Today I got to try something that I have wanted to do since I was a child – pottery. We did have a kiln fitted at my high school a couple of years before I left, but for some reason I was never allowed to use it. I think maybe my sewing teacher had spoken to the art teacher and told her I was the one who kept (accidentally) breaking the sewing machines, and I was probably best kept away from machinery. On the plus side, I did get very good at hand-sewing whilst I was at school.
Anyway, back to the pottery. My local learning centre (the same place where I studied Welsh at night school) sometimes organise one-day courses in selected subjects such as arts and crafts, cookery and plumbing. When I learnt that today’s one-day school included pottery, I couldn’t wait to enrol.
Pottery is generally a very lengthy process as you have to wait for things to dry and be fired in the kiln in between the various stages. As we only had five hours, our instructor suggested we try making some slab pieces and plates because they are realistic to achieve in a day.
Slab work is when you cut the clay into pieces (or slabs), mould them into the various shapes you require, and then finally stick them all together to form the final object. So, for example, if you wanted to make a cup you would cut a slab for the main body of the cup, wrap it around something circular to create the right shape, cut another slab for the base and then attach a handle. We made the plates by pushing the clay into plaster moulds.
Making pottery look good really is a skill. The clay is nice and soft when you first bring it out of the bag, but it drys really quickly when it comes into contact with the air and is a lot fiddlier to handle than I imagined. Also, the clay in very sticky. When you’re rolling it out you have to keep moving it around so that it doesn’t stick to the table. Our instructor showed us how to imprint patterns into the clay using scraps of embossed wallpaper. I tried to do this on a vase that I was making, but then as soon as I tried to do anything else on the vase I ended up with my fingerprints all over my pretty pattern!
By far the part I enjoyed the most was decorating my pottery. You paint the clay using slip, which is basically watered-down clay with colourant added. It’s not the easiest thing that I’ve painted with, but I think I managed to pull it off. When working with pottery, it’s hard to tell how things are going to look once they’ve been in the kiln. I get to collect my pieces at the end of the month, so I’ll let you know the results. In the meantime, here’s a picture I took of one of my projects before it gets fired. It started off as a mug, but I was struggling to make the handle and it turned out a bit bigger than I thought. So, I decided to leave it at the pot stage. If it comes out of the kiln OK, I might use it to keep my paintbrushes in.
Still no snow here in Cardiff. There are rumours that it’s going to start this afternoon, but it’s already almost 5pm and the sky looks empty to me.
We don’t need the snow to experience the frozen world, though. Last night I took my seven year old godson to see his first ice-hockey game. I love watching ice-hockey, and I was really hoping that he would take to the new activity too.
Our local team are the Cardiff Devils, and last night they were playing the Fife Flyers. I have to say, fight wise, the match was quite tame compared to others that I have seen, but the game itself was really exciting. The Devils got off to a good start by scoring in the first third, and then again in the second. It looked like Fife might make a come-back in the final third when the score reached 2-1, but then Cardiff smashed in a third goal and it was all over.
As always, it was hard to gauge what my godson was thinking during all the action. I long ago gave up trying to second guess what he might and might not like, and his interest in things tends to come and go. As far as I could tell, he was more interested in the slush puppy he was drinking than the ice-hockey.
As we got into the car to drive home, all the thoughts that had clearly been filling his head for the previous couple of hours suddenly burst out of his mouth – ‘What was that number in the middle of the score board? What was your favourite part of the match? I had two favourite parts. One was when the Scottish player knocked the goal over, and the other was when that player broke his stick. Why are the other team called visitors on the score board…?’ and so on. It seems he’d been paying a lot more attention that I thought. It just goes to show, you should never underestimate kids!
As I mentioned in my last post, New Years Resolutions are difficult to stick to. One great way to motivate yourself is to pay it forward.
I first became aware of the Pay It Forward movement when I read Catherine Ryan Hyde’s book of the same name. The basic idea of Pay It Forward is for one person to help 3 others. Instead of those people simply returning the favour, they pay it forward to 3 other people and so on.
Last year, for the first time, I made a conscious effort to pay forward my challenge to visit at least one new place and try at least one new activity every year. For Jubilee weekend, coincidentally also my birthday not that most of the nation noticed, I introduced two of my friends to Whitesands, one of my favourite places in the UK. I also took my friend Geri and my godson climbing for the first time.
