Bunch of fat tarts

I’m just back from an eight-day hike in Portugal, and as much as I’d love to report that the hiking has rendered me a svelte imitation of my former self… well, it hasn’t. Reason? I blame the Portuguese egg tarts. Pastéis de nata – that’s what they’re called in the local lingo. It means “pure custardy evil in a warm pastry cup”.

Pastel de nata1

If you’re an Australian who, like me, grew up on a steady diet of custard tarts (usually ordered together with a sausage roll and a chocolate milk – the holy trinity of the Aussie bakery), you’ll understand why I couldn’t resist them in Portugal. It has to be said, though, the Portuguese version of the tart makes ours seem kind of… flabby. Nothing can beat the crisp, wafer-thin layers of a pastel de nata, or those glistening black spots of caramelisation. If the psychologists had used these things in the Stanford marshmallow experiment, the kids would’ve opted for immediate gratification every time. Continue reading

China flashback: metalheads and mohawks

I recently read about a John Cage composition for organ called As Slow As Possible, a piece of music that is currently being played live in a church in Germany. The performance began in 2001 (though the first actual chord wasn’t struck until 17 months later) and will take 639 years to finish. The next scheduled change of note is in October this year.

And I thought: that’s about as slow as my book on China is coming along. Continue reading

A Christmas proposal from China

Eleven years ago today – Christmas Day, 2001 – I asked my girlfriend to marry me. Gill was living in Brisbane but holidaying with her family on the Gold Coast at the time. I was 8,500 kilometres away in northeast China, having relocated to a city called Changchun for work a few months earlier.

How do you propose to someone on the other side of the planet? By email, of course. The hitch is that it’s not an especially romantic method of popping the question – a bit like the guy I read about who proposed to his girlfriend while they were pulled over at a Mobil service station.

My task, then, was to find a way to make it more than just an average email. Continue reading

Outstanding! Hurrah! Thanks in your sweat!

Bad book review got you down? I suggest you start a blog. In no time at all, you’ll be on the receiving end of a whole bunch of relentlessly cheerful and laudatory spam messages. These messages are bound to lift your spirits, singling you out for your brilliant writing skills and giving you a great big virtual slap on the back. Sure, the English is stilted – even nonsensical at times – but the sentiment is clear. And here’s the great thing: no matter how vigilant you are about deleting these messages, they just keep stacking up, day after day, night after night. I’m told that this phenomenon is referred to in the industry as Black Hat SEO, but hey, whatever. It’s awesome! Hurrah!! Here, then, is just a small sample of the hundreds of exclamation-mark-laden eulogies I’ve received in recent weeks (because, you know, I deserved them): Continue reading

China flashback: when the sky turned gold

When: Between 10.25 and 10.35am, 7 April 2002.
Where: Wenchang Lu in Changchun, capital city of Jilin Province in northeast China.
What: Street scenes on a morning when Changchun was engulfed in a shachenbao (“sand-dust tempest”). The photos are unphotoshopped.

For the record, while a day spent in a shachenbao and a day spent under the raining ash of Mount Etna’s pyroclastic flow are both unpleasant, the latter is perhaps more tolerable because you are at least still assured of finding a decent espresso.

Continue reading