30 December 2017

Remembering 2017

As a teacher I find that the "real" end of the year is in July when the academic year finishes. That is when I truly get to sit back and take stock of the year that has passed and I start making plans for the next one and get to wind down during the amazing summer holidays. However nobody can escape the Happy New Year messages and resolutions being taken up all around. I have given up on resolutions fr now, I just want to be a good person and lead a good and possibly healthy and stress-free life, doing the best I can in every way.

However, earlier this week I visited London with a friend whom I have not seen for more than three years. We walked through cold and sleeting London for three hours before he got on a bus that would take him back home. After that, having been chilled to the bone, I have set up base camp at a nearby pub. It took a cappuccino, fried vegetarian breakfast and a cup of mulled wine to warm me up, but whilst sitting there, people watching and sipping the hot yummy drinks, I started thinking about this year and the year to come. Now that I am wrapped up warm and sipping hot peppermint and nettle tea at home, I would like to share my thoughts with you.

This was the year in which we celebrated our first wedding anniversary. We cooked, had takeaways and ate out. I baked savoury treats for the Macmillan Coffee Morning. Whilst we relaxed at home we watched a lot of telly, explored the lure of virtual reality, I knitted blankets and baby booties, babysat and cuddled my niece, we planted potatoes and shared meals together and video chatted with my friends and family via Skype and Facebook messenger.

Educating my niece. We fed the plush tortoise some dandelions.

It was adventurous, too. I camped out with my students as a part of Duke of Edinburgh awards, barbecued, met some old colleagues and spotted badgers during a night time walk. I tried scuba diving in Woking pool and we took a trip to Lulworth Cove in Dorset.

Spring bluebells in a forest in Surrey Hills

In summer I took the almost three weeks long trip to Greece on my own and fulfilled a lifelong dream of working with marine animals whilst I tagged loggerhead turtles with other volunteers. I missed my home and husband a lot and it made me realise not only where my roots are and where I belong but also how much I love where I am right now and what I do. It was a very good feeling.

Having lunch in the shallows on the last day of my volunteering n Greece.

I got out more. I foraged for blackberries, harvested bits and pieces from the garden, took our tortoise Rocket for outdoor adventures, saw Reggie Dabbs talk to my students, went to a food and drink festival and Ocean Film Festival.

The last of our beans, picked just two weeks before Christmas.

I have learned how to take better pictures and gave pottery classes a go.

I have tried and failed to go off my anxiety medicine, but on the other hand with the support of everyone around me I got well enough to overcome my anxiety and found a new dentist (and he is awesome!) and GP (she is awesome, too!) and even started taking driving lessons (my instructor is awesome too, I am starting to realise how lucky I am to be surrounded by so many amazing people) and I feel more connected to the world than ever before. I contacted some old friends and uni classmates hoping to rekindle our friendships and catch up on everything they have been doing.

Yes, there were rough patches but that is just life. I am hoping that the year ahead is going to be equally amazing, if not better. Driving, growing food for us all on the allotment, making more time for friends and family and who knows - maybe finally finding and buying a home of our dreams. I am sure the year ahead will be full of surprises and I am glad that I have people like you to share them all with.

I hope your old year was lovely and you made a lot of memories you will treasure and that the new one will be full of opportunities to fulfil your dreams.

26 November 2017

Allotment Dreaming

Greetings! Today we have visited our local allotment association and after waiting for a plot for five months, I have signed a tenant's agreement for a five rod (roughly 5m x 25m) plot . Until the end of the year the plot belongs to the current tenants who need to remove all of their property from there. At the moment there are blueberry and blackberry bushes, some lavender plants, sage and rosemary and quite a cure green shed with tiny patio made of stepping stones. I would be quite happy if all of these items stayed where they are but to be honest, I am so excited that even if the plot was covered in waist high weeds, I would still be jumping with joy.

Even though it was a cold November day and the water in the barrels was covered with a layer of ice, there were still some plants with flowers on and vegetables growing. This is one thing that I like about mild English winters.  When we got home and had some lunch I went through my big box of seeds and wrote a plan of what to sow when and when to harvest it.

