Monthly Archives: May 2008
There are too many people in this world who simply don’t understand the fascination of bandes dessinées (otherwise known as graphic novels). Monsieur and I are not among these people. We still read Tintin, raced madly through a series called XIII (Treize, as in ‘thirteen’) which gripped us with political intrigue and Kennedy-esque family, spent last year’s French holiday addicted to another series called Largo Winch about a billionaire playboy – this meant we made frequent trips to FNAC or roadside supermarkets in search of the next instalment… we even watch documentaries about the life of Tintin’s creator, Hergé. We love it all!
We’d been thinking about having a bandes dessinées weekend for some time now, so finally we stopped talking and started doing. Besides, a bit of distraction was required – Monsieur had spent months with his head in books for professional exams which were finally over and I was stressed out with various other things, so off we went to Paris and Brussels.
In Paris, we stayed near the Gare Lazare in a Hotel Mercure (part of the Accor group of hotels). The room was small but comfortable and had recently been decorated, so there was a whiff of paint in the air. Never mind. The mini bar was incredible. No, it wasn’t stocked with jars of peanuts for £10.00 a pop, or mini bottles of champagne costing as much as a magnum on the street. It was filled with non-alcoholic beverages and they were all free. What a brilliant idea! No more waking up parched from fierce hotel air-con in the middle of the night and reaching for a bottle of evian, only to find in the morning that you’d just consumed a weeny 250ml of water at £6.50 a go.
It was in Paris that we kicked off our BD adventure by going to Parc Astérix, the theme park of the Astérix world. Monsieur had been once as a child but couldn’t remember much about it. Besides, I was keen to see life-size Astérix and Obelix characters walking around Gaul villages. Let’s just say we’re very much in touch with our inner children.
Reader, please note: Monsieur and I rarely travel without some sort of adventure happening along the way. By ‘adventure’, we mean hiccup or problem or minor disaster. Our adventure of this particular weekend would prove to be getting to Parc Astérix.
How NOT to travel to Parc Astérix from central Paris
As we’d booked our entry tickets online at the Parc website, we had also printed their detailed instructions on how to get to Parc Astérix from central Paris. We followed them to the letter.
First, we had to get up at 7am (which translates into 6am UK time) – an ungodly hour when travelling for relaxation. We somehow managed breakfast in 15 minutes. (That’s pretty miraculous for us, especially considering the need to coordinate. We’re really not great in the morning; the lights are on but nobody’s home until about 10am.) Then, unsure of how long it would take to walk, we grabbed a taxi to 99, rue Rivoli, as per the Official Directions. 10 Euros later, we were standing outside the Carrousel du Louvre, at number 99, with a group of Astérix fans, happily waiting for the navette (shuttle). It should have been there at 8.45am. It didn’t come.
“Don’t worry, darling. You French are always fashionably late!” I said, optimistically.
“No, we’re not.” Monsieur was adamant ”This isn’t right.”
I didn’t believe him. After all, we were in the midst of a group of day-trippers; kids with backpacks covered in images of toys of the moment all around. We couldn’t all be wrong, could we? Nah, of course not. At 9.20am, no navette in sight, one of the women waiting with us picked up her mobile to call the Parc and find out why we hadn’t been collected yet. Apparently, we’d been waiting in the wrong place. Cue group groan. So much for the Official Directions. Mobile Phone Woman was now ranting. There was a bus park in the Louvre courtyard behind 99 rue Rivoli where the navette had already been, and gone. No, it couldn’t come back for us because it was already full with visitors who’d waited in the right place. How ever did they know? Farts. There was only one morning navette from Paris to the Parc and we’d missed it. Now what?
Pulling out the Official Directions, we found an alternate route, via métro, train and bus. This was going to be far less direct. We took the métro from Carrousel to the Gare du Nord, then jumped on a train to the airport (yes, the airport), from where we could pick up a navette to the Parc. It seemed straightforward enough. Oh, how wrong we were. The metro was fine. The train was fine. The queue for the navette was NOT fine.
Given that we were (misguidedly) visiting Parc Astérix on a French holiday and there was only one navette per half-hour leaving from the airport train station, the queue of a couple of hundred teenagers in front of us meant that we wouldn’t make it to the Parc until closing time. We stood in line pondering the options, shuffling forward a few inches every few minutes. Then we gave up, took a monorail to the airport terminal, walked straight into a taxi and paid yet more Euros to drive down the motorway to the blooming theme park filled with fake Gauls and enough hysterical adolescents with piercings to put you off them for life. And breathe. Why on earth had we thought this would be a good idea? The icing on the cake was the traffic jam on the off ramp leading to the park. Oh joy. Blessedly, that was the last of the problems. This time.
Here’s a life lesson for you: when visiting theme parks, always do so in the morning of a weekday during term time. Why? No queues. We love no queues.
On the way back, Monsieur and I forewent trying out a new ride in order to jump on an early navette back to the airport station. We didn’t want to risk waiting until park closing time to wrestle our way onto a bus out of Gaul. The bus was filled with French chav teenagers, wearing naff tracksuits, the crotches of which hung down to their knees, and those baseball caps which perch on top of the cranium, adding several inches to their height. Isn’t it reassuring to know that there are kids like this everywhere, even if they don’t wear fake Burberry or say “innit”?
