Category Archives: Education

The Mito Principle

In my early years I was a car guy. I subscribed to Road and Track and every month I will get the magazine with the news and views of the latest cars. That publication had terrific writers and besides the cars to ogle at, the reading was always a delight.IMG_7688
At that time, like most, I dreamt of owning the latest cars and my dreams will be updated each and every month. My favourites back then were the Cizeta Moroder, Ferrari Testarossa and the Porsche 959. All stratospherically priced vehicles. If wishes were horses, I would have ridden.
As the years passed, my philosophy on owning things started to change. It became less of idealising objects and more of a sense of enjoying the beauty and utility of them. I expect if I can easily afford something, I am happy to own it, if possible. Still now I check the number of things I acquire because I am losing patience with being surrounded by stuff.
A couple years ago, at my first job away from home, I was prompted to get a second car to avoid having the family running up and down the motorway to drop me off on weekends. A buddy at work wanted to trade in a Saab Aero for a Land Rover so I ended up with a two litre turbo that ran like a thief. I enjoyed the long commute home on the big roads, swiping through the long bends and feeling the taught suspension balancing the car through the curves.
I changed jobs and then worked on the other side of London, the busy side, close to Heathrow Airport. There the quick acceleration worked against me on one particular evening when I got two speeding tickets from the Variable Speed cameras. I was nothing short of furious.
Those cameras have been hell in driving along that road, you have to keep your eye on the speed notices all the time toIMG_7693 avoid a loud PAX! That evening I lapsed and while under no danger, I was ticketed, twice
The Saab was already ten years old and starting to demand expensive repairs so I decided to get rid of it and set a new criteria for a replacement.
The new car must be under the tax band, slow to accelerate and cheap to run. With my parameters set, I started my search. I got a good price for the Saab and that served as a downpayment for the next car.
I found an Alfa Romeo Mito for sale that matched all that I wanted in a car. It was less than a litre in engine size and had many modern comforts that the Saab lacked. I got it for a song because the owner was pressed to migrate and to my surprise the car drove beautifully. It is a joy in the lanes! I took it through the Chilterns one weekend soon after I got it and it was one of the best country drives I ever had. The car is nimble and enjoys being thrown into corners where it just sticks to the line you carve from the steering wheel. Fun, fun, fun!
There is no doubt it is slow. You do get a quick take off from a standing start and that is exciting at traffic lights but by the time you hit 30mph, you are chugging along. It is very hard to break a speed limit in this car. Just what I wanted.IMG_7694
Recently the notice came for me to renew the road tax. I immediately got online and the process was one of clicking three buttons in quick succession without any exchange of money. Super!
Then there was the renewal of the insurance; which at £300 for the year makes me feel like the cat that got the cream.
I am somewhat smug about this entire episode but in standing aside, I will like to take from it some principles that might help me in other areas.
First was, I made a list of what attributes I was looking for. At that point it did not matter what make or model, just what qualities were important to me.
I then looked for a vehicle that was the closest match to that list. When the ad for the car came up, I already knew it was the one I wanted. I was able to move swiftly, without much hesitation and acquire it.
Those two points seem to form an approach I can expend in other circumstances. First decide on the qualities you want to work with and secondly when you find them, move promptly and confidently.

Nettle’s Long Story

“If they would eat nettles in March, and drink Mugwort in May, 
So many fine maidens would not go to the clay.” – Funeral Song of a Scottish Mermaid. 

IMG_20160422_123345Using nettle for clothing is not anything new, as humans discovered it is a excellent source of fibre  millennia ago. And it is not long distant history as it may seem, because we still use nettle fibres to make fabric. It is beautiful that this prickly plant is coming out from the shadows of history again and being considered as one of sustainable sources of fibres.