At the moment is all green and brown and grey and large portion of the beds is covered with black plastic, but in my head I can see how amazing this piece of land can be, with all of the greenery, flowers, veg and fruit bushes, bees buzzing around and birds chirping and in the middle of all am I sipping a cup of tea and observing it all, being a part of it. I look forward to feeding us better and feeding Rocket better and spending my Saturdays outdoors with other creatures rather than watching telly at home. And the best of all - the management is ok with me building a temporary tortoise run for Rocket, so even when we don't have a garden where we live, she can be getting her UV light whilst I am growing us both some food. It's a win-win.

12 November 2017

Fourteen Stitch Knitted Blanket

Happy Sunday evening to all! After a really busy week this weekend was like a gift to the soul. I slept, drank a lot of tea and coffee, we visited family and did stuff together and there was lots of sitting down and watching "Stranger Things" and most of all knitting and taking pictures of knitting.

Just before we went away to Lulworth Cove, I started a new project - a knitted fifteen stitch blanket. I have never been much of a knitter, all I could do were squares and rectangles (like the ones for my friends' baby blanket) until one of our friends visited and in an afternoon she taught me all about knitting and purling and following a pattern. Pinterest then threw this free pattern for a "ten stitch blanket" in my path and I was intrigued.

I must admit, it wasn't easy to begin with, after knitting an initial square comes literally the hardest part of the pattern - knitting a corner and then straight away another corner! I did a training piece with some leftover old yarn just to practice and stayed up until after midnight on the day before the holiday - I knew that if I went to bed, I wouldn't fall asleep because it would bug me so much. Every row is only ten stitches wide and joining them onto the body of a blanket was another tricky bit for me - the pattern describes two different ways that create different effects, but I was so lost that I had to go on Youtube and just watch some videos of other people knitting it. I am quite pleased with what is coming out. As the blanket grows the corners get further apart as well, which makes the whole task easier and even the corners are now beginning to feel familiarly repetitive - ideal to enjoy whilst listening to something good and drinking coffee!

So, having my practice piece done and roughly knowing what I'm doing, we stopped at Hobbycraft on our way to Dorset and I bought a couple of balls of Sirdar Hayfield Spirit yarn (20% wool, 80% acrylic). I wanted to make a blanket in colours of autumn and I wasn't particularly pleased with the blues and greens, but that was the closest they had to what I wanted and I went with it. Now that a big chunk is done, I think they look great in there.

The instruction on the yarn suggested that I use 4mm needles but because I like my knitting dense, I went with 3mm ones. Also, the pattern is called ten stitch blanket, but I changed it to fifteen. With a yarn thin as this I thought the rows might look too narrow. I am glad I did this, because this pattern needs quite a lot of turning around, since the rows are so short. However, as you see in the picture below, I must have dropped a stitch somewhere, because there are only fourteen on the needle. I have literally no idea when this happened.

I regularly take my blanket to work to share progress with my crafty colleagues and sometimes, just for the sense of achievement, I put a stitch marker into the first row I knit that day and at the end of the day I marvel at how much I have done (which is not that much at all compared to what I did on holiday).

I would say so far it is looking great. this is the blankie on our dining table with barely two balls of wool worth of knitting. The loose ends will be woven in later. I have also discovered a Tunisian crochet version of this pattern, which I am sure I want to try in the future (it has the added bonus of only working with one tool, not having so many loops on the hook most of the time and no turning at all!).

On one hand I cannot wait for it to be finished so that I can just wrap myself in all of the colourful warm fluff and on the other I want it to take as long as possible to savour every single day that I spend working on it, because I am really enjoying it.

31 October 2017

Autumn Visit to Lulworth Cove in Dorset

As the autumn is in full swing, my mammalian brain tells me that I need to slow down, wrap up and just be still and restful for a moment. Unfortunately, my job description tells me otherwise and so as the autumn progressed and the days started getting shorter, colder and darker I became more sad, uninspired and exhausted. Riding this wave of seasonal affective disorder or whatever it is wasn't taking me anywhere nice. 

So it was a great relief when half term holiday came and we could finally get away for a few days on our long planned minibreak in Lulworth Cove, Dorset. We stayed in a nautically decorated room in a small local inn, with the view of the sea, even though lingering leftovers of storm Brian might have spoiled it a bit with a cover of thick dark clouds and persistent wind.

