Sunday, 31 May 2015

Enjoying the new neighbourhood

While I was writing my novel in November last year I had the chance to go on a few walks in the area where my sister lives, and given they say a picture is worth a thousand words I'll post a few here by way of explaining why I chose to settle here for a while longer.

The first two photos are from the top of a hill at the Torre del Far, a fire and smoke signal tower dating from the 10th century, standing between the villages of Cases de Pène and Tautavel.

Dominating the Corbières, the top offers gorgeous views of several Cathar castles, the Pyrénées mountains, the sea pond of Salses-Leucate, and the Mediterranean sea. The walk is only like 2-3 hours long, and highly recommended. I also walked nearby the Serrabone Priory, another beautiful area with great views of the mountains and all the way to the sea on a nice day.

I've already mentioned my sister's vineyard, it goes without saying the region is known for its wines. The quality of wines and reputation of several small producers in the Roussillon area are steadily growing both in France and internationally. I've really enjoyed walking through the vineyards over winter last year, and hadn't seen so many beautiful rainbows in a very long time. The area tends to get a lot of wind and sunshine, (most) autumn and winter rains don't last long as rain clouds get blown away, and one can see many rainbows in the Roussillon and Fenouillèdes at that time of year.

The Eastern Pyrénées mountains are right there, barely over an hours drive away, to spend a few days there for New Year's Eve 2014 at a friend's place in a lovely little village. We spent a day hiking in snow shoes to the Lac des Bouillouses, pictured above.

A few days after new years eve, I realised I hadn't been to the seaside since I'd arrived in late October. I got on the train from Perpignan for 20 minutes to Collioure, a lovely town on the rocky Côte Vermeille leading to Spain. The town was known as a centre of artistic activity in the early 20th century, with several fauve artists such as André Derain or Henri Matisse making it a regular meeting place. I just spent a few hours walking around and reading on a sunny terrace with a coffee - I had been a few times before and still enjoy it, particularly in low season.

Meanwhile, once I'd finished the NaNoWriMo writing challenge, I spent a lot of time pretty seriously thinking about what I should be doing next and where I should be living. I had a few job interviews for full time roles in Paris and London as well. One interview conversation in particular was extremely useful, challenging, and overall a great support in helping me think things over.

It took me a while (and conversations with friends and family) to realise and admit what was pretty much staring me in the face: I am in amazingly beautiful surroundings, close to my family which was one of the reasons I left Singapore, and close to busy international airports with Gerona and Barcelona next door to get anywhere in the world. I managed to make a living as a consultant while backpacking around Asia, I figure I should be able to do it from here too. I have a little bit of work going already, and will be traveling to London, Paris, Barcelona, Singapore, or wherever needed on a regular basis to meet clients - and keep working on my novel on the side. We'll see how it works out.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Participating in the National Novel Writing Month

The previous posts brought me to the end of October last year, when I arrived near Perpignan, at my sister's vineyard. I have blogged about getting ready for NaNoWriMo, and about leaving Singapore, though I hadn't specified that I've been able to do what I did since thanks to my sister and her partner who invited me to spend time at their place over the winter.

I had a few goals my family and friends have been supporting me in:

  1. Writing a novel
  2. My drivers license 
  3. Ease my transition back to France after 10 years abroad (admin paperwork, etc)
  4. Figure out what & where was next.
I'll focus on my experience with NaNoWriMo for this post, which has been a fascinating exercise. 

I've had ambitions to write a novel for a long time, and had set those aside for a long time too. I checked and the most I'd written towards one novel was about 6,000 words, and that was 15 years ago. I'd never written 50,000 words of the same story, which is the NaNoWriMo challenge goal.

I was writing on a regular basis since the month of July with the intention of choosing the main theme and story for the novel I'd be writing in November. I also spent time on writing advice blogs about storytelling, novel structure, characterisation, worldbuilding, etc.

