Thursday, 31 March 2011

Feed me...

I haven't been blogging that long myself but for a few years now I've been lurking in the shadows of the blogging sphere, spending many's a break time at work catching up on the lives and twisted minds of my favourite Internet writers. I rarely comment but my Google Reader is well-utilised. This of course means it's not just blogs I amuse myself with - any regularly updated websites are subject to my persural. And so, in the absence of anything exciting or noteworthy to write about myself at the moment I thought I would share some of my favourite RSS feeds…

I've been reading Amy's blog for years and have followed her tales from her young professional days in Washington DC to her current professional blogger stardom with two of the cutest kids ever and another on the way. I almost feel like I know her, which is surely strange (and probably creepy for Amy I would imagine) bearing in mind we've never met and I've only ever left like three or four brief comments on her blog, but she's so open and honest that it would be hard not to form an attachment. Her posts can be touching, serious and hilarious depending on the context and she has one of the best writing styles of any blogger I've read. She's going through a tough time at the moment and it's funny how the pain of a complete stranger thousands of miles away can make you feel sad too.

Cake Wrecks
Cake Wrecks is one of those websites whose daily update can actually make me snort with laughter. I have literally spilled my coffee shaking my laughter at some of the wrecks. They also publish some examples of perfectly created cakes to balance out the failage so there's a wow factor involved there too. Still no Ace of Cakes but then no-one can beat Duff at making cakes bigger, badder and, indeed, awesome.

I used to be a big fan of Failblog, but it started making me fear for the future of humanity, so instead I turned to its sister website, Failbook. If you're a Facebook user, you'll find it entertaining, especially if you happen to be friends with any teenagers, in which case it takes on a definite "funny cos it's true" element. Failbook simultaneously horrifies me (are people really that dumb?!) and amuses me to the point of executing an actual, real-life LOL. In front of my colleagues. In a silent room. Yup. It is genuinely that funny though sometimes!

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
If you're an XKCD fan, or even just a wee bit of a geek, you'll appreciate Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. I'm not a great fan of comics in general (well except from my daily dose of Dilbert and Garfield) but I'm always happy when humour, social commentary and nerdom collide. Sometimes confuses me (when it's a bit toogeeky for me to comprehend) but often amuses me.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Burritos on a beautiful day on Botanic

I am always glad to be living in Belfast. Sometimes I despair about the mentality of some of my fellow countrymen but in general I love this city. And there are some days when I remember again how lovely a wee place it really can be. Today was one such day.

The Yorkshireman and I went for a bit of a meander up around Botanic Avenue, our plan ostensibly being to track down suitable attire for some upcoming events that require costumes (don't ask - further details to be revealed after the fact, preferably not with photographic evidence of our shame). We didn't have much luck on the clothing front but it was a beautiful day to be out and about. The sun was shining and people were laughing and chatting as they took a leisurely stroll or sipped their coffee out on the pavements, enjoying the vague warmth of the day. It was a day to be outside and a day to be happy. Spring was in the air!

I've always liked Botanic Avenue. Being near Queens University it has developed into somewhat of a students village, with charity shops and cafés in abundance. I may not be a student any more but I have retained my love for cafés and quirky little restaurants and I'm always up for a bargain in the form of pre-owned clothing for £3.99, so it's my kinda place! One of my favourite restaurants, Café Renoir, is on Botanic and I've probably spent far more money than I should have in the Starbucks there. However there are still a lot of places we passed by today that I keep meaning to try, for example The Other Place, Lee Garden and Maggie Mays.

I did tick one "must try" food establishment off my list today though. It didn't appear on the scene until well after I'd left uni but for the last year or so I've kept coming across reviews, seemingly mainly from students, who seem addicted to its wares. I am of course referring to Boojum. There aren't really many Mexican restaurants in Belfast but I love anything spicy and have always enjoyed the odd fajita so I was keen to give it a try. It was a toss-up between the one on Botanic Avenue or the newer one on Chichester Street, but since we were going to be in the area anyway we thought it best to try the original.

