Monday, July 26, 2010

In search of Mr Darcy

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl visiting Lyme Park must be in want of a picture by the lake where Colin Firth got his clothes off.

Lyme Hall is the setting for Pemberley in the BBC miniseries of Pride and Prejudice. It is a grand and beautiful building surrounded by parkland in the Peak District of England. The entire estate is known as Lyme Park, and although very convenient to reach by car, proved to be more challenging for those of us braving public transport. Leaving Sheffield at 9am, I caught a train to New Mills (1 hour), walked 20 minutes to the bus stop on the A1, rode the infrequent 199 service to Buxton for about 15 minutes which took me to the northern gate of Lyme Park. From there, it was another 30 minute walk through the park to Lyme Hall and the infamous lake. The lengths I go to to chase Mr Darcy!

I didn't see Colin Firth there, sopping wet, unfortunately. However, there were some very dashing photos of him in the gift shop. An entire wall of mugs, magnets, bookmarks and postcards with his face plastered over them in fact. And no, I did not buy any of it, in case you were wondering. That would be sad.

I promise to post some photos another time.

B xxx

Monday, July 12, 2010

What's the Rush?

There’s a very well-known rule in London that applies to the use of escalators. Stand to the right and only walk or overtake on the left. This is particularly important at the tube stations and at airports and if you dare disobey, the locals will tell you about it. Sternly. Even if you’ve clearly just got off the plane at Heathrow 10 minutes ago and you’re 85. What’s more odd is that in every other aspect of the city, the rule for traffic is to keep left. Go figure. But this post isn’t a rant about London’s strange regulations.

The thing is, these days, I’m usually the person on the left, racing past in a hurried pace, silently cursing those who have their bags or strollers protruding in my way. And in all honesty, I’m usually only heading to a gallery or to lunch or home. Why the sudden sense of urgency when I’m unemployed and on holidays??

While sitting on the train yesterday, having just raced through Bank changing from the Central line to the Docklands Light Rail and out of breath, I suddenly remembered something my local guide in Fez had said. “Don’t rush yourselves,” she said to our group, “You’re on holidays. Why are tourists always in a rush?” Until then, I was actually thinking why is this woman so damn calm? I mean, we only have one day in Fez and a packed itinerary and she’s there having a chat and giggle with her husband. At that moment, I realised how tense I was. She had a point, obviously, so I took a deep breath and tried to relax and go with the flow of the day. And you know what? We still managed to complete everything on the itinerary.

I was reminded of this moment while travelling to Greenwich, the place for which the term Greenwich Mean Time was named. Yes, ironic, I know.

If you want to slow down the pace of life, Greenwich is the perfect place for it. With its village-like feel, open green spaces and historic architecture, it’s practically enough just to wander the streets and markets. I resisted pulling out the smart phone with its Google Map function and opted instead to simply get lost. And when I did, I bought myself a cupcake. How can anyone feel frazzled when licking the icing off a cupcake as sweetly named as Strawberry Dream?

I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the many free sights of Greenwich – the Royal Observatory where I stood on both sides of the Prime Meridian (very cool), the Maritime Museum, the market (which apparently has been at its present site since 1700) and Greenwich Park. No map, no power-walking. I was finally learning to slow down and enjoy the scenery.

And just to be sure, I caught the ferry back.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Prisoner of Second Avenue

Today, my lovely and wonderful friend Renuka gave me a free ticket to the West End play The Prisoner of Second Avenue, showing at the Vaudeville Theatre and starring Jeff Goldblum and Mercedes Ruehl. This fitted nicely with the goal I set myself of seeing one West End show per month while I am living in London. For those who know me well, it would come as no surprise that the monthly target is not so much to get me into the theatre but rather to restrain myself from blowing my food budget and rent on seeing shows every second day.

In May, in fact just two days after I landed in London, my housemate and I saw Les Miserable at Queen's Theatre, followed by dumplings at Ping Pong. In June, it was Grease at Piccadilly with a travel buddy from Morocco, also followed by dumplings at Ping Pong. Sadly, there were no dumplings to be had today, but we did have Pret's under the sun, on the lawns outside the British Museum. It was a perfect summer afternoon in London.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue is a black comedy, centred around the lives of a middle-aged couple in New York City who are coping with city life. Set completely in their small Second Avenue apartment, the strain and tension of their lives coupled with the noise and claustrophobia of their setting, provides a perfect platform on which to explore the couple's ability and attempts to survive this world they're in. This is indeed a comedy, and Goldblum and Ruehl deliver faultlessly and effortlessly throughout, though they never allow this to cut through the realness of its themes, thus allowing the show to speak a truth that is relatable to many.

