Tuesday, 28 March 2017

December 2016 Rundown

As the temperature grew ever colder, we continued to cosy up with wonderful pets and delicious food.
We returned to Crouch End to look after Freddie, whose medication had been increased. Some days it was a real struggle to ensure he swallowed each and every pill, and some days it was inexplicably easy. Though I dreaded feeding times, he was such a cool cucumber and liked to chill with me on the bed or sofa.

Just down the road from where we were staying, I discovered a magical land called Beanstalk Natural. At first glance it appeared to be like any other health food store, but looks can be deceiving. I got to chatting with the owner and after finding out I was vegan, she plied me with free cups of her vegetable soups and slices of her cakes on multiple occasions. If that wasn't reason enough to come back again and again, she also kept bananas in stock after they had gone spotty, which was amazing! I could not find ripe bananas in any market, super or otherwise, and was sick of having to leave them for a week on the counter until they were sweet enough.

Taking advantage of this banana availability, I made plenty of nice creams (frozen bananas blended up to make soft serve-textured dessert), smoothies, and even simply frozen bananas with fruit sauce. As well as bananas, I upped my dessert game by utilising speculoos biscuits, Choc Shot sauce, cinnamon and a lot of ice cream.

As I enjoyed the surrounding area, I would go on daily walks. Above can be seen Alexandra Palace, which was a hideous building. I didn't even get a good view because on the day I walked up there, the world was shrouded in mist.

Another nice walk I took was through Highgate Wood, which is not terribly wooded. There are trees, sure, but the English have funny ideas about words like "forest" and "wood". They use them to mean something closer to "a park with some trees in". (To their credit, it could have been a wood historically and the name has stuck around.)

One evening I headed from Crouch End to downtown London, and on the way I experienced an exceptionally affluent suburb: Hampstead. The roads were exclusively reserved for mansions with tall gates and fountains out the front. I felt so out of place that I thought someone might call the cops, assuming that a person such as myself, dressed in jeans and getting around on foot, was preparing to rob them. I spotted a wallpapering van parked outside one mansion that advertised services including "metal leaf" and "hand painted Chinese and Japanese silk". The township of Hampstead was beautifully decorated with Christmas lights and trees, and many of the boutique shops had gone all out with the winter ornaments as well (and I'm not talking about snow from a spray can applied to windows).

Having spent an inordinate amount of time on walking and cooking, I wasn't very social in December. However, one day I met up with an acquaintance at Wild Food Café for lunch. I met her randomly at a party of a mutual London friend and found out that we had two other mutual friends in New Zealand. Small world. Wild Food became one of my favourite lunch spots because of its delicious menu (happily 100% vegan). I could never pass up the sweet potato fries with paprika cashew cream, and would get them as a side on every visit. I rarely ordered drinks or dessert, because eating out in London is so expensive, but I did occasionally splurge and on that day I savoured the raw pumpkin pie. 

Having scored a house sit over Christmas that would last almost a month, we moved into the southern village of Whyteleafe on the second Sunday of December. Our wards were two fluffy chinchillas: ZaZa and Gia (grey and white respectively). The house itself was still in the process of being renovated, so some of the flooring wasn't installed and we didn't have a functioning stove for the first week, but it was a comfortable place with a view of the misty valley below. Chinchillas are nocturnal rodents from South America, so they would sleep during the day and scamper around in the evening while I cooked dinner and watched movies.

The slippers I had previously owned had become too foot-stanky to wear, so I went shopping at a nearby Tesco for a replacement pair. While there I found a cute children's hat, but didn't buy it because I already had a lovely warm head covering from Berlin. The slippers I purchased were badger-themed and I named them Bhindi and Bhaji (bhindi bhaji is okra curry - so yummy).

I continued to go for long walks while in Whyteleafe, though many streets I found to be not so pedestrian-friendly. Sometimes I would be walking along to find that the footpath ended and I would have to cross the street, only to discover that ten minutes later the footpath disappeared on that side as well. Walking in the road isn't fun and could be dangerous, so after my first week or so of intrepid exploring, I stuck to routes I knew to have proper footpaths. I also found that on most days, Whyteleafe existed inside a cloud. Whether this was because of the time of year, the fact that we were next to a valley or it was a chance occurrence I'll never know.

