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Saigon. Or Ho Chi Minh. (Depending on who you talk to)

I still don’t have a definitive answer on this, so I have mostly been calling it Saigon. This seems to be what the locals call it. (And the local Lindy Hoppers!) When I was in Hanoi, I was told that most people in the North call it Ho Chi Minh, and in the South, it’s more often Saigon. Apparently sticking to that as a general rule is respectful. It’s all political, as it was renamed Ho Chi Minh to celebrate reunification and it’s all tied up in the war, although they don’t seem to expect foreigners to call it either one. I heard it called both in both places, but definitely more frequently Saigon when actually in the city.

ANYWAY. Saigon is another place I don’t have a lot of pictures of. It was also the first place I was really, really hot. About 33-35C as standard. Yuck. So I spent most time hiding from the sun when I wasn’t searching for tasty street food.

I had another great hostel where I met lovely people to hang out with who were all staying in my room. On the first day, I went with Fran from South Africa to walk around and hit some sights. We went to the museum of Ho Chi Minh City, mostly because we just happened to wander past it, where there was some history of the city along with a few tanks and jets, which seem to be everywhere. Then we went to the Reunification Palace, which is a really cool building designed by a French architect. We both thought it was a shame that it’s only used as a museum now, because it seems like it would be a lovely place for a party. Especially the wicked dance floor on the top.

Fran headed off to do a tour she’d booked for the afternoon while I checked out the bunker in the basement of the palace. Lots of old radio equipment and various war rooms full of maps, which is a bit creepy.

When I got out of there, I found a street vendor selling Kem, which is ice cream of some non-determined fruity type flavour. It’s all different colours and topped with some condensed milk and nuts and it’s delicious. Sold off the back of a motorbike, like absolutely everything in this country.

I had a look at the cathedral, where there were loads of Vietnamese women getting their wedding photos done outside (or perhaps modelling, or both, who knows), and then the stunning post office building. Then I took a very hot walk back to the hostel by way of some lunch to start the routine that has now stood for the remainder of this trip: get up early, go exploring, eat lunch, hide in the air-con or fan/shade until the sun goes back down and it’s mildly less sweltering.

That night was the Saigon Swing Cats regular Sunday social. My foot was not feeling all that great, but good enough to walk, so I decided to go regardless and just take it easy. There weren’t loads of people there because of the upcoming Tet holiday and Wednesday is their bigger night anyway, but it was lovely to meet up with people and do some fairly low-key dancing. Nothing fast and no Charleston for me, which is SO FRUSTRATING BECAUSE CHARLESTON IS MY FAVOURITE, UGH, INJURY. But I think I managed to not push myself too hard. The excellent sangria on offer didn’t hurt either. AND I met at least one person who was going to the Big Bang – Eric, who’s American but living in Bangkok at the moment – so I’ll have a familiar face when I rock up at the Bangkok socials.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again. It was such a wonderful thing to go to a social and feel at home in the world. Everyone there was so friendly. And there were other people traveling too (Eric plus a girl from Portugal who had even convinced her non-dancing friends to come along), so you get people who immediately understand you from two different directions. It just made everything worth it all over again. Even the heat.

The next day I went to the War Remnants Museum with Hannah and Eric (different Eric), a couple from Canada who were also staying in my room. We wandered around on our own once we were there, which is good because I spent the whole time getting increasingly pissed off and upset at America. BIG SURPRISE.

There’s a letter to Obama from a 23 year old woman who is a 2nd generation victim of Agent Orange which they’ve enlarged on the wall, and it’s just near the end if you go through things in the order they suggest. She’s admiring him for how he raises his daughters and how he believes in opportunities for all, but then asking why he doesn’t help 2nd and 3rd generation victims get the compensation and help they deserve. This is after you find out that the chemical companies were eventually forced to pay American victims but the Vietnamese have never received a cent. One of these companies is Monsanto. The same one that fucks over farmers around the world, but especially in America, on the regular. These companies are on par with murderous dictatorships. They are pure fucking evil. Unfortunately they’re protected by capitalism and the government and god knows what.

I am well aware that plenty of Americans were against the war in Vietnam. I am not going to go into my own specific politics on any of it. If you read this enough you’ll know I’m a humanity-loving, socialist-leaning pacifist. Suffice to say we should never have been there. We had no business doing any of it. And I don’t think we’ve learned from that error, in terms of the decisions being made today about the military. (And god help us all if maniacs vote Trump into office.) It’s really depressing and it’s a wonder the world doesn’t hate us a lot more. Luckily though, so many people are generous and forgiving. We seem to be on the receiving end of that a lot more than we deserve. But that’s precisely the foundation of my faith in humanity. So.

