Friday, April 30, 2010

What's your cuppa tea?

Current work: medical continuity
Listening to: Corelli
Reading: Kandy Shepherd’s ‘Love is a four-legged word’ (great fun)

I’ve always liked rather different teas. As a teen, I used to drink jasmine tea (which was so not trendy in the 1980s), and what I normally have on my desk is a mug of Earl Grey. Made very, VERY weak, and very milky. (This is why I drink coffee at most people’s houses. Except for DH, who's lived with me long enough to work it out, and bestest coz, who drinks hers the same way as I do, most people make it too strong for me.)

One problem: with a cup of tea on my desk, I have a reduced ability to resist cookies. Given that I’m trying to resist said cookies, that meant it was time to experiment, and probably with herbal/spice teas. Peppermint’s OK (I like the one with cinnamon) and the orange, mango and cinnamon blend is nice. But I had a yen for something different.

I was doing a little research (yes, really, for work – this is the gelati book I’m not supposed to be working on yet) and came across the Teapigs company. Wow, what a range. And they do samples (little tins containing three ‘tea temples’, aka biodegradable teabags). So I’ve been terribly bad and ordered myself a few things. Their tea strainer is wonderful - it fits over the rim of the cup so you can steep the tea, kind of like a tea ball but without having to faff about opening and closing it. (Here it is with the Earl Grey looseleaf – you can see the lovely purple-blue bergamot flowers there.)

Other things that caught my eye and ended up in my order:

  • a pack of loose-leaf lemongrass (apparently tastes like lemon and lime)
  • a pack of jasmine pearls (i.e. little buds that open when steeped in hot water - am looking forward to the play factor there)
  • a pack of peppermint tea temples
  • sample of ‘super fruit’ tea temples (blueberry and cranberry)
  • sample of ‘chocolate flake’ tea temples. (On their website, they describe it as ‘a partnership so perfect, it belongs between the pages of a Mills and Boon novel’ – well, hey, how could any M&B writer resist that one?)
  • sample of Chai tea temples (Assam tea with cardamom pods, cinnamon, ginger, cassia and vanilla)
  • sample of blue tea temples (yes, really, BLUE tea. Described as a cross between green and black, aka ‘tung ting oolong’. Apparently it’s going to be the Next Big Thing. I’m not a fan of green tea, but… I was intrigued enough to order it)

So far, I’ve tried the Earl Grey (not quite enough bergamot for me, or maybe I should try it sans milk) and the Chai (Madam and I both really liked this one, which surprised me as Assam is stronger than Darjeeling). I have promised her I won't try any others until she's around for the very first tasting - oh, bless. (Two of the things I love about my daughter is her enthusiasm and her willingness to try new flavours; even if she decides they're not for her, she will at least give it a go, and I know she'll try again later when she thinks her tastes have changed and might like it.)

Have a lovely bank holiday; and if you have a favourite tea, do come and share!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

blogging elsewhere and two bits of excellent news

Current work: medical continuity
Listening to: Bach
Reading: Kandy Shepherd’s ‘Love is a four-legged word’ (great fun)

Am blogging over at I Heart Presents today, talking about fairgrounds and the background to my new Presents release, ‘Good Girl or Gold Digger?’ – if you have a fairground story to tell me (or just want to see some of my research pictures), do go over and comment!

Excellent news. Well, I have two bits. One was the news I referred to earlier this week; I wasn’t sure if it was embargoed, but as my mates Donna Alward and Fiona Harper have blogged about their great news (do go and congratulate them – I’m really pleased for them), I think it’s OK for me to do the same! The Children’s Doctor’s Special Proposal is a finalist in the Golden Quill’s Short Contemporary category, so I’m utterly, utterly thrilled (especially as it was the first time I’d entered).

And the other bit of good news is that my ed liked the second revisions, so my 44th M&B, A Christmas Knight (aka the jousting book), is going to be published in December.