On the train, there were more chavs, only older, and a number of dodgy guys wearing enough gold chain to start a market stall. Monsieur nudged me “we’re travelling through one of the roughest areas in Paris,” he whispered. Hmm. Looking around me, I could see what he meant, but it only made me more interested in where we were, who got on or off the train, and how much man-jewellery the guys were wearing. Sadly, there’s not much else to report that would be different from a suburban train trip anywhere else, but I have to admit I was pleased we were travelling in daylight.
At the Gare du Nord we got stuck trying to reach the right platform on the EM métro line that would take us back to the hotel. First, we found the right line but the trains were heading in the wrong direction, so we took the escalator up to a level that bridged all the platforms but had no down escalators. We then had to return to the entrance to the line (two more escalators going up) and finally found the level (two more escalators going down) from which you could take yet another down escalator to the right platform going in the right direction. Man, could this day be any more of a transportation hell?
When Monsieur and I got off at the Gare St Lazare, we were barely talking with the stress of it all. After a rest at the relatively peaceful hotel with a free minibar filled with cool drinks, it was time to go out again, only this time, we’d walk.
Summary of transport to get to and from Parc Astérix from central Paris:
- 2 taxis
- 2 métros
- 2 trains
- 1 navette
The moral of this story is: drive.
One of the best things about the weekend is Vegemite toast. I love Vegemite toast. Coming from south of the equator, as I do, it is natural to like Vegemite. It’s one of the most praiseworthy Aussie creations and pretty much everyone I know from Australia or New Zealand eats it in some way, shape or form. Some poor misled creatures from Downunder, however, prefer Marmite. Blurgh.
Whenever I think of Vegemite, I think of a Japanese girl who joined our class when we were 12 years old. Her father had taken a company transfer to New Zealand and the whole family had been reading up on their new country. On arrival at their new Auckland home, Japanese Pal went directly to the back garden, looking for the eighty sheep she thought would be there, based on the ratio of sheep to people that had been mentioned in one of their guides. There were no sheep. They lived on farms or grazed in parkland. They did not live crammed into the back yard of an Eastern Suburbs bungalow. Japanese Pal was disappointed.
Back in the house her parents were opening a welcome basket left by the relocation company. Inside was a massive jar of Vegemite. To quell Japanese Pal’s disappointment at not having 80 new pet lambs to play with, she grabbed the Vegemite and spread it thickly on a slice of bread. Then she bit into it and she never ate Vegemite again. Japanese Pal had thought this spread would taste like her favourite Japanese chocolate variety. She didn’t realise it was a concentrated yeast extract with an acquired taste that should never be eaten in quantity.
In the UK a popular Marmite ad campaign states that you either ‘Love it or hate it’. Too true. Personally I hate it. Most of my antipodean friends agree with me. After growing up with Vegemite, Marmite tastes greasy. It may be a yeast extract, just like Vegemite, but in my experience, if you’ve been raised with one, you’ll never like the other.
One day at work a debate started about which -Mite we liked. Wise Woman of Wandsworth swore by Marmite. Via e-mail, Former Flatmate pledged his allegiance to Marmite also (he has a small addiction to the stuff and even owns a sterling silver lid engraved with the Marmite logo which can be screwed on to a Marmite jar). I wasn’t going to be outdone. Summoning every Antipodean in our workforce, I canvassed their opinion on which -Mite did it for them. The answer was unanimous: Vegemite. Meanwhile, all of our British colleagues backed Marmite. Hmmm. Intriguing. I put this Mite-y phenomenon down to Nurture, not Nature.
On Facebook there is a Vegemite appreciation group (all this for a sandwich spread?). In the profile a poem appears:
We’re happy little Vegemites
As bright as bright can be.
We all enjoy our Vegemite
For breakfast, lunch, and tea.
Our mother says we’re growing
stronger every single week.
Because we love our Vegemite.
We all adore our Vegemite.
It puts a rose in every cheek!
This might be taking it a bit too far. In the comments section, one facebooker recommends dipping almonds in Vegemite whilst another quotes the song ‘Land Downunder’ by Men at Work:
Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six foot four and full of muscles
I said, “Do you speak-a my language?”
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich
I guess the influence of Vegemite is widespread. (No pun intended!)
Marmite also has a page on Facebook. It states:
Eat Marmite? You don’t just want to eat it, you want to bathe in it, wallow in it like a hippo in mud, slather yourself from head to toe and wrap yourself in bread and butter… And you know what? That’s fine. Just fine. Completely normal in fact…
Thanks anyway, but I’ll pass. Those suggestions aside, things could be worse and indeed at times they’re bordering on mental illness. Just check out the photo of the statue made of Marmite. I think that’s what we’d call OTT.
On What’s Cooking America, there is a brief history of Vegemite, with a highly entertaining comment contributed by a Vegemite connoisseur. Read this for a smile:
“Your explanation is mostly fine, but some of us like a fair coating of the stuff, not just a scrape. I’ll eat it out of the jar! But one of the most useful tips to give any cook, is how it can save an anemic gravy: When a gravy lacks colour or flavour, a quarter to a half teaspoon or so always saves the day. Young-uns often wonder why my gravy is always so good; and if they’re nice, I let them in on the secret that my Grandma told me. Funny to think my family has used a product since it was invented. Thanks for the history lesson, and try Vegemite in your gravy, you’ll love it!
You might like to know that when the company sold overseas, it was cause for national concern…everybody was outraged, and worried that “the Yanks would stuff-it-up”. People were ringing radio stations calling for the government to stop the sale. Private citizens were trying to raise funds to make a counter offer…you wouldn’t believe the furor it created.
