Friday, February 29, 2008

Aliens do go to school

This is Tirana's vast central square. On one side is a horseshoe-shaped ensemble of government buildings in yellow and red built by Mussolini in the 30s when Italy lorded it over its little neighbour. As you exit the horseshoe and come into the main square the Central Bank of Albania is next and sits squarely behind a little garden, its brown facade an odd contrast to its colourful neighbours. Next is the massive National History Museum adorned with an enormous mosaic of Alanian liberators throughout the centuries.

Then there is the National Opera House, which was quite confusing because its where the big exhibition of Mother Teresa depicted by various artists was being held. Between these is a wide road leading off into the suburbs with the big electricity poll from a Soviet era standing firm in the middle of it. Then is the little Et'Hem Mosque, delicate and petite in structure as compared to the solidity of the other Square buildings. It is one of the only religious buildings to have survived the 1967 cultural revolution. In the centre of the square is an equestrian statue of Albania's greatest hero, Gjergj Kastrioti, colloquially called Skanderberg and after whom the square is named. It's huge and my pictures and words can't adequately describe it. But hey, a girl can try.

Next. This is a random set of pictures from the trip. Poster of Mother Teresa. Cable car on lush green hills. Famous Canal. View of the burbs. Chillies and bananas at market. Pink scooty for sale. And two random signs. One of which I think Tommy would take offence to!

So did you figure out where aliens go to school?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Bees. Busy As.

This year in an effort to be healthier I made a more conscious decision to make and eat dinner at home during the week and take lunch in with me as many times as I possibly can. To dine out only at the weekends, thereby cutting out those pesky calories and credit card debt in one fell swoop. This is in stark departure from last year where everyday, by lunchtime I ate every calorie lost in the morning gym workout. And then went out for dinner to top it all up. January, and most of February, went swimmingly and we ate out less, made more thoughtful choices about where and what to eat when we did.

This week it all caught up with me. The endless chasing of things to keep me entertained at the weekends and an unusually high workload has left me feeling a little stretched. So on Thursday evening, with me bored of home cooking and V wanting to give me a break (especially from my whinge-ing about it) we decided to break our rule and go out for dinner. I had just finished a nice long swim and could have eaten a horse. Instead we chose Sri Nam which has a reputation as a fancy-schmancy Thai eatery in the busy Canary Wharf district. The ground floor of the restaurant is the main space for a quick meal at lunchtime but at night it’s a bar. On a Thursday evening it was like any other jam packed city pub, full of suits talking at the top of their voices and drinking away the stresses and bonuses of their jobs with colleagues. The seated bit is up wide concrete steps and we got a table for 2 quite quickly. We’ve been before and the décor was the same, nice linen, dim lighting, fresh orchids and comfortable chairs, if a little too closely packed together. Nice but not memorable. This time the food was disappointing to say the very least. Fish and chicken that didn’t taste very fresh or flavourful and service that was in enough of a hurry to make us feel intrusive and in their way. Wallets lighter, un-sated palates and 35 minutes later we made way for the line of people eagerly waiting on the stairs for a table. Sri Nam did not in any way live up to its reputation or even our last experience. I think my home cooking might have been worth more, grumbling and all.

On Friday we enjoyed dinner overlooking the Greenwich skyline, at the home of new-ish friends. While being entertained by their 2 year old toddler we ate a fine homecooked meal and chatted with the hosts and their guests, 2 couples and one singleton, none of whom we had met before. By the end of the evening it was duly established that any name mentioned was somebody known by somebody else in the group. Apparently it’s a small world if you went to similar B schools. It was way past midnight before we left.

Saturday started with a much needed late start. A swim followed by quick lunch followed by a 1 year olds birthday party all afternoon. And as 1 year olds birthday parties tend to be, it was full of little kids – about 12 babies and toddlers, each accompanied by a full set of parents. V, I and two other couples were the helpers as it turned out. It was fun and I cuddled loads of little ones, sweet and plump and oh so lovable. Inspite of the drooling. At around 5pm I rushed home to spend the next few hours with a very pregnant friend. Baked and plied her with rich chocolate cake and caught up on all the gossip while V watched six nations rugby and dozed in front of the TV. Then her hubby arrived and demolished another quarter of the cake. Then they left and our pre-planned-going-to-dinner friends arrived and with them we charged to Il Bordello in Wapping.