Lulworth Cove 

We walked on the beach and the hills in the wind and the cold, looked for fossils in the cliffs and beach combed. We picked up many cuttlefish bones, mermaids' purses and strange flotsam and jetsam and saw Protuguese man o' war jellyfish for the first time. We ate fried English breakfasts and snacked on cream teas and spent many hours in our toasty little room reading books with cups of tea at hand whilst it rained outside. I started knitting a new blanket (more about it later in a separate post), breathed the salty air that smelled of seaweed and felt very relaxed and happy and most of all thankful that we finally had some special time together after all the long hours of work we have both been putting in in the last few months.

Durdle Door limestone arch 

Cuttlefish bones of all sizes were everywhere.

A notice warning visitors about the jellyfish.
Soon enough we found one on the beach.
The colours were striking.
Man O' War Beach

11 October 2017

Collecting Seeds of Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis)

Pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) were my favourite flowers this year. I do not remember where the seeds came from but I picked them myself and had them stored for a few years, yet they germinated perfectly. I primarily grew them for their leaves as food for Rocket (yes, tortoises can eat pot marigold, but not other marigolds, which might have the same English name but actually are not related to each other - English can be very confusing. It is always better to go by the scientific Latin name). They did not do very well until I moved them into direct sunlight. It is almost middle of October and they are still flowering.

When I was little and wasn't such a huge fan of creepy crawlies as I am now, the marigold seeds terrified me because they looked like a cluster of caterpillars. I'm sure you'll see what I mean when you look at the picture below.

I let the seeds dry on the plant and then cut the whole head off and let them dry thoroughly on a tray at home. Then I store them in a labelled paper envelope where they will rest until spring. With so many seeds already dried and many more forming, I will probably have more than enough for a nice flower border and more than enough tortoise food.

07 October 2017

Sempervivums in October

It is a bit hard to believe that October is already here. I guess I shouldn't really be surprised. Autumn is really letting us know that it's here, whether it is in the leaves changing colour, morning chill that makes me feel like I need to wear more layers or acorns that bombard me every single day as I wait for the bus home. Grey overcast days take priority over the warm and sunny ones and if the latter happen occasionally, they definitely get many mentions in the casual short over-the-cup-of-tea conversations in the staffroom.

The garden is becoming less busy. By now most of my plants have died down or been harvested. The only vegetables still going are runner beans and sweet potatoes. From ornamental plants nothing much survived apart from a few pansies which I grow as tortoise food and those will go as soon as the weather turns properly cold. However, one plant that I can always rely on is Sempervivum

I am not sure which variety I have, there are many, but these are offsets of the plants that my mother grows at our cottage. I brought five of them over last spring. Somehow that makes them have a sentimental value to me as well as aesthetic. They are hardy perennials with succulent leaves able to withstand direct sunlight and drought, but do not mind the abundant rainfall that we get either.They coped well throughout the last English winter and now they are even producing offsets themselves! One day I might separate them from the mother plant, but at the moment I m enjoying the slightly crowded look. And once I started taking pictures of them, I could not get enough.

Sempervivum offsets grow from the base of the original plant. When they touch the soil, they start developing
roots of their own.

23 September 2017

Savoury Saturday Scones (With Recipe)

I love Saturdays. They are the only day of the week that I don't set an alarm (I do tutoring on Sunday mornings, so I have to). I wake up whenever I feel like it (usually at the time when my bus to work would be leaving) and have a nice slow morning. Sometimes I knit and watch telly, sometimes I make a cup of coffee and catch up on emails on blog posts, but whatever it is that I choose to do, it is always non-forced andI do it because I want to, not because I have to.

Today my morning included, apart from doing the dishes and two loads of washing, making savoury strudels and cheese scones for today's  Macmillan Cancer Support Tea Party at my sister-in-law's - a part of "The world's biggest coffee morning" taking place later in the week. Its main purpose is to eat cake, drink coffee and collect money for a charity that heps support people with cancer and their families.

I find making scones incredibly easy. When I first moved to the UK and started working as a teaching assistant (because no school wanted to employ me as a teacher), Food Technology (now called Food and Nutrition) was one of my favourite subjects. Mostly because I got to put on an apron and get on with the cooking hands-on just like the students that I was supporting. I do not remember the teacher's name but I remember how encouraging and calm she was even though the class asn't exactlyideally behaved. It is her recipe that I wrote down have used ever since. Here it is.

