My darling

Today is the sweet spot. The day between my birthday which was yesterday and my wife’s, which is tomorrow. It being a Friday normally would mean that we would be knee deep in a satisfying meal tonight but as it stands we are not.

Instead we’ve been spending time shuffling between hospital departments, paying for stuff, waking up incrementally throughout the night because of the need to feed, paying for more stuff, out the car, in the car, alarm rings after alarm rings. as Netflix drones on in the background of our confinement centre room, mostly unwatched. This is the new normal, at least for us, at least for now. Why?

Because our baby girl was born last Sunday.

I’ve always been a little detached about celebrating my birthday. Yes, you were born on that day. But is it something really worth celebrating by anyone other than yourself? The answer felt like a no before Sunday, but since then, I would say a big yes. Witnessing the process that led to our girl being born made me feel like for someone to have been birthed into this world, it would’ve taken a Herculean effort and force to will it into being.

Mainly because there is a plethora of things that could go wrong within the course of the months or years leading up to the pregnancy, the nine months of pregnancy and the hours leading up to the delivery. It’s a journey with many complicated and moving parts and shifts that requires various people of diverse skillsets making the right decisions at all times just to facilitate the birth of this life.

In many ways, I can now see why there is a special heartbreak that parents endure when they see their child wasting or throwing their life away meaninglessly – It was not easy to produce their life. That labour of love creates a special bond between parents and child. It is important for parents to not foolishly throw that bond away in the name of college majors, career paths and life partner choices. It has to be protected as sacred. This is something I will remind myself of everyday. To work hard to maintain that bond.

Our journey had a few bumps along the road, namely the scare we had in September. But ‘worrying’ is the main product one procures as soon as one decides to become a parent. Our last scare just before her birth was the worrying underdevelopment of her femur. The only comfort the doctor could offer us initially was, ‘Oh, looking at you guys, I wouldn’t be too concerned.’ Thanks doc. So we plunged ourselves into worry and concern. My wife analysing each printed report after a visit with a fine comb, studying trends and graphical movement. As it turns out, we had nothing much to worry about because her femur is fine. I mean, I don’t know if I can guarantee she will have a future on a fashion runway but we can always pray and hope. I am adding this along to my recent prayers to God about blessing her with the ability to walk to the toilet on her own (zero diaper change goal baby, come on!), sleep when we want her to (notably when mummy and daddy wants to watch Netflix) and being a David Bowie fan.

Okay jokes aside (not joking about Bowie), God has really fulfilled his end of the bargain throughout these months. We would pray to Him for something different for her every night. ranging from her having good hearing to her having a compassionate heart. Although programming for the last few weeks leading to her birth was a rerun of ‘femur length’ constantly. If prayers were cumulative, we should be expecting some Miranda Kerr legs on her right God? Just kidding (also not kidding).

We’ve had a relatively easy pregnancy. My wife was still out and about doing morning walks and yoga days before her first contractions came. We’ve had scares certainly but God allayed each of them in spectacular fashion. He’s blessed us with good doctors, nurses and friends, gosh what friends we have. Constantly supporting us, encouraging us, checking up on us and giving us stuff. We have enough breast pumps that I probably can be subbed in as well. I did warn our baby as she was crying yesterday that if she continued crying I may have to offer her my boobs. She stopped for a moment.

And yes, just like that she’s out into the world now and in my arms.

39 weeks suspended in a flurry of animation within my wife’s womb, hearing every conversation we’ve had with each other (understanding probably very little of it), bouncing to the steps of our weekend walks, sampling a tasting menu of the food we’ve consumed and just like that, the last page of pregnancy was turned and a new life steps into this world last Sunday at 8.00am.

I’ve written and processed a lot about being a father. In the grand scheme of roles that we assign to ourselves in this life such as ‘son’, ‘husband’ or ‘friend’; ‘father’ was never one I was particularly wedded to, mostly brought about by fear of being a lousy one and also never being with a partner who could awaken that collective desire until I met my wife. Yes, it is a collective desire. At least it should be.

