Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Shakespeare Week Memories In Stratford-Upon-Avon

celebrating Shakespeare week

Last month, the team from stationery brand Viking very kindly invited me to a Shakespearean themed event. The evening was meant to celebrate Britain's most famous Elizabethan writer and his contribution to literature and culture including a poem writing workshop and learning some badass calligraphy skills. Silly me double booked herself so had to drop out very last minute, however, as I've studied literature at university for many years Shakespeare certainly has been a part of my life. 

About ten years ago, I went on a very special Shakespeare course trip with my literature class from university. My lecturer at the time had excellent connections to the RSC, so she treated us to a full week of Shakespeare hard-core experience in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Each day would be filled with interactive literature workshops at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, followed by visiting the sights of the town and the day would end with a performance at the RSC Theatre. It was bliss!

I remember as if it was yesterday. I had just finished my academic ERASMUS year at Lancaster University. My bag and suitcase were packed, the keys to my student room handed over and farewells to friends have been made. I was ready to leave an amazing place behind and travel south into a brand new adventure. In Stratford, I would meet with my classmates from my home university which I hadn’t seen in over a year.

It was a warm, sunny spring day in early June when I left Lancaster. One last time I would take the bus from the university down the green lush grounds into town for the train station. I had booked my tickets in advance and knew I would have to change in Birmingham. The journey itself was smooth and straight forward for about 2h. There was one minor interruption in Wolverhampton when the train got to a halt and passengers had to board a slow service into Birmingham New Street. Luckily the delay was only a few minutes and I caught my connection train from Birmingham Moor Street.

In the heart of england lies idyllic stratford upon avon

By then it was early afternoon, the sun was heating up and the train literally stopped every ten minutes. It felt like forever.  However, when the train was moving, it would go past golden wheat fields and green dark forests under a bright blue sky. I felt like I was going to the most idyllic place in the countryside and Stratford did not disappoint. I remember in the late afternoon, the train came to its final stop: Stratford-Upon-Avon. Back then the station hadn’t been renovated yet, so all you ever saw and knew you were in Stratford, was an aged sign with letters peeling off under a golden late afternoon summer sun. In the middle of nowhere everyone had to get off the train. It was quite a hot day and though I was prepared with notes (back then there were no smartphones so I researched instructions beforehand) I had to freestyle it somehow and find my way. In the end, I ended up in a very quiet and leafy residential area and found the address that my lecturer had given me.

I knocked on the door of a lovely pale green house on Shottery Road and…..

There was no answer.

So I knocked again.

No answer.

This went on for a bit till I found the phone number from the B&B and gave it a ring on the house phone. After a while, a lady picked up and informed me she would be “over” in a few minutes. Sure.

So I waited.

And waited.

And then she finally arrived and gave me access to the house. It turned out that the B&B my lecturer had booked for us had two houses, one on Shottery Road and the main house on Rother Street. The house in Shottery Road was entirely booked for my class so we had the house to ourselves. As I was the first to arrive, I got to choose my room. And I literally went up to the third floor and worked my way down, checked every room, which I would like best. I ended up with the one on the ground floor away from the kitchen and entrance at the back which led onto a nice stone terrace with the most adorable British garden ever. The birds sang outside and I’ve never felt so calm and relaxed. This was gonna be a great week.

And it was! As soon as my classmates arrived, we had the best time ever. We would have breakfast together and cook dinner in the evening, sat on the terrace and enjoyed the evenings before the performance at the theatre would begin. It was a wonderful reunion with friends and new classmates and it was one of the main reasons why I have this Shakespeare Week in such fond memory.

historic building in stratford
My study group inspecting shakespearean documents
Hall's Croft Graden

Our first day started off at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Here we had interactive workshops, even met the cast of the RSC theatre group or got to view important historical documents and first folio editions. The learning centre made sure, we would take something valuable out of each session and be fully prepared for tonight’s show. Whilst in Stratford, I remember we watched A Winter’s Tale, Julius Caesar and As You Like It. The longer I stayed in Stratford, the more idyllic and romanticised I made this place. Every house there is simply gorgeous and boasts full of history. There's always a hint of literature in the air and every corner carries culture. I really fell in love with Stratford and to this day it would be the only place in the UK where I would consider buying a house (but that's a story for another time).

After class, we got to venture out to explore the sights, so each day we visited a different building. A very memorable day was when we all went on a quest to Anne Hathaway’s cottage which lies a bit outside of town centre and leads you through residential areas of Stratford and partly through unspoiled nature. Our group had a wonderful dynamic and we truly enjoyed our time together, hence why each day felt pretty adventurous.

