Rear Window 2: Courtyard Capers

I’m looking at a bird. A red one- I don’t know birds- a Red Cardinal? Red Baron? Scarlet Pimpernel? At some point every day I find myself gazing out my bathroom window at what could charitably be called my courtyard: a patchwork of broken pavers obscured by discarded building materials, surrounded by 6-foot cinderblock walls, and one sagging chain-link fence. It’s not a particularly inspiring vista. My courtyard doesn’t dare dream, like other courtyards, of lavish garden parties, or even weekend barbecues. It wouldn’t know what to do with a fire pit or recessed lighting, and it has no time for a sundial. It has embraced the word ”neglected,” and wears it with appropriately downtrodden acceptance. I, however, have detailed fantasies about turning it into a garden- I imagine flower beds and herbs in pots. Maybe even a modest veggie patch. When my fancy is particularly flighty, I even see a few chickens strutting and scratching out there. But because my neighbour’s courtyard is an abandoned forest, the place is a daylight discotheque for the birds. I stand at the window and stare at them; they sit on the fence and stare back. Naturally I make silly faces at them which, to my eyes, are never reciprocated, but maybe avian gurning is too subtle for me to register. Immensely pleasurable as these encounters are, from the outset I know that the bird will get bored before I do. Hardly surprising really: it has the whole world to explore; I have 300 square feet. Of the two of us, I truly am the caged one. This blog is my plaintive song.

rtr3eej7

 I rarely venture out there. Access involves a long drop out a window and navigating a trash-strewn passageway. The garbage is tossed from an as yet unidentified upstairs window in the next door block of apartments, and while it’s repellent to me, it’s a positive magnet for visiting wildlife. Returning home from a gig in the early morning, sitting by the window with a nightcap, I might be graced with the company of an opossum, or maybe a family of raccoons; once I had a visit from a small, but very menacing skunk. They snuffle around happily out there, unconcerned by the flashlight I rudely obtrude upon them, and go about their midnight creeping.  

 A winter afternoon is the best time for mooning out my bathroom window. That doesn’t sound right. A winter afternoon is the best time for staring out my bathroom window. Glowering skies loom low over bare trees, their grasping claws ushering the wind into eddies of dead leaves and plastic bags. Later an icy moon climbs over the rooftops, deepening shadows into ominous figures in corners. It’s brilliantly bleak and dramatic.  If I’ve thrown caution to the wind and turned on the heat, and there’s something cooking on the stove, chez Hempton is almost pleasant.

 In recent days, I’ve realized what my courtyard really looks like: a prison exercise yard. And considering our current confinement, it may fulfill its destiny. I only hope the Aryan Brotherhood will adhere to the social distancing rules. The only other inmate is my 80 year old neighbour Eddie. Eddie’s wife won’t let him smoke cigars in the house, so he likes to sit out there in a folding chair, contentedly drawing on baseball-bat-sized stogies. If this imprisonment continues much further, I see this story ending with either me or Eddie going the other with a shiv.

 One day I’ll tidy it up. I’ll clear the trash from the passageway, haul the giant PVC pipes away, scrub down the pavers, construct some beds for flowers and veggies. I’ll plant climbing vines to hide the brutal walls. Maybe a trellis. A weber grill and some outdoor furniture. I’ll ask the Aryans to rig up some cheerful lights, and maybe the Mexican Mafia will help me put in a birdbath so my red buddy will visit again. Then I’ll invite them and the Black Guerrillas to a barbecue. Put an end to all this silly stabbing.

Be Yourself (quick, while no one’s watching!)

Be yourself. That’s what they always say, isn’t it. With seemingly endless alone time, and no imagined judgement from onlookers, I’m being myself to an alarming degree. All those annoying habits that I would curb while in polite company are getting free rein. I refuse to cook pasta without making my “Bucatini and the MGs” joke. I used to throw peanuts in the air and catch them in my mouth- now I eat everything this way. While listening to the BBC’s shipping forecast every evening (which I strongly recommend), I wait for the Mull of Kintyre to get mentioned so I can burst lustily into the song. Day and night I’m swanning about the apartment, clad in dressing gown and drinking hat, martini in hand, reciting things in funny voices. So far my best is Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan” as Roger Moore.

 There was a sense of adventure when this lockdown thing started. I was enthusiastic about new opportunities (my apologies to my pessimist friends out there- I can only imagine how annoying that was), dreaming up exciting new ways to deliver music to people online; but as it drags on, my eagerness, along with my concern for social norms, is waning. Now, I simultaneously can’t believe it’s happening, and can’t believe it will ever end. I know people like watching videos of musicians playing, but without us all being in the same room together, it’s about as much fun as the recording studio but without all the free drugs and contortionists. While I support and encourage musicians asking for digital donations, a PayPal tip is a pretty bloodless exchange. The meeting of eyes and smile of mutual appreciation is what makes that transaction pleasurable. 