Another favourite use of my Mum’s, when she felt run-down, was vegemite ‘soup’; just a teaspoon of vegemite in boiling water. I used to like thinly sliced raw cabbage, garlic and vegemite sandwiches. (Sounds terrible, but very healthy and yummy.) Every kid in Australia ate Vegemite on SAO biscuits; often with tomato, and, or cheese. This combo is particularly yummy grilled as an open sandwich with Kraft sliced cheese, (the way it bubbles up and browns-off…yum!)
I’m an easy going old bloke, and I have a young lodger who gets away with murder because I “don’t give a rats” about money or anything – you could hit me with a cricket bat and I’d blink at you, LOL – anyway, he used the last of the Vegemite the other month…God he was lucky I didn’t rip his head off, LOL. Now I keep an emergency jar hidden away for myself, just in case.
Growing-up, only ‘pommies and wankers’ ate marmite; I still haven’t tasted it (excuse the language.) We all agreed the best pies were “Sergeants pies”, though we’d eat “Four and Twenty” if that was all we could get. People argued about Ford and Holden; and we’re still arguing about which code of football is best…but apart from cricket, vegemite is one of the great unifying forces – no matter your politics or standing in life, we all love our Vegemite.
What ever you do, don’t muck with the recipe too much, or you can forget about being allies. LOL.
NB. It was a national tragedy the day that Sergeants stopped baking pies. People went around buying-up the last run, and freezing them. It was very sad I remember; we mourned their passing for years, quite literally. The new ones are ok, but not a patch on the original. (Aussies used to have them flown overseas when touring.) It’s the highest praise for a pie to say it’s almost as good as a Sergeants.”
Passions certainly run high when it comes to the Mite-y wars. I’ll always be on the side of Vegemite, and will have to keep my head low in this land of Marmite-lovers lest a low flying jar of the stuff knocks me unconscious. It’s certainly a bizarre situation, having such competition between sandwich spreads. I mean, who ever heard of such a war between Bonne Maman and another jam? Or between two brands of peanut butter? With appreciation groups on social networking sites and statues constructed of the stuff you’d usually put on toast? I don’t know. It can’t be normal.
As Monsieur had selected most of the hotels for our Malaysian holiday, I decided to find something a bit different for our time in Melaka. Trawling tripadvisor, I found repeated reference to the Hotel Puri, its fabulous antiques and themed rooms and the über-efficient Madame Jo who ran front desk. If the five-star hotels we’d stayed in so far were cheap by London standards and therefore spoiling us due to a hugely favourable exchange rate, then this was to be a bit more real and a complete bargain.
It was therefore with some anticipation that we arrived at the Hotel Puri. Just as we walked through the doors, a couple burst out, visibly angry. “Take us to another hotel. A better hotel,” the woman instructed the taxi driver struggling with their bags. “This place is horrible. Nothing like the website!” Not exactly the best of omens for incoming guests.
We never saw the famous Madame Jo, instead being checked in, eventually, by slow and surly staff who really couldn’t be bothered with us or the people ahead of us. The lobby was a large tiled rectangle with cane seating around the sunken centre, where it felt like there should have been a pond or water feature. It all looked tired, but had character and would be nice contrast to the generic interiors of the international hotel groups. Or so I thought.
As we followed directions to our room, it was to be one disappointment after another. First we passed through a room full of antiques and reproductions of antiques all bundled together. None of the styles matched and nothing had been dusted in quite a long time. Then we exited a door into an outdoor courtyard, past a communal loo and up some stairs to a long, sterile corridor, where the only sign of local colour was a lizard scurrying around a plant by our door. Surely our room would be interesting? Especially after all those great photos on the hotel website. But no. It was small, boring, looked as if it belonged in a hostel and had a single window looking straight out at bricks and a smelly alleyway. To give credit where it’s due, everything was spotlessly clean, but dark and anonymous. None of the promised Perykanan accents seen on the website were present. We could have been anywhere in the world. My face fell. I had been charged with choosing one hotel for this trip and I’d failed. Miserably.
“Never mind, darling,” soothed Monsieur, “it’s only for one night.” That much was true. Thank goodness. Playing Pollyanna for a moment, we could be glad that we were centrally located and that things were clean. Besides, a change in environment wouldn’t be a bad thing; it would keep us real.
Travel always makes us hungry, so at the risk of sounding repetitive, we scuttled off down the street for a late lunch at The Coconut House, an eatery recommended by The Rough Guide:
“Art gallery, bookshop, art-film venue and woodfire pizzeria all in a tastefully renovated Chinese townhouse. Mid-range prices, good atmosphere, great pizzas, recommended.”
Hmmm. By the looks of the peeling walls and rusty old bike leaning against one wall, we were a few years out of date with our information. Still, the pizza was going to be good, right? The waitress came over with a couple of well-worn menus. Mine had half the words rubbed off so I had to ask the waitress to return fill in the gaps to help me choose.
Once we’d ordered, I looked around. There was the famous pizza oven at the back, with an open drain in the floor and a long-deceased cockroach of some notable size smeared across the wall. On another wall was painted the following saying:
‘Whoever is the lord of Melakka has his hand on the throat of Venice.’ harking back to the battles of spice trade routes, apparently.
