36 Questions: The First Question

Hello to San Francisco!

They say 36 questions can bring you closer to any stranger.

I don’t consider you – the person reading this – to be a stranger. Whether you lurk or comment, are new to the blog or have been reading a while, you’re not a stranger. You’re like… a pen pal. I’m the awful, self-obsessed pen pal who never asks you how you are (how are you, by the way?) and you’re the lovely person patient enough to read my thoughts. Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to take time out every so often to get through these questions one by one. You know, so we can get… intimate

*wink wink*

So. Today is Question One.

If you could invite anyone in the world to dinner, who would it be?

When I first read this, I rolled my eyes. Talk about an easy pitch. That’s up there with “What colour are your eyes?” and “Are you a cat person or a dog person?”

What sort of a question is that?

Then I thought about it, and questions bubbled up until my mind was just white noise. How big is this dinner table? Am I allowed to invite as many people as I want? Are translators allowed? Who’s going to plan this thing? Do I have to cook?

So here we have it. Our first problem. I overthink things.

Obviously I want those I love at this infinity table, that should go without saying. They get automatic invites.

Most of the people I really admire are dead, so I suppose they can’t come. The question says ‘anyone in the world’, after all, and I take that to mean everyone in this world, not the next. It also says I can invite anyone, but gives no assurances that these people will actually show up, so I guess if worst comes to worst I’ll just have a lovely dinner with my friends. To that end, it’s going to be a casual, comfort-food-and-roasting-marshmallows-over-the-fire kind of dinner and we’re all going to wear our pyjamas.

Here’s the invite list:

It's a PYJAMA PARTY! (1)

Obviously everyone can bring a plus one.

I haven’t invited everybody I’m interested to talk to, but realistically how many people can anyone talk to in a night? Unless the infinity table is just the setting for an infinite dinner that spans over many evenings, it doesn’t make sense to invite more people. I feel like I’ve covered most of my bases here. I don’t think anyone would clash horribly or start flinging food across the table…. Although you can never tell at a pyjama party, I suppose.

For those wondering who some of the people are, here’s a quick list:

  • Bill Watterson (creator of Calvin & Hobbes)
  • Bill Bryson (writer; not this writer)
  • Bill & Melinda Gates (billionaire philanthopists)
  • Chris Hadfield (astronaut)
  • JK Rowling (writer)
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg (US Supreme Court Justice)
  • Chrissy Teigen & John Legend (foodie model and singer)
  • Claire Marshall (youtuber with editing skills and an awesome cat)
  • Tim Minchin (singing comedian)
  • Bob Iger (CEO of Disney – can definitely get me into Club 33)
  • The Raven Master (takes care of the ravens at the Tower of London)
  • Brené Brown (emotional genius)
  • Lin-Manuel Miranda (creator of Hamilton)
  • Chip & Joanna Gaines (Ridiculously adorable fixer-uppers)
  • Sarah Andersen (a cartoonist who I think spies on my life and draws my adventures)
  • Edward Snowden (whistleblower)
  • Dara O’Briain (comedian)
  • Glen Keane (animator)
  • Andreas Deja (animator)
  • Ron Mueck (sculptor)
  • Stoya (writer, activist, pornographer, feminist, nsfw)
  • David Attenborough (nature documentary icon)
  • Betty White (actress and general badass)
  • Guillermo Del Toro (director)
  • President Higgins (president of Ireland)
  • Elon Musk (ambitious visionary genius and/or possible future James Bond villain)

Comment below on any thoughts you have on the guest list! Do you have anybody to add? Is there anyone you’d like to be seated next to at the infinity table?

Also don’t forget to RSVP; you’re obviously invited!

Pity the Madrileño Vegetariano

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I landed in Madrid a week before Scrubs was due to arrive.

My grandfather – my Yayo – was excited to meet him, but hid it (badly) beneath his usual gruff stoicism. He made sure the bedsheets were ironed and the pillows were plumped and the blankets were in the press (“por si acaso” he said, as if anybody in Madrid during the summer has ever been in need of a blanket). He dotted his long thoughtful silences with the punctuation of seemingly random questions about this new man in my life.

