Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Home, again. And again.

The word home is so imprecise. Rather like the word love, I guess.

Questions I was frequently asked when in BrisVegas:

1. Is it good to be home again?
2. How long are you home for?
3. When do you head home?
4. When are you coming home for good?

1, 2 and 4 all refer to Brisbane as home. 3 refers to England.

I caught up with some people who did not know I was no longer living in Brisbane, and my typical convolutions (in response to "What are you doing at the moment?"):

"I'm in the UK - well, obviously not right now. Right now, I'm sweating like nothing else, but in general, I've been living in the UK for the last few years and lawyering."

And that's what I did for two solid weeks. Sweated like nothing else and spun stories about my life in the UK, my life as a lawyer and my life as a merry holiday maker. After a while, I bored myself (and possibly my listeners). I also ate. My goodness, did I ever EAT.

At home (with my family), I had goi cuon, pho, bun nuouc leo and banh xeo. Goi cuon was my hello meal and banh xeo was my goodby meal.

Some of the places I visited were a disappointment. Kabuki, at Stamford Plaza in the city, loses my vote. As does Espressohead in West End. Keeping my vote are Batavia in South Bank and Happy Days in West End. And my brother, mother and sister-in-law all still have my votes, too.

Since coming back home from back home I have been busy with work, Christmas client lunches, work, Christmas itself, laundry and then, um, work. So this is a bit of a pathetic nothing of a post to round off 2008. I thought about writing about my Christmas day (fire! We had a FIRE! And we roasted chestnuts over our open FIRE!) but I don't have time. And I think all my Christmas day photos (rather surprisingly) have people who look recognisably like themselves in, and you can't have a Christmas day post without photographs. But mostly, time is my problem.

I'm hoping 2009 will bring more writing - either on this blog or elsewhere. (Ominous, no?)

Happy New Year to all (four!) of you.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Guess where I've been

No, there aren't any prizes becuase the neon glowing thing really gives it away.

I spent a cold, drizzly autumn weekend in Paris and I have a new artist love: Francois Pompon and his white polar bear. Not only does the artist have a very cool name, but he captures the majesty of the polar bear in simple, stark lines.

I also found a fabulous Viet bakery doing Viet baguettes (I missed them muchly in England and I do not have the skills, or the baguettes, to replicate them): Saigon Sandwich in Belleville. It is at 8 rue de la Présentation, 75011 Paris. The nearest metro station is Belleville.

I learned about Saigon Sandwich via Chocoloate and Zucchini's blog. But I really did find the place, because I set off in one direction from Belleville and found myself walking through a grungy, multicultural suburb. It was great to be surrounded by brown faces. All of sudden, it ended. The streets were cleaner and there were fewer people about. I thought, "oh dear, I've missed it." So I turned right back around and wandered down different streets, taking random left and right turns at whimsy (and once to escape a gypsy woman who started yelling at me in French and my pathetic pardon je ne parlais Francais - yes I'm now aware that is wrong, but I was not aware at the time - did not shake her). Saigon Sandwich is actually about 50 metres away from the metro station.

I had their special baguette, which I successfully ordered in French: je voudrais speciale baguette sil vous plais. But then, the man in the bakery said something in French and I had to apologise and say I don't speak French in bad French. He held up a bowl of chillies and I said, oh! ot. Then I braved some Vietnamese. We had a conversation in Vietnamese, and another patron of the bakery joined in. They were pleased to meet a Viet-Australian and I was pleased to meet some Viet-Parisians. Oh, and the baguette was delicious. And very cheap - only 3 euros (about 2 pounds).

After that, I kept hearing Vietnamese at the other tourist spots I visited: Basilica Sacre Coeur, Tour Eiffel, the Louvre (though I did not go inside) and the Musee d'Orsay (where I spent a solid three and a half hours on only the second floor). I did not engage anyone else in Viet conversation. I'm quite shy in a non-English language (and that includes Viet).

I have also learned, from my solo travel, that middle-aged men like me. I was expecting to get hit on, but hit on by middle aged men only? A wee bit disturbing, really.

On a different note, I will soon be travelling home to Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. So, this blog's going to go quiet awhile. If being away for a few weeks is anything like it was last time, coming back to work is going to be horrid, so I may find it extremely difficult to post.

One thing I miss quite a bit about Australia is bushwalking. Something very different from rambling or hiking or trekking. I miss the Australian bush. Here is a photo of me, this time in the Tasmanian bush, looking up at my partner who has gone where I am too afraid to follow.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Bosses and Cherubs

I must stop being so inordinately pleased by the fact that I outwitted a 6 year old. It is ... unseemly.

I babysat for some friends on Saturday night. They went off to see the new Bond movie and for some dancing. I read to their two boys - let's call them Boss and Cherub -, watched them fall asleep and then crept into the loft conversion to settle in with a good book, listening out for any sleep disturbances. There were very few.

As I was reading to both boys, Cherub fell asleep on me and when I finished the story, I shifted him to his bed. Boss said, "Is Cherub asleep?" I nodded. "You know, Oanh, sometimes, when one of us falls asleep before the other one, the other one can stay up to watch TV."

Me: "Hey, that's a great idea. Just to make sure Cherub is definitely asleep, though, let's wait 5 minutes and pretend we're asleep, too."

Boss: "Okay."

So the little Boss curled over, smiled up at me and closed his eyes, pretending he is asleep. He was such a good pretender that he actually did fall asleep. I almost did as well, but as I was sitting on the floor between two beds, and not lying down on a nice comfy mattress with doona, I managed to bestir myself. Grinning because I had not been tricked into letting Boss stay up watching TV, I turned the lights off.

It was a very wet, very windy and overall miserable night. The book I had chosen from my friends' shelves was Diana Wynne Jones' The Time of the Ghost, a rather unsettling story. As the wind lashed around the house and rain beat against the windows, I read. I almost turned the TV on because the story scared me so much - except I had to finish the story so that it would leave me. Otherwise, I would stay afraid.

Every now and then, I went down to the boys' room to see if they were okay. They'd moved from where they'd started, and kicked off their doonas (although being English, they'd probably call them duvets). A few times, Cherub called out in his sleep and I came in to comfort him. The way he sat bolt upright, eyes closed, lurching forwards for a hug was at once disconcerting and utterly charming. The first time, I murmurred at him, "Mum's out, but it's me, Oanh's here. It's okay," He came fully awake, which worried me, until he said, with his head to one side, "Hello, Oanh!" as if I had just turned up at his house. He gave me a hug and settled back to sleep.

Later, Boss woke and came looking for me. "Are Mum and Dad not back yet?" he asked. "No, but I'm still here," said me, "Are you okay? Do you want to stay up?" "No, I'll go back to bed." But he stood, confused, in front of me. I got onto my knees to give him a hug, and asked him if he wanted anything, "Another story? A pee? Water?" To the last, I got a nod, so I trotted off to the kitchen and returned with a glass of water. He drank, gave me a hug and then went back to his bed.

I love the tactility of children. These two, in particular, have no qualms about demanding hugs or climbing onto your lap to talk to you. Cherub has a habit of reaching his hand to your cheek as he talks, or of putting his face right in front of your face. Boss likes to hold onto you while he is talking.

There is something so upsetting about a child upset in its sleep, and something so comforting about being able to soothe a child, with rubs on the back and murmurred words of,"It's okay", even though I don't know what's wrong or what I would do if I did know what was wrong.

Much later, their parents came home. I was comforting Cherub at the time and trying to settle him back to sleep, but they'd missed him so much they were quite happy to take over the settling part. "You okay?" Dad whispered at me. "Totally fine. They were great." Boss woke and said, "Dad!" and "Bye Oanh!" and Cherub sleepily lifted his arm to wave at me, and I snuck off.

Oh, and I finished the book.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Daylight Savings

On Sunday I woke unsure of the time. We had guests coming 'round for lunch and most of it was ready: a big pot of pho had been bubbling away all day Saturday. My partner had woken earlier than me as I could hear him downstairs. I walked to the bathroom and switched on the light. A spark shot out, and then all went dark. To let in light, I opened some blinds and performed my morning ablutions in a grey dimness.

Later, as I pottered in the kitchen making breakfast, my partner wandered in. I told him about the bathroom light blowing, and asked him to switch on the kitchen light for me, as not much sunlight was seeping in this overcast autumn morning. He did and nothing happened. He wandered into the living room to switch on the living room light, and nothing happened there either.

We had to switch off all electricity to fix the fuse, and then resumed our lazy lunch preparations. I needed to reset the timer on our cooker, because, for some unfathomable reason, it refuses to work unless the time is set.

