30 April, 2006

Avery's Social Diary

The whirlwind never stops.

Friday afternoon saw me in a huddle with Avery and her pal Lily at the Patisserie Valerie, debating the relative merits of chocolate mousse cake and Foret Noir, which became a moot point when the Foret Noir had its last slice eaten before they could order. After that it was all about the chocolate, and discussing how much money the cake and uniform sales brought in, and how disgusting on a scale of one to ten the fish for today's Friday lunch was (pretty much off the charts). At one point during a lull in the conversation I mentioned that the washing machine had been replaced. Not exactly an ice-breaker, as dead silence followed. Finally Lily's little voice piped up hesitantly, "I think, you know, that as children don't really do the laundry, it's understandable that Avery's not very excited about the new washing machine." !!!

Home to have them run out to the garden and do mischief with two little miscreants in coats and ties, the sartorial splendor only underscoring their essential naughtiness. Meanwhile my beloved Bob was undoing the packaging of the new washer, and we were both laying bets on the likelihood of the boys' surviving the skirmish out in the blinky sunshine, surrounded by tulips. Avery and Lily emerged wet to the skin, having been doused by the illegal hose hooked up to the beyond-illegal sprinkler in the garden (severe drought in the south of England laying waste to any private plans to water anything). I fed them, while reading up on how to bone a whole rabbit in "From Julia Child's Kitchen," and Lily's dad arrived to pick her up, to the girls' dismay. "We hear you have been achieving great things, Avery, well done," Peter said, and Avery sort of ducked in a minimally socialized way and said "thank you." John came home and we all collapsed with a pizza and then to bed.

First thing in the morning Ava was dropped off by her darling nanny Fati, so we took over. To the park with a picnic of, I have to say, really good sandwiches: duck pate, smoked salmon with butter, roast turkey and cheddar, pastrami and mustard. Plus cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, normal crisps and then some called "four cheese and red onion" whose pretentiousness I found irresistible. The girls rollerbladed to their hearts' content, and I read Hello! magazine, looking up now and then to find them, or not as the case may be, and feel that they had been kidnapped. Home to play, and I to produce a mammoth dish of moussaka for our friends to devour at the upcoming dinner party. It's a fantastic version of the dish, with a layer of eggplant, a layer of boiled sliced potatoes, a smothering of sauteed minced beef (should also be lamb, couldn't find any) with tomato paste, red wine, cinnamon and parsley, all topped off with bechamel sauce and parmesan cheese. Sent John off to grocery shop and therefore many interesting ingredients came home: hommous instead of tapenade, sundried tomato paste instead of ordinary tomato paste, and a baguette bewilderingly covered in all sorts of seeds.

Sunday morning found us giving Ava back to her parents, who were double-parked outside with a driver, waiting to take them to whoever's christening they had to go to. We headed off to Wimbledon for Avery's second lesson on the frantic Biscuit. It was actually really touching: several of the adult riders who were with Avery last week during the "circus pony" episode actually took a break from their hack in the woods to watch her this week, and they were so complimentary. "Doesn't she have a great little position," one nice Frenchman said. "She's a good little rider." It was clear to see that Avery had no intention of letting Biscuit run amok this time, and that resulted in her being a bit tentative, but I think that between the craziness of last week and the too-controlled aspect of this week, by her next lesson on Thursday she'll have achieved a balance. She'll ride with a group of little girls! Oh, and you must go on the barn's website where they've posted a picture of Avery on Biscuit! It's Wimbledon Village Stables, and then you click on "Children's Pony Riding," I think it's called, and scroll down to the Junior Membership section. I really feel that we belong there.

A completely messed-up journey across the river with I think three buses, a walk and a taxi ride, to get to Sophia's house for a belated lunch. Oh their GARDEN. Deep and completely manicured by Sophia's mother Susan including azaleas, wisteria, lilies of the valley, every kind of rose you can imagine, black bamboo and a horse chestnut tree AND swingset and a trampoline. Avery was in heaven. Within about fifteen minutes they had arranged for Avery to spend the night, which surprised me after she hadn't wanted to a month or so ago, plus no Bumper et al. But good on her as the English say. We grownups sat down to white wine and a gorgeous chicken curry with ginger and orange (a completely surprising and acceptable exception to the "no fruit mixed with meat" rule we usually observe), and dessert? As you all know I don't even have a sweet tooth, but there was the most divine banana bread ever, ever, baked I believe on a layer of whole pecans, or maybe walnuts. Susan has promised me both recipes. The bread came from Nigella Lawson's recipe (as in the notorious "Nigella Bites" and the "Domestic Goddess", she now married to Charles Saachi but still so wonderfully NOT thin and yet completely sexy). It was, I hated to say, "moist," my LEAST favorite word in the English language. When I said this Susan practically screamed and grabbed Claus across the table. "Claus, Claus, someone else who can't abide the word 'moist'!" He simply looked down his patrician nose. "How one can dislike a WORD is beyond me. I was raised to respect the specific word one needs to use. If I need to use the word 'pubescent' I do, whether Susan objects or not." We just laughed. Still, though, we couldn't think up a single alternative, either in English or any other language we any of us speak, among a fairly linguistic crowd. There's French for "wet" and "damp, and German for both of those, and Russian for "soggy," but nothing to say what "moist" is. A lifelong project, clearly.

We ate in the conservatory looking out onto the garden, and watched the girls jump up and down and nearly bean each other. Claus is a completely hilarious, very much European-gentleman conversationalist, with a typical Germanic obsession with order, method and etymology, so we spent a lot of time analyzing the derivation of words and expressions (his latest acquisition is "gobsmacked," so I asked him if he had ever been, as well, "chuffed to bits"). Throughout everything their black lab Diva was very much in evidence, stealing the girls' lunch, trying to get up onto the trampoline. We stayed forever, and then kissed Avery goodbye and walked home through Hyde Park in the gathering grey dusk, our course set for leftover moussaka and Spooks episodes. We've got to catch up to be ready for Season Five in September, although the loss of all the original characters is a disappointment. I always enjoy the "where have I see that actress before" game followed by a quick dip into IMDB, the Internet Movie Database where you can find out who everyone is and whatever else they've ever appeared in. I gave an interior nod as yet another Spooks actor had turned out to be in something with someone in an Agatha Christie who in turn was in a miniseries with someone who was in Spooks! There are, I believe, only about 30 British actors and they just plug them into different roles.

Speaking of which, I'm not sure whether to be disappointed or gleeful that I missed it, but poor Matthew Macfadyen never made it to the Tribeca Film Festival. The film did, however, to wide acclaim, especially for his performance, but the great man himself... missed his flight. Oooh, how disappointing for the fans who went all the way from London. Apparently the film is terribly, terribly dark and he plays someone really disturbed. Why oh why? Let's see him in a nice romantic mystery next. Preferably NOT playing a priest or a psychopath.

Picked Avery up around noon and came home to a picnic in our little secret garden. All the trees and shrubs and flowers are blooming now and it's really worth the whole price of admission to the flat. Well, not sure that's strictly true, but hey, it's a nice place to escape.

OH! Last story for the day: remember the broken washing machine? Well, it got fixed but in the meantime I booked a laundry service to come take away our thousands of dirty items. They were returned Thursday evening. Each item hermetically sealed in its own plastic bag. I'm talking each T-SHIRT wrapped separately, each pair of jeans, each bedsheet and towel. Well, they did condescend to put all the socks in one bag. Unbelievable! And today I got the bill. Just guess. I can be complacent and just enjoy this as a good story because the landlord's paying for it. Two hundred and twenty five pounds (and 95 pence!). For laundry. It's a brave new world.

28 April, 2006

an afternoon at school

This post has nothing to do with Matthew Macfadyen. But I'm going to upload (or is it download? I can never remember which is which) one picture of him per day until someone reports back to me from the Tribeca Film Festival. So there.

What a day yesterday at Avery's school. I frantically wrapped up my strawberry cake and headed out to find a taxi. While I'm at it I'll give you the recipe for this extra-fast, foolproof dessert (believe me, I am a fool when it comes to baking and even I cannot screw up this cake). Just for fun, I'm going to do this in cookbook style to see if I can. You all tell me how it turns out.

Avery's Strawberry Lemon Sour Cream Cake

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 1/2 sticks butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 cup sour(ed) cream
2 tsps. vanilla extract
2 tsps. lemon extract
the grated peel of one lemon
2 large eggs
6 strawberries, coarsely chopped
3 tbsps. extra sugar

Stir together the flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. In another bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Of course, at this point all recipes will tell you about what speed setting to use on your electric beater. Well, try plugging an American beater into an English socket, and once the smoke has cleared and you've replaced all the fuses in your flat, you can go back to stirring by hand like in the old days. It just doesn't matter. Just stir until the butter and sugar are glossy. Then add the sour cream, the extracts and the eggs and the lemon peel, which will smell glorious. Stir really well until the batter starts to come away from the bowl as you move the spoon. Dump in the flour mixture and stir very, very well. You'll notice that a bit of bubbliness appears from the baking soda, when you've stirred enough. Gently fold in the strawberries, taking care not to mash them up. Tip into a pan that you've sprayed with Pam. I wish I had a Bundt pan but I do not. It would be very pretty like that. However, it is much more English to have a simple square or round cake that will fit in one of the tins with lids, so de rigeur in the English kitchen, to have on hand in the larder when someone comes to tea.

