30 Dec 2011

Looking for a Home - the Sequel.

Two weeks ago I shared a few videos of our newest Guest Kittens and wrote about the subsequent 'Looking for a Home' campaign. Well, a lot has happened since then.

First of all, we've officially adopted their mum. She's been to the vet, has been sterilised and she's recovering well. We've named her Maharet, after the character from the Anne Rice novels.

We've also been working hard to gain our Guest Kittens' trust, with mixed success. It's going to be a long process, but worth the effort if we want to find them a good home.

Guest Kitten 1 is now lodged in our conservatory and we're getting close to being able to pick it up and pet it, without it crawling into a corner and hissing its tiny vocal cords in a twist.

Here's a video of Guest Kitten 1 'playing it cool'. Not an easy job when you're snuggled up on a giant sunflower ...

Anyway, this little cutie is still looking for a warm and loving home, so if you've got a whole lot of love and a little bit of time and space, drop me a line!

Guest Kitten wishes you a wonderful year's end
and an even better start of 2012!
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17 Dec 2011

A Little Warm in My Heart.

I've just set up and decorated our tree; I feel ready for winter now.

Isn't it amazing how a little ritual can make such a big difference?

Here are a few more snapshots ...

Have a great Christmas, Hanukkah, Midwinter, Yule or whichever holiday(s) you celebrate!
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13 Dec 2011

Lucky 13: Women Writers about Inspiration.

“Inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it.”
- Madeleine L'Engle

“I learned...that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly and quietly and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness.”
- Brenda Ueland

“We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.” 
- Maya Angelou

“Romance is the glamour which turns the dust of everyday life into a golden haze. ”
- Elinor Glyn

“stand often in the company of dreamers: they tickle your common sense & believe you can achieve things which are impossible.”
- Mary Anne Radmacher

“The inner fire is the most important thing mankind possesses.” 
- Edith Södergran

“Five tender apricots in a blue bowl, a brief and exact promise of things to come.” 
- Frances Mayes (In Tuscany)

“Do stuff. be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration's shove or society's kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It's all about paying attention. attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. stay eager.”
- Susan Sontag

“A deadline is negative inspiration. Still, it's better than no inspiration at all.”
- Rita Mae Brown

“Why must people kneel down to pray? If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I'd look up into the sky - up, up, up - into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer.”
- L.M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables)

“There is no place for grief in a house which serves the Muse.” 
- Sappho

“I ask not for any crown 
But that which all may win;
Nor try to conquer any world
Except the one within.”
- Louisa May Alcott

“Out of the red and silver and the long cry of alarm to the poet who survives in all human beings, as the child survives in him; to this poet she threw an unexpected ladder in the middle of the city and ordained, 'Climb!”
- Anaïs Nin

Image: 'Aprikosen / Apricots' by Thomas. Available under a creative commons license. © 2009, Thomas.
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11 Dec 2011

More Guest Kittens - Looking for a Home.

Last September, I recounted the adventures of Guest Kitten. I'm happy to let you know that in the meantime we have adopted her, she has undergone the inevitable veterinary procedures and she now goes by the name of 'Spook'.

A few weeks ago, we discovered she has 3 younger brothers and sisters. In other words, new Guest Kittens have arrived. 

Their mum, who was left behind by her owners when they moved earlier this year, is now lying on a cushion in the conservatory, awaiting a visit of her own to the vet. She knows what we have in store for her; she's been glaring at me through the window all evening.

Still, we can't continue adopting every stray cat in the neighbourhood (I admit I have considered it), so we are looking for a new home for the Amazing Kitten Threesome. If you happen to live anywhere near Belgium and have a big heart, house or garden, drop me a line!

I don't need to tell you they are the cutest kittens ever. You know you want to be cuddled up in front of a fire this winter with a few of these crawling all over you:

And if you're still not convinced ... 
(warning: do not watch the following video if you're cuteness intolerant or easily swayed by emotion!)

Pretty please?
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27 Nov 2011

Du Pain, Du Vin ...

Jugendstil villa in Bonn - Bad Godesberg. November 2011.

In spite of alarming daily news reports about the euro crisis and the fact we still don't have a government after 500+ days of negotiating, the majority of us seem to lead our daily lives with little noticeable change.

For me personally, these are hectic but stimulating times. The past fortnight I've spent 4 days in England (London and the Cotswolds), 4 in France (Lille, mainly) and 2 in Germany (Bonn - Bad Godesberg). Most of the travelling was done for work, but I've managed to squeeze in a couple of days for myself.

Spare wine racks, anyone?
In my scarce free time I've been studying for next week's exam (I'm taking 'Communicative French' evening classes twice a week) and of course I had to attend two of the annual wine festivals that are common in France and Belgium in late autumn.

Some big, others small, these wine fairs are the perfect occasion to discover wines from independent winemakers and many of the smaller vineyards all over France.

As a result, we're now in dire need of extra wine racks, but I understand that's a luxury problem.

And now for some trivia:

My top 5 observations of the past 2 weeks.

