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What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.
I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps. See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The joys of being positive even in an unfair world

This blog is going to change slightly - now I'm exploring the UK so much I can't always find an obvious "other country" link. This post is inspired by the need to hear other people's voices far more. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Imagine - snowy scene with my daughters.
Like most teenagers I was a bit confused about how to be me. I could see that for me there was a choice about the face I presented to the world. I could go down the dark route from knock knock jokes to sarcasm, and then on to irony. I could be bitter and cynical (cool and funny). I could play life as a tumbler, laughing at my mishaps and sharing them. Or I could be a cross between Pollyanna and Mary Poppins always looking on the bright side of life. That's the one I've chosen. Yes I get it wrong sometimes, but mostly I cross out my negative rants and look for a positive spin. And it definitely makes life seem a friendlier, more delightful place.

As a result I've been transfixed by constructive journalism.

This is a newish approach to news which asks the usual Ws - who, what, where, when, why - and then adds a sixth, what next? When you write like this you can find out what happened after the crash, divorce, death. This click through stops the news being a catalogue of misery. You might still use the thinking of "if it bleeds it leads" but with the constructive journalism approach you also follow up. A car crash might end up being a story of five people being given donated organs, going on to lead their lives.

There are all sorts of reasons people like constructive journalism as an alternative to our 24/7 bad news world. Recently I shadowed Giselle Green from NCVO, who is editor of Constructive Voices. She was speaking to first year journalism students at London Metropolitan University about the way news organisations have seen a huge decrease in circulation and media switch off. Simultaneously research shows that the endless cycle of depressing news (gangs, knife crime, drought, wars, terrorism, unscrupulous politicians) doesn't just disempower people it is leading to a disconnect with society and mental health problems.  Here's an interview with Giselle Green on Islington Faces.

In summer 2014 the blog Islington Faces was born out of a frustration that the media wouldn't publish ordinary people's extraordinary stories. It now has close to 270 interviews with people who live or work in Islington, one very small patch of the world. Do go and have a look, it's https://www.islingtonfacesblog.com 

Obviously sharing a life story is not an original idea.

Go to any funeral and you often hear a summing up of someone's life, starting from the very beginning. There are highlights to the story but often the lives best lived aren't full of high drama; although they might be notable for the resilience that person has shown during their lifetime.

Scott Waide in Papua New Guinea using his journalism skills
to interview locals doing positive things is having a democratically
empowering impact in this South Pacific nation. See facebook
inspirational papua new guineans
And as for blogs. Well there's the amazing Humans of New York and here in London Spitalifeldslife.com.  The trend has even gripped Papua New Guinea! A friend has just sent this amazing link, see here http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2018-03-03/one-mans-mission-to-shine-light-on-ordinary-papua-new-guineans/9477894,  about Scott Waide who runs the Facebook site Inspirational Papua New Guineans with more than 5,000 followers. His interviews are fab.

By sharing stories of people in Papua New Guinea who've overcome all sorts of odds, or are doing amazing things to help their family and community, Scott Waide has realised something else - he's strengthening democracy.  In a newspaper interview he says:

"If you put out the positive and you put that out in public, people will connect the dots and then start demanding better services, start demanding those in power are held accountable for their actions." Scott Waide (PNG blogger).

I'm so impressed by Scott Waide.

Shared world

"If you're surprised, it means you don't see enough black people
in major roles," says Legally Black. Good point.
Today I also saw a fascinating news story about some BME teenagers who'd got so fed up with seeing themselves reflected in TV and films as gangsters, maids and drug dealers that they re-created some famous films using black models. In fact they used their friends and family. The story is in the Guardian, see here, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/mar/03/young-brixton-activists-recreate-film-posters-with-black-leads created by @legallyblackuk

If you haven't understood how frustrating the male/female pay divide is (being revealed spring 2018); or the ethnic pay divide then keep it simple. If you are pale-skinned, try finding someone who looks a different colour to you in the lead role of a famous film. For me it was a wake up moment to see a young black woman depicted playing Bridget Jones.... Bridget is a white woman, about my size, and certainly on my clumsiness level. When the film came out I knew it was "for me", and in some ways sort of "about me".   But when I noticed the poster brilliantly re-done with a young black woman my first thought - a flashing drift through my head, and not said (at least I thought not) with prejudice - oh that's not a film for me, then I realised just how stupid I've been.

