I Miss You (Kinda) – An Open Letter

Has it really been a year already? I still can’t believe you’re gone.

It feels like only yesterday that the doctor told me the terrible news. I’d rushed to the hospital, but it was too late. They told me they’d need to operate, but we all knew there was no hope left for you. It was all so unexpected, I didn’t know how to cope, but it hurt. The pain was like nothing I’d ever experienced before - a stabbing in my belly that left me completely debilitated. I was so messed up I had to be sedated.

When I finally came to my senses, I found out that my worst fears had come to pass: you were gone. Taken from me forever. I didn’t even get a final chance to see you. It hurt even worse than I’d anticipated. I didn’t know what to do next. I was in such a state that I had to take time off work; in fact for the first few days I didn’t even get out of bed. The whole ordeal left me permanently scarred.

But, if I’m being honest, I recovered pretty quickly. In fact, It only took a week or so before I’d pretty much returned to normal. These days I barely even think about you anymore. I guess you just weren’t that important. You never did much for me anyway.

Yep, it’s been a full year since I had my appendix removed. RIP you vestigial motherfucker.

Appendectomy scar - July 2015

July 2015

Appendectomy scar - July 2016

July 2016

The Joylent Experiment – How I (Almost) Gave Up Eating For Ten Days

Some people love food for its own sake. I am not one of them. Food, to me, has never been anything more than fuel, and cooking is an annoying chore that I only spend time on because I have to. If I didn’t have to eat to survive, I could happily go the rest of my life without thinking about food again.

Therefore, I am the exact target customer for Soylent, the all-in-one superdrink that’s been making headlines recently in Silicon Valley. Developed by 25 year-old programmer Rob Rhinehart, and backed by tens of millions of dollars of VC funding, Soylent purports to provide all of the human body’s nutritional needs in a simple high-calorie shake, and many, including Rhinehart himself, claim to have spent months in a row consuming nothing but the product with (so far) no adverse health effects.

I’m skeptical. But I’m also intrigued. And I really hate cooking. So I resolved to give it a try.

There’s one problem: Soylent doesn’t ship outside North America, and I live in Europe. Luckily, and unsurprisingly, a bunch of copycat companies have stepped in to fill the gap in the market, so after a very small amount of research I decide to take my chances with Joylent, a shameless imitator that ships from the Netherlands.

I pay forty-ish quid, and one week later a big cardboard box arrives on my doorstep containing 10 packets of Joylent. According to the printed nutritional info, each packet contains 2119 Calories, 267g of carbohydrates, 134g of protein, 53g of fat, and a long list of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients*, each in amounts that are supposedly 100% or more of my RDA.


Pictured: everything the brain and body need (minus sex, drugs, rock & roll)

I’m still skeptical, but 10 days won’t kill me (I hope). And so it begins…

(DISCLAIMER: In case it’s not extremely obvious, I am not a health professional. Nothing I write here is intended to be taken as nutritional or medical advice, nor am I endorsing Joylent or any of its competitors. Consult a doctor before you… yadda, yadda, blah, you’ve heard it all before, just don’t be an idiot, and don’t sue me if you do.)

Day 1

I normally fry up some eggs for breakfast, but today I leave the stove switched off. Instead I grab a bag of strawberry Joylent (at the time of writing, the drink is available in strawberry, chocolate, vanilla, and banana flavours, and I’ve ordered a sample of all four) and up-end its contents into my blender. I immediately realise my mistake – the blender is now so full of pink powder that there’s almost no room left at the top to add any water. Not a good start.

The next ten minutes are spent recovering from my error with all the culinary grace of a five year-old making cupcakes out of Play-Doh. I add water, blend, pour some out, add more water, and blend again repeatedly until I finally have a concoction that’s thin enough to be drunk instead of eaten. In the process I predictably spill Joylent all over my kitchen counter in various stages of dilution. I spend another ten minutes cleaning up. So much for time saving.

As for the drink itself, it tastes exactly like strawberry Nesquik, if Nesquik had the texture of cement.

For something so calorie-dense, Joylent is surprisingly not very filling, and because it’s sweet, it’s extremely moreish. I sit down at my desk and start my workday, periodically sipping Joylent and refilling my bottle, until, before I know it, I realise I’ve drunk the entire day’s bag – all 2100 Calories – in less than an hour.

It doesn’t take long for reality to set in: I feel like I’ve swallowed a bowling ball. I take the first of what will be many, many trips to the toilet over the days to come.

I really could have thought this through a little bit better.

In the evening, some friends invite me out for dinner. I’m not very hungry, but I go along anyway. My intention had never been to only eat Joylent for the next ten days, and I’m not going to turn down social invitations just for the sake of some stupid dietary experiment. But I’m still feeling pretty bloated from this morning’s escapades. I barely touch my dinner, and what little I do eat leaves me feeling very full. It’s not a pleasant feeling.

Only nine days to go.

Day 2

Today, I opt for chocolate flavour.

It was a mistake to use my blender yesterday; I don’t need it. Yesterday’s delivery included a half-litre plastic shaker with the word Joylent printed on the side. All I need to do is pour some powder into said bottle, add water, shake it like a Polaroid picture, and I have a ready-to-drink serving in less time than it took me to write this sentence.


When I’m done, I just rinse out the bottle under the cold tap. Theoretically, if I ate only Joylent, I’d meet my calorific needs with just a couple of minutes of prep and cleanup time per day. I could get used to this.

Unfortunately, any time I’m saving in the kitchen is being more than cancelled out by all the extra time I’m spending in the bathroom. I’ll spare you the details.

I Google “Joylent constipation” and discover a Reddit thread on the subject, which includes this charming excerpt:

(Warning! Not for the squeamish!)


i was three days into my joylent diet. i pretty much jumped into it head first. no slow integration of the liquid food, just straight up replaced my breakfast, lunch and dinner. everything was going well.. i did notice that my poo’s were starting to get a little rough to pass.

another day went by and now it started to feel like someone cut open a handful of hot peppers and rubbed them all over the raw skin of my butthole. excruciating to say the least. that burning sensation that feels like it’s never going to end eventually made it’s way up inside and was amplified by a very sharp, stabbing pain in my anus.

i was immobilized for about three days. i could barely walk nor stand up and move around for 8 hours so i missed work and laid in bed all day and was absolutely miserable. every trip to the bathroom was worse than the last one. the hot knives i passed as bowels took bits and pieces of my soul i’ll never get back. over those three days i did get my girlfriend to pick up some metamucil (psyllium husk) and after two servings a day for about two days i could finally have a somewhat normal shit.

Yikes. So far I haven’t experienced anything nearly as bad as the above, but is this what’s in store for me? Maybe solid foods aren’t so bad after all. I suspect that this is why humans have teeth.

I hedge my bets by drinking a ton of water (with the predictable result that I start pissing every ten minutes) going out for a hearty solid-food lunch with a friend, and spacing out my Joylent servings slowly throughout the evening. I still manage to get through the entire day’s bag.

My gut is rumbling so often and loudly that it could probably be detected on a seismograph. And at the other end of the digestive tract, my breath stinks - you know it’s bad when you can taste it yourself – and no amount of brushing will fix it.

I would not want to go on a date with me tonight.

Days 3-6

Despite the rough start, I’m actually quite enjoying Joylent. The taste is nothing special, but it’s okay, and I love the convenience and time-saving aspect. The only downside is the intestinal symptoms, but by about day 4, they’ve got substantially better. Could my body be adjusting? I’m still not feeling 100%, but at least I’m not farting so much that I’d be embarrassed to leave the house.

Unlike Soylent, which gets most of its protein from rice (and thus is vegan-friendly), Joylent’s primary ingredient is whey protein. I wonder if this could be the cause of my digestive problems? I do feel bloated and, ahem, flatulent when I drink a lot of milk. And for the last several days I’ve been getting 95% of my calories from what is effectively just “powdered milk plus vitamins”. Hmmmmmm… of all the Soylent alternatives on the European market, maybe Joylent wasn’t the best choice for me.

I definitely could have thought this through a little bit better.

I’m actually no stranger to a liquid diet. When I was 20, I had orthognathic surgery (it’s a long story), and for about a month afterwards my face was swollen up like the Grinch, and I subsisted on a diet of what can only be described as “hospital gloop”. It wasn’t the most enjoyable period of my life.

post-operation photo


Joylent tastes almost exactly like said hospital gloop, but hey, it still beats cooking. I’m actually not looking forward to returning to my old ways when my Joylent supply runs out next week. Maybe I should order some more.

Days 7-8

I haven’t done any dishes, been grocery shopping, or even turned on my stove in over a week. I can’t say I miss any of these things.

As well as saving me money directly (a supply of Joylent costs roughly €5 a day, which is definitely less than I normally spend on food), Joylent saves me money indirectly by reducing my use of water and electricity. Not to mention that the extra time I save by not cooking can be put to all kinds of productive uses which earn or save me even more money. It pays for itself!

I wonder what other annoying chores I can eliminate from my life with technology? Laundry? Restringing my guitars? Trying to get dates on Tinder? The possibilities are endless.

That being said, I’m not convinced that my overall environmental impact is being reduced just because my utility bills are lower. Can it really be more eco-friendly to have my food manufactured on an assembly line (its constituent parts no doubt transported thousands of miles to get there) and shipped to me from the Netherlands, rather than growing it on a farm somewhere a bit closer to home?