I feel a bit like a dog with two tails!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

badgers and moons

Current work: Medical continuity
Listening to: Nick Drake
Reading: over the weekend: the other two in Kimberly Raye’s Blaze series about vampire cowboys (enjoyed hugely), Liz Fielding’s ‘Wedding at Leopard Tree Lodge’ (her usual fabulous characterisation and dialogue, plus a really different setting – utterly gorgeous), and now Kandy Shepherd’s ‘Love is a four-legged word’ (great fun)

Badgers? Badger cubs, to be precise. DH went out cycling with his best friend on Monday night. Came home with the news that they’d spotted two badger cubs. As in wild ones, in the scrubby bit bordering the cycle path. He’d taken a video (which he says I am not allowed to upload to the net, bah humbug – but what I can tell you is that when badger cubs chatter to each other it sounds like six-year-old girls having a fit of the giggles) and also took a couple of snaps before their mum called them and off they trotted. He did say I can post the pics here (well, hey, how often do you see pictures of badger cubs in the wild? And hmmm, there’s a lightbulb), so here they are (including a close-up).

Other than that, what have I been up to? I had to switch over Monday and Tuesday this week to accommodate a meeting, so it was guitar on Monday (aka chilling out with a bit of Gershwin) and visiting Dad (not the best of visits, sigh).

Tuesday started brilliantly with an unexpected email that put a huge smile on my face (and no, I can’t share yet, but I will as soon as I can). Then it was the annual SEN meeting, which went very well indeed and I’m pleased with the outcome; and then in the evening I had an interview with a local journalist as well as doing a talk at the library in Holt.

Both went well, and I had some really interesting questions from the floor (one man in particular was brilliant because we talked about new media and the development of language - apparently he’s the star of their reading group and is an ex-English teacher, which I can well believe – it’s lovely talking books with someone so articulate). Another interesting question: do all writers love poetry? (I think it's an interest in language, full stop.)

Alan from the library service was an utter sweetheart and took some pics for me – so this is me in action.

And this is what I spotted when I came out of the library – very atmospheric. (You know the poem, 'The Highwayman'? Definitely like that. A ghostly galleon, with clouds obscuring part of it from time to time as I drove home, and at one point there was a red halo. Nick Drake was just so appropriate...)

Today - the plan was to nip into town and do some admin (aka bank run, buy a new mouse mat and SD card, then nip into John Lewis and talk to them about netbooks), but that was all scuppered when school rang. Cue the entire morning spent in A&E with son. He’s fine, but the wait was pretty tedious. Maybe this is a sign that I should NOT buy a netbook… I was starving (that’ll teach me to have my breakfast before the school run in future rather than after) but, the second I sat down to eat, the doorbell went. (Postie with German translations.) And when I sat down again, the doorbell went again - this time the Green Party.

Not going to go political here, but I was very disappointed to discover my constituency has moved boundaries. I'm even less happy with my current MP. I lobbied him some years back - he didn't reply to a single letter from our school, but the man who shared his office was very responsive. If this man had even 1% of the integrity of that MP, I'd be a lot happier - but I think he doesn't give a damn about the constituency. Unfortunately, he has a majority at the moment, so I might end up voting tactically for the first time in my life, for a party whose policies don't quite fit my views, because the party for whom I would normally vote is unlikely to win the seat. (Then again, they've annexed seven wards... so that might be enough to change things. More thought needed on this issue.)

It’s also parents’ evening today. Son, bless him, got me a bunch of appointments together at the beginning, another at the end, and one smack dab in the middle; given that I've already spent several hours waiting today, I think I’m coming home in between appointments!

And tomorrow… Tomorrow, I will knuckle down and start the new book properly.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Venezia, day 4/5 – an unscheduled trip across Italy

We discovered that you couldn’t buy bus tickets with a credit card; luckily we had some sterling with us, so we were able to change it (albeit at eye-wateringly bad rates and an with an astonishing commission charge).

First step was buying biglietti for the bus to Mestre train station; we had to validate the tickets at a little machine at the stop, then it took half an hour to get to Mestre (i.e. the train station at Venice – which is obviously mainland and not on the island).

