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Traveling in Europe: Horley, England

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Six Bells--You can see how low the ceiling is.

My recent trip to Europe began with flying into Gatwick airport, which is south of Victoria Station by a half-hour train ride. I stayed in Horley, Surrey (a suburb next to the airport) because I was only there for a day and a half. The first night, after a nap to reset my clock, I just wandered down the road to Ye Olde Six Bells. It was quite dark with inadequate lighting. I also brushed against overgrown nettles. Luckily it was just a light brush because my leg itched for about an hour.

The history of this pub goes back around 700 years, when a man named Norman Lord want refreshment to get through the long sermons at St. Bartholomew’s. A place that old has whitewashed walls, huge dark wooden beams, low ceilings and rambling rooms. I imagine that over the centuries the rooms were added one at a time, the wooden floored ones being the oldest, though no floors would be original. The first floor might very well have been packed earth and straw spread  over it.

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A conglomeration of woods.

Buildings throughout the medieval era were white washed to preserve the mortaring and stonework and to add light to dark structures only lit by candles and oil lamps. Six Bells was all of this, with a note on the ceilings saying “Duck or Grouse.” Above the bar it said, “Before you ask, yes we have hit our heads a lot.” Since this seem to be the normal height for old pubs I must assume that people were shorter at one time, plus I imagine the places were time consuming and expensive to build, and space wasn’t wasted on high ceilings. It may have kept the warmth in as well.

Unlike North American pubs, many British ale houses or public houses are part restaurant and you’ll see people bringing their children. The central and oldest area is the bar, and rooms jut off in three directions for diners to sit.

The Six Bells menu is quite extensive and I had  a fish pie, since it seemed traditional British fare; a mixture of peas (the English love their peas), potatoes, shrimp, smoked haddock and cod in a white wine, coriander cream sauce, with a salad of red onion, tomato, spinach and tongues of cucumber in a simple vinaigrette. It was tasty and filling, costing around 10 pounds. I was too full to try dessert, which some British just call puddings in a generic way. I like to sample new ciders and England is the place to do it. I tried the Aspall Suffolk cider at 5.5% alcohol (higher than most of the beers on tap). This drink worked very well with the smoky taste of the pie and I think the food brought out the cider’s flavor. Aspall is a light golden color, light on the tongue (medium effervescence), crisp apple taste and not overly dry. The flavor isn’t too strong but it’s more noticeable than Strongbow’s nondescript taste. Of all the ciders I tried on my trip this one remains one of my favorites.

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Aspall Suffolk Cider

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The fish pie at Ye Olde Six Bells

I would recommend Ye Olde Six Bells. The rest of Horley seemed rather small. The second night I had Chinese food and though it was a simple fare of broccoli, chicken and mushrooms I found the chicken tasted old. Not bad but not fresh, and I’m quite sensitive to the change in meat flavors. It could have contributed to the stomach unrest that hit me the next day as I arrived in Amsterdam.

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Six Bells at night: a conglomerate of eras

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Olympic End and Aftermath

I did actually venture into the crazed throng on Saturday night. First we gathered at a friend’s near to the SkyTrain and had drinks at her place, knowing that places would be packed downtown. Then we (seven of us) walked over to the SkyTrain and boarded, losing half our party immediately. But we yelled that we’d meet them off the train since one of our party needed to buy a ticket (and some of us didn’t bother I think).

At around 9:30 pm we boarded a pretty full  train where people were cheering and toasting with beer bottles, and got off two stations later and immediately found our friends. The escalators to and from the trains were absolutely packed with people cheering and slapping each other’s hands as they went by. When you think of all that loose young testosterone mixed with booze and euphoria it’s amazing how friendly everyone was.

I’ve been in this city a long time and know the downtown well, yet when we exited onto the street I had no idea where I was. One reason was that I had not taken that particular (and new SkyTrain) that exits onto Granville St. (I think). But we felt like we were spawning against the flow of thousands of people. And that is not an exaggeration. From one side of the street, across the road and to the other side of the stores, were hordes of people walking, dancing, stopping to take pictures, slap hands and give a woohoo. There was such a flow of people in red and white, Canadian flag capes and painted faces that it did indeed look like a red tide.There was supposed to be the decentralized dance party at the art gallery but we either missed it or it was smaller than we thought. The city had put plastic tiles over the grass to save the lawns from all the feet. Still it was a muddy morass and I wonder if the lawns recovered (remember Vancouver has green grass all year long).

We managed to get down to the new skating rink and I couldn’t tell you if there was anything going on in the rink. I think it had all stopped by then but there was a live band. People were packed in, sitting on the cement steps and standing crammed in and even though it was raining lightly people stood and watched, umbrellas folded. One woman had short red red hair and was dress in a red polka dot mini skirt, white vest, white legs and was dancing. Next to her was a guy in the plaid mac lumberjack shirt, holding a Mountie nutcracker. As they danced I joined in and there was another guy just dancing with anyone who would dance.

