Monday, November 1, 2010

The UK government's latest brainwave

So you're sitting at your desk, looking at a figure. This figure is your departmental budget, and it's considerably lower than you'd like. You have to make serious cuts, or offset costs by pulling in some extra money from somewhere.

You decide to kill two birds with one stone - sell off something that is costing you money to run. Sounds good, no?

Defra, in their infinite wisdom, have decided to sell off around a third to a half (sources differ) of the land currently held by the Forestry Commission. This land could be bought up by local charities, of course, but also bidding for the land will be private landowners, logging companies, and developers hoping to build commercial enterprises like adventure parks. Which do you think will be able to offer more?

This not only means that the public will lose the access to this land they currently enjoy, it also means a major step backwards in Britain's approach to climate change. We should be valuing what little of this island's native forests are still standing, and protecting them even more fiercely. If you agree, please sign this petition. If you want to know more, there are some links to articles below.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Systematic failures

I've been thinking recently about the systems we put in place, and how they affect daily life, both at home and at work. This is partly inspired by Rhonda's post on organisation and turning over a new leaf, but also by developments at work.

I am a rather disorganised person. I occasionally have a whirlwind tidy and clean, which leaves everything immaculate and tucked away. (My boyfriend refers to these as my 'Monica moments'.) The rest of the time, I let things pile up. I have generally just beaten myself up for not being 'good' enough at maintaining the space I live in (both physically and mentally) but recently I have been wondering whether it might be more to do with the systems I have in place to deal with problems that arise. More specifically, the fact that I don't have any systems, or any routine.

I see the effects of poorly-designed operating systems daily at work, where essentials are never where they need to be, and teams replacing one another on a shift system are never fully staffed, fully trained, fully equipped or fully up to speed with the current situation. Even small things like not being able to find a working pen can set us back a considerable amount of time, and increase stress levels.

So, learning from my work, I would like to introduce one positive behaviour change at a time to introduce some more structure into my reactions to developments in my professional and personal life. Please feel free to come forward with suggestions.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Self-sufficiency: A Disadvantage?

While I'm interested in the green movement and would like to think that I live a relatively eco-friendly lifestyle, what really motivates me to take the 'DIY' option is an idea of being self-reliant, of not being dependent on anything I can't influence. This has tied in very nicely with the work I am doing at Imperial War Museum North on clothing in World War Two on the British home front. While my main focus has been on the Utility scheme, I have come across a lot of the Make-Do-and-Mend bits and bobs, including borrowing a reprinted edition of the booklet of the same name.

This has contributed to a vague longing to be able to darn my socks. More concretely, it has partially inspired my decision to knit myself a pair of knittens, using double-pointed needles for the first time. (This decision was also inspired by the very cold mornings and my lack of gloves, combined with a limited budget and an availability of cheap wool.) Exploring some of the interactive games aimed at children at the museum, I was thinking today that Make Do and Mend, like more modern Self-suefficiency, is really a state of mind. When something you need is missing, you first see if you can manage without, and if you can't, you improvise with what you have.

This is fantastic when it comes to putting together a patchwork skirt like a few I've seen around the city centre in recent weeks. However, less useful in a more mainstream commercial situation. I work at a fairly standard coffee-and-sandwich shop in a train station for most of the week, and there is a perpetual sequence of obstacles, most of which involve someone-or-other having omitted to order something vital, or said item not being available for some other reason. I instinctively react to this situation by assessing what there is in the cupboard, and making something from that. If there's no brie, use mozzarella. However, some of the people at work look at me like I'm an idiot and ask why I didn't just borrow from one of the other coffee-and-sandwich-type places in our vicinity.

The change in mindset is great for my personal, private life. Less good for my job. Do you think I can persuade the rest of the world to join me? 'Excuse me, sir, we don't have those baguettes in today. Can we interest you in this weird combination of unusual ingredients which happened to be what we had lying around this morning?

Thursday, August 26, 2010


So this month I’ve been easing myself into knitting with some knitted washcloths. The logic behind this was that these are useful, so I’m not wasting wool; that they are small, so I won’t get bogged down in a daunting project; and they allow me to experiment with different stitches.

