Gentle Happiness


One summer weekend
I wrote a lot of haiku
Now they’re in a book.


This is probably my weirdest project to date. 70 haiku inspired by Japanese sweets and snacks, an effect of a sudden bout of creativity a few weekends ago. I haven’t written any poetry since that mad age when everyone thinks they’re a poet, so this was rather sudden. The main theme combines my two main pursuits in life – Japan and food 🙂 I added some personal notes to each haiku, then my wife made a few illustrations, and now the little book of poems is on Amazon, because hey, why not.

If for some reason you feel like buying “Gentle Happiness”, it’s available exclusively on Amazon Kindle for the moment, for a mere $0.99

 

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Vignettes from Shimogyo-ku


A Different Green

1.

Picture this:
The end of a narrow alleyway, one of a hundred identical ones criss-crossing this part of town like threads on a plaid cloth. On one side, a small Buddhist temple, a uniform wooden gate in an ancient stone wall, that would look bizarrely out of place in any other neighbourhood; on the other, a dilapidated, run-down wooden house, too poor to count as a proper machiya, with dusty windows and plastic paneling on the walls (some Japanese like the outsides of their homes to look like the insides of their bathrooms).

In between, a small cube of raw concrete, shot through with garages hiding behind folding doors of corrugated steel. Amidst those, a plastic marquee hides the tiniest of shops, consisting of a single glass cupboard. On the shelves lay what I take for plastic imitations of tea ceremony sweets, tiny, colourful baubles that look more…

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New Year’s Resolutions For Everyone


I don’t do New Year’s resolutions. Mostly because they weren’t a tradition when and where I was growing up, but also because they’ve always seemed a bit silly. You’re supposed to make plans, not resolutions. A plan means you’re being serious about something. A resolution is just a throwaway sentence you put at the end of the calendar. Maybe that’s why, according to a study posted on Wikipedia (and we all know Wikipedia doesn’t lie), 88% of resolutions fail.

So these are not my resolutions. These are proposed resolutions for anyone out there struggling to come up with something on the last day of the year.

4. See that place you’ve always wanted to visit.

Seriously. Stop posting pictures of exotic places captioned “I wish I could go there”. It’s 2013, and travel has never been that easy. The only thing possibly stopping you from seeing that place you’ve always wanted to see is in your head.

With no-frills airlines, the tickets are cheaper than they’ve ever been. The accommodation can be free: you can couch-surf, hire yourself out on a farm or volunteer for aid work. There are very few wars compared to any other point in history. Even places like North Korea and Burma accept tourists these days, if that’s where you want to go. If you really want to go somewhere, all you need to do is plan ahead. Save up. Make contacts. Research. And just go.

3. Think about what you eat.

This is the most universal and accurate advice I can give about eating. Whether you’re too fat or too thin, bloated or dehydrated; pay attention to your food.

Eating is one of the three most important things a living being does in its life. It always amazes me how little time people spend thinking about what they put in their stomachs.  If only we cared about food as much as we care about sex or entertainment, the world would be a far better place. And no, counting calories does not count.

Eat seasonal. Eat fresh, and as unprocessed as possible. Have a varied diet. Understand your food: where it comes from, what it does, how is one potato different from another potato, what meat is in your hot dog. If you can, convince your local shop to stock better produce. It may seem at first more expensive and time-consuming than your normal diet – but the investment will eventually recoup itself on time and money saved on doctor visits 🙂

2. Create something of your own.

There are 365 days in 2013. Put away one of those days to create something that you can call your own. Write a poem; learn a song; carve an abstract sculpture out of a block of lime wood. Make it yours, make it unique – something you can put your name on.

Like it or not, we are rapidly approaching a post-scarcity economy. In a few decades the only things of value will be the ones created by human hands – everything else will be replicated by machines. Start preparing for that future. Make the year 2013 the year of creation.

1. Hold the whine.

We’re in the middle of a global crisis. There’s recession looming, and the year will likely start with US falling off a fiscal cliff and Japan failing its recovery.

But, to quote Harold MacMillan, “we’ve never had it so good”. Maybe not compared to the year before… but compared to everyone else in history. There hasn’t been a proper war in the West in almost 70 years. Even the Cold War is over. Despite all the bad economic news, we are still better off, on average, than our parents and grandparents. Progress in all ways of life, from gadgets to medicine, is astounding. Just think of all the new technology that’s just around the corner: 3D printers! Star Trek tricorders! A slightly thinner iPad!

