Your responsibility

I’ve been back in Blighty for a couple of weeks. I arrived on the same day as the London riots really kicked off – and left when they had all but been forgotten. News moves so fast now with the far-reaching arm of the media, you can be in the eye of a storm and then suddenly the sky is clear and you can’t imagine it ever raining again.

I was back to finish a job and say goodbye to my friends once and for all. I’m not sure if it is me or my friends or just the way it is in London, my profession, the time of year, the atmosphere, whatever, but almost every meeting I had with my friends involved alcohol. And because of that almost every meal I ate was as a result of knowing I was having a few drinks – or missing a meal altogether because it was too late to eat, or scrabbling around with packets of pub crisps.

It’s the way we socialise in the UK. It didn’t cross anyone’s mind to go for a meal – maybe it’s the expense – I wish it wasn’t so but it seems to be that everyone has a pub, as the default activity, built into them and society in the UK is not helpful towards those who just want to go for a juice or a Green tea – any establishments serving non-alcoholic beverages seems to shut after working hours, so that you are almost forced to go to the pub.

According to the Office of National Statistics figures last year, alcohol-related death rates have doubled in the UK since the beginning of the 90s. And although more men do die of alcohol related issues than women, female death, due to alcohol, has been increasing (in 1991 it was estimated at 5 per 100,000 but in 2008 it was 8.7 per 100,000). Source SkyNewsHD

I always think these figures have nothing to do with me. I imagine these figures are referring to the people who drink spirits in the morning or the woman I saw on my way home from work who was sick on herself as she swigged from a bottle of wine.

I don’t imagine it to be me, or my jolly friends having a few pints in the pub. But there lies the problem. If we are told not to drink more than a pint per day (women can have 3 units and men 4 units of alcohol) – and if we are all told that it is unhealthy to drink more than that, then why are we all doing it anyway? It surely can’t be down to addiction. I can understand the smoking addiction. Smokers know it is terrible for their health to smoke but they are to one extent or another addicted to a substance. Surely the group of friends who meet after work for a couple of pints are not addicted to alcohol? I think we are conditioned to do this – the after work drinks, the Christmas parties, the epic Hen and Stag dos. But I also think despite the Government attacking binge drinking and banging on about how much it costs the NHS to clean us all up, they probably make more money on taxes (in London it is around 4 quid for a pint now) of alcohol and cigarettes and in some ways we stand little chance – there is very little else we are taught to do when socialising. If I said to my work friends let’s go for a Green tea, they would think I was pregnant, and if I said I just didn’t want to drink they would think I was on a crazy detox diet, rather than just accepting it was a normal thing to do.

I haven’t heard of any deaths relating to Green Tea (I Googled death by Green Tea and all that came up was how it increases life expectancy) and I am pretty certain any incident relating to drinking excessive amounts of Green Tea would be less expensive to clear up than the results of five or six after-work pints.

Of course there are those who drink responsibly, but I’m just shocked to realise that I don’t know many people who do. Just because me and my friends aren’t smashing up shops and starting fights and being sick on ourselves – it does not mean we are drinking responsibly. The responsible bit is not about your actions as a result of drinking – it’s about your responsibility to yourself and your health. And I know very few people who have the one drink and then stay and drink soft drinks (it’s not much fun hanging around with drunk people). The fact is almost everyone in the pub is binge drinking the moment they take a sip from their second drink. But we all think because it’s normal, it’s OK.

Point is, I didn’t do very well at the Big Life back in the UK. I probably could have done better – had my Miso every day – but I felt rushed and crowded and out of sorts. Commuting and catching the tube and staying with different people just does not help me and routine seems to be the only way I can properly function, and I had just about got in to a good routine in Paris. It’s easier to buckle down here and get on with it and drinking the odd glass of red wine with a meal is the norm here. People don’t order bottles of wine with their meal, they have carafes of various sizes but rarely do I see anyone have more than a couple of small glasses over an entire meal. I’ve been told French colleagues rarely go out drinking after work – that’s left to the expats. So there is hope for me in Paris.

