Monthly Archives: September 2012

Food Follies: Japanese Melons

I earn my crust by construing analysis articles on food industry matters, which means that I spend hours every week trawling though reams of industry news coverage. This might sound a tad dull, but I come across some baffling stuff.

I’ve long had my eye on Japan’s quirkiness with regards to fruit. Fruit to the Japanese is not just something you pick up from stall outside the train station and munch on your way home. Fruit in Japan is two things: flawless and expensive. Single apples sell for around US$5, and two dozen premium cherries can set you back by US$100. Japanese tourists often remark on how cheap the fruit is elsewhere in the world. And that it has brown spots.

Japan’s complex social conventions are underpinned by a highly ritualised gifting culture, which contributes just as much to the country’s vast consumer market as electrical gadgetry. Exorbitantly priced food items are high up on the list as desirable presents. Fruits’ perishability is no hindrance; if anything, it just adds to the allure.

Among the most prestigious of fruits are peaches. They dangle from their trees wrapped in individual paper bags, preventing any blemishes caused by, presumably, dust from butterflies’ wings.

It is melons, however, where Japanese fruit growers really surpass themselves. You’ve probably all seen those pictures of neatly stacked square watermelons, grown in transparent cubed containers. At US$125 a piece, at least your wallet won’t be weighing you down as you lug one of those beauties home. For a special occasion like Mother’s Day, practical and square becomes sentimental and heart-shaped. Topped, of course, with a pretty bow:

In May this year, I came across a news item reporting that a box set of two cantaloupe melons sold for… wait for it… US$12,500. That’s roughly the price of some top-notch breast implants. The fruits were described as “perfect spheres with a smooth, evenly patterned rind”. But the global recession hasn’t left Japan’s melon market entirely unscathed. In 2008, a pair of melons fetched just over US$30,000.

Update, 26 May 2013:

For US$50 a throw, one of these limited edition Hello Kitty melons could be yours:

Hello Kitty MelonThere’s only 300 of them, so you better be quick.


Toledo Tales: Neighbours are a Trial

I live on the first floor of an historic building that once belonged to the University of Castilla La Mancha. Like most of the old buildings in town, it has a traditional patio, or interior courtyard. This feature is excellent for temperature regulation – during the worst of the summer heat, the courtyard inside is around ten degrees cooler than the temperature outside the front door, where it feels like you’re standing inside a fan oven. The disadvantage of the patio, though, is that it acts like a sound tunnel, and so I’m never blissfully unaware of neighbourly ongoings.

The neighbours directly above me are the bane of my life. The official living arrangement, so my landlady and good friend Sofia tells me, is that the flat belongs to a housebound elderly lady – allegedly of a sweet-natured disposition – who is slowly losing her marbles. Ana, who’s from somewhere in South America, is her live-in carer. The old lady calls for her, all day, every day, deep into the night, until the first flickerings of dawn. Not even the afternoon siesta hours are sacred. And it goes like this:



“Ana, don’t you hear meeeee?”

“Aaaaanaaaaaaaahhhhhhhh!!!!! Help Meeeeeeeeh!”


The ever-present line of washing dangling at me from the noisy flat above

The ever-present line of washing dangling at me from the noisy flat above

Eventually, I hear heels tottering as Ana attends to her demented employer. That’s another thing. Heels on hardwood floors. And the children. Who, according to Sofia, shouldn’t be there. But they are. Every single day, come rain or shine, Ana hangs out a fresh batch of tiny clothes to dry. And they thump about, those children, on the hardwood floors. With their street shoes on. And they drop things. Did I mention the hardwood floors?

Ana likes to chat on the phone. In fact, she gets one phone call after the other. In the summer, when all our patio-facing windows are permanently open, I’m privy to her conversations. I’m not able to discern the words. I doubt anyone can, probably not even her callers. This is because Ana has the voice of a mountain goat, the reverberations of which drown out any verbal content.

However, it’s not the kids nor Ana’s bleatathons that drive me to the point of insanity, but the howling harpy.

It’s not just the frequency of her cries , it’s the quality of them. Her wails make my bone marrow quiver like a kicked puppy. These are the anguished bawls of somebody whose windpipe is being pumped full of gravel, while having their joints ripped out of their sockets on one of those medieval stretching racks.

Then, one night, a couple of months ago, there was the sound of coughing, like a drum of rusty nails pounding against a concrete wall.

