Tag Archives: freelancing

Bloghopping Mad!

It’s a fine sunny Monday here in Toledo – ideal for a spot of bloghopping. And this is not just any old bloghop, oh no, but one that’s meant to be all about the “writing process”.

I did not, you understand, come up with such a lofty concept. I’m merely attempting to catch the bouquet tossed high up into the air by Linda of expateyeonlatvia, who summarised her writing process to me once as “I pour myself a glass of red and start ranting”. I sure wish my rants were half as hilarious as hers *wistful sigh*.

Let’s get to the questions:

What am I working on?
Hmmm… I guess…. life…and my(exasperating)self. I’m a lazy ol’ sod and inclined to let things slide. At every opportunity. I procrastinate, the discomfort grows, until panic sets in, and only then do I spring into action. A couple of days ago, I came across Stephen Covey quote: “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important”. That just about sums it up for me.

It’s a constant tussle between the daily grind, and maintaining the trajectory that propels me towards the things I actually want to do, and these things tend to require quite a bit of tedious planning.

This also applies to writing – the most satisfying posts tend to the the ones I’ve been brooding over for a while.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?
I don’t think my blog fits into one particular genre. Is it an expat blog? A food blog? A language blog? A travel blog? A humour blog? Well, it’s a mixture of all of these, more of a shaggy mongrel than a streamlined thoroughbred.

I’m not actively trying to set myself apart. I’m not selling a “product”. I just want to express myself, share my experiences and link up with people of similar interests. I like discussion, puerile puns and silly banter. I get things wrong sometimes, and I don’t mind people picking me up on it – that’s what the comment box is for.

I’ve come across blogs that didn’t have a comment section. Or bloggers who just don’t respond to comments. What’s that all about?!

Why do I write what I do?
I write every day because that’s how I earn a living. Of course, my work writing caters to my clients’ needs, and even though they give me a lot of freedom, it doesn’t entirely satisfy me on a creative level.

The blog provides a counterbalance, it’s an outlet for my thoughts and observations that have no place in my work writing. In the Food Follies and Global Consumerism sections you will find those posts that are closest to my professional writing, although the language will be more informal and I’ve tackled issues from all sorts of precarious angles, which would be wholly unacceptable to my business clients.

I set up the blog for three reasons: To help me develop my writing in other directions (particularly in the language and humour realms), to bore the pants off my friends and family with what I’m up to (“look, she’s scoffing yet another cake!”), and to connect with like-minded bloggers all over the world.

How does my writing process work?
That depends. Since I started blogging, I don’t go anywhere without my camera. Some people go into anaphylactic shock when they discover they’ve left their phone at home. For me, it’s a missing camera that gets my knickers in a twist. If I see something that’s pretty, delicious or just plain ridiculous, I snap it, wedge it between a few lines of text, and up on the blog it goes.

The process for the non-photo-centred posts is really quite different. Some of these will have been festering in my brain for aeons, until they suddenly reach critical mass. This tends to happen at the most inconvenient of times, i.e. when I really should be doing something else, like my PAID work. By now, I’ve accepted that I have about as much control over the expulsion process as a pregnant woman in labour. It just has to come out, whether I like it or not.

I must add, though, that my (non-photo) posts are never written and published within the same day. I usually take ta least three days, sometimes longer, to get from the first few rickety draft paras to the final version. There can be as many as 30 revisions. When I reach the point where I can’t tell anymore whether I’m making a piece better or worse, I know it’s time to stop fiddling.

Californian writer Annie Lamott wrote once that one of her greatest fears was being run over by a bus outside her house right after having churned out a first draft of a restaurant review or whatever. People would find the document on her computer, stare open-mouthed at what are clearly the incoherent ramblings of a maniac, and be convinced that she had, in fact, killed herself. I can relate to that. It’s an involved process, almost equally as exhausting as it is gratifying. For that reason, I could never conceive of writing a novel, and I have boundless admiration for people who manage to accomplish such a feat.

