Quarantine Dreams pt 2

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m standing in front of my open fridge, staring mindlessly at the same sad selection of wilting food I stared at yesterday and the day before. But you’d be wrong. I’m actually edging my way through the crowds at the Old Airport Road Hawker Centre in Geylang, Singapore. It’s a squat, two level concrete pile, open to the elements on all sides; it feels a little like a converted parking garage. Round metal tables are bolted to the floor, surrounded by similarly affixed stools, all of them occupied. I’m never going to find a seat. 

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 Hawker Centres are where everyone goes to eat in Singapore. The streets of this tiny island used to be crowded with food vendors until authorities started cracking down in the 60s, eventually corralling them all inside easily controlled and inspected buildings. So now it’s row upon row of individual stalls selling a brain melting array of delicious things, each vendor usually specialising in one thing; and despite the apparent chaos, like everything in Singapore, the joint is spotless and organised. 

 I’m starving, but I’m not ordering anything until I’ve made a complete lap of the place. The din is overwhelming– hawkers shouting their specials, customers calling to friends to hold a table or bring more spoons– a cheerful, musical hubbub bouncing around the brutal concrete walls. Traffic pouring along the Old Airport Road makes itself known, the steady rumble of workday traffic providing a static bass line to the cacophony. The humidity is extraordinary; giant industrial fans do their best, but it makes little difference. It’s a baking wet heat but no one really notices– it’s like this every day.

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 I wander the aisles, trying not to run into people, tables, carts loaded with dirty dishes. I feel conspicuous– the tall white guy stands out around here– but nobody seems to care. As long as I don’t get in the way, I’m as welcome as anyone. The food here is mostly Chinese and Malay: Satay, Laksa, barbecued chicken, noodles, curry puffs, the famous Hainan Chicken Rice, Sambal Stingray, frog porridge, fish curry… My strategy here is to find the longest queue and get on it. I try not to come here with a meal in mind, I want to try what’s good, what’s got the locals lining up. Honestly though, I’m hoping it’s the sticky, fatty, char-siew from those princes of barbecued pork at Roast Paradise… 

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  Appearances can be deceiving. It looks like I’m sitting on the couch, watching travel documentaries, nursing my 18th cup of tea for the day– but I’m not. I’m actually sitting on a plastic stool in an open air bar in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Technically I’m inside, but there’s no front wall, so I’m effectively on the street. At 5 o’clock every evening, all around the city, the shutters go up on corner bars and folks start piling in. It’s called Bia Hoi- either the type of bar or the daily routine, I’ve never been sure which, but either way, it translates to a sort of Happy Hour. The joint is already loud and raucous, working men (it’s mostly men) getting loose and boisterous.

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 All the surfaces are shiny white tile, the floor already stained with spilled beer and fish sauce, cigarette butts, clumps of cilantro. I gaze out at the heaving street just metres away, the roiling waves of roaring motorbikes and brave cyclists flanked by rows of stained crumbling colonial houses. Banyan trees lean precariously over the melee, the hanging vines waiting for the right moment to grab a distracted rider. The thunder of gunning engines choking on cheap gasoline is pushed to every corner of my bar by a single overworked ceiling fan. Cooking smells are everywhere in the Old Quarter, and here the unmistakable waft from a deep fryer melds with the beer, petrol fumes, end-of-work-day humanity. The place is getting busy, office workers are getting rowdier, waitresses are sliding between tables, dropping off beers and small plates of drinking food. And over in the corner, quietly watching, a young bloke sits alone beside a keg of beer, his thumb over the attached length of garden hose, ready for the next order.

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 Here’s how it works. Find an empty stool and sit on it. Within seconds a small glass of beer will appear on the plastic table in front of you. Drink it. It doesn’t have a lot of flavour, maybe because it was brewed this morning, but it’s ice cold and refreshing. Put down your empty glass and it will be replaced with a full one. Drink this too. Repeat. They’ll bring you beer until you tell them to stop. I’ve had three or four, and I’m getting peckish. I see the old guys at the next table eating something, but there are no menus, so I get the waitress’ attention and make the img_7997-1universal mime for eating, then point to what they’ve got. She disappears, and minutes later I’ve got fish cakes! Intensely flavoured, deep fried discs of deliciousness, accompanied by the ubiquitous Nuoc Cham- salty, limey, sweet, spicy dipping sauce. I polish them off, down another beer and stop. The chili, the lime, the oily crunchy fish, the icy beer, the blistering heat, the roaring traffic, the happy drunken voices shouting in a language I can’t begin to decipher; they all wage some epic battle in my brain, while I sit there, blissed out, on top of the world.

