Monday, March 26, 2007

A New Season

Well, we’ve now stepped into the season of spring. Freshness abounds. Winter has gone away, and the clocks have sprung forward. Nature awakens from her long slumber. The weather is turning warmer, and the days are getting longer. The sky is sunny, and the flowers are blooming. Tis Spring! School’s ended, Easter beckons, the hemlines are up, and it’s time to file our taxes.

Tis Spring. Indeed.

I’ve had a mega English breakfast with my friend from home, and while he saunters round the bookstores of London, I return to my room, to my beloved essays, on whom I’ve lavished so much attention over the past few days.

But it won't be forever. Tomorrow I shall take my leave, and depart for a distant land, far away from thoughts of OLS regression, or the move towards citizen-based journalism, or China’s strategic inroads into Africa, or reforms to the British civil service since 1979.

The coming few months will take on a very different tenor. While there are no more formal classes, a ton of assignments remain, plus the dreaded exams. I have no idea as yet how the time will pan out. What’s clear is that it’s gonna be plenty busy.

Meanwhile, I shall have a good time catching up with my friend and longtime travelling companion, as we continue on our jaunt through the world’s last remaining dictatorships.

Back soon.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Arbutus? Arbuthen!

Dinner this evening at Arbutus, a classy restaurant on Frith Street, near to Soho Square, tucked away at the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. Open only since May 2006, it’s certainly a new entrant to London’s already crowded fine dining scene. But I think it’s made pretty decent inroads already, judging from sympathetic reviews in TimeOut and The Independent.

The restaurant bills itself as offering Modern Eclectic cuisine, which I took to mean Pow Kar Liao, but there was a strong hint of the French in its offerings. How could I tell? It's because I could barely understand many of the items listed. But I’ve gotta give them credit, for Arbutus changes its menu daily, ensuring that regular visitors always encounter something new and fresh.

Of course, one of my dining companions faced no problem understanding the menu, for he was the urbane and cultured Singapore Doctor, on his third outing to the establishment. And he was accompanied today by his sister, the lovely Chio Bu, in town for nice holiday. Coincidentally, I happened to be entertaining a friend from home as well, who had just flown into London earlier in the day.

I settled for the Pre-Theatre Menu, which comprised an onion soup starter, followed by a dish of lamb, which I found a wee bit cold. But it was very well-prepared, unlike some of the more rubbery stuff you might find elsewhere. Then came a novel rhubarb jelly dish, covered in vanilla ice cream, the sour and the sweet mixed together in a rather invigorating combination.

All in all, a very nice meal, and a delightful opportunity to meet the Chio Bu at last. But as usual, I stepped away still somewhat peckish, for the glutton’s tummy always has room for more. Thoughts of crab bee hoon continue unabated.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Food From The Domestic Goddess

What a dreary and dismal day this has been, consigned as I was to my room, chained to my desk, confined to channelling my energies into nothing but this essay which I hope to complete in the next few days. Outside, the sky was bleak and brooding. Inside, the mood was no better.

But just as the sun set and the day came to a languid close, things brightened up considerably when I headed down to the buttery for dinner. There, awaiting us was a nice Teochew porridge meal prepared by the SSG – aka the Singapore Lawyer - who, true to her promise earlier, managed to whip up a delectable offering, assisted in part by the able Snowboarder. I helped out somewhat with the bean sprouts, but was chastised for my low standard of craftsmanship.

In the end, a wonderful feast awaited us – with fried kangkung, lup cheong, tow geh, ikan bilis, xian cai tang, minced meat and more, plus warm, filling porridge. The company, as usual, was brilliant. This was truly a nice way to end the day.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Exam Thoughts and More

Classes have ended for the term, and the exam schedule has just been issued. Looks like I’ll have to go into seclusion for much of May, burying myself in books and assorted other paperwork. The amazing thing is that even after my final paper, I have two more full essays to submit in the weeks thereafter. The next few months are likely to be pretty hectic.

It’s one thing to remind myself not to be a chao mugger. It’s another thing altogether to not study and thereby fail the exams. I have quite a bit of work I need to do in order to get in shape for my economics class and my research methods and statistic class. I’m less worried about the other modules.

But worries about the dissertation will have to come after the exams, although I did have the second of my meetings yesterday with my supervisor. Does UCL mind if most of my cited sources are American, and not British? Not at all, she replied, for UCL liked to think of itself as a "global university."

As we ended, she asked where I was headed to over the Easter break, and seemed pretty miffed when I told her of my plans. Heh, I said. I like telling Americans of my intended destination, as it’s probably the one place in the world where they can’t legally enter.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Face From Home

Met an old colleague and friend earlier this evening over dinner at the Grand Bazaar, a small Turkish restaurant off Oxford Street on James Street, which also sees many other eateries close by jostling for business. The weather was freezing, but the company and food were delightful.

