A question of culture: Assimilate or die?

This week I attended a evening of talks at China Exchange, a charity based in London’s Chinatown whose mission it is to create ways of exploring Chinese culture and China’s influence on the world. I fell across them late last year in attending a provocative discussion between Sir David Tang and Mr & Mrs Smith CEO James Lohan and have been keen to attend something else ever since.

This one-night-only event featured five speakers who had eight minutes each on their allotted subject followed by questions from the audience. They covered a range of topics from Chinese medicine (and what is it really?), Hinkley Point C and the role of Chinese investment, feminism in China and the opportunity that Chinese tourists represent for the British economy.

I know very little about China and Chinese culture. During an emerging market project about 18 months ago, I was surprised by the level of Chinese investment in large infrastructure projects in Africa and I’ve only had limited exposure to ‘Chinese’ medicine. Needless to say I found it an educational and thought-provoking evening.

But the eight minutes that really left me thinking were delivered by Dr Victor Fan, a Senior Lecturer at King’s College. His topic was ‘white washing’ in the entertainment industry i.e. non-Asian people playing Asian roles. It was every bit as interesting as the others but it was when he spoke about his experience of getting a visa to live and work in Quebec, Canada – one that specified that he would speak French and adopt local practices – that something struck a chord.

Two years ago, I became a British citizen and among the 30 or so of us in the room agreeing to honour queen and country, 21 different nationalities were represented. At the time I marveled at what an extraordinary thing it was to live in a community which welcomed such cultural diversity, particularly when you consider the hoops you have to jump through – like the Life in the UK test – and what it costs you to apply for British citizenship.

But it takes a lot of services and infrastructure to support this and there are times when a part of me bridles at the presumption and entitlement of those who want to make their home in a new country yet make no effort to assimilate or adopt any new practices, complaining that it’s not how they would like it or that they are not supported (financially or otherwise).

I should say here that I have retained my Australian citizenship. I still consider myself Australian first and foremost and while I have lived in London for the last thirteen years, I am proud of my roots. But my home is here now: I feel like I’ve worked hard, paid my taxes and contributed, having made my way through the first six years here as a Highly Skilled Migrant with Limited Leave to Remain. Essentially this means that I got access to the NHS but no access to public funds (no benefits like job seekers allowance or rebates on council tax etc) so in between regular work contracts, I typed letters and got coffee for others (among other things) to make ends meet. And I think that this is right – who am I to turn up with my hand out when I’ve made no contribution?

One of the biggest challenges was definitely assimilating to life here without losing who I am. How much of my mix of Australian-Dutch directness should I hold on to? How many of the peculiarities of language – words, pace, pronunciation – should I adopt? It’s all very well to say you should be yourself but when you have been living in one culture for 34 years, isn’t turning up on another country’s doorstep and expecting it to fashion itself around you and your idiosyncrasies presumptuous and entitled?

I often think about it like this. I appreciate it that when I’m invited to someone’s house, they make an effort to make me feel comfortable and at home. But there’s a limit to how ‘at home’ I would ever make myself. I mean would you turn up at someone’s house, ‘crap’ all over their decor / tastes / habits and demand that they accommodate all of your whims and fancies? If you don’t like what’s being expected of you, then don’t come. (And by the way, if your answer to that earlier question was yes, you are not welcome at mine!)

The internet has made the world feel very accessible and a place where you can go anywhere you want. But in reality we don’t have the right to go and be wherever we choose. It’s up to each country to decide what it wants its cultural jigsaw to be and how it wants to participate in any humanitarian crises regardless of any prevailing view about the benefits of cross-border alliances and being part of the wider global village. Whether we like it or not.

So the question remains: How far should you go to assimilate versus defending your culture’s right to survive? How much should we embrace a new culture – a polite hand-shake, a light arm-around-shoulder or a whole-hearted, full-body squeeze? What should your new homeland demand of you and how do you balance the books in such an exchange?

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Image credit: Pinterest

Let me know what you think. What are your experiences either as an expat or as the people dealing with those of us who want to make our new home in your neighbourhood?

In the meantime, I’ll be hovering around North Finchley waiting for the Bunnings’ sausage sizzle to make their small cultural mark on Britain.

You can take the girl out of Australia and all that…

The straight-talking timekeepers of the zodiac

In case you missed it, today is the Chinese New Year and we are now embarking on the Year of the Rooster.

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I bought this hand-painted tile in Portugal in 2002

According to the December issue of Director magazine (which I was flicking through yesterday), Roosters are uncomplicated and straightforward. The website travelchinaguide.com also claims that Roosters are “almost the epitome of fidelity and punctuality. For ancestors who had no alarm clocks, the crowing was significant, as it could awaken people to get up and start to work”.

I am an absolute stickler for time-keeping, loyalty and keeping my word (and expecting you to keep yours too!) so it is probably no surprise to you when I say that I am a Rooster.

Anyway, in conducting a bit of research for this post, I learnt that the Chinese Zodiac also assigns one of five elements – fire, earth, water, gold and wood – to each lunar year and that 2017 is a Fire Rooster year.

However being born in 1969 makes me an Earth Rooster. The website famousbirthdays.com suggests that Earth Roosters are the most grounded and focused of the Rooster types. Apparently our natures are practical (I’m known for my pragmatism – bags of theory just doesn’t do it for me), hardworking and prudent and while we want success, it is less about material wealth and more about getting the best out of ourselves and others. We are straightforward and analytical communicators but when we get idealistic (i.e. on our soapbox), we are more likely to try and persuade others versus being open to other opinions.