We’re heading to the mountains in a couple of days to do some trail running – and maybe a bit of Yoga to balance out the violence of those rocky paths – but I think the change will help me back on track. Having time, waking up and only having to think about fresh air and where we will run. Just have to take some lentils with me and avoid the tartiflette, and hope I get to the point when I can’t remember why I would want the pub crisps. Give myself the time to change.


Park life

Since I moved to Paris I have started running again. I’ve always been sporty but I started running about six years ago and I take it with me wherever I go. I used to travel all over the world for my job and running was the one thing which I could do, whether in the hotel gym or out exploring a new city. So I’ve been pounding the streets of Paris.

But here lies the problem. Macrobiotics is all about balance and not extremes, and running is quite a violent activity. People who follow a macrobiotic lifestyle focus more on exercise such as Yoga, Thai Chi and Pilates. I’m up for trying anything new so I will take up one of these – probably Yoga as I know a class close to me, which is held outdoors in the park. But I won’t be giving up my running – it is my own private meditation and I love the feeling of movement and exploring new places. I’m sure yoga and meditation can also take you to other places, so I’ll do both and see where I end up.

Signs of life…

After battling through the wilderness, of pain au chocolate and coffee, I have found someone else in Paris interested in macrobiotics. So I took a trip to Notre Dame yesterday lunchtime with high hopes my new friend would give me some tips and hints to the Big Life in Paris.

Time passed….

And I’m back. So the guy I met has been practicing macrobiotics for over 20 years and he is fully immersed in it all. By that I mean, there are levels to this approach to well-being: You can just focus on what you put into your mouth and what you do to your body, or you can dig much deeper. You can look at the way the world is managed, how we are conditioned to do certain things, and how there are some great twists of logic, which don’t add up. In the UK recently it was announced that we would be getting “obesity GPs”. Click here for BBC news story. So we are having specially trained doctors to deal with obesity. It should never get to this point. Why throw money in at the end? Why not spend double on education and empowering people to take control and responsibility for their health? It mystifies me… to a point but I am sure it’s all to do with someone, somewhere, making a lot more money from cure than they can from prevention.

Anyway, my new friend gets all this stuff and we have some great mini chats about the way things are, and the way they could be. We talk about drinking (he hasn’t been to a bar for years – whereas I have and still do) and how every film and advert is geared towards alcohol when showing people having a good time. And why it has become the norm to get home and open a bottle of wine when you have had a bad day. We talked about smoking. For example, in Paris everyone smokes. I’m generalising, but having lived and worked in London, the difference is huge. In London there seems to be some sort of small movement towards well-being and healthy living – it’s cool to be clean. It’s normal for people to buy organic, and do Yoga, and it’s becoming normal to not smoke and abnormal to smoke. But in Paris – it seems to me as if everyone has a completely different attitude – it seems to be a bit of a revolution against health or a cry out for freedom of choice. And I totally get that feeling of rebellion – I’ve been there, still go there, so I understand, but in the end you are just fighting yourself.

Anyway, we got takeaway at Maoz Falafel – you can stuff your pitta bread full of salads and vegetables from the buffet bar. It was tasty and good value with yummy sauce. It was great meeting someone who knew so much – and embraces life so much.

We went to a French book store, which focuses on alternative health and lifestyle – it’s actually a publishing house but they have a few of their books for sale as you enter. I just need to learn French – or find the same books in English. But I want to learn French. This week the third edition of Michio Kushis and Stephen Blauer’s, The Macrobiotic Way came out (it’s on sale on US Amazon now but not on UK as far as I can see). I haven’t read the other versions, but since the original was in 1985, would be interested to see what has changed, if anything. So that was my first sign of life in Paris. All good.

Maoz Falafel (around 5 euros for a large pitta with falafel). It’s just five minutes walk from Notre Dame on the left bank. (8 Rue Xavier Rivas, 75005, close to Metro Saint Michel).

Where is the brown rice?

