How Was IKEA for You?

The thing with going to IKEA is that it invariably takes three hours, which still isn’t enough to shop and to scoff a bargain plate of meatballs or fish and chips in the café.

IKEA Wednesbury was no different. The shop has everything, mostly things my son and I didn’t know we needed yet soon realised we couldn’t live without.

PS 2014 light. Image from ikea.com

The PS 2014 light is a case in point. By pulling its strings, you can make it open and shut, just like a transformer. Although, unlike a transformer, it is still a lampshade whatever you do. Bargain at £60 and would look great in my son’s new home. Now, what were we here for?

I get distracted by a couple arguing about the configuration of wardrobes and whether they really need a sofa bed (and which set of in-laws they can stand having as guests). Meanwhile, their kids have a pillow fight.

The cognoscenti may take crafty shortcuts through the store, but my son and I prefer not to miss anything, and the trolley soon filled up.

I’d brought my IKEA Family Card, which is why I got an email a week or so later asking for feedback on TYSNES, VILDKAPRIFOL, FLITIGHET, and TOKIG.

I’m not sure where IKEA get their product names, but then I don’t know a word of Swedish except Volvo and that’s Latin. Turns out they use many Scandinavian languages and place names in naming their wares, as this post explains

TYSNES. Image from ikea.com

TYSNES is a village in Norway. It’s also perfect for the bathroom windowsill, especially at just £19. As for the VILDKAPRIFOL, sorry, but, despite the attractive blue pattern, they’re still in the carrier bag.

VILDKAPRIFOL. Image from ikea.com

The FLITIGHET are great, but then what could go wrong with plain white side plates? Alas, I can’t comment on the TOKIG. I’d wanted a salad spinner for ages, but had forgotten that I’d taken the train, so the thing had to stay at my son’s in Birmingham instead of coming home with me.

The thing is, you can forget a lot after 90 minutes in IKEA, and common sense goes out the window. Perhaps that’s why, when nearly leaving the store, it’s almost impossible to ignore the Bargain Corner. The trolley is never quite laden enough to resist the charms of knock-down prices for knocked-about products, like a coat rack with a couple of hooks missing.

IKEA neglected to ask for my views of the humble RӦRT, a fine wooden spoon with endless possibilities. Have you never made spoon dolls? Admittedly my children have long grown out of such rainy day activities, but all you need for this wholesome fun is a Sharpie (or, better, a Magic Marker with a scent that takes me right back to the sixties), and then some fabric for a dress. Why, I could even use one of those pretty VILDKAPRIFOL tea towels.

IKEA also forgot to solicit my opinion of the BӒSTIS. I deem it 75p well spent as it prevents everything I own from turning ginger. It’s well named, too, as Bast was the Ancient Egyptian goddess of cats and her cult centre was Bubastis.

MISHMISH. Not available from IKEA

Far and away my best buy was, on that occasion as on most others, only 50p. Aptly named, the FRAKTA is generally purchased by the checkout when everyone is a bit fractious, even they’ve managed not to drop a BILLY bookcase on their foot.

The FRAKTA after deployment

It may not look much, but it is a workhorse. As the catalogue has it, Be it shopping, doing laundry or going to the beach, it goes wherever you go.”

Except it doesn’t. I always leave mine at home and having to buy another carrier bag at the store.

We caught up at the checkout with the quarrelling couple and the bouncy children, by then pacified by the promise of ice cream. Shopping at IKEA can be stressful, but it doesn’t detract from the chain’s iconic status.

Do you have a great IKEA story? Perhaps you even know someone who met their partner there, as opposed to just arguing with the one they went shopping with. I’d love to hear from you.

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You may also enjoy this post on Feedback Frenzy.

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Is Your Classic Car a Sex Symbol?

On a sunny summer day, the grounds of Burghley House proved a good place to ponder this question. The occasion was the annual rally of the Rolls Royce Enthusiasts’ Club on the 100th anniversary of the marque, no less. Some of the visitors seemed of similar vintage. But, if the setting of England’s greatest Elizabethan House didn’t evoke lust, the Flying Lady (aka the Spirit of Ecstasy) probably would. 

FreeImages.com/Artur Szeja

Arriving in my neighbour’s Arnage, I thought we fitted in rather well. OH and I posed in front of cars like this classic green Bentley.

