29 September 2008

Fiber and Needles - It's a Lifestyle

If you are reading this and thinking, 'Oh God. Britt is shooting up Metamucil', then you have a strange sense of imagination, my friend. No, I am talking about fiber of the wooly type and the needles used to create fabulous garments from such fiber. And it is truly a lifestyle- for me and many others.

This weekend, I was out at an open house for a small company that sells undyed, natural wool yarn from a special breed of British sheep, the Bluefaced Leicester. There were several independant yarn and dying companies there peddling their wares, while we ladies (and several gents I must add) ate scones, drank tea and knitted or spun the wool of our choice.

This particular Saturday was probably the last of our ten-day stretch of Indian Summer- like weather: mild with a clear blue sky and a light breeze. It is really strange to then go to the shops and see nothing but 'Father Christmas' and 'Christmas Cake' (that's Santa and Fruit Cake to us Yanks).

The day was also great because I got to reconnect with a couple gals from my knitting group who I haven't seen in over two months on account of German visitors and staycations. I also got some hardcore networking in for my writing ambitions - I passed out a bunch of my new business cards and polished my elevator pitch which will come in quite handy at the big trade show in London next month. 

I also got to meet several ladies that also use the same online social network created just for knitters and crocheters called Ravelry. Every member has an avatar and moniker, neither of which always reflect the person's actual identity. We all were buttons with our monikers on them so we can speak to each other in person as easily as we chat together online. Strange, but beautiful nonetheless.

And using the utmost restraint a fiber-crazed knitting junkie is capable of, I only walked away with nearly one kilometer (a one-kilo spool) of superwash sock yarn (undyed) and a starter natural dye kit. After all, I blow my fiber budget before going to the big show.

Another episode in the life of a fiber and needle addict. And do I ever love it.

26 September 2008

Why American Politics Nauseate Me

What happens if you take a blithering idiot and 1) elect him or her to an important office such as state governor and 2) nominate this person (behind whom is 'nothing but panic and emptiness ') for the vice presidential candidacy?

The answer is Sarah Palin. And she could be our next VP, or even worse, take over the presidency if John McCain were to die in office (which is not to be excluded as a possibility, seriously).

What is the McCain election team thinking? What are GOP supporters thinking? This women has obviously suffered severe brain damage from prolonged exposure to snow and periods of nearly 24-hour daylight. Sarah Palin is probably the best George W. Bush ersatz I can think of. At least he can stick to concise and utterly empty BS rhetoric (well, two-thirds of the time).

As my good ol' home town weekly indie paper, The Stranger, so astutely equated with a passage from EM Foster's Howard's End, if the McCain/Palin ticket were to fall, one would only find "panic and emptiness". One thing is clear, Gov. Palin would be the perfect puppet president to dance at the tugs of special interest strings.

I think we can agree politicians do several things exceedingly well: speak publically and lie whilst doing so. That is enough to sicken a person with faith, albeit it severly waning, in democratic ideals. Then there is the plastic glitz and glamour that has turned American politics, especially the presedential race, into an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show. But what really turns my stomach is the fact that any old schmuck with the cognitive ability of an inchworm can be elected or nominated to the most powerful offices in our once great land. We have just had eight years of this crap and now a large percentage want to elect potentially more of the same?

This folks, in case you were wondering, is one of the many reasons America is ridiculed the world over and is now forced to confront one of the greatest crises we have ever faced. Your vote and your dollar count! Use them wisely.

Thanks to Fritinancy's post for inspiring this rant.

24 September 2008

So much for 'having' good intentions

Yes, the path to hell is paved with good intentions...and retroactive blog posts. I have been busy and it is good.

My post a week ago really seems to have sent the universe a message: I am ready to work and earn money consistently! Currently I am working on a research project for another writer attending the Frankfurt Book Fair next month. That and my 'usual' activities like hunting for leads and sending out resumes have kept me especially busy this week.

Within three days of writing that post, I landed three new projects. It just goes to show you the power of intention...when you put it into words.

23 September 2008

London Calling

It has been nearly two weeks since Matthias and I went to London on our UK 'staycation'. It was an interesting trip in many respects. We tried to go 'budget' since we had just spent a month of entertaining guests which backfired in a way. Instead of having fun and just experiencing the marvels of this world metropolis, we were totally focused on saving as much money as possible.

