Food-lovers delights and sights of York (not Berlin)

Have you checked the expiry date on your passport recently?  In case you were wondering, no, you will not be allowed to travel with your expired passport, even if you pack your bag, check-in online and turn up at the airport ready for your birthday-treat short break in Berlin, with hotel booked and Pearl Jam gig tickets in hand.  You are not leaving the country anytime soon!

My partner was devastated on discovering her passport was invalid – especially as the whole trip was planned for my birthday and I’d been excited about the holiday and about seeing Pearl Jam play live for months.  On top of that I was run-down and exhausted from the final year of my PhD studies, and was desperately anticipating this trip as a much-needed break.  Yes – there were tears, but they didn’t really change the situation, as we stood forlorn in Liverpool John Lennon Airport.  The only sensible thing to do was to say ‘hey – we have time booked off work, we have a bag packed with clothes – lets go somewhere else!’  A quick scan of the internet to find places accessible by train and within a 3 hour radius of home, and we were off and traveling again – on our way to a short break in York.

The Dalai Lama once said “remember that not always getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck”. 

My disappointment about Berlin was a direct result of unmet expectations about what I thought I was going to be doing that week – I had denied the possibility of there being circumstances that I couldn’t control.  My visit to York however was unexpected, and therefore unanticipated – how could it disappoint?  There were no expectations or preconceived ideas about what we would find, what we ‘should’ do while we were there and no planned itinerary to stick to.

We could discover the city as it unfolded before us.  We were free to decide where to go and what to do from one minute to the next.  When we arrived off the train, tired and hungry, with no idea of where to find the city’s main restaurants, we discovered quite by accident the best curry we’ve ever eaten outside India.  The Kings Ransom curry house wasn’t flashy or expensive, but impressed with its soft fluffy naan bread, fragrant pilau rice and their willingness to make a vegetarian version of any dish on the menu (I’m reliably informed their Rajasthani Tikka Gosht was pretty special too).  Actually that is the only bowl of rice that I have ever wanted to eat completely on its own, just to enjoy the flavours and spices skilfully woven into it.

When the heavens opened, we dashed into the nearest pub for shelter, enjoying a spontaneous pint in what turned out to be Guy Fawkes’s birthplace (although I recommend the pub we found in similar drizzly circumstances the following day – the friendly Three-Legged Mare with its fantastic selection of real ales).  I had time to settle down with a (non-academic) book for the first time in months, and made the most of the browsing opportunities in the multitude of bookshops we stumbled upon.

The next day we couldn’t get a seat in the first cafe we chose – so continued up a quiet street only to discover the most amazing deli stocked wall to wall with barrels full of every type of olive oil and balsamic vinegar imaginable.  We squeezed into the last available table in their tiny back room cafe.  If that first cafe hadn’t disappointed us with its overcrowding, we’d never have discovered the gastronomic delights served up at the Hairy Fig – one of the most satisfying lunches I’ve ever enjoyed!

Oils and vinegars at the Hairy Fig Deli

One of the highlights of the trip was the moment the sun came out – after weeks of incessant rain and heavy flooding in that part of the UK.  We simply sat in a park, determined to make the most of it.  That hour of people-watching and sky-gazing was the most relaxed I’d felt in weeks.  And I know myself well enough to realise I don’t ever ‘plan’ to do ‘nothing’ – so I wouldn’t have enjoyed that sunshine break had I been consciously trying to pack the most into my trip.

It turns out that York, England is quite a different place from Berlin, Germany.  But its independent shops, foodie-delights, real ale pubs, bookshops, city walls walks and medieval streets offered something new to discover on every corner.  You just need to be open to enjoying the moment, rather than missing something you never had.  I could have got angry with my partner about the passport or I could have spent days moping around feeling sorry for myself because I missed out on the trip I’d been expecting.  I preferred to enjoy time together in a new place, seeing new things, and remembering what holidays are actually for – relaxing!  The sky over York was filled with clouds that week, but they definitely shone brightly with their silver linings.  If you ever happen to find yourself without passport but wanting a nice weekend away – I would recommend York without hesitation!

(Dining) Hall of Shame: Vegetarian Horror Stories

I’ve been a happy, healthy vegetarian for about 12 years now – I love my food and I love to eat out.  Unfortunately there are a handful of restaurant meals that I’ve been served over the years that still stick in my memory, for all the wrong reasons.

Restaurant-owners please take note – if there is only one vegetarian meal offered on the menu, its not strictly accurate to describe it as a “choice” or an “option” for vegetarian diners (unless you are referring to our “choice” to eat that or eat elsewhere).

Here’s my countdown of Top Five vegetarian meals out I’d rather forget:

5. Vegetable lasagne

This first entry does not refer to a specific meal experience in a specific restaurant.  My ‘beef’ with vegetable lasagne is that it is everywhere.  It has become the favourite lazy-chef’s idea of a vegetarian “option” on pub and restaurant menus across the country.  Not only lacking imagination, these are rarely homemade or well-prepared – order vegetable lasagne in most eateries and brace yourself for something sloppy, watery and ‘fresh’ from the microwave.