My weary ears perked up. The bedridden banshee had caught something. A cold. A lung infection. Or maybe even full-blown pneumonia. The next round of coughing and hollering seemed to corroborate my suspicions.

“Aanaaaaaah, Aaanaaaaaaaaaahhh! I’m going to dieeeeeeeee!!!!!”

I admit it, I really got my hopes up back then.

…but it turned out to be a false alarm.

[Post Script, 08 March 2013: I don’t exactly know what happened, but the howling has abated. The old bat is still there, still alive (evidently), but ever since I got back from my holiday at the beginning of February, I can only hear her calling maybe three or four times a day, and the sound is kind of muffled. Hurraaah! Now if only I could get Ana to stop prancing about in her bloody street shoes!!!!]

On the Ex-Nutritionist’s Couch: Does Milk give you Menopause?

And today’s question, asked by C, goes like this:

I’m fast approaching a certain age, and I’m really worried about the unpleasant symptoms that made my Mum’s life a misery, like hot flushes and sleepless nights. Last week, my aromatherapist told me that women who don’t drink milk escape the menopause. Is this true?

Dear C, I’m afraid there are only two ways to escape the menopause: popping your clogs before you ever sprout your first grey pube, or being born with a full set of goolies between your legs.

But let’s not be pedantic here. We both know that your aromatherapist was on about avoiding the irksome symptoms, which plague many women for several years before the actual menopause, a period known as the perimenopause. The menopause itself, which officially starts once the curse has run dry for good, is pretty uneventful. Mind you, the fact that she put it like she did should have jolted your alarm bells. Most complementary therapists are about as clued up on nutrition as the Pope is on hot waxing.

I have it on good authority that not even the KGB knows how to stop a complementary therapist from spouting spurious dietary advice. And once you’re alone in a room with one, you might as well be a Chinese pro-democracy protester in front of a firing squad – you’re gonna get it, whether you asked for it or not.

Now, I happen to have a vague idea of how the milk-and-menopause gem of a quack line came about.

Epidemiological studies appear to have shown (oy! – no snoring!) that Japanese women glide into middle age like ballerinas through Swan Lake. Not only do they retain their svelte physiques, their moods are as even as elevator music and they always remember where they’ve put their damn car keys.

Why are they such fortunate creatures, you might ask. Well, the scientists noted that one difference between Japanese women and their sweat-drenched, irritable Western sisters was that they hardly ate any dairy products – they are just not part of the traditional Japanese diet. Then they drew bell-shaped curves, adjusted their calculation variables, and debated at length over statistical significance.

All that serious science aside, I doubt I’m the only one left wondering whether Mrs Yokohama may not have been all that comfortable talking about her vaginal dryness to the guy with the clipboard. Neither did she probably care to mention that she felt the ever more frequent urge to wedge the blunt end of a serving spoon into her husband’s gizzard.

Now, in their paper, published in an eminent, peer-reviewed journal, our researchers would have stated that they did not have quite enough information to draw a cast iron conclusion on whether dairy products made women approaching the menopause go bonkers, and that further studies on the subject were required.

But a good headline this does not make.

So, the Daily Mail opted for something like this: “Milklife Crisis – Daily Latte Makes Women Froth at the Mouth!”. Because that’s the kind of science an aromatherapist can understand.

On the Ex-Nutritionist’s Couch: What to do about Cheese Night?

In a former life, in a galaxy far, far away, I was once a Nutritionist. So, when confronted with a nutritional conundrum, friends sometimes try to pick my brains.

On one occasion, my good Friend G posed the following question:

Once a month, I have Cheese Night. Although I eat quite healthily the rest of the time, I always end up two pounds heavier in the morning. Could it be the port I serve it with?

First of all, let me say that I’m wholeheartedly in support of Cheese Night. It’s probably the best idea since putting wheels on suitcases. But I see you’ve discovered the lead in the silver lining.

Am I right in assuming that cottage cheese doesn’t get much of a look-in on Cheese Night? Instead, you are serving only the Good Stuff? Luscious dollops of the creamiest of cream cheese, fragrant Pié D’angloys, ripe and runny romadur, a Danish blue so whiffy it makes your toes curl and your eyes water all at the same time. If you’re greedy like me, you’ll be cramming it onto your crackers to maximum load bearing capacity. It’s Cheese Night, for God’s sake!

