Archive for September, 2008

Putting the GAHHHHH into fitness

Well, knock me down and roll me through the mud sideways, chase me through a pitch black park and make me touch my arse with my elbow. They don’t call it military fitness for nothing: I felt like I’d fought a war.

Mum and I approached the local park last night with a mounting sense of dread. (I had found mother in her house, pre-British Military Fitness session, weakly and rather transparently clutching a hot water bottle to her stomach, having subconciouslysummoned up a “tummy ache” in anticipation of the torture that surely lay ahead). Nevertheless, like lambs to the overly-strenuous slaughter, we gave ourselves up to the zealous barking of our BMF instructor, who was as wide as he was tall, and all of it muscle.

It was very dark, and the ground was wet, but it kind of added to the fun as we were ordered to do sit-ups after press-ups after sit-ups after laps. In the mud. We dashed through the undergrowth and wrestled people we’d never met before (we were supposed to do that; we didn’t decide to mug passers-by in the park), jumped up and down and, somehow, enjoyed the whole thing greatly.

At one point I understood the phrase “legs turning to jelly”, when I stopped running and found that I couldn’t, in fact, stand up, let alone walk or run any more. I literally couldn’t feel my legs. But our stocky benign dictator in his military combats was soon up in my face, merrily yelling at me that if I didn’t jog on the spot when he was speaking, lifting each foot six inches off the floor, then the whole group would have to do press ups.  

So, I’ve signed up. Am insane. And yet, these are all the things I’ve never thought I could do: running, press-ups, wrestling, team sports, being strong, being shouted at. And so it’s a challenge, and maybe soon I’ll be able to do them.

Also, as I said: am insane.


Well fit

I mentioned in yesterday’s post that, despite my hungover state on Sunday (boooo!), I managed to bust out a few moves with my hula hoop. It’s been observed that this is an unusual thing to just drop into a blog post, and so it’s only fair that I share the joy of the Dance Hoop Workout.

I bought the thing over a year ago, and yet only cracked open the accompanying DVD last week when I had a few post-holiday days off work. I was supposed to be writing my novel. And I did (write two chapters)! But more often than not, I felt a physical forcefield repelling me from the laptop. When I tried to write for longer than an hour or so, I’d find myself bouncing off to do something, ANYTHING, but write the damn book. Cleaning, clearing out the garden in preparation for winter, looking through cookery books for green tomato recipes (just admit defeat, fellow tomato growers! The toms are not for turning. Make chutney)… The list of things I did to procastinate is long and boring. A lot of the time I just thought deeply about life and hence went a bit mental.

Finally, whilst attempting to write Chapter Two, I found myself distracted by my post-holiday belly sitting uncomfortably atop my jeans. I could not possibly write (I told myself) because I had to do something about the belly. So I duly debuted the Dance Hoop DVD.

Boy oh boy was that a good decision. Not only is it an excellent workout- I’ve become obsessed to the point that I’ve done it most days since- it is also hilarious. It’s led by the FASTEST HOOP RUNNER IN THE WORLD, Betty Hoops (well, she just had to be a leading hula hoopist with a name like that, didn’t she?). Betty introduces the video with a very pleasant but slightly blank expression, addressing the viewer but not, disconcertingly, the camera. She informs you that this is a fun way to get in shape and be healthy. Then, with feet hip distance apart, you “give the hoop a really fast spin!” and proceed to clump and crash your way through the four elements.

It’s a prime example of lentil-weavery, let me tell you. The video is less “work it!” and more “feel the freedom in your arms as you explore the air around you”… “know that you can access the power of air, water, earth and fire at any point in your day”. I, dear reader, can access the power of boofus any time I dig out this DVD. Here’s a taster, thankfully not of me doing the hula, but of Betty Hoops and her amazing Dance Hoop workout:

(Oh, you know what, I am going to learn how to embed videos, but now is not the time)

In my attempts to improve my physique, I’ve also been doing 120 sit-ups on the living room floor after each hula hoop workout. To accompany these agonising crunches, I select music videos from On Demand: Beyonce and the Pussycat Dolls being my divas of choice, ie scrumptious ladies with tiny flat bellies. That way, each time I torturously hoist my grunting, beetroot-red face upwards, I catch a glimpse of a wriggling, gleaming babe or five on the screen. Thus with every crunch I remind myself that I will not be hot like the Pussycat Dolls unless I persevere, and if I don’t carry on, the only thing loosening up my buttons will be my big fat tummy. Moreover, if I don’t continue to work it out like Beyonce, I’ll-  you get it, right?

