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Travel

Northern Lights Hunting | Iceland | Part One

I felt the anxiety bubble inside me as we drove to the airport. I was excited, obviously, but I also felt nervous. The usual travel worries ensued. I worried about chargers and cameras and toiletries and warm clothes and being late. The list could go on, but my biggest fear was apprehension.

The northern lights had been at the top of my bucket list for a long time. Always mesmerized by its natural beauty, the Aurora Borealis has intrigued me to the point of booking a trip to Iceland on a chance I might see them. A chance. And therein lies the apprehension.

We arrived at Birmingham Airport to board our plane journey to Reykjavik with Icelandair. It was a Monday afternoon and I couldn’t help but feel lucky to be heading to the land of ice while others are back to their routine and starting their working week. I took one last breath of the misty city air before boarding our flight. Breathe out and say goodbye.

Icelandair were incredibly hospitable. Just a taster of what was to come in terms of an Icelandic warm welcome. It was 3:30pm when we eventually touched down on Icelandic soil, and my anticipation for the days ahead grew even stronger. It was almost a similar feeling to a longing nostalgia, though I had never been here before. The moment I stepped off the plane, I took another deep breath- tasting the air of a new city. I imagine my lungs are jars collecting the air of the places I’ve travelled. This one tasted fresh with a hint of sulphur.

We took the FlyBus to our hotel, admiring the breath-taking scenery along the way. We arrived at our hotel, Hotel Cabin, and proceeded to check in. Before our trip, I had been repetitively checking the Northern Lights forecast online to assess our chances. We had been booked on the northern lights hunt with Reykjavik Excursions for the following night, but the weather looked poor and overcast, so we managed to rearrange it for that first night. We dumped our bags, ate dinner at the hotel and met our coach driver in the lobby.

11:30-something PM. Darkness- besides the moonlight beaming onto the snow-topped mountains in Thingvellir National Park, the sky and our surroundings succumbed to nightfall and nothing out of the ordinary appeared to light our way. The sky itself was clear and we started to do some constellation spotting to pass the time while we waited. Waited for the famous light show everyone had come to associate with Icelandic winters. Time seemed to run away into the darkness as we stood huddling into ourselves trying to keep warm. I had worn every item of clothing I had bought with me to Iceland. I felt like a matryoshka doll, layer upon layer hiding that small child version of me in the middle that wanted to jump and scream with excitement. When it got to the point that I couldn’t bend my fingers anymore, I retreated back to the coach to get warm. When I got on, the coach was full and it appeared everyone had given up, until our guide jumped on and said something had appeared in the sky. Immediately we rushed off the coach. Was it finally happening? Was I going to see the northern lights after all?

I looked to the sky to see a greenish hue to what looked like a rain cloud in an arch over our heads. We were told on the way by our guide that some people are disappointed when they see the northern lights because they expect them to be as we see on all those pictures and postcards- vivid green and purple streaks lining the night sky, but apparently they just show up better on camera. Standing there, seeing a vaguely green smudge above me, under all those layers, I stopped jumping and my heart sank with disappointment. I couldn’t help but feel cheated by all those images. I had dreamed about this for such a long time, and I had clearly gotten lost in my own expectation.

Everyone was about to give up for the last time on that frosty January night, when out of that arching cloud a bright speck of green started to break through. It was small but it lit up the whole sky with its luminosity, and then suddenly, it was everywhere.

I climbed on top of an icy mound to escape the crowds of people who stood in awe. I immediately wanted to take as many photos as I possibly could to capture it while it was still here. The lights moved around the sky, following that first arch. I kept turning my head to see where they had danced to next. Their movement slow and powerful, there was an eerie, almost extra-terrestrial feel to this gift from the sun that was met with both screams of fear and excitement by the crowd. At one point it appeared that the whole sky had turned neon green, and I just couldn’t believe my luck. I crouched down to the floor, huddled to keep warm, and I took a moment to bask in wonder. It has fast become a poignant memory for me; one that I will cherish for the rest of my days.

The wait was worth it.

