Blog

Mostly concerning photography

All opinions were my own at the time of writing, but I can’t vouch for them now. 

The Motorway to Pen y Fan

Last week I had the pleasure of walking up Pen y Fan with a couple of fellow Bristol photographers. Oddly, although over the last year

Scared of Direct Light?

Early after first picking up a camera, photographers learn to recognise of good light. As landscape photographers we wake up early and stay out past

Contrast is Relative

I used to think that for a image to have strong contrast, the histogram needs to looks like this: That is, good portions of pixels

How Much Should You Edit Your Photos?

Debate about how much you should edit your photos can get heated. This conversation is common within the photography community, but I have found the

Quitting Social Media

A landscape photographer’s perspective on Instagram and your art and business I love social media and – out of all the time sinks out there

Blog

Mostly concerning photography

I formatted this page so you can scroll and scroll. All opinions were my own at the time of writing, but I can’t vouch for them now. Please use the buttons below if you want to see an overview or filter content.

The Motorway to Pen y Fan

Last week I had the pleasure of walking up Pen y Fan with a couple of fellow Bristol photographers. Oddly, although over the last year I have explored the Brecons a fair amount, this was the first time I have summited Pen y Fan. I think a mountain looks better from lower down than from the top, but last week’s expedition changed my mind.

As I say, this was the first time I’ve climbed this mountain. Last summer, I did a circular walk up Fan y Big looking back towards Cribyn and the peak of Pen y Fan and I have photographed Pen y Fan and Corn Du, from the Upper Neuadd Reservoir. Wales Water has drained the reservoir and there are some truly spectacular compositions to be shot of the rivers and trees left in the dry basin:

Still, while there are more options for compositions from the valley looking towards peaks, sometimes getting high is worthwhile – especially when you have good atmospherics. On this day, we weren’t sure how the weather would be. When we set off from Bristol, there were patches of mist here and there, but things could have gone either way.

We took the easiest way up Pen y Fan. It sets off from Pont ar Daf car park and is called the motorway route. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but when we arrived, the car park was heaving. Looking up the hill, you could see a string of headlights snaking its way up the hill.

We hit thick cloud about halfway up the hill. When we reached the summit, the fog was thick, and it seemed unlikely we would come away with any photos. The top of the hill was busy too. There were maybe 100 people up there. Standing there in the murk, it seemed unlikely that we would get the cloud inversion that we had hoped for, but then dim shapes formed. We set pointed out cameras towards Cribyn, knowing that this might be our only chance of the morning.

It was still half an hour before sunrise, so there was limited light to focus in, so I stopped down to F14 for depth of field and set my focus to infinity. With an ISO of 250, I could get a shutter speed of 20 seconds and I exposed a few frames before the clouds closed back in for good:

I like the way this image came out. I like that beyond Cribyn and Fan y Big, you can see Sugarloaf Mountain isolated above the cloud in the top middle left of the frame.

Also, although sun stars are dramatic and warm, direct light would add interest and texture to the clouds, sometimes I prefer a subtle blue hours shot. More and more I like images to have longevity. Images with strong sunrise colours are striking, but can become tiresome when you have seen them too many times.

So climbing the mountain instead of shooting from the valley was fun, and I got the bug and I’m looking forward to the next visit to the Brecons. Hopefully, we will get some snow this year. If we do, I will try to get the same composition again.

Scared of Direct Light?

Early after first picking up a camera, photographers learn to recognise of good light. As landscape photographers we wake up early and stay out past sunset in search of the perfect golden hour light.

I used to return to locations again and again to understand how the light interacts with my subject. This was good training. It taught me anticipation and adaptation.

However, more and more. I like it when the light is subdued. I prefer now to shoot in indirect or predawn light and I even long for overcast conditions.

In fact, I now find it very hard to edit ‘golden hour’ images. Take the example below, the light on the buildings is early-morning, warm light. The shadows aren’t too harsh and the warmth makes the ham stone buildings pop against the stormy sky. But there is very little forgiveness when editing this sort of shot. In a lot of ways, you get what you are given.

Purists will argue this is a good thing; you should get it right in camera. But I don’t think this takes full advantage of the digital medium. In the days of film, the most dynamic range you would get out of a good stock was 13 stops. Something like Velvia delivering 3 or 4 stops! I like the high contrast and deep shadows of some film. You can use it to great advantage for street photography to isolate a subject.

But when it comes to digital landscape photography, you can use the flexibility of the files (14-16 stops of dynamic range) to get creative.

Overcast and soft lighting gives you the ability to do extreme manipulations in the digital dark room. This image is more or less straight out of camera and it is flat.

Yet the day I was here at Fairy Pools on the Isle of Skye was anything but flat. Rainstorms came and went every few minutes and cloud rolled across the mountains. Using the flexibility that a flat RAW file gives me scope to bring back all of this drama. The lack of noise, even when I give the file a brutal edit, is nothing short of amazing.

Of course, having this much freedom is daunting in itself. Many of the challenges and creative decisions are no longer done in the field, but while you edit at home.

These days I make fewer mistakes when shooting and I enjoy the creative challenge of bringing an image to life at home. When I was a beginner, I used to shoot and edit straight away, but I now sit with an image for a long time before I know what to do with it. Sometimes it takes weeks to realise what the the dominant colours are, or why the composition doesn’t work and how I should crop it to improve the impact. I may edit an image several times and view it on different screens before I realise my vision.

One could argue that this is too I interpretive and that I shouldn’t need to edit so much to get a perfect image. Maybe. I have had images that need no further work and actually get worse with rough treatment. But a camera only captures a moment and taking a photo consists of a series of moments: a journey. The journey leads up to and continues beyond pressing the shutter. For me, editing an image from flat to expressive is as much about conveying the experience of an image as it is about a single moment. Flat light and flexible files allow me to more easily tell this story.

Contrast is Relative

I used to think that for a image to have strong contrast, the histogram needs to looks like this:

That is, good portions of pixels must inhabit both the black and the white zones. But images like this have changed my mind:

Here the blacks are dark (solid black, in fact) but the brightest portions of this image – the white of his eye – is only at about 70% brightness. In short, I’ve started thinking about contrast in much more relative terms. An element in the high-midtones can look like pure white if a good portion of the rest of the image is really dark.

For any given colour, the brighter it is, the less saturated it will appear. Bright, ethereal images can give a great effect and I use this often – especially when the scene lends itself to a pastel palette. Low-key, darker images are by the same token likely to be more saturated and this opens up other options to create impact. This saturation allows you to play with colour harmony to tell your story. In the image above, I played on the colours that were there already there and – using split toning – I emphasised pleasing red and green complimentary colours to make the image more harmonious.

Back when I took the shot in 2019, I took a totally different approach. I lifted the shadows and made everything more explicit. (I was also going through a stage of using presets in Color Efex Pro which didn’t help any with subtlety.) The original edit lacks all the mood and wonder that you experience when you encounter deer in the woods (and, yes, you even feel this when you come across a rutting stag in a popular deer park!)

When you are taking and – perhaps especially – when you are editing a photo, you need to ask yourself, ‘What do I want the viewer to look at?’ I wasn’t considering this question deeply enough until very recently. The relative impact that a certain luminosity value can have – depending where it is situated and what is around it – is just another tool to tell a better story; another way to bring a viewers attention where you wish it to be.

How Much Should You Edit Your Photos?

Debate about how much you should edit your photos can get heated. This conversation is common within the photography community, but I have found the aversion to overediting is perhaps even stronger from those who do not take photos on any serious level.

I can sympathise with both sides of the argument. Photography seems – on the surface a realist’s medium, so you can feel betrayed when you find out a photograph is lying to you. But fairly early in its development, Victorian photographers took photography in an impressionist direction. As long as someone is upfront about their process – and if long exposure and ICM are fair game in camera – I have no problem with sky replacements, perspective warping and intense, surreal colour grades in the digital dark room.

In my mind, the only possible exception would be in reportage, but even then, can a little cloning here and there to remove things that distract from the story hurt too much?! In fact, creative effects such as shutter drags sometimes tell a better story (cf. Barry Talis.)

My position now being clear, I should tell you that I have learnt to manipulate images to a high level. I think this comes from my interest in astrophotography. While you can get shots in camera, but with the high dynamic range involved in landscape astrophotography, it is much easier to get a clean image by taking separate frames for the foreground and sky and then blend them in Photoshop. As you have no doubt gathered, I definitely do not consider this ‘cheating.’ If our camera sensors were good enough, I could extract the same image from one frame.

However, learning the skills involved in producing good starry landscape shots did blur the lines between photography and digital art. For a while last year I played with some quite extreme manipulations to images. Spectacular sunset sky replacements on very ordinary images – evident on my social media accounts during spring of 2020 – probably led Camera Craft magazine to call my Photographers Guild Gold rated image of Glastonbury Tor a ‘composite.’ I assure you it’s not.

Fine art print of a Glastonbury Tor solstice sunrise with stormy skies
Glastonbury Tor

There are times when radical editing is required. Although I liked my first – truer to life – edit of the photo below, these petrified trees at Porlock Marshes in Somerset just weren’t as a subject-focused and the stillness of the image was not as compelling until I went into photoshop with a clone stamp and removed the horizon.

Landcape Astrophotography in Porlock Marshes
Porlock Marshes

The picture of Glastonbury Tor is a one in a hundred shot. I returned to that viewpoint twenty, possibly thirty times before these spectacular atmospherics happened. Nevertheless, in the year since I took the frame, I’ve decided that I can do better. I’m of the mind now that the composition in that shot is fairly ordinary and it’s the stormy weather and light conditions that make the image.

This all sounds a little dismissive, but I don’t mean it to be. Storm chasing is fun and I always pray for those rare conditions, but recently, I have been more interested in getting better at composing than on the getting favourable weather or even good light! I don’t want a glorious sunrise to compensate for a lack of compositional thought. By the same token, I am less interested in sky replacements and radical manipulations than I used to be.

A recent trip to the Brecon Beacons was the start of this journey. I don’t think either of these images works, but they are more graphical in nature. They represent the baby steps on a path down which I see more options for mastery than I did when I was turning up at photography hot spots repeatedly, hoping I would get lucky with conditions.

The next attempts at this more composition-focused way of approaching photography have yielded better results. And while there is still an over-photographed monument in each of these shots, I see a new style emerging.

