Thursday, 5 March 2015

Tazeka Aromatherapy - a dose of optimism, balance and motivation in shiny pretty bottles!

Remember, all those years back, when I talked about flirting?  Not about how people flirt (well, not necessarily) but how things can flirt with you?  Well, that’s what happened with Tazeka Aromatherapy.  

I was kicking around on Twitter, as you do, and noticed this woman tweeting about aromatherapy oils.  Not just any old aromatherapy oils but little phials that looked for all the world as if they’d been dropped by fairies, or fallen out of a treasure chest from the 1001 Nights.  Pretty shiny things that, for some strange reason, reminded me of being young (I’m trying to catch the connection and I think it might be that trend for shiny metallic Christmas wrapping paper).  I don’t really know why but they just…flirted. Appallingly.

I frittered away a ridiculous amount of time wandering around the Tazeka website, trying to decide which blends I needed the most.  It was tough – I reckoned it had to be Optimism and Balance above all else, followed by a swift dose of Motivation, Confidence and Concentrate.  And yet my eye was also drawn to Meditation Guru (something has to haul me back to meditation practice).  Slim Solution?  Yup, that would go down well too.  Actually it was all starting to give me a headache. Oh, right, Headache Helper.

We got talking, Zena and I, the way you do on Twitter and, one thing led to another and she offered to send me some samples.  And I admit, there was a part of me that wondered if they might be all style and no substance but no. These things work, they really do.  Plus they're organic and ethical and just darn nice.  Read this and see what I mean...

So now I have them all lined up on my desk and I double and triple layer them – because, frankly, one really needs to be optimistic and balanced and motivated and confident (not to mention calm and focused and slim and serene) on a regular basis, right?  I also play around with them, like toys, lining them up according to my mood – sometimes they go in chakra order from purple (Wise Woman) down to deep red (Confidence) and sometimes I go for colour clashes.

Anyhow.  The business is really really new and at the moment you can only order from the US (which whacks postage on).  Sooo…come on, let’s get these out there, okay?  If you know any spas or gorgeous shops that would like to run the range, get in touch with Zena.  If you know any beauty or health editors (anywhere in the world) who might run a review, get in touch.  Why?  Because, I don't know about you but I love people who have a passion and who make their dreams come true. Plus I get a serious kick out of a product that not only works really well but which looks pretty damn fabulous too – and these are seriously lush.

I’ve reviewed them, in a slightly more sane and reasoned manner, on Queen of Retreats.  Check it out here. 

Friday, 20 February 2015

Peter Oborne, the Telegraph, travel writing and Queen of Retreats

So, following Peter Oborne’s resignation from the Telegraph there has been a lot of debate about whether there is any form of independent journalism left.  He said:  ‘It has long been axiomatic in quality British journalism that the advertising department and editorial should be kept rigorously apart.’  Absolutely.  I remember, when I started in journalism at City Limits magazine, there was an absolute insistence that advertising could not, and must not, influence our writing.  Since then it has all become blurred to the point of illegible.

There have been dark mutterings about travel writing too – about how it’s rare now to find negative reviews in magazines and papers.  Why?  Because the writer’s trip has been funded by the hotel or tour company (who may well be taking out advertising too) so the water becomes very muddy.  But this is nothing new.  In an ideal world, the paper or magazine would fund the writer for the whole trip – this still happens on a rare few papers (the New York Times comes to mind) so the writer can be totally, truly independent.  But no UK paper has the budget.  So, unless a writer has personal wealth, one has to rely on freebies from the hotel, resort or travel company.  And that is why you will see the same old places being reviewed all over the shop – usually glowingly.  I don’t like that.  What I do like is Queen of Retreats.  I came across this outfit a few years ago, when I was looking for independent recommendations of great spas.  Someone on Twitter put me in touch with Caroline Sylger Jones, who runs the site and she was great – hugely knowledgeable, highly discerning, full of integrity.
Caroline at HHH in Greece.
Queen of Retreats is different from other online retreat, spa and healthy holiday websites.  It’s not a travel company and it’s not a listings site.  It features in-depth reviews of places its writers have visited and experienced (not just for a sample day but for the entire programme).  Said writers are all highly experienced: they know their Trager from their Thai massage and they can gauge whether a yoga teacher is good, bad or off with the fairies.  So many reviews in magazines (and even in papers  now) are written by someone who has no experience or knowledge base – without budgets for freelance experts, publications have to rely on staff doing the trip as a perk.  Fine if you get the health editor, not so fine if you get the intern who has never set foot inside a spa before.  Read QoR's mission statement here.  