If you’re wondering about the definitions of classic, vintage, and veteran, here’s one widely accepted version. Classic is over 20 years old, while vintage is 1919-1930, and veteran is pre-1919.

Some of the motors we saw were for sale, but most were for show, closely guarded by their owners as if their charges were entrants in a teen beauty pageant.

Some, like this Corniche, were watched over by dogs.

The atmosphere seemed designed to prompt extravagance. Sunshine, free fizz, and John Timms’ Jazz Band make such an intoxicating mix that a 1962 Silver Cloud begins to look a steal at just £395,000.

I had my eye on a sky blue Bentley, but doubt I could have afforded its dinky little brother.

Exploring stalls with items for sale, we admired shiny cylinder heads, members’ spares, and picnic sets for a mere £3,000.  I turned away from a perfectly lovely Louis Vuitton suitcase. It was £2,800 and it didn’t even have wheels!

Perhaps the less car-related merchandise would be within my budget. I tried on a splendid coat by Gabriela Rose Ltd. The mirror told me it fitted perfectly. The label told me it was £995.

In the Gallery Marquee, I enjoyed an affordable piece of fudge before wandering off again among the rows of cars. We traipsed as elegantly as one can in a field. Turned out to be easier without shoes. Who knew?

Owners were only too happy to tell everyone about their pride and joy. As it happens, I know something of their fervour. I did own a classic 1973 Beetle for over 25 years. It might not have swanned about stately homes, but Sauerkraut and I clocked up plenty of miles on camping trips to France and Spain.  And Wales. Mustn’t forget Wales. The speedometer gave up the ghost on the way back.

Lacking even the most basic cocktail cabinet, Sauerkraut was a tad low-tech by Rolls Royce/Bentley standards. Did it have air con? Only if you opened the quarter-lights as far as they would go and kept up a steady speed of 70mph. As for heating, what’s wrong with a coat and gloves? My very first Beetle didn’t even have a fuel gauge. Instead there was a lever for deploying a reserve tank when you were out of petrol.

Was my classic car a sex symbol? It was probably more of a fertility symbol, especially with three child seats across the back, a double buggy shoved haphazardly into the front, and a random assortment of toys meant to keep little boys quiet on long journeys.

You won’t find my beloved Beetle standing in front of Burghley House, but it has graced some of the finest NHS hospitals in the land. Here it is at the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital, in Taplow, Berks.

When I went into general practice, Sauerkraut and I got to know every single street in Borehamwood. I recall one particular patient who called for a visit for back pain. When I examined him, I told him his back didn’t seem too bad. “I know,” he replied. “But I want to buy your car.”

Many years later, I sold Sauerkraut to a lovely family from Liverpool who renamed it Carol.

Go on. Give it a wave if you see it.  

Happy Birthday to Hope Hospital

April 5 is the end of the tax year, but, if you’re hoping for a side-splitting post about ISAs and tax returns, you need to look elsewhere. This week it’s a serious message about sick kids.

Just over two years ago, the People’s Convoy set off from London on an overland journey, taking with it supplies to build a new children’s hospital in Syria.

War has devastated Syria

After six years of war – with the deliberate and outrageous targeting of hospitals – the humanitarian situation was dire. There was no children’s hospital left in Eastern Aleppo, leaving about 250,000 people without medical care.

Hope Hospital, enabled by the People’s Convoy and run by the Independent Doctors’ Association, literally rose from the ashes of oblivion. As the world’s first crowdfunded hospital in a war zone, Hope is a triumph of humanity.

It took 8 dedicated organisations, over 5,000 generous people and £246,505 to open Hope Hospital. When the hospital was damaged by a car bomb, it was repaired. And when funding ran low last year, people raised an additional £480,505 to keep the light of Hope on.

Hope Hospital has now provided 98,707 consultations, checked 26,309 children for malnutrition and given specialist treatment to 52,846 children – children like Hanan, shown here.

Young Hanan’s story

Hanan’s mother suffered hugely during Hanan’s birth in October last year, not least because she had to travel for more than 60 km to reach hospital. Then, at 10 days old, Hanan developed a fever which wouldn’t respond to initial treatment.

