Travel

Flying Class First

Flying on a budget has never been easier than it is today. More affordable with more options, the choice to find a cheap seat is as easy as it is economical. Budget airlines are a significant part of air travel and many larger, more established airlines are altering their practices to adopt many “non-inclusive” fees enabling passengers to pay for the absolute minimum.

You can fly from Sydney to Los Angeles for just over a grand, Brisbane to Tokyo for under $500 and from Perth to Bali for less than the cost of a cab ride in Melbourne. We cram into smaller seats, forgo in-flight entertainment and fly through China to save a few hundred bucks.

This is no way to live.

Friends of mine flew to North America and Europe via China recently to save $500 over a direct flight. The layovers added almost an entire day to their trip and cost them substantial headaches. They dealt with having to re-check in before re-boarding the connecting flight, were confused by Chinese airports, and dealt with unhelpful staff on the ground. All of these are ingredients to a painful holiday; something that defeats the purpose of a holiday to begin with. I understand that there are circumstances that crop up during your travels that can lead to frustration, but these are self-inflicted issues that can be avoided if you take into consideration that your holiday doesn’t start when you land at your destination.

Your holiday starts when you leave your house. Everything that happens after is part of your holiday. So plan and spend accordingly.

ailined

FLIGHTS OF FANCY

The biggest costs of your holidays are often your flights (or at least, they should be). If you’re flying across oceans to continents afar, a good majority of your time will be spent in the air, so why start out with stopovers and subpar airlines?

If you’ve got the money to travel business class or first class, then most of this is superfluous information. You’re probably going to be comfortable no matter where you go. However, for most of us traveling economy, there are a few ways to avoid early onset holiday stress that I believe are part of every good travel plan.

1. Fly direct if possible

It may cost you a few hundred dollars more to fly from Melbourne straight to L.A., but I can guarantee you that you will wish you did when you’re waiting in frustration at one of China’s many substandard aviation hubs. It’s not worth it.

If you have to stopover, find well known airports and cities that provide you comfort, ease and a mostly stress free environment.

For those traveling through Asia, the two best hubs are Changi Airport in Singapore and Hong Kong International. If you’ve got to stopover in Asia somewhere, make it either one of these and you’ll find that your stopover can be luxurious, comfortable and easy to navigate as you wait to pass the time. Both airports have excellent facilities for those either looking for food, recuperation (plenty of free massage chairs) or shopping.

2. Avoid flying budget airlines

Thinking about flying budget airlines on a trip longer than a few hours? Don’t do it. They are budget airlines for a reason and while the price is right, you’ll be wondering why you’re suddenly paying for check-in luggage. Sure, there are plenty of carriers that tackle long haul flights on the cheap; Australia’s Jetstar has many Asian cities on its destinations list while AirAsia does the same. Singapore Airlines recently launched their own budget carrier Scoot that will fly from Melbourne to Singapore for just $229. It’s ridiculously inviting, but what are you paying for? They’ve got a host of economy class options that include a “ScootSilence” seat that in reality means you’re just paying for a different colour seat. They’re “unabashedly no-frills” and “managed to significantly undercut the market by modifying its planes to have less space between seats, so more passengers can be packed on board.” I understand the majority of airlines are packing in more seats to compete in this market, but an airline that’s proud of it? No thanks.

I’ve never felt more nervous about flying in my life than the few times I flew budget for trips that lasted a mere hour.

My solution is to stick to the bigger airlines that have a great track record and who take extra care in doing what they can for their passengers. In an age where airlines of all kinds are cutting costs and optioning even the most basic of comforts, it is important to think above and beyond. The airlines I tend to stick to for international routes are Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Garuda Indonesia and Virgin. All of them offer fantastically competitive rates when you’re flying across the globe and the comforts and service they offer in Economy Class far surpass the rest.

3. Spend the money on bulkhead seats or buy premium economy

Most airlines have the option for premium economy seats (economy seats with a little more room) and in most cases, the ability for you to choose bulkhead seats (the seats directly behind the physical partition that divides a plane into different classes or sections—or the seats with lots of leg room). If this is the case, then spend the extra money on these seats for long haul flights.

On our recent trip to Canada, we spent $180 each to upgrade our Qantas economy seats to bulkhead seats. I can’t begin to tell you how much better it is to have that extra leg room while never having to worry about stepping over anyone to go to the toilets. You have room to stretch out anytime and some additional breathing space. It’s all part of making that 16-hour haul as enjoyable as possible. Our flight was just part of a 30+ hour day that included 3 flights and a significant drive, so reducing as much stress as we could was a priority.

CLASS IS NEVER CHEAP

Growing up, flying was a privilege. Safety, quality, and class are things I hold in high regard when it comes to flying and I’d like to enjoy as much of it as I can. Like renting a car on your holiday, you should find ways to make the most out of it from the get-go.

I don’t know where the airline market is heading to and whether or not things will turn around in the near future, but I’d like to see airlines move away from all these “pay for what you want” options and return to more expensive, more inclusive seating plans. When we realize that flying an airline that gives you the option of paying less to sit on a plastic deck chair at the back of the plane is a truly terrible idea, we’ll be heading in the right direction. When it comes to living mostly, flying is something you should never go cheap on.

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Travel

Rental Car Roulette

The open road, whether paved or untouched, is an intrinsic part of almost all human experience. Enshrined in books and movies, it is etched into the collective psyche of our culture. Perhaps because of this, one of the highlights of our recent trip to Canada was the view from behind the wheel driving up to the Okanagan. Known for its mix of beautifully arid landscapes and vast mountainous vistas, the region’s wine country is nestled in between some truly breathtaking scenery.

You can get to the Okanagan in one of two ways, both of which have spectacular views. But no matter which you take, it’s a 400+km drive. We knew we’d be spending hours in the car and on the road, and we wanted to make sure that there was a certain level of comfort and class to the journey. Car choice is often an overlooked aspect of planning a great road trip, but we decided not to play rental car roulette. Instead, we put some work into making sure we had the right car for our road trip.

What is rental car roulette? It’s when you don’t put time and effort into selecting the right rental car and instead roll the dice and see what you get. There are those who shop around for the lowest price, but I’m going to tell you that you should only consider price to a certain extent. Make your rental car as much of a priority as your accommodation. Make it count.

Make your rental car as much of a priority as your accommodation. Make it count.

To answer the “cheapest rental” question, you’ve got to look for the balance between affordable and comfortable indulgence. You can still get good deals and prices without compromising the ride- I know, because it’s what we did.

