Witnessed today: sitting in the first floor of a café we heard a siren, heralding the arrival of two fifty something men, the type who have lank hair and T-Shirts stretched over grossly distended beer bellies. They made a bee line for a group of teenage girls sitting in the corner: one proceeded to tell them that he was the King of England, Richard III, and periodically pressing his little sirem-sound-making-device, whilst the other one put a plastic joke shop turd on his head and pirouetted around ranting and raving.
We sat there wondering is this really happening, has our coffee been laced with something exotic, is this some weird candid camera type tv stunt? Not to mentioning readying our best Anglo-Saxon in case they decided to attempt to persecute us.
Then, after approaching another group and being told where they could go, they pressed the siren again and announced ‘Time to go’.
Photos were taken outside (yet another) cafe in Amsterdam. I do do things other than loitering in cafes and blogging - promise.
We called this place the Schnoozy Puss café, as that’s how a handyman (who appeared to be paid in ice cream for his endeavours) greeted one of the café’s three cats. The cats, who curled on perfectly feline sized chairs, sealed the obsession that had been seeded a few moments earlier when we had spied people sitting outside eating luscious ice creams.
The ice creams were fresh and tingly and so good that we came back twice during our stay, discovering that their fruit tarts and coffee were even better. It was unpretentious and uncontrivedly simple, and it has the atmosphere of somewhere that was a familiar, loved treat.
Visiting our other felicitous discovery was like sitting inside a cake, perhaps their strawberry sponge. Decorated with mismatched everything and large, extravagantly decorated fake cakes, it was a bit like experiencing a baker’s trip. It was quite perfect, as were the teas – you got a pot with a selection of different tea varieties – and the cakes. I had a truffle tart, and layers of chocolate sponge were sandwiched with hazelnutty buttercream, topped with a thin chocolate seal and an impressively chunky chocolate curl.
I think the sugar content affected us slightly, as we veered between giggly and hysterical, once reaching the alarming point of ‘I-think-I’m-going-to-pee-my-pants’. Or perhaps it was just something in the atmosphere of the place, staffed by laid back people who might be continuously high on sugar. The office was two desks with computers in the café, and as we scoffed we could see staff preparing drinks, cleaning up, and even licking a bowl of chocolate round (this was watched with jealousy) in the food prep area.
Waiting in the queue for the Anne Frank House, the bells of the church struck the hour, irresistibly reminding us of John Donne’s famous poem:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
And how diminished have we been by the deaths of so many? It was one of those moments when it was easy to feel despair at our frailty, the seeming pointlessness of human endeavour in the face of such evil.
The House is, unsurprisingly, a slightly odd place. To start with, the exterior is a modern box, which is bizarrely incongruous.
The tiny annex rooms still retain an interrupted atmosphere, despite the thousands of tourists who must tramp through them yearly.
But, I didn’t find it a depressing place, despite the horror of their years of incarceration in dark, airless rooms, betrayal and deaths. Despite my rather morbid thoughts in the queue, I came out feeling energised by our potential.
In Anne’s writing, in the pictures pasted to the walls, in the recollections of birthday gifts and dinners, in the fact that people helped them, there is the sense of possibility of the quietly amazing things that humans are capable of if we allow ourselves to be involved in mankind.
We were incredibly lucky to have two days of blue skies and sunshine, the perfect backdrop for gabled roofs and sparkling canals. Before we started questioning whether we were in fact in Northern Europe in August, our last day had a some impressively monsoon like showers.
At this point I realised I had perhaps made the worst purchase to date in my life – and given this is up against the red/black lipstick I purchased a teenager, you will understand this is no passing gripe.
I bought an umbrella with a hole in it. Not an accidental fault-in-manufacturing hole, not a tear. No, this was an umbrella deliberately designed and manufactured with a hole in it. To be precise, it was a pretty looking tulip shaped insert in fabric that was very far from waterproof, as I discovered when my left eyebrow got dripped on.
For the rest of the day me and my friend, who for blog purposes I will christen CatGirl, kept having the following exchange:
Me: ‘I cannot believe I bought an umbrella with a hole in it.’
CatGirl: ‘I cannot believe someone would make an umbrella with a hole in it.’
Just back from a quick jaunt to Amsterdam. Once I’d got used to the thimble sized coffee cups and slipped back into cycle dodging mode, I fell in love with the city. Not just how pretty the central parts of the city are, or how outstandingly delicious the cakes are, but the whole atmosphere of the place: it seemed permeated by something more relaxed, less flashy, more – dare I say it? – genuine than the England’s Sarf East. I’m already planning my next trip back to try and see how much of this is rose tint and how much is ‘real’.
I could tell you what all the things on this boat symbolise...if I reached for wikipedia. oops.