In the course of trying to lull her to sleep last night by singing to her and having a conversation with her, I referred to myself as ‘daddy’. It still felt a little surreal. I’m a father now. Yes, I am a father now. And there is no turning back.

In my bid to grow into the role, I fashioned a daily project to talk and interact with her while she was in the womb. I would sing her a song I loved every night and give her one fun fact about the world she would soon be born into. Since September, I’ve sang a total of 165 songs to her and delivered 160 daily cool facts to her, every night. I was going to say without fail but there were fails, a day or two where I was ill and probably one where I was too sleepy. Daddy is not perfect.

I mostly sang to her in our bedroom but I did croak her a possibly painful version of ‘Across the Universe’ in a hotel in Taiping, a strategically selected ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ up in the cool heights of Cameron Highlands and delivered a thankful version of Wilco’s ‘My Darling’ to her in the hospital delivery room, 7-hours before she made her life-changing entrance into our lives. I sang her a total of 104 Beatles songs and 61 songs by a range of artistes that were important to me from Cure to Springsteen to The Flaming Lips.

Throughout the days I also gave her really cool facts about the world, like how dogs sniff good smells with their left nostril, that turkeys can blush and that the tiny pocket in jeans was originally designed to store pocket watches (I especially loved this one).

These sessions were my favorite moments of those days. I’ve really had the time of my life these past 6-months doing them. But nothing could prepare me for the 14-minutes that led up to her birth into this loud and disorientating world. To say those 14-minutes represented the most beautiful and jaw-dropping thing I’ve ever witnessed and experienced in my life is to put it very, very conservatively.

I went into this process as I always do with anything that’s important – numbskully optimistic but also blockheadly clueless. To be fair, the data I was given to crunch so I could form an idea of what a delivery experience would be like was so wide and diverse, I might as well been told that it’s like walking around a mall with a bag of doughnuts in my hand while being chased by a pink unicorn.

There are mentions of the mother being able to walk around. She will be able to eat whatever she likes. That she will be on drips. That she will be hooked to a machine that measures baby heart rate and contractions. That she will be able to watch TV. Bounce on a birthing ball. Shoot a machine gun. Swim in the ocean with sharks. Okay, just kidding. But only about the sharks. There are probably some parts of the world where the wife may empty a clip into the husband in the process of giving birth.

So yeah, I had no idea what it was going to be like.

Doesn’t help that Tinseltown has done a lot to gloss over the birthing process, so this Latchkey kid learned nothing from it. It’s often represented by a sudden belly ache experienced by the mother (they occasionally show the water bag bursting), a mad dash to the hospital and the inevitable coach/pep talk by husband or doctor leading to a single push which results in a baby that often looks like it’s been nursed and bathed for months and if given a chance, could probably walk to the nearest parlor and order herself an ice-cream.

What films don’t tell you is that the water bag doesn’t always break, contractions don’t come just before a birth but sometimes, days even a week before and that single push that results in the baby coming out is the open goal tap-in at the end of a 54-pass move. Oh sorry, football analogy. Let me try again, it’s basically the last kahuna push after many kahuna pushes that’s been happening possibly for the last 2-hours. We can see how that doesn’t exactly translate to a tangy watch.

My wife’s contractions came deep into Wednesday night, four days before the eventual delivery. In hindsight, I realised I was being very insensitive to her when I suggested if a contraction basically feels like a terrible diarrhea. “I guess, if you needed a reference point,” was her answer when the right one would be to boot my head through the nearest window. No, seeing what my wife went through for four days, I can concur it is not like a terrible diarrhea. A terrible diarrhea does not render you incapable to move or speak when it comes. This was something else.

