Sunday, 3 July 2011

What happens in Barcelona ...

The last weekend of May saw G and me head off to Barcelona for the Primavera festival.  There was a group of us, consisting of the same motley crew who attended last year, along with four fresh faces: C and L and E and P.  Rather than stay in a hotel (and risk any further erosion of my dignity) this year we opted for a large apartment near the grounds of the festival.

Primavera was held in the same place as last year (the Barcelona Forem), so right on the water.  The festival was great, although not as good as last year - this year it was much bigger, in terms of the number of attendees and the space over which it was spread.  That meant it was easier to lose people, harder to find them and more time was spent walking from one band to the next.  But these are only minor complaints: I had an enormous amount of fun.  My highlight was The National, followed by The Walkmen.  I think we all decided (the men included) that we had massive crushes on the lead singer of The Walkmen, who was dressed very suavely for the occasion, in a very fine suit.

Hamilton Leithhauser of The Walkmen

My lowlight was seeing Gang Gang Dance.  Not only did they not sound particularly good, but they inexplicably had someone on stage whose sole role was to wave a stick with a bin liner attached to it (like a flag).  I spent most of the set wondering why oh why they were there, particularly as they couldn't even wave the bin liner in time to the music.  

The weather was amazing the entire time we were there, and our apartment was just a short walk from the beach.  While this was not a nudist beach, an alarming number of people on it were nude.  I avoided taking photos with any of the nude people in them, both because it would be rude and also because the pictures would have been too horrible to display.  I saw more of some of these people than I imagine their gynaecologists would see on a standard visit, as they bent down and put suncream on their legs and toes.  Some of the nude people were also so large that, notwithstanding the fact they were completely nude, it was impossible to determine whether they were male or female, as their genitalia was completely obscured by their bellies.  Unattractive nude people aside, the beach was pretty fantastic.

When we weren't partying at Primavera or avoiding nudists at the beach, we were spending our days sleeping, eating and drinking.  I ate more cheese and drank more cava than I suspect is good for my arteries.  For most of the others, their poison of choice was the Barcelona red can.  Most of the cava\red can-fueled conversations cannot be repeated in this blog.  Nor can most of the stories from Primavera be repeated: what happens in Barcelona stays in Barcelona.  That means this is going to be a very short blog indeed.  Instead, I'll simply post some photos of Primavera below. 


Until next year, Primavera! 

A quick update on summer in London

G and I have been managing to make the most of our time in London this summer.  The weather so far has been pretty patchy, ranging from blisteringly hot days (of 30 degrees, which feels much hotter in London than it sounds) down to rainy, dreary days.  Those hot days are usually spent in the sun - picnics in parks or get togethers on friends' roof terraces, drinking and eating and getting a solid dose of vit D. Last weekend the temperature hit around 32 degrees, and I celebrated by running to Hampstead Heath, going for a swim in the ponds and then running home.  It was delightful.  In fact, even though it's only mid-20s today, I'm contemplating repeating the experience.  

We have also been enjoying the theatre.  Recently we saw Rory Kinnear in Hamlet at the National Theatre.  It was about four hours of theatre, but was so good it felt it was over in a flash.  I also went with C to see Luise Miller at the Donmar.  It was beautifully done, but I would be lying if I said the play itself was one of my favourites.  Last week we saw Andrew Upton's version of The Cherry Orchard at the National Theatre.  This is a play that has been getting very mixed reviews, from those who did not mind the translation and found aspects of it brilliant and those who did like it to those who have difficulties with the Australian Upton's translation.  Perhaps it's because I'm Australian, but I really enjoyed the modern translation.  

Tomorrow night we're off to see Ghost Stories.  Not nearly so highbrow, but I'm very much looking forward to it.  I saw Woman in Black a couple of years ago in London and admit to screaming during the show - it was fantastic.  If I get the chance this week, I'll let you know how Ghost Stories goes.    

