Lost in Berlin

I’m sitting in a café on Neue Bahnhof Strasse in the Friedrichshain area of Berlin. The window is strung with miniature coloured lanterns and tea-lights placed in old teacups filled with coffee beans burn on every table. There is a blackboard balanced on a radiator that reads ‘kalte Tage warme Herzen’ (cold days, warm hearts) and the antique glass jug on my tiny table is filled with dried gypsophilia and pale lavender thistles.

There are just three tables here at the front and one at the back where there is also a black upright piano. A dish on the counter is filled with sweeties and a sign inviting me to indulge.

I landed here by accident, turning right at the end of a disappointingly short street. Outside Café Casero, two people, a man and a woman, stood in the doorway. It looked like they worked here. I was looking for Weserstrasse 191 and café Dots where Sam was working. I’d flown in from KL the day before and planned a few hours reading the latest Patti Smith memoir, M Train while catching glimpses of my son. It was a day of drizzle, the sky as drained of colour as fat free milk. I’d walked the length of the street and seen buildings numbered as high as 34 and then the road ended. I was confused.

Ich suche Weserstrasse 191,” I began, struggling as my A level German (grade E) dredged itself up from three and a half decades of disuse followed by its all but disappearance into the guttural vestiges of a decade in the Netherlands. “Aber…” But. I stopped. I had no idea how to say ‘I went from one end of the street to the other and the highest number I’d found had been 35. I searched for words in the way I’d pick out the whites from the basket of dirty laundry. “Ich suche ein café das heist Dots?” I continued hopefully. Alleluia! He understood.

Welche Weserstrasse?” he asked.

What? Was there more than one street of that name?

Es gibt viele Dots in Berlin.”

It got worse. Not only were there several Weserstrasses it appeared but there were lots of Dots too. I looked helpless, unable to muster up the German that would inform him my phone was foreign so had data roaming switched off and that meant I couldn’t solve this without going online. Nevertheless I must have only looked helpless for a second or two before the chap brought his laptop out to the pavement and showed me that, indeed, there was a Dots at 191 Weserstrasse but it was an hour’s walk away.

Haben sie kaffee?” I asked. “Und wifi?”

Genau,” he replied. Exactly what I needed. I stepped into the warm to sort myself out.

Such a kind chap. He deserved my custom and anyway he reminded me of our German friend Matthias in KL. I thought how Matthias would also suit a ponytail.

And so I sit here, fortified by a very strong and very delicious cup of coffee and quickly decide to stay here for lunch too. The owner really does look like Matthias. I need to show Ian so I call in him over and tell him I’ll write a blog about the café and need his photograph. He grins, smooths down his thick grey hair and puts his arm round his assistant. Now I have to write that blog.

It’s only noon but Café Casero’s few tables fill and the air is thick with the smell of pasta pesto and homemade potato soup with sausages. I can’t resist a chilli wrap with a side salad and, like the coffee, it really is very good.

I log on and study the Google map that shows a convoluted route to the other Dots. Outside it’s still raining. I decide that I can go and see Sam at work tomorrow.

When my blog’s finished I take a few more photographs before placing my laptop back in my rucksack. Then I stand up, put on my anorak and take a chocolate flavoured toffee from the dish on the counter.

“Bitte kann ich bezahlen?” I ask and pay the €5.60 euro bill. The waitress smiles as I hand over the cash. She returns the Malaysian 20 sen coin that I give her by accident and asks if she can just check the photograph I took of her. I oblige and she smiles again. I ask for their Facebook page so I can link my blog when it goes live.

The cobbles are slick with rain and with my hood up I spend most of the walk back to our Airbnb apartment with my head down in a vain attempt to the keep the raindrops from my glasses. It’s grey in this part of town. No trees. No patches of green made bright with spring flowers as I’d hoped. Concrete walls are plastered with posters advertising albums and concerts. The windowsills are black with grime. Even the vans have been disfigured with graffiti. It’s good to be able to walk fast. I stop and buy a bunch of daffodils from the florist before walking up three flights of newly carpeted stairs to our cosy apartment. It is disconcertingly quiet. I realise it’s because there is no whirr of air-conditioning. I upload the photographs and post my blog. I wonder how many people will comment to correct my terrible German.

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Meeting Meeta

 

Josh and Meeta

I expected it to be steamy and hot, deafening with the shouting of orders, the clang of metal spoons against cooking pots and the incessant pounding of pestle against mortar. What I found instead was a haven of calm and happiness.

What would you expect to find were you, too, to spend a morning in the kitchen of an Indian café? Like me, I expect, too influenced by watching TV cookery programs, you’d have expected a frenetic pace and raised voices. It was Sam who first introduced us to Ganga Café about a year ago. It’s on the narrow street of shops that by coincidence is closest to our villa, Lorong Kurau, the street that also holds two of our other favourite eateries – Bakar and Mario and Luigi.

We’d noticed it though. Each time we’d walk past Ganga on our way to one of the other restaurants, a charming and beautiful woman would step on the street and greet us so warmly that we felt guilty as hell to be walking straight past.

“Next time, we promise!” We’d call out sheepishly, feeling like traitors.

But Sam had told us about the ayurvedic chapattis and the fabulous healthy green pranic juice he enjoyed when he’d taken his laptop there to work and so, he’d dragged me there for lunch. It’s not that I’m against vegetarian food, nor that I dislike spice. Far from it. It’s just that being a typical expat wife being a little off the beaten track and not serving cappuccino, it wasn’t on my meeting friends for coffee or lunch radar.

I soon learned that Meeta, the lady behind the warm welcome, was the owner and that every single dish in that place was easily the best, healthiest, least greasy, least unnecessarily ‘slap you on the back of the neck like Eric Morecambe used to do to Little Ern’ hot than any other Indian food we had ever eaten (with the exception of Julie’s, who was our Mangalorian helper in Dubai and Oman days). We miss you, Julie.

Soon we were heading to Ganga for our Sunday brunches, devouring their breads and curries, chutneys, idli and savoury doughnuts while refreshing our palates with chai masala tea. Who cared about a long black when you could eat like kings for about three quid a head?

We tried their thalis, their a la carte and we even tried their sweet sticky gulab jamun. And now, it has become a taste we crave on a weekly and occasionally daily basis. With our departure date looming there was only one thing for it. I had to get into their kitchen and find out for myself how they managed to make their food taste so darn good.

