View from the top of the Belfort in Bruges

A mini tour of Belgium (and a quick stop in London)

We went on our annual European city break for 2018 last month, hopping on the train from London to Brussels and then Bruges. Belgium’s not a particularly obvious choice for a holiday, but it sped to the top of my list following recommendations from friends who’d been to Brussels and/or Bruges and loved it.

The journey is amazingly quick from London – it’s just 2 hours to Brussels by Eurostar, the same length of time it took for us to travel by rail from Manchester to London. We did the whole journey from home in one day on the way out, but stopped off in London for a night to break it up on the way home.

Brussels

Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels
Musical Instruments Museum, Brussels

Brussels was pretty much as I expected, although I was startled by the loveliness of the Grand Place, which is the main square and the home of some particularly striking old buildings. There are some nice little streets leading off the square, although these quickly turn into more modern shopping streets.

We did a bit of sightseeing while (of course) sampling the local chocolate and beer. We visited the excellent Musical Instruments Museum and took in some amazing views from the top floor restaurant.

Jewel-encrusted harmonium
Bling at the Musical Instruments Museum

We visited the European parliament to wave goodbye (sob) and ventured out of the city centre to marvel at the Atomium (it is absolutely massive!).

European Parliament building, Brussels
European Parliament building, Brussels
Atomium, Brussels
Atomium, Brussels

Food-wise, we did really well! Our lovely B&B was located around the corner from an Italian restaurant called Pasta Divina, where we were welcomed by the owner who was clearly very proud of his Italian wife’s culinary abilities in the kitchen – the restaurant serves up lots of different flavoured pastas and sauces to go with them, so you can mix and match as you please. It was excellent!

Speculoos and banana waffle
Speculoos and banana waffle

We decided on pizza for our second night in Brussels and headed to a small place called Mirante, which does very good (and very good value!) wood-fired pizzas. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any frites while we were in Belgium, as they’re traditionally fried in animal fat. I suspect it’s not quite the same to have them fried in vegetable oil!

01_little_delirium_cafe
Little Delirium Cafe, Brussels

Of course, you can’t go to Belgium and not try the beer. The first beers we had were Jupiler lagers, which had been recommended by a friend and are, helpfully, available absolutely everywhere in Belgium and cheap to boot. We also sampled beers in Little Delirium Cafe and The Sister, which specialises in organic beer.

Ice cream from Neuhaus
My posh Magnum from Neuhaus!

Other culinary highlights were an amazing ‘build your own’ ice cream from posh chocolatier Neuhaus (I went with vanilla ice cream, milk chocolate and cacao nibs), a late-evening speculoos and banana waffle, some fancy biscuits from Maison Dandoy and a rather decadent box of hand-picked chocolates from Godiva, which we bought for the train journey to Bruges.

Godiva chocolates
Train snacks

I also managed to buy a book from a great English language bookshop called Sterling Books, where a member of staff recommended a book by a Belgian writer, Dimitri Verhulst.

Bruges

Canal in Bruges

Oh, Bruges. How pretty you are! Everyone knows that Bruges is a picturesque place to visit, but you don’t realise just how beautiful it is until you’re actually wandering its streets with your mouth slightly agape at the lovely old houses, the rambling little streets and the quiet canals.

Basilica of the Holy Blood, in the Burg
Basilica of the Holy Blood, in the Burg

We did the usual touristy things, including going up all 366 steps of the Belfort, having a beer at the Duvelorium while looking over the Markt, gawping at the old buildings in the Burg, going on a boat tour down the canals, and having the best hot chocolate (with cake and chocolates, of course) at De Proeverie.

13_hot_chocolate
Hot chocolate and cake at De Proeverie

We also went on a long but lovely walk through the Minnewaterpark and around the outskirts of the centre along the canal, stopping to look at windmills and the old city gates.

Tower, Bruges

11_bruges_city_gate
One of the old city gates in Bruges
Bruges bench with dragon supports
Even the benches are striking in Bruges

We continued our beer sampling with trips to Cafe Vlissinghe, the oldest tavern in Bruges (complete with an adorable pub dog!), and ‘t Brugs Beertje, which has the biggest beer menu I’ve ever seen!

Vlissinghe sign

Our evening meals in Bruges were slightly disappointing – we had an average and overpriced curry one night and I had a very average and overpriced stew at a Greek restaurant the next night, which I suppose is to be expected when you eat in the most touristy bit of Bruges. But we did come across a great lunch spot in the form of t’Brugs Pitahuis, which serves falafel and also some Indian dishes that we didn’t try.

Belgian Wit beer
Hilarious

I did really enjoy Bruges, though, and would absolutely recommend it if you’d like a short break in a pretty, historic town!

Also, can I just brag about how lovely the weather was for September?! It was cold and rainy when we left Manchester, then we arrived to find Belgium basking in 25C heat, which only conveniently broke to let in the rain on the day we left!

17_duvelorium
Beers at the Duvelorium

London

We only had one night in London on the way home, but we still managed to do a fair bit. I’ve been to London a few times, mainly when I was in my old job and had to visit our HQ, but I’ve never really been much of a tourist there before.

This time, I was determined to go to two places I’ve wanted to see for a while. We spent an afternoon in the National Portrait Gallery and covered quite a lot of it while we were there. There were some really interesting paintings and I learned some great facts about figures I knew of, and some that I didn’t. But I have to say it became slightly samey after a while – there are only so many portraits of dead white men that I can take before my eyes start to glaze over.

The most intriguing exhibits were definitely the paintings of interesting women and also black/Asian figures from British history who you don’t really hear about. I was quite thrilled to finally see *that* sketch of Jane Austen by her sister and a painting of Emily Brontë by Branwell with my own eyes! There was also a great little exhibition on the theme of friendship that I really enjoyed.

We also went to the British Library just before we got on the train back to Manchester, where we explored the excellent Treasures exhibition (and I got all star-struck over the Austen and Brontë exhibits… if you can get star-struck by a writing desk and some little books?!). I also went wild in the gift shop, but restrained myself in the bookshop. There were just too many books that I wanted.

Other highlights of London were visiting Daunt Books in Marylebone for the first time and finally getting some decent Indian food at Rasa W1, which we’ve been to before and is still brilliant for delicious south Indian dishes.