These are of course very different types of photos. Godrevy and St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall are short telephoto images, while the Glastonbury Tor image is taken with a 200-600mm lens from several miles away, but I am looking forward to the improvements that I can make by taking a more considered approach. And the next time I see a sunset as spectacular as the one of the Tor above, I hope that I am ready to do justice with a well considered composition.

Quitting Social Media

A landscape photographer’s perspective on Instagram and your art and business

I love social media and – out of all the time sinks out there – Instagram is my favourite.

In my early days of taking photos, IG was where I got feedback. Through comments and likes I could see how my photography was going and, as I have evolved as a photographer and I have made some good friends through social media. I have been lucky to meet many of these people in person. Some meetings have been planned, but more frequently they have been happenstance. Surprisingly often I bump into people I’ve followed for years when we both decide on the same composition. Even more surprisingly, perhaps, these chance meetings sometimes occur in the middle of the night(!)

This has been the most gratifying and healthy aspect of social media – I value the friends I have made! However, social media is an economy whose currency is your attention and I have come to regard the way these companies trade in your most precious resource rather ugly and manipulative.

My social media and photography background

Some assorted photography from my Instagram feed in 2017

I started off on Instagram posting anything and everything. Living in Russia when I started taking photos seriously, my content was often an mixture of travel and street photography. Before too long living in Moscow, I started exploring the national parks that border the city. I used to hike from a park near where we lived over a bridge that crosses MKAD (Moscow’s M25) into a park called Elk Island. Here I photographed deer, elk (what North America’s call moose,) marsh harriers, eagles, wild boar, snakes and hedgehogs. In the summer the park was boggy and teeming with life and in the winter the lakes froze over and it was desolate. When we moved back to the UK, I continued shooting some street photography while living in London, but my focus began to shift towards astrophotography and landscape photography. We moved to Somerset, and the opportunities for street photos were fewer and landscape photography took over as my focus. I still occasionally take photos of animals, but only during chance encounters. I respect wildlife photographers, but I don’t have the time to dedicate (and animal stalking really does take time!)

Some street, nature and astrophotography from my Instagram feed in 2019

Lost Engagement

All this is to say that, up until recently, my Instagram has been a mishmash of genres. Some followers like all these styles of photography. However, I started to notice that certain people only engaged with their preferred types of images. And now that I rarely post a picture of an animal and almost never post a street or travel shot, I have a large group of followers who don’t engage with my images. In the Instagram community, these are called ghost followers.

Ghost followers lead to issues with engagement on Instagram. According to IG gurus, what happens in the first couple of hours after you post is important. Instagram shows your post to an assortment of people and if they engage with the post, the alogrithm determines the post to be worthwhile and shows it to more people. If on the other hand, the first few people IG shows the post to don’t engage with it, the programme determines your post to be irrelevant and shows it to fewer people and thus reduces your reach (and the chances of your post being seen and enjoyed by more people. Here lies the problem with ghost followers on Instagram. If the followers that IG shows your post to aren’t interested in that type of post, the post is less likely to be shown to people who do like that kind of post and the post is dead on arrival.

Over the last couple of years, I have found my drop off in engagement to be really disheartening. We can have a conversation about intrinsic verses extrinsic motivation and I think that would be valid, but it does seem unfortunate that a picture you know to be of your highest standard, doesn’t get eyes on it. I have spent the last couple of years fighting this low enagement – I removed about 4000 ghost followers, but it make surprisingly little difference.

Around Christmas time, I took a break from social media and when I started up again, I noticed my engagement had dropped off even more. Over a couple of weeks, I clawed it back slowly – I did some hashtag research and started engaging heavily again. However, in order to keep followers growing I find I need to sink about 2 hours per day into the platform.

Finding Inspiration

I have the greatest respect for people who always engage with my content. I value their comments and questions and they genuinely seem to get a lot of enjoyment out of what they do. But I can’t help thinking what else I could be doing with that time. I get very few sales through Instagram, and it seems to me that all I am doing by putting this amount of time in is generating more attention currency for Instagram to have eyes on adverts. What else could I do with those two hours if I wasn’t commenting and scrolling Instagram?

Just before Christmas, I found an artist who really inspired me: Bruce Percy. His work is graphical and dramatic. He is a true craftsman. Bruce’s work has inspired me to look more closely at what I am doing and opened up new avenues into which I want to develop.

With the greatest respect to the ‘world porn’ type images that do well on Instagram, I’m starting to see many of these shots as a cheap trick. I’m not saying that they don’t require dedication and mastery, but I don’t think these photos require the same level of artistry and vision as do those of someone like Bruce Percy or Michael Kenna. If you master the technical fundamentals of photography and turn up for sunrise in dramatic locations, you can recreate these types of photos with relative ease. It reminds me of something that Sean Tucker has said about his street photography. Sean uses deep shadows to frame subjects and he has come to view this technique as a trick rather than something of high mastery. Personally, I think Sean is being too hard on himself – I love his work – but I can understand what he means when I look at a style I am more familiar with. I’m not disparaging the Instagram style of landscape photography, but following popular trends (for me at least) holds the danger of finding yourself typecast – or worse getting trapped in a creative rut. Personally, I want to avoid being stuck in a social media niche that pivoting out of would mean a drop in engagement. I would much rather spend time perfecting my art and getting better at taking and editing photos. Social media needs now to be an afterthought.

What I have noticed is that many of the photographers that I consider true artists, also do very well on social media – without the scrabbling around worrying about hashtag strategy and excess time on the platforms. They spend their time focusing on their own art and their images promote themselves.

So the question that has become prominent in my mind while I sink time into Instagram, is what could I be doing to master my art instead of this? If the conditions are right, I could be shooting photos. If I’m home, I could be editing or working on my website. In short, I could be working on my own craft and portfolio platform rather than piling my time into Instagram helping them to sell ad space.

How am I quitting social media?

But social media is designed to be addictive and I’ve had to employ some techniques to to help me act on this resolution.

  1. Setting digital wellbeing limits of 30 minutes per day on the app After 30 minutes I am locked out of Instagram for the rest of the day. I can of course go on a web browser and access Instagram, but it creates an extra step that brings some consciousness to my use of the app. I have had a couple of moments where this has been frustrating after I’ve used up all my time early in the day, but I am trying to make it that I only use the app to post stories and I am getting used to not using up my time on mindless scrolling early in the day.
  2. Scheduling two posts per week through Facebook’s Creator Studio Although I would like to share more content, two posts per week is the maximum I can justify. Time goes into each post: planning the caption, responding to in the comments section etc. Two posts per week will also ensure that I skim the dross – I went through a stage last year where I was posting 6 times per week and I was posting lots of images that were not up to the standard I would have liked. Quantity was definitely favoured over quality then!
  3. Setting time in the day to respond to comments
    Rather than responding to comments at random times during the day, I am going to tag responding to comments onto my routine of checking emails. I will mostly do this through the web browser on my desktop which should prevent me from getting sucked into the churn of content on the app.
  4. I am moving conversations from the Instagram app
    I am already in WhatsApp or text conversations with various of my Instagram friends and where I can I am going to try to move communication off Instagram so that we can plan shoots independently. Again this will keep me off the app.
  5. I am paying for Instagram ads
    I know, this is an odd one as I have spent so much time bad mouthing the attention economy of Instagram, but my feeling is now that Instagram is a pay to play platform. While I focus my attention on growing my photography skills and website platform, I am happy to spend £20 a month and allow Instagram not to stagnate in the background.

You might ask, why bother? Why go to all this trouble to stay on a platform that you find troubling?

I think the question is fair – but I would like at least to see if I can find a sensible balance with social media – a happy medium where I can get the best that it has to offer, while slimming down on the aspects I find less desirable. I do think there will be a place for Instagram in my future business model – I just want it not to be my focus at this time. Ask me in 6 months how all this is going!

Using Notion as a Photography Planner

Preamble

I’m 34 years old and I’m just starting a vlog. Restarting a vlog, I should say. I did a couple of travel style vlogs back in 2017 and then life happened. My wife and I moved back to the UK and various projects have distracted us for the last four years. During this time, we got married, bought a house, I joined my family’s business and started an osteopathy course. Two of those projects are going well, one of them went moderately well and one of them was abandoned. Needless to say, alongside working on my landscape photography, these things kept me busy – and still do!

However about a year ago, I started to feel a little rudderless. I am satisfied with my work and home life and my hobbies give me a lot of growth. So it took a bit of careful examination to work out what was missing.

One of my favourite parts of landscape photography is planning a shot. When I find a composition that I think has potential, I start imagining what style of photography will bring it to life. Usually a sunset or sunrise doesn’t cut it for me and I want to get the landscaped backed by stars if it is wide angle or – if it is a telephoto shot – I like to get the sun or the moon in the image.

To get images such as these requires all the elements to come together at once: the heavenly bodies need to be in the right place at the right time; the shoot needs to fit around my other commitments (believe me, I went to a work meeting after a 2am start and it did not go well;) and the British weather needs to play nice – frequent cyclonic conditions may be a boon for landscape photographers, but aren’t so great for those of us who want clear skies… All this combined means that I can sometimes be planning a shoot for months – and years – until the window of opportunity arrives.

Up until recently, my way of planning shoots was fairly decentralised – and hence a little disorganised:

I have pins all over Google Maps – some of them with notes on them and many without.
I save PhotoPills plans (many of these have copious notes attached to them to!)
My Google Keep is full of notes about locations and some reference images.

This system was working ok for me and I was producing images I’m happy with. However, I have been looking for ways to improve and streamline it for some time.

Enter Notion

I’ve known about Notion for a while, but a friend reminded me about it just before Christmas and during the Christmas period, I probably sunk 40 hours into designing a personalized organisational system.

I should probably explain.

Notion is a flexible application where you can make notes and create databases. You can view the databases you create in various ways – as a calendar view, as a table, as a Trello-style Kanban board among others.

Given this flexibility everyone uses Notion slightly differently. There are templates to get you started, but once you have the hang of it, the creative potential is endless.

I use it as a life wiki and because I have a bit of an obsession with everything being in one place, I also designed a project and task manager within Notion.

As part of this project manager, I also decided to design a photography planner there too. This planner works in tandem with PhotoPills and pull everything into one place.