  1. Lille is truly a beautiful city, with striking architecture, a vibrant atmosphere and wonderful restaurants.
  2. The French Alsace region, famous for its white wines, makes surprisingly good pinot noirs that offer great value for money.
  3. Anybody who thinks English people are cold and reserved, hasn't met my friends. I had the chance to meet up with several of them when I was in the Cotswolds and even though we don't see each other often, the time we spent together was once again heartwarming.
  4. Once you've learnt a language, even if you don't use it for ages, it's ingrained in your brain. I had French in school between the ages of 8 and 17, then didn't use it for almost 20 years. Now that I'm taking classes again, I'm surprised how quickly it all comes back.
  5. Bad Godesberg's residential villa quarter is stunning. When Bonn was still the capital of West Germany and later the official seat of united Germany's government (until 1999), many of the foreign embassies were located in stately Jugendstil villas.
Residential villas in Bonn - Bad Godesberg. November 2011.

So, my dear friends, what have you been up to?
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13 Nov 2011

Lucky 13: Women Writers about Character.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

- Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre)

“The sisters and brothers that you meet give you the materials which your character uses to build itself. It is said that some people are born great, others achieve it, some have it thrust upon them. In truth, the ways in which your character is built have to do with all three of those. Those around you, those you choose, and those who choose you.”
- Maya Angelou

“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands.”
- Anne Frank

“What we call our destiny is truly our character and that character can be altered. The knowledge that we are responsible for our actions and attitudes does not need to be discouraging, because it also means that we are free to change this destiny.”
- Anaïs Nin

“I can't decide whether I'm a good girl wrapped up in a bad girl, or if I'm a bad girl wrapped up in a good girl. And that's how I know I'm a woman!”
- C. JoyBell C.

“Whatever you are physically...male or female, strong or weak, ill or healthy--all those things matter less than what your heart contains. If you have the soul of a warrior, you are a warrior. All those other things, they are the glass that contains the lamp, but you are the light inside.”
- Cassandra Clare (Clockwork Angel)

“But what man does out of despair, is not necessarily a key to his character. I have always thought that the real key is in that which he seeks for his enjoyment.”
- Ayn Rand

“When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious.”
- Edna O'Brien

“There is a curious thing that happens with the passage of time: a calcification of character.”
- Jodi Picoult (My Sister's Keeper)

“Her beauty satisfied [his] artistic eye, her peculiarities piqued his curiosity, her vivacity lightened his ennui, and her character interested him by the unconscious hints it gave of power, pride and passion. So entirely natural and unconventional was she that he soon found himself on a familiar footing, asking all manner of unusual questions, and receiving rather piquant replies.”
- Louisa May Alcott (A Long Fatal Love Chase)

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
- Helen Keller

“Don't separate the mind from the body. Don't separate even character - you can't. Our unit of existence is a body, a physical, tangible, sensate entity with perceptions and reactions that express it and form it simultaneously."
- Susanna Kaysen

"character--the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life--is the source from which self-respect springs.”
- Joan Didion

Image: 'where did rachel "gun show" get her guns?' by sean dreilinger. Available under a creative commons license. © 2011, sean dreilinger.
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8 Nov 2011

Fear of Writing.

Just a thought today:

'Fear of writing is like when you're fresh in love, and every time you see that person, you freeze. Not because you don't have anything to say, but because you want your words to be deep and meaningful. 
So instead you stand there and choke, or - if you see them coming - duck behind a postbox.'

How do you deal with fear?

Image: 'Postbox: London, Great Britain' by Chris Wronski. Available under a creative commons license. © 2011, Chris Wronski.
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4 Nov 2011

Choc-o-licious: Chocolate Festival, Bruges.

Today I got to experience one of the perks of living in Belgium ànd being a blogger: I'd been invited to the press event of Choco-Laté, the chocolate festival in Bruges.

Choco-Laté is a festival aimed at professionals, devoted chocolate fans ànd more casual ones. As a self-proclaimed healthy hedonist and passionate chocolate lover, I have been there in the past and I can testify it's a treat, a true feast for the senses.

This year's edition will focus on chocolate in its purest form: the origins of the cacao bean, organic fair-trade chocolate and authentic recipes prepared on the spot by representatives of the Kuna people of Panama.

Choco-Laté organiser Eddy Van Belle,
chocolatier Dominique Persoone &
representatives of the Kuna people.
The Kuna people have featured in several medical reports because of the absence of high blood pressure among them and remarkably low death rates from stroke, cancer or cardiovascular disease. This might be linked to their cocoa-rich diet, which is an interesting path for further research.
But I digress.

At this festival you can discover visually stunning chocolate art, learn about the origins, production, health and wellness benefits of chocolate, sample chunks and nuggets at a wide variety of exhibitor booths, or get your hands dirty (and lick them clean again) in truffle-making workshops. All this takes place in a unique historic location, permeated with the rich, velvety scent of more kinds of chocolate than you and I knew existed.

Trust me, it's not an event you want to miss.

