Friday 30 December 2016

New Year Resolutions: Control vs Acceptance

I've always been a big list maker. A goal setter. More enthusiastic about my New Year's resolutions than the big party. One of my most memorable New Year's was when I stayed in to finish writing a short story. It was the first story I ever got  selected for a reading at Waterstones Book Shop in London. It felt like a huge reward at the time for the sacrifice I'd made.

Today I thought I might be pregnant. At five in the morning I took a test with my heart in my throat. What better way to start the new year? I thought excitedly. My mind raced ahead, wondering who I would tell first and how long I would wait until I told them.  

As I waited for the result, there was a power cut and I couldn't see the strip. If this was a film, I thought, the lights would come on and I would see the positive line. Then I would scream. Or maybe I wouldn't. I would slip back into bed and casually whisper to my husband, So, how do you fancy being a Daddy?

The lights went back on. The test was negative. My life isn't a film.

Today as I contemplated writing a blog post, I thought to myself: What's the point of making a list of goals when I have no control over what matters?

But I don't think that's entirely true. We may not have control over everything, but we can choose how we react to events in our life. Today I felt very tempted to succumb to my melancholy and hide under my bed covers. Instead I found a podcast on staying positive when trying to conceive and hoovered my bedroom. Next I'm going to scribble the serenity prayer above my desk.

I don't believe in making impossible resolutions. I'm not someone who decides in January that they are going to go the gym every day from now on. If you didn't go to the gym before, why are you going to go every day? There must have been a reason you didn't go before. Maybe you hate the gym. Fair enough. Perhaps you should choose another way of exercising, like a dance class or martial arts.

Goals should be achievable. So here are mine:

1. Pass my driving exam 
2. Finish rewriting my book The Hen Party
3. Try doing yoga once a week to restore balance in my body!
4. Meditate every day (achievable because I already do this most days!)
5. Get involved with the charity that organises beach clean ups
6. Visit my family more, keep in touch with my friends and surround myself with people who nourish me
7. Write a brand new book

and of course,

8. Keep writing blogs (because it feels so good to share.) 

Thanks to everyone for reading my blog this year and for all the supportive comments across my social networks. It means so much!

For more regular posts, you can find me on Facebook/EmilyBenetAuthor


Tuesday 20 December 2016

Driving Test 1: The Pigeon of Doom

I remember it clearly even though it must have been over fifteen years ago now. I was in the car with my Mum and we were driving through one of Bermondsey's many railway tunnels. There were pigeons on the road ahead and it looked like they weren't going to move. I gasped as I thought we were going to run them over.  But at the last minute they flew out of the way.

"My friend failed her driving test because she stopped for a pigeon," my Mum said.

Yesterday I had my driving test. I hadn't started off brilliantly, taking the wrong exit off the motorway. But I'd handled it well, changing lanes at a more complicated junction. I managed some intersections and stopped for some pedestrians. All fine.

And then I saw a pigeon ahead of me. It was just sitting there, barely moving. I was joining a main road and I was equally aware of the Stop sign I had been repeatedly told to obey or else. Come on pigeon, I thought. I probably said it out loud too. I thought of what my Mum had said about her friend. I had no doubt in my mind it would fly away. That's what pigeons do.

The pigeon did not fly away. Not until I had driven over its head. I can't remember this clearly. All I know is my instructor said, "It's okay, it's flown up into a tree."

It threw me a bit. After that the examiner told me to stop wherever I could. We had been taught that one thing is to 'estacionar' (park) by reversing, and the other is to 'parar', nose first. I had already parked successfully. Now I just needed to stop somewhere.  And for some reason I didn't think stopping was as serious as parking properly, so I stupidly left the car sticking out a little bit. Maybe I would have got away with it. But to make matters worse, though I had pulled the handbrake up, it was a sticky stick that required an extra last pull. As I got out of the car to swap with the next student, it started rolling forward and the instructor had to pull it up.

After the test the examiner brought up the pigeon.