I don’t know if Joylent has reduced my carbon footprint, but it’s definitely increased my methane output.

Days 9-10

In the last few days of my Joylent experiment, something strange happens – I start getting hungry. I usually finish the day’s supply of food-powder by 4 or 5pm, but by 7 or 8pm I’m feeling like I could eat another meal – and on some evenings, I do.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised – a regular pack of Joylent contains about 2100kcal, and the standard advice is that men require about 2500kcal a day. I’m an average-sized guy, and I get an average amount of physical activity, so if that 2500 figure is to be believed it probably applies reasonably well to me. Am I running a caloric deficit if I only eat one bag of Joylent per day? Well, I’m consistently getting hungry, so it would seem quite obvious that the answer is “yes”.

This, in my opinion, is a major (and extremely solvable) flaw in the way Joylent is served. It just doesn’t make sense to offer a “one-size-fits-all” daily bag for people of all shapes and sizes. Other products (including the original Soylent) do it differently, and come in smaller bags/bottles of, say, 400 Calories, meaning that rather than the simplistic “one bag a day” approach, you can just take as many servings per day as meets your needs.

(Yeah, I know you don’t have to eat exactly one bag of Joylent per day, but if you’re going to deviate from the norm then the “small bag” approach is much more convenient.)

Also, the shape and size of Joylent bags means that they’re hard to pour without spillage, even when you’re pouring into the special Joylent-branded bottle. Most days, my kitchen counter is left looking like I’ve been using it to snort vanilla-tinted cocaine.

They really could have thought this through a little bit better.

It’s not all bad. Other than the minor hunger I feel some evenings (easily remedied), for the most part I feel in tip-top shape. The nasty side-effects I was having in the first few days have almost completely disappeared. I’ve also gained a small amount of weight (muscle, not fat), and I’m happy about that. I’ve always struggled to make gains in the gym, and a big part of the problem is that I just don’t eat enough. (Have I mentioned how much I hate cooking?) Joylent seems to solve this problem; when eating is this easy, I do more of it.

Of course, I know that not everybody sees “gaining weight” as a good thing, but then most people I’ve talked to say they like cooking, love food, can’t imagine giving up mealtimes, and don’t understand why anyone would want to replace dinner with a protein shake. I don’t think I’m the normal one here.

Day 11+

I open my fridge for the first time in 11 days. It’s empty, and so is my belly.

In the supermarket, I wander around like a lost little boy from the countryside who’s experiencing the big city for the first time. Urgh, I think, I so can’t be arsed with this.

I miss Joylent already, not for what it is, but what it’s not. Now that I’ve experienced life without one of my least favourite chores, it’s painful to go back – so I barely do. In the next few days I eat out for almost every meal. And I don’t always pick the healthy option – the pizza joint down the road is making a lot of money from me right now. Any cash I saved in my Joylent days has probably been cancelled out already by all the extra money I’m now spending on takeaways.

Maybe I should order some more Joylent?

I’m glad I tried this experiment – not least because it’s kicked off some interesting discussions with friends. (I’m far from the first person I know to try Soylent or one of its competitors, but that probably says more about the kind of people I hang out with than it does about the popularity of meal-replacement drinks.) It seems that very few people have a “middle of the road” opinion on this topic. They’re either in love with mealtime, and see it as one of life’s great pleasures that they couldn’t possibly give up, or they’re like me in that they couldn’t care less.

I don’t deny the social value of food. Sharing meals is one of the most fundamental, primal ways in which humans bond, and in that respect I do enjoy mealtime very much, which is why I didn’t stop eating out with friends in the evenings even when eating Joylent in the daytime. But not every calorie needs to be accompanied by conversation. I can’t see the appeal of a 100% Soylent/Joylent/whatever approach, but then even the most diehard aficionado doesn’t advocate Soylent over socialising.

As for the health effects… well, I can’t draw any meaningful conclusions from a 10-day experiment conducted in an extremely unscientific manner with a sample size of one.** But at the very least, I think it’s reasonable to conclude that Joylent won’t kill you. It’s also probably healthier, or at least less unhealthy, than the way most people eat, but then that’s not saying very much.

Some proponents of Joylent and its (m)ilk argue that these super-drinks have the potential to end world hunger, but to quote someone smarter than me, you should be wary of taking advice on gold prospecting from people who are in the business of selling picks and shovels. I’m not sure what to believe, but let’s not forget that a mere £4 per day is still prohibitively expensive for most of the world’s starving. (After all, if they had £4 a day, they wouldn’t be starving.)

Anyway, I just ordered another shipment of Joylent (this time the variant “Joylent Sport”, which has more calories per daily serving and a higher concentration of protein), as well as a few bags of another alternative called Nano to try it out. When that runs out, I expect I’ll sample a few more alternatives like Biolent or Jake. Variety is the spice of life, after all.

To all my friends: let’s go out for dinner some time this week; I’m sure I’ll appreciate it more than ever. Just don’t expect me to cook you anything the next time you’re round my house.



* It occurs to me that I need to spend less time writing computer code, because when I read the word “Selenium” I think of the web testing framework before I think of the mineral.

** If you want to read about a more rigorous one-man Soylent trial, check out this guest post from Shane Snow on Tim Ferriss’s blog – the “Afterword from Tim” section is especially worth reading.


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Want to Work for Yourself? Get a Job First

I made £100 the other day while sitting in Heathrow Airport. My flight was delayed, and the terminal had free wi-fi, so I took the opportunity to take my laptop out and get some work done. By the time the call for boarding came, I’d easily made enough to cover the cost of my flight.

It doesn’t suck to be self-employed. I’m a freelancer, not an entrepreneur, but the much-toted benefits are largely the same: being my own boss, setting my own hours, choosing my own projects – in short, freedom, freedom, and freedom. I’m not rich yet, but I’m pretty much exactly where I was hoping to be by now when I got into this whole thing a couple of years ago.

So, what if you aspire to something similar? You’re interested in entrepreneurship and self-employment, you hate the idea of the dreaded “real job” and the standard life path, you think you might like to get into programming or another similarly portable skill, you give a shit, but you’re young, inexperienced, and don’t know where to start. Sound familiar?

Well, here’s a piece of advice that may surprise you. This is my opinion, and some of my entrepreneurial friends may disagree, but it’s what worked for me and I’m sure my experience is transferable:

If you’re young, inexperienced, and want to work for yourself, you may be better off delaying self-employment for now and just getting a job in the industry you want to work in.

I know, I know – start-ups, digital nomadism and the like are hopelessly glorified. And it’s abundantly clear that we’re shifting into an entrepreneurial economy, which is just a polite way of saying “good luck, because you’re on your own.” But the fact of the matter is, unless you’re really talented, gifted, or lucky, you’re probably not ready to jump straight into self-employment when you’re barely old enough to drink.

I’ve been freelancing for less than a year. Before that, I worked full-time for a software company for a year and a half. The pay was absolutely shite – less than minimum wage if I’d still been in the UK – but I didn’t mind because my skills were even worse, and I’d been hired more out of charity than business sense. I quickly realised that I barely knew how to program, and the embarrassing fuck-ups came often and early.

After a few months of trial by fire though, I finally started to get a grip (and a pay rise). I learned more in the average week on the job than I did in the average month on my Computer Science degree, and in the 18 months I worked for that company, I gained a better education in software development than I could possibly have asked for – the kind that, if my life were a movie, would be condensed into a 2- or 3-minute montage sequence with every shot showing me getting a little bit better, interspersed with brief glimpses of the other characters to remind everybody of the story so far.

And bear in mind, I was getting paid for all of this. Not very much, but it was sure as hell a much better deal than university, which put me £20,000 in debt for no discernible purpose.

Now that I’m freelancing, I’m beyond grateful that I had that experience as an employee to provide a gentle, easy introduction to the industry. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I’d arrogantly decided that I knew enough at 21 to go it alone, head-first. I’d undoubtedly have fucked up big time.

As a freelancer, you’ll probably earn a significantly higher hourly rate than you could as an employee. But think about all the stuff employees don’t have to do – stuff which management finds so tedious that they’re willing to pay big bucks to a freelancer so they don’t have to bother with it themselves: calculating and paying taxes, dealing with regulation, getting the right kinds of insurance, invoicing, marketing, chasing up payments, hiring, firing, buying equipment, and a probably a bunch more stuff that I’m missing because I’m still figuring all of this out for myself. It’s not easy, and I’m beyond grateful that I don’t have to learn all of this while simultaneously learning how to code, like I’d originally thought I could pull off without a hitch. Getting a job was the perfect stepladder into self-employment, and I’m sure it’s shaved years off my learning curve and saved me thousands of pounds in costly mistakes.

Obviously this advice doesn’t apply to everybody. Some people really are ready and able to jump into self-employment from Day 1, but I wasn’t one of them, and I take issue with the way that in a lot of entrepreneurial/startup/4HWW/digital nomad rhetoric, “job” has become a dirty word, as if “filing your own taxes” is a necessary step on Maslow’s Hierarchy and anyone who earns a fixed income is a lesser form of human.

Of course, all of this leaves the question, “how am I supposed to get one of these jobs in the first place?” I’m not just talking about any old paycheque – if the only jobs you can find involve stacking shelves or serving coffee (and there’s no shame in that), you probably are better off just going to university. The kind of employment I’m talking about could best be described as an apprenticeship - not in the narrow legal sense which that term holds in the UK, but in the more general, time-honoured sense of seeking out the people in your field who are more skilful and experienced than you are, and finding a way to provide them value in exchange for their tutelage and wisdom.