Make of that what you will but I reckon it’s pretty spot on.

I found out that there are some seriously awesome Earth Roosters that predate yours truly…

  • Benny Goodman – King of Swing, insanely talented clarinet-ist and big band man
  • Leo Fender – musical inventor, electric guitar afficionado (the clue is in the name peeps)
  • Fanny Craddock – food critic, celebrity TV chef and inventor of the prawn cocktail
  • Fred Perry – tennis legend, winner of eight grand slam titles
  • Errol Flynn – actor,  general swashbuckler and fellow Australian
  • Ivan Pavlov – Nobel Prize Winner and Russian scientist renowned for the concept of conditioned response – ever heard of Pavlov’s dogs?

…and that fellow Earth Roosters from 1969 include stars from the worlds of…

Business: Mellody Hobson (Chairman of Dreamworks Animation), Lei Jun (the Steve Jobs of China), Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook), Divine Brown (hardworking and practical yes but maybe not so prudent).

Acting: Oscar winners Cate Blanchett (slight girl crush and proud to be a fellow Australian) and Matthew McConaughey (just…sigh), Gerald Butler, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jack Black and Renee Zellweger.

Music: Gwen Stefani, Marilyn Manson, Jennifer Lopez and Jay-Z (‘Mr’ Beyonce).

Art & Beauty: Darcey Bussell (ballerina), Alexander McQueen (fashion designer), seven Misses of the 1991 Miss America pageant – Michigan, Mississippi, Texas (4th), West Virginia, Maryland, Oregon and Delaware – as well as two (Arizona and Idaho) from the 1996 pageant.

…as well as sports, politics, crime, literature and even royalty (including two Dutch princes and a Japanese princess).

1969 was also a year of many firsts (including my birthday – the first of August)…

Golda Meir became the first female and fourth Prime Minister of Israel on February 17th…

Concorde made its maiden flight on March 2nd…

…Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first men to walk on the moon on July 21st…

…British driver Jackie Stewart won his first Formula One World Drivers’ Championship on October 19th (exactly four years later I got a Lil Chicky)…

Sir Robin Knox-Johnston became the first man to sail solo and non-stop around the globe…

…the first communications were sent through ARPANET (the precursor to the internet),  the first ATM was installed in the USA and the first transplants of a human eye and an artificial heart were carried out (although not together)…

…and cultural icons Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Sesame Street (with its cast of Jim Henson‘s Muppet creations) debuted, the first on the BBC on October 5th and the second on PBS on November 10th.

We also said goodbye to few things in 1969.

This is the year that The Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band dropped out of the chart after a stint of 88 weeks. The Fab Four also launched their last album together (Abbey Road) and held their last public performance on the rooftop of Apple Corp. at 3 Savile Row in  London.

We also lost US President Dwight D Eisenhower and statesman Joseph P Kennedy Snr. (patriarch of the Kennedy clan), actors Judy Garland and Sharon Tate, boxer Rocky Marciano, writer Jack Kerouac and revolutionary Ho Chi Minh. (I did not know that the city had a namesake – you learn something every day.)

And in 1969, the death penalty was abolished in the UK.

But enough of the reminiscing. The most important question right now is this:

What does 2017 hold for all we Roosters?

This is your year. You understand the flow of the energy this year. Your timing will be impeccable. If you arrive late to the party, it was meant to be. If you forgot something, you will find you didn’t actually need it. A time for rebirth, transformation and growth as Rooster benefits from the energy of her own year and begins a new twelve-year life cycle. Rooster must still work hard, but rewards abound in 2017, affairs are under control, order reigns, and Rooster rises in glory. Bravely pursue all new opportunities, dear Rooster. 2017 is a year to renew and restore; replace old furnishing and enjoy a new wardrobe – new plumage.

Source: http://astrologyclub.org/

So this little black duck cock hen is off to work hard, pursue new opportunities and buy some new plumage…

…and I’ll make a concerted effort to go with the flow and not to stress about being late to the party.

No really. I will try.

I promise…

A brush with art

I had an hour to kill between meetings near Pall Mall today and as I braced myself against the cold (it was -1 Celsius for most of today) and crossed Trafalgar Square, the imposing pillared facade of the National Gallery and the promise of its warm – and free – galleries looked pretty inviting.

In the thirteen years that I’ve lived in London, I have never been to the National Gallery (I know, the shame!) so once inside, I followed the signs up to the paintings galleries and began to wander. I had such a lovely time that I wanted to share a few of my favourites with you.

Let me pause here and say that I am in awe of the skill and talent required to paint. But I know diddly-squat about art and on the rare occasions that I go (like to last year’s Painting the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy), I tend to stroll around and stop whenever something takes my fancy.

And I was only just inside the door when I was taken by fancy number one.

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Luis Melendez – Still Life with Oranges and Walnuts (1772)

I’ve never heard of the artist – Luis Meléndez, a Spanish still life painter from the 18th century – but apparently he painted almost fifty of these ‘bodegón’ paintings between 1759 and 1772. What drew me to this one was that I had to suppress the urge to reach out and feel the texture on the wooden boxes and dimples in the skin of the oranges with my fingertips.

(This photo doesn’t do it justice but actually none of those I’ll share measure up to standing in front of the real thing. We’ll just have to make do with my happy snaps.)