You can rest on some tried and true money saving methods; off-peak times for rentals being the most common. However, they’re generally off-peak because you’re not holiday. So what you can do, no matter the time, is to sign up for the reward programs many car rental companies offer. Hertz, Avis, Thrifty, Enterprise… I signed up for ALL of them. Sure, it takes a little time, but the discounts are worth it and memberships are free. You also tend to get priority service with some and over time, the more you rent with the respective companies, the more benefits you reap.

I also spent some time scouting for discount codes that float around the internet; these can easily give you extra discounts on top of what you’re receiving as a member. Yes, these may be unorthodox, but they get you results.

We found that Avis and Thrifty ended up being the best when it came luxury vs. price. For our Vancouver leg of the journey (and our trek to the Okanagan region), we went with Avis and picked a luxury sedan. With our discounts in tow, we paid a damn good price (less than $800) for a 14-day hire of a 2014 Ford Fusion bursting with features (Ford’s SYNC technology, reverse camera and after week into the trip, I realised there was a sunroof) that provided not only some muscle for those long stretches of highway, but space and comfort to make those long drives a breeze. We could have picked a small hatch for much less, but it really is quite hard to drive the open road with panache in something only slightly bigger and better than a toaster.

The Fusion is a dream to drive and choosing Avis was the right decision. When we returned the car we ran into some trouble with time (a closed bridge, an accident AND a sinkhole all in one day??) but they simply extended our time over the phone and proved easy to deal with. Sure, they’re a little more expensive than some other companies but sometimes bigger is better, more expensive more rewarding, and going for broke leaves you feeling richer.

fusion

Our mistake of course, was not going with Avis again on our Ottawa leg of our trip. We chose a cheaper rental and decided on an SUV. If my earlier advice on choosing a luxury sedan leaves you with any doubt, let it all dissipate by saying how clunky and uncomfortable driving an SUV is in any circumstance. Our inept rental car agent not only greeted us with the line “we don’t have what you reserved” but included the caveat that we had to pick up the car at another lot that’s currently closed, but that it was ‘ok’ because it’s just “parked outside the lot”. Overcharged and underperforming, the Volkswagen Tiguan has all the trademark qualities of a river barge. Clunky and uncomfortable, it made us miss the days of flying through the Cascade Mountains in a sleek, finely-tuned performance machine.

I cannot reiterate how important it is to spend your time choosing the best rental car for your trip. A high-end luxury sedan provides the best of both performance and convenience fitting of a good holiday. Feeling even more extravagant? Why not choose a high-performance sports vehicle? Most rental car companies offer high-end sports cars like Ford Mustangs and convertibles, which surely puts the indulgence into your vacation. Consider these options if your holiday includes long scenic drives down coastlines and/or through mountains. Don’t play rental car roulette because living mostly isn’t about efficiency or driving a Prius. Let your rental car be be the fuel behind the wind in your hair.

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Travel

Long Way Up

Vancouver, Canada. September 2014.

ME: So what’s this thing we’re doing before we go zip lining?

HER: Oh don’t worry about it; it’s nothing, a small hike.

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What appeared to be a rather innocuous pre-zip lining activity turned out to be anything but, yet it resulted in one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences a traveler could undertake.

That “small hike” was Vancouver’s Grouse Grind; the spectacular 1.8 mile hike up the steep, winding trail of Grouse Mountain. Standing at 2800 feet from its entry point to the final step, the trail boasts varying difficulties of steepness that fluctuate from 17 degrees to a calf-busting 30. For those not so hike-inclined, all those numbers mean that it’s a damn steep mountain; one that proudly claims the nickname “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster”.

The climb has become regular exercise for extreme fitness nuts, easily spotted as those running (yes, running) up as you huff and puff to stop every 10 minutes. The fastest recorded times clock in at less than 30 minutes, which, when you start climbing the grind, you realize is borderline insanity.

We had hiked a fairly decent trail around one of Tofino’s islands just days prior but what preparation is big enough to stand in the shadow of a mountain?

The gravity of the hike dawns on you at the foot of the trail, emblazoned with substantial warning signs and disclaimers warning those with poor health and rickety hearts to stay away. But with every quad-breaking step amongst the endless trees and rock, you begin to take in the enormity of the task at hand. And with every step, the opportunity to hit reset and trek back down the walk grows smaller and smaller. It’s a challenge that is only rewarding if you push through, fight the urge to quit and soldier on to the top.

After an hour into the hike, we really did feel like dying, and as what seemed like the last embers of strength faded in our search for respite, a marker finally twinkled at a distant, just barely out of our reach. The ¾ marker? The halfway point? Our anticipatory glimmer of hope was crushed as the ¼ marker made its much belated appearance. At this point, we really did just have to sit for a moment to pull ourselves together. Some water, a pep talk and new found determination later, we decided there was no room for quit.

Ten minutes at a time.

Through our ascent we noticed the wide range of people who took the climb. From the elite athletes who run the trail multiple times (we met someone who did the Grind 4 times in one day), to those like us, looking to challenge themselves, it really is a wide slice of society that finds themselves mountainside. Yes, there were those who were hopelessly unprepared for the trek too- lost tourists in jeans, young female socialites who couldn’t part with their heels(!), and for some odd reason, those toting their laptops up with them.

Yet while we huffed and puffed our way to the top, we would have been remiss not to stop as often as we did. Partially to catch our breath, but also to enjoy and to take it what a glorious setting it really was. We sat there, where the trees opened up to the view, and revelled at exactly where we were: the hard yards of a beautiful journey to the peak of accomplishment. While our feet grew weary, our hearts and minds grew stronger, more inspired in every sense as we neared the peak. You often see those tacky inspirational quotes shared across social media, one-liners and phrases meant to lift you. But there are few things more uplifting for both the body and mind than an accomplishment like climbing a mountain.

It’s why the Grouse Grind should be on your list of life’s accomplishments. It’s a fantastic way to test your body and mind while taking in some terrific scenery. It’s free, and if you’re so inclined, there’s plenty of paid activities once you get the top. Clocking in at about 2 hours, the completion of the trek was exhilarating, and endlessly rewarding. Yes, you’re tired, but with a renewed sense of adventure, we powered through two hours of zip-lining across the mountains which in itself, is a breathtaking way to fly through the clouds.

You’ve seen and heard how motivating the outdoors can be; living active, living strong. It’s an old mantra that continues to be one of life’s most simplest, yet most giving ways to get the most out of everything. If Vancouver is a stop on your next holiday and you’ve got plenty of nightlife and shopping on the list but need something with a bit of gruff, consider the Grouse Grind as a perfect antidote to the sometimes draining nature of modern living. There’s nothing out there but you and the mountain. Sometimes, that’s the only way to live. And let me tell you, that first beer I had when we made it to the top of the mountain was the best beer I ever had in my life.