Some of these apprenticeship positions are filled in the conventional way – employer posts job advert, candidates respond – but many are not. In fact, of the two programming-related jobs I had before starting out on my own, neither company was even looking to hire at the point where I got involved. I just came along at the right time, asked the right questions, and we mutually discovered a way in which I could help, to both of our benefits. Partly I got lucky, but you can’t get lucky without actually rolling the dice in the first place, and, in this time of unprecedented freedom, wealth, and opportunity, it continually amazes me how few young people even bother to step up and play.

You know those successful, wealthy people who you like to admire from afar? Most of them would love to help you out. None of them got where they are without help, and only the arrogant assholes aren’t willing to “pay it forward” to the next generation. The problem is that they’re busy, have a bunch of more important stuff to be getting on with, and are bombarded constantly by annoying hangers-on who are all trying to get something out of them without offering anything in return. They’ve got better things to do than actively seek out an apprentice, but if you approach them in the right way, are humble, polite and don’t waste their time, and keep the focus on what you can provide to them without asking for much in return, you’ll be amazed at the kind of doors that will start opening up to you.

Just remember the most important lesson of all: no-one gives a shit about you. You are on your own. No-one is going to give you the things you want in life; you have to seek them out and take them for yourself. That’s so basic, so fundamental, yet it’s almost the exact opposite of the standard narrative we’re told growing up – that we’re all special, unique little snowflakes who deserve everything on Earth just for being born, and all we have to do to succeed is pad our CVs with extracurriculars to prove how “well-rounded” we are (as if anyone cares how good you are at the things that have nothing to do with the job at hand), format the whole thing nicely in 12pt Times New Roman and let the job offers come rolling in.

I could give more ideas on the how, where and why of apprenticeships, but they’d mostly just be stolen from other people, so I’ll link to those people instead. Read and apply all of the following and watch your life improve:

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The Awkward Moment When You Realise Your Parents Were Right

When I was kid, my parents never let me play with toy guns. All the other stereotypically male toys were okay – remote control cars, action figures, Warhammer, Pokémon – but guns? No chance. If it resembled something which real people were using in real life to kill each other, my parents weren’t having any of it.

I, of course, thought this was TOTAL BULLSHIT. I wanted war toys! I saw them in the shop or the playground or advertised on Cartoon Network, and they just looked so cool. I would scream and complain and try to get my way. You’re so unfair! All my friends have got  one! But it never worked. I wasn’t allowed toy guns, and that was that.

Twenty years later, I’m not exactly seething with resentment over this grave injustice. In fact, I’m rarely reminded of it. But I was reminded of it recently, while sitting in a pizza restaurant waiting for my food to arrive.

I was with my housemates. It was late, the place was small, and the only other patrons were a family sitting at an adjacent table. The youngest child, a daughter, was sat on her mother’s lap, and both parents were conversing without paying much attention to their son, who couldn’t have been older than ten – and he was running around the room with a plastic revolver in each hand, shooting up the establishment like he was Jesse James.

Pssh pssh pssh!” he hissed, firing invisible bullets at his own dad then diving for cover behind a chair. I watched him continue the battle. He could have been auditioning for a Michael Bay movie.

Our pizzas arrived. Sylvester Stallone had nothing on this kid. I wondered what imaginary enemies he was fighting. Cowboys? Robots? Gangsters? Nazis? Whatever the casus belli, he looked like he was winning. And it wasn’t a comfortable thing to watch.

“You know,” I said to my friends with a lowered voice and a mouthful of pepperoni, “when I was a kid I would never have been allowed to run around like that in a restaurant. Or at home, for that matter. I wasn’t allowed gun toys, and I remember thinking that that was so unfair. But looking at that kid makes me realise – holy shit, my parents were right! That’s horrible. Why would you let your son play like that?”

Yes, it turns out that, much to my annoyance, my parents were completely and utterly right. What possible reason could there be to let your children play with guns, replica or otherwise? I know that it’s all just play, and that that little boy in the restaurant wasn’t hurting anybody – but right now, as you read this sentence, real people all across the world are fighting and killing each other with real guns that look just like the plastic ones children play with. It’s not a game, and it shouldn’t be treated like one.

I’ve never really experienced violence – whether as a victim, a perpetrator, or even a witness – and if you’re reading this, chances are high that the same is true for you. But what I never appreciated as a kid is how lucky this makes us both. The history of humanity is a story of brutality, chaos, and suffering – and it’s only through extraordinary effort that, as a society, we’ve managed to suppress our most primal urges and establish a reign of relative peace. God knows we still have a long way to go, but we should never forget that we didn’t get here by accident. It took work, and it’s going to take continued work just to keep things where they are, let alone improve them further. Teaching children to treat weapons of death like harmless playthings is not going to help.

It’s not a huge issue. And of all the ways you can screw up your kids, letting them fire a few pretend bullets at each other doesn’t exactly rank near the top. But the principle is there. Guns, violence, and war are serious matters that should be treated as such – and I want my children to appreciate that.

Of course, you could have told me all this when I was a kid throwing a tantrum in the toy shop - in fact, my parents probably did – and I wouldn’t have understood. But I understand now.

The next time I saw my mum, I told her about my revelation. This was her reply: “You know, when I was a little girl my parents told me I wasn’t allowed to get a Barbie, and they never bought me one or let me play with one. I was so annoyed by that, and I though it was so unfair! But you know what I realise now? My parents could not have been more right.”

She then starting listing all the usual feminist arguments against Barbie which you’ve probably already heard. None of them were new to me, but while I might have scoffed at them in the past, these days I couldn’t agree more.

Whether I have sons or daughters, I will not let them play with toy guns, nor will let them own a Barbie. I can only hope that they understand when they’re older.

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PS With that being said… guns still are pretty cool.

Vietnamisation – Reflections on my 15 Months as a người nước ngoài


382 days.

By my reckoning, that’s the exact amount of time I’ve spent  in Vietnam. I’ve been in and out of the country a few times since I first moved here in February 2013, but from the stamps in my passport it was easy to count the days and come up with 382 – and the number isn’t likely to increase by the time you read this, as I’m boarding a plane back to the UK  this evening.

Ah, Vietnam. To many people, the name is still closely associated with a poorly-understood war that ended 39 years ago, and not much else before or since. Mention the country and the first, and possibly only, thing people picture will be camoed-up GIs sweating in the jungle, Huey helicopters blasting Ride of the Valkyries and William Dafoe throwing his hands in the air as he’s shot in the back.

Not too long ago, I was one of those people. The only thing I knew about Vietnam was that I barely knew anything about it, and I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I first stepped off the plane at Tan Son Nhat International Airport, Ho Chi Minh City.

Partly I was too busy reeling in surprise from the turn of events that had brought me here in the first place. I’d been making grandiose travel plans for years but never taking much action to achieve them, and Vietnam was never particularly high on my list of countries to visit. I ended up here pretty much by accident – but what an accident it’s been, and I wouldn’t trade the last 15 months of my life for anything.

After 382 days, I’m leaving for no other reason than I feel like I’ve been here long enough, and I fancy a change. After a brief visit home, my next destination will be Berlin – but it’s certainly not my last destination, and I’m excited about the future.

One thing’s for sure: I will definitely be back.

So in the vein of my 2012 and 2013 roundups, here’s another multi-thousand-word outpouring of all the things I want to say about this latest chapter of my life. May the brain-dump commence:

Sài Gòn đẹp lắm, Sài Gòn ơi, Sài Gòn ơi!

Ho Chi Minh City is the new name for Saigon (written “Sài Gòn” if you’re Vietnamese, or pedantic), and the old name is still in common usage, for example in the classic Vietnamese nationalist song “Sài Gòn Đẹp Lắm”, whose title means “Saigon is very beautiful”. I find this ironic, because for all of the city’s positive qualities, beauty is definitely not one of them. It’s a loud, dirty, polluted sprawl of concrete and chipped paint, full of potholes, flashing lights and tangled telephone wires, and not for the faint of heart. I love it.



And it’s big. Even from a mile in the air as you fly in, the city stretches to the horizon in every direction. 100 years ago it was just an insignificant little fishing town on the farthest reaches of the French empire, but today it’s the 44th largest city in the world, and its explosive population growth isn’t showing any sign of slowing down.

If you’re not a fan of big, bustling conurbations, then I wouldn’t touch Saigon with a 10-foot punji stick, but as someone who grew up in an uneventful market town in the heart of middle England, I can’t get enough of the big city vibe. Saigon is fast-paced, energetic and full of excitement, and those are three things I want to be myself, so it’s a good environment to be soaking up.

Vietnam has been through a lot of hardship since the war ended (not to mention during it), but things have turned around recently to say the least. After a disastrous decade of recession, stagnation and hyperinflation, in 1986 the Communist Party adopted its policy of doi moi (renovation) and set rolling the first few snowballs of growth that today have developed into an avalanche.

Much like China, but on a lesser scale, Vietnam has seen an explosion of development in the last few years, and we’re only at the beginning. It’s written on Saigon’s skyline. Parts of the city feel like one big construction site, and all the tallest buildings are only a few years old. I’d love to set up a timelapse camera in the empty land on the outskirts, come back in 2018, play the tape back at high speed and watch the fields erupt into skyscrapers.

