Sunday, December 26, 2010

Four Croak-o?

Did I ever tell you about the illegal drink I had?

If you read the international news sites, you may've seen some recent discussions on California's status as a nanny-state. America is a bit of a confused country right now. It seems to be swinging between the laissez-faire, survival-of-the-fittest, step-over-the-bodies-of-the-poor attitude, and the sort of pointless meddling in people's lives that would make Tony Blair blush. Frankly, I think the whole country needs to sit down with a psychiatrist. And a financial planner, for that matter.

The 2 Californian examples that made news were:
  • They recently banned toys from McDonald's Happy Meals, to try and lower childhood obesity.
  • They banned a drink called Four Loko, because it killed a bunch of teenagers.
I love you, my loyal readers, but there is no way I'm eating a Happy Meal for you. So that leaves us with the Four Loko experience. Luckily, I was stuck in California for a couple of weeks in October just before the ban came into effect. In another example of American confusion, in the hotel where I stayed you're allowed to smoke, but you aren't allowed alcohol. So I had to smuggle it in.

I live life on the edge, baby.

Four Loko comes in a huge can (I think it's about a pint). The drink is 12% alcohol, and full of caffeine. As you can see from the photo, the one that I had was the delicious-sounding watermelon flavour. I asked an American in the know where I should go to buy one, and he said "Find a liquor store with a bunch of hobos out the front", so I did exactly that. It was very cheap; I think it was under $2 for the can. It was apparently the drink of choice of the homeless, but it was only when rich kids at parties started drinking it and dying that it became a problem. Proponents of Four Loko point out that it's not really offering anything different to a Red Bull and vodka, it's just in a massive volume, and very cheap. Which is probably the problem.

I think I can honestly say that I've never tasted anything so horrible. I didn't get through much of it before pouring the remainder down the sink. It was like watermelon-flavoured turpentine, only worse. I wouldn't ban it to protect stupid college kids, but I would ban it for epicurean reasons.

Apparently, This Kiwi Can't Fly

It serves me right for showing off. My Christmas turned out to be about as un-Kiwi as you can get. On my day of departure last week, I did a 7-hour bus trip to Heathrow only to be caught up in snowy chaos along with thousands of other people. Let's be clear about this: It was handled abysmally badly by BAA. No one had any idea what was going on. They just told everyone to go away.

Last Christmas Eve, I slept on a bench at Gatwick. This year I spent hours slumped on a small patch of tiled floor at Heathrow. I plan to spend my holiday next year in a janitor's closet at Luton, just to complete the set.

I moved flat in the last week or so. Here's the view from my new window. That snow has now been lying for 9 days. I think we made it through a full week without the temperature getting above 0C. It's fricking freezing in here, Mr Bigglesworth.

Here's the view from the window at work, during the week:

I've actually had a lot of commiseration and sympathy from people, and meal invites, which has been quite touching. In the end, I went to my boss's place to join their family dinner, which was very nice. We played drunken Pictionary, where I was accused of not getting the answer "tent" correct, because I was saying "tint". Thanks, England - way to burn off my sentimental feelings towards you.

Anyway, with a bit of luck I'll get to NZ some time soon. It'll be a truncated visit, but that's the way it goes.

Thanks for reading. As I said to the guy at work who fell off his bike on the ice and ended up with his arm in cast: "Have a good Xmas break". Oops.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Roast of Christmas Future

England's a nice place and all, but I wouldn't want to have to eat there. Seriously, what the fuck is a turbot? A "flatfish that lives in brackish water in the north Atlantic. Also known as a butt." Only a complete nong would put that in their mouth.

But in less than 15,000 minutes now, I'll be flying for NZ. Not that I'm counting or anything. Sing along if you know the tune:

On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love* gave to me:

- 12 Burger Rings
- 11 Hillyers pies
- 10 Orange Frujus
- 9 sausage rolls
- 8 Cookie Times
- 7 Sammy's souvlakis
- 6 Ginger Kisses
- 5 blue cod
- 4 slabs of Peachy
- 3 roast lambs
- 2 L&Ps
- And a pavlova slathered in cream

* Depressingly, the "true love" buying all this for me is presumably me.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

I no can eat cheeseburgerz?

This requires a bit of back story.

Back at the start of the 2010, I spent 5 weeks in the USA. In Silicon Valley, no one lives in the area with all the offices, so there aren't many shops or good restaurants. There are just a bunch of McDonalds and Denny's. Each day I would work until late, and then go to one of those crappy chains and have a burger. After I got back to the UK, I had to buy new baggier trousers. Seriously. I was 5 kgs heavier than I've ever been. How it happened, I'll never know.

Popeyes Chicken: Like KFC, but with Fried Scones

A Twinkie

Aww! It's just a Sponge Finger!

Back in the UK, I needed a way to lose weight. On a whim, I started playing rugby* because I thought there might be some Kiwis there. The start of the season was mortifying. During our second match, I staggered off the field and lay on the ground with stars flashing in front of my eyes. One of the young guys on the team was really worried about me, and insisted I txt him to let him know that I made it home without passing out. I was trying to explain that I was fine, it was just a case of an old fat guy trying to run fast. Damn punk kids.

Surprisingly, I got really into it. I ended up playing about 5 hours per week, and by the end of the season had managed to gain back 2 notches on my belt.

In October, they sent me back to the US for another 2 weeks. This time, I was determined not to get too fat again.

