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Happy New Year!

Christmas Self 2Leather Trousers, Sweater, and Hat This year has been anything but uneventful. For me it was perhaps a great example of the ‘not all that glistens is gold’. It couldn’t start better: I spent the turn of 2007/2008 in Wales, surveying castles. I started a new job in March; I went to see Slavoj Zizek (yes, it is ‘an affair to remember’!) in Leeds; I relocated to Central Manchester in May; I attended a number of fantastic events in June-July, including Beck’s Canvas 2008 in London… and then I fell on my way to work and broke my ankle, my contract was terminated, and as the year 2008 draws to the close I still have not found a job (although there is a good chance that I will very soon). It was hard, and I am thankful to those who gave their support. Still, as Dr Johnson teaches us about sorrow, “all beyond the bursts of passion, or the forms of solemnity, is not only useless, but culpable; for we have no right to sacrifice, to the vain longings of affection, that time which providence allows us for the task of our station“. I decided to put everything that happened in July-August behind me, as, in the end, ‘what goes round, comes round’. I moved on. In September I travelled to York, which was a long-term dream, and in December – to Birmingham, which was another long-term dream. I started experimenting with advertising on the blog and different affiliate programs; I began to explore TypePad; I moved Los Cuadernos de Julia to its own domain; and I am still replying to a long trail of comments about the picture at the top of the post of me in leather trousers and the sweater and hat I knitted. Oh, of course, between August and December I was knitting that massive throw on my couch. And another self-portrait was made on Christmas Day, after I cooked that wonderful gammon – a proof that food is indeed inspiring. This also proves I can work with a tripod – although I’d only got it in November.

Yes, it was an eventful year, and the entire experience stands for my capability of ‘working under pressure’. This is a quality that many employers seek in their staff, whatever type of contract they have, so my resilience is well and truly proved after 2008.

One of my resolutions for the past few years has been to travel more. I still haven’t gone to the Continent (I had a good chance before that fatal fall) and I haven’t visited my home country. I haven’t been back in all time since September 2003, and I certainly wish myself to finally have time and resources to go there. If anything, I want to photograph my native city, post those pics to Flickr and tell you about them!

This is my recurring resolution. Another is to meet new people, far and wide, to work or to make friends. There are a few more such resolutions, but I somehow feel better if I keep them under wraps until I am sure they have stopped being a vague idea in my head. I will say, though, that there will be a regular feature on this blog next year, and I hope you find it interesting.

Last but not least, as I said above, I’m open to collaboration and/or any work projects in the Media, Arts and Humanities sectors, particularly involving research, writing, and foreign languages.

This year I decided not to draw the ‘Top 10 Posts and Categories’ list, but, as in previous years, I will post a traditional Russian New Year postcard. So, here is the Russian Father Frost bringing you a plenty of wonderful presents and gifts, taking away the woes of 2008, and giving you ‘the strength of a raging bull’ to use in 2009. Let it be a happy, prosperous, healthy and memorable (for all good things) New Year to you all! And thanks for being with me :-).

Government Accused Of Kindness… But What About Ignorance?

One of the currently featured stories on Digg.com is this Guardian.co.uk article on the upcoming campaign against childhood obesity based on an unpublished Department of Health report. As the report is unpublished, the paper correspondent draws our attention to the section of the report titled “Killing with Kindness”. You are very welcome to read the article and draw conclusions yourself, but I commented on Digg about some glaring gaps in the report’s argument and just wanted to add a couple of points.

Outlining “how parents are helping to establish bad habits in their offspring”, the report says:

“Parents believe it is too unsafe to play outside”.

Back in 2005 or 2006 I had to prepare a research paper about how paedofiles should be treated by the society: whether they should be castrated, or kept in prison, or surveilled by the community, etc. The figures and the evidence of sexual crimes against children were astounding. Yet even if we exclude sexual predators, then what about street crime? I am sure I have already lost the track of all the recent cases of kids and teenagers being killed in the streets in the middle of the day. Once happened, these killings are reported across the national media for weeks, if not months. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying they should not be reported. However, in the light of this parents are right to believe that it is too unsafe to play outside.

