What I Learned about Writing from “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” by Haruki Murakami

 


When I picked up this book, I was expecting something like a memoir or a collection of essays on running. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it was so much more than that, and I found myself highlighting numerous passages that gave me a fresh perspective on life and writing (as well as running). I read the book in three days, though I could have easily finished in one if I didn’t have other stuff going on. I also wanted to reflect on some of the great lessons I’d learned from it and apply them in my own life and writing habits.

In case you don’t know, Haruki Murakami started running the same year he decided to sell his jazz bar and devote himself to writing — he was thirty-three. For me, reading this book now at thirty-three, gave me motivation and encouragement, and it was like a sign that I, too, should start pursuing new goals. As Murakami says, “That age may be a kind of crossroads in life.”


In no particular order, here are some lessons on writing from the running novelist:

“I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly.”

Murakami explains that, while he is aiming to increase the distance he runs, speed is less of an issue, as long as he can run a certain distance. If he increases the pace, he shortens the amount of time he runs, but he lets that exhilaration he feels at the end carry over to the next day. It is the same thing that applies to writing a novel. This allows you to keep up with the rhythm and set the pace. This is especially important for long-term projects. You don’t want to burn out too quickly in the beginning doing too much, and not have anything left to continue and carry you to the finish line.

So, does it work? I’ve actually been trying to finish my first draft of a children’s book for the last two weeks. It is under 10k words, so I knew I could easily finish it in a week or two. But when I was at 3,000 words, I lost momentum and ran out of ideas. I took a few days off and had to let my brain rest. I had been writing for two nights straight, way past my bedtime, and I would often end up staring at my screen, rereading everything from start to finish (several times), even though I had nothing left to add. It was counterproductive and it wasted a lot of hours when I could have gotten a good night’s sleep. After I read this, I decided to try it out. I had a few ideas pop into my head and started writing again. I was quite sure I could have gotten more than 1,000 words on the page, but I stopped at around 700 words, leaving a note on where I wanted to continue the next day. Sure enough, when I got up the next day, the words just poured right out and I didn’t require a lot of time to get them all down. I had spent the previous night thinking about those ideas and how I wanted to go about writing them. Instead of forcing myself to write everything down that night, just going over ideas and sentences in my head, and even saying them out loud, helped me to organise my thoughts and ideas.

Stopping where you feel you can write more not only helps you set a pace for your writing, it also allows you to pause and gather your thoughts and ideas, so that when you return to it the next day, you can jump right in without much planning or thinking. I did this for three days and got my first draft done at just over 7,000 words. I think I’m going to continue using this method for editing, re-writing and maybe even blogposts as well. It may take a bit longer than usual, but you end up with better quality writing and new insights and perspectives you otherwise may not have in just one sitting.


On deciding to become a novelist

I gained a whole new perspective on writing when I read about how Murakami initially started writing. He describes his sudden desire to write a novel while watching a baseball game, and it was the moment the crack of the bat meeting the ball which echoed through the stadium that the thought came over him. He never had any ambitions to be a novelist. He didn’t even have a concrete idea of what he wanted to write about, but he felt that if he just started to write, he could come up with something. He went out and bought manuscript paper and a fountain pen and started writing until he had a 200-page manuscript — all handwritten. He didn’t even know what to do with the finished novel and simply sent it to a literary magazine to be considered for a new-writers prize. The most shocking part was that he didn’t make a copy before shipping it off! He was perfectly fine with the possibility that it may not get selected and might just vanish forever, and was simply content with having finished it than whether anyone would actually read his work.

I don’t know if many writers (new or seasoned) would ever do what Murakami had done, but that was in 1978, before the Internet took over the world and people didn’t rely on social media to communicate with people. Everyone of us can now easily send a 140 character Tweet to the rest of the world within seconds and get feedback just as quickly. Murakami had to wait months to find out whether his novel, which he spent long hours crafting, was even read by anyone. When he finally heard back from them, he had already completely forgotten he’d entered the competition in the first place. His novel won the prize and was eventually published that summer. Before he could get his head around what was happening, he was labeled as a new, up-and-coming writer.

So, what can we learn from his experience? We now live in a time where it is much easier to get published, but we often get distracted by what comes after your book is published — fame, recognition, status, etc. Murakami started writing with no expectations or ambitions of doing it professionally or turning it into his career; he simply started writing because he had a desire to write. He didn’t tell anyone or Tweet about it while he was writing, and everyone who knew him had no idea he had done it until after the fact. He was self-motivated and worked from start to finish — he was pleased with himself just because he was able to do it. I also had a desire to write something for a few years, but I was often held back due to a fear of not being good at it, being rejected, or being judged for it. I started numerous stories that never made it to the end. I gave up when things got tough and I started to doubt myself. I was worried about being a bad writer — before I had even completed a first draft. Murakami did not even think about what he would do with his novel after he had finished it. This mindset was what pushed him to the finish line. His mind was focused on just getting it done. Everything else that might come afterwards never even crossed his mind. The fact that he didn’t make a copy impressed me the most because he didn’t need any proof of his work, he didn’t need to read it again and again. He sent it to one competition without a backup plan, then he forgot about it and went on with his life and started writing other stories. He plunged into writing without expectations. I was not even halfway with my first draft and had given up when I started reading this book, and after reading this particular part, I got right back into it— forgetting about all the stuff that might come afterwards — just get it done. Done is better than perfect. You don’t need to be naturally talented to start writing either. Write because you want to write.