Not quite as intentional, but something I am still proud of, is that I encouraged at least two people to make changes in their diet towards becoming more plant-based.
I hope to continue paying it forward in 2013. If you’re already struggling to stick to your resolutions, make the commitment to pay it forward to someone else by the end of the year. If you hold the responsibility to make a change in someone else’s life, you’re more likely to stick to it.
Although I discourage people from making New Years Resolutions, especially big lifestyle changes that are near-impossible to achieve, I appreciate that a lot of people do make them. By the start of December every year I hear friends and co-workers talking about their resolutions for the next year and I genuinely believe their determination to stick to them.
During my own personal lifestyle change, one of the things I constantly tell myself is ‘one step at a time’. The longest lasting change is gradual, and if I happen to slip up and take a couple of steps backwards I try not to beat myself up about it and instead work out how I can move forward again. Making those small steps can be incredibly difficult, though, and it is so easy to make an excuse as to why you have to wait until next week to start.
At the moment I work in an office, a very sedentary environment where it is very easy to become lazy and put on weight. Determined to break this trend, last year my team and I made changes together. All five of us tried to live healthier lives (and I also encouraged them to live more environmentally friendly lives). We all had our own personal reasons for doing it, and we all went about it in different ways, but we encouraged each other daily and shared ideas and knowledge. I have no doubt that, without the support of the other four, not one of us would have succeeded as well as we have so far. Who needs a personal trainer or nutritionist when you have four coaches stopping you from buying that chocolate bar from the vending machine?
After a couple of months taking steps forward together, we noticed that one of our number was regressing. The colleague in question will remain anonymous, but he’d started to take a couple of steps back in his diet and he had started to make excuses not to go to the gym. The rest of us banded together to remind him of why we made our pact in the first place, and what he wanted to achieve. He’s still not entirely back on track. but we will continue to support him in his ambition to lead a healthier life and set a better example to his child.
In a nutshell, the idea is to get together with some like-minded friends or work colleagues and encourage and support each other in your New Year Resolutions. It might give you the push you need to make the change forever. And don’t forget to check in with people occasionally to make sure they’re still on the right path.
The weather here in Cardiff has been hit and miss over the weekend. Saturday morning looked bright and promising, so I walked down to the real food market to do my shopping. As I was deciding which veggies to eat this week, the heavens opened and it poured down. Drenched through, I finished my shopping as quickly as possible and ran home, only for the sun to come out as soon as I got through the front door!
My seven year-old godson had asked me to take him ice-skating, which was originally planned for Saturday afternoon, but after another couple of rain showers and a check of the weather forecast, I decided that activity would be best left until Sunday morning. According to the forecast, double checked by my godson on his games console, there was due to be a gap in the clouds from 11am Sunday that would do us fine.
Ice-skating is far from a new activity for me. Having grown up in Blackpool, where the only affordable place to hang out on the weekend was the ice-rink, I’m quite comfortable skating round in hired skates. My godson, however, has not skated so much. I first took him when he was three and he was still small enough to carry around the ice if needs be. On that first outing he’d loved it, laughing his socks off as he slipped and slid like Bambi. The following winter, unfortunately, was not so successful. Suddenly big enough to be aware of the danger involved, he only managed half a circuit before one of the marshalls had to carry him off. So I was more than a little surprised when he asked me to take him this year. And I have to say how incredibly proud I am of him for being determined to give it another go. He’s still no figure skater, but he completed a good few circuits on his own and was quite happy to pull himself back up after every fall. I did have to laugh at his choice of gloves, though. He’d picked up two left-hand, adult-sized gloves that flapped comically as he tried to stay upright:)
My hope is that some of you are inspired to try a new activity in the New Year. And if you find it a little difficult at first, then take my godson’s advice and keep trying.
Most of the new activities that I have tried have been ones that I have sought out. I hear about them from friends, I see something on TV or I pick up a flyer from a community noticeboard and I have to give it a try for myself. Sometimes, though, new activities have a habit of finding you. New hobbies can come from the strangest of places, and you never know where they will take you.
