Walking thru scooters in Vietnam…

This year was the one when we finally got to Vietnam. Most of my kids had been there, so it was about time we tried to catch up. We decided to go on a group tour with an organisation we’d used before. We like their model, structured but loose. With lots of time to ‘do your own thing’ if that’s what you wanted.

In retrospect the tour was a bit too short – eleven days from North to South. We had wanted to visit Hong Kong on the way and to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia at the end. So Vietnam did get slightly ‘sandwiched in the middle’, even if we added two more days in Saigon/HCMC at the end, independent of the tour.

Just prior to the holiday, we’d been lucky enough to see most of the amazing Ken Burns’ documentary about the Vietnam war. That brought back a lot of childhood memories, of scenes from the other side of the world appearing on my nightly TV news feed. Not that I ever really watched the news in those days.

Back to the present with a bump, and first stop Hanoi. We stayed very centrally, and I was surprised that the old centre did not appear to have been badly bombed in the war. I really liked Hanoi, albeit we only really saw the square kilometre in the centre. It’s a teeming mass of humanity, accentuated by the narrow streets. People push bicycles laden with fruit, pottery, garments, anything. There are thousands of restaurants, hardware shops selling plastic buckets, basins, birdcages, motorbike helmets, and so on. And all the time a constant hum of scooters and motorbikes, with the associated fumes.

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One thing I realised quite quickly was that photographing people was very easy, because a) everyone seems to live on the street, outside their dwelling, and b) they seem relatively relaxed about people taking photographs of them. As a result, while I took a ridiculous number of photographs (victimless crime, in my view), an unusually large number of them were of people. And they are photogenic. As far as I can see, Vietnamese people are very open and friendly toward tourists too, and seem to have a very industrious approach to life. Nice people.

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After two days soaking up the sights, smells and food of Hanoi, we bused it down to Halong Bay, and a boat trip. Too short a time, sadly, but the bay is beautiful and the sheer rocky islands are memorable. We didn’t like the bit we saw of Halong City – it seems like a very spread out place. On the waterfront they seem to be creating a massive amusement park (with Chinese investment apparently – China is only about 50km away). And when we explored a bit up behind the coastal strip, the food market we found was really basic, dirty and even a bit disturbing. Ah well, the photos of the bay will stay in my memory a lot longer.

Back on a bus to Hanoi, straight to the railway station for the overnight sleeper to Hue, down the coast. I had been dreading this trip, but it turned out to be a real experience, decent bunks in a four bed carriage, and we even managed to sleep because we got to stretch out properly. We woke around 5am and watched the flooded paddy fields with water buffalo sweeping past. At 7am our guide stuck his head in to say that we were now arriving in the DMZ (De-Militarised-Zone). Very memorable.

Hue proved to be great, the historic Citadel (made famous by the Tet offensive during the war) proved very interesting, and we visited an ancient Buddhist Temple/Monastery after a boat ride up the Perfume river. I must say that monastery really exuded a sense of peace and calm, more so than the many other temples we visited. I don’t know why, but I really felt a sense of tranquillity there.

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Next day we traversed the high Hoi Van pass in driving rain, to arrive in Hoi An. My kids had told me that I’d love it, and they were right. It’s smaller than most of our destinations, but beautiful, all along the river banks. Many photo opportunities, friendly people, great food and even a chance to get some tailoring done at breakneck speed. Our last day there was wall to wall torrential rain unfortunately, and about five days after we left the city was flooded by a combination of high tides and torrential typhoon-driven rain. But we did see it at it’s best, and I loved it.

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Next day we flew from Danang down to the city with two names – Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC for short). It’s a place teeming with life, millions of scooters, and a very vibrant feel to it. There are many remnants of the French and US occupation if you know where to look. We did all the usual tourist stuff, including excursions to the Mekong Delta and to the Cu Chi Tunnels. The food was amazing, no matter where we ate. It’s fresh, flavoursome, not too spicy, and just says ‘more’. I think Saigon is the ultimate metropolis I have visited, not necessarily because of the number of people but because they are packed in so tightly. We developed skills in walking through swarms of scooters that I would never have believed possible. We had to, frankly.

My one downside to the whole trip was that because it was quite short, it became very urban-based. I’d like to have seen more of the countryside, and it just was not possible in the timeframe available. But I would definitely go back – it’s a fantastic country and I only have good memories. Plus about two thousand photographs, should my memory fail me…

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Angkor Wat

I have to confess that Angkor Wat was not originally on my ‘bucket list’, certainly not to the extent that (say) Machu Picchu is. But given that we were ‘in the neighbourhood’ in SE Asia, we decided to make a side-trip to visit it. And I’m very glad that we did, because it really is a memorable place.