Of course by the time November 1st 2014 arrived, with months of preparation time, set up at my sister's place in the countryside ready to write a novel, I still hadn't chosen what it would be about. As you can see from the graph I didn't add words for the first few days, instead scrambling to get a storyline together from one of the ideas I was toying with. 

The single most common piece of advice from professional writers is that to be a writer, you have to write. Silly yet true. I wasn't really satisfied that I'd chosen the right story to tell, but then I just focused everything on writing for word count. The graph above and the word count were paramount. 

I quickly prepared a storyline and followed it as best I could, other than that I didn't know what I was writing about until I sat down every day and wrote it. The most difficult part was to keep writing regardless of all the considerations going through my mind. 

I didn't know anything about the topic at hand; I'd keep writing. 

I was appalled at how bad my writing was; I'd keep writing.

That piece of dialogue was all wrong; I'd keep writing.

This or that part of the story didn't make sense; I'd keep writing.

You get the drift.

I didn't spend time on the NaNoWriMo support forums and only read the pep talk emails from published authors - which were very encouraging and arrived in my inbox at excellent times throughout the month to keep me on track. Towards the end of November, I admit I was fed up with writing stuff I wasn't satisfied with and not going back to read and improve at all, though I would still recommend participating if you want to write a novel.

I think the main thing I learned and I proved to myself out of the exercise is that I am capable of writing a novel, or at the very least the amount of words to make up a novel. I'm proud I completed the challenge successfully and have a first draft to a novel, more than I'd ever completed before. It is definitely a very ugly duckling of a first draft, but one nonetheless. 

On the downside, I took 6 months to reread what I wrote. At first I had a hard time being with how bad it was and got busy with other things. I only finished it this month. It is all wrong and pretty bad, but I'm happy there are some worthwhile ideas and passages, particularly in the second half of the book. I'm going to keep working on it now.

Monday, 25 May 2015

By the Atlantic Ocean in Lacanau

Surfers on the beach in Lacanau, October 2014.
I left things off in Paris in the last post, and as a reminder in October 2014 I was on my way to my sister's place in the South of France near Perpignan to spend time there, and particularly to participate in NaNoWriMo, writing a novel. Before getting there I had a last stop on the way to visit my oldest friend and his family. They live close to Bordeaux, it was the school holidays and so we rented a house on the Ocean side in Lacanau, pretty famous for surfing. On that front it didn't disappoint, the waves were huge. My mate JB said he'd never seen them so high and was delighted to go surfing.

The weather was still gorgeous as you can see from this picture, and I even went in to play in the waves. I didn't spend a lot of time, frankly I thought the water was ridiculously cold, but I admit it was invigorating. 

I am the godfather of their second son, and it was also their first son's birthday, so it was great to spend time with the children. It is another reason I moved back to Europe, to be closer to the friends' and family children who grow up so fast and that I'd like to see more often than I could when I lived in Singapore.

I've known JB since I was 6 years old and there aren't many people who know me as well as he does, it was great to catch up with him (as it always is) and take stock of my little European tour so far, musing about where I'd like to live next and hearing where he was at too. I was thinking I might be ready to move back to Paris, though wasn't too sure. He recommended holding my horses and going back for a second visit with work in mind rather than leisure and catching up with friends.

I had done quite a bit of considering where to work and live between London, Amsterdam, and Paris in the previous three weeks, but on the other hand not as much as planned about writing daily and preparing for NaNoWriMo and it was approaching fast - only a few days left to choose what my novel would be about. I had been writing about many random ideas since leaving Singapore, focusing on daily word count, as well as reading up advice for novel writers but still hadn't settled on a story or idea just yet. 

While the Atlantic Ocean was a great spot to sort of conclude on my European tour, as I got on the train to Perpignan I was conscious of running out of time for the novel writing challenge. I opened my laptop on the train that day and determined to figure out the story I'd be writing.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Un passage à Paris

Walking around Paris, here behind l'île de la Cité and Notre Dame Cathedral.
I am still updating my blog with my travels at the end of last year after moving from Singapore, next in line after Brussels and Lille I spent a week in Paris. After I arrived, I realised it had been years since I had spent a full week in Paris, at least 5 or 6 years, maybe longer. Since I'd moved to Asia I had passed through, but only for a night or two.