I’d mainly been put off going to Amsterdam by the fact that it is a magnet for groups of British lads who want to get mashed up and tell their mates they’ve shagged a whore. Although we had a hysterical/enraging encounter with an aforesaid group on the train from the airport, who were pretending to be all hard and talking like they came from a cartoon ghetto, not aware that yes, they were getting female attention but not quite in the way they imagined, thankfully for my future plans that would be somewhat thwarted by a murder conviction, that that was our only such encounter. Well, until it became time to get the plane home, and one of the same group was clearly trying to psych himself up to still believing that it was unbelievably awesomely hardcore that he’d got a X X X tat whilst shitfaced.
Leffe - looks nicer than it tasted.
Deciding to avoid areas thick with bars sporting British pubs and offering breakfasts with a pint and psychedelically decorated coffeeshops, we percolated around the streets, discovering two of my favourite aspects of Amsterdam: the lack of crowds and gezellig.
Clogs AND tulips - who could resist?
I really hadn’t expected Amsterdam to have a spacious feeling to it, and I suspect that this impression is aided by having lived in Shijiazhuang, where your personal space could be considerably less than the volume of your body, but it did.
where's the rest of my coffee?
Gezellig is apparently famous for being a slightly untranslatable word meaning roughly cozy or comfortable or the idea of togetherness: for us it meant time to have long, winding conversations over properly delicious coffee, cake or beer in snug and interestingly decorated cafes, many of which seemed to have an inhouse cat or two, without being subjected to antisocial imbeciles, terrible, overloud music, or the atmosphere that you are being done a huge favour by being allowed to patronise the establishment.
any country that has ham and cheese toasties for breakfast is good with me!
Back in the mists of a timidly emerging Beijing spring, I purchased some paintings as wedding gifts for my friends. The prevailing framing choice was a ‘traditional’ Chinese scroll, which, however, I felt goes a little bit too far from ‘something cool my friend bought me from China’ towards ‘my house now looks like a suburban Chinese restaurant’.
No problems, I thought, they’ll look much better in something sleek and contemporary. Arriving home, picture framing wasn’t exactly top of my ‘to-do’ list, and I confess, I left it until a week before the wedding to get them – after all, it would just be a matter of nipping into a shop.
Obviously, it wasn’t until I was in the aforesaid shop that I realised that the standard frame sizes might be different between the UK and China, and that apparently Britain doesn’t do square frames anyway. I searched, I bought, I got them home and discovered they were slightly too small. I returned them, gave up on square frame and went for a rectangle with black mount.
I’m quite short, the frames were quite big and Brighton is quite hilly, so I alternated between accidentally banging my bags into the pavement [sidewalk] in front of me and holding them in my arms, only just managing to peer over the top in an endeavour to avoid the dozens of people that didn’t seem to notice that the person struggling to maintain control over a package half her size might actually need more room to get by than, say, a catwalk model about to die of heart failure.
But, I thought, hard part over, only black paper to get. I went into a paper shop, a shop that actually has ‘paper’ in its name, only to be told by the snotty sales assistant that they didn’t have any, as if I was some kind of loon for even thinking they’d stock something so boringly essential.
I eventually found black paper back in my home town, after finding that all the shops I thought would have it have either closed down or don’t, in a backstreet art shop run by someone whose demeanour and shirt pattern suggest him a potential warning for a teenage drug awareness campaign.
Seriously – all of this for two picture frames and two sheets of black paper? Please tell me the result was worth it. (And if you don’t, I wouldn’t say so, cos I might just find out where you live.)
As these photos confirm, I was delighted and astonished earlier this week when, in the middle of August, I was extremley pleasantly surprised (does that even make sense? I suspect not if you're being strictly grammatical, but I didn't do an English degree to get my knickers in a twist about such things) to be able to stroll along the beach and even sit down and eat lunch, without feeling like I was taking part in a survivalist training camp.
Don't fret though, I won't be putting myself under long term strain from being extremley pleasantly surprised - it was back to rain again today.
Wandering through Brighton today with a friend, we passed a clothes stall, whose wares were advertised by a series of mannequins dressed in outfits that tended towards the more avant garde end of the spectrum. Just behind them, this pallid figure sat, motionless, on a store front bench.
I raised my camera to take a picture, assuming he was a mannequin too. He was sitting so still, and, frankly, who would dress like that of their own accord? And I was just about to say that, as a response to my friend’s question about whether or not he was real, when he moved.
We managed to pretend not to look too alarmed, and burst into hysterical laughter that lasted until the end of the lane, along with a woman behind us who had voiced the same query at the same time as my friend.
When I wasn’t busy trying to mortifyingly embarrass myself, I also noticed these little details.
At the moment I feel a bit like these statues, seen at the 798 gallery area in Beijing: I'm watching, waiting for what the future will bring. My various plans are starting to take shape - in particular I'm very excited to be taking over the voluntary role of Branch Press Officer for my local branch of the Samaritans, but still, who knows what will happen?
