UK

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I walk out of the shady, pine-scented woods, and stop, mid-stride, frozen in fear and wonder. I can feel the panic rising up my throat, threatening to choke me. Below me, in all its miniature widescreen glory stretches the Yosemite Valley. Less than twenty-four hours earlier I had stood in that valley, craning my neck to look up at this very spot.

To my right, I can see the sensuous granite mounds of the Yosemite Wilderness, and, far in the hazy distance the jagged snow-crested teeth of the High Sierra beyond. To my left, looming above the tree-line, is the bald, grey pate that is Half Dome. It is my wildest dream and my worst nightmare all rolled into one.

I have travelled thousands of miles to be in this place. I have researched, planned, and trained for months so that I am prepared for the challenge. And yet, now that I stand here, staring in horror at the part-peeled onion layers of sheer rock in front of me, it might all have been in vain.

Since yesterday, I’ve climbed an arduous seven miles, over rocks slick with rainbow-hued waterfall-mist, and through root-tangled woods, still cool with lingering snow-drifts. My aching legs have been forced up sheer slopes that from a distance seemed impossible. There have been minor demons to conquer in the shape of wild camping, composting toilets, and a hungry young bear trying to take the rucksack out of my tent. And now my courage has failed me. I am terrified.

The end of my journey is within sight. A mere mile. The trouble is, I know exactly what that last mile contains. Four hundred yards of vertical ascent and the Half Dome cables, nemesis of the vertigo-sufferer. I will myself to relax. Breathe in. Breathe out. Slowly. Stop the panic. Gradually, my pulse returns to something approaching normal, and I try to think rationally.

An iridescent flash of cobalt blue catches my attention as a Steller’s jay swoops from a nearby tree to land a few yards away on a low branch. It watches me for a while, head tilted to one side as if in question, before fluttering to a point a few yards ahead of me. Almost without conscious thought, I follow it. As I get near, he takes flight and, in a graceful arc, moves further along the trail. We continue our dance, moving closer together and further apart in an unconsciously beautiful meeting of species, before the jay, clearly bored by my pedestrian progress, glides effortlessly away from me and out of sight.

I look up, and realise that I am within a stone’s throw of the switchback – the first part of the final ascent. Nearly as steep as the cable ascent, though not as exposed. Suddenly, the decision is made for me, thanks to my feathered friend. I will go on, one step at a time, until I either reach the summit, or get so scared that I have to turn back, but there is no way I am backing out now.

The rest of the climb passes in a daze. The switchback is challenging but not too frightening. I struggle to walk over the narrow shoulder between it and the cable climb, but I surprise myself on the cables by climbing strongly and steadily for most of the way. I have to stop once to let someone pass me on their descent, and I foolishly look at the four thousand foot drop below me. Having briefly, but vividly, considered my mortality, I cling to the metal cables until my head stops swimming, and plod on upwards.

Suddenly, it is all over. I haul myself over the last step, and I am walking across a vast, flat plateau of smooth, sparkling granite. It feels as big, and as safe, as a football pitch. I still don’t care much for the drop below me, but as long as I don’t get too near the edge I can keep the fear at bay. I even manage to shoot a whole roll of film on the awe-inspiring views. I lie on a flat piece of rock and bask in the midday sunshine, along with some creature which I think, bizarrely, might be a marmot.

I let my mind wander back over the journey to here. The long trek up the Mist Trail, past, and through, the mystical beauty of the Vernal Falls, the hard slog up the side of Nevada Falls. The sleepless night, post-bear, in the Little Yosemite Valley. And now I have it all to do in reverse, including the cables.

I haul my weary limbs upright, and with a massive grin, start the descent. After all, I’ve done Half Dome – I can do anything!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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We lean against the damp brick wall in the candlelit building, rushing water and chanted intonations echo around us. One by one, the candles are put out and our attention is guided inwards. We meditate together, standing in the silence. Cold waters gush up from the ground.

Three knocks on the thick wooden door and it is opened to greet the light and the caller. A young girl, representing a goddess walks in with a single flame. From this all candles are lit once more and we welcome the return of the light.

This is one of the ways they observe the passage of the seasons in Glastonbury, in the south west of England. Imbolc, also Brigid’s Day is an ancient festival marking the first stirrings of spring. Historically widely observed around the British isles, it was originally a pagan festival associated with the celtic goddess Brigid. Later it became the Christian festival of Saint Brigit.  It is celebrated roughly halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox of the northern hemisphere.

In Glastonbury on this day most locals and pilgrims (like us) visit two springs/holy wells.
My friends and I had gathered with the small crowd at the White Spring for the morning meditation and ceremony. The spring is housed in a 150 year old pumphouse now converted into a temple. In this dark candle-lit space you are immersed in the sound of perpetual flowing water.