Dr Hatem, Hope Hospital’s Director and lead paediatrician says, “Hanan came to the hospital suffering from convulsions… A CT scan showed cerebral oedema, which can cause irreversible damage and even death.” 

Thanks to Hope Hospital’s specialist care, Hanan improved enough for her to be discharged, to the great relief of her mother. She needs to continue with treatment and have ongoing hospital check-ups at the hospital, but is expected to make a full recovery.

Thousands of children need medical care

Dr Hatem says, “We receive dozens of cases like Hanan’s monthly. We are so grateful for the unique presence of this free hospital. Despite the dangerous environment, we are able to save the lives of thousands of children annually.”

Friday 5th April will mark two years since Hope Hospital officially opened its doors. To celebrate, CanDo – one of the lead organisations of the crowdfunding campaign – and the Independent Doctors Association of Syria are sending messages of thanks, hope and humanity.

Dr Rola Hallam, co-founder of CanDo who travelled with the People’s Convoy, says, “Hope Hospital is a shining beacon of what we can do when we believe in our shared humanity. The amazing staff there are saving lives every day thanks to people-to-people care, action, and hope.”  

Hope Hospital is a beacon in a dark world

My grandmother’s family was Syrian, and I’m often glad so few of them are left to see what the conflict has done. But, in a war that has been raging for over eight years, has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced over six million people, the story of Hope Hospital is a rare and precious positive. So I thought you’d like to hear this uplifting story.  You can watch a short video celebrating two years of Hope Hospital.

And here’s where to find out more from CanDo

You too can send a message

Many happy returns to Hope Hospital. If you too would like to send a personal message for #2yearsofHope, it’s easy to do on this link Happy Birthday to Hope

A Cambridge Christmas (and this year Carol’s at King’s!)

This year marked the 100th anniversary of The Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College Chapel. And, before the grammar Nazis pick me up on the extra apostrophe in the title, this Carol was there too.

While I normally watch Carols from King’s on TV, glass of fizz in hand, this Christmas we made an early start to attend the real thing. 

Mishmish

Why are the hoomins up at 2.30am?

Because, dear Mishmish, this is what the queue for tickets looked like at 3 am.

Yes, it really was that early, and tickets weren’t going to be handed out till 7am.

Not that I’m complaining. Some people had camped outside the college for three days, despite the rain.  The weather was fine when I got there, if a little chilly. No wonder people had their warmest coats, hats, sleeping bags, sheets of tin foil, etc.

The motley crowd had more than a touch of the Canterbury Tales, with people from all over. Originally a gift to the people of Cambridge, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is now a gift to the world.

The queue is finally on the move.

And here’s where the precious tickets are handed out, but only if you remembered to bring ID.

Now it’s time for the hardy types to pack up and go home for a few hours’ rest.

It’ll be a doddle.

Totes got the hang of this.

It must all fit.  Although…  could be worth turning the bike around.

Maybe a couple of minor adjustments.

Nailed it!

And here’s yet another happy camper, complete with dining chair.

No idea who this was, but they were a lot more stylish.

Outside King’s Chapel around 2pm.

Building started on the chapel in 1446 under Henry VI and took over a century to build.

It has the largest fan vault ceiling anywhere, and some of the finest medieval stained glass.

Just before the service began, it looked like this.

As always, the opening carol is ‘Once in Royal David’s City’, starting with a spine-tingling solo voice from the back of the chapel. There’s always a new, specially commissioned carol. The 3pm service is not the Carols from King’s, which is pre-recorded for BBC TV earlier in December, and broadcast a couple of hours later on Christmas Eve.

You can see the 1918 Order of Service here.

The crowd files out into the dusk.

Mist had already descended over the Backs.

By contrast, we slept well into Christmas Day.  Christmas dinner was at Six, a restaurant with 360⁰ views of the city.

This view shows Charlotte and Harriet asking the waiter whether the gravy is vegetarian.

This shot of St John’s Chapel didn’t turn out quite as planned, but it’s jolly all the same.

Here’s hoping you all had a wonderful Christmas. See you in the queue next year?

#TBT Coping with Summer Heat in the 1960s

If you consider summer a tad too warm in the UK, spare a thought for those who spend this time of year in Washington, DC.  The suburbs are tolerable but the city is hot and humid, as I well know from the years my mother and I lived there in a cramped apartment in Foggy Bottom.

