Friday, July 31, 2009

The man without condiments

I found myself cooking for a dinner party the other day.

It was fun to be given the run of a very nicely appointed kitchen. It was rather less fun to have to take care of the shopping requirements. The "nearest" supermarket is some two miles away, and has a fairly dire selection of produce. (I had to abandon my plans to make a raspberry cheesecake for dessert because they didn't have any decent cream cheese, or any double cream [they'd run out? or they just didn't see the merit in putting it next to the single cream?], or any vanilla [either pods or essence]. Unbelievable.)

My host for the week, Little Anthony, is an odd fellow - a passionate 'foodie' (he has a shelf full of posh cookery books, and some very fancy kitchen equipment), yet his house is almost entirely empty of food. Well, he usually has a few novelty food items in the larder, collected in the course of his globetrotting job. In the past I've found such exotica as bear-paw paté from Siberia and moose jerky from Finland in his cupboards. But there are no day-to-day basics: no rice, no oil, no onions, no cooking wine - not even any salt and pepper (and his pair of salt and pepper grinders, when refilled, are wretchedly dysfunctional).

And all his knives are blunt.

I'm not sure the chap has ever cooked anything more demanding than beans on toast. In the realm of cooking, there is a staggering mismatch between his aspirations and his practical experience. My own culinary skills are extremely limited, but Little Anthony was apparently awed by my performance in helping him to knock up a vat of chilli con carne five or six years ago (I suspect that was the last time he had anyone around to dinner).

So, it was a rather more demanding undertaking than I had first supposed, but a very satisfying one. We invited The Bookseller and his Mrs over, and treated them to a creamy minted pea soup and a simple dish of herb chicken baked on a bed of ratatouille accompanied by some baby new potatoes (inspiration from the great Gordon Ramsay). And a shop-bought trifle. Yum.

I really ought to start throwing dinner parties in Beijing. I've been saying this for years; but perhaps, with this inspiring memory still fresh, I may actually get down to it upon my return in a couple of weeks. We shall see.

HBH 143

foolish heart backslides
loitering down memory lane
the old loves return

For some reason, the dratted Madame X (of whom I had felt myself quite cured) has been haunting my thoughts during this holiday of mine. Perhaps it is just that I saw her again - for the first time in ages - just before I went away. Perhaps it's the fact that she is one of the only people back in China with whom I've had some contact while travelling. More likely, I think, it's that the last time I had a holiday, two years ago, was when my crush on her was at its height, and being in the same places and in the same 'holiday mode' now revives those memories, makes them seem fresh again, recent, painful.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

We Will Rock You

The one highlight of a mostly rather drab and miserable visit to my old home town this last weekend was attending an open-air gig by a Queen cover band called Rhapsody (well, actually their full name appears to be Rhapsody - Is This The Real Queen?.... but using complete sentences for band names is generally a bad idea, and using questions is doubly bad; I can't imagine that anybody ever uses this unduly cumbersome full title, and I certainly prefer to think of them simply as Rhapsody).

The intermittent drizzle that had plagued us all day became heavier and more persistent as night fell. And it was bloody freezing. (Is it really July? It doesn't feel like summer at all in England at the moment.) But the band did a pretty good job of distracting the modest crowd from their dismal surroundings for an hour. The singer produced an impressive impersonation of Freddie - capturing both the vocal range and the swaggering stage antics of the great man surprisingly well (though not his profanity; this was a "family show"). The guitarist, however, was - inevitably - a little disappointing: a decent enough player who replicated Brian May's sound quite well, but he just couldn't nail those sublime solos we know so well.

All in all, though, a very jolly show. Ah, Queen - so many rollicking good tunes!

This is the kind of band I'd like to see brought to China. I'm sure they'd draw good expat crowds, but perhaps the local rock fans wouldn't be sufficiently enthused to pay to see a cover band. Now that I come to think of it, I don't think I've ever heard anyone playing Queen in China. I wonder if they are another of the great 'unknown' bands there??

Monday, July 27, 2009

Bon mot for the week

"Being sober on a bus is, like, totally different to being drunk on a bus."

Ozzy Osbourne (1948- )

Friday, July 24, 2009

HBH 142

Memories mis-chime,
the old haunts unfamiliar.
A world changed, grown old.

Or is it just me?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sympathy with Tom

First night back in the UK, and I found myself once again with old college buddy Ned playing pool in the Pimlico pub where we last bade each other farewell two years ago.

It's a half-size table, and has teeny, teeny balls, but it's a good cloth and a pretty flat surface. And it attracts a coterie of regulars who are all pretty handy (though I didn't recognise anyone from my previous visit).