As I sat on the cold kitchen tiles, mobile phone in one hand, cooker manual spread out on the floor, I realised I have a tenuous grasp on time. Were we going one hour backwards or forwards? Did I have more time or less? What time was it now, anyway, other than shortly-after-breakfast? I wondered whether our guests would arrive on daylight savings time or GMT. I wondered whether we would have time to make dessert. Had I failed to husband my time correctly to take account of dessert?

It was all too much and I retired to the sofa for a wee lie down. We re-jigged our plans and decided to make brownies for dessert: fast, easy and a perennial favourite.

The idea of time, like the idea of money, is mostly arbitrary, theoretical. It is what it is because we say it is what it is. Out there, there is a credit crunch, but I don't really know what that means. In my life, there is a time crunch.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Gardening with the Seasons (Part II)

or: How (& why) I planted bulbs (I'll try not to digress this time)

Gardening in the northern hemisphere, with seasons is completely unlike gardening in tropical Brisbane. (Such riveting news, I thought I should repeat it).

In Brissie, I just planted whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. And watered. Just like my dad told me to.

Like my dad, I did other things too, which I, like him, seem less inclined to tell people about: preparing the soil, digging in compost, turning the soil over, etc. I did not really do much of that. My partner did the bulk of it, when I decided it was time to do it. He'd watch me struggling with the spade, digging ineffectual holes and then take over.

It just took me longer to dig holes. In the far-away time before my partner, I dug my own holes. I would strike at the earth with the spade a few times experimentally. Then plunge the spade in. Then again. Then, with spade left in, wiggle it about a bit. Then plunge again. Then sit down for a rest. Then go get a drink. Then return to try again. It took me a while to dig a hole, but I always succeeded. I'm persistent.

Oh dear, I'm digressing again.

After we moved from the Little Flat to the Little House, I was most excited about the idea of having a garden again. I dug a hole (I did this myself, while my partner was away. It took three times as long as it would have done if he was present as he would have taken the spade away from me after my first few experimental strikes at the clay-y patch of earth I had decided would be our veggie patch). Into the hole, I buried the Bokashi contents from our flat. I mixed it all in and left it alone.

A few weeks later, we bought seeds of things we wanted to plant: beans, spinach, lettuce, silverbeet; and some flowers: nasturtiums, poppies, foxglove, honeysuckle, passionflower, jasmine.

A few weeks later again, we had some time to actually plant. On reading the labels of the seeds we'd bought, I realised we'd missed our window of opportunity for planting most of the flowers. The poppies and foxgloves should have gone in shortly after we bought them (should have realised this from the fact that I was now seeing foxgloves and poppies in the woodlands and other people's gardens ... probably therefore past their sowing time). We planted everything else, plus some of the basil that was outgrowing its pot.

That's just not how it works in Brisbane. Stuff grows year round. You can plant it year round. And if you can't, then it's only because it's too hot. Don't plant in December, January or February. In those months, you won't know if the sun will wither your plant to a burnt crisp of its former self, or if a torrential downpour will relocate your seedling or seeds, somewhere else, entirely out of your control. Or both. On the same day.

In England, the slugs got almost everything. They destroyed the basil in one night. Seedlings would disappear as soon as they emerged from the earth. We tried everything organic: eggshells, coffee grinds, hair. The only thing that worked was a plastic pot (formerly containing yoghurt) half buried in the ground, half filled with beer. The slugs would go for it, instead of the emergent seedlings. But, by then, we only had a very few seeds left. All that grew was a lone stand of silverbeet. It was much too late in the year to plant any more seeds.

Flower-wise, most things grew fine. The slugs did not like nasturtiums one bit, so we planted more of them round the edge of our veggie patch as a barrier. They make our garden look productive, rather than bare. But it is bare. It is bare of vegetables. We were demoralised. So demoralised, we even forgot to eat the silverbeet, so it is now unpalatably bitter.

Quite a few weeks ago, I was flipping through the weekend paper and read about planting bulbs. I adore the bright flowers that pop up at the end of winter, heralding spring. I bear much affection for them, as they first greeted me in this new land. It was so exciting to see white and purple crocuses, daffodils and snowdrops, growing like weeds. They symbolise England for me. They are so very different to what you can get in Brisbane: delicate blooms, thriving on cold, redolent of the changing of the seasons. And they epitomise English gardening: you have to sow them many months before anything happens. You have to PLAN.

So, I sent off for some bulbs: 100 crocuses, 70 daffodils, 50 tulips. I have grand visions of my front garden being a field of English flowers, in miniature: in February, crocuses; March, daffodils; April, tulips; and then, it will be time to plant foxgloves and poppies, ready to bloom for summer.

We planted the bulbs last weekend. My partner lifted the grass / lawn (an aggravating operation that the word 'lift' belies); I mixed potting mix with the soil and placed the bulbs in their randomly appointed spots; we finished by walking over the lawn, stomping the grass back into place.

Now, we wait.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Gardening with the Seasons (Part I)

Gardening in the northern hemisphere, with seasons is completely unlike gardening in tropical Brisbane. Yes, you read right here, breaking news, paradigm shift, etc.

I have a very laissez faire approach to gardening. This is because (1) I grew up in Brisbane and (2) my father is the most amazing gardener ever and his approach always seemed very ... at ease.

Whenever I asked my father for gardening tips, he would look at me, shrug and say something helpful like, Are you watering it?

My mother spent her time discouraging me from gardening. On my visits home after I moved out, I would occassionally take cuttings of plants or uproot seedlings for my own garden. My mother would follow me around the garden telling me not to bother, that if I wanted whatever plant it was I was collecting (usually herbs), I could just come get them from her house. She also used to berate me if I went to the store to buy herbs (especially mint), when they grew in such lush abandon in my parents' garden. I often found myself trapped into giving answers that would permit my mother to berate me for one reason or another:

Um: What do you cook to eat?

Me: [shrug] Lots of things, pasta, rice, noodles.

Um: Do you cook Viet food?

[Here, it becomes a choose your own adventure]

Option 1: Say yes and demonstrate your goodness

Me: Yes, I made goi cuon just the other day.

Um: Oh. Where did you get the rau cai*? (*A miscellany of green - lettuce and herbs etc)

Me: I bought them from Hong Lan (local Asian grocery store).

Um: Why did you do that? What a waste of money! You could have come here for them.

Me: [splutter.]

Option 2: Say no and demonstrate your badness

Me: No, I just come home.

Um: Then you must not miss Viet food very much because you don't come here very much.

Me: Sometimes I go to my sister's house.

Um: She never calls me when you go there. I never see you.

Me: Yes you do.

Um: You could just move home again if you miss Viet food so much you have to visit your sister for it.

Me: [splutter.]

Option 3: Demonstrate how downright evil you truly are.

Me: No, I just come home.

Um: Then you must not miss Viet food very much because you don't come here very much.

Me: Sometimes I go to my sister's house. Or a restaurant.

Um: What?

Me: Er, sometimes I go to a restaurant.

Um: Why? What a waste of money! Just come here.

Me: Sometimes it's too late to come here. (My parents go to bed very early)

Um: What do you mean? What time are you eating?

Me: Er. Sometimes, quite late.

Um: How late?

Me: Er. 8. 9. (I do not have the faculty of lying to my mother to make my life easier.)

Um: That's not very good for you. What time do you go to sleep then?

Me: Um. 11. 12. Depends. (Well, I can lie a little)

Um: [splutter.]

That was a bit of a tangent. I miss my mum. I even miss her nagging that I used to find so aggravating. Now she's just sweet as all-get-out to me on the phone, because I am so far away. Wish she'd just nag me again.

I intended to tell you about how I planted bulbs. Next post, then.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Thoughts of Cycling in the Fall

Summer is gone.

I sat in my office today, my poor katoosh frozen. Our central heating is yet to be turned on, even though temperatures outside are less than 10 degrees. I can barely feel my fingers and I certainly cannot feel my toes.

Autumn is here.

My cycle to work now involves the sunlight glaring in my eyes, occassionally through mist. There are just as many cyclists now as there were in summer, but more of them are brand new (uni) students, taking up the whole of MY cycle path.

I grumble, grouch and ding-ding my bell, to no avail. Especially the young women: they hold their position as they come towards me, archly ignoring my presence in front of them. I'm on the left. You're on the right. We are about to have a collision if you don't move. Sometimes I jump onto the grass, and they give me a surprised innocent look, and I hate them quietly. Sometimes, I peddle onwards, aggressively bowing my head like a bull ready to charge, and wait for them to skid sideways, making affronted noises and giving me upset glares. I'm in the right, sweety, and I have years of practise in judgemental self-righteousness on my side.

