Monthly Archives: April 2008
One of the things I love best about travel is the change in culinary scenery. At deli shops and supermarkets, I pick up herbs and ingredients to help replicate dishes at home.
In Naples, I love those little food shops that are so cram-packed full of foodstuffs that you can barely move, once in the door. In one such Aladdin’s Cave of ingredients, I found bags of mixed dried herbs that have revolutionised my Sunday roast chicken and jazzed up a simple spaghetti. Those bags are sadly empty and I am still searching the internet for replacements. Until I find them, here is what they contain:
Dried tomato, dried basil, dried garlic, celery seeds and chives – perfect for creating your own blend and storing in a jar for future use – away from the light.
The instructions on the back of the pack suggest the following simple stir-through spaghetti sauce:
While the spaghetti is boiling in salted water, heat 5 tablespoons of olive oil in a pan. Add 5 tablespoons of the above mix and stir until all become golden. Then stir the sauce through the spaghetti and season to taste. (In personal experience, you might find that a bit more oil helps the sauce go further.)
You can also sprinkle this mix on pizza, use it to season a simple tomato sauce or invigorate a roast chicken.
For Epic’s Roast Chicken, stuff the bird with quarters of lemon and about 5 heaped tablespoons of the above mix. Then rub lemon juice and oil into the skin. You should remove the lemons on carving, but you’ll be left with a lemon and herb sauce that makes this chicken tender, tasty and different.
Today Monsieur and I swam before breakfast. Down at the pool it was raining hard and an attendant wearing bright orange gators stopped us before we could swim. “If there’s thunder or lightning, you must get out of the pool EE-ME-DEE-AT-LEE.” he stressed each syllable and looked us hard in the eyes to be sure we’d understood. We assured him we had, thankful in part for such horrible weather as it gave us the pool to ourselves. As we started to lap back and forth, I pondered the attendant’s warning and the penny finally dropped. Oh hell. We could apparently be electrocuted if a lightning strike hit the pool with us in it. Looking up at the Garden Wing where flowers spilled from each room’s individual balcony, I figured there were worse ways to go.
With a soggy behind creating an attractive wet patch in my shorts, we went for a buffet breakfast at The Line. In spite of our unkempt post-sporting look, a maitre d’ still took the time to show us the various options – similar to the Biba’s set-up in KL with the addition of a pancake station. Decision made – pancakes it was, with fresh strawberries and maple syrup. Yum, scrum. Meanwhile, I watched, fascinated, as Japanese tourists flocked around the Japanese food island, Brits went for their full English, size-zero American women nibbled on fruit and businessmen filled themselves up on porridge or pastries.
Later that morning we visited Chinatown. The grey sky and intermittent downpours only increased the dramatic impact of the zig-zags of red lanterns moving back and forth across the streets. Huge signs bearing Chinese characters were all around us. Souvenir shops spilled onto the street, their plasticky wares and pirate DVDs of martial arts greats sheltering beneath make-shift tarpaulins. Cheongsams of all sizes flapped with the wind and baskets of Durian fruit sat on grocery stalls, their smell diffused by the stormy air.
Escaping the rain, Monsieur and I decided to learn more about this area of Singapore by paying a visit to the Chinatown Heritage Centre. Our leaflet described it perfectly: “a…time capsule of the Chinatown of old.” Within the themed rooms, set up to show gambling dens, tailor shops and living quarters, monitors showed documentary footage of Chinatown’s former residents. Their stories told of the hardships in China, pushing them to leave and seek better opportunities in Singapore. Families separated in the hope that more income would help their loved ones in the villages at home. However, there was a dark side. Many men fell prey to vice as loneliness saw them seeking comfort with prostitutes who often infected them with STDs. Opium addiction was also rife as people battled homesickness with the numbing effect of this popular drug.
Back outside, we were surrounded by the signs of healthy commerce in the Singaporean Chinese community. From humble beginnings here, they certainly seem to be thriving at all levels now. The high rises of big business climbed into the sky next to older buildings where small merchants prospered in retail. The rain splashed down on us in bucketloads. My shoes leaked water in to squelch around my toes and took a couple of days to dry out. We sheltered next to the Sri Mariamman Temple until a break in the weather afforded us time to get back to the beautifully named Da Dong Restaurant, part of the Fatty Weng group. Don’t you love the names? So evocative. Anyway, lunch at Da Dong was simple Chinese fare – scallops or beef with rice and a Tiger beer each but, most importantly, we managed to dry out a bit while we were there.
After lunch but still squelching, Monsieur shopped for mementoes while I braved a Chinese fortune teller. This was a mixed experience. A lot of what Fortune Teller told me was so wrong she could have been reading Mickey Mouse. She seemed to be trying to fill me with fear that I’d gathered a lot of negative past-life karma, requiring impossible acts of atonement.
