In the far far away land of dreary old England, an expeditious and intrepid art and design major left her high powered job to pursue her passion for pastry in Paris.
Like me she attended the famed bastion of Le Cordon Bleu Paris only she has managed to fashion her way into a very bright and promising future.
A mere four years after completing Pastry school she is capturing hearts and minds, as well as businesses, across the world with her creativity and design instincts paired perfectly with her sense of taste and cooking skills.
Describing herself as a Food Creative she is that and so much more.
But as I find myself walking towards her tiny apartment for lunch one Wednesday afternoon after months of trying to secure a booking in her unique lunchtime locale I am simply excited and it didn’t take long for my expectations to be exceeded.
Rachel Khoo Rocks – some people just have the great ideas, the skills to pull them off, and the personality that sets them far apart from the rest.
Rachel has all that and more … Guts -and not just in regards to bravery but the inner sense that guides her and makes things work.
I was so lucky to secure a spot at her tiny apartment come invite only restaurant, sharing with another lucky someone a table for three with Rachel Khoo herself – who had lovingly prepared a three course meal for us. Working on her new cookbook she was in need of test subjects and I will always willingly volunteer.
It is a brilliant venture to obtain live and practical feedback, meet new people and make people exceedingly happy whilst drumming up huge amount of buzz and word of mouth – the best type of advertising.
First off, a moreish Autumn Salad with lardon, figs, fresh chestnuts, walnuts and beetroot to tempt even the saddest tastebuds into a celebration.
Second on the line freshly oven roasted Coq au Vin with roasted vegetables and beans to make your heart smile.
Sitting at the small table in her lounge/bedroom/office the day seemed to speed by as we enjoyed mouthfuls of delicious food and the most fascinating conversations not only about food but all the world has to offer.
And finally a long pepper crème brulee with raspberries the perfect way to end an amazing meal.
This city seems to attract these unique individuals here to live the life in this fabled city. Watching her at work in the kitchen was such a pleasure. Using all fresh organic produce, together with a technical eye, the flavours were perfect.
But like everything, even good things must come to an end, and the busy Rachel had literally a mountain of tasks to get done before yet another project in her busy schedule and I hope it stays that way as a measure of her ever evolving success.
I personally can’t wait till one day I receive a special present in the mail post-marked PARIS – a signed copy of her latest cookbook!
Rachel Khoo’s Links:
The Little Paris Kitchen
Her Consulting and Food Styling Business
Lille, a quiet city in the north of France, becomes a hive of crazed activity for two days a year as two to three million people descend onto the streets to buy trash.
Dating back to the twelfth century, the origins of the popular festival lie in the large gatherings of traders and producers selling their wears in a fire sale and morphed into a garage sale and flea market by the sixteenth century. It all started with servants being granted the right to sell used items from their bosses’ houses and as it grew it became famous throughout all of Europe. It ceased to exist after the wars but was reborn in our growing consumer society as students, youth and the elderly began selling their old belongings for a pittance. But by the time I arrived this festival has transformed from a fire sale to a full on commercial industry with sellers and buyers from all over Europe and the local public is now interspersed with many professionals.
And so we arrived on Friday afternoon by two cars packed to the brim and on trains with massive suitcases. Together we had amassed a considerable collection of belongings. In order to make this event a success we had to devise a plan, a concerted effort to sell as many of our goods as possible.
We believed in our product, and we were ready to have some fun. Despite being mainly previously worn clothes, they were all from good brands sometimes even being unworn with tags and all! And we also had under our purview some exciting if junky paraphernalia.
Not wanting to waste any time I headed out with the master of Braderie himself, to explore the town and some of the professional stalls by the river.
As the city prepared itself for this huge festival I managed to sneak through some of the most beautiful buildings.
Returning to the apartment we settled into our home of the next two days and prepared for the hard work ahead.
Besides my position as junior seller, given my questionable obviously foreign simplistic French and the fact that this was my first Braderie, I had been tasked with the unique job of feeding the workers during our weekend stay in the north.
