Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Going Deutsch

On the Erasmus Students tumblr here.

We are told that a Year Abroad does wonders for our ‘personal development’, for ‘character building’ and ‘individual progress’.

Three months in, however, I could not have anticipated the transformation I am undergoing. Certainly, my perspective on life’s challenges has changed – having had to cope with uncompromising landlords in a language I am not completely comfortable speaking, for instance, I shall no longer dread getting a broken boiler fixed when I return to England. Or, having had to face a ridiculously complicated tax system (80% of all the world’s published tax documentation is in German, by the way), I shall no longer be fazed by filling in a P45.

But the transformation runs deeper than that. Unbelievably, for someone who drinks six cups of tea a day and who is known for their excessive politeness, I think I might even be becoming a little bit German.

I hadn’t noticed quite how Germanic my habits had become until I returned home last weekend. As soon as I had landed, my train home was delayed. My first thoughts were “this would never happen in Germany” and then, when the drone of that infamous pre-recorded voice announced in the least apologetic tone possible that “we are sorry to announce that the 10.45 train will be delayed by approximated 25 minutes”, I became uncharacteristically irritated. In Germany, on the rare occasion that there is a delay, the driver issues a personal apology over the intercom, as if he really does regret the hold-up. There’s even a public transport policy that if you have to wait more than ten minutes you’re entitled to your money back. If we were to introduce such a policy in Britain I fear we would run the risk of bankrupting the system.

Ah, I haven’t lost my British cynicism then. It’s just found a new object of attack – ironically, the country supposedly famous for it. So, while I’m in the complaining mood, what other British problems has my three months in Germany exposed? The general tardiness and inefficiency of Britons has also become more exasperating: on the same visit, I arranged to meet friends for brunch at 10 o’clock, and was waiting a quarter of an hour until they turned up. When I phoned my mobile network provider to cancel my contract, I was kept on hold for almost an hour and then told it would take up to a week for the change to be applied. Germans, by contrast, simply get things done. It’s telling that procrastination is so alien a concept to them that there isn’t even a word for it in their language.

Am I ready, then, to give up on the frustrations of Britain in favour of dependable Deutschland? Actually, not quite. There will always be a considerable amount of Britishness ingrained in me, resistant to change despite its submersion in German culture. While fellow pedestrians wait good-naturedly at crossings for what seems like forever, I’m stamping my feet with impatience. The British prude in me still squirms at the thought of embracing the ‘clothing optional’ policy of the sauna at my local gym. I’ve also struggled to come to terms with my colleagues’ honesty – I have to remember that a piece of work they would shrug off as ‘ok’ would be hailed as a brilliant achievement back home, and that any criticism is not veiled under false praise but instead given to me outright. It wasn’t an easy pill to swallow when I was told I had ‘room for improvement’ in my first review of my internship, but when I came home and told my German flatmates all that had been said rather despondently, they reassured me I had nothing to worry about – straight talking is just the way it is here. Subsequently, when my manager referred to my progress on a project as ‘excellent’, I felt truly valued – such compliments are not frittered about, so when they are bestowed, the person really means it.

So perhaps my Year Abroad experience so far has not so much changed who I am – a Briton through and through – but made me sensible to cultural differences that affect our day-to-day lives. I still apologise excessively and worry unnecessarily about perceived impoliteness – but I’ve become increasingly aware of doing so in a context where such behaviour is a rarity. It’s made me more conscious of the way I behave and how that might be received, and how important it is to bear this in mind when dealing with other people. It’s made me sympathetic to the difficulties people experience when faced with new circumstances. Above all, it’s taught me to be considerate, and not jump to conclusions. We’re all different, and we needn’t try to bridge the gap between such distinctions – but we do need to be appreciative and respectful in our approach to them.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Lessons to learn

On the Erasmus Students tumblr here.

Like most Erasmus Students bloggers, I study languages at university. I am lucky enough to love the subject I study, and that my degree in Modern and Medieval Languages will afford me the opportunity to pursue a wide range of careers in the future.

In Germany, however, it’s another story. I am currently undertaking an internship at a bank, and my colleagues struggle to comprehend that I am not pursuing a finance- or business-related degree. When I tell people here that I study languages, the reply is almost always: “So you want to be a teacher?” In Germany, the progression from further education to professional career is strictly rational and far less flexible than the British model. If you want to become a lawyer, you study Law. If you want to be a banker, you study Finance. It’s a system which makes a lot of sense, and provides a highly-qualified, specialised professional workforce.

