Category Archives: Culture

‘The Girl With Seven Names’ by Hyeonseo Lee

Hyeonseo Lee

After a welcome and very digestible diet of P. G. Wodehouse and James Herriot, I felt that it was time for me to expand my literary cuisine to include more substantive choices. My mum had quite enthusiastically mentioned a book she had borrowed from her local library called ‘Schwarze Magnolie’ and when I visited her during my February school holiday I was suitably intrigued. So I picked it up and I have to confess, I found it hard to put down.

The Girl With Seven Names

‘The Girl With Seven Names’, as it is called in English is written by Hyeonseo Lee, a North Korean woman in her early 30ties who escaped the dictatorship in North Korea and spends over 11 years trying to find safety and her place in the world. I have to admit that prior to reading the book I was slightly ignorant of the full extent of the supression in North Korea. The scope of my knowledge was limited to what I had heard on the news, which was predominately related to the military power feud between North Korea and the US.

The book was a real eye opener and left me feeling rather humble, somewhat ignorant and with a sense of having always taken things for granted in my own life. I am by no means an uninformed person but I guess my worldview has, like that of many others, been largely guided by the content of my education and indeed the coverage the Western media has chosen to show of the North Korean situation.

‘The Girl With Seven Names’ spoke to me on a number of levels. Firstly, I have an avid appetite for learning and expanding my own knowledge, and almost everything in this book was new for me. Secondly, I am a strong human rights advocate with a keen sense of justice and the full extent of the dictatorship, propaganda and human rights abuse in North Korea astounded me. And finally, Hyeonseo Lee is just a few years older than I am, which made her story all the more real and close to home for me. While reading the book I often found myself wondering what I would have done in her situation. Her tenacity, spirit, determination and unbelievable perseverance in the face of so many  obstacles and setbacks is astounding.

While the majority of her book is worlds away from my largely privileged and cushy life growing up in Northern Europe – I am in no way making any parallels to my own experiences – there were some parts of Hyeonseo Lee’s struggle that I could identify with. She spends a significant portion of her twenties and early thirties trying to deal with an identity crisis. Since leaving North Korea at the age of 17, she not only changed her name seven times in order to ensure her safety, but she also struggled to integrate, to find her place in the world and to find out where she belonged: is she North Korean, Chinese or South Korean? Where is home? I think this issue of identity crisis – although not usually to this extent – is one that many people of my generation, myself included, have to deal with. In the fluid modern world that we live in, people are constantly moving from one country or continent to another for numerous reasons including to be with family, in search of work, in order to migrate or simply to explore the world.

I think the key to survive if one does move around a lot and when dealing with an identity crisis is to really give oneself the time to settle and integrate. No matter where you go, some or all aspects of the change will be difficult and at times unbearable, but you have to give things time. I myself am guilty of cutting and running as soon as things start getting hard, rather than weathering it out and giving things a chance. We humans are strong, adaptable creatures, our problem I believe, is that we simply think too much. If against all odds Hyeonseo Lee could do it, we all can. She’s my new hero, a truly remarkable woman and a truly inspirational story. ‘The Girl With Seven Names’ is most certainly a worthy read.


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Dodenherdenking/Rememberance of the dead; looking back on my grandmother’s life


My paternal grandmother was a pretty extraordinary woman. She was born in Indonesia in the 1920-ties where she lived on her parents sugar cane plantation until the family returned to Holland after the Wall Street crash of 1929. The boat trip from Indonesia took six weeks, which is something unimaginable in this day and age, where we can fly to the other side of the world in 30 hours and long boat journeys are a thing of the past.

Last week while in Amsterdam visiting family and friends, my dad and I went to see my grandmothers best friend in Naarden-Bussum. We went on Sunday, May 4th which in Holland is Dodenherdenking or Remembrance of the Dead for the people who fought and died during World War II. Although my grandmother passed away 12 years ago, those who knew her still have a vivid memory of her and her friend was full of fascinating tales as well as slightly different versions of stories we already knew. An apt day to visit her friend and talk about her life.