I’ve been using cotton, bought in bright and cheerful colours from the Veritas around the corner. I’ve discovered that I really like cotton – this is the first time I have worked with it, and I’ve been surprised. I was expecting it to be really unforgiving, really inelastic, but it’s flexible and versatile. I will be interested to observe its durability – does it wash better or last longer than wool? Travel better?

So far, I’ve made washcloths in seed stitch, in horizontal stripes, in box-stitch, in daisy stitch and I’m currently doing one in basketweave. I have fallen in love with daisy stitch – it’s a very dense stitch, coming out much smaller than other cloths with the same number of rows and stitches, but I love the texture and the pattern. It’s very small and subtle, but really pretty. Horizontal stripes really didn’t work – but I’ll have a go at changing colours soon and see if that looks any different. The seed stitch is incredibly elastic – it stretches a lot in all directions. The basketweave is fun in a gimmicky sort of way, but I wonder whether or not it would wear evenly – there seems to be more flexibility and less strength at the changes of stitch.

My knitting style is evolving as well – I started off taking my right hand off the needle to wrap the yarn around the needle, but now I keep it wrapped around my forefinger at all times, which has made me a faster knitter, and given greater evenness to my stitches, which I like. I’ve also started casting on by twisting loops onto one needle with my fingers, rather than knitting each stitch into the last. It’s much faster, but still means that the first edge is too long and ends up rumpled.

Next up will be something a bit bigger, I hope - maybe a hot water bottle? I want to have a go at ribbing and cable, and I'm really looking forward to Celtic knots! Feel free to share any good patterns or ideas...

The times, they are a-changing

So the move is almost upon us, and I can proudly announce that I will be moving house in the most eco-friendly way possible - by train. (That's not the reason, it's actually cheaper because my boyfriend gets these vouchers from work, which give him money off green stuff like train travel). However, the flipside of this is that I can only take what I can carry with me - one suitcase and a big rucksack. That's not a huge amount of stuff, but we're leaving some here.

So there's a lot of emotional stuff flying around right now - I've had an interesting year here, and I think I've learned a lot, but I also feel that I let a lot of opportunities pass me by. Places I didn't go, museums I didn't see, people I didn't befriend as thoroughly as I could have... Some of it was beyond my control - I spent a lot of this spring helping my parents with stuff, but a lot of it was just due to laziness, bluesiness and apathy on my part. I have an ongoing problem with apathy, and it frustrates me no end because I feel that by this age I should be able to get on with tackling problems like a sane adult, rather than putting my head in the sand and hoping they'll go away!

Somehow, I never manage to convert this sense of general regret into a determination to get more out of the next experience - always the apathy and always the sense of lost opportunities. But I'm going to try, this time. Maybe I should make a list? :-)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Surprises pleasant and unpleasant

As I'm coming to the end of my time in Belgium, I've been trying to squeeze in a few last trips and experiences. Yesterday we went to spend the day in Antwerpen and the nearby commuter town of Lier. I have to say that Antwerpen disappointed me, or more specifically, the museums disappointed me.

The city itself was as busy as Brussels, and has an if anything more beautiful centre, with the advantage of a river and a ruined castle. It still didn't tug my heart-strings, though - not the way Prague or Riga or Paris did - and I didn't come away feeling like I wanted to go back. Budget limitations affecting choices of activity, two museums were duly visited. The first was the Rubenshuis, home of Antwerp's favourite painter. Overpriced, especially considering what was inside - the place couldn't decide if it was a reconstruction of his house, or a slightly more picturesque than usual gallery of his studio's artwork. There was no attempt to involve the visitor in the house itself - the rooms were there, there was some furniture, but it felt very very dead. And given the lack of evidence for the actual internal structure for the house in Rubens's day (most was rebuilt), there were some odd decisions made concerning, for example, the location of the kitchen. The paintings were mostly by Rubens's students and contemporaries, rather than the man himself, and while there was no shortage of supplementary texts praising his inspiring style etc etc etc, there was nothing at all informative or interesting. In short, very disappointing. I would have preferred either a close look at his work, maybe looking at some of his influences and his development as an artist, or a house carefully reconstructed based on contemporary building patterns with explanations of decisions taken, and some detail about his household and working environment, his daily life and family. The gardens were nice, but poorly maintained - weeds, and some plants in serious need of pruning. The only good thing: the museum provided a small sample of the cuir doree (gilt leather) used to decorate the walls, so you could have a feel without damaging the walls themselves. Maybe one and a half stars out of five?

