Melting, melting … top tips for any newly arrived northern europeans on surviving this heat wave

Melbourne heat wave

Northern europeans (and English people who don’t see themselves as European), hear me. You may think you know what it’s like to experience hot weather … but you would be wrong. Until you have lived through consecutive multiple 40C + days, you will not have a true understanding of the horror that awaits you! So with the benefit of my years of living here in Melbourne, I give you my top tips to surviving this week’s heat wave.

Preparations:

  • Fill all the ice cube trays you own.
  • Put bottles of water and face cloths in the freezer.
  • Stock up on food, preferably things that don’t need to be heated up such as salad items, yoghurt, etc. And a box of icy poles (or super dupers as Aussies call them) would not go astray either.
  • TOP TIP – grapes are great frozen, and very refreshing. Bung a bunch in the freezer.
  • Close all the blinds and curtains in your house and make sure all windows are shut tight.
  • Buy a freestanding oscillating fan, if you don’t already own one (or more).

During the heat wave:

  • DO NOT OPEN WINDOWS “to let the cool air/breeze in.” There is none, this is an English fallacy.  All it will do is make your house even hotter.
  • Do not open the curtains/blinds, unless its nighttime. They need to stay closed until the heatwave is over.
  • Soak a towel or tea towel in cold water and drape over the fan (making sure it won’t get trapped in the blades).
  • Fill a tub with cold water and put ice cubes in there (remembering to top up your ice cube trays afterwards, you don’t want to run out of ice!) and stick your feet in there. Or have a cold bath if you have a bathtub (lucky you).
  • There is no such thing as too many cold showers. And definitely have one before you go to bed.
  • Spray your bedsheets with water using a trigger spray bottle and have a cold shower before you go to bed (and if you are wearing some sort of night cover like a t-shirt, soak that in water too).
  • Sleep in the ‘coolest’ or rather, ‘least hot’, room in the house. This is not the time to get all precious about where you sleep.
  • Don’t create any additional heat in the house that you don’t have to. That means no hairdryers, ovens, stovetops, irons, etc.
  • Do not leave the house unless you have to. It is always hotter outside and don’t underestimate how difficult it is to get about in this weather.

Of course, if you have air con, you are laughing.  Unless it isn’t in your bedroom, in which case you will be dragging your mattress into the room that does have the air con and camping out there so ha ha back.

Out and about:

Obviously you will only be leaving the house if you are (a) mad or (b) don’t have air con and live in a concrete box; otherwise you will be hunkered down as per my advice above.

  • Seek out free/cheap places that have air con: Your car; cinemas; shopping malls; work (!); bowling alleys, libraries, museums.
  • Try not to be outside between 12pm and 6pm, this is the hottest part of the day.
  • Wear a hat, loose clothing and carry at least one 500ml water bottle, preferably two.
  • Walk SLOWLY and in the shade (dur) and if you don’t feel stupid, use an umbrella to keep the heat off your head.

That’s it really. All common sense stuff but I didn’t do half of it my first summer here so I thought it was worth sharing!

Oh and my ‘glass half full’ take on Melbourne heat waves… Every heat wave (eventually) leads to a cool change. Which are brilliant! The thermostat can drop up to 18C in 30 minutes. Bliss!

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Rainy weather is baking weather

It’s raining, so I want to bake. The moment those rain clouds gather, I just want to make myself a nice cup of tea, put BBC Radio 4 on (hurrah for Tune In Pro radio app!) and bake. I don’t know why I have this Pavlovian baking response to rain; maybe because baking is cosy and reassuring and when the weather is awful I can hunker down inside and get a warm glow (literally!) from baking a cake in the oven.

Of course, by the time I have got out all of my flours, sugars, flavourings, etc. from the cupboard and pulled my adored KitchenAid stand mixer towards me on the worktop, I have decided that really I need to make at least two cakes, or a large cake and a batch of cupcakes, to make it worth the effort. So I do.

