The scenic route

Let me introduce you to my faithful friend, a little man named Hank. He has been my travel companion in a bit of a journey, a scenic route from Milan to London. He is faceless, but he stuck with me all through this adventure. I wonder if he is faceless because sailors are the forgotten faces that passed through the ports.

I was in Milan for work. I left on Sunday night and was scheduled to be back on Thursday morning, straight into work. And then the sky produced a spectacular sunset and the volcanic ash cloud, a real black cloud covered the UK and quickly all over Europe changing the course I would take to head home.

Easyjet put me on a coach with some other passengers and we were taken to the magical Lago Maggiore, just outside Milan. During the hour long journey, I was in a queue to speak to Easyjet and to organise a new flight home. After the 3rd attempt I got through and was told that I could be put on a flight home the next evening. That’s when we arrived in Lago Maggiore. And it was breathtakingly beautiful.

I was torn. I did not know whether I was upset that I’d woken up at 5am to catch this early flight that had been cancelled or that this was  an unexpected opportunity to see a new place and not be in the office! I had no idea where I was and it seem like nobody knew either. The scenery left me speechless.

So I decided to go with my natural holiday spirit and to drop the bags and sit in the sun, soaking in the scenery.

I checked into the Hotel Villa Carlotta. My room had a balcony and was lake-facing. Up to this point, I still had no idea where I was. Not having much geographical knowledge, I had to ask before I found out. I was more muddled about the name of the town because when I went out to explore that Thursday afternoon, I asked for a map and was given one for Stresa. So that’s where I thought we were. And it wasn’t until after not being able to find any of the roads or landmarks on the map that with more enquiries, I realised it was the little stretch called Belgirate.

I went in search for the attractions in the area. I found an old church on the top of the hill, resting higher than the train tracks. It was such a lovely day. The skies were blue and not a cloud in sight! By this time, I’d rearranged my plans and was now flying into Paris on Sunday and catching the first available Eurostar on Tuesday. I thought that I was going to be more than fine. I was giving myself two days to reach Paris should my flight end up being cancelled. So, on with this hill trek. I will find this church, I will enjoy this. I mean, what views! It’s the Swiss alps, check that snow out!

And by this church, a quiet cemetery. I thought to myself that this was not a bad place to rest in the afterlife.

I quickly found out that I’d covered the one major attraction. I was feeling a little bored and mainly anxious as this black cloud of ash looked like it was going to be more trouble than everyone had expected. I was glued to the news, waiting for updates constantly. I went for walks. And I found roses. I took photos.

Pink roses, close up
Pink roses, bush view

Pink roses and petals, on the ground

Squint and you will see the Swiss alps, covered in snow like a cool icey dessert. Look at what’s in front of you. Without the rose-tinted glasses, reality hit me hard.

My flight to Paris was supposed to be on Sunday morning. On Saturday, I panicked. I even went a bit hysterical. I’d slept badly the last few nights because my sleep was fueled by nervous energy and my dreams, were anxiety driven. I had to go. I felt that I’d come under the spell of Lago Maggiore. The tranquility, a welcome break after being in Milan during the Salone was now turning eerie. I started to believe that if I did not make a run for it, I could end up living here forever.

I left. I went to Stresa and it was very pretty there too. But I’d broken the spell. I was no longer interested. I was single-minded. I wanted to survive. I wanted to be home. Both homes. I wanted to be back in London home and I also wanted to be back by Wednesday for my trip back to Malaysia.

After an unsuccessful Saturday evening of queuing up for over two hours in Centrale, only to be told by the unhelpful lady that all trains to Paris were booked until May and a dash to the bus terminal, only to find it as chaotic as the train station. Ticket holders were fighting with each other to get onto coaches.

I felt broken. I was in tears. I had had enough. I wanted to be back. Urged to stay calm, and with another night’s bad sleep, a new plan had been hatched. Guy had been thinking about it and thought that I was to find a way into France, Lyon perhaps. And make my way to Paris.

Sunday morning, I woke up at 6 something from worry. I headed to Centrale again. I queued for about an hour (easy, after the day before). This time I was told they could offer me Nice and that was it.

I went for it. I had a ticket in my hand and I felt hope. A tgv train ticket from Nice to Paris was booked online. My wonderful friend Jess booked it for me. So I was off to Nice and Jess used to live there. I immediately felt like I was closer to home. I could see the light and I should celebrate!

