One hundred and fifty five years ago today a poorly equipped Mexican army defeated Napolean III’s French troops at the Battle of Puebla.
The victory, part of the Franco-Mexican War, was more symbolic than actual. A year later a French force of 30,000 defeated the Mexican army, captured Mexico City, and set up the short-lived Second Mexican Empire.
The symbolism persisted, though, as Mexicans celebrated Cinco de Mayo (‘Fifth of May’), casting the French defeat as a symbol of Mexican national unity and pride.
All this goes some way to explaining why many people in Mexico’s largest neighbor will spend today eating tacos, drinking tequila, and wearing questionable sombreros. Cinco de Mayo may be a big deal in Mexico, but across the border it’s a wider, and widely observed, celebration of Mexican-American culture.
It’s mostly news to me, of course. I’d been educated on the day by my wife, who grew up in Los Angeles, but I didn’t realize its all-pervasive sweep until I relocated to the States.
Thoughts of Mexico, and food, and the U.S., today bring me back to the first time I visited the country. Back in the 1990s I travelled to San Francisco for a short visit, staying with friends. My lodgings were in the Mission District, and my staple meal was the burrito.
Not just any burrito, mind you. Without knowing its legendary reputation, my friends and I ate daily at La Tacqueria, at Mission and 25th.
The burrito was my one decent meal a day – loaded with rice, refried beans, and meat, and accompanied by a bag of chips, it covered most of the food groups I needed. A steaming, satisfying, beef-laden madeleine, it was so good that I returned with my wife, on a visit to San Francisco years later, to sample it again.
I’m closer to La Tacqueria than previously nowadays, but I’m still a 90-minute flight from that burrito. I also live in a town that offers not just burritos, but burritos and beyond. And so, this Cinco de Mayo, I’ll be doing the (to many) unthinkable – celebrating with a sushirrito.
So, feliz Cinco de Mayo. Or, itadakimasu!
In my mind spring always begins on February 1.
In the Irish tradition, this date is St Bridget’s Day, the day on which the traditional Gaelic festival of Imbolg – the start of spring – is celebrated.
In Ireland the days begin to lengthen, the light increases, the rain is increasingly broken by sunshine.
I don’t think I’ll ever shift from this thinking, despite living in a country that heralded the season, this year, on March 20. (Spring beginning after St Patrick’s Day? That’s just wrong.)
It’s taken even longer for spring to reach the Pacific Northwest this year. Only in the past week have temperatures in Portland crawled up into the high 60s (and temporarily, at that). Only now are the longer stretches of rain-soaked days – five, six, seven at a time – disappearing, to be replaced by sun breaks and heavy showers.
The vernal season is upon us, then. And the brighter, and slightly drier, weather is accompanied by another phenomenon – the eruption of cherry blossoms. Every street in our north-east Portland neighborhood boasts at least a couple of these trees, flowering pink or red or, less commonly, white. Not since a spring trip to Japan a while back – where the cherry blossom is truly cherished – have I seen so many in one city.
The light, delicate petals are some way – in reality and in my mind – from the raw, green rushes we used to make St Bridget’s Crosses when I was a child in Ireland. The petals are prettier, but the rushes last longer.
Which one is the true herald of the season? It hardly matters – spring is here.
Will we be remembered after our deaths? Our legacy, for most of us, will be confined to the memories of loved ones and friends. As they pass, so what remains of us ebbs away.
Our grandchildren may remember us, our great-grandchildren may read our names half a century hence, but by then they’ll likely be meaningless, small notches in history. Traces.
The lines above are from Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North, a novel which depicts the experience of Australian prisoners of war forced to build the notorious Burma Death Railway in the Second World War.
Memory is at the core of the book – the soldiers’ memories of home during their imprisonment and their memories of the railway, and each other, decades later, as men in the last light of life.
In as much as it can be relied on, memory is a finite thing, a resource that runs down, like our years.