Really, I am quite a considerate cyclist. Honest. I cycle kindly with pedestrians, rarely dinging my bell; more often, just calling out or taking a wide detour, especially around dogs and children, for whom I slow down to near-walking pace. I'm less nice to the 'Boot Camp' groups who inexplicably drop onto the middle of the path to do sit-ups and push-ups, or start running backwards without looking behind them. To them, I ding-ding away. I glare at their instructor, dressed in camo gear. I want to shout to the participants: Buy a bike, guys! Why are you paying these sadistic, demi-military men to shout abuse at you? Cycle to work - it's actually rather fun!

I cycle defensively with cars and only aggressive, dangerous drivers cause me to display my anger, by means of rude gestures or shouted obscenities. I have tapped on a car window, after the driver sped up to use the left lane to overtake me who was coasting down the middle of the right lane, set to do a right turn. They had to stop at the light, so I tapped-tapped on their window and said, "That was dangerous and stupid", and to which their reply was a sheepish look. Usually, though, I just swallow my annoyance or think mean thoughts, but do nothing. A car is lots-of-tonnes of metal, and a bike is not. If you're going to be aggressive and dangerous, I'd rather let you then hold my own and be dead or injured, because that's not really that much fun. And anyway, it will make me even later for work than I already am.

But I really have no patience for inconsiderate cyclists. None at all.

I can't wait until winter, when only the committed cyclists will still be peddling away. These rubbish cyclists, with no sense of cylcing etiquette, will have wimped their way onto buses to get to uni. The cycle path will be mine, all mine. [herein insert maniacal cackle.]

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Old Age

Everyone my age is bemoaning their age. I teeter ever closer towards being thirty. I'm not worried about how old I am but sometimes, something jolts me and I think about age, about time passing, about memory, and, as ever, about me.

My eldest nephew is 18. I did not do anything for his 18th. Did not send him a card nor even an email. Oops. In my defence, I thought he was turning 17 this year. Obviously, I am wrong. He finishes high school soon. He has a girlfriend. He's probably, you know, doing the dirty. We are friends on Facebook and I am loving how proud and subversive he is about his Asianness. He tags 'FOB' rolls (banh mi thit aka pork salad rolls; FOB stands for Fresh Off the Boat. I only learnt that a few years ago, from Sume). He is surrounded by Asian faces in his photos; I wonder, if I had as many close Asian friends when I was in high school as he has, would I have been as comfortable with my Asianness as he appears to be with his?

This does not make me feel old. It makes me feel the passing of time. Although, perhaps, I am just playing with words there. I don't feel any negativity, is all I am saying. When people say they feel old, they are using old as a perjorative. Yes, I feel my age (though I don't often behave it, so I am told). But I don't feel it as a bad thing. I feel the weight of history, when I discover my nephew is 18. Eighteen!?

I remember his birth, quite clearly. I remember the first few photos of him sent to me by his proud parents. I am astounded 18 years could have passed. I have to resist doing things such as sighing about what a cute baby he was (and he was) and remarking on how he was as small as a teddy bear, once (I have the photograph to prove it).

I lived with him and his parents for a short period of time when I was the age he is now: the age of asserting adulthood. That time feels both far away and not so long ago.

When I was his age, a newly discovered older cousin told me, sighingly, how he remembered me when I was as long as his forearm. My tart, witty response? I don't remember you from then.

When I was his age, I threatened his father, my eldest brother, that I would jump out of his moving car and then telephone our father if he took me to a function and left me there on my own. I did not want to go. My brother promised to remain at the function with me.

When I was his age, I lied to my parents about not crying when I phoned them on Tet to say hi and chuc mung nam moi and what are you doing and do you miss me and yes, it's cold in Melbourne.

Things have not changed so much. I still resort to snarky comments when I cannot think of how to make conversation with someone because they say something to which there is no response (and to pre-empt you: no, polite but ambiguous silence is just not an option (for me)). I still use guerilla tactics on my siblings when I don't want to do something they want me to do. And I still lie to my parents, partially through pride, partially through not wanting to let them know I'm sad or struggling or sick or ... anything negative, really. Ha. I ain't so grown up. But I must have, right, because ...

He's 18. Can you believe it?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Head Hunted

Work etc has been rather busy. Life etc has been rather busy. I am not holding up my own on the blogging front. But, winter draws near. There is hope.


I recently answered a head-hunting phone call: very intriguing.

Head-Hunter told me that someone had referred me to them - except the job they are recruiting for works from the corporate perspective and I am quite happily entrenched in the individual's perspective. They won't tell me who the referring someone is. And I'm curious. Very curious. Although I also wonder if they just look up people of my number of years "post qualification experience" (PQE) and then phone up. It's brave of them. Lucky I was feeling patient.

I've never been head-hunted before. It's an odd feeling.

Other odd phone calls I have received recently (these ones at home, rather than at work):

Oddity number 1
Phone rings.
Me:- Hello?
Ambulance Chaser:- Hi! Have you or anyone in your family had an accident in the last three years.
Me: No.
Ambulance Chaser:- Are you sure? Because we can -
Me: Yes. I'm sure.
Ambulance Chaser:- Oh okay. It's just that we -
Me: Thank you. Bye.

Oddity number 2
Phone rings.
Me: Hello?
Opportunist: Hi! We were wondering if, in the current economic climate, you needed assistance.
Me: Sorry?
Opportunist: Well, the current economic climate is not good for the average person.* We were wondering if you might need any help.
Me: Help? Um. No. Thanks.
Opportunist: Debt! Do you have debt?
Me: No.
Opportunist: Mortgage, loans, credit card debt?
Me: No.
Opportunist: Car loan? Home loan?
Me: No.
Opportunist: Really? No credit card debt? We could help you by -
Me: No. I have no debts.
Opportunist: Oh-kaay. [disbelievingly] Thanks anyway.
Me: No problems. Bye.


*I don't think I qualify as the average person. Or do I? I don't know.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A solo ride

I did a long(ish) solo cycle ride over the weekend. My first, ever. I've been on longer rides, but always with other people. I did my own navigating (a rare thing; see my last post).

These are my statistics of the event.

Kilometres travelled: 36.32
Miles travelled: 22.7
Time taken for the ride: Three hours (give or take).

Hills ascended: Three (oof).
Hills descended: wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

Number of times I had to stop to check the map: At every juncture, um, maybe fifteen? Then, I checked the map obsessively during lunch.

Wrong turns taken: only one! Although, it was a biggie ... I turned right, instead of left, when leaving the Stately Home (see below) to cycle back home again. I realised after no more than a kilometre, so I was not well on the way to Scotland before I did an about face and cycled back past the little family of ramblers to whom I had just called out, "Hi there! Bike behind!" and to whom I now said, "Hi again! Silly cyclist coming back!" Mum and Dad grinned and kids waved.

Number of stupid cars who cut in front of me: One. Red. Driven by a blonde woman with a shoulder length bob. I'd recognise her again. Harrumph.

Number of nice drivers who shared the road with me: Lots. Yay them.

Number of steam-rollers passed: One, with me grinning a most amused grin, and the driver waving at me.

Amount of (rooibos) tea ingested: one thermos, or four cups.

Stately homes visited: One.
Regency dances viewed: Four.
Roses smelled: Seven (Pilgrim was best and Graham Thomas came a close second).
Time spent meandering around the Stately Home's grounds, having lunch, reading my book, drinking my thermos of tea, admiring the gardens, feeling jealous about the gardens, resisting buying a book from the second-hand book store nestled in the Stately Home's cellarium and contemplating whether I should cycle home soon because it might rain: Three and one half hours.

Punctures incurred: one
Punctures fixed: none
Spare carried: Thank goodness.
Tyre changed: YES!
Time spent considering whether I could fix the puncture, giving up and changing the inner tube instead: 45 minutes.

Offers of help declined: One

Times I considered catching the train home: Only once, initially, when I discovered where the puncture was on my inner tube (Right at the valve. Was that repairable? I had to phone a friend to double-check. The answer was no. My heart sunk.) But the train station was two miles from where I currently was, plus my home station is about two miles from home. That's pushing a bike a total of four, painstakingly slow, miles. I thought I'd rather spend ages trying to change the tyre before giving up to catch the train. But no! I am competent at practical things.

Number of nice old people who offered me their soap and water to wash my mucky hands: Two. And the old dude apologised for not offering to help because I "looked very professional changing the tyre". I beamed. And the old lady said,"He would not have been any good, love" and winked. Bless. I did not ask why they were carrying soap to visit a Stately Home (Gift horse. Mouth. Don't Look.)

Number of children who stood around giggling at my attempts to change my inner tube: Six. Go away children! You're not making it any easier.
Number of children who leapt about me and my bike and my worldly possessions (novel, check; beanie, check; thermos, check; emergency chocolate, check) scattered on the lawn: Two (but it felt like twenty). I discovered my puncture in the parking lot of the Stately Home, just prior to my homeward cycle, hence the abundance of people.

