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Beautiful bike pannier bags. No really.

Beautiful bike pannier bags. No really.

Updated for Summer 2021!

I had a hilarious conversation by the bike racks at the farmers market this weekend. A woman and her family had just ridden up, and we started chatting about my Sahn helmet (but have you seen my new bike helmet that looks like a hat??), the merits of no holes in your helmet (ventilation v style and not getting rained on). She noticed my Linus pannier bag and was amazed to see a such a nice-looking bag be a pannier, and not look like a WATERPROOF RACING CYCLIST kind of bag.

I admit I have spent maybe more hours than would be strictly healthy searching out bike gear that does not look like Bike Gear, if you know what I mean. In my moments sweating up a major hill, then walking up the rest of the hill, then stopping at the top texting my husband about how I think I might throw up or something, but trying to look nonchalantly busy with an important message from a cool person about some pop-up supper club, I am deeply embarrassed about my obsession with nice-looking gear.

But then I think – what, I can’t have anything nice until I can do the Tour de France? Forget that. If I’m going to suffer trying to get up these damn hills, I’m going to have a nice jacket/pannier bag/bike basket while I do it. *stamps foot*

So now that we’re all on the same page, let’s look at some pretty pictures of nice, functional panniers that don’t look like scuba gear.

linus the sac

The aforementioned Linus’s The Sac. I’ve been using this one for about a month and I really like it. Fits my 13” Macbook in a sleeve while still being able to close with the powerful magnets at the top. I’ve also fit a 1lb bag of kale, a bunch of radishes, a small bag of nugget potatoes, my wallet, my make-up bag, and a package of smoked salmon. So you know, it’s flexible. Small ring and padlock included should you want to secure it to your bike.

New Swedish brand Weathergoods makes some sleek vegan leather options that look like a proper work bag, but hides secure pannier clips for your bike’s rear rack. Not only that, but the insides show the same attention to detail, with secure laptop sleeve and small pockets for phone, keys and other bits. Not surprising considering it was designed by two cycle commuting Swedish women. Vegan leather is not a cop-out here, but a great design choice, because if you’ve cycled in the rain a few times, you know your bags get absolutely soaked. You don’t want a nice leather bag going through that.

Dutch bike accessories brand Basil is a great place to start when it comes to beautiful baskets and bags. Their bike pannier options are excellent. This Wanderlust Carry All comes with pannier hooks under a zippered flap, and loads of space inside, with some compartments to keep your small bits contained. It’s water-resistant too. I love this dark bird floral version.

Image courtesy Bobbin Bicycles

I have a beautiful old pannier basket from Bobbin that I love, so I’m thrilled to see this gorgeous sac with handles model on their site. The Daytripper pannier comes in mustard, black, bright blue, and this candy-apple red. There are two hooks on the back to hang on your rear rack, as well as a detachable shoulder strap. This water-resistant cotton bag has that nice outer pocket you can see in the photo, as well as a little pocket inside and a roomy main compartment.

Dutch brand New Looxs makes cute, slightly sporty but quite affordable bike panniers. I love this nautical blue stripe double pannier. Rain-resistant polyester won’t hold up for mega downpours, but your stuff is safe from a shower or two. I like the rear reflective strips and the quick clip closures. Because these panniers are quite a bit cheaper than some of the other ones on this list, it would be quite fun to have these around for beach trips or picnics. There’s a single shoulder bag of the same jaunty blue stripe if you’re looking for something a bit less cargo-centric. Super cute.

If you’re looking for more storage capacity and the ability to attach panniers around a child seat, this double-bag from Basil is an excellent budget option. It’s got a 35L capacity, reflective bits to make you more visible in the dark, and a closure that allows you to lock your panniers to your bike. I love that these are so roomy, but also actually beautiful. That’s a bit of a Cinderella pannier, I have to say!

