This is England (Day 5)

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The famed Shambles …

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.

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Like you’re walking in a British dream.

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.

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A lovely sight.

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.

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The Hairy Fig: The main even of the day.

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.

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The start of a ‘happy’ evening.

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.

This is England (Day 2)

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To call this a lovely morning would be an understatement.

Good food, good mood

I can sometimes be the undoing of some of my most loveliest designs.

I had booked an advance dinner for the two of us, on the second day of our trip on Friday. It was meant to be a surprise dinner for her to celebrate her much-belated birthday and it was at a restaurant called London Shell Co. Nothing pulse-racing until you find out that the restaurant is actually on a boat, which on some dinners, actually takes a leisurely float down Regent’s Canal from Paddington to Camden and back again. That culminated with a five course seafood menu ensured that the prospect of the idea falling flat for my wife would be just slightly better than completely unlikely.

But a month before the trip, she casually asked me if she should book a lunch at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Just so you’re wondering why we would book a lunch at a place called Dinner, I would like to draw your attention to the pathetic exchange rate of our currency and something called ‘set lunches’. I was banking on their sets being noticeably better than McDonald’s.

Sure, let’s do it. ‘What day should we do it?’ How about Friday? I was under no illusion about what kind of restaurant Dinner was. Anything presented ‘by’ someone is always going to be a little fancier and nicer. Not ‘nice’ in a ‘this salted egg fried chicken is nice’ way but nice in a ‘this place is so nice I am prepared to have your babies here now’ way. Unless the thing is presented by ‘Adrian Yap’. In which case I bid thee flee. Anyway, slotting in a ‘nice’ lunch like that before the surprise dinner I had planned, as expected, turned out to be equivalent to sending a Pokemon into a death match against Thanos. Pokemons are cute, colorful and feisty in their own right but they can’t just finger snap half a universe away. It would be an unfair bashing.

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Cheesy shot, courtesy of the wife.

But before we get to the meal, let me just get you up on my little time machine and whoosh you to Friday morning before the day I’ve come to call ‘Ar-meat-geddon’ unfolded. We spent a very nice morning at a serene corner of Hyde Park. The sun was still shining, so the day before turned out to not just be tease but the start of what looks to be a beautiful summer. Weather like this almost seems fictional to me sometimes. I’ve been raised with a life ideology that life is just a series of trade-offs and nobody truly gets to have his cake and eat it as well. Being somebody who sweats as much as a grizzly bear (I am not even certain if they sweat but just humor me for a bit), I have a somewhat love-hate relationship with tropical weather. I love that we get a lot of sun, because cloudy weather can get me downer than a Wilco track 9, but I hate that it comes at the expense of me soaking through my trousers. So for me to be able to sit on a bench in Hyde Park, basking in the warm glow of a healthy summer sun, and be comfortably snugged in a cardigan thanks to the cool breeze with a cup of hot chocolate in my hand, feels almost unreal. Life is not supposed to be this good.

Another thing that caught my attention was just how well dogs are treated in these parts. They are allowed to roam, without fear or prejudice from master and society respectively. There are no boys hurling abuse and wanting to throw stones at them for starters. I have always been a dog lover. For about 16-years of my life, one of my closest friends was a dog. But I have been guilty of viewing their existence through a lens that has been brought on by the society I live in. These are symptoms that our community is not well, when we treat such largely-peaceful creatures so poorly. And for a long time, I have believed that we have to just turn sharp corners and negotiate our way through these obstacles. That they can’t be removed. But I was give a glimpse of what a dog’s life can actually be. My hope is that as our community heals with the change that has been brought on, that we will start seeing important people speak up against such senselessness as well. The good life a dog has in these parts would come to form one of the running narratives for this trip.

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Anyway back to lunch. This was like a school of restaurant apologetics compared to the fares I am generally used to, which generally involves a pint-sized waitress/waiter with a soiled note pad rattling off recommended dishes like a Gatling gun, mostly unconcerned with what you ordered but more importantly that you did it quick. Dinner by Heston Blumenthal was at the other end of that spectrum. There was a waiter who explained the structure of the menu to us. There was a sommelier who recommended wine pairings and ‘arranged’ our drinks. Yes our drinks were ‘arranged’, like how a rendezvous car is arranged for the secret service. There was a prettily folded brochure on our place mats that explained the philosophy of the restaurant. I half expected a bespectacled professor to come by and explain the five habits that led to them structuring the menu the way it was. There was an armada of cooks in the open kitchen, slipping in and out in well-oiled formations, like they were prepared to invade a small country.

