Shut that door!

This door is just opposite the door to my office.

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As I’m located at the end of a corridor I see a lot of people coming and going during the day, and most of them pass through this door to head out into the atrium and take the stairs or the elevator or exit the building. And about 70% of the people who pass through this door leave it open once they’ve gone through. This not only lets in cold air from the atrium, but also distracting noise of one kind or another from outside.

See, I’ve had to interrupt drafting this post three times already to get up and close the door again.

But I can understand people’s confusion in this situation. If only there were some kind of large, simple, visible reminder of the necessity to keep the door closed, then everyone would know what to do and we’d all be happy.

Holiday reading

Yesterday my book order arrived. This is the book I’ll read on holiday this Christmas. Yes, I plan in advance what I’m going to read on holiday.

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We’re going on holiday to Sri Lanka. This book is set in Sri Lanka. This is not a coincidence. I prefer to read books set in my holiday destination, for several reasons. Now admittedly on this type of holiday where we’ll be moving around a bit and exploring all kinds of natural and cultural sights I won’t have a great deal of time to sit down and read, although there’ll be a few days at the beach towards the end of the holiday when I can relax. But when I do get a chance, I want to read something which is about the place I’m in.

Firstly because this is a way of learning more about the country I’m visiting. Fiction can often reveal aspects of a culture better than a guidebook. But the other, main reason is this: travel is an escape from my everyday life. I leave home behind and go to discover somewhere new. This is also what I do when I read. So it would seem a bit weird to go on holiday to an interesting new place and then to escape from there into another new place in the world of a book. I want to stay in Sri Lanka, even when I’m reading. It’s not like I’m going to go back regularly. So it makes sense to read a Sri Lankan book while I’m in Sri Lanka. I read Ulysses while I lived in Dublin; I read Don Quixote on holiday in Andalucia; I read Cannery Row in California.

How did I find this book? Well first I had a look on Tripfiction, which is a site specifically for helping you choose books based on their geographical setting. For Sri Lanka they featured a lot of Roma Tearne books, but I wanted a second opinion so I did some googling and came across a book blog called Chasing Bawa which specialises in Sri Lankan literature. I narrowed it down to two choices: the other was Cinnamon Gardens by Shyam Selvadurai, but in the end I decided I wanted something more contemporary and less colonial.

I’ll post my review on goodreads when I get back to let you know how it was. And I imagine I’ll post about other aspects of the trip too. The food, if nothing else.

Drinking alone

Last night I spent two hours sat in a bar, alone. I don’t just mean that I didn’t have any drinking companions: I mean I was the only one there.

I’d taken my daughter to her stage musical rehearsal. Usually this happens on a Tuesday night but because of Armistice Day they shifted the date, which also meant using a different location for a change, so we found ourselves in the cultural centre of a small town half an hour east of Brussels. Like our usual location the centre had a bar. The difference this time was the the bar was on the ground floor and the stage was on the top floor, so I was the only one who stayed down there while everyone else stayed upstairs singing and dancing, only occasionally coming down to buy a drink and take it back upstairs.

I had a good book to keep me company, but still something about the place’s ambiance kept distracting me. In many respects it’s a typical Belgian café/bar. Not one of those places that attracts the tourists because it has 300 beers on tap, but one of the plainer neighbourhood bars which cater almost exclusively to locals, run by an elderly man or woman, decorated in varying shades of 1970s-era brown.

The barman spent most of his time pottering around in the kitchen at the back, although at one point he sat down at one of the tables, coughed repeatedly for about ten minutes, and then leant on the table as if to have a brief nap. Later a friend of his came in and all of a sudden he came to life and became garrulous and gregarious.

We have one of these bars at the end of our street. I only went in there once; just after we’d moved into our house. Everyone stopped talking and turned around to look at me, and the lady behind the bar eyed me with barely-concealed contempt. I haven’t been back since, although whenever I pass by, whatever the hour, I see guys inside nursing their pints, playing on the fruit machine. Some evenings I see one of them stagger out the door and weave his way up our street.

