Tulips, skunk cabbage and the BFG meet in Yorkshire

On our second house-sit of the year looking after a cat and Koi fish in Yorkshire, the sun came out and because we probably won’t visit the Keukenhof this year (my husband isn’t a fan of the regimental neatness and selfie-stick wielding hoards) we went to Harlow Carr Gardens in Harrogate instead. Spring has been a long time coming but at last; tulips and daffodils are in abundance, lambs are gambolling in the fields and the Koi fish we are looking after will probably need feeding as they become more active. A few photos of our day out below. Nice and jumbly, The Big Friendly Giant (Roald Dahl) enjoyed the sunshine as well. Really eye catching (and smelly) were the bright yellow Skunk Cabbage plants lining the side of the stream. And of course, a visit to the unsurpassed, Betty’s Tea Rooms was in order to round the day off perfectly…

 

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First House-sit of 2018!

Our first house-sit of the year looking after dogs; Lilly and Bertie; cats; Thomasina and Purdey, in Walmer, Kent. A few highlights;

  • ‘Beast from the east’ weather meant hunkering down against the elements inside a very cosy house. Warming up again after walking the dogs on the Walmer seafront.
  • Falling in love with rescue dog, Lilly. Her owners saved her from being killed in a particularly vicious way in Mauritius. She was going to be run over by a car as her ex-owner held her down. Thank goodness she yelped loudly and was rescued by her kind and courageous present owners. We also doted on her long-suffering father figure, Bertie who has to put up with her rather spoilt, girly ways.
  • A walk along the White Cliffs of Dover after tooing and frooing past them for 34 years.
  • Visit to the picturesque town of Sandwich and the nostalgic Empire cinema to see feel-good movie, ‘Finding your Feet,’ and a lovely lunch at No Name restaurant.
  • Fish and chips don’t travel, and even though lots of Amsterdam restaurants think they are serving British fish and chips, the Dutch always seem to get the batter and the chips all wrong. So an authentic Fish and Chips is always on the cards on a UK visit. We found the best in Sandwich at Ossie’s
  • Visiting the spectacular Turner Contemporary in Margate and seeing the curated-by-locals visual response to T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land. Enjoying the views of the sea from the cafe!
  • Walmer Castle and its lovely garden designed by the Queen Mum. Loved the topiary hedge which is very weirdly shaped. Apparently in the winter of 1947 the heavy snow stunted its growth. When the Queen Mum was asked if she wanted it put right, she said no, she liked it as it was, all higgledy-piggledy. We also saw the original Wellington boots in Walmer Castle where the eponymous boot-wearer spent his last days.
  • An invigorating hack at Owl House Stables and enjoying the views of the sea from the clifftops.
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Magical Objects and Hidden Shoes

Apotropaice Devices by Alice Pattullo

During a visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park last year a print by illustrator, Alice Pattullo caught my eye. The picture was entitled, ‘Apotropaic Devices For the Home.’ I wasn’t sure what apotropaic meant, but the mirror-image china dogs triggered a childhood memory of dutiful visits with my mother to an elderly neighbour who had the same ornaments on her mantelpiece. We had few decorative objects in our farmhouse apart from photos of prize-winning sheep or horses displayed on a sideboard. Our main source of heat was a Rayburn (similar to an Aga) so we didn’t even have a mantelpiece to put china dogs on but still, I coveted them. After googling the word, I learned that apotropaic meant designed to avert evil, and discovered that china dogs were not merely ornamental, they also guarded against malign forces entering through the fireplace.

Superstitions
Even though we never had china dogs, Mum was quite superstitious; always buying J-cloths or scrubbing brushes to appease Gypsies who called at our house and so prevent them from casting spells upon us, always turning a horseshoe right side up so the good luck didn’t fall out and always closing umbrellas before entering the house. Naturally, I inherited some of these behaviours. As I sit here typing, I can see at least three protective talismans in my home. The Indalo man (dating from the Paleolithic period), which was a lovely gift from fellow WA member, Chris Nedahl; a nazar (stylized glass eye) which I bought in Istanbul; and a Mexican Day of the Dead skull which I bought in Leiden’s Museum of Ethnography.