Sprinkle the extra sugar over the batter and bake at about 350 for about 45 minutes, or until the center does not jiggle and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Yesterday I burned mine, which was probably a combination of not paying attention (hey, someone has to blog!) and not really having a precise handle on the relationship between celsius and fahrenheit. Oh well, I'll get it right before I publish my cookbook! I guarantee you it will not take longer than 10 minutes to put this cake together, and other than the strawberries, you'll have everything on your shelves already.

So I zipped up to school, relishing NOT walking for once, and made my way down to the basement of the school to the drama room (aka the dining room, and who knows what else in that space-constrained school) where the babble of feminine voices told me a cake sale was happening. Most of the desserts on offer were store-bought, some extremely fancy from Paul, the ultra-authentic French patisserie in the High Street, and some more obviously your basic Waitrose cookies and cakes. So when I arrived with my unglamorous, square, but undeniably homemade and still-warm cake, I was the star of the show! Never mind that the edges were a bit too brown! They priced that baby at 15 pounds and it was snapped up immediately by a Form One mother, but she was made to leave it on the sale table until the end of the afternoon, because the smell of real, fresh cake was boosting sales. Take that, all of you at home who know I am a hopeless baker. All it took was a captive audience.

So I sloped off down the passage to the simultaneous second-hand uniform sale, and immediately regretted every pound I had ever spent at John Lewis buying these things new. Amazing prices. I can't imagine Avery's clothes surviving in such a condition as to be acceptable at some future sale, but perhaps these children have more than one set.

The conversations I heard as I browsed around the tables were so... English. "Have you plans for the Bank Holiday, Serena? We'll be in the country, if Angus can get away." "Well, Isobel, now that Poppy is settled and ready to go to St. Mary's in the autumn, how will your empty house feel?" Their voices all operate at a half-octave higher pitch than American mothers, and their clothes all look different: patterned scarves draped across their shoulders, little heels, discreet expensive belts and handbags. "I do think it's horrid how these cardies shrink so in the laundry. This size 30 bears no resemblance atall [all one word] to what it was when it was new." And yet, as foreign as parts of the afternoon felt, there was much the same general feeling as at Avery's old preschool: the attention of devoted mothers, the supervision of devoted staff, the shabby, slightly old-fashioned surroundings. And tea towels draped all over the kitchen to dry: the King's College annual fundraising tea towel, with a self-portrait of each schoolgirl and her name below, somehow reproduced onto a towel! By the time we arrived in January they were all sold out, but I have high hopes for next Christmas.

The uniform sale room opened out into the sweet little playground, home of the famous Wendy house (there were spiders, it's true) and looked up into the windows of the flat whose occupants, it turns out, are the real barricade between the girls and a proper outdoor recess. Why on earth would people move into a flat whose terrace looks out onto the yard of a girls' school, and then complain about the noise? Very irritating.

Becky arrived and after we bought everything in sight and took a look at the depleted cake sale table, we went outside to wait for the girls to come out. Suddenly, up the pavement came a lady, although I use the word with some caution, dressed in an outlandish spangled, off the shoulder, plunging neckline dress, in ultra high heels with her hair teased a mile off the top of her head. She ran toward the school as fast as her hideous shoes would allow, and then stopped dead in front of the entrance, turning toward the street. "Miles, Miles, park there, park there," she screeched to a driver standing on the pavement. Behind him were two enormous white limousines, decorated with pink ribbon bows on their grilles, double-parked by the kerb (note English spelling, please). Becky and I tried not to look at her. "If I ever, ever, even APPROACH looking anything like that, please stop me," she said. We were both smothering laughing, and wondering who on earth this could be. "Please let her clothes be in the line of duty," Becky hissed. We decided she was a birthday party entertainer. And sure enough, the little Form Three girls came filing out of the building, dressed, as they do for after school parties, in festive non-uniform clothes, looking oddly random, clutching their backpacks. They were packed up into the limousines chattering madly. I said to Becky, "No one at home would believe this if I told them." Very un-PS 234!

27 April, 2006

acting lessons

Well, obviously first things first: it's time to put away those pesky heavy skirts and cardies and collared shirts and tights and go for the summer uniform. Isn't this just about the sweetest face you've ever seen? The garden is blooming and lovely. I'll try to get a picture of Avery with her straw boater hat as well, but she's getting sick of being documented every minute of her life. Can't blame her.

When I came home from my first acting class yesterday, Avery was in the garden with her new babysitter, Erin, Katie's roommate. They were practicing their cartwheels and it was a truly beautiful spring day, a real rarity. Today of course the sun has seen the error of its ways, decided we've had enough of its presence, and is in hiding once more.

My class was a huge success. It's at an open university called The City Literary College, but it's called City Lit by everyone. No entrance requirements, and very inexpensive if you are a resident of London. I am considered, however, transient, having just arrived, so I am paying foreigners' fees, but even so it's a bargain. It felt so odd waiting outside a classroom where I wasn't going to be in charge. I haven't been in a classroom where I wasn't teaching in 19 years, and I must say it was a pleasure to be on the receiving end rather than the giving end, of knowledge. All of us stood around outside the closed door, looking furtively at one another and feeling self conscious. After all, it's not like we were lining up for trigonometry, this was going to be acting class and weren't we all supposed to be sort of performers, or at least would-be performers? After a few minutes, a gorgeous young girl came up to our huddled group and simply reached out to the classroom door handle and pushed it open. "Clever thinking," I said, and everyone laughed, breaking the ice.

Honestly, outside the pages of "Murder on the Orient Express" I have never heard of a more diverse group of people. Thirteen students in all, and let's see, I was the oldest, but not by as much as would have been embarrassing. Then there was Colin the English pub owner, Marcus the Brazilian hairstylist, K (yes, she explained it all very fully, just the initial K), an aspiring rap singer, Vicky the second generation Indian cookery book writer, and possibly our most colorful cohort, Julian the self-confessed former crackhead and prison inmate, father of four children, awaiting his court date for some undisclosed crime and for some reason cooling his heels in the meantime in our "Introduction to Acting" class. Do you suppose his parole officer thought it would be good therapy? Anyway, then there was Tim, a six-foot-eight lanky fellow with dreadlocks, and Marte, a French girl who looked like she had raided Jackie Kennedy's closet. All in all, every nationality you can imagine was represented. I am the only American, and there were just I think three English people. Our teacher came in, breezy and energetic, introduced herself with the economical comment, "I'm Pip," and we were off. Our first activity was to play a game of tag where when you got caught, you stopped, raised your arm in the air and shouted, "I'm it! I'm Kristen!" And everyone else pointed at you and shouted, "You're it! You're Kristen!" So humiliating but funny, and a good way to remember names. Then later in the game you could save yourself from getting tagged by hugging the person closest to you. Pretty funny.

Next Pip assigned seven of us to stand in a circle facing out, and paired us up each with another student, facing us. Then we were to introduce ourselves and say one thing about ourselves. "I'm Kristen and I forgot my bracelet today." "I'm Renee and I love JayZ but I hate Beyonce." Then we sat in a circle and Pip would say, "That's Kristen," and everyone would say the thing I had to said to each of them. I wondered privately if anyone had lied, and I wanted to ask, but thought it might sound really odd, so I held my tongue. Then Pip talked about the essential quality for good acting: learning to listen. It's surprisingly hard. Maybe I'm just more self-centered than most people, but I do find that I often carry on conversations in which I can feel myself just waiting to say the next thing. Am I listening to the other person, really listening? As in, perfectly open to the conversation going in a direction other than the one I intended? Not always. She asked us how the information exchange had felt. Colin said, "I found it kind of awkward. I mean, I would really rather have had to talk to a lot of people about myself, rather than focus on just one person." I thought about how the situation would be John's worst nightmare: a room full of strangers that, one by one, he would have to talk to, about himself. Pip talked about the usefulness of acting skills in daily life, not just on stage or screen. "Aren't we all equipped with more than one self, underneath? Maybe we don't always bring them all out, or even think consciously about what we're doing, but isn't there one self who confronts the landlord with problems with the heat, and another who goes for coffee with a friend, and another who solves problems at work? Really think, from now on, about what self you're bringing out for situations."

I thought about how, since moving, I have had to reinvent myself, or my selves, in every situation. It's getting less so, but every day there is at least one new person, and many days many people, who I've never met before, but have to form a relationship with. Maybe it's Kimia's mother at pickup for Angelica's birthday party, or the drama teacher at Avery's school, or a new babysitter, or now this acting class. I do think it's useful to analyze who I trot out as "myself" in these situations. Of course it's heightened in our current life when I'm having to replace all the familiar people in my life (pediatrician, deli owner, best friend, school head, librarian) with strangers in their spots, standing in their roles, ready to play for me the part that was played by someone else in the last "performance" of my life. No interaction is truly, effortlessly natural yet. But even outside the sort of extraordinary level of role-playing that goes on in life in a new place, I think some amount of it takes place all the time. I noticed it when I spoke on the phone with my beloved grandmother last night. I hadn't played the part of granddaughter in a really long time! I felt myself becoming that self gradually as we talked, but some essential part of "Mamoo's eldest granddaughter and mother of her first grandchild" came out before I was really conscious of having to remember my lines.