“You are not kind. You should use money to be kind.” she suggested,
(If I had any spare, I thought…Monsieur was paying for most of this trip, which I could never have afforded to do on my own, and I was doing my best not to go broke as I chipped in for daily expenses. Besides, what’s all this about not being kind?)
Fortune Teller wasn’t finished yet: “You should find 108 old people and buy them all a new set of clothes. Then cook all the meals for the old people for 49 consecutive days. That’s three meals a day and you must make everything yourself. Only that way will you neutralise your karma.”
I don’t know what she thought I did all day, but Boss certainly was not going to give me 49 days of leave to atone for the sins of my past lives, and even with the advent of Primark, it was going to cost plenty to clothe 108 people. If I completed Fortune Teller’s task, I’d be without money, without job and without marbles. Besides, my friends and family know I’m kind. I didn’t recognise the person she was describing, not one bit. My theory is that somewhere in the numerology she’d made a mistake and created a chart for the wrong person; Jack Nicholson perhaps. Just after happily stating that 2008 would be a bad year for me, bringing lots of tears with it, she suggested I spend SING$500+ on a Tibetan amulet to protect me from harm. Notice anything suspicious about that? Without the amulet and almost two years later, my life is better, not worse than when I met Fortune Teller in Singapore. I think she may have been a few tarot cards short of the full deck.
From ancient fortunes we moved back into 21st Century Singapore. Monsieur loves IT paraphernalia and had been recommended to visit a specialty shopping centre not far from Chinatown, so off we went, but far from being competitively priced, Monsieur felt he’d get a better deal back home. Apart from the basics, I don’t get all the bits and bytes and RAMs and LANs so we didn’t hang out there for long. But being typically Epic, I did find a really good bookshop in the Fu Lan IT Centre. There were various biographies for Singapore’s former prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew on the shelves, next to the latest novels and Jules Oliver’s book Minus Nine to One. Those Olivers get everywhere! The bookshop was also a great source of travel magazines, but they would have been too heavy at this stage of the trip, so I tore myself away with a small paperback on Buddhism, instead. Was there anything in Fortune Teller’s recommended atonements? I was keen to find out.
Leaving the boys’ toys behind us, I dragged Monsieur off down the road to Raffles Hotel. It was not possible for us to leave Singapore without visiting Raffles. Besides, I’d visited with my parents as a teenager and wanted to share the family tradition of a gin sling at the Long Bar with my long-suffering Frenchman. Raffles is still a beautiful hotel, exuding colonial charm with its whitewashed verandahs and internal courtyards. The Long Bar, however, has changed a lot since my last visit. If it was called Hard Rock Cafe, Raffles, it would be more appropriate. Thankfully, some of the bar’s character remains unchanged. For instance, there are still peanut shells on the ground in this, the last place in Singapore to allow littering, and there are still slings on the cocktail menu. The waiters still wear long sarongs with high-necked chef shirts and the decor is still that of a Malayan plantation house, with rows of palm-shaped ceiling fans flapping back and forth above the cane furniture. However, the slings are pre-mixed from cocktail formula and taste about as alcoholic as straight orange juice. I was horrified to see that for an extra charge you could take home a souvenir Singapore sling glass and the drinks were expensive enough, thank you very much, considering that they contained about three per-cent alcohol. You’d get more action out of a 10ml shot of cough mixture.
It’s a very different memory I have of coming here in 1989. Our family of four were the only people in the bar that afternoon. We had a table by a window and the quiet to observe the venue so steeped in Singapore’s history. Now we were lucky to get a seat, alongside tables of Birkenstock-wearing tourists, with ripped Def Leppard tee shirts. Once upon a time, this bar had a dress code. I guess I’m getting old.
As we sat flicking our peanut shells, I picked up a Raffles Hotel leaflet. Inside, there were a couple of names that made me smile: The Tiffin Room, apparently the place to go for ‘an international high tea spread’, Ah Teng’s Bakery, another of those wonderful Chinese names, similar to Doc Cheng’s, the Raffles restaurant where the signature dish is ‘Jaggery Cured Ocean Trout’ and ‘Saffron Pineapple Marmalade’ might just tickle the sweet tooth’s tastebuds.
The English influence was also there in the naming of the Empire Café and Jubilee Hall, but as we explored the hotel, Asia was certainly present. We passed an open kitchen in the midst of a courtyard. There, two chefs shook their woks vigorously over dancing flames. Sweat dripped from their faces, but the fact that they could cook in plain view was great for passers-by, like us, and was no doubt preferable to being closeted away in an airless indoor kitchen. We stood and watched them flip and toss and chop and stir, mesmerised by the unexpected culinary display.
