Creatures of Habit

We’re all guilty of it. Whether it be the exact time you like to leave the house in the morning, whether you put the milk or water first in your coffee, what side you lay on when trying to get to sleep or how you automatically put those four plates down for dinner when you know you’ll only need three tonight; we all have our quirky routines. They are hard to break, give us a sense of comfort in our day-to-day lives and are completely habitual. Have you ever woken up, got dressed, made breakfast, got half way down the road and thought “how did I get here”? I bet you have. Your movements are so effortlessly stereotyped that you move with ease, without even thinking about what you’re doing.

But you’re not the only one. Take my two Amazon Parrots, Eric and Ernie, for example: Day in day out they do their usual parrot-ness. Wake up at 6:30 am sharp, eat their fresh fruit and seeds, come out and play in their Wendy house, chatter under sheets of newspaper, climb around the cage and chew their toys before settling down to preen each other.

It must be love

However, they have created their own unique tendencies that I find hard to ignore. Being left alone while my mum does her daily tasks means singing along to their favourite music channel. If that music channel isn’t on, you will know about it. Thursday’s mean sitting on the windowsill with the curtain pulled back so Eric can say hello to his favourite dustman. If the phone rings, Eric will put on his best phone voice; but only to a real phone, not when Ernie is doing his ever so realistic impression which would quite easily fool any unsuspecting human. 8 o’clock means bedtime, but not before Eric has had a grape and Ernie a sip of water. Then, and only then, can they clamber into bed on their top perch and sit side by side; Eric on the left and Ernie on the right. (Who do they think they are, Ant and Dec?)

They amaze me every day with their intelligence and the sheer comfort they seem to take out of doing the same thing, in the same way, every day. It has recently been reported that a team at the University of Vienna put parrots to a test involving walnuts and opaque containers. A test that uses a great deal of logic and has baffled both monkeys and dogs previously. And guess what? The parrots passed with flying colours, if you’ll pardon the pun. In all seriousness though, a parrot’s intelligence has been compared to that of a three-year-old child. Now, I’m not a parent myself but my mum and Super Nanny assure me that children from an early age need a good routine. They pick up on good habits such as brushing their teeth morning and night, and start to instantaneously wash their hands after using the toilet. My parrots have clearly succumb to this idea of associations.

We can’t give them all the credit though. My dogs, Abbie and Pepe, are equally as easy to predict from their behavioural patterns. They seem to know exactly when their dinner times are and walk times are. ( Being a Lurcher and Greyhound they really don’t care for much else when they’re not asleep on the sofa). They have cleverly been able to associate my mum’s actions to what happens next. Getting up in the morning? Food. Putting make-up on? Walk.  Flushing the toilet around half 2? Walk. Pepe in particular will impatiently sit behind my mum until she proceeds to her next task; which will involve him. Most astonishingly for me is that on hearing the Coronation Street theme tune for the second time they know it means it’s time to go out in the garden and have a gravy bone. They mainly do it for the treat of the gravy bone, but that’s not the point. They then proceed to wait to have their teeth brushed and then go straight up to bed.

Told you they were lazy

Though it’s not just our domestic pets that I have noticed to display such curious habits. White Cap is a regular visitor to our sunny Sussex garden. He turns up 3 times a day in fact, without so much of an invite. Distinguished through the distinctive white blob on top of his head, this peckish pigeon will feed on our bird table at every meal time, 7 days a week. We haven’t done anything in particular to make White Cap want to keep returning to our garden, but he does anyway. Perhaps it’s like his check point, where he knows he feels safe and can get a good feed at the same time. Or, as I mentioned earlier, he has probably got so used to popping by that he doesn’t even realise he’s doing it any more.

But where would we be without these habits? Our incredibly complex brains become so ingrained we are in fact, in a way, making things a little easier on ourselves and freeing up some useful brain power to think of more pressing things; like when you can next pop in to town to pick up those amazing shoes you saw last week. Right? Right. Though occasionally, we do set ourselves challenges to break a certain bad habit that we aren’t as pleased about possessing or we purposely break habits, such as going to bed later because it’s a weekend, almost as a treat or reward to ourselves.

