30 Apr 2011

Z is for Zzzzz ...

Wow, I've made it. This is the last day of the A to Z blogging challenge. 26 mad days of posting every day, visiting tons of other blogs, commenting and connecting.

What a ride it has been. I've met a bunch of people, who feel like they've become friends. I've discovered a number of blogs that inform me, entertain me, make me think or put a smile on my face.

My blog has grown and become more lively, with a lot more visitors dropping by and adding to the party. It feels like it's got more of a soul now, and will continue to thrive.

Over the course of 1 month, I've gone from a wonderful 10 followers (I owe you all at least one of those legendary caipirinhas!), to an even more fabulous 72.

And what I like most, is that those 72 followers all have a face to me, an identity of their own - even those I've never met in person. I've read pieces of their writing, I've exchanged ideas and information, and I feel like I know them a little bit - enough to want to learn more.

The Web is a huge place, where it's easy to feel tiny, insignificant or intimidated. What initiatives like the A to Z challenge do, is to fence off a piece of that vast universe and define the borders of a (temporary) playground.

All of a sudden the blogosphere doesn't seem so big any more. Even though there were over a thousand participants, the challenge we all had in common made it more manageable and accessible.

At first, you see just names and profile pictures, but soon, those names start looking familiar and turn into people. Then they become individuals you respect and appreciate.

With some, I feel I've connected on a more personal level, because we think alike or because we're complementary and can teach each other a lot; because we're all writers or because we share a love for particular books or genres; because we've been through similar experiences, or because we're drawn to the same people.

Whatever the future brings, I'm happy and grateful for this experience.

I would like to express my special thanks to Lee (Arlee Bird), word and idea juggler extraordinaire, for coming up with the A to Z challenge, and to science fiction guru Alex J. Cavanaugh, whose tweets informed me about the challenge in the first place.

And now it's time to relax, take a weekend off, catch up on some sleep, and then I'll be back with a whole list of topics, dealing with writing, life, love and my quest for authentic and worthwhile experiences.

See you around!

Funky fact: at a given point I had 666 unread messages in Google Reader, ànd 66 followers. I'm sure it was a sign, but of what?

Image 2: 'web' by Brenda Anderson. Available under a creative commons license. © 2005, Brenda Anderson.
Image 3: 'Friends' by Leon Rice-Whetton. Available under a creative commons license. © 2010, Leon Rice-Whetton.
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29 Apr 2011

Y is for You.

During this A to Z month, I've written about what I'm interested in and what makes me happy. Now, towards the end, I want to devote this post to 'you'.

Caring about yourself and caring for yourself are not selfish acts. You are the most important person in your life, and the better you do and feel, the more you can give to others - whether it's love, friendship, time, attention or even money.

Therefore, I want to encourage you to take some you-time this weekend. I'm sure you deserve it.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Plan a trip. It doesn't have to be long, far, or expensive. Alone, if you prefer, or with the people you would most like to spend time with.
  • Read a book you've wanted to read for a long time. Switch off your phone & computer and let everyone around you know you're not to be disturbed. If your home is too busy, take your book to a coffee house, tearoom, bar or park.
  • Do something that makes you laugh.
    (Watching Blackadder episodes works for me.)
  • Take a walk to a nice spot nearby and spend some time there, enjoying the view.
  • Open a good bottle of wine or champagne and savour every sip.
  • Get your hair done, enjoy a massage, a pedicure if you're on your feet all day, or a couple of hours of pampering at a spa.
  • Sign up for yoga, cooking or foreign language classes, learn to paint, or join a choir or a book club.
  • Call a friend and arrange to meet up for dinner.
  • Make a list of what you'd want to do if you had no 'have-tos'. Then do at least one of the items on your list.
  • Put on a cd you love, sit or lie down, close your eyes and listen. (Or dance.)
  • If you have pets, play with them. If you have a dog, take him/her out for a walk and pretend it's the other way round.
  • Think about what you most dislike about your life and think up all kinds of crazy and creative ways to solve that problem. Who knows, you might come up with a real solution, and if not, you'll at least have smiled.
  • Remind yourself that you don't have to wait until later to live the life you want.

What do you do when you need time for yourself?

Image: 'Photographing Friends Is Too Much Fun! - Day 4' by Sleeping Sun. Available under a creative commons license. © 2010, Sleeping Sun.
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28 Apr 2011

X is for Xanadu.

