Friday, December 29, 2006

Dispatches from a biscuit tin

Courtesy impulsive decision making (one dreary Sunday night two weeks ago) and an excellent Eurostar deal, we spent the two days preceding Christmas in Brussels, There were four of us: S&S, V&me.

I don’t much care for the name Brussels as it reminds me of its namesake sprouts (ghastly cooked any way no matter how much Nigella Lawson tried to boost them up). I prefer Bruxelles, its French avatar which sounds far more exotic to my uncultured ear.

Instead of a rambling travelogue I shall round up our trip in 12 short points:

1. Never having been on the Eurostar in these past 4.some years I had built up great expectations and sort of imagined it being a bit like one of German ICE trains. Check in was a bit like at Heathrow only far closer at London's Waterloo station. The train itself was a sore disappointment, looked a bit worn out, had not much leg room and was quite like any other train within the UK. I think Virgin trains might have been a bit better. But the journey was smooth and on time so I cannot complain. The dotted sheep and countryside look exactly the same both sides of the channel and having a tunnel under it is a technological miracle I am thankful for. Our ‘Customer Service Train Manager’ was “Erve” whose lovely French accent made me and S giggle a bit. I like French names –they sound nothing like they are written. Like Hervé.

2. What’s nice about Bruxelles apart from being 2.something hours away from London is that there is no mad clutch of must see things and a two day break is a relaxed getaway as opposed to foot blister inducing manic rush.

3. Bruxelles has picturesque medieval streets and beautiful boulevards and we wandered up and down them wearing down some of the cobble. We took lots of pictures but have not even uploaded them yet. Strong sturdy trainer type shoes was a good idea.

4. The big buildings are not particularly impressive and the monuments were, well just monuments. There was a nice winter market near the Grand Place Square and we stood in the cold amongst the crowds enjoying a Belgian Waffle and some hot Gluhwein.

5. We went to the City Museum which is housed in a grand old building one side of Tourist Central, Grand Place or Grot Markt (Historic Square). The museum was nothing to write home about and its artifacts would have fitted comfortably in a very small room at the V&A. The Building was an altogether different matter. It had majestic vaulted ceilings propped up by solid beams, a sweeping central staircase, intricate stained glass windows and flooring that made me want to lie down and weep. The building could easily have been an architectural tour of its own.

6. We visited the famed Mannekin Pis which is the statue of a little boy peeing. Located on a street corner with a grill guarding it from the marauding throngs of tourists this little fellow is the pride and joy of the Bruxelles Tourism people. It’s one of those things that is built up in the mind as being magnificent and then in reality it disappoints. The City museum (Pt.5) had a whole room of the Mannekin Pis statue dressed up in costumes from all over the world. So many of the same in one room was deeply disturbing and quite gross.

7. We stopped often, each time in a cosy cafés or small restaurant and indulged in what the Belgians make best: Waffles. They were light and airy and we often had them covered in something: covered in dusting sugar or chocolate or the piece-de-resistance Whipped Cream.

8. Our only dinner in Bruxelles was at a restaurant called Le Cap, recommended by the dude at the hotel reception. We had no reservations and the restaurant seemed quite full but we were quickly given a table in a little cave like box next to a wall of wine bottles. The food was excellent and service was excellent and I must mention my dessert which was warm strawberries with peppercorns and ice cream. It was a perfect evening and we spent much of it chatting and laughing.

9. As always V & I popped into a little supermarket (the best way to buy some local food to take back) and bought some cheese. S&S were buying some biscuits in really cute tins (designed as biscuit shops, designated to brighten up any kitchen) and I was inspired and did the same, bringing back two tins of biscuits to London. All the way back I kept wondering who would eat all those biscuits as neither V nor I are great lovers of biscuits. Well, these were different. Three sealed packs inside each tin: Almond thins, Butter thins and Butter crumble. Since Christmas day I have eaten my weight in biscuits. Groan.