My Photography Planner

Here’s how it works: when I start planning a photo, I make it a page within my photo planning database (I’ve called this database ‘Bullet Journal’) in Notion.

I add key attributes to each plan, such as the season they need to be taken, the type of weather and the time of day or night. These attributes really help with forward planning for photo trips as you can filter a database based on them. So in the example below, I have filtered by season and I can see what options I have coming up:

But I can also filter them by the condition (new moon, full moon, mist, snow etc.) required:

I also programme attributes which are purely for organisation within the database. For example I have have an attribute called progress and here you can select new, planning, due, editing and complete. These attributes help me when it comes to a custom view of this database. For example, when planning a shot, I have everything in a Kanban, Trello style board, and I moved the shot along depending on what stage I am at with it:

When I know that the opportunity to get a photo is fast approaching and I want it to be in the forefront of my mind, I tick the box that says ‘Ambient Focus.’ When this box is ticked, the photo plan appears at the top of my daily brief which is the place that I go each day for my every day project and task manager. As you can see, shots at Warleigh Weir, Glastonbury Tor and Cheddar Gorge are due any time:

Each of these plans is a page in its own right and this is useful for planning a photo. Within these plan pages I might make notes, clip inspiring images, put pins on maps or even include PhotoPills plans:

As you can see this system is extremely flexible and customisable. It has brought information that was quite disparate together into one place. I am hoping that having a more organised system for my photo panning will lead to me taking more of the types of photos like. I can prioritise shots that need to be acted upon fast and put distant plans on the backburner and forget about them until the right time.

Organising My Organisation

So how does this relate to feeling rudderless?

My day job is in the care sector. During the pandemic and especially in March of 2020 my life became one long task list. I lived within my Gmail inbox. I learned the keyboard shortcuts to turn an email into a Google Task and in the frenetic spring of last year I just chugged away at these tasks with minimal thought about how they related to some bigger picture. As things have calmed down though, and as I’ve taken back on projects, I’ve had to reassess how I handle these varied responsibilities.

Because you can use Notion however you like, creating a bespoke organisational system got me thinking about the hierarchy of my projects and tasks. How do these different elements nest within the greater structure of my life?

P.A.R.A. was coined by Tiago Forte. It stands for ‘Projects,’ ‘Areas’, ‘Resources’ and ‘Archive’. Areas consist of multiple tasks that don’t have a start or an end date. A Project consists of multiple tasks but have a start and an end date. Resources are information that is useful to discharging areas or projects. Archive self-explanatory – it is where anything goes once it is no longer current.

P.A.R.A. has been a really useful distinction, because it’s allowed me to see what tasks and projects fit within a greater life goal (Area.) (I have also nested Areas within an even greater metanarrative called ‘Dreams,’ but perhaps that is the subject of another blog!)

All this organising made me remember the fun I had planning and writing my dissertation. Long form essays take this same thinking about metastructure. I have really missed the feeling of being intellectually challenged and engaged in the type of categorisation and thinking that I got first from my university degree, later from a blog and still later – for a short time when I lived in Russia – a vlog.

Photography scratches several itches – it gets me out in nature and seeing creatively. But it doesn’t make me think about things in the philosophical, incisive way that I was trained to in the Theology Department of Bristol University.

I like getting my teeth into an idea and really considering it from all angles.

So, as if my life wasn’t busy enough already, I’ve decided to start writing again and recording vlogs on those developed thoughts when I have a chance.

I don’t know whether vlogging will become a major part of my life. But I have created a database for these ideas in the same way I have for my photography planner:

Within Notion, I’ve created an area I call my ‘Idea Refinery’ and I use a Kanban board where I moved an idea from ‘New’ to ‘Thinking,’ to ‘Blog,’ to ‘Vlog:’

Adding these two elements back into my life – some much needed intellectual stimulation and a new hierarchical organisational system – helped me reboot after a weird year and so far it has brought some much needed balance to my life – which was starting to feel simultaneously and contrarily undirected and on rails!

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The Problems Faced by an Organic Tea Farm

My friend Russ and I started a tea company – hurrah!

Living Leaf Tea addresses a problem I’ve had.

Since moving back to Europe from Asia, it is difficult to get hold of good-quality Chinese tea. Working in the speciality tea industry after graduating from university made me realise even more how much of a problem this is: tea is either overpriced, tastes awful or is grown with noxious chemicals. We source Living Leaf’s tea directly from one farmer – a Taiwanese tea expert who tends a single organic plantation, deep in the Yunnan mountains, surrounded old-growth forest and miles away from the nearest non-organic farm.

The tea tastes and feels awesome. For the first time in years, I feel fully behind a tea project.

We have had a little traction on the site, but organic traffic is minimal. In the hopes of raising our Google presence, I’ve been writing blogs – guest posts for other websites.

There will be a whole series of these, but here is the first: it deals with the difficulties faced by an organic tea farm and is published on Global Nomadic.

Stay tuned for more of these. There is one on Tai Chi and tea in the pipeline.

Is There Only Darkness and Confusion Without Tea?

As anyone who knows me is aware, I love tea. Some may think this love is disproportional to tea’s merits, but I don’t think that way. 

Tea is the first thing I think about when I wake and I have to remind myself not to drink it late at night when the temptation is strong and the threat of insomnia is real. I owe this little herb a lot. Tea helped me to master the Chinese language and propelled me into, and through, university. It inspired me to get my first proper job and to start my first business. Tea forms a corner stone of my health routine and, for me, drinking it is a spiritual experience.

But, I have a problem. I can’t drink it. 

Let’s rewind two months…

For some weeks I’d been experiencing dizzy spells, acute hypertension and heightened anxiety. 

I had put these issues down to a couple of factors. I thought, perhaps, a Siberian herb I’d been trialling – sagandailia – was at fault. Also, every autumn grip floating round the cavernous Moscow metro had latched onto me. But, after a month of feeling, frankly, the worst I’ve ever felt, it became clear that neither of these possibilities were a probability.

Finally, it all came to a head. I’d continued to work full-time despite feeling shitty. One evening I was teaching when I started to smell burning leaves. I was on the verge of asking one of my students if they smelt it too, when I realised I was feeling dizzy and the smell was in my head. Although I’ve never had a seizure before, it felt how I imagine you feel briefly before you have one. I grappled with this feeling for the rest of the lesson, maintained a poker face, and tried my best to finish the lesson. This was unsettling to say the least. 

After class finished, I went to doctor Google. He gave me the usual optimistic prognosis: a brain tumour and/or epilepsy. Ideal.

Luckily, in the preceding weeks, I had been to see various doctors who had already ruled out these options. But I was still shaken up.

After a bit more searching, Google did turn up something useful: caffeine sensitivity causes the same symptoms – including phantom burning smells.

I cut out tea and I started feeling better. 

A few days later I got to the core of the issue. After being bounced around Moscow medical clinics in the month since the symptoms had started, what had started off as an itch flowered into a glorious rash across my chest. I ended up in the office of a dermatologist. She called it straight away: Lyme’s disease.

This diagnosis explained everything. I’ve been spending a lot of time taking photos of deer in the national park and I had spotted and flicked away several ticks crawling on me. The reason I’d discounted Lyme’s in the first place was because I hadn’t seen one of these arachnids latched-on – and I did examine myself after every trip to the woods. But, as it turns out, lots of people don’t. Deer tick nymphs can be as small as 1mm across!

Blood tests bore out the doctor’s initial diagnosis and, after a three-week course of doxycycline, I am Lyme-bacteria-free. 

And after my second week of eating a ketogenic diet (with plenty of ginger and turmeric tea, bone broth and probiotics), I am mostly symptom-free. The symptoms lingered on, worryingly, after the antibiotic course.

I think I will be able to drink tea again before long, but for now I am taking it easy.

But some habits die hard. I was conscious that I had to give up tea and somehow it wasn’t a problem. I missed the cup I have as part of my morning routine, but I got used to it. It was chocolate became the issue – a weird one for me as I don’t eat much chocolate. 

Addiction is a strange thing. It lurks dormant and arises when you least expect it. Its can arrive to the beating of drums or it can slip in the back door, almost unnoticed. A few days ago, on my way back from work, I stopped off to get some groceries. I was halfway home and a chocolate bar was in my mouth before I was conscious of what I was doing. Bear in mind that it was ten in the morning and as well as avoiding caffeine I’m on a low carb diet and this example seems even more compulsive.

On the whole, though, I’ve been fairly successful cutting out caffeine.

I’ve felt loss, or the threat of loss, many times over the last year and a half. I’m not comparing giving up tea to any of these in gravity, but tea, and tea knowledge, has formed a big part of my self-image. I try to find lessons and possibilities for growth in all events – as painful as that might be. 

My lesson from tea restriction is a simple one – but aren’t the simple ones the hardest! During our short lives, we engineer our sense of self, we build networks of friends and family, some of us create empires and establish dynasties. It is the nature of things to come apart and we build on shaky foundations. Even if you create something that lasts beyond your time here, you will – sooner or later – have to let go of it. The choice is whether to do it with grace and love, or with resistance and clinging. 

With the bigger letting-go challenges I’ve faced in the last few years, resistance and clinging have been hard to avoid, but my experience with Lyme’s has given me an opportunity to practise what I will have to do throughout my life on a manageable scale.

I know that going forward, my relationship with tea will be less needy, more considered, and will not take what I have for granted. My job is to apply this learning to the rest of my life – an ongoing challenge, of course, but with perseverance and patience this kind of contented life is not beyond anyone.

Ripped Jeans and Mocha Lattes

When I was younger I used to spend a lot of time outside. My friend Rich and I roamed around the Somerset countryside, playing commandos. We’d smear our faces with grease and creep through the woods, making as little sound as possible, stopping only to carve sticks or shoot at things. We climbed fences and vaulted stiles, and barbed wire snagged our clothes and tore at our skin. 

I used to come home muddy, scratched, and elated. My mum didn’t feel the same. Our adventures showed on my clothes and she hated to see the rips in my new jeans. But I liked the scars from the barbed wire, some of which I still carry today, and each tare told a story. They added character and personality to off-the-peg garments.

I’m riding the Moscow metro as I write. A girl is sitting opposite me. She’s wearing a bit too much make up, but otherwise she’s pretty. She’s also wearing ripped jeans. 

