Arrivals Hall

DSCF3904I get plenty of opportunities to drive to the airport and collect the good wife from one of her frequent business trips, typically in the evening hours. The roads are clear at this time, but life at the airport is busy as always. I perfected the timing, watching the airport’s real-time flight updates on my phone, jumping into the car as soon as the aeroplane is shown on approach.

I shall give it five or ten extra minutes the next time, and by that, I mean that I shall leave five or ten minutes earlier.

Why is that, I hear you ask, were you late and made the wife wait?

No. As I said, I perfected my timing. But I quite like being there. It is not the big machines or the hustle and bustle that fascinates me, but the excellent opportunity of looking a large number of people flat and straight in the face, unashamedly day-dreaming about who they might be, where they might come from and going to:

The all-important business traveller, armed with mobile phones, laptop, a serious face of business-like determination and a bottle of duty-free booze.

The stressed-out mum with several children and too many bags and strollers.

The elegant wife whose husband balances an impressive number of bags and suitcases on the trolley.

The lost-looking lady, searching for her friend in the crowds of the arrivals hall.

Tears of joy, of sadness, of loss, of frustration, of relief, or just of exhaustion. Hugs of love, of sympathy, of camaraderie. Steps of determination, tiredness, and uncertainty.

I love watching them all.

 

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One of the Finest Parts

DSC_0239OK, it’s been a while since the last post. We’ve been to the Lake District National Park, mostly around the Northern and Western Lakes, Carlisle and a visit to the coast in Maryport, but based in a cottage just west of Keswick. We’ve been back for a few days already, so now it is time to declare the blog dead or commence posting. With the good wife taking loads of lovely pictures, the decision is easy:

Take a look at the selected 33 images right here, or enjoy all 259 in the ‘all’ subsection. I assure you that every single one is worth taking a look.

To the surprise of everyone, we enjoyed the most glorious weather: sunshine, blue skies, and summery temperatures throughout. However, the nicest surprise is always made to first-time visitors. To my parents, who accompanied us on this trip, Cumbria presented itself in its best mix of gentle lakes, meadows, and rough mountains and valleys.

So many people focus on the Mediterranean for holidays that many simply have no idea what Britain has to offer. Maybe not the reliable temperatures of the Greek islands, the deep blue skies of the Algarve, the food of France or Spain or the exotics of Morocco. However, the  British countryside has a lot of gorgeous areas to offer, and the Lake District is undoubtedly among the finest parts.

 

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Sleeping Beauty

DSC_0713Happy Easter, everyone. Our wishes arrive late because we took a couple of days off to relax in the Norfolk Broads for canoeing, cycling, walking and chilling out over a good meal.

While the weather wasn’t as good as we had hoped, it certainly was much better than we feared, and we could enjoy all these activities while mostly staying dry, and with only moderate frost bite on fingers, cheeks and toes.

I have always liked the Broads. It’s just so nice to have water everywhere, and given that the area is predominately flat (or flat-ish, as any cyclist will quickly discover), any view is also full of sky, blue if you’re lucky, or leaden otherwise. It’s quite a sight.

Not so much of a sight is the local gastronomy though. I guess we just didn’t discover the highlights, but since we were staying right in the middle of one of the touristic hot-spots, Wroxham, I think the state of the local gastronomy draws a clear picture: several Fish & Chip shops, and a very large McDonald’s. A decent Thai restaurant and an equally decent Indian curry house. Some more take-away places, and two hotel pubs offering Sunday Carvery all day, every day, and two other restaurants. All are either take-away places, or restaurant with varying degrees of aspiration but a delivery that might please an early 1970s customer in terms of menu, attitude, decor – everything except the prices, which were definitely up-to-date.

You’d want to shake the Norfolk tourism officials and entrepreneurs awake, really hard. It’s such a waste!

Here’s one of England’s prime tourist locations, well within the London catchment area for short and long stays. It has everything you’d want: the rural setting, the coast, the relatively stable weather of England’s south-east, water, wildlife, nature, even a bit of culture and history here and there.

You’d want to shake the Norfolk sleepy heads awake and tell them to take advantage of their surroundings, offering waterside cafes and restaurants, and to go after those sitting in their self-catering cottages with local farmers’ markets, artisan produce, a local fish monger and a butcher selling local rare breed pork and beef. A local micro brewery doesn’t seem a far-fetched idea (here’s at least one), and a posh river-side high tea wouldn’t go amiss either.

But no. It’s Tesco (or Roys, who seems to own Norfolk), it’s McDonalds, its Fish and Chip take-away shops. It’s frustrating.

 

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Whiter Than White

bibendumThose who have been to the U.S. before will know them as the country of superlatives: strawberries are larger and sweeter than elsewhere in the world. Coffee cream is whiter, roads are wider, cars are bigger, supermarkets are larger (and so are the steaks), people are louder, portions are bigger and petrol is cheaper. In fact, the list of superlatives is longer than anywhere else.