ENOUGH ABOUT THAT. We went to a cafe to recover from the misery and eat lunch. They had a locally brewed IPA from Pasteur Street Brewing Company that was the nicest beer I’d had in weeks. Not lager! Hooray! And after the requisite hiding in the hostel aircon for the rest of the afternoon, Fran joined us and we all went for dinner.

Epic rice pancake with coconut meat which was bigger than my head.

Epic rice pancake with coconut meat which was bigger than my head.

The next day was mostly wandering around and finding amazing food to eat. Fran joined me again for coffee and lunch, where we had Banh Xeo (rice pancake, which the Saigon version of is HUGE) and Banh Khot (little fried rice cakes with stuff on top), which we practically rolled away from. Those little fried rice cakes were probably my favourite thing in Saigon. But the pancake was good too, and the Pho I had for dinner at a place just down the alley from our hostel which was consistently busy was also amazing. (Although if I had to choose, I preferred the northern style Pho in Hanoi.)

I wish I’d had more time in Vietnam. I definitely preferred it to Cambodia. I could have paid for a visa, but I was being cheap. I’d have liked to see some of the Mekong Delta and the mountains in the north. But I maxed out my 15 days, so it was time to move on.

Hanoi

When I got to the China/Vietnam border, I met a guy called Duccio from Italy in the exit queue for China who’d been on the same bus. I wasn’t sure how I’d not noticed earlier, seeing as he was the only other Westerner, but it was way early at the bus station and I was WAY tired. In any case, we stuck together for the rest of the process, not least because we were both going into Vietnam on the 15 day visa-free stamp with nothing but an email printout to prove our exit by the correct date. So if we had trouble, at least we wouldn’t be alone.

We spent an hour in the border queue and after a tiny bit of confusion over his entry (but none over mine strangely) we were through and back on another bus towards Hanoi before too long. Duccio had been studying Chinese for 3 years and was just on a break from his University programme before flying back to Italy for a while. We had a good chat on the bus, during which he mentioned how difficult it is to travel in China alone. Even when you know a bit of the language! I felt vindicated. I WASN’T just being a whingy wimp for the past week, it really was quite a task to handle solo.

The bus stopped for super cheap, tasty lunch at the side of the road somewhere, and then 2 hours later we were pulling into a bus terminal in the south end of Hanoi during rush hour. We had very little cash and the taxis at the station were likely complete ripoffs anyway so we decided to make the 3km trek to the old quarter on foot. (This is probably the last time you’ll ever hear me say something like this on this trip because once I left Hanoi, everything got way too hot to be walking with a massive backpack for 3km.)

And thus we were welcomed to the terrifying process of crossing the street in Vietnam. Utter chaos. Motorbikes and cars coming at you from every direction. Lanes are not really A Thing. You just have to walk out and keep a steady pace so they can judge your speed and get around you. It takes some adjustment, but you do actually get used to it. Crosswalks are going to seem so luxurious when I get back to the UK.

The weather in Hanoi was a bit grey and rainy, and that didn’t change the whole time I was there, but I didn’t mind. The locals were all bundled up in huge coats, but I was walking around in a t-shirt for the most part because 12C is pretty warm as far as my recently-in-Siberia body is concerned. But people never stopped asking me if I was cold.

My hostel was lovely and small and friendly and quiet, tucked away in an alley off one of the old quarter streets. I really got lucky in Vietnam with hostels. All three places I stayed were perfect. Excellent breakfasts were included, the staff were super helpful and friendly, and the other guests had the same non-party travel style I do.

This was a marked contrast to Duccio’s hostel. I went to meet back up with him so we could wander around and find some dinner and he was staying in the epitome of a party hostel. I walked into the bar and was there 5 minutes before the American bartender got on a microphone and informed the entire bar we’d be getting a free shot as he taught us the Vietnamese equivalent of ‘cheers’. After which he announced the happy hour and ladies night specials and proclaimed, ‘let’s get fucked up’.

It was like a bad college frat party movie. I was SO happy I wasn’t staying there. It was really amusing to watch the drama outside these sorts of places from the street though, so at least they had entertainment value.

Anyway, we went and found a little street food hotpot BBQ place and had a pretty incredible dinner plus beer for next to nothing. All the beer here is pretty much lager, but the Hanoi beer has been my favourite so far, and there was plenty of it. At 50p a bottle I could pretty much afford to drink as much as I wanted. There was also Bia Hoy, which is fresh beer that’s brewed to be consumed the same day. It’s about 3 or 4 percent and nothing special, but it’s also the equivalent of about 15p a glass, it’s cold, and it’s cheaper and easier to buy than water. (There are ladies selling it on the street everywhere in the old quarter.) So I did not turn my nose up.