Anyhow, what I really love is that the reviews are honest.  If something isn’t quite right, they point it out. If it’s not ideal for a certain kind of person, they say it like it is.  Although retreat venues do host the writer, they understand from the get-go that there is no guarantee of a shining review.  Obviously reviews are subjective – how could they not be?  But the reviewers are experienced enough to gauge if a place would suit others, even if it didn’t suit him or herself.

"It’s not smart or ritzy and you will need to turn a blind eye and a forgiving heart to the less than shiny bits. The decor isn’t inspired – if your idea of a retreat is all about contemporary interiors, fluffy bathrobes and spa ‘journeys’ look elsewhere."

Yes, it covers some of the big spas and retreats – the ones that have PRs, the ones you will read about everywhere, but it covers them honestly – not because an ad manager is hanging over the editorial team’s head.  However it also covers small retreats, the ones that have no budget for advertising or PR, the ones that otherwise wouldn’t get coverage, and that’s why I really love it.
Serenity Retreat in gorgeous Greece
So.  Bottom line.  If you’re thinking of going on retreat, if you fancy a spa break or a healthy holiday, do check out the website.  You’ll find a fair few of my reviews, including my beloved Serenity Retreat, The Body Retreat, Yobaba Lounge, Hellenic Healthy Holidays, and The Pause, rubbing shoulders with reviews of the big guys, SHA, Clinique La Prairie, Canyon Ranch and the Sanctuary Thailand (of The Beach fame).
Canyon Ranch
Do spread the word.  Because, in a world where advertising and editorial are all mixed up and muddled up, it’s refreshing to find a place where good old-fashioned editorial ethics still remain.  I think these places need our support.  Don’t you?

Visit the website at www.queenofretreats.com
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Thursday, 5 February 2015

What type of ice-cream are you? And other questions you might get asked at a job interview

I can’t remember the last time I went for a job interview so I was amused, and somewhat puzzled, by the kind of questions that are now being asked by potential bosses.  None of that old ‘And what do you think you’d bring to the job’ stuff – apparently now it’s all ‘What dinosaur would you like to be?’ or ‘Who would win in a fight between Superman and Batman?’  Or ‘If a hippo falls into a hole how would you get it out?’ Or even, ‘What type of ice-cream are you?’

WTF?  According to the Association of Accounting Technicians (no, I have no idea who they are either) the questions are designed to see whether you’ll freeze or flourish when confronted with the unexpected. 

Aimee Batemann, spokeswoman for the AAT said, ‘The best way to maintain composure and reduce the chances of embarrassment is to try to prepare for every possibility.’  Oh, get real Aimee!  How the hell can you think of every possible weird or downright barmy question you might get asked?   

Anyhow.  I thought the questions were rather good fun so, in an idle five minutes (waiting for a hippo to extricate itself from a hole) I answered the ones that are apparently doing the rounds of the, er, accounting world.

Q: If you were a fruit or vegetable, what would you be and why? 
A: A tomato – unable to decide exactly what I am.

Q: Who is your favourite Doctor Who? 
A: Pass.  Can we talk about my favourite James Bond instead?  Or better still, just look at him?  By the way, if you Google 'naked Daniel Craig' (as one might do) I should warn you that there's some very bad Photoshopping out there.  
Q: What would you do if you caught a member of staff kissing the boss?
A: Tap my nose at the boss and start taking very long lunch breaks.

Q: Is a Jaffa Cake a cake or a biscuit?
A: Neither.  It’s an abomination.

Q: Would you rather know a lot about a little or a little about a lot?
A: Knowledge is overrated.  However much you think you know, you can never really know.  I hope I have learned the wisdom (and hopefully the humility) of having a beginner’s mind.

Q: Do you like to sing in the bath? 
A: No.  I like to bathe in the bath.

