Reviewing ‘Songs on the Wind’

bannerMy first official review for ‘Songs on the Wind,’ was published in ANZA News, November 2016. What a thrill!

‘Songs on the Wind: Essays from a life with no borders, only horizons’ by Alexandra Gregori
Reviewed by Diana Guild

If you are a quilter, which I am, this book would be a sampler quilt. Alexandra Gregori gives us glimpses of her life, and her family through Songs on the Wind. Like a sampler quilt, there is at least one theme, and in Songs, it is most definitely food. Food recurs throughout the book and holds the reader captive not just with the tastes and experiences (balut!!), but provides a consistent underpinning to the stories of Gregori’s life.

Songs is vibrant with colourful descriptions – food, starry skies, rattletrap vehicles – but where Gregori shines is the way in which she weaves descriptions of her family into the book. Her descriptions and perceptions of her husband and children flow so clearly from her heart. Her gift in Songs is that of stitching aspects of each member of her family together. By the end of the book of separate essays we see the compilation, the complete person and get a feel for the family.

Gregori’s writing reflects her generosity of spirit and personal philosophy. Difficult or strange experiences and situations are peppered throughout Songs. Gregori does not brush these aside. Instead she is brilliant at using these situations to give the reader insight into the way she is, the way she views the world, and what is important. If you are a quilter, this would be the fine hand-quilted patterns stitched over the top that subtly shine and provide a ‘wholeness’ or consistency to the quilt.

The patchwork of essays that is Songs gives us a view of Gregori’s whole – her life, her loves, her world. It is an exceptionally delightful read.

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Fig: bursting with flavour

download“A great source of fibre and full of vitamins and minerals, dried and fresh figs have a long and illustrious history. Known for being a healthy and versatile ingredient they can add a burst of sweetness to all kinds of dishes…”      ~ ‘The health benefits of figs’ by Jo Lewin.

I sit at the window and watch the dense river of red brake lights along EDSA and on the overpass to the Fort. Its Friday night. What to do? Where to go? Living in Manila, where traffic is invariably challenging, and often beggars belief on a Friday night, finding a good restaurant close to home is a real bonus. To actually be able to walk there wins a vote in my book every time. Add a fabulous frozen margarita or two and a plate of spicy kebabs and it’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds!

Fig, just a skip and a jump past the Howzat! Sports Bar, opened two years ago. Like Stuart Little’s house, it is squeezed between the Steps Dance Studio and the SJG building in a narrow two-storey building with a French style canopy over the entrance. The door swings open and you walk in, escaping instantly from the cloying humidity and the madness of motorbikes and tricycles on Kalayaan. The atmosphere is cool and cosy, the welcome friendly and warm.

“Figs are native to the Middle East and Mediterranean and were held in such high regard by the Greeks that laws were once created to prevent their export. ” ~ Jo Lewin

fig-10On ground level you will find seating for about twenty and a well-stocked bar that includes Aperol, a whole row of Angostura bitters in a variety of flavours, and a green bottle of Becherovka, that notoriously harsh, rocket fuel spirit from the Czech Republic, which makes me nostalgic for our years in Prague. At the rear is an open kitchen, and, happily, the tables have been allowed a little breathing space. A broad wooden staircase climbs to the next level, and it is only after multiple Margaritas that I remember there is no railing. I worry every time that I will end up descending like a toddler, on my bottom, or bump, bump, bump, like Winnie the Pooh, on my head.

“Figs are quickly perishable and delicate, and … when choosing figs, select those that are plump and tender, have a rich, deep colour and are free from bruising. Ripe figs have a sweet fragrance.” ~Jo Lewin

The second level is equally spacious, with big windows, and some private nooks for a romantic dinner. Then venture up a second flight of stairs, and you will find yourself on a lovely rooftop terrace overlooking the church spire opposite, juxtaposed with the neon signs of Burgos and  the brightly lit high rises of Makati. Will you spread out on the broad outdoor sofas? Or grab a table near the balcony railing to catch the evening breezes while you sip on a dry, Spanish rosé?  The wine list is a bit limited, solely European and not wildly inspiring, but the rosé is excellent, and there is a good syrah.

fig-2The menu is Mediterranean, with a hint of Filipino: from Moroccan tagines to Turkish flat bread pizzas, Andalusian fish stew to Greek mezze platters, and of course the ubiquitous pasta. The ingredients are largely locally sourced, pesticide free and reasonably priced. Certainly, everything I have tasted here has been fabulous, with the single exception of the fish platter which was far too heavily battered. Favourites? So far, the braised lamb shank which melts off the bone, served with a citrusy cous cous, the spicy chicken shashlik, and the vegetable tagine, a lightly spiced and slightly sweet vegetable stew thick with  zucchinis, chickpeas, peppers and beans, sweet potatoes, apricots and tomatoes.

“I am sure that in the story of Adam and Eve, the forbidden fruit was a fig and not an apple, pear or anything else.” ~ Yotam Ottolenghi

The original French chef, Patrice Martelly, moved earlier this year to Lulus and has been replaced by Sri Lankan Chef, Ranuka Hettiarachchi, with a huge and engaging smile, who moved here from the Maldives, presumably as it started sinking! The food continues to be excellent, and I always like the wicker tray of freshly baked bread (walnut, brioche, sourdough, deep purple camote) with olive oil and balsamic, dukkah, that arrives while you are salivating through the menu.

I met a friend in the bar one evening and we decided to try the oysters to accompany our wine. We were served upfig-1
a dozen enormous oysters, so large that we almost needed a knife and fork to tackle them. I prefer mine simple with a pinch of sea salt and a splash of lemon juice, but they came with a rather tempting spicy dressing, and given that the oysters were so big, the flavour wasn’t drowned by the sauce.

“Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig. I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.” ~ Epictetus

Fig is a great place to catch up with friends: the food is made to be shared and the atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable. The staff are alert and welcoming, and I am never disappointed. It has become such a firm favourite, we even threw our despedida or farewell party there on Saturday night, and the set menu provided was such a ‘superb’ one, as one friend remarked, that ‘it was hard to make a decision.’ To my firm favourites of lamb shanks braised in Moroccan spices and the fruity vegetable tagine, Chef Ranuka added one of my new favourites: the delectable and meaty mahi mahi (a local fish) crusted with chia seeds and served with fennel, olives and slow roasted tomatoes.

We talked excessively, ate divinely, drank wantonly of Australian wines we had brought ourselves, and were superbly well looked after throughout the evening, by a team of smiling and indulgent waiters. Even the early evening downpour cleared away the clouds, so we could wander up to the rooftop terrace between courses. It was a thoroughly enchanting evening, brimming with fun, friendship and fine food. A fitting farewell to the Philippines!


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A Stitch in Time

wheelchair2-2Daniel Radcliffe reputedly stated that he is not clumsy, just accident prone, but it sounds to me like he is simply quibbling with semantics. Call it what you will, I too am klutzy, clumsy, uncoordinated and monumentally accident prone, often butterfingered or all thumbs, and generally covered in bruises. It’s a family thing, and sadly, something I never seem to grow out of.

Last week, for example, there I was, comfortably ensconced in my favourite new coffee shop with my laptop. The internet at home was sulking, and I urgently needed to get some work done. Immersed in something doubtless quite riveting, I was perched at the bench along the window, with my trusty laptop propped open in front of me. Not so trusty, as it transpired.

As I slid my computer back to make room for a bowl of pumpkin soup, there was an almighty crash. I looked first for my glass of wine, but it was still sitting innocently by my elbow. Beneath the countertop I saw a glass vase at my feet, its shattered remains lying in a puddle of crimson water. Aghast – I hadn’t noticed that my laptop was concealing a vase – I was about to call a waiter to apologize when I realized that the water was collecting its fiery colour from a gash across the top of my foot. By now I had attracted plenty of attention. The café was – of course – jam packed with people and I was suddenly the centre of attention, the elephant in the room at whom everyone was staring. One couple leapt up to help me wrap my foot in a napkin, and several staff members came at the run to my rescue.  Ambulances were offered and a flotilla of wheelchairs came galloping through the door. I have rarely felt quite so conspicuous or quite so stupid. A paper bag to throw over my head would have been most welcome.

After much discussion, it was decided that as I had not actually severed my foot right off at the ankle, it might be quicker and safer to take me across the road to the Rockwell Clinic, rather than wait for an ambulance while I quietly bled to death. (I was hardly bleeding at all, in fact, but everyone else seemed to be enjoying the drama). Much to my embarrassment, and rapidly turning the same colour as my gently bleeding foot, I found myself being perambulated out of the café and across the road, with a cast of thousands following in my wake – or so it felt, to my heightened self-consciousness. I soon discovered that, even in Rockwell, the pavements are not designed for wheelchairs, and we careered wildly around trees and bumped up and over the kerb. Like Rosie the Hen, we went across the yard, around the pond, over the haystack, past the mill, through the fence and under the beehives, followed by a swarm of able-bodied spectators.  Having somehow survived the obstacle course relatively intact, I arrived at the clinic feeling like the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

And there I sat, in the middle of the clinic – a room 12 feet x 12 feet –  surrounded by my flock. Actually, I am not sure they were all there for me, but they seemed more than happy to join in the fun. A nurse emptied a bucket of water over my foot to clean it off and called the doctor. Three ambulance men arrived to make me sign my life away on some form renouncing their services, although I have no recollection of having called them in the first place. The sweet doctor, dragged from her dinner to rescue this awkward antipodean, duly arrived with her four-year-old daughter in tow, and the damage was swiftly repaired. I managed to retain my equilibrium through all but the anesthetic injected into the wound. Then, numb of foot and sewn neatly back together, I was advised, severely, to stay off my foot so it could heal. I was then ushered out the door with a wad of prescriptions and instructions to gather up bandages and antibiotics, painkillers and a tetanus booster. The wheelchair had been returned from whence it had so mysteriously come, so, with no other means of transportation, I hobbled back to the restaurant to pay my bill and finish my soup, apologize for the mess and thank the lovely staff for their help. Fed and watered, I then braved the mall for a welter of medical supplies before returning to the clinic for the nurse to administer the requisite tetanus shot. At this point, my arm was feeling hardly done by, but as my foot was still encased in blissful, anaesthetized oblivion, I limped bravely home.

To this day, I cannot understand why it never occurred to me to retain the services of the wheelchair, or at least procure the aid of an assistant to run errands to Mercury Drug – and my foot would later be most unsympathetic and swell up to twice its normal size in retaliation for my thoughtless attitude – but there it is, the price of fame. From a fan base of thousands, I suddenly found myself alone, and shambling sadly home without even a stick or shopping trolley for support. Unlike the Pied Piper, there was no magical flute with which to wreak vengeance on my fickle fans, but to be honest, I am just grateful to the staff at Single Origin who gathered me up and saw me safely to the clinic, and who, in their generosity and kindness, have even welcomed me back to the coffee shop – although in the meantime, they have wisely removed all the vases from my cack-handed reach. Here’s to Filipino hospitality!

*With thanks to Google Images for the perfect cartoon. Where do I get the goggles, please?

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Oodles of Noodles at Ogawa

img_0966“I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘cooking’ but I can make noodles. That means I can boil water, put the pasta in and wait until it’s done.” ~
 Devon Werkheiser, American actor.