Ancient Egyptians wrapped mummies in ramie cloth, made of plant fibres from the nettle family. European nettle (Uriotica Dioica) was used by Vikings and Slavic tribes in the Central Europe alike. In the Bronze Age burial of an important man in Denmark, archaeologist discovered that the nearly 3000 years old cloth that bones were wrapped in before placing in bronze urn, was made of nettle. The nettle does not grow in Denmark and in further analysis, it turned out this nettle was from Austria region of Europe. It is evident that nettle cloth was considered a special, expensive material, traded in Europe and something of a status symbol.

It is unusual to find ancient cloth, unless it got luckily preserved in favourable conditions like being water logged or carbonised for example. Therefore, such a rare find like this from Denmark, confirms that despite already growing flax for cloth production, people still were using wild nettles, because it gives fibres as fine as raw silk and has that luxury touch.

Regardless of its luxurious properties as a fabric, it was not the only reason for nettle being so venerated. It was considered to be a magical plant by the Slavic and Vikings alike. At the Summer Solstice, Slavic tribes used to hang bunches of it in doorways to protect agains demons or protect crops on their fields. Nettle was also believed to keep away thunderstorms, so it was often burnt as the smoke was meant to scare away stormy clouds. Hence, cloth made of nettle must have been considered a protective, revered material to adorn oneself.

To top it up, nettle was known for medicinal uses as well; used to treat bleeding or infected wounds to cite a few, as mentioned in Hippocrates texts. There were plenty of benefits for a plant growing spontaneously in ditches or woods and our ancestors were no fools in exploiting the plant.

Nettle fibres were long used to produce ropes or nets as it has a very good strength and is water resistant and does not rot easily. In Kamchatka, fishermen were using it for netting, because it was so light and water resistant, truly being the only fibrous plant available for them to feed such needs. In Central Europe, people used nettle fibres to make sieves for flour sifting.

The newly rediscovered nettle yarns available on the market now are sourced in Nepal, from a giant nettle (Girardinia diversifolia), growing to the impressive height of 3 metres at least. Though European nettle was widely used for a very long time until cheaper cotton and silk took over. In Poland, nettle textiles were very popular until the 17th century. Actually since the 12th century, the nettle was used there in large quantities to make fabrics. It was due to its delicacy to skin that nettle was beating flax or hemp as a cloth of choice for next to skin clothing. Also nettle was much cheaper than silk which was only affordable for people of means.

Nettle was also used in Scandinavia. It was found in a Viking ship, so possibly nettle was used for nets. In 18th century Scandinavia, nettle fabric returned and local nettle fibres along with imported ramie were used to produce finely woven dresses. I came across a record from 1813 of a woman form Feyn in Denmark, who had woven 21 ells (24 metres) of linen and ticking from nettle. The following year, she had turned 2 stones of nettle fibres into 12 pocket handkerchieves, 20 metres of checked linen and 14 metres of bed ticking. That is an impressive, real account of what used to be made of European nettle.camira nettle

In Britain, there is a term “Scotch cloth” that refers to a fabric made of nettle. Nettle was popular in Scotland for many centuries. Thomas Campbell, 19th century poet, wrote: “In Scotland, I have eaten nettles, I have slept on nettle sheets, and I have dined off a nettle tablecloth. The stalks of the old nettle are as good as flax for making cloth. I have heard my mother say that she thought the nettle cloth more durable than any other species of linen”. It is a beautiful tribute to that prickly plant.

There is more evidence of nettle being considered to have magical qualities. You must remember Hans Christian Andersen fairytale about a girl who wove nettle shirts to bring back her 11 brothers who were turned into swans. Obviously, turning the prickly plant into silky smooth cloth was like a magic for people.

Coming back to the real world and more recent history, nettle made a comeback again during WWI in Germany. There the cotton supplies dried up as the British Empire ruled the seas and sourcing cotton from overseas was nearly impossible. Germans had to find another sustainable source of cloth suitable to sew uniforms for soldiers. It is said that nettle was used for that purpose as well as to make sandbags. It is mentioned that Germans used dye made of nettle as well.

