Monday, 20 February 2017

May 2016 Synopsis

I was uncharacteristically sociable in May, and it was fantastic.
The month kicked off with a visit to Edinburgh to catch up with my school mates Kelsi and Ollie, which you can read about here.

Just after Yannick began his new job, we moved to Bethnal Green where we would be house sitting for a shy cat named Wanda for over two months. She had many loveable and odd personality traits, which I've written about here.

It wouldn't be Teh Travels without incessant ramblings about loads of amazing food we ate, right? Maybe I should start a food blog... Anyhow, I had heard of a nearby vegan eatery called the Just FAB Food Bus, which was run by an Italian nonna and her son. While their burgers are mightily popular, I wanted to experience the full Italianness in all its glory, so I ordered the lasagne followed up by tiramisu. Oh, did I mention that not only the seating but also the kitchen is inside an old London double decker bus?! That's pretty FAB if you ask me.

I probably would have never picked to go to Ice Bar: a bar in London made from ice. However, sometimes you need to try new things and step out of your comfort zone! Finn, whom I had met at uni and had been an integral part of our Dungeons & Dragons group, was in town and suggested the bar. It was quite surreal, as the glasses were made of ice, the bar itself was made of ice, and there were an alarming array of ice sculptures. In order to keep everything frozen, the temperature in there was ridiculous! Even with the insulated cape and gloves they provide for you, we had to leave before our allocated 40 minutes was up because I was turning into a snowman. It was such a strange and fun afternoon, and the cocktail was tasty too! Finn had been recording all the different cocktails that he had consumed in his travels, and it was hilarious to look back at the different pages. Some entries had clearly been scrawled during a night of heavily imbibing, and were almost illegible.
A few days later, Finn, Yannick and Fabienne (who had also come to London for a short visit) indulged me by bouncing around Oxygen Freejumping: an extensive trampoline park. We couldn't take photos, as our phones would have likely flown out of our pockets and smashed on a wall while jumping from tramp to tramp, but if you picture a large building (possibly an old factory) with trampolines laid out end-to-end over two stories in a bright yellow and blue colour scheme, you've got the idea. It was terribly fun, but as out-of-shape adults we were outdone by the hordes of high-energy children and became puffed within minutes. We took several breaks, but ultimately left before our assigned hour had concluded, sweaty and needing a lie down. In order to avoid slipping on the trampolines, we were required to purchase special trampoline socks for a small fee. These were also coloured yellow and blue, and had little rubbery dots on the bottom for traction. (These came in handy when I tried to do a yoga routine on hardwood floors with no yoga mat.)

Have you ever heard of an escape room? It's a kind of game in which you participate in puzzles, but not within a board game or computer game. In real life! Well, sort of. At Escape Entertainment, we all played as a gang of bank robbers attempting to steal the Crown Jewels. While we admittedly got stuck on the first puzzle, which involved a terrifying scarecrow who was supposed to be the KO'd vault guard, we quickly found our stride and finished the puzzle only 30 seconds over the timer! Hide your wife, hide your Crown Jewels - we are master robbers. It was pretty amusing to dress up in the props pile at the end of our game as well.

As Yannick and I are huge fans of Greek food, we took a trip down to The Real Greek in Soho. What can I say? The hummus! The pita! The dukkah! The vine leaves and the gigantes! Everything is delicious at the Real Greek. Everything. Now, I'm usually not one to visit chains, preferring smaller family-run operations; however, the way things seem to work in London is that if a restaurant is successful, there will be more than one of them. Such is the case with Pizza Pilgrims, and such is the case with The Real Greek. They have over ten branches, so wherever you go in London you're never far from some irresistible Greek food.

While Bethnal Green isn't a great place in itself for food (think fried chicken and American fast food joints), there are so many places nearby that it's never an issue. For lunch one day, we rocked up to Laxeiro Tapas Bar and had a feast. We ploughed through two plates of pan con tomate (bread with tomato), as well as spinach and chickpeas, patatas bravas, and more. Like the food bus, the head chef at Laxeiro was a nonna, or should I say abuela, and bustled about endearingly. My compliments to the chef.

Fabienne was a strong advocate for disposable BBQs, having used them frequently when she lived in Spain. Having just discovered the wonderful invention myself in Edinburgh, I was keen for a backyard broil and we hunted through Tesco looking for supplies. Our house sit had a little concrete garden that was perfect for barbecuing (not many plants to catch fire), and we whipped up some awesome kumara and chickpea burgers.

For dessert I had brought a selection of cupcakes back from Ms Cupcake in Brixton, though we were too full to get very far and polished them off at breakfast the next day. Dare I say that the chocolate orange flavour was even better than the cookie dough flavour.