One of the biggest shocks of arriving in Vietnam was that after nearly 2 months of encountering very few Westerners, they were now EVERYWHERE. It was bizarre and slightly comforting yet unsettling all at once. I immediately knew traveling in Vietnam would be easier, but potentially also more irritating as things got more touristy.

I had an early night despite the availability of cheap beer and the next morning I went on the hostel’s free student tour. Three girls from the local university walked around with me for a few hours to practice their English and show me some of the main sights. We went to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (no pictures allowed) where I saw one of the two embalmed men on the planet. (If only I’d managed to see Lenin in Moscow I’d have knocked them both out on the same trip!) Apparently Ho Chi Minh’s wish was to be cremated and spread equally in the north, central, and south parts of the country, but when he died that request was ignored. Because communism? The girls didn’t know.

We also went to the Temple of Literature, which was nice, but then it was STREET FOOD TIME. We went for Bun Cha, which was one of my favourite things in Vietnam (I had it again before I left Hanoi), and then some lemon tea, which was more like still lemonade. We sat on the standard tiny plastic stools drinking, eating sunflower seeds, and talking about how our countries were different and how they were the same and how we were all generally worried about the same stuff. It was really nice.

For that night, I’d put out a message asking for meetups on Couchsurfing and a guy called Eddy asked if I wanted to eat dinner with him and his friends. I was starting to feel a bit unwell (possibly from that last Chinese street food) but I didn’t want to say no. He actually showed up on his motorbike and was like, get on! All I could think was if my mother knew I was getting on some guy’s motorbike in a city on the other side of the planet without knowing precisely where I was going, she’d probably smack me senseless. However, he had good feedback and also a motorbike is much easier to jump off of in an emergency than a car is to be escaped from. I decided it was fine, and it was.

What was NOT fine was riding on the back of a motorbike for the first time in some of the most terrifying traffic I’ve ever experienced. In the rain, too. Eddy lived a 40 minute ride out of town and I was already feeling wonky, so that ride wasn’t exactly the most pleasant thing I’ve done in my travels. Eesh. We did stop to buy dinner supplies at a super local market where he just drove up to the stalls and bought things without even getting off the bike, which was really cool. I wish I could have taken pictures, but I was a bit too shell-shocked from the ride to even attempt to reach for my camera.

Dinner was a bizarre and wonderful experience. Eddy lives with his girlfriend in a small one-room flat, and she cooked while we had a chat. His English wasn’t the best, but we got by. He was the only one of his friends who spoke English though, so once they all showed up, We all sat on the floor around the food and I listened to them joke and talk in Vietnamese. It was really cool to see them all doing pretty much what I like to do at home with my friends, and the food was delicious. Fried frogs legs, which Eddy said was one of his favourite things, fried chicken wings, and fresh spring rolls with egg, lettuce, pork pate, stir fried beef, and rice noodles, which we all assembled ourselves. And after that was all gone, we had the nicest fresh watermelon. I wish I could have talked to more of them, and I also wish my stomach hadn’t been acting up, but in general, it was an amazing night. Luckily I got a taxi back into town. I don’t think I could have handled another motorbike ride in the dark. I went to bed early again to recover from my Day O Cultural Experience.

Dinner at Eddy's

Dinner at Eddy’s

The next day I was still feeling a bit crap and it was rainy and cold again, so I went to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, which was absolutely fantastic, then got some ginger tea and fried rice that arrived in a pineapple, which reversed my mood and also seemed to quiet my stomach. Later on I went out to find Pho (finally!) with a South African guy called Grant who was also staying in the hostel. We managed to find one of the best places in the city, with a queue of locals spilling onto the street and some SERIOUSLY good soup. We then went for beer with a view, followed by (much cheaper) beer on the street and swapped entire life stories the way you do when drinking with fellow travelers.

My last day in Hanoi, the temperature actually dropped even further. During the day. The locals (and Australians) were horrified at this development. And now even I needed a hoodie. I had an overnight train to Danang to wait for but it was really too miserable to walk around all day so I hung around the hostel common room watching movies, booking future dance events, writing, and periodically going out to feed myself. Lunch was sticky rice with about ten different kinds of meat on top and was once again phenomenal.

I didn’t take many pictures in Hanoi. I liked the city and it was full of lovely architecture, but really difficult to get good pictures of, not least because of the rubbish weather. It was mostly about the food though, which, along with the universe chucking me a sign it was time to seriously slow the hell down (as I’ll elaborate on in the next post), was the continuing theme in Vietnam. And I am totally ok with that.

St Petersburg

So once I remembered that I have very little patience for (most) museums, I kicked off three months of Kate Walks Around Foreign Cities Looking At Things Til She Can Barely Stand Up and Also Eats A Lot. My two favourite travel activities!

