Have a break, have a lunch hour

I’ve become a lady who lunches. After years of dining al desko, I’ve finally discovered the pleasures of a lunch break. Not that I can take any credit for this new-found wisdom. Lack of an office canteen and a strict ‘no-eating-at-desk’ policy had far more to do with it: No break, no food. Necessity may be a good teacher, but hunger is even better.

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In 1930, John Maynard Keynes confidently predicted his grandchildren’s generation would work no more than three hours a day. How wrong can you be? Not only does the UK have some of the longest working hours in Europe but 60% of us don’t even take a lunch break. It’s all a far cry from the Hong Kong stock-exchange where traders, hardly a profession known for shirking on the job, were up-in-arms at their lunch break being cut to just one hour! It’s not even necessarily any good for UK business – Yes, companies may be getting anything up to 16 extra days a year out of us, but they reckon it costs them around £50m a day in lost productivity. All this sandwiching-at-desk, SAD living does little except reduce concentration and increase stress, both mental and physical.

I don’t know whether taking a lunch break has increased my productivity, but it’s certainly made me happier. Sometimes, it’s the casual conversations in the kitchen: Getting to know colleagues in something other than a work context has given a much greater sense of belonging, of being part of the team. I’ve even discovered the most difficult managers can be human after all. Occasionally, it’s the luxury of running errands (no more weekends spent chained to domestic chores). Mostly, it’s the quiet time. As often as not, I’ll grab a few moments of private escape – walk round the block, soak up the sun in the park, read a book in a local cafe. On those Herculean days when tasks slither and multiply all around you, doubling and tripling with every attack on the to-do list, getting out of the office has become a survival strategy, a tactical retreat, a chance to regroup and rethink; Even when everything is going according to plan, the change of perspective is still so valuable. Why forever run uphill and never once stop to admire the view?

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So what’s taken so long? Why have I only just figured out a lunch break is actually a Good ThingTM ? Doctors, psychologists, magazines have been singing its praises for decades. By comparison with drinking less or exercising more, their usual nags, stopping work and taking a break ought to be a doddle. At its most extreme, the pressure of work and cultural expectations can make even the idea of a lunch break impossible, let alone the reality. I’ve worked in such an office and will never forget the fallout when a colleague disappeared briefly one lunch-hour and wasn’t immediately on hand for the boss. In fact, one in seven of us deliberately work through lunch in order to impress the management. As Ron Sims, VP at Right Management says, in these difficult economic times, you “don’t want to be seen as somebody who is not fully contributing.”

But even when I wasn’t working for some wannabe Gordon Gekko, I’d still usually eat at my desk – there simply wasn’t anywhere else to go. With UK businesses increasingly relocating from city centres to out-of-town industrial estates, choices are often limited to either a concrete carpark or a noisy, crowded canteen – hardly places to relax and unwind. So many horror stories are told about the challenges of working in London – the nightmare commute (definitely), the brutal working culture (maybe) – it’s easy to forget what a privilege it is to be right in the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities. I now have at least 8 delis, 6 pubs, 3 restaurants and a greasy spoon all within 5 minutes walk of the office – and that’s just the food options, never mind the parks, museums and shops. There’s even a scuba diving club: Clearly I’m a lunchtime underachiever just settling for a sandwich.

Not that London lunch-hours themselves are perfect. Far from it. The UK climate is too unforgiving for a start. It’s amazing how much more appealing staying at your desk can seem when it’s pissing it down outside. Drowning in work is one thing, looking like a drowned rat after your lunch hour is quite another. There’s a time and a place for a wet T-Shirt and a meeting with the boss just ain’t one of them. Nor is this the only price to pay for taking a break. London’s reputation as a cripplingly expensive city is well deserved – £4 for a sandwich here, £6 for a salad there, it all soon mounts up.

Taking a break may be priceless but sadly there’s still no such thing as a free lunch.

The Big Chill – Ice Bars, Ice Hotels and the London Ice Sculpting Festival

There is a place in Southern Iceland where the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier meets the Atlantic Ocean. Under the inscrutable gaze of the surrounding mountains, this vast river of ice finally yields to warmer maritime air, a mighty warrior kneeling before the conqueror, the endless expanse of Jökulsárlón, the melt-water lake, a monument to the struggle. All across the lagoon icebergs, scattered and lost, drift towards the seaward channel. They are the survivors, crawling on the battlefield, jagged and broken but still hoping for escape, their frozen armour glinting proudly in the sunshine. It is one of the most hauntingly beautiful places on earth, enough to melt even the coldest of hearts.