Il Bordello had superlative reviews everywhere on the net and bonafide Italians in our friend’s office had strongly recommended it. It took us two weekends to get a booking and in the end it didn’t really live up to its reputation. It’s the ground floor of a revamped dock warehouse, not quite by the water but definitely imbued with the feeling that the cobbled streets that led to it served an important purpose. The décor is simple and quite uninspired, some stone walls adjacent to copper plated panels, tables covered with plastic table cloths and packed too close for comfort. The menu was extensive, serving the usual array of pasta’s, pizza’s and large meat meals, nothing unique or different than on many an Italian restaurant in London. The potions were huge – even the salads we ordered to start with seemed to be half a field of greens per plate. My tuna and bean salad turned out to be a plate of lettuce with canned tuna and canned beans turned over onto it - tasteless and clearly not Italian. I then ordered what I consider the benchmark in Italian cuisine, Spaghetti Bolognaise and V what he considers his benchmark, a Pizza. Mine was big enough to feed 3 people and was tasty if a bit drowned in tomatoes. V left half his pizza so that was that. A minestrone soup and a dish of seafood linguine ordered by two of the others were pronounced as ‘quite good’ but on the whole we felt let down in the face of all that hype.

Then deciding we were still young at heart (a sign of old age when you keep saying this) we hoofed it to trendy Hoxton Square. It was buzzing with the young and restless and we were clearly out of our depths. So instead of standing in any of the endless queues at 1am we enjoyed a few rounds at the Reliance. Easy music and a slightly older than teenage crowd meant we fitted in a bit better. Caught a cab home at about 2.30 and then crime show TV for me till India-Australia cricket for V took over.

Forced to wake up mid-morning on Sunday to cook a meal for friends with a baby. Spent all afternoon entertaining them, plying them with butter chicken and aloo gobhi and left over cake and strong Caribbean coffee. By the time they left it was tea-time. I was too tired to sleep or concentrate on very much, even TV. So a few hours of pottering around the house, packing lunch’s, sorting out the kitchen and making some calls to India and I was ready for bed. At 7pm.

Saying it was a busy week followed by a busier weekend would be something of an understatement. I’m snoozing now.

Sri Nam: North Colonnade, Cabot Square, Canary Wharf, E14. Ph: 020 7715 9515
Il Bordello: 75 – 81 Wapping High Street, London E1Y 2WG. Ph: 020 7481 9950

Monday, February 18, 2008

Social Buterflies

Friday evening was fun. Very fun. Almost nobody last minute ditched. Almost everyone showed up on time. Other than the fact that they operate a no booking policy and despite getting our name on the list at 6.30 we didn’t get the table at Wahaca till 8.15, everything went smoothly. I don’t think anybody found a connection like I was hoping but most people mixed and mingled and made an effort. Of course some of this was my fault as I got Boston and Chicago mixed up in my head (I thought two people had lived in Boston at the same time but clearly my memory is lacking). But everybody made an effort and that, in my book, is what counts. You could see that some of them could be friends even without me having introduced them and I felt quite excited by my judgement of people. We ate as if at someone’s wedding, ordering plate after platter of what they loosely term ‘streetfood’ – tacos, quesadillas, tostadas, taquitos. The 3 people that once lived in the US called the food average in comparison to the Mexican available in the US but better than most by London standards. Of course the newbie/ trainee Londoners took some umbrage to this but only some. And none that got in the way of everyone stuffing their faces.

After Wahaca we hooked up with yet more friends at the NFT and sat there till they began dimming the lights urging us to leave. Was so high on all that laughter and the fact that when asked what my favourite flower was V answered tulip without any hesitation, that after I got home I watched Law and Order/ CSI till about 3am to unwind. Saturday and Sunday were whirlwind days. Saturday had, among other things, a long & speedy swim, a 30th birthday party to attend, a long and yet more stuffing dinner at Busaba with friends and some quiet time basking in the sun on long London bus journeys. Sunday was about waking up late, coffee and the papers in café Nero with V, finishing my book by the sunny windows inside the house and then dinner with a friend at Saravana Bhavan to cap it all off.

It was busy (but good busy) and I never once during the entire weekend felt drained of all my energy as shopping trips or social obligation meetings can often induce. In fact so buoyed was I with a feeling of goodness towards the world that I got conned into joining one of the social networking sites AGAIN. So now I not only have 5 email id’s, 1 blog, 3 instant messaging services, 2 home delivery grocers and about 5 internet shopping sites I frequent, I also have a page on a site which demands I play games, write notes on virtual walls, find friends from the back of my beyond, send and receive e-mail and generally be sociable. All these permutations combinations of user names and passwords are enough to make me one grumpy girl. Because really, I am not the social butterfly I seem. I am more caterpillar turning into chrysalis.

Wahaca: 66 Chandos Place, Covent Garden, London WC2N 4HG, T: +44 (0) 207 240 1883

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

6 degree game

This Friday I am playing the six degrees of separation game. Of which I am the inventor and rule maker.

