Sunday, February 24, 2013

Weekend 4: Day 23-24

This was the last weekend of my experiment and, I have to admit, this experiment is made a tad easy by the fact that there are always great, free things to do in Cambridge.

One free thing I decided to do this weekend, that I have not done before, is schedule Skype dates with friends and family back home in Australia. If you haven't caught up with good friends from home in a while I would recommend setting aside a grey, February weekend to talk to them all. It was so fantastic to hear about life outside the Cambridge bubble. It's easy to forget that there are people doing non-PhD-related things like enjoying the first few months of marriage or negotiating a first beach house property or discovering a new city they've recently moved to or getting asked to leave restaurants for having heated debates about politics with someone they are trying to woo and then accidentally kicking them in the nether regions. It reminded me that life goes on out there and that it sounds really lovely. And I honestly think that there is something about the people from home (although maybe it's just Australians) that give you the support or advice that you really don't need but love to hear. Like my mother, who could probably not be more clueless about my PhD, at least likes to support me morally. All of my troubles with my supervisor, she surmises, stem from the fact that he must be in love with me. Another friend suggested, and as a reader you will appreciate, the sage advice: 'Elise, if you have threesome, don't write about it on your blog.'

Don't worry, I won't.

I did some more cooking this weekend. I cooked two more loaves of bread and was a little bit more adventurous with the ingredients this time and added some oats, flaxseed/linseed and hemp seed. I also made a cake with random ingredients I had lying around and based loosely on a recipe I had blogged about on my food blog for a gluten-free Lemon and Blueberry Polenta Cake. Except I didn't have blueberries so used apple and I didn't have enough almond meal so did actually use some flour. But it turned out pretty good anyway.

Apple & Lemon Polenta Cake and
Wholemeal Seeded Bread.
As for entertainment, as I said, it's always easy to find free things to do in Cambridge. On Saturday evening I had the great fortune to go to the launch of a book that my friend Angelika co-edited. The book, Manga Girl Seeks Herbivore Boy: Studying Japanese Gender at Cambridge highlights some recent research in the somewhat new field of changing gender norms in modern Japan. I was initially excited by the prospect of free wine and pretending I was an arts student but ended up being so interested in the introductions given and the discussions it created in the audience afterwards that I failed to remember my initial goals! I remedied this a bit by crashing a friend's dinner plans (by some strange coincidence the vegetables and spices I was carrying around in my handbag (it's just something I do) complemented what he was going to cook so we all ended up at his place) and we shared lots of food and wine there.

And today I was savvy enough to spot that my friend John, who is doing his PhD in music at my college and who plays the harpsichord, was performing in the Cambridge University Baroque Ensemble at one of the colleges for free! So off I cycled, little bits of icy snow getting into my eyes on the way, to an afternoon of free Baroque music. And it was well worth the stupid English weather to listen to the lovely music and watch John 'tinkle the ebonies' (as he likes to call it on all occasions).

I was also looking forward to the free comedy smoker held in my college bar, put on by the drama club of our college, but I accidentally took a rather longish nap for the entire evening. Napping, it must be said, is also an excellent free activity.

And that is the last of my weekends for this experiment. I only have four more days to go and I'm definitely not going to run out of food although I am very much looking forward to being able to buy soya milk and soya yoghurt once more.

I'll be ending the experiment a few hours early on Thursday so that I can pay for the tax on my car, which happens to be due on the 28th of this month, and so that I can celebrate the Austrian's departure from England. But I've enjoyed the experiment and would like to continue at least some of the experience into March so I'm going to have a think about what I'm going to do for next month.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Week 3: Day 18-22

This week was stupidly busy and involved a lot of free stuff, some of it gained creatively and some of it gained through my friends being drunk and/or generous again.

Since I had cooked a lot of food over the weekend I again didn't really have to worry about cooking during the week or making any lunch. So on Monday after my shift in the college library I just had soup and went to bed early with the wonderful Angela Carter.

On Tuesday I had planned to pool my resources with a friend and make curried lentils and sweet potatoes but it turned out that my friend was nearly dying of some cold (I blame getting up before the sun when the temperature has barely risen above zero to go rowing on the world's most pathetic but bendiest river thus making rowing in Cambridge the most miserable experience ever thus reducing your immune system thus increasing the likelihood that you will get some horrendous cold) so I ended up taking my spices and sweet potato to the hipster's house and sending him to the store to contribute to the meal. I had one request: red lentils. Turns out, I should have been far more specific. I should have realised that the hipster, being a man who likes his meals containing a range of dead animals from a range of geographical locations (imagine his delight at the horsemeat saga), doesn't have much experience of lentils. I should also have learned my lesson from a recent experience when I sent him to the store for salad and he came back with a Chinese cabbage and radishes. But alas, none of this came to mind at the time, so off he went and came back with pre-cooked Puy lentils in a can. This makes making a lentil-based curry a little... runny.

I had the genius idea of making bulgar wheat to go with the curry (that is, I found bulgar wheat in my box of dried food) and was hoping that I could just reduce the amount of stock in the recipe (I didn't have much of a choice, I only had 3 cubes of vegetable stock left) and any excess liquid still remaining would be soaked up by the bulgar wheat. Except I then put the hipster in charge of making the bulgar wheat. I'm not exactly sure what bulgar wheat should look like but if the answer is the semolina pudding-like substance that I received then I never want to have it again.

Except I am going to have bulgar wheat again because it's one of the last remaining things in my box of dried goods that needs to get used up before the end of my experiment. But I think putting it in a lentil loaf might be a better use of it.

On Wednesday night my college held an event for graduate students with a free all-you-can-eat buffet and all-you-can-drink wine and juice. Unfortunately, since I am vegan, I was given my own small plate so I couldn't actually try to eat all I could (the hipster, mind you, did not have this problem and consumed enough mini quiches to feed a bourgeois army). I also left my magic drops at home so had to stick to juice. I am pretty sure, however, that I drank about 20 gallons of orange and apple juice by the end of the evening. I was afraid some of those rowing-induced flu germs might be floating around college so I was stocking up on free vitamins.