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Turin (or Torino to us cool kids)

Next up in our Italian adventure was Turin.  We rented an apartment.  Renting apartments rather than hotels is always a bit of a lottery - sometimes they can be terrific, and a great way to stay somewhere central and save money. And sometimes they just mean lost nights' sleep, tossing and turning listening to the traffic below through inadequately soundproofed windows.  This place fell into the latter category.

Thankfully we were in Turin to eat rather than sleep.  And eat we did.  On our first night we went to Eataly. Eataly is the enormous Slow Food Movement headquarters housed in an old factory in Turin.  Each section of the factory is devoted to a different type of food (vegetables, meat, seafood, pasta and pizza, dolce). And in each section there's a bar/tables where you can order from a limited menu of food with wine to match.  We ate and drank ourselves silly - treating each section as a "station" and stopping off at each on our gastronomic tour of Italy.  The food was delicious - even the salads were divine.

baked ricotta and walnut salad with balsamic reduction - yum! 

Eataly isn't super cheap, and is clearly designed for the well-heeled middle classes.  It's also a little way out of the centre of town.  However, I recommend a visit - it is a great way to taste lots of different Italian food and produce when you only have a limited time in the country.

Unfortunately, for most of our time in Turin it largely rained. This necessitated a quick shopping expedition.  I am a dreadful holiday packer.  G likes to remind me of the holiday when the only footwear I brought was boots and sneakers but I forgot to bring a single pair of socks.  Then there was the holiday (in the depths of winter) where I forgot to bring any sweaters or warm tops.  And the holiday when I only brought one clean pair of knickers.  All of these holidays have resulted in a quick trip to a clothing store, usually Zara. This holiday was no exception. On this holiday I kept up my bad packing trend, and failed to pack any cold or wet weather clothes.  So off shopping we went.  I now have a very fine pair of VERY bright blue trousers (Zara), a new top (Zara), rain jacket (Zara) and some running gear (H&M). The latter is pretty hideous - a bright pink hoodie and some leggings - but it kept me warm and meant I had no excuse not keep up my running and to run along the Po in the mornings.

To hide from the rain we visited the Egyptian museum while in Turin. It's reputed to be the world's second best (after the one in Cairo) and it was pretty amazing. Is it wrong that my highlight was seeing the mummified bodies? It's just so incredible to see how well preserved they are, even down to the teeth! 
We also kept up our eating, managing to find several delicious restaurants, including one which served the most delicious beetroot gnocchi.  And it was it Turin where I discovered Grom gelato - heaven in a cup!


After three days in Turin, and just as the weather cleared and the sun came out, we were back on the train, this time to Milan where we were staying for one night before flying back to London.
Milan gets a pretty bad rap.  All of the locals we met in Turin were terribly dismissive of Milan, questioning why we would go there at all.  So my expectations were not high.  In fact, the only reason we were going there was because that was the city from which our flight home departed.  Maybe because of these low expectations, I was quite pleasantly surprised. 

However, the city did manage to fulfil some of the cliches - surely it's only in Milan where one side of a great cathedral can be taken up by a fashion billboard?

After Milan it was sadly time to head home, back to the real world of work and only three meals a day (plus snacks of course).

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

From Asti to Turin

After Cinque Terra G and I caught the train to Asti.  This is a little town in the Piedmont region.   We made our way on foot for the relatively short distance between the train station and our hotel.  We were staying at Locanda al Castello.  Aside from the breakfasts (which consisted of cereal and dry bread and jam) and the restaurant (which never seemed to be open) this was an excellent hotel. We had a room that included a kitchenette (meaning we could cater for our own breakfasts) and a lovely little outdoor terrace with a table.  It was all extremely reasonably priced, too, at 70 euros per night.  

We arrived on the Easter Monday at around 4 pm and as we made our way from the train station to the hotel, we saw that everything appeared to be shut.  There were a few locals out in the squares, smoking cigarettes and chatting, but the shops and restaurants showed no signs of life.  We arrived at the hotel, absolutely starving, and asked where we might get dinner.  The hotel receptionist simply told us that we probably wouldn't; it's easter Monday and everything is closed.  Could the hotel restaurant provide us with any food, we begged, only to be told that no, the hotel restaurant was shut.  In fact, during our stay of three nights we never saw it open.

