The Book Pile

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I don’t like to plan ahead too much when it comes to reading: I prefer to just pick up whatever I’m in the mood for when I finish the previous book. But I do usually have a small handful of books that I am quite keen to get to, and this little pile represents the current shape of things to come.

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

I bought a copy of this off eBay last month after reading about it in the last issue of my favourite magazine, Oh Comely. It was included in a list of banned books, and although I had never heard of it before the review grabbed my attention. I am not sure it will be a very cheery read(!) but I am looking forward to it all the same.

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride 

I read McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, whilst on holiday in Cornwall last month and absolutely loved it. It was about the most alive I had ever felt reading a novel. This is her first novel, and if it’s anything like The Lesser Bohemians then I can’t wait.

Autumn by Ali Smith

I actually got this as a Christmas present last year and intended to devote the Christmas break to it. I always think Ali Smith’s writing benefits from reading in a state of intense devotion. I never got to it in the end though, having picked up The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry on a whim the week before and getting entirely engrossed in that. It seemed seasonally wrong to then pick this up on my subsequent holiday, in warm Spring weather, so I am waiting for this autumn to kick in so I can spend some evenings in with this.

Book Review: Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

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In the opening pages of Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk, the novel’s protagonist Sofia describes being stung by medusa jellyfish whilst swimming in the sea off the coast of Almeria in southern Spain. She heads across the beach to the injury hut, where she is asked to complete her details on a form that looked like a petition, “to keep the injury hut open in the Spanish recession”.

He handed me a pencil stub and asked me to please fill in the form.

Name: Sofia Papastergiadis

Age: 25

Country of origin: UK

Occupation:

The jellyfish don’t care about my occupation, so what is the point? It is a sore point, more painful than my sting and more of a problem than my surname which no one can say or spell. I told him I have a degree in anthropology but for the time being I work in a cafe in West London – it’s called the Coffee House and it’s got free Wi-Fi and renovated church pews. We roast our own beans and make three types of artisan espresso…so I don’t know what to put under ‘Occupation’.

Any other purpose Sofia may have in life has been overridden by her role as carer to her mother, Rose, who suffers from a mysterious illness affecting her feet and legs. But she is not just carer, she is also the “main witness” to her mother’s condition and carries out a kind of ongoing study of her inconsistent symptoms.

They are in Spain for Rose to receive treatment from the Gomez Clinic, an institution of unusual and unorthodox medical practice, run by Mr Gomez, a doctor of unclear medical training and specialty.  Rose and Sofia’s experiences at the clinic take on an almost dreamlike experience, with a series of strange consultations in strange surroundings. Occasionally escaping her mother’s oppression, the rest of Sofia’s life in Spain takes a similarly unsettling, dreamlike course. She meets Ingrid Bauer, an unconventional German ex-pat living locally with her boyfriend Matthew, and who earns money by re-modelling and embroidering vintage clothes to sell. Ingrid is mysterious, threatening and exciting, and Sofia struggles to establish her place in their relationship, just as in the rest of her life. She ultimately finds herself in an arrangement which is part love affair, part power struggle, and which remains unpredictable to the end.

Even the most grounded section of the novel, in which Sofia travels to Athens to visit her estranged father and his new young family, caught up in the midst of the greek financial crisis, has its sense of otherworldliness. Her father’s new wife is just four years older than herself, their apartment is covered in framed posters of Donald Duck, and her father seems fixated on ensuring his family is frequently asleep. He is “the anaesthetist of their household”.

This is the first novel by Deborah Levy that I have read, and I absolutely loved the writing style. Told from the point of view of Sofia, the writing tracks the inner workings of her mind as she makes her way through this strange world so simply and so beautifully. Sofia is self-centred but perceptive, and her narration only adds to the somewhat hallucinatory feel of the novel. I very much recommend Hot Milk as a truly immersive read, and I will definitely be looking out for Levy’s other novels in future.

Spring in Amsterdam

Back in May, Mark had a work trip to the Netherlands. Fancying a short break, I decided to go over with him for the first long weekend, before leaving him to knuckle down for the rest of the week.