10. We went to the Comics Museum which is housed in an old Art Noveau warehouse designed by Victor Horta. It’s a magnificent building and really showcases the Belgian art form of comic strips to its very best. While most strips were in French or Flemish it was the skilled drawing and colouring that drew the eye and brought the characters to the forefront. The best and most famous of the Belgian comic strips is of course Tintin and there were numerous pieces of original artwork to look at beside great big cutouts, a few plastic statuettes and the rocket that took Tintin to the moon. I recently bought the entire collection of animated Tintin movies so I was quite thrilled.

11. The previous afternoon we went into the Tintin Boutique which sells everything Tintin in it. S bought a lovely big blue umbrella and we bought a framed Tintin print for our dining room.

12. I love taking tram rides or bus rides through cities because for me they provide a whole new perspective to the city, outside the touristy trail. We took a nice tram ride and I thoroughly enjoyed looking through the windows at the passing homes and quiet suburbia of Bruxelles.

It was a lovely two days away from the hustle of London. It was lovely traveling with friends. We didn’t go crazy with sightseeing or shopping – the calm pace is a luxury that Bruxelles affords. It was cold but not freezing. It was touristy but still homely. The waffles, biscuits and Tintin made it all perfect. As did the French accent of Hervé.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The Traffic One

I bet you thought my Calcutta One was the last of my reminiscing posts about our trip to India over Diwali. Not so. After all I have yet to tell you about my near death experiences.

But I’ll be quick and neat and precise. Promise.

Let me start this tale of woe by saying that I am now petrified of traffic in Delhi – this after living my entire ‘younghood’ in Delhi and maneuvering around the city between trucks, buses, autos and cars. The number of vehicles on the road has just exploded and my only defense is to sit in the middle of the back seat with my eyes shut and my hands balled into tight fists. I thought Calcutta would be a better. Wrong. Calcutta is a whole different ballgame - its black & yellow taxis and trams that rule the roads. Day before Diwali we have a hired Indica taxi from the local stand to transport us around Calcutta.

And here are three ways to possibly perish in a car:
1. Left Orly after buying kurta’s for the boys and almost immediately got stuck in front of Loretto House. Our smart* Indica driver first climbed onto the pavement, and nearly drove into a bunch of small kids. Then off the pavement and stuck between a mass of cars who were all mad at the driver for even trying to get ahead. With less than an inch between us and any of the surrounding cars one of the cars on our side decided he was not going to let us through. So he scraped past us and the loud metal on metal noise was deafening and our car tilted threatening to roll over. Our driver let forth a stream of abuse, stopped the car, climbed out of the window and went around to examine the damage to the passenger car. No apology for anything that might have happened to any of us on the passenger side.
2. In the evening, traveling from A to B, our driver decided that he was faster and more able and more needy of the road than a tram. Yes you read that right – A TRAM – big bulky thing that transports its millions across the city on tracks built into the road. A TRAM. So we jostled for space on the tram line and what happened? The obvious. Our car was side scrapped by the tram and carried some distance further by that momentum. With me and my sis-in-law screaming at the top of our lungs for “the madness to stop” (those were not our words, just a politer version of the verbal yelling). The driver was well protected on the right while those of us on the left of the car were in fear of the windows bursting inwards and scarring us for life. The tram was tooting its horn as was our driver. And crowds of people were yelling and pointing on the outside. Deafening noise was over in a few traumatic minutes while we disengaged from the side of the tram. And once again what does our driver do? Goes to check the damage to his precious car. Not a word of apology for the bad driving, complete lack of sense and trauma to his passengers. How many times can I say this to make my point – A TRAM.
3. Next morning we had a new driver with a new (read unscratched/ unscathed) Indica from the same stand (when will we ever learn?). Under a famous Calcutta flyover he decides to take a U-turn. In the middle of full flow traffic on Diwali/ Kali pooja day. Scaped a few taxis and other cars, none of whom seemed to mind or stop. One car hit us from behind, rocking the car akin to a boat on high seas. And still we kept going. Even the Calcutta black and yellow cabs are safer.

