Money, Monkeys and Serendipity

Serendipity is “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way”.

This is something I experienced on a recent trip to the UK. And then again when I returned to my home. Both after some, shall we say, trying circumstances.

In a wintry December London, my daughter and I set off from our residence to visit two museums in the centre of the city. After walking 15 minutes to the underground train station daughter realised she didn’t have her travel card with her. While she was contemplating spending her last pounds on an expensive day ticket I popped into the WH Smith to buy a magazine and realised I didn’t have my wallet with me. Now we were in a quandary. Putting our loosely screwed heads together we debated what to do, when – serendipitously – my son-in-law arrived at the station on his way to work. After hearing our pathetic story he opened his very thin wallet, preparing to give us his meagre spare change, when – serendipitously – I happened to glance over at an ATM machine just two metres away from us. There, lying on the ledge of the machine was a ten pound note. Honestly. The previous customer must have accidentally dropped it after drawing money. And there it was. In our moment of need. But we hesitated. Well, daughter and I did. If we took it wouldn’t that be – er – stealing? Son-in-law had no such qualms. He gave us his change, picked up the ten pound note and went on his way. And we, happily, resumed our journey to the museums.

Fast forward a month or so and I was back in South Africa enjoying my mum’s matchless Christmas cake. This cake is made and given to me every year after many weeks of hard work and bottles of brandy. I love it. Unfortunately, so does my husband. I have begged and pleaded with mum to make us our own cake each but she refuses. And so, after 25 years of marriage I have devised a way of dealing fairly with this issue. I cut the cake exactly in half and each half goes into a separate tin, one half for each of us. Neither of us is allowed to touch the other’s cake after that. One afternoon I was working away in my home office when I heard a commotion. I ran through to the kitchen and there was a large monkey helping himself to (my husband’s) Christmas cake. Honestly. It opened the tin and then – when it saw me bearing down on it yelling and waving my arms – it took off with the cake and vanished through the back door. I couldn’t believe it. The precious Christmas cake was gone. I couldn’t possibly tell mum about it. Two minutes later husband arrives home and I start telling him how a monkey just stole his cake when I realise that – after our tense history – he must think I was lying. That I must have scoffed his cake and then pretended that a monkey stole it.

Obviously playing on my mind, a couple of hours later, eager to venerate myself, I went out the back door to check if, by any chance, the cake was anywhere. And there – serendipitously – lying on the roof was husband’s Christmas cake. The monkey was gone. I was so excited I leapt up on a plastic bin nearby, promptly putting my foot straight through the lid. Limping off with the lid stuck around my limb I found a ladder, climbed up sensibly and retrieved the – largely unharmed – cake. I gave it a quick dash under the tap and trimmed off all the sides and put it back in the tin. All was happily restored.

I’m not sure why the monkey dropped the cake. Perhaps it was too heavy to carry far. Or maybe the Vervet didn’t like brandy. Whatever, I know that with only teetotalling, lightweight monkeys around the only competition I have for the cake is inside the house.

Speeding Around New York City

‘Quick, only ten seconds to get across the intersection,’ said my husband to me over his shoulder. And there we were, at it again, chasing the lights on foot from West 43rd Avenue to 5th Avenue and our destination: the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Haring around Manhattan’s very long blocks for the past day or so had proved to be good exercise, but exhausting too. ‘The countdown on the pedestrian traffic light isn’t a challenge,’ I protested in my effort to slow him down, ‘it’s just a warning.’

‘But if we keep moving we’ll stay warm.’ He did have a point; strolling in 1

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Photo: Brenda Daniels

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Photo: Brenda Daniels

degree Celsius temperatures would have been chilly. Nevertheless, I was grateful when, on this occasion, we decided to catch a bus most of the way. The trip, which cost 75 cents each (in exact cash, no change given), took us along Madison Avenue. The bus driver and a helpful passenger were attentive in their directions, telling us which stop to get off at, and I enjoyed looking at the big fashion houses as we travelled along. The Met is in an imposing building that looks onto Central Park. In fact the uncluttered view of the snowy park from the coffee shop in the museum echoed the clean and spacious layout of the exhibits and felt like it was one of the framed displays.