Their campaign has so worked for me. As Legally Black's catchphrase points out: "If our posters shock you, you're not seeing enough black faces in leading roles."

Life lessons
As a baby boomer it's perhaps no surprise that I've lived through several waves of feminism and yet  am still acclimatised to seeing men in the best jobs/situations/statues etc receiving the best pay.  I totally understand the structural reasons for this and why it must and should change.

But I hadn't quite cottoned on to the power that structural norms have - even if they are just as simple as images - in maintaining a racist (or racially prejudiced if you prefer) status quo.

Yesterday a friend told me she was reading the hugely influential book, Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race by Reni Eddo-Lodge. And my thought. Oh, I don't need to read that. I know that stuff.*

It's quite clear that I'm wrong.

We don't just need institutional change to create a more fair society, we also need to hear a far wider cross-section of voices talking about life as it is, and how it could be.

So let's keep hearing it from people living their lives and sharing their ordinary - to them - but extraordinary and powerful stories. The craze to share story telling is a wonderful part of this 21st century, long may it last. And let its potential to offer fair chances to us all, whatever our gender or ethnicity. There's an added plus, and that's this feeling of positive stuff happening which perhaps offers anyone the opportunity to see that if they can do this, then I can too, whatever that I can is.

*Clarification: I have actually seen the book and had a 30 minute look through it back in the summer. Clearly I need to revisit.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Shades of grey: Iceland via Leigh

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK in order to reduce our impact on climate change. A day out to the Essex coast - to the little former fishing village of Leigh-on-Sea, Essex gave us a taste of the big skies and sustainability skills you have to have to survive anywhere, including Iceland. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).
When get and icy weather gives a little hint of spring - at Leigh on Sea, Essex
“An eye to the future and an ear to the past in the heart of Leigh.” That’s what Leigh Heritage centre calls Plumbs Cottage which sits close to the shore line, a little clapperboard fishing cottage, two up and two down. The Burders were the last family to live there. Amazingly they raised 10 children in their home despite the lack of space and a long list of Nos – no modern conveniences, no piped water, no electricity, no gas, no phone, no toilet inside the house, no fridge, no washing machine, no radio, no TV, no computers. Upstairs there were just two beds and a crib (the kids slept head to toe until they moved out) and downstairs it was just fishing kit (oars, nets, places to dry things off) and a basic kitchen range. Even so, it’s a lovely little home, recently restored thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

There’s something so elemental about taking a day out to the seaside in winter. We love to do this because you can walk your dog on the beach, which is forbidden from May-October. But also there’s the amazing cloudscape and sand patterns to watch, the cry of oyster catchers, an army of winter waders and the chance to be buffeted by the wind as you storm along the sea front towards a warm pub. Add in a monster February hail storm and you can see what I mean about elemental.

Recovery in action - a walk by the sea.
Lola came to get over a broken heart; I wanted to forget work for just one weekend; Pete was upset about a book contract going wrong… but the excitement of a very easy journey and then seeing the sea just seemed to raise everyone’s spirits. We got excited about the beach – a swerve of pebbles, sand, mud and shells broken up by seaweed-covered groynes. We chased the dogs chasing each other and chatted as if we’d never stop. And then in Leigh we found a shed selling delicious fish and a plethora of pubs ensuring that we could find at least one that let us in with our two dogs, and had craft beer and sold fish & chips, and veggie stuff. The Crooked Billet is the last pub before the rail station (it’s a 10 minute walk) so the perfect stop-off point.

Leigh is a place of refuge. The current residents probably don’t think of it like that. But this is where many east enders went to in a bid to escape the dirty air and grim surroundings of industrial London, just two or three generations ago. Worldwide people have a tendency to be drawn to the city for work and lifestyle reasons. That’s one of the reasons more people now live in urban environments, rather than rural. But for many Londoners the journey has been the other way, at first to escape the dirt and poverty, and more recently in a search for more affordable housing.

It’s also a lovely day out. And as the visitors’ book at Plumbs Cottage reveals on the sunny Sunday we turned up, that most of us were day trippers from nearby – a lot of Essex addresses – plus a few down from London.