Thursday was a bit of a rule bender. Firstly, I woke up very early in the morning to buy formal tickets for everyone in my lab on my college card. I actually did the same thing the previous week. I did this because tickets were needed and someone at our college needed to buy them. I was going to get the money back from the ticket holders so this wasn't really me buying anything. Except that on this Thursday, one of the tickets was actually mine.

Next Thursday, on the very last day of my experiment, we are throwing a farewell party for the lovely Austrian who has been visiting our lab for the past month. And we are doing this in formal hall. Which means we had to buy the tickets on Thursday. There's not really much I can do to justify the spending: I have basically cheated. Although, I'm still thinking of a creative way to somehow get out of actually having to purchase the ticket.

This Thursday evening I also ended up at formal hall by a bit of last minute ticket grabbing and bartering. A friend of mine had some guests from London and he had wanted to show them a college formal. I had said that I couldn't go because of my no buying experiment but that I would meet them afterwards in the bar to watch them drink. My original plan involved me making dinner at home for myself and perhaps having a martini or two (I've been quite cautious with rationing my gin and vermouth over the length of the experiment). But just before six I get a message saying that I had a ticket and that I had to meet them there at seven. I put up a little bit of an argument saying that I would need a vegan ticket which seemed a bit impossible to get at such short notice. It turns out it wasn't. But then I still couldn't pay for the ticket. I offered instead to make bread and make my friend some food and do some ironing for him. I felt the bread and food worked nicely within my 'use the resources you have' philosophy and he thought getting me to do his ironing worked well within his 'get Elise to do my ironing' philosophy. So I went to formal hall. And I went to the bar afterwards and had two G&Ts bought for me by very drunk friends. So, when they said they were catching a taxi into town and would pay for my entry into some horrid nightclub I found the easiest way to not get people to pay for stuff was to just go home. So I did.

A lot of the food I have been cooking recently has been based around the pulses and beans that I had lying around and the seasonal vegetables that I get at the farm shop which means I am cooking a lot of curries. This is great but I really miss Chinese and Japanese cooking. Tonight I was lucky enough to go to my new neighbour's house who cooked me soba noodle soup in kombu dashi with eringi mushrooms, fried tofu, spring onions and mochi. And it was delicious. He's been learning to cook simple Japanese cuisine from the Japanese postdoc in my lab and she is doing an absolutely awesome job!

So I received a lot of free food and drink this week. I also managed to get myself a free helmet from FreeCycle. If you don't know what FreeCycle is then you are definitely missing out! It's basically a network of communities where stuff is advertised as offered or wanted... for free! I picked up a really nice coffee table about a year ago and yesterday I picked up a perfectly good helmet. There are groups all around the world so take a look and see if there is one near you. You might find something free you've wanted for a while or you could use it to get rid of anything you have lying around that you think someone else could make use of.

So although I still seem to be stuck in the vicious routine of eating three course meals in formal attire after Latin grace I've at least broken the habit of following my friends in aforementioned formal attire to skanky clubs when I'm not in the mood for them. And I think being in the habit of sharing cooking and meals is much better for the environment, your relationships and your mental health so I'm glad that's something I've become accustomed to.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Weekend 3: Day 16-17

Finally, a calm weekend. I have long been looking forward to a weekend at home when I could wash clothes, cook copious amounts of food to then freeze, read, clean and work from home. And I was finally able to do that this weekend.

My former partner recently moved to a house that is, Google Maps tells me, 131 metres from my house. This means that I now have easy access to the coffee machine and wok that he seems to have taken custody of and that we also can still cook together quite a lot.

Something I didn't think about when I started this experiment was my coffee addiction. Well, I did, but I told myself that the coffee in the lab was free and that I could survive on weekends. I cannot survive on weekends. I wake up on weekend mornings and the first thing I think about is coffee. And then my new neighbour and custodian of our coffee machine gets a text requesting a quadruple espresso in a thermos. Please. Now. No, seriously. Now. I'm not even trying to be cute. I want four fucking shots of espresso now.

Something along those lines anyway.

To be fair, I normally give something back in return for the coffee. On Saturday it was a vegan version of No-Bake Peanut Butter Balls. On Sunday it was root vegetable soup straight off the stove with fresh wholemeal bread that I had baked the night before.

My first loaf of bread!

I cooked quite a lot this weekend. I used up all of the onions and root vegetables, that were shrivelling in my room, in the root vegetable soup; I used up lots of oats, linseed, dried fruits, soy milk powder (which I had originally bought for camping but found the taste so damn awful that I gave up on it) and hemp seeds in different versions of the no-bake balls; I used up lots of strong wholemeal flour and finally used the fresh yeast I've been keeping in the freezer to make my very first loaf of bread; and I used up almost dead eggplants/aubergines and chickpeas in a recipe for Eggplant and Chickpea Peanut Masala, although this latter recipe did require some ingredients that I did not have but I went around to my new neighbour's house to cook, since my landlady was having her family over for dinner, and we pooled our resources to make the dish. Combined with the mung dahl I made on Friday night using the last of my dried mung beans, I'm quite impressed with how much stuff I used up this weekend.

Of course, all of that is a lot of food and I do tend to cook with people and share or freeze the food for lunch during the week. This does mean that I might end up eating the same thing for lunch or dinner a few days in a row but considering there are people out there who eat instant ramen for every meal (or have to eat at the Cavendish canteen), I think I'm doing pretty well.

Something I am really enjoying from this experiment is getting together with a friend and merging resources to create a meal that uses up something I may have otherwise wasted, using a recipe I've never tried before. I'm getting to know other people's kitchens and pantries and am starting to think of my own as a complement to theirs which, I think, is a much funner (and obviously communal and environmentally friendly) way to think about cooking.

