Sunday, February 17, 2008


When we moved to England, I knew that we would be moving to a smaller place. One of the things that I hoped living in a smaller space would do, was to make me reduce my tendency to hoard things, to rationalise my consumer desires and to become a bit 'greener'. For starters, we would not have a car, and we would not be buying one. For another, we would be hanging out with my family less, so we could consume less meat. To be honest, that was about the extent of how I thought the way we lived our lives day-by-day would change in coming to the UK. I can be a bit blithely naive sometimes.

One of the first things that shocked me about the UK was how many chain stores there were, how enormous the supermarkets were, and how I could not find a greengrocer. It was awfully hard finding a cafe, that was not Costas or Nero or Starbucks. Like a country bumpkin, I stood in one humungous Asda (ultra-supermarket) and just stared at how large it was. It was, perhaps, my old local supermarket (which was inner-city and reasonably large) squared, or maybe even cubed. It was, like, really, really BIG.

Initially, we bought fruit and veggies from the supermarket and bemoaned the packaging. Everything was wrapped in plastic and/or came on a plastic tray. For the month or so that I was jobless, I wandered the streets collecting groceries. I found one greengrocer but he was about a mile and a half from where we were living, and not particularly good. We found an organic supermarket and greengrocer but they were on a farm, about two miles from the nearest train station, and not a very popular station at that (the train only stopped there at random times, when the driver felt like, I suppose). We visited once, trekking across a cow field and getting our shoes all muddy, to buy our groceries. We did pass a quaint church and a toll bridge across a lovely patch of water. But it wasn't really going to become our regular grocery shop.

Then we moved into our Little Flat, and I got A Job, and convenience became the key priority. I found a supermarket nearby work, which I would visit in my lunch times because I had not yet made friends with my workmates and did not have a lunch time companion or three (is that a violin I hear?). I started buying groceries randomly - whatever would fit in my bag, whatever caught my eye, whatever was on special. I would place on the conveyor belt an onion, three tins of tomatoes, lentils, laundry detergent and ginger beer. The next day, I would buy yoghurt, a bag of apples, a bag of parsnips, cleaning cloths and two boxes of veggie sausages. This went on for a good couple of months, until my workmates starting coming to the supermarket with me, because it was clearly the funnest thing to do at lunchtime. Eventually, I felt sorry for them and started having lunch with them and not frequenting the supermarket so often.

And our waste! Vegetables surprised me by going rotten much more quickly than in Australia. The potatoes I bought would sprout green tendrils, which meant I should not eat them, or feed them to my partner and, at the time, only friend in England. If he died, who would I talk to? Broccoli turned yellow and carrots went floppy. Did you know it was really difficult to find cauliflower which was not already brown at the edges? (Well, it was. I tried. I *love* cauliflower.) There I was, thinking that the cooler weather meant veggies would last longer. Alas, not so. Food miles made their detrimental effect on the food itself, and not just the environment, felt.

The cooler weather did enable butter to be left out of the fridge. That was very exciting.

In Australia, I did not worry too much about throwing out organic waste (rotten fruit and veggies) because we had a compost bin. It actually took us about a year and a half - and a birthday present - before we composted in a bin. Prior to that, we'd just been collecting the waste and occassionally digging a hole directly into the garden. This is what my parents had always done, and I never quite understood the wonder of the black plastic compost bins. My parents would collect all organic waste - cooked food, meat and seafood - in various buckets and bury it in the garden. I tried to do this when I lived in a share house (I ended up digging a deep hole and just adding to it, or collecting organic waste and taking it home to my parents). Burying compost is all well and good - but you need time. And neither of us had much of that. So the compost bin was a godsend. (Actually, it was sent by my partner's mother, together with red worms and a pitchfork. Probably one of the best birthday presents, ever.)

In England, we do not have a garden. We live in a Little Flat. I have never lived in a flat before. Our Little Flat does not have a balcony. Composting in a bin, or at all, is not possible. We mulled over the idea of getting an allotment for a while, but our weekends were jammed with rambles (hikes / bushwalks / tramps) and jaunts to London or elsewhere. I had, unconsciously, assumed that any flat we lived in would have a balcony and so I could get a worm farm for my balcony. Alas, no balcony = no worm farm. All our organic waste went into the bin.