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Travel

No Longer Homeland

As a child I was fortunate to have travelled quite frequently in and out of Indonesia via Soekarno Hatta airport (Indonesia’s flagship airport situated in what was once marshland in the outskirts of its capital Jakarta). One of the most lingering memories of the airport was not its antiquated brick floors, its old fashioned crème paintjob or its lack of acceptable catering and entertainment options (the one Dunkin’ Donuts it had held its ground firmly until Starbucks moved in a few years ago); it was rather the painfully slow immigration line you had to endure every time you arrived back into the country.

Like almost every other immigration line the world over, it was hobbled by the slow manual process. Made worse by the airports combustible frequency in which airplanes seemed to arrive on any given day and you have what makes for an endless queue of already impatient and weary travellers. The traffic outside was no better of course, but efficiency was never high on the priority list in the capital.

Fast forward 10 years and I find myself living in Australia as an Australian now (my passport says so), I’ve found that whenever I return to Indonesia for social or family visits, this inefficiency has morphed itself into a strangely effective but costly work around an old problem.

I had to give up my previous passport which meant that Indonesia was no longer my legal home. It’s a little bizarre to think that a place you called home for more than 16 years has suddenly become foreign soil; not by heart or by familiarity, but my legality. Foreigners traveling to Indonesia from certain countries are eligible for a relatively painless Visa process called the ‘Visa On Arrival’. As it states, those traveling from a select list of countries can purchase a short stay 30 day visa for the duration of your stay. At the price of USD$35, it isn’t the most exorbitant amount in which you will have to pay for on a holiday (the cost of a US Visa for Australians is roughly $25) but the sole advantage of this situation is getting to skip that never-ending immigration line. How? Perhaps due to design or by bureaucratic-inefficiency-turn-dumb-luck, the line in which you purchase your Visa On Arrival also has its own immigration booths, far from the ones which locals and residents use. It’s a breeze. An inefficient, messy breeze.

Perhaps the biggest drawback to the Visa On Arrival process is that there is no shorter term Visa than 25 days and there is no option to re-stamp once you have left the country. I have on many occasions taken short trips during my stay in Indonesia to places like Singapore, and even if I’m only traveling for 2-3 days, I have to purchase a new Visa when I arrive back into Jakarta, shelling out another $35. Does skipping a sometimes 40+ minute wait in a line warrant the $35 price tag?

It really depends on how lucky you are with your bags coming out of the carousel once both sets of queues merge post-immigration. My longest wait time after paying for the Visa On Arrival? About an hour before my sole piece of mid-sized luggage trundled its way on the archaic luggage carousel into my frustrated and tired hands.

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Travel

One for Massachusetts

It’s been more than ten years since I’ve been to Philadelphia, a decade removed from its heritage and first hand lessons in American history. Equally historical were the venues scattered on South Street and Arch Street where many of my earliest punk rock memories were formed. In the Theatre of Living Arts and the Trocadero, nights of sweat, blood and bruises became as much a part of my Philadelphia story as the times I spent learning about the Liberty Bell. These moments defined the city and all these years pass and I still breathe the packed monoxide air of those age-old venue floors.

It’s been even longer since I went to Boston. So much so that I only vaguely remember the wood-clad structure of my hotel, who for architectural reasons beyond me, built their vast spaces horizontally instead of vertically. But I do remember the No-Name Restaurant, not it’s food or it’s locale, but the name, a tick for clever marketing and little else.

Boston has seen plenty since: thousands of bands have come and gone, the Boston Red Sox won multiple World Series, the Patriots three Super Bowls, and the Celtics hung up another championship banner. They’ve suffered immeasurable tragedy with the Boston Marathon attacks, and have banded together as a city and a region to lift each others’ spirits in the time after. All these events along with what I can assume are countless smaller, more localised strings of positivity would lead one to believe that the air of sadness and toil that appeared to envelope the city for so long has been lifted. It is not to say Boston is a sad town, in fact, I don’t remember it being so, but as a tourist and an outsider, the many elements that we encounter as being from Boston or part of it, left a melancholia that came with what were inept sports teams, terrible weather, and a gloomy disposition left in the shadow of taller, more famous cities. Boston hardcore, noted for their contribution through SS Decontrol, Gang Green, DYS and Jerry’s Kids, wasn’t exactly the plum of sunshine you’d need to get over lagging blues.

So what is my Boston? My Boston, the one I briefly knew, fueled by the angry and disenfranchised, came to fruition in a band that lasted one album, 12 songs, and a quiet influence that resonated long after their demise. The Hurt Process by Boxer, this is my Boston.

Part post-hardcore, part mid-nineties emo, Boxer still encompasses all that is the city; gritty, desolate, pained- jarring for the senses but cathartic in its connection. This is what Boston was like to someone who had never lived in Boston. Perhaps if you disagree, then it is something you need to take up with your local tourist board.

“Sitting in my ditch of self-loathing and of course my mind is roaming / thinking things are worse than they appear to be”

[aesop_image img=”https://soundthesirens.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/boxer.jpeg” align=”left” lightbox=”off” caption=”Boxer’s The Hurt Process, released by Vagrant Records back in 1998.” captionposition=”left”]

 

 

Boxer was Vagrant Records’ initial signing, the calling card for a label whose stock rose because their bands wore their hearts on their sleeves better than anyone else. We talk a lot about The Get Up Kids with Something to Write Home About and Saves the Day with Stay What You Are. These two are often considered the staple releases of the early Vagrant catalogue, but we fail to see that the very first band they ever signed, released an album just as poignant as the two, if only, not as polished.

It’s the opening line of “Blame It On The Weather” that feels perfectly Boston. It’s the stringy guitars and the pulsing bass line that accompanies it. It’s the percussions that kick in at just the right time, and it’s the voice that sounds like it has smoked a thousand cigarettes that chime in:

Listen: Boxer – “Blame It On The Weather”

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And then there were the girls, or one in particular whose name may or may not have been Georgia. Her hair smelled like a season and she sounds like a girl who liked music you’d only play on a record player. She probably liked the Velvet Underground on Sunday afternoons but wore combat boots and spiked her hair on a Friday night. She’s someone you’d fall in love with from the deepest of your soul only to break your heart. This is the little Georgia girl Boxer sings about, with a sense of sadness and anger wrapped in crunchy mid-tempo riffs and couplets of disappointment. She’s the one that kept you up at night, 2:18am. She’s the one that you’ll forget someday, just not today, the one you’re waiting for, when the sun finally comes, it’ll be when you’ll stop missing her.

