Sunday, February 21, 2010

Benjamin Douglas Hargreaves

Welcome, nephew!

I am sitting in the Cathay lounge, waiting for my flight to Hong Kong, I have just sunk a beer ... and I am marvelling at the last two weeks. No posts in the last fortnight, I know I know - blame Blogger.com - but lots to talk about.

First and foremost, naturally, is my wonderful, mesmerising, delightful (and a little pooey) little nephew, Benjamin Douglas Hargreaves. Benjamin, Ben, Benji, BB (Baby Benjamin), Peanut, B&H ... who knows how he will grow up, but it's with the warmest, most loving mother and father, doting and deliriously happy grandparents, a welcoming home and not a bad uncle too, that he starts his journey. Hi.

He's already demonstrating a canny sense of comic timing - he managed to be born while I was dressed as a woman (ask me some other time), and waited for a full nine days before leaving the hospital, getting home a mere 30 minutes before my arrival in Cambridge. I can only imagine the mischievous giggle of forcing my own mum and dad wait more than a week to finally be allowed to meet him. Indeed, mum was like a greyhound out a gate as the car pulled into Ele's driveway - she was not going to let son #1 delay her first grandson #1 experience. I think I like him already.

I have met plenty of newborns before - bagged-up, wriggly little poo machines that gurgle and coo during regular stinky sessions, scream in the interim, and sleep for short bursts while waiting for fresh milk and chances to decorate the inside of a fresh nappy. With Ben it was a little different; the mild sense of vertigo as Ele leaves the room to have a shower, leaving me with him will be something that stays with me for a long time. The giddy reaction of my whole family watching me change my first ever nappy will be something that I hope leaves a little quicker (aren't his balls big!), but I am sure photographic evidence will prove otherwise. And watching him sleep in my arms, feet twitching in dream, was utterly magical; what is he dreaming about?; it must be blurry ... and based on only a couple of weeks of experiences. Milk or poo, in all probability.



Just try to hold her back! A Grandmother possessed!

Biddle-style greetings.

Unadulterated joy.

Mum & Mum

Sleepy time.

Adulation.

Some more sleepy time.

Just a little more.

No visit back to the UK would be complete without a good trip into the mountains, and we did that, again opting for Wales, and a relative break in the cold and wet / frozen weather of the proceeding weeks. Three days in the mountains getting a little lost, eating up a storm at 'The Best Restaurant in Wales 2008' and delighting in the trials and tribulations of the local farmers in the pub, warmed me up nicely for a trip down to the south to meet up with my aunt and Grandmother (isn't she wicked with a camera!) and set the ball rolling for a few days in the big smoke.

Welsh Rarebit.

Fixer upper.

Tree Cathederal

Tricolor

Mummy, can I have a pony?

Isn't the typography just darling?

My Grandmother is a demon with the camera!

Family business.

A semi-random encounter with Lars (are there any other types?) lit the fuse to a fine weekend in East-Central London, and rattling around with Phil B. Yes we watched Avatar in 3D, no I thought it was tiresome, and yes Phil beat me in frames of pool at Elbow Rooms. But it was great to get some shopping in, peruse the exhibits at the never-less-than awe-inspiring British Museum, and gawp slanty-headed at the modern art exhibits at the Saatchi gallery over in Chelsea with Cressida. All punctuated with a few beers, naturally, and shopping for some treats and eats in the Covent Garden retail zoo.

Brilliant encounter with Lars - all too short!

The sublime Foster & Partners at the British Museum.

Crowds stand, transfixed by the Rosetta Stone.

Elgin Marbles.

In the balls!

Phil appreciates.

Cressida has a irrational phobia of large things standing next to short things... I therefore took great pleasure in finding a room with a large, 10ft-tall child, and a tiny, mini-child in the other corner.

I have been dying to see Richard Wilson's work for years ... on permanent display at the Saatchi Gallery (incidentally, did not enjoy the gallery as a whole as much as I was expecting).

Rich and Phil on the night bus back home ...

