Personality over Perfection: How I Fell in Love with a Hotel

Opposite one of the main railway stations in the Midlands stands an hotel which has been there since the mid-19th century.  Built to resemble an Elizabethan manor house, there is a certain sense of elegance about the structure, which is probably what makes it an attractive option when considering where to book a room for the night.  It’s also incredibly affordable, particularly at a time when even the most basic accommodation can usually set you back about £70 a night, if you’re lucky!

There’s a saying in life that you only get what you pay for, and the first time I stayed in this hotel, last year – a last minute decision to assist with the logistics of a short stay in the area – I left feeling like I shouldn’t have paid anything at all.  A catalogue of perceived calamities – all occurring within the relatively short timescales of an overnight stay – meant I went away completely understanding why three quarters of its reviews are rated either average, poor, or terrible.

But, there’s also a saying in life that everybody deserves a second chance, and I pretty much believe that’s a sentiment that should be extended to services as well as people, when possible.  So – with a new need to stay in the area, and an even smaller budget to play with this time round – I decided to give it another go.  At £40 a night, I would have been stupid not to, and this time round, I even convinced a couple of friends to come with me.

I told them all about the aforementioned catalogue of calamities observed during the first stay, in 2017 – the uncomfortable beds, the feeble running water, the way the carpet changed to a completely different design halfway up the grand staircase, and the way the rooms were so dated, that the welcome booklets contained explanations about where to locate the nearest cigarette machines (banned from England in 2011).  I also told the tale of the unenthused barmaid, who had kept finding reasons to disappear whilst on duty, and failed to answer a simple question about whether or not we could buy a bottle of wine to take away with any sense of certainty, interest or even – dare I say it – intonation:

“Ah don’t kner. Nerbody has ever assked me that”

What felt like an eternity then passed before I realised that she had no plans to elaborate on her ‘answer’.

“Well, is it something we could find out?”

“Ah’ll have to ask the manager”, she concluded, before disappearing for another fifteen minutes, whilst no doubt making great efforts to succeed at her quest for a resolution to our query.  Eventually we were permitted to take the drink away, but not before noticing that the bottle was covered in dust and was probably as old as the building itself.

Regaling the stories this time round I was asked why I would choose to stay there again and – much like the barmaid I suppose – I struggled to give a clear answer.  I didn’t dislike the hotel by any means, I just found the whole place incredibly bizarre, and yet so alluringly intriguing.  And now I had a reason to stay there again, and I leapt upon it.

When we arrived for stay number two my friend vocalised positive first impressions as we walked in through the grand porch entrance.  The receptionist – a middle aged lady with a messy bun in her hair (not that I’m judging as I often sport the same fashion myself) – was ensconced in conversation with her colleague about how much work she had done that day, and almost seemed to forget that she was still on duty.  She dealt with my friends’ booking and I checked-in with her colleague.

A young girl approached the counter behind us, to ask what time last orders was that night.  It turned out that she was the the current barmaid, and she clearly wasn’t enjoying her job very much, as she seemed very keen on calling them sooner rather than later.

“Make it 11pm” her colleague said, before issuing with me with my key, the flimsy, plastic sort you would normally use to lock an old filing cabinet with.  It wouldn’t have surprised me if it actually did unlock a filing cabinet somewhere within building, probably the one containing all the customer booking invoices from 1973.

“You’re in Room 102”, he said, nudging the key across the reception desk, “turn left as you go up the stairs”.

My friends were staying in Room 100, and so when we saw the sign for rooms 100 – 105 we felt pretty pleased to think that – despite booking several days apart – our rooms were so close together.  Not so.

After dropping my pals off in Room 100, I continued along the corridor to where Room 102 should have been, but alas, it was not there.  Room 101 was.  As were rooms 103, 104 and 105.  But not mine.

“Great, I booked a room that doesn’t exist, no wonder it was so cheap!” I thought to myself, before turning back and double-checking to see whether I’d missed it.  After a bit of wandering, and some help from my friends, we found a sign round the corner that pointed the way to Room 102 specifically, and when we finally found it, it was situated between Room 120 and Room 121.

Of course.

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We could only deduce that whoever designed the building had not been able to count, and then proceeded downstairs towards the bar.

The young barmaid was stood slouched with a facial expression that suggested she had recently swallowed an anchor, and was feeling compelled to call last orders seventeen minutes before the time she had been advised to by her colleague.  We went up to place our orders in the nick of time.  One of my friends asked for a pint of beer and got a half pint of beer and a half pint of froth.  “Ah joost need to let it settle”, said the barmaid, leaping upon an excuse to not have to do anything and disappear from duty for ten minutes, to god knows where.  A sense of deja vu came over me, and I immediately identified who her mentor must have been when she started employment there.

guinness

Once we got all our drinks, and questioning – but being in no mood to challenge – how much we had been charged, we took a seat and noticed a pool table next to us.  We fancied a quick game, but didn’t quite have the right change.

“Excuse me, would you mind changing these coins into a fifty pence piece so that we can play pool?”, I asked Waspy at the bar, in as polite a tone as possible to avoid having a dimpled-glass beer tankard launched at my face.

“No I can’t because bar’s clerzin’ and ya need to go into the lounge now” she said, without any slight hint of regret, eye contact, or diction.  In fact, if she’d had a giant broom to hand I’d have easily imagined her sweeping us along into the lounge, next door, so that she could fetch her things from the cloakroom and head out to meet her Tinder date.  Or whatever important thing she had lined-up for afterwards that made her so keen to end her shift.

My friends and I went to the lounge, as instructed, and took a seat on some black leather sofas, the crevices of which you half expected to find some shriveled up peas from the two for £5 mains special, or a piece of melted chocolate Digestive.  I’m sure you know the kind of sofa I mean – you normally see them against the decrepit custard yellow walls of taxi ranks, or on somebody’s front lawn awaiting collection by the rag and bone man – early ’00’s furnishings that just couldn’t stand the test of time and now feel like sitting on giant cushions of spilled cider and black, and regret.  Yeah, those.

Once we’d finished up our drinks we considered heading out to explore a bit more of the town, and maybe see if there was a place for one final refreshment.  We asked the chap at the Reception desk for any ideas of where we could go:

“There’s not mooch around here to be honest, flower” he said, with an unmistakable Midlands tone, “you’d be better off staying for our night bar” which – he explained – was basically when they keep the lights turned off in the bar except for when staff go in to pour drinks.  We were asked to remain in the lounge area, where a couple sat with some enthusiastic young children who wanted us to join in their game of football, whilst our drinks were being poured.

A grand piano sat on tired looking carpet in the corridor just outside the room and I’m afraid I couldn’t resist the urge to stroke the keys and bust out my inner Mozart… except that this was difficult to do, as the piano was sadly broken, with the lid jammed half-shut.  Without wishing for this to sound like a scene from a blue movie, but uncertain how to phrase it any other way, a wine-influenced version of myself managed to poke my fingers in and play a bum note or two in as melodic a fashion as possible.  Before too long, however, a member of staff advised me that there had been complaints from the bedroom above, and asked that I desist with my musical masterpiece immediately.  Alas, my modern incarnation of Symphony No. 40 was not able to reverberate around the confines of the hotel on that particular night after-all.

I’m possibly not painting the most amazing image of this hotel, but I’m being completely honest when I say I love it, and people like Paul are amongst the reasons why.