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Up till then, my philosophy when it comes to food was probably equivalent to a bearded Southwest biker. ‘Just make sure there is a mountain of fries and we good’. ‘Good food’ sits a lot higher up her hierarchy (my theory is that it sits somewhere between Jesus and me), hence why we’re here at Dinner, having lunch (yes this is strange to me). After being served by the clergy of restaurateurs just a moment ago, I am under no illusion that this meal will cost as much to me as my left testicle. But this meal did re-orientate my philosophy when it comes to food. It gave me a glimpse of what proper culinary pleasure could be. That two generously-breaded chicken thighs and mountain of fries is no substitute for fresh ingredients and superior techniques. I’ve been kicking a ball into the stands at the Conference but today I had a chance to lick Messi’s boots and it tasted glorious.

Everything from the gorgeous Meat Fruit starter to the generous portions of the pigeon breast and Iberico pork chop mains, right up to the delectable Tipsy Cake was absolutely fantastic. This was a meal done to perfection. Like a midfielder who completed a season with a passing rate of 100 percent.

We were contented, despite us having to pay a bill equivalent to the value of my left testicle. I know what you’re thinking, but no, it’s not that cheap.

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It was with almost-bursting bellies and full hearts that we headed to dinner hours later. I was about as ready to eat dinner as Morissey would be to play bass for The Jonas Brothers.

David Bazan has a song called ‘Lost My Shape’ where he sings ‘But now you feel like a salesman/Closing another deal/Or some drunk ship captain/Raging after the white whale‘. Upon gazing my eyes on the ship captain that was going to steer us down to Camden and back, that second line in Bazan’s song came immediately to mind. Not that I am suggesting he is as ferocious a mythical figure as Captain Ahab, but that well, he looked and sounded drunk. He was more likely to jump for shore in Camden and get lost in the revelries with his shirt unbuttoned, leaving us floating slowly out to sea to a quiet and gradual demise.

London Shell Co. makes no pretenses for what it is. This is no-frills grubby soul food made from fine ingredients and cooked with heart. It’s the kind food my wife loves and it’s on a boat. Nothing could go wrong. Of course except me suggesting we go to Dinner for lunch (yup, not gotten over that). But we made the most of our meal. The staff were personable and friendly, the food was very good and the atmosphere was fantastic throughout. But the experience was slightly ashened by our fantastic lunch. Well, at least for me. I ultimately blame the Tipsy Cake. Fantastic dessert, but the eventual death of us.

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There’s an almost time jump quality to the drift down the canal. Like that scene in some movies where they show how someone has got on for a couple of years with their life after a tragic loss, through a slide collage of random things they’ve done while healing, like eating take-out dinner, sitting in business meetings and running in the park. How we went from pretty well-manicured parks with middle-class-looking patrons walking dogs and sitting on benches to admire the view, before gradually descending into the subterranean underworld that is Camden, as the graffiti increased in intensity and the revelers by the canal shore started getting shaggier, slouchier and grouchier ( I could’ve sworn one guy was ranting at a garbage can). By the time we reached the canal-end to turn the boat around, I felt almost compelled to throw a bottle of Guinness at someone because I thought that was what people did in these parts.

By the time we were dropped back in Paddington, the cold breeze buzzing mercilessly and us being a little under-prepared for it, we reflected on what was a day of uncontrolled but largely-satisfying feasting. Our bellies and hearts were full. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing? Not today. Although we would raise a thinly-veiled protest by adopting Oliver Twist’s oft-quoted refrain …

‘Please sir, we really don’t want anymore’.

The kids were wrong

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So I have a mind that behaves like a three-year old.

Mind you, it’s clearly not actually three, it just behaves like it is. How so? It goes where it’s not supposed to go without remorse and then expects everyone to have a laugh about it when it’s caught. It drops dung when it needs to and expects someone to clean it up. When it doesn’t get its way, it ensures that everyone knows it’s not happy by flinging toys around and making an obvious good old-fashioned racket. But unlike an actual three-year-old, it actually knows better not to behave this way. It’s experienced the pangs of adulthood and the scarring that come from growing up and having responsibilities. It just sometimes decides it doesn’t want to be an adult.