Giant masala dosa at Rasa W1
Man vs masala dosa at Rasa W1

All in all, it was an excellent few days away! I did start searching for ideas for our next trip away pretty much the moment we got home, though. Sometimes looking forward to your next holiday is just as exciting as actually going away!

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My exercise DVDs

The joy of exercise DVDs

The first bit of actual exercise I did as an adult happened just over 8 years ago, when I decided I really needed to do something about my weight. I had no desire whatsoever to join a gym, and running wasn’t on my radar at that point (I was only really properly inspired to run after watching the 2012 Olympics). So that left me with the humble exercise DVD.

After trawling through countless Z-list celebrity DVDs on Amazon, I settled on a boxset with two Davina McCall DVDs, because she at least seemed to be genuinely enthusiastic about exercise, and not just about getting ‘beach ready’. I got past my eye-rolling at her lame jokes and her tendency to fall dramatically to the floor after a vaguely taxing section and actually found myself enjoying working up a sweat 3 times a week.

I did lose weight, and I kept on exercising, building up my collection to include more Davina DVDs (she did get less irritating after that first boxset!). While friends and colleagues talked about going to the gym or the pool and getting the bike out for a long ride, those DVDs kept me exercising regularly for a lot longer than I’d initially thought they would.

I discovered that I really enjoy workouts based on boxing moves – it helps to imagine that you’re punching someone who really gets your goat – and that graduating from lifting tins of beans to actual hand weights isn’t as scary as it originally seemed. I became able to hold a plank position for 30 seconds, then a whole minute, then got into a slump and had to work my way back up again. I have no problems doing a small number of proper press-ups (although I do still feel relieved when it’s just a knees-down position!). I hate hate HATE star jumps, but I can now keep those going for a whole minute, too.

It’s been brilliant to slowly discover the number of things my body can do, even during those periods when I can’t be bothered with healthy eating and let my weight creep back up again, or when I’ve picked up a running injury and need to stick with low-impact workouts/yoga for a while.

And I’ve been able to do it from the comfort of my own home, where no one can see me, and I don’t have to feel self-conscious about my wobbly bits or completely failing to do a full sit-up (I actually can’t do one – my back won’t let me!). It doesn’t cost the earth, I can do it any time of day, you really don’t need a lot of space to work out in, and if I ever get bored I can just find another DVD or do something from YouTube – aerobics is still my favourite, but I’ve branched out into non-Davina workouts, as well as yoga and Pilates via good ol’ DVDs.

They might seem a bit naff, but exercise DVDs are such a brilliant way to get into keeping fit if, like me 8 years ago, you want to do it but haven’t done anything vaguely strenuous since school, and would rather die than let someone else see you get sweaty. Even though I now go running in public, DVDs still form most of the exercise I do each week. And hopefully they’ll continue to do so for a lot longer.

My favourite DVD workouts

  • Cardio Box from Davina: My Three 30-Minute Workouts (my first ever experience of boxercise (ugh))
  • Davina: Power of 3 (all workouts together for a thorough hour-long session)
  • Level 1 workout from Jillian Michaels: 30-Day Shred (it’s basically 20 minutes of hating Jillian for being so mean, but it does feel like proper exercise!)
  • Letting Go of the Day from Yoga for Beginners (I’m really inflexible but this routine is so good for squeezing tension out of your body before going to bed)
  • Legs, Pump and Boxing workouts from Davina: High Energy Five (I do all three when I’m feeling really energetic, but usually do 2 over 50 minutes or so)
  • Bottom Fit from Davina: Fit (AKA the “I can’t move today because I did over 200 squats last night” workout. So good if you have weak glutes, as runners tend to do)
  • Knockout Body Blast and Fat Attack from 10 Minute Solution: Knockout Body Workout (More boxing! I love this DVD series – each instalment has 5 workouts of 10 minutes each, so you can fit in some exercise even when you haven’t much time, or combine a few routines for a longer workout)

What are your favourite workouts, from a DVD or otherwise?

Eating and drinking in Lisbon

T’husband and I went to Lisbon for a few nights towards the end of 2016 and absolutely LOVED it. The other day, I sent a list of our food and drink highlights to a colleague, and realised I’d sent the same list to two other friends previously.

So, I thought I’d better immortalise my recommendations in a blog post rather than root around in my emails every time someone I know says they’re planning to visit Lisbon!

Below is a brief list of the best places we went to. Bear in mind that we don’t meat, so this is all veggie-friendly, but you definitely won’t be stuck for options if you’re a carnivore and (especially) if you love seafood.

  • Queijaria Cheese Shop and Bar – We went here for amazing fondue and wine on our first night. It was SO good. The waitress remarked that she’d never seen the bottom of the fondue dish before when she came to take our dishes away…

fondue

  • Jardim dos Sentidos – Really good veggie restaurant that does a wide range of cuisines. It’s got an outdoor bit if the weather’s nice!
  • Pharmacia – This is a quirky tapas restaurant based around a ‘pharmacy’ theme. It does some great Portuguese food and there’s lots of non-meat options. It’s slightly on the pricey side but good for a special meal. Pre-booking is recommended (I think I just emailed them).
  • LisBeer – This is a great bar that does loads of craft beer. The beer list is massive and it’s all underground (but I think there’s an outdoor bit too), so it has a nice cosy vibe.
  • Duque Brewpub – Quite a small pub but with some good ale/craft beer options.

beerduque

  • Time Out Market – This is an indoor market with two areas, one for selling fruit, veg etc and another with loads of food and drink stalls. The food and drink bit is great for either lunch or the evenings.
  • Pasteis de Belem – It’s worth getting a tram out to Belem to visit this bakery – it’s the oldest maker of Portuguese custard tarts and they’re so delicious! There’s usually a massive queue for takeaway but you can go in and sit down to order tarts and coffee and lunch without joining the outdoor queue. We also went to look at the tower in Belem and generally just wander around. It’s a nice area.

There’s also a Museum of Beer that we didn’t get to.

We definitely want to visit again, so I’d love to get some more tips if you have them!

