Category Archives: Freelance Life

The Ultimate In Productivity Voodoo: The Egg vs. Graham

“Finds it hard to concentrate”, “has a short attention span”, “is easily distracted” – these were some of the staple phrases that graced my school reports. I guess they weren’t allowed to write “was bored shitless”…

OK. So I’ve a little trouble keeping my mind on things, especially if these things are tedious. Like work.  Don’t get me wrong – I actually like my job. Out of all the things I’ve ever done to earn a living, this is by far the best gig. After all, I get to write about FOOD! All day! However, it’s tricky to come up with new angles on stuff you’ve already chewed over a zillion times. So, it can indeed get a tad dull. If it weren’t, I figure, I’d not be paid to do it, but I’d be bashing it out for free. In fact, it would be like blogging, or eating cake.

Anyway, ever since I started freelancing a decade ago, I’ve been on a quest for productivity-boosting strategies.  A few years ago, a friend of mine suggested something called the “Pomodoro Method”. Without going into too much detail, it basically involves setting a kitchen timer for 25 minutes, within which you DO NOTHING ELSE BUT STRICTLY FOCUS ON YOUR WORK. Then you can google kittens for a bit. You repeat the cycle as needed, until you get the job done.

So, off we went, my productivity midwife and I, trundling down the East Finchley High Road (I was still living in London then) to procure the essential equipment from the local kitchen supply store.

And there I found him, the last of his bovine kind, wedged between the pepper shakers and the butter dishes, with only a couple of penguins for company. My friend insisted that he needed a name, and suggested Graham. He reminded me of a Graham I used to work with when I still had a proper job, a rotund and docile kind of a chap, so the name stuck.

Graham worked miracles. My productivity soared over the next few months, I was a one-woman-article-writing-machine. Needless to say, Graham moved to Spain with me. He even got to go on the plane, rather than being shipped in a box with the rest of my detritus, such was his status.

Over the past year, sadly, Graham had been ailing. It started gradually. He’d just stop dead in mid-rotation. At first, dinging his midriff with an impatient flick of the finger would re-animate him, and when that no longer worked, I figured out that weary Graham could still perform as long as he was lying down. It seems that middle age is a tough bitch, even for a plastic kitchen gadget.

This touch-and-go state of affairs continued for several months until prostrate Graham started making weird strangulation noises that sounded a bit like a metal chain being pulled through an air vent. Within a couple of weeks, no amount of rolling, cajoling, pummelling or bashing his horns with the tea mug had much of an effect. He’d just utter a faint “tick tock tckzzz…”, before his innards ceased up again.

I had to face the awful truth. Graham had popped his cogs.


RIP Graham. Sniff.

OK, time for a confession: Graham had long lost his power as a productivity totem. I’d been breaking the “no distractions” rule left, right and centre, and these days I’m about as productive as a Spanish government office in August. But, dammit(!!!), I can’t actually work AT ALL now without something ticking away right next to me.

So, last week, I ventured, heavy-hearted, into the new Tiger shop that had recently opened up in Toledo. Right by the entrance, I spotted a pink kitchen timer and plonked into my basket. Tiger, a Swedish chain, seems to have copied the infuriating store lay-out invented by its compatriot IKEA, which makes it impossible to get to the till without having to pass through the entire length of the store.

And then, right in the neon-lit back of the shop, I saw it: The Egg. I tossed the whimsical pink ticker aside.

The Egg commanded respect. The Egg would take no nonsense. No more Mr Nice Graham. The Dark Orb would vaporise any illegally googled kittens in one tick-tock. I would heed The Egg.

The EggMaybe I’ve cracked my productivity woes once and for all, what’cha reckon? 😉

What Do I Do All Day…? The Big Reveal – Read It Here First!

When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I write food industry related articles. About two minutes into the explanation, their eyes glaze over. In future, I’ll  just send them a link to this post and then quickly shift to expounding on my cake preferences.

No PJ outfit is complete without auntie's kitted socks. They don't have to match

No freelance outfit is complete without auntie’s hand-knitted socks. They don’t need to match.

