Other Cultures

Ejo #92 – My Name Is Chrysoula Stathopoulos

My name is Chrysoula Stathopoulos. Since 1933, I’ve lived in Lechaion, a small seaside town in Greece. But I was born in a tiny village in the Peloponnese mountains in 1916. I am 101 years old.

My name is Chrysoula Stathopoulos. I’ve lived in Dubai since 2008. But I was born in Adelaide, Australia in 1971 and raised in Melbourne. I am 46 years old.

As the firstborn, I was named after my Dad’s mother, which is how the Greeks do. I hated my name growing up because nobody could ever pronounce it, and a lot of kids gave me shit for it. On the first day of Grade 2, my teacher actually accused me of making it up. I casually dropped the “oula” part of my name when I was 12, and made it official when I was 14. Over the years I’ve grown to love my full name again. It’s unique, and it’s who I am. It’s also something that connects me to my grandmother, my yiayia, whom I love dearly.

My twin sister Fotoula and I were the apples of our father’s eye. We had two older brothers, but we were the favourites and everyone knew it, including Mum. She scolded us once for making too much noise while we were playing and Dad looked at her very seriously and said, “Whatever you do, don’t ever talk to my girls like that again”. And she never did. Times were tough growing up because of the war, and we didn’t have a lot, but our house was filled with love and I always tried my best to make my Dad proud of me when he was home. He was gone for most of my childhood, working in America so that he could send money home for us. Every time he came home was a big deal and my favourite memory was of being bounced on his knees – me on one leg, and Fotoula on the other, the three of us laughing and laughing.

Even though Greek families usually covet a son, my parents had three daughters and I think that, secretly, my father loved being surrounded by women. My Dad drove trucks for a living in the early seventies, and he was gone for long stretches at a time. My earliest memory is of our flat in Elwood. I was wearing a nappy and crawling to the front door because Mum had told me that Dad was coming home. I remember bursting with joy when he appeared at the flyscreen door.

In 1924 my family moved down from the mountains so that we could attend school near Korinth. Some of the teachers were very strict, which I didn’t like very much. I certainly wasn’t used to being smacked, but the teachers had no problem hitting us if they got mad. I always studied hard, and tried to be the best student so that they would never have any reason to hit me. On 22nd April 1928 a big earthquake shook Korinth. Twenty people died, and nearly 15,000 people were left homeless. Even though our home was damaged, we were lucky that it wasn’t one of the 3000 that were destroyed, and that we still had somewhere to live. Our school had turned to rubble and, while it was being rebuilt, classes were held outside, on the football field.

Fotoula hated school. She would say, “Chrysoula, I’ve been to school for a week, now it’s your turn”. School wasn’t compulsory back then, so she could get away with it but it’s a shame that she never learned to read or write. I wanted to be a teacher or a mid-wife when I grew up because they earned 500 drachmas (about €2) a month, which was a lot of money for a woman back then. But I was forced to drop out of school in 1929, at age 13.

When we were young,my parents forced me and my sisters to go to Greek school on Saturday mornings. I hated it and faced each weekend with sickening dread. But my parents wanted us to learn how to speak Greek, and to appreciate Greek history and customs. Fair enough, but the teachers at the school we attended were sadistic fucks and what I remember most about those classes was the constant fear. It ended when a teacher pinched my cheek so hard he left a large purple bruise across my face. My crime? Not completing my homework. My parents, horrified that the tales of assault and battery were actually true, allowed me to drop out of Greek school at age 12.

In 1930 my beloved father got sick with double pneumonia. The closest doctor was in Didima, a village 100km away, and every time he came to the house it cost us 500 drachmas. When Dad died, we owed the doctor a small fortune and since we didn’t have the money, it was negotiated that I would go with him back to Didima and work as his housekeeper until the bill was paid. I didn’t want to go, but my older brother got very angry and slapped me across the face and told me I was going and that was the end of it. After that I was happy to leave, just to get away from him. My Dad would never have allowed anyone to strike me like that. But now he was gone, and I had no choice but to enter into servitude for nearly three years in a village where I didn’t know anyone and where they didn’t even speak Greek. During my time in Didima, I slowly learned some Albanian so that I could communicate with people, but I was happy when the debt was finally paid off, and I could return to my family, who had moved to Lechaion.