And so a great human outrage – the construction of a railway though 415 km of murderous tropical terrain in just 11 months at the cost of 160,000 lives – fades in the mind. Even this, an experience more deserving of remembrance than most, one of mankind’s brutal catastrophes, slips away.
It exists in commemorations, in records and in pictures. But these are impressions, facsimiles of reality. Even the men who lived it, as Flanagan depicts them, find it hard to remember all the details as they approach the end of their lives.
Reading Flanagan’s book leaves one with a realisation. If the memory of an event wich as the building of the Burma Railway, and the men involved, fades what hope is there that any of us will be remembered after we pass?
The Beatles have always been a part of my life.
Like rain. Or the sun. Or the colour yellow.
I devote little attention to the music. It’s just there, in the background, always three skips away, or on some Sky Arts documentary.
Like most people under 50 I’ve no recollection of the first time I heard one of their songs. It was likely my mother humming Love Me Do when I was still in the womb.
The band itself was long defunct by my 1980s childhood, of course. Despite this, the first cassette I ever stuck in my Walkman, as a kid flitting down Athlone’s Ballymahon Road, was a Beatles’ best of.
The years passed and the songs would pop up or creep in here and there.
As a teenager I learned basic guitar chords in order to play Fool On The Hill. I have vague recollections of nights in bars in San Francisco’s Mission district, where a pal and I would load the jukebox with dollars to play Abbey Road end-to-end.
Fifteen years after that I was back to playing Beatles’ tunes, this time back on guitar at my sister’s wedding.
Last May I came close to seeing a Paul McCartney show in Japan. Circumstances conspired to prevent that from happening and afterwards I meandered on, with a vague, guilty notion that I really needed to listen to more of his solo albums, or go back to The Beatles.
But I didn’t. Until last week.
Sifting through the racks at a Dublin record store I came across a copy of Let It Be. It occurred to me that – despite knowing the melody of almost every tune on it – I’d never actually owned a copy of it.
That night I put it on, listened to the opening track Two Of Us and, for the first time in a long time, I heard, really heard, the greatness again.
Two Of Us is The Beatles.
Written by McCartney, it lacks some of the Lennon bite. But this is balanced on the album, as it follows a skittish vocal outtake of Lennonesque nonsense.
The song has all the classic Beatles’ element.
The pair’s Everly Brothers-style vocal harmony harks back to their early days playing together in Liverpool.
It’s impossible not to tap your foot to the rhythm, or hum the descending C to A of “hard-earned pay”.
It’s not all swiftness and light though. The song’s brightness is subverted in its six-bar middle section, as McCartney shifts to a melancholy B flat.
This is resolved as we move into the verse again, but the closing lyrics point to divergent paths ahead: “Two of us wearing raincoats, standing solo, in the sun”.
Recorded at a fractious time, as their group began to fall apart and amidst tension between Lennon and McCartney, Two Of Us is, in three and a half minutes, all that made The Beatles great.
It’s why some Beatles’ songs are close to pop perfection.
And it’s why I should listen to them more often.
*Ian McDonald, Revolution In The Head (Pimlico, 1994), p 268
As revelations go, it was an unlikely spot in which to have one: a small suburban railway station in Toyonaka, near Osaka, Japan, at around noon on an uneventful Monday.
Retired people, mothers with children, and a couple of students moved around. Waiting on a train back to the city, and hungry for lunch, we dropped into a small café in the station’s basement.
This was how, and where, I experienced a food epiphany. It came by way of one of the most basic comestibles I’d eaten, served in a very simple fashion.
It was mori soba, a buckwheat flour noodle. It was also cold.
I’d had cold noodles before (more than once, I’m guessing, as a bleary ‘morning after the night before’ leftover in my college days) but I’d never had them like this.
The soba (above) was served not as it cooled, or at room temperature, but instead chilled. It was accompanied with tsuyu dipping sauce on the side, a cold liquid mixture of the fish broth dashi, soy sauce and mirin (a type of rice wine – at home my wife substitutes this with ginger).
