All posts for the month October, 2011

Migraine is a pain in the neck as well as in the head

Published 25/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

I’ve suffered and struggled with migraines for at least thirty years.  On my worst days I just have to give in to them and rest, but at other times I try to keep going and certainly find it helps a little to swear at them, in the hopes that they really will b****r off!

I can’t believe that I’ve only just discovered (and joined) Migraine Action, an association that was founded in 1958 to support migraineurs and specialist clinics and to help research into migraine, its causes, diagnosis, prevention and treatment.  I had the opportunity to attend their recent AGM and education day in London, and am so pleased that I didn’t have a migraine on that day and had the opportunity to meet so many other sufferers, and to listen to, and get advice from, some of the country’s leading specialists in the field.

The day was focused on three major topics.  The first one was a talk on preventative treatments for migraine and was presented by Dr Manjit Matharu, a consultant neurologist at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, where the day was also organised.  The first interesting fact I gleaned is that migraine is a brain disorder and there are approximately five million sufferers in the UK.  Although there are a few basic symptoms, many of us also report other experiences and variations, and a horrifying third of all patients don’t respond to any treatments.  We talked about the various over-the-counter analgesics that are available (although they must be taken at far higher doses), complementary supplements that can be bought, along with the recommended doses, and the prescription only preventatives, along with any side effects.  We were also given scientific data relating to the trials of the various medications, so that we could weigh up how useful they have proved and compare their use to the results achieved from taking placebos.

Dr Andrew Dowson is the Director of Headache Services at King’s College Hospital in London.  He outlined the available acute treatments and the latest research into treating migraine.  Again we were given facts and figures regarding treatments and learned about some of the research that is currently ongoing.  This includes needle free injections and transdermal patches.  He also explained the differences between the various triptans that are generally prescribed to treat migraines, and advised me to try an alternative to the one I’ve been taking for years.  So I’m off to see my doctor next week, duly armed with my information.

The third speaker was Dr Sue Lipscombe who is both a GP, and a headache specialist.  She was more interested in discussing ways of managing migraines and also of encouraging alternative and complementary therapies and treatments.  Although scientific data rules out the effectiveness of chiropractic and acupuncture (to name but two) we were given evidence to show that these treatments have worked with some sufferers.  Nobody is sure if there is a placebo effect or how the results can be explained, but it seems there is a case to be answered for these other therapies.  She even cited a sceptical patient, who had no belief in a therapy being offered to her, but who contacted her several weeks later, having been migraine free since that time.

All in all an extremely useful and informative day and a chance to chat to other migraineurs.  It was a shame to learn that Migraine Action is struggling to raise funds just now, so we need to recruit as many members as possible, and to find other fundraising routes.

Collecting for Charity

Published 25/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

As part of my ongoing involvement with my local branch of Mencap, I sometimes shake a collecting box outside a local supermarket.   Last week it was the turn of the nearest Tesco (in fact they only allow one collection day a year).  Unfortunately it’s not one of the more lucrative spots either, but a couple of hours spent coercing the public here and there is never wasted.  Even when passersby remark on how cold I appear, I remind them that I choose to be cold for a couple of hours, but the people I’m supporting have no choice and are disabled for life.

The two hours that I give up of my time seem to pass really quickly.  Although the collecting tin might feel rather empty to start with, it’s made worthwhile by those who drop money through the slot.  Many people will just give a pound or a fifty pence piece and others will empty all their small change into my tin.  I’ve also had the extremes: one lady folded a five pound note and poked it through the opening, whilst somebody donated one penny last week.  I kept quiet and reminded myself that I had no idea of his particular circumstances.

There are those who push past me with their shopping trolleys as if I’m obstructing them, some look me in the eye and walk past, and others mutter something about no change, or having spent it all on their shopping.  Whenever somebody stops before reaching me and fumbles in their bag, wallet or purse I’m always hopeful, but sometimes they’re only hunting for their car keys.  On the other hand, it’s a pleasant surprise when somebody pats me on the back, having passed me, and offers me money.  Of course young children always love to feed money into a collecting box, and love to have a sticker in return.  Very often I find that elderly or disabled people are the most empathetic and will donate to Mencap.

A couple of events stick out from my last collection.  The first was a very heavily pregnant young woman who staggered to the bench outside the entrance, holding her bump from underneath.  Whilst she was sitting down she kept massaging her pregnant stomach and I wondered if I was going to have to be a midwife as well as a charity collector.  However she assured me that the baby was very active and she just couldn’t manage without a rest.

