Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Dreams for plans

It's that time of year when everyone is posting reviews of how their year has gone, and when it came to deciding what to write for my final post of 2015, I thought I would do the same. In fact, I felt obliged, but every time I considered it, it felt like a chore. A lot has happened this year, a lot of amazing, beautiful memories have been made, but I have also learned some valuable lessons, and one of them is to stop living in the past.

It's something I've done for a long time, looking back, and while I will continue to make a record of good moments and memories, I've also let the bad memories come back to haunt me too. There is always something I want to change or take back, but it's time I stopped thinking that way. I need to stop looking behind me, which is why I will be entering 2016 looking forward, making plans and living dreams and living in the moment with my loved ones.

So we'll get the review out of the way in a nice quick summary, a little paragraph where I tell you just how special 2015 has been to me. I spent the first half of it in Hamburg, Germany, fulfilling the little dream I was working towards since the first time I went to Germany back in 2011. I met some wonderful people (many of whom will surely be friends for life), learnt some beautiful and valuable life lessons and built up my German to the point where I now feel confident I can use it in a job. In the second part of the year I did a lot of moving around, but most importantly, I moved in with my partner, discovered a new city which I was very sad to leave, learnt I'm actually not that bad at cooking and worked a great deal on my writing. Before I knew it, September rolled around, and I ticked another dream off my bucket list with a visit to the Alhambra Palace in Granada, combined with a beautiful, relaxing holiday by the sea, where a certain somebody popped a certain question. I fell in love all over again, moved back to the place where I went to university (which also happens to be my fiancé's hometown) and launched into Christmas preparations. We bought our first Christmas tree (I'm like a kid at Christmas) and had a little fake Christmas on which I cooked a Christmas dinner I'm pretty proud of. And now, after spending Christmas itself with my family, I'm looking forward to welcoming the new year with all my nearest and dearest.

2016 has so much to offer. My new year's resolution is to get back into painting (I replenished my oils stock a few days ago with my Christmas money) and to continue work on my latest novel (and hopefully finish editing my last one). In April I am planning to revisit Hamburg and all the lovely people I met there. I am starting a new job at the end of January which will hopefully, finally be a step in the direction of the career I want and later in the year I will hopefully be ticking yet another item off the bucket list and having my dream trip around Italy. The planning for that holiday starts next week. Aside from that, we have a wedding to plan and money to save, and while I admit I buried my head in the sand for a while during the house move, it's definitely time to get the ball rolling on that front.

So I have a new year, a new home and a new job, basically, a whole fresh start. I have friends new and old to get in touch with and trips to go on and a life to plan, but I'll remember to leave room for plenty of spontaneity as well (in my experience, that's when the best memories are made). And I will stop looking back.

Happy New Year to you all!
Out with the old and in with the new :)

Thursday, 3 December 2015

NaNoWriMo - an overview of November 2015

My last post here was just before I dived into NaNoWriMo which, along with moving house and leaving my job, took over my November. You may recall how excited I was to get started, to begin writing a story that had been bubbling away in the background for years and to revisit characters I loved and didn't want to lose. Well, that excitement produced a nice, fat 6,404 words on November 1st, a NaNoWriMo first day personal best. I stayed two or three days ahead of target for the first two weeks, which is just as well as the stress of moving plus a couple of unforeseen obstacles set me back. Towards the end of the month, two five-hour-long train journeys between Liverpool and Portsmouth got me back on track, and I finished nicely with just over 50,000 on November 30th.

But I'm not writing this post to talk about my word count, even if this has been the nicest, easiest Nano I've done so far (not to mention the quickest, where did that month go??). Instead, I'd like to talk about some of the things I've learnt through winning Nano a 4th time, and this time it's after I've successfully finished a first draft of an earlier work in progress and moved on to the editing process.

In the past, I always stuck to the traditional values of NaNoWriMo: write something, anything, lock away your inner editor, unleash your creativity, get those words out and onto the page. Most importantly, in fact, get those words out. Write your 50,000. It doesn't matter how you get there. While I agree that in some cases sticking to these values is enjoyable and surprising (you never know what your imagination is going to produce when working to such a tight deadline), thinking this way has also let me down in the past, or else left me with a mess I have to untangle. My first two Nano wins were useless, once I got passed the beginning I had planned and realised I didn't have a middle. While I agree that some of what I wrote is better than I expected, it doesn't always match the plot I planned, and I'm left with a story that has gone off on a tangent, down a road I didn't want it to walk down. My third Nano win was more successful, and this is the draft I went on to finish and subsequently revise. But even then, even though I stayed closer to the path, I had huge gaps and threads of story that I somehow had to bring together, and it took me two years on and off to finally turn it into something I was happy with.

So, when putting pen to paper for this year's novel (which, for those of you wondering, is a complete overhaul of my first attempt at Nano back in 2009), I knew I didn't want to mess it up. This novel has been a baby I want to bring up the right way, and after years of waiting and feeding it ideas bit by bit, I've finally had another shot at getting it right. I occasionally found myself forgetting the true goal of this novel and getting caught up in the Nano rush, and once or twice I fell into the trap of writing any old thing to achieve the word count, but I pulled myself up on it before it went too far. I let the inner editor out once, to cut 700 words (which I got told off for by a fellow Wrimo and vowed to use the "strikeout" feature from now on, as per her instruction), but my novel is better for it. And in the past my tactic had always been to skip ahead when I got bored or blocked with what I was writing, and while I agree that this is a good way to keep the writing going instead of getting stuck, I often made the mistake of skipping too far ahead and struggling to link the scenes together later on. I've learnt my lesson from that and made the gaps smaller this time around, writing as lineally as possible. But please don't avoid writing later scenes altogether. If you already have the climax or the ending unravelling in your head, or even a scene you just really want in your novel, make sure you write it down while it's fresh in your mind and use it as something to work towards. Just make sure it fits in nicely with the rest of your story during re-writes!

So at the end of this year's NaNoWriMo, I've really understood how to make Nano work for me. As I've always said, the programme is a great way to kickstart your novel, and it goes without saying that the atmosphere, the people you meet both online and in write ins, the tips and tricks and moral support are invaluable and make for a wonderful experience. But, if you know how you want your novel to go and intend to edit it later on (instead of just writing for enjoyment and creativity's sake like I know a lot of people do), make sure you remember what the end goal is. It's not too difficult to write 50,000 words of just anything. Keeping your novel on track and producing something you want to show the world is much harder.

So I hope you all had a good November, whether or not you joined in with NaNoWriMo. If you are a regular participant or you are thinking of joining in next year, I would love to buddy up with you and hear how you do. My account can be found here: http://nanowrimo.org/participants/azureoblivion

All the best and happy holidays :)

Friday, 30 October 2015

Writing that breathes.

Any writers reading this may or may not have heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), when crazy people like myself embark on a mission to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. People have laughed and called me mad, but I assure you it's possible. I've done it three times and I am determined that this year I'll add another trophy to my fictional shelf. But I'm not here to talk about Nanowrimo, because you may already know what it is, and if you don't, I recommend you head over to nanowrimo.org to get the low down on this crazy yet exhilarating writing activity.

