb.  However, it clearly is a stereotype for a reason as when I returned to the clubhouse, Gary offered to take pictures of me holding my gun, dressed in flat cap and hunting jacket.  Naturally I acquiesced to the offer.  Rah.  Job done.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Week 50 - learning to carve a wooden spoon

As I sit here procrastinating about how to start this week's post all I can think about is a line from the Simpsons spoof episode of Crocodile Dundee.  Bart exclaims in utter bewilderment to an Aussie bushman "that's not a knife, that's a spoon" after the Aussie boasts by saying "you call that a knife?, this is a knife".  (I know two people who will laugh at that, but I think only one of them reads my blog.)  Anyway, even during the wooden spoon carving class I did last weekend, I was thinking about the same thing.  It was probably because I was struggling so much and I needed some light-heartedness to take me away from the stress.

Now don't get me wrong - this is a really lovely class to do with Grain and Knot and super relaxing if you are good with your hands and good with tools.  But, over the course of this year, I have realised that I am not!

But at the time I didn't think about that I just thought how nice it would be to carve my own wooden spoon.  I think I'm a bit drawn to and sold on nice things to hold and touch.  Its something "feely", which I love.  

The class was at the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green and was combined with a 2-course lunch (following all our hard work of scraping, carving and for me, sweating profusely).  I arrived to find everything laid out; tools, the timber pieces we would be carving and some "here's what I made earlier" spoons.  It all looked rather pretty.   

Our teacher, Sophie, who owns Grain and Knot took us through everything, beginning by talking about the wood we would be carving.  Everything she uses is reclaimed timber and mostly off-cuts from carpentry that would otherwise go in the bin.  The woods on offer today were walnut or beach.  Sophie mentioned that walnut is a little harder to carve, so to keep my anxiety levels at a minimum I chose beach.  The two tools we would use to carve our spoons are a Swedish hook knife and a straight knife. Then the first thing to do, was mark out the basic shape of our spoon on the wood.

The process of the carving begins with the Swedish hook knife and scooping out the middle of the spoon.  The knife has blades on each side and so it has to be held in a specific way to minimise risk of accidents.  Sophie showed us how to use and hold the knife in order to get the most effective scoops and scrapes out of the wood.  

Unfortunately, it is not the most natural of ways to hold and use a tool like this and so it did take a while for people to get the hang of it.  Sadly for me, I could feel the stress levels rising while truing to do this and my palms just got sweatier and sweatier so I couldn't hold the knife in he right way.  I found it so hard to carve ribbons out the spoon and to get any depth out of the wood, plus my hands were slipping, hurting and aching.  But, Sophie helped me a lot and gave me a lot of attention, while was really good.  Her classes are always around six people and so she is able to offer help to everyone.

After scooping out enough of the spoon middle with the hook knife, we moved onto the handle using the straight knife.  This was a lot easier, just fairly time-consuming. Again, I'm not going to lie, Sophie did help me out a lot but I still got on and did it.

A couple of hours flew by and a lot of wood shavings mounted up, but we had to finish there and clear everything away for our lovely lunch. Everybody had done a really good job and it certainly felt very satisfying to have something hand-carved at the end.  We also had plenty of blisters on our hands; not so satisfying.  Sophie gave us each a little wooden tube to put our spoons in, as well as some sandpaper and coconut oil to finish and protect them.  

If you're someone that likes making things and using intricate tools then definitely try this little art form .  Its wonderful.  It just wasn't quite right for me, but so glad I tried it.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Week 49 - learning to make natural beauty products

We are all becoming a lot more present and conscious in life.  We're eating clean, thinking mindfully, raving soberly and making and growing our own products and businesses.   A few years ago I saw that a friend of mine really started epitomising that whole philosophy.  He changed the way he ate, started importing products like coconut water and biodegradable bamboo crockery into the UK and also taught himself to make his own organic skincare products.  I was amazed how he had learnt it all, bought ingredients, started experimenting and making everything.  It all looked yummy too. Another friend of mine also makes beautiful skincare products, I've been lucky enough to have been given some of them as gifts and they are all so nice.  I love the idea of using natural products because I have very sensitive skin.  I'm not sure why I've not really been conscious of it before now.

Well, another opportunity has presented itself.  I thought it would be easy to find a one day natural skincare class but in actual fact, there aren't so many.  But I did come across one that I thought looked lovely called Natural Skincare Workshops.  I decided to do the body skincare one and was quite excited at the prospect of making my own body butter, scrub and oil.

Timi Racz runs the classes from her own home in Wood Green and I was welcomed into her small but perfectly formed, professional teaching laboratory.

Her classes are based on Formula Botanica, the word's leading online Organic Skincare Science School, a company that she also works for.  She discovered the brand several years ago after having health and skincare issues and says it changed her life.  She now creates her own range of products and teaches several different workshops including facial skincare, anti-ageing skincare, lotion and creams and the one I chose, body skincare.

Timi began by telling me that everything we were going to be making would be butter or oil-based i.e. with no water.  This means that you don't need to add preservatives.  But, oil and butters do need some sort of antioxidant (a natural preservative) such as vitamin E or rosemary to prevent them from going rancid.  Plus, antioxidants are good for the skin.  

The first thing I was going to make was a whipped body butter. There was a huge range of essential oils that I could use to flavour it and after some smelling experimentation, I chose to blend it with jasmine, frankincense and lemongrass.  The main ingredient was mango butter, which is a hard white fat extracted from the big seed inside the mango fruit.  Along with some oils and vitamin E, I weighed everything out, melted the butters and mixed everything together.  Simple.  We then had to put the mixture into the fridge to harden and I would come back to it later.

I then moved onto making a minty coconut sugar body scrub.  Yum.  This was super easy to make.  A mixture of coconut and apricot oil plus some peppermint essential oil and vitamin E.  Added to that, some dried peppermint tea leaves and coconut sugar.  Gorgeous!

The body massage oil was next and this was literally just weighing out and blending together the oil base and essential oils.  The base was a mixture of cosmetic-grade olive oil, coconut oil and almond oil.  To that I added bergamot and grapefruit for some lovely fragrance.

Finally, we returned to the body butter, which I had to whip with a hand-held whisk to get it really fluffy and creamy.  It smelt utterly delicious. 

I packaged everything up in some lovely coloured pots and bottles, labelled them and that was it.  Easy as that.  I even got a Formula Botanica certificate to say I had completed a class in organic body skincare formulation.  It was really easy and once you know the composition and ratios needed, its simply a case of experimenting and finding what works well.  I guess its just like cooking, something that I'm quite good at and really enjoy.  This is definitely a learning that I'd like to consider doing more of.  Timi's classes are a great introduction to all of this, she really knows her stuff and is super positive about it all. I've already used all my products and my skin feels and smells delightful.