 

Lately these fantasies have been hijacking my scattered mind more and more. With no chance to realise them in the near future, I’ve taken refuge in the kitchen, trying desperately and  inexpertly to recreate the flavours and aromas I remember from the tours I made in a previous life. I’ve cooked up a mean Pho from scratch, causing raised eyebrows from the assistants at the butcher’s with my orders of pig’s feet and cow knees; simmering them for hours to make a broth so gelatinous I had to fight it to get my wooden spoon back. I fill my entire apartment with thick smoke as I stirfy prawns that have been marinating in fish sauce, lime juice and sugar- the holy trinity of South East Asian flavours. Fiery green curries, a disastrous laksa, grilled pork belly and meatballs for Bun Cha, washing it all down with Thai beer– I’m giving it my best shot. But so much of any experience comes down to context. Even if I could somehow recreate exactly that plate of grilled prawns my brother and I shared on our first night in Bangkok years ago, it wouldn’t taste anything the same. The utilitarian metal-topped table, the box of tissues in its cheap pink plastic holder, the crinkled plastic-covered menu, the droning fans, the smell from the fish tanks, the gasping humidity, the rumble and shriek of drunken humanity, the jaw dropping, brain melting weirdness of it all – all these things went into making those prawns taste the way they did, at that moment, on those rickety stools, in that crowded restaurant. My efforts at recreation are doomed to be pale washed-out facsimiles. But after a few more of these Thai beers, they might be close enough.


 

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The Lockdown Diary: A View from the Stoop

I’m outside, I’m unmasked, I’m ungloved, and I’m loving it. Go ahead, @ me all you like. I’m breathing my particles into the sweet spring air, and there’s nothing you squares can do to stop me! Ok let me explain. I live in a cramped ground-floor studio apartment in picturesque Jersey City, New Jersey. Walled in on all sides by hideous apartment blocks, my flat gets no natural light, which suits my vampiric lifestyle perfectly. But I’m starting to think this perpetual shadow dwelling might not be great for my health. I just Googled the symptoms of rickets. So I’ve drawn an imaginary line out front of my building, I’m keeping my distance, and I’m spending the afternoon on the stoop.

It’s a classic Northeast spring day, the street feels alive and almost relaxed; quarantine couples stroll arm in arm, the weeks of imprisonment-bickering momentarily forgotten, the sudden warmth melting worry lines from foreheads. An old fellow straddling a giant shiny pushbike, Puerto Rican flags flying off the back, cruises by; salsa blasting from a handlebar-mounted speaker. I’ve got everything I need- book, sunnies, ridiculous hat; and arrayed about me, an absurdly lavish picnic. There’s a pate de foie gras and arugula sandwich, a coffee mug of pickles (toe-curling full-sours from the pickle man at the farmers market), a leg and thigh from last night’s roast chicken (a Thomas Keller recipe absolutely worth the three-day process), a dozen mushy cloves of roasted garlic from the same, to be sucked from their skins between courses; a wax paper parcel barely containing a giant collapsing slab of gooey French stink-cheese, and some kind of salad which will just go back in the fridge. And of course a bottle of Portuguese red in a paper bag (for convention’s sake), and a big plastic cup (I ran out of straws.)

The city came by last week and uprooted the old trees from out front. They seemed pretty healthy to me, and we were old mates, so I’m sad to see them go, but the quivering saplings just planted in their place seem to be settling in well, despite every dog on the block joyfully unloading on them while their owners stare at their phones. They each have a blue tag attached to a lower branch with their latin names; I’m sure we’ll be friends, although Syringa Reticulata is a tad standoffish. I’ve renamed him Rudyard Sapling for no good reason.

