Friday, December 20, 2013

A Star Is Born

Tucked away on a road parallel to the Mekong, just west of the city core is a magical kingdom.

Kong Khao

This is its latest incarnation.

Pierre, Isa and Valentin have brought the poetry and calm of the Great French South West to this little corner of Indochina.

The food. The food! Pierre is an executive chef from a village tucked in the French Department of Tarn et Garonne, an area famous for its duck confits and heady wines, perfumed cheeses and damning deserts. It is an area I know well and in all my days of travelling outside the French Southwest – even to Paris – I have found it impossible to find a good confit de canard. But here, somehow, miraculously, Pierre makes it happen.

On the day they opened I had a concoction of local mushrooms called a declanation de champignons laos and an ominous sounding confit de joue de porc aux épices. I have rarely eaten better in France and certainly have never eaten better outside of France. Sitting there, in that garden, I could close my eyes and allow the taste-bud memories flow through me, evoking the rolling vineyards and ancient castles of the French Southwest, her gentle rivers and little stone houses. The mushrooms were just that perfect texture where fry meets fresh; biting into them was like taking a sensorial voyage through all dimensions of mother earth. The pork jowls were sinful – deep and rich and cunning in the way the flavours blended and danced in my mouth. Dessert was lemon pie, home made; tangy, tarty, vibrant fresh and alive.

One detail many restaurants outside the Métropole miss time and again is an inexpensive house wine and I have had to avoid some otherwise good restaurants here because of it, but these guys have managed to find a fabulous red, a dry baby with just the body and soul needed to espouse the cuisine.

The garden is beautiful, the colours satisfying, the music is wonderful and not too loud ... And the prices are painless.

To reserve call Pierre at 020 54 67 60 65, or Isa at 020 54 75 86 45

Open from lunch on Wednesday till brunch on Sunday. Credit cards not accepted.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

עבודה זרה

After you've lived here for a while there's all kinds of stuff you take for granted. I guess you can say that at some point some of the freshness wears off and you've got to take a leap back to where you came from to remember that you are indeed a stranger is a strange land.

For example.

Here we are building this house, and so we've got a team of workers who are living on the property in a hut they built, cooking in a makeshift kitchen and shitting in a hole in the ground outhouse they dug.

In other words, Tony is not going home every evening to his wife and kids in Stony Creek.

Also, at one point the workers will absolutely refuse to work unless a group of monks come and bless the construction work. The ceremony was very touching. This is how it went:

The Shaman comes and sets everything up. Candles and flowers and a little box with different compartments to represent the house and all the rooms. The people who will live in the house are measured with strips of candle, an arm's length, around the head and from the sternum to the navel.

Then all these candle lengths are squeezed and woven together to make one big thick yellow candle like a havdalah candle. Because the land is on a lake and because naga monsters can surge from the lake like medieval dragons, extra care and prayers have to be applied.

The monks arrive in dignified procession, their robes shining, and they take up their place in the workers' living quarters to recite incantations, drink Pepsi and check their messages on their smart-phones.

Remember, if we don't do this, the workers will simply strike. It would be the Canadian equivalent of Tony fetching a priest to bless a construction site and refusing to work until the last drop of holy water was sprinkled.

Stones with mystical incantations representing each member of the family are placed in the four corners of the house and a bamboo fish net filled with cash and other symbols of happiness is affixed to the “mother pillar”.

In the end, a white cotton thread was strung all around the house and the monks place a miniature pagoda at the base of every corner pillar.

I have to admit that I found the ceremony to be very moving; almost as moving as our wedding ceremony. The thought that Marie-Do and I had later that day was that in any of the monotheistic religions the priest or rabbi would require all kinds of understanding and commitments before doing a ceremony, especially for people from outside the tribe in question. Nowadays priests in Québec, for example, are refusing to marry people in a church unless they go to mass every Sunday.

Here, the experience was quite the opposite. Our understanding or belonging counted not one bit. We were told what to do and where to sit and that was all that was required of us. Like any thinking people we are invited by Reality to understand or question whatever we want. We can accept blindly or just go through the motions ... it matters not one bit. The Shaman did what he had to do, the monks did what they had to do, we did what we had to do. The workers for whom this ceremony was of such capital importance totally ignored its existence: they kept on working or sat around smoking cigarettes not at all concerned by the placated spirits or swimming naga.

We are not in Kansas any more.

Pour lire un récit écrit par Marie-Do en français :



Friday, October 11, 2013

You Must Be Meshuga

This post is the first in a series of seven about a cycling trip in Northern Laos.

The others are:

Knockin' On Heaven's Door
Slipping. Sliding. Away.
Your Cheatin' Heart.
There Are Places I Remember.
Heroic Charlene, and
The Icing On The Latte.

