Bangkok, 21 June 2015

After years of bugging by our children, especially by our daughter, and after watching a couple of our friends Go the Way of All Flesh or nearly so, my wife and I have committed to a serious training regime. Twice a week, a personal trainer turns up at our apartment block, and in the very rudimentary gym which we have (it’s really just a common space where some exercise machines have been installed) he puts us through one hour of rigorous exercises. In addition, my wife goes to a gym every day for an hour, while I do (more or less, depending on my schedule) half an hour’s worth of exercises at home in the evening. We’ve been at it for three and a half months.

I don’t know, I feel that after a suitable period of shock at the beginning – we have, to be very, very frank, done bugger-all exercise for nigh on forty years – we should now be looking forward to going to our twice-weekly routine and feel happy after it
happy exercisers
perhaps not as blissfully happy as this couple, but at least somewhat satisfied.

Yet it is not so. As we go down to the makeshift gym we feel like what those poor people in Singapore must feel like as they go to get 100 lashes for dropping chewing gum on the pavement or whatever, and the exercises themselves are still excruciating. We both feel like poor old Laocoön and his sons as we put our protesting bodies through the routines
while when we try to get up from a floor exercise we both look and feel like this dying Gaul
Dying gaul
Understand me, I’m not hoping to look like Hercules by the end of all this
Herakles Farnese
Something like this would do me very nicely
while my wife would be more than happy to end up looking like any of these three Graces
Three Graces
In fact, to be completely honest, I wouldn’t mind ending up looking like this as long as I was feeling good.
fat david
But I don’t feel good, I just feel like this at the end of the one hour
and continue to feel like this for the rest of the day.

Will it ever be different?


Happy exercisers: (in
Laocoön: (in
Dying Gaul: (in
Herakles: (in
God: (in
Three Graces: (in
Fat David: (in
Broken sculpture: (in


Bangkok, 20 June 2015

The Thais are a handsome race, no doubt about it. They seem to be genetically predisposed to having a gracile body structure, which leads to a race of naturally slim and slender people. Of course, there are Thais who have had a hard life, especially in rural areas, and whose bodies and faces have been marked by it. And given the popularity of fast food and of snacking on processed foods, obesity is on the rise as it is everywhere in the world. But overall, the Thais are pleasing to the eye.
cool thai couple
So it is really very unfortunate that many Thais have this strange habit of going around with an inhaler up their nose, which obviously detracts from their natural comeliness.
women with inhalers
Normally you just see them holding the inhaler to the nose and sniffing away as if they were snorting cocaine or some other such substance, but in extreme cases they will jam the inhaler in their nostrils and walk about with it dangling from their noses.
man with inhaler in nose
man with inhaler in nose-2
(I have even heard of cases of Thais with two inhalers jammed up their noses! But perhaps this is an urban legend)

Quite why they do it is not clear to me. No doubt it has something to do with warding off noxious smells, which indeed can sometimes be a problem in Thailand where open drains are still the rule rather than the exception. But the street smells can be strong even in the absence of open drains: cooking smells, for instance, can be penetrating, which may explain this lady’s use of an inhaler
woman vendor with sniffing stick
Or it could be a way of keeping alert when required, as this photo of an examination room suggests
(the boy with the inhaler is towards the back left and is busily writing while the poor fellow in the front looks like he could do with an inhaler)

But various sites darkly suggest that one can become hooked and simply sniff for the artificial pleasure of it all. Bent on making a scientific examination of the issue, I purchased an inhaler at my local 7-11 – the cheapest, I’m not that dedicated –
and carried out a series of sniff tests …

… Ah yes! That eucalyptus smell that I remember soooo well from the Vicks inhalers that our mothers used to hand us young children when we had a cold
vicks inhaler
and which, together with Vicks vapo rub for our chests and Vicks cough drops for our scratchy throats were used by several generations of anxious mothers for their coughing and sniffling brood.
Yes, yes, one or two sniffs and you could feel the stuffiness in your nose magically disappearing, and the late November fogs lifting – only for stuffiness and fog to reappear after a while – to be chased away again with another sniff or two – and so the cycle went on endlessly, until Spring arrived …

… But behind the astringent, aseptic quality of the eucalyptus there lies a softer smell of mint and peppermint … of the Polo mints of my youth!
“the mint with the hole”, as the ad tag line had it
a taste which has me instinctively grasping out at one of the mint sweets that hotels in this part of the world so thoughtfully place on the check-in counter for incoming guests.

