28 Nov 2010

My Home Away from Home: the Cotswolds.

A few days ago, I wrote about the Rollright Stones, which had me go through the numerous pictures I've taken in various corners of the Cotswolds. As always, the memories warmed my heart, just like the area itself never fails to do. I've spent so much time there in these past few years, to visit friends as well as to do research for my novel, that it feels like it's become my home away from home.

All of that gave me the idea to make the Cotswolds star in an article of its own. Because it's travel-related, I've posted it on my other blog 'The Enchanted Traveller', which is still simmering at the moment but will gradually come to a boil.

For the foodies among you: don't miss the feature on my favourite restaurant in the Cotswolds: the Horse and Groom in Upper Oddington!
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25 Nov 2010

Accidental Places: the Work of Lori Nix

(c) Lori Nix. 'Library', 2007
I recently came across a picture I really liked and after some fingertip research I found out it was 'Library' by Lori Nix, and there were many more in her collection that I really loved.

She's an American photographer and artist who builds and sculpts miniature scenes and landscapes and then photographs them. She encompasses a wide range of themes and places to which she adds a very atmospheric, forlorn quality, which really speaks to me. 

(c) Lori Nix. 'Laundromat', 2008
I was blown away when I found out that everything you see in her pictures has actually been created on a table top in front of the camera. She doesn't manipulate the images afterwards.

Lori Nix was born in Kansas, which is reflected in many of her earlier works. She is currently living and working in New York, and her art also seems to have moved indoors.

I like her more recent series most. It's called 'The City' and the pictures are clever and visionary, be it in an apocalyptic kind of way. They don't just tell you one story. Instead, they make you dream and wonder and come up with dozens of your own.

Here's what Lori herself had to say about how she builds and captures her work: 
"Currently it takes about seven months to build a scene and two to three weeks to shoot the final image. I build these in my Brooklyn living room. I have miniature power tools throughout the apartment, a chop saw under the kitchen table, a miniature table saw on top. The computer room doubles as a model mock-up room. There are two of us who work on them, myself and my partner Kathleen. We split the work according to our strengths. I come up with the concept, the color palette and the lighting scenarios. I build the structures out of extruded foam and glue and paint and anything else handy. Kathleen is trained as a glass artist, specializing in cast glass work. She can paint faux finishes and gild architectural details with gold leaf. After I'm done building the structure and painting it, she comes in and adds dirt and distresses the walls to make it look old and decrepit."
 - Lori Nix
Below are a few more favourites. Look at the variety in textures and the sheer detail of the work, and just imagine them as miniatures!

(c) Lori Nix. 'Botanic Garden', 2008

(c) Lori Nix. 'Museum of Art', 2005

(c) Lori Nix. 'Aquarium', 2007
(c) Lori Nix. 'Map Room', 2010


Thank you Lori for the kind photo permission!
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23 Nov 2010

Magic, Mist and Limestone: the Rollright Stones.

As some of you already know, the novel I am currently writing is set in the Cotswolds, a gorgeous area in the Heart of England. The region is known for its undulating rural landscape, idyllic villages with limestone cottages in all shades of honey and, as if that weren't enough, for its award winning hotels, restaurants and breweries.

I'm very lucky to have a number great friends who live there, so I usually get to visit the Cotswolds several times a year. Over the years, a few places have become very precious to me, one of them being the Rollright Stones, and another one an absolutely wonderful restaurant.
The King's Men
The Rollright Stones consist of three smaller sites: the King Stone, the Whispering Knights, and the larger stone circle called the King's Men.
The Whispering Knights, a burial dolmen, is the oldest, believed to be 5000 years old. The 77 stones of the King's Men are slightly younger, but still 4500 to 4000 years old.

It's an amazing place. You cannot help but wonder who built these monuments and to what intent. When you walk around there, you inevitably connect with our distant past and with the countless people who have visited this place before us, asked the same questions and were equally awestruck by the magic that seems to ooze from the ground. Especially during twilight or on a misty day, it's so easy to imagine yourself in a place between the worlds.

Lichen on the King's Men
When you get the chance to visit the Rollright Stones, please do so with respect for the unique and ancient character of the place. All too often people sit or stand on the stones, or let their children play on them. The stones are not only ancient and therefore irreplaceable, they're also covered with over 50 types of lichen, many of them several hundreds of years old.

The site is managed by the Rollright Trust, a registered charity dedicated to the protection and conservation of the stones. They have a very comprehensive website with lots of information about the history and the mythology around the stones, and practical information on their location and even how you can book the site for private events.