In late 2002 my beloved father was diagnosed with lung cancer. My parents tried to be upbeat and hopeful about the prognosis but as you can imagine, it was a total shock for all of us. My father was the healthiest and most robust man I’d ever known. He was invincible to me, a rock. In denial, I didn’t even believe that he was actually sick until he started showing symptoms a couple of months later. And after that, the decline in his health was rapid. Lung cancer is a truly horrible disease and over a ten month period I watched my father deteriorate from a tower of strength into an emaciated skeleton coughing up tar-black mucus onto my birthday cake, a month before he died. Shit like that stays with you, man. When we told yiayia that her firstborn had passed away, she cried. But because of the Alzheimer’s she sometimes forgets. Sometimes she doesn’t even remember who he was.

In 1933 I started working in the fields with my sister, picking fruit to support our family. We earned just 25 drachmas a day, which wasn’t much, but our lack of education didn’t leave us many options. A lot of people were in the same boat and there was a great deal of competition for these field jobs, so we weren’t always gainfully employed. In 1936 I met a man at work called Panagiotis, who was a real go-getter. He would schmooze around the taverns at night, networking for jobs, and his circle of friends always had paid work, thanks to him. He seemed like a nice guy, and he must have taken a liking to me because he started getting regular work for me too. Working side by side we started developing feelings for each other, and after a year we were engaged. We couldn’t afford to get married right away but I did move in with him which was illegal back then, so we pretended that I was his housekeeper and everyone fell for it! Haha! Suckers! We lived in sin for two years before we got married on New Year’s Eve, 1939. Ten months later we had our first child, Konstantinos, and then after that I gave birth every two years, with Roula, Chris, Toula, Sofia and our baby Stavros.

 

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In the fields.  Kon, Chris, Toula, Sofia, Stavros, Roula, Panagiotis and Chrysoula.  And a small kid.

 

I met my husband David at work in 2005. It was love at first sight, for me anyway. We worked together for a year, exchanging flirty glances across the tower console before we actually started going out. Two days later I moved in, and four months after that we were married. Most people at work thought it wouldn’t last but, after eleven years together, we’re still nuts about each other. We decided not to have children, which we sometimes lament, but usually not.

Over the years all my children except Stavros emigrated to Australia. Roula went first because she hated working in the fields and wanted a chance to start a new life. Kon joined her a year later, and then the others followed. I wanted them to be happy and to have a better life than I did so I didn’t mind them leaving, but my god I missed them so much. My children are my life and they have always made me so happy and so proud, even now. In 1976 I went to Australia for a visit and I had such a wonderful time, mostly because I got to see all my children and grandchildren. Little Chrysoula was, of course, my favourite*. She was such a delightful child, and she taught me how to count to ten in English, and even though my memory isn’t what it used to be, I’ve never forgotten: onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten! See!! I do have trouble remembering some things, but those old days are crystal clear. I loved Australia so much I went back for another visit in 1988 and I wish I could go again, but, even though I’m as fit as a fiddle, let’s face it, at my age it’s probably not going to happen. There is always someone here, one of my kids, looking after me, and I appreciate that. But I wish my grandchildren would visit more often.

I met my yiayia for the first time when I was five years old. She came to visit us from Greece and stayed with us for a few months. It was nice having her around because she was always smiling and laughing and hugging us and telling stories and crocheting beautiful things. Her skin was wrinkly, but soft, like well-worn leather. And you could tell that my Dad just LOVED having her around. They glowed around each other, overflowing with mutual adoration and respect. My grandmother was such a loving person and she taught my Dad to be honest and hard-working and to be proud of his achievements. In turn, he taught me the same.

I’ve been thinking about my yiayia a lot lately. I am writing this ejo to celebrate her, while she’s still alive. I don’t know if I will ever see her again. But I want to. The last time was five years ago. She recognised me, which was wonderful, but she is very locked up in her mind most of the time. Locked in the past. And the people around her, even loved ones, are very much in the periphery of her consciousness. But every time we are together, even though my Greek is shit and she can’t speak English, there is always a deep and loving connection between us. A circle of life and love that cannot be broken by distance or years apart.

