Sunday, October 25, 2009

Deconstructing Monty

It is the nature of the world that all things must change, but there has been one particular development over the last few years that is causing me some considerable concern. Ladies and gentleman, have you noticed that sandwiches are getting fatter?

The sandwich was famously named after John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich (how sad that they didn’t end up being known as Geralds – as Blackadder mis-predicted – or indeed Montys. One can’t help thinking that daily life would be a little richer if lunch consisted of a nice cheese & tomato monty.)

Until writing this blog, I was under the impression that the Earl of Sandwich invented sandwiches so his troops could eat whilst marching. What kind of cold-hearted scoundrel won’t let his men sit down for lunch? However, I did my homework and it seems Montagu didn’t invent the sandwich – he just liked them. The Earl was actually an entirely different kind of scoundrel – he was an incorrigible gambler. He ordered his meat served between two slices of bread so he could eat, without having to leave the gaming table or getting his hands (and his cards) greasy. It seems he was also a bit of a trendsetter since, after he ate them, everyone else asked for “one like Sandwich”. Et voila y mange tout – the cult of the Sandwich was born.

In the years following, the sandwich has become a touchstone of modern life: even now, if one strolls the streets (of the West) at around 1pm, one can see numerous office workers clutching their little bread-wrapped parcels of goodness.

In the last few years, as Western Society’s taste for novelty has grown, the sandwich (and everything else) has suffered many mutations. First we had those ‘open sandwiches’ – which, as we all know, is just a posh way of saying ‘on toast’. (Anyone for a baked bean, toasted open sandwich?) Around the same time, from across the Atlantic, came the ridiculous ‘Club’. I am not a fan. I ask you? Who needs three slices of bread in their sandwich? Surely the purpose of the bread is to contain the filling – this third, central slice is both redundant and wasteful. More importantly, it set a precedent for a new thickness of sandwich.

Not long before I left England last time, one major sandwich retailer had started selling Breadless Sandwiches. I was always under the impression these were called ‘Salads’ – but it’s all about the branding I suppose.

However, in general the evolution of the sandwich has resulted in bigger, over filled, thicker cut and overall: much, much fatter sandwiches. This causes a problem for me. Now, after careful study of my fellow human beings, I don’t believe that I have an especially small mouth. It’s seems to be of an average size – so I cannot believe I am alone in finding that most sandwiches I order these days are too big to bite!

So how are you supposed to eat them? I can see only two options:
  1. You squash them flatter until you can get your mouth around it.

    Depending on your sandwich filling, this is problematic because some items (avocado is especially bad for this) get squeezed out the side and fall, hopefully but annoyingly, on your lap or, even more annoyingly, but more usually, on the floor. Also, the bread turns into that funny, doughy, squashed breadiness type thingy, which just isn’t right.

  2. You take them apart.

    But then you’re not eating a sandwich! Once you deconstruct your monty, you can no longer pick it up – and then, well... really... what’s the point? Also, the real beauty of a sandwich is the mixture of flavours – for example, the cheese, tomato, mustard & mayonnaise culinary opus. If you are obliged to destroy your sandwich before you can enjoy it – do you then attempt to reconstruct the combination of flavours on your fork? But then you’re eating a sandwich with a knife and fork, and that’s just silly.
This sandwich situation is a worry, and where will it end? Before long we’ll be eating ordinary salads with bread on the side – and then we might as well be French (not that’s there’s anything wrong with being French of course ;-)

Surely, if a sandwich-maker wants to make their sandwiches bigger or more substantial it would be wiser to bake larger loaves and make the sandwich wider, rather than fatter? Or give us an extra slice of bread and make a halfie?

Here ye! Restaurants, cafes and humble sandwich shops – hear my plea! I want to be able to pick up my sandwich and eat it! I might want to march with it! I might even want to peruse the gaming tables with it! Let’s get back to basics and start serving monties that Sandwich would be proud of.

In the last nine days I have had five appointments with the dentist. Various parts of my mouth have been numb, swollen, painful or a combination of all three, all week. I’ve had one wisdom tooth out – (one more to follow) it had to be smashed up before it would come out. Boo. I haven’t been eating much. But eating, and the ease thereof, has been much on my mind.