We stayed at a cheaper chain hotel in East London, nearly a 40-minute tube ride into 'The City'. On the othe hand, we got to see how the 'other half' live. It is a shocking contrast between Knightsbridge ala Harrods and Barking ala Pakastani market. But you live and you learn and I definitely learned not to hold onto those purse strings so tightly because it only chokes your experiences of life. Left, our Yeomen, aka Beefeaters, at the Tower of London. They actually live there!
Right: The Bear and Tower Bridge. Below: Me in front of the backdrop of 'The City' including the gherkin (which has a special place in my heart, thanks to Dad)

On the other hand, what we didn't spend on a hotel, we spent on several nice meals. We ate at a great sushi restaurant called Satsuma the first night in Soho after leaving The Duke of Wellington , a very nice gay bar we weren't aware was such. No wonder Matthias was getting so many looks! The next day, we ate at some chain called HaHa and for lunch (there isn't much you can do wrong with pasta). Later, we went to an Asian fast food joint after a few pints at theWindmill and watching the afterwork crowd on The Cut .

Our last day, we ate at PJs , an unbenownst to us American restaurant just outside Covent Garden, for a prefixe menu for 11 quid each. The food was fresh and carefully prepared and the staff were very hospitable (a real rarity in London). That night we spent in what is rumoured to have the longest bar in Britain be one of Karl Marx's old haunts, The Cittie of Yorke and drank refreshingly cheap pints while again watching the afterwork crowd. The architecture was really incredible and oozed history. I especially liked the enclaves off to the side with seating for 2 or 4 people which gave a very intimate feeling to a pub with cathedral ceilings. Photos: Bottom right: The Horse Guards at Buckingham.

We did lots of walking about and took in all the sites: The Tower of London (which we did shell out the $32 to go in since neither of us had been there as teenagers), Big Ben and the Houses of Parliment, Downing Street, Trafalgar Square, St. Pauls's, Fleet Street (I am a writer after all), Picadilly Circus, Kensington, Knightsbridge, Waterloo, and of course the very disappointing I Knit London, an overly-hyped knitting shop. Here I am swallowed by the massiveness that is the Tate Modern, an old refurbished mill or factory.

We also spent a ridiculous amount of time in museums. Afterall, I was on the cheap (most public museums are free in the UK because we have to pay city council tax) and have an Art History degree. We went to the Museum of London and learned about the Roman and Medieval past of the city, the Great Fire and that museums often close entire wings for remodeling. We also went to the National Portrait Gallery to get our fill of dead and living monarchs and famous British people.

Then there was the Tate Modern and the architectural marvel that it is. It was an interesting juxtoposition to be in an old industrial building, a power station to be exact, which now houses the powerhouses of modern art. Two floors and four wings of modern art later, we hit the pavement looking for some less cereberal activity.

All in all, I was happy to have gone back to London. It was a very different place than I had remembered from my trip with my high school best friend Mimi (who incidentally I am thrilled to be back in touch with now) and my parents. It still seemed just as large and cosmopolitan. But this time around I saw things with different eyes - not looking from the outside in, but looking from the liminal state of neither here nor there. I was looking in both directions, at the locals and the tourists, knowing that I didn't fall into really either category. That has been the story of my expat life.

22 September 2008

Leek and Potato Soup

Even though it was the most gorgeous of weekends here in Manchester, it seemed to be the time to hunker down and get ready for fall. I spent most of yesterday 'winterizing' our garden which was little more than planting a few pots to be taken to the kitchen window sill, pulling out the now *sick* tomatoes and the completely out-of-control bolted arugula/rocket.

Yesterday, sensing the onset of autumn, I had to make a huge batch of leek and potato soup. Here is my recipe. Tell me what you think.

Prep Time: 20 Minutes
Cooking Time: 20 Minutes

  • 4-6 medium leeks, washed and trimmed
  • 4-5 medium potatoes, washed, peeled and cubed
  • 2 tbs of butter
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 4 cups milk
  • 2 cups of broth (fresh or instant, veggie or chicken, you choose)
  • a dash (or three) of fresh cream
  • salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste
First, prep the veg. Boil the potatoes for around 10 minutes or until soft. In the meantime, sautee the leek and garlic in butter, then add the broth and simmer. When the potatoes are finished, drain and remove half. Add milk to the remaining half and puree using a mixing wand, blender or food processor. Combine this with the leeks, add cream, season. Add remaining potato cubes and simmer for 10 minutes.
Serve with crusty bread and enjoy.

Happy Autumn, Everybody!