I strongly believe in avoiding air travel wherever possible. There is no excuse for that level of environmental impact when you can take the train, and Amsterdam is perfectly accessible by train from the UK if you are not too far from London and not in too much of a rush. We headed into London early on a Thursday morning and a Eurostar with a change in Brussels later, we were soon pulling into Amsterdam just in time for cocktail hour.

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We headed into De Pijp for dinner, my favourite area of Amsterdam and full of all manner of bars and restaurants. We decided on pizza at De Pizzakamer, followed by a gander into the central red-light area of the city for some beers at Brouwerij de Prael, a chilled out bar and microbrewery, despite its location. I tend to find the centre of the city, with its raucous groups of tourists, stag and hen parties a bit much, but it’s fun to dip in every now and again.

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On Friday we were up early for a train ride to Utrecht, a smaller university city about 30 minutes from Amsterdam. Mark gave a lunchtime seminar at the philosophy faculty, but before and after we took some time to look round the city.

Utrecht is a little like a smaller, quieter Amsterdam, and had lots of lovely canal-lined streets, interesting shops and lovely cafes. Unfortunately, it was rubbish weather: a bit moist and really dark and cloudy all day. So we spent a lot of time hopping in and out of the cafes, such as the lovely Gys, in the photo below.

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Back to Amsterdam that evening, for Italian food and cocktails back in De Pijp. It was at least warm, so we sat out on the pavement of a cafe and watched the bicycles racing past.

I absolutely love how bicycle-orientated Amsterdam is. The great thing about the Amsterdam story is that it wasn’t always like it is now. Amsterdam was a very car orientated city until the 1960s, when a rising number of road deaths sparked a huge overhaul in public opinion. The cycling culture feels like it has been that way forever, but is actually the fairly recent result of mass human intervention to change the way they live. It is like a glimpse of how life could be everywhere, although sadly I feel we are a very long way off that much mental adjustment in the UK at the moment.

Saturday saw a bit of sun in between a few showers, so we headed for a walk around the Vondelpark, which is huge and lustrous.

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I am just about to sneeze in that photo, not posing.

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We headed to Koffie Academie for lunch: delicious goats cheese toasted sandwich and a little flat white to keep me going for our next stop, which was the Van Gogh Museum.

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Sunflowers in the flowerbeds around the museum! The museum is excellent and very much worth a visit. It traces the whole history of Van Goghs’s career, including one of the famous ‘sunflowers’ paintings, and gives lots of information about his life, family, friends and of course his illness. It was a really inspiring, engrossing couple of hours.

We emerged into beautiful sunshine, so headed back into De Pijp for a glass of wine, followed by a lazy walk along the canals before it was time to head for dinner with friends.

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On Sunday, it was time for me to head for home, but not before a delightful kiwi-brazilian style brunch at Bakers and Roasters. Eggs and toast and coffee and juice…mmmm. Until next time, Amsterdam!

Norfolk discoveries

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Back in April we spent a week in North Norfolk with family. Although I’m quite familiar with various parts of the North Norfolk coastline, I didn’t really know the area we stayed in, near Holt and a few miles inland of Sheringham. I didn’t manage to do a great deal of research before we set off, so our days were rather on the spontaneous side. Holt itself proved to be a lovely little town, full of interesting cafes, antique and vintage shops, independent grocers and even a record shop!

On our way to Pensthorpe Nature Reserve (which is also well worth a visit) one day, we drive past a sign for Binham Priory. Out of interest, we pulled in and discovered this fascinating English Heritage site. The extensive ruins of a Benedictine Priory, founded in 1091, are a brooding presence on the gentle, rolling landscape and are well worth a visit. The ruins also have a sign stating my favourite ever opening hours: “any reasonable time”. This prompted a lengthy discussion on what would not be a reasonable time to be found at Binham Priory…

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Weekend in the smoke

Mark and I went to London for a couple of days over the May bank holiday weekend. After a super-busy week I was so looking forward to getting away on an adventure.

