This week my day-job required me to do some travelling. Often these trips can be very mundane – lots of sitting around in airports, aircraft and taxis. But this week was different for many reasons and I’d like to share it with you. You can click on all the photos to enlarge them.
My mission this week was to meet a man in Tangier, Morocco to discuss leasing some office space. The meeting should take about an hour and I would tour the building checking its suitability and discussing the contract. In order to get from the UK to Tangier in the same day I could either
Have a 6-hour drive to London Heathrow and catch a direct flight (no thank you),
Drive 2 hours to Birmingham, fly to Brussels, sit there for 4 hours, then catch flights to Casablanca then Tangier (even less appealing), or
Drive 2 hours to Manchester, fly to Gibraltar and get a ferry across to Tangier. For those of you that may not know, Gibraltar is a tiny piece of the UK dangling off the bottom of Spain.
Not only was Option 3 substantially cheaper than the other 2 options, it also appealed to my sense of adventure! Normally when I travel on business I meet up with colleagues, but this would be the first time when I would be truly alone on a trip.
So it was that I drove to Manchester airport on Tuesday afternoon. While most of the UK was covered in ever-deepening snow the western side of the country was almost untouched, making my drive easy. After a night in an airport hotel I boarded the early morning Monarch Airlines flight for Gibraltar. There was a small delay while the plane was de-iced, but we arrived safely in Gibraltar just in time to get caught in a sudden downpour of rain. Once the rain shower had passed I walked the short distance from the airport to the border with Spain and caught a taxi.
Threatening skies over Tarifa
The road to the ferry port at Tarifa meanders around the bay then climbs into the hills giving fantastic views across the Mediterranean Sea to the Moroccan coastline. It was very windy and the skies looked quite threatening. I paid my taxi driver and entered the large plain building which served as a Departure Lounge for the ferries. It was around 1:30 pm and I was booked on the 3:00 pm ferry. Any illusions I had of being able to make my scheduled meeting in Tangier at 4pm were dashed by a large sign which read “Next Ferry: 5:00 pm”. Conditions at sea were very rough and they were waiting for better weather. I phoned my contact in Tangier and we rearranged our meeting for the following morning.
Ferry from Tarifa to Tangier
I’m very good at waiting. I occupied myself by having a coffee or two; walking up and down the large shed a few times; reading all the posters I could find; and looking wistfully out to sea for a sign of a change in the weather. During this time we had two torrential downpours, one of which contained pea-sized hailstones. I also became an expert in what you can and can’t bring into the EU from abroad, as well as the missing children in the area. If the weather had been better and I had been free of the burden of a suitcase I would have loved to explore the town of Tarifa. Alas.
Finally the ferry arrived and we managed to board. Conditions were rough. The best analogy I can give is that I had the same sensation as being on a child’s swing with one big difference. This swing was also rocking from side to side! After 45 minutes the ferry pulled into the calmer waters of Tangier port and we eventually disembarked.
Old part of Tangier
I had a room booked at the Movenpick. My reservation gave the name of the street for the hotel but no number. I activated the GPS feature on my Blackberry and typed in my destination. According to the satnav the hotel was only 1km from the port. Good news! It was still daylight so I would walk there rather than bother haggling for a taxi with the rather unsavoury-looking characters hanging around the port. I noticed many women walking alone and so didn’t feel unduly concerned.
I have become used to airports at which men are desperate to help me with my bags. (I even had one occasion in Cairo airport where I had to wrestle my bag away from some guy who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Only when I threatened to scream did he leave me alone.) Of course these guys expect a tip and dish out verbal abuse if you fail to play the game. I kept my hand firmly on my bags, politely declined all offers of help and kept walking…
Bay of Tangier
There is a lot of construction going on in Tangier right now and the satnav seemed to be taking me away from the more developed areas into a massive construction site. Sidewalks gave way to muddy tracks and street lights started to disappear. It was getting dark and there was no sign of my hotel at the spot where the Pocket Fruit had indicated. Just at that moment I spotted a beacon in the darkness – the main railway station! There was one taxi waiting outside, so I asked Mr Taxi if the Movenpick was far. “Oui!”. I gladly jumped into his beaten-up Lada and 10 minutes later I found myself at the far end of the Bay of Tangier outside the hotel. Most times satnav is very useful. In this case it was very useless.
