Don’t your parents mind that the person you’re dating isn’t Indian?

Insert other insulting culture/race/class denomination as appropriate.

If you’re not white/Western/European, chances are you’ve heard this at least once. If you’re ‘ethnic’, this is possibly the story of your life.

If you’ve ever asked anyone this question, please read this post. Never ever ask it again.

Funnily enough, I’ve been asked this by as many brown people as white, which would be shocking if it weren’t so tragically believable. The amount of racism within our own ethnicities is pathetic, and a topic for many future blog posts, but I want to address this one specifically.

I have not dated a single south Asian in my life. It’s not a deliberate choice, or a conscious decision on either side. Pickings are slim in Central Europe for other ethnicities, and why would I actively seek out someone with the same skin tone, rather than finding someone I want to hang out with, who may or may not be from the same ethnic background?

I’ve been asked this question so many times that I have perfected the responses, and they’re instinctive now.

Option 1:

“No they don’t. My parents are human beings, and they’re not racist. Even if they did mind, I’m allowed to disagree with them. Don’t believe everything you see in the movies; not all Indians are stereotypes.”

From there, depending on the response I get, I can either go full-on ‘stop being a racist’ or have a more measured discussion about ethnicity, if the person seems open-minded enough to have it.

It’s obviously better to meet stupid questions with something constructive, because otherwise I risk people walking away thinking of Indians in exactly the way they did before they spoke to me, or the stereotype could get worse – and they’re obviously never bringing up my ethnicity again.

This is my loss, because I’ve missed out on the chance to engage in a constructive discussion, possibly change someone’s perspective of my family and me, and in a wider sense, other ethnicities too. I will admit to resorting to this when I’m in a short-tempered mood, or when I can’t be bothered, honestly, which is a real shame.

Option 2:

If I’m in a generous mood, or the person seems kind but moronic (owing to the asking of the moronic question), I engage them in a conversation that begins something like:

“Why do you say that? Where are you getting the image that Indians are so close-minded from?”

It often turns out that they’ve only ever seen Indians on TV or in the movies, or at best, in their local Indian restaurant.

I don’t know why, but someone somewhere decided not to portray Indians in the mainstream media in a representative way.

Digression no. 1:

First of all, nearly all the Indians you see come from northern India – either Delhi or Bombay. Besides Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari, there isn’t a single mainstream media personality from southern India – and in any case, they’re both second-generation so their acceptability and visibility is different than mine would be if someone put me on TV – bad idea.

I dream of the day an actor from Bangalore, Madras, Cochin, Pondicherry, even a village, is as known as other Indian actors. This is true within India too, by the way. All the most famous actors are northern, so Indians themselves have a skewed image of the south.

South Indian culture is vastly different to north Indian, and there are huge variations by state – linguistic, cultural and social nuances. These aren’t represented properly in Indian media, so they won’t be elsewhere.

If people know that Bangalore is in the south, they may also know that it’s the call centre hub of the universe. Besides that, they don’t know anything. I was born in Bangalore and also lived in Madras. No one knows the cuisine of southern India, unless they’re enough of a foodie to try niche restaurants and food stalls, where the dosa is becoming more and more common. Indian food in most restaurants outside India is still based on the Brit-Asian model of curry houses, filled with oil and unbalanced spices.

The second imbalance is that there is never a measured, real-life Indian shown in the mainstream media. A flawed, complex, funny, intense, *human* set of people interacting as all of us humans interact.

Oh no. All Indians in mainstream media have a strained relationship with their family, who all expect too much. Everyone resents or hates their parents, or doesn’t get along with them, or worships them. No one talks back, disagrees or argues. You play the hand you’re dealt, grumble about it but heaven forbid you disagree.

There’s a wonderful scene in Monsoon Wedding of a family spending time together before the wedding, singing, drinking, making jokes and having a great time; the movie is an accurate representation of a Punjabi wedding in Delhi, by the way.

 

Note that Ria’s mother disagrees with her decision. And note the number of people in her generation who disagree with her. This is a proper depiction of a human family, not strictly an Indian one.

But it was directed by an Indian, so of course it would be measured in the way the culture’s represented. Instead of an everyday family talking about school, homework, friends and life in the way we did, and our family members did, we have the Kumars at No. 42 and Goodness Gracious Me. All north Indians, of course. I can’t think of many other Indian/Bollywood movies that show a normal image of an Indian family, so if this is all we have to work with it’s no wonder.

