Sunday, 18 August 2019

Pisa, Italy (and the beauty of a Tuscan highway)

Dammit Karen appreciates the journey to Pisa, Italy as much as the destination.
The Baptistery and Campanile in Piazza del Duomo, Pisa, Italy.
The Piazza del Duomo and Leaning Tower of Pisa (Photo credits: Author)

The Road to Pisa, Italy

First, let me be clear: it is terrifying to drive in the Greater Florence Area. Let me be even more specific: by "drive" I mean, "be driven", and by "GFA", I'm talking about the area from Pisa to Collodi to Florence and up the hills into Sieci and Pontassieve. I'm referring specifically to the super-skinny, hairpin-turny, crazily steep-and-surrounded-on-both-sides-by-very-old-and-tall-stone-walls streets that Google Maps sent us down (and up).

Fis has a theory that Google Maps sends us down such tiny roads (even in London) because it's learned that those are the kind of roads we prefer, and each time we accept such a route, this learning is reinforced.

I have two theories. One is that -- and hear me out -- that's what kind of streets there are in very old cities. The other one is that Google can hear what Fis says about it, and is punishing him and by extension, me.

To sum up, when driving (being driven) through the gorgeous hills around Florence, do not rent a large vehicle that is big enough for a family of five and their luggage and thus not at all made to hug a curve. Do not be in a rush. Do not drive angry.

Oh well, too late now.

But we survived, and this post is not about that. It's about a highway.

A Tuscan highway

Our last day in Italy was a beautiful day for the 90-minute drive to Pisa, all blue-skied and sunny, and the A11 highway between Florence and Pisa is possibly the most interesting one I have ever seen. It's a toll road (5.90 saved us 40 minutes -- worth it), and seemed to be kept in impeccable repair. Once we were out of the cities and towns and well underway, I relaxed my Unblinking Navigator Stressball persona, and gazed out the window at the ever-changing variety of plants and forests drifting by. After a few kilometres, I noticed that the plants and trees, flowering and coniferous, were in orderly rows and groupings. This continued for kilometre after kilometre, and repeated most of the way to Pisa. Once in a while, a large sign indicated the name of these commercial nurseries and tree farms (interspersed with cornfields).

It was beautiful to see. What an ideal way to use the land beside a highway: property there would be less attractive to developers (who wants to live right behind the highway?), but I'd bet the land on the far side of the nursery is prized. The expanse of trees and bushes (and the distance) would mute the noise of the traffic, beautifully, and I'm pretty sure science would say that plants help to clean the air from the emissions as well. Their visibility from the highway would be advertisement enough - it's a win/win for everyone involved.

A child poses behind a wooden cutout of Pinocchio in Collodi, Italy
This was not the strangest thing we saw at Parco di Pinocchio. Not by far.

A quirky theme park

We stopped in Collodi for a few hours to take in the Pinocchio Park, a quirkily enchanting combination of a sculpture garden and adventure park, with a hilarious puppet show that I bet would have been even funnier if I understood more than "pescecane!" (shark!) and "oh nooooo!". The reviews had run hot and cold, but we're glad we went. It was, as most of the reviewers noted, no Disneyland, but it was full of magic and art. Then, with time a-ticking, we got back on the road to Pisa with an ambitious goal: to get to the famous leaning tower, see it, and be back in the car driving homeward within 45 minutes.

We drove 130 km/hr (the speed limit) all the way there, and I became The Navigator again to get us to the closest free carpark (as we had spent all our money on tolls). The shuttle was waiting, and drove us the five minutes for 4. We stepped out into the heat and the crowds and vendors, winding our way through a seeming maze of old city walls and stalls selling cheap reproductions of leather purses and miniature towers. We stepped through an arch, and ... there it was.

Three children pretend to push the Leaning Tower of Pisa upright
"Push harder, kids! It's still leaning!"

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Some iconic landmarks are disappointing in real life.

