Thursday, 1 June 2023

A strange Dutch Obsession

 I recently visited a friend in the Netherlands, who enquired whether I needed anything from the supermarket. Milk, for instance? Something for lunch? or...

"Do you need any peanut butter?"

Now the concept of *needing* peanut butter was a new one to me, but I thought that could be quite agreeable.

To my surprise, the supermarket - and this was just a little neighbourhood shop, not a big store - had a whole shelf devoted, from top to bottom, to peanut butter. Different brands of peanut butter. Peanut butter with caramel. Peanut butter with chocolate. Peanut butter with chili. 

"Well," said I, "This is splendid. We don't get this kind of thing in France."

"Oh, this is nothing. You should go to the Peanut Butter Shop."

Wait! There's an entire shop devoted to peanut butter?

Indeed there is. He wrote its address down on a piece of paper so that I'd be able to find it. Pindakaaswinkel, 102A Grote Houtstrat.

(Now that's intriguing. For the Dutch, peanut butter is peanut cheese. It's butter to anglophones, the French, and the Germans, Italians, Spanish and even Czechs and Ukrainians. But for the Dutch, it's cheese.)

An airy shop; a clean, white, well lit space with shelves full of jars of peanut butter. I tasted different varieties. Chili and lemongrass was a hit; onion and garlic was a miss. Sea salt caramel? Definitely a hit. Coconut, unexpectedly, not as good as I thought it should be, but Mokka probably the best of all.

So why did the Dutch become obsessed by peanut butter? One explanation I heard was that they acquired the taste from Indonesian satay dishes, made with peanuts. (The Pindakaas staff suggested I could use the lemongrass and chili version as a satay sauce by just mixing it with my stir fry.) Someone else said they picked it up from WWII GIs - and it is true big brand CalvĂ© didn't start producing peanut butter till 1948.

They even sell peanut butter at the open air museum of Zaanse Schans, where the spice grinding windmill produces spice and herbal blends. 

Other Dutch food obsessions include buttermilk, hagelslag (chocolate sprinkles for putting on buttered bread), and The Asparagus Season (the reason I was in the Netherlands in the first place). But peanut butter is definitely the oddest.

Wednesday, 12 January 2022

Travel by ear: soundscapes

Travel magazines love to hook us with a picture. Turquoise skies, white snowy mountains, the bright colours of Indian saris or the houses of Bogota. 

But they never hook us with sounds.

Still, when I think of some of the places I've been, the soundscapes are a big part of the memory. Mumbai for instance: the honking and traffic noise is almost a stereotype of India, but I also hear the tip-tip-tip of a metal beater's hammer and the clinking wheel of a sugar cane crusher, and a crow perched on a gutter screaming.

In a Burmese temple I hear little kids running, their bare feet slapping the marble; and in a back room somewhere, someone is hitting a little brass meditation gong softly, creating a rich hum; and a cat meows at a passer-by who hasn't paid it any attention. (If you love gongs... you'll love the video.)

In Ethiopia, the rattle of sistra, the sound of a trumpet playing a single phrase over and over again at a funeral, the wailing and ululating mourners, and the repetitive scratch and swish of a metal spatula in a metal pan as one of the family roasted the coffee beans, and all this at eight in the morning.

Sometimes things don't quite match. Westminster Cathedral always sounds like a railway station, where the faint noise of individual feet adds up to a subdued pedestrian roar, and people are reading newspapers (or maybe hymn books) with a stiff rattle or soft rustle of pages turning, and mass being said in a side chapel punctuates the busy non-quite-silence with announcements - "and at 1032 he took bread and broke it... 1155 lamb of God departing from altar number five"... It doesn't sound cathedral-like at all.

Finally scrambling my way to the top of a pass in Ladakh, and hearing the prayer flags in the wind. Or another Himalayan memory, the rain pelting down at Khecheopalri Lake, hissing across the lake, then thudding on the umbrella held by a better-prepared traveller like a toy drum. 