Meeta, being Meeta, was totally on board with the idea, particularly as I promised to write about her too and at the end of January Josh and I were allowed into the hallowed narrow space that is her kitchen. It was 7.30 am and all was quiet despite there being six or so chefs hard at work. They were patient with me as I managed to constantly stand in the wrong spot and needed to be moved. They gladly let me watch over their woks and explained how the sauces were made. And then, like magic, dish upon dish emerged and was laid before us as we were commanded to eat while we talked to Meeta. This was when we learned how on earth they manage to make their food quite so extraordinary.

All of the dishes without exception contain one special ingredient – love. Seriously.

“If someone is not happy then I ask them why,” says Meeta. “My chefs must be happy at work. I ask them if they think they can bring something special to Ganga and if they can’t I let them leave. No problem.”

Meeta Sheth came to Kuala Lumpur from Mumbai when she married her Malaysian husband and is a Jain. This ancient Indian religion believes in non-violence, is against lying and against harming any living creature.

“It’s all based on ‘ahimsa’,” Meeta continues using the Sanskrit word at the cornerstone of Jainism – non-violence, in thought and speech and deed. “We are all family. Unlike other restaurants I let my staff take their meals here. If someone comes by to eat here and is poor then I tell them they are my family too and I give them discount.”

Such good intentions pay off. On Sundays it can be hard to find a seat. Word is spreading and Ganga Café is often the busiest place on the street. Of course good intentions seep into the food too. It took years for Meeta to find a good source of vegetables. For a long time she did all the shopping herself, frequenting only the places she could trust and not getting to bed til way after midnight.

mixing the bitter gourd

But it was there in that galley kitchen that the biggest surprise was to be found. Her potato curry contains no curry powders or spices, only onion, garlic, green chilli, curry leaves, cinnamon and salt. The spinach and cheese curry (my favourite) has a base not of pounded spices, but of fresh sauce made from onions, garlic, chillis and tomatoes. The red deep fried bitter gourd that is a staple of every banana leaf meal in KL, when made with chilli powder, turmeric, baba sambar spice mix, ginger garlic paste, salt, cornflour, rice flour and water, becomes golden brown when fried and not the colour of expats’ toenails. At Ganga they use no MSG, no preservatives, no colours. Everything is made fresh from the best ingredients and it is made with love.

The only packet in the whole place

And so, as we head back to Holland in March there is some peace in my heart that I will be able to recreate Ganga in The Hague. Ahimsa rocks!

Delicious deep fried bitter gourd – no MSG, no colour

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Loving and leaving

Loving Penang

Suddenly the days have become sunnier and the trees more glossy. The food has become more addictive and the cheap massages and pedicures more tempting. I’m sure you can guess why… it’s because we know we are leaving.

Partir c’est mourir un peu say the French. We Brits say, parting is such sweet sorrow. I’d not noticed before but the French and English equivalents of this well-used phrase are not direct translations of each other. ‘To leave is to die a little,’ say the French. We Brits are more optimistic and, the way I feel right now, more accurate. For now I know I’ll leave this behind I seem to love it more. Suddenly, the birdsong is more noticeable, the swaying dance of the traffic more rhythmic, the call to prayer more moving, the caress of the water as I breaststroke up and down our pool. It’s as if life has assumed the quality of a fresco painting; the things I am noticing outlined in black to make them stand out more.

The light in Penang

For though Ian and I are set to leave Kuala Lumpur in March I seem to be happier, smiling more and loving, really loving Malaysia. Loving Malaysia so much that I recognize I cannot leave forever, that I will return, repeatedly. Ian and I are even seriously considering spending a portion of our retirement years in Penang. I mean, what’s not to like about it? Living expenses are about 20% of those in the UK. There are sandy beaches for the times we want a sundowner at sunset. There is a hill to where you can retreat for some cool air. They have two of the best restaurants I’ve eaten at in Malaysia – D’Chef Dining and Il Bacaro. There is live music, a literary festival, an arts festival, heritage buildings, fascinating people I now call my friends… And, did I mention – it’s affordable?

Weirdly, some of the things I most railed against when I arrived and took the most getting used to are now the things I will miss most – take the driving for example…

At first I was too scared to drive unaccompanied, terrified by the motorcycles that swarm like mosquitoes on the roads and can appear like bikes and trams do in Holland, out of nowhere. They lurk in blind spots and can carve you up from left or right as they treat other road users like slalom poles. And yet I have come to love the tolerance on the roads, the way I dare to push into queues and how no one seems to be in too much of a hurry to let me in. I love how I can do a U-turn where it says it’s not allowed, drive the wrong way round a car park and switch lanes at the last minute because I’ve misunderstood the SatNav. I relax into my seat and pootle along the roads these days. Here drivers anticipate the worst and make allowances. They expect cars to jump lights, swerve, fail to indicate and as a result they drive more carefully. No one gets cross because I drive too slowly. Yes, I confess, I’m converted to driving here.

People complain about how hot it is here too, and it is, but I have become used to the fullness of my sock drawer and the way these almost constant blue skies give my mood a boost. I may dislike a sweaty face but I do appreciate how rarely I have dry skin. The sun may bleach the colour out of my hair, but being blonde and allergic to hair colour these days I can pretend I pay to have platinum stripes in my ‘do’.

I used to miss tasty and affordable berries – raspberries, strawberries, blueberries – but now I’ve come to crave fragrant mango on my cereal and fresh watermelon juice to quench my thirst.

Once the food seemed to rely way too much on chilli, but now ‘normal’ food tastes bland without lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, ginger, garlic and some heat. I’ve grown to love and crave sweet frothy tea flavoured with ginger (teh tarik halia) and Penang’s famous rice noodle dish with prawns, cockles and beansprouts, char kway teow.

At least I can make char kway teow

To begin with I found it impossible to tell the difference between the local Malays, Chinese and Indians. Now, not only do I have good friends of every ethnicity, but I understand their culture and will miss their laisser faire attitude, their daily concern that I may not have had breakfast and the simple alternative answers of ‘can’ or ‘can not’ to my queries. Words and phrases will worm their way into my future vocabulary just as in shallah has become a go-to word since our years in the Middle East and loek (nice), gezellig (no translation that works for me) and lekker (yummy) since our decade in the Netherlands. Words that will lift my heart when I use them and will allow pieces of our life here to stay with me permanently, everywhere I go. Words like makan (food) and boleh (can) are as integral to living in Malaysia as honouring four different types of religious festival every year.

The first post I wrote here at Sunny Interval, was a poem I wrote about how I’d leave scraps of my flesh behind on tree branches in The Hague. As I wind down to the leaving party and the final farewells I’m not so much leaving behind pieces of myself as taking back a treasure trove of words, of memories, of forever friends and of lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, tamarind and chilli, chilli, chilli.

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That’s Malaysia!