 I mistakenly stumble onto articles by insufferably earnest people telling me how they’re using all this free time to learn new skills, or getting around to those household tasks they always put off. After this is all over, I vote for these writers to be kept in permanent quarantine in a hoarder’s apartment with an overly caffeinated Marie Kondo. So I tried baking bread. Don’t judge me! Although I will say that someone as careless and absent minded as me should probably stay away from an activity requiring precision and patience. I may be going hungry, but I’m amassing an arsenal of dense loaf-shaped house bricks which I intend to use as missiles when the zombies arrive.

IMG_3300

 The other day I felt obliged to clean something and selected the kitchen cabinet that I’ve used to store junk ever since I moved in 16 years ago. I rolled up my sleeves and burrowed in, digging past my vape pen, my collection of fidget spinners, a pair of shutter shades, (I paused here to brush off some moldy cronut crumbs), a pair of crocs, a folded “Occupy Wall Street” placard; deeper, past an old Blackberry, my Von Dutch hat, some roller blades; deeper still, past a HyperColour Tshirt, a long deceased tamagotchi; when suddenly, with a triumphant “YOLO!” I burst out into a cool forest by a murmuring brook. A gentle breeze carried the scent of honeysuckle, butterflies flitted by, friendly woodland creatures stopped and lifted their hats as they hopped past (they were wearing hats). Letting the Sony Walkman fall from my hand, I followed the sound of angelic voices down to the river bank, where a group of smiling nymphs sat on a log, singing and braiding each other’s hair. At my approach, they stood, letting their wispy underthings slide to the ground, and walked towards me, arms outstretched, mischief in their beckoning eyes. “Stay back six feet!” I shouted, “the rules are there for a reason!” and leapt back into my kitchen. Honestly, irresponsible nymphs are making it worse for all of us.

 I take a walk around my local park every day. Now that it’s closed, all the local yuppies who used to overtake the place, hovering over their fashionably dressed brats while allowing their dogs 10 feet of leash to take a sneaky crap on the bandshell steps, are now clogging up the sidewalks where childless grouches like me take our constitutionals. And doesn’t it seem somehow cruel to walk your dog around a park it can no longer enter? So many disappointed mutts staring uncomprehendingly through the park fence; while staring back at them, the local squirrel population, equally confused, as if to say –was it something we said?? –Is this all ours now?? It won’t be long before the squirrels start planning something. You watch.

  Anyway, I should let you go- I’m sure you have scarves to knit. I’ve got more projectiles to bake, and I wonder what Christopher Walken would sound like reciting the Gettysburg Address? It might go a little something like this… 

A Sandwich in the Storm

There’s a reason Manhattan’s Upper East Side doesn’t get much of a mention in the guide books. It’s a pretty bleak part of town. No matter the weather, up there the sky is grey and washed out; the wind whips around corners of blindingly white buildings, and pedestrians wear a mask of grim determination as they scuttle to get anywhere else. Some days it’s just gloomy; on others, it’s downright bruising. And then there’s now.

  I walked with C, west on 70th street, crossing silent, deserted avenues, making our way uncertainly, staring around in bleary disbelief. The lockdown was in full effect, the only signs of life a few exhausted hospital workers out for a desperate cigarette or a hurried bite from one of the few remaining bagel-and-coffee carts. Mealtimes, like sleep patterns, seem to have fallen by the wayside since the quarantining began. We eat and sleep whenever we feel like it, losing track of time and date. After a few blocks we realized we were both starving. This was not good. Under the new laws, restaurants could serve takeout food, but most weren’t, choosing instead to take the hit and shutter completely. The empty overpriced coffee chains offering their sad selection of apologetic pastries were somehow even less enticing than usual.

We pushed on, torturing ourselves by stopping to read the menus still plastered outside the neighbourhood’s fancier joints, when our eyes were caught by the glowing neon sign of a corner diner. We’d walked by this place countless times, always on our way somewhere, confident that it, like everything else, would always be there. We looked through the front window into a Hopper painting: a classic American diner, empty except for the proprietor standing behind the counter, towel slung over drooping shoulder, staring glumly back at us. His welcoming smile as we came in couldn’t hide the tired worry in his eyes. He motioned to the row of shiny plastic-topped stools bolted down in front of the formica counter. We took a load off and surveyed the situation: the polished surfaces of bright primary colours, the display case offering an ambitious selection of pies of various percentages; ketchup bottles and napkin dispensers; the antique milkshake machine, the stacks of chunky, off-white crockery; doughnuts on the counter, famous faces on the wall… the whole tableau enveloped in the same familiar uneasy quiet, punctured by the occasional blast of Merengue from the kitchen.