But it’s also a system which fails its students, in that it locks them into a career path from an early age and offers little room for change. Young people are fickle beings, and when I look at my peers, who have studied subjects such as History, Social Anthropology, Chemical Engineering and Music at university, I see a diverse range of talents and skills. What I don’t see, though, is a group of people with clear ideas regarding the sorts of careers they wish to pursue and what plans they have for the future.

The cynics of our parents’ generation would argue that Britain’s youth unemployment problems stem from this system, which allows students to defer making crucial decisions such as what we actually want to do with our lives until we leave university. I see it differently though. At the bank where I work, my arts degree places me in the rare minority. Unlike my colleagues, I cannot price an option and I find Excel formulas incomprehensible. But I can offer a different perspective on problems, and empathise with clients who also struggle to get to grips with exotic derivatives or currency swaps. A workforce of people with the same educational background may well be highly-skilled, but lacks diversity. And it’s precisely a lack of diversity which can cause us some serious problems – without wishing to recycle a much-used argument, just look at what happened in 2008…

But why, if the German system possesses this flaw, is the nation continuing to thrive economically? Why am I advocating the British higher education system when our nation is grappling increasing youth unemployment, whereas Germany is concerned that it will not meet demands for a highly-qualified workforce in the future?
The answer is that neither system is perfect, and both would do well to learn lessons from the other. So far I’ve focused on the lessons I think the German system could learn from the British system regarding higher education for students who wish to pursue professional careers. On the vocational end of the scale, however, Germany is streets ahead of Britain. The backbone of the German economy is its extensive network of medium-sized businesses, which rely on a skilled labour force for their success. Unlike in Britain, however, many of these workers did not go to university, but instead attended secondary schools which promoted vocational expertise, which lead to profitable apprenticeships where they developed skills useful for both themselves and their employers.

There are a number of differences between this system and the current state of affairs in Britain. Firstly, there’s no stigma attached to pursuing a vocational course rather than going to university in Germany. In fact, the skills of these vocational workers are valued for their economic importance to the nation just as highly as those of university-educated professionals. By contrast, we Britons, encouraged by Tony Blair to send 50% of young people to university, face a proliferation of pointless higher education courses which have not only lessened the value of a university degree but also failed those students who should never have gone to university in the first place, but could have thrived in vocational opportunities.

Secondly, you don’t see nearly as many headlines here protesting indignantly that ‘Poles have taken our jobs’, and there’s a simple explanation for this: there is a good supply of Germans who are suitably qualified for the roles, which are in turn not viewed with the sense of failure or undesirability that we attach to them in Britain. By building a system in which all students were encouraged to strive towards academic excellence, we made careers in areas such as construction and hospitality appear second-rate and unattractive. Which, when you consider how crucial such jobs are not only to our daily existence, but also to our now sluggish economy, was a grave mistake.
So where do we stand now? Neither system has got it quite right, but we ought to be proud of our respective successes and be more prepared to make changes based on those areas where the other nation flourishes. The more uniform German professional world would do well to embrace some of the diversity – and, dare I say it, eccentricity – of the British higher education system, whilst Britain should take a leaf out of Germany’s book when it comes to valuing the benefits that apprenticeships can bring.

As for me, I’m counting my blessings that a Year Abroad has allowed me to take advantage of both systems. Unlike many of my colleagues, I have been fortunate enough to spend my time at university doing what I love – reading books, writing about poetry and analysing plays – and have still been able to get a job at a respected financial institution. I appreciate that I have been very lucky. But if we embrace the advantages of both systems, far more of us will be able share my luck: young people, citizens, and ultimately our economy.

Monday, 14 October 2013

It's electrifying...

On the Erasmus Students blog here.

Working rather than studying on my Year Abroad has been a shock to the system. Lie-ins are a thing of the past, going out on week nights is a strict no-go, and free time has become a precious entity. And whilst I once cycled to lectures or spent a leisurely hour in the gym in the afternoon, I now spend most of my day sat at a desk, and have little time for exercise.

Fortunately, a new craze is sweeping across Germany that offers the perfect solution for the time-starved who still wish to keep in shape: EMS training. My colleagues – all svelte and glowing - swear by it, and, determined not to let my new sedentary lifestyle get the better of me, I decided I ought to give it try.