So there were no tales of drunken revels this weekend, just a whole bunch of cooking. Apparently I've actually not been further than 131 metres from my house for the last 48 hours which is kind of nice to do every now and then despite the fact that today was the first pleasant day we've had in quite a while. I think I might wait for the temperature to creep into double digits, though, before I get as excited as everyone else.

No-Bake Peanut Butter Balls:
made from peanut butter, oats and everything else I could find!

Week 2: Day 11-15

As I've previously stated, week days are far more relaxed for me than weekends. And by relaxed I mean that I spend most of it in front of my computer at work, swearing a whole lot. The experiment doesn't really affect my life during the week at all.

The food part of the experiment is going really well. Lunch this week was kale, cabbage and chickpea salad. I'm nearly out of chickpeas but complementing the protein-filled legumes with seasonal vegetables was a real success. I made dressing out of tahini, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, soy sauce, miso paste and some salt and pepper. It was a tasty lunch and I didn't mind having it every day this week (I had to eat all of the kale and cabbage before it went bad!).

Of an evening I normally eat left over food that I've cooked on the weekend interspersed with cooking with other people at their house or mine. This week's highlights included teriyaki soba noodles at a friend's house, cooking a vegan version of mung dahl with Leif at my house and finally using some of that tofu I stockpiled before the experiment began to make frittata.

My stockpile of dried goods is quite quickly going down and I'm a little proud of the new recipes I've been trying to use up some of the goods I have. I came across the Think, Eat, Save campaign this week which I think ties in really well with what I'm trying to do. If you follow the link there is a list of suggestions of things you can do to try to reduce your 'foodprint'; from eating food that is already in your fridge or cupboard before you go out to buy more to buying funny shaped vegetables and fruit. I think they are fantastic ideas and I've been trying to incorporate them into my experiment. Also, if you have leftover food in your fridge or cupboard that is about to go to waste then check out the Love Food Hate Waste website which has some great recipe suggestions for food you would otherwise throw out.

I did have to break some rules of spending this week. Firstly, I had to pay the parking fine. Secondly, I had to go back to the doctor and get more antibiotics. And this time it wasn't at midnight on a Sunday so the medication wasn't free. But if I'm going to break my rules for something then I'm glad it was for medicine and not because I collapsed under the stress of not being able to bid on eBay. Also, the experiment has taught me to be a little more patient with my health and a little more cautious with funding so I actually spoke to the doctor this time about long term solutions so that I don't need to keep coming back to the doctor and getting more antibiotics which will help take some strain off the NHS and will maybe prevent me from being the person to create the ginormous-antibiotic-resistant-super-bug.

The only other spending I did this week was for my fresh vegetables. I went back to the same farm store, although paying £30 for a basketful of vegetables does seem a little bit excessive so I'm not too sure how long that will last. I think I will keep going back there until I've full considered the benefits and drawbacks of buying locally and from small stores as opposed to buying from large supermarkets who are not locally owned and import most of their goods from very distant places.

On the topic of food, I also joined FoodCycle this week. They are an organisation that takes surplus food from supermarkets and turns it into nutritious vegetarian meals for people affected by food poverty in the UK. They rely on volunteers so I thought that I would sign up. Volunteering is free and I'll get to scope out the best places for surplus food!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Weekend 2: Day 9-10

My Danish friend, Leif, says that the weekend starts at about 3pm on a Friday. In reality, the weekend for us starts when our supervisor leaves the office and the lovely gentlemen of the lab plug in to Quake and open the beers kept in Leif's drawer. I'd normally be a bit wary of the inherent sexism in this statement but it's not as bad as one may think. I used to play Quake but I am atrociously bad at it and end up turning my scantily-clad-huge-breasted character (OK, that part of the exercise is pretty sexist, but I somehow doubt the creators of Quake are going to throw in some Daria-like characters to keep me happy) round and round in circles and it makes me motion sick and normally results in me throwing up in the depressingly dull bathrooms of the Rutherford building. And I can't drink the beer because of the 'take a beer, put a pound in the box' rule; it's still February and I'm still not buying. Also, beer makes me very stupid very quickly. There are other females in the lab but one of them is a super athlete that is training for The Boat Race so she spends all of her spare time being super impressive and super impressive people don't need to drink beer and play Quake. Also, I don't think she can do anything that her coach hasn't scheduled. Another doesn't play because she gets addicted to video games really quickly and would like to not get fired from her post-doc. Another is Japanese and thinks we are all just a little bit insane. I wonder if underestimation is a cultural thing.

The point, I think, was that the start of the of my weekend was heralded by the guys of my lab sitting around drinking Stellas and playing Quake while shouting across the room about how they just ate each other's rockets, gave each other hot baths, nailed each other and got fragged. I kid you not, this is the exact language of the game. All in all, a great start to the weekend. And free. I was swearing at my code. Swearing is free. Thank fuck.

I spend a lot of time with the people from my lab. That evening we went to formal hall at Trinity College as Leif's guests. This event was organised and paid for before my little experiment started so while you could argue that it's technically cheating, it didn't require any exchange of money.

Formal halls are such a strange phenomenon. You sit in a hall where people have dined in a similar fashion for centuries and the walls are graced with the faces of (dead, white) men whose names in archaic, faded print would render you a little speechless if you could step outside the surreality of the experience in Cambridge and actually appreciate the privilege. But no matter how much I talk or write about it, substantial gratitude never seems within grasp. But I am trying and I think that's what some of this experiment is about.

But a lot of this experiment is about being creative, being sneaky, being thrifty, being determined. So, when I found out that wine, which I normally cannot consume because the sulphites are a trigger for my migraines, was being served with the meal I decided to try something new to get the most out of the experience. For Christmas my mother, apparently concerned about the impact the lack of wine was having on my life, bought me something called Pure Wine and a beautiful bottle of 2011 Kalleske Moppa Shiraz which is an organic wine from the Barossa Valley produced using a minimum amount of sulphites. The Pure Wine claims to eliminate the sulphites from the wine and therefore extracts the trigger for the headaches that most people get the day after a night of heavy wine drinking.