The Prisoner of Second Avenue is showing at the Vaudeville Theatre until 11 September 2010. Go see it!

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Moroccan Food

Moroccans eat well. There's no competition anywhere in the world, as far as I'm concerned. Their ingredients are fresh, the meals prepared with pride and precision. A tagine or cous cous, both common dishes in Morocco can take several hours to prepare and cook. The locals seem unfazed by this and day after day, spend much of their time in the kitchen creating masterpieces for their families or visitors alike.

But first, let's start with tea.

Moroccan mint tea is prepared from fresh mint leaves, gunpowder tea (a form of green tea) and a mountain of sugar. The intense sweetness can be overwhelming at first, but, for a sweet tooth like me, easy to get used to. I was served this beautiful platter at my hotel on my first day in Casablanca, but tea in this country is served widely and in all social and private settings.

Here is a pot of tea being boiled at a nomad camp in the Todra Gorge where we were welcomed by the family for a rest stop.

The market, or souk, is the place to go for your fruit, vegetables, meat, nuts, spices, olives and sweets.

These olives will make anyone salivate.

This man's tiny stall is taken over by the varieties of nuts.

Sweets anyone?

And you just can't forget the spices.

The atmosphere and the energy of the Moroccan markets, which exist in every town and city, can be electric for the first time visitor.

A typical Moroccan dish is the tagine, a stew of meat (often lamb or chicken), covered in vegetables and slow-cooked in a conical, ceramic dish, also called a tagine. It's standard practice to have six basic spices in these tagines, cumin, ginger, saffron, paprika, salt and pepper. There are also other varieties - kefta, which is meatballs with egg, lamb with prunes, or just vegetarian.

Now for something a little different, and one of my favourite local dishes of Morocco. A pastilla is shredded chicken and almonds wrapped in pastry then sprinkled with, oddly enough, cinnamon and sugar. It sounds unusual but tastes superb.

Avocado juice also sounds a little wrong but tastes just like a creamy thickshake.

And snails anyone? I wasn't brave enough to try those.

I did try a camel burger though. It tasted like beef. And onions.

If you're not entirely convinced that they eat their camels in Morocco...

I will end on this note - whatever the Moroccans choose to eat, it must be fresh. In the seaside town of Essaouira, fish is caught in the morning and cooked to your liking in little stalls mere metres from the water. It could well be in your mouth just minutes after that.

Hope you've enjoyed this post. More of Morocco to come!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Magaluf... Or should that be Nova Britannia???

If you want to see evidence of 21st Century British colonial invasion, go to Magaluf. Magaluf is a small town on the south coast of the Spanish island of Majorca. Don't let the sun and the sea fool you - today, the area is stripped of all its culture and replaced with fried British breakfasts. Ok, that was a bit harsh. But take a look at this.

Now picture it running along the entire length of the street, and around the corner, and around another corner. Only on the second evening did we meet a real life Spanish person. I didn't know places like this existed anymore, but apparently, there are quite a few such pockets across Europe, where the Brits flock as soon as the temperature hits double figures.

Back to my Magaluf experience. It wasn't all bad. I went for sun, beach, rest and food. The first two I got. The weather on the island was stunning. Clear blue skies and temperatures in the high 20s everyday. Perfect for swimming, sunbaking and frozen daiquiris, of which we had many.

We stayed at a resort called Majorca Rocks. It's a party resort, massive pool, giant screen, and hundreds (and I do mean hundreds) of pasty, sex-crazed, 19-year-old boys. And did I mention that the World Cup was on and we just happened to be there for the week England played twice? I must say, they did have a good set up for the World Cup. Everyone sat around the pool, 2 for 1 drinks at the bar and the big screen could be seen from most angles. As you can see, it was actually quite nice.

Until England scored their first goal against Slovenia and every boy and his dog jumped into the pool. Did I get any sleep that night? No.

My favourite part of the holiday was the two day-trips I made to Palma, a 40 minute bus ride east along the coast. The city is a large urban centre but has managed to keep much of its charm, particularly in the old city, where streets are narrow and windy and where I managed to get lost more than a few times. The cathedral dominates the city view and is surrounded by beautiful tranquil gardens.

