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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Anton and the Bull

A hash is a simple enough concept to understand, I think. It’s a kind of a running club, really. I believe it must be an English tradition as all the members involved in the two hashes with which I was familiar, were from the consulates of Britain and members of the Commonwealth (i.e. Canada and Australia). The course for the run is pre-determined by the five “Hares” each with a delightful nickname (as my shirt will attest) and is marked wherever it turns by painted arrows on the ground. At certain places there will be no arrow marking but a paint mark nonetheless, when the Hares, who are customarily in the front of the run, reach this point they will all run in different directions and the runners must choose a Hare to follow. Eventually the Hare going in the proper direction will blow a siren and anyone who wasn’t following them has to turn back and find them. It goes on like that for a few miles until you reach the endpoint which is generally also the starting point (you run in a big circle, you see?), wherein all involved partake in much enjoyment and beer drinking. The last person to return is customarily forced to sit on a giant block of ice. I don’t know why.
This hash was referred to as the “Full Moon Hash” because it took place at night under a full moon through the streets and alleys of central Chennai. It is in those streets and alleys where this story takes place. I had only been in India one or two weeks, I was living with my Uncle and his soon-to-be-wife and because he was running in the hash, he offered me the chance to as well, so I took him up on the offer. Of course I didn’t know anyone besides the two of them in the entire city, so when he immediately pulled ahead of me running, I took my chances getting to know an older Australian teenager named Anton. Anton was older and in better shape than me and could have been far ahead of me in the hash, but he was a lazy fellow (as teenagers are wont to be) and I think he suffered from the same lack of social networking as I did, so he stuck by me and we ran together. Somewhat near, but not in, the very back of the pack, as it were.
Usually in a hash of this type, the front of the group is well packed with the Hares and the experienced runners and the grouping of runners gets thinner as it goes back. Meaning that little 16 year-old me and this guy Anton were basically running by ourselves through the literally shit covered alleys of this city in southern India. Not to worry though, I had a flashlight to protect me if something happened, and of course there were those useful painted arrows on the corners of streets every few hundred meters or so to keep us on the right track. Oh, the looks that we got running, jogging, and lazily walking past these poor Indian people and their makeshift homes of mismatched wood and aluminum. At one point an auto-rickshaw driver pulled up and asked if we needed a ride, clearly not understanding the purpose of recreational running.
I must explain that for those not particularly into the actual athleticism or competition of the hash, the points where Hares split up and the runners more or less take bets as to which direction to continue running, for those points we just sort of stop. When you don’t feel like running in the first place, there isn’t much reason in running in one direction only to learn you picked the wrong one and you need to run back over your own steps. It was at one of these points where Anton and I were wandering around a back alley behind some shops (I recall clearly one where a wrinkled old Indian man was spot welding some metal together wearing the protection of nothing more than a bit of cloth wrapped around his waist and a giant beard) and we came upon a bull or an ox or some kind of large, male bovine strapped to a post in the ground. We stopped next to this creature, which you recall is sacred in India, to talk and wait for the sound which would inform us of which direction we needed to run towards. Eventually of course, our attention was drawn to the bull and Anton mentioned that he looked bored (which, looking back, indeed he did). I told him that he should go talk to it so Anton walks directly in front of the animal and says quite clearly (though in a charming Australian accent) “Moo”. The bull, not making a sound, lurches forward towards Anton. He, for his part, literally screams and leaps backwards towards me and we both run around the corner and out of sight. It is only after we stop and think about the situation that we realize the bull was tied up and not only was it not chasing us but it probably hadn’t even moved as a result of us. The thing is probably used to carry food and supplies around the city, its as domesticated as my car, its not going to go on a rampage because some idiot Aussie said “moo”. Nonetheless we felt quite heroic for having narrowly survived such an animal attack and it’s a memory that has stuck with me to this day. The story of Anton and the Bull.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


There was a restaurant I liked to go to when I was living in Rome called "The Goose", not "Il Guzzo" or whatever Goose is in Italian [ed: it's Oca, boy I was way off] but "The Goose". I liked it because it was this little bar, down the street from my apartment, half hidden under under a rail bridge, and not even remotely touristy. When I went in the waiter didn't attempt to talk to me in English and when I struggled through the Italian menu on my first visit, rather than help me, he just looked at me with boredom and half-hearted contempt, as I felt a real Italian should. I also liked it because it was poorly lit, and thanks to my penchant for visiting restaurants at off times, almost always empty. Also, I think it might have been a front for the mob.

One reason I liked The Goose so much was that it served the absolute best version of penne all'arrabiatta that I found in Rome. And because Rome is considered the home of that particular type of pasta, let's just say there were a lot of places that sold it. It's my favorite pasta, I still make it at home because I can't find any Italian restaurants here in Ohio that serve it(the one bizarre exception is The Cheesecake Factory, which makes a not unacceptable version of the dish). In a nutshell, it's penne noodles in a spicy marinara. But when made well, it's so much more than that. It's an intricate dance of tomato, pepper, and basil that when done poorly is just spicy spaghetti with penne noodles but when done well...well it's just....I don't know, I'm not a food writer. Let's just say it's real good.

Anyways, whenever I ate at The Goose I ordered this dish and sat in a booth by myself in a dark corner of the restaurant, trying not to look too American. It let me enjoy one of my favorite past-times: people watching, which because the restaurant was almost always empty, typically just involved watching the bored bartender and waiter watching soccer. I mean futbol. So one day as I sat there enjoying my water and waiting for my food, I couldn't help but stare as a group of middle aged Italian men in fine suits came walking through the door. Now, being that I was in Italy, this shouldn't have been terribly surprising, but I had nothing else to do so I watched as the first man in cowed the bartender with a sharp word, and then they all headed into a backroom separated from the main dining area by a curtain. After walking through, they all sat around a large, circular table and proceeded talking in Italian and laughing (also in Italian, I suppose). Both the waiter and bartender having made themselves scarce, I had little else to do than sit in my corner booth and stare curiously at the men in the back room. I became so engrossed in their going-ons that when the waiter appeared with my bowl of pasta he had to get my attention by snapping his fingers in my face. The sound drew the attention of the men in the other room and, with a scowl and quick gesture by the man I'd seen earlier yelling at the bartender (the "mob boss" as it were), someone stood up from their seat to close the curtain and stand in front of it, arms crossed and staring at me. With that foreboding image in the corner of my eye, I tried to enjoy my meal.

I continued to eat at The Goose but never again by myself or at weird hours. I can't say for sure that I had stumbled upon a mob den that day. Indeed, most of that assumption lies on a rather lazy kind of racism on my part. But still...

But still...