On my first full day in St Petersburg, Elena made another incredible breakfast and then we set out to do an epic walking tour of the city. She had printed out loads of information from the interweb and she proceeded to hit me with just the right amount of facts about everything we saw all day. We walked about 15km in 7 hours. Later on when I was looking up lists of must-see things in the city, I noticed we’d seen pretty much ALL of them –  the standards and the ‘often missed’ stuff. It was pretty nice out all day too, windy but sunny with no rain, so we were lucky.

We went up on the wall at the Peter and Paul fortress and all up and down the river on both sides. Then after a pizza and wine stop we walked down the Moika embankment in the dark and saw my favourite sculpture of the day, the monument to Alexander III, DIRECTLY OPPOSITE a bizarre sculpture of a baby riding a T-Rex (because St Petersburg knew I was coming). After we saw where Elena went to university, we went to an amazing bakery (Sever) and picked out some cakes to try once we were home with massive cups of tea.

Sunday was a bit of a day off because I couldn’t walk for another 7 hours THEN dance. So we had an easy walk to see some close-by sights in the rain, bought a bunch of local chocolates, then made a tasty, traditional dinner of salted herring, potatoes and salad. Then I went to the regular Summertime Swing Sunday night social at Freedom Palace! Slightly nerve-wracking at first, but I had a lovely evening. I even got a high five from one of the guys I danced with, because ‘It’s so cool that I don’t speak much English and you don’t speak Russian but we can still dance!’ And yes, it totally IS.

(I’ll do a full post on dancing in Russia once I’ve been to the Moscow Lindy night tomorrow.)

Monday was another rainy day, and I managed to get proper soaked in the morning after going to start my visa registration. I bought some postcards and then went back to the Freedom Palace to dry off and write them, which is actually an anti-cafe where you pay for your time there instead of your drinks, then you get to have as much tea, coffee, and cookies as you like while you sit in various comfy spaces and use the wifi. It’s such a great idea! The first one was started by a dude in Moscow and now there are different ones all over Russia and popping up in some other European cities as well. I’m already trying to figure out how I can open one in Edinburgh.

In the afternoon, I went back to the Peter and Paul Fortress to go to the small museum on the history of rocket development, because SPACE! And I also went to the History of St Petersburg museum, because why not? (also it was free with my rocket ticket.) And actually it ended up being really good. I spent more time in there than I expected to, and I was last out. The guy in the coat check was giving me a good-natured hard time for it. They just had all sorts of stuff on the progression of the city and whole rooms on travel and cinema and kitchens and everything else you could possibly want to know about what things were like in the city for the past 300 years. But the thing that made me wish I had more time was this crazy little video in one of the rooms on how they raised the Aleksandrovskaya column in Palace Square. It was all in Russian, but it was animated in that weird Monty-Python-esque style of like, moving cut out illustrations on static backgrounds with matching ridiculous sound effects. I really wanted to watch the whole thing but there wasn’t enough time. It was hilarious AND informative.

There was an hour between museum closing time and when I was supposed to meet Elena and Elena (yes two!) for dinner, so I wandered around looking for a cafe and found an amazing coffee shop (Double B I think it was called) where I had a much-needed flat white and a sit down before being introduced to the tasty, tasty world of Georgian food at Tbiliso. Oh my god. I clearly need to go to Georgia because they have the most delicious stuff ON THIS EARTH. There was fried bread with cheese, there were all sorts of dumplings, there was chicken in some kind of heavenly nut sauce, there was a spicy red beef soup, there was VERY GOOD WINE, and there was some kind of nuts in grape and honey stuff for dessert. And I wanted to try just about everything else on the menu too, which all looked so different from anything else I’ve ever had. I practically rolled home and flopped into bed like a beached whale.

Then I was down to my last day, which was lovely and sunny again, and I finally went IN to a cathedral. that Church of Our Saviour on the Spilt Blood is covered top to bottom in mosaics, which is pretty impressive. And there was a wee display on the restoration of everything which made my dork heart happy. I took another long walk in the freezing sunshine, broken up by a fancy lunch and a trip to the central post office (massive!) for stamps. And my last stop was the Kunstkamera, which was all right, but by the time I got to all the weird medical specimen babies in jars (um, yeah) I was a little too tired to keep my stomach from going all blergh. So I left and had a coffee and cake before one last dinner at home with Elena. Then it was off to catch the Red Arrow overnight to Moscow.

St Petersburg is beautiful. I can definitely see why it’s called the Venice of the North, and I’d love to come back in summer for all the festivals and dancing and WARMTH. All the better for endless walking and eating. It’s a nice bridge between Scandinavia and the rest of Russia though, so it was a really good way to start I think. And big, big thanks to my first host Elena, who went out of her way to make me feel at home. Hooray for Couchsurfing! It was my first guest Tatiana who put me in touch with Elena in St Petersburg as well as my hosts Yana and Ifan in Moscow and I have been incredibly well taken care of so far. What an awesome way to travel.

