When I was 19 years old, my friends and I took a night train from Innsbruck, Austria to Krakow, Poland. This was a long time ago, before mobile phones and before the EasyJets and RyanAirs of the world. Train travel was the only option for starving students like us and we would say things like “Meet us in front of the Hauptbahnhof at midnight on Thursday,” and if you weren’t there, we waited ten minutes and left for Poland without you because we didn’t want to miss our train and we had no way of knowing you had overslept your alarm. And hey, maybe we’d get to Poland and you’d be there already and there’d be Australians involved. Or something.
We had booked ourselves a compartment on the night train to Krakow…the kind with the six worn red leather seats that fold out to become one large bed-like-thing. Luckily, we were all good friends. I remember tall men in gloves knocking on the cabin door throughout the night and asking for our passports. Blindly, we unlocked our compartment door and handed them over. Even though we had heard all about the gypsies who would gas train cars and take everything while their victims lay unconscious, we still handed our passports over. There is only one country between Austria and Poland, but there were many tall men in that night.
There was a porter on our train car who controlled the samovar. If you wanted hot water for anything, you went to him, an unwashed man. We must have made a few trips to the samovar through the course of the train journey: us in our unnecessary hiking boots, J. Crew corduroys and matching roll-neck sweaters concealing our not-very-concealed neck wallets of passports, Sprint PCS calling cards and dollar bills and Austrian schillings. He was a bit prickly, our porter, but he provided the hot water when we asked for it.
As dawn broke, we left our cabin and stood in the hallway of our train carriage, hot coffee and tea in hand, watching Poland go by. It was springtime in Poland and all was green and lush and beautiful. Later, we would see the hundreds of brides of Christ (the grooms too) in their best of white garments, weaving their way through the green lanes of Oswiecim. It was Holy Communion time, wasn’t it?
Our porter, who had spoken no English (or German) with us the night before, approached the six of us in the hallway as we watched Poland go by. He was visibly aggrieved, with us in particular. “I am not an Indian!” he shouted. And then he disappeared back to his samovar and we got off the train in Krakow and never saw him again.
This post is part of a travel link up hosted by Emma, Kelly, Rebecca and Sam. Head on over to any of these blogs to read about their lost in translation moments. I used to have another blog where I wrote narrative like this, but I closed it down last year for reasons I happy to explain over cocktails.
Experiments in food continue! I have bought a SPIRALIZER on Amazon. There are many different kinds of Spiralizers. I bought the most basic kind — the black handheld kind — so I could see if I really used the thing and if I liked it. There are more sophisticated table-top ones with multiple blades for you more advanced people. Me, I’m just making zucchini noodles.
Surprisingly, courgette/zucchini in a Spiralizer tastes somewhat like spaghetti. The main difference I found was with the water content. Courgette/zucchini noodles are a lot wetter. There is probably a way around that…one friend recommended I put the resulting noodles in a colander with a bit of salt and push some water out. I haven’t gotten that far yet.
I am still working on this but basically here is how I use a Spiralizer right now:
Push two fat courgettes through the Spiralizer. The thing is…they can’t be that fat because then they won’t fit. And they can’t be that skinny because then you don’t really get leverage in the Spiralizer as I learned with my first batch. Size, as they say, is key.
Take the noodle-like results and throw into pretty hot frying pan with a little olive oil for like 30 seconds. Not a long time. If you leave the noodles in too long in the hot pan, they get mushy and even more watery.
Remove from heat. Add some pre-heated store-bought pesto sauce. Voila! Dinner without all the carbs! Feel the virtuousness! If you’re super-fancy, you probably make your own pesto. I am not there yet. Baby steps, people. Baby steps.
Today I am planning on making a version of linguine and clam sauce, using my Spiralizer. Check back later for details on how it turned out. I have a good feeling about this.
If you live in London, chances are, you’ve been handed a voucher for HelloFresh outside some tube station or another within the last few months. (I understand HelloFresh operates in the U.S. too.) HelloFresh is a meal-delivery service that packs up everything you need to make at least three nice meals during the week and delivers it to your door on a Monday or Tuesday morning. One of my friends has been raving about the experience so as I’ve tried to get more seriously about cooking for myself instead of eating out, I thought I would give it a try.
