(On a post-) Bali High

#ChallengeCompleted: SPECIAL CHALLENGE: Holiday to Bali

When? 25 May-5 June 2017

After the 30-something-degree heat and balminess of 10 days in Bali, London was cruel welcoming me back with lashing rain and a distinct chill that was more January than June. But you know what? I still ♥ London. Which got me thinking: while I love my holidays (you all know I love my holidays!), coming home is nevertheless always a special part. Because it’s the reflecting on my trip that cements my experiences of those new cultures and ways of life I’ve experienced and which consequently broaden my life. Plus my holidays put things firmly in perspective, reminding me about the elements in my life that are most important to me.

My friend Julie found herself in Bali some eight years ago… and never came home. I’d always considered Julie a complete Londoner,  the last person you’d expect to move out of the capital – let alone set up life on an island as far away in both distance and culture as Bali. So planning to visit her in what she now firmly considered her home I did wonder if I might be enchanted by a similar spell.

There have been cities I’ve visited that have made me wonder what it might be like to live there. But it always comes back to the same thing: I could never move away from my friends and family for any length of time, let alone permanently. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t struggle to make new friends; but what makes my friendship circle so rewarding is its diversity. From girls I’ve known since I was a toddler to people I met only this year; from colleagues in some of my very first jobs to people I’ve met through more unusual circumstances; from people half my age to those considerably older. It’s a gloriously wide, wonderful and eclectic group. With every friend I’ve experienced something unique, and each enriches a particular aspect of my life. The thought of relocating to another country and giving up 50 years of friendship history is, for me, simply impossible.

So when it comes to wondering what it might be like to live in the particular city I’m visiting, however zen or zingy I feel at the time, the answer is always swift: no. Home is where my heart is. Home is London. (Yeah, Essex. But let’s not split hairs.)

This blog post sits under #ChallengeKate. As with my Japan trip, Bali wasn’t specifically a #ChallengeKate (although Julie might beg to differ: technically she did Challenge me to visit when we first started getting serious about booking the trip). But it is a holiday I undertook because of my 50th birthday this year – two of my best friends also reach their half-century this year and, having celebrated our 30th and 40th birthdays together, we’d always said we’d do something very special together to mark this decade. So this post rightly belongs here. And while this blog entry might not have resulted in the post-holiday report I’d envisaged when I started, the way it’s turned out has made me realise even more how important my friends are to me. Ipso facto, that’s EXACTLY the point of #ChallengeKate.

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Turning Japanese

#ChallengeCompleted: Holiday to Japan

When? 12th-25th April

Special Challenge

Japan was my choice for this year’s ‘family’ holiday with my dad and sister. Friends who have been (and even lived) there paint it a fascinating country and I’m also eager to learn about different cultures.

Before I went I read A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton, a novel set in Nagasaki that starts just as the nuclear bomb is dropped in August 1945. Prefacing each chapter is the Japanese word for an attitude or feeling, followed by an explanation of what that means, both literally and culturally. These perhaps more so than the novel itself started to give me a good insight into the culture and how very different it is to ours. I couldn’t wait to go.

Reflecting on the trip, I find it’s the little details that make Japan so unique.

*It’s all so clean – no graffiti, no fly-posting or fly-tipping, no discarded chewing gum, no cigarette butts. Indeed, no litter anywhere. Yet, more pertinently, very few litter bins. Everyone simply takes their rubbish home with them. Amazing – especially when you factor in the super-excessive amounts of packaging on Japanese goods.

*They heat their loo seats. Even the public ones (of which – thankfully – there are plenty). What’s more, loos frequently feature an integral bidet and ‘shower’ (one for ‘front’, one for ‘back’). With adjustable water pressure. And an odour suppressant. And, on occasion, even a ‘noise cancellation’ button or music/sound effects you can play (with volume control, of course). Seems the Japanese are obsessed about toilet behaviour.

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*In fact, they’re obsessed by cleanliness. Toilets aside (see above), part of the ritual of their Shinto religion involves the systematic washing of your hands and mouth before approaching the shrine.

*I saw no sign of homelessness or begging. With unemployment at around just 4%, there inevitably feels like there’s quite a lot of job creation going on – do you really need three people employed at the entrance to every car park to help direct traffic and pedestrians?