Reading while brown: representation in children’s books

I started going to the library from a very young age. I still have fuzzy memories of my dad taking me to the main library in Bolton and being presented with a thickly-laminated yellow library card featuring a cheery red elephant. One of my parents would take me to choose a pile of books – always taking out the maximum number allowed, obviously – which I would devour at the weekends and after school before returning for more of the same the following week.

I’m pretty sure I read the majority of the books in the children’s library, and even more of the books in the much smaller section for teens. I remember the librarian once commenting on the fact that I was checking out a pile of entirely new stock, because I’d immediately recognised them as titles that hadn’t been there before.

Bolton Central Library
Bolton Central Library (CC image courtesy of Mikey on Flickr)

Then, as now, I read anything and everything. I loved Enid Blyton with a passion, especially the Famous Five and Mallory Towers, but I also sped through the more contemporary works of Judy Blume and Jacqueline Wilson, while also making a decent attempt at ticking off all the instalments of the various ‘Point…’ series – I loved Horror, Romance, Crime, Fantasy and Science Fiction (were there any more?).

I also loved the Chalet School series by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, a bit of Diana Wynne-Jones and the occasional foray into a Choose Your Own Adventure, when I was in the mood for it. I adored Terry Pratchett’s Nomes trilogy, and even made a stab at the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was less successful (I’m still not sure why those books were in the children’s library!). I devoured lots of classics – an abridged edition of Jane Eyre, all of the Anne of Green Gables books, Tom’s Midnight Garden, The Secret Garden, Alice, Heidi, Little Women… if it was there in Bolton children’s library in the 1980s and 1990s, I probably read it.

Puffin Classics - Lewis Carroll
(CC image courtesy of John Keogh on Flickr)

Books as mirrors and windows

I can’t say I ever really saw myself reflected in those books, if we’re just talking about ethnic background. Sometimes the odd black or Asian character would be mentioned in passing, or even get a line or two of dialogue, but they were definitely in the minority. More BAME characters tended to appear in the YA books I read, but they were still largely supporting characters rather than protagonists. The only real exceptions I can recall are Malorie Blackman’s novels for children and teens, although most of these were published after I graduated to the adults’ library.

I did, however, see myself in the outsiders of children’s literature. I’ve never been entirely one thing – not quite Indian or Hindu enough and definitely not white enough; perennially stuck between cultures with no name for the unique space that I and other second-generation immigrants occupy. I don’t think I was able to properly articulate this feeling until I was much older, yet this specific experience as a brown person in a white country was definitely absent from the books I raced through as a child, and has only started cropping up more in the books I read now relatively recently. But I did see other children who, like me, never felt entirely comfortable in the roles they were supposed to fulfil. They were kindred spirits, and I loved reading about them, never really noticing their race or religion until I was much older.

This seems to be a different experience to some other people – Anita Sethi suggests that she felt “deepening isolation” at not seeing more BAME characters in children’s books, but I honestly can’t say I really felt this in my own childhood, which is perhaps symptomatic of the extent to which the primacy of white culture was ingrained in me from the very beginning of my life.

Readers as writers

This fed into my creative writing at school, too. There’s an essay by Darren Chetty in The Good Immigrant about his experiences as a primary school teacher which really resonated with me and made me remember that in all the stories I wrote when I was a child, I never once made an Asian girl like me the main character. They were always white (and blonde, in the case of a young engineering whiz called Anthea Bubblesocks who built a monster-defeating machine – at least I had a streak of feminism at that age!).

This happened again when I became more prolific in creative writing as a teenager and at university – and I was still never conscious of what I was doing. I’ve tried to correct this in my more recent attempts to write, which has been both liberating and strangely difficult.

These days, I’m more clued up on the issues surrounding diversity in publishing, and I find myself gravitating more towards authors who are likely to reflect my own cultural identity (whatever that may be!) in their works.

It does feel like progress is being made when I look at the bubble of my Twitter feed and see all the posts from authors and readers of colour that I follow, but then I pause when I see statistics like those in the CLPE report that came out last week: only 1% of British children’s books have a BAME (black or minority ethnic) main character, and just 4% feature a BAME character at all, despite almost one-third of English schoolchildren coming from a BAME background.

There’s a lot of talk about what publishers can do to rectify this, and I can’t emphasise enough how important it is that they don’t just make a token effort – just as with books for adults. It’s not just about the number of non-white characters in books; it’s also about how they’re depicted in those books. Do they play a real role in the story as opposed to just providing educational soundbites about Islam or Hinduism? Do they have their own friends, families and lives, as opposed to just existing in the gaze of a white character? Do they have their own thoughts and personalities? Their own flaws and redeeming qualities? In short, are they actual people and not just smiling brown faces on a page?

I really hope things improve. I think it’s great that more publishers are launching schemes to encourage BAME writers to submit their work and undergo mentoring to steer them in the right direction, but more could definitely be done – both in the industry and in efforts to encourage wider reading and writing among children at home and school.

Once we have more children seeing themselves in the stories they read, we’ll have more budding writers who will one day create stories for a future generation of kids who can’t wait to go to the library each week and read about children of all backgrounds – including those just like themselves.

Review: The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla

The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh ShuklaI started this blog with no intention of posting book reviews on it (many other bloggers already do it, and better than I could), but I finished The One Who Wrote Destiny by Nikesh Shukla this morning, and have so many thoughts and feelings about it that a full review seems more appropriate than my usual one-sentence summary on Instagram!

Shukla is probably best known for editing the brilliant The Good Immigrant anthology of essays, and this is how I was first introduced to him. He’s now a columnist for the Guardian and a general champion for BAME writing. He has written other novels in the past, but this is the most recent and the first one I’ve read by him.

The One Who Wrote Destiny tells the story of several generations of the Jani family, who have roots in Kenya and, before that, India. It opens with the story of Mukesh, who moves to Britain from Kenya in the 1960s in the hope of going to university in London, but ends up staying in Keighley and falling in love. The narrative then moves forward in time to his grown-up daughter Neha and her twin brother Raks, and then loops back a bit for the story of the twins’ maternal grandmother, Ba.