On a specials blackboard was written: ‘Fried Calzone, Fried My Pocket, Fried Little Prince.’ I’m always keen to try new things, but eating a pocket or a Little Prince wasn’t one of them. The pocket turned out to be a small, folded over pizza, somewhat like a calzone, but regarding the Fried Little Prince, I figured that at his burial spot in Carqueiranne, St Exupéry must have been spinning a little to think that his beloved creation was on a menu in Malaysia. The Coconut House may have been a tired old haunt, but it certainly wasn’t boring.
The service was a bit eclectic as Monsieur had almost finished his pizza by the time mine arrived, but we couldn’t say they were bad. In fact, for anyone tiring of local cuisine, this was a good choice. Just don’t visit unless your OCD has been treated successfully and you can deal with indifferent service, otherwise you might find yourself back to scrubbing your hands fifty times before and after eating, and throwing your cutlery to get the waitress’s attention.
Back outside on Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, we walked in the sun, intrigued by the local colonial architecture and occasional house stuffed full of expensive looking antiques. As we doubled back to the hotel, we spotted a couple of rickshaws parked in front of an important looking ancestral home behind firmly closed gates. The rickshaws were a riot of plastic flowers and other items intended to accessorise them; the sort of thing that makes me giggle involuntarily. Then we had an idea: how about taking a rickshaw tour of Melaka? So off we skipped to the rickshaw pick-up point of Dutch Square.
To read previous instalment, click here.
I admit it. I’m a curtain twitcher. I love to observe what’s going on around our home so now that the weather is nice in London Town, I frequently find myself hanging out of our front window, watching the changing colours in the sky and observing people on the street. Most of the time I see people ensconced in routine: walking to or from the tube station, perhaps strolling with a toddler in a pushchair or taking a daily run. Recently, however, there’s been a bit of naughtiness going on. Blame it on the weather or something in the water, but things are afoot in our neighbourhood and as soon as I put my head out the window, more and more often I’m forced to retract it, like a tortoise retreating into its shell.
Here are some of the sights of the past week:
- First up, the couple attempting to copulate against the railings on the opposite side of the street. It didn’t look very comfortable, but at least the girl’s skirt was short enough to ease their fumbling efforts. A lot of giggling went on. I think possibly too much tequila had been consumed (with the worms) making their coordination a lot more Mister McGoo than erotic. Eventually, they gave up and stumbled along the street, bouncing from railing to car and woops, into the occasional tree.
- Then there was the couple who got out of their car on Sunday, only for Him to reach into Her top and pull out one rather large breast for full public viewing. Cue Epic gasp. What is the world coming to? I suppose I shouldn’t be worried. The owner of the breast certainly wasn’t. She jiggled and laughed as if she’s quite used to having her front flashed around by a pair of male hands in broad daylight.
- A prize goes to curly-haired surfer type who decided to use our communal bin for urinary firing practice one weekend lunchtime. I had no desire to watch him relieve himself so did the tortoise thing, but when I looked out again after a couple of minutes, he was still there, happily peeing away. Boy, his bladder must have been full! No wonder he couldn’t wait.
Apart from the above randomness, I also see neighbours and locals going about their daily routines. There is a couple living opposite us who always iron in front of the TV on a Sunday night. Further along, a swarthy man has moved into a bare flat with no curtains and one of those dangling naked lightbulbs that signifies transience and detachment. He still hasn’t hung curtains or found a shade for that bulb, but he does have a TV because he sits with a bottle of beer watching football whenever there’s an interesting match. I know that it’s football because he cheers when goals are scored, doing that air-punching thing that sports enthusiasts are so good at. Apart from the football nights, he seems very alone.
Out on the street I see a sad-looking man with grey moustache walking his Yorkie as he puffs on a mini cigar. Every time I see him I ask myself the same questions: does he live alone? Or is the dog an excuse to escape the confines of a non-smoking household? He never smiles and it worries me, even though it shouldn’t. I don’t even know this person so why does he make me frown?
Best of all, though, are the trees. Our street is lined with mature, deciduous trees by which you can track the seasons. In the autumn, their leaves brown and fall, sticking to the footpath in a slippery mess or piling up at the base of their trunks. The whole street turns brown in autumn. Then, by winter, the leaves have gone completely so you can see more of the buildings and trees and people, but the bare branches are a sad sight. Spring is the best time of year for the trees – they sprout leaves at an astonishing speed so a street that was recently so red with brick facades is now red AND green with new growth. Then, in the summer, the street is an entire sea of waving green and we can no longer see our neighbours across the street, nor they us. On the hottest of days, the trees cast a dappled shade across our front room, preventing us from turning into a sauna. They’re a real blessing, but even blessings lose their leaves, it seems, so come October, we’re back to living on a long, brown street.
All this talk of the neighbourhood makes me smile as I remember a postcard I gave to my mother. It shows a couple of old crones of the blue rinse brigade and has the caption
“God sees everything but the neighbours miss nothing.”
We were soon to leave the island state of Singapore to return to Malaysia, but first we enjoyed a last breakfast on the terrace outside The Line. There was no more rain. Isn’t that typical? It had rained off and on the whole time we’d been in Singapore but on our day of departure the sun decided to shine.
As Monsieur buried his nose deep in a newspaper, keen for an update on world events, I dashed around with my camera, snapping the lush surrounds without raindrops distorting the view of the lens. The three-hole putting green amused me; too small to be of any real use, and vaguely decorative, I suppose… As I pondered the wannabe pro golfers who might find it a beneficial amenity, the mysterious mist rising from a valley in the gardens lured me away. Following the quiet path, I found at its end a gazebo overflowing with orchids and tropical flowering plants. It was a florist’s own Shangri La. I managed to snap a few pics of the stunning flowers, colours clashing happily in the shade and a testament to a loving gardener. Then I heard Monsieur calling. It was time to go.