This Willex shopper can hold a whopping 13 litres of stuff, and is really, properly waterproof. It has four little knobbly feet on it, and it’s built to stay stiff, so you can set it on the ground and it won’t slump over into a puddle. Belgian brand Willex have their own special locking system which means you can be sure it’s not coming off your rear bike rack accidentally. The pattern isn’t my absolute favourite, and the other two colourways are butterflies which is really not my deal, but it looks like a very solid, practical shopper for a very reasonable price.

Image courtesy of Bike Belle

I have a deep love of satchels, and Bike Belle doesn’t disappoint with this red and white canvas version. Water-repellant canvas with leather trim, this retro beauty has a zippered flap that covers the pannier hooks when you take it off your bike, so you won’t catch it on your clothing. It also comes in cherry red. There’s a shoulder strap tucked in there too.

Tourbon is a brand I hadn’t seen before, but I like their waterproof canvas bags. They do a nice over the rear rack double bag for a reasonable price. They roll up when not in use to save space, and you can detach one and bring it with you as a shoulder bag.

Have you found a beautiful bike pannier? Please do share.

This post was originally written in 2018, updated in August 2020, February 2021

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Can’t travel? Visit a new country with Atlas Crates

Can’t travel? Visit a new country with Atlas Crates

I don’t normally dedicate an entire post to any kind of product, but I’m making an exception for Atlas Crates and KiwiCo because it has saved my sanity over the past year in and out of lockdowns. The links in this post are affiliate links, but other than that I have received no compensation to write this post.

Here’s a bit more about what KiwiCo does, if you’ve never seen their crates

My son is now 11 and a half, and we have been subscribing to Kiwi Crates since he was about five. KiwiCo is a company that creates subscription boxes with projects for kids (and now adults) for learning and creating. I love these boxes because everything you need to do the project is in the box (except scissors). Glue, paint, sticky things, paper clips, bits of metal, pieces of lightweight balsa wood – it’s all in there. The instructions are clear and written for kids to follow, and they provide videos on their website if that’s easier. From about eight years old my son could follow the directions on his own. My son has never been a sit and do crafts kind of child, he’s not even been all that into building LEGO for hours or anything – but he will sit and work on a project from KiwiCo for a good 90 minutes. The crates come in different age ranges, and even different subject areas – from a slime volcano to sewing a plushie, there’s something for every kid.

Atlas Crate Explore Italy Geography Kit

New Atlas Crates

When KiwiCo launched their new Atlas Crates last year, I was really interested to try them because we travel so much, but everything had shut down at the beginning of the pandemic. The Atlas Crate is pitched for ages 6-11, and the aim is to learn more about and appreciate other cultures. So far we’ve made the projects in the Japan, Colombia, France, Greece, France and Madagascar crates. There is a project or two inside the box, as well as a booklet talking about the traditions, food (with recipes!), and geography of the country you’re learning about. Sometimes we come across a photo from one of those countries, and my son will point out a detail, ‘Look, it’s like the thing I made from my Atlas Crate!’ – just what I want to hear. I just asked him which was his favourite, he said, ‘Sweden! It had a cool game in it’. The game is Kubb, where you throw wooden sticks and large wooden blocks, trying to knock them over.

Atlas Crate Explore Greece Geography Kit

Finally, a project I don’t have to organize

I hear you, we’ve been online schooling at home for months now and we’re missing the hands-on aspect of in-person school. We also subscribe to Tinker Crates, aimed at ages 9-16. These are engineering/STEM projects where kids build something like a crane, a spirograph, or a model trebuchet from parts so they see how it works. What I really like about these projects is they are ambitious and impressive. It’s not a dinky little catapult, it’s a working trebuchet. It’s not a wobbly spirograph, but a motorized paint splatter art maker you’ve built from the circuit board up. My son is thrilled when he’s finished one of these, and really proud he’s made it work. The only downside of these projects is the storage space afterwards – after a year or two of these crates every month, we really have to prioritise which we keep and which we recycle.

My son reading about the continents, from his first Atlas Crate

Support for parents with kids learning at home

KiwiCo has stepped up their online resources for parents trying to help their kids learn at home during lockdowns. Check out this part of their site for free project plans, craft ideas, kitchen experiments, and more. From ‘how to draw a dinosaur’ to ‘the science of handwashing’, this is a bit of a lifesaver when your well of things to do has run dry.