The place was imaginatively decorated, with lamps and incense burners hanging from the ceiling, creating the atmosphere of the oriental, conjuring up the image of a Turkish bazaar. We started with some bread and mititi kofte, and I followed up with a admittedly somewhat dry serving of swordfish on spit. Being there, my thoughts were also drawn to the Café Divan, a Turkish restaurant in Washington where I had spent some memorable moments during a period of my life that now lies ever further in the past.

It was good catching up with her, and getting up to scratch with some of the gossip back home about who's up, who's down, and who's heading out. She’s here currently on holiday, in between two assignments, and I’m pretty happy for her that her next posting is a well-regarded and much deserved one. It’s a very good step up for her.

Amidst all the talk about our parent agency back home, what was sobering for me, alas, was the realization that even though I’ve yet to conquer my schoolwork and exams here in London, I need now to look increasingly ahead to a life back at work again. It's something to be done. But it’s not an entirely scintillating prospect.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

London Vs New York

It’s a perennial tussle, isn’t it, a persistent debate on which city is better – London or New York? Which do you like more? Which do you find more vibrant and exhilarating? Which can claim the mantle of Capital of the World? For those fortunate to have been to both cities, we each have our own preference. But some things are beyond comparison, surely. Consider: Hyde Park or Central Park? The London Underground or the New York Subway? The Tate Modern or MOMA? Pasties and fruitcakes or bagels and pretzels? Often it’s not as straightforward a task as merely tabulating a list of likes and dislikes.

But the answer can still be evident. And I know where my loyalties lie. I prefer London far more than New York, and it’s a view I’ve long held, even before I moved here last September. I like New York. But I like London more. I grew up long enthralled by thoughts of London, while never really being turned by or seduced by that other city across the Atlantic pond. It’s difficult to explain why that’s the case, although I’m sure many harbour opposing sentiments. I first came here way back in 1995, and have returned several times since, enjoying each visit, while the virgin journey to New York was attempted only in 2001.

I’ve been revisiting these thoughts this week, when I came upon the cover story in New York magazine, which covers life and times in the Big Apple – trends, dining, fashion, travel, gossip, and other assorted topics. And incredibly, it was a homage to – of all places – London! Check out the special section here.

It’s a brave move by the good folks at New York magazine. The lead article points to an increasing sense that in the friendly fight between these two global cities, London appears to have seized the upper hand in recent years. Talent from around the world seems to be pouring in, with a visible influx from Eastern Europe. The arts, dining and architecture scenes are flourishing. London beat out New York and other cities for the right to host the 2012 Summer Olympics. The report proclaims, “If Paris was the capital of the nineteenth century and New York of the twentieth, London is shaping up to be the capital of the 21st.”

Most of all, London has been the beneficiary of a massive boom in the financial sector, so much so that there are fears in New York that their position as a leading hub for capital and services might be usurped. London benefits from its geography, right next to Europe, and in between Asia and the Americas. Onerous post-Enron regulations on companies and post-September 11 clamp-downs in visas and travel have made London a much more attractive location for business. Ambitious young bankers now head to London to make a killing, not New York.

Of course, both cities are stupendously expensive, staggeringly crowded, and serve as prime terror targets, with 9/11 and 7/7 instant shorthand for the respective tragedies of the past few years. I’d reckon that London sucks by having worse weather, creakier infrastructure, and more trash on TV. Yet these realities do not detract from the joy that is to be derived from the charm and excitement of this great city.

Would I enjoy living in New York? How would things be like if I were spending this one year not here, but over there? The experience would be different, I’m sure. I’d be meeting different people, seeing different places. But I’m happy that this is purely a useless counterfactual, for right now, I wouldn’t trade my place here for anywhere else in the world.

Monday, March 19, 2007

South Of The River

The wrath of Winter returned today for an unseasonable late March blast, bringing top temperatures hovering only around the mid single digits. The onset of Spring is clearly on hold. But the heavens were more schizophrenic, ushering in bright blue skies, and then dark clouds heavy with sleet and snow, even if for brief, fleeting moments. But it was rather magical, just for a while, as I gazed upwards in the evening, peering at the snow and ice drifting silently downwards, illuminated by the dizzying light of the streetlamps, falling onto my cheeks, and dusting all that lay below.

Braving the cold, the Monday Night Dining Club convened this evening at a new location, heading south of the river for the first time. We found our way to the area around Borough Market, close to the London Bridge Tube station, and settled on this charming place called the Wine Wharf on Stoney Street – a cool two-storey wood-panelled establishment offering a wide selection of wines and spirits, with comfortable seating and live jazz music in the background, which one member dismissed as mere wallpaper.

