My French fitness challenge!

(You can also catch up with me in Cardiff Life magazine each month and on my Hello! Online blog too.)

Most of us love pancakes.  I’ve not done any substantial research but I’m pretty sure this is a statement of fact.  It’s substantiated at the very least by my social media timelines, which were recently scattered with photos of people’s attempts at cooking the batter-based delicacies for Shrove Tuesday.

Hiking the beautiful volcanic Auvergne region

Hiking the beautiful volcanic Auvergne region

Indeed, Pancake Day – as it is now more commonly known – has gradually morphed into solely a festival of eating much like the true meaning of Christmas has gradually been taken over by present giving.  It is designed to be a celebration of food of course, but only because it’s meant to co-exist with a period of fasting which, from a religious point of view, is meant to follow for 40 days and 40 nights until Easter comes around.  Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day, therefore, represents your last chance to stuff your face before you starve yourself.  But, whether we like it or not, these days it’s more about the eating than giving much of a thought to the fasting.

Weights (...with a few tips from my hubby!)

Weights (…with a few tips from my hubby!)

Please be aware this is by no means a lecture on Christian values.  I’ve never been one to preach it unless I practice it and the last time I checked, Mardi Gras lived up to it’s literal ‘Fat Tuesday’ translation for me – and meant little more besides whooping at successful pancake flipping and subsequent munching.  So, as lent comes to an end once again and I have failed to give anything up once again, I’ve decided to change my tactic.  Because, after all, giving up – like breaking up – is hard to do. Continue reading

‘Mission Marcy’: Dogs have feelings too!

Scientific proof, as any good politician knows, is very helpful to any successful campaign.  How kind then of boffins in Hungary to make a scientific discovery about dogs’ emotions just as I’m campaigning for ‘Mission Marcy’?

Regular readers will know that my husband and I have a schnauzer named Hank.  Lee named him after a character from the TV show Californication.  He’d not been with us long when my husband floated the idea that maybe Hank should have a Marcy (another character from the series) to keep him company.  Well, of course, that light-hearted mention is all a girl needs.  Like a dog with a bone (excuse the pun) I took the idea of Marcy and wouldn’t let it go until persuasion had conjured her into a reality.

Conjuring up Marcy!

Conjuring up Marcy!

As if on cue, enter scientist Attila Andics.  For background – his team were so determined to prove their canine emotion theory, that they first had to spend time training eleven dogs to lie motionless in an MRI scanner long enough for them to be able to record their canine brain response.   That’s dedication for you.

What they wanted to show was that our furry friends have some kind of emotional response to vocal sounds.  They played noises to them ranging from barking and whining to crying and laughing.  Then they compared them to how a human reacts to the same sounds.  What they found was that doggy brains respond in vey similar ways to humans’ when they hear happy sounds or sad sounds.  The science boffins concluded that humans share a very similar social environment and claim it explains why vocal communication between the two species is so relevant.  In other words, (as we’ve always believed but never known for sure) dogs have feelings too!

Best buddies!

Best buddies!

Why is this so important to ‘Mission Marcy’?  Well, from being a cute squeaking bundle of puppy fluffiness, Hank fast progressed to adolescence.  His voice broke. And he become an enthusiastic vocal communicator when he felt the need.  One of his favourite one-sided conversations, which started recurring whenever we left him on his own at home, was the howl of a lone wolf.   Well, on my (loose!) interpretation of the scientific evidence, I think I can safely say that this was Hank telling us he didn’t want his ‘pack’ to leave him on his own.  Ok, it may be a little far-fetched to translate ‘dogs brains react to vocal sounds like humans’ as ‘dogs can talk’.  But it served my purpose perfectly.

 

Playtime!

Playtime!

So, thank you Attila Andics and your crew, we now have double schnauzer trouble!  Marcy has settled in nicely and Hank is her best buddy.  There are twice the number of odd socks being stolen from the wash basket, twice the beggars for dinner scraps… and, as for taking the pair of them for walks on their extending leads, well that mostly ends up as a bizarre canine twist on maypole dancing.