Where does KiwiCo ship to?

KiwiCo is an American company, but we have received our crates in Canada and Germany, and they ship to most of Europe, Hong Kong, Turkey, Australia and New Zealand. We have not had to pay duty or any import fees on our crates in Canada or Germany. You can check the full list of places they ship to here. It’s worth noting that while their subscription boxes are available internationally, single projects from their store are only available in the US and Canada.

Atlas Crate Explore Australia Geography Kit

At a loss for a gift? Give a single crate or a subscription

I promise you, any parent would be glad to receive a box like this for their child – it’s an educational yet entertaining activity that they didn’t have to plan. You can check out their store for specific projects (single projects only available to ship to the US and Canada, but subscriptions can work internationally) and their matcher-upper will help you narrow down the right project for the right age group. You can supplement any crate with a book to go with it as well, which I think is great for a gift. We have also had crate subscriptions kindly gifted to us by family, which has been such a boon over this very long year spent at home. My son loves sharing his recent projects with family over FaceTime.

Just a reminder, the links in this post are affiliate links, but I have not been compensated in any way for writing this post. We have been using KiwiCo crates for years and years, and I recommend them to everyone I know.

First Month Free! Receive first month free with a 6 or 12-month subscription purchase from KiwiCo.

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Lingoda review: The best way to learn German?

Lingoda review: The best way to learn German?

This post contains affiliate links. Should you click on one, I will get a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for supporting my work!

I’ve approached learning German in several ways, most recently using Lingoda. Lingoda is a web-based language learning program that connects you with live teachers via audio and webcam. The system is based on the CEFR language certification (A1, A2, etc) which is what most people understand when you’re explaining to schools or employers your language proficiency level. You can also receive your certificates through Lingoda, without having to pay and take a test at a local language school. They offer courses in English, German, French and Spanish. 

I will write about my own journey with language learning shortly, but the tl;dr version is I’ve gone through Duolingo in German, group classes at university in French, to private lessons here in Germany in German – so I’m familiar with many ways of learning languages. I’m finishing up my A2 in German. 

My kitchen table desk set-up, where I'm often doing my Lingoda German lessons.
My kitchen table desk set-up, where I’m often doing my Lingoda German lessons.

How does Lingoda work?

You pay a monthly fee, and receive class credits. You can choose all group classes, all private lessons, or a mix of both. I went for a mix of both. I have to say, the group classes are very small, only 4-5 people, so you won’t get lost in the mix. I personally like the chance to gather my thoughts and plan an answer when I know my turn is coming up, so four or five people in the class is perfect. The classes are based on skills, conversation, reading, and writing. You can see all the options laid out for your particular language level.

You select days and a range of times, and your options for classes pops up. You select your classes from there. What I particularly like is being able to choose a class quite late on. Say you realize you have time this evening, you can still sign up for a class. Though by the same token, cancelling requires seven days notice, so I would suggest not to book everything ahead, but book as you go. You can do the lessons in order, or just pick what interests you to start. I picked a few at random to start, and honestly wish I had stayed more with the official order as I think I was a bit over my head to begin with!

I recommend having a notebook and pen beside you to make notes as you go along in class. It helps when you know you’re going to have to answer something as you can attempt to work it out a bit first, as well as making note of something you’d like to ask about later. For my learning style, it helps cement concepts in my mind to write them down. I recommend going through the learning materials before class starts so you’re not completely new to the subject matter.

Related: Five tips for not losing your mind when you move abroad

How were the teachers?

I’ve had a few now, and I would say they are quite good. They are experienced with the system and the material, so they kept things moving ahead, but I didn’t feel rushed. The teachers are all native speakers, which is so critical to getting your pronunciation right. I felt like they didn’t gloss over mistakes, but matter of factly corrected students, but didn’t get overly hung up on sentence structure when we were trying to answer more freeform questions. That is so crucial, because it’s so important to feel like you’re making some progress with conversational language, and it’s easy for language learners to get bogged down in details. 