Hidden Shoe from Northampton Museum Collection

Story Inspiration
Since leaving the depths of the countryside and living amongst the more rational Dutch I have become less superstitious but for our second WA anthology, Foreign Encounters, I wrote a story, ‘Blow Me a Kiss,’ about a curious object which fascinated me. Displayed in the tiny but entrancing Butcher Row House Museum, in Ledbury, Herefordshire, was a child’s shoe which had been found bricked up in the chimney of a local cottage. The museum attendant told me it was common practice to place shoes in portals of the home, i.e. chimneys or above windows or door lintels. The shoes were meant to ward off  malicious forces, luring evil entities to attack the shoe rather than the wearer. A child’s shoe might also promote fertility so my initial belief that a child had died in the house was unfounded. The Ledbury shoe had merely been outgrown and granted a second life protecting the home’s inhabitants.

Archive of concealed shoes

An Archive of Hidden Shoes
The custom was so widespread in the UK that in the 1950s a Hidden Shoe Index was set up by former curator June Swann, at Northampton Museum. The index lists just under 3,000 shoes found in properties from the Shetland Islands to the Isles of Scilly, with the greatest number being from the south-east of England. The museum also holds 250 found shoes, the oldest dating to the 1540s, from St John’s College, Oxford (pictured above) The practice was taken to the New World by immigrants where it continued into the 1920s and 1930s. The current curator still receives two or three messages per month about found shoes from as far afield as the US, Canada and Australia. The museum index has recently been digitized and should you want to research further there is also a user-generated, online catalogue of hidden shoes with their locations on Historypin.

Are Writers More Superstitious?
So in an age where science and technology rules our lives what makes some of us still superstitious? Are writers and creative folk generally more superstitious than others? Does a writer’s need to attribute meaning to events or objects when creating a story make us more susceptible to magical beliefs? Do you have apotropaic devices in your home or perhaps you are even wearing one? Would these objects be a good way of describing a character who owned them? Or even the catalyst for a short story like the shoe I saw in Ledbury. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

With thanks to Alyson Hillbourne who reawakened my interest in hidden shoes by sending me this article.

Images courtesy of Alice Pattullo and Dr Ceri Houlbrook

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Love-lock Bridges in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a romantic city, full of canals and pretty bridges isn’t it? So you would expect to see many, many more of those love-lock bridges around town. But no, we have only two, de Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge) and de Staalmeestersbrug. The love-locks on the Magere Brug have recently been drastically pruned by the Amsterdam Council  so only a few remain, clinging a little forlornly onto the bridge’s warning light.

View from Magere Brug

View from Magere BrugMagere BrugLove-locks on Magere Brug

The Staalmeestersbrug with the tower of the Zuiderkerk in the background, puts on a better show. As I took my photos I met a lovely couple who were searching for the padlock they had placed there to seal their love, three years ago. The man even scaled the bridge’s chains, rifling through all the other padlocks in a desperate search for it. Sadly, it was gone, but the couple are still together, which strikes me as the most important thing! I wonder if Amsterdam council workers ever have any qualms while wielding their bolt-cutters destroying the pacts sealed by all those lovers? Knowing the pragmatic Dutch: probably not.

Love-locks Staalmeestersbrug

Love-locks on StaalmeestersbrugZuiderkerk Tower in the backgroundLove is Always Hopeful

IMG_20180108_142045.jpgScaling Great Heights for Love

Where did it all begin?
According to Elisabeth Timmermans who writes a great blog called, ‘Love in the Time of Tinder’ (in Dutch) this tradition of lovers engraving a padlock with their names, chaining it to a bridge and then throwing the key in the water dates back to the eve of WW1. In Serbia, the stunningly beautiful, Nada fell in love with Relja, a Serbian officer. Relja was conscripted to fight in the war against Greece but the couple sealed their love and swore eternal fidelity to each other by getting engaged before Relja went off to war. Months and months passed and after a series of love letters that remained unanswered, it finally dawned on Nada that Relja would never come back home. Not because he had been killed, but because his heart no longer craved her or his native Serbia.

