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Grief: my beautiful mother

 

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 😍

My beautiful mother

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.

Love you, Mum

May he rest in peace

 

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It was a whole year ago, that I wrote my last piece about our beloved Thomas packing away his life. Yesterday morning, his journey came to an end, and he died very peacefully at home, after a long, happy and fulfilling life. I don’t think there are many people I would presume to know if they have had or are having a fulfilling life, but Thomas was certainly one them. He was an incredible man, and at the risk of spouting many cliches, he truly was one in a million. Having watched him over the past year, he did not endure his illness, or battle his cancer, he gracefully accepted it with enormous dignity.

I have learnt many things from Thomas, but the biggest lesson I take away right now, is to try to find the delicate balance in life of acceptance. That doesn’t mean giving into something, and in Thomas’ case, his illness, but there’s also no sense in fighting a battle you can’t win, something that he intuitively always understood – but there’s a wonderful path you can walk, which brings peace and clarity, which Thomas certainly found.

Somebody said to me yesterday, that Thomas had a ‘good’ death, and I think he did – I think he had the best end that anybody could hope for – calm and peaceful, surrounded by love, and in Mum’s studio that has been his space since he became bedridden seven months ago. Right up until the beginning of the week, before he lost consciousness, he was still smiling and saying that he was fine and in no pain. When Billy saw him on Monday, and asked how he was, he replied ‘very well’, as he always did, to everyone. He was surrounded by an incredible team of doctors, nurses and carers, to whom we are all very grateful. Even the doctors said that they had never, in all their years of practise, met a man like Thomas. Who else can you think of, who would gracefully accept the indignity of being confined to bed for that length of time, without ever once complaining?

We will miss Thomas very much, none more than my darling mother. He has been her and our rock, or maybe a gently swaying tree, ever-present, ever-calm, and ever there to lend a hand. May he rest in peace – and I know he will, because Thomas couldn’t do it any other way.

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The sad and fascinating process of packing away a life

  
I’m sitting here in my usual spot, writing this blog post this afternoon. My usual spot being strapped into a seat of a BA plane winging its way back to Istanbul. Finally time to stop, rest, contemplate after what feels like a very fraught few weeks. I’ve been in the UK for the best part of the last month, with the exception of a quick trip back to Istanbul last week to recharge the batteries, and collect the children.

 

These few weeks have been much harder than I thought they would be. When I first arrived back last month, although I had only been away six weeks, Thomas’ condition had worsened considerably, and it was quite a shock. Whilst no one will ever know how much the radiotherapy helped, certainly Thomas’ right-sided weakness was and is worse, which makes getting up the stairs hard, and his general mobility poor.

The first thing I had to do was organise the wonderful carers to come in the evening to prepare their supper, in addition to the morning visit. Now, this week, we have added a lunch time carer, and next week, the palliative care team will kick in and start their visits. We were also able to organise various Zimmer frames and trolleys on wheels, all of which seem to be helpful around the house.

But there is another side too, and that is how strange it is to watch somebody dying, and preparing to die; to watch them get all the different strands of their life sorted, and ready to pack everything away in neat metaphorical boxes. It is of course tremendously sad, but at the same time incredibly fascinating to watch the process.

Of course we are all different in our approaches, and most people I guess don’t have the time to plan their deaths, but I feel privileged to be in a position to be helping Thomas put all his affairs in order.

One of my more interesting tasks was contacting the Library and Archives Canada, as Thomas has more than one hundred scrolls belonging to his great-uncle, Lord Byng of Vimy, given to him during his time as Governor-General of Canada in the 1920s, which Thomas feels should be donated to the Canadian Government.

  

There are also inevitably all the boring things like tax returns (is it really that important to make sure it’s in by the due date, given the circumstances?), wills, bank accounts.

But then there is his beloved garden. As Billy and Daisy came with me for this week, Billy was able to help Grandpa with all the physical stuff in the garden, that he is no longer able to do. It took me a while to realise that Billy was preparing the soil for the turf that was going to cover Thomas’ beloved vegetable patch – literally putting it to bed…. Final, finished, no more vegetables.

I took a stool down so that Thomas could sit and direct the proceedings and still be part of what was happening – it was both lovely to see him down in the garden with Billy, but incredibly sad that he was not the one digging away with a spade in his hand – very poignant.