Vietnam is still a poor country in a relative sense – I’m reminded of this when I get out of the big city and into rural areas –  but the future trends are looking good. It’s just one part of the gigantic shift in power from West to East that’s going to define the 21st century, and it’s been exciting to be in the middle of it.

Of course, some would argue that the current growth is unsustainable. And the Communist Party might be doing a good job with the economy, but… well, as much as I’d love to carry on with that thread, I don’t want to harm my chances of getting back into the country one day, so for now I’ll keep my mouth shut.

(The book Vietnam: Rising Dragon is an interesting read if you want to learn about Vietnam’s uncertain future and the challenges that the Communist Party is going to face if it wants to keep its grip on power. But it’s banned in Vietnam so of course I haven’t read it. Ahem.)

Vietnam Syndrome


Notable attractions in Saigon include the Reunification Palace (untouched since NVA tanks came crashing through its gates in 1975), the Cu Chi tunnels just outside the city, the hilariously one-sided War Remnants Museum (which was originally called the “Museum of American Atrocities”, and contains plenty of information about the My Lai Massacre but not a whisper about the Massacre at Hue), and, just down the road from my house, the Thich Quang Duc Memorial – constructed on the spot where the Buddhist monk and noted Rage Against the Machine fan Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death in protest against the religious persecution of his people. (Although I like to think it was because he’d seen a vision of Tom Morello’s guitar playing while meditating, and the sheer badassery of the riffs made him spontaneously combust.)

I'd set myself on fire for the chance to be on a Rage Against the Machine album

I’d set myself on fire for the chance to be on a Rage Against the Machine album

As a British man, it’s not often that I can travel to the developing world and be in a country that was fucked up by someone other than my direct ancestors. I used to think Vietnam would be one of those rare places, but then I picked up a history book. Turns out that, while we weren’t the lead villain in the story, the UK wasn’t exactly a neutral bystander either in the tumultuous history of 20th-century Indochina.

As Nazi troops were rolling into Paris in 1940 and hanging a Swastika flag from the the Arc De Triomphe, the Japanese were busy smashing their European enemies in Southeast Asia – driving the British out of Malaysia, the Dutch out of Indonesia, and the French out of Tonkin, Annam and Cochinchina, the three territories that roughly cover the area of modern Vietnam.

Five years later, after inflicting untold suffering on their new subjects, including facilitating a famine in the north that killed as many as 2 million people, the Japanese were vanquished at home, and in the power vacuum that followed, many among Vietnam’s burgeoning independence movement reasonably believed that their time had come.

Sadly, the old powers of Europe weren’t so keen on that idea. After losing so much in their home terrorities, they’d be damned if they were going to let their foreign possessions slip away too, and if French Indochina gained its independence, what kind of precedent would that set for the rest of the colonies? But the French army was too crushed to take back Vietnam on its own, so it fell to the British and Chinese to restore order, setting back Ho Chi Minh’s ambitions of independence by another 30 years (which, incidentally, was six years longer than Ho himself lived to see).

It’s been interesting to learn that Allied heroes like Churchill and de Gaulle, at the same time they were fighting valiantly to protect Europe from the conquerous ambitions of an aggressive imperial power, were also expending a lot of energy on protecting their own countries’ imperial interests, apparently without seeing any double standard. The hypocrisy is staggering, and it’s added new colour to my ever-developing understanding of World War II.

In fairness, I suppose that criticising men from the 1940s for being imperialists is like criticising men from the 1640s for having bad teeth. I wonder how many of the things we all believe unquestionably today will be seen as barbaric by our own great-grandchildren? Probably most of them, assuming that we don’t manage to wipe ourselves out in World War III or IV before our great-grandchildren have a chance to be born.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I immersed myself in Vietnam’s history in the last year, and I’m extremely glad I did. I’d view the city and the country so differently if I hadn’t taken the time to learn as much as I could about what made things the way they are. Like learning the language (much more on that later), it’s been a lot of effort but the payoff has been huge.

The main reason I learned all this is because I couldn’t bear not to. Saigon is dripping with history, and living here made me acutely aware of my ignorance in a lot of important areas. There’s just no way I could have spent 15 months here without working to fix that ignorance.

My friend James wrote a very cool blog post about this, seeking out the locations of iconic photos taken in Saigon and finding out what they look like today. When it comes to everything I’ve learned about Vietnam and the world in the last year, I can’t put it any better than his final paragraph:

There are many places in Ho Chi Minh City which make me think about what these streets have seen. And there is not a day that goes by when I don’t think about how easy my life is.

The Scene

It’s all Jon’s fault.

I’m talking about Jon Myers, former punk rocker, current web designer, friend of mine and all-round badass. About two years ago, he posted a piece on the DC, followed by a post on Medium, about why he loved living in Saigon, inviting his fellow entrepreneurs and nomads to come and check out the city for themselves. A few people took the bait, which turned into a few more people, which turned into an influx of entrepreneurial expats by the 747-load, and now Saigon is bursting at the seams with MacBook-wielding weirdos (I mean that in a good way)  seeking to conquer the world over coffee shop WiFi.

At the weekly "Paleo Power Breakfast", one of my favourite staples of Saigon life.

At the weekly “Paleo Power Breakfast”, one of my favourite staples of Saigon life.

So much has been written about this already and I can barely add to the  tons of great articles already out there. The short version of the story is this: if you want to start on online business, join the ever-growing ranks of Four Hour Work Week-reading lifestyle entrepreneurs and “digital nomads” (a term I hate but have yet to find a better alternative to), or just generally be surrounded by cool and inspiring people who are doing interesting work that matters, you can hardly pick a better place to be than Ho Chi Minh City.

I’m writing this from the top floor of a café overlooking a busy intersection 5 minutes from the city centre. I’ve spent hundreds if not thousands of hours over the past year holed up in places like this hacking away on my laptop, trying to create something I’m proud of. Many of those hours, I’ve been sat a table full of my fellow workaholics, all slogging away on our various projects, helping each other out and keeping each other in check. It’s a self-help cliché that if you want to make a change in your life, you need to surround yourself with people who are on the same path, but it’s a cliché because its true, and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of it in the last year.


Saigon coffee shop, or Apple Store? Sometimes I can’t tell the difference.

My entrepreneur friends are all extremely unusual people, but that’s not a criticism. What’s funny is that, despite being several standard deviations away from the norm, we’re mostly all weird in the same ways. If you like to read about offshoring and sleep hacking over a cup of bulletproof coffee whilst waiting for your IF window to open so you can eat some paleo food, then doing a speed test in your coworking space and writing an SOP for your VA – and if the previous sentence made any sense to you whatsoever, you’re going to fit right in here.

After my last post about dropping out of uni and moving to Vietnam became somewhat of a hit, plenty of people have emailed me wanting to know more, and asking questions. My answer is always the same: if you’re thinking about moving here and getting involved, just do it. It’s easier than you’d believe, and if you’re seeking what I’m describing, it’s practically impossible to hang around here and not get involved in the scene. Hell, I’ll put you in touch with some friends if you want. I’m sure they’d be happy to help; in fact that’s how I ended up here myself.

I shouldn’t single out the entrepreneurs. They’re actually the minority here; most expats are English teachers or work for foreign corporations. Expats are a diverse group, but the one thing they have in common is that they tend to to be pretty cool people, and that’s saying nothing of the 99.9% of Saigon’s population who didn’t grow up in another country, and who have just as much you can learn from as your fellow globetrotters. The community here is fantastic and it’s what I’m going to miss the most.

Above all, if there’s one thing I’ve gained from my time here, it’s a sense of opportunity, possibility, and excitement. I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life, but the picture it’s the clearest it’s ever been, and I’m feeling optimistic.

My time in Saigon has been one of growth, education, adventure, exploration, mentorship and freedom.

In other words, it’s been everything that university should have been but wasn’t.

And as I pack my bags, I dig my old student card out of a drawer and notice that it expires on June 6th, 2014 – tomorrow. In other words, I’m (completely unintentionally) returning home from Vietnam on the exact same day that I’d be graduating if I’d stuck it out with my bachelor’s degree. Which of those two experiences would have been the most valuable? It’s not even close.

The Language

After I accepted the offer to come to Vietnam, the first thing I did was to open up my laptop, type “learn Vietnamese” into Google and start teaching myself some basic phrases. (Here’s the first video that I ever watched, if I remember correctly.) In the weeks before I left, the language became an obsession.

I studied from a textbook I bought off Amazon, downloaded a ton of audio courses, and installed Anki on my phone for memorising vocabulary. I had a few lessons via Skype with teachers I found on iTalki, and I even managed to meet up with some Việt Kiều in Manchester who graciously taught me some of their language for free. (Thanks guys!)

So by the time I arrived, my Vietnamese level was low, but I had a solid grasp of the fundamentals and could communicate in basic situations.

Turns out that this meant I spoke better Vietnamese before I even arrived in Vietnam than most foreigners who’ve lived here for upwards of two years.

I gradually lost my interest in studying and haven’t made active effort to improve my Vietnamese for months, although I still use it often enough to maintain the level I have. These days, my Vietnamese is still very far from fluent. By the CEFR ranking system I’d say I’m an A2.

That being said, I still speak better Vietnamese than almost any other foreigner I know. I say that not to brag about how smart I am, but to illustrate how low the bar is set. If you can count to ten, know the words for “big”, “small”, “hot” and “cold”, and know what “nguoi nuoc ngoai” in the title of this post means, you are easily in the top 5% of Saigon expats.

