Palais Garnier – a world “magnifique”

I have been to some of the most famous opera houses in the world (Sidney Opera is still on the list) but Opera Garnier in the Place L’Opera in the 9th arrondissement of Paris is something magnifique in its own right. The taxi approaches the square from the beautiful L’Opera Avenue and the building is in front of us (my husband Adrian and I) – monumental and authoritative but attractive and artistic at the same time. The building was commissioned by Napoleon The Third in 1860 (he was the nephew of Napoleon The First). The anonymous competition to build the Opera House in Paris was won by Charles Garnier who was a very young architect (35 years old) and had not build anything before this commission. 

                         

A big crowd of tourists is sitting on the stairs of the Opera, chatting, people watching, enjoying the warm Parisian evening. Adrian and I climb the stars between the tourists, show the barcodes of our online tickets to the security guards and “Abracadabra” – doors are open to a magical world.  

The Grand Staircase of the Opera is breathtaking – a mixture of marble, gold and light. Ballet lovers are all around, buying programmes, taking pictures, looking around – all happy to be here. There is no dress code. Some people (obviously tourists) are in their casual trousers and t-shirts. An elegant French couple enjoy a glass of wine – the woman is in a beautiful little black dress and her partner wears an immaculate suit with a scarf around his neck in the way that only French messieurs know how to do. A Russian family passes – straight from the St. Petersburg salon of “War and Peace” – the mother has long blond hair and wears a velvet opera coat, the daughter is a little princess in a dusty pink dress with tulle roses and the father is a copy of Anton Chekhov – intelligent, with a beard and spectacles. 

We have folding seats in the second row from the stage. It is too early to enter the main auditorium for the show  but the friendly French assistant speaks from experience – I can enter it  to take photographs. Of course, I want photographs  but what amazes me is how we all (everyone around me is taking photographs) do not live in the present moment, The main auditorium is spectacular and instead of breathing the atmosphere we are busy with our iPhones. Later, at home we will look at the pictures regretting the moments we are missing now. 

The ballet is the creation of a Swedish artist Mats Ek on the music of Bizet and Chtchedrine, Franz Liszt and Ravel. He is a famous contemporary choreographer whose style of dancing is very expressive, distinctive and immediately recognisable. I dream that time will stop and I will be in this wonderful world forever. 

During the interval the fairy tale continues with a visit to the Grand foyer and the terrace. I also look at the ceiling and the magical  surrealistic figures of the Marc Chagall frescoes. The story goes that in 1960 General De Gaulle and the French Minister of Culture, Andre Malraux, entertained a foreign delegation with the premiere of Daphnis and Chloe, the ballet of Maurice Ravel, in the Opera Garnier. The costumes and decor were created by the artist Marc Chagall. The minister looked at the ceiling, saw the work of Jules Lenepveu (quite academic) from the19th century, and asked Chagall whether he would be willing to paint new frescoes. In 1963 Marc Chagall was commissioned by the French Government to paint the ceiling of the Opera Garnier. The appointment sent a shock through some French circles. The correspondent of the Los Angelis Times described the reaction as if the minister ordered the Eiffel Tower to be painted pink! The message was that foreigners should stay away from French heritage (Chapel was originally from Belarus). 

                                       

The Government and Chagall compromised – Chagall’s painting should not destroy the original paintings. They were painted on a suspended, removable canvas, 240 meters square. The paintings are colourful, a joyful tribute to 14 distinguished composers in two circles. They are so beautiful that one could hardly imagine there was any opposition to them when they were revealed on 23rd September 1964 . By the way, Chagall did not take a penny for his work as he regarded this work as a great honour. 

The ballet is over, it is time to go. Outside, on the stairs a man is playing guitar and two couples are dancing with many singing and laughing. In front of us is the River Seine and the magical world of Paris. 