Sometimes you need to open your ears a bit wider to get past the immediate sound. In a tent at a Berber market in Morocco we were serenaded by a fiddle player; but there were other sounds to remember besides that pungent, gut-strung music. There was the hiss of the knife through a side of meat, the crackle of the fire and loud spurts and crunches as fat dripped on the burning logs; people chatting, shouting for service or to hail friends, and outside the tent there were goats and sheep bleating and the occasional horse whickering or snorting, and the snap of horseshoes on tarmac.

It's odd though. When I dream of places, they're always silent. But when I'm awake and I remember them, I can always remember the noises. 

Saturday, 1 January 2022

What to see in 2022

As always with a New Year, the lists will be coming out.

"Must-see destinations of 2022."

"New destinations for the New Year."

"2022's top new attractions."

Probably there will be a mix of places that are already tourist magnets par excellence, like Paris or San Francisco or Angkor Wat, with places that are currently unspoilt and wild, so that thousands of tourists will immediately rush there and spoil them. You can almost read some of the articles as "Rush to see Klongpongtiwamchang before all the other readers of this article get there first".

 Or Staryborodinogradski, or Saint-Cul de Merda, or Santiago de las Grandes Botegas, or wherever.

So I'm going to offer a slightly different take on what to see in 2022.

  • Covid probably means your options are limited, anyway. So discover your own back yard. Literally, if you have a back garden; lie down on the grass and smell it, look for insects, watch birds, hide in the shrubbery, experience your garden as you never have before. Keep a journal, or record a short trip round the garden every single day. Spend a night under the stars (make sure you have a comfortable sleeping pad, though). Discover your back yard as if you were a child again, all the strangeness and amazement of it. (Eating dirt is optional.)
  • Walk the streets round your home. Never take the same way twice. Find things to look at - that old post box, the overgrown garden full of butterflies, tiny acts of subversion like the garden where Buddhas oversee the garden gnomes, a cat looking out of a window at you. Former government adviser Alastair Campbell runs a 'tree of the day' photo spot on Twitter - find something you care about (manhole cover of the day? peeling paint of the day? front door of the day?) and do the same.
  • I also suggest walking because let's face it, some of us are, right now, a bit anxious about taking public transport. Or get a bicycle. 
  • That gallery you always meant to go to, and never have? Go! The church you never went into? if the door's open, go in: there might be a Romanesque madonna inside, or a fascinating epitaph, or a lot of stacking plastic chairs. You never know.
  • Think about trips you've taken that you really enjoyed, and why. You may never have realised you were interested in a particular thing. I have just realised that I am fascinated by temple food - prasad in Indian temples, the langar in a Sikh gurdwara, Korean Buddhist monasteries with their highly ritual meals. So once things get freed up, I'm going to see if I can work in some of these communities. I may even go back to Mount Girnar, if the little kitchen there will let me stay. 
  • Give yourself a 'stretch' aspiration, whether that's your first solo trip, a long trek, a tough summit, a trip to a different culture or back to your long distant roots. (Norwegian Americans, take note!) For me, it will be a really long hike through Zanskar, Lahaul and Spiti, and finally getting to visit the Abbot of Stakna. My first long hike since I got my arthritis diagnosis. Of course you could also get a pedometer or a fitbit and "climb Everest" up and down a local hill, or "hike the Appalachian Trail" from your front door to the park and back every day. Or your aspiration could be learn Japanese in lockdown ready for a trip when we all ope up again.
  • Vow to go somewhere just because it's there. Like Manchester. Or Birmingham, Alabama. Or just take a road or a railway because it's there. Nowhere scenic. Find the interest in the everyday.
And stay safe, everyone. The sooner we get the coronavirus banished, the sooner we can get back to the freedom of travelling just anywhere we want.