The main purpose of the trip was actually to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic, which I bought tickets to after seeing Daniel Radcliffe (Rosencrantz) and Joshua McGuire (Guildenstern) on Graham Norton a couple of months ago. It really was excellent: so funny and well done. I love the humour in Tom Stoppard’s plays, it’s so clever.

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After the play, we ambled over the bridge to Embankment for a half-bottle of wine at Gordon’s Wine Bar, before heading just a couple of minutes further up to Charing Cross for dinner at Barrafina, one of my absolute favourite restaurants. We had amazing monkfish tail from the specials board, and a glass of pedro ximenez sherry over dessert. After dinner, we travelled up to Camden to watch a band at the Lock Tavern before heading back south of the river for slumber. Perfect day.

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Sunday morning was beautiful, sunny and peaceful. We wandered over to Bermondsey Street and had a spot of brunch at the Garrison, before continuing on up to the river.

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We were due to meet my parents and sister at the Tate Modern, but we stopped off to see so many things on the way: Borough Market, Southwark Cathedral, the Golden Hinde, Winchester Palace… When we eventually got to the Tate we had a good nose round, and I spent a long time in the Rothko room for old times’ sake (and because it is soothing).

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From the Tate we went for pancakes and all-day veggie breakfasts with the family at the Breakfast Club, then headed for our train home, back to the provinces. It pains me sometimes that I can’t wake up in London every day, but perhaps it’s better to just visit regularly and so always experience the best of it? That way it can never be harmed by the fog of real life…

Libraries gave us power

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In Wells-Next-The-Sea, on the north Norfolk coast, in the sunny courtyard of a cafe called Bang!, which is rather lovely and serves a decent coffee.  I am reading this week’s Big Issue, bought from the lady on the High Street in Wells rather than our usual chap on Bridlesmith Gate in Nottingham (unavoidable disloyalty).

The Big Issue has been running a big literacy campaign recently and as part of that have focused on the importance of libraries in improving access both to books and to other essential services that many people would otherwise be left without.

At the very end of 2016, Nottingham City Council approved plans to sell the site of the Nottingham Central Library to developers. To be turned into new, shiny things but almost certainly not to remain as a library or any other kind of public service. There had been a vocal campaign to save it, with many concerned about the impact the loss of such large resource of help, joy and information would have, not only on the city’s most marginalised and vulnerable people, but on all the library’s users.

This all got me thinking about my own relationship with libraries and why they are so important to me. My local library as a child was Henleaze Library in Bristol, which remains open at present. My mother would take me and my sister on a Saturday, before food shopping at the Waitrose over the road. Many of the books I remember from this age were library books borrowed from Henleaze, and some of them became life-long favourites, such as Lucy Boston’s ‘Green Knowe’ series, which, having never owned them, I have had to buy copies of as an adult. I was also rather partial to the Doctor Who spin-off novelisations, although I recall some of these being better than others!

The best part of two decades later, I found myself back amongst the bookshelves at Henleaze, although this time in the grown-up section. I had just moved back to the UK after three years in Australia, and passed a bewildering seven months trying to rebuild a life in a country which seemed no longer familiar. I worked the same part time job I had had as a student and stayed in my old bedroom in my parents’ house. A steady supply of books kept me feeling like I was moving forward, finding new experiences when the real world felt a little like it was moving backwards.

A year or so later, I found myself in Nottingham and Beeston Library became my local. Unemployed, isolated and feeling more than a little bit lost, the library became like a lifeline. It was somewhere that I could go and be a part of despite having no money, and, like Henleaze a year earlier, it gave me the chance to have experiences through reading that were otherwise closed to me. Having access to the latest books despite my sorry state made me feel like I was still living.

Libraries are also great for readers or all ages as they allow you to read outside your usual habits and comfort zone without worrying about having to enjoy it because you have paid eight or nine pounds (or more) for a book. I think carefully about the books I buy, but will borrow books from the library on the basis of cover art or a review quote on the back alone. If it turns out it’s not your thing, you can just take it back for somebody else to try. Because of this, I have had the joy of discovering a wide range of books, their different voices and perspectives, that it is otherwise unlikely I would ever have picked up.

