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What's this blog all about?

Hi, I'm Nicola - welcome to a blog begun in 2012 about family travel around the world, without leaving the UK.

I love travel adventures, but to save cash and keep my family's carbon footprint lower, I dreamt up a unique stay-at-home travel experience. So far I've visited 110 countries... without leaving the UK. Join me exploring the next 86! Or have a look at the "countries" you can discover within the UK by scrolling the labels (below right). Here's to happy travel from our doorsteps.

Around 2018 I tried a new way of writing my family's and my own UK travel adventures. Britain is a brilliant place for a staycation, mini-break and day trips. It's also a fantastic place to explore so I've begun to write up reports of places that are easy to reach by public transport. And when they are not that easy to reach I'll offer some tips on how to get there.

See www.nicolabaird.com for info about the seven books I've written, a link to my other blog on thrifty, creative childcare (homemadekids.wordpress.com) or to contact me.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Turning Japanese with the amazing Yayoi Kusama

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Tokyo-based Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama's work is inventive, tactile and fun - a good way to be cheered up. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

This is a 10 minute queue for All The Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins (2016).
I like the way there are quite a few Japanese visitors in front of me.
The astonishing art of Yayoi Kusama - born in Japan in 1929 - is on show for free at the Victoria Miro gallery on Wharf Road in Islington. You may know her work - think spots and dots - and this time expect pumpkins, hallucinations and mirrors. You might think of these combinations as a visual burst of happiness. The only snag is that you will have to queue for a long time to see her work.

Inside this artwork by Yayoi Kusama the images are so clear, but I seem to have taken
a photo of a crowd of aeroplane landing lights!
Admittedly it's amazing having a private 45 second moment with the Chandelier of Grief. I didn't know what to expect, and in the mirrored twinkling light security of the chamber I had to work hard at keeping calm. There's a definite feeling of being lost in space, or a vision of Heaven. And either of those rather imply that you're dead. But it's beautiful too, so strange how such a short time can feel so long.

I then went up the stairs and enjoyed a 30second private view of All The Eternal Love I Have for the Pumpkins - a much more cheerful piece of work. Dress for this exhibition - you'll enjoy the three mirrored chambers far more if you have colour blocked your wardrobe. I think black works best but yellow would be OK too.

There's another mirrored chamber - again 30seconds -  called Where the Lights In My Heart Go in the garden. By this time I'd got used to being locked in with the art and actually relished the sudden quiet, lit by tiny pinpricks of light and some air holes drilled into the capsule. Back outside the giant silver baubles amongst the lily pond, the Narcissus Garden, looked equally captivating.  There is one final gallery at the very top of the fabulous Victoria Miro Gallery which is filled with Kusama's so-called Infinity Nets in various colours (canvases of a base colour covered in tiny spots of another colour - check out the texture contrasts).

"I've been Kusamaed!"
The gallery is bizarrely tricky to navigate - it's not just the super steep, super long stairways - it's the lack of signage about where to go next. So staff wearing Yayoi Kusama designed spots point the way. I loved the young man who laughed when I asked about his outfit, claiming he'd been "Kusamaed".

You can also enjoy a virtual tour of Yayoi Kusama's work via Artsy which also sells her work.

According to Artsy, their "Yayoi Kusama page, has Kusama's bio, over 150 of her works, exclusive articles, and up-to-date Kusama exhibition listings. The page even includes related artist & category tags, plus suggested contemporary artists, allowing viewers to continue exploring art beyond Kusama."

Artsy has done a fascinating review of 86-year-old Yayoi Kusama claiming that if she was "a rockstar she'd be Mick Jagger". She's lived in an old people's home (a sanitarium) in Tokyo since the late 1970s but her playful spirit hasn't deserted her, even her wheelchair is covered in spots. She's been a force of nature on the New York art scene since the 1960s, but intriguingly it's only since 2015 that she's become properly well known following a year of firsts with stunning exhibitions in Scandanavia, Louisiana and Russia.