I’ve tried the hard way to get it to behave, to discipline it into submission by either spanking it with the Bible or shouting logical reasoning at its face. I’ve also tried the softer approach by appealing to its happy side through a combination of cute ‘I-come-in-peace’ monkey faces and the gentle cooing of sunny thoughts.

But it’s futile. It still continues to behave like a three-year old when it wants to.

Perhaps like all petulant three-year-olds, you just have to give it space and years and pray hard that it develops into a reasonable adult. Perhaps. But at this moment, I am growing weary at slugging and jousting with something that has purposed so intently to not listen to what I have to say. I wish I could literally just drop everything, pick up my car keys and just drive off for a few hours, away from the madness. But alas one can’t divorce oneself from a bodily appendage.

So instead I pull up a chair, and start making cute monkey faces at it again …

One day you’ll be there

IMG_20170718_133737I can still vaguely remember the moment.

It was within the first week of Standard Three. I pulled out my pencil box and there it was sitting in there, a blue and red pen. It was all pencils for the first two years of schooling life but the time has come to graduate to the big leagues. To have your thoughts, right or wrong, dry permanently on to a paper with no eraser to help you. Well, technically there were ink erasers but those things are like paper dozers, rub a little enthusiastically and you’re going to be a page short. There would no longer be a clean erase of your past. It felt exciting. It was like stumbling on to your brother’s porn stash without him knowing or finding a box of coins your dad has forgotten about at the bottom drawer that would serve you super at the local arcade. A lot of the ‘naughty’ when I was a kid was centered around being at places you were not supposed to be. But this was school. I am supposed to be here and yet, I am now encouraged to do something that was wrong just a year ago. The ‘pencil’ box was no more.

While this scenario would suggest we afford more grace to our young, it also suggests just how hung-up adults are about permanence. Like how our belts go from having adjustable clasps (which are honestly, insanely practical as a design) to leather ones where you have to punch gnarly holes through, as we get older. Woe is you if you decide to drop some weight or forbid, gain some. What then? Bring it back to the store to have them re-punch new holes or purchase a new belt because that’s what adults do. We are meant to make things nonadjustable and terribly inconvenient.

But there is a flip side to that coin. That perhaps permanence also means having to own up to one’s mistakes. No magic eraser to make things peachy again. If you talked it, you better be prepared to walk it as well. But the less-than-ideal byproduct of this is that a lot of us get muddled up in the guilt and shame of our failures and mistakes with seemingly no reset button to bring things back to zero.

But that was what initially attracted me to the idea of grace. Not that we can do all the wrongs we desire and have God come in and backspace everything to oblivion. But that without it, even in the light that I was able to change, I would still have to drag guilt and shame around like a corpse, and that just filled me with such hopelessness.

I would like to think that God’s idea that we should have child-like faith is not just linked to the idea of acceptance, but also that every situation we find ourselves ditched in is not meant to be permanent. Like how a kid takes every situation at a time and if they did stumble, they only focus on dealing with the physical hurt at that moment and not the lingering guilt and shame that comes from failing.

Or at least they do not deal with it for long.

 

 

No dreams last night

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The sun streaks through the exposed window, bathing the room in glorious brightness. I’ve always loved exposed windows, how unfettered and aesthetically clean they look. It’s a Saturday morning and the time is 8.45. She’s still in bed. I get freshened up, thinking about what exactly do I have in the refrigerator that I can make breakfast out of and just why I can’t grow a beard like Sam Beam.

I walk into our work room, pick out a Clientele record and put it on. ‘Isn’t Life Strange’ gradually swirls throughout the apartment. The water’s come to boil in the kitchen and I make my way there to put together my cup of coffee. I catch a whiff of it but leave it on the counter and open the refrigerator door. Some slices of bacon, eggs, leftover rocket, garlic butter and bread. Sandwiches it is. I fry up the bacon and eggs and start toasting the bread. The counter top is now bustling with food items and utensils. I pick up my cup of coffee and take a sip and I go back to the pan. She’s awake. She hugs me from the back and heads into the bathroom to freshen up. I finish up the fry and plate the sandwiches.

I pick up my cup of coffee, settle on the couch and take another sip. The record’s moved to ‘These Days Nothing But Sunshine’ now.

Everything I do today I do for the day above, that’s hopefully to come …