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Monday, 3 November 2014

Life as a fourth year modern language student and autumn leaves

It's that time of year again, orange and yellow are becoming the prevalent colours in a world which is temporarily decaying. This decay is beautiful. Seasons always conjure up the same feelings inside of me, it feels like a continuation of where I was last year. I remember a surreal dream-like evening with friends, walking through an eerily quiet campus in France, feeling surprised by the extremely mild temperature and jumping into piles of fallen leaves. There is this need to stay warm, cosy, read and watch series (the walking dead has appropriately arrived just in time for Halloween), hoard food for the winter (my favourite foods are orange: butternut squash curry, pumpkin soup, crates of clementines, roasted sweet potatoes) and stay close to other people. In addition, Edinburgh looks beautiful right now. Sorry summer, autumn is undoubtedly my favourite season.


You know... Just hanging out in trees, standard.



Blackford Hill


Half way into the first semester of my final year of my modern languages degree at the University of Edinburgh. What is life like? As this year constitutes a large percentage of the final degree classification, it is safe to say that stress levels are high in all of my classes. Students who previously evaded optional secondary readings, skipped class or left essay writing to the last minute have raised their game. Strangely, I have found myself with far more time to do the things I enjoy and to hang out with people I care about. Perhaps this is due to the fact I worked so hard in first and second year, maybe I have acquired the basic skills of time management and selective analysis necessary to conquer fourth year? I am yet to find out whether my strategy works exam/essay grade wise, but otherwise I am getting consistently good grades for my weekly translations. I am currently relieved after having finished my last essay of the semester! I couldn't be happier with my choice of flat and flatmates, lucky considering I only had one day to view one flat back in June.
 
Now is apparently the time to start thinking about the future, but I kind of don't want to. I am providing myself with countless possibilities so that when the time comes I can do something enjoyable, but money has never been my main motivator. The likelihood is that I will heading to Asia in 2015; I have already started my application for JET in Japan and several other programmes in China.

As the annual gym membership at the CSE is so reasonable I have been able to go climbing three times a week. I have made good friends with my main climbing buddies, and I have progressed a lot in the last few months. I am now confident doing most 6As and have improved my technique a lot. This is a hobby I am glad to have picked up in the last year. Within the student bubble I have been frequenting more parties than I ever did in first and second year and find that I have been trying out new things. I have escaped the student bubble and finally got involved with the Vegan Edinburgh community, which basically means attending socials with some like-minded people. In the private sphere, I am rediscovering my inner voice, and I am enjoying writing down what it tells me. I have been having many visitors this semester, which is nice. Edinburgh university is really international, so coming back to to the UK doesn't mean leaving that Erasmus feeling of togetherness.



Halloween party at CSE=climbing in the dark=very difficult



I spend a lot of time reading/writing essays in cute little cafés. It's an expensive way to work, but it's effective and fulfilling.

Soya cappuccino and vegan pecan pie, Peter's yard






I enjoy Van Gogh inspired coffee art, Macchina espresso



In other news, this December I will be heading to the states to spend Christmas and New Year with my brother, sister-in-law and nephew! Mainly based in Atlanta, we will also be visiting New Orleans, Alabamah and Memphis. To conquer the expected winter blues that will hit me in February, I am heading to Iceland or Morocco.

Realising that my time in Edinburgh is soon to come to an end I have a few last bucket list ideas (need help achieving them):

Blackford hill Why didn't I come here sooner?! Want to come back as soon as possible!
Eat at Kanpai
Return to Cramond and walk around the island
Visit the Pentlands
Return to the Sheeps Heide Inn in Duddingston with a bunch of friends
Japanese garden in Duddingston
Cycle along the canal
Go back to the Jazz bar and the Voodoo rooms
See a film at the Dominion cinema
Spend an afternoon at the Shore


Thursday, 9 October 2014

Biona organic coconut flour: Product review

From time to time I get sent delicious vegan products to review. This time I was sent a box of Biona coconut flour from Real Foods Edinburgh, a product I was excited to try. Coconut flour is quite "in" right now, its high fibre and naturally gluten free status making it great for baking for people with coeliacs disease or a gluten intolerance. What I didn't realize is that using it in this way was a little easier said than done if trying to create something which is also vegan. Please excuse the phone camera images, I was in a mad rush to complete and eat!

Well-loved box of Biona organic coconut flour


Take 1. Banana pancakes.

The recipe on the back of the box was pancakes, the recipe I wanted to use to taste-test the product. Though very simple (and only using two tablespoons of the coconut flour), this recipe contained eggs. Having successful replaced eggs with mashed bananas in pancakes in the past this was what I did. I noticed that there wasn't much batter and it was very thick. My flatmate and I both took turns trying to toss the stodgy mixture in the pan. It didn't flip, it crumbled...

The result was quite tasty but resembled mashed potato rather than pancakes. We added chocolate to the goo and decided it was quite delicious, in a "that's so wrong kind of way".

gooey chocolatey sweet thing

Verdict: a bit of a flop appearance and consistency-wise but still tasty.



