Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Christmas thoughts, yearly round up, and what I hope for the new year.

My life has been busy in the week leading up to Christmas, so this is just a small post to talk about how my Christmas was, how the year has been and what I hope for the new year.

This Christmas, more than any other, I felt grateful. I got bad presents, but I'm okay with that because  it means I have relatives who give me presents. We saw extended family on Christmas Day, and I didn't mind, and it was quite a nice afternoon, really. And we had a quiet, smaller family Christmas on Boxing Day, so I didn't miss out on that, either.

I flew out to Texas to visit friends just before Christmas, and I'm not even going to complain about the badly delayed flight I took to get there. Because the trip itself was worth every minute on a plane and every penny spent. And I have the means to go on trips like that, and people there who I can visit, and those are opportunities not everyone has.

And why do I feel so much more grateful this year than I have in years past? Because even if mine was bad, which it wasn't, some people had it worse. Carrie Fisher's family, George Michael's family, the families of all those who were on the Russian plane, will be reminded every year about their loss. I feel like Christmas must be the worst time to lose loved ones, as everyone else is so happy, and every year after, you'll be reminded about it as soon as decorations start going up.

As for the overall year, I feel I can't complain. Some things happened that I didn't like, but a lot of good things happened, too. I hope that people can look forward to next year in the hope that it might be better.

My new years resolution was to read over 40 books in the year, keeping a count of them. Well, I can tell you now that my end figure was... 51. To some people, that's a large figure, to others it might seem sort of small. For me, though, I'm happy with that. I'm very sporadic about my reading - some months I can get through eight books, others I can barely get through one. And that's okay, as reading, like so much else, is different for everyone.

For my new years resolution this year, it is to finish a book. I don't care if it's 50,000 words of unpublishable tripe, just having the feeling that I can write that much would be good, and would spur me on to write more in the future. At least I hope so.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Only Child Things

At this time of year more than any other, I find myself pondering the idiosyncrasies of being the only child. At least, the parts of my personality that were somewhat formed by it. And no, I don’t think I’m selfish or spoilt, and we aren’t necessarily as a rule. But I guess every family position has its own standard character trait. The oldest is bossy, the middle is ignored by their parents, the youngest is the baby, and only children are selfish. There are a lot of books that use these tropes and link their personality traits to their position in the family. It’s a lazy writing technique. If you are trying to portray a character as spoilt, show us that, don’t just say they are because they are the only child. But this wasn’t meant to turn into a writer’s workshop.

At Christmas, there were only three of us. And I don’t feel like I got an especially large number of gifts because I was the only. My extended family is rather small, too. Seeing the presents of some of my friends with siblings and more relatives, I was often surprised by how large their piles were. But I never minded this, because the presents I did get, I liked. They were often something I had chosen myself. Since I often got a new game, the rest of Christmas was me playing the game while my parents cooked the dinner. At dinner, it was the only time of the year I could say no to vegetables. Afterwards, the three of us would sit on the sofa, watch Christmas movies and eat chocolate. It was perfect to me, since this was what I was used to. But for people with more siblings and larger extended families, this seems surprising. “Isn’t that boring?” I’ve been asked before. Now, having experienced a few Christmases with the larger family, I would quite like to go back to our quiet ones.

I was never spoilt. Since there was only one of me, it was hard for me to talk my parents into buying things. It took a while for me to get a games console, as I “had no-one to play it with.” I never got the trampoline I wanted, either. I feel like with a sibling, we could have both tried to convince our parents of the necessity of having the current ‘In’ toy of the period. I also got the blame for everything, even when it was my friend’s siblings that had drawn on the walls. If there’s only one, bad grades stick out more. Messy rooms stick out more. Well, probably not, but it felt like it sometimes, growing up.

I also was never lonely. I was, however, often called a 'loner' by teachers. But I liked being alone, and that isn't the same as being lonely. Of course, liking to be alone is considered odd in today's society, and I had to go to classes to get me to mix. Funny, I never remember the other children having classes about being more including. But I had friends, and my close family, and never considered myself lonely until "only children are lonely children" was said to my face. I still like my time alone, even now.