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Categories
Travel

Packing for Iceland

I’m going to Iceland!!!

And it’s going to be cold. Colder than I’ve probably ever experienced before, but that’s OK, because it’s Iceland!

Iceland has been on my bucket list for a while. It’s pretty much what dreams are made of for travel lovers. Adventure, nature and a funky little capital city to boot- what more could you want?!

Although I’ll only be going for 3 nights, I’ve been planning ahead what I’ll be taking on my trip. Ya know, just to make sure I come back with every single one of my toes. These little piggies are staying put!

If you’re planning on taking a similar winter holiday trip and have got no idea what to take, below I’ve listed a few packing ideas based on what I’m hoping will be a well-prepared, successful trip!

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Jumpers (your most snuggliest)

IT’S SO FLUFFY! That is exactly what you need to be saying when packing for a winter trip. Pack the warmest ones you can find, even if that means wearing a Christmas jumper in February, DO IT. Jumpers with polo necks work great because they double up as a scarf.

Thermals everything

For the first time in my life I own a pair of long johns- and I couldn’t be happier. Seriously, you need to go all out on this one. You will not regret it.

Walking/Hiking boots

I’m going to be heading out on the Golden Circle tour; it’s likely to be windy, wet and slippery, so me and my clumsiness are not taking any chances. These bad boys have a sturdy sole to keep my feet firmly on the ground.

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Accessories

Scarf. Hat. Gloves. Backpack. You get the idea.

Coat

Probably the most important thing you will need. Preferably windproof and waterproof, and a fur hood so you can look good too. Ski coats are also great. Your choice of coat really depends on the destination, so choose wisely. If you’re planning on being more adventurous on your trip, you would be better off buying one from Mountain Warehouse or North Face to really suit your needs.

Camera!

Now on to the fun stuff… a camera is pretty much an essential item for me. Whether that be my Canon 600d or my Fuji Instax Mini- taking photos of new and beautiful locations adds to the fun of exploring a new destination. If you are heading somewhere where there is likely to be snow topped mountains and you resist the urge to take even one photo.. HOW?!

Travel Journal/Book

As well as a small notebook that I take with me on all my travels, I’m also taking this one by Axel and Ash. I’ve been wanting to get my hands on it for a while and finally received it as a gift this Christmas (I’ll be doing a whole post about it in more detail soon, so keep your eyes peeled!).

I also find it imperative to bring a book with me when I travel. I love reading and there’s nothing better than finding a local cafe, drinking a nice cup of hot chocolate and reading a good book.

And.. don’t forget your passport and money! You might just need those.

So that’s pretty much all I’ll be taking with me to Iceland! Apart from the usual toiletries too, of course. There will be lots and lots of hand cream involved to fight off that winter dry skin!

I’ll be posting more on my trip to Iceland over the next few weeks, so stay tuned!

Categories
Travel

Exploring Barcelona, Part Two | Swarm of Tourists, Sagrada Familia and Gaudi’s Paradise

When I visited Berlin a few years ago, I remember the exact moment I first saw the Brandenburg Gate. Rising out of the U-Bahn station on an escalator to see it greeting me, majestically appearing before me as the sun set around it. It may be a tourist hotspot but in that moment of pure awe and surprise, it was just me and this striking monument. Just me and a piece of history. The position of the underground station is truly superb and I can only imagine the colossal amount of people who have experienced that same blissful scene. I hadn’t expected to experience a similar feeling when I visited the Sagrada Família in Barcelona.

As much as I love taking photographs, I think sometimes it’s easy to become numb to beauty. Images almost always seem far better than reality. Social media is a prime example of that one; everyone only posts the best versions of themselves and sometimes to the point where filter after filter can make people look unrecognisable to real life.

I fear that eventually, the more manipulated photographs we see, we ignore all the little intricacies that make something so unique and beautiful in real life. This too applies to travel and seeing something like the Sagrada Família in person after seeing so many photos and other representations of Barcelona’s famous landmark.