Take 2. Flax seed pancakes.

One week later and I was still trying to fathom what had gone wrong. Had I used to much mashed banana? Too little milk? I decided to try again using ground flax seed plus water as an egg replacement. There was still not much batter, and what there was turned out very thick and grainy. I fried the batter this time, and came out with beautiful little wholemeal/high fibre pancakes. They bound together well and I could turn them without the fear of eating pudding for breakfast. I served them with sliced bananas and a little agave syrup.

Browning nicely...





Ready to devour!



Verdict: The coconut taste was quite evident and did make the texture more grainy, but in a good way. I loved the exotic flavour it added to my pancakes.


Take 3. Banana Bread.

Having had reasonable success with the last batch of pancakes I thought I would incorporate the coconut flour into a cake recipe. I was making banana bread and used 2/3 buckwheat and 1/3 coconut flour in this recipe



Verdict: In my opinion mixing the coconut flour with another type of flour is the best way to use it in vegan recipes. It made the cake very moist and gave it a slightly coconuty flavour which melted in the mouth. I think this is how I will use the flour next time (I still have a lot left in the box!)


Biona organic coconut flour is available from Real Foods Edinburgh, 500g coming in at £3.99. This will last for ages!

Friday, 26 September 2014

Goodbye Summer...

After two awful days (including waking up in Scotland, 5 hours in Germany, one day and one night in Amsterdam) I am free of a curse which lay over me. What was otherwise a horribly unplanned day and night  in Amsterdam was made better by the kindness of strangers. I did make the most of my time too, stocking up on gelatine-free fizzy cola bottles at Candy Freaks and walking along the pretty canals. Edinburgh is windy but the air somehow feels calmer, the atmosphere less hostile and far more welcoming. In the last few weeks I have walked around Edinburgh a lot, drank many cups of coffee and renewed friendships which I had almost on pause during my year abroad. I have become closer to people, less nauseous and more optimistic about the future. I also woke up with a comforting feeling in my chest. As that cliché goes, look beyond the storm and there's a rainbow. I am finally allowed to enjoy the present moment, which is currently lying in bed "doing translations", i.e. taking a study break.

Not quite as nice as when I was here in May...


When he asked me how many cola bottles I wanted, I replied "all of them".


I have been invited to go to Atlanta for Christmas to spend time with my brother with a trip to New York for new year. I am back to feeling motivated about progressing with my studies after being a little distracted for a while. For next year I have many options, but no rush to decide is required. Whilst I will still be applying to teach in Asia, thoughts of doing postgraduate studies in New York have been resurfacing (an old dream). Subjects in my mind range from Chinese language and Oriental art to International Development. No idea where I end up, but I hope I end up doing something meaningful. Oui, la vie est belle. For now it's time to enjoy the last bit of time I have in Edinburgh.



Arthur's seat from Salisbury crags

Victoria street, Edinburgh


I was pleased to see that Scotland didn't get its independence and remained a part of something bigger with no borders. More chances for a socialist Britain. Conversely I am glad to have my own independence back after quite a few years. I can finally step out and do things without feeling guilty about dragging someone along or leaving someone behind. 

Backing track to my life right now:



And to finish on a cheesier note, I walked up to the top of Salisbury crags to the place where the film One Day was filmed. Admittedly I must face up to the fact that I am a helpless romantic, knowing that the film is set in Edinburgh makes it resonate more with me.


Salisbury crags

“Live each day as if it's your last', that was the conventional advice, but really, who had the energy for that? What if it rained or you felt a bit glandy? It just wasn't practical. Better by far to simply try and be good and courageous and bold and to make a difference. Not change the world exactly, but the bit around you. Go out there with your passion and your electric typewriter and work hard at...something. Change lives through art maybe. Cherish your friends, stay true to your principles, live passionately and fully and well. Experience new things. Love and be loved, if you ever get the chance.”

-David Nicholls, One Day

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

After a couple of weeks in Cambridge, a 10 hour drive from south to north and two days saying goodbye to my beautiful feline friends and my parent's home in the highlands (and helping to box up my things), I am back in Edinburgh.



I said goodbye to this...

My home for the last 4 years.


and hello again to this... The meadows


During my year abroad I largely avoided winter. With the exception of a two day coldspell in Grenoble and a -12 degrees celcius weekend in Berlin, I had a very long summer. But now, it must be said,"winter is coming".




Whilst down south I did have a bit of the post-year abroad blues (mainly when thinking about Grenoble), but I am extremely happy to be back to my busy schedule here in this city... Even if winter is on its way. I am back to friends (new and old), cosy coffee shops, great teaching, interesting courses, live Doctor Who, the V sign clearly written on every package, climbing, yoga, a pretty flat and a beautiful new neighbourhood. There is a wee bit of pressure and stress to follow, but nothing too painful I hope.