An exquisite stained-glass window at the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

An exquisite stained-glass window at the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

We made it across the Met’s threshold at

A view of Central Park from the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

A view of Central Park from the Met. Photo: Brenda Daniels

10.30am, just in time to join the free ‘Highlights Tour’. Entry fee to the museum is actually discretionary, a ‘suggested’ amount of $25 per adult (quite expensive when you consider the number of huge, free museums there are in other major cities). The one-hour tour was delightful. It was a journey through different eras, continents and styles. I particularly enjoyed the guide’s explanation of a Congolese warrior ‘judge’ sculpture. She spoke of this ugly, aggressive-looking god statue with respect, explaining how effective it was as part of that ancient culture’s legal system. Her deferential tone was in contrast to the angry political ‘Trump’ rhetoric so evident in the newspapers and TV news broadcasts I had read and watched in our hotel room that morning.

Luckily for me there were no urgently flashing traffic signs in Central Park. And, so, after our museum visit, we slowed our customary gallop to a canter through the park, enjoying the squirrels, and the clumps of dogs herded by dog-walkers. We emerged further down 5th Avenue where we sped up again, hastening past Trump Towers with its barriers, policemen and photographers in attendance.

An art work on the Highline walkway in New York. The map of USA looks like a shark. Photo: Brenda Daniels

An art work on the Highline walkway in New York. The map of USA looks like a shark. Photo: Brenda Daniels

Undressed: a brief history of underwear

Boobs up, hips out, bottom in! Wait, boobs up, yes, but hips in, bottom out…Actually, boobs flat, waist tiny, hips and bottom streamlined. Hold on, I’ll have bigger chest area, round waist and big thighs. Nah, stick it, I’ll go with boobs up, good cleavage, tiny waist and… concealed everything else.

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An explosive evening in London…nearly

by Roxanne Daniels

I had been working in London for three weeks and was finally able to pay my gracious hosts back and keep a bit of pocket money. After a failed and cancelled Berlin trip (which caused me to nearly implode, but let’s move swiftly on from that) I decided to go into the city and buy a last-minute ticket at a reputable ticket office in Leicester Square. As I joined the queue at 4pm, I hurriedly chose Half a Sixpence. The process was a breeze and I had a decently priced seat at the Noel Coward Theatre for the musical. I had three and a half hours to kill, so I wandered around and stumbled into the shop of my dreams – Stanfords. I was absorbed by stories of adventures and world maps in so many different forms that this took nearly an hour of my time.

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Experience Theatre in London’s West End

On 22 December 2016 I went with family to see the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. What I would describe as “3D” extras made the play interesting to watch. These included lighting that danced across the walls, audiovisuals that reflected the main character’s state of mind, a moving model train to simulate a journey and (spoiler alert) a real live puppy that elicited uninhibited “aahs” from the audience. A lovely experience.

But the actual act of going to London’s West End at that unimaginably

The wonders of underground station advertising. Photo: Brenda Daniels

The wonders of underground station advertising. Photo: Brenda Daniels

busy time of year was also part of our atmospheric evening out. The theatre at which the play is being staged (until June 2017) is the Gielgud in Shaftesbury avenue. To get there from home we took a tube (or three) and stepped up onto the heaving pavement of Charing Cross Road. Being London’s bookshop street Charing Cross’s first offering for us was Foyles bookshop. We squeezed into the store and wormed up and down six storeys, just managing to get a coffee before staggering out again. I can’t understand why some writers support the notion that writing in coffee shops is romantic and inspirational. I found it completely distracting.