"What if it had been a dog or a cat or a sheep?" he said, clearly upset. I told him I'd been convinced it would fly away. I didn't add that I wouldn't have assumed a dog, cat or sheep would have flown away.

I told him about my Mum's friend who had failed for stopping for a pigeon.

"We like animals in this country," he said. It seemed ironic really. Spain isn't China, but it doesn't exactly have a reputation for being animal friendly, whereas I think England does.

"I love animals too," I insisted. I felt like I needed to explain how I'd spent most my childhood cleaning out guinea pig hutches, how I only bought free range eggs...

In the end it wasn't the pigeon that swung it. It was the handbrake. He would have passed me if it hadn't been for that bloody handbrake. It was the pigeon I dreamed about though. It took me ages to get to sleep, the exam playing on repeat in my head over and over again. 


Tuesday 13 December 2016

Driving Around Mallorca Like a Mad Goat

I've a driving exam next Tuesday. Or maybe it'll be Monday. It seems the driving school wants to keep it a surprise. 

"What do you mean it might move to Monday?" I ask my instructor, when he tells me. 

"It's 50 / 50."

That's ridiculous, I think. It's lucky I'm flexible but that's not the point.

"What if I had a normal job?" I say.

He shrugs. "Well you don't so stop complaining."

"But what if I did..."

He ignores me. I'm in the backseat and easy to ignore. I'm currently watching another student drive. He's pretty smooth. Shame he keeps going the wrong way down one way streets.

50/50. Like the chances of me passing. I'm good sometimes. Not all the time though.

"You're a bit of a mad goat," my instructor says, when we're alone. "I think it's your personality. You need to calm down."

This is a serious problem, I think. How on earth am I going to be able to change my personality in less than a week?

I consider the problem as I speed down the motorway. Learners are allowed on motorways in Spain. They're the easiest bits really. It's all the intersections that are a pain.

I don't know how I'm going to transform into a calm, grounded person. Meditation? Yoga? I do all this stuff anyway. Fat lot of good it has done for my driving.

"She's gone," the instructor observes. He means I'm thinking. I'm outside the car.

"No I'm not," I say. But maybe he's right. "I'm just annoyed. I want to be smooth."

"Look," he says. "You can be smooth but if you make mistakes you won't pass. If you're rougher but you follow all the signs correctly then you'll pass."

But the mad goat image has stuck in my mind. I don't want to be unpredictable. I don't want to be jerky. My friend's mum who used to drive us back from school drove so badly I always arrived home feeling sick. I don't want to be my friend's mum or a mad goat. But I suppose he's right and the most important thing is to pass now and smoothe up later.

I really want my driving license. It's become all consuming. All I seem to be doing is running back and forward to the driving school.  

So pray for me on Monday... or maybe Tuesday.

Alternatively leave a tip on how I might calm down in the comments section. Gracias! 


Monday 5 December 2016

A Trip to England: From Londoner to Tourist

"Does it feel funny being back?" my friend asked.

I had been away from England for nearly seven months. Arriving at Euston station after a wedding in Manchester I was blown away by the amount of people. It wasn't just the quantity that was mind-boggling but their speed. Like a flock of birds they changed direction, miraculously not knocking into each other.

When I lived in London I was like that. I sped everywhere, dodging in between everyone without stopping. But after so long away, I felt like a tourist, unsure of where I was or where I was supposed to be going. I stood in the wrong place, I stepped the wrong way, mirroring on comers instead of letting them pass.

How could I have lived here for so long? I wondered. It seemed so overwhelming and stressful. It took me a few days to recover my old pace.

The other big difference was the cold. It was 10 (50F) degrees at night when I left Mallorca. Arriving in Manchester the pilot said it was 0 (32F) outside. I thought I wasn't going to cope. I thought I was going to step outside and freeze mid walk. However I had come equipped and between my sheepskin lined boots and feather puffer jacket, I was surprisingly cosy.

Did I feel like a tourist?  I took photos of the frost and crunched back and forward through the ice like a little kid. The cold seemed like a novelty. I suppose it's fun when you know it's only temporary!