We had champagne and dinner and all tried to sleep which was surprisingly difficult given the excitement and the terrible mattresses…
Waking early to get a fresh start the tables were set up as we watched the marathon runners tackle the traditional warm up race to the big sale.
Although even before everything started we had to tackle a turf war. It seems that some professionals with big vans had illegally taken our reserved positions in a scare tactic ploy against the little guys. But they did not quite guess just who they were messing with – seasoned professionals, with attitude, and aware of their rights, and willing to defend them – these are not people to be messed with lightly. And so after a mere 5 minutes they had begrudgingly admitted defeat and moved on to steal someone else’s spot.
Setting up at least seven tables and two racks our stores were ready almost as the starting gun was blasted at 11am – but even as the clothes were being laid out a few early customers were coming in ready to snap up that elusive early choice bargain.
As time passed we began moving product quickly and with success, the five of us each on a drive to make people happy and sell at the same time!
Trying to beat the competition we used our passion, loud voices, multilingual capabilities, multinational charms and may have employed a few tricks and attention grabbing gimmicks. There may have been a questionable looseness from our mascot, and the maestro also repeatedly advertised, encouraged and instructed his adoring public to come and see his wares and buy buy buy – Le Grand Marques for le Premier et Dernier Prix!
Overall we were charismatic, but as our stomachs began to grumble I was sent on my way to produce a nutritious and delicious lunch to reinvigorate our energy levels!
And so following the requests of the busy sales staff I made smoked salmon sandwiches and cherry tomato and cheese toasted sandwiches to the cheers of my family who ate them quickly and also received the necessary caffeine hits.
Everywhere you looked there were hoards of people, in every direction.
Despite all this the city’s beauty and history shone through.
We dealt with some interesting characters during the day selling hello kitty bags to hello kitty enthusiasts, children’s dresses as Halloween outfits and customised jackets as haute couture – it was all about the pitch, how best to sell a piece by appealing to the needs or dreams of the client.
By finding our niche markets we were able to inflate the prices beyond rock bottom, to the realm of reasonable profits!
But we found our match as a group of Nigerian women descended onto our meagre shop ready to bargain their way into free purchases, with tactics including distraction, frustration and sheer persistence – I decided to take the brunt of the attack and protect my cousin – I faced our collective lynchpin as they tried to laugh and smile off their confronting shopping assault – they had little chance of disturbing my peace and after a good 45 minutes of negotiation they purchased their selection and we rejoiced in our freedom!
By nightfall we had been selling like madmen for a good 10 hours and the place was looking like a warzone!
After a late dinner we all headed to bed exhausted.
Waking late, I made a special breakfast of pain perdu made from croissants served with a black fig and sour cherry confit and a spiced speculoos crumble.
But for most of the visitors to Lille a bowl of Moules-Frites, the classic, and also a major part of the history of La Braderie, is the dish of choice – the restaurants all enter a challenge, to create the largest pile of empty mussel shells, with over five-hundred tonnes of mussels and 30 tonnes of chips sold, I just don’t want to be the one to clean up all the mess.
And so we said goodbye to Lille after an extremely successful Braderie, selling thousands of euros worth of old belongings to the public and making all of us very proud – I had achieved my goals, exploring Lille, being in the centre of this once in a lifetime festival, spending time with my family, and finally the unexpected twist of being an incredible salesman!
BRING ON THE NEXT BRADERIE!
Day 13 – The Jokes on Me
The hilarity of the situation astounds me!
I left a stable fulfilling job; one where every day I work very hard, but make a difference in the lives of others, and am able to work in an environment with friends and colleagues who respect and support each other. We are challenged on a physical, emotional and intellectual basis constantly and yet somehow hours in this kitchen seem so much more exhausting.
I mistakenly believed, until about a month into my internship, that I was working in this busy kitchen not only in order to be an extra pair of hands but to learn a thing or two. Given I was working for free and had paid an absolute fortune for my education, I had rationalised my mistreatment as being par for the course in the kitchen.
