Casa Mitra

It’s hard not to drift into nostalgic daydreaming during the Nth month of Covid. Where the phrase “20:20 vision” conjures up clarity and focus, the year 2020 has flipped most of what we knew, or thought we knew, on its head. And left it there.

The upside down view of this brave new world is one with which many are struggling. Me included. Whilst Saigon is Covid free, the conversations had – out running at dawn or over drinks at dusk – are clouded by everyone’s exchange of perspectives on the pandemic, and the regaling of stories about work woes, or life crises. Me included.

I’ve found one good tonic to this malaise is spending more time with Florence and Martha. Back at school now these last 6 weeks, they are cruising along, their 4 months of “home based schooling” a distant memory.

They are swimming again, gossiping about their teachers, and playing on homemade water slides in our garden. Earlier in the summer we escaped to Hoi An with some friends, and the honest past-time of hermit crab catching became the order of the day, everyday.

I’m all too aware that ours is a somewhat sacred reality, compared to many families around the world, coping with alternative lock-down rules and regulations.

I wonder, too, how this year’s memories will manifest for the girls. Differently, perhaps, for their cousins in Australia, Italy and in the UK – who knows?

We are fairly powerless to direct how young people’s future memories resurface. The beauty and brilliance of the mind is, perhaps, just so because of the randomness of how we recall and re-imagine moments from the past so clearly.

Only yesterday, a wave of images crashed through my conscience. Triggered by talk of going on holiday, I was teleported for a full five minutes back to Lanzarote in the 1980s.

A part of the Spanish owned “Canarias,” Lanzarote is a volcanic island, lying off the coast of Morocco, which boasted at the time one main road connecting its scattered white-washed towns and villages. You can drive the length of it in two hours.

Following a successful family holiday of ours in Tenerife, before some further reconnaissance to Lanzarote itself, Mum and Dad bought a villa there, in the same complex as some of their friends, a mile up from a quaint fishing village called Playa Blanca.

Down on the southern most tip of Lanzarote, Playa Blanca was a humble spot to which to escape. There were three restaurants running along its harbour front, and a supermarket in the centre, whose dusty shelves we’d explore as kids, looking for beach balls and plastic spades.

Our villa back when we first took it on was renamed Casa Mitra – the house of the Bishop’s Hat? – and, for a good long while, we’d visit twice a year, coinciding trips with family friends over New Year’s and Easter.

My brother, Matt, and I quickly adjusted to this exciting phenomenon of regular holidays in the sun. Who could blame us? We’d have suntans each February half-term, and could order ham, egg and chips in Spanish before we’d left primary school.

It wasn’t long before we graduated from selecting off the child’s menus to choosing moules marinara and fillet steaks, much to the chagrin of Dad, footing an ever increasing bill.

As youngsters, we’d guzzle down half a dozen bottles of 7Up a day, having spent the lion’s share of it playing tennis, or throwing tennis balls at each other in the swimming pool.

I was then soon enough of an age where I’d be sloping up onto the roof of the villa to smoke cigarettes, whilst Matt, not so many years later, chose the beach of Playa Blanca to drop down onto one sandy knee and propose to his wife, Becks.

In many ways, Lanzarote ended up being an integral part of our family. Having lost our Grandma Edna (whose anniversary on 23rd Sept coincided exactly with my flashbacks yesterday) in 1983, it was only through her legacy that my parents had been able to buy Casa Mitra in the first place. We often spoke about how much Ma and Pa would have enjoyed being with us on these special holidays.

And then, not so long ago, Mum and Dad returned to Playa Blanca to rekindle the memories in person. Meeting up, quite incredibly, with the same brothers, Santiago and Pascal, who ran the local café all those years before. They were still running it, and it was still called Snoopy Bar.

When we first arrived in the Canaries we did some of the tourist things, exploring the volcanoes and watching as local guides launched tree branches down into the smoldering crevasses, only for them to instantly catch fire. The tree branches, not the guides.

As our visits evolved, however, we ended up sticking to a routine of frequenting our favourite eateries, and avoiding the tourists and the traffic jams in the capital.

The simple pleasures in life were all we required to curate the perfect day in Lanzarote. As kids, it was all about playtime. For the parents (as I can only now fully empathise) it would have been the frothy breakfast coffees at Snoopy’s in the morning, and their Tia Maria nightcaps in the evening.

We’d always hire a clapped out Seat Panda and drive up to the top of the island, through the idyllic village of Yaiza, past the more industrial capital, Arrecife, until we reached deep into the black mottled mountains surrounding Arrieta.