Once the stove had been set up, I continued to enjoy macrobiotic meals for their freshness and simplicity. For the first few days I had to make due with microwaving beans, potatoes and frozen vegetables, and I became rather tired of peas. It's funny how much we take things like stoves and ovens for granted (and refrigerators too - I can't imagine living without a fridge).

Normally at Christmastime, we visit Yannick's family and have a lovely couple of weeks of eating and merriment. This year, however, we were in a different country away from our families and even from our friends as the train ride into London took over an hour. Instead of making big plans, we kept the holidays pretty quiet, but still indulged in many good meals and sweet treats. Not only did we partake in the French cider I had brought back from my Paris trip, but we also had several bottles of Prosecco, and cracked open a bottle of Veuve Cliquot for New Year's Eve. I had stashed a few blocks of chocolate, as well as some cookies and Nakd bars. Yannick brought home two little vegan Christmas cupcakes from a bakery in Soho one evening, and I gave myself a few new Crazy Rumours chapsticks as Christmas gifts (I have a bit of an addiction to them). Though our holiday season was super low-key, it was our kind of low-key and with all the awesome food and drink, as well as Yannick having two weeks off work and a day trip to Brighton, we had a wonderful time.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Brighton day trip: Siren Song of the Seaside Slot Machine

Brighton, United Kingdom
29 December 2016
While staying in Anerley, we seized the opportunity to make a day trip out to Brighton - a popular seaside destination for Londoners. As Anerley is in the south, we could catch the train from East Croydon rather than having to go all the way to Victoria Station, saving us a little time and effort. The train ride was uneventful, and the view out the window was frankly uninteresting, so we'll skip to the good bits.
Upon our arrival to Brighton station, we followed the main road, admiring some of the buildings along the way. In contrast to attractive architecture, we briefly popped into a gaudy arcade filled with flashing lights and a variety of machines, including slot, claw, and coin. As it was still morning, there weren't many gamblers in operation apart from a couple of frumpy women in their sixties clutching paper cups full of two pence coins, shuffling around the floor dropping change mechanically in each available opening. It was an off-putting sight.

Having resided inland for the last five months (since visiting Greece), we were keen to see the seaside and bounded over to Brighton Pier for a gander. We didn't go for a swim, however, because as nice as that may have been in summertime, December meant that the temperature of the air was disagreeable and logic follows that the water would have been much worse.

We walked to the end of the pier and back, finding that a large section of it contained yet another coin arcade for low-level gamblers. (We sacrificed a 2p coin just to have the privilege to say that we gambled in Brighton!) Was this city attempting to become the Vegas of the United Kingdom? It sure seemed like it! Also along the way were a series of crappy-looking food stalls all selling either waffles or rock candy or churros or crêpes or hot dogs or candy floss. At the very end were a few amusement park rides, but without many patrons it felt quite depressing (there were only two people in the dodgem cars and they were pretty good at dodging each other - probably because they were going so slowly).

Though the efforts to pander to tourists with plenty of coins and a wish to bump into each other is obvious, I enjoyed the old-world style that shone through in the details of the city: fencing, lamp posts, bus shelters. I was glad that we had visited at a time when the place wasn't awash with those on holiday, as I felt able to take in the atmosphere without too much interfering noise and light.

Going further downtown, we meandered through The Lanes, which are a collection of narrow alleyways chock full of tiny boutiques. In one particular lane, there was an abundance of jewellery stores - so many that it seemed impossible they could all stay in business at the same time. There were also clothing stores and antique stores, with colourful street art sporadically placed that brightoned (lol) the dim passageways.

As it was nearing lunchtime, we toed-and-froed for quite some time trying to decide where to go for lunch. We read many menus of Lonely Planet recommended restaurants, but ended up throwing out the rule book and opting for a Mediterranean café because they offered great sounding mezze platters. Unfortunately, we found the mezze to be uninspiring and not anywhere near the 4.5-star average that it scored on Tripadvisor. Regardless of that minor disappointment, it wasn't terrible and it filled us up. To cheer ourselves, we skipped down to Gelato Gusto to cram the remaining space in our bellies with sweet treats. They had several vegan choices and I opted for the apple pie flavour and chocolate chip peanut butter, with an Oreo brownie on the side. It was so delicious!