After both Finn and Fabienne had left London, I was once again left to my own devices with Wanda, as Yannick was off working during the daytime. I did appreciate a bit of down time after all that socialising, but it made me miss my friends in New Zealand even more (though Finn and I had a Skype session with our D&D clan and played an RPG called Monster of the Week, which was great fun). I was so pleased that Finn visited me while he was in the area.
With all my human friends gone or at work, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen cooking up pizzas and gnocchis and all sorts of yummy things (Yannick was overjoyed to come home every day to wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen), and binge-watched Making a Murderer on Netflix. Good times.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Edinburgh: Kia Ora to Irn-Bros

Edinburgh, Scotland
May 2016
While staying in London, I had the opportunity to visit Edinburgh where my good mates from back in the day Kelsi and Ollie had been living and working. My first full day there was a Friday and my hosts had work to do, so I headed out to explore a little.

I was vaguely headed towards a restaurant called Hendersons, as their menu boasted many delicious-sounding vegan items. However, I became distracted on my walkabout when not ten minutes after leaving the flat I saw a sign for 'Fountainbridge Street Food Friday' and went to check it out. A cute little food market had been laid out next to the Union Canal (a historic canal that opened in 1822 to allow Edinburgh easier access to cheap shipments of coal from the west of Scotland).

Funnily enough, Hendersons had a stall at the market! Seizing the good fortune, I ordered a selection of vegan treats: doner kebab, haggis pie and a coconut cupcake. Yummo!

At the weekend, we all went on a free walking tour of Edinburgh. Kelsi and Ollie had been on one before, but greatly enjoyed it and said that as it had been a while, they would like to go again. Our guide was engaging and amusing, covering a lot of historical facts and anecdotes while cracking jokes (properly funny ones too). The tour ended in Greyfriars Kirkyard: a churchyard and cemetery. Flodden Wall, one of the old city walls of Edinburgh, ran through the kirkyard marking where the Battle of Flodden took place (an infamous Scottish defeat by the invading English).

The cemetery also contained an inspiring assortment of names according to JK Rowling. She would write in a nearby café (now, of course, a popular tourist destination for Potterheads), and come to Greyfriars when needing name ideas. Here can be seen the tombstone of Thomas Riddell, which was the inspiration for Voldemort's pre-Voldemort name: Tom Riddle.

Another interesting tidbit about the kirkyard is the legend of Greyfriars Bobby, a little terrier who allegedly sat on his master's grave for fourteen years. The story is widely beloved, but also widely found to be suspicious in nature. There are many theories, but one that sounds very plausible to me is that Bobby didn't hang around the cemetery out of loyalty for his dead master, but because loads of people gave him food there and he figured that he had stumbled onto something good. According to the theorist, many dogs lacking owners would visit cemeteries for the very same reason. Regardless of whether the tale is embellished or not, fans of Bobby find choice sticks and lay them on his grave to honour the little dog.

One experience I couldn't pass up was taking a walk up Arthur's Seat, Edinburgh's token mountain.

Though it was a legit mountain and we climbed right up to the top for stunning views of the surrounding lands, the walk wasn't strenuous or time-consuming. It was a typical cloudy day, and visibility was on the low side closer to the horizon, but I wouldn't wish for one second that my visit to Arthur's Seat was any different. Yellow gorse flowers dotted the green slopes and beige dust peppered my sneakers from the trail up. The mountain itself was beautiful, and to be able to see Edinburgh from such a great vantage point was a definite highlight of my year.

Pics or it didn't happen, right? Kelsi and I posed for a photo at the very top in triumphant fashion.

On Sunday we took a train out to have a picnic by Forth Road Bridge, which spans the Firth of Forth (I just found that very fun to say, so had to include it). We also walked halfway over the bridge and it was so windy that my air turned to knots. A good brushing managed to dislodge most of them, however, and now I can proudly say I walked halfway from Edinburgh to Fife.

Some experiences that I neglected to photograph were:
1. Walking up Calton Hill, which is not as tall as Arthur's Seat but is a lot closer to town and also has brilliant views.
2. Having a barbecue in Harrison Park as the sun set with a bunch of Kelsi and Ollie's friends. It was my first time using a portable BBQ (only £2!), though not my last, and Kelsi and I relived our school days by going on the swings in the playground.
3. Undertaking a coconut oil hair mask, and other messy DIY beauty treatments, which I always look forward to when catching up with Kelsi.
4. Visiting Poundland! I had seen many Poundlands in London, but had never gone in thinking it to be a tacky $2 shop type place. How wrong I was! There are so many useful things in there, and all for £1. When I was in need of a sieve, where did I go? Poundland. Paper towels? Poundland. A big packet of Lotus speculoos biscuits? Poundland! They have all you could ever want, and more. Hair curlers! Batteries! Ollie took it upon himself to get me an Irn-Bru, the national non-alcoholic drink of Scotland. To be honest, I found it to be strange in flavour (sort of like a mix between cream soda and Fanta) and haven't had one since, but at least I can say that I've tried it.

A big thanks to Kelsi and Ollie, who generously shared their flat with me for several days and took the time to show me around their home-away-from-home. I had such a great time and saw a different side to Edinburgh than I had before. Cheers mates!

