My beautiful mother died on Friday morning. Of course, as seems so often to happen, I wasn’t there, even though I had spent most of my waking hours there all week. But I’m ok with that, as we had so many conversations over the week, even if they were one way after she became unconscious the last couple of days. I firmly believe that she could still hear me on some level, so it was important, to keep telling her how much I loved her, and that would never change, even when she was no longer with us, I would still go on loving her. And I also told her that I knew that she would never stop loving me, even when she was no longer here. I would carry her in my heart forever, and she would always be there when I needed her, and I could feel that love when I needed some help with whatever difficult situation life would throw at me.
Grief is such a complex and difficult thing, and as I wrote in my last blog post, mine was kick-started when I was reminded of the cracking woman (as a lovely friend of mine called her) she was. The thing is that as somebody gets older and more frail, it is so easy to forget that. My daughter, Daisy, expressed this so well, and has given me permission to share it.
“It seemed inevitable that the frail elderly lady who has been getting weaker over the past weeks was going to die, but when you remember that woman was Judy Strafford, the artist, who did all those amazing paintings, made all that incredible food and wrote that beautiful book, it hits you that that was the same person, and feels completely overwhelming.”
This totally resonates for me and seems to sum up some of the conflicting emotions that constitute grief. I think one of the harder things is that feeling that you will never see them again. I know I felt that with Thomas, and nothing can take that away, except time, and allowing yourself to feel it. And perhaps the occasional gin and tonic 😍
I don’t know if everybody experiences grief in different parts of the body, but mine is firmly in the coeliac plexus (formerly known as the solar plexus!) – right there between the ribs, below the breastbone. This is the second time I’ve watched somebody dying in as many years, and whilst I am so grateful to be able to be here daily with my mother, holding her hand, looking into her eyes and telling her that I love her, it is also hard being so close.
I started to go through some of Mum’s papers last week, and what really kick-started my grief was coming across some wonderful letters and photos. One was from Charles Spencer, in response to a letter Mum must have written to him after the death of Diana and his tribute at her funeral. Another was a letter she had published in the Times in 2002 on her love of sprouts, and all the delicious ways to cook and eat them. There was a gorgeous photo of eight glamorous women, called the Lunch Bunch, which was the bridge club Mum was part of for forty years or so.
And I realised that in these past few years of caring for a sick, fading, elderly lady, I had forgotten what an incredible, vital, vibrant, creative creature my beloved Mother had been. She was all of those things and more – not least a fantastic cook producing amazing suppers night after night, and she has loved life and lived it to the full, particularly in most of her thirty five years with Thomas.
I don’t think she will be with us for much longer now, as she no longer wants to eat, except for a few mouthfuls of yogurt, that are gently fed to her by the ever-caring Liz, but her colourful, energetic and beautiful soul are what I want to remember, not the past weeks, or even months or couple of years.
You know when you open Facebook and those memories pop up? Well, yesterday that happened to me, and my heart skipped a beat. Pure deja vu, and overwhelming sadness. This is what it said….
“Had a lovely chat with Thomas on FaceTime yesterday, so I could see him sitting up in his hospital bed, to which he is now confined, in Mum’s old studio, so he is surrounded by paintings, and looks out onto his beloved garden! He has lots of care and support and still the same old Thomas – strong, stoical and spirited. He has been setting specific time goals to aim for the next thing he wants to be around for – previously it was Christmas, then Mum’s birthday, and now, in the best Thomas spirit, it’s the EU referendum!!!! It did make me smile – I am so happy some things don’t change 😍😍😍“
It is with a heavy heart that I now write about my dear Mother, who has been bedridden since the beginning of March, as her body has weakened significantly, and her appetite is reducing daily. She spends most of her time asleep, and her waking time gazing out of the window at her beloved garden, just as Thomas started to do two years ago.
Mum is of course being looked after beautifully by her (our 😍😍) wonderful carer, Liz, who ensures that she is always comfortable and brings the all important smile to her face.