*You can set your watch by Japanese efficiency. You have exactly three minutes to get on/off the bullet train at each station (and it’ll pull in bang on time). And even on one occasion when we saw a huge group of schoolkids getting on/off, everyone managed it. Without any pushing or shoving or huffing and puffing or panic. NB: I didn’t travel on the Tube. I understand they do push and shove – a lot – to get people on that!

*Politeness is ingrained in the people. For example, when the ticket inspector entered our carriage on the Bullet train, he stood and bowed politely at everyone. And when he reached the other end of the carriage he turned and bowed politely again before moving on.

*Which makes it strange that there isn’t really a Japanese word for ‘thank you’… (although a host of other sign-offs are used).

*Apparently the word ‘no’ is very difficult for a Japanese person to say. If you really push you might get a ‘maybe’.

*Hotel rooms are so well equipped. I had a clean nightshirt or robe to wear every night, plus slippers. And the vanity tray in the bathroom always included a toothbrush and toothpaste, hairbrush, razor, hair scrunchy and cotton buds/pads, as well as the familiar shower cap shampoo/conditioner/body wash, and so forth. There was also usually a torch and useful night light in the room.

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*Restaurants build plastic replicas of the dishes they offer and display them in the window to tempt you in.

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*People are encouraged not to eat while they’re walking. Or use a phone while they’re walking. Or smoke while they’re walking. Seriously – it’s the little details that really do make life so much easier.

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*All pavements (and I mean pretty much all) feature a ‘rumble strip’ down the middle, which branched off to indicate crossings, entrances to the station and such, to enable blind people to safely navigate the streets.

*Worryingly for these blind people, Japanese Kamikaze are alive and well… and riding bicycles. Bikes are a popular form of transport – although cycle lanes have clearly not reached Japan. And roads are busy. Hence common practice is to hare along the crowded pavements at breakneck speed, weaving in and out of the pedestrians. How no one ever gets hit is beyond me.

*Packaging is some kind of extreme art in Japan. With sweets, for example, there’s a cellophane-wrapped box. Inside the box are individually wrapped sweets, each neatly seated in a cardboard holder. Truly excessive.

The language wasn’t quite the barrier I feared it might be. In Tokyo, where our trip started and finished, I had expected to see western words alongside the Japanese kanji (despite having been warned I wouldn’t). And, on the whole, this was the case – road signs, maps, signage in the stations and so forth largely featured western words underneath the Japanese characters. Of course lots of the shops and restaurants only had Japanese writing and, with a lot of the food unrecognisable (is it even sweet or savoury?), finding somewhere to eat could sometimes be a challenge. Maybe that’s how the displays of plastic dishes first came about?

I enjoyed the food. To be honest, I would have liked to have tried even more Japanese dishes but the practicalities of trying to find a restaurant that suited me, Dad and Wendy in terms of both menu (content and understanding) and location wasn’t always easy. Where possible I tried to find somewhere serving the specialities of the region: teriyaki in Tokyo, buckwheat soba noodles in Matsumoto, Hida beef in Takayama, okonomyaki in Hiroshima. Lots of noodles and rice; a little sushi and some tempura – neither as much as I might have liked. And I’m getting the hang of chopsticks…

So what didn’t I like? I actually came away feeling Japan isn’t as beautiful a country as I’d imagined. Yes, the cherry blossom was magnificent, the temples and shrines extremely picturesque and the gardens rightly rated among the world’s most beautiful. But beyond those I found buildings in the cities grey and boxy; roads often ran over multiple levels with ugly flyovers that stretched for miles. The beauty of rivers was too often compromised by angular man-made concrete banks.

The Bullet train was amazing. What would have been more amazing would have been to watch the countryside whizzing past. Unfortunately, Japanese railway builders clearly have a great love of tunnels…

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Things I learnt:

*Buddhism has five commandments. The fifth being words to the effect that ‘thou shalt not drink so much saki as to not be able to carry out your duties’. Well put!

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*Japanese people love moss. While British gardeners spend half their lives trying to get rid of the damn stuff, their Japanese counterparts are eagerly cultivating as much of it as possible.

*No part of the animal goes to waste. One tepanyaki bar we passed in Tokyo displayed a menu offering various cuts of pork… including (and I kid you not) fat of the head, small intestine, womb, overies and vagina. On a stick. No, we didn’t go in.