We checked out and walked straight into a cab that was waiting for us, bags already loaded in the boot. Now, that’s what I call efficient. As we drove through Singapore to the Lavender Road bus station, it felt a bit sad to be leaving with so much still to see, but we didn’t have time for regrets. It was now Melaka’s turn to enthrall us.
The bus was full this time. Italian girls chattered away on the back seat as Chinese families unwrapped home-made snacks, bringing forth aromas of chilli, soy, noodles and a sniff of something fishy. Once more we cleared customs twice before zooming along the Malaysian jungle highways. There wasn’t a lot to see. Just trees, a straight road and clear blue sky. We made one rest stop at a small clutch of uninspiring roadside buildings. This time, I did not visit the ladies’ room. I didn’t need to, and didn’t think I could stomach it alongside the pervasive cooking smell from an adjacent noodle bar. Instead, Monsieur and I basked in the warm day, stretching our legs in anticipation of the last stretch of journey.
As we neared Melaka, we drove past a large man-made waterfall gushing water over perfect rock formations. Then I heard ‘Hey Mambo’ playing. At first it sounded like a ringtone and I silently cursed the owner of the offending mobile. The music got louder. It wasn’t a phone, after all; it was the bus’s sound system.
‘Hey, mambo! Mambo italiano
Go, go, go you mixed up siciliano
All you calabraise-a do the mambo like a crazy with a…’
and, joy of joys, for all the Rosemary Clooney fans out there, it continued on a loop:
‘Hey mambo, don’t wanna tarantella
Hey mambo, no more a mozzarella
Hey mambo! Mambo italiano!’ and on…and on…and on it went. We were stuck in a traffic jam for ages, but that’s okay. We could mambo our way into Melaka!
By the time we reached the Sentral bus station, we were just a little bit mamboed out. The station itself was a modern hub of shops, stalls and ticket counters. There were racks of colourful headscarves next to bright plastic toys and snack stands. Locals and travellers milled around waiting for buses to somewhere else. Monsieur and I dragged our bags to a cab. Boy, did we ever have a friendly driver. He wasted no time finding out what we were about.
“You on honeymoon?” Not exactly. “No, we’re just on holiday.” we replied. Driver beamed a smile as warm as the sun outside. “You like Malaysia?” he asked. “Yes, we love it. It’s a fascinating country.” I enthused. If possible, Driver’s smile widened. He was obviously proud of his homeland. A brief but searching Malaysian Inquisition commenced, covering our itinerary, where we’d been so far and where we were headed next.
“You return to Malaysia one day? Maybe on honeymoon?” Ah, how to answer this one without Monsieur running off for the Cameron Highlands. “Yes, definitely, we’d love to come back.” That satisfied Driver for the moment. Now it was my turn to interrogate. “What’s your favourite food?” I asked. A menu of dishes tripped off Driver’s tongue. “I like pineapple fried rice, sweet and sour chicken with pineapple, seafood with pineapple, Singapore noodles with pineapple, and fresh pineapple.” Wow. My mother likes a good Hawaiian pizza from time to time, but this was pineapple overdrive. The man was in the wrong business. He should be working for Dole in Hawaii.
“Ah, see that place there?” Driver asked, pointing at a humble-looking tented hawker stall with a dozen white plastic table sets surrounding it, “you eat golf balls there. Best golf balls, haha.” He laughed at his own joke, creasing his happy eyes almost closed in mirth. “Hainanese chicken rice balls. I call them golf balls because they look like golf balls.” he chortled. Driver’s humour was infectious. I giggled along with him.
Soon we reached the hotel and removed our bags from the boot. The driver shook our hands warmly. “You each gain six kilo before you leave Malaysia,” he instructed, “or we not welcome you back, haha!”
Even if we did not know it at the time, our gaining weight was not to be a problem.
To read the previous instalment, click here.
To read the next instalment, click here.
Monsieur and I left the bowling ball bullfrog behind on Clarke Quay as we jumped on a bumboat (a.k.a. junk) to take us up the Singapore River. It was late afternoon grey as our almost empty boat set off from the jetty. Up the green river we went, under the pedestrian Riverwalk bridge and adjacent North Bridge Road, heavy with traffic, then on past a bustling Boat Quay already busy with diners at its myriad eateries.
The stunning Fullerton Hotel, rival to Raffles, impressed in full Palladian splendour at its prime position on the river as we motored on by. We doubled back near Merlion Park where a 70 tonne mythical animal (head of lion, body of fish) stands guarding the river. (This beast is called a ‘merlion’, hence the park’s name.) Close by, the skyscrapers of the business district loomed large above us, the neon signs of the world’s biggest banks recognisable against the now darkening sky, but it was difficult to take photos as the boat churned and chugged on the busy river. Every image blurred.
En route back to our starting point, we passed the Raffles Landing Site, with an impressive statue of Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (July 6 1781 – July 5 1826), himself, looking down on us, specks on the water. He was the acknowledged father of Singapore as we know it, but outside of this island nation is probably best known for the hotel of his name. A little further along we saw the colonial style of Old Parliament House next to the stark modern equivalent before returning to Clarke Quay and its Friday night revellers.
We alighted at the same platform where we’d left the bowling ball bullfrog and I was hoping to see him again, but I guess it was his Friday night, too, so he’d no doubt gone for a Bud – weis – errrrrrrrrrr.