When I saw the Statue of Liberty, it was smaller than I expected. After all the hype in movies, it just felt, well, small. I wasn't too keen on seeing this tower, either, as it meant a long drive on the last day of our holiday, and how great could it really be? Was the "lean" even noticeable? I was surprised that Chris was so insistent on us going so far to see it, but... wow. 

The baptistery and the tower (and boy, does it lean) set against a backdrop of dazzling photoshop-blue sky took my breath away. I didn't expect to be so moved (as I was at Stonehenge, another awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage Site). It was something I've only seen in books and movies ever since I was little, and there it was. It was beautiful.

Maybe it made me appreciate again the distance we are from home, seeing something that I never really thought I'd see in real life. We gazed at it for a few minutes, took the required pushing-the-tower-back-up photos, then stopped for gelato (again!) before walking only nine minutes back to the car (instead of waiting for the next five-minute shuttle in 14 minutes). (And we saved 4, which was enough for a pretty good half-litre of wine with dinner.)

The drive back was pleasant (till we got off the highway and back onto properly terrifying Tuscan roads) and although I still had the beautiful, historical image fresh in my mind, I appreciated the highway design again.

Bella Italia, indeed.

(more travel notes to come, I promise)
A family leans away from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, creating the illusion that the tower itself is straight.
More Fun with Perspective!



Sunday, 28 July 2019

DG presents a Brilliant Hummus Hack

Hummus Recipe: Dammit, Karen's gone and improved on her Yummus recipe!
Carrot sticks and hummus on a plate
A colourful new take on (non-vegetarian) hummus


Jamie Oliver has given us so much.  By "us", of course I mean our family, which has enjoyed several recipes from his 5 Ingredients cookbook (except for one -- spoiler alert, it is not fabulous).

One of our favourite "company dishes" is his Moroccan-inspired lamb shoulder, which is easy, delicious, fancy, feeds eight, and, because it cooks for six hours, I get serious cred and kudos, even though the actual work part is about 15 minutes. We pair it with couscous (preseasoned, just add boiling water) and either a (very) simple, parsley-based salad or, last time, another five-ingredient recipe (which I reduced to four by omitting the broad beans) - a nice minty-yet-spicy dish of peas.

The only drawback: not enough lamb and too many chickpeas
Each time, the lamb is a hit, the chickpeas underneath are tender and tasty (Ziggy agrees), and we end up with leftovers: usually enough lamb for one or two people for lunch, and enough chickpeas to feed all five of us for a week. If we ate only chickpeas.

So good. But so, so much.


So, I took my classic Yummus!(TM) recipe and gave it a twist.

Warning: this is not for vegetarians.

By taking the leftover chickpeas, tomatoes and preserved lemons (which, as you recall, have been slow-braised in lamb fat for six hours to make them extra succulent), and whirring them in the blender with some lemon juice (fresh is best, but any port in a storm, no?), peanut butter (aka "the tahini of my kitchen"), two cloves of garlic and a handful of fresh parsley, I have transformed "leftovers" into "even more delicious yummus than usual".

Ta-dah! 
The Hufflings adored it, even though it was a "funny" colour.

Try it, and let me know what you think!

Friday, 19 July 2019

On boredom and blogging and beginnings

A hand hovers over a laptop with an image of a street sign at the junction of "work," "life" and "balance"
Dammit Karen, Your Life has Been Busy of Late and Your Blog is Suffering. My life is not boring.

It's summer holiday, and with three Hufflings underfoot for nine weeks in a row, plus Ziggy the Office Dog, I have a lot going on. Chris is home this week. My parents are flying in for a visit on Monday. I am busy.


Even when none of this is happening, and it's just me and Ziggy (when the children are happily and safely at school for seven hours of the day), I still have running group and book club (both of which totally make me sound entitled), but also two boot camps that I run, a weekly fitness class to teach, training a client or two, and my increasing number of writing/editing contract products and hours to fulfill, as well as the writing that I am really trying hard to do for myself and for publications like Medium. And don't get me started on SEO and social media presence for myself. (Actually, please get me started on SEO and social media presence for myself - what's the old saying about shoemakers' kids going barefoot?)