Listen: Boxer – “Georgia” 

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It’s the romanticism of a troubled city that drives people to write great songs about it. It is the way the rain falls on a lonely streetlight that inspires, and I think Boston has more than one lonely streetlight. I think if I get to drive through Boston some time soon, my mind would automatically play these 12 songs in order. Appropriately perhaps, the album’s title understood the city’s plight on both a personal and cultural stake and its significance on a national and global scale. This was a hurting town, whether you were a fan of sporting teams, music scenes or girls named after southern states. Yet on some level, they knew that this sadness would only last for so long. That someday you could finally leave it all behind.

Listen: Boxer – “One For Milwaukee”

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There is something to be said about not overstaying your welcome. Boxer knew 12 songs were enough. It was for that moment, the perfect capsule of the streets and places no one but themselves knew and understood. I can’t for one imagine any more songs written or recorded by them. It would be strange and out of place, almost like happiness and sunshine down on Harvard Avenue. I would never claim to be from Boston, and I can’t tell you what it’s like now. I can only imagine at least, with all the things that has happened to the city over the past decade, that there has to have been an uplift of some kind. In fact, I’m sure it’s a terribly nice place to visit. But for an outsider like me, until I get to venture down a sun-soaked path leading to the friendliest bar in town, Boston will always be The Hurt Process, where it rains or snows every night.

“We wait until the sun goes down in Boston, the stars are out / We’ll have our way; our time will shine like the twinkle that’s in your eye”


Boxer formed in 1995 and disbanded in 1999. Vagrant Records released their one album, The Hurt Process, in 1998. Drummer Chris Pennie recently drummed for Coheed & Cambria and the Dillinger Escape Plan.

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Travel

Death Camp Tourism

Only after arriving in Poland did I learn that visiting Auschwitz is a tourist staple for any Contiki style visit to Krakow. Something you tick off the list, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Learning this put me off more than slightly. The idea of tour companies scrapping each other to ensure your money, fed by swathes of backpackers who visit the death camps by day and then pub crawl by night; it seemed odd. Still, if I was to do one offensively touristy thing then surely I – a student and lover of 20th century history – should choose this one. Besides, it must be quite unique. It must be a change from the other, somewhat tarnished, milestones along the European tourist highway.

That’s the kind of frame of mind I was in. I arrived to Krakow at 7 am and booked a day-tour which had been advertised at the hostel as soon as I got there, before I could even check in. In fact I had already been offered a trip to Auschwitz earlier: outside the train station by a dubious man with a tattered pamphlet offering to give me a ride. And the largest poster on the window of the closed Information Centre had read: ‘Aushwitz-Birkenau Tours Daily.’ So not exactly hard to find. I paid 109 PLN to the hostel reception.

I was picked up outside the hostel one hour later by a man in a suit and black dress shoes called Peter. He drove me, and a British couple he had picked up from a different hotel, to Oscwiecim – the Polish name for an old town outside Krakow better known now by its German label, Auschwitz. For the first five minutes the British couple were clarifying the price of the tour with Peter.

“It said 46 euro, I don’t want to pay more.”

“No problem.”

This says a lot about the modern Auschwitz experience: something in the holiday budget, to be ticked off the list, then to continue with the rest of the itinerary.

So far what I have written has been vague. But I just want to try and evoke how I felt before the experience. Is this really a memorial? I want to create for you the same sense of scepticism I held before going there. A scepticism I hoped would become a good literary counterpoint to the solemn and sobering experience of the camp itself.  But here comes the kicker… that binary balance never came. This initial feeling, of falsity, of insincerity, has either remained or been heightened following my visit. I do not wish to point the finger of shame at anybody. I’m not saying this should be done better or differently.  I do not know how that would be. All I am saying is that something is not quite right about the Auschwitz experience. Something about what it reveals of the human psyche.  Maybe these three words can evoke for you the same sense they evoke in me. If so, then this entire preamble will be redundant, and you could just keep the image that forms in your mind when you see these three words.  I read these three words on the cover of a book, something like New Eastern Europe, at ‘Massolit’ book store in Krakow. If these three words create the same reaction in you as they do in me, then all this writing has been unnecessary:

Death Camp Tourism.

Simple as that. Usually my account of a historical tour would circle around historical facts and interesting information. Since much of the history of Nazi death camps is well known, and since they present you with a saturation of the history when you are at Auschwitz-Birkenau, too much to remember, I will avoid most of this. But let it be noted, that they did have a lot of informative, readily accessible history presented at the memorial. That is not what I am writing about.  I am writing more about what is not there. What cannot be printed on a board alongside some photos and simply told to you. What has to be felt. What has to be experienced. The reactions. These feelings, experiences, and reactions, sadly, do not result from a visit to Auschwitz.

[aesop_parallax img=”https://soundthesirens.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/arbeit_macht_frei.png” parallaxbg=”on” captionposition=”bottom-left” lightbox=”on” floater=”on” floaterposition=”left” floaterdirection=”up”]

There are few mantras I believe in more fully than this: those who ignore history are bound to repeat it. So in one regard it is good there is a popular, well established record of this dark chapter in human history. But there is a very stark difference between remembering history and manipulating history. To remember is to feel something, to have a personal reaction to and realisation of; to link a private emotion with a particular event in the past. When I stroll by a WWI memorial, I remember the stories of soldiers who lived through Hell on Earth in the name of Who Knows What.  When I walk through the infamous gates at the entrance to Auschwitz I – “Work makes you free” (rough translation) – I no longer remember the stories of the men who passed under it, for whom anything but was the truth. I do not think of the young mothers and helpless children who fell out of wagons onto the railway platform at Birkenau, underneath its iconic watchtower, unaware that they would only leave its barbed wire confines through one of the chimneys. I do not remember those terrible tales of those tragic people. Instead, upon hearing ‘Auschwitz,’ I remember the three food kiosks and two book shops you pass between the bus-laden car park and the entrance to the camp-memorial. I remember the clicking of turn-styles as you begin to climb the stairs of the Birkenau watch tower. The buildings and paving stones are largely untouched since 1945. The snow is on the ground and the flimsy wooden walls of the cramped wooden huts let in the same fatal chilly draft.  The piles of shoes, of spectacles, of children’s clothes, of hairbrushes, lie in piles. The history is right there in front of me. Yet I remember none of it.

