Posted by: roamingolivia | January 21, 2012

Introducing the world’s best hot (chili) sauce

I have been meaning to write this post for a really long time, but I feel energised by having an amazing day so far: waking up late, taking library books back, writing emails, buying groceries, buying flowers, getting a package from my parents with two framed old photos of family members… It would be a shame to not go through with this post as well.

Here’s an important thing you need to know: the very best chili sauce is made by my dad’s colleague. itthink I got some of this in my stocking last year at Christmas, or tried it at my parents’, and realised how amazing it is. This stuff is incredible. I brought over a bottle of it last year, and when we were running out, I got my dad to deliver several bottles to a friend – who lives an hour away from my parents – to bring me in the UK. After Christmas, I came back to London with 3 bottles.

The thing about the UK is that, yes, they sell chilis and Tabasco sauce, but that is usually the maximum level of spiciness possible to find. Of course, I have had some of the hottest food I have ever had in my life – one Sri Lankan place in Manchester in particular stands out – but in general, even “spicy” food is not that spicy. And as any chili-lover knows, chili love is an actual addiction.

It’s also not just me. At my flatmate’s birthday barbecue last year in the back yard, we put some out as a condiment. Two people came up to me, begging to know where I got it.

Dad – pass this to your colleague, and we can set up a business.

I just did a photo shoot with my 6 bottles, of varying levels of fulness. Here’s the full lineup that I have in London:

They have awesome names, so let’s introduce them individually. First, the old crew:

This consists of

Chipotle Apocalypse


Chipotle Annihilation

… and (my personal favorite name) China Cat Sunflower.


As you might suspect, the red ones are hotter than the not-red ones, although I haven’t tried the new ones so not sure if that holds true with them. I love Chipotle Apocalypse – it is sort of smoky. Chipotle Annihilation is pretty annihilatingly spicy. China Cat Sunflower has a good flavor and is not incredibly spicy.

The new crew – which I haven’t tasted yet – are here:

That includes

Golden Road to Unlimited Infernos,

Lucifer’s Juice,

and (I’m not sure what this means) Fatalli Distraction.


Aren’t they great? I love how trippy the names are; I was mystified by China Cat Sunflower, until I googled it and found out it was a Grateful Dead song. So here’s a trippy picture of me with that bottle, in the spirit of the name:

Posted by: roamingolivia | November 15, 2011

Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Preliminary warning: this may well have spoilers because I can’t be bothered to censor or think about what you might not know if you haven’t read the whole book. But so do most reviews.

This review will take the form of a few short musings and then some quotes I liked from the first two books (I left the third one at home).


“Is this what Stieg Larssen is like?” I thought to myself on multiple occasions when I was reading this book. I have no idea, as I have never read any of his trilogy. It isn’t that I don’t think those books are “worth” reading – lots of smart people I know have read them – but (a) I get nervous when everyone is reading the same book and raving about it, particularly when it includes most people on the Tube and on TV, and (b) I also get a little bit nervous about reading crime or thriller books. I don’t read genre fiction, so I have no way of differentiating whether something is good, and then I wonder if I will just get sucked in and never read a serious book again. So I stay away.

This means that I probably review books that straddle the genre-literary border in a weird way. For example, I sort of liked that Thomas Pynchon crime novel, Inherent Vice. It was sort of stupid, and didn’t make a lot of sense, but it made more sense than his other books, and it seemed to have a more coherent plot. And it was more entertaining than many of his books, so I gave it a good review.

A similar situation sort of happened to me with this book. Is this book a thriller or a mystery or a fantasy or a sci-fi novel? Yes, sort of. And so I feel I don’t have the tools to judge it by; I don’t believe in any of the made-up world that he created – it didn’t make much sense and what the heck are the Little People? So I sort of found that frustrating because not only was I being asked to believe in this world, but the world is incomplete. You never really figure out what any of that world was about. But then, I enjoyed it. It is easy to read books that have plots like that because you keep going, trying to figure out what happened. So do I think that I enjoyed this book, or that it is really good because it made me keep reading it? Not necessarily. Do I think it is bad because I didn’t figure it out by the end? Again, not necessarily. It is confusing.