It was great to see friends and family after so much time. There was so much catching up to do. But when someone clinked my glass and said,  'Welcome home!' it seemed quite odd. Was it still home? It didn't feel like it. Not quite.  

I arrived back in Mallorca last night. I've already been for a driving lesson, chatted with my local grocer and called on my neighbours for help with a sticky door. It's 19 degrees (66F) outside. There's not many people about. I like it. I feel at ease. Safe.  It's been less than two years, but it already feels like home.   


Monday 21 November 2016

Christmas Ideas: I've caught the DIY bug!

It happened overnight. I woke up one day and I wanted to upcycle things. I rummaged through old plain t-shirts and visualised glamming them up with lace inserts and sequins. I salivated over the creative geniuses on Pinterest and with great confidence lopped off the sleeves of T-shirt Number 1.

Have you ever cut sleeves off a t-shirt? I did such a bad job, cutting too close the collar, that I had to throw it away. So much for saving and upgrading.

It seemed my upcycling journey had come to an end before it had begun. However my cravings to sew and create were still alive and strong. I had hated sewing at school so this urge was really out of character.

I decided I would make my own Advent Calendar. I bought green, white and red felt and began my project. My husband raised an eyebrow at my messy stitches and gave me a lesson in sewing. 

My first creation was a funny looking snowman, my second a sequined stocking and third a lopsided Christmas tree. A practical man, my husband suggested looking in our local charity shop for a sewing machine. At the pace I was going my Advent Calendar wouldn't be ready until the following year.

I couldn't believe it when I spotted the sewing machine in the shop window. It was a ridiculous model. Bright pink with diamantes and obviously marketed to much younger seamstresses than myself, for six euros it was worth a shot. Once my husband had taught me how to use it (Seriously, how does he know how to do these things?) it proved to be perfect!

I'm on Day 9 now and I've been really enjoying myself. It's so satisfying to see something you've created yourself. It's relaxing too. I recommend it! 

This won't be my first and last project either. I keep looking around thinking, oooh what could I do to that?

I haven't given up the idea of upcycling old clothes either. I just need to learn some skills. 

Watch out Chanel, my little pink sewing machine has great ambitions!  

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Silencing the Inner Critic: What would your best friend say?

 I can't remember if I read it or if someone told me.

What if you talked to yourself as if you were your best friend?

It stopped me in my tracks. My inner critic which had been having a go at me for not getting up earlier, for not working harder, for not being more focused, was interrupted. I realised my best friend wouldn't be talking to me like this. She would be encouraging. She would be telling me to listen to my body. To be kind to myself. To accept some days are more productive than others.

Castellers supporting each other in Santa Ponsa
My inner critic likes to blame me for things beyond my control.  It likes to whisper regrets in my ear. You should have done things differently. You should have known better. But if I swap it for my best friend's voice, it completely changes. The voice says, it's okay, it didn't work out but you learned so much from that experience. Persevere.

My best friend's voice is much more practical than my inner critic. On a really personal note, I thought I'd have a baby by now. It hasn't happened. My inner critic sneers, says I'm not so 'creative' after all. My best friend's voice suggests I go to the doctor again if I'm worried. She tells me to relax. To not beat myself up about it.

This week two of my friends were facing unkind inner critics and I passed on the question:

What if you talked to yourself as if you were your best friend?

Both told me later that it had really helped them. So I thought I'd write it down and share it, in case you need to shut up your inner critic too. 


Tuesday 8 November 2016

A City Break: Things to Do in Madrid...

A while ago my lucky husband won some travel vouchers. Last month, realizing they were about to expire, we booked a trip to Madrid.  I had been once before as a teenager but my memory of it was hazy. 

We stayed at the handy central location  of Principe Pio, in an ancient hotel with green walls and bathroom tiles so old fashioned they had gone full circle and become stylishly vintage. 

We didn't spend much time in our hotel room and were locked out of it completely on day three because the booking agency had made a mistake and only booked two nights! 

Some heavy rain was the only other setback but I solved the crisis of wet feet (I had holes in my shoes!) by buying some very sparkly trainers. We wore rain ponchos after that and waved maps around in case there was any one left who hadn't realized we were tourists. 