What I'm here to talk about is the character who will finally be getting her own novel this November.

Before I start, I have a couple of confessions to make. Confession number one, I used to be a regular online role player and fanfiction writer (don't ask to see my fanfiction, it's terrible). And secondly, the character I mentioned above was (you guessed it) originally a character created especially for a role play game. As embarrassing as I find it to admit to non-online friends that I used to role play, I've got to be honest, I wouldn't be the writer I am today without it. My first venture into RPing was full of Mary Sues, clichés and cheesy lines. But as I got older and more experienced, my writing improved. Most importantly, I stopped using RP as an opportunity to put myself into my favourite fictional worlds (that gets boring after a while) and started getting creative with characters.

The character in question had similar beginnings. She started off as a baddie, quite generic, a school bully, a spoilt brat. But eventually, I began to discover this character's reasons for being the way she was. Her dreams. Her fears. The things that make her tick. Suddenly, she went from being a generic baddie to a well-fleshed out character. So much so that she breathed on the page. She became so natural to write that she pretty much told ME what she would do in each situation, rather than it being the other way around.

After a while my RPing days began to look over, and I realised that I didn't want my best character to die with the site she had lived on for a number of years. So, six years ago, when I first heard about Nanowrimo, I tried to write her into her own novel. But the RP world was still too fresh, and much to my dismay, she fell flat and dull in the vague and pale world I tried to create just for her.

Six years on, now that the RP sites are well and truly buried, I've worked and reworked that world and the plots to go with it and I'm finally ready to try again. And believe me, I've never been so excited for Nanowrimo. I can't wait to write her and get to know her again. It will be like seeing an old friend after long years of separation.

So, as I wait impatiently for the 1st November, able to do everything except start writing, I'm talking about my novel and my character instead.

It's going to be a good November.

Happy noveling ;)

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Autumn, remind me why I fell in love with you.

Autumn is in full swing, and I've been dragged into it kicking and screaming. Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy autumn, but I'm such a summer child that I find it difficult to say goodbye to the sun and come to terms with the changing of the seasons. Even when most of the people I follow on Blogger and Instagram were getting excited about colder days and pumpkin-spiced lattés and saying it was their favourite season, I just couldn't warm to the idea. But now, finally, I've accepted it. I've left summer and denial behind, and I'm welcoming autumn with all the woollens, yummy soups and pretty scenery it brings.

I never used to enjoy autumn when I lived in Spain, because Spain doesn't really have autumn, at least not in the area I lived. The weather just got colder, the days got shorter and the flowers died, leaving perennials behind. But in the UK, France and Germany, to name a few more Northern countries, autumn is a dream. My favourite colours are reds, burnt oranges and warm yellows, all the colours the trees turn when autumn comes along. My camera roll fills with snaps of orange-tinged avenues and brightly coloured parks, while my shelves suddenly display an array of fallen leaves I've collected on walks. And while I hate the nights drawing in and I'm not a fan of the cold, I love getting out the boots and woolly jumpers, and this year especially, I've indulged in a bit of retail therapy to update my autumn wardrobe (shh, don't tell).

And the food! Oh, how I wish British supermarkets would sell more pumpkins and their cousins! Last night I knocked up some roast pumpkin to accompany a tasty Saturday night paprika beef dish, and I'm loving all the root veg and winter spices to throw in soups (although, to be fair, I tend to ignore people who tell me I can't eat soup in the summer, who do they think they are?) And a little later on, when the Christmas spirit starts to creep in (i.e. not in September when the shops think it's okay to start screaming at us to buy Christmas stuff), I can't get enough gingerbread, Yogi tea and hot chocolate, mmm mm.

Finally, there's the nostalgia, the sadness. In some ways, this nostalgia is a good thing. It's a sign that things are ending, but after that ending comes a new beginning, a new year. But I can't help but lament the passing of time, especially if the year has passed quickly, and this is the main reason I'm usually so reluctant to let go of summer. Time falls away quickly, like the leaves of the trees, and before I know it the trees will be bare and the time will be gone. Thank goodness all the beauty of autumn and all the joy of Christmas is enough to distract me from unhappy thoughts, and by the time January comes along I'm already looking forward to spring.

Autumn is finally here, both outdoors and in my heart. And soon I'll be munching my gingerbread men and doing my Christmas shopping. But for now, let me wish you a happy season and leave you with a little autumn poem I wrote some time ago...

Autumn Poetry

Monday, 21 September 2015

Soul Vacation

It's not been a great British summer. We've had sunny days, but those days have mostly fallen when I've been busy or at work. But I managed to tolerate the not so great weather knowing that I would be jetting off to Spain in September. And now, now that the holiday is over and done with, it's not just sunshine that I've enjoyed. I've enjoyed simple pleasures that all too often get forgotten about in day-to-day life.


Who knew something so simple as drinking a morning cup of tea on the balcony could be so lovely? Especially with a view of the sea, a light breeze and sounds of holiday activity. And then, if seeing the sea from afar isn't enough, having a wander down to the beach after breakfast to dip your toes in the water, or taking a walk along the prom or into town, with no time constraints, no obligations.


Freedom was certainly the theme of the holiday, like being able to sit around reading for as long as I wanted, or eat whatever I wanted, whether that's refreshing fruit and salad or something a little more naughty (cake anyone?). And this freedom can only come when you are spending time with friends and loved ones who are happy to enjoy the same things as yourself, and I'm thankful for that.


As well as freedom, I've been reminded not just of the simple things, but of things I grew up loving. We have all this digitally enhanced pop music on the radio these days, but there is nothing more beautiful than raw, live music, a guitar and a voice, whether that be blues, jazz or flamenco. One of the best nights of the 10 days was when a male and female duo got up on stage to entertain us with some typical flamenco. Stunning guitar and a passionate voice got everyone up dancing and clapping along to the music.


And then you have the things man never made: the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, the ever-changing sky... and the sea. Always the sea. You could go back to your home town and buildings could have been knocked down, parks dug up, friends and local businesses gone, but the sea will always be both the same and constantly changing.


They talk about soul vacations. I always thought a soul vacation is going to some far-flung destination and seeing things you've never seen before. But I've realised that sun, sea and time to reflect and relax is sometimes all the food the soul needs.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Faded Britain

My boyfriend and I love going on trips, so moving to Norwich has given us the opportunity to explore a brand new corner of Britain. Although we've been here for two months, bad weather, visiting family and bee stings (thankfully not a bad one) have prevented us from getting in the car and taking a drive to one of the several places I have on my East Anglia bucket list.

Today we managed to get to Great Yarmouth. You've all heard of or visited those faded seaside towns from when, to the British, a holiday meant staying in a caravan park in a touristey seaside town and whiling away a few days eating fish and chips, ice cream and candy floss, making sand castles and throwing 2 pence pieces into slot machines. Sadly for these resorts, many Brits can now afford holidays that require a plane ride, so the money just isn't going into them the way they used to. The peeling paint and buildings in disrepair leave me feeling very nostalgic, not just because it's sad to see them going downhill, but because these places take me back to a brightly coloured childhood.

