Explaining Garlic Bread to French Students

Life outside the office continues to be rich and varied. But with one son still at university, my modest (OK, piffling) income needed a boost.

So since March, we have been hosting French students.

Did you know that you are allowed to earn £7,500 from hosting students without paying tax?

If you own your own home and have rooms to spare, it is a great way of getting regular income, on your terms, for a few months of the year.

We do it through a company called Culture Exchange and a warm and fantastically well organised woman who runs the local groups. I thought we might have a couple of students, one in each of my sons’ rooms. She took one look at the larger room and said, ‘Have three. Put them all in here – they’ll love it.’ And she was right – for the students, being three to a room turns a school trip into a sleepover.

I have always rather fancied running a B & B…

It is a bit like running a part-time B & B

Students stay three or four nights during the week. You drop them off around 8 a.m. and pick them up between 6.30 and 10.15, so your days and weekends are free.

You feed them breakfast and an evening meal and give them a pack lunch. My thrifty enthusiasm for eating well for next to nothing has been useful, along with really helpful guidelines from the organiser.

It freaks you out to start with that they are French

They’ll expect haute cuisine, right? Wrong – they’re teenagers – or children. They want pizza and pasta and dodge veg and salad like our own youth.

I scour Lidl, Iceland and Asda to get the best deals. I do a breaded chicken and homemade oven chips night, a spag bol night and a pizza and pasta night. If there is a fourth night, I have homemade burgers ready in the freezer. I love the way the sons of France, home of the world’s most renowned cuisine, complement the food as though it’s Michelin starred.


Money saving tips for hosts

Lidl Cooked ham trimmings – really good ham, but cheap. Keep in the freezer and defrost for sandwiches. Way better than the watery wafer-thin stuff.

Iceland Sliced chicken breast – great for sandwiches. Proper chicken rather than reformed gunge, but it comes in freezer bags and is cheap as well as handy.

Buy the cheapest pizzas (frozen are fine) and add a bit of the ham mentioned above and Asda Smart Price Mozzarella – 47p a ball. I could leave this out but want to feel I could look the French Mamans in the eye.

Explaining garlic bread

We were astonished to discover that none of them have come across garlic bread before.  ‘It’s bread, but with garlic,’ we say every time. ‘Garlic bread!’ They are sometimes suspicious but they always adore it. C’est l’avenir! they must be thinking.

We haven’t had a single student we haven’t liked

They have all been polite and keen to please – really, respect to French parents and teachers.

They have ranged in age from 12 to 16 and you never know what to expect until you pick them up. Some are sweet little boys who tell you what they want to be when they grow up, and want to discuss, in English, whether you have brothers or sisters. They come down in their pyjamas to say goodnight, and bring out all your maternal instincts. They do not tend to trouble the shower.

With young groups, there is always a delicate one

He arrives saying he has been travel sick, and then picks at his food all week. A glance around the bedroom will reveal a suitcase full of chocolate biscuits, which Maman has packed in case he starves in the care of an English woman.

Some are teenagers

They barely grunt at each other over breakfast and leave enormous trainers in the hall. You can’t get them out of the house in the morning because in teen-speak, whatever the maternal tongue, ‘Be ready to leave at 7.40’ means, ‘Be larking around, playing stuff on your phone while cleaning your teeth at 7.40’. The shower gets plenty of use and the food is all gratefully eaten.

Once, we had three delightful teenage girls. Unlike any of the others, they were interested in politics, and we managed a conversation about Macron and Le Pen in English. Also unlike any of the other students, they left a purple thong behind in the shower.

We have loved getting to know them all

Whatever their level of English, there’s always a point of contact. With almost no French, Jon relies on hand gestures and football talk for communication. Dropping Paris St Germain into the conversation is his ice-breaker.

I once watched a girl trying to do up ankle-high Converse when we were waiting to leave. ‘I like your Converse,’ I said. ‘It’s impossible to put them on quickly, isn’t it?’ They laughed knowingly – we were a la meme page.

One young group were near Westminster during the terror attack

They had been at the scene a few hours earlier, but thankfully were watching a musical when it took place. Many of the girls cried when they heard the news as they left the theatre. They all saw the emergency services on the scene from their coach. The tour guides did a brilliant job of helping them to contact their parents, letting hosts know they were OK, and keeping them distracted and upbeat.

