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Impressions of India

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Pushkar-old-lady

If you follow me on Instagram (and if you don’t, you’re missing out on my great caption-writing) you’ll know I’ve recently returned from a three week trip to India. It really was one of the most compelling places I’ve ever visited, and I’ve only just fully processed everything I saw and experienced.

India is a total assault on the senses. Everywhere you go there’s just so much to see; so many things competing for your attention at any one time. My Lonely Planet guidebook told me to ‘expect the unexpected’, which is a pretty good summary – it’s a place where you have to learn to roll with the metaphorical punches, cos there’s gonna be a lot of them. It’s also – of course – absolutely massive, and despite covering a lot of ground in my three weeks I feel like I barely scratched the surface.

It’s also challenging. The poverty is confrontational, touts can be nerve-frazzling, and getting around is sometimes chaotic. But it’s also filled with some of the friendliest, most hospitable people I’ve ever met, has a unique culture and history, and engages you in constant lessons.

I travelled mostly by myself, which a lot of people seemed to freak out about when I told them, but for the most part I was totally fine. I’ve picked out a few of my favourite pictures from my trip above, but I’ll be sharing more detailed posts on the places I visited over the coming weeks. If you’re feeling the urge to take the plunge and go off an adventure in 2015, or even just tick something off the bucket list, then seriously, just do it.

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Why Bristol is the best city to live in, ever

Bristol-Harbour

2014 was the year in which Bristol, the city I live in, really caught the media’s attention. Depending on what you read we’re either a bunch of ambition-less hippies, or a thriving community of up-and-coming tech entrepreneurs. But either way, we’re still topping those best-city-to-live-in lists, and it seems a large number of Londoners are upping sticks and heading for our hilly, graffiti-emblazoned streets. Look – there’s even a Buzzfeed listicle about it.

I know a lot of people here aren’t too happy about this. They’re worried about media hype killing our wonderful city the way it has vast swathes of East London, leaving us with nothing but over-priced ‘warehouse’ flats and overpaid finance workers desperate to appear edgy. But hey, I’m filled with Christmas joy right now, so I’m going to choose to look on the positive side. I’m proud to see the city I love getting the attention it deserves.

So just to add my own, very small, slice to the hype, here’s my definitive list of why Bristol is the best city to live in, ever…

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1. Life is just easy

All my friends live within a 10-minute cycle ride of me. It’s easy to get to know people and make new friends, as everyone seems connected in one way or another – and I don’t mean in the annoying, suffocating way you experience in your hometown.  It’s also cheap – not as cheap as Manchester, granted, but you don’t need tonnes of money in order to live well. And the city is reasonably compact and accessible, which allows us to be spontaneous – in London, you have to book people at least one month in advance, whereas in Bristol people often don’t know what they’re doing on a Friday night until an hour before. Honestly, it’s really difficult to feel lonely in Bristol… and way too easy in London.

2. You can’t beat the geography

When I first moved to Bristol, someone described it to me as ‘having everything London has, but only one of it.’ I think this is true. On top of this, it also has a lot that London doesn’t have – mostly in the form of amazing access to some of the most beautiful countryside in the UK. I can cycle from my house and be surrounded by fields in half an hour – great for a bit of post-work river swimming in summer. Or you can cross Clifton Suspension Bridge and suddenly be submerged amongst the trees in Leigh Woods. And if you want to get away for longer, just drive for a couple of hours and and you’ll find yourself on a beautiful beach, perhaps in North Devon or The Gower, or having a picnic alongside the River Wye. If you’re into anything outdoorsy then Bristol is an amazing base to start exploring from – then in the evening you can come back and enjoy a decent night out instead of being stuck in a village pub with no wine list and no one under 40.

3. There’s an amazing creative spirit

There’s a stereotype of people in Bristol being unambitious. I disagree. I think many of us are highly ambitious, just in a rather unconventional way. If you define ambition as wanting to climb to the top of a company and make as much money as possible then no, we’re probably not that ambitious. But there’s a real creative energy here and the sense that, if you have an idea, then this is a place you can make it happen. I barely know anyone who just does their day job – most people seem to have all kinds of side projects on the go. Every weekend there’ll be around 50 (figure based on guesswork not data) weird and wonderful events happening – some good quality, some a bit on the rubbish side, but all driven by a desire to experiment and celebrate. I think our city holds a large number of people determined to find a new way of living; one where we can achieve our goals and visions outside of the rat race while still having enough free time to actually enjoy life. Ok, so reading that last sentence back does make me think of that first scene from Portlandia. But when you have people like Arianna Huffington preaching how society’s model of success needs redefining, perhaps we might actually be onto something?