On setting priorities

Murakami, after deciding to become a novelist, started to change his daily routine so that he could focus on writing. He started to get up before 5 a.m. and went to bed before 10 p.m. He is a morning person and that is the time he can focus and work. After working in the morning, he has the rest of the day free to do other things that don’t take much concentration and he has been able to work efficiently for more than two decades. This lifestyle means he doesn’t have much of a nightlife and have had to turn down a lot of invitations. This is his way of prioritising how he wants to divide his time and energy so that he can focus on writing. Murakami worked out when he could work most efficiently and stay focused, and he rearranged his priorities and changed his lifestyle to do it.

This is definitely a challenge for me, as I have never been a morning person. I sleep late and wake up late. Even if I wake up early, I just stay in bed until I feel like getting up. This wasn’t an option for me when I was still teaching in primary school, obviously, but I fell back into this pattern soon after I left my teaching job and started freelancing. I would often wake up still fatigued, barely staying awake, extremely unfocused throughout the day. Soon after breakfast, lunchtime came around, though I would sometimes push it back until 2:00 or 3:00 p.m. So, I really only get about two to three hours of work done. Then, dinner time rolls around, and after dinner, I finally feel like I can work without distractions, so I stay up way past midnight, lying awake until dawn, and falling asleep when I should be up again. It is an incredibly unhealthy way to live, especially for freelancers. Although you don’t have set working hours, you still need a daily routine so that you have a work-life balance. I ended up sitting in front of my laptop from 11 a.m. to the wee hours of the night, and finding that I really only did about four hours of real work while the rest of the time was disrupted by mealtimes, social media, daydreaming, Netflix or other family interruptions. Wouldn’t two or three hours of focused, uninterrupted work in the early morning be better than twelve plus hours of scattered brain activity throughout the day? I have yet to really put this into practice, though. I just started setting my alarm for 7:00 a.m., which is a big improvement from getting up after 9:00 a.m. Let’s hope I can push it even earlier and begin a new morning routine. Even if I don’t end up working in the morning, I can at least get some much-needed exercise done so I can free up the rest of the day to do other things.

Murakami also valued certain relationships over others and the most indispensable relationship he felt he needed to build was not with a specific person but ‘with an unspecified number of readers’. He considered this ‘invisible conceptual relationship’ to be the most important thing in his life. As a writer, your duty should be to your readers. As long as there was one reader who was happy with your work, that should enough to motivate you towards writing the next thing.

This has certainly changed my whole perspective on writing and made me reflect on why I wanted to write in the first place, and to let go of those stupid fears of not being liked by some people. Could you be happy with just one satisfied reader? Would that be enough for you to continue? You can’t please everybody! Write for the one person who would like it and benefit from it, and would wait patiently for your next book. Write for that person.


The most important qualities a novelist has to have

1. Talent

Talent is what fuels a writer. The only problem with talent is that you can’t control how much you have. It has a mind of its own, which can well up when it wants to, and once it dries up, that’s it.

Some people are naturally talented writers, while others need to work a little harder to get there. Some can write a novel in mere weeks or months, while others take years to churn one out. Murakami actually doesn’t consider himself to be naturally talented, yet, his work has become so popular over the years. He worked really hard to get there — he had to ‘pound the rock with a chisel and dig out a deep hole’ before he could locate his source of creativity. This gave him a motivation to dig deeper and deeper, and —  in a way — it allowed his creativity to last as long as it has. If people rely on a ‘natural spring’ of talent, they might suddenly be in trouble when they find that they’ve exhausted their only source. Being not-so-naturally talented may end up giving you an advantage, because you push yourself to keep going and improving, honing and refining your writing.

2. Focus

Focus is having the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever is critical at the moment. Without focus, you simply cannot accomplish anything of value. Focus can even compensate for your limited talent or lack of it. When you don’t think of anything else and just solely on your writing, you’d be surprised with what you can accomplish. Even if you are a writer with a natural spring of talent, you won’t be able to write well without focus or concentration.

3. Endurance

Writers of fiction or long novels really need endurance in order to concentrate on writing every day over a long period of time.

Murakami describes endurance so perfectly in this quote: “If concentration is the process of just holding your breath, endurance is the process of slowly, quietly breathing at the same time you’re storing air in your lungs.” You need to continue to breathe while you hold your breath.

Endurance, like focus, can be acquired and sharpened through training. It is just like training muscles. If you do it consistently every day, you can gradually expand your limits and push yourself further and further than what you were originally able to do. It takes a lot of patience and self-discipline. This kind of training is extremely important and indispensable for a writer, as well as a marathon runner.