Maybe all this time in London has made me soft but I couldn’t help thinking we were lucky to come out of these ‘episodes’ physically unscathed. Mentally I am still a reeling a tad bit.

Here in London all my traffic troubles seem so far away. This morning some guy in his jazzy sports car careened through a red light and just missed me. Moral of the story: It does not matter where you live, traffic is crazy. And whether you are in a car or anywhere near one, bad things can and do happen. So watch the road while you cross and avoid hiring an Indica in Calcutta!!

The fingernail marks on the palms of my hand have deepened becoming permanent symbols of our car journeys in Calcutta.

The end. Of my India trip reminiscing. Finally.

Notes: * When I say smart I really unequivocally mean asinine

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

ssNot niCe

I have not been to the gym since Friday (no no don’t groan or despair just yet) and as something of an addict now (ohmigod I have put on 100 kilos just smelling this dinner!) I keep bugging poor V with insane questions (do I look fat TODAY honey?). Poor chap. This is the price to pay when you marry someone who only wants homemade tomato soup made only in her own mother home, by her mother's fair hand. 3500 kms away. NOW.

I’ve been in bed since Saturday, moaning mainly, as a sniffly cold and fever have taken over the reigns. After 3 hideous days in which I alone have kept Kleenex in business, I am back at my desk - exhausted and sore nosed, but back nonetheless.

Falling ill is a rare occurance and I seem to give it my best shot when it come gets me. I felt my brains shift around in the cavernous skull with every loud sneeze. I lost my appetite and any sense of taste accompanied it on its way out – I could not tell a chicken goujon from a kebab if they both appeared under my blocked nostrils on a heated platter. I, the queen of 10 hour-a-day TV viewing, couldn't be bothered to watch anything through my bleary teary eyes. I worshipped the god of 13.5 tog duvets, drank copious amounts of hot lemon and honey water and turned our shower room into my very own personal steam room. None of it helped. I completely lost my mojo. In short I feel like hell. Even though I married Saint Patience (That dinner had NO calories in it. You ALWAYS look thin. Here's another Kleenex. Want another blanket? More soup? Ticket home to your mum?)

I bet when I get back to the gym I shall have lost more than half my body weight in pure snot. MuWaHaHAhAHa (evil laugh). Through my nose and into a Kleenex. Why didn't I think of this simple solution to weight loss before?

If I haven’t lost any I shall be very very cross.

And still very very fat.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Calcutta one

No trip to a parent’s home is ever long enough once you live overseas. And our 10 day trips to India are fraught with tension in the planning as our parents and siblings all live in different cities. I feel a bit like an elastic band pulled in different directions by obligation and love and a crazy combination of both.

In the four and something years since we came to London V and I have celebrated every diwali at our little home. This year we chose to spend it in India inspite of having just bought this home. I think the homesickness of missing festivals finally caught up with us. The images of diya’s, the puja, colourful clothes, firecrackers and most of all smiling families were too strong a pull to resist.

After a quick flying week in Delhi with my folks (of which V came for 2.5 days, after 2.5 days in Mumbai) we flew to Calcutta (no apologies - I’m going to say Calcutta instead of Kolkata) for our last 2.5 days at my in-laws home. Well planned to be able to celebrate diwali with them – for the first time ever for me. And what a wonderful few days it was….

We landed on my brother-in-law R’s birthday. It was all so well planned that he and his wife T had landed from Mumbai that very morning. And then the fun began.

For me Calcutta is the culinary capital of India. There I’ve said it and now I await the gazillion comments from people telling me how their city outshines Calcutta with examples of where I should have been eating etc…. People people, this is a blog and this is only my opinion. You have the right to yours and I have the right to mine.