At first glance it just looks like a takeaway place but further investigation reveals limited seating in the back. It's pretty much identical to American chain Chipotle but if you've never had the pleasure to experience this first hand, just imagine a Mexican version of Subway and you've pretty much got the idea. First you choose what kind of base you want (e.g. burrito, tacos, salad, etc), then you choose what meat (if any) you want, and then it's on to the extras like salsa, guacamole, cheese and sour cream.

You may think that a meal that fits into a tortilla wrap isn't exactly going to be a huge but I found myself gaping with disbelief as the lady behind the counter finished creating my fajita burrito by expertly squishing a veritable mound of food into a kind of tortilla-coated ball of wonder. Having underestimated the ball's size, I had also ordered a side of tortilla chips with guacamole. For £2 I was expecting a generous handful of chips with my little tub of guac' but instead I got an entire trayful of them. Yikes! The Yorkshireman opted for a fajita burrito as well, his with extra jalapeños (because he's a macho macho man).

We both quite enjoyed our balls o' food, although we each thought that they could have been a little hotter, even with the jalapeños. On the way out I discovered some jalapeño hot sauce by the napkins and plastic cutlery and sampled some with one of my never-ended pile of tortilla chips. It was the perfect hotness so I'll definitely be adding that on my next visit. I have to say I'm not sure it's quite as addictive as some people seem to think but it's definitely a tasty enough feast for the price (the most expensive option is £5.25) and it's fairly nutritious compared to a lot of other budget options. I'd give it a 3.5/5 I think, with potential to move up to a 4 with the addition of the hot sauce.

And then it was back out into the sunshine to walk it all off. We never did find any clothing suitable for our costumes unfortunately but I really enjoyed our little foray up Botanic today. It was just so lively and I love that feeling of being part of the pulse of the city. Everyone is milling around with their own thoughts, plans and objectives but yet on a day where the sun is shining down on everyone, especially after months of snow, rain, greyness and darkness, there is a feeling of unity. Everybody is enjoying the lovely weather together and there is a wonderful atmosphere of community and optimism. Strangers smile at one another instead of charging past with their heads down, intent on getting where they're headed as soon as possible. When the sun is shining, people take the time to look around and realise that this place and its people are quite nice actually. Long may it continue!

Ice ice baby

How brilliant are freezers? Seriously, I know this sounds like a strange and somewhat rhetorical question, but aren't they actually great? I've grown up with a good old fridge/freezer combo wherever I've lived but, apart from a convenient place to temporarily store the occasional ready meal, bag of frozen peas or tub of ice cream and a suitable place to stick all those souvenir fridge magnets from my travels, I haven't really made the most of said appliance. The Yorkshireman tends to use it as his own personal McCain Micro Chips storage unit (*whispers* I think he might have a bit of an addiction…) but our little freezer was otherwise just home to half-finished bags of unloved frozen vegetable mixes and forgotten Birds Eye steam bags. Until recently…

You see, as I posted back in January, the Yorkshireman and I have been endeavouring to get fit and healthy. Well, me more than him to be honest, but then I need much more improvement in both areas. Apart from going to the gym three times a week, I've also been trying to eat a little more healthily, including cutting down on a lot of processed stuff that is high in salt and sodium. I know, I'm so angelic the glint from my halo is blinding you, right? Well, there are still a few things that Asda and Tesco will be bringing to the table (for example bread - someone who bakes bread clearly has too much time on their hands) but I have been making a real effort to make a lot of things from scratch. Like, in my own kitchen. With real ingredients and everything. It involves a lot of peeling, chopping and burning myself, but thus far the results haven't been too shabby!

