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The Year I Only Read Books Written by Women

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In 2017, I made only one resolution: to read books written solely by female authors. (To be fair, I did read 5 books written by men, but I feel that this in no way discounted the experience of sticking overwhelmingly with female company throughout the year, perhaps the contrary).

What prompted the decision was something I read (although I can’t for the life of me remember where, and it’s frustrating because this happens to me more often than I’d like) about women running the risk of viewing themselves in a certain (unfavourable) light as a result of reading about themselves portrayed in that certain (unfavourable) light – predominantly in books written by men. Of course, this isn’t the case for every single book penned by a male author featuring female characters, but the implication did strike a chord and I decided to make a conscious effort acquaint myself more intimately with the kinds of stories that were told about women – by women. (Although, apart from female authorship, I set myself no limits as to the subject or form.)

What followed was a year of discovery and wondrous variety. Never have I felt to have read so many different stories or met so many different heroines, who found themselves in distinct circumstances and dealt with varied issues. I travelled the world guided by brilliant, insightful women, and learned so much about our struggles – for our place under the sun, for our rights as human beings and our freedom to emancipation and self-expression – and our worries – about our families, our friends, our everyday chores and the future of our societies.

For whatever reasons, I’ve never formed deep friendships with women (or men, for that matter), although I do enjoy a good heart-to-heart every now and again, which is probably why spending a year reading books written by women felt especially intimate: like sitting around a campfire on a midsummer night – melting s’mores on sticks, piping hot tea warming chilly fingers, fireflies roaming lazily among the stars, and tales being spun out of the darkness into a warm blanket, conjuring up a sense of belonging, and wonderment, and catharsis.

In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I’m going to continue, in 2018, to make an effort to read more books written by women. Expanding your views is always an enriching experience, and I encourage you wholeheartedly to reach outside your comfort zone and explore new territories. Chances are you’ll find great joy in places you never expected, and make unexpected discoveries, and find dear friends.

As for the books that I read in 2017, here’s the list. All the books were hugely enjoyable, but if I were to recommend only one (argh!), it would be Hillary Clinton’t What Happened. Not only is this book a valuable chronicle – a poignant diagnosis – of our times and societies, it offers a way forward that is dignified, compassionate, and kind. And that’s just what we need.

  1. Crocodile on the Sandbank, by Elizabeth Peters
  2. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
  3. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
  4. Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty
  5. Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett
  6. Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue
  7. Career of Evil, by Robert Galbraith (i.e. J. K. Rowling)
  8. The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson
  9. Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
  10. I Am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai
  11. Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ, by Giulia Enders
  12. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain
  13. We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  14. What Happened, by Hillary Rodham Clinton
  15. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, by Sheryl Sandberg
  16. Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
  17. The Husband’s Secret, by Liane Moriarty
  18. A History of Britain in 21 Women, by Jenni Murray
  19. The Little Locksmith, by Katharine Butler Hathaway (currently reading)
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Brush Lettering for Beginners

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All You Need to Know to Get Started

I don’t know about you, but when I got into brush lettering (or hand lettering, or modern calligraphy, as it is also known), I couldn’t find a simple, straightforward, instructive guide that would plainly list the tools and techniques I needed to acquire and master in order to start churning out Instagram-worthy inspirational quotes. There’s a wealth of information on the internet, of course, but I found that most of it was unnecessarily detailed and gave me too many options without really explaining how to make an informed decision. (Do I need a soft brush pen or a hard brush pen? And should I use a fancy Rhodia pad instead of plain office paper?)  If you’re in the same boat, I created this little blog post just for you. Although I’m still a beginner, after many, many trials and errors, I’ve acquired quite a bit of brush-lettering wisdom that could save you lots of time, frustration, and a bit of bob, too.

1. Paper

Shockingly, it’s not the pens, but the paper that’s most important in brush-lettering, and her’s why. Brush-lettering requires perfectly smooth paper. Since regular office paper is actually slightly perforated, a) your brush lettering won’t look as nice on it and b) you’ll ruin your brush pens because they’ll fray before your eyes. (Especially as your technique won’t be great in the beginning.) That’s why many brush-letterers use Rhodia pads, and while I’ve also found Moleskine notebooks to work, I don’t recommend either. FIrstly, they’re expensive and, at least in the beginning, you’ll go through insane amounts of paper; secondly, many Rhodia pads and all Moleskine notebooks have off-white paper, which isn’t ideal if you want to use coloured brush-pens. (And I encourage you to!) Instead, be thrifty and get a ream of super-smooth paper, such as HP Premium Choice Laserjet (or similar).