In between being a reader and a writer, I used to play computer games. I loved roleplaying games in fantasy or science fiction settings (no surprise there).

My absolute favourite game was Everquest. I played it for several years and met an amazing group of people because of it.

Everquest was an MMORPG, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, in which hundreds of thousands of players took control of their elf, dwarf, ogre, ... character to overcome challenges in an elaborate fantasy world.

I played a dark-elf enchanter called Triksi, and for the bigger part of her virtual life, Triksi was a member of a great guild called 'Xanadu'.

Playing this game and being in Xanadu taught me a lot of skills that have proven useful in other areas of my life.

You don't play MMORPGs on your own. You need others to get ahead in the game, sometimes smaller groups, sometimes a raid party of 50 or more.

When any group of that size gets together to accomplish a task - whether that's slaying a dragon, organising an event or creating a product - you inevitably learn about organisation, multitasking, communication, perseverance, offering and accepting help, applying strategies, problem-solving, human interaction and putting individual differences to good use.

Along the way, we became friends. Online friends at first, but many of us met up in real life. Our first big gathering took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, and it was interesting to see how close those online friendships came to real-life friendships: the people I got along with in-game were the same people I connected with when we met up.

Several of them have stayed good friends up to this day, even after we stopped playing Everquest.

Others have disappeared in the cracks of time and distance, some to reappear on Facebook or other social networks in recent years.

To this day, the word 'Xanadu' still makes me smile. It rings of friendship and great accomplishments - against all odds.

It also reminds me of the temporary nature of many friendships. Some friends are there for life, others will cross your path, walk with you for a while and disappear - quietly, or with a bang.

Does that make those friendships less valuable? I don't think so. Duration and longevity aren't the only ways of measuring quality. We don't judge the beauty of a rose or the flavour of a dish by how long they linger, do we?

So this post is dedicated to my Xanadu friends, past and present. Wherever you are now and whatever you're doing, I hope you're well, and I think a reunion is due.
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27 Apr 2011

W is for Wine.

To regular visitors of my blog, it should come as no surprise that my 'W' post is about wine, especially because this whole A to Z series is dedicated to things that bring me joy and make life more interesting.

I love good wines. Over the past years, I've taken a few wine tasting courses, but I'm still more an aficionado than a connoisseur. However, next time I can free up a larger chunk of time, I am planning to go through the full sommelier training.

'Wine Cellar in Tuscany'.
© 2007, Delicious Italy - cc
Until that time, I'll settle for sampling and enjoying wines, attending wine fairs and tastings, and visiting wine regions and vineyards when I'm on holiday. An alternative I can live with, for sure.

In this post, for those of you who are interested, I want to share some basic information about what makes a good wine, and about wine tasting in general. I suggest you pour a glass and savour it while you read on. Cheers!

Wine Quality

The most important thing about wine, apart from the health benefits (when drunk in moderation), is that the person who drinks it, enjoys it.

All too often, people act snobbish about wine, often to disguise that they don't know much about it. It's true: wine tasting is an art and a skill, but that's not necessarily the only - or the best - way to enjoy wine.

If you love the taste of a particular wine, don't let anybody tell you that's bad. Personal enjoyment isn't linked to price or critics' opinions, and a wine doesn't have to be expensive to be pleasant, interesting or exciting.

On the most basic level of enjoying wine, reviews and ratings are irrelevant. However, as is the case with many aspects of life, when you learn more about a product or a process, you discover new layers of enjoyment, fascination and respect.

By studying wine and training your palate, you open yourself up to new levels of appreciation, not just for the product, but also for the craftmanship of the people who grew the grapes, harvested them, composed and produced the wine.

Compare this to an experienced musician, who would notice more intricacies of a piece of music; a basketball player who detects hidden strategies and opportunities when watching a game; or a writer, who can admire a good example of 'showing rather than telling' where other readers just see a sentence.

Winemaking truly is an art, which requires expertise in many areas.

The main factors that determine the quality of a wine are: the climate in which the grapes are grown, the soil, the grape itself, how the grapes are harvested, the winemaking process and the treatment / conservation of the finished product.