So we wandered back into the city, determinedly walking street by street to find something open.

Finally we stumbled upon a little takeaway pizzeria.  The shop looked like the Italian version of the English late-night kebab shop.  Behind the counter was a large woman, with bleached blonde hair and dark black roots. There were two customers in there already - two 16-year-old girls wearing an excess of lycra clothing which, in both cases, had various strategically placed cut out parts, designed to show off their tattoos.  Think a Beyonce costume, but worn on an ordinary person.  Through the cutout portions on the leggings and tight tops oozed some ample white flesh (which actually rather resembled the pizza dough the woman was kneading). 
There was a small menu with names of various pizzas but no descriptions.  So our limited knowledge of Italian (pomodoro, salame etc) was no good to us.  The woman also spoke no English.  We stood there puzzling over the menu when another customer walked in. He spotted our predicament, and in almost-perfect English asked if we needed help with the translations. He then described the pizzas to us.  One of the pizzas he described was the "fonze" which he said, was a "pizza with tomato, some cheese and potato".  This, we decided, was what we would order.  G and I both had pictures of finely chopped potato spread over a crispy pizza base, maybe with some rosemary sprinkled on the top.  We should have realised from our surrounds this wouldn't be the case. 

The pizza started out well - we saw the woman kneading the dough, spreading tomato paste on it but then to our horror, she produced an enormous bag of soggy, pre-made and frozen chips and proceeded to dump the contents of the bag on the pizza before shoving the pizza in the oven.  So that was our first night's dinner. A chip pizza. We took it back to the hotel and ate it on the terrace, carefully picking the soggy (and still cold in the middle) chips from our pizza. 

Thankfully, that was our only culinary disaster.  The next day the shops and restaurants were open and we quickly managed to replace the taste of soggy chips with more delicious things. The reason G had chosen Asti as a place to visit (he largely organised this holiday) is because it is in a region famous for its food, and it didn't disappoint.  We ate some absolutely delicious meals of pasta, fresh fish and (in G's case) meat.  We also had some wonderful wine, the highlight of which was a 2000 barolo by Varja (which only cost us 40 euros at a restaurant).  I tried to keep up my jogging, running around the town every morning.  And in the main the locals were all incredibly friendly.  Rather than being distracted or amused by my fluorescent pink running gear, cars would stop and let me pass and the morning walkers would all say hello.   It is not a hugely popular tourist town, so in the main people were pleased to have tourists there and were terribly accommodating, trying their best to help us out even when they couldn't speak English and we can't speak Italian.  And those who did know some English in the main were keen to practise it on us, which we were very happy with.  

Asti is also a town that celebrates apperitivo time.  This is from about 5 pm in the afternoon where, if you order a drink, you get free snacks.  Lots of free, delicious snacks. 

On one day we also took a day trip from Asti to visit the nearby town of  Acqui terme.  This is an absolutely gorgeous town named after the thermal water that flows into its centre.  The water (which, by the way, smells rather like rotten eggs) is at 74 degrees at the centre of town.  The locals were turning up with their mugs and were drinking it.  We didn't partake in the drinking of the eggy water.  

There are also some terrific Roman ruins of an old aquaduct and ancient baths in Acqui Terme and we wandered around and had a great day.  

Then it was time for us to head off again on the train, this time to Turin. 

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Ciao Cinque Terra!

In late April/early May, the alphabet soup (D, L, G, K, C and I) decamped to the Cinque Terra for a few days of hiking, eating and drinking.  It was K's brilliant idea to go to the Cinque Terra, and I say that without any of my usual sarcasm - it was a brilliant holiday.  The Cinque Terra is five Italian towns nestled in the hills on the coast of the Liguria region of Italy.  The towns are joined by a hiking trail and tram.  The distance between the town varies.  At its longest, the hike is about 1.5 hours between two towns over a path that an Italian quite accurately described as a "goat path".  At its easiest, it's a 15 minute walk over a paved area joining two of the towns.  In any event, if you give up or decide not to do the return journey, there's always a train. 

