Long Time No See

Long Time No See

Oh my gosh, where has the time gone? I can only apologise for the long silence but such a lot has been happening. So for now just a little catch up on this summer.

Over the summer I was enjoying the beach in Italy and the Venice Film Festival where I caught Some Like It Hot on the big screen. There was a trip to Sicily and !!FLASHING LIGHTS!! the temples at Agrigento. Do not die without going to Agrigento. In fact, go now! This is one of the most blessed spots in the world. I have been there three times : at twenty something, at forty something and now at sixty something. Maybe the next visit needs to be a little sooner … So I lingered in the baking heat with the setting sun turning the temples bright gold and lizards hanging out under the olive trees and the sea as blue as a promise in the distance. I clambered over stones that were trodden by those ancient Greeks who very sensibly made their home in Sicily. In 1980 there was no fence around the temples, no ticketing system, no nothing, just the temples themselves standing neglected in the valley half an hour’s walk from the town. I went at daybreak and at sunset, entranced by the ancient stones and the freedom with which I was allowed to walk, sit and climb on them. A few German tourists came and went but mostly you could pretend you were a few thousand years ago. All that changed and it got very tacky with tickets and barbed wire. Now it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and as you would expect it has been done with no expense spared and extremely tastefully. Shady paths wind between the temples and discreet wooden barriers prevent the hordes (for there are now hordes) climbing on the temples themselves. They have planted a wonderful orange and lemon grove down near the river where they grow bergamot lemons and sell marmalade of the same. The combination of taste and perfume is intoxicating.

Sicily has roads that haven’t been mended since the last little earthquake so it was an interesting drive around the island with quite a lot of reversing out of impassable situations and a certain amount of bickering between driver and map reader. But the food was out of this world. We had the best ever breakfasts in a fabulous little B & B Raffo (agriturismo) about forty minutes outside Agrigento. The owner drove to the local town each morning to buy croissants and tiny, deep-fried envelopes of pastry filled with sweetened ricotta and blitzed pistacchio nuts. They were so fresh they practically shook hands. Ricotta and pistacchio nuts are BIG in Sicily and we never got tired of them.

In Taormina with a huge silvery moon gazing down on our little table by the sea we ate the delicately flavoured pasta with pistacchio pesto and prawns that had been mooching about in the sea earlier in the day. Further along the coast in Menfi at Da Vittorio’s we ate an indecent amount of astonishing pasta with seafood and spices as we watched the sea lapping nearby. Near Menfi we stayed at a rather grand winery called La Foresteria where the food was delicious and the wine had travelled all the way from the vineyard outside. As you see, the theme that’s emerging is local food. Local food is such a buzz term now but in Italy it is just what they eat. Some of it was grand. Some of it was very unassuming. It was all melt in the mouth and yes, I came back two sizes larger.

But a major thing has happened this summer which I tell you about in due course – I have begun to fly again, having had a gap of many years. It has been a big journey and one with psychological implications well worth the telling. For now, mix yourself a Campari Spritz, enjoy the photos of Agrigento and remember the hot hot summer.

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Goodness me.

Goodness me.

When we start being kinder to ourselves a virtuous circle is created. We begin to feel our own goodness just as we are … and that makes it easier to be kind … and that makes us feel good. Being good to yourself makes you feel good and it makes you feel much less aggravated by other people too.

Letting yourself alone, just appreciating yourself as you are without trying to change a thing allows you to sense your own goodness. In not trying to change a thing, space arises for change to happen naturally.* The more we nag at ourselves the more we rebel. Try easing off and see what happens.

*I’m not talking about those of us in a place where we need specialist help with an addiction or an eating disorder that is harming our health. Today I’m just talking to the averagely dissatisfied amongst us.