I suppose that, unlike in the case of Pynchon (which seems to follow a traditional story arc), my lack of experience in the fantasy/sci-fi/whatever genres actually made me more willing to accept the uncertainty of the plot. I felt there was something deeper, or more literary, that could excuse these gaps.



But was there? NYT’s Janet Maslin would, apparently, argue not. I am not sure. I finished the book, and actually throughout the entire third book, I kept wondering, ” But what does it mean?” I was stuck in an airport with only this and Confederacy of Dunces (and several e-books and editions of the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books), thought, so I pressed ahead. I actually might have given up. From about halfway through the first book through the beginning of the third book, I really cared about the characters and the plot. But as the third book’s pages dwindled, I increasingly realised that actually not much was going to be resolved, and I started to lose the will to continue.

I think that, for me, the book lacked a sufficient balance between weird and crazy plot and something important to say about our current lives. As always with Murakami, there is something vital and contemporary about even books set in the past (say, in 1984), which I find endearing and interesting. But why 1984? Was this about a police state? Not really – there are barely any police? Was it just an allegory about loneliness in religion? If so, why couldn’t it have been called 1q86 or whatever other date you wanted? I wanted the book to tell me something important, or to make important things more obvious, and it did not.



This all made me go back to wonder: what was Wind-Up Bird Chronicle even about? I don’t remember, and all the answers online do not sound familiar. But I remember it as being a lot more about something: about the loneliness of the contemporary world, about this idea of going down into the well and embracing difficulty until you become strong enough to come out of the well. And a remember a man being skinned alive. Apparently there’s a cat as well. I am not great with plots, but I am usually good with the general gist or “message” I take away from a book. I am not sure I will have something strong enough to remember and hold on to with this book.



But fiction is a lot about what state we are in when we read it. Maybe I am just not looking for what the book is telling us. The Millions has an excellent review of the book – and one man’s experience of reading it – that made me think maybe there was a little bit more than I had taken away. There is an affirmation of love at the end of the book – a heavy-handed one, where people find each other – that I found somewhat appealing. I liked the image of climbing the expressway ladder back up to the normal world, pregnant with a kind of demon baby (seriously, why would you want that thing?), and starting a new life.



Still, I didn’t really understand: why couldn’t they just go back to their normal life, if they had escaped back into the normal world? And if their problems followed them back into the normal world, then they aren’t really safe? And if they didn’t, how did the money follow them?

I guess my overall verdict is that it is entertaining, if you don’t mind books that leave huge gaping holes unanswered, and if you don’t mind generally unsympathetic characters. I thought it was a good, long-winded and unresolved meditation on the way society ruins children, and the role of religion (specifically, crazy cults) in doing that. But then it absolves some of these sins with the parts about the dohta and the maza – they weren’t really even attacking children, they were attacking weird ghost versions of the children made by the Little People. Unlike Aomame, who was genuinely abused emotionally by the cult, or like Ayumi, who was sexually abused. It is also a long-winded, unresolved meditation on the violence against women, and the way society permits this. But it doesn’t seem to advocate anything different, or even imagine that anything different is possible. Sure, two people can find each other, but can they defeat the world? Or will the crazed cults find them and destroy their lives?

The fact that I am still thinking about it, and its magical world, it probably a good sign, but I am not sure if it is good enough. I haven’t decided how many stars I will give it on Goodreads.



Finally, I would like to start a pop-up concept restaurant serving the food Murakami describes in various scenes (he is excellent at food) and playing the music he mentions. He’s inspired me to download some Janacek.


And now, onto the quotes:

These are just from Parts 1 and 2.

“Real life is different from math. Things in life don’t necessarily flow over the shortest possible route. For me, math is — how should I put it? — math is all to natural. It’s just there. There’s no need to exchange it with anything else. That’s why, when I’m doing math, I sometimes feel I’m turning transparent. And that can be scary.” (57)

(about butterflies) “When the time comes, though, they just go off and disappear. I’m sure it means they’ve died, but I can never find their bodies. They don’t leave any trace behind. It’s as if they’ve been absorbed by the air. They’re dainty little creatures that hardly exist at all: they come out of nowhere, search quietly for a few, limited things, and disappear into nothingness again, perhaps to some other world.” (93)

“Maybe I can look at this way — the problem is not with me but with the world around me. It’s not that my consciousness or mind has given rise to some abnormality, but rather that some kind of incomprehensible power has caused the world around me to change.” (119)

“After the Queen video ended, ABBA came on. Oh, no. Something tells me this is going to be an awful night.” (147)

“‘Good-bye,’ she murmured, bidding farewell not so much to the apartment as to the self that had lived there.” (398)

“It is not that the meaning cannot be explained. But there are certain meanings that are lost forever the moment they are explained in words.” (493)

Posted by: roamingolivia | November 9, 2011

Russian Film Festival: Generation П (Generation P)

Well, I’ll try at least to do one cultural review a week?! Yikes.

Anyway, last night I went to a screening of the film Generation П (Generation P), playing at the Russian Film Festival here in London. I’ve been pretty lazy about organising these things, but my friend pulled this together with a colleague (and another friend was able to scam a ticket at the door). In the interest of time, I will be brief about what I think about it, but in short: it was really, really good.

I think the following will have to be a free association of what I thought about it, in paragraphs:

I like Pelevin, although I don’t LOVE him the way one of my friends does. I have read a couple books by him, and they are interesting. Somehow, they usually make me think that either I am missing something, or he forgot to include the bit that ties everything together and tells you what happens at the end. It is a bit like a David Lynch film, or at least 1-5% as confusing as that. But I do like Pelevin, and I like the way he makes you keenly feel these vignettes from disjointed post-Soviet life (and contemporary life everywhere), and evokes a deep yearning that something else might have been possible – but we don’t know what it was, and it is now too late.

This film plays into this beautifully. I found it easier to follow than the books by Pelevin I have read, probably because it is visual and stuff has to happen in a film, which already adds a layer of concreteness. (There are parts of The Buddha’s Little Finger where it seems like people are just zipping around the universe, and you wonder if it is real – which I know is a lame question, but one wants to know.) At the same time, that yearning-for-something-else is still there. The actor that plays the main character is sympathetic, and that helps with the yearning feeling: you feel a sense of dread throughout the film, partly because he is introduced as such a “normal guy”.

I won’t get too much into the plot, but I really thought that all the politics stuff was also fascinating, and amusing. The idea that all of the news is manufactured using 3d images of politicians seemed to make about as much sense as the current primary season over in the US, so I was receptive to that as well.

Although the film ended at almost 11, I did some quick what’s-the-minimum-I-can-sleep-and-survive-tomorrow calculations and stayed to watch the Director, Victor Ginzburg, answer questions about the film. The most interesting part was when he was talking about how Russian producers told him that the idea was neaktual’no, which roughly translates to not topical or not current. They also said that the youth were not interested, and that only middle-aged people who’d actually lived through the 1990s would be interested. He was happy to see that this was not true (75% of their audience in Russia was in the 18-28 age bracket, and the film was #1 for a while in Moscow and St. Petersburg). Further, it has resonated with youth all over the world: I think most people in the audience last night were in love, and it got rave reviews in the Mumbai Film Festival too.

Overall: you should see this film when it comes near you, or when it comes to your iTunes/Love Film/DVD-ordering service.

If you want to know more, you can join the Facebook page (apparently if you go back to April, you can see Pelevin’s own comments on the movie (they’re positive)).

Posted by: roamingolivia | October 31, 2011

Calvert 22: an art exhibition from the ‘Stans

I am considering turning this into a site I use to review things I read, see, visit, etc. That is mostly because I think it will make me do more cultural things. We shall see. I will aim to do a couple a week. That means I have to read, see or do something cultural a couple times a week, right? So far, I am doing okay (I did a lot of cultural things this weekend), so we will see.

On Saturday morning(ish), David and I started off on a cultural wander with Calvert 22, which is a gallery in East London that exhibits contemporary art from the former Soviet Union. I saw an exhibit about Russian art there, and I think I blogged about it.

This time, we saw the exhibition “Between Heaven and Earth: Contemporary Art from the Centre of Asia”. A description of all the works is linked here.

We were first gripped by the film “Revolution” by Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev (more on them here), mostly because it was about Kyrgyzstan, which is where we met. I thought the film had a clear narrative – starting with people protesting and chanting, and ending with the charred-out insides of shops that had been looted (a trajectory that may resonate with many people whose countries have seen revolutions). But I thought it could have been developed more effectively.