But I can’t lie, it is very hard being faced with somebody you love dying, and in the same place, same bed, same room. The funny thing was that before even reading ‘my facebook memory’ last night, every time I have walked in and seen Mum over the last week, I have been struck by these feelings of overwhelming sadness that here we are in the same situation again.
We have had many conversations about dying over the past weeks, and you may think this is something intensely personal, and not to be shared. But I think it is a conversation we should be having more often. It is bloody scary, and of course none more so than for the person dying.
One of my mother’s fears is that she will be forgotten. I reminded her that she once told me that she thought about her beloved Mother every day, and had never forgotten her, and I assured her that I will do the same and I will keep her in my heart forever 💜
Last week was certainly a week for winter warmers, if ever there was one, and I, for one, loved every moment.
Whilst our temperatures here in the South of England plummeted to a freezing -6C for several days, the snow fell and our already beautiful countryside looked even more magical. This was indeed an unexpected pleasure, as having had magnificent snowfalls in Istanbul over the past four years, it is not such a regular occurrence in Hampshire.
But back to the winter warmers – this sort of weather definitely calls for warm and hearty fare, usually meaty as far as we are concerned, and gave us all the inspiration we needed for some delicious suppers all week.
Sunday: was a traditional roast rib of beef, as Waitrose had one last rib going cheap (always an eye on a bargain), which we decided to roast using the untraditional reverse sear method, taking inspiration from Jess Pryles and her Hard Core Carnivore book. That means, instead of the usual sear in a pan to brown all over, and then whack in the oven for a short time, you cook it in the oven at a low temperature first, and when it has reached the right colour of pink for your taste, achieved by using a meat thermometer, you rest the meat for a while before searing in a hot pan, which gives it a gorgeous colour as well as wonderful caramelisation. The result was a beautiful even pink throughout with no grey bits around the edges where the meat has cooked a little more. We had this with roast potatoes and roast purple sprouts doused in walnut oil. A triumph, as Thomas would have said.
Monday: Cold rib of beef, of course! With sweet potatoes and horseradish creme fraiche.
Tuesday: A warming and divine Bengali chicken curry from Peter’s new cook book, Indian Kitchen by Maunika Gowardhan. I was full of cold and requested a warming curry from Peter, and he certainly delivered!
Wednesday: was the remains of the rib of beef made into a very warming and hearty ragu, which we had with fresh tagliatelle and a winter salad of red cabbage, little gem, goat cheese,broccoli and walnuts.
Thursday: we managed to nip out to Waitrose for a quick stock up before we became completely snowed in, and bought some beautiful fresh Cornish hake – might not sound hearty, but with the addition of chunks of chorizo, and crunchy cubes of potato, it certainly worked for us!
Friday: after several days of being confined to our cottage, with heating and fire blazing, we decided to break out and head to the local pub with some lovely friends and neighbours, and had a gorgeous homemade steak and ale pie in a rich gravy with light crispy pastry.
Saturday was homemade pizza – well, the kids were home from school, what more can I say? Topped with yet more chorizo, and local Laverstoke Farm buffalo mozzarella. Perhaps our least hearty meal of the week.
Sunday – we rounded the week off with a magnificent venison chilli – local venison cooked with several different types chilli, using a fantastic recipe again from Hard Core Carnivore. This was superb – rich, unctuous, with lots of flavour from the sweet chilli, but never overpowering. We ate this spooned in soft tacos with dollops of creme fraiche. This probably wins the vote of most hearty dish of the week.
Usually we try not to drink alcohol during the week, but sometimes you have to throw reason to the wind, and these suppers cried out for full-bodied rich red wines, from a Barolo, to Rioja, to a Southern Italian Primitivo. I have loved our winter week full of snow and hearty food, but I think my waist line will appreciate the spring weather when it arrives!