Next on the list was a bum boat ride from Clarke Quay. As we walked down the steps to the boat, there on the landing sat a massive bullfrog. He looked at me and I stared at him, but he wasn’t interested in moving. He sat firm, like a door stop. Apparently, in Chinese culture, frogs bring good luck – fertility and prosperity. What an excellent antidote to that horrible fortune earlier in the day! As I looked at the biggest, greenest frog I have ever seen (he was the size of half a bowling ball), I considered his mere presence a sign of great good luck. Fortune Teller could take her calculations and jump in the Singapore River. But then again, just thinking that way has probably brought me more bad karma… and 108 more old people to feed.
To read the previous instalment, click here.
To read the next instalment, click here.
I’m not really a zoo person, but I’d been assured that the Night Safari in Singapore was different. Curious to see for ourselves if it was as animal-friendly as we’d heard, Monsieur and I went back up the road for Johor Bahru to talk with the animals.
The park itself was opened in 1994 and covers 40 hectares of land. It is home to 1040 animals, divided between 120 different species and, according to the Safari website, 29% of these species are endangered. http://www.nightsafari.com.sg/
Visitors can choose to walk on any of three trails around the park, or take a little tram with running commentary. Given the persistent drizzle, we went for the latter. On board, a lively host told us what to look for as we passed various enclosures. This certainly helped because in the dark, with only dim lighting, it wasn’t always easy to spot a well-camouflaged animal blending into its surrounds. “We might not be able to see all the animals tonight,” apologised the chatty host, “some of them don’t like the rain.” In spite of this, we managed to spot them all. There were many Asian varieties of the antelope, deer and sheep, some of which wandered around the park at will, and others which were protected from us (or we from them) by cleverly-engineered ditches, reminiscent of the English haha. There was no visible fencing.
Elsewhere, we saw families of wolves, lions and hyenas and each enclosure’s design incorporated a feeding spot where the animal’s dinner lured it out into areas where they’d be visible to us as the tram glided past. At the halfway point, we were instructed to leave the tram and follow a sign-posted track for the second part of the safari. Immediately, I spotted a keeper with a lemon-coloured python around her neck. She was allowing visitors to pose for photos with the snake and I would have loved to, but Monsieur wasn’t keen. Back on the track, we came across a pavilion housing a leopard. I didn’t like this at all. We came here to see animals in the open. We didn’t want to look through glass at a cat in restricted space. It’s a sad sight. Then again, I suppose big cats are better able to jump across hahas to feed on unsuspecting tourists and fellow beasts.
Further along the track was the flying fox enclosure. Inside, fruit attracted these furry, large-winged bats who hung happily upside-down as they peeled bananas. I didn’t like them. Couldn’t get away fast enough, and the smell of ammonia from the bats’ urine was pretty powerful. The rest of the track took us past pavilions housing smaller creatures, such as nocturnal monkeys, bushbabies and owls. Deer wandered past us in groups as we made our way back to the tram for the final part of the tour. Perhaps they were another reason for keeping the leopard under lock and key.
Back on the tram, we saw strange swine-like creatures called ‘bearded pigs’, water buffalo (so big!) and an elephant family. The keepers were very proud of the baby male elephant munching away on foliage near our track. He had been born at the Night Safari. Baby Male’s mother and other females loped around to the rear of the large enclosure, whilst the adult bull was located at a safe distance on the other side of the track. This enclosure, alone, made our visit to the Night Safari worthwhile. It was also interesting to see animals I’d never heard of before: the Malayan tapir, the babirusa, and the capybara, a giant rodent from South America.
The tram journey finished, the animal smells receded and we walked past a fire-eating performance to the shops. Inside were soft toys of many of the animals we’d seen tonight, along with the usual key rings, souvenir pens and tee shirts. It was time to leave. It was getting late, and it had finally stopped raining.
We returned to the hotel where there was just enough time for a quick bite before bed. At the brasserie called ‘The Line’, we sat on a terrace near the mini-golf course and pool. There, I ate a pile of a local specialty, called Mee Goreng, consisting of fried noddles tossed with onion, vegetables, tomato, chilli and egg. The chef here had added king prawns, just one of many variations on the Mee Goreng theme available from hawker stalls and restaurants throughout Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Following on from a long and busy day, I loved my mee – a perfect (almost) midnight snack.
Back in our room, the housekeepers had ‘turned us down’, so to speak. On our pillows were chocolates and bookmarks bearing a quote from the book, Lost Horizon, by James Hilton, in which Shangri-La is a mysterious Utopia where the four survivors of a plane crash seek refuge.
“That evening, after dinner, Conway made occasion to leave the others and stroll out into the calm, moon-washed courtyards. Shangri-La was lovely then, touched with the mystery that lies at the core of all loveliness. Conway was physically happy, emotionally satisfied and mentally at ease.”
Lucky Conway. What an Epicurean state of being.
To read the previous instalment, click here.
To read the next instalment, click here.