For my parents' generation, these resorts were still holiday destinations. By the time I came along, they were more day trip material with my grandparents. It was probably a trip down memory lane for them too. New Brighton just across from Liverpool was the main one, with trips to the fair and chips with salt and vinegar, and further afield was Blackpool, Southport and Rhyl in North Wales. These day trips were some of the highlights of my youngest years, before we moved to Spain. These towns are the epitome, in my mind, of true Britishness.

By my teens, I began to notice the decline of these places. Some of them are lucky enough to be rescued or have found money from other sources. Others are not so lucky. There is evidence of this in patched up architecture, missing signs and paint in desperate need of a touch up. But the best thing about these places is that they just keep on going. Donkey rides on the beach, ice cream vans, the arcades luring you in with their distorted music and constant clink of coins...

But it was a good day. The sun was out to begin with (before, in true British style, the sky clouded over), my hair was blown into a bird's nest and my skin whipped into goosepimples, and the best thing? We stopped for proper chippie chips on the sea front. And because I'm Northern, I had to have gravy.

It wasn't how I usually like to spend my Sundays, but it was a refreshing break from the norm. I missed my parents, I missed my grandparents and I missed childhood, but in that perfect, bittersweet way. Those good old British seaside towns might fade, but my memories won't. I hope they keep going a little longer.

Happy Sunday :)


Thursday, 6 August 2015

Shine Like The Sun

You know how it is: you're excited to start a new job, you have the initial exhaustion and nerves and learning, and then the newness wears off and you're faced with routine. And then it's a different type of exhaustion, it's that frustration of never having the time or energy for doing things you want to get done. Suddenly the only thing you seem to have any energy for in the evenings is vegging out on the sofa watching telly that you don't even enjoy.

That's how it's been for me these past three weeks. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful to have a job, but being thrown back into full time work combined with tax issues, a spot of homesickness and having to run my own home have taken it out of me. And so, last Thursday, I had gotten myself into a real grump. Fortunately, I had someone there to listen and give hugs, and d'you know what? Getting it off my chest was exactly what I needed to do. I suddenly felt much lighter, and I told myself I had to stop being miserable and start being happy. So, that evening, after Chinese takeaway (comfort food does wonders), I sat down with my journal which, as mentioned a few posts back, I've been keeping especially to remind me of good times I've had. I set to work catching up on it, but not before glancing back at what I wrote during my last few weeks in Hamburg. And it took me back to a promise I made to myself, which had since been pushed to the back of my mind with all my moving and reluctance to leave Germany. I felt so surrounded by lovely people who thought highly of me, and I realised I wanted to be that person they saw me as, inside as well as out.  Not the nervous little mouse paranoid that I was a nuisance, an annoyance, and that nobody liked me, but instead the smiley, cheerful girl that the people in Germany had come to know me as. And one comment stuck out in particular: one of the most loving and selfless ladies I've ever met told me I shined like the sun, and to keep shining. And so I made my promise, I told myself I would feel like that person they described.

So, on Thursday, I told myself to stop being grumpy for no real reason (and honestly, there was no real reason, just a few little things that I was allowing to get to me) and that from now on I will remind myself to stay cheerful and grateful, and to keep repeating positive mantras. I'm in a new chapter of my life and I have lots of things to appreciate, and just because I don't have much time on my hands to do things I enjoy (reading, writing, being creative, for example) doesn't mean I can't make time. Life is good, it's high time I shine inside as well as out.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

A Window to the Soul

I've been making up stories for as long as I can remember, but I was around 12 when I realised I was a writer. My first "novels" were a ghost story and a soppy teenage romance full of cheesy lines and stereotypical characters, and far too many descriptions of hair colour. Before long, I was making lists of names for characters, maps of a Narnia-esque fantasy world and profiles for my imaginary people. But the thing is, I have this rule where I never let anyone read my work until it's finished, and aside from snippets and short stories written solely to gain feedback from my creative writing circle, I haven't ever finished anything.

But last November I made a breakthrough. I finally finished the first draft of a novel I had been working on for three years, the first novel I had good ideas for and the first time I knew I had to finish something. This determination spurred me on to begin the second draft, A few weeks ago, after spending a good six months tidying up the timeline and adding scenes that joined up the pieces of the puzzle, I started writing the third draft, this time focusing on dialogue and getting facts straight. But then the doubts that have been simmering away in the background for years finally came bubbling to the surface, throwing obstacles in my way.

Like any writer, I've had doubts before, such as writer's block when I wasn't sure where the plot was going or the cringing when I felt like my writing sounded terrible. But this time, the doubts are crippling me. At first I despaired of my dialogue, which has always been one of my weak points. But now I can see that dialogue is just a trivial symptom that I can shelve along with writer's block and cringing. The real problem has been niggling away at me since I started writing this novel, but now it has come crashing into me, and for the first time I am seriously considering abandoning all my hard work.

Because I realised this isn't like my other attempts at novels. In the past, my writing was pure fiction, such as fantasy worlds with cliché scenarios, heroes and villains and quests. But this novel isn't like that. This novel, while fiction, draws on real experiences and real feelings, because unlike teenage me, I have now lived and felt and seen. The plot and characters may be figments of my imagination, but the saying goes that the best writing comes from the heart, and I have applied that in my novel.

Despite my half-hearted attempts at toning it down (another saying is that writers should be honest and not worry about what people think), I am only too aware that my novel gives quite a raw insight into my soul. And although I want people to hear what I have to say, I'm afraid of showing who I am and afraid of how I will be judged. If it were only perfect strangers who were going to read what I've written, I probably wouldn't care. But the people who are going to read my novel include those who know and love me. And let's not be too optimistic; they may even be the only ones to read my writing.

And so I've stumbled across the writing problem that seems to be the least talked about. I have read books, blogs and Pinterest pins full of advice regarding character building, strengthening plots and improving dialogue, but aside from the quotes telling you to "be honest", "don't care about what people think" and "the best writing comes from the heart", I haven't come across many accounts from writers having to get over the crippling fear of exposing their soul to their nearest and dearest. I feel like I've come too far to give up now. I have two beta readers - a best friend and my boyfriend - waiting impatiently for me to finally let them read my work, and my family are asking me when I'm going to show them the fruits of all these years of labour.

Perhaps I will give up now, at the last hurdle. Or perhaps I will shelve it away until I stumble across it at 80 and do a Harper Lee. Or perhaps I'll just grin and bear it.