I’m still a bit hazy on the origins of the city (for that is what it was) but I know that at one stage it was the biggest city on the planet, and in the end it was over-run by Thai invaders. It was originally a Hindu temple, and many of the statues reflect that, but there are Buddhist influences also. Now, it’s a massive series of ruins, spread across about a 10k square area. It’s very close to a medium-sized town called Siem Reap, and that’s where we flew into. On the way in, we could see through the plane windows that the huge lake called the Tonle Sap was in full flood, due to the heavy rains. And it really expands massively across the countryside because the terrain is so flat. I’ll come back to the Tonle Sap in a bit.

After a complicated and confusing entry Visa process, we exited and met the tuk-tuk driver sent by our hotel to greet us. We became big tuk-tuk fans over the next few days, although the fumes at times can be a bit overwhelming. We found our hotel, a nice place and well-located close to the centre of town but far enough away from the noise and bustle to let us gather our wits.

We realised early on that we’d never see all we wanted to at Angkor in one day, so we bought the three day entry pass (these are rigorously checked, so no avoiding this). And then off we set, north toward the ‘Temple Zone’. We had been told by a fellow traveller that Angkor Thom was her favourite, so on day one we had an appetiser of Ta Prohm – which is the temple where the trees have largely been left draped over the ruined temples, and made ‘famous’ (like it needed that) by Angelina Jolie in Tom Raider. It is pretty amazing – the photographs are the proof I guess.

By now we had figured out that hiring a tuk-tuk driver to take us around was the best course of action, and typically we arranged to meet them at the other side of the temple we were traversing. However our limited communication skills, and the fact that there are hundreds of tuk tuk drivers milling about, made finding ‘our’ guy a bit of a lottery. In fairness they normally found us, and somehow we all made it work.

The traffic jams coming back from the temples to Siem Reap in the evening are massive, because everyone wants to see the sun go down before heading back. At the other end of the spectrum, we got up one morning at the ungodly hour of 4.30 am to get up to see the sun rise behind Angkor Wat. Definitely worth it – an unmissable experience. And the temple moneys are pretty cool too – if a bit scary. We then went off to see Angkor Thom, with our trusty driver, and when we headed back to the hotel at 9.45 (AM!) we discovered they were still serving breakfast. After which we (yes) went to bed. What a topsy turvy day…

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Siem Reap itself is a bit rinky-dink. I think that the Cambodian culture has been submerged under a tidal wave of visitors, and as it’s a poor country the lure of the tourist dollar has taken over. The street called ‘pub street’ is literally that, with dozens of bars offering beer and cocktails at ridiculously low prices. We found a few nice restaurants – mostly away from that area – and had some amazing spicy Thai food at very reasonable prices. It can be very humid too, and you have to get used to dealing with that. The central food market in Siem Reap is also an experience in itself, and not for the faint hearted. The fruit and vegetables are ok, but the fish and meat sections are a voyage of discovery. Let’s just say that there were things in there that will never make it onto my menu.

We also did a trip down to the Tonle Sap to see one of the ‘floating villages’ that are built on stilts and so can deal with the rise and fall of the lake water level. The people mostly have a subsistence level, based on fishing the lake and growing rice in the shallows. The villages are scenic, but it’s evident that the people are very poor. We had a short excursion to a mangrove forest, which was beautiful as we were rowed through the backwaters by a local.

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And then, all too suddenly, it was time to exit Siem Reap and head to the airport. By tuk-tuk, obviously. I took way too many photographs, but really enjoyed the trip. I’d like to have seen a bit more of the countryside itself, and there are organised trips to do that, some of them by cycle. But I think hiring a tuk-tuk driver for a morning or a day and saying ‘take me to the country’ would also be an interesting and practical way to do the same thing. Next time perhaps…

Asia in Black and White

I was recently lucky enough to do a multi-country trip through Southeast Asia. Starting in Hong Kong, we then flew to Hanoi and did a group tour North to South, ending up in Saigon/HCMC. After that, next leg was on to Siem Reap in Cambodia, specifically to see Angkor Wat. And then, sort of ‘on the way home’, we had a few days in Kuala Lumpur (I now know it’s ‘KL’) before picking up our Air Malaysia flight back home.

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Three weeks ‘on the road’. During which I took a quite ridiculous number of photographs. A surprising number of these were of people. I say surprising because it’s not a subject that I often zero in on. But in Southeast Asia, it seems like all human life happens on the street and in full view. So people, and their actions, really do present themselves as an obvious subject.