As with any language learning experience, you get what you put in. Don’t hesitate to ask questions if you don’t understand something a teacher has said and put yourself out there a bit. Obviously it’s important to wait your turn in class, and even more so when we’re all remote, but there’s a button for raising your hand. I understand feeling embarrassed for not knowing something, I so get it. In fact, I get a cold sweat before class starts sometimes! But you will enjoy learning, and your teachers will enjoy teaching you when you go into class thinking positively about participating. They can’t help you learn if you don’t try and make mistakes! 

How do I know my language level?

If you haven’t been taking language classes, I would start at the beginning, even if you know a little bit. Speaking a new language is as much about confidence as the vocab and the grammar, so if you have a little time to get into it without being faced with new words, that can really help. You can do a level test online – I tried this language level test online and it accurately reported what level I’m at – or book a customized private class on Lingoda and a teacher can tell you. I already knew what level I was at from my previous lessons, so I didn’t need to do this. 

The view out to the balcony from my kitchen table.
What I’m often looking at while I’m doing a Lingoda German lesson.

Is Lingoda any good?

It is good. As with any language learning experience, if you put in the time you will reap the benefit, so you need to buckle down and do your classes. Being able to structure the pace of classes to my timetable has been a huge benefit to me –– particularly when I have more free time I can take a few more, and slow down when things get busy. You get the benefit of a live teacher instead of automated system like Duolingo, so your pronunciation is corrected, as well as having to think on your feet. Lingoda has a lot of the benefits I was missing from a local class, but on my random schedule. 

Is it cheap? Well relatively yes, you are benefitting from native speaker teachers in a small-class size environment, so I would say it’s quite competitively priced. I can only find local language classes that are every day all day, or one evening a week, but nothing in between. This allows to me to study at a sort of middle intensive level. Granted I hear German spoken all day everyday around me, so your mileage may vary if you’re learning a language in isolation. However, I still think this would be the best way to do it, particularly when it comes to pronunciation as you will for sure have a native speaker as a teacher, which is harder to come by when you’re learning somewhere else. It’s so critical to getting your pronunciation right to learn it correctly the first time!

Obviously every platform has its downsides, and my main issue with Lingoda is the seven day class cancellation policy. I definitely value teachers’ time, but even three days would be more realistic. Because you’re dealing with an online platform, sometimes there’s some messing around with students losing the connection to the class, or your teacher losing their connection and having to come back in. In my experience, it’s been minimally disruptive, as the teachers seem to have a good handle on the system. 

The bottom line: should you try Lingoda?

If you’re serious about learning a language, and you’re finding it difficult to find live classes that fit in your schedule, Lingoda is a great alternative. Having native speakers as teachers, and being able to take more classes when you have more time, and fewer when you have less is great for parents, working people with unreliable schedules, and freelancers. If you’re looking to pick up a language in a casual way, this will probably be more than you want, and I’d encourage you to find a once-a-week class at a local community college or try Duolingo for free for a bit. As an immigrant trying to learn the local language, it’s a life saver. 

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What it’s like, living in Germany, a year and half on

What it’s like, living in Germany, a year and half on

Sixteen months we’ve lived here, nearly a year and a half. We’ve acclimatised in some ways, and are still figuring it out in others. I meant to write an update on our one-year anniversary, but it didn’t feel right yet.

I’ll answer some of the questions I get a lot… and you can add any others in the comments below.

The gorgeous Burg Hohenzollern
The gorgeous Burg Hohenzollern

So, are you fluent now?

Ha, no. I can order food, sort out problems with a delivery person, ask questions in a shop, have a short conversation with my neighbours, and give directions. Conversations longer than ten minutes means I am struggling, and I still flounder around trying to respond. I understand much more than I can respond to right now, which is the normal progression of learning another language. Is it hard? No, not really. It takes constant practice and work, and a willingness to learn. There are many things about German that are similar to English. Obviously being in Germany makes it much easier, because I’m hearing and using it all the time.

