Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Another Empty Room

I was just sorting through old (ish, from a few weeks ago) photos and realised that I'd never got around to posting photos of our newly-decorated downstairs. So here they are: photos from before we got any furniture moved in. It'll never look this uncluttered again, that's for sure. Note the amazing woodburning stove, which is currently our main source of heat, and upon which we've already cooked many dinners. Yep, the upheaval of decorating is now feeling distant enough that I can start to think in terms of why it was worth it! (If you saw the equivalent empty-room pics of our bedroom, you now know approximately what half of our house looks like.)

Monday, 28 November 2011

Welshcakes Recipe

Welshcakes have long been on my list of things to learn to make, so I was happy to come across a recipe leaflet. Of course, I can never just follow a recipe without tweaking it, so this is my variant - but it worked pretty well.

We made them in a frying pan, but now it's winter I really want to try doing them the traditional way on top of our wood-burning stove.

Makes about 30

500g self-raising flour
75g sugar
2tsp mixed spice
250g butter, chilled
200g raisins
1 egg
a little milk or water

  1. Combine the flour, sugar, and spice in a large mixing bowl, breaking up any lumps.
  2. Cut the butter into small cubes and rub in to the flour to make 'breadcrumbs'.
  3. Stir in the fruit.
  4. Break the egg and add, along with a couple of tablespoons of liquid, and knead into the flour.
  5. Add just enough extra liquid to form a stiff dough.
  6. Divide into small balls and flatten to about ½-1cm thick, and about 4cm diameter. Of course, you could roll out the dough an use a pastry cutter, if you care about getting neat circles.
  7. Heat a heavy saucepan over a medium heat, without oil. Cook the welshcakes until lightly browned on each side - this should take about 4-5 minutes per side once the pan is hot.
  8. Cool before serving.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

A Beautiful World

A few weeks ago, I noticed Paul Steele (@paul_steele) on Twitter asking if anyone wanted to submit pictures of their home area for a photography project focusing on our beautiful world. I live in a gorgeous area so of course I had to send something. Paul has put it all to music, and uploaded it to YouTube - there are some stunning images here. Enjoy!

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Lido: Latvian food in Estonia


We were struggling to find good, vegetarian food in Tallinn. There was no shortage of coffee shops and cute bakeries where we could get a snack, but a huge part of the restaurant scene is pseudo-medieval restaurants which try to recreate the feel of the olden days (with elk soup, and so on). Main meals for veggies are a little thin on the ground.

So it was with some relief that we discovered Lido. It's a buffet-style restaurant with everything laid out: pointing at food that looks good is much easier than trying to decipher Estonian menu descriptions. It's also cheap, and fresh, and full of vegetable dishes (along with plenty of meat options which I ignored).

In Tallinn, Lido has an upstairs floor in a modern shopping centre, a short walk from the medieval city. Huge picture windows look out over the Estonian national opera house, but the inside of the restaurant has been made up to look rustic, warm and inviting. The clientele was mostly local, and as tourists we were a bit of a novelty.

We later discovered that Lido is a Latvian chain, and we were happy to find a branch in Riga, too, with very similar dishes. Definitely recommended.


Friday, 18 November 2011

Tallinn's Olympic History


Just outside our hotel in Talllinn, an intriguing statue kept catching our eye. When we wandered across to see what it was 'for' we found a little plaque, referencing the Olympic sailing which had taken place nearby. We scratched our heads... neither of us remembered hearing about an Estonian Olympics.

And then it all clicked into place: 1980. USSR. It was the Moscow Olympics which held its sailing events here.

This got me wondering - are countries without coastline barred from hosting the Olympics? Or if not, are there any cases where the sailing competitions have taken place in a different country (that was distinct at the time)?


Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Magic and Homeopathy

I've just finished reading a novel called The End of Mr Y, by Scarlett Thomas. A friend recommended it to me, with the caveat that I should "just ignore the homeopathy"... which didn't exactly make me rush to read it. But once I started reading, I was swept along in the story, and the fact that homeopathy was standing in for more 'normal' kinds of fantasy magic didn't really register until (getting towards the end) I remembered my friend's warning.

For me, it was just another area to suspend my disbelief. But for her, the real-world associations of homeopathy detracted from a story she otherwise enjoyed.