(I later found out that soba purists believe in eating the noodles without recourse to any tsuyu, a style known as hadaka – or ‘naked’ – soba. In fact it’s hard to think of food more naked than a cold, ungarnished buckwheat noodle.)
The protocol, I learned, was to dip a small amount of the soba into the tsuyu and then slurp down the dripping mixture – as noisily as you like. Then repeat until full.
And so I dipped and slurped my way to a clean plate, and half of my wife’s afterwards. It was so good I almost ignored the vegetable tempura on the side.
And so I underwent my mini-epiphany. There was something about soba.
The fact that I’d fallen for this wet gray-brown noodle – amid all the foods I encountered in Japan – made it even more interesting.
Coming from chilly northwest Europe the idea of eating cold noodles had never appealed to me beforehand. The noodles I was familiar with for always served steaming hot, as close to mouth burn territory as possible.
They were also a vehicle for whatever meat, fish or vegetables that they were served with.
All this directly contrasts with mori soba, whose only garnish was a little seasonal spring onion.
So why was mori soba so good? Why have I eaten it (or a chilled variant thereof, like soba salad) a couple of times a week since?
The answer: it’s rare to come across a carbohydrate that’s actually refreshing (even a lemon-laden linguine, a favourite home Italian dish, can’t quite pull it off). But mori soba is.
It’s a combination of the chilly serving temperature, the texture of the soba, the tang of the mirin and the umami of the dashi.
It was also interesting to expose my sometimes-too-conservative palate to a dish that I’d never tasted before.
Having had my new favourite noodles a half dozen times since I don’t think I’ll go back to the searing, steaming variety anytime soon.
Until, maybe, I try hot soba.
Describing Japan in 500 words is difficult.
A few weeks since I returned from my first visit I am still trying to process the sights and sounds, the hundreds of small impressions that make up the memory of my trip.
Having previously set down a take in words I figure that now it’s the turn of pictures. Here’s ten that sum up what I saw of the country over the course of a busy 12 days.
I’ll get back to Japan, sooner rather than later. These impressions are part of the reason why.
Ten minutes from the busy Umeda commercial district of Osaka lies the river Yudo. Despite being on the cusp of a city of 2.6m people only a few runners hit the riverside running trails in the morning.
From the Toyko subway to the famed Shinkansen to a tiny local in Kamakura we rode the rails all over. With every train on time.
Yamakazi single malt and dried shrimp from the 24 hour konbini store – is there a better way to end the night?
The Japanese love their dogs, and their dogs must love them. The famous Hachiko landmark at Shibuya Station in Tokyo commemorates Hachiko, a Akita dog who famously turned up daily to greet his deceased master for nine years after his owner‘s death.
There are 6,000 people per square kilometre in Tokyo. And it feels like most of them are waiting by the lights at the famed Shibuya Crossing. People, people, people: up, down, left, right, forward, back.
Growing up in Ireland an outdoor dip meant a once-yearly trek to the west coast, where you’d nervously brave the 12c waters of the Atlantic Ocean for a few minutes, before retreating, shivering and chastened, back to the car.
If you were lucky you might get a ‘99’ for your troubles.
But growing up in Kinosaki Onsen, in the west of Japan, an outdoor dip entails a slow (no diving in here, trust me) immersion in waters whose temperature averages 44c.
Until recently I’d had plenty of the former. Childhood holidays in the west of Ireland, at places like Rossknowlagh or The Maharees, were great fun, but I don’t recall spending much time in the water.
And the water on the east coast, like that at Wexford‘s beaches, was even colder.
Mind you this was only by a degree or so – which goes unnoticed when you’re trying not to chip a chattering tooth, or running headlong for the car from yet another rain shower.
But no such issues in Kinosaki Onsen.
The clue’s in the name. Onsen means ’hot springs’ and Japan – volcanically active as it is – has got thousands of these.