In the end, photos have got nothin’ on this bad boy of construction. It truly is a must see. I really wasn’t prepared for the scale and the splendour that hit me as soon as I laid eyes on it’s intricate, gothic design. Me and Gavin decided to sit across the street in the park that faces the Sagrada Família. We sat there for a while in amazement as we watched this work in progress. I think you truly have to take a moment from afar and watch the construction of this UNESCO World Heritage Site unfold.

Unfortunately, we did get swamped by large groups of tourists who insisted on taking selfies in front us, blocking our view. And I’m really not exaggerating when I say we were SURROUNDED. There were cameras everywhere, and a few people where generally a little rude, standing on our bench just so they could get the best angle of their face. Photos are fine, we took our fair share of them, but I’m pretty sure not one of this group looked at the Basilica with their own eyes, and that’s a shame. So please, if you’re in Barcelona and visit the Sagrada Família, sure, be a tourist, take all the photos, but once you’re done, take a seat and just look.

Another incredible fact about the Sagrada Família is that is was designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who has also designed some of Barcelona’s most incredible architectural accomplishments. These include the art nouveau Casa Batlló and Casa Milà, with their distinctive colourful mosaic tiles and irregular windows. These buildings belong in a fantasy world of dragons and other mythical creatures. It’s as if they’ve been plucked from a children’s storybook and dropped in the centre of Barcelona. Another such imaginative creation by Gaudí, located on Carmel Hill in Barcelona, is Park Güell.

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Park Güell is a sophisticated Disneyland for lovers of design that could easily be the setting for a post-modern fairytale. The park blends natural formations with whimsical geometric patterns and bright colours that really make this park feel like some sort of wonderland. You can tell that there are elements that could possibly symbolize political and religious ideas, but on the surface, Park Guell is almost mythical, and a great place to spend an hour or two channelling a childlike fascination. It’s a beautiful place. Just don’t let the array of people illegally selling cheap goods on the pavement ruin that fantasy.

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That’s pretty much how I spent a few days in Barcelona. It was brief but I managed to see many wonderful pieces of architecture, eat some great food, and had a lot of fun people-watching.

Barcelona, I’m sure I’ll see you again some day.

Categories
food Life

Lazy Winter Days

Working a full time job which involves me running around on my feet all day, you’d think on my days off I’d like to just relax on the sofa, gorge myself on chocolate, binge watching The US Office. Okay, so sometimes, yeah, that is my whole agenda. Most of the time though, I get fidgety. I like to make the most of my days off and do something a little more exciting, or at least breathe actual fresh air…

The weather lately has been pretty awful here in the UK, and I’ve found myself less and less wanting to venture outside, but this past Thursday was my day off, and I needed to do SOMETHING.

Me and Gavin took a drive over to Worcester, a town not so far from us and a place I knew well because I’d spent my last two years at University there.  We hadn’t planned on doing much except purchasing a few bits and pieces for our upcoming trip to Iceland, but we stopped for some lunch at the Boston Tea Party. It was a quaint establishment, with a relaxed vibe and lots of great healthy options on the menu.

It wasn’t the most glamorous of days, but it’s nice to spend a bit of time out the house and away from work. Besides, I probably don’t really need the watch the entirety of The US Office for the sixth time, do I?

Maybe one more.

Categories
food Travel

Exploring Barcelona, Part One | Boqueria Food Market, Shopping and Armed Guards?!

When it comes to travel, I usually search aimlessly for hours, even days, to find the best location, accommodation, and general things to do. Most of the time, nothing gets booked; I just live in this fantasy world that I will go to these places, but it’s basically the same as cutting out pictures from holiday brochures and sticking them on your wall.

I consider myself adventurous, but then can you really be both organised and live adventurously? I guess so. At least I like to think you can.

Occasionally however, I do suddenly get a spontaneous urge to just GET OUT THERE. Stop with the incessant scrolling through Pinterest and do something. Anything. Be anywhere. So when the opportunity arose to purchase a ‘Mystery European Getaway’ through discount site Groupon, I took it. Why the hell not, eh?