 My annoying neighbour comes out and looks pointedly at my lunch- ooh, what do we have here? He’s not a bad guy, but he’s really chatty, and I’m enjoying my book. I know he’s a vegetarian because he tells me every time he sees me, so I lie. “Stewed pig’s foot, tripe sandwich, camel hump carpaccio, glass of beef jus– cheers!” Appalled, he backs away and scuttles off. I feel mildly guilty, but am thinking more about how good that camel hump sounds. How moist would it be!?

The air in these parts is always pretty clear- the Atlantic’s not far and the sea breeze seems to sweep much of the pollution away- but these days, with so few cars on the road, you can really smell the ocean in the air. Actually, that might be pickle brine. Spring is short around here- in a few weeks it’ll be revoltingly humid and gritty- you really have to grab it while you can. My mate Zet passes by, we break the rules and fist bump, talk jazz and food for a minute. Zet is a fellow saxophonist and an enthusiastic cook, and crucially, lives across from our local, very popular, butcher. If I text him before I head over, he’ll poke his head out the window and see how long the line is. I must remember to introduce myself to the folks who live opposite the wine shop.

I score a “what’s up buddy?” from the imposingly proportioned supermarket bouncer as a delivery truck grunts and belches to a halt outside the store two doors down. He’s there to let folks in one at a time– supermarkets are the new nightclubs. Suddenly it’s all action. The store’s been open every day throughout the lockdown and some of the guys haven’t taken a day off. They’re all out front now, masked up, calling directions, encouragement, insults to each other in Spanish as they stack pallets on the sidewalk. I hope they understand that while it looks like I’m lazing in the sun, licking foie gras off my fingers and washing it down with cheap plonk, while half-reading Somerset Maugham, I’m actually doing research for a very important blog post, and my work is just as strenuous as theirs. Solidarity, my brothers! Cheers! This wine’s tasting better and better.

Don’t look now but the new girl from upstairs has just rounded the corner. She’s going to love this. I don’t know if it’s the saxophone practice, the hysterical 3am laughter (that’s Simpsons time), the smoke alarm I set off whenever I stirfry, or the flaming bags of dog poo I leave outside her door every night, but she doesn’t like me one bit; and nothing seems to infuriate her like seeing me soaking up some rays on the stoop. Yep she’s spotted me and her carefree sashay has morphed into a self-righteous clomp; her hair swings in violent umbrage; the eyes above her daisy-print face-mask a pair of angry raisins. With my trademark timing, as she’s mounting the bottom step, I’m inserting a large sweaty oozing pile of cheese into my mouth. I foolishly attempt a smile and a neighbourly greeting, which comes out more as a thick gurgle. Her response as she sweeps by is muffled by the daisies, but I think she mentioned the foie. 

At this point, I feel my work here is done. Time is marching on, and that nap’s not going to take itself. I collect my things and retreat, a trifle unsteadily (too much sun I suppose), back into the enveloping gloom of my hovel. A shot of virgin’s blood then back in the coffin. Night night.


 

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, there are a few things you can do… Enter your email below, or at the top right of the home page so the next one goes straight to your inbox! Share it with your friends on your social media (share buttons are below– don’t forget to tag me @ NickHemptonBand)! Or even throw a few bucks in the tip jar! https://paypal.me/nickhempton  Cheers, Nick

Discovering Wild Food– Lights Out, Blinds Drawn

This post first appeared on the short-lived “A Hare After Midnight

 

I’m not a weirdo. Honest I’m not. But we all have those moments of weakness, don’t we? It’s late, you’re tired and hungry, sitting in the dark, scouring the internet for some kind of solace, when you see an ad. Normally you’d give a derisive snort and scroll right by, but tonight you’re vulnerable, and you think, “why not?” And before you know it, you’ve clicked on an ad for Freshly Plucked Young Quails In Your Area. And you’re back on the D’Artagnan website.

I never understood the appeal of window shopping- gazing at stuff you can’t afford and wouldn’t know what to do with- until I discovered this wondrous website with its seductive pictures of trussed pigeons and tumid French garlic sausages. I’ve spent hours drooling over photos of pheasants, descriptions of duck fat, pictures of partridges; intrigued but intimidated, and too nervous to make the first move. After tolerating this victual voyeurism for weeks, my patient and long-suffering better-half exploded, “just order the phucking pheasants!”

img_7165 They arrived on my stoop in a styrofoam box: two small red parcels of gamey goodness, practically begging me not to screw them up. I’d done a bit of Googling to get some ideas for preparation- I wanted to keep it simple so I could really taste the thing- and decided to base my attempt on this recipe from Hank Shaw’s excellent blog: https://honest-food.net/roast-pheasant-recipe/. 