An Uber map

An Uber map

It was ‘one of those weeks’. The kind that would have driven me to distraction had it not taken place in a laid back country where things go wrong, people break rules and old hands simply shrug and smile, saying, ‘that’s Malaysia!’

And though our problems were all car-related, instead of driving me mad, after three years here, I simply shrugged and smiled and said, ‘that’s Malaysia!’

Last Tuesday Josh and I joined one of the very good and free of charge walks that DBKL offers. Our meeting place was the Tourist Information Office and there was free parking outside for visitors while we did our three-hour Old KL and Nature Walk. When we returned a security guard outside the Tourist Office told us that the police had been sniffing round, posting summonses under the wipers of cars with expired road tax. He pointed to our sticker. Ours had expired two weeks earlier! Apparently, the lovely guard, who must have been making investments in his good karma bank account, had dissuaded the cops from giving us a ticket with the story that ‘we had just gone for a walk’! Worse, no road tax meant our insurance wasn’t valid either. We drove home feeling a bit vulnerable and exposed, as if I’d gone shopping in my pyjamas by accident but not overly concerned we’d be arrested en route.

Very bad reflective photo of the offending road tax sticker

Very bad reflective photo of the offending road tax sticker

On further investigation it was discovered that the insurance had not been renewed automatically after all. Double oops. The reminder must have arrived while Ian was in hospital having elective leg surgery. While we got this sorted out rather than keeping the car off the road I resorted to only parking in covered parking places out of the prying eyes of the boys in blue. Naughty me.

Ian was on crutches and taking an Uber taxi to work. I had to take the car into the service centre for new airbags after a product recall. Josh was taking an Uber to the Forest Research Centre to do an interview. We were all leaving together. So, Ian slotted himself into the back seat of one taxi, bum first, crutches last and headed off. Oh hell! The Uber App showed that Ian was on his way to Josh’s interview and the car sitting outside was bound for Shell. A few minutes later as Josh and I stood there wondering what to do, Ian WhatsApped to tell us they had done a U-turn in the street and was coming home to swap cars.

Ubers swapped, I set Waze (the SatNav on my phone) for the Nissan Service Centre and headed off myself. After about five minutes I noticed I was heading for the airport. Oh no! I must have selected the wrong Nissan Service Centre! I pulled over on the hard shoulder into a no parking zone and reset Waze. Ten minutes later I passed my own front door and I giggled. Three years ago I had actually been driving alone for the first time to that same Nissan garage and been petrified beyond belief as I became increasingly lost. This time it made me laugh even though, again, I repeatedly misunderstand the nice Waze lady with the appalling pronunciation’s instructions and went wrong.

I approached a toll booth. Waze told me to take Plaza B rather than Plaza A. I did so, gaily unperturbed and proud that a choice of plazas no longer fazed me. I had my Touch ‘N’ Go card to hand and joined the queue. The cars ahead of me sailed through so fast I couldn’t even see them stop, wind down their windows and flash their TNG’s at the card reader post. I stopped. I waved my card at the post. Nothing happened. I waved and waved. Still nothing. I reached closer. A girl in a neighbouring booth stared at me but ignored my confused gestures. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Smart Tag row. With 10 cars behind me I needed to reverse. They were not budging. The man directly behind held the flat of his palm at me and tooted. I waved my TNG card at him. He reversed, reluctantly, and appeared to do whatever the local sign language is for ‘bloody woman’ to those who were behind him. I joined the right queue at last and sailed through. A smile on my face. So what that I’d annoyed a few people, it’s Malaysia. No one is in a rush.

I reached Nissan just ten minutes late and discovered it had been next door to a church I’d been to a few times and would have known the way anyway.

A girl with a clipboard welcomed me into the service bay and asked for the registration document, which I couldn’t produce but she shrugged, broke the rules and admitted the car anyway. Two days later we had new airbags, renewed insurance and up-to-date road tax and I am completely unscathed by the experiences. I guess that means I have settled in…

 

… which is exactly why, I suppose, we have just had news that we are leaving Kuala Lumpur in March.

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Finding my homeland

D'chef's signature lamb dish

D’chef’s signature lamb dish

“Some places make you feel more full than others,” said Palestinian author, Nathalie Handal at last weekend’s third Georgetown Literary Festival in Penang. The theme of the weekend was irresistible to me – Hiraeth – a Welsh word that means longing for a homeland that is no longer there. Undoubtedly, this island is a place where I feel ‘more full’.

So what is a homeland? To each person it is something different. For some, it’s where they hang their hat, for others it’s where their family lives, to some it’s more of a context and to many expatriates like me it is some kind of an illusion, maybe even a lie.

Adriaan van Dis, acclaimed Dutch author, believes even the stories from our past that we tell, those that make us who we are, are in fact lies. In some ways I have to agree. Everything we experience and know is seen through a personal lens and therefore our truth may not match another person’s even if they share our experiences.

With this in mind I declare this past weekend one of the best of my life, spent in a place that feels more like coming home with every visit. Like a drug it’s seeped into my veins, each fix more powerful than the last.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you will be well aware that I eulogise about Penang. I admit that I’m obsessed with the place and like any true love, they say, you adore it when you’re in its presence and cannot imagine life apart. Yet, when separated, you’re fine too, safe in the knowledge that your love will still be there for you, waiting, just the same, next time.

It all began with a phone call, ironically when I was in the middle of a session with the KL writers’ circle, from Penang’s most famous living poet – Cecil Rajendra. That he called at all was a miracle for Cecil is renowned for not owning a mobile phone nor using email.

“Jo,” he began. “I just I wanted to tell you that the Penang Literary Festival is on at the end of November and I’ll be performing an evening session of words and music by fathers and sons, with my son, Yasunari. I hope you will come,” he said. So there and then I began planning my next trip to the island. So what that our great friends Pete and Sue would be visiting us, they’d have to put up with it! Nothing was going to stop me attending so I immediately reserved five rooms at our favourite hotel, Campbell House.

My expectations were low, I admit. I mean, it’s a tiny place and all the events were free (apart from the workshops), the programme was not published til a few days beforehand and I tend to believe that if things are free they won’t be much good.

We were wrong. The first event we attended was called Voices: Woman I Dream and featured readings from local writers who had attended a writing course at the Penang Women’s Development Corporation. I was expecting stories about pets and unrequited love, delivered by middle-aged women who had no idea how to speak in public. What we got was raw memoir, poignant, multi-faceted, steeped in culture and things that are not spoken aloud. Five young women spilled their hearts on the page and were brave enough to share with poise and polished performance. “Come back all I said,” as my uni flatmate, Chris, used to say in her lovely Matlock accent. I had been wrong.