I think what I will discover is that, as my dad always says, personality traits run on a spectrum. People have more or less of a given quality by nature, and then life impresses even more or less of that quality on them as time goes on. I think I am probably more given to the role-playing feeling than most people, but I bet a true actor has a really hard time figuring out what the "real" self consists of. It was very interesting to have Pip say that, and then say, "Right now I have brought out the self who teaches my classes," totally stripping the classroom situation of any fake sense of "normality," or transparency. Of course she was playing the part of teacher, just as I used to adore doing in my own classroom. It's not as if it's faking: but it's very instructive to strip away one's daily sense that people are "real", and acknowledge that it's all an accretion of parts we play.

Or, of course, I could be a disassociated nutcase with a personality disorder.

So then we were sent off in threesomes to plan and act out a familiar story, with just about ten minutes to get it together. I was with Vicky and Marte, and we decided to do "Little Red Riding Hood." It was funny to try to remember the exact story, and how does it end? Does the wolf really eat BOTH the grandmother and Little Red? We decided yes. Marte said she was really sleepy and would be happy to play the grandmother who ultimately doesn't do much besides get eaten. The plays seemed like silly little things, but Pip found real things to say about what we had done: had we really planned properly where the audience would be, and could they see all the action? Did we remember to be consistent about what happened to the fake teacup in our hands, and was the imaginary doorway consistently in the same place throughout the play? Katherine, the super pretty girl who opened the classroom door for us, played Adam to Julian's Eve in a "don't eat the apple" scenario in which God and the serpent were played by a Turkish florist (I'm not making this up). But at the end, when they were meant to feel shame for the first time, Katherine forgot who she was and covered her breasts!

I think the most crucial thing that Pip said was that the thrill of acting is in knowing that the thoughts and experiences of the audience are in YOUR hands. That's why, she said, most actors prefer stage to screen. There is a real-time, real-life effect you're having on the people who have paid good money for you to play a part, and she described the incredible high of looking out into the audience and seeing every eye trained on you, and knowing that your job is to do for them what they came for: play a part and change their lives, for the next two hours. "And professionalism comes into it, too. You can't change your mind halfway through the play and not finish it, or not give it your all because you're hungover or have a sick child at home. Anymore than a bus conductor can be having a bad day and decide that today, the Number 137 bus will end at Oxford Circus and not go on to Piccadilly. No, the bus journey, and the theatre journey, must continue until they are over, and that's your job."

It was an exhausting three hours! Then I decided to walk home, and it's a jolly long way from Covent Garden to Mayfair, I can tell you. In high heels, no less. But I got to talk to John's mom on the phone as I walked, and she's such a good audience that it went quickly.

Right now I have a strawberry cake in the oven to take to Avery's school cake sale ("not 'bake sale,' like in America, it's a 'cake sale' here, Mummy" she pointed out, the unspoken words "you dummy" hanging in the air like a conversation balloon). There is also a hand-me-down uniform sale, so perhaps I can pick up an extra cardie for her. I'm in denial that the downside of the summer uniform is the necessity of yet more name-tape sewing. Avery's playing at Anna's house after school, and I am under great pressure to remember to bring along her new Sylvanian animal family as necesary items for "the game." What, you're not familiar with Sylvanians? That must mean you don't have a nine-year-old English girl. They are these little flocked animal families, with little outfits and belongings and, if you're super lucky with parents who aren't ogres like we are, they have houses. With real lights that light up. It's John's nightmare, tiny little things all over the house with all their tiny little accoutrements. But they're de rigeuer for the King's College set, and I caved and took Avery to Hamleys Toy Store in Regent Street this week and let her choose a family. The amount of Sylvanian-pertinent information that flowed forth from Avery on the long, long walk home that day, Hamleys bag clutched in her hot sticky little hands, was mind-boggling. Now you know what you can give her for her birthday. If you want to earn John's undying enmity, that is.

Oh, and the washing machine saga goes like this: the part has to be ordered from some medieval village in Germany, at which point it is apparently walked over land until it reaches the sea, and then migrating fish swim it over to England where it undergoes some psychological testing, eventually arriving at my flat around the end of May. Or, alternatively as they like to say here, I can get a new machine with a similarly tortured delivery tale, around the middle of May. I got this all from Bob the porter (who's back! lame Iaian having got hired in the City, can't imagine who would want him) as I struggled to free my strawberry cake from its pan (of course I burned it while I wrote this post, so much for my future as a foodie). In the meantime I have to say it was a real pleasure to pack up all our dirty clothes into plastic bags and have someone from Zoots Laundry Service come and collect it. It's ostensibly to arrive all clean and dry and folded, this evening. "Did you separate the whites from the colors?" Bob asked. "You're such a troublemaker," I said. "Is a laundry service going to put blue jeans in with white shirts? Come on," I scoffed. But now I can't stop worrying about it. Oh well, a couple of hours selling cakes to posh English mums obsessing over their double-parked Range Rovers will distract me, I'm sure.

25 April, 2006

my crush...in Tribeca!

This is so, so cruel. OK, so I spent 8 years in Tribeca, living a blameless life, never paying a bit of attention to the Tribeca Film Festival happening just a block away.

Then last year, as you all know to your intense boredom, I get this uncontrollable crush on Matthew Macfadyen, a darling British actor. Then in January I move to London where, hello, he lives. And where does he decide to go? Tribeca. His new film, "Middletown," is a late choice for the Film Festival, and he's decided to go to the premiere and a question and answer session after! How could this happen? Someone who reads this must simply buy a ticket to the April 28th screening of the film and then go see His Lordship at the Q & A. I'm crushed.

I am getting excited for my acting class, which begins tomorrow afternoon. I have a new babysitter, Erin, collecting Avery at school after, coincidentally, HER drama club that begins this week! Between the two of us, John will have a very challenging home life now. Of course we'll have to practice our new skills at home.

OK, I'm off to sulk some more about Matthew and the Festival. Somebody report back to me, please.

23 April, 2006

sunshine and athletics in London

What a day we had Saturday! Bright, intensely blue skies, not a cloud in sight, and warm. A day that makes you realize that in general, we live in a grey, grey world here in London. John and I picked Avery up at Anna's, feeling slightly sorry for her parents as they headed off to a football match in Manchester. It's one of those activities that is probably really fun once you get there, and whether or not you like football it's exciting, no doubt. But a long trip. It turns out, I heard from Becky today, that they arrived at halftime, which doesn't sound so disappointing until you're told that each half is only 45 minutes long and no time outs! So you've missed a lot, at half time. And Liverpool won, happily for them since they were seated on the Liverpool side. I had no idea it worked like that, being seated according to your allegiance. That's actually how it was at the show-jumping polo match, must be a reference to the football tradition.

After we picked Avery up we headed to Church Street, off Lisson Grove, to the long row of antiques shops. Becky and I had checked it out first of all last week, and had found a lovely shop, Andrew Nebbett, with several things I liked a lot. One of them was a long wide bench covered in heavy dark leather, from maybe 1930, a gymnasium bench-pressing affair. "On hold" for some evil person, not that we have anywhere to put it. But also from the gymnasium sale were several leather mats that Andrew had had sewn into rugs. Gorgeous! So we came away with a big one for the living room and a small one for the entry.

Home to put John down for a nap and I took Avery roller-blading in Hyde Park. The weather had held perfectly, and everyone was out sunning themselves in the little green-striped deck chairs (like the one Snoopy fights with in the Thanksgiving Special, remember that?), that you sit in and a Park Deckchair man comes round and charges you a pound fifty for each one. Seems reasonable! In New York of course someone would come round in the night and put them all in vans and sell them on eBay. I shouldn't be so cynical about my native city, but there you go. We sat and recovered from her exploits with an iced lolly (always read about them in books but never quite realized that they are just popsicles! much better to call them iced lollies), and a cup of milky tea for me. Every nationality and age and body type under the sun, all sacked out in the park on the green, green grass that doesn't require springtime to be green. Why is that? All year long, it's green.

Avery was definitely wilting at this point, so a long bath was in order, and then a high-protein blast of a cut of beef called "feather cut." Don't know how to define it and will do some research. It's shaped like sirloin tips, with a strong central sinew that was quite edible, and CHEAP. The whole three-person serving was not even 3 pounds total. I sauteed it gently in butter and sliced it thin, but it could have been cooked even less. We all went to bed completely worn out!

This morning up horribly early (OK, it was 7) to get to the barn in Wimbledon in time for a 9 a.m. lesson. Never again! I need my Sunday rest! But wow, the lesson was amazing. A pony called Biscuit, who is too tiny to be ridden by anyone large enough to be any good! So she has been spending years being trotted to and fro on a lead rope, with tiny children on her doing nothing. But when the trainers saw how Avery was skilled and yet tiny, they decided it was a match made in heaven. So the moment Avery got on Biscuit's back, and the rope came off, and the hack through Wimbledon Common was over and the arena in sight, that pony went BERSERK! Galloping like the wind, round and round, the adult riders on their calm horses looking on in a mixture of horror and admiration! I can't even say that Avery "hung on," far from it, she rode that pony beautifully. Totally controlled, obviously impressed with the speed that was happening. I remained calm, believe it or not, and John was thrilled. Caroline, her new trainer, was unflappable, and unmoved. Finally Avery calmed Biscuit down and joined the rest of the group, but still throughout the hour every time she got to be by herself, it was tearing off hell bent for leather. Hilarious! So they've decided that if Biscuit gets exercised more this week she'll be fine on Sunday next. It feels ridiculously good to have a barn, a pony, a trainer, FRIENDS.