Waaaaay back in 'ought seven, it was just me and Chris. I had just started my first government job. It was in a fancy, important office, and I was on the lowest rung of the ladder, which I described as "Chipmunk* at the bottom of the office totem pole". I did some scheduling and document review, and had to be ready for more of the same -- always potentially urgent -- often until an hour or two after my scheduled workday. Due to the almost-everyday-regularity of the overtime requests, I asked if I could just come in at 10 am and stay till 6 every day, or 11 to 7 -- but no, I had to be there "just in case".  I asked for extra work and responsibilities, and only sometimes was given those. So, I sat.  I did my work quickly and well, and between tasks, had time to email friends, plan a wedding and start a blog.

With our moves, I often ended up with bottom-chipmunk jobs, and each time, I did the job well, took on extra, but always had -- and I'm not exaggerating -- at least three hours a day of Not Work (but usually five).

And thus the blog was born! I was away from friends and family, and decided that I had missed the "Facebook window", so the blog was how I showed our changing lives and growing kids, how I shared my experiences. How I told my story.

With harder/better jobs at higher levels (I think I can proudly state that, while my last position was definitely not at the Thunderbird/Raven level, it was safely at least at Bear) came more work -- which totally makes sense and helps explain the difference in salary -- my email, external planning and blog time was cut way back. And somehow, now that I'm freelancing upwards of four hours a day and in charge of my own schedule...and have three kids muppeting around my "home office" all day...I have little to no time to do this.

The difference between writing for my blog and writing for publications is simple. I want to write my blog. I want to write my articles, too, but I sort of "need" to write the articles to make money, so the blog falls on the wayside.

This feels like goodbye.

It sounds like I'm trying to tell you that my blog is over, or at least on hiatus. But, boy, is my tone off this time! I will try to do better. I will try to overcome myself, plan and schedule my posts in advance, all while upping my Twitter game and integrating SEO in a perfectly-natural-yet-effective way.

I just need to transfer writing for my blog over to the "life" side of my work-life balance.

Yeah. This totally could happen.

Do you have any tips or tricks to share to make my own writing a priority? 
(That don't involve plugging children into screens, please.)



* For the sticklers, no, chipmunks are not usually represented on totem poles. Thus was my importance.



Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Fitting it in

Dammit Karen, How do you, as a personal trainer-slash-fitness instructor, fit your own workouts in?
Photo by Ravi Roshan on Unsplash

A reality check for a so-called "fitness professional"


"How do you, as a personal trainer-slash-fitness instructor, fit your own workouts in?"

The question came out of the blue from an acquaintance, and it threw me for a loop. I sucked in my stomach and wondered how I could cover up my arms without pulling them, turtle-like, into the top of my sleeveless dress.

The right answer, of course, is that I make time for myself.

That, despite my time-consuming "serious work" of writing and editing, and my one-hour-at-a-time "superhero work" of training clients -- which usually involves demonstrating correct form or partnering up for a move or two -- and leading boot camps (with more demos and partnering) -- and teaching a fitness class (or two) per week, I still have the focus and energy to get to the gym for proper strength-training sessions, and I never miss the time I set aside for my running group. Yes, all this and the kids and the dog too!

And my hair? Beautifully styled, of course!

Now that you're shielding your eyes from the glare off my halo, let me reassure you: the truth, of course, is different than the right answer.

I do demo moves for clients and participate whenever I can, but I am definitely not getting the same benefits from the workouts as my participants. I sneak in five to ten minutes of strength work before each session as I set up and practice the routines. I stay 15-20 minutes after my clients have left the gym or field and put myself through the same paces.

(In the case of my aqua fitness class, however, I am definitely working harder, since I'm jumping against gravity, while they are being buoyed up.  Also, they're all at least 60.)

And, when my kids are at swimming lessons, I sprint up the stairs to the leisure centre gym and work harder for 22 minutes than anyone else in the gym does for 60, so that I can be back down to greet them before they even get out of the pool.