A gingerbread city we stopped to look at in Knightsbridge. Photo: Brenda Daniels

A gingerbread city we stopped to look at in Knightsbridge. Photo: Brenda Daniels

Next up on our journey was dinner – McDonald’s (limited budget you see) which is apparently on the site of the original bookstore of 84 Charing Cross Road. After our feast we crossed the road and passed the Palace Theatre at which Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is being performed. Theatregoers enjoying a feast of their own had come out onto into the open for a breather; the play is in two parts and, together with two intermissions, runs for a whopping five hours and 55 minutes. I read in The Telegraph that marathon theatre sessions like these might catch on as a new trend. Phew.

We turned off Charing Cross Road and jostled our way to the Gielgud

Christmas lights at Knightsbridge in London, December 2016. Photo: Brenda Daniels

Christmas lights at Knightsbridge in London, December 2016. Photo: Brenda Daniels

passing Christmas lights and “Mulled Wine” signs. Our booking was for the cheapest seats in the house (budget, remember) which had warnings like “obstructed” view and on the computer seating plan looked like we would need opera glasses just to see the stage. No fear of that. The Gielgud is quite small and spacious and the “obstruction” was merely a roof overhang which really didn’t spoil our view at all.

Back out into the cold air after the show we fought our way back to the tube station, past runners in Father Christmas gear, buskers in the underground and pedestrians everywhere sporting Christmas jumpers. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was for us an entertaining theatre event indeed.

Plane, Train and Automobile to Scotland

Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to Scotland we go, with our online check-in and hand luggage only, heigh ho, heigh ho, heigh ho, heigh ho”. This was the bravado and happiness my group of five felt as we exited our London accommodation at 6.15am on 27 December 2016. We were off to Edinburgh! Once up north we would pick up a pre-booked hire car and travel to countryside Comrie where we planned to spend a few days before returning to London. We would get to the airport with about 50 minutes to spare.

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The letters of Edinburgh airport. Photos: Brenda Daniels

The letters of Edinburgh airport. Photos: Brenda Daniels

The smiles we exchanged on the train to the airport turned quickly to nervous lip biting when we saw the security queue. The one we had to join was packed with shuffling customers while the “fast track security” avenue was invitingly empty. Cheerful airport attendants issued instructions to: put liquids in minute plastic bags; close those tiny bulging bags; donate items that didn’t fit in those tiny bulging bags to the bins provided; remove jackets, coats, hats, scarves, boots, belts, keys, laptops, mobile phones (basically unpack and undress) and lay these items next to each other in the too-small plastic trays for checking. I was the first of our group to make it through to the other side so snatched up my belongings and galloped through the terminal in search of boarding gate information. This was difficult. I hadn’t repacked and redressed properly so my trousers were falling down and my boots were tripping me up. Also, there was no boarding gate information. Mainly because the gate had already closed.

It was also a mistake to leave the rest of my party. We all became separated into three groups. While charging through the airport each group thought the others had made it to the aeroplane and that they were the only ones left behind. Gnashing of teeth at the thought of being the only ones to miss out. Eventually, security personnel shepherded us all through the “return-to-the-other-side-because-you-missed-your-flight-and-start-all-over-again” channel. (You won’t miss it; it’s the one teeming with slumped-shouldered, dragging-feet people.)

Well, we did make it to Scotland. Eventually. (We drove). Needless to say we had learnt our lesson. For our return flight from Edinburgh airport we smugly arrived over two hours ahead of time. Naturally, the first thing we saw on the boarding gate info board was “flight delayed indefinitely”. Apparently there was freezing fog in Munich. More gnashing of teeth. The airline did ease our discomfort, though. By giving us each a refreshment voucher to purchase something yummy. The vouchers were worth GBP 3 each. Because of all the extra time on our hands we read up on passenger rules and rights. We discovered that you can claim from the airline if your flight is delayed by over three hours. We counted down the minutes once we were on the plane and were gleeful when we landed back in London three hours and ten minutes late. We are currently awaiting millions in compensation. (Once we figure out where on the website to claim.)

Comrie was lovely by the way.

