Saturday, 27 June 2020

Light relief, if not light at the end of the tunnel exactly...

Market Square at the height of lockdown
Undina of Undina's Looking Glass has a charming mini-series entitled "Small Things That Brighten Life", in which she has featured everything from ducklings to hummingbirds and sunsets to Christmas lights - in short, whatever catches her eye and lifts her spirits.

June has been a funny month here, with every kind of weather, lockdown rules evolving at a dizzying rate, and friends 'bubbling up' left and right with other households. People are returning to the town centre, some wearing masks, while the irrepressible charity chuggers in Market Square sport visors. They would bear a passing resemblance to riot police were it not for their cheery turquoise T-shirts. Queues spill out of every shop and bank, with gloved assistants hovering in doorways to conduct a triage of people's needs. "Is it to deposit a cheque? Right, so you can use the ATM outside." The familiar streets look like the set of a sci-fi film, and there is still an edge of unease that taints shopping trips. Once a go-to destination at the weekend to get my retail fix, I have long since lost my urge to visit T K Maxx recreationally, and am only shopping for food every fortnight, in a highly organised, surgical strike kind of a way. We are all unsure whether to remain 'alert' or relax, but on balance the virus is probably just on its break...Meanwhile, I have also had some house-related issues that don't really lend themselves to being spun in a humorous way - the prerequisite for content on Bonkers! - which explains the long hiatus. Quite a few are sorted now, and I am working on a workaround for the rest.

However, just this week I have had four unexpected conversations that were sufficiently left field and amusing to "brighten life" Undina-style, and which are the trigger for this post.

The reluctant salesman

I had a roofing company come to look at the gutter on my garage this week. I had unblocked it the other day in the pouring rain, as it was chock full of sludge, and overflowing and leaking in several places.

"That's not leaking, it was just overflowing."

"Really? Only I was sure I saw water coming out the bottom rather than going over the side."

"No, it would only leak at the joints. In that rain, everybody's gutters will have been overflowing. Why, mine were overflowing last week!"

I then asked tentatively about replacing the asbestos cement roof.

"Oh, you don't want to do that - it's a lot of work, and much too expensive."

And with that, he was gone. My kind of tradesman.

My gutter, post-unblocking!

The inadvertently louche cycle shop

I took my bike in for repair on Tuesday, as the wheel was bulging out and the brake blocks sticking. A couple of days later it was ready for collection, and I walked into town to collect it. The owner wheeled my bike slowly out of the back room, and pointed out its new tyre, before adding gloomily:

"You should know that someone who has had it in for repair before has interfered with a couple of nipples."

"Er...what's a nipple in bike terms?" I inquired, trying desperately to maintain a straight face.

"These little things inside the rim...d'you see? Someone's had a go at them and now they are..." - he paused for emphasis - "misshapen."

My bike in a friend's garden

The man who wanted to be thinner

Whilst in Boots queuing at the pharmacy counter, I happened to be level with a young man weighing himself on the 'speak your weight'-type scales. He had short, dyed black, face framing hair, with a very short fringe that few people suit, though he did, piercing blue eyes, lots of other piercings, including large metal discs inside his ears, not unlike the style of silicone ear plugs I had just bought(!), a dark fake tan, and was wearing a tight T-shirt and tartan trousers. His belt clanked with metal accoutrements, which must surely have weighed quite a bit on their own. The young man was so pleased with the reading that he started 'speaking his weight' himself, and as he looked towards anyone who could provide an audience, I was happy to step up.

"Ooh", he exclaimed gaily, "I've lost weight!"

"From the sound of your voice, I take it you wanted to?"

"Yes, I like to be between ten and a half and eleven stone, and I thought I wasn't."

"Well, for what it's worth, I'd have said you were more around the ten stone mark. You look pretty skinny to me."

"Oh, I will take that, thank you! You see, I want to look emaciated. I am trying to channel David Bowie."

"I get that, and maybe 10% Bay City Rollers, if you don't mind me saying so?"

"The tartan trousers, you mean? Yeah, fair enough."

"I remember them first time round."

"I don't, haha..."

And with that he wished me a good day and scampered off happily, before I could call after him:

"Not forgetting the 30% Paul Weller and 15% Dave Hill!"


The call centre operator who cared

Today I needed to call my phone company, for in the act of switching to a more cost-effective plan, I had inadvertently taken out a whole new contract as though I was migrating TO 3 from another provider. When I dialled the number, the recorded message explained that staff were working from home during the crisis, and that I might hear some background noise from children and pets. As I was put through, I was really hoping I would(!), but there was a disappointing lack of acoustic accompaniment. The Indian call handler went through all the steps he and I needed to take to undo my mistake, before breaking off to ask how my area of the UK was doing in terms of the virus. I replied that we were in a bit of a lull at the moment, and possibly erring on the side of complacency, as the virus might rear its spikes again at any time.

Suddenly the customer service chap launched into a long - and fascinating - account of the virus situation where he lived. He was indeed working from home, in a small town outside Mumbai. Because of the overcrowded housing in the city, infections were growing at an alarming rate, with hospitals not really geared up to deal with the exponential number of cases that may be about to hit them. He explained that he was happy to work remotely, and was trying to shield his mother by doing her shopping.

