New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

Sailing to the New World on the Queen Mary 2

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

I suppose you could say that sailing to America ‘felt’ right; we didn’t realise that I would be taking the Queen Mary 2 from England to America when my friends gave me the gift of a little golden ship charm on a chain the year before I left. I had a dream last summer – again, before we decided to book the sea voyage to New York – that I was sailing along the Ligurian coast in a tiny one-person sailboat. In the dream I felt a pang of loneliness for a moment, but then when I glanced over my shoulder I saw that I was part of a huge fleet that included all of my family and friends; we started laughing and calling out to each other as we sped through the turquoise water past cliffs where brightly coloured houses and lemon trees clung to the rock face. I’ve been wearing the golden ship necklace almost every day for the past year as we prepared to leave England, and so yes – sailing to America felt right.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

Lots of people have asked us why we decided to sail to the States rather than fly. The answer is that it cost roughly the same amount as flights would have done (we bought our tickets in a summer sale), and we thought it would be fun. There’s the fact that you basically get a week-long all-expenses paid holiday for the price of a flight, there’s the romance and intrigue of a sea voyage that passes right by the site where the Titanic sank, and then there’s the bonus that you can take as much luggage as you can fit in your cabin, instead of worrying about baggage allowances and weight restrictions.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA, cabin, state room

It’s also a much nicer way to travel when you have a kid – instead of being stuck in a small, crowded space with a cranky toddler for eight hours or so, she can explore the ship, get settled into a routine and adjust her body clock to the time change an hour a day, and spend time playing in the ship’s crèche while you relax with a hot chocolate, reading and staring out at the waves and the endless horizon. In the seven days we spent at sea, I only saw a handful of other vessels on the water. It’s strange – exciting, a little lonely – going without a glimpse of land for so long.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

The Queen Mary 2 is essentially a huge floating hotel. When we arrived on the boat I had planned to do an hour’s work every day using the ship’s internet service, but after discovering that it cost an extortionate $47 an hour, I decided to take the first proper break from work that I’ve taken in around a year and a half. This, combined with the fact that from every window all you can see is vast expanses of water stretching away as far as the eye can see, was just about the most extreme form of disconnecting I can imagine. Why is it so hard to tear your eyes away from those constantly evolving waves? Ocean waves and fire are two of the most soothing things I can think of to watch.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

My husband teased me before we left about how eager I was to see dolphins on the voyage, and then – sod’s law – he saw a whole pod of them playing around the bow of the ship on the very first morning we were at sea, while I was having a shower. I spent every possible moment on our seven-day voyage staring out of the nearest window at the water, but didn’t see any living thing other than a few sea birds. At night halfway through our voyage I dreamed of polar bears and penguins on beautiful floating icebergs tinged pink and purple with an extraordinarily vivid sunset, as the ship rocked me in my sleep.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

We had the cheapest cabin available, without a window, but it was perfectly comfortable with a decent en suite shower, a bottle of champagne to welcome us on board, and a cleaning twice a day – with chocolates and the day’s news left on the bed every evening while we were at dinner. I got glimpses of beautiful spacious suites with sea views and white orchids as we walked through the corridors, but even in one of the smallest rooms available we felt like we were living in the lap of luxury, being served a delicious breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner every day. (All the food on the voyage for these four meals was included in the ticket price, not including alcohol.)

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

The lunch and dinner menus were different every day, and we were always spoilt for choice. It was fun to have to dress up for dinner occasionally, too, and made us enjoy our meals all the more.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

There was a free gym, as well as a spa (unfortunately ridiculously expensive, with most treatments upwards of $129), a free cinema (we went to see two films on our trip), a theatre and planetarium, daily mass, various musicians playing during tea and dinner, as well as several bars and a library.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

Ever since we booked the trip, the part I had most been looking forward to was arriving into New York City. We sailed in slowly at 5am, the city all aglow with lights, and even though we didn’t have a magnificent sunrise that day, we had a great view of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty as we docked.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