 

10 Things to know about HIGHCLIFFE Food&Arts Festival 2022

1. WHEN    Saturday, 11th June, 10.00-17.00

                      Sunday, 12th June, 10.00 – 16.00

2. WHERE    Lymington Road (High Street) and The Recreation Green 

             

3. ADMISSION    Free for everyone

4. FOOD AND DRINKS    Over 80 artesian food and drinks stalls, most of them in the High Street

             

5. CHEFS    Jan-Christophe Novelli, Lesley Walter and many distinguish  local chefs. 

             

6. ARTS    Over 60 specially curated craft stalls on the Green

7. CHILDREN    Pottery and art classes, Kids kitchen, treasure hunt, Grow Your Own, face             painting, playground, funny photos

                                                     

8. ENTERTAINMENT    Two stages – Main stager on the Green and The Tesco Express stage – everything from Swing Unlimited Community Band to Fifinellas, Highcliffe school, the Charity Players.

9. ORGANISERS    Non-for-profit organisation of volunteers – residents of the village. 

Mary Reader – Director – Sponsorship, PR&Marketing, Cookery demonstration and entertainment

10. ENVIRONMENT    Environmentally friendly waste management and recycling

More information – www. highcliffefoodandartsfestival.co.uk

HAPPINESS AS A SIDEBAR

Happiness as a goal

Everyone wants to be happy. This sentence implies that happiness is some kind of goal we create  and work towards. Then what comes about when we diligently work  for our happiness – are we unhappy, miserable, in anticipation of future bliss? Further, what happens when we achieve the goal – are we permanently happy or does the happiness fade and we have to set up another goal and strive for happiness again? 

                                 

I really do not think that the “Happiness as a goal” theory and practice are feasible. They appear to our Western mentality but do not make us happy.

Fake it until you make it

Another theory is “Fake it until you make it”. This theory and practice is based on the premise that ultimately mimicking the body language and mindset of a happy person will make you happy. I can see some potential in this theory. If you smile more you feel, if not happy, at least better. Nevertheless, I do not think this practice is sustainable. There is not a solid foundation for happiness – you feel that your happiness is fake  and other people feel it too.

Happiness as a sidebar

Therefore, I am suggesting the “Happiness as a sidebar” theory and practice. It is not my idea but I have instinctively practiced it throughout my life. In a nutshell, if you do what you love or like, what inspires and motivates you, happiness appears as a side effect. If you dare to go into uncharted waters, have a leap of faith, explore the unexplored and try the impossible, or even try something new – happiness occurs as a sidebar on the screen. So, the indirect way is quite direct. 

                                             

It sounds very easy so there should be a catch. What happens if an unhappy event occurs in our very happy lives? What if we face betrayal, non- acceptance, ignorance, illness, loss or an injustice?

Then the story of the “Two Arrows” helps tremendously. The first arrow is the pain – the accident, the loss, the failure, etc. It is painful, we accept the pain and it takes time to deal with it. Sometimes, paradoxically we even experience happiness . Looking after my dying mother and losing her 18 months ago brought unbearable pain but my husband was there for me  – rock solid as the Hans Christian Andersen’s steadfast tin soldier. The tragedy brought us even closer than we were before with absolute trust between us. 

What we should not accept and be aware of is the second arrow that could hit us – our mind, people’s words or opinions, group’s judgements and the pressure of society. This arrow brings layers of pain and unhappiness (we are not talking about support and encouragement from other quarters). People’s words speak volumes about them and not about the person they talk about. What we should know is that there is a very brief moment before the second arrow can reach us when we can decide our reaction. And we usually know who is sincerely there to help and encourage us and who is there to upload their negativity on us. So practise stopping the second arrow before it reaches you. 

How? By performing the lost art of observation.   

More about it in a future post. 

                            

 

 

HAPPY GUTS

Gut-Brain Axis

It does not seem very sophisticated to connect blissful happiness with processed food and waste. Yet, scientists have become more and more aware in recent years of the strong connection between the digestive system and mood balance.The truth is that happiness depends on gut health and vice versa. 

Our nervous system, responsible for our behaviour, is formed by two interconnected parts – the Central Nervous System (brain and spinal cord) and the Enteric Nervous System (ENS). ENS is located along the entire digestive tract – from the oesophagus through the stomach and intestines and down to the anus. ENS can perform tasks independently of the brain such as coordinating reflexes and secreting. It is built by the same neurones and neurotransmitters as the Central Nervous System and often is called “the second brain”. 