Here’s the full Flickr album of St Petersburg

No fixed… anything

I’m nearly at the end of my first full week of traveling, and it’s been pretty full of… traveling. The obvious never fails to astonish me.

It was always going to be about the moving around parts as much as the seeing places parts, but this first week was mostly a means of getting to Russia without flying. I’m really happy I didn’t opt for solid travel straight through, but even with the break days, it’s been a somewhat unexpected challenge adapting to a constantly changing schedule and environment.

I’m currently on the ferry from Stockholm to Turku (where I’ll catch a train to Helsinki and get in late tonight). I’d booked a space in a shared 4-berth inner cabin – the cheapest you can get – and I imagine it’s because of the time of year or something, but: AIN’T NOBODY HERE BUT ME.

When I boarded and no one else showed up in the cabin, I went to the info desk to check if I had it to myself and nearly did a (tired) little dance when they confirmed I’d have sweet, sweet personal space at my disposal for the next 12 hours. It’s a small space for 4 people to share, but not as small as a train cabin, and quite big for one person. And what it lacks in windows, it makes up for in a surprisingly good shower and a TV that I’ve tuned to the mast camera channel so I can see when it’s worth going to look out a window (and listen to the cheesy music they’ve got playing over the view).

I got zero sleep last night in the hostel in Stockholm – which was actually a great hostel, I’m just horrible at sleep, more on which later. But I’ve already taken the cabin-to-myself opportunity to have a nap, and I may even have another later. Luxury! I’ve also had a long hot shower and a reorganisation of my packing.

I’ve brought a bunch of food with me, which is good because everything is stupid expensive. I had a very tiny coffee in the cafeteria when I boarded and I may treat myself to a beer in a bit, but I’m trying pretty hard to keep the food spending down. This is one of the things that comes to the fore when constantly traveling on a a groceries-not-restaurants budget and not a lot of space. I am ALWAYS thinking about food.

I mean, ok, that’s not actually much different from the normal state of Kate affairs, but now I’m just thinking about what I can buy that’s cheap and portable and perhaps most importantly, healthy. It’s pretty easy to eat a lot of crap, and I know myself enough to know that if I eat that kind of crap for even a few days I’ll feel horrendous.

I’ve done pretty well so far, but doing pretty well has nonetheless consisted of a lot of cheese and rye sandwiches. And fruit. And chocolate. My stomach is going, ‘WHERE IS ALL THAT HEALTHY SHIT YOU USUALLY GIVE ME?’ I’ve put in as many vegetables as possible, but they’re not always as easily portable. I was feeling a bit greens-starved yesterday so when I found someone had left a whole bag of kale in the free/leftover food fridge in the hostel kitchen, I flash-fried it all in garlic and butter for dinner. A dude from California who insisted I have one of his beers (nice!) gave me some stick for this, but I’m ok being the kind of food nerd who gets excited about someone’s leftover kale.

On the sleep front, I’ve found the hostel thing pretty tiring in general. I’m really looking forward to the couchsurfing parts of my trip because of that. I even think I might find it easier to sleep on the trains than in hostels. We’ll see. I’m so rubbish at getting to sleep in unfamiliar places in general, and it’s nice that I never really have anything like work to worry about the next day, but being tired when you can’t go home and take a nap really does bring a day down, no matter where you are. And if I’m tired enough, I actually just start feeling sick. Hopefully by the end of this trip I’ll have trained myself to be able to sleep absolutely anywhere at the drop of a hat, but right now I’m still the same as ever.

All of this falls under the self-care umbrella, and one of my main goals for this whole trip is to be better at that in general. If I can achieve it while moving around strange places, surely I’ll be able to keep it up in a home setting. But one of the biggest lessons I’m constantly learning is that I really don’t HAVE to do anything. I can do or not do whatever I want and whatever makes me feel ok. And I realise that sounds stupidly obvious, but when you’re going to all these cool places, even ones you’ve already been to before, I find there’s this weird pressure to Go See And Do All The Things You Can. And that is mostly self-pressure, but it’s there, and it takes a while to be like, actually, while I love the hell out of Stockholm and I’m excited to be back, all I feel like doing is finding a suitable pastry provider, wandering around for a few hours fairly aimlessly, then sitting in the hostel in my pajamas, drinking a few local craft beers, reading, and doing some life admin. This may be a holiday, but it’s a long one, and holiday mode now just means taking care of myself in whatever way I decide to that day.