Number of trout in stream: One! Large! Spotty!

Photographs taken: None. I had no space to carry the Fuji camera (and my partner had the Ricoh) - I really need a pannier rack and pannier bags, but, because I am vertically challenged (who you callin' short, huh?), I cannot fit a pannier rack onto my bike (the seat is not high enough and a pannier rack attaches to the wheel nuts as well as to the joist thing holding the seat up.). My, there sure were a lot of qualifying clauses in that last sentence. I'm working on raising my seat, but I currently have the seat at just the height when, if I am at a stop, I am on my very tippiest of tippy-toes to hold steady, and even so, I regularly tumble. Gracefully, of course.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

I Got the Post-Holiday Blues

Stockholm was incredibly relaxing. As was our long hike inside the Arctic Circle. I came back feeling refreshed and like I really had a proper holiday. Probably not everyone's idea of a holiday - hiking through thoroughly breathtaking landscape, all I need in a rucksack on my back (my pack weighed between 11 kg and 13 kg most days, my partner's between 13 kg and 17 kg) and eating cous-cous and noodles every night.

I find walking / hiking / tramping , especially in difficult terrain, very meditative. I am inside the moment of walking, of picking up one foot, and placing it down again, of ensuring each foot is placed solidly. Glimpses of flowers distract me, but the most profound of my thoughts is, "Oh, that flower is so pretty (or cute or blue, whichever is most appropriate)".

In one patch, we walked for approximately five kilometres over uneven stony ground. It could have been moraine, except that I think moraine involves bigger rocks. These rocks ranged in size but the average size was a square foot. For most of the walk over these rocks, I watched where I placed my foot, ensuring also that I did not place a foot onto the middle of a rock too often, as that would cause a slow ache to develop in my arches. I know this from previous walks, where I have been neglectful of my arches, plonking them unthinkingly on rock after rock, only to find myself in perplexed discomfit weeks later. It seems like the best thing to do is put a whole foot on a rock. No, the best thing to do is balance toes and heel between two rocks. Or, at least, mix up the toes-heel balance with whole-foot placement. I concentrated on my walk.

As a fleeting thought crossed my mind - "Ha! This is perfect ankle sprain territory" - I looked up to make the observation to partner, and stumbled. Only a little stumble. Not one he even noticed, lost as he was in his own fugue of rock-walking concentration. Thereafter I resolutely tried not to think about spraining my ankle, right in the middle point of the walk - the point where going forward to its conclusion involves as much distance as going back to the start.

We were the few - perhaps the only, ever - Australians on the walk. We met a pair of Swedish walkers who, after my "Hej" and smile, launched into rather a lot of Swedish. All I had learnt (bad, bad me) was "Hej" (Hello) and "Tack" (Thank you). I kept saying "tack" like the German "tag". I have a few accents that I do: Italian (thanks, Latin!) and German (in which I can fluently say, I am hungry: "ich haben hunger". I practised that long and hard because it contains all the guttural Germanic sounds that I find so difficult to make). And whenever I am somewhere that does not speak English as the main language, I have a strange, barely suppressible desire to say, "minasan, suate kudasai" ("everyone, please sit down", in Japanese).

When I smiled and apologised for not speaking Swedish, one of the walkers repeated what he had said, but this time in German. Then he apologised, in English, and repeated what he had said in Swedish and German, in English. What had he said? How are you? Then he apologised that he did not know very much English. Then, in English, he went into great detail about the walk that they had done. Then, we had a conversation in English. His English was great, but he kept apologising for it, leaving me no space in which to apologise for my lack of Swedish; my oversight was more culpable, I thought, than his non-native-but-otherwise-perfect-English.

Foolishly, he asked me which direction we came from. I am not good with compass direction points. My partner was not then present, on a brief exploration of our rest area. So I told we had come from our last landmark, Tjakta Pass. He told me he had come from the west. I don't think either of us really understood each other - he failed to understand me because I mispronounced Tjakta (he later identified it and said something entirely different to what I had said) and I failed to understand him because I did not know which way west was. Still, we were both just talking for the sake of talking to someone other than our respective walking partners. I further confused him by announcing that our next destination was Salkastugorna - when we were already there. I am not the navigator. My partner is. I am absolved of all responsibility.

Me and Our Tent: Taking in the sights at one of our campsites.
I have no idea which one, or why I am not doing something useful.

Since being back, over a month now, work has made a quick meal of that mellow refreshed feeling one gets from a great holiday. Now, I'm all wound up again. Everything is very busy. I am still chasing my tail post holiday. My tail gets longer, but I get no closer. I do know which direction I'm going though: round and round.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Manga Me

By way of Galaxy, I have Faced My Manga Self:

Yes, I really do grin like that. I have many photographs to prove it. I hacked off all my hair, so now it does do random jagged things. And my glasses are orange.

The most amusing thing about doing this little avatar thing was that I had to go look in the mirror to remind me of what I looked like. Although my hair is black, I decided making it shiny grey was more suited to my personality.

Then I thought, well, that's casual Oanh. But what about Lawyer Oanh? So I went back and made another avatar (but I forgot to give myself a mole, although now I have bags under my eyes and I'm not grinning quite so maniacally):

And that's what I look like at work. My hair's a bit neater, see, and I wear jackets.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

What's in a name?

A crowfoot flower, tenaciously among the rocks.

I hate people who don't listen when I slowly spell my name for them: Oh, Ay, En, Aitch. "What? En, Ay, Oh?"; No! Oh [wait for them to say, yes?] Ay [wait for a yes?]; En [wait for another yes? they get impatient] Aitch. That's all. Then they say, "Okay, why did you not say your name was Ann?" Hmm, because it's not. My name is Oanh. It starts with an Oh. And is pronounced wun. Shall I spell it for you, again? "Oh, sure. That's unusual, isn't it?" Mmm, I murmur, without saying anything else. It's too much hassle to say, no, actually, it's not unusual. I have been patient, really, I have. Patient all my life.

I don't expect anyone to know how to pronounce or spell my name (okay, my family and friends I do expect to know). Hell, I even crack pretty good jokes about my name (if I say so myself). My best was when I rang my best friend in high shool and her father picked up the phone.

Me: Hi, Mr BestFriend. Can I speak to BestFriend? It's Oanh.

Mr BestFriend: Which Oanh? ho ho.

Me: The only Oanh of course. chuckle chuckle.

Mr BestFriend: Ha! That's great! [Aside and shouting] BestFriend! It's only Oanh on the phone!

Of course, sometimes I got sick of my name. Random people, usually men, usually on trains, would ask me my name and I would tell them: Two point four. I thought I was being pretty funny. They did not bother trying to chat me up any further.
I also used to lie - colourfully - about my 'ethnic heritage'. You know, in response to the "Where are you REALLY from?" question.

Sometimes, I would be an Inuit princess, seeking refuge in Australia from having to marry my sister's brother because she died, which was a custom of the tribe that I would one day lead. I was here, learning martial arts and survival skills, and I would return when I was strong, to overthrow my father, to re-create the matriarchal society we were supposed to be. That was my favourite story.

Sometimes I was just apathetic. Yes, I'm from China. It's a big place. Yes, I eat dogs. And lounge about smoking opium. Sure, I will amend the feng shui in your house. You should place the lucky dragon plant in the turtle corner well away from the phoenix roof. Not good for the monkey vibes. Although, it is the year of the oscillating octopus, so perhaps you should completely obliterate the turtle corner.

Or I would reply to people who called out, "Konnichi Wa!" with Origami! Toyota! Mitsubishi! and they would look at me, failing to appreciate the extent and sheer scintillating brilliance of my wit. Some of them even went on to speak more Japanese to me. Bless their misinformed hearts. Needless to write (but I'm going to write it), I did not date any of them.

And you know what? None of these people I spun stories to ever commented on my Aussie accent.

I used to want to change my name. To something easy. Something 'Anglo'. Something that, when a relief teacher was taking class I did not have to say, Here-ah when there was a puzzled pause.

I had one relief teacher who was extremely discombobulated to discover that I was named 'one'. I was sitting in the front row, first desk. He was a young teacher, and it did not help that my classmate (front row, second desk) piped up that he was 'two'. The poor, young relief teacher assumed we'd been allocated numbers, so he proceeded to call us by the numbers that our seating arrangements would have assigned us. We all tittered quietly but did not correct him. When the principal came in to check on how he was doing, our class got a stern scolding. Me, especially, for allowing it to happen (I was Class Goody-Two-Shoes (otherwise known as School Captain). The relief teacher never then did believe me that my name actually, really was Oanh. I had to ask the principal to affirm that, "Yes, her name really is Oanh", for the relief teacher to accept any more words that came out of my mouth, asserting anything at all.