After the White Spring it was on to the Red Spring a stone’s throw away. The Red Spring is situated in the Chalice Well Gardens, a beautiful reflective garden where they celebrate the earth’s natural cycles and rhythms with meditations on the solstices, equinoxes and mid-points. We sat in silence. The birds sang and sun shone around us.

Both springs are situated at the foot of Glastonbury’s world famous landmark – Glastonbury tor. The tor (or hill) reaches a height of 518 feet (158 metres) in a flat part of Somerset called ‘the levels’. It has been a place of pilgrimage for ten thousand years. When you see its undulating curves emerging from the green and sometimes misty landscape, you can feel a pull to walk up it. Thousands still do.

Later that day we chose to visit a different hill. Legend tells that Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury after the crucifixion, planted his staff on Wearyall hill, the staff took root and blossomed into the Glastonbury Thorn. Glastonbury is a place of many myths – this is just one of them.

As we walked up this hill at the end of a reflective but celebratory day, near the top we saw a local farmer with a twinkle in his eye. One moment we were saying hello, talking about how cold the weather was, the next we were following him downhill to the bottom of the ridge.

He had asked for our help to move two early newborn lambs and their mother, so he could take them to shelter, away from the plunging temperatures where they might freeze to death.

Nick and the farmer took a lamb each, Abi and I made re-assuring sheep noises to the ewe, encouraging her to follow us as we journeyed to the bottom of the field and the farmer’s car. The rest of the flock followed – a concerned tribe.

The bloodied lambs and large ewe with birth entrails hanging, were helped and lifted into the back of the farmer’s small fiat hatchback. The sheepdog sat in the front seat – watching.

Now dark, the farmer thanked us in his minimal regional accent and drove off. The full moon rose over the tor as we re-climbed the ridge.

Walking back we remembered at the White Spring they had talked of the origins of the word Imbolc, perhaps coming from the old word for ewes milk. With lamb afterbirth on our hands and clothes from our sheep encounter, we felt blessed by serendipity.

We approached the old thorn with a spring in our step – it felt good to have given.

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No one could ever doubt that the journey to this very spot was effortless. I have cried, slid ungracefully and I bitterly lost my phone in a certain powdered filled event. All on these very slopes.

I am a seasonaire.

One who has shamefully never skied on snow before landing and then living, on this very snowy and ski orientated resort.

This winter was meant to be purely about me become ‘tres perfect’ in French, spending my Gap Year surrounded by ‘les francephones’, speaking and listening with great envy as their native language flows from their practised mouths.

The motivation behind my four months in a place driven by a sport, a hobby which I have never thought to interest myself in? Is simply for that brief moment where my speech flows with a natives and conversation is struck in a dimension which had never seemed possible those few years ago, sitting in a classroom full of English students who were just as confused by the ‘subjects’ and ‘auxiliary verbs’ as I had then been.

Therefore, you can imagine my horror when I arrived and was almost immediately whisked to the local ski hire, up the bobble to a Red and then strapped in facing what can only be described as the beginning of an ice covered path, which drops frighteningly into nowhere.

Nowhere visible to the start that is to say.

That Red was the run where tears had seemed to flow with the snow scraped up into the air and down the gradient by those who knew better. The very slope where I had fallen on my front, each ski pointing up towards the top as I slid with my legs flapping before me down, gradually losing both poles and finally both skies. The only slope which I had somehow manages to ski parallel into the powder off-piste and then somehow opened my coat pockets, discharging my mobile into the white clouds which seemed to suffocate me.

Therefore, this moment, this very moment where I am surrounded my those  ‘white clouds’, which now are up around me instead of on the ground, and hurtling at an alarming speed to the bottom, you can understand why I feel that emotion of absolute pride.

Pride in myself.

Not only did I literally throw myself off the slope at the very top, into a pool of clouds which tampered with ones vision and makes it almost impossible to see, but I did it alone. Everyone else in my group has taken the day to rest and the others who’d been peering over the side with their skies angled away, have not yet followed.

However the thing which ironically ‘pushed me over the edge’, was sheer motivation to make up for the days spent cursing these beautiful mountains and to feel that accomplishment I receive when using a new word within a French conversation or by travelling alone because I know what suits me best.

This sporadic moment which makes me feel most brave?

Well I am fixed to two narrow lengths, unable to see anything but the fast moving snow beneath my   skies and I can feel the speed which I am going at by the wind which knocks harshly, but not without love, on the only exposed area of my face; the tip of my nose.

