I watched a documentary called ‘After So Many Days’ yesterday about a little-known husband and wife musical duo called Jim and Sam who embarked on an adventure to play a show a day for a year and how that tested their resolve as a band and as a couple.
I found many aspects of this film moving and affecting at quite a fundamental level. The scene where Jim declared them the ‘Unluckiest Band in the World’ after their highly anticipated but failed SXSW show and started reading out a list of imaginary emails from publications and shows that they wished had invited them for interviews and meetings was painful to watch. Only because I absolutely know what that feels like. I’ve been at that end of that barrel before. Anyone that has every tried to bring their art into a public space knows what that feels like.
Jim and Sam’s adventure, while looking like magnificent copy on paper, was of course, anything but. There were shows that were cancelled cause of weather, shows where they had to just pitch up and play literally anywhere (pizza parlors, salons, barber shops, liquor stores, etc) cause there were no official shows on those days and shows where they had so much hope for which crashed and burned.
Yet, I can’t but feel that at the end of such an arduous year that most people would call pointless (they may have gathered a few new fans along the way but their Instagram followers numbers suggests that they may not have blown up the way they were hoping to) , that the most valuable thing that they have are the memories of that adventure together and that is something that will remain special when the lights are dimmed and the curtains are slowly drawn on their lives.
Sure, experiences like in the Northeast in that mussels restaurant on day 55 was probably painful to endure. No musician enjoys seeing their art being ignored on the account of shellfish. But there was also that wonderful experience of singing at that convenience store on day 110 to a bunch of people who appreciated their music. That show on day 224 in the UK where because Sam was bedridden from stomach flu, they invited some neighbors over and sang a song to them while she was in bed. That spontaneous song they played on day 258 in a bakery in honor of Jim’s aunt who passed away that day. That show in Poland on day 332 where they played to an appreciative crowd and the owner made them fish after the show. That song they sang to two appreciative Starbucks drive-thru staff in the States. Or that show on day 204 playing to a herd of cows in Sweden. Yes, even that half a song they played to that delivery guy in Iceland. The shows in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, etc.
I watch a film like this and it just makes me consider so many things. So many deep feelings about so many things. The life I’ve led. The chances I’ve not taken. The things I could have experienced. I do not envy people who have more things than me in life. People who pursue wealth so they can afford richer food, nicer cars and larger houses. If they are happy with that then it’s great for them. I feel mostly apathy towards people who have more stuff than me.
But I watch an experience like what Jim and Sam just went through in the film and I am seething with envy. Seriously seething. Envy for the fact that they found someone that was equally willing to leave their conventional lives behind momentarily in pursuit of something insane. Envy for how they had the lack of self-consciousness to even attempt an experience as nerve-wrecking as this one. Envy for the fact that for now until the end of their lives, they will always have this amazing adventure that no one will ever be able to take away from them.
Actually, I probably think a lot more about my
travels after it’s done compared to when I am actually on it. Which
probably makes sense given I am generally more reflective in nature.
That’s not to say I am an imbecile during my travels.
The obvious subtexts can still scream out at me, but for the most part I
try and enjoy thing as they unfold. It’s only when I gird myself for a
flight home, suffer banal airplane food, drag my luggage to a waiting
car, endure a car ride that’s usually more
frantic than I want it to be, unlock the doors to my home, turn on the
air-conditioner, have my first local meal sometime in the next couple of
hours, and look at the pictures many times over the next few days, that
things start to sink in and I start to think
about the trip.
A lot of what I’ve been thinking about this trip
concerns a specific occurrence that happened during my time in the
mountainous town of Heiligenblut, more or less in the middle of our
trip. I had made my way up to higher ground with my
father-in-law (FIL) to grab a picture of The Church of St Vincent at
dusk, which is really the centerpiece of this otherwise quiet
mountaintop town. We were on the way back to the town center to
rendezvous with our respective wives when I saw the thing that
has stuck in my mind so vividly since. No, it wasn’t a portly man
crossing the street, naked, except for a pair of boots, in freezing
weather, although that would be pretty hard to scald out of your mind as
well. It was an aged gentleman, with a bottle of
milk in hand, coming out of the only supermarket in town, walking up an
open staircase just next to it, opening the door to his home, which is
stacked rustically on top of the market against a hill, and going in.
What? No nudity? Hamsters spontaneously combusting?
A dog peeing while doing cartwheels? Just a man with a bottle of milk
heading back to his home? You’re out of your mind joe. No I am not. Hear
me out. I can’t profess to have travelled
extensively so whatever I say in regards to this, you’ve got to adjust
it a little against the ‘talking out of your butt’ scale. So yeah, I’ve
not travelled a lot, but I have travelled quite a bit in the last
two-three years. At no point in any of our travels,
did I look at the life the people had in those countries and wished
that I had it too. Not even when we were high up in the quite magical
town of Kilmuir, surrounded by sea with the clouds just slightly above
us, did I feel this. Not even when we were walking
along the almost-unimaginably beautiful beaches of Paros did I feel
this too. I definitely did not feel it in the cosmopolitan cities of
London, Edinburgh and Athens as well. Don’t even get me started about
Australia. There was an itch in Bangkok, but it did
not amount to much.
But up there, looking at him, I was boiling green
with envy. Why? I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Just the combination
of the very pleasant weather, the small town infrastructures of
Heiligenblut (The town center was basically just
a single street with one market, and one bank), the view that was right
there in front of his home, how completely stress-free he looked. I
tried to reserve a small percentage that the man I saw was just a
tourist renting the place for the night or maybe a
terribly unhappy man inside but it was no use. Someone had to live,
somewhere in this town right? Jealousy justified then.
I wanted what he had. Being born here (Taking
massive liberties now), in this gorgeous town that just purrs in autumn
but looks like Santa’s holiday home during Christmas from the snow and
the simple but beautiful life that he was given
no choice on. Yes, perhaps we always want what we don’t have and
secretly inside he may be wishing that he has made it a corporate banker
somewhere in warm and stressful Southeast Asia and we could just trade
roles but I am going to fashion a guess and say,
no. He doesn’t envy my life, but I envied his terribly.
Nature has a way of righting the wrongs of men. If our exposure to Austrian civilization thus far (Salzburg) had left us cold (literally) in regards to the people in this country, then this seem to become better the further we venture into the wilderness. Thematically it felt like a similar point to the one I made about Greek towns and how they look more beautiful the closer they are to the sea, almost like they are nourished by it. It’s the same thing with Austrian people and the woods – they seem happier and friendlier the further we ventured away from a city. It’s almost as if men become less pre-occupied with oneself when they retreat to basics. Okay that’s stating the obvious. I guess removing oneself from the usual tropes, expectations and stress that come from trying to live and succeed in a dusty, loud and obnoxious city can allow someone to focus on other things, like being a decent human being. Heiligenblut represented the furthest into the Austrian woods we ventured into but before we got there we managed to spend two days exploring the region of Tirol, namely Hall and Innsbruck.
In the list of ‘places we could do without if we
ever came back to Austria’ (basically a useless list), Innsbruck hangs
pretty high up there. It has neither the cultural richness nor medieval
vibe of Salzburg and not enough of pizzazz to
be Vienna. The selling point that it is a ‘city surrounded by
mountains’ becomes moot when part of your program involves driving and
hiking up said mountains and generally being surrounded by them a lot.
Innsbruck felt a little like an Australian city to me.
Yes I am aware I was in Central Europe and not somewhere in between the
Indian and Pacific Oceans despite their similar names. It was a
pleasant city, with wide roads, brisk wind and pretty architecture.
Shops were arranged neatly in designated blocks that
were obviously calculatedly-painted in various colors. But it lacked
character and it ranked really low in the possibilities scale (For more
info on what that is, go here), with buildings neatly arranged in grids
so you can see the block you’re walking on
is clearly going to be boring. The chances of you being pleasantly
surprised by a store felt rather unlikely when you can see that the next
large block consists of basically just a Spar.
Hall on the other hand, cares little for trying to
be anything but itself. The town center in Hall feels like a place out
of time. In a tribute to the randomness of my mind, I find myself
thinking about that scene in that kitschy
Master of the Universe movie in the 80s starring Dolph Lundgren
where a portion of the city was transported back to Eternia because of
some cosmic key. Wasn’t Courtney Cox in it? She looked really fetching.
Wasn’t Skeletor basically just a man behind
a skull mask? There was also being that looked a little like a Troll.
Yeah, the ones on a keychain. What, the movie has a RT rating of 17%?
Come on, that’s harsh. Oh thank God it just about shaves it against that
awful Gerard Butler romantic comedy. Man, Gerard
Butler has been in some seriously awful films, except 300 that
is. That I enjoyed. Hey wait, that scene where he kicked the emissary
into the large hole, who actually has to go down there to clean the hole
of bodies? Are there steps to go down? I don’t
remember seeing any. Maybe they are lowered down.
Oh sorry, got seriously distracted there. Hall yes a city that was out of synch with time. Yes it was like that scene in that He-Man movie because its town center felt so old and medieval, which is quite displaced from the more modern surroundings you have to pass through to get into it. But it’s precisely this jagged edge to its geographical existence that makes Hall endearing. It’s akin to that friendly uncle you have that has become so unfashionable that he doesn’t even try anymore. Hall felt like that. It seems neither interested to be gradually more modern like its outer fringes, or to fully embrace its medieval-ness enough to make it relevant to modern times. Instead it sits somewhere in between – generally unbothered with what everyone else has to offer, comfortable in what it is. Flower shops stood beside pizza parlors and bookstores in a un-curated manner, all geared towards serving the locals rather than tourists. I do generally prefer towns that appear more concerned with serving its locals rather than pandering to tourists. I’ve always preferred a more immersive travel experience and I am not able to do that if the town/city I am visiting insists on treating me like a vacationer.
I had put off eating a Wiener Schnitzel up till
this point. Seeing it as the closing cut at the end of an encore, the
epic orchestral finale to a concept album. I need it to be perfect. My
resilience wore at Hall. Why? No idea. Probably
a combination of early morning driving, hunger and the friendly
waitress in a milkmaid dress at the restaurant in Hotel Goldener Engl.
Actually it may be because they had a veal one on the menu. It’s
normally pork. It was nice. Fluffy, breaded flattened veal
deep fried and served with potatoes and elderberry jam. It was nice,
but hardly world-altering. My mind drifts back to something my wife said
while we were on a short break in Bangkok earlier in the year, in
reference to a stir fried cabbage dish in the restaurant
Supanigga (I know, a rather unfortunate name), ‘How nice can a cabbage
dish be?’ Nevertheless we went with the majority, given that everyone in
the restaurant had that dish on their table. It was seriously awesome.
So I would transplant that same thought here,
‘How nice can a piece of deep-fried breaded veal’ be?’ Or to weave in a
more Malaysian-centric version of the same thought, “How nice can a
veal version of a Chicken Maryland’ be? The answer is nice, but far from
awesome. It was no Thai-style cabbage. That
saying it was decent enough for me to eat it a few times more for the
remainder of the trip. But what I thought would be the epic finale to a
widescreen concept album turned out to just be a catchier pop cut in the
middle of an unlistenable album. Appreciated,
but was never going to make the album good.
The thematic and literal high-point of the trip was
our drive up to the summit of Edelweißspitze. Well not exactly the
drive-per se because I was the driver so all I was focused on was for
our Jeep not to be a large orange dot falling from
a height to people at a distance. I have spoken before about how the
Caldera view in Santorini at times appeared so large that it feels
impossible for our eyes to take it all in at a glance. The feeling is
the same at many points during our summit up the High
Alpine Road. The trees looked more imposing here, threatening to reach
towards the heavens, the mountains standing tall like a threatening
monolith designed to suffocate your point of view and the river valleys
seemed so far away down that it feels no longer
real nor tangible. Nature of this sort heals the soul in a way.
Suddenly, you no longer feel like the most important thing in the world.
All self-centeredness recedes because you discover that there things
out there that are put in this world to make your
life’s narrative feel so insignificant. All the pressures of modern
life, the intoxication we feed ourselves to survive it, the arguments we
start and end to endure the people in it – it all just fades away in
one fell swoop and you’re for a moment, rewound
back to a vanilla state and you start gaining some perspective on your
existence again. I love that feeling. It doesn’t last of course. But to
feel it even for a moment, once in a while, is rather nice.
If Edelweißspitze brought us up to the clouds, then our next destination Hallstatt ensured that we fell back down to earth with a loud thud. In my recent travels, I have quite often encountered nature of staggering beauty in loggerheads with the tourism industry around it that aims to earn a buck out of it. And in most of those encounters, while the industry is mostly off-putting, in all instances it has largely failed to diminish the sheen of nature at its finest. Not quite so in Hallstatt.
The charm of Hallstatt is probably still somewhere in there, buried under caked layers of side-street peddlers, touch-and-go travelers and touristy restaurants but not quite enough of it peeks through to remind me of it. Instead the experience I get is a town that’s chiseled and constructed out of a holiday brochure. It has betrayed the spirit and soul of its history to serve its new master – tourism. I find towns and cities like that unappealing. The mental image is likened to to a sound stage for a movie studio. Construct a historical town out of nothing? Sure. Which is tragic because Hallstatt is a town steeped in history. But all that has been defaced by a glossy exterior that leaves a plastic taste to the mouth.
That’s not to say Hallstatt isn’t still beautiful. It clearly is. The sight of swans and sucks waddling in the lake, framed against the mountains and a seducing sunset remains one of the most enduring images of the trip for me. In some strange way, I am glad I experienced it, even more glad that it was only for a night but a place I am certain I would never want to return to again.
I had made it a habit on the trip to rise early to read my book in the morning, mostly outdoors, wherever I was and my most favorite experience doing that was at our accommodation near Hallstatt. The house had a nice backyard garden with a view of the distant mountains. I sat there, some sun radiating the ends of my toes, in relatively freezing temperatures, snuggled under a blanket, reading my book. It was very nice. I have the twinklies now just thinking about it. Many people may remember Mozart’s house or Mirabell Palace but I will always remember these little intimate moments more than the big tourist attractions. I basically travel for them.