We also watched a film by Natalya Dyu, Happystan (2007), but I liked this much less. But on the plus side, you can watch it on YouTube.

There was a lot of film in this exhibition, but we didn’t watch all of it (we would have been there several hours). I stopped by the film Transoxiana Dreams by Almagul Menlibayeva, and then stayed to watch all 23 minutes of it. It was one of my two favorites there. It seemed to draw heavily on the semi-personal, surreal/postmodern work of Sergei Parajanov, although I have not seen any mentions by her that reference him. But in the same way that he takes traditional images and infuses them with implied violence, this work took a traditional nomadic and folkloric references to centaurs and spirit-like foxes in western Kazakhstan, and infused this with a story about the disappearing Aral Sea. Sounds weird, and is weird (see some stills from the film here). But it is also somehow evocative and effective.

The other favorite was The Defragmentation of History (2010) by Galim Madanov and Zauresh Terekbay (interview with them here, probably about something entirely different). I didn’t take any pictures of this, and there’s not much information on it online. It was essentially dozens of canvases, in uniform sizes and all painted a uniform army-like green, tacked to the wall. All had been imprinted with names and authors of books (real books) about Central Asia that use the phrase “Great Game” or “new Great Game” in them. It was effective if you know anything about the current literature on Central Asia, which does tend to over-do it with Great Game references.

If you have any interest in Central Asia, it is worth going (it’s free) and seeing how some of the region’s artists express themselves. (Whether these are the best works or artists from the region is a whole other question, which I’d love to hear debated.)

(Viktor Vorobyev and Elena Vorobyeva – Kazakhstan. Blue Period, 2002-5)

Posted by: roamingolivia | August 23, 2011

Weirdest conversation about the riots so far

I was away from London during the riots a couple weeks ago. Today at lunch I discussed with a friend, who was also on vacation at the time, that it doesn’t really feel real that the riots happened. This is not to minimise any loss of property or life that was experienced here, but we often travel to places that have riots or revolutions (I was in Tunisia, of course), and so this just feels like going to one of those post-trauma places. But, of course, it’s different because I live here. And because most people are still wandering around asking “why”; there are no really convincing answers.

I talk to taxi drivers about these things – it’s good to have something to discuss with them, anyway. General, there are no good answers to “why”. This weekend, after an impulse-buy of a frame for my favorite poster that I have left unframed for at least 3 years (a poster from Mahmud Darwish’s funeral, which I picked up in Ramallah when I visited the week after he died), it became obvious that I needed a taxi to get home with a huge picture frame. I got in a car and had one of the weirdest conversations I’ve had with a London cabbie. He was making snarky comments about the names of the streets in my neighborhood (many are named after cities in Africa and other countries, which he treated with sarcasm), and I wanted to avoid the increasingly racist tone of the conversation.

I asked him what he thought of the riots. He said, “People just wanted to get free stuff.” I paused without saying anything for a minute, and then he followed this up with, “I can’t say much, though. I got a 50-inch flatscreen TV”. My eyes flicked up to the rearview mirror, to see if he was watching my reaction, or if he was joking, or if this was real. I don’t remember having a strong indication either way. “I was stupid, though. I forgot to steal the remote.”

The sentence hung in the air for several seconds. I had literally no idea what to say. I looked out the window and tried to think of something else to say. I still don’t really know if he was being serious, but it seemed like a strange admission from a white-haired, late-middle-aged, semi-racist London cabbie, but perhaps that says more about my own perceptions of the riots (that they were young people from lots of backgrounds) than the reality. There’s a lot to learn.

Posted by: roamingolivia | August 13, 2011

Some Tunisia highlights so far

I have been in Tunisia for a week now, and am feeling incredibly lazy. I will have a few observations later, but for now, I will just post some pictures at random.

Carthage (some random pictures of what’s there).

Sea view in Sidi Bou Said.

Roman coliseum in El Jem, the best Roman site in Africa (or so they say).

Street in El Gem.

Sea view in Kerkennah Islands, where a shared taxi passenger offered us NATO-manufactured CS gas to protect against bad people (we turned it down – more on this later).