It was while sitting in these gardens reading my book that I got chatting to a man by the name of Manolo. He was a horse and carriage driver and was having a slow day. We talked for a while as he told me about his other job, training horses, then were interrupted by a group of Spanish visitors wanting a ride. Manolo invited me to join him at the front, free of charge, and so I enjoyed the next 20 minutes taking in a tour of historic Palma.

I didn't want to say goodbye to Manolo but it was getting late and I had told the girls I'd be back to have dinner with them.

Speaking of dinner, when in Magaluf, don't expect to find much Spanish food. Do prepare yourself for pizza, omelette and chips with gravy. However, I did get lucky on the final night and found this beauty.

The BEST paella I have ever encountered. Almost worth going back for. Almost.


On Thursday, I dragged myself out of bed at 6am to line up for a ticket to Wimbledon. According to some bloggers, it's often hit and miss with this approach. In any case, I was never going to camp out in Wimbledon Park overnight. As all my friends here in London work on weekdays, I headed out on my own, arriving just after 8am in the queue. The previous evening, I carefully prepared my bag with things to occupy me - fully charged ipod, book, magazine and plenty of snacks and water.

On arrival, I was given a queue card, advising my place number, 485. A steward then advised that 500 court 1 tickets were up for grabs. Whoo hoo! I was then handed a sticker telling me I've queued up for Wimbledon and, get this, a 39-page 'Guide to Queueing for the Championships'. In it is a 'Queue Code of Conduct' as well as information about security and tips for your safety and comfort ("flip-flops and high heels are not recommended").

I'm pleased to say I did not need to pull out my ipod or book once that day. In the queue, I met a couple of lovely ladies from South Africa and a Belgian man also alone, who turned out to be the father of one of the players in the girls' tournament. An-Sophie Mestach is a sixteen-year-old tipped to be the next Kim Clijsters and she was scheduled to play a doubles match that afternoon. Her father was queueing up to get a ground pass for a friend as he already had his pass.

We were allowed in at 9.30am, but the first match did not start until 11am, which Court 1 didn't start play until 1pm. So I got myself a coffee and program and staked out a good seat at one of the outside courts in anticipation of Todd Woodbridge's doubles match with Jonas Bjorkman against Wayne Ferreira and Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Throughout the match, I had to pinch myself a few times to appreciate that I was actually at Wimbledon. Sure, I don't have the girls with me, as is usually the case at the Aus Open, but WIMBLEDON!! Sorry girls. Anyway, it was a fun match - being a Legends Invitation - and went to a tie break with Ferreira and Kafelnikov taking the honours.

After a break of strawberries and cream, I moved on to court 1, where I had my reserved seat, to watch the second half of a men's doubles match that I didn't pay much attention to. Next up was Clijsters in a mixed double against our own Rennae Stubbs. I was torn. I did find myself gunning for the Belgian for most of the match, as her energy was so infectious. I think the break from the game did her a lot of good. Her attitude is so much lighter and she had a smile and bounce for most of the time. She and her partner Xavier Malisse lost in two sets from memory, but it was indeed a great match to watch.

I had made a promise to the Belgian man in the queue that I would watch a bit of his daughter's match and so I made a quick detour to court 5 to see her in action. Of the four girls on court, she was certainly the strongest player. So you never know, we may well be seeing more of her in the future.

There's definitely a special feel about Wimbledon, something holy almost. Walking from court one to five, I walked right past Evonne Goolagong-Cawley, then immediately the Willams sisters' mum (but she's everywhere, right?). Looking up, on a balcony, was Lindsay Davenport preparing for an interview.

It was nearly 7pm when, having considered calling it a day, I heard that Martina Hingis and Anna Kournakova were playing together in a Ladies Invitation match on Centre Court. I had also heard whispers that abandoned seats for Centre Court were going for five quid. So back I went for one more match in Centre Court. I have previously seen both women play in person at the Australian Open. I must say, I much prefer watching Hingis to Kournakova cos, you know, she can serve. It was fun seeing Hingis back in action, and, like Clijsters, more relaxed than her usual self. It wasn't the best match to watch though, as the girls completely overpowered their opponents, whose names I can't even remember. They were both greying if that gives any indication. The match was over in about an hour.

I left the All England Lawn Tennis Club at 8.30pm, 12 hours after arriving. Excited, exhausted and sunburnt, I left the Wimbledon grounds behind me and caught the tube back home, carrying with me a bag of souvenirs. Ok, two bags.

So who's coming with me next year? I promise you'll have the time of your life.