And every time I bake, I think of my grandmother. Although I didn’t do much baking with her as a child, I always associate cake with Nanny because every time I visited her house, I would get a piece of cake. Every time. Which sounds great, except that her cakes really weren’t very good! Nanny only made three types of cake: a banana bread that always had a slight grey tinge to it; a sort of bakewell tart – the sponge and jam were good but the pastry was always pretty bad!; and a chocolate cake with chocolate icing – my particular favourite, even when she would take it from the freezer, pop it in the ‘micro’ (as she liked to call her microwave) to defrost it ,which would result in a still frozen solid centre, warm squidgy sponge around the edges and melted chocolate icing. Still, it tasted good! And wow, were her cakes stodgy. She once handed my father a bag on a visit to us one day and as he took it he jokingly asked what was in it, rocks?!, as it was so heavy. No just a few cakes I made Nanny replied matter-of-factly, not put out at all!

Nanny passed away a few years ago now – I still miss her dreadfully but at least I can remember her every time I bake. So this article is for you, Nanny.

Nanny and me

You can find photos of some of my baking efforts on my ‘A Piece of Cake’ Pinterest board.

Keeping in touch is so easy…and free for the tech savvy

The holiday season is the perfect time to talk with family and friends at great length and with much frequency – which is expensive to do if most of them live on the other side of the world to you (as they do for me).

When I first moved away from home I had to use a public call box and cheap international calling cards, laboriously punching in the international dialing code, the phone number AND the 16-digit card passcode, then enduring shouted conversations, feedback on the line and a dodgy connection to reassure my parents I was still alive (this was before Internet cafes took off, let alone free Wi-Fi). Then I graduated to the heady world of Skype on a desktop and using headphones (the built-in microphone was useless!). Now, with my smartphone permanently glued to my hand, all I need to do is to call up one of the many (free) smartphone apps available to video call, voice call or message anyone I want to globally – for free.

Here are my favourites:

Viber

Viber
Works on: iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, Bada, Nokia

PROS

  • Free text, voice calls, photo messages and location-sharing with Viber users
  • Doesn’t require a Wi-Fi connection, you can use your 3G or 4G connection too, useful when you are out and about
  • When you add Viber to your smartphone it instantly integrates with your own contact list to pull any existing contacts already using Viber into your Viber address book
  • Automatically adds new contacts to your Viber address book if an existing contact in your phone book joins Viber
  • No registration, passwords or invitations required
  • Option to call non-Viber landline or mobile numbers at low rates with ‘Viber Out’
  • Also has a desktop option for both Mac and PC

CONS

  • NO video
  • Connection can be a bit spotty

BEST FOR

  • Long conversations with friends where you don’t necessarily need video
  • Free local calls with friends
  • Keeping in touch with local friends to make arrangements when travelling overseas when you don’t want to use international roaming; just hang around outside a Starbucks or somewhere with a free Wi-Fi connection and call and text who you want (I used to agree to find a Wi-Fi connection at a certain time, couple of times a day, so I could make plans with friends/they could get hold of me when we were out and about traveling).

Whatsapp

Whatsapp Messenger

Works on: iPhone, Windows Phone, Symbian, Nokia, Blackberry

PROS

  • Free texts and photo messages cross-platform, using your phone’s data plan
  • Once installed it accesses your contact list so anyone on the list that has Whatsapp will show up as a contact.

CONS

  • Doesn’t work on Android
  • Text messages only so you need to use a separate app if you want to call someone

BEST FOR

  • Quick, free text messages with overseas friends

Skype

Skype
Works on: iPhone, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry

PROS

  • Free video and voice calls
  • Cheap calls to landlines (once you have loaded credit)
  • Share screen option if on a desktop or laptop
  • Three-way phone call (good when talking to multiple siblings!)
  • Also works on desktops, devices, tablets, televisions and skype-ready phones

CONS

  • Connection can drop out, video sometimes freezes

BEST FOR

  • Use with parents who might not be very tech-savvy.

FaceTime (and FaceTime Audio)
And of course, for anyone on iPhones you have access to FaceTime which gives the user free video calls with any of your contacts who also use an iPhone; and if you both have iOS7 then you can use the new Audio Time, that uses up less bandwidth.