I have to eat soft food – the other day, I thought a cheese sandwich might be appropriate (soft bread, of course, no crusts) – but even though this particular sandwich wasn’t especially fat by modern standards, it was still more than my poor jaw could handle. I had to deconstruct it, and in doing so I realised that there is no better example of ‘the whole being far greater than the sum of its parts’ than the cheese sandwich. I love cheese, and I enjoy lettuce, tomato and mustard. But whilst a cheese sandwich is one of favourite vittles, the components of a cheese sandwich, eaten separately, are a bit rubbish (except the actual cheese, of course). Hence this blog.

My dentist is very professional, and a nice, apologetic chap. He apologises after every appointment! As I left on Thursday he said, “sorry... for, you know, everything”
“For pulling my tooth out?”
“Well... yes”
“Or the dental work in general?”
“Well... yes. Sorry.”
“That’s alright, it is why I’m here!” He sighed, in an ‘it-hurts-me-more-than-it’s-hurts-you’ kind of way.
“I made another appointment for you on Monday – is that ok? Sorry. The other side will probably be easier... well... definitely quicker!”
And I replied: “Dentist, do not try to frighten me as if I were some feeble child or woman without knowledge of war’s work. No, I know about fighting and the killing of men well enough. I know how to swing the tan ox-hide of my shield to the right, I know how to swing it to the left – that I call true shield fighting. I know how to charge into the fury of speeding chariots. I know the steps of Ares’ deadly dance in the close fighting. But on your guard now – great man that you are, I do not want to hit you with a sneaking shot, with an eye for my chance, but in an open fight, like this, if this strikes home...”

Okay, I didn’t say that. But The Iliad is ever so good, by the way!

Further Reading
While researching this delicious subject I discovered that there exists a British Sandwich Association (of course there does) whose aims include: “To promote excellence and innovation in sandwich making.” They also have a whole page of Recipes for Cheese Sandwiches, which is as wonderful as it is unbelievable.

Finally, for some truly marvellous musings on the psychology of sandwiches (yes, really) you must read this: The Secret Language of Sandwiches.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

“Word, words, words”

I am a voracious reader. You don’t have to take my word for it – I keep a list of every book I read, so you can decide for yourself: In 2008, I read a total of 41 books; in 2007, a meaningful 42. So far, 2009 has been a big year – I have already read 45 books. Voracious? I would say so. As a traveller, being a voracious reader can be quite hard work. I obviously can’t afford to buy books. Instead I exchange them, sometimes with other travellers, but more often at Book Exchanges – which are found in Hostels, Book Stores, Cafés and occasionally, even Dive Shops.

Frequently, my first mission in any new town is to locate my next book. I could write a Guide Book on books, and how to locate them. Sometimes I am lucky and find excellent Book Exchanges with an abundance of interesting and intriguing titles to choose from. Sometimes I seem to be following in the footsteps of peasants, and I end up with nothing but light romance and ‘Airport Blockbusters’.

However, when it comes to the crunch, I would rather read anything, than nothing, so sometimes I read truly terrible books. Low points this year have included ‘Wedding Season’ by Darcy Cooper (the heroine cancelled her own – did I care? Hell no) and the entirely unmemorable ‘False Memory’ by Dean Koontz (I have no memory of what it was about – but it’s on the list, so I must have read it.) Although, the fact that I will read anything does also lead me to some good books which I probably wouldn’t have chosen: ‘Killing Pablo’ by Mark Bowden, which was about the pursuit of Pablo Escobar, was a surprisingly good read. ‘Reminiscences of the Cuban War’ by that well-known, homicidal nutcase, Che Guevara, insured I would never, ever be tempted to wear one of those naff t-shirts adorned with his face. And I would strongly advise anyone who owns one of those t-shirts to read this memoir and see if you can justify the many senseless murders he proudly confesses to.

A few years ago, in the absence of anything better, I read a book called 'Chasing Copernicus' by a bloke who was tracking down all the ‘First Editions’ of Copernicus’s masterwork, ‘On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres’, and trying to establish if anyone had actually read it! It seems Isaac Newton wrote notes in the margin of his copy (at Cambridge) – so he did his homework. But the author found several copies in which the pages had yet to be cut! His conclusion was that ‘Revolutions’, although containing an incredibly exciting theorem, is actually a work of staggering monotony which almost no one has read – preferring instead to get the gist of it from Isaac Newton or other, more available, science geeks at dinner parties. Sadly the same could be said of his own book.