At Mestre train station, we bought tickets to Milan. Actually, that was quite fun – explaining that mio figlio ha dodici anno (because he looks older); but the ticket clerk told me that from the age of 12 you count as an adult anyway for train ticket purposes. However, you can get family tickets, and the clerk was a sweetheart and booked us four seats together.

So, at 6 pm, when we had expected to be halfway home, we validated our ticket at the yellow machines on the platform, and caught the train from Mestre to Milano Centrale.
Italian trains are FABULOUS - aircon that works, a laptop socket, and a table with hinged edges so it's easy to get out and have enough table space.

plus comfortable seats and a decent head rest - bliss.

Our train stopped at Padova, Vicenza (very pretty), Verona, Desenzano and Brescia; and we also got to see a gorgeous sunset.

At 8.30 pm, we arrived at Milano Centrale. The biglietteria where you buy tickets for the airport shuttle was closed. So was the station information centre… but there was a note saying that in case of problems you can go to platform 23. OK. Queued up, and was advised that you can pay for your ticket on the bus.

Followed the signs to the airport shuttle. Outside, the station, there were two signs, both saying ‘navarre’ (i.e. shuttle to the airport). The one on the right was also written in English… and actually, that led to the taxi ranks. We tried the other direction, and yippee. Shuttle bus. Bought tickets and climbed on.

Milan at night: large, lit up, full of markets, lots of cars driving very fast. City itself seems to be full of insurance company offices. Lots of restaurants. Kids say very politely that they’re hungry. ‘We’ll be at the airport soon and we’ll get something there.’ (Famous last words…)

At 10.30, the bus finally dropped us off 50km away at terminal 2 of Milano Malpensa airport. Everywhere was closed. There wa nowhere to get food, not even a vending machine. Kids were white-faced, tired, hungry and really unhappy (but behaved impeccably – no hissy fits, no sobs. Am immensely proud of them for handling the situation with such maturity). At this point, I was losing the ability to think in my own language, let alone switch between Italian and English! Found a clerk – she didn’t speak English, but managed to understand me in a mix of French and Italian and pointed me towards a colleague who could speak English. She told to get the shuttle back to terminal 1, saying, ‘There are lots of bars and restaurants there.’

So we took the shuttle to terminal 1. Yeah, there were loads of restaurants. And all of them were closed, except one place that had very little choice. Told them the ‘cotelete’ was like a chicken escalope (OK, slight fib, but there was nothing else there they liked as littlest hates cheese and eldest is fussy about bread). They tried, but couldn't handle it. Dinner ended up being spremulata and crisps, plus in my case the tiniest espresso I have ever, ever been served.

The night at the airport must rate as one of the lousiest ever. Seats had metal bar armrests so the kids couldn’t get comfy. Son tried sleeping on floor with head on rucksack, daughter curled up in seat and using me as a pillow. Then, at 11.30, someone started drilling (yes, really). Finally they stopped; but then the man on the floor-cleaning machine came round our bit, which made the floor shake and woke son up. (There was the guy who looked a bit like Robbie Williams and had the smile/slight nod of head down to a fine art and he kept walking past - amused me even more when I saw him later in the queue with a guitar slung on his back. Wish now I'd said something because he would probably have been really chuffed and might've made our wait a bit easier by singing/playing to us. But hey.)

At 4, we caught the shuttle back to terminal 2. Checked in, and thank goodness it was easy from then on – still too early for most places to be open, but we did manage to get a couple of croissants for the kids and more coffee for us (again, super-small cups – I’d say a quarter the size of an English espresso - but at least it was coffee and it was warmish).

Through passport control, in to the departure gate… and, while we were waiting to get our boarding passes, we saw the sun rise.

As we went to embark, the pedometer said 32,500. (So that’s a total of 120,500 steps since Tuesday morning… hmm, and despite the gelati and carbs consumed during the week, that was 5.5 lbs off for me…)

And the last pic from my Venice shots is just like the first: the Alps. We were on our way home.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Venezia, day 4 – arrivederci Venezia – or not

The motoscafo (water taxi) picked us up and took us to the airport. We waved goodbye to our hotel.

We waved goodbye to San Marco.
At this point I was close to tears because we'd had a fabulous time and I really wasn’t ready to go. I said as much.

Hmm, what do they say about being careful what you wish for?

Got to the airport in plenty of time. The plan was to see where our check-in gate was; get some spremulata and/or gelati; then check in, have something to eat at the airport, get on a plane and go home.

So we walked up to the airport, checked the departures board, and…

Flight cancelled.


Announcement: all flights today are cancelled due to a strike by ground staff at Venice. More announcements will be made later. (There were indeed more announcements. And they were all a repeat of that one. Though in hindsight we were incredibly lucky that we went the week we did, because the following week would've been much worse: I do feel for the stranded travellers, and think we had it easy.)

OK. So how do we get home? The clerk at the Easyjet check-in gave us a piece of paper telling us our rights (which basically said ‘a strike is outside our control so we reserve the right to do nothing’) and wrote two phone numbers down, saying, ‘Ring these numbers and they will advise you. Don’t ring from your mobile.’ Why not? ‘You have to use the public phone. It’s free.’ Except… both numbers were unobtainable. So then I tried the operator. ‘It’s £17 for a connection and £2 a minute after.’ OK, but if you can’t put me through, do I still have to pay that charge? ‘No, Madam.’ He couldn’t put me through on either number. Please can you confirm that you are NOT charging my credit card? ‘We will NOT charge you.’ (Actually, they did – I rang to check when I got home, and explained the situation – as well as sticking a block on that card and ordering a new one in case it had been compromised.)

So back I went to Easyjet, along with several people I talked to in the queue; the idea was to go back en masse and explain politely that the numbers were unobtainable and ask what our options were. A different clerk directed us to the Alitalia desk, where they could reschedule the flight. Next one was – wait for it – Tuesday 13 April. Four days later. And who was to say that the baggage strike wouldn’t happen again? We had nowhere to stay and no clean clothes. Although I would've liked longer in Venice, I didn't want it to be this way! Beckoned DH over, told him to make the kids stay put, then put him in the picture.

Alternatives? According to the lovely people who were in the queue with us, we could go to Milan, take the train to Paris overnight, then get the Eurostar to London and then to Gatwick. Or maybe get a flight from Milan.

When we got to the desk, the absolutely lovely clerk told us that she could get us four seats on a plane at 7.30am from Milan to London. It would take us a few hours to get to Milan (175 miles away), but it was doable: bus, train, then shuttle. Quick confab with DH: we’ll go via Milan and sell it to the kids as a huge adventure and great fun…

Friday, April 23, 2010

Venezia, day 4 – a gondola ride and a last wander round

We decided to do the touristy thing on our last day and took a gondola ride from just past the Rialto bridge. Here’s the gondola stand:

And me with Mr B in romantic surroundings.

We headed out to the Rialto bridge.
And it was quite exciting going under it.

Next we turned into the little side canals. I noticed how many molluscs were encrusted onto the side of the houses, and you can see the water line from the winter.
I also loved the reflection of the water under the bridges.
Our gondolier was very friendly
but it was slightly spooky that he looked very much like my dad (maybe two years ago, before he went into residential care). He showed us the oldest house in Venice, which was apparently 1300 years old.
Then Marco Polo’s house.
Then Casanova’s house (which is now a bank).
Then a monastery building (now used as a telecoms office).

The gondoliers use the walls to balance, as brakes and as a way of changing direction – and at one point we were in a 7-gondola jam!