The morning of our journey to Singapore, we were woken by an orchestra of wake-up calls and alarms, set the night before to ensure that we did not sleep late. With somewhat fragile heads, the legacy of hitting the KL night life the previous evening, we made it to Pudu Raya bus terminal intact. There, we found a bus with the same bus number as was printed on our tickets but the bus company’s name was wrong. Could it be that we were still feeling the effects of too many beers? After a few enquiries, we were told that this was indeed the right bus and the company name did not matter. That’ll teach us for trusting a tout.
‘Colourful’ is one of those euphemisms which could apply to Pudu Raya, but which is in some ways too benign and in others too banal. There were people of all shapes, sizes, colours and descriptions waiting for various buses: old couples with those red-white-and-blue nylon carry-all bags, women draped in saris, backpackers, the nutcases that are found in stations the world over, and a few bewildered people like us. There were also tiny stalls packed tight with all sorts of snacks and soft drinks, from crackers to 7-Up, with fruit and slices of fresh watermelon or coconut to sustain the bus traveller. In my overhung state I wanted to eat it all.
As we finally pulled out of the station, ready to hit the road for Singapore, we were comfortable in deep, soft, velveteen-covered seats. There were only enough people on board to half-fill the bus. Was this another indication of a drop in tourism, perhaps? Above us, the on-board ventilation system pumped out chilly air, a surprise we had not anticipated. I was therefore grateful for my giant travel wrap and draped it over Monsieur and myself as we dozed off the effects of the long night before, every so often checking on the hitchhiking grasshopper outside our window, to see if it was still there.
The trip from KL to Singapore took around 6 hours, but we wanted to see the land and for such a distance it seemed a more interesting way to travel. As we sped along Malaysian highways dissecting the jungle, I considered what it must have been like here during World War II; such a different fight to the war in Europe. Living in the jungle requires a certain stomach for bugs and wildlife, humidity and, in dense areas, an ability to cope without seeing the sun or sky for long periods. Add to that an enemy more accustomed to jungle fighting, and it’s more than just a minor miracle the Allies won the fight in this region.
Remembering war stories I watched the rows of palms and jungle lining the road. It looked hot out there. This only made me colder and, for once, I was dying to get out into the fuggy day. When we reached a rest stop and left the bus for a while, I walked into the wall of humid air with the satisfaction of a cat on a sunny windowsill in winter.
Monsieur and I headed directly to the rest rooms. This would be interesting. So far, we’d been lucky in KL with western-style facilities, but this was a whole different ball game. The cubicles had porcelain fittings around the hole in the ground, with corrugated foot-shaped areas, presumably to give you extra grip whilst you squat. There was no toilet paper, just a big, long hose attached to one wall. Liberal use of the hose meant that the floor was slippery with water and urine, and this was a really stinky scratch ‘n’ sniff moment. In spite of my OCD squeamishness, this sort of rest room is perfectly normal in the Asian area, if not luxurious compared to some. It’s one of my oddities, I suppose. I am fascinated by loos and feel compelled to analyse them wherever I go.
Back outside, there was a long, covered bar of stalls selling noodles and other local foods. All the tables and chairs were fixed to the ground, and in the midst of the diners, sat a Buddhist monk, bald with saffron robes, quietly slurping on his lunch. I wondered if taking his photo might be possible, but decided against it. He was so serene, I didn’t want to disturb him or make him feel uncomfortable.
Moving on to the grocery store, I bought some snacks for the rest of the trip. The selection was amazing – prawn crackers of many different flavours, strangely coloured boiled sweets, unfamiliar canned drinks, seaweed snacks, unusual fruit and packets of dried fish. I could have spent a fortune in the name of experimentation, but it was time to go. Our bus driver shepherded us back into the cold of the bus and we returned to the road, where there were works being carried out on the hard shoulder. The workers wore coolie hats with standard plastic hard hats in primary colours on top. Someone needs to invent a broad-rimmed hard hat to protect these people from the sun!
Towards the end of the journey, we reached Johor Bahru, where the driver seemed to drive in circles around the town, heaven only knows why. Eventually, we arrived at the customs building, where we had to clear customs to leave Malaysia. It was a double exercise because on the other side of a causeway was the Woodlands Checkpoint and gateway to Singapore, where we had to clear customs again. Woodlands is housed in a large, modern building with echoing halls, squeaky floors and hard-faced officials. My official wore serious, wire-rimmed spectacles and darted his eyes back and forth between me and my passport photo, as if I could be the current star on Singapore’s Most Wanted. It seemed forever before the ‘thud-thud’ of the rubber stamp was heard and I was permitted to visit this island city. Then, as I was ahead of Monsieur, I stopped to wait for him before returning to the bus, but this wasn’t wise. Naughty, naughty. A guard shook his finger at me and shooed me out of the hall.