*Tipping is not a thing. No one seems out to make money. Even costumed people parading around temples were eager to be photographed – but never once asked for money.

*They love a vending machine, particularly for drinks. And you can get both hot and cold drinks out of the same machine. Just look for the red label (hot drink) or blue label (cold).

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*Making tea is a Big Deal. I kinda knew this before I went (most people have heard of the Japanese tea ceremony). But seriously – all that time and effort and ritual just to make a single cup of something that tastes like grass? No thanks.

*Starbucks and McDonald’s are commonplace. Indeed, it seems despite the horrific history, Japan now has quite the love affair with America and has embraced its language (in favour of English English) along with its fast-food and coffee outlets.

*You can reserve a table in Starbucks. We popped into Japan’s first-ever Starbucks (don’t judge me), which is in the Ginza area of Tokyo. There’s a commemorative plaque on the wall. There’s also a sign saying that if you intend to eat/drink in, you should reserve a seat first. Little ‘reserved’ signs are provided. What’s more, people place these signs on a table – or leave their jacket or even their laptop – to reserve their spot. And their table – with all of their belongings – is still there when they’ve got their drink. I can’t imagine that happening in London!

*The majority of the people you see wearing kimonos are not Japanese. They’re most likely Chinese, Korean or Filipino and have hired the costumes for the day.

*Similarly, if you see a geisha in the street, you didn’t see a geisha. Geishas are incredibly private and will rush from taxi to tea house in the blink or an eye.

*Speaking of geishas, it’s considered impolite these days to use the term. They’re called ‘Geikos’, while the younger girls still training are known as ‘Maikos’.

*After the A-Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the people decided transport links were far and away the number one priority for getting the city and its people back on its feet, and the tram system was the most practical thing to fix. It took just three days for a comprehensive tram system to be up and running, ferrying injured people away for treatment and bringing help and aid into the city. As a result of the super-human efforts of the trams people during this period, to this day trams are revered across the city.

*My understanding is (and apologies if I haven’t got this quite right) that the Shinto religion believes deities are too numerous to count and can live virtually everywhere and anywhere – even in the toilet, which is why it along with everything else must be kept super-clean. They also believe that when someone dies, they become a god, despite what kind of person they might have been during their life. It explains why the Japanese respect their elders so much – the older someone is, the closer they are to becoming a god…

*Food is extremely over-packedaged. There’s a cellophane-wrapped box. Inside the box are individually wrapped sweets, each neatly seated in a cardboard holder.

*At least some of the Japanese language has logic to it. The ‘kanji’ for tree is like a crucific with two sweeping lines, like curtains drawn either side. Draw two of these kanji and it means ‘grove’. Draw three and it means ‘forest’. Not so tricky after all, huh?

*The famed ‘nightingale’ floor in one of the temples in Kyoto (so called because it makes a bird-like chirping noise when it’s walked over) happened by accident, not design.

*Tatami mat floors (made using compressed rice straw with a woven seagrass cover) feel lovely underfoot. I really quite fancy one of these. It’d work particularly well in my new travel room…

 

 

Pottering about

#

ChallengeCompleted: Harry Potter On Location: London Walk

When? Saturday 29th April

Nominated by: Stacey

Stacey’s first #ChallengeKate sadly failed to get off the ground; we had hoped to see the exhibition of Harry Potter artworks at the House of MinaLina gallery in Soho, but the queues on the day we pitched up were ridiculously long and neither of us fancied the wait outside on one of the coldest days of the year. But Part Two of Stacey’s Challenge was to do London Walk’s Harry Potter on Location tour, which promised ‘the Westminster locations that riveted you in Harry Potter and the Order of the PhoenixThe Prisoner of AzkabanHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’.

I’ll be honest: while I enjoyed the walk, it was light on the HP film locations and heavy on general London sights, monuments and historical points of interest of which our city is so rich. How much of this was down to the fact the (extremely knowledgeable) London Guide leading this tour was filling in for the unwell Potter expert who usually leads this walk, and how much was due to the fact there aren’t actually that many locations in this part of London is hard to know. Suffice to say the tour didn’t start blindingly well: the guide didn’t even get the name of The Order of the Phoenix’s headquarters wrong, calling it Grimmauld Lane rather than Grimmauld Place.