Earlier in the conversation, he had asked me my date of birth as one of the security questions, and suddenly came over all protective of me.

"You are of a similar age to my mother. I hope that you are taking good care of yourself. You shouldn't really be going out really. How are you managing for food?"

I explained my new, more targeted grocery shopping MO outlined above.

"Okay, well you should also do what you can to boost your immunity. Start the day with a cup of warm milk and a teaspoon of turmeric. You can add sugar if you want. Or make a tea with hot water, cinnamon - do you have cinammon? - ginger, and cardamom. That's good too. You could do with having both of those every day. You are of the age where you need to do all you can to protect yourself, starting with your immunity."

I thanked him for his concern, and the helpful tip, before we moved on to whether I had visited India (no, but I know people who have, and have a friend who is half Indian), and if so, where I would like to visit.

"Umm, maybe Kerala, to start with? Then some of the classic sights further north?"

"Very good, and there's also Goa. The food is excellent, and not all vegetarian. But please don't come now! This is a very bad time."

I assured him I wouldn't do anything of the sort, and we wrapped up the call with another recorded message stating the terms and conditions of my new plan. After I had come off the phone, I went to my pantry and found a sachet of turmeric, that expired in June 2018. I shall of course now google: "Can you use spices after their best before date has expired?"


Have you had any amusing encounters that have perked you up during the pandemic?

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Antidepressants AND Tolkien!: the therapeutic power of nature walks on your doorstep

Entrance to Stafford Castle
So the first part of the title to this post may need explaining, being a loose adaptation of a quiz doing the rounds on Facebook to which my godson alerted me, called: "Antidepressants or Tolkien?" 24 names flash up on screen and you have to decide if they are the actual name of a character from The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit OR that of a currently prescribed antidepressant.  Not having read any Tolkien except The Hobbit (nigh on 50 years ago!) I was absolutely pants at the quiz. This is also because - despite carrying out numerous market research studies in pharmaceutical topics in the past - I don't think my path crossed SSRIs and their ilk at any point. So I had to guess at every single name except Cymbalta and Bilbo. If you are a Tolkien fan or a pharmacist, you will ace it I am sure!

And now to explain my substituting of "AND" for "Or". Basically, I have been exploring long neglected green areas in my town this week - by me I mean - and discovering some new ones, and was struck in a couple of places by their resemblance to a Tolkien-like wood. And I do know about that at least, if not the characters in the books, for a number of scenes from Tolkien-influenced Game of Thrones were filmed in that forest I mentioned in my recent hermit and hand cream post. As well as elsewhere in Ulster in familiar beauty spots from my childhood. Plus Tolkien lived in Staffordshire for a while, and was inspired by some of the gnarled old oaks on Cannock Chase, as referenced in my review of Liz Moores' Dryad. So that is all by way of explaining my Tolkien-esque foliage-spotting credentials. ;)

These bursts of extreme exercise - each walk was about three hours long - were prompted in part by ongoing pain issues from my sprained pelvis. I thought I would try flooding the area with the dopamine known to be released by (a compatible form of) physical activity, of which Val the Cookie Queen is of course the poster girl. At the same time, I figured it might improve my mood during lockdown. The lack of control and uncertain future are two aspects I continue to struggle with, and Ian McEwan hit the nail on the head in his recent essay on time:

He quotes Kierkegaard to start with:

"Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards."

McEwan adds: "When that forward motion is denied, then you are liable to go tumbling backwards through time."

I presume he is talking of not being able to look forward to anything, and the mental freefalling that may ensue. At least we can now meet one person from another household in an outdoor setting, which feels like a big win after the constraints of lockdown so far!

The first discovery I made on Day One was of a treelined path that led all the way to my local Aldi from just beyond the road at the bottom of my street. That could make the dreaded shopping trips more agreeable, assuming I wasn't driving, obviously.

The second discovery was of a lake behind the rugby club, complete with anglers, hidden knots of youths at the water's edge sharing a spliff, and ducks with attitude.

"I'm tyred of this...!"

Next up, I chanced upon a venerable shoe company, called Jen. This sign dates from 1963, but the company's roots stretch back to the 19th century. Footwear used to be a thriving industry in Stafford, which was also home to the better known brand Lotus.

My friend David, the artist, was commissioned to make a stained glass panel for St Mary's Church in town to commemorate this 'last-ing' legacy. ;)

Source: BaldHiker

A few minutes later, I was in the atmospheric shade of a path up to the castle, which snakes between the manicured green sward of the golf course. I saw a fox, though barely captured him on camera before he ran to ground.

(Fox not pictured!)

The castle dates from 1100 AD, albeit there is not much of it left. You can see for miles around, and once again, the grassy slopes below were dotted with groups of young people sitting chatting - in a vaguely socially distanced way, aided by their recumbent bicycles. No, not that kind of recumbent bicycle...!

I have stopped tutting at such scenes, ever since I learnt that if you are young you are more likely to be die by being struck by lightning than of Covid-19.