It is the end of September.

For those of you who do not know, the dry season here ends toward the end of October and until that time, the dirt roads in this country are not ki foune (dust), but rather ki tombe (mud).

I was duly warned by Laoists great and small, the greatest of whom is Olivier – Renaissance man, cheese maker, house designer and overall genius. His words, translated freely from the French, were, "You must be meshuga!"

And it was this simple sentence that accompanied me all throughout this great trek on dirt roads, 150 km from Sanakham, on the Mekong west of Vientiane, to Kasi way way up on Route 13, 60 km north of Vang Vieng.

Because instead of riding on the peaceful dirt roads of backwater Laos, I slipped and slid and fell and cut myself for 150 km.

On the way I passed through countless tiny villages where the kindness of strangers was the common denominator.

Sanakham itself is a tiny town on the Mekong and I was able to find a small guest-house in the old quarter on a street with old houses just a stone's throw away from the river and the local girlie bar so the place wasn't as quiet as I thought it would be. Love was certainly in the air that night!

People have wondered about this photo, which is of the bus conductor and myself after we had arrived in Sanakham. It is true that the swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol that made an unfortunate appearance in Europe in the 20th Century. But anyone with an eye to graphic design will immediately recognize that this kid's swastika is a definite reference to the Nazi symbol. There is no guile in it, however. You often see kids with Nazi symbols stuck on their motorcycles and the fact is that in a country where people don't even know the history of their own country before 1975 it is far too much to ask of them to understand what a Nazi is.

The symbol for them is western. And western for them is as cool as all the stupid Chinese tattoos you see on the streets of Toronto. Ask people what those mysterious Chinese characters mean and they will undoubtedly answer, “Strength” or “Harmony”, but what's probably written is “Ask me about my grandchildren”.

Knockin' On Heaven's Door

I cycled exactly 3:27,20 hours before being grounded by the rain in Ban Senchaleun at the bottom of a hill, 47 km out of Sanakham. At the bottom of this hill a man bade me welcome seeing that the rain was going to turn into a deluge. For a while the power of it was violent and the dust red path leading through the village turned Babylonian red, with streams of muddy water slipping down the hill.

It was only 3:30 PM and the children, drenched, were riding home. Some were holding umbrellas as they do in the mid-day sun, but most just brave the warm rains. One boy, however, was pedalling as hard as he could with a plastic bucket over his head.

The villagers who have taken me in from the storm have told me I can sleep here and eat with them. As far as I can see they do not have electricity and the black interior of their home is brightened only by a hearth fire. The woman pointed to a new wooden house near their own as the place I could sleep.

Ducks and ducklings. Children shooting marbles on the dirt floor. The old lady looks at me like I'm crazy and everybody laughs when I look at her back and say, “falang pee ba!” (crazy foreigner). If there is one thing the Lao cannot understand is why anyone wealthy enough to own or rent a car would go by bicycle.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Lao pastoral. Huts are built where they stand; lean-tos with variable geometry and roofs of flattened bamboo or corrugated metal. The sharpness of them hits you through the eyes during the day at odd unpredictable angles. You take off your sunglasses between villages to let the earthly green enter your heart like a rhapsody only to be suddenly shunted into blindness by these things. Luckily, in the spaces between towns, the little field pavilions for farmers' rest are covered with the gentle grey green of the slowly rotting leaves, giving comfort to the eyes and rest for the heart.

In the paddies the rice grows, tall now, in elegant rows; their stalks as powerful as men, the fruit of them barely perceptible, hidden as they are in huddled bunches and protected in their sheaths. The green-ness of the landscape never ceases to enliven me. It is as though each blade of grass, sheath or rice, leaf, tree and flower were a gift of eternal giving – a long and generous thing, generations long and loving.

Lao pastoral. Pigs as big as Buicks wallow in lakes of mud behind the house in which I have been given shelter. The rain has stopped now and a post-diluvian calm has taken over the village. The vegetation which was previously water laden and wind swept now slowly redresses itself. The occasional drop slips from a roof or or is shaken from a tree. Yellow butterflies.

Lao pastoral. I ask members of the family to write the name of their village in my diary but only their teenage daughter, freshly arrived from school, can perform this. Not the parents and not their 12 year-old son. The girl herself walks around like a ballerina. She has the natural grace that some people have but many do not. She does the family chores with her shoulders squared back and a vivacious sparkle in her eyes.

Other than gigantic, filthy and resentful sows, the family also possesses litters of piglets, squabbles of geese and cackles of chickens. Everybody seems to roam throughout the shared universe in symbiosis, if not in harmony: one group is destined to eat the other and the worms take all, but in the meantime the circle seems to be maintaining itself without too much violence.