With time and money constraints, the second museum visited was the Maagdenhuismuseum. Deeply, deeply disappointing. Really, don't bother. There was almost nothing about the abandoned girls who give the museum its name, despite the apparent similarity to the Foundling Museum in London. The signs were almost exclusively in Flemish, and the only things to see were a few uninspiring paintings on the usual subjects. There were three records of verbal agreements to take in girls, attached to their tokens (I think - my Flemish is extremely sketchy!) and that was it. Enquiry revealed that there were some relics from the girls' day, but they were in a second building and not open to the public. No stars. Can I give negative stars? It was a really unpleasant experience.

Moving on from Antwerpen, we spent a lovely evening pottering around Lier. The inhabitants are sometimes insultingly known as "sheepheads", meaning stubborn or stupid, which apparently comes from the occasion when the town was offered a choice between hosting the university or the sheepmarket. The sheepmarket was chosen as it offered greater financial rewards. However, the university went to Leuven, which seems to have got the better deal. Lier is a small commuter city serving Antwerp and Brussels, but it's an eight-century town with an astonisingly well-kept historic centre. The Begijnhof was so peaceful and even still had the names of old inhabitants on the doors. The bell-towers sounded lovely, and there's a really cute clock - the Jubelklok - in the Zimmertoren which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has figures who strike bells and things in the side, who actually move! And it shows things like the phase of the moon and sign of the zodiac. The whole thing moves fractionally every four seconds. Impressive for something built in 1931. The town felt a bit surreal - it was a bit Stepford-esque, just a bit too perfect and too clean. I would have said it had been designed that way, if it weren't for the history giving that the lie. Still, very beautiful, with the canals and weeping willows, bridges and churches, and flowers everywhere. I was expecting something much drearier, and was definitely pleasantly surprised.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Long time no see

So I've been a lazy blogger for a while, despite the huge volume and diversity of thoughts and reflections I wanted to share. But hopefully I'll get around to posting a few of them up in the next month. I think blogging is a muscle - you have to exercise is regularly, or every entry feels like hard work! So I'll start myself off small and work up. Today, I am starting with a book review.

Kate Morton - The House at Riverton

This book is about the relationship between a young girl who goes into service in the Edwardian era, rises to become a lady's maid, and leaves service after a dramatic event in the family in which she seems ambiguously invovled. The story follows her recollection of the events of her youth, prompted by a film being made about this family. I really, really enjoyed this book. In fact, I read it in one day because I couldn't put it down. I wouldn't call it a challenging book - there was more than one intended surprise which could be seen coming from miles off - and one or two of the characters were a little simplistic, but they were all very sympathetically written, and minor characters worked well as cameos even where they were not given much depth. The author built up the tension very well, however, and by the final show-down I was absolutely gripped.

I mostly came away from the book with a sense of the romanticisation of the relationship between servant and mistress, and of the lives of people in service generally. There was very little about the relentless labour, and much more about the sense of being privileged to work there. It does seem odd that certain historical periods and contexts draw so much more focus in novels, film and tv than any other - the golden age of the English Country House, the Tudor court, 1066 and the industrial revolution seem to cover most areas. Odd that we see so little of, for example, Anglo-Saxon life or World War 2, or Restoration England. Maybe I should write historical fiction to even up the gap...

OK, slight tangent there. Anyway, it's a thoroughly enjoyable book but will not rock the foundations of your being.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Difference A Week Makes

Title shamelessly stolen from Carole Matthews' book, 'The Difference A Day Makes', which I recommend to anyone out there as a book to curl up with for some me-time and a cup of tea in front of a fire under a homespun blanket. Failing that, under the covers on a grey Saturday.

So last Tuesday I planted some seeds and seedlings in various places. And lo! they have grown! I feel like a child, giddy with excitement. They've GROWN! That may sound obvious, but I haven't done any gardening before, pretty much ever. The seedlings have got so big I'm going to have to move them to bigger containers (which the Mother Goddess of Noobie Gardeners has provided for me. In the basement.) I'm thinking I'll be able to start harvesting yummy salads from them very shortly.

