Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Participating in the National Novel Writing Month

The previous posts brought me to the end of October last year, when I arrived near Perpignan, at my sister's vineyard. I have blogged about getting ready for NaNoWriMo, and about leaving Singapore, though I hadn't specified that I've been able to do what I did since thanks to my sister and her partner who invited me to spend time at their place over the winter.

I had a few goals my family and friends have been supporting me in:

  1. Writing a novel
  2. My drivers license 
  3. Ease my transition back to France after 10 years abroad (admin paperwork, etc)
  4. Figure out what & where was next.
I'll focus on my experience with NaNoWriMo for this post, which has been a fascinating exercise. 

I've had ambitions to write a novel for a long time, and had set those aside for a long time too. I checked and the most I'd written towards one novel was about 6,000 words, and that was 15 years ago. I'd never written 50,000 words of the same story, which is the NaNoWriMo challenge goal.

I was writing on a regular basis since the month of July with the intention of choosing the main theme and story for the novel I'd be writing in November. I also spent time on writing advice blogs about storytelling, novel structure, characterisation, worldbuilding, etc.

Of course by the time November 1st 2014 arrived, with months of preparation time, set up at my sister's place in the countryside ready to write a novel, I still hadn't chosen what it would be about. As you can see from the graph I didn't add words for the first few days, instead scrambling to get a storyline together from one of the ideas I was toying with. 

The single most common piece of advice from professional writers is that to be a writer, you have to write. Silly yet true. I wasn't really satisfied that I'd chosen the right story to tell, but then I just focused everything on writing for word count. The graph above and the word count were paramount. 

I quickly prepared a storyline and followed it as best I could, other than that I didn't know what I was writing about until I sat down every day and wrote it. The most difficult part was to keep writing regardless of all the considerations going through my mind. 

I didn't know anything about the topic at hand; I'd keep writing. 

I was appalled at how bad my writing was; I'd keep writing.

That piece of dialogue was all wrong; I'd keep writing.

This or that part of the story didn't make sense; I'd keep writing.

You get the drift.

I didn't spend time on the NaNoWriMo support forums and only read the pep talk emails from published authors - which were very encouraging and arrived in my inbox at excellent times throughout the month to keep me on track. Towards the end of November, I admit I was fed up with writing stuff I wasn't satisfied with and not going back to read and improve at all, though I would still recommend participating if you want to write a novel.

I think the main thing I learned and I proved to myself out of the exercise is that I am capable of writing a novel, or at the very least the amount of words to make up a novel. I'm proud I completed the challenge successfully and have a first draft to a novel, more than I'd ever completed before. It is definitely a very ugly duckling of a first draft, but one nonetheless. 

On the downside, I took 6 months to reread what I wrote. At first I had a hard time being with how bad it was and got busy with other things. I only finished it this month. It is all wrong and pretty bad, but I'm happy there are some worthwhile ideas and passages, particularly in the second half of the book. I'm going to keep working on it now.

Monday, 25 May 2015

By the Atlantic Ocean in Lacanau

Surfers on the beach in Lacanau, October 2014.
I left things off in Paris in the last post, and as a reminder in October 2014 I was on my way to my sister's place in the South of France near Perpignan to spend time there, and particularly to participate in NaNoWriMo, writing a novel. Before getting there I had a last stop on the way to visit my oldest friend and his family. They live close to Bordeaux, it was the school holidays and so we rented a house on the Ocean side in Lacanau, pretty famous for surfing. On that front it didn't disappoint, the waves were huge. My mate JB said he'd never seen them so high and was delighted to go surfing.

The weather was still gorgeous as you can see from this picture, and I even went in to play in the waves. I didn't spend a lot of time, frankly I thought the water was ridiculously cold, but I admit it was invigorating. 

I am the godfather of their second son, and it was also their first son's birthday, so it was great to spend time with the children. It is another reason I moved back to Europe, to be closer to the friends' and family children who grow up so fast and that I'd like to see more often than I could when I lived in Singapore.

I've known JB since I was 6 years old and there aren't many people who know me as well as he does, it was great to catch up with him (as it always is) and take stock of my little European tour so far, musing about where I'd like to live next and hearing where he was at too. I was thinking I might be ready to move back to Paris, though wasn't too sure. He recommended holding my horses and going back for a second visit with work in mind rather than leisure and catching up with friends.

