Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Porridge, glorious porridge!

I can hardly believe that I am about to write an ode to porridge (oatmeal, for the Americans out there). As a child I hated the stuff. My whole family used to eat it and seemed genuinely to enjoy it. I could never understand it. Its appearance was not that distinct from that of a jelly fish melting on the beach... a sort of grey, lumpy gloop. To taste it made one really empathise with Oliver Twist – he actually asked for more? It was runny, yet each swollen boiled oat flake seemed to need chewing. No wonder my sisters used to dowse it with Golden Syrup. I’ve never liked that either. I was the child that ate everything, but to my mind, and my taste buds, porridge had absolutely nothing to recommend itself. I used to eat the oats raw, with milk and brown sugar. That’s yummy. I still do that. But porridge? No thank you. Porridge was definitely something I never intended to have to deal with again, once I had left home.

I put it out of my mind for many years quite successfully. And then I met, fell in love with and got married to James. He made porridge for breakfast, which I politely declined, and took me to Scotland – the land of the stuff. It was a freezing December holiday, Jemima, unbeknown to me, was just a tiny cell settling into her new home, and I admit that ‘a bowl of hot, creamy porridge with fruit compote, or local honey’ did begin to sound lovely when written on the fireside breakfast menus of old country house B&Bs (especially when the alternative was haggis). I tried again but it was no good. It never was creamy and it still brought back childhood nightmares.

And then one day I saw the light. It is James who I have to thank. I can’t remember when or where but at some point in our lives together he managed to persuade me to try his porridge. He pointed out that while our parents, and the Scots, may think they are the masters of porridge-making, swearing by water, soaking the oats over night and a touch of salt etc, they are all woefully misguided. I hate to be disloyal to my beloved parents, but M & D, he is right, you are. James’ porridge may sound philistine, cooked very, very slowly with loads and loads of full fat milk and not a drop of water or salt, but it is deliciously white and creamy and sooooo much nicer than yours! :-)

So much so that I now eat it every morning despite living in THE HOTTEST COUNTRY ON EARTH (arguably, but I would not want to argue with me over this right now, as I am sweating away under the fan, sitting still) and our nearly four-year-old daughter asks for it every breakfast, lunch and dinner. Honestly, she even gets excited when I give it to her as ‘pudding’. (I can sell anything as pudding if I put my mind to it.) And here is the point of this blog post. To advocate the delights and nutritious wonders of porridge oats for adults and children alike! Why? Well partly because a few people have asked me about oats lately. Strange this, now I come to think of it. They must have a sixth sense. And partly because most breakfast cereals are full of sugar and salt, and in Cambodia, are bloody expensive. But mostly because they are yummy, healthy and totally brilliant when you have no food in the fridge to give to your kids.

Look ‘em up in Wikipedia for all the facts but in a nutshell oats are brilliant to eat in the morning as they give you a slow steady energy flow which will easily last until lunchtime. Very good for tired mothers. Actually I eat them whenever I want a snack and energy boost (before you say it, chocolate is also not so available and pretty expensive in Cambodia). If they are ‘pure’ oats they are recommended as part of a gluten free diet as well, and, best of all, if you are a Brit with a tradition of pudding after meals, oats can be made into lots of yummy quick puds for impatient kids. Actually whenever the girls are tired and the prospect of a normal dinner seems unlikely, or unbearable, I just make them big bowls of porridge with fruit mashed in and we eat them on the sofa or in bed. The girls are happy and full and I have hardly any washing up to do. When I am in a hurry or especially lazy I give them raw oats with milk as they love those too. For Bella, until recently, I substituted cows’ milk with water and then added yoghurt and banana to make them creamier. With Jemima, in the days where I had a freezer full of expressed milk, I used breast milk until she was one. Here are Jemima and Bella’s favourite recipes:

Porridge with any cooked fruit puree – apple, apricot, prunes are favourites and (Prunes and apricots full of iron) but any will do. Mashed bananas are good too.

Porridge with raw fruits all pureed together (we always make fruit salad but because Bella hasn’t enough teeth to eat pineapple or apple chunks I just chuck some oats in a bowl with some fruit salad and blend it all up for her. Jemima, bless her innocence, considers this a seriously good pud in the way that you and I might consider cheesecake or chocolate tart... so eats this too.