EMS training requires participants to wear a particularly unflattering, close-fitting black suit, over which a vest, armbands and legbands fitted with electrodes are worn. With wires plugged in to the correct places, you are plugged in with what can only be described as a scart lead to a machine which then delivers electric pulses for twenty-second bouts whilst you do exercises prescribed by a personal trainer.

At first I was sceptical – I’ve always been told not to play with electric sockets, so the idea of plugging my own body into a machine had me worried. My trainer, however, reassured me that it was all safe and designed for optimum workout efficiency, and turned up the current with a worryingly sadistic grin.

I’ve never experienced electrocution before, but the sudden seizure that ran through my body was utterly bizarre. My hands closed into fists, my bum was squeezed tight, and my legs refused to move anywhere. With horror I looked down to my thighs, certain that I was wetting myself – to my utmost relief it was just the electric pulses spreading through my legs.

I pathetically limped my way through each exercise, dreading the powerlessness that would grip my entire body every twenty seconds. By the end of the twenty-minute session, having barely moved my limbs and feeling utterly pathetic, I was dripping with sweat and felt absolutely exhausted. Maybe there was something in this bizarre form of training after all.

I returned home, flopped into bed and was out like a light. The next morning, when I lifted my arm to silence the alarm, I could barely move. The German word for muscle ache is ‘Muskelkater’ – literally ‘muscle hangover’ – and the incapacity I was experiencing was certainly akin to that suffered in a normal hangover. Every inch of my body was in pain. I began to be thankful for a job where I sit in front of a computer screen all day…

My sympathetic colleagues told me it would get better with time, and forced me to go back. I’m now becoming used to the bizarre sensations, and although it won’t replace the enjoyment of a leisurely jog or a gentle swim, it certainly is effective. Muscles I never knew I had are beginning to become visible. Perhaps there really is something to this electrifying exercise form after all…

Friday, 11 October 2013

Vroom vroom

On the Erasmus Students tumblr here.

I am a woman. Although I can appreciate men’s obsession with cars, I will never understand it. The route to my heart tends to be one that teeters on designer heels, rather than revs with a powerful engine. My kind of suede interiors are those which envelop my feet, not those designed for swanky seating, and I have more experience with safety straps which prevent ankles slipping than bodies escaping.

It was thus with muted enthusiasm that I embarked on a visit to the IAA, Frankfurt’s famous annual car show which attracts auto aficionados in their droves. There were traffic jams of people queuing up to photograph the latest models, with cameras flashing and people shouting in a frenzy which I can only compare to that which surrounds the release of a highly-anticipated new collection at fashion week.

My brain must be wired differently, I initially thought. While the intricate embellishments of a couture gown could captivate me for hours and engender a quasi-religious reverence for the talents of its designer, put a car in front of me – whose design has required equally lengthy deliberation, undergone just as many prototypes, demanded the same painstaking attention to detail – and I fail to be moved.

Until last weekend, that is. There was something about the show that swept me along in all the excitement. Was it the glossiness of the bodies, kept optimally glitzy by dedicated helpers holding fluffy cleaning sticks? Or the tone of the engines, appealing to me to reassess their outpourings as friendly purrs rather than hostile roars? Or simply the glamour of it all, with cars displayed in all their glory like catwalk models on display to adoring fans?

Whatever it was, I was completely won over. I watched with wide eyes as new models were rolled out and driven across the stage. I queued for photos inside cabriolets. I pored over brochures detailing the latest hybrid technology with a level of interest formerly only ever exhibited upon the publication of Vogue’s couture reports.

And when we were given a demonstration of an app which parks a car itself, my transformation into a car lover was complete. Now it would be possible to not only wear unsuitable shoes for driving, but also not worry about the consequences of doing so for the car! Genius.

Somehow I think the shoe addiction might have been a safer affliction. Blahniks are certainly cheaper than Bentleys.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Aber bitte mit Sahne...

On the British Students tumblr here.

"We have four meals a day here," a German friend announced to me last week. Sensing the confusion on my face, he elaborated: "breakfast, lunch, Kaffee und Kuchen, and dinner."

Ah, of course. Just as we Brits have our afternoon tea, Germans enjoy Kaffee und Kuchen either in the morning or the afternoon - or, if your sweet tooth is anything like mine, both.