As we walked along Clarke Quay, we noticed the many different styles of restaurant luring people out for a treat. There was the eponymous select-your-dinner-from-the-tank type of eatery, next to ethno-cool, with traditional Chinese dining rooms standing, lanterns waving, in between. Perched riverside were the off-shoot bars of some of the hipper restaurants, smart square umbrellas raised lest rain should threaten a steamy night of cocktails by the water. One such place heaved with be-suited boys from the C.B.D., attracted, no doubt, by the waitresses – slim Chinese beauties sporting bright orange hot pants. Monsieur’s jaw hit the floor but I refrained from hitting him. Just.
We wandered across the pedestrian Riverwalk Bridge before jumping around in the unpredictable traffic, of which there was much, as we crossed North Bridge Road to reach Boat Quay. This would be a great place for Jackie Chan (or similar) to practise his flying side kicks and avoidance leaps with the Singapore cabs. It’s crazy! Eventually we made it, breathless but alive (amazingly) with appetites. Following a trail of tantalising cooking aromas we found Boat Quay soon enough, a total change from Clarke Quay. The two are like chalk and cheese (or should I say ‘rice and noodles’?) The former is tourist trap central, replete with laminated point-and-order menu boards and eateries battling over patronage; the latter is confident cool with maitre d’s who’d never dream of hustling you in off the street. Reservations are the way forward on that side of the river.
On Boat Quay we had to fight our way along the path separating the restaurants from their outdoor seating areas. Had I had a sword, I would have swashbuckled. It was so crowded with touts and meandering tour groups that the grabbing hands and immovable clusters of people who thought nothing of stepping into your personal space deserved a clunk on the head with my mighty (imaginary) sword.
“Free bottle of wine! Free bottle of wine with dinner!” implored one tenacious tout, waving a menu at my nose. “You eat here, I give you free bottle!” We marched on but the tout remained unfazed. “TWO free bottles, I give you TWO free…” Pushing ourselves clear of the mania, Monsieur and I recovered by sitting awhile on a piece of clear embankment at the end of the food strip. We breathed deeply, watching the comings and goings on the Singapore River before retreating to Clarke Quay.
In the end we dined at a restaurant called Indochine, a stunning glass-fronted restaurant and bar which has been built into the sensitively restored Empress Place Building, now housing the Asian Civilisations Museum just by Raffles Landing. Had it not been so rainy, we might have sat on the waterfront terrace, but the outdoor tables were damp and deserted, so inside we went.
Our fellow patrons formed a microcosm of cosmopolitan Singapore: mixed couples enjoying quiet têtes à têtes, boozy bankers watching football on plasma screens above the bar, large groups of business associates from the four corners of the globe relaxing after a conference, and keen foodie tourists like ourselves. It was all so vibrant. The waitstaff were also noteworthy as they managed a perfect level of attentiveness without being intrusive. As we filled up on fresh spring rolls and (more) soft-shelled crab, I marvelled at the stunning Buddhist art hanging on a rear wall, and pondered how great the equilibrium was in this place. There was old and new, young and old, modern and traditional, all existing quite happily together.
As we finished eating, I felt one of those waves of uncontrollable emotion, that we females of the species are so prone to get. At least this time it was based in positivity; this trip was making me feel very, very lucky for all sorts of reasons. As my eyes filled involuntarily, Monsieur stared at me with furrowed brow. “What’s the matter?” he asked. “Nothing,” I replied, “We’re just so lucky to be here,” I smiled at him as a tear plopped down my cheek. Monsieur looked back at me with that face that says ‘Women. How do you ever expect us to understand you when you do weird things like cry because you’re happy?’
Back at the hotel we were keen to celebrate our last night in Singapore with a drink at the Blu Bar on the 24th floor. The bar’s name comes from the bar itself, an island in the centre of the room, backlit with cool azure blue. As we teetered on stools at a window table, an energetic barman added percussion to the eighties music as he shook cocktails to the beat. Most of the patrons around us were businessmen, ties loosened or absent, easily beguiled into ‘just one more’ by the waitress, a stunning girl who’d been poured into her black cheongsam. A slit rose up one of her thighs, just short of being indecent, but you couldn’t question her work ethic. She flitted from table to bar and back to table, quietly reproaching anyone who pushed the boundaries of flirting as she repeatedly cleared and served whilst ensuring that no one was left unattended.
Monsieur and I sipped on Long Island Iced Teas as we chatted about adventures achieved and adventures yet to come, looking out at the vista of the dark Botanical Gardens and the lights of a distant port. The Power of Love by Frankie Goes To Hollywood (cue brown paper bag) played, instantly transported me to 1985 – I’d stopped biting my nails and knew every song on The American Top Forty. Isn’t it strange how music can do that?
Back in our room, lights off, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, but I could hear Monsieur across the huge bed. “Darling, he said, perhaps everything’s good now because you deserve it.”
That night, I was Conway in Shangri La.
To read the previous instalment, click here.
To read the next instalment, click here.
Recently, I started a list of funny euphemisms that pass my way. It’s amusing to see how far humankind will go to make something icky or uncomfortable sound not so bad.
Dear friend, The Wise Woman of Wandsworth, is always ‘washing her cat’ when she wants to turn down an invitation. (Odd that she has yet to own a cat to wash.) If we really don’t want to do something, we say that we’d rather ‘stick hot needles in our eyes’ but that sounded a bit painful, so we’ve changed it to ‘undergoing heated ocular acupuncture’ and may just have invented a whole new holistic experience.
