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The Cheese Diary: January 2012

Living in a country that boasts more variety of cheese than the number of days in a year, I really should take advantage of my good fortune and be better acquainted with the selection available at the local fromageries. Random taste-testing seems to be the way to go. I could possibly try a cheesy Project 365 but I fear what it will do to my svelte* (ahem) silhouette, not to mention my bank balance. Let’s just go with one a week and I’ll try to do a round-up every month in this quest of mine to be a turophile.

Week 1: Moelleux du Revard
Produced in the Savoie region (Mont Revard, hence the name) since 2008 (yes, this is a rather young production), this solid but soft cheese is made from raw cow milk, refined over a period of minimum 5 weeks. I bought just a small sliver from what’s normally a cheese in disc shape with orange-coloured washed-rind. It cut easily to reveal an ivory centre with some small eyes (i.e. the holes in cheeses). Its texture is creamy while its taste is rather mild. Not sure if this would be very memorable after a couple of weeks.

Week 2: Raclette
Raclette is no mere cheese, it makes a meal to be shared among friends. I was introduced to the joy of raclette by Chloé a few years ago, and it is one of the few perfect cheesy winter dish, melted over a plateful of boiled potatoes, charcuterie and some salads. A semi-firm cheese, a whole raclette is a large wheel of cheese of pale cream colour. As Chloé owns a proper raclette grill, a wedge of the wheel was duly purchased (about 200g per person) and mounted to the grille. The heating grill was then lowered close to the surface of the raclette, melting it and then scraped onto the plates. I love the slightly burnt rind – crunchy and caramelised – and the cheese itself is not for the faint-hearted when you see the amount of grease dripping down during the melting process. Everyone at the table takes turn to slid their plates under the grill, with chatters and laughter aplenty. Gimme more cold days for raclette please!

Week 3: P’tit Basque
A modern cheese (introduced in 1997), P’tit Basque is made from pasteurised sheep milk and aged over a period of 70 days. As the name implied, it is small in size and came from the Basque region (of France though, not Spain). The cheese has a smooth paste in pale cream without any eyes, enveloped by light brown rind. The cheese is quite firm to touch, but remains relatively soft and moist in texture. Creamy even. It is not particularly pungent and instead, mild to taste but with a hint of sweetness (akin to caramelised sugar which I’ve taken a real liking to) blending with saltiness. I’d quite happily eat more of these.

Week 4: Tomme fraîche / Aligot
Yet another winter favourite, aligot is a dish made using the cheese tomme fraîche although you could easily tell the cheesemonger you’re looking for aligot and s/he would know what you want anyway. Tomme fraîche often comes in big block which is then cut according to quantity required. It resembles feta at first glance, white in colour and without rind. It is also elastic to touch. To prepare aligot, the cheese is melted down while potatoes are boiled and mashed. They are then combined together with some butter and chopped garlic, which properly done would produced smooth and cheesy mash that can be pulled into long strings. Happy days. Serve with some good hearty (Toulouse) sausages, the mild and creamy mash pulls the flavour in together beautifully.

* Honestly, I have a slight built but not all that svelte – can anyone tell how much weight I’m putting this winter from all these decadent eating yet? ;) Good thing I have eating partners in crime. Hurrah for friends who do love their cheeses and willing to indulge me in my whims!

We sort of saw Nuwara Eliya…

Names of places in Sri Lanka had been straight forward so far into our roadtrip, until we told Nilan that we wanted to go to Nuwara Eliya after Kandy/Pinnawala. He looked at us and reconfirmed “Nur’Eliya?” to which we puzzly replied, “no, we want to go to Nuwara Eliya.” Oh the confusion – because apparently one doesn’t pronounced this particular name syllable per syllable as written. Nur’Eliya it was!

To get on with our itinerary, we needed to first drive back towards Kandy, passing the Colombo-Kandy road once again. It was a rather picturesque stretch of road, with views of rolling hills on one side of the road. However, as we were in a hurry in the morning to be at the sanctuary by opening time, we didn’t really appreciate what we saw as we should. This time, we took the opportunity to actually slow down and enjoy the views.