A gratuitous flower pic. Because Linda loves them :)

A gratuitous flower pic. Because Linda loves them 🙂

OK, time to pass the buck. And it goes to the amazing Anna from gohomeandaway. Incidentally, it was expateyeonlatvia’s raucous comment section which brought us together. Anna, a native Muscovite who blogs from the great Russian capital, spent a large part of her formative years and early adulthood in the US.

Anna loves both cultures as much as she finds herself torn between them, which makes it a very compelling blog for all of us who have spent a substantial stretch of our lives outside of our birth/passport countries. I think that this post, which is about the intrinsic sexism that still prevails in Russian society today, illustrates her struggles rather poignantly.

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: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

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…]

Toledo Tales: Teething Problems (Part III)

Monday 3 October 2011

Armed with the requisite papers, I’m off to my appointment to register as self-employed. I’m on foot, as it’s not far, but I struggle once again with locating my final destination (a government office called “Vivero de Empresas”, which translates, I think, as “Nursery of Companies” –  cute ;-)) Street signage can be described as sporadic at best in the historic part of town, where hoards of hapless tourists shuffle from cul-de-sac to dead end clutching their maps in sheer exasperation. But in the newer parts of Toledo, you might sooner spot a Morris dancer doing the splits on a milk float than a street sign.

I know I’m close, so I ask a passer-by, who points me in the right direction. The irony is that there’s an enormous plaque commemorating the street’s inauguration, but nothing to tell you its actual name.

The office is a swish, modern building made of fancy iron grating superimposed on vast glass walls. Inside, it’s spacious and seemingly deserted. Because of the economic crisis, I’m guessing, there aren’t too many people wanting to register their new businesses.

I’m ushered straight into a woman’s office and she starts to process me by taking basic personal details. Then she hands me over to a tall, bearded young guy in bright blue pants.

Within minutes, we happen upon a stumbling block. I will need to make a monthly €250 social security payment (which I was already aware of that, otherwise I might have toppled off my chair) by DIRECT DEBIT. I explain that I cannot open a bank account without first completing this self-employment registration, which is why I was here.

He scratches his head. He’s never been confronted with a problem quite as exotic as this one. Luckily, his colleague at the desk opposite has. I get passed on to him, a veritable veteran of the civil service establishment, and close to retirement age. Besides letting me bask in the comfort of his innumerable years of experience, he’s also in a splendid mood, which isn’t soured in the slightest, when he can’t find a suitable box on the system that describes my type of professional activity. Story of my life. We settle for something or other in the ‘creative’ field. Then he gives me a payment slip, so that I can make the first social security payment in cash. Success!

Tuesday 4 October 2011

The day has come. I walk into the Santander. I sit down opposite the first available Customer Service person. Her name is Maria. I tell her I want to open a bank account. (By now, I’ve had plenty of practice with that phrase and it comes out smoothly and confidently.) Maria peers at me cautiously.

With a glint of triumph in my eye, I shove a pile of papers her way. She shuffles through them. She smiles. Then she utters the magic words: “It seems to be all there.”

Twenty minutes later, with my right hand in a cramp after being made to sign a ream of documents that would stretch all the way to the outer rings of Saturn if laid out end-to-end, I finally have a bank account. I celebrate with coffee and Toledanian marzipan cake.

Monday 17 October 2011

By now, I have been paid (yes, right into my brand spanking new bank account), and so it’s time for the last essential step – getting online from home so that I can actually WORK from there. I’ve been lugging my laptop around cafes, libraries and acquaintance’s offices for an entire month. Which, curiously enough, has caused an inexplicable spike in my productivity…!?

So, it’s around noon this Monday when I trundle into the local high street branch of Spain’s biggest phone company. And there I’m told something really shocking: The engineer will be at my house the following morning at 9.30am. I feel compelled to repeat this information back to them three times, just to make sure I’ve heard right.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

It’s 9.34am. The Telefonica engineer arrives, and he plugs in the broadband. I can skype from home!

There will be more cake, but, as you’ll all be relieved to hear, no part IV. Phew! Thanks for suffering it out with me…

View from the citadel café, where I used to work from before I had internet at home

View from the citadel café, where I used to work from before I had internet at home

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.