We are Chrysoula Stathopoulos.

 

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* Some creative license MAY have been used in the writing of this ejo.

 

Ejo #90 – Drunk In….. Hoi An

David and I just got back from Hoi An!! Vietnam, bitches! And, as always, we had a rip-roaring time. You might recall that we’ve been to Vietnam before, on a far more daring odyssey. In 2012 we rode old Russian motorbikes into the remote mountains of the central highlands, going WAY off the beaten track and totally off the tourist trail. It was scary as hell, and bloody amazing.

This time we were visiting our friend, Cath, who has recently upped stumps from Melbourne and moved to the beautiful and cultural, historic town of Hoi An. There were no fearless adventures this time. The gutsiest thing we did each day was to venture out of Cath’s house, and into the searing sun and withering humidity. This might not sound so heroic to you, but I cannot stress enough how UNBELIEVABLY hot and sticky it was. You’d think we are accustomed to high temperatures, having lived in Dubai for eight and a half years, but we spend very little time outdoors during summer. I tell you, I have never been so hot and so sweaty in my life. But hey, we were there to get drunk in Hoi An and we had no choice but to brave the hostile outdoors so that I could bring you this month’s ejo.

So, the first thing you do after arriving in Hoi An on a hot day is to get an ice cold beer into you, preferably under some shade, and ideally next to a fan. Air-conditioning is rare, so just get used to having rivulets of sweat constantly pouring down your body, and enjoy the hell out of that beer. And the next one. Beer in Vietnam is literally cheaper than water, and we paid less than 60 cents for a can. So crack one open and start hydrating. You’re gonna need it.

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Biere Larue, a local beer, cost less than a dollar a bottle and is a necessity in the searing heat.

 

BA LE MARKET

After arriving at Cath’s house we headed to the local market and walked around to take in the sights, sounds and smells of the local bazaar. Cath had mentioned that she’d spotted a huge pig’s head the day before and I was really keen to see it, so off we went in search of it, but alas it was gone. Luckily there was a cornucopia of other produce to stimulate the senses. In the morning heat, the meat and fish section was particularly stimulating.

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The hubbub of Ba Le Market – we went by the market at least a couple of times a day.

 

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All the fresh produce you could think of under one roof.

 

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Super fresh fruit and veg, at super cheap prices.

 

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Fancy some fish?  How about an octopus?

 

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Some beautiful fresh fishies being chopped up for someone’s delicious dinner.

 

We rushed through and quickly made our way to a refreshment stand for a little pick-me-up of Vietnamese coffee. Now, Vietnamese coffee isn’t your regular cup of joe. It’s very strong syrupy coffee, slow-dripped onto lashings of condensed milk. In hot weather it’s always served with ice. It’s certainly a heart-starter and we made it a morning ritual to get up early every day to beat the heat and head on over to our favourite stall to sit down in little plastic children’s chairs and slam a couple of these down in a row. Trust me, your hangover will thank you for it.

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You can get Vietnamese coffee, and juices (including the ubiquitous sugar cane juice) at any of the multitude of market stalls, but this one was our favourite (it’s on the main road – look for the sign) and we were there every single morning for our double dose of Vietnamese coffee.  They laughed at us the first time we ordered a second round.  But after that they started greeting us with a smile.

 

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Strong, sweet Vietnamese coffee.  SO good.

INFO:
Lê Thánh Tông, Hội An, Quang Nam Province
0500-1900
CLICK FOR MAP

 

MADAM KHÁHN: THE BÁHN MÌ QUEEN

So what makes bánh mì so special? Have you ever had one?? If so, you wouldn’t be asking. The best bánh mì is served in a freshly baked crusty, French baguette smeared with pâté and then stuffed full of goodness with all sorts of yummy ingredients depending on the region, or the shop owner. Bánh mì was one of the things we really wanted to try on this trip, so one sweltering lunchtime we grabbed a cab and took off for Old Town Hoi An, straight to Madam Khanh’s. We were offered no menu, just a choice of vegetarian or pork bánh mì. We got the pork, with a little extra spice and, of course, beer! This is PERFECT hangover food. Greasy, delicious, comforting and filling. I couldn’t finish mine, but I had the rest later at home while we were laying low to avoid the heat, and it was even better, as all the flavours had intensified and soaked into the bread. My mouth just had an orgasm, remembering how good it was.