From then on the weekend went from great to absobloominglootly fabulous. All my favourite things happened at once in a neon explosion of colour – like the moment they switch on the Christmas lights in Oxford Street.

First, I was at a literary festival. Nuff said.

Second, my synapses fizzed and sparkled each time another apposite, erudite, articulate quote dropped from the lips of a writer talking about loss, homeland, longing and pain …

This bit’s for writers and expats…

  • “Is it the longing for the longing or the longing for the actual thing?” Amanda Lee Koh.
  • “There are as many ways of longing as there is for rain to fall,” Tishana Doshi.“We are not allowed to yearn these days because we are too connected to Skype, Facebook and so on,” Tishana Doshi.
  • “Feeling that you are where life is not is precisely the reason why we write poems and paint,” Tishani Doshi (yes, I bought two of her books!).
  • “People long for things that are not true,” Adriaan van Dis.
  • “As soon as you have jealousy or heartache, you have narrative,” Robert Dessaix.
  • “There is no difference between love, friendship and gardening. You have to nurture, weed and water and make a bit of an effort,” AC Grayling.
  • “Solitude is necessary. It is the water that keeps us hydrated,” AC Grayling.
  • “You need thunder outside to open a box inside,” Adriaan van Dis.
  • “Women pay the price of war that men wage,” Stefan Hertmans.
  • “There are periods of forgotteness when stories are not articulated,” Tash Aw.
  • “Home is the greatest battlefield we will confront,” Nathalie Handal.
  • “I’d rather be in a room with 20 people who speak different languages and have different words for homeland than to be part of Make America Great Again, 1 Malaysia or Taking Back Control Again Brexit,” Chris Keulemans.
  • “I do not have a mother tongue. I grew up in five languages. It’s a symphony,” Nathalie Handal.

This bit’s for expats…

Third, I was with good friends who feel like ‘home’ to me.

Fourth, I was with new friends of different culture, nationality and religion and who make me feel alive and have something worthwhile to say.

This bit’s for pleasure seekers (incidentally the title of Tishana Doshi’s novel) and the star struck

Fifth, after two beers in a great bar (the Canteen at China House) with a great live band, Sue dared me to hug AC Grayling, so I did – and he loved it! I also bumped into several of the island’s celebs, whom I have had the unfathomable pleasure of meeting in the course of writing a book on Penang’s pioneers (Gareth Richards, Khoo Salma, Joe Sidek) and meeting Narelle McMurtrie and her business partner, Alison, at long long last.

Anthony and moi!

Anthony and moi!

The band

The band

Sixth, we got to go up Penang Hill to one of the old wooden houses the locals retreat to in summer with our new friend Charmaine, to feel the cool air and immerse ourselves in the view down the hill, across Georgetown to the mainland as we watched butterflies, listened to birdsong, drank amazing Sauvignon Blanc and ate local curry puffs and kuih. AND we got to visit the actual set of Indian Summers, to walk in the footsteps of Julie Walters and Art Malik (swoon) and to see the Royal Simla Club up close.

The view from The Hill

The view from The Hill

indiansummersetview-small paintsatindiansummers-small

This bit’s for expats, wine lovers and foodies…

Seventh, we ate the best Italian food at Il Bacaro (that evening’s ‘extra special’ was ravioli with porcini and truffles) at a long a table with friends of three nationalities.

Eighth we were treated to the finest food in Penang at D’Chef Dining, eating ‘off menu’ and drinking four stunning Umamu wines at another long table with, er, was it four nationalities aged 25-83.

Blurry at D'Chef

Blurry at D’Chef

This bit’s for shoppers…

Ninth, I squeezed an hour into the programme to visit Jonathan Yun and buy myself some of his stunning jewellery. Again. Oops.

This bit’s for people like me…

Tenth, of course, we heard Penang’s Living Heritage himself, Cecil Rajendra, recite poems from his new book, Shakti Symphony, accompanied by flute, guitar and his son on didgeridoo. He was phenomenal. I now own all his books!

Cecil and Yasunari Rajendra

Cecil and Yasunari Rajendra

There are definitely some places and some weekends where I feel “more full” and I count my lucky stars.

D'Chef's fish!

D’Chef’s fish!

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Japan has everything you need

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Konichiwa!

In the Netherlands they give you a biscuit with your coffee. In Japan they give you a wet wipe. You don’t really need that biscuit, do you? You do, however, if you are anywhere near as messy as me, need a wet wipe. That’s what it is like in Japan – you get what you need and no more.

You need somewhere to wash and so, in the AirBnb we rented in the suburb of Tofukuji, one stop from Kyoto station, we found the smallest bathroom we had ever seen. A basin so tiny and at thigh height that it would ensure small children would find it easier to aim their tooth-cleaning spit. For adults it proves trickier but then we should know better. The steel bath sunk into the floor was little more than a kitchen-sink for grown-ups. Water reached our shoulders. What more could we need?

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You need somewhere to sleep and so, bedrooms were equipped with beds and bedding. No more. We could live out of our suitcases. We grew rather fond of the plaited tatami mats that form their wall-to-wall carpeting. Should a section wear out then that section only is replaced. No one needs to waste money.

We were in Japan to see the autumn colours. After three years in the tropics we craved seasons and Malaysia’s trusty no-frills airline was the only carrier to fly from KL to Osaka. We were going for four nights, which we thought would be just enough to see what was necessary and our first stop was Hiroshima. There was no way we could visit Japan without experiencing such a sacred place.

The first thing that struck me was the silence, only this was not an eerie silence but the sound of peace. But first I needed a cup of tea. It had been a night flight and we’d had little sleep, which is one of those times when only a cup of tea will do. We took the bullet train and the trolley girl ploughed down the aisle every half hour. She spoke no English but instead handed us an English menu and left us to point at what we wanted. It was perfect solution and one that we’d be glad of several times during our trip. No hot tea? Just hot coffee. But once we reached Hiroshima we began to notice that this is a land of vending machines. They are everywhere. People even have them in their driveways. They sell water and juice, of course, but they also sell beer. I put my hand to the front glass. It was warm. Who knew? Some shelves of the machine held hot drinks too, and there on the shelf was hot tea! Green of course, in a bottle, but at that moment nothing was more delicious.

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We took a ferry over to Miyajima island. Deer roamed the cobbled streets and stood in the doorways of the quaint shops that sold beautiful things in beautiful packaging, like individual bean-paste filled cakes shaped like autumn leaves. Trees, perfectly spaced, were pruned into neat bonsai shapes, simple stone pillars carved with phrases had been placed on gravel of pale stones. Wooded hills rose all around and the sun was warm. This was when it struck me. While we need food, shelter, transport and somewhere to wash we also need to feed our souls. Japan does soul-feeding big time.