The first time I broached The Subject, he was sitting in his armchair by the window, his chin in his hand, looking out over the motorway.

“Scrubs is a vegetarian,” I said, tentatively.

Yayo turned to look at me.

“A vegetarian?” He repeated, in a tone of voice that suggested I’d told him something scandalous. He raised his thick eyebrows at me and looked at me as if I’d told him Scrubs had five nipples or enjoyed dressing in women’s underwear in his spare time*.

“Yes, a vegetarian,” I nodded solemnly.

“What does that mean?” Yayo’s brow furrowed and he leaned forward, as if close attention would be enough to bridge this truly enormous gap in understanding.

“He doesn’t eat meat.” I said.

“He doesn’t eat meat?”

“He doesn’t eat meat.” I repeated.

“He never eats meat?”

“No, never.”

“What does he eat then?”

“Pizza, pasta, rice… In Ireland there’s fake meat-“

“Fake meat??” Yayo reared back as if he’d been shot. “Fake meat?!”

“Yes Yayo. Fake meat.”

He shook his head sorrowfully.

“He eats fish though?”

“No. Vegetarians don’t eat meat or fish.”

“No fish?!”

“No.”

He continued to shake his head slowly. I could practically see the cogs in his head turning as he reassessed every scrap of information he had gleaned about Scrubs. Eventually he lifted his head, looked at me, and sighed deeply.

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“I will have to buy him some food. What does he like?”

“Cheese, tortilla de patata, pizza, pasta… Don’t worry about it Yayo, I’ll pick some stuff up for him tomorrow.”

Yayo nodded and turned back towards the window, deep in thought. I beamed, thinking the conversation hadn’t been as tricky as I had anticipated. Vegetarianism is basically unheard of in Madrid, so I had been expecting a bit of an uphill battle.

A few days later when Scrubs finally arrived, he was greeted warmly by Yayo and settled in quickly despite the language barrier. My extended family were delighted to meet him and peppered him with questions as he ate his fill of cheese and tortilla de patata. The second night, after I had taken him on a tour of the city, we arrived home to Yayo looking extremely pleased with himself.

“I bought pizzas. I bought pizzas today! They are in the freezer.” His chest was puffed out with pride. For my grandfather, buying food that belonged in the freezer was a strange and uncomfortably modern activity. “You could make one now,” he said, trying to disguise his excitement at the thought of frozen pizzas being cooked for dinner.

I thanked him and grabbed a pizza from the freezer. I stared at it. I blinked.

In my hand I held a ham and cheese pizza.

I turned to Yayo with the pizza held aloft.

“Yayo…” I paused, trying to decide how to phrase the following sentence without coming across as ungrateful. “Yayo… this pizza…” I faltered.

“Yes?”

I tried again.

“Well, see… Scrubs is a vegetarian…” I trailed off. Yayo’s face was absent of even the faintest glimmer of understanding.

“I know,” he nodded, smiling at Scrubs as if to reassure him that he was accepted despite this glaring character flaw.

“… So, he doesn’t eat meat…”

“I know!”

My eyes narrowed and I squinted at the ceiling as I circled the point, trying not to offend.

“…So, this pizza has ham…”

The confused silence was deafening to my ears. I could take it no longer.

“Scrubs doesn’t eat ham.”

Yayo turned, baffled, to look at Scrubs, who was by now shuffling uncomfortably by the door.

“He doesn’t eat meat, you said.” He looked back at me.

“Yes. I mean, no. He doesn’t eat meat.”

“Yes.”

“Okay, but… this pizza has ham…”

“Yes?”

“So… vegetarians don’t eat ham,” I said again lamely, unsure how else to explain myself.

“Ham is not meat!” Yayo declared, looking mildly affronted.

Now it was my turn to stare.

“He doesn’t eat anything with eyes, Yayo. He doesn’t eat ham or jamon serrano or chorizo or steak or fish or prawns or crab or anything like that.”

De verdad?”

“Really.”