 Our host solemnly presented the appropriately mammoth menu, a greatest-hits of American diner specialties: all-day breakfast, Belgian waffles, club sandwiches, chili, chicken soup… When you slide into a booth at an American corner restaurant, you’re not looking for individuality or innovation. You don’t even want excellence. You come here when you need something flavorful and comforting. Soothing and steadying. We immediately and wordlessly settled on a hot pastrami sandwich on rye. It was the only reasonable choice under the circumstances. And a pair of beers while we waited. We chatted with our man about the current situation (who talks about anything else these days?); he told us with good humoured resignation about the scarcity of customers, and his efforts to keep the joint running. In uncertain times, places like this– neighbourhood stalwarts– supply much more than food. They provide constancy and stability, an emotional anchor in the terrifying turbulence. But the trouble is double when the one thing people need in a crisis– human interaction– is the one thing we can’t have. He clearly felt a duty to sustain his neighbours, and was doing his darnedest, but the writing was on the wall.

 Within minutes, a paper bag slid onto the counter. We chugged the rest of our beers, shared some last optimistic pleasantries, buttoned up our coats and shoved back out into the dreary street; strolled to the corner, leaned against a pole and had a picnic. 

 I’d be lying if I said it was the best pastrami sandwich I’d ever had. New York City has countless Jewish delis that wouldn’t use this thing to wipe the tables down. But at that moment, on that corner, with the world shifting beneath our feet, it was everything we wanted. The reassuring rye; the fatty, salty, smoky meat and warming mustard; the bracing vinegar and satisfying crunch of a shared pickle. In the strangest time, when New York looks and feels completely unlike New York, we had a genuine New York moment. It couldn’t have been more New York if I’d mugged her and she’d had me whacked. And then a rat had run off with our sandwich.

1A32B87F-8549-44F4-9DB7-FBF495B68BDC
5PM. Different neighbourhood, same day.

This post was suggested by C.

Hysteria, Pandemonium, and a Cast-Iron Solution

I was doing so well. A news-free world. I was oblivious to all but what was happening right in front of me. The childish bellowing of politicians, talking heads, and celebrities which make us all dumber and angrier had been silenced. Instead of opening my news apps first thing in the afternoon, I was scrolling Instagram looking at wholesome videos of bearded men cooking steaks beside a river… And then the Coronavirus came along. 

 Like people from all walks, musicians are being greatly affected by this thing. I have a tour of Italy booked for April which, as if Schroedinger was my travel agent, is simultaneously happening and not happening. It hasn’t been canceled, but taking place mostly in Italy, it surely has. But in monitoring the hysteria almost hourly, I’ve been sucked in to it.

 I’ve noticed the marauding bug comes up in every conversation, and I make no effort to change the subject, delighting in telling people of my precarious situation (nobody cares). I greet acquaintances with an elaborate curtsy instead of a handshake; I’m mentally designing a face-mask with a mouthpiece hole cut into it; agonizing over whether to order hazmat suits in pinstripe or windowpane; I’m stockpiling black truffles and Barolo in case supply lines are cut… In short, I’ve given in to the madness. 

IMG_9177

As of yesterday, all bars in NYC have been ordered to shut down, which means my other job of herding cats in and out of Smalls Jazz Club is on extended hiatus. A very sad turn of events, but considering basement bars in our fair city are generally humid, poorly-ventilated incubators, it’s hardly surprising- it’s a swirling mass of world-traveling, close-talking, drinking, smoking, coughing, rarely-washed humanity down there. A petri dish. It’s brilliant.

I wonder, as a horn player, if I could be considered a “super-spreader.” When we get fired up (and sorry if this is a tad graphic), it’s not just notes we’re spraying around up there. Those front few rows should be provided with some type of weatherproof poncho- it’s not a pretty business. But maybe infection of this kind depends on the fertility of the music being played- listen to a musician play with enough heart and soul, and don’t be surprised if you get a bit of lung in there. In times of pandemic pandemonium, it might be safer to seek out a more hygienic musician: a more aseptic, anemic style of player. I can suggest several…

eight_col_drums_rain
The band cops it too

 Gnawing uneasiness caused by hysteria and fear-mongering drove me to the kitchen. Harrowing times like these demand the steadfast solidity of cast iron and beans and ham hocks. If I had access to an open fire and a beard I would have utilized those too. Hempton’s pot of beans gets its enveloping earthy warmth from a variety of Mexican chilies- some hot, some not- found huddling up the back of my increasingly bland and expensive supermarket. They’re keeping their heads down, working hard to feed us despite the creeping gentrification. Guajillo, Ancho, Pasillo: go find them. Drink-wise, one silver lining to the Coronavirus cumulonimbus is that it has apparently stemmed our desire for Corona beer- amazing that it took a simple misunderstanding for people to stop buying that awful yellow muck. Anyway, forget beer- smoky, porky bean stew deserves red wine and so do you. And Gene Ammons on the Hi-Fi. More soon…