I was also kept company by a gorgeous King Charles spaniel.  The owner left him outside whilst she shopped, and he kept seducing me with his big brown eyes.  He was such a sweetheart, with long, silky ears and I was sorry to see him leave.

Collecting gives me a chance to chat to strangers.  Many will stop to talk, will ask about the cause, or will just pass the time in a good natured way.  We exchange jokes, such as threatening to catch them on their way out, and one lady even remarked how I’d managed to change sex as the previous collector (when she entered) had been a man, and I was now the one rattling the tin.  It all goes some way to restoring your faith in human nature and making you feel that you are helping to contribute something for others who are less fortunate.  There are many demanding causes.  We can’t all contribute financially to everything, but we can donate some of our time.

Nigel Slater: Toast

Published 14/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer


Nigel Slater is my favourite cookery writer and TV food presenter.  I refuse to call him a television chef, because he isn’t, but he understands food and how different flavours and textures work together.  His cookery books aren’t at all fussy or precise and he makes it very clear that cooking is a very personal practice that can be varied as the cook wishes.  But his recipes draw in the reader, make your mouth water, and make you want to rush off to the kitchen to start trying the dishes for yourself.

In this memoir he revisits his early and teen years using the sensory memories of different foods.  I was amazed at his recall of so many different items, especially the sweets.  I’m only a few years older than him, but I’d forgotten about some of the sweets he clearly remembers.  However he managed to sweep me back to my younger days of ‘Beatlegum’ (and the smell returned with the memory), Clarnico Mint Creams (my grandma used to eat them), pear drops smelling of nail varnish remover and the original Walnut Whips.  Back in the 1960s we weren’t very sophisticated on a culinary level, and I also remember when puddings tended to be fruit out of a tin, and when school dinners were atrocious, but you were forced to eat them regardless, including drinking the lukewarm school milk.  His food reminiscences work in tandem with his home life, his mother’s illness, his father’s remarriage, and later his father’s death.

He evokes experiences and encourages the reader to share his own teenage and adolescent growing pains, his mother’s loss, his difficulties with his stepmother, his early sexual adventures and his realisation that cooking is all he wants to do.  Each section (they’re hardly long enough to be chapters) bears the title of an item of food and it’s as if he’s sharing memories and experiences with the reader, and not recounting a linear autobiography.


Published 05/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

I haven’t visited this ancient city for thirty-eight years, so couldn’t resist the opportunity to see if it had changed.  Our original plans to catch the metro into the Plaka area were hurriedly altered when we felt the heat,  and arranged for a local taxi driver to take us to the main sights and wait for us whilst we looked around.  After all, only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun and even the dogs are sensible enough to take a nap in the shade.

The first stop was the Acropolis.  When I originally visited it forty years ago we were able to clamber wherever we wanted, but now everything is roped off and scaffolded as part of the ongoing restoration work.  It also seemed like much harder work to climb up to the top, but then our legs are forty years older now.  Our allotted hour passed and we had to make our way down again into the deliciously air conditioned taxi.  The driver showed us the Presidential palace with an Evzone guard on duty outside.  He explained that the guards take it in turns to spend an hour at a time on duty.  Anything longer would be impossible because of the heat and because they must stand perfectly still.  I don’t think he even blinked while we were there.

After this the driver had to take a detour because of demonstrations that were taking place, causing road closures.  We visited the remains of the Temple to Olympian Zeus  and then he deposited us on Amalias Avenue for our stroll around the Plaka and the flea market.  Everything’s changed a lot since I was last there and it seems even more touristy than it used to be.  Anyway we fortified ourselves with a delicious Gyros with vegetables in bread and eventually managed to find our way back to the taxi, and then to the ship to cool off and relax.


Published 05/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

My cultural side wanted to take a ferry to the nearby island of Delos, with its architectural remains of the Temple of Apollo, but my lazy, tourist side won the battle.  Hence we spent the next few hours wandering around the island of Mykonos, browsing and shopping for local products.

Mykonos is full of stray cats (similar, but on a smaller scale, to Istanbul).  As usual I couldn’t resist any of them and shared my Gyros lunch with a ginger and white tomcat, although I kept my yummy, flaky, crispy Baklava to myself.  But cats don’t appear out of nowhere; they have to start off as appealing little kittens.  The first one I came across was a friendly little tabby, who was quite happy for me to pick him up and cuddle him.  However he was more interested in food and proceeded to try to suckle my clothes and was perfectly happy for me to stay with him.  As I’m not a nursing female cat, the best I could offer him was some water, and had to leave him to fend for himself.