My first job on entering my room was to get cleaned up. The bidet in the bathroom made it much easier to wash the mud-cake off my shoes and especially my feet. The bottom of my suitcase had also gained a layer of mud, but a good supply of tissues in the room took care of that.
Menu at Movenpick, Tangier
I headed down to the restaurant for dinner. I was delighted to see a menu filled with Moroccan delights. The choice was not easy, but I settled on Chorba (vegetable soup) to start with. For main course I chose Kebab Maghdour, something I had not had before. I was not disappointed! The pieces of lamb were succulent and wonderfully seasoned. The egg on top added not only a nice complement but a visual attraction. For dessert I chose Mhalabia, a kind of North African blancmange delicately flavoured usually with orange flowers or sometimes with cinnamon.
After the inevitable glass of very sweet Moroccan mint tea I headed to bed full and tired.
The next day brought bright sunshine and a lowering of the wind, although it was still quite windy. Breakfast was both disappointing and surprising. The buffet was almost entirely “Western” and paid only lip-service to the kind of breakfasts I have come to love in North Africa. A small bowl of harisa and a few pancakes were placed almost apologetically in a corner. Most surprising of all, the buffet contained sliced ham, pork sausages and bacon! The population of Morocco is almost entirely Muslim and I wondered about the person who had cooked these pork products. Perhaps they had been brought in from abroad just to cook the breakfasts… ?
I paid my bill and took a taxi to the place where I was to have my meeting. The gentleman I met was very pleasant but it was obvious that my French was better than his English; so for the first time in my professional life I did business entirely in French. An hour later we had shaken hands and I was in a taxi again, but this time I was heading back to the port to catch another ferry.
The winds had obviously disrupted the ferry timetable. You cannot imagine my delight to see a ferry waiting in the port when I arrived. 15 minutes later we were bouncing once more across the Mediterranean Sea heading for Spain.
Looking across to Morocco
Once we had reached the mainland and I had cleared Passport Control I jumped in yet another taxi. Most taxi rides are dull affairs. Sometimes the driver might start a conversation with you, but just very occasionally you end up with a taxi ride to remember. So it was this time.
We had barely gone 50 metres when the driver started talking to me in English. “Do you like music?” he said. I replied that I do, upon which he slid a CD smoothly into the dashboard. The Police, Greatest Hits. Up went the volume. He started singing along. So did I!
Between choruses he would tell me about himself. We talked about Rock Groups we had seen as teenagers and the music we liked today. Looking around I noticed that every conceivable space in the front of the car was filled with CDs. This was clearly a man who liked his music.
A couple of times he pulled onto the side of the road to let me take some photos. The views were magnificent and he pointed out the various landmarks to me. As we drove around the bay towards Gibraltar he told me about the local industries and some of the health problems that people had suffered in the past.
When we arrived at the border I paid and we said our goodbyes. Taxi rides like that are very rare, but magical when they happen!
Room in Hotel Caleta, Gibraltar
I crossed the border into Gibraltar and walked the 30 minutes to the Hotel Caleta on the eastern side of the rock. The hotel is cosy and I had a room with a view straight out to sea. It was hard to believe I was NOT on holiday!
Now, here’s a funny thing. Just two weeks ago I received an email from a follower of Titli’s Busy Kitchen called Richard who said that he worked in Gibraltar and if ever I was down there he’d like to meet up for dinner. I got Richard’s email only a few hours after making my flight reservations! I checked out his Facebook page to make sure he wasn’t a mad axeman. We exchanged a few more emails and our rendezvous was arranged.
Richard & Titli
At 8:30 pm Richard and I met at the border and headed for a seafood restaurant. The food was wonderful – we had Calamari, Prawn in Pil Pil sauce, fried John Dory, clams, and I even managed to persuade Richard to try the scrambled Snakelock Anemone – I suspect he would not have tried it of his own initiative.
We knew the evening had come to an end when the staff turned off the music, turned down the lights and started putting their coats on. Well, it was after 11:30 pm and we were the only two people left in the restaurant!
How shall I describe Richard… Smart, intelligent, witty and very chatty! I don’t think we stopped talking from the moment we met until we parted at around midnight. When I got back to my hotel room I lay in bed reflecting on a wonderful evening of food and new-found friendship before falling into a fishy sleep.
Sunrise from Gibraltar
The following morning was sunny and calm. I watched the sun come up from my room, had a breakfast of fruit, yoghurt and toast and made my way back to Gibraltar Airport. It came as no surprise to find the incoming flight from the UK had been delayed 2 hours because of snow. I sat down with my laptop and started writing this blog to pass the time.
