Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Comfort and Cake at Scandinavian Kitchen, London

If you take a stroll away from the madding crowds of London's Oxford Street, and wander north towards Great Portland Street station, you might stumble across a little slice of Scandinavia in the heart of London.

On a grey, overcast September afternoon in London, I met a near and dear friend for coffee after far too much time apart. We ploughed through the teeming mass of shoppers and tourists and allowed Google Maps to lead us towards a small cafe where we could recharge and catch up.

Scandinavian Kitchen offers savoury food, coffees, cake and a small supermarket at the back, stocked with delights from Denmark and alike. After recently pining for last year's trip to Aarhus, the treats on offer and decor took me back to the much-needed coffee stops we made during my three-day visit back in November.

We ordered a hot chocolate each, and a slice of cake (cinnamon and apple cake for me, cinnamon swirl for him) and tucked ourselves into a cosy table, ready to reminisce, dream and people-watch. 

The cake was delicious and moreish, and my hot chocolate was a simple mug of heaven - perfect for a weary afternoon (with ominous black clouds and a long train journey home looming). We chatted and observed our surroundings and recounted memories from our days as undergraduates, before perusing the groceries on offer. From the weird and wonderful to the down-right delicious, there were baked goods, fresh produce and meal kits. I had to stop myself from buying some ingredients to bake a 'Princess Cake', as seen on GBBO. Eventually, I left with a warm heart, a tummy full of sweet treats and a cheeky chocolate bar in my hands. 

It was the perfect afternoon pit-stop - a wonderful change from the Starbucks and Cafe Neros around every street corner. I love making the effort to find smaller chains and independent coffee shops to take a break from the madness of the day. I can just imagine that this is the ultimate autumn coffee shop to take some time away from the madness of early Christmas shopping.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

So Natural: So Renewed Rosehip and Mint Face & Body Oil*

It’s not often that you discover a product which is so impressive that you demand that everyone instantly smell you after you use it.

A couple of weeks ago I reviewed So Natural’s So Scrubbed Body Scrub, which is now a true favourite stashed in my bathroom (and is very nearly empty). Along with their scrub, I also received their So Renewed Face and Body Oil.

I explained in my last post about So Naturals focus on kind-to-skin and cruelty-free products. I think it must be hard to find an intensive oil which moisturises you all over without irritating your skin or covering you in chemicals- especially one which can be used as liberally on your face as it can on your legs.

The Face and body oil comes in a little glass bottle - with the same design as their other products. The glass is a lovely idea in my opinion; it’s much more eco-friendly than plastic, and I’d be hesitant to throw it away. It also gives the product a high-end, luxury feel, making me even more excited when I had to try this for the first time. I don't often get to use skincare products in glass packaging! It makes a lovely change to the standard plastic tubes and bottles sitting on my bathroom shelf.

It looks nice, sure. But does it work?

Well, using this oil was an absolute pleasure. It smells fantastic, and melted into my skin without feeling too slippery. My skin felt unbelievably soft, and the non-greasy texture of the product also means that it works wonders on my face. Although I was concerned at first, I was left without an oily t-zone, and I felt like I was glowing. I love that I can use this one product all over my body.

As well as looking after my skin, I’m also very keen to try products which will help to relax and soothe me, whether it’s after a long day, a lot of travelling, or when my mind is restless and stressed. I am always interested in using products with calming scents and ingredients, and I find hat more natural products are the best for this. I find it a very relaxing scent with mint and rosehip,  I can certainly vouch that it will both help to wake you up in the morning, and calm you down at night. Perfect for use after a shower,  a bubble bath, or as a soothing body rub - I definitely feel renewed after using it!

It's also meant to be excellent for soothing scars and stretch marks, which is something a lot of people may be looking for in an all-over moisturiser.

My only very small issue was with the bottle. Although, as I've said, I love that it’s made out of glass, pouring the oil out can be a little risky. If you’re not too careful, too much might come out in one go - and it can leave some oil dripping down the side, which can leave marks on wooden surfaces. As with any oil product, it’s best to just take care when using it. 

I have found that it’s better than most of my body moisturisers - many of which are strongly perfumed, greasy and quite heavy, with a huge amount required to cover you from head to toe. So Natural's body oil sinks right in and I feel soft and smooth to the touch within minutes.

The fact that the oil is chemical and cruelty-free means that I can use this as liberally as I want to without feeling guilty. It's good to know that I am nourishing my body, rather than smothering it in nasties.

I am very, very impressed with the So Renewed Face and Body Oil and have been absolutely raving about it to friends and family. A little goes a long way, so I can tell my bottle will last for months even with regular use. As well as using it post-bath or post-shower, I’d be tempted to use it for massage, if I had a bad back or sore joints. 

