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Curious George is a movie that can penetrate even the most noise-cancelling of headphones. Writing a novel in the same room as a four-year-old watching Curious George is not in my top 10 productivity tips.

It’s been a long time between posts here on Life With Gusto because I’ve been devoting my writing hours and, frankly, all my jokes, to this novel I’ve been working on. That seems to have paid off because a very nice fiction publisher at HarperCollins has acquired it, and its younger sibling which is currently only a gleam in its mother’s eye, for publication.

This is a dream come true, as I say in the press release they sent out today*, only slightly marred by the fact that I now have to do a huge amount of work. Now don’t get me wrong, I love hard work. Mad for it. It’s just that up until now I haven’t had to juggle a whole lot of it with those attention-sapping, disrespects of deadlines and creative process known as my children. But everyone else manages it and so will I, and I’ll complain about it extensively here on the blog.

The news of this book deal has been received with great excitement by almost all my family and friends, with the notable and vocal exception of Garnet. To be fair though, he’s been really sick the past couple of weeks with influenza, which is currently tearing through our community. (more…)

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Screen Shot 2017-06-13 at 2.11.35 PMThis morning I went outside and discovered the builders next door merrily bricklaying away at the wall of the neighbour’s house that sits on our boundary, just beside our dining room. Except they weren’t bricking all of it. There was a large rectangular gap where there should have been bricks.

‘What’s that window doing there?’ I asked.

‘It’s not really a window,’ the brickie told me. ‘It’s more of a vent.’

I said nothing.

‘So they can get some fresh air in this bathroom,’ he clarified. ‘It’ll be frosted.’

‘A frosted glass vent that opens and shuts is commonly called a window,’ I said in a pleasant enough voice that nonetheless contained the suggestion that he might like to go get the foreman, Paul.

‘I’ll go get Paul,’ he said. (more…)

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The pesto would have been better tossed with small snails than with the gnocchi I made.

I know I have a tendency to toot my own horn on this blog, and today is not going to be any different. You need to know that I can make the worst gnocchi in the world.

Yesterday at the end of a weekend in the country with three generations of our families, my friend Ellie and I spent four hours pottering in the kitchen. I was making gnocchi and she was making pesto. People wandered in and out, admiring our handiwork and commenting approvingly on what domestic goddesses we are, whipping up rustic Italian food from scratch while our children played happily outside.

It was all a ruse. Well, it was half a ruse: the pesto was beautiful. The gnocchi were very, very horrible.

On the page, where lies are born, gnocchi are straightforward: you cook some potatoes, peel them, mash them, mix in an egg yolk and some flour, roll the dough into long sausages and then cut them into pillow shapes, which you then roll across the tines of a fork to make a little grooves for your sauce to adhere to. So simple, so italiano. You cook them in boiling salted water for about a minute, or until they float to the surface. Then you skim them out and into a waiting warm dish where you coat them in oil or butter or pesto and serve them to your family to rapturous applause.

The recipes always warn you that the thing you must not do is mix in too much flour to the mashed potato, because then you will not have lovely little light pillows of deliciousness, but leaden, doughy lumps.

Every time I try to make gnocchi – and it is a ten-year cycle of forgetting how bad it was the last time and deciding to throw myself down that particular culinary insinkerator again – I take that warning too seriously and don’t add enough flour. At least that’s what I think the problem is. Who the fuck knows.

The dough always looks fine and I cut it up and make the pieces gnocchi-shaped, but when I cook them they come out with no resistance whatsoever. They melt in your mouth, which gnocchi aren’t meant to do. They melt in your mouth in the way that a dissolvable aspirin tablet does. It’s like eating dirty paste.

Yesterday I spent four hours making gnocchi. When it came time to feed the kids, I boiled up a few and I could tell when I fished them out of the pot, like little soft bloated whales, that they were going to be awful.

Have you ever left a zucchini or a cucumber too long in the fridge and when you try to pick it up your hand just goes straight through like it is a ghost? The gnocchi were like that. Disgusting potatoey ectoplasm.

Garnet wolfed them down, liberally doused with pesto. May Blossom tried to pick one up with a fork, but it might has well have been soup. She asked if she could have some pasta instead.

Normally I am very much of the school of making others pay for my mistakes, and under most circumstances I would have said she had to at least try them. But even I could see that would just have been mean. She had pasta.

Ellie had gone back to Sydney by then, with her parents and children, a bag of frozen gnocchi, a pot of pesto, and that excellent feeling you get when you come home after a weekend away and know something better than toast awaits you for dinner.

I burst that bubble with a text message, warning her ‘BIN THE GNOCCHI. COOK PASTA. REPEAT: COOK PASTA’.