First step was brining: soaking the birds in salty water, ostensibly to flavour and tenderise the meat. I’ve heard of this- usually in reference to the Thanksgiving turkey- and I’ve always dismissed it as time-wasting chef-wankery. Because I’m an idiot who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Brining is in fact amazing and you should do it whenever you can. Leave some time for this- boiling the water and spices is quick, but bringing it back to room temperature takes a while- and you’ll need some kind of bucketimg_7166 big enough to float your birds. (I’ll discuss the pathetic paucity of pots and pans in my kitchen in a future post, but it’s sufficient to say that if a recipe calls for specific implement or utensil, I’m almost certain not to have it. But this time, miraculously, the perfect plastic pail was languishing anonymously in the back corner of a cabinet. It’s small victories like this that get me out of bed in the afternoon.) Then it’s essentially treating your pheasants to a sort of sensory deprivation therapy, clearing their minds of stress and worry before they’re bundled into a blazing oven and eaten. While this is happening, amuse yourself and others by watching the rosy little birds bobbing around and singing the theme song to Pinky and the Brine. Hilarious.

img_7167 My second new experience was trussing. This I’ve never considered before because it looks impossibly fiddly, and honestly I’m still not convinced of its impact on the final product. But it’s kind of fun, and makes you feel like a pro. I recommend putting on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack and giving in to your disciplinarian urges: that pheasant has been very naughty, and deserves to be tied up. Slip on some leather chaps if it helps.

Here are a couple of helpful instructional videos:

https://youtu.be/x3bieEEYEAk

https://youtu.be/VxlcSzMOG9o

 At this point, it was 1 AM,  preparation was complete, and it was time to pour a cocktail and pump up some music. In our kitchen the choice was martinis and Count Basie. You might prefer a Manhattan and Mahler. But if you’re stuck (and you dig the jazz), I’ve assembled a Spotify playlist for you- it’s down the bottom. The drink is up to you.

 From here on in, if you’ve roasted a chicken before, this is plain sailing. I liked Hank’s use of high and low temperatures, but I don’t think I cooked it as long as he suggested. Like it’s an elderly neighbour, just check on it from time to time and jab it with a thermometer. But remember it’s not a chicken- cook it fully and it’ll be dry- you want your birds medium rare and blushing coquettishly.

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 Mere days before they ended up on our plates, these guys had been flapping happily over the Scottish moors, gorging themselves on berries and, I don’t know…heather? Whatever, this high-flying lifestyle must have a real impact because these pheasants were freaking delicious. This was my first foray into the world of wild food, and it’s going to be tough going back to those flabby miserable cage-raised, drug-pumped, soy-fed supermarket birds. Anyway, I hear a key in the door- gotta go clear my browser history…

 Have you pheasanted? Going to try it? Leave any thoughts or questions down there in the comments! More soon…

Music for Roasting Pheasants:
https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/nickhemptonband/playlist/4qB4neUDpjjqF9inYyXzzV

Countless Ways to Pummel Your Soul (You Won’t Believe #382!)

The “content providers” are having their moment. It’s their day in the sun. We’re all stuck inside, getting fat and depressed, drinking every night as though the last presidential election results just came in, because they’re coming in every day. Our bodies are complaining, joints voicing their displeasure as we creakily retrieve that slice of pizza from the floor; our minds are getting soft and mushy, dull but for the occasional spark of anger or indignation, lit by a poorly worded tweet or another manipulative news item. “Get In Shape At Home!” “15 Exercises You Can Do Without Leaving The Couch!” “Build Muscle While You Bake!” Articles promising to show you how to cook with what you have, cook cheap, keep your kids occupied so you don’t cook them; maybe some addressing your mental health: solutions for anxiety, insomnia, realism. The lifestyle editors know your guilt and fear, and in these difficult times, they’re here to help. They know what’s best for you, body and mind. But what about your poor battered, forsaken little soul?

