Leaving university, moving from being a loafing and lazy student to being a paid-up besuited member of the rat race, means a pretty significant change to life. You stop being funded by the government for a start, unless you decide to throw away your soul (what the hell, you weren’t using it anyway) and go and work for the civil service. (Nurses and doctors and so on are excluded here; NHS consultants are not.) You start getting up at seven and going to bed at eleven, rather than getting up at eleven and going to sleep when the cigarettes run out, or possibly slumped against a wall in a nightclub. You stop caring about politics, until you start caring about it again. The amount you actually contribute to society starts an upward turn, just as your beer consumption and the amount you want to contribute to society and the amount you give a shit about contributing to society start their horrific screaming nosedive toward ground zero. And you have to buy your own shower gel for the first time in twenty-one years. None of this, though, has as much of an effect as the most important paradigm shift between the two states. You stop eating takeaways. When I was at university, we ate pizza all the time. Babylon Pizza (that’s 0191 386 4004 for those of you following along in Durham, assuming the number hasn’t changed in the last decade, which I’m gratified to see that it hasn’t, although it has changed its name to Pizza King (beware: large jpg! also crimes against typography!)) got so many orders from us that all I had to do was dial the number and say “Hello” to get a 10” olives-mushroom-sweetcorn and a 12” chicken-ham-pepperoni delivered to our house. (This is really true.) I’m beaten in this only by my aunt Caroline, who once got a letter from BT saying that she could save money by picking the listed ten numbers as her Friends and Family (a scheme from British Telecom, the UK phone company, designed to offer a discount on the numbers you ring most often); number four on the list was the Chinese takeaway. Caroline, a grown-up, had reached that pitch of adult life when you get to eat food that you didn’t cook (and microwaving counts here) on a semi-regular basis. It took us a while to get there, but we’re there now; in fact, because we’re so rich and so posh and so uncaring, we’ve blown right through the wall of takeaways and into actually going out for dinners. Those of you in London (or, I imagine, New York or Boston or Sydney or probably Moscow for all I know) will now be sneering into your mochacockachocochinos before instructing your secretaries to book your usual lunch table at Wagamamas like Patrick Bateman, I know. However, out here in the provinces, eating out is still an interesting and vibrant experience rather than just what you do in between 12.30 and 3pm. So we went out for dinner, as we do quite often these days. Eating out is problematic if you have a youngish child; my daughter, Niamh, is six. Now, she’s approximately the best behaved child in the universe, so just going out to a normal restaurant, sitting, eating, and talking, isn’t a problem. She won’t get restless, she won’t cause a scene. She will, however, get bored, and I think it’s pretty important that everyone enjoys going out. So we normally end up going to a pub with a children’s play area, so Sam and I can eat dinner while Niamh jumps and runs about on some insane enormous room-filling contraption made out of Meccano and covered with foam and occasionally runs out to gulp down some spaghetti bolognaise. Last night was a change: we were going for a Chinese meal. Now, I like Chinese. Sam’s more a curry person, so we argue a lot about that on takeaway days and normally settle on pizzas, but last night was for Chinese. You may have noticed the increasing trend in the UK (if you’re in the UK) for Chinese restaurants to move over to “buffet-style” dining, where they cook a mountain of different sorts of food and you can eat as much of whatever you want for a fixed price. I, personally, think that this is a good idea on a par with fire, indoor plumbing, and uncapped internet connections, because when I have Chinese I only ever eat sweet-and-sour chicken with egg fried rice. Not for me Beef with Green Peppers in Black Bean Sauce! You can keep your King Prawns with Ginger and Spring Onions Szechuan style! Sweet and sour chicken, that’s where it’s at. Lemon chicken on a good day. Unadventurous, true, but if you want to eat interesting new things go to someone else’s house. Anyway, the buffet concept allows me to eat two or three plates of