Yayo turned back to Scrubs, this time with only pity in his eyes.

Pobre,” He said, which translates to ‘poor guy.’

I assured him that I would eat the ham and cheese pizza, and Scrubs would eat the plain one, and we thanked him for buying them, and that was the end of it. Yayo seemed to understand from then on, even if he didn’t agree. He would periodically ask me to ask Scrubs if he was sure he didn’t want to try some jamon. When Scrubs laughed and politely refused, he would use some of his limited English to earnestly tell him, “It’s good!”

My extended family to this day struggle to understand vegetarianism. At family lunches or weddings they shake their heads as the hors d’oeuvres go by, their faces pictures of distress as they watch Scrubs turn down the non-vegetarian options. They discuss food around him the same way people might discuss their future holiday plans around the terminally ill. They pity him, this man who will never taste the simple pleasures of spaghettis con chorizo or croquetas de jamon or paella de marisco. They pity his poor, languishing taste buds.

Such is the fate of vegetarians in Madrid. They are the untouchables of the Spanish capital’s culinary scene. They are neither understood nor catered for.

Maybe one day there will be Quorn chorizo and substitute Serrano, but for now there is only pity.

*Just to be clear, he has the standard-issue number of nipples and absolutely no spare time**.

**I should probably clarify further and say that Scrubs’ sartorial interests extend only to purchasing (male) clothing that fits him without having to try it on, and getting in and out of shops in record time.

The Ever-More-Reluctant Omnivore

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So, I am not a vegetarian.

I enjoy food immensely. All kinds of food, with few exceptions. I am not a picky eater. In fact, I’m fairly adventurous when it comes to trying unidentifiable foods. Of course, there are a few foods that are just completely unnacceptable; foods that I find so repulsive, the facial expression I unwittingly make after tasting them makes me look like I’m turning my face inside out.

  • Liquorice/aniseed/fennel
  • Almond paste/marzipan

Then there are foods that I don’t find quite so objectionable taste-wise, but the texture just makes me shudder from the top of my head right down to my toes, like quince paste or cabello de ángel (a type of pumpkin jam).  If it’s soft and sweet with a weird grainy texture and the grainy bits aren’t sugar, I’m naturally suspicious. Up until recently, I was a cheerful omnivore, eating everything before me. I am still trying to be an omnivore, but for the past year and a half, it has been a struggle.

I never understood vegetarians. I understood the reasoning behind it, but I didn’t feel any kind of way about it. Yes, I love animals, and no, I would never kill one myself, but meat is delicious and we are designed to eat all kinds of everything, so how could you give up all that edible enjoyment for some ethical ideal? For me, my love of animals was entirely disconnected to the meals I ate.

For the past year and a half, however, something has been happening. Feelings are seeping into my mealtimes. The more I read, the more feelings I have, and the less I’m able to enjoy my meals in the thoughtless, ignorance-is-bliss way I did before… Honestly, it’s kind of killing my buzz. I read a comment by Peter Dinklage where he said,

“I like animals – all animals. I wouldn’t hurt a cat or a dog, or a chicken or a cow. And I wouldn’t ask someone else to hurt them for me. That’s why I’m a vegetarian.”

… and I thought, Well, damn it.

I love chorizo. I love jamon serrano. I love seafood and shellfish and chicken noodle soup. I love chili con carne and sushi and bibimbap and winter stews. All of this is true.

It’s also true that the one time my father ever brought me fishing, I caught one and then bawled my eyes out when a man came up behind me and dashed the fish’s head against a tree stump.

It’s also true that, while staying in a house with a chicken run in the garden, one of the chickens got sick, stopped laying eggs and grew a strange fungus that made it look like one of her legs was turning into a tree branch. I took the time every day to grab Sick Chicken, gently wash her leg and smear it with vaseline until she got better.

It’s also true that as a child, I would make my father stop the car every time we spotted roadkill so I could cimb out and check if it could be rescued. Most of the time the answer was no, no it could not, but on the rare occasion the animal was still breathing I would insist on it being put in the car and brought home for “medical attention” (food, water, and a blanketed cardboard box in the garden shed).

