Monday, July 18, 2011

Practicing Yoga, Practicing Humility

Every time I think a bad thought about someone (which I shouldn't do), I stub my toe.  HARD.  Or I bang my elbow into my desk.  HARD.  Or my knee on the side of the bed.  HARD.  I like to think of this excruciating pain as Whoever's-Up-There's little way of teaching me a lesson about humility.  It's like when I walk around at work, smug about whatever I'm being smug about and an email goes ping! in my inbox and it's a withering dressing down from someone or other that sends me hiding under my desk for the rest of the afternoon (not that I actually do that ... well ... not for a whole afternoon).  Like, ouch.  Nothing like some humiliation to bring you down to earth.

Lessons in humility make their way to my yoga practice every time I step on my mat.  Whether it's the time I lost my balance whilst perching gracefully in crow, causing me to fall on my face, HARD, and the guy next to me to whisper an infuriating, "smooth", or when I've arrogantly anticipated a pose, only to find the entire class remaining in downward dog for a few extra breaths - I know I can work on being more humble.

As I've mentioned before, I use Lauren's rare absences from teaching to try another instructor's class (read about how I humiliated myself at the Iyengar Institute here) and learn something new about my yoga practice, so I recently decided to sample Simon Bradley's Tuesday hatha class at Jubilee Hall Trust.  Fairly less dynamic than Lauren's Vinyasa flow class, Simon focuses on correct alignment, holding poses, and understanding the anatomy and physiology behind an asana.  It took me one class to realize that I had developed some pretty bad habits, including the fact that my stance in Warrior One was severely shortened and my Warrior Two was downright lazy.  I was mortified.  Mortified, but humbled.  Inwardly, I rolled my eyes when Simon corrected the very subtle misalignment of my toes in King Cobra pose, citing that as the reason for my toes not reaching closer to my head but was surprised to find how much more space that minor correction gave me.  Again, I was reminded of Lauren's constant but gentle reminding that yoga is a journey, not a means to an end.  In an hour, I discovered just how complacent I had become in my practice and how deeply unsatisfying that was.  I was sad to recognize that I'd stopped being mindful in Lauren's class and perhaps prideful instead.  Simon's class was like that email in my inbox - the wake-up call I needed to shake me from my place in the clouds.

I think it's great to stick to a teacher or style of yoga you like, but I don't think it's beneficial to shy away from new experiences.  These experiences may be uncomfortable - they may even be humiliating - but in those moments of clarity, of slamming your knee into the bed frame, you receive a sliver of enlightenment (not to mention, a heck of a lot of pain).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Trinity Hospice: River Walk 2011

Last weekend, John, Tom, Cristy, Alison and I participated in Trinity Hospice's River Walk fundraising event and raised over £800 for the hospice, in memory of John's uncle, Chris.

When I first moved to London, Chris was the one who introduced me to the plush carpets of Fortnum & Mason and the delights of its chocolate counter.  And before Kate Middleton made The Goring a household name (even in the US), Chris took me there for lunch and insisted that we dress up and take pre-meal drinks in the separate bar.  I'll never forget that.

We developed an unexpected, but cherished, friendship over the three years I knew him - through email, Skype, and long conversations in his Pimlico flat ("Westminster, please," he'd correct me).  At the time, I worked at an office not far from Pimlico and would accompany him on fun (House of Fraser) or grocery (Sainsbury's) shopping trips after work.   Over a cup of tea, we extolled the virtues of Finzi and Vaughan Williams, but mostly ... we gossiped.  About everything.  Reality television, fashion, the news, people in the news, people we knew, people we didn't know - everything was up for discussion.  So even now, after he's gone, I still instinctively get the "I can't wait to tell Chris" feeling before reminding myself he's not there to tell anymore.

Chris spent the last few months of his life in and out of Trinity.  I'll be honest: before I stepped foot into Trinity, the mere mention of the word "hospice" was like an icy claw around my heart.  I imagined a dark, suffocating place, with - for some strange reason - no daylight, no happiness, only sadness and grieving.  The first time I visited Chris there however, I was bowled over by how wrong I was: this hospice was bright, shiny, pleasant, warm and, above all, comfortable.  It had a lovely garden where guests could take strolls and the individual rooms had floor to ceiling windows overlooking this beautiful scene.  The furnishings were more akin to those of a boutique hotel, rather than a hospice - or what one would expect of a hospice.  The nurses were friendly, helpful and kind and Chris would often tell me how incredible they were.  All I remember thinking was how glad I was that he was being cared for in such an environment.

Chris is still listed as a "follower" of this blog.  Occasionally, I'll search back to entries that have his comments just to read them again: they don't make me sad.  They make me laugh.  I used to complain, "Why haven't you commented yet?" when he was silent about what I'd written.  "I can't think of anything witty enough to say!" he'd moan and I'd laugh because he prided himself on his sharp observations and witticisms.  I miss his opinions, his insight and his personality.