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The last building to remain after the A-bomb in 1945 is floodlit at night. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been preserved. It stands beside a fountain and gentle trees, the skeleton of its dome a web of pale steel, rubble left where it fell. Here was a peace that passed all understanding.

The A Bomb Dome

The A Bomb Dome

Back in Kyoto we visited shrines and temples, like you do, but it was for the gardens that we had come and so that’s what we put at the top of our list. So, it seemed had everyone else. There are a lot of people in Japan and people need to be corralled. Or is it maybe just gentle guidance? There are signs on station platforms, marked with neatly placed pairs of feet, that show you where to wait for the next train and then, just beside, where to wait for the one after that. If you don’t quite wait in the right place a white-gloved man in a serious uniform, taps you on the shin. They paint arrows on the stairways, three up, one down, showing where you are allowed to walk. Men and women in green or blue livery carrying light-sabres, ensure you wait at road crossings on the pavement not the road and only cross when the green man appears. More chaps ensure you wait in a line of exactly the right dimensions and in the right place for a bus, that you queue in the right direction to order food. And that you follow the prescribed route round the gardens, only stopping to take photographs at the best spots for a fair length of time before someone with a stick and a smart uniform shouts at you to move on.

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But those views, those colours, the exquisite juxtaposition of russeting Japanese maples, their miniature leaves turning the next shade of ginger, cinnamon or rose at exactly the right moment. The reflections in the pools and lakes, the rocks, the moss, the laurel, ferns, azalea and acer, more beautiful than anything our Capability Brown could have dreamed up on an English country estate. Oh Capability, you have been usurped by the zen garden masters who knew exactly the meaning of ‘just so’ four hundred years ago. Like the practical yet tiny houses, this country’s motto may be ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’.

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And as I return to the topic of needs, there is now a new need to add to my list of must-haves. I need a Japanese lavatory. Never before have I emitted a delighted sigh each time my nether regions descended on the pre-warmed loo seat. Now, having experienced this in our AirBnb, at the airport and in many other public places, I will be bereft without it. Alongside the seat you’ll find a plethora of touch-sensitive buttons, to squirt water at the required angle, to play music, to disguise the tinkle and to perform a variety of back massages (that last one’s a joke).

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Back to the gardens and the reason for our trip. They elicited in me a final need that could only be assuaged by poetry. The more I wandered down those prescribed pathways, the more the poet inside me came to life and there was only one art form that befitted such a place – the haiku. That prescribed Japanese form of five then seven then five syllables, coupled with its twist of theme. And so, as I leave you with some photographs of our trip, I leave you too with my feeble attempts at haiku.

Arigato!

Haiku 1

Bonsai and blue sky
both silent and disciplined
they queue between lines.

Haiku 2

The temple is gold
heartstoppingly beautiful
leaves fall like spent coins.

Haiku 3

Close but not touching
willows weep by the river
selfies at the lake.

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Enforced Spontaneity in Cambodia

With Chanty at the monkey temple

With Chanty at the monkey temple

It never crossed our minds a week earlier, when we spontaneously decided to take advantage of yet another Malaysian bank holiday, that we’d land in Cambodia at the start of its biggest bank holiday. Malaysia gets so many bank holidays that we are always going away during religious festivals and it has never seemed to impact our trip at all. That is until this one.

We’d visited Siem Riep two years earlier and had enjoyed a blisteringly hot and action-packed few days visiting all the temples we could squeeze into the time available so had no real desire to go there again. One thing we really wanted to do though, was to take the 10-hour boat trip down the Siem Riep River to where the Tonle Sap River joins the Mekong at Phnom Penh. Ian did his usual assiduous research and booked us a trip on the safest boat there was. We received an automated confirmation and immediately booked our flights into Siem Riep and out of Phnom Penh four days later.

Then our boat trip was cancelled. No explanation.

The Internet informed us that some of the boats also offering this trip were liable to sink, but Ian battled on and secured us an alternative, albeit rather basic trip with a man who appeared to be named Fat Sock. I was wary. Socks have a reputation for holes. We were going to stay at the utterly fabulous Shinta Mani Club hotel again. It really had been too gorgeous last time for us to stay anywhere else. I still remembered the wonderful seven course dinners seated on double-bed swing-seats over the lotus-strewn water. And the buy-one-get-one-free happy hours. We asked the hotel to try and source us a boat too. If anyone could manage it, they could.

Within minutes of landing in Arrivals we were reminded of the constant easy smiles of the Cambodian people, the visa-on-arrival chaps who mess about, the immigration officials who make you feel welcome. We were glad to be back in the Kingdom of Cambodia.

As we freshened our hands on the jasmine-scented cold towels we were greeted with at the hotel and sat down to enjoy our welcome drinks of pink champagne, we remained confident.

“I’m sorry, Jo, Ian,” said the receptionist with a jaw-breaking smile. “I could not find a boat. Big Buddhist holiday until Monday.” We were heading back to KL on Monday. Whoops! Still, there was always Fat Sock. We asked Smiley to call Fat Sock and check he wasn’t likely to let us sink. Our options had reduced to one.

An hour later as we drank our surprise cocktails Smiley returned. “Sorry, Jo, Ian. No boat.”

So there we were in Siem Riep, where we had been before, with no way of going on the river after all. A taxi would cost $100 but a local bus would cost $15. Realising our saving would more than cover a swing-seat dinner we opted for the bus.

Our bus left at the crack of dawn (to me anyway) and was packed with tourists like us. The GiantIbis was comfortable and cool and provided plenty of bathroom stops. The best thing was that they showed films the whole way that, though not silent exactly, could be followed without being able to hear a word. The 1972 French comedy Les Charlots Les Fous du Stade was delicious in childish French slapstick .The whole bus erupted in guffaws. This was much better than a taxi.

We were determined to get on the river and thanks to onboard wifi booked a sunset cruise with a company called Cambo Cruise. Five hours later we arrived in the capital ahead of time. Roads were quiet because of the holiday. At least there was an upside. By five pm we were on a boat. With the cool breeze in our hair and another welcome drink in our hands we were entertained by Khmer music as we sailed past illuminated pagodas and temples out to towards the sunset. We clinked glasses. Local holiday or not, we’d made it.

The next day we decided to get up early and see the Royal Palace, the museum and Silver Pagoda and headed off along the waterfront. Stopping outside the palace we thought it looked rather quiet. A smiling Cambodian wearing a gorgeous silk scarf that was brown like liver, approached us.

“Everything closed,” he said. “Big holiday. All the peoples gone to the country to see their family. Only open two o’ clock.” That was five hours away. “I take you round city, show you beautiful buildings?” he asked, gesturing to his covered tuk-tuk.

