Crises We Have Lived Through

My Irish father and mother were born in the last century, in 1911 and in 1914 respectively so my father would have been 7 years old at the outbreak of Spanish Flu in 1918 which appears to have been the worst global pandemic since the Black Death or Bubonic Plague which ravaged Europe and killed 25 million people between 1347 and 1351at a time when the world’s population was only 450 million. Back in 1918, approximately 20,000 people died in Ireland from the Spanish Flu while 800,000 were infected out of a population of about 4 million but I have no recollection of my parents ever mentioning the effect of the pandemic on their lives or that of their parents or grandparents.

And then there was WWII and my parents, along with most of neutral Ireland, survived that too, although my mother had stories of crouching, terrified, under the stairs when Germany bombed the North Strand in Dublin in 1941, only a few hundred metres from where she lived in Whitworth Road. My father, on the other hand, mentioned that while he was in the  Irish equivalent of the British Home Guard or Dad’s Army, the Local Security Force (LSF) the worst thing he had to endure was the filthy language some of the men used!

Then in 1958, when I was 5 years old, the world was rocked once again by the Asian Flu Pandemic with 2 million estimated deaths worldwide but once again, I and my family remained untouched.

In 1967 I jumped out of the second floor of an abandoned building in Sea Point, near where I lived at the time, and broke three bones in my left leg and left arm and spend the entire summer, lying on my back, swathed in plaster of paris and the Hong Kong Flu Pandemic, with another death toll of one million, passed me by once again, although I do remember the public warning advertisements on TV of ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases’.

HIV / AIDS struck in 1981 or thereabout but I was living in semi isolation in a kampong on the north-east coast of Malaysia at that time, without newspapers or radio (I didn’t get a telegram telling me of my father’s death until a week after he had been cremated) and was totally unaware of what was happening world wide where 25 million died of AIDS while millions more are living with HIV.

Then in 2000, I moved to Hong Kong to live and work when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was first reported in 2003, infecting over 8,000 people in a matter of weeks and taking approximately 750+ people’s lives. I remember being ‘inconvenienced’ in several ways then – my favourite Australian bar in Kowloon closed down, I had to wear a face mask when teaching and my new wife refused to accompany me back to HK in April 2003 after we got married in Perth, Australia but once again, the angel of death seemed to have passed me – and all of mine – by once again.

Although SARS did not claim a large number of lives, it changed the way the world responds to global spread of infectious diseases. Like today’s COVID-19, SARS was caused by the coronavirus, and was spread much like the common cold, through close person-to-person contact and respiratory coughs and sneezes.

In November of 2019, I managed to tear the Achilles Tendon in my (again) left leg and while that was getting better, I somehow ruptured the tendon in my other leg in late February 2020 and have been wearing an orthopaedic ‘moon’ boot ever since. So this recent COVID-19 pandemic, of which I took a fairly unalarmed view initially until my nursing daughter compared it to the Black Death, has once again passed me by as I am house-bound, barely able to hobble around the house and garden. Nevertheless, the extraordinary lock-downs and social isolations the world is experiencing, the incredible impact the pandemic is having on people’s lives and livelihood, the mounting loss of life worldwide and the ever increasing restrictions on daily life imposed by governments in an attempt to stem this tide of disease, death and destitution is impacting upon us all.

Home isolation is easy for me now, crippled temporarily as I am, as are the other restrictions but I wonder how well I will cope once I am mobile again.

Throughout history, there have been tumultuous waves of change (The Flood?) – from the wave of agriculture that transformed the world from that of hunters and gatherers to that of the industrial and later technological and communicative waves that revolutionised the way we live. Other waves too, of mass emigration for example, which so recently threatened to overwhelm Europes’s borders, have threatened to swamp us, ever since the first people left the Rift Valley in Africa and set out to people the world, and the barbarians broke through the natural frontier of the Rhine to bring about the demise of the Roman Empire in the fifth century but, like all waves, pandemics too typically slow and come to an end on their own, though the process may be accelerated through effective preventive strategies, such as the measures world governments are putting in place right now.

So, in the words of, I think, Winston Churchill, ‘if you are going through Hell, don’t stop, keep going’ and, above all, stay safe and well.

