Monthly Archives: January 2010

Barcelona apartments

Barcelona apartments, originally uploaded by still awake.

Midlake: the Courage of Others (more a promotion than a review)

Just thought I’d post a fleeting thought about a band that caught my interest this week. I heard Midlake for the first time on Monday 25 January. I was at the cinema and the song Roscoe was playing before the movie started. The song was mellow with a classic rock sound and the band are compared to Bon Iver and the Fleet Foxes in the Guardian. I love Bon Iver and while not a huge fan of the latter band I do like the acoustic, haunting, folksy sound.

The Guardian has instructions on how to download five tracks in their paper today, a review for their new album ‘The Courage of Others‘ posted on 28 January 2010, and an interview with the band on the same day.

I haven’t heard the album yet but Maddy Costa gives it four stars out of five and suggests the following about its sound:

Rooted in the minor key, the songs tangle argumentative guitars with portentous mutterings of prog-influenced flute.

The interview published on the same day indicates that Tim Smith is a fellow saxophonist and while my alto spends its dusty days under the bed rather than making music maybe his does too:

saxophone is cool but I wish I had picked up a guitar and checked out Black Sabbath in high school

“The Courage of Others” will be released 1 February 2010 in the UK and Europe, and 2 February 2010 in the US. They are on tour in the UK from 15 February 2010 but no listings for Bristol unfortunately.

Looking out towards Clifton

Looking out towards Clifton, originally uploaded by still awake.

A chilled Cloak and Dinner

Friday night dining was an improptu and hopeful event.I was out with a friend for a quick drink at the Big Chill bar and on the way there passed Quay Head House. I knew about the Cloak and Dinner restaurant (open 27 to 30 January) from reading reviews by Bristol Culture and EatBigBristol who ate there the previous evening. I wanted to see Belleruche play at the Big Chill bar at 11pm but it was 7.30pm and we guessed there would be plenty of time to go, wait, eat (hopefully) and then come back.

We knocked on the door and were let in (bolts sliding open on the inside) only to be told that they were fully booked but that we were welcome to wait in the lounge until a table became available. The people there were friendly and we were given a gin and tonic and the advice to keep an eye on the website. The aim was to find beautiful buildings and use them as restaurants. The room had low lighting and plates with pistacchios and cashews were  littered around on the tables. A lamp in the corner had a colourful shade in tones of grey black and red. There was artwork on the walls and while we sat a new painting was placed behind me with the comment ‘I hope it doesn’t fall on you’. Luckily it didn’t.

As lovely as the setting was, the temperature was cold and I didn’t take off my jumper and was tempted to keep my jacket on as well. The smoking policy was enjoyed by my companion and the young female students sitting across from us. They kept their jackets on.

The dress of the customers and the staff was varied. There was a charming, gleeful, almost bohemian tone to those involved with the restaurant, while others looked ready for a night out. I was in work clothes, friend in jeans and everyone seemed to fit in among the top hats and the fake moustaches. The staff member greeting people had a suit on, stockings and one trouser leg rolled up to the knee. The music downstairs was arranged by a guy with a laptop and iTunes. Same upstairs.

Three gin and tonics went by and two hours later we were tired of being cold and hungry and decided to leave. We left ten pounds for our drinks but the man with the reservation book asked us to stay for just a little longer. People are starting to leave now and there should be some space soon. We were told we could share a table with some of their friends and we agreed and sat back down. He passed back the ten pounds and said donate it at the end if you want and smiled.

About 20 people soon left the restaurant so there was a table available and we didn’t have to share. The room upstairs was friendly and brighter than the lounge while the atmosphere was pleasant and comforting. People didn’t look up and the view of the city was grimy through the windows but we relaxed. Behind us was a table of older people and we marvelled to the waitress that the clientele was so varied. She agreed and then told us the table behind us were actually the chef’s parents. Still.

Billie Holiday sang that her baby don’t care for high rise places and our order was explained and taken and the jazzy, mellow mood was set. We ordered the Borscht soup and then starters of filo pastry with some topping which I can’t remember. The soup was firm and textured with cabbage and beetroot, topped with sour cream and dill. It was served in a tea cup and there was only one spoon on the table but my friend used his fork and it was just as effective.