Regarding body parts, there are front bits, lady lumps (for some reason this reminds me of marshmallows) and IT Guy recently said that something “gets on my…um…pecs”. Nice save.
Then there’s the expression ‘farting with confidence’ which anyone who’s ever had a touch of Delhi Belly will understand, as in: ‘He’s feeling much better and can now fart with confidence’.
Whilst on the topic of powdering one’s nose, The Wise Woman calls this ‘rinsing one’s fingers’. “Excuse me while I rinse…” she’ll say. It’s gone into our lexicon and has even rubbed off on Well Spoken Friend who chortles about the rinsing phenomenon every time we meet up, just at the point where someone excuses themselves to go to the loo. “Are you off to rinse?” he’ll laugh. It’s impossible to be discreet. In the interests of variety, perhaps we should take a leaf out of Dr Seuss’s book and say we’re ‘going to the euphemism.’
‘The project officially launched in August of 2000, with the release of the first 100 journals in San Francisco. I gave them to friends, and left them at bars, cafes, and on park benches. Shortly thereafter, people began emailing me, asking if they could participate. So I started sending journals to folks, allowing them to share with friends, or strangers. It’s been a roller coaster ever since.’ So writes Someguy, the pseudonym for the brains behind this project.
Being an avid journal keeper, I was interested to learn about 1000 Journals. It’s become a collaborative art effort, with strangers from all over the world adding their own thoughts and images before handing the journal onto the next contributor and the results are nothing short of fascinating. The journals have travelled throughout the US and on to 35 different countries before returning to Someguy. Check it out here.
1000 Journals is now complete but the trend has been set. For anyone wanting to set off their own travelling journal or to contribute to an existing one, go to 1001 Journals .
Meanwhile, a selection of the best contributions has been collected and released as a book and filmmaker Andrea Kreuzhage has made a documentary about the journals, their travels, the lives of some of the contributors and what inspired them to take part. It’s currently touring the USA and fingers crossed it’ll reach the UK soon…
For a giggle, try to find the entry where a political critic talks about Presidents ‘Shrub’ and ‘Ray-Gun’!
One of my kitchen secrets is to keep the right sort of salts. At Oliviers & Co there are three which make a good basis for a seasoning collection:
The blue, for fish, contains: laurel leaves, lemon zest, juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, sage, thyme, parsley, fennel seeds and basil
The pink, for meat, contains: red pepper, cumin, aniseeds, pink berries, mustard seeds, parsley, basil and black pepper
The green, for pasta and salad, contains: marjoram, tomato flakes, chives and onion.
They work fantastically as a rub for fish or meat. The pink mix also works well with chicken. Sprinkle a bit of the green over a mozzarella and tomato salad for an extra kick.
Another salt ingredient, this time from the French supermarket shelf, is persillade. It’s a simple blend of parsley, garlic with salt and is available in the herbs and spices section of French food stores. Try sprinkling it onto whole chicken before cooking to make the skin taste great. It also works as a simple seasoning for salads or pasta sauces and I like to put it on potatoes before roasting them.
Did you know…
- that Shakespeare’s King Lear learns the importance of salt when his kingdom runs out of this precious condiment
- AND when someone says ‘you’re worth your salt’, they mean that you deserve your pay. This harks back to Roman times when soldiers received a salt ration with their salaries. Salt wasn’t as readily available back then and in the days before refrigeration was used as a preservative for food. It was also used in barter agreements. Modern methods of salt cultivation have made it inexpensive compared to times when it was a valuable commodity and salt is necessary in the diet because it helps us regulate our fluid balance
- THUS the word ‘salary’ is derived from the Roman military’s payment system
- BUT too much salt is bad for high blood pressure
- HOWEVER you can now buy salt substitutes easily to help control your salt intake
- Have you ever noticed that a pepper mill uses metal to grind the peppercorns, but a salt mill uses plastic? This is due to the corrosive effect of salt on metal
‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’, or so they say, but what about ‘when in Paris, eat as the Mexicans do’? Deciding to turn our backs on canard and moules and other typical French fare, Monsieur and I felt like dining on something different. That’s how we came to experience two very different Mexican restaurants when we were in Paris last week.
Monsieur loves nachos. They’re his comfort food. He has them after a late night out or when there’s a good football match on TV and even during the French election results last year, so it’s no surprise that he wanted to go Mexican in Paris. He googled ‘Mexican restaurants Paris’ and made a list of the top few. On 1 May, Labour Day, lots of places were closed for business as the workers of France enjoyed a holiday in their honour. Fortunately for us, The Studio, the first Mexican on Monsieur’s list, was open so we decided to try it out.
The Studio is located just off the rue du Temple (le Marais) on a cobbled courtyard where patrons can enjoy fine Paris evenings at one of the outdoor tables. As we entered the restaurant, a waiter appeared immediately to seat us and we were happy that everything looked as you’d expect – coloured glass tea-light holders on each table, a Kahlo-esque painting on one wall, the authentic looking bar stocked with requisite selection of tequilas and a big green sculpture of a lizard hung above a door.
The menu was typical Mexican, laden with nachos, enchilladas and fajitas, so as we struggled to decide we quelled a surge in appetite with the corn chips and spicy salsa that had been deposited in front of us. One downside was that the wait for service was very, very long. In fact, it makes me think of a quote that appeared on the Zagat website recently, where someone said:
“I actually pulled out my cell phone and called to ask them to please bring us water.”