Saturday, 20 November 2021


 I was in the village the other day when the Angelus began to ring. The bell has a loud, brassy, slightly cracked timbre with a weird resonance; quite unlike the bell in the next village, which sounds flat and hollow, like a dustbin being whacked with a broom.

We tend to think of travel visually: Instagrammable views, architecture, light, bright turquoise skies or the virulent viridian of the Northern Lights. But with my eyes closed I can tell the difference between different soundscapes, and as Covid-19 is still putting a crimp in my wanderlust, I decided to daydream my way around the sounds of the world this morning.

  • Early muezzin in Sur, Oman. A deep, warm bass voice in what, already, is not quite the silence of night.
  • Duelling muezzins of Istanbul. I'll swear it's personal between the Sultanahmet Mosque and its nearest competitor. A very different kind of muezzin from the factual recitation of the Omanis; here, it's operatic, with fluent melismas, digressions, ornaments, stretching every breath out as far as it will go, and underneath the melody the incessant honking of taxis on the meidan.
  • A valley in Uzbekistan where suddenly, every single donkey started to sing out and the valley resonated like a bowlful of braying.
  • The plink, splash of icebergs slowly melting in an Icelandic lagoon. Every so often I'd hear one that had become top-heavy suddenly crash down into the water, and the ripples from its collapse, and then it would be back to the plink, plink in the vast midnight silence.
  • The whistle of swans' wings as seven of them flew in arrowhead formation over my camp at Pensthorpe, Norfolk, in the early morning.
  • Chai garam chai, chai garam chai, the song of the tea vendor on an Indian train. 
  • "Ladies, get your husband a new tool here!" the cheeky stallholder at Brick Lane. His rudery only matched by the stout lady who sells new season white asparagus on the market at Ezy-sur-Eure.
  • In Mirabai's temple at Chittorgarh, someone sings bhajans to a small harmonium. The melodic line never stops; note after note, meandering, wandering around itself, plaintive and unfulfilled.
  • Ethiopian priests rattling their sistrums as they chant, and then the big drums coming out for prayers and hymns in a joyful shout.
  • Staying in a guesthouse on the banks of the Chao Praya river in Ayutthaya, I hear the big barges going up and down the river all night. The low growl of the motors, and then as that dies down, the ripples of the wake hitting the pilings below the guesthouse, slap slap slap, and then again, silence, till the next boat.
  • Explosions in the dark in Colombia. And then shouting and music. The start of the annual fiesta in Barichara - but we were worried for a moment!
  • A zampogna playing its pastoral tune in front of a Christmas crib in Rome.
  • A Catalan picnic, with a gralla player sitting on a car bonnet, his instrument emitting raucous squeals, and drum players each side rattling away - this apparently being a quite normal way to celebrate the weekend. (And later, back in Barcelona, I danced the sardana in the cathedral square to the sound of the band - clarinet-rich, but with a tiny strident whistle leading every tune.)
  • Monsoon rain in Tamil Nadu, less weather than a 360 degree waterfall effect.
  • If petrichor is the smell of earth after rain, there should be a word for the sound of motorcycle tyres hissing through rainslick just after a storm.
  • Egrets and sacred ibises in a tree in Dire Dawa, squabbling and gossipping.
  • The lapwings calling whee, whee on the uplands of the Drouais.
  • Owls calling at night, the whoo-whoo of the little tawnies and the screech of the barn owl.
  • Horns of Indian traffic, never silent, "Please be horning". Personalised horns like personalised ringtones only even more annoying.
  • Ping ping PA-dum, the French railway announcement tone. SNCF appear to have the copyright as no other railway in the world uses it (or not to my knowledge. Maybe they do in Andorra. But then Andorra doesn't have any railways.)
  • And the marvel that is Binche carnival, with its 26 brass band tunes. Though my favourite is the little morning tune played just on a single clarinet as the Gilles gather in the outlying villages and suburbs and start making their way into the town.