Paul – you see – was the senior staff member on duty that night, and the one who had taken to giving us botanical pet names like “flower”.  A tall, silver-haired chap in his early fifties, Paul was the kind of person you’d imagine showing up to an extended family Summer barbeque with a bottle of Tia Maria and some Ferrero Rocher.  He’d be the one keeping an eye on the burgers every time chef went to the loo, and geeing everyone up to have a go at the pinata.  In other words, he seemed to be the sort to know how to please a large swathe of people, and that’s exactly the kind of person you want to come across when staying away from home.

After serving us drinks from the night bar, Paul explained that the hotel had been very busy hosting weddings in recent weeks, and offered to give us a sneak preview of the function room they had spent the day decorating in preparation for a Harry Potter themed service due to take place the following afternoon.  “If you’d ‘ave seen this place a week ago you wouldn’t have recognised it” he started to explain, “the lasst lot that were celebrairtin’ a wedding in ‘ere completely trashed the plairce.  It took us a whole dair to clear it oop”.

Paul was such a sweet, friendly chap that you couldn’t help but feel incredibly sympathetic at this point.  He went on, “We’re not the most modern of places and ya see them writin’ their reviews on Trip Advisor, complairnin’ about the lack of air-con – they forget we’re over a hoondred years old, and that we’re a lot cheapuh than oother plairces they could stair”.

And you know what?  He was exactly right.

As Paul continued to delve into the history of the building, he told us interesting facts and showed us interesting features that most visitors probably don’t give themselves the opportunity to see.  All the whilst they’re busy complaining that the tiny television screen impedes their ability to see the weather conditions anticipated for at home in Maidenhead next Wednesday, they’re missing out on the things that make up for it.

The more Paul spoke about and showed us, the more I began to realise that I liked this hotel a whole lot more than I had initially thought.  It had a character to it that I now knew to be the thing which had ultimately brought me back for a second stay, and it wasn’t letting me down.

In my last blog post, I explained how the ease with which we can ‘perfect’ images completely negates the true value of a genuinely impressive photograph.  With this hotel I find myself thinking something similar.  Have we become so conditioned to believe everything should be flawless, that we immediately dismiss the value of those which don’t – on the surface at least – look as great?  The quirks of this hotel were the thing I loved about it the most, even being able to see the funny side of having a room that overlooked nothing but a bunch of vents and styrofoam take-out containers that no doubt once contained a portion of cheesy chips:

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For various reasons I have needed to stay in a number of English hotels over the past couple of years.  Most of them have been very nice, with crisp bed-sheets, sleek customer service and breakfast menus that would make Dr Gillian McKeith yelp with glee about the responsible amount of nutritional balance on offer.  The problem is, I can’t tell you anything else about those places.  They were nice enough, there was just nothing really that memorable about them.

But, I can tell you tonnes about this hotel – which I have purposely decided not to name throughout this article – but which for me represents everything that an overnight stay in a different part of the country should be all about:  The clutter of Edwardian furniture that’s seen better days.  The sachets of freeze-dried coffee you enjoy with your 2am bath.  The variety of staff attitudes on display.  The trouser press affixed to the wall, the purpose of which you’re unable to explain to a Brazilian friend…

trouser pressAnyone ever actually made use of these since 1989?

…You don’t stay here because you’re looking for a luxurious base from which to send a postcard, you stay here for the experience, and because you know that the money you’ve saved by compromising a bit of comfort can be better spent on a nice lunch out the following day, or a new colander.

One of my favourite contemporary creatives – a lady called Mari Andrew, famed for her Instagram depictions of modern day life – once wrote that if you’re going to be an artist, or anything else where you seek to provide things others can enjoy, you should strive to be more like whisky than water.  Everybody likes water whereas far fewer people like whisky, she reasons, but there are far more die-hard fans of whisky than there are of water.  Nobody treks hundreds of miles to remote Scottish distilleries for a bottle of Evian, but they would for whisky, because it’s different.

This hotel is definitely whisky, and it has me ordering it by the gallon… well I would be, if the barmaid hadn’t disappeared for the fifth time this evening…

Song of the Day:  Alligatoah – Es Ist Noch Suppe Da (There is still some soup left)

Listening is believing when it comes to this one – German hip-hop which samples a song from some kids tv show in the ’60’s.

I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here, but Spotify recently seemed to think I’d like it, and it was bloody well right.

An Afternoon in the Great West

It’s a balmy Friday afternoon in May, the weekend of the first Bank Holiday of the year, and I’m sat on board a Great Western Railway train at Paddington, waiting to depart for the long journey down to Cornwall, the southernmost tip of the UK.

I’m content because I have my snacks, my notebook, my MP3 player, my train wine and most importantly – my seat.  Had I not booked the tickets in advance, this would not have been guaranteed, and as the carriage becomes increasingly busier with the bank holiday rush I have to say an internal grace to good old Trainline.com.  Not only am I – and everybody else who’s seated –  the envy of the masses who are having to stand awkwardly in the aisles, but they took on board (get it?) that little tick I put on the booking form about preferring a window seat.  That almost never really happens.

A young, smartly dressed gentleman asks if he can sit at the seat next to me, just until Reading, from which point it has apparently been reserved by somebody else, according to the little ticket sticking out of the headrest.  Obviously I say yes, and have a giggle to myself about how quintessentially British that brief exchange was; we ask for permission to sit at seats as though the passenger next to them owns them, or brought them in from home.  I have never before wondered why we do this, and cannot think of the reason even now.  It’s not like we can really say no.

Mind you.

Mind you…

As the smart young gentleman suddenly produces a Tupperware of what can only be described as an acrid-smelling food stuff of some dreadful orange mushy sort I begin to wish that I had made up a fib about having an acquaintance who had “just nipped to the loo” when asked about the empty seat.  My nostrils are being completely violated by his lunch, and as the train meanders through West London suburbia I begin to count down the minutes until Reading, and am aghast at just how bottomless the content in the Tupperware appears to be.  I know those things can hold a lot, but sacre bleu!  The mound of mush is just not getting any smaller!

My heart reaches a lofty level of delight never previously encountered when we finally arrive at Reading, and a lady who looks like she should have taught me English Literature in the late 1990’s approaches row 35 and finally displaces the man with the smelly food.  This lady seems far more easygoing a train buddy, for all that she has to whip out of her bag is not a Tupperware of vomit but a book about Queen Boudica, complete with laminated bookmark that has a calendar printed on it.  Fortunately, bookmarks don’t really have a scent and I am able to continue gazing out the window without any further nasal disruption, as she quietly enjoys her book.

I didn’t research this train journey prior to making it so am largely unaware of the route, but slowly I begin to recognise the names of places we pass through, and gather that we are in Somerset.  The scenery – a sprawling patchwork of greens and yellows – is expansive and synonymous with what I would have always imagined it to look like.  A mum and her young son, in matching wellies, wave at us from an allotment as planes leave their cloudy trails in the skies above.  The lady next to me takes a break from her book to finish off a packet of M&S mature cheddar and red onion crisps and then – to my awe – produces a Wet Wipe to clean the crisp dust from her fingers.  “WET WIPES FOR CRISPS?! How incredibly organised!”, I think to myself, recollecting all the times I’ve eaten crisps on a train and never been quite as responsible.  If you should find Frazzle dust on your seat next time you travel with South Eastern then that would be my lethargy at play and for this I apologise.

The clouds pick up and the grey skies begin to contrast with the acidic yellows of the rapeseed in such a way that it seems reminiscent of what is a fashionable colour scheme in contemporary kitchens and living rooms.  We pass a cricket field somewhere in the Taunton area that represents just one of many that we will pass by on this journey, and when we stop at the station there, the main observation will be that almost all of the women on the platform are wearing a floral top.