This moment would not be nearly as significant or climatic if it had not been for the troubles and bumps which I have had to encounter. It makes me yearn to yell at the uncertain beginners who stand the way I trembled and fall the way I tumbled that they can, that they WILL be able to do this too if they push all their weight forward and off the starting point.

Nothing has made me feel as free, nor brave as this moment where the sense of sight seems to have been robbed from me, and in its place, clarity has been bestowed.

I have made myself free, and that’s the bravest thing I could ever have allowed myself to be.

 Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

1 821

 

England: Inspiration and Bravery Found Running the Jurassic Coast

            I sit, exhausted, on the coarse burred covered heather oblivious to the prickles and thorns biting into my trembling tired legs. Elation overtakes my exhaustion, “I did it Les, I conquered it, I told you I would” I yell out in triumph to no-one in particular. My words carry across Bournemouth’s cliff top and waft in the cool wind. I look towards a sheltered thicket which Bournemouth’s West-Cliff are is known for and where my brother use to sit in his wheelchair and sighed. The town of Bournemouth with its jagged cliffs is part of England’s 95 miles of Jurassic Coast and runs along England’s south west coastline. It is the first natural World Heritage Site in England and is particularly beautiful. My brother and I had been lucky enough to spend our carefree childhood years living here in the county of Dorset in idyllic Southern England, playing amongst Bournemouth’s famous Chines. Our weekends were spent hunting for million of years old fossils, clambering over oddly shaped rock formations, and pretending we were the long ago bootleggers who landed their illegal contraband on deserted beaches in the dark of night.

 

            My eyes drift down towards the beach and the 145 foot incline zig-zag path I had just run up. The Atlantic ocean which feeds the English Channel was causing Bournemouth’s sea to heave violently this morning, and the waves pummeled against the aging Victorian brick promenade. Quaint brightly painted little beach huts, over a hundred years old, stood poised and sturdy with their doors rattling against the wind. “I did it Les” I said this time mumbling to myself, tears suddenly welling up and rolling over my cheeks.  Only a few months earlier my brother had poked fun at my remorseful temperament during one of our conversations.

 

“Go on, do it, be brave, look around at where we live Sylv, open your eyes to the beauty which surrounds us here. I challenge you to start to run again, run from Poole to Bournemouth and take in the allurement of Branksome, Alum, and Durley Chine. That’ll be about eight miles of hilly terrain. Conquer that dreaded zig-zag path from West Undercliff promenade to the top of the cliff, bet you can’t” he said. It was a challenge easier said than done for me to complete after my recent amputation. “Run again? I’m not sure really” I said. With a knowing look and brightness in his eyes he stares at me, “Yes, run again Sylv, focus on what’s around you, don’t think of the pain you feel, find your inspiration in what you see, remember and picture the D-Day boats departing from Poole and what the soldiers must have been thinking when leaving-many never to return. Follow the trail of the illegal smugglers through the heathlands, and run through Bournemouth’s famous Victorian Gardens, and Alum Chine’s Tropical Gardens. Gingerly run over David Rowell’s Suspension Bridge which Winston Churchill, as a teenager, fell from during1892. I say gingerly Sylv, as I know you are scared of heights even if it is only thirty feet in the air and sways in the wind. Wave hello to the ghost of Robert Louis Stevenson as you pass by his ‘Skerryvore’ home. Jog around Sandbanks peninsula realizing you are running over the fourth highest land value in the world, and smile at the crew operating the working 1923 vehicular chain ferry. You can do it!” he said with a mischievous look upon his face.

 

            So reader, I did! I did it today. I took on my brother’s challenge and ran those long hilly seven miles ignoring the intense pain that resonated throughout my maimed foot. You see, the town of Bournemouth in the county of Dorset in England inspired my brother. It inspired him to live, it gave him the reason and ‘why’ to bravely battle and fight the consuming cancer which riddled his body and it inspires me as well. My short eight mile run along the coast is only a small part of the 95 miles of a wondrous geological marvel. Picturesque fishing villages and numerous coves dot the coast line. The splendid natural limestone rock arch over 140 million years old and known as Durdle Door is worthy of a visit, as are the white sea stacks known as the ‘Old Harry Rocks.’ Let your imagination soar when you visit11th century Corfe Castle that William the Conqueror built in the parish of Swanage. Travel through market towns built by the Romans, and be awed by Bournemouth’s 1000 feet historic pier. When the evening draws in head into town and visit the numerous restaurants, clubs, and vibrant and friendly nightlife. Soar 500 feet in the air on the ‘Bournemouth Air,’ a giant helium balloon and take in the breathtaking views.

