Posts Tagged ‘cycling’

Travelling and waiting

June 11, 2010

I was cycling across London the other day when rain suddenly pelted down. There were all of about three warning drops and then – kaboom – I was under a power shower.

The only thing worse than being out in the rain, is cycling in the rain. One gets about three times as wet, one’s vision is severely impaired by the water flying diagonally at one’s face, and braking suddenly becomes a fair bit skiddier.

So, as I was in no particular hurry, I hopped off the road and decided I’d wait it out under a leafy plane tree that was conveniently offering shelter by the roadside. I stood there and realised I had nothing to do other than wait. It would have looked a trifle eccentric to read a book on the street corner (mind you I probably looked a trifle eccentric in any case), and I didn’t really want to phone somebody up for a chat in the middle of the afternoon just to tell them I was marooned.

Waiting was rather pleasant. I watched cars zoom past; traffic lights change colour (many times); a disgruntled Asian gentleman sheltering under the newsagent’s awning opposite; a woman whose blonde hair had turned brown from all the water, marching determinedly through the monsoon; a couple of men carrying two crates of beer, semi-running, semi-hopping down the street, squinting through the downpour.

It occurred to me that it is very rare, really, to be on a street corner in London with nothing to do other than have one’s eyes upon the street. (Jane Jacobs take note.)

It reminded me of being somewhere else, somewhere foreign, on holiday, travelling. It was partly the severity of the rain. It was like an Indian monsoon, in which stepping out in it means getting soaked to the bone, so, when I was in India during the rainy season, I whiled away many hours doing not very much in various cafés. But it was also not being in a hurry, being able to just idle around for ten minutes or so.

Part of the whole travelling ‘experience’ is learning to kill time – to sit and watch people, or a street, or nothing much at all. But the place where most time is spent looking out at the world drift past must be on a train.

I’ve just read Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar, his account of travelling all over Europe and Asia by train. It’s a very funny book, not least because he is clearly a complete and utter (sorry, I hate to use this word) twat. His manner of observing and casting judgements upon people, places, sometimes entire nations, is at once unbelievably patronising and stuck up but also rather astute.

Take this passing description of Bangkok:

Bangkok, a hugely preposterous city of temples and brothels, required visitors. The heat, the traffic, the noise, the cost in this flattened anthill make it intolerable to live in; but Bangkok, whose discomfort seems a calculated discouragement to residents, is a city for transients. Bangkok has managed to maintain its massage-parlour economy without the soldiers [from ’nam], by advertising itself as a place where even the most diffident foreigner can get laid. So it prospers. After the early morning Floating Market Tour and the afternoon Temple Tour, comes the evening Casanova Tour … As Calcutta smells of death and Bombay of money, Bangkok smells of sex, but this sexual aroma is mingled with the sharper whiffs of death and money.

It’s an outrageous description: ‘Preposterous, anthill, intolerable, discomfort, massage-parlour economy, a place where even the most diffident foreigner can get laid, smells of sex’. Ouch. But he’s got a point. Bangkok does thrive off its sex industry, and mostly thanks to tourists turning up for its sex shows and brothels. I suppose at least it doesn’t smell just of death, like Calcutta apparently does.

Anyway, I digress. What really struck me about Paul Theroux’s book, other than how he manages to be rude and funny and insightful at once, is how little he does. Life on a train consists of sitting around in a sleeping compartment and sitting around in a dining car. Occasionally there’s a ‘lounge car’ in which one can also sit. While sitting around, one can read, converse with fellow passengers, eat, drink, and look out of the window. Well, at least those seem to have been Paul Theroux’s options in the seventies. Nowadays one could probably spend a twenty-hour journey completely absorbed in various apps on an iPhone.

Theroux recounts conversations and drinking with other passengers – especially the brilliant Molesworth, who only drinks alcohol aboard a train, reserving his single bottle of Perrier for brushing his teeth. But he gives the distinct impression that he’s not the friendliest of passengers, not often keen to chat. This encounter with a Mr Radia is reasonably typical:

I saw he was trying to read the cover of the book I had opened. It was The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, a parting gift from Mr Gupta of the Simla ashram.

‘Are you interested in yoga?’ asked Mr Radia.

‘No,’ I said, studying the book closely. I wet my finger and turned a page.

‘I am,’ said Mr Radia. ‘Not the physical side, but the mental side. The benefit is there.’

‘The physical side is the best part.’

‘Not for me. For me it is all mental. I like to exercise my mind with debates and discussions of all kinds.’

I snapped the book shut and left the compartment.