Q: Which three celebrities would you like to join you for a night out?
A: Hell would freeze over before I a) voluntarily had a night out and b) asked celebrities to join me.

Q: What would you do if the sun died out?
A:  Moon bathe (in furs).  

Oh, the other ones?  If I had to be a dinosaur I’d go for velociraptor (Jurassic Park did a fine job on their PR).  Superman, doh (though if it were a question of which one I’d snog, it’s Batman all the way).  The hippo?  Call Hippo Rescue, I suppose. And the ice cream?  What kind of stupid bloody question is that?  

Did I get the job? 

Okay.  Your turn.  





Monday, 19 January 2015

The 36 questions you need to ask to fall in love

According to a report in the New York Times, you can fall in love with absolutely anyone.  All you have to do is ask the person 36 specific questions.  Why these?  Apparently it’s all about vulnerability.  The study’s authors said:   “One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure.” Er, right.  In other words, be open, be honest, be vulnerable.  Presumably this is reciprocal.  You would take it in turns, right?  But then, it occurs to me that it plunges us straight into that classic human ‘thing’ where, all the time you’re listening to the other person, you’re framing your own reply, your own witty anecdote, your own even more open and vulnerable response.  How many people really listen?

Actually, I’m not sure you even need to ask all those complicated questions.  Just before Christmas I went on a Zen retreat.  Every day we would sit down in front of one another and ask one question:  ‘Tell me who you are?’  And then we would just…listen.  It was the most unusual experience.  Some people were reserved, barely saying a word; others told the most intimate, the most revealing, often quite traumatising, things.  And your job was just to sit and witness what they were saying; to act like a mirror.  And a curious thing happened.  These people were a real mixed bag, all sorts, men and women, ranging wildly in age, shape, colour, class, character.  But, as I listened to them, as I focused on their faces as they talked, I started to feel…awed.  They were all just incredibly beautiful somehow. Each and every one of them.  I suppose you could say I fell in love with them. And I know that sounds horribly hippy dippy but it wasn’t like that – it was really quite indescribable, quite extraordinary, quite…beautiful. 

But then…what does the New York Times mean by ‘falling in love’?  Would I have wanted to jump into bed with these guys?  Would I have wanted to spend my life with them?  Would I have wanted to cuddle up by the fire cosy under the snugly throw with them?  Er, no. 
And, actually, the most interesting part of the study was the bit that isn’t being talked about so much.  The bit where the participants silently stared into each other’s eyes for two to four minutes.  And I did a little bit of that on the Zen retreat too – and, you know what, that really is the strangest thing.  Double dare you to try it.
Anyhow, what you really want to know is what the questions are, don’t you?  Here you go. 

1. Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
2. Would you like to be famous? In what way?
3. Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
4. What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
5. When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
6. If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
7. Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
8. Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
9. For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
10. If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
11. Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
13. If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future or anything else, what would you want to know?
14. Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
15. What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
16. What do you value most in a friendship?
17. What is your most treasured memory?
18. What is your most terrible memory?
19. If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
20. What does friendship mean to you?
21. What roles do love and affection play in your life?
22. Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
23. How close and warm is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
24. How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
25. Make three true “we” statements each. For instance, “We are both in this room feeling…
26. Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share ... “
27. If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
28. Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
29. Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
30. When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
31. Tell your partner something that you like about them already.
32. What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
33. If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
34. Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
35. Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
36. Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

Back in the day, when I first started blogging, this kind of thing (but much shorter) used to do the rounds as a meme.  Maybe we should all answer the questions - and all fall in love with one another?  *smile*

And, you know, the thing that is still making me ponder, is the sheer ordinariness of it all. If one can fall in love with anyone, does that mean nobody is special?  Is there really no preference involved?  It's something I've been pondering for a while...this preference thing.  Another blog post maybe.    

Thursday, 8 January 2015

30 Days xYz - Black Holes and Dark Matter, Holometabolism and Sinewaves - the poetry of the cosmos

My birthday tends to straggle on, for days, weeks even.  I rather like that it isn’t focused on one particular day.  It gives me time to adjust to being (numerically, at least) another year older.  And I like that my friends and family are as  blissfully disorganised as I am and so I tend to get cards and parcels for quite some time after the event (horizon).