'Choco en Lala'
book cover chocolates
The parents among you don't need to find a babysitter. Take your kids along and drop them off at the Choco Kids Village, where they can play and learn about chocolate while you indulge in more adult activities. Allow me to make a few suggestions: find the perfect wine to go with chocolate, design the perfect cocoa drink or watch the bodypainting artists at work - with chocolate!

When you're at the festival, be sure to drop by author Marc de Bel's booth. At Choco-Laté 2011 he will present his new chocolate-themed children's book: 'Spikkel en Spekkie: Choco en Lala'.

(Come to think of it, chocolate should play a much bigger part in my novel!)

'Bruges swan'
chocolate dress.
At first sight, fashion and (calorie-dense) chocolate might not be a good match, but this year even fashionistas will be able to indulge.

Star designer Nicky Vankets, known to yours truly because of his gorgeous wedding dresses (I got married last year - did I mention I ♥ his 'White Couture' collection?), has teamed up with my favourite 'shock-o-latier' Dominique Persoone to design a fabulous 'Bruges swan' chocolate dress.

I so want one. Or two: one to wear and one to eat.
But I digress again.

Choco-Laté 2011 will take place at the Bruges belfry from 11th till 13th November.
For more information and tickets, go to: http://www.choco-late.be/en.

If you can't make those dates, do not despair. Bruges has 52 (hyper)active chocolatiers, who sell their scrumptious creations all year round.

On top of that, until 8 December 2011, the city of Bruges celebrates "Choc'in Brugge" - chocolate month, if you will, with gastronomic events, chocolate-themed city walks, chocolate wellness and much more. You can find the programme here.

Last but not least, if you live too far and can't make it to Belgium this year, have some great chocolate wherever you are and consider stopping by in the future.
When you do, drop me a line and I'd be happy to point out a number of places that are worth a visit.

Have a choc-o-licious November!

Bonus picture. From left to right:
shock-o-latier Dominique Persoone, fashion designer Nicky Vankets
and yours truly, plotting an escape with The Dress.
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28 Oct 2011

The Better Story Wins.

In writing, for us mere mortals, the quality of our stories and characters is key.

The following TED video made me wonder for how many other aspects of life this might be true.

In his 2009 talk, novelist and politician Shashi Tharoor (himself a fascinating character) looks at India's success and emerging popularity from a cultural point of view. He discusses the 'soft power' with which Indian culture, food, technology and music influences people's hearts and minds.

There's a lot of food for thought in this video. It made me wonder about the notion of world leadership, about the effect technological revolutions can have on people in different kinds and layers of society, and once again about the power of stories in our lives.

A few of my favourite passages:

'But, with this increasing awareness of India, with you and with I, and so on, with tales like Afghanistan, comes something vital in the information era, the sense that in today's world it's not the side of the bigger army that wins, it's the country that tells a better story that prevails.'
'Governments aren't very good at telling stories. But, people see a society for what it is, and that, it seems to me, is what ultimately will make a difference in today's information era'
'But, the whole point is that India is the nationalism of an idea. It's the idea of an ever-ever-land, emerging from an ancient civilization, united by a shared history, but sustained, above all, by pluralist democracy. That is a 21st-century story as well as an ancient one. And it's the nationalism of an idea that essentially says you can endure differences of caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, custom and costume, consonant, for that matter,and still rally around a consensus. And the consensus is of a very simple principle, that in a diverse plural democracy like India you don't really have to agree on everything all the time, so long as you agree on the ground rules of how you will disagree.'
 - Shashi Tharoor, TEDIndia, Nov 2009
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23 Oct 2011


I've been a bad blogger this month, but I have an excuse:  I have been (trying to be) good somethingelses, mainly at work and at home.

A few weeks ago, I started my new job. It's stimulating and demanding and I love it.

It's causing big changes in my life, though. So far none I hadn't anticipated - an advantage of taking the whole summer to weigh pros and cons - but it's still interesting to observe and experience the effects.

Changing your surroundings, circumstances or lifestyle has a way of confronting you with where you're at in life. As you develop new routines and grow into them, it's easier to see how far you've come and what you need to focus on for the future.

The most mundane but possibly most significant change for me is that I have a lot less 'free' time. That doesn't sound like a good thing, yet I feel more relaxed, in control and mentally free than I have in years. It was clearly time to stop fretting, hoping and assuming, go out on the fields and bring in the harvest.

What has changed?

I always thought I was unable to simplify my life. I'm the kind of person who's potentially interested in anything and everything. That is still the case - and I'm happy because it's a good skill for a writer - but I seem to have learnt to prioritise along the way. Who'd have thought?

Most importantly: giving up a number of things (or making them less prominent) doesn't make me feel like I'm missing out. To the contrary. I am less worried and more productive. I know that what's important will still stand out, possibly more so than before.

As a result, I have set myself a deadline for my novel. I have a (small) list with the final changes I want to make, and then I'm going to unleash my baby.

Whatever happens next, I'll live and learn - and change again.