4. Tomato and Basil Pasta

Slightly boring, but acceptable if you mean freshly made pasta served with a well-seasoned, thick and delicious roasted-tomato homemade sauce.  Not acceptable if you mean some pasta twists from the packet with a tin of tomatoes dumped on top.  True story.  And to add insult to injury, this was the main course at a London hotel’s £35+ vegetarian Christmas menu – Merry Christmas it was not.

3. Breaded Mushrooms

Unfortunately one awful hotel in Wigan (I was only there because of a work conference, trust me) seemingly ‘forgot’ to cater for any vegetarian diners.  When I asked if there was a meat-free alternative to the carvery, the staff looked a little confused.  But after a lengthy wait, they did come up with something for me – five mini button mushrooms in breadcrumbs, rolling around looking lonely on a large and otherwise empty plate.  Of course, I could ‘fill up’ on the potatoes cooked in goose-fat or the beans wrapped in bacon, but that wasn’t really my kind of thing…

2. Cheese with Rice on the side – aka Parsnip and Goats Cheese Risotto

Now, I’m not a big fan of goats cheese (although its frequent appearance as a vegetarian ‘option’ on menus suggests I should be).  However, I was staying in a very nice fancy hotel where this was the only vegetarian meal available – and I really do enjoy a good risotto.  Stomach rumbling and taste-buds tingling, I eagerly anticipated the arrival of my meal from the kitchen.  The waitress arrived and placed down my plate – a large wedge of cheese surrounded by some parsnip crisps.  The rice (boiled, not even risotto) came in a small bowl as a side dish.  I was actually rendered temporarily speechless and was still staring aghast at my plate when our waitress returned a moment later to ask “is everything okay with your meals?”  I managed to blurt out “this isn’t a risotto!” to which she instantly agreed and whipped it away, leaving me to repeatedly check the calendar to see if it was April Fools Day (it wasn’t, and that meal was no joke).

1. Chicken

A noodle bar near Camden Market, on the day my friend went to get a tattoo (the tattoo isn’t especially relevant to the meal, but I just remember the occasion – probably because we both felt a bit faint and needed a good meal).  I selected a tofu chow mein dish from the menu.  When it arrived, I thought the first bite didn’t quite taste right – and looked more closely  – yes, I had been served meat by mistake.  I called over the waitress, and explained – “this is chicken”.  Her reply – “Yes.  You ordered chicken”.  Not exactly the apology I’d been hoping for, and it took me longer than it should have to persuade her that – especially as a vegetarian – it was highly unlikely that I’d ‘accidentally’ ordered chicken and that she should correct the restaurant’s mistake.  I got a new meal – but the apology never arrived.  A poor show, that left a fowl taste in my mouth.

Please – hit the ‘reply’ button and share your own horror stories – vegetarian or otherwise.  This is your chance to submit your nominations for my Dining Hall of Shame.  Or, even better, let me know of any vegetarian experiences you’ve had that are memorable for the right reasons.

Original art by Josephine Scales

Become a better writer with a little help from your friends

Eighteen months ago I established a writing group, in the hope of gaining motivation and inspiration while writing my PhD thesis – the challenge of writing 100,000 words is surely a good reason to seek out all the support and encouragement you can get!

I got the idea from Rowena Murray’s book aimed at academic writers, but am convinced that anyone keen to become a better writer – including creative writers, novelists, bloggers and songwriters – can gain lots from participating in a writing group.

Here are the some of the benefits our writing group have enjoyed:

Getting over writer’s shyness: I will admit to being terrified of letting anyone reading my work in the past. I still don’t enjoy handing over my drafts to my supervisor or to my writing group – but it has got a lot easier the more I do it

Useful feedback:  As a group we’ve developed trust – essential for giving and receiving useful feedback.  Because we take turns to share our work with the others, we all understand that honest – and sensitive – comments are the best gift you can give to someone who genuinely wants to improve as a writer.

Seeing the re-drafting process:  One challenge to any writer’s confidence is reading the work of their writing hero – and feeling inadequate in comparison.  But we usually only get to see the final, published novels, articles and songs of the people that we admire.  Sharing and reading early drafts within the writing group is an unusual privilege that reassures us that it is normal for early drafts to be mediocre and to see the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work of writers as they draft and re-draft.

Original art by Josephine Scales

A sense of urgency:  there’s nothing better than a deadline – and the promised draft your group is waiting to read – to help you overcome writers block and start producing some text.

Stretching your comfort zone: the support of your writing group can help you to challenge yourself, try new things, or experiment with techniques and ideas that might scare you.  Our group participated in AcBoWriMo (the academic version of the annual novel-writing challenge, NaNoWriMo) last year, and amazed ourselves with the amount of writing we got done together during that month.