 

            This morning I imagined my brother sitting at the top of the cliff cheering me on, perhaps he is in spirit, I would like to think so. His positive attitude and bravery he showed throughout his life was aided by the scenic ambience he lived in. So visit Bournemouth and be inspired as my brother was in its beauty, charm, and appeal. Walk, run, or merely amble along the cliff tops and coastline, and feel the enchantment of the Jurassic Coast and what it has to offer you. Conquer your fears as I did mine, defeat any obstacles which stand in your way as I did mine, and become your own superhero, as my brother was to me. Today,  I am also my own superhero!

Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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London the Hub Or the Brutal Congested City…You decide!

Do you share our Passion for travel? Would you like to see more of the world, do you think you have to save forever to take your first dream trip? Allow me to take you on a journey

Recently my husband and I decided to have some R & R in London as he was away for a month over Christmas & London…!

Now I consider London like being at home as I live in UK! So when we decided to head over to London  for a Business event in Ealing, we decided to also take some time out for “us” too :) Now Ealing is in the west side of London yet not really part of the London West end!

Last time I went to London I headed over to the Holiday Inn Kensington and enjoyed the Science Museum and The Ice Rink by the Castle! Dropped in at Harrold’s and enjoyed the ambience of The Borough of Chelsea!  So I wasn’t really expecting to be enamoured by Ealing town!

Keep in mind that we woke up at 4am to catch a 5am Train from Liverpool Lime Street to London Euston and had to dash to the underground to get to Ealing Broadway for a 9am Start of the event.  Enter Ealing Broadway and we were pleasantly surprised indeed… Word of advice; If you’re going to be in London for more than a day, it’s worth buying a Visitor Oyster Card in advance, which they post to your home before you arrive in London. This is probably the best ways to get around London. If you do not do this and still plan to see London for more than a day, definitely buy an Oyster card at the Tube station…and by all means don’t get lost on the underground….Long story don’t ask :)

This part of London is definitely the Brutal congested rush hour City, Not very friendly!

But…we got to the Other side, though not the west end it was definitely A sight for sore eyes!

The streets were spotless clean… Oh you might wonder which parts of London I normally visit…but bear with me! Every time I go through London it’s never that clean! We headed over to The Ealing Town Hall and I fell in love with this part of London even more.

I love Old Architecture and the Town Hall is a handsome building that blends in beautifully with the rest of the street!

Ealing town is a lovely area to explore on foot, lots of lil cafes and shops. There are smaller shopping streets in the area. Don’t miss the Arcadia shopping centre for your generic buys!

Now we only stayed for the weekend and visited other places family and stuff, it was a kind of Whirlwind stop over but we made time to visit Walpole Park & Pitzhanger Manor House
An amazingly grand and gorgeous Manor House. (I did warn you I love old architecture). This work of art can be found at the entrance of Walpole Park. It is a grade 1 listed building and here is the bonus, there was a free art exhibition and apparently there are several all year-roundJ. And get this the park has some amazing landscaping; ornamental bridges, ponds, streams and a walled rose garden – one of my favourite sites. According to a local resident who chatted us up on our walk, in the summer months of July/August the area & park hosts a multitude of festivals  showcasing jazz, comedy, opera and, of course his fav, lashings of beer. Ealing indeed does have an abundance of lush meadows and parks; one is right across the Underground station that we walked through to the Town Hall!

Like I said I may not do this part of London justice as it was a whistle stop, so I hope I will do the city of Budapest More justice as it is our next stop over!

 Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

2 284

 It Not Only Takes Bravery but Determination in the UK

            I sit, exhausted, on the coarse burred covered heather oblivious to the prickles and thorns biting into my trembling tired legs. Elation overtakes my exhaustion, “I did it Les, I conquered it, I told you I would” I yell out in triumph to no-one in particular. My words carry across Bournemouth’s cliff top and waft in the cool wind. I look towards a sheltered thicket which Bournemouth’s West-Cliff is known for, and where my brother use to sit in his wheelchair and sighed. The town of Bournemouth with its jagged cliffs is part of England’s 95 miles of Jurassic Coast and runs along England’s south west coastline. It is the first natural World Heritage Site in England and is particularly beautiful. My brother and I had been lucky enough to spend our carefree childhood years living here in the county of Dorset in idyllic Southern England, playing amongst Bournemouth’s famous Chines. Our weekends were spent hunting for millions of years old fossils, clambering over oddly shaped rock formations, and pretending we were the long ago bootleggers who landed their illegal contraband on Dorset’s deserted beaches in the dark of night.