Memories, memories … I suppose I could end up walking down Bangkok’s streets, dreamily sniffing on my inhaler, letting visions of my – really quite pleasant – life unfold before me. Is that what Thailand is, a nation of dreamers? Or are these inhalers just a modern version of the pomander, that ball made of perfumes held in a perforated case, which the rich of the European Middle Ages hung around their necks to ward off the frequent bad smells around them or in the pious hope that it would protect them against the plague?
I will let my gentle readers decide.


Cool Thai couple: (in
Women with inhalers: (in
Man with inhaler in nose: (in
Man with inhaler in nose-2: (in
Woman vendor with sniffing stick: (in
Kid with inhaler in nose: (in
Inhaler: (in
Vicks inhaler: (in
Vicks ad: (in
Polo sweets: (in
Polo mint ad: (in
Pomander:,-Bust-Length-Wearing-A-Black-Fur-Trimmed-Coat,-Holding-A-Pomander,-Seen-Within-An-Arched-Decorated-Embrasure,-A-Landscape-Beyond.jpg (in


Bangkok, 14 June 2015

Who hasn’t heard of the theory of relativity? I mean, everyone has, right? Apart maybe from some Amazonian tribes who’ve only just been discovered.

uncontacted tribe

And of course everyone has heard of Albert Einstein, who came up with the theory in the first place.


OK, this photo may suggest that Einstein was not a very serious fellow, so let’s throw in a more solemn photo of him, taken a year before he published the special theory of relativity in 1905.


(as we all undoubtedly know, this is the first of two theories of relativity; Albert published the general theory of relativity in 1916).

1905, by the way, was Einstein’s annus mirabilis. His paper on the special theory of relativity was one of four seminal papers he published that year in the highly respected Annalen der Physik; the other three were on the photoelectric effect, on Brownian motion, and on mass-energy equivalence (you know, E=mc2, that one). He was one hell of clever guy, no doubt about it. No wonder he got the Nobel prize! Should have got two, if you ask me.

Anyhoo, the special theory of relativity, known as STR to conoscenti like me, has two very interesting predictions: the faster you go, the smaller you get and the slower time passes. So you get squeezed tighter and tighter slower and slower. And the amazing thing is, you wouldn’t notice you’re getting all squished and that your Rolex is running slower! To you, everything looks completely normal. Like I said, Einstein was a pretty amazing guy.

Well, of course science fiction writers latched onto the second of these predictions – so-called time dilation to conoscenti like me – like that leach latched onto my leg many decades ago. For instance, they have imagined some poor married astronaut going off on an interstellar journey, travelling at near the speed of light for a couple of years and then coming back, also at near the speed of light, TO FIND HIS WIFE AN OLD CRONE! At his super speed, he has only aged a few years, but his wife, traveling at the Earth’s much slower pace, has aged decades. Amazing thought, no? This plot line was the basis of the original “Planet of the Apes” movie of 1968 (no doubt only old fuddy-duddies like me even remember that there was such a movie). The astronaut hero, Charlton Heston, has been on super-fast intergalactic travel and crashes onto a planet, which he discovers is run by apes.

heston and the apes

Only at the end of the movie, after many super exciting adventures, does he realize that the planet is actually Earth, hundreds of years after he had left it.

heston and statue of liberty

In the real world, it took a while for clever scientists to design experiments to test Einstein’s predictions. Time dilation was only proved for the first time in 1938, by two fellows at Harvard. To be honest, their experiment was so clever that I don’t understand it. I understand much better an experiment carried out down the road, at MIT, in 1963, which involved measuring the number of muons whizzing by at the top of Mt. Washington in New Hampshire and the amount whizzing into MIT’s campus. You see, as muons rain down from the outer layers of the atmosphere, where they are created, they decay, like uranium atoms, and clever scientists know the speed with which they decay.