Their parents all rang in the evening. I heard one boy saying, ‘It’s OK, Papa, we saw a brilliant show – I had a good day.’

He came down later needing to chat. ‘My mother was crying,’ he said.

‘I expect she just wanted to hear your voice,’ I said.

‘Yes, that’s what she said!’

I felt closer to these boys than any of the others. I always have a huge sense of responsibility for other people’s children, but this really brought it home.

We have had only one disaster

You are supposed to be warned about bedwetting, but one family must have thought their fourteen-year-old would cope with pull-up pants, and that no one needed to know.

The room began to smell terrible. After a day or two, the stench filled the house, and was indescribably awful – you walked through the door and felt the kind of revulsion that is your primitive brain’s way of warning you to steer clear of something toxic.

Jon found two heavily laden pairs of wet pull-up pants hidden in the bed, and more in the bathroom bin. We never said anything, and the boy involved seemed happy that his secret had been removed. When the students left, a huge clean-up ensued, but though bedding, duvets and mattress were washed, re-washed and aired, and all manner of sprays were tried, a trace of the smell lingered in the house for weeks.


The gift of … well, gifts

This aside, it has been a hugely positive experience. Every week there are three new characters to get to know and every week, more gifts from France. We have had walnuts, mustard, chocolate, sausage, marzipan sweets and even wine. I thought of having a French sale for church funds – only to discover that Jon was opening and consuming everything. His face fell when we had a group from Puy. They came bearing lentils.





How to Stop Worrying in 5 Easy Steps


Not to worry. That was my New Year’s Resolution.

For some, anxiety is an illness and let me be clear, that is completely different, and requires expert help.

But many of us just drift into a worrying habit. Sometimes I wake up with a generalized unease, and as thoughts pop into my head, I latch onto them as a source of anxiety. There’s that deadline. I’m not earning enough. I’m never going to make it as a writer. No one likes me.

Not the best start to the day!

As I’ve said before, if I’m going to thrive, I need to knock the worrying on the head and enjoy the many advantages of life beyond the day job.

A month into my resolution, here are my 5 Top Tips:

1 Decide to stop worrying

Don’t see it as a normal or inevitable state of affairs, but as a bad habit you can defeat. Catch yourself on whenever you start sinking into that state of mind and give yourself a gentle but rational talking to.

2 Argue with your negative thoughts

When you find yourself thinking, I can’t do this, look at all the things you have achieved. If you’re thinking, This is going to be a disaster, tell yourself there is no good reason to think this – picture it being a success. Don’t accept the thoughts that are bringing you down – find a positive to counter every negative.

3 Get out and exercise

Go outside if you can, and get some light. If the weather has been grey, try to make the most of any brighter weather, even if you just step outside the office for a minute. People have fag breaks, surely you can have a brightness break?

There is nothing like the endorphin rush from  getting up and being active to chase away a low or anxious mood. This is why I usually exercise first thing – it changes a negative outlook before the day gets underway. Yoga is spectacular for fighting anxiety, if you can afford classes. It is impossible to worry when your muscles have turned to ooze.

4 Work out where the worry is coming from

Is there an underlying cause you are burying while you fret about side issues? My counsellor once pointed out that my default worry about my tax affairs might be a distraction from the much bigger issue that Jon was ill. Just realising this helped me to get things into perspective.

Is it just a stage of life (or a time of the month) that makes you more inclined to worry? Are you anxious about future events because something has gone wrong in the past? Just acknowledging these causes can help to lift the burden. Never beat yourself up for worrying – instead tell yourself, I’m more inclined to worry at the moment because of X, but I’m going to get on top of it.

5 Take action

Doing something about a situation instead of worrying can be the best antidote, even regardless of consequences.

I was worrying about work drying up, so with the help of my technical advisor/marketing manager (OK, younger son), I set up a website advertising my services. It was like a weight lifting from my shoulders, even though the work I have found since has come from other sources.

Later I was worrying about money, so I called a woman who organises host families for European language students. Just talking it through with her banished my concerns. We will not start hosting until March so we have not one penny more than before, but the feeling of being more in control of my finances is empowering.