These are not, as it turns out, wholly compatible mentalities. There is now food that I actively feel guilt while eating (pork, in particular), which greatly diminishes my enjoyment of it. I’m still fine with fish and shellfish, but I never thought it would ever happen to me with meat so the question is… for how long? How long can I hold out? How long more will my enjoyment of food outweigh the feeling of being a selfish hypocrite? And why now? Why have I suddenly developed this late-onset vegetarianism?

It blows.

I am torn by my love of food, and my feeling that I shouldn’t eat anything I wouldn’t be able to kill myself. Which is basically nothing. I can’t even kill Lenny, what hope do I have of killing something sentient? Left to my own devices in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I’d have to become a woodland forager, surviving on questionable mushrooms and bits of seaweed…

So, I am not a vegetarian.

Yet.

Careening Around Cairo, Egypt

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I was lucky enough to visit Egypt just before things got politically messy.

Scrubs and I arrived in Cairo in 2010 on the last day of Eid. The festive mood was infectious, and even after a long journey it was impossible not to feel cheered by the sight of shiny banners and twinkling, colourful lights strung from building to building. Tinny music and the sound of laughter streamed from open windows as we dragged our bags through the streets of the city.

We arrived at the front door of our hostel, Hola Cairo, feeling tired but excited. The large, heavy wooden door swung open with a loud creak and we were immediately faced with a rather grand (albeit dusty) stone staircase that had an elevator shaft running up the middle of it. If this elevator had been lifted straight from Disney’s Tower of Terror, I would not have been surprised. Dusty and covered in cobwebs, the wrought iron cage looked like it might snap and plummet straight to the depths of hell at any second. ‘Pics or GTFO‘ you say? Don’t worry. This OP delivers.

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The entrance to the Hellmouth

After reaching out to give it a firm rattle and deciding we were so tired we would rather risk life and limb than walk up four flights of stairs with our bags, we got into the elevator and pushed the button for the fourth floor.

Nothing happened.

We jabbed at it again. Still nothing. An elderly Egyptian with a scowl carved into the wrinkles of her face happened to walk in at that moment, and she yanked the doors open with more ferocity than I honestly expected from a woman of her stature. She stepped inside, slammed the doors shut, and – without looking at us once – placed a bony button on the button for the second floor. She jabbed at it like she was making a point. She held it down for a good five seconds. Then the elevator shook as if waking from a deep slumber, and up we went.

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Looking down and thinking we probably should have just taken the stairs.

Despite our misgivings, we did in fact make it to the fourth floor in one piece. Tumbling out of the elevator with the adrenaline rush of two people who have just had a near-death experience, we walked into the hostel to find a bright, clean, modern space that was in complete contrast with the elegant air of abandonment in the hallway.

The charming receptionist gave us “the suite”, which turned out to be an ensuite room with four beds overlooking the busy main street; pretty good for the equivalent of €15 a night!

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The view from our window. I think that building on the right is the courthouse.

She also organised a driver for us for the following day, and gave us some advice on where to go for food. Armed with knowledge, we went for a nap and then went back out into the city…

This time we took the stairs.

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That first night is a blur of fairy lights and stray dogs and music and food and sensory overload.

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Cardog, close relative of Catdog.

The next day, a smiling man picked us up from the hostel and drove us around for the entire day. We visited the Step Pyramid, which is the oldest pyramid known to have existed.

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A golden oldie

Then we visited the Bent Pyramid, which was the ancient Egyptians’ version of a rough draft. Archaeologists think this was the first attempt at a smooth-sided pyramid. As you can see, it didn’t really turn out to be the perfect triangular Toblerone-shape they had originally envisioned:

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How embarrassing

Of course, we still had to see the pyramids of Giza, and we decided the best way to do that would be on horseback. Our driver took us to a stable to rent horses (or camels or donkeys – they’re very diverse) where we got absolutely swindled out of an outrageous amount of money, but did manage to procure two healthy-looking ponies. My pony had no name but was lovely and quiet and sturdy, which pleased me immensely because I had only ever been on horseback (ponyback?) once before and I felt this gentle creature would be unlikely to tear off into the sunset at the slightest provocation. This was very good because we had absolutely no safety gear; Egyptians don’t tend to faff about with any of that health and safety nonsense.