I am lucky that I live in a building with a porter because he was able to take delivery of my HelloFresh box and keep it in a safe place for me while I was at work. I’m not sure how people who work during the day and live in buildings without porters would take delivery. In my old building, for example, my neighbors and I had more than a few parcels stolen.
That being said, the box is light enough so perhaps you could have it delivered to work and the schlep it home on the tube or bus.
My first box came with three recipe cards and all the ingredients for three meals. My recipes during the first week were chicken with dijon mushroom sauce, smoky burritos and then pan-fried salmon with new potatoes. During my second week, my recipes were chicken paella, fish and chips, and lamb koftas with tzatziki and rice.
Here’s a high-level overview of what I liked about HelloFresh as well as some of the challenges I experienced:
Generally healthy recipes.
Fairly easy to prepare. For someone who doesn’t cook much like me, this was reassuring.
Fresh herbs with each delivery. I really liked this. They sent nice packages of rosemary, dill, parsley, etc. Fresh herbs really do make a difference.
Very large portions. You could call this a pro or a con. I got three or four meals out of what was meant to be a meal for two.
Decently priced. With the discount I received because I purchased on a friend’s recommendation, I spent £19 on my box the first week. That’s £3.16 a meal if you assume two meals per recipe. (But remember I got three if not four servings out of each recipe.) During the second week, my box was £39, or £6.50 a meal, which may seem pricey but remember I normally go out to eat. Just to be clear…I paid for these boxes myself.
They use Zendesk for customer support, which is an excellent platform that prevents customer emails from getting lost and gives companies all sorts of good stats on their support levels. I am a dork about things like this. I was glad to see they have a system in place.
Clean-up. The paella, in particular, was a bitch to clean up. Lots of pots and pans. After a long day at the office, the last thing I wanted to do was dishes.
Vague instructions at times. For example, for my first recipe — the chicken with dijon mushroom sauce — I ended up with a ton of watery sauce, even though I feel like I followed the recipe pretty closely. I ended up siphoning off a lot of the water, which unfortunately took the dijon with it because there was only one tiny take-away packet of dijon. Another recipe told me to boil a large pot of water, but didn’t say how large.
Related to the above, poorly edited recipes. One recipe told me to turn on the oven, but yet nothing ever went into the oven. (Imagine my existential crisis!) The paella recipe told me to throw in one-half of the rice, but never told me to put in the other half of the rice and I knew I had to. I pointed out the oven thing to them and they were aware of it…which begs the question…why not email your customers who received that recipe and let them know of the error before they attempt the recipe?
They forgot to send me the chorizo for the paella but by the time I realized it, it was too late. (I was mid-recipe.) The paella turned out okay, but I know it would have been better with the chorizo.
OK, call me Judgey McJudgerson but they used basmati rice for the paella and cheddar for the burrito. (When I complained — with love — about the cheddar for the burrito, they suggested I try feta instead. BLASPHEMY.)
Customer support: I think this changed during my subscription but while I was making my first recipe, I wanted to call and speak to someone about the dijon mushroom sauce but their phone lines were already closed. So I had to write them an email instead and didn’t hear back from them for 23.5 hours. Personally, for something time-sensitive like cooking, 24 hour response times are kinda high.
Too much food for one person. This is one of the main reasons why I am not continuing my subscription. I just couldn’t keep up. To be fair to HelloFresh, this is not really a meal service for one. It’s meant to be for two. I just thought that I could stretch out the six meals over the course of a week.
The Verdict: My two weeks with HelloFresh made me a better person, I swear! It helped me conquer my fear of the oven, although I still wouldn’t say I am entirely comfortable. It also made me think a lot about why I don’t like to cook and I think what I’ve come up with is a different explanation than the explanations I’ve used before (laziness, not knowing how).