The following day, I did a circuit of Doxey Marshes, a nature reserve beloved of twitchers and dog walkers alike, which backs onto the estate where I used to live. As a born again bird watcher, I was pleased to see several varieties, two with babies in tow:

Some surprisingly docile goslings:

In this long shot, you could fancy yourself on safari (almost!)

One of several laid back swans:

Not forgetting their synchronised cygnets. "A cygnet ring!" as the aforementioned David waggishly remarked.

There were cows galore as well, both reflective and reflected. Here is one, ruminating and watching the world go by.

And now the startling sight of "La Vache Qui Pee".

Why, that will be due to all the drinking of course! Note the mirror images in the stream.

I also managed to pap this squirrel, doing a good imiation of Cerberus perched on a gravestone in the adjacent cemetery.

It has been too blowy over the past couple of days to walk very far since, but more explorations of Stafford's green interstices are definitely on the cards. Along with that Undina-inspired post I mentioned earlier...

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Ready, steady, heady: sniffing shots of lilac gin

I should have been taking a plane today. Somewhere far enough away to seem utterly fantastical in today's new reality. The pandemic feels like a waking dream most of the time, with news bulletins recycling the same terminology on an endless loop. If I had a pound for every time someone in the media says 'unprecedented', 'vulnerable', and 'frontline', I wouldn't need the Government's self-employed rescue package I may or may not be invited to apply for before they decide to withdraw it again because of easing the lockdown.

Actually, I say 'frontline' is mentioned over and over, but if you google it (as I just did to see if it was two words or not), you get the flea treatment for dogs and cats of that name as the first search result in Google. Which tells you all you need to know about the all-conquering dark art of SEO.

Much paler in reality than it appears!

But no, instead of going anywhere beyond my limited local circuit at the moment, I have been bird watching and lilac spotting, knitting, reading, cooking, and having psychological battles with Truffle over whether she will or won't get out of the office chair last thing at night. I have taken to carrying the chair with her in it all the way along the landing and tipping her downstairs, even though this is probably not an ideal manoeuvre for my compromised pelvis. This MO does seem to work, mind, with minimal hissing and personal injury.

But I digress...back to my new and colourful pursuit of lilac spotting. The latter has escalated to the level of a sport now on my daily constitutionals (or however often I manage to take them, given how absorbing my many knitting projects are proving at the moment!). Last night I clocked up white, pale mauve, mid-mauve, and a rich magenta. Along the way I also paused to sniff a hawthorn tree (disappointing) and a neighbour's wisteria, as I missed the flowering on my French house this year. I had forgotten how lilac-like wisteria is as a scent.

Now I know I said "lilac gin" there in the title, messing with Elkie Brooks' preferred tipple. That was purely to grab readers' attention, in much the same way that mine was attracted the other day by the headline: "Adele is so skinny now and looks like Barbie." So a low tactic, I concede.

I am not sure I would like lilac gin actually, though my friend David - whose own lilac is the deepest purple one pictured above - makes me fruit-flavoured gin every Christmas. I currently have bottles of his raspberry and pomegranate varieties on the go. If there isn't some lifting at the end of the tunnel from next week, I can see me making greater inroads into my gin stash!

Following on from a recent post by Undina, I was rummaging for the sample she gave me of Jo Malone Sweet Milk a while ago - I didn't care for it, and she mentioned having nearly run out - when I came across another JM sample she'd given me, namely Wild Lilac & Rhubarb. Given my current lilac craze, I have been enjoying wearing it lately, and it doesn't seem either synthetic or overly sweet as I had mistakenly remembered.

Notes: lilac, rhubarb, rose and heliotrope

I am now curious to smell En Passant again, and revisit Opardu and Pacifica French Lilac (the latter also courtesy of Undina), which has given my usually reliable photographic memory the slip for the moment. Oh, and Vacances, which I gave to my brother because he asked if I had a lilac perfume a man could wear.

Source: fragrantica

And speaking of knitting, in my recent yarn splurges, I seem to have been drawn to shades of are the balls in question: for some reason I can't turn the photo round the other way.

Are you flower spotting this spring, in lieu of going to gigs / Nando's / the pub / for a curry / your venue of choice etc?

PS Undina, this still isn't the post inspired by your Sweet Milk post, though you might well think so! ;)

Monday, 27 April 2020

"She and Salv": two train-themed perfume mini-stories with a surreal soapy twist

The other day I heard I was going to be awarded a partial refund of £11.86 by CrossCountry Trains, to compensate me for missing my connection on a journey that seems like a lifetime, but was only in fact some seven weeks ago. I got very excited by this, for together with the £15 proceeds from selling an old half tin of paint to a friend of ex-Mr Bonkers, that's pretty much it for income at the moment.