You can help the Trust to take care of this truly wonderful place in several ways: by becoming a 'Friend of the Rollright Stones', by buying related books on Amazon via the Rollrights site, and they have just released a beautiful calendar for 2011, which you can get here (£6 + postage). I ordered mine 2 days ago, so they should be on their way!

If you've ever visited the Rollrights, I'd love to hear about your experiences!

Read more about the Cotswolds here.
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22 Nov 2010

Soundscapes, Stories and an Ode to Sweetness.

Apart from scents, sounds are probably the next best triggers for our imagination. Music can be a great way to spark ideas, but any type of background sounds can work, especially when you combine different ones.

That's why I was glad when I discovered http://naturesoundsfor.me/. It's a simple online application that allows you to mix up to 4 different sound samples into a composition of your own.

The first thing I want to do here is fulfil the promise I made in a previous article, that whoever guessed first which word I had adopted, would get a special feature in one of my next blog posts.

My sister Lieve was the winner (no cheating involved, I swear!), and in her honour I have made a special mix of soothing nature sounds that will hopefully help her to relax (or put the kids to sleep) in these taxing and strenuous days of combining early motherhood-of-two with daily life and going back to her fulltime job soon.
I have titled the piece 'Ode to Lieve' and while I tip my hat to her, I want to wish her a lot of strength and all the peace and joy in the world. You can listen to it here.

I have also concocted a few other mixes that all tell a different story. What do you think, are the stories 'readable'?

You can use the titles as a clue:

1. http://naturesoundsfor.me/If_they_only_knew

2. http://naturesoundsfor.me/Approaching

3. http://naturesoundsfor.me/The_Wreck
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21 Nov 2010


Wow. I so need this...

Via apartment therapy

Via apartment therapy

Here's the full article.
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Wine, Wine, Wine.

I've been quiet on the blog all weekend, but I've got the best excuse in the world: I was in Lille at the 'Salon des Vins des Vignerons Indépendants', known in short as 'the Lille Wine Fair'.

The 'Salon des Vins' is an annual event that takes place in different cities all over France. The fair is organised - as you can guess from its name - by the association of the French independent wineries. We've been going there for several years now, and I love it, in spite of the fact that it seems to attract more visitors every year and it's gradually getting a bit too crowded. Not so good for the visitors, but great for the wineries, of course.

The fair is absolutely huge. There were over 500 wineries present this year, and they all bring a number of their available wines for the visitors to taste and possibly buy.
You can meet wine makers from the different wine regions all over France, each with their own personal style and flair, in their wines as well as in how they present themselves to you. And to me that's one of the great advantages here: you get to see the people behind the wines and the pride they have in their products and their businesses that often go back several generations.
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19 Nov 2010


I love this fellow blogger's collection of photographs of abandoned buildings.
Now there's inspiration if you ever needed any!

What amazing stories could have happened there, or are happening right as we speak? Who used to live, work or roam there and what were they doing?
Think of the great and weird parties you could host in places like this, providing you find a way to keep your drunk guests from dropping in the chair-pool! And wouldn't they make great settings for nightly roleplaying or storytelling sessions? Or game design?

Here's one photo to tease, and you can find many others at Abandoned - Pixcetera Blog or in Scallop Holden's 'Urbex' set on Flickr.

House of Horror
Credit: Scallop Holden.
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18 Nov 2010

A Glimpse of Paradise: Zen in Zanzibar.

This must be one of the most beautiful places on earth: a gorgeous hotel in a breathtaking location: the five-star Kilindi resort in Zanzibar.

It's now a part of the Elewana Afrika group, which owns several more splendid hotels, but it's the elegant, luxurious simplicity of Kilindi and its stunning views of the Indian Ocean that appealed to me most.

The resort is located right on the beach and it consists of 15 pavilions, set in lush tropical gardens and with private plunge pools that are connected by water features.
As a bonus they grow their own (organic) vegetables and show their commitment to environmental sustainability a.o. by harvesting rainwater, recycling and using solar energy. Their spa offers authentic, traditional treatments with local herbs, oils and honey.

In all fairness, I haven't (yet) been able to verify this information in person, and I cannot estimate how well the resort is really embedded in local culture, projects and needs. For what it's worth, I think they are, and I'll let you know for sure when I've been there!
My main intent for writing this was to celebrate the beauty of the place, to share the gorgeous pictures and to inspire us to dream about the many scenic gems our gorgeous planet has to offer.

From here on, I'll let the pictures do the talking:


For more pictures, have a look at this gallery at PureZanzibar.com, and you can find more information about this and other Elewana hotels on their website.