Putting aside such pernicious English cynicism, most of us had fun tackling the poached haddock on bubble and squeak with poached egg and a pommery mustard sauce. Yummy. But what the heck is bubble and squeak? Well, you learn something new every day. Apparently, it’s a traditional English dish comprising mainly potato mash, but with other bits added in, such as leek, onions or assorted vegetable fragments. Accompanying this was a lovely bottle of chilled Chilean rosé.

What a nice setting the Wine Wharf presented. Somehow, it seemed particularly apt for us to gather there on this cold evening, surrounded by brooding and bleak Jack the Ripper-like Victorian streets, while we remained snug and comfortable within. But I’m sure when high summer comes, a different atmosphere will set in with ease.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

At The Home Of The Duke

We spent the day on a short trip driving out of London to Blenheim Palace, about twenty minutes north of Oxford. Accompanying me on this nice excursion was the SSG and the Snowboarder, both of whom were equally keen to get out of the congestion and convulsions of the capital city into the English countryside. And we weren’t disappointed. The early clouds soon lifted, and we were rewarded with minimal traffic, brilliant weather, spectacular attractions, and a nice day out, all in all.

Blenheim Palace is a truly magnificent complex. Set in lush Oxfordshire landscape, it was built on a plot bequeathed by England’s Queen Anne early in the 18th century to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, after he had led English forces to a great victory over the French in Bavaria. The national treasury contributed what was then a princely sum of £240,000 to aid in the construction of the monumental edifice, designed in what’s known as the English Baroque style.

Blenheim Palace has continued since to serve as the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough. We’re now up to the 11th Duke, with the 12th and 13th already sired and waiting for their turn to lead the family. And when my two friends and I stepped through the Palace door, we were welcomed by an elderly white-haired gentleman whom we assumed was a staff member of the Duke’s household. Perhaps he was. But when we grabbed a brochure later and saw a photograph of the Duke himself, we could help but notice the resemblance with the man who welcomed us. Surely not!?! Well…who knows? But the likeness was real uncanny.

The Palace has another claim to fame – that as the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, whose father, Randolph, was the younger brother of the 8th Duke of Marlborough. And when inside the Palace, we were able to tour a quick exhibition of Churchill's early life, and also the room in which he was born, followed by a quick trot through some of the rooms open to the public – such as the Green and the Red Drawing Rooms, the Salon, and the elegant Long Library, with a full pipe organ at one end.

After a nice lunch in the sun, we proceed to saunter through the large and expansive Palace grounds. Here’s where one’s mood became truly lifted – the cool winds, the open spaces, the lovely scenery, for these are things you don’t really get back in Singapore. Try to lie down on any patch of grass there, and you’d be eaten alive instantly by ants and mosquitoes. I lay down today on the sloping verge, gazing at the lake beyond, and hear nothing but the sounds of nature, the blustery wind, the swaying tree branches. This was bliss. But of course, if we had some Old Chang Kee curry puffs with us, then it would truly have been a perfect day.

Back In Asia

News of the ugly spat between Singapore and Indonesia over the export of sand has now reached the British daily print media. Here's an article from Saturday's edition of The Times on the bilateral dispute.

This come just a day after the New York Times in the US published a similar report on the difficulties the country's facing in the conduct of its external relations, not only with Indonesia, but also with Malaysia and Thailand.

Sobering reading, indeed.

Friday, March 16, 2007

A Night With The Bohemians

I didn’t expect to head to the opera and witness acts of public humping on top of a tavern table, surrounded by throngs of onlookers. But of course, when it’s a work that describes the life and travails of a bunch of Bohemians in Paris, what else would you expect?

I had exploited my access to cheap student tickets at the English National Opera once again, and checked out a performance earlier this evening of Puccini’s La Boheme at the London Coliseum. It was delightfully entertaining and funny, although some may find me callous for not being sufficiently moved by the final scene, where the waif-like heroine Mimi dies on stage, with her lover Rudolfo by her side. She died of consumption, apparently. It seems that they always die of consumption. It’s either that, or they die of grief and a broken heart.

Anyway, La Boheme is probably one of the most accessible and popular works in the Western operatic canon, and certainly among Puccuni’s better-known compositions. It was composed in 1896, before Tosca and Madama Butterfly, two other much loved Puccini operas. The man derived his inspiration from a novel written earlier in the 19th century, but the ENO production placed it sometime in the first half of the 20th century, judging from the clothing worn.