Arriving back in a snow-covered UK was a bit of a shock to the system. I prepared myself for a difficult drive home, but in fact the roads were clear and traffic was moving well. Three hours later I arrived home and received a warm welcome from Man, Dog and Cat before tucking into… fish and chips.
When I look back I feel truly blessed to have had such an unusual and varied trip as this one. I had some amazing experiences and met some lovely people. Isn’t that what life should be about?
10th December 2010
This week was a little more “routine” compared to last week’s epic adventure. I’ll share this with you too and hope that you don’t fall asleep half way through…
I had to drive to Luton on Monday morning to collect my new laptop for work. It’s worth stating that there was nothing wrong with my “old” laptop, but multinational organisations have these rules about who owns what and where it should be and the bottom line is that I have to return my “old” laptop to Switzerland and get a “new” one in the UK. Guess where I’m going next week…
It was COLD on Monday morning. The car was covered in ice. When I put the key in the ignition and turned on the engine the dashboard proudly announced that it was -9°C outside. Some of you may be saying, “so what? It gets down to -20°C here every day in winter!” Yes, but -9°C in the UK in early December is very, very unusual. I thought we had left these kinds of temperatures behind when we moved here from France! I scraped off what ice I could from the windows, but there was a thick slab in one corner of the windscreen that would not budge.
The roads had been well treated and the drive was very pleasant. As I drove across the Herefordshire countryside towards the motorway the frost on the trees added a magical quality to the landscape. Sadly there was no time for sightseeing as I had to press on for my 1pm appointment. Three and a half hours later I arrived just in time, and the slab of ice was still there on my windscreen.
Files from my “old” laptop were copied to my “new” laptop and the job was done. I’ve been used to travelling with a lightweight laptop and was somewhat dismayed to discover that I’ve now got to carry around something that feels like a paving slab. It’s large and heavy and my life travelling on low-cost airlines has suddenly become more of a nightmare than it used to be. It was difficult enough already having to put my laptop plus clothes plus toiletries plus handbag into my cabin-sized suitcase to avoid the cries of “your only allowed ONE piece of hand baggage and it must be under 10 kg”. Many is the time I’ve stood at the check-in desk or boarding gate ramming things into my suitcase to appease the little despot standing there. With this new burden my business travelling has just got a whole lot more… annoying.
Bengali fish stew Jalfrezi
I consoled myself with dinner at the Taj Mahal in Stevenage. I’ve mentioned this restaurant before as it has got to be one of my favourite Desi restaurants. I decided to go for one of the “specials” on the menu – Bengali fish stew Jalfrezi. With the word “stew” in the title I was expecting it to come in a dish or pot. It came on a plate. In fact, it was fish that had been battered and fried and served with jalfrezi-style vegetables. There were red and green capsicums together with a significant quantity of small green chillis (which took their revenge on me the next morning). It was very spicy and rather delicious!
I retired to the nearby hotel entered my rather chilly room and went to bed.
Why are hotel breakfasts in the UK so poor? They had croissants which must have been a couple of days old judging by their crunchiness. Croissants are supposed to be soft! I decided to stick to the yoghurt, fruit and tea for which I was charged a criminal amount.
After a series of meetings I started my drive home at about 4:30 in the afternoon. I had arranged to stay with Mum in Birmingham overnight – it’s on the way home anyway. I was greeted with Shepherd’s Pie followed by stewed plums with custard. You can’t beat home cooking! Mum and I sat and ate and talked before heading off to bed. I’ve missed that in the past and it was one of the many reasons we moved back to the UK. God willing I’ll get to see a lot more of my mother in the years ahead…
18th December 2010
Another week, another trip, but not without incident! I had to fly to Geneva for a few “errands”, most notably to return my “old” laptop to the company HQ (see last week’s blog) and to deliver an electric blanket to my friend Jen!