The main theme of the novel is, as you might expect, the question of whether we all have a fate or not. Do we live our lives according to some preset plan, or do we really have the control over them that a lot of us think we do? All four of the main characters muse on this quite frequently. Neha, an IT whiz and Star Trek obsessive who has cancer stemming from a genetically inherited disease, goes further than the others in trying to come to a firm conclusion, but ultimately doesn’t get the results she expects.

The other main theme is race and the immigrant experience. This interested me more than the destiny theme, although the two cross over quite a lot. I found it fascinating how the novel explores the different ways in which racism manifests itself. There’s the version that most people think of – violence and insults – which is mainly experienced by the older generations of the family, then there’s the quieter and more insidious type that most of the Asian characters come up against both in the past and present, from the waiter who writes ‘Mr and Mrs Apu’ on Raks’ drinks bill, never thinking that he’ll see it, to Ba’s recollection of her husband being called ‘Smiley’ by a condescending white man when Kenya was still under colonial rule.

What particularly resonated me was the characters’ thoughts and experiences on this second type of racism and on generally feeling like outsiders, even when they’ve ‘integrated’ to all intents and purposes. This paragraph from Raks’ section rang particularly true for me, having recently had my eyes opened by Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race:

I never thought about any of this stuff growing up. Race shit. Suddenly everyone’s talking about diversity and you start to notice it and then once you notice it, you can’t unsee it. Suddenly I’m obsessed with it, and still figuring it out. And I’m starting to wonder what I’ve let slide ’cause I just never thought about it before.

This observation from Mukesh in the present day also made me nod, as a somewhat frequent pub-goer:

I […] look around the room. One of the things I still find strange in the UK, even after forty years, is how it feels to be the only brown people in the pub, yaar.

I also enjoyed this flashback of Mukesh’s, having had to deal with this question a few times over the years (the answer is always Bolton for me!):

Mrs Simpson asked me on that first day, where are you from? I told her, Kenya. And she said, no, but where are your parents from? I told her, Kenya. No, but where are you from originally? Kenya, I told her again. I think she did not understand me because I was not saying India, the land of my forefathers; I am in an in-between world. It seems such an innocent question. Where are you from?

I don’t know. Why does it matter so much?

This question ends up mattering more and more to Neha and then Raks as the novel progresses, leading the story to a recounting of the week they spent with Ba in Kenya when they were children, told from Ba’s point of view. I found this section quite emotional to read, because it reminded me of the last time I saw my maternal grandmother on my last visit to India 18 years ago (she has since died). There was a significant language barrier between us, as there seems to be between Ba and the twins at first, but somehow our blood ties made that barrier feel fairly insignificant.

Major themes aside, I also loved just how funny the novel can be while also threatening to emotionally undo the reader. You can particularly see how Raks, a stand-up comedian, uses humour as a mechanism for dealing with the complexities of being a person of colour in the UK, which has both good and bad consequences for his career. But there are funny bits throughout – in Mukesh’s clumsy way of getting close to the object of his affections, in Neha’s scathing opinions of other people, in Ba’s changing attitude towards the young twins.

I also enjoyed the references to some of Shukla’s bugbears regarding cultural (mis)appropriation. If you’ve read his essay in The Good Immigrant or follow him on Twitter, you’ll know all about his feelings on calling chai ‘chai tea’ and naan ‘naan bread’, which are referred to in the novel. There are also other references that I recognised and appreciated, such as the tendency for immigrants to have different ‘voices’ for different occasions. I think it’s really great that he was able to put so much of himself into the novel, especially when some BAME writers are told by the agents/publishers to write works that fit within a certain narrative, which is not necessarily the story they actually want to tell.

As you can tell, I loved The One Who Wrote Destiny, probably mostly because it resonated with me so much on a personal level – if this hadn’t been a library book, I would have filled it with post-its and pencilled underlinings! I’m not quite sure what other readers will think of it, especially as there isn’t a straightforward plot as such, the pace can be quite slow at times, and there are a few bits that I think only those from a certain background will truly appreciate. Still, it’s an incredibly well-written book with characters you can’t help rooting for, even when they annoy you, and there’s a lot for white Britons to learn about their fellow BAME citizens’ experiences in the UK, especially those of us caught in that “in-between world” of being born in the UK to immigrant parents.

Ullswater

Some good things

I’m not very good at this regular blogging thing, am I? I’m currently a bit weak and ill, I’ve had an up-and-down few weeks recently, and the news has been particularly depressing of late, so here are some Good Things that I’ve enjoyed/done of late.

Isle of Dogs

Isle of DogsWe went to see the new Wes Anderson film, Isle of Dogs, when it was released a few weeks ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is very much in Anderson’s distinctive visual style, which goes incredibly well with the film’s Japanese setting. All the usual suspects provide the character voices (if you’ve seen any Wes Anderson film in the past, most of the big stars from that will also be in Isle of Dogs) and it’s just generally an excellent film.

One word of warning, though: I don’t think this is really a children’s film. There were loads of families with young kids in the cinema when we went, and I honestly can’t imagine what they made of it. It may be animated, but some of the themes are quite grown-up. There are also lots of subtitles translating from Japanese!

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

I raced through this novel by Gail Honeyman this week and absolutely LOVED it. It’s no wonder that people are raving about it. Eleanor Oliphant is one of the most unique characters I’ve come across in a novel in some time and there are loads of bits that made me laugh out loud in public, as well as others that nearly had me in tears.

I won’t say too much about the story, but if you’ve been thinking about giving it a go, just do it. You’ll love it.

Donkeys

Donkeys

We went for a walk on a rare sunny day recently, and discovered that there’s a donkey sanctuary very near to us. It was so lovely to look at them all standing quietly in the sunshine. Donkeys are very underrated animals, I feel.

Make-up new and old

My face has been feeling horribly parched recently. I couldn’t work out why until I went through an elimination process with my skincare and make-up, and came to the conclusion that the combination of my concealer (Clarins Instant) and face powder (Beauty Pie One Powder Wonder) was somehow dehydrating my skin. I have no idea what’s in them to make such a thing happen!

Make-upI’m now back on my trusty favourite powder, Bourjois Healthy Balance, and have stumbled across a brilliant bargain in the form of Barry M’s All Night Long Full Coverage Concealer, which provides loads of coverage and a good yellow tone for the excellent price of £4.49 (compared with £20+ for the Clarins!).

