Thursday, September 23, 2010

London in the Fall

Of course, the best, or most intriguing, reason to visit London in mid-September is to find out how the current year’s surprise team is managing to survive in the world’s most competitive, not to mention lucrative, football league. And this year, the buzz is Blackpool; rank no-hopers, they won promotion to the financial nirvana of professional sports against all odds, and rather than playing obscure teams in front of 3,800 fans, they are playing in the same sand pit as Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United. And doing surprisingly well.

Not, of course, that football is often on my mind, or was a motivator in booking this trip way back in February; sheer serendipity.

I am here for to work on my Dad’s estate, and thanks to our brilliant lawyer who has guided me through the arcane process of probate with ease and a frightening efficiency, we have now reached the happy moment of giving money away. Or so we thought, but the imposition of “new” identification regulations to combat the ever present money launderers, and no doubt terrorists mean that his will’s benefactors will have to exercise patience.

I did so by meeting friends; one in particular is a curious chap called Joseph who I met on a train in Slovakia some time ago. He writes, successfully and rather humorously I have to add, novels, biographies, travel articles and restaurant reviews. It was in this last role that he sent ma an email a couple of weeks ago asking when I might be free to dine in London next. He had been invited to the opening of a rather unusual restaurant in Camden Town of African persuasion, he intoned, and wanted to go back and review it properly; my input would be valued.

And so it was that we headed to simply the most peculiar restaurants that I have ever patronised. It has to be admitted that Camden Town in odd in and of itself, but Shaka Zulu takes the cake. A single, smiling but rather lonely bongo player was placed outside to keep the crowds under control and lure folks in to dine. There was nobody around, and we were going in anyway; he did show up later in the restaurant performing some folk-tunes that appeared to involve large, used baking bowls and Homburg hats; I am still confused.

However, we went in through a massive shell-encrusted entrance and down an escalator into the top floor of a two-level bar/restaurant/curio extravaganza/club/museum. In the manner, it has to be said, of a gloriously decorated underground station; not one of the more subdued suburban stations, but Bond Street in its heyday. The escalators probably prompted this comparison, but really it was huge, decorated beyond overkill, lit dramatically and it made us smile.

Dinner was disappointing. Kudu, a type of antelope, I can assure you is not worth eating. Unless, perhaps, you are a natural predator of antelopes; for the rest of us it looks pretty on the plate but disappoints. Virtually flavourless, it also has a disturbing characteristic of simply disappearing after a couple of chews. And it doesn’t taste of much either. Joseph’s Ostrich was a much better bet, but all in all we were rather underwhelmed, and frankly astonished at the £160 bill that his newspaper will have to foot.

Expensive, amusing, bizarre and entertaining, but not good value. So there you are; for a professional review, I will refer you to Joseph’s article in due course, but my rank-amateur conclusion is far from encouraging.

Blackpool lost, by the way, 4 - 0 to Chelsea, the game being the reason that my cousin’s husband was late for dinner on Sunday; it was a good game, he reported, (as actually they all are), but started late on Sunday.

He, John, is a season-ticket holder at Chelsea and came offering a ticket for Wednesday’s game against Chelsea; the very next day a great friend Clive, of whom I have spoken before, offered me a ticket to watch the final match in a five-game cricket series between England and Pakistan on Wednesday evening.

Spoilt for choice I had to decline both, as I was to be in Munich dithering between Oktoberfest and Nymphenburg Castle. What a life.

Munich in September

It is, perhaps, a sign of age that I would prefer to spend an afternoon exploring the gorgeous grounds of Munich’s Nymphenburg Castle instead of sidling up to the conviviality of Oktoberfest.

I had no idea that I would be in Munich for Oktoberfest, no really, I had not a clue, when I booked this tail-end trip, but so it was.

I realised as soon as I got off the flight from London that something was amiss. Torrents of men wearing leather shorts, some disgracefully small, and more women wearing costumes created in the style, shall we say of “Bistro Chic”. Many, I have to admit to in fairness, alluringly small. Something was amiss; I have travelled to Munich many times over the past decades, and its usual Bavarian decorum was clearly out of season.

It is a great festival. I understand from a friend here that the “tents” that serve eye-watering rivers of beer, thousands of bland sausages and pretzels by the ton can make about €1.5 million in the two-week extravaganza. Even allowing for a few weeks of preparation, a few strained moments dealing with overly indulgent staff, one can imagine that their houses have a Happy Christmas indeed.

And so it was that I flew to Munich for a day or so to catch up with an old friend and found myself with this dilemma. I realised that without a reassuringly tight pair of leather shorts, a frilly shirt with a pope-grade brooch, I would stick out like the tourist that I was; added to this that I am, at least by the standards of Munich beer tents, old, I would be targeted as an outsider, tourist and easy mark. Which, of course, would be completely fair, so I went to Nymphenburg instead.

