Monday, 14 October 2019

Give Me My Chocolate or the Turtle Dies

I've just finished reading Give Me My Chocolate or the Turtle Dies: The tantrums and trials of expats in Viet Nam, by the talented travel writer and aid worker, Dara Passano. 

It's a warts and all exposé of life as an expat in Vietnam, but so much of it could apply to many other countries. I nodded along sagely with the issue of having clothes made to fit the size the tailor thinks you should be, rather than the size you actually are. 

When you first came to Vietnam, you were blown away by the idea of having a whole new wardrobe handmade to your specifications. You stayed up late paging through designer catalogues and surfing fashion websites and even sketched out some of your own ideas ('They're nothing, really,' you said flippantly. But oh, were you proud). You spent whole weekend picking through the fabric market. Friends recommended their tailors to you and you went from one to the other during lunch breaks. During weeks of lunch breaks. You wanted everything to be just right.

Then you went for the first fitting and were... a little disconcerted. The tailor swore she could fix it. You tried to believe her. One week became two became six. By the time you got your clothes back you were desperate. And they were dreadful. Well, one-third was pretty good (though not exactly what you had in mind) and one-third was so unwearable you couldn't possibly use them for anything more public than mulch.

Then you noticed that it was these most unwearable creations that had ruined the nicest fabric.

This is when you cried.

We've all been there - several times.
Also identified with the issue of asking how long something, such as ear-splitting building work that starts at 6 a.m., is going to finish, only to be told 'soon' - which could mean anything from tomorrow to (more likely) five weeks. 

The part about teaching English:

And no one will ever remember the difference between 'he' and 'she'. Fascinating.

Same in Rwanda, gender pronouns just ain't a thing. I admire this, you don't change the way you speak to someone, or what you call them, based on whether they're male or female, but it can lead to confusion when editing English reports - one moment the leader of the co-operative is holding a meeting in her local community, the next moment he is handing out leaflets to everyone.

Something that reminded me of visiting my friends Ruairí and Martine in Laos several years ago, because it's the same there as Vietnam:

... the law of the street says that the biggest vehicle is always at fault [in a traffic accident] (except in the case of buses, who may each merrily slaughter several people and untold potted plants per annum).

That's really a thing. Doesn't matter what happened, the largest vehicle is at fault.

Two days ago, I was in a fairly hairy collision in Kigali. I was taking my cat to the vet when my taxi driver decided to pull straight out in front of a cement mixer. It was absolutely my driver's fault, no question, but under Laotian/Vietnamese custom, the cement mixer would have been at fault. An interesting concept.

Each chapter of this book has an entertaining quiz to work out how fresh off the boat you are, or how much of a jaded long-termer. For instance: How Keen are You to Karaoke? and How Well Do You Bargain?

It's a book that needs approaching with a large pinch of salt. Travellers full of dewy-eyed optimism might not get on with it as well as people who have lived abroad for many years and become one with the daily frustrations that come with long-term expatriation.

That said, there's a rather touching bit towards the end on counter culture shock and the sense of dislocation long-term expats often feel when returning to their country of origin. It also acknowledges the way expats can build up their home countries as beacons of efficiency. A delusion which is quickly dispelled when you eventually do take a trip home. I was nodding vigorously along when she spoke of returning to the US:

I was on the phone for three days trying to find a way to get my internet connected and was snapped at and hung up on so many times I wanted to force-feed the operators burnt fish sauce. Their only redemption was transferring me to a call center in India.

The Indians were nice. They could not give me internet, but they did give a bit of love. I thanked them. Sometimes I still call them when I am lonely.

It's a fun read, even for those expatting it in other countries than Vietnam.

If you find yourself nodding along with a significant amount of it and need a little extra support, you might like to consider joining Grumpy Expat.

Friday, 11 October 2019

A Wandering We Shall Go

Sorry for the silence everyone. My mum and her partner, Merrick, came out to visit for three weeks and we've been touring the country having a lovely time. We've:

  1. Been on a walking tour of Kigali and visited the memorial
  2. Taken a boat ride on Lake Kivu
  3. Visited the tea fields of Pfunda
  4. Taken a game drive to see the wild animals of Akagera
  5. Visited the royal palace
  6. Trekked golden monkeys

Had a mild case of malaria, but all better now. It's been an incredible holiday and so happy my folks made it out here. Lots of lovely memories and photos. 

I'll resume normal programming soon. Few book reviews to catch up on.

Tuesday, 24 September 2019

Monday, 9 September 2019

Author Copies

Large box of author copies have arrived. All ready for reading!

Tuesday, 3 September 2019


Really enjoyed this retelling of ancient Greek myths by the legendary Stephen Fry.

No one loves and quarrels, desires and deceives as boldly or brilliantly as Greek gods and goddesses.

In Stephen Fry's vivid retelling we gaze in wonder as wise Athena is born from the cracking open of the great head of Zeus and follow doomed Persephone into the dark and lonely realm of the Underworld. We shiver when Pandora opens her jar of evil torments and watch with joy as the legendary love affair between Eros and Psyche unfolds.

Mythos captures these extraordinary myths for our modern age - in all their dazzling and deeply human relevance.

Unfortunately, it illustrates a problem with Audible, in that I made a lot of notes (or clips as they're called), but it would take a long time to sift through and type them all out. Usually, other people have picked out the same passages as me, so I can Google the quotes and include them, but for some reason, there aren't so many quotes from this book coming up at the moment. It would be unbelievably useful if, when you saved an Audible clip, it also gave you the text.