In Greece Relja had fallen madly in love with a woman from Corfu and subsequently broke off his engagement with Nada. Her heart broke. A lost soul, she wandered through the Serbian town of Vrnjačka Baja and jumped off the famous footbridge in Serbia, the ‘Most Ljubavi’ (literally translated as Love Bridge). She died from her injuries. Since then the ‘Most Ljubavi’ has been covered in love locks. According to legend, all soldiers return faithfully to their fiancée after their love is sealed by means of a love-lock to ‘Most Ljubavi.’ This ritual practice has now spread over many cities and even though Amsterdam Council does its best, it can’t totally control the lovers that are drawn to this romantic city with its shimmering canals and picturesque bridges.

Love Undeterred
The couple whom I met on the Staalmeestersbrug were undeterred however and set off to buy a new padlock and attach it to the bridge again, this time hopefully for eternity, or at least until the next bolt-cutting killjoy comes along.

Undeterred Lovers

 

 

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Happy Christmas from Amsterdam!

It snowed here last week and I got caught in a storm on my way home through the Erasmus park in Amsterdam west. I was glad I was just five minutes away from a warm apartment and not slithering in my car on the A10 (Amsterdam’s ring road) or out doing hard, physical work, or worst of all, homeless. It’s definitely the time of year to look back and count one’s blessings.

The weather has gone back to normal now and the fairytale snow has all melted. The photo of the Christmas tree above, was taken in the beautiful English Reformed Church in het Begijnhof. If any expats are feeling like a taste of home over the festive season there will be a Christmas Eve service held there on 24 December at 10pm. But go early as it’s VERY popular.

To round of this wonderful year, dear blog-lovers, it only remains for me to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Don’t forget to head down to the the Rijksmuseum and get your skates on in 2018!

Rijksmuseum

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Interview with bestselling author, B. A. Paris

B. A. Paris

Bestselling author, B. A. Paris has achieved the kind of commercial and critical success that most writers dream of. She has very kindly agreed to share a few of her secrets with us.

Bernadette, welcome to my blog! You too are a writer abroad. Why and when did you decide to leave the UK and settle in France?

Thank you, I’m delighted to be answering your questions! I left the UK to live in France over thirty years ago as I wanted to be able to speak French fluently. I thought I’d stay for a year but I was enjoying Paris so much I decided to stay a while longer. During my second year there, I met my husband. I always thought we’d go back to the UK but then we started having children and before I knew it, I’d spent more years living in France than in the UK. We also spent four years living in The Hague – my youngest daughter was born there. We’re now moving back to the UK, for family reasons. My parents are elderly so I want to be able to see more of them, my sister and brothers too. My eldest daughter lives in Paris and my two youngest ones are both at university in Lille, so we’ll be going back to see them regularly, and to catch up with our friends. I won’t be abandoning France completely!

Did you start writing when you moved abroad or were you writing fiction before?

I only started writing a few years ago, when my two older daughters were away at university. With only three daughters at home, I began to have some time to myself. So I did what I’d always wanted to do, and started writing. That was in 2008 and I haven’t stopped since.

You write psychological thrillers with female protagonists. Which authors have influenced your writing the most, and in what way?

I’m not sure that I am influenced by other authors, in relation to my female protagonists. I was an avid reader of Agatha Christie when I was in my early teens, so she probably had the greatest influence on me. The other writers I enjoyed reading are Leon Uris, James Clavell and Wilbur Smith, who wrote/write huge sagas rather than psychological thrillers.

I very much enjoyed ‘Behind Closed Doors’ (soon to be made into a film) and ‘The Breakdown’ which were both set in the UK. I was wondering if you plan to set a future book in your adopted country, France?

I’m glad you enjoyed them! I don’t have any plans to set future books in France, although ‘Bring Me Back’ starts in France. My fourth book will be set in the UK too.

In ‘Behind Closed Doors’ you chose a potentially controversial and sensitive subject, psychological control and abuse. How did you tackle the research for this?