Now, if you’ve ever looked at the labels on your favourite kinds of cheese, you will have spotted that pesky little line, which reads: “full fat cheese”.

Time to take a deep breath. This isn’t some sort of mysterious code, nor is it a baffling statement akin to “this product may contain nuts”, printed on packets of salt & vinegar crisps as a get-out clause, in case some hapless, I’m-allergic-to-everything North London yoga dolly breaks out in purple hives after the first crunch.

Yes, my dear G, and I can hear you groan as you begin to fathom the awful truth: Full fat cheeses consist of – eeeek! –  80% fat. Cheese is little more than a rather tasty lump of lard that slides down your gullet and onto your hips in 60 seconds flat. So, there you have it, at least one of your post-Cheese-Night pounds is now neatly accounted for. Feel free to blame the other one on the port and the bread, if you like.

I hope I haven’t ruined the romance for you. I fear that, from now on, Cheese Night might feel a bit like going on a date with Brad Pitt after finding out he’s got athlete’s foot, scabies and suffers the occasional flare-up of genital herpes. He’s still gorgeous, your hormones want him, but there will be consequences.

I can only offer two solutions to your problem: The first is to reduce Cheese Night to the frequency of Pancake Day. The second is a jog round the block, morning noon and night, every day for a week, before AND after Cheese Night.

Freelance Dilemma #185: What to put on your CV

At any point in an otherwise cushy freelancer’s life, a potential new client may confront you with the crazy desire to peruse your CV, your personal profile, your portfolio, or whatever they want to call it these days.

Why would they make such vexatious requests? Because they want some rudimentary assurance, despite your not having a Proper Job, that you are capable of, you know, performing this tedious thing called work. (Yeuch!!!!).

But despair not – I am about to bequeath to you, in my boundless generosity, the definitive set of must-have set of CV skills, and you won’t even have to lie.

  • I have superb time management skills [I manage to get up most days] and a proven track record of meeting deadlines [I regularly feed the cat on time, proven by the fact that it has not yet died of starvation.]
  • I have an excellant comand of written english [as long as I remember to turn the spellchecker on] and an up-to-date knowledge of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, WebStudio, and I am fluent in several programming languages, including Bali, Anaconda, etc. [I’ve never paid for any software in my life and if my pirated software isn’t compatible with yours, go ask your IT department to fix it.]
  • I am a highly competent researcher [I pick up useful factoids from daytime telly all the time, and there’s Wikipedia to fill in the blanks]
  • My verbal communication skills are superb [Just don’t call me before 3pm, as I won’t be awake. And then I’m likely to be having my coffee break. 2am is an OK time to talk. I suffer a bit from insomnia, you see. And what the hell is wrong with email?!?]
  • I am adept at problem solving [Evidently – going freelance has solved all my problems, and at the first sign of hassle, you can stick your job where the sun don’t shine, Mister.]
  • I am a team player [OK, here you’ll just have to lie]

Why freelancers are ahead of you

You may be wondering why you feel like you’re strapped to a windmill, why you spend most of it crammed into a piece of transportation equipment, why you are surrounded by idiots during the precious few daylight hours, and why you fork out three quarters of your income on a place you never get to spend any time at (aka your “home”). The answer is simple – because you are NOT freelance.

So, you ask yourself, what have those blessed freelance creatures got that you haven’t…? The answer to this existential conundrum can be summed up in three simple points:

  • We have come to terms with our laziness. In fact, we relish its so much, we’ve turned it into a job.
  • We don’t want to do what we don’t want to do. And if anyone tries to foist a job upon us that looks like it’s going to turn into a nightmare (and believe you me, we can smell those a mile off!!), we just happen to be ‘too busy right now’. But we like to tell the hapless punter to please try again, that there may be an opening for this type of work in the future. (Like when hell freezes over. Or when Russia turns into a democracy.)
  • We’d rather have our eyeballs plucked out with a hot tuning fork than attend a team meeting. We. Hate. Teams. Full. Stop.

Project Trilingual

When people ask me why I moved to Spain, I tell them because I wanted to learn Spanish. But this doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head. Thanks to the internet, you can learn just about any language anywhere, and, indeed, I already spoke some Spanish before executing my move to Toledo a year ago.

My interest in Spanish goes back to my teens, though I’m not quite sure why, I’d never even been to Spain, and felt no particular affinity with Spanish or Latin American culture – I just loved the sound of the language. I didn’t even speak English back then, and decided to tackle that first. While I was busy with this, the desire to learn Spanish never really went away. Over the next fifteen or so years, I intermittently took evening classes, got a bunch of certificates, used a bit of Spanish in a couple of jobs, but I never achieved fluency.