I wonder where those Burders are now? You get used to seeing grand National Trust stately homes and yet here’s a really very modest place that oozes with history, and stories of a bygone age, and yet there are no tales of what it was like to be growing up in such an idyllic place with plenty of access to food – fish and, at the right time of the years, scrumped and foraged fruit and leaves. On Islington Faces I often interview people who definitely knew hunger and neglect in childhood who have moved away and are now home owners. They often have one or more cars, regularly eat out and travel. When they tell me about their lives they so often have a grandchild’s voice of incredulity in their head. “You washed once a week!” “You played out with no adults!” “There was no wifi. Or phones!” Some also lived through the bombing of London during World War Two or were evacuated to a strangers’ house far from their family. It is extraordinary what the generation above me – my mum and dad – put up with or accepted as normal. 

At Leigh Fishmongers fish is sold in a seafront shed and
recipes are pinned to the entrance door.
That said I am fascinated by the way there’s a new generation – and it’s not mine, it’s the millennials – who are challenging accepted norms. Good for them. 

But don’t let any of us forget that we’re only seven meals away from the need to be self-sufficient. All of us (including me) certainly could learn some lessons from the sort of skills the Burders would have known just to survive the everyday.  I think that’s why the next day I made up a fire and lit it – successfully – craving a refresher of the knowledge needed to live so simply. Let’s hope that won’t be needed to ensure we simply live. Like I said, I needed a break…

  • Leigh Heritage Centre and Plumbs Cottage, 13a High Street, Old Town, Leigh on Sea, Essex SS9 2EN
  • Read the interviews on Islington Faces at https://www.islingtonfacesblog.com

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Somali party via Finsbury Park

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK in order to reduce our impact on climate change. Near where I live there is a large Somali community - so what a treat to be invited to a Somali women only party. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

I bought this red patterned scarf at the African Development Trust
fundraiser for orphans and this lovely lady (left of photo)
showed me how to wear it as a hijab. Selfie opportunity!
Somalia is a complicated place. I speak for myself here but I'm talking about its history and current geo-political situation. After being colonised by the Italians and then 20+ years of civil war, small wonder that the Somali diaspora has been large and surely, for many, painful. But my limited contact with Somali people in London has been joyful.

New writing
Recently I helped the lovely staff (and volunteers) at Nomad - Nations of Migration Awakening the Diaspora - create a booklet of stories, poems and lyrics inspired by the journeys and experiences of migrants. The writing was by young people, working in English, ie, their 2nd, sometime 3rd, language. But it was so powerful, in particular the love the authors felt for the 'pearl of the Indian Ocean', history's poetic name for Mogadishu.

The Unwritten Tales of the Tongue (Nomad, 2017)
available from www.nomad-uk.org

Another contributor, Asha Mohamed, wrote a challenging think-piece asking why the question "What tribe are you?" has to be so loaded? She was particularly speaking about the Somali heritage people living far away from Somalia, some of whom were not even born in Somalia and whose parents did not experience a traditional nomadic lifestyle.

"Here we sleep warm and privileged and safe enough to chant tribal talks as the main understanding of what makes us Somali! 'What tribe are you?', are the words I hear from the youth who barely understand it, but fight for it! They have no use for it in our technology-driven Western lifestyle, but we seem to always ask, 'What is your tribe?' Does it make me more Somali if I told you?" ASHA MOHAMED from The Unwritten Tales of the Tongue (Nomad, 2017)

Asha's thinking is clear - "What tribe are you?" is a divisive question and one to drop.

Getting a rare chance to cuddle a baby at the women only
fundraiser for African Development Trust.
(c) Kimi Gill
Somali party
It was the Somali ladies who were asking me questions at the next event - a fundraiser for orphans run by the African Development Trust. "What do you want to eat?" they kept asking pointing out delicious dishes. I'm a vegetarian but there was lovely rice, couscous, lentils and - because it's Finsbury Park - a culture mashup including pakoras and samosa.

I haven't been to a women-only event for a while, and what is lovely about this one was the amount of kids who were there too. Loads of games had been organised and creative activities including decorating picture frames, henna painting, pass the parcel. The ticket also promised Somali dance and nasheeds (inspirational Islamic music).