I celebrated with Nutella on the go! It’s the perfect trainride snack. There is ice-tea in one corner, breadsticks and nutella. I even found the Sunday papers. I was all set! I listened to some music. I felt relaxed enough to enjoy and my journey out of Milan was sountracked by Floating Points’ XLR8R podcast. I sat in a compartment with four other travelers. A man who was wearing double denim, which I’ve read is oh so fashionable. He wasn’t even trying to be fashionable. You knew he’d been dressing this way since his youth. He had travelled from Vienna and was making his way to Avignon; a mother and daughter going on holiday and would have normally taken the train and a lovely lady from Stuttgart. Crystal was jolly. She was also determined not to let the ash cloud ruin her holiday. She had friends to see! So she’d been traveling for over 20 hours and had a car journey ahead of her. She was tired but we were both excited as we got on the train from Vingtimilla to Nice.

I reached Nice at night, it was dark but the route was so scenic. The weather was beautiful, but I was on a train. I could see the sea and it made me happy. I had to collect my ticket and this took another hour of queuing in the train station. The next morning, I woke up early. I wanted to see a bit Nice, I wanted to see what it was all about.

It was sun, sea and stripes! I was wearing stripes! I had Hank with me! I felt good. I was in France and I had a ticket in my fist for the 1035 to Gare du Lyon. And I saw this:

And yes. It was all going to be fine. I am going to make my Eurostar on Tuesday morning. And Hank was still with me. I have been very lucky. I was not left camping in airports and I wasn’t going to be stranded for much longer. This adventure only made me realise,that not unlike thinking about where your sausages and bacon comes from, modern travel has made us forget the actual miles between places. It is not until you move around countries to get to your final destination that you can really understand and appreciate that the quote about traveling being about the journey and not the destination has a lot of truth in it.

So I came home the scenic route, I met some interesting people, I felt loneliness, craziness and excitement too. I am glad to be back in London and I miss the sight of the lake and sea. And to be honest I’ve always wanted to take the train across Europe. I find train journeys old fashioned and romantic. And for all the hassle, for all the worry, I have returned with a story to tell. That’s not a bad thing at all.

Weekend Away: Paris

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I have always dreamed of being in a band. And when I was in Paris at the weekend, we spotted this on the ground, outside my favourite shop in Montmatre.

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I’ve been to Paris a few times now, but have never seen any of the cemetries there. We went to Cimitiere Montparnasse because I wanted to see Jean Seberg‘s tombstone. It was very sunny that day. And she was nowhere in sight.

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I found Serge Gainsbourg‘s instead.  His was filled  with cigarettes, metro tickets other curiousities like this Bob charm.

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It was a funny coincidence as only two days ago, my friend Siobhan was telling us how she liked the name Bob. We decided that the Bob in Twin Peaks was one Bob we didn’t like.

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The best thing about being away is having the time to walk about. I remember when I lived in Edinburgh thinking that it was lacking a river. Having a river = having bridges. Bridges make a city very pretty.

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Walking around a city is the best way to discover hidden gems. Nothing is better than stumbling upon a spot of beauty.

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Or spotting the prettiest petits fours. When travelling, breakfast can be long and leisurely. Not unlike a weekend brunch. We had a breakfast of freshly baked breads. We were served a selection of yummy jams and nutella. Mmm..

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I like revisiting cities that I love. You end up with a list of favourite places. Almost like you lived in that city.  In Paris, a favourite gallery is the Fondation Cartier.

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The exhibition we saw was Grafitti- Born on the Streets. On the way out, we spotted a bunch of grafitti artists tagging a wall propped up in front of the building. It was a nice touch by the curators.

Pre-dinner Theater Starring Steamed Prawns in Coconut

I had the pleasure of visiting Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) recently and one of my most memorable meals there was the traditional Vietnamese dish Steamed Prawns in Coconut. This had been on my list of things to try simply because it had all the key words that smelled like this is probably quite a flavoursome dish. What I didn’t realise was that when I ordered this dish, I was also going to be treated to a pre-dinner theater!

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The dish came with the steamed prawns hooked onto the coconut prettily like some kind of ornament. The dish was lit up and the prawns were charred by the dancing flames. After awhile, the waiter started peeling each prawn and dropped them into the coconut. My sister and I were in awe. We had not expected to be treated to this spectacle when we ordered.

We fished out the prawns which were sweetened by the coconut juice, pleased that this dish was such a feast for the senses. It reminded me of other delicious dishes that moonlight as entertainers on the dining table. Immediately sizzling hot plates came to mind and so did Bomb Alaska. The anticipation of watching your food perform creates a mouth-watering experience which is mostly down to  the ability to imagine taste.