The plot didn’t seem fully developed, but perhaps that wasn’t the point. Enough to know that we have two pairs of lovers, along with their good friends, living the life of poor Bohemians – poets and artists, musicians and philosophers. No systems anlaysts, marketing executives or operation supervisors here. The entire opera came replete with very familiar tunes that have crept into popular consciousness. But I was most impressed with Act II, set in the streets and the tavern, with a huge chorus cast around, and all six principle characters in full force, as they live the life of gay Bohemians. Yes, the meaning of that word has since changed, but in this context, it sounds right. And the highlight for me, visually as well as musically, was how Musetta sought to seduce Marcello, stoking his jealously, belting out a risqué song. It was marvellously hilarious.

We had dinner earlier at Belgo Centraal, and what a wonderfully jolly affair it was. This is a Covent Garden classic, open since 1992, but it was the first time I had been there. The setting was rather quaint. The entire dining area was located in the basement, and tables were laid out family-styled and bench-like, with the open concept kitchen nearby. Around us were waiters dressed up as monks. Were they Trappists, by any chance?

Belgo serves up delectable Belgian cuisine, plus an amazing variety of Belgian beer, evoking for me memories of Brussels from not that many months ago. Check out their mouth-watering menu here. What was exciting was their Beat The Clock special offer – “Monday to Friday 5pm to 6.30pm. Pay the price at the time shown on your food order. Served with a choice of Maes lager, a glass of house wine or a soft drink.”

Well, I didn’t manage to get there on the dot of five, but made it in time nonetheless to wolf down a serving of the Saucisses de Porc – comprising port and leek sausages with stoemp, or Belgian mash. A vanilla waffle came later, rounding up a tummy-rubbing meal.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Catch No Ball

Let's see. So here's the formula:

Log odds (Y) = β0 + β1X1 + β2X2 + β3X3 + βkXk + u

And we have to bear in mind that the dependent variable need not be normally distributed but its assumed distribution is within the range of the exponential family, and also that the relationship between X and Y is not linear and that there is no multicollinearity... and what about the issue of homoscedasticity versus hetroscedasticity, when we apply logit? And do we express the coefficients later as log odds or odds/ratio???

This is typically the point at which I get ready to hurl myself out of the window.

The Catechism of Climate Change

Living here in London, it’s difficult not to be seized by the sheer intensity of the public debate focusing on global warming. The Stern Review, released late last year, examined its potential negative impact on the world economy. The Labour government has just announced a series of initiatives to tackle the problem. Prime Minister Tony Blair has been quoted in the Daily Telegraph as saying that dealing with climate change was as great a challenge for this generation as the battle to defeat Fascism and Communism had been for the last. Even the Mayor of London has fleshed out plans to turn the capital green.

We are reminded, constantly, almost incessantly, and sometimes in dire terms, of what might come. Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” is viewed as received wisdom. We need, all of us, to reduce our carbon footprint. We need to go green, the orthodoxy pronounces.

There’s significantly less coverage of these related issues back in Singapore, perhaps reflecting that reality that its saliency there is more limited, both among the people and in government as well. But it is a real concern, and this past winter, notable for how mild it’s been, presented opportunities many for individuals to make an explicit link with global climate change, regardless of whether there’s actually a clear, causal relationship, or whether it’s just a seasonal blip.

I don’t sit on the fence here, but am happy nonetheless to be in the middle of the road, rather than on the far end, where this issue is concerned. I recognize that our climate is indeed changing. But that’s not what disturbing me this past few weeks, and which prompted this posting. Rather, what’s striking about the public debate – especially if we view it through a social constructivist angle – is how the mantra of climate change has come to form almost a secular religion in this country. Challenge it at your peril. There's no room, it seems, for skepticism or doubt.

If one seeks to be in public life, it’s as though one needs to proclaim an unswerving devotion to a belief that the earth is heading for hell, and that radical and rapid action was necessary, right away. To depart from the path in any way constitutes utter heresy. Surely that shouldn’t be the way. To me, it’s not so much that concerns for climate are wrong, but that it seems to be occupying such a disproportionate amount of attention. Environmentalism and green issues span different facets. Yet, it’s only global warming - specifically, the belief in extreme interpretations of the trend - that has managed successfully to capture such strong scrutiny, serving as a necessary litmus test to demonstrate how enlightened one is.

It’s become a political tool over which to beat one’s opponents, a moral instrument to proclaim one’s holiness, and a central tenet of belief for all who wish to establish themselves as right-minded progressive citizens. There’s a positive side to caring for the environment. But I think somewhere along the way, the rhetorical balance has been lost. And that, I feel, is a real shame for the quality of discourse in the public sphere.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

At The Midpoint

I’m now at the half way mark of my one year in London. It’s been a good journey so far. I arrived in the middle of last September. I shall expect to head home sometime this September. Allow me this cliché, as it expresses the sentiment so well, for I do feel that the sands of time have slipped by very fast.