So far I've made my own lentil curry, a savoury rice dish, tomato and chilli pasta sauce and several incarnations of soup, all of which have been edible. Yay me! But the only problem is that any health benefits of making it yourself are perhaps diminished somewhat by the fact that you now have like 10 servings of soup, 6 servings of soup and 4 servings of curry all needing eaten within 3 days. They may be healthy individually but that's a whole lot of calories right there! What to do? Enter the freezer!

Yes - freeze those bad boys in handy single servings and they will last for weeks! It never really occurred to me before but apparently this is what organised adults actually do. Very popular amongst the organic-obsessed mummy crowd - they're apparently forever puréeing and freezing obscure fruits and vegetables in ice cube trays for their beloved overindulged offspring.

You should see my house when I've been on a cooking spree though. Every available surface is covered in plastic containers or resealable food bags full of multicoloured liquids while I wait for them to cool enough to put them in the freezer. The last time I was running out of space and wondering if perhaps the Yorkshireman would stay absorbed in Interwebzland and thereby completely still long enough for me to rest a container or two on his person. Luckily for him I decided against it, especially when I noticed the freezer bags were getting somewhat, erm, "soft" with the heat and that one or two had consequently spilled on the table. Oops. Note to self - leave to cool in the pot for a while next time…

But yes, an hour or two later and you'll find me on the floor of the kitchen playing some kind of Tetris-meets-Jenga game to try and fit everything into the big, white, icy box of wonder. It doesn't sound like much fun and, well, it's not exactly up there amongst my favourite pastimes, but it's worth it when all I have to do to get a nutritious meal full of things I actually like is to take it out of the freezer the night before.

Of course there are pitfalls - all this healthy cooking might be improving my body but alas my mind is just as ditzy as it ever was and so actually remembering to defrost my wonderful little bags of nutritious delights is a whole different matter. More than once have I wandered up to the fridge, trying to remember what I had planned for that night's dinner, opened the door, realisation has dawned and I have sworn loudly.

However, in spite of my failing memory, I shall persevere in my pursuit of health and fitness… and many more plastic containers.

Friday, 25 March 2011

A right royal event

This might sound like a bit of a harsh question, but does anyone actually care about the upcoming Royal Wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton? Don't get me wrong, if they're happy and in love then I wish them both a wonderful day and a lifetime of happiness together, but no more than any other young couple getting hitched. I do genuinely wonder if I am actually supposed to care a bit more though?

When there have previously been big royal events like weddings, funerals, coronations, etc, people have been waiting outside churches for days before the ceremony and lining the streets the cars will drive through en route. Those who don't live close enough to actually go and physically be a part of the main event have instead been glued to the television to watch all the action (or lack thereof) unfold. And it's not just in the UK. I happened to be on holiday in Spain in May 2004 when Prince Felipe married Princess Letizia and everyone, be they the Spanish staff or tourists who barely knew how to say "hola", seemed to be transfixed by the televisions in the bar throughout the whole day. Royal fever had everybody gripped. I just remember glancing at the screen, thinking "flip, he looks a bit nervous" and then nipping back out to the pool.

Am I abnormal in my nonchalance? I just don't really get the attraction of watching two people I don't know get married, even if they are famous and important. I have no interest in how much the rings cost, how big the cake is or who designed the wedding dress. That said, such things clearly do become part of pop culture, since I wasn't even born when Prince Charles and Princess Diana tied the knot in 1981 and I have no interest in fashion designers whatsoever and yet even I know that the Emanuels (whoever they may be) designed her dress.

Perhaps I should just submit to societal pressure and spend the day watching the whole rigmarole on TV like everyone else will be, if only so I can join in the inevitable conversations about it and actually understand the jokes and comments comedic pundits will undoubtedly make about the big day. Or maybe I'll just glean the basics from the BBC website and spend the day doing something actually fun. I would like to buck the trend and go with the latter but when people ask me, maybe ten years from now, "Awww do you remember the royal wedding? Wasn't it a lovely day?", it would be a bit rubbish to say, "Actually I have no idea - I slept in and then went to look at shoes and drink coffee in Starbucks that day instead." Also I'm getting a day off work because of it, so am I therefore morally obligated to spend the day as per its actual purpose?