The best writing comes from the heart. Now I just have to decide whether or not I should let people see me at my best.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

The Food of Love

I was never one for cooking. I believe in eating healthily, but despite that, cooking has always been a chore. As a child I hated being asked to help with dinner, while my brother was eager to be in the kitchen with mum, spurred on by childhood dreams of becoming a chef (he is now studying Accountancy, but cooking is still a hobby for him, as far as I'm aware). So, when I was seventeen and getting ready to head off to uni, my mum played a trick on me to make sure I could fend for myself in the big, bad world. She and the family headed out for the afternoon, leaving  me with instructions to have a spaghetti bolognese on the table by the time they came back. Sure, I knew the basics, I had had no choice but to help with dinner occasionally, but I had never cooked a meal from start to finish before. Aside from the fact that the onions were a little too al dente for our taste, the meal was a success. Seventeen year old me was brimming with domestic pride.

Let's fast-forward a few years, past the kitchen highs and lows of university where I learned to make a cracking veggie lasagne but resorted a little too often to Super Noodles, or else cooked my carrots but forgot to defrost my chicken. Like many freshers, my diet wasn't the healthiest, especially not during that time when I ate everything my mother wouldn't let me have as a child (why did I think that white bread was that good?) But a mixture of gaining a better understanding of nutrition and living with housemates who were good cooks eventually gave me a few useful strings to my bow. Yet despite a preference for a Mediterranean style of cooking (I refer you to my Spanish upbringing) and picking up a few tips and tricks along the way, I couldn't consider myself a good cook. And the main reason for this is performance anxiety.

Sure, I can cook for myself. But if I make a mistake, or something doesn't taste good, what does it matter? Better luck next time, I can learn from my mistakes. But cooking for other people, especially people who don't know me very well, is stressful. I have recently come back from a year in Hamburg, and while I picked up lots of tips and recipes from my German hosts, cooking for them was for me akin to sitting an exam or going to an interview. I dreaded it. And it's not just getting it to taste good. Things like getting everything cooked in time, cooked at the same time, and getting a meal to the table while all the components are still hot are things I'm just not very good at.

But three weeks ago I moved in with my boyfriend. I'm not a housemate any more. I'm not a lodger living with a host family. I'm not living with my parents. I am the woman of the house, and while I've been waiting to start work again (next Monday, not long!), naturally it's up to me to cook dinner while my boyfriend is at work. And it's interesting how, despite my dislike for cooking, now that I have to do it every night I'm starting to enjoy it. I don't get that stage fright with my boyfriend. I trust him not to judge and criticise. Last Sunday, while enjoying a lamb roast which I surprised myself by cooking rather well (I don't recall cooking lamb before, so you can understand me being pleased with myself) I realised that over these past three weeks I haven't put a bad meal on the table. There were one or two dishes which I considered mediocre, perhaps, but no disasters, no burnt veg, nothing horribly greasy or tasteless.

I've always had a love for food, but never a love for cooking. Until, perhaps, now. My mum's guidance hasn't gone to waste. Her love of flavour and all things Mediterranean have influenced my cooking, and I've taken that and combined it with what I've picked up from my travels and people I've  lived with, such as ways to make vegetarian foods appealing to a meat eater, and that German love of something as simple as butter to add flavour to any dish (so yummy, but so naughty for the waistline). Sure, there is bound to come a time when I make a total mess and we have to resort to a takeaway pizza, but for now I've found something out about myself that I'm quite proud of: I can cook, and I'm eager to get better at it.

Friday, 26 June 2015

On Living the Dream

Around about ten years ago, I imagined that my life by 2015 would be quite different from what it has become. For a start, teenage me was a Francophile, and I dreamed of living in France. I imagined having a little provincial cottage, somewhere in the countryside but not too far from the city, with a flowery garden, an art room full of oil paintings and shelves upon shelves of books. I imagined being an independent woman, a successful translator or maybe, just maybe, a published author.

Of course, none of these things have happened. Francophile me turned into a Germanophile. Idealist me turned into a realist. And that independent young woman? She got a boyfriend.

I always was romantic. I couldn't wait to fall in love. But the image of me being a wife and mother always battled with the image of me being strong and independent. For a while, I saw no reason why I shouldn't have that ideal bachelorette dream for a few years and have a boyfriend. That was before I drove not one but several boyfriends up the wall by jetting off on semesters abroad and talking about my dreams of living overseas. I have been selfish, but I can't regret it. Few people have the chance to live their dreams and I was determined to take every opportunity handed to me. But when another person enters the equation, there comes a point when you have to make a compromise. And the agreement to compromise came when I realised I was finally tired of long-distance relationships.

It was about two years ago when I started to consider moving in with my partner. For a long time I had held on to that idea of having my own place, completely my own. But when I graduated university, went back to live with my parents and failed to land the dream job straight away, reality took a big bite. Today's economic situation isn't a friendly one for people looking to live alone. It's not even friendly for some couples wanting to live together. So when I finally let myself consider the possibility, I warmed to the idea. I had been with my partner long enough for it to be suitable, I knew he was secure and stable and would look after me if times were hard, and I figured it would be a great way to really get to know whether or not we are right for each other in the long run.

There was just one last thing I had to do before I took the plunge: spend a year in Germany. It was the one last selfish dream I had, the one shot at doing something by myself before I became one of a pair, and I knew I would regret it if I didn't do it. So I did it, and while at the end of my placement it hurt to tear myself away from a country I have come to love, I have now freed myself up to truly take any opportunity that comes my way, for the first time in my life.

As of two weeks ago, I am now living with my boyfriend in Norwich, UK. After we've been waiting for it for so long, the feeling hasn't really sunk in yet. It's partly because my biggest worry right now is finding a job, and job hunts tend to stop me from really enjoying things (I'm a worrier, oh dear). But little things remind me that it's finally happened, such as the objects I collected "for my home" finally making an appearance, the strange enjoyment of cooking dinner every evening (I don't usually like cooking) and the card from my family congratulating us on our first new home. Things will probably start to settle quite nicely when I finally get a job and we fall into a routine. The routine of our life.

It's not the dream I had ten years ago. I am yet to land the dream job, publish that novel still waiting to be edited and buy a pretty cottage in the countryside. But it's a dream my boyfriend and I have shared for the past two years, and we have other dreams, dreams that are slowly becoming plans. Dreams that might just become a reality, if we work hard enough.

