Here’s what I’ve been working on since October. Published 3 December 2010
NB Familiar face on p18?
Cathy & Menno’s Grand Tour of China (GTC) and an alternative honeymoon. A clockwise adventure, landing at six o’clock and leaving at three o’clock (figuratively and literally). Hong Kong, Guilin, Chengdu, Xian, Beijing, Shanghai.
Hong Kong – In a word: ‘hypnotic‘
My father was born and raised in Hong Kong, and although he left us when we were quite young and never much spoke to us (least of all about his homeland), I wondered whether I would sense his connection to the place.
I could have sat for hours watching the boats and activity out of our hotel window. It’s really so easy to see how the territory’s natural geography made such a good location for a trading post way back when… The modern city is also captivating, and from Kowloon on the mainland, the skyline at night is more stunning even than Manhattan; the colours, spread and combinations, adding another dimension (though perhaps some might say it’s on the gaudy side). Out on the streets there seemed to be an awful lot of well-dressed office workers; the women particularly smart and assured – protected from the heat under very civilised covered walkways. Perhaps that was the only reminder of dad; he always was a snappy dresser.
Ever one for a bargain, before we left I insisted on queuing for two and a half hours to go to the tiny dim sum canteen, Tim Ho Wan, which had recently become the world’s cheapest michelin-starred restaurant (see video from The Guardian). I should have known better. Chinese food is delicious and flavourful but to be honest not that difficult to execute. A master chef’s sui mai, then, aren’t going to be that much more wonderful than a regular chef’s. So yes, the dumplings and other little dishes were tasty but not the amazing dishes you might be anticipating after a good stint sat on the pavement. And we should know, we ordered everything on the menu.
The painter, Raoul Dufy, was what they call a French Fauvist. My mother and I are quite keen on his colourful palettes and charming scenes – not at all fashionable or deep but just lovely to look at, really (at home we had a print of The Harvest above our dining table for years). Well, on a fine, spring Sunday down at Morley Collge, SE1, we had a go ourselves. Mum brought along her private collection of Dufy stuff: a book, wrapping paper, various postcards, (the book especially got some envious looks as it’s now out of print), and so, suitably inspired we turned to our still life subject matter.
We splurged right in and started painting a part of the arrangement. Our efforts were, of course, pretty dreadful.
The tutor duly did her stuff for the next few hours and instructed us in the ways of the watercolourist. We got tips on colour mixing and for testing out your palette on a spare strip of paper, several different brush techniques and ways to mix materials (coloured pencil and wax).
To help us with our composition, we tried a few exercises with just a coloured pencil. We tried sketching what we saw using our non-writing hand, and then we stood so that we could not see the drawing board itself as we drew, but only the flower arrangements we were representing. Both liberating and challenging.
If you look the final achievements of the class I think we made remarkable progress throughout the day:
There’s been a definite buzz over the last six months or more concerning Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and it made a perfect Christmas present for Menno in a thrifty year. He saw the books off sharpish and then it was my turn. I’d heard so much hype about the originality of the heroine and the intelligence of the writing, let’s just say there was a lot of anticipation.
I’ll accept that this is just a simple crime novel with no lofty aspirations to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but with so much bigging up in the media, I expected more than this. The characterisation was a bit clumsy, using (brand) name-dropping too often and lots of “telling” rather than “showing”.
Lisbeth Salander, the ‘remarkable’ heroine, I found not so amazing, and inconsistent. The amount of violence towards women and Lisbeth, I thought a bit too gruesome. As for the journalist, Mikael, the strength of his sexual allure was rather predictable and cringeworthy, close as his character is to that of the writer himself. I will say, though, that the Vanger family mystery thread is quite good.
Despite all this I picked up the second book (it’s supposed to be ‘even better’). I put it promptly back down after a few pages. More of the same, a young girl shackled and abused, etc and it’s not something I want to read right before bedtime. I love a good murder mystery as much as the next person but I think crime fiction needs to look outside this fascination with rape and bondage. How about a nice bank robbery or poison-in-curry story?
I applied early to help at International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) 2009 – another useful tip from my film tutor – and stated a preference for volunteering on the Press Desk. As it happened there were, I think, nearly 50 applicants after these coveted places and only six volunteers would be needed. We had a rather surreal group interview to state why we thought we were better candidates than the others sitting next to us. Embarrassed as we were, a few of us were happy to talk ourselves up and I must have impressed as I made it to the final six.
So for two weeks in November I racked up to Rokin to help run the pop-up Press Centre. We mostly spent our days welcoming international journalists, cooing over filmmakers and shooing away any walk-ins looking to use our free wi-fi (nb. the Dutch pronounce it wee-fee).