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Little things I love about Bristol: When you’re cycling up a huge hill and your thighs feel like they’re going to burst, then you get to the top and are confronted by the most fantastic views over the city; houses painted different colours; the harbourside in summer; still being able to buy three drinks for a tenner; St Paul’s fucking Carnival;the Bristol-Bath cycle path; food at St Nick’s market; walking through Stokes Croft really early in the AM and seeing the gorgeous morning light hitting the street art and the fly posters and the tramps’ piss and the empty Slix cartons, and making it all appear strangely beautiful.

And for balance, a few things I hate: the public transport system; the architectural disasterzones that are Broadmead and Cabot Circus; dickheads who go out on the triangle; too much ketamine and nos everywhere; elitist, humourless hippies; cliche street art; sixth form-style politics. And that’s about it.

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Berlin I love you

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I’m a bit hesitant to say how great Berlin is because everyone’s already heard how great it is. We’ve all witnessed our friends disappear off for long weekends, reemerging wide-eyed spouting multicoloured tales of 24-hour techno binges. ‘Oh, I love Berlin,’ was all anyone said to me when I told them about my upcoming trip. ‘Oh, it’s my favourite city’. ‘Oh, you’re going to have an amazing time.’

But still, Berlin hit me. I was fully expecting to love it, yet it still managed to move me in a way that took me completely by surprise. It’s a city that feels utterly free, yet beautifully orderly at the same time. It’s ‘cool’, obviously, but not in an aggressive, overly-forced way, unlike – dare I say it – parts of East London. And of course, it’s a city that’s had its heart broken, and you can still feel the sadness buried deep within its streets. I felt strangely as home there; as if we’d created another life for ourselves for a brief six days.

Berlin, I love you and I can’t wait to come back.

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Is happiness overrated?

This bird definitely seems happy

I don’t know what’s happened to me – maybe it was January boredom – but I appear to be taking part in an Instagram challenge.  It’s called #100HappyDays, and involves taking one picture a day, for 100 days in a row, of something that’s made you happy. I’m actually rather enjoying it – I mean, I don’t really think pictures of my dinner add that much to the world of social media, but it’s quite fun taking the time to think about and capture whatever cheers me up. Plus, I’m looking forward to having a visual diary at the end of it to reminisce over. Yet at the same time, I feel slightly conflicted because – I don’t really agree with it.

To be more specific, I have issues with the project’s name and also its tagline, ‘Can you be happy for 100 days?’ They both rile me because I feel this constant search for happiness that’s encouraged in society is misguided, unrealistic and, ultimately, makes us more miserable. Being perfectly happy all the time isn’t the natural human condition, and I don’t think it’s necessarily healthy for us to be aiming for this.

Now, I’m not some kind of Debbie Downer who exists in a pit of misery and wants to drag everyone else down to my sorry depths. Up until a few years ago I struggled with bouts of anxiety, but I’ve (thankfully) learnt to control this and, these days, am a reasonably content and optimistic person. I don’t have any qualifications in psychology (apart from an A level, but I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count) so I’m not in any position to be dishing out professional advice but, through my experiences, I feel I’ve learnt a few things about the nature of happiness and why a constant quest for it is ultimately counter-productive.

Firstly, sadness, grief and negativity are unavoidable aspects of human life – if you don’t ever feel them then you’re quite possibly a sociopath, and that’s really not something to be aiming for. To be truly happy and healthy we need to learn how to handle and manage these emotions, rather than shunning and avoiding them. Don’t feel bad for feeling bad – there’s no need to give yourself an extra dollop of harshness on top of whatever you’re already struggling with. Be kind to yourself.

Secondly, happiness is a binary opposite of sadness. They can’t exist on their own, because our entire concept of one is based around it being the opposite of the other. So 100% happiness 100% of the time is impossible, because by definition you need to also experience sadness in order to recognise positive emotions. Incidentally, I suspect this is also why people you meet from super-comfortable, very privileged backgrounds who’ve never experienced any struggles often seem very discontent – but maybe that’s a whole other blog post.

Lastly, I think that instead of striving for happiness we should be aiming to feel contentment instead. Accept yourself, your emotions and learn to be comfortable with that ‘grey space’ somewhere in between unabated ecstasy and heart-wrenching despair. If anything, it will make those moments of pure joy all the more wonderful when you actually do experience them.

Sometimes I feel completely bombarded by this pressure that we all need to be constantly happy – usually by advertising and the media. It’s a false need, created to make us feel bad about ourselves so we buy more and consume more. The human experience involves a whole range of beautiful (and sometimes painful) emotions – not just the one. And ironically, if you’re not always searching for happiness, you’ll probably find you come across it even more.