People have asked me what I thought of Austria. The
truth is, every time I do, I largely think about the time we spent away
from the city and in the outback regions of the country. I think about
the wonderful hike we had up to Lake Sandersee
in Großglockner. Our scenic walk through the Margaritzen reservoir to
get there. The spicy goulash we had at Panoramarestaurant at Kaiser
Franz-Josefs-Höhe after our hike. All the places we stopped at along the
High Alpine Road to try and take the view in.
A moment at the summit of Untersberg, when I was alone with my camera
with a view of the entire valley in front of me. Trying to take a
picture without gloves at 3 degrees C and watching my hand turn red from
the biting cold (it was fun, really). The night
walk we made from our accommodation in Heiligenblut to our dinner place
15-mins away, through streets lined with homes, dwarfed by the
mountains around them. The wonderful staff together with the two lovely
Bernese Mountain Dogs Ella and Lucy at our accommodation
at Tirol, Gasthof Badl, who gave us the first and probably only proper
warm hospitality we would receive in Austria. In a sense, our trip joy
curve was bell-shaped. It summited at the mid-point of it all before
spiking up again when we hit Budapest.
The charm of a city for me, as I have often noted, is almost never in the sights.
Very few statues, monuments and buildings that would have trigger-happy vacationers snapping away their phone cameras like semi-automatic machine guns, interest me on a fundamentally emotional level. I can appreciate its beauty, assuming if it is indeed beautiful, but I often find myself gravitating emotionally towards things less seen. It might be a byproduct of not wanting to associate myself with thoughtless holidaymakers who very often may be taking a picture because they are told they should or that the person next to them is. I feel like saying ‘it’s not that I’m being judgmental’, but yeah I am. I can still remember the exact moment this became an issue for me.
It was The British Museum, London, 2018, at the Rosetta Stone display. The throngs of vacationers with their monopods and phone snapping away, a lot of them with their flash functions on, just imbedded something inside me and made me feel like I did not want to be there anymore. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with taking a picture of something that interests you, I do it all the time when I am traveling. The thing that made me feel sad was that almost none of them appeared interested to look at the stone with their own eyes, or even read the description on the display. A majority of them walked away after they got a picture. “Box ticked, let’s move on to the next thing I am supposed to take a picture of”. The entire situation was such a put-off that it made me completely disinterested with looking at the Rosetta Stone for myself. It’s like hating someone cause they shared the same first name as the guy who managed to snag your school crush.
We landed in Vienna at around slightly after lunchtime and proceeded to procure a car from one of the most obscure car rental section of any airport I’ve ever been to. I mean it felt like we were descending into Plato’s ninth circle of hell or the multiple levels of a suburban shopping mall (Yes, they are the same thing). Granted my mind may be a little foggy now on the exact details but the journey from the Arrival gate to the counter might’ve been a little like this.
Take an escalator down two floors.
Turn left just before the coffee stand and walk into the door just next to the broom closet.
Turn left just before the toilet but after the subway scene in the ‘Bad’ video.
Take a flight of stairs six floors down.
Fight through four battalions of orcs.
Third counter on the left.
It felt like the rental car companies in the airport were being treated like Milton in
We got handed a sparkly orange Jeep as our ride which is just the kind of loud statement we needed for someone (me) who had never driven on the left-side before. I mean what would you prefer if you had a car heading towards you on collision course – a boring silver sedan or a bright orange Jeep? My point’s exactly. That saying, left-side drive turned out to be not so bad. It’s really just a matter of thinking something but doing the opposite. Kind of like being in a marriage (okay low ball, don’t murder me dear). Three hours, a bitter lemon and a Beatles playlist later, we arrived at the legendary city of Salzburg. Yes, birthplace of Mozart, the Salzburger Nockerl and do-re-mi (Eh, no?).
My first meeting with Salzburg was a hopeful one. You know how it is when you meet someone for the first time and exchange pleasantries. In rather rare occasions you get this urge and prompt that this might be someone you want to have a proper conversation with, to actually get to know better. It’s hard to say what it boils down to. A slight pause in the middle of a sentence that seems intuitive to you, an inappropriate quip that happens to mirror what you were thinking as well, the color of their eyes, etc. It was like that with me and Salzburg. Our accommodation only had one shower and there were four of us so I slipped out for a short walk around the city while everyone else proceeded to clean airplane grime off them. It was really short, 20-minutes perhaps. I walked down Griesgasse and turned left on to Franz-Josef-Kai, walked along the riverside and up the Makartsteg bridge. The air was cool but not biting and the streets was quiet but not deserted. It was just the perfect combination of factors that made it pleasant after a long drive and flight before that. That 20-minutes, to gather my thoughts and reflect, gave me a nice in, to gradually develop an affection for the city. Catch even the most stand-up guy on the wrong day and you’re still not going to feel it. This was really giving each other whatever that’s necessary to form a meaningful friendship. That walk helped me do that. Me and Salzburg had a nice handshake and agreed we would see how this would go.
For me, the charm of Salzburg was not in Mozart Wohnhaus (the residence where Mozart grew up in), Hohensalzburg Castle or St. Peter’s Abbey, all admittedly beautiful, historically-rich and magnificent structures. It also wasn’t in the sprawling Mirabell Gardens, key stop in The Sound of Music tour, which my father-in-law was on in his mind, although I did managed to get a good shot there of myself without my gut hanging-out. Rarer than a golden tiger in a Karen Millen dress, that one.
The charm of Salzburg for me was in the streets worming from and around Residenplatz. Not the fountain where it was the site of some Von Trapp noodling but the unadorned and quirky streets strewn all around it like after-meal spaghetti specks on a plate.
I’ve always been attracted to the underbelly of a city more than its fashionable threads. I feel the true treasure of someone is never realized on their best days anyway, but their worst. It’s probably why I am innately drawn to characters with at least some residue darkness in them. I have very little interest in supposedly well-adjusted individuals.
I think it was Kurt Cobain who said, ‘I was tired of pretending that I was someone else just to get along with people, just for the sake of having friendships.’ Okay actually that just doesn’t make any sense whatsoever to the point I am trying to make but I was really struggling trying to find a suitable quote that was made by someone that is relevant to me. But I’m sure you get what I am trying to get at.
That saying, this was as well-sculpted an underbelly you would ever see. There are little nooks that take you to lovely tiny shops selling anything from Christmas trinkets to marmalade. It was not at all grimy or seedy. No slimy red-faced gruff in a floral shirt with stacks of gold chains around his neck that’s dying to be your genie in a bottle here. Just nice little cobblestone paths that lead into little gritty tunnels that open up into pretty squares.
I’ve always rated cities based on my very own ‘possibilities’ scale. What does this scale mean? It means I rate it according to the level of possibility that I may discover something interesting while walking its streets. I rate malls under the same scale too. The quickest way to turn me off a mall is to have exactly the same franchises every other mall has but in newer and larger lots. No interest in that at all.
I am more fascinated by dingy malls. The ones that offer the papa who’s been making coffee out of the same hell hole for the last 15-years. The one with the music shop with old faded CBS cassette copies of Springsteen albums. I have no interest in things that can be put together with a large pay cheque. I am attracted to history, to stories and well, possibilities. Salzburg does not rank as high up that scale as say a city like Bangkok or Mykonos, but it’s still pretty decent. The little nooks as mentioned, offer some hope for possibilities and that drove my intrigue enough to explore it further.
That saying, the culinary breath and borders of Austria leaves little room for any exploration. If Thailand’s was the size of the Americas, then Austria’s would be the size of my living room. Okay, sorry, there I go over-exaggerating again. I tend to do it when I am excited. It’s probably the size of an apartment block. Yup no more exaggeration. No ships needed to conquer this baby at all. Most restaurants that serve native Austrian food serve roughly about the same things, and there are not much twists to the tale. There are differences. Serving your Wiener Schnitzel with elderberry jam as opposed to lingonberry jam is a minor twist but hardly one that will get you off your seat. It’s mostly still a slab of breaded deep fried meat. I did not have a Schnitzel incidentally when I was at Salzburg. I was saving it like the epic orchestral closer of an album. It needed the right time and feeling.
Bärenwirt did provide a decent introduction into what Austria had to offer (which we later found out was the equivalent of three-chord punk songs that toggle between meat and potatoes). That saying this was pretty decent meat and potatoes. Parked under a hostel, the restaurant offered what off-hand looked like interesting choices. The frothed beer soup starter was interesting. I liked it. The wife wasn’t so convinced. I think she was expecting old cucumber soup with beer.
The Gebackene Kalbsleber mit Erdäpfel-Gurkensalat caught our eye (not because it sounded like an evil Germanic spell to us) but because it was ‘deep-fried calf’s liver with potato-cucumber salad’ (sorry to disappoint you spellcasters). I mean if you’re going to walk the tightrope with uric acid, why not be completely suicidal instead? I did love the ½ Backhendl mit Erdäpfelsalat (Einstein’s formula for relativity in German?), which was ‘deep fried chicken half-a-chicken with potato salad’ (starting to see a pattern here?). There was also too much Erdäpfel on the table in the end. The chicken was billed as ‘one of the best in Europe’ so we had to try it. Doesn’t have a nick on ‘goreng berempah’ but it was pretty good. Interestingly, it was half a chicken but each part was deboned so we had trouble separating between them. Asians no likey this.
As much as it wasn’t the charm point of Salzburg for me, I did enjoy my tour around Mozart Wohnhaus, the house that Mozart grew up in, which today doubles up as a museum dedicated to the life and travails of the Mozart family but more specifically Wolfgang’s father, Leopold. Walking through his life and how he fostered one of the greatest musical minds in history was fascinating. He did not complete formal education himself because he found it boring. He instead poured himself into music and read incessantly and he appeared to have a burning desire to nuture a curiosity towards life in his children. In their free time, they played board games, darts and bowling to entertain themselves. Despite not having formal education, he was still considered a highly intelligent man. He wrote Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule, which is still considered today as ‘the’ book for violin playing. It just put a smile on my face thinking that scores of stuffy people hide behind the veneer of classical music as a appropriate trope for their well-manicured life but in actual fact, history suggests that convention was hardly the main course of the day for a lot of these classical music greats. Snark at the punk who dropped out of school? Well, that piece you’re listening to was also written by someone who dropped out as well.
It was also particularly heartening for me personally to see the passion my father-in-law had in drawing context between the places we were visiting and the scenes in which did they appeared in the film. What film? That film. The only Salzburg-related film that is relevant to Asian uncles and aunties. Yes that one. It’s always nice to see older people within our orientation, being excited about something that is not just merely functional in nature. It’s one thing for them to be excited about getting a great deal on a mattress at the local mall, quite another when they appear curious and interested in exploring the sites of a film they loved so dearly in their younger days. Always puts a smile on my face when I see older couples immediately rush out to the dance floor to slow dance when their song comes up. Their bodies may look 60 but look at their eyes, they are 16 again. It was nice to see some of that spark in his eyes. He even watched the film in the plane to prepare himself. We visited the Mirabell Gardens, the Petersfriedhof cemetery and the Nonnberg monastery as a result, as he shuffled from one location to the next like a kid at the aisles of a candy store, arms spread wide, ready to grab everything.
Nonnberg, in particular, left the strongest
impression on me. Perched on top of a hill, it still houses nuns today,
with its historical structure buffed up by some modern expansions. It
has not lost its charm though. I walked into the cathedral
within the monastery grounds. I caught it at the perfect moment, when
it was empty except for someone who was knelt at the altar. For a brief
moment, there I was, in a historically-rich empty hall in a place quite
remote from where I am from, observing the
intricacies of the structure, I imagined what it would feel like to
convene with God here weekly. It was a good moment, but it was not a
good moment I can truncate down to a nice snappy reason. I felt a kind
of comfort, mixed with a dash of peculiarity – that
I was there and no one would be able to take this moment away from me
ever again. I took a picture of the cathedral as more of a mental note
to myself of the moment. Then other people started walking in and I made
my way out to the path just outside the gates.
Just as I did, a bunch of Americans, who were perched on one of the
lookout points just outside the gate with acoustic guitars and a cello,
started playing and singing Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’. The
rumble of the cello in particular gaining glorious
traction in the airy hills. This culminated with what I had just felt
and the gorgeous view of the whimsical city of Salzburg in front of me
just made me smile. It’s funny, when I think about my travels, my mind
immediately goes to these often scant impressions
that may seem nonsensical to everyone else, but incredibly meaningful
to me. I quite like that my mind is built this way.
Not that modern day Salzburg isn’t stuffy in some
way, despite the punky ways of its musical godfathers. It most certainly
is. There is a sense that this is a city, and possibly a country, that
hasn’t quite learned to let it’s pretty little
locks down properly just yet. I’ve written a lot about the Greeks and
how their warmth is a reflection of the weather that reside above them.
In that same way, the Austrian people were as apprehensive and cloudy as
their frosty months. That’s not to say we
encountered anyone who was outright rude to us. Oh wait, there was that
bald bastard at Café Tomaselli. Here’s a tip from me – skip that place.
Cakes were shit, coffee was tepid and its only saving grace was a
wonderful mezzanine floor outdoor terrace that
overlooks a beautiful square. Here’s my suggestion, look out your
accommodation window instead and spend your money somewhere that isn’t
run by stuffy grumps in white shirts draped over black, black hearts.
Salzburg isn’t a large city and it often felt like
all roads led to Residenplatz. That intimacy is what makes it a
wonderful city to explore. It at times felt like all the important ends
of the city are just around the corner or a short
walk away. That may not appeal to some but I’ve always been a deeper
rather than a wider person (Not talking about central midfielders in a
football formation). I need to drill into the bowels of the city to
really feel its vibe and to stare at its true face.
That’s how I learn to love a city. Not by walking just its pristine
streets or merely sitting in pretty cafes. Salzburg offered me a chance
to properly explore it, to really feel its vibe, to taste its air and
smell it’s scents in a way I did not (later) in
Vienna. I appreciated that.