There is also a lot of pressure. In families with more than one child, the expectation is that one will settle down and start a family, therefore giving their parents grandchildren, and one will have the high-powered career they can brag to their friends about. If they’re lucky, it will be abroad somewhere, so they don’t need to pay for hotels when they go on holiday. And when parents grow older, duties for looking after them can be handled between siblings. But with an only child, there is none of that. I’ve expressed a desire to live in other countries before, at which my parents acted affronted about me leaving them on their own. If I express concern for how I might look after them when they’re older, they say “well, you’re not putting me in a home,” and about five seconds later worry about the care of an elderly relative if he doesn’t go in a home. And I’ve had people completely unrelated ask me when I’m going to give my Mum a grandchild – like that’s my sole responsibility. I know a lot of people feel the pressure to have children, but when people say it to me, I get the air that they consider me selfish for not doing it, since I’m my parents only chance to have grandchildren. I genuinely love kids, and I would think the most selfish thing I could do is to purposefully have a child when I know I’m in no-way ready for it.

One thing I do think came mainly from being the only child is my independence. I had to find ways to play by myself, so I was quite content making up imaginary worlds in my head. I would often be reading or gaming solo, and it has had the effect of making me gravitate towards single-player games over multi-player games as a whole. Now, I can easily get myself from one end of the country to the other by myself, and keep myself amused the whole way there.

I did express the wish for a brother or sister a few times, but I don’t remember doing it that often. I think seeing how my friends interacted with their siblings put me off!

Where do you fall in your family tree? Do you have any traits that might have been influenced by that?

Monday, 12 December 2016

A Train-Hiker's Guide to the UK

The UK rail network can appear confusing to people who are not used to dealing with such a large train system, but it’s easy once you can get to it. Every big city, most small towns and even many villages are somewhere on the rail network, so it’s a convenient way to get from place to place.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

How to Handle an Airport and Flight

I love airports, and flights, and I think they’re my favourite part of going on holiday. However, I understand not everyone feels that way. As someone who’s been doing airports since I was very young, and have done them solo, let me share with you some tips for keeping your cool while going through an airport.

Drink plenty of water: I like to buy a bottle at the airport to take on the plane, but you can have an empty bottle in your hand luggage when you go past security. Planes are very dehydrating, so take any liquids they offer you, too. Don’t worry about annoying the person in the aisle seat by going to the toilet often, you need fluids.

Figure out your favourite seat: Personally, I like the window seat! I love to see the sky and ground from on a plane, and get very disorientated and dizzy when I can’t look out a window. If you find the concept of looking out the window a bit scary, maybe get the aisle seat. And if you’d rather be in between two people, especially if you’re flying with people you know, get the middle seat.

Eat, little and often: I like to have a smallish meal in the airport, and nothing too salty and sweet. Since it's such an early start, I'm never really hungry before I leave the house, but I will be once I get to the airport. I’ll also buy one of those little meal deals for the plane, since airline food is hit-or-miss. I was once taking a morning flight, took off a little after nine, and I was served a hot pasta dish as my first meal. Since it was early, and I hadn’t had much sleep, the smell of it turned my stomach. It was a good thing I’d bought a little extra! I also get a bag of sweets to have while in the air. You can prepare this in advance and pack yourself a little snack, but I like having things to do at the airport.

Look up maps of the airport: If you google the name of every airport you’re going to, you can find a basic map of most of them. This can help you familiarise yourself with the layout beforehand. Find out where the departure gates are in relation to security, and know where you need to go if you have to change terminals. You’ll also get to see a list of shops and services, which can be handy if you need to pick up something you forgot.

Be mindful of changing terminals: In most airports, I understand this isn’t so bad, and most terminals are a short walk away. But in Heathrow, the separate terminals can be a bit of a drive away. They’re all individual buildings roughly the size of a standard airport each. Again, though, a lot of information on this should be provided on the airport’s website.

Locate the necessary things, first: Once you get to the departure lounge, the first thing you should find is a departure board. (They’re huge, and you can’t miss them) Next, find the gates. Some airports will have half their airports at one end and half at another end, so bare that in mind. Airports are so well-signposted it’s hard to get lost, but

Give yourself extra time: That three hours early thing they tell you is very good advice, I actually like to give myself four. For a very large airport, I often find that’s just enough time to get through check-in and security and relax in departures before your gate is called. Better to have everything

Dress comfortably: Now, this may differ from person to person. I like loose jeans that stay up without a belt, others prefer leggings. Don't bring anything that needs a belt, unless you want to be that person at security awkwardly holding their trousers up. Flat shoes, because there's a lot of walking involved at airports sometimes. Don't wear things that are a complete hassle to take on and off and security, either. And take into account the likely weather at both destination and origin!