Our energy restored, we paid the £12 entrance fee for the Royal Pavilion and set about Christmas tree-spotting. Each room had a different tree, or multiple, and some were basically modern art. The Pavilion was very ornate, with an Indo-Islamic style exterior and Chinese style dragon-centric interior. It was designed as a seaside bach for George, Prince of Wales, and was lived in at one stage by Queen Victoria (though she disliked Brighton and called its inhabitants "indiscreet"). The Pavilion was sold by Queen Victoria to the town of Brighton in 1850 and since then has become a popular tourist attraction. During WWI it was closed to the public and converted into a military hospital for the treatment of soldiers in the Indian Army, boasting over 700 beds and two operating theatres.

The music room was exquisite, and coincidentally the only room you were allowed to take photos in. There were a lot of Christmas trees and chandeliers everywhere, but especially in the music room. I appreciated how the interior decorator utilised foliage in the designs: palm trees, plantain trees, lotus blossoms, the list goes on. If I could only have one takeaway from my visit to the Royal Pavilion, it would be that foliage and dragons are cool and should be used more often in modern design. 

After leaving the Pavilion, we considered checking out some of the free museums in the city, but weren't thrilled by the idea. Instead, we returned to the seaside to visit the West Pier which had been closed in 1975 and since fallen into decrepitude. In the late afternoon light, we once again found ourselves gazing up at the pastel-coloured buildings along the waterfront, and could easily imagine ourselves back in a bygone era. 

Over the years, the West Pier has had its fair share of hardships, from storms to fires, and is now deemed unsalvageable (though the West Pier Trust have expressed hopes to restore it). As the sun crept towards the horizon, we watched seagulls swoop over the waves and teenagers zoom along the boardwalk on skateboards. Our afternoon beach stroll took us past numerous tacky fish and chip shops and seafood restaurants.

Returning to the centre, we managed to see a fair number of the city streets lit up with Christmas lights before it grew very dark, and once we had found Yannick a doughnut for his dinner, we took a train back to London.

Today's post was almost called: 2p or Not 2p, that is the Concession (Where Low Denomination Coins Go To Die)

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

November 2016 in Brief

November was a month of much exploration, and by the first of December I had been officially awarded with a gold medal that read "King Neeshar: Explorar-Bo". 
It all began in Bethnal Green, where we were once again house sitting for Wanda. Knowing we wouldn't be staying there much longer, I took the opportunity to delve into the nearby Victoria Park, where many colourful things were photographed (including pagodas and trees). I also strolled along Regent's Canal to Mile End, Stepney Green and Whitechapel, furthering my love for East London. 

Speaking of Whitechapel, I attended an event for World Vegan Day (1 November) where I queued for over an hour in order to score free pizza! The pizza was quite nice, but what I liked better was the free mulled cider and brownies that the pub was giving out because they felt bad for how cold everyone in the line was. If you're of the mindset that "time is money", then waiting for such a long time wouldn't be worth it, but I had all the time in the world so free food was the only thing on my mind that day.

With all that free time I had, I made sure to spend many hours playing Stardew Valley, listening to Wanda snore, and cooking up delicious lunches and dinners. One of my favourite meals to cook was inspired by a macrobiotic dish I had when Yannick and I were last in Athens, comprising of sweet potato, cabbage, brown rice, marinated tofu and greens. Gotta balance that yin and yang, yo!

London seems to be perpetually crowded, and yet I braved the tumult to pursue a fun wintertime hobby of mine: spotting all the different Christmas lights around the city. The ones on Oxford Street looked like large balls of gold and silver yarn, which I particularly enjoyed, and the angels on Regent Street were quite spectacular. 

For three out of November's four weeks, my dad came to visit from New Zealand! As such, we needed a proper base for our party of explorers, so we rented out an AirBNB in the basement of a large haunted mansion in the south-eastern suburb of Anerley. (Note: It only appeared haunted; we were not once visited by disgruntled spirits.)