Our friend Jill and her husband picked Avery up in the rain outside Edgware Station, with Anna already in the car, to go with Ava to the Chessington Adventure Park or some such thing. Jill wailed, "I have a cold, I'm pregnant, and it's raining! I don't believe it." Later she confessed that she made her husband drop her off at home and sent him off with the girls alone! John and I walked in the mist to a nice, anonymous-ish Lebnese restaurant called Fatoush, in Edgware Road, and had lovely fresh hummous, falafel, and little lamb meatballs with tahini sauce. Sweet little honey and pistachio cookies after, and home for a nap. The perfect day for it. We walked to collect Avery around 6, and the dad, Mylo, looked as wilted as a man of 6 foot 4 can look. "Did it rain?" John asked sympathetically. Mylo gave us a look. "Did it rain?" he repeated. "Did it RAIN." So after chatting for a few minutes about the mind-bendingly awful-sounding ride and prizes, John said, "Well, Mylo, at least it didn't rain."

Well, I'm about to drop dead this evening, having walked home from school, back again with Avery's forgotten PE kit, back again home, back to school again with Ava's birthday present for her party after school, back home again, and back again to collect Avery at the party! There was a very scary magician in a turban trying to inveigle the mothers into coming home with him, and somehow Ava had persuaded the local ice cream truck to come to her party, so all the children were dripping with ice cream. It felt extremely lovely, and most welcome, to have mothers I knew, to greet and be greeted by, and to have Avery included in a party with her new friends. John's out at a business dinner, so I think I'll skulk into the kitchen, pour a restorative cocktail, and try to convince Avery to watch the Food Channel. How sophisticated are we?

21 April, 2006

Moonshine Redux

Finally, a great lesson on a great pony! Wimbledon Village Stables has been a success, for sure, but there hasn't yet been that magical experience where Avery felt like she was a real rider again. Until Moonshine this week, in the quaint village of Stanton in the heart of the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire. Last year when we were on our "shall we move" trip to England, we tracked down a highly-recommended trainer called Jill Carenza, out in the countryside, who had taught the children of one of John's old Goldman Sachs friends, Andrea Ponti. Jill is a renowned trainer who really knows how to challenge the students. She put Avery on Moonshine, who while not exactly inspiring confidence with her sleepy expression and tongue that wagged throughout the lesson, was nevertheless quite a "mover," as they say, and it was a great experience. So this week we found ourselves once more at Jill's barn, and Avery jumped for the first time since December. What fun to watch. And a high jump, as you can see, near the end of the course. She was completely wiped out by the end of the hour and is now thoroughly in the mood to ride over the weekend. It's great for her to be back in the saddle.

We just had the most interesting houseguest, Kathryn Hillier, who arrived the night before we left for Worcestershire and was able to spend six days here investigating potential spots to show her photography. Check out her website, www.kathrynhillier.com, for some beautiful images of interiors, and mysterious objects. She was on a short break from a residency in Paris, preparing for her solo show at a gallery there to open next week. Kathryn is a friend of my former gallery assistant Rebecca, and it was a pleasure to have our first guest in our new home. We took her to see the Cabinet War Rooms, one of my favorite museums in the city. It's an underground bunker where Churchill and his staff spent the war, broadcasting speeches, tracking convoys and generally managing the effort while staying safe under the streets. When the war was over, the rooms were simply closed up, many of them exactly as their occupants left them, so the whole place is like a moment in 1945 under glass. Really intriguing.

We also took her to Harrods where she was able to gaze upon, in some dismay, the extremely tacky devotional monument to Princess Diana and her beloved Dodi (I think she declined to sign the memorial book, however, more's the pity). Avery acquired some roller blades at Harrods and I imagine a fair bit of our weekend will be spent on the bike path in Hyde Park, just across the road here, working on her new skills.

Well, I'm off for a special treat: an Indian head massage! I have no idea what to expect, but I have been missing my little $20-20 minute specials at the Korean nail salon in Tribeca, so this is the next best thing. It's at a spa called Calmia, in the Marylebone High Street, so I'll be all relaxed for school pickup. It's a fake pickup, however, more like a handoff, because Avery's going to her friend Angelica's house for a playdate, and from there to Anna's house for a sleepover. Life is a never-ending cycle of fun when you're nine and a half and it's springtime in London. What should John and I do? He has discovered a fabulous, unprepossessing Chinese restaurant unfelicitously located across the road from the skating rink where Avery's school has lessons, a really ugly, street called Queensway. But this place, Mandarin Kitchen, is a real find. It got something like a 4 out of 30 for decor in Zagat's guide, but 26 for food, and was reputed to be the place where actual Chinese people go for great authentic dishes. This turned out to be true, because the day after we were there, one of my school-mother friends Amy, who is from Hong Kong, said, "Did I see you at Mandarin Kitchen last night, Kristen? How did you find that place? Next time, ask for Amy's chili chicken. It's not on the menu, but they know what I like." We had a soft shell crab appetizer that was out of this world, with hot red chilis and green onions, and then a sticky, spicy duck dish with enormous slices of ginger, and crispy seaweed. Gorgeous with a Tsing Tao beer or two. So perhaps we could go back there.

Or I could cook in. I invented a recipe over Easter break, which was born out of sheer laziness. I wanted to call it "Hanbury Hall Chicken", but John says the proper name is "I Want to Take a Bath Chicken." Because that was the truth. I had bought ingredients to do a slightly elaborate stir-fry dish that requires constant standing at the stove, not to mention a lot of chopping and straining. The original recipe called for minced garlic and onion sauteed in butter, then flambeed cognac or brandy, reduced down, then chopped tomatoes, thyme leaves and sour cream, all simmered for ages and strained, and poured over sauteed chicken breasts. It suddenly sounded like entirely too much trouble. I thought, "Didn't people used to cook things called casseroles? The whole point being that the oven does the work?" So I melted some butter in a casserole dish, roughly sliced some garlic and an onion and threw them in, put whole chicken breasts on top, poured over about three tablespoons of brandy, stirred together a can of whole tomatoes and a container of sour cream, poured that over the chicken and sprinkled the whole thing with thyme and salt and pepper, and... went to take a bath! After 45 minutes I was clean and happy and the chicken was cooked to perfection. It had a kind of poached texture, and the sauce was runny with butter and pink with tomatoes. Bliss! What could be easier. And there were leftovers, which at John's suggestion were poured on linguini the following evening. This procedure follows my beloved brother-in-law Joel's mantra, "Cook once, eat twice." So wise. Try it! I did add part of another can of tomatoes when I heated up the sauce, and I sliced the leftover chicken breast in bite-sized pieces. Avery and I came to the conclusion that we didn't love chicken with pasta, but luckily John did, and there was plenty of sauce. I also did an elaborate chopped salad to go with the pasta, my cook's heart feeling slightly guilty at my shortcut dinner the night before. It's perfect for the anal-retentive chef. You chop all the following ingredients into precisely the same size bits: fresh cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, cucumber, radishes, avocado, and red peppers. Toss this with a couple of cloves of REALLY finely minced garlic (be sure to pull out any little green shoots which will make you taste like garlic for days to come), and very finely torn romaine lettuce. Any dressing is good, but we had a Caesar-ish thing that was quite nice. Enjoy.

Happy Birthday, Queen Elizabeth

Do you suppose the Queen had such pretty Easter eggs last weekend? (I'd ask also if she had such a pretty little girl to spend Easter with, but that would be unkind). No, I know for certain she did not have such pretty eggs, because one thing we discovered this year is that the British do not color eggs. Well, actually Avery reports that some very religious people dye some eggs red to symbolize purity and blood (how cheerful). How did we find out that our cherished tradition was not observed here in our new home? Well, for one thing there was no dye in any of the shops. Anywhere. I discovered this too late to bleat helplessly to Alyssa, my friend and source for all things American that we miss, like microwave popcorn and People magazine. Then, on our way to our National Trust holiday, we stopped at an enormous grocery store to stock up, and... there are no white eggs in Great Britain. Can you dye brown eggs? With no dye? It turns out you can. Weirdly, the night before our trip I had a very vivid dream in which I discovered a cache of food coloring bottles on my top kitchen pantry shelf. And... sure enough, in the morning there was a whole section of bottles from some bygone Tribeca crafty thing, moved here to my London kitchen. So the whole Easter egg dye racket is a scam, the idea that you need something special to color eggs. So much for all the research I did online, finding creepy ovo-lacto vegetarian tofu-obsessed websites that assured me a quick dip in boiling water and onion skins would make fine yellow (never mind the smell, I guess) and that beetroot shreds would produce red without all that pesky cancer risk, and blue? I don't remember what they claimed would produce blue. Because have you ever looked inside a blueberry? It's sort of a phlegmy white, certainly not a hue we were aiming for in Easter eggs. And strong coffee for to get brown? For heaven's sake, this is where we came in! The darn things ARE brown already. Anyway, my point is that plain old Durkee food coloring in warm water makes perfectly good dye, and the brown eggs took to their adventure like ducks to water, thrilled at their opportunity to rise above their lesser brethren, destined only for egg cups across the British Isles, knowing that theirs was a higher fate.