We attributed the lack of attention to short staffing on Labour Day and just as we were beginning to wonder if there was anyone at all in the kitchen (several of the other tables hadn’t been served, either), the restaurant’s cogs started whirring and we were eating in no time.
To start, Monsieur ordered nachos, which did not appear as the typical mountain of chips but which was instead presented as an artfully arranged pattern of individually-dressed tortilla chips. Meanwhile, I chowed down on a calorific selection of ‘fritos’: onion rings, peppers stuffed with cheese and deep-fried batons of mozzarella. It was just what I felt like eating, but it did have a bit of that ‘here’s one I froze earlier’ quality to it. Still, if they stocked this food in the freezer section of my local supermarket, I’d definitely buy it for a naughty treat.
As a main course, Monsieur chose a plate of enchilladas, which he polished off in record time in spite of the fact that he was now convinced that everything we were eating had come from the freezer. My prawn-filled quesadilla was tasty but far from remarkable, a little bit cardboardy, in fact, and our margheritas looked like the pre-mix cocktail variety although thankfully more alcoholic. It wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t great and we ended up paying about 40 Euros each for mediocre, which is hardly a bargain. Confusingly, the reviews on the web had been so positive that my theory is this: the regular kitchen chefs had taken advantage of Labour Day to have some well-earned respite, leaving a freezer or two filled with prepared meals so that the holiday staff could heat them up and arrange them on a plate. Hey, presto! They don’t lose any business.
Monsieur was unimpressed. The following morning he informed me that:
“we’re going to a different Mexican place tonight. It’s in the student quarter and it’s authentic,” That got my attention, as do most comments referring to food. “it’ll be interesting to compare it with last night’s food to see which one is better.”
I have to admit, it amuses me to go somewhere like Paris, only to eat Mexican food. Two nights in Paris. Two nights of enchilladas. It’s not the usual approach to eating in the City of Light, but we’re not exactly your usual couple. We do strange stuff like this. A lot.
So off we set, across the river to the 5th, to find The Studio’s Mexican rival, Anahuacalli, which is located on Rue des Bernardins, just off the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Before we even began to eat, everything about the place screamed genuine Mexican at us, and we suspected we’d be safe here because it was already full. Prints of Frida Kahlo self-portraits helped create a Mexican atmosphere and, as her husband, Diego Rivera’s museum is located in Anahuacalli, Mexico, her presence made perfect sense. Mayan sculptures stood on sconces around the room, there were sachets of Mexican food for sale behind the reception desk and the waitresses all wore embroidered blouses of a Central American style.
The menu made for fascinating reading. Apart from salivating at the culinary options, I learned that Anahuacalli is an Aztec word, meaning ‘house by the water’, and that ‘tomato’ comes from ‘tomatl’, another noun of Aztec origin. Our margheritas turned up in chunky glasses with hints of blue and deliciously salted rims. They were generous, genuine and so good that we ignored wine and drank margheritas instead. Then complimentary corn chips arrived in a matte silver bowl with pyramid feet, joined by two little ceramic dishes of salsa, one red (hot) and one green (think mouth-on-fire).
The starters all looked great so we ordered a Tu y Yo (you and me) shared starter, which came on a single blue and white ceramic plate, each dish blending into the next. There was a sweet ceviche of raw white fish, a mound of freshly made guacamole with a coriander bite, small tortilla rolls containing soft cheese or chicken, and a delicious salad called nopalitos, consisting of tomatoes, coriander and cactus. CACTUS! Yes, we ate cactus and it’s my new favourite food. The texture is like a cooked green pepper, the taste is like a jalapeño without the chilli and it works brilliantly in salad. Now I just have to work out where to buy it.
I ummed and ahed over the main course selection. The turkey mole with a cacao and twenty-spice sauce sounded tempting, but in the end I went for Pescado, sea bream poached in a mix of peppers, cactus (again!), onions and tomatoes with citrus juice and capers. It’s probably one of the best fish dishes I’ve ever eaten. Monsieur chose the enchilladas because “I want to compare it with last night’s to see which is better”. You won’t be surprised to hear that Anahuacalli came out tops. Other temptations on the menu included fillet of salmon in a papaya sauce, or duck breast on a bed of courgette flower cream.
As we ate I observed a nearby table, where Mum and Dad were taking twenty-something daughter for dinner. Daughter was blonde with startled-looking blue eyes, so slim that her clavicle stuck out like a shelf. She ate with the gusto of someone who hadn’t seen food in a month, and this included licking her knife on both sides at intervals. I still remember the day when I was taught why people didn’t lick knives. I was five years old, so this display horrified me. I can hand-on-heart say that I haven’t seen a person lick a knife in public since I was a child. No doubt Daughter may have had an eating disorder, as she periodically disappeared to the restaurant conveniences, returning with watery eyes. Her parents looked sensible, however, and I wondered if they noticed their offspring’s erratic behaviour or the fact that she was putting away enough food to fill a pair of hollow legs.
Meanwhile, we called it a night. Deciding to leave Anahuacalli’s dessert list another time, we payed this bill with a smile and the knowledge that we know where to eat proper Mexican in Paris. I’m dying to return and have an entire plate of cactus salad and try their famous Mole.
NB If you do decided to give Anahuacalli a shot, definitely reserve. When we called, they told us they have two sittings: 7.30pm or 9pm so make sure you don’t turn up without a reservation because chances are pretty high that you won’t get in.