If the Caldera view provided us with a glimpse of the magnitude of beauty Greece had to offer, then the Santorini airport provided us the perfect earthbound-crashing, reality check anti-thesis to that, and probably what we needed before heading to the dense streets of Athens.
My wife was yet again anxious about the amount of time to buffer for our trip to the airport and after bouts of strenuous calculations, she arrived at the conclusion that we should leave our accommodation at least three-days before our flight (just kidding). It was probably two-hours before, but it felt longer. ‘In case there is traffic’, is often the common retort for the often voluptuous buffer. As it stood, the only thing standing in the way of our transfer was the incessant selfie-taking habits of one of our co-passengers. Like, hot pants, obsessive toy-collecting and a pony tail (on guys), there are just some things that are the game of the young. ‘Selfies’ may just be one of them. Actually scratch that, a guy should automatically be maced in the ‘cojones’ if they have a pony tail. The ride took no time at all and we suddenly found ourselves at the airport with a lifetime ahead of us before our flight.
‘We can always sit down and have a drink if we are early’, is the secondary retort that often follows the first if there turns out to be no traffic. This one works better for me. I hardly ever resist an overture to sit down and take my time over a cup of coffee so why not savor one before our flight arrives in 1,538 years?
I spot a cafe outside the airport but the wife thinks it would be better to get into the Departure Hall and find a place to drink in there. Seems sensible. That’s what we often do at airports, just in case it gets slow at the screening stations when someone is slow in removing their laptop, camera, shoes, belt, pants and underwear during screening. Oh, you don’t have to take off your pants and underwear? The hell I would know. At the rate they are going I wouldn’t bat an eyelid if they asked me to hand over my left nut in the future.
So we handed our passports and boarding passes to the smiling gentlemen at the Departure gate and headed into the hall, ready to dunk ourselves into a vat of espresso and break into a jingle. Right? No
For one thing, the Departure hall was the size of the second room in my home. My home is 890sft. Yes, I am exaggerating of course. Actually, it was the size of about five of my second room in my home and there was about a hundred people huddled in there. This is the truth.
There was no comfortable cafe for us to sit at, no duty free stores to browse for a Salvatore Ferragamo eau de toilette. There were plenty of fragrances on showcase though, with the popular one yet again being ‘armpit’. And there may have been a cafe in the left pocket of the ground staff but I did not check. We also found out that our flight would be delayed so we had some time yet to really take in the fragrances around us, properly.
There was not enough seats to accommodate everyone so we had people sprawling all over the place, up the stairs, down the stairs and possibly even the roof. I briefly considered seating in the toilet cubicle. It was pretty chaotic. Updates were not coming through on time on the board, so instead we had to listen out for people literary screaming, ‘Flight to Athens this way’ and we herd ourselves out like lambs. It was funny cause not just hours before, we were serenaded by the sight of romance-filled Santorini and now we are rounded like cattle. Ah nothing like the sound of fantasies shattering.
We did eventually find a seat at the outer section of the upper floor, but as a result we had to brave mini sandstorms every time a plane rolled in. That and holding on to our seat like our left toes depended on it cause there were throngs of people eyeing each warm seat. This was seriously five-star realism if you want a proper experience on what it feels like to try and flee a war torn country. No stone was left unturned to give us the best experience.
It did bring to mind what a guy that owned a jewelry shop in Oia was telling us two days before about how Santorini was not meant to accommodate these many tourists, ‘It’s because they filmed that Korean movie here.’ I have a theory that most of the ills of the world can be traced back to Ed Sheeran and the Korean entertainment industry. You can check up with me later on that. This airport certainly looked like it was not meant to accommodate this many people. We did meet a lovely American couple while defending the territory that was our plastic chairs. He was in landscaping and she was a nurse. They were also flying to Athens.
It greeted us the moment we walked out of Athens airport. What? The sound and soul of a city. I’ve written before that the sounds that emit from the islands, while can be rowdy and noisy, is nothing like the sound a city makes. Here is the sound of industry, of cars battling cars and of people expressing frustration at a stressed-filled life. The melodies of capitalism, so to speak. At rare occasions, a city sings to you, but mostly it sounds like it is just groaning. At least the cities I am familiar with. And Athens sounded slightly familiar.
Athens feels a lot like a Southeast Asian city. It emerges in spots and flashes. The dense city streets with buildings towering closely around tight walkways, giving the impression that it desires to collapse on to you is one way it reflects. The air is also warmer and more humid, with the island breeze struggling to navigate through the crowded streets. The streets are grimy, caked by age-old stains of industrialism, the lack of civic-mindedness and slow maintenance. Everything else moves faster here though. Cars, people, dogs and conversations. There is less time to pause, think and reflect. It smelled and felt a lot like home. It was both comforting and disorientating. I nearly called the guy at the bakery ‘macha’.
But amidst all that, there is a charm that can be seen in Athens. An ancient charm. The city it is today is built on ancient foundations, proven by how The Acropolis remains still the heart of the city, visible at most notable corners of the city. There are sporadic corners of ruins peppered throughout the city, like tomato sauce that’s eager to peek through the cheese on a pizza, Athens’ ancient foundations cannot be properly quelled by the fires of modernisation.
The thing about experiencing the Acropolis, at least for me, is that you are not necessarily staring at something beautiful. It may have been beautiful once, but it’s beauty has long been filed down by the sands of time. It isn’t like staring out into the alps, or Lake Tekapo or the Grand Hall at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. The wonder of The Acropolis lies in its history and what it stood for during its time. It’s a wonder that requires a little more imagination. There is some beauty in its sheer magnitude but that is unfortunately tempered greatly by years of middle class Chinese business men back home adorning the front porch of their homes with miniature Ionic columns (why lah uncle why?)
That same lack of need to be contemporary that was so evident at the islands, is felt in Athens as well. The branding, prose and aesthetic of the city feels dated, but not in a cool way. More like a ‘I can’t be bothered to spend more money to update myself’ rather than a ‘let’s be vintage’ mindset. People still walk around in mullets and bell bottoms and the signage at most shops looks like they were carved out of the cretaceous period.
In many ways, Athens is like a city equivalent of most of our dads. They are well aware that their time has passed them by but yet they still try to excel at the same tropes that dominated their youth. They were young once but they often act like they never were. Athens knows it is ancient, and it is happy to excel at being just that.
The fascinating for us was seeing how Greeks do in a city, how they live, eat and celebrate life. We had a glimpse of how they do on islands but this was a proper, grimy and slimy city. What would they do? There are no beaches for them to lounge about to display those gorgeous face manes of theirs (the envy is still strong) or bountiful seafood catches for them to dip their fingers delectably into. What would they do without all of this?
For one thing, they stay in higher-rise buildings and shop for furniture in Ikea (sound familiar?), if our apartment in Athens was any indication. So much like an Ikea showroom was our apartment that I half expected a Chinese family to emerge out of the kitchen having tested the quality of the drawers, ‘Good quality wan.’
A bar called Bell Ray provided a nice moment for us amidst the frantic cajoling in the city. It was located just around the corner from our apartment and I believe we hit it on the first night we were there. Me and the wife have a running thread we go to when ordering cocktails – which is that the one I order always tastes better than the ones she does. I am attracted to certain elements and I deviate quite little from them so I rarely end up with a disaster. She on the other hand, loves playing Zorro when it comes to her drinks and she more often than not, finds herself coveting mine. If you are wondering if I engineered to tell this whole background story just so I can tell you that she won this time then nope, she did not. Papa reigned again here.
It was a nice bar though. Casual. Felt more like a cafe than a heavy bar. The kind of place you wouldn’t feel judged if you ordered a Martini or an Espresso. The music being spun by the DJ was nice as well, acid jazz mixed in with a little ambience and smooth electro. That and the bartender looked like Stephen Arnell but sounded like Sean Dyche. If you don’t know who these people are, take my word for it, he was awesome. Basically he should be serving out shots of testosterone instead of drinks with names like ‘Tikki Bob’. That saying I don’t think anyone else in this world can make ‘Tikki Bob’ sound as manly as he did. No, of course I did not drink a Tikki Bob. I drank an ‘Annie and Ben’ instead. Bite me.
Two meals book-ended our meals in Athens, both at different spectrums of dining. The first was a meal at Diporto. If I have been using no-frills to describe some meals in Greece so far, then Diporto took the term and power-slammed it through a roof. The walk to it felt like we were casually going from Streets of Fire to City of God in 500 meters. We passed a grimy market, damp and suspect streets and graffiti adorned buildings before arriving at what can only be described as a building built for the third act of a gangland extravaganza. In fact what eventually convinced us that it was the right building was a piece of graffiti that we saw that also appeared in a Google search of the place. I was resigned to being stabbed by a pocket knife after dessert.
Well, that is if they served dessert. They barely served a meal. This was a stall that is situated in Greece but fashioned out of the streets of Kuala Lumpur. The ‘take it or leave it’ spirit was strong in this one. For one thing the eatery was located at the basement of the building, operating out of a space that can best be described as part-Medieval wine cellar, part Asgardian dungeon. Oh wait, no, the Asgardian dungeon was nicer.
They only had a couple of things on the menu – a vegetable broth, a lentil soup, a chickpea salad and grilled sardines. That saying I’ve always been a lot more drawn to eateries with a scant menu cause it just shows me that they specialise in things. Want to turn me off? Have a menu that covers every dish in the world, and I will probably show you a restaurant that’s not really good at anything. Anyway back to Diporto. Yes, slim pickings but I was intrigued cause the place was packed. On top of that the guy taking orders looked like what happens if Michael Pena encountered a tiger that was picking a fight. He looked grumpy but also rather nonchalant about what everyone thought and did around the restaurant. He came for orders when he wanted to. Spoke when he wanted to. Brought food when he wanted do. There is a sense that not even a Demogorgon could make him do something if he didn’t feel like it.
As it turned out the sardines were some of the most delicious we had in Greece and the wine, which was obtained out of large barrels around the basement, was pretty gritty and rustic. It wasn’t complicated food or flavors but there is a charm about eating at a place like this and ordering the kind of food locals eat as kids in Greek homes. It’s not pretty and it’s not designed for mainstream consumption, but it taste of the land. And that was what made us love this place.
At the other tangent, there was Blue Fish. Not a fine dining establishment really, but they serve pretty intricate and tasty food. I honestly don’t remember much leading to the restaurant because I think I was suffering from a bout of mild heat stroke. I remember my wife leading me through streets, I was a little zonked from some beer I had earlier and I remember feeling parched and hot. It’s at least 20% possible that I may have dreamt this entire meal up as part of some flashback sequence but I just checked with my wife and she confirms that we ate here (phew).
We had a grilled octopus dish, a sea bass tartar with a mango sauce and a red fish dashi linguine. Every dish was truly sublime. The linguine was so good that I can still taste it today. There’s just a joy that springs forth from food that is made with love out of great ingredients. Don’t get me wrong, I get a lot of joy too out of sweating my way through my banana leaf rice at Acha while meat is being dunked into a huge vat of overused oil 10-feet away from me. But this joy is different, more sophisticated and rich. To be fair it is not a joy I feel very often in my life but I am starting to appreciate the merits of it. I told my wife that before I met her, I used to drive autopilot to the nearest mixed rice shop, wolf down a plate of it and go home and cry into my pillow.
But for the most part, Athens zipped by like a blur. Perhaps it is how my mind works these days. It registers less on the forefront of my mind if I experience things that is similar to things I would do at home. Being on the island of Paros, eating fresh seafood and staring out of to an aqua marine ocean is not something you can forget easily. Walking around Plaka, being hemmed in by people and trying to get the best deal for things, while incredibly fun and entertaining when you are experiencing it, seem to register a lot less for me now that I am home.
Not that I am complaining about being back in a city. I’ve found that a city is a good way to cap off a holiday before heading home. Less of a shock, more of a gradual sojourn back to reality. Athens provided that, with its stained streets, graffiti-filled walls and overflowing thrash bins. Oh, and I nearly got pick-pocketed on the way to the airport on our last day. He wasn’t very good. I felt it. I cursed involuntarily at him. I went up the train. Also, we got scammed by a lady with roses that was supposedly pregnant, but I think she was just, overfed. ‘Take me down to the paradise city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty’ Axl said. Not quite.
Stepping on to the ferry from the quaint and quiet town of Parikia at Paros and being dropped off at the port in Santorini is akin, I would imagine, to being born into this world under evening tones but being trusted face first into a bright spotlight immediately, in that it’s disorientating and overwhelming. The amount of people jostling in droves around the port, hustling for bus rides or just generally bumping around completely clueless is staggering. Staggering considering we just came from a port where we sat at a quiet bakery overlooking the sea, had a relaxing cup of coffee and some pastries, with a clearly demarcated information counter available clearly for you to find out where your ferry would dock when it arrives and when the time came to board the ferry, only a handful of tourists lined up civilly for their turn. Considering all that, the Santorini port was like Saigon in the late 60s.
The flavor of the trip on the packed bus was again of armpit. It was tempered somewhat by a hilarious conversation that unfolded before us of one Latino-looking guy telling another ginger-looking guy that he looked like Seth Rogen. Even if you really believe that, I am not sure you want to make something like that known to someone. You might as well walk up to someone and say that they look like a refrigerator. Ginger guy looked sheepish at the suggestion, probably caught between pretending he couldn’t speak English and rounding a left hook on the Latino. In the end he responded by saying he’s not heard that one before but there have been people who say he looks like Ed Sheeran. Okay I take my original point back, he deserved a Seth Rogen.
The bus stopped at the island’s main bus station at Fira so we had to take a bus to the smaller town our accommodation was in which was Imerovigli. Trying to catch a bus in Santorini made us miss home so much. The unhelpful officer at the help desk, the mess of buses parked all over the station as you walk from one to the other looking for the right one, buses who look like they are going to stop but then proceed to drive off without picking up any passengers, the lack of a civil line when trying to board one, etc. I mean who wouldn’t miss that? (I’m lying).