So all England is agog today for the royal 80th birthday. Please promise me you'll click on this link. She looks like an American Girl doll gone large I swear. I heard on the BBC this morning that so far she has received over 20,000 cards. Today a huge self-congratulatory flag is being hoisted over Windsor Castle (the BBC announcer said solemnly that it was "a much larger flag, indeed, than we're used to seeing flying over the Castle, isn't it?"). She's going to do a "walkabout" in town to press the flesh, and receive posies, and 25 members of the intimate Royal Family will be at a dinner hosted by Prince Charles this evening. What do you suppose she asked for to eat? When asked what she wanted for her birthday, she said "a nice sunshiny day." Trust her to choose the one thing that doubtless she cannot have, here in England, land of the perpetual grey sky. And yesterday she invited for tea at Buckingham Palace all the people who could prove that they turn 80 today as well. Kind of cute if you like that sort of thing. I'm not a huge fan of the Queen, I hesitate to confess, but there is something catching about all the birthday fever and we succumbed last night and taped a show all about the ten most significant days in Queen Elizabeth's life. Would you believe the show lasted an hour and a half? Must have been some ten days. Oh! Yesterday outside Marks and Spencer I saw Lady Helen Taylor, with her little girl Eloise. She was very pretty in person, but not in the Body of Armani way you'd expect, from all her pictures in Hello! magazine. Just trotting along in jeans and sneakers, holding her little girl's hand, not acting at all as if she's 11th in line to the throne. Actually I'm making that up; I can't remember how far away she is, but still! She's a princess.

Speaking of the Queen, who is Avery's school's Patron, exciting news: Avery was chosen by the art teacher of King's College to create a portrait of the Queen for the school's birthday card to her! To be delivered, Anna and Avery told me in breathless excitement yesterday, in "a special Queen's birthday taxi" to Windsor Castle this afternoon. Well done.

And more news about Avery's achievements, if you can bear it. She won the Form Four Storywriting Competition! This was her greatest goal, and she poured her heart and soul into her story, written before break. Mrs Davies assured us in her pre-Easter headmistress letter that all efforts would be made over vacation to judge the entries and come up with a winner for each form. Our New Girl, can you imagine it, heard her name called out at assembly yesterday and was the proud recipient of two really scary chocolate bunnies, as a prize. As you can imagine we are all quite proud. Her story and her royal portrait, all in one day. And the new summer uniforms have arrived at John Lewis Department Store, so I stopped off yesterday for a ruinous shopping trip and came away with dresses and new white ankle socks, as well as a cute short coat. I shall have to get a good picture of her in her new gingham dress. And boater hat, if she'll put up with it. Lots of fun.

a holiday all together

Finally! We spent a blissful Easter holiday at Hanbury Hall in Droitwich, Worcestershire (ran out of sauce, decided to go to the source). It's a gorgeous National Trust property, which means that the Vernon family, after over 300 years, decided to call it a day as landowners and sold the house to the Trust, who now manage it as a public property for people to visit, along with its incredible gardens and outbuildings (an Orangery, a dairy, an icehouse, what else could one wish for), and then they have refurbished a two-bedroom apartment inside the enormous house, to let out for holidays. So we were the lucky family this Easter. Such a pleasure to be all together, after our separate Scottish, Asian and Yorkshire adventures this spring break. We simply jumped in a rented car with roughly half our belongings and headed off. More on this soon, but right now I must find out why my washing machine insists that there is one perpetual minute left on its wash cycle, and therefore will not relent and turn into a dryer. My laundry room floor is covered with damp clothes rapidly reaching that sort of permanently wrinkled crunchy state that bodes ill for our sartorial future. Wish me luck.

10 April, 2006

spring break part two: HORSES!

Oof, I just had a painful experience. We had been paying our rent here at Warburton House via direct debit, which enables us to live here while blithely pretending it isn't costing us the same as staying in a really high class hotel every night. But something went wrong with the debit this month and John just asked me to go round to the estate management with a cheque. There was something vaguely, oddly out of place in the whole scenario: I was met in the impossibly chic and intimidating lobby of Grosvenor Estates by a young woman dressed in clothes much fancier than what I wore to John's boss's dinner party, snootily lending me her biro to make out my cheque, and there I was, soaked to the skin from the typical April rain, wearing nasty jeans that are more familiar with the Bronx than with Mayfair. Very odd.

Oh our trip to the British Open Show Jumping Championship was SO COOL. Many of you may know that as little as a year ago, I was not exactly a horse person. But maybe it took absence to make my particular heart fonder, because for whatever reason, it was really touching to see horses again! We arrived a bit late due to a train stoppage, and being taken to the wrong hotel in the taxi, but got to the arena in Sheffield just in time for the massively entertaining, lightning-quick 4-minute polo matches. There was Jack Kidd, he of Hello! magazine fame, on the "blue team" and some other gorgeous Englishmen in the "red team," and the crowds all screaming and eating nasty things like tuna on jacket potatoes. That's a subset of the English obsession with mixing tuna up with odd stuff like sweetcorn: then they have to do something with it, and one of the peculiar things they do is to pile it on a baked potato and wrap it in foil so people can try to balance it on their knees at polo matches. That and chicken curry. On a potato, truly.

Polo is much more exciting than I would have thought, mostly because the ponies are so beautiful. And, too, there is absolutely no wasted time, the thing that makes most sports boring to me. In fact, there's a penalty for standing still. So it's constant flashing action, with the ponies seemingly as involved in the sport as the men. And cute uniforms! After polo came... the phenomenon that is... Lorenzo. He's this cute little French dude who apparently in his long ago and not at all misspent youth gathered more ponies on his farm than he could manage to exercise per day, so he invented a system of standing on the backs of two ponies while running around with two more ponies on each side. White gorgeous creatures, perfectly matched and with an obvious adoration of him. The performance (unhappily marred by a really scary polyester ruffled outfit for Lorenzo, how un-chic and un-French, but I guess the sort of ice-skater mentality outweighs his natural coolness) progressed from just cantering around managing not to fall off the ponies' backs, to actual jumping over rails and then he himself jumping over poles to land perfectly on their backs again. Totally entertaining.

After Lorenzo was the best thing of all, the show jumping itself. As I vaguely knew, but had never really studied, the concept of show jumping is that it's against the clock. Nothing matters but speed, and not knocking over the fences. The first event was the Young Riders' Competition, which is the under-23 crowd. Both men and women, all slim, perfectly turned out in white show breeches, red or black coats and fancy stocks at their throats, knee-length shiny boots and velvet helmets. These people and their horses managed to get over sometimes 11 or 13 jumps, in a really arcane and precise order, in under 70 seconds. Amazing. There was one family whose reign over the sport was such that they warranted a whole page in the programme, devoted to their family tree. Avery was familiar with the young woman of the family, Ellen Whitaker, from her "Young Rider" and "Horse and Hound" magazines. I have always wondered how there was enough to say to warrant a monthly magazine, but now I am beginning to see the light. Unfortunately it was not poor Ellen's day. Every time she came out the announcer made a huge fuss, shouting, "It's the one, the only, Yorkshire's own young equestrian superstar, the newest member of the Whitaker dynasty... ELLEN WHITAKER!" And then she proceeded to knock down all the fences and come in over the time limit. Apparently she was riding a greenish pony who's not been adequately apprised of Ellen's public image.

Then there were the adult show jumpers, whose aplomb was impressive. To my feminist chagrin, I noticed a disturbing pattern. At Avery's barn in New York, and in ever barn I have ever been in, it's nearly all little girls. John is always saying that if he had known as a little boy what he knows now, he would have taken up riding. It's where all the cool girls hang out and NO BOYS. However. You get to the level of the Young Riders in show jumping and it's perhaps half boys, half girls. The girls do well, mind you, but where did all these males come from? And then, at the top, just like in the food world, it's virtually all men. Avery and I were frustrated by this to the degree that we didn't know whether to cheer for an English male rider (surely the patriotic thing to do), or just ANY woman, no matter her nationality. That makes me crazy. How many men produce dinner for their families every night, compared to how many women? And yet, when it comes to being famous for cooking and making lots of money at it, all the heavy hitters are guys. Enough ranting from me, but it was noticeable and I wonder what the explanation is. Can't be pure ridiculous sexism, because the fact is it's all judged by a clock.

Anyway, male members (I don't mean that as it sounds!) of the Whitaker family scooped lots of events. There was so much excitement in the air over a tenth of a second here or there, and the teetering of a fence - would it stay and be forgotten, or fall and cost the rider four points? - that I nearly did not notice when I could no longer breathe comfortably. I had forgotten my intermittent allergy to horses, but indoors, with no fresh air, surrounded by horses, horse poop, horsey dirt, etc., it got really bad as the evening wore on. We emerged during one of the intervals to try to find first aid and see if they had antihistamines, which they did, and it helped after a bit, but not enough. By the time we left I was pretty miserable. But it's a measure of how much fun it was that I didn't insist we leave. By far the most exciting event was something called the "accumulator," in this instance as in most sporting events, named after its sponsor, the "Easibed" horse bedding material company. So the "Easibed accumulator" works like this: the first jump is worth one point, the second two points, and so on. Except that if you knock a fence over, you don't get any points, and you're back to what you would have earned on that one, on the next. Then at the end there's a HUGE jump that's called "the risk," and you can either jump it successfully and gain 25 points, or jump it unsuccessfully and lose 25 points, or not risk it and stay neutral. It was wonderful to watch, and try to follow the addition of points, because just when you got used to the point system when the rider didn't knock anything over, someone did knock something over and all the scoring changed. Plus there was the roar of the crowd when the overhead monitors blared out "CLEAR ROUND," meaning that no fences had been knocked over. So exciting!