After these days of sleeping in cold, lumpy beds, or on floors with little more than sofa cushions on the floor, I was glad to get home and get connected with the house again, and to acquaint myself with Dad's evolving assortment of mechanical delights - this time with rather a handsome BSA Goldstar café racer, complete with gorgeous polished aluminium fuel tank and rocking clip-on handle bars. We cruised the local villages looking for a fight with some local Mods on scooters, but had to head home, disappointed and shivering after the chilly air of the Fens got the better of us. Round-2 in the TVR was a little more successful, but no less noisy than the 1950s racing exhaust pipes of the BSA that caused involuntary snapping of heads, of grandfathers pushing pushchairs and disapproving stares of their wives ("no you cannot get one").

Giving it a bit of welly.

Broooooom.

Wrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaoooowwwwwwwww.

Only in Cambridge ... found on our MTB ride to St. Ives.

Serious downtime this week was just what was needed. Coming up to six years in Taiwan (six!) without an extended break at home can wear a little thin. The timing of the holiday could not have been better timed; not only for obvious family reasons, but also because a change of roles at Dell means absolutely nothing pending on my mind, my head full of bright thoughts, and zero to-do list (I took very great pleasure in systematically deleting every last appointment from Outlook). With no stress and great family news, I am at-present feeling completely relaxed ... I recommend it!

In that vein, I must also mention; I was coming through the x-ray screening area and removed my laptop for inspection. Upon preparing to slide it back into my bag, the man behind me said "Hey, I couldn't help but notice your laptop there - what is it?". When I explained it was a just released model and explaining where to get one, I couldn't resist telling him who designed it. "Kudos!" ... and one very x-ray happy traveller!

Back to vacay: the last couple of days were again devoted to family, and shaking out every last moment of time with Benji (my favourite name for him). Wrapped up in a ridiculous woolly outfit for a hike in the winter sun avec famille Wimpole Hall, he looked like a perfect bundle of joy, and I am sure he has a wonderful, bright future ahead. I do have some explaining to do in about 18 years though, when I explain why I was dressed as a woman when he arrived. My plan to craft an image of being his roguish, dangerous and mildly unhinged uncle are off to a great start!

A meeting of minds. Welcome, Benjamin!


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Saturday, January 09, 2010

Hongmonay

Mince Pies, mid-process.

I had, in my thirty years, never been away from my village for Christmas, bar trips to family around the country. As adorable as that is, it was high time I flew the nest during the festive period.

Thoughtfully, my sister agreed with this and timed delivery of a new addition to the family to coincide approximately with Chinese New Year. As a result, I instead decided to fly back for a visit in early February, leaving Christmas ominously without family. Eeek!

There seem to be two distinct types of forriner in Taiwan; those that refuse to put any effort into celebration, and as a result sit around in a haze of depression as the Taiwanese population continues about their daily business; and those that band together to meet, cook, eat, drink and proclaim proudly how very jolly their Christmas was. I decided to jump two-feet-first into the second camp, and I am fortunate enough to have friends and flatmates that felt the same way.

Rather than settle for your common-or-garden set of meals, we opted to go completely overboard, inviting about a dozen friends over for a Christmas Eve meal. This was to be followed up with an invite to even more friends for an evening 'Desert Party', no doubt washed down with some booze and Christmas cheer. And we hadn't even got to planning Christmas Day yet.

Planning, prep and purchasing for this set of events began about a week prior to the date. Served up with fresh Christmas decorations, a sober realisation dawned that this was not going to be as straightforward as we expected. Number one, single-handedly ferrying the food around Taipei is not easy; even with taxis. Second, while with some effort it was clear we were going to be able to get hold of American-style delicacies and comestibles, hunting down British ingredients was sadly not going to be a 'cake-walk'.

Exhibit-A: Mince Pies. No, they do not contain meat. Yes, apparently they used to. In the UK, complete packs of pies are sold, or the 'mince' is sold in jars for assembly in your own kitchen, and has been allowed to mature for a decent period of tim prior to sale. Try as I might, I could not find either; thus a resort to mince pie manufacture from 'first principles'. This involved sourcing my own beef fat in place of suet (note to self; do not ever use a food processor to cut up beef fat - pink goo is not a pretty sight!), currents and sultanas. I decided to substitute in some cranberries and chopped-up figs, add plenty of booze and allow just under a week for maturing and soaking. While the pastry was a little hard on day one, I would proclaim these a success!


