Postcard from Morocco

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When I think back on our trip to Morocco, two things immediately occur to me: colour and scent. The cinnamon-orange aroma of our hotel, a riot of cerise bougainvillea tumbling all over walls, terracotta buildings, endless racks of turquoise, pink, red and orange sandals, the sharp eucalyptus tang of the hammam, bright blue skies: all of these instantly take me back to our week there.

This is a holiday that’s been booked in for about three years, ever since my mom said that she wanted to go to Marrakesh for her 70th birthday. S and I decided to add on some trekking in the Atlas Mountains onto the four day city break, and with direct flights from Bristol, this couldn’t have been an easier trip to plan.

April was the perfect month for Morocco (thanks Mom!) as we had blue skies and warm breezes for most of our week there. The mountains were chillier — there was still snow on some of the passes — but this only added to their beauty.

We booked a three day, two night walk around the Three Valleys of the Atlas mountains, starting and ending in Imlil. Day one was a breeze, but day two was more challenging –eight hours of constant up and downs, accompanied by fog and rain. Still, after our epic hike in Salkantay, I know now I can do anything and my improved fitness definitely made the ascents a lot easier. We were also fuelled by very sugary mint tea, aka Berber whisky!

We thought this would be a group tour, but it actually turned out to be private; just us, our guide Ibrahim and our muleteer/cook Hamid, so I felt a bit spoiled! I was constantly amazed by the meals that Hamid could produce from the back of a mule up the side of a mountain.

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Our choice to do the trekking prior to Marrakesh was definitely the right one, as facilities were pretty basic in the village ‘gites’ we stayed in and I didn’t have a shower for two days. The discovery of a rose petal-bedecked bathroom at La Maison Arabe, the amazing hotel my dad had picked (and very kindly treated us to) was met with sighs of delight. It was from the ridiculous to the sublime in terms of sanitation!

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The four days we had in Marrakesh were a delightful mix of tasty tagines, sightseeing, relaxation (I indulged in both a hammam session and a massage), constant mint tea, birthday cocktails, haggling for leather sandals, reading in the sunshine and taking a very long time over breakfast. Everyone we met was so friendly, and it was one of those holidays that surpassed my expectations and gave me everything I wanted and more.

Since it was a landmark birthday, we all wanted to make it the best we could for Mom. In addition to a gift of concert tickets and inspired by Holly, I contacted friends and family to put together ‘seventy years of memories’. I didn’t opt for seventy envelopes — we’d have still been there now opening them — but I certainly collected a lot of wonderful anecdotes about her. For my part, it was so much fun to get the emails and letters back from everyone, especially since it gave me insight into parts of Mom’s life that I hadn’t known about. I then packaged them up with customised stickers, and prayed they wouldn’t get crushed in my carry-on!

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Watching her open them on a warm night as we ate a superb dinner by the hotel’s pool was itself a memory I’ll treasure forever. There was so much love in the air — it was magical. And in fact that word sums up the entire trip. Morocco, I’ll be back.

In which we crack The Crystal Maze

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Last year, my friend emailed me to see if S and I were up for being part of a crowdfunding campaign to recreate The Crystal Maze, which was being run by someone she had taught at university. For those of you who’ve never seen the TV show, I’ll wait here while you go off and watch an episode of two (or three, or four) — you’ll find most of them on YouTube.

Naturally we said yes, so we pledged our money, and then completely forgot about it.

Turns out that a LOT of people love TCM, and were up for paying £50 for a bit of nostalgia, as the campaign exceeded its £500,000 target and actually ended up raising over £900,000. The maze got built, tickets went on sale, and as crowdfunders, we got first dibs on booking dates, which is why last Saturday saw us outside an office block in Angel and donning a (rather sweaty) bomber jacket.

The production company had built the maze exactly as it was — Aztec, Industrial, Future and Medieval zones, with games played in order to win time crystals to spend in the Crystal Dome. All the games were those featured in the series (although sadly no water based games, due to health and safety). Richard O’Brien only appears as a video message at the beginning, but our host, Dusty, was every bit as exuberant (and also played tunes on the harmonica!).