It's enough for us, for now.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

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Sunday, 7 June 2015

A Year in Hamburg

At the end of last summer, after two years of working hard to raise the money, I finally got to Germany, the country I was determined to return to after spending the best five months of my life as an Erasmus student in Erfurt, Central Germany. I had never been to Germany before Erfurt and my expectations weren't high, so you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I arrived and discovered just how awesome a country it is!
This time round, I was lucky enough to get a placement as an English language assistant at a school in Hamburg, a new part of Germany I had never visited before. I don't drive, so a city is perfect for me. It turns out I wasn't quite prepared for such a big city!
Although thrilled to be back in Germany, my impression of Hamburg was quite neutral at first. I'll be honest, I think I was just overwhelmed. The cities I was used to had a population of around 200k. I was also living with a host family for the first time, which took some getting used to. I can safely say that my hosts have looked after me very well, and there is no way my German would have improved as well as it has done without them! As for work, I got a placement at a Stadtteilschüle (a general secondary school) in Finkenwerder, which is a district in the south of Hamburg. Travel to school included a trip across the Elbe by ferry, and while I often grumbled about the 6am wake up call, I couldn't stay grumpy for long. A boat trip at dawn accompanied by such beautiful scenery is food for the soul.
So yes, I was overwhelmed at first, and a little indifferent to the city, but that indifference soon turned to wonder when I joined one of the free walking tours which start daily at 11am outside the Starbucks on Rathausmarkt (the Town Hall Square). This three-hour-long trip covered everything from the beginnings of Hamburg to the aftermath of WWII, and it wasn't just history I learned that day. In those three hours, I got to know Hamburg the way you get to know a person. In other words, I discovered its identity.
Thanks to the walking tour and plenty of pavement stomping by myself (which often resulted in me getting lost), I stumbled upon quite a few haunts and favourite spots which mapped a wonderful time in Hamburg for me. Here they are, more or less in order of discovery...
Rathausmarkt, Jungfernstieg and Alster
Any visitors to Hamburg will most likely start off their trip with a look at the stunning Rathaus (town hall). You're not likely to get a good picture of the building from the square itself, but if you stand on the bridge near Jungfernstieg U-bahn station you should get a better view. Surrounding the Rathaus is a feast of architecture, shops and cafés, and just across is the Binnen-Alster, the artificial lake where the Alster river ends. Both the lake and the river itself are inspiring, especially on a sunny day, and I fully recommend a stroll around the lake, then across the Kennedy Bridge to the scenic banks of the Alster river. Be prepared for house envy and a strong desire to paint the clear colours of the Alster. Perhaps you could even stop for ice cream or a coffee.
Planten un Blomen
As mentioned, I got lost a lot, but at least I found plenty of parks, among them the most beautiful park I have ever been to. Planten un Blomen (accessible via U-bahn station St Pauli or Stephansplatz) has a lot to offer, from quiet little nooks amongst beautiful flora to rose gardens, a Japanese tea house, play areas and a huge botanical garden. For me, Planten un Blomen had something I simply cannot find in the UK. A lot of time and money has clearly been spent on it, but not only that. The park seems to be well respected, with minimal littering, vandalising and antisocial behaviour, making it a pleasure for all ages. If only every town had a park that was just a fraction as pretty and peaceful as this place!
The Elbe
This great river flows from Hamburg to Dresden and beyond, making Hamburg the important harbour city that it is. Although a walk along this riverside may not offer the best views, you will come to love the cranes of the floating docks and the coming and going of ferries, cruise liners and container ships. Many of my walks along the Elbe began at Landungsbrucken, which is also where I caught the number 62 ferry to Finkenwerder every day. Landungsbrucken is a charming set of buildings, which also neighbours the entrance to the old Elbe tunnel (which you can walk through to the other side of the river). From Landungsbrucken you can walk East towards the Portuguese Quarter for a bite to eat or a few drinks, or further on to the Elbphilarmonie and Hafen City. To the west you will find Fischmarkt, and further along either on foot or by the number 62 ferry, you will come to Neumuhlen, a quaint little corner of Hamburg with its very own beach, bars and scenic walkways with a peak into riverside gardens. The perfect destination for a sunny picnic or a get together with friends on a summer evening.
Schanzenviertel and Karolinenviertel
If you're a fan of the alternative, Sternschanze is your U-bahn stop. This was my go-to place for hippie and vintage shops, funky bars and the odd curry or falafel, and the people you'll find here are as colourful as the place itself. Don't be surprised to see punks "fishing" for money for "grass", but I can assure you they're pretty harmless. Schanze has a fun, artsy and multicultural vibe, and it's great for a spot of retail therapy.
The Christmas Markets
What's Germany without Christmas markets? Hamburg provided my first real taste of a German Christmas market, and although I knew it would be pretty special, I didn't expect it to be magical. The Rathausmarkt was converted into a winter wonderland, complete with Santa in a flying reindeer-led sleigh. The food-smells, the lights, the unique items on sale, the decorations and the displays on top of the market huts... I felt like I was five years old again. You haven't experienced German Christmas until you've had a cup of Gluhwein and a nibble of Lebkuchen at a Christmas Market.
The Reeperbahn and Fischmarkt
Of course, no review of Hamburg is complete without mention of the infamous red light district. But I'll be honest, I kept my distance throughout most of my time here. It wasn't the strip clubs and sex shops that bothered me, but the hoards of (mostly drunk, British and male) tourists everywhere you move. Otherwise, it was like any other strip of nightclubs and bars, which I've lost my taste for since discovering that nothing can live up to the nightlife in Spain. But it's not all tourists and naked women. The Reeperbahn actually has a lot of cool bars to offer, as well as theatres and decent restaurants. When I finally did decide to have a night out on the Reeperbahn, it was with a good group of friends who knew where the best bars were, and the evening ended at the legendary Hamburger Fischmarkt. I'll be honest, I didn't know what I was expecting, but it was certainly worth it. While outside a general market was to be found, inside the fish auction hall a full on party was taking place. A local band had the place rocking, there were people having breakfast, a fischbrötchen or a cup of beer, and all were having a damn good time. This was probably one of the best experiences of my time in Hamburg, and although Fischmarkt is only open on Sunday mornings between 4am and 9:30am, it is well worth going to, even if it's just the once.
Aside from the above, I made plenty of other discoveries in Hamburg, such as Stadtpark, shopping in Altona, wandering around Eppendorf where I lived, and visiting art galleries with my hosts. There were plenty of museums and things to see, and it's a great idea to see what discounts are available for each place. But most importantly of all, my time in Hamburg was simply perfect. I found great friends, did the things I set out to do (top of the list - learn German!), learnt plenty of new things and had no problems and no stress. Perhaps someday I'll live in Germany again, but for now I remain forever grateful to Hamburg for looking after me and for the people who made it great.
It's been a fantastic year.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Seeking Inspiration

I have just spent an hour trying to decide what to write for a blog post. I am still very new to blogging, and although I have lots of ideas (which is why I finally started this blog), I don't always feel like writing something from the list of topics I have prepared for myself. I'm feeling restless and in limbo at the moment, as my time in Germany is coming to an end and I'm feeling both happy and sad to be leaving. When you finally accept the fact that your time in a place is drawing to a close, sometimes you just want to get it over with.

But it has been two weeks since my last blog post, and if I mean to take this seriously, I need to keep it up, right?

So what do I write about when I don't know what to write about? The advice I come across most often for beating writer's block is to just write about anything. And the first "anything" that popped into my head was the things that inspire me.

Breakfast inspires me. There is something about mornings, the promise of a new day, sunrise, birds singing, the sound of rain or the radio playing cheerful tunes to get you in the mood for a good day. I love the versatility of breakfast, and the way it varies from home to home, country to country. I love starting my day with boiled eggs, fruit and musli, fresh bread, honey, cheese, even the occasional full English. And of course, lots and lots of tea (or a milky coffee, if no tea is available!) Breakfast with good friends, breakfast with a book, breakfast on the go, whether that be a flask of tea and some biscuits on the way to work or a takeaway coffee and a bun from a bakery in an exciting city, it's my favourite meal of the day.