On Tuesday evening I arrived in Geneva and met up with a couple of people from my team – Karl from Frankfurt and Samah from Cairo. We went out for dinner in downtown Geneva with another colleague, Eric, who is leaving the company at the end of the year for pastures new. For his farewell dinner Eric had chosen to go to the Brasserie des Halles de L’Ile and he offered to drive. You can tell that Eric has no kids yet – getting into the back of Eric’s 2-door sporty leather-seated BMW was a bit of a struggle. Just wait until you start a family, my friend! It’ll be a Renault Espace for you…
The food was very good and the menu contained a number of Swiss specialities involving cheese and/or sausages. I went for a starters of Tomme cheese fried in brick pastry and for main course I took the Char – a fish closely related to salmon. For added entertainment there was a speed-dating event going on at the same time. The general noise and hubbub was punctuated every five minutes by a tinga-linga-ling and a general noise of chairs scraping on a hard floor. I got the feeling that Samah would quite liked to have been participating in the event…
Eric is an engineer and his new job is to design energy-efficient IT data centres. I quizzed him on this. I wanted to know if a computer uses more energy if it creates a “1” rather than a “0”. And over the lifetime of a computer does it process more “1”s than “0”s? And if there is a clear imbalance, what does this tell us about the nature of the Universe? Eric wasn’t quite sure if I was being serious or not, but he should know me well enough to know that my mind works in strange ways and is very good at initiating pointless discussions.
On Wednesday evening it was just Samah and I for dinner so we went to a restaurant we have been to before – The Khayyam Iranian restaurant. Not only is the food very good but the meat is halal. Woohoo! Bonus! I took the Soupe Jo, a kind of thick barley soup, and an assortment of chicken and lamb kababs. Note the spelling. Samah and I had a long discussion whether it is spelled kebab, kabab, kabob, or kebap. Was it all to do with inaccurate transliterations from non-Western scripts? Or are there genuine differences between a “kebab” and a “kebap”? Yet another pointless discussion meandered into the night…
When I am travelling there are few things that distress me more than flight cancellations on my homeward journey. And so it was on Thursday. My return journey required me to change planes in Brussels for the flight back to Birmingham. When I arrived at Brussels and looked at the Departures board for the gate for the flight home… Annulé! Cancelled! It was 10am and the weather forecast was predicting heavy snow to arrive in Brussels at around 2pm. Arggggghhhhhhh! Nightmare visions of sleeping on the seats in the airport filled my head. Or worse – a night in Brussels itself!!!
I made my way to the Service Counter to find a long queue of people, naturally, and two representatives of Brussels Airlines. Only two representatives? I did a quick calculation in my head and worked out that I would probably reach the counter by midday. What was really interesting was that most of the people in the queue seemed to be Swedish. One group of lads were being re-routed to wherever via Moscow. Conclusion: 1. Most of the people in the queue were from another cancelled flight, possibly to Stockholm, and 2. My flight had been cancelled because there weren’t enough people on it. Oh yes, airlines will do that if they have another flight to the same destination later in the day. It’s happened to me before!
And so it was that I reached the counter one and a half hours later at 11:55. Not bad, huh? I was offered to be booked on the next flight to Birmingham at 4pm (Thinks: ARGHHH! SNOW COMING AT 2PM!). I suggested that I could fly to Manchester or Bristol. Next flight to Manchester – 1pm. (Thinks: RESULT!) A quick call to the Company’s travel agent and my hire car pick-up was switched from Birmingham to Manchester.
In life, there are things you can control and things you cannot control. I try not to get stressed about the things I can’t control by remembering Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer…
Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can change;
and the wisdom to know the difference.
It’s snowing here and we have about 6” (15 cm) already laying. I thought I would take some pictures of my back garden to share with you. I can report that the snow is the perfect snow for making a snowman, so perhaps next week I might post a picture of said creature. In the meantime, here is a video of a “Snow Imam” I made a couple of years ago and the dog’s reaction to it. Naturally the Imam is facing the Ka’bah. Enjoy!
Titli's Back Garden
Garden in the Snow
31st December 2010
Long Johns Silver
I’m glad I’ve had no need to travel anywhere these last few weeks. Shortly after I arrived home from Geneva we were hit with about 30 cm of snow over 2 days, followed by a long spell of sub-zero temperatures. Although I had wanted to go outside and make a snowman it was way too cold! One night we saw the mercury hit -19°C and average daytime temperatures were about -11°C. This kind of weather is very unusual for a UK winter, and even more unusual for December.
In the post-move clearout a couple of months ago, Man had found his winter thermal underwear and questioned its usefulness in the “milder UK winters”. His thermals went inside many of the boxes that have found their way to the local charity shops. It seems we were a little too quick in our judgement and out of pity for Man during his twice-daily dog-walks I bought him some more thermal underwear, together with a cute-but-very-warm hat decorated with multicoloured space-invaders, and plenty of pairs of thick socks to keep his feet warm. Can’t have the boy getting cold now, can we?