Imagine my excitement and thrill after waking up in the complete darkness of an early summer morning, clambering onto the stuffy metro, to walk again through the cold rain, during what was meant to be summer, towards my third last shift in the kitchens. It was just another day for gratifying exposure to the ridicule, berating and physical abuse of a certain ‘boss’.
In another one of their brilliant ploys, remember I am like their play thing, each one of them enjoying giving me different tasks and instructions. As such, orders and requests for help are coming from right and left, and so I am being pulled apart at the seams. Being told persistently to hurry up and do their task – what am I doing standing around drinking a cocktail whilst smoking my cigar!
Today was exhausting and my heart wasn’t in it! I was tasked with attempting new jobs and expected to complete them as if it was second nature. There was an abrupt attitude and French instructions were flying at me from all directions. I managed despite my ineptitude at predicting the future, to do my assigned jobs and escape after another 9 hours and of course washing the floors.
Day 14 – The Jokes on You
Enough torture already, the novelty has truly worn off, and my rose coloured glasses are now completely cleared.
Experienced hardened professionals, a certain few of our bosses in particular, need to more directly empathise with their workers. They need to be reminded of what it was like on their first day at work and then remember why it felt like that and make a positive change.
Work place theory and psychology has completely changed since the dark ages, gone is the evil overlord, so please welcome in the friendly CEO. Workers at Google and Apple are some of the happiest employees and thus their productivity and job satisfaction are through the roof – as such they are two of the world’s most powerful companies, it is these workers that make the cogs turn and I can assure you they run faster as a result of their encouragement and positive workplace environment.
Happiness breeds productivity… well not in the environment of a French Kitchen modelled on the French Army. One the contrary, staff in kitchens seem to be the most overworked, underpaid, sarcastic, angry, depressed, stressed, psychotic swearing sailors – in general that is!
As a consequence the environment and attitude within the kitchen is heated to say the least, and it is not as a result of the four ovens working constantly!
The egos and bitchiness would astound you! The abuse, verbal, physical and emotional unparalleled and let’s not even discuss the sexual candour and harassment.
And in my particular case, these last two weeks has been plagued by a hot tempered master and it is becoming clear to me that Napoleon himself has been reincarnated – little man complex and all.
It’s amazing how bitchy some people can be – if you would like to get into the small print of my experience I am more than happy to share it over a cup of tea and perhaps a handmade éclair.
Communication is key in the kitchen and it seems as if I have been lost in the murkiness of this situation. Everyone has decided I am their free assistant, and as each one throws instructions at me, and I try to do my best at fulfilling each of them in a timely manner, it is a juggling act of tasks, egos and of course mountains of butter, eggs, cream, flour and sugar.
Today’s highlight, a full late afternoon task, was to finish my task from the previous day by completing the process of making 35 litres of Vanilla bean Ice cream. Packing 35 litres of liquid ice-cream is no easy feat and so pleasurable I cannot tell you, especially when the sous-vide machine for vacuum sealing is not working! Let us just say it took me a long while, in the silence of the separate ice-cream room, to get this one into the bag.
Having fulfilled this and my many other tasks I ventured home under the weight of the last two weeks with the slim hope of finishing my last day, successfully, with no mistakes and hopefully have some time to see the real stuff happening!
Day 15 – Last Day Blues
I am a sucker for punishment, returning every day to work whilst having to justify my decision to myself every time. I keep reinforcing to myself that I am doing the right thing, there is no doubt that this is a once in a lifetime experience – truly unforgettable in every sense.
My burns are cooling, my callouses settling, my cuts are healing and my bruised ego will slowly mend. I have not done a bad job, my tendency to hard work whilst having the personality defect of being an absurd perfectionist, helping me to survive despite a despondent cloud hanging over me.
For my last day in these famed kitchens I am hopeful I will end on a high, at least I received a few smiles as I walk in – they were excited, they had forgotten I had one more day in the kitchens!
As we placed the hug array of trays into the fridges and onto the pass, I felt proud of what we produce together – it is no small feet for sure. At times there are only 3 servicing the entire pastry needs of this massive and distinguished hotel.