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The famous Madam Khanh herself!  Still making bánh mì every day at the age of 79.  Hers are a special mix of pâté, pork char siu, sausage, fried egg, homemade pickles, papaya, carrots, parsley, chili sauce, soy sauce, and her secret sauce.

 

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Seriously.  Look at that.  To die for.

INFO:
115 Trần Cao Vân, Sơn Phong, Tp. Hội An, Quảng Nam
+84 90 666 03 09
0800-1900
CLICK FOR MAP

 

AGRIBANK ATM CUBICLE

Why am I featuring an ATM cubicle in a Drunk In….. ejo?  Because it’s the coldest 2m³ in the whole goddamn town.  No joke, keep this one up your sleeve.

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You know it’s hot when all three of you pile into the eensy-weensy teeny-weeny little ATM cubicle just for a few moments of respite.  © Cath Grey

CLICK FOR MAP

 

WHITE MARBLE WINE BAR & RESTAURANT

David and I don’t usually go for wine bars in South East Asia (it feels too much like a western concept), but Cath insisted we try this place for dinner one night and I’m really glad she did. The food was so good, and so authentic, that we went back again the next day for lunch and then again on our last day (it was those Money Bags damn it, we just couldn’t stay away). Each time we also consumed plenty of beer, tonnes of sparkling water and tonnes of sparkling wine. That’s how we roll, kids! The service here is impeccable and the food consistently amazing. Highly recommended.

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That Napoleon Bonaparte knew a thing or two, didn’t he?!!

 

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Hoi An spring rolls

 

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The best damn Money Bags I’ve ever had in my life.  Probably the best you’ll ever have too.

 

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Super fresh rice paper rolls stuffed with prawns, lettuce, mint, coriander, carrot, pineapple and vermicelli noodles.  So fresh and tasty!

INFO:
98 Lê Lợi, Minh An, Tp. Hội An, Quảng Nam
+84 235 3911 862
24H
CLICK FOR MAP

 

HOI AN OLD TOWN

We took a few trips into historic Hoi An. There are heaps of restaurants, shops, bars, cafés and stalls to while away several drunken hours, if not the entire day! One evening when we were rather drunk, we walked around the crowded riverside stalls, fending off overly friendly expat club promoters trying to beguile us into having a drink with them. As we navigated the thronging streets, one particular stall caught my eye, and even though I was absolutely stuffed full of Money Bags I just HAD to have a freshly made Vietnamese banana pancake. I’m a sucker for these things, and you should be too because they’re bloody delicious. Eggs, butter, banana, condensed milk. What else could you want? It was the perfect end to our evening out (because I shortly thereafter slipped into a sugar coma – totes worth it). But fear not, the party continued on Cath’s balcony with plenty of bottles of rosé and prosecco to revive me.

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These are made fresh to order with your choice of condensed milk or chocolate sauce on top.  Condensed milk wins for me ever’ damn time!

 

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Yes, you should.  © Cath Grey

 

NA SPA ESCAPE

Exploring the watering holes and eateries of any city is hard work and sometimes your body just cries out for some TLC. We made sure to look after ours by getting a restorative massage at Na Spa Escape. It’s a lovely, peaceful and air-conditioned (!!!!) oasis from which to escape the heat and noise of the city for just a little while. We were given the choice of a firm-pressure Asian blend massage, or a more relaxing Swedish massage. We all went with the firm choice. We needed it! And though the massage itself ended up being not as firm as I would have liked, I certainly walked away from it feeling super rejuvenated, relaxed and ready to take on the challenge of more eating and drinking!