This delicious little bottle of moisturising goodness has won me over so much, I’m considering buying more - and with whispers of another scent in the works, I think I may have to pay the So Natural ladies another online visit...or two!

*This post is a review of products sent to me by the company. My views are honest and completely my own.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the Gielgud Theatre, London

Months after a collapsed theatre roof meant that our tickets had to be re-scheduled (with ease, thanks to the National Theatre!) I was finally sat in the Grand Circle, clutching my programme and eagerly waiting for that moment when the lights dim, the audience hushes, and the magic begins.

I had no idea what to expect. I wasn't sure how the book, in which Mark Haddon so brilliantly portrays a boy with Aspergers, would interpret the uniqueness with which he sees the world. The stage was bare, aside from a few chairs and an intriguing grid of lights and lines across the black surfaces, like a giant chalkboard (a significant observation).

The Gielgud is a tiny theatre in London's centre;  where the seats are steep (unless you can afford to sit in the stalls), the legroom is minimal, but the views and the decor are excellent. There's just something about sitting in a London theatre that fills me with excitement.

Before the play started, I indulged in a glass of wine at the bar. Although my seats weren't the best (a bargain!) those who sit at the Dress and Grand Circles get to wait in a beautiful mezzanine area, looking down upon other theatre-goers, with beautiful architecture around them. Nothing makes a theatre trip feel special like a chandelier. It made the perfect place to await our call into the theatre itself!

Now...the play....

Well, I've been uh-ming and ah-ing about what I can write about it...I desperately want to discuss it with you all, but I'm aware of giving away surprises for those of you who are hoping to see Curious in the future. Spoilers.

So I'll just write this.

Curious is one of those shows which leaves you reeling when the curtain falls at the end. It makes you want to leave the building dancing from one foot to another amongst the London crowds, and will give you a buzz which only the best theatre productions can do. It will leave your hands sore from too much clapping, your heart swollen from the emotion, excitement, magic and creativity of it all.

Curious is an absolute roller-coaster of emotions: humour; sadness; sympathy; panic; confusion. There is not one single dull moment.

As in the book, you are shown the world through Christopher John Francis Boone's unique perspective through the power of words...but, on stage, it's all there. Right in front of you. Visually interpreting Mark Haddon's words and ideas and turning them into symbolic, visual delights. The stage itself turns into a canvas on which diagrams and illustrations are projected and drawn. This is a fully interactive experience, with lights, dance, movement, symbolism, surprises, and even some mechanical wizardry which left my hairs standing on end. There are moments when you can't help but exchange looks with the person next to you, which say 'I can't believe I just saw that'.

The cast were phenomenal too. I completely and utterly believed who they were, and never questioned otherwise. The characters had stepped straight out of the pages and onto a magical stage to tell their story. They used interpretation so well that some illuminated boxes and lines on the floor became houses on a street (yes, really). Graham Butler as Christopher gave an incredible performance- he was believable and brilliant. He was so captivating that you just could not help but get swept up in his thought processes, and his surprise at the end (no spoilers) as superb. The other cast members were also brilliant, with humour in every corner and excellent acting. For such a small cast, they filled the stage completely.

Sitting in the Grand Circle was not, as some might think, a disadvantage. In fact, I think I had the best view of all - I was able to see all of the action on stage, and never once missed some of the magic on stage; I could see every projection and stage movement perfectly, and had prime view of anything that happened on the floor of the stage (which those in the stalls may not have been able to see very well).

I left the theatre feeling inspired, elated and so incredibly impressed by a play which at first, I'll admit, I was apprehensive about. It's a good sign when you can't stop talking about it for days afterwards, recommending it to everyone you know.

I won't go on any more, but I will simply end by saying that this was one of the best performances I've ever seen, and I would really urge anyone interested to go and see it if they can, regardless of whether you've read the book. It is magical and educational and there are surprises around every corner. You can find out more about the play and ticket availabilities on the National Theatre website (though I think the play may also be touring next year).

As I left the Gielgud and darted through the Saturday-night crowds in Piccadilly Circus, the night felt alive and all I could see was falling confetti and the stars through which Christopher Boone and his pet rat, Toby, spun through just moments before on a small stage in the middle of London.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Life Lessons: In Defence of Going to University

There have been a lot of fantastic posts recently from bloggers who want to emphasise that the world of higher education doesn’t suit every body (see What Olivia Did's recent post on not graduating from university). It’s an unfortunately common expectation that everyone will go to university automatically, and people don’t consider the other options. Sometimes, people just want to get out their rut; go to college, get a job, start an apprenticeship, go travelling. There’s no should or shouldn’t about the steps you should take next in your life - whatever stage you’re at.

This month, many will be heading off to University, and more will be considering their options - going back into education, wondering what to do next, and trying to work out if it’s really what they want to do. 