And finally – embrace the joy in every day

Worrying sucks the happiness out of life, but in most situations there are things that could lift your spirits, if you just stop and let them. The sun on your face. Something a child says. A sporting moment on TV. The simple sight of people being kind to each other. Base jumping off buildings or sitting down at the end of the day to watch something on Netflix – it doesn’t matter what gives you joy, as long as you relish it.

Don’t Listen to the Voices

Courtesy of laurazera.com

The voices want your money. In December, they said that you had to pack your house with rich, expensive food – or Christmas would fail! Now you have to lose weight and take up exercise, or you will die.

If you live, you’ll be fat, diabetic and a drain on the state, which is worse.

Courtesy of health.com

The only way to avoid this is by spending any money you didn’t fork out on the cheese and chipolatas that are now clinging to your thighs. You need a diet that is delivered by post in sachets and costs £17 per pound lost. To exercise, you need to a fitbit, gym membership and expensive running shoes.

No activity can be embarked upon without state-of-the-art equipment.


Never believe you can buy slimness.

Anyone who asks you to pay them for weight loss does not have your interests at heart. It is not in the interests of diet-flogging companies for you to lose weight and keep it off, which is partly why most diets fail.

Like geese, they fatten us up over Christmas, but in the New Year we’re meant to despise ourselves. Don’t! Everyone puts on weight over Christmas. A return to normal eating habits will sort this out over time.

And don’t think you can buy fitness/a fabulous new you.

I couldn’t believe the amount of equipment that littered the poolside when new swimmers took to the water this week. There were flippers, pull-buoys, laminated training programmes and specialised sports drinks.

Soon, the crowd will be gone and there will just be us regulars – unflippered and without isotonic assistance, but still swimming.

By all means, take up exercise, but don’t spend anything if you can avoid it. Make sure it’s something you actually enjoy. You might just be trying to persuade yourself you enjoy it. The truth will out as the New Year fervour fades. Don’t pay up for a whole term of some new activity unless you’ve tried it and it works for you.

Walking, running, gardening and hoovering are great exercise, and free.

You can do step aerobics on your stairs, with music to inspire you. You can lift baked bean cans instead of weights. Some parks have outdoor gyms. You could walk your neighbour’s dog, if you don’t have your own.

Believe in yourself, not the voices. The voices are not our friends!

Posh Food on a Pittance

After a slough of despond in my freelance/writing life, things are looking up. Three books I edited as a freelancer just got brilliant reviews, which I fed to myself intravenously as an emergency measure to revive flatlining confidence.

Then a US publisher confirmed that a collection in which I have an article is finally going to be published. They changed the book title because Women of Faith was already taken, and have called it Enduring Love instead (?!?) so I’m not sure what Ian McEwan will think about that…

I have also been enjoying working with great authors on books that are going to be excellent, and relishing the fact that I can have a life in between instead of flinching every time my phone beeps. For instance, I  popped round to see my lovely writer/editor neighbour, who was suitably outraged at SerialCommaGate (see previous post) and assured me that similar things have happened to her. After this encouragement, I went for a gorgeous autumn walk with her dog, Gracie, and foraged a handbagful of chestnuts.

Foraging for free food gives me more joy than all the bargains I bag at Poundland, Lidl, Wilko and Asda put together. By way of celebration, here are a couple of recipes for truly posh food that I made for almost nothing.


This is adapted from a recipe in the Guardian, whose food pages are usually full of obscure and expensive ingredients, but can inspire even the cash-strapped to create great food. This week, someone gave me a good white bloomer that was past its sell by date, so I turned to this recipe to use the stale bread.

Romesco is a thick, pesto-like sauce that tastes incredible but costs very little. I used red peppers from a Lidl jar (£1.79), blanched almonds from a Lidl bag of mixed nuts (£1.59), smoked paprika from the local Asian shop, red wine vinegar which I had in the cupboard instead of the sherry vinegar recommended, and of course the free stale bread.


75g blanched almonds

3 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for frying

Thick slice of stale bread, torn into chunks

1 garlic clove, peeled and chopped

½tsp smoked paprika

110g roasted red peppers, drained

1tbsp red wine vinegar (or any wine/cider vinegar)

Salt and black pepper



1 Preheat the oven to Gas mark 6/400F/200C. Place the almonds on a baking sheet and roast for 8–10 minutes until golden.

2 Heat olive oil in a pan and fry the bread until golden brown. Add the smoked paprika and garlic and cook for another minute, then take off the heat.