If you told me three years ago that I would have lived in China, travelled in Asia, abandoned plans of graduate study, and split up with my then boyfriend I would have thought you were...deluded.
A few photos from my friend's hen night...known as a bachlorette party across the pond. Thankfully the chief bridesmaid didn't insist that we bedeck ourselves in giant inflatable penises and suchlike (probably because she knew it would considerable shorten her life expectancy!).
This is the start of a very exciting and packed week for me: the birthday of a close friend, followed by the wedding on Friday and then I'm off to Amsterdam for a couple of days.
This was a complimentary cocktail provided by the restaurant for the hen - it looked pretty but was passed around the table to grimaces of disgust!
These wooden uprights are part of a ‘desert garden’ on Worthing beach that stands as a warning to the perils of fashionable doom mongering. Built a few years ago, when a couple of hot summers had led the media to run hysterical features recommending people to replace their roses with cacti, it’s meant to be an example of how gardens might change for a drier climate, and comes complete with a nice little homily about how summers are going to get hotter and drier and we need to preserve water. (Nothing in there about mending leaky water pipes though.)
The smug self righteousness I feel every time I’ve walked past it has nearly made the last three wet, chilly summers worthwhile.
These are some details from the Parthenon friezes at the British Museum I snapped during my visit yesterday.
I LOVE the British Museum. It’s one of my favourite places in the entire world. Having drawn the Greek statues on more than one school trip, they have a strange cosy familiarity about them. But, armed with my macro lens, I was delighted to find myself noticing the details in the frieze that it’s easy to gloss over when presented with such a huge piece of art. I rediscovered the vitality in each carved figure, and, by association, of the artists who carved the frieze. I’ve found myself thinking probably hackneyed by no less insistent thoughts about whether a woman was modelled on a lover, sister or mother, a man on a friend, father or brother. About the hands, the lives, of the people involved in its creation, and how tantalizingly close these people can seem. And yet…even their bone ash is thousands of years old, and all I could do is imagine.
The museum was absolutely heaving, with people standing four or five deep to get a glimpse of the Rosetta Stone. And, at the risk of getting on my soapbox, it gave me quite a glow of satisfaction to see so many people, from all over the world, excited about a lump of stone written in languages that have been dead for thousands of years.
The polyglot atmosphere of interest and excitement pervaded the place, reminding me that despite what I might read in the papers about the world going to hell in a handcart (or Hades in horse drawn chariot?), really, we humans are capable of some quite amazing and wonderful things.
Last week I wrote about the wonderful experience I had when I photographed neighbourhood mah-jong players. I was a bit afraid to approach them, after the experience I’d had when I went to photograph some of the few remaining traditional style houses in Shijiazhuang.
a motor cart driver who didn't mind having his photo taken
I was really excited to do so, as I’d thought that all of them had been torn down to make way for the ubiquitous apartment blocks of modern China. And I was probably just in time, the houses on one side of the street had already been knocked down.
i have no idea what this is, but it looked cool!
Now, a slight diversion. Even when I was just shopping or in the park, people would come up and ask to take photos with me. Normally, people were delighted, if amused, when I took their photograph, and likewise, when I was snapping something that was boringly normal to Chinese eyes but fascinating to mine, there might be laughs or looks of puzzlement from onlookers, but never anything unpleasant.
So, I spuddled off to the old house neighbourhood and started clicking away. Inevitably, I attracted attention, but by this point in my sojourn I was used to being stared at. I asked an elderly woman sitting in front of a house if I could take her photo, and was surprised by how aggressive and unfriendly her response was.
I moved along the street, pretending not to notice the small group of people that had gathered around the photophobic woman. I couldn’t, however, ignore the growing atmosphere of hostility.
the other side of the road
I’d often felt frustrated, sometimes even upset, by my everyday encounters, but this was one of the very few occasions where I felt threatened. It quickly got to the point where I felt seriously uncomfortable, and had to cut my expedition short.
I have no idea why the presence of myself and my camera aroused such animosity – the only reasons I can think of is that either I unluckily stumbled across a group of extreme xenophobes or perhaps they had been screwed over in some sort of property development deal and having a wealthy foreigner wandering around snapping their neighbourhood was salting the wound.
Note to Brits planning on spending on a lot of time with Americans: this is not a good way of asking if you can purloin a cigarette from someone.
The shock on the fag donor’s face was nothing, though, to the silent horror I felt as, after knowing my fellow teachers for only a few days, they started discussing whether to take a fanny pack on our upcoming Beijing expedition.
My mind didn’t so much boggle as push horrified disbelief into as yet unchartered territories, as I thought: surely this is taking putting your money in a safe place a little too far?
In the end, I had to ask on the grounds that the mental images I was having were surely worse than any reality. When it was established that what they referred to as a fanny pack was my bum bag my relief was such that the inevitable question was ‘so, what did you think it was?’
And how we laughed when I told them that as regards fanny, American arse equals British vagina.