Monthly Archives: October 2008
Following on from my recent experience with a sniffer dog who got it wrong, I thought I’d look into the success rates of these working dogs.
In Australia, they’re not convinced. Following research into sniffer dog accuracy a couple of years back, it was found that only one quarter of positive sniffs yield drugs. I don’t know why that should be a surprise, after all, no matter how much positive reinforcement you use to train a dog to recognise drugs on a person, they are still going to be interested in their own favourity doggie smells – food, bodily fluids, insect repellant (apparently). Here are some articles about when the sniffer dogs who bark up the wrong tree:
From Australia…, this report card for Downunder’s sniffies includes a lot of Ds and must sniff harder.
This post is from a chap who was stopped on the way to a legitimate meeting in Camden Town. The comments on this post are almost as good as the article! It would seem I’m not alone…
In Canada, they’re arguing over sniffer dogs and the infringement of civil liberties. Sniffer dogs should not be allowed to search for drugs in schools or public places – a recent ruling has decreed this to be the case – however, as the threat of explosives in airports is a more serious threat, sniffer dogs will still be allowed to operate there. I get it, but it is somewhat confusing. If an airport is a public place but I’m not an explosive, then why search me? It’s like those philosophical exercises: if a pig is pink and Maxine is pink then does that make Maxine a pig? It’s not exactly a yes or no answer. Besides which, in my experience, those bits of material that can be sniffed by a machine seem to be way more accurate than the dog (who’s probably more interested in food and people’s more delicate parts).
Without boring you with the other articles I’ve found, I can summarise by saying that sniffer dogs are far less accurate than we assume, so the next time you see someone being hauled off for further questioning by a customs official and a Sniffy, you should NOT presume they’re transporting illegal drugs. It could just be that the dog hasn’t had dinner yet and wants some of that duty free chocolate in the nice person’s backpack.
Meanwhile, Natasha Cloutier, my friend from Blog08 in Amsterdam, just sent me the link for a song about sniffer dogs. Can you believe it? Get those heads banging and enjoy (if you can). Personally, I think these guys need a spliff or something to calm them down…
The song’s called ‘I wanna be a drug sniffing dog’ (in case you can’t quite make out the lyrics). It’s by LARD.
This week I’ve been the lucky recipient of two meme requests for the same meme, so I’m going to kill two bloggers (not literally) with one stone and post my meme answer for both here.
The meme asks for three answers to each of three questions. Here goes.
1. Name your top three non-work websites.
Hmmm. Only three? That’s tough. In the interests of being fair to all the amazing blogs I read, I decided to restrict this to non-work and non-individual blog websites.
For TRAVEL I log on to Travelblog. This is where travel enthusiasts post about their trips as they happen. It’s great for travel planning because you can read about the real experiences of real people in real places, not just hyped-up travel journalism fuelled by freebie junkets.
For FOOD I’m currently reading the Britain’s Best Dish page at ITV.com. This is a great source of real recipes cooked by real people. I think you can probably tell that I’m quite into REAL.
For a GIGGLE I check out The Darwin Awards site. It never ceases to amaze me how people can meet the grim reaper in such incredibly stupid ways. I remember one tale about a parcel bomber who had to put a return address on his parcel bomb in order for the post office to accept it. The parcel was unable to be delivered, so it was returned to him. He didn’t recognise his own handiwork, opened the box and BOOM! I think you can guess the rest. What a doof.
2. Name your top three karaoke songs.
Well, karaoke + Epicurienne = not so pretty. I do recall singing California Dreaming at karaoke once. I think that was when Take That were still together. Then I had a flatmate with a karaoke machine, so I was forced into singing a bit more often at that time. If I have to sing something, then I quite like ABC’s The Look of Love and Don McLean’s American Pie (NOT the Madonna version. That was a mistake. Mind you, I’m sure mine is far, far worse.)