We were dropped about a 20-minute walk away from our accommodation so we had to drag our luggage up what was probably a hill but felt like Machu Picchu. It’s one thing to have to drag luggage up a dusty road, quite another to be doing it while being scorched by an unforgiving sun. I finally know what that sausage feels like in 7-Eleven. It’s hilarious how polarizing Santorini was from one street to the next. At no point did it feel like we were tracking to paradise. It felt more like we were carrying our own coffins to be buried with it. The town looked cramped. With roads generally looking like they were only about as wide enough for a single bus to drive through. The streets were lined with car workshops, rental companies and travel agencies. The wife expertly led us through the cramped streets towards our accommodation Nefeli Homes and it honestly did not look too hopeful. But just a short turn or two later, we arrived and we were suddenly faced with this view.
The adage, ‘take my breath away’ is used far too frequently in conversations and 80s pop ballads but this was a genuine moment. It’s not just that the view was practically unimaginable, it was also because of where we were coming from and how quickly it went from that, to this. It was also compounded by the fact that I was largely ignorant of what places my wife booked us into for the trip. It felt like she may have casually showed me this accommodation in passing but I may have been distracted by something else. Ignorance never felt so good. It added to the feeling of being sucker punched by both gratefulness and happiness.
Our host Roula greeted us with about as much warmth and friendliness as a person who looked like a frontwoman of a Satanic post-hardcore band could. She was decked completely in black, with jet black hair and an under-cut with pale corpse-like skin. She wouldn’t look out of place at all in a Morbid Angel mosh pit. But there she was, at the center of a tropical paradise. I wonder what her dark priestess would make of her occupation of handing out room keys to Asian tourists? And before we can pronounce ‘Imerovigli’ (actually this is not an accurate analogy cause it actually took us quite long to figure out how to pronounce it), Roula was helpfully and warmly rattling off things we can do and places we can eat at. If we had played a drinking game where we took a shot every time she mentioned ‘Caldera View’, we would’ve been pissed. It was the way she said it as well, sort of a cross between Romanian royalty and evil Balkan henchman.
Of course out of the many cafes and wonderful relaxing Caldera View drinking places she recommended to us to go to for the evening, we decided that we wanted to do the two-hour track from Imerovigli to Oia instead, at 3pm in the afternoon under the scorching Mediterranean sun. Why? Because we were schmucks. ‘Just follow the grey path,’ Roula casually mentioned. The grey path at that point looked like a slick road up a Hollywood driveway. So we girded up our loafers and slippers and took off like a pair of anxious sparrows, expecting a relaxing stroll to heaven on earth.
You know how sometimes in life, you get into something expecting it to be a certain thing only to find that it is nothing like that at all but you still put up a brave front because you don’t want to lose face for being so silly in the first place, until it gets so bad that you just have no choice but to admit it just plain sucks? You know, kind of like how the boyfriends of those social media influencers feel when she takes off her makeup for the first time and tone down the Beauty function on her selfies? Kidding (not kidding). That was what it felt like halfway through the hike to Oia. The grey path, turned out to only be a path for about 30 mins into the hike. From then on it was basically a pack of lions trying to have us for lunch. There were rough gravel paths, sharp inclines, dusty and sparse lanes, thorny shrub-filled roads that we had to literally fight through. After a while, we became suspicious of the friendly smiles from hikers that were coming back from Oia. Were they really friendly or were they laughing at these two Asian schmucks who were hiking in their loafers at 3pm in the afternoon? We were offered a donkey at some point for a ride. We briefly considered it. Enough said.
Interacting with the breathtaking views of Santorini was often like how you would a beautiful life-like painting. You are aware it’s there and what it is showing you, but there is a disconnect between what you see and what you are a part of. On many instances during our maniacal walk from Imerovigli to Oia, I glanced to my left to look at the Caldera view that was confronting me. And each time I did it, it was necessary to have a second step mentally to remind myself that I was actually there and what I am looking at was also there ‘with me’. Rarely in my existence have I encountered nature with beauty of this magnitude. I suppose what plays to the metaphor as well is that given the height and distance by which we were interacting with the scenery, everything seems almost at a standstill, kind of like a painting. Large ferries and boats were moving between islands before us, but at a pace that was not always noticeable from this distance. It was a painting except the objects were moving, just enough to inform your eyes that what you’re seeing is developing and changing but slow enough that you can take all the time you need to admire its magnificence.
Two hours later, we finally arrived at Oia, with dusty feet, burned skin and sweaty brows, a couple of hours short of the magic hour of sunset. If Santorini was a storm, then Oia was not the eye of it, it was the edges of it where cars are being flung to faraway places. There were people bleeding out of every orifice of the town. There were people on steps, people in restaurants, people leaning over edges, people under people, people on top of people, etc. If only I had a giant Green Lantern shovel I would push them all into the sea in one quick scoop. Alas it was a bright day but hardly our darkest night so we had to soldier on shoulder-to-shoulder with the masses of (mostly) Oriental straw hat/sundress-wearing types. Double groan.
Although to be fair, unlike many places I’ve been to, where the experience can be soured by the amount/type of people thronging it (To the bright neon-clad China tourists at Lake Tekapo, I’m talking to you) the glut of people at Santorini doesn’t have a nick on its spectacular beauty. As much as it’s crowded and noisy and that threatens to consume the almost unimaginable beauty of Santorini, it’s a meal far too large and magnificent for it to consume. In the end, the beauty of the island prevails handsomely over the downsides. If you feel bugged by the amount of people jostling at you at restaurants, bus stands and vantage points, just take a moment, take a step back and stare out into the Caldera View (said Roula style) and believe me, everything stands still again. It really is that beautiful.
The other experience that stood out for us in Oia was our visit to Atlantis Books, which back in 2016 made it to the top of National Geographic’s most interesting bookstores list. And to think we bumped into it by absolute accident, after being swept by the latest tidal wave of people making their way across the town to catch a glimpse of the sunset. The wave carried us and dropped us perfectly in front of Atlantis Books. Roula had mentioned it as part of her ratatatat list of recommendations list earlier but we thought little of it. But there we were, by serendipitous circumstance, in front of it. Being at Atlantis Books is quite an experience for book-heads like the two of us. For one thing to get into it involves you descending down a flight of medieval steps, almost like a metaphorical Lewis Carroll-like rabbit hole until you are in front of its rickety wooden door. And once in it you are almost literally washed away by a gush of books all around you. There are books at every direction and it can all feel a little too much to take. Thankfully Atlantis was built for a small family of hobbits so there is not a lot of space to cover. But whatever space it has is drowning in books of all sorts.
It’s a wonder in itself that we are able to step out of the torrential windfall of tourists above our heads and tuck into a basement filled with history and literary wonder. Most of the people crowding the streets of Oia were more interested to take another selfie than look at books, which really worked for the handful of us who were in Atlantis. A man could be heard telling the girl behind the counter, ‘It’s his money so he can do what he wants with it’, in reference to his son who is interested in buying a set of pricey but rare editions. Said girl behind the counter was heard telling customer later that she had just started at Atlantis two months prior and before that she was working in Spain. She is from America and she’s been making her way around Europe, working and traveling at the same time. Another man gestured to his elderly father at a wall of first editions. On quick glance, you could see first editions of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘The Little Prince’, ‘Madeline’ and more. ‘Want a copy of ‘Mockingbird’ for €13,500?’ The father looked un-fussed. We bought a pocket size copy of ‘The Little Prince’ as a souvenir from the place because that was the first book we read together as a couple. How cool that they stamped the book, so that you can prove that you were there.
In her magnificent efforts in machine-gunning recommendation to us, Roula dropped a mention of Anogi in Imerovigli and how it was her favorite restaurant. She got us a reservation earlier and in hindsight, it turned out to be an inspired choice, not only because of the magnificent food, but also the fact that it was really close to where we were staying. Our feet was feeling a lot like they’ve been bathed in dragon fire after our hike so even a short walk felt like a torture. Many options were considered, from renting a donkey, praying for the powers of flight (or at the very minimum, float) to hiring a catapult and having it launch us on to our dining table. Nothing stuck, so we walked instead.
Anogi turned out to be one of our most memorable dining experience in Greece. So joyous was our first time that we went back there again on our second night. It wasn’t just the food, but just the vibe and feel of the place. No-frills dining featuring food cooked in rich techniques but rustic in presentation and taste. Oh, and the wine was cheap and fantastic as well. But above the food, what was fabulous about Anogi was the people. Everyone, from the two bosses who run the place to the variety of different front-house people and servers were just a delight to deal with. They were friendly, humorous and were very forthcoming with recommendations. Over-the-top good service doesn’t always happen back here at home so it’s not like I head out to restaurants when I am traveling expecting it. But when you do get it, that’s when you understand just what a difference it makes to someone’s dining experience. It was a cold and chilly night and the both of us were relatively ill-dressed for it but the soulful food and the friendliness of the people really warmed us up. Well, that is until the next gust of wind and we feel like our souls were being strangled by a yeti again.
The outstanding dish at Anogi for us, turned out to be the rooster pasta. Deceptively simple but really delicious, it’s a rooster poached in wine, baked and served on top of a bed of pappardelle pasta cooked in tomato sauce and Mediterranean spices. It was so good. How good? We had it two nights in a row. The smoked pork belly we had on the second night was pretty damn delicious as well. ‘How was the food?’, asked the male boss. ‘It was fabulous,’ I exclaimed. ‘No way, it was horrible right? So horrible that I am going to give you a desert for free’. Look, I am well aware that everyone gets the desert for free probably, whether you pretend-hated the food or not but it was still nice to banter with the person serving your food. Again, like Yannis at Mykonos, here is an establishment run by people who are passionate about what they do. It’s infectious seeing them work. They are constantly moving, tending to all the needs of the diners with patience and attentiveness.
Which is probably why people are thronging the place all night. Yes, all night. We were offered a reservation on the second night at 10pm. Felt a bit silly to be eating at that hour but given we had a pretty food-filled day, we decided to take it anyway. As it turned out there was a line out there, at 10pm. The line hardly subsided until 11.15. This was not a drinking establishment with food. It was a dining restaurant and people are willing to wait until pass 11 to get their dinner. Granted as we were starting to observe, Greeks do eat pretty late, this is still pretty remarkable. The female boss remarked to me that the kitchen would still be buzzingly dishing out main courses-till pass midnight. Forget ‘maggi goreng’ for supper when you’re feeling peckish later at night in Santorini, go for a pork shank instead.
I don’t need to constantly do stuff when I am traveling. Some of the best moments I’ve had while traveling have been the days when nothing is planned and something magical just drops on my lap. As I’ve said before, it’s either I am the luckiest traveler in the world or perhaps, I am a person that is quite easily satisfied. Or perhaps, my wife is just amazing at making something out of nothing at all. Probably that (saying this cause she has a gun to my head).
So in the spirit of being chilled and serendipitous, the evening of the second day at Santorini provided a magical moment for us in a most unexpected way. We had spent a fairly innocuous day shopping in Fira and visiting a farther-away town of Pyrgos. Sat on top of a hill, Pyrgos offered almost panoramic views of the island. We declined a further 3km hike up to the Holy Monastery of Prophet Elias that is sat on top of Mount Profitis Ilias, which would have been spectacular. Why? Because we are on a holiday and not in an iron maiden. The day had instead zipped by in a haze of ice Freddo Americanos. On our way back we somehow made our way to a church building near our accommodation in Imerovigli that was overlooking the Caldera, and there was a small crowd gathered there.
We did not manage to catch the sunset satisfactorily in Oia the day before because we had to take in the sight of the sunset often together with noisy barbaric Chinese aunties waving their monopods around like maces. This was a decidedly more serene experience with everyone just relaxing in their respective spots, with minimal chatter and no jostling because there was enough space for everyone to have a good view of the sunset. It was magical, like life painted over in a warm hue or a gorgeous filter. It was like my soul took a huge and long breath at that moment, ready to face the rest of its existence, from there onwards. The sky danced to the tones being painted by nature as the sun made its way to embrace the horizon. It started out in bright yellow but gradually dimmed to a magenta, like the lowering of curtains after a spectacular show.
In many ways, that was the fitting end to our time in Santorini and more broadly the Greek islands. We would go on to have a dip in our accommodation’s freezing pool overlooking the Caldera and a second meal at the wonderful To Honaki chip shop (so good that I forgot to mention the first time we ate it) before leaving on a plane to Athens but that sunset, where we managed to, for a moment, slow dance with one of nature’s finest sights, will always be the official ending to our sojourn at the islands. It has been an unbelievable magical journey through landscapes that at times, beggar belief and partake in experiences that we would remember fondly for the rest of our days.
If we were to imagine Paros as a person, then that person would be a teacher.
We braved a bit of a tourist-storm at the Mykonos port earlier this day. Have you seen a port filled with people who look like extras from a Korean skincare TV commercial? No? Lucky you. But alas it was a storm that turned out to be mostly blowing towards Santorini, which gave us much needed reprieve but offered us a glimpse of the influencer-packed, straw hat-totting, sundress-flowing typhoon that awaited there later in the trip. There is a kind of charm that is attached to boarding a ferry from one island to another. It offers a glimpse of how people would’ve traveled in older days, offering oneself to the elements just to get from one place to another. Granted the only elements we had to brave here on this relatively large ferry (it was large enough for more than a few pickup trucks to drive into it before swallowing a few hundred tourists), was being bombarded by a song-long commercial of the company who offered the ferry services. That saying, you don’t know what you’re missing out in life if you’ve never sat through a power ballad called ‘Paros Jet’. The name Paros Jet offers quite little opportunity for your imagination to flex on both the intended destination of the vessel, nor the speed it was going to hit to get there. It does reek of insecurity issues though. Wished you were taller? Had longer legs? Six pack? Ryan Gosling’s features? Meh. How about a ferry who wants to be a jet? There you go.