After leaving Indonesia the two friends did not see each other for a while, they were reunited a few years later in Holland through mutual friends and they remained firm friends or more like sisters as her friend put it, until my grandmother died. It was  a treat to hear about my grandmother from another perspective, from someone who’d known her intimately and not as a mother or grandmother. The woman who was revealed to me during the next few hours was completely different to the woman I’d known as my ‘granny’.

Growing up in the shadow of the Second World War and then living through it as a teenager must have been horrific. My grandmothers family; her father and brothers worked for the resistance, as did she and she lost close family members during the Nazi occupation. She never spoke about these times, not to my father or anyone else until she was much older, I can imagine the memories were too painful and raw to remember and relive.

We did not go into too much detail about the war, rather her friend drew a picture of a very intelligent, headstrong, independent and loyal woman, who was both admired and loved by those around her. How I remember her is somewhat different; as a rather stern, proud and serious grandmother who taught me how to wash up and pass a knife correctly. She would never leave her room until she was completely presentable and her hair done just so, something her friend echoed in her reminiscence, she recalled her as always being elegantly attired, even as a little girl when she was dressed in white with immaculately clean white shoes and stockings.

Hearing about her life made me wonder a lot about what it was really like. How was it in Indonesia during the Dutch colonization, what was it like to grow up there as the colonizers and what was life really like for her during the war? And I realised, in particular with regards to Indonesia, that I have no knowledge of that period in history. Having family who have experienced or lived through something always makes that time a lot more personal and interesting. I think I’ve found a new project; to find out more about Indonesia during that period and to read more about the Nazi occupation of Holland during the Second World War. Her life fascinates me and it makes me realise how things have changed since my grandmother was young.

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La vita è bella in Italia



San Gimignano

San Gimignano

As promised, a post on la bella Italia. Having not been in Italy since I was there on Erasmus almost five years ago, it was just so nice being back. I’d forgotten how much I liked the country, the people, scenery, food, language, everything really. My Italian was a bit rusty I will admit but not as bad as my driving, both of which started to improve – somewhat in the case of my driving – after a few days.

Thanks to Ryanair’s delayed flight both my mum and I arrived pretty much at

Tuscan countryside

Tuscan countryside

the same time at Pisa airport; me from Stansted and her from Dublin. We proceeded to pick up our little hired Fiat and on my insistence my mum drove the first leg of the journey to Rignano sull’Arno, where we were staying in the heart of Tuscany. Part of wanting her to drive was that I’ve never driven on the other side of the road before, the other being the fact that I hadn’t driven in two and a half years and was worried I would be a bit out of practice. My concern proved to be well founded seeing I did end up driving on the wrong side of the road one morning – although I’m still blaming that one on the lack of coffee before leaving. And more worryingly for my mum, the afternoon I got the car stuck on the side of the road while trying to park. Luckily we were rescued by a car full of young Italian’s who thought it was hilarious. One of them had to lift the front of the car up while I reversed back onto the road. Luckily for us Fiat’s are nifty little cars!

Green pea risotto

Green pea gnocchi

We stopped off for lunch en route and I have to say I’d forgotten just how amazing the Italian food is. The mozzarella in the caprese salad we had was so unbelievably fresh and tasty, none of that mass produced supermarket cheese you get in the UK. I ordered green pea gnocchi for mains and my mum a seafood Ravioli with a pumpkin sauce. As

Seafood ravioli with pumpkin sauce

Seafood ravioli with pumpkin sauce

per usual with us we shared our mains; it’s the best way of eating out, that way we both get to try more than one dish. It was a lovely lunch and to top it off we sat outside in the sunshine, a first for this year. Our rather extravagant – for us at least – lunch was finished with an espresso – or cafe as the Italians call it – for myself and my mum broke the Italian coffee drinking code by ordering a cappuccino after 11am, a big no no in Italy. But she enjoyed it nevertheless.