Our family and friends suggested inducing the pregnancy after two days of contractions but my wife said no, “What if she’s not ready to come out yet?” I can only draw a parallel with me being asked to throw the thrash after I am showered and comfortably seated on our couch with the TV remote in my hand. “Okay, let’s wait for her.” But in 24-hours, the pain had gotten unbearable and my wife agreed to induce on Saturday night.

Civilization may have attempted to dress up the birthing process in clean air-conditioned rooms and plushy pillows but the truth is, it remains as primal an experience as it did thousands of years ago. There are strange-looking discharges, a lot of writhing in pain and well, blood. I was standing next to my wife comforting and encouraging her, two-feet away from the action and I still got blood on my shorts and hands. There was blood on the floor and on the sheets over the operating equipment.

I was standing there, like a man seeing a UFO, eyes and mouth gaped when the doctor suggested the use of forceps and proceeded to access these two things that looked like cricket bats (at least to me at the time) and within seconds, he pulled out our baby  girl and dropped her on to my wife’s chest, caked in blood. The next few seconds were a mingling of panic, relief and excitement as they stuffed a tube into our girl’s mouth to get the excesss liquid out all while she screamed and cried, like she was dragged rudely to a party she did not wanted to go to. Well, she was.

And now she’s here. An autonomous being with her own personality, wants and moods. She is now a part of the tapestry of the world. Her story will be embedded into the story of the world. Her life will now become intertwined with the lives of others. There is no reversing this process. She isn’t going to be climbing back up into the womb after a week. She isn’t going to dissolve into stardust after a year. There is no return policy.

It’s done and our lives will never be the same again.

And why would we want it to be what it was before after seeing her, hearing her and smelling her? She is the most beautiful thing we’ve laid our eyes on and the mere gurgle from her causes both our hearts to feel like it wants to explode with love, joy and contentment. We want this life, not the one before anymore.

A lot is often made about the sacrifices one would have to make to raise a child. There are tons. The sleep is the first to go. The TV binges. The lazy weekend afternoon on the couch. Korean BBQ (at least for a while). But all these things just shade into the background as me and my wife cheer on each successful latch by her like we’ve won the World Cup. It’s like your life gets re-orientated and refurbished into something new. It’s in the same space, but things do not feel nor look the same anymore. And that is really very okay.

I sang her Wilco’s ‘My Darling’ on the night before she was born and I sang it to her again two nights ago, trying to put her to sleep. I teared, with joy, at the meaning of it all and how life will be from now on.

I can’t wait for each day to happen.

Go back to sleep now, my darling
I’ll try to keep the bad dreams away
Breathe now, breathe easier
And I’ll think of all the right things to say

Because we made you, my darling
With the love in each of our hearts
We were a family, my darling
Right from the start

Grow up now
Please, don’t you grow up too fast
And be sure
To make all the good times last

Because we made you, my darling
With the love in each of our hearts
We were a family, my darling
Right from the start

You fear the wrong thing baby

I was asked by my wife last night what my hope was for 2021.

I gave the usual answer with a side of ‘peace on earth, mercy mild and God and sinners reconcile’. Rather telling was that nowhere in my succinct list was there a hope for things to go back to what they were.

Buried deep in my heart, I’ve not been very eager for things to go back to what they were.

Of course I say this without any prejudice towards people who have struggled financially through this pandemic or people who have had loved ones taken by it. I have nothing but respect for you who have soldiered through 2020 under those circumstances.

It’s unfortunate that it took a ravaging pandemic for humanity to take stock of its decisions and to just stop where it was heading. My deep wish was that it was a white paper by a very smart person, a rallying call by the leaders of the world or heck, a song by Bruce Springsteen. Instead it took a pandemic.

As I sit here typing this, I just witnessed a well-dressed man trying to enter a building, without a mask, confidently walking in and gesturing to the guard that he’s just heading up a floor and he should be allowed an exception. He was subsequently pulled back and told that he needed to check-in, get his temperature taken and was asked to put on his mask just like everyone else behind him. Turns out he did not have a mask with him. He was denied entry and was told to head to a store across the road to buy one. He stepped out and just stood there for a few minutes. Occasionally shuffling around his pockets, looked back at the door, wrestled with his ego a little before walking across the road to get himself a mask.