Before we went, S and I watched about six episodes to refresh our memories, and it was just like being eight years old again. We gleaned some useful tactics (don’t all shout at the person doing the game, give them plenty of warning to get out if they can’t access the door easily), and I also decided that my goals were to a) not get locked in and b) win at least one crystal.

There were eight people in our team, and we got to play two games each. I opted for a mystery in the Medieval zone, which involved a stained glass window puzzle and having to correctly match it to the replica on one of nine doors, to open it and find the crystal.

Then in the Industrial zone I picked a skill game, only to then groan inwardly when I was given an automatic lock-in game — the very thing I was dreading. I opened the door to find a nest of ropes, and the crystal in the top corner of the room. I had to climb up and retrieve it, but without ringing any of the bells attached to the ropes. Three rings, and I would be locked in. I managed to ring the bells twice in quick succession, and then starting panicking. I even called out “I can’t do this!” to the team, who were all anxiously watching me through the windows, but with their shouts of encouragement I succeeded in pocketing the crystal and making a nervous descent back through the ropes without setting the bells off for the dreaded third time. (I found out later that one of my teammates suggested making lots of noise so our maze master couldn’t hear if I rang it again!) Dusty did laugh at me for trying to climb out of the window rather than knock on the door to get out, but it was a heady moment when I got out, crystal clutched tight in my hot little hand.

Rather amazingly, one of the physical games S picked was one we’d seen in our rewatch, so he knew exactly what to do and did it in under 40 seconds, which was very nearly the record!

After time in each zone we had a grand total of 9 crystals (we actually won 10 but we gave one up to retrieve a locked-in team member, who had the misfortune at 6’2″ to be put in an automatic lock-in game involving not tripping over laser beams) and then went “to the dome!” In a slight variation on the TV show, we had to collect gold credits, and were pitted against the other three teams who were in the maze at the same time as us. Our nine crystals gave us 45 seconds, against totals of 9, 11 and 13. And, dear reader, I am so proud to say that despite having the shortest time in there, we whooped the other teams (who were all far too young to have seen TCM on TV the first time around!) and achieved a grand total of 182 tokens. Not enough to put us on the board of fame (already looking very healthy, with a winner of 319 only four days into the maze being open!), but very respectable and enough to make us smile a lot! It was pretty much down to tactics again — we had the two shortest members of the team on ‘posting’ duty, and one of the other members realised that if he held open his bomber jacket, it was the perfect receptacle for collecting tokens en masse!

I cannot recommend this highly enough — it’s pricey but it’s honestly one of the most fun things I’ve ever done, and totally exceeded my expectations. And now I can say that I cracked the Crystal Maze!

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In which there is a spring clean

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I’ve had a bit of time off work recently, as I didn’t have any production shifts booked in and my stuff to do from home hasn’t been enough for a full nine to five. I’ve taken advantage of this glut of spare time, however, by doing a massive spring clean of the house (and watching two daily episodes of How I Met Your Mother, but shh, don’t tell S), which has been extremely satisfying on many levels.

It’s not exactly been a laugh a minute; I’ve had to motivate myself to snap on the Marigolds (ooh Matron!) and get going, but once I have, no stone has been left unturned. I’m talking dusting under the wardrobes, washing out the recycling bins, taking out everything from the kitchen cupboards to wipe inside, scrubbing the white stone tiles with an abrasive polish, washing the windows with a squeedgee and three cloth system, the full works, all followed by an orgy of rearranging and sorting and organising.

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All my cupboards have satisfyingly neat, label front facing and lined up products, although I don’t know how long it will last!

I’ve also gone through my wardrobe and had (yet another) sort through, and this time I’ve actually got rid of the stuff I’ve been hanging onto ‘just in case’ and consigned it to the charity shop bin bag. The result is that I have room in my wardrobe to actually push hangers along the rail, I’ve lost an underbed storage bag and the clothes in my wardrobe and chest of drawers are actually those I wear and like.