Oh right, the teacher bit. Yes. We got schooled by Paros in the age-old lesson of ‘not judging a book by its cover’, or in our case, ‘not judging a Greek island by the how much it initially looked like a city wrecked by civil war’. I suppose we have little else to blame but our own narrowmindedness. What triggered the impression? Narrow dusty roads, mud-stained buildings, dry and parched landscapes, etc. In another mindset, this would all be framed as ‘charming’ but we’ve just come from what was essentially paradise (when I type this, I am thinking about the beaches in Mykonos, and not the grandads trotting around in speedos when they really should know better) so forgive us while we adjust to suddenly being thrusted into Helm’s Deep. We had to take a 20-minute bus ride from the ferry port of Parikia to the fishing port of Naousa and the journey was about as scenic as the interior of a dilapidated cow carriage. And because buses were less frequent in these parts, they pack them up real tight, like they do back home. Nothing like the whiff of an afternoon armpit to remind you of your motherland. At this very moment, Agios Ioannis, the beach, and dreamy lifeguard seems like a dream and two nightmares away.
We alighted the bus at the Naousa bus station hoping for some reprieve but found little. The roads were caked with dust, the buildings stained yellowish and the kids were playing with Uzis at the back of pickup trucks (just kidding, although they might as well be). Ten minutes into our walk to Despina’s Mare, where we would be hanging our weary sails for the night, we found some reprieve at the skirt-end of the town center of Naousa, with a little more cobblestone walkways, restaurants and buildings that did not look like they’ve just tangoed with a sandstorm. It’s hilarious in hindsight because the path we took to get to our accommodation was just a street away from what is certainly the most charming town centers of this trip, and quite possibly ever, to me. In fact, we would later realise that the bus station was just a short walk down the road from a charming bent of seaside restaurants and a clear sight of the gorgeous aqua-marine Aegean sea. But we saw nothing of the sort as we made our way to Despina’s Mare. It was almost like an anti-Truman Show, where forces were conspiring to keep our sight away from the beauty of the island to teach us a huge slap-of-a-lesson in being judgmental.
Despina’s Mare as it turned out, looked delectably comfortable. Not quite like the meat and potatoes accommodation we had to get by with at Mykonos. For one thing, they had a sign here right upfront which helped us not to have to literally sail the seven seas to find it. Despina’s daughter Konstantina greeted us and informed us that there is a nice beach about 10-minutes away on the right by foot up the road and that the main town center of Naousa with its restaurants and bars, also a short 10-minute walk to the left. At this point of time, given how famished we were from the trip from Mykonos and the fact that we had to walk through what was essentially Mogadishu in 1993, we would’ve been okay with a McDonald’s. Actually I kid, my wife would’ve probably started a civil war herself if I had made her eat at a McDonald’s. No, there wasn’t a McDonald’s on Paros. At least I don’t think so.
The room was a sight for dusty eyes. Granted it wasn’t exactly the Waldorf Astoria but it had a large comfortable bed, a spacious restroom where you don’t need to feel like an Argentinian center back planting an elbow on an unsuspecting opponent every time you reach for the shampoo. There were welcome cake and pastries on the table, two spacious side tables with USB plug points and there was going to be breakfast in the morning. As far as we were concerned, it was The Jetsons in 2063 for us. But it wasn’t the slap yet. The spacious bed and breakfast spread was that fraction of second before a slap makes its intended contact, the point when the hand leaves your side, raises to form and prepares to strike hard.
Then we drew the curtains and slid open the door and we were greeted with this sight.
Now that was the first slap.
The walk into town brought us a little more back down to earth. Winding cobblestone roads cramped with messily constructed homes. Not too dissimilar from Mykonos except a lot more poorly curated with many homes looking incredibly cluttered and the roads just a degree grimier. It was like experiencing a Greek island town with a little South East Asian filters on.
Greek towns and villages seem to become more beautiful in relation to how close they are to the sea. Granted most of them are settled near the sea, but the disparity between settlements inland to those near ports can sometimes be quite gob-smacking. There’s of course a very logical reason why this is so. Tourists in these parts tend to flock to seaside towns and so there is more money floating around in them, hence the better amenities and honestly, it’s quite difficult to be ugly when you’re joined to the hip with that sea. But I prefer the more romantic notion, that the Greeks get their lifeblood from the sea and the closer they are to it, the more nourished and alive they seem to be.
Ouzeri Mitsi was our pick for lunch on the first day at Paros. Not because the menu enticed us or because the name of the restaurant sounds like a Greek superhero but because we were famished and it was the first restaurant we came into contact with. Life becomes a lot simpler when you’re faced with food or death decisions. Eating at Ouzeri Mitsi proved a couple of things to us. Firstly that, because the standard of accessible Mediterranean fair and freshness of seafood produce back home is a lot more touch-and-go than go, walking into any random restaurant on any Greek island is generally going to taste pretty decent. And secondly I am never going to eat pastas back home again.
And if I still had lingering grunts about how Paros looks more like the end of a shotgun barrel than a Cyclades paradise then, it gave me a second lesson in not putting my mind’s boots into its own metaphorical mouth by offering us a spectacular view while we chomped on our sumptuous lunch. The only thing inhibiting this view to our left was the sight of a portly man in an unbuttoned white shirt at another table in Ouzeri practically making love to the fish he was eating. I mean it’s one thing to enjoy your food, it’s another to be licking your fingers seductively with an orgasmic look in your eyes. Actually we’re glad we ever laid eyes on him eating. He has basically changed the way we view eating fish forever. That ‘bulus’ back at Acha Curry House is never going to be devoured the same again.
In fact the food in Paros may just be some of the best we had in Greece. The fried calamari in Taverna Glafkos has properly set a standard for all other fried calamaris to contend with for the both of us, and we suspect it will remain so for a while yet. Maybe we were starting at a very low base, but it was amazingly delicious. Not that it was gastronomical science or anything, just baby squids perfectly deep-fried in batter, garnished with pepper and salt and a squeeze of lemon. But the taste was just tantalizing. It provided me just a moment of realisation at just how much rubbish tasteless frozen calamari I’ve been eating all my life back home. There was also this charming little café called what I can only roughly identify as Kafeneio, where they served small plates of Greek dishes. Our favorite was a dish of freshly cut tomatoes, feta and olive oil. It’s a dish that appears so simple that it feels like a restaurant should be ashamed to serve and charge money for it. But yet, it’s a dish that feels almost impossible to replicate back home because it was all down to the natural quality of the tomatoes, the feta and the olive oil. The tomatoes in particular were the stars, sweet and juicy to taste, not at all like the sour bombs we often get back home.
That was the second slap.
Naousa’s town center is not large, but it compensates for its lack of size by being interestingly intricate. We explored them for two days and even on the second day, we were finding little nooks and corners we could tuck into and discover things. Whether it’s little knickknack shops, fun-sized gellatorias or to-go pizza joints, Naousa is like the town that keeps giving. At the heart of its night life is the restaurants around the port. Packed with tourists of all shapes and sizes, the clinking of wine glasses against each other, utensils against dining ware and the sound of indistinct chatter punctuate the serene and calm skies of Paros. It’s noisy sure, but quite unlike the sound a city makes. There are no awful stabs of frustrated honking by motorists, raised frustrated voices against each other and against the city or thumping pop music emanating from departmental stores. This was a more joyous sound. The sound of relaxed revelry, of happiness at conversations and the joy that can really only come from having a meal in a gorgeous island in the middle of the ocean with people you love.
This ‘sound’ was what endeared Paros to me. It felt like nothing I had ever felt before. Suddenly it all made sense. That life can also be a celebration beyond just birthdays, anniversaries and the holidays. That life itself can be a celebration. I’ve always been apathetic about food and celebrations. I generally eat to live and I’ve not had many celebrations since my sixth birthday that was more than just my family going out to a Chinese restaurant and ordering a few dishes to fill our tummies. But suddenly, standing there in the middle of the Naousa port, watching the people there, hearing the ocean cooing behind us, it suddenly all made sense. How food, culture and celebration all came together in a more relatable sense to me. It wasn’t about gifts and fancy outfits. It wasn’t about just enjoying a moment, or a day. But it was about enjoying life itself through these things. Even as I reminisce these things now, I no longer associate Paros to the first impression I have of it – the mud-stained buildings and dusty streets. In fact, those initial memories are fast-fading, replaced by the scent and sounds of the lighter side of Paros.
This was the third slap.
A trip to Greece is always going to be about the beaches. The seafood, sunshine and the facial hair sure, but on top of that list, the beaches. We would eventually work the ‘beach itch’ out of our system during the trip but we were still at the height of it when we were in Paros. After our lunch at Ouzeri Mitsi, we walked another 10-minutes up pass Despina’s Mare and just as Konstantina said, we reached a beach called Agii Anargiri. It’s quite a different experience from the organized beach at Agios Ioannis back in Mykonos. Here, the beach front is just a few steps away from the vehicle road and splayed out in a way that appears unappealing at first because it had patches of uncut grass all around and the sand appears stodgier here. The wonderful thing was that it did not cost us a cent to be here. Just open up your towel over the sand and you’re good to go. Don’t expect any tropical cocktails though.
And while Agii Anargiri may rank as probably the least appealing beach we spent time at in Greece, all you need to do is look sea-ward and everything else no longer matters. Not even the fact that you’re laying your towel just ten steps from where a Prius just zoomed by. The sea is all that matters and when you get into it, besides the fact that you immediately feel like curling inside a microwave oven because of the cold, you feel free and at-one with mother earth. The sea here, as is the case throughout Greece, is gorgeous and being at the center of it, with the sun beating down and the waves gently caressing your chest, you just feel like it’s possible to just close your eyes and lose yourself to the calming elements.
Like the building blocks for a castle in my mind, these little experiences have slowly warmed me more and more to the idea of finding a belonging on a beach. Agios Ioannis in Mykonos was a crucial piece, but so was Kolymbithres beach here in Paros, which we went to on our second day there. We took a short boat ride over to the beach, traversing through unbelievably clear aqua marine waters to get there. The water felt deceptively inviting with its color, like diving head first into Jell-O. But given that we were more or less in the middle of the ocean, my guess is it won’t feel like Jell-O if I decided to plunge in. Given my inability to swim, it will be more like a big fat sack of rice being dumped into the ocean.
Once there, occupants of the boat flooded into the different segments of the beach like ball bearings slipping into the different nooks of a pinball machine, to grab themselves an umbrella for the day. We initially got a paltry one that was two rows from the sea at the first beach front we got to. But my wife had that look. Let me explain the look. It’s basically the look of someone who has been forced to watch a litter of puppies being drowned. Okay, I jest. Let me try again. It’s the look of someone who has been forced to watch a puppy being drowned. Yup. So we moved. You move when your wife has that look. That’s my marriage advice for everyone out there. Free of charge. So move we did, to the next beachfront, where it was almost empty and we had our pick. And score, cause now she looks like a puppy greeting her master at the door or an alcoholic influencer at an open bar. I can never tell which is which.
Some moments of the day flash to mind. The American family and the father with the sardonic wit and two women who we couldn’t distinguish were either his daughter, wife or mother-in-law (yeah I know it doesn’t say anything well about the women in discussion). The wonderful cold hit of fig tequila on lips against the punishing sun. Me getting my leg wedged against two rocks from a slip which threatened to ruin my beach day but papa powered through. The sight of a heavily pregnant but fit woman dancing around the upper regions of the queer rock formations that characterizes Kolymbithres, with not much of a care in the world. I mean why would you when you have the sight of that ocean in front of you? Yet another entry filed under the folder ‘Things a Middle Class Asian Will Never Do’ in my head. My sporadically dipping into the calm, clear sea, watching fishes swim around my frame. It was a wonderful day indeed.
This was the fourth slap.
There’s a unique sense of wonder and romanticism that comes from being a person who was raised in one end of the world, under markedly different conditions than the people here and somehow ending up in this relatively small island in the middle of the Aegean sea, taking in their culture, eating their food, breathing their air and walking on their streets.
Even now as I sit here back in humid and dense KL, typing this, my mind is bathed in endorphins as I think about what it was like to be in Paros. That things are chugging along just as they were when we were there. Despina is still welcoming guests to her abode with her warm smile and hearty breakfasts in the morning. Glafkos is still dishing out delectable calamari and turning away hopeful diners because they are fully booked. The streets are lined with visitors from around the world, baked by the Mediterranean sun but joyful for being in the midst of a gorgeous island getaway. And Lola, the aged and grumpy cat I met somewhere in the town centre of Naousa is hopefully still guarding the entrance of that cute boutique that’s tucked under the stairs. ‘She’s an old lady’, a girl sitting outside the boutique assured me when Lola gave nary an expression to me when I tried to play with her.
The same can probably be said of Paros. An old lady of the sea, glistening throughout history from her renowned white marble. She may not be as zesty and sociable as Mykonos or as breathtaking and spectacular as Santorini (as we would soon find out), but she has a charm or two up her understated sleeves yet. It’s not an obvious charm, but once properly unveiled, it can be quite breathtaking. It says a lot, given our initial impression of her, that Paros ended up being our most favorite portion of this Greek sojourn and will probably always hold a special place in me and my wife’s hearts.
I’m not a person with an elaborate wish list in life. It’s a habit. Wish for less, and you get less disappointed when you don’t get your wishes fulfilled. But as I began writing this I am suddenly reminded of something I did as part of some group exercise years back – to identify some dreams I may have in life. As part of the exercise we were asked to draw out our dreams on a sheet of paper that we were supposed to frame up. I remember drawing the Greek flag. I don’t actively remember Greece being one of my dream travel destinations to begin with, but I do remember the activity of drawing that flag. Which probably means Greece was somewhat floating in my mind as a place I would like to visit at some point in my life’s existence.
Yet, when the wife put forth a query to me on where we should travel to this year, my answer was a rather resounding ‘anywhere’. That is if a response like that can be resounding. It was truly really an ‘anywhere’ for me. I mean I would’ve preferred to answer an ‘everywhere’ but remember that ‘wish-for-less’ thing about me? Yes. And to then have to decide between chocolate, banana or butter cake when I never knew cake was important to me until three years ago is like being asked at a buffet line – ‘what are you going to eat’? – ‘I guess I will decide when I get there’. Not even when Greece was mentioned as a possible destination at the start of the year, did my ears perk up and my memory jogged. In fact, I even offered a lazy retort for our original choice of Croatia and Bosnia, because well, Daenerys (In hindsight Greece over Croatia could not have worked out any better).