I’m saying this because we can’t blame people for these racist questions if they’re only shown northern stereotypes, not real Indians. Which is why I choose to go for Option 2 if I feel like the audience could properly talk about race portrayal, and we as minorities should try and normalise the narrative as much as possible, show people how we live and that it’s as varied as the way every other group of people lives.

Now that’s out of the way.

The annoyance and irritation with this question go back to my point earlier about meeting stereotypes and everyday racism with constructive thought and responses.

Make no mistake either – these are racist statements; they’re not misinformed, uneducated, uncultured mistakes, or any other word people use to dismiss this less harmful racist talk.

Among other faults, contained within this statement are so many assumptions.

  1. I’m Indian.
  2. I have a dependent relationship with my parents.
  3. They are controlling.
  4. They are close-minded.
  5. They have a say in my life choices.
  6. They would disapprove of any of my life choices.
  7. They would make any of these opinions known to me.
  8. They make them known to me often.
  9. This is a source of tension in our relationship.
  10. The person I am dating is defined by their race, rather than any other personal traits.
  11. I am, and my parents are, are defined by our race rather than our personal traits.

It’s also important to point out that not everyone is as lucky as my brother and me, and our friends. There are people within my family who have had to keep relationships, details like co-habitation and the depth of their commitment to a person a secret to their parents, or risk an argument. In the countries we live in, an argument – or a regular series of arguments – is as far as it could ever go. I know family members in India who are facing more serious consequences like losing out on or damaging relationships with other family members or long-time family friends just because of a perspective their parents hold. It’s all incredibly sad, and I can’t imagine having to live that kind of life.

Let’s not forget, these situations exist in non-Indian households too. I have Hungarian colleagues who have to hide the number of Romanian friends and partners they have from their very conservative family. However, knowing that and taking the next step to ask every single Hungarian what their interactions with Romanians are and whether their parents hate them too, is horrendously racist, right?

So you may know that Indian families, like all others, contain conservative and liberal members, and there’s a chance the person you’re talking to may have a conservative parent, who may be conservative enough to disagree with their choices, and have an active problem with the people in their life. Taking the next step to talk about it and infer character traits on people you haven’t met – and you may not even know the person you’re asking the question of well – is racist.

However, because this inaccurate portrayal of Indians exists, I know that the racist comments don’t come from nowhere. However, assuming they apply to everyone, and starting off a conversation about my relationship in this way, is unacceptable.

I can hear you ask, what is the right way to ask if your parents mind, then?

My question is – do you have to ask it at all? How about you talk to a minority in the way you would speak to any other human? Find out about their life, their work, hobbies, travel, taste in movies, get a book recommendation. Treat other minorities the way you would treat someone who looked like you, and stop adding your assumptions about their life to your conversations with them.

I have never once asked anyone what their parents’ opinion is on any of their life choices, unless it directly impacts their folks – such as when a close friend from university moved out of the family home after many years of living there. “Your parents must be so excited for you but I know they’re going to miss you.” This is a close friend whom I’ve lived with.

That doesn’t make me an angel. It makes me sensitive to what is and isn’t acceptable to ask and comment on when it comes to someone’s race, country, culture, etc.

I’ve been asked the above question by everyone from total strangers I’m splitting a cab with to colleagues I’ve worked with for years. This incredibly personal, highly insulting question.

Here’s another fun little fact for you – I know more white people who have had problems with their parents because of life choices they’ve made. Partners, professions, friendship circles, sexual orientation, you name it. We would never dream of asking an LGBT person at a cocktail party about how hard it was to come out to their parents, would we? Because we know that’s a horrendous statement based on far too many assumptions. Why does this not apply to race?

So what I’m coming to is this – don’t just stop asking this specific question. When you meet someone of a different race, country, culture, ethnicity etc, ask yourself if the way you’re speaking to them would change if they looked like you. If it would, think honestly about how, and why that is, and whether you would be insulted by the question you’re thinking of asking if someone asked it of you. If you would, why are you asking this person?

I’m stepping down from my soapbox now. Only temporarily, though.