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I first visited Jökulsárlón five years ago. It was the beginning of a love affair with ice, no less passionate today than it was back then, standing on a rocky Icelandic shore (Apparently I’m a ‘pagophile’ – a lover of ice – but it didn’t sound the sort of thing to be shouting about too loudly on the internet!). Killer, healer, homeland, wilderness, sculptor, sculpted: ice is an extraordinary substance. Thanks to its peculiar chemistry, its temperate freezing point and lightness of form, it covers nearly 10% of the earth’s surface. It touches our lives in so many everyday ways, from the simple pleasure of an iced drink to the adrenalin rush of the skating rink, yet remains mysterious, contradictory: More fragile than glass, yet capable of sinking ships. Freezing to the touch, yet will burn the skin blacker than the hottest flame. Definitions here are elusive, slipping through the fingers like ice itself.

In spite of the name, the real place of pilgrimage for ice worshippers isn’t Iceland, but Jukkasjärvi in northern Sweden. We’re deep into polar territory here, the Arctic Circle a distant memory some 145km to the south, the average winter temperature 18 degrees below – a perfect home for the world’s first Icehotel (nowadays, there are at least 7 others). Opening from December to April, the entire hotel is sculpted out of snow and ice harvested from the nearby Torne River. No two years are ever the same – It’s created from scratch each winter and only the magnificent ice chandelier is ever saved from the summer sun. Competition for places on the artistic team is fierce, especially the right to create one of the hotel’s fifteen ‘art suites’ : This year, you could sleep in anything from a tube train to Frankenstein’s laboratory. A constant five degrees below, stay in this frozen fantasy palace and for once, claiming your holiday was “really cool” wouldn’t be an exaggeration.

But what about something closer to home? How does a London ice lover get their fix? In spite of the fact the UK usually goes into meltdown at just a mention of snow, London is one of the few cities in the world with an Icebar – Below Zero. You can take your chances on the door, but it’s definitely better to book. The cold area is small and numbers are strictly limited, a maximum of 60 for no more than 40 minutes at a time – not that the adjacent warm bar is a bad place to linger, it’s just whether you’d settle for urban cool if you came for ice.

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On arrival, you’re kitted out in what’s officially described as a “designer thermal cape”: In reality, it’s more of a hooded blue poncho. It’s intended not just to protect you from the ice, but also the ice from you – Given the amount of heat the average human being generates, put 60 people in a room and it’s the equivalent of switching on a 5 bar heater. The extra layers are obviously necessary, but the effect is still vaguely ridiculous. As I step into the cold, the neon glow and hooded crowds suddenly make me feel I’m in some pantomime version of Star Wars. I resist the urge to tell the doorman, ‘these are not the droids you’re looking for’ and head instead for the bar. The price of entry here includes a complimentary cocktail served (naturally) in a glass made of ice. Thereafter drinks are £6.50 a shot, £10.50 if you’ve accidentally lost your original glass. Read the reviews online and these prices receive (not unreasonably) a decidedly frosty reception. Then again, go to the Ice Hotel and you’ll be charged an equally staggering amount : You can’t claim the Ice Bar doesn’t give you an authentic experience.

If I had one real criticism of the London Ice Bar, it would be the current design. Yes, the bar is made of ice. Yes, there are ice murals on the walls, but there are none of the intricate sculptures for which the Ice Hotel is famous. Fortunately, January also sees the capital play host in Canary Wharf to the London Ice Sculpting Festival. Now in its fourth year, this free celebration of frozen art has put London firmly on the international ice sculpting stage. 20 artists from 10 different countries battle it out across 3 days of competition. For sheer intensity and excitement, the first Friday is hard to beat (Being a working day, it’s also the least crowded – Over 50,000 people are thought to have attended this year!). Here are the single block events – the set theme competition, this year ‘River Life’, and the individual freestyle. Working at this scale, the intricacy of the designs is breathtaking, especially on an unseasonably mild January day when it’s a race against time to beat the heat: Sculptures die with every moment they live.

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If I was ever in any doubt as to the extraordinary skill of these artists, having a go myself in one of the ice sculpting workshops really hammered the point home. This isn’t just artistically challenging but intellectually demanding – understanding the conditions and the response of the ice – and physically tough to boot. The longer I worked, the more my frozen fingers complained. Looking round at our efforts, I saw a few goods, plenty of bads and at least one downright ugly (mine!).

