Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Noise control

Do you have noisy neighbours? By this, I don't mean 'hooligans' with stereos blasting all through the night while they party into the wee small hours on week days, or race noisy cars up and down the street on a peaceful Sunday evening. I'm thinking of the office lottery we play when we are assigned a desk; some are lucky enough to be allocated to a harmonious bunch with similar preferences for working, while others simply end up with neighbours from hell.

I used to sit next to the ultimate huffer and puffer. He would sigh dramatically all. day. long. and loved nothing better than having a good moan to whoever would listen (and many who wouldn't) before repeating the cycle all over again. All I can say is, "thank goodness for my iPod". I'd plug in my earphones, even if I wasn't actually listening to anything, and it would help me ignore his moaning and muttering while also getting the message across that he wasn't going to get the reaction he wanted from me – this is a no sympathy zone!

Another former colleague would constantly chatter to herself under her breath. It took me a while to work out on which occasions she was talking to me and wanted some kind of response, but for most of the time she was happy to just talk to herself, not even realising she was doing it. I'd happily ignore her, but visitors to my desk couldn't help themselves pricking up their ears or asking me why I was ignoring her. It worked for us.

I now sit in an open pod of four at the end of a an office with about 12 staff in total. My immediate neighbour is quiet and reasonably pleasant, my neighbour opposite is serious, gentle and kind, and the third is a dynamic and extroverted self-styled 'princess'. She is good for lifting energy levels and moods and keeps everybody else trundling along. She is vibrant and vivacious in every aspect of her personality. "Stop yawning," she will say, if she catches someone in the act. She told us about one occasion when she had some friends over to watch a rugby match. The game was going unexpectedly well and the team they were supporting won, against all odds. She and her friends were screaming and shouting so loud in celebration that a neighbour called the police, worried that someone was being attacked or murdered in her flat. Serious. Vuvuzelas would be no competition for her and her friends!

Other colleagues are less fortunate. One sits on the other side of a room from a chronic noise maker. She swears at her monitor at various points during the day, makes rude comments about what she is reading, and gives a running commentary while reading her emails. Apparently she once called out, "yes, oh, fantastic!", or words to that effect, so it's not always negative, but apparently she is well known throughout the organisation for her constant muttering and vocal skills. No-one is entirely sure if she is aware of this fact or simply oblivious to it.

How are your 'neighbours'?

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Inside out

I was chatting with a colleague yesterday about trashy Friday night television. You know you're in for a long night when you are DVD-less and your only options are Project Runway or Botswana's Latest Next Top Model (or similar). I can't bear them. We somehow got on to talking about programmes like CSI. I said that hospitals and gory crime scenes are one of my irrational fears and I can't bear to watch them either. I regularly get hassled about it, but I just don't like body bits where they shouldn't be (removed, broken, at the wrong angle), and especially bits that are supposed to be on the inside but are actually on the outside. I don't understand people's fascination with wanting to see that kind of stuff.

I have finally found a kindred spirit: my colleague feels the same! It's not a matter of fearing blood. However, she raised the stakes by saying that she also doesn't like things going inside that should stay on the outside, eg injections, artificial medical aids, scalpels etc. She said she was traumatised for a long time when she was a teenager and had to give her horse a daily injection for a few weeks. She only managed to do it because she wanted her horse to get better, but even the thought of injecting something now makes her queasy. It made perfect sense to me.

Inside out and outside in - some times are just not meant to be. Who's with us on this one?

Thursday, 24 June 2010

Speaking up

Generally, I am pretty bad at speaking up. There are so many occasions when things happen (or don't happen), yet either go unnoticed or get swept under the carpet because it's easier to just not complain and cause discomfort. I prefer to vote with my feet and just quietly go elsewhere next time, but that's not always possible, especially in ongoing situations. I'm not sure if it's fear of retribution, fear of being blamed for causing the problem, appearing like a trivial moaner, or not wanting to upset someone, but I'm dreadful at complaining to people about a product or service.