I’ve been inspired to start writing about these instances of what I call ‘everyday racism’ (because it’s catchy and at 11pm I can’t think of a better way to put it), my experiences of it and what I would say to those who have experienced it and perpetuate these ideas. I’ll be borrowing stories from my life as well as that of my family, comparing it to those not in my culture/race/ethnicity/background/minority box of choice and will try to talk about it in as open a way as I can. Sometimes I’ll rant, like I have here; sometimes I’ll share a photo or a video; and sometimes I’ll make a few jokes because what’s the point of being a minority if you can’t push the boundaries every now and again? Keep telling me what you think, share your experiences and your feedback!

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Syrian refugees adjust to life in Aberystwyth, Wales

I came across this video today and had to share it.

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I went to university in Aberystwyh and seeing this brought a tear to my eye. I am so proud of the town I called home, and not in the least bit surprised.

The Welsh are known for their kindness and I couldn’t have imagined a more welcoming place to start my life in the UK. I’ve walked that seafront promenade many times, and learned Arabic in the Arts Centre – where these families are now learning English. My first picture in Aberystwyth was taken on the very spot where Nisrine was interviewed.

Obviously the circumstances that took us to there were vastly different, and to compare them is insulting at the least; but it seems the town and university’s attitudes towards welcoming and integrating refugees is as warm as towards foreign students.

Seeing these amazingly strong people adjusting to life in quiet, rural, sleepy West Wales is incredible. I am sure they will love it as much as I and others who made Wales home did, and I hope Wales continues to demonstrate this generosity of spirit and welcoming newcomers.

Recipe – Tortilla Española

I had my family over for brunch this weekend, for my dad’s birthday (I’m more than a little obsessed with brunch) and I put out a Spanish-themed spread. The key feature was a Spanish tortilla. We had a rather disappointing one about a month ago, without any potatoes so it was basically an omelette with nice things in it. Nothing wrong with that, but it made me really crave the Real Deal.

One of my favourite parts about brunch, besides having people over obviously, is preparing and planning the menu for it. I did as much preparation the night before so I could just roll out of bed, tidy the flat and get the last bits together. I learned this recipe from the head chef of the hotel we stayed in during a staff retreat to Spain a few years ago. We all took a sangria-fuelled tapas cooking class, which was as amazing as it sounds.

The key, I discovered, was in the onions – cooked extremely slowly, in minimal oil or butter, and for a long time, so they release their own juices and become an incredibly soft, sweet, caramel brown. And, as the chef taught us, ‘no fear’ when it comes to the flipping. Let it be known that I cannot even flip a crepe to save my life, so this was going to be a challenge.

The potatoes should be slightly cooked, just enough that when they’re assembled in the tortilla and cook further, the end result is layers of thinly-sliced, cooked potatoes which still hold their shape.

And to prevent the tortilla from getting too heavy, move the egg mixture around a little before it sets, allowing more air into it. We were also taught that there’s no sense in keeping it neat and clean – no need to layer the potatoes and onions either. Mix it all up, cook it in a pan, abandon fear and keep flipping it. Easy. Ahem.

Recipe!

4 white onions, halved and thinly sliced

2 medium potatoes, sliced about 0.5 cm thick

5 eggs

200ml milk or cream

salt and pepper to taste

Slowly cook the onions for as long as you can, in a frying pan or the oven, in just about enough oil to prevent them sticking, and with the tiniest pinch of salt to encourage the juices to come out and cook the onions. When they’re a beautiful caramel and almost jam-like, remove and allow to cool. You could do this the night before, as I did.

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl, and heat a frying pan with a little olive oil and butter. When it’s medium-hot, add the mixture and shake the pan to make sure the potatoes are flat.

Here’s another ‘secret trick’: use a spatula to move the mixture around a little, creating swirls and whirls at the bottom of the pan. This gets air into the tortilla and helps keep it nice and light.

When the bottom is cooked and the top starts to cook, it’s time to flip. No fear. No fear.

No fear.

No. Fear.

Stop hyperventilating, you’re going to be fine.

Invert a plate over the pan, and quickly and with a fluid and confident flick – DO NOT CLOSE YOUR EYES – flip the tortilla over. It may be messy, but just roll with it. Apparently it’s all part of the fun, and you can reshape the thing anyway. Don’t wince. It’s going to be OK.

Use your spatula to make sure all the tortilla is actually in the pan, and round out the edges for the trademark tortilla look. When both sides are a beautiful golden brown, it’s ready to eat.