Madrid overflows with culture. We began with an essential visit to El Prado and opted for the €4 audio guide to educate us on the masterpieces by Goya, Velazquez, El Greco and a gazillion others. I hope to come out with something knowledgeable at a dinner party one day, although right now I can't think of one fun fact! 

Erm... did you know that Goya painted his nightmarish Black Paintings directly on the wall of his house? ... I hope the rest of his decor was more cheerful. Oh dear, that's all I've got. Never mind. 

Getting Cultured at El Prado

Drunk on Art, we hopped on a tourist bus to get a sense of the city. I love a tourist bus although I think the audio guide could have done with more of a story line. It was basically date of building, architect, date, architect, date, architect... the views were fantastic though and we feasted our eyes on the cityscape.  

I loved Calle Alcala and in the evening we went up to the Azotea (rooftop) at the Circulo de Bellas Artes nearby for a glass of wine. I would recommend heading up there in the day though to take more advantage of the panorama.
View from La Azotea de Bellas Artes 
Our Madrid pass made our trip extra enjoyable as we didn't have to queue up anywhere. Lovers of opulent chandeliers, ornate clocks, frescoes, overwhelming wallpaper and mismatching carpet will love the Royal Palace. 

I recommend popping into the Cathedral next door too because it has the best ceiling ever. It's bright and colourful and if I had a kitchen with old wooden beams I would want to paint something in between them just like it!
Colourful Ceiling at Almudena Cathedral
I also have to add El Museu del Traje (Fashion and Costume Museum) to my list of recommendations. Opened in 2004 it has a fascinating collection of clothes from the 17th century through to the 90s. You get to see just how uncomfortable women's clothing have been through the ages. I'm talking about all those horrible corsets and crinolines! After months of wearing comfy shorts I can't even bear to wear jeans at the moment. Maybe I'll just line my rain poncho with some fleece and wear that this winter! 
As for food?
We hid from the rain at famous San Gines chocolateria for chocolate and churros. At San Miguel market we tried everything from fresh anchovies, to spicy sausage, to octopus, sardines, eel and weird barnacles which resemble dinosaur feet (Percebes). 

Percebes - barnacle or dinosaur foot? 

At San Miguel we also drank lots of sherry in the sherry corner: amontillados, olorosos, finos... (I began my sherry love affair in Jerez and Sevilla last year and it's still going strong.) 

I may not be a city girl any more or have any inclination to move to one but I do wholeheartedly recommend a visit to this vibrant capital for all those after a city break!

Thursday 27 October 2016

Day 2 Mushroom Picking Gets Riskier

If pickings hadn't been so slim I doubt we would have been so bold. 

After finding 11 edible rovellons in 10 minutes on Day 1, we were expecting similar success on Day 2. Our initial excitement at finding mushrooms as big as our palms faded as we read on fungipedia that though edible, they were of low quality. 

Mushrooms as big as our palms!
Determined to find something we could eat for our lunch, we stopped at each unfamiliar mushroom and spent what seemed an age trying to ascertain whether they were toxic or not. My favourite part of foraging is scrambling through the forest and the stopping and starting was a little tedious. The pictures we found online varied so much and we couldn't be entirely sure the mushrooms in front of us were the same as in the online archives. It's a risky call to make. Often an edible mushroom will have a copy cat mushroom which is toxic.

After umming and aahing for the time it takes a mushroom to grow, we picked two samples of a mushroom that is endearingly nicknamed 'Pixaca', or in English, 'dog piss'. No joke. It must be to do with its colour and lack of popularity. They are brown capped, with yellow spongy gills and a spotty yellow and brown stalk.

Hello there. Are you the one they call Dog Piss?
I also picked up a little grey and white specimen, which I was almost certain was a 'fredolic', a mushroom I used to collect with my Dad. I didn't feel over confident but planned to Google enthusiastically before I cooked it. We also picked up a few white puffballs and, finally, we revisited out patch from the first day and found five rovellons.