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Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary

As Claire and I have been busy from the word go, jetlag never really got a chance to hit us. Day three and we were up for another early morning adventure. Destination: Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary. Situated some 20-odd kilometres away from Kandy on the Colombo-Kandy Road, we made it there in time for the door to open for the day at 8.30am so we could participate in the morning (9.15am) feeding and to also not lose further time from our schedule. At this stage, we had a pretty good idea how the remainder of the week would roll but subject to plenty of flexibility.

Even though it was early, a small crowd was already waiting by the gate when we arrived. And perhaps precisely for the early hour, we didn’t see too many foreign tourists there either, the most obvious being a group of French tourists who were bantering among themselves (yes, I occasionally eavesdropped shamelessly but some of the things they said were too funny for me to disregard). Nilan made life easier for us by purchasing tickets on our behalf (we gave him the money and stood aside to wait) and with our (foreigner price) entry plus supplementary feeding (Rs 2,000 + Rs 250) tickets we made our way in.

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Cultural evening in Kandy

Our visit to Kandy was far too short to say the least. We arrived in this picturesque city in the early evening – around 4pm – from Dambulla. Our arrival into the city was greeted by some drizzle, but nothing too heavy to hamper our movement. We had booked a room at a budget hotel on Saranankara Road (based on guide books recommendation) but we also ended up checking out a couple of other places just higher up the hill on our driver, Nilan’s advice. We didn’t quite like those so we went back to our first choice, Expeditor Inn.

Reasonably priced, clean and comfortable, we were also pleased to find ourselves with a room with a view – overlooking the Kandy Lake. The receptionist/caretaker was a helpful and friendly lady in her late thirties/early forties (the common room computer was out of order but she let me used her personal laptop – I had to check my emails as I was trying to organise possible meet-up with a friend’s friend but that fell through in the end), and a porter who was thin and lanky was also on hand to assist the move of our luggages from the van to the room. On the fourth floor. By stairs. Ooops… I normally do travel light but this time, with wedding gifts and attires and whats not, the bag was on the heavy side. I felt quite guilty each time someone (well, usually Nilan) had to carry that.

Once everything was settled and we had a little pause, we headed back into town area. More specifically, to try to catch the Kandyan dance performance that was slated for 5.30pm at the Kandyan Arts Association. We got there just in time to purchase our tickets and grabbed a seat pretty much behind most of the other visitors since we were among the last ones in. Nonetheless, this wasn’t one of the busiest nights so the hall remained only half-filled.

The cultural show was very much a tourist-geared event. It was evident when the majority of those seated in the hall were Caucasians, with a handful of South Asian families here and there. However, at 500 LKR per person, the price was a lot more accessible than many many other things that I’ve paid for during the trip. A programme sheet was distributed at the ticketing desk too, so we would have some information on the significance behind each performance. Unfortunately I can’t seem to locate my programme right now (no idea where I’ve stashed them since my recent move) so I can’t exactly match the names of each dance to the photos that I’ve taken… The dancing and drumming performance didn’t just end there – there were also fire-eating and barefeet charcoal-walking to cap the hour of entertainment!

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Cave temples of Dambulla

Buddhism runs deep in Sri Lanka. There are more Buddhist temples on this island than anywhere that I’ve been. Sights of monks in their orange/saffron robes make them stand out from the crowd, even when there’s already a myriad of colours surrounding them. Besides the temples, on street corners and main junctions everywhere, it is not unusual either to see a shrine, sometimes almost unnoticeably small, sometimes magnificent and breathtaking, paying homage to the Buddhas sheltered by a sacred Bo tree nearby.

Day 2 of our trip continued from Sigiriya, which at one point of time in history was also a monastery site, heading towards Dambulla for the famous cave temples before travelling further south to Kandy, home to the country’s most important shrine, the Temple of the Tooth. But let’s not get too far ahead. First, we’ll take a peek at the cave temples.