Another inspiration: stationery. I'm a writer, and I have a nostalgic love of postcards and letter writing, so of course, I have an unhealthy obsession with stationery (unhealthy for my purse, at any rate!) Those notebooks waiting to be filled, the pretty writing paper longing to be sent to penpals new and old, pens of all colours and styles, notecards and postcards featuring famous paintings and vintage photography... It might seem like something trivial, but these simple pleasures are enough to brighten any day.

New discoveries, whether that be travel, or simply finding a sweet little shop or a café with just the right atmosphere, always provide fuel for my muse. I have been on many a holiday or city break that has awoken a gnawing desire to create. Many a poem has been written thanks to travel and I've found so many ideas for paintings. And, I'll admit, the chance to tell stories of my travels has been another reason for creating this blog (keep an eye out for my next post). When I'm not travelling, the postcards mentioned above provide some relief for my wanderlust, as well as scrapbooks, coins I've collected, and holiday snaps.

And if the arts can't inspire me, what can? There is nothing that makes me want to create more than seeing, reading or hearing art. Afternoons spent in art galleries or browsing DeviantArt; reading wonderful books or poetry or even just seeing bookcases full of books at home or in a bookshop; lyrics and haunting tunes that speak of emotions and stories and other times. For all its downsides, the internet sure has brought me closer to the arts, and over the years it has helped me to discover what sort of person I am. Perhaps humans can't fly or turn princes into frogs, but we can create, and that is how we make our own kind of magic.

There are so many other sparks of inspiration, things that I come across in every day life: the way the light falls through a window, certain clothes or hairstyles, trees blowing in a breeze, water, the orange-gold glisten of raindrops on a window pane at night, patterns on fabric or wallpaper, trains, certain smells, baking, holding hands with a loved one, the seaside, a lamp- or candle-lit evening snuggled up doing something relaxing or creative, clouds, crystals, beads, colour combinations, animals, positive blogs and instagram accounts, chats with best friends, favourite stories...

Considering an hour and a half ago I had no idea what to write, I sure am feeling inspired.

Friday, 8 May 2015

On Making Discoveries

I was 13 when we finally had that big garden that meant we could get a family dog. And what a lovely dog she is. I remember how scruffy and poorly she looked when my mum first got her out of the car on her first day, and trying not to get too hopeful in case the vet said she wouldn't get healthy. She was an extremely skinny, heavily pregnant, one year old Belgian Shepherd, and a week later she had seven pups. The vet was hopeful, and eleven years later our dog still loved and lovely, if not very grey around the muzzle!

But it wasn't just a friend my mum brought home that day. She brought home freedom. Bess, as my mum christened her, was to be mine and my brother's responsibility. We fed her, cleaned up after her and walked her. Before Bess, I didn't know much about my surroundings. We went everywhere by car, and as we'd not long moved into our house, I really didn't know the area too well. Bess changed that.

As I got older, the walks got longer, especially at the weekends when my brother and I would walk all the way to the pine forest. We got another dog too, Samba, who sadly passed away last year. But years later, as I write this, I am living in Hamburg, Germany, and Bess is at home with my family. I don't have my dog to take on walks, but who's to say I can't go walking on my own? It's easy to be lazy and stay at home, or only wander to the park round the corner when I need a bit of outdoor time, but if I didn't go for walks, alone or with company, I wouldn't have discovered the brilliant things I have found in my temporary German home. I have discovered beautiful parks, cool shops and cafés, new places to go and see and experience.

Are you sat at home reading this? Have you got an empty afternoon ahead of you and you're not sure how to spend it? Why not go for a walk, head somewhere you haven't really been before? And on the way, look. Have a wander into shops that catch your eye and take pictures of the pretty scenes you come across. You'll be getting fresh air, stretching your legs and discovering something new, something you can't really experience from a seat in a car.

Nothing says freedom like long walks with furry friends.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Memento

When I was in my early teens I had a diary. It was a "secret" diary, mostly full of embarrassing writings about my latest crush, as well as the occasional mention of the hopes, dreams and regrets of thirteen year old me. I would write in it about once a month, but the older I became, the less I confided in my diary. However, I managed to make those 200 or so pages last around five years. By the time I had my first boyfriend and I had got into uni, the internet, academic work and romance made me feel like I didn't need a diary any more. And now, in my mid-twenties, I regret not having kept it up.

Despite not having an actual "diary" during my uni years, I did carry a notebook around with me at all times. I never knew when I would need a pen and paper to hand, and those notebooks wound up full of scribbled ideas, fragments of stories, poems, letters to friends and even the odd lecture notes. But when my best friend from uni gave me a jumbo notebook as a parting gift, I decided I didn't want to spoil it with any old rubbish, especially not with the dedication from my friend on the first page. So the notebook sat on my shelf for at least a year, until one day I decided to start noting down something nice from each day, or at least each week. Whether that be a special moment, or an entire perfect weekend, the main idea was to create memories. I realised that I barely recorded my time as an Erasmus student in Germany, which was, hands down, the best five months of my life so far, and so I took a vow that I would keep track of the most beautiful moments and days of my life, if only by writing a sentence, a few bullet points or even a paragraph in my notebook.

Every now and then, I flick back through my notebooks when I need some inspiration, or else when I'm feeling a bit blue. An afternoon spent drinking coffee with a friend or watching the sunset at the beach two years ago might seem like something small, but those are things I especially like to do, things that make me happy, and it's memories like that that might fade from my mind, but they will always be there in my notebooks as long as I take the time to write them down.

What enjoyable things did you do today, in the past week, or even in the past month? Is it your birthday, or the end of the year and you want to reflect on your time, or perhaps there is a special event currently taking place? Whatever the occasion, however you're feeling, take the time to write it down, even if it's just a sentence. You never know how that memory will cheer you up days, months or years from now.

Here's to full notebooks.

Here's to making memories.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Dialogue in the Dark

This weekend my boyfriend visited me in Hamburg, and we had quite a unique experience which I was saving for when he was here. Those of you who have visited or lived in Hamburg may have already heard of Dialog im Dunkeln, an exhibition which is completely in the dark. The idea is to experience a day in the life of a blind person, and, if you'll excuse the pun, the 90 minutes spent in the exhibition was truly eye-opening.

I first heard about the exhibition from a friend, and it sounded so unique and exciting that I knew I had to do it before I leave Hamburg. But I never imagined it would be difficult. At the start of the tour, for which we were put into a group of eight, we were given blindmen's sticks and told the rules. We were to be led through a series of completely dark rooms by a blind or partially sighted person, and each room represented a scenario one would encounter from day to day. And when I say dark, I mean dark. We couldn't even see our hands in front of our eyes.