Bromley House

I am now lucky enough to be a member of a beautiful private library in Nottingham (Bromley House, in the photo above), but I still visit my fantastic new local library in West Bridgford. It makes me feel so happy to see how busy it is, particularly with families at the weekend, and seeing children getting the same experience that I did as a child. I hope a library will always be there for them as they become adults, and for their own children, however they use it and whatever role it takes in their lives.

Becoming vegan

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I watched Simon Amstell’s mockumentary film ‘Carnage’ this week, which is available on iPlayer for the foreseeable future.

Set in 2067, the film depicts a future world in which the entire population is vegan, and meat, eggs and dairy are banned. It tells the story of how we used to live and how and why we changed, reminiscing about the the meat-guzzling decades of the past with a sense of macabre horror: brightly coloured 1990s fast food adverts, depicting smiling, happy families ploughing dripping burgers into their mouths take on a different quality when cut with footage of cows being shot in the head and male chicks being gassed on egg farms. As we move through the decades, vegan activists become prominent figures, the animal rights movement grows force, and environmental issues including widespread, devastating flooding starts to make people think more seriously about the environmental impact of their choices.

Amstell himself is a vegan. If you go and see one of his stand-up shows he will talk about veganism in his usual apologetic, self-effacing way. The film reflects this, being as it is not full of science or facts and figures, and seems quite personal in its experience of changing views. I saw a lot of parallels with my own experiences in it, having been vegetarian now for almost 15 years. Vegetarianism for me started as a gradual phase-out, and I now eat no mammals or birds (I still eat a bit of fish). At first it was quite hard not eating meat, but after a few years I realised one day that I no longer saw meat as food. I would look at a sausage or chicken breast and feel just as I would if I was looking at a stone or a table. It had left my food vocabulary as an edible product.

Some years later, another shift occurred. I was in Tesco and found myself accidentally in the meat aisle, cutting through to another part of the store. On a shelf were whole chickens, piled up in rows, and I suddenly saw them for what they were: the dead bodies of former living creatures, industrially massacred so we can enjoy a cheap and probably forgettable dinner. I have never had a problem with looking at meat in itself and am completely comfortable with the concept of dead flesh (I was a total dissection geek at school), but the concept of filling my body with the commoditised product of a genocide upset and disgusted me. How would you feel if you walked in and saw a shelf piled up with the cling-wrapped flesh of dead dogs for sale? And what is the difference?

Last year I was at a festival and amongst the activities you could take part in was one where you would be shown how to skin and prepare a dead rabbit, before eating it. I overheard a girl complaining about how she loved eating rabbit, but that the idea of preparing it made her feel sick. To me, the idea that you could find the preparation process revolting but willingly put the results inside your own body is completely incomprehensible, and just goes to show how completely detached we have become from a true appreciation of what we are eating.

Watching Carnage also had an impact on me as a non-vegan. Watching footage of cows suffering obvious pain whilst being forcibly inseminated to keep them producing milk made me realise how incongruous it is to continue to consume dairy whilst not eating flesh. So I will be making more effort to cut out dairy where possible.

I will be recommending Carnage to people whenever I can. The film works so well because although its subject matter is hugely serious, it’s not presented in a serious way and is actually very funny. The future depicted in the film features support groups for elderly people who are trying to deal with their meat-eating past, and viral videos from a Farage-esque angry old man who wants Britain to make meat great again. The film doesn’t have an overt, stern education message, but simply shows that cultural norms are not always rational, and attitudes can change. Sometimes I feel i am just quietly waiting for everyone else to cotton on.

Our confessions will be televised

I decided I wanted some goth boots recently (read: became obsessed with buying black Dr Martens to go with my cherry reds). By way of tenuously connected research, I took to YouTube to watch a lot of old Marilyn Manson videos. Starting with my favourites from 1998’s Mechanical Animals album, which I bought in the week of its release in Bristol’s Virgin Megastore, and which was one of my first album loves. It remains one of my greatest loves frankly, it’s a glorious album and still sounds new, even almost 20 years (gosh) later. The eternal teenager in me still thinks the Dope Show video is the coolest thing ever. Twiggy’s gold catsuit, I guess…

 

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(A couple of weeks ago the BBC screened The Man Who Fell to Earth as part of their Bowie-programming. I’d seen the film before many years ago, but never clicked until now that the opening of the Dope Show video was a homage to the opening of that film.)