    

I’m not sure when I will next be back, but it will be a few weeks, and so as I hugged Thomas goodbye this morning, I was very aware that I have no idea how he will be when I next see him. 

A gastronomic feast at Mikla restaurant in Istanbul

We were treated to another incredible gastronomic feast last week, at another of Istanbul’s finest dining spots. Mikla is on top of the Marmara Pera hotel and is a contemporary restaurant with a view, and oh what a view – spectacular.  

Sunset at Mikla

We were taken there by Jo and Thierry, who were visiting from Geneva – they said to book anywhere we would like, and let’s push the boat out, this was a celebration after all – Jo and I hadn’t seen each other for about ten years!

 

Mikla is owned by a Turkish Norwegian chef, so the food has always had a Scandi influence, although in the last few years, he has taken the menu back to its Anatolian roots.

And so after the huge success of the tasting menu at Gile last year, it didn’t take much persuasion before we all decided the seven course tasting menu was the way to go – and all on a Monday night – who’d have thought?

Zeytinyağlı & Raw Vegetables

 

Crispy Hamsi, Olive Oil Bread, Lemon

 
 

Dried Beef Tenderloin, “Hardaliye”, Malkara Lentil Humus, Green Tomato

 
 

Slow Cooked Grouper, Roasted Tomato, Halhali Olives, Salicornia, Tire Potato, Fig Vinaigrette

 
 

Cibes, Artichoke, Salty Yoghurt

 
 

Anatolian Raw Milk Cheese & Honey

 

The wonderful thing we have now discovered about tasting menus is that it is actually really rather nice to all have the same thing on your plate, and so therefore be able to discuss it endlessly, rather than a taster of your dining partners dish, before moving the conversation on…
 
  
Thanks Jo and Thierry!

 

The fragility of life

   

I don’t usually write when I’m struggling with my emotions, as I don’t feel inspired to be creative, but today I am using my blog as a way to share my feelings and express my sadness, as I am hoping it might help to tap it all out on my iPad as I sit here on the flight back to Istanbul.

It’s been a very very tough few weeks – starting with Mum being so ill, and being carted off to hospital in an ambulance – she was crying as the ambulance took her away, and I tried to hold back my tears, as I didn’t want her to see them and be more frightened than she already was. But I was terrified, and as soon as the ambulance had gone, I sobbed, along with Emma and Daisy, as I thought I had lost my Mother; that I might not see her again.

The funny thing was that I had this very strong feeling that I needed to come back between Easter and our flight booked at the end of June. When we returned to Istanbul after Easter, I was worried that both Mum and Thomas looked so much more frail and tired than when we had seen them at Christmas, and so when we got an email, suggesting Daisy came to a pre-assessment day at Bedales, I knew that was the excuse I needed to book a flight home.

Thank goodness for that, because as the weeks in April progressed, Mum became more ill and Thomas more wobbly, so that by the time Daisy and I arrived two weeks ago, Mum had been diagnosed with Giant Cell Arteritis, and prescribed huge douses of steroids. Unfortunately the massive impact of those steroids on Mums immune system resulted in shingles, making her very ill, and hence off to hospital.

However, with the help of the intravenous antiviral medicine for the shingles, Mum started to make good progress – she is still not well, though, and has terrible headaches, and has been left rather confused from the weeks of illness.

But all the time, as Mum was recovering in hospital, we had Thomas’ hospital appointment hanging over us. He had been experiencing increased right side weakness since Christmas, but in his infinite wisdom(!), had chosen not to share this information, as he didn’t want to worry Mum, what with her being so unwell most of the time. By the time he started losing his balance after Easter, he made a doctors appointment, who of course referred him to the hospital. However, during the time that I was there, Thomas became less steady on his feet, and so it was not a surprise to find his aesophageal cancer had spread to his brain – in fact, as I went to the hospital appointment with him, and therefore saw the brain scan, there are two tumours on the left side of his brain which have caused significant swelling, and hence the right-sided weakness.

Maybe not a surprise, but nonetheless a massive shock, a terrible shock – the unimaginable happening – we are going to lose our beloved Thomas to the cancer. We are not sure what the prognosis is until he has his oncology appointment, but our minds all rushed ahead with terrible thoughts – would he be around for Christmas this year? Where would we have his funeral? What about his ashes? How will Mum survive without him?

