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 brief English Odyssey

london
A glorious London skyline from the CARE office in Vauxhall

I am back in Saigon, having missed most of the Tet celebrations this month. Instead, London was calling, and I returned there for two weeks…

Tet, by all accounts, went off smoothly without me.

The weather was perfect and, in Daddy’s absence, Florence and Martha at least dressed up ‘proper’ for the occasion…

flo and martha
Florence and Martha, ready for Tet!

I still can’t quite believe that, this time last week, I was sharing a pint in a Nunhead beer shop with a certain Mr Barmby – kept warm later that evening from the (frankly) glacial temperatures, thanks to our wise move to follow up the pie and gravy supper with a boat load of apple crumble and custard.

In the UK, we may entertain far too many grey and cold days each year than is good for anyone, however, we are also world class experts in tactics to at least keep the soul and the belly in fine fettle, whatever the conditions.

In every house at which I stayed throughout this last trip, without exception, the living room fires were roaring, and the alcohol and indulgent food made for a daily, and delicious, concoction.

Fish and chips, curry, roast beef, lasagne, bangers and mash. I could go on.

whiskey
Late night whiskey sampling at The Wickhams

It tends to be unsatisfactory, trying to make sense of flying halfway round the world, immersing yourself in surroundings so familiar you feel an integral part of what is going on, only to then jettison back into surroundings utterly removed from where you have been, yet at the same time also totally familiar.

On this trip, whether I was with family, with friends, on the London Underground, or pounding pavements that I used to run down to catch my evening bus home, I could very easily have forgotten all about Vietnam in an instant.

London, in particular for me after 14 years living there, will always hold a special place in my heart. I know it intricately, yet it is also not quite how I left it, and I saw myself bounding about last week as if observing a former me from the past. Steering a pushchair through a park, tapping out a text message as I headed out of the office, leafing through a Metro newspaper, waiting for something to jump off the pages at me.

holborn
London hustle

On the one hand, my visit was intense on the work front (although hugely rewarding) but then surprisingly calming on the social front. Non-stop “catching up” with various folks, everyday, was, for a change, a much more languid and reflective and nourishing affair.

And I thank each and every one responsible for that – it was needed!

There were family trips to watch England vs Italy at Twickenham, visits to new babies, meeting new partners, rubbing shoulders with new and old work colleagues. There was nostalgia, contemplation, and a barrel of laughs (more pics below for posterity).

Meantime, over in Laos, heady with exploits of coming face-to-face with abandoned wild bears, and riding on the backs of elephants, my children threw themselves into yet more adventures and experiences that will shape them forever.

That, and I was also sent a photo of Martha yesterday learning how to fire a crossbow. I can only imagine how excited she will be tomorrow when she tells me all about that.

martha with crossbow
Martha firing a crossbow in Luang Prabang. It may not be wise in the future for this picture to be on a public website.

With Tet decorations now down, and schools back tomorrow, the end of February will close out what has been a very special few months. On all fronts.

In missing people along the way, I only feel more deeply touched by what is to come, and how lucky I am.

For this, and on many other levels (including the important role that pictures play in my life) my anthem of choice flying back here at the weekend was a real blast from the past – and therefore it does come with a warning to anyone who, like me, fast approaching 40, may not need reminding that this track first came out twenty six years ago.

Enjoy – all you 90’s disciples!

And some more pics, just for the helluvit…..

cafe
Surely one of the best bacon sandwiches a frozen commuter from Saigon has EVER tasted.

twickers
Brothers in Arms. Twickenham. Valentine’s Day, 2015.

harp
The Harp. A finer establishment in Soho you’ll be hard pushed to find.

teddy
Teddy Brackley. 3 months old and wondering what all the fuss is about, as the rest of us get to grips with Sunday morning in Cheltenham (bloody mary’s at the ready).

Africa calling

I badly sprained my thumb last week playing football, and have since learnt to cut fruit, pick up my kids, and drive my motorbike with just my left hand.

None of these things are proving easy, and so fruit intake is down (alcohol imbibing seems to be fine with just the one hand), Florence and Martha are surviving on a few less rides on Daddy’s shoulders, and my bike has been under wraps given it is just plain nuts trying to ride a bike in one of Asia’s most hectic motorbike cities when you have to throttle with the opposite appendage.

Typing is also rubbish.

I am overdue some updates on this site, and will remedy that soon, one of the main highlights this month being Flo’s birthday, and a second highlight being the daily rain showers in Saigon, which have meant temperatures have chilled and there have been occasions when even the jacket had to come out of the wardrobe.

Right now it is past midnight on Sunday, and am on the eve of yet another hop tomorrow over to Bangkok, and a week of meetings… Continue reading