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1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

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Saturday, 7 June 2008

Beer and Cheese

There are many things that I miss when I'm travelling. They range from important emotional stuff like family and friends, through vague conceptual stuff like stability and comfort right down to trivial day-to-day stuff like beer and cheese.

Hang on a minute. Beer and cheese? Where can you go in the world where you can't get beer and cheese? I could point out that while cheese is available everywhere there are rather a lot of places where you can't get beer – at least not without a concomitant risk of imprisonment. Nevertheless that's not what I meant. I like my beer and cheese. I can wander down to my fridge now, open the door and find half a dozen different cheeses. I can turn around, open the cupboard under the worktop and find thirty bottles of beer from a dozen different breweries. And that's what I meant. Of course I can get beer and cheese but it isn't what I call beer and cheese. Now in most of Europe I can get pretty good beer. It isn't always to my taste but it has to be said that it's a proper quality product. Increasingly it's also possible in the United States to get some excellent beer if you look in the right places. The trouble is that travelling around the world you rapidly realise that in most places beer is synonymous with that yellow fizzy stuff promoted by brewers of mass market lagers. It doesn't matter whether you are in China or Chile, Nepal or Nigeria – if you buy beer you get something that is fizzy, yellow and quite unpalatable but with a local label on the bottle.

I was holding forth on this very subject last week when I spent a couple of sessions at the thirty-third Wolverhampton Beer Festival where I could drink from a large selection of excellent brews. When I am unable to get anything decent I will drink the stuff that most countries insist on describing as "beer" but it's with reluctance. It reminded me of when I was travelling around South America with my friend Manu. He's Belgian and also likes beer, albeit the Belgian varieties rather than the English ones. We'd run the bar on the truck for a while although we'd given that job over to someone else by the time we were really into the trip – it's something of a thankless task. Stock it with decent stuff and people don't like to pay the prices, stock it with cheap stuff and people complain about the quality. The quality of the beer we had been forced to drink was, at best, poor but we had a couple of days stopover in Santiago where people left the group and new people joined and we had discovered from the guide books that there were a number of bars where European bottled beers were to be had.

As we drove into Santiago it struck me as a large, modern city with a certain European style about it. It was filled with crowds and traffic and noise and bustle and didn’t look at first glance anything unusual. The buildings all looked like insurance offices apart from the one sprouting a roof full of satellite dishes and microwave transmitters which looked like - and was - a telecom tower. We arrived on a day as hot as any I had seen and checked into our rooms at the Youth Hostel, a marvellous modern building with superb facilities. Until this trip I had never really considered hostelling as an option but when I travel again it’s certainly something I shall think about. All of the hostels I stayed in - probably about four or five of them - were splendid places which not only had all the facilities you could want but were filled to bursting with English speaking backpackers.

For the next few days we explored Santiago - the trip changeovers always provide an opportunity for a longer break – and I realised that in at least one important respect my first impressions were quite wrong. Away from the main road that led in and out of the city it was quite unusual. It still had a very European look to it but on the streets away from that insurance office architecture it was extremely pretty and photogenic. The extensive pedestrian sections were broken up with plenty of civic parks and wide palm lined squares. The modern glass high rise buildings formed a backdrop to the much older colonial style ones so that the city managed to simultaneously have both the obvious European look to it and a subtler Mediterranean veneer. The more I saw of it the more I liked it. In spite of the promise of our researches the downtown area had something of a dearth of good bars - I spent an hour searching before a friendly shoe shiner abandoned his stand and led me down into the bowels of a building to the strange and deserted Bar Ingles. On the other hand a metro ride out it’s hard to find anything but bars. As you wander through the Provedencia district it is as if it has been designed as ‘Pubs of the World’ theme by someone who has formed his ideas by visiting Disneyland. There is the ersatz Australiana of Boomerang where nothing other than the names of the cocktails and a gigantic neon boomerang is noticeably antipodean. Just along the street is the similarly imitation Irishness of Brannigans, all green neon lights, plastic shamrock and waiters in green velvet waistcoats that a leprechaun would be ashamed to wear. Half a mile away the British entry in the bad taste stakes is The Phone Box is a British pub which surprisingly lacks the tackiness of most of the others. Manu and I had sought it out intentionally and we sat down outside and considered both the food menu and the beer menu. If it didn’t really look much like a British pub then it hardly mattered as they had at least made an effort with the food and drink. It offered a range of English bottled beers from Old Speckled Hen to Ruddles County and typical English menu including Steak and Kidney Pie and Cod and Chips. It also had a similar range of European bottled beers.

Manu and I had been bickering, in a rather friendly way, for months about which beer was better – British or Belgian. I bought a bottle of Ruddles County and set it in front of him. He, by turn, handed me a bottle of a Belgian beer to try. I forget the name but he assured me it was one of his personal favourites. I sipped at it. It was fine. Sweet and a little strong but vastly better than anything I'd had in recent weeks. I often find that European beers, for me, leave a slight medicianal taste in the mouth and this one did. Nevertheless I drank it though with a little less pleasure than I would have got from the County. From the cautious way he was drinking it Manu's thoughts about the British beer were clearly similar. Almost at the same instant we realised that this situation was a little foolish and silently exchanged glasses. We didn't argue about beer again for the rest of the trip.

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