But sadly, there is no repreive to the onslaught of insults and indecency from my little friend, Napoleon, despite the obviousness of my last shift, and the common courtesy to make it a partially pleasurable one. And so after lunch, as my frustration and anger was at a gentle simmer, I am hit with my special present in recognition of my two months of free labour and hard work with a smile – no it is not what you think…. I am not finally allowed to lay down the soap and stop washing the dirty equipment in the sink, nor do I have to stop organising and replacing the stacks of gear, or boxing the stuff from the freezer … I do not finally get to watch the skilled hands of the pastry sous-chef at the pass and maybe even help prepare the plates, or choose the task at hand… it is too mcuh to even dream for… NO, I am to reorganise and clean the cupboards.
Yes, my final task in the kitchen after more than 6 months of training is to clean out the cupboard, remove the ingredients from stacks of boxes, place them in cleaned bowls, hand wash the boxes, replace their contents, label them and then present the cupboard to my dignified and appreciative master.
So I leave my correspondence from the front line, with my limited insight into the foreign world of the pastry kitchen, that whilst what we produce may taste so sweet, life can be hard and bitter; so appreciate the hard work which goes into your desserts, marvel at the skill and creativity which inspires your eyes and tantalises your tastebuds.
I now have firsthand experience of what it can mean to be on both sides of the coin and I know, without a shadow of a doubt, what type of boss I will be…
This marks a new beginning to my love for and exploration of the world of Pastry… I cannot wait to spoil everyone with the little tricks I have picked up and as I leave, exhausted and disheartened, I am sure that my mind will continue racing ahead, as always, dreaming of new ways to indulge others with my creative outlet.
As if we hadn’t been spoilt enough with an inspirational tour of the Opera Garnier and an unforgettable degustation lunch at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, we then ventured out into the pouring rain looking for further excitement and fulfilment.
Well, we were drawn towards my favourite cultural hearth, the beauty and serenity of the Orangerie in the Tuillerie gardens – and it was made all the more incredible by the weather outside and the impending arrival of closing time. As such, we were able to make a decisive and surreptitious move to be the last three people in the museum as they began to usher out the last few devotees.
We managed to make it happen and with a sweet smile even asked the guard to take our photo in the empty vaulted room able to enjoy these masterpieces entirely alone – a gift that never happens.
Seldom are we so honoured as to be spoilt in such a way, but the indulgence only continued as we walked to our final destination….
The Ritz Hotel Paris
… Where for only the second time I was a patron, rather than an employee working down in the basement. And so, after walking around the marbled hallways surrounded by art, jewels and gold, I was ushered into the famed Hemingway Bar for an evening of cocktails with the high society of Paris.
The Hemingway Bar
As soon as we entered the door it was as if we walked into another world and another time – this small wood panelled room, with old world leather furniture, its walls studded with hunting trophies as well as black and white family photographs, it was such that the ambiance was almost palpable.
The service was attentive without being intrusive, so personal and helpful, the waiters were clearly experienced and they were beyond brilliant at their jobs – they took pride and an interest in making our experience as unforgettable as possible. We were constantly provided with glasses of cucumber infused water and small plates of delectable spiced nuts, moreish freshly made potato crisps and marinated olives.
The cocktail menu was captivating but we made our choices and we were each taken in different directions – a Raspberry Martini made with house made raspberry-infused vodka, it was like drinking a silky smooth raspberry rocket, mine their house specialty, a Serendipity, Colin Field’s signature combination of calvados, mint, apple juice and champagne. However, the clear highlight, the true serendipitous event, was provided at the hands of one of the talented mixologists, Aurèlie, behind the bar. Our distinguished compatriot has a love for the classic French aperitif Lillet Blanc, and so, as a VIP in this five-star establishment, a new cocktail was invented in his honour – to be known in perpetuity as Le Lillet Simon.