So, for those intrepid enough not to shy away from more detail, here are a couple of unadorned excerpts from my typical ‘work life’, which…erm… takes place at home.

My punishing daily schedule commences at the crack of 10.30am, when I instal  myself at my desk, steaming mug of tea to my right (which I’ve managed to spill all over my keyboard only once so far) and professionally attired in my pyjamas freshly starched work uniform.

09 May 2013
This morning, I’m researching onions. Get a whiff of that glamour! And since I don’t know my onions (just yet), I’m looking at a French onion grower’s website for edifying insights. Their web designer has gone totally OTT. As soon as I enter, there’s an onion donning pink lipstick coming right at me, followed by an army of whirling dervish shallots. It’s giving me motion sickness. I’m trying very hard not to look directly at them, but to focus on the written info instead.

[It has to be seen to be believed. I dare you to click on this link, and then select any of the onion pictures. If you can gaze at pirouetting alliums for any longer than three minutes flat without getting queasy, I owe you a cake.]

29 April 2013
I’m writing a contribution for a trade journal entitled Nutraceuticals World. They want 2,000 words on the topic “functional food formulation trends”. I’m overjoyed, because it’s essentially a ‘Mary Shelley’ job – I’ll be bolting together three previously written articles to create a new one.

Sounds iffy, but, in this case, it’s perfectly legal.  The articles I’m using as fodder have never been published in another magazine, but only on the website of the company who’s shuffling me this job. Ergo, the mag gets a unique contribution, and I get to charge twice for what is essentially the same copy. Everybody is happy 🙂

Although this is much quicker than writing a long article from scratch, the whole cobbling-it-together process is a tad fiddly – I’ve got to link the sections so that the piece flows smoothly, plus write the intro & conclusion and add several paragraphs with up-to-date material.  I’m hoping for an outcome that’s closer to David Gandy than to the Frankenstein end of the continuum, but anywhere in between will do.

20 March 2013Findushorses
The whole of Europe is in the throes of the horse meat scandal, and I’m loving every minute of it. A client asks me to add my two cents, and I gladly oblige. I even make it to “editor’s pick” that week, hurrraaah! OK, it’s not the Wall Street Journal, but better than a kick in the teeth.

Now, you might be wondering how I ever clambered up to these dizzying heights of the writing profession. Let’s just say it was a long and arduous process that entailed, amongst many other inhumane activities, the endless editing of food industry reports written by analysts with eclectic opinions, whose command of English wasn’t always the best. Here are some samples:

From a Russian hot drinks report:

Decaffeinated coffee is in disgrace of public mind for its weird nature

From a weight management products report, Thailand:

Moreover, diet programs are not working very well in Thailand where food is very tasty. Unlike European and other Asian food, Thai food is very tasty, spicy and delightful.

From a health and wellness industry report, Russia:

Among all diets, the most popular are the blood group diet, slag cleansing and consumption of different product categories separately. Slag cleansing include self therapy as one day a week of hunger or clinic therapy which can vary from random visit to a doctor or up to one month in sanatorium where hunger or very limited nutrition is applied together with spa.

When I'm not working, I like to take pictures of weeds

When I’m not chained to my desk, I can be found in the wilds of the Toledo countryside, taking pictures of weeds


You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here:

Why Move To Spain? The Answer Is Clear.

Some of you might recall a post I wrote a while back entitled There Are Only Four Valid Reasons For Moving Country. While I was working on this,  I remembered an amusing phone conversation I once had with a fellow freelancer before I decided to move Spain. (I didn’t know him personally, I got his number from one of my clients.) He very kindly agreed to have a chat with me, for which I was (and still am!) very grateful. He gave me some valuable tips on freelancing from Spain, including the need to pay a whopping €254 monthly to social security, which, had he not warned me about it, might have toppled me off my chair when I registered as self-employed shortly after moving here.

But I digress… now, this guy had made the move from the UK a few years ago with his wife and kids. In the middle of imparting his wisdom to me, he suddenly asked, “And why is it that you want to move to Spain? It  is really important to be clear about your motivations before you do something like this. Never do it on a whim”, he went on, ” you need a sound enough reason. Do you know why we decided  to take this step?”