‘Tis the season to be poorly tra la la la la la la la LA

christmas; flu
Acknowledgement – image taken from http://www.wales.nhs.uk

So I’m sick. At Christmas. And have been for the majority of my one week’s annual leave so far. And I am not a happy bunny. I had lots of lovely socialising planned, all of which I have had to cancel as my husband and I have both been struck down with some sort of flu virus that has left us fevered, bedridden and generally not people you want to hang out with. Now I pride myself on being a of ‘glass half full’ kind of person so thought that I would make a list of pros to being sick during the festive season. But for every action there is a reaction and apparently for every pro there is a con; as no sooner had I thought of a pro then I thought of an accompanying con. So here it is, my list of the good and bad things about being sick at Christmas:

PRO – I get to stay in pyjamas all day so the laundry basket isn’t exactly filling up
CON – Drinking endless cups of tea and eating snacks rather than going out for meals means that I have lots of washing up to do
PRO – I get to watch endless movies and tv shows
CON – I have to watch reruns as my head is too fuzzy to concentrate on anything more
challenging
PRO – I can have ice-cream for breakfast (it’s medicinal!)
CON – I can’t eat anything crunchy or spicy as it hurts my throat
PRO – I have an excuse to make myself hot whisky toddies (they’re medicinal!)
CON – I have an inability to drink wine as can’t taste it and quite frankly it makes me
feel sick right now
PRO – I can hang out on the sofa with my lovely fluffy cat giving me a big cuddle
CON – I have to keep pushing my lovely fluffy cat off my lap as he makes me too hot in my already fevered state
PRO – I have lots of spare time to work on my blog
CON – I am too fuzzy headed to work on my blog

Anyone for Pimms?!

Image

I love summer, as it means I can make a jug of my favorite drink, Pimms.  It’s refreshing, fruity, and you can drink it all afternoon without getting too boozy (although that depends on how strong you mix it and how many jugs you make!).

Pimms No1 Cup, to give it its official title, was first produced in 1823 and is a type of ‘fruit cup’ (a specifically English drink designed to be made into a long drink with the addition of a soft drink such as lemonade or ginger ale, see Wikipedia entry on ‘fruit cup’ for a full explanation). Its base is gin and it is flavored with various herbs and spices, as well as having its strength reduced. Seen as the quintessential summer drink, Pimms is one of two staple drinks at Wimbledon, the Chelsea Flower Show, the Henley Regatta and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera (the other being champers of course!).

The most traditional way to make a pitcher of Pimms is to add three parts ‘English-style’ lemonade (e.g. the clear lemonade, not cloudy) to one part Pimms to a large jug with lots of ice then drop in a cup of chopped fresh fruit (such as apple, orange, strawberries) plus cucumber and fresh mint leaves (originally borage).

Top tip: Use frozen strawberries to replace some of the ice. They soak up the yummy Pimms and don’t water it down the way the melted ice does.

You can also make up the Pimms pitcher with half and half lemonade and ginger ale or replace the lemonade fully with ginger ale. Or rather than making a jug of Pimms, you can make a ‘Pimms Royale’ which is 25ml of Pimms poured into a champagne flute and topped up with champagne.

However you drink your Pimms, and I strongly advise you to try it, remember, it’s always Pimms o’clock somewhere!

How to: Make book recommendations to your book club or book group

I love recommending books; it is one of my favourite things – when I’m not reading books of course. So I am always very (too?) vocal in my book group, when we get round to discussing and choosing ‘the next book’. I have belonged to, or run, many book clubs over the years and have the following advice for members of book groups who struggle to choose books or want to get out of the rut of their current choices.

Selection system

Before talking about book selection choices, as a group you need to agree HOW you will select your books.  Democratically (obviously) but how? One option is for each member of the group to take their turn to select the following month’s book; another option is for all of the group members to each recommend a book, then once all books have been presented, the group votes and the book with the most votes is selected.

Some groups like to have their reading list set for the next six months, or even the year, others like to ‘wing it’ a bit more and don’t like the idea of being tied down to six to 12 book selections. It’s up to you.

Accessibility of the text is another element to take into account; you don’t want to select books that are only available in hardback, are brand new so super expensive or not stocked in the library.