Photo taken with my iPhone and the Tiltshift app ... quite a fun way to get creative.

Exhibit-B: Brussel Sprouts. This perennial favourite, and source of greenhouse gasses, is clearly not on the menu of the average Taipei resident. Understandable, perhaps, but a bit disappointing. Luckily, teams of British people were scouring the city, and tracked down a tray of the little gas-bombs in one of the hotel delicatessens - absurdly expensive, completely overcooked, but just the thing to add a splash of colour to the table.

Exhibit-C: Meat. I can proudly claim that I have never once had turkey on Christmas day; our family instead tends to go for a more traditional range of birds, such as duck or goose. This was clearly not going to fly with the American contingent, so we decided that while the larger Christmas Eve event should feature turkey and a shoulder of lamb, the Christmas Day meal was centred around a pair of ducks (still sporting heads and feet, as I discovered to my mild horror). Turkey was marinaded in beer, chilli and garlic for several days and was as good as I have ever had, lamb was not half bad and a world better than our previous attempt; and the ducks were juicy and flavourful, just lacking a little in the way of crispy skin that is so loved by everyone.

Exhibit-D: Suedes, Turnips and Parsnips. Nada. No way. Couldn't find 'em. A shame, but we subbed-in some great mashed pumpkin. Tensions were also raised over the method of roasting potatoes ... of course you peel them! Get that duck fat in there! ... I have a feeling no matter what we did, without Maris Pipers or King Edward potatoes, nothing was going to work very well. Never the less, very enjoyable, and a nice project for me the next time we have a big meal.

A small package also arrived from my mother in the weeks approaching Christmas. Christmas cake(nobody ever eats it anyway, so the bite-size portion was perfect), Christmas pudding (okay, I admit she sent it one year previously! But it keeps, right?), various nuts and a pack of decorations. Add to this the 3Kg bag of almonds from Tasha for our family tradition of toasted nuts, and iTunes access to a completely overpriced 'Nine Lessons in Carols' from the King College Chapel Choir, and we were set.


Christmas Eve. 4pm. Our family members over the globe tune in to Radio 4's broadcast of Nine Lessons in Carols, and take a moment to think of each other. Our tradition of roasting almonds is one of my favourite aspects of Christmas, and I believe it comes from my Mother's expat roots in Spain.

Two full days of preparation and effort from all of us paid off handsomely. We had a splendid meal with some great friends, and a lovely time meeting some new people at the desert party. Indeed, I felt I did my bit when I sent off a British Graphic Artist resident in Taipei with a pack of Mince Pies and cakes for a day when he had to work. A very satisfying Merry Christmas indeed.

Heroic efforts from the guys made for a great time. Effort in = rewards out x 2.

Armando does his bit.

Devoured in seconds, each Christmas Pie took me a total of about fifteen minutes to make ... all worth it!

Checking progress ...

Results! Round one on the Mince Pies were a little over-filled and messy, but it was downhill from there. Abe's apple pie, pumpkin pie and carrot cake were as scrumptious as ever; I have never been one for baking, but perhaps that can change in 2010?

Mmmm.

Dawn preps the stuffing.


Food porn.


Resource-allocation of ovens and hobs drew ridicule ... but it worked!


Birds of a feather.


People arrive for the desert party.


Chefs and cheffetes.


Abe and Tasha, sitzing in a tree!








Party photos. We were treated to three splendid bottles of high quality scotch Whisky; Highland Park from Orkney and both Bruichladdich (pronounced 'Brook Laddie) Bowmore from Islay. Noel had given up drinking a few years ago, and we certainly offered a good home to them!


Uncle Ken asleep on the couch for most of the party.


A slightly more austere, but no less enjoyable, Christmas day.


NYE in HK

Phase 2 of the festive for me usually involves meeting up with good friends, and putting a fair amount of effort into traveling somewhere to celebrate it in some style. This year was no different, but for the first time in about half a decade (maybe more?) I did not reunite with Phil for the bells. Perhaps next year!

