Frites_Flagey_mayo

Fries. Frites. Frietjes. Call them what you will. They must be freshly cut from large, floury potatoes. Fried in lard until crispy and golden on the outside, and fluffy and scaldingly hot on the inside. Well seasoned with plenty of salt, and drowned in your favourite condiment. Mayo for the purists, ketchup for the infantile, sauce américaine for those with tastebuds ruined by decades of ready meals abuse and self-loathing.

Yes, this is them, above. The best fries in Brussels. I have been reliably informed of this by not one, but three separate independent native Belgian sources. Such is the power of Frit Flagey, in fact, that someone I have not spoken to since my early teens commented on these very frites on facebook:

Smakelijk!

Which more or less means tasty, I think.

You’ll find these frites at a fritkot on Place Flagey, the bleak expanse of concrete flanked on one side by Café Belga and the other by Brüsel, a welcoming bookshop filled with a vast and excellent selection of comic books. Frit Flagey is no happy trendy Shake Shack style affaire, oh no. No brushed steel or smiling assistants here. Be prepared to wait half an hour in the freezing cold and horizontal rain for your fries, for the old cranky unpleasant owner is slow. Meticulously, agonisingly slow.

Frites_Flagey_Shack

While you wait, admire the excellent illustration of a man holding a cone of fries with a man in it holding a cone of fries with…

Frites_Flagey_artwork

Oh Belgium. You surreal crazy little country you. It’s a good thing you know how to fry a potato.

Where: Frit Flagey, Place Flagey, Brussels

Tip: Don’t comment on the poor service unless you want to be shouted at. And stay away from the sauce américaine, you FOOL.

At the top of the stairs a fat hairy ginger cat lies sprawled on its side, head propped up in the manner of a particularly lazy, disdainful Sphinx, surveying his domain: train tracks heading off towards Lyon and Marseille, the murmur of conversations, the clatter of shoes under the metal beams.

I’m perched on a banquette and my feet hover several inches off the ground. The table is vast, generous; the linen thick and crisp. Our suitcases have been whisked off to the cloakroom and we huddle, dwarfed by the arches and gilding and statues of sirens fainting.  At tables nearby the maître d’hôtel is in a constant frenzy of steak tartare: some eggs whisked in a bowl, first, then a dash of condiments, and baskets of golden fries spinning around the room. He is small and neat, alert, genuinely concerned for our comfort.

What do we talk about? The light from the chandeliers hits our glasses of wine and traces delicate lace collars on the tablecloths. We read out loud from the little brochure detailing the place’s history. On the walls we recognise Orange, the banks of the Seine mirroring Venice for the 1901 exposition, an alpine lake. We weigh the merits of butter salted, and not, before wreaking havoc with the salt grinder.

We eat in happy, drunken complicity. We take our time and mop up the rich juices with crusty bread – like peasants, my friend says. There’s fish, mine on a bed of spinach and preserved lemon, and then a fig and raspberry tart. Outside, a lone palm tree curves against the sky – so delicately blue – and the sparkling roofs of Paris. It is impossible, I know, to freeze the moment, to stay there in that grand dream of a place, in that perfect Saturday afternoon.

With a few minutes to spare we walk down the steps towards the waiting TGVs and Transiliens.  We say good bye at the edge of the tracks, and everything, it feels, is brushed with sunlight.

Where: Le Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon, above the old section of the train station.

I knew I had a better story for the World Nomads travel writing competition.

Last year I went to Koh Rong island. Ageing Korean buses through the Cambodian countryside. Sugar palm trees and paddy fields, thin cows and sleeping dogs on the road. Karaoke blasting over the air conditioning. Shared pineapple from a plastic bag. A moto ride winding through Sihanoukville hills. 3 hours on a rusty ferry. Tree houses swaying gently in the wind, sand like icing sugar. The great mass of a buffalo swimming towards me, in the encroaching dusk, the bulge of its eye as it strains against the rope, how quietly it moves through the warm, clear waters.

I’ll write it another day. But in the meantime I’ve made a little video – all filmed on 35mm on my Lomo Kino. Hope you like it.

bla bla bla

I wrote a little something for the World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship.

Read it here.

My BMF* is getting married this week end. In Paris. It’s going to be a very civilised affair: the groom will wear a standard suit (“maybe no tie”), the blushing bride will sport a seven month bump, and from what I can tell the very extensive programme of activities will mainly consist of a quick dash to the mairie followed by a lot of champagne.

Vive la République!