I had done quite a bit of considering where to work and live between London, Amsterdam, and Paris in the previous three weeks, but on the other hand not as much as planned about writing daily and preparing for NaNoWriMo and it was approaching fast - only a few days left to choose what my novel would be about. I had been writing about many random ideas since leaving Singapore, focusing on daily word count, as well as reading up advice for novel writers but still hadn't settled on a story or idea just yet. 

While the Atlantic Ocean was a great spot to sort of conclude on my European tour, as I got on the train to Perpignan I was conscious of running out of time for the novel writing challenge. I opened my laptop on the train that day and determined to figure out the story I'd be writing.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Un passage à Paris

Walking around Paris, here behind l'île de la Cité and Notre Dame Cathedral.
I am still updating my blog with my travels at the end of last year after moving from Singapore, next in line after Brussels and Lille I spent a week in Paris. After I arrived, I realised it had been years since I had spent a full week in Paris, at least 5 or 6 years, maybe longer. Since I'd moved to Asia I had passed through, but only for a night or two.

I really had the feeling of being back home, as much as with being in London, or possibly slightly more. I grew up not too far from Paris, in the far suburbs, and lived there for about 8 years afterwards. I started by catching up with old friends with whom I played table top and live action role-playing games back in the day, we had organised for me to prepare a session of one my favourite games, 7th Sea and I had spent time writing a scenario to get ready. We also had drinks at one of their hangouts, a medieval themed & tabletop gamer bar in central Paris, Les Caves Alliées. An excellent address for any RPG geek visiting Paris, right next to the Odeon & St Germain des Prés, it was good fun to catch up with friends I hadn't seen in a very long time.

And that's a lot of what I did during the week, similar to what I did in London and Amsterdam in the previous weeks: catching up with friends and walking around the city while thinking about whether I'd like to come back and live there. Of course, I also tried a few French craft beers and excellent wines from independent winemakers with a good friend who has a wine cellar shop.

A Parisian institution, Bouillon Chartier - highly recommended
 Other highlights that week included lunch with my good friend Elo at one of the oldest and most traditional eateries in the French capital: Bouillon Chartier. I hadn't been in a long while and it was as great as it used to be, not necessarily exceptional cuisine but all the traditional French bistrot fare at a affordable prices in a beautiful setting.

Actors' salute, Mnouchkine's production of Shakespeare's MacBeth at the Theatre du Soleil. 

I don't know much about stage theatre and so hadn't heard of Ariane Mnouchkine who is very famous in France and was debuting a new production of MacBeth. The friends I was staying with happened to have an extra ticket and I thoroughly enjoyed it; it was an amazing stage production, extremely well played, and really impressive overall.

The week flew by and by the time I left I felt pretty good about the idea of potentially moving back to Paris, though I also realised the weather had been exceptionally good, as a couple of friends pointed out and suggested I go back at another time and check it out again, more on in a following post.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Beers in Brussels, lunch in Lille

At Moeder Lambic Fontainas, Brussels
I had never been to Brussels, so I though leaving Amsterdam last year that it would be a good opportunity to try out some Belgian beers, and what the European wave of the 'craft beer revolution' looked like in a country with so much beer tradition.

A quick online search later and I was walking around the old centre of the city, resolutely headed for Moeder Lambic's 2nd branch on Place Fontainas - apparently the best place for great beers in Brussels, both new and traditional. I was lucky the day was nice enough to sit on the terrace and start the afternoon with a Zona Cesarini, a fantastic IPA from Toccalmatto brewery in Italy. I had heard great things about this brewery and hadn't the chance of trying one before. I thought the little sample of malt next served along the beer was a nice touch.

Looking at their menu and getting excited about the variety of beers on offer, I devised a cunning plan: stay there all afternoon with my laptop and write (while trying out some new beers)!

I tried several old and new Belgian breweries, and my favourite turned out to be Brasserie de la Senne - if you come across any of their beers, I highly recommend them. They are fairly recent and mix Belgian traditional brewing with other influences, including from the American 'craft beer revolution'. Being in Brussels and the Gueuze / Lambic (spontaneously fermented beers, usually pretty sour) being like holy for the area, I was tempted to try one again, but my palate is definitely not getting used to the sour beers just yet.