What sort of books do you want to read?

Once you have decided how you will be choosing books, you might want to limit the selection to a certain genre (science fiction, contemporary literature, short story), a specific author (Dickens, Austen) or award winning books (like working your way through the Booker winners list). Ongoing or monthly themes are also a useful way to limit selection e.g.  ‘madness’ (The Yellow Wallpaper, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox).

How to select a good ‘discussion’ book

As Dorothy Parker so beautifully put it once about a hated tome, “…this is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” It is too easy to select a book that doesn’t work for a book group discussion: Too pretentious; too simplistic; too controversial; sometimes a book that is really enjoyable to read for one’s own pleasure just doesn’t have enough depth for discussion purposes.

Books that work well for discussion are novels that offer an intriguing plot such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a polarizing storyline such as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin or something that enables an ‘ethics’ discussion such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Herman Koch’s The Dinner. Further suggestions are listed at the end of this article.

Reading guides, book recommendations, resources

Need a bit of extra help to talk about your chosen book, or come up with discussion questions? Publisher sites are very supportive of their readers; many post discussion guides, author interviews, suggestions for further reading, etc.  Some also host online book clubs/discussions that you can join in. There are, of course, also many, many book group guides sites: Goodreads is the largest site for readers and book recommendations in the world. It has more than 14,000,000 members who have added more than 470,000,000 books to their shelves.  There are online book clubs, online discussions, etc. and it is a great site to get ideas for books to read. Reading group guides and Book Browse both offer hundreds of reading guides to a range of contemporary and classic literature and fiction (and some non-fiction too).

List of further suggestions

This could be endless, I know I will have missed lots of people’s favourites. I apologize in advance!

Books that stimulate strong discussion/dissension:

  • The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • Gone Girl, Gilian Flynn
  • Atonement, Ian McEwan
  • Perfume, Patrick Suskind
  • People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver

Books made into films:

  • The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
  • Chocolat, Joanne Harris
  • Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  • Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  • Emma, Jane Austen
  • Les Misérables, Victor Hugo

Short stories:

  • Collected short stories, Roald Dahl
  • Short stories, W.Somerset Maugham
  • Like a House on Fire, Cate Kennedy
  • The Garden Party & Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield

Historical fiction:

  • The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton
  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
  • Restoriation, Rose Tremain

Dystopian themes:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • The Passage, Justin Cronin
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • Wool, Hugh Howey

Fantasy/Magic Realism

  • The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  • Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel

Voucher vulture: Or how to get the most out of your 2013-14 Entertainment Book

meal-image

It’s now coming up to half way through the 12-month cycle for the current Australian & New Zealand Entertainment Books. How many vouchers have you used so far? Have you even registered your gold card yet, let alone put it in your wallet? The Entertainment Book is a fabulous saving for those who like eating out and/or for those who want to stretch that dollar a little further. I think I can honestly say that I am an expert on navigating the book and therefore maximizing its value to me; my 2013-14 Greater Melbourne Entertainment Book is the fifth I have purchased and used.

I am assuming you are reading this because you know what the Entertainment Book is but just in case you have stumbled across my ramblings by mistake…the book contains hundreds of ‘up to 50% off’ and ‘2-for-1’ offers for many local restaurants, cafes, arts, attractions, hotels, travel services and online shopping. The books are sold by community groups, schools and other organisations as a means of raising funds for their causes. The vouchers/offers are valid from purchase until 1 June of the following year e.g. my current book vouchers will expire on 1 June 2014. There are 14 books available within Australia, and five in New Zealand, all based in and around the major cities.

So how to maximize dollars saved? No matter how you intend to use it, the first thing you must do is to grab a highlighter pen, go to the index at the front of each of the five voucher sections and highlight places you already frequent/want to visit. You must also register the gold card that accompanies your Entertainment Book; this gives you access to the members’ area and to the bonus dining offers, additional discounts for cinema tickets and holiday destinations, etc. Once registered, you will also receive a monthly email that lists the available bonus offers as well as the occasional special offer on specific services or destinations. And for social media tragics such as myself, you can also follow the Entertainment Book on Facebook and/or Twitter and be notified of additional bonus offers and changes to venues that way. Proviso, the restaurant vouchers do tend to be relatively city- and inner city-centric although the take away deals and services are obviously more flexible.