Tuesday, 22 June 2021


 So, in no particular order, because I'm bored today, and it's raining, and I wish I was able to travel somewhere, here are a few of my favourite things from a lifetime of wandering.

  • Karkadeh - hibiscus tea. Rich, dark, red, with plenty of sugar in, it's like drinking an entire flowerbed. For me, it's the taste of Egypt. I've made it at home, but it's never quite the same.
  • The sound of the early muezzin. In London, in Istanbul, in Delhi, Muscat, Fez, or Ethiopia, it's the same, and associated with the faintest touch of paler darkness on the horizon that says dawn is close. (Black mark for the muezzin in Casablanca who then decided he'd like to carry on singing a few songs for the next three quarters of an hour.)
  • Fasting, in Ethiopia. Meat dishes are okay, but the fasting platter is exceptional; greens, pulses, a huge sour injeera as the plate and scoop (I'm never quite sure whether it's a bread or a pancake) - I could fast all year. When Christmas comes and everyone has meat again, it's just not the same.
  • Mountain passes. Kardong La where from a nice warm morning in Leh you suddenly find yourself in snow, and finally looking down the other side to the Nubra Valley. The pass where after a day walking from Kyzart where suddenly you see Song Kul spread out below you, an almost circular lake surrounded by mountains. 
  • Arcades. In the streets of Evora, in the palaces of Mandu, in cathedral or abbey cloisters, in the ancient covered markets of French bastides, arcades are wonderful things; they make a little self-contained world out of the glaring sun. Their rhythm is wonderful, too, whether the staggered, always changing, three-arches-at-a-time rhythm of Venetian or Portuguese vernacular, or the regular wave-forms of a Gothic cloister.
  • Pineapple with sugar and red chilli from the street vendors in Bangkok.
  • The comforting roll and clank of a night train. Eventually its soporific purring will let me sleep until it stops at yet another night-time station, which apart from having a name on the signboards is indistinguishable from any other station on the line, and where the train will stop for ten or twenty minutes before softly straining, juddering, and starting to roll onwards.
  • The Big Tree. Sacred banyans in India and Thailand; trees planted by Sully or as Trees of Liberty in France; huge hollow yews that you can stand inside, a thousand years old; the great trees that dominate junctions in Gondar and Aksum, or that grow to shade Muslim shrines in Somaliland and Harar. 
  • Old trains. There will never be a love like my first love, Mallard, but I have a lot of time for old trains - Soviet trains with huge cowcatchers in Tashkent, old French locomotives in Dire Dawa, the sparkling brass and splendid whistle of the little tourist train in the Baie de la Somme, the rusting hulk of a train at a disused station in Colombia (shades of Fitzcarraldo!). 
What are your favourite things?

Tuesday, 25 May 2021

In praise of the boring places

 "I'm bored with this town already," I heard from three different people in Luang Prabang. "There's nothing to do. Only one street and some temples."

Towns like this Luang Prabang are the kind I love. Because they're the kind of place you can slide into gently, take your time to feel your way around. In Luang Prabang I found myself celebrating Buddha's birthday with a family picnic in the local temple, I wandered the market in the early morning, I talked to the curator of a photographic exhibition who showed me a photo of himself as a young monk, and one day when I'd walked the other side of the Nam Khan river, I ended up at a wedding dancing with drunken dads and wicked old ladies.

(Lao sound systems are LOUD. It took me a while to get the ringing out of my ears after that. Or was it just the effect of the whisky? It certainly took me a lot longer to walk back than it had to get there...)

I spent a week in Hampi. Just walking, biking, climbing mountains, watching the elephants get their bath, seeing the landscape from different viewpoints. Sitting in the Virupaksha temple courtyard, watching pilgrims come to the temple.

I spent a month in Orchha. For most people it's a day trip, but I stayed, and took side trips, going to Gwalior, Chitrakut, Sonagiri, Datia. I walked around, I made friends, learned to play karrom, drunk ridiculous amounts of sweet milky chai all morning, made friends with a Korean who was learning to play violin, Indian style, and ran my own street gang of local urchins who showed me all the best stepwells.