The population of the train increases by about a third at Taunton, and in a carriage that was already busy enough it goes without saying that there is to be an issue with the seats.  A lady who has just joined us squabbles with the girl in the row behind me about who should be sitting where and for the first time on this trip, I begin to pick up on that West Country dialect so long associated with this part of the country:                                

“Aye think yerr sittin’ in may seat”

That curving accent and visions of pink sunsets over freshly harvested fields are pretty much all I knew of Somerset before making this journey, and, well, remain all I know of it now.  Cider too I guess.  Apples and all that jazz (jazz apple. Ho ho).

harvest(Image taken from Miriadna.com)

Before too long, the train is stopping at Tiverton, Devon.  Lots of people seem to disembark here and so I conclude that there must be lots of Activerton this weekend.

…One of the few setbacks of traveling alone is that there is no audience for any dreadful puns you may concoct in response to funny place names, so I log it in my notebook, and vow to include it in my write-up instead, where even then I will probably remain the only person amused by it.

The landscape of the Devon that runs alongside the railway line reminds me of something from Postman Pat, with all its hills, single-track roads, and perfectly-rounded red brick footbridges that cross over the line.  Absorbing all of this beauty, I start to question Kent’s usually undisputed status of the Garden of England.  Right now, Devon is giving that title a run for its money, and its endearing sequence of streams and rivers are almost starting to give it the lead.  My eyes are loving everything they’re seeing right now, especially the sheep roaming around happily on the hillsides.  As fields go, I bet they’re happy they live on these ones.

Civilisation resurrects itself when we stop at Exeter St David’s, a station that hosts all the hustle and bustle on the platforms that you would expect from a University city.  Commuters scroll through their phones as they stand waiting for their trains, and Pumpkin’s double doors swing back and forth in time with needforcaffeine related emergencies.  On the walls of a nearby pavilion building, somebody has spray-painted the words, ‘Devon Knows’ in bright yellow.  A later Google search will tell me that this particular piece of graffiti was commissioned by Exeter City Council a few years’ ago, and pays homage to Ambrosia custard, as well as a couple of other things that perhaps only locals will appreciate.  I only understand the custard part, but it’s amusing enough.

Powderham Castle comes into view to our right as we head south towards the coast, in parallel with the marshy banks of the River Exe.  The castle grounds are speckled with large oak trees that immediately conjure up images of our ancestors galloping to battle on horseback in heavy winds.  I have absolutely no idea whether it was that kind of castle, but it satisfies my imagination to believe it so.

A short while later and the expanse of water within the River Exe that had been running alongside us has transformed into a full-blown sea.  This signifies that we are reaching Dawlish, and the part of the journey that many people enthusiastically encouraged me to pay particular attention to.  For several minutes, all you can see out of the left hand side of the train is the sea, and it’s pretty impressive.  This is the part of the UK that you have no doubt seen on the news during periods of heavy rain and flooding, for back in February 2014 much of the track was swept away in the storms, requiring significant levels of repair that virtually annexed this part of Britain from the rest of it.

Dawlish                                                 (Picture from official Met Office site)

We are rattling through the stations now.  As one of the main modes of transport down here in the South West, the stops are becoming more inclusive, taking in places like Newton Abbot, which seems to be a popular place for people to get off, and Totnes.  Amongst our travels round here we go past a miniature platform for the South Devon railway.  It’s decorated in bunting, a telltale sign of a quaint English visitor attraction, and there’s a steam engine nearby too no doubt.

The carriage is full of activity.  The lady next to me (not the probable English teacher.  She and her Boudica book got off at Newton Abbot and her seat was swiftly re-occupied) asks me if I know in which carriage she can find the buffet cart.  The man in front of us overhears, and tells us it’s out of stock anyway.  It seems that this really is a much busier service than usual.  Clearly everybody else here is also looking for a sunny weekend break with an ice-cream.  In the meantime, two pals from the University Rugby Club (a massive assumption, I admit) bump into one another unexpectedly in the aisle, and say hello with shoulder slaps so hard it’s a miracle that neither of them will alight the train with a dislocated scapula.  I gather they haven’t seen one another in a while.

As we approach Plymouth, my nostrils are overcome with an intensity of scent not felt since vomit-in-Tupperware guy, who by now – as we enter what must be the 3rd or 4th hour of the journey – seems like a feature of a previous century.  Instead all I can smell now is a mass of waterproof jackets that have probably spent the past Winter in the confines of damp, under-stair cupboards, next to boxes of spare washing powder and kitty litter.  It’s not an unpleasant odour by any means, more the smell of childhood holidays and the outdoors; and cottages you might have once rented by the sea that were furnished with worn-leather armchairs in shades of deep maroon.  We’ve all stayed somewhere like that at some point, I’m sure.  We took our buckets and spades but it ended up raining every day so we stayed in a lot watching the likes of Casualty and This Is Your Life whilst mum struggled to work out how to light the hob in order to heat up a tin of soup that nobody was expecting to eat.  We all know that smell.

Plymouth is a city of varying gradients; and so the slate grey roofs – from certain angles – are a little akin to the scales of freshwater fish… or the brushed up sequins of a dodgy silver skirt; either or.  There’s a particular street just after the suspension bridge at Saltash that makes my legs hurt just looking at it, in fact it would probably be a miracle if no parked cars had ever rolled down and submerged into the River Tamar!  I’m glad that Kent is comparatively flat by these standards.  I’m also delighted that I don’t live on a hill, and vow never to do so.  I can’t bear to imagine a life in which the daily walk from the doorstep to the local shop requires copious amounts of Lucozade and Kendal Mint Cake, fair play to those who manage that.  You’re good.  Really good.

It’s difficult to distinguish the point of the Devon/Cornwall border, but when the conductor announces our impending arrival at Liskeard we can gather that we must have passed it.  Where my ignorance of Somerset meant my understanding transcended little beyond accents and combine harvesters, my ignorance of Cornwall is probably even greater.  To me – right now – it’s a place full of beautiful beaches and Kelly’s ice cream that seems to have a language of its own, made up of words that all have ten thousand syllables and begin with the letters TRE.  I don’t quite know why.  Other than that, I am Cornish-ly clueless.

“Liskearde – for trains to Looe”  reads the sign at the station.  I could do with being at Looe right now after this whopper of a rail journey, but you can never be entirely sure what you’re sitting in when you use the on-board facilities so I’ve held off…

(There we go with another dreadful joke that nobody was around to hear at point of origin)

I’m very excited to finally be in Cornwall and satisfying the frequent hunger to visit new places.  Several people have told me that everything changes once you reach this county.  They speak of a single road that seems to serve the whole area, and now I guess they were probably talking about the A30.  There are certainly no motorways in these parts, and whereas in Kent (that ‘Garden of England’ remember) many of us are sandwiched between the M2 and M20, the nearest motorway to Cornwall is the M5, last seen way back in Exeter, some sixty miles away.  Now there’s a sign that you’re truly out in the sticks.

The next stop is Bodmin Parkway, which proudly proclaims itself a part of the Bodmin and Wenford Railway.  Bodmin became famous in the 1970’s when there were several reported sightings of an unusual panther-type creature (‘the Beast of Bodmin’) roaming around the area.  The case was never truly resolved, though the most likely explanation is that the creatures were pumas set free by animal trainer Mary Chipperfield upon the closure of Plymouth Zoo in 1978.   I highly doubt the Beast of Bodmin still exists, but it adds interest to the visit, and it makes it more fun to imagine that the ‘person’ who’s just got on the train will suddenly open their trench coat to reveal four legs and a body of thick, black fur.