IMG_2741


 

Hempton’s Pot o’ Beans

Soften chunks of carrot, onion, whole garlic cloves in olive oil in a cast iron crock pot. Add a whole smoked ham hock (a big chunk of salt pork or bacon would do), soaked dried beans (probably any kind will do- I buy a mix), chicken stock (water in a pinch), fresh thyme, bay leaves, a mix of dried chillies, and simmer for a couple of hours until the beans are the way you like them, and the pork is falling off the bone. Add a couple of handfuls of kale for the last 5 minutes or so. Season and fish out the chillies, bay leaves, and thyme stalks if you can find them. Take the hock out, strip the meat off and slide the meat back in. Serve with bread or cornbread and a muscular vino.  

Throw Your Dentures in the Air and Pass the Meds– it’s the Roaring 20s!!

 It’s the first blog post of a new decade- I can only imagine you’re as excited about this momentous event as I am! If you’ve been paying attention, it’s clear the world is crumbling in a fiery heap around us, so I think the only remedy is to let our remaining hair down and party! After all, it’s the roaring 20s!

 I rang in the New Year in a swanky hotel in midtown Manhattan, surrounded by attractive young folk, and free-flowing champagne. The lights were low, the weather was warm, a night of repercussion-free debauchery seemed in order. Of course, being part of the band, or hired-help-with-benefits, I was “in” the party, but not “of” the party. But I was in my best suit, I’d put away a few sneaky white wines while the boss wasn’t looking, and I was ready to boogie! We watched a live telecast from Times Square on a giant screen, and charged our glasses as we counted down along with the maniacal plastic-faced celebrities. The big moment came, the strangely half-hearted cheers went up, and we launched into Auld Lang Syne… to the apparent mystification of all present. Instead of getting the party started, these good looking, financially secure, socially mobile young people just stood there awkwardly, checked their phones, rolled their eyes, then put their coats on and drifted off. If a three-piece jazz combo with no drums playing obscure boogaloos from the 1960s doesn’t keep these people on the dance floor, what will??

80649517-women-using-smartphones-with-bored-friends

At 12:30AM, we released the remaining patrons from the grip of our groove, packed up, and shoved off. I strolled down 7th Avenue towards the village, the night still young, and my eyes still focussing; my mind abuzz with anticipation of a night of delightfully terrible decisions. And all the way, the same event repeated itself: haughty, detached youngsters (the girls in glamorous gowns, the boys in jeans and sneakers) dribbling out of bars and clubs, silently and resignedly inserting themselves into Ubers. Maybe they were all going to wild parties where they snort stimulants off each other’s exquisitely toned body parts, before stuffing themselves obscenely with foie gras and Krug to build up the energy for the ensuing week-long orgy. But honestly, these kids had the air of going home. Now fair enough- New Year’s Eve is amateur night– maybe they do their partying the other 364 nights of the year. But I don’t think so. 

3864

 In the actual Roaring 20s, young people partied to celebrate newfound freedoms, while protesting against the puritanical prejudices of their prudish parents. World War 1 was done and dusted; for the first time the kids had their own culture, slang, music, and fashion and they were celebrating a bright future. With our collective shithouse going up in flames, today’s youth realize they’ll be lucky to have a future at all, and they’re responding with early nights and sound investments, leaving the grind of reckless revelry to those of us who know how to do it properly. Older and wiser, it’s my generation that needs to light the way: we have years of experience behaving disgracefully, but we don’t yet need help getting up the stairs. This decade, I vote for more tuxedos and cocktails, late nights, off-centre party hats, and general abandon. Who’s with me?!

(Pssst… want more like this? Enter your email address top right!)

Stadium Rock, Topless Women, and Some Potty Talk: 3 Days in Jakarta

It’s about 30 minutes before showtime at An Unnamed Jazz Club in Jakarta, Indonesia. I’m sitting in the green room, but I can hear the pleasant buzz of a jazz club rolling into action. Customers chatter as they’re led to their tables, waiters deliver drinks, bartenders mix cocktails and ignore thirsty musicians, the PA plays something that’s probably jazz but isn’t quite loud enough to hear. Then a mechanical whirring sound coming from the stage prompts me to poke my head out for a closer look. A giant screen is being lowered behind the stage. I can’t really envision a situation in which this is a good thing. 