The thing about getting migraines, though, is that you become so damn afraid of the pain, the nausea and the vomitting that you would do pretty much anything to avoid it all. So, up until now, I'd been curious about the Pure Wine but not curious enough to risk the migraine if it didn't work. Until, of course, I couldn't take my own sulphite-free wine to a formal hall and was faced with the prospect of an entire sober evening with my extremely drunk lab friends.

The drops worked wonderfully. I drank a lot of wine, although I stuck to the red wine because I know that white wine has more sulphites than red, and thus was quite successful at getting drunk at yet another event for free.

Mum, please send more Pure Wine. I may be low.

I have received a little bit of criticism, however, for the rather drunken way I've been conducting myself through this experiment. A friend of mine asked what the point of cutting out spending was if I was going to continue with my extravagant Cambridge lifestyle (aka getting ridiculously drunk during three course meals to cope with stress and then going clubbing in a place that sells cocktails in oversized jugs with a straws). And it's a fair enough point. Another friend of mine suggested I just change the blog to document how great I was at getting free stuff on account of being just too damn awesome. He was being facetious but the joke contained enough truth to give me pause.

My response to the first friend was that although some of the point of the experiment was to move away from the culture of excess it was also about being getting creative with what I had. And I happened to have a lot of gin. I'm just as enthusiastic about the Think, Eat, Save campaign, for example, as I am about reminding Cambridge students not to be entitled wankers all of the time, myself included.

After the Trinity formal hall we ended up in a nightclub called The Place (except, like all nightclubs in Cambridge, no one calls it by its actual name and instead calls it Life). Now, I really didn't want to go to the nightclub. Firstly, it looked terribly dodgy (looks, in this case, were not deceiving). Secondly, you had to pay £2 for entry (it involved some complicated process consisting of going to Clare Hall for arm bands, rounding up my drunk lab friends on King's Parade as they shouted obscenities into the rather chilly night and finally making our way to the club). Thirdly, as I've just mentioned, my friends were very drunk. But through a series of guilt-inducing pleas rained upon me, I ended up in the nightclub. The hipster paid for my entry although it was at his insistence that I was standing there in an empty nightclub, choking on dry-ice as the hair cells in my ears were slowly murdered, so I didn't feel too bad about that.

I mentioned last time that I have very generous friends and that it makes the experiment a little difficult at times. At first, my friends were a little amused by my experiment and were more than willing to accommodate my new restriction. Then it started to get a bit inconvenient for them so then they started arguing with me about the philosophy behind the experiment. Determined (stubborn) as I am, this was a useless exercise, so then they just started paying for stuff and shoving it in my hands. So I was saving the money but I wasn't really reducing my consumption which was one of the aims of the exercise.

This time I decided that I wasn't going to let people buy me drinks in the nightclub. This lasted about 30 seconds. The hipster bought the first round, again, but under Leif's instructions. I was handed the world's biggest cocktail in the world's biggest jug. Luckily, I had not noticed that we had picked up two other women somewhere between Trinity and the club so the cocktail-in-a-jug was shared. It was mostly just cranberry juice anyway. Because women love diluted alcohol in big jugs and men like beer.

We included/scared-the-hell-out-of a new member of the lab in our little group that night. This lovely lad, all the way from Austria, represented the other group of people that I have come across when I tell them about my experiment: they find the experiment fascinating and then want to buy me something. So he bought me a G&T. And I let him because we were in a nightclub and I didn't want to contribute to his noise-induced hearing loss by screaming about reducing consumption and appreciating privilege. I just thanked him. Because sometimes people really are lovely and it's a bit exhausting trying to constantly change that loveliness into something you find more palatable that week.

My Saturday was spent recovering from my Friday. At least recovery is free.

Sunday was another Leif-sponsored adventure. He had bought a bread mixer on eBay and needed someone to drive him to Loughborough to pick it up. A road trip was suggested. The hipster's car only has two seats so we had to take my car on the condition that I didn't have to drive (I like napping and it's not safe to nap and drive) and that someone else would have to pay for fuel. With that agreed upon five of us from the lab drove to Loughborough, picked up the bread mixer and then realised that the weather was absolutely terrible. So, in the Loughborough Tesco carpark, as the gentlemen munched on their Tesco purchases and I ate my kale and chickpea salad that I had made that morning and brought along, we argued about what we would do.

Most of the conversations ended with me saying: 'Fine. But I can't do that because it costs money.' Needless to say, it started to get on some nerves. On a rainy day, in the middle of nowhere, being able to spend money for entertainment is a tad handy.

In the end we drove to a nearby National Trust property (I'm a National Trust member so entry and parking for me was free) and walked around Calke Abbey's park finding geocaches. On the way we saw a pretty church and stopped there for some quick geocaching (for those of you who don't know what geocaching is: it's 'a free real-world outdoor treasure hunt!'). And then we came home. An entire day out without spending a penny. As long as you are already a member of the National Trust, pack your lunch and can tag along on someone else's road trip.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Week 1: Day 4-8

