24 Sep 2015

Straight Outta Hobbiton

The best seats on the train are the single seats in the back corners of carriages, preferably downstairs. I call them hobbit nooks.

I spend a lot of time on trains these days. I could take the car, 'tis true, but I'm trying to be green. Plus the OH has usurped Twoflower, my luggage on wheels, while his metal behemoth is in the garage with a dodgy tire problem.
The reason for all my training about is that I have returned to the illustrious world of academia and now have to split my week between being a teacher at one university and a student at another.
And I'm loving it!

Studying linguistics as a Research MA is rather like being in one of those large buffet style restaurants, or the dining room at Hogwarts. The setting is cosy and traditional, but there are also lots of interesting gadgets to play with. And the choice! There is so much to choose from in terms of possible knowledge to acquire that I am often guilty of eyes too big for my brain-stomach and want to know it all. But that is a little too ambitious for a two year program and so begins the journey to find that branch of linguistics that fits me best.
And that's another advantage of travelling by train; one can get lots of reading done.

The other things that is wonderful about trains with Wifi connections is that it also allows the random blogger to engage in a spot of blogging on the go. So, what do hobbits, Hogwarts and trains have in common on today's blog?... Food, that's right, food! Or at least, food that helps the brain.

As writers (or readers, or researchers) we spend an inordinate amount of time on our bums staring at screens or blank notebook pages, fingers and pens poised to write the next great novel or groundbreaking paper. If any of you are anything like me that means the intention to exercise (or in my case contort myself into different yoga positions in a sauna like environment) is well meant but often gets shunted down the list of priorities to make room for writing, editing, reading and more writing. Another thing some of us are not very good at is eating properly.
Hence, this post, which will give you my three favourite recipes for the more physically inactive but mentally spry indidvidual.


Muffins and Jo(e)

I love muffins because they are small and filling and I can eat them quickly. While I do enjoy my food, I have discovered that the busier I am the less time I want to spend eating it. I cannot chew each morsel a hundred times before swallowing. I also hate breakfast. I would rather sleep a little more and skip it but experience has proven that this method is not best for moi. So, Sunday night I set one hour aside to make up a batch of these and this takes care of breakfast for the rest of the week.

(recipe found at http://www.paleomazing.com)

I also love my coffee, and this is an awesome way to kick start the day with a twist on the usual cappuccino. (I got this recipe from Coconut Mama)

1 cup of coffee
Almond milk
Spoonful of coconut oil

Put it all in a blender and blitz until foamy... Yum! (and coconut oil is great for the grey matter!)


Lunch - The Ultimate Smoothie!

Smoothies are my perfect idea of sci-fi food (and as I love to read sci-fi I am very comfortable with this method of ingestion). You can put anything in a smoothie. It can be sweet or savoury or anywhere inbetween, but there is a trick to the perfect smoothie combination and this blueprint will show you how.

The perfect smoothie goes as follows:

1 cup of liquid (runny yoghurt, milk, almond milk, tea, water)
3 ice cubes
Half a soft fruit (I use banana or avocado)
A handful of frozen fruit
A tablespoon of nut butter/oats (as a binder)
A tablespoon of protein powder (optional but if you're a veggie like me it's a great way to get protein and brains love protein!)

(Blueprint courtesy of No Meat Athlete)

That's the basics of a brilliant smoothie. This recipe allows you to make all sorts of interesting combos to find your perfect smoothie. My personal fave is banana with coconut yoghurt, frozen blackberries, cashew butter, pea protein and a tablespoon of cocoa powder to add a chocolatey hint.

And those are my three recipes. When it comes to dinner, I usually steam some veggies or make some soup, but those are recipes for another post.

Happy writing!

13 Sep 2015

Dolmens, Forts and Towers of Wood - Lowland Divagations

Living in a city known for it's ultra modern architecture and tendency to pull down the old to make way for the new means that we sometimes forget there is a wealth of heritage and history in the Low Lands. It's a common affliction for those of us living within the economic and industrial heart of the country and results in us forgetting we're wearing blinders most of the time. The irony is the country is so small, and it's pulsing heart even smaller, that I could literally get on a train and after 20 minutes I'd be in the middle of a nature reserve or an historic town or village. The sad fact is that I rarely get the chance to do this.
However, over this past summer I suddenly found myself holidaying at home again. Downside, no grand adventure off in some far flung exotic location, but on the upside, I finally got to tick a large number of things off of my to do list. The first of these was the balcony garden (the subject of my last two posts), which is still doing nicely and the radishes were delicious. The second was a huge downsizing of stuff which made our local second hand store very happy as we piled their back room high with old clothes and shoes and books I'll never read again. Lastly, I finally got to see a couple of those interesting bits of the country you always mean to see but never get around to.

Our first foray was up to the forests around the city of Utrecht. We love to walk and this area has a wealth of short, medium and lengthy paths that take you through fields and woodland where, depending on the time of day, it alternates between high summer heat and autumnal shade at each bend. The forest also hides a few interesting structures. About halfway through our stroll we came across a 28 metre high tower built entirely of wood.


Inside was a staircase leading all the way to the top and a stern warning not to go up if it was too windy (they did not specify what too windy was exactly, but we guessed if the tower was swaying that would be a pretty good sign). The breeze was mild, so we acended the tower and after a bit of huffing and puffing, we reached the top to discover a magnificent view of the surrounding area. I felt a bit like Bilbo when he climbs the tree in Mirkwood. The trees around us were just under eye level but in the distance we could see the occasional church steeple and the taller towers of Utrecht in the distance.