An arch near the monkey temple

An arch near the monkey temple

It looked like this was our only option, besides we rather fancied spending time in the shade. In the end our driver, who wanted us to call him John, though his name was Chanthy, proved to be an excellent guide with a good command of English. He led us the finest and most unexpected of sites and not down back-alleys to visit his cousin who had a carpet shop as some are wont to do.

bundling fake money for offerings at the temple

bundling fake money for offerings at Wat Phnom

 

A local happily stealing longan fruit from a tree at the temple

A local happily stealing longan fruit from a tree at Wat Phnom

We visited an ice-making factory, saw little-known temples, visited the splendid pagoda at Wat Phnom and ultimately agreed to stay with him until the palace opened again. It is really not like us to be so spontaneous, but on this trip, with nothing going according to plan it seemed rather exciting. Who knew what would unfold?

The car ferry

The car ferry

In the end, what unfolded was a captivating day. John took us not to tourist boats and ferries but on the local car ferry. Not roll-on-roll off, he had to reverse his tuk-tuk on board up a ramp after bumping down a steep pot-holed track. After ten minutes on the river we were on land. Crossing a bridge, John noticed something we had to see.

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Cow bath-time

Three white cows were being bathed in the river. Their two handlers scrubbed broad handfuls of dried grass over their skin as they wallowed. Soon after, we bumped down a track between padi fields and banana plantations to the Silk Farm Community Project. Here, widowed, single or separated women work long hours for little pay to weave silk from the silkworms that feed there on mulberry bushes.

Welcome gusets

Welcome gusets

Silk cocoons resting

Silk cocoons resting

The looms were quiet today because of the holiday, of course, but our tour was no less fascinating. I looked for a scarf like John’s in the shop but they had none of this style today.

The farm is not contrived in any way. It is a real project doing real good for the community. Alongside the farm, by the river they have fenced off a rectangle of river to make a safe swimming pool for locals and made houses, swings and picnic places for relaxation. We decided to try some chopped wood apple, dipped in a mixture of chilli, sugar and salt. After all, that’s what the locals were eating. It was remarkably tasty, and, indeed, hard as wood.

Wood apples

Wood apples

Being a holiday, it was packed with people having fun with their families. We could see why Cambodians love to return to their families in the country for their holidays leaving the cities deserted.

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Rest rooms!

As we bumped back down the track, John stopped the truck beside a large tree where a group of young girls clustered. He called out to them. The large black bin bags that had balanced on the back of their motorscooters suddenly appeared in the tuk-tuk and they rifled through them enthusiastically. John explained I wanted a brown scarf like his.

“I have!” exclaimed the smiliest, jolliest of the bunch. She pulled out a scarf just like John’s – only it was pale pink. Not my colour I’m afraid. Her face fell.

“Look!” called another girl, pulling out scarf after scarf, none were brown and none were the raw silk of John’s I had so admired, speckled with embroidered flowers. Eventually some like his did emerge in red, in black, in white. I never wear black or white but after all their effort and good humour I’d have to buy something. Maybe the red one?

The jolly one, the one with the pink scarf, kept waving it at me and smiling coyly. “Please buy?” she weedled. “My last one. Please?”

I shook my head.

“Surely you can buy a pink scarf for someone?” Ian tried. The girls were so beguiling, they had an infectious, childlike appeal that was hard to resist. Maybe it was because their brand of hustle was done with such good humour? Ms Jolly turned her back and rustled in her bag.

Ms Jolly was turning round again towards us. Bursting out laughing she thrust something else at us. “Here!” she said as if this, at last was a brown raw silk scarf. It was a pale blue string hammock.

I decided to buy three scarves in the end, though they were not brown, from the other girls. They’d make lovely presents.

I also bought the pink scarf.

“I have brown one at my house,” said Ms Jolly as John restarted his engine and Ian put his wallet back in his bag. “Two minutes!” And before we knew it she’d joined us in the tuk-tuk. It appeared we were giving her a lift home. Ian and I were getting good at this spontaneity lark and gladly let ourselves be led to a dusty, enclosure, where three palm-roofed stilted houses stood by the river. Here, our saleswoman it appeared, looked after her four children and lived with other members of her family and a collection of dogs.

There was no brown scarf of course, but I did buy a nice green one and another completely different one from her younger sister, who stuck out her bottom lip and pleaded that we buy just one from her too.

After giving our scarfseller another lift, this time back to the ferry, we said goodbye. The experience had been uplifting in the extreme. We were converted. Spontaneous trips were much more fun than pre-booked organised ones. We’d so enjoyed our time with John that we booked him for our airport run the next day, which he did punctually and with good grace despite driving rain. We had also asked him if he could help us get some Vietnamese mint so I could make more spring rolls once back in KL. The next day, on the way to the airport, he pulled in off the road and a pretty girl was waiting with a choice of three mints wrapped in a banana leaf for us. No charge.

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Mints

Mints

If you’d like to book Chanthy aka John too, his email is chanthy.phnompenh @ gmail.com

On our last trip we had just seen Sue Perkins’ BBC Documentary about her journey on the Mekong. She had quoted Joseph Mussomeli, the former US Ambassador to Cambodia’s words: ‘You will fall in love with it and eventually it will break your heart,’ those words rang in our ears throughout the trip. I expected much the same to happen this time.

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The next day we joined The Killing Fields and S-21 tour we had pre-booked via the Internet, wishing we’d been able to do it with John instead.

Despite the rising heat I was chilled the moment I set foot in the former high school that became a torture camp for intellectuals during the war and where thousands were murdered once they had been forced to write false confessions. Only a handful survived.

Contemplating beside trees at S-21

Contemplating beside trees at S-21

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On April 17 1975, when I was 14 years old, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh and within 24-hours a million people had been forced into the country. This time their trips to the country were not happy occasions. Instead of swing-seats they endured either the swing of the spades they were forced to wield in the labour camps or the swing of the blows of the Brothers of Angkor, the Organisation, that would shove them barely alive but starving into a mass grave. During the three years, eight months and 20 days of the Cambodian Genocide, Cambodia lost a quarter of its population to genocide.

A mass grave

A mass grave

The Killing Tree

The Killing Tree

mass grave lies beneath

Of the millions who died, only a few thousand bodies have been found in mass graves. Here lies yet another. Every few weeks more bones and rags come to the surface.

 

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Eating Vietnam

Spring rolls and mango juice

Spring rolls and mango juice

We love travel and whenever we visit a new place eating is high on our agenda. As you know, I love everything about food – planning it, shopping for it, cooking it, sharing it and writing about it.