I moved into the next room and as I turned to look at the paintings on either side of the door I gasped out loud. This is Italian painter Canaletto

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Canaletto – Venice: The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day (about 1740)

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Canaletto – Venice: A Regatta on the Grand Canal (about 1740)

The first painting is of a place I’ve visited several times and I’ve been fortunate enough to take a few trips across this very stretch of water – admiring the tower of San Marco in Venice with the Doges Palace (the pink building) in front of it – over the years. The second painting is also a scene from my travels but what struck me more was its extraordinary detail. All of the people seemed to mill around and the intricacy of the architecture and decoration on the boats made this scene come alive in a cacophony of colour and apparent movement.

What I thought was interesting was that these paintings looked bland when I saw them from a distance and it was only when I stood up close that they came alive. I returned to look at them again before I left – I was awestruck by the skill Canaletto must have had to create these in such wonderful detail.

As I wandered aimlessly through each room, I enjoyed Constable‘s peaceful country scene in The Hay Wain…

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John Constable – The Hay Wain (1821)

…and was delighted to see a less flowery side of Claude Monet. While I love his Water Lilies and have been to Giverny to see both his studio and the glorious garden that inspired him, I found myself enchanted by the moodiness in this depiction of the Gare St-Lazare.

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Claude Monet – Gare St-Lazare (1877)

Speaking of being delighted by a new and unexpected perspective, this painting – called Two Crabs – gave me a whole new appreciation for van Gogh.

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Vincent van Gogh – Two Crabs (1889)

I quite enjoy van Gogh’s paintings but I’m sometimes disappointed by the lack of realism in them. The colour of this canvas caught my eye from across the room and I was both intrigued by the detail up close and really surprised to find it was one of his.

This next one was a work in progress from Cezanne – I rather liked the simplicity and calmness of its unfinished state…

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Paul Cezanne – Still Life with Water Jug (about 1892-3)

Staying with Cezanne, I was intrigued by the theme of bathers in several paintings and how differently this was portrayed. Compare the densely-coloured canvas below from Cezanne…

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Paul Cezanne – Bathers or Les Grandes Baigneuses (about 1894-1905)

…with this earlier and ‘lighter’ canvas from father of pointillism, Georges Seurat.

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Georges Seurat – Bathers at Asnieres (1884)

Seurat used tiny dots of contrasting colour to create this vibrant effect. It’s most impactful when standing back to admire it versus getting close to look at details (like with the Canalettos I mentioned earlier). I did get up close though to check out the dots for myself, despite the group of twenty or so school children sitting in front of it at the time.

Another name familiar to me was William Hogarth – I had come across his sketches on a couple of walking tours I did last year. This was my first look at his paintings – his Marriage a la Mode series was on display – and I really enjoyed his witty ‘fun-poking’ and action-packed canvasses. This is No. 4 The Toilette showing a woman getting ready for her day in the ‘privacy’ of her bed chamber.

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William Hogarth – Marriage A-la-Mode: No. 4 The Toilette (about 1743)

By the way, don’t you think the man on the left with the open book looks a little like Rowan Atkinson?

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Image source: Wikipedia

Anyway the final painting I want to share with you is by someone I’d never heard of – Laurits Andersen Ring. Born Laurits Andersen in Ring in Zealand, Denmark, he was apparently well-known for roads and paths in his paintings.

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Laurits Andersen Ring – Road in the Village of Baldersbronde (Winter Day) (1912)

All I knew was when I set eyes on it, there was something inordinately peaceful about this stark snowy scene and I hovered around it for some time.

By then, an hour had flown by and it was time to head off to my next appointment. But what a marvelous way to spend a bit of time between things…and all for free. I must admit to having a little spring in my step as I crossed Trafalgar Square again despite the bracing air outside.

*Sigh*

I do love living in London.

When a foodie goes to Melbourne: By night

I spent two and a half weeks in Melbourne (the one in Australia not Florida – just to be clear) over the Christmas-New Year period visiting family and catching up with a few friends. It was hot – much hotter than I’m used to even in the warmer parts of Europe – but that did not stop me from doing loads and eating even more.

Last time I tap-tap-tapped away about the high points of our daytime eating adventures and promised to follow up with the same for our culinary exploits after dark. So here it is, post number two.

Fat Bob’s Bar & Grill – Moorabbin

For at least three years, my loved ones have been Facebook posting about Fat Bob’s and when I arrived for a visit two years ago, I was sadly informed that Fat Bob’s was closed until the day after I was due to fly back to the UK. This time Lil Chicky was on the case – Fat Bob’s would be closed from Christmas Eve so nine hours after I got off the plane on December 23rd, we were scoffing amazing burgers, more-ish fries and some super scrumptious fried apple dumplings.

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Tucked away in an industrial estate in Moorabbin, once you walk through the gate there are vintage signs everywhere you look.

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There’s a good range of craft brews and ciders to pair with your burger. My White Rabbit Dark Ale was smooth and easy (too easy?) to drink and my Victa burger – a crumbed chicken fillet with Asian slaw, Japanese mayo and BBQ sauce – was completely scoff-worthy

It’s a fabulously unpretentious place and was definitely worth the wait. The food was served in plastic baskets with the burgers wrapped in foil (helps to stop the drips as you hoe in) and cutlery was kind of optional frowned upon. If you love a dirty burger and a retro approach to decorating, get yourself to Fat Bob’s…and leave your tiara at home.

