Sunday, 22 April 2012

Stephen Booth and the Chinley Book Festival

This afternoon I went along to the first ever Chinley book festival. It hadn't been well advertised - I only found out about it when I saw Stephen Booth mention on his website that he would be speaking at it. A google search didn't turn up much more information. I arrived not really knowing what to expect but hoping that the Stephen Booth talk wouldn't be sold out as I've wanted to attend one of his talks for a while now. 

Chinley is a village in the Peak District not too far from Chapel-en-le-frith. Booth's books are about two police officers who are based in the fictional town of Edendale in the Peak District. They have an alarming number of murders to solve and their cases take them all over the Peak to many real locations as well as fictional ones. 

The book festival was rather small scale, but then I wasn't expecting a Derbyshire equivalent of Hay-on-Wye. One hall had a few stalls including one which had second hand books for sale very cheaply. I bought eight. Another stall was advising people on the advantages of e-readers and had a Kindle and a Kobo to show people. After talking to the lady on the stall I'm finally thinking seriously about getting one.

My entry ticket which cost £1 included a free drink, so I had a bowl of broccoli soup and then indulged in a piece of banana cake with my free coffee. There were tables and chairs set out in the middle of the room so I was able to sit with food and coffee and peruse my new books. 

At 3pm I went to the another hall a couple of minutes away for the talk. I think most of the talks had been quite poorly attended, but Booth's talk had about 40 people in the audience. As the hall was only small this was quite a lot. He talked for the best part of an hour and it was really interesting. He spoke about how he decides on the locations for his books (the 12th is coming out in June) and why he has a mix of real and fictional places. He realised quite early on that the locations were really important to his readers and that many readers try to work out either where the fictional places are or where the places are that he only vaguely refers to and doesn't actually name. He gets lots of emails from readers who go to specific places just because they are in the books. 

I can understand this. Although I wouldn't go out of my way to look for a telephone box just because it had been mentioned in a book, if I was near that telephone box and someone pointed it out to me, I'd be quite interested and would probably take a photo. 

All in all it was quite an interesting talk and I was glad I'd made the effort to go.

Friday, 20 April 2012

The evolution of a blog

It's now a year since I started this blog. I'd previously played around with different ideas for blogs and although I like to think they were good ideas I never really got into them. They never felt quite right for me. This one, on the other hand, seems to have become a natural extension of the things I do. It sometimes feels as though it almost writes itself. I started it as a way of focusing on the things that I'd like to do over the course of the next big chunk of my life and as way of motivating me to achieve these things. Though it's still heavily aimed at this primary purpose it's evolved into a place where I can record the things I do, eat, think, read or generally find interesting regardless of how relevant they are to my 60 goals. I used to keep diaries when I travelled during my gap decade, but I got out of the habit when I settled back in the UK. This is almost a way of keeping a diary again, but one I can access anywhere in the world as long as I have an internet connection.

Looking back over my goals and achievements I feel I've made quite a good start. I don't have 60 things on my list yet as I'm sure I'll think of more things as time goes on and I didn't want to add challenges just for the sake of reaching a total of 60. Assuming I do end up with 60, as long as I achieve at the rate of four a year I will be done in plenty of time. Over the past year I've achieved six. One of which was a big one - seeing the Northern Lights. There are at least another three that I should achieve in the next few months, and others that are bubbling along nicely. So the blog is fulfilling its purpose. Some of my achievements are things I probably wouldn't have done without it as although they'd have still been at the back of my mind, I would have kept putting off doing anything about them. So all in all I'm feeling pretty happy with myself and the way things are coming along.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Thinking about communism

As I was sat on the bus coming back to Prague from Terezin, I was thinking about how different life is now to how it was just over twenty years ago. It's 23 years since the Velvet Revolution ended communism and this seems like no time at all to me.

I'm glad I went to Russia back in the '80s as I feel this enables me to appreciate the extent to which people's lives have changed. Of course two holidays of carefully orchestrated experiences won't have given me a real idea of what life was like under communism, but I've got a much better idea than someone who hasn't experienced it at all. When I was in Russia, it wasn't the major things that surprised me. I expected the food to be different for example, but it was the unexpected things, the things I took so much for granted I couldn't ever imagine them possibly being different. I suppose it was the whole feel of the place, the vibe. The honesty, the civil obedience.