All pictures on this site are and remain (c) Elewana Afrika.
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17 Nov 2010

Ideas for the Holidays - party themes!

Have you considered throwing a themed Midwinter, Christmas or New Year's Eve party?

Just in case, I've collected a few ideas for you:

- For aspiring writers (or accomplished authors - we're inclusive here): write your own paranormal, period or murder mystery scenario, get a few of your friends or family enlisted as actors, ask your guests to dress the part and host your very own Mystery Party.

- Tattoo chic. The tattoos can be real, but don't have to be. This party will however require heavy rock music for that little something extra! Can you think of ways to tattoo your food and drinks?

One of the gypsy caravans at our wedding
Picture (c) Dirk De Kegel
- Go Gypsy! Find some Django Reinhardt, Rosenberg Trio or Fapy Lapertin Quintet music, lots of candles, fringed shawls, colourful quilts, rugs and pillows, tarot cards and - why not - a gypsy caravan. Lots of inspiration in the links in this previous article or directly at Jeanne Bayol's website.

- Nerdy board games. Dress up like nerds and bring out the dice! Pick games that don't take too long to explain, and keep a few simple kids' games as backup for the wee hours' buffoonery...

- Pick your favourite book, film, computer game, fairytale or TV show and ask your guests to be one of the characters for the evening. More fun ensured if they act accordingly!
A few book suggestions: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Alice in Wonderland, Animal Farm, The Picture of Dorian Gray or anything by Terry Pratchett.
On screen: e.g. Ghostbusters, Will and Grace, Jurassic Park, Toy Story, X-Men or True Blood. Be aware that if you pick Pirates of the Caribbean you're likely to end up with a party full of Jack Sparrows.

Red Polka Dot Toes- Polka Dot Party! It might be the perfect opportunity to wear that itsy bitsy teenie weenie yellow bikini!

- Choose a funky colour and get creative with your decoration, clothes, food and drinks. As an extra challenge: ban artificial food colourings!

- A missed opportunities party where everybody dresses up in the work outfit of who their child-selves wanted to be when they grew up. It's bound to spark interesting conversation and a lot of 'Well, that didn't work out, did it's!

- Or you could ignore winter altogether and have an indoor tropical party. Maybe you can rent a local pool, sauna or wellness center and with the right music and a well-stocked cocktail bar, you'll imagine yourself in the Caribbean in no time!

Here are a few more classics:
  • Tacky Tourist party
  • Tarts & Vicars (as featured in Bridget Jones)
  • Arthur's Court of Camelot (or Round Table), possibly in the Monty Python version.
  • Cyberpunk
  • And of course: Pirates and Ninjas!

I'm still considering whether it would be a good idea to organise a musical party, where your guests would promise to sing at least a third of the conversation. It sounds like fun in theory, but the reality of it might be a boiled down version of hell.

Do you want to share some of your favourite party ideas with us?
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16 Nov 2010

Beauty in our back garden.

Here's something I discovered earlier and I just had to share: a project called Wild Wonders of Europe.

You can tell that the people behind this project are passionate about nature. They want to remind us of the stunning biodiversity we still have, right on our doorstep. And they strongly believe that the emotional power of beautiful photographs is a great way to do that. I couldn't agree more.

What I also love is that, instead of telling the sad stories, they want to celebrate the successes and the wildlife-comebacks. Their motto: 'Conservation works! We just need more of it!'

You can also take part in a monthly photo competition with lots of great prizes. As a bonus, the two overall winners get to go on a photo mission to a wild destination in Europe, fully equipped with professional photo gear. Last year's winners Markus from Norway and Janne from Finland went on a trip to the Alladale Wilderness Reserve in the heart of the Scottish Highlands.

Check out beautiful pictures from your favourite countries in the Wild Wonders galleries, their beautiful videos of wildlife in action, or have a look at the book they released earlier this year. Enjoy!

Wild Wonders Banner
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11 Nov 2010

Ideas for the Holidays.

Amazing how time flies... we're nearly halfway into November! Less than a month from now, many of us will be preparing for the holidays and thinking about presents to put under the Christmas / Yule / Hanukkah tree.
In order to get myself in the right mindset, in the next couple of weeks I'm going to try and post a bunch of party, decoration, food & drink and gift ideas.

(c) christmasstockimages.com
First of all: the tree. I have to admit: I love the smell of a real tree. Still, I hate the thought of slaying it just to decorate the house for a while.
Therefore, many years ago, I decided to buy a tree with roots and plant it out in the garden afterwards for reuse the next year. Unfortunately that didn't work out. By the time I got around to putting it outside, it was too far gone.