For a couple of days, Fabienne also visited us, and as such we had a 'belated birthday party crossed with an early Christmas' type of celebratory dinner. It was wonderful. Prosecco was had. I made delicious Greek stuffed peppers, which was Fabienne's favourite of the night. The others also convinced me to make an apple cake, which I had been hemming and hawing over for several days, and it turned out to be a roaring success (with cinnamon icing and almond decorations no less).

Just a half hour's walk or a short bus ride away from Anerley, we found Crystal Palace. Indulging there one night, we ate at a Vietnamese restaurant called Urban Orient. I was adventurous and tried some fake meat: mock duck! The texture was very convincing, and the sauce delicious. We intended to return there for another dinner later, but that never came to pass. I will remember you, mock duck!

Stepping aside from culinary explorations, on several occasions we took a stroll through Crystal Palace Park. The name comes from the fact that after the Great Exhibition of 1851, the eponymous glass and cast-iron structure was moved from its place in Hyde Park and plonked here. Sadly, the palace burned down in 1936, but you can still see the grand staircase that led to its entrance, and its sturdy concrete foundations. Some elements from the palace had been saved, including a few oddly conceived dinosaur sculptures which now loiter around a pond at the southern end of the park.

Moving on to more parks, dad, Fabienne and I visited Regent's Park where we traversed the rose garden and the Japanese garden. 

From there we passed some iconic telephone boxes (this pose was me telling dad to take a suitably touristic photo) on the way to Primrose Hill, which is yet another park.

This one offers a good view of London's skyline, though our attention was commandeered by two men with metal detectors. 

We watched them with curiosity for a time, and on our way down the hill dad asked if they had found anything. "Just a few pound coins today" one of the treasure hunters said. I wonder if they detect metal full-time.

Need a rest after so much park ranging, we skipped below ground to the Attendant: a circa-1890 Victorian public toilet that has in recent years been turned into a niche café. The wall tiles are original, as well as the cisterns and gleaming white urinals. I'll admit it's rather a strange idea for a café setting, as even though nobody has done a poo or wee here for over fifty years (the toilet was closed down in the 1960's) it still feels a bit unhygienic to eat or drink next to a urinal. 

In order for dad to get a good feel for London, we would often catch the train into the heart of the city and take in the sights for a few hours. On one such day, we crossed over London Bridge to see the Monument to the Great Fire of London and the Tower of London. While in the area, we quickly popped into Saint Dunstan in the East: a church with a glorious ivy-covered courtyard. It was such a lovely patch of greenery in the midst of tall glass office blocks.

On another day, we set out to see a veritable feast of attractions. On the menu was Big Ben (part of the Palace of Westminster, aka Parliament), Westminster Abbey, 10 Downing Street, the Horse Guards Parade, Trafalgar Square, and through St James's Park to Buckingham Palace.

Dad saw a sign for the Queen's Gallery, which we followed and ended up in the gift shop. Everything was ridiculously overpriced (doesn't the royal family have enough money as it is?!) but it was terribly fun to see little Corgi plushies and tea towels reading "God Save the Queen" among extensive Christmas decorations. Seriously, check out the online store here for a giggle. You can buy pyjamas in the fashion of the Royal Guardsmen (minus the meter-tall fluffy hat). 

One of the last excursions we undertook during dad's visit was a trip to Greenwich. I figured that Greenwich would be a good starting point for a riverboat tour (which dad had expressed his intent for), and we could experience a few historical sites at the same time. Dad, a fan of boats and all things maritime, entered the Cutty Sark and learned many interesting facts about the long-serving tea clipper. From there we checked out Greenwich Market and then a nautical-themed store alleging to be "The First Shop in the World" without offering further explanation. It was here I discovered that my winter coat looked just like the seafarers' coats for sale, and dad purchased a very fitting cap reading "CAPTAIN". After a wander around the National Maritime Museum, we trekked through Greenwich Park up to the Royal Observatory, where we could observe the Meridian Line (of Greenwich Mean Time fame) through a barred gate. You had to pay an entrance fee to actually be able to get near it, so we left and watched a squirrel bury a special treat in the ground to find later. While waiting for our tour boat to depart, we took advantage of the toilets in the Old Royal Naval College, and had a look at some historical documents as well.