Porridge with cinnamon sugar. Porridge with mango. Porridge with honey (no honey for babes under one year). Porridge with brown sugar. Porridge with jam. Chocolate porridge. Hmmm, you get the picture. Porridge with just about anything. Enjoy. And share your recipes with me too. There must be something I have not thought of that goes well with porridge!

If you liked this read these: Recipes for babies and children and
Baby-led weaning

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Expat files... I have been here before

Just as I am finally feeling really at home in Cambodia, thinking this part of our lives was meant to be after all, nearly everyone we know and love is leaving. Not all of them for good, but Phnom Penh is definitely emptying for the summer. The streets already feel very quiet and by the end of next week nearly all of Jemima’s friends who have not already left will be gone for the whole of July. They’ll come back just as we head to England for August. James will also be away for two weeks. I really ought not to complain. I have plenty of inner resources. I enjoy being on my own with the girls, it’s raining every afternoon at the moment, the house feels cosy and perfect for hanging out at home cooking and painting etc. So it has been hard to explain this strange feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach – a familiar sensation of being left behind, vaguely friendless. Until today, when it suddenly made sense. I have been here before.

It was while I was cycling by the local international school that it dawned on me. Normally I avoid that street due to the huge jam of four wheel drives, expat and Khmer, that block the road as they drop off and pick up each day. Today the street was quiet, term having ended last week, and as I passed by the school I was suddenly bombarded with some long forgotten childhood memories: school boys packing trunks and cases into the backs of Volvos and Range Rovers; a disconcerting quiet in the house and the streets, and a faint wondering about quite what I should do with myself now.

I grew up in the very peculiar environment of a famous English boy’s boarding school. Our entire lives were built around the school bell, whose ring would signal the onslaught of 750 boys onto the street every morning as I was walking to school; a sudden silence in the corridors above my bedroom each evening when prep started, and the bursting of jubilant boys through banging doors as their hour of homework was up. I often fell asleep to the sound of their thumping music and muffled conversation.

For 13 years we shared our home with 85 boys, separated by nothing more than a ceiling and a couple of fire doors, one of which led to the stairs in my bedroom (of all the rooms in this beautiful old Georgian house, I, and my sister before me, chose to make our bedroom in the tiny space under the fire stairs). Our life was so intertwined with the school timetable that the silence that fell around us at the end of each term, when the boys went home to their real friends and family, was at once sacred and lonely, liberating and unsettling. For me at any rate, these tri-annual interruptions to our normal existence, forced me confront, or preferably avoid, an uncomfortable confusion about what was my real life and society, and what was just a fa├žade.

While my relationships within, and my commitment to the expat community here cannot be compared to the encounters with school boys (who I barely knew despite sharing the same roof) of my youth, I am amazed I have not been reminded of all this before now. Ever since our family left that old-fashioned, though much beloved institution, when I was 18, I have turned away from everything that it represented, or at least all of the negative associations: private school education, privileges bought by wealth, British upper class, elitism, snobbery, colonialism, English foreign policy and so much more... I suppose the simple act of sending your children away to school could not be further away from my ideal of motherhood I write about on these pages!

And yet here I am living in an artificial, privileged community that could be anywhere in the world for all its connections with its physical location, but happens to be in Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world. I have a 'house-help', a night guard, and friends that leave each year to reunite with their family and ‘real’ friends. My father often jokes that the overseas NGO world is a bit like the British Raj in India. Mostly it is nothing like that, but it does have its comparisons.

I’ve lost my thread but it is too late to recover it so I’ll just publish this for what it is... a few memories and reflections on life and where it takes us. Just writing about it now brings up so many memories of this extraordinary childhood existence – though of course it seemed the most ordinary thing in the world at the time – that I feel inclined to shut myself away for a few months and write and write and write about it. One day I will.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Have I given up?

Someone kindly told me today that they miss my blog posts. Thank you! I do too. I miss those quiet nap times during Jemima’s mornings at school when I make my coffee, close the door and just write. Someone else asked why I do not write for magazines and newspapers, adding: “Have you given up on the writing?” Her question has been put to me a lot lately, not just by others but also by myself. I have only just I decided that the answer is probably yes. At least in terms of making writing a career, I think I have given up. Here is why.

