Monday, October 30, 2006


It's cold in my room. So cold, in fact, that it is probably time I got round to requesting a visit from Mr Landlady to come and unstick my radiator - I'm thinking the cold and damp (from condensation on the window) air is probably not helping the cough I've had for two weeks.

I did have a great weekend at home, though. The highlight was watching S.'s two year old nephew playing with my mobile phone, and seeing the delight on his face when S. called it (he started dancing to the tune). He spent the rest of the evening following us around with it, begging us to make it 'sing' again! I swear he gets more sweet by the day.

The Black Forest Gateau that served as my mum's birthday cake also played its part in making the weekend enjoyable...

I'm going to take refuge under my duvet with a hot water bottle now, in an attempt to warm up prior to going to sleep. Won't be long now before the El Al blankets will have to be brought out to supplement my existing bedclothes.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Gourmet cuisine on a shoestring

I'm lucky enough to be able to eat seemingly endless amounts of the same dish day after day without getting bored, which means I can cook a big pan of something at the beginning of the week and keep it in the fridge (no meat, so it's not as dangerous as it sounds).

I love cooking, but at the end of a long day I'm often not in the mood to spend an hour on something that only I will eat, so I save up most of my more creative culinary experiments for special occasions (like Shabbat). My recipe of the moment is Rice & Lentils, which I got from a friend's student cookbook. The recipe claimed it serves 2, but it's more like 6+!

cooking oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 small red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped (any kind of spicy substance would do for this - chilli sauce, chilli powder, tabasco - take your pick)
250g (8oz) rice
180g (6oz) red lentils
2 tomatoes, skinned and chopped (I often use canned to save the hassle)
900ml (1.5pt) veg stock (marmite in water also works - my mum taught me that one!)

Heat the oil in a large pan and cook the onion, garlic and chilli for 5mins until softened. Add the rice and cook for a further 1 minute.

Stir in the lentils, tomatoes and stock. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer for 15-20mins until the rice and lentils are tender, stirring frequently so it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.

Add more water if necessary to stop from boiling dry.

I throw in any vegetables I have handy - carrots, peppers, courgettes, parsnip, mushrooms, broccoli (ok, haven't actually tried that one yet) - and live off it for pretty much the whole week, with possibly a jacket potato or two for variety.

The university Students' Union has a fruit and veg market every week, with a surprising variety of good quality stuff, usually much cheaper than the supermarket or greengrocer. Today I stocked up on veg for the week and fruit to snack on. The grand total? £5.19. That will last me well into next week, with the Rice & Lentils lasting at least until the weekend (when I'm going home anyway, so will freeze any that's left over). Take out the fruit and veg bought today that will be eaten next week and add on the basic rice and lentils picked up for a pittance in any supermarket, and I have fed myself for a week for approximately £5. I drink tea, instant coffee or water, so no money spent on fizzy drinks...I don't go out regularly and blow £20 in a night (one or two drinks once or twice a fortnight)... suddenly I feel better about splashing out on a £2.86 bottle of wine and a salmon steak on the few Friday nights when I'm neither at J-Soc nor at home! The next thing to work on is packed lunch rather than spending £2 on sandwiches from the cafe a couple of times a week, but I don't feel too guilty about that!

Right, I'm off to cook.

Third year, here I come!

This year is a definite improvement on last, even if only in terms of the classes I’m taking. Before I go into detail, this is how the mark scheme works:

70+ First (80+ is extremely rare)
60-69 Upper second (aka 2:1)
50-59 Lower second (aka 2:2)
40-49 Third
Below 40 Fail

Here’s a rundown of my programme for the year (which, incidentally, is worth two thirds of my overall degree):

German Language (double unit, covering both semesters)
This year I’m in Stage 7 (the highest level) and back with the class from my first year, who have just come back from a year abroad. Not all of the old-timers are in Stage 7 – those who went to France or Spain have gone into Stage 6 rather than having a year in Germany in lieu of that level – so the number is down to just 8. My friend E. and I both study Music, but use our two ‘free’ units each year for German, so neither of us had a year abroad. Both being in the same boat has meant a certain amount of continuity through the last two years, and provided much-needed moral support last year when we had such a lousy time with trouble from both the class and the staff (one lecturer in particular).

This year has been a revelation – we are in a small class of people who actually want to speak German and are prepared to participate in class. Not only that, but we get on well with all of them AND the ‘problem’ lecturer from last year has absolutely transformed her teaching style. I don’t know if it was relief at getting through her first year, or conversation with other lecturers, or that she took on board the rather blunt comments we made on our feedback forms at the end of the year, or simply a personality transplant over the summer, but I’m sure it’s not just the change of class – the way she was last year, she could have antagonised even this year’s confident, friendly laid-back group. Whatever the reason, I’m more thankful than I can say.