When I set out to write behind Closed Doors, I had no idea it would turn out the way it did. When I realised that it was going to be much darker than I intended, I researched cases of women who had been kept prisoner – the internet is a great source of information. Some were so harrowing that I had nightmares. One woman was kept in a pit – not a room, just a hole dug under the house – and her captor would throw food down to her, as if she were an animal.

The one thing that touches me are the messages I receive from woman who have been through something similar to Grace, and who are grateful that Behind Closed Doors has helped bring the subject of psychological abuse into the open. With psychological abuse there are no physical signs which means it is much harder to detect – and so much more difficult to talk about.

Do you plan everything before writing or does your story unfold as you write?

I’m not a planner at all. I usually know the beginning and the end, and then the rest is a journey, often led by my characters. It’s like going on an adventure!

Does living abroad create barriers to getting agents and publishers in your opinion? 

No, I don’t think so. In these days of email, agents and publishers wouldn’t really know someone lives abroad unless they are told in a covering letter. And I think it would only add something to a writer’s profile, not detract from it.

We would love to hear more about your new book, ‘Bring Me Back.’

‘Bring Me Back’ is another psychological thriller and comes out in March 2018. It tells the story of Finn, whose girlfriend disappeared twelve years before. He told the police the truth about the night she disappeared – just not quite the whole truth. Now he’s moved on – but his past won’t stay buried.

Do you have a set place to write in or do you write wherever you are?

I recently bought myself a little writing desk and a comfortable chair, which I’ve set up in front of a window, so that’s now my favourite place to write. But I can write anywhere – on a plane, a train, even with lots of noise going on around me.

Most writers don’t enjoy the self-promotion aspect of their job. How about you?

It’s something I really don’t enjoy. I would rather not do any self-promotion, although I will tweet that I have a new book coming out. I’ll also retweet any reviews or comments about my books. But I draw the line at asking people to buy them.

If you could invite any famous people to a dinner party, who would you invite?

This is such a difficult question and my answer changes every time I’m asked it! My only constant is Oscar Wilde so I’m going to pretend you said dead or alive and choose a tête-à-tête with him.

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House-sit Number Four

In September a lovely English lady, Sally Christopher approached me via a home-exchange site to enquire if Frank and I would be interested in house-sitting her Eguzki B&B in Durango for 12 days. After establishing that the B&B was shut and that there was just one neutered Tom cat to look after, and that we could use the owners’ car during our stay, we gave a wholehearted yes!

Unfortunately, due to French air-traffic control strikes our original flight was cancelled and because Vueling then had a backlog of passengers to clear we were offered an afternoon flight two days later. Not too bad you would think but that meant we didn’t have a chance to meet our hosts! No worries, Sally had arranged a pick-up at the airport and a whistle-stop tour of the house by her Spanish neighbours. All very well but as we were both rather weary and my Spanish is extremely rusty I forgot to ask which was the car we were meant to use and which garage belonged to Sally. So we went around aiming the keys at various cars and trying garage door locks until we found the right one.

Perhaps because of all the stress of travelling, a few days later I got sick and had to go to the local health centre. My pidgen Spanish must have been good enough because I have never been fast-tracked through to a doctor so quickly! As the cold was extremely severe and I am asthmatic, antibiotics and Prednison were prescribed whereby I was quickly back up on my feet and able to enjoy sightseeing again. Highlights were The Guggenheim at Bilbao, San Sebastian,  the coastal drive from Bilbao to San Sebastian and horse-riding in the Urkiola National Park – courtesy of remarkable British woman, Teresa Doyle who rehabilitates and trains neglected horses, and teaches Spanish children both English and riding simultaneously!

The Basque country is stunning, if you ever get a chance to go grab it with both hands!

 

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Quintessential English Cottage – in Wales

As well as our house-sit in Holmfirth, Yorkshire we had a dreamlike twelve days of heaven in a house-sit on the English/Welsh border, built alongside Offa’s Dyke Path. Two former quarry-worker’s homes knocked into one formed the country cottage with roses climbing up the wall that I have always dreamed of.  We were teleported into our ideal existence looking after Mana, a retired racing Greyhound, and Moley, Bedlington Lurcher x Whippet. Wonderful daily climbs with the dogs up to Llanymynech Rock were invigorating and the golf course right at the top boasted spectacular views. If I am ever tempted to take up golf (pretty unlikely) then Llanymynech Golf Club ,where you can putt in England and drive in Wales, is the one for me!