There’s a nine year age gap between me and my older brother Mark. When we were growing up, he was always coming home with new gadgets and toys that he would be obsessed with for a few weeks and then move on to the next one when his attention waned. My dad once told me that my brother always got annoyed with me because every time he tried to learn something new, like learn to play a musical instrument for example, I would always pick it up quicker than him. When I was eleven years old, Mark came home from university with a set of juggling balls. He’d been trying to learn to juggle for a while, reading all the books and visiting his local juggling shop for tips and advice. He soon got bored, though, and left the juggling balls on the side in my parents’ house. Although I get distracted easily, when I am able to focus on something I completely absorb myself in the task. I picked up the balls and taught myself to juggle in two days. Although a little miffed, my brother admitted defeat and bought me my own set of smaller juggling balls that were much more suitable for my tiny hands. Over the next few years, I developed my juggling skills and it became one of my regular hobbies. My family bought me other equipment such as juggling clubs and a unicycle to keep me busy.
Once you’ve got over the initial frustration and learnt the basic three-ball juggle, it’s an incredibly relaxing past-time. Whenever I need to clear my mind, I pick up my juggling balls. It became incredibly useful when I was revising for exams and needed to de-stress quickly, and I still use it today when I’m writing and need to think of a word or how to phrase something. Juggling has turned out to be more than just a cool party trick for me, it took me on one of the biggest adventures of my life.
After graduating from university, I applied to go and work on a summer camp in America for the summer with BUNAC. When you apply, you have to put down three subjects that you are able to teach. Two years previously, I’d applied to work through Camp America but unfortunately hadn’t been placed. The first subject I’d offered to teach was art, as I’m qualified. The second was dance, because I’d danced since I was four years old and I had the qualifications to prove it. To this day, I cannot remember what I put down as my third choice on that original application form. So, when I was filling out my application for BUNAC, I had to think of another subject that I could teach. So I told them I could teach juggling. Well, technically I could teach it. Besides, it was my third choice and what were the chances someone was going to ask me to teach juggling? A few weeks later I received a phone call from one of the most expensive girls’ camps in North America telling me that their camp juggler had unexpectedly had to leave and could I fly out there for the summer. A couple of months later, I was in the Adirondacks teaching magic and juggling to 7-15 year old girls. Although the summer camp life isn’t for me, it was a great experience to work with the camp magician and it’s certainly created a talking point on my CV.
If you want to learn to juggle too, I’ve attached my own ‘Learn to Juggle’ leaflet. My teaching style is based on how I learnt myself, and is totally different to usual methods. If you practice, I promise you that anyone can learn in two days. You don’t need to go out and buy an expensive set of juggling balls, anything of equal weight will do to start. Beanbags are always good for beginners because they don’t roll away when you drop them, or even oranges (although be warned, they will get bruised and probably end up inedible). Please feel free to share this leaflet and the joy of juggling with all your friends.
One of the downsides to being a travel rep is that days off are rare. When you do get time off, you can never have more than one day at a time. Therefore, if the langlaufen course runs over three consecutive days, you’ll only ever be able to attend the first lesson. Although I still looked like a freestyle skier who had accidentally picked up the wrong equipment from the locker room, my first day on langlaufen skis had gone well. Unfortunately, due to the nature of my job I’d then had to miss parts 2 and 3 of the course. These had included minor pockets of knowledge such as how to stop, how to get out of the tracks when you pick up too much speed and what to do if you get into trouble. So my next outing on my langlaufen skis was a few days later with Gabi, my colleague who was already a confident cross-country skier. I’d made a deal with Gabi that if she learnt to alpine ski, I’d learn to langlaufen. So far she’d stuck to her end of the bargain, so I couldn’t really back out when she told me I needed to progress out of the beginners area and onto a more challenging loipe. Astrid, the head of the langlaufen school, looked horrified when Gabi told her which route we would be taking that day. Langlaufen loipes are graded as blue, red and black (the same as alpine slopes) with black being the most difficult. The loipe that Gabi was proposing we take was a black. In Gabi’s head, none of the langlaufen loipes were as difficult as any of the alpine slopes. So by her logic, as an alpine skier I should have no trouble with a black loipe. To this day I am grateful to Astrid for stepping in, and she persuaded Gabi that maybe a red loipe might be more suitable. Well, how hard could it be? I thought. It’s all on the flat, right? The outing got off to a good start. Once I got into my rhythm I was confidently making my way around the loipe. Cross-country skiing is a bit like working out on a cross-trainer in the gym, it’s easier to stay in rhythm if you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing. I should have learnt from my alpine skiing experience that it’s never good to get too over-confident, regardless of what winter sports equipment you have on your feet. Gabi warned me that we were coming up to a steep downhill part of the loipe, and suggested I may want to come out of the tracks as hills are easier to navigate from the smooth, groomed snow that the skaters use. As I’d missed the lesson where I would have learnt how to ski outside the tracks, and my langlaufen skis still felt like a pair of really long, unstable ice stakes, I decided I felt more comfortable staying in the tracks. Don’t worry, I told Gabi, I’ll just keep in the tracks until it flattens out again. After all, I am an alpine skier and therefore used to going fast. How steep could a langlaufen track be anyway?
