Thursday, 24 April 2014

Beers, Bitterballen, And Meeting Another 'Jenever' In Amsterdam...

Let's face it- even if you have never been to Amsterdam, you feel like you have been already. You can picture the infamous Red Light district and smell the countless coffee shops. Yes, both of these are a unique and exciting part of Amsterdam- but somehow it's never quite emphasised just how quaint and beautiful the city itself is.

I should probably backtrack and give all this a little context! With four days off over Easter weekend, we decided to head to a city we've both been talking about for a little while. With a flight time of around 35 minutes from posh, built-for-businessmen London City Airport to Amsterdam Schipol, we felt like we were there in no time at all!

Now, I know everyone knows that Amsterdam has a lot of canals, but I feel this point needs to be reiterated somewhat. Amsterdam has a LOT of canals- if you are not walking one block away from a canal, you have probably somehow wandered out of the city. Somehow, even though we were a little disorganised with our accommodation, we ended up in a canal house on Herengracht- on the top floor. These canal houses- ours included- look like they haven't aged in around 100 years. Narrow, pastel coloured buildings, with kooky roof shapes...and the hidden danger of the stairs within. Not only are those stairs steep, but the ceilings above are low- considering the Dutch people are know for their tall height, this is quite a surprising architectural decision. Our particular stairs had a silver handle on the way down, otherwise you would probably end up sliding down the stairs as you tried to limbo under the low ceilings.

 

Hotel Hegra is definitely a great place to stay location wise- 10 minutes from the main station, Amsterdam Centraal (only 15 minutes to the airport! Amazing!), 10 minutes to Anne Frank's house (more on that later), and 10 minutes to the one and only Red Light District. As soon as we entered our hotel, we were told a strict rule about the latter: 'No photographs. I tried when I was a tourist...the polict chased after me'. Of course, this was enough to deter us, hence the lack of photos...but I will certainly describe it.

Patrick and I were relaxing in the pub 'De Berkeede Suster', drinking home-brewed wheat beer (quite popular in Amsterdam, it would seem), and enjoying bitterballen (round beef croquettes), when we had our first experience with the Amsterdam Red Light world. There was a commotion outside; we're still not sure exactly what went on, but it ended with lots of men being handcuffed and led into a police van, two sheepish looking 'Red Light' ladies, and the pub next door being closed at 6pm in the evening. As we left our pub and walked down a little side-street, we suddenly realised- you can be in the Red Light District, and not even realise it! It soon becomes clear, obviously, when you are surrounding by ladies behind windows in ever y direction- some beckoning, some opening and closing their door temptingly...and some texting.  Once we turned on the main strip, the atmosphere was something else. There was an air about the place that everybody knew they shouldn't be looking, but that anything was allowed that night.

Bitterballen




You can't talk about Amsterdam without talking about the bikes. It's true what they say- everybody rides a bike here. I would agree that Amsterdam is a 'bike-friendly' city- but this also makes it a little scary for pedestrians. Crossing the street was no minor feat- with trams, cars, buses, bikes and fellow pedestrians to contend with, you really have to have more self-awareness about you than I usually do when crossing a road. As a Londoner, we tend to take pedestrian crossing signals with a pinch of salt- but in Amsterdam, you really do need to wait until all possible modes of transport have crossed your path! In case you are wondering, we did not rent bikes while we were there- this is probably down to me, as I am a nervous bike rider at the best of times, and we saw several bike crashes on our first day there.






Ossenworst!

We really were lucky enough to have gorgeous whether while we were there- the perfect weather to sit by the river, with the sun sparkling off its surface, and enjoy a wide selection of Dutch beers, deep fried cheese straws, and ossenworst (raw minced sausage). A few more unexpected food discoveries here as well- everyone loves eating fries in a cone paper cup, Indonesian food is popular here, pancakes are also pretty damn tasty here, and croissants with any mild, delicious Dutch cheese is actually the best way to start your day. We visited a few cheese factories, and its fair to say that the Dutch, whether its Edam, Emmental or Gouda, know how to make a cheese to please the masses.




Immense pancakes- ham and cheese on my side, apple and bacon with maple syrup for Patrick (ever the Canadian!)




Indonesian feast!





As we're on the topic of food and drink, let me quickly discuss the Amsterdam liquor that we tried- jenever. My pronunciation of it was not quite correct- as one barman told me, it is 'jeneVER, not like the girl's name.' Funny I should try to pronounce it like that (!). On a mid-afternoon where the wheat beer and hot weather were making us a tad sleepy, jenever was the perfect pick-me-up (as well as an escape from the crazy carnival atmosphere of  Dam Square). A juniper-based drink, the tulip-shaped glass is filled with jenever to the brim; the only way to avoid spillage is to place the drink on the bar, bend over and slurp it up. It's definitely an acquired taste, but there are many varieties to choose from- bitter, sweet, whatever flavour you would like. No city visit is complete without trying at least one random local liquor!