These are just some of the great lessons I’ve come across while reading this book. I highly recommend anyone who has a desire to write or run, or even just want a new perspective on life, to read this book. You are bound to find something that inspires you or change the way you think and look at life.

 

Get it on Amazon Kindle

Book Review: ‘YOU’ and ‘Hidden Bodies’

‘YOU’ 

you

Ok, I actually read these books last year but realised I didn’t post a review on my blog. I wanted to add it now, after finishing Season 2 of YOU on Netflix. So let’s start with the book ‘YOU’…

I just want to say: Pick it up, pick it up, pick it up! (Reference to the man singing at the train station.) I cannot believe how fast I devoured this psychological, mind-blowing, twisted thriller that was soooooo bad yet soooooo good! I could not put it down!

I’ll admit that I started reading it after watching the Netflix series YOU Season 1. There were some characters that were changed or added in the show that made it even better than the book, in some ways (the neighbour’s kid Paco, especially, because he made Joe seem like a caring human being despite his sick, twisted mind). But the book also just flows and takes a hold of you and doesn’t let you go and you just find yourself turning the pages (not realising how much time has passed, ignoring your full bladder, bowel movements, and feelings of hunger).

I was so confused about my feelings for Joe. I found myself falling for him and rooting for him and wanting him, and then I realised how f-d up that was because he is f-d up and crazy and a stalker and, oh, so much is wrong with him. And now, I’m even thinking and writing like him with long sentences filled with ‘and’s and not needing to take a breath in my thoughts.

I am in awe of Caroline Kepnes and how she came up with this twisted tale, his character, his voice, his mind and even making readers sympathise with this psychopathic stalker / killer! I love the many literary, music and film references in this book and it makes me want to read those books (Desperate Characters, Dr Sleep, On the Road) and watch those films (Pitch Perfect). These elements were weaved into the storyline and helps you to understand the character and personality of Joe, his observations, perceptions and opinions. They made his character come alive and feel like a real relatable person, despite his dark twisted mind.

I love how Joe bags on Dan Brown and then gets Beck to read The Da Vinci Code together and go a journey together. (I don’t know why so many people hate on Dan Brown; I love The Da Vinci Code!) And he ends up loving it (I was disappointed to know she didn’t really read the whole thing)! The way how she incorporated Stephen King’s release of Doctor Sleep into the story was so clever, too. Then to find out that Mr. King himself recommended the book on Twitter, saying that YOU was ‘Hypnotic and scary’, made me feel excited for Ms. Kepnes. Imagine writing about an author in your book and then having that author read and give you a positive review on it – that is like the biggest compliment ever! What would have made it even cooler is if Dan Brown had also read it and given his take on it!

The book reads like a diary but also like a letter and it’s all written in second person, literally, using ‘You’. I feel like I learned a lot about storytelling and story writing, the use of voice, narrative, sentence construction, obscure references and vocabulary, and even the use of punctuation! This book is such a well-crafted piece of work! I read it on Kindle and eventually bought a hardcopy paperback because I felt like I needed a physical copy of this masterpiece to line my bookshelf. Caroline Kepnes is such a talented writer and to see that YOU is actually her first novel just makes me love her even more!

‘Hidden Bodies’

hiddenbodies

After reading ‘You’, I found myself rooting for Joe and hoping he could just find a nice girl to settle down with. He certainly managed to find that girl in this sequel, but not without difficulty or assholes getting in the way of his happiness. He continues to justify his killing by describing everyone’s faults, how the world would be a better place without them. And Joe always manages to convince you that he is doing the right thing! I wanted him to pay for what he did and I wanted him to be happy and find love at the same time. This is what is so frustrating about this whole thing! The mind of a serial killer is not to be trusted yet I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him and sympathising with him. This is totally f-d up, right?

That is how brilliant Caroline Kepnes is! She makes you question everything about our lives, the society we live in today, our over-dependency on social media to share every detail of our lives, how vulnerable we are and how quickly we begin to trust people we barely know.
But I do have some issues with the #mugofurine that managed to go unnoticed for months in Peach Salinger’s house. I mean, wouldn’t it start to smell after a few days? Surely, flies or bugs would just start swarming toward that mug. Seriously, how?!

Some parts were predictable for me though. When Forty managed to survive the whole ordeal, he blackmailed Joe into writing his future scripts for him. I saw that coming, given what an asshole Forty is and how ungrateful he is to everyone in his family. The way he ended up dying in the end was more amusing than shocking. And I just loathed that name – Forty, with a twin called Love.
What I liked about ‘You’ was that a lot of the characters and events seemed more relatable and even quite plausible. But ‘Hidden Bodies’ was too far-fetched and extreme.