After three years of miserable failure, I finally succeeded to save one. I planted it in my herb garden (where it really didn't fit in), didn't dig it out for the following holiday seasons and eventually moved it to another part of the garden where it died anyway. In my defense, I did cut it up and compost it.

In the meantime I've found a compromise: I wait until a couple of days before Christmas, when all normal people have long got their tree and the only ones left are the poor little ugly trees nobody wanted. That's when I come in, a superhero with wool mittens, offering that little, despairing, cut-down tree an opportunity to fulfil its final purpose: to bring beauty and joy to a living room. And every year I'm surprised what a bit of careful pruning, lots of sparkly lights and lavish gold-coloured decoration can achieve.

But as perceivers go (another not-so-covert MBTI reference), I'm always open to consider alternatives for the classic tree, and a few of these certainly hold potential:

Last year, on a champagne tasting trip to France, I saw this at the Mercier house:

Wouldn't that make a brilliant, bubbling Christmas tree? I swear, if anyone wants to get me one of those, I'll take good care of it! I might even share.

Just in case you're not a millionaire, here are a few other, more budget friendly suggestions:

A tree made with your favourite chocolates:

Edible Christmas tree

Or your best-loved books:

Library christmas tree 2006

And I just love these:

And now for something completely different, but not entirely: if you'd consider getting someone a pet for a present, see how to wrap it below. Buffoonery, I say!

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9 Nov 2010

Don't be a foppotee, adopt a word now!

Have you ever given birth to a new word? Or considered adopting an old one?

All languages evolve, which is a good thing. Unfortunately that also means that older words that are perhaps no longer relevant fade away and die. It makes perfect sense, and yet it's a shame. Those old words are often rich in connotation. They talk to us about times long gone and places we've never visited.

Oxford Fajar, a subsidiary of Oxford University Press and one of the oldest publishing houses in Malaysia, has started a campaign to 'save the words'. Their website - even though a bit too busy for my taste - is full of words that are literally screaming to be rescued from the dreary pits of oblivion.

Every single word in their collection represents a story, a setting, an era, a character or any inspiration you could possibly need. On top of that, knowing some of these words has to come in handy one day, be it to characterise a person in a novel or story or as a random interjection into casual conversation. And I haven't even touched on the insult potential! Your cocktail parties will never be the same again.
Here are a few suggestions:
  • 'odynometer': an instrument for measuring pain. As in: 'I had to stop talking to him because my odynometer overloaded.'
  • 'frutescent': having the habit or appearance of a shrub. For example: 'You, Sir, are without any doubt the most frutescent person at this party.'
  • 'tortiloquy': dishonest or immoral speech. E.g. : 'I applaud the crafty tortiloquy in your inauguration address.'

Okay, your turn now:
  • 'foppotee': a simple-minded person.
  • 'aquabib': a water-drinker.
  • 'theomeny': the fury of God.
  • 'recineration': the second time a thing or place is burnt down.
  • 'agonyclite': a member of a heretical sect that stood rather than kneeled. (I'm not kidding...)
  • 'rhodologist': a person who studies and classifies roses.
  • 'stiricide': the falling of icicles from a house.
  • 'dodrantal': being 9 inches in length.

Don't miss this opportunity. Adopt your word today and help it to a new and meaningful life.

What do you think mine is, by the way? The first one to guess right will get a star role in one of my next posts.
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8 Nov 2010

The Power of Procrastination.

StressIt struck me the other day how often I see or hear people complain about their tendency to procrastinate.
Do Facebook statuses like 'must...get...to...work' or 'aaarrrgggh, hunted by deadlines... again!' sound familiar to you too?

I used to think I was a procrastinator. I hated how I always had to rush school or other projects because I didn't start until the deadline was breathing in my face. It's not that I was lazy, I was just really busy chasing other interests that seemed more urgent or more important than what I was supposed to be doing.

Still, I haven't missed many deadlines in my life. I'll gladly admit to the all-nighters, improbable stunts and miraculous bursts of energy it took me to get there, but I (nearly always) managed to deliver on time. Sometimes I was on my last edit a minute before presenting, on other occasions I was still swapping slides around while already smiling at the audience, but I made it.

I even notice that, the older I become, the better I seem to be getting at pinpointing that crucial moment: the last possible minute you have to start on something in order to finish on time. In recent years it's even happened that I've completed a task before its deadline. Several times!