I don’t mean this a criticism; I’m just telling it like it is. Everyone has different priorities, and it’s so easy to get by here without learning Vietnamese that I can see why so many people do just that. If there’s anything I feel towards Saigonese Anglophones I guess it would be sadness, because they don’t know what they’re missing.

My low level of Vietnamese has completely transformed my time here, and I can’t imagine how differently I’d see Vietnam if I hadn’t made the effort. It’s opened up the country and its people to me in a way I couldn’t have got anywhere else, and has led to more memorable experiences and conversations than I can count. I have no idea why anyone would want to live somewhere without making an effort to learn the language, and I don’t plan on doing it for any future countries I spend more than a few weeks in.

Out in the middle of nowhere with my Brazilian buddy Felipe, our mutual friend Dang, and her younger sister. Felipe and I are possibly the only English speakers in a 100-mile radius.

Out in the middle of nowhere with my Brazilian buddy Felipe, our mutual friend Dang, and her younger sister (or cousin? I don’t remember). Felipe and I are possibly the only English speakers in a 100-mile radius.

This was really hammered home for me when I left Vietnam – to Thailand and Cambodia, twice each – and had to start using English again for everything. I hate speaking English when I’m in a non-English-speaking country – it feels like a there’s an invisible barrier between me and everyone I talk to, dehumanising our interaction and blocking our chances of making a connection. If you think this barrier exists only in my head, and is only there because I expect it to be, you’re probably a monoglot.

People ask me all the time how I managed to learn Vietnamese “so quickly”, which baffles me because I’ve easily been living here long enough to become fluent and my level isn’t impressive in the slightest. My answer is always “because I actually studied it,” which most people haven’t, and which doesn’t seem like much of an “a-ha!” to me, but apparently it’s a revelation to some people.

99% of discussion about Vietnamese is about how “difficult” it is (the Vietnamese themselves are very proud of this and happy to remind you of it), which means that beginning learners usually receive nothing but discouragement. I always try and provide some of the opposite. Really I don’t think Vietnamese is as difficult as everyone keeps saying. The only difficult thing is the pronunciation – everything else, especially the grammar, is laughably easy.

With six tones and a plethora of strange consonants and vowels that aren’t close to anything we have in English, the pronunciation is challenging at first, and it stops most people dead in their tracks. But the fact that it’s seen as such an insurmountable barrier says less, in my opinion, about the inherent difficulties of Vietnamese itself than it does about the disastrously broken way that languages are taught in school, where they’re treated like academic subjects (presented in the most boring manner imaginable) instead of what they really are, which is a physical skill. I’ve never taken a single classroom lesson in Vietnamese and would never waste my time with them for any language. But I’ll save the rest of that for another post.

Speaking good Vietnamese is so rare among foreigners here that it can actually get you on TV – as is the case with Canadian Joe Ruelle (aka Dâu Tây), who’s been living in Vietnam since 2002 and (so I’ve been told) speaks Hanoi Vietnamese indistinguishably from a native. I actually met Joe randomly in a café in Saigon a few months ago, which is a pretty weird coincidence when you consider that he’s literally the only remotely famous person in all of Vietnam whose existence I’m aware of, or who I’d have recognised if he sat down next to me.

Joe Ruelle (Dau Tay) & myself

This was one of maybe only five times in my entire time here that I’ve spoken Vietnamese with another white person. It always feels a little bit surreal.

I must confess though, if there’s one thing I did that accelerated my language learning it was, clichéd as it is, to date a Vietnamese girl for five months. She spoke fluent English, but for some reason we almost never used it, and communication was not a strong point in our relationship. My Vietnamese certainly improved though.

Disclaimer: This worked for me but I make no guarantee that it will work for you, because pretty much all my straight male friends here have dated local girls, and none of them speak any Vietnamese.

My coworkers have been a big help too, and at this point I’d like to publicly thank Hien, Trung, Khoi, and the rest of the gang for all the useful vocabulary and phrases they’ve taught me, including but not limited to “shut the fuck up”, “fuck off you cunt”, “I don’t give a shit”, “I hope you die of lung cancer” and, of course, “you were born because the condom broke.” I’ll miss your banter, you wordsmiths you. Á đù!

It’s not just my non-native languages that have been affected by the past year. My native one has been shaken up too, mainly as a result of spending too much time hanging out with Americans, Canadians, Australians, Irishmen, New Zealanders and South Africans, or with non-native speakers who learned American English in school. Most of them don’t understand me if I ask where the bin is, if the post has arrived, where I put my mobile or if anybody has seen my trousers, so the American alternatives have been gradually infecting my speech to a point which would really irritate my grandparents.

(Incidentally, where in sod’s name are my trousers? I think I left them with my trainers in the petrol station next to the dual carriageway on my way from the chippy to the offy. They had my fags in the pocket. Bollocks!).

I wasted my childhood watching Cartoon Network, so I thought I was pretty clued up on all the, like, totally awesome ways Americans, like, speak differently, dude, but there have been more than a few times this year when I had no idea what the other person was saying. Memorable head-scratchers include “having a conniption fit”, “we got dipped”, “clutch” used an adjective, “a game of telephone” (turns out this is the American name for Chinese Whispers), and “erb”, which I eventually realised is how Americans pronounce the word “herb”. Bloody hell mate!

In the opposite direction, words and phrases I have confused people with recently include “done and dusted”, “I can’t be bothered/arsed/fucked”, “taking the piss”, “taking a slash”, “I’m not too fussed”, and my personal favourite (or should that be favorite?), “Bob’s your uncle”. “Who’s Bob?” was the reaction I got the first time I said that. I had no idea how to explain.

And no, when I say something “isn’t my cup of tea”, that doesn’t mean I’m literally searching for a cup of tea. Stop overthinking this.

Anyway, two weeks from now I’ll be in Germany. Time to lernen some Deutsch!


Every teenage boy has at some point asked his parents if he can get a motorbike. As the son of two medical doctors – one of whom works in a spinal injuries unit full of former bikers in wheelchairs – I never had much chance of my wish being granted.

Well, Vietnam is possibly the most two-wheeled country in the world, so four years out of my teens I’ve finally scratched the motorbike itch. And to any teenage boys reading this, I have a message your parents don’t want you to hear  (actually, I have several of those) – motorbikes are awesome! They’re dangerous, reckless, stupid, and potentially catastrophic, but, like guns, that doesn’t make them any less fun to use. Try this at home, and while you’re at it, run with scissors and stare directly at the sun.

But definitely wear sunscreen.

But definitely wear sunscreen.

Like the language, you don’t need a motorbike if you live here, but you’re missing out if you don’t have one. I walked or got taxis everywhere for my first three months, but when I finally got around to renting a bike, I immediately regretted not getting one in my first week, because the city suddenly quadrupled in size.

Everyone’s first comment when they get here is how crazy the traffic looks, but once you’re out in the middle of it, you find that there’s a method to the madness. Saigon is actually an extremely easy city to get around – one of the easiest I’ve been in. The traffic is always flowing, and I can usually get on my bike and be anywhere I need to go in under ten minutes. That’s just one of many freedoms I’ve found in Vietnam that are hard to find back home, and I’m going to miss it.

(Also, if you think the air in Saigon is polluted, wait until you get into the middle of a crowded highway and you’re surrounded on all sides by rickety old rustbuckets blowing carbon monoxide in your face! No wonder everybody wears face masks.)

Last July I got invited on a road trip to the mountain town of Da Lat, which is possibly the only place I’ve been in all of Vietnam where I can remember feeling cold. From Saigon it’s an eight-hour drive, but we stretched it out to a day and a half with frequent stops and sightseeing:


Not to mention occasional roadblocks:


Taking a long trip by bike is a completely different experience to taking the same trip on four wheels – there’s no more vivid way to soak up your environment and the countryside. One of my few regrets from Vietnam is that I didn’t explore the country more, and at some point I definitely want to come back and make a longer motorbike trip. Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh sounds like a reasonable goal. Looking forward to it.

Tạm biệt and hẹn gặp lại

I’ve just written 4,500 words on Vietnam and I could probably write another 4,500  more, but I’ll save that for my next visit. I have no idea when that will be, but fingers crossed, it will happen. (Just don’t cross your fingers when you’re in Vietnam, because the gesture is considered offensive here.) I could happily stay here longer, but when I think long-term I know it’s time to move on, and I’m feeling pretty ready to leave.

Two weeks from now I’ll be in Berlin; in August I’ll be visiting Lithuania and maybe some of the other Baltic states, I imagine I’ll be back in the UK for Christmas (just as long as I don’t have to give or receive any presents), then who knows? If all goes according to plan though, my travels are very far from over, and Vietnam will have been just the first in many chapters. I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my adventure, and I can’t begin to express the gratitude I feel to those who made it possible.

Now, off to catch my flight!

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Please Don’t Get Me Anything for Christmas

(I couldn't find any pictures of me that are relevant to Christmas so here's one from Thailand.)

(I couldn’t find any pictures of me that are relevant to Christmas so here’s one from Thailand.)


I can’t put this off for another year. I need to make my feelings known.

I am hereby permanently opting out of holiday gift exchanges, for all future Christmases, birthdays, and whatever other occasions. I don’t want to buy anyone any presents, and I especially don’t want to receive them.