3 Put the nuts and fried bread in a food processor, add the peppers and blitz to a coarse paste – you want a bit of texture.


4 Put all this in a bowl, add the olive oil and vinegar and mix, then season to taste. You can add a little water if it is too thick, or a bit more oil or vinegar to get it how you like it.


Romesco makes a fantastic spread on sandwiches and is also great used like pesto: stirred into pasta, noodles, rice, soup or potatoes. You can also use it as a marinade for roasting vegetables.

And if you’re wondering what I did with those chestnuts…

Pumpkin and Chestnut Dim Sum

This recipe wraps up the fruits of a European autumn – pumpkin, sage, leeks and roasted chestnuts – in a decidedly Chinese parcel, so let’s be really posh and call it Fusion Food. The whole pumpkin was only 50p in Asda, and I used about an eighth of it. I had leeks from my Dad’s garden, but you can of course use onion. You can make up your own flavourings: spring onion, ginger and garlic would also work well. I had the Chinese pancakes in the freezer, left over from when I made Peking Duck because the garden was overrun with plums and I had to make Hoi Sin Sauce.


Chestnut foraging note

The best chestnuts are found by busy roads, because squirrels don’t go there. The first ones I found were beside the A26 with traffic roaring by. They had bounced out of their prickly skins from sheer exuberance at being so huge and glossy, whereas in the woods, you find the ones the squirrels couldn’t be bothered with. The ones photographed are the latter category, but I still found some that were big enough to be worth the effort for someone more determined than a squirrel.

Equipment note

You need a bamboo steamer – don’t buy one in a cookware shop as they are much cheaper in Asian supermarkets.


A couple of handfuls of chestnuts

About twice the amount of pumpkin, skin removed, chopped

A little leek/onion

Pancakes for Peking duck

Nutmeg and black pepper

Soy sauce

Sage, chives and 2 bay leaves or any herb you have: coriander or parsley would be good


1 Slice the hard skins of the chestnuts round the middle/equator with a serrated knife so they will split as they cook.

2 Preheat the oven to Gas 7/220C/425F. Put the chestnuts in a saucepan, cover with water and bring to a simmer, then drain and put on a baking sheet. Roast in the oven for 15 minutes.

3 Meanwhile, fry the leek/onion gently in a little olive oil, then add the chopped pumpkin and herbs and sweat down for 5 minutes. Add a little water and a splash of soy sauce, put the lid on and steam, keeping an eye on it and stirring occasionally, until the pumpkin is tender. Add grated nutmeg and black pepper and season to taste.


4 When the chestnuts come out of the oven, put them in a bowl and cover with a towel to steam for another 15 minutes. You should then be able to peel off the skins and rub off most of the browned pith.


5 Blend the chestnuts with the pumpkin mix with a stick blender.

You could now use this as a dip, sauce or soup. You could use it to fill canelloni, rolled up lasagne sheets or ordinary pancakes. I decided to try making dim sum parcels. To do this:


6 Brush a little water round the edge of a pancake and put a dollop of pumpkin and chestnut mix in the middle. Pull up and stick the edges to make a little parcel and place this in a bamboo steamer. Repeat to fill the steamer.

7 Put a little boiling water in the bottom of a large saucepan, put in your steamer, filled with parcels, put lids both on the steamer and the saucepan and steam on the heat for around five minutes. Leave to cool a while before taking out and serving, as the pancakes are very soft when freshly steamed and tend to stick to the steamer and break.


Things Stop Making Sense

Courtesy of Palm Pictures: David Byrne in Stop Making Sense

I have had my first bruising experience as a freelancer.

The project was stressful from the start, with a mega-tight schedule, late delivering author and US co-publisher invoking fear and trembling in my UK client. At the peak of its urgency, software incompatability meant that files passed between my computer and the designer’s ended up scrambled, causing him hours of extra work. None of this was my fault, but that, it seems, didn’t matter.

After months of escalating stress, in which I tensed every time my phone made an email blip, it all ended with a furore over commas. I spent a day in the chill ambience of the UK office, trying to put everything right. I have never worked so hard on so little sleep. But I missed the comma issue. Americans like lists to have a comma before the final ‘and’. I did not put commas there.