Actually, I have strong recollections of wanting to change my name to Karen. I cannot now recall why the name Karen. She's not in any books that I can remember from my childhood.

I've been happily Oanh for a while now.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Photos on Holiday

I have a new camera. Well, it's a few months old now.

It is a Fuji Finepix S9600 - it's an almost-but-not-quite SLR. It's pretty darn heavy, weighing in at about 750gms without batteries inside, which is somewhat contrary to my plan to get a camera to take hiking with us. It's also pretty bulky, having a massive, don't-mess-with-me zoom. But it's the best on the market for what I want.

We took it with us to Sweden where we spent a mere weekend in Stockholm and then proceeded to hike through Swedish Lapland, inside the Arctic Circle, where there was 24-hour daylight.

Mountains, lake and bridge: Everything Swedish Lapland has to offer.

What does round the clock daylight mean for photography? The wrong light, always. Never that slopey-angle orange toned light of dawn or dusk, always that overbright, overhead light that makes playing with the exposure of a photograph complicated.

Also, because we were impatient fools, we forgot to set the camera to store photos on its highest quality setting. Many of our photos (and there are many) were a bit disappointing. Not because we are not brilliant photographers (ha!) but because we used the second highest quality setting. That edge of great images was just ever so slightly lost. Woe, woe, woe.

Just means we have to go back.

My partner is the landscape photographer. I do not seem to have an eye for landscapes. Rather, I am the details photographer. You can always tell who had the camera at what stage because there will be a series of landscapes, some with Oanh in, (my partner has the camera), then a series of close ups of flowers and a shot of my partner looking off in the distance or mucking about with the tent or otherwise keeping himself occupied while I contort myself for the perfect shot of a flower in situ (I have the camera, of course).

Another reason why I am not the landscape photographer is that I have an unerring ability to render my horizons ... slanted. There are any number of series of photos where the horizon or ground gets slowly, inchingly, straighter. Even with the camera set to display lines, I manage to take slant-angled horizon photos. Just a talent.

I am also the director of photography. While my partner holds the camera, I sometimes say, "Make a photo of that!" Or I am trying to take a photo of something but my height prevents me from making the shot that I want, so I hand the camera over to my partner and ask him to take some shots from his height. Occassionally, we have a bargy over who took which photo.

When I was travelling with my sisters in Viet Nam, we each had a digital camera and together, took rather a lot of photos. One photo in particular, The Accountant really liked and proclaimed that she took it. We were on a walk alongside the beach at Vung Tau. In the background numerous Viet flags fly. In the foreground walk my sisters, my mother, my aunts and uncle and cousins, all spaced out in a very aesthetically pleasing fashion. I argued with the Accountant, trying to tell her that I took the photo, but she refused to believe me. She insisted that she took it. Finally, I resort to stabbing at the figures in the photo - "Look! There's the Vegetarian! There's Um! There's Y*! And Vuong**! Where am I? There YOU are! You CAN'T have taken the photo!" She conceded that perhaps she was wrong.

* pronounced ee - means aunt on my mother's side
* pronounced yurng - means uncle who is husband of aunt on my mother's side

My partner and I cannot have such clear proof of who took what photo, although a negative version of this argument occurred over a photo of what I thought to be nothing in particular.

Me: What's this of? It's really weird framing.

My partner: It's of you!

Me: Me? Where? I'm not in this picture.

My partner: [pointing at a blackish shape on the left hand side of the picture, beside some bluish shapes] There you are. It was Alesjaure. You were chillin'.

Me: What? Oh yeah, Oanh like a rock. There I am indeed. So you took this photo? It's one of your crappier photos, man.

Of this photo, my partner and I have the following conversation:-

Me: Oanh has the camera! Nice buttercups. Lovely depth.

My partner: I took this photo.

Me: No!

My partner: Yes, I did.

Me: Oh. Okay, perhaps.

I have to concede that he could be right. He proclaims no proprietory interest in any of the other close-up-of-flower photos. His certainty in respect of this one causes self-doubt.

The following are definitely photos I took:-

My favourite of the myriad wildflowers (fjallblumen, lit. mountain flowers) we saw. I'm naming them 'Bog Cotton Flowers'.

Extreme close up of some very delicate wild mountain flowers.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Joys of Blogging

Subtitle: What's with twinkies?

A few months ago, Wandering Chopsticks suggested a food swap. What a brilliant idea, thought I with full enthusiasm. So I started collecting her goodies for her, and she for me. When she asked what I wanted from the US of A, I was a little bemused. Nothing, really. I have discovered that I am a hideously incurious person. This surprises me, because I think I have a lot of intellectual curiousity. I just don't have any need to see or taste or experience particular things. If they come my way, I will investigate them with all the curiousity and abounding enthusiasm (quite a lot) I have, but if you want to know what I have been dying to try, or see, or experience? I don't know. I'm just not really like that. In addition, I have never been to the US, so I do not know what it has, that I cannot get in the UK or Australia. Oh, except for groovy t-shirts without exorbitant postage costs. But I tangentalise.

This is what the wonderful Wandering Chopsticks sent me, and which arrived shortly before my holiday:-

I have been working my way through the box of goodies. Clockwise from the lychee jellies, we have Fudge Shop Grasshoppers, Brussels Cookies, butterfingers, lemongrass, Nestle Crunch, Twinkies, gunpowder green tea and curry powder so I can make some ca ri ga. Somewhere in there too are some loofah seeds. And what's the blue thing drapped over the Brussels Cookies? Read on, read on...

The first thing I chose to eat was the only thing I asked for: twinkies.

My curiousity about twinkies has two origins. The first (not in time) is from an episode of (I think) The Family Guy, in which an apocalyptic event wipes out the world and the family of The Family Guy live on in a twinkie factory; twinkies obviously being impervious to apocalypse.

The second is my awareness of "twinkie" as a perjorative for people of colour. I was so much more aware of racial issues in US and UK culture that I knew the insult "twinkie" and "coconut", before I knew the insult "banana". And if you're not in the know, the common thing about all the above is that they are white on the inside.

The first time I heard the term, "banana" was when a friend in university, laughingly said to me, "Bet you're such a banana you don't even know what one is." Because I did not know what one was, I could have no feeling except perplexity about her comment. My bemused look was enough for her, still laughing, she explained, "Yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I'm one of your few Asian friends, you know."

I think about these terms every now and then. And you know what? I can't get worked up about it anymore. The terms just make me roll my eyes, either actually or figuratively (depends where I am).

Still, I'd never eaten a twinkie, and I have eaten plenty of bananas and coconuts. And I want to taste the thing impervious to apocalypse. Maybe it will make me impervious, too?

There was another good reason for trying the twinkie first: it was pretty squished on arrival. Clearly, cross-Atlantic travel does not suit a twinkie.

I have this to say about twinkies: ugh. No thank you! Awful airy sponge thing on the outside, terrible tasteless but too sweet "cream" on the inside. I could not finish one. (Sorry, Wandering, for the waste.)

I have also scoffed all the lychee jelly things. I miss them from Australia. My mother used to have loads in her cupboard for the kids (and me) and we'd just randomly pull one out, tear off the foil top and squeeze into our mouths. It's not the sort of thing I have in my own household, but I devour it when I find it in someone else's.

The other things are still waiting to be eaten. I have to eat my sweet things in short bursts.

The curry powder has found its home on my overflowing, disorganised spice shelf, and has already successfully fed my friends, who loved ca ri ga. Thank you, WC for the curry powder and the recipe! I did ask for the curry powder, but it doesn't count as American food (per me).

And the blue things? I had told Wandering Chopsticks that I was off to Sweden. So she knitted another beanie and scarf for "her Iron Boy". My partner and I took her directions and went looking for him in Stockholm's Gamla Stan (old town). We did have some trouble, not because WC's directions were poor, but because, well, all the buildings were the same colour, they all looked like grand churches (except the one that looked like a grand palace) and they all seemed to have courtyards.

But we found him:

Wandering Chopsticks writes about what I sent her ...

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Bullets prior to a Holiday

  • I am off on holiday very shortly.

  • Holidays are supposed to be wonderful and relaxing. The lead-up to holidays, however, suck. I am trying to make sure all my files are in order and that anything that has a deadline while I am away is dealt with, and anything with a deadline shortly after I return is dealt with. This has led to later nights than I wanting to be working and general short-tempered-ness, and indirectly, stress about not being sufficiently prepared for my holiday.