I sat there, in spell-bound anticipation, receiver pressed to my ear, waiting for his profound revelation. “I shall tell you,” he continued, “the weather. The weather with a capital ‘W’. We don’t care all that much for Spanish culture or the food or the people. We don’t really have much contact with them. But we just love the weather here”.

My friend sent me this picture she took in January this year, when London weather reaches the height of shittiness. This bus stop is a few minutes up the road on which I used to live. Ah, memories... ;-)

In January, London weather tends to reach the height of shittiness. My friend sent me this picture she took a bit over a month ago. This bus stop is a few minutes up the road on which I used to live. And now that I’m looking at this, I can almost see (part of) the freelancer’s point 😉

Moving Countries: It doesn’t get any easier with practice

I’ve moved country twice in my life. The first time, in 1991, I moved from Germany to the UK, and last year, I left the UK for Spain. And I’m finding the whole experience quite different this time round, especially in the areas of making friends, language learning and integrating into society.

It’s not the same changing your country of residence when you’re barely 20 and taking up sticks as a middle aged crone. Also, people regard you differently. In a nutshell:

Moving at 20: they think you’re adventurous and looking to broaden your horizons
Moving at 40: they think you’re eccentric (that’s really a euphemism for ‘insane’) and running away from something (by ‘something’ they mean yourself)

Building a Social Circle
When you’re older, making new friends is a bit like going house hunting at Breezy Point after hurricane Sandy. There ain’t much left still standing, and whatever appears to be holding up, is best approached with the utmost caution.

In their late teens/early twenties, everybody’s pretty much clueless, it’s all a bit experimental, it’s about new people and new experiences. At this tender age, the usual scenario for people leaving their birth country is to study or start a new job.  In either case, on arrival, there will be hordes of other eager puppies bounding up to them, tails wagging, desperate to find pals to crack open a can of beer with.

Not so at 40. Proper responsible adults are married and busy chauffeuring their kids to oboe lessons and, in what would be their spare time, they are running themselves ragged looking after ailing parents. Besides that, they’ve also got to earn a living, so there is very little room for anything – or anyone – else.

When you do find someone potentially willing to add a tiny trickle of fresh blood to their social mix, and their conversational topics extend beyond junior’s college applications and organising the remodelling of the guest bathroom, you probably end up being squeezed into a 3.15-4pm slot every other Thursday. And you’d be lucky!

Language Acquisition
I’ve been in Spain for 14 months now, and my Spanish is probably comparable to my level of English four months after my arrival in the UK. I don’t think my excruciatingly slow progress has much to do with my age, lol, but that it’s down my life circumstances being completely different now compared to the first time I did this.

When I moved to the UK, it was for a job as a Food Technician, which meant constantly flitting between the factory floor, the lab and the offices, communicating with a bunch of different people all day. Eventually, I even managed to comprehend the kind of English spoken on the production line. That was quite a learning curve…

On top of that, I was living with British people, so it was non-stop surround sound. Exhausting for the brain, certainly, but I made swift progress. And within a short space of time, I added le pièce de résistance: a boyfriend.

Today, I’m in quite a different position. I work at home on my own in front of the computer, reading and writing in English. If I didn’t make an effort, entire days could pass by without me having to speak any Spanish at all.

To try and make up for this lack of natural day-to-day exposure, I took Spanish classes for the first nine months. (I never had any formal English lessons in the UK.) I’m also heavily involved in language exchange meetings, and, of course, I spend time socially with the friends I’ve made.

I am slowly improving, but in a far less organic way compared to two decades ago in the UK.

Social Integration
This time, it seems, I’m not sliding as seamlessly into the societal fabric as I did in the UK, despite the fact that all the people I socialise with locally are Spanish, and that I haven’t been ensconcing myself in expatlandia (which really isn’t my style, anyway).

I’m convinced the main stumbling block is that I’m not employed by a local company. Going to work every day and building relationships with Spanish workmates, I believe, would make a massive difference in terms of being regarded as a social equal, i.e. as somebody who shares the same day-to-day experiences.