When Joe was invited to the Quinn property, it felt a bit like Rachel Chu entering the Crazy Rich Asians mansion. How Joe met Love and how quickly their romance just blossomed after a couple weeks did not seem realistic at all. Just because she is 35 and had two unsuccessful marriages doesn’t mean she must settle down with the next guy she dates but that is precisely what she says! So even after learning about Joe’s past, after he literally confesses to being a murderer, she still decides to be with him and protect him and even goes to retrieve his #mugofurine. Oh, come on!

The ending – the last few chapters – just seemed rushed, trying to tie up every loose end. And it didn’t really end end. It’s not a real ending and I hate that I want to know what happens – if the cops will be able to pin him for the murders; if he will get away with everything and become a father and marry Love and live happily ever after. I hate that I need to know these things!

Season 2 of YOU on Netflix was so different from the book, which really frustrated me. The most annoying thing is Candace being not dead and trying to sabotage everything and even dating Forty. Then when she finally caught Joe red-handed and told Love everything, Love kills Candace – WTF! Oh, yeah, the guy in the cage (not in the book) whom Joe had locked up was actually killed by Love, not Joe. This plot is so far off from the book and made Love into a crazy bitch and not the perfect girl for Joe at all. They’re two completely different stories. The show again completely failed to resolve the #mugofurine situation and it wasn’t even brought up throughout the entire season. Dr. Nicky was brought back and he has become this weak man, not caring about clearing his name or trying to get revenge on Joe. He basically declares to Forty that he deserves to be in jail for his other sins (namely, cheating on his wife) even though he didn’t kill Beck. It was frustrating to watch, yet I want to rewatch it.

I also want to reread the book after watching the show. I saw from Kepnes’ Instagram that she will be writing two more books in the YOU series and I will definitely be buying them. I just hope they will be as good as the first book and not disappointing, as many sequels tend to be.

Book Review: Jane Eyre

I decided to read more classics this year, and after finishing Anne of Avonlea, I thought I’d try Jane Eyre before going back to the series. I actually borrowed this from the children’s section of the public library. Late one evening, when I was struggling to fall asleep, I decided to do some light reading and opened it up. After the first chapter, I was in a nightmare! It wasn’t the best choice for bedtime reading. I put it down and didn’t pick it up again until a few weeks later. I have a habit of borrowing too many books and then continually renewing them every two weeks until the limit of five renewals is reached, then, either force myself to binge-read in the last few days, or just give up and return the book(s) unfinished. When I picked up Jane Eyre again, I was hooked. The language is not exactly the easiest to understand and I often had to reread passages again and again but the story was captivating. I started to enjoy the overly detailed descriptions of Jane’s thoughts, conversations, surroundings and feelings. I started to feel like I was in Jane’s head and felt how she felt. Her narrative was so honest and pure and I wanted more and more. I devoured the 500+ pages in one week, picking it up every day, reading during breakfast, between meals, before bed. It’s a good thing I don’t have to go to work and do freelance at home, or else I wouldn’t have this luxury. Needless to say, I hardly did any work that week.

The first volume of the book was the most depressing part of the story and I felt so bad for Jane. Orphaned as a baby, she was forced to live with her aunt and cousins who all clearly despised her. They accused her of things she didn’t do and after getting into a fight with her cousin, John Reed, she was locked in the red room of the house where a ghost appeared to her. I was screaming in my head. I normally love thrillers and scary stories and wouldn’t think much of a scene like this, but for some reason, I got goosebumps when I read this – maybe because I was relating to her as a nine-year-old girl.

When she was finally sent to Lowood boarding school, I thought things would improve when she became friends with Helen Burns, but no! She had to suffer even more and eventually grieve the death of Helen, her one true friend! She did become much stronger and even became a teacher at the school for two years, before she advertised to become a governess. And here is where the plot gets really good.

Jane was hired to be a governess to a young girl named Adele in Thornfield Hall, owned by Mr Edward Fairfax Rochester. She grew up into an intelligent, confident and strong-willed young woman and was cared for, appreciated and accepted for who she was, though she remained poor, obscure, plain and small. She began to fall in love with Rochester, which, at first I found it difficult to understand because he was described as ugly, abrupt, strange and secretive. Even more surprisingly, he loved Jane back! But through her honest and detailed descriptions, I started to fall in love with Rochester too – even with all his faults, questionable behaviour, awkward expressions, and despite the fact that he was twice Jane’s age (40+). I wanted to know more, see more, feel more of him. Why? Who really knows? It was like a sickness. Even after the strange fire, the bloody attack of his guest, Richard Mason, and Rochester’s insistance on keeping all that had transpired a secret, did not affect those feelings at all. I – I mean Jane, still loved and wanted him.