The majority of the bits I bookmarked were the links between the ancient names of the gods and modern words today, such as Brontes, thunder, who gave the brontosaurus its name - thunder lizard - and Hypnos, Latin Somnus, associated with sleep. There were a lot of really interesting geographical links between god names and places, and a lot on symbolism, such as the difference between Hermes's caduceus, which features wings and two entwined snakes, and the Rod of Asclepius, which features one snake and no wings. The former is often confused for the latter and used to represent the medical profession, whereas:

The original Hippocratic Oath began with the invocation "I swear by Apollo the Physician and by Asclepius and by Hygieia and Panacea and by all the gods..." - Wiki

Anyway, there's so much to unpack here. I especially liked the bit in the story of Pandora's Pithos (it wasn't a box), where one of the torments she unleashed was trapped inside, the only one that was not awful: Hope. That seemed particularly cruel.

I've always loved mythology, and some of the first books I read were illustrated fairytales and the myths and legends of Greece and Ireland, so I was fairly familiar with most of the stories, but Fry purposefully avoided many of the very well known ones in favour of some lesser known tales, and it was all the more interesting for it.

Actually, I've never mentioned it on this blog, because I read it years ago, back in uni, but C. S. Lewis's Till We Have Faces is a very nice retelling of Psyche. I'm surprised it doesn't get mentioned more often.

It's a real pleasure to listen to Fry narrate his own book. He carries such an air of knowledge, authority, and above all, interest in the subject. His enthusiasm pulls you in. 

Really did enjoy this. It's worth picking up if you enjoy origin tales and classical mythology, though it's best to focus on the overall story rather than trying to remember the names and domains of every god - there are a lot of them. 

Although I can't include all of the quotes I'd like to, there are some choice ones on Goodreads.

Gaia visited her daughter Mnemosyne, who was busy being unpronounceable.

Also check out my review of Circe by Madeline Miller.

Monday, 2 September 2019

The Egg

That's an entertaining mind-bender. Nice story and I like the animation.

Monday, 26 August 2019

Rivers of London

Down the sodium-lit streets, along roads that have been traffic-calmed to within an inch of their life, Peter Grant is trying to subdue the spirit of riot and rebellion:

My name is Peter Grant and until January I was just probationary constable in that mighty army for justice known to all right-thinking people as the Metropolitan Police Service (and as the Filth to everybody else). My only concerns in life were how to avoid a transfer to the Case Progression Unit - we do paperwork so real coppers don't have to - and finding a way to climb into the panties of the outrageously perky WPC Leslie May. Then one night, in pursuance of a murder inquiry, I tried to take a witness statement from someone who was dead but disturbingly voluable, and that brought me to the attention of Inspector Nightingale, the last wizard in England.

Now I'm a Detective Constable and a trainee wizard, the first apprentice in fifty years, and my world has become somewhat more complicated: nests of vampires in Purley, negotiating a truce between the warring god and goddess of the Thames, and digging up graves in Covent Garden ... and there's something festering at the heart of the city I love, a malicious vengeful spirit that takes ordinary Londoners and twists them into grotesque mannequins to act out its drama of violence and despair.

The spirit of riot and rebellion has awakened in the city, and it's falling to me to bring order out of chaos - or die trying.

I really enjoyed this one. It fell into a sub-genre of novels I really like, where institutional bureaucracy meets the fucking insane. In this case, the spirit of Punch & Judy, with a Punch who can split your face wide open. 

Grizzly back-alley goodness, steeped in ancient mythology and believable police protocol. Same ilk as Jane Lovering's Vampire State of Mind, and Yhatzee Crowshaw's Differently Morphous, with the sinister atmosphere of Mr Punch by Neil Gaiman.

I'm a latecomer to this, but it seemed at one point it was on everybody's bookshelves. I'd always liked the cover and so, when I saw it on Audible, I thought, 'I'll have that.' Kobna Holdbrook-Smith is an excellent narrator and really carries you along on the current.

The book provides some useful advice for life:
When I'm considering this I find it helpful to quote the wisdom of my father, who once told me, "Who knows why the fuck anything happens?"

"Just because you think you know what you're doing, doesn't actually mean you know what you're doing." 

And a few really interesting snippets of London history:

‘I am Jack Ketch,’ I said, and this time I felt it carry out to the audience. I got a ripple of vestigia back, not from the people but from the fabric of the auditorium. The theatre remembered Jack Ketch, executioner for Charles II, a man famed for being so unrepentantly crap at his job that he once published a pamphlet in which he blamed his victim, Lord Russell, for failing to stay still when he swung the axe. For a century afterwards, Ketch was a synonym for the hangman, the murderer and the Devil himself: if ever there was a name to conjure him with, then it would be Jack Ketch. 

In 1861 William Booth resigned from the Methodists in Liverpool and headed for London where, in the grand tradition of metropolitan reinvention, he founded his own church and took Christ, bread and social work to the heathen natives of east London. In 1878 he declared that he was tired of being called a volunteer and that he was a regular in the army of Christ or nothing at all; thus the Salvation Army was born. But no army, however pure its motives, occupies a foreign country without resistance, and this was provided by the Skeleton Army. Driven by gin, bone-headedness and growling resentment that being the Victorian working class was bad enough without being preached  at  by  a  bunch  of  self-righteous  northerners,  the  Skeleton  Army  broke  up  Salvation  Army  meetings, disrupted marches and attacked its officer corps. The emblem of the Skeleton Army was a white skeleton against a black background – a badge worn by right-thinking ne’er-do-wells from Worthing to Bethnal Green.

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch is a dark, fun frolic of a book, and the start of a long-running series.