IMG_20160102_124400Nowadays, you can find ready to weave nettle fibre easily online but all of them are made of the aforementioned Himalayan giant nettle. This fibre is also known as Allo. Fibre and cloth are produced in a traditional way in Nepal locally boosted by fair trade initiatives. There is ongoing research into growing European nettle for fabric production, but for now I have no knowledge of any producer of European nettle fibre. One challenge being the set up of large scale farms to grow and harvest the crop. With growing interest into sustainable and local alternatives to cotton, which is heavy on the environment, I believe it is just a matter of time for European nettle to come back.

Cazabon at Belmont

Belmont is a neighbourhood, just east of Port of Spain in Trinidad, bordering the Queen’s Park Savannah, the large central park located at the north end of the city. Belmont is a collection of tight lanes with houses pressed close to their front gates. It is a great place to live and be close to all that the capital city has to offer including the national Carnival that precedes Lent.

IMG_20160409_213656Belmont House in Kent, England, is the home of the Harris family. The third Lord Harris was the governor of Trinidad and Tobago between 1846 to 1853. In Port of Spain today there is Lord Harris Square and in San Fernando, the second largest city, there is Harris Promenade. He was married to a Trinidadian and their son later became a famous cricket captain of England.

I learned of Belmont House through some research done by Mrs FTF on a painter I mentioned to her some years ago, Jean Michel Cazabon. Cazabon is considered one of Trinidad’s first internationally known artists. I’ve always admired his landscapes and I had a book showcasing his work when I lived in Trinidad. It turns out that Lord Harris was a patron of the artist and owned a sizable collection of his work. Many of those pieces are now kept at Belmont House.

With the daughter in Warsaw for two weeks, we took the four-seater Mito for a round trip through Kent. There was a tour of Belmont House early in the afternoon and we were unusually on time after taking the long way around London on the M25 via Gatwick Airport. It was my silent protest to the Dartcharge and a chance to see rarely visited areas of Kent. The rain made the drive slow but the views were great as many parts of the road ran along high valley sides.

We made an impromptu stop at the Beacon restaurant. Everyone was cramped from being curled up the last two hours. The building is located atop the side of a valley that was at the time of our arrival shrouded in mist. The interior was beautiful and as we had the place to ourselves, we all enjoyed walking around taking in the paintings and other design features. The snack was tasty although it was the smallest machiato I ever had. By the time we left, the skies cleared and the view across the valley was truly restful.IMG_20160409_125140

Belmont House was cold so we kept our coats on and with Little One on my back we followed the group tour around the house. It was a tiny group and the entire exercise had an intimate air. The house is small as stately homes go and we appreciated this because we had had enough after an hour, the length of the tour. The group knew from the start we were there to see the paintings so when we got to the room with the largest collection, everyone stopped and insisted I go in first.

A full set of water colours were on display in the master bedroom. Very delicate, very beautiful. To see these views of the island in the late 19th century always creates a sense of nostalgia, especially when you recognise a location. I was allowed to stay back and take in the collection if I wanted to. I declined as I knew there were more in other rooms and the guide was very knowledgeable. I did not want to miss a tidbit.

Downstairs, just off the main entrance hall where the last Lord Harris was known to have his afternoon tea, was the best piece, View of Port of Spain from the East

March and Winter End

The whole of March we just couldn’t wait for Spring to arrive, it seemed to take ages this year to appear. We had a birthday celebration this month and we marked the beginning of Spring with “Topienie Marzanny”.

IMG_20160305_112637Early March, the daughter turned 7 and for this occasion she asked for a strawberry cake and small gathering of girlfriends. We have a local Polish shop selling very flavoursome frozen strawberries. I mixed them with mascarpone and Big Son sandwiched the cake with it and Daughter decorated the birthday cake herself. Girlie Wirlie was very proud of herself and we all enjoyed a glimpse of summer, but as it’s England, on that day it snowed again!