‘Lostwithiel’ is one of the final stops of my journey.  Lost with what now?!  In my head, I assume that this is probably one of those regional words pronounced completely differently to how it looks phonetically, and with that, the train departs the place I will personally refer to – rightly or wrongly – as ‘Lozule’ forevermore.  I’ll remember it as the place with the beautiful barn conversions that sit between the railway line and the river behind them, that gave me considerable amounts of home-envy.

With only a further twenty minutes to go of my journey it is around this point that I decide to pack my notebook away and spend the final part of the ride sitting back and gazing out at this unfamiliar land.  It’s approaching 7pm and having got on this train at 2pm I’m feeling somewhat numb and ready for a pint of holiday Doom Bar by the harbour with my friend.

I go to bed later on thinking about all the places I’ve seen, and remember why I always prefer to travel by rail or road if I can.  The beauty of longer-distance journeys is seeing how the landscape unfurls with each mile that passes by.  A plane would have got me here much quicker, but I’d have only seen the clouds and smelt the choking mixture of fragrances on sale at the Duty Free.  In all honesty, I think I’d rather have smelt a pungent Tupperware and seen the sea, a dozen cricket grounds, and a bunch of happy sheep…

I won’t forget this journey.

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Song of the Day: BOAN – Babylon

BOAN are an American synth-pop duo who released this song about 5 years ago.  I have only just discovered it.  Good song to drive to.

 

 

The Indonesian Effect: Eight Years On

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For about the first year after returning I could think of nothing else.  Indonesia had gripped my heart and I tried to create any opportunity to bring a small part of it to the UK.  I would go to the local oriental grocers and stock up on imported Indomie noodles with which to make nasi goreng, order Indonesian films from the internet, and read books written by the 19th century explorer, Alfred Wallace, who had traversed the islands collecting the skins of exotic birds.  I would get cross anytime people mistakenly proclaimed that the likes of batik and satay sauce originated from Malaysia, and filled many notebooks with countless graphic accounts of what had happened out there so that I would never forget a thing.  No encounter.  No scent.  No awkward occasion of getting lost in translation. No entertaining bus journey.  I would forget nothing and kill no memory.

I was desperate to go back, and so I did go back – twice – but never to Padang, where I had stayed whilst volunteering.  Instead I went only to Jakarta, the capital, which was far less enchanting a place but which was home to several of the good friends I’d made.  After graduating, very few of them stayed in West Sumatra.  These were among some of the most determined and ambitious people I’d ever get to meet and they were keen to evolve from the humble lifestyle of rural homes to lucrative careers in finance, working in the country’s biggest and most modern buildings.  And that’s where they are now.

Catching up now is not the same as the original experience.  Of course it wouldn’t be; life changes and it changes fast.  Nowadays they tell me about their marriages and their children and the relatives I met who have since passed away, like the sweet old man who came to pick me up from Padang airport as I arrived into the country dazed and sweating my jeans off in May 2010.  They ask me whether I am married and I remember the tip from my guidebook that advised me to say “Not yet” as opposed to just, “No”.  It is very surprising to them; not because they think I am a prize catch but because over there, everybody gets married.  And they don’t hang about to do so either.

Whilst gossiping with a friend in front of a mosque one warm evening in 2015 – when I last visited Indonesia – she told me about her new boyfriend.  “We will marriage soon” she declared, “and then we will be able to sex”.  It reminded me of a conversation I had had with her five years earlier as we sat on the cool tiles of a classroom floor waiting for an Earthquake project meeting to start:  “Kak Sophie, do you kissing boyfriend with tongue? How does it feel?  Kak Sophie, what about sex?”.  Fortunately, she inadvertently timed her question with the moment that the meeting got underway and I remember feeling silently relieved that an answer was now redundant.  She has since married and had a child; so will at least know now the answer to her own question, and perhaps when we next meet, I’ll be asking her what childbirth felt like.

I am not being hyperbolic or mawkish when I state that Indonesia changed my life.  I said it countless times during that initial year after, when each and every day I would experience an intense longing to return.  Every time I bought those noodles or ignored the story lines of the Indonesian films in order to focus on observing the scenery I was trying to satisfy a need to go back that was emotionally hard to manage and was stopping me from feeling happy.  I was miserable because I didn’t want to be in England, but the truth is I probably did, I just wasn’t doing myself the favour of living in the present.  I taught myself some Bahasa Indonesia and dreamt of working in the charitable sector doing a job where I could help develop the part of the world I had fallen in love with.

Whilst I was away, I went from being somebody who didn’t really know what they wanted out of life to somebody who absolutely did.  I was able to identify the things that meant the most to me and conjure up plans on what I would do to keep those things present in my day to day life.  I knew I needed a career that wasn’t about money but about daily meaning and purpose.  I knew I needed to keep writing because it made me happy, and I knew that I needed to keep exposing myself to new things because it tantalised me.  Prior to Indonesia, I knew none of those things about myself, and that scares me.

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The perverse thing is that these days I no longer have that same burning desire to go back.  Well, I do, but it’s an occasional desire to go back to the moment, not necessarily the place, and such an opportunity is – and always will be – impossible.  I am still in touch with my friends, though nowhere near as often as once was.  A birthday message here and there, the odd ‘Memory’ flashing up on Facebook, congratulating them when I see they have a new addition in the family.  It’s a world away from those deep conversations about life and dreams on the beach at night whilst eating barbecued corn, watching the moon shimmer on the surface of the Indian ocean.  When paths cross – which they fortunately do every now and then – we get together and reminisce, usually over a coffee or dessert, before we bid one another goodbye again, and that tends to be it.  But that’s fine.

It’s fine because no matter how occasional the contact, and no matter how much things change, nothing can interfere with the memories or the moment.  Nothing will change the fact that one day we had to wade through a rice paddy because our Leader knew of ‘a shortcut to campus’ that turned out not be a shortcut.  Nothing will change the time my host sister and I spent a whole bus journey home laughing together about two (unknowingly) different interpretations of the same sight.  Nothing will change the fact that one afternoon a group of us spent hours in the river in our t-shirts and shorts, or the way that when we started walking home one of the girls realised I didn’t have a bra on underneath my shirt.  Nothing can change the way she then asked a lady living nearby if I could get changed in her hut, next to her little baby who stared at me wide-eyed as I started to undress, in a situation awkward for both of us.  Nothing can change any of those things; but even putting the same people in the same places we would not be able to replicate those moments.  Our lives have changed too much for that, and the river that we once bathed in has since disappeared from the landscape completely owing to natural disaster.

Every now and then something might trigger the memories rushing back.  Bollywood songs like ‘Maahi Ve’ – though not Indonesian, but popular within its pastimes – will evoke graphic images of colourful wedding parties and the taste of luminous green pandan cake.  Sweetened black tea makes me think of waking up to Equatorial heat and having a plate of noodles topped with a fried egg for breakfast.  There will be fleeting sounds that remind me of extremely loud television sets with fuzzy screens blasting fast Indonesian speech into the dark evening air, or waking up to the sound of prayer as it reverberates around the neighbourhood from the nearest mosque.  And when the memories come back, so do the feelings.  All of them: The initial uneasiness, the awe,  the laughter, the paranoia that comes as part of spending time with strangers, but above all that feeling of “wow” that is so hard to define.  The thrill of being thousands of miles away from your comfort zone and realising that – even though it may not be easy – you’re coping.

Nothing will ever interfere with that, the Indonesian effect will always be there.

But I’m glad I think about and miss it less, because I will only ever be able to travel back to the place, not the moment.