So do the world a favour and stop whining. There are very few things about your current life that you can’t change. Move home. Change the job. Sort out the family problems. Do something crazy. Don’t get stuck in a rut, like a broken ox-cart. And if you’re absolutely, positively certain you can’t change anything in your life for the better – well whining won’t help, will it.

So there you are. I had a few more of these prepared, but didn’t want to sound too preachy. Take care y’all, and hope you all have a good 2013. I certainly plan to.

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Adventures in Cheese


Over the last few weeks I’ve been exploring the frontiers of really strong cheese. I’m talking things that make a Limburger smell of roses. Things that turn your gums inside out. Things that punch you in the face and leave you crying in the corner.

It’s an acquired taste – mostly a note of brevibacterium linens with hints of debaryomyces and a whiff of geotrichum candidum 😉 – but I have managed to acquire it surprisingly fast. It’s really no more disturbing to your palate than strong chilli or old whiskey; one of those foodstuffs your nose and tongue scream in alarm at first, but then submit in subdued whimper. Eventually, they can – and do – become an obsession. To my wife’s relief, I’m still far from the obsessive part (they really smell! and the stench lingers like a bad memory) but I did grow fond of a few tastes. Here are some of the things I’ve tried recently:

1. Camembert Au Lait Cru

The cheesemonger on Maltby was very specific that I eat it within a day. I managed to do it in three, motivated by the increasing difficulty we had opening the fridge door where the cheese lay like a ticking chemical warhead.

Ever since the rules for Camembert AOC had been relaxed, “au lait cru” has become a rarity, with some even going as far as claiming “it’s dead”. It’s certainly moribund: a cheese from unpasteurised milk, difficult to produce correctly and even more difficult to transport and store. The smell is bad, though not as terrible as some of the competition. But the taste…  A mature ALC is comparable only to the strongest Cheddars – but in a finer, springy texture. It’s a bit like running razors along the roof of your mouth. Tasty razors.

2. Ogleshield

Ogleshield is a washed rind. “Washed rind” means the cheese is smeared in brine, mixture of alcohols, bacterium cocktail or even bits of older cheese. Many famous “stinky” cheeses are washed rind: stinky bishop, pont l’eveque, epoisses etc. But Ogleshield is a bit different. It’s got a certain very specific aroma which the Neil’s Yard website compares to “a farmyard”. You can probably guess what that is an euphemism for. To me, Ogleshield smells of my grandma’s cellar, and this is, somehow, a good thing. I suppose it brings positive memories of a cellar filled with jams and home-made wine. It is a really nice cheese, and the taste is surprisingly delicate and full of fruity and floral notes. This is a no-nonsense cheese that knows what it wants.

3. Milleens

Another washed rind, from Ireland. This one I have only tasted so far, not yet daring to buy – maybe next time. It’s got the same “cellar” aroma like Ogleshield, but much, much stronger: like a cellar that’s been abandoned and not visited for a generation. The taste is also very strong, like a summer field that a herd of cows just went through.

4. Boulette d’Avesnes

The same cheesemonger who sold us Camembert warned me: “This is a crazy cheese for crazy people!”

He was right, of course. One of the local names for the Boulette is “Devil’s Suppository”. It is made from Maroilles curd, mixed with spices and covered in paprika. Sold in a hermetic plastic container, this is not so much cheese as a little ball of hell and turd. It is awesome. A single slice of it left me feeling the taste and smell for half a day. In the end, I had to wash it out with whisky.

I can’t even begin to describe the taste; there’s herbs and paprika, of course, but the rest avoids definition. The texture is worth an essay in itself – not quite mozarella-gooey, not quite fromage-soft, it cuts through nicely and then melts in your mouth, covering it with several layers of different flavours.

I’m hoping to continue the experiments. I always was a fan of cheese, but this is a whole new world for me, and so far, I’m loving it. Stay tuned! 🙂

Top 8 Ice Cream


I’m in between releases (Transmission is done. “The Shadow…” is coming soon) and my mind is exhausted by the work and the heat, so here’s, as they say, something completely different: a list of my favourite ice cream.

These are not the best ice cream in the world (although some claim they are) but for one reason or another these are the ones I either remember most fondly or like to eat most often.

8. Amorino (Europe)

Ubiquitous in the cities of Western Europe, this is a refuge of an ice-cream lover who is lost, tired and in dire need of frozen desert. Be it Strassbourg, Grenoble or Soho, Amorino delivers quality and low price to the hungry masses.

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