Everthing about their relationship was unconventional and uncommon, you may even say sinful, but I was rooting for it! When Jane declared her love for Rochester, I was so happy! Rochester was such an immature man and made her think he was to be married to the least interesting woman on earth! What an asshole move! Why does the woman always have to be the bold one and the man the coward? Finally he proposed and I hurrahed, but I thought that this happy ending is happening too early in the book – there are still over 200 pages left. Clearly, I was right and their wedding was stopped when Mason appeared and informed everyone that Rochester’s previous marriage to his sister, Bertha Mason, was an impediment to his getting married to Jane. Uh, WHAT? Ah, yes… Mason, the man that was stabbed by an unknown being, who turned out to be his sister, has decided to prevent Rochester from getting married to Jane and be happy. Yes, this was what was going through my mind at that moment, not the fact that Rochester had lied and tried to trick everyone and kept a mad woman locked up in the house for years! But, come on! That Bertha is a mad woman! They could not get divorced either. And Jane, the noble, smart, intelligent young woman who was also full of integrity and virtue, decided to leave Rochester and Thornfield Hall and run away without any money, instead of essentially becoming a mistress if she were to stay with Rochester. I can’t describe how much my heart ached at that point. It crushed me to read that Jane and Rochester couldn’t even spend one night together after all that waiting!

After she ran away, she suffered for three days without food or shelter until she came upon the Rivers’ house and begged them to take her in for the night. St John, the kind missionary, let her in. She told them her name was Jane Elliot and shared limited details about her past, expecting to only stay a few nights but she became quite good friends with the Rivers, who nursed her back to health. St John later gave her a job as a mistress of the girls’ school he had opened and her life was slowly getting back to normal. Later, it was discovered that Jane was related to the Rivers and were cousins when her uncle John Eyre of Madeira passed away and left his entire fortune to Jane. The Rivers learned of Jane’s real name and why she had left Thornfield Hall. Jane, the saint that she is, decided to split the fortune among all four of them, so that they could accept her as their sister. This turn of events just seemed too convenient at this point in the story. Jane could have done so much with her inheritance, she could have been free and independent, but she valued and wished for a family more than anything. I don’t think anyone in this day would have done what she did.

One day, St John asked Jane to marry him and go to India with him, saying that he believes God had given Jane her gifts to become a missionary’s wife. Jane, whose heart still yearned for Rochester, agreed to go to India if she may go free and not marry him, which was not acceptable by St John. They argued a few times on the matter and it was finally resolved when Jane suddenly heard her name being called in the middle of the wood, convinced that it was Rochester, she set out to seek him in Thornfield Hall again. Upon arriving in town, Jane learned that Thornfield Hall had been burned to the ground and that the arsonist was none other than Bertha Mason, who then jumped to her death from the roof. Rochester, while trying to save everyone, including Bertha, from the fire, was badly injured and had become blind. So when Jane could finally be with Rochester legally and sin-free, he had become an invalid, an incompetent, dependent, ageing man left with nothing. This had to be the most unsatisfying love-story ending of all time. I expected Jane to be smarter than this and choose a different path, but the heart desired to be chained to Rochester, no matter how ugly, useless, incompetent he was or that she would have to spend the rest of her life taking care of his every need like a nurse. But that was the path she chose and even though he did eventually gain part of his eyesight back and hinted toward a better future for Jane and Rochester, I had so many mixed emotions about this love story. When I finished the book I half jumped for joy and half screamed in frustration. I wanted to reread it and go back to the blossoming romance before all the chaos, but I quickly realised that every part of their romance was chaotic! They never had any real time spent together alone without incident or interruption! There were even times when Rochester was away for weeks with no word but Jane’s love only grew stronger during those times. Yet, it was those moments that made the story so captivating – making you wait, yearn, anticipate, just like Jane did.

I had never read anything like this before and I loved it so much! There are also a lot of Christian and religious themes woven into the story which provided a lot of wisdom and truths. I found it odd at times when the reader was addressed directly in the narrative, sometimes breaking the flow and bringing you out of the story. There were a lot of place names that were written like “——–shire” or simply “S——-” which was rather strange and distracting. I don’t know if it was just the the particular edition I had picked up or what. I also missed a lot of the dialogue when it was written in French with no translation or when it was presented with strange spellings to represent an accent. I gave up trying to understand what the intended words were supposed to be. I might reread it again later and try to decipher them (I downloaded a free e-book version after I returned the book to the library).

After I finished reading it, I got the movie and watched it three times in one night! Michael Fassbender, who I absolutely love, plays Rochester. Though he is described as an unhandsome and unattractive man, I couldn’t think of anyone better to play Rochester. They skipped a lot things from the book but I liked how the story was told as a memory after she ended up with the Rivers. It tied everything together and moved the story along quickly for the movie audiences.

Overall, I loved this book and wish I had read it sooner! Definitely worth five stars!

23rd June

The phone rings at 10, twenty-third of June.
“His blood pressure’s dropping. Come see him soon.”
I take a deep breath and try not to cry.
I look up to the sky and ask God, “Why?”
I shut the door and head to the hospice.

My thoughts run wild, unfiltered in my mind:
“No therapy worked, drug of any kind…
They were all useless; he is still dying.
What was the point of trying anything?
How does it feel to watch your father die?”

I close my eyes and start praying to God.
I know it’s too late but it’s all I’ve got.
It’s no use praying for you to stay.
It’s not what you wanted anyway.
So I ask God to take you to heaven.