Probably the biggest difference now, to say, a year ago, is my accent is better and people are willing to speak to me longer in German. I’m in no way coming across as a local, but I think I sound more competent.

My son, on the other hand, is much more fluent. Just the other week he ran up to some kids in a museum play area and spent 20 minutes playing in German. His German reading is great, possibly ahead of his English reading. He has some good friends who don’t speak much English at all, which is a real step forward as previously his friends were all English native speakers. Doing his homework with him has been like another German class for me, as he’s working on a lot of grammar things I haven’t learned yet in my classes. Tellingly, he only knows the names for nouns and verbs in German right now. My favourite things are the words he only says in German: ‘mittel’ for middle, ‘milch’ for milk. Even in the middle of English sentences.

The private language classes that were part of our relocation package from my husband’s company are ending soon, and I’ll be starting some online courses on my own.

Chicken hanging out with some eggs at the weekly market in Mainz.
Chicken hanging out with some eggs at the weekly market in Mainz.

And do you like the food now?

The one thing I mentioned at the six month mark that was not my favourite was the food here. The thing with living in a smaller town is the lack of dining out options. Heidelberg is lovely in so many ways, but the restaurant scene is not all that diverse. There are a few nice traditional German places with Flammkuchen, Schnitzel, and Käsespätzle, a couple decent places to get a burger, some fancier places for a celebratory meal – but outside that, well, it’s not great. That’s been good financially, as it means we’re not eating out constantly, but sometimes I want to have takeout that isn’t pizza.

Finding diverse ingredients is a bit of challenge too. Your average German grocery store in our town is great for cheese, sliced meats, and every kind of preserved vegetable in a jar. Kale? No. Broccolini? No. Fresh coriander? Sometimes. Salsa? One kind. I’m not trying to recreate the cuisine of the old country, but it was a struggle initially recalibrating my usual go-to recipes when any kind of Mexican ingredient requires special ordering online, and all the cuts of meat are not only called something different, but are not the same cuts at all. I do still find it challenging that you can’t buy a package of chicken thighs (quarters only!). Obviously moving from a coastal city to somewhere practically smack in the middle of mainland Europe is a bit of an adjustment too, as I was used to eating much more seafood and fish than I do now.

The cutest shop in Heidelberg – also where I get more unusual spices.
The cutest shop in Heidelberg – also where I get more unusual spices.

So I subscribed to a bunch of German recipe sites, bought food magazines, and learned to make some more local recipes. Pork is everything in this region, which is good because we all like it. We’re right in the middle of lots of farms here, so we can buy straight from them farmers through their shops or their excellent vending machines. Compared to Canada, the grocery prices here are incredibly low. I am buying locally, and in some cases bio (organic) as well, and it’s a third less than I would have paid in Vancouver.

My love for German cakes is never ending, of course. I have always loved a good cream-based cake, and that’s a popular format here. Your average German cake tastes about half as sweet as any North American equivalent, and it is so perfect. I feel like I’m tasting the cream and fruit instead just SUGAR.

Our amazing neighbourhood in Heidelberg
Our amazing neighbourhood in Heidelberg

Have you made friends?

Ah, this is a tough one. I have a few good friends, mostly other parents from my son’s bilingual school and a friend of a friend. But I am pretty lonely. I knew this was coming – when we moved to London it took a few years before we found our people. But knowing it conceptually and dealing with the reality is two different wurst entirely. I am grateful for the community of English-speaking German people on Twitter who are always around for a good chat. This is one of the reasons I am so keen to get my German up to speed, I really want to be able to meet people here and take classes and all that. As we’re here long term, the expat community are not really my speed. They are much more rooted in their home country and talk a lot about when they go back ‘home’, and don’t seem to settle down here much. It’s understandable, they are often only here for two or three years. But we’re just not on the same page at all.

Our neighbours have made a big difference too. We have been so incredibly lucky in our housing situation. Not only did we land in a spectacular neighbourhood just a short walk from the river and one of the best playgrounds in the city, but our flat is huge and super affordable. This did not guarantee good neighbours, and I have heard some horror stories – from both Germans and non-Germans. Both our upstairs and downstairs neighbours are lovely older folks who routinely invite us over for a glass of wine or tea, and they are the sweetest. I genuinely love chatting with them, even if it stretches my German skills to the limit.

