Sunday, 27 April 2014

Memories of Nanjing...

Memories are funny things aren't they?

We gather so many millions and millions of them throughout our lives and somehow they all get stored away in our mind's filing cabinet. Some things we want to remember - a couple of mine include standing awestruck in the empty chamber in one of Giza's great pyramids or for something more mundane, just remembering the name of the person I met half an hour ago. Others we'd rather forget. Most retreat and end up buried beneath the constant and never-ending deluge of our life. Yet sometimes, like yesterday, they pop up when least expected. 

Blogger (and published author) extraordinaire Linda Janssen writes Adventures in Expatland and I was over there yesterday checking out the latest piece in her Expats A to Z series, C is for Committed. The post was pretty much what I've come to expect from Linda's writing: thoughtful, insightful and generous. But what I didn't expect was the evocation of a memory so powerful, it took me right back to a summer's evening in a Nanjing street almost nine years ago.

I had been in my own version of expatland for about 18 months. It had been a hard induction - initial expectations of money, home and job had fallen well short and my family and friends watched from afar - concerned, helpless and confused - as I struggled with both the practical and emotional minefield of building a new life. And whilst I knew deep down that here was where I was meant to be, there was another little voice in my head whispering, 'What are you doing? Why are you doing this to yourself? You had a good life, it would be easier/far more sensible to give up and go back to Australia.' 

At this point in time, I'd found myself in a job that promised so much and fairly quickly became a huge disappointment but I did get a couple of amazing opportunities to travel in the ten months I was there and one of these trips was to Asia.

I'd spent a week with our local rep visiting suppliers in Taiwan, China and Hong Kong. We'd managed a casual evening in Macau, another more digestively challenging evening as guests of a supplier in Shanghai, had visited villages and great cities and had been flown and driven around for six days. On the final day, we crossed the Yangtze River for our final supplier meeting and then spent the afternoon heading towards Nanjing in order to get on our respective flights home the following morning.

With the pressure of the week finally over, my colleague suggested a stroll through the city and a 'local' dinner so fortified by a drink at the hotel bar we set off. Nanjing was full of colour and life and my local took great care of me, showing me the sights and encouraging me to share several local dishes at a tightly packed restaurant filled with the curious clacketty-clack of Chinese chatter.

As we wandered back towards the hotel, I felt a whole world away from my troubles back in the UK.

We passed a few art and craft stalls and finally stopped where a small crowd had gathered. Drawing closer, I could see a young woman surrounded by rolls of bamboo parchment, an array of small ink pots before her: she was finger-painting these extraordinary Chinese scrolls and selling them for about £10. I stood and watched her for a while, fascinated by her complete immersion in her task, wanting to imprint the moment of simplicity, purity and happy endeavour firmly in my mind.

Eventually, I asked for one to be painted for me and as I looked on, a delicate picture of ebony branches with tiny bright red flowers came to life beneath her deft fingers. It was beautiful and I was so delighted at the prospect of taking this little piece of Nanjing home with me. But even more poignant was her explanation as she presented me with my finished scroll - the tree she had chosen to paint for me was one that slept and struggled through the cold dark months of winter and then would blossom in a vivid testament to its commitment to both survive and thrive in spite of the elements.

It hung on my wall in my tiny Kingston flat for six years before getting irreparably damaged during my move to Finchley. But Linda's post yesterday brought it back to me, as vivid and delicate as the night it was created. And when I shared this story in response to her post, she asked me to share it with you.

I've built a life I absolutely love here in London and it feels like the seed that was planted ten years ago has finally blossomed. But I will never forget that moment in the dim light of a Nanjing street when, in fractured English, I was inspired by the recognition and acknowledgement of all my heart was feeling by a complete stranger.

Friday, 25 April 2014

Hanging A Right...

I am lucky enough to work right near Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament and my morning walk to work from Charing Cross Station takes me along the bottom corner of Trafalgar Square and straight down Whitehall, past 10 Downing Street and through Parliament Square. With so many beautiful buildings and breathtakingly famous views, I am constantly whipping out my phone to capture a moment that makes me catch my breath and say 'Wow!'. But this morning I turned right out of the station exit and discovered an entirely different source of snap-happy inspiration, Whitehall Garden

The Garden forms part of Christopher Wren's original vision of a continuous series of public gardens along the river bank back in 1666 - Whitehall Garden is one of four gardens and stretches along Victoria Embankment from the Golden Jubilee Bridge towards Westminster Bridge. It was laid out in 1875 along the river side of Whitehall Palace (which to this day still contains the Banqueting House with its exquisite Rubenesque ceiling). 