2. Pens

All you need are a handful of Tombow Dual Brush Pens in your preferred colours. The advantages of these pens are many: a) they’re affordable, which means you won’t have to break your bank even if you ruin a couple while practicing; b) they’re of excellent quality and really easy to use; c) practically all brush-letterers use them, which means you can watch hours of YouTube videos to copy techniques and find inspiration; d) you can do amazing things with them, like blend or mix colours! (The nibs are self-cleaning, so your pens won’t suffer.)

3. Technique

Brush lettering uses a very simple technique, but you need to understand its principles and get the hang of it before you get into developing our own unique style. This video is instrumental in explaining the process of brush-lettering, and I absolutely recommend it for all beginners. Even if you deviate from the rules later on, understanding the technique will ensure lovely results at all times.

4. Improving

Start by learning to write the alphabet (don’t worry if it doesn’t look great straight away) and then follow up with a pangram to practice writing all the letters of the alphabet. Experiment with different angles of holding the brush pen. Practice is essential. I cannot count the times I wrote ‘the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’. And then, after a couple of weeknights of struggling, it suddenly worked! What I also found in the beginning was that I needed to go really, really slow. I’m used to writing very fast but with brush lettering, you need to give every letter the love and attention it deserves.

Once you’ve got the hang of brush lettering, it’s useful to watch YouTube videos of people brush lettering live. (I really liked this, this, this, and this video.) You’ll see different writing styles and pick and choose things that work for you. Bounce lettering is a popular form of brush lettering and there are many tutorials online. Funnily enough, I found that I learned most by watching other people do it and by just going with the flow when writing myself. Again, practice makes perfect, so relax and play with your lettering.

Once you’re ready to move on, I heartily recommend AmandaRachLee’s videos on YouTube (like this one!), which are super cute and full of useful ideas and advice on what pens to buy (I’m intending to get the Tombow Fudenosuke next, which is good for smaller writing) and what projects to undertake with your pens. Also, tell your friends about your new hobby! Having projects that are meaningful is a great way to improve, and you’d be surprised at how many people are awed and willing to “commission” brush lettering work!

That’s it! The best of luck with your brush-lettering!

 

{all images (and brush lettering) by Blue Jay & Bumblebee}

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How to Research and Plan the Perfect Holiday

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I‘m so bad at this because I get really anxious and stressed over prices and what to do and how to find the right thing, as though there is a “right” thing! I rationally know that there are many wonderful ways to experience a place, but I get in this mindset of only one way and iI mess it up with the “wrong” flight or hotel or restaurant all will be ruined!

You are so good at researching and planning trips – how do you do it? For instance, I want to go to Norway, but I have no idea where to start.

I received this immensely flattering email from my friend C. some time ago, and the subject matter got me so excited I could hardly think about anything else for the next couple of weeks. The funny thing is I don’t really travel that often, but despite (or perhaps because of?) that, I always seem to enjoy myself greatly when I do. And because I also love giving advice and have always dreamed of having a good excuse to make one of those cute workbooks that the internet is littered with, I made my friend (and you lovely people) a really cute workbook that you can download for completely free below.

This workbook is for you: if you identify with what C. says in her email above. It will help you figure out where you want to go, for how long, with whom, and what kind of experiences would make you most happy. (Because, as C. says quite correctly above, there aren’t any right or wrong things!) It’ll get you started on researching and planning your next holiday while giving you the freedom to go into as little or as much detail as you’re comforatble with.

This workbook is not for you: if you’re trying to save up for a holiday (while the workbook does address matters of the budget, it doesn’t give any monetary advice) or if you’re looking for specific travel tips, such as where to stay, what to see, and where to eat in specific locations (however the workbook does provide you with the tools for finding these places for yourself based on your own preferences).

The most important element of enjoying anything is knowing what you want (and what you don’t want) and what makes you happy (and unhappy), and a very important part of that (particularly while travellign) is how we spend our money. I highly recommend you take a shot at Sarah Von Bargen’s – of Yes and Yes fame – More Money, More Happy Bootcamp (it’s completely free and it’s revolutionised so many people’s spending habits already, including mine), which will help you further fine-tune your travel experiences.

