I really enjoy celebrating other people's birthdays, but I've never been all that comfortable with my own. Basically, I don't deal well with being the centre of attention. It's one reason why my career as an after-dinner speaker never really took off. Anyway, until a couple of weeks ago, I had planned to let my 28th birthday just sail past without any real event to mark it. However, I really hadn't counted on Meredith turning out to be the world's best birthday celebrator. I now know that she is a one-woman birthday party machine who can convince even a birthday-grouch like me to lighten up and have a good time.
It seems that the birthday excitement was building in camp Beaumont well before the "big day" arrived and by the night before I think Meredith was about to explode with anticipation. To avert disaster, she arranged to start celebrations early with a trio of events on my birthday-eve. First, we started off with a meal in a really delightful old pub by Liverpool Street Station - it was all wooden floorboards and wood-panelled walls and served delicious food, including a plate of figs and parma ham, which I loved. From there we ran through the rain to one of London's swankiest bars Vertigo 42, which is situated on the top floor of what used to be the city's tallest building. It may be a bit of a gimmick venue, but we had an excellent time sipping champagne and looking out over the rain-drenched city. We were there after sunset, so the city was all dark streets and bright lights, which made it look very exciting and almost gothic in a Gotham City-like way. Very cool. From there, we moved on to another bar in a beautiful enclosed courtyard, which I would never have found if it weren't for my birthday guide. It was a cool venue, though it was winding down by the time we got there late on a Wednesday night. It was, however, funny to observe a bunch of drunk office colleagues obviously getting set to pair up and head home together though. Kids, please remember that too-much-alcohol and work parties don't mix!
The following day, I went to work still a little sleepy from the night before, but somehow managed to scrape through without doing too much work (except, of course, for an important teleconference that was unhelpfully scheduled for 5.30pm and lasted until about 7pm - much to my frustration). Anyway, straight after work, I jetted out the door to dinner at the Beach Blanket Babylon in Notting Hill. I'd had drinks there before and I like its quirkiness a lot (much more than its sister venue in Shoreditch, which is just pretentious without any real sense of fun). But I was a bit apprehensive, because Huy had given it a very big thumbs down as a place to eat and hang out. As it turns out, we had a great meal (sure, I just had a steak, which is hardly cutting edge cuisine, but it was really perfectly cooked and the handcut chips and veggies were also excellent) and the service was friendly, professional and not at all pretentious. The only thing better than the food was the long list of presents that Meredith gave me in between courses. I won't list them all here for fear of making you all jealous, but it should suffice to say that I will have to lift my game if I am to hold my own in the present-giving stakes this Christmas and on future birthdays.
Overall, I have to say that my 28th birthday was my best one yet and, despite myself, I'm even looking forward to the 29th. Thanks Mez! And thanks also to all my other friends for their kind birthday wishes and gifts. It's nice to know that you all care.
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Last weekend the usual suspects took full advantage of the Monday bank holiday and headed off to Norway. This was my second visit to Fjord-land and it made me wonder at how I managed to survive my previous visit 8 years ago, when I was travelling on a student's back-packing budget. As the expenses mounted, I cast my mind back to the days of buying stale bread at local supermarkets and living on no-brand peanut butter, bananas and canned ravioli in tomato sauce. Thankfully, these days I can afford to see Scandinavia in (a little) more style. Though the rate I ran through the krone was worrying at times (£2.50 for a bottle of water!), I had a great time in Norge. Highlights were numerous, but a few are listed below:
- Smoked fish - Norwegians are a straight-forward people. When they find something they like, they stick with it. For example, they're quite into light fittings and seemingly delight in coming up with different ways of making darkness go away. Not that touch-sensitive lights in your kitchen add much convenience compared to, say, your traditional garden-variety light-switch, but you still have to admire the ingenuity. Anyway, I digress. Smoked salmon abounds in Norway and it's delicious. It's served practically at every meal (or at least it is by tourists such as us) with crackers and potato salad. It's delicious, and along with the prawns and mackerel, makes Norway a seafood lover's delight. I gorged myself senseless at the buffet dinner we had in Flam on Saturday night (hey, when food's that expensive, you've got to make sure you get good value) and don't regret a minute of it. Of course, those used to greater variety of food may get sick of the salmon-heavy diet quite soon - it took Huy around 18 hours from landing in Norway to decide he couldn't handle any more smoked fish.
- Swimming in ice-water - Swimming in glacier-melt water sounds like a crazy thing to do, but no one's ever accused a Scandinavian person of being sane (quiet, maybe, but mistaking quiet for sane is a mistake that you don't often get to repeat). Strange then that the person urging us to swim in glacier-melt water was not Scandinavian but was in our kayaking guide from Catalonia. Having clambered up a steep Fjord-bank to stand below a thundering waterfall, our guide convinced the stupider members of the group (including me) to remove shoes, socks and shirts and get wet. It was a great, though cold, experience during which I was caught on camera looking like a pale-skinned Norwegian yeti / mountain gorilla clambering around under the raging torrent of water. I did myself no favours by screaming uncontrollably on hitting the water proper in a pool a little way down the hill. If you listen carefully you can probably still hear the echoes of the mountain gorilla's call bouncing around the hills of the Sognefjord.
- Souvenir shopping - I'm not sure whether Norwegians really love souvenir shops and novelty gifts, but they sure think that the rest of the world does. Nothing else could explain the fact that all the shops in Norway sell moose-related paraphernalia, viking helmets, aqua-marine dyed mink sleeveless vests, snow-flake patterned cardigans and mittens. We had a ball trying things on and laughing at the extreme kitsch that surrounded us - sheep-fleece back-pack anyone? It's hard to say whether or not the Norwegian retail industry is flourishing, but if it is I have very little hope for Western European civilisation.
- Hot dogs - Desperate for food and short for cash, imagine our collective delight when we discovered Norway's love for the ultimate fast/cheap food: hot dogs. Stumbling on a cheap and plentiful supply of grilled meat sangers late at night in Bergen must rank as one of the top moments of our trip (perhaps second only to Huy's discovery that for kr15 you could get 3 deliciously burnt and dry buffalo wings from McDonalds). I had the 150gr jagdtwurst (presumably a mix of reindeer, elk and other Norwegian game meats) and it was delicious. I could have opted for the 250gr version which was about a foot long, but I wasn't sure I was ready for that much oil. When they said that Norway's economy dependent on oil, I didn't realise their main supply came from fast food drip trays.
- Eurosport Olympic coverage - One of the most memorable events of this year's Olympic games came at a moment when our group of hardy travellers was practically comatose (hey, sitting on a scenic railway really takes it out of you) and listlessly watching Eurosport in our Flam apartment. 10m platform diving is a scary event that is brilliant to watch because it is so accessible to the casual viewer. After 3 dives, everyone is an armchair expert on what level of splash is acceptable on any given dive and whether or not it's better to go for a complex dive with a 3.8 level of difficulty or for a simpler 3.2 level dive that you know you can nail. Matthew Mitcham, new Aussie hero, made the right choice when he absolutely dominated a triple-twisting back-double-somersault or some such similar combination to get the highest scoring dive in Olympic history and snatch the gold away from the home nation in the most dramatic fashion. It was pure sporting drama and shook us all out of our lethargy. Nice one Matt!