One of the great things about a good tortilla is that it’s great hot or cold. I served it with a green salad and tangy citrus vinaigrette, which cut through the creamy richness of the tortilla.

Enjoy!

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Fair Trade and Millennials

I came across this article today, and was intrigued. It quotes this NPR piece from earlier this week, which (full disclosure) discusses the findings of a Hersheys-funded survey.

In essence, millennials (the generation born between 1980 and 1996) don’t practice what they preach when it comes to ethical consumption. This is interesting for many reasons, not least of all because of the social media onslaught we’re responsible for, talking about the importance of buying goods that are handmade, organic, ethical, eco-friendly, recycled, etc etc. As it turns out, we may care more about being seen to talk about it than actually putting all that concern into action.

Let me add here, this isn’t altogether surprising. I care deeply about the story behind the goods I consume, and it bothers me that our electronics still can’t be sourced ethically, without harm to or loss of life. But I can’t afford to put that care into all aspects of my life, either because of practicality – no one makes ethical computers – price, or availability. So I’m typing this on a MacBook, despite the fact Apple has been accused of exploiting child and bonded labour in their Asian factories. They’re working on it, but progress is slow.  

In a survey of participants ages 18 to 35, millennials reported caring about ethical issues like environmental sustainability and social responsibility in chocolate production. But when choosing chocolate privately, these self-proclaimed ethical shoppers were all chocolate bark and no bite. (Sorry.) Most showed little preference for labels advertising ethical sourcing and instead preferred labels with ingredients they recognized — items like “chocolate” and “butter,” rather than “tertiary butylhydroquinone.”

We can’t see the survey itself, so we can’t see the wording, but let’s not presume to think ours is the only generation that’s ever cared about environmental sustainability and social responsibility. If you believe in climate change and know that we are responsible for most of the increases in greenhouse gases in recent decades, and that our thirst for faster and cheaper goods has led to a significant drain on the livelihoods of other humans, it’s only natural you’ll want to turn to goods that try to counteract that.

(Tertiart butylhydroquinone, by the way, is a preservative used with unsaturated vegetable oil and animal fat. Thank you, Wiki.)

Young hypothesized that millennials also set aside ethical concerns when choosing to indulge, despite a reputation in the food industry for caring about responsibly sourced food.

With funding from The Hershey Co., Young set out to test his hunch. First, the researchers conducted eight focus groups, each consisting of eight to 10 millennials. They found that younger millennials ages 18 to 20 expressed little concern about anything other than taste in their chocolate preferences. But older millennials expressed concern about whether chocolate was organic, fair trade, GMO-free and environmentally sustainable.

I’m guessing the older millennials are more likely to be those who absorb global news more often, read more, travel more, and likely also work in the countries producing the goods we consume. Information is the first of many steps to being able to do something about a situation you find oppressive, so this again is no surprise. I’m not discriminating against these high school/university groups either. I remember what I was like at that age. In between essay deadlines, parties, MUN meetings and just enjoying being young, how many of us set aside the time to go into the backstory of all the goods we consumed, how they were produced and the rights of those who made them?

Then the researchers presented another group of 214 millennials with unbranded, unpriced labels varying in traits — such as ingredients used, fat content, and ethical endorsement (for example, a label indicating Rainforest Alliance certification). Each millennial was asked to choose between side-by-side label comparisons of varying chocolate products — roughly 400 times. Most participants consistently paid attention to whether or not they could pronounce the ingredients in a bar, but only a small, socially conscious group — representing 14 percent of participants — showed strong preference for ethical labels.

The findings “confirmed what I thought,” says corporate sustainability specialist Sandra Rousseau from the University of Leuven, Belgium, who was not involved in the research. She cautions that the study disproportionately sampled college students but says the findings make sense. “You interview young people, and they tend to be quite aware of social issues and environmental issues. But if you push a bit harder, it’s a lot of talk, but not always action.”

That’s not to say that millennials are secretly truffle-munching, Nietzsche-reading nihilists.

Young says millennials are likely more concerned about ethics when buying goods that aren’t as indulgent as chocolate. Millennials still care more, he says, about ethical food production than older generations, who grew up before many of these issues were mainstream concerns.

Time to also remind ourselves that these younger groups are less likely to be employed full-time (especially in the samples the survey used, in the US), which makes their disposable income that much smaller than people my age, who are more likely to have a full-time job, and who can afford to implement their philosophy in their everyday lives.