Last year, a friend's partner treated three of us to a pampering and high tea session. Most of it was fantastic, but there were a couple of moments when things got uncomfortable. At the time, I was in the middle of ongoing treatment for a damaged disc in my back and my osteopath had given strict instructions for me to pass on to the masseuse about I'd need during the course of a massage. I passed these instructions on and they were agreed to, then promptly ignored. I wriggled and squirmed throughout my massage but couldn't let myself speak up; it was so peaceful and quiet, and maybe they were just about to turn me like they were supposed to and I'd only annoy them by pushing the situation? Nope, no change. The session finished with a copper foot bath consisting of Earl Grey tea leaves floating in extremely hot water. (It's supposed to be good for you. Hmm.) Two of us asked for some cooler water to be added to the mix as we couldn't cope with the heat. We were informed that "that temperature is correct" and effectively dismissed, leaving us to grin and bear it for fear of being told off again. So why couldn't we just insist that we were about to be scalded, instead of just keeping quiet and trying to endure it?

A South African colleague was telling about someone she knew in her homeland who was a 'serial complainer'. She had a whole room full of compensation and apology products from companies she had complained to about almost everything. It seemed to work for her. I could think of nothing more uncomfortable.

For a number of years, my band regularly played at a local cabaret. The owner was an incredibly calm and compassionate woman. She told me about how patrons would eat a full buffet meal (sometimes with second helpings), then go downstairs to complain to her about the quality of the food, or how their salt shaker was partially clogged up, therefore they couldn’t put salt evenly on their food and it ruined their entire meal. She would listen and nod sympathetically and say she understood how awful that must have been for them. Then, they would invariably ask for a free meal voucher to use on another occasion, to which she would reply sweetly, "If your meal was so awful tonight, why would you want to come back again?" Problem solved, or dissipated.

We need to fire our cleaner. We just don't know how to do it. Do we approach the cleaner in the first instance and give her yet another 'second chance'? Do we go directly to the company and complain, effectively undermining her or 'dobbing her in'? We have reluctantly paid her each fortnight (she is quick to ring up the very next day if her money hasn't come through, even if we are out too late to transfer the payment for that working day) but we’re hesitant to pay her for yesterday's dreadful job. Still, she was there for two hours 'working' in our home, even if she missed lots of things.

We've actually had a bad run of cleaners these past couple of years. Apparently we have a file with complaints about other cleaners, even though we've never actually complained to this company and regularly get asked that "if you have any problems at all, just call us" or "we can send another cleaner, if you want". Yet, we never do. Yes, we've also wondered if we're being too fussy, but paying $65 for a 'deluxe' clean that only took 40 minutes, or seeing that a cleaning brush we had left (with instructions) between the shower doors so she could use it to clean the glass hadn’t been moved, or coming home to see a biscuit the cat had found and dragged into the lounge was still on the floor after the cleaner had been there for two hours isn’t acceptable to us.

I think that my sweetie should fire her as the booking is under his name, but he thinks I should do it as I'm the one who leaves out the cleaning list for her and has spoken to her more.  Neither of us are good at rocking the boat but something needs to happen. (I'm determined it will be him.) It's all very well to say we should just be assertive and deal with the situation, but who actually find this easy to do? Does anyone actually ever feel good about complaining or speaking up?

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Cheese scones

I love to bake but have a terrible hit rate with baking scones; I simply lack the knack. I love hot cheese scones (or cheese and tomato, but not cheese and onion) with coffee for brunch or sultana scones (not date) for a sweet treat. However, I’ve never had much success with baking my own scones, apart from when I ‘helped’ my grandmother when I was a small child. These tomato pinwheel scones were proof of that!

I was lucky enough to sample some scones made by following the Ministry of Food cheese scone recipe. They were light and fluffy and full of flavour. The recipe was quickly sourced online and printed copies passed around the office. I was pleased to discover that there was no butter in this recipe; rubbing butter into a dry mixture is something I've always struggled with so this recipe removes that obstacle. One colleague had success baking them over the weekend; I thought it was my turn to try tonight.