Apart from the sights, we also ventured out and about in town. Stratford has a lovely shopping mall in the North with all the High Street shops you could think of; the surrounding fields and woods around town hold something magical and especially the river is of incredible beauty. Let me just say: the golden hour by the church - what a magical moment! When we saw the As You Like It performance which is placed in the fictional forest of Arden, we all felt like we’ve been there as we all had experience Stratford’s charm and had been under its spell. After the performance, we would have drinks at The Dirty Duck pub and reprise another incredible day.

my study groupshakespeare performances by the RSC in Stratford
the courtyard theatre in stratford
shakespeare's study at nash house
My study group outside nash house

The last day was quite sad, to be honest. My class would head back to the airport in London and I was off to Marylebone station in Central. One last adventure was yet to come. As I mentioned earlier, my Stratford visit happened before they renovated the station, so at the time, it was in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by dusty sandy pathways. On the day of departure, there was heavy rainfall so the road had turned into a muddy disaster with a massive deep puddle blocking the way to the station. I couldn’t get a taxi to take me over the puddle, so the only way to get around it was to walk back up the street, up to the bridge for the underpassage for the train and walk down the steep hill to access the station. Actually, I slid down the hill as it was raining and muddy and I was in ballerinas with a 20kg suitcase in tow. It was quite adventurous and I certainly never forget how I sat on that 2h train journey down to London, wet, muddy, a bit cold but with a heart filled with lasting memories.

Thank you for reading today's post.
Till next time,

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

A Classic Blogger Event In 3 Acts

Moonpig Mother's Day blogger event

March started with an events invite - and as you know I love blogger events! The team from Moonpig kindly let me join them at their uber-cool Head Quarters for a Mother's Day Event*. The afternoon promised to be filled with activities, crafts and a good old Afternoon Tea session so I couldn't say no. Ever since I've joined the blogging community in 2014, I've been a huge fan of branded blogging events, attended a good amount of them since and have also worked professionally and delivered a few iconic events myself. As I'm still very much interested in events as part of an experiential marketing strategy - basically how brands can engage with their customers - I had been very excited to be invited by the popular card retailer. 

Moonpig belongs to the Photobox Group, which is Europe's leading personalization business. The group comprises five brands to date across the UK, Germany, and France, which include personalized photo services, posters, greeting cards and gifts. On the UK market, Moonpig is the dominant brand and I'm sure you all have their jingle Moonpig.com *sings* in your heads right now. 

In one of my previous events posts, I've analysed the ten points that make a great blogger event on the example of Very.co.uk's Valentine's Day Event; however, their event was more of an in and out networking nature, whereas the Moonpig event followed the classical structure of a branded blogger event. I've used the same outline when I designed events to bring the brand and consumer closer together, so in today's post, I'd like to share with you the classical elements of a blogger event in three acts: 

1. Introduction

Brands organise blogger events to connect with their consumers, in this case, a few selected influencer and their target audience. Once a brand has established the connection, they work on developing a relationship with said influencer to create a long term momentum. The first step is to get to know each other, so usually once everyone has arrived at the event's venue, brand representatives will take a couple of minutes to introduce themselves, the brand and their mission. This is actually a very crucial and highly enjoyable part of a blogger event because you can directly connect and engage with the best person who later will be your main point of contact. Usually, marketing departments for brands tend to be mysterious and barely give out their details, so you do research for ages until you find the best person to speak to and to connect with. At blogger events, this is a great opportunity. You'll most likely meet the marketing manager or the brand manager, and executives which handle the blogger relationships. All very good contacts to connect with and worth keeping in touch afterward the event for future collaborations and working together.

blogger events brand representative gives introduction
cocktails served at moonpig event
at the moonpig blogger event at their offices

Once we all had sat down, Moonpig welcomed us to their Mother's Day Event. We got introduced by Claire from the SEO team who held a lovely presentation on the brand, so we've learned about its mission and in particular with a focus in the upcoming Mother's Day. The brand has specifically designed a few gift ideas which we would later try out ourselves. We were also shown the Mother's Day advert which is currently floating around on TV to get us into the right mood for the activities that were to come.