The seeds have sprouted, and are nearly ready to be planted up into bigger pots. (I'm using pots made from newspaper, for which I shall provide instructions at a later stage.) I put them in my bedroom cupboard to germinate, it being warm and dark in there, and I was really surprised by (a) how quickly they grew and (b) how quickly they turned green once brought out onto the windowsill. It took a matter of hours. This morning they're already looking lush.

So I've located some containers - notably the boxes you get wine bottles in, as my landlord buys a lot of wine and never seems to throw away the boxes. He has kindly donated a couple to the cause of a fruitful-looking terrace. I've still got to get some potting compost, but I've found a really cheap source, so that looks like it might still be doable. And I think I might let myself get tempted into buying some rocket seedlings, if any look nice. Given that seedlings are €1,10 for six, and the last bunch have flourished like nothing you've ever seen before. I might, in fact, be able to have a proper salad garden this year. I wonder how much a tomato plant costs...

For future reference, I think it is probably advisable for people in my position to buy seeds of things you want multiples of (salad leaves, carrots in my case) and young plants of things you only want one of (herb plants) as I now have about ten very small oregano plantlings, but still no usable oregano. But, going by the miracle of recent growth, it may not be long before I've got more than I know what to do with. How do you go about drying herbs, I wonder? And what crafty things can I get up to with oregano? Hmm...

Monday, May 10, 2010

Make Your Own: Butter

When life gets you down, churn butter. It somehow tastes so much better than shop-bought, as well as being cheaper. This is the second time I've churned butter, and this batch is even better than the last! I still need to work on my butter-making skills, but I'm definitely on the way.

For those who have not yet discovered this, butter is made from cream. You take normal cream and agitate it, traditionally in a butter churn but in my case in a sterilised used jam jar. The cream becomes whipped cream, then gathers together and then you can hear the lump of coagulating butter sploshing around in the buttermilk. Agitate until the butter and buttermilk are, like, totally separate. Pour off the buttermilk and retain it for later use. Add some water to the butter in the jar, agitate further, pour off the buttermilky-watery mixture. You've got to wash all the buttermilk out of the butter to stop it going rancid quickly. (This is one of the bits I haven't perfected yet.) Then you squeeze the water out of the butter by smashing it around with a wooden spatula on a wooden chopping board held at an angle over the draining board/sink, and pat it into, well, a pat of butter with two wooden spatulas (or Scotch hands, if you have them!). This is another of the bits I haven't perfected yet - my butter is still wet. But it tastes fine!

You can add salt, as a preservative, and herbs and things for flavour. I have not yet experimented with this, as my herb garden is still in the nursery stage.

Churning the butter can take ages, but the two key things are to use cream that's a few days old, and not too cold (ie not straight from the fridge). Good thing to do whilst sitting in front of the tv.

Regarding the buttermilk, it has many potential uses. You can drink it, although I don't like the taste. It is good for use in baking, making pancakes and similar, and is apparently also good in ice cream and smoothies. The internet tells me it is good in 'cream of' soups and in sauces. It is also apprently good for your skin, and I've seen it used in cleansers, moisturisers and treatments for sunburn. I'm going to try putting a bit on my face this evening, and seeing how that feels...

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Small Differences

So today, for a variety of small reasons all mounting up, I've been feeling a bit down. The fates have an acute sense of timing, and I will find myself unemployed in a terrifyingly short space of time at a moment when I really can't run back to my parents place and hide under the covers, which has always been my Plan B up to this point. It's not just that I can't, but that I don't want to be dependent on them. I want to find a way to make the life I want in the place I want, which right now is here. However, the Gods of the Job Market have their own priorities right now, which include laughing in my face a lot.

As a by-product of this, budgeting is getting tighter and tighter, and I'm looking towards a summer in which I will struggle to eat a balanced diet, and it certainly won't be organic. The budget has also proved a stumbling block in some of my other project areas. For example, growing my own food: I need to invest in containers and potting compost, as I can't compost my kitchen scraps (grrrrlandlordgrrrrrr) and also in seeds and seedlings. I've got some growing, but they'll need potting up into larger containers at some point, and I might just have to risk the landlord's wrath and plant them on the edge of the lawn. I'd love to make my own clothes and soft-furnishings, but as I don't have any worn out clothes to play with, I'd have to buy fabrics, and I'd also have to buy a sewing machine. (More on my lustings after a Singer sewing machine later).