It is two years to the day since I posted a piece about my first trip to Japan, so it seems fitting that I should be writing this week about a Japanese restaurant here in Manila. Ogawa , an authentic, traditional Japanese restaurant, is located at the Fort Strip, on the corner of 5th and 28th  that opened almost a year ago to the day. The downstairs entrance to Ogawa is not terribly prepossessing, but make the effort to climb the stairs, and you will be greeted by a smiling hostess in Japanese kimono, and a very cute entrance: stepping stones leading over a small arched bridge to an antique wooden front door. (Serious tip, don’t wear high heels, or if you do, walk around the bridge, not over it.) Once you have navigated the stepping stones, the bridge and the flapping curtains at the inner entrance, don’t be startled by the loud welcome of every waiter in the vicinity, as I was on my first visit. Distracted by the roar, I tripped inelegantly up the steps before lurching awkwardly through the curtains and into the middle of the dining room.

Thus announcing my arrival to the entire restaurant with less-than-impressive aplomb, I didn’t take in the décor that first time as, head down, I made a surreptitious dash to the booth on the back wall. On my next visit, I arrived early, prepared for the effusive greeting with a calm smile, and armed with my notebook.

Less flustered this time, I was able to take in the open kitchen, the wall of sake barrels, and the amazing wallpaper ogawa-2depicting branches, birds and pine trees. Seated comfortably in ‘our’ booth, I scanned through the menu, jotting down every name I didn’t understand. I decided long ago that a menu is a great way to start learning a new language, as somehow the words for food, especially when you are hungry, stick better to your brain than incomprehensible verb conjugations.

While in Japan, I focused rather heavily on sushi and sashimi, but as one of the national staples, I felt I should also be fluent in the various types of Japanese noodle. With my glasses perched on my nose, and my trusty list, I quizzed Sachiko remorselessly, eager to see if she could explain the differences.

We talked noodles extensively, but also ‘chirasi’ and jyu jyu beef. The Chirasi Box was another menu mystery to me. Chirasi, Sachiko explained, means ‘scattered,’ and the dish consists of a bowl of rice topped with pieces of vegetables and fish: what basically translates as a bowl of ‘scattered’ or deconstructed sushi. The name jyu jyu, which made my friend giggle, apparently comes from the sound the beef makes in a sizzling hot cast iron dish .

Eventually I had sufficient, if somewhat convoluted notes and we could actually concentrate on ordering lunch. I have to say, though, that while the quote I found (see top of page) makes it sound easy, our discussion left me feeling I had a lot to learn about the art of cooking noodles.

In summary – and for my own reference as I am guessing you are probably fluent in Japanese noodles –  ramen are made from similar ingredients to pasta (wheat flour and eggs) and compare to angel hair pasta but with a certain wiggle. Some further research led to the discovery that Ramen is a noodle soup that originated in China but has been adopted by Japan. Ramen can be served with a variety of toppings, each associated with a particular region.

img_0850Soba are buckwheat noodles that look just like wholemeal pasta, and are about the circumference of your average spaghetti. A bowl of soba noodles can be served hot in noodle soup or cold with dipping sauce. Soba is popular all over Japan, and – just like pasta – can be bought fresh or dried. Soba noodles have terrific nutritional qualities too: high in proteins, minerals, dietary fibre, and micro-nutrients that aid liver function, blood pressure and cardiovascular health. As a bonus, they are low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates.

Udon noodles are the thickest of the trio, and made from white wheat flour, like ramen. Apparently simplicity is the key word for udon noodles, as they are generally served in a broth with a sprinkling of sliced onions. Or perhaps topped with tempura or tofu. Again, each region has its own take on toppings and serving suggestions, but it can also be served as a soup or a curry, making it particularly popular in winter, perfect for cold weather and illness.

The final word goes to Yakisoba. These noodles are made of buckwheat, and also originated in China, but has become popular throughout Japan. These are curly, like ramen However, they are never served in soup, but grilled or fried mixed with meat and vegetables, and garnished with red ginger. This noodle is particularly popular at Japanese festivals.

Despite all this chat about noodles, I left my friend to order a bowl of soba with its soy based dipping sauce, a tiny raw quail’s egg and a dish of scallions to accessorize. Meanwhile, I chose a Bento Box – of which there were several – which has long been a favourite with my One & Only. This beautifully arranged assortment of popular, bite-sized snacks is like a mini picnic basket or an antipasti platter: sashimi, sushi, fried chicken, tempura, tepinyaki, pickledimg_0964 vegetables and of course the ubiquitous serving of rice, displayed in a layered, black lacquered box on a black tray, and accompanied by various tiny side dishes of daikon, dips and soy sauce.

Soy is as ubiquitous as rice in Japanese cooking. It appears in almost every dish in some shape or form. I thought I knew all I needed to know about this black liquid Vegemite. But it seems I was wrong. Soy sauce is a condiment made from a fermented paste of boiled soybeans, roasted grain, brine, and something called Aspergillus oryzae or Aspergillus sojae:  mould cultures used in a similar way to yeast or yoghurt cultures. It originated in ancient China in around 200 AD and spread through East and Southeast Asia, where it was used both in cooking and as a condiment at a time when salt was ruinously expensive.

Anyway…. before I run away with my research, and leave you stranded, I will call it quits, and merely suggest you go and take a look at Ogawa yourself. Check out the sake bar, the sushi bar, the open grill and the traditional décor. The food is traditional, it is fresh and it is superbly presented. And there is enough variety to keep you going back again and again and again.

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Of Ghosts and Ghouls and Clotted Cream

img_0913I was hardly dressed for afternoon tea in a smart country house hotel. We had been on the road since 10am and I had dressed for comfort, not style, en route to the Midlands, to deliver our younger son to university. However, we were passing close by, we had skipped lunch, and afternoon tea in salubrious surroundings sounded more than a little tempting.