Dambulla on its own, is a small dusty town. A main street lined with shops, some in relatively modern multi-storey premises, others low wooden huts, and one should not be surprised either to see incompletely constructed buildings already in use – something we noticed no matter where we went.

The cave temples are located a couple of kilometres south of centre Dambulla. It would be hard to miss, given that the Golden Temple lies at the bottom of the steps leading to the temples. The Golden Temple boasted a gigantic golden (of course) Buddha, seated cross-legged over a lion’s head (its mouth the entrance to the temple – reminiscent of the idea from Sigiriya?). We did not enter the temple itself but walked around for a quick peek while waiting for the ticket counter to the cave temples to open after the lunch hour.

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12 little things to do

Between the great things we cannot do and the small things we will not do, the danger is that we shall do nothing. -Adolph Monod

Speaking to a friend a few days ago, I lamented how weak my resolves of late have been, of things I’ve started but now reluctantly giving up or putting on hold, of feeling overwhelmed by all that I should do and the panic that ensued when I felt I’ve failed to push myself to get them right. Methinks the greedy philosophy is backfiring…

If I am to go slow, then I need to (re)start small. Baby steps. I cannot keep looking back at those which have gone wrong. Do-over moments are life fallacies. There are, however, don’t-repeat-bad-choices moments to live by. Afterall, life is the sum of all that we’ve been through, regardless of time, place or the people we were with. We are who we are.

But now, time to look forward. Set new (little) goals.

1. Set aside 15 minutes each night to reflect on the day, focus on the positive, and mentally prioritise tasks for the following day.

2. Learn a word a day. English, French, Arabic – who cares which language it is in?

3. Go away a weekend each month. See and experience something new. It doesn’t have to be far. Even a village nearby would do.

4. Cook and eat seasonal. (Note to self: prepare a list of what’s in season when)

5. De-clutter. Nothing good comes from hogging anything, not even love. You know as well as I do that obsessive love is unhealthy. In any case, love is not a collectible item. Just be grateful with all that you receive.

6. Be more a saver, less a spender. (Perhaps a tad contradictory to No 3 above, but hey, trips don’t have to be on the pricey end either. Got to balance things up but it can be done.)

7. Stop worrying about what others may or may not think of my weight. If someone tells me that I need to lose some, I’d thank him/her for the advice and move along.

8. Healthy body, healthy mind – time to get back into my jogging routine!

9. Stop procrastination. ‘Nuff said.

10. Free hugs, virtual or in real life. *Hugs*

11. Project Life. (I’m just throwing this in for now. It’s something I’m interested in but just an inkling. On principle, it’s a pretty good idea.)

12. Smile. Every day. Even when it’s tough to. :D

And no, these are not New Year’s Resolutions. These are life resolutions. And thank you for listening reading my sudden revelations on improving my personal life. I’ll be back tomorrow with more thoughts on my roadtrip in Sri Lanka. See, part of the “stop procrastination” effort. ;)

Trekking Sigiriya

We had it all coordinated. Claire and I would be arriving in Colombo in the morning, her from Dublin via London and I from Paris via Dubai, with less than 1 hour difference between our arrivals. We would then meet our driver and began our 7-day roadtrip around Sri Lanka before arriving back in Colombo for our friends’ wedding.

However, Fate had it for both of us to be delayed due to technical difficulties. Things got slightly complicated here. Her delay was in London, mine outright in Paris. Having no idea how long each our delays could be, not to mention if I’d be able to catch my original connection flight, our best solution then was to contact each other after landing (while praying that our phones actually worked on roaming!). Whoever got there first would wait for the other – the wait could have been up to 3-4 hours. In the mean time, we had to wake Eve and Pras up in the middle of the night so they could contact and inform the driver in the morning (while we were airborne) that we were not a pair of no-shows, merely late.

Our flights still came in with about an hour difference, although in reverse order. Nonetheless, we had lost approximately 5 hours of time – that was half a day wasted. After withdrawing some money from the ATM (nope, we didn’t have any local currency with us) we bought ourselves a local mobile SIM card to use and tracked down our driver to truly kickstart our tour.