So if you measure the muon whizz-by rate at the top of the mountain as well as the number of muons so whizzing, and if you know the muon decay rate as well as the difference in height between Mt. Washington and the MIT campus, then you can calculate how many muons should have decayed away before reaching said campus, and you can compare that to the actual number you measure whizzing into your lab on campus. And you would find many more arriving than you calculated! BUT, if you now went back to the blackboard


(or whiteboard in this day and age) and factored in Einstein’s time dilation effects, then the difference between what you calculated and what you measured would pretty much disappear. Because, you see, while you, the clever scientist in your MIT lab, was saying “well, it should take one millisecond for a muon to go from the height of Mt. Washington to the height of my lab”, the muon, speeding along at something near the speed of light, would glance at its Rolex and say “hang on a millisec, it only took me one microsecond to get here, so I ain’t decayed yet.” Clever, no?

Of course, all these experiments cost a lot of money. I have just discovered a much cheaper experiment proving the time dilation effect, although admittedly it takes a good deal longer to carry out. It came to me in a flash a few days ago. I saw a shop, which proudly proclaimed that it had been established in 1975. “Pah!”, I said “that’s just yesterday”. But then I thought, “Hang on. If in 1975 I had seen a shop proclaiming that it had been established in 1935, I would have said, ‘Wow, that’s a long time ago!'”. Which proves time dilation incontrovertibly: as each of us moves faster and faster through life towards the grave, time past seems to go by slower and slower. QED, as Einstein would have said in his heavy German accent.

I wonder if I can get this proof published in Nature?


Uncontacted tribe: (in
Einstein with tongue out: (in
Young Einstein: (in
Heston and the apes: (in
Heston and the statue of liberty: (in
Muons: (in
Blackboard: (in


Bangkok, 11 June 2015

I get many invitations to diplomatic dos. I almost always bin them, but when I received one from the Embassy of Portugal to celebrate the country’s National Day, I hesitated. They do have the most wonderful Embassy here, right on the Chaophraya River.

embassy from river

My wife and I pass it very time we take the water bus down to Sathorn, and as we pass I always feel a twinge of nostalgia, to see this lovely villa from the 1870s, with its lawn sweeping down to the river, squeezed now between modern buildings of concrete, glass and steel. Ah, the Bangkok that once was …

It was decided.  I would accept the Ambassador’s invitation, to give us a chance to see this wonderful property up close.

So it was that last night, as dusk was falling, we joined a line of guests to shake the Ambassador warmly by the hand, and then were left free to wander around the lawn, with a white wine in hand. We walked over to the river, turned around, and admired the scene.

lawn of embassy 002

As we stood there, sipping our wine, from under the flame tree came the unmistakable lilting lament of fado. Song after song floated across the lawn

É meu e vosso este fado
destino que nos amarra
por mais que seja negado
às cordas de uma guitarra

Sempre que se ouve um gemido
duma guitarra a cantar
fica-se logo perdido
com vontade de chorar

Ó gente da minha terra
agora é que eu percebi
esta tristeza que trago
foi de vós que a recebi

E pareceria ternura
se eu me deixasse embalar
era maior a amargura
menos triste o meu cantar

Ó gente da minha terra

This fado is mine and yours,
A destiny that binds us,
No matter how much denied,
To the strings of a guitar

When we hear the lament
Of a guitar in song
We are instantly lost
In a desire to weep

Oh people of my land,
Now is it that I understand
This sadness which I carry.
I received it from you

And it would seem a tenderness
To allow myself to be soothed.
The bitterness would be greater
My singing less sad.

Oh people of my land

And so filled with saudade, that indefinable existential melancholy which we are told pervades the Portuguese soul, as well as with several glasses of excellent Portuguese wine, we slowly made our way inside the villa, to eat bacalhau à Gomes de Sá.


