#75: Have a conversation in another language

Hooray, I have had dozens of conversations in French over the weekend, and very satisfying it has been too, though it does rather remind me how much I have forgotten and what a shame it is to have let my once passable language skills deteriorate to such an extent. My tenses are in tatters and my vocab reduced to a tenth of its former scale. But still, I can converse, and some people, if they are minded to be kind, appear to understand.

My children were rather disorientated at first, to find Mummy babbling indecipherably. The French children, unpossessed as they were of any tact, admitted to equal bafflement. My French-speaking but fundamentally Welsh hostess was a godsend, as she could fathom what I was trying to say even while I butchered the French language beyond recognition.

Thus we managed to discuss English and French customs and routines, talk of my former worklife, share anecdotes of children’s misdemeanours, make plans for the day, and convey the children’s preferences in terms of cuisine. (Do not underestimate the challenges of this last one, it is complicated enough in one’s native tongue.) As our final night drew to a close and we turned to the pros and cons of Scottish independence I confess I gave up and reverted to English. But for 2 and 1/2 days, mostly French was spoken. So that was very pleasing.

And of course the best bit was seeing the kids make their own attempts. Eva is very proud of her ‘merci pour le petit dejeuner’ (indeed she applies it in almost any context). Everyone has mastered the basics: bonjour, merci, oui, non, au revoir, and jus de pomme. They have all been willing to try and name things in French, and I even overheard the beginnings of a very halting conversation between Eva and our 7 year old French host, about how old they both were. So I am delighted we came, 5 is not too young for a French exchange after all, despite our misgivings.

An excellent weekend’s work.

#73: Master a circus skill (breathing fire!)

My attempts with the unicycle have been broadly unsuccessful. I cannot even sit on it long enough to try and pedal. So I have reluctantly had to give up on that aspiration.

But instead I looked at other circus skills, that I might have more aptitude for. And once again the legendary Hectic came up trumps. He just happened, he said, to have a firebreathing kit in the shed, and could teach me to do that in a few moments, should I wish. ‘Is there much danger with it?’ I asked, in a carefully casual tone. ‘Well I suppose you could burn your face off. But most people don’t’.

That seemed enough of a health and safety assessment. We sank a few pints, ate a ton of Baked Alaska, and got the kit out.

The process is curious. First we practiced spraying water through pursed lips to create a fine mist. That was the essential technique. ‘Don’t spit. Spray.’ Then the fire was lit, on the end of a truncheon. I rinsed my mouth round with milk, as instructed. Then took a sip of paraffin, wiped my mouth, and sprayed it in the direction of the flame, held an arms’ length away.

The first attempt was unimpressive. But then I had another go. You need to watch the video right to the end! It was remarkable! I am delighted! There was a sharp intake of breath as all spectators thought I must have lost my hair, at the very least! But surprisingly it was fine, and much less dramatic for me in the middle of it, than for those watching it.

Do not try this at home children. But I am extraordinarily pleased with it! (and it is much easier than a unicycle!)

#72: Make a Baked Alaska (for guests)

This dish has been my nemesis ever since my early teens when I tried to make one for a surprise dinner and it melted all over the oven. (Consisting, as it does, of a load of icecream covered in meringue and then baked). So that is how it got on the list.

We went for dinner at a friend’s house (the legendary Hectic, whose patio I assisted in laying not long ago); and I offered to bring a pudding. I had to bring it in several parts, as the Baked Alaska cannot be assembled nor baked until the last minute.

Anticipation was high as I assembled cake base, chocolate icecream, and covered it all in meringue looking like an enormous delectable snowball… into the oven it went – an anxious 4 minutes, and then: Triumph! It survived! (Ignore the odd head coming out of my armpit; that is not relevant to the culinary achievement)
me, hectic and baked alaska
Applause abounded, and we ate a generous chunk each. That got through half of it, and left everyone slightly bilious. (This dish is not light on sugar.) Then we realised it couldn’t easily be saved or re-served, and it was down to the five of us to do it justice. We struggled through a second slice each. Compliments slowed a little. Hectic managed to eat a full quarter of the thing singlehandedly, but the rest of us were beaten. It did sit rather heavily.

Soon afterwards there was considerable competition for the toilet facilities of Ampney Crucis. But let us not dwell on that. The dessert will be remembered (by me at least) as an unmitigated triumph. Hurrah.

#56: Plant a tree

Mission accomplished today, in very pleasant fashion.

A friend in our village last week revealed that she had been following the legendary blog, and might be able to help me with a challenge. She was expecting a delivery of fruit trees, and when they arrived, would I care to come round and help plant them?
Well indeed I would, and this week they are here. (It was particularly happy timing as I had locked myself out of my own house and needed some other purpose to occupy the hours!). So round I went.

And it was a most productive assignment. We planted a fig tree in the greenhouse, a damson tree outside, and in the process I have learnt much about roots, soil types, stakes, online gardening suppliers, types of fruit tree and their preferences… and all from chatting to someone who I would never otherwise have thought to engage in a lengthy discourse about gardening! I came away quite enthused! As soon as I have a garden to call my own I might just attempt to grow some stuff in it!
damson tree

fig tree
I liked getting grubby, I liked doing something productive, and I especially liked learning useful things that I didn’t know. I can’t get enough of these random new experiences, and I love the way it is throwing me into contact with all sorts of people, who are so very nice and helpful.