So in my few days here I keep looking at people my age and older and thinking how different their world is now to the one they grew up in. For the older people, they will also remember life under the Nazi occupation as well as communism - even more change for them. When I see people in their 20s walking around and looking like normal young people who could be from the majority of the world - their dress, their hairstyles, the music on their t-shirts, their casual deportment and mannerisms - I wonder how their parents can recognise their lives at all.

Every generation's children is different to their parents and parents may fret about how their offspring or the general 'youth of today' are behaving, what they're wearing, what they're listening too, what their attitudes are. But this example must surely be the most extreme. The young people of today will either have been born after the fall of communism or be too young to have any real memory of it. A bit like my memories of the power cuts of the '70s - a bit exciting, but no sense of hardship or the bigger picture. What changes their parents have had to cope with to get to where they are today.

What is even more sobering and makes me feel really old is that some of these young people will have children of their own - that's already a second generation of children with no experience of communism. A generation that not only doesn't know communism itself, but one whose parents also don't it.

Saturday, 7 April 2012


Maultaschen (singular = maultasche) are a German type of ravioli known particularly in the Swabian region of southern Germany. They are large pasta parcels and traditionally have a meat filling. It's now possible to buy them with a variety of fillings, including fish, mushroom and vegetable (gemuse). Each maultasche is quite large being at least 8cm long.  

My favourite maultaschen are those made by 'Burger'. This is one of the cheaper brands and can be found in most supermarkets. However, it is also one of the tastiest brands.

The easiest way to prepare them is to boil them in vegetable stock and eat them with the resulting soup. They can also be fried. A popular way to serve them is to boil them first, and then slice them and fry them up with eggs. Keep stirring so the eggs scramble. Another way is to boil them and then place them in a lasagne dish. Cover them with a sauce made from single cream and tomato soup powder. Slice mozzarella over the top and bake them till the mozzarella has melted and the sauce is bubbling.

A popular story about the origin of maultaschen is that they were invented by monks from Maulbronn Monastery to hide the fact that they were eating meat during lent. This dish has the nickname of Herrgottsbscheißerle which roughly translates to “little ones who cheat the Lord”. Although maultaschen are readily available and enjoyed throughout the year, they are particularly seen as a traditional food during Easter week.

“Schwäbische Maultaschen” has been recognized as a regional specialty by the Gazette of the European Communities. This means that genuine Maultaschen have to be produced in Swabia, Baden-Württemberg, or the Swabian speaking areas of Bavaria.

Driving on the wrong side of the road

I've thought of another challenge to add to my list: drive confidently on the wrong side of the road. Up until now I've not had a vehicle I would have been willing to trust on a journey to the continent, but now I have my van I really should give it a go. 

I know from cycling in the Netherlands that going straight isn't too much of a problem; the real issues arise when I have to go round corners or change lanes. But particularly going round corners. I automatically go back on to what to me is the right side of the road. I think the first time I do this I have to have someone with me as an extra pair of eyes. Hm, now where am I going to find a volunteer for this job?

Friday, 6 April 2012


Spaetzle are a type of noodle commonly found in southern Germany. They can easily be bought ready made in supermarkets, in the same way we can buy ready made fresh pasta in the UK. I like them fried up with finely chopped onions and then lots of gruyere stirred into them. They're great with some added chilli sauce.

I found the recipe below on Jamie Oliver's website.


Swabian Spaetzle

500g white wheat flour
5 large eggs
1-2 tsp salt
1/4 l cold water

Spaetzle are a famous Swabian / South German (side) dish, served with all kinds of roasts and much gravy. Gratinated with cheese and served as a main dish with fried onions, they are called 'Kässpätzle' .

Make the spaetzle dough by mixing all ingredients (flour, eggs, salt, and water) with a wooden spood. Beat the dough until it shows blisters. Let it rest for 10 min.

Bring a big pot with water to boil and then add salt.

It's traditional to hand-scrape the spaetzle into the boiling water by using a cutting board and a knife or palette. But I use my Spätzlehobel, you could use a colander with rather big holes instead. Just let some tbsps of the dough drop into the boiling water.

