I went to Amsterdam and didn’t see anything

Amsterdam - trio

Last December, I committed the cardinal rule of travelling. I went to a place and saw nothing. I didn’t visit the museums. I didn’t sample much of the local food. I didn’t pose outside the famous landmarks. (oh, except the Amsterdam sign, we at least managed to do that so that’s something!)

Yet, despite having committed the ultimate travel sin, I had the best time! How is this possible, I hear you ask? Because sometimes travel isn’t about ticking off a Top 10 list – it’s about exploring some place new with people you love. I was lucky enough to be in Amsterdam and the Hague with two of my oldest and best friends (over two decades and still counting), so even though we got too distracted by each other’s news, nostalgic memories and gossip to actually see or do anything remotely cultural, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

So, in true blogger fashion, here is lovely ‘listicle’ about all the things we didn’t see, together, in Amsterdam:

1. Anne Frank’s House

Amsterdam - Anne Frank's House
© David Berkowitz via Flickr

We didn’t see Anne Frank’s House. You have to book in advance. Like, way in advance. We tried to book tickets online weeks ahead of time, but there were none left. We turned up first thing in the morning just in case and the queue was halfway to France. We came back near closing time and the queue was just as long. So, we took a selfie with the sign, wondered if it was appropriate to pull a duck-face pout in a photo in front of Anne Frank’s house, pondered history and one of literature’s bravest heroes, and had the best time.

2. A ‘Coffee Shop’

Amsterdam - Coffee shop

This is a white lie – we did go in one of those euphemistic ‘coffee shops’, but only because we actually thought it was a coffee shop! Woops! The naive innocents that we were, we were nattering away half-looking for somewhere to sit and have a proper chat, when we spied a place that had a neon ‘coffee shop’ sign outside the window. We went in, awkwardly looked at the menu, awkwardly realised where we were, then awkwardly walked back out again. Then we went and got an actual coffee in a Starbucks, because we figured they definitely sold coffee rather than ‘coffee’ there. It was awesome.

3. The Van Gogh Museum

Amsterdam - Van Gogh

We didn’t see the Van Gogh Museum. Both a rip-off at 17 euros and a pain to get into, as we had to wait in a queue that wasn’t moving, in the rain. Needless to say, we gave up, went to cafe that had a special Justin-Bieber-themed happy hour (had another coffee – there’s definitely a pattern emerging here…) and had the best time.

4. Canal boat tour

Amsterdam - lights

After a day of not seeing anything in Amsterdam, we were pretty run off our feet, so decided we would see it all via a canal boat tour. We bought the tickets and got on the boat, which was lovely and cosy and warm (the Netherlands is bloody cold). In fact, it was so cosy and warm that we fell asleep on the tour and didn’t see anything. An excellent napping spot though.

5. The Red Light District

Amsterdam - Red Light District

We didn’t see the Red Light District. After an exhausting day of not seeing anything in Amsterdam we decided to skip the famous Red Light District and make our way back to the Hague, where we were staying. We ate pizza while watching Mystic Pizza – an appropriate film about three friends who grow up together and do a really bad job of pretending to be Portuguese-American (come on, Julia Roberts, you’re fooling no-one and your ‘Portuguese-American accent’ is a cultural sin worse than not seeing anything in Amsterdam). Oh, and we had the best time.

Travel companions

Amsterdam - trio

Travelling is great and places are beautiful, but if there was ever an example of how the people you’re with really make a difference, this is it. Friends for over 20 years, and now spread across three countries, we only get the chance to see each other in the flesh around once a year. So, I had the best time not seeing anything in Amsterdam, because I was busy catching up with these two lovely buckets! Miss you guys!

Next stop, INDIA!

5 Ways to Spend (And Not Spend) Your Birthday in Hong Kong

Hong Kong Birthday

 

My birthday is the 12th March. That means right now you must be saying, ‘Oh, I know someone with that birthday,’ or, even better, ‘That’s my birthday too!’ – and you are certainly not alone. A 12th March birthday can be a blessing and a curse, and must be shared with everyone else that was born between 5th – 13th March, which seems to be everyone else, period.