And I like the fact that my manifestation skills seem to be perking up again.   The other day, a snugly throw; yesterday, snugly boots (just in the nick of time, as mine now have holes in the toes).  And today, a card from my lovely niece.  Columbia Road Market.  And all at once I’m transported back to my London days.   Every so often I’d get up early (way too early) on a Sunday, nab my friend Fi, and potter down to Columbia Road.   For those who don’t know, Columbia Road is a flower and plant market and there was something wildly uplifting about wandering around swathed in scent and colour.  There would probably be coffee and breakfast involved too – at a small cafĂ©.  

So, the card alone was enough.  But there was also a slim book enclosed, its cover green and gold, hinting of sacred geometry.  30 DAYS, it said.  xYz.  

And, on the back, an almost runic inscription: 
-          
                                                              -- TIME IS NOW --

She knows me well, that nice niece of mine. 

I opened it. 

It’s a small book of poems superimposed on illustrations and inspired by cosmology and nature.  The poet created them, one a day, during April 2013, for National Poetry Week.  And it says things like…

"It’s always the same.
It always happens the same
with mass and energy:
one created destroys the other,
and the yin-yang of the stars
maintains the indifferent symmetry
of space and time."

And this…

And this…

And this...


I like it.  I like the thick sludge of its paper; the crisp clarity of its type.  I like its subject matter and its production.  I like its poems but I like them more because of the way they are presented.  And it strikes me that maybe this is the way to offer poetry to our modern minds.  Because it’s said (I typed ‘sad’ then and that true) that we don’t read poetry so much these days.  Maybe we might make poetry manifest, tickle it tactile, snaffle it sniffable and strokable.  A challenge maybe for my poet friends X, Y and Z?  

And Time?  The last gasp of the book says this:  Kairos - a time lapse, a moment of indeterminate time in which everything happens, the right or opportune moment (the supreme moment).  Time is Now.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The One - snugly throws reprised and re-snuggled

My son is a mass of want.  A maestrom of need.   He needs a new pair of football boots.  He needs cycling shoes.  Cycling shoes???  Really?  I bite my lip and resist the urge to say that, in my day, one had a pair of plimsolls and that was it – none of this ‘trainers for this, trainers for that’ malarkey.  To be fair, he buys his own stuff but still. 
‘Can’t you wait?’ I ask.
‘No.  I want them now,’ he mutters, clicking ‘Next Day Delivery’ with glee.
I sigh.  Sixteen and already the consumer world has its teeth in his throat.  When I ask him what he wants to do, what would make his soul sing, he says ‘Make money.’  I guess all teenagers rebel against their parents, huh? 

There’s not much I really want – not material things anyhow.  But occasionally, just occasionally something makes my fingers twitch with desire.  And, well, you know this ‘thing’ I have for snugly throws?  For the last five years I have been hankering after one particular one.  It’s wolf fur - fake of course – but just the softest, most beautiful thing.  Every so often, when I go away on retreat, there is something soft and snugly on the bed and – childish, I know – I snap a pic of myself embraced by softness.  But so far it hasn’t been exactly The One.
at Clinique La Prairie
At Yobaba Lounge

I’m a tactile beast – silky water, the hot kiss of fire, the caress of satin and cashmere.  Those are the skin-songs that seduce my soul.  But, of all these, there is nothing that beats the feel of fur on skin.  Maybe it’s atavism.  Maybe my DNA remembers a time when I curled up in caves, drenched in fur against winter’s sharp bite?  Or maybe, who knows, I just yearn to get back into my own skin?

A local shop has one (a brown wolfish snugly throw) and, once a year, every time they have a sale, I sneak in and stroke it softly and look hopefully at the price ticket.  But it’s still too much, even in the sale, and I can’t justify it, I just can’t - not when we need logs or oil or whatever.  And so I walk away and I tell myself, hey, it’s just a thing.  Who needs things?   And we don’t.  But we do need feelings.  We need sensuality.  We need softness.