So, whether you have four legs, two wings or a filthy shoe habit, we are all creatures and creatures of our habits and should be grateful for this impeccable skill we pay little attention to.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering: it’s the cheesy classic girl band songs that get Eric and Ernie going every time.

Köln, a Zoo and EasyJet too

13th December 2010, Gatwick Airport: Tiger Woods is sat opposite me, but he is balding a bit, so I offered him a chip to cheer him up. Well he wasn’t, it was a look-a-like, and I didn’t share my chips with anyone- I never do. These were just nervous written ramblings from a first time flyer waiting to board a plane to Köln, Germany.

The thought of flying on a plane being thousands of feet up in the air has always petrified me. Although I know it is ‘the safest way to travel’ I still feel uneasy with the fact I can’t just open the window or step outside for some fresh air. However, it was an early Christmas present from my boyfriend, Patrick, and if anyone could turn my panic attacks and fear into a laugh, he could. So I went for it.

Our EasyJet flight was delayed, and we arrived in Frankfurt between 2-3 hours later than expected. Yes, I said Frankfurt. Due to snow, Köln airport was closed and we were diverted. Ahead of us came a 2 and a half hour coach journey followed by a 20 minute taxi ride to the hotel. Tired and hungry, we were kept amused by the taxi driver: he taught us how to swear in German and played romantic music whilst we drove over the bridge to admire the view- only to find the lights weren’t on and the River Rhine was just a black horizon of nothingness. Eventually, we checked in to our hotel, ‘Lindner Hotel Dom Residence, around 3am.

Waking up the first day bewildered, the receptionist armed us with a trusty map, which even gave some good restaurants and leisure ideas (although the Escort girls section was a tad odd?!). It led us every destination we wanted including a supermarket that felt like we had gone back to the 90s, a taxi rank which we heavily relied on and a shopping area that seemed as busy as London.

However, we didn’t need a map to find Köln Dom, we were only a 5 minute walk away and it was visible miles away up in the sky amongst the clouds. It looked like something out of a movie, and in the evening it became the perfect back drop as it shadowed over one of the many Christmas markets in the area. The stalls were full of homemade bits and pieces including snow globes, dream catchers and candles. There were smells of gingerbread, Mulled wine, cheeses, fruit cake and Frankfurters everywhere we turned. A woman and a choir were singing carols on stage, the lights in the trees and snow, which was still fresh on the ground, made it feel like a real Winter Wonderland: amazing.

Köln Zoo was also another highlight for me. There were Gorillas, Giraffes, Elephants, a Brown Bear, Flamingos, exotic birds I had never even heard of, Camels, Lemurs, Lions, Tigers, insects of all kinds and even an Aquarium. The inside Amazon Rainforest allowed us to walk with birds and get up close with some animals. There were bats hanging from the ceiling, waterfalls and shrubbery everywhere it was surreal. We stopped for lunch in a Café in the heart of the Zoo; after all it was tiring walking around an area that seemed equivalent to the size of Brighton itself! There was a handy tram station just outside which took us to another Christmas market further away which had that same distinctive smells about it which I will never forget.

On our last day, laden with suitcases, we visited the Lindt Chocolate Museum. It was in a glass building which stretched across the River Rhine with fantastic views- apparently. Our view was hindered by snow blizzards. Inside however we got to see how the chocolate was made, got to taste the produce (for free!) and there were many facts and games to play all about chocolate. The gift shop was equally amusing despite being packed, but we still managed to come out with tonnes of chocolate!

The lady at the reception who spoke fluent English ordered a taxi for us and we arrived at Köln Airport for our flight at 9:20pm. Weirdly I was more nervous about this flight than I was for the first one. The snow didn’t ease; it was announced every half an hour that our flight was delayed for a further half an hour. Patrick and I kept busy with a crossword, some biscuits and made friends with another young couple sat opposite who were just as fed up. Luckily the snow eventually stopped but we had to change gates, then there were no busses available to take us to the plane and no steps. The passengers that had just landed on the EasyJet plane we were hoping to leave on were stuck on board for the same reasons- for a further 2 hours. And as if things couldn’t get any worse the pilot and the crew refused to fly as it was past their working hours.