One of my friends was wearing a red velvet dress with white fur and a matching red sequin santa hat. We joined in the dancing as much as we could and when I accidentally lightly bopped a guy in the head with the umbrella I was dancing with, I apologized and then told him it was good luck. He just laughed, no dirty looks. Truly for the thousands of people, there was nothing but euphoric happiness and maybe a bit of overwhelmed stunned looks. There was one couple, their faces fully painted with Canadian flags, their clothes matching, just sitting against a wall looking exhausted. I didn’t see any porta potties though I hear there were a few but there were obviously way too few and the clean-up today in parkades and out of the way places is not pretty.

We passed a band playing on the street; a bit of funk reggae and they were pretty good. We danced (a few of us) there for a bit as well. I have no idea who any of these bands were and I really couldn’t keep my directions straight with all the people. We eventually made it over to Yaletown, where the streets were also blocked off for the sea of bodies. There were white tents set up in front of some restaurants, probably to fit extra bodies. Two of my friends had left by this point, already hitting the full point for crowds (how can you tell we’re not in our twenties).

Every place had a line-up that would have taken at least an hour to get into. We finally wandered into one restaurant, a sake bar. I didn’t have my glasses but can read okay close up. I had to ask my friend if the prices for the bottles of sake were real: $132, $156, etc. No wonder this restaurant didn’t have a crowd. We ordered a bottle of wine and small appies/tapas as everything in Vancouver is called regardless of ethnicity of the restaurant. I split two deep fried prawns and one scalloped covered in coconut like, very light and crispy batter. They were actually very good and cost $11, an average cost for very little fancy food called tapas.

After that, around midnight, we were all full on the crowd fount. People were still going pretty strong but there is only so much people watching you can take. The trains were moderately full leaving downtown and now completely empty entering. Still the tired partygoers kept their good mood and there was relatively little bad attitude given the numbers we had in a party that rivaled everyday life in India, and Mardi Gras mixed together.

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Ebb and Flow of the Olympics

We’re nearing the end of the Olympics and this is partly what it’s been like on the streets: traffic has been far better than normal. There are fewer cars, even if going away from the downtown core, so either everyone is at the Olympics or they left town. Which means I’m not looking forward to Monday morning traffic, which will be heavy and chaotic.

This lack of car traffic has all translated into a feast of famine aspect for many merchandisers and restaurants in the city. There are so many people in the downtown core that even the street food vendors are making thousands to tens of thousands a day, and the restaurants have constant lines. Olympic related merchandise is selling but little else. Yet if you’re in the food and drink business you are truly making a killing.

On Commercial Drive near where I live, it’s a different story. On Tuesday night I walked up the street to have a drink at one of my regular spots, The Libra Room. I passed the Latin Quarter and thought it was closed. Not a soul inside except one person at the bar watching a TV screen, and he was most likely staff. A couple of the Italian restaurants were equally void of life. Only the Charlatan, a sports bar with several large screens, was busy because of the Olympic sports. The Libra Room had a few people but they were way down on patrons and I’ve never seen the owner looking so unhappy.

What this means in the long run is that there are a few places and people making a true killing downtown and business has gone down everywhere else. In total revenue for the city, it is probably higher than normal but not as high as one might think. And yet, everyone who has been going downtown says that it’s crazy but it’s fun and the energy is so positive. Some people have just gone to people-watch.

Although I hate crowds I was planning on going down tomorrow night but I’ve now injured myself at the gym so it might not be possible. And should I manage it, one friend lives downtown so we can take refuge when it gets too cold or wet or crowded.

This is also the end of February. Two years ago, come March, I started this blog and have tried to write five days a week except for when I was on holidays. I think it might be possible to run out of opinion on things but I’m not there yet. However, even though some of these pieces have less research than they would if I was employed to write them, they still take time. I will be cutting back to writing three times a week as of March, hopefully giving me more time to write on other things, such as my novel or short stories.

With that note, Aberrant Dreams is relaunching with hopefully fewer of the time snags that caught them last go round. I will be back editing as senior fantasy editor. If you want to check out the site (still developing but submissions can be sent in) then go here http://aberrantdreams.com/content/ and read the guidelines. It’s hard to run any kind of magazine these days and Joe Dickerson and Lonny Harper have been trying it without any sponsors so it’s out of pocket for them to pay people. Some day I’d like to run my magazine as well but that will take some $$ first.

So in the meantime, go enjoy the last of the Olympics any way you want, whether that’s staying far away, just checking stats on the computer or going into the throng. And here’s to all the amazing athletes who have competed, whether they won or not. They’re still the best in the world and have dedicated time and energy to their achievements and sports. Go World!

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Cursed Restaurant Locations

CBC Radio One was talking about the cursed restaurant phenomenon yesterday. A timely topic for Hallowe’en. The curse involves numerous restaurants going through a death knell in one location. I can’t speak to the 1809 W. 1st Avenue curse, but it’s gone through three restaurants in three years, I believe.