We based ourselves in one town, spending the days walking to the other towns and then catching the train back in the evening.  The walks were beautiful, and we felt they justified us being incredibly greedy at every town we visited, and gorging ourselves on the delicious local food and wine.   

One of my favourite times of day was afternoon apperativo time.  Apperativo time inevitably involved an Apperol spritz.  The proprietors of whatever bar we were at would then usually bring out a tray of delicious snacks to eat.  It effectively added a fourth main meal to the day, which none of us complained about. 

In an attempt to counteract the gluttony, I kept up my running, although my runs became noticeably slower yet felt harder as the days went on.  It wasn't very beachy weather, but after a morning run D and I braved the water, so I can say I went swimming while I was there. 

After about three days in the Cinque Terra, sadly the alphabet soup broke up, with K and C off to Rome, D and L to Milan then Perth and G and I headed off to Asti. 

a gluttonous April and May (and my review of Pollen Street Social)

Once again, I've been a bit sloppy in updating this blog.  As I've mentioned before, I've been tutoring first year uni students in law at one of the London universities.  I've spent the last couple of months dealing with panicked students in the lead-up to exams and then was busy marking exams.  Generally the standard was satisfactory, but there were a few exceptions.  My favourite of those exceptions was the student who wrote in answer to a problem question: "If Graham [the fictional protagonist] thinks he's going to get any damages ... he's an idiot!".  Another student began a sentence by writing: "next I'm gonna..." before sensibly crossing out the word "gonna" and replacing it with "going to".  Many of the exam scripts were full of texting speak - lots of text abbreviations (FYI, BTW) and even smiley faces.  It made me feel very old and brought home the fact that the uni students of today are from a different generation to me. 

Thankfully the last couple of months haven't been all about work.  April saw our friends D and L come from Perth to London and we spent a few happy days hanging out with them.  I even persuaded D to come for a run with me to Hampstead Heath, a run that resulted in us getting completely lost but meant we had a lovely little tour of North London. 

The four of us made it to my new favourite London restaurant, Trullo.  Trullo is a terrific (and very reasonably priced) Italian restaurant in Islington.  It does not have a "concept" (unlike too many London restaurants at the moment) and the waiters don't bore you to death by explaining what the chef is trying to achieve/say by his/her food. And thank god for that.  It's just really good food at great prices in a good atmosphere.  We have been there a few times recently.  I knew I loved the place when, on our first visit shortly after they opened (with two other friends, C and L), the co-owner/front of house came to clear our plates and caught C and I dipping our fingers into the delicious leftover sauce on our plates (we'd already devoured every morsel of food).  Instead of politely ignoring our terrible table manners, he just enthused: "that's great.  That's totally what we wanted to do, to make food that leaves people wanting to scrape their plates clean".  They've also recently opened a bar downstairs, under the restaurant, with tapas sized plates of food and drinks  I can recommend that, also. 

My delicious lemon sole at Trullo (I couldn't resist and started eating it before I took the photo)

G, D, L and I along with D's sister and boyfriend (K and C) (this is starting to turn into an alphabet soup!) also had dinner at Pollen Street Social, only a couple of days after they opened.  This is the much-hyped new Jason Atherton restaurant.  The evening got off to a bad start. About half our group arrived half-an-hour early, for a drink at the bar.  The front of house staff immediately tried to show us to our table, insisting that our reservation was half an hour earlier that it in fact was.  When we insisted that was not the case, and the rest of our group were still to arrive, we were then told, very brusquely, that we would only have an hour and a half for our table (rather than the usual two hours which they apparently allocate), at which point we'd have to return it.  The warning proved unnecessary.  Despite the restaurant being apparently solidly "booked out" for weeks and weeks, with a waiting list for reservations, it was in fact half-empty throughout the time we were there.  Not that this stopped us from worrying we would be thrown out before our dinner had finished, especially given it seemed to take about half an hour for anyone to come and take our orders. 