The Maypole Dance

But they make each other very happy.  They told me so themselves. ;-)  Mission accomplished….

 

Love is… wearing onesies this Valentine’s!

It’s February.  It’s Valentine’s. For singletons, Cupid is busy taking his aim and for those content in coupledom, it’s meant to be a chance to remind one other of our undying love. 

However, thanks to what appears to have been appalling foresight on my part, Valentine’s is a bit of a non-starter for me.  It all begins with having a wedding anniversary on the 1st January which, it turns out, is much is the same as having a birthday anywhere near 25th December.  It falls hot on the heels of a big Christmas spend-up, so anniversary gifts are all too easily abandoned.  And with New Year hang-overs also having their say, candlelit dinners are also a dead end.  Trouble is, by the time Valentine’s comes around, the ‘anniversary-which-wasn’t-really-one’ is forgotten about by both of us.  The domino effect being that we don’t celebrate Valentine’s either because ‘we’ve only recently had our anniversary’….and to think I thought the best bonus to a wedding on the 1st January was that neither of us would ever forget an all-important date!

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Pass the Parcel. Pros & cons of ‘regifting’.

New Year.  Traditionally, of course, a time for resolutions.  An opportunity to reshape our waistlines, recycle trees, cards and wrapping paper … and regift those unwanted presents.  

Come on now.  Don’t try to pretend you’ve never done it.  We’ve all let life overtake us and been caught unprepared for a friend’s birthday haven’t we?  When a visit to the shops is not an option time will allow, a visit to the cupboard of miscellanea where you keep all those presents from people that you will never use, is what comes to your rescue. Otherwise, the items would go to waste and you’d also look like a bad friend who forgot a birthday.  So, surely everyone’s a winner?

Or maybe you’re certain you have the perfect gift for your friend in that cupboard.  In fact, they’ve even mentioned it to you that it’s on their wish list.  The only reason you don’t use it, is because you received two from different well-wishers.   Then it’s definitely ok to ‘pass the parcel’ so to speak.  Am I right?

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‘Tis the season to be merry. What makes your Christmas a tradition?

You can also read my blog in Cardiff Life magazine monthly.

With my October birthday, Halloween and Guy Fawkes’ night all duly celebrated, it’s finally time to look forward to Christmas.  I have made it my tradition to wait until December 1st before I allow myself to begin seasonal preparations.  This is no doubt why, each year, I am consumed by a panic of online ordering and lost in a clutter of wrapping, bows and gift cards whilst clambering on various furniture pinning mistletoe and balancing angels.

But, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without our traditions to uphold and too little time to organise them all would it?  And talking to my husband made me realise that the magical thing about everyone’s festivities is that we all celebrate with slightly different quirks.  Those unique customs that merge and evolve with every marriage created and each new family formed.

Merry Christmas! Our REAL tree.

Merry Christmas! Our REAL tree.

Here’s my top ten from growing up in the Benfield household – which I hope will have an influence on many a Byrne Christmas to come.  Some you will no doubt share, some you probably won’t! But that’s what makes them special:

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Pen to paper: letter writing in a digital age

You can also read my columns in Cardiff Life Magazine every month. 

Each year when the kids return to school in the autumn sporting the latest funky fashions in pencil cases, folders, pads and pens I am a just a little envious of their new stash.  So, I was pleasantly surprised to find when browsing Cardiff Life mag last month, a fab selection of fashionable stationary for us adults too (and slightly more sophisticated than Bob the Builder of course!).  A colourful double page spread dedicated to pretty post-its and pens, neon satchels and even a good old paperweight.  I was reassured to see that even in a digital revolution, there is still some care for the practice of putting pen to paper.