This spring cleaning marathon has taught me several important things:

1. Our dust is 90% beard trimmings and cat hair, and it’s necessary for me to wipe my (very white) desk every time I sit at it if I don’t want to stare at muddy paw prints. I’m going to start hoovering Olivia at the door from now on, and try and build an integrated mat for her paws in the cat flap tunnel. And once the weather is warm enough, S is banished to the balcony for his shaving.

2. Despite culling my wardrobe extensively over the last year or two, I still have too many shoes.

3. That having the time to clean the house and get that in order has also been great in terms of having time to look at other areas of my life and give them a whisk over with the duster. This has also been helped by reading of The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k by Sarah Knight. I’d read an extract from in the Guardian (which S also read and said I needed to buy this book) and then I’d seen other people such as Em highly recommend it. And they’re not wrong — while it is a tad overly sweary, at its core is some very sound advice: you have a finite amount of time and you cannot always do things to please other people. I am extremely guilty of this, and it drives S (and me) mad. This book gave me the chance to sit down, assess what I do with my free time and decide, actually, what I give zero fucks about (in a polite way, natch) and instead ensure I do the things that make me happy. Making the zero fucks list are scheduling catch ups with people that aren’t convenient to me, being overly polite to people in work emails and Donald Trump. There are more, and the list is an ongoing process, but just realising that I don’t have to care so much about stuff that’s not making me happy was so liberating. Fellow people pleasers, go out and buy it!

 

I’ve still got one more week ‘off’, as it were, which I’ll be using to forge some new work leads as well as actually taking the aforementioned culled clothes to the charity shop. (And, of course, watch some more episodes of HIMYM and wage the continual war against muddy cat prints and beard hair, but that’s a given.)

In which there are some things I’ve been loving of late

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REN Vita Mineral Omega 3 Optimum Skin Oil

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I like this so much, I’ve actually now written about this for two of the magazines I work for. My friend runs a salon that uses REN products, and I got this as my freebie at a Christmas pampering evening I went to there. It’s light but nourishing, and since using it, I’ve been told I look “fresh faced”, which isn’t bad for someone pushing 34! It’s pricey at £24 but you only need a drop or two underneath your moisturiser in the morning to see results.

Croc Odour Fridge Deodoriser

This is such a random thing to include but I really want to share the love for this product! We made a porch for our house by adding a door to the curved brick archway, and use it to keep shoes and coats and recycling in. The upside is more storage, the downside is that it can get a little stuffy and smell a bit like a changing room in there. I was on the hunt for an air freshener but I hate the noxious, artificial fragrances you get with most commercial ones, and also didn’t like the idea of anything too chemical being present to us and to the cat. Then I found this in Robert Dyas, and bought it on a whim. It uses a seaweed-based gel to absorb odours and as it’s designed for fridges, it’s not toxic at all and doesn’t have a perfume. It works a treat and I can highly recommend it.

The Latte Years by Philippa Moore

I’ve been reading Phil’s blog for years, starting out with her writing-based one, Green Ink Girl, and then moving to Skinny Latte Strikes Back, her fitness and general lifestyle one. She’s a fab writer and all-round nice person, so when her first book, her memoirs of weight loss and what happened beyond the ‘after’ photo, was published I bought a copy as I knew it would be good. I deliberately got the bus into work so I could continue reading it and then finished it in a day, which says a lot about how much I enjoyed it! Read if you’re in need of inspiration to fulfil your goals and make changes in your life. It’s currently out in Australia and NZ in paperback and can be bought on Kindle everywhere else. Phil’s new online home is here, if you want to learn more about her and the book.

 

In which there’s a look back at 2015

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After doing this last year, I thought I’d be terrible self-indulgent and do it again, while S is out watching The Force Awakens for the second time.

1. What did you do in 2015 that you’d never done before?

A back balance on the trapeze. Work on a quilting magazine and a free-from food magazine. Visit Portugal, the Netherlands and Denmark. Complete an ‘official’ bike ride. Knit my first adult garments. Climb the UK’s highest mountain. Be in the audience for the filming of a TV show. See two films in a hot tub. Grow broad beans, brussel sprouts, parsnips and onions.