We went back to the hotel in a haze of horses, points, rider names, and in my case, a completely inability to breathe through my nose or stop coughing. But I loaded up with Benadryl, and after a disgusting room service pizza and a horrible packaged fruit crumble for Avery ("there's KIWI!" she moaned in revulsion), we were out like lights.

Up first thing for the meal that even the most average of English cooks can consistently get right (sorry, adopted country): breakfast. Scrambled eggs, sausages, potatoes rosti, bacon, grilled tomatoes, hot tea. Yum. We ate as much as we could, Avery adding pain au chocolat and croissants, knowing that it would a really long time before anything that wasn't a jacket potato came our way. Off again to the arena, for another round of all the same stuff, and also a display of dressage, which is sort of horse ballet. This young girl had trained her horse not only to do traditional high-stepping, precise dressage moves, but had set it all to music. The horse's feet actually stepped in time to music, and several different songs. Very impressive. Our last event was one more perfect polo match, and Jack Kidd was on our team. In the last few seconds he scored, and our team won, suitably, for our last day. I swear when he came galloping by on his victory round, he raised his helmet to ME.

Home on the train in a lovely sunset, and to John in Mayfair! He brought our present after present from his travels, a gorgeous orange shoulder bag for me, and a beautiful luxurious leather suitcase, and Chinese pajamas for Avery, with one embroidered pattern on the outside and a completely different pattern on the lining. And Chinese candies! So good to have him home. He managed to stay up to a reasonable hour, and get back in synch with London time.

Sunday afternoon found us on the train to Wimbledon Village Stables, all in the horsey spirit, to try one more lesson at one more barn. The walk up the hill was a challenge, and it was restful to realize that it would be downhill on the way home! An impromptu lunch at the Cafe Rouge in the Wimbledon High Street, watching more babies in pushchairs (not called strollers here), and more pregnant women walk by than we have seen since leaving zipcode 10013 in New York. Some baby boom. Gorgeous steak frites for John and Avery, and I had a lovely mesclun salad with goat cheese rounds on baguette toasts and roasted tomatoes. With some yummy Belgian strawberry beer, more like a fruit soda than a drink.

To the stables, where a huge mass of would-be riders were eventually paired off with ponies, Avery being assigned to one "Rolo," a lovely little guy. They headed off to Wimbledon Common, and John stayed behind to read a book, while I cruised the High Street for dinner supplies. An amazing (and amazingly expensive) deli called Bayley and Sage, where I wanted one of everything, but contented myself with several punnets (little containers, don't know where the word comes from) of strawberries to make Avery's favorite strawberry cake. A village with no fewer than three independent bookstores, lovely. Avery came in an hour later, talking a mile a minute as always to her instructor, and dismounted saying it had been "wonderful." I'm certainly willing to try it again, since the location beats a rainy field in the middle of nowhere. So she's booked for Thursday and we'll see after that.

Yesterday Avery's friend Sophia came over, and it's always entertaining to see two only, much-doted-on children work out who gets whose way. Never nasty, but a far cry from the peace that reigns when the compliant, easygoing Anna comes over, middle child of three! Sophia and Avery each know exactly what they want, and it doesn't come easy to negotiate it all through. They waded through fish fingers, strawberry cake and apple juice, and ate their weight in canteloupe, and then proceeded to completely tear apart both my room and Avery's, in search of dressup clothes. I wouldn't have thought I had anything worthy of the category, but in the fashion show that ensued for Susan and me at pickup time, out came clothing I forgot I had: Dolce e Gabbana, Comme des Garcons, high heels, even my honeymoon vintage silk nightdress in peach lace! Wonderful to watch them put outfits together with more of an eye than I certainly ever had, holding up waistbands with long costume jewelry gold bead necklaces. I had decided to give Susan a real cream tea as a treat, so we had tiny crustless turkey and cheddar sandwiches, and tomato sandwiches with garlic butter, and my favorite, shrimp butter. That is a divine and wicked spread made by pulverizing, in a Cuisinart, tiny canned shrimp with cream cheese, mayonnaise, lemon juice, minced onion and Tabasco sauce, and of course a huge amount of butter. It's one of John's mother's standbys for entertaining, and always a winner, hard not just to eat it with a spoon. With these we had, for the girls, scones with clotted cream and hedgerow preserves. Heavenly, and such fun to gossip with Susan who always has an excellent New York or London gossip story or two. Yesterday her big revelation was a report of their dinner party with Lord and Lady Somebody or Other, the Lady having been the inspiration for Antoine de St. Exupery's "The Little Prince." Can you imagine? She has all the original illustrations framed on her walls, what an irreplaceable thing. Her husband told Susan and her husband a hilarious story from Oxford University in the days before World War II. He and his friends came up with an idea for a cocktail party: why not invite everyone they could think of whose named ended in "Bottom"? A very common suffix to upper-class names in British society, as it happens. So they sent out invitations, and then when the time for the party came around, they simply slipped away, so that all the guests had to introduce themselves to each other, and everyone's name was "Bottom." Only in England!

Today I have a bit of a cold, mixed with the remnants of all that pony dust, so we have been quiet and peaceful, emerging in the rain only to take the bus to "Riders and Squires," a gorgeous shop for all things equestrian, in South Kensington in Thackeray Street. A lovely, attentuated, elegant young man helped us find new boots for Avery, as well as a warm and fleecy vest, gloves and a crop. Now she's ready for her next lesson. Unless she gets sidetracked by her new accomplishment: gargling. Her ever-helpful father taught her this useful skill last night, and she immediately came in to my bedroom where I was reading, to demonstrate. "Can you gargle, Mommy?" So I had to demonstrate as well, and it was one of those lovely moments of childhood where you'd just as soon they stayed nine-going-on-ten forever. "Daddy, Daddy, Mommy is really GOOD at gargling..."

Lastly, I have made a literary discovery, someone you may all know already but I just found out about: Carol Shields. Her latest, and as it turns out last (she died in 2003) novel is called "Unless," and if you are up for a terribly sad, searingly honest story about motherhood and watching your children grow away from you, it is a marvelous read. One of her earlier novels won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, so obviously I am behind in this appreciation. Beautifully written, occasionally very funny, but with passages that make you say out loud, "Exactly!" and realize that you have often had a kernel of her wise idea, but haven't taken the trouble to articulate it, and there it is for you. One of the bits that sticks with me today is her account of the main character's interview with a journalist about her latest novel. "And, Ms. Winters, can you tell me, what is the worst thing that has ever happened to you?" She stops in her tracks and realizes that, whatever it is, it hasn't happened yet. I love that, not in a cheerful way, but in recognition of one of the basic truths of parenthood, at least for me. If, at the end of the day, one's child is safe in bed, healthy and safe and happy, all is right with the world. And the flip side is, once your child has been born, you know in your heart of hearts what the worst thing in the world would be. You can't say specifically, but it would be something that happened to your child, not to you. A life-changing moment. Get "Unless" and tell me what you think.

06 April, 2006

we belong now

Library cards! We sauntered today past the nasty American Embassy to pass Mount Street (whose sort of secret gardens featured in a "Spooks" episode starring my darling crush actor, be still my heart), and into the lovely Mayfair Public Library. I brought along my tickets to the National Theatre actor discussion evenings, which had been posted to me, as proof of our residence. It's the tiniest little place, with about enough books to get Avery through our trip to Sheffield tomorrow and POSSIBLY back again, but possibly not. Still, it felt lovely to get a library card available only to those lucky enough to live within the city of Westminster. We came away with stacks of books, among them a couple of audio books I could never get either at home or find in print here, so we were both happy. Stopped to get a sandwich for me (since Avery had devoured her weight in homemade lemon blueberry cake before we left home), and the lady behind the counter came out to ask "lovey" what she was reading. "Oh, I do love a good detective story, although mind you, I often read the last page first," she confessed. "So do I!" exclaimed Avery in the perfect English accent that comes out when she really wants to fit in. "I often do it if something sad happens in the book, to make sure that it gets itself worked out happily before the end."

So we stopped to read and eat in Grosvenor Square, firmly facing toward the embassy but preferring to concentrate on the entirely spurious but impressive standing bronze sculpture of FDR. It was a warm, springlike day and the Square was peopled by babies and their caretakers, ladies and their small dogs, and heartwarmingly many of them seemed to know each other. My dear friend Alyssa called and I got caught up on gossip, real estate and otherwise, occupying our dear former home. I also got an email today from a PS 234 mother who offers the stunning news that Avery's former principal, the formidable Sandy Bridges, has a bun in the oven! And conveniently to go with it, a new husband over the Christmas holidays. Via email, John remarked that this scenario flies with much greater elan and success than a similar story would at King's College, London! After my phone call, and ascertaining that a lovely young couple in the square with two adorable children were in fact father and nanny, I felt the time had come to appreciate properly my small sprout, so in the sunshine she sat on my lap and let me squeeze her while she read her library book over my shoulder, and I felt that all the parts of the world were in the proper places, to have such a kind small person to call my own, on a sunny day in London. Someday all too soon she'll be moaning, "Oh, MOTHER," when I want a bit of a cuddle, so I have to enjoy it while I can.