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Last comment, for now, as I wanted this post to focus on photographs (the usual cliché that a photo is worth a thousand words, etc.). Although the colours of Asia are so vibrant, when I looked at my photographs I could see that a large number looked great in B&W. So this post is just that – monochrome images from that part of the world. And I think these particular images benefit from that perspective. Expect some more material as and when I get my thoughts and photographs together

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Kid with a camera…

It appears that it was on 21 October 1977 that the Clash played a riotous gig in Trinity College Dublin. It lasted 35 minutes, and there’s an imminent upcoming ‘seminar’ (no less) on the weekend of the 40th anniversary to ‘discuss the impact of the event’ – no doubt the word ‘seismic’ will probably come up somewhere. I was at the gig. Suddenly it feels like my equivalent of being in the GPO in 1916.

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Front row – Clash ’77

I remember being simultaneously excited and scared as hell. I was 21, very definitely not a punk, and it became clear that there were a lot of people there whose intent was to create mayhem. Hence the gig just about lasted 35 minutes, the damage to the room meant future gigs were banned from the college, and, well, the rest is history.

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The late, great Joe Strummer at Trinity’77

I was – VERY briefly – down the front, trying to get a few photographs with my very basic SLR camera, loaded with high-speed B&W film, and trying to get a few shots in before a pogoing punk decided he didn’t like the look of me. And this – ironically – was probably one of the first gigs where I actually used my new toy…

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Back in the mid 70s, like most people I knew, I was broke. I had just about made it through college, and in the Summer of ’77 I had joined my friend Steve in London, working as a barman. There I managed to get my hands on a Zenit camera – which was a clunky, heavy, wonderful beast from behind the Iron Curtain and was frankly the ONLY single lens reflex (SLR) camera that I could afford. Back then – the idea of owning a ‘decent’ camera – like a Nikon or a Canon – was as remote as owning a Ferrari. But the East German lens industry needed hard currency and so it was possible to (just about) afford an entry level camera that looked ugly, but it did the job. While in London, I went to a number of gigs, the most memorable being a young Australian band called ‘AC/DC’ playing at the legendary Marquee Club. The guitarist was called Angus Young, he was 15, and playing in his school uniform. They later became fairly well-known…

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Randy Newman at the National Stadium – 1980ish

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Rory Gallagher – National Stadium

I had always been interested in going to gigs and so this new ‘tool’ began to accompany me to any such events. Prior to the Clash event, I’d gone along with my hands empty, but now I found that merely having a camera with any kind of ‘long lens’ – not as long as those carried by the press photographers, obviously – could at times be used to gain added access at concerts. This was a complete surprise, but a massive added bonus. The two most memorable examples; I more or less sat at Randy Newman’s feet when he played the Dublin Stadium – a grotty boxing arena which smelled of stale sweat (but Dublin’s only rock venue for many years). And the absolute high-water mark, when I actually ended up ON STAGE behind the Chieftains when they played the Lisdoonvarna Festival in the late 70s or thereabouts, looking out beyond them at about 40,000 ‘punters’. I, evidently, was now ‘with the band’ – well, sort of, temporarily.

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Elvis Costello – Stella Cinema, Rathmines, 1978

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Graham Parker and the Rumour – Olympic Ballroom, Camden Street. 1979ish

The dates of many of these gigs is unclear in my head, but I do plan now to go back and look at all the negatives that I carefully stored. And who knows, there may well be some buried treasure that even I have forgotten. One thing I do find scary is the number of people I have photos of on-stage who are no longer on this planet. But at least I have some memories of them in their pomp. And I did finally get my Nikon, even if I had to wait for a long, long time. Good things come to those who wait.

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Rory Gallagher, National Stadium

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Bob Geldof & the Boomtown Rats, Olympia Theatre, 1978ish

Adventures in Sourdough (part 2)

Well after my initial escapade with Sourdough, things have gotten progressively more interesting. The first loaf (Sourdough1, as I now call it) came out pretty well, even though it had been in the fridge for quite a while. It was also (I can admit it now) a bit ‘crusty’, mostly because I probably left it in uncovered for about 10 minutes too long. It was still rather wonderful, I hasten to add. But I can now say this with confidence because Sourdough2 was simply great.

 

This time around I did it all from scratch, with my (scrupulously clean) own hands. First step, get the leaven working. I scooped the requisite amount out of the jar, into another jar, and added the strong white flour and the wholemeal flour. I should have said that this was all preceded by a mad trip across Dublin through various ethnic and wholefood shops to get ‘the right flour’. I now probably have enough to keep me going until 2018, but who knows. Back to the sequence.

