Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Use it up!

A few weeks ago I dug into the pantry looking for some vanilla paste and somewhere in the middle of pulling everything out onto the countertop, I realised I had a problem. There was a LOT of stuff in that pantry – and there were also multiple copies of some items hiding away behind each other.

A quick inventory told me that – among other things – I had six cartons of chicken stock, four packets of red curry mix, three packets of flour (two plain, one self-raising), four cans of coconut milk, three tins of tomato (I don’t eat tomato) and a range of odds and ends that I’ve bought to use in preparation for a dish long eaten and forgotten.
Pantry items
No grocery items were wasted in the taking of this photo.

Now none of the items were past their use by date. I’m pretty good about doing a quick check of expiry dates. But honestly, why should that be necessary? And who needs six cartons of chicken stock in their lives? The shops are open every day till late. There are several places within walking or short driving distance. It’s not like there is going to be a national shortage of the stuff any time soon. So why was I stocking up like there was a forthcoming zombie apocalypse?

A review of my shopping behaviour made me realise how often I go out without a real plan about what I need. Wandering the aisles aimlessly and wondering what I’m going to cook for dinner only leads to poor decision making and purchasing things I don’t need. And those, “two-for-one-special-price” deals are obviously something I’m susceptible to. If I see a special offer on something I know that I use often, I get it – but how much of a surplus of something do you need just because it was a tiny bit cheaper?

So took action. Enter ‘Operation Use it Up’.

Cooking decisions have been based around items I already have on hand. One of the cartons of chicken stock became cauliflower and potato soup. Another made a delicious bacon and mushroom risotto that fed me for several days. I made a cake with plain flour and added some raising agent and then I whipped up cheese and corn fritters with some pre-bought cans of creamed corn.

I found websites that made recipe suggestions based on ingredients I already had and got a bit inventive in swapping out ingredients I had on hand for other items I didn’t.

I’ve also made some much-needed changes to my shopping behaviour. A brightly coloured notebook now lives on the kitchen benchtop and I make a list before I leave the house of exactly what I need. If something is on a two-for-one special, I only buy if there are no stocks left at home. Unless it’s Lindt chocolate because, well, Lindt.

Aside from the most obvious benefit of saving money, I’m feeling much more comfortable about the benefits of my little campaign. Each empty space in my pantry is a sign that I’ve been more conscious of my own actions. I’m planning more and wasting less and feeling much more mindful about my choices. It’s quite empowering.

Now I’m taking my campaign onto other things. I’ve gone through the bathroom and lined up all the shower gels and other items I’ve found for use and no more will be bought until they are all gone. I’m also going through my kindle and finding books I haven’t read and trying to get through those before I buy any more – although that might take me a few years!

Have you ever had a similar realisation? And how do you manage the balance between keeping a reasonable stock of pantry items and not overbuying?

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Toowoomba is bloomin’ beautiful

Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers
It's springtime in Queensland and after a wetter than normal winter, everything is green and blooming. Last week I took a drive up to Toowoomba to check out the city's gardens ahead of the launch of their annual Carnival of Flowers festival.

The festival began in 1949 and has been an iconic event in the city’s calendar for 67 years. My grandmother lived in Toowoomba for a time, and as a child I remember visiting her during spring and going to Queens Park to look at the perfect lines of tulips and gaily coloured beds of pansies.

These days I love to take my camera along for the journey and I've spent many happy hours crawling around the flower beds with my macro lens, capturing vibrant snapdragons and perfect poppies. I’m always trying to capture the moment that a fat bumble bee will perch on a bloom to scoop some pollen onto the panniers on their legs.  

Some years it’s been rainy and other it’s been freezing cold. There was even one memorable year where the city was thrashed by gale force winds which buffeted all the flowers flat and made it impossible to photograph anything. But on this day, the gardens were at their brilliant best and everything was in bloom and ready to be enjoyed.

Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers
The sky was soft blue and the temperature was a perfect 24 degrees (Celsius – that would be 75.2 Fahrenheit). The winds were gentle and mild and it was easy to time my photos between the puffs of breeze which made the flowers dance gently before they stilled to pose beautifully for me again.

The gardeners’ plant pretty much the same kind of flowers each time, but they vary their arrangements each year, mixing up colour and style to create different effects. Every time I visit I find a different thing to photograph.

 After we’d enjoyed the scenery in Queens Park, we drove around the centre of town and picked up some sushi to take with us to the Ju Raku En Japanese garden which sits on the northern side of the University of Southern Queensland campus. We strolled around the lake, accompanied by some hopeful geese and a bush turkey or two and admired the blooming cherry blossoms and soaked up the sunshine. 
Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers

We ended the day with a stop at Picnic Point to admire the view down the range before reluctantly heading back to Brisbane. 

The Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers 2016 will be hosting events right up till 25 September, so there’s still time to plan a visit. Check out their events calendar here. And if you’d like to know more about the ever growing city of Toowoomba, visit the Toowoomba Living website to find out about the art, food, entertainment and culture of this vibrant city. I’ll certainly be back.

Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers

Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers

Toowoomba Carnival of Flowers

Monday, 1 August 2016

Projects big and small

Last Friday I finished a contract for a project I've been working on for the past eight months and today is the first day of life "post project" while I take some time off to recharge and look around for the next opportunity.

Projects are both the best and worst jobs you can do. They are great because they give you one big goal to work towards and there is generally a great sense of solidarity with your project team because you all have a part to play. 

Most projects work to a similar style and structure - so once you've done one, you can step into another and get a sense of the rhythm of the work pretty easily.  The other great thing about projects is that they aren't like everyday working life. They are set up for a specific purpose and they don't generally have much to do with the day to day work of an office, so they can be a nice break from a normal working environment.

But on the other side of the coin, projects usually work in fairly contracted timeframes, which get tighter and tighter as you get closer to your deadline. There are always a lot of competing goals for people to achieve and sometimes the priorities can get a bit confused. There is also a fair bit of pressure to deliver your part of the puzzle so you don't let anyone else down.   

The last four months of this project have been super busy - and with every passing week, the hours I spent at work stretched and grew. First I started going home half an hour later - and then another hour. Next, I started moving the alarm backwards and catching an earlier bus into work. 

I drafted emails while eating breakfast, wrote post-it notes when I got out of the shower, went into work on Saturday morning for a few hours, and then added more time on a Sunday afternoon. Before I knew it, I was devoting most of my time to work. And thinking about it. And dreaming about it. All. The. Time. 

I don't share this admission as something to be proud of because frankly, it's not a good way to work and doesn't promote any kind of work life balance. Neither was there anyone standing over me pushing me to do the hours I was doing. But the project team was pretty small, the deadlines were short, and we had some big tasks to deliver. So like many others, I rolled up my sleeves and knuckled down to the job. 

It's been more than a bit stressful at times; but now that it's done, I feel like there have been rewards. The planning and effort I put into my work really paid off and I got some great feedback from both the project team and our stakeholders. There's also been an enormous sense of acheivement in reaching a goal I've been striving towards and knowing that I have played a part of delivering something great. 

After a few weeks of closing out jobs, it was time to pack up my desk and say goodbye - which I found equally sad and exciting. After eight months, I'd got settled and had put down roots. I'd worked out the personalities, made friends, and knew how to work the photocopier. After working hard to fit in, it was time to step out and move on. It was strange waking up this morning and think of people going into the office and working without me. 

But on the plus side, I had a glorious sleep-in and now I'm sitting in one of my favourite cafes and starting a few writing projects that have been buzzing around my head for the past few months. I've got time to catch-up with friends - and the laundry - do some errands, and maybe take a few days away at the beach. And who knows what exciting opportunity is just around the corner?

For now, I can enjoy the sense of achievement that comes from knowing I've worked hard, delivered a great outcome and earned a break.

It's time to unwind, slow down, and stop thinking about this job - before I start thinking about the next one. And that all feels pretty good. 

Friday, 15 July 2016

Memories of Bastille Day in a happier time

Two years ago I spent Bastille Day on the beach in Nice with friends.
We sat in the sun and admired the perfect sky and crashing waves, then we wandered the streets and stopped at a café for a leisurely lunch.
We watched the annual parade along the Promenade des Anglais and then joined thousands of revellers to ooh and ahh the spectacular fireworks spread out above the French Riviera. It was a perfect day of happiness and harmony and we were so happy to have been able to share it with the people of Nice.

It’s hard to imagine a composite view of Nice today – a place where fear, terror, and loss will mark the memories of so many. The casual, carefree feeling of a seaside town celebrating a national holiday will be gone for now – but it will return.

There’s never anything new you can say about an act of violence and terror – but I’m going to say all the old statements anyway, because this is just NOT OK.

It is not OK to drive a truck into crowds of people and take the lives of innocent people.

It is not OK to think that you have a God given right to make such a violent public statement.