A quiet afternoon and then dinner out at ASK, our local pizza and salad place, and a lovely dinner conversation just the two of us, my true favorite. Home to tuck her in, and where was her tiny ladybug, she of the disappearing act in the corporate flat? "Oh, sorry, I unwittingly took her upstairs this morning," Avery apologised. She can do almost anything, if she explains it as "unwittingly." I'm such a sucker for vocabulary. Tomorrow to see horses galore, and we'll let you know how it goes.

the castle ghost

the dizzy game

Avery reminded me to tell you about the Ghost of Castle Dalhousie, one Lady Catherine, also known as the Grey Lady. According to some literature available in the reception area (something we noticed conveniently at bedtime just in time to creep Avery out completely), Lady Catherine began to haunt the Castle around 1720, having died of a combination of a broken heart and "want of food." Maybe haggis was the only thing on the menu for awhile? According to Andrew Sharp, Castle Steward and Pipe Sergeant, Lady Catherine makes no noise at all, all that is heard is a scratching sound at the doors, a rustle of her skirt dress, and sometimes a light tapping on various doors. Gee, I think that's quite enough noise for a ghost to make! She apparently objects to bagpipe playing, as when Mr. Sharp has tried to play in her presence, the pipes fail to make a pretty tune.

So Avery and I crept around the corridors, getting lost on the way to our room, on the SECOND night as only I could do, but try as we might we did not see Lady Catherine. Maybe next time...

haggis, neeps and tatties

No, for real. I forget who it was who said that the Americans and English were two peoples separated by a common language? Well, I wonder what whoever it was would say about the Scottish.

Avery and settled into our cozy room, lined on two walls with the original 13th century stone of which the castle is made. The room was on the ground floor and looked directly onto a sloping hill which Avery found useful for going up and down, exiting through the bedroom window itself. After a bit of exploring, we decided to have lunch in the Orangery, the conservatory cafe with a stunning view of the river Eck and the valley of Dalhousie. The menu was presented by Grace, who took care of us for our entire visit, and she laughed to see our reaction to the specialty dish of the house: "Stacked Haggis with Bashed Neeps and Clampit Tatties." I decided that if we were going to get the most out of our Scottish adventure, we'd better start right off admitting we had no idea what anything was! Avery, I must tell you, informed me that "neeps" was the medieval term for turnips. Of course it was. So Grace filled in that haggis is oatmeal and various spices, cooked in the stomach lining of a sheep. That cannot be comfortable for the sheep. "Why not just cook it in a saucepan?" I asked reasonably enough. "The stomach lining is to give the oatmeal flavor," Grace assured me. That's what I was afraid of. Then "bashed neeps" were merely mashed turnips, and "clampit tatties" were sliced potatoes. At this point Avery and I were completely exhausted! I ordered a toasted ham and mozzarella sandwich on balsamic vinegar-infused ciabatta, nice and familiar. Avery ordered what was the first of about a thousand smoked salmon sandwiches.

Directly after lunch the reception lady reminded us of Avery's mid-afternoon horseback riding lesson! We pulled on our new Barbour jackets, grabbed her helmet, changed her from kilt to jodhpurs, and were ready to ride. Except that it turned out the stable was a taxi ride away. We were picked up by who became just about our best friend during our stay: Derek the Taxi Driver, of D & D Cars. His partner is called Derek as well! Their dispatcher conversations in the car were completely unintelligible, but when Derek spoke directly to us, we could understand. I adore that accent. We arrived at the Edinburgh and Lasswade Riding Centre, so named for the village because once in the mists of time a "lass" was able to "wade" across the swollen river during a flood and save half the village from destruction. Yeah, something like that. Anyhow, we were greeted at the stable by no fewer than a dozen yapping little dogs, some Jack Russell terriers and some a skanky, dirty version of the royal corgies. Through the course of the three days we visited the stable, the dogs became gradually filthier and filthier, leading us to believe that Fridays are bath day.

Avery shared a beginner's lesson, sort of a mixup, but she was just happy to be on a horse. She rode Ginger, a school pony with sides of steel, following her instructor up a steep hill, through gorgeous trees and shrubs, and right out of my line of vision. To comfort myself I called up my brother-in-law Joel and got the lowdown on my niece's latest brilliant accomplishments. The child can say "bubble"! Surely Harvard is next. How we miss her. An hour later Avery appeared, having had a heavenly but slightly dangerous trail ride, over fallen trees and a too-high rushing river. It was arranged that the next day would be a regular school lesson, in the indoor arena. We were collected by Derek, who was most interested to hear about Avery's riding back in New York, and he informed us that this was the stable frequented by the Scottish MP Robin Cook. Until he dropped dead on a mountainside, that is. We confessed to Derek that one of our greatest wishes during our visit was to see some spring lambs, but that the hotel had not known where to send us. "I'll give it a think and let you know," he reassured us.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Falconry. About four years ago the Castle finally succeeded in its quest to lure a local Falconry to the Castle Grounds, and under the superb generalship of Julie and Tom, it runs like clockwork. I admit to a little ongoing discomfort with birds being tethered to little perches, or shut up in aviaries. The staff try to dispel this with a little placard that explains, some birds would be uncomfortable in a pen, so they are perched, and some want the freedom to fly about a bit, so they are penned. This all ignores what must be a basic fact: all birds would rather not be in captivity! But perhaps not. Anyway, we visited all the falcons, eagles, kestrels and owls, and made an appointment for the following day to have Avery go falconing. We picked up a little scroll tied up in black watch plaid ribbon that promised to explain all the things you could hire the animals to do. We sat on the stone steps outside our bedroom, under what the English call a "blinking" sky, clouds rolling rapidly over a blue, blue sky and bright sun. We decided that our favorite falconry option was this: for a mere 280 pounds, you can get an owl to deliver the engagement ring to your proposed fiancee. Right on the castle grounds. Of course you should probably choose between that and having the wedding ring delivered to the chapel during the wedding itself. I think both deliveries would be overkill. Can you imagine having the owl swoop down, while you're down on one knee, and the girl in front of you says, "Actually, no."

Finally it seemed time for dinner, and the reception desk lady asked us, "Dungeon or Orangery?" Now what would you say? So we found ourselves deep down in the bowels of the castle, surrounded by suits of armor and displays of swords, at a white-tableclothed table for two, the only people there. We talked in extremely hushed tones until we began to feel silly, but there was something hush-making about the atmosphere. Gradually other people appeared, most of them looking like they'd just had a diamond delivered by an owl. We decided to share a main course, since neither of us has enough appetite for the generally enormous sizes of restaurant meals. For a starter I had ordered foie gras on a little bed of lentils, with horseradish sauce. Now, I don't really like lentils, but these were the tiny little ones from Le Puy in France and I figured the foie gras would make up for it. I convinced Avery to try the cured salmon and turbot, and the child bravely did try it, but quickly determined that smoked salmon is good, cured salmon is not. Especially sprinkled with dill. But bless her heart to try it. Shortly after, the waitress brought a little so-called "amuse geuele," a little gift from the chef to amuse our palates. It was a lovely little single ravioli with a pretty carrot coulis in the shape of an exclamation point. I ate half the little ravioli, as did Avery, and then over her shoulder I heard the waitress present the same dish to the couple behind us. "This is a snail ravioli with carrot coulis, compliments of the chef." Eeeww! How could I have missed that salient word when she gave the dish to us?? I couldn't eat the rest, but decided to throw Avery to the wolves and see what she thought, and she ate it bravely thinking it was mushrooms. Slightly shudder-making. Now John has been known to eat an entire platter of periwinkles, with a little pin. But not I.

Our main course, however, made up for the scary little ravioli. Dover sole meuniere, which I have often eaten but always thought had melted anchovies in the buttery sauce. But no, our lovely headwaiter explained that "meunier" is French for "flour-maker," and that "meuniere" sauce is made by dredging the fish in flour and then cooking in butter until brown, which results in a really complex, crunchy flavor. Delicious. White asparagus with it, whose charm was lost on Avery, a huge green asparagus fan. What a trooper, to eat so many odd and fancy things. She decided that vanilla ice cream in our room was a proper reward, so off we went. As she spooned it up, I came clean about the ravioli. "And you let me FINISH it?" she was horrified. "I mean, I like snails! As ANIMALS!" We came up with a mantra for the evening, "Escar-No-No-No."

Saturday saw us at her falconry lesson. Tom took us all around the property with two other kids and their older brother mean to take pictures, and first we went out with a little kestrel called Alpha. What happens is the birds are brought to their "flying weight" in advance of a lesson, which means they weigh enough to feel well to fly, but they are hungry enough to come back to people with food, in this case, rather icky little dead yellow chicks, but OK. So each child wore a glove, and Alpha came back and back for his little bits of lunch. Then we took Alpha back to the falconry and got Boomer the Tawny Owl from his perch, and came out for lunch as well. Really a lovely sport! You can just see the animal judging whether it would be nicer to simply fly away for good, or to have another bite of chick.

At lunch, wolfing down yet another pile of smoked salmon sandwiches, I told the waitress I had heard we were going to be treated to a wedding that evening. "Well, we were," she said with relish, "but it has been cancelled." Oooh! What would it take to cancel a wedding the day of. Perhaps an owl pooped on the fiancee as she received the ring, and she thought it was a bad omen?
"But the guests have decided that, having paid for it all in advance, why not come along anyway and have a family reunion?"