My running group is sacred, too. It's time that I have scheduled into my calendar, three times a week, and I go, and I run 6-10 miles to wherever the group has planned for that day. If I need to, I choose a faster pace group that promises to be back to our neighbourhood even 10 minutes earlier than my usual group (and skip the coffee afterwards), but I do it. 

On days that I really can't do the run and give the dog enough of a walk, he comes along to Primrose Hill, and gets off-leash, run-like-crazy frolic time while I do hill repeats four to six times. Forty minutes, and we're both back home, sweaty, tired and ready for a shower or nap, respectively (lucky dog).

Lately, I've been adding in extra bursts of activity, especially on days when my kids need motivation. They absolutely abhor the monthly "fitness" days at their kickboxing class, and I've made them a deal to make the extra conditioning more mentally acceptable for them: for each pushup and burpee that they have to do, I will do the same number. As there are three of them and only one of me, it's really not a fair bargain; it adds up quicky, but I do it, and I usually let them watch. Sometimes, when I feel that I haven't lifted anything in a while, I'll drop and do a few sets of 25-30 pushups in the afternoon, or after dinner. Without having to think too much, I can do up to 90 pushups, which seems like bragging, but it's really not (this strength and endurance has been built by 30-plus years of doing pushups...with short-armed biomechanical efficiency).

Also, having been plagued with low-back issues for years (possibly exacerbated by pregnancy, my swayback is not making me look taller), I recently undertook a 21-day "fix" that involved repeating a short, low-intensity routine every evening. I completed it in only 26 days (ha!), and have realized that working my core daily (or almost-daily), even if I'm half-paying-attention-while-watching-tv really does make a difference to my posture, my pain and how I feel about my body.

So, there's how I do it.  A little piece here, a little piece there.

And no, my hair is not styled. Don't be ridiculous.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Disproportionate rage response

Dammit Karen feels a disproportionate rage response at certain so-called compliments
Related image
Proportionate growth in animals: different parts of the body grow at approximately the same rate.
Quote and image credit here.

I sometimes get compliments; everyone does. On days that I actually take the time to style my hair (once every 34 days or so), I like to hear somebody tell me it looks good. If "dressed up" to a level higher than "Canadian casual" (ripped jeans, t-shirt, scarf), I want to hear someone tell me that I look nice.

(For both of these, of course, the "for a change" is implied, and usually unspoken.) (It only hurts a little.)

But my Least Favourite Compliment, which is (hopefully) always meant sincerely, feels so backhanded that I can't even. I am an adult, coherent, articulate person, and I. Can't. Even.

Are you ready?

"You're so proportional."*

This is usually followed by a reassurance of the "cuteness" of my body, which, also as a grown woman, I still can't even. My arms! My legs! They are all in perfect proportion to the rest of my body!

What -- why -- ??? Why is this considered a compliment, and/or why would you say that to someone?

I totally get what they're saying, though. It's true, I'm short. And, to go with my (short) self, I have (short) arms and (short) legs and (tiny) feet. For some reason, I have "normal-sized" hands, which, because my fingers are slender, don't look freakishly large, but this often surprises others. I joke about having man hands (they're not) and being able to palm a basketball (I can't). Because everything else about me is little and cute, though, it's funny, I guess?

I know there are far worse things to be, and be told, and I guess I'm happy that I am "proportionate"**, though being tiny-but-with-nice-long-legs might be even better.

But I have never, ever stood beside a tall person and said, "Hey! Your legs are long! And look! Your arms are also long!"*** Nor would I do that to a fat person or a muscly person or -- gasp -- someone who isn't proportionate. Like, "Wow, you have big biceps, but you don't seem to have calf muscles."

How, also, am I supposed to respond to something like that?

Anyhoo, I forget what I'm complaining about, but now I'm all worked up.




* and ** Proportionate or Proportional?  Discuss.

*** Although I do make fun of my friend's tall mom who has tiny feet - how does she not tip over?

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