I can speak to other cursed areas, or deadzones as I call them When I worked in Kits there was a deadzone on the north side of the west 2000 block. I don’t know what was there originally but it was right in the heart of numerous clothing stores, restaurants and other commercial venues. Le Grec, an extremely successful Greek tapas (or mezes)  restaurant started on Commercial Dr. They decided to expand and move to the larger area in Kits, 2041 W. 4th Ave.

Well, they lasted a year maybe two. Their fame didn’t seem to travel and the restaurant was only ever partially filled. After that, there came a string of restaurants, all suffering the same fate. For a short time the location became some sort of import store, which also succumbed to the deadzone fate. At some point the front of the place was renovated to open it up but the restaurant that went in also fizzled away. Then Hell’s Kitchen went in, with massive renovations and success at last. Maybe it’s because their name includes hell or they sold their souls or that they sell pizzas both eat-in and take-out but they have had a longer success than any predecessor.

The place where Le Grec began on 1447 Commercial Drive, had been an Italian restaurant in its heyday. Then it had sat empty for years until Le Grec moved in. After they went to Kits, Bukowski’s moved in. Maybe Bukowski’s had a heyday with musicians and readings and I seem to recall something about it but it slowly died down. It still drew people in but it never seemed full. I believe they had a fairly good run of years before their eventual slide.

After they faded away another restaurant went in. They painted the walls a sort of bloody red and had some type of Asian fusion food thing going on. They even had bluesy musicians in there. But even though they’d only taken a month or two for renos, nobody came. I went in a few times the food wasn’t bad, but people avoided the place like the plague. I think there gets to be a point where a place can’t generate clientele and then anyone going in sees the emptiness and changes their minds.

The unique aspects of this location is that it’s smallish and three tiered. The top tier was loungelike and restauranty. The middle tier was always restaurant and the bottom tier, farthest from street level, was the bar.

After the Asian fusion place, another place with something like soul Seoul food took over but didn’t even make it a year. The restaurant sat for a bit and then underwent a massive renovation, where the people who own the Five Point, a very successful sports bar/restaurant on Main St., took it over. The Charlatan changed the layout and put the bar up front on street level with big sports TV screens. They expanded the middle section and kept a bar/lounge area at the bottom. The red walls stayed but were toned to dried blood red with more subdued lighting. The sports TVs alone have kept the Charlatan popular along with pretty good food. So they too have broken the deadzone curse.

There seem to be several things that curse a restaurant. It could be a combo of bad management, decor, food, location, management or all of these. It takes breaking the perceived mindset of the public who may place an aversion on the area from past experiences. Whatever the case, some restaurants really struggle to get going in certain locations. I don’t think anyone is standing out front and saying, curse you 1809 W. first. After all, what would be the point? But the public will also need to take the plunge when something new opens up and the restaurateurs will have to be open to criticisms to keep the place going.

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An Appetizer by Any Other Name

A month ago my brother was visiting from Edmonton. He wanted to hear blues music (jazz, if not blues) and I tried to find a restaurant with said music. We found one in Yaletown (and spent a half hour finding parking) and finally went into the restaurant called Capone’s. As you can guess, it’s an Italian theme, with some pasta dishes on the menu. Not particularly memorable food either.

But there on the first page was “Tapas.” My brother raised an eyebrow and said, “We call these appetizers in Edmonton.” And you would think in an Italian restaurant these dishes would be called “antipasti,” not the Spanish “tapas.”

Well, I explained to my brother the new wave of tapas bars or restaurants in Vancouver. If you’re a restaurant you have a tapas menu and on it you list all sorts of sumptuous morsels. You bring them out on simple plates, but elegantly and artistically arranged. Then no one seems to mind that they’re paying $12 for three scallops. Tapas menus tend to range from $10-$14 with $12 being the average.

If you switch out the word tapas and pop in “appetizer” suddenly it’s not as appetizing and people would protest paying the higher price for just an appetizer. Granted we don’t need as much food as our hunter-gather ancestors did but the tapas drapery does seem to pull the wool over people’s eyes. Sure some restaurants do have appetizers reaching that range but the prices are not comparable always to the style of restaurant. Stella’s in East Van is a Belgium beer and tapas bar. A little cultural mixing there. Their dishes are pretty tasty.

Last night I was at Habit on Main St. They have a small menu with items ranging from $9-$18. There is no true differentiation between an appetizer and the main meal and the small menu says right at the top, Best to be shared. Some of these items that we had–the beet salad and the crispy tofu with eggplant–could have been considered tapas, but they were much larger portions and though two of us shared, these dishes could have been tapassed out to four people easily. If they had been listed as tapas, they would have been half the size for the same price.

So next time you’re sitting down to an artistic repast of bite-size tapas, presume you’re paying for the art and the name, and enjoy. Oh, and chew slowly to get your money’s worth.

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