After my disappointment in the kitchen department I decided to hit the road to get some supplies. On Sunday all the major food shops close but I know a local one, which is open on Sunday mornings. Of course, living in Paris, I pass a Boulanger, Fromager, Boucher and Patisserie, before I have even reached the bottom of my road. In my local supermarket I find the fresh fruit and vegetables (so fresh there are tiny flies checking them out too) – pretty limited supplies, but to be expected for a small shop in a quiet neighbourhood. Despite it being small, it does manage to pack in a massive freezer section, lots of wine, and aisles full of pasta, quick-cook microwave meals and so on. But nothing is wholemeal. And nothing is wholegrain. And nothing is brown – except in the cereal section, there seems to be an obsession with chocolate flavoured cereals – Where is the brown rice?

Anyway it did have Soya milk (hate the stuff) and almond and rice milk (will have to try that), but both were super expensive at around 3 euros a pop. So I left the local supermarket feeling a bit grouchy and went home to research some more. And that’s how I ended up shaking my finance awake from his Sunday afternoon nap. “We have to go out now, I’ve found an organic supermarket and it will sell everything and it’s open now.”

He thinks I am mad. It’s raining and its a 20 minute walk, but we cross the river to the 15th and see the Eiffel Tower on the way. I had stumbled across BioCoop (there are 11 of these in Paris and hundreds more around France. Click here for the Paris locations) and I am smiling as we walk around it. It has everything from millet to fresh ginger to oat bran, to all types of tofu and miso soup. It’s not massive, but it is packed with organic goods. I buy some oat bran (son d’avoine), which I have never had before but which you can sprinkle on cereals etc and helps with the old bowels.

I am certain there are more of these little gems. I just have to do a bit more searching and when I have found them I’ll go and visit them all and work out which one best suits what I want. Whatever happens on this adventure, my fiance is being a good sport. He has just signed me up to the Macrobiotic Association of Great Britain, so I’ll be checking out what that has to offer over the next few days. Not sure he knows what he is letting himself in for.

Two rings to feed us all…

I moved from a little cottage in the English countryside, with a lovely little kitchen to a tiny flat on the fifth floor of an old apartment block. As my fiance helped lug my bags up the 93 steps to our new home, he asked what made them so heavy. I wanted to say shoes or make-up, but actually it was a few of my favourite cookery books.

Imagine my disappointment when I discovered my French kitchen has no oven. In fact it just has a portable hob with two rings (la table de cuisson), and a microwave oven (le four à micro ondes), which doubles as a grill / tiny oven. How can a nation, which prides itself on its cuisine have such crappy kitchens?

Two rings...

I’ve checked with a few of my new-found friends, and everyone seems to have these hobs. In fact, when one of them recently emailed saying she had found an apartment with a four-ringed hob, I had an immediate flash of envy but also hope – maybe there are places with ovens too?

So this is what I have to cook on. I guess I better start searching out a slow cooker and a pressure cooker. I have to put it down as a small hurdle in my quest for the Big Life in Paris.

The move

After my first experience of macrobiotics, in February this year, at the Penninghame Foundation in Scotland, I could not wait to get home and stock up on the basic ingredients to cook some delicious macrobiotic meals. The food at Penninghame was what really caught my imagination. If this simple, healthy food could taste so good, I wanted to be able to cook it every day. We had some basic cookery lessons learning how to cook a few staple meals, such as lentil burgers, broccoli and tofu stirfy, brown rice, rice balls, miso soup and various grains and dressings, and I was desperate to continue this when I left.

I found myself picking up vegetables and grains I had never heard of and had to make long lists to take with me on shopping trips because I was visiting aisles in the supermarket I had never been down before. But the selection was so limited – you have to go to the really big shops to get some of the more “unusual” ingredients and a lot of the stock is Clearspring products, which is great, but can be pricey. It’s usually found under a section called “world foods”. A lot of the macrobiotic way is based on the Japanese diet, and despite there being Yo Sushi, Itsu and Wasabi restaurants across the UK, the ingredients have not made it to the mainstream. It seems we love to eat this food but we are all too lazy to cook it. It does take some effort.