The two systems talk to each other and the communication system between them is called gut-brain axis.  The largest nerve in the body, the vague nerve, which runs from the brain to the colon is part of it. When a person is in danger, in “fight or flight” mode, the ENS helps by slowing down or stopping the digestion so more energy can be used to deal with the threatening situation. Another example is when the person is afraid of public speaking. Their digestive system again reacts by slowing down or speeding up and that can cause abdominal pain or diarrhoea. My personal experience of this brain-gut axis is that before my uni exams I was frequently visiting the  bathroom. Emotions like love or excitement can lead to feelings of “butterflies” in the stomach. 

The opposite also happens – poor gut health can influence how we behave and our mood. Problematic intestines, or a troubled stomach may signal to the brain and cause anxiety, stress and depression. 

Communication between the brain and the guts (particularly stimulation of the vague nerve)  is the reason for feeling so good after dropping a poo, so called “poo-phoria”. Bowel movement stimulates the vague nerve, the heart rate and blood pressure drop and you feel relaxed and pleased. 

Serotonin

Serotonin (remember, the happy chemical?) impacts every part of the body from emotions to motor skills. Serotonin is critical for the functioning of the digestive system. It is primarily produced in the body’s intestines, and affects many sides of the gut functioning: how fast the food goes through the system, how much mucus is secreted in the intestines and how sensitive intestines are to pain and fullness from eating. Changes in the serotonin level affect the guts as well as the brain. If you deal with chronic digestive issues your serotonin level is being impaired. Serotonin rises when you eat something toxic or have food poisoning in order to quickly remove the food from the body by vomiting and diarrhoea. Having a low level of serotonin creates a savage circle as serotonin is fundamental for ensuring proper nutrition digestion and absorption.

People with Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) who experience constipation often have lower levels of serotonin  – the muscles in their rectum are less reactive to serotonin and they are more likely to have hard stools. 

Those with IBS with higher levels of serotonin may have diarrhoea – their rectums are more reactive, with loose watery stools.

Microbiome

90-95% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut cells. Production of serotonin is affected by the microbiome in the guts – millions of viruses and bacterias. The microbiome diversity is important for gut health but unfortunately, it decreases with age. Also high stress can cause changes in the microbiome.

Research shows that healthy gut bacteria plays a role in maintaining healthy serotonin levels. Serotonin is produced in the digestive tract by enterochromaffin cells and particular types of immune cells and neurones. Studies have found that several species of gut bacteria are missing in people with depression and, furthermore, imbalance in gut flora can lead to imbalance in mood. 

Nowadays it is widely accepted that a better understanding of the serotonin production in the guts may inform the treatment of certain mental health conditions in the brain. 

If this subject resonates with you there is a ton of information on YOUTUBE, various podcasts, many books and articles, including recipe books for clever and happy guts. 

Why do some of us like quizzes?

This article is inspired by the Christchurch Rotary Charity Quiz on 7th May at the Twynham school. 

Let’s start with a confession – I do not like quizzes. My husband Adrian is quite the opposite  – he loves them and he is good at them. However, I really enjoy going to quizzes (always with Adrian, otherwise I will significantly drag the team’s score down) when they are for charity, like the one we attended yesterday. Here is Adrian talking about it.  

 

The charity quiz has been organised by Rotarian Paul Mills and his wife Jean for more than 40 years and the money raised donated to many local charities over the years. Yesterday,  the organisation was impeccable, the atmosphere was great with 15 teams, good raffle prizes and quite difficult questions. All good and I will inform you about the amount of money raised. The only downfall was that our team came last, an honourable position as someone has to be last. We were good losers. 

People go to quizzes for different reasons: to challenge their memory, to put their brain to work, to have fun and feel the camaraderie of a team, to experience the excitement of the competition and the desire to win. They do not know what else to do in their leisure time and it is an excuse to have a drink – all very valid reasons. 

As a person with a not-so-good memory, I do not really understand the purpose of quizzes – the Internet and IPhones have made our lives very easy and comfortable – I just need to Google or to speak to Siri and I immediately know what I need to know, I do not need to remember it. 

Philosophical questions about quizzes

And here we come to the philosophical and scientific questions – does evolution have direction and is the direction from more simple to more complex and skilled formats? It appears not. Darwin and the evolution theory are clear – evolution is about surviving. Only the most adapted to the environment organisms survive and that could mean losing skills or more compounded features. A great example is penguins. They are birds but they lost their ability to fly as they developed more fat in their body to survive the severe cold of their surroundings. 

