Category Archives: Travel

Adventures that involve visiting things rather than eating them

Sunday Smiles: A wee catch-up

Sunday SmilesAfter a wee breakSunday Smiles is back!  Well, sort of – I haven’t spent much time online in the last few weeks, so there aren’t any memes or random entries this week and it’s more of a little recap of what’s been happening since my last Sunday Smiles post.

Sunday Smiles (and the blog in general) will be back properly next week, but in the meantime, let’s go on what is essentially a little trip through my Instagram feed from the last few weeks:

  • So for a start, the world didn’t end (in case you hadn’t noticed).  Which is hardly surprising, but jolly good news nonetheless.

Good news indeed!  Also, free wine.

  • I mentioned that my mum and I went on a little jam-packed tour of NZ.  It was amazing.  To be honest, I’m still sort of processing everything that we saw.  I’ll go into more detail about various aspects of the trip in later Toothy’s Travels posts, but in the meantime, here a few photos:

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  • Just in case you live in a cave (with internet access) and weren’t aware, The Hobbit was released.  NZ is going all out – from banks

What about hobbits?  Are they welcome, too?

  • …To Auckland Airport.  I’ll be honest, I love it.  I also got to watch the Hobbit-themed Air New Zealand safety video on an actual aeroplane when we flew back up from Christchurch which was terribly exciting (even if it is rather silly and cringeworthy).

Guarding the… uhm… information desk.

  • Cherries are in season!!  My mum and I were able to get some straight from a producer when we were down in Central Otago, and they were so tasty.  Cherries are one of my favourite fruits but seem to be incredibly expensive here so I don’t think I’ll be eating very many this summer sadly.

CHERRIES!!!

  • Unfortunately, all holidays must come to an end, and after three wonderful weeks, my mum had to go back to Edinburgh.  We don’t know when we’ll next see each other, which is tough, but her departure was made a little easier by the fact that Kat arrived to visit for ten days (although sadly she leaves tomorrow) on her way to Australia, which was super exciting since I haven’t seen her since February.

Kat arrived, and so did the sunshine.  Our tans mostly come courtesy of the Instagram filter though.

  • We went on a little Hogmanay wine tour around Waiheke Island which I think might well be the best thing to do on Hogmanay ever.  Plus it was sunny and warm and the scenery is beautiful.  Oh and the wine was good.  And I got photobombed by a bumblebee, which I didn’t notice until we got home and I looked at the photos properly.

Bumblebee photobomb!

  • We watched The Hobbit, which was super exciting since we were in actual NZ (as opposed to not actual NZ…).  Have you seen it?  What did you think?  There were a few niggles and I’m not keen on the high frame rate and 3D thing – they seemed a little gimmicky to me and I’m not really sure what they actually added to the film – but overall, I loved it.

There was (good) wine involved.  And a cheese platter.  That's right – a cinema with cheese platters.

  • Having watched The Hobbit and re-watched the Lord of the Rings films, we had a bit of a geek-out and went to… Hobbiton!  I’ll write more about it in a future post, but suffice to say, it was a marvellous day out.

The ubiquitous Hobbiton shot.  Anybody home?

  • And finally, I’d just like to share this hilarious little gecko* that was just chilling out in his display case at Auckland Museum when we visited.  I think it sums up the wonderful NZ attitude pretty well.

What's up, bru?

What made you smile this week?

*So… I got so distracted by the actual gecko and its little pose that I forgot to note the actual species…  I think it might be a Northland green gecko (Naultinus grayii), but I’m not 100% sure about that.

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Watching the All Blacks!

Saturday was a day of much excitement – not only was it World Gin Day (which involved Gin & Tonic scones), but I went to an All Blacks game!  I watched the All Blacks play in real life for the first time ever!  And at Eden Park, no less – scene of their victory in the World Cup (we’ll just skip over the details of who they beat, ahem…).  I’ve wanted to see the All Blacks play in real life for as long as I can remember, so this really was a big deal for me.  It was also the perfect occasion to finally bankrupt myself buy an All Blacks shirt, which was quite an emotional undertaking, for personal reasons that I won’t go into.

The game was the first of three test matches that the All Blacks are playing against Ireland over the next few weeks, so not a particularly important game, but I wasn’t particularly bothered about that.  Since it wasn’t an important game, I don’t really think that many Ireland supporters would have flown over for the matches (since you know, it’s the other side of the world and a little expensive to do so), so I was pleasantly surprised by the number of Ireland supporters that were at the game – I had no idea that there were so many Irish here in Auckland.  The game itself wasn’t the most nail-biting rugby I’ve ever watched, and with a final score of 42-10 (to the All Blacks) it wasn’t exactly a case of not knowing who would win until the very end, but it wasn’t bad rugby and Ireland weren’t exactly pushovers.  My general excitement at just being there more than made up for it anyway.