The chair on which I spend many hours in our courtyard reading my holiday book, Infinite Jest. I hope to finish it this holiday (otherwise I can’t imagine ever finishing it), and it is really good.

Other bits of the courtyard (in Djerba, where we’re spending a week). The town, Erriadh, has one of the oldest synagogues in Africa as well.

A cafe in Djerba’s biggest city, Houmt Souk, where (a very small minority of) locals escape Ramadan.

Posted by: roamingolivia | July 26, 2011

An NHS visit, five years after moving to the UK

When I first moved to the UK, I had a very American approach to health care. Namely, I wanted to leave every visit with drugs, or potential access to drugs. I very vividly remember the first visits I had with my “GP” (General Practitioner) doctor in the UK. The interviews went something like this:

Me: I am not feeling well. I have a sinus infection.
Doctor: You look ill. You should probably sleep and drink juice. If it’s not better soon, you should make another appointment.

As an American, this was insane. In the US, I probably took antibiotics a few times a year for various infections. I think part of why I was sick so much was that I was still getting over the various parasites I picked up in Central Asia and Africa, which was probably hard for my immune system.

So I was pretty shocked by this seemingly careless attitude towards my immediate health needs. It seemed ludicrous that their actual advice was to wait, sleep and eat. But I usually was better within a few days. And it made me feel better to talk to a doctor.

I like to loosely term this approach to healthcare as the “personal counselling” type of healthcare – the doctors are basically there to make sure there’s nothing seriously wrong with you, and to make you feel better by talking to someone about it. It is also a useful counterbalance to Googling your own symptoms on the internet, at which point you discover you have an incredibly rare form of cancer. The phone number you can call and just talk to a nurse, who inevitably tells you “if it gets worse, go see a doctor” (but in a more knowledgeable way) is another form of this type of healthcare.

(Note: this blog post does not address actually serious health issues and the NHS’s treatment of them.)

I’ve been sick less since those early days. I am no longer a student and thus not exposed to the onslaught of student germs and late-night bar-wandering. Plus, in the five years I’ve been living in the UK, I have become more of a grown-up. I eat real food and exercise kind of regularly, and it’s all quite boring stuff but it probably helped to prevent me from getting colds, sinus infections, etc. as much as I did. It has probably helped that I don’t take antibiotics, but that’s just a theory.

I have been gradually, or not-so-gradually, developing some kind of head infection in the past few weeks, through busy-ness and exhaustion, and I decided to go to the NHS this weekend for a discussion with my doctor about my health.

Or so I thought. I went to a walk-in centre, where they process dozens of cases an hour. The doctor looked even more exhausted, and possibly more ill, than I was. He asked me what I thought was wrong with myself. I told him. He didn’t examine me in any way, or take my temperature or look in my nose or ears. He said, “And what do your doctors usually do?” I looked confused. He asked, “Antibiotics?” I said, “Yeah, sometimes.” He asked if it worked. I said yes. Then he printed me a prescription for antibiotics.

I left the office in a state of confusion about what to do next. I had wanted to go and for him to listen to me and tell me what to do, knowing that it would probably be sleep more and eat better. He had probably assumed that I was attempting to get antibiotics, particularly because I’m American. I had no idea if I was actually supposed to take the antibiotics. It was confusing, and weird, and made me realise that I am very used to this health-counseling system.

Posted by: roamingolivia | July 6, 2011

Back to postcards: Tashkent’s Soviet Architecture


This is another example from the set of Tashkent Soviet Architecture postcards I bought there. The cover is here, and a disclaimer on these postcard posts is here.  


Posted by: roamingolivia | July 4, 2011

My new favorite sign

I love this sign near my office. It makes me think of old school DJs.


Apologies I haven’t been blogging. I have some posts I’d like to do, but I have less time than ever in my life (I think it’s because I now require somewhat normal hours for sleeping, which I could cut out at will in other busy periods in, say, university). But soon I will catch up, both with loading new funny postcards to pop up on Fridays and Mondays, and posting amusing tidbits. I haven’t even been reading (that much), but luckily think I am coming to the end of the manic stage in the next couple weeks.

Posted by: roamingolivia | June 20, 2011

I took these a couple weeks ago…

… but they give you a good idea of what kind of summer we’ve been having since the glorious weather ended in, um, May.

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