Turning to people and our ability/skill  to read maps and being orientated. I listened to the TED talk “How your language shapes the way you think”. It is about people Kuuk Thaayorre who live at the very west edge of Cape York . They do not have a concept of “left”and “right”, instead they use the cardinal directions – north, south, east and west. So, they will say something like “You have an ant on your southwest leg”. However, they are the most orientated people in the world, in a way we did not think it possible. But we, we are forgetting how to read maps (on the other hand, many marriages are safe). We just use the Google map on our iPhones or the car’s SatNav.

Recently, even I as a strong digital supporter was shocked to discover that a young girl (generation Z) could not read the clock on the wall. She did not have an idea what is “quarter to 7”, the reason being she only was exposed to digital watches. Another lady in the company confirmed that her grandson (school age) also cannot read mechanical clocks. 

So where are we heading to? Where is evolution taking human beings? Will people in the 22nd century be able to love and enjoy quizzes? 

Personal Uniform

Uniforms make us recognisable. It is a way of communicating with the public – uniforms show our line of business and our place in the hierarchy. So, why on earth, would someone create and wear a personal uniform outside of work?

Karl Lagerfeld (yes, the same Karl, the Chanel man) is a great example of creating and maintaining a personal uniform in his daily life. He was immediately recognisable – white powdered hair in a ponytail, dark glasses, high 18th century collars, tailored jacket, leather gloves without fingers, and skinny (sometimes leather) trousers. Eclectic and eccentric – he mixed 18th century fashion with the rock n’ roll’s style of Mick Jagger.

Karl explained how his personal uniform developed: He was fascinated with the culture and clothing of the 18th century French salons – the bizzarre white powdered hair and high collars. The black glasses were there to hide his age. You should try the same trick – it works. Photos with glasses take at least 10 years off your age if you are not in your 20s. 

The fingerless gloves were there to enlarge his arms (that is true) but also his mum told him when he was young not to smoke because he did not have beautiful hands and did not need to show them to people. And the notoriously skinny suit – it is a remarkable story. Karl Lagerfeld lost 90 pounds in a year because he wanted to wear a particular skinny Dior suit. Of course, his diet was especially developed for him by a doctor who looked like Salvador Dali (I did not expect less). 

As a result – Karl Lagerfeld was a brand, different and recognisable, like his predecessor Coco Chanel and like Charlie Chaplin’s unforgettable image. It was good for his name and his business. His look was “a metaphor of his philosophy of fashion and life”. 

Some people who are not haute-couture designers also develop and maintain a personal uniform out of work. There are many reason for that. I do not think economic reasons play a huge part as Karl Lagerfeld said,  Today everybody can look chic in inexpensive clothes (the rich buy them too)”.  

                               

More relevant reasons are that we believe the chosen personal uniform suits us, it covers our little imperfections, or we just love the style on other people. 

A personal uniform presents how we see ourselves and how we want other people to see us. Oscar Wilde did it right: “It is only shallow people that do not judge by appearance“.

Nevertheless, uniforms have limitations, they restrict us. We all know ladies and gentlemen whose style is so set in the past, so old-fashioned that makes you feel sad. On the other hand, sometimes the chosen personal uniform is so unsuitable for the complexion or the person’s body type (may be it was great 10-20 years ago) that you instinctively want to advise them to change it (but of course you bite your tongue).

                         

 

We all stick to the familiar things and that is not bad at all but why not go shopping with your friend or relative next time, listen to their advice and try something new. Maybe you would like it. Or why not try something you saw and liked on another person, maybe it would be fabulous on you. Or why not try buying a new trend online, after checking the return policy, of course. There are so many useful YOUTUBE videos about colour coordination, clothing and styling and make-up that can help in the process. “Improvise, become creative! Not because you have to but because you want to”.  Evolution is the way forward.

 

About myself, a friend of mine recommended a new Spanish brand that she was wearing when I met her –  I am excited to try it and will tell you about my experience in a future post. 