Some time back I found a website full of great photos of this kind of bar and I posted it to Facebook, but Facebook makes it very difficult to search back through your own timeline to find things again, so you’ll have to make do with the iPhone pic below of the seat and wall behind me. If I find that link again I’ll post it here.

A visual medium

I just finished reading Helen Keller’s autobiography. I love two kinds of books: those which explore new worlds; and those which explore our own world from a viewpoint substantially different to my own. This book certainly qualifies for the latter category. Here’s the review I posted on goodreads.

This autobiography is split into two sections. The first, evidently written while she was still quite young, covers the first twenty or so years of her life. What comes through strongest is her love of life and her determination not to let her blindness and deafness hold her back. The effort and patience involved (both for her and her teacher Mrs Sullivan) in not only learning to read, write and speak, but to do so in several languages (she learnt French, German, Latin and Greek) and to attend a “normal” university alongside seeing, hearing women is amazing.
The second is a series of articles covering different aspects of her perception of the world, and this for me was more interesting, as it was the main thing I really wanted to know about her. She has a sharp and perceptive mind and is adroit at using metaphors and analogies both to describe her own situation and to try to comprehend ours (seeing and hearing, as she understands them).
Her prose can sometimes be a little purple and effusive, which may be either a product of her time or a reflection of her literary preferences. Occasionally I found it distracting, but mostly it was just a case of getting used to it. I wasn’t too keen on her poetry, though.
I’d be interested to read something else, maybe more contemporary, on the topic.

The advantage of books like this is that after reading them you see the world around you a little differently. I started thinking about the nature of books themselves, and how my experience of reading isn’t all that different than Helen Keller’s. After all, books aren’t really a visual medium, are they?

Leaving aside the obvious exception of illustrated books my point is that, for all their visual and tactile pleasures, books don’t communicate their ideas through their visual aspect. Although the experience differs in some ways, listening to someone read the text out to you will have pretty much the same result as looking at it with your own eyes. The printed text is a delivery format, a way of transmitting ideas from the writer’s mind into that of the reader.

Compare it to the other arts: you can’t remove the audio component from music, or the visual component from painting, or the sense of taste or touch from gastronomy (if we consider that to be an art, for the sake of argument). The reader of a book is deaf, blind, cannot taste or smell or feel the world the writer creates and must have it laboriously spelled out by the author as they lead us by the hand through their creation. When we read a book, we are all Helen Keller.

Worms on toast

Earlier this year Delhaize, one of the main supermarket chains here in Belgium, announced that they were launching a range of food products containing insects. Obviously this attracted some publicity as eating insects is still a bit of a fringe activity in the west.

There are undoubted benefits: environmental, economic, health. But for many people the ick factor remains high. Is this because we’re used to seeing creepy crawlies in our houses and gardens, flying around or wriggling through the dirt? Do we still think of them as dirty (you know, as compared to pigs) and disease-ridden? A friend who doesn’t like crustaceans says that she sees them as sea insects, which is understandable to an extent. Yet most people make a distinction and somehow prawn cocktail is a thing but cockroach cocktail is not.

It does appear to be a mainly western attitude, as various peoples across Africa and Asia eat various kinds of land-based invertebrates without batting an eyelid. When we visited Thailand the markets were full of stalls selling insectile snacks, and we even tried one. It’s started gradually making inroads here, and in noma earlier this year we had a dish containing ants, but it’s still a novelty, and you still feel a bit daring for even considering it.

I think one of the other barriers to acceptance is the visual aspect. Many bugs are simply eaten au naturel or fried, so what you pick up and put in your mouth still looks very much like a bug. This needn’t be the case. If we seriously want to get our protein from this source rather than the much more wasteful and environmentally damaging cattle farming methods, there’s no reason we can’t grind it up and mix it in with other ingredients.

Which is pretty much what Delhaize have done with their new spreads. The packaging advises you to spread it on toast or sandwiches:

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The ingredients. Note that it’s almost 80% tomato, with only 6% “vers de farine’ (mealworm, the larval form of a species of beetle).