But how does German patisserie compare to our own? It’s certainly not reminiscent of the light, airy, refined concoctions you’re likely to find in Paris, nor the buttery, sugared shortbread rounds and jam-topped scones served with cups of Earl Grey. Oh no. Germans go all out: portions are huge, from streusel-topped fruit slices to towering slices of cream-filled tortes. With cream on the side. There’s a German song called ‘Aber bitte mit Sahne’ which sums up the attitude perfectly: ‘But please with cream’. Inside the cake, on the side, piled high on top of your coffee - you can definitely count on getting your daily cholesterol-raising mound of Schlagsahne in one sitting.

So where do they put it all? Our stereotypical image of sausage-loving, beer-wielding, stocky Germans only goes so far. The majority of Germans I’ve met are highly fit and active - most of my colleagues cycle to work and the office football team is a force to be reckoned with. It must be all that Kuchen fuelling them.

It’s a tradition I’m partaking in perhaps a little too enthusiastically - the waistbands on my clothes have certainly tightened a little since my arrival. You’ve got to make some sacrifices to fully immerse yourself in the culture, I suppose. After all, it would be rude to turn down a second helping of my friend’s freshly-baked Sachertorte, wouldn’t it?

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Sunday - the German way

On the British Students blog here.

Sunday: the day of rest. A concept which is taken more seriously in Germany than in Britain, it would appear.

I discovered this to my disadvantage when I assumed that shops would be open on Sundays for me to pick up a few essentials. In Britain, corner shops and supermarkets can be relied upon to supply our needs seven days a week, and I blithely assumed the same would be the case here. Which, when you realise you have run out of toilet roll at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning, is a minor issue. Fortunately my neighbours were happy to oblige and found the whole situation hilarious – I doubt I’m the first British student in the flat to have made the same mistake.

So the lesson has been learned, and I now ensure that I’m sufficiently stocked on Saturdays to avoid any further embarrassments. At the beginning, the Sunday shutdowns were frustrating – I had to forgo the milk in my tea on a few occasions, and fried some slightly suspicious-smelling bacon in the absence of any alternative lunch options one time – but I’m beginning to warm to the idea of having one day a week in which you can do very little except relax and spend time with friends and family.

Plus, there’s an important exception to the Sunday closures: cafes and restaurants. And forgetting to buy groceries is the perfect excuse to go out for brunch and get a takeaway for dinner on Sundays. Strolling down the street on a Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere is far different to weekdays: shops which are usually bustling with activity are deserted and locked up, while the pavement tables of ice cream cafes and coffee shops are packed with families sitting together and enjoying Kaffee and Kuchen or huge spreads of eggs, bread, sausage (this is Germany, after all) and cheese.

It’s a concept which I think we’d do well to adopt back home. Certainly, a typical Sunday in Britain might see families tucking into roast dinners or enjoying a walk or picnic together, but these plans can always fall through in favour of a last-minute dash to the supermarket or a trip to the DIY store. In Germany, however, it’s universally accepted that things close down on Sundays and you can do very little except eat, sleep and relax. And I don’t see many people complaining.

The news of the death of an investment banking intern this week has really shocked me – not only was he working in the same field as I am, but he was also a German. Whatever the reason for his tragic death, it made me realise that I need to take my weekends for what they are supposed to be - time off. I’m glad that here in Germany I have little choice but to rest and recharge my batteries. This Sunday, I’m looking forward to a long lie-in, a leisurely brunch and lounging by the open-air swimming pool while the weather is still sunny. You might think me lazy. I’d like to think of it as cultural integration - doing Sunday the German way. Not that my German peers are lazy; far from it - it strikes me that they’ve found the right balance between hard work and time off. And that’s a lesson I know a lot of my fellow students would also appreciate learning.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

British Students

I'm now blogging for British Students - a website which, in its own words, "is a grassroots campaign to keep Britain in the EU". You can follow my posts here!

Monday, 12 August 2013

Bravo, EUYO

It was at the end of a hot, sticky Sunday in Berlin that EUYO arrived at the Konzerthaus to play to a sold-out audience. The opening piece, Ravel's Bolero, was well suited to the circumstances: its repeating theme echoed the oppressive, stifling heat; the snare drum rhythm, sounding from the centre of the orchestra, pressed on in relentless determination, with each ostinato mounting the tension.