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From Mechanical Animals I drifted further back, back into the real raw-goth Manson days of the mid-1990s. I watched the videos for Lunchbox and Dope Hat and realised I’d actually never seen them before. This often happens when I’m scratching around on YouTube at music I first got into as a teenager. Music videos are so everywhere now, it’s easy to forget that 15-20 years ago if you didn’t have MTV (i.e if your parents didn’t pay for cable) there wasn’t really any way to see them. Even if you had internet access, it took like 9 hours to download a 4 minute mp3 off Napster, there was no way you were going to be watching videos. Sometimes, by the late 90s, CD singles included the video, which would play when you put the disc in your computer (the Dope Show CD single actually had this function), but it wasn’t very common. Occasionally, a TV show (Top of the Pops, or one of the Saturday morning magazine shows) would screen a video in lieu of a live performance, but usually only the big chart singles. And that was really it. Lots of music-fannish people my age seem to have a story of finding a rare source through which they could briefly watch MTV, on holiday in a hotel for example, and this being astonishingly mind-expanding.

I was often vaguely aware of what the videos were like. Fans who had seen them would post descriptions in online forums, sometimes someone would post some stills. This in particular made the Dope Hat video seem familiar. But I had never seen it in full. Often these days, when listening to new music, I am as familiar with a video as I am with a song (thanks, YouTube), but in those days it was just the music itself that crept into your head. By the time YouTube and its ilk came along, I’d forgotten a video would have even existed. Incredibly, this actually happened with the video for Nancy Boy by Placebo: despite this being one of my favourite songs for the best part of two decades, I only watched the video for the first time last year. So I often have these little revelations. And I love it. It’s like experiencing the joy of the discovery all over again, with an extra dimension.

The Coffee Awards 2016

Welcome to the Still Life with Flat White Coffee Awards 2016! Formerly the Weimar Republic Coffee Awards, but new blog, new name, so I suppose these are the inaugural SLWFW Coffee Awards.

I have not really had to stray too far from home this year to get some excellent coffee. The Nottingham coffee scene has exploded in all its rich creamery over the past year or so, to such an extent that we even created a bit of a stir in the national press! Anyhow, stray occasionally I did and here are my favourites from the past 12 months.

Greenhood Coffee House, Beeston, Nottingham

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Greenhood is out in the Nottingham suburb of Beeston, near the university, but is easily reachable by tram/bus/train/bike and well worth the trip. Owned and run by Rory, whom we first encountered some years ago behind the counter of Beeston stalwart The Bean, Greenhood is a beautiful, stylish Sydney-style cafe where you can sit comfortably and enjoy an extremely well-crafted coffee, as well as excellent cakes and light lunches (I recommend the bagels!). Rory also makes a superb matcha latte, for those of your who like your drinks green!

The Speciality Coffee Shop, Nottingham

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Lucy and Michelangelo will give you one of the warmest welcomes you will find anywhere in a coffee shop I am sure. Speciality is a bright and airy cafe up on Friar Lane, and being a couple of doors down from the Nottingham Law Society offices I find myself here quite often whenever I am up there on a course! I love watching Michelangelo make the coffee, he puts so much enthusiasm and love into each one, and they offer some fantastically full-flavoured, rich and tangy coffees. You can also get some really great breakfast here – try the smoothie bowls.

Laynes Espresso, Leeds

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I’m noticing that it’s a good year for green/blue coffee cups, but this one bucks the trend with a classic pure white. Heading north now, and right into the centre of Leeds to Laynes Espresso. A tiny little coffee bar, but squeeze in and you will get yourself one of the most beautiful, rich, creamy flat whites you can find anywhere in the country. Also, exceptionally good avocado on toast, if that sort of thing floats your ice cream!