This has been a very rich and fulfilling half year, even though there are a few minor, lingering regrets. But I’ve seen much, learnt much, met many, not to mention eaten plenty along the way. Given how my academic year has been structured, much of the pressure is back loaded, with a bunch of essays, the exams and the final dissertation still to come.

Yet it’s time not only to think about these coming tests, but also about what I shall be doing at the end of this one year here. Right now, I have no real clue yet, and the uncertainty can be somewhat unsettling. But at the same time, it’s not something I think I shall pursue with great vigour, at least not until the exams are over.

The warmer months now beckon now beckon. Summer time begins at the end of this month, bringing longer days. Classes will conclude even earlier. I’ll be seeing the friends from school much less often. A different rhythm and routine to life will set in. Change is certainly in the air.

Have I achieved all that I wanted to? What will this coming half year bring? Let’s touch base again in September.

Exposure to Kiasuness

Dinner last night with five good friends from class at Kiasu, the Singaporean restaurant in Queensway where I had been to once before. I was the one who talked about getting together, and was most happy to oblige when one of the Canadians suggested that we go try some Singaporean food. It’s nice to be able to introduce them to the stuff that I’ve been raving about for the past half year.

I came away this time round very satisfied indeed. My Nasi Goreng Istimewa was simply sedap and shiok, and I hope the others were satisfied with their choices as well – Singapore Char Kway Teow, Hokkien Mee Soup, Nasi Lemak and Nonya Chicken Curry. Earlier, I had ordered a selection of starters for everyone to try - Roti Prata, Pork Satay, Kueh Pai Tee and Chye Tow Kueh.

One of the Americans talked about going to Singapore after finishing studies here at the end of summer, as part her post-UCL plans for a long holiday around the world. Sounds like a good idea. It would be a real shame to have these friendships fade away once we leave London. I look forward to welcoming all of them to Singapore in future. Already I’m thinking – how shall I feed them when they get there?

Monday, March 12, 2007

A Showcase of Styles

The architecture I encountered on the streets of Ljubljana was simply stunning. To be fair, by that I don’t necessarily mean that there were individual buildings that were truly of world-renown, commanding attention in their own right. Rather, it was that the city managed to hold within its confines so many little gems from various different eras and epochs – from the Baroque, Art Nouveau, Secessionism, right up to the Art Deco, Modernism and even Socialist Realism. Collectively, there was a real visual feast to explore and to admire.

Much of what we see today in Ljubljana stems from the work of famed local architect, Jože Plečnik, considered a pioneer of European modern architecture. He was responsible for shaping many parks and squares in the city, as well as for designing the famous Triple Bridge across the Ljubljanica river and the Colonnade market place across. Surely there are few cities in the world that bear the visible imprint of one single artist.

Here’s a nice selection of some of the buildings I stumbled upon this past weekend.


Sunday, March 11, 2007

Rampant in Slovenia

Pastel-coloured buildings and cobbled stone streets, the chimes of church bells, squares with heroic statues. Looming further away, a castle on top of the hill, overlooking the entire city. All around me, people talking in a language I didn’t understand. It could mean only one thing – I was back in Central Europe. And this time round, I found myself in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.

Slovenia was the western-most nation in the former Yugoslavia, both geographically and culturally. Slavic in origin and dominated through its history by a succession of foreign powers, ranging from the French to the Hapsburgs and then to Germans earlier last century, it joined the other South Slav states to form Yugoslavia, but became the first to break away in the early 1900s, its declaration of independence triggering a brief 10 day war with federal Yugoslav forces.

And how fast it’s developed since. This is one country which bucked the post-Cold War Balkan trend towards messy and bloody disintegration. The economy is thriving, the country is peaceful and prosperous, and European Union membership was secured in 2004, when Slovenia leaped ahead even of countries such as Bulgaria and Romania. In January this year, the euro was adopted as the new currency, which certainly made my travels there this weekend much easier.

The core of Ljubljana is small and can be easily explored on foot, which was what I did for much of Saturday, wandering to Preseren Square at the heart of town, named after a national poet. There stood the pink-coloured Franciscan Church with its ornamented façade. And in front of it, spanning the Ljubljanica river was the delightful Triple Bridge (Tromostovje). Crossing over, I came upon a bustling Saturday market at the foot of the St Nicholas Church and then reached another bridge, the Dragon Bridge (Zmajski Most), built in Art Noveau style and featuring four statues of dragons, considered an emblem of the city.