2. Did you keep your new year’s resolutions, and will you make more for next year?

Last year I wanted to continue exercising and also eat less free sugar, both of which were pretty successful. My aim was to take part in an official bike event, which I completed by doing a 25 mile bike ride for charity. I also tried to go swimming more often, and continued to climb the stairs at work, and so I feel that my legs are in the best shape they’ve ever been — when I climbed Ben Nevis in August it was a lot easier than I expected. I made oatcakes and rice crackers my snack of choice and ate less of the biscuits and cake that are so often in the office! This year I haven’t made a formal list — I just want to appreciate everything I have, continue to grow my freelance work and be the best wife, friend, daughter and sister I can be. I’ve also made a decision to do more of what I want to do and stop saying yes to things I don’t want to do (albeit in a polite manner).

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?

Yes, eight friends gave birth so the knitting needles have been busy with making booties! I have three more friends due between February and May this year, plus my sister in law, and I’m sure more will be announced.

4. Did anyone close to you die?

My great uncle Jim died at the start of the year but mercifully that was it. It wasn’t the best year for health for some of my friends, however, so I’m hoping 2016 is better in that regard.

5. What countries did you visit?

The Netherlands in February, Denmark in June and Portugal in October, plus a trip to Scotland in August.

6. What would you like to have in 2016 that you lacked in 2015?

A garden that isn’t a mud bath. It’s the next big thing we need to do, and while we’ve made a start this year, there’s still a lot before it’s a garden you actually want to spend any time in.

7. What dates from 2015 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?

9th October, our fifth wedding anniversary. Where has half a decade gone? This year has also whipped past in an insanely fast blur.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?

Going full time freelance in July and so far, not being out of work. Also getting better at cycling and completing 25 miles in just over 2 hours.

9. What was your biggest failure?

As with last year, I was very lucky in that I can’t remember any real failures from the year. I still hate forward rolls on the trapeze but I think that’s always going to be a stumbling block for me.

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?

No, 2015 was a pretty healthy year. Apart from giving myself food poisoning the other week (I think some mouldy Stilton was the culprit), I can’t remember being ill.

11. What was the best thing you bought?

I’ve actually tried to cut down a lot on buying things this year, as the older I get, the less I want stuff and clutter in my life. The ‘experiences’ I bought this year were the best — trips away, theatre tickets, meals out. That said, I do love the Nespresso coffee maker S bought the other week, a mint green anglepoise lamp I got for my office and a gold sequin mini skirt in which I saw in 2016.

12. Whose behaviour merited celebration?

S continues to be an amazing human being. He is my constant cheerleader, can always make me laugh, holds me up when I’m feeling low and can be relied on at all times.

13. Whose behaviour made you appalled and depressed?

On a national and global scale, so many, including but not limited to our government, ISIS, politicians from other countries, Jeremy Clarkson, Donald Trump and certain newspapers, on issues such as the migrant crisis, social injustice in this country, the biased way news is reported, the bombing of Syria… the list goes on. 2015 was a terrible year in many ways, but I have to stay optimistic that things will get better. Otherwise it’s just too depressing.

14. Where did most of your money go?

No house renovations this year, mercifully — our money went on nice things such as holidays and trips and meals out.

15. What did you get really excited about?

Spending the weekend in the New Forest with a group of my favourite girls. Celebrating five years of marriage. Selling our first house for a sum that exceeded both of our expectations. Seeing Dirty Dancing in a hot tub!

16. What song will always remind you of 2015?

Bon Iver’s Holocene, as I played it so much. Also Taylor Swift’s Style and Blank Space, Oh My Love by The Score as it reminds me of our holiday in Portugal and as a late contender, Can’t Feel My Face by The Weeknd.

17. Compared with this time last year, are you:

–happier or sadder?
As happy as I was last year, as it’s been a good year. Events on both a domestic and global scale make me even more grateful for my life, and my wonderful friends and family.

–thinner or fatter?

At the moment, after the excesses of Christmas, as a wee bit fatter. But generally about the same.

–richer or poorer?