Nobody much considered the environment in the Sixties, and most buildings were fiercely air conditioned at the time. The outside, of course, is not, until evening sets in and the scent of honeysuckle fills the air.

It was just as the Lovin’ Spoonful described in their 1966 hit Summer in the City.

The mercury regularly hit the mid to high 90s, or about 34⁰-37⁰ C. I took my driving test one August around midday in a VW Bug aka Beetle (no air con). The Dept of Motor Vehicles takes your photo for the licence just after you pass, and for the next five years my sweaty physiog was a glamorous reminder of the occasion.

FreeImages.com/Jeramey Jannene

The Potomac may look inviting, but it’s polluted. If you wanted to cool down, you had to head to a pool. One of our favourites was the public pool on Volta Place, Georgetown, which is still open. The queues were often long, but entry was free though I think the rudimentary lockers required a dime. There wasn’t much there about from the pool and concrete all around. I remember a couple of Egyptians who loudly admired my 14-year old derrière, until my mother yelled at them in fluent Arabic.

Rock Creek Park runs across the NW segment of DC. It now has a lot more organized leisure facilities than it did back then, when it was little more than a haven of shade. My best memory of the park was a summer day camp run by the recreation department. It was free for city kids and my mother wangled three consecutive placements for me, so I spent six happy weeks identifying leaves, creating shoe racks out of fallen branches, and singing the campfire classic We Ain’t Got the Money for the Mortgage on the Farm.  Inexplicably, we also put on a nativity play. Yes, in August. It was as hot as hell wearing the Virgin Mary’s cloak.

I don’t plan to go back to DC just yet, but I will be visiting my US family as usual later this summer.

Meanwhile I’d love to hear your summer memories and great suggestions for keeping cool.

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You may also enjoy The March on Washington.

 

#TBT Alexandria, 1956

I’ve blogged before about Suez, because it’s when my mother wrote her first book. This week, Nadia, a character from my next novel, gives her own take on 1956.

It began on July 26, when I was ten and a half years old, or, as I preferred to say, nearly eleven. The whole affair was about a canal and a dam.

Here’s the crucial thing: President Gamal Abdel Nasser was most interested in canals and dams.

Nasser was a very big man, with a strong jaw and huge teeth that he displayed whenever he smiled. That night in 1956 was the anniversary of the revolution, so the president celebrated by giving a long speech, right here in Alexandria, in Mansheya Square, where there’s a massive statue of Mohammed Ali Pasha, wearing a turban and brandishing his sword, sitting atop his horse.

As usual when anything interesting happened, I had been sent to bed instead of being allowed to stay up. My parents told me about the speech the next day, which is hardly the same thing. I relished the idea of Nasser brandishing his words like a sword, and I was especially sorry to miss the firemen dispersing the crowds. FreeImages.com/AntonioJimenezAlonsoAlthough I had no real opinions on politics, I liked listening to the president on the radio. Unlike a lot of important men who like to make themselves sound clever by speaking in a formal version of Arabic, Nasser spoke a colloquial language that every Egyptian could understand, even a child of nearly eleven. That, I thought, was much cleverer.

The day after that big speech, my sister Simone and I sat in the upstairs living room right by the air conditioning, which was on at full blast as it was sweltering. Father and Mother explained to us that the Suez Canal was now going to belong to Egypt instead of France or Britain. As a result, it would raise lots of money for Egypt, and would pay to build a High Dam at Aswan.

Mother actually put down her embroidery during this conversation, so it must have been significant. Quite how significant, I did not wholly grasp. The main thing was that the Suez Canal had been nationalized. That was a good thing, wasn’t it? Unless you happened to be British or French, like some of my friends from school.

In October, a few countries turned out not to be so happy about Egypt having the Suez Canal. Our parents did not explain that very clearly. Meanwhile, our nanny Rashida lit more candles than ever to the Virgin Mary and to St Anthony.

Even when she wasn’t praying, Rashida went about muttering to herself. I thought I heard her say that things had been much better under King Farouk, but, when I asked her to repeat herself, she flatly refused.

It got a lot clearer when France, Britain, and Israel all ganged together to declare war on Egypt. Every night there were air-raid sirens and anti-aircraft guns. Victor, my pain of a cousin, kept going on about it. With our schools shut, he was unfortunately at our house more often than ever. According to him, the guns were as close as Smouha, barely a few kilometres from us. I pretended to be unconcerned.