When shopping for food in a local supermarket, I found another peculiarity previously unknown to me: eggs are white.

Back home in Britain, you’d struggle to find a white egg on the shelves; the vast majority of chicken eggs sold are brown eggs. Over here, I found a few brown ones on a specials shelf, but hundreds of cartons of white eggs.

I haven’t cracked a white egg in a long time, so I conducted an experiment over the weekend. This took the shape of Tagliatelle Carbonara with smoked salmon, with sauteed spinach and Shitake mushrooms on the side, and a soft boiled egg for Sunday morning.

The world is in order and I am at peace. The American white egg is just what it claims to be: an egg.

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This Week, I’ve Been Mostly Eating…

DSC_1039Let me tell you a little about the food we ate in Vietnam. In my opinion, Vietnamese food is among the best in South-east Asia. Unlike Thai food, the use of coconut and coconut milk is sparse, and there is little oyster sauce from Chinese influences, thanks goodness. On the other hand, a lot of fresh herbs, salads and fruit is used, making Vietnamese food generally refreshing and bursting with flavours.

Some visitors experience Vietnamese food as bland, but I think this is just a result of tourist-safe cooking. Vietnamese food always seems to appear in two varieties; one for tourists, one for Vietnamese people. The former can be bland, but I believe the latter won’t ever be.

One of my personal favourites are fresh Vietnamese spring rolls. This is an uncooked rice paper affair, filled with a variety of raw and cooked, hot or cold ingredients. I find it is best when delivered as a do-it-yourself kit. Rice noodles, salad and fresh herbs (including Thai basil, cilantro, mint, sorrel) are almost always included. Other ingredients vary and can include fish, prawns, fruit, cucumber, crispy fried spring rolls, grilled pork, beef or chicken, bean sprouts, or just about anything. Chilly sauce, satay-like sauces or soy sauce is typically used for dipping.

Phó is the popular noodle soup. Ingredients and quality varies widely, but Phó normally provides a reliable quick fix for breakfast or lunch, for a dollar or two. Just find a nice eatery, order a bowl of Phó Bo, then add herbs, lime juice an chilly to taste. I like the fact that Phó is usually served with a large side plate of herbs, lime and chilly so that these are really fresh, not steamed to death in the hot broth, and added to taste.

The list of fish, seafood, poultry and meat dishes is endless. We never ate anything which we didn’t like, but some were of course better than others. A table-top charcoal BBQ event was pretty good fun. Almost anything is served with steamed rice and vegetables. Among the vegetables, morning glory, sautéed with garlic, was especially popular with everybody.

And finally, there’s Vietnamese black coffee. Thick as crude oil and letting any Espresso look pale in comparison, yet delicious thanks to the absence of any bitter oils.

Did I say I love it? No? OK: I love it.

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Oi Choi Oi Vietnam

DSC_1412

Hello there!

We’re back home after a 26 hour door to door return journey from Hanoi, via Kuala Lumpur, to London.

In short: we had a brilliant time. We travelled in a group of 18 cyclists, cycling 470km in mostly decent weather and without major accidents, managed by a brilliant support team (the tour leader, the coach driver, the truck driver and the mechanic). We travelled by bicycle and coach from Saigon to Mui Ne, Da Lat, Nha Trang, Quy Nhon, My Lai, Hoi An, and Hue, then took the overnight sleeper train to Ha Noi (the Reunification Express, racing across the 600km distance in just under 13 hours), where we explored Ha Noi City and Ha Long bay.

(Click here for the detailed tour itinerary.)

Even though we experienced some heavy rain, we were completely unaffected by flooding. Hoi An had been 6ft (180cm) under water just a few days prior to our arrival, but all had been cleared when we came. I can only guess that the clean-up involved a large number of busy Vietnamese people, starting much before sunrise and working until much after sunset, with inferior equipment and under dreadful conditions, but with a laugh on the lips.

More details upon request.

I recommend strongly that you do not travel to Vietnam. It’s just too lovely to be spoilt by mass tourism.

The pictures are now online. Click here for the very small subset for the impatient, or click here to enjoy all images. (Tip: try the slideshow feature, located at the bottom of the thumbnail images.)

 

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Balcony Tours

cliffhangerI find it funny that my travel insurance policy explicitly excludes cover for “any claims or cost caused by you climbing, jumping or moving from one balcony to another, regardless of the height of the balcony.”

To think that this policy exclusion is probably based on one person successfully claiming cover caused by an accident caused in this manner…

 

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Guerrilla Weeding

polluxI was curious how much longer it would take, but the wait is over: I got challenged and put to the question on my way home from the gym. “What are you doing there?” the man wants to know.