Leaven made and fermented for about 10 hours, I added the flour, leaven and water together into a gloopy mess. The leaven did not float, which made me a bit panicky, but frankly I could see no viable way to remedy that (short of draining the swamp) so I pressed ahead anyway.

An hour later, I added the salt and more water, mixed all together and dumped it out onto a floured board. I had middling expectations at this point. This was all happening on a Saturday night so I kept kneading, folding and aerating it right through a movie and then Match of the Day. Which extended to about two hours as I kept pausing the action. Twist, fold, quarter turn, fold twist, quarter turn. Gradually I convinced myself that it was all starting to look aerated and so around midnight I gently placed the loaf seam side up into a floured mould and put it into the fridge.

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On Sunday I had decided to wait until the afternoon to put it into the oven. I took it out of the fridge about three hours before and I could see the temperature change start to ‘rise’ the loaf. I followed the baking instructions to the letter of the law, put the seam side down,  and gave the loaf the bare 45 minutes end to end in the oven. And to my great excitement it turned out really well. Nice taste, not so chewy crust, good flavour, plenty of air bubbles. So very happy that it went well.

About a week later I managed to initiate the cycle that resulted in Sourdough3. Again I went for steady-state and tried to repeat all the steps in sequence, with the ambition of getting to consistency. The one thing I can’t influence is the air temperature however. This one started on a sunny Saturday, and I had left the leaven to ‘grow’ in a covered bowl in direct sunlight. All went well thereafter, although as yet I really have no ‘feel’ for when the dough has gotten to the right point to say ‘enough’ and put it in the fridge overnight. This time around I also didn’t use the fan setting on my oven, though the temperature and cooking times were as before. So probably a cooler oven, without the fan.

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The result (Sourdough3) was not as chewy as the preceding version, it did taste good but I felt it had not risen as much as before, so maybe I didn’t do quite enough ‘folding’ to get the air into the dough. Still pretty good though, and it was all eaten quite quickly (never a bad sign).

And then, a quasi-tragedy. Sourdough4 followed the same ‘build’ pattern as its predecessors, although the air temperature was definitely lower when the leaven was growing. But I went through all the same steps and it felt like the dough was nice and springy when I put it into the fridge. But I (personally, no-one else to blame) erred at the last step. I had gotten a bit over-confident, and as a result I forgot to turn down the oven for the last 20 minutes, as I am supposed to. The end result was a very blackened top (see photo) and a burned finger for me as I dragged it out of the oven (accompanied by some selected profanities). However, and this is the really strange bit. When I cut open the loaf and tasted it, it really tasted good. And there were lots of air pockets in the dough, and a very chewy texture. So I think the dough was fine, the proving and the folding had created good air pockets, and once I could get past the blackish top, I was very happy with what I found. So Sourdough4 was a combination of positives and negatives, and I’ll move on to number 5 with a few more lessons under my belt.

Ideally I’d like to get to a point where I can work this into a daily routine, where I start the leaven in the morning, make the dough that night, overnight in the fridge and bake the next evening. But for now, I’ll enjoy building my knowledge and experience.

Music on the move.

I’ve recently become a devotee to Spotify (everything, wow) , though I still insist on buying the occasional CD to ‘stay connected’ and get the all-important liner sleeve notes. I still have my irreplaceable vinyl collection (obviously) since some of those 12 inchers carry almost as many memories for me as a photograph album. But somewhere around 1980 I bought my first ‘separates’ CD player (Denon, since you ask) and it’s still going strong. Of course it’s been supplanted and supplemented by multiple other CD players around the house, and when I am going on holidays and renting a car, I will tend to bring a stack of about 10 CDs (no boxes) to compensate for the God-awful radio stations I encounter. Of course going forward I may well be connecting my iPhone to the car radio, and I recently had the distinctly odd experience of hiring a car WITHOUT a CD player. But old habits die hard.

Allied to this ‘CD packing list’ I tend to buy second hand CDs in markets wherever I go. They’re a bit bigger than the ubiquitous fridge magnets (which I also buy). But they do tend to link (in my memories) with the place I bought them – though mostly the music bears no resemblance to the country, it’s just something I ‘always meant to get’ and suddenly there it is, for a cost of about $2. So some unusual juxtapositions emerge. Here’s five of the best – the place and the music.