So the break days between full-on transportation days were a totally good call. I’ve already had my share of delays and rushing around. I love sitting on the trains (for the most part) but the business of getting yourself on and off them and between transport and accommodation is pretty draining. I had a 2.5 hour layover in Brussels on Sunday and I didn’t get my act together enough to go find a place to have a nice Belgian beer. And I was slightly hungover from all the prosecco I drank the night before at Seema’s anyway, so I gave the booze a miss completely and bought some fancy chocolate instead. And it was good I treated myself when I had the chance because my third train of the day had been cancelled so I ended up on a not-as-nice train that was like sitting in a strip-lit office for 4.5 hours (WHY DO THEY MAKE IT SO BRIGHT). I distracted myself by watching Dear Mr Watterson on my computer, but I was ready to be off of trains altogether.

Monday was the first day I was really excited about specifically, because it was the TRAIN ON A BOAT day. Ever since I read about it on Seat 61 I couldn’t wait to see the business of getting an ICE train on a ferry. It’s one of two places in Europe that this happens, and it’s just freakin’ cool. In fact, it’s probably the thing that sealed the deal on me choosing the Scandinavian route to Russia. So that was awesome and we had brilliant weather for the journey too.

On that train I also had my first Meet Interesting People From All Of The Places conversation with the guy sitting next to me. He was a political scientist from Afghanistan who I think was some kind of diplomat. He’d traveled quite a lot and even lived in India for 12 years, but this was his first time in the West. He’d been in Copenhagen for a panel on something and then went down to Hamburg to visit a friend at the university and was on his way back to the airport to fly home. I didn’t get his name, which I feel a bit ridiculous about, but I guess when you’ve been talking to someone for a few hours and neither of you ever bothered to ask, it just never happens.

Anyway, he had all sorts of things to talk about. He was completely thrown off by the sun coming up so late and going down so early so I told him about how that’s all even more drastic in Scotland. He showed me loads of gorgeous pictures of Afghanistan and his family on his phone, which made me realise I really need to load a few more of Scotland onto mine to show, because there aren’t enough.

He had a picture of Kabul in the 60s. Everyone was wearing bellbottoms and it seriously could have been like a US college campus the way everyone was dressed so casually. He talked about how everything is completely different now with women wearing headscarfs and people being more formal and closed off in public. He seemed pretty bummed out about it, and I wish I’d asked him more about that but I’ve not quite hit my asking-strangers-deep-questions-about-their-cultures stride yet.

We talked a lot about languages too, and he told me how hard it had been to learn English because it was outlawed during the Taliban regime, so he’d go to this woman’s house with a bunch of other kids and they’d learn it in secret. Imagine learning a language you’re not allowed to speak. How freaking hard that would be!

If everyone I end up chatting to is even half as interesting as that guy, this trip is going to be pretty amazing.

That train was late getting into Copenhagen. My seatmate was worried he’d miss his flight out and I was convinced I wasn’t going to make the connection to the Stockholm train because it was originally 15 minutes in between and we got in as it should have been leaving. I wasn’t too fussed about getting rebooked on a later train if it meant I’d get myself a proper Danish cinnamon roll, but as we pulled in to the station, they announced that the Stockholm train would be waiting for us, so hurry to track 6 where it was. Except it WASN’T, it was at 7, so I went up and down a lot of stairs very quickly and jumped on the Swedish train just as the doors were closing. I don’t think anyone’s ever spent less time in Copenhagen. But I made it. And that train was then half an hour late into Stockholm so I really never would have made the University Lindy Hop Monday social I’d wanted to go to. Instead, I went grocery shopping and chilled out in the lovely City Backpackers hostel common room, planning my first day without the need for setting an alarm.

Today will be my last full day of transportation for a while, which is nice. I have a day in Helsinki tomorrow and then a high speed train to St Petersburg on Friday, where I’ll be seeing the ballet that night. I’ve never seen any ballet and now I get to see it in Russia. Hooray!

Make something – you’ll feel better

Dinner to the rescue. In addition to white sauce, there are artichokes in this as well. Artichokes are one of the best things on the planet. (The wine doesn't hurt either.)

Dinner to the rescue. There are artichokes in this as well. Artichokes are one of the best things on the planet. (The wine doesn’t hurt either.)

I was in a completely rubbish mood today. The kind where you’re so bluerghhhhhh you can’t even make a very simple decision about what to do next.

On top of the other myriad causes of said mood, I was feeling a bit crap about bowing out of my original plans to go walking up some hills tomorrow. The weather is meant to be unpleasant and near freezing, and I don’t really have the right gear for those conditions. Plus my walking shoes (not even boots) don’t fit properly. And after what my feet felt like wearing them on a flat, 6 hour walk last year, I knew nearly 8 hours of walking in cold, wet conditions on mountains was probably not going to make for the most pleasant way to spend a Sunday. So I’m annoyed that I’m not more prepared in the kit department, because I’m missing out on hanging out with some cool people AND it would be good for me to experience some challenging weather conditions right now. It’s not like winter in Siberia is gonna be a picnic.