As I reached the bottom of the hill and the snow beneath my skis began to flatten out, a huge sense of pride came over me. I could handle this cross-country skiing malarky. What was all the fuss about? My triumph was short-lived as I realised that the ground was starting to slope downhill again. The slope that I’d just conquered was only a pre-cursor so a much, much bigger hill. Gabi glided past me and smiled, completely missing the look of terror on my face. A few seconds later, I overtook Gabi again, travelling as a speed that would have scared the hell out of me on my own skis, and completely incapable of doing anything about it. The best course of action, I decided, was to stay upright for as long as I could. That point turned out to be about three quarters of the way down, when I popped up out of the track (literally) and rolled the rest of the way to the bottom, destroying most of the nicely groomed loipe on my way. Yes, I had done what I had previously thought impossible. I had wiped out on a langlaufen track. I can still hear the tuts and other noises of disapproval from my fellow skiers as they skied over me.
A word of warning – If you are thinking of trying cross-country skiing, the most common injury is a bruised coccyx/tail bone. I wasn’t convinced of this fact until I fell on mine and couldn’t walk properly for six weeks. So when you’re buying your leisure pants, maybe choose some with some extra padding in that area.
As I mentioned yesterday, I’m lucky to be able to say that I’ve worked in some fantastic ski resorts during my career overseas. Although they are usually called ‘ski’ resorts, though, it’s not all about the skiing. One of the benefits of my job was that I got to try out some of the other winter sports that go on in the mountains and add lots of ‘new activities’ to my list.
First and foremost, I am an alpine skier. When I first learnt to ski, snowboarding was becoming increasingly fashionable, but I decided I wanted to learn to ski first as people told me it’s easier to go from skiing to snowboarding than vice versa. I have since learnt to snowboard, I wouldn’t call it ‘snowboarding’ but I can at least get down the mountain on a board. I just don’t like my feet being strapped to the same board, though, and I have to say that personally I prefer to be on my skis.
Snow-blading proved to be a good way to improve my balance on my normal skis. If you lean too far forward or too far back on these, there’s nothing to stop you cartwheeling down the hill, as demonstrated by my colleague Simon when we guided a snow-blading day together. We also had two snowboarders in our group, who proved the theory right that it’s easier to go from two boards to one than the other way around. They so weren’t used to their feet moving independently of each other on the snow, and ended up looking like Bambi on snow-blades!
Whilst working in Seefeld, the snow-shoe guide Mary asked me to help her guide an unusually large group of guests one week. It sounds like the easiest thing in the world, a sport where essentially all you have to do is walk. You’ve been walking since you were two years old, right? How hard can it be? I was supposed to be assisting anybody who fell over, but I was too busy laughing along with the guests and taking photos of them to be of much use. It was so much fun!
Putting me in charge of anything with an engine probably isn’t a good idea, but I have also tried skidooing/snowmobiling. Tearing around the countryside in the dark, trying desperately to follow the tiny light on the back of the skidoo in front of me, I felt like I was in a James Bond movie. I also apologise profusely to Inghams for breaking their ten-year safety record by crashing my skidoo into a stream. Don’t worry, nobody was hurt and a helpful Irish holidaymaker came past and helped me to pull it back out again.