The further quote concerns young mothers:

“Mums lack the confidence to take part in physical activity with their children“.

I admit: looking back at my home country, things would not be critically different: girls as young as 17-18 (once they finished school) would be willing to start a family. To have kids rather than go into education for 3 years, that is. But it took me to come to England in order to seriously question two things: 1) if sexual revolution actually took place? 2) whom did it affect? The number of pregnant teenagers younger that 17 that I had been seeing in the North Manchester working class district for 4.5 years both staggered and amazed me. Fair enough, the subject of whether or not to have sexual education in British schools is still ardently debated, but it also seems that for generations families live in a complete oblivion to the possibilities of contraception or pregnancy management. And no, I’m not speaking of pills whose negative effects on a woman’s health are reported increasingly often. There are other ways, and they are regularly advertised.

So, how does this relate to the problem that the Government highlighted? Directly. To what extent is the Government aware that many of those ‘mums’ are practically children themselves? They are hardly in capacity to bring up their children in an informed way because, as young parents, they are hardly informed themselves. If they are ‘killing’ their kids, it is with ignorance, not kindness.

The Government does mention that the level of information about obesity, good foods, etc. is beyond the desired level. But it isn’t down to kindness. It is down to a huge array of societal reasons – as discernible in the next quote:

“We’re really concerned that parents are using sweets, chocolates and fizzy drinks to reward their children… Food has become an expression of love in ‘at risk’ families. Parents are prioritising filling up their kids over feeding them the right foods. Snacking has become a way of life”.

My reply on Digg was: “Yes, precisely like alcohol. Except that you don’t give alcohol to kids until they grow up. Moreover, young parents, especially if they themselves come from ‘at risk’ families, follow the example they’d taken from their parents”.

I have not had children, but I have had a family. A large amount of things we do or don’t do right when we attempt to create our own ‘nest’ stem from what we saw (or didn’t see) at our parents’ families. For a start, the Government needs to be prepared to break this tradition of ‘unhealthy snacking’ that is running in some families for generations, and that’s a hard graft. Secondly, food on this occasion is hardly an expression of love – it is rather the way to gag a child. This may sound crude because we’re discussing children here, but the Roman ‘bread and circuses‘ can be seen being applied wherever it is more comfortable to numb the pain instead of curing the disease. Parents don’t want kids to scream about their, kids’, disappointments, problems, desires – so they give them sweet foods. Very likely as the kids’ grandparents did to the now parents.

If not kindness, then what is the root of childhood obesity problem? Apart from ignorance, it is indifference. Parents may be very confident that they are doing the best to their kids but this parental love may in fact be a mere disguise. Having said this, though, I am looking at the current situation with the credit crunch. I have had a huge difficulty finding a job (which still hasn’t got resolved), but I am on my own. I can only imagine what people who have children may be going through in my situation. Even if they were not ignorant or indifferent, would they have moral, emotional strength to cook healthy meals every day for the family? Would they have money to buy healthy food? These questions only serve to show that kindness is not at the root of the problem – but does the Government know about it? Or do we see the Government falling into the same kind of ’emotional reporting’ that has plagued the media for ages?

Gammon in Orange, Ginger, and Honey

Now, this post is all about the art of cuisine. In the end, nations like the French or Italians, renowned for their artistic achievements, are also famous for their cuisine. This suggests a necessary link between food and art. Additionally, this year has been the first in my time in England when I could cook whatever I wanted and experiment without anything holding me back. As I was celebrating Christmas on my own, I therefore decided not to cook any traditional Christmas roasts, but to opt for something different. I cooked borsch, and then, practically on the spur of the moment, I decided to cook gammon in orange, ginger and honey (I was going to roast it at first). According to the original recipe, I needed to marinate gammon in lemon and garlic, but I didn’t have lemons at hand; I used an orange instead. And at a later stage of cooking I needed to add cognac; I used a mix of red wine and vodka. I also added a bit of red wine vinegar to the marinade. And although I am the only one to certify, I can assure you: this gammon is absolutely delicious!

