Deux Heures À Paris

8219134830_91b27396b8_oI studied in Paris for four months when I was 19, because I am a cliche. I lived with my cousin in a fourth floor flat off the Rue de Rivoli that had no lift and no oven and no way near enough space for two people who were not romantically involved, (and I wrote a blog about it, because I am a cliche.) These days I regard Paris much like I regard my family: with a mixture of delight, fondness, and horror. And, much like my family, I find that I get on with it best when my exposure is limited to snatches of 24 hours or less. This weekend I had a brief afternoon window between my journey from London and my onward travel northwards, and I think this is probably the my favourite way to enjoy the city. A small taste. An amuse-bouche.

With only 2 hours between trains I elected to get the underground to the centre and walk as far as was bearable with a big cheap rucksack in city summer heat. The smell of the metro and its symphony of rattling stops and starts is oddly one of the most familiar things about Paris. So are the oppressive crowds of August that lie in wait at Citè; wading through swarms of ticket collectors and tourists trying to fit the station’s bulbous lines of lamps into a square format. (Resisting the temptation to get my iPhone out and do the same.) As soon as I emerge from underground, Paris always seems to swallow me whole, sucking me out into the sunshine and stuffing my ears with arguments and accordions and the shriek of seagulls. I begin my sweaty march towards the Île Saint-Louis, beneath Nôtre Dame’s gargoyles and alongside cafes bristling with Americans and Parisians, my boots already chalky white with Paris gravel. A woman in cream stilettos whizzes past on a vespa. I’ve already seen seven tiny dogs. Couples: everywhere. Pigeons: everywhere. There are more benches than a city realistically needs, and every welcome breeze is balanced by the smell of stale piss.

Acquire two scoops of sorbet at Berthillon, and find a patch of riverbank to sit on. I Instagram. The omnipresent smell of stale piss forces me to walk and lick. I meander along a radioactive Seine broken only by arching bridges white with seagulls, and boats of Asians in sunglasses. Branches dapple the water and the facades of apartments facing the river, and everywhere else is pale under the unforgiving glare of a cloudless sky. Comedic/tragic juxtapositions of couples whose make-or-break holiday to Paris is doing the former, and those whose is doing the latter: kissing like noone is watching, screaming like noone is listening. An old woman in red capri pants with a husband in tweed; an older woman wheeling a bike with panniers stuffed with bread; a still older woman in a silk neckerchief and a cloud of perfume and a chestful of amber beads. (Paris belongs to old women.) Away from the rippling shade and into the relentless sun. Shakespeare and Co. have opened a new cafe, and it looks like every cafe in London. Teenagers considering paying €15 for a secondhand paperback with a nostalgic cover. More selfie sticks than I can count. Someone with a Starbucks cup. I descend underground once more.

Much like my own city of London, I hold Paris both dear and in disgust. I sort of hate everything about it, and it sort of always feels like home. 


Restaurant Review: The Whiskey Jar

Last summer I travelled round the Deep South, interning for Morgan Murphy on this book. I wrote an extensive blog when I was there, as well as snapping a lot of pictures, and since the book is finally out I am publishing a few of them on here.

The Whiskey Jar

Charlottesville, Virginia

22107079086_e2098a4c2c_oMason jar cocktails and exposed brick walls mark this place out as a hipster haven from the get-go, and its sanded wooden tables and farm-to-table menu seal the deal. As does its edgy bearded owner, keen to tell us all about making his son’s baby food from scratch and their seasonal dessert changes. Sneer as I might, it is he who is laughing because this affected approach clearly works – The Whiskey Jar is just great. Located in a shady, pedestrianised walkway in the student town of Charlottesville, it rocks sun-drenched tables near its French windows and booths cloaked in shadow the further you advance into its depths. A well-stocked bar occupies a pleasing middle ground, and produces even pleasinger concoctions with a speciality in moonshine based delights. Yes, moonshine is marketed as a spirit in the south, and it’s great.