The week was a lot calmer than my exciting weekend start to the experiment excepting a few hiccups. I mostly spend all of my week day hours at my desk swearing at my code and its mismatched results. I normally take leftovers for lunch since the Cavendish seems to be physically incapable of providing vegan food (or even food nutritious enough to be considered actual food. Seriously, the place has had 29 Nobel Prize winners and they feed them what can only be described as oily, overcooked grime) and I always cook at home since vegan options are limited in the college hall unless I give them a few hours' notice. So my week really wasn't that different to a normal week. There were a few things I did notice:
  1. Sometimes when I get peckish at work I go to the vending machine and buy a nut bar. They aren't technically vegan because they are made with honey but I'm mostly OK with honey. Anyway, I couldn't do that this week. But it wasn't too painful because there's never any guarantee that the nut bars in the vending machine are going to be vegan (some have yoghurt or chocolate on them). So it's sometimes a bit of a disappointed gamble anyway. So I started bringing other snacks into work like fruit or some mung beans I sprouted or some sushi I made.
  2. I've nearly been successful at getting out of the habit of searching for things on eBay. I'm at the point now where I open the eBay homepage and then close it again. So that habit has nearly been broken. I sound like an addict. My name is Elise and it's been 11 days since my last eBay purchase.
  3. I am not out of the habit of trawling NET-A-PORTER and pinning everything. Not sure that habit is going to die easily. To be fair, though, I don't think I could ever afford anything I fancy anyway (yes, Erdem, your Hester patchwork skirt is amazing. No, Erdem, £1,875 is not a reasonable price to ask for it) so I don't think that one is too much of a problem.
  4. I've seriously overestimated how much dried food I have and it's a distinct possibility that I will run out before the end of the month. However, it's made me be a little bit more creative and adventurous with my cooking. I had some old apples today and plenty of flour so I made some apple and cinnamon muffins (turns out I don't understand gas ovens so they turned out terribly but I was a tad hungover so ate them enthusiastically anyway). I also have dried mung beans so am going to soak them and try this recipe for Mung Dahl. I've also started to invite myself around to other people's places for dinner (if you know me you won't think this is too strange because I have spent a good deal of my life feeding other people. I also don't seem to have that part of the brain that makes self-invites awkward. Well, it's not awkward for me. I'm sure it's terribly awkward for all my poor British friends. I am, of course, joking. My friends are tremendously generous which makes this experiment a tad difficult at times. More on that later.)
  5. This experiment is killing my social life. I had to turn down two formal dinners this month and the opportunity to meet friends of friends because of it. I also can't buy a ticket to any of the May Balls that happen in June in Cambridge because the tickets all go on sale this month. There were also some plays I wanted to see in Cambridge that I now can't go to. The hipster suggested a Harold Pinter play which I was terribly excited about but then it received a bombardment of excellent reviews and despite its run into April I somehow doubt there will be tickets left by March. I don't think I would have ever thought twice about doing any of this stuff before. I lead an extremely privileged life. So I guess it's nice that the experiment is teaching me to appreciate my privilege.
One of the things I said I was going to do as part of this experiment was try to buy local, seasonal fruit and vegetables only. I rather flippantly made the remark that because it was February my choices were going to be severely limited. I even made a joke about nettle soup. Turns out, when faced with the actual task of only buying UK-grown, seasonal produce, my sense of humour deserts me.

I'd been rather enthusiastic about the whole thing because I found out that there was a Farm Shop about a 2 minute cycle from my new house. I'm not quite sure what I was imagining I'd find. Locally grown shiitake and oyster mushrooms? Seasonal sweet peppers in the UK in February? Anyway, it turns out that 'Farm Shop' meant very little and most of the goods were imported. Nothing seemed to be actually local to Cambridgeshire. So I stuck to the UK produce and walked out with kale, Brussels' sprouts, potatoes, onions, carrots, a parsnip, purple sprouting broccoli, Cox apples and a red cabbage. And an avocado. The avocado may have slipped past my UK radar. Not entirely sure about that one.

My first thought was something along the lines of: I miss Australia and tropical fruit! My second thought was: I hate potato. My third thought was pretty much my first thought revisited. Then I took a deep breath and decided that if I was going to live the rest of my life on this stupidly wet and tropically-lacking island I would have to get used to the food. Which meant I needed to make do with what was on offer and when it was on offer.

Every week I try to make at least one new recipe. This week I tried to make use of some of my seasonal vegetables (with the help of some peppers that I ended up buying from Aldi. Also, I'm not entirely convinced by this locally grown food argument anyway and would like to revisit the topic again in the future). I made the kale into Cosmic Cashew Kale and Chickpeas and the purple sprouting broccoli into a nice side dish with hazelnuts. I had everything already except for the cashews but because I was cooking with the hipster, and because he eats about 4.5 times the amount the average human should, I felt totally OK with allowing him to make some contribution to the meal.

There is one event that occurred this week that will mean that I will (legally) have to exchange money for something other than fruit and vegetables this month. As an Australian in the UK I feel it is my duty to swagger about the country with a little bit of Ned Kelly-esque bravado. I've grown to enjoy my Twinings Earl Grey in hard water but I still like to let the British know that I haven't forgotten my penal, colonial roots. Yes, I'll toast to church and Queen over dessert wine and a cheese platter after my three course meal while you pass around the snuff but let me just remind you, English oppressors, that at any moment I could pounce and the antipodean in me will bristle with a century and a half of suppressed anger. I deny your authority over me. I am free and I shall remind you of this fact.

So, in short, I couldn't find a parking spot in my residential parking area, got really pissed off about it, parked on the double yellow lines and got a parking fine. And then tried to get out of it by basically saying that my only crime was not getting up before the parking inspector. Needless to say, they were not very sympathetic to my excuse. Well, actually, their extremely polite letter states that they are very sympathetic to my excuse but that I have to pay the parking fine anyway (such polite oppressors!). So I owe Cambridge City Council £35. And it has to be paid in the next week or so. I obviously could have avoided this by not parking on the double yellow lines. But that would be letting them win, right?

Thus ends my week. I hope you are all looking forward to hearing about my exciting weekend. So far it's been a little interesting. More drinking was involved. I've had some questions about my original intentions of wanting to move away from the culture of excess by doing this experiment and how this contrasts to my actual behaviour so far so I will write a bit about that next.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Day 2 & 3

I knew that this was going to be a challenge but I really had no idea how difficult not spending money is. It turns out that money is really quite useful. In the last 48 hours I managed to get ridiculously drunk and go clubbing without spending a single penny (I do not condone this behaviour, by the way, I should have stayed at home in bed with a book) but nearly had to give up on my non-spending ways when my car got a flat tyre and when I ended up in NHS Urgent Care in need of medicine.