And of course I made it to a few films.
Monsieur Advertising (France): Almost an infomercial for a French advertising agency, fawning beyond excuse. 5/10
Soundtrack for a Revolution (US): How music and songs fortified the civil rights movement. Thoughtful use of archive footage and lovely looking talking heads. 9/10
Colony (Ireland): This beautiful film followed several great characters all involved in identifying and resolving threats to America’s bee colonies. The bee-keeping brothers from an intense religious family were especially endearing. “We need bees”, one brother’s simple statement, delights me whenever I think of it. 8/10
Monica & David (US): A little schmaltzy, which is just my thing. A cute couple, both with downs syndrome, get married and move apartment. The sharpness of their wit and bantering is enlightening, as are their ambitions and desires, but at the heart of it is a good old love story. 10/10 monicaanddavid.com
Iron Crows (South Korea): Beautifully shot documentary about workers on a ship scrapyard in Bangladesh. The film follows their dangerous work, literally following their bare-footed climb up the rusty hull of an old tanker. My absolute favourite of the festival. 10/10
Last Train Home (China): I felt a lot of scenes had an unnatural feel and stiffness which affected my empathy for the subjects’ dire situation. This actually won the festival’s main prize, so what do I know? 6/10
The Yes Men Save the World (US): The funniest documentary of the festival. Two guys pulling audacious, topical pranks on corporate giants. What they do takes a lot of nerve, and you can really see blind panic in their eyes sometimes. Or maybe just insanity? 8/10 theyesmenfixtheworld.com
A Hundred Patients of Dr Jia (China): A camera was set up at Dr Jia’s desk, facing the patient’s chair and basically just left recording for a year (obviously they had to change the tape once or twice). Great for an insight into the community life and banter of this busy clinic – the doctor smokes during consultations and patients jostle for his attention like playful kids. Simple but charming. 8/10
Crude (US): The story of an Ecuador village and its fight with a big US oil company for compensation after heavy pollution. Fascinating moments of slimy, corporate wriggling contrasted with poor but determined villagers who believe that with truth on their side they will prevail. 8/10 www.crudethemovie.com
Getting into film this summer. Attended a six-week course on becoming a film critic, not amazingly edifying but I did get a few good tips. Our tutor gave us a heads up to see Autumn Ball, the opening film of the Pluk de Nacht outdoor film festival, which, I duly did (see review below).
Temporarliy set up on some wasteland in the NW of Amsterdam, Pluk de Nacht (Seize the Night), seemed a wonderland of industrial, retro colour and ambience from the moment I approached it’s tubular entrance arch. On my own and incredibly early in order to get a seat, I bagged a soft space on some old, velvet nightclub couch of some kind and asked some merry folk nearby to guard it while I joined the huge queue for a beer. Didn’t last long as I spotted a deserted stall selling G&T’s or the like, obviously too fancy for this crowd, but just the thing for an impatient English girl sick to death of Heineken. Sitting down to drink and pretend to read my book in the dying light of the day, I took in the sights and smells of the Pluk de Nacht.
Well the smells were basically hashish mixed with some fresh estuary air, I inhaled a good amount of both happily enough. It was strong stuff. Passing industrial ships wafted down the Ij from the North Sea and a few picnic-ers perched precariously on the very edge of the Westerdoksdijk, calm as you like. Those daring Dutch.
Containers piled up in a wall made for the backdrop to the cinema screen, deckchairs all around. Another container dump housed the projector and some busy techies. A few large utility vehicles were parked up to double as extra-cool VIP viewing areas and a VW camper van at the back seemed to attract the coolest cool kids. What had obviously been a barren, ugly car park of a place had been defiantly beautified and the vibrant crowd seemed to lounge around as if in their own boudoir garage.
My review for Autumn Ball: (Sügisball)
Depicting life in and around a grim, high-rise housing development, an area called Lasnamäe, on the edge of Estonia’s capital, this film is a collage of characters suffering the effects of urban alienation. Mati, a cuckolded writer, fluctuates between quiet despair and aggression. A promiscuous doorman, Theo, shows some aspiration but can’t seem to escape mediocracy. Laura frets over her daughter’s well-being and limits her guilty pleasures to escapist TV and a daytime tipple. An architect’s wife struggles with her pretentious husband’s disdain, whilst an old barber is simply bored and lonely. That’s all the plot you need as there is little interaction going on at all, that’s the point, but most of the key characters do end up having an outburst of some kind that shakes them up. Several also endure the judgement of others, say from buying porn at the supermarket, or friendly behaviour taken for paedophilia. Instead of showing defiance, most of them meekly accept their shame, Theo excluded.