The food, however, may well surpass the alcohols on offer. We sat down to a smorgasbord of fancy yet wholesome dishes like one big hungry family whose father figure gets the first bite of everything before the kids fight over the remains. A glassy-eyed trout served whole with the bones looked amazing on the plate and the camera screen, and tasted even better. Stewed ochre and tomato soup, slightly spiced and perfectly warmed. And the greatest tomato sandwich I have ever consumed. I don’t even like tomatoes. This sandwich was out of this world, I cannot even describe it (some food critic I am). But the crowning glory of the whole meal was a cobbler that has taken resident baker Rachel Pennington three years to perfect, and disappeared within minutes of first taste. Filled with in-season peaches, bathed in vanilla ice-cream, and topped with a crust that was literally a giant cookie, I have never seen such aggressive fork-work on this trip before or since. That thing was phenomenal, and she was persuaded to share her closely guarded recipe so we can all take turns in failing to replicate it.

The staff at The Whiskey Jar are friendly if reserved, and one of them sports a fab little mason jar tat that graced Morgan’s Instagram (courtesy of your’s truly’s overactive iPhone). Owner Will was more than happy to point us towards the best bars in town – one of which is conveniently owned by him – and we spent the rest of the golden hour wandering through Charlottesville’s twee little shops and sipping margaritas. Very civilised.


Restaurant Review: Salt’s Artisan Market

Last summer I travelled round the Deep South, interning for Morgan Murphy on this book. I wrote an extensive blog when I was there, as well as snapping a lot of pictures, and since the book is finally out I’m going to publish a few of them on here.

Salt’s Artisan Market

Charlottesville, Virginia

19536122529_6c7984cf5c_oMorgan tells us that the internet barely ever produces good eating spots; he bases his schedule on hearsay and restauranteurs’ recommendations, and, less predictably, the advice of “air stewardesses and antiques dealers who always seem to know where to eat”. Salt’s was the result of a frantic morning web search following the eponymous owner of Big Al’s Seafood failing to call us back, so we rolled up to its crossroad location with few expectations and a car full of unsettled stomachs from Virginia’s winding country lanes. And how pleasantly surprised we were. Two steampunk city gals from the DC political scene headed rural, to convert an old gas station near Thomas Jefferson’s estate into a cafe that serves the most amazing chicken salad sandwich imaginable. The place is tiny and incredibly twee, all checked tablecloths and wildflowers in mason jars, but the people that run it are down-to-earth and friendly as can be. Picnic tables look out over Virginia’s rolling hills and vineyards that stretch as far as the eye can see, and a cluster of oaks provides gloriously dappled shade away from the brutal American summer.

Humble beginnings meant that half the furniture was either inherited from Salt’s previous incarnation or donated by its patrons, from the sanded down candy cabinet that displays home-made sauces and snacks to the painted stools on the porch left over from a barn dance. A rocking chair under the creaking farm sign was pulled from the boot of someone’s car. A bench is in fact an old pew from the pretty red-roofed church opposite. And although the location and the vibe are of course half the deal in a good place to eat, it’s the amazing sandwiches that seal the deal here – if Oxford has taught me anything it’s that a good sandwich can be a delight and a pleasure, and Salt serves GOOD sandwiches. The best (and only) tofu sandwiches I’ve ever tasted, as well as plates of cheese and cold cuts and perfect little blackberries that are no doubt organic and handpicked blah blah. And the most amazing cranberry-stuffed dark chocolate that melted across our hands and faces in the least dignified way possible.

We loved the food, and everything about the place down to Barrett’s exquisite belt buckle made by her chef and co-owner – best friends? lesbian lovers? – and it was unsurprisingly filling up for the lunch rush as we snaked away towards Monticello. A lovely little find – even if it was from the internet.


An Evening in Queens

I went to NYC over the summer, and one afternoon a Californian friend dragged me all the way to Rockaway Beach to hang out with some sk8er bois. 

F1010032On a balmy Tuesday afternoon we embarked upon an epic journey to Rockaway, Queens, to see a pair of Lexi’s skater friends from her hometown in California. Spencer and Joey had been spending their holiday working at a smoothie bar on Rockaway beach, being drooled over by teenage girls on cruiser bikes and hanging out with the myriad other beautiful young people that had chosen a sunny summer in Queens over wherever they’re from, be it Hunt’s Point or Honduras. The boys were sharing a bedroom in a terraced house also occupied by a Californian skater with the most amazing shark tattoo, a deaf Brazilian masseuse, and a pair of beautiful South American best friends. They were living the dream. It may have taken us a marathon two and a half hours to get into Queens from Manhattan, but we were met with beers and buddies on a gloriously sunny beach so we didn’t mind too much.