This year, we’ve made the effort to celebrate Spring Equinox. “Topienie Marzanny” is the Polish pagan tradition of saying farewell to Winter on the Spring Equinox with dropping Marzanna into the rivers, so it carries away Winter with it as it flows to the sea. Traditionally children would make a doll with straw, dress it up with scrap cloth or now tissue paper, make some hairdo or head gear, just letting the children’s creativity speak. Then you’d take the doll to the nearest stream or river. Sometimes the doll is set on fire before being dropped into water, but we gave it a skip due to H&S issues.IMG_20160305_135725

The day was sunny enough, the children quickly assembled the doll and adorned it with quite unruly hair made of golden, glossy tape secured with a staple. Girlie Wirlie threw it into river Lea which flows through a nearby village. It was quite quick affair so we hardly caught any photo of it. So that was it: out first Spring Equinox!IMG_20160320_153056

This month the children continued star gazing, with Big Son finishing an online course on the Night Sky: Orion and we all joined the local astronomical society one evening to observe the Moon and Saturn. We saw a close up of the Moon’s craters and a bit of Saturn’s rings which looked a lot like a small line across the planet.

The new telescope is still a fascinating tool to watch night skies or planes landing at the nearby airport. Big Son became very enthusiastic about astronomy, ticking off from the winter and spring sky maps planets he observed. He gets quite upset when cloudy nights prevent him from gazing the sky.

So here we are now, end of March, Easter done and my mother and sister who were here for Easter have now gone back home. I’m looking forward to the warmer days, more sun, more fun and new projects I’ll be putting my teeth in. I can truly say, we deserve to enjoy the Spring! So do you 🙂IMG_20160329_133425

Van Gogh Alive Exhibition

Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_ProjectLast weekend we spent in Warsaw, Poland, where we went to visit the multimedia exhibition on Van Gogh. The show is touring cities of the world for some time now. Of course, we took the chance to see it.

The show was a story of Van Gogh’s life and art, how entwined and inseparable they were. The story was told through his personal letters and paintings, starting with his Dutch childhood, how he decided to pursue painting, artistic choices, personal tragedies and struggles leading  up to his suicidal death. It was amazing to read his own words explaining what it meant for him to be a painter, his own outlook on life, learn how important it was that he was self taught artist, his ethos.

Multimedia display walks a visitor through Van Gogh’s early paintings, showcasing changes, giving a background of what was going on in his personal life. Then it moves onto a period in Paris where he joined the Impressionists.

Exhibition creators refer through his letters to his mental troubles leading to self imposed Van Gogh’s stay in asylum and showcasing the south France period paintings, fascination with stars and landscape. The display ends by bringing in events leading to his suicide. The show is accompanied by Van Gogh’s contemporary music (especially Erik Satie).

I found the exhibition was a good way to talk about Van Gogh, the artist and man as it could easily bring together a set of paintings and shoot at you with multiple screens and close ups entwined with his letters and sketches.

The most striking for me was the assembly of his auto-portraits, close ups when you cannot stop being pulled to Van Gogh’s eyes and noticing changes in his mental state in those wild, very evocative looks he gives. That was the best of the exhibition, the modern technology allowing such a connection.

Here’s a link for you to have a glimpse of the experience.

And here are my two favourite quotes by Van Gogh himself:

“At present I absolutely want to paint a starry sky. It often seems to me that night is still more richly coloured than the day; having hues of the most intense violets, blues and greens. If only you pay attention to it you will see that certain stars are lemon-yellow, others pink or a green, blue and forget-me-not brilliance. And without my expatiating on this theme it is obvious that putting little white dots on the blue-black is not enough to paint a starry sky.”

Vincent van Gogh

“To do good work one must eat well, be well housed, have one’s fling from time to time, smoke one’s pipe, and drink one’s coffee in peace”

Vincent van Gogh

Funnily, in Polish translation the fling notion was completely omitted!

Nettle Diary Entry 01.2016

IMG_20160102_124357I’m going to record my journey with a Nettle Project I created last year. It’s a work in progress and I hope to take my personal story onto new tracks and new places. I became fascinated and excited about that little prickly plant and I keep on learning how versatile and humble it is.