Our first base would be Dambulla, some 130km away from Colombo. While that distance didn’t seem all that far, it still took us about 3.5 hours to get there! By then (about 5.30pm) it has also started to get dark. There was nothing else we could do. We checked in to a hotel, grabbed some dinner at the hotel’s restaurant after a failed exploration walk along the main road near the hotel to find something appetising, and called it a night.

An early start the next morning was on the card. After breakfast, we were on the road for Sigiriya aka the Lion’s Rock, site of an ancient palace and rock fortress. It’s essentially a smaller version of Ayer’s Rock. I won’t bore you with the historical details of this site (here’s the Wiki) but back then, we needed some help. We were introduced to a guide (it’s terrible but I can’t recall his name now) who informed us that there were a couple of thousand steps to climb to get to the top of the rock, but first, we’d need tickets.

As we were not visiting the other two main ancient sites to really benefit from the Cultural Triangle pass, we paid for individual site entry fee. It was a whooping US$25 per person. No such thing as a couple of thousand rupees entry fee for us. This would not be an unique experience since we would encounter this practice one place after another. While we understood the premise of charging foreign visitors a price they could afford (I mean, if you’re going to fly all the way to Sri Lanka, then you are relatively well-off in comparison to most locals), we felt the prices could be made somewhat more reasonable. Afterall, plenty of (young) travellers nowadays would still have to scrimp and save to get there.

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Ceylonese Tales

When Eve announced that she was getting married and the wedding would be held in Sri Lanka, I was all one big ball of excitement. A chance to see a new country, a chance to indulge in Sri Lankan cuisine, a chance to experience traditional Sri Lankan wedding not to mention other cultural gems – what else can a girl ask for? Travel partner? Check – Claire has agreed to go on a roadtrip with me. Oh yes, we were all set.

Errr, let’s paddle back a little.

Honestly, we were not terrible well-prepared. Sure, we coordinated our dates, we roughly planned our route and we booked our flights. That was about it. Even on the day prior to departure, we had not a clue how we were going to get around (there was vague idea to hire a car) nor have we any accommodation booked, save for the few nights in Colombo when the wedding was due to take place. You know at this rate, we were in for an adventure.

Get the flash player here: http://www.adobe.com/flashplayer

Luckily, Pras came to our rescue. As we had only about a week on the road before settling in Colombo, our best bet for travelling would not be on the mercy of public transports that might take us forever to get from one place to another. At the same time, driving some place where the rules of the road were unfamiliar to us (well, mostly Claire, since I don’t drive although I could read map!) was not a good idea either. Pras contacted a driver with a van for us, so for our trip, we now have a chauffeured vehicle. Super handy. No slugging bags everywhere, no jumping onto oncoming buses, just freedom to go anywhere we wanted.

We managed to cover quite a good part of the island despite the chronically sluggish driving speed. What distance that could normally be reached within an hour in developped country would take 2-3 times longer here. Not that we were in great hurry, since that gave us a chance to enjoy the view along the route, but it did make time estimation rather tricky. Especially when we were aiming to be in certain city at certain time. We were pretty much always arriving later than we thought we would be.

We toured the southern half of the island, although I wish we had had more time so we could have explored more. Two most notable sites that we couldn’t fit in our schedule are the ancient cities of Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. They lie just too far up north for our schedule and time constraint. We also missed Adam’s Peak further south…

In the next few posts, I’ll try my best to relive my Ceylonese Odyssey, the good and the bad. Well, not exactly bad, but definitely a small few misadventures here and there. For now, I leave you with a set of “portraits” I’ve shot during my trip. Have a good weekend y’all!