2. Main Part: Activities

Now let's come to the fun part. There's no real blogger event without the activities. Those have the function for the blogger to experience the brand's services and products for themselves. As we all know, people buy from people, and these days consumers buy from authentic reviews and experiences, so this part of the event is important as the experience will be shared later on the influencer's blog (and hopefully animate the readership to make a purchase decision). 

The afternoon at Moonpig was filled with lots of activities because the card retailer is also THE destination for personalised gifts and flowers. Yep, you read correctly - the office has its own flower department which arranges the most stunning bouquets every day. More on that later! For the first stop, I joined my blogging friends for a cocktail making class which was funfair themed. How cool was that? With the help of skilled mixologists, we got to create our own cock/mocktails in no time which we sipped out of bags similar to goldfish pouches which you can win at American funfairs and take home with you. I'm not sure if it's a common thing in the UK (it's defo not in Germany) but at American funfairs, you can shoot yourself your own goldfish and then you'd take it home in a plastic bag. I know...it sounds weird and I only know of this from watching way too many movies. However, our drink was basically resembling the same concept. No worries, no real fish were harmed in the process, we plopped some fish-shaped jelly sweets into our bags and off we went to the next activity.  

bloggers having fun at the moonpig blogger event
fun at the fair creative cocktail making masterclass

Once we had challenged our inner mixologist, we sat down for Afternoon Tea. You know, the classic British tradition when you sit down, eat finger sandwiches, cakes, sweet pastries, enjoy unlimited tea and do not give a care in the world until Sunday afternoon has gone like this *snaps fingers*. The Moonpig team absolutely spoilt us with fine china, steaming teapots and scones, cream, jam and cakes galore. It is just the absolute classic experience when you're British and as Afternoon Tea can get quite expensive, it would be a wonderful idea for Mother's Day to take out your mum for a good old catch up. (I give up on mine though, cause she's an impatient German and sitting down for an entire afternoon to relax, chill and stuff your face with sugary treats would not really be her thing - more for me then!)

afternoon tea at moonpig office
creating gift cards at moonpig
flower bouquet arrangements

Upon the Afternoon Tea session followed a photo shoot. Yep, that's correct we wouldn't be at Moonpig's office if there wouldn't have been a photo booth. Equipped with some props and killer posing, we got to shoot our very own pictures to create our bespoke Mother's Day cards. Once the picture was taken, we took seats at the laptop bar and scrolled through their Mother's Day cards collection. The range was diverse and it was hard to select as I loved a lot of the designs. Once I had chosen one I edited my picture from the photo booth in, personalised my message for my mum and added the card to my virtual basket. I was then able to decide on the cards' size (I went for super large), checked out with my address and clicked send. Great! 

With the card in place and in order, there was still so much to come and to see. The office had been set up in little work stations to display the brands' current range of gift ideas for Mother's Day. There was anything a mum's heart could possibly desire from bath bombs, to picture frames, luxury chocolates or tea, special hampers - and all available to order from Moonpig for a special gifting experience.  

The highlight came at the very end of the afternoon: for our last activity, we joined the flower department to learn how to arrange Mother's Day flower bouquets. The Moonpig team showed us how to cut the flowers and arrange them perfectly in a vase. I know this sounds a bit dull, but there are a few things you can actually do wrong in arranging flowers. The shafts need to be cut at an angle of 45 degrees for about 1-2cm. To keep the flowers fresh for the longest, you can either use specific food that comes with the bouquet or dissolve a spoon full of sugar in water before adding the flowers to your vase. Remove leaves to keep the water unspoiled for as long as possible. The vase should always have the same height as the shafts' length to make the bouquet sit nicely in it. Sounds like a lot of work, right? 

I'm usually not too fond of flowers because of the sheer amount of work they make, let alone when they start to die and lose their petals. However, my bouquet was simply stunning with pink geraniums, roses and stargazer lilies greeting me every day when I got home for a good ten days.   

3. Close

The close of every blogger event is another opportunity for a brand to connect with their influencers and leave a final positive impression. The brand representatives usually thank every blogger individually for their time and for coming along. Often business cards get exchanged to keep in touch and goody bags are handed out. As I've mentioned in my previous events posts, goody bags are never to be underestimated. A final incentive to make the event experience as memorable as possible to be featured online, they are also the only thing that an influencer physically takes away. The excitement to get home and uncover the bags content can be decisive for a blogger if they cover an event on their blogs or not.    

Goodybags from Moonpig

There you go, the classic structure of any blogger event always follows the same procedure: introduction - activities to experience the brands' product and service - and the close to leave a final positive and lasting impression. There are of course other event models and types which can work for influencer marketing which you can find in my Blogging Events - Are They Worth It? series. 