I really had the feeling of being back home, as much as with being in London, or possibly slightly more. I grew up not too far from Paris, in the far suburbs, and lived there for about 8 years afterwards. I started by catching up with old friends with whom I played table top and live action role-playing games back in the day, we had organised for me to prepare a session of one my favourite games, 7th Sea and I had spent time writing a scenario to get ready. We also had drinks at one of their hangouts, a medieval themed & tabletop gamer bar in central Paris, Les Caves Alliées. An excellent address for any RPG geek visiting Paris, right next to the Odeon & St Germain des Prés, it was good fun to catch up with friends I hadn't seen in a very long time.

And that's a lot of what I did during the week, similar to what I did in London and Amsterdam in the previous weeks: catching up with friends and walking around the city while thinking about whether I'd like to come back and live there. Of course, I also tried a few French craft beers and excellent wines from independent winemakers with a good friend who has a wine cellar shop.

A Parisian institution, Bouillon Chartier - highly recommended
 Other highlights that week included lunch with my good friend Elo at one of the oldest and most traditional eateries in the French capital: Bouillon Chartier. I hadn't been in a long while and it was as great as it used to be, not necessarily exceptional cuisine but all the traditional French bistrot fare at a affordable prices in a beautiful setting.

Actors' salute, Mnouchkine's production of Shakespeare's MacBeth at the Theatre du Soleil. 

I don't know much about stage theatre and so hadn't heard of Ariane Mnouchkine who is very famous in France and was debuting a new production of MacBeth. The friends I was staying with happened to have an extra ticket and I thoroughly enjoyed it; it was an amazing stage production, extremely well played, and really impressive overall.

The week flew by and by the time I left I felt pretty good about the idea of potentially moving back to Paris, though I also realised the weather had been exceptionally good, as a couple of friends pointed out and suggested I go back at another time and check it out again, more on in a following post.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Beers in Brussels, lunch in Lille

At Moeder Lambic Fontainas, Brussels
I had never been to Brussels, so I though leaving Amsterdam last year that it would be a good opportunity to try out some Belgian beers, and what the European wave of the 'craft beer revolution' looked like in a country with so much beer tradition.

A quick online search later and I was walking around the old centre of the city, resolutely headed for Moeder Lambic's 2nd branch on Place Fontainas - apparently the best place for great beers in Brussels, both new and traditional. I was lucky the day was nice enough to sit on the terrace and start the afternoon with a Zona Cesarini, a fantastic IPA from Toccalmatto brewery in Italy. I had heard great things about this brewery and hadn't the chance of trying one before. I thought the little sample of malt next served along the beer was a nice touch.

Looking at their menu and getting excited about the variety of beers on offer, I devised a cunning plan: stay there all afternoon with my laptop and write (while trying out some new beers)!

I tried several old and new Belgian breweries, and my favourite turned out to be Brasserie de la Senne - if you come across any of their beers, I highly recommend them. They are fairly recent and mix Belgian traditional brewing with other influences, including from the American 'craft beer revolution'. Being in Brussels and the Gueuze / Lambic (spontaneously fermented beers, usually pretty sour) being like holy for the area, I was tempted to try one again, but my palate is definitely not getting used to the sour beers just yet.

La Grand Place, Brussels
Following a productive afternoon writing, I wandered to an institution like brasserie to have mussels and fries for dinner - stereotypical, but there are some things you just have to eat when you're a tourist! The Grand Place looked like a thing from a fairy tale at night, a nice place for a leisurely digestive walk after dinner.