  • 150 g of self-raising four
  • 50 g of butter (if you are making savoury scones, you can use salted butter)
  • 50g of sugar or any sweet or savoury ingredient you want to add
  • a couple of spoonfuls of milk
  1. Mix the flour and butter together by hand until crumbly (if you are making sweet version, add sugar now, if savoury, add the savoury ingredients)
  2. Add milk bit by bit and gently mix until the mixture joins together
  3. Flatten by hand and cut out shapes
  4. Bake on approx. 180°C until golden brown
I made mine with the most ordinary hard cheese I could find in the supermarket and grated it on a coarse grater, so the chunks of cheese are quite large and visible in the scones. They are delicious with a bit of butter and fresh chives. Enjoy!

10 September 2017

Summer Full of Turtles

Hello again. As you may have noticed, I was not around much this summer. The reason behind this awkward silence is the fact that I was gone for most of the summer, volunteering for Archelon,the Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece which works incredibly hard to protect loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) and their nesting and foraging sites all around Greece. Great part of this work is done by an everchanging team of international volunteers. Ever since my acceptance just before Christmas, I have been getting ready for the trip on which I will have to work hands on with turtles, one of my favourite animals. 

So at the beginning of August, as I stood in the security line at Gatwick airport, clutching my boarding pass, I could not stop myself from thinking -what the hell are you doingI imagined having to work with many young, fit and beautiful gap year people who will put me to shame and I will become forever known as “that older lady who thought she could do it”, but instead found a nice small group of people roughly my age who were equally or even more enthusiastic about marine conservation than I was.

Loggerhead turtle just before release

From the fear of saying something scientifically inaccurate I will refrain from writing elaborate posts on loggerhead turtles, but I can say that those two weeks were a dream come true and an adventure to be remembered for the rest of my life. The photo above is a quick snapshot of a newly tagged and measured turtle just before it was released back into the sea. There really wasn't enough time to take arty pictures (but if you want to see some underwater ones, check out professional photos of sea turtles by Kostas Papafitsoros. I have been following his work for quite some time now).

Overall, the slaps, bruises and scratches were totally worth it and knowing that I have put my little bit into helping preserve this beautiful animal and the habitat it shares with so many other species fills me with content. Sadly, there are still many places where people disrespect rules that are in place to protect them and keep on carelessly endangering them by fast driving or even feeding them in front of tourists for money which can become fatal to them later. We even saw some turtle feeding tours advertised last year on out honeymoon in Zakynthos, which is a marine park! Unortunately the tourists that do go on these tours go because they like turtles and do not know how devastating the impact of it can be. Some examples of turtles and humans clashing (in some cases literally so) can be seen in the sea turtle rescue centre in Athens (below) which is open to visitors.

Loggerhead turtle at the rescue centre in Athens
As life changing as the experience was, it was also eye-opening. It made me realise that no matter how much I dream about it, I couldn't do conservation work full time. I am not the right type for it and I lack the enthusiasm and passion for data that you need to be a scientist. And also, I really and truly love teaching, bringing the science to the masses and helping them love and care for the world we live in. I like being comfy and cosy and organised in my classroom, having certain level of independence in how I do things and working with young people. It was nice to have some confirmation, now almost in my thirties, that I chose my career path well. 

I don't think I will volunteer again but I will always remember the sounds of loggerheads coming up for breath when the sea was calm and the boat engine was off.

04 September 2017

Garden Sludge Party - Organic Matter At Its Best

When we set up the nettle barrel the idea was to create a nettle fertiliser to help some of the more needy plants in our little garden. However, we made way too much of it and later we ended up just throwing any inconvenient weeds into it, particularly those that root well from cuttings, to rot down.

I added the fertiliser to water when watering to gradually supply nutrients and as the time went on, rain kept topping up the barrel, leaves fell in and decomposed, mosquito and hoverfly larvae happily lived and developed in, but it was becoming apparent that the contents itself are becoming very diluted and that there is way too much solid stuff still on the bottom.

It was my aim to empty it all before winter. Firstly I used most of the liquid when watering. As I got to the thicker sludgier bottom, I tried everything. Scooping, pouring, even shovelling it out. Eveuntually I tilted the entire barrel and used the shovel to pull the sludge out into a bucket and then distributed it around the garden, hoping to enrich the soil for the years to come and maybe help the plants a bit as they are approaching the end of growing season. The barrel is now free to be used again, maybe for more fertiliser, maybe as a sore of rainwater, we shall see.