The walk kicked off at Embankment, evoking memories of how members of the Order of the Phoenix, in the eponymous book, had swooped above the Thames on their broomsticks on their way to London for Harry’s disciplinary hearing at the Ministry of Magic. We were then led along the Embankment, with various little (non-Harry Potter-related) architectural details being pointed out. Interesting, but far from relevant.

Our first ‘proper’ stop looked promising: a mysterious little door set into the side of Westminster bridge. I didn’t recognise it but, in my defence, while I’ve read the Harry Potter series a couple of times, I’ve only ever seen the films once; most of my knowledge of how sets look comes from visits to the Warner Bros film studios at Leavesden near Watford and the Wizarding World in Universal Orlando, neither of which is particularly heavy on London locations (although there is a Knight Bus parked outside Leicester Square Tube in the latter’s reconstruction of London).

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What could this door be? I wracked my brains trying to remember its purpose. Our guide magicked up all sorts of suggestions as to the wizarding connection this door might have… before concluding it wasn’t actually in any of the HP films. But it did feature in a James Bond movie. Oh.

We fought our way down into Westminster Tube. This was used in the scene during which Mr Weasely is bringing Harry to the Ministry of Magic to face charges of performing underage magic and the Patronas charm. You might remember the scene: people are streaming through the ticket barriers, opening the gates with their tickets; Mr Weasely ignorantly copies the commuters and simply waves his hand at the spot where the ticket should be inserted but, of course, the gate doesn’t open and it’s left to Harry to explain the Muggle method of accessing the Underground platforms.

Interesting fact alert: we were told the station was closed for three days (!) while this scene was filmed. I’m sure it wasn’t. I can’t believe TFL would permit a major Tube station such as this to be closed for three whole days. I could believe it was shut for a period of time on three different days for filming purposes. I’m sure that’s what she meant.

We then thrust our way through the hoards of tourists to a viewpoint of Big Ben (cue lengthly history lecture about the naming of the bell and tower). It almost a felt a bit forced the way our guide tried to make a connection between the Houses of Lord and Commons to the four Houses at Hogwarts.

Next – and probably the most interesting – HP stop was Scotland Place, just off Whitehall, the location of the Ministry of Magic. Sadly the phone box Mr Weasely uses to gain access to the Ministry was a prop brought in for the filming and long since removed. But at least the building is recognisable.

We then pushed our way up to Trafalgar Square, over which, we were reminded, Death Eaters launched a destructive air attack on London (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince opens with them swooping down over Trafalgar Square). We missed out on exit one of Leicester Square, which appeared in the same sequence, and the relevance of Charing Cross Road, down which the Death Eaters then headed, leaving a trail of death and destruction. Neither did we get as far as Piccadilly Circus, to which Harry and Hermione apparated when the Death Eaters launched an attack on Bill and Fleur’s wedding in Deathly Hallows Part One. Harry, Hermione and Ron had then headed off up Shaftesbury Avenue. Our tour didn’t. And although we virtually walked past Hardy’s Sweet Store on Charing Cross Road, no mention was made of the fact it’s reminiscent of Hogwart students’ favourite, Honeyduke’s, nor of the fact it sells an assortment of Harry Potter-themed sweets, including every flavour beans and chocolate frogs. Hmm.

We wound up at Cecil Court, easily believed to be the inspiration for Diagon Alley thanks in part to its curious mix of bookshops, antique shops and even nods to the occult. Clearly one shopkeeper is confident the link is true, as the window display features a selection of ‘Magic Money’ – novelty Galleon notes featuring Harry Potter and other characters from the franchise.

And here the tour ended. Along the way there had been vague references to inspiration JK Rowling had possibly drawn from various aspects of the city but I didn’t feel I’d learnt anything new about Harry Potter, let alone the filming of it in London. And I’m sure some of the young HP fans in our group wearing Harry Potter scarves and glasses were disappointed. I don’t blame them. While I always enjoy a guided walk through parts of London and learning something new, the magic of the Harry Potter franchise simply wasn’t brought alive as this walk promised it would be. I certainly didn’t feel I’d peeked into a magical world. And that’s a shame.