But yet as I sit here writing this, tanned like a Bronze hyena and taste buds sufficiently tingled by the taste of exceptional Mediterranean seafood, I am suddenly reminded of that activity and me drawing that flag. So it turns out that I had a wish fulfilled when I had forgotten it was a wish to begin with. Does that even count? Can you name and tag something on to your bucket list, after the fact? Hmm … feels like it’s cheating.
I had quite little inclination regarding Greece before I got there. I am not always one to do a clinical investigation into the history and details of a country before I visit it. Why? Because I am not a dignitary who is trying to build trade connections. I am on a ‘vacation’, and that word can be categorized broadly into just about anything from having an uneventful cup of coffee at a café at Paros port, powering an ATV rather unconvincingly across Mykonos or just spending the night in café hotel in Santorini. I don’t always need my vacation packed with eventful nuggets. I suppose I should, given we (me and my wife) really don’t travel that often. Perhaps I have taken my wife for granted because she always comes through with us having the best experience on any vacation or maybe I am just someone who can find happiness in almost anything when we are on vacation. Yeah, probably the second one (coughs).
Greek weather is like being hugged and slapped at the same time. The first thing I felt when stepping out on to the airport tarmac to the plane that would take us from Athens to Mykonos is the wind. It’s gusty, enthusiastic and chilly. It lulls you into thinking you should reach into your bag for your jacket and just as you do, it fades away, leaving the punishing heat that more than often feels a little like you’re a bell pepper being roasted on a slow charcoal fire. Not that I would know what that really feels like but I am assuming it’s just pretty bloody uncomfortable. And this parlay basically plays out back and forth, like being the center of a tug of war between Buffy Summers and a, err vampire?
The plane we were taking to connect to Mykonos was tiny. How tiny? Well not as tiny as a two-seater sea plane but tiny enough for it to have propellers and the attendant requesting that we redistribute ourselves in a more balanced manner across the plane for weight management. There might’ve been a slight possibility that if I made some strategic efforts to lunge myself at the right side of the plane that we could’ve had paella in Barcelona instead that evening.
People have impressions of certain countries. They may be pretty accurate or absolute nonsense but they are impressions nonetheless. I had patches of impressions of Greece of course – the Moussaka from that café in PJ, Zeus and his philandering ways, Angelos Charisteas’ winning goal against Portugal in the 2004 Euros and the Kraken in Clash of the Titans. I have since discovered that the Kraken belongs to Scandinavian folklore, which perfectly explains why it did not come greet me at the shores of Kolymbithres beach on Paros even though I implored it so fervently to. If you can’t trust movies anymore, what else can you really trust?
But buried deep under all that fluff, I have always had a more subconscious impression of Greece – that it’s a dated country and its datedness would be confirmed by the mullets the people choose to wear on their heads and the dated classic rock they choose to play on their stereos. I am not sure why this is the case. At the same time, I quite consciously banish these thoughts because well, it’s silly, disrespectful and probably completely inaccurate. Right? Yes. Well, that is until I boarded the bus upon reaching Mykonos airport and tucked into the driver seat was the bus driver, who looked like an offspring of a union between wrestler Shawn Michaels and well, Shawn Michaels (Okay, my bad, shouldn’t have brought you there) and fitted out with a flowing mane of The Rockers-era mullet. As if things cannot get more testing for my mind, he turns on the stereo and what does it play? ‘Walk of Life’ by Dire Straits. I mean of all tracks the uncoolest, bandana-waving classic rock dross you can find. It was the most open invitation for my mind to misbehave.
I started out as a novice traveler years ago, bandying the idea that I was someone who preferred a vacation in the city rather than the outback or the beach. I’ve since revised this view dramatically but if I were to experience a city while traveling, my preference is to experience cities that are dense and chaotic with imperfect pathways, uneven steps and shops and buildings with messy configurations and sizes. I mean what’s the point of experiencing a city that’s impeccably planned, perfectly outlined and neatly constructed (I’m looking at you Sydney)? If I wanted that, I’ll just buy a Lego set. Actually, Mykonos doesn’t exactly have a city. Chora is often cited as its main hub but it’s at most a vibrant town. There are no skyscrapers or wide and long streets filled with automobiles. In fact not even bikes and ATVs are allowed into Chora so you can walk in relative peace and not to have to worry you’re going to get mowed down by an enthusiastic grandma on an ATV. Instead it’s bustling with people decking through its complex and windy streets. Streets that are just bursting with little nooks and lanes that lead to even more nooks and lanes. Essentially, it’s a maze, but a maze lined with gellatorias, fish taverns, cafes and even a gorgeous port, so you don’t actually mind getting lost in it.
That saying, it’s that same messy and irresistible structure of the city that resulted in us being thrusted into a roundabout quest to search for our lodgings. When you ask for directions and someone says, ‘It’s two streets back’, it’s a little problematic when it’s not really clear what constitutes a ‘street’. The amount of small lanes running through building and structures can sometimes cause you to wonder if you’re doing the math right. Was that two streets, or just one and a half? So we tried various mathematical permutations and we were still very much lost. I was starting to think that a ‘street’ is really a ‘continent’ in these parts and that maybe we booked a lodging in Minnesota by mistake. Alas, we found the place eventually. Turns out it was a nondescript building that we must’ve passed by about 560 times in our search. Perhaps someone should tell them that it’s really a lot easier to look for something if you have a sign upfront?
Actually, it feels a little overzealous to call the commerce and home structures in Greek islands ‘buildings’. Huts? Pods? They are mostly the width of living rooms in developing Asian nations and do not go more than two stories high. It’s common for people to be living above nick-knack shops and bars on a busy street. There’s a kind of romance to that, living in a Mediterranean concrete hut, right in the middle of a Greek island buzz, with the sound of revelry and dining all around you. While that’s generally the case where I come from as well, it’s not quite as romantic when you’re eking out an existence in a grimy flat above a dense and humid street as opposed to living in an arctic white structure (with pastel-colored window panes) between charming cobbled streets with the cooling Mediterranean breeze blowing through your home and the sound of the Aegean sea waves greeting you in the morning.
Much like how I took my first travel steps convinced that I prefer city vacations, consequentially, I used to say that I dislike beach ones as well. Why? Well what is there for me to do? I don’t swim, nor look good topless running in a pair of sexy red shorts or able to move gracefully while playing volley ball in a skimpy bikini. As you can see I have no bloody idea what really goes on at a beach or that whatever I think goes on, is probably about 20 years outdated. Our trip to Danang two years ago opened my mind up to the possibilities of how lazing on a beach can be fun for a tubby swim-light human being who is afraid of the open ocean like me. All you need is a book, and own the act of ‘dipping’ like you were born for it. Yes, dipping. Some people swim, others like me dip. It’s a thing. Watch this space.
Agios Ioannis beach on Mykonos provided us with probably one of our most memorable days in Greece. But it’s not like a lot happened. If anything it’s arguably a day where the least happened for us. Perhaps it’s the tranquility that only a secluded beach could provide, with the waves roaring against the beachfront as the radiating sun cooperates with the sea breeze to construct a haven for you to just sit back with a book, shutting your eyes occasionally and just allowing your mind to take a long and deep breath. I could never see the logic of how some people would say they love running because it helps them think. How can you think when you’re in a moving iron maiden. Now lazing on a gorgeous and secluded Greek beach, this I can understand how it helps you think. If only what helps me think doesn’t make me fatter but actually helps me get fitter instead. I guess that’s my lot in life.
It was a sand, Pina Colada and sea kind of day at Agios Ioannis. I of course say that, completely aware of how contrived it sounds, except that for someone who has only very recently learned to appreciate the merits of spending time doing nothing on a beach and drinking alcohol, I am pretty much still in the impressionable pup phase of this sojourn so don’t mind me as a pant and stick my tongue out for a bit. I became so comfortable with sand on my feet that I took quite a bit of it with me to the restaurant for lunch. At some point I stared down in the midst of stuffing my face to find a pile of sand under me. It looked like I’ve tunneled like a mole from the ground for some sea bream.
I got acquainted with the Aegean sea as well over the course of the day. By sporadically dipping (yes own it). The water is always deceptively cold in Greece. With the sun funneling down like an aerial barbecue pit, you would think that at some point it would heat up the sea. No chance. I suppose it’s akin to biting into a fried ice cream pastry. The thrill is in the torture perhaps? Me and the wife usually do a three-count, dive in and surrender ourselves to Poseidon’s cold, cold heart.
The coldness of the Greek sea is not only mitigated by the searing heat, but also the warmth of the people living in Greece. There was some heat emitting from the fit and dreamy lifeguard at Agios Ioannis as well but I suspect that was mostly felt by my wife. We would encounter individuals, vendors, servers throughout our 10-day sojourn who would come to redefine friendliness and service to us in many ways. At the top of the list was Yannis who works upfront for Kounelas Fish Tavern, whom we met on our second visit to the place on our last day at Mykonos. It’s infectious to see him work, chatting with passersby, cracking jokes with diners and attempting to speak the local languages of the different people he meets. He thought Malaysians were generally ‘darker-skinned’ than we were, explained to us what Mastika was and how to drink it (‘We sip it, we don’t do shots’) and attempted to speak decent Mandarin with us when he told him we were ethnically Chinese. He was not self-conscious about his love for the food he was selling, the people he worked with and the job he was doing. It was enlightening to watch such candor in action. Here was someone who has eked a meaningful existence on a gorgeous island, doing what a lot of people would foolishly call ‘insignificant work’ but has radiated the days and nights of so many diners and revelers by just simply loving what he does and believing in what he is selling. And why wouldn’t he? Kounelas serves some of the most delectable and freshest seafood I have ever tasted.
A friend remarked that Greek food is ‘simple but delicious’ and I couldn’t have concocted a better description of it myself. Nothing we ate was very complicatedly put together or terribly fussy up till this point. Just some of the freshest ingredients (particularly seafood) tossed on a searing grill and salted. No sauce or a thousand ingredients, just food tasting the way it’s meant to be tasted. We had a rude awakening on just how large a pork Souvlaki can be in these parts on our first day, but since then we’ve dined mostly from the grocer in the sea and it does not look like it was going to stop anytime soon. The Greeks treat their seafood seriously, which is basically an all-encompassing love letter to my wife. They treat fish like Asian do, good from head to tail and we felt so at home eating there. Every meal was paired with lovely wine and a side of bread. No sauces are given beyond olive oil, balsamic vinegar and lemon slices. It’s like taking food back to basics, to what it should be really about – the freshness of things, of dining straight from the produce of the land and sea, without the commerclialisation from middle men who step in to provide us with produce that are pricier, less fresh but more convenient to purchase.
We experienced the full gamut of dining options in Mykonos, from the sit-by-the-sidewalk style meal of pizza and ‘Portokalopita’ (orange cake with honey) from il forno di Gerasimo, a charming Greek-style bakery to the fussier end of the spectrum with Spilia at the other side of the island. Our conclusion? Finer Greek dining options doesn’t have a lot on its grimier counterparts. You’re better off saving that additional €30 and spending it on fancy late night cocktails. Sea urchin pasta sounded like the pasta equivalent of a Randy Savage/Hulk Hogan team-up to my wife but it turned out ridiculously underwhelming at Spilia. To top it off it was quite a quest to get there, about 19-minutes on an ATV.
I know, 19-minutes is hardly a lifetime. In fact, in most fantasy canons it would be laughable to call that a quest. It’s more like stepping out to the garden rather than journeying to Mount Doom. But if you factor in the fact that it’s left-side drive in Greece, most roads in Greek islands are single lane and that I have never been on ATV before, those 19-minutes felt like the third act in Endgame. In hindsight it was a scenic, breezy drive up and down hills and coastal roads to get to our dinner but in the midst of that 19-minute journey, it was like trying to read Shakespeare while being strangled. So stressed was I on the contraption that any missed turns was not resolved by a three-point U but to go straight and hope that the road doubles back somehow like a faithful boomerang. My wife felt necessary to point out the fallacy of renting an ATV for flexibility but not being flexible myself. Boo bloody hoo.
Mykonos is often cited as a party island. But that seems to suggest that it’s packed with drunks, getting overtly fresh with everyone and piercingly-loud music punctuating the air. We experienced none of the sort. In fact, so much so we started wondering where were the ‘parties’? Our money’s on the beachfront clubs but Chora, for a city boy like me, hardly registers much on the city-vibe scale. There are clearly a lot of people, but it’s people dining over good food, with a glass of wine or two. It’s hardly a London rave in the 90s with Begbie.
The truth is Mykonos does offer plenty of options for seclusion if that’s your preferred beverage. Moments that spring to mind is us having coffee on separate occasions at Little Venice, just taking in the sun and the turquoise sea, or staring out our bedroom window at the empty cobbled streets in the morning, buying delicious spinach and feta pastry from a home-style bakery around the corner. Don’t get me wrong, there was clearly a lot of people buzzing about, but the beauty of what was around you was louder and more pronounced than tourists in sundresses. We still managed to feel alone, amidst people.
People have never been a consideration for me when I’ve traveled in the past. Connection with fellow homo sapiens is usually optional, unless I first have a connection to them. The irony of that statement is of course not lost to me. I find the act of constructing commonality and chemistry, the building blocks of friendships, relatively tedious. As such that the only occasion I traveled on my own back in 2008, to Sydney, I spent three days basically not speaking to anyone except to the person who got me my meals. Even with that, I found myself frequenting the same eatery on the chance that they may remember my order so that I would not have to speak unnecessarily.
I’ve been known to polarise people on this though. A minority of people in my life would say that they have issues keeping me quiet. The others would say that I really should try to speak more. I think my dalliances with social engagements is similar to the music of The Smiths – it’s either you get it and it changes your life or you find it so unbearable that you want to eject the tape and toss it into the flames (a little more on Morrissey and co. later), there are no allowable middle grounds. Which is a roundabout way of saying that if I am fond of you, I will gush like a fountain but if I am not, then you’re going to need a large spanner to pry my taps open. I couldn’t give a toss about what’s the polite thing to do. Nothing has ever been changed by politeness anyway.