            My eyes drift down towards the beach and the 145 feet incline zig-zag path I had just run up. The Atlantic ocean which feeds the English Channel was causing Bournemouth’s sea to heave violently this morning, and the waves pummeled against the aging Victorian brick promenade. Quaint brightly painted little beach huts, over a hundred years old, stood poised and sturdy with their doors rattling against the wind. “I did it Les” I said this time mumbling to myself, tears suddenly welling up and rolling over my cheeks.  Only a few months earlier my brother had poked fun at my remorseful temperament during one of our conversations. “Go on, do it, be brave, look around at where we live Sylv, open your eyes to the beauty which surrounds us here. I challenge you to start to run again, run from Poole to Bournemouth and take in the allurement of Branksome, Alum, and Durley Chines. That’ll be about eight miles of hilly terrain. Conquer that dreaded zig-zag path from West Undercliff promenade to the top of the cliff, bet you can’t” he said.

              It was a challenge easier said than done for me to complete after my recent amputation. “Run again? I’m not sure really” I said. With a knowing look and brightness in his eyes he stares at me, “Yes, run again Sylv, focus on what’s around you, don’t think of the pain you feel, find your inspiration in what you see, remember and picture the D-Day boats departing from Poole and what the soldiers must have been thinking when leaving-many never to return. Follow the trail of the illegal smugglers through the heathlands, and run through Bournemouth’s famous Victorian Gardens, and Alum Chine’s Tropical Gardens. Gingerly run over David Rowell’s Suspension Bridge which Winston Churchill, as a teenager, fell from during1892. I say gingerly Sylv, as I know you are scared of heights even if it is only thirty feet in the air and sways in the wind. Wave hello to the ghost of Robert Louis Stevenson as you pass by his ‘Skerryvore’ home. Jog around Sandbanks peninsula realizing you are running over the fourth highest land value in the world, and smile at the crew operating the working 1923 vehicular chain ferry. You can do it!” he said with a mischievous look upon his face.

            So reader, I did! I did it today. I took on my brother’s challenge and ran those long hilly eight miles ignoring the intense pain that resonated throughout my maimed foot. You see, the town of Bournemouth in the county of Dorset in England inspired my brother, it inspired him to live, and it inspires me as well. My short eight mile run along the coast is only a small part of the 95 miles of a wondrous geological marvel. Picturesque fishing villages and numerous coves dot the coast line. The splendid natural limestone rock arch over 140 million years old and known as Durdle Door is worthy of a visit, as are the white sea stacks known as the ‘Old Harry Rocks.’ Let your imagination soar when you visit 11th century Corfe Castle that William the Conqueror built in the parish of Swanage. Travel through market towns built by the Romans, and be awed by Bournemouth’s 1000 feet historic pier. When the evening draws in head into town and visit the numerous restaurants, clubs, and vibrant and friendly nightlife. Soar 500 feet in the air on the ‘Bournemouth Air,’ a giant helium balloon and take in the breathtaking views.

            This morning I wanted my brother to be at the top of the cliff cheering me on, perhaps he is in spirit, I would like to think he is. His love of Bournemouth and his inspiration and bravery in his twenty-five year battle to defeat the consuming cancer which riddled his body made him my superhero. Living along Bournemouth’s coast together with my brother’s constant happiness, and positive attitude throughout his life against all odds has shaped me into a woman who is brave enough to conquer my own fears, and defeat any obstacles which hinder my accomplishments in life.  He was and will always be my superhero,  and today I am also my own superhero.

 Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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I stand at the counter of my humid kitchen, hair tied back and hands pressed against the hundred-year-old wood, peering into my glass cabinet for a measuring jug. I double check my sister’s rice pudding recipe, which is also my mother’s, which was also my granny’s. I run my finger down the blue patterned card until I get to the amount of milk needed. The rice pudding calls for two and a half cups of full fat milk.

Fat. I think my mother tried desperately to shield us from that word, which is why, amazingly, I didn’t hear it until the first grade lunchroom. “Who’s the fat girl in your class?” The freckled-faced redhead who would, ten years later, become my prom date, asked me in the lunch line, piling his yellow tray high with reheated tater tots. “What’s her name?”

Unsure of what he meant, I stuck my tongue out at him and didn’t answer, but when I found my seat, I pushed my own tater tots— a favorite food— around the tray, no longer hungry. Looking back now, I realize that was the first time I heard someone defined or identified by something other than her name. And though I didn’t know then the full implications of fat in our society, I had a foul taste in my mouth, like I had just been exposed to a word that was dirty or bad. Fat, I learned in that lunchroom, was distasteful and undesirable. I determined that day to never let the word fat be associated with me. 

In a small bowl, whisk together milk and sugar.