And the email made me think back to the glorious era of train travel - or any travel indeed - and to a couple of perfume-related incidents which happened this year, one on a train in fact. In the first case I found myself sitting next to a lady of my own age give or take, when she suddenly fished a canister of YSL Rive Gauche out of her handbag, upended it, and proceeded to use the shiny metal base as a compact mirror to apply lipstick. The resourcefulness and nonchalance behind this gesture impressed me in equal measure, and I couldn't help but strike up a conversation with her, starting with a comment to the effect that you don't often come across people wearing Rive Gauche these days. My fellow passenger, who introduced herself as 'She' (you can readily guess what Christian name that was short for), was fulsome in her praise of Rive Gauche, which was no less than her signature scent. She was so worried that it might be discontinued that she had recently bought a back up bottle at Manchester airport, so we chatted a bit about that dismal phenomenon (discontinuing perfumes, I mean, not the airport, of which I have nothing but fond memories). I learnt that she was recently retired and off to see her sister, 'Mad' (you can guess her name too with relative ease!). There was a third sister, also with an amusing contraction, but it has slipped my mind now. Anyway, I had great fun shooting the fragrant breeze with She for as long as our journeys coincided. And no, Vanessa, it's not "shooting the fragrant breeze with Her", even if that is your understandable instinct.

The same weekend, I was given a present by a fellow fan of The Monochrome Set of a vintage set of Salvador Dali miniatures. I didn't inspect the contents of the box till the following day (on another train!), and it afforded that special kind of delight associated with small, secret things, somewhere between a doll's house, a shape sorting toy, and an advent calendar.

There were two perfumes from the 80s: a daytime diva-ish floral, and an evening diva-ish oriental, plus a tiny bar of soap, perfumed bath oil, and body cream - all of them shaped like Dali's trademark lips. That should perhaps be 'mouth of soap' then. The perfumed body cream container had a dear little swivelly lid like a sugar bowl that only fits snugly in one position, while the other three had pull off tops like the spikes atop a wrought iron gate.

At a guess the body cream is past its best, but still smells rich and opulent, as does the bath oil. You can hear a little bit swishing about if you shake it.

Thanks to Basenotes, I have found the notes for the perfumes, both by Alberto Morillas and launched in 1983:

Parfum (the orange coloured one):

Frankincense, bergamot, clove, rose, jasmine, mimosa, sandalwood, patchouli, oakmoss, musk

Parfum de toilette (the pale yellow coloured one):

Top notes: aldehydes, basil, bergamot, fruits, green notes, mandarin
Heart notes: orris root, jasmine, lily, lily-of-the-valley, orange blossom, rose, tuberose
Base notes: amber, benzoin, musk, myrrh, sandalwood, vanilla, cedar

You can readily tell from those notes how retro and big production the two perfumes smell - definitely of their time. But remarkably well preserved. If I am feeling bold one day - and let's face it, lockdown is the ideal occasion - I might give them an outing. Or the indoor equivalent, obviously. ;)

And I am getting through a lot of soap at the moment, however, I reckon that with it being so distinctive I'd have to be on my very last sliver before I broached the cute little lips bar...

Friday, 17 April 2020

The hermit and her hand cream: Lockdown life Part 2

So here we are...three weeks in, three weeks to go. Or an indefinite number of weeks, for the Government is keeping its cards close to its chest, and is terrified of breathing a word to the nation about the possibility of unlocking us for fear of people rushing out of their houses prematurely, lying on park benches in droves, jogging six abreast (accompanied by lots of panting and spitting), and having barbecues for 15 behind (rather symbolically) a row of lock up garages. In short, it doesn't trust the majority of people who have so assiduously complied with social distancing all this while.

Be that as it may, two weeks on from my last post, things feel quite a lot different, mainly in terms of the degree of resigned acceptance I feel about the situation. I guess people in actual prison must go through a very similar thought process - or the bereaved, indeed. Whereas before, my main objection to the restrictions was the isolation from friends, I have since become something of a born again hermit, and the thought of a zoom party featuring headshots of a dozen people (or however many you can fit onto a screen) would feel like a surreal surfeit of stimulation. I am okay with phone calls, but I would find the sight of even someone's head and shoulders strangely overwhelming at this point, and that's not even because of the dire 'wild woman' state of my own hair, hehe. No, I sense I have shifted down several gears, such that occasionally bumping into people - or even more occasionally arranging to drop off food with someone I gaily construe as 'elderly' if they are more or less my age(!), and potentially also 'vulnerable' once they have eaten my cooking ;) - is proving a busy enough form of social life. I am frankly amazed I have got to this point, and perhaps the tide will turn, and I will crave tangible company again.

Police poster on the ground - now technically litter!

Now I don't know about you, but in the absence of face-to-face contact I have been receiving a disproportionate number of emails, messages and texts compared to normal times, many from more distant family and friends, whom the current crisis has galvanised into action. On any given day I owe about ten replies by various media, and this surge in communications is causing an unexpected feeling of pressure I didn't foresee, even though I know this 'reaching out'(!) is well-intentioned, and I am grateful for people's concern. Moreover, each person who writes to me is of course unaware that I am receiving a number of similar inquiries. The fact of the matter is that I only tend to call my elderly friend, which backs up my hunch that I may be getting used to the solitary life.