La Grand Place, Brussels
Following a productive afternoon writing, I wandered to an institution like brasserie to have mussels and fries for dinner - stereotypical, but there are some things you just have to eat when you're a tourist! The Grand Place looked like a thing from a fairy tale at night, a nice place for a leisurely digestive walk after dinner.

La Grand Place, Lille

After the Grand Place of Brussels, I was on the Grand Place of Lille the following morning. It is only thirty minutes away on the train, and I had a few hours to kill the following day, so I stopped over for a walk. I was meeting friends in Paris that evening and it turned out to be cheaper to take two trains with a stopover of a few hours. I'd heard Lille was a nice town and it seems to be, I stopped on a terrace for coffee and wrote for a couple of hours. After hesitating for a while on the right place to have lunch at, I opted for a quick picnic: A piece of sharp cheese and some dry cured ham from a nice deli, a piece of bread from a good boulangerie and done. It was just time to get on the train to Paris after lunch, back home - one of them at least.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Looking for Dutch roots

Statue of a funky dude eating a raw herring on Scheveningen beach, by The Hague
Continuing with my little European tour, I met with friends who were on a course (I'm doing it year more on that in another post), and it was taking place in The Hague, near Scheveningen beach. I was glad the Indian summer trend continued for a few more days, and we were able to have a lovely lunch in the sun on the beach, not sure how usual that it for mid-October.

I wanted to spend a few days in Amsterdam, because I hadn't spent much time there at all and had spotted the city as a potentially nice place to live: a few excellent creative agencies have set up their European headquarters there, it has all the life and activity of a capital city without being as huge as London, for exemple. Plus my father being Dutch and me having a very Dutch name, I thought I should spend a few days and consider if I'd like to live or settle there.

Writing away with beer & bitterballen!
I'm not sure about the roots, but it was lovely to spend quiet time walking around Amsterdam, sitting at various cafés to write and have bitterballen (they're addictive). I also visited the Van Gogh museum and the Rijksmuseum, both were fantastic - Van Gogh was great, though I was slightly disappointed to figure out that The Starry Night is in fact at the MoMA in New York. Actually now I write about it, I was also disappointed that a fire drill interrupted my visit of the Van Gogh museum and  after standing 15min in chilly drizzle I opted to leave it and head to the Rijksmuseum, and I enjoyed this one more in the end. Fortunately the nice weather came back the following day.

Restaurant De Kas, in Amsterdam
My elder brother, who is a chef, had told me the level of fine dining in Amsterdam was excellent, so I decided to check it out. After doing some research, I had a nice walk out of the main centre of town to an old green house in a park that had been converted into Restaurant de Kas. They grow fruits and vegetables on site, and also have a dedicated farm in the countryside, they cook mostly (if not entirely) with their own ingredients. It was a great and beautiful lunch, though I was disappointed to get the full flavours because I'd caught a little bit of a cold the day before, probably under the drizzle waiting by the Van Gogh museum.

I also had a few interesting conversations meeting a few people in the advertising / marketing industry to talk about the market and agency life in Amsterdam, and unexpectedly caught up one evening with an old friend I hadn't seen in ten years and randomly realised via Facebook he'd moved from Belgium to Amsterdam.

I enjoyed the few days I spent there, but aside childhood memories from visiting family and a certain familiarity with the country that I enjoy, I also felt how I'm not particularly Dutch. I didn't grow up in The Netherlands, I don't speak the language, nor do I know much about it culturally. I'd live there if an interesting job opportunity arises, but thought I probably wouldn't pursue it actively.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Babies, beers, and burgers in London

I dont' know about you, but I can't resist a good alliteration when I come across one, particularly as easily accurate as this title. I wonder if it predates my working in advertising and marketing.

Stage two of update posts, I flew to London from Mumbai in early October 2014. I lived there for close to seven years and have both family and great friends there too so it's like a second home. I hadn't visited since early 2012 so it was long overdue to catch up with friends, as well as walk around and sort of catch up with the city itself.