I know I will get there and make friends eventually, I just have to hang in there and keep working on my language skills.

Looks like France, but nope - it's southern Germany.
Looks like France, but nope – it’s southern Germany.

Do you like Germany?

This is a hard one, because the longer I live here the more layers I find to this country. From the outside looking in, we tend to think things or foods or people are ‘German’, but in reality, this is a very fractured and very young nation. The regions have identities that are so strong, internally they can override national identity easily. Bavaria, for instance, was a kingdom unto itself for hundreds of years before there was a Germany, and they have their own Bavarian language, which is technically a German dialect but… yeah. This is not even taking into account the more recent split of West and East Germany, which also carries with it massive differences in culture and behaviour. So, do I like Germany? Yes, I really do, but I only know my little south-western corner of it, living in a mid-sized university town. I don’t live in the Bavarian heartland of Munich, nor am I up north in complicated and cool Berlin. It’s a massive country with so many fascinating distinct identities within it, I feel saying something like ‘I don’t care for German food’ is doing an incredible disservice to this place. We are starting to explore further and further afield here, and we’re enjoying it so much.

There are little things I love, like the way loads of people bring beautiful wicker baskets to do their shopping in – not just at the weekly markets but also in the grocery store, the corners of farmers’ fields dedicated to pick your own flowers, the prevalence of farm-side vending machines for everything from fruit and vegetables to jam and milk, and the fact that I see 75-year-olds cycling around with their newspaper clamped on their rear rack, a beret on their head, and a pipe in their mouth. Literally, there’s a guy in the neighbourhood who does this.

Tell me, what do you want to know about living here?

PS – I wrote about how we’ve changed since moving to Germany, and if you’re moving abroad, there are a few things you can do to hold on to your sanity

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Things I love: Bandbox bike helmets

Things I love: Bandbox bike helmets

Bike helmets. I know lots of people don’t like them, question their efficacy, and chafe against helmet laws. And while I appreciate how annoying they can be, I have also known a couple people who have avoided serious brain injury by wearing one. When you have a child and ride with them a lot, it is just easier to wear one than constantly argue about why they have to and why you don’t.

Bandbox bike helmet with beret cover
Bandbox bike helmet with beret cover

So – I’m going to wear a helmet, why not find a way not to hate it?

Bandbox is a small millinery/helmeterie (?) based on the east coast of the United States, and they make beautiful custom covers that fit over their bike helmets. I had been lusting over them for awhile, but let myself be deterred by cranky people on the Internet saying they looked weird. Why do I listen to these people? I will never know.

Bandbox bike helmet sporting their Hollywood helmet cover.

This is how it works:

You buy one helmet, and choose the strap colour that will blend in best with your skin or hair colour. Then, choose a cover, or covers. I have four covers for my helmet: a winter felt cloche, a wide brim blue straw hat with a big pink flower, a smaller brim black straw hat, and a black wool beret. I change them depending on what I’m wearing, or what the weather is like.

Changing hat covers is easy. Inside the hat is a drawstring-like arrangement, you just undo the cord and pop off your cover.

Bandbox bike helmet with their Louisville helmet cover and my own lily of the valley floral trimmings.
Bandbox bike helmet with their Louisville helmet cover and my own lily of the valley floral trimmings.

I love my Bandbox helmets, but the main downside is the cost. A helmet and cover will set you back 150 USD, and the covers on their own run from 50 – 80 USD. I started out with one summer and one winter cover, and only invested in two more a year later. Of course, once you own the helmet, you’re good. Could you just buy a big hat and put it on there…? Well, not really. I think you would need some millinery skills to fit it to the helmet, and affix the drawstring arrangement properly. The covers are all handmade.

For me, as someone who cycles every day and wears a helmet every day, I feel like my lovely helmet that looks like a hat was worth it.

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