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The calming interior of the Na Spa Escape retreat.  We were asked if we wanted to go for the three-way massage, but we politely declined.  David and I had a romantic couple’s massage and Cath went solo.  I think it was for the best.

INFO:
100/5 Le Thanh Tong, Cam Chau, T.P. Hoi An, Quang Nam
+84 235 3914 199
0900-2200
CLICK FOR MAP

 

TAM THANH MURAL VILLAGE

It’s never a “Drunk In…..” experience without at least a pinch of culture thrown in for fun. We’re not heathens, for god’s sake!! This time we hired a driver for a half-day trip to the seaside fishing town of Tam Thanh, also known as Mural Village for the multitude of murals painted onto the houses along its only street. About a year ago the South Korean government, in a lightbulb moment, commissioned a bunch of Vietnamese and South Korean artists and asked them to jazz up the tiny town with a lick of paint. The locals were supposedly a bit nonplussed about the whole thing, but they were completely shocked when people started coming from far and wide, just to take pictures of the wall paintings. It seems as though they still haven’t really recovered, because there’s not a whole lot of trade going on, which actually makes it a very charming little place. Everyone smiles and waves at you and no-one makes you feel like you’re intruding on them when you take pictures of their house.

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Vietnam’s second most popular mode of transportation, after motorbikes.

 

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Two types of local fishing boats, pimped up!

 

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Gorgeous artistry.  © Cath Grey

 

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Murals everywhere.

 

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Tam Thanh is a super gorgeous village.  I reckon I’d love to spend two whole weeks here, doing nothing but drinking beer and coconut juice and gorging on fish.

 

We had plans to go to a local beach restaurant for lunch but at 9.45am it was still way too early, so when beckoned by a group of locals, we took a break under the shade of a tree on some tiny plastic chairs and ordered three coconuts, stat! The lady of the house (and it really was just the front of some woman’s house) chopped the coconuts right on the ground with a huge machete, and served them up with straws. Perfecto! We slurped up all the juice and then she split each coconut in half with her big-ass knife so we could get at the young, juicy pulp. So much goodness. When it was time to pay, she totally fleeced us and kept increasing the number of fingers going up until our faces started registering shock. Then she put up one more finger for good measure and everyone in her posse laughed heartily, as we willingly handed over the extortionate sum of $4.50, which is about double the price we should have paid.

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Three coconuts please!

 

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The remains.

CLICK FOR MAP OF TAM THANH

 

NO NAME BEACH RESTAURANT

It was almost time for lunch, but the coconut had given me some, uh, shall we say trouble in the trouser department, so we headed off to the Tam Thanh Beach Resort & Spa’s Ocean Breeze bar for a couple of refreshing beers – and the opportunity to use the only nice toilet in the vicinity. If you come to gorgeous Tam Thanh, I’d definitely recommend coming to Ocean Breeze afterwards to use the facilities, and of course to have a refreshment.

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Tam Thanh beach (dotted with fishing boats).  It’s gorgeous, but it was brutally hot out there and we couldn’t even muster up the fortitude to venture down to the water.  Luckily, Ocean Breeze has toilets, beer and an air-conditioned lounge from which to gaze upon the lovely scene above. 

 

It was finally time for lunch, so we sauntered across the street to a row of open-air beach restaurants and made a beeline for the one on the far left (since that was the one that Cath had been to before).  I bet they’re all amazing though, and I bet they all serve the freshest seafood you’ve ever had. We negotiated the confusing, handwritten English menu with the help of the staff and kicked back with some beers and peanuts, contemplating what a lovely day we were having. If you’re looking for any recommendations, I will have to insist you get the calamari and the crabs. These were incredibly fresh and delicious. And even though we were quite full, the calamari was just so good we had to order another round.

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Fresh peanuts while you wait.  A perfect beer snack.

 

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Coz they could see us coming a mile away, they brought us a little cooler full of beer and ice. Which was most welcome.

 

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Coriander, pepper and lime salt.  Delicious on EVERYTHING with a squeeze of fresh lime on top.  We went through six plates of this stuff.  Sure, some of it ended up on the plastic table cloth – but that didn’t stop us from dipping our food into it.  Waste not, want not!