This was the last straw. The deal breaker.

This has never happened to me before. I have always worked hard and done my utmost. I have always succeeded. But as I began the rest of my life today, I understood why those Apprentice candidates who are devastated to be fired by Alan Sugar always look so happy on the ‘You’re Fired’ show afterwards.

Because through all this, I have learned what makes sense to me.

I stood at the counter of the café where I volunteer today, presiding over a varied group of people, some there for the food, some for the company, some to serve the community, others for support or for the joy of doing meaningful work. There was warmth and mickey-taking, bacon and laughter. This all made sense to me.

Sitting with my Mum and Dad, putting the world to rights and working out what they are going to eat now Mum has been diagnosed as pre-diabetic. Thinking of things I can cook for their freezer. This made sense to me.

Being there for friends and having them there when I need them. Supporting Jon on his long journey through depression. Watching my boys make their way in the world. This all makes sense.

An office full of nice people whom stress has made steely; evening emails asking me to explain my policy on serial commas; perfect work demanded under imperfect circumstances; an industry that has gained screw-tight efficiency, but lost its humanity – these things don’t make sense to me.

On Monday, someone dropped a bomb on a hospital in Aleppo.

I spent the day surrounded by faces pinched with tension over a book about skirts. Where, I ask you, is the sense in that?

I have lain awake lately, wondering if leaving my day job was the silly whim of a mid-life crisis.

I have considered writing a blog post entitled: Yes! I Have Fallen Flat On My Face.

But things don’t always have to be rosy – I know I have done the right thing. My ex-colleagues are brilliant and I love the work I still do for them. But I left the world of the office because it didn’t make sense to me any more, and I didn’t much like the person I was becoming.

I think I was right. And when I fall on my face, I’ll get up again.



Spiralizing out of control


You can now enter this blog without fear, because all trace of its former smugness has gone.

I was pretty pleased with myself, wasn’t I? Dropping hints to those poor mugs still stuck in offices that I had found the secret to a better life!

Then came a nasty bout of anxiety and depression for my husband Jon. Two weeks of holiday, though lovely in its way, led to a couple of crises, with Jon wanting to be his usual happy holiday self but feeling dreadful. Back home, he has adjusted his medication and we are hoping for improvement.

With all this going on, I have not had the headspace to write, and rejections have been flooding into my inbox from agents I have approached with my novel. They have shown an uncanny ability always to arrive on a particularly bad day.

Down – are you? Here – have a kick!

Who knew?! The life of the freelancer is not all creative joy.

And Jon has been worrying about money. No donations necessary, I hasten to add – but his anxiety means that giving up my regular income doesn’t seem quite the stroke of genius it once did.

When I was struggling with all this, a wonderful friend  gave me two pieces of advice that I highly recommend:

1 You will have to park certain worries (e.g. I will never achieve my dream of being a published writer – I’m not even writing!) and come back to them when the really important thing (Jon!) is better.

2 When things are bad, you have to take it one day at a time. Then you will not be overwhelmed.

And so onto money saving! Last year, expecting the usual enormous glut of courgettes, I bought a cheap spiralizer. A poor harvest meant that it has stayed in its box since then – but today, clutching a reasonably sized courgette and a few recipe ideas, I got it out.

I am not one of those carbo-phobic people who thinks that spiralized courgettes will convince my body that it has had spaghetti. Sometimes only real pasta will do. But I did fancy having a go at using up our plentiful home-grown courgettes and sage in an appetizing way, so here’s what I did:

Spiralized courgette with sage and walnut pesto



One medium-sized courgette, spiralized

A handful of fresh sage, chopped

A few walnuts, chopped (from a bag of Lidl mixed nuts)

Olive oil

Parsley and/or lettuce, chopped to bulk out

A little parmesan, grated (also Lidl)

Lemon juice and zest if desired

Salt and pepper



First make the pesto. Put all the ingredients in a blender and blend into a smoothish paste. The parsley appears in most recipes to bulk out this pesto, because sage can be too bitter on its own. I have found that a lettuce leaf can be added if you don’t have much parsley. Add a squeeze of lemon juice if you like.