This worried me for a long time. I spent long days surfing the internet for various indoor composting techniques. Everything came back to either the worm farm or some strange new-fangled thing called Bokashi. (Actually, there was also this electronic composter thing, but it cost 300 US dollars, would need to be posted to the UK from the US and just seemed ridiculous. It was not an option.)

Last year, after much discussion and net-surfing, we decided against both. The worm farm would still be too large for our Little Flat, and the Bokashi system still had the problem of what to do with the end result of pickled rotten veggies (yum yum!) Bokashi also had a problem of whatever those enahnced microorganisms were. I understand worms. I don't understand enhanced bran and molasses. And nothing I was reading helped me to understand. So we resorted to collecting our organic waste and giving it away to a hippie workmate of my partner's, who had not one, but two, compost bins. I also bought a compost bin and gave it away to another of my partner's workmates, as a bribe so we could occassionally dump our veggie scraps on her.

This system worked fine and dandily until my partner's workmate, inconsiderately, hurt her back and could not take the veggie scraps because she was not able to carry very much, and also not very often in her garden. In the habit of collecting veggie scraps, my kitchen bench had three plastic bags of rotten vegetables, the decaying process happily kicking in and organic juices seeping out of the plastic. It was, in a word, gross.

So I started reading about Bokashi again. And this time, one year on, many more people have it and have used it, and can attest to it. Since entering the blogging world, I tend to trust bloggers' reviews of products. I can guage how similar I am to them, or their process of thinking, by reading happily around their archives and deciding whether or not what they say can apply to me. I tend to search reviews on the internet and specifically on blogs.

And here's what I've found.

Basically, the Bokashi system of compost requires enhanced bran, and a plastic bucket with air tight lid (but preferably two of them). You put your scraps in a bucket, and sprinkle magic bran onto the scraps as you go. Once you've filled a bucket, you put the lid on tight and ignore it for at least two weeks. (Well, okay, you can't *completely* ignore it, because you have to drain it of juices every couple of days.) At the end, you will have pickled rotten veggies, which can be added to your compost bin, or directly into your garden. This end product is a problem for us - but I had the epiphany that it is a not dissimilar problem to the bags of veggies scraps seeping brown juices onto my lovely, almost always clean, kitchen benchtop.

Initially, I avoided Bokashi Man because, although he's a blogger, he was a seller of the Bokashi bran and plastic buckets. I thought he would be commercial. But eventually, I returned to his site and had a proper read. He is full of useful information, and is not just trying to sell his product. Indeed, he directed a person from New Zealand (we Aussies call them Kiwis, but I think perjoratively, so perhaps I should not) to another site from which they could purchase the product. He's also a decent read, once you get over your stupid prejudice (if you're me).

I also found very useful Clean Air Gardening and I think it, more than anything else, persuaded me, because it has week by week accounts of the whole Bokashi saga. Clean Air Gardener seems to drink as much tea as I do, his tea bag count in his Bokashi is of supreme interest to me.

I also liked Compost Guy because he's making his own magic bran. Maybe one day I will too. And when I do, Compost Guy, you will be my guru.

There were other random sites that I visited and which pushed me over the edge into Bokashi-mania. A tip I picked up, and which had completely eluded me until I read it, was that people in allotments would welcome my pickled rotten veggie scraps. Yes, even complete strangers would welcome me, carting my bucket of organic waste, with open arms and would not look at me askance for being so worked up about binning veggie matter. So, if my partner's workmates were not at home, or on holiday, or their bin was too full with their own veggie scraps, I could wander down to the nearest allotment and charm my way into someone else's veggie patch. Hell, I'd even dig the hole to bury it in, because I know how to do that sort of stuff.
I just haven't for a long time, that's all.

The final nail in the coffin, however, was that I could order the whole Bokashi system from Amazon, to whom I have already disclosed my personal details and who I know deliver reliably. Bemoaning the UK postal system is a whole other post.

So, I now wait excitedly and somewhat impatiently for my Bokashi. I know you too await with baited breath my next update. Don't. You already know it might take me forever.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Now it really *is* the New Year.

