My Balinese Monday

Tinsel-flecked emerald water
Simmers in the baking midday sun,
The sway and bob of the local fishing fleet
In teal red yellow and green
Salt-crusted bows, and paint flakes,
Tumbles of clove-scented breeze
Part the arcs of banana leaves 
Outside the temple,
Coursing down the lanes
That claw between the crumbling
Coastal trails - astride the Wallace line - 
A family of frangipani arms splay their 
Flowerheads 
Towards the white rays that
Enshroud my Monday island - 
Nusa Lembongan.

The Best Time…Ever

Photo credit https://lamleygroup.com/2015/05/21/the-last-golden-age-of-matchbox-porsche-911-gt3/

‘Carpe diem’ often crops up in my writing, and surfaces on social media daily, in different guises.

Living for the moment, or living in the moment – as you wish – can be a powerful mantra, to re-balance a frustrating moment in one’s day or, perhaps, even course correct on a more significant scale.

For many people undergoing moments of sheer crisis, using carpe diem to help consciously place value on things that are often overlooked (time with loved ones, being typically high up the list) can carry with it much deeper rooted sway, and offer up a slice of mental salvation, even if just temporarily.

Jordon Peterson emphasizes the importance of trying hard with the ‘everyday moments’ – breakfast chatter with family members, preparing a meal together, holding hands in the park. Peterson’s advice seems to match that of Annie Dillard, when she famously said: “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

All of this we’ve heard before. And, maybe, the art of drawing from these sentiments, when required, is one of those past-times we will never quite fully master.

Last Boxing Day, during a brief staycation in the city, I met an 80 year old Chinese-born-American-raised, ex-financier, named Frank. “Another day above ground,” was his greeting to me, as we locked gazes in the hotel’s swimming pool.

Frank, it transpired, had retired at my age, and appears to have spent the last 35 years trying to help encourage aspiring professionals to do the opposite to what he managed to achieve.

Slow down, would be Frank’s counsel, appreciate not the materialistic assets for which you might strive but, instead, savour the smaller things in life.

“You can’t take the Porsche with you when you’ve gone,” he advised me (this was prior to him learning that I was in development and that, not only do I not know a Porsche from a Peugeot, but that I’ll never be in the market for one, unless it came in a matchbox set).

Of course, Frank is right – arguably, he is also well placed to share this wisdom with hindsight, having already made squillions of dollars working for the Qatari Royal Family as a stock broker in the 1980s.

Nonetheless, he’s right and, if we wind forward to the last week, day, or even the last hour of our own life, then 99% of the things that we spend time thinking about now (work, finances, relationships, assets, the future etc) do certainly become redundant, as we clear our minds, instead, to reflect, appreciate and to resolve.

True, some people will only be at peace, when they are at an end of life stage, if their reflections on what they have accomplished are measured by career achievements. In which case, work, assets and money are worthy and mutually reinforcing targets.

For others, measurement using these types of criteria are less critical. Oscar Wilde himself believed it to be a “curse” if someone had a predefined career path, as that would mean they weren’t afforded the luxury of waking up each day with “wings of independence”.

I’m a huge fan of Wilde, always ready to ingest his colourful observations: tasty mind-candy to momentarily sweeten my day.

However. I think “seizing the day” can be bigger than this, I think there’s more to it, and more required, than the short-term sugar rush of that particular attribute of carpe diem.

********************************************************

I had surgery on Valentine’s Day this year. My first time going into an operating theatre on a gurney, luminous bug-eyed lights craning over me, and four pairs of masked faces jostling around my feet with clipboards, as the plastic tube into my hand administered a calming anesthetic.

For 20 seconds, lying there, waiting to be knocked out, all of a sudden I decided to hastily reflect on my life, the brain whirring through all possible options, as fast as a 5G search engine.

I panicked. The anesthetic was circulating in my veins. I breathed. Within only a few seconds of manic emotional wrenching, I then paused and simply pictured Issy and the girls, held their warm smiles in freeze-frame and concluded (rather pathetically, but with as much profoundness as my soon to be sleeping brain could muster) that “I’d had a good life, and done quite well.”

Awake a few hours later, my Achilles tendon stitched back together, I felt a bit embarrassed at this rather botched attempt at spiritual reconciliation.

Who was I projecting my “last” thoughts to? Also, if, rationally, I actually thought there might be a chance I’d not ever wake from the surgery, why was I even undergoing this procedure in the first place?

All fruitless questions to pursue. The more important dilemma to untangle (I should have realised at the time) was, logistically, how was I going to stop to buy valentine’s flowers for my wife on the way home from the hospital, whilst on crutches, and feeling sleepy? A purchase which, for the archives, let it be recorded, I did manage to successfully accomplish.

A few day’s passed and I thought over the experience again, and became quite moved by my resolve at searching, in those seconds on the gurney, for an ultimate answer (particularly, given I’d no idea what the question was I was posing myself).

In that moment before the drugs kicked in, what I had felt was all of my senses in tune with this one active effort: to make sense of it all. The seconds that passed, as I was running a scan over my life, trying to spit out a suitable summary, were super intense, and had felt visceral and unfamiliar.

Three and a half months later and, on the verge of leaving Vietnam’s borders once more this month, and spending time with family and friends we’ve not seen since we were married in Galle in January 2020, what carpe diem feels like for me, today, is a much more rounded appreciation of the meaning of ‘awesome’.

As a colloquialism, awesome has been sold on the cheap. It dawned on me that “being inspired by an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration or fear” (the actual meaning of the word ‘awesome’) could be attributed to every second of one’s life.

For each second that passes, we change, we morph, we learn, we evolve. Only very, very slightly, each second, but change is happening, whether we like it or not.

And, yet, the only second that counts, the only second that can illicit awe, is the one that is happening at that moment.

Now, with what I’m about to finish on, I may, simply and idly, be lumping Peterson, Dillard and Wilde all into one mash-up, attempting to craft an ultimate carpe diem medley – having my cake and eating it, if you will. However, given I’m hopelessly devoted to some kind of pursuit in life that enjoys mixing different flavours of philosophy together, in order to make the most delicious bite (although I’m never satisfied with the final taste) then these last lines may well be nonsense, or just plain obvious…

Isn’t the truth of the matter this: when someone uses the phrase “the best is yet to come,” that should be called out as hogwash?

The “best” anything we’ve ever done, or experienced, is happening to us right now.

The best meal we’ve ever eaten is the one in our mouths when we are eating it. The best discussion we’ve ever had is the one in full flow right now (whether we’re having it with someone else, or with ourselves).

With each fresh breath of oxygen into our lungs, and flush of blood round our hearts, we are experiencing the awe of existence, the miracle of life.

Whether on our own, or in the company of others, whether feeling elated or feeling remorseful, or out of kilter in some way – the awe remains, it doesn’t ever go anywhere but lies, instead, under the surface of our lives, intuitively hidden away most of the time. Until it is needed.

The best isn’t yet to come, the best is right now. And it always will be.

A Poem by Flo

One from the Covid archives, written by Florence (in March 2022) and posted by a proud Daddy...


The Global Pandemic 

They cancelled school one day
And we all thought hurray, hurray
An extra day, for us to play

For we had no idea
The next two years
We would feel like prisoners 

Locked in our country
Locked in our city
Locked in our homes

Dragging yourself out of bed everyday
Only to grab your laptop
And crawl back inside your den

Learning through a screen
Isolated from your friends
Zoom calls just aren't the same

Need a ticket to go outside 
The police are lions
Waiting to catch and give you a fine

Walking laps in your flat
Trying to hit your daily ten thousand 
But you never succeed 

Family all over the world
Grandparents going grey 
Skype will have to do

How about we turn on the news?
Oh 
It's just as depressed 

Five million cases worldwide!
Eight thousand deaths today!
The corona virus has turned into a global pandemic!

Locked in our country
Locked in our city
Locked in our homes

We have lost loved ones
We have been animals trapped in a zoo
But it’s all coming to an end 

We have made it through the global pandemic 
Of twenty twenty
 to twenty twenty two.

I watch the cathedral spires

I watch the cathedral spires through wisps of smoke,
A cold chill of wind in my hair,
Air coated in damp February droplets as
Sparrows glide then dart over Palace Green.

Behind these cobbled chapel walls
The burning chatter of youth suppressed,
Whilst classical literature is pondered
Chairs tip back in anticipation of new beginnings.

These sacred rooms nested inside the bustle of
North Eastern promise – a working class left wanting,
A weekly chorus of ritual and graft
Runs deep and deeper still.

Into the bowels of those mothers and fathers
Whose toil and routine are etched in skin and might,
True colours refracted back
In the filament of the glass window before me.

 

A learning journey, all the way across America

Photo courtesy of Ricky Gates – http://www.rickygates.com

I watched Ricky Gates’ 2017 run across America yesterday, and found it inspiring on a number of levels.

Gates had felt unsettled at the time about the Trump administration winning the 2016 election and, as a professional runner and someone drawn, and devoted to understanding better what life “is all about”, he took on the challenge of solo running from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean on his own.

He managed this in as unaided a way as is technically practical, so just one support vehicle, loosely tracking him with some supplies. He slept out each night on a tarp and camping mat, which he carried on his back.

Possibly, from reading about Donald Trump’s return to social media this morning (which I refuse to share here) but also due to having sat on my arse for the past 6 days, following surgery on my Achilles, I felt compelled to celebrate Gates’ pilgrimage from 5 years ago.

Firstly, I’ll embrace any opportunity to support and promote an endeavour that was, itself, “inspired” as a means to counter the turmoil (at the time, and possibly still) that is Donald Trump. Sign me up for, literally anything, that might spread an anti-Trump message.

Second, no matter how polished Gates’ running portfolio is, a marathon a day for over 150 days – including sleeping outside in the open, every night, breaking camp and boiling a stove in the mornings for your daily pre-marathon coffee – is nothing less than a herculean accomplishment.

Gates planned his route meticulously from state to state, many of which he was setting foot in for the first time.

He documented the diversity of landscape and culture along the way, and had already hammered home the eclecticness and the natural beauty of America before he’d left his first state.

He even choreographed a pit-stop back on his home turf in Aspen, Colorado – the familiar “comforts” of running over the Rocky Mountains nearby, super-charging him for what was next to come: endless miles of searing heat across the Nevada desert.

With all this planning, however, each day he attempted to get from dawn to dusk in as basic a way as possible. If his phone (which contained the map) ran out of battery, before he could re-charge it, he was forced to follow his instincts and, on several occasions, he went off course.

In the desert, his initial strategy, to avoid the 110 degree daytime temperatures, was to run through the night. As this routine proved troublesome from the resulting lack of sleep he was managing, he then bought a golf cart, carrying the extra water he needed, before upgrading to a child’s stroller, equipped with an umbrella, and allowing him more running time when the sun was up.

It was during this gruelling chapter in the desert that Gates suffered acid reflux.

You’d imagine that, due to the sheer amount of distance he covered, it would be the knees or the heels giving up, but it was his stomach that succumbed. He couldn’t keep food down, spent days vomiting and passing blood and then, on the verge of seeking medical help and throwing in the towel, he decided to experiment with ingesting mouthfuls of mustard (a tip from the internet).

This eventually worked, and he kept pushing on. So calm in his temperament when on camera. Resolute in not failing. Forever curious about what his commitment to a goal, that could surely be doing him long-term damage, was to reveal along the way.

And so, lastly, what stuck with me from Gates’ story, by way of a lesson underneath which we can all hook some learning, wasn’t to be in awe at how far our bodies and minds can be stretched, or to what heights of resiliency our spirits can soar. It was Gates’ humble reflections on his experience that I valued the most.

Naturally, it is only through the medium of cliches that achievements such as Gates’ can be summarised.

As other explorers of his generation (Beau Miles is another go-to, for me) help curate modern twists on well known wisdoms, Gates’ documentary plays homage to many, yet seems to dial up those connected most to the study of solitude, and escaping the impulses many of us have, to take on different and often competing roles on a day-to-day basis.

Why not focus instead, Gates muses, on just one. Being you.

Akin to the adage about being “true to oneself” it seems to me that Ricky Gates’ epic journey in 2017 underscored what he already knew about life – namely, that we all know very little, really, about how to make sense of it, and can often be the creators of our own mis-directions, in our attempts to do so.

Perhaps, accepting this, is as solid a starting point for any of us, no matter where we find ourselves when we’re at our most thoughtful or our most fearful.

Do we all have to go on epic journeys to be at peace with our sense of self, and how we show up in the world? I suspect it’s plausible that we do.

Although, choosing the 3,700 mile run option definitely isn’t for the faint-hearted.

A New Year

Four months since I posted anything on Saigonsays.

Ironically, most of that has time been spent freely moving around in Saigon, and beyond, and so perhaps these freedoms have taken over the reflections (and written musings) brought on by last year’s severe lockdown and confinements?

Over in Hong Kong and China, maddening periods of quarantine are still in place for visitors. Omicron spreads like wildfire elsewhere (and no doubt we’ll experience that soon enough).

Vietnam, meanwhile, has been pushing on with softening its restrictions since October, and has ensured a high percentage of the population is now triple vaxxed.

Borders are open for those of us with residency, and so 2022 is already, hands-down, considerably more of an exciting prospect than the ennui and helplessness curated by 2021.

Tet – Chinese New Year – is days away. The city is buzzing, and the locals’ smiles are as full as the moon will be next month.

Although the clear spring skies of December have morphed into a daily pea-soup mush of pre-Tet factory and construction pollution, the markets are thriving and the trees and flowers adorning the pavements are as brilliant as I’ve seen them.

It’s the turn of the Water Tiger in 2022. ‘Stability’ and ‘self-esteem’ being two of its fabled characteristics.

All I keep thinking is that I’ve only one more year left until we reach the Cat (my year) again, and I’ll have experienced the full circle of mystic connotations that these dozen animals embody, since landing in the country on February 28th 2011.

***********************************************

Issy and me made it up to Dalat a few weeks ago. Flying on a plane for the first time in 7 months, and ambling around the hills and through the forests that encircle this sleepy town.

A crisp 12 degrees at dawn, we eagerly wrapped ourselves up in jackets and hats, long since discarded, and enjoyed the evening red wines all the more, sat by our hotel room heater.

On one of our outings up there we scooted out to the coffee plantations, and looked up the plot owned by K’ho Coffee, the suppliers of our coffee beans, for as many years now as I can remember.

I talk often about the places I’ve spent time in (as I type this I’m listening to a song that I first heard in Peru in 2013, and whose beats catapult me back to bus rides through winding roads out to Cusco, and the taste of pisco sours drank the evening before stepping up onto the plateaus of Machu Picchu) often, like now, I’m lost back in time, back in these moments.

When I finally leave Vietnam I know the recollection of buying the small yellow Tet tree, that I picked up this morning on my way home (balanced on my knee precariously as I wove along with other bikes in the midday sun) will be fresh, and will buoyantly re-kindle the image of the same tree perched, as it is now, on our garden table, waiting to bud, proudly sat to help me pay respect to this most celebrated of Vietnamese times of year.

I’ll recall, and will marvel, at the memories of all the Vietnamese dishes guzzled down regularly here. Of the close confines of local district life puttering about us, as we stroll down to our local bar for an aperitif, or to the curry house on our street where the chefs stoke open air tandoor ovens and the frangipani trees flop over their garden’s walls.

The Turkish shawarmas and to-die-for falafels, prepared but 400 metres from our house, the French galettes around the corner – christ, we’ve even got Union Jack’s, the fish and chip shop, run by a Brit and pushing out steak and kidney pies and jugs of gravy like we’re living in East London.

This truly international vibe in Saigon, in 2022, and in spite of the craziness brought on by the pandemic (and the exodus of foreigners as a result) is breathtaking. It somehow slots well into the groove of Vietnamese street-vended noodles and drip-coffee and the meshing of cultures seems to work most of the time. The beer halls are crammed full with locals inhaling IPAs and loaded fries; Korean bubble tea houses vie with Starbucks on every modern apartment block corner.

Even in Dalat we sat in the serene courtyard of a house specialising in stunning home-cooked Italian food and wine. The best I’ve had here.

What treats, what delights.

And yet, what a slim perspective, still, on this vast and ranging country, up and down which there remains still so much potential, so much development needed, and so much investment to support each province, and each household.

Saigon’s growth is striking.

But so, too, is the risk that many could be left behind in the melee for modernisation.

Ramsgate

Motorway spray races across the car window –
I pick a winning droplet, in the frame of the passing linen sky.
Soon, we spot seagulls,
And a first glimpse of sea,
“What time will we go to the arcades?” – the refrain from the backseats –
As my brother and I fasten our shoes,
And brush crumbs onto the floor.

Bloated fish nibble at the pond surface behind us,
While we stand sniggering,
Grandad’s shirt and tie refracted behind frosted glass,
The back door peeks open,
“Not today, thank you” – the ritual greeting –
We giggle, and bundle inside
To wafts of pastry and gravy.

Triaging each familiar comfort –
Our Nana’s twinkle-eyed embrace,
The measuring of just how tall we’d grown,
Pink iced fingers, yellow French Fancies,
Dandelion and Burdock –
Our adventuring, up and down the house,
Can begin in earnest.

Pillaging salted peanuts
We scan over cousins’ school portraits,
Smoothed under glass table top,
Carpet curls tickle our toes,
We press our noses against the enormous pane
And fight over binoculars,
Looking out at icy foam and black liners
Carving through the English Channel.

After lunch – and Grandad’s apple slices –
We bounce through hedged park squares
Towards the Promenade,
And drop two pence pieces
Into moving treasure chests,
Throw our plastic parachute men cliff-side,
And watch them spin in the biting current
As evening draws in.

Back inside the walled garden
We chase after the fish,
Fall about on the grass –
Energies finally spent –
Rosy-cheeked we watch The Pink Panther
Then drift off under the covers
To Famous Five adventuring,
And the thrill of doing it all again
Tomorrow.

Time for a drink

I’m back on the bread-making cycle again. Today marking Day 22 of official house arrest here.

The mental exhaustion of even having to write about lockdown is inspiring me to simply avoid talking about the subject. We’ve been out to receive our second vaccine, to pick up and drop off the girls and, then, this morning, under the cover of 4:45am darkness, I ran my first 5kms in 12 weeks, up and down my street, masked up and nodding to two other violators of Saigon’s current rules.

Trying to stay sane, whatever it takes, we seem to be making only minimal progress here – a few steps forward, a few back again.

And so, as I prepared the next bread proof for baking this morning, I also infused some gin with lemon peel, and some Campari with a fresh chili. Because today, dear reader, is the start of “Negroni Week” and, in a delightful Broadsheet article, Doug Wallen was decent enough to share a new recipe to celebrate the forthcoming revelry.

It took me literally seconds to read his suggestion before getting to work concocting, what I am sure, will be a suitably spicy and energising lift to our Monday evening…

I drank my first Negroni in Dhaka, around six years ago, with friends Jamie and Ridwan, a couple I was visiting whilst on a work trip there.

Jamie and Ridwan happened to be in Melbourne, in January 2018, when Issy’s Mum hosted our engagement party, and were happy to imbibe this tremendous cocktail with us again, dressed to the nines as we all were, in our best garden party garb.

In Atlanta, and in Bangkok, we’ve staged yet more Negroni sessions with these two – it never seems to be a difficult “sell” in their company.

As Anthony Bourdain used to proclaim, about the lethal red drink, a Negroni makes for a great apéritif and digestif, and can be enjoyed in the sun, or also by the fire in the winter. Be warned, however, of over consumption – this is a glass of pure, unadulterated rocket fuel.

And, once you’ve then tired of the traditional Rosso, Campari, and Dry Gin blend, there are a myriad of cheeky hacks that can be bestowed upon the classic Negroni: pink peppercorns, rhuburb, ginger, caramel, egg white, peach bitters, cherry, frangelico – to name but a few of the many infusions and crafty sprinkles that I’ve read about, or sampled.

In Copenhagen, we sipped on Winter Negroni’s (cinnamon and star anise) after swimming in the sea – in December, no less – and earlier that same year, in New Orleans during a “Southern Decadence” weekend, it was a White Negroni (mixing Suze and Lillet Blanc) that kicked off a memorable day at a local Country Club.

Whilst mindful of over-indulgence, but in lieu of right now having lost our freedom to go out, to run, to travel, to move oneself physically forward during discombobulating times, I will be embracing this year’s “Negroni Week” (like the marketeer’s dream customer that I am).

I will enjoy the memories of the places I’ve been, the times I’ve had, and my lucky stars – soothed on the palate by that unmistakably fragrant burn – will once again be counted.

Cheers!