Ratatouille

A (very) long time ago, when I was a student, I ended up working nights in a small French, basement restaurant in Leeson Street in Dublin – La Belle Epoque. I have no recollection of either how I got the job – dishwasher à la kitchen hand and general dogsbody- or retained it for most of the academic year because the restaurant never seemed to have any customers. Jack, one of two full time chefs, said something about the previous owners not having paid their telephone bill so the service was suspended and the new owners – my employers – refused to pay the outstanding charges. So, no phone and hence no reservations and the only customers we used to have were the very occasional punters dropping in on the off chance and, sometimes, the music group Dubliners and that was only because Jack, I think, was one of their mates.

Anyway, among other delights, like unlimited access to ice cream sorbet and gargantuan meals that the chefs would prepare every night – for themselves and the other staff – I fell in love with a simple, rustic-style vegetable dish – ratatouille that always seemed to be available.

Years passed and it slipped, like so many other things, from my memory until recently, travelling along the south shore of the Black Sea, I came across variations on a theme and fell in love with it all over again.

Back home I made it myself for the first time but my wife was aghast at the amount of olive oil I used and I may very well have been a little bit heavy handed there, I admit.

Anyway, jump to the present and, foolishly perhaps, after a sustained and concentrated boozy December, I decided to abstain from all alcohol for the month of January and while I was considering the difficulties that might impose upon me, I thought I might as well go the whole hog and become vegetarian for the month as well, in addition to submitting myself to some form of daily exercise – it is summer here after all and the beach is only a few kilometres from where I live. Anyway, casting around the other day, bored and listless – Day 10 alcohol free – I decided to cheer myself up with a succulent dish of summery vegetables of eggplant, zucchini, capsicum and tomato.

Taking advantage of my wife’s temporary absence I commandeered the kitchen and all the paraphernalia I would need and decided to cook the vegetables separately first, then combine them to cook to a glorious creamy stew.img_2568

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil,

1 large eggplant, roughly diced,

5 garlic cloves, chopped,

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper,

2 zucchini, sliced into rounds about as thick as a doubloon or a sovereign (!),

2 large onions, diced,

4 red capsicums, roughly diced,

1 kg tomatoes, seeded and chopped,

1 400g can of tomatoes,

Bunch of thyme, parsley and basil, chopped,

1 Tablespoon of sugar

img_2570I decided to cook the veg separately. But, as an alternative to frying the eggplant, which would soak up a huge amount of oil, I decided to toss the diced eggplant in a little oil in a plastic bag and then spread it in a single layer under a very hot grill to brown, before tipping the lot into a large bowl.img_2579

img_2574I heated a generous splash of oil in a heavy-duty casserole dish over a low heat and lightly fried the chopped garlic along with a generous sprig of rosemary. I scooped out 2/3 of the garlic and discarded the rosemary before adding the zucchini and sautéing until tender, then added it to another bowl.img_2575

Next up, I returned the pan to the heat and added just a splash more oil, another third of the garlic, and sautéed the onion, and capsicum until tender. Once again I dumped the lot into a dish as before. By this stage I had too much stuff for my casserole dish so I img_2587combined all the cooked vegetables into a large pot and added the seeded and chopped tomatoes along with a tin of toms which I whizzed in the blender before simmering the lot gently for about 1½ hours. Remove from the heat, taste for seasoning and stir in the chopped basil. I also used dried thyme and marjoram as I had forgotten to pick up some fresh stuff.

img_2591Serve with a soft-boiled poached egg, so the yolk can anoint the delicious vegetables.

As I mentioned, I seem to have made rather a lot but leftover ratatouille has many possibilities – fill a long, crusty bread roll with it or slather it on a slice of sour dough toast. A small amount of ratatouille makes a lush filling for an omelette or scrambled eggs along with some chopped pitted black olives and a little fresh goat’s cheese or coarsely grated Parmesan. Yum-oh!

Trains and Boats and Planes

With the exception of balloons, submarines and helicopters, I have tried most major forms of transport – yes, even camels, elephants and horses – but I have to admit that trains are my favourite mode of travel – especially long distance ones, with a sleeper and a restaurant car, hurtling me through time and space.

There have been disappointments of course. One time, on a short trip from Dublin to Cork, I treated myself to a first class ticket, but warm cans of Guinness from a ‘bar-cart’ – not even a bar-car! – detracted from the overall experience.