Embassy from River: (in

The other picture: mine


Bangkok, 8 June 2015

Yesterday evening, my wife and I went over to the Central World mall to see a film (“Spy”, a hilarious film, well worth seeing). Afterwards, feeling peckish, we decided to stay and have dinner in the mall – at least it was well refrigerated there, a decided plus in this hot season when the promised rains are failing to come to cool us. The problem is, most of the restaurants in the mall are of Asian extraction – Japanese is a definite favourite, followed by Korean, and then trailing far behind a few Chinese, Thai, and “international” (i.e., mixed Asian) – and that’s not what I felt like eating. I wanted something “different”, although I wasn’t quite sure what that “different” might be. We made a bee line for a French restaurant advertised on the information board, but it had disappeared since they had last updated the board. We sighted an Italian restaurant, although something called “Spaghetti Factory” surely is to be avoided like the plague. We got a fleeting glimpse of a Mexican restaurant tucked away in a corner, but Mexican food didn’t entice me … You get the picture. I was being finicky, and time was passing. Eventually, we saw a bar-cum-restaurant called “1881”, which looked nice enough. We rapidly checked the menu, and since it looked suitably international we went for it.

Ensconced at our table, we scanned the menu more closely. For the main course, we both happily plumped for the coq au vin. It had been an age since we had eaten this, we both exclaimed. To keep us going while we waited, we ordered some starters, and of course a glass of red wine. The starters were delicious, the wine was good, everything looked set for a memorable dinner. Alas! it was not to be. When the coq au vin arrived, we found ourselves faced with a chicken leg, deep fried à la manière KFC, sitting on some sort of thick tomato-based sauce peppered with carrots and onions, maybe something which had been recycled from an osso buco dish, and which had obviously never seen a drop of vin. We glumly ate our poulet à une sauce indéfinie, agreeing with each other that something had definitely got lost in translation. The dessert, a great pannacotta with some sort of balsamic-strawberry gelée, partially made up for the very disappointing main dish, but it was undeniable that the coq au vin had been a black hole in our sensory experiences of the evening.

I feel I owe it to my genes, to my heritage, to right the balance, to advertise from the rooftops the greatness of coq au vin. At least describing how the dish is made might allow me to partially enjoy, if only in my imagination, the taste of the Real Thing.

Let me start by saying that in the olden days coq au vin was not a dish that would have been served to the Great Sun King, Louis XIV


or some other such august personage, unless of course you wanted to be sent to the Mediterranean galleys or to rot away on L’île du Diable. The great French chef of the mid-19th Century, Marie-Antoine Carême, author of the encyclopedic L’Art de la Cuisine Française and other works, never mentioned it, nor did the even greater French chef of the late 19th-early 20th Century, Auguste Escoffier, in his various publications. No, this was above all a peasant’s dish, a way of recycling that rooster in the yard which had reached the end of the rooster road. It was people like these who created coq au vin, making a virtue out of necessity.

french peasants-2

french peasants-3

CHT216766 Peasant family of the Sarthe area at a baptism, late 19th century (photo); by French Photographer, (19th century); photograph; Private Collection; Archives Charmet; French, out of copyright

So now let us see how this wonderful dish is made. The paysan (or paysanne) will first have laid his (or her) hands on a rooster like this one

and wrung its neck. We modern men and women are squeamish about killing to eat, but what to do: unless you hang around prides of hunting lions and scavenge what they are kind enough to leave behind, to eat meat you need to kill; simple as that. Oh, and by the way, it’s good to slit the rooster’s throat and drain its blood, which you will use later in making the dish. If you can’t bring yourself to do all this, you can subcontract the task to a butcher. You can also subcontract him the task of plucking the bird, which the paysanne would have done herself (I remember my French grandmother doing this, while she sat on the balcony discussing this, that, and the other with my mother). The wonderful feathers of the rooster should be conserved, although I’m not quite sure what to do with them. In any event, in one way or another you should end up with something like this:


Personally, to support the Home Team, that is to say Burgundy, where the French side of me comes from, I would want a rooster from Bresse, which is on the other side of the River Saône from Burgundy: the Burgundians gave the people of Bresse their wine and in return got farm products like chickens.

Now we can start the cooking.