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I really like Eden Park as a stadium.  We had seats in the terraces in one of the corners behind the try line, so we got drizzled on a bit, but we were fairly close to the pitch (which is always good), and I think the stadium itself is more or less square, which makes the pitch really wide and gives the impression that the opposite posts aren’t actually that far away.  The only thing that I found a little disappointing was the haka, the notorious Māori dance that the All Blacks do before every match to scare the crap out of welcome their opponents.  This was probably the part that I was most looking forward to.  We were conveniently placed so that the All Blacks were facing us when they did the haka, so we could see what was going on, and they transmit close-ups on the big screens around the stadium (which I imagine is what is being televised), but they don’t seem to have microphones that pick up the sound and transmit it around the stadium.  The haka is significantly less impressive if you can barely hear it.  And I know that the haka is for the “benefit” of the opposing team rather than the spectators, but it’s such an integral part of watching the All Blacks on TV that it seems a shame to lose most of the effect when watching in real life (on the other hand, perhaps having the haka booming around the PA system of the stadium would be a little too terrifying…).

More haka

If you’re a rugby fan and ever visit Auckland, I’d definitely recommend checking to see if your trip coincides with any All Blacks games – just the experience of watching the All Blacks play at Eden Park is totally worth it.  I’m afraid I can’t give you any information on acquiring tickets because somebody else organised that.  You can travel by train to Eden Park from Britomart (the train station at the bottom of Queen St) and back again for free with your match tickets.  I’m not sure if this is also the case for other train routes in Auckland since we left from Britomart.

Enjoy the rest of your day, wherever you are in the world!

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Feijoa & hazelnut muffins

One of the things that I love most about moving to a new country is discovering new fruit and vegetables.  I’ve spent the last six weeks enthusiastically discovering the feijoa, a fruit which is completely new to me.  Feijoas aren’t actually native to New Zealand – they originate from Brazil* – but they seem to grow very well here and are very popular and many people seem to have feijoa trees in their gardens.  I read somewhere that they are known as pineapple guavas in the rest of the world, but I’m not sure what parts of the world that would be, since I’ve never seen them anywhere else.  And nor have any of the other international students in the lab, including the South Americans.  Have you ever come across them before?

Feijoas fall off the tree when they are ready to eat – how convenient is that?  The flesh is quite firm, with a texture that reminds me a little of a grainy pear, but more pleasant, and the pulp bit in the middle is well… rather pulpy.  I’m terrible at descriptions (in case you hadn’t realised), and I’ve been struggling to describe the flavour, but I’ll do my best.  It’s like a slightly sweeter version of an apple, but with a subtle hint of strawberry.  Which I realise sounds a little odd, but I think that’s the closest that I can get (I would make such an appalling oenologist).  They’re utterly delicious.  To eat them, you cut them in half and scoop out the flesh and pulp, leaving the skin.  You can also bake and cook with them, so I borrowed a feijoa cookbook from the library (because I’m super cool like that) and decided to make muffins.

The only problem with feijoas is that they’re only in season from the beginning of April until the end of May, so you have to make the most of them whilst you can!  I actually made these muffins with the very last feijoas of the season, as I’ve been too busy concentrating on eating them fresh for the last six weeks.  Luckily, feijoas are supposed to freeze very well, so I’ve got some in the freezer to bake with over winter.  Perhaps that’s the best tactic – eat them fresh whilst you can, then bake with the frozen ones when you can no longer eat them fresh!  As feijoa season is only just coming to a close, I’m submitting these feijoa and hazelnut muffins to the Simple and in Season blog event for May, which is celebrating its first birthday this month!  The blog event was started by Ren at Fabulicious Food and is being hosted by Urvashi over at The Botanical Baker this month.

The muffins have a surprise dollop of cream cheese in the middle, similar in concept to the pumpkin and cream cheese muffins that I made a while ago, but the cream cheese didn’t hold its shape and sort of melted into the muffin, leaving a small cavity in the middle of the muffin (see the photo at the bottom of the post).  I’m not sure why it happened – perhaps the cream cheese here is different, or perhaps the oven was too hot – and whilst they were very tasty with the tartness of the cream cheese perfectly cutting through the sweetness of the feijoa, it looks a bit odd when you bite into the muffins and there’s a hole in the middle.  I made a couple without the cream cheese in the middle and they were just as delicious, so I’d say that the cream cheese centre is optional (though recommended if you can deal with them being slightly less presentable).  The flavour of the feijoas really permeates the muffins, which I love – you can taste their subtle sweetness, but it’s not overwhelming – and I also love the slightly crunchy topping.  I’m totally into hazelnuts at the moment, so I substituted them in for the walnuts that were in the original recipe, and the flavours worked wonderfully together.  So if you ever happen across some feijoas and aren’t sure what to do with them, I’d strongly suggest tasting one and then baking these muffins!

Feijoa & hazelnut muffins

Makes 13-14 muffins
Adapted from The Feijoa Recipe Book

To toast the hazelnuts, spread them out on a baking tray, place in an oven pre-heated to 180°C and roast for 10 min, until they smell toasty (be sure to keep an eye on them so they don’t burn).  Rub the hazelnuts in a clean tea towel to remove most of the skins, and allow to cool fully before using.  The cream cheese filling is optional, though I do recommend it if you can deal with having a little cavity in the middle of your muffins.  Frozen feijoas would work well for this recipe, although thaw them out before using.