All this means that many of the things that make me smile and feel that I'm making a difference in the world, many of the projects which were making me skip with anticipation, will have to be put on hold for probably a good long while. Although I will almost certainly be asking Father Christmas for a Singer sewing machine for Christmas.

However, I was procrastinating by reading some of the old posts on No Impact Man's blog, and thinking gloomily that the tea in my mug was neither fair-trade nor organic, and could only be called local in comparison to Mars. And I came across this post. It's a beautiful parable, and I'm going to ask myself to think of one thing I've done each week which has made a small difference.

This week, I cycled to work instead of taking the tram. That's a small change, but a change.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Make Your Own: Laundry Detergent

I've been making my own laundry detergent for several months now, and it's working fabulously. Not only is it cheaper and more environmentally-friendly, it's also more effective than the cheap supermarket-brand detergent I was using before. It's removed tea and tomato stains without any additional stain removers! Well, almost. I can just make out where they were, but they're barely visible.

It's so easy, as well. I haven't been able to find borax yet, as it's not in any dictionary I've found, but I've been using a combination of grated soap and washing soda. It takes about 5 minutes to make up a new batch, as I've just done, and a new tub-full will last about 3 weeks (it's a small plastic tub). I'm experimenting with using less and less of the detergent, and it's still cleaning effectively, so I might be able to make it last longer.

The only problem I've had is that I really notice the absence of fabric conditioner, but I've read that vinegar can work well. I've tried apple cider vinegar but it seemed to stain the washing machine (according to the landlord, anyway), but perhaps white wine vinegar would work. Watch this space!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Spring Planting

Inspired by the Brownies last week, who planted cress and sunflowers, I have finally got around to planting something. If you want to get a sense of my horticultural exerptise, check out the archive for the saga that was my War On Aphids. I lost. Epically.

So this year, I have of course been even more rash and ambitious. Instead of buying a handy potted herb almost ready for harvesting, I have bought a combination of seeds and seedlings. I am having a go at a couple of different lettuce varieties, along with herbs (basil and oregano) and spinach.

I am also trying out two different germination environments. Well, different mediums. Media. Whatever. One being potting compost in a home-made newspaper seed starter pots (which I made according to instructions found on a website which no longer exists), the other being pellets of compost which sort of expand when you water them, and turn into the soil-equivalent of high-rise buildings. You stick a seed on top, leave them in the beautiful and stylish (not) green plastic tray, and wait for germination. Which should be more visible than in soil, which is all good for the newbie here, but I'm getting impatient already...

I'm planning on taking a trip out to the fleamarket on Saturday and seeing what I can find by way of cheap containers for planting out in, given that the landlord won't permit me to plant in the soil itself. And buying naff plastic pots is (a) a waste of money (b) not very environmentally friendly and (c) just naff. I've got a few I'm using as a stop-gap, but they won't be permanent! Hopefully by that time I'll have some sort of functioning camera, so I can share them with you.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Craft Workshops

Hello! I am still alive, you can breathe a huge sigh of relief. Life caught up with me, so I do in fact have a long list of blog posts I'd like to make on various topics, some of which are looooong overdue. Like this one.

As part of my interest in the journeys that our possessions take from the extraction or production of the raw materials through to the disposal of the used product, I am just a little bit interested in craft. I work with wool, and I am interested in all of the stages of the process from fleece to jumper. When I started working with Sunbeams, a Brussels-based charity promoting ecological issues in the English-speaking expatriate community here, I mentioned my interest in craft, and eventually we organised a Christmas Craft workshop.

It was a really good fun afternoon. There were several different activities going on, and the group of children moved naturally and easily from one to another as each was completed. Most of these involved using items that would normally end up in the bin - the insides of toilet paper rolls, scrap paper, and especially Christmas wrapping paper. My own contribution was introducing them to crochet, making creations vaguely resembling snowflakes. I did find that teaching crochet to that age group was rather tricky, as you can't do any of the fun stuff, but that's just something I need to work on.