I open my eyes to look at your face,
And think about how we got to this place.
You start to moan and we turn to listen.
Every sound, beyond our comprehension.
Is it pain or something you want to say?

“It’s ok, Dad. We know. We love you too.
Though you can’t say it, we know it is true.
God’s waiting for you, where angels will bow!
You can go peacefully to heaven now!
Though we’ll miss you, we’ll see you again soon!”

I made it to 50

When I first started this blog, it was mostly due to boredom and I wanted to start doing more writing. I wasn’t expecting anyone to visit it or read any of my posts, I didn’t even tell any of my friends or family or promote it anywhere. I just posted a lot of random thoughts, blogs about recent trips and holidays, book reviews, reflections, rants, and recently, some poems and short stories. Somehow, I made it to 50 followers. It may not seem like a lot compared to those with 1k or up to 1m followers, but 50 is a milestone for me! I still don’t really know what the main purpose of this blog is, to be honest! It’s filled with random posts and I find myself playing around with the themes, fonts, page customisations etc. I just wanted to share all the random chaos and random thoughts.

So I want to say thank you to my followers! I am learning a lot from you all as well! I hope you will continue to read and visit and feel free to comment. If you have any suggestions or comments about my posts, please share them with me! Is there something new or different I should write about? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Thinking of you on this Father’s Day!

I woke up this morning and these three words, ‘Happy Father’s Day!’ came into my head. Then I thought, there’s nothing happy about spending a Father’s Day without your father present. Did anyone ever think about how insensitive this greeting is to people who have lost their fathers? What should you say instead? Well, it is unlikely anyone would come up to me to wish me a Happy Father’s Day, so this, I quickly realised, was a really stupid question. But to those people who have lost fathers, hearing those words said to someone else feels like a thorn has pierced through your heart.

On my way to church, a thoughtful friend had actually sent me a message saying, “Thinking of you on this Father’s Day.” I had no strong emotions when I read those words but I did feel acknowledged by it, that someone remembered that I had lost my father and that it would be a tough day for me. I immediately felt more peaceful and less irritated by the happy families around me. These kinds of friends, who genuinely care, remember these occasions and take the time to reach out, are rare – she was the only one the whole day.

For those who have lost their fathers, sometimes it will be tough to get through a day like this because you think people have forgotten or are insensitive about your feelings. It may seem like those words ‘Thinking of you…’ have little meaning but it could make a huge difference. If you know someone who has lost their father, let them know you remember. It just takes one to turn that day around.

To all the fathers out there: Happy Father’s Day! 
To those who have lost their fathers: Thinking of you on this Father’s Day!

Waiting

Your hands feel cold and soft, I hold them, tight.
Your breathing slows, each breath inhaled, a fight.
Always assuming we’d have tomorrow.
Our days numbered; today ends in sorrow.
I sit in silence, still. Watching. Waiting.
The moment I dreaded is approaching.
Seconds ticking so slowly, yet so fast.
Precious moments slip away, they won’t last.
I keep waiting and watching and hoping…
Nothing has felt this excruciating.

Sweden (Part 11 – Surströmming [stinky fish], IKEA and National Museum)

Surströmming AKA stinky fish

When we got back to the hotel our tour leader, Jason, told us that he had bought some Swedish stinky fish for us to smell (note: not eat). He had told us about this famous Swedish delicacy in the beginning of the trip and had promised that he would buy a can for us to smell. He kept his promise! So our group of principals and teachers crowded around the hotel lobby to wait. Jason asked the front desk for a can opener and we all stood there waiting for one from the restaurant kitchen. The staff told us that we were not allowed to open it in the hotel and had to go outside. It was raining at that time, so we could only stay a few feet away from the building. Then one of the ladies working at the front desk decided to come out with us because she also wanted to smell the fish! She said she had never tried or smelled it before even though she is a local! It’s definitely an acquired taste – you either love it or hate it.

Surströmming is actually sour Baltic Sea herring that is lightly-salted and fermented. The six-month fermentation process is what gives the fish the strong acidic taste and rather putrid smell. However, this delicacy has been a part of the northern Swedish cuisine since the 16th century. There is specific method of opening the can too – in a bucket of water – to prevent the smell from travelling too far and the pressurised gas from spraying out the brine. It was sure entertaining to watch Jason slowly and patiently open the can with his little can opener! Everyone around was making faces and noises even though the smell hadn’t even come out yet! Finally, he got the can opened and each of us took turns to smell the fish. When I think about this now, I can’t help but laugh! A bunch of educated adults would actually stand around and wait for half an hour to willingly smell a putrid smelling can of fish! It really did smell awful, I’m not even lying.