 

All posts in this series:
Sri Lanka: Ceylonese Tales
Sri Lanka: Trekking Sigiriya | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Cave temples of Dambulla | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Cultural evening in Kandy | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: We sort of saw Nuwara Eliya… | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Morning hike at Horton Plains | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: A room with a view in Ella | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Tissa, Yala and safari | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: The southern coast | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: The old fort of Galle | Flickr Photoset
Sri Lanka: Roadtrip ended in Colombo | Flickr Photoset

Paris and Sempé

Several times a year, the Hôtel de Ville in Paris plays host to exhibitions that are free for all visitors, proudly showing off the connections between the featured exhibitions and the city itself. If you’re lucky to be around when two exhibitions are running concurrently (i.e. one at Salon d’accueil which entrance is on 29 rue de Rivoli, one at Salle Saint-Jean which entrance is on 3-5 rue de Lobau) you could easily see both, one after another.

The latest exhibition organised by the Mairie de Paris flaunts the illustrative talent and humour of Jean-Jacques Sempé. I managed to contain my (considerable) excitement and eventually queued up for the exhibition a week after its opening, first thing on a Saturday morning, along with a (not-so) secret partner in crime. ;)

I first got to know Sempé’s work through another exhibition at the Hôtel de Ville itself, back in 2009. I happened to be passing the city and managed to squeeze in the exhibition of Le Petit Nicolas on its last day. (Over at Salle Saint-Jean, an exhibition on Gustav Eiffel was attracting the crowd with its longer queue.) In case you wonder, Petit Nicolas is a series of children’s books which I quite like and they make good reading materials for non-fluent non-Francophones like me. The author René Goscinny (of the Astérix fame) enlisted Sempé to visually bring the characters to life with simple (mostly) single panel drawings. I remember leaving the exhibition smiling wistfully to myself, such was my enjoyment of these imaginative and story-rich oeuvres.

Sempé not only provided illustrative works for these books, but is humourist in his own right. With a few clever strokes and glibly-filled speech bubbles, Monsieur Lambert was born. Throughout his career, he also sketched the lives of Parisians and New Yorkers, sometimes with teeming crowd, other times with elegant single lines which cleverly create the silhouettes he intended them to be. Even his “silent” drawings tell you more than a thousand words, often leaving you chuckling, softly or right out loud.

Many a cover of The New Yorker magazine have been created by Sempé. The photo above is a mere collage of four covers which I managed to sneakily photograph during the exhibition – moi la rebelle quoi ;) – there were dozens more from over a hundred commissioned. Overall, with some over 300 pieces of his work on display in this exhibition, it does take a little time to go from one drawing to another, some coloured, some in black and white. I even bought the exhibition’s companion coffee table book so I can peruse through them in my own time at home.

If you want to know what Sempé has sketched of Paris, my advice would be to see them for yourself. Get to the Hôtel de Ville early in the morning so avoid having to queue outside for too long (this winter may have been mild but standing outside for more than 20-30 minutes could quickly turns unpleasant and chilly) and to enjoy the exhibition without having to jostle with the other enthusiasts. Especially now that the exhibition is closing soon. In my personal experience, closing exhibits tend to pull crowd in like nobody’s business – a wait of 2-3 hours would not be out of place!

Sempé, un peu de Paris et d’ailleurs has been in exhibit since 21 October 2011 and is due to end on 11 February 2012. Just a month to go peeps! Open daily except Sundays and public holidays, from 10am to 7pm (last admisssion 6.30pm).

The plus side of being petite

Supermarket shelf too high? The guy sitting in front blocking the view? Can’t reach that little corner for cleaning? Need about 3-4 inches of heels for a wee boost in height? These are the downsides of being me. Of being a mere couple of inches taller than five feet. But when it comes to travel, being petite has many advantages too. (Scroll over images for captions)

Plenty of leg space
Frequent travellers know that leg space is on the premium while on the move, be it on the plane, car, bus, or even train. Luckily for me, there’s normally a reasonable gap between my knees and the back of the seat in front of me. Stretching out, pas de problème!

Just get comfortable
If I don’t feel like stretching out, tucking my legs under me to settle in comfortably is relatively easy too. There’s nothing beat curling up in one’s seat to read while listening to music, if the scenery proved to be too familiar, repetitive and/or unattractive.