La Grand Place, Lille

After the Grand Place of Brussels, I was on the Grand Place of Lille the following morning. It is only thirty minutes away on the train, and I had a few hours to kill the following day, so I stopped over for a walk. I was meeting friends in Paris that evening and it turned out to be cheaper to take two trains with a stopover of a few hours. I'd heard Lille was a nice town and it seems to be, I stopped on a terrace for coffee and wrote for a couple of hours. After hesitating for a while on the right place to have lunch at, I opted for a quick picnic: A piece of sharp cheese and some dry cured ham from a nice deli, a piece of bread from a good boulangerie and done. It was just time to get on the train to Paris after lunch, back home - one of them at least.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Looking for Dutch roots

Statue of a funky dude eating a raw herring on Scheveningen beach, by The Hague
Continuing with my little European tour, I met with friends who were on a course (I'm doing it year more on that in another post), and it was taking place in The Hague, near Scheveningen beach. I was glad the Indian summer trend continued for a few more days, and we were able to have a lovely lunch in the sun on the beach, not sure how usual that it for mid-October.

I wanted to spend a few days in Amsterdam, because I hadn't spent much time there at all and had spotted the city as a potentially nice place to live: a few excellent creative agencies have set up their European headquarters there, it has all the life and activity of a capital city without being as huge as London, for exemple. Plus my father being Dutch and me having a very Dutch name, I thought I should spend a few days and consider if I'd like to live or settle there.

Writing away with beer & bitterballen!
I'm not sure about the roots, but it was lovely to spend quiet time walking around Amsterdam, sitting at various cafés to write and have bitterballen (they're addictive). I also visited the Van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum, both were fantastic - Van Gogh was great, though I was slightly disappointed to figure out that The Starry Night is in fact at the MoMA in New York. Actually now I write about it, I was also disappointed that a fire drill interrupted my visit of the Van Gogh museum and  after standing 15min in chilly drizzle I opted to leave it and head to the Rijksmuseum, and I enjoyed this one more in the end. Fortunately the nice weather came back the following day.

Restaurant De Kas, in Amsterdam
My elder brother, who is a chef, had told me the level of fine dining in Amsterdam was excellent, so I decided to check it out. After doing some research, I had a nice walk out of the main centre of town to an old green house in a park that had been converted into Restaurant de Kas. They grow fruits and vegetables on site, and also have a dedicated farm in the countryside, they cook mostly (if not entirely) with their own ingredients. It was a great and beautiful lunch, though I was disappointed to get the full flavours because I'd caught a little bit of a cold the day before, probably under the drizzle waiting by the Van Gogh museum.

I also had a few interesting conversations meeting a few people in the advertising / marketing industry to talk about the market and agency life in Amsterdam, and unexpectedly caught up one evening with an old friend I hadn't seen in ten years and randomly realised via Facebook he'd moved from Belgium to Amsterdam.

I enjoyed the few days I spent there, but aside childhood memories from visiting family and a certain familiarity with the country that I enjoy, I also felt how I'm not particularly Dutch. I didn't grow up in The Netherlands, I don't speak the language, nor do I know much about it culturally. I'd live there if an interesting job opportunity arises, but thought I probably wouldn't pursue it actively.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Babies, beers, and burgers in London

I dont' know about you, but I can't resist a good alliteration when I come across one, particularly as easily accurate as this title. I wonder if it predates my working in advertising and marketing.

Stage two of update posts, I flew to London from Mumbai in early October 2014. I lived there for close to seven years and have both family and great friends there too so it's like a second home. I hadn't visited since early 2012 so it was long overdue to catch up with friends, as well as walk around and sort of catch up with the city itself.

The weather was lovely, a surprising Indian summer - and ironic in the circumstances - yet certainly welcome to ease me back into seasons after a few years near the Equator.

Starting with the babies I finally met my nephew Hunter for the first time, as well as Bella, the daughter of my dear friends Abby and Graham. I'm not sure what to add here, I don't usually write about babies at length - or at all. They're beautiful, cute, smiling babies - actually toddlers now as they've both just turned one.