Image: 'Harvest time' by Steve Schnabel. Available under a creative commons license. © 2009, Steve Schnabel.
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13 Oct 2011

Lucky 13: Women Writers about Wine.

"Wine is the refined jewel that only a grown woman will prefer to the sparkling trinkets adored by little girls."
- Muriel Barbery (Gourmet Rhapsody)

"Only a fool tries to reconstruct a bunch of grapes from a bottle of wine."
- Jeanette Winterson (Art & Lies)

"Wine talks; ask anyone. The oracle at the street corner; the uninvited guest at the wedding feast; the holy fool. It ventriloquizes. It has a million voices. It unleashes the tongue, teasing out secrets you never meant to tell, secrets you never even knew. It shouts, rants, whispers. It speaks of great plans, tragic loves, and terrible betrayals. It screams with laughter. It chuckles softly to itself. It weeps in front of its own reflection. It revives summers long past and memories best forgotten. Every bottle a whiff of other times, other places, everyone...a humble miracle"
- Joanne Harris

“There are days when solitude is a heady wine that intoxicates you with freedom, others when it is a bitter tonic, and still others when it is a poison that makes you beat your head against the wall.”
- Colette

"What I do, and what I dream include thee, as the wine must taste of its own grapes."
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Sonnets from the Portuguese and Other Poems)

"...and I get refill number three or four and the wine is making my bones loose and it's giving my hair a red sheen and my breasts are blooming and my eyes feel sultry and wise and the dress is water."
- Aimee Bender (Willful Creatures: Stories)

"All Creatures know that some must die
That all the rest may take and eat;
Sooner or later, all transform
Their blood to wine, their flesh to meat."
- Margaret Atwood

"I am a connoisseur of fine irony. 'Tis a bit like fine wine, but it has a better bite."
- Lynn Kurland (Princess of the Sword (Nine Kingdoms, #3))

"Language is wine upon the lips."
- Virginia Woolf

My writing is an overflow of the wine glass of my life, not a basin in which I wash out my ideals and expectations."
- C. JoyBell C

"Your divine should not have used water. It just doesn't hold the attention properly. Wine. Or blood, in a pinch. Some liquid that matters."
- Lois McMaster Bujold

"You are trying to lure us into revealing information you're not entitled to? With chocolate and wine? Are you amateurs?"
- Moira J. Moore (Heroes at Odds)

"I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind."
- Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights)

Image: 'A Glass in The Hand...' by clappstar. Available under a creative commons license. © 2010, clappstar.
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3 Oct 2011

Le Nouvel Automne Est Arrivé.

Autumn is here. Or is it? We've had clear blue skies and temperatures around 25°C for over a week, which is more summer than we've enjoyed all through August.

Yet the mornings have a chilly bite to them and our trees have transformed into multi-coloured marvels with crispy leaves that rustle and crackle on their way to the ground. Clusters of mushrooms have sprung up to confuse the cats on their daily trot to the food trays - yes, autumn is here all right.

While nature is shedding its fruits and preparing to go underground for the winter, I spent some time in my hammock today, basking in the afternoon sun and thinking about my own harvest: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

It struck me how much my life has changed these past few years. If I had to label the difference, I think 'ownership' would be a good word. I feel like I've finally taken the reins of my life, not in a strained and no-room-for-improvisation kind of way, but definitely more focused than I've ever been.

The interesting thing is that I still don't know where I'm going. My focus doesn't seem to be a goal or a point in the future. Instead it's coming from within, born from a better insight in what I can do, what I like to do and what I want to contribute to the world.

Writing has been an important factor and a catalyst in this process. By looking for the right words, I'm discovering what it is I want to say. By looking for ways to get my message across, I'm finding out why it's so important to me.

This is going to be an interesting season; I wonder what else it's got in store ....

What are you harvesting this year?

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23 Sep 2011

Celebrate good times ...

I've been quiet on the blog this week, but I had a good reason. About a month ago, I applied for a new job, which I hadn't done in a long time.

After a strenuous bilingual interview yesterday, I got the call earlier today: I've got the job and I'm starting next week.

The new job is at the university where I've been working for the past fourteen years, but it's still a big change. I'll have a lot more responsibility, it involves more travelling and international networking (yay!) and - the biggest change of all: I will no longer be teaching.

Over the summer I had considered all the pros and cons. In the end I decided to just follow my instincts. This is something I am cut out to do, and something I really want - a job that will push me out of my comfort zone and provide the challenges I need to grow as a person, a job where I'll need to take more (calculated) risks and deal with the consequences of my decisions, a job where real-world results will determine whether or not I've been successful.

The decision will affect my writing. This autumn I will not be able to take a sabbatical to write full-time, like I've done the past two years. I'll have fewer holidays and will be away more often.

Yet I'm more excited than worried. I tend to be more productive when I have a lot going on, and this will give me the opportunity to see more of the world and meet more people, which inspires my writing. My novel is also at a stage where I can afford to do this, and the future lies wide open.