Print off everything you might need: Itineraries, boarding passes, confirmation emails, I tend to go overboard. It just makes me feel a little better that if they ask, I have everything right here with me.

Don’t take too much hand luggage: Either see if you can get some of it into the hold, leave some at home, or fit some of it into your other bags. Two is that maximum I like, my carry-on case and my handbag to give me easy access to the important documents like flight details and passport. You don’t want to

Give yourself something to do: Take your mind of your impending anxiety about your flight. Bring a book and sit somewhere you can keep an eye on the board, or have a wander. This is why I leave myself a lot to get once at the airport – I can’t stand waiting around. If you’re the sort who likes to buy make-up, why not give yourself something to buy when you’re there? Decide what you could do with before the flight and have fun testing out a range of different brands. Understand that “Duty Free” doesn’t mean cheaper, but it passes the time and is better than potentially spending on stuff you don’t need.

Have a lot to do on the flight, too: I like colouring books for this, as they don’t require too much concentration so they don’t make me sick, are relaxing for any nerves you might have, and can pass the time quickly. Bring a book to read, too. Also, if you are long-haul, you might well have an in-flight entertainment system, which can have some of the must-see movies of the year and popular TV shows of recent times.

So, there you go. Do you have a particular thing you like to do at airports?

Friday, 9 December 2016

Christmas Spice Biscuits!

Here’s my recipe for Christmas spice biscuits. My recipe is based on a German sort called
Lebkuchen. You may know these from the brightly-iced hearts that get sold from stalls sometimes, but the traditional version from Nuremburg is quite different, too. This recipe produced biscuits which are not dissimilar in texture from the ones you can buy from the stalls!

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

A Guide to British Chain Restaurants

This is a guide for tourists on some common British chain restaurants. If you’re in London, you can probably find more unique places to eat at then these. And there are the British staples I recommend everyone try, like roast dinner (preferable home-cooked, or failing that from a pub) and fish and chips from a chippy. But if you’re in a smaller British city, and you don’t know what any of these places are, this is some advice on which ones you should try. This is not a complete list, just a run-down of some of the most ubiquitous. Under a cut because I've included some pictures for some of the places on this list.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Alternative Christmas Crackers

You know those sad little crackers you buy every year, and they have the silly hat, bad joke and cheap toy in them? You could say that the worse the crackers are, the more charm they have. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without them, right? Well, how about these fancier versions? You could do them instead of, or as well as. What about putting the bad ones out on the table as is tradition, and giving one of these out as people go home?

Chocolate Crackers from Hotel Chocolat :  You get three chocolates (as if you won’t have had enough to eat already) and the traditional hat and joke, so you don’t miss out on those, either. Any excuse for more chocolate, right?

Snowman Crackers from Not on the High Street: Not on the High Street has a really nicely curated range of Christmas crackers, but these ones especially caught my eye. They might have very traditional insides, but look at how cute they are! A little extra decorative touch to the table.

Nails Inc Christmas Crackers: One that’s good for a girly night in on the lead-up to Christmas, you could pull one each and paint your fingers and toes in whatever colour comes out of it. Have everyone wear their comfy clothes, put on a proper Christmas movie and set up the snacks!

Gin Crackers by Gin Tales: One for the grown-ups, I’m afraid! If you know your party likes to drink, why not invest in these? They’ll keep the conversation flowing before you’ve even pulled them and drunk the contents. Somewhat on the pricy side, but you get six in a pack with a small bottle of gin in each, in three different flavours. You might want to be careful if you’re pulling them, so you don’t break the bottle. Also contains the traditional hat and joke, which are always better once you have some alcohol in you, so it’s a win-win.