Mexico City – Bentleigh

The original Mexico City restaurant opened in 2011 around the corner from where I used to live in Elsternwick but I’ve been away since 2004 so when Lil Chicky told me that there was a new one in Bentleigh, it seemed the perfect place to stop for a pre-cinema dinner. It’s quite a small place and as we were only two people and didn’t have a booking, we had a choice of sitting at the bar or at the window. We chose the latter and ordered a couple of Moscow Mules to sip with our complimentary corn chips and salsa before our meals arrived. I loved my vegetarian burrito and Lil Chicky enjoyed her Mexican trio. But be warned – the portions are huge so if you want to have more than one course, I’d suggest sharing.

Favorite Noodle & Dumpling Restaurant – Moorabbin

This is a family-run business right across the highway from Moorabbin train station. It’s a large restaurant with an extensive menu of dumplings and Chinese stir fries. Mum, Licensed-To-Grill and Lil Chicky all raved about the dumplings so that was what I chose. They were soft and melt-in-the-mouth delicious – definitely the best I’ve had. I’d been eating elsewhere in the day so couldn’t fit anything else in but again I was gobsmacked by how big everyone else’s portions were.

It got really busy while we were there and the service, while still friendly, did suffer a bit as a result. There was also a little lost in translation moment when pea-hater Lil Chicky asked whether there were peas in the fried rice. (We were absolutely assured there were no peas, just beans, only for Lil Chicky to be faced with picking out all the peas when it did arrive.)  But it’s cheap and cheerful and if I lived there, I’d probably be doing a dumpling run at least once a week.

Bad Frankie – Fitzroy

I was reading one of the daily newspapers at Lil Chicky’s in turns marvelling at how clueless I am about Australian celebrities nowadays and checking out all of the things-to-do recommendations. It was the word ‘jaffles’ that caught my eye – these were the mainstay of many a Sunday night dinner growing up and were crammed full of things like baked beans, ham, tuna, tomato and savoury mince but always with loads of gooey melted cheese. I managed to convince some friends to have a jaffle-themed catch-up…and what a catch-up it was!

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Top row: Look out for the sign when you turn off Smith Street into Greeve Street; Quirky decor  Bottom row: Retro cocktail glassware; the traditional ham and cheese jaffle with a side of tomato chutney; the infamous lamington jaffle – there are no words – you’ve got to experience it for yourself!

Bad Frankie specialises in Australian spirits and the drinks list is pages and pages long (who knew we Aussies were so prolific outside wine and a bit of boutique beer) so we went with cocktails served in the types of glassware you might find at the back of your Mum’s kitchen cupboard. We chose a range of savoury jaffles to begin with – which were yum – then tackled the lamington jaffle. Chocolate sponge filled with jam and rolled in coconut was served warm from the jaffle maker with cream on the side – it was scrumptious and VERY rich, making us all glad we had decided to share. The others also tried the ANZAC Bikkie jaffle (brioche toasted with rolled oats and golden syrup) which they reported tasted faithfully of its namesake.

To my mind Bad Frankie was an absolute find. The decor is quirky and cosy and everything is very laid-back. We’d been in the City in the afternoon and the promise of jaffles and boozing did take us out of our way but it was a chilled and convivial evening with an easy tram ride at either end. Just go!

Okami – Hampton Street

Okami is a chain of five Japanese restaurants across Melbourne and on my last night, we decided to tackle the All-You-Can-Eat offer at the Hampton Street branch. You get a two-hour sitting, a menu and then you just keep ordering dishes until you can’t eat any more. We shared many great dishes but stand outs for me were the Chicken Karaage and the Teriyaki Chicken Skewer. We also tried the Octopus Ball – which turned out to be balls of octopus meat versus something akin to a Bush Tucker Trial – better served with soy sauce than the mayonnaise they came with I thought.

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Domo arigato for a job well done! 

We managed to find a small space at the end for some cold vanilla ice-cream (it was 38C that day – that’s really hot!) and pretty much rolled out the door. And all of this for less than $30 (approx. £18) each.

And that peeps ends the culinary tour. The next day I boarded a plane for the long trek home with an underweight suitcase (believe me, it took careful packing to manage this with the amount of shopping I did). However I cannot say the same for yours truly and I must admit to my comfy travelling trousers feeling slightly snugger than when I arrived two and half weeks earlier. But what are holidays for, I ask you?

I hope this has whet the appetite of those of you  living in or travelling to Melbourne…if you are a glutton for punishment and want more or missed the partner post on daytime eating in my hometown, you’ll find it here so in the words of my childhood dinners…

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Dig in. Don’t wait!

 

When a foodie goes to Melbourne: By day

I spent two and a half weeks over Christmas and New Year in Melbourne. It is my hometown – not the place I was born but rather the place that I endured the pangs of teenage angst, the excitement of leaving home and the hopeful anticipation of beginning my career – in essence my transition to adulthood (although some my argue that this happened much later). In any case, it’s a city that holds a huge piece of my expat heart hostage and as Mum and Lil Chicky still live there, it has become something of a habit to make a bi-annual pilgrimage Down Under.

We shopped and hung out and laughed and did a whole lot of stuff while I was there – more of which I’ll post about soon – but mostly we ate. As with most holiday ‘diets’, calories became a distant memory and it was not uncommon for us to be tucking in to some meal somewhere and be talking about where we should have the next one!