IndonesiastrawberrryFriends Reunited – 2015

Song of the Day:  D’Bagindas – Apa Yang Terjadi

One of the few things to be the same in each of my three visits is the popularity of this band and songs like this that are played everywhere, and I mean everywhere.  In homes.  In restaurants. On buses.  At market stalls…

 

Melburnian Coffee

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To tell you the name of this street would be ruining it for the both of us, not that I even know its name, mind.  I suppose I could take a look for a sign of some sorts, but there’s a special feel to this place that makes the thought of turning it into just another thing we can reference on the internet somewhat unappetising.  I’m not sure I want this location to be something else we can process and place into a systematic order of some mundane variety, like a map…

…So let’s just leave the context as a tiny back street in central Melbourne which is decorated in a range of interesting graffiti and art, not far from the prominent Flinders Street.  I discovered it accidentally whilst trying to find a sweet looking spot for some coffee, and am now sat on a wonky stool on the pavement with my notebook out.  Perfecto.

Nosing at the graffiti it begins to stagger me how when it comes to street art like this, we seldom see it until it’s complete.  Until it’s done.  Finished. We are left wondering who imprinted these images upon these walls, and what thoughts were going through their minds when they decided that they wanted to put them here?  What are the messages they were trying to get across to those passers by, and those who wanted to sit on the other side of the road drinking coffee?

Just as I find myself starting to get a bit deep, I’m distracted by the overwhelming smell of cardamom.  In this particular moment it comes across as an unmistakable sign of being abroad, much like how the skies over the CBD match the metallic greys of the skyscrapers which penetrate its landscape, yet the air remains so hot and humid.  Typical Southern hemisphere city.

The Hispanic cafe owner approaches my table and pierces the bubble of solitude that has encased me for the past hour whilst I’ve been lost in my notebook by serving up a warm pastry and explaining that it’s on the house.  Time alone in a city comprises of a staggered sequence of the briefest of interactions, to the point where they become the subject of a closer focus.  This was one of today’s more pleasant ones. Earlier on, whilst walking north along Swanston Street, a lady had tapped me on the shoulder to tell me that my dress was tucked up at the back.  Mortified, all I could think to do was stutter out the fastest of thank you’s, avoid eye contact, and fixate madly upon a menu on display in the window of a nearby dim sum cafe in an attempt to hide my face and compose myself.  Why do these things always happen when we’re alone!

That said, I doubt anybody really noticed or cared anyway.  That’s the mistake that we’re all guilty of making sometimes.  We assume that we attract an audience whenever we slip up but the truth is that everybody’s probably too busy dealing with their own dramas to even have seen, let alone care.  People are too busy thinking about what to have for dinner, or the wording they should use in a text message they’re apprehensive about sending.

The older I become the more I understand that worrying about what others think is a bit like having a vaccination to protect you from contracting a disease.  A shot of Hepatitis into our system will help our immune system to fight off a more prolific onslaught of the stuff, should we become infected.  A small fragment of worrying about what people think helps us to become self-aware and identify the impact our actions can have on others, and that’s a very valuable thing, but if you worry too much, it can be pretty dangerous.

As I think about this, the street art catches my eye again, and I find myself considering these mystery artists with even more respect than I did when I first set foot down this street and admired the talents on display.

This recollection, over coffee, of the time I unknowingly flashed the people of Melbourne because my dress had caught onto my bag suddenly seems to be not too dissimilar to the time when these artists imprinted their hearts and souls onto a brick wall here in the city centre, on display for a thousand sets of eyes to cast judgment upon.  In the act of expressing themselves, they knew that a lot of people would love their work.  They also knew a lot of people would hate it and, most certainly, they knew that not everybody would understand it in the way it was intended.  But, there the images are anyway, unable to conceal themselves in the window of a dim sum restaurant in the event of shame, unlike me.

And the other beauty?  Everybody will find a different meaning within these images, and everybody will have their own personal favourite.  Everybody will walk away thinking about what they’ve been looking at and considering the messages within…

A lady with a big yellow umbrella leads a group of tourists around a corner and into the street.  “And so this street is….” she begins to explain.  I close my ears because I don’t want to hear.

Sometimes it’s nice to just not know.

It’s time to go and meet my friend at the station.

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Song of the Day: Amanda Palmer – Map of Tasmania

Amanda Palmer is best known for being the front lady for the Dresden Dolls, but as part of her solo work she produced an entire album of songs about Australia.  This is my favourite.  For many months I genuinely thought this was a song about her fondness for a navigational device.  It’s not.  At all.  See if you get it quicker than I did…

Das Dunia J’Adore pt.1

.(“The World I Love”)

‘Indonesia’ – a name that will immediately evoke images of the exotic.  An archipelago characterised by colour: blue seas, white sands, lush green palms and dazzling yellows of Durian flesh alongside the ravishing reds of the ‘rambutan’ fruit (it means ‘hairy fruit’).  ‘Angkots’ painted in bright purples, blues and oranges that zip dozens of huddled passengers round dusty streets blaring out that same old  D’Bagindas album from 2010 through speakers that crackle under the pressure of the driver’s desired volume…

…And the ominous dark grey skies that hang over the nation’s capital, Jakarta, as I sit alone inside a fast-food outlet at Arion Mall in the east of the city.  Outside, the rain hammers down on traffic that will choke up the streets for hours to come, but the inevitable arrangement of horns thankfully cannot be heard from the refuge provided by this Mall.  Instead, I am heckled by a quartet of teenage girls who marvel at the colour of my skin.  Tourists don’t really come to these parts.  I am here visiting friends who grew up in neighbourhoods not far from here, and if it weren’t for them, I doubt I would have come here either.

The young girls ask me a series of questions and take it in turns to pose with me in a picture.  Picture after picture.  The forced smile slowly dwindling into complete lack of expression with each flash from the Blackberry.  I have humoured this contact for a while, but now I really just want to be finishing the half-eaten plate of fried chicken that sits before me.  The girls ask for my Instagram username and when I eventually return to a place with WiFi I’ll suddenly see that I have four new followers.  They’ll upload the photos from our meeting and decorate the captions with #foreigner.

Before I leave the Mall, I decide that it’s time to buy some Batik garments.  I have always liked Batik, with its bright, bold colours and patterns.  An assistant with a huge smile approaches me.  He is wearing a waistcoat and looks like he could be about to break into song, maybe an Indonesian version of Agadoo or something.  “Hello Miiiiss, can I help you?”.

(How did he guess I wasn’t Indonesian?)

I immediately reply in basic and broken yet better-than-nothing Bahasa Indonesian that, “I like Batik.  I look for Batik”

The assistant’s smile extends further and he begins to rifle through the collections passing me every damn item of Batik to try on.  He’s a natural salesman.  Having trialed each piece I eventually emerge from the changing rooms with the couple of dresses I have selected to go on and buy.  The assistant eagerly waits by the door, enthused to hear about how I got on.  He is pleased with the items I’ve chosen, but is also keen that I reconsider my decision not to buy a rather dreadful-looking black and red piece.  Whilst watching him redundantly point out all of its merits another dress catches my eye, and it looks like the size on display would fit me perfectly.  I go and take a further look.

“Errr maybe not this dress for you Miiiiiss as we only have this size, and errr you have fat”

For a second I take offence though it’s hard to continue to do so when it’s clear that none was meant.  What amuses me most is the way in which a steadily growing rapport could suddenly cease due to a moment of lingual naivety. I smile at my new friend – my new attentive stylist – as he goes on to initiate the payment process before we bid one another Selamat Tinggal forever.