I don't want to go into too much detail, but to give an idea, I'll point out a few aspects that affect the taste and quality of a wine:

  • whether grapes are harvested by hand or not. Machines rip the grapes off the vine, but they're not selective: they take parts of leaves, branches, insects, unripe or overripe grapes along. All this ends up in the mixture of which the wine is made. A wine made of hand-picked grapes will usually have a more elegant, deep and complex flavour. (It will also be more expensive, as it was more labour intensive to produce.)
  • the type of soil and age of the vines affect the flavours present in the grape. Old vines (or vines in particular types of soil) tend to have deeper roots, which means that they can take in nutrients and water from more layers of soil. Each layer adds a nuance to the final taste, i.e. more depth and complexity.
  • the climate and microclimate in which the grapes grow. Temperature, the conditions and the length of the growing season, all affect the quality and sugar content of the grapes. The greatest wines tend to come from vineyards with the best location, due to temperature, orientation towards the sun, the presence of a river that reflects sunlight, surrounding vegetation, ...

This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it should give an idea of the complexity of the process, and of the fact that in many cases, a wine's price is an indication of quality, at least in the definition of craftsmanship, human energy that's gone into the process, complexity and depth of flavours.

Wine Tasting

I have chosen a video here to replace the 1,000 words I would need to convey the same information. I like how it summarises the most important basics:

Are you a wine person? Do you have a favourite wine?

Image 1: 'Wine' by jhenrirose. Available under a creative commons license. © 2008, jhenrirose.
Image 2: 'Wine Cellar in Tuscany' by Delicious Italy. Available under a creative commons license. © 2007, Delicious Italy.
Image 3: '2003 Christmas House Wine Cellar' by Gatsby. Available under a creative commons license. © 2002, Gatsby.
Image 4: 'Vineyard 002' by Viña Caliterra. Available under a creative commons license. © 2008, Viña Caliterra.
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26 Apr 2011

V is for Venice.

For our honeymoon, we took a wine and gastronomy-themed road trip to Venice.

It was a fabulous vacation. We stayed in beautiful boutique hotels in the French Bourgogne region and the Italian Alps on the way over. On the way back, we spent a couple of days at the Lago Maggiore and in the French Alsace.

As a bonus, the journey gave us an opportunity - and the perfect excuse - to try out different sparkling wines: crémant de Bourgogne, several Italian spumanti, prosecco, and the crémant d'alsace. But I digress - 'W for Wine' is tomorrow's topic.

My post today is about Venice, possibly the most romantic city in the world. Also a very hot city, in early July, but we survived.

'Paint Everything, Tintoretto'.
© 2005, Josh Noel. - CC
It's hard to say which were my favourite sights in Venice, because there were so many, but I'll disclose one treat that might not be in the standard tourist package: the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.

The scuola was, like other scuole in the area, a kind of guild hall for wealthy citizens, built in the 16th century. Now it's a museum.

It consists of 2 floors, each decorated with lavish paintings by artists like Tintoretto and Titian. The upper hall also has amazing wood sculptures by Francesco Pianta.

It's such an inspiring place. I'll just have to use it in a novel one day!

A few more views of Venice

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25 Apr 2011

U is for Urban Gardening.

My parents had - well, have - a large vegetable garden. I am pretty sure that to this day, they've never had to buy a single vegetable in a store, ever.

They grow their own potatoes, tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, garlic, leeks, carrots, chicory, spinach, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, green beans, peas, celery, pumpkins, cabbage, and much more. Not to mention lots of fruit and herbs, all organic.

As a child, I hated having a garden. It meant we had to help out with tedious tasks like weeding, picking green beans or podding buckets of peas.

It also meant we ate vegetables in cycles. During tomato season, we'd eat tomatoes until I had nightmares about them. We had to eat soups that contained so many different, fresh veggies, they always tasted more or less the same.

It's taken me a long time - and many years of city life - to understand how fortunate we were.

Ever since I moved out of my parents' house, I've grown herbs, even when I only had the balcony of my flat at my disposal. When I moved here, the herb patch was the first part of the garden to be finished.

The past few years, I've taken an interest in low-maintenance urban farming. I'm not the kind of person to spend hours a day (or week) digging and weeding. Believe me, I've tried.

After the herb garden, we moved on to fruit trees: apples, cherries and plums. They're easy. You plant them. Water them for a while. Done.

That went well, so last year, we planted berry bushes and got 2 lemon trees for the patio. If all goes well, they'll provide a lot of fruit this year.

And about a month ago, I started growing strawberries and different types of lettuce, in containers. The plants are doing great, and we've harvested our first lettuce leaves last week. They're delicious, but I might be a little biased here.

The container garden on the patio, April 2011.