Categories
Life

Wonder

Growing up, I shared a room with my sister, Sarah. It wasn’t the largest of rooms, but we managed to squeeze two single beds inside, parallel to each other like two sticks floating down a river. The small space between almost acting as a measure of time. The four-year age gap has never really seemed that much. The beds were pushed back against the window ledge which overlooked the grove we lived in.

At night, it felt eerily quiet. Almost a pristine existence of an average suburban street. Looking back at my childhood and growing up in the 90s, I never really felt fear. I’m not sure if there is more evil in the world now, or just that the only real terror I personally saw was in high school horror movies. I was always waiting on Ghostface or Candyman to show up. Yet, the quiet and the darkness never really scared me.

While I was still small enough to do so, I would perch on the window ledge and gaze out onto the street and up to the night’s sky. A cascade of stars alerted me to the great unknown. I spent many sleep-stricken nights looking out, almost searching, but with no real intent but to pass time. Pass time until the sun would shock me back into reality.

I miss those moments of peace and solitude. Though I was never truly alone, with my sister a mere foot beside me, I miss the long nights of just pure gaze and wonder.

Because wonder is a funny thing.

When I would stare out at that quiet street and up to that black sky, wonder always meant dreams, aspirations and questions. Lots and lots of questions, but I would never expect an answer, I would merely conjure up all these various possibilities and extraordinary stories behind every little thing. And that was enough.

If I lay awake at night now, wonder means something very different. It often means regret. Regret and anxiety. It’s the things I should have said that day to a frustrating manager. It’s debating who was wrong between me and another angry driver. It’s thinking of something positive in the future, and all the things that could go wrong to prevent it from happening. It’s the wrong type of curiosity.

It’s a pretty fucked up daydream.

Wonder doesn’t have to be accurate. It doesn’t have to be meticulously planned with every question answered. You just let it happen. I truly believe the most creative and exciting people are the curious ones. The ones who are willing to try anything once and not debate over the outcome. The ones who can look at the sky, and see not just darkness, but an infinite spectacle.

I’m gonna bring some of that fearless 90s to 2016, because to wonder, is damn wonderful.

Happy New Year.

 

 

Categories
Travel

Favourite Places | Mauerpark Flea Market, Berlin

Ever since I first visited Berlin, I’ve wanted to go back and make it my permanent residence. There are lots of places I’ve been and tell myself ‘I could live here’, but I’ve never been truer to those words than when I talk of Berlin. There is so much I could write about this city brimming with culture, but for now, I’ll stick to a place that summed up my whole Berlin experience, the Mauerpark Flea Market.

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The sun was heavenly blazing above us on a June Sunday as we slowly walked towards the market. I remember turning a corner onto the main street, Bernauer Straße, where the market sits, and seeing a surge of people heading in the same direction. It must be this way. The sheer amount of people was like a torrent of diversity; tourists and natives alike, all heading for some casual Sunday afternoon scavenging. Of course the market was more than that. As soon as you enter the park, it’s as if you’ve found the epicentre of Berlin. This is where you’ll find history, art and music. This is where you’ll find love.

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We browsed a mixture of antiques, clothes and handmade goods for hours, before the smell of food overtook us. We made a stop at one of the food stalls and immediately fell for the currywurst. It had to be done.

Soon the heat had started to tire us out, so we took a walk around the actual park next door to the market, and it was as if the hustle and bustle of the market vanished instantly. We spent the next hour or so sat in the park people-watching. The atmosphere was incredible. Every 15 feet or so were musicians performing for small crowds, relaxed and bathing in the sun, just being there. No phones glued to their faces. No internet. Just them and the park, being serenaded by several people at once, most only an echo in the distance. This was peace.

I think my favourite thing about the Mauerpark Flea Market was just how natural it all felt. Not once did I feel like a tourist surrounded by other tourists. This was normal life. And I wanted it to be mine.

Categories
Travel

Getting lost in Welsh Country | Brecon Beacons National Park

It’s only been a few years since I ventured west into Wales for the first time, and each time I have visited since, I am still taken aback by its breath-taking scenery. It may be small in scale, but its beauty has no boundaries.