On another note, this is also the first anniversary of my blog - yet another reason to celebrate. So get yourself a glass of your favourite celebratory drink and join me in the happy dance!

Image: 'Champagne' by iko. Available under a creative commons license. © 2004, iko.
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16 Sep 2011

Cat Tales.

We have cats, or - more correctly - cats have us.

Our Feline Overlords are called Cleo and Pixie and we've chosen to keep them outdoors. They have our garden to play in and plenty of (other) unkempt urban wilderness nearby. I often envy them.

Cleo is the Queen. She rules the garden with well-timed and unexpected attacks on anything with the audacity to move or breathe in her queendom. This includes her brother Pixie. (See picture above. If you look closely you can also see our Naughty Tree.)

In the absence of toes to chew on,
Pixie will settle for fingers.
Pixie is a beautiful cat but an unbelievable coward. I suppose it's partly my fault because I had him turned into an ex-tomcat several years ago. (Sorry, guys).

The removal of his Dignity and Pride has no doubt made him the laughing stock of his champagne-cork-soccer buddies and he's developed a toe fetish since. I suspect it's a coping mechanism.

About two years ago, our neighbours got a new cat. A domesticated one. You know the type: sociable, people-loving and utterly naive. Cleo hated her from day one. Pixie pretends he does too, but you can tell he's actually scared of her.

More than a year of hissing, growling and pitiful meowing later, the neighbours' cat got pregnant. When her Humans moved, she got left behind, so she's been eating Cleo's and Pixie's food since, which hasn't improved their opinion of her.

In turn, Mum abandoned her remaining kitten and I had to adopt it. I tried not to, but have you ever said no to a kitten?

The first weeks, this was the side
of Guest Kitten we saw most.
Guest Kitten is one of the cutest specimen I've ever seen and she believes our cats are her family. When she started to follow them around, it worried me at first. I expected to find pieces of Guest Kitten impaled on herb stalks to mark the borders of Cleo's territory.

It hasn't happened. Cleo is apprehensive but seems to tolerate Guest Kitten, while Pixie is - you've guessed it - afraid of her.

Guest Kitten at play.

In the beginning, Guest Kitten wasn't too crazy about Humans, but after weeks of 'apprivoiser', as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry called it, she's warming up to me.

So far I've been able to pet her, pick her up and determine she's a 'she'. She's also beginning to rub against my legs. I guess I'm hers now. I don't mind. Did I mention how adorable she is?

Now, Guest Kitten needs a name, and this is where you come in. I'd love to name her after a female character of a novel, be it from a published one or a WIP. Yours or someone else's, I don't mind, as long as it fits. Please post your suggestions in the comments and I promise I'll consider each and every one.

To help you choose, here's Guest Kitten in action, exploring a box:

However, in the end, the box was claimed by the Queen herself ...

... while Pixie watched from a safe distance, ready to escape at the first hint of danger:

Afterwards they met up for family dinner. There was much rejoicing.

The End.
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13 Sep 2011

Lucky 13: Women Writers about Courage.

"It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else."
- Erma Bombeck

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what."
- Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird)

"Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says I'll try again tomorrow."
- Mary Anne Radmacher

"One isn't necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We cannot be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest."
- Maya Angelou

"Everyone has talent. What's rare is the courage to follow it to the dark places where it leads."
- Erica Jong

"One is not in bondage to the past, which has shaped our feelings, to race, inheritance, background. All this can be altered if we have the courage to examine how it formed us. We can alter the chemistry provided we have the courage to dissect the elements."
- Anaïs Nin

"Why do they always teach us that it's easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It's the hardest thing in the world--to do what we want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage. I mean, what we really want."
- Ayn Rand

"There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me."
- Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice)

"[Responsibility to yourself] means, therefore, the courage to be "different"...The difference between a life lived actively, and a life of passive drifting and dispersal of energies, is an immense difference. Once we begin to feel committed to our lives, responsible to ourselves, we can never again be satisfied with the old, passive way."
- Adrienne Rich

"With enough courage, you can do without a reputation."
- Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind)

"There must be courage; there must be no awe. There must be criticism, for humor, to my mind, is encapsulated in criticism. There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind...There must be a magnificent disregard of your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it."
- Dorothy Parker

"HELPED are those who find the courage to do at least one small thing each day to help the existence of another--plant, animal, river, or human being. They shall be joined by a multitude of the timid."
- Alice Walker

"I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn."
- Anne Frank

Photo 'Jumping in the waves' by TheGiantVermin, available under a creative commons license. © 2004, TheGiantVermin.
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8 Sep 2011

The Magic of Truth, Lies and Technology.

I sometimes hear people express the fear that technology will make us less creative, or that technological evolutions might destroy art.

I don't agree. I believe technology is just a tool, whereas creativity is an attitude, a talent and a honed skill.

The following five-minute video is a great example of how technology can give rise to new forms of art.