It all began when I met a school classmate last summer, not by chance, but by design, pre-ordained by that great connector, the internet classmate yahoo group. It’s a group begun by the enthu-cutlets (one of my favourite terms since school) and carried forward mainly by people letting others in on how successful their lives have been since leaving said institution. Every once in a while someone will post a message about how they are moving to Tokyo to be the Big Boss of something and this will be followed by a flurry of people writing in to exchange banal everyday news of the same variety, designed to show off their success somewhere in the world. Very tiring. But when this girl wrote in saying she moved to London and did anyone from class live here I immediately wrote back to her to say yes I did (thereby swiftly avoiding any interaction with the yahoo group). I know I know - why am I on the group? (Actually am on more than one but the others seem to be less inclined to show-off –something to do with distance back in time from present – as if we have more to prove because really in school we were at our very worst, most tatty, most competitive, most undone with teen angst). Well, just to stay in the loop is my honest answer. Everyone I am friends with from back then I stayed in touch with first with letters and then with the internet and cheap telephony. This way I can be a repository of knowledge on the others. And possibly show-off when I have something to show-off about.

So anyway, arranged to meet said new-to-London-classmate because, if rusty memory serves me well, in school we were both friends with the same girl, just not friends with each other – and I wanted to be nice (the disease of my 30’s). She was studious. I was trying too hard. Here we were in London, 14 years later, the playing field a bit flatter. Both in need of friends. Or at least hang out acquaintances. Owing to a leap of faith earlier in the year I had discovered that there were friends to be made even at my age. Women with the maturity to form strong good friendships and to trust with my still growing-up pains. Maybe this classmate could be a friend yet. We met a couple of times last year, just for a quick coffee after work. We never managed to make it a meal because of busy work/ travel schedules but I could see us being friends of the firm kind and so this year I decided that I would make of an effort.

I have drifted off. Let me stop now.

So instead of hosting another dinner party where I would spend nearly than half my time between the oven and the dining table (of which variety I have already hosted 2 this year) I have decided to organize a 6 degree of separation meal this Friday. It started when I decided that V and I would meet this classmate for a meal in Covent Garden on Friday evening, mainly as she hasn’t yet met the very busy V. All weekend I was thinking about V always going on about how there couldn’t quite be 1 billion Indians because if you threw 30 of them in a room almost everyone would be able to find a connection to someone else. So I have decided to put this to the test and invited people from 4 or 5 circles of my life to join us for this meal. There are childhood friends, school friends, MBA friends and new London friends. I was surprised by the enthusiastic response. Clearly I am not the only lonely one. I even asked people if they wanted to invite other friends of theirs to join us. Some of them have said yes and so now even I have the opportunity of meeting new people, tried and tested friends of friends. So far there are 16 of us.

And even if we don’t all find people in common I think it’ll be alright. We’ll find things to talk about, holidays, books, movies, exhibitions, restaurants, different Londons to share and mull over. And even if we don’t find any of that in common (highly unlikely) at least we will be eating some yummy food.

The year has begun entirely satisfactorily.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Quick facts Albania – and the shaking story

Capital: Tirana. Other cities of note: Laç, Shkodra, Durres, Vlora and Elbasan. All connected by a roadworks and train system. Population: Estimated 3.5 million. Currency: Albania Lekë (pronounced Lek). Most significant National Holiday is November 28, Independence Day (1912).

We arrived quite late at night (down to delays, not planning) and were surprised by the very clean, neat and modern new Mother Teresa International Airport. My colleagues who travelled here before assured me that it was brand new and that in previous years it had been nothing more than a very large and rundown shack. The new airport was brightly lit and efficiently run and the swaying fake palm trees in the parking area were an amusing distraction from the airline caused cramps. Our very nice Italian driver drove speedily through the narrow and badly lit roads. The air was heavy and warm and moist. A pleasant change from the chill that September brought to London.

Religion: Sunni Muslim (70%), Albanian Orthodox (20%), Roman Catholic (10%) (est). People: Albanian 95%, Greeks 3% and others 2% (Vlachs, Roma, Egyptians, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Bulgarians (1989 est). Estimates of the minority populations vary widely between different interlocutors and unfortuantely, there is a general absence of reliable statistics.

We sat and chatted in the very basic ‘coffee shop’ before retiring to our top floor canal/ drain view rooms. We each had a nice big, clean if basic room with newly plumbed bathrooms. The ceilings had a false ceiling suspended in the centre, a very large rectangle, just a foot (on each side) smaller than the plasterboard ceiling and made of stained glass put together like modern art, in random shapes. The glass artwork/ ceiling was lit with bulbs snug between it and the actual ceiling, casting funny, often scary shadows on the very red bedspread and curtains. On our first night there I decided to sleep with my bedside lamp on to prevent any disorientation. Exhausted with the travel and reading till I finally dozed off I found myself dreaming of rocking ships on choppy waters.