Here, we’d take a table outside a small restaurant, Bar Miguel, and devour calamari and salted boiled potatoes – I can taste them now – with the sea spray from the waves flicking onto the wooden table.

It was the ultimate local hangout, and we seldom missed a trip up to sample the day’s catch. Whilst Mum never touched the squid, their beers were icy cold (just as she likes them) so she didn’t hold it against us that we were forever driving up there.

We still reminisce about the evening Dad ended up eating only with Matt and I, following a few too many strong gin and tonics at a neighbour’s villa, resulting in Mum “just having a little nap in the car” whilst we, oblivious to why she’d choose to sleep so early on in the evening, tucked into our flambéed crepes.

Taking oneself back in time, in the spirit of nostalgia, is unavoidable. Particularly now. Deep in the recesses of my subconscious, these tastes and smells and foundational memories of Lanzarote still burn.

Remembering the feeling being sat, aged 12, on the scorched back seat of our Panda, my walkman plugged in, bounding up the island, is a feeling I’m sure helped at the time define for me the notion of travel, and of trying new things.

My eldest, Florence, turned 12 last weekend. Her carbon foot-print, by contrast to mine at her age (up until Covid struck) has been off the charts. The constant cycle this past decade of being an expat, and a “third culture child”, has ensured this.

Heading back to the UK for Christmas last year, and then being flown out of Heathrow with my parents to Sri Lanka to be met by me and Issy, before playing starring roles at our wedding, all involved a bit of planning – yet, for the girls, it was water off a duck’s back. In the end, it also turned into one of their most cherished flying experience, given “Grandma was constantly handing us sweets and treats!”

I would love to think that, one day, Flo and Martha’s recall from their formative years was as similarly heart warming and inspiring as mine remain. That their memories of travel and adventure and play are as prominent, and help shape their attitudes and perspectives.

Positive sentiments evoked by nostalgia are lasting, they can live through pandemics, and undercut the trouble and strife of adulthood.

Ironically, the girls will not appreciate, until much later on, just how empowering they continue to be for us adults, today. They are often that needed distraction and remedy to everyday angst, or to future speculations – a visceral antidote to that feeling we all share of being stuck in time right now.

The costs of this pandemic are being felt by everyone and are, as yet, to be fully understood. In the meantime, nostalgia can be a priceless commodity and, whilst we associate it with things past, it begins of course in the present.

My holiday in Australia (written by Florence)

Melbourne
After Christmas Day we flew to Melbourne, and we slept on the plane on our way there. We then met Phoebe at the airport. She drove us to Pobby and Mike’s house (but Phoebe also lives in the house). So does Aggie their dog. Pobby had made an egg and bacon pie, mainly for Daddy. My sister Martha got lots of tattoos from Phoebe.

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Pobby’s egg and bacon pie

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This is where we slept at Pobby’s

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This is Issy, Pobby and Phoebe opening presents.

The next day we went to town mainly to go shopping to Smiggle for me and Martha. The adults went to other shops for some other stuff.

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We walked down this road. It’s called Brunswick Street.

After that day we went swimming with Phoebe and my sister and my Dad in a 50 metre pool. I swam laps.

Raymond Island
The next day we went to Raymond island for New Year’s Eve. We were seeing lots of people there and we slept in a tent.

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Me and Sunny playing at Raymond Island.

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Martha and Hazy at Raymond Island.

After that day we went to the supermarket then we swam in the lake and Bess took me for my first ever sailing lesson. We then played a big game of boules and my Daddy and Max won. That night we watched fireworks and all the kids stayed awake until after midnight.

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Me and Bess sailing.

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Playing boules.

The next day was New Year’s Day and we went for a koala walk and I saw 19 koalas.

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This is a koala.

Then we drove to Mark’s house….

Sorrento
At Mark’s house we had 4 sleeps. We went there with Lulu, Sunny, Hazy and Ella, and also with Max and Quimby, Sam and Matisse and Henry.

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Mark made us spaghetti bolognese when we got to his house.

The next day Lulu, Sunny and Ella went to Little Nippers in the morning to learn to do life-saving. Sunny and Ella went to one beach and Lulu went to a different beach. Me, Issy and Daddy went to see Lulu that day. Martha and Hazy watched cartoons while we were gone.

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This is me watching Little Nippers.

