Recently I turned my life on its head and left the comfort zone of home town, family and friends in Wellington (NZ), to start a new chapter in Western Australia. As I adjust to my new surroundings, I find myself thinking in the shape of stories and letters home. Feel free to take a seat and read on..

Saturday, May 28, 2011

They said it would take about 6 months..

The first time I gave up catering I was 35, single and burnt out.  Actually, more like a charred little heap of ashes.  It took a while between "right, that's enough" and "here are the keys, the recipes, the clients, and good luck"; and I hadn't given a lot of thought to "what now?" 
I had no idea what I wanted..  the best I could come up with was, whatever is next has to be something that's good for me.  As it turned out, that meant living and working in a retreat centre in the Coromandel for a year while I 'found myself'..  quite unexpected behaviour for a girl from Karori.
That fascinating and life changing period is now a distant memory, and I could write a whole lot more about it, but that's not the point.  
The point is; 17 years later, here I am again doing something unexpected.  Not for other people maybe; but for me, yes.  
After two more stints in catering; giving it up again (never say never); doing strange and wonderful things to food for strange and wonderful movies;   a character building diversion down the 'gourmet food & coffee to go' route; a brief encounter with nearly 3,500 pies; and numerous other food related career-type activities; once again I have embarked on a 'something-that's-good-for-me-whatever-that-means' type adventure.  
Having sold, given away, thrown away, let go of one way or another, almost all my worldly goods; I packed my little spotty hanky, and followed the talking engineer to Western Australia to start a whole new chapter in our nearly 9 year life together.  
Wise people told me; "it will take at least six months or more before you regain your equilibrium".  Wise people.
So here's how it's been lately:
Sunday morning I hang out the washing, smiling as I listen to the all denominations family service being conducted in the tree tops all around me.  First; the crows who um and aw in their old man voices; debating far and wide who knows what but somehow they decide who is right and move on.  Pause for a quick breath before the black cockatoos come shrieking in all aflutter and agog.  Natter, natter, natter and off they go..  not before the galahs have taken up the hymn sheets and away we go again.  It feels so normal.. and somehow mine.  Like being at a family get together where we all clamour to outdo each other with dreadful puns and one-up stories.  
Monday morning I stumble out of bed at the usual time of 5am, having drawn out the savouring of my cup of tea in bed as long as I can before himself says "come on, I have to get up".. and into the kitchen to get him some breakfast and a packed lunch.  I like "getting him off to work".  Once he's gone, now that it's still so dark in the mornings I may sneak back into bed for a while, but I couldn't possibly say..  
Later, I walk down the road to the local cafe to be greeted by a smiling face and: "Hi Harriet, your usual today?".. music to my ears.
Walking around 'Freo', someone asks me for directions, and I can help.
I'm no longer apologetic about my mangled vowels, and merely smile and repeat myself each time I get the puzzled, "sorry?" (have these people listened to themselves lately?)
I don't jump at every scurrying, darting, clattering shadow; millipedes on the toilet door handle are simply to be brushed off, not squawked over.  I do wear something on my feet when I go outside at night though.
Today marks 7 months since I arrived here; and it's OK.  Or should I say, "noa wurries moight, eet's awl goood".
More soon xx