I wandered through the rest of the city, traversing mostly quiet and deserted streets. Evidently, this remained a country that treasured its weekends, for all the shops were closed. I managed to take in some history at the City Museum of Ljubljana, close to a complex called the Križanke, the former seat of Teutonic Knights who once held sway over the city in the Middle Ages.

Later in the day, I took the modern all-glass funicular up to Ljubljanski Grad, or Ljubljana Castle, which occupied a dramatic hill over the city core. And with the weather bright and the skies sunny, it afforded visitors a wonderful view over the entire city.

On Sunday morning, I headed to Ljubljana’s main bus terminus and took an early ride to Lake Bled, some 80 km north of the city, close to the Austrian border. Despite its sinister sounding name, Lake Bled is actually one of Slovenia’s most insanely pretty locations. All the right features are there – a peaceful little lake, with an even smaller island in the middle, upon which an old church had been built. Perched on a rock cliff a hundred meters above the lake was a small castle (Blejski Grad). And in the distance, snow-capped mountains from Slovenia’s Julian Alps.

I arrived at Lake Bled even before the clock struck nine in the morning, and proceeded to walk the entire circumference of the lake. Don’t ask me how I managed to do that. I must have been out of my mind. It took me about two hours at quite an intense pace, and when I was done, I was pretty exhausted, satisfying myself with a cup of morning coffee, and then making sure I caught the return bus to Ljubljana.

The rest of the day was spent grabbing lunch and exploring the regular Sunday antiques market at the edge of the Ljubljanica river, before I departed for the airport, bringing to a close a very lovely weekend in this effortlessly elegant city. It had been a very enjoyable trip.

Travel Notes: I flew easyJet from London Stansted to Ljubljana’s Brnik airport. Accommodation was at the Grand Union Garni Hotel, situated midway between the main train and bus station and the centre of town. For yummy Slovenian cuisine, head to the Gostilna Šestica, located on Slovenska cesta, Ljubljana’s main thoroughfare. Good Italian cuisine is also available at the Gostilna As, close to Preseren Square.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

30 May 2007 at the Wembley Arena!

For the past many weeks, I’ve been trying almost every other day to check if the timetable for the final exams has been released. Right now, I know only vaguely that they are slated for sometime in May through to June. That hardly provides any certainty. And now I learn that the information won’t be issued for another two weeks. Damn. I really, really, really need to know – right now, right away – when my papers are scheduled.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly no geek or nerd. For the Singaporean readers of this blog, it means that I’m definitely not a chao mugger! So, why am I so anxious?

Because Dave Matthews is performing in London! Imagine that! And for one night only on 30 May at the Wembley Arena! Wah lau!

The cooler ones out there will know right away who Dave Matthews and the Dave Matthews Band are, for the Grammy-award winning group is surely one of the top pop acts to have emerged in the past decade, although they began performing much earlier in the 1990s in Charlottesville, Virginia. And since then, they've rocketed to the top, capturing a huge and devoted following, but one – alas – that seems pretty limited to the United States.

And of course it was during my time there that I was introduced to his amazing music – to most sensational songs such as Grey Street, Where Are You Going, The Space Between, Satellite, and more. It’s may not be useful to describe in words what his music sounds like – edgy, jazzy, underlined by his deep, distinctive voice. The band employs a wide range of instruments as well, including the violin, the saxophone, and the flute, going beyond most pop groups. It makes for a very good formula. And so it’s best to listen to it yourself, and be instantly captivated, as I was. Here are links to a few good clips on YouTube – a live performance of Grey Street, the music video for Crash Into Me, and an acoustic version of Crush.

I would also admit a particular liking for pop acts whose repertoire includes long tracks – longer than the standard three or four minute lollipops out there. Because it isn’t every group out there which can pull off a lengthy performance. And so Dave Matthews and his band have earned my respect in this regard, in being able to sustain a song for eight minutes, in a song like Crush, or even one that lasts a full ten minutes – the monumental Bartender. And check out this awesome and powerful live performance of Bob Dylan's All Along The Watchtower. Simply heart-thumping.

And so, back to the exams. I’ve been level headed enough thus far to have refrained from placing an order for the concert tickets. What I dread is the prospect of having a paper scheduled for the day right after the concert, when I might be high on life and low on sensibility, not to mention hearing. It would definitely mean me giving up on this amazing opportunity.

But the full timetable should be published soon. And I’ll be sure to pounce on it right away. Will studies come first? Or will I get to go to the concert? I’ve already found someone from class who’s also keen to go. I’m sure there will be others, too. So let there be no clash, please, please, please…

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Signs of Spring on Gordon Square

The sun’s shining longer, the days are getting warmer, and the flowers are beginning to bloom. To be sure, we’re still in winter, but signs of spring are emerging, slowly yet visibly. We’ll soon shed these heavy jackets for brighter, lighter outer wear.