Theroux spends a great deal of time sleeping, occasionally reading, writing (of course), but mostly not doing very much at all.

I had to stop cycling, stand still, and look out at a perfectly unremarkable scene to remember that travelling can be as much about staring vacantly at not very much and letting one’s mind drift onto higher (or lower) planes, as getting from one place to another. And when it eventually brightened up and I got back on to my bike, just in time for a viciously steep hill, to be beeped at by a grumpy taxi driver and nearly taken out by a car turning left without indicating, I remembered that, when cycling, one usually does need all one’s concentration just to get from A to B.

How to cook – canals and novels

May 17, 2010

When I was cycling home at the weekend, my back wheel suddenly went clonk. It was completely bent out of shape, jammed against the brake, and I had to half-carry half-drag it the rest of the way home, which luckily wasn’t too far.

I took it into the marvellous Lock 7 bike shop where they said they’d fit a new wheel and I could pick it up later on. Incidentally, I cannot recommend Lock 7 enough.

A couple of hours later, I walked over to pick up my bike. I went along the Regent’s canal, a quiet, secluded path, lined by water on the one side, wild foliaged fence on the other. There was near silence except for the occasional tinkle of a bicycle bell, the rush of water as a lock filled up, an occasional pant of a lycraed jogger, an overheard snippet of conversation as people wandered past.

There were no decisions about which way to go, whether it would be quicker to go right and then left, or straight on and then the next right. The canal is a set route and takes all of those decisions out of one’s hands. I just got on the towpath and walked, knowing that it would lead me, eventually, to the bike shop.

On the way back home, I decided not to cycle along the canal. It’s a bit slow, a bit too meandering, too many pedestrians in the way, I thought. No, I’ll go on the streets, it’ll be much quicker. There were cars, speed-bumps, traffic lights, decisions about which turning would be best. I had to concentrate rather hard on everything that was going on, rather than just enjoying the journey. Yes, it was quicker, but far less pleasant.

I think that these two different journeys can be used to explain many things. Not least why I don’t cook properly.

You see, people who cook the right way decide they’re going to cook something, don’t worry about it taking a while, begin at the beginning of the recipe and then end up with the finished dish. Essentially they go along the canal. There are no distractions, no interruptions, no decisions; they follow the steps set out for them and everything goes smoothly.

People like me, who cook the wrong way, go along the streets. They skim over the recipe and then decide to cook it their own way. They look for shortcuts, ways to make it quicker, and the process is filled with interruptions and distractions – other things that need some concentration while they’re cooking.

So, for instance, they begin chopping onions while on the telephone and then decide, impatiently, that it doesn’t need to be fried for ten minutes but that five will do. Later on, another shortcut can be made by not bothering to leave the mixture to sit and infuse for twenty minutes. They decide, while they’re in the kitchen, they might as put a wash on and unload the dishwasher. They cut as much time out of the recipe as possible, try to multi-task, forget where they’ve got to, and end up with a not particularly good dish, but prepared in less time, with a washing machine going full tilt and a dishwasher half-unloaded.

Why do I follow this second, worse, way of cooking? Why do I not decide, right, this evening I’m going to cook and not do anything else, and I will follow the recipe very carefully and not take any shortcuts? Why don’t I decide to enjoy the meanderings, the little moments of watching onions soften, patiently letting things infuse, the careful browning of the meat, the sudden smell of a burst of herbs?

The problem lies in treating recipes as directions rather than respectable pieces of text. Reading a recipe should be enjoyable, like following a plot, digesting a novel.

A recipe has its own special plot devices, structure, intrigue. Ingredients are brought together, mixed, left to simmer, transferred to a different environment. Adding chilli to onions shouldn’t just mean ‘make it spicy’, but should be more like introducing a fiery love interest to someone with many layers (to adapt a line from Shrek). When reading a book, it’s unthinkable to skip a few pages, add in one’s own bits, miss out a vital character. Now I can see, when I interfere with recipes, I’m bastardising the plot.

As soon as one thinks of recipes as mini novels, it’s clear that cooking isn’t about the final outcome, the end scene, whatever it is that has resulted from the mixing together of ingredients. Cooking is like reading. It’s about enjoying the mixing process, seeing what happens when something new is introduced, when things are left to simmer or, indeed, when everything gets rather overheated.

So perhaps it was wrong of me to think about cooking when I was going to and from the bike shop. Recipes aren’t merely ways of getting from A to B. If that’s how I think of them, then I’ll always be tempted to take a shortcut. But, luckily, I’ll never choose to miss a chunk of a good novel.