What I used :

– a whole piece of unsmoked gammon (750 g)
– 6 garlic teeth
– 1 tea spoon of red wine vinegar
– 1 orange
– 2 red hot chilli peppers
– 2 table spoons of honey
– 2 table spoons of finely grated ginger
– 50 ml of red wine and 50 ml of vodka (or 100 ml of cognac)
– olive or other vegetable oil for frying (actually, I mixed olive and sesame seed oils)

How I cooked it:

1. I cut gammon in four pieces, put them in a hermeutic bowl, squeezed 1 orange, added finely cut 6 pieces of garlic, 1 tea spoon of vinegar, and put the covered bowl into a fridge for 45 mins, to marinate.
2. In the meantime, I grated ginger, cut 2 red chillies, and mixed them with 2 table spoons of honey and the red wine&vodka blend.
3. After 45 mins of marinating, I took gammon out and fried it in the mix of olive and sesame seed oils until gold.
4. Shortly before the gammon was ready, I heated up the sauce in a pan and added the hot blend to a frying pan with gammon.
5. I preheated the oven to 180C, covered the pan with foil, and put in the oven to cook for another 40 mins.

To accompany this gammon, I fried potatoes and carrots (cut in cubes). I also made a salad (1/2 of fresh cucumber, 4 gherkins, 1/2 can of sweetcorn, 3 reddishes, a few black olives, mixed together with mayonnaise), and there was apple sauce and some sweet pickle. But you can garnish the meat with mash or boiled vegetables, or just some green salad.

I hope you let me know if you tried this… Please do.

P.S. Ideally, you’d have a frying pan with the lid and a detached handle. But you can follow in my footsteps, or put gammon in a backing tray.

P.P.S. Speaking of Italians – my Italian friend in Manchester has finally fallen victim to my paeans to blogging, and started his own blog – Saffron Chicken and Unwritten Novels. So far it has only got one recipe to go with, but I heard Marco is going to share more with us. I’m sure this will be one of his New Year resolutions, especially now that you’ve heard of him. 🙂


Have a Very Merry Christmas!

My dear readers and visitors,

I wish you a very merry Christmas! Wherever you are, I hope that you find peace and joy on this day, and take it with you to the next year!

With love and best wishes, Julia x


P.S. I’d like to thank all my friends for their lovely cards and presents. Special thanks to John Grundeken for the beautiful Dove of Peace card (left). The card on the right is from my family archive of old postcards. And thanks to 123Greetings.com for the awesome free ecard service!


Oh, Christmas Tree! Oh, Where Art Thee?

Well, while some Xmas trees are still in the markets and others are placed comfortably in the houses, the Christmas tree I have just seen in the garbage collection point at my apartments block has clearly had its festive duty over. I must admit that this was the sight to behold. Add to this that a few hours before then I visited a local shop to buy some food for what surely will be a long weekend. This was certainly a very odd sight amidst the mounting preparations to one of the main festivals all over the world. The image is also poignant in many other ways, which is why I had to run back to my flat and to return with photocamera.


Christmas Decorations at the Walker Art Gallery

Last week was quite eventful for me. I organised an impromptu visit to Liverpool, then to Hyde Park in, er, Hyde, and on Saturday I paid a sad visit to Woolworths at Salford Precinct. Check out all the BBC news on the subject of closure of one of the oldest and most familiar brands around, or go directly to this dedicated page about the closure sale, complete with a video report and audio slide show about the wonder of Woolies.

I was not impartial to Woolworths myself, and in my over five years in England I have visited it quite often. I wasn’t a regular customer, but I will certainly miss their sweets stall.