The next day was Tuesday and none of the girls had Nippers so we practiced for a show. We did Wizard of Oz. On Wednesday we saw Ella and Sunny at Nippers then we swam in the sea with them and Lulu joined us. That day we performed the show to the adults and I was both the Wicked Witches and I had to melt at the end.

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Daddy’s favourite picture of the beach.

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Wizard of Oz Show.

At Mark’s we also did the following things – went to see a field full of kangaroos, me and Martha walked to the Lookout with Mark, we went to Mubbles ice cream shop, we played Rolling Sky and Piano Tiles, and we went to see Lulu, Chloe, Holly, Kiralee and Andrew because they also live there. Every night we went to bed late because it was light until very late.

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My photo of Martha at Diamond Bay.

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Collecting flowers with Lulu.

The very next day we went back to Pobby’s house in Melbourne.

Melbourne (again).
When we got back to Melbourne we did some relaxing with Pobby and Mike and I read Harry Potter and we also watched it on TV. And we watched Nanny McPhee.

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With Pobby watching TV.

We wanted to also go outside and so we went to the zoo with our friends Jasmine and Aleisha. I liked the elephants the best. Their Mum bought everyone slushies. Martha played lots more with Aggie and made her sit and shake hands.

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Daddy and Issy at the zoo.

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Eating snacks at the zoo with Phoebe.

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Drinking slushies.

On our last day in Melboure Daddy, Issy, Martha and me went to the Museum and saw real skeleton bones and animals and insects. We also went for fish and chips as it is my Daddy’s favourite food and we bought some yellow peach ice cream. And we had a swing ball tournament with everyone. I came third and Ella came first and Issy came second. In the evening Pobby made chicken pies and pavlova and we also had calipos.

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Pavlova with blueberries and passion fruit.

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Fish and chips was our last lunch in Australia.

On the Sunday we gave Issy her birthday presents and went to the airport. Pobby bought us more presents at the airport. We didn’t sleep on this plane but watched lots of movies and I read my kindle.

In the taxi home we all drank our drinks.

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In a Saigon taxi.

I had a brilliant holiday. This is one of the pictures I took that Daddy said is very professional…

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This is Diamond Bay near Mark’s house in the daytime.

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This is also Diamond Bay but when we went one night time and played goofy on the beach.

A Brief Spell Down Under

Monday. And, so far today, I’ve flown to Singapore and just put in six hours working out of a business lounge and still have another eight to go before I get to kip (am Colombo bound this evening for the week…)

Mustn’t grumble however as, since my last post about our summer holidaying in Europe, Issy and I have also just indulged in a trip over to Melbourne earlier this month for weddings, family birthday partying and some brief flirting with a delicious vineyard and the salty ocean road inhalations on offer down in Sorrento.

As is the form when I get back over to the UK, trips like these are extremely special and also meticulously executed, in order to maximise each and every hour with all the important things in life.  In the case of this particular trip, the important things consisted of: new babies; zany nieces; legendary siblings; old school friends; and then an inevitable immersion in all of the particular shopping experiences and drinking haunts yet to reach the humid back-streets of Saigon.

We fitted it all in, and lapped it up (although, truth be told, for me to be accepted into the funky suburb of Fitzoy I’ll need to grow an exceptionally impressive beard – and this may take me a while.)

Video compilations with be forthcoming however, in the meantime, heartfelt thanks to Mark for the most spectacular day at Yabby Lake, to Phoebe for all the snippets of special laughs and larks, to Pobby for the Aga coffee and the egg and bacon pie on arrival (plus about two dozen other mouth-watering dishes enjoyed throughout the week) and to Mike for a lesson in cryptic cross-wording that I will never forget (I hope the Tuesday Latin tutorials continue to go well).

To all the other family and friends entourage, thank you for making me feel at home and for making me smile, constantly.

And to Alice and Richard Cook-Watkins. For seating me opposite the bride (I have been dining out on that since) and for laying on a seamless day of memories for us all.

So, as Mike would recommend – to anyone curious enough to ask – it is with whisky that one should finish one’s day and so, in spite of the fact that I am long off being asleep, I may just – on this one occasion – take him up on that and bid you farewell, for now…

Until next time.

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Melbourne skyline. Obvs.

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Emily, Archie and Ben. Stripey boys.

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Fitzroy chic. Also obvs.

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OK, I’ll admit it, the coffee ain’t too bad here…

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These lot know how to do ice creams.

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Replica clock-tower from Ben Thanh Market, Saigon. Love it!

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End of day beer at Naked for Satan. Yeeees.