Monday Blues

I do not like Mondays

I do not like Mondays. Especially working Mondays. Weekend pleasure is over and I am back to my workplace. It is dull – colleagues slowly wake up to their duties. There are boring meetings to set the agenda for the week and usually a list of problems to be solved. Bodies and brains are taking coffees and applying themselves to the tasks in hand. I do not work Mondays anymore but still do not like them. 

What’s more, Monday is usually the day to start my better life resolutions. I probably overate or over-drank, or both during the weekend or I had enough time at the weekend to assemble a healthy programme that should be commenced on Monday. For years and years my healthy programmes were so ideal that they did not last more than a week. Everything I thought that needed to be improved was actioned – diet, exercise, learning a new language, improving or gaining professional qualifications or beauty procedures etc. My head was spinning just thinking about my “To do”list  on Monday morning. 

Murakami says “Maybe the only thing I can definitely say about it (runner’s blues, in our case Monday blues)  is this: That’s life”.

Bank Holiday Monday

But today is a Bank Holiday Monday. I am excited. I have a meeting with my new friend at The Captain’s Club. The weather is cloudy but the River Stour in front of the Club is full of life. A young man is masterfully and proudly spinning the wheel of his boat. Tourists are boarding the Wick Ferry, children run and dogs go into the water. The Captain’s Club lounge is not busy. Only the noise from the restaurant indicates the hotel guest are having breakfast. Most of the staff are new but very polite, Tim (the owner) is also there. 

Girlie chat

It is my first one-to-one coffee meeting with my new friend. We share our stories and are surprised how similar they are – love, overcoming obstacles and disappointments, professional ambitions and family. Sharing our experiences brings us closer. A lovely mature gentlemen asked whether he can bypass us and sit next to the piano. He is the pianist. His first piece is “Moon Sonata”, then he continues with more Beethoven – “Fur Elise” is next. Time flies. After a stimulating holiday talk we set the date for our next meeting. Lovely, lovely girlie chat. 

Shopping

I decide to visit my favourite clothes shop on the High Street “Kimmeridge”. The shop offers Danish design clothing pieces. This time I buy two bold colour T-shirts (the trend for this summer is dopamine dressing – more in a future post). Excellent service and I am on my way home. 

My sister

My phone beebs. My sister comments on my posts. My sister is the intellectual one in our family. Since her teenage years she knew that she wanted to be a teacher. She is not only a fantastic scientist and teacher but she looks after her terminally ill husband, supports her daughter with her study (she is proof-reading her second essay) and maintaining her house and immaculate garden.  

My sister likes the blog and the posts. She seriously insists that if she finds something that needs improvement she would tell me but she cannot find anything. My heart is full with love for her. I say it and she smiles – sincerely and warmly, the way only she can do. 

The door of the house opens. My husband is back and golf was great!

What Monday Blues!? Hello Monday!

Shopping on Regent Street

Regent Street in London was called “the centre of fashion” in the19th century. It was constructed by  two famous architects John Nash and James Burton with the support of The Prince Regent (later George IV). The street was completed in 1825 and fully redeveloped between1895 and 1927. My favourite part of the street is between Piccadilly Circus and Oxford Circus where the shopping experience is full of joy. Or at least, it was before the lockdown. Recently, I visited my favourite shopping street in London to discover how it has survived the COVID pandemic. 

1. Regent Street after pandemic

Regent Street is still a beautiful and vibrant street with impressive buildings and famous brand shops. Yet, the effect of the pandemic is obvious – there are many empty shops waiting to be rented. They are like wrinkles on the beautiful face of the street. Many shops have disappeared and many luxury chocolate shops have appeared. The huge shops of Microsoft and Apple are there, modern and inviting, always crowded. 

When browsing through my best-loved shops I had a clear, overwhelming  realisation that I was not there to try clothes or to buy them. I buy all my clothes and accessories online, so in the shops I was just comparing the online presentation of the items with reality. The comparison  was in favour of the online pictures – they present the product much better. In some cases I was  completely surprised how I could even like these dresses online when in reality they are not appealing at all. Photoshop can make all of us young and beautiful but I always check the return policies.