It felt a fitting analogy to the minute good that the pandemic has had on society. For too long the agenda of humanity has been organised not by severity, but by class. And while inequality continues to exist in any civilised society driven by capitalism, there is a slight warmth that comes from having the entitled among us reined in a little. It seems almost poetic justice that it should come in the form of the one thing that levels the playing field for all of us – our impending mortality. I guess it has to be that for everyone to take notice of it. This was not a ‘poor person’s problem’. It was a disease that crept into the highest halls of society and government.

For too long we’ve been a society that ignores the plights of the marginalised, underappreciated the ones who worked unseen to keep the pillars of our lifestyles in place and rewarded the people who continue to sink us deeper into our mire. Something desperately needed to change.

Again, I stress that I am saddened that it took the lives of millions.

I guess we had gone so far into self-destruction, it required something equally devastating to stop us.

This is Austria – Day 9-11 (Vienna)

I’ve come to realise with cities, you never get a sense of how large they are unless you’re living at its fringes.

Salzburg gave us an illusion of sort on just how large it was because we were staying right at the eye of it, just a five minute walk from the Salzach river that runs through old and new Salzburg and just a very brisk 10-minute walk from Residenzplatz which you could argue is mostly where the action happens, if there is any action happening at all. So in Salzburg, it always felt like the high-interest areas were just a very walkable stroll away. This was not the case in Vienna.

There was a specific moment in Vienna, when it felt like I was trying to gorge in the streets but it was never ending and I was starting to get indigestion from trying. I had just gone on a quick two-hour sojourn to two record stores on my own. The first was memorable because it was the record store that appeared in one of my favorite movies of all-time, ‘Before Sunrise’. ALT & NEU or in its Austrian name ‘Teuchtler Schallplattenhandlung Antiquariat’ is the kind of record store that would appear to old-school vinyl romantics. Located in a basement-like structure with mosaic-tile floors, stained walls, it was not one of those clean minimalist record stores that look good in photoshoots. This was a dingy, grimy space that’s just filled wall-to-wall with records. There were records stashed underneath chairs, tables, behind doors. At one point I considered looking under the owner’s shoes to see if I had missed anything. You know a record store is worth the ground it is built on and its story worth the pages it is written on when each section of the record store gives you a feeling that toggles painfully between wanting to excitedly start digging and giving up altogether cause the task looks insurmountable. Minimalism is not a great look on a record store. Teuchtler was the kind of store that required a couple of days to dig through and I had about 45 minutes. I got there around 5-15pm and it was closing at 6. The kind lady behind the counter gave me an hour and a half to dig pass their usual closing hours. She even helped me get a few pictures, including one of me with Jesse and Celine in the background. Melt.  She also gave me a record for free (I later found out she does this for practically everybody). It’s not a great listen but a free record is not the worst free thing you can get. Potpourri is.

There was a point when I was walking from Teuchtler to my second stop Moses Records where I found myself walking rather quickly (to catch that store before it closes at 8) but the roads just seemed endless. Night was sweeping in, the air was getting more biting every minute, I was slightly underdressed for it, but yet I was sweating because I was moving at a frantic pace. Walking is always the best way to experience a city. Zipping through its large and small streets. It’s much better if you’re just walking serendipitously all over a city without much agenda but in this case I had a place to get to and I should try and get back not too late less my wife sends the polizei out to get me. Incidentally, we were staying just a door away from a polizeistation.