I am not sure whether or not this will be my last year in Edinburgh, but I love this city.

Tomorrow the Scottish referendum will take place. After much deliberation I decided I will be voting no. Mainly because I am not a fan of nationalism, prejudice nor borders. I believe in uniting nations, not dividing them.



Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Gone in a flash. Goodbye Asia... For now...

After a 18 hour flight (including stopovers), no sleep, a missing bag and much running for connecting flights, I am back in the UK. The final week in North Vietnam was a highlight. After a bumpy 14 hour bus journey from Hue to Hanoi and a lazy day coffee-crawling around Hanoi we took an overnight train to Lao Cai. Lao Cai is only 3km from the Chinese border, though most tourists (us included) use it as a means to get to Sapa.

Sapa is a small French hill station in the North-Western highlands.With its meandering colonial streets and outstanding views of the mountains and rice terraces, it is a truly picturesque place. Local women coming from tribes such as the H'mong (with Tibetan origins) where colourful clothing and carry straw baskets try to sell their home stays and handicrafts, immediately presenting the traveler with a culture quite different to that of the low lands. Most are friendly but they can also hassle you a lot if you decide to go on a hike without a local guide... Sapa is a nature-lovers paradise. Whilst lacking in wildlife (as is the case in most of Vietnam due to excessive poaching), there are numerous waterfalls, peaks, treks, raging rapids, valleys and deep canyons to explore. We visited the Silver and Love waterfalls by motorbike, did a 15km hike through the Muong Hoa valley and visited Cat Cat village. In town we ate a lot of pumpkin soup, fresh tofu and French baked goods and I indulged in a few spa treatments. I could have stayed longer in Sapa even if I were just hanging around. This was a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi.


View from our motorbike ride




Silver waterfall

Love waterfall

View from our room in Sapa

Sapa


trek through the Muong Hoa valley




"splurgey" £3 meal with a view at the Hill Station

Cat Cat waterfalls




Whilst waiting for our train back to Hanoi we attempted to cross the Vietnam-China border.Yes, you need a visa, but we were told that there are some areas where you can go across for a little to go shopping. We got turned down, of course, but looking at China which was a few meters away made me feel a little nostalgic for a trip I made 2 years ago.



Directly after our overnight train back to Hanoi we got a pick up to join the luxury Imperial Junk cruise for a night in Halong bay. As expected, the structure of the trip was a little too rigid though what we saw was interesting and the room was comfortable. With the trip we visited the Surprising cave, kayaked around the bay and spent a bit of time on a small island. The food on board for vegetarians was pretty bad. There was tofu and many vegetables but everything was floating in MSG and made with little love. After dinner we took a cocktail to the top deck and I counted 8 shooting stars. Meanwhile a big group of English people were drinking, likely vomiting, and as cliche as it is, spending the next few days talking about how wasted they were, and consequentially, what a great night it must have been.



Halong bay


surprising cave








After a-far-too-early breakfast and an unnecessary trip to a pearl farm (felt sorry for the oysters...), we took a small boat deeper into the bay and arrived at our bungalow on Nat Cat island. The light on the way to the island was quite magical, though interrupted by a brief but violent storm. We had a sea view onto a secluded bay and kayak rent was included, so we spent the afternoon exploring the local coves, caves and beaches and chickening out of going deep water soloing. After a bit of time chilling on the beach we got fed again, this time in an excessive quantity.


gliding through misty mountains



bungalows on Nat Cat island beach


view from our bungalow









The following morning we got yet another early boat trip, this time heading to Cat Ba island. After finding an inexpensive hotel and resting we explored the island a bit by motorbike, heading to hospital cave and afterwards taking a short "walk" through Cat Ba national park,home of the rarest primate on earth, the Cat Ba languor (being rare we obviously didn't see any of them). This walk turned out to be more of a muddy and rocky climb through a jungle full of beautiful butterflies and not-so-beautiful mosquitos. We emerged from the rocky limestone outcrop with a beautiful view of the misty, hilly jungle-scape. That night we witnessed a crazily loud storm in the bay, one clap of thunder sounded like a bomb and shook our room.


Cat Ba national park






The following day we got picked up again by our tour and had an even worse lunch whilst cruising through the beautiful halong bay back to the harbour. After a bit of waiting and 4 hours in a minibus we arrived at our final destination, Hanoi. That evening we ate in a vegetarian restaurant which had received good reviews, but was a little disappointing with regards to the high price and mediocre food. We then walked around the centre, the lake, spoke to locals in a park to help them with their English and rested. The following day we did the same, but also visited Notre Dame, the Opera house and the temple of literature.



Hanoi French quarters



Notre Dame







Hanoi Opera house


The temple of literature






As tradition somehow goes, our farewell lunch was a vegetarian Indian feast. It's always sad to say goodbye to a continent, a place and a person...

And so ends my official year abroad, but definitely not my last. I have visited 11 countries this academic year and three continents. Now for one final burn at Edinburgh University and then onward and outward to other things...