Thank you so much for reading and till next time,

* I was invited to the Moonpig event and gifted a goodbag and a flower bouquet.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

A City Break In Birmingham

luke matthews - birmingham city centre

If someone had suggested visiting Birmingham five years ago, I would have given them a look. Known for its industrial heritage as one of the major trade cities in England and the epicenter of a major urban conurbation that swallows Solihull, Dudley, Wallsall or Stourbridge alike, Birmingham just wasn't appealing to me at all.

However, since the UK’s second largest city is partnered with my former home Leipzig, Germany’s up and coming central business hub, I've made a few trips to the West Midlands and have seen the city's huge transformation over the past few years.

It all started in Birmingham's heart and has worked its way slowly up and down in all directions. The vibes suggest that Birmingham really wants to become a city of culture, diversity and worldly character although it has always been thriving and busy. Now, there's this positive change in the air. The train station, formerly known as New Street, is now completely renewed and carries the name "Grand Central" which conveys a lot more glamour and style. When you step out of your train and enter the light and bright open spaced station, you feel immediate London vibes - less dirty and more modern though. It is vibrant, modern and very cosmopolitan. There are little shops and eateries as well as a newly opened John Lewis. Once you arrive in Grand Central, you can’t but to be in complete awe over the city’s impressive welcome. And it doesn’t stop there – you'll see the modernization process everywhere - especially as the city is currently under construction to extend their tram system which will make going around town more accessible in the years to come. 

matthew-feeney-birmingham street outside the new grand central train station

Birmingham - Fashion Capital of the West Midlands

From Grand Central, you can easily explore the Bullring, the city’s massive shopping centre which has the usual High Street shops including a Victoria Secret Store, Smiggle or Selfridges. Selfridges, in particular, is one of Birmingham’s most iconic buildings with its futuristic aluminum façade. In fact, the outside of Selfridges has been replicated for Leipzig’s central shopping centre Höfe am Brühl to reflect their partnership. Inside Selfridges on the lower ground is a JellyBean replica of the shopping centre's mascot The Bull as well as a Krispy Kreme factory and more unusual things to explore.

The Bullring has actually been built on Birmingham’s old trade spot. In the 18th century, this area was famous for textile trading. So it is no surprise that there's now a shopping centre at the exact same spot. To commemorate the historical background of the area, a massive 6-tonne bronze statue designed by Laurence Broderick has been installed onto the site. Since 2003 it has entertained visitors from all over the world and once in a while for specific occasions, the statue gets dressed up. Its unusual wardrobe has earned the bull the title of a trendsetting fashion icon nationwide - but it is always good fun seeing the Bull in a new outfit. 

the bull at the bullring with a christmas outfit designed by kate unwin

You see, Birmingham is not only known for its industrial heritage, but it is actually a top secret tip for an emerging fashion scene. Over the years, I've explored Birmingham's vintage fashion side and made good and bad experiences. If you follow the road down the Bullring for a short ten-minute walk it will lead you to Birmingham’s trendy Digbeth area. The Custard Factory is a thriving hub for vintage lovers and hosts monthly Vintage Kilo sales. However, the Vintage Kilo sale is a massive jumble sale, so if you prefer a more orderly browse I can suggest Cow to you. The shop is huge and sells beautiful vintage clothing and handbags. 

reuben-hustler-Selfridges in Birmingham

Another area worth exploring is the Jewellery Quarter in the North of the city which has stunning independent shops. Up and coming local designers sell mostly here and they annually showcase their fashion at Birmingham’s very own Birmingham Fashion Week (usually around February time). Rad Fashion or House of Borgezie are worth checking out and I’m sure you’ll discover the one or other gem here.

A Treasure Trove For Food

When I think of Birmingham I immediately think of food. The city is a culinary treasure trove with lots to explore. There's my favourite, Bodega Cantina which serves nachos and Mexican street food at 12 Bennetts Hill. Next door is The Botanist which serves British cuisine in a stunning botanical environment. The botanical theme is also picked up at Lost & Found, which is a more fine dining experience of Birmingham. In fact, the city has it all. There's fine dining in the most stunning building, such as The Lost & Found or the impressive pub The Old Joint Stock in Temple Row near Victoria Square. Then, you have the romantic settings around the Canals or cosy restaurants in Brindley Place. For more Indian and Modern European cuisine Broad Street is your address.

nachos served at bodega birmingham
eryk-the canalhouse in birmingham

In the area around the modernised Mailbox, you’ll find Miller & Carter next to Marco Pierre White Steakhouse in the Cube. The Canal House on the opposite side is perfect for cocktails and drinks or you can relax in Gas Street which is only a short walk away from the city’s stunning new library. Whatever you fancy, Birmingham has it all and you won't be starving. 