Happy times at Crieff, near Comrie in Scotland. Photo: Roxanne Daniels

Happy times at Crieff, near Comrie in Scotland. Photo: Roxanne Daniels

 

Book Time: Ancient & Old

On a single day in London in December 2016, the written word and time formed an interesting theme for our tourist travels. The first port of call for my daughter and myself was the British Museum which was founded in 1753 (according to britishmuseum.org this museum was the first national public one in the world).

img_0076The museum’s clocks and watches gallery was for us a fascinating account of the development of timepieces. I was amazed that this one (see picture), dating from as long ago as 1763, ‘goes for one month on a single wind’, and has a ‘central disc that rotates back and forth throughout the year to show true solar minutes (sundial time)’. The aperture at the top shows the date.

 

Next, a free tour of the Ancient Iran (Mesopotamia) section of the museum revealed a culture, sadly unlike today, that had centuries of peace and therefore the continuity to develop a rich cultural life. This picture below shows a section of an ancient stone library which, thanks to the translation of cuneiform, is now able to be read.img_0077

 

From the British Museum we walked ten minutes to Charing Cross Road. This road houses a number of book stores. (I noticed elsewhere the practice of putting similar stores together in one place; in Southgate for instance I walked along a whole section of road full of dentists and orthodontists; and in one part of the East End was a supply of hairdressers and barber shops [see this one below in the famed Jack the Ripper area]).

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Of the five shops we visited in Charing Cross Road my favourite was ‘Henry Pordes Books’. Displayed in the window was the book 84 Charing Cross Road. This delightful book comprises a series of letters written between American writer Helene Hanff and an English bookseller. The story captures the nostalgia of the 1940-1950s era and is well worth a read. When I asked the book enthusiasts in Henry Pordes Books if this store was the original number 84, they replied in the negative. The ‘real’ site was now – gasp – a McDonald’s. But Henry Pordes was most like the original they claimed. Whatever, the shop was full of ancient editions, first editions, books I remember from my childhood (such as Beatrix Potter), and a whole section of J R R Tolkien books I didn’t even know existed.

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img_0079img_0075As the sun set before 4pm on the eve of the winter solstice I pocketed some of the books I had felt compelled to purchase. I was delighted with the feeling that I had stepped into 84 Charing Cross Road itself, and into my childhood memories. What a wonderful time we had enjoyed.

All photos by Brenda Daniels.

Mince pie journeys

 In the first week of my Christmas UK holiday I have had seven mince pies. That’s one per day. Five of those have been in different locations. My first munch was at a Carol service at St Helen’s Bishopsgate in central London. This centuries-old church has excellent acoustics and the small choir and soloist needed no amplification for their voices to ring out above the hundreds of singing congregants. After singers concluded the evening with “O come, all ye faithful” servers brought round spicy mulled wine and mince pies. Yum.

img_0073My next mince pie venue was in the little village of Biggleswade. Where? Yes, that’s what several long-time London residents asked me too. Biggleswade is in Bedfordshire at the end of a countryside one-hour train journey from King’s Cross Station. It’s quiet, but growing, assured my cousin, who has lived there for 30 or so years. And in fact a long time ago there was “The Great Fire of Biggleswade”. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it as “The Great Fire of London”. Never mind that. My cousin’s home-made mince pies in her bright home filled with Christmas decor and family memories were so yummy I had two of them.

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Exploring England in the Footsteps of Beatrix Potter

England is an excellent tourist destination. As I was planning an upcoming trip to the UK I was reminded of this fact while leafing through photos of a 2010 holiday there. From accessible transport and places to visit, to consistently excellent food and tour guides – that trip to the UK was educational and enjoyable. The quality and availability of many of the historic places and parks/gardens I had visited was due in no small part to the National Trust. Founded in 1895 to permanently preserve valuable buildings or beautiful countryside, this charity organisation protects over 300 historic houses and gardens, 49 industrial monuments and mills, owns more than 623,000 acres of countryside and over 700 miles of coastline. This vast organisation has positively influenced residents’ attitudes towards their environment; call it ‘national pride’ if you will, but I detected in people a real appreciation for their country’s history and environment.