The soup was hearty and well-seasoned. Not too sour and not too sweet. The red wine in the unmarked bottle was light and slightly dry, a Chianti perhaps. The starters ran out so we skipped that course.  We ordered one each of the mains which were venison with salt pork slow cooked and bean casserole. The intention was to share but I was only allowed one bite of venison before he announced that I was having no more, he loved it. The bean casserole was just as good, if not better, and there was a dumpling of some sort which the waiter said was flavoured with thyme. Very nice.

The bean stew sat on a cabbage leaf on top of a parsnip mash. The portions were moderate in size which suited perfectly as we also ordered dessert to end the meal. The waiter collected our dishes and while Elvis crooned that he didn’t want no other love, the girls from two tables away grabbed our cutlery because their table had none. We all laughed and no one questioned the re-use of the forks and knives, well not out loud. Dessert was a choice between vegan banana cheesecake and a Canterbury apple tart. Both were light and tasty. The vegan cheesecake was intriguing and had dark chocolate melted with whole hazelnuts on top of grated banana.

Tables filled up around us but there were still some empty ones at ten o’clock. Two men with shaved heads and black leather jackets sat down in the corner and one said to the other ‘this is nice isn’t it?’.

The food was very good and the setting and the ambience of the place was even better. We talked to four or five of the staff volunteering there and they were all enthusiastic, open and friendly. We were told that while the restaurant was a squat, all the appropriate regulations were followed and it was legal. Something was mentioned about the bills being paid and procedures being followed. The staff were happy to be there and it showed.

The squatting scene does bring a welcoming atmosphere but it doesn’t do much for heat. The hot water taps didn’t work in the bathroom downstairs where the facilities are shared by men and women. A broken toilet door has a sign that politely suggests people knock before they enter and the hall is lit with candles and overhead lighting.  We left in a great mood and felt as if we’d shared our experience with the people working there and not just been served.

We didn’t get to see Belleruche around the corner because the queue was long and the night was cold. I heard the band play a little when they did their sound check however and they sounded great – the vocals were huskier and the guitar was lighter than on the cd. My evening started with Kathrin deBoer singing ‘I fell for you’ and ‘some things just ain’t meant to be there’. I guess that’s how it ended as well. The restaurant is there for one more night (tonight) and then it won’t be there. The beautiful building will be left empty once more but I’ll keep a look out for the restaurant which will surely pop-up somewhere around Bristol again.

Lloyds Bank in the snow, Bristol

Review: Lovers on the Road

The mini film festival Visible Secrets: Hong Kong’s Women Filmmakers is currently showing at the Watershed in Bristol. I saw Lovers on the Road on Monday 25 January 2010.

The cinema is small and comfortable and there are only a few of us waiting for the movie to start. The movie ticket was £3.50 and I am the only person in the second row. My jacket is flung over the seat to my right, my bag is to my left and I am comfortable in my chair and ready to drift away. Midlake by Roscoe plays before the movie starts and it seems as if there could be no place more mellow than this room.

The lights dim, the curtains slide open and a girl is packing a suitcase in a room that has a garish pastel blue wall. She’s harried and frenzied and a silent young man stands behind her. There have been no trailers yet so I assume that this is a cheaply made anti-piracy promotion of some sort. Nope. This is the movie and it takes some effort to suspend disbelief due to the quality of the production.

There is little communication and the two main characters easily depict the pleasant lack of intimacy while indicating a yearning for something more. By easily, I mean they act as if they are in a high school production of a play. I feel as if I can almost read the stage directions: [put arms around Lei] [Lei stands still] [Lei shrugs off arms and walks away]. The acting is disjointed and comforting at the same time. I slip into its Beijing pace now and then but occasionally I am jolted back to my seat in the Bristol cinema.

I find parts of it charming but I can’t tell if certain scenes are meant to be funny on purpose. There is a security guard who buys and eats an ice cream and fans himself,  I assume, to indicate [show don’t tell] that the temperature is hot in Beijing. Not quite sure what the heat adds to the story and Lei’s t-shirt and shorts worn throughout the 75 minutes could have been enough of a depiction.