As a result I’ve clocked up quite a few great recommendations if you happen to be in Melbourne around the City or down towards the bayside suburbs of Brighton, Mentone, Hampton and Parkdale. There are too many for one post so they will come to you in two parts – by day and by night.

Here’s where I suggest you spend your days.

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Breakfast/Brunch – for a cracking start to your day, I really liked these three:

Urchin Bar – Hampton

Ostensibly this is a Turkish restaurant and bar but serves a great breakfast and we lingered here for a couple of hours catching up over fresh juice, delicious food and great coffee. The service was friendly and laid back and whilst they were attentive, at no stage did we feel rushed by the staff. Don’t let the average website put you off and if you go, make sure you walk through the bar and snag a table in the covered courtyard out the back.

The Groove Train – Brighton

This is one of my regulars when I visit and is a particular fave for breakfast. It’s located in upmarket Church Street and when we were there, the glass doors were concertina-ed aside, opening the whole place out onto the street. I have never had a bad coffee here and my breakfast burrito wrap was chock full of scrumptious stuff. Lil Chicky’s smashed avocado concoction looked pretty amazing as well.

Parkdale Beach Cafe & Kiosk – Parkdale

If you want food with a view, then this place is for you. Perched on the cliff top overlooking Port Phillip Bay, this cafe serves great coffee and a small but excellent selection of food to both tables inside and at loungers outside under the shade of the umbrellas. Mum and I happened to coincide our visit with a Greek Orthodox New Year celebration which moved from the boardwalk that runs along the beach up to the BBQ area next to the cafe. So we decided to enjoy our warm banana bread with fresh berries and mascarpone cream from a inside table with an excellent position by the window…

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Window seats –  the view from our table

This place gets busy but there’s something so unbelievably magnificent about the location that for me, the hustle to get a seat/table is worth it.

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Lunch/Coffee and a little something – as the day goes on, you’ll need to keep your strength up so try these three:

Larsen & Co – Hampton

This calm Scandi oasis is tucked into the lane that leads from Hampton Street through to the station car park and features clean Scandinavian decor inside and 3-4 shaded wooden tables outside. The menu is not extensive but the quality was excellent – I had an amazing superfood salad while Lil Chicky enjoyed her fried calamari with orange, baby fennel, feta and mint. The portions were big – so great value for money – and the service was friendly and efficient (after all we had a train to catch). It’s worth mentioning the excellent toilet facilities here too.

Brunetti – City Square

The original Brunetti opened in Carlton in 1985 and has since expanded to include this outdoor cafe that commandeers the south end of Melbourne’s City Square on Swanston Street. The biggest problem you’ll have is choosing which of the myriad cakes and slices to have. To complicate matters even further, you can also get yourself a little tub of fresh gelati…

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Left: My delicious hazelnut and coffee slice  Right: Ice-cream anyone?

There’s plenty of seating – although not all of it is under cover – and the bird life can get a bit cheeky with any leftovers but if you clean your plate (as well you should), watching the hierarchy of sparrows, pigeons and a seagull or two oust each other for the crumbs can be quite entertaining. Of course Brunetti’s Italian heritage means the coffee is outstanding.

Hopetoun Tea Rooms  – Block Arcade, City Centre

Melbourne’s arcades are something of an institution and the elegant Block Arcade, running between Collins and Little Collins Street, is no exception. Built in the 1890s, it features some of Melbourne’s most delightful retailers and none more delightful than the Hopetoun Tea Rooms. I was told that the line to get a table is usually out the door, down the arcade and around the corner into the street but we found ourselves here at 10am on a Tuesday morning with only a 10 minute wait ahead of us – so plenty of time to window shop…

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Clockwise from top left: Window shopping of the best kind; the mirror dating from 1892; red velvet cake; chocolate and pecan tart

This place is decorated tastefully ‘of the period’ featuring a mirror from 1892, flocked wallpaper and a display of crystal wares in one of the cabinets. It can seem a little cramped when you come through the door (one-in one-out is the best way to manage the traffic flow here) but once seated there was ample elbow room for us to tuck into our sweet treats. My chocolate and pecan tart was so delicious and I have it on good authority that the red velvet cake and the crepes with fresh berries and cream were every bit as good. This is not a place to linger and chat so go for the experience and the cakes rather than the conversation.

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And then there’s the best-laid plans and all that…

The Local on Como – Parkdale

I am a huge Audrey Hepburn fan and when Mum and Lil Chicky discovered this place, they couldn’t wait to tell me and put it on the ‘visit list’. Unfortunately it was closed for the entire time I was in Melbourne so I had to be satisfied with peering in the window…

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Awesome Audrey mural at The Local on Como (there was also a purple coffee machine!)

…so I cannot tell you anything about the coffee, the ambiance or any of the vittles on offer. But it must be pretty good – Lil Chicky does not do bad coffee. And the mural was worth the walk on a mighty warm Summer day.

That completes my haunts by day. You may like to pause (as we did often) and ready yourself for the next installment – my favourite culinary haunts after the sun went down. They’re coming soon…

Favourite things: Returning home

I’ve been back home in London for a few days now. The weather is about 30 degrees (celsius) cooler than when I left Melbourne on Sunday and while I love the sun and heat, I have been enjoying feeling the brisk air on my face when outdoors followed by that cosy rush of warmth when I venture inside again. The real test will come tomorrow with temperatures forecast to get down below zero overnight and remain that way for the next week. I’m guessing there will be little opportunity to show off my holiday tan.