Gordon Square is an open park ground located just right next to my university. Last term, it had been closed for upgrading works, but it’s since reopened, and earlier this week, I had fun sitting there under a sunny noonday sky, munching on my sandwiches, surfing the web wirelessly, gazing at the people there, and taking these images which one day shall remind me of my days at UCL.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Delights of Hampstead

Let me begin by stating again for the record - categorically, emphatically, unequivocally - that this is NOT a food blog.

Heh. Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about where I was earlier tonight, for I was in delightful Hampstead for dinner and more with my Monday Night Dining Club. And it turned out to be a most enjoyable evening, as always.

There was a desolate and windswept feel to the streets of Hampstead, with hardly anyone around. Was it because it was a Monday night? Was it because it was winter? Was it because it was dreary and rainy? Perhaps. But the good food we had made up for everything.

Our first stop was the Horseshoe, a nice gastropub on Heath Street, less than five minutes away from the Hampstead Tube station. There, I helped myself to a nice serving of fried pollock with potatoes. There’s also a microbrewery located in the basement, where summer ale is produced, which comes with a nice flowery taste.

The décor of the Horseshoe was clean and modern, with large tables widely spaced apart, not too noisy, and cheerful service staff. But we didn’t linger there for long, although the conversation was brilliant. For we just had to go seek out our next destination.

La Crêperie de Hampstead is a delightful little gem of this area. Tucked in a corner, near to a pub, it’s known as the one place in London to go to if you’re hungering for authentic French crepes. How authentic? Well, even the two ladies behind the counter spoke French with each other. And the taste of what they produce certainly reminds me of my time in France, where there are crepes aplenty.

The Hampstead Crêperie is located in a simple, nondescript stand, but its renown reaches far, and on busier occasions, you get a long queue of hungry, crepe-deprived souls snaking around the corner. For they’ve been drawn by the legendary menu, which comes with both buckwheat crepes, with an assortment of fillings, to the sweeter dessert crepes, which was what I was after.

We were luckier this time, for there was barely a line of people waiting. I was first introduced to this place in the summer of 2003, when I was last in London, and resolved thereafter to return one day. And here I was again. It’s great to be back.

I started with the simple Crepe Suzette, which came with powered sugar, honey and lemon. But that’s ain’t enough. Went for a second one – this time ordering the classic crepe with nutella. Now we’re talkin'. This was good stuff, starting the week on a very good note indeed.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A Steamy Affair

So, today is Yuan Xiao Jie (元宵节) – the Lantern Festival – which marks the fifteenth and final day of the Lunar New Year celebrations period. And it’s nice that it falls this year on a Sunday, as that presented us with a good excuse, I mean, occasion to organize a mega steamboat dinner in the hall. No love, no matchmaking today, no romance in the air, although that’s the original, traditional meaning of Yuan Xiao Jie. What you smelt instead was the steamboat broth bubbling and the garlic bits sizzling on the pan. Let's be clear. We’re here for the food.

Coordinated by the Celebrity Swinger Chef, who prepared the soupy stock vital to all steamboats, each of us undertook to provide different ingredients, such as the fishballs and beefballs, the vegetables, the crabsticks, mushrooms, eggs, sausages, toufu and pork slices – all of which were merrily dumped into the rice cookers.

It turned out to be a steamy and hot affair in the London House basement buttery, where the ventilation is crap, but eminently satisfying nonetheless, especially when rounded off with grapes and a rich chocolate tart. One now wonders what the long run earlier in the afternoon was for. *Burp*

The Singapore Lawyer has suggested that we try our hands at preparing Teochew porridge the next time we gather en masse, which sounds like an amazingly delicious idea. Definitely something to look forward to. The question is – can we get all the necessary ingredients we need in London? Are salted eggs easily available? We need copious amounts of crunchy ikan bilis as well.

While I go dream about this next adventure, here are some super-duper live-action images from earlier this evening:

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Hilariously Funny

Life's a pudding full of plums,
Care's a canker that benumbs.
Wherefore waste our elocution
On impossible solution?
Life's a pleasant institution,
Let us take it as it comes!

Wonderful words, innit? Here’s more!

And O my darling, O my pet,
Whatever else you may forget,
In yonder isle beyond the sea,
Do not forget you've married me!

And what about this utterly profound observation?

In short, whoever you may be,
To this conclusion you'll agree,
When every one is somebody,
Then no one's anybody!

I was at a performance of The Gondoliers by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum, barely three minutes away from Trafalgar Square and the centre of the city. I was last there in the autumn catching a production of Verdi’s La Traviata, and had since signed up to be a student member of the ENO. That entitled me to generously discounted tickets, even at the dress circle, where we were at this evening.