The water is heated geothermally and, in its freshest state, emerges from the earth at temperatures as high as 80c.
Thankfully the baths I visited with my father- and brother-in-law were considerably cooler, though 40-odd degrees feels anything but cool as you stand water-side.
Like the icy Atlantic though, once you’re in, you’re in. And, hopefully, availing of the health benefits of the mineral rich water.
The Japanese have been doing this for hundreds of years. I was introduced to the idea by my wife’s family and we travelled there to experience it earlier this month.
The simmering water itself is just one part of visiting an onsen though. You’re not fully dressed to attend the baths unless you’re wearing a traditional yukata robe (see above) and sporting geta on your feet.
I spent two days like this. Having a whiskey, yukata-clad, with the guys before a quick dip and then meeting up with our wives for a traditional Japanese dinner.
We spent a couple of eye (and pore) opening days in Kinosaki Onsen – a unique place, particularly to a gaijin like me who usually has his showers lukewarm and his boiled eggs from a saucepan.
Kinosaki Onsen is thousands of miles, physically, mentally and thermally from where I grew up. For all the differences there was one similarity though.
Whether the water’s 10c or 44c I still get in the same way – one tentative toe at the time.
– my wife’s birthplace
– sake (cold)
– sun (rising early)
– Kinosaki onsen
– turning to my patient sister-, mother- or father-in-law every time my gaijin gesturing failed (ie all the time)
– the Shinkansen
– Shibuyu crossing at night
– dancing to Brubeck’s Osaka Blues, in an Osaka hotel room
– zen rock gardens in Kyoto
– food, all good, everywhere
– dry Asahi beer
– Yamakazi 12-year-old single malt
– running in the morning on the banks of the Yudo river
– Murakami and his writings on Manchuria
– Paul McCartney and his drummer Abe Laboriel Jr.
– cans of Emerald Mountain coffee
– Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works 1 on my iPod
– Cigarettes in restaurants
– French white wines
– New friends (and old ones)
– the intake of breath when stepping into the 44 C hotspring water
– sashimi for breakfast
– ‘what’s the wi-fi code?’
– a city from a dozen stories up
– cavernous department stores
– tiny Family Mart konbini stores
– coffee: iced in the morning, hot in the evening
– gift giving
– different trains, different lines, different tickets
– the last two spectacular weeks
SOMETIMES paper is the only way to do it.
It was interesting that a possible breakthrough in the search for the Malaysia Airlines jet last week – an operation which has been run with the highest of hi-tech equipment – was communicated in the oldest fashion possible.
Hastily scribbled with a biro on a torn scrap of paper and pushed into the recipient’s fist.
As communications go it couldn’t get any more lo-tech.
It was almost quaint – yet tragic in light of subsequent developments.
Who writes anything down any more? Apart from perhaps a quick shopping list, a scrawled signature or a Christmas card?
The press conference note put me in mind of some shopping I was undertaking.
With a visit to Japan scheduled later this year I’m assembling, with help from my father-in-law, a shortlist of Japanese novels to read.
My initial plan, for reasons of space and cost, was to download the e-book versions to my Kindle.
But these are works I want to close read and dwell over. And this reading is a tactile, physical experience as much as a mental one.
And why would I want to deprive myself of it? Even if it means cramming more books onto the groaning shelves?
I’m sure I’m not alone feeling this need to read on paper, despite the onward march of e-books, Kindles, Nooks and more.
Surrounded by screens all day, on my desk, across my living room or in my pocket, reading on paper is a non-electronic breather.
This attitude may also account for my analogue habit of keeping notebooks, crammed with random shopping lists, ideas, quotes and scribbles.
Wasn’t my iPhone supposed to put an end to all this?
It hasn’t. And neither has my Kindle, or iPad, or laptop.
Paper still has its place and, like the anonymous author of the Malaysia note, there are times when it’s the first thing I reach for.
But not this time, of course…