3. Name your top three weekend cocktails.
Why WEEKEND cocktails? I don’t drink cocktails that often, but if it happens to be a Tuesday evening and you pour me a great cocktail, I’m hardly going to say no. That would be rude. And silly.
The Epicurienne would have to be number one. How many people can say they have their own, bespoke cocktail? Thanks to Smirnoff, quite a few of the London Bloggers’ Meetup Group can… and I’m one of them. It’s basically a Smirnoff mule (Smirnoff red + gingerale) shaken with pineapple juice, chambord and strawberries. Deeeelish.
I absolutely cannot refuse a Mississippi Mudslide – tastes like an alcoholic chocolate shake, comprising a naughty blend of kahlua, baileys and (if you really want a kick) vodka, all blended with ice. I also love lemon martinis made with limoncello.
So that’s my three for three.
Now I have to name three more unsuspecting folk to carry on the three for three. I’m asking:
At long last, I flew to Amsterdam for Blog08 last week, with the clogs I’d promised to wear packed dutifully in my case. Friday’s conference was packed with interest and Monsieur joined me on Saturday for some Amsterdam sightseeing. We packed five museums and a lot of clog photography into the weekend, and then we flew home. Separately.
As part of my competition prize had included flights, I was taking KLM. Monsieur, meanwhile, had a free flight on BA courtesy of a diligent accrual of points with his favoured airline. His flight left Schiphol an hour before mine but I didn’t get home until three hours after him; instead of racing onto the Heathrow Express homeward-bound, I was instead the subject of a Very Special Greeting by customs officials when KLM landed at Terminal 4.
As we filed off the plane, an official instructed us to walk single-file along one side of the corridor so we could be sniffed by a drugs dog. When it came my turn, I fully expected the dog to take a cursory sniff and move on, but he didn’t. Apparently I smelled GOOOD, so as his nose went all around my nether regions, I wondered what could be so interesting about me. Then he sat at my feet and looked up at his handler. That was the sign. According to the hound I was a problem so I was waved out of the corridor and taken aside.
An official took my passport and asked a number of questions as he worked his way through my previously neatly-arranged carry on bags. Meanwhile, my fellow passengers walked past, casting looks of disdain in my direction. ‘Great. They think I’m one of those people on Airport, with all sorts of illegal substances ferretted away on my person,’ I thought to myself. I already knew that they couldn’t be more wrong; sauvignon blanc is my substance of choice and unless they considered that to be Class A on a list of drugs (I’d just consumed some on the flight) then I was going to be a complete waste of their time.
The officials separated me from my bags and brought the dog back. He didn’t find anything of interest in my carry-on, so they brought him across to sniff me again. His nose kept finding its way to my crotch in a disturbingly-insistent fashion. Perhaps he thought I’d squirreled some narcotics into a particular orifice? Thoughts of latex gloves started to feature in my mind. Whatever would I tell Monsieur?
The main official overseeing this investigation told me they’d now have to fast-track me through customs and retrieve my suitcase from the conveyor. As we approached a customs desk from a side gate, my seat neighbour, a visiting professional from the Phillipines with whom I’d had a friendly in-flight chat, looked directly at me. She frowned and shook her head before turning away. Oh joy. Now it was confirmed in my fellow passengers’ heads that I was a drug-runner. How little did they know! My face burned.
On the way down to baggage collection, I turned to the official.
“I hope you don’t mind me being graphic for a minute, but I have my period. Could that be a factor in what the dog can smell?”
“No,” he replied, “the dog is trained to sniff out Class A drugs.”
That was the end of that Epicurienne theory. It had only occurred to me because I’ve noticed that when it’s that time of the month, dogs take an extra-special interest in sniffing girls. Apparently we give off a similar smell to a bitch on heat. (Some might say that’s exactly what we are, but I couldn’t possibly agree.)