But one thing a 12th March birthday is not is uneventful. From summer dress snow days at primary school, to Comic Relief sleepovers throwing up, to pub golf mayhem at uni, my birthday always manages to be memorable, if not always for the right reasons. And moving to Hong Kong has not changed any of that. So, just in case you were wondering how to spend your own birthday in HK or elsewhere, here are some ways to do it (and not to do it):

22 – The ‘White Wolf’ Birthday

Hong Kong Birthday - White Wolf

Hey, I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling that 22 is the best age to theme your birthday after your favourite cheap vodka brand. White Wolf vodka, only available at the cheapo store in North Point, is HK$40 for a million litres, and thus the White Wolf theme for my 22nd birthday was born.

Highlights: inventive costume ideas from three-wolf t-shirts to Wolf gladiator lycra suits; getting so wasted that I would apparently only speak to party guests in Cantonese (except my Cantonese is limited to ‘Singapore noodles please’ and ‘Kam Ping Street, North Point’, even now).

Lowlights: taking a swig of ‘snake wine’ before leaving pre-drinks at our flat and not remembering anything after getting off the MTR at Wan Chai; waking up the next morning with no memory, no money, and a makeshift ‘wolf tail’ key-ring digging into my back. Safe to say that The Hangover wolf pack had nothing on my 22nd birthday.

23 – The ‘Harlem Shake’ Birthday

The Harlem Shake Birthday

In the space between my 22nd and 23rd birthdays I had left Hong Kong, lived in Italy for six months, moved back to the UK and then moved back to Hong Kong. Not satisfied with my Wan Chai experience from the previous year, this time I made sure that I would actually make it to Wan Chai by living in Wan Chai, and had everyone round for drinking games on my balcony. It was the spring of 2013 and therefore it was obligatory to make a Harlem Shake video.

Highlights: Ian licking that mop.

Lowlights: if you’re trying to find me in that picture and can’t, it’s because I thought it was an excellent idea to bleach my hair for my birthday.

24 – The ‘Boob Hat’ Birthday

Hong Kong Birthday - Coyotes Boob Hats

The best thing to do on your birthday is move house. Said no one ever. I spent the day in Ikea buying furniture (some of you may remember that this was the infamous year that a certain someone bought me an Ikea voucher for my birthday, ever the romantic), then moved stuff into my new place only to realise I had left all my clothes and make-up at my old place.

Regardless, I continued the tradition of getting drunk in Wan Chai on my birthday by consuming margaritas at Coyotes, wearing a sombrero that looked like a boob.

Highlights: did you not see the picture of the boob hats? Hilarity! And a free hat!

Lowlights: getting drunk and not being able to figure out whether to go home to my new place or old place.

25 – The ‘I missed it, I was napping’ Birthday

Hong Kong Birthday - Nap

The best thing to do on your birthday is move jobs. Said no one ever. I had the day off between moving from one job to another, so I tried to go to the Art Museum for a cultural and classy birthday, but it was closed. Then, I came out in hives for no reason and had to take an anti-histamine, but the anti-histamine made me sleepy so I took a nap. All day.

Highlights: it was a really good nap, though.

Lowlights: no drinking, la!

26 – The ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ Birthday

Breakfast at Tiffany's Birthday

And so it arrived. The big 26. What birthday drama or epic fail would incur on this night, this year? Well… I hate to disappoint, but IT WAS THE BEST BIRTHDAY EVER.

Highlights: North Point cooked food market; beers in bowls; Belgian beers; cocktails with chocolate round the rim; Insomnia’s amazing band; TAKE ME TO CHURCH; McDonalds breakfast at Tiffany’s

Lowlights: I wanna do it ALL over again!

Many thanks to all that made it out for an epic birthday night out this year and even bigger hugs and kisses to those who sent cards, pressies, emails and even Facebook messages. It may be my fifth HK birthday, but I certainly don’t feel any less loved than when I had a birthday at home.

So now to my 26th year, the sixth year of being in my early twenties. What do you have in store for me, 26? Older, yes. Wiser? Maybe not yet.