After all, it’s that time of year when we all start to consider whether or not to buy multiple boxes of generic seasonal greetings cards, spend several hours writing each one and then a little longer sticking down the envelopes.  Oh, and then there’s an evening or two leafing through the address book only to discover half of those we have in there, are out of date.  And so being forced to revert back to texts and emails just to make sure the festive lengths we’ve gone to aren’t just returned to sender.

For all the bother it might involve, I am actually a big fan of the annual Christmas card ‘faff’.  It’s precisely the fact that someone has gone to that bother that makes it special when it lands on your mat.   I’m an even bigger fan of people actually bothering to write something inside that amounts to more than just a sign-off.  And thank goodness I’m not alone.  A quick unscientific poll (via Twitter) suggests a good percentage of you are still slaves to the Christmas card effort and many of you go so far as to include a note as well – or perhaps my followers have all just bought shares in Royal Mail?

Either way, despite these Christmas exertions, the hand-written traditional letter is becoming a dying art at most other times of the year.  It’s a far cry from when I was a child and the international pen pal network thrived.  Whilst my bundles of mail may now be stuffed gathering dust in a drawer at my mum’s, I still find it comforting to know they’re there and form part of the record of my childhood.

Me & hubby: accustomed to long-distance love in a digital age.

Me & hubby: accustomed to long-distance love in a digital age.

These days, even when I found myself in a long distance marriage when my husband moved to play his club rugby in France, it was Skype, Watts App, text and email that became our communications of convenience, rather than cards and letters.  In fact, the last time I can remember writing him a letter was when I sneaked 3 envelopes in his kit as he left for the World Cup in New Zealand.  They came with instructions to read them as the tour progressed with the hope I might provide a little love, motivation and inspiration with my carefully scribed words.  Well, he found them at the airport and opened all of them on the flight out!  So, it’s fair to say perhaps not everyone shares my literary sentimentality…

Yours Sincerely

Mrs Andrea Byrne

Encs. Christmas greetings in advance!

 

 

 

 

Appreciating Autumn: why the Christmas countdown needs to wait its turn ….

Read my columns each month in Cardiff Life Magazine

Autumn is my favourite season.  It is the beautiful season.  It is the season blessed with the most indulgent of colour schemes.  However, it is also fated as the season before the ‘jolly’ one and our anticipation for snow, sleighs and snuggling by the fire in motif Christmas jumpers and big woolly socks more often than not succeeds in upstaging the months that precede it. 

The writer George Eliot had the right idea when she declared autumn ‘delicious’ and said ‘my very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.’  Boy, they knew how to express themselves in the nineteenth century, didn’t they?

What has brought on this sudden seasonal sales pitch, I hear you ask?  No, I have not been visited by Vertumnus (he’s the Roman God of seasons in case you hadn’t googled mythology recently).  Rather, I’ve been plagued by many a social media comment ushering in Santa long before – in my opinion – his scripted entry.  One of my friends thought it necessary to mark the 100-day countdown and another to post their first purchase of mince pies (you know exactly who you are!).  The latter not a difficult feat of course, when there are already several festive aisles creeping into most of our supermarkets/garden centres/department stores…

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Photo Finish! Why the ‘selfie’ is sending me back to the future.

(Remember you can find my column in Cardiff Life Magazine monthly too)

Warning! This blog contains the thoughts of a grumpy woman! At the risk of being labelled a luddite after previous rants on the pitfalls of smartphones, my new mobile moan is the selfie: ‘ A strange phenomenon, in which the photographer is also the subject of the photograph, usually conducted because the subject can’t locate a suitable photographer to take the photo, like a friend. ‘

Devotees of the selfie, many of whom are celebrities with millions of devotees themselves, have ensured this fad is now a fashion.  There are selfie competitions run by big mags, celebrity video guides to taking the perfect selfie and we have the selfie to thank for the belfie or the bottom selfie. Oh yes, it’s now in vogue to snap your own rear.  Really?  Wow.

No rears, I promise.  But for the purposes of research, I did feel obliged to snap a selfie or two just to make sure I wasn’t missing out on an unsurpassed sense of self-satisfaction.