There is a second walk, which covers the film locations in the City. If this is run by London Walks’ ‘original’ Harry Potter expert, I’d be interested to give it a second chance. Besides, Stacey, it’s always lovely to spend time with you…

 

 

 

 

Gentlemen (and lady): Start your engines

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#ChallengeCompleted: F1 Race Simulator

When? Sunday 12th February

Nominated by: Jon

This Challenge was right up my race track. Appealing Big Time to both the petrolhead and the F1 fan within me, the opportunity to ‘drive’ a Formula One car round a Grand Prix circuit was super-exciting.

I was under no illusions I’d beat Jon, my Challenger; he does a lot of karting and, by all accounts, is pretty handy round a race track. It’s also been a long time since I’ve put pedal to the metal in gritted determination. Mike, a fellow F1 fan and also a karter, was joining us and I fully expected to be beaten by him too, although I at least hoped I might give both boys a run for their money.

We went first into a briefing room to learn how to get comfortable in the cockpit and adjust the pedals (there are only two; no clutch. I’d rapidly have to learn left-foot braking). We were shown how to attach and remove the steering wheel, what the various buttons on the wheel did (I was relieved it wasn’t covered in buttons and switches like Lewis Hamilton’s is – there were only four, three of which I probably wouldn’t even need), and how to change gear – flick the paddle on the right to change up and the paddle on the left to shift down.

Hungary for success?

The facility offers all the current Grand Prix circuits; we’d be driving Hungary’s Hungaroring, a twisting circuit with only one real straight. This, we were told, is a ‘middling’ circuit: not overly difficult for the first-timer to get to grips with, but still offering challenges for more experienced racers.

I know the Hungaroring. Well I say ‘know’; I could probably have picked it out of a circuit line-up. When the lap diagram came up on the screen in the briefing room, yes: I recognised it. I also knew each and every one of those corners  would come as a surprise as I drove round…

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I was actually quite nervous as we entered the Race Room. Ten F1-esque monocoques lined up across two rows; no wheels, noses or wings but realistic enough nonetheless. Each car had three wraparound display screens. Getting in was a lot easier than I imagine it is squeezing into a ‘real’ F1 car and I virtually disappeared as I submarined into the cockpit. I’m not tall and the virtually supine driving position left my head all but completely below the rim. Surprisingly, it didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. I guess I’d have felt differently in a ‘real’ car on a real circuit.

We now had a 15-minute qualifying session, then a short break to receive personal telemetry that would potentially help us see where we could improve our performance. Then we’d be back for a 30-minute race.

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My heart was thumping as the lights dimmed and qualifying was go, go, GO! Cars streamed past my garage as I flicked into first and gingerly pressed the throttle, hoping nothing else was coming as I joined the pitlane. Safe! Changing gears seemed straightforward enough; I even remembered (eventually) to deactivate the speed limiter as I joined the track. Tentatively I approached the hairpin. The brakes were super-sharp so not only had I braked far too early, I virtually stopped before getting off the brakes and navigating the corner, past several cars already scattered in the gravel traps pointing in various directions.

Before I had time to be smug I’d joined them. I’d spun. Someone hit me (or did I hit them? It was all a bit of a blur, really) and I barrel-rolled (thankfully the simulator was limited to vibration only), ending up nose-on into the barrier. Where’s reverse? How the heck do I get back on to the track? Where even is the track? I spent a good while repeatedly crashing into the barrier and spinning in an attempt to get going before the computer apparently took pity on me and put me back in my garage to start again…

This time there were no cars to hit/be hit by, so I successfully (eventually) got round the first corner. From now on I didn’t have a clue what bends were coming next. Sometimes there were boards counting down to the corner, which helped. Sometimes I was in a corner – or, more accurately, the gravel the other side of it – before I’d realised. I did find a lot of gravel traps.

Fifteen minutes flew by. I was learning nothing about the track but had become proficient at driving through gravel traps. I was also good at selecting neutral or reverse at inopportune moments. I kept missing gears by not pulling on the paddles strongly enough. Hey, I could at least brake hard with my left foot!

Seventh heaven?

I managed a feeble five laps, with a best time of 2:07.475. To be fair, three other drivers also only managed five laps, the rest doing six. And that said, if the fastest lap was a 1:40.690 he must have had some serious ‘offs’ if he was that much faster yet only managed one more lap in the 15 minutes!