Speaking of holidays, I am due a post about my month away – an indulgent week in a Thai resort followed by two and a half weeks in Melbourne with family – and there’s a whole lot of stuff milling around inside my head but it’s resisting taking shape right now. But rest assured that something will appear soon…in some form or other.

But right now, I am battling the jet lag and indulging in some cocoon-like time at home enjoying some of my favourite things to do.

Sleeping

I love a good night’s sleep and I haven’t slept through the night since my return. I went to my first yoga session in a month yesterday – which no doubt will hurt quite a bit tomorrow – and then managed about five and a half hours sleeping straight through last night so it’s all going in the right direction. I am trying to be patient with myself / this but I wish it would all just hurry up.

Reading

After an absolute glut of Kindle reading at the end of 2016, I returned home inspired to read some of the stuff that’s been on my bookshelf for a while. At the moment I am really enjoying Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay before I see him interviewed next week.

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Catch-up telly

My mid-December departure meant that I missed the final episode in season two of the sci-fi series Humans – which has had me glued to my TV screen each Sunday night – and the Strictly Come Dancing Grand Final. Both have been addressed and enjoyed with equal fervor. I also saw that the first episodes of two new shows – The Voice and Let It Shine – had aired so have gotten these under my belt too. My particular jury’s out on these but may return with a more positive verdict in the coming weeks.

Cooking

The thing that I’ve loved the most since being back at home is cooking. I ate so many fabulous meals during my trip but after a month, I couldn’t wait to get back in the kitchen and cook for myself. It was with much excitement that I got my grocery order delivered on Tuesday and made a quick trip to my local fruit and veg shop to fill the fridge again.

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I’ve been planning different meals each night and in my pottering in the kitchen, have managed to try some new things as well.

The day that I returned, I was so pleased to find a portion of my vegetable and chilli mince in the freezer and so I stirred that through some spaghetti for one of my favourite comfort meals.

I’ve also baked some beetroot, a tip I picked up from Mum’s partner Mr Licensed-To-Grill who BBQ’ed these scrumptious suckers while I was Down Under. It was lovely with my crumbed chicken breast and steamed greens. And I’ve been mindful of getting my leafy greens quota up again by stir-frying some chard with onion, garlic, ginger and chilli to have with my Thai salmon fishcake last night. Tonight’s plan is a roasted butternut squash and turkey bacon pasta with a cube of my kale and walnut pesto stirred in…and I can’t wait.

The funny thing about all this is that when I left Australia almost thirteen years ago, my family and friends would never have said that I was great in the kitchen. Oh I could whip up a basic tuna pasta but I was a competent compiler of platters and carpet picnics and the fridge was generally used for wine, cheese and little else. But a penchant for pottering about among the pots and pans has definitely snuck up on me and it was with some surprise that I found myself pining for it.

So until I sort the holiday stories into some semblance of interesting reading, I will be sleeping, reading and wielding my spatula with enthusiasm…and wondering at how Julie Andrews’ trilling about bright copper kettles as one of her favourite things became one of mine.

2016: My year in books

This weekend 2016 drew to a close. It was a year of change and confrontation in the world at large and personally it’s a year that’s been heading towards great change for me as well with the takeover of the company I have worked for at the end of June and my subsequent (and not unexpected) redundancy at the end of November.

I’ve been determined to use this year to explore, expand horizons and experience some new things and I have also applied this philosophy to my reading. My commitment was to read one book a week (that’s 52 books) this year and in an effort to broaden my horizons, I signed up for the Pop Sugar Reading Challenge on Good Reads. It’s a list of 40 prompts – stuff like a novel that takes place in summer, a YA (young adult) award winner, a book recommended by someone you just met, a dystopian novel, a book more than 100 years old etc – designed to encourage exploration outside your normal habits. I discovered new favourites like Veronica Roth’s Divergent (a romance set in the future) and The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen (a book translated into English) as a direct result of using these prompts to search for books I might not have found otherwise.

With much more time to read than expected towards the end of the year I well and truly overshot my target, ending the year with 75 books under my belt. Of these nine (or 12% for the mathematically-inclined among you) received a ‘coveted’ Gidday 5-star rating.

January started promisingly with three – March Violets by Philip Kerr, A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute and Mr Mercedes by Stephen King. Uncovering the next three was done at a much steadier pace with 5-stars awarded to Ferney (James Long) in May, Divergent in August and Child 44 (Tom Rob Smith) in November. And then just as it began, the year ended with another 5-star trifecta in December – Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian, The Keeper of Lost Causes and The Wonder by Emma Donoghue.

At the other end of the scale, I only awarded one 1-star rating – Snowpiercer vol. 1 (my first, and most likely last, graphic novel) – and six 2-star ratings (which basically means that I finished them and they therefore avoid the ignominy of a single star) which totals just over 9% of my 2016 reading.

When you add those two percentages and consider that almost 80% of the books I read sat in the 3-4 star region, I’d say that rates as a pretty entertaining year.

I also learnt a few things from this year’s literary exploits:

  • I don’t think graphic novels are for me although given this was a survey of one, this is probably not the most well-researched opinion I’ve ever held.
  • I like Le Carre much better on screen than in print with my reading of The Night Manager getting a 2-star rating vs my absolutely loving the BBC adaptation.
  • The two Man Booker prize winners I read this year – 2016’s The Sellout and 2015’s A Brief History of Seven Killings – were not a patch on 2014’s winner, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Far North which remains one of my all-time favourites.