Foe or friendly fredolic?
It wasn't much for a lunch, so we saved them and cooked them for dinner. I was a little bit worried about the yellow dog piss ones, and my husband didn't fancy tasting my I'm-80%-sure-it's-a-fredolic. After I'd gobbled it down, he showed me a list of the five mushrooms that could actually kill a human. I could have killed him when the first picture popped and it looked exactly like the mushroom I'd just eaten.

"It's not the same," he insisted nervously. "The one in the picture has a ring, see?"

The murderous mushroom looked less like my one in the second photograph. But still. It was scary. Next I tried the puff ball. It was creamy inside, like a Lindt chocolate ball, except Lindt chocolate balls are much better because they don't taste of moss and soil.

The deadly mushroom would have an affect between 20 minutes and 4 hours after
consumption. I went to bed two hours after eating it and with my stomach intact. My skin felt itchy, but then that was probably from all the scratches from scampering through the forest.

I was relieved when I woke up the next morning still alive. I've decided I don't think one should be too hasty when sampling wild mushrooms. So many look so alike and I think it would be safer to learn from an expert. I've actually been searching for a mycology course but without much luck.  

In other foraging news, my husband also picked up a berry like fruit on our excursion. He appeared with it later that day and asked me to eat it without looking it up online. I thought it was a real test of my faith in him that I did it. Luckily It was delicious. Turns out it's called a madroño fruit (Arbutus) and can be used in jams and sauces. Husband now says he is more excited about this fruit than mushrooms.

(Erm, I don't know if this blog is turning into The Good Life. I'm just going with the flow at the moment.) 

Monday 24 October 2016

The Joy of Mushroom Foraging

I've rediscovered the pure joy of mushroom foraging! My Dad introduced me to it when I was little and we used to go into the pre-pyrenees mountains to look for them.  

Not sure what it is - but I'm guessing toxic!
Yesterday, after a week of photo exchanges on the family WhatsApp group, not only my Dad but my brother had been showing off their finds, I decided it was time to see what Mallorca had to offer. It's rained a lot this week so I thought it would be a good time.

Rovellons or esclats de sang- the prized mushroom of my childhood - like wet, mossy ground in pine forests. That's all I know really!

Cute but what is it?
Husband and I headed off mid morning to... ha, no true mushroom hunter ever reveals where he goes. Let's just say, it was in the south west of Mallorca.

It was Sunday and our destination was disappointingly full of cars. Cars filled the off road car park. Cars were lined up along the narrow country road. Our expectations were low. We didn't even take a basket. 

I've recently read, when collecting mushrooms you must use a basket so that the spores can scatter as you walk through the forest.

We got out of the car and immediately saw a mushroom beside the back tyre. It was not one I recognised but it seemed like an excellent sign. A few minutes down the road, we saw another bright yellow one. Definitely toxic, I thought.  Google agreed. A minute after that, we spotted another.

Beautiful but poisonous!
None of the four types of mushroom we spotted in the first five minutes of our walk were edible, and yet I was already jumping up and down with excitement. I felt high on nature, high on being on this grown up treasure hunt.

(I'm giving a business consultant feedback on her book about 'personal power'. There's a part about how we should raise our energy levels by reconnecting with our passions and dedicating time to doing things that makes us feel joyful. What was the last thing that made you really happy? Do it!)

Our plan was to join a hiking route, but half way before we got to the start, we decided to go off road and check out a mossy patch. Immediately we saw two more species of mushroom. The thorny bushes were vicious, cutting up our legs and arms, but we couldn't resist continuing.
Rovellons - edible and delicious!

My husband spotted the first rovello. It was a little paler than I was used to but I got down on my knees and scraped around it to check the colour underneath. There's a trickster mushroom called un rop which is almost identical to the rovello but white underneath. 

This one was pink underneath. Result!  Beside it there was a smaller one... and not far from it... another and another and another! It was incredible. We had only been walking ten minutes and we found 11 in one spot!