Leaving the Unhappy Valley atmosphere of Woodlands behind, we were soon deposited in central Singapore. A wordless taxi driver took us through Chinatown and up Orchard Road, past exclusive enclaves of apartments and town-houses behind solid walls and intercommed gates. We had reservations at the Shangri-La, a stunning hotel with three blocks of rooms set into acres of lush grounds. The lobby was so massive that you could have squeezed an extra floor into it. As a slightly dippy but sweet clerk checked us in, I looked around. There were huge columns soaring to the faraway ceiling, a sizable expanse of marble floor, long vases spilling over with tropical flowers and a gargantuan painting looming above the lobby bar. Up in our room, the presentation continued to impress and opening the windows we enjoyed a view over neighbouring luxury apartment blocks to the famed Botanic Gardens. Then it started to rain.
Rain is strange. In London, in spite of its reputation for frequent grey spells and plenty of precipitation, the rain is more of an annoying drizzle than you find on the Pacific Rim. There, when it rains, it drenches and cleanses, revives and energises. It’s a whole different experience. We decided to explore Orchard Road, especially because we needed to eat. One of the hotel staff had recommended we visit the Wisma Atria Centre for its fabulous food hall. By the time we got there, the sky was black and shoppers were queuing for taxis. Walking inside was like walking into the light; it was bright and buzzy and you’d never have known how dismal the weather was outside.
At the food hall, there was plenty to choose from – more noodles, crispy fried duck, dim sum, you name it. We settled on a Thai restaurant called Waan Waan, where we gulped down ice-cold Tiger beer and shared a generous Tom Yam soup. I couldn’t resist the soft-shelled crabs and Monsieur tucked into a spicy red Thai beef curry. It was a hearty meal yet didn’t break the bank. It also gave us time to watch people as they selected different meals from the varied stalls.
Back outside, it was still bucketing down. We wandered around Orchard Road in the downpour, hopping from shelter to shop. In Tang’s department store, Monsieur dashed off to the gent’s whilst a cosmetics saleswoman tried valiantly to sell me a wrinkle cream at £100.00 for the smallest tube. Apparently, it had been developed from a stretch-mark treatment. Fascinating, but not for me.
It was now completely dark and still pouring, but we weren’t to be inconvenienced by silly things like bad weather. We were off to find the Night Safari.
To read the previous instalment, click here.
To read the next instalment, click here.
This is one of the most unusual travel books I’ve ever come across, written by a Canadian teacher of English as a second language, who decides to follow the appearance of the cherry blossom by hitchhiking from one end of Japan to the other. I haven’t yet finished, but can’t resist sharing a couple of hilarious excerpts from the book.
‘Another combination that gives me trouble is “human” (ningen) and “carrot” (ninjin) which once caused a lot of puzzled looks during a speech I gave in Tokyo on the merits of internationalization, when I passionately declared that “I am a carrot. You are a carrot. We are all carrots. As long as we always remember our common carrotness, we will be fine.”
On another occasion I scared a little girl by telling her that my favorite nighttime snack was raw humans and dip.’
You can probably imagine the fit of runny-nosed giggles I experienced when reading that on a plane recently. Another snorter is this:
‘Here I was, folding and refolding my maps, trying to figure out my next move, and this nattering gnat of a man was trying to engage me in a dialogue about my income. He spoke what I call Random English, dictated more by the abrupt firing of synapses than by anything approximating a plan.
“Foreigners can’t eat pickled plums,” he said. “And you are very racist. In America, you treat the blacks bad just because they aren’t as intelligent as other people.” (How do you respond to something like that?) “And you killed all of the Indians.”
I sighed. “There are still Indians in North America.”
“No there isn’t. I saw a show on NHK. You killed them all.”
At this point I decided to simply ignore him in the hope he would just shut up and go away. Or burst into flames and run screaming from the building. Either would have been fine.’
The rest of that particular page has me in stitches. Will update this post once I’ve finished this side-splitting appraisal of the life of an outsider in Japan, on the most un-Japanese of journeys to follow the very Japanese cherry blossom as it bursts into flower all over the country.
Having survived a flight delay and (temporarily) lost bag, by the time I reached the hotel in Edinburgh, Monsieur’s stomach was audibly protesting its emptiness. Mine rumbled back in sympathy, so out we went in search of decent grub. This we found, by chance, at the North Bridge Brasserie attached to The Scotsman Hotel on (strangely enough) North Bridge. How lucky we were.