Ingredients

350g feijoas
230g all-purpose flour
100g caster sugar
3 rounded tsp baking powder
¾ tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch of salt
40g unsalted butter
1 egg
185ml milk
½ tsp vanilla extract

Cream cheese filling (optional):
120g cream cheese
40g icing sugar

Topping:
40g toasted hazelnuts
60g soft brown sugar
½ tsp ground cinnamon

Directions

1.  Line a muffin tin with 14 liners or set out 14 silicone liners on a baking tray.  Pre-heat the oven to fan 190°C.

2.  Prepare the cream cheese filling in a small bowl by whisking the cream cheese with the icing sugar until smooth.  Set aside.

3.  Peel the feijoas and finely chop them (the pulp can make this a bit fiddly.  They don’t have to look presentable though, so don’t worry too much as long as they’re in small pieces).  Set aside.

4.  Sift the flour, caster sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and salt into a large bowl.  Stir together.

5.  Melt the butter in a small saucepan on low heat or in the microwave.  Lightly beat the egg in a medium-sized bowl.  Add the milk and vanilla extract and mix well.

6.  Add the wet ingredients and the melted butter to the dry ingredients and fold together with a large metal spoon until just combined (the batter should still be a bit lumpy, with some flour still visible).  Gently fold in the chopped feijoas.

7.  Transfer about half a tablespoon of batter to each muffin liner or mould (make sure that the batter covers the bottom, but that there is still enough left to cover the cream cheese layer).  Add a dollop of the cream cheese mixture in each liner on top of the feijoa layer.  Split the remaining feijoa batter between the liners, making sure to completely cover the cream cheese layer.  For the topping, mix the brown sugar and cinnamon together in a ramekin.  Roughly chop the hazelnuts and sprinkle over the muffins, followed by the cinnamon sugar.

8.  Bake for 20-25 mins until golden and well risen.  Allow to cool in the tins for a few minutes before turning out onto a wire rack to cool.

Enjoy!

* I have also read that feijoas originate in Chile.  But since the Chilean in our lab says she’s never heard of or seen them in Chile, I’m rather more inclined to believe that they’re from Brazil.  The word “feijoa” also looks more Portuguese than Spanish to me (though I am neither a linguist nor an etymologist).

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Toothy’s Travels – Auckland: Auckland Zoo

You may not be too surprised to hear that I love zoos and aquariums.  I basically just turn into a super-geeky big kid (because I totally act like an adult the rest of the time, ahem).  So I didn’t hesitate for even a millisecond when one of my friends asked if I wanted to go to Auckland Zoo…  We were incredibly lucky with the weather – it was sunny and fairly warm all day – perfect for a day of wandering outside discovering a new zoo!

Auckland Zoo has a Kiwi House, which I was totally excited about.  I hadn’t ever seen a kiwi before (unsurprisingly, since they’re endangered, don’t do terribly well in cities and are most active at night…  Oh and also endemic to NZ) and they’re only the national bird and all…  Let me tell you – they’re adorable.  And bigger than I was expecting.  I thought they were about the size of your fist, but no, North Island brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli) are a bit bigger than a chicken.  I’ve clearly only been looking at photos of kiwi chicks (which I think should be called kiwilets – how cute does that sound?).  Woops.  To be fair, birds aren’t really my area of zoological expertise.  Aaanyway, so kiwi may be super-cute, but they’re also super-difficult to get a photo of because most of the kiwi display is darker than my camera could pick up.  The only part where there’s enough light for a photo is right up against the viewing window, and one of the kiwi spent the longest time foraging with great enthusiasm just outside the zone of enough light.  So I have about 20 photos of some leaves surrounded by blackness, but if you edit them to within an inch of their lives, you come out with this:

Not my best ever photo, but oh my gosh it’s a real live kiwi in the middle of foraging! it’s better than the original which really just looks like some leaves and a lot of black.  It’s also rather better than the one photo that I did manage to get whilst the kiwi ventured into the zone of enough light for photos.  This is what a kiwi’s backside looks like, in case you’ve ever wondered:

Along with the excellently-done part all about native New Zealand fauna, parts of the rest of the zoo are also themed – the African savannah, the primates, Australian fauna and the tropics.  Some of the animals seemed a bit randomly placed though, such as the otters that seem to be in the primate section, and the red pandas, of which there are two, but not particularly near to each other.  There might be a logic to that, but it escapes me.  Most of the paths to get around are twisty, so not ideal if you want to get anywhere quickly since there aren’t a lot of direct routes, but zoos are all about sauntering along anyway.  And if you are in a slight rush to get to, say, the penguin feeding, it’s fairly easy to just knock a few small kids out of your way bypass those that are in less of a hurry.

If you’re wondering why those penguins look a little bit blue-ish, that’s because they’re actually blue.  Blue penguins, I know – I totally didn’t know they existed either, but how super-cute and adorable are they?  I’d really like one as a pet, or even two so that they could keep each other company.  Too bad that’s totally illegal.  Anyway, these little blue penguins (Eudyptula minor) or korora to give them their Māori name, are found in New Zealand.  And just like all penguins, they’re hilarious to watch.  These ones are also all rescue penguins, so a couple of them only have one flipper (which only gives them difficulties when trying to dive, but otherwise doesn’t affect them too badly in captivity.  Obviously in the wild they’d probably get munched on by something pretty quickly…).