A twelve-year old boy with excellent English joined us as our guide and we slowly ambled towards the pyramids. As we moved into a trot, our guide came up alongside me and engaged me in conversation. He asked about our holiday so far (good, great, bent pyramid, lovely food) and then asked if I had ever ridden a horse. I told him that I had once gone on a pony trek, but that the fastest my pony Polly had ever gone on that occasion was a trot, so I wouldn’t exactly be a skilled equestrian. He nodded solemnly, and then without a word of warning he pulled his arm back and smacked my pony’s rump with all his might.

My lovely, quiet, sturdy pony SHOT off as if she’d been fired from a cannon.

Holding the reins so tight my knuckles turned white, I leaned forward so as not to lose my balance. My poor brain, struggling to adapt to this alarming new development, shouted, ‘NO HELMET! DON’T FALL OFF! NO HELMET!’ as we galloped past the pyramids. My feet (in plimsolls; no riding boots at this rodeo) slipped out of the stirrups. A small part of me wondered how likely a spinal injury would be were one to fall on sand at what felt like 150 mph.

Slowly, though, I started to relax.

I found the stirrups and my grip loosened as I fell into rhythm with my little pony. I started to enjoy myself. I can’t quite think of another moment when I’ve ever felt as free as I did galloping across that sand with my hair streaming behind me. I felt like Medb or Godiva. It was just me, the pony, and the pyramids.

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We rode around to see the Sphinx, who I have to say looks really great for being about 4,500 years old. I mean, her nose might be gone but she really works it.

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You would hardly nose-tice. I’m sorry, that was terrible.

We made it back to the stables alive and unharmed and handed back our ponies, although some of the mistreatment of ponies we’d witnessed from other stables made us want to ship them all home to Ireland to live out the rest of their days in a nice green field. We finished the day off walking the streets of coptic Cairo, admiring the buildings (Scrubs) and petting the dogs (me).

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Letting sleeping dogs lie

The thing about Cairo – and Egypt in general – is that there are so many treasures that sometimes they seem almost devalued. The Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, for example, was like an episode of Hoarders in which the hoarder has been collecting treasures of the ancient world. Pieces that in other museums would be spotlit in glass cases are carelessly tossed in corners. Items are stacked or strewn around with no descriptions or explanations. The mummies are in a separate exhibit and very carefully lit and displayed, but the rest of the museum gives the impression that somewhere there’s a staff member sighing at the latest find and saying, ‘oh great, more hieroglyphics. Just shove that over there behind the door.’

It was truly bizarre.

One memory from our first night that I didn’t mention earlier is that as we walked down the main street, a man walked up behind me and stroked my hair. Not my head – he didn’t pat or stroke my head like a dog – he walked up behind me and ran his palm all the way down my hair. When I turned, he was already disappearing back into the crowd. Many women cover their hair in Egypt, so loose hair is seen as sexual in presumably the same sort of way ankles used to be considered racy in Regency England.

… Which brings us to cultural considerations.

Egypt is a mostly muslim country so when you visit, you have to be respectful of their dress code. This is the case in every mostly-muslim country I’ve visited so far (Egypt and Morocco) and honestly for me it always goes the same way. At first, I don’t mind at all. I almost find it fun! I buy some local clothes and wander around feeling a bit like I’m taking part in a theatrical production. As the holiday wears on though, I start to feel extremely resentful because I am so uncomfortable and warm and restricted. Visiting with a man is especially frustrating, because while they can simply roll out of bed and throw on a comfortable, breezy pair of shorts and a t-shirt, you have to rummage through your clothes for tops that hide your chest, but also reach past your elbows, but also aren’t too tight, and definitely aren’t sheer. You have to find bottoms that hide the shape of your legs and reach down past your knees, but also don’t make you feel like you’re walking in a sauna. I don’t know about you, but when it’s 37 degrees out (that’s 98 degrees for those of you in the Wild West), I don’t want to feel like I’m swimming in layers of loose linen. I want to be unrestricted and suitably attired for adventuring, like Lara Croft without the gun holsters or the breast implants.