A dramatic introduction to a dramatic concert. All of a sudden the continuous drum beat came to a halt, the rest of the orchestra stopped their playing, and doctors rushed onstage. The percussionist had fainted; silence replaced the steady rhythm and whirling melody as shock pervaded the room. You could hear a pin drop. The unwell player left the stage to a round of applause; the orchestra followed with apprehension.

What happened next is a testament to the togetherness and determination of this orchestra of young, exceptionally talented musicians. Five minutes later they were back onstage to play the next piece, showing no audible or visible signs of being fazed by what had occurred, all pulling together to perform a superb rendition of Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor Op. 16 with soloist Alexander Romanovsky, which was met with rapturous applause. The players turned to each other with beaming smiles and gave each other hugs of relief and congratulation. Every single member had shown strength and determination, and it certainly did not go unappreciated.

After the eventful first half, we reseated ourselves with nervous anticipation - and watched with awe as the unwell percussionist returned to the stage to partake in Pictures at an Exhibition, deservedly patted on the back by his colleagues. For an orchestra whose membership is diverse - its players come from all 28 EU countries - their support for each other is both staggering and touching. They didn't just pull through - they pulled off an astounding second half, which concluded with the Bolero being played again to the very end, and the percussionist receiving a standing ovation from both the audience and his fellow musicians.

It's easy to go to a concert and hear technical excellence, but rare that such passion and resolve is made so tangible by the musicians. EUYO managed both: musical excellence despite tough circumstances, and a sense of collaboration and devotion to their playing that moved certain audience members to tears.

As the players hugged each other once again, with a mix of sweat and tears running down their faces, the cultural differences between them amounted to nothing. EUYO unites its members in the spirit of musical collaboration, and the evening proved that it has well and truly achieved its goal. As cultural ambassadors to an organisation that wishes to achieve the same among its member nations, the EUYO musicians prove the power of working together in the face of adversity. It might be idealistic to hope that their example could be translated into the political arena, but their efforts nonetheless serve as a shining example of the success that can be achieved when nations pull together in difficult circumstances. Listening and watching EUYO last night made me feel a proud European: our combined strength is formidable, and something we ought to take heed of more often.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Opera auf Deutsch

Carmen in German? I must admit I was sceptical. It’s not that opera doesn’t work in German – Wagner certainly saw to proving the contrary – but I’ve always felt that the passion and glamour of Carmen is closely connected to its sundrenched Seville setting. Transplanting it to Frankfurt, amid a backdrop of modern skyscrapers and with an audience of bankers and businessmen, just wouldn’t  come off in my opinion.

Our first impressions upon arriving at the venue seemed to confirm my thoughts. The doors to the botanical gardens, where the concert was being staged in an outdoor arena, were opened an hour before it was due to begin. We arrived a respectable three quarters of an hour early, to find that the majority of the seats had already been reserved with typical German efficiency. We tottered past rows of couples in shorts and sandals, feeling ridiculously overdressed in posh frocks and heels, and settled for a side view.

It wasn’t all bad though – the couple next to us immediately offered to share their picnic spread of Brezel, Bratwurst and Weißbier, and we readily tucked in. It wasn’t a glitzy champagne and oysters affair, but neither was it pretentious and snobby. As I chomped a little too eagerly on their offerings and spilt curry sauce down my blouse, our new friend Herr Fischstein slapped me on the back and lifted his beer glass, proclaiming ‘Prost!’

But how would Bizet’s opera sound in German? Would the beauty of the French original be lost in translation? Even as a German speaker, I struggle to find the phrase ‘ich liebe dich!’ as charming as ‘je t’aime!’ But funnily enough, as the overture set in and then the first few lines were sung, I barely noticed the change in language. The well-known music remained the same, the powerful scenes continued to entertain, and our sausage-savouring companions even showed an unexpected sense of humour as Carmen eclipsed poor Frau Fischstein by sitting on her husband’s lap and helping herself to a generous gulp of his Bier.

It seemed that neither German opera stars nor its spectators take themselves as seriously as I’d anticipated. During the interval, the chorus joined us for mugs of Apfelwein and freshly barbecued sausages, entertaining us with tales of various rehearsal mishaps and performance mistakes. The tiny daughter of the first violinist was seated in the front row throughout and knew every piece off by heart, prompting an audience member to lift her in the air as we applauded the orchestra. Above all, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves – from the drunken parties portrayed onstage to the couples watching from their picnic rugs.

