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.

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