I suppose for now I'll keep my options open and see if wedding fever strikes me on the run-up to the big day. Knowing me I'll swing from utter ambivalence to sipping sparkling wine on the sofa all day, getting steadily drunk, whilst wearing my own wedding dress and cheering them on up the aisle. Now actually, that sounds like a plan...

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Roll out the red carpet… it's back!

Around this time last year I recall having great craic with the Yorkshireman and our closest friends at the Belfast Film Festival. We went to watch a hugely cheesy horror film on the Lagan boat, we smirked at people being spanked and singing about Dick (and Tom and Harry too of course) in 1953's Kiss Me Kate at the Strand Cinema in the East of the city and we double facepalm failed at the film quiz at the Queen's Film Theatre. It was all great fun. Well, except for the last part. Feeling really stupid kinda sucks. But anyway! It’s back! Yes, the Belfast Film Festival has returned with a whole new programme of events for 2011.

I'll be honest, I'm not really "into" films. I much prefer a slow-burner of a story where you get to know the characters really well, so books and TV series are really more my thing. That said if the plot is interesting enough it's a decent way to spend a couple of hours. I'm also a creature of darkness and hiss at bright lights, so any excuse to sit in a blackened room is greatly appreciated. However the plot thing is crucial. I cannot abide all the arty films about things I don't care about or people I don't know. I know, I know, I'm a philistine. Meh. I also cannot abide violence, even if it's supposedly integral to the plot. I've been told I should give certain movies along these themes a chance but I only get one life and I'm not spending hours of it watching people wonder about the reason for their existence or shoot each other. I already begrudge the time I wasted watching Reservoir Dogs (seriously though, why?!) and Apocalypse Now (not even Martin Sheen could save that one for me).

Bearing this in mind, and also bearing in mind that a film festival is inevitably going to be aimed at the arty crowd who appreciate subtlety and nuances and *yawn* all that jazz, my choices were already fairly narrowed down for me. It was simply a matter of going through and seeing what looked like fun and I am now the proud owner of tickets to three events. There were a couple more I would have gone to but the times sadly didn't suit. As it turns out, the Yorkshireman and I have somewhat different opinions on what "looked like fun" not to mention different schedules, so we'll each be abandoning the other in pursuit of culture on a couple of occasions. It all kicks off next week and I'm really looking forward to enjoying a little razzle dazzle. Now just to source some costumes… well, if you're going to do something, you damn well do it right!

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

The wheels on the bus

I have always been an advocate of public transport, especially for those who live and work on a main arterial route into a city. Everyone knows the reasons why they should get the bus to work: less cars on the road means less fumes to slowly choke the world; less traffic on the roads means fewer jams and delays; being more active walking to and from the bus stop; it's cheaper than driving; no need to find a parking space in an overcrowded city centre… the list goes on. And yet most people stick to their car.

The government are constantly pushing for more people to stop using their cars and start using sustainable public transport. The Department for Regional Development has just begun a public consultation on their revised Regional Transportation Strategy and public transport is a running theme throughout, with the phrase itself appearing 71 times in the 61 page document. However I think they've nailed the crux of the matter on the head when they say, "we cannot expect transport users to change to a perceived inferior choice simply because it is best for the region or environment" (page 19 of the consultation document).

I must admit that I never really understood people's reluctance to travel by public transport more often, especially when they live on a main route with a bus stop practically outside their front door - I just put it down to sheer laziness and stubborness - but over the last year or so I have been gradually turning into a grumpy old woman (at the age of 27) and quite frankly I'm starting to get it. Not quite the direction DRD were hoping public opinion would swing in I imagine.