When the entirety of our complement arrived, we were given some keys (one per couple) and told that we would receive a special gift at the end of the evening.  We were then shown to our table, all dutifully taking our keys with us.  A waiter came over to our table and said he wanted to explain the "concept" which was that there were numerous small dishes, and we should order lots and share them.   We asked how many dishes per person we should order, to ensure that we were all able to try each dish, and were told that one dish per two people would be sufficient.  So with that instruction, we busily ordered most of the menu.  When the dishes came out, they were tiny.  The scallop dish consisted of one scallop.  Small dishes (when exquisite) are not a problem, but it did surprise me that the waiter seemed to think it possible to share one scallop between two people.  None of the dishes was bad.  But only a few of them were terrific.  I think I could have eaten double of what was before me and still not been full, a complaint that I notice was echoed by some of the newspaper restaurant critics.  Apparently Pollen Street Social have now largely abandoned this "small dishes" concept, in favour of the more traditional starter, main and desert. 

A few pictures of the small plates are below.  These were cheekily taken with an iphone and without a flash, so they are not brilliant photos.  They also make the dishes look a fair bit bigger than they were.

I can't even remember what this dish was ... it obviously didn't make much of an impression
Again, I can't remember what these were.  Crab cakes or something, perhaps?  They look pretty, anyway. 
The service was also a little sloppy.  There is a dedicated sommelier but, given the restaurant was very quiet, she didn't seem to have a lot to do.  Nonetheless, she seemed determined not to come to our table.  The result was all six of us trying to attract her attention like marooned castaways trying to flag down a single rescue plane.  G is quite the wine buff, but always enjoys having a sommelier to recommend some untried and tested wine.  Unfortunately, when we finally did get the attention of the sommelier, her wine recommendations were of the very basic (and very obvious) "you will want a dry white" variety, leaving us wondering why we had spent so much time trying to attract her attention in the first place. 

Given the quality of many of the dishes, I could bear all of the above.  What I couldn't, however, stand was the response when I managed to drip some of one of the sharing dishes on the table cloth in front of me.  It left only a modest mark but the service at that point became very attentive, with our waiter rushing over with an enormous white napkin.   He lifted the napkin up, waving it in the air, causing the conversation at the table to cease as everyone wondered what he was doing with this enormous flag.  He then made a great show of placing the napkin in front of me, slowly smoothing it out over the mess.  All of this left me feeling rather embarrassed and did not encourage the "social" aspect of Pollen Street whatsoever, as for the rest of the evening I was overly cautious when spooning tiny morsels onto my plate, eager to avoid the embarrassment of the white flag for a second time. 

When we finally finished our dinner (well and truly after the 1.5 hour slot we had been given had ended) we paid and then went back to the front of house to return the keys to the woman who gave them to us (leaving us wondering why we'd had to keep hold of these keys throughout the meal in the first place).  She then exchanged them for a paper bag containing two friands and two tea bags, with a note "breakfast on us".  Cute, but it was too late to win me over. 

Pollen Street Social just isn't my sort of restaurant.  You can't compare it with Trullo - the two are aiming at completely different markets.  But I think I'll take the place where you can happily dip your finger into your leftover sauce over the fussiness of Pollen Street any day. 

Friday, 29 April 2011

Laser eye surgery (and my review of it)

I do not wear glasses anymore!  This is big news for someone who has been a four-eyes almost all of her life.  I've tried contacts but never found them comfortable (dry eyes).  Some people suit glasses and look good in them. I'm not one of those people.  It doesn't help that I'm a size six (UK) and only 5ft 2 and have a head in proportion to my midget-sized body, meaning that most glasses look enormous on me.  And now I'm an international athlete (meaning I run in London and when I'm abroad) and I run in the rain, wind and snow, wearing glasses became even more of an irritant. A run in the winter would typically involve me having to use my fingers as windscreen wipers in order to see anything in front of me.  But all of that is now over ...