We didn’t have a booking and this was Friday night, but the staff quickly found us a corner table in the gallery overlooking The Scotsman’s former reception hall. The building had housed the newspaper of the same name for almost a hundred years, prior to being opened as a Leading Hotel of the World in 2001, and the old-fashioned header is still emblazoned on a stone wall outside. It was an unexpected bonus to be sitting in a place of such national significance. The brasserie’s decor had been sensitively restored with dark wood panelling and balustrade around the gallery where we were positioned. Fat square columns of marble rose from the ground floor to the ceiling above us, and Robbie Burns’ portrait was reproduced and hung at frequent intervals around the main dining room. The starchiness of the white tablecloths was enlivened by blood-red glass tumblers and red leather chairs, and when our water arrived, it was (quite naturally) Highland Spring.
Our waitress was superb. If I could give a blog award for Best Waitress 2008, it would be to her. Linda was English but had spent a long time in South Africa and had somehow returned to Edinburgh, where she’d surprised herself by settling, at least, for now. “I fell in love with the place,” she admitted, once she’d answered the most-asked questions about the menu for us, namely “What’s Stornoway pudding?” (black pudding only more delicate), and “What are champit tatties?” (that would be Scots for mashed potato).
The bread arrived – freshly baked caraway or tomato, with a crockery tray of 3 bread condiments: regular butter, tomato and parsley butter or oil and balsamic. So far so good, but the meal itself was nigh faultless. Not feeling up to a full two courses, I chose two starters, instead. First up was one of the best soups I’ve ever tasted: Shetland Mussel, Garlic and Parsley broth. At £5.50 it was a bargain – creamy, light but tasty, with the sweetest little mussels throughout. I was sad to finish the last spoonful.
Monsieur chose the classic smoked salmon, which arrived encircling a pile of leaves, drizzled with lemon and baby capers, and served with onion bread. He’s not easy to impress, but on this occasion, the praise was high. “That’s the best smoked salmon I’ve ever eaten in a restaurant.” he raved. He loved the taste, thought the capers created a perfect accent, and commented that the balance between fish and salad and bread was just right.
As a main course I chose the seared scallops with the Stornoway Pudding that Linda had been raving about, all cooked in a garlic butter. A fresh tomato and shallot salad with champagne dressing was added as a side dish. Linda was right: the Stornoway pudding was much lighter than a regular black pud, and its intensity combined well with the subtle taste of the scallops. There’s not much that can go wrong with a tomato salad. Suffice to say, it was fresh and dressed to perfection.
Monsieur’s plate of tuna steak was served with bitter onions, bearnaise sauce and, Monsieur’s perennial favourite: fries. He’d asked for the steak to be cooked medium rare. In fact, it was more like medium but this wasn’t a serious issue, especially as the fries were so good that he pronounced them ‘home-made’.
We were now feeling so like Tweedledum and Tweedledee in the stomach department that we could not consider a single mouthful of dessert, even though the cider poached pears with honeycomb ice cream and fudge sauce beckoned from the menu. Then again, at a place like the North Bridge Brasserie, it’s always wise to leave something worth returning for.
Having thoroughly enjoyed Extremely Pale Rosé by Jamie Ivey, I was thrilled to find a sequel to quench my thirst for rosé wine in London’s ever-grey winter. La Vie en Rosé does not disappoint. On this occasion, Jamie and Tanya are trying to forge a French life for themselves by test-driving the concept of a rosé wine bar in the south of France. Lovably eccentric friend, Peter, is along for the ride with his faithful BMW, Betty, the pack-horse for cases of wine from faithful vintners whom we met in the first instalment. The characters are present in a full three dimensions and the settings make for itchy feet.
I e-mailed Jamie to thank him for such a wonderful couple of books (watch this space; there’s a third on its way! Rose en Marché available from 26 June 2008 ) and he kindly replied with information on a concurrent venture to his becoming a favoured author and wine merchant: a magazine. It’s called Blue Sky Living and if you e-mail Jamie, he’ll tell you more.
I thoroughly recommend reading Jamie and Tanya’s adventures in France. They’re a true testament to the fact that escaping the rat race is worth it. Especially if you have a supportive friend named Peter.
and for their new magazine about life in France
Today I lied so I could leave a meeting. It was a presentation by a company competing for our business against a number of their major competitors and the competitors win hands down. This particular presenter was affable and would be good company if you wanted to go and have a pint or two in the pub. Sadly, that’s not why he was here. Presenter was not very good at explaining his company’s technology or answering our questions. After one hour of brain strain, i.e. straining the brain to keep focussed as opposed to wearing it out, I excused myself, citing another (imaginary) meeting as the reason. There weren’t even any real buzzwords to keep me (silently) entertained. Just a half sentence that never closed: “Now let me take you to 30 000 feet and…” And what, I never found out. The mind boggles.
The good thing about today’s meeting is that it prompted me to look up my buzzword notes from the last presentation I went to. It was buzz-tastic. It opened with “We want this to be an interactive discussion rather than one giant brain dump,” Okay, then. ‘Brain dump’ on its own was bad enough, but qualified by ‘giant’ made me want to heave.