Richer, as S got a new job with a pay rise, and I’ve gone freelance which pays more. Not having to shell out for plasterers and electricians has made a big difference.

18. What do you wish you’d done more of?

Playing the piano. I really want to make sure I do this more this year as it’s a shame to have one in the house and not make full use of it, especially as it was a huge effort to get it up the stairs to the bedroom!

19. What do you wish you’d done less of?

Stressing about deadlines and fitting everything in, as it always works out in the end.

20. How did you spend Christmas?

S’ family (mum, dad, sister, brother in law and niece) came down for a couple of days, and then we went to my mum and dad’s to have a second Christmas dinner with them and my brother.

21. Did you fall in love in 2015?

I have amazing friends in my life and felt even more love for them this year.

22. What was your favourite TV programme?

We’ve been recording old episodes of Frasier and it’s been great to rewatch these — it’s such a fantastic show. Game of Thrones series five was also good, and my autumn and winter were punctuated with Strictly, which was fab as always.

23. What was the best book you read?

I don’t think I’ve read as many books as last year — I just did a quick tot up and made it 38, but I’m hoping there are a few I’ve missed off as that total is too low for my liking. (Update: just found four more I read to make it 42!) The Crimson Petal and The White was excellent and probably my favourite fiction book this year. The Paris Wife was also very enjoyable. In terms of non-fiction, I started The Emperor of All Maladies without knowing what it was about — I thought it was a novel, not a biography of cancer, but I’m glad I did as it was really interesting and thought provoking. I also read Bad Science which made me think a lot, so I’d like to read more science-related stuff this year. I bought S Ben Goldacre’s latest book so I’ll definitely be reading that.

24. What was your greatest musical discovery?

Our subscription to Google Play means we listen to music more and get to experience lots of different artists, which is great.

25. What did you want and get?

A balcony, which is hands down the best amendment we made to this house. And a buyer for our old house.

26. What did you want and not get?

I went for three job interviews, two of which I really did want, but didn’t get. So I got redundancy and a freelance career, although in hindsight this was better. I also wanted our house sale to go through before Christmas, but it’s been delayed.

27. What did you not want and not get?

Unemployment. Hurrah!

28. What was your favourite film of this year?

No real favourite this year, although I saw The Force Awakens the other day and enjoyed it very much. We also watched some great films over Christmas including The Fault in Our Stars and Ex Machina.

29. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?

I turned 33 and had a picnic in Queen Square in Bristol followed by drunken pizza in Renatos. On the actual day I met friends for dinner at Canteen and drank far too much rose wine. We went to Copenhagen to see friends and I counted that as a birthday celebration too, as well as going to Hot Tub Cinema to watch Dirty Dancing. S made me an amazing coffee and walnut sponge which was huge!

30. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?

Not having to work on the evenings or weekends, but that’s one of the pay offs for being freelance.

31. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2015?

The same as last year — skinny jeans, dresses, boots. As mentioned above, my gold sequin miniskirt is a welcome addition to the wardrobe! S also bought me a very stylish cycling jacket and I bought my first ever pair of exercise trousers, an area of clothing I’ve never really given any thought to before I started cycling more seriously.

32. What kept you sane?

My amazing husband. Books. A glass of red. Exercise. Pretty much the same as last year!

33. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

None that I can remember.

34. What political issue stirred you the most?

A Conservative government being re-elected and, without a coalition partner to temper them, instantly showing the contempt they have for the majority of their constituents. Climate change and people’s inability to take it seriously and make decisions that could turn things around. The bizarre ways in which newspapers attacked Jeremy Corbyn for being what seems to be a decent human being.

35. Who did you miss?

As with last year, the friends who live in other countries who I can’t see nearly as much as I want to.

36. Who was the best new person you met?

It’s been great to work across different magazines and get to know their teams better, which is a nice benefit to freelancing.

37. Tell us a valuable life lesson you learned in 2015.

You never know what’s around the corner. And always be the kindest you can be.

38. Quote a song lyric that sums up your year.

“And at once I knew, I was not magnificent.” The best line from the song I listened to most this year.