When I explained that I was picking Dandelions in this gentleman’s alleyway, "a weed to you and me but heaven for my Guinea pigs," he did what every decent man should do: His suspicious face melted away, replaced by a smile and an inviting gesture.

We had a brief conversation about the eating habits of Guinea Pigs, concluded with the repeated invitation to harvest dandelions in his alley way.

I like life’s little moments. There’s so much latent aggression in the streets of suburban London, and many people in the street look at me suspiciously when I bid them a good morning. Nice to know normality also remains part of suburban life.

 

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I think, it’s Like, I mean, Wow

hamburg Just returned from a long weekend to Hamburg, by way of a very narrow escape from both the British Airways strike and the ash cloud. Our guardian angel now deserves a little rest, but hopefully won’t desert us all together. Fortunately, we didn’t know of the latest airspace closure while we were out and only learned of it hours prior to our return, so we could enjoy an unworried weekend with our friends in Hamburg. (More photos will be coming up soon.)

We had always thought Paris, Sydney and London make the perfect blend for the perfect city: cosmopolitanism, water and weather from Sydney, all things food from Paris, and London for everything else. Must now throw a good pinch of Hamburg into the mix.

First of all, for its cleanness. After living in London, which is nothing but a giant rubbish dumb in many streets and public places, it’s just nice to be in a place where city and most people make an effort to keep the place tidy.

Second, and most of all, for the public transport system.

It’s inexpensive, thus attractive: €9.20 for an all-day ticket serving up to five adults travelling in a group, valid for the whole of greater Hamburg – I think, it’s like, I mean, wow!

It’s fast and efficient, thus attractive: Suburbia to the very city centre in less than 15 minutes, with waiting times in the 5 minutes or less range, and connecting trains and busses being ‘just there,’ because the try to run in synch between the different lines and services – I think, it’s like, I mean, wow!

It’s accurate, thus attractive: the platform display says “next train in three minutes," and when they say three, they mean three – I think, it’s like, I mean, wow!

Wow is all I can say. Oh, and dead jealous, and take an example at that.

 

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The Most Fascinating Kitchen

quantas Modern flying machines are incredible high-tech machines. We all heard news of some flight computer taking over from the pilot, or pilots being overwhelmed by the complexity of the in-cockpit displays, the board computer having shut down, being lost, being too firmly in control, etc.

How fascinating that the switch panels in the service areas still look as if they were designed and made by the time of the Apollo 11 mission: big mechanical switches, secured to the aluminium front panel with thin 14mm nuts, simple lamps in different colours, engraved labels.

I guess there just never was a need to upgrade those panels, and it is probably just fine to control the cabin lights or the coffee machine with a good old switch which doesn’t need a reboot, and comes without the ramifications of computerized equipment in safety gear.

I just like the discrepancy in style, and always admire those 1960s panels.

 

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From A to B

30percent How does one get from A to B these days?

Like almost everything else, you’d start by going online, and seek Google‘s advise.

Google’s maps are superb after all, and their driving instructions excellent. Our collective blind reliance on Google as the world’s single source of information on almost anything is increasingly worrying. Not that I have reason to believe they do anything wrong, or filter or rate or present information in a way that I disagree with, but I grow increasingly uneasy about this whole thing.

Supersized media barons such as Axel Springer or Rupert Murdoch are tiny players in the information monopoly game, when you compare it to Google.

So, when it comes to journey planning within the UK, it turns out that there is an excellent, government-funded alternative: Transport Direct.

Unlike Google, Transport Direct only covers the UK.

Unlike Google, Transport Direct considers the use of sustainable transport (i.e. bicycles) and use of public transport in addition to regular use of roads and cars. They factor live travel news into the equation, compute the CO2 cost of a trip, know locations of car parks.

And, they aren’t run by Google.

 

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This Week, I’ve Been Mostly Eating…

kangarooSign This week, I’ve been mostly eating Australian meals. I mentioned already that the Australian cuisine appears to be largely governed by Fish and Chips or Steak and Chips, so let me try to recall some of the more noteworthy meals that we had:

A cheap-and-cheerful Singaporean Dumpling Laksa in Adelaide Central Market. Very nice, although nothing is really cheap in Australia, even if the Pound exchange rate wasn’t so depressing.

Fillet of Kangaroo, with various accompliments, in various places – including our own: I cooked my first ever Kangaroo, and managed to judge it right, hurray! Kangaroo meat is a tender, low in fat, dark red that wants to be eaten rare. It’s lovely. I recommend it, when you get a chance. Oh, and if anyone knows of a reasonably priced source here in the UK, please drop me a note.

A cold platter with smoked Kangaroo, Emu pate, South Australian goat cheese, and a lovely fruity “bush tomato” relish.

 

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