19 September 2008

The Fruits of Our Labor

I think it was sometime in March that I proudly came home with a few seed packets and a whole lotta hope. With a green plastic propagator on my kitchen windowsill, I somehow managed to raise a handful of black specks into eight tomato and nine zucchini seedlings (well, I suppose it isn't rocket science). Matthias and I had dug up a strip of lawn next to our fence, sifted out all of the gravel left from the construction of our housing development.

In mid-April, we planted out our seedlings. The tomatoes shot into the sky while the zucchini plants are slowly devoured by hundreds of minute slugs. Despite our finest efforts to detour these monstrous beast (using 2-liter plastic bottles as protective barriers and semi-regularly refilling subterreranean cups filled with the cheepest beer we could find), sadly only a single zucchini plant survived. And this was our first (and probably only) harvest after all these months:

Finally, summer in September. Here is another shot so you can get an idea of just how large our zuchinni was.

Not too bad. There is another zucchini on the plant. Maybe in another week, I can cut the other one and make a nice pasta dish.

The tomatoes, although the were so much more promising that our 'courgettes', have barely managed to ripen (what a surprise with all the sunshine in Manchester). I cut a bunch about two weeks ago and set them on the window sill. Now two of seven are redish.

Thankfully, there are just as many on the vine that are red:

If this little spurt of 'Indian' summer can just hold out a little longer, hopefully they will ripen up. Matthias and I will be transplanting one of the larger plants into a pot so we can try to keep it going inside through the winter.

But for now, it looks like fried green tomatoes will be a pillar on the menu at Casa Breu for a long time to come.

18 September 2008

Autumn Rising

Those of you who know me are familiar with my special personal connection Autumn. This year it has a special importance. I woke up to a brisk, clear-skied Manchester and I knew that the season had turned. It was chilly, but the sunshine made everything look so clean, pristine and inviting. But I still didn't want to get out of bed, do my exercise or face the reality that our ten-day 'staycation' was over. I liked sleeping in, I liked our crazy excursions, I liked cooking decadent dinners for no good reason at all. But all things must come to an end and I need to get back onto the path of the lone writer.

Without actually having done any writing or seeing any invoices paid (no matter how piddly the sum may have been), I was beginning to feel like a failure...and...gulp...that I would need to take a part-time job. The fact is I want to supplement our income significantly and it doesn't mean slinging coffee or pushing moisturizers on people. I forgot all my other talents and how wonderfully suited they are to the freelance lifestyle. How silly of me.

On Monday, I went my favorite yarn shop for a knitting circle in the company of my writing comrade. We had coffee beforehand and took 90 hours to dish about what was happening in our professional lives. Although we are writing in two very different genres, it is refreshing and encouraging to exchange with someone who knows exactly what you are talking about. At the end of one season and the beginning of another, I attracted someone who has exactly the skills and know-how to be my accountability and encouragement partner in my small circle of aquaintances here in Manchester. It is now a season of glorious, golden, leaf-changing and life-changing accountability and abundance.

As anything in life can be, freelance writing can be a lonely and frustrating game if you are not prepared to stay in perpetual motion. Unfortunately, through the last month or so, I have let my writing stagnate in that I have actually been writing very little with the exception of an odd blog post here and there. On the other hand, I have been incubating, researching and developing some really great ideas. I saw my first big online article go live and the next day, my freshly printed business cards arrived. I started to get the message that I am a 'real' writer.

September 15th marked an accountability milestone for me: I examined and rewrote my initial business plan I had laid out six months ago when I was still new to the game. I realized that most of the goals I had set for myself were not as 'SMART' (ie Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound) as they could have been. Within hours of doing that, I came across an intersting article called The Three Keys by freelance writer and coach Anne Wayman of The Golden Pencil blog. I will definitely be reading that and drafting the business plan one more time.

My goals are more concrete now and I have thereby renewed my confidence. From today, I will be sending at least five applications and queries out each day to internet gigs and magazine editors. I will be advertising through new channels to get teaching, translating and editing work on the side. Having a monthly income target (which for some reason I didn't have before) and devoting a minimum of ten hours a week to developing my book proposal will bear fruits in the form of a steady stream of income and an agent by New Year. All in all, even though I was looking down, things really have been looking up.