  • Last night, I was still at the office late, trying to take care of some personal things. My boss poked his head through my door and said, "Ah, you are still here? I thought I could hear you charging around." That's me, I charge about the place. I am a small person, but I move like an elephant. There are about five steps between the office where the printer is and mine, and I leap up the steps when heading to the printer, and I galumph back down them again, sometimes leaping all of them without bothering to ascend gracefully or quietly. Especially when I think I am still the only person left at work.

  • I have been watching rather a lot of Jane Austen. I find it really intriguing that, now I am familiar with the English landscape, I recognise the cleverness and the interaction of Jane's characters with their landscape, and how the landscape informs who they are and what they do. Many of Jane's heroines love the outdoors - Lizzie Bennets goes for long walks, Marianne Dashwood stands on cliff edges looking out to sea off the wild Dorset Coast, Bath is a foil for a lot of folly. And now, I've been to these places. I have a friend living in the Peak District (where Mr Darcy's house is), and he visited the house where the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice set Mr Darcy's house. "Ooh! You visited Pemberley!" cried me. "No, I visited Chatsworth, but that's where it was filmed." "You visited Pemberley," I insisted. A look passed between my partner and the friend. A look that from my partner was, "Leave her be, take it no further, just back down," and from the friend, "um, er, um."

  • I have watched Jane Austen on DVD (Persuasion and Becoming Jane - not quite JA, but pretty darn near to it) and on YouTube - Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility (YouTube versions were BBC Masterpiece series). I find very amusing that, although obvious breaches of copyright, many of the video-posters have a little note saying "No breach of copyright intended." That's not going to help. I don't help, either, by watching.

  • Charging about the place is not moving like a Jane Austen heroine. Luckily, as much as I enjoy Jane Austen (Persuasion is my favourite, if you're wondering), I have never wanted to be a Jane Austen heroine. Nope, not even Lizzie Bennet.

  • I'm off on holiday now. See you in a few weeks.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Weekend Wokking II: Tuber Coconut Curry

Ha! And I thought I could do a blogging event monthly. It is surprisingly difficult.

This month's feature ingredient is the humble potato. My favourite piece of 2008 trivia is that 2008 is the UN International Year of the Potato. What a wonderful accolade for this most simple, and rather ugly, of vegetables. Can you just imagine the procession celebrating the 'tater?

Although we currently have an abundance of potatoes from our veg box, I have not made anything very exciting with them in the last month. We've mostly been eating boiled potatoes with various veges for week-day dinners. I did make a rabbit stew, but I was not so happy with how it turned out. I did not take a final photo, and binned all the preparation photos.

I got inspiration for my recipe from this source. My recipe is pretty darn similar, except that there are variations based on what I had in my kitchen and how I wanted this flavoured.

For the curry
  • 4 or 5 medium potatoes, quartered
  • 1 sweet potato, diced into pieces roughly the same size as the quartered potato
  • 1 zucchini / courgette , diced into pieces roughly the same size as the quartered potato
  • 1 yellow capsicum / pepper, diced (you get the drift)
  • 1 onion, diced finely
  • 3 or 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 teaspoon shrimp paste (mam ruoc)
  • 1 can (375g) of coconut milk
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of mustard seeds
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons of garam masala
  • 1/2 teaspoon of tumeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspon ginger powder (or use fresh if you've got it; sadly, I did not)
  • a pinch (or more) of cayenne pepper
  • water
  • a nice big stockpot
For the rice
  • 2 cups (or one cup per person) wild and brown rice
  • half a dozen cloves
  • water
  • a saucepan
  • a clean tea towel

What to do
  • Saute onions and garlic in a little peanut oil until the onions are translucent.
  • Add the shrimp paste and fry for a few minutes.
  • Add all the spices and fry until fragrant and formed into a nice paste. If the spices are starting to stick to the bottom of the pan, add in tiny amounts of water.
  • Add can of coconut milk. Usually, a the coconut milk in a can separates into two parts, one more liquid, the other more solid. The solid part gathers at the top of the can. Instead of mixing it in, spoon as much of this out as you can, saving it for later in the recipe, and use the more liquid milk. Cook this with the paste until a consistent dark orangey, browny paste is formed.
  • Add the potato and mix in with the paste.
  • Pour in enough water to cover the potatoes. I usually pour water into my now empty can of coconut milk, which serves the purpose of using all the coconut goodness and cleaning the can so I can happily put it into the recycle bin.
  • Let this simmer for about 10 minutes, then add the sweet potato. If needed, top up with water to cover all the potatoes.
  • Cover and let simmer until the potatoes are soft, but not mushy. The way I test mine is by pushing a fork gently in. There should be no resistance and nor should the potato crumble. If the potato does crumble, all is not lost. Just finish off the last few steps quickly and on lower heat, rather than leisurely.
  • Add the zucchini, capsicum and the reserved slightly more solid coconut milk. Mix in into the rest of the curry. Turn the heat to low and let the whole thing simmer for a while.
To cook the rice This is my current fail-safe way to cook rice without a rice cooker. Although these instructions are separate, I usually cook the rice right after I have thrown the potatoes in, during simmering time. Another way of ensuring your rice is ready when your curry is, is to do the rice first. After all, it can sit there, waiting, whereas sometimes you do not want the accompanying dish to wait on the rice, e.g. stir fries!

I have mentioned before that I am not accurate with my measurements. I am happy and comfortable in the kitchen, so I do not need exact measurements for successful cooking (except for baking. I have learnt my lessons - no estimates for baking!) My rule of thumb for rice is almost literal - about a thumb's breadth of water on top of the rice. When I was a girl and my chore was to put the rice on for the family, I was always perplexed by my mother's instruction to check the water level by plunging a finger in and measuring to the first knuckle. I mean, surely everyone's hand size is different? But somehow, this has always worked for our family. And I still use it now, with all different types of rice - jasmine, basmati, brown, wild, red, camargue, arborio - and I've only had the occasional rice mishap, usually because of temperature of the cooker, rather than water. The only caveat to the above is that brown rice does require just a little bit more water, and basmati, just a little bit less.
  • Boil the rice, covered, on medium heat for about 15 minutes.
  • If you want to flavour your rice, just add the flavourings with the water. For this dish, I added some cloves. I also like to add cardamon pods, when having basmati rice and curry.
  • Check the rice occassionally to ensure that not all the water has evaporated. I am always perplexed by instructions not to look in on cooking rice. I always look in and have only had occassional mishaps which I don't think were caused by my checking the progress of the rice. In my rice-cooking world, checking is vital.
  • Taste test occassionally, as the 15 minutes approaches.
  • When testing a grain of rice, you want it a bit harder than al dente at the point where there is very little water.
  • If, when you check the rice, you find that there is still a lot of water but the rice grains are soft, drain the water, place over high heat with the lid off for a few minutes and do the above step.
  • When there is barely any water left, turn the heat off and place a clean tea towel on top of the saucepan, replace lid and then leave the rice to sit for at least 5 minutes.
  • Check that the rice is done - slightly softer than al dente is what you're after.
  • If you have to do other things at the tea towel part, it's fine. I have left rice sitting like this for 15 - 20 minutes, and it's still turned out well. I have also been impatient and left it barely any time at all, and it's been fine.
Tuber Coconut Curry and Wild Rice!

As a bonus, because this post is late, I cooked roast potatoes for dinner tonight. One of the advantages of an electric cooker is that an electric oven walks all over a gas one.

Roasted is the best way to eat potatoes. No, wait. Chips are. Roasted comes second.

Do you need a recipe for roasting?

  • Chop potatoes up. However many you want.
  • Chop other veges suitable for roasting up. Other suitable veges are carrots, pumpkin, brussels sprouts, zucchini / courgette, parsnip, mushroom, cauliflower. Heck, you can roast just about any vegetable. The size that you chop veges will depend on what it is and when you intend to throw it in with the potatoes. I chop carrots to about 150% the size of pototoes. I add mushrooms, brussel sprouts and courgettes near the end of roasting time.
  • Quarter an onion - keep the 'tail' of the onion intact so the whole thing doesn't fall apart.
  • Throw in a whole head of garlic, too, if you've got one sitting about. Tonight, I sadly did not. For the garlic just separate the individual cloves and rub them together in your hands to remove most, but not all, of the papery skin.
  • Liberally pour olive oil over the mixture of potato, onion, garlic and whatever other veges you're using.
  • Crack on some pepper.
  • Toss together.
  • Bung it in the oven (temperature medium high, unless you're in a hurry, then crazy high) and go find something else to do for about 40 minutes to an hour.
  • Ta da! Roasted veges.
  • To get a nice crisp edge, I cheat by grilling my potatoes for about five minutes prior to serving. This is a bit better for my heart than using heaps of oil and butter, which is how most of the roasting recipes I've seen tell me to get that crisp edge.
  • Serve with other yummy things, but, most importantly, lots of condiments. In the photo below, we have tomato sauce, chilli sauce, wholegrain mustard, Colman's mustard and spiced carrot chutney.