After we all got a whiff, Jason asked if anyone would be brave enough to try a bite. And believe it or not, one of the principals said he wanted to try! It was like watching a horror movie, everyone around him wanted to gag and vomit but we still stayed there watching and waiting! He took out a piece of fish, which was cut in half, with a toothpick and there were literally fish guts hanging out and we all went ‘eeewww’ when he pulled out the stringy pink goo. He took a bite and even looked like he was enjoying it! It was somewhat anti-climatic that no one really got sick or had a really terrible reaction, which was what we were all expecting! Everyone around him joked that he would have to brush his teeth for a long time and to be careful not to get any of the brine on his clothes or he would have to burn them. Jason said that out of all the tours he had led in Stockholm, no one had ever dared to take a bite of the stinky fish until now! Every can he had ever opened was dumped and wasted. I did wonder who really eats this stuff and why they are still producing them if it smells so bad.

A quick Google and YouTube search on Surströmming came up with hundreds of Surströmming challenge videos but I found one video that actually explained the history and culture and also the production process of the sour herring and found it quite interesting. There is a right way to eat it – wrapped in flatbread with some potatoes, chives, butter, red onions, and not straight out of the can. I kind of do want to try eating it the RIGHT way now! It is also traditionally eaten during the late summer, mainly because you have to be outside (due to the smell that you wouldn’t want lingering in your house afterwards), it’s also the time when the fish is done fermenting. There even used to be a law that you couldn’t eat surstromming before the third Thursday of August!

Watch the video here. The can that the Buzzfeed guys tried looked very different from the can we opened. I wanted to gag just watching them.

Here is our brave mate eating it right out of the can…

IKEA

The next day, our final day in Stockholm was quite free and flexible. Our itinerary only included the National Museum so our group requested to visit IKEA. Surprisingly, IKEA has never been listed on the Stockholm tour itinerary according to our tour leader. The driver didn’t even know the way and had to search for the location! Well, you don’t really feel like you have been to Sweden without at least passing by an IKEA store, even though we get them in Hong Kong. Of course, we all wanted to see the authentic Swedish IKEA. We gathered outside and took some photos. I took Pippi out and helped her take a few snaps too! We actually went into the warehouse part, where the Bistro was also located. We saw a very cool ice-cream machine and immediately walked up to the cashier and asked him to take our money so we could press a button and watch the magic happen. You place the cone in the holder and the soft ice cream comes out perfectly every time.

We realised that the main entrance was on the other side so we were a bit late going to the main part of the store. The floor plan is obviously the same as any IKEA and forces you to walk all the way through the entire store before reaching the check-out. I underestimated the amount of time we needed to walk in, through and out and spent too much time in the beginning looking at things and ended up running towards the exit when I checked the time. It didn’t help that all the signs were in Swedish. But there were a few people who wanted to buy things and took a bit longer than expected at the check-out. I was glad that I wasn’t the last person on the bus – I probably didn’t have to run though.

National Museum

(To be continued…)

Back to Sweden (Part 10)

Sweden (Part 10 – Lunch cruise, and Pippi Longstocking at Junibacken)

Archipelago Tour and Lunch Cruise

After breakfast, we arrived at the ferry terminal in the city and boarded the Östanå I cruise ship for a 3-hour archipelago tour with lunch cruise. The ship is one of the traditional ships of the archipelago. It was very windy so after getting a few snaps on the deck, I stayed inside and waited for lunch to be served. There was a guide introducing all the sights and islands that we passed by but it was very difficult to hear anything that she was saying over all the noise on the ship. I just sat and chatted with a few other teachers and enjoyed the sea breeze and watching sailboats sailing back and forth. There wasn’t really much to do except for eating lunch and walking around the deck. It would be lovely to take the cruise with a special someone and enjoy a romantic dinner. For the price of SEK 390, it’s really not that bad.

Pippi Longstocking at Junibacken

As we were approaching the shore to disembark, I heard the guide say something about a Pippi Longstocking Museum! My eyes lit up and I began asking our tour leader where this museum was. He had no idea what I was talking about. I immediately Googled it and at first didn’t see anything such museum in Stockholm. Then I saw on TripAdvisor that it was called Junibacken. The tour leader did not know anything about this place and we had to get on the bus to go to some underground supermarket. After he said that we could have three hours of free time, I located the museum and found out that it was actually near the ferry pier where we were before, next to the Vasa Museum that we had visited on the second day. It was a half an hour walk but it looked simple enough. Another teacher wanted to join me as she didn’t have much interest in shopping either. We walked together and finally arrived 30 minutes later.

The museum was full of kids with their parents. We were probably the oldest visitors without children or parents! We bought our tickets and explored the different rooms and immediately felt like a kid again – it was a magical experience! I wish we had this kind of museum or cultural centre in Hong Kong. It’s hard to describe what it is like and there were a lot of scenes that I didn’t really recognise. They use Pippi Longstocking as the main attraction and we saw that they were having the live performance in the theatre.