Ettington Park is a sumptuous neo-Gothic country house only six miles from Stratford upon Avon. Once the seat of the Anglo-Irish Shirley family, it has also masqueraded as a nursing home and a prisoner of war camp during WWII.  Today it is part of the Hand Picked Hotel chain. It has been altered and amended many times over the centuries, but its current appearance owes much to the Gothic Revival, an architectural movement also known as Neo Gothic that began in England in the late 1740s and became enormously popular throughout the nineteenth century. Adopting features from the original Gothic style, the Neo-Gothic style loves ornamentation, particularly around the windows, gables and roof line. The house is set in 40 acres of lush Warwickshire countryside on the River Stour, all that is left of the original 1,700 acre estate. According to a recent history of ‘The Buildings of England,’ (Pickford & Pevsner), it is considered “the most important and impressive High Victorian house in the county.” It is also, apparently, the most haunted.

As we drove up the sweeping, tree-lined driveway, Ettington Park, with its grey/blue and honey coloured façade, arched windows and turrets, appeared around the bend like a small, fairy tale castle hidden in the woods.

Our son knew the manager, so despite the lack of tiara and twin sets, we were greeted like family and ushered into the glorious Great Drawing Room with its ornate rococo ceiling and elegantly arched windows overlooking sweeping lawns.

One of the staff members, Daimon, came over to offer us a short but enthusiastic tour before he clocked off, and we followed him willingly up to the gallery, down to the library and dining room and out into the garden for a whirlwind tour of the hotel’s highlights. Above the dining room window is a balcony he claims was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” And the carving of a frog on an outside wall commemorates the discovery of the Toad of Ettington, that appeared to have lived in a hidden wall cavity for almost 120 years.  We also learned about the various ghosts believed to inhabit the house, amongst them a governess, a gamekeeper, a servant girl and two children who drowned in the river at the turn of the nineteenth century.

While Daimon knows a lot about the history of the house and its many ghosts, he is also an expert on the origins of old English sayings, and regaled us with many funny tales relating to the cat-of-nine-tales, after which we wandered back to the drawing room, where our afternoon was waiting: a three-tiered cake stand brimming with sandwiches and scones, brownies and macaroons. With several different teas to choose from, we had opted for the Midsummer afternoon tea.

As always, I dived amongst the sandwiches with delight: delicately flavoured cucumber and cream cheese fingers with that satisfying crunch; salmon and cream cheese bagels, a hefty coronation chicken wrap, and a roast beef and img_0911beetroot sandwich in need of salt. The scones were perfect – soft on the inside, with a crusty surface, accompanied by an espresso cup of strawberry jam and real clotted cream. The top layer was piled high with sweet things. There were rich moist chocolate brownies and extraordinary pink macaroons with a creamy, cloying peanut butter filling (we were not altogether convinced about the wisdom of that combination.) Then an odd layered cake of strawberry mousse and chocolate cake topped with jelly. Finally a lemon tart, the filling a satisfying blend of creaminess and zestiness, but the pastry a tad doughy.

Unfortunately, it was only later that I noticed a summer savoury picnic, which we could even have had packed into a basket to eat on the lawn – but it has given me the perfect excuse to go back!

Afterwards, full of clotted cream and cucumber sandwiches, we strolled through the parkland that surrounds the house, under spreading cedar trees and around the ruins of the original 12th century village church that was demolished – along with the mill and the entire village that lay adjacent to the manor house – when Sir George Shirley MP decided to move the village two miles upstream at the end of the eighteenth century. All that remains is the tower, the walls of the nave and a side chapel containing the family graves. The formal garden near the house is highlighted by a pretty loggia, and the house itself has been the setting for two films: “The Haunting” (1963) and “Watchers in the Wood.’ The perfect setting indeed, we thought, after hearing about all the resident spooks, concealed doorways and a number of underground passages secreted beneath the house and grounds.

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A Suomi Summer

finn-movieCine Europa is a ten-day feast of European movies being shown FOR FREE  at Shang Cineplex in Ortigas. I have almost decided to move into the Shangri-La Hotel for the week to take full advantage of this amazing smorgasbord of movies. Yes, I know, we have a movie theatre within walking distance of our apartment, but invariably it is packed with American bang-crash-car-chase movies, of which I can only see so many before I start to go deaf and cross-eyed.

So what better way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon than camping out at the cinema? And we landed a gem of a 2014 Finnish movie called ‘Kesäkaverit’ (Summertime). It was a chick flick about friendship and being twenty five, an A grade one to entertain the One & Only as well.  And, of course, having finally made it to Finland this summer, it meant so much more. I expect we would have loved the film anyway, but the scenery, the language and the humour was, thanks to our recent trip, both familiar and already nostalgic; a quick fix of space and subtlety without the long flight.

Finland (or Suomi) has been on my list of Top 10 places to visit for years.  (I refuse to call it a bucket list – I am just not old enough to be counting down already!) My sister first ignited my interest when she described hitch hiking through Finland and up through Lapland to the Arctic Circle in the early nineties, walking with moose and swimming in midge-infested lakes.

A couple of years later, we met a young Finnish family in Thailand whose small daughter shared a birthday with ours. helsinki10The same thing happened in Malaysia – or maybe she was Swedish, the memories blur. Over the years, we have met Finns in SE Asia, in the UK and even in  the Philippines, and each of them taught us something about their homeland: the Finnish love of vodka and a traditional Finnish toast; the short, dark winters that would drive anyone to drink and the long summer nights when the sun barely sets; the Northern Lights with their hallucinogenic effect on the sky; an ice hotel and the secret home of Santa; the heart-stopping thrill of leaping from steaming saunas into freezing lakes; gravadlax, herring, and smoked reindeer meatballs; summer cherries and summer houses by the sea; lakes, lakes and more lakes.