In the evening we fried garlic in olive oil and then added our mushrooms. The idea is you fry them until all the water leaves them. We had them on toast with a glass of red wine. It felt quite something to have foraged for your own dinner. 

After his first successful mushroom trip, my husband feels very confident. He thinks it was as easy as picking them up from the supermarket. Tomorrow we'll head out again and we'll see if it was beginners luck!


Extract from my book Shop Girl Diaries (Diary entry: 2nd October 2008)

It was just me and my Dad on the trip. Mum stayed to run the shop.
          We arrived in the village at night; the air smelt of earth and blown out candles. This was the village of my childhood. It was where I’d learnt that lizards lost their tails when in danger and a Calimocho was wine mixed with Coca Cola.
          In the morning the sun was shining.
          Time expanded.
          Old men sat on benches chewing toothpicks. They grunted and stared.
          Everyone who passed by was under scrutiny.
          Papa and I sat out on the balcony with our books, pens and newspapers.      
          The Spanish papers had adopted a tabloid tone for that week’s disaster. The stock exchange was collapsing; the banks were in trouble.
          Papa rubbed his hands together and looked excited.
          ‘I’m getting very worried!’ he said.
          I looked across at the sleepy plaza.
          The sun was out and a breeze was gently lifting the pants on the washing line.
          I could hear the clang of cow bells.
          It was hard to muster any worry in the pueblo.
          Perhaps If I’d had money I would’ve been a bit more concerned. It felt good not to own anything.
          In the afternoon we headed into the forest.
          I felt about twelve years old with my wicker basket and as free as a mountain goat.
          Rovellons are like big, fat orange buttons sown into the earth.
          There weren’t lots about and I was thrilled by each one I found.
          ‘We’re going back to our roots, aren’t we?’ I said. ‘We’re hunters again!’
          In the evening, Papa fried the mushrooms with garlic.
          ‘What else could we find in the forest?’
          I had a devilish desire to shoot a rabbit.
          ‘Cauliflower,’ Papa said.
          We followed the same simple pattern each day.
          I wrote endlessly, plotting my novel about the phoenix until my head hurt.
          It was perfect.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Unproductive Days and Changing your Mindset

I was listening to a podcast as I do when I'm fishing for wisdom on an unproductive day. The kind of useless day when everything seems so impossible and frustrating, and everyone so annoying and demanding. The sort of day you want to throw yourself on the floor and thrash your arms and legs about like a furious toddler suffering some terrible injustice. Like not being allowed to shoplift Peppa Pig or shovel M&Ms up your nose.

The subject was the Successful Author Mindset and I was half listening, half observing the familiar knot of anxiety in my stomach caused by the feeling this day was not going to be salvaged. A few words on the podcast caught my attention and I rewound the cheerful voice of Joanna Penn. She was talking about a book called “The Success Principles” by Jack Canfield.  
The first thing it says is take 100% responsibility for your life.
100%? I considered my unhappy predicament, my restlessness and angst. 100% seemed rather a lot of responsibility.
Was it true? Should I?
I suppose I hadn't got much done today because I was tired. I was tired because we'd had a friend to visit and we'd treated Monday like a Saturday night. We'd drunk quite a bit and it takes me at least two days to recover from a hangover. So that did explain why I wasn't feeling very focused. I could have drunk less so I guess I had to take responsibility for that.
What else was wrong?
Okay, I'd been feeling a bit sorry for myself which was contributing to my weariness. I was feeling sorry for myself because I'm not yet a rich, bestselling author with books translated in every language from Chinese to Chamicuro*.
(*Chamicuro is a language from Peru and apparently has only 8 native speakers. It's probably only oral so it's a silly example, for which I apologise half heartedly.)    
But wasn't the reason I wasn't a rich best selling blablabla my responsibility too? I could have become a plastic surgeon if I'd wanted to make some money a bit quicker. And if I wanted to be a best seller then it was up to me to write more than three books, wasn't it?
Oh, I thought. And I realised I had no one to blame for my terrible day and no reason to feel any more terrible than necessary.

It cheered me up knowing I could take so much responsibility for my life. Now to decide what to do with it...