Before I begin our Calcutta culinary journey I must thank J.A.P for his kind suggestions on where to eat and what to eat. Unfortunately we could not stick to them all as both boys had agenda’s of their own to follow. I hope you approve as much as we enjoyed it.

This is a long standing favourite in V’s family and no trip to Cal is complete for me without it. It’s a funny old place in very central Park Street with two different entrances both of which lead into a strangely imitation Swiss style décor interior. They serve Indian Chinese, Indian Indian and Tandoori food and even on a week day afternoon they were jam packed. We had a super Indian meal with the channa and paneer tikka coming up trumps. (point to note: I can’t think of anything I love more than a well made paneer tikka)
@ 43 Park Street, Calcutta. Tel: 2229-2870

Chinoiserie: To celebrate R’s birthday we went for dinner to this restaurant at the Taj Bengal. I make no bones about it - I love Indian Chinese food and miss it terribly in London (Dalchini is too far for frequent visits). The restaurant claims to be ‘authentic Cantonese and Szechwan cuisine.’ But at the end of the day it’s all to cater to an Indian palette and so whether what we ate is genuine or not nobody knows. They made up dishes as per our request even and without a doubt it was an excellent meal. The service was a bit over attentive for me (I think it’s because I’m used to a really appallingly low level of service in most places in London) but that is what most 5 star places are like and attentiveness is far more charming than rudeness.
@ Taj Bengal, 34B, Belvedere Road, Alipore, Calcutta - 700 027. Tel: 2223-3939

The Atrium Café: After dinner one night we met up with a classmate of V’s from his school days who took us to the Atrium Café at the Park Hotel. Let me start by saying that the Park Hotel is overflowing with people as it has numerous restaurants and two clubs within its walls. It was lovely to see, even in the middle of the night, a vibrant young crowd of people enjoying an evening out. We stuck to the coffee shop and sat around an enormous square table. There was a DJ and we kept sending them requests on little chits of paper. As a result a lot of 80s music was played, maybe too much as after a bit I think people started to leave. V’s friend is an absolute riot. He has the unique capability of making everything sound funny. Not just hehe funny, but belly aching laugh out loud funny. We were laughing so hard that one of us had cold coffee coming out their nose. The Atrium is not particularly lovely and the cold coffee (and I have an opinion on all cold coffee) was not much to write home about. As a setting for a reunion of friends though it was perfect.

Oh Calcutta!: We had a day of dashing around the many malls that have sprung up around Calcutta and to break the day (after a very hectic morning of book buying) in two we decided on lunch at Oh Calcutta! I cannot emphasize this more – IT WAS THE BEST MEAL I HAD IN A RESTAURANT IN CALCUTTA – EVER!! Now, Kewpie was a suggestion but we’ve already ‘been there, done that’ five years ago and it was lovely, but this was convenient in the short time we had and proximity from where we were. The interiors are soft and soothing with beautiful photographs and sketches of Calcutta dotted along it. But it was not the interiors that were anything out of the ordinary. How do I begin to describe this meal without drooling all over my keyboard? We had Kosha Mangsho (which I was assured is a delicacy and it certainly was), dom aloo, a fish fry and numerous other things the names of which escape me (the taste still does not). The thing that completed the meal for me was the world’s lightest luchi’s. This Bengali brother of the north Indian puri is the bread accompaniment to a main meal. These luchi’s were light and round and filled with air and the taste was outstanding. The meal was outstanding and although I imagine people saying that a fancy restaurant cannot possibly provide the authentic thing I beg to differ.

We had an unremarkable meal close to home but it’s not worth mentioning, other than for the company which was remarkable. Our other meals were at home and on Diwali day I cooked two of the main dishes. People seemed pleased with the results and that’s good enough for me. We did the pooja at home and spent time with V’s parents and extended family. It was a short but very full trip and we certainly made the most of every moment.

It’s all over and now all these weeks later I’m sitting here and remembering all this and feeling a tad bit homesick……C’est la vie