There were a few fundraising stalls and so I bought a red paisley-patterned scarf - as you can see  from the photo it works as a hijab. The highlight was getting to chat to mums who were willing to let me cuddle their lovely babies. What a shame it is that I see so few babies these days!

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Finding out about Romania via home #1

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK in order to reduce our impact on climate change. Ever since I read Dracula I've been intrigued by what Romania might be like, so here's how I'm finding out. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Duolingo Romanian and books - starting the Romania discovery.
The thing about travel is that it takes time, costs more than the budget and stops me working. But I love to travel and I want to see the world... As regular readers of this blog will know I've found a way to see the sights without leaving home much by seeking out what's here in the UK that links to somewhere else. During 2018 I want to ramp up my travel knowledge and find out more about Romania. If that means one day I'll visit (via train) so much the better, but I doubt it will be this year that I see the painted monasteries, agrarian society in action, salt mines, Danube Delta or the famous Palace of the Parliament.

Besides finding out more is going to be easy because all I know so far is that Dracula is a fun read and Nadia Comāneci was the first gymnast to get a perfect 10 score (in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal).

New Year's resolutions are tricky because they are so tempting to break. But this year I did download Duolingo's learn Romanian and have been reasonably diligent plodding through the lessons. I've got form with Duolingo - I like the way it is quick to use, mixes listening, writing and games and has a clear structure. I've managed to get through the whole of the French Duolingo. Duolingo declared me 54% fluent in French which is a fair estimate as I do understand about half of what's said to me. As for replying, oh my...

I've always been a big admirer of anyone who can speak more than one language.Now, I know that's not hard, especially if you have a mother tongue and a different education language and you start as a child, and/or you have years to improve. But I found language at secondary school much harder. It was fun at primary school and gave me a French and Latin base. Fortunately this has turned out to be very useful when it comes to Romanian, which like French is a Romance language. For years I thought this meant it had a sort of frisky frisson (well French has a particular accent), but at last I've realised that it means it has its roots in Latin.

About a week after writing this I've now discovered from a hairdresser (Polish) that Romania has some good music festivals which are also well attended by mosquitoes and that Romanian sounds Italian. The next day I had my first conversation (I don't think we can grace it with that word conversation actually) with a Romanian Big Issue seller. All I could think of was "I am woman". She thought I was clearly mad, hoping I'd buy the mag or just move on swiftly. However I enjoyed our "chat" and it was fantastic to at last have a chance to hear - and speak - Romanian.

Besides the language learning I'm going to get cultural. On my list will be books, films and a lightbulb in my brain which will either switch on when it notices something about Romania or will oblige me to ask "have you ever been to Romania' when embroiled in a conversation I'm not really sure I want to be having and isn't about work.

Romanian books to read
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker isn't really Romanian, but it does give a bit of a hint about Transylvania. Under Communism the stories of vampires disappeared. Now they are back again and it seems Romanians have conflicted feelings about Count Dracula and the rest of the world's obsession for Transyvlanian weird stuff. Searching for Dracula in Romania by Catalin Gruia looks like dealing with these issues.
  • Herta Müller has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her best known work are novels about the poor treatment of Germans in Communist Romania, eg, The Hunger Angel (2009) but I'm also thinking of reading Passport which explores Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu as does The Fox Was Ever the Hunter.   
  • Judging by the internet most Romanians are poets...
Famous Romanians
  • Nelly Miricioiu - opera singer (born 1952) who has starred worldwide, including Salzburg and London.
  • Nadia Comāneci - gymnast
  • Nicolāe Paulescu - discovered insulin
  • Mihai Eminescu - 19th century national poet
  • Romanian gypsies - who've suffered terrible racism especially in the 20th an 21st centuries.
Next steps - besides reading
The plan is to visit a Romanian restaurant/coffee shop - Restaurant Noroc at 147-149 Green Lanes, N13 by the North Circular open from midday to 9pm. Not sure what to expect, but I do know that Romania is the world's ninth largest producer of wine, an exciting fact for a wine lover. Expect a Romanian recipe soon.

Over to you
What do you know about Romania? Where in the UK can I learn more about this place and its history? Have you visited? Any tips?