I’d qualified seventh. Out of seven. On the plus side I was the fastest girl. I’m taking that.

The most useful thing I learned from my telemetry was that there are, in fact, eight gears. For some reason I thought there were only six so I’d stopped upshifting at that point. I also saw my braking was either fully on or fully off. Is that a bad thing? I didn’t appear to have completely floored the accelerator at any point – I could certainly resolve that. At least my telemetry implied I was roughly accelerating and braking in the right places. And while I’m sure not one of my five laps was free of some kind of excursion/spin/crash, I don’t think it’s obvious where I struggled. Other than, erm, everywhere…

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Blue line represents me; red line represents the fastest lap set

The break was swift. Quickly we were back in our cars, lined up on the grid. My tactics were obvious: hang back and let everyone crash on the first corner, then tiptoe through the debris and hang on…

Lights out! I hesitated… but quickly realised the car in front (Mike) was going really slowly so I floored it – passing him and a further car (two cars?) as we headed into the hairpin. Hey, I can DO this! Predictably, the exit of the hairpin was carnage; cars off all over the place. Equally predictably, I joined them in the gravel…

The race was long. At one point it got quite dark and ‘rained’. Should that make a difference? Should I go slower? Brake earlier? One thing I shouldn’t have done was put a wheel on the grass as I floored it down the straight; instant spin and crash. Doh!

Sometimes I came up on another car (usually recovering from an incident). Sometimes I even drove past it… but I was re-lapped pretty quickly.

I never did manage a clean lap. The most frustrating moments were when I was actually going quite well, then simply bashed from behind or barged off the side. Yes, I swore out loud on more than one occasion.

The hardest part was the lack of any impression of speed or deceleration beyond the visual display. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t looking to experience the incredible G-forces F1 drivers endure, but only the onscreen speedo and selected gear display gave any real indication of what was happening in terms of traction. I’m also thankful that virtual tyres are apparently a great deal more resilient than Hamilton and co’s Pirellis, because I appeared to spin my wheels a lot, mainly by being in the wrong gear and using too much throttle.

Steering was tough on my arms – especially when trying to manoeuvre back onto the circuit. I felt a small kick every time I changed gear and there was a definite bump when I hit the barrier and a jolt when I went over the kerbs, but nothing even approaching uncomfortable, let alone painful. I certainly wasn’t experiencing the physical thrill of F1 driving, although the adrenaline rush was definitely there.

I was almost relieved when the half-hour race finished as I was starting to get frustrated at my lack of progress. But I was disappointed it was exactly on the 30-minute mark that my display suddenly cleared; I didn’t even get to finish my lap and take the chequered flag.

Scores on the doors

So how did I get on? Sixth. Yes, I beat Mike. There was a good reason for that, but I’ll spare (more of) his blushes on that one. I’d managed 11 laps, finishing three behind the winner – my Challenger, Jon. On the positive side, I had improved my lap time by a whopping seven seconds. Not many F1 drivers find that much speed between qualifying and the race!

That said, I don’t think Lewis Hamilton – let alone the back of the grid – have much to worry about… Hey, I finished the day the fastest girl. I’m taking that.

 

 

Waiter, there might be a fly in my soup…

img_1825#ChallengeCompleted: Dans Le Noir?

When? Tuesday 31st January

Nominated by: Lucy

Close friends know I’m a bit of a foodie and love discovering new restaurants. But Dans Le Noir?, in Clerkenwell, is a restaurant with a big difference: diners eat in absolute darkness, served by visually impaired staff. It’s described as ‘a sensory experience that awakes your senses and enables you to completely re-evaluate your perception of taste and smell’.

I’m a firm believer that you eat primarily with your eyes so I was sceptical how my enjoyment of a meal might be elevated rather than compromised by lack of vision. I also confess I was cautious I might unwittingly eat something I’d rather not! I was, of course, willing to accept Lucy’s Challenge.

Lucy and I were greeted in a dimly lit reception containing a bar, sofas and lockers into which we were directed to stow our belongings, including phones. We were given ‘menus’ ­– not a choice of what dishes we might care to enjoy, simply an outline of the courses and drinks available ­– and asked if we wanted the ‘chef’s choice’, ‘fish’, ‘meat’ or ‘vegetarian’ option, while a note was made of any food intolerances and dislikes we had.