Let's cover the important things first: how did I manage a good, old, traditional English bender with no money? Well, the first step was that I convinced my friends to drink at home on a Saturday evening instead of going to a pub. I provided the vermouth, my gracious host provided the Hendrick's and the rest is an extremely messy evening of very large martinis made in a red wine glasses with no ice, drinking games and a waterfall of the most filthy language you can possibly imagine coming from my mouth. Except I then dragged all of my friends to the pub because another friend of mine was leaving sunny England for home in the US. Luckily, we were so drunk that we couldn't accurately read a clock and arrived 15 minutes before the pub closed and there wasn't enough time for me to be tempted to buy a G&T. Also, the room was spinning and I wouldn't have been able to find the bar if I had tried.

But how did you go clubbing, I hear you ask. Good question. I should point out that we had arrived at the pub via taxi that my gracious host paid for. He was then pretty damn adamant that we go to a club called Cindies (it's not actually called that, it's called Ballare, and there is also no consensus on how 'Cindies' is actually spelled) and he also offered to pay for my entry 'for my birthday'. My birthday is in October. But the non-buying Gods were smiling on me because when we arrived at the club and my friends discovered that they were trying to charge £7 to entry (a ridiculous sum given how grotty and teenage-filled the club is) we promptly left. For Wetherspoon's.

I'm not sure how many of you are familiar with this Wetherspoon thing, I'm not even sure I completely understand it, but let me explain to you what I think I know.

There are about a gazillion Wetherspoon's all over the UK. Just in Cambridge there are two. They appear to be some sort of pub looking things that serve pub food and alcohol until about 9pm when they clear the tables from the 'dancefloor' and stop serving food. And then they play Rhianna, the place fills with the most diverse range of people I have ever seen in a club and they sell drinks at ridiculously low prices (G&Ts are £1.99!). Most importantly, there is free entry.

So, into Wetherspoons we go. My friends all go to check their coats. This costs £2 so I decide to stash mine in my super cool Strand book bag that I use as a handbag because it fits the entire world inside it and can be washed in the washing machine. Then I pee. Then I find my friends again. They are at the bar. Someone hands me water. I take a big gulp. It's not water. It's G&T. (My hipster friend, who was out on this expedition as well, has this endearing habit of buying a round of drinks every time we walk into a pub or club. Which would be nice if any of us had the stamina to stick around long enough to pay the favour back. But it never happens. And he never ceases to buy the first round.)

This is the point in the night where I had a panic attack about all the people and bolted to a quiet corner. I met some lovely people there and we chatted for the rest of my evening while my friends searched the club frantically for me. They found me eventually and we walked home.

So I was feeling quite please with myself; I had managed an entire night out without spending a penny. Well, I felt pleased with the non-spending part of my behaviour. I think the rest of it had a lot to be desired. Post-drinking binge, however, was a lot tougher.

The first thing I wanted to do when I woke up was drink all of the water in the world. That accomplished, I showered and helped my former partner move. But then I was really hungry. But I was also really damn sleepy and cranky and couldn't be bothered making food. But I couldn't just go out and buy food. Suddenly, not buying for a whole month was the worst idea I had ever had. I had successfully managed to not spend a penny while being the drunkest person on the planet the night before but a tired, sober, hungry Elise was just about ready to buy all the crisps in the world and eat them.

You'll be happy to know that I did no such thing. In fact, I came home and cooked a nice meal with enough left over for lunch tomorrow while simultaneously cooking chickpeas, kidney beans and soya beans that I then froze so that I have protein on hand when I need it.

I was starting to get pretty good at this.

While moving my friend, however, I hit a little bit of a snag. A few months ago I noticed that my car felt a bit funny on the left hand rear side. I suspected it was a deflating tyre but instead of pumping it up I just drove around on it for weeks and weeks and weeks until it eventually punctured. Luckily, I had the hipster handyman in the car with me at the time so he changed it to the spare and I had it replaced eventually.

But today I noticed the same thing while driving again but on the left front side. After a quick physical inspection I confirmed that the tyre was indeed in need of pumping up. Which is a problem in the UK because service stations charge for air. But since the car is technically still owned by both me and my former partner, and since I was helping him move, he was more than happy to cover the 50p for the 4 minutes of air. Spending averted.

But I thought it was all over this afternoon when I realised that I was quite ill and needed antibiotics. After waiting hours for an appointment, off I drive to NHS Out of Hours Urgent Care in Chesterton for my 9.30pm appointment. 2 hours later I'm still in the waiting room not having seen a doctor and I'm starting to freak out because the Boots on Newmarket Road, the only late-night chemist in Cambridge, closes at midnight.

Turns out my panicking was unnecessary. Because there are no chemists open late at night, the medical centre gives out the medicine after hours. For free. Sometimes, I love the NHS. Yes, they made me wait 3 hours at home and then 2 hours in a waiting room to see a doctor, but they gave me free medicine just when I really needed it.

So, despite drunkenness, flat tyres and the need for antibiotics, I managed to make it through my first weekend in Cambridge without spending any money.

Only 3 more weekends to go. :/

Friday, February 1, 2013

Day One

I feel I kind of cheated today because I slept until 11.30am. Can't buy when you are unconscious! I didn't really have a problem with food because I made about 12L of vegetable soup with lentils and tofu on Monday night so I had that for breakfast/lunch and then for dinner. Then I got out my awesome jar of Speculoos that my awesome friends Angelika and Kian brought back from Belgium for me recently and put that on gingernut biscuits. And, after I had a few and felt absolutely ill, I was about to gorge on even more when I realised that there were only a few left in the packet. And I couldn't buy any more for an entire month! So I stopped eating the biscuits. And just ate the Speculoos out of the jar.