I may be wrong, but she doesn’t look the type to crawl on her elbows and knees through the boggy woods north of Moscow. She bought them like that. The holes are reenforced so they don’t get any bigger.

Has fashion always been this surface? Has appearance always trumped substance? 

Maybe I’m being unfair. It may be that the ripped-jeans fashion of the last few years is a legitimate expression of something sophisticated – a wabi-sabiesque aesthetic. But I think not.  

This all brings to mind a quote commonly attributed to the 14th Dalai Lama:

We have bigger houses but smaller families;
more conveniences, but less time.
We have more degrees but less sense;
more knowledge but less judgment;
more experts, but more problems;
more medicines but less healthiness.
We’ve been all the way to the moon and back,
but have trouble in crossing the street to meet our new neighbour.
We built more computers to hold more copies than ever,
but have less real communication;
We have become long on quantity,
but short on quality.
These are times of fast foods but slow digestion;
Tall men but short characters;
Steep profits but shallow relationships.
It’s a time when there is much in the window but nothing in the room.

Tenzin may not have penned this, but it’s no less well said, nonetheless.

Coming back to ripped jeans, I think one reason they are desirable is that they hint at a story – at greater depth beyond what we see at first glance.  

But what’s the purpose? 

Anyone who stops to think about it knows that within every individual there is infinite depth. Our stories are rarely linear. They twist and turn, crisscross and tangle to form the web that supports our sense of self and legitimises our dispositions. Some of these stories are predictable, but many of them are surprising. 

I get it. Leaving aside the fact that we are more than the sum of our stories, without a front we all feel naked and vulnerable. A lot of the time we don’t think what we are is worthy and we don’t show ourselves unadorned. 

No individual is to blame for this, but we can’t escape it. We all play the game. If a shop’s website isn’t up to scratch it’s unlikely they’ll get your custom. 

Taking the tea industry as an example. Yunnan Sourcing is a great marketplace for tea, but their website is barebones. It doesn’t have that consumer sheen of say Jing Tea. But I’m certain that many a polished tea company sources some of their lines from from Yunnan Sourcing. (After marking up the price first).

I’m acutely aware of how strong this tendency is in the healthcare world. Who are you going to book for an expensive treatment? The guy with the barebones, budget site? Or the health-centre whose white walls you imagine to gleam with angelic cleanliness – like the pages of their website. Of course you’ll choose the latter. 

This time next year, I will be training to be an osteopath and following that, I will need to play ball too.

Unfortunately, because we are so easily swayed by appearance, we may be missing out. The best health treatments I have ever had have come from people who are too busy mastering the art of healing to pay much attention to marketing. Likewise, the best food I’ve ever eaten was from a street-vender frying noodles in a wok caked with twenty years of cooked-on fat. Contrast this with the clean-looking American restaurant in the same city where I got the worse food-poisoning of my life.  

Don’t get me wrong the hipster movement has brought quality in its wake – salted caramel anything is good with me. But, much of the time, what seem like quality products may just be sickly combo of deceit and clever marketing. 

Ripped jeans deflect from the real story and, as a French friend of mine once said, a latte with a shot of syrup is for someone who doesn’t really like coffee.

Living With Matcha

What not to do when starting a business and what to do with a shit-ton of matcha.

Last year my friend, Russ, approached me with a business proposition. He wanted to know what I took from my experience in the tea industry: was tea a viable e-commerce product, and would I join him in a tea venture of our own?

I hadn’t really considered it. Up to that point I filed my brief time working at Canton Tea Company under “negative education”. Not negative in the sense that I didn’t value my time there – I took a huge amount from it, more that the experience tutored me in what I didn’t want.

Allow me to explain.

The summer before I started working at Canton I had returned to China with the dream of bringing haute tea to the UK masses. My vision was idealistic. My plan ran something like “if you build it, they’ll come”. Working at Canton freed me from this delusion. During my time there, I realised the problem with opening a tea business in England: in reality, 90% of your profits are generated by tea that – as a tea snob – I didn’t want to sell, and if I did end up selling tea I was passionate about, 90% of my time would be dedicated to education. To the average English person green tea is something they may have tried once and “I’ll keep my milk and two sugars thank you very much.” Even for those accustomed to green tea, I think it would take a bit of convincing to get them to shell out on the type of product I wanted to import.

I knew all this yet, in my initial eagerness to rekindle the dream I forgot this hard-earned realisation and we decided to give the tea business a go.

In tea snobbery, Russ and I see – past noses and pinkies turned skywards – eye to eye. Our passion is for loose-leaf Chinese and Taiwanese teas. We both have supply contacts in Asia and within weeks we’d drawn out some USPs and had drafted what we thought was a fairly compelling brand.

There was one problem: the numbers didn’t run.

Without big corporate clients, there was little money in an online-only tea shop – especially one that only sold ultra-high-end teas. We’d come back to the conclusion that I’d forgotten in my haste to reignite my tea dream.

There was hope, though; one product did seem to work: matcha.

Matcha is a green tea powder produced in Japan. Matcha ticked the right boxes: it is healthy, delicious, and if you approach it in the traditional way, elitist enough to satisfy my inner snob. Vital for us as a business venture, the matcha market is growing and there is still be room for newcomers to make an impact (a fact not missed by Shopify in a recent competition).

Neither of us were obsessed with matcha. I’d come into contact with it at Canton and I enjoy the method of preparing it, and Russ uses it as a supplement. We saw a matcha-only brand as a segway to selling a wider range of tea under a similar brand.

Certain that matcha was the right course, we went ahead.

Within a few weeks we had come far. We’d made a site. We had a bank account. We had registered as a limited company. We had chosen our supplier. And we had designed labels for our matcha tins. We hoped to start trading in time for Black Friday, a mere six weeks after we came up with the idea – wishful thinking, but you can’t fault us for optimism.

Four months later and our first batch came through the door: one hundred Living-Matcha-branded tins containing fresh matcha tea.

But, in the intervening months, while the gears connecting us to our suppliers slipped and struggled to engage, I had moved to Russia and Russ had moved from Thailand to China and back to Thailand again. In short, a lot had changed in the intervening time. And we’d lost momentum. We rallied, though, and we took the last few steps of our action plan. Fifty tins went to an Amazon warehouse to fulfil orders. The remaining fifty tins stayed with us, to be sent out to brand ambassadors.

Our first order came in within twenty-four hours of our tins being listed on Amazon Marketplace. We felt vindicated: our months of hard work and waiting had paid off.

The feeling didn’t last long, however. A couple of weeks trudged by and no one was buying. Furthermore, we couldn’t even give the tins away. Brand ambassadors were less willing than we had expected to exchange nice words for a tin of tea.

…six months into the venture, I was finally focussing on selling…

When I got back to England, I decided my focus had to be on networking and on finding coffee houses and tea rooms. In other words, six months into the venture, I was finally focussing on selling.

At this critical juncture, I realised two things. The first is simple: selling is the most important thing. You need to be selling for your business from day one. Why else are sales teams so incentivised and valued in companies? The second thing I realised was not so obvious – at least not until I had finished procrastinating on branding and a website and it was crunch time: selling is hard. You really have to be incentivised to get on with it. In big companies the incentive is obvious: money and recognition. In a start up, the reward is less tangible. It could be the promise of future wealth or a mission statement which gets you fired up.

It was while I was coming to these conclusions that a third realisation dawned on me: I don’t give a shit about matcha and it will never pay well.

This is not strictly true. I enjoy matcha, but I’m not passionate enough about it. I’m not going to take it to farmers markets and cafes and convince people that they should buy it. Hell, I can hardly sell it to my friends. As for future riches, while I think that there is room in the market for a company to make a lot of money from matcha, it’s not ever going to be Coca Cola.

Both Russ and I decided that we couldn’t put enough time into the project as was needed and we called it quits less than a year after we started the project. We were settled on this decision, but one problem remained: what’s to be done with all this matcha?!

During our early time marketing matcha, I remember Russ saying, ‘Living Matcha sounds like a charity that helps those dealing with some chronic disease… “are you living with matcha? We can help.”’ I couldn’t feel those sentiments more acutely than I do now. All said, I had about 60 tins to play with.

First off, I gave lots away. But there is only a certain amount of matcha that even my friends will accept, and I still have two dozen or so tins on my shelf.

Over the past six months or so, I’ve been experimenting with the ketogenic diet. The keto diet is a low-carb diet, a modified Atkins diet if you will. By limiting sugar intake, you persuade your body to burn fat instead of sugar. It worked well for me, but one thing has been missing.

Keto dieters rave about their bulletproof coffee fix (that’s coffee with a shit-ton of butter and MCT oil for those who aren’t aware. I’m not a big coffee drinker, but matcha is packed with caffeine and other supplements. In short, it is a good replacement for coffee. So I decided to make tea-based variation.

After a bit of experimentation, here it is – Bulletproof Matcha:

Recipe

1 tsp Matcha
1 tsp Low-GI sweetener
2 tbsp Coconut oil
300 ml Hazelnut milk

Directions

Heat up the milk in a pan before adding all the ingredients to a blender. Blitz until frothy and serve in your favourite cup.

Three takeaways from all this

Number 1: go with the passion. A business, no matter what size requires a lot of energy. If you aren’t 100% behind what you are doing, you will fall at an early hurdle.

Number 2: do the maths. Passion is all well and good, but if there isn’t some grounding in reality behind what you are planning, the most wide eyed product advocate won’t be able to vault the first obstacles.

Number 3: try the ketogenic diet and make your matcha latte bulletproof. A great start to the day and might be better for you than bulletproof coffee.

Lost

Recently I felt lost and at sea. The funny thing is, I spend much of my time in this state, at least in some sense. When I travel, I rarely have more than a vague itinerary. In writing (a blog for example), structure and purpose come after hours of rambling mess. I’ve become happy in the space. Some of the best things I’ve done have come when moments of muddle crystallise to clarity.

As an example, last summer, with the intention to make connections within the tea industry, I returned to Taiwan. On my second evening back, while attempting to find a friend’s teahouse in the tangled web of alleys that spread west from Da’an park, I got lost.

A word about the environment on Ilha Formosa: it is hot! It feels pointless drying yourself after a cold shower because you’ll form a fresh layer of perspiration almost immediately. Not that this will help cool you. The humidity is such that, though your clothes cling to your back with it, sweat refuses to evaporate. The air is saturated. The atmosphere is close. Not the location for the proverbial wild-goose chase.