The weather was lovely, a surprising Indian summer - and ironic in the circumstances - yet certainly welcome to ease me back into seasons after a few years near the Equator.

Starting with the babies I finally met my nephew Hunter for the first time, as well as Bella, the daughter of my dear friends Abby and Graham. I'm not sure what to add here, I don't usually write about babies at length - or at all. They're beautiful, cute, smiling babies - actually toddlers now as they've both just turned one.

I was also looking forward to checking the new and hipsterised craft beer scene in London - which barely existed when I left in 2011. Brewdog were still small, only available in a couple of bars in London and at social networking events like the first Twestival if I remember correctly. Now they have many bars of their own around London and are sold in Sainsbury's. I enjoyed checking out Maltby Street market in SE1, around the corner from where I used to live and work. There are like six or eight craft breweries under the Network Rail arches now. I loved the Kernel beers, I thought their reputation is totally deserved.

I organised catching up with a few friends at Brewdog in Camden which was an excellent evening -thanks again to those who came by, you know who you are ^^. I also managed to organise a couple of very interesting work related meetings during the week.

While I loved the food in India, I understandably didn't eat much beef and so I was glad to go and check out this other wildly popular hipster food trend: the humble burger, turned into a fancy food stuff. Plus I'd participated in the Kickstarter organised by Burger Bear so I wanted to try them.

Burger Bear @ Stokey Bear on Stoke Newington High Street, N16 
Over the course of a week I tried a burger in a nice café on Regent's Canal (nice burger), Meat Mission by Hoxton Square (It was dry, wasn't too crazy about it), Brewdog bar Camden (my favourite, actually), and Burger Bear in Stoke Newington on my last night in London (good burger but I think I was burgered out by that point).

Besides meeting babies and stuffing myself with craft beers and burgers, another idea was to think about where I wanted to live back in Europe.  I left after a week thinking I loved London and wanted to be close enough to visit for work or leisure on a regular basis, yet not live there. That's how it is for now at least and that's what I thought of while walking around the city and before I flew off to the Netherlands for the next leg of my little European tour.

Saturday, 16 May 2015

More of India

Selfie in Varkala, Kerala

It's definitely not new news but I'm sure you can all relate to how time flies; already 8 months since my month in India and it's about time to update my blog. I'll start with the rest of my fantastic trip to India in September 2014.

After I left my friends in Pune, I decided to limit the amount of destinations I would visit and give myself more time for writing over doing touristy stuff so I stuck to the southwest coast, starting with Goa.

Walking around Goa

Goa was off season, which was probably better, certainly quieter. I enjoyed discovering the area, managing to get a good deal on a brand new hotel, and one of the only bars open on the beach nearby to sit and write to the sound of the waves. I gave myself a break from drinking and focused on writing - anything as long as I hit my daily word count. Developing texts from random ideas, brainstorming for the theme of the novel I'd write in November for NaNoWriMo. On the other hand, I didn't like the big tourist feel, I had a tough time finding good food - aside from a couple of exceptions it was generally sub-par and overpriced touristy fare. Many of the better restaurants were closed for the off season. I moved on South to Kerala with the night train after a few days.

The famous Chinese fishing nets in Fort Kochi, Kerala

I loved what little I've seen of Kerala and would definitely go back. It was touristy but the off season was a plus, and generally it's pretty laid back. The food and weather were fantastic - just the end of the rainy season, not high season yet. I found some lovely spots to spend time writing and enjoyed walking around Fort Kochi.

The backwaters of Kerala, near Alleppey

The main tour I went on was a day boating in the backwaters of Kerala and it was beautiful - I would recommend this tour, a day with a traditional row boat in the little canals, over spending time in a houseboat. Those are huge, the mass tourist trade and sheer amount of them have heavily polluted the waters of the lake, and they can't go in the small canals.

My last stop in Kerala was on the cliffs of Varkala, again very tourist but it was off season - it's a beautiful area as well. Staying in touristy areas worked for my schedule, I didn't want to go too far off the main roads this time to spend more time sitting on terraces writing (with wifi access) and off season Varkala was perfect for this.

I hesitated on the next destination, and in the end chose to come back to Pune and spend more time with my friends there, whom I probably wouldn't see again for a while. We managed to organise spending the last few days in Mumbai together. Four weeks had gone by in a flash, it was time to fly back to Europe and spend a few days in London.