I am completely in support of those who decide to take the road less common; in fact, I thoroughly admire them. However, I wanted to write this post as a reminder that it’s also OK to do the 'norm', if that’s really what you want to do, and head off to university. It doesn’t make you any less creative, ambitious or enterprising. In fact, both routes are equally as challenging, daunting and valuable - they’re both as worthwhile, it just depends on what kind of person you are. 

Some people just want to focus, start something new, or try to make their own way, doing something new after years of education...and some people just want to keep studying.

I fit into the latter category - I always have, and I think I always will. When I was taking my A Levels, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else; taking my studies further was so natural for me, I didn’t even think twice about doing it. I went to all of the open days, pored over prospectuses and debated over course content, campuses and accommodation. Eventually, back in 2009, I made my choices, applied, took my exams and managed to get into my first choice. The next thing I knew, I was moving into halls, meeting new people, and starting what I now know to be four of the best years of my life so far.

I studied at both undergraduate and postgraduate level for no other reason than I adore learning. I loved the research, the creative processes involved in the humanities, the feeling of seeing each essay improving in style and structure. Learning not just about the contents of books, but about how to think outside the box, manage my own time and improve my writing. Continuing my degree to a postgraduate level wasn’t a career move for me. Unlike many, I didn’t care about how it might get me a better job. For me, it meant having the opportunity to continue my studies for one more year, to really get involved in one or two specific subjects, discover my true academic interests and really test my abilities. My hard work paid off, and I graduated and left one year ago - and I’ve missed it ever since.

I went to university with the course in mind. To be honest, I barely thought about my independence; making friends, socialising, parties and societies had nothing to do with why I applied. I applied for academia, and the social aspect of things were simply secondary. However, this turned out to be equally as important just a few weeks into my course. Before university I was shy, awkward, uncertain, and half the person I am now. Sure, I’m still awkward, and inside I’m almost as shy as I was; but I have learnt so much aside from the academic knowledge I sought in the first place. And that’s what I want to share with you today.

Despite my initial goals, university isn’t just a place to get a degree. It’s also a place to actually work out who you are, escape adolescence, make mistakes and learn from them. It’s so much more than books, lectures, clubbing, hangovers and pot noodle. 

For me, and for many, university is a significant stepping stone into adulthood. You must learn to prioritise, time-manage, budget, choose your first shared house, clean, cook, look after the health of yourself and of others, cope with struggles and issues in your own way. And, alongside all this, you must pass your degree; hand in essays to a tight deadline, juggle numerous assignments, organise placements and work experience and increase your chances of employability. It’s no wonder, then, that so many of my friends and I graduated with academic and social knowledge which has proved vital ever since.

Going to university was the best decision I’ve ever made. Yes, I now have my student debt, and loans a-plenty to pay off…but I made lifelong friends, had the opportunity to explore knowledge, learnt from the minds of incredible academics, tried my hand at some new hobbies, learnt many important life lessons and gained independence and the ambition to try to really work myself out for the rest of my life.

I made mistakes, stayed up too late, over-spent and under-budgeted, overslept, ate too much soup and pasta…I learnt life skills which mean I can now confidently live away from home, make my own way, and search for my next path.

I  learnt about friendships, relationships, goals, career choices, mental health and wellbeing, how to say no, how to say yes, how to push myself and be kind to myself and give myself some space and time. 

All of this...and my studies. It was a hectic few years! Which is why my time as a student was so valuable.

I loved my studies, my friends, and everything that came with my years as a student. I worked hard, made a huge effort to make the most out of it and, despite the inevitable ups and downs, I wouldn't change a thing. 

And then...I graduated with good degrees, solid friendships, independence, confidence, goals, ambitions, tender memories, inspiration, and the certainty that life really can be what you make it if you put the work in yourself. Everything is down to you. Your passions, ideas, goals, and what makes you happy - whether or not that involves going to university.

I think its safe to say that my years as a student set me up for life in every way possible.

And boy, do I miss it.

But now it’s time for my next chapter, and I have no doubt that I’ll keep learning along the way.

This is a subject I'm pretty passionate about, and I hope to write a couple more posts about it all. So, with that in mind, if there's anything you'd like to hear more about, just let me know in the comments!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

So Natural: So Scrubbed Lime & Lemongrass Body Scrub*

How often do you consider what chemicals are in your favourite body wash or face cream? It’s so easy to get swept up in pretty packaging, discounted offers or the next big must-have product - but what about the ingredients? What about animal testing?

After a few months of religiously using my favourite Lush body scrub, I thought it was about time that I tried something new. Keeping to the same routine isn't a bad thing, but it’s always nice when you can find another favourite to add to your bathroom shelf!