Feeling worn out and slightly dehydrated, I was about to call it and head home, but decided to step into a shop and see if they could locate me. It was a small space. Merchandise, much of it Japanese in origin – from the Meji era, I found out later – was arranged in the cluttered orderliness you only find in market bazaars and antique shops. A tea table took up half the room. My kind of place. Although the owner, Andy, solved the mystery of my location in minutes, hours – and several pots of tea – later I was still there. During this time, my new friend (well connected as a trader of luxury commodities) introduced me to invaluable contacts in the tea market, both in Taiwan and the mainland. A chance encounter, one that emerged when I least expected it, but which solved not only the issue at hand, but more broadly the overarching reason for my trip.

This is not an isolated event. I can think of countless examples where surrender to a less than ideal situation (often more urgent than the above) led to a remarkable breakthrough. In helpless moments, resources – coming often from angles we can’t expect – arrive.

Despite that awareness, my latest episode of maplessness unsettled me. Why though?

Well, I guess I usually have some certainty, a guiding principle which underpins my choices. But recently I’ve reevaluated my focus. Goals I considered constant, I called into question. This was less a pivot than a wrecking-ball rebuild.

At the best of times, uncertainty tests us, but when your whole raison d’être shifts, it can be devastating. In the depths of an existential crisis, you can feel alone at sea and it takes work to reorientate.

However, now the dust has settled – as it always does – and though the restructuring was turbulent, I feel better than I did before. From the shreds of a discarded map, you can draw up a new one, sketching in the peaks and pitfalls illuminated by your experience-wrought wisdom. Unrestricted potential, the freedom to choose, can be overwhelming. You can feel vulnerable and naked, but there is so much power there.

During your deepest uncertainty, it can be hard to remember this though. It took the support of a friend to bring me back to myself. These words from Josh Waitzkin in The Art of Learning also helped:

“We are built to be sharpest when in danger, but protected lives have distanced us from our natural abilities to channel our energies. Instead of running from our emotions or being swept away by their internal gusts, we should learn to sit with them, become at peace with their unique flavors, and ultimately discover deep pools of inspiration. I have found that this is a natural process. Once we build our tolerance for turbulence and are no longer upended by the swells of our emotional life, we can ride them and even pick up speed with their slopes.” (p.211)

Next time I loose my stomach on a hump in the road, I’ll endeavour to remember that getting lost is one of the best things that can happen to us. It doesn’t feel like it at the time, but it is. A voyage in hostile waters can show us what we’re made of and, out in the wilderness, you shed what is non-essential: it calls on you to bring forth a truer vision of yourself.

Seven Life Lessons from Surfing

This time yesterday I was surfing off the North African coast. A twelve-hour journey, a dreamless five-hour sleep, and a few thousand kilometres later, I’m home (south-west England). But when I close my eyes I can still see the water. Sitting at the kitchen table, in my chest, I feel the draw and swell of the ocean behind me, building in volume ready for the next set of waves.

You can rationalise the ocean. Break its action down into measurable rules. But once you’re in – floating on its surface – rules are of little use: you have to feel it out; you can only understand it through experience.

Out on the water, those best at surfing have an intuitive understanding of where they need to be. They let the ocean do the work. A few effortless strokes and they land in the sweet spot and ride to shore. (Contrast with my frantic thrashing to catch a wave.)

So surfing’s an intuitive affair. Yet I’m going to attempt to rationalise, and draw out seven lessons from my experience: the first is to…

… (1) have PATIENCE

Surfing involves waiting. A lot of waiting: for the tide to change; the wind to blow a different direction; and, when conditions are perfect, you have to wait for the right wave to take you.

Waves come in groups – a few waves to each. Between each of these pulses you may be waiting several minutes. You may spend more time bobbing up and down on your board, and paddling to position than dropping in and surfing to shore. In short, you need to be patient.

More than patient…

(2) … be PRESENT where you are

You can either wait, impatient, craving the next ride. Or you can adopt a placid stance:

Relax…

Deep breaths…

Make the most of your freedom – no work, no worries, just you and the sea.

Taoists have a concept which I equate to this: wuwei. As is often the case, the term has no english equivalent. Wuwei is often translated to ‘effortless doing’, or simply ‘non-action’.

Wuwei works on the premise that there is a natural flow to the universe. What happens will happen, and often your input can hinder rather than enhance this process. Best to go with rather than force against. To practise non-doing you do what needs to be done, when it needs doing – minimise resistance to what is. A person must eliminate thoughts and actions which interrupt the natural state of flow.

For me, boredom is the sign that I’m not in state. There is a quality to passivity, but we are so rarely away from smart-phone sensory stimulation that, in the modern world, we’re at risk of forgetting – or at least losing touch with – awareness of that quality. Really, there is no reason to be bored… ever: there is always so much going on within and without.

When surfing it’s somehow easier to understand and apply this principle. Although you’re waiting, you’re never bored. There is no need for concerned. The wave, as with the next opportunity for growth and action in life, will come. You just have to be patient.

So you’ve stilled your breath – waited with zen-like repose for you next trip to shore – but the ride you want to take might not be yours at all. You need to…

… (3) be FLEXIBLE

Further out, swell can look promising – the water bulges on the horizon. By the time it reaches where you are, however, the potential has faded to nought. What appears a golden opportunity from a distance sometimes fails to turn out that way. The tangents often end up taking centre stage. The possibilities that arise around what I thought I wanted turn into best rides. Paddling to position for what looked like your wave may set you up for another down the line.

So be flexible. Don’t cling to something that appears right for you, but never was. But, at the same time, you must…

(4)… TRUST yourself

Trust your choices. Stop second guessing yourself.

It’s tempting to look at an area five metres away, to where the wave is breaking, and feel like you haven’t picked the best spot for take off. (Ok, as a beginner, your position probably is poor, but grass-is-always-greener syndrome can be a factor too.) Every time I found myself moving down the line to get to where I thought the waves were peaking, I looked back only to find that they seemed to be best where I had come from.

Trust where you are.

That being said, highly talented people miss a trick because they are in the wrong place. So keep your eyes open, but still… trust yourself. If you’ve seen from the shore that that’s the place to be, keep doing what you’re doing and fruit will come.

Once you are in the sweet spot, as important as positioning, timing is crucial. In fact…

… (5) TIMING is everything

Waves are travellers. Born by storms out to sea, they journey thousands of miles before breaking on the beach. After making it all that distance, you can trust them to carry you the last leg.

Those surfing in Morocco impressed me. With experienced surfers, even when they seemed to be in the wrong position to grab a ride, a few light strokes and they manage it. Their timing is perfect. No wasted effort. They gather the right momentum and let the wave do the work.

Excess, mistimed thrashing is counterproductive. The more effort you put in, the more you impede yourself – you upset the balance of the board (it bobs and dampens momentum).

Just a few well-timed strokes and you’re away.

To help with this, as with mastery of any discipline…

… (6) RELAXATION is key

Last week training BJJ with a friend, he told me that when players hit blue-belt, they start to relax. By the time they are black you can hardly feel where they are: they use their posture and positioning rather than static muscular strength.

It’s the same with any high-level sport, there has to be a point where you relax if you want to go further. (Not sure if the same is true for weight-lifters, but let’s ignore that for the sake of my argument!) With surfing relaxation helps with paddling – you need your torso and shoulders to relax so your arms can move free and not rock the board. You need loose legs and open hips for free movement up and down the wave.

Tension trips us up: it’s the perspiration beading during an important interview; it’s the lump in your throat when you ask someone out; and it causes most of our health complaints.

It all starts in the mind and it’s difficult to overcome. However, if you have all the proceeding steps in place, relaxation is effortless. In the same way, step seven is easy if you’ve released tension – if you’re relaxed, no need to…

… (7) LET GO

When surfing you need to renounce control. You are at the mercy of the ocean.

The sea is powerful and you are subject to its majesty. If you bail in the wrong place, you can be kept under for a long time. Too long. You’re churned up and rolled till you can’t tell up from down – until you fear you won’t be able to hold your breath much longer. Oddly, for some reason it’s the moment when you accept your fate and surrender that you break surface.

There’s something liberating about surrendering in that way.

Life is precarious. At any moment you could leave. Accepting this is a powerful tonic. Considering death makes you value every moment of life you have. I’m not being morbid. It’s just that we spend so much time in regret, worry, incapacitated by self-doubt, or simply wrapped up trivial matters. The occasional consideration of your mortality does wonders for cutting through these bonds. It makes you appreciate what you have.

I’m not proposing flinging all caution to the wind. But the occasional paddle outside your comfort zone does wonders for your posture in the long term.

So there you have it. 7 life lessons from a week’s surfing: patience, presence, flexibility, trust, timing, relaxation, and surrender.

But, most important: surfing is fun and I’m hooked. In fact, I have a new proviso when choosing places to live: be close enough to the coast that I can get to the sea often – if not every day then on a regular basis.

Oblique Objectives

“If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

It never fails to impress me how some fulfil their objectives. After setting a goal, achievers seem to march blinkered until they reach their destination. They don’t stop and they refuse to be sidetracked by distractions. There’s a part of me that’s envious. In a way, I wish I worked like this. But I don’t.

I make plans, of course. Who doesn’t? From mundane day-to-day targets, to more grandiose dreams. I usually manage bring in the washing, but on the larger scale I rarely get things done in quite the manner I expected. Woody Allen’s quip rings true in my experience. In a grand scheme there are too many moving parts, too many variables to consider. Not least my own caprice! In my book, this is no bad thing: if we only experienced the expected, life would stay limited. Indeed, would you even get off the starting blocks? All the best things I have done have come from unexpected angles.

Oblique Objectives

When I first moved to China, my goal was to train full time in martial arts. Instead, I discovered a passion for travel and a love of learning language. Studying abroad, in turn, allowed me a route back into formal education. When I returned to England, I intended to continue with Chinese linguistics. I was set on this path. I applied for SOAS, Oxford, and Edinburgh. As fourth choice wild card, I applied for Theology and Religious Studies at Bristol too. I didn’t expect to get into Bristol. My personal statement was geared towards Oriental Studies. Somehow, though, I got accepted. All it took was one visit to Bristol to realise that was where I needed to be, after all. 