I was slightly apprehensive that after a year in Germany the others would be way ahead of me in terms of fluency, vocabulary, and anything else you might like to name. Instead, whilst I can see a big difference from before they went, I feel like I’m more than holding my own. It also helps that, as very few people do both Stage 6 and Stage 7 (students returning from their year abroad usually do one or the other in their final year), they are structured in much the same way. Although Stage 7 is undoubtedly more difficult than Stage 6, we’re easing into it gently, which allows E and I to basically just revise what we did last year while we find our feet. We’re not complaining – it just gives us more chance of a better mark at the end! I got a first for German last year, and if I work more steadily this year I should be able to do even better.

Dissertation (double unit, covering both semesters)
I’ve known since last Spring what topic I wanted to cover for my dissertation, and have had a reasonably detailed plan for months. I used the summer holiday to get started on some of the reading, and by the first class on Friday I had emailed my title and plan to the course supervisor for approval, been assigned a personal supervisor, and fixed a meeting with her for later this week. When reading through the guidelines on “what to get done by when”, I was pleasantly surprised to find that at the moment I’m roughly where we’re supposed to be by Christmas. Go me! I feel very pleased with myself, not least because the more I get done now, the less of a catastrophe it will be if I get ill again later in the year.

The standard I’m aiming for is extremely high (some would say stupidly so). The main criteria for getting a mark of 80 or above (a very high first) is that the dissertation be “of publishable standard”. I take the approach that this is preparation for professional research later on, so to waste the support and resources available to me for this project would be to throw away an opportunity that could benefit my future career. I think it’s a great goal to have – to reach it would be an outstanding achievement, and if I fall slightly short I’ll still be comfortably high enough for a first.

I was enrolled on this unit by default because my marks last year didn’t reach the prerequisite standard for some of the modules I wanted to take this year. The only thing that stopped me dropping this unit before term even started was the thought that adding another unit in Semester 2 would give me an unacceptably heavy workload coming up to my final exams, so I decided to give it a chance and go along to the first lecture.

To my utter astonishment, I enjoyed it! The method of assessment allows for either an analytical or an essay-based approach, which suits me down to the ground (me and analysis don’t really get on), and I’ve found that the Stravinsky I studied for A level was actually quite wide-ranging. We looked at Pulcinella and Symphony of Psalms, and also did some very comprehensive background work. I understand the lecturer’s references, I like the music we’re studying, and I’m fascinated by the background – all in all, a choice I’m extremely happy with. Who would’ve thunk it?!

Chanson & Madrigal
A more predictable choice for me, and taught by a lecturer whose first year course (and teaching style) I really loved. She also happens to be my dissertation supervisor, so it’s probably just as well…! She found a permanent place in my heart within 45 minutes of the first lecture beginning when she managed to explain modal theory in a way that I finally understood. It first came up in A level and has never been anything other than utterly incomprehensible to me, so I take my hat off to her and, in gratitude, swear that I will work very very hard and get a good mark in her class.

Music Therapy & Community Music
This one is coming up in Semester 2 and will tie in nicely with the work I already do as Student Volunteer Coordinator for the university’s Music in Care Homes project. This year I’ll be visiting two homes each week rather than just one, which should widen my horizons. I’m hoping I’ll be able to try out some new things, experiment a bit, and generally be in a position to get lots out of the theoretical side of the class when it starts. Oh, and increased hours also means more money, but we don’t talk about that… ;-)

Mozart in Vienna 1781-1791 OR Nineteenth Century Song
This will be the other Semester 2 unit, but I haven’t decided yet which one I want to do. I’m veering towards Nineteenth Century Song, since I have a passionate interest in early 19th-century Lieder, and because the course description says something along the lines of “a reading knowledge of French and/or German would be useful”. Any unit that obviously intends to use the original languages rather than copping-out with endless translations (this is a sore point with me at the moment - a large portion of the reading for Stravinsky is in an appallingly bad translation from the original Dutch) will always appeal to me! I’m keeping my options open on this one in case of timetable clashes, so I’ll make the final decision later on in the semester.

After my dismal performance last year, I’ve worked out that I need an average of 70 across all units this year in order to get a first. If I can continue as I’ve started in the first two weeks, that actually feels like it’s within reach, especially as my two strongest subjects are both double units, so have the potential to really boost my average.

It’s cold and raining, and I’ve just had two nasty colds one after the other. But I don’t really care – I’m enjoying my life at the moment.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A new blogging resolution

I've decided to try a new approach with this blog and write more about my everyday life. That way, I should manage at least something every couple of days and the more profound stuff can happen when I have the time.
Right now it is week 2 of my third (and last) undergraduate year. It is also high time I was in bed, but I have some homework that was due in yesterday and haven't done it yet, so I need to finish it before tomorrow's 9am lecture - I can always catch up on some sleep later in the morning. At least the ideas seem to be flowing a bit more freely than they have been in the half-hearted attempts I've made to do it over the last 4 days!
Other than that, the semester is shaping up very nicely indeed. More on that tomorrow, probably. Right, back to the grindstone/wieder in die Tretmühle...