This is by no means a defense of my generation, or a condemnation. I firmly believe that anything anyone does to consider the sources of our consumption, or to even think about why we buy certain things from certain companies or countries, is a step forward and more progress than we were making 30-40 years ago.

We can’t all afford to buy organic coffee, but if yours is drunk at home and not out of a disposable cup, that’s one less plastic-coated paper cup that will end up in the throat of a sea turtle.

Growing your own herbs at home cuts down on the carbon footprint of importing them from distant countries, who may not pay their farmers adequately, transported in climate-controlled freights.

Buying second-hand or vintage clothes can help reduce our dependency on sweat-shop labour.

See what I mean? It’s not all about going to the organic aisle, or being seen to do something. Who knows what these younger millennials do in their non chocolate-eating time to care about other people, or the planet?

There is a very important fact to consider here. The first Fairtrade coffee landed on supermarket shelves over 30 years ago (in the Netherlands via Mexico) – a number that nicely fits in with the millennial generation (defined as people born 1980-1996).

This means that for millennials, the concept of fair trade has been on the radar their entire lives. They came of age with the organic and local movement. Ethical buying is not an add-on, it’s not a marketing ploy, it’s an expectation.  And for many of them, the travails of coffee farmers have been well-documented.

What’s important to note is that this study shows that the millennial generation cares more than others about the social and environmental implications of our consumption. You could argue that caring alone isn’t going to do anything, but I’d say it’s enough.

Young university students who care grow up to become young, informed people who have the power to do something. I’d always rather err on the side of optimism here, rather than dismissiveness. Every generation looks down on the one following, and I’m probably more likely than most my age to do this; but let’s not ignore the potential of awareness and information-sharing to translate into more responsible decisions.

 

Recipe: Dukka-Marinated Chicken in Laffa, with Baba Ghanoush and Hummus

One of the great things about the weekend is taking the time out to do the lazy, relaxed activities you normally only treat yourself too. Like a morning spent strolling around the farmers market and enjoying a boozy brunch with a friend. Part of my swag from the market was an armful of beautiful fresh mint and parsley, and since I’ve been planning this meal for a few days, I thought I’d try it out this weekend.

I love fusion cuisine – no, really. I love the idea of finding a common ingredient, method or dish found across cultures, and combining that. I love the philosophy behind that, of breaking down the barriers between our cultures. Food can help you see how much we share, rather than what separates us.

Two of my favourite cuisines are Middle Eastern and Mediterranean, and I realise we’re talking about two continents now rather than countries but just go with it. I wanted to create something creamy, fresh and tasty, with layers of flavour.

I enjoy making my own spice mixes, since I find the remade ones contain far too much salt, or the balance isn’t to my taste. Dukka is an Egyptian spice mix, using roasted spices, nuts and herbs ground together. Everyone has their own recipe, but I really enjoy adding extra nuts to mine. I love the crunchiness you can get out of it.

Baba ghanoush is another classic but often ruined, I find, by too much tahini, and nowhere near enough smokiness. I took Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe (because he’s basically a genius) and adjusted it to my kitchen, patience and the availability of certain ingredients. I made the most of having a gas stove to do this, but you should use the grill setting on your oven if you don’t have one, rather than roasting the aubergines. It makes a huuuuuuge difference.

I then marinated some chicken breasts in a spiced yoghurt for around 24 hours. The longer you leave it of course, the juicier they’re going to get. I picked up some thick and fluffy laffa breads from the hummus place around the corner and made the two dips.

I also really love making a meal with lots of elements that can be combined in different ways. Open a packet of chips and those dips are suddenly a fantastic post-work snack. That chicken could easily be served cool with mayo in a sandwich. I did this. The cold chicken is also awesome in a cold salad, with an extra tablespoon (OK, a few tablespoons) of the baba ghanoush and as much rocket as you can stuff into your lunchbox. Yuuuuum

So anyway, here’s the recipe!

For the dukka chicken:

3 tbsp dukka spice mix*

2 medium sized chicken breasts (around 300g)

1 cup yoghurt

2 tsp sumac

1 tsp salt

1 tbsp oregano

2 tsp tahini*

Mix all the marinade ingredients together and season to taste. Add or adjust these ingredients as you like, then add the chicken. I sliced them into long thin strips, so they would be easy to assemble in a wrap, and also quick to cook. Leave to marinate in the fridge for at least an hour, and ideally overnight.