I was looking forward to different train trips in the Caucasus but unfortunately there were no trains along the southern shore of The Black Sea in northern Turkey which I covered in hops and leaps in very comfortable, intercity coaches but I was really looking forward to the overnight train from Batumi, just over the border from Turkey, in Georgia to the capital, Tbilisi.IMG_1860

Because of prior difficulties regarding statehood, nationality, form of government and current strains of economics and global trade, the entire region seemed to be unhappy with its immediate neighbours. ‘Turkey has no friends,’ lamented one young professional who had taken her masters at a Dublin university and that story was echoed in one way or another in each of the countries I visited.IMG_1861

Tbilisi would be my hub and from there I could get an overnight train to Yerevan in Armenia and to Baku in Azerbaijan. The only problem was that since none of the countries permitted inter-travel, I would have to retrace my steps to Tbilisi each time before heading off again. While I could enter Armenia from Georgia I couldn’t continue on to Azerbaijan. I’d have to return to Tbilisi the same way and then take another train to Baku on the shore of the Caspian Sea.

Similarly, I could take a train from Tbilisi to Baku but I couldn’t go from Baku to Yerevan in Armenia. What that all meant was a lot of overnight train trips from Tbilisi throughout the Caucasus.

Impressed with the modern Stadler train which whisked me effortlessly from the brand new looking station in Batumi to Tbilisi, I expected, foolishly perhaps, something similar on a longer, overnight, cross border experience.IMG_1862

Despite starting in Georgia, the train was Armenian and didn’t look remotely like the sleek brute that had delivered me to Tbilisi a few days previous. This particular train looked like trains did in Hitchcock movies so, pre-warned there was neither bar nor restaurant car on the fifteen hour trip between the capital cities, I stocked up on red wine and brandy accordingly. Thank God I had because the only amenities provided turned out to be a box of sugary jellies, a bottle each of still and fizzy water along with a fresh pillowcase and sheets.

I handed over my first class ticket to the burly blonde guarding the steps outside my carriage who glared uncomprehendingly at me when I greeted her and asked her name. ‘Lana’ she growled before ushering me up the steps impatiently as if the train were just about to depart.

IMG_1865Strolling up and the down the narrow corridor outside my compartment – there was another twenty minutes before the train was due to leave – the only differences I could see between the carriages was mine had the top two bunks removed, leaving only the bottom two.

The window in the compartment was sealed shut and masked with voluminous drapes of bleached out nylon. Only every third window in the carriage corridor outside opened partially. Not a major issue if the air conditioning worked, but when I found Lana, brewing coffee in her private ‘office’, and made IMG_1864panting sounds, mopping rivulets of sweat running down my face and neck and pleaded for the air con to be turned on, the brutal blonde overseer of the first class compartment seemed not to notice the 37 degree heat and only reluctantly turned the a/c on low, only to turn it off every time the train crawled into another small, sun-baked station.

When I tried to open the half window in the corridor outside my compartment to get a breath of air, she bustled bossily down and shouted at me, along with emphatic hand gestures, to close the window.

“Well, turn the bloody a/c on again” I retorted peevishly, the sweat stinging my eyes and my shirt sticking like a wet rag to my streaming skin.

My initially chilled beer  was almost tepid when, glaring at the sugary jellies and the bottles of water I opened it.

Usually, the regular clack-clack of the train would lull me to sleep but this time, seeming to compound the heat, the train groaned along, accompanied by what sounded like extended and sporadic heavy machine gun fire from the iron wheels.  I had already finished the wine and was about to dose myself with the brandy when immigration marched down the train, collecting passports and then disappearing with them for a worrying length of time before returning them just as the train ground to a noisy and shuddering halt at the border with Armenia. IMG_2083 Surprisingly – and pleasingly – smartly dressed Armenian officials came down the corridor with laptop computer scanners and handed back my passport within a minute of collecting it.

Dawn broke as I panted by a window I had furtively opened – no sign of the bossy Lana – looking at a high white cloud before eventually realising it was the snow-capped peak of Mount Ararat towering over the plains. IMG_1876Arrival time rolled around and the train still trundled noisily over flat, dusty plains with no sign of an imminent city. IMG_2081Questions to Lana about the expected arrival time were dismissed with a brusque hand gesture and a shrug and it was a good four hours late before the train finally shuddered to a halt in Yerevan itself.

I was here, that was the main thing and Armenia is famed for (among other things) its brandy – the only brandy Winston Churchill would drink, apparently – so what could go wrong? And there was the return trip to look forward to and to compare with the overnighter to Baku later on.

 

 

 

 

Dilettante, Renaissance person or just MOOCing Around!

I was talking to someone recently who regretted that, more than 40 years ago; they had never gone on to tertiary education. I couldn’t quite work out if it was because the fees were too high or because they had not made some type of academic grade at the time deemed necessary for university entrance.