 In my younger days in Australia, a big screen behind the stage meant there was a football game on and we were expected to stand and play in front of it, obstructing the patrons’ view, and cementing their already deeply held hatred of jazz and jazz musicians. But this was a fancy joint- surely we could expect something appropriate… maybe video of a classic live jazz performance to get folks in the mood? Perhaps images of jazz greats accompanied by something swinging and understated? How about a stadium rock show featuring wailing guitars, pounding drums, and a posturing frontman, with audio pumped up to 11? It’s going to be that last one, isn’t it. The club was suddenly transformed into Wembley Stadium as Freddie Mercury prowled the stage and promised to rock us. Now I dig Queen, but there’s a time and place- we’re trying to create an atmosphere here… I took my displeasure to the manager who explained that the owner’s son was on his way to the club. He’d called from the car to say he expected to arrive to Queen. He wanted “Hammer to Fall” on his entrance. Sometimes things look the same around the world, but the differences are lurking just below the surface. I threw my hands in the air and grumbled my way back to the greenroom. In the end the show went fine, the hyped-up Jakarta audience showing their appreciation for serious jazz by bouncing a beachball around the club and hoisting topless women on their shoulders.

37529
“Who’s ready for some JAZZ!!?”

 15 floors up from this debacle was the Hempton Suite. I’d negotiated a hotel room in this 5-star pile as part of my hilarious remuneration package; it was my first 5-star experience and I was making the most of it. Holding imaginary business meetings in my “office;” allowing the pool attendant to dry me with an actual living chamois; reclining theatrically, Pimms in hand, on my daybed; phoning my imaginary agent from the bathtub; and finally getting to know the intricacies of the Toto Washlet electronic commode. Let me tell you- once you’ve Toto’d, it’s hard to go back. A perfectly warmed seat, startlingly accurate water jets streaming from all directions, and a puff of warm air all leave you floating on a cloud of dazed satisfaction.  I can’t be sure, but as I left the room, I could’ve sworn it whispered “good boy.” Anyway, I’m starting a crowdfunding campaign so I can afford a Toto Washlet of my own. I think it’s a worthy cause, and no more a vanity project than most other crowdfunded endeavours.

FANCY TOILETS

The secret to enjoying a fancy hotel in Jakarta is conveniently forgetting the appalling poverty right outside your window. I took a stroll to a nearby market, thinking I’d get the feel of the place, maybe take some photos, and eat something tasty. I soon realized t’s not like other places. When you hit the streets in China, the locals might glance at you curiously. In Thailand they smile at you. In Vietnam, they ignore you. In Jakarta, as soon as I left the hotel’s manicured grounds, I was on narrow dirt roads, hopping daintily over piles of trash and dead rats, thoughts of street food tripping over each other to get out of my brain. The markets were the expected industrious hubbub, but the people would stop what they were doing to stare vacantly at me as I passed. I took a few photos then stuffed my phone in my pocket when I realized that not a single person had a phone in their hand. How they maintain any sort of Social Media presence is beyond me.  

The problem was, I was pathetically under-prepared for a visit to Jakarta. It was only three nights so I hadn’t bothered researching where to go or how to get there. On my night off I managed to get a cab to take me to a nearby restaurant specializing in fried duck, which seems to be somewhat of a local delicacy. As I strolled in, the staff froze and gave me the stare, before huddling up for a heated discussion, seemingly deciding whether to serve me or not. I guess I passed inspection, and was presented with an indecipherable menu. My helpless jabbing was soon rewarded with a hunk of fried duck, white rice, a pile of fresh herbs, and a pot of fiery, salty, eyeball-melting sambal, all served on a banana leaf. I turned to point out that they’d forgotten to give me utensils, when I noticed my neighbours in up to their wrists. I jumped in with eager fingers and made a right mess of it- it’s harder than it looks. Now I love to have a stab at the local customs but I’m sorry- you’re aware of the invention of the spoon and you’re going to persist in eating rice with your fingers? I think you’re just being obstinate at this point. Anyway, it was delicious, and next time I’ll do my research and have more food stories for you.

IMG_2282

For now, until that kickstarter campaign comes through, I’ve constructed my own Toto Washlet out of a length of old garden hose and a portable fan heater, so I’m off to try it out! More soon…

(Dig this? Enter your email address top right, and you’ll get the next one right in the inbox!)