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy these were to make after years of struggling. They only needed 15 minutes in the oven, so keep a close eye on them towards the end - I could certainly smell when they were ready. And the best part? My sweetie doesn't like cheese, so they're all mine!

Cheese scones

  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
  • 2 cups grated tasty cheese
  • 1 cup full-cream milk
  1. Preheat oven to 220º C. Put tray in to heat.
  2. Sift flour, baking powder, salt, sugar and cayenne pepper into a bowl. Mix in cheese. Make a well in the centre.
  3. Check you have a clear bench with flour on it and the oven is fully heated. You want the scones to go into the oven as soon as possible.
  4. Add the milk, mix quickly with a knife. Turn out onto a floured bench and quickly shape into a 3 cm thick rectangle. Cut into 8 and put onto your floured, hot tray. Bake for 15-20 minutes. You’ll smell them as they become ready.
If you don’t eat them all, they freeze well. To reheat, put them into an oven for about 5 minutes.

Cheese scones

Friday, 18 June 2010

An Auckland affair

My relationship with Auckland spans many years. It's not an entirely amicable relationship and usually involves a quick dash into the city to attend to whatever business I have there (a conference, a concert), quickly rushing over to the North Shore to visit my best friend and her family, then a relieved trip to the airport to go home again to Wellington. It's not to say that I hate Auckland, but our on-again off-again affair is always punctuated by frequent bad weather and general feelings of wanting to be elsewhere.

I am currently in Auckland on a mini-break while my sweetie is working here. I have loose plans to meet up with people but also a day to just hang out in downtown Auckland all by myself. What to do? I consulted the experts, aka the Auckland Twitterverse, for a few suggestions about the basics: food, coffee, gelato, sushi, etc. The ideas came thick and fast. Awesome!

We had dinner last night at Raviz Indian Cuisine in town, where our curries came with a satisfactory bite. We then got to meet Giapo, world famous in the Twitterverse and conveniently located just a block or two from our hotel. My first choice was the heavenly stracciatella over cookies and cream gelato. He gave us lots of other samples to try, so we'll definitely be back too see what other delights he has for us.

This morning, I spent a few hours wandering around downtown Auckland based on the recommendations of complete strangers. What an amazing way to see a city - through the eyes of other people! First up, after eating breakfast and reading the newspaper in the sun, I headed down Lorne Street. There are lots of little gems tucked away here and in its side streets, some of which resemble the outdoor malls of Melbourne. It's amazing to realise that all this is just one street over from the grimness of Queen Street and its multitude of stores selling sushi and tacky goods imported from Asia.

Egg roll hamburger
I was looking for La Caroume Bakery after reading about Delissimon's experience there. This gorgeous bakery makes the most creative cakes and buns and smells divine from the moment you walk in the door. I bought something called an egg roll hamburger to have for lunch. It looked like nothing I'd ever seen before and I was curious about whether it be savoury or sweet. It turned out to be a savoury treat set inside a delicate bread-type bun - a really unusual taste sensation.

Then it was coffee time. In Wellington, it is a common sight to see people in transit cradling a takeaway coffee cup in their hand. This is something I had never really associated with Auckland before but see this is now changing. Coffeeslewth had recommended Grind on High - great choice! This tiny café was positively humming mid-morning as a cast of regulars shuffled their way into its retro interior. I would never have found Grind on my own and can see why it is popular; baking fresh from the oven looked too good to resist and the service was unbelievably friendly. I enjoyed a freshly baked pesto cheese scone with my cappuccino. Bliss.

I ventured further down to the waterfront and saw a man walking around wearing a bright pink raincoat done up around the waist. I have no idea why this intrigued me so much; each to their own, I guess! Valentino's Gelato was my destination (another recommendation from Coffeeslewth) but I felt that eating gelato at 11am on a Friday was too indulgent even for my standards, so that will have to go on to tomorrow's list.