Poggia Tre Lune

Villa Poggio Tre Lune

After lunch I drove – after practicing in an empty car park –  the last few kilometers, without incident I should add, to Villa Poggia Tre Lune,  were we were staying with my mum’s friend and her

View from Poggio Tre  Lune

View from Poggio Tre Lune

family. Situated on a hilltop – hence the name poggio meaning hilltop –  the villa has a stunning view over the Tuscan countryside. Not only do they rent out apartments in the villa but they also have a biodynamic farm where they have a vineyard and olive grove from which they make and sell their own wine and olive oil. They also grow their own grain and make pasta, all of which we sampled during our sojourn there. We were very warmly welcomed and almost every evening we had a hearty Tuscan dinner with our hosts and their family; drinking home-made wine and eating everything from pasta to pizza, lasagne, gorgeous rustic Italian lentil and bread soup, and various other local delicacies. 



During the day we went on various excursions, taking turns driving along the beautifully scenic but rather windy Tuscan roads. We visited Siena, wandering through the stunning Duomo and it’s surrounding historic sites, we ate another scrumptious lunch and had gelato in Piazza del Campo where the Palio di Siena takes place every August. We visited Florence on a rather rainy day. As both of us had been before we selected a few places to visit, including Cappella de Medici and San

Siena Duomo

Siena Duomo

Marco which is full of beautiful frescoes. After traipsing around in the rain for a few hours we stopped in a delightful little bar, Enoteca Bevo Vino on Via di San Niccolò on the other side of the river to the Duomo, for a well deserved glass of vino rosso.

Our travels also took us to the the beautiful walled medieval hilltop town of San Gimignano, where we enjoyed the bank holiday Monday with half of Italy, wandering the streets of the town and munching on Panforte, a delicious  traditional dessert made from fruit and nuts. En route back to Rignano we made a short coffee stop off in the tiny walled town of Monteriggioni, which is just outside Siena. It’s absolutely tiny but very picturesque.



Pizza with prosciutto, rucola and parmesan

Pizza with prosciutto, rucola and parmesan

I know I touched on the food already, but it was just amazing. I don’t remember the last time I ate so heartily – and I’ve been swimming all week to make up for it. From antipasto to pizza, risotto, ravioli, gnocchi, lasagna, gorgeous bread, mozzarella and lots of gelato and coffee, we really did eat royally.

And then on our last day we drove to Pisa in the morning, parked the car and



wondered through the city in search of the leaning tower, which we had both seen years ago but didn’t remember very well, aside from the fact that it was very crooked. And I have to say it was a lot more off kilter than I remembered it being. After wandering around a bit we sat down outside in the sunshine for a final indulgent lunch before flying back to our respective countries of residence.

It was a fantastic trip. There is still so much of Italy that I need to see and it will take plenty more trips before I’ve seen my fill of this stunning country – if ever. If the Italian economic and political situation weren’t so bad I’d most definitely consider living there again.

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Shantaram; there are no words, you just have to read it


Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

It’s been a very long time since I have been as gripped, inspired and intellectually stimulated by a book as I was when I read Shantaram. Initially highly recommended by my best friend in Holland – she’s got great taste in books – then a colleague purchased it and finally I decided to download it on my Kindle in order to enjoy en route and while in Australia over Christmas, both of which I did.

For anyone who is  a passionate traveller or curious about other cultures, Shantaram will either be complete torture – good torture that is, – pure pleasure or a mix of both. The book is so rich and vivid in it’s descriptions you almost feel like you’re in Leopold’s Cafe in Colaba, walking the streets of Bombay with Lin – the protagonist, – sitting on Chowpatty Beach watching the sunset, sharing the pain of his beatings in prison or crossing the Afghan mountains on horseback. And although I’ve never been to India – it was on my list before reading Shantaram – after finishing the book, I’m even more keen to visit.

Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai

Chowpatty Beach, Mumbai

Gregory David Roberts wrote the first two drafts of the book – both of which were destroyed by prison guards – during his second stint in prison in Australia. He had previously escaped from prison after being convicted of a series of armed robberies to feed his heroin addiction after the breakdown of his marriage and had fled to India where he ended up working for the Bombay mafia for 10 years while in exile. No one knows how much of Shantaram, which was published in 2003, is based on Roberts real life and how much is fantasy but I would guess a lot of it is true.

For me one of the most interesting parts of the books is that both the author and his protagonist are writers and intellectuals turned criminal which makes for fascinating reading in particular when Lin reflects on his personal feelings, emotions and rational, and his riveting conversations  about life, death and morality with the Bombay mafia don Abdul Khader Khan.

One of the things that Lin spends a lot of time musing over throughout the book are his past actions, whether they were from his previous life in Australia or generally looking back at decisions he had made or things he had done in his life. One of my friends recently said to me that going away and being somewhere completely different gives you a new perspective on things, it gives you time to reflect on life, on what you have done so far and what your future plans are, and in many ways these reflections often help to re focus your life and priorities. She is absolutely right, and having read Shantaram that also seems to be what both Roberts and Lin are doing; they reflect on their past lives and actions, seeing everything a lot clearer through the passage of time and from the physical distance of the two continents.

From laughing out loud – usually thanks to Lin’s big smiled Indian guide Prabaker – to profound thinking and even crying – also courtesy of Prabaker – the book takes you on an amazing journey from the very first sentence to the last word.

Leopold's Cafe, Colaba, Mumbai

Leopold’s Cafe, Colaba, Mumbai

The title of the book comes from the name Prabaker’s mother gives Lin when he stays with his family in their village, Sundar. The name which means “Man of Peace” or “Man of God’s Peace” is in many ways ironic but also increasingly apt the further you delve into Lin’s mind.

I’ve tried to explain what the book is about to a few people but words always literally fail me and I end my feeble attempted explanation with “you just have to read it.” So far I’ve convinced quite a few people to read the book that way, it’s simply one of those books all book lovers should read at some point in life.

One of my pet hates when it comes to reading books is when other people spoil a plot or story for me and although Shantaram is so richly intricate and beautifully written that it would be hard to ruin the story, I don’t want to give too much away. I’m hoping that my humble attempt to write about such a thought provoking and brilliant book is enough to convince you book and travel lovers to pick up a copy.

On a personal side note, the news that Roberts has another book coming out soon, The Mountain Shadow, which further follows Lin’s adventures, literally made my week when I found out and I’ve already pre-ordered my copy on Amazon!


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Day trip of history and food to Oxford


What better way to spend a week off work than with a day trip to Oxford. It’s funny, despite living in London for almost three year and thoroughly enjoying a day away from the city, I rarely venture out of the capital. So despite the November drizzle, the cultural and rather British day out in terms of cuisine and history, was very welcome and enjoyable.

Christ Church University Great Hall

The hour long bus journey, whiled away with a few games of Monopoly Deal, passed quickly enough and my boyfriend and I were soon meandering down the pretty cobbled streets of Oxford. We started off with a trip around the Christ Church University grounds. Being a bit of a fantasy fan, I nerdily absorbed the information that the staircase to the Universities Great Hall was used in the first Harry Potter film as the entrance to Hogwarts where Professor McGonagall welcomes the first years and the Great Hall was used as a model for the Hogwart’s  Hall. This new-found knowledge resulted in my re-watching the film a few days later and thoroughly enjoying it – it had been a while since I saw it last!

Tea and scones

After traipsing round the University we decided that an afternoon tea and scone was in order, a delicacy I’m very fond of but for dietary reasons only indulge in on occasion.  I still remember the first time I had a scone with clotted cream and jam, it was while on a holiday with my mum in a pretty little village in the New Forest when I was about 12. Ever since I’ve had a soft spot for them.