I’ve also been enjoying Beauty Pie’s Fantasticolour Liquid Lipstick in Winner, a lovely brown-toned pink. I find most pinks other than deep/bright shades don’t go too well with my skintone, but this is a really flattering colour and stays on fairly well. If you haven’t heard of it, Beauty Pie is a subscription-based make-up brand where you pay £10 a month and get the products at a really cheap price (eg the lipstick is £20 at non-member prices and £4.34 with a subscription, although there’s a limit on how much you can buy each month).

It’s early days, but I really love their cream eyeshadow sticks and have got an eye on some of the skincare products. I think I’ll stay away from their face powders, though!

Realm of the Elderlings re-read

My pre-ordered paperback of Assassin’s Fate came in the post a few weeks ago, reminding me that I really need to crack on with re-reading Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings books. I’m currently on the final book of the Farseer Trilogy, and will move on to the other trilogies in due course (although I think I’ll skip the Rain Wilds series this time, as they’re not essential to the re-read).

Farseer Trilogy

I’ve really enjoyed being back in the Six Duchies with Fitz and company, although I always forget how much of an emotional rollercoaster the books can take you through! I’m not reading them back to back – I’m slotting in a book from my ever-massive to-read pile in between each one, which both helps me to stretch out the re-read experience and prevents me from being an emotional wreck all of the time.

Actual creative writing

I’ve been slowly working my way through an online creative writing course in yet another attempt to get back into writing fiction, and it’s actually been going really well for a change!

I used to write a lot as a child and then into my teens and at uni (where I did a creative writing course in my first year), but I’ve struggled to get back into it since then. Hopefully it’ll stick this time!

Holiday(s)

Okay, so this hasn’t happened yet, but I’ve been very excited about our trip to the Lake District/the Eden Valley next month. We’re renting a cottage for a week and plan to go on lots of walks, drink plenty of beer and have at least one ice cream and afternoon tea, which will be lovely.

Ullswater

I’m also thinking about our annual European city break this September. We (or I!) have pretty much decided that we’re going to Brussels and Bruges, as I know a few people who have been to those cities and all the feedback has been positive. I’d like to go on the Eurostar, so I might see if there’s a sale on Standard Premier seats this summer. We went to Paris in Standard Premier, and it was basically two hours each way of having cheese and wine brought to us!

A few of my favourite skincare products

Don’t like skincare? Don’t judge those of us who do

Earlier this week, I read a bizarre viral article entitled The Skincare Con. The writer of this article claims that “most skincare is a waste of money”, skincare products are a “scam”,  and that anyone who spends money on looking after their skin is basically a horribly shallow person who can’t see past their outermost layer.

This seemed so obviously written to provoke a response (which it already had in the hundreds on social media by the time I’d read the article) that I just rolled my eyes and carried on with my day. Then, yesterday, I read Hadley Freeman’s response to the article in the Guardian, about how she loves skincare because she enjoys how it feels. I nodded. I smiled at the funny bits. I agreed with the general gist of the article. Then I committed the cardinal sin of scrolling past the end of the column to… the comments.

Dear lord. I’m not sure why I was expecting to see lots of supportive ‘right on, sister!’-type comments. But I was, and so I was at first slightly perturbed and then downright angry to read comment after comment along the lines of ‘what’s wrong with soap and water?’, ‘all women are mugs’, ‘no one needs skincare’, ‘why on earth would you spend money on that when you could spend it on X?’, ‘I’m a man and my skin is much better than my wife and daughter’s skin because I don’t use anything’, and so on and so forth until my blood was actually boiling from the ridiculousness of it all.

So here I am, doing what I thought I wasn’t going to do when I first read the original article: making a response.

I use a lot of skincare products. This hasn’t always been the case; my primary beauty passion was always for make-up, and I scraped by with the basics for my skin (facewash, cheap moisturiser, wipes to remove make-up) while I went wild in the make-up aisles of Boots and Superdrug. My skin has always been a bit temperamental due to hormone imbalances, and it seemed like nothing I could do would sort it out, so I just concentrated on covering it up instead.

But then I started reading articles by people with a genuine passion for skincare who recommended certain things that could help specific skin problems. I realised that maybe I could do something for my weird skin and feel a bit more confident in it.

There were two things that really changed the game for me: forgoing wipes in favour of having a proper night-time wash with a decent cleanser and a flannel, and using serums to target specific problems (especially those containing hyaluronic acid to tackle dehydrated skin). I could see after quite a short period of time that doing these two things had a positive effect on my skin. I was delighted. So I read more articles, started talking about beauty with like-minded women online, and bought more products based on recommendations from those with similar problems.

That was perhaps 7 years ago. Now I use all sorts of products (although not as many as I should be using, according to the Koreans!). I have some products that I’ve been using for ages, and others that I’m trying for the first time to see if they work. I have a particular order that I put things on in, both in the morning and evening (I’ll post my routines at the end of this blog for anyone who’s interested!). I mix and match bargain products with more expensive items while keeping an eye out for any discounts. I follow various beauty writers and bloggers to see what else is out there. Most of all, I love doing all of this.

Yes, not everything works. Yes, a lot of skincare and make-up advertising is, to be quite honest, bullshit. Yes, there are some stupidly expensive products out there. Yes, there are some truly pointless things being sold that I will never understand (glittery hand cream: why?). Yes, I probably could just wash my face with soap and water and never use make-up again, but my skin would be a horrific mess and I would be miserable.

Yes, others may think otherwise, but you know what? I don’t care what they think. I use skincare – and make-up – for myself, and no one else. I spend the money that I earn on the things that I give me pleasure. I do this while saving money each month, giving to charity and never getting into debt.

And I’m doing all of this while other people are spending vast amounts of money and time on their hobbies – clothes, football, beer, fine art, pets, sports cars. You don’t see me getting all offended about them. I am not rooting around the depths of the internet for an article on collectible vintage toy cars from the 1940s so I can get in there with a sneering comment about what a waste of money they are and how sad the blokes with thousands of these cars must be.