It is not my aim to depict Auschwitz merely as a tacky touristy spot. To be fair, it is still treated with decorum and respect. People are silent and solemn, often wide-eyed and open-mouthed. There is no food, drink, or smoking allowed anywhere inside. But something is not quite right.

The majority of Jewish people taken to ‘Auschwitz’ – the colloquial collective name for Auschwitz I (the original camp), Auschwitz II-Birkenhau (a camp built in 1941, 30 times the size of the first camp) and Auschwitz III – were Hungarian; 430,000 of these died. The name of the houses where Nazis stored stolen valuables from prisoners was ‘Canada.’  These are a few random facts. The numbers, the names, everything is a bit overwhelming. So eventually they lose their impact. The statistics, names, numbers, only confuse. If you want to remember the victims, do not be confronted with an over-abundance of material details. Remember history, don’t choke on it.

Just before the tour started I was thinking of techniques I could later employ to describe the lack of feeling I got upon arrival. I could see the buildings and fences, and still felt like I was nowhere special. Again, I expected this to form an initial sense of disappointment, which when written down would contrast with and exaggerate the great wealth of sadness brought on from my actual visit. That did not happen. After 3 ½ hours in Auschwitz I and II-Birkenhau, those initial thoughts remained. I walked in silence along the road from the Birkenhau platform to the ruined crematoriums – the walk which for so many new arrivals to the camp was a death walk. On the same road. And I still could not imagine I was anywhere powerful or significant. I stood in the very same dark chamber where a group of Soviet prisoners were the first to be killed en masse by the use of Zyklon B gas–an experiment proving so successful that it became the standard method of execution throughout the Holocaust.

I stood in that room where it was first tried. That stuffy, concrete room. I looked up and a drop of rain fell on my nose. A drop of rain that had dripped through one of the wooden openings down which a small handful of SS men had dropped the first bundles of Zyklon B and waited to see the effects. The same hole through which hundreds of thousands more such bundles would be dropped. A raindrop from that very opening. And still I was unmoved. I did not cry. I tried to well up. I could not.  It was just a raindrop. Instead of filling with disgusted thoughts of how mankind could treat itself, my mind was filled only with the urgency to move forward and not hold up the stream of people behind me. My ears did not hear the imaginary screams of people who stood on this very spot, naked, wailing as they realised, having been fooled right to the end, by the fake showers mounted on the walls, by the Nazi troops telling them to remember the number of the hook on which they hung their clothes so they could pick up the correct ones after their shower, realised for the first time, that this is the spot on which they would die. I only heard the annoying crackle of static through the headphones of my compulsory audio guide.

[aesop_quote background=”#203a42″ text=”#ffffff” align=”center” size=”2″ quote=”The Nazis embroidered different markings onto their prisoners for identification purposes. The group leaders used stickers to know how many of their group have remembered to meet at the right times. I always had to look out for my group, to catch up with them. If I could see another person with the same sticker, I felt comfortable – I could not be lost.” parallax=”off” direction=”left”]

 

 

I did not smile throughout my entire visit, as expected. There was one time, however, when my lips tightened and almost turned upward.  It was a vague sense of irony I got as we ended the tour. I think the irony was lost on all those who either work or visit Auschwitz, but perhaps somebody else felt it.

Tourists come in waves to the site of Auschwitz. They do as a guide tells them, unable to think for themselves. Prisoners from minority groups brought to Auschwitz were forced to speak German. English, the tourists’ lingua franca, is now the most prevalent tongue there, and almost compulsory if you want to understand the signs and placards. It is hard to be inconspicuous when you are forced to wear a sticker labelling you as a member of a certain tour group – an initiative designed to help your guide keep you under better control. My sticker was blue. I saw big orange ones, square yellow ones. The Nazis embroidered different markings onto their prisoners for identification purposes. The group leaders used stickers to know how many of their group have remembered to meet at the right times. I always had to look out for my group, to catch up with them. If I could see another person with the same sticker, I felt comfortable – I could not be lost. All these subtle ironies bubbled up into the half smile I talked about once I got to the end of the tour of Auschwitz I: we had to line up and hand back our audio guides. First, we were told, you had to unplug the headphones. Then we had to hang these on a metal rack, just like the person in front of and behind us. Then we had to hand our radio receiver box, after we had switched the channel back to 5 and turned it off, to an expressionless man with a badge around his neck. Of course we all did this without question or complaint. It’s easy to follow somebody else. Then we were told to go and wait by the white van in the car park, so we could be counted. Everybody had to be there. Everybody was. The van took us to Auschwitz II-Birkenhau.

In noticing the unintentional parallels between then and now I at first almost chuckled. Then I realised how sad this really was. The only part of the visit not designed to make me remember this terrible history, was the only part which did so. Only through this comical irony did I remember the sad story of those victims of mankind, and realise also the sadder story: that this dark chapter of history is not an anomaly. These victims are a by-product of humanity, a result of how we think, act, and treat each other, just part of a tragic production line that started long before any of us were born, and will continue to operate long after all of us have disappeared.

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Travel

Soup du Jour

‘What is the “Soup du jour?”’
‘That’s the soup of the day.’
‘Mmmmm, that sounds good. I’ll have that.’
– Lloyd Christmas, from the film Dumb and Dumber.

I am taking a girl out to a nice restaurant. Multiple certificates and awards hang in the window. The lights are dim, one wall is stacked from top to bottom with wine bottles as if in a library, and delicate lace curtains reach halfway up the windows and provide us with some privacy from passers-by on the street. Her name is Ayan Youssouf. She speaks English with a subtle accent. Her parents are from Djibouti, she speaks some Korean, she grew up in Germany and she now lives in Switzerland. Yet never has she lost her love of the food of her homeland: France.

The menu offers an enticing terrine to start, and a dacquoise for dessert will be hard to pass up. Wait staff are immaculately dressed. Apparently the cauliflower gratin is delicious as a side, and the entire meal can be rounded off nicely with a chunk of smooth Brie de meaux or sharp Roquefort cheese. If we cannot decide what to eat, we can trust the chef’s judgement and order the plat du jour. But we are not in France. We are in Dunedin, New Zealand.