There are glimpses of a sparkling, confident side of the city but that contrast with life in isolated Lasnamäe is not played upon much, and nor are the politics of the region. Also, the restrained use of dialogue gives rein to a pervading score which soothes the appetite for words and puts the focus on the confined movements of each character. The settings themselves often take centre stage and the enigmatic landscapes, such as desolate roads and a soulless factory, are all expertly shot. Autumn Ball’s director surprisingly labels it a black comedy and there are certainly some oddly laughable moments, when Mati is caught spying on his wife, for one, but they are rare. Though for anyone who truly loathes romantic comedies, you might get some sick gratification from Theo’s violent response to the genre at the end of the film.
What’s the point of living on Albert Cuypstraat if you don’t take advantage of the fresh fish once in a while?
Bouillabaisse pics from my Cook Look Book:
Over in Panama during the last fortnight of our trip, we spent five nights on a sailing boat in the San Blas islands, an indigenous autonomy in the north east. Along with a few other guests, we stayed on board The Andiamo, courtesy of Tony Santos, a gravel-voiced, sun-kissed American on a long hiatus from his native land. (NB He writes a regular blog about his experiences – it would make a great book one day: theandiamo.com).
The (near) Sinking of the Kuna Navy: One of the local Kuna (the tribe that govern the islands) called by as he had lost or broken one of his oars, so Tony duly phoned the fisherman’s son to come out and bring him a replacement. Meanwhile, M and another guy, bored with snorkelling, decided oh so cleverly to tied his boat to our dingy so he couldn’t leave. However, when the poor man tried to sail away, he actually starts going under and the knot got tighter and tighter. The two jokers got him free in the end and without a major international incident.
After a few days in Buenos Aires and some in Mendoza drinking lovely wines we hit the road big time with an economy car and five days to go about 1,000 km to Salta province, up in the North West of Argentina. We were on our big Latin American adventure in between the NYC placement and a new life in Amsterdam. A lot of the travel forums suggested forgoing this journey for a bus or a flight straight to Salta but we were intrigued by the challenge of the Ruta 40, the main road running down the interior spine of Argentina, with all the tourist-free villages to stop off at and the open road to motor along.
Well, if you can call it a road (Ruta 40 pictured above). On particularly gravelly bits we really feared a puncture would leave us deserted – we rarely passed other cars on the road. Thankfully with a bit of luck and M’s careful driving, the tyres held out. Another problem was the signage. We had a road map but if we took a wrong turn it was often two hours before we realised and had to track back rather grumpily.
But still, the sense of achievement upon making it to a village (and sleep spot) each evening was enormous. After a long day driving around dried up valleys and arid landscapes, we’d know we were approaching a village as suddenly there would be a plush, green spot with tall trees as a kind of banner – “life exists here”. Plus, we got a much better idea of truly authentic Argentian life by staying in these little places, each with their own idiosyncracies and atmosphere. Ice-cream ruled in one village square, perfect hamburgers, the next, and one had more than its fair share of mad people. But in each place, the residents, young and old, families and gangs, they all congregated in the squares by night and stared at us with much more curiosity that we did them.
On one of the stops, there were three hotels in the village so we had chanced it and not booked a room. We arrived to find out there was a big wedding that night and two hotels were fully booked and at the other one, the owner was drunk as a lord and couldn’t really focus. We tried a couple of b&b’s, one really dirty, one with puppies being reared in the rooms and began to worry if we could make it to the next village to find somewhere. In the end we found a family to host us via the tourist centre (amazingly the village had one). They promptly kicked two of their kids out of their bedroom for us. I think I remember my little bed had a great Boca Juniors cover.
And of course, the scenery was amazing.
Monday morning and it snowed like crazy overnight, bridges to Manhattan backed up, etc, yada yada yada, so our movers wanted to postpone a day. Not really an option with flights out of JFK Tuesday lunchtime. Relax, it was all OK, Menno gave them hell over the phone and they arrived in the end. Our Super did an amazing job of shovelling snow off the sidewalk in front of the building, worth majorly over-tipping him at Christmas, after all.
Actually these movers were the bees knees, they wrapped everything up way more diligently than the movers and packers we had in Europe, even plain old wooden chairs got covered with paper, cardboard and tape. Maybe not so good for the environment, though.
At the airport the next day we had our kittens in special cabin-friendly carry cases so that they could stay with us all through the flight, tucked neatly under the seats in front. We did have to take them out when we went through security and there some funny looks as we went through the metal detectors with wriggly kittens on leads. Oh yeah, and one security guard got freaked out when he tried to check M’s passport because he had a fear of cats. Ahhhh.