Coincidentally, there is a beautiful creeper-clad hermitage in Tollymore Forest, Co Down, where my brother and I spent many happy childhood holidays (our parents had a caravan just outside the park). Years ago I decided that I wanted my ashes to be scattered in the Shimna River right below the hermitage. My brother has opted for a spot upstream of me with an architecturally interesting bridge and the added benefit of being a more discreet location for this surreptitious act to be carried out - with it being a national park, I mean. So there's further oblique confirmation of my hermit credentials.


Yes, the social isolation is bothering me less than it was, but meanwhile I can't wait to see my dentist, osteopath and hairdresser again - about my holey molar, sprained foot and pelvis, and mad mane of hair respectively! I am also quietly hopeful that an enterprising tree surgeon will swing by tomorrow to empty my bin of green waste, so that I can get on with gardening.

Though the loneliness may have receded, I remain moderately worried about catching the virus, especially after seeing a programme on survivors. One familiar face featured was Linda Lusardi, who got the illness quite badly and ended up in hospital with complications. When she sought reassurance from a nurse that she would make it, he was rather equivocal and said: "Hmm..well, it's hard to say - you are 61 after all, and this thing is brand new." (I am paraphrasing.) Having seen recent photos of the former Page 3 model, I must say she is looking tremendous for her age, which may have helped her recovery. However, the fact that someone so vital and relatively young in my terms could fall so ill does give you pause.

Are you by any chance doing that thing where if you wake up in the morning and feel a bit hot you start asking yourself if the feeling of heat is the sun streaming through the window, that hot bath you had last night, too much bedding, overly cosy pyjamas, a physical manifestation of anxiety...or could it possibly be The Fever?!! If anyone out there has already had the virus and would like to share their experience, please do let us know, also any tips for managing the symptoms.

The other thing that I'd be interested to know about the lockdown is whether you have found yourself doing new things, sometimes without any conscious decision to do so. Here's a round up of the ones I have noticed recently:

- Drinking hot water and lemon first thing (I have it in my head that this is good for detoxing the liver from all those Cadbury's Mini-Eggs)

- Sleeping longer and deeper (this is completely abnormal!)

- A three hour bike ride, not by design. Good - and God - deed for the day was alerting the vicar of Sandon church to the fact that his security alarm was going off. "There probably isn't a burglar inside", I said to allay his fears of a break in. "My money's on a bat." Hmm, maybe that wasn't the best way to reassure him.

- Ongoing unprecedented levels of cooking. Ex-Mr Bonkers has just come to the door and collected a tupperware of vegetable curry I set aside for him on the step. He took one look at my hair - he hasn't seen me for a month or two - and said: "Just accept you are going grey!" Ha!

- Using the downstairs shower (to mix up my ablution routine - gotta get your kicks where you can!)

- Applying hand cream (a lifetime first, which is doubtless related to the copious amounts of hand washing we are all engaged in)

The hand cream in question was given to me ages ago by fellow blogger Sabine, which goes to show how long-kept items can suddenly come into their own. Its realistic mimosa scent - cheery and uplifting in that distinctive sherbety way - reminded me of my first misguided purchase of niche perfume over ten years ago in Paris...L'Ete en Douce from L'Artisan Parfumeur, which Luca Turin so aptly described as "laundry musk on steroids" (I'm paraphrasing here too). The sad fact is that I was hesitating on that occasion between L'Ete en Douce and Mimosa pour Moi, and bitterly regret not opting for the latter. I think I did eventually manage to swap the musky miscreant for something I only wanted marginally more(!), but the memory of Mimosa pour Moi still haunts me...And for now, this Swedish hand cream is a fair substitute.

Ah dear, it seems to be discontinued, judging by the company's website.


PS I have been wearing perfume every now and then when I am in the mood and remember: Serge Lutens Un Lys, Guerlain Lys Soleia, Kenzo Eau de Fleur de Magnolia, original Vera Wang (worn ironically, obvs) and something I fished out from my sample box which just says 'Guerlain' on the vial, but which may in fact be Encens Mythique.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

Hand washing and hand wringing: a Lidl liquid soap lookalike, and getting in a lather over lockdown

It's only been a few weeks, but I feel like a veteran of this lockdown lark, having 'done time' in two countries already. And I can confirm that as a person on my own it doesn't suit me at all. I didn't think I would react like this, for I am someone who routinely used to go on solo business trips for two, three, or even four weeks at a time, and I have lived alone for nearly eight years in my present house, and also for long spells in the past. No, what makes the current situation so hard to bear is the fact that you can't see your friends, not even to go for a walk at the appropriate distance, because they are not members of your household. During my solo walks I have encountered large families out together, pushing past on narrow pavements with no regard for social distancing, and have frequently been driven into the road. Same thoughtless jostling story in supermarkets. I have also seen knots of young people milling around shops and standing on street corners, and couples out jogging, and I doubt very much that they are all related. Then I have singleton friends who have rejigged their households the better to cope with the isolation: adult children have come home, sometimes with partners in tow. I don't blame them one bit, and I think I may be suffering from a case of "multiple person household envy". The tennis player Annabel Croft was interviewed on the radio yesterday, and she explained that having so many family members at home at the moment was unusually convivial. It sounded like Christmas every day, though she didn't exactly say so.