Auckland, I am delighted to see how you have grown up. I am warming to our sporadic affair and imagine it will continue for years to come. Don't worry, Wellington, I still love you the best. After all, there's no place like home, but I'm enjoying getting to know Auckland better.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Girls' night out

Last night, a large group of us got together for a girls' night out - no boys allowed! We started off with dinner at One Red Dog, where the $10 cocktail list and large glasses of wine were a hit with several members of our group. Bucking the trend of ordering one of their many gourmet pizzas, I instead opted for the lamb salad - lamb marinated in red wine and garlic with feta, red onion, tomato and mint with mandarin dressing. An excellent choice, if I may say so myself!

Then, it was on to The Embassy Theatre to see Sex and the City 2 - the ultimate girls' night out activity. I'd been told that this movie was funnier than the first; that is certainly true. There was also plenty more bling. At times, the ridiculousness (is that a word?) was beyond hilarious, not to mention the extreme 'fashion' that featured in several scenes. There were many instances where the characters were sending themselves up, making it a lighthearted change to some of the heavier moments during the first movie after Carrie and Big's wedding breakup.

This time, the girls have been treated to luxurious all expenses paid week in Abu Dhabi, the new Middle East. It's amazing what money can buy. A few issues were touched on; married life two years on, worrying about a husband's fidelity, coping with a young family, and Samantha's menopause all floated by. But, as to be expected, most of it was about friendship, shopping, going places, and generally living it up. In amongst it all, some old favourites make an appearance: Smith Jerrod, Aidan, Stanford and Anthony, and, of course, Big.

Our own in-theatre entertainment was provided by a group of drunk women sitting near the front of the cinema. They were shouting at the characters on screen throughout the movie until several other movie-goers told them to shut up. Enough is enough, already!

The verdict? Leave the boys at home, switch off your brain, and simply enjoy the extravagance.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Swamp land

It's a strange feeling, treading water in a swamp.

I started a new job yesterday in a different field to my previous career. While the job requires applying many (or most) of the skills I have acquired in a particular area, it feels like I have landed on a foreign planet where the natives are friendly but don’t really know what I'm doing there.

Having mostly worked from home for the past three years on various different contracts, the thought of an on-site working week was enough to come to terms with, let alone a change in career. The contract is temporary (until the end of this year) and offers me specific skills and experience which I will put to good use when I start my own business soon. Also, I've heard that the organisation is an extremely supportive and pleasant environment to work in. So there are plenty of good parts to it.

I've heard that if you manage to find the toilets and then successfully navigate your way back to your desk on your first day at work that you have met, or even exceeded, expectations. I got these basics sorted by lunch time, then was handed a couple of 'essential documents' and let loose on my first project. And that's when I came down with a serious case of imposter syndrome. What on earth was I doing there??

I prepared to dive into the swamp. The waters looked neither warm nor inviting. I immediately fell under the surface, gulped down some sludge, then tried to work my way back up to the surface. A couple of hours into it, I was starting to see daylight. Just. After chatting to another person who had started the same job as me just the day before, I was relieved to discover that I wasn't alone. She had texted her husband at around the same as I texted my sweetie to say "I've made a terrible mistake. I wonder if I can get out of this". Whew, it wasn't just me feeling that way!

The pounding headache I went to bed with last night (and subsequently woke up with) is receding a little, but reminding that I'm still going to be treading water in this swampy marsh for a while. I've now managed to successfully log into my phone(!) and fill in various pieces of paperwork. When I asked a colleague to cast his eye over the project I'd just finished, he seemed surprised that I'd even started on one, saying he'd left me alone up until now because he thought I had enough to deal with before even starting work. So maybe the headache and swamp swimming wasn't necessary after all?

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

An Irish Country Doctor - Patrick Taylor

An Irish Country Doctor (2007) is the first novel in a series of books by Irish doctor and author Patrick Taylor. Set in the small fictional town of Ballybucklebo in the Ulster province in Northern Ireland, it is the story of a new doctor, Barry Laverty, MB, finding his feet as he takes up his first professional placement as an assistant to long-established and slightly eccentric Dr Fingal Flahertie O'Reilly. As unorthodox and sometimes questionable as O'Reilly's practices may appear to be, Laverty comes to see that his patients' physical ailments are sometimes only a small symptom of what's really going on in their lives. O'Reilly understands this and treats everyone according to his interpretation of their issues, while still maintaining what he calls "the upper hand".