Wondering now if someone could have planted something in my case when I left it at the hotel after check-out this morning, the officials and I collected my luggage before going to the red “Something to Declare” section of the customs exit. There my case was opened and underwear, nightwear and big, wooden CLOGS bared for all to see, along with a pack of tampax. With two pairs of clogs in my luggage, I certainly can’t have been your usual suspect. I answered questions about what I did for a living, how long I’ve lived in the UK, why I was in Amsterdam (I won a blogging competition) and with whom I’d been travelling. When I explained that my fiancé had been with me but had flown back earlier, faces frowned again. They probably thought Monsieur was the drug baron and I was his mule. Poor Monsieur. I was quite relieved he wasn’t there to see this.
Little pieces of drug-sensitive cloth were rubbed around my suitcase and on my clothes before being put into a sniffer machine. Negative, negative came the machine’s response to the situation. Had I used drugs in the past two weeks, they asked. No, came my reply. Not unless you count ibuprofen. Would I be averse to a urine test to prove that? was the next question. Not at all, I replied whilst thinking ‘Where’s the cup? Just give me the cup. I’d gladly pee into any receptacle if that’s what it takes to get out of here and GO HOME.’
By now I could see that the officials were somewhat perplexed. As they told me, I’m well-spoken, obviously professional and could prove my reason for a visit to Amsterdam (no whacky backy required). Physically, I was on form (apart from blushing with shame at being escorted through the airport by uniformed officials). I wasn’t shaky or red-eyed, didn’t stink of an all-nighter or three like many visitors to the grass-capital of Europe might and was relatively calm considering the massive embarrassment I was currently enduring. Apart from a canine with an interest in my crotch, there was nothing to show that I had any contact with drugs.
Then a female official came up to me.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” she asked,
“Of course,” I replied (still wondering when I was going to be taken away for a more thorough inspection),
“You don’t by any chance have your period?” she ventured,
“Yes I do. Could that be a factor?”
“Yes it could.”
“Really?” asked the male official,
“Yes.” said the woman. I think that’s what you’d call a Homer Simpson moment. DOH.
The male official went off to consult his serious-faced boss. They talked for ages. I looked at the ceiling. I looked at the floor. I looked at my dishevelled belongings and I looked at the door marked with “Authorised Personnel Only”, wondering how long it would be before I was led off to somewhere more ‘private’. Then the male official returned.
“I’ve told my boss that you should be allowed to go. You’re too helpful to be a druggie. We can’t find any evidence of drugs here. We’ll just say that the dog was wrong.”
He continued “You may simply have sat in a seat where someone using drugs had been before you.” God bless the liberality of Amsterdam. Major sarcasm intended.
So with that, I packed up my suitcase, clogs included, and left for home. Home, sweet home. I wouldn’t be in the clink tonight. As Monsieur later told me with a big, comforting hug, “Darling, I just can’t let you travel on your own, can I?” He might just be right.
PS I have debated with myself all morning whether or not to write about this because I don’t usually get so personal. Although the dog was obviously barking up the wrong tree, so to speak, causing a great amount of embarrassment and inconvenience to all concerned, I have to say that the customs officials dealing with me were polite and professional. At the end of the ordeal, they apologised and admitted that an error had occurred. However, because I never realised that something like this could happen, I do think it’s important for Epicurienne readers to take note of my experience, just in case the dog ever gets it wrong with one of you.
Monsieur and I were floating about on a junk in Ha Long Bay, the Unesco wonder site that is a maze of jagged islands and floating fishermen’s villages, when we encountered a tasty condiment on the lunch table. It appeared with a plate of cucumber slices with floral edging, an indicator of Vietnamese cuisine’s obsession with carving fruit and vegetables into fascinating shapes. Next to the cucumber plate was a little dish of greyish powder. Our guide, Han, helped us prepare it by grinding some black pepper onto the powder and squeezing a wedge of lime over it. Now the dipping dish contained a watery grey sludge with black specks, but Han was adamant that this “Vietnamese spice” would be delicious once we dipped the cucumber into it.