In order to walk off the afternoon treat we wandered through the Covered Market, down the rows and rows of books in Blackwell’s and in and out of a few bars before deciding it was time for some more food.

The Big Bang

After much deliberation we decided to keep with the unintentional but obvious British theme of the day and go to The Big Bang for some bangers and mash. The restaurant is situated in the quarters of Oxford Castle along with a few other bars and restaurants. The table we were ushered to was covered with dictionary pages whose content provided us with much amusement while we waited for our food to arrive. Once we were seated water appeared served in an antique tea pot and the menu which was a paper with a brief history of the restaurant and information on it’s suppliers.

Bangers and mash

We had a lot of fun deciding on what to order as you could mix and match different types and flavours of sausages as well as choosing the accompanying mash and gravy. I went for a basil and vine tomato veggie sausage and a pork and apple sausage served with a butternut squash mash and red wine gravy. The dish came with peas and really tasty red cabbage, which is something I hadn’t eaten in years and had forgotten how good it could be.

Suitably stuffed from the delicious and wholesome food, we stopped off for a quick drink – a mulled wine and whisky to be exact – before venturing, in the now pouring rain, to catch the bus back to London. I could happily get used to more of these days trips out of London. Luckily for me my next one is in a few weeks time, slightly further afield this time – to the other side of the world to be exact – and for a bit longer, but a trip out of London nevertheless!


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To be, or not to be …

‘To be, or not to be-that is the question.’ I remember reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy over and over and driving my poor mum and sister mad when I was at school. Since then I have seen numerous  Shakespeare productions in various theatres and languages including a production of Hamlet in Russian with English surtitles, which was brilliant and a modern adaptation of Romeo and Juliet in Dutch which involved a lot of rapping.

William Shakespeare

Now every time I go to see my mum we try and squeeze a theatre trip into the visit. So being a pretty big theatre fan I gladly offered to help my friend out at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloan Square yesterday afternoon.

It was warm and sunny outside as I walked through the stage door of the theatre, where I was greeted with a “welcome to the madhouse” by my friend, who’d been there since the morning.

Royal Court Theatre

I’d never been to the Royal Court before and was quite taken by the theatre’s intimate yet classic interior and the relaxed social bar area. We walked through the auditorium where one of the four schools selected to perform their Shakespeare production at the Gala evening organised by the Shakespeare Schools Festival (SSF), were busy rehearsing for the evening’s performance.

The SSF is a charity which runs the largest youth drama festival in the UK, enabling 100,000 young people and schools across the country to unlock their potential on the stage and provides an active and fun way of learning the classics.

Shakespeare’s productions are timeless and unlike what many young people may initially think, it can be lots of fun and performed and interpreted in many different ways.  This was clearly evident in yesterday’s performances where each school put their own spin on the classical plays of Macbeth, Twelfth Night and A Midsmmer Night’s Dream.

When I was at school my school didn’t put a lot of emphasis on theatre and acting, the only thing that was performed on a yearly basis was a musical put together by the fourth years (Year 10). I was studying abroad the year my class was involved in the production of Godspell so I didn’t get to partake. But after seeing enough of the productions over the years, I have to say the performances of the four schools and the soloist last night were really great.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed by Riddlesdown Collegiate, Surrey

Having seen them behind the scenes rehearsing during the afternoon and putting them in place for the photographer to take pictures, the transformation when the lights were dimmed and the theatre filled up was amazing. The production of Twelfth Night by the St. John Fisher High School was brilliant. The costumes were great, and the hilarious performances of Malvolio and Maria and the drunken brawling of Sir Tobey and Sir Andrew had the audience laughing for much of the show.

I was seriously impressed by the professionalism, obvious enjoyment and real talent on stage from all four schools and the solo performance. Unfortunately for me, the local secondary school I attended was pretty mediocre to awful so sadly I never got the chance to try out my acting skills.

Maybe in another lifetime, but for now I’ll just have to continue enjoying theatre visits and watching others on stage!

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