The spaetzle are done, as soon as they begin to swim on the surface. Remove them from the boiling water and start again until all dough is used up. If you serve it as a plain side dish, you may want to fry the spaetzle gently in a bit of butter.

Horse leading

My youngest niece was six on Monday and as a birthday treat she'd asked to go horse riding. As neither her nor her sister have learnt to ride this meant they each sat on the back of a horse and were led around the area. Two children, two horses meant two adult leaders. Two adult leaders meant both my brother and myself were called into service.

I was a little dubious about this as my track record with horses is not good. The only time I've ridden was once in Iceland a couple of summers ago. I rented a horse for an hour and went out with a guide. As it was my first time I had a docile horse and we went very slowly. What could go wrong? Well, first my horse got a bit spooked by a car on the road, reared up and threw me off into the path of said car. The driver, who luckily was going very slowly, seemed a bit bemused to have a person suddenly land in front of him. But it wasn't a problem. I'd felt like I'd fallen in slow motion and so wasn't hurt at all. The horse was fine and I got back on. It was probably only my inexperience that caused this anyway as I'm sure anyone with even the remotest idea of equine behaviour would have been fine and controlled the situation without a problem. 

The remainder of the ride back to the stable was uneventful and I quite enjoyed my brief experience. Of course, once back at the stable, I had to dismount. As I slid inelegantly from the saddle my finger caught in the mane and twisted. An hour or two later it was swelling badly and I was in a lot of pain with it. I had to pack up my tent, catch the bus to the next place and re-pitch my tent. All of this I did very slowly. The next day it was even worse. I went to the pharmacist who sent me to the clinic who sent me to the hospital. It turned out I'd broken my finger. But it was no ordinary break - why do something the normal way when you can make it more complicated? My x-rays had to be sent to Reykjavik for a specialist to look at and advise. 

So as can be seen, my experiences with horses has not been very positive so far. The irony of how I can fall off and be fine, but then break my finger when getting off correctly was not lost on me. Luckily I'm fairly resiliant and the whole experience hasn't put me off wanting to learn to ride. If anything I want to do this even more now as I don't like feeling beaten by something. 

However, I might be happy to get on a horse again myself, but it's a whole different story being in charge of horse with my young niece sat on its back. And to make me even more nervous, no riding hats were provided. We walked along the road and down a few lanes round the fields in a big circle. The horses stopped a few times to let us know that they were really in charge - they'd refuse to move for a few minutes - but overall it was absolutely fine. I was really relieved when we got back safe and sound though!

Silent Spring

By Rachel Carson

I first came across this book more than 10 years ago when I read a mention of it in a friend's Open University course materials. It was suggested background reading for a course on the '60s. It went onto my reading wish list but I only got round to getting myself a copy recently. This year celebrates 50 years since it was published, so I suppose it's as good a time as any to read it. Unintentionally it was actually quite appropriate to be reading it in Germany as the Germans got more than a few mentions.

This book was the first of its kind - a real wake-up call to society, pointing out the issues and problems caused by a fast-growing reliance on pesticides. It was highly influential in the fledgling environmental movement and really makes me wonder how 'green' conscious we would all be today if Carson hadn't written this book. It probably helped that the '60s was also the era of the hippie and a book like this would have fitted right in with hippie culture.

Carson, chapter by chapter, talks us through the different pesticides; how and why they were invented, how they may have seemed to work at first, but how the 'pests' they were supposed to kill soon adapted and become resistant. A real example of Darwin's survival of the fittest and evolution in action.

She points out how many unintended species had their populations decimated and in some cases were completely wiped out. As many of these species of insect, bird or fish are either a food source to ourselves or are natural predators to the 'pests' this was disastrous. The pesticides also had a detrimental effect on human life causing health problems and even death to many people who were exposed to them.

Many of the pesticides seem to have been invented by Germans. The irony of how they are now one of the most environmentally conscious nations on the planet was not lost on me. I did wonder why though - is it because they had pesticides before anyone else, did the damage before anyone else, and so got cleaning up before anyone else? Or is it because they feel guilty? Or do I need to be more cynical? They were the forerunners in producing the pesticides and so made lots of money from them. Now they're the forerunners in cleaning up the mess (they sell a lot of solutions apparently), so they're still making lots of money.