I rather like Bishkek. There's not a lot to it, but people are friendly, there's a good market, a great craft beer bar, a women-run brewery, a German beer hall, it's all walkable. There are parks with odd sculptures, and a whole load of old grave marker steles outside the national museum.

I like Bari. Ages ago, I spent a week there, using the railway line to get to all the great Romanesque cathedrals of Apulia. I got a free lift to the amazing Castel del Monte, Frederick II's hunting lodge in the hills, because the hotel owner was visiting a friend there; we had the whole place to ourselves. I was even invited to go down to the harbour early morning to see the fish catch (and ate part of it later on). Maybe not top on everyone's list but I love it.

Mechelen, former capital of the Netherlands. Dire Dawa, described as no more than a transport hub by most guidebooks, where I saw the epiphany play, danced and sang hymns, ate the best Indian food in Africa, talked about New Delhi with my hotel owner, heard trains hoot in the night.

Girivi is nowheresville, Georgia. Go much further and you're in Russia. It's a rough grid of a couple of dozen compounds and guesthouses. But it has better wifi than the rest of Tusheti put together, lovely scenery, beautiful walks, a clear river tumbling over huge red pebbles. In the morning you can watch the sheep flowing out on to the mountainside like snow, and in the evening they come back, with the dark, thin, shy cows. I wish I'd had more time to hang out there.

True, some cities are just very boring. But more towns, particularly the smaller towns, have some charms, and have a life of their own. It's worth settling down for a bit. Difficult, perhaps, if you only have a couple of weeks - easier if you have three, easier still if you have a few months. But worth doing.

Because the restless whistlestop tour gets boring, after a while. And you see ten monuments, a market and a couple of airports, but you don't get a feel for the country. 

I can't recommend a boring town for you. But you'll know it when you find it. It's the place, or just a neighbourhood in a city, where you make a couple of friends, you stay an extra day; where someone tells you about a really nice place just up the road, or a quirky little place to visit, or you manage to find little places that aren't in any of the guidebooks, or you just spend all morning at the same little cafe peoplewatching.

It's the place where you just want to take life as it comes. It's the place where, instead of just visiting, and rattling around it like a pea in a big box, you actually find your place, a lifestyle just the right size for you to fit. You find a routine - a swim in the freezing river in the morning, a sunset walk every evening, playing karrom under the peepal tree or drinking craft beer in the same bar. 

These places are waiting for you. You just need to keep your mind open to them.

And keep your schedule open enough to take the opportunity.

Friday, 30 April 2021

Car boot sales and flea markets: a sense of place

 You can tell a lot about a culture from what gets sold in junk shops and at car boots (garage sales if you're from the US) and flea markets. Here's a sense of France, or to be very particular, a little slice of France in between the huge wheat fields of the Beauce, and the valley of the Seine, about an hour from Paris by not very fast train.