It was with some trepidation we then met our (blind) waiter, Guy. I was directed to place my hand on his shoulder, with Lucy behind me placing her hand on my shoulder; thus train-like we were led into the pitch black dining area (and it really was pitch black) and to our table, where Guy ensured we were sat safely before explaining clearly what was in front of us.

It was immediately obvious Lucy and I, seated opposite each other, were sharing our table with another couple and, while we couldn’t see them, it was clear they were extremely close, which was disconcerting. It was impossible to tell what other diners sat where, but there was a fair bit of noise and chatter. I commented to Lucy that if she and I both drew where we thought we were sat in context of the rest of the restaurant and other diners, we’d no doubt have very different results.

Guy soon returned with our drinks (‘the glass has two straws in it; be careful’), a lidded jug of water (‘place your finger in your glass as you pour, so you can feel the level’) and some bread to share. Aware of other diners being so close on one side and not knowing who else might be sat nearby, I found it tough figuring out what space we actually had and hoped I wouldn’t push things off the table or knock anything over; although to be fair it seemed pretty well sorted in terms of mitigating spill hazards.

Eating the bread was simple enough and as no mention was made of butter, we guessed that was one problem we didn’t have to overcome. Lucy was confused as I described the herbiness of the roll I was tasting; she really couldn’t pick that flavour out. It was a while before we realised the plate offered a selection of rolls…

My starter arrived (cue a cautious juggling act as I blindly endeavoured to make room for my plate by moving unseen glasses/cutlery/jugs/bread). Now came the tricky bit: eating. I stabbed my fork randomly down in front of me, feeling for the edge of the plate with my other hand. More often my fork came back all but empty; sometimes I was lucky and speared a particularly large mouthful of food. There seemed little point trying to use a knife to cut something I couldn’t see. Besides, with no one watching, who cared about my table manners?

Most flavours I recognised. But naming the ingredients of my dish with confidence? Actually pretty damn tricky with no visual cues.

I quickly got fed up with blindly stabbing my fork and introduced my other hand to tentatively push things on to it instead. Hey, it’s not like anyone is watching! It was still pretty hit and miss, mind – not to mention in danger of getting rather messy.

My main course was equally challenging. The plate this time felt like a clover shape and in each of the ‘petals’ I encountered something different. In my mouth I could differentiate between meat, fish and vegetable elements (I’d like to think I could at least manage that!). Some I liked. Some I wasn’t so sure about. Most I just shovelled in regardless, as though it was some kind of challenge just to find and eat everything I’d been served.

I didn’t order pudding, but Lucy had favoured that course over a starter. Guy brought her dish and offered us a spoon each. If eating your own meal blind is hard, sharing is virtually impossible and here I can only apologise to Lucy. Because I really hadn’t intended to pick up was seemed to be at least half the portion in one go when I slid my spoon in. Apparently balanced very firmly, I had a good four mouthfuls of pudding from just one super-giant spoonful. Sorry. I didn’t feel I could put it back. Then again, who would have known? (Lucy, it’s OK: I didn’t put it back!)

So did I have any idea what I was eating? While I was confident about a handful of ingredients, on the whole not really. And for me that was the disappointment. I mean, I get the theory about blindness heightening your other senses. And it’s great that the chefs aim to combine flavours and textures for the optimum taste sensation. But when I can’t successfully mix those flavours and textures on my fork because I can’t see what I’m blooming well doing, it all gets muddled and ultimately lost. Once I’d found an area of my plate with food on, I ate that. Then I used my hands to locate to the next area of food.

I pretty much gave up with cutlery; fingers were far more efficient. And it was a surprise when, thinking I’d about finished my main course, I discovered a whole new ‘petal’ on my plate full of a whole new set of flavours and textures. And there was another problem for me: without knowing how much food was in front of me, I struggled to pace my meal.

I found I naturally closed my eyes a lot (seemed pointless having them open, I guess), which started to feel a little like I was living in a dream. But were my other senses heightened? Impossible to tell if my hearing was heightened because the restaurant was noisy – few soft furnishings, it sounded like, as voices bounced around. Perhaps when you can’t see other people, you’re simply not so conscious of keeping your voice down. I guess it’s not the place to reveal secrets; who knows who could be sitting right next to you, listening?!