In fact, we could be at a restaurant just about anywhere in the world. Because there is one feature of the hospitality industry which is hard to disprove in practice: French food sells. At a tearoom in Glasgow you could pick up a ham and cheese toasted sandwich for a pound, or for eight times the price you could sit down to a croque monsieur at a cafe just around the corner. In Riga, Latvia, where you can fill up on dumplings and stuffed cabbage for a few Euros, why not join the young people gathered at Cafe Paris and get half a croissant for the same price? For generations French cuisine has been seen as the most exquisite. French restaurants always attracted the greatest reputations and the largest bills. For the present generation, however, this has changed slightly. The reputation is still there. But there need not be any direct relationship to French cooking or restaurants. The product is enough. Putting a croissant up for sale is enough. People still make the association with quality – yet the quality, and I take Cafe Paris as an example, need not be there. French food is assumed to be the best, so if something appears French then it appears to be the best. There is seldom a need to prove it; people will buy it anyway.

Back to Ayan and our restaurant in Dunedin. Some of the other groups of diners are probably celebrating a special occasion. Bluff oysters are served au naturele. Local potatoes and New Zealand tasty cheese are used to make dauphinoise potatoes. When I spoke to the chef they were quick to assure me, almost aggressively, that they are not a French restaurant, nor do they try to be. Given the decor and the menu, this insistence was quite a surprise. However, it helps to elucidate what French food in some way has come to be: not always a deliberate marketing tool, but instead a market convention to which some establishments have to adhere in order to survive. The rest of the menu features wonderful Asian dishes, New Zealand specialties and experimental fusions. Yet to most people this is the closest thing to a ‘French’ restaurant in town. To most people, it is also one of the ‘best’ restaurants in town. Perhaps the two are subliminally linked. Maybe we, as customers, assume French food to be better because we have been told that it is. One thing seems certain – we are more willing to pay for food if it is French.

The couple who own this restaurant started with a dream of creating a place where people could get good, quick food in a casual environment. But, as one of them said to me while pointing through the curtained windows to people walking past on the street, ‘nine times out of ten those guys decide what you get to do.’ Good food costs money. Money to buy good produce, money to pay good chefs to prepare it. People will pay more for a croque monsieur than a toasted sandwich, or a plat du jour over a dish of the day. As always, money talks. And in the hospitality world it speaks French.

The most obvious indication of the relationship between French food and inflated prices are so-called ‘fine-dining’ establishments. For a professional chef to be ‘classically trained’ is effectively a synonym for being trained ‘in the French methods of bourgeois hotel restaurants in the late-nineteenth century.’ If you are a ‘chef’ you are really a chef de cuisine, or head of the kitchen. Some everyday words have never found a usable English equivalent to the French: restaurant, omelette, café and mayonnaise, to name a few. But these terms and practices are not confined to fine-dining or fancy restaurants. Pubs, cafés and fast-food chains use them. But they are not even confined to the food industry. We use them in our own cooking and eating. We use them in conversation. We see them everywhere. Yet knowing how this specific set of terms and practices came to dominate the food world remains as much a mystery to most people as does mastering the perfect omelette.

[aesop_chapter title=”Rats and Aristocrats” subtitle=”A Short History of Haute Cuisine” bgtype=”img” full=”on” img=”https://soundthesirens.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/quenelle1.jpg”%5D

‘Everything ends this way in France – everything. Weddings, christenings, duels, burials, swindlings, diplomatic affairs -everything is a pretext for a good dinner.’
– Jean Anouilh.

Auguste Escoffier. A name without which any history on the development of modern French cuisine is incomplete. To some, Escoffier is the deity of whom the high reputation of French cuisine was a creation. To others he is an arrogant egotist. The fact that he is a necessary inclusion in the history of modern French cuisine stems from neither of these. He is necessary because he is a hinge between what had come before him and what has come since. A balance between his influences and his influence.

The reputation of French food as the best in the world was born in the development of haute cuisine in France. Despite the historical importance of peasant food and local traditions on French cuisine, it was the ultra refinement of cuisine in aristocratic French kitchens, and overblown elegance of bourgeois restaurants, that defined what ‘French food’ came to mean to the world.

Two factors contributed massively to the development of haute cuisine. One was the role played by professional kitchens both before and after the French Revolution. The other was the codification of the techniques used in those kitchens. From the Middle Ages until the end of the eighteenth century, French chefs were confined to employment in private homes and kitchens of the aristocracy. However, this exclusive, restricted existence of the chef allowed for a uniform system of techniques to be refined, and certain dishes and procedures became standard throughout these upper-class households. Following the French Revolution, and the end of the ancient regime, everything changed. Chefs’ former employers were gone, and their traditional stage – aristocratic kitchens – had disappeared. They needed a new place to perform. By the middle of the nineteenth century, they had it.

Somewhere between the bloody years following 1789 and the pendulum-swinging social upheaval of the next century, a new elite emerged in France: the bourgeoisie. Boosted by industrialisation, the decline of the monarchy, increased material wealth and the growth of large commercial cities, bourgeois society blossomed in nineteenth century France. Especially in Paris, members of the bourgeoisie indulged an interest in sophisticated, urban culture. Part of that culture was fine food. In place of their aristocratic masters, who ate privately in their homes, chefs now obeyed the desires of wealthy citizens who frequented public restaurants.

In this new society the status of chefs changed. They were able to create their own menus, and strove throughout the century to establish the chef in society as both a bona fide professional and a true artist. This desire for professionalism saw a number of professional culinary academies set up in France at this time. In terms of art, Joseph Berchoux, a French poet who invented the word ‘gastronomy’ in its culinary context, insisted: ‘A poem is never worth a dinner.’

One menu from 1870 shows how French chefs adapted traditional techniques to suit the times. During the Siege of Paris by the Prussian army, Paris was in a state of turmoil, and cut off from the outside world. Yet some Parisian chefs refused to compromise the quality they strove for. They were not even perturbed by a lack of usual ingredients. Livestock could not enter the city. So chefs had to turn to meat already in the city. Horse meat was the most obvious and popular choice. Numbers of rats, cats and dogs from the street quickly dwindled. And, famously, the meaty animals of the city zoo and museum were too much for hungry Parisians to resist. Chez Voisin’s menu from Christmas Day 1870 presents such dishes as ‘clarified soup of elephant,’ ‘cat flanked by rats,’ and ‘roast camel English style,’ along with dessert, cheeses and two different services of vintage wines. One restaurateur apparently, after earning 600 francs in only thirty minutes from selling elephant meat he had resorted to, sold dishes made of horse meat as ‘elephant’ at exorbitant prices for the next two weeks.

Therefore it appears that the bourgeoisie had the curiosity and money to allow chefs to establish their profession as part of mainstream French society in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, however, although French chefs forged a new identity for themselves in society after the Revolution, one element from the old regime remained central to their work: the standard set of traditional rules, techniques and practices refined in the years of cooking for the aristocracy. One major reason for this was that these rules were written down.