But all that said, I’m still going to carry on with my little #100happydays challenge. If anything, taking the time to notice all the wonder in your life helps you practice gratitude, which is one of the key elements of contentment. Just don’t feel bad/ guilty/ anxious if your day hasn’t been 24 hours of roses and rainbows, ok?

Photograph by Jerrod Maruyama, shared under a creative commons licence

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Pictures of beautiful Suffolk

Photo Suffolk skyI’m from Suffolk. I’ve spent a lot of my little life saying these words in hushed, embarrassed tones whenever someone asks that dreaded question, ‘So, where are you from?’

Growing up, I felt like I lived in a cultural armpit. There’s no city or university. It’s slightly too far to commute to London from, yet doesn’t hold much in the way of industry, hence most people leave at age 18. My teenage self was particularly antagonised by the fact that barely any bands came to play in the area, always skipping over us in favour of Norwich. Heck, there’s not even a motorway going to Suffolk, just a duel carriageway – that’s how unpopular we are.

It was only after experiencing a good few years of the err, ‘buzz’ of Big City Life – such as being mugged, hellish commutes and picking black boogies out of my nose (what is that about?) – that I really began to appreciate little old Suffolk. Nowadays I love its wild, rustic beauty. I like the fact that it’s not too touristy, twee or chock full of millionaires’ second homes, unlike much of the British countryside. And even though I thought it was boring when I was a teenager, I now realise that it was a pretty good place to grow up. We may not have had the world’s most banging nightlife but it forced us to be more creative with how we had fun (alcopops in the churchyard on a Friday night, anyone?)

Every time I go home I always try and make the effort to explore a little more of the local countryside. Here are a few piccies I took over the Christmas period that I thought I’d share – the weather unfortunately made photo opportunities pretty scarce, but hey I did my best.

I hope you all had wonderful Christmasses, whether in your respective hometowns or further afield.

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Fresh fish

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Ermm, this boat name made me giggle.

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Suffolk DEMANDS that you are not ‘crabby’ at Christmas!

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Greetings from some genuine Suffolk kitties.

Partridge ina pear tree

And, as it was Christmas… A partridge in a pear tree (kind of).

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How to make stitched greeting cards

Finished card

If you’re organised you’ll probably have made and posted all your Christmas cards by now. If, however, pesky old life has managed to get in the way of things, here’s an easy way to create some unusual handmade greetings.

Stitching on card is way easier than it looks, and you can create some really unexpected textures and effects with it. I used yarn for a bold, chunky effect, but you can experiment using whatever kind of thread you want.

I initially turned to this tutorial from CrossStitcher for guidance, but I’ll show you below exactly how I adapted it. If you’ve already sent your cards this year, why not use the idea to make gift tags instead? Or perhaps add it to Pinterest to use in other projects throughout 2012 – there’s nothing to stop you stitching birthday and Valentine’s greetings, or experimenting on other card-based surfaces such as notebook covers. Let your imagination go wild!

Card first step

First of all take your design and attach to your card. Place some kind of cushion under the card – a few layers of fabric or felt will do. Then get a needle, and carefully make holes all along the lines of your design. Make sure they are big enough for your chosen thread to pass through – I created the initial hole with a sharp embroidery needle, then widened it out with a plastic yarn needle.

Also, as I struggle to even drawn stick men, I used this free Christmas tree template – if you are using a design that isn’t your own, please be ethical and ensure that the designer is happy for you to do so!

stitching card

Once you’ve finished, thread your needle and stitch in backstitch along your lines of holes. Your thread might look a bit messy on the back, so feel free to cut a piece of card to size and glue it over the inside front cover for a neater look. I then added a few sparkly bits and pieces to finish off.

What have you been making this festive period?

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How to make a noticeboard from an old frame

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I’ve been living in my new house for about two months, and a noticeboard for my room has been on my ‘to make’ list for a while. They’re generally useful for bringing your life away from the realm of chaos and back into order, plus I wanted to pin up all the many random pretty bits I manage to collect. I’d been building up a collection of tutorials on Pinterest, and eventually settled on this idea of attaching wire to an old frame. It seemed simple, straightforward, and looked pretty cool too.

Luckily I stumbled across an old picture frame, minus glass or backing, in my local antiques store – the owner seemed quite relieved that someone was taking it off his hands! So all I needed to do was buy a sheet of chicken wire from Homebase, trim it to size with wire cutters, and attach it to the back of the frame using a staple gun. Easy!

As there’s no proper fitting at the back, I cheated a bit when attaching it to the wall – I’ve simply balanced one of the wire rows on a nail that had already been hammered in. I’m pretty pleased with this new addition to my room, especially as it serves that old William Morris mantra well – it displays my collection of beautiful postcards and pictures, plus is pretty useful when it comes to general life admin and organisation.

What have you been making recently?