But the powerful and moving scenes ought not to be overlooked either. There was something ominous about the drunken revelry, with the women outlandishly displaying neon-coloured underwear, clutching a gun in one hand whilst caressing a man with the other. The jealous tension that ultimately drives Don José to kill the woman who has tormented him so intensely was so ingrained in his character that we held our breath at every entrance he made. Even as Carmen paraded around the stage, ostensibly revelling in her command over the male protagonists, ominous undertones to her behaviour remained tangible. The inevitable culmination, a dreadful stabbing that imposed a sudden, horrible end on the intoxication, stunned us into a silence that transcended all language barriers and differences.

They say that music is a universally spoken language, and I’m inclined to agree. My mother, who speaks only a few words of German, left lauding the talents of Frankfurt’s Kammeroper, and has already booked tickets to their next production. This time the beers will be on us.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

A journey into the dark

When asked about my experience of ninety minutes of blindness at the Dialogmuseum in Frankfurt, the word ‘eye-opening’ tumbled out of my mouth before I could realise its obvious inappropriateness. Searching for a more suitable alternative, I still found myself using terms such as ‘illuminating’ and ‘revealing’ – little better than my initial faux pas. Yet the fact that sight even governs the way in which we describe particular situations confirms the prevailing sentiment I felt during my visit to the museum: the ability to see is one of the most relied-upon and taken-for-granted gifts possessed by the majority of us.

It’s an obvious point, I know. But until you’ve been stripped of that fundamental function, it’s hard to appreciate the extent to which we depend upon our vision. As I entered the blackness, I suddenly felt incredibly isolated and helpless, even though I could hear – and very often feel, by prodding various body parts of my unsuspecting comrades – that there was always someone close by. The fear that I would suddenly encounter an obstacle, or walk into a wall, or become estranged from the rest of the group, never left me. There were ten of us in total; we came from all over the world and had never met previously, but I have never felt more grateful towards a stranger for checking my progress and helping me along.

Over the course of ninety minutes, I found myself becoming increasingly close to the rest of the group; admittedly, I did develop an embarrassing habit of grabbing people in inappropriate places, but above all I found myself continually concerned that we remained together as a unit – be it helping retrieve a stray wanderer, or calling out for help when I had gone adrift, I wanted us to get through it together.

In a world in which appearance can dictate a person’s success, in which friendships – even relationships – have a certain degree of superficial grounding, and in which facial expressions can make or break situations, it was liberating to enter an environment in which looks could play no role. At the end of the tour we never got to see our guide, who had been blind since the age of ten – and I’m glad it was that way. I appreciated him for the care and attention he paid to us on our tentative journey through what seemed like an abyss, for his positivity when we panicked that we had become separated, and for his self-effacing attitude towards a condition which, if my hour-and-a-half experience of blindness is anything to go by, must be hugely limiting. Would my precious memories really be enhanced by adding a visual supplement? I don’t think so. Maybe there’s something to be learned from shutting out the superficial; in doing so, we might connect more closely to the heart of the matter.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Coffee in Cambridge

My latest article for Varsity - online here - is about coffee spots in Cambridge.

For the connoisseurs – Italian perfection is to be found at Massaro’s, while Hot Numbers sets its own standards with a changing menu of beans fresh from its very own micro-roastery. Both have a respectable repertoire of edible treats, with Hot Numbers offering the sweet stickiness of chelsea buns from Fitzbillies to balance the bitter bite of its coffee and Massaro’s providing a tempting selection of organic sourdough sandwiches, with fillings such as Gloucester Old Spot sausage with apricot and ginger relish.
For the sweet tooth – just as crucial as the coffee kick is a mid-afternoon sugar hit, and the array of goodies on offer at Fitzbillies and Stickybeaks hits the spot perfectly. Fitzbillies gets top marks for traditional treats such as chelsea buns (claimed to be invented here), scrummy scones, generous slices of Victoria Sponge and bakewell tarts, while Stickybeaks has an enticingly inventive spread of yummies, from peanut butter-caramel-banana loaf, to mulled wine chocolate cake, to pecan fudge shortbread…and the list goes on. Counteract the indulgence with a healthy salad if you’re stopping for lunch – combinations such as broccoli, almond and mangetout or feta, pomegranate and watermelon offer exciting alternatives to the usual limpid lettuce and tomato options.