The one winter sport that I surprised myself by really liking is cross-country skiing, or langlaufen as it is known in German-speaking countries. As an alpine skier, I’d always considered langlaufen to be something people did who…. Well, to be honest, I’d never really thought about who did it or why. They just always seemed to be there, usually at the bottom of a valley, skating round in circles. There are two types of langlaufen, classic and skating. Classic langlaufen is where you propel yourself along in specially prepared parallel tracks in the snow. Skating, as the name implies, is a much freer style. Skaters ski alongside the tracks on groomed snow. Langlaufen skis are very different to other types of skis. They are long, very narrow and lightweight. You wear small, sneaker-like shoes that clip into the ski binding at the front of the shoe, and you use very long ski poles to help you keep yourself going forward. Langlaufen has never been the most fashionable of winter sports, but I imagine that since Pippa Middleton’s participation in a langlaufen race, it may suddenly experience a resurgence in the near future.
Before working in Seefeld, I’d had one experience on cross-country skis. I’d previously worked in a ski shop in Whistler BC, Canada. Part of my job was to rent out cross-country equipment, in particular for the cross-country taster that was held every week in aid of a local charity. I’d confidently guide the customers on how to use the equipment and advise them of the conditions of the cross-country track. In all honesty, I did not have a clue about cross-country skiing. To this day I could not even tell you where the cross-country track in Whistler is. Whilst not really paying attention in a weekly staff meeting, my ears pricked up when I heard my boss mention the company’s famous annual cross-country race. As I’d never heard of this famous race, I was even more surprised when my supervisor assured our boss that our team had been in training for weeks. More than a little concerned, I pulled my supervisor aside and explained that I’d never actually been on cross-country skis. He told me not to worry, and was so confident in my abilities that I didn’t put a pair of cross-country skis on my feet until the start of the race a couple of weeks later. Unfortunately, to add to my challenge, we’d had very little snow that season and the actual cross-country track was already a cycle path. Don’t panic, my ever-confident supervisor announced, we’ll use one of the slopes instead. It wasn’t even a nursery slope that they picked. We drove halfway up the mountain and sneaked onto an intermediate downhill run that was pretty icy even for an alpine slope. One of my colleagues put me into my equipment and before I knew it I was in the middle of a cross-country relay race. I tried desperately to at least keep going forward up a very steep, very icy slope that was only ever intended to be used to go down. Think trying to roller-blade on ice and you’ll get the picture.
Once I reached the turn around point, I was given a drink to down, and then one of my colleagues literally had to turn me round on my skis. Those things have no edges, how are you supposed to turn on them? He pointed me downhill, told me to keep my skis straight, and let me go. I did as I was told, and thankfully another colleague caught me at the bottom before I disappeared off into the back-country. It would be a few years before I put cross-country skis on my feet again.
Finding myself working in Seefeld, a mecca for langlaufen, it would have been rude not to give it another go. I got the equipment I needed from the ski shop, booked myself into a beginners lesson with some of my guests, and I was all ready to go. Well, almost. My colleague Gabi, an experienced cross-country skier, looked at me in despair.
‘Do you not own any leisure pants?’ she asked.
‘Do I look like someone who would own leisure pants?’ I replied. As a freestyle skier, a helmet and belt were higher up on my list of things to pack.
‘Well, at least try not to look so baggy.’ Gabi advised. ‘You’ll only get yourself caught in something. Remove some layers as well, it’ll be warm out there.’
Twenty minutes later, I was glad of the advice. No wonder cross-country skiers always look so slim. It feels like you sweat your body weight after the first 100m. Even with Gabi’s advice, though, and no matter how hard I try to fit in, I think I’ll always look like an alpine skier on cross-country skis.
Coming up in Cross-Country Skiing Part 2… A giant leap forward in my langlaufen training – Gabi decides I’m ready for an intermediate loipe (cross-country trail) and I answer the question ‘Is it possible to wipe out on a cross-country track?’
On a Monday evening I usually attend a pilates class at my local community centre. My neighbour used to come with me, and during one visit, she expressed an interest in trying the Trixster Spin class. Great! I thought. An activity that I haven’t tried before, it sounds interesting and for once I won’t have to turn up on my own.
Although a lot of people are familiar with what a spin class is, I should probably explain what it involves. I once heard about a woman’s partner who had only recently discovered that spin class involves bikes. For two years he had assumed she spent one evening every week spinning round in circles with a group of like-minded women. The bikes are fixed to the floor, and an instructor shouts instructions to you whilst you pedal your backside off.