Our guide was a lovely partially sighted lady called Friederike, who nine times out of ten knew who we were, either by smell or sound. We exchanged names in the dark, and then we were led into the first room which was laid out like a park. I didn't expect the panic during my first five or ten minutes in the dark, and I can now understand why not everyone can go through with it. With my sight removed, my senses took a few minutes to adjust, and I was terrified of tripping or walking into something, or else hurting someone with my stick. True, we all walked into each other at some point or other, and I even wound up walking into someone's back nose-first, but I gradually got used to using the stick and my free arm effectively, and especially my hearing. After the park, in which we had to cross a bridge (more difficult than I could have ever imagined), we passed through a coffee storeroom, a market place, crossed a road and even rode on a ferry. My favourite part was the market place, in which we were allowed to pick up and smell various fruit and vegetables and guess what they were.

At the end of the tour, we were led into a bar where we could buy a drink or some sweets. The barman who served me knew exactly what change to give me, and he even gave me the right colour straw I asked for (it was red, and I kept it to make sure, in case you were wondering!) Then Friederike led us to a table and we were all allowed to ask her questions. I was most impressed at the end, however, when my boyfriend and I managed to lose our group amongst the rest of the tour groups who had accumulated in the bar. We could both tell that the voices around us did not belong to our group, and we recognised Friederike immediately when she came back to collect us. It's amazing how much sharper our remaining senses became after just 90 minutes in the dark!

I knew that re-entering the light would be painful, but despite the gradual lighting, the sensation was much more uncomfortable than I had expected. But thankfully, after a few minutes, we were able to see normally again and signed the guest book. It was also nice to put faces to the names and the voices of the rest of our group, as we had introduced ourselves in the dark!

If you are ever in Hamburg or somewhere with a similar exhibition, I definitely recommend this amazing experience. I have such an improved understanding of what blind and partially sighted people go through that I will never take my sight, nor any other of my senses for granted again.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Photography: what does it take?

What does it take nowadays to be a photographer? Is some special talent required to take great pictures, or can anyone with a good quality camera and basic editing software call themselves a photographer nowadays?

This question first came to me a few months back, when, for the first time in my life, I was in possession of a phone with a surprisingly decent camera. I love travelling and I love capturing moments which I find particularly beautiful, so you can imagine how overjoyed I was to have a reliable camera at my fingertips whenever I needed it. In the past my photos had mostly been grainy or too dark, and don't get me started on that one camera with which I always had to take duplicate photos in case the first came out blurry. I had resigned myself to buying postcards on my travels to make up for my poor photography, but it's just not the same.

So I finally got a posh new phone with a posh camera, and, of course, my photos got better. I would proudly display them on Facebook, even the arty ones that perhaps no one would care about. But all the same, I wasn't sure what to think when someone asked if I was a professional photographer. "They're just tourist photos" I replied, but it got me thinking. I had never intended to be a photographer. To me, a photographer is someone like my cousin, who takes beautiful photographs and went to college to learn how to use a camera properly. But I do enjoy taking photographs as a hobby. And if I ever had 500 quid to spend on a hobby I would certainly buy a posh Canon or Nikon, the sort with the huge lense and special features, and ask my cousin to show me how to use it. But here's the thing: is a decent camera all it takes? There are so many people calling themselves photographers these days. Most of the people I follow on Instagram post gorgeous, HD photos that I, even with my posh new camera phone, envy. I used to see the transition in people from amateur to professional. Now I see amazing photography everywhere, all it seems to take is the money to buy an expensive camera (or camera phone).

My own Instagram photos aren't that special, and the ability to take selfies seems to have eluded me since I turned twenty (perhaps I just need more make up and better lighting...?), but my "tourist photos", as I call them, have certainly improved. My host was pretty impressed. So, by the sound of it, was her photographer husband.

Perhaps it's social media, making it acceptable, even expected, for us to take photos of every single thing we do or see or buy. Perhaps it's the fact that digital cameras have given us the ability to take pictures of trivial and meaningless things without costing the earth. We've all been given the chance to hone our photography skills. This is a massive leap in the documentary of daily lives, but I wonder, where does that leave our talented, traditional photographers?

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Sunday Nights Are For Arts, Crafts and Ben Howard

Those precious last hours of a weekend are always to be spent doing what I love, and that generally involves painting, writing, crafting or else curling up with a book. Sunday night is my wind down time, getting myself ready for a good night's sleep in preparation for a busy week ahead.

Cozy lamplight, a hot cup of tea in hand, and a relaxing soundtrack in the background. And who is my go-to for that soundtrack? Occasionally it's Florence + The Machine, more often it's Paolo Nutini. But most of the time, Ben Howard is my musician of choice.

I first discovered Mr Howard back in the summer of 2012, just as I was graduating from uni and moving out of my student house. If I'm not mistaken, I came across him on Spotify, which I have found to be fantastic for discovering new artists (when it decides to work on my computer, that is). I was stunned by the richness of Ben Howard's voice, the exquisite guitar, the flawless lyrics. His 2011 album Every Kingdom is relaxing but uplifting, maintaining a mostly positive vibe throughout. I listened to it on a loop for months, then went on to discover some of his other work, such as The Burgh Island EP or his BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge covers (I recommend his cover of Carly Rae Jepson's Call Me Maybe or Ellie Goulding's Figure 8 for a truly shivers-down-your-spine experience). My favourite songs of Ben's are Diamonds and Everything from the Every Kingdom album, the two Live Lounge covers mentioned above, and Esmeralda from The Burgh Island EP. His latest album, I Forget Were We Were, has a slightly different sound to it, but it is just as stunning, with some truly haunting tunes. And, following his gig in Hamburg back in November, I can confirm that, impossibly, he sounds even better live.

I have said this before and I'll say it again: in my opinion, Ben Howard is what Heaven must sound like.

Happy Sunday everyone x

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Spring Loves 2015

Spring is a time for new life, changes and lots of time spent outdoors. When spring comes around I love to fill my lunch box with yummy smoothies and salads, get out all my spring clothes and go on lots of walks. Here is a list of some of my favourite things in spring:

- Tulips - especially multicoloured ones, they look like watercolour paintings!
- Bergamot - a lovely scent to lift the mood.
- Bead bracelets (who am I kidding, I always love bead bracelets!)
- Easter chocolate! Especially Cadbury Mini Eggs :)
- Pears. Extremely juicy ones.
- Herbal teas, especially Twinings Orange and Lotus Flower Green Tea
- Sunny skies on my 7am commute!
- Trips to markets.
- Pastel colours.
- Painting time.
- Blossom, not to mention lots of pictures of blossom.
- Walks, especially with best friends and loved ones.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Easter: Being Thankful For New Beginnings

I remember how, when I was a child, my mum and I would make Easter bonnets and enter competitions at my play school. I don't tell her often enough, but my mum is such a creative and artistic woman, and when I look back at the photos I love seeing just how good her Easter bonnets were. My favourite was the bird's nest, complete with those fluffy little yellow ducks and Cadbury Mini Eggs (still a firm Easter favourite with me!)