New year, new resolution. So far so good. But its more than that; I feel a sense of excitement about what this year is going to bring. It’s been more than six months now since we’ve all been moved back to the UK in our lovely little cottage in Ovington; lock, stock and barrel. We’ve rather come back in dribs and drabs because it was 2016 that Billy, Daisy, Dave and I came back, but now we’re all back, the whole family – Peter and TC, our Turkish stray cat are also here – and so there really is a sense of new beginnings.
So on a personal level, I really want to restart my blog, which I’m ashamed to say I haven’t written now for more than a year since Thomas died – but it was kind of difficult to get back on to it again. For me, writing is about the heart and soul, so I needed to process those emotions around losing Thomas, before being able to start again on a new tack.
I still miss him and think about him every day, and often ‘see’ him when I’m out and about – walking by the river, or someone driving a little white van, or shopping in Waitrose, which he loved! But I really found that our little trip down to his river on the first anniversary of his death, helped me enormously. I dont think ‘closure’ should ever be under-rated, as I have always found some sort of acknowledgement of the end of something in which you have made a significant emotional investment – whether painful or happy – to be hugely beneficial.
Our ceremony was as simple as a walk next to the river, surrounded by my loving family, meandering past Thomas’ hut which was his hub when he was the river keeper on his stretch of the Itchen. We visited the tree that was planted to remember him, and it was a way to feel close to a very special and dear man.
Back in Istanbul after a long summer in the UK, and for the first time since moving here, I was actually looking forward to coming back ‘home’. In this case, home is where our things and belongings are, where my bed is, and where my husband is 😉
It was great to be able to spend the whole summer in the UK, for the most part within spitting distance of my parents, and to be able to be involved in their daily lives, and help out where I could. We were so lucky to be lent cottages in beautiful surroundings so we could enjoy the best of the Hampshire countryside.
But I have to be honest, it was not the most relaxing summer, and I felt a fair weight of responsibility in looking after them and getting carers organised, and bullying the NHS to get on with Tom’s treatment, resulting eventually in a week’s radiotherapy course in August.
As I said, it was a long summer, and so whilst it was with some trepidation that I left Mum and Thomas to fend for themselves for a few weeks, until I next go back, there was also a lightness in my step, as I boarded the plane back to Istanbul a couple of weeks ago.
After 11 weeks away, it was wonderful to see the dazzling Bosphorus again, to feel the warmth of the sun on our faces; and of course to reconnect with all our furry friends, both kedi (cats), and köpek (dogs), and make acquaintance with the new cats that have taken up residence with us, mostly outside, but occasionally inside, if they are wily enough.
And then back to school for Billy and Daisy, their last year at MEFIS, and at school in Istanbul, new classes to get used to, with several new faces.
It’s a strange adjustment coming back again, as an expat, after an extended period away, as there are holes, that people you have grown fond of over the previous year, have left, and then of course there is the influx of new people.
But it is always lovely catching up with old friends again, and having our first book club meeting.
However, I quickly came to dread that inevitable question, ‘How was your summer?’ As I dug around searching for the best way to describe it, I found that I stumbled and stuttered about it being ok, I mumbled something about my parents not being well, and ended up with some awkward condolences all round.
It’s a bit like that question asked to a woman who does not work in a paid job, ‘what do you do all day?’, to which of course the only answer is ‘why, of course, lie around with my feet up eating chocolate!’
So I decided I had or come up with an answer for this question also: how was my summer? I spent good, quality time with my family – and I did.
Whilst we have lived abroad before, I never really felt like an expat, even though we spent our ten years in Cape Town. So, its quite a different experience landing squarely in expat land, here in Istanbul. I guess the main defining difference is language, as all of us who don’t speak the language of the new country, are automatically grouped together as non-locals, and therefore expats. Whereas in Cape Town, our life seem to meld nearly seamlessly into the lives of ordinary South Africans, although of course, the divide there is not local and expat, but white, black and coloured. If I think back to Billy and Daisy’s schools, there weren’t that many different nationalities, but mostly South Africans, and as our friends were mainly South Africans, with a handful of Brits thrown in, we felt as if we merged into South African society.