A Page from the Jetlag Diary: Bangkok

Bangkok. I haven’t slept properly in ten days and thing are getting weird. So many hours lying awake in the dark, hoping against hope that unconsciousness will overtake me; always just slightly too hot or too cold. I feel myself drifting towards the blackness, but I never get beyond limbo.  Every day I eventually give up and stumble out of the hotel and try to make something of the day, but today even the gentlest of exertions seems beyond me. At noon I drift out into violence, the merciless South East Asian sunshine piercing my corneas like a hot needle. The chaos of central Bangkok leaves me disoriented and bewildered- roaring motos, gasoline fumes, sputtering tuk-tuks, their drivers’ garbled voices as they race by. The familiar but overwhelming smells: wok smoke from the food carts, sickly sweet durian, fish sauce? Dog shit? Normally fairly adventurous, all I can think of now is comfort, reassurance, familiarity; the pleasant thrill of communicating through the language barrier to procure a plate of green curry almost unimaginable now. I weave, dazed, down the street, perception skewed, the road rippling, sudden shimmering troughs appearing underfoot; every car horn, engine rev, child’s scream grates my nerve endings. I’m going to eat a hamburger, I just know it. It goes against all my principles of international travel; I’m going to despise myself, and worse, I know it’s way more likely to make me sick than anything from a rusty food cart down the end of a cat infested back alley. I perch on a stool in the horrendous western-style bar- the type specializing in “international cuisine”: pasta, Thai classics, fish & chips. I slog through the greasy overcooked overpriced burger, trying to keep my eyes averted from the horribly brutal Muay Thai accosting me from multiple big-screens. It’s precisely the bad decision I knew it would be, but deep down, I’m ashamed to admit, it’s meeting a deep need. I trudge the two blocks back to the hotel, where I look down and realise I’m clutching the sodden, crumpled napkin from the bar, like some kind of security blanket. I can’t see an end to this.

original_open-uri20131220-25942-rl9j8x


 

 I’ve experienced an unwelcome feeling of lethargy or indecisiveness this trip. Beijing and Bangkok are two resoundingly exotic locations I’ve visited several times before, and while still undeniably strange and mysterious, still largely unfathomable, I’ve now done a lot of the things I wanted to do here- eaten the must-try foods, seen a few of the standout sites- and I find myself feeling constrained by a kind of apathy, maybe because the gob-smacking awe is gone. I’m far from comfortable, but it’s starting to feel a little familiar. 

 With no plan in mind, I took a packed commuter boat across the Chao Phraya, the muddy, polluted river that snakes through Bangkok. It dropped me at Wang Lang market- a maze of alleyways crammed with stalls selling a bewildering assortment of goods mostly aimed at the locals. I waded in, but before long the tight spaces and constant bodily contact drove me to a deserted riverside bar where I nursed a Singha beer and contemplated my surroundings. Brazenly predictable Thai pop music floated blandly from nearby speakers and mixed with the sounds of the river: shouts of passing riverboat drivers as they leaned almost into the water to pull off hairpin turns; the rumble and fart of their smoke-spewing and apparently homemade engines; their wake splashing against the stone wall below me. I watched the river carrying the detritus of an overcrowded, rapidly sinking capital: plastic bottles, discarded children’s toys, a single flip flop. Some kind of small heron-like bird watched me as it floated by on a clump of weeds. I tried to climb inside this little universe but I still felt like I was watching the action through a screen. I was in it but not of it.

 

In the end I found an answer to my listlessness where I should have known to look all along: at the bottom of a bowl of extraordinary Tom Yum soup from the excellent Mit Ko Yuan. Chewy lemongrass stalks, roughly torn-up lime leaves, ferocious chillies, clumps of cilantro, and whole giant prawn heads just begging to have the restorative goo sucked out of them. Weird, this travel thing- it’s different every time. But with a stomach full of local good stuff, tongue on fire and veins pumping with chilli-induced endorphins, I don’t worry about it quite as much.

(Thanks for reading! If you want the next one sent straight to your inbox, enter your email address top right of this page… Cheers, Nick)

Ducking and Weaving: A Night On the Town, Beijing

 I’ve eaten some pretty interesting stuff in Beijing, often involving the insides and outsides; the heads, shoulders, knees, and toes of a wide range of God’s creatures. But here, on my fourth trip to the capital, I was determined to try some transcendental Peking duck. I’d attempted it before: a few years ago a well-meaning Beijing musician, hearing me talk about it, made a big fuss of presenting me with some sweaty shopping bags full of greasy takeout duck, which I dutifully cooed over while surreptitiously depositing in my shirt pocket. This time I was taking no chances. Hours of mouth-watering internet research led me to Siji Minfu Roast Duck Shop, an hour’s walk from my hotel, past some of Beijing’s most famous attractions, which I must go and look at sometime. I presented myself to the young woman at the hostess station who thrust a ticket in my hand and snapped “two hours!” I was prepared for this. I trundled off and explored the surrounding Wangfujing shopping district, browsed in the English language bookstore (where I bought a translation of a Chinese novel which claims to recount “the exuberant misadventures of the hapless hero Fang Hung-chien.” I’ll let you know…); got desperately lost in a massive, blindingly-lit, but eerily quiet shopping mall; and heard a choir at St Joseph’s Wangfujing Church impart the Catholic Hymnal with all the soothing, warm vocal timbre of Chinese Opera. By this point I’d lost track of time, so went back to the restaurant where the woman gave me a look that clearly said, “I told you two hours so you’d go away and not come back!” I waited another half hour while a robot voice shrieked (presumably) ticket numbers in Mandarin, until I was given a nod, and led into the dining room.