A lot of fantasy takes ideas from the "real world" but makes them work, in a real and practical sense that we don't see in our daily lives. Spells are cast, causing immediate and visible effects. Prayers are answered - or violently rejected - by Gods who listen and decide and act quickly. Or magic potions make people fall head over heels in love. None of these ideas lacks believers in the real world, but in the real world we are patient with our magics and superstitions, able to wait for years and look out for confirmation to sustain our belief. In fantasy, magic usually works instantly and dramatically, so 'belief' isn't a necessary element.

The End of Mr Y takes a similar approach to homeopathy. It borrows the principles of real-world homeopathy (dilute and keep diluting), but makes the result something so far beyond belief that I'm sure any homeopath would find it just as unbelievable as the average skeptic. But then, this is fantasy fiction. You're not supposed to believe it.

So why does the fact that "it's homeopathy" touch a nerve? We discussed this on Twitter, and there seem to be a few factors that make people uncomfortable with such a storyline, but the main one is money: homeopaths charge (quite a lot) for sugar pills. Of course, the placebo effect shows that sugar pills can help, but that's not what the average homeopath believes they're prescribing.

I thought it might be fun to open up the debate to a wider audience. Have you read the book? Would you read it, or would you be put off? What do you think about using real-world beliefs and turning them into the cornerstone of a functional fantasy magic system?

On a side note, another interesting feature of the discussion was the widespread assumption, in the Twitter chat, that the reason for the conversation was that I was planning to use homeopathy-as-magic in one of my novels. I'm not - but I'm entertained by the fact that people seem to percieve me as a writer more than as a reader. After all, I can read fifty books in a year, and struggle to produce one of my own...

Monday, 14 November 2011

Towers of Tallinn

Someone asked me which was my favourite city on our Baltic tour, and when I said it was hard to decide between Stockholm and Tallinn, asked "but isn't Tallinn a bit too chocolate-box perfect?"

It's true, Tallinn is a very pretty place. But I don't see that as a problem! It's not as though the city was built to be cute: the towers were built with the thoroughly practical purpose of defending the city walls. It's just unusual to have so much medieval stonework still standing. (The disadvantage of this is the huge crowds that come with the cruise ships - but it's easy enough to avoid the medieval city for the few hours whhich the cruises spend in town.)

Some of the towers have been turned into museums; others have been abandoned, or absorbed as part of new buildings. But they're everywhere you look, looming over you as you stroll through narrow streets, or dotted below you if you look out from the top of the hill.









Saturday, 12 November 2011

Tallinn's History at Kiek in de Kök

The tower of Kiek in de Kök is home to two museums in one place: the underground tunnels of the city's bastion, and the historical museum in the tower itself. We bought a city-wide museum card which gave us access to both, but if you don't have one you can buy a combined ticket, more cheaply than making two separate visits.

The tunnels are only accessible as part of a guided tour, so you'll go down with a small group. You might think the guide is being silly when they offer you a blanket (especially if, like me, you visit at the height of summer) but take one anyway: it's cold underground. You walk through a long series of rooms under the bastion, which have been carefully set up to reflect the use of the tunnels in different time periods. These range from being a Soviet bomb shelter during the Cold War, to being the site of illegal raves and shelter for the homeless.

The second museum is more conventional, if no less interesting, with a series of displays about Tallinn's history and development. These range from typical museum exhibits to videos and multimedia displays.

At the top of the tower, the space opens out into an adorable cafe with spectacular views across the rooftops of Tallinn. It's surprisingly inexpensive for a museum cafe - especially one at the top of five or six flights of steps - and has really nice coffee.

Don't miss the awesome clock. If we had space, I'd totally love to add one of these to my unconventional clock collection:

Thursday, 10 November 2011

A New Light-Packing Challenge

We're flying to Turkey tomorrow, with Thomas Cook. They wanted to charge us extra for hold baggage we figured we'd travel hand luggage only. We normally do, anyway, so that didn't sound too hard. It was only when Ichecked the details on our tickets that we learnt that they only allow 5kg of hand luggage.

Now, I'm known for packing light, but 5kg is very light indeed when my camera weighs over 1kg! I've already jettisoned my laptop, and I'll have to wear my jumper and raincoat and boots. I've even reached the stage of wondering what I can carry in my pockets (Kindle? I'm not sure my pockets are big enough!)