Rockaway has gone through many incarnations. Spencer’s aunt, visiting for the day, told us that when she was younger the place was hip and cool and full of beautiful youth at the weekend – just as it is is now. In the thirty years in between a surge in immigration and poverty hit the neighbourhood hard, and we were told that streets we now casually strolled down in the dark would have been absolute no-gos a decade before; now the houses are full of a mix of young hipsters and foreigners alike here for the summer, and well-established families living alongside each other in harmony. Hipsters head in from Brooklyn and Broad Channel to spend their afternoons on the beach. Spencer and Joey’s house shared a backyard with a young Puerto Rican family and their ecstatic pitbull puppy, and across the street crowds of kids on razor scooters and skateboards were playing tag outside the social housing. It’s not all good news – most of the buildings along the waterfront are glitteringly new after the devastation of last winter’s storms, and graffiti tags over the sidewalk sported slogans like “We will rebuild. We will not give in.” The shadow of Hurricane Sandy still hangs heavy over Rockaway.

F1010034Their plasterboard house was full of surfboards and skateboards, paintings by its residents and vinyl on the walls. We piled into the tiny hallway only to be angrily shushed by Berenice storming out of her room covered in massage oil, and abashedly retreated behind a flimsy curtain entrance to the boys’ room to munch on vacuum-packed cinnamon cookies that Joey’s mum had shipped over from California. Spencer’s cousin owns a tiny organic cafe right next door, but we opted instead for Rockaway Taco, a surfer stall on the corner famed across the city for its excellent fare. I had a chorizo one. It was great. As we set off to walk their boss’s dogs, strays rescued from the garbage dumps of Puerto Rico, Spencer greeted almost everyone we passed on the few blocks towards the house. They are all invariably in their 20s, many foreign, and every single one incredibly attractive; Rockaway Beach seems to be the place to come to enjoy a summer of eternal fun, youth and beauty. And dogs. Everyone has one. The front yards of these rows of houses are invariably filled with Virgin Mary shrines and American flags, plastic pink flamingos and the occasional vegetable patch. We passed two community farms that host hog dinners and a rundown piano with flowers spilling out of the lid, all soundtracked by the omnipresent planes roaring overhead towards JFK. Two black cats picked their way across a vegetable patch and begrudgingly allowed themselves to be petted, descending into deafening hissing and a retreat behind a surfboard as our charges lolloped down the porch steps to nearly bowl us over. We walked them a few blocks and then ram them around a skate park by the water, before returning them to cat glares so we could head on to an evening’s cannnine-free entertainment.

More eating and more drinking at a Thai place on the waterfront, lit by twinkling fairy lights that swayed in a bracing wind from which we hid under Peruvian blankets. It was a lovely spot, flanked by houseboats that gently knock against the dock, and we were joined by all the housemates; Columbians and Puerto Ricans and Californians discussing university plans and leaving parties, and the unspoken undercurrent of how to continue a relationship with each party on a separate continent. We moved on with much laughter and skateboarding and screams of uncoming traffic to a house party for Peruvian New Year, in a garden rigged up with suspended table lamps and disco lights, another piano filled with flowers and a film projected onto a neighbouring wall. A cat sprawled at the entrance basking in the attention of countless party-goers, and a familiar smell filled the air (and our lungs). Everyone has to leave far too soon, and all we have time for before rattling back to Manhattan on  the A train is perhaps the most delicious beverage ever invented: a frozen Pina Colada from an Irish bar full of drunks.

Spencer has a true cliche tattooed on his forearm that we all laugh at, but it also seems bizarrely fitting for this summer town of carefree party people: Live Life. No Regrets.



12 Things…

… that I love about family Christmas in Amsterdam.