One of the reasons I adore visiting Wales so much is due to its never-ending surprises. There are plenty of places to escape to; you can hide out in the open air. You can stand in a field and dance like no one is watching, because they probably aren’t.  Unless you count the sheep, that is.

Gavin and I decided to take a day trip to Brecon Beacons National Park. We didn’t have a set path in mind once we arrived, or even where to begin in the first place, we just headed out in that direction. After a pit stop in the town of Brecon itself for a spot of lunch, we headed to the tourist office to peruse the map and pick a destination. Immediately, Waterfall Country pulled me in. We had to go there. There’s something very mystical about waterfalls; they have a peaceful allure that breeds childlike whimsy.

Again, we didn’t follow a map directly, but decided to follow the curves of roads in the general direction of Waterfall Country. Along the way, we came to an amazing resting stop by a lake and decided to get out and stretch our legs, taking in some fresh air and explore the area. It was so quiet. Even the noise from cars driving past only felt like a quiet murmur in the distance, like everything had automatically muted at the sight of such tranquillity. I can’t even tell you where we were at this point, but I know that the area has many more spots like this. Sometimes all it takes is getting lost.

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We headed back to the car and set off for round 3. This time, we were going waterfall chasing. Unfortunately for us and our lack of map, we did end up taking possibly the tightest two-way street I have ever come across, that involved us reversing uphill a windy road so another car could get through. Probably not the best route now I think of it, but I suppose the minor thrill of not knowing what would be around every bend was an experience of sorts. All in the name of waterfalls, TLC might have been on to something..

We eventually arrived at Waterfall Country around 4:30pm, which we realised was a little late to begin one of the long treks passing by every waterfall, so we took a detour to visit the closest, Sgwd Yr Eira. I was determined to see one that day.

We parked up and took a short walk along a country path to Sgwd Clun Gwyn. Some wooden steps lead down onto a rocky cliffside and immediately you’re hit with the sound of rushing water. It’s almost gentle, the delicate way in which the water flows off cold rock and carries on its journey into the pool below, and it’s happening right here, in front of you. You can touch it, walk behind it and feel cool wet air bounce off your skin and parade like confetti around you. This is magic.

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All I wanted more than anything was to dive into the serene water below. The Four Falls Walk is definitely on my list for next year, and I won’t be passing up the chance to go for a swim in this majestic paradise of natural beauty next time.

Categories
food hometown gold Travel

Hometown Gold | The Kitchen Garden Café

When I was growing up, I hated this city. All I ever wanted to do was to escape. There was always somewhere better on the horizon. When I was 18, I found my exit through a University education, moving south to Oxford. I think the independence and a change was what I craved most, rather than hatred towards my hometown. Yet, I never missed it.

I missed the curves of my mother’s cheeks as she smiled, and I missed the glares of our gluttonous family dog every time I ate a meal; people was what I missed, not the city. Finding myself back here, I have a longing to get out again, and somehow I don’t think that will ever change, but I’ve grown to love parts of Birmingham. It might not be the place for me, but it has a lot of character, more than I fully appreciated, and I’m constantly discovering new things and places about this city that make me realise, actually, it’s pretty great.

One such place is right in the heart of my neighbourhood growing up, Kings Heath; tucked away just off the high street is The Kitchen Garden Café. The café sits at the end of a whimsical path, lit with fairy lights and bordered with plants and pots for sale, with a garden shop to purchase healthier food options as well as locally produced items.

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The café is just as you’d expect given the quaint entrance; brick walls are adorned with paintings by local artists and posters of upcoming performances, as the café turns into a music venue at night. Everything is calm and relaxing, making it the perfect place to stop off for a spot of lunch or to bring a book and drink coffee. An outdoor seating area makes the perfect opportunity to catch up with friends while basking in the sun and enjoying the surrounding greenery.

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The Kitchen Garden Café knows how to do good food. Everything is freshly made using local and fairly-traded produce; eating here literally makes you feel wholesome and healthy and just plain good. Of course, if you want a sweet treat too, they have a delicious selection of freshly baked goodies.