More panini and ice cream afterwards, a last bit of wandering round (apparently it’s an old wives’ tale that the two different-coloured columns on the loggia of the Palazzo Ducale - seen here in the centre - are that colour because they were soaked by the blood of traitors executed there). We walked back along the Grand Canal from the Palazzo Ducale and spotted two ladies in carnival costume.Then we bought a small watercolour of the square as a souvenir, and went back to the hotel to pick up our luggage.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

quick catchup and London

Current work: second revisions (I really *am* going to nail them)
Listening to: Bach
Reading: Sarah Addison Allen (just finished Garden Spells and The Sugar Queen – both interesting ideas; also read Marina Fiorata’s ‘The Glassblowers of Murano’ while I was in Venice, and it was lovely spotting the book locations in real life – enjoyed the book thoroughly)

Life has been immensely busy since returning from Venice (of which still more to come – there are three more posts, all with lots of pics – and yes, I probably am really boring on the subject now). Really, it was a question of catching up on sleep (Milan, not Venice – see, I told you there was more to come) and then obviously it was school holidays. And I came home to second revisions (weep). Actually, I do understand why I’m getting them. It’s not because I’ve suddenly become a crap writer (my agent would’ve told me if that were the case) but the market out there is very, very, VERY tough, so books need to be extra-good now in order to persuade readers to buy them. Which is how come I have to add more ‘Kate Hardy magic’ to the jousting book (my ed’s words, not mine!) and, um, why I’ve been struggling with them for the last week.

I’ve been busy, but not actually achieved a lot; and I’ve also been distracting myself on the question of a netbook. (I might say here that Yvonne Lindsay, Trish Morey and Liz Fielding are Very Bad Influences - and I just know I’m going to crack as soon as these revisions are off my desk. Shortlist of four: so I need a chat with the tecchy people in John Lewis on Saturday, methinks.)

Anyway. I went to London yesterday for a meeting with my agent and editor, and had a very, very nice time. Nice journey in - booking a seat in the quiet coach was a v good idea and I will do that in future. My booked seat was backward-facing (despite the fact I asked for a forward-facing one), but luckily the train was quiet and I managed to find a forward-facing seat: joy of joys, it also had a table, and I was able to spread out the proofs of the Essex book and sort all that out on the way in. (Well, hey. Multi-tasking is good.)

Met my friend and fellow Modern Heat author Heidi Rice for a coffee and a catch-up (and BOTH of us had a camera and forgot to take a pic! How bad is that?), then headed to Kensington. I was a little early and it was a glorious day, so wandered round - the architecture in this part of London is gorgeous.
OK, so I was house-hunting for characters. But look at these. Aren’t they lovely?

There was hardly any traffic; very peaceful and pretty. (And is that a magnolia tree I spotted? I liked this. A lot.)

Then to Chez Patrick to meet my lovely editor Sheila Hodgson and equally lovely agent Dot Lumley.
Lunch was scrumptious: Dot and I both went for the 'Chevre brick' as a starter (the salad had a lovely pesto dressing), while Sheila had the salmon.
Main course was guinea fowl with cream sauce, served with spinach and celeriac (v scrum, lots of nutmeg).
And then the most gorgeous framboise mousse. Dot's ice cream was prune and armagnac - very interesting combination and none of us guessed it!
The food’s good, the staff are charming and attentive without being intrusive, and I’d recommend the restaurant highly.

Obviously I’m not going into details of what we discussed, but broadly these lunch meetings tend to be about how an author’s books are doing in terms of monitor scores (i.e. the reader panel ranks each month’s books and your position tells you whether you’re getting it right or not) and sales, what you’re planning to do for the next year, and a very frank discussion about where your career is going (strengths, weaknesses etc). Some authors hate seeing their figures; I like to see mine because I’m a planner and it helps me to focus. It’s the first set I’ve seen for a while, so it was interesting reading and it’s boosted my confidence a bit – especially after the revisions issue. (I’m still going to moan about it because – well, hey, I’m an author and we’re a paranoid bunch. But I know why they’re happening and that makes a difference.) I feel a lot more focused now, and that’s always a good thing.