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Singapore Fling

Last week I embarked on a little adventure I have been wanting to have for a while now. Three years, in fact.
So, I took myself off to Singapore to attend a food styling master class run by Denise Vivaldo  of Food Fanatics.   Not only was the course something I really wanted to do; but I also realised that at the ripe old age of 52 I had never been anywhere "foreign" on my own before.  
Anyway, the talking engineer is an expert in the subject of "I really need to do this and don't want to always wonder what if" (hello, we do live in WA now); so after some gentle prodding from him I signed up.  
Then came the preparation phase: the endless tooling around on the internet looking for the best air fare, the best hotel deal, things to see and do, and so forth.  Have I ever mentioned my finely honed expertise in procrastination?  Having paid for the course, it was going to look really lame if I missed actually getting there because I couldn’t commit to where to lay my head at the end of the day!  Finally I settled on the most interesting looking cheap hotel - hey, if you’re going to go economy at least pick one that will make a good story.  
Hotel reception at 6.30am
The hotel - The Porcelain  - is a recently refurbished old building with a blue & white china theme.  The walls & ceiling are all black and dark blue, and the lighting designed for ambience rather than good visibility.  How two people would manage in the room I have no idea- I had requested a queen bed so I could fit myself in diagonally if need be.  A second person in the bed would mean whoever ended up against the wall would either have to stay there all night or climb over the other one; unless you devised some sort of rotating roly poly system... basically this is a hotel room for solo tavellers.  
As it happens my bathroom walls were frosted - black - but some of the bathrooms have clear glass walls so you really do want to be very comfortable in your own skin if you’re sharing.  The wardrobe was just two hooks on the wall, but I had a little kettle & fridge, the air con was effective & quiet, and the shower had a huge overhead rose - bliss for regular cooling off and re-grouping sessions.  And given that Singapore is very, very humid and I’m a typical curly-but-always-trying-to -straighten-it haired sort of a girl, the crap lighting in the room proved a plus as I couldn’t really see how “bad” I looked.  
Be warned, there are some terrible reviews and some good reviews for this hotel - I had a good experience and would go there again.  I picked it for its location and it ticked the boxes for being clean and in good order, but I did make sure I had a room with a window and big enough bed.

Fort Canning Gate
Having been told how safe Singapore is, once I had arrived and settled in to my accommodation, at 7.00pm I set off for a walk.  If there’s an upside to arriving to live in Perth in time for the hottest summer on record, it’s that I didn’t have to waste any time getting used to being soggy and frizzy, and after three full hours of walking (and only going in circles twice) I was comprehensively soggy and frizzy.  Not to mention starving.  I found my way back to Chinatown, slumped down on a chair in the closest food stall, chugged down two beers, scoffed a plate of spicy noodle-y something, sent my beloved a text letting him know I was all right, and tottered back to the hotel.   
Sculpture Garden
The next morning I set out walking again - daylight gave everything a new perspective but I was able to recognise a lot of where I had been the night before.  Near to where I started from was a tiny bakery - I counted 6 people all working flat out in a kitchen the size of a shoe box - so I bought a coconut milk bun for next to nothing and was delighted to find it was still warm, light as air and delicious.  
After another couple of hours of exploring around the city, I climbed up four or five steep stairways into Fort Canning Park, and suddenly the noise and hustle of the city faded right away.  In this huge oasis of calm I wandered among beautiful frangipani trees, a sculpture garden, a heavenly scented spice garden,  an archaeological dig dating back to the 14th century, and caught glimpses of different angles of the city .  Eventually hunger drove me back out onto the streets and a plate of fried pork dumplings and bowl of hot & sour soup later, order was restored.  
Another shower and change of clothes - this was already wrecking my wardrobe scheduling - and I set out again, this time to meet Kirsty.  She was one of the course participants with whom I had made contact before leaving home, and we had arranged to meet up in Orchard Road.  This time I braved the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) and, as usual, discovered it’s easier to do some things than it is to think about them.  Kirsty was suffering, as I was by then, with puffy feet and ankles so first stop was for a foot reflexology & massage session.  There’s nothing like lying back on a warm bed with a strong man rubbing your feet to get the girly chat going - half an hour later we were all perked up and well along the way in the bonding process.  Now we were ready to eat.  So, back onto the train to Chinatown to meet Jazreel - a lovely, warm and generous local girl who was assisting Denise on the course.  She took us through a maze of streets and up several flights of stairs, sat us down at a central table, and said “wait there”.  So we sat there like Lady Mucks (or is that Ladies Muck?), while Jaz went around the hawker stalls and brought us a selection of traditional local dishes and drinks she thought we should try:
  • Agar agar drink - chin chow & chin chow with soy milk (like drinking worms!)
  • Hokkien Mee - prawn noodle with prawns and squid 
  • Rojak- a malay fruit & vegetable salad with pineapple & nuts and black sweet sauce
  • Popiah - spring roll with braised radish
  • Satay bee hoon - noodles in peanut sauce with cuttlefish
  • Steamed rice cakes
  • Chicken rice
Once we were done with the savoury - a lot of which I found surprisingly sweet - we moved on to a traditional dessert place.  Again, Jaz guided us to some typical dishes and we launched into the task at hand with gusto:
  • Gingko nuts with beancurd skin in barley soup 
  • Egg pudding with ginger juice
  • Ginger soup with glutinous rice ball 
  • Chendol : shaved ice coconut milk with red bean, atap seed, green jelly + chin chow 
  • Mango pudding with sago 
It was brilliant to have someone with local knowledge as a; I never would have found some of these places, and b; would not have ordered half the dishes she did.  
Then it was time to take Kirsty & Jaz to inspect my hotel room - Jaz had expressed concern about it, and was taking some convincing that it was all right and that I felt quite safe there.  We trailed up to my room and put her mind at rest; but given that there was nowhere to sit and we had had a rich and full (or should I say filling) evening the two of them soon floated off to wave down taxis and get themselves off to bed - not before photographing the ceiling light.  After all, it was a school night.
Day one of my course dawned and I was up and about early so decided to find the cooking school and then worry about breakfast.  First pop I flagged down a taxi and was at my destination in no time - 45 minutes early.  The only open cafe was an Irish sandwich bar - I have no idea what made it Irish but there you have it - so I had smoked salmon & cream cheese sandwiches for breakfast along with what loosely passed for a latte. Not the most memorable meal but it filled a gap.  What I didn’t know was that there was a beautiful breakfast with actual coffee being provided at the school.  Oh well, the good thing about me is I can always make room for more..
Playing in the lift