Day Trips From Birmingham

Birmingham itself is easily walkable in a day but if you stay here for a weekend, I can also recommend taking a day trip from Birmingham Moore Street to Stratford-Upon-Avon. Shakespeare’s hometown is only a short 1h train journey away, nestled in the romantic English countryside and offers plenty to see and explore. The charming town center has tonnes of historic buildings, offers idyllic river walks and exceptional theatre performances will be waiting for you.

If you're ever on the train commute Birmingham to Wolverhampton, you may notice 12 individual iron horse sculptures. Kevin Atherton established these in 1987 and shows the horse in different positions and movements. The main idea behind this art installation is that the sculptures accompany the commuter on their journey and serve the general notion of companionship, a notion that has long attributed to horses and mankind. The horses are also a representation for Britain’s industrialization period, early trains and the movement alongside the railway tracks stands for the journey itself. The sculptures have won the Independent Gulbenkian Foundation Award in 1991 and the first one can be found in Birmingham on platform 5.

So there you go, these are my tips for visiting Birmingham and the West Midlands. Let me know what you think or if you've ever been in the area exploring. 

Thank you so much for reading and till next time, 



Saturday, 16 February 2019

On The Road. Driving Stories From The E40

samuele-errico-piccarini-me and the road road trip stories

Six years ago I made the decision to leave home and move across Europe to begin a new life in the UK. Looking back at this stage of my life now I couldn't have done this move without my loyal car - a Vauxhall Agila. People usually laugh at me and my car since it is quite old and very retro-style. It doesn't have heated seats nor electric windows and its acceleration is the lowest on the market. When I bought it, it didn't even come with a CD player so I had to build one in. My Agila is classed as a minivan since I prefer "boxy cars" and not snazzy sports cars but you know, no matter how often people would judge me that I drove that "crappy car" it has never let me down in a single moment of my driving life. 

I bought it back in 2011, at 25 years old and fulfilled myself a dream. I always wanted to get a car in between my bachelor and master's course with the aim to drive to the UK. The timing was perfect since I had no academic obligations or "work" to do for once, so the 15 weeks of a break were all to myself. I used that break for an epic road trip to Cornwall - but that's a story for another time.

Point is that from my first road trip I would have never thought that I would drive that distance Germany - UK - and back a staggering 15x between the years 2011 and 2014... and most of the time drive those 900 miles all by myself. Oh, those were the carefree days of freedom and adventure and I can't deny how much I actually miss spending some time on the European Road by myself and learning new things as I drove along the empty roads. So I've compiled a few memories from my driving days and hope you'll enjoy. 

Knowing My Way

My usual route was from Leipzig in the far East of Germany to the Forest of Dean near Bristol which would take me approximately 19h. I would spend the longest part of the day on the main motorway E40 for a good 9h to Calais so I planned to start my trip early in the morning. This would allow me to have the main chunk of driving during the daytime which would keep me awake. I broke up the entire route into three stages: Germany (6h), Benelux to Calais (3h), Crossing and UK (5h). 

The longest part was crossing my country and I usually got stuck in traffic near Brunswick, got bored by the time I reached Porta Westphalica and knew I was close to my first stop when the radio station would only broadcast English chatter since the area in West Germany used to have a couple of American and British army bases. After 5h of driving, before entering "The Pott" (Ruhr area) it was time for a break. Just outside of Dortmund, exit Lippetal there is a great little car stop with a Mc Donalds and a cheap petrol station. By then my tank would need refueling so it could take me for another 300miles. Plus I always stopped for some chicken nuggets and fresh air before making my way back onto the road. Resistant to long-distance driving, it was helpful for me to mentally break down the route as it made me feel that I made progress.  

on the road in the netherlands

After crossing the bridge in Duisburg I would always say "Goodbye" to my country since this was the last sign of civilization as for the next 1 1/2h Nomandsland lay before me. In between Germany and The Netherlands, there's absolutely nothing for miles and the road is in pretty rough condition as well. No petrol station, no houses, only wilderness, and dead wasteland. Good luck if you break down in Nomandsland!