Gently stir fry the spiralized courgette in olive oil for about five minutes so that it softens a little but doesn’t go soggy. Add the pesto and stir through over the heat. Add a little salt, a good grind of pepper and a little lemon zest if you have it – then serve.




Money-saving for summer


This will be the last post for a couple of weeks, so I have been taking stock. I find that I am part of a movement, as Radio Five reported yesterday that more and more over-fifties are going self-employed to gain flexibility in their lives. I really hope that this will give the poor, beleaguered younger generation a chance – those who have enormous student debt, struggle to find the work their degrees were meant to equip them for, can’t even dream of buying a house, and pay astonishing amounts for car insurance. This generation includes my sons, and all I can say is kids, I’m so sorry.

My boys pondering their student debt

Meanwhile, my money-saving drive has continued, and I can share the following tips:

Camp frugally

I have just come back from shopping for next week’s camping trip and the theme for the menu is tins. Tins of things you can heat up quickly, or eat cold. Luckily, Jon has recently come round to my way of thinking that cold Smart Price mushy peas are an acceptable lunch. Looking at the haul as I unpacked, it was hard to tell the difference between our week’s food and the cat’s.

Camping supplies and cat food – spot the difference

Grow your own

The garden has finally woken up and yielded strawberries, mangetout, cherries, blackcurrants, broad beans and new potatoes as well as a huge array of herbs. In a previous era of double-income frivolity, we used to carry on buying things and use our own produce as a bonus. Now an urge for fruit means foraging in the strawberry patch and hoping the slugs haven’t beaten us to it. If you don’t have a garden, investigate what you can grow in pots or troughs on windowsills or balconies. BHS even have bags for growing potatoes, if you can get there before they all close down.

Laugh in the face of superfoods

Recent TV programmes have confirmed what we all suspected: ordinary foods that Granny said were good for us are every bit as healthy as so-called superfoods. Strawberries contain as many nutrients as goji berries. Cabbage is every bit as beneficial as kale, and in my view, much less disgusting (oh come on, no one actually LIKES kale). Rapeseed oil has been elevated to superfood status, with prices to match – but if you check out cheap vegetable oil, you’ll find this list of ingredients: Rapeseed oil.



Make do and mend

I recently I fished out my long-abandoned sewing kit and mended the seam of a summer dressing gown instead of buying a new one. I even cinched in the waist of a cardigan that had lost its shape with the help of a bodkin and some matching wool. Most exciting of all, I discovered the following:

How to get oils stains out of t-shirts

Spilling oily food down me is my usual way of ruining clothes. I hate it when a favourite t-shirt comes back from the wash with a dark patch that hasn’t come out. I found all sorts of solutions online that sounded complex or involved items I don’t have (one required WD40). However, I tried this on a t-shirt I didn’t want to throw away, and it really worked:

  1. Put a little washing up liquid on the stain.
  2. Sprinkle it with baking powder.
  3. Rub it with an old toothbrush or clean scrubbing brush.
  4. Rinse out, then wash as normal. Once dry, the stain should be gone.

Change your car insurance

I have always been one of those people who don’t shop around for better deals because I hate the palaver of changing and fear I’ll end up paying twice or not being covered. But lately, Martin Lewis’s insistence that automatic renewal means paying a tax on the lazy has got to me. I went on Uswitch.com this week and changed our car insurance. I admit, it took much longer than changing energy suppliers and involved lots of online form filling, which always makes me shout and swear. I mean, who remembers the month and year their driving licence was issued?? (Turns out this is written in column B on the back of your licence card). However, I am now paying £230 a year instead of £330 (punches the air).

But don’t go up a ladder!

OK I am not always rational in my balance between frugality and spending. For instance, I paid £60* for someone to clean the gutters and windows this week because I have watched too many episodes of 24 Hours in A & E to allow anyone in the family to climb a ladder. This makes no sense when I will do almost anything to avoid paying £2.40 for parking – but I’ve seen those programmes! Ladder usage is the short route to ending up in a trauma ward with a camera in your face. I had the phone in my hand and a finger poised over the 9 button the whole time the man was up there. By some freak stroke of luck, he survived.

*I will not be doing this often. The man recommended quarterly, but I’m thinking we’ll do it again when we can’t see out.