At the end of a very busy first day of class, Kirsty took me and Maria - a stylish and lovely woman from Milan - to Holland Village to look at the kitchen and gourmet food shops.  Put three cooks in a situation such as this and you can guarantee we will be late for the next date.  However, we found another taxi soon enough and made our way to the Pan Pacific where Maria was staying, and was due to have a drink with Denise who was also staying there. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t invited, but tagged along anyway up to the 22nd floor where the business centre bar was located.  For the next hour and a half Kirsty, Maria, Denise, and I had a lovely time drinking wine and swapping stories before Denise graciously bowed out in search of a good night’s sleep.  Kirsty and I hopped into the glass lift which is on the outside of the building; and around about then it became obvious why we weren’t staying there.  It’s for grown ups. But that 20 minutes we spent riding up and down taking photos of the view and getting incoming lift riders to take pictures of us was fun!
Seafood Hor Fun

Eventually we tottered off down the road in search of food - better late than never.  Having inspected several of the offerings on Clarke Quay we decided to bypass the tourist-y restaurants in favour of a ‘progressive dinner’ up the road where I had seen locals eating on previous nights.  First stop: pig’s intestines and sliced fish soup.  Next, seafood hor fun (ordered for the name), aloe vera and lemon drinks, and clay pot chicken rice.  Too much talking and finally home to bed.  

Back lit cankles
The next morning I said to Kirsty “when I got back to my hotel I started taking pictures of my ankles to show you, they’re so swollen”.  She’d done the same thing.  
It’s great to know we both really know how to have a good time.