There was a Storybook Train that you can only ride once with your ticket. I was so excited when I started lining up. The train takes you on a journey through some of Astrid Lindgren’s stories. The scenes are presented in tableaux with lighting and sound effects and dialogue which comes out from the speakers in the individual carriages, you can even choose from twelve different languages. The whole production of the Storybook Train took almost two years to create and it involved doll-makers, scenic artists, prop-makers, theatre carpenters, who were all under the direction and vision of the illustrator Marit Törnqvist. The result is truly amazing. It almost felt like it was a fairytale or adventure ride at Disneyland, but with a beautiful story. It was not easy to take photos or videos because it was quite dark in a lot of the scenes. The way each carriage moves in and out and through each scene is so well-planned and thought out. Hidden doors and windows would open suddenly and different figures would move unexpectedly. Check out some of the photos and video below.  

After the Storybook Train ride, we exited and arrived at the theatre room where Pippi Longstocking’s house, the famous yellow Villa Villekulla, was standing. We had arrived just in time for the next performance starting in a few minutes! We quickly sat down among all the cute toddlers and children and waited for Pippi, Tommy and Annika to come out. The show ‘Pippi Moves In’ is performed in Swedish but it really didn’t matter to me! The actors performed really well and really brought the characters to life. They climbed up and down the house, danced and jumped all around having the time of their lives! Knowing the story helped me to understand what was happening during the performance but it was the whole atmosphere, setting, music, dancing, all the kids chanting ‘Pippi! Pippi!’ that made the show so memorable and magical! I didn’t want to leave!

Finally, we went into the book and souvenir store and I bought a Pippi doll, a comic book version of the story, and some postcards. I would have bought more stuff if I had the money or the suitcase space!

End of Part 10

Back to Sweden (Part 9)

Continue to Sweden (Part 11)

Sweden (Part 9 – Gothenburg, Abytravet, horse racing and a random live interview)

Now, back to the less serious parts of the trip…

One of the most memorable experiences of the trip took place at the ÅbyTravet racetrack in Gothenburg. It was located right next to our hotel, Best Western Plus, which is entirely horse racing themed – from the lobby to the hotel rooms. After our whole day of school visits and meetings in Gothenburg, my roommate and I decided to head to the racetrack for a quick peek before going back to our room. Entrance is completely free and nobody seemed to care that we walked straight up to the side of the track. There were even visitors walking through the track to the other side to take photos. The horse racing is quite different from I’ve seen in Hong Kong. They do trotting instead of galloping, where the horse pulls a two-wheeled cart (sulky), with the driver in a sitting position behind the horse. It was the first time I had seen this kind of horse racing before.

While we were watching the practice starts, we got stopped by an old Swedish man with the big camera around his neck. He just started talking to us and asking us what we were doing there. I guess they don’t see many Chinese or Asians around the area. He shared that he had been homeless for a period of time and will soon become a famous photographer so he asked if he could take our photos. We humoured him and let him take a few snaps. Then we saw one of the principals and pretended that we needed to go with him.

Just as we were about to leave, we got stopped by another man – a much younger one this time (and more handsome) – and he asked us similar questions. Then out of the blue, he asked if they could interview us on camera that would be broadcast live on their big screen! We hesitated but the principal said ‘Yes!’ and encouraged us to go.

As an overly anxious, shy, introverted, easily embarrassed human, it took so much for me to walk out there and go on that stage. It didn’t hurt that the guy who invited us (his name is Patrick, by the way) was super nice and sweet and kept smiling at us which relaxed me a bit. I don’t think anyone knew I was totally panicking at that moment. I just kept smiling and saying to myself that this is totally going to be fine and I’m sure that he won’t ask me difficult questions… How did I ever become a teacher – I have no idea.

Patrick introduced us to the presenter with the microphone, whose name I’ve forgotten, and the camera started rolling. He said a brief introduction in Swedish and turned over to ask us questions. The principal stood beside the camera man and took a video on his phone as well. I don’t really know what happened in those two and half minutes but I couldn’t stop laughing about it afterwards. I also think I smiled way too much during the interview and I was totally staring at the presenter the whole time. It was only afterwards that he told us the video would be uploaded onto YouTube! So, at the risk of totally embarrassing myself, and also my roommate, the YouTube video is here, or watch the phone camera video version below.

The first question was a bit awkward because I think my roommate misheard the question, which was “How did you end up here in Gothenburg in Sweden when you are English teaching in Hong Kong?” and gave a somewhat random response. I explained that we were actually there to visit schools and learn about the education system in Sweden and how they do STEAM education.

I kind of pretended to have experience in horse racing by saying that I live close to a racetrack but clearly, the proximity to the racetrack has no bearing whatsoever on my knowledge about horse racing and horses. I said that I could look out my window to watch the horse racing and that I enjoyed the view, which is completely not true since there is only one small window in my mum’s room that can see a tiny little part of the track and I have never once looked out that window to watch a race. But when put on the spot, I just forget what is real and not real sometimes…

The presenter ended the interview by suggesting “Then we could start something new in Hong Kong, you and me?” I might have answered “Yeah, sure!” a bit too quickly and eagerly. Don’t get too excited… context is important here – he was referring to the trotting style of horse racing (or was he?). Here’s the video…

End of Part 9

Back to Sweden (Part 8)

Continue to Sweden (Part 10)