(This is how I look at a lot of things now: what is the thing in this situation that’s going to make this trip I’m taking better? It’s not so much that everything is about the trip, because it’s not. But MAKING things about the trip is a good way to keep me from that whole wimping out thing I was doing before. It’s also a good way to remind me why I’m saving money and being healthier and all that.)

Anyway, I’m happy to sit in a bad mood for a bit and let it do its thing, but after a while you need to get yourself out. And I was at the point where the only things I knew were A: I needed to get AWAY from screens and technology of ALL KINDS, and B: I needed to make something. Because every time I feel like utter shit and nothing else is working to get me out of it, the answer is: make something – you’ll feel better. This can refer to anything, but usually it means food. And even when I’m in such a strop with myself that I don’t even believe THAT’S going to work, I know that I have to just trust the proof of past experience and get to it. Because it always works. I wouldn’t be writing this post if it didn’t.

This time I made a fancy-ass pasta bake because I felt the need to pull out the big guns: Béchamel sauce.

Let me explain.

There is NO WAY to make a roux, and subsequently, a Béchamel, without feeling like a fucking wizard.

The day I nailed Béchamel without looking at a recipe was one of those times I truly understood how art and science can be the same thing. Perfecting the alchemy of the roux leads you to big, bad, brilliant things. It is impossible to feel bad about yourself, for AT LEAST 5 full minutes, once you are standing over a pot of Béchamel made by your own fair hand. Because watching it change and come together is fascinating. Because it is one of the ways a person who doesn’t do religion can explain how you can see something like god in science. Because the possibilities presented by a basic white sauce are endless. It makes everything better. And it is so simple you can barely believe it. Butter. Flour. Milk. Heat. Magic.

Most of us feel weird about proclaiming things we’re good at. I’m no different. Outside of being disgustingly over-organised, food is pretty much the only thing I am perfectly happy to say I am awesome at. To the point where it often carries me through the moments I don’t believe I’m good at anything at all.

This is the mightiest of universally useful and transferable skills. This, along with a few other food-based basics, is the band-aid for life’s troubles that lives in my brain. This, along with sauteing onions in fat, roasting a chicken to perfection, making a cake, and emulsifying the fuck out of a homemade salad dressing is something that I can bring on the road and use anywhere when I feel a bit shit.

Béchamel will not solve the world’s problems. It won’t even solve my own (that would be slightly ridiculous) – it often reminds me how to start though.

Paris, part two (I am so very full)

A bit of our dinner at Le Dauphin.

A bit of our dinner at Le Dauphin.

So, go back out last night I did, and I ended up at Le Dauphin. This place was amazing. It’s apparently the tapas-y offshoot of a much fancier, more expensive restaurant a few doors down. It was a little pricey, but seriously worth every Euro penny of it. Plus we shared everything so I got to try ALL THE THINGS. And I basically just let Elisabeth and Noura pick what we got, right down to the wine, so I got traditional French stuff as well as good twists on various meats. They did something MAGICAL to fresh mackerel. And the French original that a deviled egg is modeled on is a thing of pure transcendent joy, I’m telling you.

I never imagined in a billion years I’d end up in a place like that, so, that’s why it’s good to know locals.

It was a late night, ending with Japanese whisky, a metro home, and battling with the wifi to try to get some images on the last post then ultimately giving up and passing out from exhaustion and drink. I stayed in bed til about 9.45 this morning and popped out to grab some breakfasty things (including more pastry) before having a coffee with my lovely airbnb host Mathilde and going out to face another day of walking. This time in my trainers, which was such a good plan.

Today my wandering was accompanied by Dramophone on loop in my head. Perhaps slightly more appropriate than Alan Cumming (considering Cabaret is based in Berlin). Caravan Palace ARE French after all. And Thursday is usually Lindy Hop day.

On various recommendations, I went over to the 19th and 20th (‘the Leith of Paris’) and wandered through Parc des Buttes Chaumont, down through Belleville. I got an amazing sandwich from a boulangerie just across from the park in Belleville where they totally upsold me to the best meal deal I think I’ve ever freaking had. Basically, they were like, if you buy a sandwich, you can pick ANY OF THESE AMAZING LOOKING DESSERTS for sometime like 50 cents or so less than they usually are. And I was like, UM, YES, WHO SAYS NO TO THAT?! I got a massive slice of vanilla rhubarb custard tart with my cheese, walnut, honey and rocket sammitch. Then I sat outside in the park and ate the sandwich incredibly slowly because I was still kind of full from the night before, not joking.

THIS SANDWICH THOUGH.