(Have just realised that the last para, in which I tell readers how I torture myself which pictures of thin celebs to spur me on in my body image goals, reads like something from I’

I will also carry on attending weekly Street Dance classes with my pals, and tomorrow I’m trying out a terrifying-sounding class called Military Fitness Training, with my mum.

I don’t think I’ll ever have buns of steel, but perhaps one day I’ll have buns of a moderately firm summer fruit.

Oh dear.

I’m afraid I broke my new year’s resolution on Sunday. I’d vowed not to have a hangover for the whole of 2008, and I’d made it almost until October. But, following a very jolly mini dinner party at our house on Saturday night, which somewhat ill-advisedly featured not only wine but also cava, gin and tonics and limoncello, I found myself pinned to the bed by pain on Sunday morning, unable to move my arm from where it was flung melodramatically across my face.

I’m cursed with a propensity towards hangovers. Not the sort of “hangover” that most people complain of, which can be cured with a fry-up, a bit of fresh air, or even (horrors) a drink. Not the sort which allows you to make it into work and groan at your desk all day. If this is your definition of a hangover, my friend, I spit in your face  congratulate you.

My hangovers leave me bed-bound and quivering, with pain mushrooming in my skull and pins in my eyes and bile in my throat. My hangovers send me staggering to the bathroom to retch forlornly, sometimes at a rate of once every 20 minutes until 8pm at night. I am not joking. I can’t watch Saturday Kitchen, let alone face a fried breakfast, as even the mention, even the THOUGHT of food, or in fact water, makes me spin. 

Until this year, I’d be struck down with one of these monster hangovers once every two months or so. I’m not a big drinker, in fact I would put money on the fact that when I go out (or stay in), I put away fewer glasses than anyone else I know, apart from my Dad, who is a yogi-Buddhist type person and doesn’t drink. I generally don’t have more than four drinks, and I always stop before midnight, even if I stay up to 4am. But for some reason, like Chinese people, or so I’ve read, I’m afflicted with not being able to take my booze, at least not the morning after.

Throughout 2008 I’ve been extra-vigilant over what I’m drinking, the quantity and, v importantly, the variety of alchoholic tipples I’ve consumed in any given night. I’ve enjoyed the fact that my Sundays have not been ruined by the feeling that I really am going to die, and this can’t possible be a hangover and must be an inoperable brain tumour or some other horror.

But, almost on the verge of my 28th birthday (2nd October, folks), I found myself once again in the embarassing teenager-style predicament of being bed-bound by a hangover. Oh limoncello, why didst thou forsake me?

However, I must have learned something, or otherwise my liver must appreciate my (relative) restraint of late, because I didn’t vomit, and I managed to drag myself out of bed before noon. I managed to eat poached eggs, to trail around the ‘hood with Dear Friend Mim soaking up the sunshine (yes, very funny, Weather. I see what you did there, with your pissing it down for months, then, on the last official day of summer, your rolling out of the sun-soaked Indian summer thing), and to eat a further packet of Space Raiders, and finally, a pie. I even managed to clamber into my trackie bottoms and bash out a few spins in front of my hula hoop workour DVD in the evening.

And that, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a successful Sunday.

Fear factor

I am, as has been documented, a big fat wimp. I’m scared of many things, from the reasonable (murderers), to the slightly neurotic (two-stroke engines) to the unhinged (everybody’s going to diiieeeee!).

Scary films/books/TV programmes also give me the willies. But I stand by my fear of such things, and defend it. They’re designed to be frightening, I am merely responing the stimulus in a normal manner. It is like when my brother (or my boyfriend), winds me up deliberately and then is surprised when I get wound up. WELL THAT SURELY WAS THE POINT?

Holidays are particularly treacherous times for me, riddled as they are with the objects of my phobias- see two-stroke engines, above: the mopeds, make them stop! When we arrived in Kefalonia last week- yes, this again, sorry- the man who owns the villa met us at the airport. He was telling us about the record hot summer they’d had, which was pleasing (though, you know, I am a bit scared of dying of dehydration). “The only problem”, he said, “is the wasps. We are plagued with them this summer”. At which point I laughed nervously, then stared at him ferociously and demanded to know what exactly he meant by “plagued”, does it have a different meaning in the South African dialect, because if I hurry I can catch the next flight back to Manchester.