When the next class came around I was all ready to go, and my neighbour bailed on me! Never one to shy away from a promise I’ve made to myself, I set off for the community centre. Unfortunately, the receptionist had given me the wrong class times, and I accidentally turned up to the advanced class instead of the beginners group.
Three minutes into the warm-up, I made the rookie mistake of looking at the clock. There was no way I could survive another 42 minutes of this! I was exhausted already! I resorted to sporadically joining in with the exercises when I could, and just sitting and pedalling the rest of the time. I found the resistance on the bike hard to master as well. That should have been no surprise, though, I struggle with gears on a real bike. When the instructor shouted to hike up the resistance, everyone else powered away on their bikes whilst I just stopped with my bum in mid-air. I soon learnt why everyone else had brought their own towels along with them, I felt like I’d sweated out all the fluid in my body! If anyone has seen the film Bridget Jone’s diary with Renee Zellweger, all I can say is I no longer look at the scene where she falls off the exercise bike as comedic fiction. I was literally struggling to walk out of the class afterwards, and the fitness suite being on the upper floor of the community centre only compounded my problems. Trying to walk down stairs whilst your legs feel like jelly and maintain any type of composure around all your other classmates who have quite obviously been spinning for years is virtually impossible. It can’t have been that bad, though, because I’ve been back since. It’s a great cardio workout, and you feel great once you’ve got the feeling back in your legs and bum. If you are thinking of trying spin for the first time, though, I’d definitely recommend going to the beginners class first.
As I said in my last post, Swimming, a ‘new activity’ can be something that you’ve rediscovered after some time away. That’s kind of the case with me and today’s activity, but with an up-to-date addition. I first went to aqua aerobics over ten years ago when I was a student in Newport, South Wales. A friend of mine convinced me to go along with her and give it a try, and we ended up attending the class every week. I don’t usually like normal aerobics on land as I get bored and distracted, but for some reason putting it in the water makes the difference for me. It’s a great work out, because you’ve got to push against the extra friction that the water creates, and it’s really nice to be able to cool your shoulders and head off in the pool when you over heat. A couple of years ago, when I moved back to Wales, I tried to find another aqua aerobics class to go to, but it seemed to have gone out of fashion. Then another friend of mine asked me to go along to her weekly class with her, forty five minutes of aqua aerobics followed by forty five minutes of aqua zumba. I was excited to be giving aqua aerobics another go, but I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to like aqua zumba before I even got to the pool. For those who have never heard of aqua zumba, it’s a revamped version of aqua aerobics. Zumba is a combination of salsa dancing and aerobics. There are going to be lots of people, women in particular, who won’t like me for saying this, but salsa and zumba are just not for me. In my book, they sit alongside line-dancing, which was a huge hit in the early nineties, i.e. it’s dancing for people who can’t dance. I went to a salsa class once, and I don’t plan to ever repeat the experience. I was staying with a friend of mine in Devon and she asked if I wanted to join her at her weekly class. You know me, always willing to give something a go, so I went along. We had two classes to choose from, beginners and intermediate. Although I’ve done a fair few dance classes in my time, I was a newcomer to salsa so I suggested that the beginner’s class would probably be best. Cue one whole hour of men standing on my feet and hitting me in the face with their ‘salsa arms’. I wouldn’t even mind if they could stand on my feet in time to the music, but they all had the rhythm of a frog in a blender. I was so relieved when the class was finally over, only for my friend to suggest that we stay for the intermediate class too! Not wanting to hurt her feelings, I made out that I thought it might be a bit difficult for me so I’d just watch. Imagine my shock when the intermediate class started and it was all the same men that I’d been dancing with for the previous hour! None of them were beginners at all. According to my friend most of them had been attending that class for at least two years.
Aside from my dislike of salsa, I was a little disheartened to find that every other exercise in the aqua zumba class was repeated from the previous aqua aerobics class. It seems the two aren’t that different after all. As for the zumba bits, well, as expected I hated them. Not even the instructor had rhythm in this class. To be fair to us in the water, though, it’s hard to dance in time when you’re chest deep in a swimming pool. It took all my concentration not to loose my grip on the slippery tiles and completely immerse myself. So forgive me all of you who attend zumba/salsa/aqua zumba classes. I applaud you for your commitment to what you enjoy, but you won’t be seeing me in a class anytime soon.