(If you want to have a sneaky peek at all 75 reads from 2016 and what I thought, you’ll find it all on Good Reads here.)

And last but not least, stretching my reading habit has reaffirmed my love for it. The opportunity to experience the worlds of others whether real, fictional or somewhere in between is an absolute joy. It’s also an awesome privilege and I am incredibly grateful to my parents for the many bedtime stories, the constant encouragement to read out loud and for letting me take a book everywhere we went, the latter being a habit that remains with me to this day.

Anyway, on to 2017.

I’ve upped my annual target to 60 books.

I have signed up to the Pop Sugar Reading Challenge again, am already halfway through ‘a book about an interesting woman’ (The Cavalier Queen by Fiona Mountain) and have identified my next on the list as ‘a book with one of the four seasons in the title’ (The Winter Over by Matthew Iden).

I will also be continuing with my lovely V&A book group so need to read Rudyard Kipling’s Kim by the time we meet in February and am seeing author Michael Chabon interviewed later this month so am keen to get his Kavalier and Clay under my belt before that.

So I’m off to tackle all of these new literary adventures before time gets away from me.

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Sand sculpture from Sand Sculpting Australia‘s Lands of Imagination on the Frankston Foreshore from December 2016

But in the meantime I wish you a 2017 filled with many joys and wonderful adventures, whether they be literary or otherwise.

En route to Christmas

I am currently sitting on the couch at my sister’s place in Melbourne. It’s been a hot day and the night is balmy and warm meaning that we have every possible window and door open in an effort to catch the breeze. It’s my bi-annual pilgrimage Down Under for a family Christmas, it’s day number two and with Christmas Day looking like a scorcher, I couldn’t be much further away from the chill of a London winter.

It’s a long way so as is my usual habit, I paused for a week on the way through to soak up some sun, read lots of books and enjoy some amazing food. This time the pause was in Hua Hin in Thailand at the gorgeous Anantara Resort.

I had a room overlooking the pool…

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After a ‘busy’ day poolside, I would spend a couple of hours curled up on this comfortable couch before heading out for dinner.

…and there was a lovely message from Dow, my room housekeeper, on my pillow every evening.

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Speaking of locals, there were elephants everywhere – this cutie was my favourite…

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A welcoming hello at the entrance, just one of the Elephant Parade installation scattered throughout the grounds.

…and Alex, the resident blue and green macaw, was a colourful sight around the resort.

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Apparently Alex is bi-lingual (English and Thai in case you were wondering)

All up nature was at her best whether big and breathtaking…

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View from the beach bar at the Anantara Hua Hin resort…it’s a tough life for some.

…small and delicate…

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There are orchids of all sorts everywhere. I passed this one every day on the way to breakfast.

…or there for just a moment.

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This water lily had blossomed overnight so I got this shot on the way to breakfast in the morning – the flower had drooped by mid afternoon and was gone by the evening.

The food was delicious..

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A traditional Thai appetiser. Take a leaf and add a bit of everything – peanuts, dried shrimp, dried coconut, shallot, garlic, lime, chilli and palm sugar paste. Wrap up the little parcel and pop it in your mouth. Delicious!

…and the cocktails many and varied across the balmy evenings…

…but in the main, I lay by the pool – cooling off with a dip in the water every so often – and read.

I devoured four magazines (two Vanity Fair and one each of Raconteur and The Economist’s 1843) and five books: Emma Donoghue’s absorbing The Wonder, Jeffrey Archer’s sixth in The Clifton Chronicles (Cometh the Hour) and the eighth novel in Bernard Cornwell’s Viking series (The Empty Throne), a light and fluffy Lift and Separate by Marilyn Simon Rothstein and the utterly gripping How I Lost You from Jenny Blackhurst. I was also halfway through Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings when I left.

It was such a blissfully solitary and self-indulgent week. Reading is my favourite thing to do and is exactly what I book the holiday for (as well as a much-needed dose of sun). It also stands me in good stead for the next phase of my trip – a little me-time before the hustle and bustle of Christmas and the inevitable flurry of activity with family and friends.

Which brings me back to where I started – a balmy night in the Melbourne suburbs on the night before Christmas. So before I embark on the various opporunities for festive cheer scheduled in the days ahead, all that remains for me to do is wish you a happy holiday season however and wherever you are spending it.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Lessons in kale

Over the past few months I’ve been paying a bit more attention to my diet.

It’s so easy to get into a food rut and whilst swimming has proved to be an excellent exercise rut and remains in the well-being kitty, I’ve been wanting to create a few more good habits especially since I need to keep myself in good mental shape for my ‘what comes next’.

I’ve been keeping a food and exercise diary since the end of August. The idea has been to become more aware of exactly what I’m eating and, rather than adopting some diet or other, to understand how to balance calories, nutrients and exercise better. Recording this each day has certainly made me more mindful about food choices and also about really enjoying what I choose. Let’s face it – catering to every whim is not particularly healthy but when I do indulge, boy do I make sure it’s worth it.

One of the areas I’m particularly conscious about is getting enough iron in my diet. Many years ago I restructured my eating habits (alongside some other lifestyle choices) and one of the consequences is that I don’t eat red meat. While I get enough protein from other things like poultry and eggs, iron in a form that can be absorbed by the body – like in dark green, leafy vegetables – has not featured in recent times.