After that, had a quick wander round (was going to buy the kids something nice in Gap, but then remembered that my mini fashionista has better taste than I do – she picked the top I bought for yesterday’s meeting). Had just enough time to meet my bestest cousin for a drink - she's a City chick, and is utterly glamorous. (Proof: her amazing shoes.)
Lovely to catch up (we have many shared tastes... including Chablis *g*. Rats, forgot to tell her about the Robbie Williams lookalike in Milan). And actually, that was work (wait for it), because a wine bar scene is in a future book; it’s years since my PR/media buying meetings in London, so it was useful to refresh my memory. (Terri was having a guilt trip about the bar bill until I explained that two glasses of Chablis in London = 2 coffees in Florian's.)

Then caught the train home. When I booked, weirdly, it turned out that first class was actually cheaper. Was nice because I had a forward-facing seat and quiet people near me, but there were some braying businessmen at the end of the carriage. (I realised why as I left the train – rather a lot of gin consumed there…) Still think Italian trains are nicer, but see future Venezia posts for details!

Venezia, day 3 – final night (or so we thought)

In the evening, we went out for dinner. Found a lovely restaurant - fresh freesias etc. (Bad photo as DH hates me behaving like a tourist.)
The restaurant had the most amazing wine list - literally, hundreds of choices! I opted for a very traditional Venetian dish - calves' livers with polenta, which was gorgeous. DH shocked me by having the Venetian mixed fish and vegetables (including baby octopus). For pudding, son opted for chocolate mousse (which he didn’t like, sigh – had nuts in it); Madam had fresh pineapple with pomegranate, I had affogato (ice cream with espresso poured over the top) – and then wished I’d had DH’s pudding, this beautiful raspberry torte. (Again apols for the bad pic. DH has a strong sense of embarrassment – sigh, nobody was looking and it isn’t an issue!).
Had a last wander through the Piazza San Marco - Madam and I danced through the square.
Back to our hotel, where we took a last night-time view from the terrace.
Then we relaxed in the reception area.

And son caught up with the papers (he's just got interested in politics).
Will be very sad to leave Venice - gorgeous city and lovely people.

Another 30, 000 steps today. That makes 88k in total since we started.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Venezia, day 3 – Murano, Burano and Torcello

We had pre-booked an excursion for Thursday afternoon to visit the three Northern islands. Actually finding our boat was a little difficult because (despite the fact I’d asked at home in the travel agent’s exactly where we were meant to go) it wasn’t obvious that it was being run by a particular company. We had to ask at several places before we found the one our trip was through (and the place where we had to exchange our voucher for a ticket and the time of the trip were both different!). The man at the rival company's stand was really helpful and utterly lovely – and we made it to the trip with a few minutes to spare.

First stop was a glass factory at Murano.
Here we had a demonstration at the furnace.
Firstly we saw a vase being blown.
Then we saw a horse being made – it was amazing how he just pulled out the glass and it came into shape.

The guide dropped a piece of paper into the finished vase and it burst into flame - apparently it takes 24 hours to cool down (made at 7,000 degrees). Then we took a look round the warehouse – Madam spotted a dog she wanted, son found a fish, and DH wanted a dolphin. (We both spied some wine glasses we really liked, but proper Murano glasses are £60 each minimum, and the likelihood of said glasses getting broken - given that the last set I bought, only four out of six made it through being washed before use - made us decide it wasn’t practical.)

Next was Torcello, which was very quiet and green. There’s an amazing bridge there, the Ponte di Diablo. We also saw the outside of the 7th-century church of Santa Maria, but there wasn't enough time for us to go inside and see the mosaics, which was a bit disappointing. (Next time, we’ll do our own trip rather than pre-book an excursion.)

Next was Burano, which we loved - very pretty. I’m letting the pics speak for themselves.
This church actually had a leaning tower, but I couldn’t get the right angle to show this.

We were naughty and ducked out of the lace factory - we wanted to go to the pasticciera, because Burano is famed for its s-shaped lemony/buttery biscuits. And rightly so, as they're scrummy. They make gelati in the same flavour, studded with little bits of biscuit, which is also gorgeous - Gusto al Burano, I think it's called - though Madam voted for the cioccolato bianco. We also bought another bead for our bracelets each; oddly, they had a nicer selection than Murano! Then it was back to Venezia in time for a stroll before dinner.