Title Page
Are you ready to take off? Get the workbook by clicking on the link below!

How to Research & Plan the Perfect Holiday (PDF, 7 MB)

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Notes from Lisbon

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If I could dream up the perfect holiday destination, it would be just like Lisbon. the weather, the food, the wine, the architecture, the people, the sea, the soul of the city – everything was to my liking. This was also the first time that I travelled alone for a holiday and the experience of bonding with myself was extraordinary. Perhaps that’s also why Lisbon was such a personal experience – I spent a lot of time enjoying the mental silence, exploring my thoughts, and “talking” to my notebook. Somehow I feel that, because I was alone, I’ve experienced Lisbon more intensely. There was an honest, raw freedom in being a sole ship and venturing into unknown.

Below are a few reflections I plucked from my notes from the trip. They’re not very practical as a guide but they may provide a feeling for Lisbon if you’re thinking of going. (And you definitely should!)

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Padrão dos Descobrimentos portrays some of the most courageous people in the history of the world. I definitely felt an affinity to them on this trip!

Light – Luz

The very first thing that struck me about Lisbon was the light. From pockets of sunshine above little alcoves at the airport, to the grey-cream grille reflected on the concrete wall at the Cais do Sodré metro station, the city seems to constantly be coquetting with the sun. And, indeed, even I spent my days here performing an intricate dance with the golden orb – alternatively hiding from it and seeking it out.

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Somewhere in Chiado.

People – Gente

The Portuguese seem to lack any kind of airs. In a world saturated by flashiness and vulgarity, the Portuguese are refreshingly normal. They smile without grimacing, they’re relaxed without being sloppy, they’re dignified without being uptight or superior. They’re friendly but not intrusive. They’re just – wonderfully okay.

I made a friend in Lisbon. We hit it off the minute we met, talking about music, Salvador Sobral, movies, books, feminism, PMS, heritage, and relationships. In under one hour, an entire life story was poured out for me to savour, and I tried to remember the last time that I’ve been that open with anyone. I live in a country and work in an environment where we are all very guarded. There may be various reasons for this, but it was valuable to be reminded that I cannot make human connections unless I open up – and not by broadcasting to all the world what I had for lunch that day, but by actually baring my soul before a fellow human being.

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Somewhere in Bica.

Rooftops – Telhados

Lisbon takes dining ao ar livre to a whole new level – literally: up! Somehow, it doesn’t make sense in this city of seven hills to be anywhere but on a miradouro or a rooftop. Thus, I spent most of my time in Lisbon atop its countless peaks, sipping coffee at the ubiquitous Quiosques and staring our into the distance. I didn’t even want to read my book, although I occasionally noted down impressions.

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Portuguese afternoon tea Hotel do Chiado with a view of Castelo de São Jorge.

Trams

I had no grasp of the true meaning of the word “rambunctious” until I rode one of Lisbon’s old trams. You can hear them before you can see them, approaching from behind a corner sounding like Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. They clang and clatter, rumble, rattle, wheeze and sigh, they squeak and squawk (yes, they do) and putter, and I even detected a suck-pop noise, like when something is taken out of a tube with no air. They also shake violently and tremble menacingly, they pull and tug and halt and start… and not infrequently feel like they are on the verge of transforming into a different machine altogether, about to fly off the rails and into another dimension.

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This is actually a funicular (Elevador de Bica), not one of Lisbon’s iconic trams.

Custard Tarts – Pastéis de Nata

Some people will argue, but I will adamantly defend Pastéis de Belém as the best pastéis de nata in all the world. I’ve tried several others – a very mediocre one in an unnamed location in town and a decent one from Pastéis de Nata at Time Out Market, which I was told were better than the ones in Belém but found to be too sweet and corrupted by too much cinnamon sprinkled on top.

Now, the ones at Belém are a whole different story. Here, they are served without the cinnamon (leaving you with the option of sprinkling as much or as little as you like from a shaker placed on the tables), allowing the quietly comforting taste of the custard to wow you. The moment you take your first bite, the delicate, paper-thin crust succumbs to the pressure of your lips and breaks to expose a warm, unctuous custard that carries only a hint of sweetness and an echo of something I identified as vanilla. (But who knows?) One was definitely not enough – but at least I have reason to return.

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Pastéis de Belém.