What else? There has been much talk in the media of people turning more to drink, haha, which amused me. I have always been an 'in-home' rather than a social drinker, but so far this year have stuck to my New Year's resolution of having three days of the week drink-free, a doubling of the tally I managed last year. Then I spoke to a friend yesterday, who said she was drinking a bit more than usual, and was also starting the day by bingeing on Bakewell tart from the local post office. I can't tell you how much she went up in my estimation for admitting that! And I do reserve the right to play the 'unprecedented times' card and progressively slide off my part-time wagon as the lockdown continues...;)

I have also been dabbling a bit more in exercise - I shan't overstate it, as I am a reluctant exerciser at best. I have mauled my 'vintage' Total Gym out of long term storage - a work out in itself, let me tell you - and stockpiled some cardio and resistance training videos, the shorter the better. I even watched a 6 minute introductory video of Yoga with Adriene, inspired by Tara of A Bottled Rose. All you had to do in that video was breathe deeply three times, and listen to her talk about comfy clothing, but I note that the next episode is nearly 50 minutes long, so realistically I may not get past looking out my mat(!). We'll see...I actually completed a ten minute exercise video I found on an NHS website last night, and today my knee hurts like mad, and I appear to have aggravated the arthritis in my other hand I didn't even know I had. So I guess the moral of all that is moderation in all things, hehe.

I am cooking a lot more, which is a good thing, and am also guiding ex-Mr Bonkers in his own culinary endeavours. He has never done more than open a tin of soup in his 61 years, but the current situation is driving him to buy and 'interact with' a whole range of foodstuffs. His first triumph was baking a potato, swiftly followed by an 'assembly' coup, namely putting a cheese and onion pasty and crinkle cut chips in the oven - requiring different lengths of cooking time and different temperatures! - while heating up baked beans on the top of the cooker. I told him that that meal involved complex organisational skills, and that he had done very well to have pulled it off without recourse to critical path analysis and a wall chart.

Now I don't know if you have found this, but all my usual service providers - energy companies, phone providers etc - appear to be hunkering down behind a veil of non-availability, which has led to some comically spun announcements, the first from British Gas:

"So for now, we can only help with prepay meter issues or emergencies (e.g. no heating or hot water). Please don't contact us about anything else. If you do, we've asked our customer service advisers to politely explain that we can't help right now."

And yesterday I was trying to communicate via Live Chat with Virgin Media. The AI bot didn't understand me for several exchanges, and when it eventually grasped my inquiry, I got the message:

"Just to let you know that we won't get back to you immediately, so you can get on with your day."

Whoohoo, thanks...!

I am still receiving a lot of promotional spam, also from perfume companies, which irks me, as perfume generally - and certainly buying any more - is the last thing on my mind. Le Jardin Retrouve and Diptyque are the worst offenders currently. Diptyque has been annoying me for years, as some readers may recall, and shows no sign of letting up. Oddly for me, all I have bought since the lockdown began is light bulbs, latex gloves, a couple of masks in case the Government guidance changes, and more probiotics, as in a pandemic like this the gut needs to keep up its game!

I say, have you seen any posters in windows asking questions of the neighbours opposite? A friend put one up wishing our mutual friend Kate a happy birthday, which was a nice touch. There's also the poster doing the rounds on Facebook where someone asks the name of a black and white cat in their neighbour's window (Answer: Walter), and I have just heard of another corker:

"What is the name of that pale Edwardian child in your loft window?"

Moving on, I cut my fringe the other day - with qualified success, it must be said. It is out of my eyes, but looks a bit wonky, and is still quite thick - my hairdressing skills are not up to 'wispifying' aka rendering my fringe 'choppy'. (Picture not available on request. ;) )

Hmm...I am also finding the lack of physical touch particularly's been four weeks nearly since I touched another person, and it is sad not to be able to put my arm round my elderly friend, which I am sure she appreciated. I can't even cross her threshold.

Oh, there was another happy consequence of the current situation: the gentleman with a keen interest in genealogy who kindly spent several years researching our family tree, decided to cast his net one more time and scooped up a bunch of Very Old Mussons from Freeby in Leicestershire, a village not previously on his radar. We are now back four more generations to c1550 and I have a new great great (etc!) grandfather called Valentine. A family tree 'freebie' indeed. He went on to recount his elaborate quest to find yeast, bemoaned the complete lack of eggs and sketchy supply of blueberries, and gave me a tip about 'ply splitting' paper proucts, assuming they are thick enough to start with. (FYI, I still haven't seen loo roll in the shops, though I believe there have been further supplies delivered - and possibly gone straight out again. Hand sanitiser is also something of a retail unicorn.)

Which leads me finally to the aforementioned Lidl Citrus & Herb liquid soap, a cunning fusion dupe of The White Company's bottle and the classic Jo Malone 'Lime, Basil & Mandarin' fragrance. It doesn't smell of much - which may be less an indictment of the product and more to do with my having symptoms of the coronavirus, though I hope not! - but it is incredible value for the not very much money it cost, whatever that was.