The theme is detachment and estrangement and there is little music to the soundtrack, instead there is mostly a buzzing noise of constant city sounds. The couple live in a one bedroom apartment which has a broken window on which Lei slices her hand. There are scenes of her alone in a similar way to Lost in Translation with Scarlett Johansson, although while the latter was actively depicted in a sexual way [see opening scene of Scarlett’s bottom] Lei is female but not selling her femininity.

One of the [perhaps] comic moments occurs when a woman drags her into a hair dresser’s and  she quickly runs out when a man appears with scissors. She walks back in a few moments later and has her long tresses cut down to how her hair was when she first met her boyfriend. Starting afresh and all that.

The physical contact is as detached as the relationship between the characters and the only overt friendliness for the main character occurs between her and a Japanese man, Masa, she meets at a bar. Lei isn’t a journalist but is interviewing people about why they moved and what they missed about the place they left. Adam from Sheffield misses the fact that people in England can drive; Masa misses the moment that has just gone.

Lei’s partner turns to her as they sit by a river and asks why doesn’t she interview him. He reminds her that he has moved away from home as well and she laughs. “I never thought of that” she replies and she listens to his answer, when she is far from him, in a hotel room. He misses her and it’s a reminder that they are out of sync. Lovers on the Road is choppy and intimate at the same time. The scenes are mostly close-ups and the characters seem to crowd the screen.

There are only three songs in the movie and one of them plays over the end credits. The silence and lack of communication prevail and the rough edges to the acting help the film’s message. Walking the same path and having the same experiences with someone doesn’t mean that it’s a smooth journey or even that you’re sharing it. “You always miss the things I notice” she says and while he fails to respond she is off on a trip with someone else.

I wonder if the ‘visible secret’  is that we walk alone even when we are together? I’m not sure but the movie was thought provoking, my evening was enjoyable and the trip home was close but not lonely.


Barcelona, originally uploaded by still awake.

The view from the Barcelona Port on a sunny Monday afternoon.

¿Habla Español? Poquito

Early winter morning and the woman at Dashi prepares my vanilla soy latte as we chat about summer and holidays. I mention a trip to Barcelona that I’ve always wanted to make. She tells me about her last trip to the Catalan city and how an inadvertent slip-up in coffee ordering had her drinking brandy at 8 o’clock in the morning. That sounds like my kind of town and trying the beverage makes its way up on my list of things to do.

The trip to Barcelona has been up there since high school due to a going away party for a friend’s brother. I’d never talked to him before but we spent the night dancing and the last few minutes saying goodbye. He is off to Spain to become an architect and I find the possibilities of long-distance romance quite enchanting. I write inspired letters with song lyrics and Spanish poetry. He writes back on one side of a torn out notebook page and adds the lyrics to Take My Breath Away on the back. The clichéd failure sits badly along my persistent inability to recognise his voice when he calls so the amazing romance never takes off.

The intrigue with Spain remains however and over a decade after the dance and two and a half years after the morning at Dashi, I arrive in Barcelona for a three-day trip on my own. Spain is hot and the journey begins with Lady Gaga singing the first and last song I remember hearing, ‘Just dance’.

I choose a stop too hastily on the way to the hotel. I walk down the Gran Via during the very warm siesta time and it takes a while before I get to my hotel but it’s one road and it’s straight. I am out the door soon after I check in and my biggest challenge is being comfortable alone in a city that’s not home.

I take my camera with me and it’s a brief few minutes before my focus shifts to my surroundings and not the glances. I disappear and take in only the streets and the buildings. Backpack in front, and camera around my hands and neck, I stop being a person of interest and become just one more tourist. So easy to get lost in a stereotype and I’m happy to oblige.

I take photos of everything and I barely pause to eat as that would take too long. Flauta d’ibéric d.o. jabugo is my favourite  snack along with Spanish coffee con leche, ‘no leche’. I tell people it’s because I forget that leche means milk but the truth is I don’t know how to say black coffee in Spanish – is it nero like in Italian or negro? I plead ignorance.