Nevertheless, Christmas is just around the corner, and the festive fever is growing. From outside my window I can see into another flat, and there they have over a dozen of Xmas cards displayed on the sill. I’m receiving and sending most of my cards by email this year, although I will have had a few paper ones by Dec 25, too.

Also, today is the first day of Hanukkah 2008. I know this isn’t New Year yet, but one of my reservations for 2009 is to be slightly more observant of the main religious holidays. Not in the sense that I might begin to practise them, but rather that I do not forget to greet my readers when it is appropriate. I have written about Christian (or rather Orthodox) Easter; the 2008 Xmas label is dedicated to Christmas, and now I am going to wish the Happy Hanukkah to those of my readers who may be observing the rites. Those of you who want to know more about this Jewish religious holiday are very welcome to go to what is indeed the ultimate website about Hanukkah.


Bamboo Train Tickets for CrossCountry Rail Operator

We are growing more and more concerned about the environment, and for a good reason. Last year Rupert Neate reported for The Guardian that Britain was among the worst in Europe at car recycling. More and more companies are turning to environmentally-friendly tactics to cut the damage both to Nature and to their budget: they either print their internal communication on cheaper paper, or they include the “do you need to print this email?” (printed in green, no less) in the signatures of the staff’s emails. Even at Manchester Christmas Market they were dreaming of a green Christmas, whereby they introduced a refundable deposit for mugs and glasses.

CrossCountry train travel service, one of the British Rail operators, may leave their unique mark on the green practices for train companies. They may introduce green tickets. The tickets may be printed on recycled materials, or even on tree leaves or the stripes of bamboo. Although likely to appear outrageous at first, this move should prove popular, particularly among the younger and fashionable train travelers. Social Media users will doubtless find particular delight in photographing their bamboo ticket. In the long run this green ticket policy, however radical, would provide an example and benchmark for other train companies, and possibly bus operators, who want to do their bit for Nature protection. Something to put on the list of ‘to-think-about’ for Manchester City Council, if their bid for congestion charge is successul.

Bamboo has already been used by Asus to create their bamboo EcoBook laptop (specs and full gallery from Blavish.com; theirs is also the image courtesy), and BuildingGreen.tv introduced this woven house design by Danish architect Søren Korsgaard. (image is courtesy of BG.tv). So it will not be entirely strange if CrossCountry service introduces their own bamboo passenger tickets…

…if, of course, the train company tunes in to my retelling of this jestful conversation I had with one of the CrossCountry train managers.

Skiing in Moscow

Skiing in Moscow, originally uploaded by loscuadernosdejulia.

This picture tells many stories. It was taken by my mother in Moscow sometime between 1998 and 2001. I got the Salomon skies set for my birthday, if I am not mistaken.

I’ve always loved winter sports, much more so than the summer ones. The story goes that in 1982 during the Winter Olympics I was mesmerised by the figure skaters. My mother was walking with me in her hands to and fro in the room. The TV set stood at the window. When she walked to it, I’d cry. Once she turned and walked towards the wall, I’d calm down. It finally downed on her that I was watching the TV.

My own attempt at figure skating was rather ill-fated. Shortly after my 7th birthday in December, Father Frost (this is how Santa Claus is called in Russia) visited me and brought me a lovely pair of white skates. Alas, I couldn’t even stand on them or make a step, let alone skate. I used to be really passionate about figure skating, but, having come to England, I somehow lost the interest. I still feel, though, a bit of envy when I see those at ice rinks who effortlessly glide over the ice

I had skies when I was a kid, but it wasn’t until I went to the Uni that I really got into skiing. Admittedly, I never went to ski on the slopes, and chances are, I’d be screaming like on the roller-coaster, if I did. However, I really love ski walking and a bit of ski running, although I never thought of competing in a skiing marathon. My stamina does have limitations.

