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Why I love Britain

UK FlagThe current financial climate makes things tough for a lot of people, it really does.  Whilst I’m pretty right-wing on a lot of things, even I’ll admit that the current British PM is someone I could do without.  It’s tough, sometimes, to remember why Britain can be such a great place to live.

I love the visuals of the place.  I’ve never really been much of a sun, sand and sea person.  I love the sight of sweeping green valleys and countryside.  My friend Pete’s dad lived in Spain for a year and the one thing he missed the most was the colour green.  I remember thinking the same thing when I went to Rome: beautiful city with lots to see, yes, but after a few days I missed the sight of fields and trees.  I only have to head out on a train away from the city and I instantly remember how nice the countryside in Britain is.

There’s also something to be said for the humour.  It’s hard to explain to anyone unless they’ve been to America, as that offers the only real point of comparison.  Britons have a wonderfully witty form of humour – I think it comes from the same place as that famous stiff upper lip.  That brilliantly dry sense of things that takes sarcasm and goes one further.  In somewhere like America, almost everything seems to be taken literally and if you’re a sarcastic Brit it takes some doing to get used to the conversation and to say what you actually mean all the time.  I, however, love that Britishness!

I’ve read a few interviews in my time with celebrities who tour and who’ve said that British food isn’t any good.  I think what they probably mean is that it isn’t always healthy, but as far as I’m concerned that’s something entirely different!  I love traditional British grub like steak and ale pie and fish and chips, all washed down with a nice pint of real ale.  You can tell I’m from the West Country, can’t you?!

Moving sucks

This is the rant and rave section and I’m in the mood to have a go!

I guess I’m not actually having a go at anyone or anything in particular.  What’s got my goat is moving.  I HATE moving, even if it’s to a nicer place.  Despite never being that much of a materialist, I seem to have obtained a huge amount of worthless rubbish in my time: magazines, DVDs, books, little trinkets from travelling, etc, etc.  They add up so quickly it’s ridiculous.  I thought packing to move would be a one week job at the maximum but it looks like it’s going to take HOURS.

My mates insisted that I should label everything so I don’t lose track of it, so I went to www.data-label.co.uk to pick up some bits to help get everything organised.  Even just sticking labels on all the boxes seemed to take hours.  I could have labelled at least four of the boxes “Stuff that I don’t really need to take with me and should probably get rid of.”   How does something like labelling take that long?

It’s amazing in a way just how much rubbish a man can build up in ten years.  Obviously I don’t want to sound too bitter as the new place looks great and I’m really happy to be going, but it’d be absolutely great just to have a magic wand, wave it and for all of the moving to be done.  I’m obviously excited, but I could really do without all this damn packing!

Here’s hoping I lighten up a bit when everything’s done!

What I’ve learned

I make no great claims to be any sort of genius.  I have a decent job that pays me well and I’m moving into a lovely new home soon.  Once or twice, though, I’ve had a couple of people describe me as ‘lucky’.  Taking aside how daft that sounds (I’ve got a friend with a perfect marriage and two beautiful kids – now THERE’S a lucky person!), it got me thinking about things.  I guess whilst I’ve got no brilliant life compared to someone like, I don’t know, Beckham, I do have things that other people don’t.  Why?

I guess part of it comes down to hard work, which is something a lot of people don’t want to hear.  Everyone – me included – wants to believe that there’s a shortcut to everything.  That you can learn guitar in six months or that you can build a business in a week.  It would be nice, wouldn’t it?  There’s not, though.  The things in my life that other people like, such as my salary or my home, I worked hard to get.  There were a lot of lonely nights in those early days, I can tell you.

I’m also nice to people, as a general rule.  In today’s world, it almost seems like being a bit nasty here and there is considered ‘cool’, with people who are kind often being taken as being weak.  I can see where people are coming from with this, but that’s not the case.  If you’re nice to people, they’re far more likely to help you out when you need something.  Sure, there’s the odd doofus who might try to take advantage, but believe me: most people are basically alright.

I also don’t stop learning.  I remember reading something by Tony Robbins, years back, basically saying that happiness equals progress, and I think it’s true.  Many people, once they’ve got that first job, just settle back, doing enough to avoid getting into trouble but never doing enough to really be taken seriously.   I’ve always tried to build my skills, even if I struggled with something initially.  To tell you the truth, for someone who works in finance I’m not even that good at maths, but I try to add a new skill to my professional bow each month, which does make a big difference.  That’s partially why I’ve put this piece in the ‘learning’ section: never stop learning!

How Paul taught me not to push It

It’s a funny old world, singledom.  I’ve written before about the various perks of not having a long-term partner – and there are a few of them!  I’m sure some of my friends are a bit jealous that I get to sit and listen to old records, whilst eating a takeaway curry, without having to worry about picking the kids up or cleaning for the in-laws visit at the weekend.  (No in-laws: also a benefit).   Obviously, though, I’d still like to meet someone.

I do ask friends for advice and the biggest tip I get is probably this – don’t force it.  Most people who struggle to meet new people tend to try and overdo it.  They’ll head out on the town and immediately start talking to every member of the opposite sex that they meet.  It’s tricky trying to get that combination of confidence and chattiness without seeming too desperate!

I think, however, that there might be something in it.  I only say so because, recently, Paul (a guy I work with and sometimes have a few beers with) seems to have met the right person.  You can always tell when someone meets the right person because, rather than rant and rave about whether they’re right, they basically disappear for weeks at a time, only emerging for work and food.  When pressed about the new relationship, they all just say “Yeah, I’m happy” and that’s about it!