Birds were next. “We can search for ‘penguins’ or we can search for ‘black and white flightless birds’. The penguin results may not show up other black flightless birds, but the black and white flightless birds search will certainly show penguins.” I pinched myself to make sure I was still there and not in some zoology lecture. We covered ‘silos of information’ as opposed to silos of grain. That one works. We learned that Deloitte Touche has implemented a system whereby any e-mail containing a swear word will be stopped from leaving the company (they need to read my Alternative Swearwords blog and implement it into company policy), and that rather than ‘new generation technologies’ we are now into ‘next generation technologies’. During the presentation we were ‘open and transparent’ about our needs and aimed to ‘work together seamlessly.’
The presenter on that occasion really struggled with his buzzwords, though. It was obvious that someone had told him he had to use them to be current, so he made the odd mistake. The best of these was telling us “you don’t work in a 24 by 7 business”. As our business happens to be construction, this immediately conjured up an image of a 24 by 7 piece of wood, just like a 2 by 4 plank only much, much bigger. I stifled a giggle.
The best reference, however, was this: “We have one platform for all functions. We are no Frankenstein’s bride.” I’m lost with this one. Did he mean that he isn’t a mate for the original? Or that he’s not a scientist’s creation? They’ve stumped me again.
Anyone who reads travel literature as often as I do will know that there aren’t that many books written in the English language about the daily life of ex-pats in Germany. Roger Boyes has changed that, although it’s hard to tell whether this is autobiographical, semi-biographical or 100 per cent genuine fiction and Googling the issue hasn’t helped me get to the bottom of this yet.
Nevertheless, A Year in the Scheisse, Getting to Know the Germans, is a romp through Germany from the perspective of an ex-pat English journo living in Berlin, who finds great interest in swapping potato recipes with his former German tutor. Meanwhile, his father fought in the Second World War and has a best friend with embarrassingly healthy Germano-phobia. Dad is also broke to the point that the family piano has been taken by the bailiffs. At work, this particular correspondent proves he will go anywhere in the interests of unknown tales of Hitler, the man, and, in his spare time he’s the Georgie Porgie of German speed-dating, making all the girls cry. Most importantly, his own dwindling finances need rescuing, big time. The question is, how will he do it?
This book is very readable but not exactly politically correct. The at times strained English-German relationship is treated here in an unusually matter-of-fact manner, making this book a gem. There’s post-war ill feeling, an attempt at cake sabotage with political intent and the caricatures throughout give the Daily Telegraph’s Social Stereotypes a run for its money, although, sadly, without the illustrations.
Highly recommended for all those who know and/or love Germany and who’d like a light-hearted look at what it might be like to live there.
The Glasshouse in Edinburgh is quite something, according to the awards it boasts about on its website. With a preserved church facade behind which the omnipresent glass of this particular hotel stands, it makes an intriguing first impression. However, this place is a lesson in that piece of wisdom: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’
Monsieur had already arrived so I was there to meet him. In I went, expecting a “welcome to our hotel. Here’s your room key, there’s the lift and please let us know if you need anything.” I’m quite an independent soul, perfectly capable of wheeling my suitcase in any direction I’m shown, so it annoyed me a bit that a porter grabbed the case out of my hand, insisting on leading me to the room. Whatever. He was likeable and chatty and I soon realised why he’d lent a hand. Our room was miles away.
Note to reader: if you ever stay at The Glasshouse, do not stay in a room beginning with a 1. It means you have to walk some distance along a corridor down which you could have run the 100 metres, past the ‘snug’ (more about that later) and down two flights of glass stairs. I was soon grateful to the porter for guiding me as I would no doubt have been lost in no time. Never have I stayed in such a modern warren of a hotel. Ancient warrens, perhaps, but this was supposed to be a modern luxury boutique of an award-winning hotel and so far, it was doing its best to confuse me.
The room was pretty much as you’d expect: big, white bed, chic mustard walls, funky bathroom panelled with turquoise glass, cool TV, separate stereo, Mitel telephones plural. Then I saw their idea of art: three nude and semi-nude black-and-white photographs of women. I’ve spent most of my life studying or working with art, so believe me when I say that this was borderline stuff. Here I was, with my fiance, for a much-needed weekend of relaxation and the LAST thing I wanted to look at was iffy portrayals of naked female bodies. Give me some of the screenprints from the corridors outside, by all means, or an Ingres nude or a life-size Aphrodite, but this was too in-your-face and I doubt I’d be the only one to say so.