We were so happy with our service that we were not, as usual, unwilling to fill in the feedback forms, and in fact gave them excellent in every category. With the courage and conviction to make the night even more special I approached the man himself, two time world champion mixologist, Mr Colin Field, and after a light-hearted conversation about life in the kitchens, I now have in my sentimental possession a signed copy of his tome to the art and life of cocktails at Bar Hemingway with my personalised inscription – “I hope that you don’t loose to much weight whilst you work in the kitchens!”
Standing in front of the front entrance to the Ritz Hotel on Place Vendome I was so proud to have brought two friends into my home of 4 months and shared this wonderful experience with them.
Our experiences at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon were like a hazy dream – quite literally we were living in a euphoric fantasy.
Fanciful would be an understatement and would suggest an element of the irrational was involved in our experiences.
I wouldn’t put it past me given it is said sometimes I exaggerate, but I had corroborating witnesses, two food obsessed friends from Melbourne who were currently on a gastronomic tour of Europe.
And so after managing the impossible and securing us a reservation at the number 14 restaurant in the world… we finally sat down at this beautiful restaurant on a lazy Saturday afternoon for our highly anticipated meal.
Envisage, if you will, a slick modern bar surrounding an open kitchen where much of the magic happens. Only 40 people per service are able to sit stunned and truly satisfied.
Joël Robuchon is a master chef, a worldwide phenomenon with establishments all over the globe delivering fantastic food, innovation and quality, and consummate service.
We not so secretively peered over our shoulders at the plates of the adjoining couple who seemed to be receiving some particular attention from the chef himself and we were not only definitely interested in the dessert served but even more so excited by our meal to come.
We were reading through the a la carte menu and either fortunately or unfortunately, the former of course more outstanding and fun, we decided as a trio to order the not so inexpensive degustation menu at 160 euros.
I left the wine ordering to a master with a great palate and so we were presented with a gorgeous bottle of white wine from the appelation d’origine controlee, a premier cru from Burgundy.
L’Amuse Bouche: To begin this rollercoaster ride of pleasure and taste we were served an amuse-bouche of fresh crab with a shellish gelee and a cauliflower cream.
Le Premier Assiette: Lobster carpaccio with fine aromatic herbs and oils, subtle, soft, flavours of tomato and nicoise olives and poppy seeds, the raw lobster was
La Soupe: a Fava bean and green pea veloute served with a perfect dollop of fresh crème fraiche – it was smooth, light and creamy, full of flavour and every mouthful a pleasure.
Le Deuxième Assiette: perfectly seared foie gras with warm black cherries, hibiscus sauce and fresh almonds and tart granny smith apple – honestly, the BEST foie gras I have ever ever conceived let alone eaten.
Les Oeuf: a perfectly cooked organic yolk just set, hidden below a foam of light cream with rich earthy sautéed girolles, paired with a peppery herb sauce and a sprinkling of an intense spice powder.
By this stage I was quickly running out of superlatives, both in French and English, and I was overcome with simple facial expressions and sounds of absolutely joy between mouthfuls.
Working my magic with the amazing waitress, we managed to switch one of the courses, the Turbot, for another fish course, something which appealed to us all…
Le Poisson: langoustine ravioli in an almost invisible layer of egg pasta with a creamy truffle sauce and stewed green cabbage.
It was after the ravioli that our individual taste journeys finally diverged as we each indepentently chose a different main course.
Le Plat Principal – Le Viande:
The first option, L’Angneau – the milk-fed lamb
racks glazed with shallots and thyme.
The second choice, Le Veau – the glazed veal roasted to obtain a caramelised finish with potato and spring onion salad, chanterelles and jus.
The final choice, my personal pleasure to consume, La Caille – Quail, expertly deboned and stuffed with a farce of foie gras, caramelised supremely, and served with a potato puree and black truffles.
And to accompany our meats we each had a small dish of the signature mashed potato of Joël Robuchon, 50:50 butter to potato, not surprisingly we each had only a small spoonful as we were already reaching capacity and still had dessert to follow.
Unparalleled though were our final courses – the desserts…
Le Premier Dessert: La Fraise – strawberries marinated in olive oil and vanilla, above an acidulous soft biscuit, paired with the refreshingly floral jasmine and fleur d’orange sorbet pierced by a shard of sugar.