 

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The crab was super fresh.  How fresh?  Let’s just say that those lovely crabs sacrificed their lives for us about ten minutes after we ordered them.  Best crab I’ve had in 30 years.

 

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What was left of the fish that we didn’t really mean to order.  © Cath Grey

 

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The calamari was so good we ordered another plate of it to the bewilderment (and amusement) of the waitress.

INFO:
Get yourself to Tam Thanh Beach Resort & Spa where Ocean Breeze is located. When you’re ready to go to the No Name Beach Restaurant, just cross the road (DT614) and head to the restaurant closest to the beach.
CLICK FOR MAP TO TAM THANH BEACH RESORT & SPA

 

RESTAURANT 328

At the end of nearly every day of our stay in Hoi An, we ended up at Restaurant 328, a local dining establishment where Cath was greeted like long lost family and David and I were welcomed with open arms.  And every time we went, we each devoured one of these delicious, home-made frozen confections, delightfully (and aptly named) Mango Delights.  And how delightful they were.  The first day when we excitedly ordered them, Aunty told us that she had only just popped the ice-cream in the freezer 15 minutes earlier and that it would be too soft to serve.  I guess the traumatised expressions on our faces convinced her to offer it to us anyway.  This stuff alone is worth travelling to Hoi An for.  My mouth is spurting just thinking about it.  Oh, it’s spurting.

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Is it any wonder this is called a Mango Delight?  LOOK AT IT!!  It’s fucking delightful!!!!!

 

On another visit we ordered three Mango Delights and three shots of their home-made rice wine to wash it down. Uncle was chuffed and proudly brought over a plastic water bottle filled with the potent clear liquid, and poured out three measures for us. This stuff is STRONG. I’m not ashamed to say that there was some enthusiastic table banging, and a little bit of strident gasping for a few minutes there, but it’s still something I’d definitely recommend. It’s wine. Made from Vietnamese rice. Of course you have to have it. On our last visit to the restaurant, Aunty somehow knew that we were leaving the next day and wanted to give us a little surprise.  She furtively crept up to our table and burst into fits of laughter as she revealed what she was hiding behind her back. Yep, the plastic bottle of rice wine and three little glasses. Of course we had to partake. Twice. It would have been rude not to.

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Rice wine.  Tastes like a mixture of sake and petrol.  With slightly more petrol overtones.

 

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After I started writing this ejo I asked Cath if she wouldn’t mind going back to Restaurant 328 to get a photo of Aunty and her plastic water bottle of home-made rice wine. Unfortunately Aunty had better things to do that day, but Cath figured that this wonderful drawing was a pretty good substitute.  I tend to agree.  (But seriously, Cath, lay off the rice wine, OK?) 😉

INFO:
328 Cua Dai, Hoi An, Quảng Nam
+84 235 3862 095
CLICK FOR MAP

 

BIG BOWL PHO – NO BAI INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT

C’mon, we had to have one final hit of phở before we left Vietnam.

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A farewell meal at the airport.  There are some airports around the world where I much prefer to eat in the terminal rather than the airport lounge.  This includes pretty well all the South East Asian cities.  This farewell phở really hit the spot and helped to ease the anguish of leaving Vietnam.

INFO:
Level 3, Noi Bai International Airport, Hanoi
CLICK FOR MAP

 

CATH’S PLACE

Yes, we did.

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When the going gets hot, the hot get in the blow-up wading pool.  Sure, the two little girls next door laughed uproariously at us as we were filling it up with water, but in the end we were in a pool and they were not.  So, who’s laughing now little girls?!

Ejo #89 – Airbnb & Me

David and I stayed in our first ever Airbnb apartment in San Francisco in May 2011. Since then we have stayed in 59 houses, apartments, cottages, studios, pool-houses, a houseboat, a palazzo and even a converted hospital.

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The pool-house we stayed at in Adelaide on our most recent trip to Australia.  We had free run of the pool which was nice coz it was HOT!!!!

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A palazzo.  In Barcelona!!!!!