So, at last, we had the opportunity to experience some of these Finnish legends.  Despite the lack of snow and ice, the vodka still flowed freely, and we did leap from a steamy sauna into a chilly lake. Finland has a lot of water. Not only is it an archipelago on the Baltic Sea, sprinkled with armloads of islands (like the Philippines, only granite not volcanic) but it has a vast expanse of inland lakes north of Helsinki, in much the same way South Australia doesn’t. We ate ridiculous amounts of fish: baked salmon and pickled herring, ceviche and smoked fish, served with new potatoes and dill, fried chanterelles and rye bread.

helsinki9We arrived in Helsinki by air, but the view of the city is far lovelier from the sea, as we discovered when we made a couple of forays out into the Bay. As a capital city, Helsinki is only young – about the same age as my home town of Adelaide, with which I found more than a few parallels: broad streets and plenty of parks; a population of around a million; a plentiful supply of churches of all denominations; a sense of isolation from the rest of the pack but a subsequent self-sufficiency.

Finland has spent many centuries playing Piggy in the Middle with Russia and Sweden. For more than 600 years, it was a province of the Kingdom of Sweden. In 1809, Sweden hand-balled it across to Russia. Czar Alexander I named it the Grand Duchy of Finland and generously granted it autonomy. At the same time, he relocated the western capital of Turku to the more centrally located Helsinki, in an attempt to cut ties with Sweden and bring it closer to St. Petersburg. Just over a century later, Russia became embroiled in a civil skirmish, otherwise known as the October Revolution, during which an autocratic Tsar was executed and replaced by a didactic Bolshevik revolutionary. While Russia was distracted, Finland cheekily took the opportunity to declare its independence. And so it has remained.

Finland is a country of intense colours spread with broad brush strokes: a red brick eastern orthodox cathedral withhelsinki8 conical, verdigris roofs topped with golden cupolas  and a sparkling white neoclassical Lutheran  Cathedral overlook cerulean seas; endless miles of bottle green pine and deciduous birch forests; equally endless miles of glittering silver lakes; a penchant for painting their timber houses ‘falu’ or oxblood (a dark, terracotta red); pink salmon on every menu; tin pails filled with deep magenta cherries, bright green peas-in-the-pod or huge, scarlet strawberries; vast, snow white landscapes stretching to the horizon.

We took a ferry to the tiny island of Lonna for an exquisitely simple meal in a converted warehouse restaurant, waiting on the end of the jetty in a brisk and chilly summer ‘breeze.’ On a sunny Sunday, we rode another ferry to the naval fortress known as Suomenlinna, now a prime tourist destination full of buggies and brides. We drove out to one of the oldest medieval towns in Finland.  Porvoo is about 50 kilometres east of Helsinki and sits above the river Porvoonjoki. Threaded with steep, cobbled streets and brimming with art galleries, cafes and craft shops, the town is overlooked by an attractive mediaeval church (Lutheran) with wooden roof tiles. Beside the church stands a square, stone clock tower, where the men would leave their weapons during services. And we celebrated a 100th birthday (2 x 50) in Finnish, Swedish and English.
helinki11And, like the women in the movie, we drifted about a beautiful white, weatherboard home above the sea, as well as ‘glamping’ in a traditional log cabin by a clear, tea-coloured lake; picking tiny wild raspberries and chanterelles in the woods and building a camp fire on a tiny island in the middle of the lake. The unsophisticated simplicity of these too-short side trips was both utterly relaxing and wonderfully rejuvenating.

To return at last to the movie. ‘Kesäkaverit’ captures the carefree summers of young adulthood as three girls meet up for a working holiday in a coffee shop at the beach, and find themselves lurching awkwardly into the world of grown ups where there are tough choices to make. We sat there exclaiming (quietly) at the scenery: the coastline, the woods and the weatherboard house by the sea near Hanko, so similar to where we had stayed in Barösund. We smiled at the Finnish flavour of the screenplay: short, pithy conversations, where less is more and the silences are as telling as the words, in stark contrast to Australians and Filipinos who tend to rattle away like high speed trains.   We nudged each other when we noticed a Finnish tiled ceramic stove, which, like a pot-belly stove, burns wood and slowly radiates the heat throughout the freezing winter days. And we longed to wander along the shady woodland paths thick with pine needles. Both the memories and the movie were food for the soul.

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Rock Paper Scissors

“Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came…”
~ Lyrics to Cheers TV show by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo

Singapore2On the spur of the moment, we decided to take a weekend break in Singapore, just because we can.  I love SE Asia for that easy ability to flit about on cheap flights, and spend a weekend exploring a new city. Friday night flights can be a bit of a hassle, as the traffic gums up on EDSA after 4pm and you risk high stress levels and missed flights, but we scooted out early, and somehow it didn’t matter that an electrical storm kept us on the tarmac for an hour or two.

Late, but suitably relaxed, after drinking our body weight in gin, we arrived at last, on Singapore’s East Coast Road, at a row of traditional old Singaporean shop houses which have recently undergone a makeover. The results are really eye-catching. On the corner of Ceylon street is a pretty little restaurant with awnings and seating on the pavement. Next door, its partner-in-crime, The Trenchard Arms, is gently buzzing with late night drinkers.

We met Richard and Tricia Huggins in Cebu last year, and have since been promising ourselves that we would pop by and check out their pub on East Coast Road as soon as we could. So at last, with a free weekend, we booked a flight, booked a room, warned our hosts we were heading their way, and packed our overnight bags.