Today's post was almost called: To Ken Kinship with Kiwis in Kooky Kirkyards

Saturday, 18 February 2017

April 2016 Digest

Our foodilic adventures around London continued in April, and we hadn't eaten our fill of pizza.
Princi is a well-known eatery in Milan (so well-known that we gave up trying to eat at the first Princi we came across because the line was far too long, and then Yannick slogged through the queue in the second branch, which was almost as long). As they had opened a branch in London, we figured that we'd soak up a bit of nostalgia for our days of travelling through Italy and pay Princi a visit. Though busy, we didn't have to wait long to order. We had a slice of marinara pizza and a tiny carafe of wine, which cost more than a larger carafe of wine and a whole pizza at Pizza Pilgrims! I could not be a bigger advocate for PP: they provide so much better value for money than many other places while serving excellent traditional Italian food.

Returning to south London, I attended the Brixton Vegan Fayre, where I stuffed my face on free samples and made some excellent purchases. Kizzy's Cookies are delicious, as of course are all products by the Nākd company (everything is made with a base of dates and nuts - no refined sugar or processed foods!), and I tried a spice paste that was designed to help those who wanted to whip up great curries without having to buy twenty different spices. I wasn't a fan of the chocolates that I bought. Instead, I recommend Vego Bar, which is a winner! (Dark chocolate is a different matter, and excellent vegan dark chocolate is easy to find, but milk or white chocolate is a different matter.)
For my second event of the month, I attended a quiz night at Veg Bar - a completely vegan bar that serves drinks and comfort food just south of Brixton in Tulse Hill. Our team wasn't doing particularly well until the bonus round, in which we had to name capital cities of the world based off very small photographs. As a well-travelled bunch, we got every single photo correct, and we won the quiz! Our prize was that we could each have a free drink. I traded in my free drink for a free brownie. Now, these brownies are indescribably good. Just to get you to the base level of understanding, I'll outline the flavours. Picture a beautifully moist, chocolaty brownie. This brownie is already the bomb. Now, it has salted caramel sauce swirled through it. But that's not all. Now the brownie is cut in half horizontally and peanut butter is slathered in between the two brownie layers like a crazy sandwich. You might be thinking that salted caramel and peanut butter don't mix, because I used to think the same thing, but you would be dead wrong. Best brownie in the world. Someone else didn't cash in their free prize drink so I got a second brownie (I finished it through tears of pain and joy - this brownie was so rich that it was a real struggle to eat two).

Moving on from our Putney house sit, we had our first proper taste of north London in the form of North Finchley. We were looking after two cats, Kevin and Keeno, in a house I can only describe as "delightful". The decor was so bright and cheery, and I made good use of the hammock in the back garden; such good use that one day I fell asleep there while listening to an audiobook and developed a moderate sunburn.

Keeno was the slender cat who ate all the time, whereas Kevin was the chubster. Strangely enough, Kevin would eat so quickly that he threw up at least once a day, so we were a bit baffled as to how he maintained such a high weight.

Our room had a cute map-covered table right next to an airy window overlooking the street. I drank a lot of tea there. Delightful.

The area was much more green and lush than what we had seen of London until then. It was in Zone 4 of the Transport for London map (central is Zone 1-2), but still only took around half an hour to reach central London by tube (aka the metro, aka the underground, aka the subway).
During April, both Yannick and I attended interviews in an attempt to find employment, which worked wonderfully for him and not so well for me. I'm sure with more time I would have found a job, but we quickly realised that rent in London is ridiculously expensive and how great would it be if we could continue house sitting instead of having to share a flat with strangers in cramped conditions? I could work on my writing and care for the animals instead of working full-time, and we would have a place completely to ourselves while the owners were on holiday. With Yannick working, we could still afford food and creature comforts while saving for our next bout of travel. It was perfect!

My third event of the month was the Awakening Compassion Demonstration: a non-confrontational way to publicly advocate animal rights. Many of us stood with signs showing different animals that said things like "I am an animal. Someone, not something. I want to stay alive." The demo was to get people thinking about why they would love one animal (like a dog or a horse) and eat another (like a pig or a deer). It was a great experience, though it was cut a bit short by the downpour that sent us fleeing for the nearest tube stations in the late afternoon.

One day, Yannick and I decided to visit the Natural History Museum, but for some reason the entrance was flooded with an insensible number of children. Avoiding the noisy terrors, we popped next door to the Science Museum. Perhaps we were a bit put out by that time, however, as we weren't particularly interested in most of the exhibits except for a stunning collection of pocket watches. So shiny! An area nearby the museums was allegedly the French Quarter of London, so we had a wander around. Apart from Pret A Manger and Le Pain Quotidien, which are chains found in abundance all over the city, there was almost nothing to signify any Frenchness. We ended up having lunch at Franco Manca, the sourdough Neapolitan pizza chain that comes in second place to PP. Oddly, the marinara was of a much higher quality than at the first Franco Manca we had visited on Broadway Market. It was nearly comparable with PP's marinara! However, the wine selection was the same as our first visit so we didn't bother, knowing it to be gross.

Yannick had quickly secured a new job, so while we still had weekdays free we ventured to the Spanish island of Mallorca for just over a week to get away from big city life. You can read about our adventures in Palma and Soller here