More vegetables on the fence, April 2011.

Our harvest for yesterday's lunch ...

... transformed, with a little help from non-home-grown ingredients.

It takes little to no effort, you can't get veggies any fresher than that, and they taste even better because you've seen them grow!

So, if you want to give it a try, here are a few websites with great ideas for city and balcony gardens:

I also wanted to share this video, of a Canadian woman, Carol Bowlby, who feeds her family of 5 with gorgeous organic vegetables, grown in a small back garden in the city. She's inspiring and gives a lot of practical tips.

My Urban Garden by Polly Bennell, National Film Board of Canada

Do you have a green thumb?
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23 Apr 2011

T is for Travel.

I've mentioned before how much I love travelling. So far, I have been to 20 countries on 3 continents, but there are hundreds of places, cultures and cuisines I still want to experience.

Here is my wish list, checklist and reminder to myself: the top 10 of places I want to visit before I die (in alphabetical order):

1. Australia

'Freycinet Tasmania in all its glory', © 2011 eloctre. - CC

2. Caribbean

'Caribbean Sunset, Aruba'. © 2007 David Stanley - CC

3. Cozumel

'Ruins'. © 2008, Benjamin Golub - CC

4. Croatia

'Plitvice'. © 2008, Stephanie Yoder - CC

5. Cyclades

'Amorgos'. © 2006, Visit Greece - CC

6. Egypt

'Egypt. Sphinx and Pyramids'. © 2008, Nina Hale - CC

7. Finland

'Winter in Kakslauttanen Igloo Village'. © 2010, Visit Finland - CC

8. Iceland

'Iceland'. © 2009, Champignon.Bunny - CC

9. Seychelles

'Blue Water - Seychelles'. © 2007, whl.travel - CC

10. Thailand

'Ayutthaya, Thailand'. © 2004, Russ Bowling - CC

Have you visited any of these? Any places you'd recommend?
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22 Apr 2011

S is for Samaria Gorge.

In the summer of 2005, I went on holiday to the Greek island of Crete, with my then-boyfriend-now-husband, his brother and their dad. It was an amazing holiday: we explored the island, enjoyed great local food and sampled the entire cocktail list of the nearby bar(s).

One day, my father-in-law suggested we'd go for a hike in the Samaria Gorge. I don't remember my exact response, but it will have resembled: 'Uh-uh. Right. Hm.'

I had read about the gorge, and decided it wasn't for me. The guidebooks described it as breathtakingly beautiful, but it was also a 16 kilometre (10 mile) walk on steep, rough terrain, in the blistering July heat.

I was 30 at the time, overweight and in the worst shape of my life. A few months before, I had decided to turn my life around, quit smoking and started working out, but it would take me longer than a few months to see and feel the results.

In spite of those good intentions, when my father-in-law suggested the trek, I resisted. I thought of a hundred excuses why we shouldn't go, but they all came down to this: I was afraid. Afraid it would be tough, afraid I wouldn't make it, afraid everybody would see how weak I was, afraid to be confronted with how much I had let myself slide.

To this day, I'm glad he insisted. Unable to say no, I decided I would go along. The trek would be hell, but once I was in the gorge, I would have no choice but to plod on and get to the end. If it wouldn't kill me, it would make me stronger.

So a few days later, we got up before daybreak to take a taxi that would take us to a bus that would take us to the entrance of the gorge. Armed with brand new hiking shoes, a white hat and a bottle of water, I began my journey.

The first 3 kilometres of the walk consisted of a steep descent along a stony path. By the end of it, my knees ached and I had blisters. Then the real walk began.

Let me tell you: I struggled and suffered, but I also conquered and cheered. I can't even remember how long it took me to get to the end (way over 6 hours would be my guess) but I made it.

The Samaria gorge was to my body what writing is to my soul: a perfect blend of beauty and agony. And after all that misery, when I reached the exit, walked through and turned around to look back, I felt happier, stronger and more proud of myself than I had in a long, long time.

This hike has taught me a few invaluable lessons about life: the importance of facing my inner resistance and fear, how strong (or stubborn) I really am, to put my money (or actions) where my mouth is, and that I never want to go back to the abysmal physical condition I was in - at least not before I'm 80.

Oh yes: and sometimes it's okay to listen to your father-in-law.

I said sometimes!

Here are a few more pictures of what I would have missed, had I stayed on the couch that day:

What was a big turning point in your life?
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21 Apr 2011

R is for Restaurant.