Le Deuxième Dessert: Le Café – coffee sabayon, a tart lemon greek yoghurt, and a strong coffee ice-cream crowned by a fine coffee sugar tuille
Now here comes the ultimate surprise and victory, feeling high on the absolute gratification of a blissful meal, and knowing that when it comes to dessert there is always just a little more room, I made a special request – nothing ventured, nothing gained we always make the most of a situation – could we please have one more dessert…
… MORE, MORE – another dessert, there was no hesitation, no wavering, they had experienced this request before, undoubtedly – and so the chef was asked on our behalf by our incredible waitress to prepare one more plate, to share, of the chocolate creation we had first seen on entering this palace of food.
Only, later, as the doors to the pastry kitchen opened, we were faced with not one but three plates. It seems that my appreciation and praise had indeed been passed onto the pastry chef, as had the fact that I was a pastry graduating student, and feeling extremely generous he had sent us not just one dessert each, but three tasting plates and so we were caught by total surprise and had three more courses to go in our marathon meal.
Le Surprise Assiette de Dessert:
Le Chocolat Tendance: a verrine of four layers and textures of chocolate
Le Tarte aux Chocolat: a yielding rich chocolate and macadamia nut tart
- La Fraise de Bois: strawberries macerated in vanilla with balsamic and port with basil sorbet, wild strawberries, a meringue and a halo of white chocolate
Les Boisson Chaudes: coffee and teas were accompanied by fresh madeleine aux citron and caramel aux buerre salé
Just look at the smug satisfied faces of the three Australian gentlemen … L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon has three big fans!
Lets just emphasise the gravity of this sorbet – the jasmine and basil sorbets were perfection, heavenly, light, fresh, with a balanced intensity of natural flavour, they were an absolute triumph and highlight of the meal – so much so that my compatriots requested that I work at L’Atelier to try and learn the secret to their brilliance.
Envisage if you will our meal, visualise the plating, delight in their smell, pleasure in their textures, marvel in their taste – it is not a hallucination if you come to Paris and eat there for yourselves – only there is one requirement invite me to join you or at least take photos for me!
Joël Robuchon and his organisation are aspirational, and it is my ambition to one day achieve even one hundredth of their breadth of brilliance!
THANK YOU to everyone at L’Aterlier de Joël Robuchon – St Germain, especially our South Korean French Waitress Dami and the chefs behind the closed doors the incredible pastry team!
L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon – St Germain
5 rue de Montalembert
Paris, 75007, France
Day 9 – A Comedy of Errors
Almost comatose from exhaustion, having arrived after 2am back in my apartment in Paris due to lost suitcases, unshaven due to a complete absence of my luggage, wearing a mess covered uniform and with an unsatisfied hunger and thirst, I believe that I began the shift off on the wrong foot all together.
I managed to rescue the uniform situation, apologised profusely for my facial hair debacle and got along quickly with the work at hand. In my less than ideal state I still managed, if a little slower than normal, to achieve the same level of standard in most of my tasks in helping to prepare the huge list of products ready for the bar, the buffet, the room service and the amenities for the new guests.
As usual the Fraisier was on my cards and it was starting to become second nature for me…
And the personal obligation of producing countless litres of perfect crème patissier every day began to become a daily chore that didn’t seem to inspire greatness or pleasure.
The days started to meld together in my mind… too tired to differentiate between day and night, I would come home and collapse, waking early for the next shift.
Day 10 – The Tragedy of Circumstance
It seems that at least some people are appreciated in this hotel, as today we were gifted with a celebration of sorts. It seems that today, randomly, was chosen by the higher powers to be the monthly celebration of the staff that were born in this most wonderful of months.
And so at our lunch break, as usual at 11-12, we shared in a small piece of this massive slab of chocolate, cream and ganache.
We were also tasked with preparing plates for a private banquet, beautiful Mirabelle Millefeuille.