I have R to thank.  That and a few glasses of vino.  We had R around to dinner and he talked (at some drunken length) about how his laser eye surgery was the best thing he ever did.  That same night I drunkenly went onto the internet and booked myself a consultation.  I had an appointment the next day and a further appointment for laser eye surgery only one week after that.

The procedure itself didn't hurt.  It was done privately but by an NHS surgeon.  I googled him beforehand and was pleased to see that he seemed to have extensive experience!  And, unlike the procedures of old (or the cheaper procedures of the current day), no knife was used - in fact, I couldn't see any implements at all descending onto my eye (which is what I was most worried about).  All I could see were some flashing lights and all I could feel was, at one point, some pressure. And then after about five or ten minutes it was all over.  That was a Saturday morning.  I was warned I would experience "some discomfort" after the anaesthetic eye drops wore off and for about four hours but was told I would be fine to go back to work on Monday. 

Now, if you're reading this and thinking about getting the surgery done, there are a few points to note. 

1.  The prices advertised are not the prices they charge.  Those prices are to get the old-fashioned "slice and dice and zap" surgery.  The more modern (and painless) version is a fair bit more expensive (all up it cost me around £3,000).

2.  Discomfort is a medical term for "pain".  Once the eye drops wore off my eyes did hurt for about three hours and I had to keep them closed.  The pain was bearable thanks to a couple of valium downed with some red wine.  But it wasn't pleasant.  After those three or four hours, there was no more pain. But my eyes did feel really dry and gritty for about a week - they felt like my eyes felt when I'd had contact lenses in for too long.  But that was manageable with eye drops.

3. I got the most high-tech (and so expensive) procedure done.  I have no idea what the other procedures are like.  Thankfully, there are interest free payment plans, so for me it was pretty economical (considering my astigmatism and expensive prescription).  But it may prove less so if you have a pretty run-of-the-mill prescription.

4.  The advice that I would be fine for work on Monday was totally wrong.  First of all, I looked like a zombie from 28-days later.  My eyes were so bloodshot a worried colleague ran up to me and said very loudly "oh my god, your eyes are bleeding!!".  But, more importantly from a functional perspective, my eyes were hyper sensitive to light and the vision still was pretty blurry, particularly when looking at a computer screen.  Perhaps if I didn't have a computer-based job I would have been fine but, as it was, it was not until Wednesday that I could comfortably read a computer screen.

5.  It took about a week before my vision was "good".  No one warned me it would take that long - up until then, I was getting tension headaches from my eyes straining.  When I went into the surgery, I had only read the book of "testimonials" where people had said that their "personal experience" was that their vision was dramatically improved within an hour of the surgery. That was, most definitely, not the case for me.  In fact, my vision is still improving and apparently it isn't until about 3 months after the surgery that it's at its peak.  Bizarrely, I think the staff (at least at the place I went to) try to minimise what it is that you are having done.  They never refer to it as "surgery", it's always referred to as "the treatment".  As far as I'm concerned, a "treatment" is a facial.  This is most definitely eye surgery.

6.  The staff at the provider I used were much more upfront after I had the procedure done.  It was only then that they admitted that for people with stronger prescriptions than mine, they have to sometimes do "top up" treatment (which they do for free) after the initial treatment, because when their eyes heal they sometimes undo (don't ask me how) the laser treatment. 

7. For the first week after surgery you have to wear very unattractive goggles to bed.  You also can't get your eyes wet (so no putting your face under the shower), wear makeup or play any sport (including running). 

Notwithstanding all of the above, I have to say that I am incredibly glad I got the laser surgery.  I got it done about three weeks ago.  One eye is still a little red, but it's only noticeable up close.  And my vision is terrific!