The dogs quickly accepted us into their ‘pack’ and joined us each evening in the TV room. It was so funny watching Mana negotiate her long legs as she settled into the armchair. Moley was hard of hearing but even so he didn’t like all the screeching caused by Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons during GOTs episodes. Moley is a former Traveller’s dog with a rascally character to match. Every so often on our walks he would disappear on a stealth mission (he was bred for poaching) into the bushes still chasing that elusive prey…Not bad for a fifteen-year-old! Frank and I are missing them still. Many thanks to their gracious owners, who allowed us the privilege of staying in their home and caring for their two beloved dogs, and who also wrote us a brilliant review on Mindmyhouse. (Direct link to our profile)

 

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Ruby Reviews her House-Sitters

Name: Ruby
Likes: Pouncing on things
Dislikes: Dogs

I live in Holmfirth where the world’s longest running sitcom, Last of the Summer Wine was shot. I am far too young and hip to remember it but the middle-aged bipeds love it and come in their bus loads to see all the locations! If I had known Nora Batty I’m sure I would have had great fun sharpening my claws on her wrinkly stockings.

Anyway, recently some new hoomans moved into my house while my permanent hoomans are away on holiday. They are called Ange and Frank and they seem OK. They feed me and stroke me and play with me too because I’m not even a year old so still a bit frolicsome in my ways. When I brought my new hoomans a mouse, they are useless hunters and buy everything from Lidl, they made appreciative noises and praised me! They had read that this was the right response in the book, Catwatching by some chap called Desmond Morris. I think they are taking this whole cat psychology thing a bit far but they mean well. Morris wrote that female cats think their hoomans are useless kittens that need to be fed. Ange and Frank didn’t eat the mouse though, I checked. So it was all a bit of a waste of time, apart from the fact it was oodles and oodles of fun.

My cat-sit hoomans have been having some jolly days out at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Bronte Parsonage, Hebden Bridge, Digley Reservoir and the Monsal Trail in the Peak District. I saw the photos on the catputer. I love trying to catch that pointy cursor thing with my paw. In the mornings I scramble all over Frank as he tries to read his email, because I haven’t seen a hooman all night! In the evenings I’m a bit less wriggly and sit on his lap sort of quietly. Apparently I dig my claws in a bit too much, but that’s only because I am hardwired to pummel for milk from Mothercat, that Morris chap says so. My permanent hoomans had described me as not a lapcat so they will get a nice  surprise when they get home!

Must be going now, as, yawn, there is an empty sofa which has a Ruby-shaped hollow in it…Here’s some photos of the places my temporary hoomans went to, oh and a couple of Moi!

 

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Published in Stringybark Stories!

I am happy to announce that my short story, Caged Birds, set in Amsterdam’s Red light District was highly commended in The Seven Deadly Sins Short Story Award which means publication in the anthology, ‘Gift of a Casserole.’ It is available as an e-book (in all e-reader formats) for $3.99 USD on Smashwords. Or pre-order as a hard copy, via Stringybark Stories

The collection includes stories inspired by lust, envy, greed, wrath, sloth, gluttony and pride. What a collection of sins to make the heart beat faster. This is the second anthology of short stories published by SBS that explores these dark human motivations. Presented for your enjoyment the thirty highly commended and three prize-winning stories from the Stringybark Seven Deadly Sins Award 2017

Danny stared through the glass at the young, voluptuous woman, her turquoise bikini luminous in the subdued street lighting. A gaggle of men formed a half-circle outside the window in Amsterdam’s red-light district. Danny’s bestie, Si, egged him on.
“Go on, Dan, she’s the one, dude!”
Danny’s heart sank. Why had he agreed to have his stag do in Amsterdam?
— From “Caged Birds” by Susan Carey

Casserole Cover Small

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