Images courtesy of The Philter and Muse of the Moment

17 September 2008

The Not Always So Glamorous Life of An Expat

It is funny sometimes. I think people are envious of the cosmopolitan lifestyle that my husband and I seem to lead. A few years here, a few years there, visits to 'exotic' destinations, experiencing the amazing cultural variety this planet has to offer from a resident's point of view. This is all well and true, but there is an underbelly to this marvelous lifestyle:

Call it inconvenience, call it a headache, call it an infringement on human rights; it sucks and that is all there is to it. Over six months ago, I applied for my residence card (which I am entitled to receiving within six months of applying by the European Union) and despite numerous telephone and written inquiries as to the status of my application, I have still yet to receive anything. Not even a lousey letter apologizing for the delay which is now over two months. According to the Home Office website, those poor pencil pushers, who get enormous pentions from our hard-earned tax money, are still processing applications from the month of January. Fabulous. And I thought the Germans were bad. Never again will I bash the Ausländeramt.
Now, I understand wanting to take extra precautions to prevent terrorist activity, but give me a break, how much more Orwellian can we get here people? We pay taxes, are totally on the grid and are even filmed as we walk down the street going about our daily business. And yet, due to bureaucratic incompetency, personnel shortages and bogus political rhetoric, I still have no passport.
Matthias and I tried to hire a solicitor (that is lawyer to you) through his company. At least this guy in his swanky London office had the decency to tell us he could do no more than we could do for ourselves, ie bug the hell out of the Home Office. So, with that in mind, I have taken to a weekly letter writing campaign. Two days ago, I sent off my third reminder letter as well as a complaint form which is nicely made available on the Home Office website (as if they were expecting something). 
Still not taking no answer for an answer, I am now liasing with the US Embassy in London about the situation. For the first time today, I actually managed to get someone on the phone. And what did he tell me to do after I had explained the basic details of my predicament? Write an email. So I did and I am awaiting their response. The guy seemed to be familiar with my situation and send they would be sending a form letter addressing what exactly there is to do. Hmph.
I will definitely be giving you an update on this one folks. In the meantime, Matthias and I are enjoying the last day of our 'staycation' which, as you may deduce, is not due to skyrocketing fuel prices. Actually, it may be a conspiracy of the British government to keep all passportless, in-limbo expats like us in the country so that they are forced to pay exorbitant prices for below-standard British tourist attractions, restaurants and hotel accomodations. I think I may be on to something here....

The good news is that my article finally appeared online last week in the Fall 2008 edition of Knitty.com, the grandmother of all online knitting magazines. Yes, I know it sounds totally dorky, but it is serious business! Here is the link if you would like to read it.

02 September 2008

1 Month of Guests, 4 Days in Scotland and 90 Days of Waiting

One Month of Guests

It is somehow hard to believe that a month we had been anticipating for the last few months has come and gone so quickly. Nearly the entire month of August has brought German friends and family - some we haven't seen in over two years-

I have become so accustomed to the solitary and quiet life of a freelance writer, I was not able to keep up my normal routine that I have cemented in place the last quarter year. There was always something going on, somewhere to go, something to pick up at the store, something to cook and someone I felt I needed to entertain.

Erik and Matthias at Loch Long: This is the view we had from our tent.

I am an entertainer. I am houseproud. I love serving my guests and attending to their every whim and fancy. I put so much of myself into it, that, frankly, I am worn out. I missed my routine. I missed channeling everything that I am into creating writing that helps and inspires people. On Monday, all that returned.

Four Days in Scotland

Since I am living abroad and establishing myself as a freelance writer, I use every opportunity I can get my dirty little hands on as inspiration for articles I can sell. Currently, I am writing for Venere.com's travel blog. So, naturally, when I found out that we had a three-day weekend coming up during one friend's stay, I convinced both them to go up to Scotland for some Highland Games and some crazy camping adventures. And adventures we had.

The first of our many adventures was blowing two tires (here spelled tyres, fyi) a couple miles from our first campsite. We set out bright and early with Matthias' work car packed to the gills with camping gear and food. Around 5pm we found ourselves on a narrow one-and-a-half-lane road somewhere outside Kirkmicheal, Perthshire, Scotland. Of course the locals barrel down these country roads and the tourists stay as far left as possible - exactly what we did when two tractors pulling hay shot passed us doing 70mph. And then we heard the front tire burst. Matthias had inadvertently blown the tire by driving over a deep pothole which, as we later discovered, had a very sharp rock hidden inside it. So we pulled into a driveway, unloaded all our gear and quickly changed the tire (since the house owner was expecting guests and we had to clear her driveway).