Nevertheless, if you’re any sort of decent human it’s not optional. Get yourself a baggy pair of harem pants and a loose blouse. If I were to return (which I would love to do if they ever find their way out of that gnarly political thicket), I would probably also tie back my hair, but wearing a scarf is just a step too far for me. I don’t mind covering my head loosely at certain times but walking through the streets is not one of those times.

Food-wise, if you’re a picky eater, you’re bound to run into a few hurdles in Egypt. Unless you are somewhere that specifically caters to tourists, nothing is in English. You order things and then hope you like them. That’s actually my preferred way of eating abroad, mostly because it exposes you to things you might otherwise never have tried, but I understand that that’s not for everyone. Vegetarians will have a bit of a rough time trying to figure out which foods have meat in them, but hummus, baba ganoush and tamaya (Egyptian falafel) is everywhere so once you get into your groove you should be okay. Tabouleh – a couscous-like salad – is worth a try.

Our holiday didn’t end there. From Cairo, we took the ten-hour overnight train to Luxor….

But that’s a story for another day!

The Sugar Rush is Real

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So I meant to take a photo of my pancakes but then I got too excited and ate them too quickly and so instead you get a photo of an empty plate. 

Yesterday was Pancake Tuesday.

I’m not sure how widespread Pancake Tuesday is, but if it’s not a global holiday then it should be. If anything can unite us in this time of division and disharmony, it’s pancakes. I mean, talk about a food of the people. They can be adapted to suit everyone! If you don’t like the fluffy, thick American pancakes, you can go for paper-thin French crêpes. If you don’t like them sweet (YOU MONSTER), you can have them savoury.

Seriously, pancakes are multi-purpose. Who needs a penknife in their back pocket? Pack a pancake instead.

I ate a lot of pancakes yesterday. I had pancakes for breakfast. I had pancakes for dinner. I had pancakes for dessert. This morning I had another pancake, because I wasn’t ready to let go of my favourite maple syrup delivery system just yet. Truthfully, I still have some batter left so there’s a fairly decent chance I’ll be having a ham and cheese crêpe for lunch.

…And then I may have to actually join the gym because my body mass will be 85% pancake batter, and I’m sure that’s not recommended for general human-ing. If I were to have an accident right now (caused by my own clumisness, naturally), I suspect I would bleed maple syrup. I don’t feel like that’s a good thing. The emergency services probably don’t deal with that issue very often.

“What’s your blood type miss?”

“Well usually I’m O negative… but currently I’m maple syrup positive, if you know what I mean.”

“Now is not the time for jokes, miss. You could lose your leg.”

“That’s not a joke. I’m probably one pancake away from diabetes. TRANSFUSE ME!”

Anyway. I thought I’d share the recipe I use for crêpes (you can save it as an image) because it’s easy and then you can experience your own sugar-induced hyperactive zoomies. Or ham, cheese and egg goodness. I don’t judge.

Unless you put fruit on your pancake in which case…

Get out. Just get out.

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In hindsight, I realise that maybe I should have posted this on Friday. That may have made more sense. I wasn’t really in the full swing of pancake fever on Friday, though. Instead of seeing this as a pancake post that’s a day late, maybe see it as a pancake post that’s a year early. If you think about it, I’m just giving you a headstart so you can start practicing for next Pancake Tuesday

You will be SO READY.

*Except you know that song Cake By The Ocean? Does anyone else feel like there should definitely be a rule about that? I think it should be added to the signs at the beach; no dogs, no drinks, no cake. I keep thinking about the amount of sand that would get in the buttercream and how it would mix with the jam and stick to you everywhere and just… gritty cake sounds so deeply, deeply unpleasant that anytime that song comes on the radio my teeth clench in protest and now I’m off on a tangent again and oh my God how do I always end up here in the footnotes. Sorry. As you were.