My underlying frustration about this finally came to a head in January 2010, when I visited an American friend of mine who’d settled in Costa Rica, and found that I could simply not communicate with her local friends and neighbours. At this point, I hadn’t been using any Spanish at all in about eight years, and so the little knowledge I once possessed had atrophied.

On my return home, I subscribed to some good podcast services, and found myself a native Spanish speaking teacher in North London for 1-2-1 conversation lessons in preparation for my move to Spain. The only way, from my own experience, of becoming truly fluent in a language was to live in a country where it was spoken. So that’s what had to be done, and a year and a half later, in September 2011, I made it happen.

Why all this effort, you may ask. Well, turning myself into a (German/English) bilingual was – and continues to be – one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences of my life, and so I have the deep desire to do it again.

What does it mean to be bilingual? To me, it’s like having another CPU hardwired onto your brain. It allows for dual information processing, and permits you to develop different viewpoints, by not only filtering through language, but also through culture. In short, acquiring another language at native-speaker level is as close as you can get to fitting yourself with a second brain. It creates a kind of synergy that just can’t be grasped in all of its dimensions by monolingual people.

Being bilingual is a bit like having a superpower. But it takes a bloody long time and a lot of effort to develop. Someone who may have spoken one language as a young child, e.g. by communicating with a grandmother in her native tongue, but then switched to using another language exclusively, and who may still be able to carry on a basic communication in the former language during a family reunion, is miles away from fully functional adult bilingualism. The same goes for the average university graduate who has spent five or six years studying a language in an academic environment, plus the obligatory year abroad.

Well, after some prior study and one full year in Spain, I can safely say that I, too, am a very long shot from being trilingual. So far, the chip isn’t working. It’s like a constant nagging pain in my neural cortex. It sits there, like a parasite, compromising rather than enhancing my ability to communicate. There’s no seamless sliding into the language, my consciousness afloat on its warm waters, with my thoughts pouring out of me, eloquently packaged into fully formed sentences. None of that. Whenever I crank up my Spanish, it’s like a stuttering blast from an ice water hose.

But I’m sticking with it, and that’s that.

Toledo Tales: My living arrangements under public scrutiny…

One year ago, on 14 September 2011, to be exact, I boarded a plane at London City airport on a one-way flight to Madrid. From there, I took the AVE, a high speed train, and 33 minutes later, I got off in Toledo, an ancient city south of Madrid, which was once the capital of Spain.

When people ask me WHY I decided to move to Spain, I tell them that I’ve always wanted to learn to speak Spanish properly. More often than not, this is met by a puzzled stare, and I very quickly add that the weather is nice in Spain. People find this rationale much more acceptable. This goes especially for my friends in the UK, where spent the past 20 years.

To rile them, I sometimes attach the local 7-day forecast to my emails, which, invariably, looks like this:

Only the ºC numbers next to the little sun symbols change.

Besides the weather factor and Toledo being a beautiful town, I can finally afford to live on my own, rather than fighting over fridge shelf space in a flat share. I have a spacious flat all to myself, right in the heart of the old town.

Sometimes, however, I’m reminded that my idea of domestic bliss is not universally shared.

A few months ago, on my way back home after coffee with a friend, I popped into my teensy local corner shop to get a bottle of water (they also have good cakes there). It is run by a friendly, smiley woman in her 50s. I like her. She’s usually chatting with a customer.

This time, she is talking to an elderly couple in their 70s. The man is standing, with his arm around his wife, who’s sitting on a chair. She has a slightly manic, spaced-out expression on her face, like somebody who’s recovering from a stroke.

She stares at me. “Where are you from?”

I look back at her, a bit frightened. I answer her.

She tells me she is Dutch, from Amsterdam. She wants to know my home town. The brief exchange switches between Spanish/German/English.

Then she asks, “Who do you live with”?

“Erm… I live… with myself…?” I answer.

“You live alone?”

“Yes, I do.”

And, without a moment’s hesitation, she says ” I feel sorry for you” .

LOL. I know the Dutch are direct…! I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that, so I just smiled, paid for my water and left. And I’m still laughing about it months later 😉

The entrance to my little corner shop

The entrance to my little corner shop