The Hole
The Gear

The Bear
The Spare
We made it to our campsite and pitched both our tents in the pouring rain. But that is Scotland for you. And luckily, Matthias has a G3 card allowing him to go online anywhere, so we looked for the closed Mercedes dealer to take the car to.  The next morning, our plans for the Strathardle Highland Gathering had to be put on hold as we drove to Perth to get the car taken care of. After all, we still had three days of touring and wee roads ahead of us in Scotland. Three hours later we had two new tires and a patched one. And interestingly enough, we had seen at least 10 drivers changing tires on the drive up from Manchester.
Around 12:30, we had made it down to the Highland Gathering and I was mesmerized. It was a highland games as you might imagine it, complete with dancers, cabre tossing and men in kilts. But it was so much more - imagine crossing all that with a county fair. Everyone was tailgating. Most of the following pictures are what we saw from where we were sitting:
The Shot Put
The Pipe Band
The Rope for the Tug-O-War
The Winners 
The Losers
Yes, they are deep-fried hotdogs. 
It was apparently the Scots who invented the deep-fried Mars bar. 

The Pillow Fight (to the right behind the dancers)
The Contestants aka Dudes in Kilts
The Highland Dancers plus Piper
The Clydesdale with a Braided Butt 
The breed originated from Scotland.
The Antique Vehicle Show 
(Complete with retro tractor tank)
The Strathardle Highland Gathering Flag
heralding the 127th year of the gathering.
The Veggie Contest

Best Three Honey Pots
Competitive Preserves
Hay Bale Rolling
The Cabre Toss
Didn't catch the name of this event 
(perhaps the wheelbarrow pole vault), but...
This is what happens if you don't get the pole through 
the hole without tipping the plank.
And finally, the dog race. Here they are getting reved up.
The next day, we drove to our next campsite, set up camp and went for a 2-hour hike in the rain. On our way, we drove pass Loch Lomond, one of the biggest lochs in Scotland, and some beautiful waterfalls. 
Clan McNab Burial Ground
The Mill Above the Falls
Then the weather got worse and there was a 24-hour long torrential downpour. Here is our campsite and a few shots from the trail.
It was wet and really put a damper on the next 24 hours. It was so stormy and blustery that night, we thought our bug tent would be swept away by the wind into the loch. The Highlands on the backdrop of this weather were unfortunately not as impressive as they would have been otherwise, but nonetheless much more impressive than Rob Roy or Braveheart make them out to be:
But then we got closer to the west coast where, suddenly, the sun came out, we saw a castle and some gorgeous coastline and life was much more enjoyable:
We ended are day in the harbour city of Oban. Oban is the departure point for most western Scotish Isles and a haven for fisherman and tourists alike. We had a nice seafood lunch at a restaurant with a Michelin star. The seafood chowder was incredible. We wandered up and down the streets looking at all the people looking as if they had never seen the giant, yellow orb in the sky. It seems that bank holidays in Scotland are not taken as seriously as in England. The children don't get the day off and for most shops, it is business as usual.

We stopped into the Oban Distillery, along with every other tourist in Oban that day, so all the tours were already booked. As a consolation prize, we bought a mini bottle of Oban Single Malt which we sampled that night at our loch-side camping spot.
We hike up to the hill behind the city to check out the colessium-looking structure. Turns out it was intended to be a family memorial by its benefactor. This man had wanted to fill it with sculpture and art by Scottish craftspeople, but ran out of money. Here are a few more shots of what it looked like up there, plus so random hydraengaes from a gorgeous garden we passed on our way up there:

We finished our day with a stop at a fish smokery (to Matthias' delight) and bought a few samples. It was truly some of the most amazing smoked salmon I had ever tasted.
The next day, we packed up and drove one hour back to Glasgow where Matthias' dropped Erik and me off at the train station. We went back to Manchester and Matthias headed back up north to Inverness for several days of meetings at one of his project's sites.
Erik left the next day and an hour after dropping him off at the airport, I picked up our mutual friend Marc who stayed until last Sunday.
90 Days of Waiting

Three months ago, I sent in my very first article 'baby' - something which was a great labour of love and took quite a bit of courage on my part. And lo and behold, I found out last week it will be appearing in one of my favourite online knitting magazines this month. That is a huge encouragement. Now I know that I can get published and paid a decent wage for what I do. As soon as I have the link, I will post it for you to read.
I hope this finds you well and until next time I wish you love, peace and joy.