On the picture you see me in my native disctrict; my house stood just across the road from this vast terrain of soil. The district was quite industial: to my left is a thermo-electric station; behind me, stretching to the right, would be a number of industrial sites; and farther to the right would be a market and a garbage-burning plant. The winters, however, were amazing, with plenty of snow, and it wasn’t unusual to see people coming from farther corners of the district, carrying their skiing equipment.

Personally, I’d always overlook the industrial “exterior”. As far as I was concerned, this vast terrain of snow was a great place. It was magical, atmospheric, and as I lived on the 5th floor, you’ve got to believe me that the sunsets I used to watch on those winter evenings in my district were really splendid.

In all of my time in England, these were the two things that I really missed: snow and sunsets. You might find this amusing: yes, there really isn’t much snow in England, but surely, there are sunsets! Alas, I haven’t lived above the 1st floor to see them. But who knows? The end of 2008 is only the beginning of 2009…


Riitta Ikonen Brings Snowflakes to Finland

I have lived for a long period of time in the countries as wide apart as Russia and England – particularly where climate is concerned. In the last couple of years, however, the picture has seemingly changed: English summers became hotter (something that we in Russia are very used to), and the Russian winter seems to be visiting England rather regularly. I observed the tendency earlier this year, and when I went to Birmingham earlier this month my heart was practically freezing both in cold and in glee as I looked at the snow-covered fields and rails (left).

In Russia this has been rather different. We’d usually have lots of snow, but last year, when browsing one of Russian social networks, I saw this collage of two photos: they document the precise spot in Moscow city centre in the month of January in 2006 and 2007. The inscription on the photo asks you to find ’10 differences’, which is easy, and the tendency continues this year. Unfortunately, I do not know the name of the photographer. The point, though, is that whilst here in England the winter is getting colder and whiter, Russia seems to have imported not only such traditional and long-standing British retailers as Marks&Spencer, Boots, and The Body Shop, but also the ‘typical’ English weather in the guise of rain.

Finland has been experiencing the same kind of problem, but one person there has stood firmly against the climate change. Riitta Ikonen, one of Beck’s Canvas 2008 artists, introduced the Snowflake project in December 2007 – by then Finland has not had snow for two years for Christmas. This prompted Riitta to start “an ongoing site-specific project looking at the effects of global warming“. The photographs are by Anni Koponen and more can be seen on the project’s page. On the right is Riitta at Beck’s Canvas (photographed by me) with two supporters dressed in costumes created by Riitta for Bird and Leaf project. Below is the artist’s Beck’s Canvas interview.


Christmas Safari (and King Solomon’s Mines)

This article is primarily about the 1950 MGM adaptation of Rider Haggard’s novel. For the news about the discovery of potentially authentic King Solomon’s Mines in Jordan in October 2008, skip to the end of the article.

Never mind cold, snow, and chilling winds – that coveted hot spot can surface at the place most unusual. Take Birmingham Christmas Market that resides between the Town Hall, the Museum and Art Gallery, and the old Post Office. These wooden safari ‘tropheys’ are hardly on the list of usual Xmas presents, let alone festive merchandise. But in the midst of the UK’s another multicultural city this kind of market stall takes you back to your summer memories…

…or perhaps even reminds you of that animal stampede scene in King Solomon’s Mines
where the protagonists are hiding behind the stones from what seems like the all-African sprint of zebras, antilopes, and giraffes. The 1950 film starring Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger was shot entirely on location in the former British colonies in Equatorial Africa, and in the Belgian Kongo. As Eric Harper of DVD Verdict remarks, “Haggard’s novel did more than any other work of fiction to entrench the mysteries of deepest Africa in the public mind. The movie version, more safari travelogue than coherent narrative, does much the same thing with the exotic animals of Africa… The wildlife footage is undeniably impressive, and must have been a treat on the big screen. The film is like a child’s picture book or Noah’s Ark set brought to life. The efforts involved in capturing such footage border on heroic. MGM sent their cast and crew on a 14,000 mile safari in temperatures in excess of 140 degrees Fahrenheit. The filmmakers also faced rampant tropical diseases, insects, and poisonous snakes, as well as a violent encounter with several Masai extras who got a bit carried away performing traditional war rituals for the film”.