It’s funny, whenever I arrive at the destination, unplanned as it may be, the overriding impression is this was always the goal anyway. Any sense of the original intention that led me to that place seems faint and insignificant. This being the case, recently I’ve had to reconsider how I set goals. How can I motivate myself to achieve an aim if I know that this probably isn’t the outcome I’m going to get anyway?

Flexible Goals

My new method doesn’t obsess over how – or even to focus on clarifying in detail what. I focus instead on feeling goals: the whys. Anything can help solidify the whys: images, scenarios, imagined sounds. Anything that generates an emotion I’m aiming for helps.

As an example, in the spring I was going for a job as tea buyer at a speciality tea company in London. The job involved a lot of travelling and in my visualising of that target, I saw myself riding a dirt bike up a mountain trail. I made every sensation acute. I felt the wind on my face, the vibration of the engine in my chest. The sensation of having my stomach left behind as I accelerate and, peaking the crest of a hill, I pictured the vista that opens before me: tea terraces, temples, pagodas. (In short, the quintessential Chinese idyll.)

I didn’t get the job. I was under qualified. Punching above my weight, I was lucky to get as far as I did. But, it wasn’t the job I was after. It was the picture. I wanted the feelings associated with those images: freedom, exploration, and discovery to name a few. The great thing about targeting emotions is there is no one way to realise them. With one route barred, I made a new map. (In fact, the original vehicle to get those feelings – a corporate work environment – was no doubt ill-suited the journey anyway!) It looks like I’ll be in Moscow for the winter. I’ve adapted my plan accordingly. I’m investigating two options for the spring thaw. I could, either to make my way back to Europe by motorbike. Or, more challenging (and appealing), get to Beijing by the same means. The goal of exploring tea terraces are also in the pipeline.

Maybe these plans will come to naught. Maybe, again, I’ll have to rethink them. But that’s not the point. I’ll just adapt again. Having a desired emotional outcome in mind leaves me open to that adaptation. It leaves me flexible, and open to unexpected destinations, in a way that fixating on a static goal does not. After all, it’s in the opportunities that come at me from oblique angles where I often find what I was looking for all along.

Jack of All Trades, Master of Some

Over the last few years, by pursuing anything that stirs my interest, I’ve built up a varied skill base. Although tai chi has been consistent throughout, I enjoy the learning process as much as steady focus on a single discipline. I try my hands at many different things.

Recently, a few people have commented on this approach. They use different metaphors: Jack of all trades or wearing many hats. But, many strings to your bow is my favourite.

Something about this philosophy does concern me, though. Will these interests eventually help move me move in a cohesive direction? To draw the bow metaphor to its absolute limit, I hope that these strands will twine to form one robust bowstring. Or, by pursuing them all, am I spreading myself too thin? Will each interest – without integration – be too weak to hold the weight of a strung bow?

That I want to generate income from my interests gives this concern that much more impetus.

Every one of my interests and hobbies warrant a lifetime’s sole focus. Business, language, tea and travel are all areas where one could pursue deep and satisfying study. Even within the system of Chinese martial arts I practise, you could do worse than focusing on just one of its various disciplines. I think my greatest fear is of embodying an idiom my dad used to use when I was growing up: to be a Jack of all trades, master of none.

The question that’s been plaguing me, therefore, is should I narrow field of interests? Is it a fool’s quest to pursue so many goals? Would sacrificing a few for the enhancement of the rest not be a more sensible plan?

The summer is always a frenzied time. It’s always easier for me to take stock and goal set as the Autumn begins to take hold. In this respect, late September is my new year.

This Fall, I was fortunate enough to pass ‘new year’ with two close friends, who also happen to make up the numbers of a mastermind trio. Over our three days away, the guys put things in perspective. They always do.

With the insight I’ve come to expect, Caspar and Jack helped address the fear outlined above. Caspar gave an analogy I liked. He said, that it is all too common to treat goals like you are standing at the centre of a field with varied targets arrayed around you. With this conception, if you move towards one interest, you distance yourself from another. It’s an imagining that keeps us paralysed in indecision and lack of action.

In reality, things are quite different. In truth, it’s rare that movement towards one goal will lead you away from others (unless they do conflict). It’s perhaps better imagining all your targets and goals grouped at one end of a longer field. Whatever happens you have to get moving. Farther down the line you can course correct if necessary – and, in fact, it will be easier to do so because new experience and understandings will inform your decisions.

I once spent the summer working in a gîte. For some reason, the owner trusted me to ferry guests between the train station on the valley floor, to the guest house perched 1000 metres up a mountain trail. The snaking cliff-edge roads have no safety barriers. The Suzuki jeep had no power steering (and the turning circle of an oil tanker). Anyone who has driven the French-Italian border will understand, there was strong incentive to adjust my driving technique to suit the new situation…

Without power steering, you can’t dry steer. (Or at least, you need to be stacked if you try). You have to get moving before you can direct the car where you want, with any ease.

I like this as a metaphor. After gathering momentum, it’s easier to steer toward a desired goal. Furthermore, once moving, you tend to have a clearer vision of your objectives – you are further down the field, after all. Other opportunities, you were’t expecting, often emerge from the miasma at oblique angles on your flight.

Overall, I don’t think it matters that I don’t see how all my interests will tie together yet. Life is rarely as neat as we would like it. But the different avenues do enhance and compliment each other.

The anticipatory anxiety I experience while I explore is nothing compared to the emptiness I would invite if I chose to stick at one path. I’m not sure what I’ll be doing in ten years time, but what I’m doing now – even if it’s not the end-game – is giving form to that uncertain future. As long as I keep following my gut, I’m sure I can’t go too far wrong.

Swooping, Smelling Roses, and Stopping

I haven’t written much for two weeks. I’ve been busy. Setting up a limited company ready for trading by Black Friday, within a month of its conception, is a bit of a task it seems. While applying the lean philosophy, our MVP has still taken a lot of work. (I’m sure I’ll do a post on this, so stay tuned.)

Although I’ve not been writing – prose, that is (lot’s of copy) – I’ve read several books and listened to the odd podcast.

It’s all been top quality stuff, but the highlights were a couple of episodes of the Tim Ferriss Show where Tim interviews Rolf Potts.

These two writers have influenced my thinking over the last year, to say the least. Tim because his work acted as a catalyst for a change that was brewing, and Rolf, for reminding me that I was neglecting an important part of myself.

I can’t do the two-part interview justice here. It’s worth listening to the whole thing. But I will draw on a couple of things that stuck me.

The podcast was right up my street: writing, travel, and measuring success using the time metric rather than by a monetary scale alone. What more could you want?

I also picked up two new categorisations that gave name to things I was doing anyway.

First off, I’m a basher.

That is not as bad as it sounds. Being a basher is not licentious in any sense. As an aside, I was once at a party and I was busy telling a girl that I was planning on trying woofing during the summer. She was Parisian and had only learnt of dogging the week before. As such, she assumed WWOOFing was an esoteric offshoot of that hallowed English tradition. Despite this, we still dated for a while. But perhaps the first impression was enduring. The relationship only lasted a couple of months.

Anyway… back to the ranch.

The word describes writing method. According to Kurt Vonnegut, there are swoopers and there are bashers:

“Swoopers write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn’t work. Bashers go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they’re done they’re done.”

So a bashing out a piece of prose a slower process. By the time the first page is complete, the first paragraph has been re-written several times. (Writing this, I’m resisting my basher tendencies, and so far I have only gone back to visit the first paragraph once or twice…)

Tim and Rolf are bashers too.

In Tim’s experience “being a basher is just the most torturous process of self-loathing and doubt.” He laments the fact he agonises over two paragraphs, sometimes for hours at a stretch. While I feel Tim’s pain, I’m glad to hear him say that. It is affirming to hear my experience of writing echoed by two published authors, whose work I enjoy. And, as Rolf confirms, swooping and bashing are both legitimate creative methods. Although this awareness doesn’t make the process any easier, knowing it, I don’t feel so isolated. I feel a stronger sense of connection to the creative discipline I’ve begun to explore.

Talk of exploring brings me to my next highlight.

One of my favourite things to do when I arrive in a new city is to wander from the hostel and explore. Better still, I take the metro to a point of interest and, after looking around there, try to find my way home by foot. Invariably this results in foot weariness by the end of the day. But I never regret these escapades. Getting lost, you have experiences a guidebook could never suggest. And the people and happenings you meet along the way make for great stories (whether you enjoyed it at the time of not!)

Rolf shares my philosophy, suggesting:

“If in doubt, just walk until your day becomes interesting.”

He gives a name to one who undertakes this wandering: the flâneur.

If you’re not attentive, familiar surroundings become old. You become so accustomed to your environment that you no longer experience it. It becomes a purely utilitarian space. The flâneur doesn’t let this happen. The concept, which took shape in 19th century Paris, connotes a man of leisure, an urban wanderer. It describes a way of being which doesn’t take things for granted. It encourages us to slow down, to leave a bit of extra time, to amble to our destination rather than pace.

We’re so used to taking transport directly to our objectives when we’re at home. We aim to get from A to B – maybe stopping at C on the way and pick up some groceries – in the most efficient way possible.

We often transpose this sense of urgency onto travel. Visitors try to see as many sites as possible during a brief stay. But travel isn\’t about box ticking. Rolf uses the analogy of eating a meal in Italy. He asks whether it would be desirable to optimise an Italian meal for efficiency?!

The flaneurial attitude can be transposed onto life, wherever possible. We spend so much time rushing from place to place that we don\’t experience life to the fullest. What is the point of spending effort optimising, if you don’t make use of the time-wealth you are attempting to free up? Every once in a while, pausing, and taking in what’s before our eyes is essential.

In fact, pausing – or stopping altogether – is the subject of the next point I want to explore. I’ve wanted to write this post for a while, but something Rolf said inspired me to get it out:

“Having a cessation of obsessing on your creative life, will allow your brain to work in ways that will make you more creative.”

Rolf makes the point in relation to travel. In fact, he’s drawing on an article in the New York Times which affirms the importance of taking vacations.

What’s important about taking a holiday is stopping, that is breaking the normal pattern of your thinking. In everyday life, it can be as simple as pausing and taking a breath. (It sounds cliched because everyone says it. But there’s a reason for this – it works!)

Sometimes a more pronounced gap is necessary.