For years I thought I was just really bad at planning and organising my time. Until I discovered the MBTI.
(I"m not going to go into the specifics here, but if you want to know more you can find an introduction here and do a personality test here or here.)
Getting deeper into the MBTI helped me to understand that I am by no means a bad planner, or hopeless at making decisions.

Instead I learnt that I have a natural preference to consider all possible options before deciding what I want to do and how I'm going to do it. And just like any other personality trait, this has advantages and disadvantages, depending on the situation at hand.

Unless there is something really urgent and important going on, my priorities will be variable. If there is no clear "best option" I'll try to avoid final decisions and continue taking in information, letting it simmer and crystallise. This is not a skillset that will ever make me a brilliant planner, but it does make me a great improviser - or crisis manager. And when I do make a decision, it has a million different small and bigger elements factored in, often leading to a better decision in the end.

Our world needs diversity of skills. We seem to be a species that specialises and then cooperates to get a better result. Our social units need people who can make decisions quickly, ànd others who consider the 'what ifs'. It's when we learn to value each other's strengths and understand which skillset to apply to which situation, that our tribes can thrive.

Tapping a PencilTherefore, next time you notice you're procrastinating: don't fret about it. Instead, ask yourself why you're postponing action or decision. There's always a reason. Maybe what seems urgent or important in one part of your life isn't all that pressing in the grand scheme. Maybe you can't decide to change jobs because you haven't got a clear view of your true talents or how you want to use them. Or you're putting off writing your next chapter or article because you're subconsciously aware that your current idea has holes the size of Jupiter that need to be sorted out first.

There will be times where you have no choice but to kick yourself into gear. But even then, if you can spare a minute to think what is holding you back and what still needs to be fixed, you'll likely end up with a better view on the situation and ultimately with a better result.

Procrastination is not a flaw. It might occasionally get you into trouble in this fast-result-driven world we live in, but really, it is your secret superpower.
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3 Nov 2010

There is life before forty.

Have you seen this slideshow on the website of Food & Wine magazine? It features 40 people under the age of 40 who've all managed to make a difference, big or small, in the way their countrymen (and women) eat and drink. So what are the rest of us waiting for?

These were my favourites:

  • Cocoa beansMadécasse, a chocolate company making their products right where their cocoa grows: Madagascar.
  • Food artist Jennifer Rubell. Anybody who makes desserts in balloons deserves a special mention.
  • Urban & rooftop farming. These almost made me want to get a chicken. Or a house with a flat roof.
  • Matt Jennings. You've got to love a cheesemaker who dunks cheese in Belgian ale.
  • Annemarie Ahearn's farm-to-table cooking school. Where you can kill your pumpkin and eat it too.
  • Several businesses like Emily & Rob's, helping artisans to sell their products, so they can continue doing what they do best.

Check out the full slideshow here. Which ones do you like best?

On a side note: this blog post made it clear that in over a month of blogging, I hadn't used the labels "wine" or "chocolate" even once. How is that even possible?
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1 Nov 2010

Dark Elves, Confessionals and Games for Change.

It's time to come clean: I have a secret life. Apart from writing and hanging out in weird places with people who like to dress up, I also have a regular job.

Fortunately it's a really cool one. By day I get to teach about computer games to future game developers. That might not seem like an obvious career choice for a writer-at-heart, but it was for me. I've always been fascinated by technology, and especially by computer games. My favourite ones are fantasy and science fiction roleplaying games. It's a genre that's strongly driven by story, so there's your connection.

Dark Elf enchanter in Everquest® whose virtual body
I may or may not have inhabited in the past.
In my job, I try to make people aware of the 'other side' of games.
There are definitely social issues around computer games that I'm not trying to deny. But there is also the huge potential that we're currently not tapping into. In games, people acquire skills, knowledge, friends, confidence and so much more. Games are learning tools. Players challenge themselves over and over again, spending time and energy doing the impossible, to overcome the problems that are thrown in their general direction.

Unfortunately, most of what is learnt in games is currently only used, valued and respected in those virtual worlds. We need to find ways to bring the different realms closer together and - who knows - they might even merge.
Most of all: we should be brave enough to ask ourselves not just what so-called real world knowledge or skills we can bring to games, but also what our material world can learn from its virtual siblings.

This morning I was watching a TED video, and the omnipresent and omniscient Right Column suggested I would also like Jane McGonigal's presentation 'Gaming can make a better world'. I believed I would. I've seen her talk a couple of times at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco and she's managed to entertain and inspire me every time.

Jane is a game researcher and game designer at the Institute for the Future in California, and the brain behind the Top Secret Dance Off. Here's her talk:

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