So when I was send a few products to sample from the lovely ladies at So Natural, how could I resist? A few weeks ago I was given two brown paper bags containing some very exciting skin treats. So Natural is a newly-formed family-run company who decided to take things into their own hands when ordinary skin products started to irritate their sensitive skin.

Not only am I always keen to support small businesses, I am also becoming more and more aware of what I use on my skin. I am terrible at picking skin products because of their packaging or discounted prices - I very rarely look at the ingredients…and I am ashamed to say I don’t tend to consider whether or not they are cruelty free. It’s definitely something which is overlooked by so many, including myself. Not only do some companies exploit and harm animals to create the perfect lotions and potions, but some chemicals used can still irritate your skin even after testing. I sometimes find myself asking, will we see the effects of some chemicals in a few years’ time? How do we know that anything is really safe to use?

I was sent a number of items - but I've decided to give them each their own little review, starting with the So Natural So Scrubbed Body Scrub. I'd just like to add that although I was sent these products, my review will be completely honest, and all views are my own - of course!

Firstly, let's consider the finer, technical details. So Natural don't test on animals. Their products are free from petrochemicals, parabens, minerals, sulphates (SLS) and methylisothiazolinone (MI). Phew! Not only that, but they are made with raw natural plant extracts. I'd much rather be avoiding those chemicals, thank you very much.

So Natural’s scrub is a good size and reminds me of something I’d buy in The Body Shop or another reputable skincare firm. It’s very pretty, with their recognisable branding - the white colour also means that it would fit in well with any bathroom, and looks clean, professional and cute. So far, so good - first impressions do count!

As with all skincare, however, it’s what’s inside which counts. The body scrub smells heavenly as soon as the lid is lifted- very zesty and zingy, perfect for a wake-me-up shower or a much-needed soak in the bath. As soon as I opened the pot I could also tell that it was natural, just from the look and feel of the product. The salt scrub is steeped in delicious-smelling oils, with small pieces of lemongrass hidden here and there; it’s not creamy, or over processed. I’ve used this product so many times now, and each time I do have to swirl the contents a little to mix them back up, as the salt sinks to the bottom. I much prefer this, however, as it reminds me that what I’m putting on my skin is good and simple - no hidden nasties!

And, my goodness, it smells divine.  This scrub contains lime and lemongrass which is well known for it's stimulation, and, as their handy leaflet reminded me, are great for relaxing muscles and improving circulation. Not only, then, do the ingredients treat your skin with kindness, but it benefits the rest of your body too.

It reminds me of some of my favourite citrus body products, but without the synthetic ingredients; a refreshing scent which isn't’t overpowering or synthetically fragranced. It leaves my skin feeling incredible too. Unlike some scrubs, it doesn't foam, but instead nourishes you with the oil. A little goes a long way too, which is always a bonus, and means that I can scrub myself from head to toe in a matter of minutes. I was warned by the company not to use it on the soles of my feet because of the slippery oil - which isn’t something I usually do anyway! - but it leaves every inch of me feeling smoothed and refreshed. It’s particularly good before a leg-shaving session, ladies!

Do I have any problems with the scrub? Honestly, none that I can think of...other than the fact that I would like more in the tub, so I could use it for longer! It’s certainly on the same level as the major brands I usually turn to, with the added bonuses of being kind to sensitive skin and cruelty free, so although the price is, admittedly, a little higher than my usual budget, there's a very good reason (and it's worth it).

I really, really love the fact that I don’t have to moisturise after my shower if I use it. Sometimes, especially before work, there’s just not enough time to stand and slather yourself in creams after a wash. When I use this scrub, the oils mean that my skin is incredibly soft and smooth with half the effort, which saves me a lot of time. I also love the roughness of the salt - it’s not abrasive, but you can definitely feel it working it’s magic. I like my scrubs to actually scrub, instead of lightly tickling my skin. This definitely does the job!

I have been using this scrub regularly ever since I received it, and it’s certainly up there among my favourite products. I think anyone who is a fan of Lush's body scrubs, like myself, would enjoy using this scrub too. I really like the idea that it’s completely natural - it just goes to show you don’t need to add chemicals to create lovely skin products!

I have to admit, I’m quite lucky when it comes to my skin. Apart from some pretty bad spot trouble in my younger years, and a temperamental scalp, my skin isn't particularly sensitive. However, I nearly always use sensitive skin products, just to ensure it stays that way. The thought of using a product and experiencing a reaction is enough to make me consider softer brands, whether it’s high-street or luxury. 

So Natural’s scrub isn't just for those who suffer from sensitivity and other skin complaints - it’s for anyone who wishes to use cruelty-free, simple, locally-made products, which not only do good, but smell and feel great too. 

*This post reviews products sent to me by the company. However, my views are honest and completely my own.