But my best friend passed on a wonderful saying that always helps: "When someone you love becomes a memory, that memory becomes a treasure."

Team Chris Morris's fundraising page on JustGiving is open and accepting donations until June 2012. Please consider making a small donation to Trinity Hospice here:

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Spa Weekend @ The Runnymede-on-Thames

Ever so often, John and I exchange a wild look: it is one comprised of fear, panic, paranoia, stress. Accompanying this look are dashing, dark circles under John's eyes and a smattering of pimples, threatening to burst with ferocity over my already severely blemished chin.  When this "look" crosses our faces, we both know it's time to take a break.  Away.  Out of the city.  Preferably into the countryside.  Preferably to a hotel that has a spa.  Preferably a spa that has an indoor and outdoor pool, jacuzzi, eucalyptus (this is very important) steam room, sauna, and plunge pool (not essential, but a plus).

Our favorite spot of all-time for such getaways is The Grove, but unfortunately, it was fully booked when I made our last minute enquiry, so I had to find an alternative.  I settled on The Runnymede-on-Thames in Egham for the pure reason that it'd be easy to get to (bus from Islington to Waterloo, then quick train down to Surrey) and the price was just about right (£164 for one night, including breakfast and use of the spa facilities).  Plus, the photos on the website of happy families pointing out ducks on the river and taking afternoon tea (the cake stand filled with finger sandwiches and scones sold it to me) on the river bank seemed ideal.  

But looks can be deceiving, as an overwhelming sense of disappointment washed over me when we pulled into the parking lot of the hotel, just off a roundabout near the motorway.  The photo above is of the BACK of the hotel, not the front - so what you're actually greeted with is a faceless, business conference-like front with a car park that rivals Costco's (okay, okay, there was a bit of grass and shrubbery to distinguish it from the Costco parking lot) - not the sunny, boutique-y charm the website would like to have you believe.  Undeterred, we waltzed in and checked into our room, grabbing some lunch on the terrace on the way.  "Would you recommend booking in advance for the two restaurants here?" I asked the waitress who served us.  It didn't look terribly busy, but with no dinner choices around other than the hotel, we'd be a bit stranded tonight if reservations were essential.  "You'll have to check with the front desk," she answered, which puzzled me a bit since she worked there and would probably be best placed to answer the question of whether or not the restaurant is busy in the evenings.  Still, we got distracted and forgot to ask.  Sure enough, as we approached one of the restaurants at 6:30 p.m. (which was completely empty, save for two tables, by the way) we were politely told by the Maitre d' that both restaurants were fully booked and that the earliest sitting was at 9:30 p.m.  We were encouraged to eat at the bar/lounge area, which was fine since we didn't want more than a sandwich in the end anyway, but was quite irritating.  You'd think it was common courtesy for hotel staff to inform you, upon check-in, that dinner does get quite busy and it'd be a good idea to book - certainly, The Grove offers to arrange reservations at one of their restaurants before you've even arrived!

However, whatever Runnymede lacks in charm, character or common sense, it makes up for in its outdoor pool.  Yes, that's right - a luxuriously long and wide, blue mosaic-tiled outdoor pool which is meticulously cared for and absolutely sparkles when the sun shines.  I know this because I was in that pool when the sun was shining and can confirm that floating on your back in an empty, warm pool whilst staring at the underbelly of planes flying overhead is possibly the most amazing feeling ever.  If, for even two minutes, I felt completely and utterly relaxed and happy, then the £164 I spent that weekend was totally worth it.

The next day, after checking out, we took advantage of the good weather and left our bags at the hotel and took a stroll along the river, as the spa is closed to guests after check-out (again, something that simply doesn't happen at The Grove - there, you're encouraged to stay as long as you'd like to continue your swim or sauna experience after you've checked out) though you can pay for a pass "per hour" which we decided against since it was so lovely outside anyway.  We stumbled upon a regional private school regatta where crews of 16 and unders rowed their way to posh stardom on the Thames.  It was truly like a scene out of Harry Potter, with marquees set up for schools such as Eton and Henley.  We even crashed their BBQ (though we paid, after all) and sampled some delicious burgers cooked by Surrey locals while watching poor, scrawny 10-year-old boys with arms no thicker than my wrist (and I have small wrists) try not to disappoint their over-paying parents, who were decked out in Boden and had names like Harriet, Hamish and Francesca.  Bizarre, yet highly entertaining.

Would I recommend The Runnymede-on-Thames?  Only if you're desperate and the weather is good - then it's not a terribly bad place to get to.  But if you've got better options, I'd say skip out.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Frederick's, Islington High Street

To celebrate the completion of six months at my rather new-ish job, John took me out to dinner at Frederick's  on Islington High Street.  I'm still marvelling at the dining options in Angel and the offerings on this particular back street (bustling during the day because of the market but quietly buzzing at night due to trendy hot spots such as The Elk in the Woods) are what I consider to be particular gems of eating out in Islington.

