A Glimmer of Hope Amid the Muck

One of my guilty time-wasting pleasures is reading online newspapers. When I really feel like procrastinating, I read the comments too.

Mostly comments on news sites are godawful. The comments section of any news site is the absolute underbelly of the internet, where every troll comes out to show their true colours. If I need a quick dose of spite, misogyny, homophobia, and general unpleasantness to remind me of how human (all too human) we are, the comments section of any given news site will serve quite nicely.

Then, in the most unlikely of places, a comment stopped me in my tracks enough to spur me to blog about it. I say in the most unlikely of places because this was an article on Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, asking for advice on what to do about being continually invited to a neighbour’s dinner parties, where the only meal ever served is overcooked beef tenderloin and salad. Imagine — it’s a kind of First World Problem turned into a nightmare serial of mile-wide, inch-deep proportions. The comments almost universally castigated this callous couple and their ingratitude towards their kindly neighbours who perhaps prefer their beef well-done (and so what?).

Then I read the following:

10:55 AM on August 23, 2011
I had an uncle who lived through the holocaust in Auchwitz and Bergen Belsen as a child. As an adult, he kept strictly Kosher at home including seperate dishes and dishwashers. He also put 18 cents (the Hebrew number that correspons to the word for life) into a jar for every meal he and anyone else in his home ate, which was later donated to charity.

However, if he went to anyone else’s home, he ate whatever he was given. No requests. No special meals, no demands. If he went to your generous friend’s house he would eat anything they gave him, even pork ribs, then go home and put 18 cents into a jar to be thankful for the food and for being alive.

Perhaps you can think about that the next time well cooked beef tenderloin doesn’t meet your requirements in generously offered food and friendship.

This comment took a spurious complaint by a not-so-neighbourly couple, and in not even 200 words spun it into real lesson, especially relevant in this age of uber-foodie-ism and entitlement complexes. I might just be putting 18 cents in a jar for each meal I enjoy from now on.


My First Foray into Foraging

As part of the The Middle Kingdom of Weeds Festival (World Wide Festival of Psychogeography and Foraging 2011) I met up with a group of people to do a wander around Amsterdam Sloterdijk and forage for food. The walk also had a caloric analysis angle, wherein we’d weigh what we had foraged at the end and contrast that with the calories expended by foraging. The walk was hosted by Wilfried Hou Je Bek and Theun Karelse.

We used one of Wilfried’s .walk algorithms to direct our walking pattern. We each had a piece of paper with the algorithm on it, which was loosely based on the behaviour of the ghosts in Pac-Man. Embodying the spirit of Blinky, Inky, Pinky, and Clyde, we ventured off in search of things to eat in among the underpasses, roundabouts, highrises and industrial estates of this area of Amsterdam. I’ll admit, I was a little sceptical that we would find anything tasty.

But in the end, we did. We found numerous edible green things, including an abundance of wild rocket. Our teams also found a cousin of garlic, wild carrot, unripe sloeberries, and places where raspberry plants were thriving (but no berries today, unfortunately). We mapped some of these finds on the Boskoi Android app so other foragers can find these things.

We met back with the other team at the station and tallied up our goods. We determined that if we had to live off the day’s haul, we’d certainly starve. Key to better nutrition would be getting our hands on some nuts and berries, and adding a little hunting and fishing to the mix. I took some of the wild rocket home and was keen to eat it for lunch, and also compare it to the bag of rocket I had just purchased at Albert Heijn the day before.

Taste testing revealed that the store-bought rocket was considerably milder in flavour than the wild rocket, which had a wonderfully peppery bite. I sautéed the wild rocket with a bit of olive oil and some of the garlic-like stuff we had harvested. Very, very delicious. I think I might have to go back and forage some more.

View all photos here.


Finding Advice Online

I am a big believer in word of mouth and personal referrals, but I recently realised that more and more, I depend upon online testimonials from strangers when looking to purchase a product or service. For example, in the absence of a referral from a friend, several good online reviews from people on TripAdvisor can convince me to book one hotel over another. However, well-organised sites like TripAdvisor don’t exist for every type of product or service. In these cases, one is left combing search results for some kind of coherent positive or negative comment about the product or company you are searching for.

Aside from TripAdvisor-type sites, I have found personal blogs provide the highest quality results for fair information. I wrote about this initially in 2005, in a feature article for Broken Pencil magazine, wherein I describe how I was able to enjoy the best pizza in Montreal by reading and trusting a review by a local food blogger*. Five years later, personal reviews by bloggers are still helping me find relevant information, though I rarely provide this kind of information myself — until now. Having experienced some extreme highs and lows in terms of product expectations and customer service over the past year or so, I have created this very short list of UK-based companies that provoked extreme positive or negative reactions:

Two thumbs up:
Graze: Graze is a UK-wide healthy snack delivery service. The product itself is excellent, and there’s a fantastic selection. Using their website to plan deliveries and select food preferences was very easy — fun, even. Customer service is truly impressive, with polite and helpful responses that arrive quickly. On the rare occasion that a box failed to arrive or some food wasn’t quite right, customer service never quibbled, and always supplied a replacement product without complaint. I wish every online shopping experience was like Graze.

Schuh eBay Store: This gem of a shop stands out in the sea of shopping possibilities on eBay. The high street Schuh shops are fine, but the eBay shop is used to clear last remaining pairs, end of line items, and shoes with minor damage, and you can pick up some amazing deals. Their customer service is quick to respond, fair, and friendly. They are also fair about shipping costs, and will let you group your purchases (to a limit) for one flat shipping fee.

Two thumbs down:
Dolphin Movers: We used this firm for an international move this year. Every aspect of our experience with the company was poor (bad communication, inaccurate briefing to their subcontractors, et cetera). The rock-bottom low point was trying to get a refund on the rental of some equipment that we paid for upfront, but was cancelled well before it was to be used. It took dozens of emails, numerous phone calls, and several months to get a refund. It was a very clear case, and they never disputed that we were entitled to the refund, but kept stalling us for a totally unreasonable amount of time. It was infuriating and wasted a substantial amount of my time. (If you are looking for a good international mover, try Allied Pickfords, who I had a very good experience with on another move.)

Parcelmonkey: I used this service to ship an important document, which needed to be at its destination to meet a deadline. Despite being warned at the start of the process that I absolutely needed access to a printer to complete the booking, I was never issued a shipping label. I also never received a working tracking number, and sending support tickets to customer service was useless. Despite the fact that the status of the order still says “pending” in my account, I found out through other means that the document was in fact picked up, though I’m uncertain if it arrived in time for the deadline. Utterly shambolic.

* The best pizza in Montreal, if you really must know, is at Amelio’s.

Postscript: An article just out in the New York Times also highlights the perils of online shopping, especially when any review (even a negative one) can push a company up in search engine rankings.

Art & Culture

A one-liner about Cloaca

Cloaca, artist Wim Delvoye’s shit-generating installation, is now on view at the Galerie de l’UQAM in Montréal.

The video posted above depicts gourmet meals being lovingly fed to the machine. When Cloaca was installed in New York City in 2002, well-known restaurants such as Barolo, Jerry’s, MARKT, and Savoy produced meals for the machine that were presented during public feedings.

Years later, Cloaca is still doing the art-circuit, but its diet has apparently shifted. At the Galerie de l’UQAM, several local artists in Montreal prepared it a meal as part of a public event. For the rest of the duration of the show, rumour has it that the machine will be fed leftovers from the University’s cafeteria — which would give even a robot indigestion, I’m sure.