I was also looking forward to checking the new and hipsterised craft beer scene in London - which barely existed when I left in 2011. Brewdog were still small, only available in a couple of bars in London and at social networking events like the first Twestival if I remember correctly. Now they have many bars of their own around London and are sold in Sainsbury's. I enjoyed checking out Maltby Street market in SE1, around the corner from where I used to live and work. There are like six or eight craft breweries under the Network Rail arches now. I loved the Kernel beers, I thought their reputation is totally deserved.

I organised catching up with a few friends at Brewdog in Camden which was an excellent evening -thanks again to those who came by, you know who you are ^^. I also managed to organise a couple of very interesting work related meetings during the week.

While I loved the food in India, I understandably didn't eat much beef and so I was glad to go and check out this other wildly popular hipster food trend: the humble burger, turned into a fancy food stuff. Plus I'd participated in the Kickstarter organised by Burger Bear so I wanted to try them.

Burger Bear @ Stokey Bear on Stoke Newington High Street, N16 
Over the course of a week I tried a burger in a nice café on Regent's Canal (nice burger), Meat Mission by Hoxton Square (It was dry, wasn't too crazy about it), Brewdog bar Camden (my favourite, actually), and Burger Bear in Stoke Newington on my last night in London (good burger but I think I was burgered out by that point).

Besides meeting babies and stuffing myself with craft beers and burgers, another idea was to think about where I wanted to live back in Europe.  I left after a week thinking I loved London and wanted to be close enough to visit for work or leisure on a regular basis, yet not live there. That's how it is for now at least and that's what I thought of while walking around the city and before I flew off to the Netherlands for the next leg of my little European tour.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

More of India

Selfie in Varkala, Kerala

It's definitely not new news but I'm sure you can all relate to how time flies; already 8 months since my month in India and it's about time to update my blog. I'll start with the rest of my fantastic trip to India in September 2014.

After I left my friends in Pune, I decided to limit the amount of destinations I would visit and give myself more time for writing over doing touristy stuff so I stuck to the southwest coast, starting with Goa.

Walking around Goa

Goa was off season, which was probably better, certainly quieter. I enjoyed discovering the area, managing to get a good deal on a brand new hotel, and one of the only bars open on the beach nearby to sit and write to the sound of the waves. I gave myself a break from drinking and focused on writing - anything as long as I hit my daily word count. Developing texts from random ideas, brainstorming for the theme of the novel I'd write in November for NaNoWriMo. On the other hand, I didn't like the big tourist feel, I had a tough time finding good food - aside from a couple of exceptions it was generally sub-par and overpriced touristy fare. Many of the better restaurants were closed for the off season. I moved on South to Kerala with the night train after a few days.

The famous Chinese fishing nets in Fort Kochi, Kerala

I loved what little I've seen of Kerala and would definitely go back. It was touristy but the off season was a plus, and generally it's pretty laid back. The food and weather were fantastic - just the end of the rainy season, not high season yet. I found some lovely spots to spend time writing and enjoyed walking around Fort Kochi.

The backwaters of Kerala, near Alleppey

The main tour I went on was a day boating in the backwaters of Kerala and it was beautiful - I would recommend this tour, a day with a traditional row boat in the little canals, over spending time in a houseboat. Those are huge, the mass tourist trade and sheer amount of them have heavily polluted the waters of the lake, and they can't go in the small canals.

My last stop in Kerala was on the cliffs of Varkala, again very tourist but it was off season - it's a beautiful area as well. Staying in touristy areas worked for my schedule, I didn't want to go too far off the main roads this time to spend more time sitting on terraces writing (with wifi access) and off season Varkala was perfect for this.

I hesitated on the next destination, and in the end chose to come back to Pune and spend more time with my friends there, whom I probably wouldn't see again for a while. We managed to organise spending the last few days in Mumbai together. Four weeks had gone by in a flash, it was time to fly back to Europe and spend a few days in London.

Many people told me beforehand that I would love or hate India - I loved it. I loved the atmosphere, the food was awesome, and the people were great. It feels like a bit of a mad-house at times and I'm not certain I'd want to live there though I definitely want to go visit again and experience more of the country.