I think I mentioned that there is a big Vietnamese population in San Jose. There is a Vietnamese takeaway place near the hotel. They make an avocado milkshake - yes, I know it sounds weird - but it's absolutely delicious and presumably healthy. This trip I decided to spy on them while they made it so I could synthesize it back home. First they scooped an avocado into the blender, then they poured in a can of condensed milk. They they added a pinch of... wait, was that a whole can of condensed milk? Godammit, if that's how America makes a vege shake, no wonder I piled on the fat!

Over this 2 weeks I was so disciplined. I had a small salad almost every night. And then I got food poisoning with 2 days to go. I went home a whimpering shadow of my former self. Just once, I'd like to return from the States as roughly the same sized person who set off.

* Yes, all right, touch rugby. Are you happy?

Sunday, November 14, 2010


I want to say Blackpool. Blackpool is the city of lights, right?

Damn: The sooner all cameras have GPS geotagging, the better. Then I'll know where I've been.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Slovakia: In Summary

Here is, for my money, the coolest thing in Bratislava. The gothic window of the town hall:

That black blob that looks like Cindy Crawford's mole is actually a cannonball, lodged in the building facade. It's been there since Napoleon's troops attacked the city. There are over 200 cannonballs from that attack still in the building fronts, although most are no longer visible.

Anyway, so what did I think of Bratislava? It was nice, but a bit shabby compared to Vienna. But I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way, because I found Vienna's ostentaciousness over-the-top. In my normal rating system of "would I want to live there?", I'd rate Bratislava as a maybe. It seemed quite pleasant, without being particularly vibrant. There were posters up for the Leonard Cohen concert, and I know he was playing in NZ at about the same time. And these concerts were taking place in late 2010 as part of his 2009 world tour. So perhaps like NZ, Slovakia isn't quite on the cutting edge of culture. In land was pretty and I'd like to go back with my bike.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Blurry Man

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


When I travel, I try to learn a few words in the local language. And in exchange the locals place a thin veneer over their contempt for foreigners, and deign to take my money. It's a system that works pretty well for everyone.

On the Friday evening, I got back to the train station at about 9pm and bought a drink from a woman at a kiosk. I couldn't help noticing that she looked at me with absolute, undisguised loathing. I remember thinking to myself "Man, that woman really hates me. I guess I'd be bitter at tourists too if I was working at a train station kiosk at 9pm on a Friday night."

When I got back to my room, I had a sudden thought, and checked my list of Slovakian expressions. The word for "Thank you" (Dakujem) was nothing like what I was saying. Somehow I had substituted another word in my mind. It wasn't even close.

What I had in effect been saying was the equivalent of "Hello, one iced tea, flibble flobble". She wasn't bitter at tourists, or her job, she was pissed at the idiot who thought he could make up random noises and it would pass as Slovakian. I experienced monkey-net syndrome for the second time on the trip.

But enough of my self-recriminations. What you're wondering is, did I go and stalk around a Slovakian graveyard like a freakin' psycho? Yeah, probably.

At first I was bit disappointed. It was all clean and spacious and well-manicured. Very lacking in ambience.

But as I wandered around, I found myself surrounded by lots of cats. And in answer to my questions:
  1. No, they were not good kitties.
  2. No, they would definitely not like a pat.
  3. They would prefer to drink my blood.
There was the missing moodiness. Quite a lot of feral moodiness, actually. I decided to go look at another castle instead.

A little way outside Bratislava lies Hrad Devin, an old castle on the Austrian border at the confluence of the Danube and the Moravia rivers.

The site has been important since Neolithic times, and has seen a lot of action. The castle was destroyed by Napoleon's troops, but the remains still look pretty cool. You do not want to have to use the dunny here late at night.

They recently found large hidden caves through the hill under the castle.


Bratislava and Vienna are the 2 closest capital cities in the world, at about 60km apart. Vienna, being part of Austria, has the great benefit of being a city where I can communicate with the locals, at least to the point of being able to order a slab of schnitzel the size of a ping pong table.

To be honest, it wasn't as good as the stuff mum cooks, but the schnitzel in her last care package from June was getting a bit whiffy.

Anyway, it's an easy jump from Bratislava to Vienna, so off I headed and wandered around with my camera all day. The Viennese buildings are of the same Habsburg style as a lot of those in Bratislava, but they're all gleaming.

I can't say I loved Vienna, but you can't help being impressed by the scale. Either Austria is extremely rich, or their priorities are way off.

This was a monument in the Sigmund Freud Park. I believe the underground anchor stones are 2 Moeraki boulders.

Stephansdom Church:

On the outside of the church are 2 parallel bars. These were there so medieval haberdashers could measure the official lengths for selling cloth.

And finally, the famous Prater amusement park:

Entrenched in Trenčín

I jumped a train from Bratislava, and headed east across Slovakia to a town called Trenčín. I picked it because it had a cool-looking castle on a hill above the town.

No, it's bigger than that

Getting closer, keep zooming out

There it is: Trencin Castle

Now, which nobleman would own such as majestic castle, you ask? Let's take a look at the royal portrait:

Jeepers. The tragedy of royal inbreeding in Europe was that by the time the full effects were apparent to everyone else, the rulers were so far gone that they couldn't understand what was wrong. And if they were willing to pay money for portraits like that one, I guess the populace could see an upside.

The town itself was also pretty. They were in the middle of a folk festival, and people in costumes were performing traditional Slovakian dances. The traditional Slovakian chicken/rooster dance was highly reminiscent of a Chilean chicken/rooster dance that I once saw. The problem with pretending to be a rooster dancing, is that whether or not your portrayal is successful, you end up looking like a cock.