By the second day I need a new memory card for my camera. Habla Ingles I ask her behind the shop counter and she answers poquito. With some pointing and nodding we get along just fine. A friend in Barcelona gets in touch and over tapas that night I explain to him my quest for a coffee with a brandy and he tells me that I’m looking for a carajillo. We eat tiny baby octopus and various tapas followed by a dessert which gets drenched with a type of liqueur. A bottle of wine and a mojito later and I’m back at the hotel drifting off.

My walk to La Bocqueria on my last day is overloaded and weighed down. I sit at a bar and I order the pimiento and some seafood. I ask for the carajillo and encounter a language problem that I can’t resolve by pointing. He has a follow-up question and I can only assume it’s about what type of brandy to use. I stare blankly and shrug a lot, he stops asking and I get my drink. Success tastes strong, sweet and fragrant and Spanish coffee is a reason I would move there in a heartbeat. I smile when the man behind the counter indicates that the coffee is a treat from him and I walk away feeling tired. One thing off the list leaves space for something new but I put off thinking about that until winter comes along.

January 2010 and Dashi closes down in Bristol Temple Meads. Falling sales and rising prices. I buy my final coffee the day before it shuts but I don’t know that it’s the last time. I am out for dinner at El Puerto a few days later and the final item on a board just past the door is the carajillo – coffee with flaming brandy.

It’s not on my list anymore but I was right about the long distance love affair, it is utterly enchanting. Time to start learning how to order a café solo before summer perhaps. Love is a nice way to start the day.

Early morning from Bristol Bridge

Moving on, but not so far to go.

I was born on a Thursday and the saying has been true to an extent, I’ve had far to go at just over 15 thousand kilometres. This next move is only 700 metres down the road but the thought is a melancholy one. I’ve only ever known Bristol from a location near the top of the Christmas Steps and the bottom of St.Michael’s Hill and I’m not sure I want to say goodbye just yet.

I look back on my first day in Bristol (25 June 2005) and am impressed at how typical of the city it turned out to be. My then boyfriend and I stayed at a hotel parallel to King’s St, had our first food at the Falafel King overlooking the Bordeaux Quay, enjoyed the company at dinner (though not the food) at Tantric Jazz and then walked up both sets of Christmas Steps to have a late nightcap at Roxy’s at the bottom of St.Michael’s Hill.

That was the first day and it quietly encapsulated the next few years.  My life revolved around the Clifton Triangle for a while and then moved on to a commute from Bristol Temple Meads.  The evenings at Borders drinking vanilla lattes and studying became early morning runs through the arches on Broad St, slowing down just past Bristol Bridge and walking on to the station.

There were very few instances that I didn’t go down the Christmas Steps in the morning and climb up them past the fish and chips shop in the evening. Some of the memorable times were when it snowed in Bristol and my detour took me past the fountains and on to Baldwin St.

While this little area was a stable location for me, it also took quite a while to grow into a healthy appreciation of the wider area. It took two years to find out about the Clifton suspension bridge and I didn’t discover Gloucester Rd until the summer after that. My longest walk was to the Waitrose at Henleaze and luckily one opened up at the Triangle so I didn’t have to make that excursion again.

Roxy’s closed down and is now a coffee shop named Delight. No more over-priced beer in that dark little room with the occasional serving of chips (at least for now). The Sugar Loaves has changed name and management and the sushi take away place is a flower shop. There is a Caffe Gusto just opposite the BRI and a private Medical Centre next to that. There have been many changes but the atmosphere feels the same.

The move isn’t very far but it takes me away from the Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Williams and into the tweeting embrace of Labour MP Kerry McCarthy (@KerryMP), a move away from the shadow minister of higher education and a little closer to someone better known for their communication style than their policies. The change is strangely apt and like @KerryMP I hope I manage to stick around for more than a few months.

As for the Christmas Steps, I was sad to leave and thought I would miss the Arts Quarter until it started to snow on 21 December 2009. As I made my way to the train station I followed the familiar path down the steps and found myself sliding down the first few ungritted and icy ones.  The physical pain was slightly worse than the heartache and as I stomped off down towards Colston Hall I thought that maybe I wouldn’t be so sorry after all. I was actually a little glad to fall down and walk away from  one of the oldest and most charming parts of Bristol, it makes for a better story.