The twisty nature of the paths does make it a little difficult to find your way around, so I would definitely recommend getting hold of a map if you want to make sure that you see everything.  Apparently you have to pay for maps, but you can download one for free from the zoo’s website before you go if you’re feeling stingey.  It’s also worth checking which animals are being fed on the day that you’re there – the keepers talk about the animals whilst they feed them.  And the giraffe feeding is a particular treat – it’s actually the visitors that do the feeding (though we watched this from afar because the concentration of small children in the queue was a little too high for us to handle).  Talking of feeding, there is a café on site (called Darwin’s which, can I just say, is a great name) that sells sandwiches, pies, burgers, etc., but you can also bring a packed lunch since there are various grassy areas around the zoo where you could have a picnic.

Anyway, enough babbling from me – photos are much more interesting:

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Wherever you are, enjoy the rest of your day!

PS – I had initially intended to post this last Tuesday, but since I took 400 quite a few photos, it’s taken me a while to sort through them…  I told you I get over-enthusiastic about zoos.

PPS – Any OCD scientists out there that are upset that the binomial species names in the slideshow captions aren’t italicised…  It stresses me out, too.  I tried really hard but just couldn’t get it to work.

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Anzac Day

Today (the 25th of April) is Anzac Day, the New Zealand (and Australian) equivalent to Remembrance Day in the UK or the Armistice in France.  97 years ago today the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed in Gallipoli at dawn, which marked the start of a campaign that, like so many of the campaigns of WWI led to huge losses of life on both sides.

Since WWII, Anzac Day is associated with remembering all those who have lost their lives in military service for their country.  The commemorations began this past weekend with a projection of a 12-minute film of archival footage and photographs from the 24th New Zealand Infantry Battalion which was established during WWII, and served in North Africa, Greece and Italy.  The film was dedicated to the 522 men who lost their lives serving in the battalion between 1940-1945, and was shown on Saturday and Sunday evening, projected onto the walls of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, which was lit in poppy red for the occasion.

On Anzac Day itself, there is an outdoor Dawn Service held at the Auckland Cenotaph, which is just in front of the museum.  I think that there are Dawn Services all across NZ (and Australia), but Auckland is the largest in the country, and I think it is also televised.  This service is very much a military affair, with the flags of the three Forces flying on the Cenotaph.  After the service, the little paper poppies that many people choose to wear are then pinned to crosses or just lain on the Cenotaph in memory of family members who have served.  Later in the morning there is also a Civic Service where the military flags are replaced by the New Zealand and Australian flags and the Union Jack (because the ANZAC forces fought under the Union Jack), and wreaths are laid by community groups, religious groups, the various forces and many foreign representatives.  Veterans are present at both services, and march alongside currently serving members of the NZ military, and this year there were members of the Australian Navy present as well.  Throughout the day the museum is open to the public for free, and there are various tours through the war memorial galleries.

A friend and I decided to go to the Dawn Service, and we duly turned up at 5am in order to get a fairly good view of the proceedings, which started at around 5:30am.  Despite the horrific time at which I had to roll out of bed (I’m not really a morning person), it was definitely worth it – I found the service very moving – and we actually spent most of the day at the museum.  I don’t have any links to the NZ or Australian military whatsoever, but I wanted to go partially because I don’t really know anything about the ANZAC forces, and partially because it is an important occasion in the country that is now my home, but also as a mark of respect to those who sacrificed their lives in wars (both WWI and WWII) that didn’t really directly affect NZ (as far as I can tell).  These young men died so dreadfully far from home, fighting for the freedom that I have always had the luxury of enjoying without question, and which I often take for granted.  I apologise if this isn’t all that coherent (I was up at 4am after all…) but I hope you understand what I’m trying to say.  I’ve rambled more than enough by this point, so I’ll finish off this post with various photos from the memorial film projection over the weekend and today’s commemorations.

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Lest we forget.

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Toothy’s Travels – Auckland: Volvo Ocean Race stopover

I have some exciting news: I finally have internet at home!  Which means that posting no longer involves covert blogging from my desk in the lab (blogging covertly in the sense that all the text was written and photos edited at home and I just had to upload them once connected to the internet – just to reassure my mum that I haven’t been spending all the time at my desk blogging instead of working hard.  Far from it.  Twitter on the other hand…  Kidding!  Sort of.).  I actually can’t think of a way of smoothly linking my new internet-at-home situation to the rest of this post, so in an attempt to distract you from that, here’s a photo of the Sky Tower, just in case I haven’t posted enough of them recently.  It was taken two Sundays ago from the Viaduct Harbour whilst waiting for some of the Volvo Ocean Race competitors to arrive.

As you can see, the weather was rather dismal.  Pretty similar to the weather we’ve been having since Monday actually (and due to continue until the end of the week – joy).  It wasn’t particularly cold (well, in comparison to Scotland anyway), but it was windy and drizzly and just a bit miserable.  So why, you might ask, would I voluntarily go and loiter in the harbour for several hours?

I’ve already given the answer away, but in case you are just skim-reading and missed it: the Volvo Ocean Race, that’s why.  I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really aware of it before moving to Auckland, so for those of you in the same boat (badum-tschhhhh), it’s a gruelling round-the-world crewed monohull race consisting of 9 legs, which departed from Alicante, Spain in October 2011 and is expected to finish in early July 2012 in Galway, Ireland, covering a total of over 39,000 nautical miles (over 72,000 km).  There are six yachts competing this year.