But, in the wonderful world of literature, there are always more high points than low. This year’s notable highlights have included ‘The Book of Laughter and Forgetting’ by Milan Kundera (if I ever am able to complete a novel, I would like it to be just like this one); ‘We Were The Mulvaneys’ by Joyce Carol Oates and ‘Daughter of Fortune’ by Isabel Allende. All wonderful.

I never look for ‘Classics’ (by ‘classic’, I mean a timeless works of genius, rather than a book that necessarily belongs to the canon of literature – although the two are often the same) because I had an insight at University, which terrified me. In my second year, as instructed, I dutifully read all (truthfully? Ok, most) of Shakespeare’s Plays*, but it was only when I had finished them that I realised, with profound sadness, that I will never again, in my life, read a Shakespeare Play for the first time (unless someone finds 'Cardenio' – you never know...).

It occurred to me then, that if I kept devouring the Classics at my usual pace, then it was possible that by the time I was 60 or so, I might have read them all! “The horror! The horror!” And then what would I do until I died? Of course, new Classics will always be written. And they are joyous because you often don’t know they’re a work incomparable greatness until you finish them. That is a different experience (most recently ‘Never Let Me Go’ by Kazuo Ishiguro was a unexpected pleasure). But nothing can compare to that thrill, the excitement, the relish of sitting down and opening the first page of ‘Anna Karenina’ or ‘Don Quixote’ and knowing you are about to bring a sublime creation into your mind.

So I made a decision – that I would never actively look for these great books. Instead, I would patiently wait for them. I know that sooner or later they will all cross my path – and I will read them, when I am meant to read them, during the course of my life.

Despite knowing without any doubt, that it would inevitably become one of my most beloved books – I managed to restrain myself from reading ‘Lord of the Rings’ until I was 26. And then, even as I read it, and delighted at every twist and turn in the story, I also felt that inescapable sadness that I would never be delighted in this way, by this story, ever again.

I waited years before stumbling across ‘War and Peace’, and nearly cracked and bought it so many times. But in the end it was here, in Antigua, six years ago, that I came across it in a Café. I read it whilst visiting Lago Atitlan, in the shadow of a volcano.

This morning, I noticed a single shelf of dusty old paperbacks in the corridor of my hostel. Out of habit, I glanced over, although I am still halfway through my current read... and there it was, patiently waiting for me – tatty, battered, but still in one piece – ‘The Iliad’.

I am very excited! This week I am mostly going to the dentist (a fitting end to a truly crap summer) and The Iliad seems to me to be an appropriate accompaniment!

* Except for five, which I started, but couldn’t finish because, they were tedious! Don’t make that face! He wrote 36 Plays; you can’t seriously expect them
all to be brilliant!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Raining Sunglasses

I have broken my last three pairs of sunglasses in the same way: the sunglasses are on my face where they belong – I push them up, onto the top of my head because the sun’s momentarily gone in or I go indoors – then a passing bird/tall building/signpost or similar, causes me to look up, and the sunglasses clatter to the ground behind me, cracking the frames and/or breaking the lenses.

“If you’ve done that three times – why haven’t you learnt by now?” I hear you ask.
And to you, I retort “yeah, well... no one likes a smart arse you know! And I hear your mother’s so fat she fell in love and broke it.”*

Today I was looking for the Papelaría – to be specific I was looking at shop signs to find the Papelaría (no, you don’t get any points for guessing what’s coming and no, don’t skip ahead to the next paragraph!) when the sun passed behind a cloud, I pushed my sunglasses onto my head and – wait! Is that the sign? Am I right next to it? Is the sign right above my head? And (yes, you guessed it) CRASH, with a resounding clatter my sunglasses tumbled from my head, fell a full 5 feet and very nearly 6 inches (take note young Tilda) to the ground, bounced off the kerb and landed, with a miserable death rattle, in the gutter.

NoooOOOooooo! They were almost new! They never even got to leave the country! Surely even a humble pair of sunglasses should be able to see Mexico before they die? Where is the justice in that?

But wait! Hang on – I picked them up and they were still in one piece! I was surprised to find that the lenses were still intact. I made a careful inspection looking for cracks – there were none! A small scratch on the corner – but I didn’t get where I am today by not wearing sunglasses with a small scratch on the corner.

Amazed and happy, I placed my sunglasses back onto my face and... and... (wait for it) they even fit better! It’s true!