For the studious – if coffee is what gets you through an essay, try The Union Café Bar or Waterstone’s for a tranquil change of scene. Photographs of famous speakers adorning the Union’s walls ought to provide sufficient inspiration for times of essay crisis – and the prices are student-friendly too. Waterstone’s has a similarly studious vibe, although the temptation to pack up the laptop and immerse oneself in travel guides or escapist fiction might prove too much for some…
For the hungry – if you’re looking for more than just a cracking coffee, head to Limoncello or Urban Larder, both on Mill Road. With slabs of authentic bruschetta, mouthwatering olives, and wonderfully fresh antipasti, Limoncello offers a delicious slice of Italy – if you manage to leave without a wedge of pannetone or a pot of homemade pesto, your willpower deserves serious praise. Or for a taste of home, you can’t beat Urban Larder – all its products are sourced from within a 50-mile radius. The pies and quiches are wonderfully hearty, and on a cold winter’s day there’s nothing better than the organic soup served in a freshly-baked loaf.

Friday, 18 January 2013

A foodie's Cambridge

My latest article for Varsity is online, I'm craving scallops already... Here it is:
From gastropubs to michelin stars, Rosie Sargeant recommends only the finest of eateries in the first of our new series.
It's time to bin the 2 for 1 pizza vouchers - as the following restaurants prove, Cambridge fine dining can be better value than you might think.


Just outside the centre of town, this cosy gastropub serves up all the British classics with a few inventive touches - veal shin with cavolo nero and orange, or leek risotto with chive mascarpone for veggies. Its main draw, however, is the £5 lunch, with three daily-changing options of simple but substantial dishes, which will satisfy both the ravenous and the refined palate.

Dining here is a seriously classy affair, with impeccable service and dishes presented with the utmost attention to detail. It's recently been awarded a Michelin star and while your budget might not be able to stretch to the dizzying heights of the chef's tasting menu, the fixed price menu (£18.50 for two courses, £24.50 for three) offers a tantalising taste of luxury at a more affordable price.

One of Cambridge's best-kept secrets, the value for money offered at this training restaurant for future chefs makes it well worth the journey out of the centre. Fine dining evenings typically involve five or so courses of inventive cuisine, all for a mere £10. If you're still feeling peckish, pick up whole pies, quiches, scones and tarts for ridiculously low prices from the adjoining bistro and make yourself the most popular person in college - if they survive the journey home...

If you’re a foodie or a quaffer (or both), this place is for you. D’Arry’s somehow manages to pull off a melting pot of delights - fantastic wine pairings, inventive takes on British classics with a subtle hint of Asian flavour thrown in the mix, exotic daily specials such as bison steak, a seriously indulgent pudding board – all whilst retaining a welcoming, unpretentious atmosphere. Carnivores take note: the Sunday roast would give Mum a run for her money, Tuesday’s Steak Night features juicy sirloin cuts for £10.95, and Thursday is devoted to 'Pull a Pig Apart' – pork cooked in three different ways and designed to be shared, although it doesn’t stand much chance.

Michaelhouse Café
This café is situated in the nave of St. Michael’s Church and is an oasis of calm just off the bustling streets of the city centre. The menu aims to do simple food well, using local produce whenever possible – bacon butties come served on homemade bread made with organic flour and extra virgin olive oil, and the bacon comes from the family farm in Herefordshire where pigs are treated well and the meat is cured and smoked in the slow, traditional way. There are meat, fish and vegetarian options that change daily, as well as a tempting selection of wholesome soups, quiches and salads. If you can't decide what to choose, go for the 'Hungry Student' late lunch deal and pile as much as you can on a plate for £3.95. It would be a challenge not to pack in your 5-a-day most delectably in the process.

The romantic atmosphere of this lovely restaurant is matched with lovingly-prepared dishes, making it a perfect date night choice, especially in the summer, when the walled garden is opened for al fresco dining and fairy lights twinkle as the sun sets. The menu also sparkles with Mediterranean-meets-British delights – fish dishes are particularly notable. The fixed-price lunch (£12 for two courses, £15 for three) offers a few of the à la carte menu's best picks at lower prices.