An Irish Country Doctor is a warm, comfortable read. Taylor's writing style is both compassionate and humourous, never taking himself, or Ulster rural life, too seriously. It starts off very promising, giving glimpses into the lives of the country folk of Ballybucklebo from the perspective of their long-suffering GP. However, it never really does more than tiptoe around the edges of these folks' lives. We are introduced to the quirks and eccentricities of a large cast of characters, who are all assembled at a rip-roaring hooley towards the end, but are left with a somewhat superficial understanding of who they are and what really makes them tick. Personal histories are hinted at, a few are gently elaborated upon, but the end of the novel suggests that the story has barely started. Perhaps that's what the rest of the books in the series are for?

Monday, 7 June 2010

Date night

We have had two bottles of French champagne sitting idly for some time now, waiting for just the 'right' occasion to enjoy them. Both were courtesy of my sweetie's sister - two consecutive Christmas presents. When the second bottle arrived, we felt a little guilty at having not yet drank the first. But nothing seemed grandiose enough for such a special treat, even though this was part of my 101 in 1001: #61 - Taste French champagne. We decided to fix that this long weekend.

Following even more rain and another lazy Sunday, but this time with the luxury of a holiday on Monday, we prepared for a big night in. They say that dinner and a movie constitutes a date. No-one said you had to go out for either. Earlier, I had braved the ongoing monsoon to buy some fresh salmon for dinner and the G H Mumm was chilling in the fridge.

We moved the dining table into the lounge, dimmed the lights, lit some candles, played some smooth jazz, and popped the cork on the champagne. My sweetie wore his tux and I wore a dress and heels. The salmon, lightly grilled in drizzled butter, Worcestershire sauce, and garlic salt, went perfectly with the champagne, which easily lived up to my expectations. We finished our date night cuddling on the couch in front of the heater and watching Sherlock Holmes (2009) on DVD.

Although I am usually a non-drinker, I could easily get used to drinking French champagne. We have a bottle of Moët et Chandon waiting for a special occasion, or perhaps another date night. Either way, we won't be waiting to drink it for as long as the Mumm. Besides, who says that any night can't be a special occasion to enjoy?

Friday, 4 June 2010

When you're smiling

They say that a smile is contagious. It costs nothing but gives plenty back. A smile can make someone's day. It can bring sunshine where there is none. If nothing else, smile: it confuses people.

On sunny days, I enjoy going for walks along coastal areas. I join a number of other recreational walkers and beginner joggers in grabbing some sunshine and fresh air. Even on short walks (about half an hour), I've noticed that more people will smile on a sunny day than any other. (I'd imagine the reason for that is obvious.) However, there are people who will smile and say "good morning" (the ultimate oxymoron) in any weather and at any time of the day (or morning). At the very least, they will acknowledge your existence as your paths cross. I can usually pick these people from 100 metres away, no matter where I am walking. Conversely, there are those who will pretend to not see you, or just happen to be looking at something really important in the other direction at the exact same moment as their path crosses yours, ie they will avoid your glance at all costs. I can also pick them from 100 m away. Quite funny, really.

On my walk this morning, I devised a kind of traffic light system. I wondered who would be a green light - will always smile at you, who'd be an orange light - might sometimes smile at you, and who would always be a red light - no chance of a smile. Here's what I came up with:

green - will always smile
  • grandparents with children
  • older people walking slowly, alone or in pairs
orange - might sometimes smile
  • older people walking small dogs
  • middle-aged couples
  • anyone wearing denim
red - will never smile
  • parents with young children
  • older people walking large dogs
  • fit older people wearing caps
  • anyone younger than 35
  • power walking mums - they're pushing an expensive pram and wearing designer exercise clothing, complete with makeup and jewellery
  • anyone wearing matching, branded or co-ordinated exercise clothing
  • joggers
Have you noticed who smiles at you or not? I'm bound to have forgotten some, but will instantly remember them as I pass them on my next walk. Care to add any more groups of casual exercisers to my traffic light categories?