MAAT

This – the Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, designed by British architect Amanda Levete – is my favourite building in Lisbon. It’s an extraordinary example of modern architecture that rises out of the ground and flows along the coast and undulates so organically, like a wave immobilised at its crest. It has an inner dynamic, yet it’s calming somehow – just like the waves of the ocean. I appreciated that I could climb literally all over it and photograph it from all the angles – all of which seemed to be designed with the eager photographer in mind.

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MAAT, by Amanda Levete.

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MAAT, by Amanda Levete.

Silence – Silêncio

The topic of silence seemed to accompany me throughout my stay in Lisbon – and it was quite a coincidence that I came to Lisbon to find the blessing of silence, even though the purpose of my visit was noise (or rather, music). I was introduced to the Portuguese take on silence on my very first evening, at a fado performance.

Fado lives and thrives on the weight of words; it feeds on that poetical charge that fadistas balance and share over melodies often very simple. Breath, pause, the emphasis that every fadista offers to verses sung one thousand times before has to match perfectly with the soul. And for that to happen it is very important what is left to be said: the unspoken word that only can be felt. In short, silence.

This silence must be welcomed with silence, so that this liturgy of feeling can happen in its full splendor. But this respect is mostly for those who are hearing, so they can experience every pause, every phrase, every estilar and let it break into their hearts and leave a mess.

When somebody says “Silence, please. Fado is about to be sung!” (“Silêncio que se vai cantar o fado!”) don’t take it as an order. It is, in fact, the most beautiful of all invitations.

Nuno Miguel Guedes
journalist and fado lyricist

While silence is central to fado, which relies on it for dramatic effect, it also seems to be an important concept in Portuguese zeitgeist. It was mentioned by several people I encountered, and audiences not just of fado were thanked for their silence. I found Portuguese silence very welcome – akin to that moment in yogic breathing where you pause your breath for a moment after exhaling – a soothing break in the wild rhythm, a space for everything to stop… until it all begins again.

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Somewhere on the Tejo (Tagus River).

Saudade

It was Salvador Sobra’ls victory in the Eurovision song contest in May 2017 that made me look up his concert dates, buy my ticket, book the flights, and actually come to Lisbon physically and not just in my mind. My Lisbon experience wouldn’t have been the same without him. Sobral is a phenomenon – exponentially better live than he is on the screen or even on Spotify – insanely creative, playful, touching, exulting.

He talked quite a bit during the concert, speaking of many things and peppering his speeches with little jokes, charming the audience into giggles and applause (I only understood parts of it), but one thing he said (and which I understood perfectly) struck me particularly. He was referring to the skill of his extraordinary pianist – Julio Resende – when he said tht the man could make you feel immense joy as well as immense sadness at the same time. And it occurred to me then that it was the precise sentiment that Salvador Sobral’s music evoked in me and that, incidentally, this sentiment was also, for me, the definition of that quintessential Portuguese state – saudade. Although I did listen to fado earlier during my stay, it was Salvador Sobral who made me grasp what saudade truly tastes and feels like.

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The view from my room at Ribeira Tejo Guesthouse.

Thank you for reading all the way here! A more practical blog post with concrete suggestions for places to see and things to do may – or may not – follow. I’ll see how I feel. In the meantime, I’ll be happy to respond to your questions and comments below!

{all images by Blue Jay & Bumblebee}

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My First Memory of Portugal

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My first memory of Portugal is actually of a person. Ricardo (I hope there’s no harm in using his real name) was my classmate in 7th Grade, which was probably my last year of innocence. (Not in the trivial sense, but rather in that life changed dramatically the year after that – as lives are wont to do around the age of 13 – and I had to start dealing with an abundance of issues.)

He was the one who taught me how to say “obrigada”, because I was already attempting to learn to say “thank you” in as many languages as I could remember. (You can never go wrong with a thank you. I remember being in Albania on business a couple of years ago, and unable to remember anything else in Albanian, said “thank you” when I shook people’s hands to meet them and exited establishments after meetings. It worked somehow.) He also told me that Spanish oranges were in fact Portuguese oranges that the Spanish imported from Portugal and then sold at a premium.