Compared with the hustle and bustle of Whitehall, the lush green landscape before me offered a more serene and contemplative space than usual for the last leg of my commute. With today being ANZAC Day, it also seemed appropriate that my decision to beat a different path to the office took me past the RAF Memorial. And I loved the opportunity to finish off my commute with a different perspective of Big Ben...

I didn't expect to find so much that was interesting along the way, expecting a spot of vague strolling but upon crossing Northumberland Avenue, having a Monopoly moment and entering the garden, I stumbled across a fabulous little piece of history.

These are Queen Mary's Steps and were discovered in 1939. They were built by Wren in 1691 as part of a riverside terrace for Queen Mary II in front of the original Whitehall Palace (one of Henry VIII pads) and the curving steps provided access from her Royal Apartments to the State Barge. *snap snap*

But the serenity of the gardens (and more 'peaceful picture' opportunities) beckoned...

And soon I was turning right and crossing into Parliament Square beneath the gothic gilded clock tower.

I do love this city...what a great way to start a Friday...and all because I had a whim to hang a right.

Friday, 18 April 2014

A Milestone With Meaning...

It's Good Friday here in the UK and after an impromptu dinner out last night with a work friend (and a nice bottle of red shared between us) it's been a lazy start to the day. But with Vegemite toast done, the coffee machine warming up and back episodes of Frasier on the telly, I've popped by to see what was happening.

And it seems rather a lot - in the last few days, Gidday from the UK has tipped into triple figures and passed 100,000 page views.

It might not seem so much to some but when I started tapping away in 2008, it seemed quite impossible that anyone outside my nearest and dearest would actually find my witterings in the big wide blogosphere, let alone read them with any regularity. And that's because I really started this blog for me, to find an outlet to express both the richness and ordinariness of my everyday expat moments that seemed to fall short in their relating during long distance phone calls to loved ones. 

But it appears that there are many more of you out there - and for the most part we've never physically met each other - and I feel enormously humble when I think about that.

So whether you've been visiting for a while or you're a newbie here, thank you for stopping by and being part of the Gidday community.

And have a wonderful Easter however you choose to spend it. 

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Having Reservations...

Yesterday I went out with some friends of mine to see a show followed by some drinks and dinner. 

We had a great time. Handbagged was witty, topical and a lot of fun and with a few drinks under our belts (there may have been three grapefruit Cosmopolitans involved...for me), we expected that dinner at American-eatery-in-Soho, Jackson and Rye, would contribute some worthy state-side vittels to finish off our evening. 

And the verdict? My inaugural grits (a kind of polenta porridge) were weird, pleasant-ish but not right with shrimps, my sea bass with apple and fennel slaw was light and lovely and the pecan pie was mmm...mmm scrumptious!

But I digress. You see, Jackson and Rye don't take reservations which is a pet peeve of mine. And I am coming across this situation in London with greater and greater frequency. 

A catch-up dinner with a friend at no-bookings Italian 'tapas' joint Polpo last year was planned around being there just before 7pm to ensure we got a table rather than when we were actually hungry or what was convenient for us. And looking for somewhere to eat after the theatre with Lil Chicky last October was fraught with queue after queue.

(We eventually found a table at Tuttons right on Covent Garden which was lovely...and for future reference, book-able.)

I remember when Jamie Oliver opened his sans booking restaurant chain Jamie's Italian in 2008 and we thought we'd head down to the one in Kingston to give it a try. We queued outside - no room inside for waiting - for a barely acceptable 15 minutes. I've been to Jamie's Italian once since when we were lucky to have only a five minute wait. 

To say I was put off is putting it mildly. I accept that if I haven't booked then I have to take what I can get but this we-don't-take-bookings nonsense is all getting a bit much for me. I don't want to have to trawl Soho post-show because of this growing 'no booking' policy. What ever happened to looking after the customer? Couldn't they at least allow some tables to be booked, leaving some free for these apparently all-important walk-ins?