I would be most interested to hear your own lockdown stories, whether you are coupled up or on your own and not doing very well either! How you are passing the time, whether you are washing your shopping, leaving post for three days before opening it, and implementing other strange but strongly recommended Coronavirus measures.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

COVID-19 in Corrèze (19): the cowslip trip, and my flight out of lockdown on 19.03

I have just been to France. I got home again a week later, but I very nearly didn't. This is the story of that ill-fated trip.

NB I have other more fragrant topics in mind to write about, but nothing is as top of head to me as the Coronavirus pandemic, having experienced it in a country - and in an area with a postcode beginning with 19, no less - that is much further down the road in terms of numbers of cases, and where government containment measures ratcheted up at a dizzying speed in the short time I was there.

Yes, I see now that it was madness to go...Ex-Mr Bonkers rang me every day for four or five days before I went, begging me not to, telling me it was all going to go to hell in a handcart very fast all over Europe, and that I would be stuck in France with no means of getting back. As a concession to him, on the morning of my departure I rang my travel insurer (who were still contactable back then...!), and asked if I could invoke my insurance policy if I cancelled my trip voluntarily, because I was worried about what might develop while I was over in France. They said unfortunately not; the policy only applies when things start to go wrong. So rather than lose my sunk costs on flight / hire car / airport parking, I set off on Thursday 12th for East Midlands Airport.

Then before handing over my hold luggage at the check in desk, I quizzed the Ryanair ground staff about the likelihood of my return flight still sticking to the wall by the time I was due to come home in ten days. They said nothing was set in stone, but that they as a company wanted to continue to fly for as long as possible, unless government intervention on either the French or British side stopped them - or their crew got sick. Commercial reasons were less likely to apply to them ie too few passengers showing up for flights to make them viable, as they had already taken people's money whether they travelled or not (Ryanair not being an airline to issue refunds on unused tickets).

So I sensed a will to fly back on the part of Ryanair, and that was as much as I could glean without committing to the air...which I duly did.

It was similar weather to Britain when I arrived - lashing rain and cold - and I spent a good forty minutes trying to open my front door, which had swollen in the long winter months, the wettest on record. Having finally wrenched it open, I then had problems shutting it(!), and ended up barricading the door with furniture as a temporary measure to deter burglars, not that they are thick on the ground in the village. I also messaged my go-to handyman, asking him if he could take a look at it at some point during my stay: star that he is, he arrived in 20 minutes(!), at 10pm, and promptly hammered it shut with his (very strong) fist, before promising to return on Saturday and do a proper repair. (We didn't shake hands.) Meanwhile, I could still come and go via the very old stable door to the side, which was also tricky to use as the key wouldn't come out of the lock, but I finally mastered the knack.

Friday and Saturday were almost normal, dare I say it? The library in the village was shut until further notice, along with my favourite charity shop, but I was able to pop into the local brocante, and the Post Office and boulanger were also open. In the nearby town, everything seemed pretty busy, so I got some more keys cut, bought a walking map, did a big supermarket shop, stocked up on logs and a vac-u-vin. Bars and restaurants were doing a lively trade, but I noticed that people there were doing the social distancing thing with varying degrees of compliance, unlike in the village. I saw two men and a woman greet each other with the traditional French hand shaking and kissing on the cheeks, and overheard one of them say: "I don't give a f***", as he did so. This kind of defiant behaviour turned out to be the death knell of life in France as they knew it just a couple of days later...

By now the weather was absolutely beautiful, with temperatures ranging from 16 - 22C, in strange contrast to the air of cosmic bleakness that hung heavy over the village and France more widely. The cases were creeping up in certain hotspots, and the health services struggling. On Sunday I weeded the perimeter of my house and went for a long walk using my new map.

At some point over the weekend - I can't quite recall when! - ALL shops and hotels, restaurants and bars were closed, leaving only supermarkets, pharmacies, petrol stations and banks operating as normal. Small independent food shops, like the boulanger, were initially shut down, but later allowed to open again, meaning I was allowed to sample their apple doughnut during my stay after all - a small win.

On Monday in the day I went in search of kindling, as an open fire was the best way to stay warm in the chilly evenings. I had to visit three big supermarkets quite some way away before I struck lucky, and was shocked at how close people were to one another in the checkout queues, though I tried to step out of line and back in again when it was my turn. There was a lot of panic buying and the "Less than 10 items" till at which I was queuing had been hijacked by those with trolleys piled high.

Then on Monday night, President Macron addressed the nation for the second time that week and expressed his annoyance at his fellow citizens' flagrant disregard of social distancing. From noon on Tuesday, everyone was grounded or "confined" for the next two weeks, and could only leave their homes for one of a handful of reasons, and then only with a self-completed form stating the reason in question, called an "attestation de déplacement dérogatoire".

On Tuesday, half an hour after the new law came into force, I sallied forth to the newly reopened boulanger on a mission to score my much anticipated doughnut. It was a very short distance from my house, and I didn't bother filling in an attestation for a round trip of five minutes. (But I did take care to do so for every foray from that point on.) In the baker's there was a big sign saying "Card payments only". Imagine, paying by card for a bun...I offered to pop back to my house to retrieve my bank card, but they said if I could pay that way next time that would be fine. So I lobbed a two euro coin from a safe distance onto the counter and we chatted for a while about where on earth this was all going to end up.