Back to the stables with Derek, who told us that after the lesson he would take us to see some lambs. The dear man had spent half the day before driving around the countryside looking for sheep that had lambed, and had finally run a flock to earth in Bonnyrigg. So Avery had rather a boring lesson with little beginners (but still enjoyed it), and I spent the time with other mothers in the viewing gallery, reflecting afterward that it's a universal experience: mothers watching little girls ride around and around, trading stories about our children falling, being thrown, the first canter, what sort of saddle, etc. After the lesson, Derek ferried us to a farm where there were lambs. And not just ordinary lambs, a special kind called Jacob sheep, marked with brown and cream blobs. The lambs were quite prepared to walk right to the fence to say hello to us, until their disgruntled mothers shooed them away and then spent a lot of time baaa-ing at us to leave. There is just nothing cuter than a lamb. Dear Derek! "Will you be jumping, now, at your lesson tomorrow, Avery? I'll be wanting to hear all about it."

It was the most beautiful afternoon when we got back, and Avery spent a lot of time spinning around on the expansive green lawn, making herself dizzy and falling down. We visited the birds, explored the river bank, and had high tea in the gorgeous castle library. As pretty as it was, however, it was distinguished by being the only library I have ever been in that had not a single book I wanted to read. Avery contented herself with "A Midsummer Night's Dream," since the Form Six girls at King's College had performed it just before break. The most memorable thing about the performance was, I gathered, the girl who whenever she forgot her lines, said, "Oh, SNAP!" I had a lovely traditional egg and cress sandwich and Avery had three different kinds of scone, with the inevitable clotted cream and a whole tree full of tiny jam and preserve choices!

Dinner that night was in the Orangery, one night in the Dungeon having proved sufficient. We shared a gorgeous rib-eye steak with huge piles of french fries, and I felt like I was back in the goldfish bowl of Tribeca when the waitress asked, "Well, now, did Derek manage to find you some lambs, then? And how was the horseback riding?" We left the dining room to go look for bunnies under the fir tree by the falconry (the rabbits sleep all day while the birds are out and then there are simply dozens of them on the lawn when the sun goes down and the birds are put away). It was chilly, but we persevered, crouching by the warren under the bush, and being rewarded now and then by little pairs of bunny ears, then a face, and finally little paws all tucked up under bunny chins. No one was brave enough to come out with us, however. On our way back into the hotel, shivering and looking forward to hot water bottles in our bedroom, out floated the sound of bagpipe playing, and there were the erstwhile wedding guests, the men in full Scottish garb with diced hose and kilts, all one family tartan. There were tiny little boys as well, little versions of their dads, all being played into the Dungeon for their dinner. What a sight!

Sunday was one last ride, and it was a great one. She got in with an advanced class, and the instructor was Marjory, the actual owner of the stables. Boy were they worked hard. My favorite of the games was when she paired off the rider and they had to try to ride side by side, at exactly the same pace, each holding one end of a crop! I really feared that one or the other in each pair would simply pull the other off, into the dirt. But it didn't happen. It was thrilling to see Avery get right back at the top of her game, trotting, cantering, changing direction, all her old skills. The only glitch came at the end when she didn't know if she should join the jumpers or not, and in the end her pony Snowy decided she had had enough, and left the ring. Next time... All the more motivation to find the right barn here. And perhaps on Sunday we will.

So we came home on the afternoon train on Monday, and while it was a lot of fun for awhile to look out the window at TONS of lambs in the rolling fields, after a couple of hours the fun paled and we were ready to get off the train. Unfortunately at that point there were three hours of the journey left. So we decided in the end that the sleeper train both ways is ideal. I'm ready for a journey on a train that takes even longer, so some research will have to be done.

Home again to host Anna for a sleepover, and then all day Tuesday at an amazing safari park in Woburn, about an hour outside the city, with all Becky's girls. Tigers, giraffes, elephants, black bears, and my favorite, marmosets! As we walked around, John called from Hong Kong, having a great time at the Sevens rugby matches and about to fly to Tokyo. We will all be glad to be reunited on Saturday...

05 April, 2006

of owls and snails and all things Scottish

Well, it's nearly midnight here in London and I've just finished a spate of phone calls across the pond, designed to stave off my homesickness, and I must say it's effective! Just describing for people what's been happening and how happy we've been makes it hard to feel sorry for myself.

Tomorrow Avery and I have a free day, with no playdates, no travel, no John, so I think our plan will be to visit the Mayfair branch of the public library, brandishing whatever confusing paperwork I can bring with me to prove that I'm either Kristen Curran, or Kristen Frederickson, whichever one I am on a given piece of correspondence through the Royal Mail, and get me an English library card. Then perhaps tea at Claridge's? We have not indulged in that joy since perhaps the second or third week we were here, in no condition to appreciate it truly. Pre-blog! Does such a time even exist?! So more tomorrow about Scotland, but in the meantime feast your eyes on this adorable, dare I say it, picture of Avery on the lawn of the Castle Hotel, and the gorgeous place itself. Bliss.

och aye

Oh, you must all go right now and book rooms at the Castle Dalhousie Hotel. What a find! We did not even get a fancy room. But wait, half the fun was getting there.

After our lovely and hilarious dinner with the McBs lateish Thursday evening, they went home with many exhortations to have fun and spend lots of money in Scotland, and we grabbed our bags and were off to Euston Station to catch the Caledonian Sleeper Train at nearly midnight. I had been quite ridiculously nervous all day over the thoughts of having screwed up the train tickets, or the hotel reservations, or something, and so to get to the station in time, get on the train, tickets approved, and in our little cabin, was quite a relief! We stowed away our small belongings in the incredibly tiny little space (you could either have a shelf, or you could lift it up and have a sink! but not both), got into our pajamas, unpacked our books, and in my case poured a lovely little Scotch for myself, and filled hot water bottles from said sink. Heaven! Soon the train began to rock back and forth, and Avery's little comments about how cozy she was became less frequent, and she had her lullabies and so to sleep. Absolute heaven.

We were awakened very early by the tea lady, bringing tea, juice and croissants, albeit in a very unromantic Scotrail paper bag, but hey, gracious living we are not. We could have had first class berths, and I honestly considered it, but we would have been separated into two different cabins and that did not sound cozy at all. So we were happy to lump it in standard. Rain was falling, but who cared? We stuck our luggage in the "left luggage" (love the phrase, what about the right luggage?), had a glorious Italian breakfast at Centotre in George Street, which we would highly recommend if you find yourself feeling peckish in Edinburgh. Incredible egg sandwiches in ciabatta, and fruity drinks with names like The Pinocchio (apple, cranberry and lime) and The Bosco (lemon and pear). Then we struck out toward the zoo. Even in the rain it was charming! It took us but a moment to realize we were the only people there, not surprising, and some animals had the sense to get in out of the rain and were so not visible, but the meerkats! The lions! The penguins! Adorable. After a good long visit, we were off to Edinburgh proper, on a lovely city bus. In Prince Street we could not resist buying Avery a kilt, and a proper Scottish knitted sweater, by a label called "MacBaaa." To the station where we ransomed off our bags and called the taxi company recommended by the Castle, and were whisked away to our destination. You just would not believe the place. In my next post I will begin with a shot of the castle. And the staff! Lovely! And the falconry, and the food, and the bunny rabbits on the lawn... to be continued!

04 April, 2006

Avery and Kristen are homesick

Home from Scotland! Lots to tell about that, but first I must unburden myself and say that both Avery and I have had attacks of homesickness these last few days. For Avery it was the last of three riding lessons during our holiday up north. The best possible lesson, at Lasswad (because once a "lass" "waded" across the swollen river to save the other side of the village!) Stables, but the associations with her old life in New York, riding really well three times a week, were too strong and the poor little thing broke down. "I miss it, I miss it..." As for me, in the space of two days I got no fewer than four emails from Tribeca events: a kickoff dinner for the Tribeca Film Festival, early meetings for Taste of Tribeca, the Spring Auction at PS 234, and a nice email with a funny video made by several of Avery's old cohorts in fourth grade. The sight of scruffy adorable Clark, Zohar, Spencer and Miles jumping about with a huge T-bone steak (don't ask) in Central Park was just too much.

Added to that, with John in Tokyo and Avery at Anna's house for the night, I decided to go all nostalgic and visit Nobu London for the first time. It was just exactly like our old haunt in Tribeca, Next Door Nobu. Toro with caviar, yellowtail tuna with jalapeno and cilantro, spicy tuna roll, all washed down with a fabulous Matsuhisa martini, complete with floating slices of baby cucumber. I felt so sad! Working my way through the luxurious and oh-so-familiar meal, looking up at the sushi chef, a twin of his compatriot on Hudson Street in my old stomping ground. It just is a lesson that no matter how happy you are with your new life, there comes a time when you are forced to think about what you've left behind. Because of course in New York we're not strangers at Nobu, and in New York Avery is riding with kids who were at her birthday party, not people she's never seen before and will never see again. It doesn't mean it isn't lovely to live here, and that I do not value all the excitement, the newness, the happiness of our life here. But it's very hard to remember our old friends, familiar places, the familiar shape of a life you didn't have to build, it was just THERE.

Things will seem sunnier when John gets back on Saturday evening. I think we'll be just about on the same schedule as he, coming back from Sheffield and the jumping championships. Then yet another new stable on Sunday, in our never-ending search for the right barn, the right instructor, the right pony. This time it's to be Wimbledon Village Stables, as far out as you can get on the district line underground. Wish us luck. We miss you all.