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Brunswick Street bakery. Spectacular.

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‘Knock off’ gin and tonic time in the garden.

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Pobby’s kitchen. Aga toast – ooooooooooooooooh!

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Yabby Lake vineyard.

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The calm espressos before the twelve bottle tasting storm. Happy days.

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The BEST lunch.

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Diamond Bay. Hmmm.

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Issy likes green. I like blue.

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Everyone likes a good sunset.

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Pin the tail. Hazy’s 3rd birthday.

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Squirt the person who is pinning the tail.

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It’s OK, it’s only Sam!

Good Day Sunshine

“I need to laugh, and when the sun is out, I’ve got something to laugh about.”

As seems to increasingly be the case, several weeks have lapsed since I last started scribbling, as I do now, on the blank canvas offered up by a click on the ‘new post’ button of this blog.

Saigon is easing into its most nourishing time of the year, when the sun’s heat softens, the humidity lessens, and the monsoon rains of the past months are eventually turned off.

It feels like the perfect spring climate, and despite my occasional longing for the slate-tiled flooring and red wine, wood-smoked infused charm of a local pub during the cold festive season back in the UK, living in Saigon right now you would be hard pressed to find more agreeable weather to whisk you off to work each morning – and for that I remain a very lucky chap.

Perhaps in the spirit of bringing some sort of English-isms back into my now familiar Asian surrounds, I downloaded lots of Beatles tunes last night and, as I always do, experienced that surge of familiarity and foot-tapping glee derived from any re-discovery of something very special.

It’s a great realisation, in fact, that when much of my time can be spent on learning new things, grasping at new experiences, and projecting thoughts forward that, to revert in the other direction – whether it be through music, photos, anecdotes, writing, reading, reflection – can instantaneously be all that is required to spark life back into one’s day.

Speaking of bringing English-isms back over here, last week was a true 2013 highlight, as my folks traveled out to meet me and the girls for a week’s retreat in Thailand (them via the rather grandiose spectacle that is Dubai, where the ATMs dispense gold, and me and the kids via a short one hour hop from Saigon to Bangkok, normally a tedious journey for me, but with them in tow it turns into a much more exciting prospect given the deliriousness at which they encounter each part of the experience – I have never seen so much excitement expressed by two little people at being given a “refreshing” airline wet-wipe just before take-off, nor in chasing round the luggage carousel in pursuit of a car seat!)

This evening, a second English-ism of the month will also descend upon Saigon, in the form of “Uncle Cakey” – my dearest friend from South East London, who is making his second visit out here, albeit this one without his gorgeous family, for a long weekend of eating banh xeo’s and drinking Tiger beer, resplendent as he will be in the shorts and sandals that haven’t themselves ventured out of his wardrobe now for many moons.

I am also assured that, in between such indulgences, a guest blog by Uncle Cake will be penned on this very canvas.  Watch this space.

In the meantime, I have pasted some of the latest holiday snaps from the Bishop girls below, underneath today’s jolly tune…

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Ruling the roost at the adventure playground

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Swinging so fast the camera can’t keep up

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Worried that Grandpa is going to eat my ice cream

Flo on her 100th trip down the hotel pool's waterslide
Flo on her 100th trip down the hotel pool’s waterslide

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Happy Birthday Grandpa!

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Look what I found

Reading with Grandma on elephant safari
Reading with Grandma on elephant safari

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The lesser spotted Florence, up close

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Someone is enjoying being pampered!

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Daddy can’t resist an arty shot

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Princess

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My workout for the week

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Where have those elephants got to?

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Cheekiness personified

Final ice cream waiting to fly home from Bangkok airport
Final ice cream waiting to fly home from Bangkok airport

When in Cambodia…

Always time for a quick cuppa in Cambodia
Always time for a quick cuppa in Cambodia

I have popped my Siam Reap cherry.

By which I am not inferring some kind of South East Asian euphemism, I simply mean: I finally have been – copious photographic evidence below to attest to the fact – to Angkor Wat.

Our parents have visited Angkor Wat.  Our visiting friends, too.  All the backpackers that shuffle their blackened feet and crusty vests across this spectacular chunk of the world, have been to Angkor Wat (it’s only $20 for a day’s entrance, to boot) and, without exception, every ex-pat I have met these past two and a half years in Saigon has been about four or five times.

I’ll confess early-doors, I am not the most accomplished and well researched of tourists, even when it comes to seminal, life enhancing trips such as this one. Continue reading