Remember the game ‘Rock-paper-scissors?’ We used to play it in the school yard, and apparently it originated in China. A game for two, each player simultaneously forms one of three shapes with an outstretched hand: “rock” (a simple fist), “paper” (a flat hand), and “scissors” (a fist with index and middle fingers forming a V). Rock beats scissors (“rock crushes scissors”) but loses to paper (“paper covers rock”) and paper loses to scissors (“scissors cut paper”). If both players choose the same shape, the game is tied. Now there’s a new variation: rabbit-carrot-gun. I will leave you to figure it out.

You are doubtless wondering what tangent I am drifting off on, but then you obviously didn’t notice the sign over theRCG
door of the restaurant. The image is apparently a blend of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit meets the White Rabbit in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ but it also reminds me of the Wild Huntsman rabbit in the German book of fairy tales, ‘Struwwelpeter.’

“Rabbit-Carrot-Gun” is an English bistro-style restaurant serving hearty British dishes and scrumptious brunches. Despite the tropical climate, the braised beef cheek, beef wellington or sausages and mash go down a treat. And, if you have a nostalgic craving for Scotch eggs pork pies or sticky toffee pudding, your wish will be granted,  all served up with a generous dose of good, old fashioned hospitality, where strangers and friends alike are made to feel like honoured guests.

A cool morning breeze on Saturday invited us to settle under the canopy on the pavement for fresh juices, coffee and poached eggs. If you brought small kids or you are British, with a dose of homesickness, you might prefer a nostalgic nursery breakfast of soft boiled eggs with Marmite and toast soldiers to dip into the yolk. Or make it brunch, and enjoy a mimosa or two with a Gamekeeper’s Shooting Breakfast or a homemade quiche. I think we tried almost everything on the menu over the weekend, and I didn’t find anything lacking – and of course I had to taste everyone’s dishes, not just my own. All’s fair in love and research! Anything I missed, I may have to head back another day soon…

Above the bar and restaurant there is also a terrific place to stay. The Huggins offer five rooms, available on AirBnB, each one distinctive and full of character, and beautifully cushioned from the hubbub below. The One & Only had booked the Terrace Room, and it was a delight, full of quirky art and antique furniture. With access from a secret door next to The Trenchard Arms, we climbed a steep, dark staircase to find a high double bed draped in dusky pink Laura Ashley style curtains. The black and white tiled, al fresco bathroom is through the double doors and opens onto the terrace – perhaps a little awkward for the neighbours if you choose to take a bath directly in their line of vision, but there is a Roman blind to lower as needed, although that rather spoils the bather’s view!

Given our penchant for walking, we were very pleased to find a park along the waterfront, only a ten minute walk from our room, although it did involve climbing up and over a couple of busy main roads. Once we were there, however, it was worth the (minor) trek: wide lawns, huge shady trees, bike tracks and picnic tables, barbecues and beach on a broad strip that runs almost 10km along the coast.

singapore1Many of the sights of Singapore are only a short taxi ride away, too. The highlight for us was the National Gallery or Museum of Singapore & South East Asian Arts housed in two restored national monuments, formerly the Supreme Court and City Hall, linked by an outstanding contemporary atrium of glass and metal that includes two foot bridges. From the beautiful roof garden, with its chic bar area, there are simply stunning views over the city with its fascinating mix of creative modern architecture and colonial grace. And we even found some Filipino art done by our own Mr. Luna and Mr. Hidalgo.

So if you are wondering what to do this weekend, head south to East Coast Road, and I bet Richard and Tricia will feel like old friends in just a few, happy hours!

*With thanks, yet again, to the One & Only for his camera work.

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“Go For Launch!”

bannerLast night was a very special night, and I am still feeling somewhat euphoric. Euphoric and ecstatic, exhilarated and enchanted, thrilled and giddy and elated. I know I probably sound slightly hysterical, and usually my One & Only saves me from my worst excesses of adjective and metaphor, but today I just want to whoop and wiggle in bold, italics and highlighter pen, and quite possibly burst into song.

Last night, at the Manila Polo Club, before a group of friends, fellow writers and educators, I launched my first book.

It was an event I don’t think I truly believed would happen. But when I walked in, there was a banner with my name on it – and a book with my name on it too. Actually, lots of them! There was a microphone and a table where I could sign copies if anyone wanted my signature.  The Lounge at the Polo Club looked elegant and professional and bookish. The publishers (The Bookmark Inc.) had turned on a generous spread of cheeses, dips and cold meat platters, as well as some great wines, and the room gradually filled with people who had braved rain and Manila traffic jams for a 6pm start.

I began writing this book in earnest almost six years ago. I had just arrived in the Philippines, fresh from completing a Masters in Gastronomy in Australia. I decided the best way to get to know my new home was to explore its culture through cuisine and culinary history, and then record my impressions in a blog. This rapidly grew to incorporate our travel experiences, both here and abroad, as well as my observations on our expatriate lifestyle. And even, on a whim, a little poetry. So it seems only fitting that a seed I planted when I first landed in Manila, should also have come to fruition here.  is, in case you hadn’t guessed, based on this blog.

I have always loved writing. It has been a daily adventure with language and imagination. But more importantly, it has helped me to join all the disconnected dots in my head; to frame or shape the memories of a decidedly spur-of-the-moment, nomadic life, where the definition of ‘home’ has long been a moveable feast.

Writing an actual book is something I have wanted to do since I was about six years old, when I used to create little stories for grandparents and babysitters, with coloured paper, scissors and a stapler. So, it has been a long time coming, but today Songs on the Wind is officially a book with a proper cover and no need of staples; an eclectic collection of essays, articles, reviews and poems on eating and drinking, travel, local culture and expatriate life.

I named the original blog She Gathers No Moss after the age-old proverb ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss,’ as I felt it perfectly described my years of meandering around the world. But the publisher felt this may not ring bells with a Filipino audience. Somewhat belatedly, that got me thinking, and I went to Google to check the meaning.