This blog is a suitable place to keep a track record, share my progress, achievements or challenges I’ll encounter. I would like to encourage you the reader, to follow it and maybe if you care or dare to contribute to the journey with advice, a kind word and a good critique. Though mostly, I’m aiming for that Nettle Project Diary to be my way of keeping myself and my eyes on the game and the good game it ought to be.

All I actually knew before was that nettle is a weed that grows spontaneously. It is used as a medicinal herb or as a culinary ingredient in soups or salads. What I found out by chance is that it was widely used centuries ago to create yarns and produce clothing. While visiting Flag Fen site, one of curators brought our attention to it as a clothing material source and its natural and eco qualities. It was enough to entice me because of my interest in ancient human history. Therefore, I followed it more to feed my curiosity, and thought it could be an original topic for a blog entry.

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Soon I realised that it may be a prickly but very thrilling project that is happening in the right time and leading me to a new personal enterprise. My aim is to create a modern garment using the nettle yarn. Something I did not find at the moment, but I believe it is feasible. I’ll share what I have found out about the plant, and I continue to pursue my idea of nettle as the ecological material that you can wear.

French Children’s Menu

We visit France every year, either we are just driving through or holidaying there. We enjoy French food and we eat as locals as much as possible and absorb the way the French do it. Including the way families treat their mealtimes in restaurants.

I never was keen on the idea of children’s version of menus in restaurants – all have more or less the same stuff, boring and not healthy. You know what I mean: chicken nuggets, spaghetti, sausages, chips, french fries etc. The kind of food we hardly eat in our home (well most of it anyway), it implies as well that children can eat only limited type of foods and anything outside comfort zone will cause the riots and spoils the family meal.

IMG_20150625_201541I wonder why and when it crept in; is it the way our children eat at homes or schools rather? Why restaurants do not or stopped offering smaller plates of adult meals? Or are we lazy adults who don’t bother to offer kids wider array of foods that could be fun and tasty, because it is work?Children are often branded fussy eaters! Well, they could be, but they’ll warm up to things seeing you trying it out, cooking variety often and being adventurous while eating out.

I admire how French take their cuisine so seriously, the meal is sacred time and it should be real food. So school meals are not the same affair as the school lunches in the UK. And so we found out the French kids menu are not the same story as across the Canal La Manche.

Firstly, we in our family do not pay any attention to the children’s menu, even when insisted upon by waiters. We usually choose a couple of things to share with children and extra plate if needed, sometimes specifically asking for a smaller version of the chosen dish. In that way, the children eat the real things and develop their own particular preferences. Of course we do take into account what children like or do not like, but we do not shy away from challenging their taste buds. Our offsprings are not perfect, they might moan or be not so happy about the choice but in the end, they are usually happy to eat what’s on offer. And in the most cases, they end up liking it a lot.

On our last trip to France, our big son found us a lovely restaurant situated between fields, by a lake, in an old manor house. We sat out on the lovely terrace basking in the evening sun. Madam who runs the restaurant kindly offered us the children’s menu to consider, which in the first place we rejected.IMG_20150625_201625

Having gone through the menu and specials, I cast my eyes on the children’s menu  and I must admit I was pleasantly surprised. No chicken nuggets, but a real chicken fillet served with seasonal vegetables. It seemed like a good option for the youngest one. And no, no French fries on offer!

What arrived on the plate, was an even lovelier surprise. A proper size, real chicken meat adorned by vegetables mushed and shaped into a vegetable bed, with chunky asparagus, carrot, beetroot, mange tout, pepper and turnip playing the part of plants. It immediately held the children’s attention. All of it was freshly prepared and disappeared in their bellies quickly. I fell in love with the way the meal was served to cater for children’s natural need of play. They would dissemble the vegetable beds, asking what particular pieces were, before sliding them into their mouths.

That dinner was a pleasure and fun, very memorable. Again, French proved to me that family meals are serious matter, where the real food is a must and no one is excluded of a pleasure because of their age. That you cannot expect adults to develop the taste for a variety of dishes and foods if you do not expose their young taste buds to it. Bon appetite!