Sunday 16 September 2012

Where do we go, really?

There are people who come back from a long weekend in, for example, Madrid, and say, "We've done Madrid."

Really? How? Oh, that museum and that famous tapas place and coffee in that square and that park and that fountain and that palace. No, you haven't done Madrid. You haven't tried to pay your phone bill in Madrid. You haven't protested there. You haven't wondered how you're going to get back with all those bags from the supermarket. You haven't got on a bus and realised you don't have enough fare. You haven't read the local paper from cover to cover. You haven't looked churlishly at someone because they come from a certain neighbourhood in the city. You have visited. You've had the pleasure of stopping by.

Because that's inevitably what we have to do when we travel. Glimpses and mouthfuls, dances and strolls. One croissant, one ruin, one hike, one painting, one smell, one song, one bite, one look. We want everything, instantly, all of the time, it's so easy to live without smelling the flowers when we travel. Then again, that's why it's called travelling places and not living in them. You've got to grasp as much as you can. You've never "done it".

That's why books written by brilliant writers are so fabulous. You can travel to places and live there, side by side with the inhabitants. You smell their smells, you breathe their air. The rusting cars, the torrential rain, the annoying neighbours, the slow post, the trees that grow by rules of their own: they are all yours as well. You wander their dusty streets, you taste their golden chickens, you are afraid of their brutal policemen, you sleep with their smell of jasmine.

Right now, I am travelling in Columbia with doctors and photographers and women with broken hearts in García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. It is a place you read about and feel on your skin. I was there the moment early in the book that I read this:

In summer an invisible dust as harsh as red-hot chalk was blown into even the best protected corners of the imagination by mad winds that took the roofs off the houses and carried away children through the air.

Who wouldn't want to live in a place like this? Who wouldn't want their imagination opened by that dust and watch children flying past as their window as they make lemonade? It's a place where the tinkling of the piano reaches your ears between the turning of the pages; a place where in your own siesta you dream of swimming in its rain. There is time for you to be awakened by sadness too.

I would like to stumble sweaty out of an Egyptian pyramid, to pull faces at the pong of geysers in Iceland, to drink tea listening to the quarks of parrots in Costa Rica and to follow a shark-shaped shadow under the waters around Australia. Maybe one day I will do those things and maybe I won't. But I am comforted by the fact that someone who loves words, somewhere, has written about those places and I can live there too by opening their book.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

A Window on Venice

The American author and poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox wrote: "Let there be many windows to your soul, that all the glory of the world may beautify it."

I am reminded of this when I think about my little photography project while I was in Venice: its windows. They did so much to beautify and personalise the city. Each street of this magical city is a new world. Houses, hotels, cafes, shops, gondola yards and stacked together in a colourful rugby scrum, all different characters in a beautiful play. I became interested in their different windows; their shapes and colours, sizes and beauty, flowers and materials. Just like people, it seemed, they told their own interesting stories of the worlds on both sides of the glass.

Looking in or looking it out, no view is ever the same. It's good to remember that.

Here is my photo set of A Window on Venice.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Restaurant review

I love reading restaurant reviews. I always wonder how you get that job. You have to able to write, but what gives anyone the right to say what tastes good or not? One man's caviar is another man's gruel.

Anyway, I've decided to give it a go, so read on for my review of The Turfcutters Arms, East Boldre, Hampshire.

A Meaty Cut Above

On entering a drinking and eating den, it's never pleasing to see empty tables. However, on closer inspection, it is perfectly fine when you realise they are all pre-booked and those patrons are just a couple of minutes behind you from piling in. The Turfcutters Arms sits on the main road in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it village in the heart of the New Forest, Hampshire. It is a traditional English pub covered in black and white photos of the area, old tankards and lamps, fishing rods, antlers and, while on September 2nd there was no need for a roaring fire, the warmth of the locals' laughter was the perfect welcome.

Being Sunday lunchtime, the specials board was packed with roasts. Just what was needed on a wet afternoon. Boring I know, but M and I were both after some meat and two veg. I also fancied some soup and today's homemade bubbling pot was tomato so I ordered that to start.

A generous helping was delivered and I had to remind myself we were in the country. No London thimble portions here. Great. The soup wasn't smooth which made me happy - I am always suspicious of soups smooth as you get from a tin. It came already topped with black pepper and basil. The tomato was flavoured with garlic, which I love and it wasn't too oily. I like my soup to stick around the chunks of bread I dip in it and hold on. The bread wasn't homemade, but it was warm, which brought another "Ahh" from my lips.

Then came the roast dinners. M ordered roast pork and I chose roast beef. M being Argentine and me having lived there for some years, we are both used to great slabs of meat on our plate. This was heaven. Though why they served it in a swimming pool of gravy on the plate I have no idea. The gravy needs to go last, and just like soup, not be so liquidy. Maybe I should have asked for it on the side, but seriously, who plates up a roast starting with the gravy?

The pork was pale; it looked too pale until I tried its tenderness which melted in my mouth. It was a pig explosion, so subtle only I could hear it. My beef was also excellent, cut into a huge round chunk and pink in the middle. It tasted of meat, which isn't a strange description when you consider some of the meat you can pick up in the supermarket these days.

The wonder of the meat meant the vegetables were a measly side show unfortunately and nothing to write home about. The crackling was perfect, though as always, there wasn't enough. The potatoes were not cripsy enough for my liking, but this could have been due to the swimming pool gravy effect they'd been put through by the time I got to them. All this aside, however, we polished off the lot and sat back, contented and bellies full.

The Turfcutters Arms is not trying to be anything other than it is; a traditional country English pub. It's a warm, relaxing space with friendly staff; it is not over stylised nor does it try too hard and it keeps its menu in the realm of good pub grub. The food is well cooked, fancy free and the meat provider is obviously excellent.

Just put the gravy on the side.

You can find out more about the Turfcutters Arms here: