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!

Roadrunner

“You’re probably going to find out anyway but here’s a little pre-emptive truth-telling – there’s no happy ending.” (Anthony Bourdain)

We watched Roadrunner over the weekend. It documents the life of Anthony Bourdain, a man I belatedly became quasi-obsessed with, not many years prior to his suicide, in June 2018.

It was the colourful biography, Kitchen Confidential, which spring-boarded him to fame, about 20 years ago, and almost certainly and aggressively pulled him away from being a chef in New York, to traveling 250 days a year around the world, making TV shows about food and culture.

Vietnam was one of the first countries to “wow” Bourdain, and go on to have a continuous and powerful impact on him, during his future visits here – including eating bun cha with Barack Obama up in Hanoi in 2016.

Other countries followed, each stirring up a cocktail of emotions, as Bourdain hopped from slurping street-vendor soup to smoking pipes with desert nomads, sampling exotic and, at times, gruesome cuisine along the way, determined as he was to inspire others to do the same.

As his film-making evolved, his line of enquiry became more intense and more considered.

Bourdain seems to connect well with everyone he meets (although, as commentators in Roadrunner will attest, directing him on camera can clearly be a nightmare).

As a viewer, I admired how he interacted with people on his travels, and noted at the time how his own careful, yet celebrity-kissed effervescence was often blunted by the authenticity, and the grace of the people with whom he momentarily spent time, or shared a meal.

As I was in awe of him, it was he who was in awe of the person sat in front of him at that moment on a plastic chair, talking about their livelihood, or about their hopes and dreams.

These emotions he experienced, from his constant exposure to different contexts and perspectives, and the lasting impressions they left on him, were then churned up and recycled, a million times over, amongst viewers, like myself, of his various shows: A Cook’s Tour; No Reservations; The Layover; and, finally, Parts Unknown.

For the most part, I imagine, these offerings served to inspire people on different levels. One tenet that runs through each series was the concept of being ‘on the move’:-

“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”

What Roadrunner illuminates, through its intimate outpourings from Bourdain’s family and friends, was that his years of travel were “never about the food.”

To spin a metaphor about how he might, instead, have been using fame, and trips overseas, as some kind of personal odyssey, so as to make sense of his own anger and frustration with the world, as well as with himself, could easily be construed as simplistic, and trite. However, it’s easy to see how this could have been the case: he was a man who never settled, was “always rushing onto set, or rushing off it…fleeing home, or fleeing from home” to quote from the film a sentiment that echoes throughout it.

During these chaotic, yet lucid, sojourns from continent to continent – drinking pulsating cobra heart juice in Thailand, being evacuated from Lebanon during a war, or just blustering through tequila shots with rock stars in Joshua Tree – there are some moments of ‘stillness’ for Bourdain, that Roadrunner captures. Moments where he does seem to find a karma, of sorts: becoming a father; being in a new relationship; breaking into deep smiles with friends, at very precise moments of camaraderie.

You feel, watching, that this stillness could provide a commendable corollary to the rage, anger and boisterous indifference that peppers most of the narrative associated with Bourdain. His can be a sensitivity, a genuineness and a purity unbridled to most who choose to place themselves in front of a camera lens.

Ostensibly, Roadrunner catalogues the litany of one man’s lifetime of reflections, circling around an over-arching curiosity that Bourdain pursued right until the very end. A curiosity which sought to answer some of life’s most existential questions.

And, for me, it’s this combination of anger and of calmness, with which Bourdain jostles, that make for such an engaging canvas on which to then let his curiosity run free.

In this sense, watching Roadrunner, like watching an episode of Parts Unknown, is made to feel a hugely relatable, and grounding, experience. Temporarily accompanying Bourdain on his quest (and, in the case of Roadrunner, condensing into a couple of hours Bourdain’s 61 year commitment to seeking out answers) is nothing short of an honour.

In his two decades of film-making, he made it clear that “aspiring to mediocrity” was never an option for him, and in that regard I feel he maintained the highest of standards.

That the last third of his life was spent “on the move”, very publicaly asking these questions – skittishly and consistently unsatisfied with the answers he was uncovering – is both upsetting to observe, as well as acutely uplifting, and insightful, all rolled into one.

Anthony Bourdain challenged norms and behaviours – relentlessly, and as widely as is possible in a lifetime – in search, perhaps, of the impossible.

That every contributor to the film, on camera, finds themselves lost for words, in their attempts to sum up, respectively, what Bourdain’s legacy might be, and indeed why he chose to end his life, is in itself a testament to the enormity of what he’d been committed to achieving.

Visibly moved to choking tears, one of Bourdain’s close friends (still angry at the reality that he’ll never again have his companion sit with him) challenges the film-makers to select a cheesy, closing scene of Bourdain for the final seconds of the film – “ideally, him walking down the beach on his own…he’d hate that” scoffs the friend, grinning.

The same guy then shaves his head (uncut since Bourdain’s death) and heads off to graffiti one of the nearby murals of Bourdain, in his neighbourhood – a last ditch attempt to connect with, to laugh with, and to indulge with his friend.

It’s a fitting and special tribute, because it’s so profoundly different, conventionally, to how people normally would behave in that situation.

In many ways, it’s the perfect tribute to a man who held a similar principle close, in all that he set out to accomplish, even though you got the impression he never quite knew what that actually was.

Time Poor

If seconds were gifted to you as money,
I wonder how much change you’d keep - 
by the end of each indulgent day's splurge - 
as you lay yourself down to sleep?

this gift will not save, these funds 
must daily be spent,
the wise man (in this realm of wealth) 
holds not back investing a single cent.

so, as dawn breaks and you wake afresh, 
be sure your path of choice is clear,
the returns you seek can be cashed in 
only whilst you are here.



Freedom

In the arc of a late afternoon sunbeam

golden films of swirling dust alight

on slanted books – shelved for years –

patiently bursting with stories and wisdom,

the poor man’s fix

in an insatiable, self-obsessed world

unbound and reinvented daily

too often through greed,

too soon through conflict –

not so, these books

their brown glued spines

and whiff of summer days

slumped by an open window,

the majesty of their fond attachment

to a past where crumbled paper-bags

hoarded liquorice string and rhubarb sours –

they accompanied us in long grass fields

under empty skies and fluffy clouds

during the thrill of birthday cakes and candles,

they were there for our innocent surrender

to playtime and make-believe

the tenderness of thought and action

of boys and girls –

before uniforms and chalk-dusted elbows

become beguiling teenage tendencies

which lead us not into temptation

but towards choice and decision-making

and the sharing of one’s own literature

our stories – our wisdom –

our time to walk freely and to be.