03 September 2017

Back to School

I must admit, I do not want to go back. Not ever, just not yet.

If I recall the last year's me, I see a woman who'd rather get shredded than go back to work in September. Crying, I was clutching and clawing my husband's shoulder the night before the first INSET day, begging him not to make me go back. I remembered only too well the nights spent worrying, the long parents' evenings and the crippling feeling that it will never get better, ever, and I spent all these years studying for this and yet I cannot do it. I looked for other jobs, I got more and more depressed realising that they are far away or I am not qualified enough, more and more broken every single day. I hated it.

Until one day at the end of 2016 that I did suddenly realised that I no longer stay up until eleven just to finish the next day's presentations or get up early to mark the remaining few books that I just couldn't do the night before. Nor do I carry so many books home or spend all my weekend indoors closed in a room with textbooks and computer. Some of it was because I got a teeny bit relaxed and stopped worrying and micromanaging so much, but also because somehow the job has become less daunting and I had more free time but rather than resting or spending it doing things I loved, I spent it worrying. So I decided that I will stop - and that was somehow enough to make me do it. That simple shift in mindset.

So now I am actively making myself think about and appreciate what I have been through, what I will go through and what I definitely have coming, because - big revelation - teaching isn't easy. I won't go as far as saying it is one of the hardest jobs in the world because I really don't think it's true (surely mining sulphur at a semi active volcano somewhere in Indonesia is more demanding), but it is hard enough for us pampered first world types.

It means a lot of sitting down getting a nice carpal tunnel syndrome from using the red pen a lot, rushing around, caling the IT guy when the printer doesn't work and you're convinced that it hates you, saying 3-2-1 a lot and sometimes being cried to, being shouted at and having to carry out polite "arguments" with both parents and their offspring but it also involves the things I love most - helping young people learn how to be organised and focused, how the world works and introducing them to the wonders of Science. That's what I do, that's what we all do. So next time a school year comes close and threatens to smash me in the face, I say:"Just bring it on and get it over with. I am ready."

28 August 2017

Our Domestic Reptile Celebrates Her Second Birthday

Our little Rocket has turned two on 25th August. I could not believe that it has only been a year and a day since we brought her home.

We had a lot of fun in the past year – watching her „surf“ her food bowl every morning, run perimeter checks of her tortoise table, climb her house and rocket down to face plant into the substrate, growing her food and letting her explore the lawns in front of our building, introducing her to our little niece and of course worrying about her when something doesn´t look quite right, because she is our little baby.

I am also very proud and happy that she is growing, slowly but surely. At least once a month I weigh her on kitchen scales and use digital calipers to measure the straight length of her carapace (the top half of the shell).

As you can see in the picture above, the difference is not huge, but it is there! The box is a smallest one of a set from Paperchase and is added there for visual reference.
August 2016:    Weight: 94g
                          Straight length of carapace: 76.3mm

August 2017:    Weight: 151g
                          Straight length of carapace: 88.56 mm

01 August 2017

Shark Week Biscuits and Visit to the Aquarium

A while ago you could have seen a picture of my very messy kitchen worktop (below) on my Facebook page. It wasn't my intention to make Linzer biscuits in shape of little sharks straight away. I was baking birthday treats for someone else when the idea occured to me - and since it was Shark Week and I had some cookie cutters from the Natural History Museum shop, I gave it a go.

After baking (I promise to publish the recipe here soon) and cooling I joined them together with jam and decorated them with melted milk chocolate. So here they are. I guess they resemble blacktip reef sharks best, what do you think?

Later in the week I also had to visit London, which gave me the perfect excuse to check out the Sea Life. I sat in front of the massive tank for good twenty minutes, just watching these majestic creatures swim past me and then more time reading all the labels and displays, trying to soak up as much information as I could.

I know some things that happen during Shark Week have been criticised because they are controversial and don't have much to do with the original purpose of it - education and conservation of these beautiful marine predators. It is sad. However, I prefer to focus on the original message, thatour planet is a balanced system, full of magnificent creatures that need to be protected. We cannot protect them without understanding them and education is the first step towards gaining this understanding.
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