What's the lightest you've travelled when travelling light? Are there any airlines with even more ridiculous restrictions...?

Yep, I'm going away again! There are some posts scheduled, and I'll be back in just over a week.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Signs & Symbols in Tallinn

Looking through my photos from this summer's trip, I noticed that a lot of the pictures I took in Tallinn were of signs and symbols around the city. I'm not sure why these things fascinate me, but Tallinn is a medieval city and maybe one or two of these are original shop signs. And I think the Steampunk Theatre is new since the last time I was in Tallinn.

And finally, we didn't see much graffiti in Estonia, but this one caught my eye. I really have to hope it isn't a comment on my latest novel!

Friday, 4 November 2011

NaNoWriMo: Take 5

It's November, which can only mean one thing. Writing... and lots of it. This is my fifth year of NaNoWriMo. If you're interested, you can follow my progress towards 50k on the NaNo site - and if you're also taking part, you can add me as a 'buddy'.

Here's a snippet from the beginning of the novel I'm working on ths November:


Max rocked onto the back legs of his chair and stared out of the window, trying to ignore his teacher and classmates, glaring down through the rain to study the cars – illegally parked on double yellows – in the street below. Like any eleven-year-old schoolboy, he hated Mondays. Particularly that stage on a grey Monday morning, like this one, when he just wanted to be curled up in bed with a hot water bottle but instead had to sit here on an uncomfortable plastic chair while Miss Arnold took the register and droned on about the week ahead. Miss Arnold was particularly good at droning, he'd decided, and it seemed that every week she had something new to go on about. If it wasn't bullying at the bus stop, it was girls rolling up their skirts or boys taking off their sweaters without permission.

His ears pricked up, however, when she mentioned football. This wasn't part of the usual Monday routine of fire drills and homework diaries.

“So if you want to sign up for the tournament, you need to put your name on this sheet of paper” – she held up a page of A4 – “and then the school will write to your parents for permission.”

Max wasn't completely sure whether his parents would let him play in a football tournament, but along with all the other boys – and even some of the more sporty girls – he stood up and filed to the front of the room. When he got to the front of the line and reached for the pencil, though, Miss Arnold stopped him.

“Sorry, Max,” she said, passing the pencil back to Tommy Wilkes who was looming over his shoulder. “Naturals only.”

“Why? I don't have football genes.”

She shrugged. “Rules of the tournament. Naturals only.”

“Yeah, you can't play football with us, freak!” Tommy said, pushing Max sideways out of the way so he could reach the desk to write his name.

Max turned without thinking and punched Tommy soundly in the face. His knuckles stung with the force of the blow, but from the strange crunching under his fingers he was sure Tommy's nose was coming out worse. He watched with a mixture of pride and horror as blood began to flow from the nose, down over Tommy's arrogant smirking mouth, dripping from his chin and onto his smart white shirt.

And then, realising the implications of what he'd done, Max turned and sprinted from the classroom.

“Maximilian Porter, come back here right now!”

Miss Arnold's voice echoed after him, but there was no way he was going to go back.

He ran through empty corridors, down stairs and to the school's front door. He knew from past experience that if he stood on tiptoes he was just about tall enough to reach the lock and let himself out into the street. He reached up and twisted the catch, pushed the door open, and stepped out into the rain.

Now he was really going to be in trouble.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Sailing from Stockholm to Tallinn

It's no secret that I love boats almost as much as I love sleeper trains, and Andy's mum enjoys cruising, so it was obvious that we should include a few ferry trips in our tour of the Baltic States. And, well, we call them Baltic States because they're on the Baltic, so it was even more obvious that we ought to sail across the Baltic itself. Fortunately there's a regularly scheduled service from Stockholm to Tallinn.

It's an overnight trip, so the first challenge was to find our rooms. The corridors are so long that the end disappears out of sight, and they're all identical, so we were heavily reliant on the little signs pointing towards number ranges.

We had to check in an hour or so before the ship started moving, so we went to explore. The bar-and-nightclub area felt like midnight even though it was still light outside, with gorgeous light displays and ranks of tiny cabaret-style tables. We're not really nightclub people, but it was fun to see this place empty while everyone was still settling in to their rooms.

Of course, the highlight of the trip was the journey itself. The coast along the Baltic is beautiful; this house as we were leaving Sweden might just be my dream spot:

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