I really enjoyed learning to make, for example, plaited heart-shaped bags to hang from the tree, using old wrapping paper. And I loved sharing my passion with a group of little people, who were all really proud of their creations. I think what made the craft afternoon so successful was that there was a range of different activities, so that the pressure didn't fall on any single person to keep people interested for the whole afternoon, and that it had a fairly specific focus. The range of activities also meant that people could arrive and leave whenever suited them, and do as many or as few projects as they wanted to, as quickly or as thoroughly as they liked.

I have attempted to get a craft workshop focused on crochet up and running, but I think the brief has been too vague and I haven't reached my target audience very effectively. Looking back at the success of this workshop, I think it would be advisable to choose a specific brief and bring together people interested in different crafts for a similar afternoon. Hmmm... It's a shame I missed the boat for Easter, but perhaps a Midsummer festival theme would work. Feel free to contribute suggestions.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Ah. Half term. No classes. Such would be bliss enough. But no! There is more. For I have returned for a few days to the house of my parents. Who have an OVEN, ladies and gentleman, an actual functioning oven which can be used for baking. They also have - wait for it! - baking ingredients in the cupboard. Decent quality ones. Which I haven't paid for.

So, naturally, the list of thing To Do has been thoroughly ignored in favour of baking ginger biscuits. I am usually more of a cake person, but these are truly lovely biscuits. I can't believe I've never had a go at ginger biscuits before. Add to this copious amounts of tea made in an actual tea pot, some hot ginger drink for my cold, a good book and no inconsiderable amount of time listening to the robins chattering to one another outside, and you have a definitively Good Day (TM). This is now being polished with a bowl of homemade soup, after which I shall go into London to meet my mother and wander around a museum, before meeting the rest of the family for a birthday dinner.

Would someone please tell me how today could get any better? Oh yeah, that's right. I've got tomorrow to look forward to, as well. I hope you are enjoying February as much as I am!

Sunday, February 7, 2010


So this week has been a far from perfect week. I've always got that goal in mind - a sustainable, fulfilling and productive week where I haven't (a) pigged out on chocolate; (b) wasted time in front of a computer or tv screen; and (c) otherwise procratinated or failed to achieve. It will take me a while, but I'm just going to take 5 minutes to remind myself of the times this week I had a chopped carrot and some hummus instead of chocolate, of the time I've been spending with friends rather than facebook, and of the few small steps I've made towards my organised and sustainable life.

The most significant is reorganisation. My room is tidy, my bedsheets are clean, my floor is hoovered. I finally tackled the ever-growing 'To Sort' pile, and now my desk consists of one permanent file in the corner, and seven 'To Do' piles. At least now I can sit down with one pile and one coherent task, and not feel I'll get sucked into the vortex.

Most satisfying, on the other hand, is toiletries. I've been interested in DIY toiletries for a while, and I've been experimenting a bit over the last month. I've found a facial moisturiser that is cheap, simple and that my skin is loving. (Not that I'm going to stop experimenting, of course...) Prepare yourself. I am using - glycerine and rose water. I know! Radical. My skin looks clearer, feels softer, and also feels more - spongey is not the word I'm looking for. When you press the skin, it bounces back more resiliently. I've also been using a mixture of honey and sugar as an exfoliator, and it's the loveliest feeling! As I'm using up each product in my bathroom, I'm replacing it with a homemade version rather than a shop-bought.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Happy Imbolc!

Tonight is of course Imbolc, the pagan festival that falls between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. In a perfect world, I'd have had a mahusive party with loads of friends, an array of seasonal (organic, locally produced etc) dishes, candles, a big fire in a fireplace and far too much homemade wine. With that in mind, I made a Moroccan dish with lamb and apricots cooked in orange juice, honey and cinnamon. De-licious.

Imbolc is a time for creativity and inspiration, and I have been very creative in the past week. Coming up soon will be details of the range of home-made toiletries I've been making, but the highlight of today was making hummus for the first time. It worked! I made HUMMUS! And it tastes NICE! And I made it the low-tech way - almost every recipe I found basically ran, "Step 1. Place the ingredients in a food processor. Step 2. Blend until smooth." I used a potato-masher-thing. It worked surprisingly well, and my hummus has a delightfully rustic, homemade texture to it. Definitely one to repeat! I also added some cumin and coriander for extra flavour, but I was a bit too careful. I think I need to be more daring with the spices next time.