First lesson learned: restraint.

Kind of.

I did have a few little tests today, though. First of all, the Speculoos-bringing Angelika has just edited a book and they are having a launch for it at one of the colleges here at Cambridge. The good news is that the launch is this month and will involve free alcohol. The bad news is that I couldn't buy the book despite really wanting to support her (also the topic, gender in Japanese culture, is of great interest to me!).

Today was also the day they put the tickets on sale for this month's MCR dinner. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Cambridge and its alien ways, the MCR is the graduate community of the college and an MCR dinner is a formal dinner where this graduate community sits down in formal attire in a big Harry Potter-esque hall to have a 4-course meal together over a bottle of wine each. And everyone gets ridiculously drunk. Sometimes there's a bop. Sometimes there is making out. Sometimes there is nakedness. Sometimes there are fights. Sometimes there is maroon vomit. Yes, I'm basically reliving my late teens but Brideshead-style. But they are fun and I always enjoy myself, especially after a bottle of wine, so I would have liked to have gone. Except I can't. Because I can't buy a ticket!

I also had to cancel plans to meet friends for brunch in the college hall on Sunday and I made my friends change their going out plans tomorrow night to fit in with the 'oh, sorry, I can't buy drinks in a club' part of my philosophy. So we have having cocktails in my friend's college room. Because that's what all the cool kids are doing, init.

I am starting to panic that this experiment is actually going to lead to me just reliving my life as a teenager before I had my own income.

The Concept

The concept: 

Do not exchange money for anything (with the exception of fresh fruit and vegetables and these should be seasonal and local, where possible) for an entire month.

The reason:

I really like to buy things. You would think that because I'm not too keen on useless things, and because I don't really like crowds of people, that I wouldn't be that keen on shopping. You would be wrong. Here in the UK I can literally spend an entire day shopping from the comfort of my laptop screen; cramming my imagination full of the fashion delights that cascade off my Pinterest page, trawling eBay to see if I can hunt any of last season's releases down at a fraction of the cost, emailing my friends to determine the most pretentious books of the century and then buying them at ridiculously low prices from Amazon (feeling guilty but so ebullient that I no longer live in a country where literature is held at ransom for those who can afford $AUD30 for a novel) or sifting through the treasure trove that is the Oxfam online shopping section only to dump the entire contents of my shopping basket at the end of a four hour expedition because I could probably get it cheaper on eBay if I had the patience (screw the charity). And I do have the patience. I have infinite patience for online shopping. Especially when I should be doing something else (like my PhD).

I've always been able to justify my obsession with owning certain pieces of clothing by equating it to art collectors spending a fortune on a piece I don't understand. Whether or not this justification holds up to some sort of moral code is another issue. But I very rarely buy new clothing; 90% of my wardrobe has been purchased second-hand with the exception of gifts or my annual splurge at Cue when I return to Australia. So as far as addictions go, it's a pretty friendly one. But not all of my money goes on clothing. So where does it go?

Food would be one answer and it's a healthy answer. But the way we eat has become a bit of a mystery to me. At a dinner the other night one of the Fellows of my college, who is an expert in primates here at Cambridge University, took exception to my veganism and started lecturing the room about how we would never have evolved from our primitive ancestors if we had not eaten meat. My tutor, a geologist, tried to argue against this for some strange reason. I think they both entirely missed the point. There is no doubt that we would never have evolved to where we are today without eating meat but that's because it provided vital nutrients that we could not get elsewhere. If the world's population, right now, just ate to survive then perhaps I would revisit my philosophy. But we do not. We have attached all sorts of other emotional, psychological, creative and even sexual characteristics to the intension of food. If we ate only to survive then Domino's would go out of business very quickly.

The way we eat then, of course, translates into the way we shop. Being vegan, and someone who isn't keen on processed foods, most of my trolley is dried beans, fresh fruit and vegetables and gin. But, after discovering Waitrose sold organic dried mango that didn't use the nasty sulfide-filled preservative that triggers my migraines, I started doing all of my shopping there. And it was so lovely! Compared to the supermarkets in Australia, and compared to the gigantic, fluoro-lit Tescos here in the UK, Waitrose is just fairyland. Except now I was going shopping just for the sake of going shopping. On Sunday mornings I would drive out to Trumpington, line up with all the other white middle-class people to get coffee, sit in the Waitrose cafe, read The Times (please don't tell my friends I enjoy it) and then finally pick up a few grocery items all of which I could have purchased at the local supermarket around the corner. When I realised I was doing this I started trying to make the visit worthwhile by slowly browsing every aisle to see what delights Waitrose could provide for me. I even applied for the Waitrose customer card (you get free coffee!). Suddenly I was putting things in my trolley that I didn't go there to buy. A part of me started to get a bit wary.

A few months ago my relationship with my partner of three and a half years ended. We were living together in a flat so both had to look for a new place to live. During the moving out process we had to split our belongings which wasn't too difficult since we had basically moved to the UK with nothing and he had this annoying (and, turns out, really useful) habit of keeping receipts for everything we bought here. What we weren't expecting was the sheer volume of food we had collected. We had eaten our way through most of the contents of the fridge and freezer in the lead up to the move but the kitchen cupboards were still full. And so was the coat cupboard where we also stored food. Oh, and there was also food behind the lounge room door. Yes, over a period of two years of living in that flat, we had hoarded a ridiculous amount of dried and canned goods.

Some of the food had to be thrown out because it was past its use-by date. I had a really hard time trying to come to terms with why I would purchase something and then not use it. The sheer waste of energy that went into the growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, shipping, stocking and then buying of the items really annoyed me. If a piece of clothing has been in my cupboard unworn for too long it goes on eBay. So why hadn't I used this food?