I love cucumber, but Monsieur isn’t a huge fan, and that was about to prove a good thing. Chopsticks ready for some culinary action, I tentatively dipped a piece of cucumber into the grey stuff and was pleasantly surprised by the taste. Mmm, this was good! A bit salty, but not overpowering, with a je ne sais quoi about it and that limey citrus tang. Monsieur was suspicious. He tried a couple of pieces before putting his chopsticks down and waiting for something a bit more cooked to appear. Meanwhile, I polished off all the cucumber and most of the dipping sauce.
For the rest of the day I kept wondering what that spice was and where I could buy some to take home to the Epic Kitchen Cupboard, but there were so many other distractions that it was only when we were back in the car en route to Hanoi that I remembered to ask Han.
“You know that dipping mixture that we had with the cucumber, Han?”
“Yes,” he replied
“Well, what was it exactly? I’d love to take some home with me.” I continued.
Han’s face lit up, obviously pleased to have impressed a tourist with something so simple.
“It’s MSG!” he said, “You know it? Mono sodium glutamate.”
Hoping that Han hadn’t noticed my involuntary flinch, I quickly changed the subject.
My next thought was of my mother, who’s bound to freak out when she hears that her beloved daughter has almost single-handedly eaten an entire dipping dish of MSG. Gazing out the car window, I tried to forget my error and what physical effects it may have, watching instead the stream of workers cycling home, the girls’ ao dais flapping behind them.
The following morning I woke at 3am and couldn’t blame it on jet lag. Nope. My mouth was parched, tongue stuck to the upper palate, and my stomach was gurgling in an ominous fashion. I gulped down an entire bottle of water, eager to rid myself of the MSG dry horrors. For the rest of the trip I’d be keeping an eagle eye out for the evil grey spice.
Obviously, we couldn’t control MSG going INTO our food in Vietnam, not when other people are preparing your meals for you, but on the occasion when we asked for salt and pepper, we often received that grey powder in the place of salt. Now that we knew what it was, we could avoid it.
The MSG presence is one indicator that while tourism is big in Vietnam these days, sometimes they still don’t understand what the tourist might expect or need. That will come with time, I’m certain. In the meantime, if you’re travelling to Vietnam, take some little sachets of salt in your luggage. Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t use salt, nor does it use soy sauce and the omnipresent fish sauce can be a bit overpowering for some; delicious, yes, but you have to get past the smell first. We also found that the Vietnamese are keen to serve fries with almost any meal, so if you don’t fancy your fries with a sprinkling of MSG, make sure you have one of those salt sachets to hand.
Click here to read an interesting article by Alex Renton about the pros and cons of MSG.
Following on from our ‘date’ at Sirocco, high above the bustle of Bangkok, Monsieur and I descended the sixty-something floors with ears popping in the express elevator and jumped in a cab to The Blue Elephant. Our driver looked more like a cutting edge DJ than a taxi driver (perhaps he was both?) with long black hair and some interesting man-bling. He didn’t really understand us. We definitely can’t speak Thai. Somehow, with some sign language and the restaurant’s business card, we finally made it to the two-storeyed colonial villa housing this international Thai food phenomenon.
The building itself was beautiful but it was dwarfed by the neighbouring high-rises. Its quaint charm made it look fragile. Once through the doors, though, we were transported. Well, sort of. The furniture and interiors were Thai all the way but, given that everyone else in the ground-floor dining room was Western, we felt a bit cliché, having been drawn to an obvious tourist mecca.
Once seated, we enjoyed our welcome drinks (which are always non-alcoholic tropical juice from a carton) and ordered. The rice was spooned out of a partitioned basket, slung over the shoulder of our waitress; in one side of the basket was white rice and in the other, brown. That definitely felt authentic.