My biggest pet peeve is when people play music from their mobile phones out loud on the bus. NOBODY wants to hear your music, let alone if they've been at work all day and have a mild headache coming on - use headphones you selfish sonofabitch! However it's becoming more frequent now to the point where I'm actually relieved when I get on a bus and am greeted with nothing but the sound of the mummies on the bus going chatter, chatter, chatter (all day long). And it unfortunately has a knock-on effect because, in order to combat this blatant invasion of our ears, more people have started wearing their headphones on the bus and listening to their own music to drown out the unwanted noise pollution. That's fine, except when they then turn their volume up really loud, and then all you can hear is, "tssshhhh tssshhhh tssshhhh tssshhhh" at different volumes and tempos coming from all around you. I'm not great at coping with more than one noise at once so this actually pains me. Increasingly the thought now comes to me that if I had a car I would only have to listen to what I wanted to listen to.

On Friday I was on my way home on the bus and as I sailed by the stop before mine, I pressed the button to ring the bell. It didn't work but I figured, hey, no biggie, that happens all the time, and walked to the front of the bus with plenty of time to spare and waited for it to stop. It didn't. The bus driver had clearly not noticed me standing there but when I said "sorry this stop please" he had the audacity to actually (and obviously) ignore me. So I said it a little (ok, a lot) louder. Essentially what followed was an argument whereby the jackass driver refused to stop the bus until the stop after mine because it was (clearly) my fault that the bell was broken and that he hadn't been paying sufficient attention to notice someone standing about two feet away from him and I said I was going to report him for being a complete bastard. I sent an email to Translink reporting his ridiculous behaviour and rude attitude and apparently it has been "passed to the relevant department". I hope he gets a bollocking. Increasingly the thought now comes to me that if I had a car I would be able to alight from my vehicle where I wanted to and without an earful of abuse from someone who clearly hates their job.

A few months ago I got on the bus and sat on a seat at the front of the top deck. After a few seconds I noticed there was a strange smell. After a few more seconds I realised my jeans were damp. To this day I have no idea what was on that seat - just that it was wet and smelled bad. I was heading to my mum's for the evening and facing a night of sitting around in smelly, wet jeans, I got off the bus at Asda Living to buy emergency pyjamas to wear instead. There are often strange smells on the buses, similar to body odour, which are not pleasant. Thankfully unexplained wet patches are a little rarer but evidently not as absent as I would like. Increasingly the thought now comes to me that if I had a car I would at least know what any random damp patches or smells were, if not avoid them altogether, and I wouldn't have to spend my hard-earned money on emergency clothing.

At the weekend I had just finished a long workout at the gym and had made my way to the bus stop to go home. It was a Sunday afternoon in the city centre, when all the shops were open, and I was aiming to get a bus going down one of the busiest roads in/out of the city centre. I had to wait 15 minutes… and I was glad it was such a "short" waiting time because on Sunday evenings after the gym the Yorkshireman and I have often been faced with waits of 25 minutes or more… for a 10 minute bus journey! Yesterday morning I arrived at the bus stop just after three buses had gone sailing past. It was 7:56am. There was one due at 7:58am, but this was one that I had just seen go by. The next was due at 8.05am and the one after at 8.12am. At 8.13am I got on a bus. That's 17 minutes of standing at a bus stop and not earning flexi time at work. It also meant I missed my connecting bus in town, which meant I arrived in work 25 minutes later than usual. I lost 25 minutes of working time because one bus was slightly early (fair enough I suppose) and another was almost 10 minutes late (not fair enough). Increasingly the thought now comes to me that if I had a car I would be able to leave whenever I was ready, not when a bus decides to rock up.

So even though I know all the reasons why I should use public transport, I increasingly find myself tempted by advertisements for driving lessons. I don't think I will learn to drive right now, but increasingly that choice has less to do with my scruples about the environment and more to do with the cost of lessons, tests, a car, road tax, insurance, petrol, etc. So, Minister Murphy, you're right, public transport is a "perceived inferior choice", even for those of us committed to using it - I'll be intrigued to see what changes actually come out of this consultation to change my mind back again.