The Bar at The Horse & Groom. November 2010.

I love going out to dinner, especially to places that have a unique character. Fortunately I live in Belgium, in the heart of Europe, famous for its Burgundian lifestyle and surrounded by interesting culinary neighbours, each with a distinct focus and flavour.

A few days ago, the top 50 of the world's best restaurants was revealed, and I was happy to see that 2 of the top 20 restaurants were places I consider 'local'. Hof van Cleve - #15 and Oud Sluis - #17 are both less than an hour's drive away from where I live.

If I would ever get tired of those, there are 5 more top 20 restaurants in Paris, which is less than 3 hours away, and of course there's The Fat Duck in Maidenhead, just past London, about 4 hours.

My novel is set in the Cotswolds, so I spend quite a bit of time in England. I'm lucky to have great friends in the area, who love good food (and wine) as much as I do.

A few years ago, one of those friends introduced me to 'The Horse & Groom', a restaurant in the Cotswold village of Upper Oddington, England, and it's become my favourite in that area.

I've posted this review on my side-project blog 'The Enchanted Traveller' before, but in honour of my 'Restaurant' topic, I thought to give it a place here as well.

Part of the bar and dining area. Nov 2010.
There are so many aspects to 'The Horse & Groom' I like, it's hard to say what I like most.

First of all: it is cosy, with a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Simon Jackson, the owner, welcomes his guests warmly and really goes out of his way to make you feel at home.

The inn itself is a 16th century building and its character has definitely been preserved, even though the interior has a more contemporary rustic touch now.

As soon as the weather gets damp or chilly, the fireplace is lit, which fills the space with a warm glow and a scent of burning wood that is just right for a perfect evening full of joy and good conversation.

Window seats near the fireplace. November 2010.
The seasonal menus offer a wide range of choices, without being so overloaded that it becomes difficult to choose.

Dinner menus contain about 6 to 7 starters, mains and desserts, and a few side orders. On top of these, there are daily specials on the board.

The vegetarian options are equally attractive, very well prepared and with the same amount of care put into flavours and textures as is the case with the other dishes.

The prices are fair, possibly at the higher end of what you'd expect in a village inn, but the quality of the food is so superb that what you pay is more than justified.

The chef, Jason Brewster, works with local produce as much as he can, and is committed to really cooking from fresh. As a result, everything you get on the table has been prepared in house and is just bursting with flavour. He and his kitchen team bake their own bread, make the stocks, sauces, chutneys, ice creams, puddings, even smoke the meats and fish.

Simon at work. November 2010.
This is all wonderful, but as far as I'm concerned, the characteristic that really sets the Horse & Groom apart is that Simon knows his wines. He knows them, and he loves them.

He will not push his knowledge on you or bore you with endless descriptions if you're not interested in wines, but when he spots that spark, and you get him talking, you immediately see that this is no marketing gimmick or put-on pretentiousness.

He genuinely cares, about the wines as well as the stories behind them: who has made them, what makes them special, and what you could drink them with to experience them in the best possible way.

The Horse & Groom offers over 25 wines by the glass, which gives you a lot of flexibility when you're dining with a smaller group - or if you just like variation.

To get an idea of the extensive selection, have a look at their wine list here.

(For completeness' sake: they seem equally passionate about their beers, but I'm more of a wine person so I can't speak from experience there.)

'Wine Staircase' in a cosy corner. Nov. 2010.
If you're in doubt which wine to choose, depending on what you like and/or what food you're having, you can always ask for advice. If someone else is taking care of your table, don't hesitate to ask if Simon would have a minute. He's definitely the man you'll want to talk to.

If you're getting a dessert, which I'd really recommend, you might want to consider one of the gorgeous 'sticky wines' to go with it. I think we've sampled the full range by now, and my absolute favourites are the Californian Quady 'Elysium' - Black Muscat, the Australian 'Cordon Cut' Clare Valley Riesling and the mouthwatering Pieropan 'Le Colombare'. These wines are truly liquid gold.

Before I get all lyrical, let me refer you to the Horse & Groom website for all the practical information you might need, and assure you that when you're in the Cotswolds, this restaurant is well worth a visit.

Even if you find you're not that close to Upper Oddington, you won't regret the detour. Do take someone who doesn't like wine, though. Chances are you'll need a designated driver!

What's your favourite restaurant?
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