I don’t care what your religion or politics are – this is not ok.
Love and prayers to the people of France - and to any area where violence takes away the simple joys of people united in celebration and unity.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Staying home but reading abroad

It's summer in Europe and my Instagram feed is filled with photos of people eating ice cream along the banks of the Seine, daffodils in the English countryside, and waves crashing on pebbly Italian beaches. Oh how I wish I could be there! Spring and summer in Europe are magical seasons where the sky is always blue, the days go on forever, and a cold beer is the perfect way to end a day where you have walked and walked and walked.

Unfortunately work commitments and lack of funds mean that the closest I will get to Europe this year will be a croissant at my local bakery, but in the meantime I am travelling the world in my imagination and going back through my collection of travel books.

If you've never discovered the genre, you are in for a treat. Travel books let you explore new places through the eyes of the author for much less than the cost of a plane ticket - all while snuggled comfortably under your doona. You won't loose your passport, get blisters, or suffer from jet lag (unless you stay up all night reading). You can revisit favourite places, or discover locations you'd never normally visit. So pack your bag, fasten your seatbelt and browse through my top 10 travel books.

Do not read this book on an empty stomach. This account of Englishman Peter Mayle's first year living and renovating a house in Provence in the early 80's is full of hearty country meals, young vino and good olive oil. Warm, quirky characters and plenty of humorous moments - all set amidst the sublime Provincial countryside - make for an entertaining stroll through the seasons. I have always loved this book - but even more so after visiting the region a few years ago and tasting the magic of Provence for myself. There really is nowhere else like it.

This account of an Aussie's experiences as a tour guide in a double-decker bus crossing Europe is just gold. I started reading it on a flight from Barcaldine to Brisbane, sitting in the very back row of the plane and laughing so much that people down the aisle turned to see what was so funny. From hilarious observations about Aussies abroad to crazy anecdotes about how to survive 35 days on the road as an impoverished tour guide, it's the easiest trip you'll ever take.

This was my book of 2015. Copywriter Janice MacLeod realised that she needed a major break from the corporate world, so she challenged herself to make changes to her life and save enough money for a year's sabbatical. She set off on her trip, planning to travel around the world - except that in Paris she fell in love and decided to stay.  But the story doesn't end there. The joy of discovering her new home town and the love of a good man gave Janice the idea to create painted story letters of Paris that became a worldwide hit.

A love story. In Paris. With recipes. What's not to love? And then read Picnic in Provence if you want to know what happened next.

Yes, there is a French theme here.

Before Julia Child, became Julia Child, she and her husband Paul moved to France where he had a job at the American embassy. They fell in love with the city, it's people, and the food; and Julia found her passion in food and cooking. Yes, this is the story of what led to the creation of "Mastering the art of French cooking" but it's also a beautiful account of France from the 1940's to the 70's and a joyous tale of love, friendship, cooking and eating.

In the year that he turned 40, Peter Moore bought a Vespa made in the year off his birth and drove it from Milan to Rome. 'Sophia' took him on a journey of discovery around Italy, where he travelled the prettier back roads and got to know the locals as they admired - and occasionally helped him repair - his fabulous Vespa. 

We always imagine that the rich and famous don't experience travel the way that we do. But really, every tourist shares similar experiences.  This collection of travel tales from people like Alec Baldwin, Richard E Grant, and Sandra Bernhard is really entertaining. My favourite tale is from Anthony Edwards, who bought a plane with his wife and spent a year travelling the globe with their 4 children, two pilots and a school teacher. Amazing and heart warming.

My mum bought me this when I was about 15, so it was probably the first travel book I ever read. Gerald Durrell's tale of his time living in Corfu with his family and a host of animals is a light and humorous read - a picture perfect view into a simpler life.

Alexa Thompson needed a change in her life, so she gave up her corporate job and applied to be a cook in the coldest place on earth. This isn't always a glamorous tale - and I don't think that I could have done it - but it was a fascinating view into a world most of us won't ever see.

Bill Bryson
There are too many lovely Bill Bryson books out there to name just one and he is certainly one of the most well known travel writers in the genre. A journalist from Iowa, Bill set out for Europe after college and ended up in London. I get the feeling he's probably a pretty quiet bloke, but he doesn't miss much and his dry humour translates his experiences beautifully wherever he goes. My most recent re-read has been 'A walk in the woods' and I've just bought 'The road to little Dribbling'. If you haven't read him before and don't know where to start - 'Notes from a small island' is probably a good place.

If there was a theme to the books I've chosen here, it's probably that they tell simple tales of everyday life in un-everyday locations. Misadventures and extreme activities are always entertaining, but travelling with all your possessions in one bag, being in a place where you don't speak the language, and experiencing different cultures and cuisines are things that every traveller can relate to - and maybe that's why we like reading about them so much.

If only you could get stamps in your passport for it.

So what are your favourite travel books?

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