De Drie Fleschjes- The Three Brothers pub, just off Dam Square







The Anne Frank House- a part of Amsterdam that you literally cannot miss, as it is right in the middle of the city. You can see it coming a mile off as well, with the two-hour queue outside. We chose to go on the rainy day- good decision for the museum itself, bad choice for the queuing. Thanks to a generous bystander with her umbrella, and my Kindle version of Anne Frank's Diary, the queue actually went pretty quickly. I know this is a crazy thing to say, but I wish Anne could see the amount of people inspired by her story; every day we were there, the queue just never died down. The house itself was haunting- all the rooms were empty, with photos of what they would have looked like in the war years. This was Otto Frank's decision, to reflect the emptiness left in many people's lives after the Holocaust. After reading Anne's diary in the queue, it was great to see the rooms that became her life for two whole years. For me, the most moving part was at the end, when her diary was there on show- it just brought it home, more so than ever, that this girl really lived this story she told, and that she was so dedicated to her writing. It was so humbling to be in this house, and to hear the quarter hour bells that rang, just as Anne described them...we were all witnessing a part of history, as well as an important reason to prevent such cruelty in the future.





I've rambled on a fair bit about Amsterdam, but I'll finish on what I think makes Amsterdam so special. It's not the Red Light District- not directly, anyway. It's not the bikes. It's not the canals, the kooky canal houses, the jenever. It's the idea behind them all- that unique Amsterdam psyche, whereby the simple pleasures in life rule over modern technology. Don't be fooled. Holland's capital city is certainly keeping the pace with the mod-cons of everyday life- but its main beauty is not caring what anybody else in the world comes thinks. It may not be a typical capital city in many respects, but it doesn't care- it's simple and it has its own rules. You'll leave Amsterdam having breathed in that attitude- and that is almost as beautiful as the city itself.


Monday, 24 March 2014

Guinness, Temple Bar, and Other Dublin Cliches...

I've been meaning to go to Dublin for the past, I don't know, 10 years...but somehow have always headed somewhere else instead. Well, no more, I told myself at the end of last year...and what better time to go, than combining a certain somebody's birthday, and St. Paddy's Day? 

It was certainly an enlightening week. Here are just a few of the things I learned in those four days.

- Dublin is quite a small city. Always a pleasant shock for a Londoner when you can walk everywhere downtown. Moving on from one obvious fact to the next...

- Temple Bar wasn't just a really, really popular bar...but an actual STREET. Who knew? Everyone but us, apparently, as we wandered down Temple Bar, looking for Temple Bar, and ending up in a sticky-floored crazy place filled with over-excited Americans. And as for St. Paddy's Day...absolutely mental. Floppy green hats everywhere (including on my head), people singing and dancing on the street...your average St. Paddy's Day, really, but on an amplified scale.



- Bruxelle's on Harry Street does literally the best breakfast in Dublin. We only went in there for a pastry or something- and got SO much more. It was simple- over-easy egg, sausage, bacon, toast. Coffees the first time we went, and- because we were hardened Dubliners by then- Guinnesses the next. I don't know what made is so special, but I'd highly recommend it. It would have made a great hangover cure after Patrick's birthday, had we not opted for room service.

- Palace Bar is full of very interesting characters. This was probably one of our favourite pubs- great natural lighting from the skylight, pictures on the wall denoting its history, and- to top it all off- its own whiskey. We revisited on St Paddy's Day, and met a very interesting Englishman- a self confessed 'idiot' who showed us his checklist of 30 must-visit Dublin pubs. He claimed he was halfway through the list; I reckon he was a little further on, considering he wandered into the lady's toilets, and promised us a dance later in the evening. Shame we didn't stay to see that dance!

- There are quite a few Irish beers beyond Guinness, as we discovered at the Irish Craft Beer and Cider Festival. Some of the more eye-catching brand included the charmingly named Galway Hooker (a reference to fishing, I'm sure), Metalman (for the harder man), Trouble Brewing (well, at least they're honest) and White Gypsy.

- All the signs in Dublin are written in Irish and English. Just a small thing, but something I wasn't really expecting, for some reason. Something everyone else probably already knew, just like the 'Temple-bar-is-a-street-not-just-a-bar' fact.