We had rice pudding every Sunday in my childhood home. I loved to have mine with vanilla ice cream, the cool dessert melting with the steaming hot pudding until a cream colored pool formed in my bowl, grains of rice lounging in the middle of it. My mother doled out portions generously, and unfinished bowls were met with raised eyebrows and incessant prodding— rice pudding was wasted by only the troubled or insane. I had reached high school before I noticed my mother only ever gave herself a few spoonfuls of the beloved dish.

Place rice in a buttered baking dish. Add the milk-sugar mixture.

My great aunt became pregnant in the post World War II era, during the last days of the Nazi Occupation of Jersey, a Channel Island off the coast of France. By 1945, most of the Islanders had gone four years without a proper meal. My great aunt had become a skeleton, her hip bones jutting through her skin, her ribs creating waves in the contours of her body. When food shipments finally came in again, she hoarded supplies, stacking high on every shelf tins of meat, fruit and fish. Her cupboards, from then until the day she died, reflected her attitude toward having enough, as though, at any minute, she expected the deafening planes of the Germans to land again on her island.

  She was so thin, at this time, that the doctor told her to drink pints upon pints of milk— that if she wanted her baby not to starve the way she did, she’d better drink enough to feed her. Within three months, my great aunt was overweight. 

She began gorging on Energen Rolls- the forerunner of diet foods. Because they contained so few calories, she always felt hungry. For the second time in her life, my great aunt starved, but now for a different reason, and yet she continued to gain weight. By the time I knew her, she was embarrassed to even leave her house.

In food-conscious people there’s a small delay, perhaps only a half second, between placing one’s hand on the fork and then lifting the fork to the mouth. I watched it in my great aunt and in my mother, and I watched it in “the fat girl” at school. I didn’t understand until years later, when I noticed it in myself, that this happens when the fork carries something much heavier than food: shame. The shame of eating in front of others, the feeling of being big, the idea that every person around the table is counting how many times you lift that fork to your mouth.

In my experience, nearly every woman goes through some kind of battle with food. In an age where food abounds, our stomachs, of all sizes, still crave: acceptance, power, the constant assurance that we are beautiful. Instead of delighting in our food, taking joy in the company of the flavors and each other, we become slaves to it. In these cases, we no longer have the freedom to enjoy rice pudding. We can either stare at it, pretending we can’t hear our own stomachs grumble, or we can eat it with a side of guilt. 

Bake, uncovered, for two to three hours, at 300 degrees.

As smells of baking rice and milk fill the room, I dig out a silver photo album given to me by my cousin Jean at my wedding. It is full of old family photos. I turn to the page that contains the only picture I have of my great aunt. She wears a floral dress that falls to her knees— the photo is black and white so I don’t know what color, but I imagine purple— she wears her thick, dark hair in a practical bun. I notice her size, yes, but first, her smile.  She was so kind, I remember, ever willing to have me on her knee, to listen to my stories and to tell me her own. She smelled of polo mints and soft perfume, and as a small child I adored it when she’d rock me back and forth, folding me into her gentle creases.

Who’s the fat girl in your class? What’s her name? 

I learned at an early age to never ask for second helpings around my granny. She would tut her perfectly painted, pursed lips, and say, knowingly, “Ohhhh, Rach, be careful! You’ll end up fat.”

And there is my mother, who denies herself a proper helping.

And there is my great aunt, who stopped going out because of her size. 

And there is me, getting my wedding dress resized twice because I am losing too much weight, because I can no longer eat a full meal without feeling panicky.

And there is my sister, who I hear crying late at night because she thinks she’s too big.

Fat, fat, fat. 

I throw the photo album across the room. I want to throw away with it every association I’ve ever had with fat. When did we ever begin to associate our worth with our size? When did we ever get the idea that life is better lived thin and flavorless, that if we aren’t in perfect proportion, we should be ashamed to leave the house?

It took me a year to begin eating normally again. Even today, I still get anxious at a restaurant, when the waiter places a large plate in front of me. Carefully, with the side of my fork, I portion off what I will eat tonight and what I will save. I blame this on society: on whoever made my great aunt embarrassed to leave the house, whoever gave my granny a complex about seconds, whoever thought naming a girl the fat kid would be humorous. 

The correlation between shame and food has lodged itself in the women of my family for long enough. I pull the rice pudding out of the oven. A thin, brown, skin has formed over the top, making it look just like my granny’s version, just like the version I watched my mother pull out of the oven on Sundays for years.  Methodically, I dish myself out a cup of it, and pull the sticky half gallon of vanilla ice cream out of the freezer. I march out to my porch, I sweat in the July sun, and I enjoy every last bite. I refuse to feel any kind of guilt or shame. I am doing this for more than me. 