The codification of cuisine classique in France kept the scope of haute cuisine very narrow. Once recipes, ingredients and techniques were written down, rather than transmitted orally, they were less susceptible to change and variation. Several books about food were written in France before the seventeenth century that had a notable influence on modern cuisine. However, it was not until 1651 that the first true epistle of haute cuisine appeared with Francois Pierre la Varenne’s Le Cuisinier françois. This book documented a change occurring in French cuisine over the seventeenth century: in peasant households, and from there into noble households, heavily spiced foods were replaced by more simple dishes flavoured with fresh local herbs and home-made sauces. In other words, the fundamental characteristics of modern French cuisine were laid. Over the 1700s cookbooks grew in popularity and number in France, but it was not until 1833 that the next landmark literary work appeared, by Marie-Antoine Carême. Carême cooked among the highest echelons of society, including for Napoleon, at the English court, and being headhunted by the Russian Tsar. His L’Art de la Cuisine Française put in writing many of the practices consolidated in traditional haute cuisine before the Revolution. The methods he codified, particularly those of preparing stocks and sauces, became gospel for the next generation of haute cuisine chefs. This is where Escoffier comes back into our story.

Escoffier did nothing new. Well, practically nothing. On one hand, he is a continuation of the line of celebrated masters who codified the traditions of haute cuisine. On the other, he is a revolutionary who simplified the classical French principles and made them adaptable and malleable to chefs around France, Europe and the world. Whichever way you look at it, Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire is undoubtedly the most influential book on French cuisine over the past century. Escoffier took a lot of his techniques straight from Carême, but managed to simplify and organise them more clearly. Maybe for this reason, or maybe simply because he was at the right place at the right time, it was Escoffier’s brand of cuisine classique which was to spread beyond France’s borders over the course of the twentieth century.

[aesop_chapter title=”The New French Empire” bgtype=”img” full=”on” img=”https://soundthesirens.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/moss.jpg”%5D

How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like kleenex?
– Julia Child

James, in a white chef’s jacket in the kitchen of Dunedin cafe Nectar, explains that the sauce he is making for a chicken and leek pie is now a velouté because he has added stock to the roux, rather than milk, in which case it would have been a béchamel. He asks me if I can make a cartouche while he is stirring the sauce, so he can put it over the sauce and leave it without going bad while he talks to me. I begin to feel that the talk is hardly necessary. I have already seen what I came to find out. Within two minutes it already feels like I am in a play written by Auguste Escoffier. Cartouche, roux, béchamel, velouté. James has never been to France. Nectar is a very typical New Zealand cafe. So how did it come to this? How did France come to invade industrial kitchens of the western world? Food is something every single person on the planet needs. The French hardly invented it. Escoffier hardly invented it. But if anybody could lay claim to its patent, it is him.

After the publication of Escoffier’s book at the start of the twentieth century it became the textbook and bible of every serious haute-cuisine restaurant in Paris. In other words, it was the backbone of one of the most famous industries in the most fashionable city in the world. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century Paris was unmatched by any city in the world for its cultural and social activity. Parisian boutiques and designers set the trends for European fashion. From the city’s Left Bank artists chopped between Impressionism, Cubism and Surrealism and changed the course of modern art. On the other side of the river intellectuals and social activists argued over socialism, society and the future of the modern world. Such activity attracted all types of public figures, from Pablo Picasso to Ernest Hemingway. In short, Paris was the place to be.

Alongside this burgeoning culture Parisian restaurants and cafes thrived. The haute cuisine restaurants grew and grew in reputation and international stature. Typical Parisian cafe or bistro food became associated with the city’s culture and sophistication. The croissant, which had only appeared in Paris a century earlier from Budapest-via-Vienna, became as much a symbol of France as the Eiffel Tower. The Michelin Guide first appeared in 1900, and rose to prominence as its system of rating restaurants against one another forced chefs to adhere to its criteria in order to outdo one another in the eyes of the public. So, Paris was the centre of the world’s attention. But then the Second World War came. Post-war Paris was a much different place. Years of Nazi occupation, crippled industry, immense wartime casualties, and uncertainty over the future. It was time for French cuisine to move on.

Through several important figures, it did just that. French cuisine began to put down strong roots outside of France. In one way, therefore, this is the point at which ‘French cuisine’ lost its relevancy to France. This strand of French food stopped moving. Instead, it was exported from Paris as a time capsule, an anachronistic reflection of Escoffier and interwar Paris which was set in stone. Two names arguably have more to do with this exportation and globalisation of French cuisine than anybody. Roux and Child.

Julia Child moved to Paris in 1948 because her husband was stationed there with the United States Foreign Service. She instantly fell in love with French food, and went to train at the famous Cordon Bleu academy. She wished that America had such good food. Instead of championing a strong American food culture or creating a new American way of cooking, her mission explicitly became taking French cooking and planting it in America. The result was Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which fifty years after its publication is still one of the most popular cookbooks in the United States), an Emmy-winning television show, and an altered culinary landscape of America. In 1903 Escoffier claimed that “stock is everything in cooking, at least in French cooking.” Julia Child stated in 1961 that “the wonderful flavour of good French food is the result, more often than not, of the stock used.” Child’s book is nothing revolutionary. It is simply a further codification of the classical French methods. The Americans may have been first to the atomic bomb, but the French beat the United States to Hollandaise sauce by at least three-hundred years.

Michel and Albert Roux moved from France to the United Kingdom in the 1960s. Apparently disgusted by the poor quality of restaurant food, they opened Le Gavroche in London. Here they served classic French haute cuisine dishes, based on many of Escoffier’s principles and techniques. The restaurant, along with their second The Waterside Inn, soon became favourites of the Queen, and picked up three Michelin stars each. Those who have been trained under the Roux brothers include celebrity chefs and household names Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White and James Martin. More than half of the chefs in Britain who have been awarded Michelin stars were trained either under Michel, Albert or their disciples. The Roux brothers have been called ‘the Beatles of gastronomy’ and credited with starting a food revolution in Great Britain.