North Tea Power, Manchester

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Staying in the north for this one, this cute little flat white can be found at North Tea Power, in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. A couple of years ago, I found myself regularly up in the North West for work, and often used to retreat here in the early mornings for some toast and a coffee. It’s a lovely, friendly cafe and one of those places that always seems full of interesting people. I also last went there the morning after Cosmosis Festival back in March, and they were playing basically the full Brian Jonestown Massacre back catalogue in their stereo (BJM headlined Cosmosis), which ticks all the boxes in my book.

Caravan, London (Kings X)

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Back to the south. I love Caravan for its consistently excellent food, drink, and the generally all round good atmosphere that always exists in the Kings Cross branch. They roast their own coffee and do one of my favourite blends (‘Special-Bru’), which is delightfully fruity. I always make sure I take a bag home whenever I’m there. I’ve included this particular flat white, which I had back in February, because it should at least probably win best latte art of 2016 for that swan!

Small Street Espresso, Bristol

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My home city, like my adopted city, has some great coffee. Small Street Espresso is one of my favourites and the one I find myself going back to time and time again. Another tiny little cafe, but with an astonishingly wide range of coffee options. Good cakes too.

Cartwheel Cafe and Roastery, Nottingham

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And finally, if there were a first prize in the SLWFW Coffee Awards, I think this would be it. Cartwheel is a pure joy and to my mind one of the best places in Nottingham right now. Owner Alex, also formerly of Beeston’s The Bean, has created a beautiful Australian-European style cafe with a full kitchen dishing up wonderful breakfasts, brunches and lunches, and of course exceptional coffee. This little beauty in the photo bought a little sunshine to a grey day of Christmas shopping in December, but is just one in a long line of wonderful flat whites and cortados I have had at Cartwheel over the past few months. Long may the line continue!

Thanks to all the above for making the awards such a joy this year! Honorable mentions should also go to Outpost (Nottingham), Wired (Nottingham), 200 Degrees (Nottingham), Workshop (London) and Monmouth (London).

Also I should probably thank the Apple Photos app on my iPhone/Macbook, for very helpfully being able to tell me the address at which each of the above photos were taken, and therefore helping me sort between 20-odd very similar photos of flat whites in green/blue coffee cups.

Paris at Christmas

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Paris is always a good idea

A couple of weeks before Christmas, Mark and I took a little weekend trip to Paris with his mum. It feels as though we are so often in Paris these days, but that is certainly no bad thing and Paris at Christmas time is always particularly lovely.

I love to see the Christmas lights, and the decorations in the department stores are so stunning. This year, the decorations and window displays at Galeries Lafayette were all made from paper and so were beautiful, sparkling white. The windows told the story of a family of polar bears who made the trip from the North Pole to see Paris, and who ran amok in every department of the store taking Miu Miu shoes, Chanel No 5 and all manner of other treats.

We also popped in next door to Printemps, where we stopped for tea under the dome, next to a rather more traditional tree! Our day of Christmas shopping was rounded off with a trip to Sephora on the Champs-Elysées, where I treated myself to a bottle of Yves Saint Laurent’s new perfume ‘Mon Paris’, as well as a couple of treats from Urban Decay (eyeshadow in ‘Backfire’) and Benefit (powder blush in ‘Sugarbomb’).

As Mark’s mum was with us, we also did a few more traditional touristy things. We visited the Sacré Coeur in beautiful winter sunshine, and decided on an afternoon boat trip down the Seine. We chose an hour’s cruise on the Vedettes du Pont Neuf, which took in the Ile de la Cité to the Eiffel Tower and everything in between. We were sceptical but it was surprisingly good fun and had some unexpectedly interesting moments, including the restaurant that was used as the model for the restaurant in the film Ratatouille!

On the morning before we returned home, we walked to Père Lachaise Cemetery. The whole place was bathed in glorious early morning sunshine and it was so quiet, so peaceful. We didn’t have a lot of time, and we’ve visited most of the famous graves on previous occasions, but we eventually managed to find Jim Morrison before it was time to head back to Gare du Nord and the Eurostar home.

Paris, tu es toujours dans mon coeur. A Bientôt!

 

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