Languages: Albanian (Tosk is the official dialect). This is an Indo-European dialect of ancient Illyrian, with a number of Latin, Slavonic and (modern) Greek words. People also understand some Italian, English and Greek. Everyone is friendly and willing to stop and point out directions irrespective of language differences.

Only I wasn’t dreaming, as in the next instant I had sprung out of bed and was wildly clutching the walls and watching the ceiling stained glass panorama swaying and threatening to come off its fragile moorings. It was an earthquake. Albania’s first in a decade. Mild and only a few seconds long but enough to wake me and shake me into a panic. It stopped and through the curtains the world looked still and untouched and asleep. Unsure and disoriented I called my colleague who answered the phone on the first ring. We talked for a few minutes and since neither of our stained glass roofs had fallen on our heads, decided that there was no point in panicking and we’d better go back to sleep. Needless to say I didn’t sleep well. From that unearthly hour I was shook out of my bed by the earthquake till our 8am breakfast meeting, I tossed, turned, gave up, got ready and read/ prepared. There we were in Albania, shaken but not stirred.

Albania is a very young country - 65% of the population is under 25 years old.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Plain Jane to Colourful Kelly

A selection of building photopgraphs from Tirana, Albania. The one in the top right hand corner is of a drab dull untouched building but the others have all been given their lick of joy. My favourites are the two in the left corner on the bottom row (well, left and centre to be precise) which are bits of the same building. I had to take two pictures because if I went any further back I would lose the detail and/ or lose my life in the flying traffic and/ or if I made it beyond that, fall down the verge into the slim canal/ giant drain. If you click on the collage I think it will take you to a larger screen and you will be able to see what delights me - the fact that they have painted laundry lines and clothes on to the building. Sometimes you need imagination, mostly you need sunglasses.

Monday, February 04, 2008

02.02.08 (and 08.08.02) and other bits

I like symmetry. This is a well documented fact of my life. So when V and I became 'an uncle' with the birth of V's brother's son on Saturday the 2nd, all I was thinking of was how his parents now had one each, a granddaughter and a grandson and how happy this must make them. They of the beautiful wedding day have had the son. And of course we already are 'an aunt' with this young lady. So when father of the daughter, eldest brother in the trio called to tell us that he had noticed his girl was born on 08.08.02 and that new son of middle brother is born on 02.02.08 it was an additional bit of something-like-symmetry. Life is good.


I saw her post and left a comment. Now I'm turning that comment into a part of this post, just so I remember I said it:

What is with boys and excel sheets? I was moaning about not going to the gym enough and V quickly drummed up an excel sheet with calculations of how much it costs if I go 1 day a week/ 2 days a week/ 3 get the picture. And then decided that he qould do an hourly breakdown as well. Now I am motivated (just a bit, to get my money’s worth from the gym) and a little scared (of what power an excel sheet has over V). In case you are interested I went 4 days in each of the last 3 weeks. Motivated or what?


In an effort to keep at bay any winter blues we've been entertaining and being entertained like crazy every weekend in January. Last weekend it was gaggle of girls (and partners and one very sweet baby girl) for dinner at Chez 33 - I think a success. At least for me, seeing as I had both a good time and a big box of barfi to midnight snack on for the next few days. This weekend it was a 30th birthday celebration for a friend about an hour from London. Loads of food and yakking and one large doggie bag later we were home, too buzzed to do anything but stay awake till 4am calling new baby's parents and anyone who'd be awake in India. Today we zoomed off for lunch with a friend, eating till rolling full at the marvellous Raavi Kebab in Drummond Street before stocking up on groceries from the shelves of the Spice shop. Came back in desperate need of an afternoon nap. The kind where you sleep while it's bright and wake up only when dark, disoriented, disbelieving of the time and in a panic about dinner and unsure about the plan for tomorrow. (I had promised my colleagues savoury homemade goodies for tea break tomorrow; sadly it'll have to be store bought). And YAY we are done with January! This is skin deep YAY-ness as deep down I believe February is far worse, but I have a plan. We have not a spare minute (or rather very very few) in our social/ work diaries nearly until May. This includes a short holiday, business travel for both, lunches/ dinners at our home and restaurants and other peoples homes, birthday parties for 1 year olds and 30 year olds and those in between and beyond, movies, a concert and general goofing off beside undying dedication to the gym (Hahaha). With any luck before I can say Jack Sprat it'll be spring.