Other creative projects currently on the go:
  • A crochet blanket. Not particularly fancy or complex, but something comforting for my bluesy days.
  • Valentine's Day cards for my lovely, lovely friends who should really be told that they are beautiful people more regularly.
  • Crochet flowers for keyrings, and other simple demos for the crochet workshops I am setting up this month.
  • A bookmark for my mother's birthday. Don't tell her. I made her one last year and it got lost in the post (Sod's law!) so I plan to make another this year, and supplement it with a book. And maybe a cake. You can never go wrong with a cake.
  • Many additional crafts are in the UK awaiting my return - including a couple of simple, beginner's dress-making patterns and my mother's sewing machine, the Cath Kidston 'Sew!' book which I am dying to get started on, and many other brilliant books of recipes, patterns and crafty ideas. (Soapmaking and churning butter are on the list...)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On Resolution

(1) Rediscover silence. There is no opportunity for quiet here, really. Everywhere you go there is background noise, usually music. This is a nation obsessed with music - in the metro stations (where they play classical music in the evenings to keep drunken youths out!), in supermarkets, in shopping centres. Add to this a house in which at least three of the following can always be heard: a loud and violent game on X-box, CSI or similar on the tv, The Big Bang Theory on a laptop in the SAME ROOM as a tv, a very loud boiler, a poppity-ping, and someone running up or down stairs. This is not a recipe for tranquillity and contemplation. I think I am distracting myself too much with the delights of youtube and my DVD collection, so I think a little more reflection and quietness would not go amiss.

(2) Stop sitting still. This may sound like it contradicts (1) but it's part of the whole trying-to-avoid-meaningless-distraction. And also getting more exercise, which boosts my mood and my energy levels. Ideally, this becomes a postitive cycle. Anyway, the idea is that when I've got an hour to kill, I go for a walk or cook a more elaborate meal rather than watching youtube and eating speculoos biscuits.

(3) Don't wait. This really is the key resolution for this year. If there's something I want to do, I'm going to try and make it happen. I have a tendency to wait - I'm not really sure what for. For it to happen on its own, or for someone else to guess and make it happen for me - I have no idea. But it really would be a waste for me to spend my time waiting for something which I could have achieved or experienced in the same amount of time.

Notably absent from this list are the things which people (read: my parents) would probably like to see. Key to these being punctuality, being more accountable, and getting a decent job. My current attitude is that, if I can incorporate the three ideas above into my life more effectively over this next year, then things like punctuality and accountability will naturally follow. I'll keep telling myself this, thank you very much.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Expat Excitement

This is the second time I've lived abroad, and the longest, and I am firmly convinced that something strange happens to the wiring in your brain.

I've been to two expat shops in the last week, courtesy of an English friend of mine here. There's an Irish shop a few metro stops away, and an English shop just out of town. She was amused by my reactions in both - I went around squealing and gasping my appreciation at finding items I would never buy normally in the UK. Oh, the excitement at seeing clotted cream, Hovis flour and Cadbury's chocolate! I swear, I nearly fainted when I found the Battenberg and Cherry Bakewells. (He does make exceedingly good cakes, doesn't he?) They had Dip-Dabs, sherbert lemons and sour Skittles. It was like going back in time - I can't remember the last time I had a Dip-Dab, I used to eat them with my sister when we were wee things. (No liquorice toffees, though!)

I did of course spend far more than I should have done, which will result on some fairly strict budgeting for the next couple of weeks. I did get tahini, so I can have a go at making my own hummus soon. And Wensleydale cheese and some pickle, for sandwiches. (This country makes 80 different types of cheese, why am I buying Wensleydale??)

This is the thing. I only came back from England a couple of weeks ago, but it was like a starving man at a feast. Heinz spaghetti hoops in a tin - I ask you! What was I thinking?? It does strange things to your brain, does living abroad. Or perhaps it's just me?