I think most of it had to do with the fact that we weren't really planning meals around what we had but rather what we felt like which normally meant the purchasing of more goods that would get stacked on top of the old, hiding them from view. I think also that people shop for the sake of shopping. More than once I've seen a Facebook post about how someone's outing that day was to 'go shopping'. We should buy because we need. It shouldn't really be a form of entertainment.

I think the last straw was on Saturday when I drove to Milton Keynes to Ikea to buy a mirror. (I say I drove, but this is a lie. I was going to drive but it turns out I was a little too hungover so I sat in the passenger seat drifting in and out of sleep while my friend kept himself entertained by seeing how close to the speed of sound my car could approach.) We arrived, drove around for about 8 minutes trying to find a parking spot, parked underneath a set of stairs on top of some lovely cement pavement that was definitely not meant for parking (not the most patient of people, my friend) and headed inside.

Our first plan was to get my friend food (or, as he describes it, eat breakfast with every animal in it). This plan was foiled when we saw that everyone in England was in the line for food. So we ditched the food plan, despite my terrible need for coffee, and went straight for the furniture. Except this was made extremely difficult by me freaking out because apparently the rest of Britain had also decided to join England in Ikea Milton Keynes. There were people everywhere. If you, like the rest of Britain, were in Ikea Milton Keynes on Saturday and saw a very pale, tired woman following a hipster in a chequered shirt around at an alarmingly close distance of about 4mm, looking absolutely petrified of being swallowed by the Ikea crowd, that was me.

It has since been explained to me that Ikea on a Saturday is a day out. My initial reaction was something along the lines of: 'WTF, people! Bletchley Park is right next door! No, they probably don't have Swedish meatballs in dodgy looking sauce but that's probably not a bad thing.' And then I thought: Um, I was there too.

Then I was reading some back issues of Peppermint and Frankie (because I'm in the UK it takes a while for me to get these lovely Australian magazines!) and saw that they were talking about something called Buy Nothing New Month. The idea behind BNNM is that you buy essentials like food, medicine and hygienic goods but try to get everything else some other way whether it be by buying it second-hand, borrowing it, swapping etc etc. Except, because they were back issues of the magazines, I'd miss the boat by a few months. But it got me thinking about thinking about buying!

The final motivation for all of this was my good friend Dave and an interview with Toby Ord on BBC Radio 4 (~28 minutes into that clip). As a PhD student at Cambridge my salary is pitiful for the amount of stress it causes. Or so I think. But really, compared to the things people do just to earn a small wage in some parts of the world, I have it pretty damn good. I've always thought that I don't have enough money to set aside for charity because I need all of what I earn to survive. But, given that I went to two formal dinners last week and went clubbing three times last month despite the fact that I was literally a decade older than everyone in the aforementioned clubs and didn't know any of the music, I think the Cambridge bubble might be distorting my perspective a little. And after reading that the Oxbridge system probably gives us a little too much of an allowance for frivolous spending, I thought it was probably time to shock my system back into reality.

Given that I already try to buy most non-consumable goods second-hand, except when it comes to full-length mirrors apparently, I didn't really think the Buy Nothing New experience would be that much of a change for me. I would have to forgo small things like magazines and coffee in town on Saturday morning but just being too busy does that. What I really wanted to do was get out of the habit of shopping for the sake of shopping, bargain hunting for the sake of bargain hunting and to use up the dried and canned goods I had hoarded over the past couple of years. And to really look at why I buy and whether it is necessary. And I want to create bonds with people by begging and borrowing. And I want to create dialogue about this.

If you are concerned about me, don't be. I'm not going to starve. I have a good collection of dried goods to get me through a month. I hope. And I have allowed myself the luxury of buying fresh fruit and vegetables but I am going to try to buy local and seasonal and to buy it from the local markets instead of the supermarkets. February is probably not the best time of year for anything but never mind. I can always make nettle soup if I get desperate. And I do have an allotment although I think there is only leeks and parsley growing on it at the moment. I also have lovely friends who will feed me. And hopefully wash my clothes for me in exchange for sexual favours because I forgot to buy washing powder last night on my final night of spending.

Yes, I had a final night of spending. Yes, it's kind of cheating. But I didn't go crazy (on account of having to cycle it home). The contents of my shopping basket were:

  • 2 x packets of ibuprofen
  • toothpaste
  • shampoo
  • conditioner
  • 2 in 1 shampoo and conditioner
  • moisturiser 
  • 2 x packs of toilet paper
  • 2 x 1L cartons of soy milk
  • 4 x packs of tofu
  • 1 x packet of vegetable stock
  • cumin seeds
  • dried rosemary
  • dried parsley
  • 5 x packets of gum

The ibuprofen was purchased because I had a cycling accident yesterday and am extremely sore and bruised and my knee is in much need of being less swollen. And the multiple shampoo and conditioner purchases were because I stay at a friend's house a lot and his bathroom supplies consist of a bar of green soap that smells like what pines would smell like if they smelled like nothing and the 40p Sainsbury's Basic Shampoo which, while I appreciate the fact that it is cruelty free, is not something I would even let my dog sniff let alone shampoo with. So these were all purchases I had been intending to make for a while. It wasn't really a pre-February hygiene hoard.

As for the groceries, I don't really drink that much soy milk but like to keep it on hand in case I need it for cooking or baking or I don't feel like I've had enough calcium that day. Same goes for the tofu; I don't use it that much but it's handy to have around. I also promised the 40p-shampoo-loving-hipster friend that I would make him vegan frittata next week. The herbs were something I had also been meaning to purchase for a while.

I did forget washing powder but I somehow bought gum. The gum was a stupid purchase and just reiterated to me how important looking at my buying habits is going to be. And how interesting.

And so it begins. I'm going to try to write regularly about what I am finding difficult and what interesting experiences the experiment has opened up for me. Wish me luck!