According to Wikipedia, this popular adage is credited, not to Mick Jagger, but to Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer from Syria who was brought to Italy as a slave. He was later freed and educated by his master, and subsequently renowned for penning Sententiae.  (These are maxims, proverbs or adages – and yes, I went directly to Google search too – three times, in fact, just to translate that short paragraph.) Anyway, this particular proverb refers to people who are always moving; rootless individuals who like to avoid the normal round of responsibilities and cares –  sadly, rather negative connotations I hadn’t anticipated at all. However, the dictionary hurriedly reassured me that another interpretation makes a synonym of “moss” and “stagnation,” and therefore suggests that we gypsies are at least not stagnating, but burgeoning with fresh ideas or creativity. Not surprisingly, I like the second explanation rather better than the first.

Nonetheless, we decided to christen the book ‘Songs on The Wind,’ which sounded much more poetic. And I liked the way it depicted my life as a sort of wandering minstrel blown around the world by the winds of chance and opportunity, with no insinuations of irresponsibility, homelessness or flakiness.

The insinuation has stuck in my head, and niggles from time to time. Am I, in fact, flakey and uncommitted? Careless and slipshod? Certainly, I have dodged the bullet of picket fences and weekly lawn mowing for almost thirty years. Yet, thanks to Facebook, Skype and Gmail, not to mention Frequent Flyer Miles, I manage to keep in touch with family and friends. I may not be good at settling in one spot for too long, but whenever we unpack our suitcases, I swiftly set up home, find myself manning committees, joining social groups, building communities – not always easy in a world of expatriates, where friendships and contact lists can alter almost monthly as people come and go.

Returning to Manila in late July, after two years of regular absenteeism, I assumed the landscape would have changed considerably. Many of our original friends here had departed over the summer. Even our kids had gone for good. Was anyone left, or would I have to start all over again?

Last night proved otherwise. As I gazed about the room, about to start my readings, and as nervous as a mouse in a room full of street cats,  I realized the place was literally packed with familiar faces, beaming and nodding at me to take courage. A room full of friends I have known six years, six months – in one case barely six days – but kind, caring supportive friends nonetheless. And even a handful I had never met before, but hope to call friends too, very soon. Perhaps I’m not so flakey after all.

Posted in Biography, Food & Wine, Lifestyle, Philippines | 1 Comment

Imelda:The People’s Princess

Imelda3“Filipinos want beauty. I have to look beautiful so that the poor Filipinos will have a star to look at from their slums.”  ~Imelda Marcos

Imelda Marcos, the iconic First Lady of the Philippines for twenty years, with her infamous penchant for shoes, handbags and butterfly sleeves. Imelda Marcos, renowned for ostentation and extravagant shopping, not to mention the misappropriation of government funds to support her habit.

‘Living La Vida Imelda’ is a a “gleefully gossipy” (New York Times), wickedly satirical perspective on the life and times of Imelda Marcos that goes well beyond these hackneyed clichés, created by performance artist Carlos Celdran and delivered with his inimitable slick humour and incorrigible irreverence.

I have been fortunate enough to see Celdran’s production in its various incarnations. First, as a lengthy three-hour tour of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines. Then as a one man show with human props at Silverlens Galleries in Makati. Finally, earlier this year,  a well-oiled solo performance edited to an hour and a half of non-stop banter and brouhaha in the quaint and quirky Pineapple Lab in Poblacion. Exclusive to ANZA (the Australia New Zealand Association), the performance proved to be a highly successful charity fundraiser.


As always, Celdran’s show was oversubscribed for the space, so we found ourselves pinned to the back wall and craning our necks for a view of the diminutive performer on the low stage at the front of the room. All was not lost, however. Celdran knows how to make his rich, expressive voice carry to every corner, so while we could only catch glimpses of his face, we could hear him perfectly clearly, and we could still see the hat rack bedecked in his ‘costume changes,’ the large historical and architectural images projected on the wall behind him, and the Vintage Peacock wicker chair.

Celdran weaves the myths of popular culture into a synopsis of Imelda’s role in the Marcos regime: her use of Hollywood glamour to win the hearts of world leaders and the people of the Philippines, despite the infamy of her Imelda1 (2)husband’s dictatorship, her own incredible extravagances and their joint reputations as kleptocrats.

Celdran’s wit is sharp, but it goes hand-in-hand with many unexpectedly poignant moments as we hear about her sad childhood, that notorious beauty pageant, her whirlwind romance with President-to-be, Ferdinand Marcos, and her increasing popularity with the masses, if not with the Establishment. ‘Living La Vida Imelda’ has become a much tighter show than it used to be, although I have a sneaking suspicion that Celdran reduces much of the time by simply talking faster.  But the cuts are effective, and the show has become much more polished.

And to kick-start the show, ANZA provided a generous bar and very tasty pica pica. It was a great – if noisy –  way to get the evening rolling. As a bonus, ticket prices included a donation to #vivamanila, a charity aimed at reviving arts and culture, community projects and collaborations in Intramuros, a project close to Celdran’s heart. From start to finish, it was a highly entertaining evening.

*Adapted from an article written for ANZA News, May 2016, and with thanks to the One & Only for his photos.




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Childhood Holidays

VWMy father found her hanging around outside the Australian Embassy on the Strand in London, just after Christmas 1975. She was already quite elderly, and ran out of puff at the mere mention of a hill. We called her Bella. I have no idea why Bella, or why we decided she was female. She was, in truth, an unfashionable VW campervan, or Kombi, white, weary and somewhat woebegone. We took her to Europe for a month every summer for four years, and somehow she lasted the distance, although I have memories of having to get out and walk when she chugged through the Italian Alps in second gear. I probably made that up.