Make Your Own: You can buy kits with everything in them already and it’s a great activity to do with children. Why not buy lego figurines or small individual chocolates to go inside them? You could also but in a scattering of sequins to cover the table. If someone is a comedian, they could write the jokes, too. Based on the people you have over, you could do family in-jokes, geeky references or passages from a favourite book. Get creative and have fun!

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Pros and Cons of Winter

Last season, I posted my “Why I Dislike Autumn” blog. I wasn’t very complimentary about it, shall we say. Winter, which I like a good bit better, has some pluses and minuses for me. So, lets run down my pros and cons of Winter!

Christmas: I love Christmas! The food, the decorations, the presents! I’m still like a little kid on Christmas Day. I wake up super early to open my stocking. Still leave out the mince pie and sherry for Santa and a carrot for the reindeer. Get excited to open my presents. I like both the giving and receiving of presents. I like to put a lot of thought into what presents I get other people, and I love to see them react when they open them. And I love the mystery of what presents are there under the tree, too. And feeling the wrapper to try and guess what they are. You know, I have received some bad Christmas presents before, but the majority of presents I tend to get are useful.

Pancake Day: The other big eating holiday of this season, but one that’s all the way in February, so it’s still somewhat in the distance. The only way to make pancakes on this day is in the traditional English way. Not those American interlopers. I won’t hear a word about how they’re “just” crepes, either. English pancakes are traditionally served with lemon and sugar, and French crepes are usually thinner. Also, crepe is the French word for pancake, so you’re kind of proving your own point. Also, you have to attempt to toss at least one pancake on this day. It’s the rule.

New Year: A fresh start, and a new beginning. A chance to put all the bad from the old year behind you, and hope the next year will be better. It feels like a chance to change your life. I know most resolutions are abandoned in a few days, but the illusion is there. This year especially, I’m quite looking forward to seeing the back of.

Days Get Longer: Longest Day passes in late December, and by February there’s a significant change in the length of the days. It is seriously nice not to have to walk home in the dark at four o’clock.

Curling up in your Duvet: especially on a cold night, while the wind and raid hits your window, and with a good book. It’s a shame we have an electric fire, so I can’t pull off that sitting by the fire and reading look.

Chance of Snow: I love snow! It’s so fun to play in, and there’s always that chance of a day off school/work because no-one can get in, and it gets large groups out of the house to have a snowball fight. Give me a walk in the snow, any day. Especially with a dog, they love the snow!

Chance of Snow: In England, it’s very rare. Where I am in the country, we’re going three years without a decent snowfall. I’ve never had the illusive White Christmas. Normally, snow only matters for a week a year. What happens is, it gets cold over the weekend and every weather report mentions chance of snow. No-one listens, because they’ve said this every weekend since November. So on Monday, we wake up to a decent covering of snow and its chaos. Trains will stop. Roads will be blocked back for miles. Schools will shut, some workplaces will close. Tuesday, the snow will freeze and there may be a fresh covering, but in most places will be able to deal with it. Schools will still be shut. Wednesday, it will be mostly melted into that brown slushy stuff and most places will reopen. Thursday, it will be mostly off the roads but still present in heaps on the sides. By Friday, we have a rainfall that washes away the rest of it. And that’s it, no more snow likely until next year.

Sometimes, it’s just too cold: There’s a very specific British sort of cold, I think, where it was very damp overnight and no amount of layering can prevent that chill from getting into your bones. The wind is northerly, and bites at your exposed face. It might not be below zero, but it feels colder than it actually is.

Family Visits: Over Christmas, there will be a lot of these. Growing up, we lived quite far away from family, so Christmas was just the three of us, and I loved it. It’s what I grew up used to. In fact, the whole concept of leaving the house on Christmas Day feels weird to me. Now, we live closer to my extended family, which leads to quite a few visits over the Christmas period. I am a total introvert, and after spending three hours around my family, I would be quite happy to go home and chill out quietly by myself. However, some days we can spend upwards of nine hours with them, and every nerve in my body is screaming for some peace. And the inevitable politics discussions come up at some point…

Clothes are Uncomfortable: Wool itches. There’s only so much layering you can do before you can’t even move your arms, so you walk around with this stiff padding and your arms can’t bend. You have to wear pants, rather than shorts/skirts. Or, even worse, the itchy leg prisons that are tights. Why can’t we all wear our onesies for the whole season?