Reading the book you wonder how people could have been so stupid. 'This pesticide we tried has killed lots of fish we used to like to eat and harmed a lot of people and the insects are still as abundant as ever. What shall we do? Oh, I know, let's use an even bigger dose of pesticide'. But of course it still goes on. Do we never learn?

As an alternative to pesticides Carson proposes importing natural predators, but with hindsight is this a good idea? Could the imported predators create problems of their own?

The book starts to seem a bit repetitive after a while, but then I'm used to hearing this. At the time of writing it was something completely new. It was revolutionary in its time and changed the way people thought. That we take the environmental movement for granted now and use words like 'eco-friendly' and 'green' as part of our normal vocabulary is a measure of it's impact.

Carson was trained as a scientist and researched many scientific papers for this book. However, it is written in a way easily understandable to a layman, which of course helped it become so popular. After researching and writing about cancer inducing pesticides and chemicals it is another irony that she died from cancer in 1964 a mere two years after publication. How sad that she never got to see the impact her work has had on the world.

Thursday, 5 April 2012


Germany has some great food. Ok, so a lot of it is meat and of no interest to me, but the meat-free food can be delicious. Take bretzels for example. Big bread pretzels. Bought at the right bakers they are mouth-wateringly divine. The bread is so light and soft on the inside, yet the outside is really crisp and crunchy. They have a sprinkling of large salt crystals scattered across them. They usually cost about 50 cents, though I did find them in Lidl for 29 cents - the bakery ones are better though.

Bretzels get their brown colour from lye. This used to be used as a cleaning agent and disinfectant. Some time in the 18th century a baker accidently dropped a batch of bretzel dough into his bucket of lye. He decided to bake them anyway and the modern lye bretzel was born. Lye bretzels are particulaly popular in Southern Germany and the name 'bretzel' is just a variation of the more common 'pretzel'. 

They are bought everywhere here as a quick snack and the children love them. When I do see them in the UK they're more of an expensive treat and not nearly as nice. 

I've heard about an Australian guy who'd liked them so much he started importing the dough to Australia and baking them there. He's now a millionaire. Now there's a business idea I could follow up on ...

Hilleberg Akto

Yesterday we called in at one of the big camping shops in Heilbronn. I'd wanted to see a Hilleberg Akto when I was looking for my new lightweight tent recently. All the reviews I'd read rated it highly. It's large enough to fit one person comfortably and someone my height can easily sit up in it. The porch area is large which is great for cooking or storing a backpack or muddy boots. It has a single pole and can be erected inner and outer simultaneously in less than five minutes. It's made of a very thin lighweight material that is also extremely weather resistant meaning it should stand up to quite ferocious storms. 

When I decided to buy the Vango Helium 100 instead there were two things that swung me: the price and the weight. At around #400 it's really expensive - in the shop yesterday it was priced at just under €500. As they are made by a small company and don't change much from year to year they are not like other tents which can easily be picked up for half price or less at the end of each season. The plus side to this (the man in the shop explained) is that you can always buy spare parts if the need arises. Even if you have one of the earliest tents from circa 1971 you can still get parts. The other downside to the Akto however, is the weight. Although it's sold as a lightweight tent it weighs in a 1.6kg. A few years ago this would have been considered extremely lightweight, but not anymore. My new Vango is around 1.2kg and the Laser Comp is lighter still. They are both reputed to be as sturdy in bad weather. 

The man in the shop was extremely helpful and although he knew I wasn't about to buy one he still erected one for me so I could have a proper look. It was even better than I'd expected. The single pole erection is similar to the Vango. It felt really spacious when I sat inside and I was impressed by the porch size. I really like the idea of having one but I wouldn't use it for walking with because of the weight and my other Vango is fine for when I'm travelling with the car and don't need to worry about the weight.If I did happen to have a spare 400 quid though, it would be a nice luxury addition to my growing collection of outdoor sleeping options.

Below is a picture of an Akto from the Hilleberg website.