Why? Mainly because I can’t go on pretending. I find nothing positive whatsoever in the tradition, and haven’t for years. It’s time to inject some more honesty into my life.

Before you drag out all the tired, uninspired jibes about Scrooge or the Grinch, I should say that there are actually a lot of things about Christmas I enjoy. I enjoy the tinsel, the fake snow, the lights, and the Christmas trees. I enjoy the mulled wine, the markets, the carols, and the Christmas Eve spent crammed into a tiny pub in my hometown with all the friends I don’t see often enough. I enjoy stuffing my face with turkey, pigs in blankets, Christmas pudding, and especially mince pies (om nom nom!). I even enjoy spending time with my family.

What I don’t enjoy is the mindless, moronic, zombielike consumerism, the billions of pounds that get frittered away every year on pointless junk that’s mostly binned or forgotten by December 27th, and all the stress, debt, dishonesty and profligacy that comes with it . The ridiculous belief that buying things for people equates to showing you appreciate them. The meaningless focus on one arbitrary day of the year at the expense of the other 364. The unbelievable waste in an ever-polluted world where billions of people are still starving. This is not who I am, and it doesn’t match what I value.

Top it all off with a hefty helping of Christmas advertising – I can’t stand advertising at the best of times, and in December it’s enough to make me feel homicidal – and I get queasy just thinking of it. The thought of suffering through this farce for a 23rd time running fills me with equal parts nausea and dread.

The common rhetoric is that people exchange gifts at Christmastime because they love each other. Actually, that’s not how it works at all. The main reason people buy each other gifts is because, brainwashed by the 3500+ marketing messages they take in every day, they feel obliged to. When gifts are bought, expectations have been met and things continue as normal; when they’re not, people get offended and resentful. The only possible outcomes are neutral or negative. That’s not an expression of love, that’s an expression of fear!

I’ve got no problem with the idea of gift-giving in general. But, like tipping – another custom I find utterly ridiculous – once gift-giving becomes obligatory (and don’t pretend it’s not obligatory) it completely defies the entire point of doing it in the first place. It’s a  meaningless and arbitrary custom that exists only to keep the profit wheels turning, and I’ve had enough.

I’ve never put much effort into Christmas anyway, and I can’t see myself ever trying harder. I hate shopping whatever the season, and at Christmastime my antipathy reaches its peak. I always put off my gift-hunting until the last possible minute then rush through it all as quickly as possible. I never have any idea what to get anyone, and I usually just resort to buying everyone a load of overpriced tat from the Christmas aisle at Waitrose. I don’t even remember what I got anyone last year, and I doubt they do either. Have I really been fooling anybody? Do my family really need to go through this charade one more time to know that I love them? And even if I didn’t love them, how would buying them gifts help?

Furthermore – and this is a separate issue that would be true even if I didn’t believe a word of what I’ve already written – I do not want anything. I want to own as little as possible, and I’ve ditched at least 70% of my possessions in the last year alone . In my ideal reality I would own nothing, and everything I need would spring into existence right when I need it and disappear as soon as I’m done. As this is unrealistic, my current goal is to own nothing more than can be taken on a single flight with no excess luggage fees. I’m not there yet, which means I need to get rid of things, not add them. Every additional item I’m forced to possess is a burden around my neck that I resent. You might find pleasure in giving me free stuff, but I find extreme displeasure in receiving it, so there.

And don’t give me money, either. I want to earn and deserve the money I receive. Give it to charity if you really insist on parting with it. I recommend the EFF.

So, there you have it. It’s nice to get my feelings off my chest, even if they do put me in the minority. Anyway, I like to think it’s a larger minority than people admit. Plenty of people have misgivings about Christmas. The real question is how many people are honest about them.

And to those who honestly disagree, that’s fine. If you really find meaning in exchanging Christmas presents – if it’s a conscious choice you make based on your values and not just a socially conditioned habit you do out of a sense of obligation – shop away, I’m not going to stop you. Just for fuck’s sake don’t get me anything. I won’t appreciate it.

If anything I’ve written here offends your sensibilities, I suggest you find some Christmas cheer.



PS A few people I’ve spoken to about this have asked, “What if you have kids?” Will I buy gifts for them? What will I tell them about Father Christmas? Honestly, I don’t know. I imagine that, like LSD or sex, parenthood is something you can’t understand until you’ve experienced it for yourself, so there’s no point trying to make decisions at this stage. In the meantime though, I don’t plan on having kids any time soon, and this question is completely irrelevant.

PPS There’s not a word I disagree with in any of these links:

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The Most Disturbing Experience of My Life

Greetings from Cambodia. Right now I’m in a town called Kampot, but most of the last week has been spent in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh.

In the last week I’ve couchsurfed, played Jimi Hendrix covers at a jam night, been “fined” (i.e. forced to pay a bribe) by Cambodian police, visited many Wats (temples), and gotten hopelessly lost in the run-down Phnom Penh ghettos/suburbs, but one experience stands out above all: The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.

See, apparently there was this thing called the Khmer Rouge led by a guy called Pol Pot who in the late seventies were responsible for the death, through execution, torture or starvation, of over 2 million Cambodians – more than a quarter of the population – in the name of “purifying” the populace and purging Democratic Kampuchia of its anti-Communist enemies.

Tuol Sleng was a school converted into a prison where, over the course of Pol Pot’s brief rule, around 20,000 mostly innocent Cambodians (and a handful of foreigners) were brutally tortured for months on end before being sent to the Killing Fields outside the city to have their throats slit.

Why had I never heard of any this before? I mean, I’d been vaguely aware that there’d been a dictator somewhere in the world called Pol Pot and that he’d been a dick, but I’m not sure if before moving to Southeast Asia I could have even told you that Pol Pot was Cambodian, let alone the extent of his crimes.

Is the Cambodian Genocide relatively unknown in the West, or am I just ignorant as hell? I don’t know which one of those options I’d rather be true.

There’s no way I can do Tuol Sleng justice in writing. If you’re in PP, you need to see it for yourself, but be warned: it will stick with you. I’m a pretty hard person to shock, but the row after row of tiny cells (still with faded blood stains on the walls), cabinets full of skulls and bone fragments, and photos and paintings of mutilated corpses and bloody executions, is without exaggeration the most chilling and disturbing thing I have ever seen in my life. Tuol Sleng is the kind of place that seriously shakes your faith in humanity, and mine was low to begin with. I don’t believe in God, but if I did I’d find it hard to reconcile belief in a loving deity with a world in which the Khmer Rouge were allowed to exist.

What makes it all even more depressing was that this madness happened as recently as 1979 – barely a generation ago. The Khmer Rouge were ousted that year by an invading Vietnamese army but carried on fighting a guerrilla war from the jungle for at least another decade. (Actually I’m a bit fuzzy on all the details, I only learned all this myself a few days ago.) It’s only in the last couple of years that those responsible for the genocide have been apprehended and are now on trial. Pol Pot himself evaded justice by dying a natural death in 1998.

If you do visit Tuol Sleng, I’d recommend paying $2 for a guided tour, otherwise you don’t really know what you’re looking at. I did, and at the tour’s end we were taken to a stall in the prison’s courtyard, behind which sat two grey old Cambodian men. On the table in front of them was a selection of books about the prison and the genocide. Some of the books had photos of one or both of the two men on their covers.

“Do you recognise these two?” said my tour guide. They waved and greeted us in Khmer.

The guide pointed to a black-and-white photo I’d seen before, of seven emaciated Asian men standing arm in arm. Of over 20,000+ people who passed through Tuol Sleng, these seven – just seven - were the only people known to survive. Only two – Chum Mey and Bou Meng – are still alive, and now they spend their days at the site of their former hell on Earth, posing for pictures with tourists and selling translated copies of their autobiographies.

This to me was one of the strangest things about the whole experience. How could these men possibly bear to be back here in the prison? Wouldn’t they want to get away from it all and forget their past? Were they really comfortable being propped up on display like zoo animals all day to half-interested white people from the other side of the world?

I guess it seems strange to me, but then there’s no way I could even attempt to relate to what they’ve been through, and for that I am eternally thankful.

Tuol Sleng, of course, is just one piece of the puzzle. The other prominent tourist attraction is the cheerily-named Killing Fields, where thousands more enemies of the state were murdered one-by-one and buried in mass graves. I’d meant to visit the Killing Fields that same afternoon, but really there’s only so much genocide a man can take in one day, so I postponed my visit until a couple of mornings later.

You can get a tuk-tuk out to the fields for $10, but, fancying something different, I rented a motorbike for the day (which actually worked out cheaper) and made the half-hour drive myself.

Sunburnt arm

Next time I’ll wear long sleeves.

After the horrors of Tuol Sleng, the Killing Fields were relatively bearable, but only in the sense that a kick in the balls is more bearable than getting hit by a train.

The centerpiece is a large monument (I didn’t get any photos but Wikipedia will do) full of the exhumed skulls of the deceased. Surrounding it are dozens of pits which once contained bodies. Bullets were prohibitively expensive, so most of the victims were just hacked or bludgeoned to death. Even the children of the accused were killed, on the annoyingly logical reasoning that if they were allowed to live, they might have grown up to seek revenge. Babies were bayoneted or had their heads smashed against a tree – the particular tree that was used for this purpose is now marked with a sign.

I could go on about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, but it’s 2:30am and I need to go to bed. There are plenty of books out there that will give you all the sordid details but I’m not masochistic enough to read them; I’m getting depressed just typing this post. I admire your fortitude for reading all the way to the end.