Day two of the course and another busy and fun day.  Afterwards, several of us (Mary Kei from Dubai, Tanya from Russia, Kirsty & me) made our way to Jumbo Seafood restaurant on the beach front and the lovely Jaz sent us a text of what to order:
  • Chilli crab
  • Fried bun
  • Cereal prawns 
  • Deep fried baby squid
  • Garlic fried baby kai-lan (chinese broccoli)
  • Fish paste yu-tiao (seafood doughnut)
We may just have squeezed in pork & chicken satays and creamy lemon prawns to be completely gluttonous, I couldn’t possibly say..
After another great evening with a lot of delicious food and good conversation, we walked along the water front for a while - I guess in that kind of heat it’s not all that surprising that people were out barbecuing, playing hockey and jogging at 11.30 at night when it’s ever so slightly cooler; but all I could think was ‘my ankles are going to burst soon, I need to lie down’.  
Saturday morning and my last full day in Singapore, I decided my first priority was to buy a clean top.  The weather had played havoc with my wardrobe planning and my attempts at recycling sweaty tops had failed as I couldn’t get them properly dry in my increasingly condensation-damp room. With Chinatown right at my doorstep I didn’t need to go far before I found a top that I thought would do the trick - given that the criteria were basically clean, dry and big enough, it wasn’t so hard.  I completely forgot to bargain but I think the sales woman took pity on me and knocked a bit off the price anyway.  
Next; into the basement to the wet market which Jaz had told us was one of the “relatively clean” ones.  It did seem relatively clean although I was intrigued with the fish salesman who never let the cigarette out of his fingers the whole time he was handling the fish - the cigarette must have tasted a bit weird.  I was finding it all very interesting strolling about amongst the crowds of people doing their Saturday morning marketing, and it wasn’t until I got to the tanks of live turtles and cages of frogs did I come over all Caucasian and start to want to give them all names and take them home as pets.  I had quite an interesting internal debate with myself as I know full well that if you put a plate of one of those things in front of me already cooked I would eat it.  It was just that the frogs had lined themselves up in rows all facing the same way and looked so gormless...  I made myself move on.
Back at street level I found a juice bar and ordered a celery juice to see if it would help with the fluid retention - my cankles were getting out of control.  The memory of the sales woman miming ‘passing water’ will be an enduring one, and I will be eternally grateful that I knew absolutely no-one nearby.
My opportunity to do a bit of haggling came not long after when I found a dressing gown I wanted to buy for the talking engineer.  For me as the ‘first customer of the day’ the price would be reduced from $75.00 to $68.00.  Whoopideeskip.  I countered with $60.00 and then thought I should have come back lower.  $65.00 said the delightful-and-tiny lady.  No, $60.00 I said.  Then I realised it was all academic as I didn’t have $60.00 anyway.  So the delightful-and-tiny lady very helpfully closely assisted me to count out how much money I did have and we were both very happy with $58.00.  As I walked away I couldn’t help but wonder what I really should have paid.  However, I soon wandered into an Indian version of the same type of shop and was offered the exact same dressing gown for $120-but-for-you-$95.  
Snack time.  Another tiny bakery and a roasted chicken bun, coconut tart and egg custard tart later I was one very happy bunny.  The pastry was to die for - light, flaky, crispy, and warm.  
By now I had to get back to my room to shower - again - and change into my new, clean top and get myself to the Esplanade Mall to meet some of the course participants for a farewell lunch at No Signboard Seafood.  About a dozen of us assembled for a long and glorious lunch of:
White pepper crab
Chilli crab
Crispy chicken
Seafood claypot
Smoked duck breast
Cereal prawns
Hokkien style steamed fish
Think that’s all..    
A bloated stroll through some of the upmarket shopping malls and then Maria, Denise, Kirsty and I boarded the Hippo tour bus for an open, top deck ride all over town, stopping briefly to change buses for the heritage trail.  What a great way to get an overview of all the places I had walked, taxi-ed and trudged past over the previous few days and fit all the pieces of the puzzle together.
And then, of course; Raffles.  To be frank I wasn’t prepared to pay $25.00 for a drink I suspected would taste like alcoholic lolly water, so I ordered a classic gin martini which I felt was much more fitting for a woman of my obvious sophistication. You know - the wind-swept and interesting little tufts of humidified frizz on top of my head, the red plastic bag carrying the trainers for when I couldn’t walk in the nice sandals any more, and the ever increasing cankles peeping coyly out from the bottom of my jeans.  The skinny jeans that were getting tighter and tighter around my swelling calves.  It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it. And for our final dinner together with my new friends Jaz, Maria & Kirsty, we taxi-ed to Dempsey Road to The Disgruntled Chef for a completely different kind of a meal:
  • Grilled Ocean Squid with Tomato & Cucumber Salad
  • Baked Scallops with Vegetables & Truffle Butter
  • Baby Spinach Salad with Mirin Dressing & Marinated Egg
  • Beetroot & Orange Salad with Feta & Pine Nuts
  • Crispy Lamb Short Ribs with Chilli & Cumin
  • Baked Escargots with Garlic Butter & Croutons
  • Smoked Char-grilled Cote de Boeuf with Mashed Potatoes & Truffle Sauce
  • Slow Cooked Spiced Veal Cheek with Mini Yorkshire Pudding
  • Truffle Floating Island with Frangelico Ice Cream & Hazelnuts
  • Sticky Toffee Pudding with Vanilla Ice Cream
  • Chocolate Fondant with Peanut Butter & Banana Brulee
They don’t call me the Captain of the Big Girls Club for nothing. 
Jaz had booked us in to the 2am Dessert Bar for 9.30, but we lingered over our meal, which again we had left to the locals to organise and hadn’t thought to say “don’t give us dessert”.  So by the time we left I was well and truly ready to call it a night. 2am Dessert Bar will have to wait for another time.  
I said my goodbyes to Jaz, and Kirsty, Maria and I hopped into a taxi.  The driver seemed to be having a hard time making sense of our request to stop at first one hotel, and then another and then a third but after a lot of head holding and squinting at us he set off.  By the time we got to the first hotel I was sitting very quietly in the front, willing the car to get there; at one stage we were hurtling through a long tunnel and all I could think of was Princess Diana.  We dropped Kirsty off and set out again but at the stage when the driver announced that he needed to stop at the Caltex station to go to the toilet Maria called a halt.  This taxi ride is over! I don’t know what he was on but I was pleased to be back on the street.  Maria - have I mentioned she’s from Milan? - strode off down the road in her high, high heels and little black dress and commandeered another cab in short order, and from then on sanity prevailed once more.   
Kaya Toast
At the airport the next morning I checked in without any delay and went off in search of the Kaya Toast kiosk.  Jazreel had told me to go there for breakfast, so I did.   Kaya is a sweet coconut and egg jam spread between two layers of grilled white bread (more like half baked melba toast than toast as we know it) and served with two semi boiled eggs in a cup which you dip your kaya toast into. This all came with a cup of coffee sweetened with condensed milk.  As I munched my way through this intriguing concoction I marvelled - yet again - on how much of the food I had eaten over a four day period that seemed much sweeter than I would have imagined for a race who by and large are still very slim.  I guess it comes back to how, and how much we eat, as usual. 