A few days later we decided to go for a walk a little further afield. We packed our tent into the luggage on wheels (aka Twoflower, my Daihatsu Cuore) and headed north to the province of Drenthe. For years I have been wanting to visit the dolmens of Drenthe and this was my chance. Dolmens are so very intriguing. There are more than fifty of them in this country and they are found all over the world, with the greatest concentration of them being in Korea, of all places. They are burial sites, probably of important individuals or families, from pre-historic times and in Drenthe, they dot the landscape between wheat and barley fields without much more than a small plaque to tell you which number it is. After setting up our tent at our favourite kind of campsite (very basic, therefore not very crowded), we headed off in search of our first dolmen. Unfortunately, we got a little turned around and headed in the wrong direction, so no sightings on the first day (to compensate I started shouting 'dolmen' whenever I saw a large rock), but we did discover that the area was rife with outdoor adventure camps for kids. We also discovered that it is far more fun to walk along the mountain bike paths as these tend to be a litte more adventurous. With no mountains in this country, I have to take my thrills where I can get them.

We fared much better on day two. From the local dolmen tourist centre (where they have a lovely reconstruction of a pre-historic village) we decided to take a long circuitous route that tooks us through about 5 local villages and 11 dolmen sites. The first few dolmens were amazing to see, but I must admit that after dolmen number 5, you pretty much had the idea of dolmens. The walk, however, was lovely. Drenthe is a very peaceful and rural part of the country and we reveled in those local customs that are lost in city environs. People doffing caps to each other. Homemade jams and fruit left out on the roadside with a moneybox to pay for what you take; lazy bumblebees. All reminders that not everyone is part of the rat race.

The last stop on our local tourism trip was a little further away and to the south. It was also in our neighbour's backyard this time. La Roche-en-Ardenne is a very cutesy, very touristy town about an hour east of Liege/Luik in Belgium and is on the Wallonian side of the line. A little way away from town there is a village called Maboge and it was here that we pitched our tent on a grassy field beside a stream ensconced between two walls of conifers. The first day was glorious and we lay about in the sun like a couple of cats. Now, the interesting thing about this neck of the woods, or rather its claim to fame, is that it was an important part of the Battle of Bulge during WWII, and La Roche commemorates this with a couple of Sherman tanks guarding its entrances. But this is not what interested me.


Another historic trait of this area is that it was also a well known route for the Romans two thousand years ago. At the time, the land was being farmed by Gauls and excavations in the area had discovered a Celtic fort built on a hilltop where the Gauls would seek sanctuary when the Romans came marching through. The fort has been reconstructed to a certain degree and while there are no dwellings, it is a rather impressive site as you reach the top of the path and leave the trees. One can very easily imagine the farmers of Gaul yelling insults at the Roman soldiers from behind the safety of their stone walls.
Unfortunately, the weather turned after our reccy to the fort and we were not able to go on any further walks in this area, but there's always next time.

And thus ended our disjointed jaunt through the Low Lands. It must be said, however, that while the landscape was pleasant enough and it's always great to get out into the green, it doesn't hold a candle to Scotland :-)

1 Sep 2015

Part three (It’s not all about Campanulas, but it is all about the trilogy)

The success of those Campanula cuttings went to her head - possibly quite literally. Within days of seeing her cuttings take root and start to grow as plants in their own right, she was struck down by the dreaded lurgy, which covered her face and neck and turned her into something of a Quasimodo.
As she dared not leave the house for fear of being pitchforked into the nearest canal, she decided to see if this green streak would stretch to her growing some vegetables.
The year before, in a fit of delirious whimsy, she had purchased some packets of vegetable seeds from one of those everything-for-1-euro stores. It had seemed like a good deal - one measly euro for the promise of bountiful fresh vegetables. Of course, then she’d gone and killed all the gladiolas and the seed packets were hastily buried in a seldom used handbag (this is a totally logical place to put things, stop sniggering!).
Seeds retrieved and significant other dispatched to acquire potting soil, she now surveyed the assortment of empty tins, pots and plastic buckets that would soon hold her hoped for seedlings. A foraging session at the local second hand store had also yielded four white office filing cabinet sections that would soon become a tower of veg.
She arranged the tower and the pots in an attractive setup and then took them all down again so that she could fill them with soil and seeds. That done, she sat back with a tall glass of home made ginger beer and indulged in a little smug satisfaction. It felt good to grow things, even if at this point al she could see were pots of dirt.

What they don’t mention in the gardening blogs and programmes is that you are likely to develop a certain level of paranoia when growing things from seed. In the days until the first tiny green shoots popped out of the ground she constantly found herself on the balcony inspecting the soil. After five days, when still nothing had poked it’s leaves out, she was convinced that her efforts had all been for nought and that she had killed them all before they were even alive. Her sleep was fretful, filled with dreams of accusing flora.
The next day, however, she woke her long suffering boyfriend with a shriek of delight. The poor boy had come off a long night of theatrical work and rather needed his kip, but he dutifully allowed himself to be dragged out of bed to admire the minute sprigs of green that had emerged from the radish pot.
“Good little hippy” he said affectionately and left her to beam as he went back to bed.

Within days she had shoots of veggie delight exploding from all of the pots: carrots, lettuce, radishes, onions, cauliflower, rocket and cilantro reached for the sky. In the following weeks she added kale, mint, rosemary, basil, aubergine and bell pepper to the mix and settled into the daily routine of caring for and talking to her burgeoning balcony garden. She’d read somewhere that plants like being talked to and also liked listening to music. She believes they like celtic music best, but that could just be projection on her part.

There is still much to be done. The seedlings have been thinned and will need thinning again. Pests must be deterred with garlic spray and crumbled eggshells (Our hippy is totally into organic, of course) but one thing is clear. Her garden now clearly grows.

Coffee and Moonshine

Make mine a huge with a double shot of espresso, no make that a triple, and give me soya milk with extra foam and a truckload of chocolate s...