But even in that somewhat manic rush, with long streets to conquer and a limited timeline to do it, I found myself stopping on occasions to admire little streets, small restaurants with diners enjoying a wine outside as desk set in, low-rise apartments with intricate and tasteful architecture, etc. This is the heartbeat of a city to me. This sojourn reminded me a lot of my solo walk back in Salzburg, not just because I was alone walking the streets here as well, but also because it allowed me to take in a city in a way that made sense to me. No specific sight to see, just rows of Viennese streets with life booming unassumingly around it. I love watching people going about their daily lives in a place that’s alien to me. The little touches here and there always get me. The kind of bags they are carrying after a workday – groceries, exercise or professional, gives a glimpse of their life’s routines. The kind of clothes they wear, intricately put together to ward off the weather with boots, scarfs, jackets and gloves all working together to achieve a level of comfort for the wearer. It makes me think about how different that is for us back home, where a pair of shorts and t-shirt will serve you well all year round except when you have dress codes imposed on you (anyone that requires someone to dress formally at an open air event in this part of the world should be subjected to a firing squad and laughter after). It just feels romantically exotic to me, the idea that you have to plan your wear according to the season because at no point in my life (with the exception of vacations) did I have to consider these things on a day-to-day context. I was taking it all in during the walk and it felt, enlightening.

Vienna is a pristine city. If it was a person, it would be someone that always has his shirt tucked neatly, clean socks on at all times and not a strand of hair that’s out of place. Sure, the areas where horse carriages park can smell like the ball sack of a buffalo but for the most part the city looks like one that intends to show just show its good side. The intricate gothic-style architecture was quite gob-smacking initially but after a while, it all became rather tepid quickly. I have never been particularly intrigued with clean and sterilized cities. It’s all pleasant to walk through but where’s the soul and character? That saying Vienna has hardly committed any crime punishable by death in this regard (as opposed to say our neighbors south of us) because while I found it rather lukewarm, there is still enough to love about the city.

That saying our first hours meeting with Vienna unfolded like a B-grade movie, with the tale taking swift, jagged and unnatural turns. One hour we were stuffing ourselves through a lovely brunch and in the next couple of ones after, saw me and the wife stuck in a dramatic predicament that involved running from a mysterious man in shades, being rescued by a team of radioactive rabbits and learning that 1+1 does not equal 2 but 3. Okay not quite as dramatic but it did involve mistaken parking lots, potentially misplaced cars and horrible business process and instructions in the course of us trying to return our rental. Hardly want to go into detail about our ordeal but to the Hertz office in Vienna, we ask that you consider these things to improve your return process:

  1. Partner with a nearby parking garage to store your cars
  2. Ensure that the instructions on your window corresponds with the documents you give to customers (ie, hire a bloody copywriter, namely me)
  3. Give up on the business altogether

Oh, wait, can’t believe I breezed pass the brunch we had. We were sat under grape trees in a courtyard, on a sunny and chilly afternoon, stuffing our face with a brunch buffet spread that can only be described as more awesome than Charles Bronson’s moustache. It was the kind of spread that would drive a vegan to hang themselves in despair. From carved ham, to beef stews and roasted bone marrows, it was a fare to rival the ages. And naturally, without compulsion and not thinking about the vegans of the world, I dove in and tore through the spread with lion-like ferocity and cheetah-like speed. I was basically the closest I have ever been to being a champion of any sort. 24-mins later, I was done. It’s curious how quickly Asians blaze through their food compared to my Austrian counterparts. That, and that for them, even if it is a buffet and you can go back for food as many rounds as you would like, they mostly just take the requisite courses of starter (salads), a main (one or two meats) and dessert (in this case cakes). Unlike us who behaved like we were basically auditioning for an Olympic-level eating competition. I was basically eating for four and I was not even pregnant with one. Ah, cultures, don’t you love them?