There’s something about the combination of women + spending money on themselves + spending money on their appearance that brings out the worst in those who just don’t like to see other people enjoying themselves. You see it in the endless debates over women ‘should’ wear make-up, or whether women over 40 ‘should’ still be wearing miniskirts or brightly coloured tights or low-cut tops, or whether women of any age ‘should’ turn to plastic surgery/Botox/whatever they want to do to make themselves good.

Sod ‘should’.

I’m just getting on with what I like to do, and – guess what? – you can too.

What I use

The specific products I’m using at the moment are in brackets, but I change up some of these quite regularly.

My skin type is combination – a bit shiny/prone to spots around the T-zone and jawline, and slightly dry on the cheeks – and dehydrated, with the occasional very dry patch (read about the difference between dehydrated and dry skin).

I also have some acne scarring and significant hyperpigmentation, or dark patches, on my cheeks. This can be caused by sun damage, but in my case it’s mostly been those pesky hormones and my Asian heritage, which makes me more prone to it. To add to the joy, I also go through phases of being very spotty/very dry all over the face for no apparent reason.

This is what suits me and my budget – I am of course not saying that everyone should use all of this too (except maybe the last product in the list because it’s so brilliant!). We’re all different, so go with whatever you want.

Morning routine

Evening routine

Then either one of the following – I rotate between them, as using both at the same time would be too harsh on the skin:

Then:

Other products

  • Superdrug B. Confident Hyaluronic Acid Spritz – this is handy to spray on whenever my skin feels a bit meh, and to cool my face in the summer.
  • Dr Organic Manuka Honey Rescue Cream – to target stubborn dry/irritated patches.
  • Clinique Moisture Surge Overnight Mask – I use this in place of oil and night cream once a week. It. Is. AMAZING. I wake up with visibly plumper, smoother skin every time I use it. It’s expensive, but you get a massive tube for the money and it lasts for ages, because you don’t need to use much each time. I’m on my second tube in the space of a couple of years. It’s so, SO good.
Swing

Getting back into the swing of things

My last post was in 2017, I spent all of January whining about long the month was, and now it’s February and this is my first post since December… oops. To be fair, I haven’t had much time for blogging since the start of 2018, as I’ve been spending the last few weeks trying to get back into some sort of normal routine. Among other things, I’ve been getting back into the swing of…

…work

The main thing I’ve been grappling with is that I started a new job when I returned to work in the second week of January. I’m still at the same university and have the same job title, but I’m now working in a completely different part of the uni which is somewhat bigger than the department that I came from. I’ve been having to get to grips with new websites, new people, new projects and new places (seriously, this university is so huge you could spend all your life working there and still never have the chance to visit every single building on campus).

Fran from Black Books typing
via Tumblr

It’s been really exhausting, but also really great to have a change from the norm and do something a bit different with a bunch of extremely lovely people. It also helps that the department I’m in is way more aligned to my personal interests – I’m now responsible for the arts, languages and cultures part of the university website network, and I’ve already read two books by lecturers here (more on that below!).

This is only a temporary post, but I’m learning lots of things that should stand me in good stead for going back to my permanent role (or wherever else I may end up…).

…exercising

10 Minute Solution: Knockout Body Workout DVDI was off work for 2 weeks over the Christmas and new year period. I spent the first week at home and did so well at going for runs and working out at home, despite being surrounded by all manner of food and booze. But then we spent the second week in a cabin in Sherwood Forest with my husband’s family surrounded by all manner of food and booze, and I didn’t exercise *quite* as much as I had the previous week. So let’s just say that it was somewhat difficult to get back into my exercise routine when I went back to work!

It doesn’t help that the weather has been atrocious and it’s still pitch black in the mornings, so getting up early to do one of my DVDs hasn’t been easy. I think I’m slowly getting there, though! I bought a new DVD which has a series of 10-minute boxing workouts (my favourite!) and that’s helped to make exercising slightly less boring. I’m still trying to get out for a short run once a week at the weekends, and I’m hoping to ramp up to twice a week once the mornings are light enough for me to go out before work.

…reading what I’ve got

I’ve made a sort-of resolution to make a proper dent in my to-read pile this year, and only buy books that I will definitely keep, relying on the library for everything else. And I’ve done well – I’ve finished 6 books so far in 2018, consisting of 3 from my own pile, 1 from the library, 1 from a colleague and 1 that I pre-ordered with a view to keeping.

The Witchfinder's Sister and Home Fire

The books from the library and my colleague were by lecturers at the creative writing department of my bit of the university – The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown (quite good, but a bit slow) and Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (really good). Before I started writing this post, I finished the book I bought, Eat Up! by Ruby Tandoh, which is absolutely fantastic.

Having said that, my to-read pile is still 66-strong, including two reservations that I have waiting for me at the library. It’s going to be interesting seeing if I can keep up the good work!

…eating well

Manchester Beer Festival
Beer’s good for you, right?

Like everyone else, I went a bit crazy with the cheese, mince pies and wine over Christmas, so I’ve been trying very hard to not be so greedy while not depriving myself of the comfort food I definitely need during the winter months, also making room for a night at Manchester Beer Festival.

It’s gone well so far; we’ve been planning our meals as normal and have only gone overboard a few times (mainly because I’ve wanted to have an impromptu meal out or thought it would be a great idea to pick up a cheesecake for Friday night). I’ve gone back to not boozing during the week and I’ve only baked once so far this year (and took most of it to work instead of letting it sit temptingly in the kitchen).

I’m still tracking calories via MyFitnessPal, but I’ve stopped weighing myself entirely and am now focused on eating good, delicious, home-cooked food instead of getting in knots about going over my daily calorie limit. I’m probably not going to lose that much weight this way, but I’ll certainly be happier than if I was trying to starve myself! Reading Eat Up! has definitely confirmed that this is the right way to go for me at the moment.

…being cultural

Blue/Orange flyerOkay, so I’ve never really been one for cultural activities aside from reading and going to gigs, but we’ve been to two plays since the start of the year (having never really gone to any since school!), and have enjoyed them so much we’re going to try to go to the theatre more often.

The first play we saw was Blue/Orange at the Garrick Theatre in Stockport. The play had only three actors and it took place in the bar area of the theatre, so it was a very small but perfectly formed performance. I was intrigued to read that Joe Penhall, who wrote the play, also wrote Mindhunter, which is on my Netflix to-watch list, so I’m looking forward to getting round to watching that!