Shantytemple Surprise

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The thing I love most about KL is the randomness and incongrous buildings that sit side by side each other. Like the Hindu temple that sits under a shopping mall called Mid Valley. Or this Chinese temple I spotted today whileI was waiting around for my sister to finish in a meeting.

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This shanty temple stood out next to the highway in vermillion and had a little one-stop bike thing filled with joss sticks, statues of deities, Malaysian flags and a sack or two. I walked into the smokey interior and witnessed a ladymonk/nun going about her business on a side altar and an older man rushing around the main altar which was filled with about what seem like a thousand gods.

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Note the little altar that’s been propped to the side of that tyre complete with joss stick that’d been burnt.

Lots of chocolate for me to…

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Look and eat!

It’s soon to be Shrove Tuesday and many will be giving up chocolate for lent.

Not me!

Shrove Tuesday will be an excuse to have a pancake party.

This evening, I’d like to talk about chocolate and how beautiful some of the design and packaging is. I was reminded of my love for chocolate and beautifully packaged chocolate when Maria from work gave me a bar of Chocolate Organiko because she thought I’d appreciate the typography-led graphics on the packaging. She was correct. Chocolate Organiko uses clean and bold typography and it works really well. It works so well that I’ve not touched the chocolate bar for I quite like to keep this to look at for a wee while.

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I thought of another cool Spanish chocolate maker Xocoa. The first time I went to Barcelona a few years ago my sister mentioned reading about Xocoa on her flight over. She had forgotten to note down the address. We were quietly obsessing over the missed opportunity here to check out a nice chocolate shop when we stumbled upon one of the branches of Xocoa in the city on our very last day there.

In Britain, Kings Road based Rococo Chocolates have gone the opposite direction on packaging from their Spanish counterparts. So named for the decorative arts-led packaging,  my first encounter with Rococo Chocolates was in So Cocoa in Stockbridge, Edinburgh. My favourite Saturdays usually involved a walk by the canal and a stop to buy lavender or rose flavoured chocolate bars.

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The thing about chocolate is that you can more or less judge it by its packaging. Pleasure can come in the form of a tiny square of fine chocolate. And it starts from the moment you hear that clear snap from breaking a piece to savouring the taste.

Happiness is finding time for tea

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Happiness is finding time for a sit down. True happiness however lies in finding a new favourite place. On Sunday, having a little stroll from Dalston, we looked inside Time For Tea. The sign for this wonderful discovery has filled me with much curiousity previously but having always been on buses when I passed it, I’ve not had a chance to peek in and investigate the delights it holds.

Finally on Sunday, we walked into a room, not unlike most grannies’ living rooms. There were a couple of tables and intimate groups of people sat about drinking tea from a variety of vintage tea sets. The room was filled with the sounds of swing, but curiously punctuated by the sound of someone typing on a typewriter.

imgp2060We walked in through to the back passing “objects”. On an upside down chair, the legs now housed some hats; on a little dressing table, there laid some vintage brooches; and a whole load of records all for £2. On that wall, an old map of Australia, brown from age; on another some beautiful old clocks.

At the back of the room, we reached a little serving counter with an old cash machine. Shelves were lined with labelled jars of tea and there was even a selection of homemade cakes (on cake stands). At the corner of our eyes, we saw the typist. A girl of about 10 or 11 sat facing the room and typed away. She wore a flat cap and jodphurs and she was concentrating seriously.

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After a sit down and a few cups of Russian Carnival (oh yes, even the teas are magical blends!), it was time to go. The girl -Tilly is her name,  served us.

She had finished typing. I asked her what she was typing, was it a story?

“It’s a classic love story”, she replied.

That was a surprise. And she went on. She said it was set in the 40s.

But of course.

Going into Time For Tea is a magical experience. Stepping in you leave the craziness of Shoreditch High Street and back into time. Drinking tea and eating cake. I didn’t know it was so easy to forget 2009.

Sticky in the middle

dsc005301This Christmas, I decided not to send out any Christmas cards. I had the idea of making stained glass cookies and giving them out instead of the more traditional paper option.

Starting out with a mixed bag of boiled sweets, Katrina and I crushed the colourful sweets and placed them in little pyrex ramekins to urge us on with this fiddly, but exciting baking job.

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We listened to some  music and worked hard together, waiting to see the end result. It was a satisfying feeling to see the shortbread cookies turn out looking like stained glass. They looked unlike jammie dodgers but in your mouth, the cookies had the unique texture of being both hard and soft.

I’ve always loved the look of sweets. Sugar is wonderful tool for producing edible art (think Papabubble).

I placed mine in little clear bags tied with some Christmassy ribbon and felt a little pride giving them out, knowing that they were homemade delights.