  1. My mum’s bread sauce. Culinary event of the year. (In fact all of these could be food-related, because we all know that gluttony is the true meaning of Christmas.)
  2. Feeling hip and young and one of the kids through internet in-jokes with my teenage cousin.
  3. The Dutch style of leaving their living room curtains open to the world at large, creating evening streets lined with cosy glimpses of family life and beautiful interior design.
  4. Dutch style generally; women in enormous scarves cycling over bridges and bald men in round glasses walking dogs.
  5. Terrible dancing in the kitchen to everything from Abba to BB King.
  6. Aggressive and competitive word games with my aggressive and competitive family.
  7. Aggressive and competitive participation in celebrity University Challenge with my aggressive and competitive family.
  8. My mum and her sisters collapsing into unanimous incomprehensible hysteria – this year over a particularly un-PC mime of Angela Merkel during Round 3 of the hat game.
  9. Everyone rallying forces to demolish three bottles of Baileys in three days.
  10. Schokomelk with extra whipped cream and a view over the canal.
  11. Chaotic group Skype sessions to cousins 11 hours and two seasons away.
  12. A million festive tea light holders and a million dancing shadows.



Screen Shot 2014-10-05 at 15.13.32At the moment most of my writing that isn’t related to 19th century French art is happening over on another social media page of mine, a site which I have been enjoying so much I thought I would share the fun. Bonjournal is a neat little traveloguing tool that exists as an app and a website, that I find the perfect medium for recording everything from short travels to daily diaries to reviews of the best places to eat in my area. I’ve been using it for nearly a year now, almost as long as it has been up and running, and watching it improve and expand into the smooth and sleek page it is today has been a real pleasure.

Bonjournal came to being through a perceived gap in the market from some creative-minded world travellers – the best genre of person, clearly – who describe the frustration with current media that led to Bonjournal on the site’s about page:

When we returned home and tried to share our travels with friends and family, we struggled to combine all our photos, notes, and maps into one coherent package. Mainstream apps like Facebook and Instagram were great for photos, but were not designed to tell a continuous story. What had been a long, seamless journey for us came across as piecemeal and disjointed.

The result of their process is a journaling tool that is “easy, beautiful and simple”, and combines all the features that a blogger and traveller could want in what is effectively an online diary. It has been a delight to communicate and share thoughts with its founder Dorothy Lin (who has a beautiful selection of journals herself), and I recently had my trip to Iceland featured on the site as well, which was a nice ego massage. As one of the earlier members I also get to participate in beta feature testing which I find very exciting, and participate in a community that though currently small, is one of the friendliest I have found online to date.

If you’re a traveller, a photographer or a journaller, I highly recommend giving Bonjournal a try. The mobile app is perfect for recording on the go – even without internet! – and the features are only getting smoother and better. It’s my favourite new platform, and do have a gander at my own page @alexkrook if you’re interested.

A Night In Brooklyn

F1030003Some thoughts from an evening in New York over the summer.

I went out with some Californian friends of friends to the depths of Williamsburg. This was unchartered territory for me, as I’d only whizzed in and out of Brooklyn on my last visit to NYC for a comedy night and a visit to a friend’s terrifying hostel and my impressions of the area otherwise were derived entirely from Girls, Broad City, and Brooklyn 99. All things can be learnt from American comedy TV.

Williamsburg itself reminded me a lot of the edgier neighbourhoods in Berlin. Every other building promised an atmospherically-lit bar full of people with moustaches and turn-ups. Brightly coloured bikes clustered around lamposts or cast silhouettes through floor to ceiling windows, and both Vice and Brooklyn Lager have giant warehouse bases in the area. Our first stop was a painfully trendy hotel that I have been meaning to visit ever since one of my favourite photographers managed its refurbishment publicity; The Wythe is all about brunch and exposed brick walls, but better than that has a rooftop bar that overlooks the entire Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge. We had draught beers and complained loudly about men – which seems to be the prime topic of female conversation in this city – before interrupting a romantic moment to Instagram the twinkling metropolis over the water.