The first signs of settlements come back around Eindhoven which has a modern glass complex of a university, and no matter how well I had planned my day I could be certain to get stuck on the ring road in Antwerpen. Even on my way back, I would hit the morning traffic and the ring road is complete chaos as it already is. After Antwerpen, I always took the wrong exit and made a detour through Ghent instead of bypassing it. Once I got past Bruges, France tended to be very abandoned again. My last petrol stop was a small station shortly before Calais with a really narrow exit so I had to pay attention to not miss it. Another tank full, I would then make the final 10miles to the ferry. 

boarding the car ferry in Calais

I made it once very last minute to Calais with only a short 10-minute window to get my ferry. Luckily the border control staff weren't too strict so they would let me on. The crossing itself is unspectacular. I usually found a quiet spot and fell asleep until it was time to get back to my car and be prepared for the next 4h. The great thing about driving in the UK is that the roads are all very well lit. It's not like on the continent when you suddenly hit a dark black hole. Instead, there's light and to be honest with you, with all the roundabouts I feel a well-lit road is absolutely necessary. Especially around Bracknell.....dear me how many roundabouts do you need in one tiny little city? It's a weird area down there driving-wise and I found myself often praying to not break down there. It's again an area which is mostly deserted with barely any other cars passing by. I was happy to get back onto a motorway and do the final 2h in a smooth go until I had reached my destination. Goes without saying that the next day was spent mostly asleep and relaxing.      

Alone In The Car With Britney

I once left for the UK in a very ad-hoc moment. I know this sounds very random and I need to give you some more context so you will understand what went on in my crazy mind in that "spontaneous" moment. It was November 2011 and I had just returned from working at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. It was my first week back at uni although the term had already started.....because of the Festival I had missed two weeks...in fact three because I had met someone at the Festival and I wanted to spend some time with him before I would return to Germany (and risking to potentially never seeing him again). So it was my first week back at uni, the people were all grumpy and everyone had already teamed up for course assignments so I felt bored with most of my master modules. My mind was still very much somewhere else. One evening, after a long day at uni I sat at home alone in my flat in Leipzig. I made brownies to take off my mind and later I was skyping with the guy I had met. He was telling me all about his plans for the coming week and that he would take his mum to a music gig in Cardiff. And suddenly I got very upset and missed him like crazy. We were talking all evening and then I made literally the most irrational decision I've ever made. I asked him "Do you think I could come over?"....like as if it was the most casual thing ever. "Can I come over?"...like yeah sure, there's just this one problem that you live 900 miles away. 

Within 30 minutes I had packed what first found my hands. I fetched my freshly baked brownies, closed the Skype session with "See you in the morning" and got into my car. On my way to the petrol station around the corner from my house, I was thinking to myself how surreal this was. Filled up the tank and drove off to the UK. It was midnight in Germany and there was me fully awake and ready to go on a very "spontaneous" trip to see my future boyfriend. Yeah....why not. 

Around Duisburg after 6h of driving, I felt in the mood for some music. The radio stations in that area are rubbish since there used to be old American army bases around and all you'll be hearing are English army officers discussing politics. Unfortunately for me, I had taken out my CD collection from my last trip so when I opened my glove compartment, there were only two CDs left.....the first two Britney Spears albums. I eventually survived the trip oversugared from the brownies and being Britney-brainwashed. At least I was able to get some musical variety in The Netherlands once I received Radio Stu Bru (they do smash out some great tunes and DJ sets). So yeah the moral of the story here is to not go on a 21h drive with Britney and a Tupperware full of brownies. And now that I'm sharing this story eight years later, the other moral is no matter how young and in love I was back then I shouldn't have gone the extra mile (in this case 900 miles) for someone who would have never done the same for me. 

jamie-street-lamppost and streetlights on the british motorway

Rest & Sleep

Back in the road trip days and when I was young and did some serious damage to my body because YOLO, I drove 21h straight. I made precisely two stops on the way. One at the petrol station in Lippetal and another forced one when taking the ferry. However, my body did not appreciate my unhealthy force of staying awake so once I got into bed it made me pay for my recklessness big time.