First, you will cut up the rooster. Place the pieces in some container, to which you will add diced carrots, onions, and shallots, and – if you really must – chopped garlic (personally, I would drop the garlic; I’m not a fan of this particular bulb). The paysan would have collected these from his vegetable garden like the one my French grandmother had hidden behind her lilac bushes, but I recognize that in our modern, highly urbanized society most of us do not have access to vegetable gardens, so we will have to make do with the local grocery store, or even the local supermarket. Add laurel, thyme and parsley. Add a little stock. Salt and pepper. And now we come to the wine.

Obviously, this is a key ingredient, so some thought needs to go into its choice. Nothing too fancy, of course – not going to waste a $100 bottle of wine to cook our rooster. Something with a good body but not too tannic should do the trick. I would go for a red wine, although there are parts of France (Alsace, for instance, or the Jura) where the dish is made with white. Since, as I’ve mentioned, I’m batting for the Home Team, I would personally go for a red Burgundy, maybe shading into a Beaujolais, something just down the road from where my Grandmother lived.

macon rouge

Our paysanne would have gone down into the cellar of the kind my Grandmother had and taken a bottle of wine made from grapes growing in one of the surrounding vineyards and bottled in that very cellar or at least locally. But we – with a sigh – will make do with what we find at our local wine store.

In any event, pour in enough wine to just cover the rooster. Cover the container and leave it in a cool place. You will let the rooster and the vegetables marinate for a full 24 hours.

The next day, fresh from a good night’s sleep, you will begin the next phase.

As a first step, fish the rooster pieces out of the marinade, draining them well. Do the same for the vegetables. Do not throw away the marinade! Very important.

Put all these aside, and take a large skillet, in which you will heat a little butter and oil. Frankly, I don’t think the paysanne would have used oil, at least not in Burgundy. Traditionally, Burgundy was not an oil country. I would guess, from a perusal of an old French cookery book from 1651, that she would have used butter and/or lard. Nevertheless, we will go with butter and oil since nowadays oil you find in shops but lard only with difficulty.

Once the butter-cum-oil is hot enough, slide in the rooster pieces, together with some chunks of bacon, and let the whole brown nicely. Throw in the vegetables from the marinade and let them colour a bit. Sprinkle with flour and let it all cook a moment. Move the skillet off any open flame, take a small glass of cognac, sprinkle it over the rooster pieces, and light it up with a match – taking care, of course, that your face is not too close; the last thing you need is to find yourself eating the final product without eyebrows. In Burgundy, the paysanne would probably have used a Marc de Bourgogne, which is a brandy made with the solid leftovers from the grape presses. But unless you actually live in Burgundy, you probably do not have this at hand, so go with cognac. Once the flames have died down, add in the marinade, and bring the whole back to a boil for a few minutes.

You will now let the mix simmer slowly for a long, long time: aim for six hours. Let it fill your kitchen with a gorgeous aroma, but don’t hang around there because otherwise you will soon no longer be able to stand it and you will throw yourself on the cooking rooster and wolf it down. As would have done the paysanne, go and busy yourself in the garden, in the studio, anywhere that is some distance from the kitchen. Keep your mind and hands busy with other things, just popping in from time to time to check. As the hours pass, the meat softens and falls off the bone, it absorbs the wonderful aromas it is basting in, and the sauce itself slowly thickens. Towards the end of this long simmering period, you will take the blood you collected when you killed the rooster (remember that?) and add it to the sauce to thicken it. You will also prepare boiled potatoes a little while before the end, to accompany the coq au vin.

The coq au vin is now ready to eat. Lay out the pieces of coq in a serving plate, pour the sauce au vin over them.

coq au vin

Place the potatoes on the side, bring out that special bottle of Burgundy you’ve been keeping for an exceptional moment, call in the family and your special friends, and enjoy!


Mmm, there’s a rooster I keep hearing over the other side of the lane, in a building site. Maybe tonight, I’ll go out with this cleaver which we bought in China


And find me a rooster for a nice coq au vin


Louis XIV: (in
French peasants-1: (in
French peasants-2: (in
French peasants-3: (in
Rooster: (in
Rooster ready to cook: (in
Mâcon rouge: (in
Coq au vin: (in
Meal: (in
Cleaver: (in