The race’s Auckland stopover was from the 8th to 18th of March 2012, between the 4th and 5th legs of the race, and the Viaduct Harbour was transformed into a Race Village for the duration.  Although the boats were expected to arrive on the 8th, most of them only arrived on the 11th on account of bad weather, after spending and exhausting 20 days at sea (!) and sailing well over the expected 5,220 nautical miles (9,667 km) from Sanya in China.  I completely missed the news about the delayed arrival of the yachts, so when I wondered down to the Viaduct Harbour on Sunday 11th to go see the boats (that I thought had already arrived), I managed to accidentally time my arrival perfectly with that of the PUMA yacht, which claimed 2nd place for the leg.  I wandered around (read: took lots of photos of boats and the Sky Tower when it was vaguely visible) waiting for the arrival of the next two yachts, which were battling it out for 3rd place: Telefónica and CAMPER, the Kiwi team.  Sadly CAMPER just missed out by 93 seconds – heart-breaking to watch, but they were enthusiastically welcomed back to NZ by everybody with a foghorn anyway (at least that’s what it sounded like).  In true NZ style, the 11-man crew of each yacht was given a Maori welcome, but I couldn’t get any decent photos of that because they had their backs turned to me (so inconsiderate).

The yachts spent a few days hauled out on the docks for maintenance and repairs.  I’m always fascinated to see boats out of the water – they always looks so impressive, if a little bizarre.  I made a detour via the Viaduct Harbour one evening on my way home from uni to see them – thankfully the weather was much more pleasant.  It was definitely pretty awe-inspiring to see these (multi-million dollar) state-of-the-art yachts that are at the forefront of nautical technological advances and design hauled up at such close range.

Each stopover includes an in-port race which counts towards the final results, and a Pro-Am race which doesn’t.  I wasn’t able to watch them, but I do know that CAMPER won the in-port race, much to the delight of the nation.  I also missed the start of the 5th leg on Sunday 18th (thanks to the time difference I was up until 6am following the Six Nations rugby – let’s not mention the results), which I would have liked to see.  The Volvo Ocean Race takes place every four years and the stopovers change, so we’ll see if I ever happen to be in a stopover town when the race is passing through at some point in the future.

The next Volvo Ocean Race stopover is in Itajaí, Brazil, with the yachts expected to arrive on the 4th of April, after sailing at least 6,705 nautical miles (12,418 km), making it the longest leg of the whole race.  If you happen to be in Itajaí around then, I’d definitely recommend going to watch the arrival if you can!

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Wherever you are, enjoy the rest of your day!

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What self-respecting parade isn’t complete without a nod to the Potato Famine?

Saturday was St Patrick’s Day – when a large proportion of the Western world pretends to be Irish (aside from those who actually are Irish, obviously), and most of the rest of the world probably spends the day being confused as to what the Hell is going on.  I think Auckland is the first place that I’ve lived where St Patrick’s Day is such a huge celebration – there is an annual St Patrick’s Festival, which included a St Patrick’s Day parade on Saturday morning that I went to see.

This is the first big event that I’ve been to here in New Zealand, and I was (pleasantly) astounded by how chilled out the whole thing was.  The parade went down Queen St (the main street in Auckland’s CBD) and then down to the Viaduct Harbour, which is currently set up as the Volvo Ocean Race Auckland stopover Race Village (more about that in my next blog post…).  I went to the Farmers’ Market before the parade, but was meeting a friend near the start of the parade, so I had to walk most of the length of Queen St just before the parade started.  Considering that Auckland is the largest city in NZ (about ⅓ of the country’s population live here), I was expecting barriers everywhere, severe traffic disruptions and lots of police officers.  The reality was much more pleasant and felt more like a small town parade (I was reminded a little of the Kate Kennedy Procession in St Andrews) – there was not a single barrier to keep the crowd apart from the parade, the traffic was stopped from going down Queen St all of two minutes before the parade got underway and I saw a grand total of 4 police officers the whole length of Queen St.  What a wonderful relaxed attitude!!

The parade itself was good fun to watch.  I think I’d describe it as a little thrown-together, but not in a bad way.  There were four pipe bands spread throughout the parade (waking up to the sound of the bands practicing and warming up about 2h before the start of the parade confused me a lot), various Irish fiddle musicians and groups being towed on floats, and a procession of the crests of all the Irish counties.  Nothing unusual there, but there were also a few groups whose main reason for participating seemed to be that they were just wearing green.  Various Irish pubs were also represented, and in the middle of all of that the Honorary Consul General of Ireland in a vintage car, along with a random Asian drumming/dancing group (wearing leprechaun hats, which clearly made them Irish).  Oh, and the Team New Zealand cheerleading team.  I genuinely have no idea why they were there – I’m not aware that cheerleading is a huge thing in Ireland, and they weren’t even dressed in green.  My personal favourite part of the parade was a group of children carrying sacks of potatoes followed by a carriage of people all in green with ginger wigs – because stereotyping is underrated, clearly.  The Kiwis seem to have a general disregard for being incredibly PC, which I must admit I’m a huge fan of – it’s wonderfully refreshing!  The parade drew to a close with St Patrick blessing everybody, surrounded by snakes and leprechauns (St Patrick was down with the leprechauns, don’t you know).  Amusingly, the float with St Patrick was pulled by a Guinness-branded car – Ireland in an incredibly stereotyped nutshell?