'Selfie' experiment

‘Selfie’ experiment

The conclusion – I wasn’t.  Aside from anything else, I have to admit I’m just too vain to enjoy it!  By the time I’d got images I was happy with, I could have set up my own dark room.

Ah yes, those were surely the days!  Back when cameras clicked, flash bulbs burst and film actually got developed.  One famous documentary photographer Dorothea Lange once said of her art, ‘ Pick a theme and work it to exhaustion … the subject must be something you truly love or truly hate.’  Well, love certainly plays it’s part in the selfie phenomenon. To be loved or ‘liked’, ‘shared’, and ‘followed’ is the aim of the game, of course.  Though I think Dorothea would be turning in her grave.

So, is the selfie ever acceptable? Perhaps, when it’s a selfie that’s not a selfie it is. In other words, if you want to capture a special moment with somebody else and there’s simply no one extra to take the picture then technically it’s not a selfie as it’s not just your self in it.  And there’s also dispensation for extreme circumstances.  For instance, if you’ve just skied solo across the Antarctic with not an insect, let alone a human, for company for hundreds of miles then indulging in a photo of yourself for the archives is permissible.  Indeed, history would not forgive you.

After all, when did photography start being more about self-adoration and less about capturing a moment, saving a memory and recording a history.  It’s time to breathe life back into the traditional album, before we click our way into a photographic narcissism.  But if, like me, your photos are destined to an eternity in your smartphone because thoughts of uploading, downloading, editing, and cropping push ‘Order prints’ to the bottom of your to-do list, then there is a compromise.  And it’s polaroid.  Yes, the new digital version of the iconic camera is a goal for the futurists and traditionalists.  It posts – and it prints instantly.  You can still always use your app to give your pic a ‘classic’ 70s hue or you can print it straight out and simply wait a few decades for it to age authentically!

 

New digital Polaroid! Back to the future....

New digital Polaroid! Back to the future….

 

For me, no selfie, belfie, or online snap can ever replace the nuances held in a photo album. They will never build the same relationships with family and friends as opening a dog-eared book and pouring over memories of a past to be remembered for the future.  So, however you decide to do it, make sure get your magical moments printed, mounted and archived to leaf through with your children and grandchildren, the way we did when we were young.  Just promise me one thing – selfies stay in the camera.

 

 

Par vélo! Getting on my bike in France…

Hello, and welcome back to my blog from France.  If you haven’t already seen it at Hello! Online than catch up here instead…!

Thanks for taking the time to log on.  Last time I blogged, I was welcoming some visitors from the UK.  Not so absorbed with entertaining now, so I’ve had the chance to do some dedicated exploring of the Auvergne, and improve my tour guide credentials for the next time I have guests!

The ‘Tour de France’ has not long departed from this region – passing through a town about forty-five minutes away from Clermont – and producing another Brit winner in Chris Froome.  So, I decided it was time to break my 2-decade bike veto… and buy a ‘vélo’. Regular readers of my blog and Cardiff Life columns will know I’ve already indulged in a little pedalling practice on a friend’s (just to check the old adage really is true).  It is.  And so now I have invested in my own two-wheeled transportation and there is no stopping me…!

Par vélo ... !

Par vélo … !

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Family & Friends in the Auvergne

Hi there, this blog update can also be read at Hello! Magazine Online! If you haven’t already caught up with it there, then here is the latest from France ….!

Bonjour from me, Lee and little Hank from Clermont-Ferrand in central France. Thanks for taking the time to read my blog!

Lee has made his way to the Pyrenees for a pre-season training.  A week of mountaineering, commando training, zip wires … oh and a couple of rugby matches thrown in too for good measure.

Lee pre-season training army-style!

Lee pre-season training army-style!

In his absence, I’ve been welcoming some visitors from the UK and attempting to give them a taste of the Auvergne. Although, as I’m still discovering myself, it’s been more the idiot’s guide than the Lonely Planet!

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