Now that I’m living in London, it’s an excellent excuse to try the Eurostar. Yes, I know, the thing has been going since 1994, but I have never professed to be on the cutting edge of, well, anything really.

Observations:

1. The logic that made me decide to stay for a week to take advantage of cheap mid week tickets is flawed. Ticket cost: £70. Daily cake allowance: £10.50. Cost to thighs: endless.

2. Train station hell is the new airport hell. Yes, St Pancras is very lovely with its lofty high ceilings and exposed bricks and champagne bar, but get to the gates and all hell breaks loose. British people and French people queuing. TOGETHER. If I knew anything about physics I would make some sort of witty analogy involving neutrons and hadron colliders and things that explode when they come into contact with one another. But I’m not, so I will just say DO NOT CUT IN FRONT OF ME IN THE LINE, PUTAIN DE BORDEL DE MERDE.

3. Crowded train travelling at high speed in a thin man made tube under millions of cubic meters of salty water. Why can I take liquids on the Eurostar and not on planes? Discuss.

4. Since when is £100 worth €101? It is the end of days, people. THE END OF DAYS.

5. The Pain Quotidien at St Pancras is the most crowded of the food and beverage outlets. We belgo-french sneer at your Wheterspoons and your fish burgers. Your crappy conveyer belt sushi, too.

6. Let us not talk of the train boarding experience. It is similar in feel to being packed in a metal tin next to your fishy friends in a pungent tomato provençale sauce, but with the bonus treat of being shouted at over the intercom in two languages. And loud annoying people talking on the phone about “incentivising bottom lines.” And french grannies moaning and tutting. Gaaaaaaah.

7. The countryside between London and the tunnel is bleak.

8. There is a disappointing moment when you realise you are already in the tunnel under the sea. There’s no announcement, no warning, no klaxon. Just 20 minutes of dark concrete walls, during which you have to admit to yourself you were hoping against hope for see through glass walls. Let me also direct your attention to the complete lack of wifi or electrical sockets. You suck, Eurostar engineers.

9. The countryside between the tunnel and Paris is bleak.

10. Gare du Nord. What the actual shit. Welcome, wealthy foreigners! We are a third world country. Please donate your local copper coins so we may invest in, oh I don’t know, signage/waiting areas/soap/customer service agents who speak to the customer rather than each other/ceilings/trains. At least the Vigipirate** level was sufficiently low that there were no machine gun toting death squads military milling about for that “Welcome to Kinshasa” feel.

Anyway, I am here and enjoying a diet of mostly animal fats, so I doubt there will be much bloggage for the foreseeable future. I may do a follow up post on the wonders of Paris (cheap public transport! streets paved with croissants pur beurre! philosophy magazines at the corner shop!) but don’t hold your breath.

* Best Male Friend, not Bad MoFo. Quoique.

**Vigipirate is France’s national security alert system, intended to prevent or react to terrorist threat. Because nothing makes you feel safer than, hmmm, a vigilant pirate. Arrrrrrrr.

Whenever the grey and cold get a bit too much, I let my mind wander back to this:

The stretch of sea between Phuket and Koh Yao Noi was smooth and still as a lake. I’d read about Six Senses years ago, somewhere in the pages of a glossy magazine. The article described villas perched high on a hill, cooling private pools to linger in, a butler to care for guests’ every need – the sort of place, in short, I could only afford in my most indulgent day dreams.

I’d been restless about the trip for weeks. I’d quit my job the week before, and it marked, for me, the symbolic end of my stay in Singapore, an end to the weeks and months of anxiety, the endless hours in the office, my wretched health. I sighed as the boat curved before the limestone cliffs of Phang Nga bay, heading for the private pier of the resort.

How can I describe perfection? The villas were beautiful, little nests of day beds and mosquito nets, hidden behind bamboo walls and lush vegetation.

Every thing was quiet and welcoming. It would be so easy to never leave the resort. There is simply too much to enjoy. I could have spent half a day selecting a pillow from the extensive menu, or trying out the scented toiletries (lemongrass? aloe vera? unscented?), or playing chess, or learning to thai box or kayak or snorkel or…

I settled for eating my body weight in charcuterie and strolls along the private beach. The water itself was a bit disappointing, silty underfoot and not the clear turquoise of my fantasies. But the view was beautiful, the perfect place to watch the large, graceful hornbills who nest at one end of the beach.