Evoke protectiveness
It is hard for me to appear threatening to anyone. With a little smile, it goes a long way into enlisting help from others. Putting my bag into overhead locker, fishing that one last bottle of ice tea from the top shelf, asking for direction… I just need to be careful that the friendliness is not perceived as an expression of interest for “something special”.

Make the luggage shrinks
The running joke is I could shop in the kids’ section to avoid paying too much value added tax. I bet my five blouses could fold more compactly and weigh less than, say, an adult man’s pair of jeans. Even my shoes are nearly comically tiny. Translate that in terms of volume, it means I can bring less and travel lighter.

Walk right through
Low ceiling, low door threshold, low cupboard shelf, etc – nary to worry. I would have to try to jump up so I can bump my head to the corners. So I’d just happily walk under them, and come away on the other side unscathed. Pretty handy for visiting Lilliput!

Cheap(er) to feed
Well… this is not exactly true. I’m not a fussy eater and I’m almost always game for something local and novel to me. Give me a decent plate of food and I’ll be quite full but, reality is, I could eat large-ish portion when I put my mind to it. Not only that, I’m not aversed to eating at expensive places either. One really should not assume that it’ll be cheap to feed me… ;)

Not chasing for photos?

It feels a little odd, in the last few days, not to actively think of where I should go in search of my photo of the day. No more pondering if I’ve taken too many shots in a particular arrondissement and that I should venture further afield, nor worrying if the weather will turn against me and prevent a good yet brisk photowalk, and so forth. It is liberating. At the same time, I quite miss my daily “photo op forage”…

If you’re wondering what to expect the next time you drop by this page, well, I am still pondering the same question myself. Undoubtedly the major focus remains with Paris, perhaps not too different from the blogs of many expats in this city but hopefully there are still something new and fresh and interesting to you. Intermittently, I’ll talk about my travelling adventures, past and present, and finally share the many photos that I’ve taken but remissed in publishing so far.

I have a number of targetted projects for this year too, which shall not escape a mention in the blog, including (1) 36 views of Sacré Cœur/Montmartre, (2) museums of Paris, (3) cheese-a-week and (4) cultural metro stations. If there are anything in particular that pique your interest and want me to check them out, you can always let me know too!

This is a big year for me, with much on plan and I don’t yet know how much time I will have to devote to this blog. Fingers crossed, I’ll be able to work on it on a regular basis and you will not be left without entertainment for too long. I’ll be back this weekend with a couple of updates to start. Later.

2011 by the numbers

Weeks living in Paris: 43

Apartment moving: 2

Short (2-4 day) trips taken: 8

Long trips taken: 2

Number of flights: 14

Number of train rides: 6

New countries travelled: 3

New language, learning in progress: 1

New dance, learning in progress: 1

Books read: 107 (and some random shouldn’t-admit-to-reading novellas)

Opera attended: 1

Concert attended: 1

10K run accomplished: 1

New restaurants tested: A couple of dozen – sorry lost count ;)

Ice-cream places tested: 9

Food-related salons attended: 3

Festival launch (sort of) gatecrashed: 2

Museums and monuments visited: 30+ (should do a proper list)

Size of photo folder: 16G

Number of photos taken: 4,680

New movie releases seen at the cinema: 12

New movie releases seen via online streaming: 5

New non-English movie releases seen: 4.5 (3 French*, 1 Chinese, 1/2 Burmese)

Number of arrondissement in Paris: 20

Arrondissement featured in Project 365: 20

Arrondissement featured only once in Project 365: 3

Posts for the most featured arrondissement (6ème, by the way): 46

Cultural métro stations featured: 6

Posts with photo of Sacré-Cœur: 3

Posts with photo of La Tour Eiffel: 8

Weeks remaining in Paris (for now anyway): 61 weeks

* I saw the final instalment of Harry Potter in French due to an error in the cinema ticket reservation system. Till this day, I still haven’t seen it in English!


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