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

New thinking for new year's day - Clerkenwell history

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK in order to reduce our impact on climate change. All is quiet on New Year's Day, so it was fun to go on a rebel footprint tour around Clerkenwell and see the exact spots that social justice was challenged and changed thanks to people from Italy, India, German, Soviet Union etc. Words by Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Walking a chapter in Rebel Footprints by David Rosenberg was an interesting way to spend New Year’s Day. When the big blockbuster shows are on in London covering revolutionary art and ideas there’s a tendency to focus on the Soviet Union and France. But Rebel Footprints offers a guide to “uncovering London’s radical history”. Turns out London is packed with historic incident plus the places – often coffee houses, but pubs too – where these events were planned.

As I live in Islington it’s always fun to learn more about the area (see the 260+ interviews on https://islingtonfacesblog.com ) so instead of a cobweb-blowing New Year’s Day walk along a cliff edge we picked a guided tour (reachable by local bus) of the trailblazers for democracy who lived, worked and plotted around Clerkenwell, EC1. This is a short walk – 7,000 paces for those of you living by fitbits. For me it was very familiar so a chance to look again at places and consider the power of politics. Here’s what I found most interesting:

Spa Fields (a paved green space) looks a bit sad in winter, but it was a huge area bordering Exmouth Market and ideal for rallies. It was the centrepoint for bread riots that broke out in London in 1800-01 which the authorities blamed on Newcastle-born Thomas Spence who was a shoemaker and radical teacher who wanted egalitarianism, land nationalisation and universal suffrage. His followers were known as Spenceans.

Plaque marks the UK's first black MP - who won his seat in 1982.
The Old Town Hall on Rosebery Avenue, opened in 1895, used to be where Islingtonians registered births, marriages and deaths in ink. I have two millennial daughters – one was registered with an ink pen, the other in a more high-tech environment using new technology. The Old Town Hall is now a dance studio for 16-21 year olds, Urdang Academy. Here we spotted a plaque commemorating the first black (and first Asian) MP, Dadabhai Naoroji, who was elected as a liberal MP for Finsbury Central in 1892. He won by just three votes! This is a good place to people watch: in just five minutes we jam-packed history and spotted a policeman on a skittish horse; a woman dressed as a suffragette and an ambulance responder on a bike. Often you can see queues for Urdang auditions which makes me think of the 1983 movie set in the thriving industrial steel town of Philadelphia, Flashdance – best songs What a feeling and Maniac.

Italian family and home of Joey Grimaldi, London's most famous clown
Exmouth Market was the home of Joey Grimaldi, the famous clown. He was the son of Italian immigrants and went to work as a dancer, on stage at Sadler’s Wells from just three years old.

On the site of a prison...
Mount Pleasant – now a reduced Royal Mail operation although it does have a postal museum and underground postal train to try – was the Middlesex House of Correction, also known as Coldbath Fields Prison. 

The Italian church is still busy.
Clerkenwell Road is where you can find St Peter’s Italian church, built in 1863. It still holds joint Italian and English Sunday mass and is the place to go for an Italian experience in London (especially if you go for coffee or pasta before or afterwards). Back in the mid 19th century the church doubled as a labour exchange and the area was dubbed ‘Little Italy”. Since the 1880s there’s been an annual Italian parade around Clerkenwell – known as Our Lady of Mount Carmel. In 2018 the parade and carnival will probably be Sunday 22 July (please check date before you go!).

From this building, now the Marx Memorial Library, the first red
flag was flown during a rally
Clerkenwell Green is the hotspot for radical explorers. Here you can find the Marx Memorial Library, which is in the building where the first red flag was flown in London, hoisted at a rally in 1871 in sympathy with the Paris Communards. It used to be a radical printing workshops where Lenin worked... Here's a fascinating film about the building's history.

Under the clock

The Crown Tavern, 43 Clerkenwell Green. At the table under the clock
is where Lenin drank (possibly coffee and not just beer) and planned.
Just over the road, also in Clerkenwell Green, is the pub where Lenin drank – The Crown. Head to the back room and you’ll find the conspirators clock, which is helpfully marked by a plaque.

There are plenty more radical history exploring possibilities – I’d recommend borrowing or buying the book. Do you have any guide books that get you outside and learning about other places or times that you think other readers of this blog would enjoy? If so please let me know. Thanks.