 As a young man I scoffed at the concept of a soul. I was a cold hearted nihilist on a mission of self destruction. It was tremendous fun. On reflection, however, it occurs to me that my soul might have taken a look at my life choices and buggered off to the Bahamas for a few years. Judging by recent dreams, I have a suspicion it inhabited the body of a handsome young bartender who got all the girls thanks to the sweet yet heartbreaking poetry he could spout on request. That was MY action! But now, in 2020, having returned to the folds of my crumbling carcass I bet it’s looking around and questioning its own decisions.

 It seems we’ve adapted to our current predicament surprisingly well. We’re inside all the time, we’re keeping our distance; the everyday things we could never imagine living without, we’re living without. But one consequence that isn’t getting much airtime is that my soul hurts and so does yours. It’s almost like this virus was designed to stop humans connecting with each other in every way. We can’t see each other, we can’t touch each other, we can’t even get close enough to hear each other. Stifled by our masks of sorrow, even something as seemingly insignificant but enormously reassuring as seeing another person smile, has been taken away. (And far worse than smelling someone else’s fetid breath, we’re now constantly confronted with our own.) Who knows when we’ll have a shared experience again. The little things: rumours and gossip we heard at the bar, complete with visual footnotes– a raised eyebrow, a sardonic twist of the lips, gesticulations, inflections; a story that concluded with genuine laughter– laughter you could actually feel in your body, which can’t be replicated by a tear-streaming emoji. A drunken confession to a stranger at 3am; an argument about the state of the world or a minor difference of opinion– voices raised, barstools scraping, the physical feeling of fist on bar; then the resolution, a laugh and a round of drinks as we recognised our shared human ridiculousness.

  Even my heretofore steadfast misanthropy is wavering, causing me to latch on to the smallest human interaction. The other day I spent a very pleasurable 10 minutes on the stoop, trying to explain live streaming to my 80 year old neighbour Eddie. He’s a sharp old bloke who digs jazz, and had heard that this is how musicians are doing gigs nowadays. He puffed thoughtfully on his cigar as I did my level best to untangle some technological wizardry I don’t really understand myself, and at the end his expression was a dubious “thanks for trying.” But we ended on a joke, and my spirits were lifted. And I won’t get into the feelings I have for the strapping young hero who now delivers my wine, but he’s lucky I’m adhering to the distancing rules.

Many people seem to assume that digital interaction is the next best thing, and I have to admit to seeking occasional solace in the shadier corners of the internet, where French fowl providers pimp their wares– young wild birds with firm breasts and freshly plucked thighs (I like ‘em tied up– I have trussed issues). The screen is the easiest distraction, but it might not be the most helpful: I rarely feel better after watching a movie, just two hours older; and the little parts of my brain where bitterness and resentment are supposed to be quietly suffocating suddenly light up with outraged enthusiasm whenever I open up Twitter. As for zoom, I’m happy for you if you like it, but it’s all my anxiety triggers in one handy app. I feel like I’m at a dinner party, but when I discreetly try to ask my neighbour where the WC is located, the whole table goes silent and listens.  

So what to do? We’ve all seen videos of Italians singing to each other from their balconies, but let’s face it, Italians are just better at that kind of thing. Sitting on the stoop and blowing kisses to passing strangers rarely gets the warm reception you might hope for. So if I can’t have humans, I’ll take humanity. Connecting with mankind via the things that have sustained us through the millennia. Today I plan to cook beans in cast iron for breakfast, bake some dark bread, listen to Bach and Louis, loudly recite Byron, maybe make some fire water out of whatever it is that’s already fermenting in the back of the fridge. And tonight I’ll dress myself in a loin cloth (make one out of a bandana- instructions on the web), reach out the window, grab a squirrel, and cook it on an open fire on the kitchen floor. Feel free to join me, wherever you are. And if you want to compete the ritual by sacrificing one of the kids’ teddybears to the gods, that’s your call.