Ned was not on his usual devastating form, alas (he had a nasty mishap last week and needs to wear a brace on his left wrist for a while). I fretted that I was out of practice, and that my peformance was likely to be impaired by my feeling a bit jet-laggy (having only set foot back on English soil some 6 hours earlier, after catching the redeye out of DC the night before). I wasn't particularly keen to play at all, in fact; was content just to chat with my friend and catch up on the last two years' news.

But Ned insisted on us both trying our hands, and he chalked our names on the blackboard.

The man to beat on this night was a geezer called Bernie, a wizened ancient with a cloth cap and an unkempt gray moustache. Not a man to be underestimated (he had his own cue too - always a warning sign!). He saw off all the younger regulars. I got the impression that his occasional passages of ropey play - well, not ropey, really, but less than perfect - might have been deliberate subterfuge: he didn't like getting ahead early in the game, liked to toy with his opponents a bit. In fact, he usually came from a long way behind to win. Just about every single time. His ability to close out a game under pressure was extremely impressive.

So, I wasn't fancying my chances much when my turn finally came and I was faced with having to overcome the formidable Bernie to 'play on' the table and get the chance to have a game with Ned.

But.... in that first game, somehow I really got into a groove. Despite my lack of familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of the table and the dimensions of the balls, I was playing very, very well - the best I've managed in several months, I would say.

Until the close-out.

I was ahead. I had Bernie in trouble. (Really - I probably gave him his toughest game of the night, and I think he was just slightly rattled about it.) And I had two clear chances to win. Not by any means easy chances. And I didn't fluff them embarrassingly. I couldn't really say that I bottled them. But - by the standards of my play earlier - I could have, should have buried them.... and I didn't. You can't afford to let Bernie off the hook twice. Rats! These things rankle. Thoughts of what might have been follow you around, nagging, tormenting.

Just like poor old Tom Watson on Sunday - so near and yet so far.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Happy discovery, unhappy timing

A couple of days ago, I discovered a likely new favourite place in my "second home" of Alexandria (Virginia, USA) - the Royal Restaurant, at the corner of Royal St and Madison St.

It's a traditional corner diner: cosy booth seating or counter stools, uncomplicated menu of American standards like steaks and burgers and hotdogs, friendly service, and (I surmise) always well-populated - but not to the point of you needing to wait in line to get a seat. Huge portions and very reasonable prices. It boasts it's been in business since 1904 (although the building currently housing it doesn't look to me as if it's more than 20 or 30 years old); a much-loved local institution... for those in the know.

Oh yes, a great little place. I can't think how - in my 8 or 10 previous visits over the last 15 years - I've never come across it before. Just my luck to discover it only 48 hours before I'm leaving! I'll definitely be back next time.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The weekly bon mot

"What is drinking?
A mere pause from thinking."

Lord Byron (1788-1824), from The Deformed Transformed

Sunday, July 19, 2009


As I observed in my first ever post on here, it's curious how one's memories cluster together.

I've been coming to Alexandria, in the state of Virginia, just over the Potomac from Washington, DC, for 15 years now - at least once every couple of years or so, and often for quite an extended visit. I must have spent 3 or 4 months here in total by now, and I've become very familiar with the city - well, with the Old Town district where I have usually stayed, anyway. I think of the place rather as a second home.

And whenever I come back here..... I feel as though I've never been away. Memories from three or eight or eleven years ago seem as vivid as if they occurred only last week. (And all memories of other areas of my life - of Beijing, for example! - recede into the background, almost obscured and forgotten for the moment. So liberating!)

This phenomenon is perhaps especially strong here, since Old Town is a protected historic district, and thus there is very little new building, very little change to the existing buildings. Also - I know not why - there seems to be remarkably little change in the businesses round here. Most of the bars and restaurants around the main drag of King Street seem to have been going strong since I first came here.

That is, until recently......

On this latest trip, I have been shocked to discover that The Laughing Lizard comedy lounge is no more (transformed into one of those ghastly faux Irish pubs). I'd only been a handful of times, but it was one of those places that it was nice to have available. (Thank heavens the 'Stage Door' N.Y. Deli down below is still with us - the best cheap eats in the neighbourhood.)

Even worse, Portner's - a bar and steakhouse that is one of the first joints my friends here ever took me to - has disappeared. Apparently it was rebranded as Bookbinder's this past year or two, but that failed too, and it's now in the process of being relaunched yet again as The Old Firestation Restaurant (I hadn't realised it was an old firestation.....). Portner's was one of those places that you just expected to go on forever.