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Wherever you are in the world, I hope you all had an excellent St Patrick’s Day!

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Toothy’s Travels – New Zealand: Kiwi quirks, eh!

I’ve been in New Zealand for about two and a half weeks now, and you might have been expecting lots of posts about all the really exciting things that I’ve done.  Except that I haven’t really done a lot of visiting of things, and have been focussed on finding my way around, finding somewhere to live (minor detail), sorting out my research project (you know, the reason I’m here), and all the various other random administrative faff that moving and starting at a new university entail.  Oh, and attempting to make friends.  But I’ve made a bit of progress – I’ve explored quite a bit of central Auckland (see one of the many views from the harbour below), I’ve managed to find a flat, which I get the keys for tomorrow; I have a (perhaps slightly over-ambitious) research topic, which I’m now trying to iron out the details of; I’ve sorted out a phone, bank account, etc.; I’ve been given a desk in the postgrad lab; my swipe card to get into the Biology buildings finally arrived yesterday afternoon (although it doesn’t appear to work – sorting that out is today’s ongoing adventure); and well, I’m working on the friends thing (I’ll have a kitchen from tomorrow.  I suspect that the power of cake will help significantly with that one).  Until writing all of that out, I hadn’t quite realised how much I’ve managed to get done.  I’m fairly proud of myself actually!  So, as of today I’m going to end the blog mini-hiatus that seems to have imposed itself for most of the month of February and get back to blogging more or less regularly.

Actually, here’s a little secret (don’t judge me too much): I’ve always been slightly fascinated by the 29th of February , a date that only exists every four years.  When I was younger, my fascination revolved around the people born on this funny quirk of a day – imagine only being able to celebrate your birthday every four years!  I obviously valued the really important things in life…  Now though, I just think of it as a bit of a peculiar yet special day.  I quite like February the 29th actually, because it’s a bit of a quirky day, but there’s a very logical and scientific reason for it existing.

So because today is a bit of a quirky day (in case you think I’ve got the date wrong – it’s already the 29th in my timezone), I thought I’d write a post about a few of the quirks that I’ve come across in the process of settling into my new country (some endearing, some baffling).  Well, quirks might not be quite the right work, more the confusing little differences that I’ve noticed:

The curious lack of ovens – Whilst flat-hunting, I looked at a lot of flats online.  Now I know that space is at a premium in the centre of any city, so I wasn’t expecting huge kitchens, but I was surprised at the number of flats (perhaps around half) that didn’t have an oven.  Much to my bafflement, a large proportion of these oven-less flats did, however, have a dishwasher.  Now, up until now I have always considered an oven as a basic requirement, and a dishwasher as a luxury.  Especially in a small 1-person flat.  So how much washing up does a single oven-less Kiwi create?! And how do they bake cakes?

The sun, part I – I have an excellent sense of direction, but I rely heavily (and unconsciously) on the sun.  Which is fine in the Northern hemisphere which I’m used to, but in the Southern hemisphere the sun is suddenly in the wrong place.  Even though I knew this would happen, I kept going in the wrong direction by accident the first few days that I was here.  At least Auckland has the Sky Tower, which is remarkably handy for navigation.  (My previous encounter with finding directions in the Southern hemisphere was when I was doing boat work in South Africa.  That was seriously disorienting!!)  And my brain is slowly getting used to this whole sun-being-in-the-North thing.

The sun, part II – As well as being in the wrong place (for me), the sun is also deceptively strong.  Even though I read about it in all the guidebooks before I came, it still surprised me.  I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as in Australia, but it’s definitely much stronger than during summer in the Northern hemisphere.  Despite applying sunscreen, I’ve already managed to acquire a super-attractive t-shirt tan just from walking for 20 minutes down the partially-shaded main street in search of lunch the other day.  Luckily I don’t tend to burn easily, but if I did I definitely would have been caught out, even with sunscreen.

Seasonal confusion – It’s summer going into autumn here, which still confuses me a little, mostly in terms of trying to work out what fruit and vegetables are actually in season.  Seeing blueberries at the farmers’ market on Saturday briefly confused me until I realised that even though my automatic reaction was to consider blueberries in February a food crime, they’re actually in season here.  I need to find myself a NZ-specific chart of seasonal foods.   The trees still have all their leaves, too, which feels odd for February.  I also keep getting a surprise when I realise that it’s still daylight at 7pm, and then I remember that it’s summer…

Pedestrian crossings – The sound effects of the pedestrian crossings still make me feel like I’ve just accidentally wandered into some sort of computer game involving space, rockets and lasers shooting at aliens.  The green man is also animated and walks – in case you forget how to cross a road?  Or to remind people not to do alien impressions because of the accompanying sound effects?

The fauna – Auckland is much greener than I was expecting, and dotted with little parks and public spaces.  There’s a park just next to the university which has some beautiful oak trees (complete with acorns as it’s late summer) which lull me into a false sense of familiarity.  And then I turn the corner and there’s a palm tree, or other tropical fauna.  Occasionally you see a fir tree and a palm tree next to each other – I’m still finding that rather surreal.  Then of course there are all the plants and flowers that I’ve never seen before.