Paul, interestingly, was always telling me before about how desperate he was for a partner.  He constantly went out to nightclubs and was always getting friends to set him up on blind dates.  I’ve never seen anyone that committed to meeting someone.  Somehow, though, it always ended up going wrong for one reason or another.

A week before he met Lucy (his new lady – that’s the only information about her I’ve managed to get from him so far) he said to me that he was done.  “Steve, that’s me finished with trying to date.  I’m going to focus on this book” (he’s an aspiring novelist) “so stop worrying.”

Literally a week later, he meets the girl of his dreams.  It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Eating out on a budget

I’ve mentioned before on this blog how much I enjoy eating out whenever I get the chance.  There’s something about food having been cooked by someone else that makes it taste nicer.  Fortunately, my bachelor lifestyle means that I’m able to splash the cash, not having many other expenses.  In the early days, however, I used to be quite good at being frugal.

One of the best ways I’ve found to help minimise costs when eating out is to head out for lunch instead of dinner.  This is a really good way of saving money, especially if you’ve got a family to feed.  Quite often, restaurants will charge a good 25% more for a dish if you order it in the evening.  Alright, you aren’t going to be able to head out during a school week, but for the weekends I’ve always found this to be a good cash saver.

Also, check out the web for potential savings.  I’ve only begun doing this within the last year or so, but there are a lot of websites out there that offer vouchers to help save you cash.  From what I can see, a lot of it comes down to the recession cutting down the amount of people heading out, so restaurants offer vouchers to try and entice people back.  Definitely a good way of saving cash!

Finally, look for deals.  Almost all restaurants – especially gastro-pubs – will do a “two meals for a tenner” type offer, or “beer and a burger”.  Always have a good look at the menu and ask the waiter if there are any offers on.  I’ve always thought that if you don’t ask, you don’t get!

Why I like last minute holidays

Holiday in sandThere’s something to be said for last minute holidays.  I’ve met other bachelors who aren’t that keen on going away, figuring that if they’re in their own company then they might as well save the cash, but I actually do like holidays, especially last minute ones.   I’m usually travelling solo so I’m able to head out more or less whenever I like, as long as I can get the time off work.

For starters, last minute holidays mean you can get some really cheap prices and, often, the more last minute the booking, the bigger the reduction.  As a general rule, you should check out any hotels you’re planning to stay at before you book (otherwise you might be looking at the old ‘parachute for sale, only used once’ principle).  However, if you’re like me and you don’t like spending money where you don’t need to, then it’s definitely a good way to cut costs.

The other thing I like about doing things last minute is that I tend to end up being a bit more experimental.  The first few times I went travelling, I went to the usual places: Rome, Berlin, New York.   After a few years, however, I ended up running out of ideas.  Last minute bookings forced me to just take the plunge, without thinking too much about it.  I have ended up visiting cities I would never have considered if the holidays hadn’t been so cheap.  I only ended up going to Porto because it was a last minute booking and because I’d heard of their soccer team.  I had a great week for next to nothing!

Finally, last minute holidays often mean packages are available.  It can be a nuisance having to book several different components, but there are many sites now that will enable you to book everything together, making life much easier.

The complexities of decorating

I’ve lived in my house a while now, but never really bothered with the décor, I haven’t really noticed it to be honest. However, a few members of my friends and family have begun to comment on the ‘dinginess’ of my living room so I decided to give it a lick of paint; people decorate all the time so how hard can it be?

As I have never really done this kind of thing before; I’ve helped out friends but they have been in charge; I enlisted the advice of a mate who is always doing some kind of DIY, and discovered it is a little more complicated than I first thought. I mentioned that I was going to pick up some paint and he gave me a whole list of items and tools that I would apparently need as well; anyone would think I was starting a painting business rather than just doing one room based on the length of the list I was given.

I trotted off to the DIY store and returned feeling pretty proud of myself; no one need know that it was actually a young lad from the decorating section who had found it all for me and I had only chosen the paint…which proved to be the wrong choice anyway.

Mate – “Are you doing the bathroom too?”

Me (puzzled) – “ No, why?”

Him – “This is bathroom paint and not enough for one wall anyway”

Me – “Oh”

Back to the shop I went, and managed to get the right type of paint in a sufficient quantity due to help from the young decorating expert again.

Eventually we managed to swathe my living room in dust sheets, apply masking tape where required and crack on with the painting; three coats later and the dingy living room has a new lease of life. I now own a lot of painting related paraphernalia, but in all likelihood it’ll stay where it is in the shed for the foreseeable future.

Tasting menus

Truffle slice on meal close upIn my regular experiences of eating out I have come across what seems to me to be a new phenomenon, the tasting menu. This is the menu option that leaves you in the hands of the chef, just tell them what you do not like or are allergic to and they will choose for you. This has advantages and disadvantages, generally depending on the quality of the restaurant you are in.

A bad tasting menu is one where the chef will just give you everything that is about to go off and any dishes that are not selling well on the standard menu. You can tell if this is the case if you get lots of the same type of course, such as two fish dishes or three starters in a row; and this is just lazy service. The great tasting menus are ones that have thought put into them and you can clearly see that the courses are chosen for variety rather than to get rid of left overs.

I would always say go for a tasting menu if you have the option; you will generally get more courses of a smaller size than the standard menu so you have more variety, and the chance to taste things that you wouldn’t normally choose. Try not to be too picky when you are ruling out foods; only state ones that you are allergic to or really hate the taste of as you may be surprised by options that you think you dislike.  I’ve generally enjoyed these menus and find myself eating foods that I would never order from a standard menu, and really enjoying them – so give it a go!