How much more time you spend on ‘prepping’ depends on you. If you always book ahead so know where you are going or if you drive everywhere, then all you need to do now is the put the book in the car/next to the front door (and remember you have it!). If you tend to take public transport or walk to lots of places then you are going to need to make the book  a bit more portable as it’s very bulky (and heavy)! I would suggest using the highlighted indices to find the vouchers you want, rip them out and put them in little envelopes, sorted suburb by suburb so you can simply grab the envelope(s) of the suburb(s) you are going to that day or quickly find the voucher to that local restaurant as you walk out the door.

The gold card that accompanies the book deserves a section all to itself. Offering discounts to ‘fine and contemporary dining’, using it just twice will mean the book has already paid for itself. Any usage on top of that is pure ‘profit’. The easiest way to maximize return on this section is to either go through and fold down the corner of the pages of restaurants you want to visit or make a note separately; then you can simply flick through or consult your list when you want some fine dining (I use Evernote on my iPhone). A word of warning, some restaurant staff rub off the wrong number, refuse to accept it, don’t understand the offer, forget to take it off the bill or all of the above. Just be nice and stick to your guns; all restaurants listed in the book have signed up with the Entertainment Book so they have to honour the discount (unless new owners of existing registered business, etc.). If you don’t have the book with you, you can always call up the website on your phone or use the app (see details below) to show the deal to the staff.

There is also a free Entertainment Book app, which you can use when out and about; however, the search function is pretty simplistic and of course, if it recommends a place that requires a voucher and you don’t have the voucher with you then it is no help at all and quite frankly frustrating! It is good for using the the gold card (which should be in your wallet at all times!) but you can’t search by ‘gold card’, just ‘fine dining’ (which will pick up most of them) or ‘near me’ and then you can laboriously go through each option. Also, the app doesn’t appear to have its info updated so it won’t show if a business has shut down since 1 June that year or if it has changed address.

Aside: I would love to see a day when we don’t have to buy the book anymore but can buy the app (with revenue still going to the charities of course). Imagine how much easier it would be to just show the voucher on your phone to the staff, they would discount your bill and then it would show as used on your phone. And the search function could be massively improved while they’re at it.

Don’t forget at the very back of the book are pages and pages of online savings for hotel bookings, car rentals, flower deliveries, magazine subscriptions, etc. This final section also offers savings on groceries if you purchse the discounted $100 gift cards and then use on your weekly shop at Woolworths or Coles.

And last, but certainly not least, if you have a friend who also has an Entertainment Book then you can double up on your vouchers/gold card savings when dining out (unless, rarely, the restaurant has specified this is not possible). This system is too complex to explain here, as it all depends on the value and type of the offer, but it is clearly explained on page 3 of the book. You can also swap unused vouchers with them, if you live in different areas and intend to use different vouchers to them.

SO there you go, my embarrassingly nerdy and tight-arse recommendations for getting the most out of your Entertainment Book. If I have inspired you, that’s great they are still available. And for those who have read this and scoff I would just like to say that it’s only the beginning of November and I have already saved over $295 (deducting the cost of the book). Of course, this really only demonstrates how much my husband and I eat out…

Top Ten Tips

  1. Use the index!
  2. Register the book/card to access the bonus offers.
  3. Keep the book in the car/easily accessible.
  4. Keep the gold card in your wallet at all times.
  5. Download the app for searching on the go.
  6. Don’t forget the online shopping discounts at the back of the book.
  7. Swap unused vouchers with friends who live in a different area to you.
  8. Keep the take away vouchers in your wallet, particularly coffee and fast food.
  9. Be aware of the small print – most venues don’t honour vouchers on public holidays/Valentine’s Day/Mother’s Day.

Bonus tip: Jot down the amount each time in the index & cross out voucher detail (this will help you keep track of money saved and therefore if it is worth investing in again).

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are my own and are in no way endorsed or sponsored by Entertainment Publications of Australia Pty Ltd.