A Restaurant Digest

Once upon a time in a previous life I dreamed of luxuries. These luxuries included such things as unaccompanied expeditions to shoe shops and/or clothes shops, attending the cinema and the theatre, stopping for coffee in cafés, having holidays, spending nights in hotels, visiting salons and, above all, eating out. [This was a life in which any journey must be prepared for by making sandwiches to eat in a lay-by].

In subsequent lives of course I have done all of these luxurious things. The clothes shopping is commonplace as is the coffee stopping. A salon visit is a regular part of life. Hotel stays are occasionally taken.

Despite all this, dining in a good restaurant remains the Holy Grail of luxuries to me.

I’ve posted my feelings about the fare in fast food chains before [Muckdonalds and Yucky Fried Chicken]. Macdonalds does at the least provide free internet and their coffee is acceptable, but their dining experience has to be one of the most impoverished and unsatisfying that exists.

Restaurant meals are about more than the food. Plastic trays with pouches of nasty, salty, fatty little chip sticks and polystyrene boxes containing polystyrene buns sandwiching rubbery, chewy little circles of something grey and burger-ish, the remains of which are to be taken by the consumer and dumped in a bin themselves; to view this activity in a place designed for ‘eating’ presents a vision of Hell. And yet Macdonalds is crammed with customers every day-in Gothenburg, where we stopped to get internet and a coffee, the place was thrusting with hordes of punters of every nationality-those who prefer this ghastly encounter to eating a sandwich on a park bench.

Some of the most enjoyable meals you can have are in modest, unknown, unadvertised cafes, cooked by untrained heros of the culinary world; like the meals we’ve eaten in Portugal, where you are plied with gorgeous nibbly things like olives and dips to sustain you while you peruse the menu and then a big box of fish is brought to the table for you to select your fancy. It will be simply cooked and presented with home-made chips, a salad and some bread.

Or a beach café in Thailand which serves up Tempura vegetables as a starter and the freshest, most appetising vegetables and seafood you can imagine, besides producing an addictive mango smoothie from nothing more than mango and ice.

So don’t serve me anything in a poly-box, or on a shovel, or on a dirty piece of wood or in a tangle of barbed wire [all of these methods of serving meals are being used as I write-including pork loin chops in a urinal]. Give me a plain, clean china plate and simple, beautifully cooked food served in a friendly, un-smarmy, unobtrusive way. OK?

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Downhill for Wrinklies

            In the photograph, we are both smiling. The image is deceptive. Husband is smiling a deep, broad grin, signifying his abject happiness with the activity we were undertaking. I am doing my utmost, mustering, at best, a grimace that may be mistaken for a smile, given that we were swathed in helmets, dark glasses and various items of protective padding. The snap was taken after I’d hit the rock that projected me over on to the stone-laden, rutted slope but long before we were anywhere near the base of the mountain; hence the grimace.

            The mountain was Mount Doi Suthep, just outside Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and we were being nursed down a rough, muddy, rock-strewn descent by two enthusiastic, young men. One of them, ‘O’, had the misfortune to be at the back of our group where he’d acquired the herculean task of getting me, the ancient, terrified snail of the group from Point A, the top of the mountain to Point B, the base via the horrifying precipices, ruts and mud that was the trail.

            To the young, Thai mountain bikers we were ‘Papa’ and ‘Mama’, titles we were to be addressed by throughout our stay. ‘We must look very old’, I remarked to Husband, although we were charmed by the term, feeling that it was some mark of respect. Within our cycling group of eight we were not only the oldest by far but generations apart from the other three youthful couples, who surged down, leaping their bikes over boulders and soaring over the ruts in an effortless glide.

            ‘Good, Mama!’ encouraged ‘O’ as I negotiated a successful transfer from one rut to another. He must have wondered if we’d be down before nightfall. At times we briefly caught up with the others as they stopped for a water break or to take some photos; then they’d be off before I’d got the lid off my bottle.

            When I think of that day now, I know I would never have undertaken the challenge if I’d known how difficult it would be, and perhaps this is one of life’s lessons-that ignorance is somehow bliss. I can now look upon it as a kind of achievement, though nowhere near the hard won achievement of ‘O’, who got me, ‘Mama’, to the base.

            I must also point out that ‘Route 1’, our chosen way, was the easiest option. Others chose to follow a route across the mountain which involved, at times, cycling a death-defying channel along the summit, the width of a cycle tyre and with sheer drops either side, or a route which involved carrying the bike for some distances and calf-burning ascents.

            At last the trail levelled and changed gradually to gravel track. It led to a beautiful lake fringed with little thatched huts on stilts. We came to a halt, shed our trainers and climbed, wobbly-legged, onto a palm mat around a low table, already decked with bottles of cold water and coke. ‘Which lunch option would we prefer?’

            During the next few days a circle of dark, black and purple bruises appeared around my thigh. Throughout the course of the ensuing three weeks it changed colour, but remained. Vestiges remain today-a bracelet of honour and testament to the accomplishment of mountain biking down Doi Suthep.

Long Live Story Telling

                Here endeth Fiction Month on Anecdotage. If you’ve read and enjoyed the stories, check out ‘The Year of Familiar Strangers’[by my alter ego, Jane Deans]-available to download from Amazon[http://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA]. 

; or send an email address on a blog comment to enter the draw for a free download before the end of December.

                Thanks to everyone for your visits, ‘likes’ and comments. I’ve been very pleasantly surprised by the response. It has given me food for thought. Stories are never going to go out of fashion and can be enjoyed by all, from the very young to the very old.

                Now for the confession. Besides the [very real] conditions of Alice Munro’s success and National Novel Writing Month I did have an ulterior motive for preparing all those stories for November. I was away. In an indulgent, luxurious, hedonistic moment last April I booked a month long trip to Thailand, which is where we have been while ‘Fiction Month’  was enjoying its own heady moment in the sun.

                During the last couple of years I’d become increasingly aware that a large number of friends, acquaintances and family members had been to Thailand, indeed many take repeated trips there. This intrigued me. Why was it such a popular destination? As usual, ‘word-of-mouth’, photos, books and the internet are not enough. I have to see for myself. November, a drab, colourless, draughty month in the UK, seemed a good choice of time, the three destinations we’d chosen would give a fair snapshot of this gem of the East. We would avoid a good deal of the welling Christmas frenzy and the long, dark nights.

                To arrive to Bangkok from the UK in November is to step out from a chiller cabinet into an oven and feels as if a hair dryer is being trained on your face. The first hurdle is to negotiate the winding pen that houses the immigration queue, the second the queue for a taxi, the third the hour long drive into Bangkok centre, where the traffic seems at a constant standstill in the shadow of the concrete, elevation of the sky-train. Despite all of this it is a teeming, colourful, chaotic wonder of a city with beautiful, exotic temples, tall sky towers, crowded night markets, waterways with packed water taxis, a wide, winding river, gaudy tuk-tuks, street stalls selling a fantastic variety of bizarre identifiable and non-identifiable foods-[fried locusts being a popular option], ‘Irish’ pubs, ‘Australian’ pubs, bars with tiny, barely clad girls, bars with less tiny, glamorous, deep voiced ladyboys and a vast range of restaurants selling some of the most delicious meals you could hope to enjoy.

                An evening’s entertainment in this whirlwind of a metropolis need consist only of sitting in a bar and watching the street activity, a ceaseless, moving drama playing out each and every night until late and followed in the morning by an almost eyrie calm, the streets having been miraculously cleaned and tidied.

                We stayed five nights, by which time Husband had developed a persistent cough as a result of the poor air quality. We moved on to destination two…