F1030006What followed was a whirlwind of bar-hopping and money haemorrhaging on shots and Mexican beer, which is predictably the cheapest thing to drink – and in this city of IPAs and excessive hoppiness by far my beverage of choice. Identical twins served us at a bizarre bar with a floor three inches deep in sand and a ceiling of surfboards. A rack of martini glasses teetered precariously above our table and leis of dollar bills strung up like garlic wreaths were distributed amongst scraps of beach polaroids and bumper stickers. A group at the table next to us complained loudly about men, and Lexie informed me that in America “If you don’t make a scene it’s not dinner.” We moved through a couple of different options including a kitsch ice-cream parlour and an empty dancefloor with a silhouette of a stuffed fox in its window and a party of Orthodox Jewish men out the back, before we settled on a dog-friendly drinkery near Metropolitan Avenue. Because dogs are MY FAVOURITE. In brief pauses between petting pugs and vainly trying to attract the interest of a French bulldog, we picked up four Englishmen following Ryan Adams on a tour around America and a hairdresser from New Zealand. Those of us who didn’t have work in the morning ended up in a bar appropriately named “Honky Tonk”, dominating the jukebox and loudly complaining about men.

I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t gush about NYC. Even those hipper natives who have learnt to contain their enthusiasm under the guise of “I don’t really care about anything” hipsterness (something that Williamsburg seems to personify), even they cannot manage to hide their awe. And though I hear it’s hard to live here and many prospective residents fall by the way-side within a few months of braving the city that never sleeps, I can absolutely see just why people stick out the fight for space and the inordinately high rent and the hellish subway system and hang around. We were kicked out of the bar at 4am and wandered through the first of the morning light to an all-night diner, where I discussed the Santiago di Compostello route with a passionate Portuguese guy over a burger. And as dawn broke above Manhattan’s jagged skyline a Pakistani cabby drove me back over the Williamsburg Bridge and told me that though he lived in London for eighteen months, nothing compares to New York. Amen.


Restaurant Review: J. G. Melon

I spent much of my summer eating at restaurants in the states through a fabulous internship with southern food critic Morgan Murphy. I can’t share any reviews from our time on the road with him before his book comes out, so in the meantime I will be posting a few of my favourite reviews from my trip to New York afterwards.

F1010031JG Melon’s is a revelation. Recommended as an essential NYC spot by friends of friends when drinking and food-discussing, I’m so glad that I stuck out the obstacle course of dog walkers through the Upper East Side to land at its polished wooden bar next to its quietly munching regulars. Based in a building dating from the 1920s (PRE-WAR!), it was founded by a Jack and a George that lent it their initials and promptly began to distribute alcohol, and was also host to a scene from Kramer vs. Kramer! So NYC.

I was early for my lunch date so ordered a beer and fell into conversation with a bespectacled old guy at the counter, busy drinking iced tea and attacking a plate of JG’s trademark cottage-fried potatoes. He turned out to be an ex-soap actor who had a few tales of the biz, but it didn’t take too much small talk for him to go on to reveal he was in fact the husband of the president of Fox Searchlight Pictures, in town for a premiere; the next 40 minutes were naturally filled with anecdotes about embarrassing himself in front of Amy Adams, making his wife jealous chatting to Angelina Jolie, and descriptions of just how nice Forrest Whittaker is. I get the feeling JG’s tables are packed with such interesting characters native and otherwise, who, like Raymond, make a point of visiting whenever they’re passing through (and always order their regular).

When my lunch companion arrived and Raymond had gone off on his VIP way, we followed the advice of our barman and ordered bacon burgers and the house Pilsner. Neither disappointed. Good foods served in the midst of regulars fulfilling all the NYC stereotypes: a Jewish father chastising his son for gaining a paunch since their last lunch, an ancient 80-something on his third Bloody Mary bemoaning the state of the neighbourhood, two hoarse-voiced ladies lunching and hating on their husbands. (Complaining is the sport of the city, and everyone here is a professional.) JG’s is just how I pictured an authentic NYC restaurant, with its giant neon sign and fire escape painted a cheery green, watermelon decor and juke box and middle-aged waitresses. And the cheesecake is gosh darn divine.

The Altar of the South

During my first stateside flight I sat next to a southerner who told me that the American male sees his car as the ultimate accessory; an expression of personality and individualism “much like how women like to wear different shoes from each other”. During my last flight, I sat next to a northerner who told me that the American male has but two topics of conversation: sports, and the weather. “They all take such pride in their cars so they have one more discussion point before conversation runs dry.”