Many people told me beforehand that I would love or hate India - I loved it. I loved the atmosphere, the food was awesome, and the people were great. It feels like a bit of a mad-house at times and I'm not certain I'd want to live there though I definitely want to go visit again and experience more of the country.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Lavasa: corporate dream, ghost town, or both?

One of the utopian type advertising posters in Lavasa, branding courtesy of Landor from what I read.
While in India, I had an unexpected and pretty amazing opportunity to visit a city called Lavasa, situated in the Western Ghats, between Mumbai and Pune, though technically closer to Pune. I was staying with friends in Pune and friends of theirs involved with the local branch of the British Business Group were visiting Lavasa in preparation for the Christmas Gala event they were organising in the city's conference centre.

My friends in Pune had mentioned to me a new city on the way from Mumbai airport after I’d landed but I hadn’t really understood what they meant at the time. I hadn’t done any research and didn’t have any particular expectations. I was just told it was a brand new city project, initiated by an extremely wealthy building and property company, though apparently almost devoid of inhabitants. 

 We drove to the Ghats, a chain of old mountains reduced to almost hills running all along the Southwestern coast of India, several quite famous and popular British colonial hill stations are around there. The weather, quite clear in Pune, started clouding over as soon we arrived in the Ghats, and as we drove up in altitude we were quickly and completely in the clouds and mist. After a little over two hours of fast driving (double the speed most Indians drive at), nothing was around but a single quite recently built windy road. We finally arrived to a large portal or gate built over the road with a guardian in the front. It was raining and grey, I didn’t envy the guy's job on that day. We waited for some other people to meet us just beyond the gate and I took advantage of a lull in the rain to go to a panorama point, indicated as such by a handy sign though interestingly there wasn’t any parking space for a car to stop nearby.

The city view in the valley from the entrance, I thought it was a just a bad day until I was told half the year was like this.
I could barely see the town at the bottom of the valley for the clouds and mist, built around a lake. They had also built chalets a little higher from the lake on the hill sides. A few other buildings seemed to be still in construction. I was told people visited for the weekend like they did the other Hill Stations, though was told this was  also meant to be a stand alone city and they intended to attract education institutions and then students, and then people to purchase all these properties. I asked how students who don’t typically have that much cash would travel to this empty ghost town given there wasn’t any public transport. It was definitely far from the train lines, and a bus would take hours from the nearest large city.
The mostly empty houses along the lake
And more houses and structures being built everywhere.
 We drove down to the conference and events centre where I found out Accor Hotels was managing this whole venture, their logo was around the deserted exhibition centre, and their brands were present elsewhere, such as the Hotel Mercure we had lunch at.

The whole place was being drenched in downpours every few minutes while we were there. One of the employees told us this particular valley received the highest rainfall of India and it rained for 5-6 months non stop every year, often more than that. 

The exhibition centre looked both brand new and overused. I supposed the wear and tear of the rain might be to blame for the sorry state of the chairs in the conference rooms.

I asked how many people actually lived in the hundreds of apartments I could see along the lake, and was told it was perhaps two hundred. I spotted less than a dozen occupied apartments from clothes drying, furniture, or curtains. I still suspect most of those are the builders who I could see working on new structures nearby. A parking lot and more apartments, apparently.

Close up on the Lavasa International Conference Centre.
Before leaving, we went to the visitor’s centre where we admired posters touting Lavasa as the free eco city of the future. Nothing looked particularly eco or sustainable as far as I could see. They gave us a video presentation of the plans for the whole valley, we were told this was the first of seven future towns in the complex of Lavasa through a well crafted 3D animation flying over the valley, each new town would be specialised in a branch of industry, and that this was the first city in India entirely created, developed, and managed by a corporation.

I felt we were all listening to a talk about the beauty of the emperor’s new clothes.