As I said, presentation is everything.

I got my daughter to take this one as proof that I’d actually put it in my mouth.

The verdict? You’d never know it contained anything other than tomato, at least not by the taste. I’d be perfectly happy to have more bugs in my food if this is the case.

For more on this topic, Stefan Gates made an interesting documentary for the BBC last year, which you can see in full here:

Restaurant Fuji

Yes, I know I said I was bored of blogging about restaurants, but I’m not going to make it through 30 days of blog posts without at least one or two mentions of places where we’ve eaten out. On Sunday we were looking for a Japanese restaurant for lunch when my wife remembered the name of a place recommended by the couple sat next to us at a pop-up restaurant we’d visited last year.

Restaurant Fuji  is a teppanyaki specialist and when I called to book a table they asked me if we wanted a normal table or one where the chef cooks in front of us. Guess which option I went for? Especially since that meant you got a yukata-style dining jacket to wear (perhaps to protect your clothes from sizzling juices spraying towards you from the cooking surface directly in front of you?)
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There’s the heated cooking surface, surrounded by chairs.

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We each chose a multi-course menu. Mine started with some tempura which had been prepared back in the kitchen.

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Then the chef came out and got to work in front of us, preparing my scallops and shrimp. As you can see and hear they make a bit of a show of it, tapping and clanging their utensils against the surface and each other to add a percussive musical element to the performance.

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A small salad with a surprisingly sharp yuzu-based dressing.

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More cooking. They usually incorporated some of this whitish-green coloured paste. When I asked about it I was told that it was “butter mixed with…stuff”.

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Melted.

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Poured over shrimp.

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But my next course was a thin slice of beef rolled around Japanese mushrooms, and a fillet of sole in an orange-flavoured sweet and sour sauce.

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To go with the noodles the chef span an egg across the surface, slipped his spatula underneath it and flipped it into the air. He then placed his spatula on its side on the cooking surface and the egg fell onto it, cleaved neatly in twain. He then swept the shells into the hole at the side of the table.

He made an omelette and then started chopping it into bits and flipping those bits onto the pile of noodles in front of us in one smooth motion. All this happened so fast that I didn’t have time to get a video, which is a shame because one bit of omelette overshot and ended up in our son’s glass of water. There then followed a game where he would flip a morsel of omelette into the mouth of each diner around the table in turn.

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The final noodles.

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And seared beef.

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The 5yo had a little trouble with the chopsticks. Often places like this have special children’s chopsticks of some description, but in this case they just improvised with a rubber band and some folded paper.

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Fruit and ice cream.

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Fun (no need to entertain the kids while waiting for the food as they’re happy to watch the chefs at work) and tasty and we’ll be back.

Vegetable picking

Yesterday we spent the morning at Marie’s Garden picking vegetables. We’ve only been there twice, but each time we say to ourselves “Why don’t we come here more often?”. The food is good and fairly cheap, and the kids love getting their hands dirty and seeing the vegetables growing in the wild. Plus they’re much more likely to eat things they’ve picked (or made) themselves. My parents used to grow a small selection of vegetables in their garden (potatoes, tomatoes, beans, carrots) but it’s not something we’ve ever done here in Brussels.

Despite the fact that Halloween has already passed we picked up a pumpkin, as well as a butternut squash. It was lovely to see a field of them spread out before us.

 

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Before we arrived we knew we wanted to get some kale (the website tells you what’s available according to the season), and I was amazed to see the size of them. A veritable kale forest.

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“Lovely crinkly edges”.

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Sprouts, of course. We are in (or near) Brussels, after all.

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Some of the leaves looked like someone or something had been munching them already.

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I love the way the rain water pools on the leaves, but we shook them off so as to avoid wet sleeves while we picked the sprouts from out underneath them. They were harder to pull off than I’d thought, and proved a little tough for the 5yo.

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Artichokes, which were not for sale. Shame: I could have made my own Cynar!

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