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  1. Teenage Fanclub – Best of

Bought in a second hand CD/vinyl shop in Christchurch, New Zealand. In the strange environment of an earthquake-ravaged city centre I found a small CD shop and stumbled across this treasure from Glasgow’s finest (and one of my favourite bands of all time). This CD took us all round the South Island – down to Dunedin, across to Queenstown and further afield – until finally my long suffering wife said she could take no more. Having said that, by then she knew all the words. A fantastic combination of a quirky, melodic, jangly-guitar band with some of the most fantastic scenery in the world. Heaven on a plate.

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  1. Grace Jones – Nightclubbing

Picked up this gem in Toulouse, the rose pink city in the Southwest of France. I had gone there for about five days to help my Erasmus-year-headed daughter get settled in. In reality this took about one day, but while she was off ‘getting organised’ I was discovering that this rugby-mad town is packed full of second-hand record/CD shops. And kebab houses. Nirvana. Basically it’s a huge student town, and these are the signs of same. So I think I bought about 10 CDs over a few days where I browsed for hours on end. This funk/crossover gem was one of them and I think it might have cost about 2 euro. Pull up to the bumper, baby.

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  1. The Travelling Wilburys

I actually paid almost full price for this in Boston in 1989. It had been out a while by then, but I hadn’t chosen to buy it in Ireland. But the combination of Tower records and a weak dollar meant I could rationalise it to myself. So this, and a few other American AOR classics provided the soundtrack to our driving all round New England and even down to Cape Cod. Get your motor running, head out on the highway…I also bought many other CDs (the dollar y’see)…

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  1. Derek and the Dominoes – Layla

I think I actually inherited a vinyl copy of this in my wife’s record collection when we got married. But we went to South Africa in late 2007 and began to head out of Capetown East toward the Garden Route, the scale of the journeys began to dawn on us. Beautiful scenery, very little traffic, decent roads and awful radio stations. So I got this at a knockdown price in a bargain bin in Capetown, and off we went. It’s actually great driving music, especially when you only need to change gear once every half hour or so. It might even still be my favourite album of all time. I got the ‘Key to the Highway’ indeed. There’s a reason it’s one of the biggest selling CDs of all time from the pre-Spotify era…

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  1. The Band – The Band.

A family fly-drive holiday to LA, the Grand Canyon and Joshua Tree National Park in 2006 caused a bit of a controversy, given that all members of the travelling party were adult by then. And into music. And into hearing ‘their stuff’ on the entertainment system. So we compromised by listening to the radio quite a lot, and the stations were pretty good, to be fair. I had brought The Band with me, the CD that is. And so we heard quite a lot of that – I was pretty good at sneaking it on when everyone else was dozing, and I ‘had the wheel’ . I didn’t actually buy it in the US, but It’s part of the memory for me. And needless to say, The Joshua Tree by U2 was also on heavy rotation.

It’s ironic that if you asked me what kind of car I drove on any of these trips, I’d struggle to tell you. But I can definitely tell you what I was listening to…

Adventures in Sourdough (part one)

It’s like when the Ray Liotta character in ‘Good Fellas’ said – ‘I always wanted to be a gangster’. I think deep down I have always wanted to have a crack at making sourdough bread. The irony is that while I love bread, it loves me right back, and is a major hurdle to my keeping my weight under a semblance of control. But my fall-back plan is that IF I manage to crack this particular nut, I’ll manage my addiction by making and not (necessarily) eating the product, so my family and friends may become the beneficiaries.

So to kick-start my ‘journey’ – as many of the Sourdough websites tend to call it – I went to a four hour class given by a master Sourdough baker. I won’t name names just yet, to protect the innocent. I have to confess that the mysticism that tends to accompany this topic on the web is more than a bit off-putting, but the foodie in me got the upper hand on the sceptic, so for now at least, I’m bought-in. Back to my class.

First surprise. About 60% of the attendees were male. A few were chefs of some kind, and you could tell by the questions they asked that they knew their way around a kitchen. Some people were ‘failed Sourdough bakers’ – we all had to go around the workbench at the start and reveal (confess) our backgrounds. It felt a bit like AA – not, I hasten to add, that I have any direct experience there. An interesting and diverse group, though.

Introductions over, our master-baker told us in a soft, slow voice (think Zen) that making Sourdough was part-art, part-science, and variables like room temperature, fridge temperature, flour composition, flour mix, quality of the ‘leaven’, oven temperature, the age of the flour and the water all made a difference. By now I was beginning to experience mild symptoms of panic, but I kept them in check (albeit barely). I also scribbled copious notes, in the hope that these would make some sense later.