On Tuesday afternoon, I went for another long walk, but this time I took an attestation with me, though forgot any ID, which you are meant to have on you as well. Going for a walk was a legitimate reason to leave the house, but I may have pushed the km envelope - now set at 1-2km I believe, though previously a bit fluid, depending on how good a walker you are(!). I didn't meet a policeman, though an extra 100,000 had been deployed for the specific purpose of checking up on people's movements.

On the walk I picked some cowslips and put them in a jug when I got back.

On Wednesday I went for another walk, and picked some more cowslips, which I added to the jug. I did the additional flower picking on autopilot though, for while I was out in the countryside I received a message from a neighbour who is on the local council, reminding me that I was also grounded, that the borders were closed, and that I had to stay in the village for the full 15 days, or however long a period of confinement it turned out to be.

This news sent me into a complete tailspin, for I was not at all geared for a long stay in my house, and I sensed that the confinement period would turn out to be a lot longer than 15 days in the end. My shower had just broken, I had developed a large hole in my tooth (crusty bread being the likely culprit), and had a cat back home whom I could not expect friends to indefinitely feed. Plus, at 85, my Elderly Friend (as she is known on Facebook) is in the vulnerable category, and I needed to get back to do my bit to support her. At a time of national crisis like this, the only place you want to be is home. Your main home, in your own country. This is no time to be 'on holiday'.

So I spent several hours that night researching the rights of British citizens to jump 'confinement' and go home. I messaged a dear perfume friend, whose French husband rang me up late at night to assure me that "going back home" was a valid reason for travel, as long as I wrote it on the attestation form, as I had been doing for my walks.

Then very early the following morning I received a travel advisory email from the FCO, telling me to leg it basically, if I wanted to get back to the UK - for while the borders were still open, the transport options were closing down fast. I needed no telling, believe me, notwithstanding the town hall's wish to keep me there. Ryanair had already indicated that they were suspending flights from the following week, so if I didn't make a break for freedom sharpish, I knew I might be trapped in France for weeks or months to come. At 10am I discovered that the first of the three return flights to the UK I had bought! ;) (to cover all bases), had been miraculously reinstated, though it had been cancelled shortly after I booked it. So I promptly checked in online and set about packing up for an immediate departure.

Thus it was that at noon on Thursday 19th I did a 'daylight flit' to the airport. I also took along with me two kinds of rubbish. Ordinarily I would give these to my neighbours, but no one wants things you have touched anymore, so I took the bags with me. The household waste I put into the large dumper bin of a closed restaurant, while I tipped my green waste (the weeds from round my house, plus the cowslips ;( ) into a thicket in a forest, where I figured they would compost down nicely.

Departure lounge as I have never seen it before!

I drove on to the airport...the roads were eerily empty - quieter than Christmas Day - and in the large town of Limoges all but one of a dozen traffic lights turned green as soon as they saw me approach, which was also spooky. "Oooh look, a car, let's turn colour!" I made it to the airport with four hours to spare before take off, but I was just so glad to be there. In the concourse there were two roving (and masked) reporters from national TV channel France 3, who, having overheard me speak French to the check in staff, asked if they could film and ask me a few questions. They basically wanted to know why I was going back to Britain: was it because I was afraid of staying on in France? I explained that I had caring responsibilities for an elderly relative and that I wasn't afraid of the virus in France as such. I just needed to be back home, surrounded by my network of friends so that we could provide mutual support to one another. I also mentioned my responsabilities to Truffle. I didn't mention the broken shower, but now that confinement was in force - also for my handyman - that was not going to get fixed any time soon...

On time, a few hours later, the flight took off. There was no problem doing social distancing on board, as there were only 15 of us on the plane! I could have hugged the Northern Irish captain and all the crew for getting us out in the nick of the time, but obviously hugging is not the done thing now. The plane landed just before 6pm, and I was home - and incredulous to be so - by 7pm.

A 60 hour throwing up migraine promptly ensued, from which I emerged this morning...

Now I am back, I am behaving like a French person and carrying on my confinement: I am only going out for essential reasons, wearing gloves, washing my hands all the time, and not letting anyone into my house. I am even wary of mail. This illness is truly horrific if you get it badly - which is happening to people of all ages for reasons no one can fathom - so the more we all knuckle down and self-isolate, the more the NHS will be able to cope with the many casualties yet to come.

PS In case anyone is wondering I did wear perfume most, but not all of the time, because when I am truly stressed, not even perfume has the capacity to calm. But I do recall Estee Lauder Bronze Goddess on the way out from the tester in the Duty Free, Chanel Bois des Iles, Aqua di Parma Magnolia Nobile, Flower by Kenzo Oriental, L'Erbolario Meharees, and Hermes Vanille Galante.

Right now, however, I would happily sell some of my collection in return for toilet paper, having missed the panic buying peak in the UK while I was away!