Revolution? It seems more like an invasion. A conquest. The French Empire, almost two centuries after its demise, has reappeared in the guise of gastronomy. Pre-war Parisian chic has remained fashionable in post-war Britain and America. From there it has been carried around the world. McDonald’s. Hollywood. The Beatles. Coca-Cola. Apple. David Beckham. Globalisation has pushed Anglo-American society to most corners of the world. In Tokyo it is no surprise to see a local youth wearing a Rolling Stones tee-shirt. Just like it is no surprise to find a croissant at a bakery in Mexico City or on a street corner in Delhi. Globalisation has tended to mean that if something is popular in London or New York, chances are it will become popular in Auckland, Dubai or Hong Kong. Perhaps the global obsession with the image of French cuisine is down to Britain and the United States, rather than France. Since the end of the Second World War, ‘French cuisine’ has become less and less French. This begs the question: what has France been doing since Britain and the United States ran away with her old cuisine?

[aesop_chapter title=”A Fresh Taste” bgtype=”img” full=”on” img=”https://soundthesirens.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/salami.jpg”%5D

‘I cannot prevent the French from being French.’
– Charles de Gaulle.

The supermarket feels like a supermarket. Rows of tinned food, dried pasta, soft drinks. Kids and the irritating screech of a sterile floor. Selma explains that she just has to buy some cheese, wine and tomatoes. After ten minutes in the cheese aisle we leave with a small mould-covered wheel of goats’ cheese, or chèvre.

Selma’s parents moved to France from Morocco two years before she was born. She moved to Paris with her mother and twin sister, Kenza, after their father died when they were three years old. Selma is currently completing a PhD in Primatology at the grandiose Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in the centre of Paris. The sisters share an apartment on a heavily trafficked road beside the Seine in Charenton-le-Pont. There is a distant view of the Eiffel Tower largely obscured by a concrete housing block. As Selma unpacks the groceries she apologises in her sweet, richly French voice that Kenza is not here for the dinner party.

‘I am really sorry, because you say you like French food, and she is really the expert’ – Kenza runs occasional French cooking classes for tourists at their apartment – ‘I am no expert.’

‘That’s okay, you don’t have to be,’ I assure her, ‘you just have to be French.’ She smiles.

After this I spent the afternoon with Selma in the kitchen. She casually explained the dinner to me as we worked. The centrepiece of it was a chicken and apricot tagine, cooked in her mother’s old earthenware tagine which she brought over from Morocco. To go with it there would be tomatoes à la Provence, with their seeds removed ‘because it helps with, um,’ Selma pauses as she rubs her stomach to jog her memory, ‘the digestion.’ Underneath will be couscous with garlic, thyme and lemon. Variations of fried potatoes with parsley are found all over France, and ‘in the southwest they use duck fat to fry them.’ The final condiment was an aubergine caviar which Selma prefers when it is infused with a special mix of Moroccan spices that her mother taught her. Around 5pm she opened two bottles of wine to breathe.

Of course, not all restaurants in France adhere to the haute cuisine traditions. There have been numerous periods where chefs have attempted to distance themselves from traditions and advocate nouvelle cuisine within the haute cuisine system. Albert Roux claimed to be doing this, and at the end of the nineteenth century the term was often applied to Escoffier’s cooking. However, most of the time these ‘breaks’ with the past have ended up being assimilated back into the canon of classical haute cuisine. However, there have been some more genuine attempts to change the stuffy traditional system.

Perhaps the best example of people consciously trying to alter their archaic food identity in contemporary France is Le Fooding. This movement is based on a French restaurant guide which appeared in 2000 to rival the Michelin Guide. Its name comes from a mix of two English words – “food” and “feeling.” As this suggests, the philosophy of the movement is to feel more attached to food. Rather than enjoying the same classic that bourgeois socialites ate in the nineteenth century, advocates of Le Fooding want the food we eat to reflect our own time. Alexandre Cammas, who co-founded the guide, states that ‘the classic French cuisine was dying. Everyone knew it outside of France, but it had to be said within. And it had to be said with joy—not as something to mourn but as something to celebrate, the beginning of a new taste.’ Exponents of Le Fooding want restaurants and menus to change as fast as our daily lives do, and to embrace whatever influences we are exposed to, not just the influences of the past. The movement has grown steadily and may be starting to change things. But some people have opted for the less stressful approach of simply running away from the old system altogether.

“Baptiste” was born near Versailles, just outside Paris. From the age of fifteen he spent twenty years completing chef and pastry chef apprenticeships and working in Michelin-starred kitchens. Then he got out. ‘It is not healthy. It is all about what is on the plate, not how it got there.’ He moved with his young family to New Zealand. After being disgusted by the poor quality and amount of processed food while working at supposedly the ‘best French pastry shop in Auckland,’ he turned away from food completely. Within five years he had gravitated back towards it, in the form of a small crêpe-making venture which turned into a full-time occupation.

‘I enjoy it because the people can feel the love that I put into the food, they can watch me make it and I can see them enjoy it.’

His menu is in English and he hardly seems to be using the French factor as a marketing tool. He also grows all his own salad greens at his home, makes every sauce at home, uses organic and free-range eggs and ham, and cheese from local suppliers.

‘Really? Wow, how come you do not advertise that information?’

He cracked a small smile, laid his hands flat on the table and slowed his voice down as he replied: ‘I want the food to say that to people. If the food says it, then I do not need to.’

After dinner, Ayan proposed taking our drinks to the seats outside the restaurant to have a cigarette. Reading over the dessert menu, I said ‘I wonder if they make a “real” dacquoise, you should get one and be the judge.’ Upon hearing this, Ayan laughed, lit a cigarette, swung her legs back under the table, leaned slightly forward, and began to tell me about an episode she had recently experienced in Auckland.

At a very popular French cafe and bakery in Mt. Eden she asked the chef, out of curiosity, why they did not sell vanilla éclairs. She shifted slightly closer to me, and raised both her hands in order to emphasize the next part of her story: ‘the chef went crazy! He began to complain with frustration about why he cannot sell genuine French food to New Zealanders.’ He used to buy these rich, 70% cocoa chocolate bars to make his pain au chocolat, but people complained that there was no real chocolate in them. ‘So to adapt to the market, he had to put bars made from Fonterra – which do not contain chocolate at all, but mostly sugar!’ Ayan smiled, pulled out another cigarette from its pack and held it, unlit, in her fingers, as she finished her story: ‘once he did this people started to compliment him about the rich flavour of cocoa in there!’

After telling her this the chef ushered Ayan out to the kitchen, sat her down and, ‘relieved by my empathy,’ made her an éclair à la vanille from scratch. ‘But it was a kiwi one, with chocolate glazing on top. Delicious. You do not get those in France!’

When a Hollandaise sauce splits, most people throw it away and start again. But it is possible to re-emulsify it by carefully adding drops of boiling water and whisking. It may not be as rich, but it will still be good. To some people it may even taste better.

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