 

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this, there are a few things you can do… Enter your email below, or at the top right of the home page so the next one goes straight to your inbox! Share it with your friends on your social media (share buttons are below– don’t forget to tag me @ NickHemptonBand)! Or even throw a few bucks in the tip jar! https://paypal.me/nickhempton  Cheers, Nick

Quarantine Dreams

I know what it looks like. It looks like I’m sitting at the kitchen table, eating cold spaghetti out of a Tupperware container, flecks of red sauce decorating the front of my dressing gown. But I’m not. I’m actually sitting on a low plastic stool in an alley off Yaowarat road in Bangkok’s Chinatown, eating a huge bowl of spicy aromatic noodle soup. A trickle of filthy drain water runs by my table, and there’s a watchful cat in every shadow. The combination of the hot soup and the near 100% humidity has the sweat pouring off my head and running in rivers down my back. It’s a cacophony, the clatter of plastic bowls being stacked as the chef shouts to his sister washing dishes in a tub in the gutter. In fact everyone is shouting, but it’s laughter-filled and joyful, and although I don’t understand a word, I feel as though I understand everything. From the main road, the roar of ancient motorbike engines gunning and the incessant honking of tuk-tuks, and the general rumbling of a massive, heaving, overcrowded city. This soup is the only dish this family makes, and they serve it up all day every day, ladling stock that’s been bubbling and concentrating since this morning when it was made with the leftovers from yesterday. This stock is the secret to their success, the quietest member of the family, its recipe a cherished secret. The bowl in front of me sends up waves of rich complex smells, chilli, fish sauce, lime, cilantro are the only ones I can pick out. They mingle with the ambient smells of exhaust and sickly sweet durian and something leafy I can never put my finger on. I kind of wish I could ask, but I also like the mystery. The beer is so cold it’s making everything hotter by comparison. It’s Singha, or Chang- whichever one they have- they’re pretty much the same, and perfect for this weather and food. I can buy it in New York, but it doesn’t taste nearly as good there. Until I motion for another one, I’ll be completely ignored, which is just how I like it. I could watch this family as they work, with their ease and affectionate humour, all night.

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You could be forgiven for thinking that I’m sitting at my desk, papers strewn chaotically on all sides, staring blankly at another news website, while perched on a rickety old desk chair with dodgy hydraulics that slides queasily up and down without warning. But you’d be wrong. I’m really sitting on a narrow polished wooden bench, making my way across Victoria Harbour on Hong Kong’s Star Ferry. It’s an old tub built in the 50s, apparently held together with paint and lacquer, and I’ve managed to nab a window spot although not without a fight– those old Hong Kong ladies are stronger than they look. We’re motoring from Central district over to Tsim Sha Tsui which is a part of town I’d just as soon avoid. It’s the part of town favoured by people who go to Hong Kong for the shopping (to me, these are the true foreigners- I genuinely can’t wrap my head around visiting an exotic and wondrous city to spend money on stuff.) No this is all about the ferry ride- 25 cents for 10 slow peaceful minutes; a half mile of breathing space between the frenetic clamour on both banks. I often think that New Yorkers would go insane without Central Park, and the same might be true for Hongkongers without their harbour. The water here is a mysterious deep emerald green, and the swell is always just enough to keep the dumplings in my belly bobbing pleasantly. Looking back, the grand Victoria Peak looms possessively over Hong Kong Island; a warm salty breeze sweeps the dust from my mind. I can’t quite believe this place exists, and that I’m in the middle of it.

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I realise this has all the hallmarks of me washing my hands for the twentieth time today, gazing glumly into the mirror as I lather up and dutifully follow procedure. But appearances can be deceptive. You see I’m really floating on my back in a hotel pool high above Jakarta- Indonesia’s packed and rapidly sinking capital. The sky is threateningly overcast, like it is every day, almost guaranteeing a biblical downpour in late afternoon; the pool only slightly wetter than the air above it, thick and still and heavy with humidity. The heat is jaw dropping. I’m so far up, only the occasional car horn pierces the dense atmosphere; the only other sounds a few birds chattering in the surrounding gardens, and the gentle lapping of the milk-warm water. There’s very little in my mind aside from the salty, spicy Nasi Goreng I had for lunch, and the fried duck I’m planning to have for dinner. I drift over to the side where a towel and a cold beer are waiting patiently. I’d better get out and get dressed- I’ve got a gig tonight!

Wait. Now I know I’m dreaming…

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Thanks, more soon! Nick

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.

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5PM. Different neighbourhood, same day.

This post was suggested by C.

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.

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“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.

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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…

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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.

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 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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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

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