At every opportunity, and there were very few, I tried to watch the pastry cook at the pass who produced the desserts al a minute for the two Michelin starred Le Espadon.
Another day moved by quickly and after a good 9 hours in the kitchen I was finally able to head home.
Day 11 –Lessons from the Past
For some reason, unknown to those lowly workers such as myself, there was a bit more variety in the realms of our practice this week.
The chefs came to the floor to make a few extra dishes for the guests using a few of our usual elements in some new combinations and permutations.
Whilst the fun and excitement was going on I believe, as usual, I was making some crème patissier, although this time it was 6 litres of vanilla and 4 litres of coffee!
My days where thrilling in their monotony, stimulating in their conversation, and life-changing in their ability to mould me as a person… the sarcasm and indecency were starting to build.
I had as always been tasked to prepare the petit fours and mis-en-place including placing some redcurrants around the cheesecakes.
The days moved simultaneously rapidly and slowly.
Day 12 – Drama for Dramas Sake
I worked with some really amazing people, but unfortunately, our time together was limited. With work piling up, it was a matter of moving as fast as humanly possible.
One such Friday, the last day of the long week, after a mere four days after returning from a holiday in Greece, it felt as if I hadn’t even been in the sunshine at all.
With everyone on my back, I was not complaining when we finally made it to washing and sweeping the floors, ready to take off my apron, my chefs whites and my hat. I walked quickly out of the basement corridors into the grey skies and rain of Paris.
Arriving in Athens extremely late from Paros, I had little choice but to hail a cab. Greek taxis are epitomised by drivers with a complete disregard for sanity. He was typically speeding at 120km an hour in an 80 zone, smoking cigarettes inside the cabin plastered with non-smoking signs, whilst talking on the mobile with one hand getting instructions from his friend on Google maps. Then he started making his cigarette by hand whilst driving, taking his eyes off the highway entirely, still at 120km/hr, whilst listening to thumping clubbing music. By the end of the ride characteristically he should have been telling me in the middle of nowhere “this is where I’m dropping you off” – however, this time, since it was 2:30am, he dropped me off at the correct destination but he did throw in the good old there is ten euros of extra fees on arrival – which I reluctantly yet quickly paid thinking to myself “I guess there is an economic crisis Greece” – expecting bribery and extortion to be the norm these days.
Nevertheless I did make it safely home in under twenty minutes. They mean business!!
After only a few hours of sleep, I left the suburbs and on arriving in the centre of Athens, I made my way to the hostel, before a whirlwind tour.
I love random brilliance! An entire afternoon was spent marvelling at ancient Greek ruins, modern day street art, and great conversation with two incredible locals – and, it all started from sitting on a ridiculous red toy tourist train to ride around ancient Athens.
We had drinks in a local bar in Gazi, we watched the sun set behind the hills surrounding Athens from the rocks below the Acropolis and finally had dinner in a local restaurant in Thission as the moon rose into the sky.
Like-minded people are the greatest company, people interested in others and in the wider world.
Next morning an early morning walking tour of Athens, we walked around the sites, the suburbs, taking in the sounds and the locals – passing ancient ruins, modern day statuesque guards and Olympic halls of fame.
We walked up to the hill and down through the winding streets which hugged the lower edge of the acropolis and looked like they were straight out of the Greek Islands.
When it all came to an end, what exciting things could we venture – well I knew where I wanted to go, in search of Greek sweet delicacies. Well, it seems that everyone liked my unusual suggestion and I became the tour guide with the entire group following me into Kolonaki to find the outpost of a famous pastry chef – unfortunately, as is normal in this part of the world, it was closed for much of August.
But after a quick drink, a new plan was hatched to get to the National Archaeological Museum and so we made our way on the bus, the bus driver unable to provide us with tickets, telling us to just get on board – the hilarity and significance of this action will reveal itself later.
The museum was incredible with such treasures from throughout the greatest moments in time, those that have continued to influence culture for the rest of time, we had the four masks, Greek sculpture.
What occurred on the return home was both a surprise and a comedic moment. It seems the lawlessness and crisis within the Greek economy has hit everyone, even the lowly bus inspector.