As we left under more rain and grey, I couldn’t help but think of several blog posts I’d seen with photos of similar ghost towns in China, and that in the real world, building it doesn’t mean they’ll come - at all. 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Beers & Bollywood: My first weekend in India

Independence Brewing Co. brand new 1,000L brewhouse
My first weekend in India can be conveniently summed up into an alliteration, though fortunately there is more to it than that. I landed in Mumbai on a Friday morning expecting to immediately experience the crazy India everybody had been telling me about as soon as I walk out of customs. You know the idea; I pictured hundreds of people waiting on other hundreds of passengers walking out with me, being solicited by numerous taxi drivers or tourist touts, etc. Instead, the brand new T2 International terminal opened about 6 months ago was close to empty. My good friends Sangita and Richard came to pick me up at the airport and we were off to Pune where they live, a fast growing business and tech hub a few hours from Mumbai.

On the Saturday they asked me what I wanted to do and I quickly remembered reading up about the craft beer revolution coming to India with a few different microbreweries and brewpubs, one of which had recently opened in Pune, Independence Brewing Company. I particularly remembered the photos looked amazing and they feature Greg Koch from Stone Brewing as a Chief Advisor and co-founder, and whether you like Stone or not you can deny he’s a pretty big deal for beer geeks.

The place looks as stunning in real life as in on the photos, really big bar and restaurant area, large brewery section with a gleaming new 1,000L brewhouse and 9 fermentation tanks imported from the US, impressive material!

Now for the interesting part: they have been open for over 6 months and haven’t brewed a single drop of beer yet. They don’t have the license to brew alcohol yet, they’ve apparently been stuck with administrative issues, and according to what I’ve heard that may also mean someone is waiting for, or negotiating a baksheesh – or as Darshan Jariwala’s character Vivek in Million Dollar Arm says “it’s not a bribe, we just bypass the system” (I watched it on the plane over, cute film). From a few other conversations I’ve had, this seems to be a regular feature for anyone trying to build a new business venture in India, and the same reasons Adi from the late Jungle Beer told me he opened in Singapore rather than India.

We still had a lovely evening, the food was delicious and we sampled some nice draft beer from Gateway Brewery in Mumbai. According to what the guys said at IBC, they should be ready to start brewing at the end of September, I wish them all the best!

On Sunday we were invited to the opening of a new bar in Pune, a new business launched by the brother of Bollywood superstar and Miss World 2000, Priyanka Chopra. I of course had no idea who my friend Sangita was talking about and had to look Priyanka up on Wikipedia. I find it always really interesting to wake up to the fact that a country of 1.2 Billion people has a whole huge set of interests and media fascinations I barely know anything about.

At first I thought the evening wasn’t really my kind of thing, a bit too elite, and then started getting interested for the same reason, as a pretty awesome opportunity to mingle with Pune’s high and mighty – plus free drinks! I ended up having a lot of fun, danced, and joined in the crowd of raving fans taking pictures when Priyanka showed up. By the end of the evening it was getting a little decadent, bartenders putting the whole bar on fire, serving spirits poured directly from the bottles to people's mouths.

It’s also interesting to me as I’m not a huge fan of any celebrities; I was also hoping to learn something by joining in. I participated in a game she launched to give out gifts: this white guy here jumped the highest and got a gift from Priyanka herself. I’m not sure I understand any more the fan phenomenon after the experience, though I knew the contents of the gift were meaningless, what really mattered is I had one from Priyanka and the look on people’s faces because of it was impressive.

I also just read this really interesting piece about Bollywood fans turning on to a journalist, which sheds a little more light on the phenomenon. I think they’re pretty crazy; of course nothing wrong with loving a genre, an artist, a movie, whatever – but once the amount of significance invested in it becomes fanaticism, it also becomes scary.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Good bye Singapore

I'm about to board my flight to India and I finally have a few minutes to write this, not sure I'll have time to properly do it justice, I may add more later on.

I flew in to Singapore on the 3rd of September 2012, and started working at Saatchi & Saatchi on the 5th, exactly two years ago. Everything fell into place perfectly in my first few weeks in Singapore and it felt right; the first apartment I visited had everything I wanted in features, price, and in short walking distance from the office. I wasn't too sure how much I would like Singapore though fortunately it all turned out great. I've had a fantastic experience, made great friends, started home brewing beer, had way too much food and craft beers and regained all the weight I'd lost while traveling before landing in the Lion City.

Thank you everyone who made this experience so special, my flight is boarding so it's time to look ahead to new adventures!