- Ireland are quite good at rugby. Heading to O Neills' pub to watch the Ireland vs. Italy rugby match- pretty important game, apparently. As Irishmen and women hollered at the screen, I tucked into a delicious shepherds' pie topped with a pig-in-blanket...awesome. At the beginning, I wanted Ireland to win so there would be a good atmosphere- then changed my mind halfway when I realised I was English, and that my home country would win if Ireland lost. I only cheered a little bit when Italy got close to winning- I did value my life, after all. Saying all that, I'm glad Ireland won in the end- it was far more pleasant having happy, singing Irishmen around us.

- There's good seafood to be had in Dublin. The seafood tower we had at SMS, a random fish restaurant that serves fish-and-chips out the back, but quite fancy fish dishes (wine only. darling) at the front. I took the waiter's recommendation of the roasted beets, and was very glad I did...mmm mmm MMM! 

- The Guinness factory...is filled with every tourist in Dublin. Here comes the obligatory mention of Dublin's number 1 attraction, as voted on Trip Advisor. Don't get me wrong, it was great- the steak and Guinness stew there was particularly good- but it was a little bit of a conveyor-belt, shuffling along and catching glimpses of information before feeling guilt-tripped into moving on. We did choose to go the day before St. Paddy's Day, so it was our own fault, I suppose. Tip for those planning to go- do NOT join the big queue on the left. Buy your tickets online, and you can pretty much skip all the crowds...it's a pretty neat trick! Patrick got quite a fetching jersey to take away, as well.

- Jameson and Ginger is a great alternative when you've had enough Guinness...as discovered at Temple Bar's 'The Auld Dubliner'. Staying out later than we had in a long time (we're getting older now), singing along to the live music at the Auld Dubliner. I seem to remember getting very excited when U2 came on- U2 was pretty much the soundtrack of the whole trip.

- Howth is a charming little seaside town close to Dublin, only around 30 minutes away by train. A nice getaway when you're becoming too much of a regular in your favourite Dublin boozers.

- Guinness is quite delicious. Enough said.

You see? It wasn't all about the drinking and partying...we learned things too! Mostly about drinking, but still. I'm glad we got to see the Paddy's Day madness, but I'm quite keen to see a quieter side of Dublin too...although something tells me that may not exist.

Next adventure for us- Amsterdam!

Friday, 7 March 2014

A Little Indulgent Reflection...

If you'll excuse me everybody, I am just going to allow myself a little self-indulgent reflection on the last five years. Deep, I know- but I have to do it sometimes, or I'm worried that a lot of memories will get lost. I know I'll always have this faithful blog to remind me of the good times, but still...sometimes you need to see it written out in front of you.

Five years ago...I was bookselling at Waterstones, saving for my first big trip to Australia.




Four years ago...I was waitressing in Melbourne, saving for my first big trip to Asia.




Three years ago...I was riding on the back of a motorbike in Vietnam.





Two years ago...I was teaching primary school children in Fiji.




One year ago...I was about to start a new career entirely as a travel agent with Flight Centre.

....and here I am now.

When I look at the black-and-white facts in front of me, it's clear to me that this is not what I expected five years ago. Any 'five-year-plans' I had made were blown out of the water after meeting Patrick, and staying in Australia a while.

Just because I've become less of a 'planner' about my everyday life, it doesn't mean that I have lost sight of my ultimate plan. That goal of mine- to get novel/poems of mine published- is still such a burning desire, and actually burns brighter every day. This has been my dream since I was five years old- cheesy, but true. I will get there- I have to get there- I just need to be patient and persistent. Oh, and I actually need to write some more.

I guess what I'm trying to say- to myself, as much as everybody else- is that aiming for dreams is good (make sure the Dream Snatcher does not take them away), but also plans should be flexible. Life is about two things- being happy, and being challenged everyday. Often these things go hand in hand, but it is important to remember that this is what life should be about. We should never feel like we are in a rut, going along just because we feel like we have to. We need to do exactly what we want to do (without hurting anybody along the way, of course)- or at least start on the path of doing so, if we can't get there yet. See the positive side in every 'obstacle' in your life- you may see it as a stepping stone in five years time.

Right, that's enough deep thought for me. Time for a cider on this sunny Friday afternoon!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

My Love-Hate Relationship With London

I must confess, as a Londoner born and bred (well, sort of), I tend to have a love-hate relationship with my home city. Some days when I commuted, when I looked around at all the depressed faces on a Monday morning, getting tetchy about jumping the queues for the tube or stopping for a second on the escalator, London pressed down on me and brought any other worries bubbling to the fore.