Anyhow.  It was my birthday the other day and yesterday this parcel arrived.  A big fat squishy parcel.  And – yes - you guessed it…there it was.  My wolf.  My soft, soft wolfskin.  My mouth fell open, not in a perfect O but in a sort of slack-jawed village idiot way. 
‘Oh. My. God.’ 
‘What is it?’ said Adrian.  ‘Is it something for James?’
‘No, it’s for me,’ I replied.
‘Oh,’ he said.  ‘Who’s it from?’ Peering over my shoulder at the label.
‘It’s from Sandie,’ I said, pulling it out, rubbing it against my nose, against my cheek, wrapping it around my shoulders.
‘What is it?’
‘It’s a snugly throw.  THE snugly throw,’ I said, not quite sure whether to burst into a grin or into tears.  You see, it’s a bit of a symbol, this.  A bit emotional. 
‘Well, it will keep you warm,’ he said.  ‘No need for more logs.’
‘Indeed,’ I said.
And, last night, I curled up on the sofa in front of the dead fire and wrapped it around me and felt…almost safe.  The cave curled around me and, in comforting warmth, there was no need for words.  Just feelings. 

And it occurred to me, embraced in the sweet softness, that waiting can be good.  How much more does one appreciate something that doesn’t come easily, that can’t come with a click, that doesn’t offer instant, greedy gratification?  

Monday, 5 January 2015

One word?

One word.  I’ve spent the Christmas break (in between barrages of exhaustive coughing) pondering on what my word is for the coming year.  Why?   Well, because apparently if one wants to change one’s life (presumably for the better) one should not focus on the externals (the new job, the new house, the new relationship, the new body, the new whatever) but on the feeling one wants.  It’s all to do with intrinsic, as opposed to external, motivation (or so the lovely Danielle Marchant says). 

Anyhow, it got me pondering.  What is my word?  What is it?  When in doubt, deflect the question (that old journalistic trick).  So I asked Kate and she planted her hands on her hips and said, firmly, ‘Strong. I want to feel strong.’ 
And I asked Sherry and she narrowed her eyes, pursed her lips and then said, slowly, sensually, ‘Passionate.  That’s how I want to feel.  Passionate.  About everything.’   
And it was tempting to nick both those as it would be very nice to feel both passionate and strong, but they weren’t right.  Not quite yet anyhow.  So I asked Jane, who had appeared on New Year’s Eve bearing champagne, tulips and seven loaves of bread (yup, seven.  I’d asked if she could detour via Blackstock Road and pick up a couple of flatbreads but she had gone to Waitrose instead and basically bought up the bread counter).   ‘What is your word?’ I said, as we sat by the fire (she glugging red wine and nibbling nuts; me mainlining lemon and honey and chewing garlic).  ‘Hmm,’ she said.  ‘Happiness.’ 
‘Nooo,’ I spluttered.  ‘That’s too vague.  What does happiness mean?’
‘Contentment?’ she suggested, tentatively. I shook my head, firm in my conviction that there had to be more.  One shouldn’t settle for ‘contented.’  It’s just too…much like giving up somehow.  Isn’t it?  Maybe not. 
‘Nope, sorry,’ she said, opening another bottle. ‘I just want life to be easy for once.’  And I get that, I really do.  But it still wasn’t right.  Not for me.

And so I turned to images, as I often do when words defeat me.  And I found that there was a theme; that they spoke a different language – one, not of my usual earth and my beloved fire and water, but of air.  And I don’t usually *do* air – it’s not my element at all.  Yet there it was…


And I coughed again and had to stop myself laughing because, of course, what is a chest infection but a problem of air, or lack thereof?  I even wrote about it in The Natural Year, my book on seasonal living.  About how coughing is, symbolically, the body trying to expel anything it doesn’t want – not just mucus and phlegm, but old emotions – ‘of taking in new energy and breathing out the spent; of taking in hope and expansive spirit and breathing out everything that is stagnant and repugnant for the soul.’ 


And it came to me that my word, for now, might be Lightness.  I need to feel light again.  I've had enough of feeling heavy, and claggy, and generally golem-esque, a creature of clay, bound by earth.  I want to fly, to lift up, to feel free and joyous and light and bright.  
So.  Light.  That’ll do nicely.  For now. 

How about you?