I do not write to live, I live to write. Well the bit of me that does not live to be a mother does anyhow. This is my main problem. I write about what I feel passionate about, I write to campaign, to challenge minds, to open hearts. I am not interested in writing if what I am writing about does not interest me. Basically I want to be an instant columnist and published author without putting in the hard slog that most respected journalists invest in their careers for many years before they are rewarded their well-earned fame. Instead of writing for local magazines in Cambodia, or small regional newspapers, who are always interested in new ideas, I write to the broadsheets whose in-boxes are flooded with copy every day. And while I sit and wait for the rejections to come in I blog to my heart’s content... hmmm, see what I mean? I definitely do not write to live. I cannot remember the last time I was paid for something I have written.

So I have decided to give it all up. To write about what I love is too hard without being a ‘somebody’. Why would a paper publish an article on motherhood written by me when they could get Deborah Jackson or some other parenting expert? Even when I do get commissions I end up cocking it up by being too ‘opinionated’. One big parenting magazine rejected a co-sleeping article of mine because it came out in favour of the practice. If I had made it entirely neutral I would have got it in. And this is my other problem. Only somebodies get to write opinionated articles.

So instead I wrote to all the mothering magazines which are ‘alternative’, - all those that share my ideals of positive, natural, green, attachment parenting. I waited patiently – most of their websites say they take 3-6 months to get back to you. During which time any serious ‘career’ writer would be busy filing other articles about anything that sells, (especially as these same magazines often pay you in kind – a few free editions in return for your article.) Me? I blogged. Well at least that way I get some response to my work. Thank you all :-).

One beautiful such magazine (English) actually asked me to hold on to my ideas as they were very interested. We had a great telephone chat and I was completely excited as it really was my dream publication. I did hold on. For nine months. Every so often I sent them polite reminders, left messages, spoke to the assistant editor. Only after some twenty unanswered attempts at feedback did I finally pay myself enough respect to actually, albeit mildly, express my frustrations at their lack of communication. I received a curt email in response saying that they liked my ideas a lot but their time was precious, divided between the magazine and their children, and that if I did not understand this perhaps I was not the right contributor for the magazine.

WHAT? If I can’t understand this division of passions, who the hell can? When I wrote a gentle, but assertive, response pointing out that I have respected their time and their ethos entirely... for nine months no less, but that as a professional writer and full-time mother of two I am sure they would understand that my time was also worth respecting, they could not even find the time to reply. I have been sorely tempted to send them an invitation to a time management workshop. Had they just let me know which ideas they were so interested in I would have written them up and sent them the articles by now.

My self-esteem plummeted of course, but my disappointment still keeps me awake at night. If I can’t even get published in a magazine which comes from the very same place as my blog and my book, i.e. a mother’s frustration with the mainstream parenting literature out there and a desire to put forward another perspective, well, you can see why I am giving up. Their absence of communication on top of the lack of interest in my ideas was the final straw. Gosh reading over this post is depressing. My most inspiring parenting magazine has totally destroyed my confidence as a writer about motherhood? One day I shall have to address this. With the help of therapy perhaps.

Before you start to pity me though please don’t. It has not happened without reason. I am embarking on a new adventure which I find exciting, interesting and challenging. Training to be a yoga teacher was definitely meant to be. It gives me the opportunity to continue to communicate with and support mothers, and children, and babies... unborn and newbies! What better way to encourage positive parenting than through a lovely Kundalini prenatal yoga class? And who knows, after practicing for a while I may even be able to offer up an article about something I am passionate about, this time with some actual expertise to back me up as well!

I will always write, I know this. But the energy and competition it takes to try to get noticed and published is simply not something I enjoy or want to spend my time on. Instead I shall continue to blog and enjoy the feedback from the faithful readers I do have. It is true that this yoga takes up most of my spare time, but I’ll be back. I can’t help myself anyway. Most of this post was written one-eyed (Jemima accidentally stabbed the other one with a glitter pen today and my vision is not quite restored), on my lap top, balanced on my knees, while sitting on the loo seat watching the girls in the bath. (The odd splash can’t do too much harm can it?) You see? I’ve made the right decision. I’m definitely not cut out for professional writing.

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