I liked Ricardo, and through him acquired a liking for his homeland, although I knew nothing yet of the rich Portuguese culture. He was a good friend and a cool guy, and he never made fun of me. In fact, sometime towards the end of 7th Grade, every single goddamn day, Ricardo would look at me with his Earl Grey coloured eyes, and plainly say: “Jay, you’re a very attractive girl.” He’d say it so very simply, as if he were commenting on how nice the day was or asking me if I’d done my homework. And he never followed up with a request for a dance at a party or a private audition at the cafeteria. (Most of his compliments were delivered in plain earshot of our classmates.) I never thought much of it. Every single day, I’d look right back at him, and just as plainly answer: “Thank you, Ricardo.”

It occurred to me only much, much later that perhaps Ricardo may have fancied me. But at the time I was – as I’ve already stated – innocent and also platonically (and quite hopelessly) pining after an Italian-American hunk called Joey (no harm in using his real name either, I guess) who had a crush on Pamela Anderson and whose single passion in life was basketball.

Ricardo and I both left the school at the end of that year, moving countries. And, this being the time before emails and mobile phones, didn’t exchange contacts. There was no need for or sense in it, really. Ricardo’s presence, though I missed him, was reduced to the fruit bowl on the kitchen counter.

I’ve long since stopped associating Portugal with my childhood friend, forgetting to think about him even during my recent trip to Lisbon. It was only after my return that his memory somehow snuck into my mind and reminded me of that time when my interest in this beautiful country was first sparked.

So, just in case – because sometimes the world is a golf ball – I would like to say: Thank you, Ricardo.

 

 

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The Hair Thing

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It was quite a while ago that I realised this funny fact – and it’s rather silly unless you just roll along and have fun with it – the funny fact being that all my favourite people in the world also happen to have hair that I LOVE.*

Take one of my oldest and closest friends, L., who has a lush, straw-coloured mane (it’s embarrassing that most of my favourite people are blonde) of untamed, frizzy waves. They frame her round and smiling face like a golden haze, and are light and airy to the touch, like freshly beaten egg whites.

Or F., whose head holds a generous mass of bouncy, sexy brown curls. For a long time, she tried to control them with various products, until she finally found her vibe around the age of 30, and her hair is now a jazzy tune that dances along to her fearless, businesslike strut.

C.’s hair is incredibly thick and strong, like rays of sunshine gold that could easily lift Harry, Ron, Hermione, and a limp Professor Lockhart out from the Chamber of Secrets. It also gets interestingly bushy, betraying a leonine personality, and occasionally just does whatever the hell it damn well pleases.

Then there’s J., a coworker who’s loveliness is only matched by the loveliness of her hair – cappuccino coloured, with the girliest, flirtiest, softest curls. I’m imagining it’s what the hair of Botticelli’s Venus must be like, and it usually makes me happy just to look at it when I’m at work. (Don’t worry, I’ve told her about my creepy affliction, and she’s perfectly at peace with it.)

And there are many others, of course.

But the best hair of all, the hair that eats all the other hair for breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, and supper, is my partner’s. The first time I touched it, I think I actually gasped. I’ve never experienced anything like it before or since, and if there’s anything I could compare it to, it would be the mythical Golden Fleece. (Yes, it’s so special you can only imagine.) It’s quite incredible, really, and rather unfair for a man.

(At the same time, there’s something irresistible about a man with amazing hair. Right? Of course, it could just be me. I don’t know. I’ve heard that some women appreciate men’s bums.)

Anyway, since I made this discovery, I occasionally play a little game with myself when I’m on the tram or in a queue: I inspect people’s hair and wonder whether I’d like their personalities based purely on that fact.  It’s an amusing pastime, if nothing else.

 

*Just to be clear, I’m not someone who covets great hair, as I’m pretty happy with my own. It’s abundant, strong and has a pleasing, silky appearance that belies its formidable strength and weight Moreover, my hairdresser chops it into a fun bob that looks great and requires only washing and brushing. I have all I could ever want.

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Walking Past A Cute Café

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a metaphor on life

Walking past a cute café, the other dé,
I thought, my-ô-my, but what a charming scene!
The café so quaint, the people so pretté.
Sipping their lattés, chatting merrilé.
They all looked so bécébégé, bon dieu!
I thought, my-ô-my, I must join this tableau!
Sitting myself down, ordering a rosé,
I suddenly realised I no longer saw
The café so quaint, the people so pretté.
Because – héhé! – it is rather sillé…

How to explain. You see, that the café happened to be facing an utterly ghastly petrol station that I somehow completely failed to notice initially.