Bella had a pop up roof: a triangular structure of red and white striped canvas. She had rough yellow and orange striped fabric seats that scratched the back of our bare legs just like the old British Rail seats did. The front passenger seat secreted a gas stove which meant tipping the seat up and cooking through the front door, whether or not it was raining. In the back, two dicky seats faced the rear, and a bench seat faced forward, and transformed into our parents double bed at night. Two canvas hammocks folded out from the roof, which meant that getting into bed involved clambering up over our parents bed and onto the sink. When the hammocks were out, Mum and Dad couldn’t sit up in bed without banging their heads on the metal support bars.

As there were four kids, we couldn’t all sleep in the van unless there was an emergency. Then the older two would have the hammocks, my younger sister would sleep across the front seats with a roll of foam filling the gap in the middle, and our smallest brother slept under the laminated table. For normal nights my father bought an upright green canvas annex that clipped – or rather clung – to the van’s sliding side door like the leaning tower of Pisa. It could stand alone, but perilously, as even the slightest breeze threatened to upturn it or send it flying like a kite across the campsite. All the tent pegs were permanently bent double, as every campsite in which we ever pitched that tent had rock-solid ground, which caused my father to grumble loudly, as the pegs bent and buckled, and he would frequently batter his thumb with the mallet trying to bash them into the not-so-good-earth. Also, the annex had no floor, which allowed rivers to flow through it when it rained. For a little security, Dad laid a ground sheet under the blue foam we used as a mattress. The foam got thinner and thinner with the passing years, and it was hardly thick to start with. Like the Princess and the Pea we could feel the tiniest pebble or root between our shoulder blades. Our cheap, blue nylon sleeping bags had different coloured linings and we would fight for the colour we preferred. Every night. And there we would sleep, lying in a neat row like electric blue sardines.

For entertainment we took books, a cricket bat for French cricket, a pack of Happy Family cards and a huge ream of img108computer paper on which my sister and I drew endless, identical, onion-headed beauty queens with felt tip pens, the only variation being the colour of their hair (brown, yellow or red) and eyes (blue, green or brown). And I guess their dresses were different colours, but probably identical styles, as neither of us had an ounce of artistic talent. Nevertheless, we would entertain our brothers for hours on long trips, making them the official judging panel of our glorious beauty queens.

Our trips to Europe inevitably included Italy and at least one flood. I remember one when I nearly got washed into Lago Maggiore, the sole remaining camper in our tortured tent.

On long trips, Mum would sit in the front trying to inspire us to admire the view. “Look kids! A castle!” Or “a river!” Or “a cow!” Anything, to tempt us to look up from our drawing/reading/card games. “Mmmmm,” we would mumble with no interest whatsoever. “Have you got Mr. Butcher?” “No. Go fish.” Sometimes she would instigate a singalong and we would all kneel up on the dicky seats and bellow into Dad’s ear, working our way through every tune we knew. Dad always requested ‘Lord of the Dance,’ so that years later I would use it in our wedding ceremony in his honour, an old friend playing it on the flute – all the verses – while we signed the register.

I sat up with Dad one night, not long before I would wend my own way back to Europe as a young adult, trying to see how much we could remember of those trips. Mostly, I had only snapshot memories: long forgotten images of a waterfall or a castle (surprisingly), a burning hot beach or a stomach churning boat trip.  I did recall, however, one restaurant on Lago di Como where Dad bravely ordered goat, and was served up a tureen with the entire skull complete with eyeballs, much to our unanimous disgust. And we still laugh at him for insisting that he loved Turkish coffee, only to be handed an undrinkable thimble of black silt.

Already designated the only keen writer in the family, I remember one year Dad encouraged me to keep a journal. I bought a giant notebook into which I stuck a tram ticket and a post card of a castle on the Rhine, a description of a torture chamber and some tedious details of our camp dinners, before I lost interest.  Mum struggled, with only two gas rings and a griller, to feed six people on plastic plates with tinny cutlery, squeezed around a wobbly folding table, so perhaps the less said about meals the better. Somehow we always managed to buy the last baguette in the boulangerie, which would be stale, dry and rock hard by dinner time, like the camp grounds. And I remember hating the saltless European butter and the gloopy margarine. Wasps invaded the strawberry jam and the UHT milk, always heavy, sweet and tepid, poured over stale cornflakes made me want to puke. Bella had no mini fridge, just a cold box, which always smelled damp and mildewed, for we rarely managed to keep it full of ice. Usually there was only a puddle of water in the bottom, in which the margarine and milk could paddle.  And there was a permanent, battered tin of Spam in the cupboard in case of emergencies. It sat there for four years, untouched, and it was rusty and probably poisonous by the time we sold the van.

img104Yet I remember those summers as unusually happy, family times, despite mum’s despair at trying to get all the clothes washed and dried in heavy rain. Our usually quarrelsome pack seemed to have an unspoken truce during that month away. We played together all day with barely a squabble, and I was allowed to read the bedtime story as we were all packed tightly into our sagging, drunken tent at 7.30pm, while the European kids played on through the long summer evenings, until eleven o’clock or midnight.

Bella was our summer holiday recreational vehicle, but also the family car. She came on picnics and family outings and weekend trips, and very occasionally she would do the school run – under duress – when it was too wet or snowy to walk. We could squeeze ridiculous numbers of children into the back, in an era when seatbelts were not yet obligatory, lounging across the bench seat, kneeling up on the dicky seats or sprawling over the bed at the back. When we returned to Australia four years later and we had to sell her on, it felt worse than leaving the family pet behind.

My parents have had a series of campervans since then, mostly boxy Nissans, and none as memorable, inefficiently designed, un-chic or beloved as Bella.

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