So we all had pasta. I was breezy and good-humoured about it last night, because there were still some houseguests here whom I didn’t know very well. If there is a worse impression to make on people than them thinking you are a terrible cook, it’s them thinking you’re a petulant sulk about it. So, smiling, I served them all pasta with pesto and they said encouraging things about not throwing out the gnocchi but using them in a soup, perhaps, or to mend cracks in the walls. I think I agreed and said ‘Waste not, want not!’ in a slightly hysterical voice a few too many times. Then I ate four bowls of ice-cream.

This morning the gnocchi is still in the freezer, haunting me.

I’ve spent the day in self-flagellation for the gnocchi and the ice-cream. I went to the greengrocer and bought so many vegetables that they will not fit in the fridge and in a few days I will have ectoplasm zucchinis on my hands. Maybe I’ll make them into a sauce for the gnocchi.

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Me, making a to-d0 list. Sketch by H. 

  1. Attend My 20th High School Reunion

This weekend I’m going my 20th high school reunion, an event that simultaneously makes me very excited and want to fake a bad case of gastro.

I’m curious about what the women I went to school with for six years have done with their lives, although a lot of it I already know because of the massive spoiler factory that is Facebook. For many people, the only revelations left will be what everyone looks like without several filters and when viewed front on, and not from an artfully high selfie angle. Speaking for myself, I’d recommend people come to the reunion in extremely high heels, or perhaps stilts, and with one of two extra pairs of contact lenses in, so I will look as svelte and dewy of chops as I look on the Internet. Related to the school reunion is the second item on my to-do list: (more…)

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I’m doing that thing I always do when I come back from new and wonderful, and I try to transport the lifestyle. When H and I went to Borneo by steamer sometime back in the 1800s, we came home and bought an entire pantry’s worth of ingredients to make complicated sambals and rending pastes, not to mention buying five limes for what would have bought us 100 kilograms of them in Kota Kinabalu.

I’m doing the Scandinavian equivalent. I’m eating rye bread and smoked fish, putting dill on everything, and being genuinely baffled at why everyone is so loud and rude and demanding. Why can’t my children be more Finnish, and refuse to make eye contact or talk to me? Why can’t they be more like the Swedes, and dress effortlessly stylishly and get about on bikes like it’s normal? Why can’t they be more Danish and tidy the fuck up occasionally? (more…)

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My suitcase, in disgrace

It’s my fourth day in Finland and I know three words. They’re same three words I knew before I got here. Sauna, hej (hello) and kittos (thank you). That’s fairly disgraceful, but it’s three more words than I actually need to get by here, because every Finn I’ve met speaks better English than I do. Thanks, Finnish education system.

We flew over on the A380, a sort of flying shopping centre affair operated by Qatar Airways. Our seats were near a door that in an ordinary plane you’d think would lead to a toilet, but this one kept opening and flight crew would disappear into it. For a few hours I thought it was where they went to practice their mime tricks, because whenever they went in, before the door closed behind them I would catch a glimpse of them doing the ‘walking down a flight of stairs’ trick. I mean, that had to be what they were doing because it was a plane and on a plane there’s nowhere downstairs from economy class, is there?

But the A380 is basically an airborne Downton Abbey, and the reason the crew looked like they were walking downstairs was because they were walking downstairs. I don’t know what was down in the plane basement. Probably a long kitchen table and some snarky liveried footman brewing trouble. Or perhaps it was like the galley of slaves in Ben-Hur and they were all down there taking turns to row the thing through the air. I don’t know how planes work. (more…)

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scandilandphotoTwenty-three days from now, I am going on a trip, without H or May Blossom or Garnet, to the other side of the world. This makes me, according to my calculations, the worst mother in the world. To make matters worse, I am going on this trip with my friend Jess, and thus I am an accessory to depriving her children of their mother for two and a half weeks, which is an infinitely more serious crime since she is a significantly better mother than I am.

That aside, we are really very extremely excited. We are going to Finland, Sweden and Denmark. The trip has come about because Jess is a teacher and very interested in the schools in that part of the world, which are apparently better than ours for reasons that will be revealed to me as we go along. I believe it has to do with starting school a bit older and not having homework and maybe also herrings? To be confirmed. Anyway, Jess wants to visit some schools since that is her Area of Particular Interest and I thought I would go too since shirking my maternal responsibilities is my Area of Particular Interest, and what better way to do that than to bugger off up to the frozen north for several weeks, where the aquavit is cold and the living is easy.

Since we are going to Finland, I decided I ought to cultivate a more location-specific Area of Particular Interest. I’ve chosen saunas. Jess is being very accommodating and treating it like it’s my genuine hobby, so we are working our itinerary roughly equally around school visits and saunas. Because my other area of interest is not dying, we are skipping the sauna I discovered in my research that is in a ski lift. A smouldering wooden cabin, swinging hundreds of feet above an icy hill? What could possibly go wrong? We are restricting ourselves to ground-based saunas. The same goes for schools: strictly terra-firma educational institutions. (more…)

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