See…I have always been a hard worker. I tend to work long hours and I am always thinking about work. This is a bad thing about me, but probably not something that will change overnight although I am always trying and I do think I’ve gotten better over the years. For example, in the old days, I would always go into the office for a few hours on a Sunday and prep myself for the week ahead. I don’t do that anymore and I really try to maximize my weekend and relaxation time because I know I need it for my brain to function well.
What I am trying to say is that after a long day at work, the last thing I want to do is come home and chop up vegetables and meat. I am tired of working at that point. I want it to be easy. And I think what didn’t work for me with HelloFresh is the amount of chopping pre-meal and the amount of cleaning post-meal. I want to maximize my relaxation time and while cooking is relaxing for many people, it’s not relaxing for me. It’s work. I am not sure that feeling will change anytime soon for me. So I think what I need to do is find super-quick and super-easy recipes that I can make in like 10 to 15 minutes that require minimum clean-up. (I think this explains why I like making quesadillas so much. So easy! And just one pan!) If you have any recipe suggestions along these lines, please let me know because much like I know I really shouldn’t go into the office on a weekend, I also know I should probably stop dining out so much.
I am not a filmographer. I am not a director or anyone good at these film things. But I was running through some old video files and I saw this and the “oh wow” moment in the last few moments and so here we are. (Rewind, pause, stop during the last four seconds. Please.)
Because Krak de Chevaliers in Syria is one of the most beautiful of places. People come from all over the world to study its architecture. There’s a hotel — the hotel I stayed in — right across the valley from the fortress. The hotel buys its cheese from the guys down the road, along with the chicken they roast to perfection every night and everything else they need. It is a simple hotel, but I was dumb for not taking more photos. I remember trying to connect to the Internet there. “You will not connect here,” they said. “Only email sometimes. When the wind is blowing.”
If I were better at the film stuff, I would do something all pause-y-like at the end of the video I made. Also, I would spend less time filming the loo.
WHAT? Long-time readers will know that in 2010, I decided to visit Petra. And, well, as long as you’re in Jordan, why not visit Syria? It’s just right across the border. I spent a week in Syria and I had an amazing time. Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, PALMYRA. Everyone was so lovely to me. I worried about how I should dress and how I should act but what I found during my time in Damascus is that no one really cared. They were just happy to see me and happy to have me visiting their country. What I thought about their roast chicken and their falafel seemed to be of primary concern. Oh, and would I consider selling my iPhone because there are no Apple products in Syria.
Key interactions…I decided we needed some wine in Damascus one evening. I was directed to a wine shop in the Christian quarter. It was May in Damascus so I asked for some Syrian rose…The very perfectly-speaking-English proprietor looked at me funny. “But why??? Why would you want to buy Syrian wine?? Why when the Lebanese wine is so nice??” I bought some Lebanese rose and left. Later, we had some deeply lovely Syrian rose at the delicious Naranj in Damascus, while the UN SUVs idled outside.
Then…there was that moment on the bus ride back from Palmyra to Damascus. I got sick. Bad sick. I was staying in a backpackers’ hotel. But I was so sick, so very very sick. I couldn’t eat or drink or anything. What I decided then is that if you are going to be sick in Syria, you should stay in a nice hotel. So I moved into the Four Seasons Damascus and it was so lovely and beautiful and the staff was the most wonderful of the wonderful in the world. And this is what I wonder about all these years later…I wonder if a company like Four Seasons transferred their beautiful staff and their families out of a place of disorder. I wonder.
BUT….I have skipped the important point. The point where I asked the backpackers’ hotel what I should do…that I was so sick…that everything was coming out of all the places…and they sent me to this pharmacy where the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen who spoke the most perfect English I’ve ever heard gave me some pills and some instructions on fluids and all was right with the world. Thank you, lovely pharmacist in the Damascus pharmacy, for helping me. I will not forget you. I hope you and your family are all together and all safe. I will never forget you.
Sometimes we forget that there are real people living in real places, don’t we?