My heart sank a little when we arrived at the restaurant, greeted by loud al-fresco diners and a semi-packed Friday night bar at the front - I had been hoping for something a little quieter.  But I should have known better than to doubt John's judgement when my dismay gave way to unadulterated astonishment at the beautiful, light and spacious restaurant area that unfolded in front of us as we were led to the back of the establishment.  As it was fairly warm last evening, there were quite a few diners at tables outside already, but we had a terrific spot indoors.

"We're having a starter, main course and dessert," John said emphatically as he opened the menu.  "I don't think I can fit that all in," I said, despite feeling hungry.  After all, I had eaten out for every meal every day since Wednesday evening and was feeling a bit ... like a blob.  Oops.  He shot me a look.  "You have to," he ordered.  So I obliged.

To start, I ordered the baked scallops with chorizo and tomato mimosa.  Served on a porcelain shell-shaped dish, the flavors were both complex and perfectly complementary - a true taste sensation.  I also marvelled at John's salt and pepper squid, served in mock news print with a delicious home-made sweet chilli sauce.  The batter was crunchy and responsive, not soggy and doughy, as you usually get from under-par restaurants.  For our mains, I chose the chargrilled tuna, which I'd was warned (to my delight) would be quite raw in the middle - therefore, I was quite disappointed when it arrived nearly cooked through.  I suppose the menu did specify "chargrilled" rather than "seared", which would explain for how well-done it was.  The sweet, almost Indian-spiced lentil salsa and coriander shoots were the perfect accompaniment.  John had the cote-de-boeuf, which was slightly chewy, but the herb butter won me over (yeah, I totally stole bites).  For dessert, I had a slight panic because it was the first time I'd ever seen a banana split offered on a British menu and I knew I had to have it - problem was, I felt more inclined toward the chocolate tart and coconut ice cream.  What to do?  I went for what my heart told me to do and enjoyed every minute of the tart.  John seemed quite happy with his strudel but I didn't have a chance to poke my fork in because at this point, we had become embroiled in some wine-fuelled, deep conversation about something or other.

At Frederick's presentation is nearly everything.  From the decor, which makes you feel as if you're dining in an over-sized marquee within a greenhouse to the beautifully arranged dishes, it's a visual feast and I'm a glutton for beauty when properly eating out.

So if the food and surroundings are so great at Frederick's, then what lets it down?  The service, unfortunately.  Don't get me wrong, our sommelier was stellar: initially pairing my menu choices with Riesling and when I complained that I detested Riesling, he insisted I have a taste anyway.  When I still protested at the sharpness of the wine, he instead charmingly led us to a bottle of Mittnacht Gyotaku - a blend from Alsace which is especially paired with sashimi and/or sushi (I had ordered chargrilled tuna and John wanted a white instead of red anyway).  His knowledge and passion for wine, as well as his extremely personable manner, made the wine selection a delight.  Our head server was the real problem.  Offering us bread to begin, he rattled off the choices so quickly and in the lowest growl possible, I could barely understand him.  When I asked him politely to repeat, he sighed and repeated it back as if I was an insolent child.  "Which would you recommend," asked John when hesitating over his choice of main course. "The lamb cutlets or the cote-de-boeuf?"  The waiter, who had been at this point scanning the restaurant impatiently and tapping his pad with his pen as John displayed a slight indication of indecision, looked at John with a mixture of pity and contempt: "The cote-de-boeuf is a rib-eye steak, the lamb cutlets is lamb."  Silence.  Wow, that was helpful - the assumption that we were ignorant as to the meaning of "cote-de-boeuf" and condescension in his voice was enough to drive anyone away.  "The steak is good," he added hastily, with a sharp jerk of his chin.  "Um, right, I'll go with the steak then," said John.  "Would you like to order wine?" he inquired.  "Yes," I said, flipping the wine menu open to the whites.  "And what would you recommend for a white?" "Well, they're here," he replied, pointing his finger at the selection I'd been considering for the past 15 minutes.  He looked distracted again.  "My colleague will help you, he's more knowledgeable with the wine," he said before turning sharply on his heel and summoning the sommelier.  Yes, he would be - he's the sommelier, my friend.  Sigh.  Fortunately, the lack of people-skills from one server didn't entirely constitute bad service, as we were well looked after by others during our dessert and coffee courses.

If there's one lesson I learned last night, it's that if you're looking for a special meal out, there's no need to venture into the stiff West End stand-bys on Toptable or Tatler recommendations - there are always secret gardens lurking around the corner.  That and the fact that my boyfriend has impeccable taste in choosing restaurants. And I'm spoiled.

Photo source
© angloyankophile

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