Gilbert and Sullivan are widely known for their collaboration on a range of comic operas in Victorian England, including masterworks such as The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and The Mikado. Gilbert, the librettist, joined forces with Sullivan, the composer, to create fanciful worlds where the social order is turned on its head, where absurdities loom large, and where everything – just everything - could be put to song.

With the backing of noted impresario Richard D’Oyly Carte, the partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan, though often tempestuous, managed successfully to stage many of their works at the Savoy Theatre in London, from where their fame around the English-speaking world spread. Their form of comic opera also served as an antecedent to the music theatre genre of later years, and to the musicals which we’re familiar with today.

I had grown up with a vague inkling of what their offerings were like, but never had I the chance to see a Gilbert and Sullivan production live on stage! So it was opportune that the ENO was presenting The Gondoliers, the last successful work that sprang from their fruitful collaboration.

The plot is complicated, so I won’t even try to recount it here in detail. It’s a two-act work set in Venice and in the imaginary Mediterranean kingdom of Barataria, but in the current ENO production, the time has been transformed into the 1950s, it would appear, with the use of bright primary colours and loud designs. In short, it’s the story of how two handsome gondoliers, desired by all the ladies, end up becoming the King of Barataria. But then again, perhaps not. Because the King is actually the lowly drummer boy who works at the court of the Duke of Plaza Toro, also known as Count Matadoro and Baron Piccadoro.

The Duke has a young daughter, the beautiful Casilda, who, when she was just an infant, was married off to the young son of the King of Barataria. But he had been given up for adoption, and it was thought that he could be one of the two gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe. But which one? Whom could the real King? Isn’t it a worry that they were both Republicans? And what about the fact that they were both already married?

It’s already getting pretty silly, especially when you add in elements like how the original King of Barataria converted to Methodism, how the old nurse maid who’s the only one aware of the identity of the new king should be put to a torture chamber, or how the Duke of Plaza Toro, down on his luck, proceeded to register himself as a limited liability company.

With a respectful nod to the music of Sullivan, I think what I really enjoyed of the performance was the silly libretto of Gilbert – which raised many audience smiles. Nothing sublime or serious. Just simple words in clear English which engendered much mirth and merriment. When you hear Luiz, the lowly drummer boy and also the new King of Barataria, singing this ostensibly sad piece, can you not but smile?

There was a time--
A time for ever gone--ah, woe is me!
It was no crime
To love but thee alone--ah, woe is me!
One heart, one life, one soul,One aim, one goal--
Each in the other's thrall,
Each all in all, ah, woe is me!

Before my lovely companion and I walked over to the London Coliseum, we went for dinner at Portraits, the classy restaurant located on the top floor of the National Portrait Gallery. It affords diners a charming view of London, with the Houses of Parliament and Nelson’s Column on Trafalgar Square visible in the dying sun, and the red illuminations of the London Eye visible further away as well. A very lovely sight indeed.

We settled on the pre-theatre three course set menu – with a starter of a mozzarella and olive salad, followed by a grilled trout on top of a potato base, and finished with a delightful crème brulee. It was perfect. Portraits has a split personality, however, functioning both as a drinks bar and as a sit-down restaurant. The noise from the revelers wafted over to where we were seated, and created quite a bit of a din. At times, it was difficult hearing what the other person had to say.

But that was probably the only not-too-nice bit of a very enjoyable, enchanting evening.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Dinner and Drinks With The Mamas

The Cool Mama is back in town! It’s great seeing her again after such a long break. She was in London till last December, but had remained home since, returning only a couple of days ago for further work on her research. So it’s wonderful to have her here right now with us in the hall, where she’s lodging with the Hot Mama.

I met up with the both of them this evening for dinner at the Giraffe outlet in the Brunswick Centre. It serves an eclectic mix of world dishes, and although I was tempted by the burgers and the Vietnamese curry rice, because of recent forays into each cuisine, I chose to go instead for the turkey enchilada.

Not a very judicious choice, especially when I found that it came with copious amounts of corn. Yucks. I hate corn. I didn’t read the menu description carefully enough. But the starters which I had, comprising a set of sticky Cajun chicken wings with chipotle ketchup and some garlic focaccia bread, certainly made up for it, as did the Belgian chocolate truffle cheese cake at the end.

It was fun chatting with the both of them, and we continued our session over a few drinks at the local College bar. There were discussions of soothsayers, sightings of rodents, and musings on how many shots of Baileys it takes for the effect to truly sink in. We have the Cool Mama in town for some time yet, so here's to more good food and good conversation in the coming days.