During my undergraduate dissertation, I was a mess. I must apologise to those that knew me then. I was a grumpy, self-involved nightmare. While spending time with family and friends, my thoughts were elsewhere. My brain was ticking over in the background trying to mold disparate information into a cohesive argument. I should’ve known better than to try to put Daoism in a box, I guess. Or, for that matter, to talk about it at all. After all, “Those who know do not speak, those who speak do not know” (知者不言言者不知 DDJ 56

When it all got too much, when I’d read so much that the loose conceptual framework started to grow unstable, I would go off and do some tai chi.

Invariably, once I began focussing, a question that I’d been fretting over for hours – or days – would solve itself. As soon as I dropped into stillness, the answer would come. My mind, given a break, would find the answer. I had to be disciplined not to run back to the computer and start typing again. If I just carried on training, I would still have the answer at the end. (But more often than not, I would succumb to temptation and go back to scratching out my argument while the insight lay fresh in my head.)

It’s in the space between phenomena where we often what we are seeking within the world. Or, at least, the break from sensory over stimulation allows us to make sense of what we already have floating around in the grey matter.

In sum, I seem to have drawn together a guide for creative contentment:

    • 1) When it comes to being creative, we all have to find our own rhythm. Are you a disciplined morning writer? Or a night owl who only switches on after dark? Are you a swooper? A basher? Or a conflicted mix of both?
    • 2) Every fire needs fuel. For creative arts, that means experience. Being a flâneur is a great way to gather kindling. It could be as simple as taking a different route home – or just being present during your usual path. Equally, you might take up a new hobby. Something like photography, for example, makes you experience light in a totally different way.
  • 3) Taking a break is essential. Turn on airplane mode for ten minutes, have a cup of tea, or do some yoga. If you need a more pronounced pause for your piece of mind, take several weeks and go world wandering. Whatever vehicle you use, interrupt your normal patterns. It’s vital for the health of the creative mind.

The Golden Elixir

Standing in her kitchen, it was the first time Eli and I had seen each other in some time.

‘Tea?’ she asked.
‘Of course.’ What else?

I occupied myself, surveying the pictures on her walls while she set a tray with china teapot and matching Chinese-style cups. She produced a jar from a cupboard. It was hand labelled ‘Ed’s Magic Oolong’. The word is out, it seems. After decanting a few grains and adding hot water, she swirled the contents before disposing of the wash brew in the sink. She topped the pot back up and we went to the living room to catch up.

As happens with good friends, we took up where we’d left off. Conversation flowed, free and easy. Half an hour later, Eli’s partner Toby joined us. I’d only met Toby once before, and then but briefly. The conversation hardly lulled. We were discussing my plans in the tea industry – with the blog and e-commerce – and they gave me sage advice. In fact, I should have taken a dictaphone because they mapped a masterful marketing plan. Finally, Toby levelled a question at me.

‘What I want to know though, Ed, is why tea?

I had to think about it. So many possible answers.

Why Tea?

It’s vogue to talk about the herb’s health benefits. Camellia sinensis is, it seems, a veritable panacea. Packed with antioxidants, some say it helps fight cholesterol, and it helps keep you trim, to boot.

Yet, I’m loathed to explain it rationally. I prefer to give an intuitive answer: to observe, like Lu Yu – the god of tea – that ‘the taste of tea is like nectar from heaven’.

If pushed though – if I have to break it down – I could draw many of the reasons I love tea out from the scenario described in the first few paragraphs, above.

Tea for Socialising with Others…

Tea brings people together. Hanging out, it’s nice to have a backdrop: an activity to punctuate socialising. A coffee shop or a pub is standard in our culture. I never drink coffee and alcohol rarely, so tea serves as a substitute.

The teapot, or tea table in Chinese-style preparation, acts the hearth fire – the focal point of the room. Its activity, like stoking the fire or watching flames dance, absorbs attention between exchanges of conversation. Likewise during a pause in talk, sipping tea provides a natural comma: time to absorb and process what’s passed.

As well as being a nice prop, tea also stimulates conversation. Early in its development the literati recognised for this quality. They lauded it for inspiring poetry and thoughts of high philosophy. Tea is fuel for the creative mind.

Tea contains high quantities of l-theanine. This amino acid counteracts the negative effects of caffeine on the nervous system – such as coffee jitters – while maintaining it’s enlivening effects. L-theanine is, perhaps, a factor in tea’s strength as a social drink.

… and with Yourself

Perhaps for the same reason, tea is also great to enjoy on your own. As we need an activity to partake in with friends, we often don’t give ourselves permission to sit and relax alone either. Tea provides that excuse for me: a pot of oolong means half an hour at relented pace.

Tea is also the perfect accompaniment to introverted activities. Having a full gaiwan sitting nearby provides a foil to morning training. And, while writing or studying, making a cup is an interval for you to process information and allow ideas to emerge.

“Some people will tell you there is a great deal of poetry and fine sentiment in a chest of tea.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Letters and Social Aims

Ritual and Mindfulness

To my mind, one of the reasons it’s easy to find peace while taking time for tea is the therapeutic nature the process. Rinsing the leaves, Eli embodied this notion.

Performing a prescribed process, a ritual, in a careful and considered way, is centring. This I find especially true making tea gongfu-style. You can tweak each step infinitesimal amounts, and even slight variations at each stage affect the end result.

It requires mindful attention.

In China, they say that ‘tea and Zen are one taste’ (cha Chan yi wei 茶禪一味). As with most Chinese idioms, there are many layers of meaning to this simple phrase. After all, Tea and Zen Buddhist culture have influenced each other in various ways. But, for me, the single-pointed focus of preparing tea brings with it stillness (and this helps me make sense of the saying). Tea was, and still is, prized as a meditation aid. Apart from the physiological effects, the mindfulness of its ceremony contributes to this position.

“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things.

– Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Golden Elixir

My final point: Eli’s jar has it right. My oolong is magic.

Daniel Reid wrote a book on this. In The Art and Alchemy of Chinese Tea, Reid observes that some see tea as soma, the legendary drink consumed by Aryans to contact their gods. Tea is, for him, ‘the golden elixir of life’, the jindan金丹. Not, he adds, in a medieval sense of a mystical substance turning base metal to pure gold. But rather a bioactive herb which brings health and induces a state change.

I agree with his assessment.

In answer to the question – Why tea? Tea is alchemical. It has the power to make everyday encounters precious, to transmute activities. It enhances conversation and deepens introversion. It acts as a catalyst for creativity and promotes peace. And, if you drink high-quality greens and oolongs, there are no negative side effects (unless you overindulge and get tea drunk).

Drinking tea is enlivening, yet I don’t feel dependent. Nevertheless, the tea set is the last thing I put away when moving house and the first thing I look for when all the boxes are unpacked. It’s a creature comfort that adds colour to life.

Same Shit Different Office

I sat in the office of a client, in a building situated near Taganskaya metro station, west Moscow. Taganskaya is a beautiful district which remains unscarred by the architectural harikiri of the 1960s. Unlike in other areas of the city, there are no ugly Khrushchyovka and every building is a feast to look at.

Earlier in the day, as I’d made my way to work from the metro, through tumbling clumps of plane blossom, which flurried to avoid my step, I’d passed churches and kindergartens. I couldn’t have imagined a better place to spend a working day.

The Stanislavsky Factory once made gold thread and electric cable. Now it’s a business centre housing some of the capital’s top media firms – Disney, notably. The structure is spectacular. Running half the length of the street and built of red brick, it stands in contrast to the white and cream buildings opposite and on either side.

Inside, the building is no less pleasing. Entering the complex, through sliding glass doors in its flank, a number of things are striking. First, the sense of space. The atrium is huge and, despite being decorated in dark shades, it still feels roomy. The other thing which unseats you is the style change. The outside of the building is what you’d expect an early 20th-century industrial building to look like, but inside it is more modern – a blend of LEDS, faded driftwood floors and brush-metal fittings. It all blends seamlessly and the design has won multiple architectural awards.

My clients office, situated on the top floor, is spacious. I sat for a while setting up the materials I’d need for the lesson. Then, as there was small likelihood of her imminent arrival – she’s always twenty minutes late for our appointment – I got up and took the opportunity to explore.

Her personal working space is separated from the rest of the floor by glass on two sides with venetian blinds for privacy. One of the glass partitions opens into a large conference room, and that room fronts onto an open-air terrace.

Staring vacantly through the french windows onto the terrace, lost in thought, I began, for the first time in over a year, to consider whether I’d made the right choice leaving nine to five security. This would be a great place to work, I thought again. I could do my tai chi here in the morning and evening, after and before work. I’d be in a beautiful area of the city. And corporate life does have it’s advantages – my income would be secure. I could always take my cousin up on his offer and get a job at CapGemini…

As I came out of my reverie, my eyes refocused and I noticed the weeds.

Sprouting up through the grouting between the tiles of the terrace, the plants had free-reign of the patio. I took a step back and saw too that the seal between the door and the doorframe – though granted formed by a fresh coat of paint – remained uncracked.

No-one uses the terrace, I realised. They probably don’t have time.

With that, my client arrived. I heard the secretary greet her and take her coat. I put the thought away and returned to her office.

I once mentioned the time-wealth principle, but didn’t elaborate.

In a nutshell, the principle states that you can have all the money in the world, but if you don’t have the time to spend it, you’re not rich.

Obvious, right. So self-evident that to point it out seems patronising.

But when do we act on that understanding? We spend inordinate amounts of time chasing after money. In fact, the majority of our lives is directed to this end. We use so much energy that we barely make use of the money we slave for. Saturday, Sunday and weekday evenings are often spent in a slump recovering or else frantically passed, as we try to squeeze every ounce of juice out of our limited free time.

As the class continued, I had further confirmation of how precious my executive’s time was. She is in the office at all hours. Her husband cares for their child full-time allowing her to fulfil her role as company president and complete her Executive MBA course. She also told me she only takes holidays tagged onto the end of business trips. Her family come with her and then they enjoy the destination for a few days once business is concluded.

Don’t get me wrong, this way of life probably suites her. She’s a high-flyer – only a couple of years older than me – and she loves what she does. But the lack of time and freedom to enjoy other things would not be my cup of tea.

The higher up in that world you go, it doesn’t seem to me that the time money tradeoff is worthwhile. You have more responsibility to your shareholders and all the cash in the world can’t buy your freedom when you are indebted to stakeholders.