Friday, January 15, 2010

On feet, and the worship thereof

So half an hour ago, the world was a terrible place. Oh woe, cried I, woe and thrice woe! I was exhausted, having spent three times as long as normal coming home from school because I had to skate up an iced-over footpath for several klicks. This meant my afternoon was effectively non-existent, and I only had time to go to a cash point, discover that my account has been blocked (AGAIN), and then get to the bank 3 minutes after closing. And let's not even mention the housemates (male) who apparently think that the dishwasher is loaded and unloaded by a pixie who lives in the still-not-replaced-lightbulb in the kitchen. (Whoops - too late!)

But then - ah, then! - I washed my feet. It's such a small thing, but somehow washing your feet in soap and hot water, massaging in some scavenged remnants of body lotion and following this with a newly clean pair of socks makes the world brighter. Suddenly, I'm drinking a cup of tea and remembering all the good things that happened today: the brilliant lesson with the 4th before lunch, signing on to a distance-learning course on the history of the English Country House, and (weirdly) waking up BEFORE my alarm clock went off this morning. (Does anyone else love doing that? I just hate the jolting-awake-panic-what-is-being-killed reaction I get when the alarm goes off. I feel it is the legacy of early morning fire drills/alarms at boarding school.)

The contents of my shopping basket today: bread, milk, two tomatoes and a cabbage. I won't tell you how excited I was at how much cabbage you can get for €1,49.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Facing the fear

I feel like the beneficiary of what is, as those who know me would readily testify, a small miracle. It is a very simple thing: I have had two solid days of focus, productivity and, I think largely as a result of that, satisfaction. I feel happier and lighter (in a worries-weighing-on-me way, not a post-Christmas-diet way) than I have in a depressingly long time. So three cheers for early mornings and crossing things off the to-do list.

One example of this list is my bicycle. As part of my efforts to live a greener lifestyle, I brought my bicycle over a couple of months ago. However, very soon some bright spark of a student at the school I work at lowered the seat and let some air out of my tyres while I was teaching. I didn't realise this until I was halfway home, me not being the most technically-minded of human beings. (Hang on, something isn't quite right with this bike. What is it? It's not the handlebars, it's not the pedals...)

I came equipped with pump and bike spanner, but I hit a snag. I had never done any kind of maintenance work on my bike myself - I usually turn it over to my dad or to a professional paid for by my dad. (Ditto my old car). I was - deepbreathconfessiontime - afraid. I didn't think I would be able to figure it out, let alone do it right. So the bicycle has sat in the corner, looking at me reproachfully, and has figured in ever more strident terms (Bicycle! BICYCLE!! BIKE!!!!!) on my to-do list. This evening, I took a deep breath, hauled the bike into the living room (biggest floor space) and had a look at the pump. And lo and behold, it was easy! The bike is now ready to be ridden to all my appointments for the next week (snow depending), thus saving me (a) the walk or (b) the tram fare.

Talk about a lesson in having a go. It's so silly to worry about such a simple little task, and yet this procrastination is something I do over and over again. Hopefully this good streak will last the week. That is my goal. Is it achievable? Well, I've only eaten three biscuits today, which is brilliant for me, so this may be a good sign.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Little things

Long time, no blog.

I have been thinking recently about how much difference the little things make. As Sherlock Holmes says in the new film (which was *ahem* rather creative with the original characters), the little details can be the most important.

In this case, the things that have cheered me up in the last few days have included: polishing my boots with half an onion (woohoo! No need to buy polish), drinking multiple cups of tea after The Day There Was No Milk Anywhere, and beginning to crochet a blanket with the wool in my bag. Why is that, whatever is on my mind, I feel an immense sense of peace as soon as I pick up a hook? The world somehow makes sense when I'm crocheting. I don't care about the large pile of marking, the current state of my finances and the fact that all the people I care most about in the world feel terribly far away from me (yes, I know, it's no distance at all really, but it feels far).

Partly the black cloud is due to the natural response to a fantastic Christmas/New Year period, full of family and old friends and dangerous things like elderberry gin. The fun times were paced out by volunteer work for Crisis at Christmas, which was immensely rewarding and thought-provoking. It really makes me appreciate what I have, and it's definitely something I'll be doing again.

Anyway, I'm off to rearrange things and otherwise pretend to myself that I'm busy. I wish you all a productive January!


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