We also saw a production called The Manchester Project at HOME in Manchester. It consisted of 19 mini plays, each centred around a different area of Manchester and performed by one or two actors at a time, and was over in just an hour. We really enjoyed hearing the different ways that the actors from Monkeywood Theatre interpreted the areas that we knew, and finding out about the parts of the city that we’ve never really been to.

Now we just need to find some more plays to go to!

Favourite books of 2017

My 2017 in books

Everyone always says this, but I can’t believe yet another year has whizzed by and that we’re all knee-deep in end-of-year lists!

I’ve had an excellent reading year, managing to read 52 books and finishing most of them (scroll on for my duds of the year…). I may finish my current read before the end of the 31st, but for now I’m very happy with getting through 52 books.

It’s been particularly wonderful for reading more by writers of colour – two of them feature in my favourites list below, but I discovered many more through the excellent anthologies A Change Is Gonna Come and Here I Stand: Stories That Speak For Freedom. I must also give Angie Thomas an honourable mention for her brilliant YA novel The Hate U Give, which is essential reading if you want to understand the everyday impact of police shootings of black people in the US.

I also managed to read a few brand new releases (which never usually happens!) thanks to the library, including the excellent Winter by Ali Smith and Munich by Robert Harris. And, even though it happened right at the start of the year, I think my crowning achievement of 2017 was finally reading all of War and Peace after it had been sitting on my shelf for years and years!

I decided at the start of the year to post a brief review of everything I read on LibraryThing, which I’m now grateful for as I can scroll through my reviews and rediscover my thoughts on books I read what now seems like aaages ago…

My favourite reads

I gave six books the full 5 stars in 2017:

The Crimson Petal and the White (Michel Faber)

The Crimson Petal And The WhiteThe blurb:

‘Watch your step. Keep your wits about you; you will need them …’

So begins this irresistible voyage into the dark side of Victorian London. Amongst an unforgettable cast of low-lifes, physicians, businessmen and prostitutes, meet our heroine Sugar, a young woman trying to drag herself up from the gutter any way she can. Be prepared for a mesmerising tale of passion, intrigue, ambition and revenge.

What I said:

I’m a huge fan of two of Michel Faber’s other works – The Book Of Strange New Things and Under The Skin – and also love Victorian settings, so the only surprise was that it took me so long to get round to The Crimson Petal And The White.

I LOVED this novel. Yes, it’s long, but the writing is so immersive and the characters so human and well developed that I could happily have read another 800+ pages. As it stands, I’m glad it ended the way it did (which seems to be a controversial opinion!).

On Writing (Stephen King)

On WritingThe blurb:

Part memoir, part master class by one of the bestselling authors of all time, this superb volume is a revealing and practical view of the writer’s craft, comprising the basic tools of the trade every writer must have.

King’s advice is grounded in the vivid memories from childhood through his emergence as a writer, from his struggling early career to his widely reported, near-fatal accident in 1999 – and how the inextricable link between writing and living spurred his recovery.

What I said:

I’m a huge fan of Stephen King and have dabbled in creative writing in the past, so I found this book particularly fascinating. I love the stories about how he first started writing, and the advice for writers is genuinely useful and easy to understand – it’s always worth listening to someone who has sold a gazillion (probably) books since the 1970s! I would recommend this book to anyone who is similarly a King fan and would like some tips on how to improve your writing.

A Closed And Common Orbit (Becky Chambers)

The blurb:

Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in an new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has to start over in a synthetic body, in a world where her kind are illegal. She’s never felt so alone.

But she’s not alone, not really. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall Lovelace, is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that, huge as the galaxy may be, it’s anything but empty.

What I said:

The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet is probably my favourite science fiction novel, so I had high hopes for this sort-of sequel – and it didn’t disappoint.

It’s definitely a different sort of book to the first one, focusing on the history of one character and the present day for another. However, Becky Chambers’ immersive style of writing and knack for getting into the heads of fascinating characters is still very much in existence. She has a real flair for exploring what makes us human from the point of view of characters of all kinds of species without being boring about it and through a compelling plot.

I heard the day before I finished this that the third Wayfarers book is coming out in June 2018 – if it’s anything like the first two then we’ll all be in for a treat!

The Fifth Season (N K Jemisin)

(I also gave the third book in this series, The Stone Sky, 5 stars, but I didn’t want to spoil the plot of the trilogy for anyone by posting the blurb/review here!)

The Fifth SeasonThe blurb:

This is the way the world ends. Again.

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

What I said:

I haven’t got much to say that others haven’t already said, but what a beautifully written, wonderfully surprising novel this is. I loved the setting, the characters, the history, the different narrative styles, everything. I reserved the next book in the series at the library when I was about 100 pages in. I can’t wait to read it!

Kindred (Octavia Butler)

KindredThe blurb:

On her twenty-sixth birthday, Dana and her husband are moving into their apartment when she starts to feel dizzy. She falls to her knees, nauseous. Then the world falls away.

She finds herself at the edge of a green wood by a vast river. A child is screaming. Wading into the water, she pulls him to safety, only to find herself face to face with a very old looking rifle, in the hands of the boy’s father. She’s terrified. The next thing she knows she’s back in her apartment, soaking wet. It’s the most terrifying experience of her life … until it happens again.

The longer Dana spends in nineteenth century Maryland – a very dangerous place for a black woman – the more aware she is that her life might be over before it’s even begun.

What I said:

This is a brilliant novel.

Kindred is not really science fiction; the time travel concept is the most science fiction-y thing about it, but it’s presented very matter-of-factly and without any real explanation, scientific or otherwise. It’s more historical fiction, but from the point of view of someone from the modern era, which is what makes it so interesting, especially now when race relations and the spectre of slavery is very much in the news.

The pared-back writing style certainly makes Kindred fairly easy to read in the practical sense, but it wasn’t an easy emotional read for me. I became caught up in the characters and their fates alarmingly quickly, and every twist really got to me. It’s not often that books do this to me!