So, for the first time in my life, I’ve joined a bookclub and I love it! It is a totally new experience for me and whilst bookclubs are not limited to international communities, they take on an added dimension, by their very ‘internationalness’. Because an expat community is always changing, then the bookclub’s members are also changing. We are busy organising our farewell dinner for those that are going, but have just welcomed two new members.
Our bookclub has so many different nationalities represented – Pakistani, Swedish, French, Irish, Bulgarian, Indian, Dutch, German, Amercan, Russian, Australian. and me, the token Brit – which leads to very interesting discussions with varying viewpoints.
This week we were lucky enough to be invited to Umbereen’s house, and whilst of course the focus is the discussion of the book, I was particularly looking forward to Umbereen’s Pakistani food. In case you’re dying to know though, this month’s book was a Japanese book called Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. I have to say that I was not looking forward to reading it as I did not think it would be up my street. However, within a page, I was hooked! I loved the style it was written in and learning about Japanese culture – a good read and highly recommended.
But the highlight of the day, apart from the company of seven wonderful and interesting ladies, was the lunch. Umbereen served us traditional Pakistani food, which I must say, was very different to the Indian food that I know and love. What I particularly liked was that whilst we ate three courses, I certainly didn’t feel overly full at the end, and each course was so well balanced, with different textures and flavours.
We started with some dokhlas, which are made from gram (chickpea) flour. These were served with a coconut chutney and fried curry leaves. Also, there was a wonderful spicy pumpkin on a piece of paratha – all absolutely delicious and interesting flavours.
Our main course was a Kashmiri-style chicken leg and this was served with a channa chaat – a salad of chick peas and potatoes with fresh coriander, tamarind chutney, yogurt, pomegranate, red onions, and traditional crunchy sev. Again, wonderful flavours and beautifully balanced.
For pudding we had mango and passion fruit ice-cream served with little biscuits that Umbereen had made by dry-frying on the stove top, as traditionally in Pakistan, they don’t have ovens (I had no idea!) This was accompanied by Jasmine tea, which apparently is drunk a lot in Pakistan, although usually it is very sweet, so untraditionally sugar was optional for us!
We just returned from a couple of weeks in the UK for Easter, and for once, wherever we went, we had great coffee! Wow, how coffee has improved. We spent a few days in London, and every day, started our day by looking up a cool new artisan coffee shop in the vicinity of where we were going.
The Love & Scandal menu
So here are our finds –
Day One – arriving at Waterloo, we had looked up Love & Scandal down on Lower Marsh Street, so having dumped our luggage in the vastly expensive Lost Luggage at the station, we headed off in search. Love & Scandal it turns out, has only been open about four months and is a very urban understated place operated by a couple of cool young guys. It is all rough finishes and chip board and anything that can be recycled has been used – I particularly liked the Golden Syrup tins for the cutlery – reuse and recycle. They had a few yummy pastries and sandwiches and the daily menu was written up on a roll of brown paper, hanging on the wall – urban chic. The coffee was delicious, probably the best flat white we had in the UK – made with skill and care.
Day Two – was not new to us, as we went to Borough Market, so of course we visited Monmouth Coffee. I have always held Monmouth in the highest regard, and it is the pinnacle at which all other coffee has been measured. But alas, somehow it is not quite what it used to be – just a little too mass market now – all the small artisan houses are just a bit more avantgarde and cutting edge, and have nosed their way in front.
Day Three – was our Oxford Street shopping morning, so we got off the tube at Leicester Square and walked up through Soho to a place called Milkbar, which is apparently the next shop from the owners of Flat White, also in Soho. There we found a similar retro paired back feeling in a small shop with hip young people making fantastic coffee. I almost don’t even need to mention the coffee anymore as we take it for granted its going to be fabulous in all these places.