Italy is a great place for learning this lesson as Italians seem to have a natural gift for appreciating their own beautiful country and the huge pleasure of being alive. The photo above is of a large campo in Venice called Santa Maria Formosa and this is the church. In the photo below you see a lovely scene unfolding opposite the church one Italian morning. A young man is stripping off like Michelangelo’s David. He has come with all his kit to mend the pavement  but that doesn’t stop him giving directions to the tourists that ask him for help or performing a little for the ladies shopping at the vegetable stall. He is Italian after all. He wasn’t actually singing Mozart as well but it was touch and go.

stall

Beneath this photo again is a breakfast I prepared recently for a bunch of young people staying with us. They were such fun to feed, so full of life and enthusiasm, such beautiful creatures to have around and they devoured this spread with vigour. I think the goodness of the food, most of it raw local fruit, fresh bread and cheese can be seen from the photo. The little black grapes are called fragole because they taste of strawberries.

fruitbread and cheesecaponataIn this last photo you can just see next to the local sheep’s cheese a dish of caponata and this is the recipe I’d like to share today. Quite like a French ratatouille, the Italian caponata has the added sweet and sour agrodolce taste that speaks of a multicultural heritage.

 

Caponata

2 x aubergines cut into small cubes

2 sticks celery cut into small cubes

2 small onions, finely sliced

1 large red pepper, deseeded and cubed

A bottle of good passata or fresh tomato sauce

balsamic vinegar

red wine vinegar

2 tsps sugar

salt and pepper

olive oil

10 black olives, stoned

a handful of capers (ideally the ones that come salted)

 

Cutting the vegetables into cubes is worth doing carefully so that they are reasonably small and of a uniform size. It makes a better finished product.

First salt the aubergine cubes in a colander and leave to drain for at least half an hour. Wash and pat dry before frying in a good plug of olive oil in a large frying pan. Fry until the water is all gone (the sizzling stops) and the aubergine cubes have browned. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Add more oil to the pan and add the celery, pepper and onions. Cook over a low heat until they have softened (quicker with a lid) and then add the passata. and simmer for 15 minutes. Put the aubergines back in. Add the two vinegars , the sugar, the capers and the olives. Start with a tablespoon of each vinegar and 2 tsps of sugar and then taste. See whether it needs more acid (lemon juice or vinegar) or more sugar. A drop of red wine might not go amiss. It will need salt and pepper as well. Cook another ten minutes and then cool. Serve at room temperature.

I made a large quantity of this and served it one evening on tiny bruschetta before dinner, then in this breakfast buffet and finally (when the guests had gone) on pasta with some good Parmesan. A dish with sufficient flavour for a vegetarian main course. It is also fabulous with anchovies on the side but the is very little, I find, that isn’t improved by a few anchovies.

Loving What Is

Loving What Is

People who come to psychotherapy largely fall into two groups. They are people in crisis who have finally decided that some outside help would not go amiss or they are people who are interested in growth and discovering more about themselves. People in crisis are, of course, much easier to help because things can only get better for them. This is where listening really is the most helpful thing to do. Just being there and giving permission whilst they let the confusion or the grief or the rage pour out seems to make a difference. Eventually we both come up for air and see what the world looks like now.

Sometimes, once people are over the worst they begin to get interested in the process itself, just like the second group. Then it all gets more complicated.  So often these are great people, fascinating people, intelligent and kind people and all they need to do is relax and enjoy being themselves and that is just what they are unable to do. The urge to improve oneself, to make the planet a better place tends to get in the way. What is more it can lead to all kinds of plans for improving others too. Often my work with them is all about killing the urge to improve. Lie down until it passes, is my advice.

When I first went into therapy myself I was diagnosed as a picture-straightener and that was pretty fair comment at the time. My eye goes straight to the place where a little tweak would make everything just that bit tidier and boy, is that an unrestful experience.  Today I have learned to relax a little and I have stumbled upon a simple truth. Our work here on earth is to love what is at a very deep level. Love is the medium of change and the more we can surround ourselves with it, the more a natural unfolding can happen. This is a million miles away from that mean little voice which criticises us and tells us we should be in the gym when we’re walking on the beach or on the beach when we’re in the gym. (Have you noticed it is literally never content with us?)

The Buddhists talk about ‘accepting what is’ and ‘gratitude’ is also a big seller but for me, even acceptance and gratitude come with a big, unattractive ‘should’ attached. Immediately I feel negative and ungrateful. Loving what is feels different and more possible. Let’s be clear, it doesn’t mean we have to like what is. Loving life is a very different ball-game from liking the details. When we think about eating more healthily or reading more or taking up swimming or volunteering with sick animals, we can do it from a place of love or we can do it from a place of ‘trying to be a better person’. I bring you a shocking thought which will change your life today. What if you don’t need to be a better person? What if you’re fine just as you are?