2. Arket – the little Nordic oasis

I love the Arket shop on Regent Street. It may be because I like Scandinavian design with its clear, geometric lines, colours from nature and its quality. Scandinavian style always has this attractive functional eccentricity but is sometimes quite expensive. Arket is committed to functional and affordable Nordic design. The shop is on two floors and has men, women and kids departments and also a homeware department. The hidden gem is the New Nordic vegetarian cafe on the ground floor. It is a very cosy urban cafe. It offers drinks and seasonal vegetarian snacks. The prices will pleasantly surprise you – especially for the centre of London. 

3. Kate Spade shop – New York energy

The Kate Spade shop brings the charm and magic of Manhattan New York to Regent Street. It is a new shop, very well designed and maintained, very sophisticated. It offers the new spring lines of clothing, shoes, jewellery and accessories. The vivid colours and joyful style radiate happy and cool-girl vibrations. 

4. Do not go to Liberty

My visit to Liberty (the longest standing shop on Regent Street) was disappointing. The ground floor, where jewellery and accessories are sold is actually not bad and the atmosphere is quite animated. The next three floors are not good. The interior is tired and in great need of renovation. The luxury features of the shop like dressing rooms for every brand, hairdresser and beautician studios just add to the feeling of lost glory. The clothes on the hangers are worn out and unattractive. I decided to persevere and stopped in the cafe. The atmosphere was depressing  despite the good service. 

Back to Waterloo train station to go home and I was thinking that the days of pleasure going out shopping are over for me. I do my shopping online and next time in London I will spend my time visiting places of interests instead of shops. 

 

“Do you know what an accent is? A sign of bravery”

1. Karl Lagerfeld and accent

Karl Lagerfeld was German. He moved to Paris, France when he was 14 years old and finished his secondary school there. He studied the history of art in Rome, Italy for 3 years. He was a man of the world and spoke 4 languages fluently – German, French, Italian and English. However, he spoke French with a German accent and was proud of his German heritage. He said: “I [have] lived all over the world but I stay German because I am a German person”. 

Some times ago I was in the company of a charming Irish woman living in the UK. She said “ I kept my bold Irish accent all these years. Why shouldn’t I?”.

2. What is an accent?

We all have an accent. The way we speak is a reflection of the sounds in the surroundings we were born and grew up in. As one of my favourite comedians Trevor Noah said “ Accent is applying the rules of your native language to the language you speak”. Accents do not reflect intelligence or ability and also in no way show the fluency and mastery of the language. 

3. Why does an accent have a negative nuance? Unconscious bias.

An accent should not have any social significance. However, having a different accent indicates that you are an outsider and people tend to back insiders. So, even people without any prejudice naturally discriminate against people with a different/foreign accent. It is also difficult to process foreign-accented speech. Believe me, non-native speakers are fully aware of that and develop many coping strategies – speaking slowly, employing easy to understand words, using short sentences, confirming the understanding and using body language to enhance the meaning etc. 

Moreover, as everything in life, communication is a two-way process. The non-native person puts effort and years of hard work, embarrassment and frustration to learn the foreign language. Studies showed that people who speak foreign languages or are more exposed to different accents process non-native speech much easier. Negative attitudes towards a foreign accent is a norm for societies that speak one language. So next time, when we cannot understand the non-native speech instead of saying “I do not understand a word”, can we try “Please, can you repeat it again for me.” All learners of foreign languages are specifically taught to use this phrase when they cannot process/understand the sentence. 

4. Negative perception of accent. Conscious bias.

Society perceives different accents in different ways that arise from social class, culture, race, gender, nationality, education etc. Studies showed that people tend to judge the abilities of people based on their accent. If you speak with a “non-standard” accent you are viewed as less intelligent, less competent, less suitable for higher-status jobs and less likely to be believed. In a trial a person with a so called “posh” accent was perceived as more intelligent than the person without it even though they were saying identical words. Studies also showed that people above 40 are more likely to judge a person with a non-native accent as less competent and less hireable. 

5. Let’s celebrate accents!

I dread the question “Where are you from?” asked with arrogance, superiority and a deep belief that you must answer immediately. At this moment I know that I have been stamped as an outsider and as my friend says  “Your credibility is ruined. What you say is less important than how you say it.” You are not seen from the point of view of how far you have come, what you have achieved or how able you are but only by the gap between your speech and an ideal native speaker. 

However, as a former marathon runner I know that changing attitude is a long and difficult road but every step counts.