We usually travel to get ourselves from one place to another as quickly as possible; I’m glad we took the time, while we had some to spare, to savour this particular journey. It ended up being a much-needed family holiday, as well as getting us where we needed to go.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

When life runs away with you

peace, quiet, calm, still, slow, river, lady's lace, English countryside, riverbank, wildflowers

Some time late last year I read an old blog post by the wonderful Erin Loechner (Founder of Clementine Daily and Design for Mankind) from 2012 about “slow blogging” that really struck a chord:

“We live in a world of more; this much is obvious. More things, more information. More time-saving tricks we use to find the time to uncover even more time-saving tricks. We live in a world of Pinterest, where visual images shoot out like firehoses of pretty, manifesting themselves in the parts of our brain we reserve for planning elaborate feasts and fetes. We have hundreds of RSS subscriptions to blogs creating amazing tablescapes and Halloween costumes and DIY floor lamps. And we take it all in, bookmarking each project for future use when ‘someday’ is finally today.

Yet friends, I fear that someday will never come. Because there will continually be more to do, to see, to buy. And our someday file will slowly become outdated with a new sea of ideas and thoughts promising to fulfill our lives in ways we never dreamed possible.

I want less. I want less for this site; I want less for my life. I want to return to the days when I didn’t feel the need to ‘keep up’ with the Internet. Where less truly was more, where editorial calendars didn’t exist and the words ‘I should totally blog this’ were never uttered.

…This year, one of my personal resolutions is to live a slower, more thoughtful (meaningful?) life. Less travel, more adventure. Less work, more challenges. And I need this to translate into all areas of my life: Less blogging, more learning.”

I’ve mentioned her philosophy of slow blogging before, and it’s one of the reasons I’ve not been pushing myself to write posts here with huge regularity recently. As you’ll know if you’ve explored this blog a little, I’m kind of obsessed with the concept of slow living, because I’m convinced it could make the world a more just and happier place. I recently came across this beautiful extract from Carl Honoré’s book, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, on Kinfolk, and the whole thing is well worth a read: “Beyond the great productivity debate lies what may be the most important question at all: What is life for? Most people would agree that work is good for us. It can be fun, even ennobling. Many of us enjoy our jobs—the intellectual challenge, the physical exertion, the socializing, the status. But to let work take over our lives is folly. There are too many important things that need time, such as friends, family, hobbies and rest.”

My family and I went to see Avengers: Age of Ultron last night, though, and I found myself thinking back to this time last year when I created this blog and the actors who were wrapping up on the set for that film gave dad the incredible gift of their support before he passed away. Have you seen it yet? What did you think? I loved seeing so many of the characters and relationships develop, discovering a little more of their back stories, fears, and motivations. With all great sci-fi and fantasy films, after all, it’s the characters and exploration of what it means to be human that compel me to watch, not the action.

Another reason I’ve been a bit quiet on this blog recently is that I’ve been hard at work with our team creating the new ethical lifestyle website, A Better Place (read more about the concept behind this project, here). We are hoping to launch it later this summer, and to be able to reveal the new look and design over the next few weeks. It’s going well, but researching and testing all of the products for it is a lot of work, and taking rather a long time. It will be well worth the wait, though, and all the better for being done slowly and carefully. I can’t wait to share it with you!

Meanwhile, my daughter has been growing and learning and changing from a baby into a willful toddler. Putting her down to sleep has become like a more frustrating version of pick-up-sticks or Jenga because she is so busy all the time that she hates to switch off. Last night as she fell asleep in my arms she was twitching and saying “No!” fretfully under her breath. This is a difficult phase, and I’m trying to remember that it’s all natural and necessary development.