Talking Kiwis – As in the people, not the fruit or the bird, and this is in the endearing category (before anybody gets upset).  I don’t find the Kiwi accent particularly hard to understand, even though they do funny things to some of their vowels, but some of the slang is still throwing me a bit.  Some of it is very much British, and some of it really isn’t (jandals = flip-flops, and one I learned yesterday, chilly, short for chilly bin = cooler box).  The general rule seems that if you can shorten a word or phrase into a minimal number of syllables, then go for it.  A lot of Kiwis also seem to add “eh!” onto the end of sentences for no apparent reason, whether or not it’s actually a question.  I have a tendency to pick up accents and colloquialisms, so it’s only a matter of time before my accent starts changing (seriously, when I told Keely that I was moving to NZ, her first reaction was “oh, your accent is screwed…  Can we Skype lots – I want to hear it!”).

Kiwi attitude – Everybody is so friendly and relaxed.  Chilled.  I don’t know if it’s because it’s still summer, but the pace of life seems a little slower here.  Perhaps that sounds a little odd, but I mean that people seem to take the time to be outside, to stop for a coffee on the terrace, to enjoy an ice-cream, to go for a walk.  Studying is obviously important, but life and the great outdoors are important, too.  I could get used to that (whilst studying hard, obviously, don’t worry Maman!).

On that note, I should probably get back to my desk, eh!

Enjoy the rest of your day, wherever you are!

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So it begins…

I’ve said all my goodbyes (with more than one resulting in a rather awkward-crying-on-public-transport situation) and this afternoon I’ll be beginning my slightly epic trip to New Zealand.  Epic in that it will take me 30 hours so I won’t arrive in Auckland until Saturday lunch time (NZ time – which is super late on Friday evening UK time).  Not epic in that I’m swimming there or something terribly sensational like that.

I thought I should procrastinate from packing by writing a blog post probably show some signs of life, so here are some of the things that I’m super excited about:

Long-haul flights – I love flying (let’s just skip over the whole environmental impact thing, ok?), but I’m a particular fan of long-haul.  I love that almost every airline has individual TV screens now, even in Economy, so you can choose what you want to watch (assuming you’re not stuck with the only faulty screen in the whole plane).  Except then there are too many options and I’m terribly indecisive…  I’m hoping The Muppets are on, but we’ll see.  I bet I end up watching a whole series of terrible films that I would never consider paying to go see at the cinema…

Being an expat again – Aside from the last four years of university, I’ve spent my whole life as an expat.  As strange as it may sound, I feel much more at home whilst living abroad than when living in the UK, one of my “home countries”.  I’ve missed being an expat so much, and I can’t wait to discover a new country, new customs and a new culture!!

New foods – I feel this is pretty self-explanatory – I write a food blog, so of course I’m excited about the prospect of new foods!  I can’t wait to discover new fruits and fish and just generally new dishes…  The food section was obviously the very first section that I read when I acquired my guide book.  I have my priorities right, don’t you know.

Being a student again – I only graduated in June, but in the intervening months I’ve really missed being a student.  As sad as it may sound, I’m rather excited about all the reading and learning that I’m going to have to do (not so much the stats that will inevitably rear their ugly heads).  I think I need to get out more…

The scenery – NZ just looks utterly stunning in all the photos and documentaries I’ve seen.  The dramatically beautiful landscapes remind me very much of Norway.  The visa in my passport informs me that I’m there to study, but I hope that I’ll be able to visit some of NZ and see all the beauty for myself.  You can probably expect some Toothy’s Travels posts in the nearish future…

Rugby – I’ve wanted to see the All Blacks play for a long time (in real life).  Even if they beat France at the World Cup…  So fingers crossed that that happens!  I’m also hoping that the general love of rugby that seems to permeate across the country means that the 6 Nations matches are shown on TV.

Middle Earth – I’m quite enthusiastic about Lord of the Rings (I love both the books and the films), so going to NZ is totally exciting, even if Auckland wasn’t exactly the centre of filming.  Oh, you were under the illusion that I’m ultra cool?  Oh…  Well, that’s that illusion dispelled then.  Bonus points to anyone who spotted the LOTR reference in the title of this post, although I’d like to reassure you that I have no intention whatsoever of fighting orcs.  Or fighting anything for that matter.

NZ wine – I’m really not familiar with NZ wine, so I’m excited to discover it properly (because as we know, I’m quite partial to wine…), but whenever I say that to friends who actually know about wine they generally give me a pitying look that effectively says “good luck with that…”  Doesn’t bode too well…  I’m hoping that it’s just a case of NZ keeping its best wines for the domestic market and exporting the not-so-great stuff.  Any suggestions for wines to taste/vineyards to visit are obviously welcome.

And in the interest of balance (I seem to have come over all BBC), here are a few things that I’m rather less excited about, but still turning into positives:

The time difference – NZ is currently 13 hours ahead of the UK, so the impending jet-lag will probably be marvellous fun to deal with, I’m sure…  The difference will make watching the 6 Nations rather interesting – I can’t wait for the matches that are on at 4am on a Monday morning…  At least I won’t be late for wherever I’m supposed to be/whatever I’m supposed to be doing on said Mondays.  No promises for the rest of the week though.