Bullfeather's - one of the biggest and most populous bars on King St - has been taken over as well. Expanded and Irished up as O'Connell's. I am not a fan. (Well, I never was. But even less so now.)

The Virginia Brewing Company - perhaps my favourite bar on that strip, although it generally seemed to struggle to appeal to many other people (a few years ago, I watched the Superbowl in there almost entirely alone) - is gone too (now transformed into a rather good tapas restaurant called La Tasca).

Worst of all, Olson's, a fine independent bookstore just off the bottom of King on Union St., has recently closed down too. Darn this economic meltdown! (I am consoled that at least the Book Bank, a marvellous secondhand bookstore down towards the Metro station end of King St., is still in business. I always spend two or three afternoons in there on my trips here.)

No doubt, these changes may have occurred gradually, over the course of the three years or so since I was last here. But, with the compression of memory I experience from my irregular and infrequent visitations, it seems that they have all happened overnight.

It is a brutal shock to the system.

And - since bars (and restaurants) are such conspicuous and memorable landmarks - I'm suddenly finding the place not-so-comfortingly-familiar any more. Indeed, I occasionally fear I may be in danger of getting lost!

Change - I don't like it.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Pilgrimage - postponed

This last week I had planned to make a trip to Philadelphia.

I had promised the Weeble that I would investigate the pride of his home town, Fergie's, a place he acclaims as The Finest Burger Joint In The World (and he makes a strong case; he's shown me photographic evidence).

I have also long been yearning to make a nostalgic return to Hogan's, one of my all-time favourite bars.

Oh yes, I had planned to go. I was on the brink of going. I'd checked out the bus timetables and the hotel rates and everything. Monday, I deferred because I'd accepted an editing job from China, and my contact had omitted to send it to me early in the morning, as she'd promised (which would have been still Sunday evening for me here in the US, of course); so I ended up having to do that for a big chunk of the day. Tuesday..... I just got cold feet about the expedition.

I don't know anyone in Philly any more. And I didn't have anyone to go with. So, this was going to be a rather extravagant expense of time and money just to try a burger (however marvellous).

Also, I was rather fearful that perhaps Hogan's would disappoint - that it might no longer be there, or would be sadly changed. The British Cowboy hasn't kept up with the folks there, so I don't know if Big Dave is still running the bar. And I fear it's a near certainty that the owner will have passed on by now: it's a dozen years since I first went there, and a good 8 or 9 since my last visit; and Old Man Hogan was well into his 70s at least back then.

Nostalgia is a dangerous thing. Sometimes it's better to leave our cherished memories undisturbed by updates. I think I may have said this before: Never go back to a scene of past happiness.

Friday, July 17, 2009

HBH 141

Something inside growls,
Bulges, stretches abdomen.
Maybe time to quit...

I have been becoming uncomfortably aware of my liver lately. And I haven't even been drinking very much since I've been on holiday! I hope it's "all in the mind". I hope it's just indigestion or something. But, lately, every time I have more than a couple of drinks, I get this feeling like the Bismarck is drifting around in my innards. Not nice.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Say what?

I am, I regret to report, severely unenamoured of The Cowboy's neighbourhood bar.

Amongst the gravest of its shortcomings - it has the worst acoustics of any bar I've ever been. Bare walls, a high ceiling (industrial minimalist approach, with exposed metal ventilation ducts, etc.), a big window - the sound just bounces and rattles around in there something horrible. It actually seems to amplify sound in some strange way. It's like being inside a tin box. Somebody drops a pin, and it sounds more like a metal scaffolding pole.

And, of course, because of this, everybody SHOUTS.

Having pointless background music on the whole time doesn't help either (not loud enough for you to actually hear, but loud enough to prompt the punters to yell even more to make themselves heard above it).

Since the place seems to be positioning itself primarily as a sports bar - two or three large screens continuously showing live games, mostly baseball - you'd think, wouldn't you, that they might actually want to play the game commentary occasionally, rather than pumping out the incessant middle-of-the-road rock music. But no. Always with the music. (I guess you wouldn't be able to hear the TVs, no matter what.)

Really, I do not exaggerate: this bar is painfully noisy, a serious environmental health hazard. Even with just a handful of people in there, the background buzz becomes deafening. When there's any kind of a crowd, the decibel level is through the roof! I leave there with my head throbbing and my eardrums buzzing. And I can barely hear a word anyone says to me in there.


Monday, July 13, 2009

The weekly bon mot

"When someone in the bar is really annoying you, at least you can console yourself that the most annoying person in the bar is not you."