Lastly, after an hour and a half in her office, I started to remember the other reason I hated nine-to-five life. I had the fuzzy-headedness I associate with long hours in an office, lack of movement and computer screens. However perfect the working environment seems, hours and hours spent inside, making calls, sending emails and having meetings would get to me. It seems to me that it’s just the same problems packaged in a vastly more desirable box.

Give me wandering round a city – teaching punctuated by tea breaks, business and blogging – and financial uncertainty, but my time to spend as I see fit over this option any day.

On Arriving

I’ve been two months now, living in Moscow. And, I’m finally settled, and comfortable enough – in a manic routine (thanks IH) – to spend some time doing the things I love.

Time to blow the dust from my keyboard and bash out some writing.

Getting back to it, my writing’s not flowing with ease. I’m rusty. The last thing I recorded were some reflections on landing. Reading back over it I’m amazed by the contrast:

Step in from street. Heat blankets me in an unwelcome embrace, drunk and clingy. Maybe on the way to the supermarket I was hit by a skidding car, only to be reborn in one of hell’s seven circles? Wishful thinking – I remain in Moscow.

I understand now why Russians drink so much. Here, the insides of buildings are as hot as the wind is gnawing cold out. Frost to thaw; liquid to ice; sweat glands prickle, weep and dry, crystallise then dilate again only for the cycle to repeat. The regular heat change is the recipe for a headache. A flu-like nausea grips me. In this state – not unlike the worst hangover – getting merry seems less a bad idea than good common sense. Where’s the vodka aisle?

Pocket buzzes.

Tinder Vicky punctuates my melancholy musings: ‘So, why Russia?’ Good question, was just that moment asking the same of myself. Was it the sense of adventure? It’s hardly a health farm here. Blood-sugar low is becoming intolerable. Stop thinking. Snatch up baklava and honey for the healing. Forget listed essentials in my eagerness to get home. Home? Is that what we call this block where I subsist?

Laboured walk. Everything is slower in the cold. Entropy governs. Spring thaw seems distant.

At the flat now. Trap clawing wind behind the door, squeezed shut. Trudge up ten flights, stamping snow from my boots as I climb. A man waits at the top of the stairs. Dour look. Inscrutable. Local I presume?
‘Here for the internet?’
‘Da! Internet.’ Is all he says, stressing the second syllable and rolling the ‘r’. Must learn Russian – it would make things easier.
Unlock the door, and the heat hits again. I let us in.

Ah, home at last. Wooden floors and broken appliances. 70s decor. Like stepping into a Notes from a Small Island, only the scene lacks the charm of Bryson’s wit.

What’s App message from Barcelona. Spring lies there, I think, with my heart. To up and leave? Call this a bad job and head back to Europe, and love. Business might be easier to manage from there anyway. The considerations of a nomad’s mind.

Thankfully, now I don’t feel like this.

I’m still in Moscow. More than that, I love it here. Quite a turnaround in a short space of time!
Ok, spring has arrived and shop missions aren’t the soggy-frozen-foot-harrowing escapades they once were, but other elements contribute to my new frame too.

Relating it to one’s first encounter with War and Peace, in Le Roman Russe, de Vogüé describes the experience of a traveller arriving in a new culture. (And referring to it here seems appropriate, considering my current location). For him, the wanderer feels ‘constraint and boredom at first, then curiosity and at last a firm attachment.’ I don’t know about boredom, but on the whole I agree with this assessment.

For me, a couple of things stand out as important steps in forging de Vogüé’s ‘firm attachment’.

First off, travelling makes you feel like a child again. A high-functioning child, but a child no less. You can’t express your thoughts with the clarity you take for granted in your mother tongue. And that’s putting it lightly. You can’t even buy groceries without hassle… and gesticulations.

At first, the lack of connection with wider society can leave you feeling a tad dejected: when you fail to respond to the most prosaic of questions till workers openly pity you, and old men walk away shaking their heads when you meet their earnest attempts to start a conversation with uncomprehending eyes and unintelligible Russian.

But ultimately this rejections turns to frustration and acts as the stick to start learning niceties (or, in extreme cases, the drive to master a new language.) I’m not at the stage where I’m expressing myself adequately. Far from it. Hanging out mainly with English teachers kinda removes the impetus. Yet, even without applying myself wholeheartedly to learning, I am starting to understand more of what’s going on around me. And understanding – even if it’s only partial – leads to, sooner or later, comfort in a place. You at home in your surroundings, however similar or different they may be to home.

Another factor determining your settledness is social.

One of my goals for this year was to feel centred and grounded in myself, irrespective of material surroundings. When I set that aim, I thought that tai chi and meditation would be key, but I would never have stabilised so quickly if I hadn’t met welcoming people; if a support network hadn’t grown up around me.

Paraphrasing Piere Bordieu: individuals do not exist in a vacuum, we are held in place by, and determine our identities through, a web of interpersonal connections. We are little out of relationship with the rest of society.

I’m not naturally an extrovert, but nothing can make up for the belongingness you feel by connecting with people. Martial arts have softened my landing here, no doubt and daily practise has kept me energised and happy during a busy couple of months. But even in this, going jiu jitsu classes attends to social needs as much as physical.

I’m not sure how long I’ll be in Moscow. With the financial situation I can’t see myself staying past the end of my contract in July. (The distance from the sea is also an issue. It’s just under 1000 km to the nearest ocean – I’ve never lived this far inland before.) Nevertheless, I will miss the city when I move away: I’ll miss babushkas’ sense of entitlement on the metro, I’ll miss the unexpected taste of dill, and I’ll miss skating with friends. As spring progresses, I’m sure a thousand more things to miss will occur.

New beginnings are always hard. They can sometimes be as challenging as endings. But as long as you persevere in understanding and build the right support network around you. You quickly find your feet.

Wherever you are in the world routine becomes rut all too easily. You get used to a place and you develop patterns. But every now and then I wake up to the present and think, fuck yeah, I’m in MOSCOW!

Tying Shoes, Toaking and Tai Chi

I’m 28 now and around Christmas time I thought it was about time I learn to tie my shoes.

I don’t know how I stumbled on his site – I love how niche the internet goes – but according to Ian Fieggen, aka Professor Shoelace, for the best part of three decades I’ve been doing it wrong.

Instead of the orthodox reef knot, I have been securing my shoes with ‘granny knots’. The Professor goes into detail in this video, but to sum up, while former leaves your shoes securely fastened, the incorrect variation is prone to coming loose. A granny knot is easy to distinguish from the orthodox knot – its bow lies lengthways, instead of straddling the breadth of your foot.

Not wanting to go against the grain, I decided to address this issue and remaster the art of shoelace tying.

The first few months of reprogramming were the toughest. I had to really think through my method and, each time I stooped to fasten my laces, I resisted compulsive twitches, as ingrained muscle memory tried to reestablish control.

Muscovites are tardy folk and regrettably since I started working here, some of this attitude has taken root… and blossomed. I have the tendency now of leaving the house not a minute earlier than I’m in danger of being late. I usually make appointments on time, but by narrow margins.

A few weeks back, I was performing my usual 7am routine. Having lain in bed checking emails and playing Clash of Clans since 6 (evil, addictive game – must delete soon), I had ten minutes to make myself passable for inspection by the world.

My standard pre-door-exit to and fro involves packing my bag, getting dressed and trying not to slop too much tea down my unironed shirt. I do all on tiptoes, as I try to avoid stirring my good-natured, but conversation-happy Italian flatmate.

On this occasion, after closing the front door on Francesco mid-conversation and loping the seven minute walk to the metro, I sat down on a hard seat, out of breath but more or less on time. I then noticed my feet. The bows of both shoes lay horizontally across my foot.

Success! (If in a mad rush I don’t revert to old patterns, I think that’s mission complete.)

I tell this anecdote, not to bore you with details of my mundane, rather nerdy mission to tie my shoes in the correct fashion, but because it got me thinking: every time I’ve trained myself out of bad habit, success came through transformation rather than cessation.

Back in the day, I used to smoke. I’m not sure how addicted I was, but it was a routine. When, at the venerable age of nineteen, I decided to call it a day, I didn’t just stop cold turkey. I replaced smoking pit stops with another, more beneficial pastime.

The end of my smoking days overlapped with me starting Tai Chi. For those who aren’t familiar – or for whom it brings to mind aging hippies directing invisible traffic in the park – let me introduce the subject. Tai Chi Chuan is a form of qigong (‘breath/energy work’), a moving mediation. Originating in ancient China, it combines breathing and relaxed muscle change to enhance your psychophysical health. When you perform it correctly, Tai Chi’s movements also have martial applications.

Because I started qigong at a similar time to giving up smoking, at the times when I would have normally skinned up, walked outside and inhaled deeply, I just walked outside… and inhaled deeply. Instead of breathing in a cocktail of chemicals though, I would practise the latest exercise that Bruce (my teacher) had taught me.

The two activities – smoking and qigong – are similar in many ways. Both involve controlled, deep breathing and both are used for introversion time. They also form, traditionally at least, an aspect of spiritual practice for their parent cultures. However, while one remains beneficial, the other is a less desirable activity.

The lack of nicotine imbibed when I went outside for some qigong didn’t seemed to affect how addictive it was in the slightest. I exchanged one routine for the another. And I didn’t miss smoking in the slightest.

Maybe I don’t have a very addictive personality, and though I smoked a few times in the years following quitting (though nothing for 7 years or so), I haven’t experienced any desire to take up the habit again.

There were other factors involved, of course: two of my best friends stopped at a similar time (so no contrary peer influence); and within a year I would start a new phase of my life in China. But I still feel that swapping one habit for a similar, but less harmful routine is easier than an abrupt stop.

I’ve tried this in other areas of my life and had similar success.

In the martial and healing aspects of Tai Chi, we talk of making holes and filling holes. For martial this means creating space for an opponent to fall into. In healing, once we’ve got stagnant energy away from a sore spot, we refill that area with vibrant, fresh energy – energy which moves. If you create a space, something has to fill it.

Unless you find something healthy to plug a gap, you can be sure that the destructive tendency will reassert dominance.

Armed with this awareness, I need to design some transitional habits for my present nemeses: dairy and unconscious nose picking when I’m deep in thought. For the latter, I think the classical beard stroke might be more classy…