You’ll be glad to hear that I don’t propose to chronicle the entire four hours that followed. Netting it down though, we each got a ‘chunk’ of dough, we stretched it, twisted it, folded it, let it ‘rest’, shaped it, re-shaped it, and let it prove under a tea-towel. In the meantime the master-baker offered advice, told war stories, observed our efforts, and baked two loaves using different methods. These were more or less torn to shreds by the ravenous class, well before they had cooled down. And in fairness I think they could have tasted better cold, but they were truly excellent. Nutty, chewy crust, flavoursome. Just lovely.

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So at the end of the day we each brought our own ‘loaf to be’ home, and I guess the next test will be to bake it and see how it turns out. Having said that, this (first) loaf will be a dough that was created for us. I think the true acid test will be when I have to create my own product end-to-end, and try to figure out a cycle that I can manage around a working day (or days, more precisely). I also need to go out and get the basic materials for MY first 100% effort. So I guess this journey will begin with a trip to a shop where I can find organic strong white flour, fine sea salt and the like. And then, I hope, practice will begin to make perfect.

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And a footnote: Sourdough Number1 turned out great (see Pics above, last two) and is almost eaten. It’s chewy, airy, salty and pretty amazing, all in all. Tomorrow I plan a buying trip for raw materials. And then it’s practice, practice, practice. And reading all I can find online about Sourdough. My new tribe. To be continued…

Going back.

My earliest memory is being carried on my father’s shoulders across the Barrow bridge that led from County Kildare into County Laois, the river being the border. I think I was about three years old and I was very scared as he walked along the verge beside the bridge wall. I was a long way up, the river was a long way down and I was a bit of a wimp. We were headed about a mile from our house to a local farmer to pick up the fresh milk in a tin billycan – a regular evening ritual. Pasteurisation was unknown – this was milk warm from the cow. Before we got to the Barrow we had walked across the ‘high bridge’ over the canal (below). You could see the grooves in the bridge walls where the ropes had cut, as horses towed barges up and down the canal. That era had ended by the late fifties, with barges now powered by engines. But the grooves remained, testimony to an earlier era.

I was brought up by two strong women, and a good father. We lived with my granny, she had one child (my mother) and I was an only child too. My granny’s husband ‘disappeared’ in the Somme mud near the end of WW1, and my granny had raised my mother alone, with help from her family. So their bond was deep. Basically I never had a chance of ‘getting away with’ anything – if one didn’t catch me, the other one would. Of course the upside of this was that I got all the attention too, I’d like to think I didn’t abuse it but in retrospect I may well have done (time to ‘fess up’, finally).

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I visited that old house recently – my granny’s – for the first time in many, many years. It was never re-occupied after she died. She rented it from someone who lived far away, and it was a damp house due to its proximity to the Barrow navigation canal. Which probably meant it lay fallow thereafter. The canal loops in and out to enable barges to skirt the shallow stretches of the river, and was a key element in enabling produce like barley to be carried to Dublin and the Guinness brewery. So I grew up beside the canal, with the Barrow a few hundred metres beyond.

The house is now completely overgrown, and as I expected its smaller than I remembered it (I think that’s normal). I saw huge trees shooting from the adjacent former garden area, and I remember those being put in as seedlings. I am however glad that nobody lived there after we exited. Somehow it seemed nice (but weird) to see the wallpaper that we put up round 1973 still hanging tattered from the walls. Shows what a great job I did (he said, immodestly).

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I was a bit surprised that I did not feel more emotional about the experience, but it’s been a long time and – as they say – a lot of water has flowed under that Barrow bridge since then. And life goes on.

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In the land of Never Dark…

I guess the first question is probably ‘why go to the Arctic Circle’? Followed perhaps by a second question. ‘So where is it, exactly’? So let me try to explain the situation, in reverse order.

In terms of where it is exactly, surprising it seems to move (a bit) based on various forces. But generally it’s in or around latitude 66 degrees north of the equator, with the North pole itself being 90 degrees North (but I guess you knew that).

In Sweden it runs about 10k South of a town called Jokkmokk, which is generally seen as the capital of Lappland and is an indigenous Sami word for ‘a bend in the river’.

My brother in law is a very keen fisherman and so for the last ten years or so he has owned a house in a town called Nordmaling, which is on the Baltic coast a short trip South of the city of Umea. We were lucky enough to be offered the house, and then we thought ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to drive up into the Arctic Circle’? It was ‘only’ a six hour drive due North and we had two drivers, so why not? Thus we had a great line ready when anyone innocently asked us ‘Any holidays planned this year’? We’d idly trot out the line ‘Ah yes, well we decided that for a change we’d go to the Arctic Circle’.