Every bedtime, Mother told Simone and me that things would turn out all right. We had blackout paper on all the windows now. It was all going to be fine, Mother said. 

It did however change things for many of my friends, and for my teddy bears, at least one of whom was British.

You may also like How My Mother Wrote Her First Book

How My Mother Wrote Her First Book

In her own words, this is how my mother came to write her first book.

Il a nationalisé le canal!” my father said again with disbelief. “Nasser read the decree right here in Alexandria, this evening. He told the USA to choke to death on its fury!”

We were staying with my parents in Alexandria, and, as it turned out, I was only allowed out of the house at certain hours of the day. It was a sort of house arrest (résidence forcée).

There was nothing much to do in autumn 1956. It was October, a lovely month in Egypt, when summer’s heat and humidity are over, and it is pleasant to be out of doors.

One morning, I sat down under the mimosa tree, with the sound of white doves cooing in the dovecote, and began to write my first book, Cocktails and Camels. I never thought of any other title.

Apart from school essays and letters, I had never written anything before. I wrote in pencil, painstakingly, while my young daughter Carol picked daisies on the lawn. As I searched for the right words, they popped up like magic. I was elated. 

Writing my first book had nothing to do with my wanting to be ‘a writer’. It just happened because the circumstances and my state of mind were attuned. Although the country was at war, Gamal Abdel Nasser was on a nationalization spree, and the future looked uncertain, I felt peaceful and content. Maybe that is what writing does for you.

The writing did not always come easily. Every line was written and rewritten a dozen times or more. I did not mind. Every time I corrected a sentence, I could see it getting better. Writing was a challenge, and I enjoyed it. I’d walk around the garden, mulling things over. Sometimes I’d laugh aloud at what I’d written.

“I’m going to write a book too!” Carol piped up.

Friends came to visit and have tea. I told them I was writing a book, and that it would be called Cocktails and Camels.

“You are writing a book?” Then, in French, “Mais pourquoi? Why don’t you learn to play bridge?”

Je déteste le bridge!” We always spoke like that in Alexandria, switching from one language to another all the time. Anyone who did not was not a true Alexandrian.

Annoyed that I always refused to play bridge, they were soon asking if I was planning to mention them in my book.

“Of course.” How could I not include them? They were such characters. But I would do it with humour, and make up names to disguise their identities.

“Will you say that I am the best dressed woman in Alexandria?” asked Yvette who wore a different outfit every day. We laughed.

“You’ll have to be patient and wait until the book is published.”

My father, who for more than thirty years had been the respected President of La Bourse de Contrats en Egypte, had published an excellent and much acclaimed book on the Bourse. I thought he would be pleased to hear that I too wanted to write a book.

One evening, with Carol asleep in her cot, I told my parents that I was working on a light-hearted autobiography called Cocktails and Camels. Their reaction was not what I had expected.

Quoi?” Father cried. “Un livre? Des cocktails?”

“Quelle idée! Nous finirons en prison!” Mother said. “Why can’t you be like everyone else, comme tout le monde?”

“I’ll take a pen name,” I cried, annoyed. “And all the names of the people will be changed. It won’t be published in Egypt, anyway.”

There had been censorship in Egypt for years, and one was careful what one wrote in letters and newspapers, let alone books. Sometimes, foreign magazines were sold with articles missing, cut out by the censors. To be on the safe side, I changed not only the names of friends and relatives, but, to be sure no one recognized the family, I wrote that I had two sisters instead of a sister and a brother. My brother Théo was never mentioned in Cocktails and Camels. As for a pen name, I would be Jacqueline Carol, using my own first name and my daughter’s first name as a surname.

“You can’t afford to publish a book,” Father then said.

“I am not planning to pay for its publication! The publisher will pay me.”

Mother’s blue eyes looked infinitely sad. “Please be careful, chérie. Nice girls don’t write books.”

“Who cares about nice girls?” I howled as I stormed out of the room.

Cocktails and Camels was published in New York in 1960. Now sadly out of print, it portrays Egypt in an earlier time – الزمن الجميل – and is still one of the funniest books I have ever read. Not that I’m at all biased.

Carol