It never feels like a new year until Tet arrives, and speeds away again. Chuc Mung Nam Moi to all my friends out there, the lurkers (I know you're there!), the folks who stumble here looking for banh canh recipes (sorry, kids), and the randoms who post such intriguing comments as this informative snippet on my post about the ao dai:-

I like to wear comfortable dresses which I like to buy from Brooks Brothers and Old Navy stores through

Good for you, buddy. I decided not to delete the comment. When I first read it, I was very confused. Then I giggled. Ms, you amuse me for the left-fielded-ness of your comment. If we were having a conversation, I would have raised my eyebrow at you. But I am not fooled. I have not visited those websites.

This morning, I telephoned my family to wish them Chuc Mung Nam Moi. I had received, through my email, a notice for all and sundry to descend on my parents for the usual Tet festivities (food, bau cua ca cop, food, other card games, more food). Sadly, due to the lengthy commute, I had to decline. I have been trying to telephone my parents for the last few days to have our usual chat (time in our respective locales, weather, health, cost of phone call, hang-up), but without success.

I telephoned from my mobile, at work. 10am my time, 8pm theirs.

My brother answers the phone. "Hey O," he says, completely unsurprised to hear from me. "Hey bro," I reply, as if I don't miss him madly and as if his brief, prosaic emails to me don't bring tears to my eyes. "Happy New Year!" We both say at the same time. And then, because we have been brought up terribly politely, "Huh? What?" also at the same time. I give up on this game first, "Is everybody there?" I ask. "Yep," he replies, "It's really noisy." I laugh. I can hear in the background all my nieces and nephews squealing away, and talking over the top of each other. "Who's winning?" I ask my bro. "Grump is. She put some money on bau and it came up triples!" "What's happening now?" "Ba's trying to teach them cat te." "Who's he teaching?" "All the little ones: SpiderBoy, Grump, Princess, MyGirl."

Cat te (I have no idea if that is the correct spelling) is my father's favourite card game. I do not remember when he taught me; it seems as if I have always known how to play. Like riding a bike, I don't ever expect to forget. The eldest of the little ones listed above is 5. Cat te involves six cards, and playing tricks by suits, and a pot of money in the middle, called the 'heo' (pig), which is collected by the winner. It is a difficult game to describe, and requires demonstration. I like it for its flourish at the end game. I cannot imagine any of the little ones grasping the idea of the game. It's difficult enough teaching them the rules of 'catch'. Ba is an impatient man, but unnervingly patient when it comes to kids and card games.

My mother comes onto the phone. We deal with the important things first: (Are you well? Yes I'm well. What's the time there? Morning, and you? Night. How's the weather? The weather's sunny, and you? Oh it's been raining here non-stop!) I tell her that I have been trying to call, without success. She tells me that, due to the incessant rain*, the phone line has been playing up. The only way to get her is to ring my parents' mobile, or to ring my brother's mobile who will then ring her and tell her to ring whoever rang him. I have no idea how ringing my brother is an efficient way of getting onto my parents, but Um seems to think it is. I don't bother trying to get her to explain. I wish her a happy new year, and she wishes the same to me and my partner. Then she says something like, "Oh, I think that I... Old man, talk to your daughter," and the phone is handed to my father. I assume she has gone off to check how some food is going, but I cannot say for sure. I have the same brief conversation with my father.

*Yay! Brisbane, Rain. Yay!

I can hear my siblings in the background, and distinguishable voices float out at me. That's the Big Boss laughing, and the Accountant telling a story. I can hear the little ones clamouring for my father's attention. I can tell my father is distracted from our conversation as the card game is still going. I say goodbye, as I am at work and shouting Vietnamese in my office. It's not billable.

After I hang up, I sit still for a while, and stare out the window, re-composing Lawyer Oanh, as opposed to Daughter Oanh. I smile at the clear picture I have of my family in my parents' living room, seated on the ground playing cards, and scrambling noisily over each other whenever more drinks, more food or trips to the bathroom are required. I wish I was there. Suddenly, I begin to cry.

Unfortunately, my tears roughly coincide with a knock on my door, and I have barely any time to become Lawyer Oanh when The Boss walks in. I do not initially look up at him, but I know I will have to. I am one of those people who, when they cry, end up with red splotches all over their face. I still have tear tracks on my cheeks, my eyes are all red and swollen, my nose is running, and even my forehead is splotchy. I just know.