We once again boarded the bus, and the bus driver waved us on, without tickets, saying it was fine. Then a private citizen with a importance (grandiose/Napoleonic) complex, decided that with his little piece of paper, designating him with the right to both assign infraction notices, and demand bribes, for his turning his head the other way, well he decided this was his opportunity to make an example of us and make a little money as well.
Four innocent looking young students, each with a personality and confidence, is not an easy target. Three American College students on exchange in Europe and a doctor do not make pray that are easy to take down, nor lie down after the first onslaught.
We were convincing, we were honest, we were determined, and we were persistent. He managed to drag us all the way to the police by taking hold of our identity cards, BUT, in the presence of the policeman, who thankfully spoke some English, we argued our case fervently, using the full range of emotion, judicious reason, impassioned words and gestures and heated facial expression.
Needless to say we used the “what the hell is wrong with you, you crazed man”, face, the “this is ridiculous” face and the “pity me I’m pretty” face and all of them worked! The policeman was on our side, and in the end instead of 360 euros in fines, we paid 4 euros for 1 bus ticket and we went on our merry ways triumphant in our victory over the big man, or in this case, the little Greek man that tried to swindle us for a very large amount of money!
And to honour him we tried to spend our money more appropriately on goods in the Greek markets, nobly we made a concerted effort, but we didn’t buy anything…
For sunset I headed up to Mount Lycabettus, the tallest hill in Athens, for an uninterrupted view of the city as the sun descended and the sky burnt bright with orange and then cooled into its purple hues. Up on the hill a small white St George’s Chapel stood proud.
Plaka, with its winding streets, small tavernas, cafes and vine covered trellises was the site for an awesome dinner with some other Australians and then out for a final drink with my incredible Greek host. We headed to the local area of her university, Thission, crowded with bars and students laughing the night away before trying a deadly combination of the warm vapours of and honey.
Moving to another bar we sat talking below the glowing white marbles of the Acropolis, a difficult view to believe was actually commonplace, one which was hard not to enjoy from a comfortable chair at a café.
My last day in glorious Athens was spent in a frenzied attempt to satiate my love of culture, history and sugary delights before a ride to the airport at the early hour of 1:30pm.
First off I climbed to the top and explored the Acropolis, marvelling at the grandeur of this ancient site. I loved the sign, DO NOT TOUCH THE MARBLE, given the hill is literally laden with priceless marble including the ground you walk on! The Pantheon, minus most of the Elgin Marbles, remains under loads of scaffolding but is imposing nevertheless.
Running down the side of the hill, I imagined the Greek tragedies and spectacles that occurred in the amphitheatre, and made my way to the New Acropolis Museum sadly to find that this was the one day of the week it was closed – a major opportunity missed.
An attempt was made at helping my feet to some Grecian leather sandals made by a poet, which have coincidentally graced the feet of the most infamous of people… sadly yet another purchase averted!
But having already been to one traditional Greek Pastry maker, in business since 1908, and eaten chocolate baklava and Galaktoboureko (see photos below), I decided to retrace my steps and make my pilgrimage to Stelios Paliaros, modern superstar and Greek personality, as well as being a talented pastry chef. His temple to haute Greek pastry is a haven for sugar addicts and creative types such as myself who like to think of themselves as pastry chefs, only when compared to these talents we are simple pastry cooks or bakers.
Sweet Alchemy, his boutique, no doubt caught me instantaneously with its name, even more I was suitably impressed by the décor, the product range and of course the desserts – you no longer have to be just a talented chef, you also have to be a business and social genius to create an industry out of your name and products – he has clearly succeeded in this world of modern Pastry, especially in Greece. (Stelios Parliaros Boutique, below)
Carrying my little bag of goodness from his shop I ran past the top boutiques of Kolonikia and towards the hostel before picking up my bags and heading in the train to the Airport…
Athens… as you can see is a capital which embraces both its history and contemporary creativity!
Goodbye Greece – thanks, as always, for being the country that invented everything!