I wrote about figuring out how to divide the housework and improve communication with the person (or people) you live with, as well as a response to the New York Times’ article, No Kids for Me, Thanks, on the parents vs. non parents theme, both for Verily Magazine, as well as contributing to their weekly culture news roundup, While You Were Out (check it out, it’s published every Friday, and is a great way of catching up on the week’s happenings). I also wrote a piece about Monica Lewinsky’s brilliant and thought-provoking TED Talk on cyber bullying and the need for compassion and empathy online.

This piece from the New York Times about becoming the kind of person who “radiates an inner light” is one of the best I’ve read in a while. “These people can be in any walk of life. They seem deeply good. They listen well. They make you feel funny and valued. You often catch them looking after other people and as they do so their laugh is musical and their manner is infused with gratitude. They are not thinking about what wonderful work they are doing. They are not thinking about themselves at all,” David Brooks writes. I am privileged to have encountered many gems like this throughout my life, and I think a life spent trying to become more like this would be a life well spent.

I also love this piece that a friend shared with me recently about not being a kid person just because you have kids. Amongst other wise things, the author writes: “Sometimes we feel we must want ahead of time everything that happens or else we are being victimized by our own lives. In fact, our need to choose each event and its outcome might make us a nation of control freaks… More than anything else, though, my children have taught me to get outside of myself–to transcend the tyranny of my own wants.”

Finally, something else I came across recently and have been treasuring ever since is J.K. Rowling’s speech to Harvard graduates in the form of this beautiful little book, Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination. Profits from the sale of the book (which it took me about 10 minutes to read) go to her charity for children, Lumos. It is so uplifting, I really recommend it. Here’s a little nugget from it to whet your appetite: “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me.”

I hope you’re having a beautiful Spring and enjoying the sunshine, friends!

Chocolate peppermint Christmas brownies | Recipe

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This year we’re spending Christmas with my American in-laws, and in the name of embracing new traditions I’m getting pretty into the concept of the cookie party: literally, a party where people get together to eat copious amount of sweet baked goods (something I can definitely get behind!). An American friend shared her amazing and oh-so-simple festive peppermint brownie recipe with me recently, and they’ve been a big hit.

You can use whichever brownie recipe you prefer (my personal favourite is Nigella Lawson’s – lots of melted chocolate, no chocolate syrup) to make the base, but I’ll share the proper American one here.

chocolate peppermint christmas brownies recipe, christmas sweets, candy cane christmas bark recipe

For the brownie layer:

– 1 cup flour

– 1 cup sugar

– 1/2 cup butter

– 4 eggs

– 1 1/2 cup chocolate syrup (or melted chocolate)

– 1/2 cup of chocolate drops

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Soften the butter, then beat well with the sugar. Sift in the flour, and then mix in the eggs, one by one. Add the chocolate syrup and the chocolate drops, and then spread in a greased baking tin (approx. 13×9) and bake for around 30 mins (until the mixture feels springy to touch).

For the peppermint layer:

– 1/2 cup butter, softened

– 2 cups confectioner sugar/icing sugar

– 1 tablespoon water

– 1/2 teaspoon of peppermint extract

Sift the sugar into the softened butter, then beat in the water and the peppermint extract. Taste, and if you’d prefer it to be even more minty, go ahead and add a little dash more!

For the chocolate layer:

– 6 tablespoons butter

– 1 cup of chocolate for melting

Melt the butter and the chocolate together in a heatproof bowl over simmering water, stir well, and leave to cool fully, but not set.

When you have made all three parts, simply spread an even layer of the peppermint buttercream over the brownie (making sure the brownie has completely cooled – you don’t want the buttercream to melt!), then spread an even layer of the melted chocolate mixture over that. As a final fun finishing touch, crush up some peppermint candy cane (I found using a mug to do this gently in a high-sided bowl worked better than some more violent methods!) and sprinkle this over the top of the whole thing before letting the chocolate set and cutting it up into small squares. It’s pretty rich, so a little goes a long way.

Enjoy, and have a very happy Christmas next week! xo

chocolate peppermint christmas brownies recipe, christmas sweets, candy cane christmas bark recipe