Christmas has never held any real religious significance for me – it’s always been about family. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Christmases I’ve spent with only one other person. At one time I was married to someone who came from a large family and Christmas became an endless cycle of family visits. It was fun but very tiring!
My mother braved the icy roads to join us for Christmas. Indeed, she has been with me for Christmas ever since my father died some 15 years ago. She likes to arrive a few days before Christmas to help with all the preparations for the Christmas dinner and enjoys putting the decorations up too. Some people seem to put their decorations up at the beginning of December, but I’m a great fan of putting them up on Christmas Eve and taking them down shortly after the New Year. Christmas should be just for Christmas, not for life. I say that if you want to spend one-sixth of your life living in a sparkly-twinkly existence, go live in a disco!
Anyway, back to Chrimbo dinner. The opening course was Broccoli & Stilton Soup, followed by a traditional main course. The obligatory bird was stuffed with a very-mushroomy mushroom pilao and accompanied by roast potatoes, roast parsnips, new potatoes, carrots, brussel sprouts and peas. The gravy was home-made from the juices that dripped from the bird whilst cooking. We managed to squeeze in some Christmas Pudding with cream before crashing on the sofa to watch I-don’t-remember-what on the TV.
Then at about 7pm the power went off… It was darker than a picture of a black cat on a coal heap in a deep, dark cave. See picture for details. The power stayed off long enough for me to grope my way into the kitchen, find a torch, locate a few candles, discover the matches (I thought I put them in this cupboard???) and create a Dickensian feel to the house. Then the power came back, so I blew out the candles, reset all the electric clocks and settled down once more to watch the Doctor Who Christmas special.
Then 5 minutes later the power went off again. This cycle of power off/power on went on for about half an hour until finally the power stayed on for more than an hour. Only then did I pack the candles away. We got used to the occasional power cut during bad weather in France but never expected anything like that here. The UK is certainly full of surprises for us!
My Step-Daughter and Son-in-Law came for a few days between Christmas and New Year. We were so glad that they had made the journey from the north of England to see us and our new home. Unfortunately they saw very little of the surrounding area. They arrived in darkness and were treated to thick fog during their entire stay.
For the evening that they arrived I had prepared Cauliflower and Cumin soup. The boys would eat Roast Beef and Yorkshire Puddings, while S-D and I had stuffed peppers. On the second evening I had decided to cook a Chicken and Veg pie, but replacing the chicken with mushrooms for S-D and I. I can hear the cogs whirring on your heads wondering why I am suddenly adopting a veggie diet. It’s simple – S-D is vegetarian and it’s easier for me to cook veggie meals for 2 people than for one person. Ergo, I go veggie whenever I’m cooking for S-D.
For the pie topping I had bought some ready-made puff pastry. I had been expecting a large circle of pastry in the box and was a little disturbed to unroll a small square. There was clearly not enough to cut out 4 pie coverings! Having successfully cut out 3 pie tops I looked forlornly at the remaining scraps of pastry. I could have scrunched them into a ball and rolled them out, but the resulting pastry would have lost its puffiness. Time to experiment!
I cut long strips from the scraps and made a lattice on the pie, then cut out shapes to fill in the holes. The result – a pea-sized piece of left-over pastry and the Pie from Another World! To my amazement and delight the patchwork of pastry rose in the oven and I ended up with a rather funky-looking pie. Artistic and no waste. I like it when an experiment goes well, like when I made my mincepies with pears instead of apples this year. The taste is definitely more subtle. *nom, nom, nom*
It’s the last day of 2010 and it’s been quite a year for me. I’ve enjoyed sharing it with you and God willing I will continue into 2011 and beyond. At this time of year we usually think about the coming 12 months and what promises we want to make to ourselves. As I finish my coffee and mincepie and think about all the pies, puddings, soups and sweets I’ve eaten in the last 2 weeks, I am promising myself to remove the pounds which have appeared on my waistline. I also am determined to get my DVD finished and God willing I’ll find a publisher prepared to take me on. I’m going to work harder than ever in my Busy Kitchen and I pray that 2011 will be a landmark year.
But most of all I want to thank everyone who watches my videos and gives me messages of support. Without you TBK would be pointless, but as long as I know that people enjoy what I do I shall continue to develop what I do.