I am doing this because there is so much more to life than fat.

Serve with ice cream and enjoy.

 Thank you for reading and commenting. Please enter the Gratitude Travel Writing competition and tell your story.

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Finding myself in Venice

When I flew into Italy with my husband I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The trip had been an attempt to pretend we still felt an anniversary was worth celebrating, although we had completely forgot to celebrate in a few years. Maybe he realised I was feeling more detached, from him, the house and even our children, or just maybe he had seen such a good deal on the Internet that he didn’t resist sweeping me off to Venice. Anyway, when we got there I was nervous, for years we hadn’t been really alone, not since the kids had been born, so I didn’t even remember what we used to talk about before all had gone to diapers and pacifiers, schools and textbooks and such.

 A late evening wander around Venice showed us a labyrinth of streets opening to huge squares, many dominated by wonderful little churches. The buildings seemed all a bit faded, with paints that had one day been strong and alive but were now just a pale shadow of colour, but they had personality. Narrow tall buildings, quirky and desolated, but full of life at the same time, with clothes hanging between buildings, providing a much needed shade in those sunny days, and loud voices in every corner.  We wandered around almost in silence, breathing in the moist heat that seemed to burn the air around us, so hot it was that day. We ate a delicious ice cream leaning against the sides of Rialto Bridge, watching the gondolas go by and listening to the excited chatter of tourists still enjoying the hundreds of shops nearby and later, when we were going back to the hotel, we sat on a bench along the way, overlooking the water. The moon was high and fat, and was reflected in the surface of the calm waters as if it was looking at itself in the mirror. The heat was almost unbearable and I kept feeling my clothes clinging to my body and couldn’t think of anything else but another ice cream. Suddenly a guttural sound came from nowhere, followed by a sudden flash of light that seemed to scare the moon that went to hide behind the clouds. Another thunder and the world simply seemed to burst. The rain was so heavy that it flooded the pavement in seconds, and when a lightning ripped through the skies and speared the water, it was as frightening as amazing. I felt Nature’s fight all around me and for a moment I even forgot I was being soaked by the rain, until my husband dragged me by the arm to a sheltered corner. I felt my heart racing from the surprise and the excitement of the storm. I had never seen anything so powerful, so different and in an instant I felt the urge to write about it. I hadn’t felt the urge to write for years, not since I settled down in my life as a mother and a wife. I turned to my husband and asked: “Do you remember how I used to write?” and he nodded, inquisitively. “I want to start doing that again” I said, feeling self-conscious of how stupid it seemed to want to do something for myself when I hardly had time. But I remembered how alive I used to feel when I let my characters dictate the course of stories, and fill my life with different existences, some of which I loved to the point I missed them, as if they were real people, others I hated with passionate anger. But all was with passion, a passion I hadn’t felt burning inside for too long.  John, my husband looked out to the water that kept receiving the lightning stoically and finally murmured: “We can turn the outhouse into an office for you to write without the kids bothering you”, and his smile made me realise he was happy too I wanted to be that woman again. I like to think he missed me too, the woman I had been before life had come in and I had let it sweep me under a blanket of responsibility. I realised, whilst looking at that fantastic show of nature’s strength, that I too could be who I had once been, the woman my husband had fell in love with, and surely missed. We both missed her, but when the rain finally subsided and we went to the hotel, we found her again in each other’s arms and by the morning we had found very much alive the love we both had thought burned out.

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Somerset

 

Walk and do not stop.

I have just started my journey up on those old wooden stairs that will lead to the side of that mountain-sized hill.

I am half way through when I realize that I should have gone to the gym before I start to take up on such challenges.

I have to see what is up there, what is everybody talks about. I need to, I have to!

I keep walking, my muscles are shouting at me ‘STOP DOING THIS!’

I carry on, and make it to the top. Oh, why did I think these old stairs will be the toughest part of this hike?

The giant, mountain-hill looks down at me laughing at me. ‘I will make it’ I tell myself and I pick up a piece of wood, that good as a walking-stick.

I carry on. I cannot give up. I came so far I will see what it is on top of that hill!

I remember that song that my father taught me when I was little. I remember I was struggling to cycle up on the hill where our house stood. He came next to me, pushed me to help me getting up on the hill, he looked at me and said ‘I drink milk, so I make it! I drink milk so I make it’!

I catch myself whispering ‘I drink milk, so I make it!’ as I start to walk up on that damn hill.

‘Why do I do this?’ I stop after a few ten-meters and sit down gasping. ‘I should just ask some of these fit hikers to take some pictures at the top with my camera. If my camera makes it; I make it. AT least I will have some pictures to show to the ladies at the bridge club’      

If those ladies made that hill, so will me!