I've always battled with trying not to let this taint my love for everything that London offers. Opportunities, history, music, theatre, art, shopping, sports, markets- just pure, unadulterated VARIETY. I truly believe that you can never be bored in London. Granted, with little money your options are limited- but there are still dozens of activities to keep you occupied, if you are open to a little 'wandering'. 

On that note, I have realised that I am happiest in London when I am simply wandering around (or running), and simply soaking up its ambience. The best way to see this is to pretend you are a tourist...to keep seeing London through fresh eyes.

I want to celebrate the five best things about our new part of London- Southwark. This area was never really on our radar, and I was worried it was going to be a bit too 'corporate' and soulless...but that could not be further from the truth!

  1. THE OLD VIC (AND YOUNG VIC)- On an eventless Saturday night, a partially inebriated Patrick and I decided to go and see a play at one of London's oldest and most famous theatres. With 1 minute before the performance was due to begin, we also managed to get half price stall seats! We went to see an updated version of 'Fortune's Fool', a Russian play written in 1848 by the Russian playwright Turgenev. In the first half of this play, we are introduced to a newly wed aristocratic couple who return to the wife's inherited country estate, and learn of an old gentleman who has lived there for 30 years. After a shocking ending to the first half, the second half sees a more touching ambience, as all the characters try to cope with the unexpected news they have just heard- as well as cope with the odious next-door-neighbour. A great impromptu evening, and a lovely theatre!
  2. THE RING- When we wandered in here, we just thought this was a cool local pub with American feel about it. All the boxing photos around just seemed to be a nice touch; it was only when we read up about it that we realised the birth place of modern boxing was in the site opposite, where Southwark underground station now stands. As well as pretty unique history, this pub probably does some of the best hot dogs in town- and some pretty decent nacho's too (even Patrick thinks so!)
  3. MESON DON FELIPE-  a great tapas restaurant that looks very understated from the outside, but is bustling almost every day of the week inside
  4. MAD HATTER HOTEL- Ever since Patrick sampled a steak-and-guinness pie in Melbourne, he has beem finding for a similarly-perfect meat pie here- and sadly has not found any that compared. The pub attached to this hotel- which actually feels more like a hotel attached to a pub, with the well-established feel of the drinking joint- always seems quieter than the other pubs around, so is a great place to retreat after a long and stressful day!
  5. BLACKFRIARS WINE BAR- Situated under one of the bridge archways, this is not your average pretentious city bar; it is locally owned, and does great pizzas and nachos!
We've only been here a few weeks, so hopefully there is much more to discover. We may have seen an ugly side to this city this week, with the miserable weather and tube strikes- but I am determined to keep feeling the love for London.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

REVIEW- GONE GIRL by Gillian Flynn




So, as normal, I am a little late on the bandwagon...Gone Girl was the top-selling paperback while I was working for Waterstones back in 2012. With this one, I had heard such wildly mixed reviews, from 'I hated the book so much that I threw it across the room in disgust' to 'You won't be able to put it down!', that I just had to get my own opinion on this psychological thriller.

Nick and Amy, a beautiful all-American couple, are getting ready to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary. However, it all goes horribly wrong when Nick arrives home to find his wife missing. As the police delve deeper into the case, and the reader also gets access to Amy's detailed diary, it seems not all was right with this seemingly idyllic marriage. As a result, Nick soon turns from being the pitied husband to main suspect. We follow him as he is quickly swept into a whirlwind of accusation, desperately trying to claw himself out and prove his innocence.

Here I would like to open a debate- can you enjoy a book if you do not like either of the protagonists? I always assumed not- how can you invest personal interest if you do not care about what happens to them? However, Flynn has changed my mind- neither Nick nor Amy are likeable, but they are both hugely charismatic. They were not characters that solely lived and breathed on the pages; they seemed to have lingering thoughts and secrets way beyond this story.

For me, the last line of a book can make or break a book; the final impression is everything. Flynn did not disappoint with the last chapter here- chillingly unexpected. After finishing, I joined online debates about the ending- opinion seemed very mixed, and my own thoughts actually evolved upon reflection. I love endings that linger in my mind, as I wonder how else it could have ended, ultimately understanding that the author's chosen ending is more brilliant than any normal, anticipated finale.

Psychological thrillers are not usually my thing- but this one was cleverly written, without being too obvious about it. Halfway through, I thought I had the story all wrapped up...how wrong could I have been?