Flat white in Milkbar
Day Four – our last day – we mooched around Greenwich Market, and after some deliberation spotted Turnip. A small shop on the side of the main market, with a wonderful Mancunian man who made perfect coffees every time. (We know as we came back several times!) We caused some hilarity as we mistook his accent as being from the West Country! Turnip also sold amazing looking toasties – we look forward to trying next time…
Even in the deepest depths of the countryside, there are more and more places selling and serving fantastic coffee.Down in the heart of Winchester, we discovered Black White Red, a relatively new cafe, which specialises in two of my very favourite things – wine and coffee – does life get any better? Black White Red probably make the best coffee in Winchester now, and they use beans from the Roasting Party, a local coffee roastery set up by three Australians in 2013 – let’s hope they stick around!
This winter, our second in Istanbul, has been much colder. We have had three separate weeks of snowfall – much to the delight of Billy and Daisy, and I must say, I have also loved it! And because we are lucky enough to have such a wonderful aspect from our apartment, with views across the Bosphorus, there is nothing so beautiful as sitting snugly on the sofa by the window, staring out at a snowy landscape, and watching the snow fall over the rooftops.
As well as the snow, the last few months have very much been dominated by Billy and his exams, but thankfully, they are now over. Billy sat four exams last week in a bid to get a place at Bryanston School in Dorset, where he will (hopefully) go in September 2016. We are all on tenterhooks now while we wait for the results.
But as we all know, all work and no play does not make for a happy life, so we sneaked out for a long weekend at the end of January to a nearby ski resort, where Billy and Daisy got their first taste of zooming down the mountains. Needless to say, they loved it, and whilst we expected Billy to be fearless and tackle the slopes head on, Daisy surprised us the most as she took to it so easily and naturally.
The intrepid trio
And they’re off….
Kartalkaya is a 3 1/2 hour drive from Istanbul, so perfect for a long weekend, especially as it’s mostly highway. There is a wonderful jaw-dropping moment, when you exit the Bolu tunnel, and suddenly everywhere is white, with drifts of snow all around us. After that there is a final 28km winding ascent up the mountain to the resort, and we had been warned that we would need to stop and put chains on. And of course, this being Turkey, there are men on the side of the road at regular intervals, who are happy to do the job in a jiffy, in return for a few notes.
Chains going on the wheels…
The mountain road up to Kartalkaya
Kartalkaya is not like a European resort – there is no village, no shops, no restaurants – it is simply a collection of hotels with ski lifts, and ski runs of varying degrees of difficulty, spreading out behind them like a spider’s legs.
We had been recommended the Golden Keys hotel (thank you Ebru at Cup of Joy!) and it didn’t disappoint. Whereas the other hotels were eighties relics – old and crowded, they had stained carpets and smelt of fried food and cigarettes – our hotel was just a few years old. Moreover, it cleverly managed to combine both an industrial look – rooms that were quite bare and minimalist – and in contrast, a cozy feel – the main lobby and lounge areas were full of furs and roaring fires providing a wonderful oasis to ensconce yourself in after a hard day’s skiing (ahem!)
Ski lesson on the first morning
There was also a wonderful spa with a sauna and steam room but the highlight was the outdoor hot tub, where we could relax in the afternoon, gazing out at the snowy peaks and watch the sun go dow. A games room with table tennis, pool and table football was a great addition for us, and provided just the right amount of diversion for hungry skiers waiting for the dining room to open for supper.
Billy and Daisy in the chair lift
All in all, a wonderful weekend for both skiers and non-skiers alike, and we can’t wait to go back – till next year then!
I think I can speak for the rest of my family, when I say that one of our lasting memories of our time in Turkey, will be the street dogs. Growing up in the UK, stray dogs have a negative connotation of being dangerous and unwanted, but that perception has been turned on its head in Turkey.
Dixie, Sammie and Steffy
It is so embedded in the culture here, and is just a part of life, that people take care of the dogs. When we moved into our apartment here in Arnavutkoy, we first saw a dog that used to come and greet us and wag her tail – we named her Steffy. She was soon joined by a large dog with a gentle, yet fearful temperament – Sammi. Whilst he comes up to us and accepts treats, he does not want to be touched, even after 15 months of knowing him.