images-1
Hanging out at Siji Minfu

A whole roasted duck was brought to my table and presented for my approval- I figured it was like tasting a wine before it’s poured, so I played it cool, grabbed the thing and held it up to the light. I then took a small bite, swirled it around in my mouth, spat it on the floor, and gave the waiter an indifferent nod. His look of astonishment was undoubtedly due to my unexpected expertise. Someone got a little respect that night.

 In the end, it was ok. Crispy skin, tender meat, refined and correct- they clearly know what they’re doing. This probably marks me as a barbarian, but I’ll take fatty, salty, loud, uncouth Hong Kong-style duck any day. And because this was a classy, high-end joint, they couldn’t be seen to serve the local water-beer… my meal was paired with a flirty, slightly rambunctious Budweiser. 

 Dinner was over in no time, so with most of the evening still ahead of me, I decided to knock something else off my list. Every culture has their fire-water, and I consider it my duty as a conscientious traveler to try it wherever I go. The Chinese go for a drink called Baijiu: a clear spirit usually made from rice or sorghum, with an astronomical alcohol content. It’s the world’s most popular spirit, outselling whisky, vodka, gin, rum and tequila combined, but you’d be hard pressed to find it outside of China. The Chinese don’t really go for bars- they do their drinking at restaurants or at home, Baijiu being a central part of any banquet- but I found one decidedly hipster joint specializing in the stuff, so my duck and I waddled over. According to the Jakarta Post, “kinder critics say it evokes truffles or burning plastic, while less generous descriptions have included “industrial cleaning solvent” and “liquid razor blades.”” I don’t remember having this kind of negative reaction, but having tried six different kinds, I don’t remember much at all. 

image
Baijiu tasting at http://www.capitalspiritsbj.com (photo: https://www.travelandleisure.com)

In the end, a successful outing; if nothing else, I felt I had a bellyful of China that night. And if you ever want to tell me your deepest, most shameful secrets, load me up with half a dozen shots of Baiju, and I guarantee I’ll forget everything. Also, thanks to whoever it was whose doorstep I slept on.

Coarse Language, Adult Themes, and some Boning

There’s something very satisfying abut Italian swearing. It’s all so percussive and hissing; all those “k” and “ts” sounds. Fluency in obscenities is a skill I respect greatly, and the Italians have it down to an art: the drawn-out vowel sounds, the spitting consonants, combined with flaming eyes and wildly disproportionate gesticulations. It was a display like this, admittedly with a fairly strong Australian accent, that burst from the front seat of our car, lodged in traffic somewhere between Milan and Bologna. 

 My mate Adam is generally a calm, even-tempered sort of chap. We’ve known each other for 20-something years, from back in our Sydney days. He settled in Italy about ten years ago and seems to be well and truly ensconced. Not only a world class drummer, he’s exactly the guy you need on the ground when you’re a hungry, thirsty traveler. Need a late-morning beer? Adam knows an Irish bloke who runs a liquor store- grab something from their bafflingly large beer selection and neck it on the street outside! No lunch plans? He knows just the spot for that weird local delicacy you’ve been dying to try (this trip it was Pajata and Coratella- google it if you must); a cheeky glass of wine before the gig? Absolutely! A night off in Milan? There’s an Osso Buco joint he’s been meaning to try. We might get lost, ripped off, stranded beside a freeway, but it’ll aways be a good hang. But this was a test.

 The Italian Job so far had been a whirlwind. I’d flown into Milan, napped in the world’s smallest Air BnB, played a gig where I was essentially accompanying a table of snacks, napped again, caught the three-hour train to Rome where I played two nights at Gregory’s with the great Joe Magnarelli, caught the train back to Milan, played a couple of gigs, napped again, went to France for a few days, back to Milan for a quick nap, and now we were headed to a gig in Bologna. The fruity language was because the ride that was supposed to take us from Bologna, right after the gig, to a jazz festival some two hours away, had suddenly vanished, and Adam wasn’t happy. It would be 2am, there’d be no public transport, and nobody driving that way. Frantic phone calls were made to festival directors, local musicians, relatives, massage parlours (unrelated), bike rentals, mob drivers, and all for nought. 