I take a deep breath and look up at him. The look on his face almost makes me laugh; he was just about to say a cheery hello, but has been arrested by my tear sodden face. I manage to hiccup out, "I'm okay. I just rang my family for New Year. I'll be fine in 10. Can I come see you then?" "Of course, of course," he says backing out, "Everything's really okay?" "Everything's really okay, Boss. I just miss them because it's the New Year." He looks at me oddly, and does not leave my office.

This means I have to compose myself in front of him. How aggravating. I take a deep breath, take my glasses off and rub furiously at my eyes. I put my glasses back on. I normalise the conversation for him: "Any new claims, today?" "No," he says, "The mail's pretty boring, actually." I can tell he is relieved and ready to pretend he did not glimpse non-Lawyer Oanh.

Then he says,"The New Year?" I smile at him. "Yes. It's the Lunar New Year." He still looks uncertain. Inwardly, I sigh. "Chinese New Year. But the Vietnamese have it too, and we call it Tet, or the Lunar New Year. I'd rather not call it Chinese New Year. Because I'm not Chinese."

Y'all have a good one.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Me and Hot Beverages

Just before Christmas, I sat late in my office waiting for the cleaners, so I could wish them a Merry Christmas. As I sat there I started thinking, what if they did not celebrate Christmas? What if I upset them? And I did not have anything to give them, either, because I had been avoiding the shops in the lead up to Christmas so I didn't have any chocolates or other sweets to proffer with my cheery Christmas wishes. Heck, I don't celebrate Christmas. I decided I would wish them a happy break. And then I wondered, do they get a break over Christmas?

After all this navel-gazing, I did not end up wishing any of the cleaners a happy Christmas / couple of days break / accidentally insult them, because no one came to clean my office while I was sitting there. I gave up, half relieved, half disappointed.

I like our cleaners a lot. We get along like rather apologetic houses on fire. Most evenings, if I'm here when they come round, there are a series of apologies. They knock on my office door, and I call out, 'yep?' which is what I call out whenever I hear a knock on my door, whether it's partner, trainee or cleaner. They all get a, 'yep?' The door opens a crack and a head peers in furtively. The head could belong to any of the cleaners who come through: the one collecting dirty mugs, the one who empties the bins, the one who wipes the surfaces, the one who vacuums. Immediately, the head will apologise and begin to retract away. "No, no," I call out. "Come in. Sorry I'm still here." They say sorry again and start doing whatever it is that they're there to do. When they leave, they apologise one more time for good measure, and I refuse to accept it and offer my own apologies. Usually as I leave the building, I see one or all of them again and say a cheery 'Good night!' and they say the same to me.

If the head appearing round my door is the person who collects mugs, she will say, "Any cups?" Sometimes she says to me, "You! Your cups! How many today?" I like the way she asks: it is playfully accusatory. I am guilty of collecting mugs. I have my first hot beverage in the morning before work; usually a cup of black tea. After the black tea, I have a cup of herbal or green tea. The herbal or green teabag stays in the mug and gets hot water added to it as the day goes on. At some point around lunch time, I have a cup of coffee. After lunch, I frequently have a mug of hot chocolate. Sometimes, when I forget to bring a water bottle, I have a glass of water. If I remember, I return my mugs and glasses to the kitchen as I go about my day. If I don't, the mugs collect on a little side-table I have, which is for my non-work things. I never, ever, put mugs or cups on my work desk. Because I will undoubtedly knock them over when I reach for the phone, or a file, or the Green Book of Relevant Legislation.

The mug-collector has started to learn to read what my collection of mugs means about my days. If I have no cups for her, she says, "Bad day, no time for drinks?" And I will concur, or I will chirrup, "No, I had time today to return everything to the kitchen."

Recently, she poked her head 'round the door and startled me. I looked wildly around for my mugs - there were three. I picked them up to hand over to her and noticed that they were all half-drunk. "Ugh," I said, "Sorry, they're disgusting." She looked at me amusedly and pronounced, "Today, you had a very bad day." I grin at her, "Yeah. Too many interruptions!" She shakes her head at me and says as she leaves, "Tomorrow you will have a better day."

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