Now since I’m on a roll, I’m off to ask at the garage if they’d let me drive a bus!

#55: Learn some bike maintenance skills

A couple of weeks ago, Dave and I were cycling in the Forest of Dean when my chain broke. We weren’t carrying any of the right tools, and he had to suffer the indignity of standing by, while I flagged down a passing young man and allowed him to fix my bike for me. The very next day, Dave went out and bought a chain tool, and every possible form of quick link, lest such a thing should ever happen again.

That very weekend, he was biking with mates, and someone’s chain snapped. He was delighted to save the day with his armoury of quick links and the knowhow gained from our previous misfortune. Pride was restored. A godsend!

But then imagine, simply imagine, my delight, when today I was biking with a different male friend and his chain snapped, and I had the right kit in my bag for the job! Here I am, affixing the new link to the old chain, in insufferably smug fashion!
bike maintenance
The oddest thing is, I have never known a chain to break among any of my cycling acquaintance in the last 10 years! All the people I ever bike with are now signed up to a maintenance course in May!

#53: Sing karaoke

This was a very unexpected evening. And another much dreaded challenge turned to surprising success! (Success defined here in terms of fun, rather than singing quality, as you’ll see!)

I had been intending to go far, far from home for this one, to hide in some grotty bar and embarrass myself in front of people who I would at least never have to face again. Regular followers will be well aware that my vocal chords have not been privy to the finest training.

But then, walking past our village pub, what should I see but an advert on the chalk board outside, for karaoke, this very weekend. And with heavy heart I realised what I must do…

The babysitter was booked, the husband’s support enlisted. Alas, the friends were all indisposed that night (apart from one late recruit who unexpectedly proved a great karaoke talent!)

As proceedings kicked off, the only act was a trio of 8 year olds. Having initiated the party, they were taken home to bed, and we thought we might just get away with singing our duet to an empty room and scurrying home. But it was not to be.

We put our names on the list. We stepped up to the mike. We listened to the lengthy intro and almost missed the start. Then we burst into a horrifying rendition of ‘Love lifts us up where we belong’ by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes. Happily(?) it was all captured on film. I defy anyone to listen to it through to the end!

The room began to fill – more from curiosity than a desire to hear more. But at least we set the bar so low, that no one could fear stepping up! The event gathered pace as more people ventured near. We were a small but committed group! There was never any lull in volunteers.

The beer flowed. The songs kept coming. We made new friends. We became the very best of friends! We signed one another up for increasingly difficult songs. Unlikely duets were forged; group performances came together. Employees of the local garage were in fine voice. Some of the elders of the village were tempted to participate, and applauded most generously. ‘Ring of Fire’ by Jonny Cash brought everyone to their feet. The landlord himself got up and rapped, to the crowd’s delight.

Even after my challenge was more than met, I found myself part of a line up offering Bohemian Rhapsody; and later a squealingly poor rendition of ‘Whole New World’, (that romantic tune from Aladdin, for any aficionados of Disney films). It really didn’t suit my voice! (Though it is hard to think of any song that would.)

In the small hours of Sunday morning, the landlord played ‘Hit the road Jack’ and turned the lights up. The performers exited reluctantly, hugging and congratulating one another, quite overwhelmed with real ale and one another’s brilliance. It was just an enormously good laugh. One of those nights that puts a smile on your face whenever you think of it! Hooray for the karaoke!

#48: pick up all the litter on my street AND #49: Be a children’s entertainer

Time is slipping away from me, if 100 challenges are to be done by May. And the only answer is to start doubling up on them. So, I hatched a cunning plan to combine these two in one activity.

My husband and several other gentlemen of the village went away for the weekend. All the abandoned wives and children sought solace in numbers, and gathered together for a marathon 24 hour play date and sleepover. I volunteered to lead the first activity: a village litter pick-up, dressed as superheroes. It was inspired, as it enabled me to a)gain maximum value from the Bananaman investment, and b) create a slightly strange and dare I even say fun event from an activity that might otherwise have met with protest.

But it is marvellous how willingly the children accept such proposals. ‘We’re all going to dress up as superheroes and pick up all the litter in the village’. Of course we are. What else are Saturday afternoons for? 10 children ranging from 3-8 years embraced the prospect, and presented as instructed, variously dressed as Batman, Spiderman, a princess, a pirate, a ballerina, Mrs Incredible… I gave them each a carrier bag for their spoils. And a pep talk about how the village needs us. No litter must remain after our efforts. And off they all ran, in high spirits.

I had been anxious we’d fail to find any litter (for such is the nature of the very community-spirited village we hail from) – but once we started to look we found a surprising amount. They checked around bins, dug about in ditches, scraped up mushy paper. On occasion the refuse was so precariously positioned that only Bananaman could safely go in for it. Between us we filled about 8 carrier bags, enough for everyone to feel proud! And finished up in the park for some well deserved celebratory roundabouting. Happily we only bumped into one other family, and she was very understanding about it!
litter picking party
The hunt was followed by a feast of chicken nuggets, ice cream and cookies, a couple of hours of trampolining, endless table football contests, DVDs and stories.

But at bedtime a couple of the kids were asked what had been the best thing about the day. ‘Litter picking with Bananaman’ came the gratifying reply. Oh yes.