From the reactions I’ve been getting, being freelance writer with a client base abroad is a somewhat exotic concept for people in a medium-sized Spanish town. In North London, where I lived before moving here, freelancing is a fairly common way of earning a living. People are even more perplexed when I tell them that I pay income tax and social security contributions here in Spain, just like they do.

Lastly, there’s the seemingly trivial matter of appearance, but I think it does have an impact. Being pasty faced and fuzzy haired, in the UK, I blended right in. Not so in Spain. Granted, the visual difference between me and the majority of the local populace is not as stark as if I’d moved to, say, Japan or Rwanda, but I do look suspiciously like a foreigner emanating from snow swept forests of Northern Europe. And once I open my mouth, this is confirmed.

Last week, I was listening to a podcast, where a Brit, who’s been living in Spain for well over a decade with his Spanish wife AND who speaks excellent Spanish to boot, commented on the fact that he was still being treated as a foreigner a lot of the time. I must admit, this didn’t exactly inspire me with confidence. After living in the UK for about half a decade, people there had made me feel as much as a foreign body as Big Ben.

Anyway, let’s see how things develop, it’s way too early to assess this last aspect properly. Sangría season starts again in April, and all my hopes are firmly pinned on that.

[P.S. I’ve written a couple of posts on what it was like for me when I first arrived in Spain – the red tape, the frothing-at-the-mouth frustrations, the little hilarities…]

Freelance Dilemma #185: What to put on your CV

At any point in an otherwise cushy freelancer’s life, a potential new client may confront you with the crazy desire to peruse your CV, your personal profile, your portfolio, or whatever they want to call it these days.

Why would they make such vexatious requests? Because they want some rudimentary assurance, despite your not having a Proper Job, that you are capable of, you know, performing this tedious thing called work. (Yeuch!!!!).

But despair not – I am about to bequeath to you, in my boundless generosity, the definitive set of must-have set of CV skills, and you won’t even have to lie.

  • I have superb time management skills [I manage to get up most days] and a proven track record of meeting deadlines [I regularly feed the cat on time, proven by the fact that it has not yet died of starvation.]
  • I have an excellant comand of written english [as long as I remember to turn the spellchecker on] and an up-to-date knowledge of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, WebStudio, and I am fluent in several programming languages, including Bali, Anaconda, etc. [I’ve never paid for any software in my life and if my pirated software isn’t compatible with yours, go ask your IT department to fix it.]
  • I am a highly competent researcher [I pick up useful factoids from daytime telly all the time, and there’s Wikipedia to fill in the blanks]
  • My verbal communication skills are superb [Just don’t call me before 3pm, as I won’t be awake. And then I’m likely to be having my coffee break. 2am is an OK time to talk. I suffer a bit from insomnia, you see. And what the hell is wrong with email?!?]
  • I am adept at problem solving [Evidently – going freelance has solved all my problems, and at the first sign of hassle, you can stick your job where the sun don’t shine, Mister.]
  • I am a team player [OK, here you’ll just have to lie]

Why freelancers are ahead of you

You may be wondering why you feel like you’re strapped to a windmill, why you spend most of it crammed into a piece of transportation equipment, why you are surrounded by idiots during the precious few daylight hours, and why you fork out three quarters of your income on a place you never get to spend any time at (aka your “home”). The answer is simple – because you are NOT freelance.

So, you ask yourself, what have those blessed freelance creatures got that you haven’t…? The answer to this existential conundrum can be summed up in three simple points:

  • We have come to terms with our laziness. In fact, we relish its so much, we’ve turned it into a job.
  • We don’t want to do what we don’t want to do. And if anyone tries to foist a job upon us that looks like it’s going to turn into a nightmare (and believe you me, we can smell those a mile off!!), we just happen to be ‘too busy right now’. But we like to tell the hapless punter to please try again, that there may be an opening for this type of work in the future. (Like when hell freezes over. Or when Russia turns into a democracy.)
  • We’d rather have our eyeballs plucked out with a hot tuning fork than attend a team meeting. We. Hate. Teams. Full. Stop.