I go out into the rain and join the traffic on the Transjakarta busway back to my friend’s house.  A five minute journey takes half an hour due to the clogged nature of the traffic.  Equatorial rule dictates that daylight is limited, and so it’s already dark outside.  It’s September 2015 and this is worlds away from the Indonesian experience of 2010 – which was much more reminiscent of the opening paragraph to this piece – but it doesn’t matter, because these real, rugged, unfiltered experiences are all just a part of Das Dunia J’adore…

Song of the Day: Jr Jr – Change My Mind

Detroit indie-pop.  This song, written and released only last month, has quite a powerful message behind it and I must admit to being somewhat awestruck upon the first listen, especially having read the artist’s personal description of what it means and where it came from.  I do wish songs like this had more prominence in the media, as this is exactly the kind of thing that people need to hear…

Short Stories from Barcelona

One of the best things about loving to write is that it’s an inexpensive hobby which can be undertaken anywhere at any time.  Just stick me on a seat somewhere with a notebook and a pen in some place where I can inhale the situation around me and exhale script, and I’m a satisfied woman.

This post is about my recent trip to Barcelona; and on this occasion I’ve strayed away from writing a general piece about the place.  Rather, I’m going to describe a couple of moments from those jotted down in my notebook.

I didn’t really know anything of Barcelona before visiting.  Many people I know had had much more familiarity with the city, and had told me various interesting snippets about it, but for me the relationship between the capital of Catalonia and I had never been personal.  Until I landed there a couple of weeks ago.

Prior to this I had only ever been able to associate it with the 1992 Olympics, and the fragmented and probably inaccurate memories of being six years old and watching a lady in a brown dress singing the famous musical namesake alongside the vocals of Freddie Mercury upon a global stage, before throwing up on a packet of Quavers (me, not the singing lady). What a legacy for a city to have held for 24 years.  I am almost ashamed…

Nonetheless, I liked what I saw of the place.  I’m not normally a big fan of cities, but the blend of different landscapes won me over:  the cobbles and the history and the beaches and the art.  Something new to see on every corner.  No rushing (having to wait for a Green Man every five seconds makes sure of that), and having time to write…

So herewith, a few short stories from my trip…

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A Trip to El Carmel

With a train ticket for which I can claim ten individual journeys for 10 Euros, and with time on my hands, I look at a map of the Metro and select the most random name as somewhere to go to.  ‘El Carmel’, to the North West of Linea 5, is my station of choice.  To me, it just sounds a bit nobby.  Like ‘caramel‘.  I immediately envision a bunch of happy commuters heading to El Carmel for some molten toffee related joy.  It won’t be anything like that, I know, but to me it looks out the way enough to host something that may be interesting.

It takes a fair few attempts to get to El Carmel.  Three, to be blunt.  The curse of not understanding Spanish instruction mean that I go back on myself three times before reaching my destination.  El Carmel is pretty nothingey to be honest, just a steep street of very little beyond a couple of quiet taverns that don’t seem to have had their exteriors refurbished since the 1980’s.  But this is far from a wasted journey.  For me, it’s just nice to get away from the tourists, especially your stereotypical group of loud Brits that you always encounter abroad – the ones who you so often overhear swearing about this, moaning about that, always expecting something for nothing and wondering why nobody understands them when they reel off complex English to natives.  That’s one of the reasons I like to get off the beaten track; the other is that these random places – whilst not being aesthetically amazing – are the ones that feel more real.  They serve as authentic vignettes into the lives of what it really means to be a resident of Barcelona.  This is the cultural impression you won’t always find in the guidebooks, and it’s nice to take a moment to soak it up, even if I don’t stay long.  At all.

I’m not sure there’s a single word that may be able to define those sudden moments in which you feel at one with your surroundings… those fleeting experiences where you feel locked entirely in the present.  It’s not necessarily about being anywhere special, it’s just about being somewhere at some time where the sensations around you hit you all at once.  For me it’s on the Metro ride back from El Carmel:  The sight of the lady opposite me with a kitten on her lap.  The sound of the chirpy quintet of musical notes that inform us that we’re approaching the next station.  A passing scent of marshmallows and shower gel.  Other peoples’ legs brushing past mine as we travel during rush hour.  Just the sensation of being somewhere different.

Notes from a Cafe con Leche in Parc Montjuic

“You stupid, clumsy idiot!” I think to myself as I sit at the cafe which neighbours the Metro station for the infamous parc Montjuic, home of the Olympic stadium and Palau Nacional amongst others.

I’ve had to take an immediate pit-stop upon arrival after a carbonated drink leaked it’s entirety into my rucksack somewhere on the walk between here and Paral-lel station.
The bag is soaked so I’m hoping to air it out a little first rather than continue carrying it around on my back.

It’s the most recent in a succession of clumsy episodes I’ve perpetrated recently.  The other was failing to see the massive signage in the hostel dormitory which clearly explained which bed was which.  I slept in one which was allocated to somebody else, and didn’t realise it until the middle of the night when I was stirred by a US accent commenting that somebody was sleeping in her bed.  I felt a bit like Goldilocks (minus the decent hair and free grub, which would have been pretty welcome on my budget!)  The girl was asleep this morning so I left her a note which was embarrassing to write.  It went something like,

“Oh hi, I have realised I am completely ditzy for shit and can’t read generously sized signage, sorry for stealing your bed”

(Okay, I was a little more polite and less self-depreciating than that, but that’s what I wanted to write).

But then, holidays aren’t for deploying brain cells, I guess, even though I do feel bad for inadvertently betraying hostel etiquette.

Nevermind that, or anything else though.  I suddenly become grateful for my leaking bag, because it’s prompted me to sit and take the time to take in a pretty awesome view of the city.  An old guy who reminds me of a Spanish version of my late Uncle Ken has served me up a couple of the most delicious cafe con Leche and after an overcast morning the sun is lighting up Barcelona, and it’s time to explore.

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Rooftop Yoga Under the Light of the Moon

On the crest of a whimsical wave I decided to sign up to the free rooftop yoga session which was being offered by the hostel on a Friday evening.

It had been 5 years since I’d last tried yoga back home in Canterbury, and though I’d struggled with the art back then, I deemed it worthy of a second chance, particularly out here in Spain.

At 8:30pm a group of us assembled in the hostel foyer before a staff member reminiscent of Cher helped to bundle us into the elevator up to the ‘secret floor’ from which we could access the rooftop pavilion, an act which was usually forbidden.

It was a platform which boasted some amazing views of the city at night.  To the left, we could see the Torre Agbar lit up in bright blues and pinks.  Straight ahead lay the crane-clad figure of the Sagrada Familia.  Palau Nacional beamed its blue rays across the city, and the surface of the ocean glistened under the glow of the full moon.  Not that you’d be able to tell from the photo below, which unfortunately is the best shot I got:

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I picked up a yoga mat and placed it on one of the few remaining patches of floor. Somewhat typically, I had managed to find the only bit above which a leaking valve was intermittently dripping an oily, pungent liquid onto the floor (and later on, my arm).

The teacher – a beanpole shaped shadow at the front – began the session:

“Wiz thiz zhezhion, we hope zhat you will feel zhe fool moon.  Breazh in zhe moon.  Exhale zhe moon!”

(As seemingly the sole Brit, I was probably the only participant thinking about Jaffa Cakes at this point)

And so began an hour of stretches and breathing which I was grateful to have been able to try for free, but couldn’t really get into.  For starters, half the classmates were a bunch of excruciatingly loud professionals on tour from the US, a couple of whom I was convinced I could hear mocking my choice of trousers at one point.  The notion was compounded by spotting myself in the epicentre of what appeared to be a sneaky selfie as they took it.

Internal ouch.

I cheered up by reminding myself that they were on a yoga holiday; and had traveled all this way just to basically stretch and breathe in a different setting.