Dixie, Sammi and Steffy getting caught up with Dave
Apparently, according to some of our dog-loving neighbours, the municipality, who monitor and look after the dogs (it is firmly enshrined in the law here), find places that they think the dogs will thrive, and if it works and the neighbours don’t complain, they bring more dogs. What seems to happen though, is that not only do the neighbours not complain, but they look after and cherish the new additions to the neighbourhood. Hence, Steffy and Sammi were soon joined by Dixie, who is definitely the underdog and quite timid. A few months later, a gorgeous dog, whom we had come across while walking on the Bosphorous, joined the pack – we named him Ziggy, as he has one brown eye, and one blue – a la David Bowie.
Then there’s Waya, who used to belong to a house up the road, but ran away to join the strays – such an interesting enigma that a stray dog’s life here is preferable to a domestic dog, that is kept tied up all day. Poor Waya is a bouncy friendly dog that just wants lots of loving.
We have often thought about adopting one of these dogs and giving them a loving home, and it is especially tempting at this time of the year, when they have to survive in sub-zero temperatures – I remember last year, seeing Sammi lying in the snow, and it breaking my heart. However, the debate we always have is, would they prefer to be adopted or maybe not? For the most part, these dogs have a wonderful life – they are free spirits to roam where they want, they run around on the hillside in front of where we live, they have enough food and plenty of attention and cuddles. Would they want to have their freedom taken away, and be confined to being indoors? Is the exchange of security and love worth the sacrifice of their freedom? The jury is still out on that one…..
Daisy giving some loving to Ziggy and Steffy
Theres one more part-timer in the pack, and that’s King, who’s an incredibly athletic boisterous Alsatian, who loves chasing cars. He is a loner and wanderer and we often spot him down by the Bosphorus. Or rather, he spots us out walking, and then runs at a million miles an hour towards us. Meanwhile most other walkers recoil in horror at the sight of this huge dog running at us, and grab their mini pooches into their arms as quickly as possible. Quite a sight as Daisy and King then embrace and have a big cuddle, much to the amusement and concern of onlookers.
But that’s just our little enclave. We feed them and so do lots of our neighbours. One couple built them a big shelter last year, that they regularly use at nighttime and one lovely lady is often in there, hanging out the blankets to dry, and generally spring cleaning their house!
Daisy and Steffy, who loves her cuddles, as you can see
We recently invited ourselves unbidden onto the patch of other dog-loving people. There is a tiny park about a 5 minute walk from us on the way to Arnavutkoy, where several dogs hang out – we have seen them many times. One of the dogs is old and barks but we have never paid him much attention. Until last week. He was the one that I wrote about on FaceBook as I was so affected by this poor old dog lying in the snow, with a coat on! He looked so old and ill and cold and I couldn’t get him out of my head, and so went back and visited him most days. What was incredible is that every time I saw him, he had a new coat and jumper on – old human ones that had been put over his front paws and body to keep him warm. I have slowly met the ladies who care for him, and his name is Beyaz (white in Turkish) and he is 12 years old and clearly on his last legs.
What is interesting but strange, is that to me, he looks so ill and uncomfortable, with no quality of life, and barely surviving the freezing temperatures, that I couldn’t understand why somebody didn’t put him out of his misery. I realised it was not my place to interfere, as it was not my ‘patch’ but now I understand that euthanasia is not part of the Turkish culture. This understanding came about yesterday when I met another lady who told me that she had watched Beyaz grow since a puppy and they all loved and cared for him. She said that the vet had been yesterday and given him an injection, and when I suggested that the vet gave him an injection to put him to sleep forever, she looked aghast and horrified. I quickly explained, that in the UK, if a dog is old and ill with no quality of life, then we consider it to be the kind thing, to end their life, but clearly this was not an option for this poor dog.
So, I shall visit him every day, sit with him and stroke him and hope that his end comes quickly.