The sleep after the drive was very deep and dreamless. I would drift off in seconds and sleep for 10h straight. Upon waking up, I would sometimes not know where I actually was or what had happened. There were some serious blackouts and it scared me how I could do such a careless thing to myself. Waking up in a panic not knowing where I actually was before I realized that I had been on a trip across half the continent was definitely a wake-up call to factor in more breaks on the journey. I did so on a trip back to Germany. The way back was usually twice as hard as I would face an additional hour once back in France and I had to leave the UK in the middle of the night to catch the daylight for the longest driving distance in Europe. I made a break in Belgium at a petrol stop and fell asleep for 40-minutes on their car park which added an additional hour to the journey. However, I felt more awake and focused for the road ahead.  

On that particular trip, I got also stuck in traffic around Brunswick so I arrived after 22h driving at home in Leipzig. Lucky enough, I found a space to park my car down my road so unloading wasn't too stressful. BUT on that evening, I was very tired and exhausted so I decided against unloading and instead only took my laptop and my ice skates out of the car. I got into my flat, had a nice long bath and fell asleep. The next day, however, my neighbor alarmed me and pointed out to me that I should check my car. Overnight, it got burgled and the damage was done. The windows were smashed, my cellphone was gone and 90% of my wardrobe was missing (I spent three months in the UK). It was my own fault, a huge damage in hindsight and my home liability insurance only covered 1% of the damage which was pretty depressing on top. Since then, no matter how long the trip was going to be, I would factor in more breaks for resting and would completely unload my car upon arrival. 

Let's Start Living Dangerously

I get in panic mode as soon as the fuel light comes on. Although there's still enough reserve in the tank to get me 50 kms, I can't help but to get a full-on panic attack. That light seriously stresses me out! And don't get me started when it starts flashing. 

On one particular trip, I gambled with the time. I had left Leipzig rather late, taking a very slow morning and literally faffing about for a good while before leaving. Fast forward 8 1/2h and I was about to miss my booked ferry in Calais. I was on edge since leaving the ring road in Antwerpen and was close to making my petrol stop in France - but on that evening, my designated petrol station (and the last one on that road) was CLOSED. That was it. Game Over!

With a flashing fuel light and no spare canister in the boot, I was a complete wreck. I made already plans in my mind to call my dad and ask him to pick me up in the middle of the French Nomansland but then my rationality kicked in and I made sure to drive as petrol-efficient as possible. I was positive to make it at least to the harbour. Nerve-wracking 30 minutes later I actually made it but cursed the constant stop and go after border control. I have no idea how I made it, but I managed to park my car on-deck with an exhausted flashing fuel light. In panic, I explained to the deck crew that my car was basically fucked and worse comes to worst they would have to drag me off the ferry in Dover. They would have actually done that, but luckily that scenario didn't happen. No idea how I made it, but I managed to get off the ferry, speed through border control, got a green interval on the traffic lights and landed - never been so relieved to see a petrol station in my life - at the hyper-expensive BP station in Dover.

motorway outside of london

Last But Not Least From The E40

There's a beautiful dom church in Lierop in The Netherlands which you can see from the motorway. I've not visited it, yet every time I went past it I told myself that one day I will exit the road and spend some time sightseeing in the area.

My knowledge of Ghent is reduced to the crappy pothole road around the IKEA and that exit which I regularly missed making me go in circles and an endless detour around Ghent.

In Belgium, you have to tell the petrol guard before you refuel how much you want to top up and pay in advance. They also drive like the devil in Belgium so you always have to go with the flow and make sure you stay close to the driver in front of you. No gaps allowed.

Either way, I was always heading towards the sun which made a beautiful sight from my dashboard. And that's usually the direction I'd like to be heading in life. 

xan-griffin-driving west on the motorway

Thank you so much for reading. Till next time,

Saturday, 2 February 2019

My Ice Skating Playlist

ice skating playlist

I have a couple of playlists compiled on my phone for running and my latest addition is for my ice skating training. In the summer, I discovered Greek web radio Vanilla Deep Channel which has been a treasure trove of discovering new house, dance and electronic music so my list is a mixture of those plus some classic RNB tunes. The whole list covers approximately 48 minutes and I usually have the songs shuffled.

For my training, I need a good mixture of different paced songs so I can use the bassline as a guideline when I try to learn how to control the glide and my body coordination. Hence why I have a few dance songs shuffled with ballads. Sometimes I spend a good amount of time repeating an exercise over and over again (jumps), then I combine them (backward glide and crossings) or at other times I just want to freestyle around the rink and just learn how to control the glide going around in a few loops.  