I have to admit to having coasted through my first year at University so much so that my second year was spent repeating the year to get a marginally higher grade allowing me to progress to a slightly higher level in my overall degree.

Even then I felt that knowledge and ability didn’t always merit a badge of recognition, a public certificate, for example in swimming or social media or marketing or historical periods or anything for that matter. Knowledge could just be for enjoyment and pleasure.

I got my first computer in 1985 without having the slightest notion about what a computer was or what it could do for me but it soon became apparent that (some) academic qualifications were unnecessary with regards, anyway, to computing. Some people just took off and seemed to have an innate understanding of how computers and their coding languages worked long before both PC’s and Macs introduced their graphical interfaces. A blinking C:>Dir/w on a blank, black screen seemed scary while it became apparent that in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man was king.

It all seems so small and petty now. Jump forward to the present day and there are literally tons of free and open courses offered by a plethora of institutions, academies and universities worldwide. Perhaps the most widely known is MOOC – Multiple Online, Open Courses – which is an umbrella grouping of thousands of courses offered by hundreds of providers. “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall” Joni Mitchell © 1970 – “My Old Man” from the album Blue. The main idea here being things (education} are free, certification is not.

So, whether you want to learn through watching videos, or through assigned readings and discussions with others world wide studying the same courses or whether you just wish to broaden your knowledge of, for example, Art History or brush up your high school Spanish or delve into quantum mechanics, there is a free course available for you. Rediscover deep interests in things from many years ago and invest time in them now but without the burden of either payment or financial stress by using one of the incredible MOOCs now so easily available.

And therein lies the problem which I call the Chinese Menu syndrome – there is so much on offer that to wade through the various offerings can be daunting in itself. To find something you might be interested in just try MOOC, or to narrow down your search slightly, try any of the following,

http://www.class.central.com

or

http://www.edx.org

or

https://www.futurelearn.com

or

https://www.coursera.org/

One of the extraordinary things I’ve discovered is that after i signed up for a free course in an area that particularly interested me, but which wasn’t due to start for another month or so, I got an email “recommending” some other courses which were starting soon and which I might like!

I paged down contemptuously (how dare they think they know what I like, sort of thing) and was gratified to find that the first half dozen courses they offered had no interest whatsoever for me until something caught my eye – Trinity College Dublin.

When I went to university in Dublin in 1971, Trinity was pretty much the preserve of the old Protestant Ascendancy. Catholics were not excluded from the university but the Archbishop of Dublin, at the time, would demand written reason why Trinity and not the Catholic university was suitable for the recognised course of study.

Anyway, it caught my eye and I signed on to Trinity for a short two week course in such and such an area – something I knew nothing about and had never seriously considered before – and I thought I would just ghost through. Instead, maybe because of the video lectures or the reading content or provoking questions, I became interested enough to follow the first week of material.

Initially tempted to reply to other participants comments with a curt “well done” or “I agree” type of comments, I found myself engaging with people I had never seen or heard from before. I think that is really the first time I have ever done that. Not anyway since I first got a modem and heard non-global sounding squawks and squeals from cyberspace and logged on to obscure chartrooms where abuse and requests were hurled.

MOOCs, TEDs are all amazing and I wish you well in your explorations.

First off the Rank

Welcome to Tastes – a fairly eclectic and very personalised collections of culinary bits and pieces.  I will include recipes – Irish cuisine initially but I will probably widen the scope and include dishes, snacks and main meals that I have enjoyed world-wide.  Other times, it might be snippets of information about culinary oddities, explanations, queries and so on.

First off the rank, as I say, is traditional, Irish Mince pies that were always served to visitors and family in my childhood Dublin.  I found an old, ratty cookery book belonging to my mother stuffed into the back of the kitchen cupboard here in Perth.  I have no idea how old the book is, the cover and half a dozen pages are missing but it was a promotional booklet issued by Unilever, some type of multi national that, along with a myriad of other products also made margarine and every recipe in the booklet, under headings like Rock Cakes, Sandwich Cakes and Sponges, Icings and Fillings, Pastry, Fish, Meat & Poultry, Batters and Hot Puddings, includes a healthy dose of margarine.

In an age when cholesterol levels were an unknown factor and the emphasis was on taste, coupled, I suppose, with economy, margarine was the king among ingredients!

Oh, one last thing, I have a rather pretentious photo of a place setting which I will use as the featured image for Tastes.

I hope you find something you like, or at least can laugh at – i.e. my attempt at very Short crust pastry mince pies.