I just don’t get yoga.  Well, that’s not quite true – I understand it –  I just find it exceptionally boring.  What’s more, for an exercise which oscillates round the key concepts of nature and mindfulness, there was something that just felt so inherently wrong about practicing it a mere couple of blocks away from the Passeig de Gracia, a big fat modern street that itself oscillates round the concept of commercialism and overpriced designer goods.

It’s safe to say that for a taster session, for me it had all the flavour of boiled rice, but it was certainly an experience, and so I don’t regret it.  I think it’s awesome that the opportunity was even there, because it didn’t have to be, and it’s one I certainly won’t forget…

Parc Ciutadella

What a pleasure,
visiting Parc Ciutadella,
as rowing boats drift in the sun.

Bright warm weather,
climbing the fountain at leisure,
and tightropes between trees for fun.

Cerveza in hand,
an Indian dance in the bandstand,
it’s a nice afternoon for one…

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Eur Oh So Yummy…

I’m going to avoid posting about the obvious this month.

I’ve made my feelings known among various people over the past couple of days, and I’m sure that there’s going to be a lot more to say over the next few weeks, months, years, decades and centuries.  The reality is that the implications of the decision that has been made have not even started yet, and I dare say that the magnitude of those implications is something that none of us will really know or understand until it’s all actually happening.
Which is an incredibly scary thought.

There are plenty of discussion points ahead but I’m not going to use this month’s post to essentially repeat everything I’ve been ranting about over the past 48 hours because quite frankly it will only wind me up even more, and wound up is not how I want to spend my Sunday.  Instead, I wanted to post something more lighthearted that may hopefully detract me from scouring the internet in desperation to see if having Huguenot blood and a fondness for confit de canard can serve as a prerequisite for applying for a French passport.

I am going to stick with a European theme though, and combine it with something that never fails to uplift and bring joy to my life – food.

So herewith, in no particular order… a list of some of my favourite European foods experienced during holidays on the continent…Enjoy.  Will you be giving any a go?

1. Spätzle, Germany

Spätzle is a variety of noodle which derives from the Swabia region of southern Germany.  Very popular in this and the alpine areas below, spätzle is a common accompaniment to any dish and with its soft, slightly chewy texture it’s easy to understand why.  Spätzle is most commonly served with meat or in a nutty cheese sauce with ham.  My favoured way of eating spätzle is with pork medallions and a creamy peppercorn sauce.  Very tasty.

2. Cornichons, France

This is a funny one because I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a gherkin enthusiast, but I absolutely love cornichons (which are basically just baby gherkins too classy for Big Macs).  It was in France some years ago when I first noticed these miniature, green powerful pickles seem to accompany every dish I was served, and I liked them a lot more than I thought I would.  Juicy and crunchy with a sharp sweetness, cornichons would make great and revered leaders in a society of fruit and veg.

3.  Cote D’or Pistachio, Belgium

Of course Belgium’s contribution to this list would be chocolate-related, but I’ve chosen  something quite specific on the basis that even in our global society, this is one thing I’ve not yet seen available in the UK :  Pistachio fondant chocolate bars!  Any trip to a supermarche abroad will necessitate looking out for these beauts, which are essentially just Fry’s Chocolate Creams in a slightly more interesting flavour.

4. Comté  cheese, France

I could write essays proclaiming the values of the existence of French cheese, and it seems so harsh to select just one, but if I had to, then it would definitely be Comté.  Not dissimilar to the much more renowned gruyère, for me comté just edges it in the Battle of the Cheeses.  Nutty and creamy, this batch of mountainous delight permanently changed the way I think about jacket potatoes.

5. The Bicky Burger, Belgium

I’d heard somewhere of these Belgian burgers that seem to have a bit of a cult following, so I knew that when I went to Belgium earlier in the year that I had to give it a try.  Having walked around the entirety of Hasselt looking for a restaurant called ‘Bicky’, I succumbed to asking a waiter where I could find one and was directed to a small generic snack bar on a street corner.  Eating whilst stood underneath a large parasol on a rainy day, the Bicky burger did not disappoint, full of the most interesting blend of flavours stemming from the special ‘Bicky sauces’.  I had no idea what was in the burger but during an internet search that followed I discovered the following:

“The Bicky Burger is a tasty deep fried burger (a mix between chicken, pork and horse meat) topped with three unique sauces (the yellow Bicky Dressing, the Red Bicky Ketchup and the brown Bicky Hot Sauce), crispy onions and pickles or cucumbers served between a sesame sprinkled bun”.

The horse meat bit makes me balk a bit, but hey, at least they’re open about it…
Any visitor to Belgium must try the Bicky burger.

6. Frikandel, Netherlands / Belgium

Some of my favourite childhood memories are of being in a massive adventure playground in Belgium eating a Frikandel during family Summer holidays in the 1990’s.  Best described as a ‘minced pork hot dog’, the Frikandel is deep fried and – unlike most other kinds of sausage – doesn’t have a skin.  It’s very unique tasting and to date I’ve not been able to find anything similar in the UK, but I’ll keep looking!

7.  Tomatensuppe, Germany

Okay I’m cheating a bit with this one, because quite clearly Germany is not the native home of tomato soup (in fact where is?), but – somehow – it never fails to serve up the best. Slightly sweet and often with a generous swirl of cream, I would base any decision of where to go for lunch in Germany on whether or not Tomatensuppe was on the menu.  The German kind completely puts Heinz to shame and don’t even get me started on Campbells…


8.  Spaghettieis, Germany

Spaghettieis is essentially just vanilla ice-cream with strawberry sauce, but it’s genius.  The ice-cream is pumped out through a noodle press giving it a spaghetti-like appearance on the plate.  The strawberry sauce bears an uncanny resemblance to tomato sauce.  The coconut flakes are reminiscent of grated cheese.  It works and it’s amazing, and whoever came up with the idea easily makes my list of Most Influential People. Ever.

So there we have it folks, just a few of the continent’s best offerings and I write this as somebody who’s still not seen a lot of it, so who knows what else is out there to steal the love of my tongue…

Food distractions are just the best 🙂

Song of the Day:  Weezer – Summer Elaine and Drunk Dori

How this band are still churning out top songs after 20+ years without needlessly fannying around with the sound that makes them so great I’ve no idea, but I’m not complaining…

…And The Topic Swiftly Turned to Food…

This morning I booked a return flight back to Indonesia, for September.  My ’30th birthday present to myself’, I really wanted to go somewhere special to mark a milestone birthday this year, and it was only ever going to be Indonesia.

The country is my spiritual home, where the journey started five years ago, and every now and then when I feel that the spiritual vaccine I received back then may be beginning to wear off – filed away by the emery board of the largely superficial and impatient mainstream Western culture – I know that to go back for a booster jab would probably be wise.

Indonesia, you and I have a lot to catch up on. I’m excited to spend some quality time in your Equatorial heat with some of my favourite natives of yours again, and almost just as importantly, to indulge in some of your finest snacks that we simply don’t have over here….

…like cimol-cimol, those squishy, doughy, balls that are coated in a spicy cheesy powder and come served in polythene bags which you purchase from a street vendor… cimol cimol

…and Fanta-SuSu – the drink that happily attacks the arteries but is too tasty for us to care – strawberry-flavoured Fanta (WHY aren’t you in the UK yet!) poured over a thick bed of sweet condensed milk…

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…speaking of Fanta-SuSu…. it’s probably best consumed when juxtaposed with a beach-barbequed corn on the cob that has first been rolled around in some chilli-powder before being placed on the grill…

Donation Day 007

…and speaking of beaches, what about ‘Es Buah Rumput Laut’…a name which translates exactly as ‘Ice Fruit Seaweed’… so called because this sweet, milky, icy dessert is full of pieces of fruity gelatin pieces – some of which resemble bits of seaweed in appearance….an acquired taste, but an interesting one…

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There’s also the pandan cake, a favourite at Indonesian birthday and wedding parties.  It looks just like a regular sponge, and for the most part, it is.  Except for the crucial difference that it’s BRIGHT GREEN.  Made using the leaves of the pandan – a tropical plant popular in South Asia – pandan cake is similar in flavour to coconut, with a few hints of citrus as well.  And because the cake is naturally green, it’s healthy right?!