The next kitty was a tortoiseshell that was equally friendly and bold with people, but not so brave when it came to an encounter with the island’s tame pelican.  His response to this huge bird was to climb a nearby tree and look anxious.

You can’t visit Mykonos without climbing up high to see the old windmills that no longer turn.  We duly visited, along with all the other tourists and our cameras, until we’d photographed everything possible and it was time for lunch.


Published 05/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

An overnight sailing brought us into Haifa in northern Israel.  What a contrast between this city and Ashdod!  The port has views of the Carmel (and the Bah’ai Temple) that lure the visitor to want to explore this beautiful city.

Despite having arranged for a hire car, we still had to negotiate the local taxi drivers,  who were all touting to show tourists around this area of the country.  We finally struck a bargain with one of them, who dropped us at Eldan to collect our car (with fewer dents than the previous one).  First stop was my sister-in-law’s grave high up on the Carmel and overlooking the Mediterranean.  What a beautiful, tranquil spot for a cemetery.

All this had taken longer than anticipated so an iced coffee  was needed, and a three-legged dog petted, before we made our way to Tiberias.

The area around the lake is much lower than Haifa, and consequently much hotter.  However the views across the Sea of Galilee and over to the Golan Heights  were spectacular, especially when accompanied by a plate of the local St Peter’s Fish,  dutifully shared with a local black and white cat.  Moggies the world over treat humans as their slaves, but they do it in such a way that animal lovers cannot help but be seduced by them.  I’ve always said that felines have tremendous chutzpah, but Israeli cats have even more than most.

After a brief paddle in the lake, and no walking on water for mere humans, it was time to wend our way back to the ship and say goodbye (or shalom) to Israel.

My first visit to Jerusalem

Published 03/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

We were warned not to drive into Jerusalem between 8 am and 10 am as the traffic would be very heavy,  so we left the ship a little after 10 in the morning for a drive into the most disputed city for the world’s religions.

Our first stop was in the Arab quarter of the old city, where we were constantly accosted and waylaid by vendors trying to sell their wares.  The old city has probably not changed much since biblical times, but is also similar to other old Middle Eastern cities, such as the souk in Tunis or Lindos on Rhodes.  After a little bit of shopping, the constant touting for business became rather tedious as the salesmen became ruder and we resorted to fighting fire with fire.

Our first tourist visit was to David’s Tower, from where we had the most amazing views across the old city, dominated by the Dome of the Rock with its golden roof.   However the most important sight for me was the Wailing Wall, the site of the First Temple, which we first viewed from higher up.  I thought I was clothed modestly in a maxi dress, but my sleeves (despite covering my shoulders) were too short and I had to borrow a scarf to cover my upper arms.  Conservative Judaism is still misogynistic.  The greater part of the area in front of the Wall is allocated to the men, whilst the women have to squeeze into a much smaller space and it was impossible to get close enough to the holy stones, or to leave a message between the bricks.

After visiting the surface area of the Temple, we joined a fascinating tour under the walls of the structure, and learned that the stones were quarried nearby and that the bottom ones weighed 570 tons each.  They were dragged into place and then chiselled flat once in situ.  Emerging into the evening light we caught the end of a girls’ choir singing Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem; an appropriate reminder of where we were and a warning that Jews must never be forced out of their homeland ever again.

A bus ride along the walls was like stepping back several hundred years.  Most of the passengers in the vehicle were orthodox Jews, men sitting at the front and women in the back half.  A rather unnerving experience for a twenty-first century Londoner.

Having actually visited Jerusalem, my appetite has been whetted and I will definitely return, perhaps not ‘next year in Jerusalem’ but before too long.

Tel Aviv and Jaffa

Published 03/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

I can’t say I wasn’t warned.  Tel Aviv is a sprawling modern city, more European than Middle Eastern.  The shops sell many of the same labels that can be found around the world, and most of the cafés boast free Wi-Fi.  Wandering along Dizengoff, the main street, is just like any other busy shopping area, except that it’s probably much hotter.  An hour or two of this was enough and we made our way to Jaffa , a suburb of Tel Aviv.