Oh wasps. They must be my longest-standing fear, in fact I’m sure we should have a significant scariversary coming up soon, as I’ve been frightened of them for as long as I can remember. I mean, nobody likes wasps (surely?), but most people can bat them away in an almost, it seems to me, jolly fashion.

There were so many wasps about on our holiday that I sometimes ate my lunch, sweltering, in the kitchen with the door closed. This was partly to save my nerves, and partly because my family understandably felt like sedating me, maybe with a rounders bat, to prevent me from leaping from my chair and embarking on a sort of screaming, arm-flapping Wacky Races around the garden whenever a wasp came near. The wasps thought this was a great game and would give chase with gusto.

As soon as the wasps went to bed at night, the hornets came out, and they were like something out of a nightmare. They were bigger than cars. But I soon learned that they were only interested in lights rather than eating adult female humans. I still jumped up from the table and ran whenever one approached, heralded by a deep throaty buzz like a taxi’s engine. But I didn’t live in the constant, quivering fear that the wasps provoked. The problem with wasps is that they are all up in your grill, checking you out and finding new and exciting places to crawl into (birkenstocks, skirts, nostrils..) and sting you. They didn’t actually sting me, mind you, but I maintain that this was because I was constantly on guard for their sneaky ways.

I’m proud to report that I did face one of my fears whilst on holiday. At the villa there was staffordshire bull terrier. Dogs are not my strong point, especially ones with the words “bull” and “terrier” in the name of their breed. Having already spent a week with this particular canine in 2006, I should have known that she was a snuffling, wriggling, tail-waggling bundle of babylike joy, rather than any sort of girl-eating beast. But it still took me til the end of this second holiday at the villa to achieve the following, and let me tell you, this is a never-before-seen event, with this or any dog:

In contrast to this moment of triumph, my lowest fear-related moment came when I was lying at the edge of the plunge pool. A wasp flew up to me, all “bzzzz bzzz here I am, I’m going to sting you, mm, let me come and land on your toes, no wait, your face”, and instead of ignoring the wasp, or batting it away coolly, I rolled off the edge of the pool into the water like a TV cop dodging a bullet. In doing so, I managed to land upside down in the pool, thus inhaling a nostril full of chlorinated water, and also whack my shin on the side, and as a result, now have a purple bruise the size of a CD.

I’ve always liked to think that my propensity for fear is a consequence of having a large, imaginative mind. However, if the above example of boofusity is anything to go by, it would appear that I have very little brain at all.


It was the second time we have stayed in the villa on Kefalonia, and I’m certain it won’t be the last. The place is as close to paradise as I’ve ever seen, and memories from the two holidays, two years apart, are already blurring into a blissful whole. The South African woman who built and runs the villa with her husband is something of a fairy godmother to us, and this second trip firmed our friendship. She’s a tiny, blonde, sprightly sixty-something, and she tells us we remind her of her own “babies” (she likes our shiny faces and the way we hug each other; she says that my brother’s chuckle is like water over pebbles). She and mum bond over chardonnay and chats.  She built the villa with love and eccentricity: deciding on the layout by laying on the bare earth and declaring that this was the view she wanted from the master bedroom; sourcing marble sinks and vintage shutters from the mainland and hanging antiques from the branches of ancient gnarled olive trees; planting the garden with fruit trees, peppers, tomatoes and aubergines.

Sunrise on the deck

Sunrise on the deck

In the evenings we would sit on one of the several terraces and drink gin and tonics as J fired up the huge stone barbie (there’s no need to eat out, and anyway, the euro is a killer at the moment) to cook chicken marinated in herbs, lemon and olive oil, all produce from the villa. Our fairy godmother and her husband would join us sometimes, and stories would tumble from her (“wait, there’s another one coming, another story just coming round the corner, then I’ll go”, she would say).