The view was at its best from the Hilltop Reserve, a luxurious private residence that had just recently been converted to a restaurant and pool area for all the guests. I’d never quite understood the term “infinity pool”, until I floated in the hilltop pool, its crystalline water blending into the bay beyond, so that I was simultaneously towering above and part of the endless sea.

On Friday night, a large screen materialised behind the pool, with the moon illuminating the bay behind it, and the smiling staff brought round little bowls of popcorn to enjoy with the film. I sipped a lychee martini and watched The Devil wears Prada, acutely aware of how utterly, utterly spoiled I was. Did I mention the all day all you can eat free ice cream buffet? There were also cakes, biscuits and macarons if delicious home made ice cream in exotic flavours is not your thing.

I could kick myself for not having taken a camera to the spa, because it was glorious. Huge stone tubs large enough to stand in, massage rooms filled with sunlight and orchids and waterfalls, expert masseuses almost managing to send me to sleep.

When I returned to the villa, the staff had left a new bookmark in my opened book. “Slow Life”, it said, and this is, perhaps, the best piece of advice I have ever been given. I’d struggled that morning at the yoga class, my lungs constricted with the effort of clearing my head and forgetting about my daily worries, unable to fully appreciate the stunning view from the purpose built platform.

But as I sped away from Yao Noi, rushing in the dark towards the spectacular sunset, life suddenly seemed full of calm, and possibilities.

 

Where: Six Senses Yao Noi, about halfway between Krabi and Phuket. The hotel arranges speed boat transfers from either airport.

Tip: The list price for one night at the resort is a ridiculous £600+. I went during the rainy season in October, at a fraction of the price with an Agoda deal. The weather was stunning. If you’re a neurotic mess like I am, stay for a week if you can afford it, three days is not long enough to unwind and enjoy all the facilities.

 

In Edinburgh daylight is slow to come. I stumble around my flat, my body avoiding door frames and shelves, my fingers instinctively finding light switches in the dark. I can hear mice scurrying behind the skirting boards, in those still, wakeful hours stolen by jetlag. It’s almost comforting.

I have been back from Asia for three days. On Wednesday I crashed, literally, at a dreary airport hotel in Heathrow, wrecked with fatigue, exasperation at having missed my connecting flight, the sorrow of goodbyes. A mirror image of my trip out a year and a half ago. It is like being made to spin on yourself for several hours, then being shoved forward and asked to run in a straight line. The world, this new world of cold and grey, of strange acrid and smoky smells, is this my world? Everything is surprising and slightly off. I open the tap and ice cold water flows out. I cast around for somewhere to hide my food, then remember there are no ants to eat it. My skin is dry and stinging. There are no bottles of distilled water in the room, because tap water is good enough to drink. In the morning I wander to the nearest cash point, the cold biting at my skin through the inadequate layers of clothing. I marvel at the thick fog, because I had completely forgotten that fog existed.

For a few days now I have been reeling from the shock of this transplantation. I’ve caught myself longing for the days of slow travel, wishing I’d had weeks to acclimatise myself to the thought of going home, to soothe my mind and body with the slow progress of clouds on endless waves. Everything here is similar and yet changed, familiar but foreign, same same but different. The city, my beloved, sparkly, blustering Edinburgh, is greyer and dirtier than I remember. Dark corners and old men smell of urine and despair. The high street seems broken by the endless, aborted tramworks and the spectre of the recession. Everyone looks so pale, so sickly, bundled up as they are in shapeless, colourless coats and grim expressions. After a year and a half my feet trace the map of the city centre on their own; old routines and habits resurface slowly.

I miss the Siem Reap of ten days ago, the sweet salty taste of caramel cashew nut ice cream, the semi-darkness of the airport during the afternoon’s blackouts, the quiet, the warmth. I miss, viscerally, the Singapore I couldn’t stand to live in, the ridiculous glowy glowering mass of the Merlion over the bay, fatty porky lechon on the Esplanade, cold fresh coconut juice, falling asleep in the flickering lights by the pool as the city whispers and thrums around me.

I am, clearly, a miserable moaning git. I whine, relentlessly, about my trunk full of diamond shoes. I have the freedom and means to live and work in at least 28 countries, a passport filled with memories and possibilities, friends and family who envelop me in their warmth and shelter.  In a few days I start a writing course at Curtis Brown, and the thought fills me with pride and lightness and joy. There is no time for sadness, or regret, no room for self indulgence. At night, in the dark, I let the fatigue sink into my limbs, weighing me deep into the blankets, anchoring me from what is pulling at me this way and that, here and there.