I'm submitting this recipe to Weekend Wokking, a world-wide food blogging event created by Wandering Chopsticks celebrating the multiple ways we can cook one ingredient.

The host this month is White on Rice Couple.

If you would like to participate or to see the secret ingredient, check who's hosting next month.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Comfort food: chao ga (rice congee with chicken)

After my last post, I am struggling to write new posts. Below is something I drafted a while ago, and had not quite got around to pressing the 'publish post' button. It is appropriate because it is a recipe for the ultimate comfort food - chao ga (rice congee with chicken).

I have mentioned before that when I am feeling sick, I want to eat chao - rice congee. If I am at home, my mother would cook this for me; although after I moved out of home, I did not tell my mother when I was sick because she would berate me. Because somehow, I am to blame if I catch a cold.

More than a month ago now, I had the flu. It was awful. For one day, I was in bed tossing and turning, moaning deliriously. I could have been a heroine in a Jane Austen novel, and soon the man of my dreams would leap onto his horse to ride hastily with news for my family of the dire state I was in. In reality, the man of my life telephoned work to tell them I was ill and to ask someone to re-arrange a few appointments for me.

When I recovered, I had a lingering cough, so I did not telephone my mother to speak with her for a while. After a few weeks passed, and with the cough still present, I had to call my mum. So I did. The phone rang and rang. It's terrible of me, but I was glad she was not at home. So I rang my brother to have a chat with him, but he was not at home either. Next, I tried my sister. Thankfully, she was at home, otherwise I would have got all morose.

I hoarsely chatted to my sister, coughing and spluttering occassionally. She asked me about the cough and I told her that I had been so sick that I had taken a week - an entire week! - off work, and that I spent most of the time in bed, unable even to read. She commiserated. Suddenly, I blurted out, "But don't tell Um! Don't tell her I was that sick. She'll worry."

On one of the days I was home from work, I made a huge pot of chicken congee. I think it cured me (minus that lingering cough).

For the congee:-

  • 200gms chicken (whatever part suits you. I used breast, but thighs would also have been great).
  • Garlic
  • Ginger, about a cm of, sliced
  • Carrot, one, diced
  • Fish sauce, splash
  • Jasmine rice, a cup of, or thereabouts
  • Water, a lot
  • Coriander for garnish
  • Ngo gai (perennial coriander, also known as sawtooth or Thai coriander. I don't know why it's called Thai coriander because coriander coriander is also used in Thai cooking, and ngo gai is used in Thai and Viet cooking (and possibly other cuisines, I just don't know). Probably has other names too.)
How to cook it:-
  • In a decent sized saucepan and on medium heat, saute the garlic in as small amount of oil as you can manage.
  • Toss in the rice and stir it quickly around the saucepan.
  • Pour in enough water to thoroughly cover the rice.
  • Add your chicken, ginger and carrot.
  • Pour in enough water to cover everything.
  • Let the whole mixture boil briskly for about ten minutes.
  • Extract the chicken. Let it cool, then tear into strips and put back into the saucepan.
  • Turn the heat down and let the chao simmer until the rice grains have taken in so much water that they cannot take anymore. You cannot leave the saucepan - you can wander away but you must not forget it. You will need to keep topping up with water, so have some pre-boiled water handy.
  • When the chao is the consistency you like - my Ba and I are at the extremities of the chao consistency spectrum: he prefers his rice grains a bit al dente and his water a clearish broth; I prefer my rice grains thoroughly soft and the chao water thick with the broken up, water sodden rice grains - add a splash of fish sauce. For the way my Ba likes chao, the simmering part only takes about 15 minutes. For the way I like chao, the simmering takes an hour.
  • Turn the heat off, let cool for about 5 minutes and then serve into nice bowls, with garnish, cracked pepper and soy sauce.

Easy as!

Although, given that I crave this when I am sick, it is sometimes just too much effort and I will pout instead. Does not work to make my tummy full, but makes me feel a bit better.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


I have some dear friends, who were outrageously joyous with their first pregnancy. Sadly, my dear friends lost their newborn baby. I have no words sufficient for their loss.

They are both the most beautiful people I know. They are both people who have many friends, and many people, the world over, are thinking of them and mourning with them, now, as I write this.

I got the news while at work. Today, was a thoroughly terrible day at work; my neat plans for what I needed to get done were completely derailed by an extremely complicated and extremely urgent matter, in which lawyers from three different departments at my firm were roped into advising the client. I worked through lunch, which is a pretty rare occurrence for me. After lunch, I logged into my email. I have been checking my email assiduously, waiting for their news. There, was the most heart-wrending email I have ever read. I read it twice over and burst into loud, wracking sobs.

It was a brave, beautiful email.

I did, and could do, nothing for half an hour. Then I rang my partner. Then I rang a mutual friend. Then I gritted my teeth, dried my eyes and got on with my working nightmare of a day.

There was enough to keep me busy and distracted, but when I sat in a telephone conference with the client, in the space between words, my mind drifted away from my work and my thoughts drifted over to my friends. It was hard work reigning myself in. Sudden tears would have been incomprehensible.

I worked to an ungodly hour, for me, tonight. And when I finally packed it in and cycled home, I cycled in a hazy blur. I'm not sure, exactly, what I am crying for. My friends, I think. How much they must hurt. The senselessness. The unfairness.

I am at home, alone, tonight. I have cast about for whom to call, and who to talk to. But what I really want is to sit in silence for my friends. I want to sit with other friends, who know these friends, and we will sit in silence together. And that is all we can do.

None of it, absolutely none of it, is adequate.

Please don't comment on this post. I don't feel that it would be right. I know that you, too, on reading this will feel sorry and awful and sad. And that's fine. And normal. And maybe it's unfair of me, after needing to reach out like this, not to let you reach back. Just spare a silent thought for this loss. That will be enough. Except that nothing, really, is enough.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Book Meme

I found this meme while rooting around the archives of The Hidden Side of a Leaf -a blog I stumbled on because I liked the blog title. I was sort of hoping it would be a photoblog, but was nevertheless pleassantly surprised to find that it was a book-blog.

I have not written a post for a while, especially not one about books. Partially, this is because I have not been reading as much as I would like to. Partially, this is because I feel like I should review 'Growing Up Asian in Australia', but I do not think I am capable of it. No distance, you see.

So, a meme to jolt me along.

The breakfast table read:

On weekday mornings, I am invariably running late. I sometimes lackadaisacally flick through the various magazines we get delivered to our home - The Economist for news and then all the magazines that go with all our memberships: hiking magazines, human rights magazines, history magazines, wildlife magazines. I just look at the pictures. Sometimes, especially in the Economist, I stare at the advertisements, trying to understand what it is that they are appealing to. Usually, there is a picture of an actor posed somewhere luxurious - the colours and background are muted and neutral, but the actor is in sharp focus, doing something iconically that actor-ish. I cast around and around the advertisement looking for the luxury item I am being sold - sometimes it is a chain of hotels, sometimes, an airline, sometimes luggage. All the advertisements look the same, and I cannot imagine myself wanting to stay in that hotel, or use that airline, or carry that kind of luggage.

On weekend mornings, I read the backlog of magazines with slightly more attention, although of late, my news-reading has been marginal, at best. I fear I am turning into an old lady: I go for the book and movie reviews, then cooking, then gardening. My news, I now read online throughout the week, through an RSS feed, through blogs.

The to-go read:

I like to have a paperback with me wherever I go. It has to be light and thin, but it does not have to be light-weight reading. At the moment, my to-go read is Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev by Robert Dessaix.

My to-go reads often don't get read when I am on the go. I have excessive ambitions about what I can read when I am on the go. Thus, Twilight of Love was my to-go read sometime last year: I picked it up, threw it into my bag but somehow it ended back on the shelf. It was quite exciting to pick it up again and discover a postcard slotted in there as book mark - a postcard from Winchester, one of our first UK tourist visits.

The bathroom read:

When I (or someone more pragmatically minded and ingenious than me) finally invent(s) my magic book protector-cum-page-turner, I will read in the bathroom. Otherwise, I will not.

The read-aloud:

Occassionally, I read poetry aloud, to myself. Poetry is meant to be read aloud.

My current book of poetry is by Bryan Thao Worra. In quiet moments, I pick up my copy of The Other Side of the Eye, which has been inscribed in the front by Bryan (thank you, Bryan, for your lovely note) and read a piece, firstly to myself, and, if no one is around, aloud. I try to mimic how it would be presented, guessed from photos of Bryan: his gestures and the shape of his mouth. I wish I could see him read his own poetry, in person.