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…and last but not least, my absolute favourite, the ultimate, martabak manis … a description of which could never do it justice, but I’ll try… greasy, sponge-y, cheesy, chocolate-y, nutty, sweetcorn-y BEAUTY… even though it may sound anything but… trust me on this…

martabakmanis And these are just a few. I’m pretty sure that what with globalisation and all that jazz, any – if not all – of the items listed above will one day be available here in the UK, similar to how the likes of sushi, beef jerky and sweet-chilli dipping sauce have migrated in recent years to populate the aisles of M&S.

Well, I certainly hope so.

It’s a long way to go for a bit of cimol-cimol otherwise….

Song of the Day:  The Electro Swingers – Victorian Dream

Reasons to love electro swing #4291.  Happy and amusing music.

A 13 Hour Flight from Singapore…

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I have recently returned from a holiday in South-East Asia visiting Cambodia and a wee bit of Vietnam.  For two wonderful weeks, I was back doing the thing I love doing the most in life – travelling – an activity in which you feel constantly sensualised from the relentless exposure to ‘the new’ – new sights, new faces, new knowledge, new sounds, new tastes – all of which open your mind to new ideas and food for thought (often literally) that you can carry back home in your luggage to try and apply in places more familiar.

I remember hearing a wonderful analogy about this once.  A native of a land coloured yellow went to a land coloured blue, and when they eventually returned home, what had previously been unquestionably yellow was now appearing green… different, yet the land itself had not physically changed at all…

I have found the past few days particularly challenging in trying to convince myself that my holiday was not just the dream that reality’s return tries to make me believe it was, but this post isn’t really about that…  instead I wanted to share the story of an aspect of my journey home…

I had to catch two flights in order to arrive back in the UK (oh how I wished that either had have to have been cancelled indefinitely, allowing me to extend my break!).  The second of these flights was a rather ominous sounding 13 hour jaunt from Singapore to London.  Indubitably it was my least favourite part of the entire two weeks, even worse than the diarrhoea, but in it’s own little way it served as a memorable vignette of modern day living…

Having initially boarded the plane, I noticed that a middle-aged couple were sat in my allocated seat, which happened to be in the first row of Economy class – a cheeky little row where you get a bit of extra leg-room and – according to the chap who eventually took up the seat next to me – “more chance of an upgrade – if there are too many babies on board they have to take these seats and so those who were meant to be there can be moved somewhere better!”.  The middle-aged couple were disgruntled to learn that the seats which they were sat in were not actually theirs, and reluctantly shuffled out and into the row behind.  “This is ridiculous”, said Mrs Moody, “we paid extra for these seats”.  Her husband concurred, whilst I stood awkwardly feeling a niggling sense of guilt at the commotion I had inadvertently caused just by heading towards the seat number printed on my boarding pass.

Mr and Mrs Moody continued to huff and puff once they’d sat down behind me, with Mrs Moody’s disdain further being exacerbated by her discovery that her in-flight entertainment system was not working.  Mr Moody caught the attention of a passing flight-attendant – “We would just like to LOG the FACT that the in-flight entertainment system is NOT working.”

“Sir, we have not even started moving yet, the systems need to configure….” came the reply of the flight-attendant.

A few moments later I felt a tap on my shoulder.  Mr Moody had removed my rucksack from underneath my seat and was thrusting it at me:

“Is this your bag?! When you sit on THAT row, you have to put ALL your belongings in the overhead LOCKERS!” – this piece of information was accompanied by a forefinger motioning upwards, in case for some reason my bag-related error of judgment also meant that I was incapable of working out whereabouts an overhead locker may be located – outside perhaps?

I took the bag and fulfilled Mr Moody’s wishes before sitting back down and beginning to read my book.  Compressed air caught me out, and I started to cough.  Quite a lot.  Loudly.

“For goodness sake!” I overheard Mr Moody retort from directly behind me, whilst feeling a sharp nudge into my back, “This just gets better and better.  We end up in the wrong seats, the in-flight entertainment system doesn’t work, there’s a baby crying over there and now we’ve got somebody with a bloody cough!”

By this point I was beginning to seriously tire of Mr and Mrs Moody’s ongoing huffiness and was once again grateful for the invention of headphones and their ability to drown out external racket.  I spent most of the flight listening to music, sleeping, or speaking with the man next to me, who continued to impart useful bits of information.  He was a lovely man who was very well-traveled due to his work as a theatrical director, and it’s characters like this – who you meet only briefly, and certainly not long enough to exchange contacts – who add to the fun of travel:

“This is the second longest flight that British Airways will provide “, he said, “the longest is London to Buenos Aires.  That one is 16 hours.”

“This is the best sort of time (22:55) to catch this kind  of flight.  Because it requires so much fuel, they always have to replenish it in good time.  These flights are almost never delayed, and because you reach London in the early hours of the morning, you’ll barely ever be queuing for too long at Passport Control”

“When travelling in a developing country you should always have a bowl of local yogurt for breakfast.  The bacteria will immunise you from any illness you might acquire from the food, drink or climate”

“South Africa is one of the most dangerous places to travel.  A lot of people end up being mugged there…I experienced it myself in Johannesburg, they aim for your feet, and once there they try and trip you up.  The worst way in which you can react is by trying to defend your face from any punches.  A lot of these attackers are high on drugs that have impaired their vision… if they see you cover your face, to them it will appear as though you’re trying to punch them back, and that’s when they might get the weapons out”

When not speaking to this chap, listening to music, reading my book, or sleeping, I would occasionally overhear further snippets from the jolly row behind.  At around 2am I heard Mr and Moody complaining about the seats still.

And then at 4am.

And 4.30am.

When it had become time to recline my seat a bit in order to try and snooze, suffice to say that the movement was met with another groan…

The complaints came to a head at 5am, shortly before the flight was due to land, when Mr Moody accosted the flight-attendant once more to express his disapproval, “we paid SPECIFICALLY for those seats, but that’s not what our boarding pass says”

Whilst I do understand Mr and Mrs Moody’s frustrations, what annoyed me was that – in a typically British way – they treated what in the grand scheme of things was a minor inconvenience as akin to a worldly crisis, ranting and raving more about their seats than anything else throughout the entire flight.  Where had Mr and Mrs Moody just been?  On holiday?  Visiting friends?  Where were they going?  Home?  Back to loved ones? Surely that they had something, anything else to spend 13 hours talking about, for the sake of their own sanity let alone anybody else’s.

As the plane eventually reached it’s resting place I turned to the man next to me and commented on how surprisingly pleasant the flight had been given it’s long duration.  “The extra-legroom was a bonus” we agreed.  Mr and Mrs Moody were swift to disembark whilst I tried to locate my shoes.  For extra comfort, I’d removed them at the start of my journey and placed them underneath my seat, next to the rucksack that Mr Moody would later remind me to put in the overheard lockers.  I could not immediately locate my shoes, but on closer inspection noticed them firmly wedged, as if by an irritated human force, between the seats where Mr Moody had been sat.

Welcome Home….