I’d rather eat fresh where I can versus taking supplements but I’m no rabbit so I want something more appealing than leaves on a plate. Every so often I’ll add a bit of spinach or rainbow chard to something or munch on some mixed nuts but I know it’s not enough.

In an inspired moment during my bi-weekly shopping order, I decided to add some kale and ordered the smallest size bag available – 500g.

Do you have any idea how much kale this is? (Peeps, this is not the time to be funny and say 500g, okay?) I gasped – and may have actually sworn in shock – when I pulled that big green pack out of the delivery bag. To use that much kale before it became limp and un-usable seemed like an insurmountable challenge.

But as with all challenges, it seems this one has taught me a thing or two three.

Lesson 1: Out of the bag

I was bemoaning my mountain of kale at work when one of my lunch pals gave me a great storage tip. Line a large plastic container with paper towel and store the kale in that versus keeping it in the bag. This blew my mind (I know, it’s the small things peeps). It kept the kale dry for almost a month which, luckily enough, is how long it took me to use it. And it works for spinach too. All of a sudden leafy greens have become workable rather than wasteful in the Gidday kitchen.

Lesson 2: More than a handful

As with most green leafy veg, once kale wilts down there’s not a lot of it so after adding a first miserly handful to my normal stir fried vegetables, I got a whole lot more generous when next I stir fried…

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Thai Sweet Chilli Fishcake with Kale (and other Vegetables)

I have also thrown some leaves into my Quorn sausage and vegetable stew with fabulous results.

Lesson 3: Hey pesto!

Within half an hour of getting that enormous leaf-filled bag I desperately googled “recipes using kale” and was particularly inspired by a Walnut and Kale Pesto recipe from The Food Network for a number of reasons:

  • It had a four and a half star rating and was marked as easy.
  • Pasta is one of my go-to mid week meals, especially after swimming.
  • It would use up half the bag of kale.

So I chopped, toasted, grated and pulsed away to make my very first pesto…

The ice cube tray was another gem from a different work pal – that’s fourteen meals right there in the freezer. No need to defrost, just stir a cube into the hot pasta!

This pesto has turned out to be an absolute winner – one cube is tasty enough with a portion of plain pasta but I’ve also tried adding sun-dried tomatoes and black olives and in the version below, turkey bacon and red pepper.

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Gluten-free Spaghetti with Turkey Bacon, Red Pepper and Kale Pesto

I cannot believe I waited so long to make pesto. Seriously peeps, what have I been doing with my life?

So kale has made its way into my culinary pantheon (much to my surprise and delight) and whilst its superfood status may be under scrutiny, adding this green leafy habit into my kitchen is definitely a big tick in the box for me.

PS…If you made it all the way to the end of this random post about kale, well done you. You definitely deserve a pat on the back. And while you’re at it, if you know any other handy ways with kale, please don’t be shy about letting me know. I’d be very grateful.

A moving tribute

Last week I went to see Tom Piper speak at the V&A Museum. Tom is a British theatre designer who has collaborated with the likes of Sam Mendes, Kevin Spacey, Michael Boyd and the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company). His talk covered a range of his theatrical projects and it was fascinating to hear how he has approached the transformation of theatrical spaces as well as different iterations of the same play for different directors.

However for the majority of us attending, he is most well-known for the ‘poppies project’.

In 2014, 888,246 ceramic poppies were planted in the moat surrounding the Tower of London to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Britain’s involvement in World War I.

A collaboration between Tom and Derby-based ceramic artist Paul Cummins (who originally approached the Tower of London about filling the moat with his ceramic blooms), the poppies were planted by 21,000 volunteers between July and November to create the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red installation. After the event, the poppies were packed into commemorative boxes and sold for £25 each with the proceeds going to the six affiliated charities: SSAFA, The Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes, Coming Home, Combat Stress and Cobseo.

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The presentation box for the ceramic poppies.

Tom shared how the project came about, the meeting of minds and synergy of different talents between he and Paul, the logistical challenges of the installation (there was a point where they ran out of poppies) and how unexpected the public response was.

What I didn’t know was that two of the features from the installation – Weeping Window and Wave – have gone on to have a life of their own. Since their departure from the Tower, there have been a further seven installations with Weeping Window finishing its 2016 run at Caernarfon Castle in North Wales in November.

(Please excuse the quality of the images peeps – I was taking them from Tom’s slideshow!)

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Tom talks about the roadshow of Weeping Window (pictured) and Wave that continues around the UK.

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Ceramic poppies in situ

 

Weeping Window will visit four new locations in 2017 with Wave scheduled to be installed at a further two so if you are planning to be out and about – and you are interested – you can find out where here. From what I can see, the locations chosen are free to visit but all suggest booking so that the number of people to be accommodated can be managed.

I didn’t get to see the installation when it was at the Tower of London but I was absolutely astounded at the impact it had. Nightly news stories charted the progress in filling the moat, the visits by a whole range of dignitaries and the mounting public hysteria – with closures at nearby tube stations due to over-crowding – as the installation neared its completion and eventual dismantling.

I love that this installation continues to be so accessible. It feels a lot like street art to me – usually a combination of a ‘surprise’ appearance and a powerful statement – but on an entirely different scale and I am wondering whether I can manage a visit to any of the locations touted for next year.

War inflicts terrible losses on individuals, families, communities and society-at-large but in spite of it all, life does go on and I am so pleased that this moving tribute has been resuscitated again and again, and continues to honour those who give so much for their country.