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

The Adventures of Sophie And Mr. Cheval


Inspired by and dedicated to Sophie Martz

One day, Sophie Marie's best pal,
The purple horse Mr. Cheval,
Came up to Sophie feeling glum-
'What's the matter, my old chum?'
Said Sophie- poor Mr Cheval sighed,
Opened his mouth- and then he cried.
This confused Sophie Marie-
'Mr. Cheval, what can it be?'
Her friend opened his mouth once more,
Pointed to it, then cried like before.
'Mr Cheval, have you lost your 'neigh'?
Oh- if you had, you wouldn't say!'
Mr. Cheval quickly shook his head,
Tried to 'neigh'- a BAAAA came out instead!
'Oh NO!' said Sophie, 'just like a sheep!
Just like the ones that help me sleep!
Poor Mr. Cheval, what can we do?
Just WHO can help a horse like you?'
Her purple friend made no reply
And looked again like he may cry
Before Sophie said 'I have an idea!
I have a friend who's very dear-
The wisest bird I've ever known-
I wonder to which tree he's flown?'
Can YOU guess, just WHO, just WHO-
Young Sophie took Mr. Cheval to?
That's right! The wise Mr Hibou,
An owl who loved 'Peekaboo'-
Though he was smart and funny and kind
He was always so hard to find!
But Sophie knew that Mr Hibou
Would at least have the SLIGHTEST clue
What happened to Mr. Cheval's neigh
And help him find it in some way!
'I think I know where he may be,
Mr Cheval, please come with me!'
So off they went to Arbre Wood-
Luckily, Sophie was quite good
At playing the game 'Peekaboo!'
As soon as they heard 'WHO WHO, WHO WHO',
They knew Mr. Hibou was near
'Is that my friend SOPHIE I hear?'
Mr. Hibou came swooping down
And landed right on Sophie's crown.
'There you are, Mr. Hibou,
Oh, we are very glad to see you!
We found out earlier on today
That Mr. Cheval has lost his neigh
And now BAAAS like a sheep- but why?'
Mr. Cheval began to cry
'Poor purple horse!' said Mr. Hibou
'This is so strange- at half past two
Mr. Mouton came to visit me,
The sheep was as sad as could be
When I asked 'Why are you sad today?'
He opened his mouth and replied 'NEEEEIGH!
It seems you each have the other's voice-
That leaves us with no other choice
We must go to Mr Mouton right now
And swap back- though I'm not sure how!'
'Let's go!' said Sophie, 'It's getting late
And Maman serves dinner at eight!'
So the owl, the horse and Sophie Marie
Walked (and flew) for a field or three,
Sophie cried Mr. Mouton's name,
But all these sheep looked just  the same-
Then, Sophie Marie heard a NEEEEEIGH
As a black sheep came their way!
'Mr Mouton!' said Mr. Hibou,
'This horse must swap voices with you-
Though we're not too sure how, of course...'
'Neeigh?' said the sheep, 'Baaa!' said the horse.
Mr Hibou said, 'It's not quite clear...'
Sophie said 'I have an idea!
Let each one sing their own song,
Mr. Hibou, let's sing along!
Let's start with Mr. Mouton's ditty-
'Baa Baa Black Sheep'- it's very pretty!
Mr. Cheval, wait for the next tune
Or you'll be BAAA-ing until next June!'
So Sophie, the sheep and Mr. Sibou
Sang the song- you can sing too!

'Baa Baa Black Sheep,
Have you any wool?
Yes sir, yes sir,
Three bags full,
One for the master
One for the dame,
And one for the little boy
Who lives down the lane!'

Now, Mr Cheval, it's time for you,
I know the song that we should do-
Old Macdonald is a great song-
Let's sing it now (pssst, sing along!)

'Old Macdonald had a farm,
E-i-e-i-o,
And on that farm he had a horse
E-i-e-i-o,
With a NEIGH NEIGH here
And a NEIGH NEIGH there,
Here a NEIGH,
There a NEIGH,
Everywhere a NEIGH NEIGH,
Old Macdonald had a farm,
E-i-e-i-o!'

Once each animal had sung their song,
They waited…and it was not long
Before Mr. Cheval gave a great 'NEEEIGH'
And Mr Mouton's 'BAAAd'- hooray!
'Well done, Sophie!' said Mr Hibou,
'What would have down without you?'
'We're a team, Mr Hibou!
Time for a game of 'Peekaboo!'
So, the four of them played all day-
Mr. Cheval was so happy to 'neigh',
They'd made a new friend in Mr. Mouton-
It just shows how much is fixed by song.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

My 2014, As Spoken by Stephen Fry...

My New Year's Resolution this year is going to be...to not set resolutions. Sound crazy? I'll let the ever-inspirational and wise Stephen Fry explain.

Stephen Fry: What I Wish I Had Known When I Was 18.


Let's see how a plan-aholic such as myself can cope with this. I'm already itching to write a list of goals...