He of course is being his most amazing self – stoical, pragmatic, realistic and taking it in stride – after all, as he said, he is 78, he’s had a good innings, in fact a fantastic life. He and Mum have had 35 wonderful years together – how many people find true love for 35 years?

Thomas has been such an important and integral part of my life, coming into it when I was 15 so with me for most of my life – always there, always Thomas.

Mum came home from hospital on Friday – they wanted to keep her in another few days for the IV treatment, but having broken the most terrible news to her, we couldn’t leave her in the hospital on her own so brought her home, so that she and Thomas could at least be together, in their sadness and worry, interspersed with wonderful moments of reminiscing about the beautiful life they have had together.

I feel terrible leaving everybody today, as I know I am needed to help them get through the next days, but I am going back to Istanbul for a short time to regroup with my little family and hopefully to gather the strength I am going to need to get through the coming weeks and months.

As I sad my final goodbyes before leaving last night, Thomas took me aside, and pointed out a good spot he had earmarked for the marquee for the party he will not be at – you have to smile!

The London Coffee Scene

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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Turnip

 

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!

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Japanese cooking – yum!

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I was thrilled to be invited to join the Istanbul Women’s Institute at a Japanese Cooking Demonstration today. We were hosted by the wonderful Ayse, whom I have heard about and yep, she is as warm and friendly as her reputation suggested. She lives in Yenikoy which is a suburb further up the Bosphorus and has the most amazing enormous kitchen, just perfect for cooking demonstrations. Apparently, it is often Ayse doing the demos as she loves to cook, and is the Institute’s Turkish food expert.

But today, it was Kyoko Numan cooking. Kyoko has lived in Istanbul for several years, and before that the US, and as well as Japanese food and cooking, Kyoko teaches origami. We had the pleasure of admiring her origami when we eventually got to sit down and tuck into all the wonderful dishes, as the tables were decorated with fans, and birds and flowers….

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As well as learning to cook some delicious Japanese dishes, the fascinating part for me, was meeting all the women there – 17 in all. Our nationalities spanned Mexico, Portugal, Brazil, Canada, Sweden, Singapore, Malaysia, Germany, USA, and of course Turkey and the UK. It was wonderful to hear everybody’s stories and what brought them to live in Istanbul. And of course we all shared a love of food.

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So, to the food – Kyoko cooked for us:

Teriyaki chicken made with boneless chicken thighs – she demonstrated this two ways, both in the pan on the stove top, and in the oven. It was succulent and juicy and had a wonderful flavour, and one that I plan to make very soon.

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Vegetable tempura – aubergine, peppers and courgettes with a wonderfully simple teriyaki sauce. I have never made a batter before and so was interested to see that you use carbonated water for it. (or beer!)

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Miso – delicious flavour of miso with spring onions, egg and wakame (seaweed)

Chirasi sushi – a new dish for me as I have never seen sushi like this. The sushi rice is spread out on a bamboo platter, with the shredded nori seaweed sprinkled over the top. Next some fake(!) crab, smoked salmon and egg pancakes were all scattered over, and it was finished with some sesame seeds. Again, delicious but refreshingly different – actually it made me think of a sushi cake!

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We also learnt to make homemade gari, which is pickled ginger, a complete revelation, as it is easy to do, but wonderfully harmonious in its flavours, and of course finished the meal with Japanese green tea, which we were told should always be made with hot water at 90C, in effect, allowing it to slightly cool after it has boiled.

All in all a wonderful day with wonderful food and wonderful ladies.

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Another side of Istanbul

This post is the next one in the series, ‘what I love about Istanbul – different opportunities.’ As I have said many times and told as many people who will listen, it is so wonderful having Billy with us here in Istanbul! We learnt the hard way, but the value of family, however difficult family life is, however many arguments there are, is the most important thing to be cherished.

But one of the more unexpected things I am enjoying with Billy here, is that he is taking us off on different tangents, and I am seeing another side of Istanbul. This is because Billy’s life is very much centred around sport, so now I get to explore whole new areas as we trek to rugby stadiums and sports clubs dotted around Istanbul.

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For example, on the recent public holidays, we made our way to miles away on the Asian side, to Maltepe, which was when Daisy and I made our coffee stop in Kadikoy. Billy played with his club in the Kadikoy stadium at an opening game for the ensuing match for Kadikoy against an Italian team, and it was almost a surreal experience to watch him play with a mosque as a backdrop, and the French ambassador in the audience.