A sign saying "Please Don't Walk Through The Mass Grave"

Not to make light of a heart-wrenching national tragedy, but Don’t Walk Through The Mass Grave sounds like the name of Megadeth album.

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The Cu Chi Tunnels, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Guns

May 1st is a national holiday in Vietnam, so, with the day off work, I took the opportunity to finally check out one of Saigon’s premier tourist attractions: The Cu Chi Tunnels.

This underground network of passageways and cubbyholes was built by the Vietcong during the war, and was a strategic stronghold that South Vietnam and its American allies repeatedly failed to conquer. Nowadays for $10 you can explore what’s left of the tunnels in their dank and dingy glory.

I never knew much about the Vietnam war until recently, so I’m only just getting to grips with how extensive and brutal the combat was. Arriving at Cu Chi, it’s hard to imagine that this peaceful forest could just forty years ago have been home to so much death and destruction.

The constant sound of gunfire in the background gives you some idea, but it’s not the full picture. More on that later.

Our tour guide was a 62 year-old war veteran called Jackie. With verve, charisma, and a shocking disregard for the rules of English grammar, he told us of all the horrors he’d seen – Agent Orange, carpet bombing from B-52s, men ensnared in punji traps, and a bunch of other things that probably would have shocked me if I’d been able to understand what he was saying.

Whatever the case, I count my blessings that I was born in England in 1990, and not – well, almost anywhere else, at almost any other point in history. Not a day goes by where I don’t remind myself how lucky I am. Today especially.

The ground around Cu Chi is littered with tiny little trapdoors, only just big enough to squeeze through. With the lid closed and some dirt and leaves sprinkled over the top, you’d have no idea they’re there, which of course is the point. I can only imagine what it must be like to fight in this jungle, knowing that your enemies could be hiding, loaded machine guns in hand, mere metres from your position, itching to jump out and murder you when you least expect it.

As I climbed in, I realised that this wasn’t just an isolated hole in the ground. At my feet was an opening, big enough to crawl through, that presumably connected my hiding spot to the entire tunnel network.

“You wan’ go explore?” said Jackie.

“Maybe. Where does it go?”

“You go over there. Go down, turn right, first way, many ways, other exit there.” He pointed at some other trees. Was there an exit hatch amongst them? I couldn’t see anything.

Exploring the tunnels might be cool though, I thought. Why not, since I’m here?

“So which way do I go?”

“You be careful,” said Jackie. “Many ways you could go. Go right way, ten minutes. Go wrong way, two hours.”

“But which way is the right way?”

“Go right, and there are many ways. This way, go right.” He gesticulated wildly, tracing a map in the air. “You no scare? Tunnel have many bats. If you scare bats, no go!”

“Bats are fine, I just don’t want to get lost. How do I get to the other hatch?”

“Right way, ten minutes. Wrong way, two hours.”

Clearly I wasn’t going to get any usable directions from Jackie, so my thoughts were the same as yours: Fuck this. I’m all for adventure and exploration, but not when there’s a risk of me getting lost and isolated in a pitch-black, bat-filled, underground digestive tract.

Still, checking out the first little section of tunnel seemed pretty risk-free. A few of us piled in.

I’ve already talked about how hellish Cu Chi must have been for the attackers. Crawling into the three-foot high tunnel with my hands and knees in the dirt, I realised it must have been even worse for the defenders. Hot and sweaty, dank and dismal, with no room to stand up or overtake the person in front of you - I jumped as something fluttered past my head. Jackie hadn’t been kidding about the bats.

Don't let the flash fool you - you can't see your hand in front of you in this place.

Don’t let the flash fool you – you can’t see your hand in front of you in this place.

I made it about ten metres in before deciding I’d had enough. It’s hard to believe that people lived in there for months at a time.

Gunfire was still rattling from somewhere in the forest. We moved in its general direction, towards the next stop on the itinerary: an exhibit of the various kinds of traps that the Vietnamese deployed against each other during the war. Behind a fence sat a row of holes in the ground, each full of spikes arranged in different patterns. They varied in their size, depth, and the particular way they were designed to rupture your body, but they all had one thing in common: they were utterly horrifying. I winced just looking at them.

Note the cartoon GIs getting maimed in the background.

Note the cartoon GIs getting maimed in the background.

As Jackie explained the mechanics of the fourth trap, with its downward-pointing barbs designed not to kill but to trap your leg until you bled to death, I pondered just how depraved you’d have to be to design such a thing.

Then I realised, are the people behind these traps really different from us in any fundamental way? I don’t think so.

It’s incredible what human beings are capable of doing to each other, given the right (or wrong) circumstances. Who’s to say that I’d have acted any better if I’d had to go through the horrors that so many Vietnamese went through in the 60s?

If I’d been born a few generations earlier, I’d surely have ended up in one war or another, if not against the Germans then against the Ottomans, the Boers, the French, the American revolutionaries, or any of the other countless nations that England has battled over the years. Who knows what depths I might have sunk to if it had been my life on the line? It’s an unsettling thought. Once again: I count my blessings.

Vietnam is at peace now, but the end of a war isn’t always a good thing, especially if you happen to be on the losing side. Born and raised in Saigon, Jackie had fought for the ARVN, and after they were defeated in 1975 he was thrown in jail.

“I was in prison for three years,” he told us. “I was very happy to go to prison,”

Happy? Really? Why?

“Because I am survivor. In war, easy die. I thought I die. But I survive. In prison, I knew I would not die. Prison much better than war.”

Everything is relative.

This concluded the tour, but there was still one place left to visit: the shooting range, which was the source of the aforementioned gunfire.

This is the other attraction at Cu Chi – their stock of authentic Vietnam War-era rifles and machine guns. For a reasonable price, you can go nuts against a bunch of targets with any gun you want! I didn’t need to be told twice.

In typical Vietnamese fashion, regulations were non-existent. Just choose your weapon from a menu that reads like the character creation screen in Counter Strike, hand over a fistful of Dong, grab a rifle and Rambo’s your uncle. The guns are mounted in such a way that you can’t point them where anyone might be standing, but the nonchalant way in which anyone can stroll up to the range and be shooting within twenty seconds would give a British health-and-safety inspector a much-deserved heart attack.

Drawing on the extensive knowledge of firearms I gained from a childhood wasted playing violent videogames, I elected for the gentleman’s choice: The AK-47.

Say what you will about gun control; all I know is that this is the coolest I have ever looked.

Say what you will about gun control; all I know is that this is the coolest I have ever looked.

Now, I’m from England, where guns are as rare as funny episodes of Big Bang Theory. I have no desire to own a gun, I do not feel like owning a gun would make me safe, and a society in which people feel like they need to carry firearms to protect themselves is not a society I want to live in. I am a staunch supporter of my home country’s gun-free culture, and I hope it never changes.

That being said, there is one fact which I feel gets overlooked amidst all the current controversy: Guns are cool.

Seriously. Blasting that target to shreds with an Kalashnikov was the most fun I’ve had in months. Now I understand why Americans are so reluctant to part with their boomsticks. Shooting things rocks!

My only regret is that, at 35,000Đ ($1.75) a bullet, I could only afford a few rounds of explosive amusement. If money was no object, I wouldn’t have hesitated to drop a few hundred dollars on a big stack of magazines and go full-auto against some unsuspecting cardboard cutout. Maybe even have a go on this beast:

So frickin’ awesome.

Legend has it that somewhere in Cambodia you can pay $300 to blow up a cow with a rocket launcher. While the former vegetarian in me is horrified, the former Call of Duty-player has a new goal in life.

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Thoughts on the Vietnamese Language

Saigon Couchsurfing meetup

I’ve been in Vietnam for just over two months now. A lot of stuff has happened in that time, and most of it has happened in English. There’s a tight-knit and growing expat community here and I’ve been spending most of my time in it.

Of course, that community isn’t completely insular, and I’ve been hanging out with plenty of English-speaking Vietnamese too. Add that to the fact that most of Saigon’s 7 million inhabitants speak no English whatsoever, and I’ve had plenty of opportunity to practice the Vietnamese language.

Well, I’ve had the opportunity, I just haven’t been taking much of it.

I’ve made some effort though. While Vietnamese has many interesting features that (unsurprisingly) are radically different from anything European, I like to think I’ve got a decent grasp of the basics.

Vietnamese 101

Everyone LOVES to talk about how hard Vietnamese is (usually just to make excuses for their own failure to learn it), but I actually think Vietnamese has a lot of aspects that are very easy! There are no irregulars, no genders, the spelling is highly phonetic, the tenses are extremely simple, and it’s one of the few languages in the region for which you don’t have to learn an entirely new alphabet. (Compare Vietnamese’s tôi là ngửơi Anh to Thai’s “ฉันมาจากอังกฤษ”!)

Of course, like all languages, Vietnamese has hard aspects. By far the most intimidating of those is the pronunciation, which is VERY difficult for a European to master or even understand.

Try and say j’ai vingt-deux ans after hearing it once, and a French person will probably understand you, even if he cringes so hard at your pronunciation that he spills cigarette ash all over his baguette and starts drawing up terms of surrender.

On the other hand, if you attempt to say tôi hai mười hai tuổi without practice and coaching, you’ve got about as much chance as a Laotian rice farmer against an unexploded landmine.