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Tahini:

Dry-roast a cup of sesame seeds in a frying pan, keeping them moving regularly to avoid them burning. When they’re a lovely golden brown, remove and add to your chopper or food processor. Pulse until the oil is released and the mixture comes together well, then slowly add good quality extra virgin olive oil in small portions until you get the consistency you like. Store in an airtight container, at room temperature. The toasting of the sesame seeds and the amount of oil are completely subjective. I like to take the seeds almost to the edge and keep the olive oil minimal, so I get a really well-rounded, bitter sesame flavour.

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Dukka: 

Dry-roast 1/2 cup nuts of your choice (I used a mixture of hazelnuts and pistachios), 1/2 cup coriander seeds, 1 tsp fennel seeds and 3 tbsp cumin seeds until fragrant. Remove and allow to cool slightly before pulsing with 1 tsp black peppercorns, 1 tsp dried mint leaves and 1/2 tsp salt. Then add the sesame seeds and store in an airtight container once cool.

Baba Ghanoush

Over a gas flame, grill two large aubergines, regularly turning them with tongs, or using the stalk as a handle. The best advice I was given about this step – “you’ll think the aubergines are done, because they’re soft and toasty. They’re not, keep going.” The only thing to be aware of is the open flame, and to not let one side overcook. I spent about 15 minutes grilling each aubergine.

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You could then wrap them – carefully, they’ll be burning hot and very soft! – in foil and bake them in a pre-heated oven (200C) for about 25 minutes, just to make sure they’re fantastically soft.

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Remove them from the wrappers, chop the flesh and allow the bitter juices to drain out, using a colander. Depending on how smoky you like the baba ghanoush, you could leave some of the charred skin on. I did! While the aubergine is draining, mix a handful of flatleaf parsley, 2 tbsp tahini, 3 cloves of garlic, a large handful of spearmint and 2 tsp salt in a food processor. Add the aubergines, and lemon juice to taste to balance out the flavours. Scoop into a bowl and add a small handful of mint leaves, thinly sliced.

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To make the sandwiches

The next day, toast laffa or a thick flatbread of your choice in a pan, and grill the chicken. The pan should be hot, and the chicken should sizzle as soon as it hits the pan. When you get beautiful dark brown char marks on your chicken, cook the other side.

Spread the laffa on your plate, and smooth a tablespoon of hummus and a tablespoon of baba ghanoush on your wrap. Using these as the base, layer the chicken on top in one layer, then add crumbled feta on top and any fresh herbs or salad leaves of your choosing. You could also add some more dukka mix or some nuts to give it a great textural contrast. Roll it up and enjoy!

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Cork-Board Tutorial

I’ve been collecting corks for a few years and have amassed a pretty impressive collection. Wine is nice, I make no apologies.

I use them to make cork-bards. They’re a great way to recycle corks, which have an unusually large carbon footprint owing to their disposal, rather than production. The tree yields a harvest every nine years, and originates in Portugal – that’s an incredible dependence on one natural source.

There are many alternatives around – from plastic to cork substitutes, as well as wine makers now opting for screw-tops. I have to admit to some snobbery here; I do look down on screw-top wine as inferior and plebby. I know that’s shallow and terrible but there it is.

Since cork is quite absorbent, and those in good bottles of wine have labels, pictures and country of origin stamped onto it, making a cork-board is a great way to reuse your old corks as well as make something functional (and pretty!).

Plus, everyone can see exactly how much wine you consume. Which is both good and bad! It’s also a fun souvenir of a trip – or many trips – you’ve taken and all the booze you’ve enjoyed with friends. I always ask restaurants I go to if I could have the cork from the bottles we drink, since they would otherwise end up in the regular bin, and there goes all that energy generated in making it.

All you need is a sharp craft knife, strong glue, a frame you like and enough corks to fit half the frame.

There are plenty of great antique markets here, and my neighbourhood in Budapest has a lot of art galleries. I’ve got a good selection of pretty frames I could use, and I got this ugly drawing of an ugly Hungarian, but with a frame I liked. It’s roughly A4-sized, and I needed about two handfuls of wine corks. I won’t tell you how long it took me to collect these, because you will judge me.