Why Italy and Hong Kong Are Kindred Spirits

Italy vs Hong Kong

 

Outside of the UK, I have lived in two places: Hong Kong and Italy. Therefore it sounds a bit biased to claim that the Italians and the Chinese are kindred spirits, because their countries are the only two places I’ve lived in away from home. However, living in these two very different corners of the globe, I have felt déjà vu more than a few times and have thus come up with a theory that Italianos and Heung-Gong-ers have more in common that you may think…

They are the best at food

Italy vs Hong Kong - Food

Are there any cuisines more universally beloved than Italian and Chinese foods? You can find Italian and Chinese restaurants anywhere in the world almost as easily as you can find an Irish pub.

Interestingly, I can vouch that both Chinese food in Italy and Italian food in China are utter rubbish. Like Batman and Superman, I guess they are separately amazing and disastrous together. Sorry, Ben Affleck.) And for both Italians and the Chinese, mealtime is family time and everyone sits around the table and shares.

Mamma Mia! Ho May ah! Spaghetti = noodles, fried rice = risotto… coincidences? I think not!

They invented all the things

Italy vs Hong Kong - Inventions

Paper, compasses, umbrellas, alcohol, kites, printing, the cuppa tea, clocks… Thank you, China. Roads, sewage systems and sanitation, concrete, the calendar, city planning, the coffee machine, really good wine… the Romans send their regards. I rest my case.

They were both home to powerful historic civilisations

Italy vs Hong Kong - Architecture

I see your Colosseum and I raise you The Great Wall. I see your Chinese dynasties and I raise you the Roman Empire. And who wouldn’t want to see a fight between Mulan and a gladiator? Both places were once home to the most advanced civilisations of their time and have some of the richest and most fascinating histories in the world.

They are hypochondriacs

Italy vs Hong Kong - Hypochondria

Oh mio dio! Honest to god, when I was working in English summer camps in Italy, water games had to be held at least four hours after mealtimes in case the children drowned. While in Hong Kong, people freak out if the air con isn’t on or a window isn’t open in case they get sick from the room being “too stuffy”, all while wearing a surgical mask that makes me think I’m really working as an extra in 28 Days Later.

Traditional values at heart

Italy vs Hong Kong - Family Traditions

In both cultures, families of several generations live under one roof. Whether you call her nonna or popo, your nan probably lives with you at the very least. It’s also worth noting that both Italy and Hong Kong have some of the lowest birth rates in the world, mostly likely because couples don’t get too much privacy living with their parents.

Both Hong Kong and Italian families are generous, welcoming you into their homes like one of the family and constantly insisting that you should eat more of their food. And as for traditional values… let’s just say that neither Italy nor Hong Kong is going to be legalising gay marriage any time soon!

Super-cool gangsters

Italy vs Hong Kong - Gangsters
© Jidanni via Wikimedia Commons

Who would I least like to meet on a dark night, a member of the triads or the mafia? Hmmm. Tough choice. There was a time when the mafia practically ran Italy, and their reputation is immortalised in films such as The Godfather.

In Hong Kong, the former Kowloon Walled City was filled with triad activity, opium dens and brothels, outside the reaches of the law. If rumours are to be believed, both underground gangster circles are still very much alive, thriving and influential, but I definitely don’t want to comment on that in case I wake up with a horse’s head on my pillow…

Mad about brands

Italy vs Hong Kong - Fashion

Something I cannot fathom in general is a love of big brands, which are crazy popular in both Italy and Hong Kong.

As soon as a new iphone is released, people in HK are queuing up overnight to get the latest version, even if their current model is working fine (not to mention the amount that are smuggled over the border to be sold in China); no outfit is complete without a designer (or knockoff designer) bag; and the amount of luxury shopping malls that exist in Hong Kong is ridiculous.

Journeying to the West, Italians love their fashion, designers and brands, and the status it shows. The kids I taught in Italia all wore spotless converse or Nike trainers while dressed in plain white t-shirts with brand names printed in the corner. I’ve heard it said that Italians would rather save money on basics than scrimp on luxury.

Cultural kindred spirits

Of course, in many other ways, Italy and Hong Kong couldn’t be more different. The Italian relaxed pace of life and lack of urgency versus Hong Kong’s workaholic efficiency are polar extremes; a midday siesta in Hong Kong is as unthinkable as a skyscraper in Rome; a 24-hour 7-eleven or McDonalds in Italia is as out of place as a vineyard in the Fragrant Harbour.