So what got me heading to her show? I was intrigued to see some mirrored balls while canoeing on the canal (at least I think that's what I saw), but it's what led me to go to Yayoi Kusama's show at the Victoria Miro gallery. Seeing art - and understanding its size is the best way to enjoy it - but if you can't make it, then a virtual tour is a good second best. And of course the more you know about the artist the more you get out of seeing the show.

Verdict: Be warned, once you've met Yayoi Kusama's work all you want to do is place spots in unexpected places - the garden roses, on pumpkins in the vegetable aisle of supermarkets or simply round the bathroom mirror. And do take a companion or a gripping book to see you through the long waits between your one-on-one private views.
  • Victoria Miro gallery exhibition at 16 Wharf Road, N1 (Tuesday-Saturday 10am-6pm) ends 30 July. Nearest tube is either Angel (you can walk along the canal to reach it or take a bus towards Old Street) or Old Street.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Feeling ever so French

This blog is about family travel around the world without leaving the UK. We do this in a bid to be less polluting and tackle climate change while at the same time keeping a global outlook. Here's a little reflection on building friendships in a bid to improve our family's French with a major French feast. Words from Nicola Baird (see www.nicolabaird.com for more info about my books and blogs).

Bon appetit! Our celebration of all things French.
"I only want to speak French now," texted 15yo Nell in French during a recent stay with a lovely French family in Provence. Given that she was on a week's cultural exchange a long way from home via the Avignion train this was definitely a very cheering text.

I never did a teenage language swap when I was revising for my French o level but it's obviously the best way to embed another language and to have your eyes opened to the many differences - and similarities - another family might have. Right now I'm trying to improve my own French using Duolingo... but I've got hopes my own kids might be able to be better at speaking languages than I am. And so my two daughters hosted a Provence family (who were friends of friends of neighbours) in 2015. It was fun, Facebook has kept us all in touch and now this year my youngest has already been to Provence to stay with them.  It was a huge success. But also so lovely that when Nell came back her host family sent us gifts including a bottle of wine from vineyards in their village.

Gift from Nell's host family
We took a while to plan our French celebration meal. But on a May Friday we opened the bottle and paired it with a delicious (homemade) French meal of salad, crêpes and bonbons. Inspired by her stay Nell wrote the menu in French, while I tracked down some extra treats at La Ferme on 102 Farringdon Road, London.

Middle class families know all about cultural capital. If their kids mention a tiny snippet from a history lesson the next weekend they are taking a look around the Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch, Essex or watching a DVD of the Battle of Britain as preparation before a trip to Duxford to see the old Spitfires. Small wonder that when I knew Nell had to learn French I figured it would be a good idea to send her to France... and it was.

But as the European in/out referendum gets closer I just wish we all knew more about Europe and who lives there. On my brief travels on the continent the newspapers are full of EU politics. But you don't get this information in a British broadsheet. The more we all know about other societies and cultures the easier it is for us all to get on without stigmatising anyone.

It's a bit like having an annoying neighbour. Once you know that person, perhaps because they've invited you round for a cup of tea or you've had a good chat about something you've got in common - or even heard about their passion for the motorbikes they can't stop mending - their midnight showers or strangely early hoovering and mechanical tinkering habits are just quaint idiosyncrasies, not argument sparks. It's easy to dislike or even be fearful of strangers, far harder to dislike the whole family next door/opposite when you've shared a few biscuits and a chat about the roses.

Bon voyage
Whatever the referendum result my eldest is due to move to France for a year soon in a bid to learn French and perhaps more about herself too. She came back from an interview in Paris telling us that a French family she'd stayed with had called the UK "the stone in Europe's shoe". I reckon this says bucket loads about how irritating we've become.  It would be an irony that as the UK gets more resistant to "others" my tiny little family are trying hard to be those others in Europe.

Of course people have very strong views about RemaIN and Brexit, I know that I do. And since the terrible death of Jo Cox,MP feelings are running high - but whatever happens on 23 June my hope is the UK will muddle through. And I'm sure knowing French or any of the other European countries' languages will still be an incredible personal and professional life bonus. Merci mes amis!