Further evidence that my luck is changing? Oh yes, I think so. Still haven’t got a job, or a home, or a clue. But hey – have sunglasses, will travel.

*Thought Yo Mama jokes were modern? And American? Me too! But apparently Shakespeare got there first! Act IV, Scene II of Titus Andronicus:

Demetrius: "Villain, what hast thou done?"
Aaron: "That which thou canst not undo."
Chiron: "Thou hast undone our mother."
Aaron: "Villain, I have done thy mother."

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Lucky Escape

Walk into any backpacker hostel and you can always spot the solo travellers. They generally send out loud vibes, and they fit into one of two categories:
  1. “Don’t talk to me, I am doing my own thing and I’m fine” or,
  2. “I am so bored, please talk to me – someone – anyone!”
So far, since arriving in Antigua I have been mostly in the first category. However I have noticed a woman, mooching around the place, who is most definitely in the second category. I had previously made a mental note, that if I do start to get bored with my own company, then this is someone who I could chat to.

This afternoon I had a design job to do, so I found myself a quiet spot on the roof terrace and settled down to work. I saw my potential friend hanging around, looking bored, when another solo traveller (from Category 2) offered her a cup of tea. That was two hours ago. They are sitting in the kitchen, which is directly behind me – so I can’t help but eavesdrop! And in the last two hours, I swear, she hasn’t paused for breath once. During the last two hours her companion has managed to contribute the following to the conversation: “yes” (x 20*), “really” (x 10*) and “is that so” (twice). That is all.

Furthermore, this woman appears to be one of the most self-important, boorish and staggeringly tedious people I have ever had the misfortune to eavesdrop upon. I don’t need to be able to see them, to hear the pain in her companions’ occasional replies.

Just think: I might have said hello to her, and her long-suffering companion could have been me! It seems my luck may have changed: this time, I had a lucky escape!

* Approximate figures.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The Book of Jane

Well it’s been an interesting and challenging month. I left Lanquín (of course) and headed down to the coast to see some friends.

The first week was very strange: I wasn’t sleeping hardly at all and kept getting the shakes and crying. I would find myself in the street and have no memory of where I was going. One morning I started my usual yoga practice and then I was sitting at my desk. Bizarrely, I am not sure when I stopped doing yoga and sat down – it was all quite unnerving. I decided to look up my symptoms on the internet and it seems I was suffering from Post Traumatic Shock. Which is odd, because I’ve never been entirely convinced that shock, as a condition, existed. I have always been of the opinion that one should simply pull oneself together. Luckily, I didn’t have Housemaids Knee.

I was staying in a small Garifuna town, where the elderly Garifuna women dress as if they are at a Doris Day Convention – lots of colouful outfits with full skirts and big collars and everyone wears a hat. I felt jealous and wanted a hat to fit in a little. But there’s a hat mystery in Livingston: everyone wears splendid hats, but no-one sells hats (other than nasty baseball caps). Hmmmm.

So lacking a hat, in a brave attempt to assimilate with the local community I got Dengue Fever instead. You would think, that after my experiences with knives and ski masks, things would have to get better wouldn’t you?! Ha!

Readers, if you can get through the whole of your life without getting Dengue Fever I would strongly advise that you do so. Dengue Fever sucks big time. Permanent exhaustion, aching all over, cold sweats and for the coup-de-grace, I came up in a rash that covered my arms, torso and lower legs, and which itched – but more than itched – it was like pins and needles! Arrrrgggghhh! Fortunately I was too weak to actually tear my skin off.

A couple of days ago the Dengue started to clear up. I began to make plans for the future... I was sitting in my room, listening to a deafening thunder & lightning storm, when a very bright light shot through the window and struck my hand, causing a shock that threw me out of my chair onto the floor.

Was I really struck by lightning?! Surely not! But what else could it have been?

Seriously, this is getting ridiculous! If I come up in boils next week – then I take it all back, I will humbly apologise to God and concede that he does exist. Good job I haven’t got a first born to sacrifice. Although, perhaps my eldest niece should go into hiding just in case.

I am now in Antigua, a beautiful old Colonial town in the south. I love it here. I am eating good food (cheese! REAL cheese!), strolling the picturesque streets and wondering what horrible torment will befall me next. I am keeping an eye out for falling pianos.

I am going to head further south in a few days to look for work. I’ll keep you posted.