But age and marrying a sensible woman has tempered some of these old flames. I try a little harder these days. Well, I at least place my two feet in a hopeful position in case I need to dance a little. Old habits are still generally hard-to-snuff bastards but on some odd occasions you could find me telling the person who hands me my coffee to ‘have a nice day’ or ask a cabbie if he’s ‘been in the business long’. I still spend a lot of time trying to angle people out of my photos though, something that becomes starkly obvious when I’m trying to illustrate a post about some of the people I met in Scotland.
The effort to reach out is still laborious, but unlike Sisyphus, it’s been getting better with each attempt. I am aware that it’s probably why for the first almost-forty years of my life, I have rarely been occasioned by serendipity. No warm and fuzzy chanced-encounters to look back on. Mainly because I never put myself in a position where anything can happen. I was the guy who sat around and raged against the world passing by without ever thinking of getting off my seat. So I went into this trip courting serendipity a little by telling myself I should not do the instinctual thing of building a thick cast-iron wall as soon as someone tried to strike up a conversation with me. To allow that dance to play out organically to see where it takes me.
The lover at the train station
Our stop at the Glengarry Heritage Center at Invergarry was meant to be nothing more than a whizz and hot chocolate detour. We had left Fort Williams with full tummies and a tank of gas, eager to explore the wonders of the Scottish outback. These centers, with one situated in even the most remote of towns, were often well-fitted with amenities, sometimes a café and in the case of one we stopped at later on in the trip, an impressive restaurant/merchandise store. For us, they were useful to look out for, when we needed a loo break or just to stretch our stiff legs. This one in Glengarry was fitted with a small cafeteria manned by some friendly old folks and an adjoining heritage center. Glengarry was a charming Scottish village, with its cobblestone pathways, thatched roofed stone houses and trees that seemed intent on invading into your personal space. It’s a grey town, straight out of a brooding period piece. The entire town seems almost untouched by the cold and calculated arms of modernisation. Crinoline dresses would not have looked out of place here. The wife placed orders on our hot chocolate as I waited at the back end of the cafeteria. I wasn’t expecting us to stay long here. But we were told the drinks may take a while. We looked around and besides a couple half way into their meal, we saw no one else in the café. Ah, just a couple of old folks taking their time making them then? That’s fine. I am hardly a hurried traveler anyway.
I walked into the heritage center. The room was square with the walls packed with newspaper clippings, dated pictures and old posters. At the far-right corner was a lady, sat at a round table with a large black book in front of her, hacking her lungs out. Poor thing must’ve caught the chills. It was a cold morning. I continued to browse the historical records in front of me, looking at the names, tracing heritages that were far remote from mine. The wife came in soon after with our drinks. I took a sip. It was sweet as sin. No matter. It was warm. We continued to browse the blocks and chunks of information in front of us, trying to make sense of it all, desperately looking for a context, ‘Where are you guys off to after this?’ It was the coughing lady, standing just behind us. Her façade appeared brighter than a moment ago, she was still stifling coughs in between her words but she still managed to put up a helpful demeanor. We proceeded to tell her our trajectory, heading up North towards the Isle of Skye. She suggested an alternate route that would’ve allowed us a more scenic view of the seaside. She moved from giving directions to us to remonstrating about rich Sheikhs building huge holiday homes up in the Highlands although she pronounced them as ‘shakes’ which left me and the wife a little clueless for awhile. I was conjuring an image of rich septuagenarians in blue suede shoes out on a luxurious dance floor. Reality was not quite as cheeky though.
We were struggling to make out her thick accent at times, so in our minds she appeared to float from topic to topic without much conjunction. But she became a little misty-eyed when she started talking about her late husband and in particular, his efforts to restore the old Invergarry Train Station as a static museum with a short workable track. It had been a passion project of theirs together with their son. They had submitted the papers to the council, fought red tape bureaucracy, only finally getting the breakthrough around 2016, which was about the time her husband passed. She and her son continues to work on the restoration project as part of a preservation society. I was taken by how she described her husband. As someone who was willing to fight for the things that mattered to him. She described him as a bit of a bibliophile, collecting these rare historical books about the lineages and lives of people who had lived in Invergarry, ‘I donated all his books to this Heritage center when he passed’. I first felt sad for her. That she had lost a partner so dear to her, an absolute treasure in her life. But the pride by which she spoke about him then made me feel like she was lucky to have had found someone who connected with her on such a fundamental level, for such a long time. They were married for close to 40-years. Society may look and frown down on her existence now but to me, she’s the prom queen. The one who lived a life many of us would give a lot for. I inferred that he would be proud that she’s continuing the work. She smiled.
As I pulled out of the car park, I thought about how she’s carved a rich and meaningful existence out of a town that until an hour ago, I did not even knew existed. She spends a lot of her time at this heritage center, attending to requests from people around the world looking to trace their family lineages. She pours over old letters, poems, record books to find traces and specks of their family’s history to see if she can offer some meaningful insights about their ancestors’ life here at Invergarry. She’s incredibly passionate about what she does. I thought about how there are thousands of people carving out meaningful existences out of the corners of the world that would appear so remote to me. It’s both a humbling and inspiring thought. The formation of the human tapestry around the world is something that is almost infinitely interesting to both me and the wife. We’ve spent time talking about the people we’ve left back at Scotland. Christine from the Croft 338 B&B up on the hill at Drumberg and how she would still be dishing out that delectable Scottish breakfast daily to travelers near and far or the warmth hospitality shown by Linda, her husband and Lexie (their friendly dog) up on the mountains of Kilmuir and how they would still be tending to that charming little farm they have behind their home as they take meals to a gorgeous sight of the horizon that no one should be able to enjoy as frequently as they do.
The feeling that wells up in my being is initially unrecognisable. I’ve since come to identify it as a form of hope. That there are simple and good people in this world carving out meaningful existences with limited resources somehow gives me hope that the world has not gone completely to the swine.
The wife and Christine from Croft 336.
Christine’s marvelous breakfast.
Linda’s trailer. Did not get a picture of Lexie though, sadly.
The Caribbean prince
There it was. At the end of a busy pedestrian walkway, buffeted by concrete and the misty evening Inverness sky – bad typography. The one thing I’ve often been impressed by on this trip is just how instinctively likable most shop signages have been to me. The pub-style fonts on the faded sides of watering holes have proved easy on these eyes. So imagine my surprise when in the midst of the small city charm of Inverness, with its scenic link bridges and semi-Victorian architecture, there stood a Jamaican eatery with absolutely awful fonts, bad spelling pun (Kool Runnings?) and a menu upfront that looked like it was designed by a 5-year old with hopeless color coordination and bad taste. The signage was wildly inked with Rastafarian colors. The wife stopped to gaze at it, I stopped as well. ‘Jerk Chicken’? That sounds more interesting than the Northern Indian place we were making haste to. Why not? We pushed the door, but it was locked. Perhaps it was closed. ‘It opens at 8pm’, a couple passing by hollered at us. Check of the watch says it’s 6.40pm. Perhaps it was not meant to be. Just as we were about to resume our quest for ‘palak paneer’, a gangly man decked in an all-white cook garb emerges from the kitchen and unlocks the door, ‘We’re open’, he said and let us in. The restaurant seating area was the size of a spacious apartment living room, adorned with murals of beaches, coconut trees and footballers.
Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve officially left the hipster motherland.
The man grabs a pair of menus, handed them to us made small talk with us which largely involved him lambasting Theresa May’s policies and introducing himself as Glen, then proceeds to disappear into the kitchen, again. No other staff in sight. No other customers. It was just us, in faux Waikiki land. It felt a lot like a drop site. Like we were a pair of drug mules waiting for the dealer and his armed entourage to come in. We made our choice and an agonizing 5-minutes later, Glen emerges from the kitchen again to take our orders. Jerk Chicken was a given, and the wife inquired about a dish called Manish Water, ‘It’s nice. I make it for you.’ And then he disappears into the kitchen again. It’s about this moment that we became quite aware that are witnessing a one-man restaurant operation. DIY, so to speak, in a less traditional sense. We felt both admiration and concern, knotted into an inseparable ball in our stomachs. Was he able to manage on his own because no one eats here? And is that an indication that the food here is awful? God help us. We have about 45 meals to spare on this trip so what’s one given to a guy who needs it right? Just about this moment, two other customers walked in. Relieve. Drug mule scenario avoided, or at the very least apportioned and some hope sprung that perhaps this is a proper eatery after all. He emerged from the kitchen, handed them menus and took their orders before scuttling back into the kitchen to prepare our food.
Ten minutes later he emerged with our food and it was surprisingly, delicious. The Jerk Chicken was cooked to perfection, with nice caramelisation and char served over a bed of liquored purple cabbage. The presentation for the dish was well, quite fantastic. The Manish Water dish was a little like what happens if a mixed pork soup had children with an ABC soup. On a windy and chilly Scottish evening, it was exactly what we needed. As we were tucking into our lovely dishes, more customers entered the restaurant. A couple who sat themselves immediately, perhaps familiar to the limitations of this operation, and a group of Aussie rugger types looking for a good time who were less self-servicing. The space was bustling but Glen was nowhere in sight. We somehow became emotionally invested in the restaurant’s operation and the character of Glen, like how you can get invested in random unknown characters doing everyday things on a reality TV show. We wanted him to win and he won’t win if he doesn’t come out and seat these group of customers. I contemplated getting up and walking into the kitchen to inform him but just as the group was about to turn and walk away, Glen bursts out from the kitchen and hailed, ‘What’s your problem? What’s your problem? Is there something wrong with my restaurant?’, in an accent that can only be described as ‘sunny Scottish’, grapples the hand of one of the stocky fellows and sat them down forcefully. Score.
I still think about Glen sometimes, how grateful he looked at the end when I paid for our meal and told him to keep the change. Probably not because of the extra two pounds but because he did not have to run to the cashier to fetch our change (he was at the bar playing the bartender at this point). Me and the wife still laugh at how he would go out to the streets to procure customers with his trademark opening line, ‘What’s the plan tonight? What’s the plan tonight?’ I think about how he told us he’s been living in Inverness for more than 10-years and how he’s carved an existence for himself in a foreign land far away from where he was from by doing what he’s good at and giving people something they did not have. The thought just makes the world so much smaller to me, and the smaller the world is, the more comfort I take that a better life may just be a reach away.
That charming man and woman
The Bluebell House looks like a fairly unassuming home from the outside. Situated on the suburban end of Inverness, across the footbridge, it blends rather innocuously with its surrounding peers, offering no indication to the aesthetics that would greet us inside. Our host, Neil Hart greeted us at the door. A tall bespectacled man with a proud mustache who ironically, reminded me of another Hart from my childhood, Jimmy. Yes that runty professional wrestling heel manager that looked like a love child between Elvis and a sewer rat. Except Neil was a lot more dignified, with his well-manicured hair and middle-age fashion sense. He could’ve played a police captain in another life. The house, seems plucked straight either from prairie of your dreams, or the recesses of your nightmares. It’s an American Gothic masterpiece with wall-to-wall wallpaper, carpeted floors and Victorian-like furniture and fittings. It could both be a set for a tepid film about the tribulations of a family managing a farm house or a psychological thriller about a family with a sinister past. It’s no fault of the Bluebell though, it’s just the travails of an overactive imagination. But Neil (and eventually his wife Margaret) did a lot to dispel those macabre thoughts with their warm hospitality. As far as hosts go, I’ve never encountered one that took to his tasks as passionately as Neil does. His enthusiastic recommendations for breakfast (he always wholeheartedly suggest you get the potato scones) was like an adrenaline shot in the morning.
We never did see Margaret in the two mornings we tucked into our breakfast. Neil made references to her being the person churning out the wonderful food but we never did see her until were packed and ready to make haste towards Edinburgh, on the morning of our second day at Edinburgh. “You like The Smiths?” That was the first thing Margaret said to me as she gestured to my t-shirt. I like her already. As I’ve said earlier, The Smiths are not one of those artistes in whom your allegiance makes no statement. They are not Ben Folds Five. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ben Folds’ music to bits but it’s hard to make anything about someone who loves his music. To understand and appreciate the music of The Smiths suggests you appreciate a certain aesthetic. It’s an aesthetic I find a lot of belonging in.
I’ve always been attracted to music that makes a statement. I have the tendency to seek solace in the voice of Steve Perry occasionally, but for the most part, I am attracted to music that feels uncomfortable. And as much as I enjoy the music of say, Carcass as well, The Smiths seems to get under the skin of bystanders in a way that not many people’s music do. Because with say a band like Carcass, it’s easy to just dismiss them for being loud and unlistenable. But The Smiths form of jingle-jangle indie pop, bookmarked by Johnny Marr’s trademark hook-laden picking and Morrissey’s crooning delivery can on the offset seems inviting enough to casual observers, but only the really captivated stay for the encore. It’s a great source of comfort of mine to find someone who can appreciate morose artistry.
They spoke about traveling to Nepal, enjoying Nepalese wedding music and how they hope to make a chunky stop in South East Asia really soon, “We usually close up during the winter and travel somewhere warmer,’ Margaret said. It’s inspirational to see folks like them who have eked out an existence in this part of the world without resorting to running the rat race. It made me wonder if I would dare dream about something like that happening to me. Not quite yet.
As we made our way out the door and to our car, I thought about how Neil and Margaret would be welcoming another set of travelers that afternoon, eager as we were two days prior to start their exploration of Inverness. We thought about how they would make their way across the link bridges, sit down for an enjoyable £5 happy hour cocktail while they watched merry locals walking dogs and clocking running miles by the gorgeous river that runs through the city. And how they would retreat back to Bluebell after dinner, exhausted from the day, shower and tuck into a movie before waking up to the smell of potato scones in the morning. Time never stops, which is a tragedy during these times. Sometimes I wish we could just have a handy rewind button to enjoy a little Groundhog Day before moving on to the next panel in our existence.