At TEDGlobal 2011, the Swiss magician and illusionist Marco Tempest created an aesthetic, touching and thought-provoking reflection on truth, lies and the power of art:
"Art is a deception that creates real emotion
A lie that creates a truth
And when you give yourself over to that deception
It becomes magic."
 Marco Tempest, TEDGlobal 2011

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4 Sep 2011

A Trip Down Memory Lane.

It's been almost a year since I started 'The Woman Condition'. In that time I've written nearly 200 posts and the blog has hit 20,000 pageviews. This seemed like a good occasion to take a trip down blog-memory lane and write a post in which I would dust off a few of my favourite and most popular oldies.

As if the universe knew I could do with a push, one of my favourite fellow bloggers, L.G. Smith of Bards & Prophets, passed on the 7x7 Link Award to me, which asks to do exactly that: highlight older posts in the following categories:

  • Most Beautiful
  • Most Helpful
  • Most Popular
  • Most Controversial
  • Most Surprisingly Successful
  • Most Underrated
  • Most Prideworthy

Most Beautiful
This was easy. In May I wrote a post about beauty and being beautiful, with lots of pictures of beautiful women:

They Are Beautiful and So Are You.

Most Helpful
I think the posts with most potential to be helpful are the ones in my 'So Your Partner's a Rational Creature' series. I wrote them in my first 2 weeks of blogging, so I doubt they've been read by anybody besides my family and Facebook friends, but they got a great response there and seemed to provoke both reflection and discussion.

It was interesting to read these posts again, because I can tell my style of writing has changed. Anybody who sometimes fears blogging might be a waste of time: it isn't. We practise and hone our skills, even if we're not aware of it.

So Your Partner's a Rational Creature.

Most Popular
By far the most visited posts are the 'Manage Your Body Weight - the Green Way' lot. It helped a lot that Mistress Krista of the hugely popular website Stumptuous.com gave me a shout-out, which I was very happy about, even more so because she's an absolute goddess when it comes to women's fitness and health.

Manage Your Body Weight - the Green Way.

Most Controversial
This one's more difficult. I tend to steer away from controversial posts. It's the good girl / bad girl thing, I suspect. I did plead a case for using the word 'vagina' more frequently. Where I live, that's by no means controversial, but it seems to be in other parts of the world.

Warning: Contains the Word 'Vagina'.

Most Surprisingly Successful
When I wrote my post on the art of landscape artist Andy Goldsworthy, I had never expected it to become my most visited post. It's had over 800 hits so far (most of them via Google images, I suspect). I love his work, and I suspect you might too!

Natural Beauty: the Art of Andy Goldsworthy.

Most Underrated
For reasons that are hard to define, one of my favourite posts still is 'What's Your Story?' I wrote it in January of 2011, which feels much longer ago than it is. The story (and by association the post) still moves me.

What's Your Story?

Most Prideworthy
This would have to be my very first post, because it represents a decision that took me a lot of courage: to put myself, my thoughts and my writing out there and risk the confrontation with reality - and other people.

In the beginning there was ... Eve.

Now, to pass the 7x7 Link Award on to 7 deserving friends. Like L.G., I've chosen people whose blogs have been going on for a while, but whom I've come across later. I thought this would be a great way to get to know them better as well as discover their older, legendary posts:

Image: 'Forest path' by Angel Jimenez, available under a creative commons license© 2005, Angel Jimenez.
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1 Sep 2011

A Kinder Philosophy of Success.

Dreams of success and the fear of failure seem inevitable components of the writing life - or life in general.

Because it is something so many of us are dealing with, I wanted to share a video of a talk by the famous writer and philosopher Alain de Botton.

At TED Global in 2009, he examined how modern society thinks about success and failure and asked interesting and thought-provoking questions about what drives us in our everyday lives.

To quote but a few of my favourite passages:
'I don't think we are particularly materialistic. I think we live in a society which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods. It's not the material goods we want. It's the rewards we want.'
'Here's an insight that I've had about success. You can't be successful at everything. We hear a lot of talk about work-life balance. Nonsense. You can't have it all. You can't. So any vision of success has to admit what it's losing out on, where the element of loss is.'
'So what I want to argue for, is not that we should give up on our ideas of success. But we should make sure that they are our own. We should focus in on our ideas. And make sure that we own themthat we are truly the authors of our own ambitions. Because it's bad enough, not getting what you want. But it's even worse to have an idea of what it is you want, and find out at the end of a journey, that it isn't, in fact, what you wanted all along.'
'But at the end of the day we should always remember that whoever is facing us, whatever has happened in their lives, there will be a strong element of the haphazard.'
 - Alain de Botton, TEDGlobal 2009 

Here's the complete 17-minute talk:

or watch the video (with interactive transcript) at TED.com.

What's your definition of success?

Photo 'Zarko Drincic - Master Key' by Zarko Drincic, available under a creative commons license© 2005, Zarko Drincic.
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29 Aug 2011

Dieting and Decision Fatigue.

The other day, my husband pointed out an article that 'would interest me'. He was right – as usual.

The article was called 'Do you make too many decisions?', posted at the smart and thought-provoking Farnam Street blog.

Decisions, Decisions ...