Like most people I have more cookbooks and travel guides than any other kinds of books. We always buy a travel guide before we visit a place and Ian actually takes the time to look at it carefully and make plans before we get on the flight. I just look at the pretty book jacket and feel the anticipation of a new country. But before our trip to Vietnam I already knew how much I was going to love the food and bought a cookbook before we went. I was looking forward to trying the noodle soup they eat there called pho. Actually, no, not pho, that means city. Vietnamese is a language with six tones and those diacritics make a difference. I’m actually talking about phở, which is pronounced a bit like we would say ‘fur’ – like this. Sorry, I digress, but it’s interesting, right? To me, anyway.

So, before we went to Vietnam we bought two books – one on the the country and one on the food – and I did not look at either of them despite the fact that I am fascinated by both aspects. Ian is the detailed one, the diver who knows the value of ‘plan the dive and dive the plan’ so he booked us a tour in Ho Chi Minh and that motorbike tour in Hoi An I just wrote about. Meanwhile, I decided I should get my act together and at least plan something. So, for the first time ever on holiday I chose to do a one day cookery course. TripAdvisor threw up a place in Hoi An called Green Bamboo as the best of its kind there and judging by the reviews and photos it looked a good one. Mind you, with classes of 12 to 14 most days and each person cooking a different dish that we’d all get to sample, the thought of that amount of food was daunting. We chose our dishes in advance. I picked the Vietnamese staple I really wanted to learn – the fresh spring roll. Ian picked the traditional phở, with beef.

Van with yam, Hoi An

Van with yam, Hoi An

To begin, Van presented us each with a conical hat and a plastic shopping basket and took us to market to buy (and carry) all the ingredients we’d need. Smart move, I thought. It was a wonderful introduction to the food staples of the country. Later, back at her villa, we all stood around a large kitchen island and shredded our vegetables. Quite how Van managed to give us all individual attention I don’t know, but she did. Expertly choreographing the time, we each had our spot in the limelight so we could watch and learn how to do each dish and not just our own.

Ian griddles

Ian griddles

The phở, it seemed, being made with a broth, had to go on first. Ian was in the hotseat. He was presented with a pair of ginormous chopsticks with which to turn his garlic on the griddle and lift his bones into the bubbling water. Who’d have thought chopsticks would be so much more dextrous than the metal tongs I tend to use?

My ingredients

My ingredients

My dipping sauce

My dipping sauce

That rice paper pancake

That rice paper pancake

My dish was easiest it seemed so I was next. I only had to make a sauce from fish sauce, lime, sugar, chilli and garlic, grate in a ton of raw veg, cook a bit of tofu, pork and some prawns, soak some rice pancakes, place the filling in the pancake, add some aniseedy Vietnamese mint, roll it up neatly (!), poke in a pretty stem of coriander and a chive at the end, roll some more, put it carefully on a plate beside some dipping sauce and hey presto! My dish was the first to ‘go live’ and, hungry, we all stopped to eat a couple each. Delish. As I cooked, Ian was in charge of photographs. He forgot to take a photo of my finished masterpiece so please refer to one someone else made earlier at a market in Ho Chi Minh City at the top of this blog for the right kind of idea.

Now the beers could come out. Yes, at Green Bamboo, they offer free beer and as I was done for the day, I hopped onto a high stool, cracked open a can and watched the others work, interrupted every 20 minutes or so to sample another dish. And so we learned how to make rice pancakes, green papaya salad, barbecued pork, meat patties, fishcakes, more salads and curries, eating as we went. After six dishes Ian and I decided to share the remaining samples. Everyone else managed alone, though it beats me how they did it. 12 courses between 10 am and 3 pm was a marathon. Van claims that after the class she cooks and eats dinner with her family too. You can see in the photo how slim she looks on it.

Ian's beef noodle soup

Ian’s beef noodle soup (I did remember to take a picture of his finished dish… ahem)

Then, as we began, so too we ended with Ian and his soup. It was delicious, of course, spicy from chilli, garlicky, gingery and rich from stock, cinnamon, star anise and chinese apples. At the end of the day Van presented us with a homemade cookbook of the most popular dishes, the peeler you need for shredding all those raw veg and some massive chopsticks. We didn’t eat again that day.

Our day with Van taught us exactly what to order to eat during the rest of our stay in Vietnam. For both of us that meant more fresh spring rolls and more phở.

So, it seems, a cooking course is a brilliant thing to do on holiday. It made the remainder of our Vietnamese eating adventures all the more exciting.

Back home I sat down eagerly to look at the cookbook I’d bought on a whim before the trip. It was rubbish. Van’s will be much more useful.

 

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Zen and the art of touring Vietnam

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It’s many moons since I owned a full set of motorcycle leathers and my own crash helmet. It’s several decades since I rode pillion through north Norfolk lanes thick with the smell of strawberries. I was more than a little apprehensive when Ian booked a full day trip on motorbikes on the Hai Van (aka Top Gear ) Pass from Hoi An to Hue in Central Vietnam. However, one of my father’s favourite sayings is: ‘there is nothing worth doing that does not contain an element of risk’ and so this rang in my ears as I was compelled to accept the challenge.

A week before our trip Ian sat me down to watch Clarkson, Hammond and May jibe, mock and banter their way over the rolling, winding and treacherous road dressed in outrageous Hoi An-tailored suits and carrying ludicrous souvenirs strapped to the back of their motorcycles. Richard Hammond had a wooden galleon in full sail. May, a plaster statue. I watched in horror as rocks shifted and they almost slipped down the cliffside when forced to pull over by the approach of an oncoming truck. Hence my apprehension.

Mr Thong, owner of a company called EasyRider based in Hoi An, met us at La Residencia hotel at 7 am. He would lead the excursion, with his smiley young assistant his pillion. Tin was chief helmet putter-onner and taker-offer and minder of the bikes and bags while we headed off on mini-tours.

Our Mr Thong was a breath of fresh air: friendly; careful; helpful; fun. He’d leap up the steps to a site he must visit several times a week as if thrilled to be there again. Our trip would take us several hours and cover over 100 km. Each time there was an opportunity for a bit of a history lecture or a photograph, he’d stop, merrily take expert photographs of us and wait patiently while we explored.

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Mounting a motorbike is a bit like mounting a horse. One foot on the stirrup and throw the other leg over. Gliding past beaches backdropped by royal blue skies spotted with white and silver clouds it took minutes for me to let go my grip on Ian’s midriff, grip gently with my thighs and relax. Watching the scene shift gently from shores peppered with round bamboo basket boats and larger mango boats, to fishermen hauling in white nets, roadside shacks, papaya, palm and acacia trees, padi fields, stalls selling pho noodle soup, durian, mangosteen and honey, lulled me into a deep state of relaxation and reverie. Thus soothed, my mind looped and swirled into a meditative state I had only otherwise enjoyed when sailing. As our beautiful world, crammed with the miracles of nature slid past, a delicious dreamlike state descended. I felt inspired, found myself able to contemplate things that felt unattainable in normal life.