It was now 4am, 7 hours after we were meant to depart. Everyone was tired, arguing with the airport staff and even the pilot came to chat with everyone before agreeing to set off. Eventually, we arrived at Gatwick Airport UK time half 5am, and after waiting for a lift from Patrick’s dad back to Brighton, I made it to my bed at 8am after being awake for 24 hours.

You would agree that the flight turned out to be an adventure all on its own. It was very bad luck for a first time flyer, but looking back I wouldn’t change a thing. I would highly recommend going to Köln, it is full of History, interesting attractions and the snow made the markets magical which meant made up for the disrupted flights.

Germany has always been a great interest of mine: I studied the language for 8 years and was taught its History in the language of both English and German. This was also the second time I had been to Germany with Patrick; the first was on a School trip to Germany by coach (which took 11 hours!) when we were about 14, before we were together. It felt right to go back there and was one of the best experiences of my life.

Garlic bread

My nan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in February of this year. She isn’t alone- there are 465,000 people living with Alzheimers disease in the UK today, a number forecast to rise rapidly as the population ages. This isn’t the first case of Alzheimers in my family, my nans older sister, Nelle, is currently suffering from the disease but is in a more advanced stage. Two of her other sisters, Phylis and Kath, also died from Dementia.

Ever since I can remember, we have spent Sunday mornings round my nan’s house where she would spend most of her time fussing about in the kitchen preparing enough food and drink to feed an army. When she took time out, she would chatter away to my mum and dad asking numerous questions, as my brother, Darryl, and I would make a mess on the floor with the endless amounts of toys and stationery she provided us with. One of my favourite memories from my childhood was when me and my brother took my nan’s knitting wool and wound it around every piece of furniture in her front room to create our very own crystal maze task. Our parents were angry, but nan just laughed. Thats what nan’s like. Was like.

Now, since being diagnosed we are never sure what we will be greeted with:  stale bread, out-of-date coleslaw, a puzzled face, an empty house. And this is where the garlic bread comes in: a few weeks ago nan was cooking garlic bread which she left in the oven. After smelling burning, I pulled the cremated bread out before it had the chance to catch fire. Another fire hazard my dad noticed last week were cigarette burns in her carpet. She has started smoking again, which she successfully gave up after suffering cancer for the second time. In 2000, she showed the early signs of Ovarian cancer resulting in a hysterectomy and having her ovaries removed. In 2004, she lost her hair through chemotherapy after being diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. She has also suffered from depression all her life, receiving electric shock treatment in the 1960s.

Luckily it was a Sunday and we were there to prevent any accidents happening. She insists the garlic bread was a one off, but it is her safety that worries my family and I the most.  And since my grandad passed away in May 1998, when i was only 5 years old, she has lived on her own. It is sad how my nan can barely remember my grandad: what he died of, when he died, what job he used to do, when they got married. She finds it difficult to even remember things about herself. She has a psychiatric nurse who visits monthly and gives her memory tests sometimes accompanied by a doctor. Most recently nan couldn’t say what country she was in, the year, the date, the month, what she had for dinner, what she done yesterday. Yet amazingly she can still remember being evacuated to a farm in Yorkshire during the War, where the people she lived with would make her stand over newspaper as they combed her hair for head lice.

Being her only grandchildren, nan used to ask every detail of mine and Darryl’s life . We still tell her things weekly: Darryl is studying maths at Bristol University, I am on a Journalist course and passed my Driving Test in June. Yet every week she appears shocked as to how I got to her house and why Darryl isn’t there.

As my first blog, I wanted to write about something that is close to me and thousands of other families watching a loved one battle this terrible disease. Unlike Terry Prachett who is often in the media talking about his experience suffering from Alzheimers, my nan is unaware and in denial that she has a problem. Nan has always been stubborn, and still insists she is perfectly capable of looking after herself. Unfortunately we know this is not the case. I admire the work of researchers and scientists trying to find a cure for Alzheimers. If scientists could delay the onset of Alzheimer’s by five years, the number of people who die with the disease could be halved.

I think it is fair to say my nan has been through more than anyone could imagine in her life. Yet she still manages to laugh and smile anything off that comes her way. She is a true inspiration. If only she would remember when I tell her.