And so it came to pass. We got to Umea, found the house, and marvelled at the fact that even there it never really got dark in early July. What would it be like in the far(ther) North – I was reluctant to over-bill it as the actual FAR North?

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We had a great time around Nordmaling, enjoying the beautiful wildflower-filled meadows, the cute wooden houses, the salmon jumping up the rapids in the many rivers, and the Elk (Moose) farm where I fell in love with an impossibly cute baby. But the day finally arrived, so we piled all our overnight bags into the cavernous back of our estate car, and off we set.

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There are a serious number of trees in Sweden, but in combination with lakes, wild lupins growing on the roadside, cute villages with not a hint of litter and perfectly painted houses the trip sped by. We halted to have the picnic lunch we had prepared on the banks of a beautiful river at Moskosel near Arvidsjaur (there was a spotless toilet nearby, these Swedes know how to run a country) and then back in the car and on Northwards.

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Finally near Jokkmokk we saw the big sign on the roadside ‘You are now entering the Arctic Circle’. We stopped, we took photographs, shook hands and felt fulfilled. A bit like the top of Everest, but a lot less hassle and you can drive there. We went on to Jokkmokk and out to our cabin on a campsite at the end of town. This was beside a lake, and had lots of places to build campfires, which was great fun. Something we had not done in a long, long time.

It was simply weird to see – at half past Midnight – the sun still visible in the early July sky. You felt you should go to bed (there was no-one else around) but you sort of wanted to stay up just to be able to say you had done so. The bedrooms had good blinds on the windows, so that helped us to get to sleep. But the light was a strange shade, very hard to explain, but just different. By 7am next day the sun was high in the sky, and we were very lucky to get three straight days of sunshine on our trip. On the way from the circle marker up to Jokkmokk we had seen a number of reindeer on the road, and on the second evening we observed a group of about 12 sauntering down the main street in Jokkmokk. Which added to the surreal aspect of the whole experience. Mosquitoes were a bit of an issue whenever we walked in the woods, but we had lots of repellent, we had hats to wear, and so we generally managed to keep them at bay. On the second day in town we went to the famous Sami museum which told us all we needed to know (and more) about the indigenous people and their culture. Well worth a visit. I also had reindeer for lunch in the museum restaurant – and very palatable it was too.

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We drove about 40km further North that afternoon and visited Muddus national park for a very scenic walk. It’s a huge National Park and a big part of Laponia, which is what the Lapp people’s cultural area is called and occupies a huge swathe of Northern Sweden. On the distant horizon we could see some snow-capped mountains, which we reckoned were on the Swedish-Norwegian border to the far West. We heard several cuckoos calling – something I had not heard for many years. The whole area is a vast but beautiful wilderness, and surprisingly – despite the Winter snows – the roads were generally in great condition. Which made a big difference when driving. You see ‘moose crossing’ signs everywhere, as well as ‘snowmobile alerts’. So I’m pretty sure that in Winter there are a different set of challenges.

We finally said goodbye to Jokkmokk and the Arctic Circle on the third day, and headed South, this time along the coast road. We visited the perfectly preserved ‘Church town’ of Gammelstad near Lulea, and then stayed on the E4 coast road all the way back down to our temporary abode in Nordmaling. In fact, because we saw so much and had such a tidal wave of experiences in a short space of time, it was only looking at the photographs that made the expedition seem real.

I really enjoyed the experience, and also rural Sweden itself. It’s quite beautiful, easy to get around, lots of wildflower meadows and cute little houses and villages. And pretty much everyone speaks perfect English while the roads are excellent and have very little traffic. I’m already looking at flights that land further North (like Kiruna in Sweden or Narvik in Norway) so who knows, the bug may call me back to the Arctic Summer sometime in the future. And I have the great line ready for my next dinner party ‘ Well when I was in the Arctic Circle’…

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Travel: 72 hours in Stockholm

The first thing you notice about Stockholm is that while it’s a pretty place, it’s also expensive, and bargains are few and far between. It is however undeniably beautiful, and when the sun shines and the ferryboats ply back and forth between the islands that the city sits upon, you sort of forget about the fact that the beer in your hand is half as expensive again as it would be back home.

 

The core of ‘downtown Stockholm’ is based across 4 islands. The northernmost one has the main shopping drag – Drottingatan. It’s filled with chain stores, home design shops and upmarket clothes shops, but relax, you won’t be able to afford much more than a teeshirt, so focus on the city itself and just soak in the scenery.