We rode on the top of the boat, which was bitterly cold, but well worth it for the stunning views and fresh air. The narrator of our journey was both informative and hilarious, and I would highly recommend City Cruises for anyone wanting to learn more about London while cruising down the Thames, all for an affordable fee. I'm usually not one for guided tours, but it really was much more interesting than simply catching one of the commuter ferries and only a few pounds pricier. 

And if you thought that we had already done plenty of exploring in November, that wasn't the half of it! We also took weekend trips to Berlin and Paris.
It was sad to say goodbye to dad on the day he left, but it was such a great experience to have him visit for three whole weeks and show him around London, which was a place I could call home with contentment (though we had been there a while, and the travel bug was nibbling at our feet). 

Monday, 20 March 2017

Paris weekend trip, day two: Depressions of an Allemande Vin Vendor

Paris, France (Paris, France)
27 November 2016
When one is in Paris for the first time, one must see the Eiffel Tower. 'Tis an unspoken rule, with terrible consequences if not abided.
Therefore, on a crisp Sunday morning we set our alarms alarmingly early and watched the sun rise from between the tower's sturdy limbs. We were first in line! I stamped and jogged in place for nearly an hour while we waited for the attraction to open, and after a quick security check we got to stand in another line in order to buy tickets for the elevator. Once we ascended, we appreciated the stunning panoramic views (dad more so - I found a heater and latched onto it for a while). Dad was suitably impressed, so all the standing around in the cold and queueing was well worth it.

Before leaving the tower, I warmed myself with a paper cup full of le thé dans le cafe and had a brief wander around the souvenir stalls to bring circulation back to my toes.

Continuing our sightseeing, we popped out of the metro by the Arc de Triomphe to take some pictures and dad rather bravely stood in the middle of the road in order to acquire the most symmetrical snaps.

Then on we went to the Notre Dame. We did consider going inside, but the line was extremely long. Clearly this would also have been an appropriate sight to wake up early for and be first in line. I showed dad the attractive garden at the back of the cathedral, which was covered in colourful leaves. He chilled there while I went for lunch at a nearby eatery.

On the way, I passed by some beautiful and autumnal streets. The cobblestones and bistros...so Parisien. 

Hank Vegan Burger offered a €14 meal deal which included a burger, fries, a drink and a dessert. Such a bargain! The food was amazing, and if I had spent more time in Paris, I would become a regular at Hank.
After a quick wee in a shopping mall along the way, I rejoined dad who had eaten a hot dog for lunch.

Seeing that our hotel was only a half hour walk away, according to Google Maps, we decided to walk back. En route, we admired the grandiose Pantheon and the neighbouring church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont. As dad still hadn't seen many European churches, we entered the church to have a brief look around, and dad gave a few coins to a hobo on the steps.

Strolling onwards, we found ourselves next to the Institut Curie, a very prominent scientific research centre (as well as some downright cool graffiti).

After such an eventful day, we rested for a time at our hotel. That evening, I went for a walk to nearby Chinatown, where I saw that even the sign for McDo was in Chinese! Several men in dark coats were hovering around selling bootleg vegetables on makeshift crate-tables.

From there, I took the metro to north Paris where I patronised Toutofu, a Chinese restaurant where they make their own tofu. They make their own tofu! I ordered the ravioli-type tofu and mushroom parcels, with a pot of chrysanthemum tea on the side. The place was super low-key and quite frankly a delight. Around the area, entrepreneurs were selling roasted chestnuts and grilled corn from improvised cookers they had made from trolleys.

Still feeling like a bit of a wander, I took a metro to the centre and after a while found myself at the Christmas market by Champs Elysée. It was there that I bought mulled wine from a terribly depressed German woman who was manning a stall that professed "vin chaud", "glühwein" and ten other words that clearly meant "mulled wine" in more niche languages. At some Christmas markets, I've been to, you're supposed to return the cups to the vendors once you've finished with them so they can be washed and reused, but the depressed stallholder seemed bewildered and somehow even sadder when I attempted to pass it back to her so I suppose that was the wrong thing to do. Instead, I rinsed it out and gave it to dad as a memento.

The next morning we boarded the Eurostar once again (this time laden with kilos of chocolate and cider) and returned to the land of Eng.

Today's post was almost called: Sunrise Chills for the Preeminent Tower Clamberers