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Leaving Party

Well, eventually it turned out OK, with 9 or 10 friends showing up to send me off, including all the most important of 'the usual suspects' - The Chairman, The Choirboy, The Mouthpiece Of Evil, The Weeble.

Early evening, though, it had threatened to be the most disastrous fizzle. Some of my 'friends' had failed to reply to my text-message summons at all; those that had replied had invariably done so in exasperatingly vague terms - "Oh, yeah, sounds good. I'll hook up with you at some point." No-one had given me a specific time when they would join me. No-one had responded to my suggestion for dinner. The Weeble claimed that he had not received any of my messages on the subject (bloody i-Phones!); and references to it in our recent conversations had evidently been erased from his brain by late nights and alcohol.

And then my first suggested rendezvous misfired because - for who knows what reason - my beloved 12 Square Metres was not open. I had to resort instead to the adjacent Dida Café - where the Vietnamese family who run the place were just about to have their supper. Their beers have just been raised in price from 10 kuai (as I believe they were when we started our great Nanluoguxiang Bar Crawl there a couple of months back) to 15 (still not outrageous, but....); and I had briefly got excited about the availability of stubby bottles of the local Yanjing beer - but in fact there was only one left, so I then had to make do with crappy old Tsingtao (only my second falling-from-grace on this aspect of my pledge to live cheaply in the month of June).

So, I sat up on their roof-deck - which I had all to myself - and looked down on the rumbling traffic of Dianmen Dongdajie, and contemplated my imminent escape from China, and waited for someone to join me. And waited. And waited. And waited.

I was there on my own for well over an hour before The Chairman finally showed up, and I had been starting to feel very glum.

At least the experience gave rise to a memorable text message (sent out to taunt my tardy drinking companions):
"The nice Vietnamese lady just took pity on my friendlessness and gave me a TREBLE Jack Daniel's for 20 kuai!"

Three large measures, that was. It might well have been something like 4 or 5 standard pours: the glass was very nearly brimful! I have no idea why she was so generous, and I did try to dissuade her. That drink took me ages to finish..... and tipped me over into a frisky, foolish, elated state of drunkenness which I managed to maintain for the next 8 hours or so.

A fine way to prepare for a 12-hour flight the next morning......

Friday, July 10, 2009

HBH 140

Four in the morning,
The brain on auto-pilot:
Dawn light, ill-judged kiss.

These things happen.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

New Picks of the Month

A couple of recommendations from the old archives to keep you diverted while I'm 'away'....

From Froogville I select one of my darkest posts, Very bad things - a post that explains why I am often so depressed in the month of June, and why I do not always manage to maintain the sunniest of dispositions towards China and the Chinese.

And on a (much needed) lighter note, from The Barstool I would direct you towards Ideal job? - some musings about the most suitable employment for someone like me, prompted by my then imminent (though, as it turned out, shortlived) plunge into conventional office drudgery.... and touching - in my usual, wide-ranging, discursive (not to say rambling) way - on life in Greece, a favourite film and a favourite film director, the musicality of the French language, and the useful concept of esprit de l'escalier.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Bon mot for the week

"Next to a shot of some good, habit-forming narcotic, there is nothing like travelling alone as a 'builder-upper'."

Robert Benchley (1889-1945)

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Happy 4th July!!

Felicitations to all of my American readers - and especially to my regular, Gary, who, I recall, is a particular fan of Ms Amy Acuff, the lissom high-jump champion waving the flag above. (Ah, athletic women!)

Friday, July 03, 2009

HBH 139

Whole country parties!
Countless barbecues sizzle,
Countless beers are chilled.

It's three or four years since I got to spend the 4th of July in America. I've missed it. I can't think of another country whose 'national day' is such a joyous occasion, such an all-out, universal party - and almost entirely untainted by nationalism. This is just a party day. There are many things I love about America, but their holidays - Independence Day and Thanksgiving in particular - are amongst the things I love most.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Looking for a good bar

After a rather crazy trip across the globe - three continents, four capitals, and thirteen timezones in the space of just 65 hours - I should by now be touching down on American soil.

And America is a land of great bars. I am looking forward to sampling a few of them over the next couple of weeks.

Starting tonight! In the company of my old mucker, The British Cowboy.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Froog Solutions (1)

Froog's solution to having to get up to leave for the airport in only 4 hours.

Ask the Weeble to give him an alarm call.

It worked! (Unlike my alarm-clock/radio, which unaccountably failed to go off at the appointed time.) Thanks, Weebs. I owe you one.

And were you really still up at Amilal at 8am???