Good company: Writing group sessions are always immediately followed by coffee and cake sessions.  While the caffeine and sugar help, the most important thing is avoiding the lonely life of a writer.  Having people to chat to who understand the emotional roller-coaster of writing, and who will celebrate your achievements and milestones (another chapter finished, a new idea brought to fruition, your first publication) is the best part of all.

 

Original art by Josephine Scales

Share your thoughts by hitting the ‘reply’ button – for example, have you tried a writing group?  What techniques have you used to improve your writing or overcome writer’s block?  How easy do you find it to share your early drafts with others?

 

Five reasons your kitchen timer is in the wrong room

Shocked by our latest gas bill, we decided to take drastic measures – it was time to shorten our showers.  A cheap digital kitchen timer serves as a useful device for our new challenge – to shower in four minutes or under.  This simple regime has already demonstrated benefits – including some unexpected ones…

 1. Save water

No surprises here – shorter showers mean less water used.  Good for the environment as well as for your water bill.

 2. Save gas

This was our main motivator – to reduce our gas bill.  Every extra minute in the shower is another minute of boiler power, heating up your morning waterfall.  Given that gas bills have doubled since 2002 and are predicted to rise by another 27% by 2020, the shower timer should lead to some significant savings.

3. Save time

Quicker showers means you save time.  You choose whether that’s extra minutes in bed, or extra minutes on your work flexi-sheet credit.

 4. Boost your energy levels

Okay, this one was unexpected.  But in order to finish your shower before the timer rings, you have to ‘gee yourself up’ and get moving, rather than mindlessly daydreaming in the bathroom.  Adjusting to a fast-moving pace stays with you for the rest of your morning routine, and we’ve found you start moving more quickly and purposely in getting dressed, eating breakfast and getting out of the house – and you start your day with more of a spring in your step.

5. The ‘sport’ factor

Yes, that’s right – its become a source of friendly competition in our household.  An unintended consequence of the shower timer has been a challenge to see who can take the quickest shower!  Perhaps we should spend the money we save on gas bills on a special prize for the winner…

So, there you have it – five reasons to move your kitchen timer to your bathroom.  And I didn’t even say “money down the drain” once (sorry).

Photos from http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/

Making time for the important stuff in life

Who among us can honestly say we have never experienced stress and frustration at our own procrastination?

Maybe we want to do more with our evenings and weekends, like pick up that dusty guitar that’s been sitting lonely in the corner, or learn a second language, or finally do something about the fact that “there’s a novel inside me, if only I got around to writing it!”.

Ever had to stay late in the office, or bring home work at the weekend because you’d spent ages procrastinating or staring blankly at the screen, not getting anything done?  Or maybe you find yourself putting off the important things on your to do list because you don’t know where to start, and its easier to keep yourself busy with plenty of tiny and completely irrelevant errands, just so you can tick something off the to do list and gain that all-important sense of achievement.

Here are some simple techniques for getting the work stuff done faster, and freeing up time to attend to your inner guitar hero / budding author / *insert your own aspiration here!

Puree some tomatoes

Created by Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique is a productivity technique centred around the use of a kitchen timer (as any pizza-lover will know, “pomodoro” is Italian for tomato, and the technique was originally created using a tomato-shaped kitchen timer).

To start, you set yourself a clear goal of what you want to achieve, set a timer for 25 minutes (equal to one ‘pomodoro’) and focus on the task in hand.  When the buzzer goes off, you get a five minute break before your next 25 minute session.  After four ‘pomodoros’, you are rewarded with a longer break.

The technique also encourages you to become more aware of internal and external distractions and to resist them.  And it really works!  It is so much easier to resist checking email or Facebook constantly when you are able to tell yourself there is only 12 minutes (or whatever) until your next break.

Virtually every friend I’ve introduced this technique to in the past year has fallen in love with it.  Try it out one morning – and you’re likely to enjoy one of the most productive days you’ve ever experienced.

Detailed instructions are available on the Pomodoro Technique website.

 

Eat a frog

Brian Tracy’s book “Eat that Frog” encourages us to do just that – eat a ‘frog’ every morning.  The frog metaphor refers to the difficult or unappealing tasks we’ve been putting off.  We all have those, right?

The book’s philosophy is based around the saying that “if the first thing you do in the morning is to eat a live frog, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that it’s probably the worst thing you’ll do all day”.

Tracy urges us to think critically about our goals are, how to prioritise them, and to set deadlines.  Essentially, by eating the ‘frog’ task first thing, we’re freed up from the stress and anxiety caused by the anticipation of having to tackle it.  We get the ‘worst’ jobs out of the way and prioritise the things that will actually make the biggest impact on our lives.  Rather than filling up time with insignificant but easy tasks, we use our limited time more wisely, making progress with the things that will help us move forward and achieve things in life that are really important to us.

 

Let me know how you get on with either of these techniques, and share any other tips for making time for what’s important in life.

Lindsey is in her final year of a Sociology PhD – essentially a four-year lesson in overcoming procrastination and getting lots done!

 

Original art by Josephine Scales

 

 

Photos by http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/