My not-so-favourite reads

Unfortunately, I read a few duds this year and didn’t finish a couple of them. As well as the below, I spectacularly failed to get on with Paul Beatty’s Booker-winning The Sellout and felt thoroughly stupid for doing so.

I also fell out with The Last Hours by Minette Walters for making me plough through a lot of dull plot only to discover it’s not even a complete novel in itself – there’s apparently a sequel coming at some point!

Bad book

Keeping Bedlam at Bay in the Prague Cafe (M Henderson Ellis)

0.5/5, unfinished

I couldn’t get on with this at all and abandoned it after 50-odd pages. The protagonist isn’t at all interesting and the sardonic, overly wordy writing style isn’t my thing. Which is a shame, as I originally picked this up as I was due to visit Prague soon!

Prague Nights (Benjamin Black)

1.5/5

Well, this wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read. I so wanted to love a historical crime novel set in Prague, but it was so slow, dull and nonsensical that it’s a wonder I finished it at all. You don’t learn much that isn’t already in the blurb until over 100 pages in, then nothing of note happens until a minor character reveals a whole load of crucial backstory three-quarters of the way in.

Meanwhile, the prose is 75% description/metaphor, the main character does nothing whatsoever to advance the plot and just sleeps with every woman he encounters while wistfully comparing them to his mother (!), and the other characters are so slightly drawn that you don’t care about any of them at all.

Stancliffe’s Hotel (Charlotte Brontë)

2/5

I wasn’t expecting much for something that was never intended to be published and was written at a young age for three siblings with a similar mindset, and that’s what I got. There are some wonderfully funny snippets of speech and description, but there isn’t much of a plot to get into.

Still, you do get a sense of Charlotte Brontë’s developing wit and imagination, which is fascinating to see if you’re a huge fan!

Songs of the Dying Earth: Stories in Honour of Jack Vance (edited by George R R Martin)

2/5, unfinished

I probably should’ve realised that it’d be a good idea to read some Jack Vance before picking up this collection. But I didn’t, and I only managed 160 pages before calling it a day. I understand that the stories are a homage to Vance and his particular style of writing but, unfortunately, it’s a style that’s not for me (especially when there’s nearly 700 pages of it).

I did skip ahead to look at the stories by two of my favourite authors – Tad Williams and GRRM himself – but couldn’t even finish those. I did, however, enjoy Neil Gaiman’s story, which is fortunate as he’s been on my to-read list for a long time.

2018 reading

To-read pile
A whole mess of books in my to-read pile…

I still have a to-read pile of 60-odd books to get through, so I’m going to try to get through most of them in 2018. As everything seems to be going up in price at the moment (grumble grumble), I’m going to make a real effort to only buy books that I’ll definitely keep, and rely on the library and BookMooch for everything else.

I’m most looking forward to receiving the paperback releases of The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams and Assassin’s Fate by Robin Hobb – whether I’ll get round to re-reading the series/books before those remains to be seen!

I’m also hoping to continue reading more from BAME writers. I have a couple of library reservations that will help with this – Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward and Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, which I’m really looking forward to.

Here’s hoping for another excellent year of reading!

My new bathroom

I bought my little terraced house nearly five years ago, but doing up the bathroom wasn’t my priority then – the main task was to get the hundreds of layers of wallpaper, paint and woodchip (woodchip!) off the walls of the main bedroom.

Because I hate hard work, that particular job took quite a while to get round to and even longer to complete, but it got done. Then my attention turned to the bathroom with its weird avocado-pistachio-yellowy-brownish suite and half-tiled walls. The upper half of the walls were lined with wallpaper, which is of course the perfect thing to use in a room that’s perpetually full of moisture.

Old bathroom
The old bathroom. What colour *was* it?

There was no extractor fan, so the wallpaper ended up spotted with condensation mould which the previous owners had simply painted over. I tried to do the same, but lost the will to keep repeating the exercise quite quickly. Something needed to be done.

Over the summer, my husband and I had a brief debate about the merits of a gradual renovation to minimise disruption versus getting everything done at once so we’d have more disruption, but over a much shorter period of time. And, trust me, we needed to get EVERYTHING done – replastering, extractor fan installed, new tiles all over the floor and walls, new suite put in, pipes shifted, and electrical work.

We both agreed that we just wanted to get it over with after spending so long with a crap bathroom, so after expending a lot of time and energy trying to find someone who would be willing to give us a quote (seriously, a couple of people either didn’t turn up as arranged or came round but then never sent a quote. We actually want to give you our money! What’s wrong with you?!), we got the project booked in for a period of around 10 days in October.

It wasn’t a pretty 10 days, let me tell you. It was a bit scary coming home from work on the first day and seeing the bathroom completely gutted of everything except the loo – which we had to put up with only being usable when the workmen weren’t there, and only then with a ‘manual’ flush, shall we say. We could only wash at the kitchen sink, although I could at least use the showers at work. Thank goodness for dry shampoo.

Suite

When the tiles started going in a few days later, I was relieved. I could finally see everything start to take shape! Once the suite was in, I was practically ecstatic. We’d definitely chosen wisely (well, mainly my husband, because I’m crap at choosing things that go together) – we wanted a look that would suit the high ceilings of the house, so we went with a Victorian-style white suite with a high-level toilet, charcoal and white pattened floor tiles, and huge white gloss tiles for the walls.

Floor tiles and table

I can’t tell you how brilliant it was when the workmen finally left and we could clean up all the dust and set about buying the little bits we needed for the bathroom. We got some new grey storage units from Argos and a little round teal table from Zara Home that I love but my husband thinks is ‘a bit weird’. The teal is there to add a splash of colour to what is otherwise a pretty monochrome room, and I think it works well.

Bath and sink

I love my showers, but it was so, so wonderful to have my first bubble bath in the new bathroom. I could finally relax in a lovely, fragrant, foam-laden haven without having to stare at specks of mould on the wall! I could even have the ‘big light’ off for more subdued lighting as we now have an illuminated mirror! Which also heats up to keep steam off it!

Cabinets

We’re now around 6 weeks on from the renovation, and I’m still delighted with the new bathroom. It was an expensive, messy and stressful time, but so totally worth it for what we have now. Here’s to lots more perfect bubble baths over the winter!