Vienna is a city that requires you to slowly wine and dine, for it to reciprocate affection. It’s not a frantic city that assaults your senses and attempts to capture your imagination at every turn. It instead sits politely at its corner, legs crossed, smiling shyly whenever your eyes meet. It clearly is beautiful, but it would never at any point attempt to convince you of its beauty. It’s something for you to discover. The architecture is the first thing that pulls you in. Street-after-street of sophisticated and flamboyant structures that are designed to elicit a response out of you. It’s the kind of architecture that forms its own narrative, rouses your imagination and tells its own stories. But from there on, it becomes a bit of an open ended question. What is your poison? Sitting at a café on a sunny morning sipping a Melange at a café and watching genetic lottery winners walking by? Decking the halls of museums and looking at rare gem stones with names like ‘Cinnabarit’? Or perhaps your prefer walking the narrow passageways of Schönbrunn Palace, marveling at the wonder and grandeur of the Great Gallery and realizing that a Schnitzel is food that was fit for the most luxurious kings and queens? Or, or you could take a right turn at the front entrance of the Palace and visit a zoo instead? Yes, a zoo.

Tiergarten Schönbrunn, which translates to ‘Schönbrunn animal garden’ is a zoo located on the very grounds of the palace. It was founded as an imperial menagerie in 1752. What do the rich and powerful do when they have all the money and resource in the world? Well, they start a zoo of course. It was a tough sell for my wife to hit a zoo while in Vienna but I sold it by telling her it is considered one of the best in the world. My wife, being the kind of person that orders the items on a menu with a ‘chef’s recommendation’ icon next to them, bit. Zoos arouse a conundrum for me. The idea that these animals, designed and made to enjoy the large wild world, are put into an enclosed space, does bother me on some level. That saying, this zoo does its best in its efforts towards species preservation and ensuring that the animals’ stays are as comfortable as possible. The rhino enclosure was 2/3 the size of a football field and the polar bear’s sanctuary had enough land and water space for it to feel as free as possible. The polar bear was quite clearly the star of the zoo, with a special museum built under its enclosure that offers a lot of history information on the work that has been done with the polar bears by the zoo. People stood on the observation deck and waited for the star to appear but he was having none of it. That is until they lowered a basket of fish to lure it out. There is a certain perplexity with observing a polar bear in the flesh. It moves and behaves quite cuddly. Like a friendly uncle with a beer gut you could just walk up to and hug. But we all know that is not a good idea.

Zoos are funny things. It’s not one of those things you feel you want to do every month. In fact, the last time I stepped into one may have been more than 30-years ago. I am not sure why we feel this way. But yet, when I was there at Tiergarten Schönbrunn, I enjoyed myself immensely, scurrying from cage to cage to catch a glimpse of these wondrous beasts. It may be a while before I feel the need to go to a zoo again. There is an order of interest when it comes to choosing which section to visit first at a zoo. And in many ways, it is designed to appeal to the child in us. For me, they are plotted against a four box with the axis’ being ‘Size’ and ‘Danger’. I mean if you’re rushing into a zoo just to look at a racoon, then perhaps you should stay outside and have a Schnitzel instead. A lion on the other hand, would sit right at the top of that graph, and the one at this zoo certainly did not disappoint. Granted it sat at the top of structure and let out a few yawns but for a few seconds, it stared intently at our direction and my small toe curled for a second.

Our days in Vienna zipped by rather quickly, swallowed whole by the size and magnitude of the city. I remember remonstrating to the wife after the first day that we’ve hardly seen anything and a day was gone. But in hindsight I realise that this was in a way inevitable. Vienna is not one of those cities you can shuffle from sight-to-sight and feel like you’ve seen enough of it. It’s a city that requires time to appreciate, the kind of time that most vacationers won’t have. The people who truly enjoy the beauty and wonder of Vienna to its fullest are probably the people who make her every day. The office worker who takes the tram every weekday morning so he can get to his desk by 9 or the lady at the market selling fresh baked pastries, who rise before the sun to ensure people have something to eat when they feel like eating something. These are the people who enjoy Vienna the way Vienna should be enjoyed. And of them, I am of course envious but at the same time resigned with peace that at least I got to see a cheetah up close. How many people can say they have?

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 …