To me, it’s places like this that make me appreciate my city. It’s so vast and forever changing, who knows what else is hiding beneath the cracks?! There’s more to Birmingham than I ever knew, and there’s still so much left to discover.

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Categories
Travel

Four days in Amsterdam

When you first tell people you are going to Amsterdam with friends, 98% of people will respond with ‘Are you going to try space cakes?’  It’s true Amsterdam has a notorious reputation for being the place to indulge in some casual drug use, with cannabis being legal to smoke (and consume in sweeter varieties) throughout the city.  Visiting ‘Dam earlier this month with friends for a short 4 day  stay, we were faced with concerned parents and intrigued work colleagues, questioning our intentions, which left us becoming part of the cliché, planning to seek out this supposed dishonourable city. What we actually discovered far surpassed our expectations, and was exactly what I had hoped from this city brimming with culture and a laidback allure.

Granted, I had visited Amsterdam with two guys, meeting a third friend while we were out there, and the trip was to be centred more around experiencing a different kind of culture to the art galleries and canal boat rides, but we couldn’t help but be pulled into the city’s relaxed atmosphere, and strolling around causally in the summer sun almost felt natural. Like we weren’t just tourists, but this was our city. Amsterdam certainly has a tranquil magnetism, despite the hustle and bustle of central areas.

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We spent a lot of our time in Leidseplein, where we ate most of our meals, including giant pancakes at The Pancake Corner, which were definitely a highlight of the trip and come highly recommended, despite the cost.

Of course, Amsterdam is also famous for its Red Light District and casual attitude towards sex. I suppose I had expected to be greeted by grimy streets, dubious sex shops and disturbing loitering men around every corner, but I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of this. Perhaps it was just the parts of Amsterdam we did see, but I found sex to be approached in an unusually open yet dignified manner. Yes, there were sex shops, and yes the visit to the Sex Museum was somewhat unsettling and amusing in equal measure, but it didn’t feel quite as seedy as I was expecting. Sex is sex. Deal with it.  The Red Light District is a whole other world altogether. We decided to do an Ultimate Party pub crawl one night through the district, which was an incredible experience that left us all feeling a little unwholesome the next day. Let’s just say, we had to ask our uber driver to pull over so I could gracefully regurgitate the alcohol I had just consumed onto the pavement. Classy, I know.

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I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised. In my drunken state, I almost forgot where I was until in-between pubs I looked up to see a bright red light next to me. Then I looked around me; there were dozens of red lights. Amidst the haze from drunken splendour, I made out a figure in the light next to me. It was a woman. She was gesturing to the crowd of men who were in an amazed stupor, surrounding me. I looked around again to see that there were women in every window, and then it clicked. Wait, these women are prostitutes. Yet they weren’t the typical image of prostitution. Most of these women were goddesses, primmed and toned to perfection. Ready to be adored and explored.

Waking up the following day, we all discussed over brunch that despite their more polished than expected appearance, there was still something very uneasy about the Red Light District. I think it’s something you definitely have to see, but there is so much more to Amsterdam.

On our last full day in Amsterdam we decided to visit Gunther Von Hagens’ Body Worlds exhibit, which aims to showcase the effect of happiness on our physical being. The exhibit itself is a perfect blend of science and art, though not for the fainthearted, as real, donated deceased human bodies are used in the exhibit.  I was personally enthralled in the fascinating displays of poised human bodies, and informative descriptions of the inner workings of our being. Everything was so beautiful and clean, and the introduction of the more interactive elements to improve our happiness throughout the exhibit, were unbelievably fun. Who doesn’t love swings?!

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I’ll definitely be returning to Amsterdam in the future.  There was so much more to see and do, I felt like we only saw a tiny part of the city. On our last day we walked through the city and stumbled across a market. It was a Friday afternoon and in this little corner of the city, people gathered over books and old paintings. I want more of that Amsterdam, please. Next time.

And yes, for those curiously minded, I had a space cake. It did nothing.