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The setting for the Beatrix Potter movie. Photo: Brenda Daniels

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The map I misread

The Lake District is a fine example of the National Trust’s presence. I had stayed there in a tiny village called Far Sawrey, near Lake Windermere. Just a kilometre along the winding country road from the Far Sawrey Hotel is ‘Hill Top’, the house owned by famous children’s author, Beatrix Potter. Beatrix bought this house with the proceeds of her first book, Peter Rabbit, and donated it to the National Trust when she died. This unassuming cottage is left almost exactly as it was when Beatrix worked and lived in it – a testimony, perhaps to her attitude to the Lake District area in general. Keen to preserve the look of this landscape, as well as the original farming methods, Beatrix involved herself closely with the National Trust. Wanting to experience the modern charming countryside as well as get a feel of history I decided to explore in ‘Beatrix Potter’s footsteps’. So, using a guide book I set off on one of 15 simple trails. The trail took me through farmland and up a hill to ‘Moss Eccles Tarn’, a little mountain lake also owned by Beatrix Potter. As I crested a hill overlooking Esthwaite Water I misunderstood the map and veered off in completely the wrong direction. I wandered through forest, tramped through bogs, startled two deer and alarmed the grazing Herdwick sheep before finding the right path again. I was heartened to learn later that when Beatrix visited the neighbouring village of Hawkshead in 1882 she ‘had a series of adventures. Inquired the way three times, lost continually, ….. (and) chased once by cows.’ Seems I was in good company!

Visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk for more information on the National Trust.

This article first appeared in the Umhlanga Globe newspaper in 2010.

Olympic Delights

Garmisch-Partenkirchen is a beautiful mountainous region one-and-a-half-hours by train from Munich. It’s a well-known (think Olympics) ski resort in winter and a simply lovely walking/hiking area in summer. My husband and I dashed around Munich recently from one train station to another trying to figure out the German-encrypted directions on our maps before making it (correctly) to Munchen Hauptbahnhof in a sweltering heap. The overground train return trip was very pricy (65 Euro each) but took us through soft-green countryside, dotted with curious wooden huts and giant versions of my cuckoo clock at home. When we reached Garmisch we travelled 10 minutes on another train to the foot of the Alpspitz where we bought a cable car return journey up the mountain.

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Looking across the Garmisch valley from Alpspitz. Photo: Brenda Daniels.

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An unfriendly cow on Alpspitz. Photo: Brenda Daniels.

Some handsome German men joined our cable car ride bearing staggeringly huge backpacks, which, it turned out, were paragliders. At the top we got to see the pair lift off with ease and glide with their colourful chutes down the curving valley. We followed some way on foot enjoying the striated rocks, meandering hikers, and bell-clunking cows. Well, not the mildly aggressive beast that charged us at any rate. After a delicious apfelstrudel mit vanillesauce (apple strudel and custard) we decided to skip the train back to Garmisch and walk instead. The 10-minute train ride was an hour by foot and by the end I was quite jealous of the cyclists that sailed past us at frequent intervals. We arrived back in Munich tired but happily marked with a German sunglasses tan.

My brief encounter with Garmisch-Partenkirchen was fortunately not at an end. On the aeroplane back to South Africa next evening I chose to watch the film Eddie the Eagle before going to sleep. Eddie the Eagle is the true story about the very likeable Eddie Edwards (imagine calling your child that?) who, through sheer determination, became the first Briton to do ski-jumping at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics. And where did he first practice this thrilling sport? In Garmisch-Partenkirschen! Against the wintry landscape in the film the ski jump looked normal. Against the velvet-green hills we had just seen the ski jump looked like a giant bleached waterworld slide. Eddie the Eagle stars Taron Egerton as Eddie and Hugh Jackman as his grudging coach, Bronson Peary. It is a delightful movie. Watch it while the 2016 Rio Olympics are on. You’ll love it.