THIS SANDWICH THOUGH.

After struggling to finish my lunch (I saved the tart for later), it was on to Cimetière du Père-Lachaise where all the famous folk are buried. I’m not terribly interested in most famous people, and least of all Jim Morrison, who most visitors seem to be after if the graffiti in the ladies toilets is anything to go by, but I did seek out Oscar Wilde’s grave. Because: Oscar Wilde! I don’t know if Jim Morrison’s is glassed off because I didn’t see it, but I was kind of disappointed that people had treated Wilde’s so badly they felt the need to seal it up. I love the choice of poetry snippet on the back from The Ballad of Reading Gaol. It’s also incredibly bizarre that this has popped up again just now because another passage from it is mentioned in Alan Turing’s biography as the way he broke off his engagement with Joan Clarke (I am STILL reading it, it’s a slog but worth it) and I just read that particular bit on the plane the other day. Coincidences!

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The back of Oscar Wilde’s grave.

The cemetery was a nice place to wander around. The columbarium in particular was lovely. My grandfather is in the one in Arlington which is all very military and uniform, so I’d never seen one that had such creative and varied markers. I don’t have pictures because I feel weird taking pictures of that stuff, but people obviously put a lot of love and thought into the small square they got as a marker.

I then metroed to Bastille and did some window shopping and wandering round a Paris department store. The kitchen floor! They had a whole AISLE full of CHEESE TOOLS. And the stationery and art supply floor! Eeee. Man oh man, I have no idea how I managed to NOT buy anything. Some kind of mad self-control.

I nipped back to home base to regroup and eat some bread before heading back out post-sunset to see the Eiffel Tower. I have to say, I am so, so happy to live in a city where I am not obliged to ride an public transportation at rush hour. The sardine-like nature of the Paris metro is almost unbearable. The only thing that makes it survivable is knowing I don’t have to do it more than a few times. Yeesh. It’s almost worse than London too, because you don’t get the orderly, queue-obsessed Britishness of MOVING DOWN THE CAR.

Sparkly.

Sparkly.

But I digress. Eiffel Tower! I managed to round the corner from the Trocadero metro JUST as they were lighting it up at 7, which was pretty awesome. It goes all sparkly for 5 minutes every hour. I opted not to go up in it because it’s expensive and the queue was massive, but that was fine, because looking at it from outside is great. If I had the energy I would have maybe done the walk-up-stairs ticket just to see the construction of it all from the inside. But my feet are pretty dead from two full days of tromping about, so I just admired it from many angles. Then I wandered away along the river to get the metro back for an early night. One thing I did notice when staring back was that the spotlights at the top of the tower are actually 4 different lights timed to look like one rotating light shooting out from both sides. For some reason this fascinated me, probably because I bet most people don’t pay attention long enough to notice it.

I could have stared at this for hours.

I could have stared at this for hours.

I’ve had an early night tonight to regroup and rest my feet and stomach (bread, cheese and tomatoes for dinner – couldn’t handle much more). Tomorrow I’ve decided I will indeed hit the Louvre before jetting back to London. It seems wrong not to.

Flow Festival 2014

Or: ‘How on earth is the food at a music festival THIS GOOD?!’

Such a brilliant setting for a festival

Suvilahti, such a brilliant setting for a festival.

Seriously. Flow was my first ever real festival experience and I think I’m spoiled now. I saw such amazing music and ate so incredibly well. There was no camping and no one was super drunk or rowdy. People were polite and happy and up for a good time. Maybe this is what an ideal society really looks like. Feed people well and provide excellent music, civilisation of the highest degree will follow.

Add to all this a fantastic location and visual landscape and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty perfect event.

First, the food. THE FOOD! There was a dizzying array of choices, and I was never disappointed. I don’t even think it was particularly overpriced considering the extremely high quality.

And the music! Saturday I saw Bill Callahan, Manic Street Preachers, Little Dragon, The National, and Poliça.

Little Dragon were great and dancey, and I stayed to watch Poliça mostly to experience the Balloon 360 stage which was enhanced by the full moon hanging around behind it.

Little Dragon in the Lumia Blue Tent

Little Dragon

Poliça on the Balloon 360 stage

Poliça on the Balloon 360 stage

Sunday was Tuomo, who’s Finnish and does kind of electro soul. He was one of Carolina’s favourites and I thought he was fantastic. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures.

We took a break before Janelle Monáe, who was just a powerhouse of badassery and awesomeness. The woman is a force and her music is so, so good.

Janelle Monáe on the main stage

Janelle Monáe on the main stage

And the icing on the festival and holiday cake was OutKast, which was pretty much the main initial draw for me. They were super fun. Did all the hits and kept me dancing and yelling for nearly two hours.

Outkast on the main stage

OutKast!