Oh for a sign

Snooping round other people’s homes. That’s what I’ve been doing lately. I’m not going to apologise because most of the time they knew I was there and even told me to have a good look. I tried not to be too nosey. I didn’t open too many cupboards or peep into their drawers, but I did look in the bathrooms and checked out the neatly piled towels and noted their reading material beside the bed and in the toilets! I breathed a sigh of relief at a jumbled food cupboard and nodded understandingly at a room of partly packed boxes and paintings with nowhere to hang.

House hunting. It’s a time consuming business – especially for the seller. All that rapid hoovering and tidying up, after the phone call saying someone wants to view. Put the kettle on in case they want a tea – although the scent of coffee will make them feel more welcome… We’ve enjoyed tea a couple of times with friendly owners – what is it about a mug of tea that makes us relax? We clasp the steaming brew and sigh… You can’t beat a mug of tea towards the end of a day of house viewings and even better if you can hover in a warm kitchen smelling of freshly baked bread or gaze out from a terrace across unending hills and valleys. That was one view I wanted to fold up and take home in my pocket to unwrap another day.

We’ve met some very interesting and friendly people in the past few weeks. Of course they’re bound to be friendly because they want us to buy their house! Still, some of them went the extra mile… Like venturing out in the rain across a slippery lawn to show us the garden, despite a recent hip operation, or taking time to educate us about lichen on trees (a sign of pure air – don’t you know?) …and ground source heating systems… and the best route to the pub…

Picking the right house isn’t easy though, however pleasant the owners are. I had the idea that when we saw it, or walked in we’d know… that there’d be a sign or something. I talked about this with my fellow decision maker. Had there been any signs so far? Well, apart from him hitting his head on the doorway, I meant. There were connections – surprising ones at a rather stunning property where tea was also served. Then there was the rainbow. A complete rainbow which stretched from one side of the river to the other like an arch over the house and garden. Oh, yes… I remembered the rainbow. I’d admired it and thought how pretty it looked after the shower had soaked the grass. Should we see that as a sign? Do I believe in omens? Does God speak through signs like this?

Really I’m not sure.

So back to scrolling down Rightmove. I’m hoping we’ll know the right house when we see it – or perhaps it will know us? Maybe God will send a sign, only it better be bigger than a rainbow!

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Remember Remember

Damp sparklers and soggy rockets! That’s what the weather forecaster said last night and it looks like it might be true. The skies are grey and the kind of fine misty rain that England does so well looks set to stay. It’s a day for sitting beside a log fire (if you’re lucky) and making soup and mugs of hot chocolate after a walk with the dog – or cat in our case. He proved himself ‘more dog than cat’ by joining us on a walk beside the sea the other day. The problem is he’s pants at fetching sticks and won’t swim out when we throw stones in the water.

Although it’s November 5th and the mantra is “remember, remember”, I’m trying hard not to remember balmy clear nights with fireworks and entertainment in Cyprus last year with no rain to dampen the party spirit. Instead I am cheering myself up with thoughts of train journeys and pop-up cafes.

The other week I discovered a little gem at the local train station in Emsworth. Arriving with time to spare at this quaint Victorian station, which has a Railway Children look about it from the platform, I thought it would be too small to have a café. But a blackboard just inside advertised coffee and cakes at Carriages. I wandered in to the former waiting room which has been transformed into a Cath Kidston style café with spotty plastic table cloths, bunting and pot plants, all in pastel shades of pale pink, yellow and duck egg blue. I was so surprised about it not being ‘Costa’ or another chain that I wondered if they’d even have takeaway cups. No fear, there was a smiling barista happy to help and a row of tempting cup cakes lined up along the counter. We chatted about her new venture to acquire the empty rooms and start up a traditional café on the platform. I was only sorry there wasn’t time to sit at one of the pretty tables to soak up the café charm – another day hopefully. Standing on the platform a cup of latte steaming in my hands I felt so pleased that there was somewhere like Carriages and that a couple of people could still start up a ‘business with a soul’ in this little community. I’m sure it makes commuting a happier experience.

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I met another bit of beautiful British entrepreneurship a few days later after a walk along the cliffs in Dorset. It had been a sunny afternoon, one of the last warm autumn days as it turned out, and we’d enjoyed a picnic with a panoramic view of Harry’s Rock with Poole and Bournmouth in the distance. We decided to wander down to Studland beach before heading home and I was wishing I’d packed a thermos of tea or coffee. I needn’t have worried. At the bottom of the lane just beside the beach was a little shack with it’s blackboard sign for tea and coffees propped up outside. It was almost 5pm but the café was still serving tea and not just tea, but tea in proper mugs that you could enjoy on the picnic benches overlooking the beach. At the top of the slope leading onto the sand beside a beach hut was a large container filled with buckets and spades and beach toys. Instead of a price for hiring or buying, there was a little notice which said, ‘please borrow and return – we like recycling.’ I was impressed and touched all at the same time. This seemed like a local family offering a brilliant service for visitors and locals alike. A young girl from the cafe was tidying up the buckets and spades to pack them back in the beach hut and I helped pick up a few left on the shore. There is something special about letting people borrow things without a charge and it was incredibly refreshing and simple. It made me want to live somewhere like that, where it isn’t all about money and charges.