Now, before you think this was his subtle way of calling me bossy, you might want to read the article. It deals with the decision density of modern life, and how each decision takes mental effort, thus reducing the amount of energy left for stamina, persistence and willpower.

This leads to what is called 'decision fatigue', which is described in detail in this New York Times article and in Roy F. Baumeister's and John Tierney's book: 'Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength' that's coming out in a few days (September 1st, 2011).

One of the most interesting takeaways of the articles for me was the discovery that glucose plays a vital role in willpower. It explains why dieting is a particularly difficult test of self-control.

The Catch-22 of Dieting ...

Seriously, everyone who's ever been on a diet knows this - myself included. Even people with very strong willpower in other aspects of their lives feel they're lacking when it comes to dieting.

We start the day with the best of intentions, manage to resist the first temptations thrown at us, but each of these brave acts takes up mental energy and lowers our willpower. Towards the end of the day, willpower simply runs out. To replenish it, we'd have to give our brain glucose, hence the sugar cravings.

So here it is, the catch-22 of dieting:

1. We need willpower to resist eating.
2. We need to eat in order to have willpower.

Now, the good news is that, once an explanation has been found, one can start looking for solutions to a problem. *Cheer*.

Dieting and Decision Fatigue ...

Reading the article at Farnham Street came at exactly the right time. Over the past year I'd gained a few pounds, and now the summer holidays have come to an end, I'm working on losing them again. Being a foodie and a wine enthusiast, I have to stay alert. But that's okay; the alternative is worse.

I've written extensively about weight management before in my 'Manage your body weight - the green way' series, but here's a summary of what I'm doing at the moment, in case anybody's looking for inspiration / motivation after some summer indulgence and wants to join in:

1. I register everything I'm eating at http://www.fitday.com - it's very little work and it gives me an overview of how I'm doing. It's easy to miscalculate or lose track of the calories and nutrients you're consuming if you just play it by ear. A reliable food diary shows the facts, which helps by taking away some of the strain of having to make the right decision every time.

2. I manage my environment to reduce temptation, which leaves me with more willpower for when it matters. This means: if I can't or shouldn't eat it, I don't have it in the house. In short: no candy, no crisps, ... and instead plenty of fresh vegetables, low-calorie meals in the freezer, easy snacks like my favourite fruits, nuts, Greek yoghurt, dark chocolate (70% cocoa or more), lemons & soda water (to make stevia-sweetened lemonade), etc.

3. I eat smaller meals but more often: 5 to 6 times a day. (I aim for 6, usually manage 5.) Being able to eat on a regular basis reduces the burden on your willpower.

4. No sugar, except for the bit that's in my daily piece of dark, bitter chocolate, which isn't much, and a bit of grape sugar (dextrose) - see under number 5.

5. My new favourite emergency trick (after reading the articles I mentioned above): if I get a really bad sugar craving and I'm about to give in, I take a teaspoon of grape sugar / dextrose. It works for me, but that doesn't mean it's good for everybody. If you want to do this, do it wisely. Glucose affects your blood sugar levels, so if you're a diabetic, this is probably a really bad idea.

Also, know that 5 grams of dextrose amounts to about 20 calories, so don't exaggerate, register the calories and don't fool yourself into thinking it's good for you. If you focus on eating healthily, you should get a steady release of glucose from the other foods you're eating, so this is just a fix for the most difficult moments.

If you're wondering why I use dextrose instead of normal sugar, cane sugar or any of the other sugar varieties out there: it's because grape sugar / dextrose is 100% glucose. Regular sugar, cane sugar and the others also contain fructose, which is to be avoided. (Read this article / watch the video if you want to know more.)

Recommended Reading ...

Farnham Street blog: http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/do-you-make-too-many-decisions/
Complete New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html
The Book: http://www.amazon.com/Willpower-Rediscovering-Greatest-Human-Strength/dp/1594203075

Photo 'Sick and Tired' by Stephanie Lepoint, available under a creative commons license. © 2007, Stephanie Lepoint.
Photo 'Gluttony' by vitaeer, available under a creative commons license. © 2006, vitaeer.
Photo 'Belgian chocolate' by K.C. Woolf, available under a creative commons license. © 2011, K.C. Woolf.
Photo 'Grapes' by Dave Rutt, available under a creative commons license. © 2008, Dave Rutt.
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24 Aug 2011

Glorious Rheingau, Ravishing Rieslings.

Last week, on the way back from 'Holidays - the Sequel', we spent a few days at the river Rhine, in Germany's second oldest hotel: Hotel Krone near Rüdesheim-am-Rhein.

Over the past few years, we've developed a taste for Riesling wines, and after visiting the French Alsace last year, we wanted to continue our discovery of this wonderful grape, in the Rheingau this time.

The Rheingau ...

The Rheingau is one of Germany's smaller wine regions but an important one, especially for Riesling wines. The oldest documented references about Riesling come from this area, and the first vineyards have allegedly been planted as early as the 8th or 9th Century.