We had prawns wrapped in leaves and soft shelled crab (my favourite when dining in this part of the world), and Thai curry and wiped our hands on hot towels scented with lemongrass. Naturally, we made the mistake of ordering wine which is always a rip off in Asia. We savoured it, knowing we may not be ordering any more for a while, but in reality, the local beer tastes good and is far better value. I’ve also been told that when travelling, you should always drink some local beer because it should be made with local water and is a relatively safe way of acclimatising your digestive system to a foreign place.
We couldn’t fault the food or the service. The Blue Elephant really was a slick operation, but it’s not great to sit surrounded by other tourists. It makes you feel like, well, a TOURIST. Gone in a flash is any sense of the intrepid traveller, which we’re all aspiring to be.
Then, on the way out a waitress handed me a long orchid in a tube. I’d heard of this happening at the London Blue Elephant, but as I’ve never been, I’ve never seen the rumour confirmed. Well, I was chuffed to bits. So chuffed, in fact, that when we left for Hanoi the following day, the orchid went with me. It survived nearly all of our travels in Vietnam, providing us with some sense of continuity and homeliness each time we changed centre. Only in Ho Chi Minh City did it start to wither. So thank you, Blue Elephant, not just for the wonderful food, but for the travelling orchid that helped me feel at home wherever we went. Highly recommended for the orchid factor and food, but if you don’t feel like rubbing shoulders with Bob and Gladys from room 565 then the Blue Elephant is not for you.
Now back in London, I’ve been asked to a friend’s pre-wedding dinner at the end of November and it will be at none other than the London Blue Elephant. I can’t wait. The conversation in the office went a bit like this:
“How about the Blue Elephant?”
“Yeah, great. I’ve never been…”
“You WHAT? You’ve been to the Blue Elephant in Thailand but you haven’t been to the one in your own back yard?”
“You’re going to love it. The staff are amazing; they make you feel like royalty.”
I’m now counting the days.
I’m looking forward to the food, the wine, the attentive but not overbearing service and the orchid (naturellement), but I’m also looking forward to eating at a Blue Elephant where I won’t be a tourist! And once this date is achieved, it might just be time to visit the one in Brussels.
Continuing along the ‘LAUGH WHILE YOU STILL CAN’ theme, here is another reaction to The Credit Crunch:
I was surfing You Tube last night (as you do) when, by chance, I stumbled across a Credit Crunch song. On the drop down menu to the right of the screen there was a whole list of songs about the Credit Crunch, so I started to watch them. There was about 5% of me that thought this might be a bit wrong; to make fun of something so serious, but you know what? A bit of laughter can’t hurt, especially as it’s pretty certain that things are going to get much worse before they get better. We should laugh while we still can! So this week I’m going to post some Credit Crunchies – things to make us smile while the world economy crumbles. Perhaps that’s why they called it the Credit Crunch…
Here are a couple of the better songs. (Be warned: if you go onto You Tube and type in Credit Crunch, you will find some really dire stuff. Dire with a capital D.)
PS I couldn’t work out exactly who created these vids, so if you know, please leave a comment so I can give credit.
Pinch me hard ‘cos my clog blogger competition entry just won the Blog08 prize. In a nutshell, that means that I am now going to Blog08 in Amsterdam. This also means that I will be wearing clogs. All. Day. Long.
The competition was a huge amount of fun to take part in and the other entries were incredibly clever. I also have to thank competition adjudicator, Andy Bargery, for sharing my somewhat eclectic sense of humour. Without that I wouldn’t be sitting here thinking so much about CLOGS.
Click here to see the competition announcement.
Now for the part where I need help. Yes, help, and we’re not talking about padded jackets or small purple pills (although you could be forgiven for thinking that after seeing The Clog Blogger). I need help planning what I do after the day at Blog08. If you’ve been to Amsterdam and you think you know what a girl in clogs (that’s me) should see/ do/ eat while she’s there, please let me know!
Now please forgive me if I’m quiet for a while. I have to set up The Clog Blog. After all, I did promise…