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Our first stop was the Marble Mountain, outside Da Nang. Here, surrounded by views stretching out to sea, lake and river, the tropical flora, stone pagodas and doorways, caves lit by dimmed lights were home to Buddhas they have created an area of unimaginable calm.

“I can’t remember when I felt so relaxed,” I said.

“Zen and the art…” said Ian appositely.

It was an amazing day, despite the growing heat. I had not realised that being on a bike is actually the coolest (and the coolest) I have ever been outdoors in this part of the world. Who knew? And as I leaned into the bends I found myself considering actually owning a moped one day. Mad fool that I am I even suggested it to Ian!

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The Hai Van Pass did not disappoint, with views down past the palms and papayas to the azure sea. I was also delighted to see that since that hairy Top Gear show they had installed a crash barrier and widened the road.

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A seafood lunch beside a lake was followed by a detour past a fishing village and views that stunned me with the clarity of the light later when looking at the photos I’d snapped on my phone, this time without sunglasses.

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Now, if Ian had told me in advance that I’d spend the best part of 10 hours in the saddle I’d probably have been less enthusiastic about the trip, but Mr Thong ensured we had plenty of stops and detours along the way so that it wasn’t until the sun began to set around five and we visited the beautiful citadel at Hue that I realised I was shattered. I could not walk another step, so, I found a bench under a tree and had 40-winks, something I have never done before in my life. Was it all that fresh air? Or was it the exhaustion of clinging on with my thighs or the fact that my phone told me I’d actually walked more than 10 miles on those detours?

As darkness fell and Mr Thong presented us with half moons of fresh pomelo and yet another bottle of necessary water the thought of riding all that way back in the dark was less than attractive. Fortunately for our jolly Mr Thong no adjustment to the plan is too much trouble. He had organised us a minivan all to ourselves in which to travel the three hours home to Hoi An with the indulgence of the full length of a row of seats each. Mr Thong and Tin would ride the bikes home and at seven the next morning they would do the trip all over again with another set of guests.

But Mr Thong told us that he feels very lucky indeed to have this job. He also told us that he spent his childhood in a concentration camp.

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Who’s ein Berliner?

With Sam and Malou at the food festival

With Sam and Malou at the food festival

One of the disadvantages of choosing a lifestyle that forces your children to ‘grow up global’ is that there is every chance they will end up living in a different country from you.

One of the advantages of choosing a lifestyle that forces your children to ‘grow up global’ is that there is every chance they will end up living in a different country from you.

Which is why I have just had the good fortune to spend a weekend in Berlin with Sam, who has been living there for almost a year.

Last time I visited, it was as a family with hard-to-please teenagers. We did, inevitably, the typical tourist things – the open-top bus tour, Unter Den Linden, Checkpoint Charlie, the Holocaust Memorial, the Olympic arena, Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag. We ate synthetic sausages with curry sauce and drank green beer. This time I came alone and did none of those things, staying, as Sam advised in a leafy, cobbledy rather Parisian area called Bergmannkiez. Instead of picking a cloned Ibis or Travelodge, I went for a hotel with curved staircases, high ceilings and wide windows that open inwards. Hotel Riehmers is a stone’s throw from Mehringdamm U-bahn and peaceful walks along the Landwehrkanal canal. It’s where Berliners live.

view from the hotel

view from the hotel

It is always a privilege to visit a place with a local. It lets you step into their life for a while, eat what and where they eat, visit their favourite cinema, discover a festival they read about online and take much more interesting routes, on foot, to much more interesting places.

Sam took me to the Mitte district and to Do You Read Me, a shop that sells hundreds of short-run magazines I’d never set eyes on before. One had a washing up sponge in a clear plastic bag taped to the cover and just contained photographs of sponge art. Another was called Toilet Paper, then there was the very cool Flaneur, that focuses on a city per issue. Fascinated by food and writing as I am, to find a beautiful magazine called Lucky Peach, that contained over a hundred pages dedicated to the Vietnamese soup, pho, was irresistible. The shop was packed with browsers. This was clearly a cool place to be. Increasingly, I too found the city to be cool – übercool.

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It was between the covers of Flaneur that I learned about Stolpersteine, or stumble stones, a 1992 initiative by a German artist, Gunter Demnig, to preserve the memories of the 55,000 Jews deported from the area. Small square brass plaques have been cemented into the pavement on the thresholds of the buildings from which these people were taken. The stumble stones almost trip you up, but somehow don’t. Instead they force you not to simply walk on by, oblivious. On each a name, a concentration camp, and, mostly, the date of death, fixed forever amongst the cobbles and the fag ends.

Musicians at the market

Musicians at the market

Just as Berlin is about those who left, it is also about those who came. Most recently, the refugees. Like Sam, they have been here about a year. What they have achieved is remarkable. A Food Festival, held in an old market hall at the seedy end of Kreuzberg, was dedicated to refugee food initiatives. There were those who were making iced mate, selling it in bottles with labels promoting the cause, meals with rice, lots of rice, freekeh, stuffed vegetables, lamb and delicately spiced chicken wings. There were dishes rich with aubergine and tomatoes, vegan tacos, Syrian style, dairy free cookies, Japanese black sesame ice cream served with waffles, spinach dried and fried til it looked and almost tasted like seaweed and a fine range of flatbreads. A group of musicians pitched up and began to play, soon drawing a crowd of people of all nationalities, singing, clapping, tapping and smiling along with the music. There was a flyer for a concert by the Syrian Expat Philharmonic lying on the table we shared with some Americans. When rain began to pour in through the ceiling, two resourceful locals found a wheely bin and raced to place it beneath the unexpected waterfall.

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The Spree

The Spree

As we wandered miles through the streets, along the canal, through fleamarkets, round art exhibitions and past hundreds of people eating at coloured tables outside cafes, I heard a range of languages being spoken. When they closed Kantstrasse around 7.30 pm we stood, listening to the sound of the tabor being drummed and watched as rivers of rollerbladers took to the road. The day before the same had happened with cyclists.

Overlooking the Spree

Overlooking the Spree

It seems that it is on the street that today’s Berliner is found. It is here that they bring their music and their food, their language, sport, graffiti-art and soul. And still there, among the cobbles and the fag ends the memories of those who went before still linger.

 

 

 

 

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