Anyway, the weekend had begun and I wasn’t going to let a couple of bare-skinned babes-on-the-wall worry me. Monsieur and I went out for dinner. When we returned, we walked past the huge cinema complex adjacent to The Glasshouse. A thumping beat grew louder as we approached the hotel entrance. Ah, that would be the night club next door, then. I furrowed my brow. “It’s Friday night, it’s Edinburgh, let’s hope we can’t hear that in our room.” Of course, we could. In fact, I could hear exactly what the words to the songs were. We had Bryan Adams’ ‘Summer of ’69′, Shakira’s ‘Wherever, Whenever’, and if we hadn’t been so pooped we’d probably have sung along and Jump Jump Jumped with the songs as they vibrated through our walls. But it had been a long day, so after moaning a bit about how seldom it is we get a good night’s sleep, what with the insomniac mammoth that lives above us in London, we fell into the baby-soft bed and slept the sleep of the terminally exhausted.
On Saturday we spent a wonderful day exploring Edinburgh and were out again for dinner. Once more, we returned to a hotel with the flashing club lights of its nearest neighbour keeping time with the music pumping out of its doors. It didn’t look good. We were knackered. Would a quiet night be too much to ask? Apparently so. In room 104 the music was even louder than the previous night, but once again, we were so tired that dropping off to sleep was hardly a problem. Not until 2am, that is, when someone pumped up the volume and I was woken by the Jackson Five bleating on about sunshine, moonlight and good times. Under the right circumstances, this is a favourite disco classic. I defy anyone to like it when it wakes you at 2am. I was fit to kill.
Confused again, I battled with my own, already complex thought processes. If I got up to complain, I’d wake Monsieur, snuffling away happily next to me. I couldn’t do that to him, so I wondered instead about quietly dressing and going down to reception, or picking up the phone to the night manager but speaking from the bathroom. There was nothing to be done, however. I knew that already. They’d either move us to a quieter part of the hotel which isn’t really practical at this time of night, or tell me that this is normal for central Edinburgh at the weekend. Squinting at my watch I saw that as long as the club didn’t have extended licencing, I only had another 40 minutes to wait until the music would stop. It was a fitful 40 minutes, but after a bit of ‘I’m so excited… boom boom boom… and I just can’t hide it…’, a song which bore resemblance to how I currently felt, not in a good way, at long last there was silence. Ah, precious sleep. How could I ever take you for granted?
Musical hotel aside, The Glasshouse had a few other surprises. £6.00 per hour to log into WiFi, a £5.00 per room surcharge on room service, over-priced mini-bar, even by Occidental standards, and an astonishing price list of in-room accessories, should one wish to take them home. A water bottle (standard glass with the hotel name on the front) would set you back £15.00. The golfer’s umbrella cost £30.00. The smart Do Not Disturb sign with a SHHHH on the front is £15.00 and the bathrobes seem like quite a bargain, relatively speaking, at £45.00. What’s this about ‘In Room Books’ being £15.00 each? I hunted until I found them. There was one on Edinburgh – hardly surprising, and one on Wicca. Wicca? First naked women and now witchcraft? What on earth would a devout religious couple think of a room like this? Heaven’s to Betsy, they’d run a mile.
As I said before, The Glasshouse confused me. It was smart and luxurious on the one hand, but on the other, it felt as if we had to keep our eyes open at all times, lest we do something that’s free in other establishments, only to be charged for it. The so-called ‘snug’ incorporated a seating area and spherical fire with retro-style hood around which one could sip on drinks from the honesty bar. “Just take what you like and write it in the book,” suggested the porter as we passed by on my arrival, “We’ll add it to your bill later.” We didn’t try it, but it didn’t feel right. Would they charge us the right amount? How much were the drinks, anyway? Meanwhile, in our snazzy bathroom, there was a discreet glass frame suggesting bath treats:
‘For him: a glass of cognac and almond biscotti, £15.00. For her: a glass of champagne, strawberries and cream, £15.00′. Ouch. Read the very, very fine print at the bottom and you’ll see a note: ‘discretionary charge of 10% will be added to your bill.’ Double ouch.
As we left the room to check out, Monsieur noticed his morning paper hanging from the doorknob. A piece of paper stapled to the top right-hand corner bore his name and the word ‘complimentary’. On the bill, he was charged £2.00 for his two ‘complimentary’ papers. We didn’t take it on board because we were still reeling at the receptionist’s attitude.
“Did you enjoy your stay?” she smiled, obviously expecting us to gush approval all over the desk. “Well, actually, I had a dreadful night’s sleep because of the club’s music,” I said, quite calmly. “Yes, well, that’s to be expected,” she began. “We are in central Edinburgh and it’s the weekend, so we can’t do anything about that. When you come next time, just ask reservations to put you in a quiet room.” Gee, thanks a bunch. “Okay, so while we’re here,” I ventured, “do you think we could do our online check-in ?” “No,” she said, helpfully, “that’s not possible. We’re too busy. You can go to an internet cafe or try the business centre.” We passed. As for staying there ‘next time’, we’ll pass on that, too. The Scotsman doesn’t have a nightclub next door (I checked) and it does have a very good restaurant.