Polpo's website offers an explanation of sorts, saying that their casual Venetian 'bacaros' are designed to encourage the locals to pop in for a bite to eat and to build a sense of community amongst their regulars. There are 3 Polpos and 1 Polpetto in Central London, none of which take bookings. Who are these 'locals' I wonder?

In any case it would appear these places are doing rather well and that the standing in line has become a badge of honour - after all, if you've queued (or waited in the bar) for at least an hour, the food had better be rave-worthy, or at least good enough for you to tell everyone about. I don't know about you but after an hour, my palate becomes a little less discerning, swamped by a-drink-(or two)-while-I-waited or the sounds of my stomach growling with hunger...or both.

Luckily last night's drinks were at one of our favourite drinking holes, the Freedom Bar, just two doors down from Jackson and Rye so The Umpire kindly did a recce before we gave up our pre-dinner perch. And the meal was delicious.

But if I'm really honest, I have my reservations as to how long I really would have waited for it.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Literary London...

For those of you who keep an eye on my literary forays - whether through The Book Nook or on Good Reads - you'll know that my Year in Books has gotten off to somewhat of a prolific start. Having set my yearly target at 54 books (that's one a week then bumped up to match last year's tally), I am already reading #24. That's right - three shy of the halfway mark and only 25% of the year gone. 
So I was walking up to North Finchley last week and noticed this street poster for CityRead London.

Intrigued I came home, googled and found out about this wonderful initiative.

Launched in 2012, CityRead London is an annual literary festival held in April each year which is designed to have us read a little something about London...together. Then throughout the month, the book is brought to life with literary events and talks in borough libraries all over the capital. This year it's Louisa Young's My Dear, I Wanted To Tell You, a love story set during the first World War. Released early in 2011, this book was short-listed for the Wellcome Prize, the Costa Novel Award and The National Book Awards that same year.

There has been a plethora of authors eager to showcase London and all of its charms over the centuries (think back to Charles Dickens in the 1800s who actually wrote part of Martin Chuzzlewit just up the road here in Finchley). So the choice must have been a challenging one with so much to choose from but for all its accolades, I had not heard of Young or this particular book.

I love reading about this wonderful city: its history, its place in the modern world or simply as a backdrop to a cracking story. One of my very favourite books of the last few years is John Lanchester's Capital so with all of this London literary love in mind, I have Amazon One-Click-ed Young's war tale to Audrey's lovely e-pages. 

What an inspired and clever way to promote reading (and to get me to download yet another book to my kindle this week).

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

On The Shore...

This month's Calendar Challenge inspiration comes from waiting around for hours for something to happen - also known as fishing.

I went fishing once. I caught a small reef shark off Mission Beach in Queensland (Australia) when I was in my teens and having shrieked with fear and promptly dropped the fishing rod for someone else to deal with, I decided that perhaps the whole waiting patiently deal was not at all worth it.

I played golf once too. Surrounded by advice at the first tee, I wiggled and kept my eye on the ball and swung the club as instructed. And I smacked that little white ball right down the middle of the fairway to achieve a birdie (that's one less than par for the uninitiated). Nothing to this I thought as I collected my ball from the hole. And things went downhill from there, with both my beginner's luck and my patience running out by holes two and five respectively.

Apparently patience is a virtue and good things happen to those who wait.

I tried to apply these guiding principles to skiing in my mid-twenties. I'd been when I was twelve and after three days of valiant effort graduated to the next class, promptly hurt my ankle and spent quite some time sitting in the snow waiting for help and then sitting around the chalet waiting for everyone else to come back. I was twenty-five before the opportunity arose again (how's that for patience!) and this time it only took an hour before it was ski-do to the rescue again.

So I've decided that there are times when it's infinitely preferable to be the idiot standing on the shore.

Abu Dhabi, UAE - March 2014
Amsterdam, The Netherlands - October 2013
Cottage Lake, Washington USA - June 2013
Paris, France - May 2013
Frankston, Australia - January 2013
Langkawi, Malaysia - December 2012
And let me tell you, waiting on the shore is absolutely fine with me.

Calendar Challenge 2014 - Back Catalogue
Keep Calm And Carry On
Sour Grapes
Water Water Everywhere