Jaffa, by contrast, still retains many of its Arab origins.  Its age is reinforced by the shops selling antiques or second hand goods.  We wandered and browsed until it was time for lunch, an Israeli delicacy called Shakshuka in a restaurant called Dr Shakshuka.  This is a delicious vegetarian stew of onions, peppers and tomatoes, topped with a couple of lightly poached eggs.  All we needed was some bread   for mopping up the juices, and a plate of local couscous.  Yummy and healthy.  If only the drive out of Tel Aviv and back to the main highway had been equally enjoyable.  How on earth can rush hour start around 2.30 in the afternoon, and how can the car ownership of such a small country be so extensive?  Do all Israelis learn to drive in Italy, Paris or Athens, or do the instructors come from those places to teach them?

A Jewish girl finally makes it to Israel

Published 03/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

I know I should have visited Israel  before now, but each attempt I’ve made in the past has been thwarted, so when I had the chance to join a cruise that disembarked in both Ashdod and Haifa, the chance was too good to pass up. 

Two relaxing days at sea were followed by three and a half days spent in the heat of the Holy Land.  Arrived at Ashdod (what an ugly port, not destined for tourist ships), I offered my first shaloms spoken in Eretz Yisroel  and rapidly reminded myself that Israelis can be the rudest and most offhand of all nations.  No matter: I was in Israel and that’s all that counted.

First stop on dry land was to collect the hire car that we’d pre-booked.   We couldn’t believe how they could rent out a car with so many scratches and marks; even the front number plate was wonky!  However it wasn’t long before we encountered the standard of driving on the local roads and soon found out why our car was far from pristine.  The roads were easy to navigate, although our Hebrew is so poor that we could only cope with the signs that were translated into English.  It didn’t take long to get onto Highway 4 and famous place names started to appear: Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa – places I’d only ever heard of or encountered in the Bible.

Our destination on our first day was to Ra’anana, a suburb of Tel Aviv, to meet friends and business colleagues.  We pulled off the main road for a light snack of Israel’s national dish: Falafel in pitta bread.   However we didn’t realise that Bnei Brak, the town we’d chosen, was ultra religious.  Coming from London we were used to Chasidic Jewry in Golders Green and Stamford Hill, but this was something else.  I must have been the only woman wearing short sleeves and no head covering or wig (sheitl).  Even the snack bar we chose was Glatt Kosher, despite not selling meat products.  Anyway we enjoyed our food, shared with a couple of Israeli soldiers, and continued on our way.  We eventually found our destination, made friends with a beautiful, elderly, cross-bred spaniel-dachsund and had our first proper meal on Israeli soil in the seaside resort of Herzlia.   Israeli food is hugely influenced by Middle Eastern cuisine, and owes very little to traditional European Jewish cooking.  The food was delicious, although not kosher (there were prawns on the menu), and my pudding of a semifreddo of Halva was too delicious to leave, although I was rather full by then.

 A late night drive back to the ship, by which time the traffic had calmed down immensely, where a good night’s sleep was imperative to set us up for the next day’s trip to Jerusalem.

I thought I needed a holiday, but I didn’t realise how much I needed a holiday until I went on holiday

Published 03/10/2011 by damselwithadulcimer

Just over a year since our last holiday and I was counting down the days until the next one; a Mediterranean cruise

when I would finally get to visit Israel after two previously aborted attempts.  The idea of a 6 am flight was not particularly something I was relishing, but there was no alternative if we were to board the ship before it sailed from Rome. 

The planned early night never materialised.  (Does it ever?)  A 2.30 wake-up call   was necessary to be sure of getting out of the house just after 3 am.  The only plus point was the lack of traffic on the roads at that time of the morning, and it was a huge surprise to see several others leaving their cars at the ‘Park and Ride’ at that time of the morning.  Heathrow airport at 4 am is a rather unusual sight.  Only one check-in desk was open in Terminal 4 for the early flyers, and everybody was queuing there, meaning that we had to line up for an hour although we’d already ‘checked in’ online the day before.

Alitalia is hardly generous with their onboard refreshments.  There was a choice of salty or sweet biscuits, actually a 25 gram pack of mini nibbles, washed down with a cold drink.  Thank goodness for the cappuccino  and Danish pastry we managed to buy on our way through the terminal, as we were not to eat anything again until after boarding the ship at lunch time.

Arrived at Fiumicino we eventually located the people organising the shuttle bus to the docks, although there was no bus!    After a phone call and a wait of about an hour it duly turned up and drove us out to the coast.  Despite having a list of travellers, the bus driver decided that our names didn’t match those on his list and was about to refuse to take us to the ship.  He did actually take us for a round tour of the port, before finally deciding that he could actually deposit us at the embarkation point.  After that, it was all plain sailing – literally.