My friend Aaron was in the UK for work the other weekend and was flying out of Manchester. Aaron and I went to university together, many many years ago. His mother was the lumpia provider to many a tailgate and college party. Me, I’ve been to Manchester a few times for work over the years, but I have really only ever seen two things: the Malmaison hotel and the conference center. So rather than having Aaron come down to London for the weekend, I told him I would come to him and we could spend a day exploring Manchester.
I booked my train ticket on Virgin Trains for bright and early Saturday morning. It was only £10 quid extra for an upgrade, so I did it and was rewarded with a perfectly empty train car and a little box of snacks for breakfast. Prior to boarding, I spent a few minutes in the first-class lounge at Euston, where I stole some sugar cookies for my ride.
In Manchester, I stayed at the DoubleTree Manchester Piccadilly, right across from the station. The DoubleTree is bright and modern AND they gave me a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie when I checked in. On the downside, they charged me £20 quid for checking in before 3 pm. Frankly, that’s bullshit. And I told them so. But the rooms did have iMacs and free wifi was in abundance so there’s that.
We were short on time during our visit so in between tours (more about that in a second), we had a quick lunch of burgers and Manchester beer in the hotel bar. I remember the two of us looking at each other after biting into our burgers and saying “Hey, this is really good.” I also enjoyed my Lagonda IPA, one of many Manchester beers on the hotel beer list. So the DoubleTree did fairly well on food and drink, in my opinion. On the Sunday morning before I checked out, there was even free coffee and croissants outside the breakfast room.
If I were to visit Manchester again, I would stay at the DoubleTree again. Great location, very good amenities, good food, nice staff. I used Hilton Hhonors points for my stay so I really cannot complain about the value I received. (Except for that £20 quid for early check-in.)
Because Aaron and I had never really visited Manchester before, I looked for some tours to show us around. I found a Smiths/Morrissey tour that sounded fun and booked that for the Saturday morning. I guess I thought I was a Smiths/Morrissey fan, but truly, I had no idea. This was a very niche tour. Very niche. One woman broke down in tears as we stood on top a bridge that was important in some way or another to the Smiths/Morrissey timeline. We spent ages wandering around the Salford Lads’ Club and I was really not quite sure why were there. Maybe our tour guide told us that the club featured on the INSIDE album cover of The Queen is Dead, but I think I must have missed that part. I just assumed that Morrissey played football here as a kid or something. There were also an awkward few minutes where we stood outside the house Morrissey once lived in. Let me emphasize…we were the Americans, and we felt awkward. (Standing outside a celebrity’s former home feels like a very American thing to do, doesn’t it?) The coolest part though?? Our tour guide was the drummer of the INSPIRAL CARPETS!! Now that was cool. Super cool.
After our lunch of burgers and beers back at the hotel, we met up with our afternoon tour guide, John from Manchester Taxi Tours. I asked John to show us a few pubs and tell us the history of Manchester. John has the gift of the gab and showed us all the key places in town, including Manchester United stadium. He also filled in some of the blanks from our Smiths/Morrissey tour, like telling us about The Hacienda and its importance to the Manchester music scene. One of the highlights from our tour was a visit to a pub filled with singing octogenarians, where my hand was kissed a few too many times. We had a fun time with John and I would recommend his tours if you find yourself in town. We did a 2.5 hour tour which probably ended up being closer to three hours. In hindsight, I would have asked for a stop for food and another pub stop because we were hungry and not very serious after all.
For dinner on Saturday night, I tried to get into all of Manchester’s posh places. No dice. So I fell back on my old trick…if you can’t get into the places with great food, go for the ones with atmosphere. We booked a table at Mr. Thomas’ Chop House and LOVED the old Victorian tile-work and design and could have sat there for ages, admiring it all. Our Temperanillo was an excellent value (£19?) and the food was generous, hearty and good. (But not great.) On a cold day, I appreciated these things. The service was a little missing but the tile-work made up for this. I am not kidding. I tried to take photos but there were too many people around so you’ll have to do with just the one above.
So we had fun in Manchester. It was hard work to research and organize and not cheap fun, by any means, but it was still fun. And a nice way to connect with an old friend. You should pay a visit to Manchester someday, if you haven’t already.