The end of that island (Norrmalm) facing the water is a bit of a mess due to roadworks, but opposite that and approached through a smaller island is Gamla Stan – which my guidebook says means ‘old town’. And that’s pretty accurate, with a winding main street packed mostly with tourist shops and so on, but with loads of side streets that have nicer bars, quirky shops and generally interesting places to linger. Once such place that I wandered into was the heaving jazz pub called Stampen, where there was quite a buzz already at 5pm on a Sunday afternoon. On Gamla Stan also are a number of museums (incl the Nobel museum), the Royal Palace, and more. Plus Stortorget, which is a very nice little square with bars and restaurants waiting to take some more of those Swedish Kroner from your wallet. People watching is relatively free however, and this is one of the best places to linger over a beer or coffee, and observe the populace in motion.

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Just at the other side of Gamla Stan (walking N to S) is the ferry port at Slussen, where you can catch a ferry to go over to Djurgarden, the island to the East. There you find a whole cluster of Museums and a very scary looking amusements park. I should say in passing that we bought the 72 hour ‘all Stockholm public transport’ card, which cost about 27 Euro apiece. I think they are great value, and apart from saving the hassle of having to keep buying individual tickets, they cover that ferry from Slussen to Djurgarden and back. Which is a nice scenic ride in itself across the harbour.

There is also a Stockholm Card that covers many attractions (though crucially NOT the ABBA museum, of which more anon) but it’s about 100 Euro a head and unless you are going to literally go to museum after museum, I don’t believe it’s worth the outlay. Back to our trip. After the short hop from Slussen to Djurgarden, we nipped into the VASA museum for an hour to see the perfectly formed royal warship that sank in the harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628, just a few hundred metres from it’s launch-point. It’s huge, ornate, impressive, and there are good tours that tell you all about it running all the time. Ironically it survived intact because Stockholm Harbour was so polluted that the micro-organisms that would have eaten the wood could not have survived. It was top-heavy, by the way, which was why it keeled over, to public horror and disbelief.

And then, the main event. 300 metres away, the ABBA museum. Let’s just be charitable and say that we all suspended belief and wallowed in nostalgia (even those who were unborn when the Swedish fab four burst onto the scene). It’s quite scary how many of the songs were familiar – two weeks later I’m still humming ‘The winner takes it all’….

 

And then I explored Skansen (also on Djurgarden) which is a sort of ‘folk park’ with historic houses from many parts of Sweden transplanted into a wildflower zone, adding in some folk-dancers and a small zoo of mostly indigenous animals. Plus petting animals for the kids. The sun continued to shine and it was all very pleasant indeed. There was an entrance fee, but it is a quick way to get a sense of Sweden’s rural roots – even if it is a tad artificial to see them all in close proximity to each other. The other fellow tourists had gone their separate ways, but we connected later and headed down to Sodermalm, due S again from Gamla Stan. This is a quieter, less touristic and residential area, but with lots of great restaurants and bars quite close to one another, and easy to reach by the underground. And very easy to walk around. By the way, I should have said that Stockholm feels like a very safe city, and there is zero litter. Not a scrap.

We ate in a well-known Stockholm restaurant called Pelikan. Good Swedish food, but expensive, but then so is everywhere else. We then walked back up the bluffs overlooking the harbour on the N edge of Sodermalm and had a drink (with about 1000 other people) in the grounds of the Sodra Teatern ‘venue’. It’s a concert venue, a nightclub and a great place to see the sun set over Stockholm from the grounds. Finally we grabbed the underground back to our hotel. The ‘T-bana’ is the underground and, as you would expect from Stockholm, it’s regular, efficient, clean and hassle free.

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Sunday was, happily, another sunshine day and we walked all over the city (by now our feet had grown used to the regular pain). We got the T-bana over to Kungsholmen island and sat and had coffee on a floating garden moored on the water. Then we walked all the way up to City Hall and on to the island of Skeppsholm (light lunch) followed by the Modern Art Museum (free). A bit of souvenir shopping for fridge magnets (affordable, light, addictive) and we were thinking about packing our bags for the early start on Monday.

 

All in all, a great city to visit. IF you are lucky enough to get good weather, it’s even more enjoyable.  They have the islands and the water. They have history and beautiful buildings and ferries and a first class public transport system. They have expensive bars and restaurants filled with mostly beautiful people who – btw – ALL speak perfect English and like to practice. They have ABBA. So no matter how you look at it, there’s a lot to see and do, and I’m acutely aware of how many things we never managed to do or sights we missed. But it’s a beautiful place, and I have a feeling a return visit at some stage could be on the cards. Can you hear the drums, Fernando?