It’s no exaggeration to say that we love Airbnb. But I’m not here to sell it to you – I know it’s not for everyone. One of my closest friends loves staying in five-star hotels and there’s no way I can convince her that staying in someone else’s pad could be better than 24 hour room service, someone making your bed every day and fresh towels on demand. So, this ejo is for people who may have heard a little about Airbnb and are interested in trying it but would like to know more before they commit.

Our experiences have, for the most part, been excellent*. One or two have been mediocre. And one was absolutely awful, but more on that later. Each and every one of the dozens of Airbnb dwellings we’ve stayed in has been a learning experience, and over the years I’ve got better and better at picking the right place. And I’d love to impart some of that knowledge onto you.

This isn’t a tutorial. I’m not here to tell anyone how to suck eggs. The website is very easy to navigate. You put in your desired city, your dates and your budget and voilà, you get to delve into the lives of people willing to open their homes to you, allowing you sleep in their bed, eat the food from their fridge and shit in their toilet. Oh, it’s intimate, folks. Before you gasp in horror and refuse to read any further, you should note that these days most places get professionally cleaned, before and after your stay. Of course you pay for the convenience but it is nice to know that the toilet has at least been scrubbed before you sit down on it for the first time.

And that leads me to my number #1 rule when making a selection. Cleanliness. If a listing has even ONE review saying anything negative about cleanliness, I nix it, right then and there. Even if it looks like my dream rental. I used to be a little more relaxed about this, giving hosts the benefit of the doubt if I read an iffy review, but then I got burned. So it’s become a very firm rule. Unfortunately, the only way to know if someone’s had anything bad to say about a listing is to read the reviews. All of them.

Unlike on TripAdvisor, the Airbnb host also gets to appraise you as a guest in return. And they can also comment on your review. Because of this, reviews on the website tend to be a little on the, shall we say, diplomatic side. Which is exactly why you need to pay attention to any negative ones. Someone is trying to tell you something, and sometimes that hint can be subtle, so it behooves you to read the reviews carefully.

OK, so not everyone has the time to read pages of reviews. If you find yourself stuck for time you can still get an idea of what previous guests thought of the state of cleanliness of a listing just by looking at the star ratings (though of course, it’s not as accurate). If either the cleanliness rating or the overall rating are lower than four, I move on. So should you.

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I don’t think we’ve ever stayed anywhere with less than a 4.5 overall rating. 

 

Something else I look for in a listing is the response rate and time of the host. I like to see a 100% response rate and “within a few hours” response time. I will persist if these are just a little bit off the mark, but I don’t even bother with hosts that respond only 34% of the time or “within a week”. I don’t have the time, or the inclination, to sit around waiting for some faffer to get back to me – or leave me hanging in the wind.

I also look for these auto-posts in the review section. So ominous.

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This has never happened to us before – because we stay away from hosts that cancel a lot. 

 

Even more ominous:

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Shudder.  I just can’t even with this.

 

Can you imagine booking a very special place to stay for your honeymoon, and then finding out when you arrive at the airport that you’re homeless??!! Of course sometimes there’s a very good reason for a reservation to be cancelled, and hosts are now able to leave a comment explaining why they did so. So one or two cancellations are fine, but if you see too many in a single listing, think twice before booking.

Let’s move onto photos. There are a lot of things to look for in the photos. Firstly don’t be fooled by the Airbnb photographer’s wide-angle lens and over exposure. They can make a couch that is this wide:

Ejo 4

 

look this wide:

Ejo 5

Same room!!!!  Look how wide the couch (and the map of Australia) looks in comparison to above.  Very deceptive. 

 

So, it can be a little misleading. I like to look at all the pictures, and then try to reconstruct the layout of the apartment in my mind, before looking at them again. You can usually get a better sense of scale that way. I tend to be drawn to the places that have had verified photos taken by Airbnb’s photographer. It shows the host’s professionalism and commitment to providing great accommodation. And I can usually tell from the cover photo if a listing is worth clicking on to inspect further. If I see a picture like this:

Ejo 6

C’mon, why is that cabinet door open??

 

or this:

Ejo 7

Where am I going to put my shit???