Three winters in a row – It’s the end of the summer in NZ, so after winter in Europe, I’ll get winter in NZ, followed by winter in Europe again at the end of my course.  Planning fail.  Though on the plus side, winter = mulled wine…  And I feel NZ winters sound rather preferable to European winters.  In fact, they’re probably better than Scottish summers.

Downton Abbey – The problem with moving around is that TV series are always at different stages in different countries, so I don’t usually get too into them.  I’m totally addicted to Downton Abbey though – I rather hope that the series has made it to NZ and that it’s not too behind either.  Once again, I clearly have my priorities in the right place…

I don’t have anywhere to live (yet) – Because I won’t know exactly what I’ll be doing until I’ve met my supervisor (hopefully next week), I don’t know whether I’ll be based in Auckland or Leigh…  So I haven’t been able to look for anywhere to live yet.  Panic panic.  But I do have two weeks’ temporary accommodation organised when I arrive, so at least I won’t have to sleep under a bridge (for now).  Hopefully that will be enough time to find something decent…

So, on that wonderfully positive note, I’m off to Middle Earth New Zealand!  Exciting stuff!!  Needless to say, I’m not sure how much blogging will happen over the next few weeks as I sort out my living situation (minor detail) and settle in, but do bear with me!

Wherever you are, enjoy the rest of your day!

PS – Sorry for the lack of photos in this post.  I’m actually supposed to be packing, so ya…

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Toothy’s Travels – St Andrews: St Rule’s Tower

I briefly mentioned in my last post that I spent Friday and Saturday in St Andrews, which was my first trip back since the start of the academic year (the trip involving Kat’s killer whale birthday cake was still during the summer holidays).  It was great being back and I had a wonderful time (the puffer fish cake pops that Kat and I made will be making an appearance next Zoosday Tuesday – I hope you’re excited), but at the same time, it felt a bit strange not belonging there anymore.  I really miss St Andrews, and it makes me sad that it’s no longer my home.  I don’t really know anybody in Edinburgh and don’t really feel at home here, which probably makes me miss St Andrews even more.  As a result, my original post for today ended up being a little on the depressing side – I’m not sure what the blog post equivalent of sobbing is, but I think this one was pretty close.  You’ll be glad to know that I’m sparing you from reading that emotional mess and have decided to do a Toothy’s Travels post instead, since I haven’t done one in a while.  I’m keeping with the St Andrews theme though, and using some of the photos that I’ve amassed over the course of four years in St Andrews…

Until the Reformation, St Andrews was the religious centre of Scotland.  St Andrews Cathedral was Scotland’s largest medieval church, and was the seat of Scotland’s most prominent bishops and archbishops.  The site on which it was built had been a place of worship since the relics of Scotland’s patron saint, St Andrew, are said to have been brought there in the 8th century AD.  The Cathedral was sacked by the followers of John Knox in 1559 and is now in ruins, with only a few parts still standing, resulting in an instantly recognisable skyline consisting of the east gable (in the centre of the photo above) and St Rule’s Tower (the square tower on the right).

I’ll talk more about the Cathedral in a future post, but today I’m going to focus just on St Rule’s Tower, which was part of St Rule’s Church, the first church in an Augustinian priory.  It was probably built in around 1130, which means that it pre-dates the Cathedral.  The tower is one of the few parts within the Cathedral complex that is still standing, and I’m not sure why it wasn’t completely sacked and hasn’t fallen into ruin.  Perhaps the reformers decided that it would make a useful watchtower or something.  Whatever the reason, it is still standing today, and you can climb it (you can buy the token required to get into the tower from the Cathedral visitor centre).

The tower is 33m high, so there is an uninterrupted panoramic view of St Andrews and its surroundings from the top.  I think it’s definitely worth a climb to see how the town is laid out.  It gives a completely different view of St Andrews and I think it’s fascinating.  There’s a selection of views from the top in the slideshow below.  Seeing the three main streets in the centre of town all lead to the Cathedral really shows how important the Cathedral once was.  West Sands stretches so much further than you expect it to, as do the various golf courses.  If you’re a first-time visitor to St Andrews, the view gives you a good feel for the lay-out of the town.  If you live in St Andrews or know the town well, it’s so interesting to see it from a different perspective and pick out all your usual haunts and favourite places.  I climbed St Rule’s Tower twice during my four years in St Andrews, and both times I was surprised at how funny it is to see the buildings that I was in and out of all the time as suddenly tiny.  I’m clearly easily fascinated…

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Whilst I would definitely recommend climbing St Rule’s Tower, I should mention that it does involve a fairly narrow spiral staircase used by people going both up and down (although I’ve never actually had to pass anybody on the staircase).  So if you’re claustrophobic or not able to climb up 33m worth of stairs without really having space to stop, giving the tower a miss might be a better idea…  Luckily, there’s plenty to explore within the Cathedral complex if you’re with people who do want to climb the tower.  If you’re there during Graduation Week at the end of June you can people-watch as loads of Graduates get their photo taken amongst the ruins (gosh, who would ever do such a thing as that…?).

Enjoy the rest of your day!

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