Instead, a weekend invasion of Hong Kong was planned. This gave me the chance to meet up once again with Michael and Tanja (and new addition to the house, Moc Moc), and see Sam in his new natural environment. With more than a little pressure, I also persuaded Sam to finally complete construction of his new mountain bike, and thus the plans were set for a great weekend of wining, dining, hiking and biking in Hong Kong.


The ubiquitous red plastic 'lanterns' found floating above Hong Kong's market stalls.


Raindrops keep falling on my head.



Cracking up!



Darkness & Light.


Hard at work.


Tramlines.


Love Handles.


Stolen moments.


Gates Foundation.


Goes like a Singer.


Flying in formation.


Broom broom.

I have always been quite a fan of Hong Kong, as you may have guessed. It's little nods to the UK, combination of high-density quasi-chaos, international atmosphere, and easy access to nature has always been a draw, and each trip I take there sees me finding a different angle through which to appreciate it. This time, I was armed with mountain bike and charged with a mission to enjoy a good new year.

And so I did. After a clumsy session of assembling my bike on the balcony while catching up with Michael over a beer, the first port-of-call was to meet with Sam at the Bloomberg offices in Central. Michael, Tanja and I spent a happy hour wandering around the studios, prodding Sam with questions about the interior design, software systems, HR policy and protocols for filming a TV show that is beamed across the world. The level of care poured into every aspect of the business was an inspiration, and left us jealous / inspired for the return to our respective offices the following Monday.

A happy day spent wandering the lanes of HK island, and a quick visit to Michael's friend of Void watches fame (yes I did buy one, in white) meant we were well prepared for a feeding session to see in the bells later on that evening. Hosted by a new open 'creative space' initiative, we were surrounded by an interesting array of people, spanning fashion design, product and print - indeed the girl running her own printing business claimed to be heading to the North Pole in the new year, greatly impressing Michael and myself, and encouraging us to resolve to do something equally adventurous (and preposterous-sounding) at the earliest opportunity. Champagne flowed, and we saw in the new year drinking our way through the remnants of the bottles on the street.


Candlelight.


Streetlife.


Loitering.


Towering above Hong Kong.


The Late Show.

The first day of 2010 saw a change of pace, and a mildly hazy hike up into the hills surrounding Taimo Mountain. A truckload of monkeys, an inspection of WWII fortifications and a mutual fondling of each others' cameras and it was back to HK island to meet one of Michael's ex-colleagues from ideo Shanghai. Great food, German beer served out of porcelain bowls, and another desert session in the street; not a bad beginning of the end for 2009.


Monkeying around.


View back towards the city.


Amusing icons.


WWII fortifications.


Colour combinations on storm covers.

With hours to spare, Sam got his wheels laced up, and we met at the Lamma Island ferry terminal to jump into buses for the run up to Taimo Mountain - not quite the most efficient route, but it worked. We joined Hector (Head Chef of the Marriot Hotel, no less) and the guys from the Hong Kong Mountain Bike Association for a day in the hills. Michael risked it with his old wheels from Taiwan, and we set off into the clouds. It's no surprise that the trails were highly reminiscent of Taiwan, but still the first kilometre or so had us all sliding around in extremely slippery conditions. The trails did open up as we approached the summit, however, and we were treated to a fantastic descent down a ridge, hugging the contours - truly memorable. The rest of the ride was a decent mixed bag of trails and conditions, and I came away rather taken with the riding in Hong Kong. I aim to be back!


Waiting for the bus.


Awesome trails.


Team HK.


Preparing to jump.


Landing zone.


New bike. New bike.


Quite jealous ... my wallet starts quivering!

Packing the bike up was marginally more straightforward than the arrival leg, but it was still amusing to squeeze the hilariously over-sized case into the taxi. Cathay Pacific really delivered the goods (literally), allowing me to use my 30kg weight limit to full effect in both directions with no extra charges. When I get my road bike sorted, I aim to see where else I can head to in the Asia region.

Happy New Decade!


.... and back to Taiwan!

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