I wouldn’t say my sense of smell was more acute, either. Actually, thinking back, I don’t recall really smelling my food at all. I’m not sure if that says more about me or the meal…

As for taste: to be honest, I just found the blackness frustrated my enjoyment of my food rather than enhancing it. I tried really hard to savour the flavours, but ultimately I get pleasure from seeing my meal on the plate. I like picking up a bit of this and a bit of that, in proportions of my choosing, and tasting them together to see how they blend. Being blinded took that opportunity away from me. While the chef might have carefully balanced flavours and textures through the meal, his skill was negated by the fact each mouthful consisted only of what I found by chance. And I was frustrated to recognise flavours yet not recall their names. I guess I know what I like and I like what I know.

In the bar afterwards we were given a photograph of what we’d been served, with a full description. Some of ‘the big reveal’ was expected. Much of it was a complete surprise. Those little globules I’d hoovered up that I’d thought might be bits of fish turned out to be button mushrooms (which ordinarily I’d have pushed to one side). The meaty fish wasn’t shark, as I’d guessed, although I wasn’t far wrong. The giant chip was a giant chip. That sauce turned out to have been truffled egg yolk. The chocolate ganache had been unmistakable; sadly the game it’d smothered had been impossible to taste through it, which was a shame as I’d have been interested to savour the deer. What the heck is a daikon? Although apparently I ate one, I still have no idea…

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Spooky goings on…

 

#ChallengeCompleted: The Ghost Bus Tour

When? Wednesday 25th January

Nominated by: Portland

 

#ChallengeKate is officially off the ground – my first Challenge has successfully been completed!

My colleague Portland challenged me to hold her hand on The Ghost Bus Tour, an alternative London sightseeing trip billed as ‘taking you around the darker side… providing a spooky theatrical experience you’ll never forget’.

A chilly, dark January evening seemed the perfect time to board the bus: a classic 1960s Routmaster, once part of a 19th century fleet of private funeral buses. While looking like a regular double-decker (albeit with ‘spooky’ paint job), the upstairs deck – where we chose to sit – boasts red velvet curtains at each window and facing pairs of seats, between which is a small table bearing an old-fashioned lamp. It all created a wonderfully eerie atmosphere.

We were welcomed on board by the conductor, a young lady who produced a spectre-acular (see what I did there?) performance of someone obsessed with gruesome deaths, grizzly ghosts and all things spooky and supernatural quickly – a talent proved to be equalled by her knowledge and recall of historical facts and figures.

While we waited for other passengers to board, the driver – dressed in a skeleton onesie and disguised by a blinging skull mask – snuck up on people and made them jump. I was facing the stairs so had a clear view each time he made his way silently up the aisle. Portland, however, sat facing me, was an easy target for scaring. Three times the driver and conductor between them had succeeded in making her leap !

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The Conductor kept up a thoroughly engaging commentary throughout the 80-minute or so ‘frightseeing’ tour, pointing out places of interest and recounting their tales of hangings, torture, murders, hauntings and all manner of other strange goings on.

There was a smattering of smutty innuendo (describing Nelson’s column as ‘a large erection with a little seaman on top did, I confess, make me titter), but the tales were always based in fact – such as the true story of the ghost of Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane (Google it). We discovered places of executions, murders, hauntings and more. Who knew, for example, that the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square has a light electric charge running through it to keep the pigeons off? Or that his cigar was removed to stop the pigeons using it as a perch and pooing on his face…?

The commentary was punctuated throughout the tour by a vignette acted out brilliantly between the conductor and another ‘cast’ member, running up and down the stairs and aisles and sharing dialogue with the Conductor. The scenario split our attention brilliantly between points of interest outside and the story taking place on board the bus. I won’t spoil your fun by revealing details.

OK, I admit I wasn’t scared. But I was amused. Very amused. And entertained. And I’ve learnt a few more new facts about London, which is always a wonderful thing.

Thank you, Portland, for a great first Challenge!

 

More #ChallengeKate proposals have come in – click over to my page listing The Challenges to see what I’ll be up to next. And don’t forget to send my your own #ChallengeKate!