Come the weekend and there’s a complete change of pace with the start of the two-day big-block pairs competition. Vast 2m tall, 2 tonne blocks of ice are specially shipped in for the country teams to craft, this year on the theme of ‘Fabulous Fashion’. When so much of the ice we get in this country is milky, ‘white’ ice – a form of frozen slush – just to see ice of this diamond purity is in itself a revelation : suddenly, I understand how the word ‘crystal’ could have come from krystallos, the ancient greek for ice.

Saturday sees much of the preparation work take place : what you lose in the lack of detail is more than compensated for by the drama of chainsaws and fountains of flying ice, especially later in the day when the blocks are dramatically underlit. With the immediate pressure of competition lifted, the artists also seem more relaxed – Reverend Butter from Team USA (otherwise known as Rolando De La Garza) hams it up Texas Chainsaw Massacre style; The UK’s Mike Kerslake begs for ‘crowd-funding’ when he needs a lighter for his blowtorch. By Sunday afternoon, however, the serious mood returns as everyone races towards 5pm and the competition deadline. This year’s winner was Africa, a stunning result in its own right, but even more so when you consider this was the first year they’ve ever participated. Then again, as Mario Amegee from the African team says : “When you have art, it’s ok. You can do everything, you know”.

Ice: Extraordinary substance. Extraordinary people.

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Fat Boy Slim: Chairman Meow’s New Year Diet & Exercise Regime

There’s no alarm clock more effective than a hungry cat wanting breakfast. If I was ever unsure about who’s boss in our relationship, these past few mornings have left me in absolutely no doubt : 6am sharp and Chairman Meow jumps straight on the bed. One moment I’m sound asleep, the next – a loud purring in the ear, a strategic paw placed firmly on the bladder, a gentle but persistent tapping on the chin. Resistance is futile.

You see, the Chairman is on a diet. Like a few other members of our household, the festive season has left him looking decidedly podgy. Even allowing for the fact he’s a big cat, it came as quite a shock when we last measured his weight. Clearly the Chairman couldn’t believe it either, because he kept getting back on and off the scales to check the reading!

Lazy Cat

The biggest challenge we’ve always faced with the Chairman is that he’s so darn lazy. If I thought it was hard getting myself up and out for a run, it’s not a patch on this tubby tabby. It all stems from when we were still living in the Village – back then every time he ventured out, the girl-cat-next-door would suddenly appear and start beating him up (Chairman Meow may be a heavyweight on the scales, but he’s a complete lightweight in all other respects). Things initially improved when we first moved back to London, but then the weather turned nasty and he decided a warm, comfy sofa was infinitely superior to the great outdoors. Frankly, I have some sympathy.

So in an attempt to become Ms. Moggy Motivator 2014, I’ve been trying everything. The first thought was ‘there must be an app for this’. And sure enough, there is – “Game For Cats”. A laser point of light whizzes randomly around the ipad screen and every time your cat catches it, it scores 100 points. It certainly caught the Chairman’s attention but all he would then do is lie flat and occasionally stick out a paw – hardly a high-impact workout.

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We had slightly more success with an actual laser pointer. At first, it had the Chairman running madly round the house whenever it appeared; But eye candy can never compete with something genuinely tasty. Once Chairman Meow realised he was never actually going to catch anything, he threw his proverbial toys out of the pram and stopped playing (As for the real toys, they ended up abandoned under the sideboard).

Eventually, I did what all sensible people nowadays do when they’re stuck for answers : I asked Twitter. The verdict was unequivocal. I needed “Da Bird”. Not that I was convinced – A handful of feathers on a piece of string? You’ve got to be kidding. As is so often the case, however, the best solution really was the simplest. Ever since the Chairman first laid eyes on Da Bird, it’s as if he’s bewitched (ok, the string is attached to a wand but even so!). He follows it round the house, grabbing at it claws-flexed, until it swings out of reach. Suddenly, he’s jumping and pouncing and somersaulting round the room, determined to defeat this feathery foe. Even when he’s left with no choice but to lie down and catch his breath, he’ll still be swatting away at it with this paw, then that. Nowadays, for the health and safety of all concerned (not to mention the more fragile household ornaments), play sessions are strictly rationed – 20 minutes a day, five days a week.

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So does this mean it’ll be ‘New Year, New You’ for Chairman Meow? There’s no doubt since we’ve been using Da Bird, he seems much more active. A number of his toy mice have made a reappearance and he’s even started going out once more, despite all the rain. We were feeling quietly confident, sure that come summer he’d be back to a lean, mean, fighting machine. Then the other evening, we caught him jumping in the window, licking his jowls and smelling of catfood: Maybe his Fat Cat days aren’t quite behind him yet.

Happy New Year x