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Although we may have to contend with soggy sparklers and a smoking bonfire tonight, at least there’s plenty of tea and other charming seaside cafes to seek out in the future. I’m looking forward to sampling many more. There should be a ‘rough guide to UK seaside cafes’ – now there’s a thought…

 

barefoot on a camel

What do you wear for camel riding? This was just one of the questions flying round my head while I packed for a few days in the desert. As it turns out camels aren’t too fussy and there’s no-one in the desert to tell you about a fashion faux pas. Our Bedouin guide kept it simple with a long sleeved taupe ‘dress’, white pyjamas, red and white headscarf and bare feet… we did our best to blend in. After someone had his headdress retied traditionally and shoes had been loaded into the never-ending tapestry camel saddlebags, we hauled ourselves onto our kneeling friends wondering what the next few hours would entail.

I’ve never ridden a camel before, but my son had advised me it could be quite bouncy. Apart from nearly taking a nosedive off ‘Samhan’ – my eight year-old camel – into the sand below as he rose to his feet for the first time, it really wasn’t too uncomfortable. A little flick of the reigns and he was off following the other two camels as they padded out into the desert, leaving the black and white tents of our camp behind. Sitting on a camel as they walk involves a rolling movement as they amble gracefully through the soft sand. So if you’ve ever tried unsuccessfully to walk in a straight line after a little too much to drink, you’d have a pretty good idea of the feeling. Leaning back after a few minutes, I looked around at the surrounding rock formations and distant mountains and thought, This is easy. I can manage this for a few hours, no problem. But that was before our camels decided to change pace…

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We were on our second day in the desert of Jordan’s famous Wadi Rum with http://wadirumjeeptours.com and so far everything was living up to our expectations. The desert is a quiet place and on our jeep tour the previous day there had been plenty of time to stop and climb a perfect red sand dune or sit in the shade of a cliff and listen to the echoes of our calls reverberating off the hillsides. Our young Bedouin guide slid his phone into a side pocket of his robe and told us he could call his friend miles away across the Wadi – if his mobile ran out of signal. Obviously just what those incredible acoustics were designed for! Although it was a hot barren expanse he showed us many places where water was erupting from hidden springs and trees and herbs were springing up offering tasty food supplies in the midst of the desert. Our Arabic only extended to ‘thank you’ and ‘peace be with you’ and he did really well with English, apart from a few amusing mispronunciations.

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One was his instruction for us to look out for a tree with ‘wold’ figs. We puzzled over what he meant as we clambered through a narrow canyon, until a little while later we realized he was referring to ‘wild figs’. There was further excitement as he showed us a plant that could be used to make soup. Picking up a handful of stalks, he said, “Keep these and I will show you how.” Before we got back in the truck, he placed the stalks on a rock and began to bang them hard with a stone for the juices to come out. “Soup…you will see!” He smiled up at us confidently, but I was wondering what kind of soup was going to appear as he rubbed his hands together with the mashed stalks and asked me to pour a little water on them to make ‘soup’. Please don’t ask us to taste this, I thought, looking at his slimy hands, now slightly green and frothy. “Soup, you see?” Suddenly we saw it… “You mean soap – to wash?” He nodded excitedly, yes “soup” he said again. It took a few minutes of repeating to adjust from, but he was chanting, “So Ap… So Ap”, as he got back in the driver’s seat.

Back on the camels it was VERY hot. Salem our guide waved to a line of cliffs up ahead and said we would stop for tea soon. I scoured the shadows beneath for a Costa or Starbucks, or even a shack selling coffee…but nothing. No toilets either – just a lot of bushes and small rocks. Meanwhile, Salem was unwrapping items from his saddlebags – a little black kettle, three tiny glasses which he placed on a rock. He scraped out a small hollow in the sand in front of where he was squatting and dropped some dry stalks of bush on top. In seconds he had flames licking around the stalks and a tiny fire fed with other small sticks began burning. Soon the black kettle was balanced on top. He smiled up at us and said, “You like tea?” Our delicious sweet black tea was ten times more welcome than any cappuccino or latte – and so much more refreshing.

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Many hours later, after we’d gazed across at craggy mountains marking the border with Saudi Arabia and Jordan’s white desert, eaten our picnic lunch in the narrow shade of a rock face and dozed away the hottest part of the day, I began to feel slightly hypnotized by our wanderings in the desert. Moving by camel there was no sound apart from the swish of the sand around its feet. Intense heat blazed down on my arms and legs and I began to feel as if I’d always been on a camel – running my toes through the soft curly camel hair, that camely farmyard scent and the rough rubbing rhythm of dust filled blankets against my legs were all becoming as familiar as the rattle of a train. It was later in the afternoon that we stopped off at a Bedouin ‘farm’ (tents plus goats and chickens) where, as white tourist, we were relegated to the seats by the goats and enjoyed more cups of sweet black tea, while animated Arabic conversation rattled on between the ladies in black and our guide.

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Time slows in the desert and is only measured by the height of the sun. As the shadows began to lengthen and we were back on the camels, I was roused out of my dream state as Samhan suddenly broke into a trot. We had trotted before – bouncing haphazardly along for a few minutes, thighs rubbing uncomfortably against the rough blankets. This time however, it was much faster and downhill and I hadn’t even asked him to speed up. I was bouncing high off the saddle and was sure it was going to end in a painful fall. Clinging onto the wooden pummel at the end of the saddle I willed my legs to cling on and tugged on the reigns to no avail. Samhan was excited – he was heading somewhere and he wasn’t going to slow down. Luckily just before I completely lost my balance and flew off the camel, he slowed to a walk and I saw the camel ahead had stopped by an opening in the rock. We had arrived at our new camp for the night – there was a pile of blankets and cushions laid out on the ground and a man we didn’t know was mentioning tea. Thank goodness for tea – I don’t think I’d have survived the desert without it.

Jordan is much more than desert, camels and sweet black tea – but the camel ride, the desert and sleeping beneath a canopy of stars is what I will treasure from this first visit.

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