Another reviewer, Holly E. Ordway of DVD Talk notes that the film is “predictably sexist”, judging by such phrase as “any woman who wants to go on a safari must have something wrong with her”. I wouldn’t call this sexist, if applied to myself, because I would love to go on a safari, and there is nothing wrong with me as a woman. The very idea of a safari, however, implies that there should be something ‘wrong’ with the person, for why would we break out from our routines precisely in such an ‘outrageous’ way?

Ordway goes on to highlight the animal deaths, but perhaps most importantly, the treatment of Africans in the film:

“The presentation of the native African characters is probably the best-handled part of the film. All the Africans speak in their own languages, whether amongst themselves or talking with Quartermain, who is portrayed as speaking several African languages. This is infinitely better than the sadly typical “foreigners speak in English with funny accents” approach, both in terms of being respectful and in terms of making a more exciting movie. This respectful style isn’t limited to the handling of dialogue, but extends throughout the film: we see Africans not just working as bearers (and even then it’s clear that Quartermain respects them as comrades) but also as warriors and kings. With the one exception of a ludicrous dance and combat at the very tail end of the film, the use of native African songs, dances, customs, and attire is very nicely done and certainly adds interest to the film.”

What all reviewers seem to agree about is the slow pace of the film and the practically total absence of a plot. David Chen writing for Chud.com observes on the impeccable hairstyles of actors even at the times when no hairstyle could be perfect (but this the 1950s Hollywood, after all!). As David’s parents were born after 1950 and he had grown up watching contemporary films, he admits that it is harder for him to appreciate the film for the same reasons as guided the 1950s audiences.

If you want more interesting details about the film, not mentioned in the abovementioned reviews, head to Jeremy Arnold’s article on TCM website. You will find out why the film had two directors; when and where the first ever film version of the celebrated novel had been made; not to mention the insight into technical and logistic struggles that might just put Star Wars in the shadow: “For example, 60,000 pounds of equipment had to be shipped to Mombasa, including seven specially constructed trucks and a snowplow, since some footage was to be shot on 17,000-foot Mt. Kenya”. Do remember, we are talking of 1950s…

As for me, I’d seen King Solomon’s Mines in 2006, and like many others, was left speechless by the animal stampede scene. Arnold stresses that acting was hardly mentioned in the press – the latter gave it all to the technical achievements, which are probably what continues bringing audiences to this film, even if it is too sexist or impeccable for the Noughties. In this, I must be that part of the audience that gets enchanted by the sight of Africa, very much like the author of The Rush Blog who fails to find any significant fault with the film.

Finally, here is the latest archaeological news that the coveted mines might have been found… and not in Africa, but in the Faynan region of Jordan. Better still, the fictional mines contained diamonds, gold and ivory: this very well explains why the late 19th c. explorers and hunters, fresh from the Golden Rush, would find the King Solomon’s Mines so attractive – or perhaps, this may explain why Haggard came up with his idea in the first place. But the real mines (which appear to date back to the 10th c. BC, the time when King Solomon ruled Israel) were seemingly providing the Israeli kingdom with copper. The team of archaeologists led by Thomas Levy of the University of California and Mohammad Najjar of Jordan’s Friends of Archaeology made the discovery at Khirbat en-Nahas (Arabic for “ruins of copper”). goes on to highlight the elucidating effect the discovery has had on Biblical studies. Since 1930s, the sight of Khirbat en-Nahas used to be linked to the Kingdom of Edom, but the statement was taken critically. Thanks to the recent discovery, however, we may be in for some serious rethinking.

To round this up, a few YouTube links: King Solomon’s Mines 1950 trailer and the University College of San Diego report about the discovery at Khirbat en-Nahas: “High Precision Carbon Dating and Historical Biblical Archaeology in Southern Jordan”.

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