The further we travelled, the more towns we stayed in and the more people we met, the more apparent it became to me that the real altar at which America worships is not found within the pretty tin-roofed churches lining our routes. It is the God of the Automobile that rules the south with an aluminium fist. It may be true that one of the few fully pedestrian-planned towns in the country is the most expensive property in the whole of the state of Florida, but for the south at large the SUV and the four wheel drive are as essential to life as food and air con. Even in the cities – perhaps especially in the cities – pedestrians on the sidewalk are a rare breed, and those that we do manage to spot from our fortified Range Rover do not look to be the sort of characters you want to find yourself within a foot of. Without a child lock and an egregiously tinted window in between. And this unbelievable reliance on having a vehicle is not even just a unfortunate necessity; the very idea of investment in public transport is seen as a direct attack on personal freedom (the most important thing in this country, don’t you know). “When I sit behind my wheel I feel like I can go anywhere, do anything, get to any part of the country I want as long as there are gas stations between here and there,” is a sentiment expressed by almost everyone with which I have broached this subject. “Why would I sit with my face in a stranger’s armpit when I could cruise along in my air conditioned SUV?” A damning indictment of train travel, and one that rings like blasphemy in ears of railway-loving Englanders.

Admittedly these arguments, like many of those alien American arguments, political and otherwise, that I at first scoffed at unashamedly, have gained credence the further our journey took us through the southernmost states. The south is its own nation built on and for the car, its (second) booming highpoint synchronous with that of the invention of the automobile and its roads specifically constructed for streams of individuals in cars large enough for eight. It’s a land that has had industry from so comparatively close to its conception that to structure itself around the pedestrian and not the 4×4 would have seemed absurd to the city-expanders of the early 20th century. Its towns are built around never having to leave your car and step into the brutal southern heat; there’s drive-thru food, drive-thru banks that shoot a capsule of money down to you through a vacuum tube, drive-thru voting polls, and, most incongruously, drive-thru liquor stores. There is a painful artificiality to the giant southern metropolises in which you can go a whole day without stepping a foot outside. From your living room to your garage to the parking lot to your office to the parking lot to your garage to your living room. An endless chain of air-conditioned artificial exteriors, a reality where it’s almost too easy to never have to see another human being save through the barrier of your windscreen or the glass of a drive-thru booth.

I’m so not into it.


#NewMayDays Days 25-29: Blah blah blah and Iceland

This project may indeed be turning into a catalogue of excuses, but absolutely foul weather and a backwards sleeping pattern have again impeded me from being too original over the last few days.

  • I tried working in the Social Sciences Library and it was fine. Modernity is alright I suppose, but also not really why I chose this university.
  • I learnt how to make origami dinosaurs! Here is my first attempt.
  • I went for a jog in uni parks for the first time, which was a pleasant change from my usual street circuit. I normally run for 20 minutes or so which is ample time for getting in a lap of the park, and the more wooded stretches reminded me very much of my regular route through deepest Bavarian forest this time last year – although with a whole lot more wheezing, human encounters, and rain.
  • I tackled a few new recipes (mainly involving salad, what have I become), and today I sampled a marinaded grilled chicken and mash concoction. If anyone has any tips on how to make spinach edible they would be very welcome; if one more person tries to talk to me about kale I am going to scream.

MOST excitingly, however, this week I booked my first SOLO TRIP.  Although I travel a great deal I have never actually planned a holiday alone; I always end up coordinating with people I know or staying with a friend of a friend, and I’ve not yet managed to hostel by myself which I’ve been desperate to try since meeting reams of independent Australians when inter-railing age 18. I’m very excited, especially since this adventure will be in a brand new country! Since I’m spending my whole summer in the states (more on that later), and finishing off with a week in NYC in August (more on that later), it turns out that journeying back via ICELAND is far cheaper and less taxing on my terrible flight nerves than doing the whole US->UK schlep in one go. I’ve booked myself in for four nights at this absolutely amazing looking hipster hostel in Reykjavik as recommended by Amurrican Uric, and I’m hoping my Santander research scholarship (more on that later) will stretch to enjoying what Iceland has to offer.

I have to admit that I booked the whole thing on a whim after staring open-mouthed at endless shots of Iceland in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but if Montenegro last summer has taught me anything it’s that I’m a sucker for beautiful landscapes. I can’t wait.