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Billy has joined a predominantly French rugby club, with a smattering of Irish thrown in, and then there is Billy who is English although thinks of himself as South African, and of course, will one day play for the Bokke.

The club does its regular Saturday training not far from us and I stand by the side of the pitch on a Saturday and marvel at our surroundings and in particular, at how incredibly different it is from anywhere Billy might have played rugby before. Its not just the lack of grass, but the entire skyline.

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Obviously, Billy learnt to play rugby in Cape Town, where there were hundreds of grass pitches everywhere and these young whippersnappers played rough and tumble to a beautiful background of Table Mountain. And then in the UK, again, wherever he played, whether a home match at Twyford, or an away match at another school, they were privileged to be running around in these acres of amazing green-ness.

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So, I hope Istanbul will be a memory for Billy for years to come. Not only playing on that sore astroturf but a small pitch surrounded by skyscrapers in a built up inner city suburb.

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Discovering Turkey’s wine routes

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We made our first trip down the Thrace wine route last week, and it was a revelation to try such gorgeous, big, structured, balanced wines that are well-made and have got some age on them.

When I say ‘discover’, I do mean that, as it not easy to find much information about the wineries and vineyards and they are not very well known. This is mainly down to the present government banning any advertising about wine, and even calling wine ‘wine’ is against the law – it is officially fermented grape juice.

However, there has been a new initiative promoting the Thrace wine route – not sure how they managed that – and so we set off from Istanbul and followed the road down the North West coast of the Marmara sea for a couple of hours.

Our first stop was Chateau Nuzun, which is the closest vineyard to Istanbul. It is a state of the art winery that has been purpose built with a huge tasting room overlooking the beautiful vineyards.

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And we were blown away by the wines! We didn’t really know such wines existed in Turkey – and decided, that in a blind tasting, we would not have picked them out as Turkish but as a good Southern French blend. Our favourites were the Chateau Nuzun Cabernet Sauvignon – Syrah blend 2008, and the same label Syrah 2010 – I would go so far as to say they would give your European wines a good run for their money. chateaunuzun.com

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From there we were directed to a small village called Marmaraereğlisi, where we tried the small köfte which the region are famous for. Dave had a wonderful time exploring the nearby beach – the first time he has felt sand under his paws for several years since Cape Town!

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Next stop was Barbare Vineyards which also has a hotel where we had booked to stay for two nights. They have been clever, as they have converted their now illegal wine tasting room, into a hotel, which can therefore legally serve wine. Whilst we will gloss over the hotel rooms (a pre-fab mobile home divided into rooms of a disappointingly low standard), the main hotel was a delight with a big open fire place and large sofas that we were more than happy to sprawl on and taste wine.

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The tasting here took the form of plonking a few bottles of wine on the table before dinner and then working our way through them for the rest of the evening – we didn’t complain! The first night we were treated to the Barbare Elegance 2009 and the Barbare Prestige 2009 – both were delicious, and worked well of course with the bonfile we were served but the Elegance, a Southern Rhone combination of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre just tipped the balance for us. 

The next night we were given the 2007 Elegance as well as the Premier 2007 which are no longer for sale but came from the owners private cellar – again we felt very spoilt to be enjoying such wonderful wines.

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The food was a simple and well-executed Turkish set menu – a tasty shrimp and vegetable soup to start, a Turkish mushroom pasta dish next, then fillet steak served with a gorgeous gutsy cheesy dauphinoise style potato bake.

However, the star of the show was the breakfast – not only presented beautifully on lots of wooden platters and bowls but wonderfully tasty local produce. We eagerly awaited the arrival of the sigare cheese borek on the second morning having polished off a huge pile of them on the first! barbarosbagevi.com

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The whole experience  was very reminiscent of similar trips to the winelands around Cape Town, including a wonderful long walk through the vineyards and across some muddy fields to reach the seaside village of Barbare. 

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On our way home we visited Melen Winery further down the Marmara Sea, where we sat outside gazing out to sea and tasted a dozen wines. It was a very pleasant afternoon, but no notable wines for us. We very slowly limped home after that on our safety tyre, after Peter and Billy had sorted out the puncture….

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