To properly understand and appreciate Scotland is to understand that it is akin to a moody, beautiful woman. She doesn’t beckon, she just stays, confident that you will be compelled to come to her. She knows she’s the most beautiful girl in the room, so she does not feel the need to impress you, she knows you’re already impressed. She’s unapologetically passionate, moving from warm, sunny and happy to cold, quiet and nonchalant within minutes. She’s confident in what she is, she never feels the need to explain herself to you.
If you realise this swiftly about Scotland, then you can properly appreciate her beauty. The weather in Scotland is as unpredictable as a kite without a string. You can be decked down in sunny garb because you see the sun outside, but from the time you put on your loafers to the time you step out the door, it would already be drizzling hail and freezing. The weather got so moody, that our philosophy when it came to doing anything in Scotland almost never came down to the weather. If it was pouring outside and we wanted to hike, we still went because some sun is usually just around the corner. A host in one accommodation we stayed in very aptly described the weather in Scotland as ‘four seasons in a day’.
We rolled into Waverly station from York, cold, a little lost but gamed to start the road trip leg of our trip. But first, we needed our chariot. She booked the cheapest car on the menu, which she expected would be a smallish car where I could possibly have needed to press my derriere against her face just to release the hand brakes. Instead, we were given the keys to a C Class. We paid for a chariot but got a wagon instead. Mistake? Luck? Blessing? Who knows. I was just dreaming about rolling like a boss. Now, where were my shades? But jokes aside, the difference between a nice and unforgettable holiday often comes down to the little things. Like the sunroof that our car had. To be able to wind it back to enjoy the warm sun on chilly mornings or to allow the cool evening gust to rush through the car on warmer afternoons, made the long drives very memorable for the two of us indeed. They did not feel like wasted travel time. We were experiencing Scotland even inside the confines of German engineering.
It was nice to drive away from the bustle. I have very little preferences when it comes to traveling (mainly because I didn’t do much of it before) but I think something I have developed in recent years is a schedule that goes from the bustle of a city, gradually retreating into quiet solitude. I’m not sure why, but there’s an instinctual comfort that comes from having your senses overloaded and then gradually unwinding into an almost meditative state. London played it role as the ringmaster of the circus wonderfully, orchestrating trapeze jumps after another through things I loved but I was equally excited with the prospect of having the lights dimmed and the curtains fall now as I retreat into the quiet.
The terrain in Scotland is unrelenting, larger than our camera lenses could comprehend. While we were properly wondered by the picturesque landscape of New Zealand, Scotland’s charm is a little more uncouth, a little more uncontrollable. While New Zealand often seems like God’s own properly manicured garden. One where he brings a gardener or landscaper in frequently to tend and beautify, Scotland feels like the garden in his second home. One where he doesn’t quite leave completely to rot, but does allow the seasons and forces of nature to shape and refine. Being somebody that has never enjoyed anything that’s too refined or pristine, I really appreciated the ruggedness of Scotland’s landscape. There wasn’t always amenities where you expected them, the car parks to the walks/hikes were often self-shaped and defined, you had to hike at times, uncomfortably through forages and bushes to get where you need to. But that adds to the charm of it. This wasn’t nature on a Top-40 million-dollar production budget. This was the heart and soul of an artist grinding through a track in the basement of his mother’s home, more or less unconscious of the brilliance that is about to bloom.
This unpredictable charm was best illustrated during our hike up to see the Old Man of Storr. And before your imagination starts running wild to a malnourished, bearded spiritual guru who sits on a rock on a mountain, awaiting Asian tourists to pop by so that he can enlighten them with the secrets of life and death, the Old Man of Storr is really just a large boulder. But, the fun’s not always in the objective right? My wife might sound a retort. Anyway, we made our way up, going from well paved roads to sludgy puddles of mud, while weathering wind, rain and eventually hail. 40-minutes later, there we were, taking refuge at what can probably be described as the derriere of the Old Man as the winds rustled up a whistle and the hail getting vicious. For a moment stuck up there, with no fellow hikers in sight, it felt, dangerous. Like perhaps we forgot to read the fine print on the brochure – ‘May potentially not come back’. I did not sign up for this. I started the journey thinking it was going to be a breezy walk, adjusted my expectations when I saw the muddy climb and now you’re telling me it ends here? Surely thou jest. But that well-publicised moodiness of Scotland weather was to be our salvation, as the weather turned tepid as quickly as it did dangerous and we started making our way down.
One of the magical things about traveling is that it introduces you to lifestyles that are different from yours. Experiencing these idyllic lifestyles abroad is a way I deposit some hope into my heart and soul that there are better ways to live this life. Sure, we may never attain them but it somehow feels better to have something to aspire to than having absolutely nothing at all. We’ve witnessed people who have carved out an existence in between a scenic loch at the back of their home and snow-capped mountains at the front of it. We’ve seen people who tend to a croft for a living, up in the hills, unburdened by the excesses of civilisation, contented with forging a meaningful existence largely with and around nature.
I lost count on the amount of charming small towns we drove through, marked by scant pockets of settlement and civilisation. The idea that someone has created an existence for themselves so removed away from the existence I’ve carved for myself continues to be endlessly fascinating for me. To be able to take our time and drive through them, at times meeting the people there, dine with them, just increased the fascination for me. Flashes of scenes pop into my mind as I write this – the candy shop in Portree where we bought some Haggis-flavored chocolates, the town of Inveraray where it’s largest attraction is a prison, the delectable langoustines we had at the Oysters Shed, tucked away on top of a remote hill in the town of Carbost and my wife tempting death or at the very least, frostbite by climbing the iron cable bridge at Ben Nevis across a lake.
But the experience we had at the peak of Kilmuir, a village above the town of Uig up in the Isle of Skye was nothing short of surreal from an existential perspective. Surrounded by rolling peaks, scattered housing, little rustic roads that look like they lead to the afterlife and a clear view of the distant sea and the sun on the horizon, Kilmuir seems like a town drawn out of the pages of an Enid Blyton book. Realistic enough to not have to pinch yourself but with just a dash of the whimsical to have your head up in the clouds. The heavens felt uninterrupted up there, like they were an arm’s stretch away. And in the midst of this breath-taking experience, there we were, holed up in a stationary camper van, tucked under an electric blanket with nature just cooing a gentle melody around us. That evening where we rustled up a no-fuss pot of meatball soup, sat ourselves out on a wooden bench and watched the sun go down on a heavenly horizon remains one of the most memorable nights for me on our Scottish journey.
Our hosts ran a small farm behind their home, tending to sheep and journeyman travelers. They talked about attending a neighborhood birthday party down the road with glee and on evenings they come out to the back of their home where they get an almost uninterrupted view of the sea and the clear horizon. Being in a place like that, to self-consciously milk a city cliché, ‘re-orientates’ you. We often stress ourselves with so much expectations that come from trying to survive and thrive in a concrete jungle. But the people out in Kilmuir content themselves with pretty sunsets and clean air. No need for fast cars and dangerous men and women when you have a lovable dog named Lexie to brighten up your day.
For a split second of a moment, I envied the simplicity of their lives and how uncomplicated they made everything seemed. An existence such as this may seem too remote for most of the people I know, but the thing about being in the limelight is that it sometimes burns. We exhaust ourselves by going on a treadmill and running on it for basically the majority of our lives, unable to stop, unable to rest. But out here in the highlands of Scotland, you are allowed to walk through your existence. The contrast made me want it.
Scotland’s nature still appears to me in my pensive moments. The rustic highlands, thronged by wild brown grass, punctuated by deep blue lochs. The flash rains and hail that blow through us like a passing carnival troop, imposing and disruptive for a moment, but gone as quickly as it came. The miles of undisturbed roads, navigated by ‘Passing Place’ signs that assure you that salvation is but only a few yards away. The North Coast 500 road that takes you up gorging canyons down to hilly passes and up beside scenic lakes, so unbelievable that one needs to experience it to properly believe it exists. The sad reality is that for a lot of us, we would not have enough resources or time to revisit a place like this. Just something we check off the bucket list, consigned to only repeat in the theater of our minds until we part this earth. I wish I would be able to come back to revisit this beautiful moody woman one day.
To see how far she’s come since I last gazed eyes on her.
As someone who has never been to the UK, I have subscribed to certain clichés about how the place would be. Now I am aware that these are blatantly untrue for some parts, but like the irresistible urge to pick up the last piece of roast pork and stuff it into your mouth, there are things one can’t logically reason with your mind. Or at least I can’t with mine. It’s stuck in its rebellious teenage phase for some time now. It locks itself in its room, turns up the volume on a Morbid Angel record and pretends like I have little control over it. It’s been doing this for so long that I have all but given up and surrendered to its intended notion that I indeed have little or absolutely no dominion over it.
So what are these clichés? Proper polite people speaking in rounded sentences, existing amidst a landscape of cloudy and cold weather, cobblestone streets, charming Victorian-era buildings and lush and pretty countrysides. The food would always have a side of gravy, the cars would travel at pedestrian pace and you need not be alarmed if you have to stop at a junction to allow way for a horse carriage. Yes, my mind occasionally knows how to have its cheese. Granted London, sometimes regarded as an unforgiving city, has done a decent job in smashing these islands in my mind’s sky to bits in well-coordinated attacks during my four day stay there. The Estonian with a heavy Baltic accent serving us our pint of ale at a British tavern was the final swing of the hammer.
But our adventure on the fifth day, which started with a train ride from King’s Cross up north, did much to restore my delusions, despite the day ending with us enjoying a spicy cup of Korean noodles. York is a city that has no qualms with encouraging the most typical of stereotypes concerning a city in the Queen’s land. If I had landed in York before London, I would be slightly crippled at just how true the definite-delusions I had were. The streets of York are paved with cobblestone, often between rows of Victoria-style buildings housing old-school candy houses, bookshops and the occasional tavern. There are cathedral-like structures at the end of most streets, housing anything from churches to restaurants. The town is not designed in neat grids, with little lanes sprawling into little nooks and crannies that you wouldn’t resist exploring, giving the impression the town was constructed a structure at a time, not by a well organised town council. There is even a medieval wall flanking almost the entire city, which you can walk on and imagine what it would’ve been like in days or lore, to patrol and guard the city vigilantly. If not for the sight of Primark breaking my reverie on one of my lookouts, I might have been inclined to lob the largest rock I could get my hands on outwards to starve off an invasion. Thankfully, no man nor his dog was hurt.
It was a city that encouraged me to be silly in my indulgence of British stereotypes. One that you would not find too difficult to imagine being stalked by the ghostly figure of a serial killer named Jack or an actual specter in a top hat. Yes, that kind of specter. You can even attach a Lincoln-like beard to that specter if you please. In fact, I can confirm that one of the reasons my wife wanted a stop at York, was because she read that it was one of the most haunted cities in Europe. My wife appeared thrilled with the thought, repeating it a couple of times in the months leading up to the trip. I suspect she felt the pictures she was looking at of York, made it feel like she was obligated to bump into a specter in a top hat or a serial killer vying for her entrails. No visits of a macabre nature unfortunately for her, but we did get a jolt when trying to check into our accommodation, the White Horse Inn. We were told by the polite policeman at the door that the premise was closed at the moment because it was a crime scene. Yes, a crime scene. I would imagine my wife would’ve been tempted to ask if it was committed by a bearded man in a top hat that was glowing green. We didn’t, which probably served her fantasies and notions better. To be told that it was just a reveler in a footie shirt clocking another over the head with a bottle of Guinness would’ve been underwhelming to say the least.
It’s hard to pin down just what was the nature of our day in York, but it would be hard to look pass our meal at The Hairy Fig as probably its main event. A part of the cheesy clichés playing in my head of course includes the kind of food I would be expecting to eat in Britain. I imagined warm tomato soup served in pretty dinnerware, preceded by puffy scones with a side of clotted cream and preservatives and a main of no-frills pork pie served with a side of mushy peas. And of course, tea. And that was exactly the meal we had at The Hairy Fig. I could’ve snapped a picture our meal, print it on a postcards titled ‘British Food’ and sold them to naive Asian tourists. The café itself was insanely charming. Just a small dining room with about four tables hidden behind a storefront that sold exotic oils, vinegars and spirits. It was the stuff of children’s novels. The floor panels creaked with each step, the doors framed with aged wood and the tables and chairs lacked uniformity, like a scattered set of random heirloom furniture that were put together in a single space.
The meal was exactly what we needed at that moment, after the cosmopolitan meals of the last couple of days, it was nice to tuck into something that felt home-cooked. In fact, it was probably not that far from the truth. The pork pie was brought out of a refrigerator, padded up and sent into a home-sized toaster oven while the mushy peas were cooked and softened in a small hand-held pot that looks like something we had at home as well. No juggernaut-sized confectionery ovens or military-drilled line of sous-chefs. Just a small café run by three ladies who have no desire to see this business turn into an empire. The ladies running the place were so warm and friendly that for a moment, I forgot that I was dining in a café. It felt like we were invited into someone’s home for a meal with their family. The pork pie was especially a pleasing thing. I’ve always read about British meat pies and have been intrigued by them and this one at the Hairy Fig did not disappoint. It was basically just sparsely seasoned minced pork in flaky pastry. No jazzy ingredients. And this would be my cliché-laden mind working again, it tasted like food for the working class. And after all we’ve consumed up till that point, eating something so simple but delicious, was just glorious.
Our day in York was a befitting recess between the manic senses-overload of London to what would be a gorgeous sojourn into the solitude of Scotland. It was a rag-tag, patchy day punctuated by oddball activities such as a shopping spree at Primark to a personal prelude to a ‘happy’ evening for me thanks to some lovely testers of ale at the Ye Old Shambles Tavern. No, it was not lit by candles and managed by a hunched inn-keeper.
By the time we retreated back to our accommodation, the police were gone, the bar downstairs was opened again for sloshing and the inn-keeper (she called herself a manager but I’ll call her whatever I want here) claims she has no idea what the crime was all about (strokes chin). We opened and checked all the closets and storage spaces anyway just in case. Reflecting it did not feel we did anything of significant meaning but yet it felt like the end of a good day. Looking back, I would still not trade my day in York for any of our other stops. In fact, it’s one of the places in this trip that I would want to return to and experience properly.
Maybe spend a little less time in Primark next time.