Current Ice Skating Playlist

Alan Maciel - Myself (Original Mix)
Christian Vlad feat. Shawn B -  Off The Wall (Dim2play & Techcrasher Remix)
David Morales feat. Alex Uhlmann - Back Home
Fifth Harmony feat. Kid Ink - Worth It
Josh Butler feat. HanLei - Feels Good
Justin Bieber – Love Yourself
Leu Leu Land feat. Billy Boothroyd - Stranger
Mis-Teeq - Scandalous
Newman - A Walk In The Plains
Shakedown - At Night (Shirshnev Remix)

Myself is a slow dance track with easy lyrics and a nice beat in the background which I find great for practicing backward crossings. A more dancy number are At Night & Off The Wall – a remake of the 1999 smash hit by Wisdom. Both songs have a rather stomping bassline and the upbeat tempo is perfect as warm-up songs.

For calmer periods in my training, I love listening to Back Home. It has a catchy chorus and Alex Uhlmann’s voice is quite haunting. It’s a nice song to take off my mind and helps to focus when I try to practice small jumps. Then there’s Love Yourself – I know a cheesy breakup love song! But there’s so much feeling in his voice, he really means every word and the easy three accords accompanying his singing are just so plain pure – it gives me goosebumps every time I’m listening to the song. With ice skating practice I've noticed that sometimes, the slower I execute the jump or the crossing, I get better results rather than trying to use the glide and do the exercise in one go (highly enhanced risk of falling!). So Love Yourself is great for practicing these calm, collected moves. 

I’ve lately discovered Russian ice skater Elena Radionova’s routine to Fifth Harmony’s Worth It. It is such a cool dance on the ice and in a way reflects everything I love about the sport. To me, it’s less about performing the exercises to 100% precision, but to me, ice skating is a fun way of dancing that allows me to make some moves which I wouldn’t be able to do with normal shoes. Along with Scandalous which has a similar bassline and pacing, I usually try a few exercises including jumps and backward crossings to make my skating look more effortless. It doesn’t always work but I’m getting there.

It Feels Good and Stranger are some classy house songs which remind me very much of 1999 dance songs and when The Shapeshifters had their heydays. Both are great tunes for regular practice or to take off my mind when I just want to go around the rink for a few loops.

A Walk In The Plains has to be my new favourite song. In my training, I use it as a cool down after I've finished, but I regularly listen to it in the morning when I’m on the DLR and I can see the sun rising over the river. This is such a dreamy song that you can fully give yourself into this and let your thoughts drift off into the unknown. When I hear it I can dream myself away to sitting at a campfire near a beach in Australia, watching the sun rising on New Year’s Day. I love this song and how it takes me on a journey to my little fantasy island.

So there you go, these are my current fav songs and thoughts going through my head when I train on the rink.        

Thank you for reading, till next time, 

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Down The River In Netflix’ Bird Box

Netflix adaptation bird box review from book to film

I remember as if it was yesterday - in April 2014, when my blog was a tender two months old, a fresh copy of Josh Malerman’s Bird Box landed on my desk. I couldn’t believe my luck! Amongst many aspiring online writers, I had been selected by a PR agency to receive a preview copy of the thrilling novel. In fact, the book had been my very first EVER gifted PR sample, so even though I found the read overall a bit average, it still holds a special place in my heart and it goes without saying that I eagerly anticipated the Netflix adaptation and binge-watched it the moment it got released.

Sunday, 27 January 2019

Exploring Zürich When You Don't Have Much Time

City break to Zurich in winter
Picture Credit & Photographer: Switzerland Tourism / Jan Geerk
Last year I worked for a short while for a travel company who happened to have their Head Quarters located in Zürich - Switzerland's biggest city and thriving European business hub. One of the perks of working for an international company was the business travel that came with the job, so it happened that I was sent twice to Zürich in the cold wintery first half of the year. What a great kick-off to a travel-rich 2018!

Sunday, 20 January 2019

Fashion: Vintage Shopping In Kensington

charity shopping in kensington london

Remember that one time, when I attempted vintage shopping in Birmingham and it went moderately downhill? Well, I've ventured once again into the world of sustainable fashion and vintage shopping the other day in Kensington, when The Indytute*, offered me the chance to go on a guided tour around the local charity shops.

The Indytute is an online platform that offers unusual gift experiences and fun day outs in London such as roller-skating, rope aerobics, afternoon crafting and upcycling workshops or bespoke charity shopping tours in Hampstead, Kensington or Dalston. I've known London now for 20 years and it never fails to impress me. Exploring never gets boring and even after all this time, I can always discover new sides and perspectives of my favourite city. 
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