The main read:

My main reads change. I have a lot of main reads at the same time. They change and they accumulate. I will have a main read, and then get a to-go read, which becomes a must-finish read, thereby converting it into one of the main reads.

The most recent was The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, a man who is much, much too clever. The Golden Gate is a novel in iambic tetrameter. Now, really, Mr Seth, must you? It is excellent, and funny, and sad. And even his autobiographical note is in iambic tetrameter. And chuckle-worthy.

The work read:

I read all the time at work: letters, cases, articles, pleadings, journals.

I often get aggravated by the things I read at work, for a variety of reasons: because I disagree with it; because the writer has confused effect and affect (argh!); because it is poorly written; because the author is someone who makes me sigh in frustration. So many reasons.

My recent aggravation came from a facsimile, the gist of which was, "We're just writing to let you know we represent the guy on the other side, 'kay?" What was aggravating about that? It was headed URGENT FACSIMILE TRANSMISSION. No, that communication is not. Reception telephoned me, rather than dropping the fax into my pigeon-hole for me to pick up at my leisure as would usually occur, to tell me I had an Urgent Fax. Naturally, I stopped doing what I was doing and traipsed over to Reception to collect the Urgent Fax, only to read its complete mundanity. Stupid people. Learn to prioritise and look the word 'urgent' up in the dictionary. I am tempted, but not rude enough (and I have other things to do), to fax back a letter with the heading FOR THE IMMEDIATE ATTENTION OF: and a photocopy of the relevant page in The Oxford English Dictionary. Churlish, yes. Unjustified? No.

The travel read:

I like to have a mix-up for my travel reads: I like a collection of short stories, a non-fiction and one or five novels (depending on length of travel and activity/ies to be engaged in). Sometimes, one of my novels will be a children's story or (gulp) romantic fiction by Katie Fforde. Ms Fforde is fantastic for long-haul flights and my (no-longer) secret, guilty, pleasure read.

My current collection of short stories is The World and Other Places by Jeanette Winterson. My current non-fiction is Wanderlust: The History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit (although I have to admit to such a long pause in reading it, that it almost qualifies as ceasing to read it altogether, except that, in my head, I'm still reading it) and Flights of Fancy by Peter Tate, which sort of also belongs in the short stories collection because each chapter is on one bird, and I feel I can read chapters in whichever order, at my leisure.

New category - the audiobook:

I don't get along with audiobooks.

I tried when I first started driving a car, and was reading less because I was spending less time on public transport. It did not feel right, and the voices annoyed me. Plus, I found my mind wandering.

I tried again recently when I was really, really ill for a week at the end of winter, beginning of spring. I listened to old-school mysteries because I was too sick to read. I'm not sure I'd do it again, though.


Do you like this meme? Do you want to do it? Go right ahead. And let me know in my comments.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Weekend Wokking 1: Asparagus

So, Wandering Chopsticks has a blog event: Weekend Wokking.

Now, I love blog events, but I'm crap at entering them because, well, they occur too frequently. And frequency is not one of my blogging strong points (had you noticed?). But this event is MONTHLY. I can do monthly. Perhaps...

What I can't do, is use a wok in the UK. This is because we left our wok back home. It's a proper steel wok, that my partner got given as a present when he moved out of home. When I moved out of home, my brother and his-then-girlfriend-now-wife gave me a rice cooker and a 25kg bag of rice. One of my sisters gave me a block of knives (without telling my mother because giving knives as presents is a Viet no-no).

Also, we do not have gas - we have a weird electric stove top thing. The first night that I cooked on it, I was very upset: my rice noodles overboiled and spilt all over the stove top and I freaked out about whether or not the stain would come off. All throughout dinner, I was very, very quiet. This is not a good sign with me. I am a chirper. I chirp away on most occassions. Being quiet is indication that Something Is Wrong. I tried to be chirpy and happy because it was our first home-cooked dinner, in our new house, but I was already worrying about not getting our bond back for having ruined the stove top.

There's a happy ending: the over-boiled rice noodles water just wiped away real easy like.

Since moving into our new house, we have got what I always wanted but never bothered with in Australia and did not get in the little flat - organic veg box home delivery. In Australia, we enjoyed our regular traipse down to the Green Markets so much that getting a veg box home delivered would have spoiled the fun. In the little flat, there was no way the veg-box would actually get delivered to us, and no guarantee that someone else would not take our veg-box goodies.

One of the (many) wonderful things about veg-box home delivery is the seasonal produce. And currently in season, in the northern hemisphere, is asparagus.

Did you know asparagus makes your wee smell funny? And, though it makes everyone's wee smell funny, only about 40% of the population can smell the asparagus-wee-smell. Don't believe me? Surely you believe wikipedia? So, for all those participating in Wandering Chopsticks' Weekend Wokking for May/June, there will be a confluence of asparagus-smelling-wee. Great, huh?

Wandering Chopsticks informs me that a wok is not necessary for Weekend Wokking and, therefore, my entry follows below. It is a pretty pathetic entry, because I only had this weekend. Had I a whole month, I might have come up with something more interesting. I did not do anything special with the asparagus - just cooked it ever so slightly, to enjoy its full, fresh flavour. So, this probably doesn't count as an asparagus recipe, but I'm submitting it anyway. Just to get started.

Weekend Fry-up with vege sausages, asparagus, grilled tomato, eggs over-easy and a kohl-rabi & snow pea salad

Weekends are for long breakfasts. I love hot cooked breakfasts. Weekday mornings are for eating something nutritious and then rushing to work. Weekend mornings (if we're not rushing to some fun activity) are for lingering over breakfast, newspaper spread out, chilled music playing.

What you will need for two breakfasters:-

The Fry-up
  • Sausages
  • One medium onion, sliced
  • Eggs (one per person, or more if your persons are greedy)
  • Tomato (half per person)
  • Fresh asparagus spears
  • Non-stick saucepan or griddle, if you're brave. I covet griddles, but have not yet purchased one.

The Salad

  • Dressing: wholegrain mustard, extra virgin olive oil, cider vinegar, cracked pepper
  • Cherry tomatoes, a handful, halved
  • Kohl-rabi, about the same amount as your cherry tomatoes, diced
  • Snow peas (mange-tout for the British, and maybe elsewhere too, I don't know!), roughly same amount as cherry tomatoes, cut into little bits
  • Red capsicum (or red pepper for you English and Americans), same amount as cherry tomatoes, diced
  • Lettuce leaves (I used baby gem, but any will do)
  • A bowl
What to do:-

The key to a good fry up is timing. I used vege sausages, which take longer to cook on lower heat than meat sausages, so bear that in mind if you're going to replicate this with meat.

Make the salad first. In the bowl in which you will mix your salad, take a teaspoon of wholegrain mustard and mix with a teaspoon of oil. When well blended, add a dash of vinegar and whizz like a maniac. Now add in your halved cherry tomatoes, diced kohl-rabi, snow peas and capsicum. Grind some black pepper in.

Wash the lettuce leaves and leave to dry.


Slice onion, and fry with a small amount of oil. Before the onion gets translucent, add the sausages and let fry on a low heat, checking and turning every now and then.

Halve a tomato and place cut side down onto the saucepan. Push it about it bit to make sure it doesn't stick to the pan, but otherwise ignore.

Wash asparagus. Holding firmly in the middle, break off the woody end. Wherever it snaps, thus is your asparagus. If the whole spear bends, you do not have good asparagus.

When the sausages are brown all around, add the asparagus spears. Cover saucepan with a lid so that the asparagus cooks through in a steamed fashion. Remove and place onto pre-warmed serving plates.

Flip tomato onto its round outside. Push sausages, onion and tomato to one side, so that there's enough room to fry some eggs. Break eggs carefully into saucepan and don't let them mix with the sausages, onion or tomato. When the albumen has turned from translucent to white, turn the heat off and flip over to get that over-easy feeling.

Arrange your plates: lettuce leaves on one edge, forming a bowl for the salad. Asparagus on the other edge, sausages etc in the middle. Serve with crusty bread, chutney, chilli sauce and soy sauce for the egg, if you're me.

Have understanding partner on hand, who will wait while you take some photos of breakfast before digging in. Understanding partner will laugh at the soy sauce. This is permissible, provided it is done with a measure of affection. No mockery allowed.



I'm submitting this recipe to Weekend Wokking, a world-wide food blogging event created by Wandering Chopsticks celebrating the multiple ways we can cook one ingredient.

The host this month is Wandering Chopsticks.

If you would like to participate or to see the secret ingredient, check who's hosting next month.

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