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The hardest part is cutting the corks, so I find that soaking them in a large bowl of water for at least half an hour makes that a lot easier.
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Once that’s done, use an old chopping board or place-mat to carefully cut the corks in half lengthwise. Slow and precise cuts with the craft knife make sure that the cuts are straight, and also keep your fingers safe.

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Arrange the corks on your board, and figure out how you’d like to place them. This was my initial placement, but as you can see there are too many labelled corks next to each other, so I wanted to space those out – and vary the patters of the labels too. In the middle, I’ve got two columns of sparking  wine corks. These were from my Galentine’s Day brunch.

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The corks will need to dry on order for them to stick, so once you’ve got an arrangement you like, just turn them cut side up and leave them to dry on a windowsill for a bit. Once they’re dry, squeeze the glue in a zigzag pattern along the middle and stick in place.

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Since the corks are different sizes, you’ll have a gap at the top of your columns. I just cut a blank cork widthways so that it would fit these gaps, and stuck them to the tops of these columns. If you want to make it look a little neater, you could of course fill the gaps anywhere you like.

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And that’s it! Leave it to dry overnight then hang it up and enjoy 🙂

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The ‘Betty’ Series by Michelle Holmes

Betty breathes in the sea air

Betty breathes in the sea air

I came across this beautiful series of black-thread embroidery by Michelle Holmes, a crafter based in the UK. Michelle has created a character Betty, who lives in the countryside, by the sea, enjoys gardening and crafts, and keeps chickens.

 

I began posting Betty illustrations a couple of years ago now. They are glimpses of Bett’s day to day ponderings to herself, random little or big thoughts in the moments between stuff.

Betty feeds the chickens

Betty feeds the chickens

The small, everyday details of her life are chronicled in individual pieces of embroidery which Michelle sells on Folksy.

There’s been an incredible wave of individuals returning to crafts to unwind, develop a new hobby and stimulate their creativity. I love discovering new ideas and artists like this.

Michelle’s work reminds me of the rural style of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, or Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea (two of the greatest books ever written about enjoying the simple pleasures of life).

Betty is like an imaginary friend. I draw inspiration for her from my grandma Doris, a childhood neighbour named Millicent and a character from a book named Lady Isabella Bird. Themes for Betty seem to be inspired by my week, but can also be quite random.

Betty feeds the chickens

Betty feeds the chickens

The pieces are also vintage-inspired (just take a look at that kitchen!) and there’s a real early 20th century feel about them, which transports you to a different time and place.

 

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Betty contemplates the day ahead whilst making a cup of tea

Betty looks forward to a stove top coffee

Betty looks forward to a stove top coffee

There’s something wonderful and meditative about documenting the simple, everyday activities like making a cup of tea, or gardening, that I really love. I’m completely mesmerised.

A good crop of Rhubarb, enough to make a pie for friends.

A good crop of rhubarb, enough to make a pie for friends

Michelle prepares landscapes and seascapes inspired by her travels to the British coast, and around Europe.

Betty spots something interesting on the horizon

Betty spots something interesting on the horizon

She also works with natural fabrics – jute, hemp, organic cotton – and in monochrome, adding to the elegant simplicity of her pieces. She adds details using hand-stitching, beading and applique.

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From Michelle’s studio

has a quiet moment

Betty has a quiet moment

Her work has been exhibited at various private collections, and the public collections at the Bankfield Museum, Halifax and the Platt Hall Museum of Costume and Textiles, in Manchester. She has exhibited work in the UK, Germany and the USA.

Betty catches up with friends

Betty catches up with friends

In 1994, she won the Best New Exhibitor Prize at the prestigious Chelsea Craft Fair and the Carroll Foundation Award.

Betty sets off on a journey as the clouds pass

Betty sets off on a journey as the clouds pass

Her work is featured in numerous publications and she has designed a range of cards and a magazine cover for Neiman Marcus, together with bed linen for Habitat. She also has a selection of work permanently on show at The Bluecoat Display Centre, Liverpool and Soma in Bristol.

Betty finds a sheltered spot....and was very pleased to see blue sky today

Betty finds a sheltered spot….and was very pleased to see blue sky today

A new pinafore in the making

A pinafore in the making

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Betty prepares for the arrival of Bees

Betty prepares for the arrival of bees