Schloß Johannisberg in Geisenheim is supposedly one of the places where it was discovered that grapes affected by Botrytis cinerea (pourriture noble or noble rot) made delicious sweet wines.

For these and many other reasons, the Rheingau had been on my to-visit list for a while, so when the opportunity arose, I couldn't let it pass.

The Hotel ...

Hotel Krone is a charming, old-world boutique hotel, a bit outdated maybe but that only added to its character.

We stayed in one of their suites, with a wide balcony overlooking the Rhine and a huge marble bathroom, complete with private sauna and jacuzzi.

If we hadn't had all this wine-tasting and gastronomic dining on the agenda, we wouldn't have left the room.

I was glad we did venture out, though, because we discovered great wines in the Rheingau, in different price ranges, but nearly all of them of decent quality and fair value for money.

The Wine ...

We started our exploration with a visit to Schloß Johannisberg and a tour of the ultramodern Steinberg cellars at Kloster Eberbach. Afterwards we visited independent winemakers in the nearby towns.

It was interesting to see how in an area that's quite renowned for its wines, many of the local wine growers seemed to have little interest in actually selling their wines. One of them, when we asked if we could sample his wines, looked so surprised one would think he'd never had that request. He even had to check with his wife first, who wasn't home at the time.

When we came back a few hours later, he had recovered from the shock and sat down at the table with a couple of bottles. We ended up having a good chat and bought several of his wines: a lovely dry white, and his personal favourite: a medium dry weißherbst (a rosé made from one type of grape – pinot noir in this case – and harvested from one location). So everything worked out fine, but if we hadn't spoken German, we wouldn't have made it past the doorstep.

Now, my favourite discovery of the entire trip was Weingut Josef Leitz.

Not only were they incredibly accommodating by organising a short-notice private tasting for us; the guy who lead the tasting - Tobias, if I recall his name correctly - was friendly, welcoming, knowledgeable and clearly passionate about wine. He took the time to explain (in English, even) the individual characteristics of the vineyard's winemaking style and the different soils and 'Lagen' they worked with.

The Leitz tasting was one of the most enjoyable ones I've ever experienced. I can honestly say there wasn't a single wine I didn't like, even though they were all quite distinct. Leitz' wines are a perfect illustration of what a difference terroir makes in the final result.

Deciding which ones to buy became a true ordeal. Each of them unique, they all had an irresistible vigour and vibrance, intensely fragrant yet elegant, with a beautiful balance of acidity, minerality and luscious fruit.

After careful deliberation, we settled on one of his more modest dry ones for everyday consumption, and - for more special occasions - my favourite: the 2010 Rüdesheimer Berg Roseneck Spätlese, a sweeter wine with a delicate aroma of rose petals.

But before I get lost in lyrical outpourings, let me share a few photographs of:

The Rhine ...

The Wine Cellar ...

Zum Wohl!
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17 Aug 2011

Blog Love.

Time and time again I'm surprised at how supportive and genuinely kind our blogger-writer community is.

As an example of blog love: last week, the witty and wonderful Margo Lerwill of Urban Psychopomp passed on the Liebster Blog award to me with the much-appreciated words:
'K.C. Woolf at The Woman Condition has an interesting blog. Though many of her posts don’t directly address writing, they often address it in an indirect (and compelling) way.' (1)
Needless to say I was happy, even more so because it felt like she 'got' my blog. Underneath the variety of topics runs my writing. Nearly everything I touch on in my blog plays a part in my novel, be it as inspiration, setting, writing tool or one of the tiny details that make a story more lively and real.

Like most awards, this one comes with a few rules guidelines:
  1. Thank the giver and link back to the blogger who gave it to you.
  2. Reveal your top 5 picks (blogs with under 200 followers) and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.
  3. Copy and paste the award on your blog.
  4. Have faith that your followers will spread the love to other bloggers.
  5. And most of all - have bloggity-blog fun!
As befits a good girl, here we go:

1. A sincere thank you to writer Margo Lerwill of Urban Psychopomp. Go check out her blog if you haven't already!

2. My top 5 picks:
  • Bards and Prophets by L.G. Smith. She is smart, funny and interesting. A true writer. Her blog seems to attract like-minded people, and I've met a lot of great fellow writers there.
  • Girl Wizard Suze. Suze has a knack for describing everyday life with an eye for those details that turn the ordinary into an adventure.
  • Munk Davis, who is ... different, in a very good way. He makes me laugh, think and wonder, and the opening lines he so generously shares are brilliant.
  • Blue Skies Sunny Days. I only met Linda recently, and I'm gradually reading through her blog. I'm intrigued by her open-minded outlook on life – sometimes gentle and understanding, sometimes sharp and uncompromising. On top of that: she's an INTP (like my husband and several of my friends).
  • An Endless Fascination with Stories by Toby Neal. I love Toby. She's got tons of personality, is incredibly supportive of her writer friends, and she's about to embark on the next stage of her writing adventure. She lives in Hawaii and often posts great pictures that make me want to move.

3. Done.

4. I do.

5. Okay!
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