Then again, it works both ways… so far I’ve met maybe 3 Vietnamese people who can pronounce anything reasonably close to “George”. “Chosh”, “Jaw” and “Jog” are popular alternatives. I’ve long since given up trying to correct people.

Lost in Translation

Vietnamese has 6 tones, meaning that ma can mean “mother”, “ghost”, “tomb”, “horse”, “but” or “rice seedling” depending on the pitch of voice you say it in. I find this fascinating – to a native speaker of a tonal language, , and mạ are COMPLETELY different words – as far apart as “meet”, “might”, “mate” and “moat” would sound to an English speaker. Screw up your tones, and people will have no idea what you’re trying to say.

The other day I tried to say to someone “do you speak Vietnamese?”, butchered the tones, and what they heard was “is your grandma having a contest?” That was a confusing ten seconds. Tones are hard.

Probably the most bizarre feature of Vietnamese is that it has no word for “you”. Instead, you address people by kinship terms such as “brother”, “uncle” and “friend”, depending on their age and gender. It can be confusing at first, but it doesn’t take too long to get used too, and it’s an interesting insight into Vietnamese culture.

Vietnamese also has BIG regional variations. Even I can generally hear the difference between the Hanoi and Saigon accent, and that’s without understanding a word being said. This has actually been a frustration, because almost all the teaching materials you can find online teach NORTHERN Vietnamese, which isn’t what I wanted to learn as it’s not where I live. (The Southern dialect has more speakers, but North Vietnam won the war and Hanoi Vietnamese is considered “official”.)

And tons of Vietnamese have told me that even they, as native speakers, can’t understand people from the central city of Huế. It’s Vietnam’s Liverpool.

The Most Challenging Aspect of Vietnamese

From all of the above, you might think that I know a lot about the Vietnamese language. Don’t be fooled.

While I can get by in simple situations like ordering food or introducing myself, my level of the language is still very low. My pronunciation is appalling, and my listening comprehension is even worse. It’s a rare day when people understand me on the first try. For two months in the country, my Vietnamese could be a lot better.

And sadly to report, it’s probably not going to improve much further. At the time of writing, I’ve made virtually no effort with Vietnamese in nearly three weeks, and I can’t see myself picking up the pace again any time soon. I’ve simply lost my interest.

See, my biggest problem with Vietnamese hasn’t been tones, pronunciation or pronouns, but motivation. Learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint, and try as I might, I can’t find a strong enough reason to keep me going on this one.

Six months ago, I had no idea I’d be in Vietnam right now, and Vietnamese was NOT a language I ever thought I’d study. Unlike, say, German, which I’ve known for a long time I want to tackle eventually, Vietnamese just doesn’t ignite enough of a spark in me to justify the effort required for fluency. I was enthusiastic at first, but the thrill of the new can only take you so far.

Living in the country isn’t enough. It’s VERY easy to get by here on English alone, and the vast majority of expats do just that. I thought I’d be different, but I’ve fallen right into the same trap as everyone else.

I’m not trying to make excuses – I could easily have structured my life in an English-minimising way if I’d really wanted to. There are plenty of ways I could seek extra motivation - I could make a bet, sign up for an exam, drop money on a language course – but it’s not going to happen.

(The other common recommendation is to get a Vietnamese girlfriend, which hasn’t happened yet, but I know expats who’ve done just that and still can’t even say “my name is”, so I have my doubts about its effectiveness. Whatever the case, if you see me retracting this post and dusting off my phrasebook, you’ll can probably write it off as another case of yellow fever.)

All is not lost!

Don’t get me wrong – even if I never spoke a word of Vietnamese again from today, I wouldn’t regret the effort I’ve made so far.

Languages aren’t an all-or-nothing thing, and even my current shitty level has had a lot of positives. I’ve had some cool experiences I wouldn’t otherwise had had and made friends I wouldn’t otherwise have met.

Even being able to haggle prices without using English (actually they usually don’t speak English so you have to write down and cross out numbers until you reach agreement), understand basic signage, and exchange pleasantries with shopkeepers has enriched my time here in a small but enjoyable way that’s definitely been worth it. I don’t know why anyone would want to spend more than a few weeks in a country without making at least that small effort.

This has confirmed for me that travelling without learning the local language is EXTREMELY limiting. I don’t plan on doing much more of it.

Vietnamese might not have stoked my fires, but my passion for languages overall has definitely increased. I know for sure they’re going to be a big focus of mine over the next few years, and I’m looking forward to the next one.

Hẹn gặp lại các bạn.


PS On the off chance anyone reading this is thinking about learning Vietnamese themselves, send me an email. I might not be fluent, but I can help you get started, tell you about some resources I found and hopefully save you from making the same mistakes I did.

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First Impressions of Vietnam

So here I am in Ho Chi Minh City, AKA Saigon, AKA my home for probably the rest of 2013. I’ve been here a week now, found a place to live, and feel more or less settled in.

The number question I got asked before moving out here (except maybe “are you fucking serious?”) was “are you nervous?”, and, to be honest, I really wasn’t. I’ve travelled enough by now that settling in to an unfamiliar city is nothing out of the ordinary.

Still, though, I didn’t really know what to expect of Saigon. Would it be a gleaming metropolis? A grey and dismal urban sprawl? Just like Bangkok, except without all the transexual prostitutes? As it turns out, it’s a very cool city and I think I’m going to like living here a lot.

A few musings:

- I definitely prefer Saigon to Bangkok, which is the only other major city I’ve been to in this part of the world. To be fair, I’m living in the town centre here and very much experiencing the “real” Saigon, whereas in Bangkok I did nothing but stay in the hyper-touristic part of town and get drunk with fellow backpackers, so it’s probably not a fair comparison. Still, it’s nice to be able to walk down the street without being pestered every three steps by touts and ladyboys.

- Here’s an interesting fact about the people of Vietnam: they all have the same goddamn surname. Well, not quite, but according to Wikipedia, a mere 14 family names are shared between around 90% of the population. I’ve already lost track of the amount of people I’ve met called Nguyễn – it’s like Smith, Williams, Johnson and Brown all rolled into one. Apparently the Vietnamese took naming hints from the Marklars.

- You know how everyone’s house smells different, but you can’t smell your own? My first few days here, every inhalation tasted of pollution and exhaust fumes. Now the air feels squeaky clean. This probably isn’t a good sign.

- I’m apparently now a person who spends a lot of time in coffee shops. Back in England I’d visit coffee shops maybe once a month; but since arriving here I’ve been spending all day in them every day. Next thing you know I might even start drinking coffee.

- Like every other third-world country I’ve been to, the roads here are fucking nuts. Traffic laws appear to be optional, and I feel like writing my will every time I cross the road. (Pro tip: always look both ways, even on a one-way street.) And the motorbikes. Holy shit, the motorbikes. They’re everywhere. There’s no way I can do justice in writing to the sheer quantity of xe may on the road here. I’d estimate less than 1% of the vehicles on HCMC roads have more than two wheels. My landlord has a motorbike for rent, but I’m sure if I tried to keep pace with the HCMC traffic I’d be dead within two days.

- Did you know the Vietnam war ended nearly 40 years ago? I mean, I did know that, but it never really clicked that 1975 is starting to become a fairly long time ago. I’ve always thought of the conflict as “recent history”; in fact the Fall of Saigon occurred closer to the Great Depression than to the present day. Mindblowing.

- Vietnamese is both the easiest and most difficult language I’ve ever looked into. Some aspects, like the grammar, are ridiculously easy, and I can already read and write the language reasonably well. (This isn’t because I’m such a linguistic genius that I picked it up within a week of arrival – I’ve been studying on-and-off since December.)

My attempts to speak, on the other hand, usually get met with blank stares. The pronunciation is horrific and contains all sorts of bizarre vowels that in England would be considered signs of a stroke. I do definitely want to make an effort with the language though, if only because I’ve dabbled in far too many languages recently without becoming fluent in any of them and it’s well past time I picked one and knuckled down on it. A big priority of mine over the next few years is to finally get some languages under my belt, so Vietnamese seems like a good place to start. Tôi phải làm việc siêng năng!

- That being said, I know if I wanted I could live here all year without learning a single word of anything. I’ve spent most of my time so far in the English-speaking expat bubble here and it would be far too easy to never look beyond it.

But why would I want to stick with English? I’ve already found the tiny bit of Vietnamese I have learned to be enlightening. I absolutely believe that the worldwide dominance of English is little more than an illusion and by limiting yourself to English you’re blocking yourself off from 99% of what a country has to offer. I can’t imagine spending all year here without at least picking up the basics.

(Incidentally, I’ve yet to hear a single Vietnamese person speak French; as far as I can tell that colonial remnant has been completely usurped by English.)

- I’ve been saying for years that Britain should scrap our copper coins and measure all prices in multiples of 5p. Well, Vietnam has the same problem, but to the extreme. Not only could they knock four zeroes off the end of their currency with no meaningful loss in granularity, but they have notes which are literally worth less than one UK penny. It’s an interesting feeling having so much cash it won’t even fit in your wallet, but still not enough to buy lunch.

- Don’t get me wrong though, it’s still mindblowingly cheap here. I’m making a pitiful amount of money by Western standards but still living nice and comfortably. My rent is half the price of the cheapest place I lived at university (and the room is nicer than any of them). My gym membership is US$9 a month and I’ve been eating out for almost every single meal. I could definitely get used to this.

Right, now I’m off to a coffee shop to get some work done.

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