Attracted, at least in part, by its evocative name, I headed out to this glorious 17th century castle. It is not overly crenulated, one has to say, and barely castle-like at all in the conventional manner of moats, keeps and damsels in distress. Think, rather, of a dramatic chateau of the French style, a magnificent building in overwhelming and micro-managed gardens. Imagine a long road leading to the chateau either side of a perfect canal, the gardens opening to show the full, symmetrical facade of the building, and as one passes through one of many arches a short gasp at the profusion of colour from the thousands of perfect marigolds lining the immaculate lawns.

Lovely; really lovely. And should you think that I had made a special trip here, to prove my cultural integrity, I didn’t. The friend that I was staying with lives on the northern path of the canal, so waking with a bit of a headache, and little inclination to fill myself up with beer and oompah bands, I took the high road and wandered to the Schloss.

Munich is really lovely; I have been fortunate to visit many times, and on each return I wonder at its prosperity, beauty and its situation. Lying as it does so close to the Alps, surrounded by lakes and gentle countryside, perfectly manicured villages and more micro-breweries than a chap can take, it is, in my humble opinion, an almost perfect city.

And so I found myself there, after a few days in London, about which I shall report in reverse order. I was in London to deal with my father’s estate, and despite days learning fast about English probate laws, trust obligations, the professional delineation between lawyers and accountants and trying to remember where I had put an important piece of paper, I did manage to have some fun.

Including a completely bizarre dinner at an African restaurant in Camden Town with my friend Joseph, a rush-hour whizz around the M25, an extraordinary curry with Ann, a mystifying but terrific breakfast at Euston and the everlasting bewilderment at how the Heathrow Express can get away with charging £18 for a fifteen-minute ride into London.

Watch this space.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

22, Besiki Street, Tbilisi

Mundane, daily chores are actually quite fun to do when one is not at home, but simply playing house.

We have rented a small house in Tbilisi for five nights, partly for the space, and partly to be able to get under the skin of the city, at least a very little bit.

Our little grocery store is a case in point; having been in now for three days in a row, this morning when I went to buy some eggs and bread I was pondering the selection in the cooler to see if there was something that resembled butter, or perhaps a spreadable cheese. After about a two-minute ponder, the owner came over, wrapped in a big smile, and advised me to get the small package, wrapped in a reddish cover with pictures of what appeared to be a collection of empty puff-pastry cases.

Now, I bought it because it was cheap, she was enthusiastic and although the thought that she had had this for a year or more and could finally rid her shop of it crossed my mind, I didn’t think that she was going to be that sinister. I am back home now, and wondering who actually buys this rather dusty and overly sweet pineapple curd.

Home is temporarily 22, Besiki Street, Tbilisi. It is a two storey house with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, an equipped kitchen and a large living room. There is air conditioning in the main bedroom, quickly and emphatically claimed by the parents. We are a three or four minute walk to Rustaveli, a main street, where there are cafes, shops and life.

The house costs $80 per day, a very fair price, and the neighbourhood is lovely. In common with so many older places, books can’t be judged by their covers. Dusty and partly crumbling streets belie the small courtyards with well-kept homes behind. Life is played out in the small cafes, the door steps and courtyards of the street; the language is, of course, a dreadful barrier, but we are coming to grips with some simple words, and do seem to be a source of some amusement to the residents.

Taking out the garbage, scouring the neighbourhood in search of some unguent to clean the fridge and even doing the dishes become interesting. Not interesting enough to encourage our daughters to join in perhaps, but there you go.

The house is, it has to be said, on the brown side; “like a Granny’s house”, one girl said helpfully. Seat coverings are a heavy brown, rope-mesh, the sort that is sold by the ten-metre swath at fishing-supply emporia. I do love it though, all the fun of playing house; sharing a flake of intimacy with Tbilisi and almost being a part of this fabulous city.

It is funny too, how fast people recognise you, but then again, I am sure that if a Georgian family moved into our neighbourhood, they would be spotted fast too. But it matters not; folks are friendly, although it has to be said that a surprising number of people stay up very late, and one in particular has a penchant for enjoying the more obtrusive crooners of the 1980s in the small hours. This, of course, reflects unemployment, a fact of life that passes hotel-dwellers by, but determines the rhythms of the residential areas.

In Georgia one is never far away from the legacies of the 1990s and the destruction wrought by the civil wars of the Caucuses. In 1993 alone, following the Russian occupation, some 200,000 Abkhazian refugees came to Tbilisi swelling the city’s numbers and introducing a large number of rural folk to an urban environment. Many came to the Mtatsminda district of the city where we stayed, and clearly changed the fabric of the area. For us it didn’t matter one bit, as we had no sensitivity to rural accents, but there are certainly hundreds of thousands of un- and under-employed in Tbilisi, and they don’t’ seem the feel an urge to get to bed early.

And so life ticks on by; I rather wish that we were here for a couple of weeks, and really get to understand the community better, but we are not. I will be back, though, and look forward to coming home to number 22, Besiki Street, my new home away from home.