Despite this, I love the idea that two complete opposite peoples can be cultural kindred spirits, affirming that deep down we are all human and also that I seem to have followed the my taste buds when I have chosen countries to live in. Did I mention that Italy and Hong Kong also happen to be the best places to live? I promise I’m not biased.

As for other cultural twins in the world, I have another theory that Brits and Koreans are soulmates, but that’s a discussion for another day…

5 Chinese Foods You May Be Missing Out On

5 Chinese Foods - Feature Pic

Last week I about made you question everything you thought you knew about China by revealing 5 Chinese Foods That Are Not Actually Chinese (well, at least that’s what Confucius told me in my fortune cookie). So I thought it was only fair that in this post we discussed some foods that haven’t yet made it as big in the Western hemisphere for some unknown reason, despite being damn delicious:

Dim Sum

Dim Sum - Chinese Foods

Why, oh why, are their so few dim sum restaurants in the world? Barbecue pork buns, turnip cake, soup dumplings, vermicelli rolls… how did I live without these for so long?

For those that have yet to experience dim sum, the best way I can think to describe it is Chinese tapas. You go to a dim sum restaurant in a big group, sit around a large round table, drink tea and order bamboo baskets full of steamed dumplings and other goodies to share. In the more traditional-style dim sum restaurants here, waiters walk around the restaurant with trolleys and you get to nosey at what they’re offering and pick up a dish as they go past.

I’ve heard of dim sum restaurants in London and some other big cities, but they’re crazy expensive, whereas dim sum in Hong Kong is always super-cheap. I’ve also seen (and never dared try) ‘dim sum’ packs in supermarkets back in the UK, which mostly consist of several microwavable spring rolls and a couple of samosas (not Chinese).

Hot Pot

Hot Pot - Chinese Foods
© Christopher via Flickr

Nope, I’m not talking British-style Lancashire hotpot. Chinese hot pot is more like fondue. And similar to dim sum and the majority of Chinese meals, it’s all about sharing (warning: you have to eat what everyone else orders). There’s a boiling pan of soup in the centre of the table (often separated into one spicy and one non-spicy half) and you choose meats, vegetables, fish and anything else you want to throw in to cook in front of you. Perfect for winter and for people who like playing the game of risk called ‘Is this seafood?’

Bubble Tea

Bubble Tea - Chinese Foods
© Howief via Wikimedia Commons

Some genius was sipping a cappuccino one day when they thought, ‘Do you know what my coffee is missing? Some chewy bubble-shaped jelly snacks…’ And bubble tea was born. Aside from my first experience of drinking bubble tea, which involved sucking a tapioca ball up the straw too fast and getting a chokingly painful hit to the tonsils, I can safely say that the West is missing out on this fun twist on tea.

With bubble tea, you choose your drink (coffee, tea, other), some ‘bubbles’ (tapioca balls, jelly, bits of fruit, other things I don’t understand) and viola! It comes in a clear cup with an extra-wide straw so you can suck your bubbles up the straw to give your drinking experience a little something special.

Peking Duck

Peking Duck - Chinese Foods
© vxla via Flickr

So you may think you are fairly familiar with Peking duck already, but that’s what I also thought before I went to a Peking duck restaurant in Beijing. They bring the duck to your table and carve it in front of you, teaching you how to fold the pancakes with chopsticks and how to dip the skin in sugar. It’s goddamn transcendent.

Spicy Sichuan

Sichuan - Chinese Foods
© Alpha via Flickr

Do you have your curry ‘fahl’ hot? Do you ask for the special extra-spicy tabasco with your Mexican food? Well you haven’t won the spice war until you’ve braved Sichuan food. Chillis, chillis everywhere! My nose is running! I’m crying! Ah, I touched my eye! It burns, but the food tastes so good! Also helpful at clearing your sinuses if you have a bad cold.

And there are so many others I want to add here from pork belly to soup noodles to wontons to iced lemon tea… but I’ve limited myself my five faves and hopefully given you a taste (wink, wink) of how diverse Chinese cuisine can be.

Keeping in mind how large China is, I’m putting out a disclaimer that there are still so many regional cuisines, especially from Mainland China, that I’ve yet to try (this list is equivalent to trying to sum up European food in five dishes). I’ve heard rumours of ‘three delicious soup’ and ‘squirrel fish’ to name but a couple of intriguing dishes I want to try, so watch this space…

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