 We arrived at Cantina Bentivoglio, a cavernous restaurant/jazz club in Bologna, where the pre-show meal of mountains of carpaccio and the famous pasta al ragu acted as somewhat of a salve to our gnawing trepidation of the night ahead. We had a ball playing a set of swingers to a large and appreciative audience, from a stage that had previously been graced by jazz legends like Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, and Mal Waldron; and at the end of the show, Adam had received a message: a solution had been found. 

 Our ever-patient organist, Niccolo, was to drive us 40 minutes out of his way, and deposit us on a freeway off-ramp, where we were to wait for a man with a trombone (a trombonist, in other words), whom we would trust to drive us to the next gig. Adam and I waited shivering by the roadside, traffic whizzing by, gazing morosely at the terrifying Facebook profile photo of our Apollo- the wild hair, the insane eyes, the trombone- and questioned our life choices. Was this the end of the line? Were we about to be boned? I don’t know how a trombonist would choose to kill his victim, but you can be sure it would be messy, torturous, and boring. 

D7E44912-A5A2-4D1D-AD8B-B9B2C1F1EBF8 3
One last selfie. Nicko, Niccolo, Adam

 A brown, 90s-model station wagon of indistinct brand screeched to a halt beside us, and Marco* sprang out. Whether his lack of communication was due to his not speaking English, or because the homicidal voices in his head were making it hard to concentrate, we’ll never know, but not a word was spoken. We loaded our gear, vowed to call our mothers more often if we survived, and strapped in for the ride. With a squeal of rubber we were off- speed limits were blithely ignored, other motorists run off the road, corners were taken on two wheels (the front ones!), and a curious whining noise we all assumed came from the clapped out engine, turned out to emanate from me. 

 I’d like to tell you how the night ended, but some kind of stress response has caused me to block the memory entirely. It seems somehow I survived, although I’ve developed a debilitating stutter. But if anybody knows of Adam’s whereabouts, you should probably contact the authorities. And ask him for the address of that Osso Buco place.

*his real name

Psssst! Did you dig this? Enter your email address (top right) and you’ll get the next one quick smart!

 

Bars: Italians do it Better

One of my idle fantasies, when I’m not plotting world domination (any day now), or fuming about technology and young people (every day now), is opening a bar. Not because I have any great desire to be a small business owner, but because the kind of place in which I like to hang out just doesn’t exist where I live. You know, a good place. Where people from the neighborhood drop in for a coffee or a beer, to have a chat or read the newspaper, to take a few minutes or a few hours out of their day and it doesn’t cost them a fortune. Where you can escape the chaos outside without being assaulted by musical and televisual chaos inside. Where there are a few good things to eat and drink, and everyone’s welcome. Like they do it in Italy.img_1527

 

Italian art’s great, they sing a cracking opera, their historical monuments are top shelf, but the Italian bar is a thing of unrivaled beauty. Stand at the bar of an afternoon and order a coffee and maybe a cheeky grappa, take your time stirring in the sugar, smile at the girl working the cigarette counter, and soak it in. The muted chatter of the locals, the soccer playing silently on a tiny screen in the corner, the smell of coffee grounds; unfamiliar multicolored spirits being freely poured into shot glasses; the crunch of your shoes on the slightly gritty tiled floor and maybe an errant cigarette butt to remind you of the days when the joint would’ve been thick with smoke. The thimbleful of thick, bittersweet coffee, a perfect layer of light brown crema on the surface; you’ll down it in two sips, and want another one straightaway, but be prepared for an uncertain look from your barista- the Italians do it one at a time. Slip a coin or two on the bar, call “ciao, grazie” to your barman, and you’re out.

d6e2117e-911c-486a-bd48-a39b6e15a8e9Come back late in the evening and the atmosphere will have changed. Work’s done for the day, and the locals are getting stuck into the aperitivos. In theory it’s an evening drink, usually something slightly bitter, slightly sweet, maybe bubbly, designed to get your taste buds ready for dinner. But in bars, especially in Milan, the drinks are often accompanied by appetizers, sometimes so substantial that the evening aperitivo can replace dinner. Buy a negroni, help yourself to the free grub: bruschetta, roasted eggplant, fried zucchini, caponata (sort of a sweet and sour Sicilian eggplant stew), focaccia- maybe switch to wine at this point- pasta, anchovies, olives… Round it off with another espresso and my current favorite after-dinner drink, Fernet, and you’ll feel like a million lira. Language boundaries have melted away, and you realize you’re suddenly fluent in nods and smiles and previously impenetrable hand gestures. Come back tomorrow, and chances are your new friends will be there again.

img_1529

Let’s face it, “Nick’s Bar” is best kept a fantasy. My reasonable prices would keep the influencers away, and within a week we’d be out of stock, staff would have quit, and I’d be trying to sell box wine in paper cups because I never got around to doing the dishes. I guess I’ll leave it to the specialisti. See you at il bar.