Sunset shadows

Sunset shadows

There are two bedrooms, with wooden shutters and South African art, and ensuite wet rooms with shower heads as big as sideplates. My sister, my brother and I shared a bedroom, so that Mum could have one of her own. A and I slept in a double bed, and J had a little bed normally used by children, which is the source of much hilarity (he’s nearly 30. And a big slab of man). Truthfully, I loved it. How often do  adult siblings get to spend so much time together, at such close quarters? Slightly irritating nocturnal habits aside (J dictating bossily exactly when lights-off should be, ie, the exact moment when he’s ready to go to sleep: A and I mumbling deliriously in our sleep), of course. Most days after lunch, we’d take turns to have showers, then get into our jamas and all have a nap. Like babies. But I felt as calm as a baby, and as untroubled, during these times. Perhaps it reminded me of when we actually were children.

I’m afraid this post is terribly smug- but honestly, smug doesn’t even cover it. It really was that good.  It’s rare that your holiday accomodation is the place you want to spend all your time on holiday, and I’m amazed that we stumbled across this villa on the internet. It’s serendipity, I guess.

Three moments in the sea last week

It is late afternoon in Greece. Through the morning, thunderclouds have cracked and boomed over the mountains of Kefalonia, and red-tinged lightning has sliced through the view from our villa’s terrace, across the fields to the Mediterranean Sea. By four O’clock the sky is cerulean once more, and we drive down to a small local harbour for a dip in the sea before dinner. My brother and mum head into the waves, but my sister A and I decide not to go in. The storm has whipped the water into a mass of seaweed and sand, and the shadow of a cliff has taken the edge off the heat, so the Med has lost its irrestible, bejewelled draw temporarily. We sit on a jetty and watch the others. My sister voices what we are both thinking:

“This is what we were doing, this is all we were doing.”

I know, I say. When our little sister was taken by a rip tide four years ago, she was just wading in thigh-deep water, taking an impromptu dip before dinner whilst enjoying her holiday. She hadn’t even folded her clothes in the hotel room when she changed into her bikini. She was going to be back in a minute. But all three of my siblings went into the water, and only two of them came out alive. It seems that H just slipped quietly  through a moment in time.

“This is all we were doing”, my sister A repeats. “And then our girl wasn’t there any more”.


I am lolling in the shallows by a large rock, on white pebbles, wondering whether other people would be shocked that we’re back in the sea, even after what happened to H. I wonder whether we seem different from any other family, whether people watch us in the water and sense that our sibling triangle should really be a square. Whether the rest of my family share my underlying anxiety whenever we are in the sea. My brother J does not seem to fear the waves.

I hear J shout “Where’s Bokker?”, Suddenly, three heads pop up like aquatic meercats from the water. My brother, sister and mum are all standing up, looking for me. I rise from my lolling position, emerge from behind the rock. “I’m here!”, I yell back. And the others carrying on paddling about. I know the flood of relief they felt when they saw me rising up with a splash and a scattering of sea.

Of course we all feel anxious. We are all each other’s lifeguards, scanning the sparkle of the water’s surface for the distinctive bobbing dark heads of our family members. There is always a moment of panic until our eyes find the others in the water. When one of us is swimming, only two of the other three lie on their sunloungers and read. The other always sits up and keeps their eyes on the person in the water, and the person in water waves periodically (but not in such a way that would raise alarm that they were in trouble).My brother won’t let Mum swim out to the buoys in the deep water on her own. He won’t let me or A swim out there at all.

We feel anxious, even my big strong hairy brother. But we are doing really well.


I am on my lounger, my book on my lap, my beady eyes on my family in the sea. A man is jumping up against the waves, catching each one as it crests, flopping back onto the water. He is laughing, even though he is on his own. I feel a surge of jealousy. He seems so innocent; I wish we could be like that, I think. Then I look at my family, and they are doing the same- laughing in the waves. And I was doing it earlier, too. Nobody would know, from the outside.

A young woman walks into the ocean. She is tall, deer-like, her legs and torso long and tanned. She has long dark brown hair, almost black, and the same hesitant walk that our sister had. Though H’s hair was cut above her shoulders, I always imagine that now she’d have long hair down her back. I watch the young woman as she takes little leaps over the smaller waves at the water’s edge. I imagine she is H- torturing myself, really, but it’s bittersweet. I imagine that she is H, but instead of slipping through that moment in time, she’ll come back out of the sea.

My family emerge from the water, life-sized and slippery and loud and alive. H is not of this solid, shouting, swimming realm any longer. But we still are, and we have to go back in the water.