The sunshine breakfast in the picture is a shining example of how easy it is to love things. You can make a smiley face with yours. You can arrange your fruit on porridge or you can stew it and eat it with ice-cream and biscuits. IT’S ALL GOOD. You can do it your way and won’t that be great?

Stormy Weather

Stormy Weather

About two months ago things went wrong for me visiting Lisbon for a wedding.  I ended up in casualty with a bad UTI and when I eventually saw the twelve year old doctor and got my hands on some antibiotics (you could get Ecstasy easier) I thought that was that. But no. There has been pain and panic ever since.

A major attack of IBS followed and by the time I was back in England a horrible burning pain in my side which especially played up at night when I had all the leisure in the world to worry about it. A trip to casualty in England (and let me tell you Lisbon makes the National Health look like Los Angeles) established that it wasn’t a kidney stone and then they sent me home with the pain which was now a hundred times worse courtesy of lying on the scanner and worrying.

The moral of my tale is twofold. Doesn’t worrying make things so much worse (and actually produces physical sensations to order)? Secondly cause and effect is usually so much more complicated than we imagine. After months of osteopathy I was still not able to sit and meditate nor go to my piyo classes. I foresaw a future of sloth and a balloon shaped me wearing shapeless dresses. Utter misery. I tried meditating lying down and other versions but it wasn’t the same. Opening the French doors and sitting on my cushion, semi-exposed to the elements, has become a precious way to start my day and I was very sorry for myself contemplating that this might be a thing of the past. Also I had a wardrobe full of clothes I felt too bloated to wear.

Gradually I came to accept what the osteopath gently broke to me : there was a disc involved which was causing referred pain. I can’t tell you how I fought against this diagnosis but I did stop exercising and it did stop being absolute agony and reduced to miserable. But I also realised that the IBS was also still shouting its head off. So I have stopped looking for one simple treatable-give-me-a-pill-or-an-operation cause. As ever it is my spine and my bowels playing up under stress. So not even the glamour of something serious.

I am sharing this with you (and you may well say I am sharing way too much) because it can really help to stop looking for a cause and resign yourself to kindness and forbearance as a way of treating things (once serious illness has been ruled out by scans and so forth).

Arriving in Venice yesterday in stormy weather (see picture) I felt the stress fall away and this morning I did some yoga and obtained some clicks from my poor spine which may just have set things on the mend. There was no hurrying this – I just had to wait and to all those who have put up with me patiently while I learned to wait : Thank you!

I’m not sharing a new recipe today but I include photos of porridge in its different guises, sweet and savoury and risotto which seems to help the IBS big time.

 

 

Cool as a …

Cool as a …

In this hot weather cucumber soup is an easy, cheap, delicious and cooling lunch or starter. You can control the calorie count easily by adjusting the cream or yoghurt quotient as you serve it. Cucumber on its own produces a pale green soup but if you want the colour to be a bit more vibrant add some raw baby spinach leaves at the blending stage. The more spinach you add the better from a nutritional point of view since it is chock full of vitamins and minerals. You can use cooked spinach but it won’t give you that lovely bright green. This is a painless way for the non-spinach eater to get the benefits of eating spinach! And remember that making your own food from scratch is super nutritious for your self-esteem as well.

Cucumber Soup

2 x medium to large green cucumbers

1 x large onion

handful of baby spinach leaves or more (optional)

single cream or yoghurt to taste (optional)

1 litre Marigold vegetable stock or home-made vegetable or chicken stock

 

Chop up your cucumbers and onion – this doesn’t have to be a work of art because it’s all going in the blender – and sweat in a tablespoonful of olive oil in a heavy pan with a lid.

Be careful not to let the onions catch as it will affect the colour of the soup, turning it brown.

When the onions are transparent add the stock and bring to the boil.

Turn down and simmer for 20 minutes.

Allow to cool and the liquidise completely adding the raw baby spinach leaves if you have them.

Chill for six hours and then taste for seasoning. Add salt and/or pepper as needed.

At this stage you can freeze the soup or put in back in the fridge until needed. When you come to serving you can add a whole carton of cream or just a splash, or a spoonful of yoghurt in each dish and the beauty of it is each person can have it how they need it. For those of us watching the calories and feeding others this is a great boon.

A few thin slices of cucumber as a garnish and some fabulous bowls can make this a dinner party soup you can prepare two to four days in advance.