 

or this:

Ejo 8

I hate when a host leaves ALL their toiletries in the bathroom.  And WHY is the toilet seat up?  

I steer clear. It shows a lack of engagement, and if the host can’t even go to the trouble of tidying up and taking a nice photo of their place, it doesn’t bode well. Some better examples (of places we’ve actually stayed):

Ejo 6a

What a beautiful living room.  An apartment in Madrid. 

Ejo 7a

Look at all that space – and none of the host’s personal belongings.  An apartment in Amsterdam. 

Ejo 8a

No clutter.  Room for me to spread out.  A bathroom in London. 

Also, I like to see at least one photo of each of the main rooms. The living/dining area, the kitchen, the bathroom and the bedroom. If any of these are missing it raises alarm bells and I move on. No point lingering – there are SO many other options out there. For instance, I have NO idea what this place really looks like. It might be super nice, but I’m never going to find out.

Finally, be wary of close-up images. These tend to mask a problem with the bigger picture – otherwise there’d be a photo of the bigger picture, right? I learned this on a trip to Copenhagen when failed to properly inspect this photo:

Ejo 9

 

Unfortunately the only way to get to the shower was to climb over the toilet (ew!). And you can’t really tell that from the photo. Rookie mistake. Don’t make it.

So, it’s time to hear about our one crappy Airbnb experience? OK, so here’s how it went down. Airbnb #21. Hackney, London. April, 2014. We checked into the place and I immediately felt that it hadn’t been cleaned for a while. I honestly don’t mind if there’s a little dust here and there. It happens. But we had paid £40 for cleaning, and that gives you some expectations. The couches were absolutely covered in dog hair and when I tried to brush it off with my hand, plumes of dust rose up. Now, I am not a fussy person, but there was no way I was sitting on those couches. So, I set about cleaning the place. I intended to do a quick sweep and dust, thinking that would be sufficient.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find a broom and dustpan so we had to walk to the local store to buy one. Yep. Also, it turned out that the problem was more extensive than I first thought and it took me over two hours to clean it to a level where I felt comfortable to sit down on the couch and walk around barefoot. Oh yeah, and to add insult to injury, when we opened the fridge there was a plastic container full of mouldy mushrooms that made the whole place stink.

Ejo 10

Here’s the dirt I collected in just this small area.  The whole house was as filthy.

I kicked myself as I swept and dusted because I remembered stupidly ignoring the warnings of a couple of reviewers, one of which had mentioned that the place “needed a bit of a hoover”. The other one was from a woman who had said that there was dog hair throughout the house. But the real clue that I glossed over when I made the reservation was the host’s response to that woman. He attacked her personally, calling her “bizarre” and claiming that she was being unpleasant towards him because he’s gay. He insisted that other hosts not “deal with this person”.

Unfortunately for me, after our trip was over, he did almost the exact same thing to me. I left him a pretty nice review, considering the state the house was in. And in “private” feedback to him I made the comment “I’m not OCD, but I like a clean house.”

Here’s the review he left for me.

Chryss, in your extensive private feedback you sent me you mentioned OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). Perhaps this is something you should explore with a professional. Sadly, I cannot say you would be welcome in my home again, at least not until you’ve addressed your OCD.

This really, really hurt me. I had 20 amazing Airbnb reviews under my belt and it just stung to know that there would be an incorrect, but public, record of me being a shitty guest. Potential hosts might see it and decide it’d be too risky to let me to stay in their homes. My reputation in the Airbnb community was tarnished and I was pretty devastated about that. I remember posting a woeful status about it on Facebook and being inspired by some of the comments to actually write to Airbnb and ask them to delete the nasty review. I knew they had a policy of not doing this, but figured it would be worth trying because the comments made could actually be deemed libellous. This was the response I got from them:

Airbnb

 

Amazing. It made me love Airbnb even more than I already did. And we went on to have another 38 wonderful experiences. I know we’ll have many, many more and I hope that you do too.

* One was particularly excellent. We loved our 41st apartment, an Amsterdam pad, so much that we asked the owner if she was interested in selling it. The answer, sadly, was no.