french car boot and phrenology head

  • Firemen's helmets. The Sapeurs Pompiers are something special. A lot of them are volunteers. There are old-fashioned helmets with a feather crest like a Roman centurion's moulded into the metal, and new shiny astronaut-like bubble helmets. You see a lot of these. (Army and police stuff? not so much.) Often, the same table holds a collection of model fire engines, too.
  • Enamel coffee pots. Yes, this is vintage France. The little wooden-bodied cubical coffee grinders with a metal funnel and handle on top are also typically French. What I didn't know till I looked what that they used to be a major product for Peugeot - as did woodworking tools; Peugeot was a general foundry and at some point I suppose they decided they might as well make cars, too.
  • Occasionally you see a collection of teapots. But they are either Berber fake-silver teapots (and Moroccan tea is a whole different thing) or they are collector's teapots. What you almost never see is the plain brown pottery teapot beloved of generations of Brits. Sorry, no PG Tips here.
  • Le Creuset casseroles. I have a lovely collection of these now; casseroles, dishes, frying pans, ramekins... in the classic orange colour, in grey, yellow, red, and my favourite, lime green. But there are other brands, too - and often not enamelled but just big cast iron cauldrons. Never mind cooking the Christmas goose, I've seen one you could probably get a whole pig into. See this, and understand how French cooking ticks.
  • Souvenirs from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia - once part of the French colonies. Less often, lovely cloths from French-speaking West Africa. I've pretty much furnished one entire room with Tunisian blue and white carpets bought at car boots.
  • Souvenirs from elsewhere in France - bright Quimper pottery, Eiffel towers (usually in ridiculous quantities: do people collect them?), dolls in French regional costumes. A car boot can be a miniature tour of the country if you want it to be.
  • Glass jars. Why? Because there is a massive tradition of making your own conserves - not just jams, but chestnuts in syrup, potted meats, all kinds of stuff. (And I know there still is, because the supermarkets suddenly start selling preserving jars and industrial amounts of sugar the moment the jam-making season begins.)
  • Agricultural equipment, because this is farming country; and riding kit, because this is horse country. Old pitchforks made entirely of wood, scythes, sickles, cast iron tractor seats, horsecollars, riding boots, and occasionally, a saddle so shiny and smelling of leather that it can only have been used once or twice (I wonder why).
  • Old flutes, oboes, clarinets, and musical instrument making tools. And this is in our tiny little area between La Couture-Boussey and Ivry la Bataille and Ezy-sur-Eure, just a few kilometers. Why? Because there were musical instrument makers everywhere back in the nineteenth century. Today, Marigaux still makes oboes here, and there are businesses making accessories like reeds and the felt for key pads.
  • The buvette usually sells a choice of chipo-frites or merguez-frites (regular or spicy sausage with chips). The barbecue is a solid iron affair, hand-made by some local with a bit of welding experience and some agricultural scrap. There's almost always a choice of wine, kir, and beer, as well as various canned drinks; Lipton's Ice Tea is still more popular than Coke around here. And someone has always cooked a tarte tatin, upside-down apple tart, at a euro a slice. 
  • I mustn't forget; the set of corkscrew and wine thermometer, and the little metal wine-tasting cups. Even though we're on the borders of cider country here, wine is part of the nation. Liberty, equality, oenology.
But my favourite find is nineteenth century historical or satirical plates. The first one I found was de Lesseps drawing his plan of the Suez canal. Then I found the French lion-tamer who went to the Great Exhibition in London. Then the Exposition Universelle in Paris - which had pretty much the same idea as the London exhibition, a chance to show off the entire world and promote French commerce and industry.
plate with two dancers

Then I found 'Le Club des Femmes', a little piece of (anti-) feminist history. A chap wearing an apron sweeps the dust off his doorstep and promises to get dinner ready while his wife strides off to the Womens' Club saying 'Back later, be good'. And a plate celebrating Montgolfier's balloon. And an extravagant plate, part of  a set showing you how to do different dances - this one is the polka, and they're really enjoying themselves!

I don't think I've ever paid more than a euro for a plate. The ones I don't buy are the puzzle plates. There are loads of them; the turn-it-upside-down-and-it's-something-else plates, the rebus plates (like a tablecloth, water, and a lion spelling Nappe-Eau-Lion or Napoleon), the Ouere's-Ouallie plates (well, their nineteenth-century equivalent).  I don't quite get the humour and to be honest, most of the French people I've asked don't either.

And then of course all the stuff you'd get anywhere. The kids' clothes that kids have grown out of. Last year's fashions. The old cutlery and the old toys and the jigsaw with one piece missing. But it's the items I've mentioned that tell me yes, I'm in France. 

I wonder what German flea markets are like? or Spanish? do they have them in Japan? ... maybe some time I'll get the chance to find out.