Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Christmas hamper (London)


I was walking down my road one evening after Christmas when I came upon a black rubbish bag sitting out on the pavement atop a bamboo chest, which was obviously to be thrown out as well.  “That bamboo chest is in good condition,” I thought.  “It’d be a shame to throw it out.”  The chest was not empty like I’d thought, so I opened it to see what was inside, and discovered a leg, among other things.

I enlisted the help of the neighbour in my old flat, one floor above me (I’d put her name forward for my flat when I was moving out), and together we carried the chest home.  Once home, I was able to examine the contents at a more leisurely pace than out on a street pavement, and found that there were actually two legs, not one.  Whole legs of parma ham!  With the skin on and complete with bone!  Why would anyone throw anything so expensive out?

I went through the rest of the contents, and found: a bag of amaretti (Italian almond-flavoured biscuits), a block of parmesan cheese (vacuum-sealed), straw on the bottom of the chest and some wine tags.  The lid had a plain sticker on it, saying:  “Miss Mary Smith, xx Leigh Road, Highbury, Inghilterra.”  It was obviously a Christmas hamper with the bottles of vino removed.  Perhaps an unwelcome admirer from Italy, hence throwing out the rest of the hamper.  I could even understand why the much-prized hugely-expensive parma ham was binned, as one would need a slicer, or it’d at least be extremely fiddly to cut through the skin and fat to get at the ham, heavenly delicious though it might be.  But the parmesan cheese still in its vacuum pack?  Maybe not a cheese eater??

My landlord Fred knew a Mr Pezzani whose house was 10 minutes’ walk away by Highbury Fields, who used to run an Italian restaurant, so we invited him round to try and solve the mystery.  He sniffed, scraped, and tasted a bit of one leg, and pronounced it perfectly edible, seconding my puzzlement.  As he had a professional slicer at home, I gave him one of the legs.  Every two weeks, he’d slice up a batch and deliver them, and I’d give some to Fred and Nora.  This went on for quite a few months, and when the supply from the first leg was exhausted, I gave Mr Pezzani the second leg, and we started the next cycle of fortnightly parma ham for another few months.

Mrs Pezzani, in the meantime, had gone to Italy on holiday and returned, reporting she’d had a look around the shops, and found that my block of parmesan cheese was worth something like £120, as it was the Regina brand—the queen of parmesan cheese in more than just its brand name.

So, retrieving that binned bamboo chest to recycle it had netted me something like a few hundred pounds sterling of fine Italian preserved food!

(London, 1987)

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The pay phone (London)


I moved into Belfiore Lodge in Highbury on 28 December 1985 after waiting for a year and a half for one of the attic flats.  It was a Victorian house that looked like it’d come out of a Dracula film set, with a Virginia creeper covering the front wall, honeysuckle and sweet peas covering the side wall, and turrets and a wind vane on the roof.  The interior was equally time-frozen with, among other things going back to the 1940s–1960s, a pay phone on the wall in the ground floor hall.  There was a bell on the ground floor, and another on the attic floor just outside my door, so that all eight flats (from basement to attic) could hear the ringing.

One day, I was at home all day, marking 200 ‘O’ level Chinese exam papers when the phone rang.  Not expecting any calls, I ignored it.  The ringing went on for a long time, then stopped.  A few minutes later, it started again, going on and on and on.  This happened at least half a dozen times, each time ringing for ages.  It was driving me to distraction.  I wanted to run downstairs, pick up the phone and shout at the caller, “Will you stop ringing!  You’ve been ringing non-stop.  Can’t you tell nobody’s home!?!”

(London, 1986)

The glass boot (Vienna, Heidelberg and London)


A Singapore childhood friend, Jin, came to London for a 10-week course at the London Business School, then went on a 21-day package tour of 20 European cities with his wife.  In Vienna, they played a game involving taking turns to drink lager out of a glass boot.  When the lager got down to the level of the horizontal section of the boot, especially if it was confined to the tip of the boot, the drinker had to tilt the boot gently or the lager would suddenly gush out and splatter him/her, earning him/her a penalty drink.  It was a vicious cycle:  the more the drinker is penalised, the less able s/he is to handle the tilting of the boot, so the more s/he is penalised.

Jin and his wife loved the game, and thought, “We must get hold of one of these glass boots, so that we can play this game when we get home to Singapore.”  They were told that this game was one played in German-speaking countries.  The next stop, Heidelberg, was also their last Germanic venue, therefore their final opportunity to track down a glass boot.  They arrived at 4.30pm, half an hour before closing time, so they rushed around, scouring the shops, ignoring the famous castle.  Eventually, they got their glass boot.  Happy at last.

When they got back to London, they decided to do more shopping during their three-day stay.  As they emerged from Oxford Circus Tube station, the first thing that met their eyes was a shop window displaying these glass boots, and at a much lower price than what they’d paid in Heidelberg.

(Vienna, Heidelberg and London; 1985)

The assertiveness of Americans 03 (London)


An old friend Valerio’s American wife Natalie came over one summer to London with her sister Roberta on a short visit, and stayed at a hotel in Paddington.  The Paddington area has lots of multi-storey terraced houses turned into hotels.  

One day, Roberta was walking around their hotel room in only her underwear when Natalie spotted a man at a window on the same floor of a house across the road, looking their way.  Natalie drew Roberta’s attention to this, at which Roberta said, “It’s HIS problem, not mine!”

(London, 1990s)

The assertiveness of Americans 02 (London)


I was working at the Apple Mac in the equipment room on the third floor at SOAS on a Saturday, meeting a deadline, when a newly-arrived young American academic approached me, asking where he could get something to eat for lunch.  I took him to a sandwich bar near Russell Square Tube station.  He ordered a sandwich, it cost 42p, he paid, and got 8p in change.  He said to the woman, “I gave you a pound.  You should be giving me 58p in change.”  The woman said, “You did not give me a pound.”  The American said, “Yes, I did.”  The woman said, “But there’s no pound coin in my till, so you couldn’t have given me a pound.”  The American said, “That’s YOUR problem, not mine.  I know I gave you a pound.”


(London, 1990)