Easter is certainly a time for new life, for fresh, beautiful flora and fauna, and for looking forward to the spring and summer months ahead. I love hearing about different Easter traditions, both Christian and otherwise, and those involving special Easter breakfasts are my favourites (let's face it, you mention breakfast or brunch to me and you've got my interest). Whether it's silly amounts of chocolate, beautifully painted eggs in the trees in Germany or church bells ringing on Easter Sunday, there is plenty of spring cheer in the air.

This morning, curious about the origin of Easter traditions which seem to have little to do with the crucifixion of Jesus (I mean, I know Jesus is said to have been resurrected on Easter Sunday, but his torture and death leading up to it don't really fit with the celebration of spring and new life), I wound up doing a little research and was pleased with the results of earlier Easter festivals. My favourite was the worship of Ostara (or Eastre), the Germanic goddess of spring and the dawn, in other words, of fertility. And of course, the rabbit and eggs are symbols of this, as are the flowers and bright colours we surround ourselves with around this time. Whether or not you believe in gods, I find these spring celebrations much more cheerful than hearing or watching the Passion of Christ (which, despite Jesus's resurrection, I always found quite upsetting as a child).

So, whether you are celebrating for religious reasons, either Christian or Pagan, or else you just like eating chocolate, I wish you a very happy Easter and give thanks for new beginnings :)

Monday, 30 March 2015

Esther Bejarano & The Microphone Mafia

I am currently working as an English language assistant at a school in Hamburg, Germany, and last week I had the privilege of attending a reading and concert by Auschwitz survivor Esther Bejarano.

Ms Bejarano, now in her nineties, is one of the dwindling number of concentration camp survivors left. When I heard about the event I was apprehensive, expecting it to be quite an emotional evening. But let's face it, for how much longer are we going to have the opportunity to learn from such a person, and to remember them? Simply seeing the lady, and knowing what she had experienced, was both upsetting and awe-inspiring.

The evening began with Ms Bejarano reading from her memoir Erinnerungen (Memories), which detailed her time first at Auschwitz, then at Ravensbrück, ending with her eventual liberation. Ms Bejarano perhaps owes her freedom in great part to her musical talent, which gained her a place in the Auschwitz Girls' Orchestra. She has continued to sing and play ever since. Following the reading, she once again took to the stage alongside the anti-racist band Microphone Mafia. The music was quite a mixture, combining rap with more traditional folk and world music, including a lot of Yiddish influence. The evening ended with an encore and a standing ovation.

I had expected it to be an emotional evening, and it was. However, though the memories must have left their scars, Ms Bejarano told her story as it was, speaking in clear German. It is easy to shelve such events as the Holocaust, however devastating, as a part of history, long before our time. But seeing this lady in the flesh brought it all home. In a few years time there will be nobody left to tell the story first hand, and Ms Bejarano has made it her life's work to go on telling not just her story, but the story of those she met throughout her experiences.

The memories must hurt, but to see a woman so strong and so full of life despite the horrors she went through was an inspiration. She remains determined to sing, determined to live, determined to be happy, and determined to tell her tale. The Holocaust did not stop her from living her life. Instead, her liberation, as she put it, was her "second birth". The applause that followed this statement was the longest I have ever heard.

Sunday, 29 March 2015

Sun Rays

It's so much nicer being able to go to work when the sun is out. This morning was crisp, with frost on the reeds in the pond and a chill that made my nose feel like an ice cube. But the unmistakeable scent of spring was in the air.

This morning the mist characteristic of Hamburg was softening the scenery, and the sun's rays could be seen slanting through the trees. I wanted to take a picture, but sadly my camera would not have been able to capture the magic. Some scenes simply have to remain in the memory.

So I wish you a very happy spring and hope that you experience plenty of equally inspiring mornings x

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Introductions and Identity Crises

Dear Reader,

First of all, let me say thank you so much for dropping by. I can't say this is my first blog, but it will hopefully be the first to last beyond two posts, so it means a lot to me that you are taking the time to read this. I hope you will feel it is time well spent!

Second, I believe introductions are in order. This is my first post after all, so I may as well start with saying a bit about myself and, as mentioned in the title, my identity crisis. Why do I have an identity crisis? Well, as much as I love meeting new people, one of those simple first questions people ask never has a simple answer for me: "Where do you come from?"

Long story short, I was born in England to English parents, but I grew up in Spain. Because of this, I can't really say I have a nationality. In Spain I was an English person, or "chana" or "guiri", as they preferred to call foreigners, and these terms, though far from PC, never bothered me. I spent my formative years in Spain and did 90% of my obligatory schooling in a Spanish school in South Eastern Spain (expat central, I'm sorry to say!) and I can say, even now, that that place is home. It doesn't matter that I wasn't born there. My birth town in Cheshire became stranger and stranger to me the longer I was away, and if it wasn't for the fact that family still dwell there, I  probably wouldn't have a reason to go back at all. But Spain, though home, couldn't keep me there. My itchy feet wanted to take me around the world, and where better to start than in the country I had left as a child, a country that was my birthright, but that I barely even knew?

So I enrolled at university in the UK, down in Portsmouth on the South coast, a place completely new to me. I can't explain why I went there of all places, but from the get-go it had an unexplainable attraction. And within a few weeks, I bloomed. In Spain I was always the shy girl, the foreigner, the one too afraid to speak up despite the ability to speak Spanish like a local. In the UK, for one reason or several little ones, I suddenly felt free and confident, happy to give my input, especially in those subjects I was interested in. But even so, there was a good dose of culture shock that I had never expected to come across.

The first surprise was the greeting. In Spain, everyone greets each other with a kiss on each cheek, a gesture which crops up in quite a few European countries. In the UK, the British teenagers didn't even offer a handshake. As I stood there in the hallway of my student flat, awkwardly meeting my flatmates for the first time, I already started to notice the differences. Meal times were different. As were their teen years in general. Partying, for those particular teenagers, involved getting as drunk as possible without winding up in hospital, rather than simply having a good time, a chat with friends or a dance to some decent music. And through all this, I realised I had a very different mindset to a lot of my British counterparts. So different, in fact, that I couldn't possibly be British.

So what am I? Where do I come from? For a long time, I felt a little lost. I grew up with Flamenco dancing, Moors and Christians parades, the dreaded Baccalaureate to earn my place at university, the ability to go clubbing until six in the morning from the age of fourteen, and all year round sunshine. Yet at the same time, I say please, thank you and sorry more than necessary, I queue and hold  doors open and I drink PG Tips like a fish drinks water. All I can say, truthfully, is that I'm Spanglish.

Thankfully, I'm not alone. There are plenty of people who think I'm crazy when I cheer for Spain over England during the World Cup and insist on calling Spain my home despite my birth. But there are a lot of people out there who are in the same boat, or even more unusual boats, especially these days. And all my life, most of my closest friends have been in the same situation as me. They were migrants at some point or another, or born with mixed backgrounds, That "birds of a feather" saying has never been truer.

So what am I? I'm a wanderer. I'm Spanglish. I'm European. I'm a human being.

Identity crisis? Pah.