I was fortunate, with a job in central London, to be close enough to visit the Japan Centre regularly. What a place to explore and find all the staples for macrobiotic meals. All types of Miso, short grain brown rice, shoyu sauce, soy sauce, Umeboshi plum sauce, daikon, ginger, hard, soft, firm, tofu, seaweed salad, fresh and dried shiitake mushrooms, bancha tea – and so on. And the prices are fair (miso sachets, which are great if you are on the road, are around 2 UK pounds for 12 sachets instead of the 4 UK pounds for 4 sachets in the major supermarkets).

After a few months of browsing, collecting and experimenting my stock cupboard at home looked like a mini Japanese supermarket. All the refined sugars were out. Beans, pulses and grains were in. My fiance was fascinated by all this and a keen guinea pig. We both balked at my shiitake tea (even with the promise that it helps to eliminate fat from your body), but he loved my brown rice, shoyu sauce, salmon and adzuki beans cooked with seaweed (apparently cooking the beans with strips of Kombu can help prevent wind, which helps when trying to build up friendships on a commuter train).

When we had to move to Paris it broke my heart to leave most of my collection behind. I gave a lot of it away as I did not want to explain why I had half of the Japan Centre in my bag on the Eurostar, rather than clothes. I’m going back to the UK at the end of this month for my god daughter’s naming ceremony, and will collect a box of my macrobiotic ingredients.

Any move is disruptive to routine, and for the first couple of weeks in Paris I have been completely seduced by the food. At the bottom of our street we have a fromagerie, a boucherie and a boulangerie. Parisian’s would say – bien sur! – but back in the UK it’s rare to have such choice, with entire shops dedicated to specific types of food. The other day I walked past a shop entirely dedicated to Pistachio nuts. Not all nuts. Just Pistachio nuts. So if Paris loves food, then surely I am more likely to find my macrobiotic ingredients here, than back in the UK… I can’t wait to start the search. I just have to dodge the cheese.

Searching for the Big Life

I have a problem. Half of me wants to eat miso soup and do yoga and the other half wants to drink too much wine and eat gourmet food every day. One day I will run 10k, and another day I will watch repeats of any murder mystery programme I can find on TV, while slipping cheese into my mouth.

I don’t think it is just me with this problem. Almost everyone I know struggles with achieving balance in their life, whether it be working long hours, not getting enough exercise, drinking too much or having that extra slice of pizza. I think half of our time is spent trying to achieve a balanced life, and the other half is spent telling everyone how balanced and happy we are, as we hide the doughnuts under the bed.

When I was young I rarely said no to another drink or another late night. Everything was an experience, and I did not want to miss out on anything. Now I am older, I can see those moments of time are important but there has to be a time when you stop, take stock and look at what’s happening around you. With my job as a journalist I have travelled to every continent (bar Antarctica) and over 40 countries. I have eaten at incredible restaurants, seen awesome sights, met inspirational people and stayed at some of the top hotels in the world. All of this has been great fun, but quite lonely, and has left me with a thousand stories, but with very few people who care enough to listen.

One day this year I woke up and everyone was married with kids and buying four-wheel drives and planning where to have their holiday homes. When people have kids, the fact their kid has done a crap, or smiled at a black and white plastic book, is far more interesting than me spouting tales of doing martial arts in a temple in South Korea, or eating an entire sheep, lungs and all, in Outer Mongolia.

However, one of the most valuable things I have learnt on my travels is the macrobiotic way of living: To be balanced and healthy and still be able to enjoy life. Macrobiotics means “big life” (from the Greek makro, meaning large or long, and bio, meaning life). What I like about it is that it is a life choice, rather than a diet. It’s all about balance but somehow, despite desperately wanting to, I never managed to make time for it – Until now my fiance got a job in Paris, and I saw it as an opportunity for a fresh start. I will explore the city’s incredible culture, heritage and language and at the same time I will explore a macrobiotic lifestyle, share food thoughts, shops and restaurants, recipes and exercise ideas.

I have realised, at 33 years-old, that enough is enough. I want to grow up and take responsibility for my body, my health and my life, and hopefully one day we can have a kid who craps and smiles at black and white plastic books.

So, this is me, searching for the Big Life: a macrobiotic mission in Paris.