Denise & Jaz - no, really
it's all going to plan

And as for Denise and the course? 
 Fantastic. Wonderful. Marvellous. Definitely can tick that off the list of things I would be doing if I wasn’t afraid. But I might be saving that for another story - I’ve sat here so long I’m eating baked beans cold from the can. And that's just not right. More soon xx

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Random thoughts crop up on my walks

Was it the fete or the gala that sealed the fate of the galah?  We may never know..  either way, it wasn't fair..

The Bizarre Tale of the Galah Tail Bazaar.. or was it a Gala? 

I probably should never take up drugs..

Starting again..

Roughly two months ago I wrote an email to "everyone" to say I had decided to put my letters home into blog form, the idea being that I would create a communal place to read about what I was up to along with photos and whatever else; and leaving the personal communications as exactly that: personal.

Around about the time I would have been pressing "send", the Christchurch earthquake struck, and whatever was going on in my little world seemed completely irrelevant at that point. So I decided to leave it for a while.

In the meantime I have had a trip home and seen quite a few of the people this blog is aimed at; came back with a cold, a broken toe and a buggered arch; spent a little spell dangling my feet in a black hole; clambered out of that (I really ought to look more carefully where I'm going); and so on and so forth..

In other words, life went on.

While back in Wellington, I was talking to my sister about the triviality of a blog about me while all around us the world seemed to be going to hell in a hand basket; and rather than wittering on about me, me, me, I should just be counting my blessings and "getting on with it". She told me about a friend of hers who had expressed similar sentiments and then come to the conclusion (with a little help from
her friends) that this blogging lark is all about creating a community. It seems to me that one of the greatest things to come out of all these natural disasters is the wealth of stories that have demonstrated over and over the power of communities pulling together.

So back to me.

I intend to carry on with this blog. I have given up on the idea of "trying to get it up-to-date" as that will just be a very neat excuse to keep putting off re-engaging with it. It is about me and my life in WA land and I hope you enjoy it.