that and then stagger home barely able to breathe, which is clearly the point of going out for dinner. The restaurant in town is a buffet-style place, so we had it earmarked; we’ve been meaning to go there for five years, so this was a momentous occasion. And when we got there it was closed for refurbishment. That’s poor customer service, that. Admittedly we’ve only been talking about going to the place for half a decade rather than actually venturing across the threshold and proffering money in exchange for food, but that’s not the point! Where’s our dinner? So we headed onward. Sam had had recommendations for somewhere called Shanghai Fusion, on Salop Street in Dudley. Out to Dudley headed the three brave explorers. Now, we didn’t know where Salop Street was, but we intended to try the time-honoured “drive around until you find it” location technique, what with Dudley not being all that big. Turns out it’s big enough to defeat us, though, and after my griping about how my car has sat-nav (we were in Sam’s) reached enough of a pitch, my lovely wife pointed out that I constantly boast about (and consequently have to pay for) my phone having a net connection; couldn’t I just go and get a map? Well, I have the Mobile GMaps Java app on my phone for just such an eventuality, so I fired it up. I’d looked at it before, at which point I was a bit over-effusive about the wonderfulness of being able to see a map on your phone (“the Google Maps viewer is the coolest thing in the whole fucking world. I am not kidding. It does UK maps as well. Wow. Just, wow. I will never, ever be lost again”). That falls dramatically into the category of “Famous Last Words”. Actually trying to use it taught me two things:
- It’s really, really, really slow. Phones are such a crappy platform for accessing the net. Perhaps 3G is fast enough, but as far as I can tell you can’t tell your phone “use a 3G connection to just connect to the net”. You can use it for pointless video calls or downloading trailers to movies you don’t want to watch, but you can’t make the Java apps on your phone like Mobile GMaps or Opera Mini use a 3G connection instead of a GPRS one. The slowness was agonising. “OK, I can now see Dudley on the map; I’ll zoom in. Drive around the block again a couple of times while the three map tiles load.” That, however, was enormously exacerbated by
- It forgets map tiles and sets them back to blank and then reloads them. While you’re looking at them. What you really want when you’re trying to navigate through town with directions like “Well, keep going up this street; I can’t tell you which side-street to take because the map isn’t zoomed enough for that because I don’t want to wait another ten minutes” is for the bloody map you’re looking at to bloody disappear and then reappear again three minutes later when it reloads. Why in the name of Jesus on a one-wheeled bicycle would that ever, ever, ever be a good idea? Don’t do that. Just…don’t.
Eventually, eventually, we got there. After some more fun and games parking, we entered the restaurant. And actually, it wasn’t too bad. The reason it’s called Shanghai Fusion is because it’s not only a Chinese buffet restaurant; it’s an Indian buffet restaurant as well. So you can have chicken tikka with egg fried rice. Beef with cashew nuts and mango chutney. Lamb balti with sweet-and-sour sauce on and a poppadom. Personally, I thought that was weird, and eating it didn’t change my opinion, but I can’t complain about the quality of the cooking. My approach rapidly became “pretend you’ve just come out for a Chinese and ignore all the Indian stuff”, because the culture clash did my head in, but all around me people were eating beansprouts with mint yoghurt dressing with evidence of genuine enjoyment. I have to say the place is recommended, even if they apparently don’t take credit cards and I had to take a break between plates of sweet-and-sour to go out and get some money from a nearby garage. On the way out, Niamh said “I know why it’s called Fusion. It must be called Fusion because it’s confusing to get there.” All this leads me, as ever, to two conclusions. Firstly, you should eat out more. It gives you the chance to enjoy great food and not have to wash up afterwards, and it’s really not that expensive. Shanghai Fusion was a tenner a head, which is not bad considering you can eat a hundredweight of chicken tikka and there was carrot cake and gateau and ice cream for dessert and you could smoke too. And secondly, when you do decide to go out, take a map. INSERT_MAP INSERT_ADDRESS