I get up and keep walking, relying on my walking-stick very much. The sweat appears on my forehead in the shape of small purl-drops. It sparkles in the sunshine, as I step out of the trees and carry on walking on a green, tree-less land.

Young couples pass by me, and hikers with dogs. I should do this more often, I should go to gym to be fit.

I need to see this, I want to see this! I keep walking, but my muscles are in fire now. I am in agony. I think I felt similar pain when I first took a Zumba Lesson, five years ago. I have never gone back to Zumba, and now I regret it very much.

My legs feel like I am walking on and dragging heavy stones beneath my torso.

I see the end finally. I am walking almost three hours now. It is unbelievable that I am here, I am closer to the top and I am about to make it!

I step in a hole. OUCH! My ankle hurts terribly. I sit down and take my shoe and socks off. My ankle looks fine; it did not break although it has been twisted badly. My skin is read around.

I put my socks and shoe back, get up and rely on the walking-stick even more than before. I walk very slow, making sure I put little weight on my ankle.

When I make it to the top, the sun is high up on the sky. It takes me another two hours from the hole to top, as I walk extremely slowly.

The view is breathtaking. The walking-stick fall off from my hand and I sit down. The grass is long, green and fat. It feels like an expensive carpet. I can see villages, cities and a lake lying underneath the mountain-sized hill.

My eyes fill with tears of happiness. I made it.

I look around. ‘I am afraid of heights’ I think as I look down. I am at the edge. I laugh. ‘I am not afraid of heights anymore!’ and I lie down on the grass satisfied.   

   

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It is January 13, and I am standing very still. Steady but fragile wisps’ of snow dance mournfully around my feet; they must know that there’s no going back now and that they are to meet their resting place on what could easily be the greyest slab of concrete on earth…..

At a whopping minus 13 c, it is also one of the only times in my life where the hyperbolic cliché of ‘I’m freezing’ not only applies but is barely doing it justice. 

 

I pull my jacket tighter and squeeze my damp lapels in an unconscious bid to keep out the cold – that deep, bone-wrenching cold – and glance blankly over this barren land that seems to stretch for miles. It looks sickly and impossibly colourless; the air itself thick with secrets.

My friend coughs weakly from somewhere behind me but no one else in the group has yet attempted to move or speak more than a few words – all ten of us understand that we must exercise our greatest respects for we are standing in the confines of a terrible part of history that automatically commands such reverence.

 

The sign on the plain brick wall confirms where we are – Birkenau – the second Nazi death camp born out of Auschwitz (or ‘Oswiecim’ to the locals). It is less famous here than Auschwitz itself and yet there is something much more deathly about this place; it’s like a silence, a space, an overwhelming flatness that you cannot speak of, only feel it weigh on your skin. We are in open – air but there is no bird song and signs of life seem uncomfortably far way.  Even the trees appear too somber, too brittle to flex with the demanding press of the wind.

As the tour guide walks us over the gravel, pointing casually to the tiny, solid row upon row of shacks and workhouses, we see into the gaps, if only in our imaginations, and witness how many victims would have been squashed together here with just one tiny wooden bed for refuge. There was no running water and the stone floors, we are told, would have been alive with bugs, excrement and illness.  We hear passing names of the few survivors that managed to last years of living in this grotesque abuse of humanity while others remain unnamed, lost. I wonder grimly if in this heavy air, I am breathing in some recycled, unfinished part of them, crying out, needing to be more than just a fleeting number. I can feel their childhood dreams folding; locked and screaming.

We arrive at the crumbling brickwork of a building whose vast iron chimneys once exhaled the frightened dust of human beings shipped here by train for ‘processing’ – for elimination. I kneel down and run my fingers over the icy metallic train tracks that delivered many an innocent woman, man and child to their final destination. No, this is no ordinary tour. This tour indirectly forces us all to question the complexity of the human condition in all its darkness and light.

Even with every fact that is offered to us by our part-polish tour guide, there is a sense among us that we will never really know this place, never fully understand how it came to be. More ominously, there is a darker sense that if we surrendered to it or offered our full minds to the deeds carried out here that it would somehow take us too and never let us leave.

 

Thankfully, the bus that has now arrived does let us leave. And as we pull away, comfort and gratitude entering my chest, I turn my attention to all of the defiant, hopeful spirits that somehow survived this place, those who found ways to stay alive, warm and brave no matter what hardships they faced and who lived to tell us the stories that have changed history.                                                                                            

You see – and I smile now with you – everything ultimately has its place and sometimes it is the darkest, dampest, deepest soils that produce the greatest flowers.

Flowers that otherwise would have remained hidden.

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