31 October, 2006

more good times in Upper Slaughter

Saturday evening, we arrived back at the hotel at a glorious time of day, that late afternoon slanting blinky sunlight that then retreated behind clouds and cooled off the day. The girls ran around in the forecourt of the hotel playing "Pony Show." I was the judge and had to call for "Walk, all walk," and "You are being judged at the canter, all canter," finally awarding the first and second prizes to the riders. Avery discovered that cantering without a pony but with a bruised coccyx is not all that much fun, so they subsided. Then in the distance we saw a baby toddling about on the grass, pursued by its parents and a stroller loaded with parcels. Since Ava is a new sister, and Avery misses Jane, they ran over and made friends. A lovely Hungarian family spending, I would guess, a semester teaching at some English university. Just a darling baby, full of social vim and vigor, and she thoroughly charmed the big girls who played games to entertain her. I must remember to email the parents copies of the pictures, because as you can see they turned out extra well. It reminds me of the time, long ago in New York, when John and I bought a long antique bench and had to walk it home down the sidewalk, pausing now and then to rest. Months later, an envelope arrived in the post containing two 8x10 photographs of us, carrying the bench and sitting on it outside our apartment door. There was a German postmark, and all we could think was that some German tourist had found our journey amusing, and was kind enough to send us copies of their pictures.

At dinner time, we discovered the beauty of having two children who are 10 years old: they can be left in the room with room service while you adults go down to the fabulous dining room for a fancy dinner. Perfect. Each girl got in the bathtub and got clean (separately, somewhat sadly for me: they are too old to take baths together anymore!), and then we ordered roast chicken and French fries for them, which were elegantly delivered under silver domes, very impressive to the girls. They bundled up in the white toweling robes provided by the hotel and lay on their stomachs to watch telly and eat their dinner. Then John I slipped out, exhorting them not to stand on anything except their feet, and to be careful and good. We went down to the warm, candlelit dining room and had such a nice time, just the two of us. I realize it's nice that we have a child well-behaved enough, and good-enough company, that we like to have dinner with her, but there's something different about ourselves when we get to be just on our own. It was lovely.

And the food! I started with, guess what, pan-fried foie gras with aged balsamic vinegar. Seared to perfection and buttery melting-soft inside. With a very unusual side of tamarind ice cream, and perfect focaccia with tapenade. John had something I had always wanted to try but was a little wary of ordering myself: venison carpaccio. Paper-thin slices of raw venison served with a little frisee salad and a horseradish cream, and it was absolutely luscious. The venison had been rolled in an herbed pepper before being sliced, which added a great flavor but did not overwhelm the meat. To follow, I had a perfectly pink "Old Spot" pork tenderloin, sliced thickly, in what was to me a rather odd vanilla sauce, but I could see that it was wonderful for what it was. John's father, who will eat anything that tastes of vanilla, would have been in heaven. I enjoyed it, however. John had roast duck that was crispy on the outside but nice and rare-ish on the inside, which having done duck now at home, I can tell you is not easy to achieve. I must say, though, that when it came time to choose the photos for this post and I saw "ducks" next to "duck salad" in my menu of pictures, I could almost hear Avery's voice at the river earlier in the day saying, "Look at these cute little creatures! Now tell me you could order duck for dinner!"

In between courses John checked on the girls, who had put themselves to bed and were perusing, once again, the classified pony ads, poor things. At least Avery is poor. Ava has a pony in Yorkshire, but even so, she and Avery felt on the same page as far as deprivation goes: neither of them has a pony living in her garden in London, how sad! We came back to the room after dinner and they shortly settled down, while John and I relaxed with a warming glass of Calvados.

In the morning we had another glorious breakfast, fed the ducks AGAIN and then headed toward home, stopping in Woodstock for lunch at the White Hart, where I had really good bangers (pork and leek, a traditional favorite) and mustard seed mash, John had a perfectly acceptable ham and stilton sandwich, and the girls had awful kid-pub food. A happy ride home (albeit marred by yet more repetitions of Suzanne Vega), and reluctantly we took Ava home. Jill and Mylo were just making a cup of tea, so we accepted their invitation and sat down for a chat while the girls made the most of their unexpected reprieve from separation, racing up to Ava's bedroom. We all talked the usual topics: senior schools, how much we like the headmistress, and our perfect children. Finally we dragged them apart from one another and headed out. Just as we left, Mylo asked, "You know, I wonder how many people think you're the painter John Currin." We remembered, laughing, that Avery's horse trainer in New York had been extremely stroking of John when we first met, really fawning over him in a completely odd way, and then one day he said, "You are THE John Currin, the painter, aren't you?" Oh, too bad! John broke up when I showed him the paintings. Yes, ever so slightly a different person from himself.

30 October, 2006

glorious Cotswolds

Why oh why did we ever have to come back! No, that's not fair. Poor old London cannot begin to compete with the charms of Gloucestershire. But it's hard to leave the gorgeous countryside, fresh air, deliriously good food (and no litterbox, no laundry, no beds to make!) of our holiday and on top of that, to have school start today. Alas, real life beckoned and so we came back. But we had the best weekend.

Lords of the Manor is one of my favorite places in the world, set in one of my favorite places in the world, the Cotswolds. Which means literally in whatever old language it is, "cuts through hills." And the land is very, very hilly, making any drive absolutely stunning, with vistas of cultivated green fields, ancient stone walls, hedgerows and plenty of sheep, cows and horses on which to feast the eye. And any walk through the fields is a workout because the land does go up and down, up and down. So you put together a top-hole location, perfect but delightfully changeable weather, the two people I like best in the world and a nice added attraction of Avery's friend Ava, and it was just an idyllic weekend.

We picked up Ava on Friday afternoon, leaving her mother with a crying hungry three-week-old baby, poor thing. But she looked pretty thrilled with her lot, and handed Ava over with a bulging knapsack, riding helmet and little handbag filled with, as it turned out, a virtual electronics store of entertainment items. How long we can hold out against Avery's having a Nintendog, or an iPod, I do not know. We can but try. What with our two bags of clothes, books and riding gear, it was an extremely tight squeeze in Emmy! Not much of a boot. But the girls bundled up in their tartan rug and we were off, top down and music blaring. I have to say right now that the only downside (a word I really hate, should say "negative aspect," I suppose) to the entire was the girls' obsession with a Suzanne Vega track that details her experience in a diner on a rainy day with a cup of coffee and someone comes in with a dripping umbrella... argh! It goes on an on. And even worse, she got a whole host of other annoying musicians to COVER the dratted song in their own even more irritating ways. But the girls absolutely love it, and had soon memorized it all and insisted (in a very charming way of course) on listening to it ad nauseam, which state I have to admit it didn't take very long for me to achieve. Oh, what can you do? They're kids. We stopped in the adorable little town of Woodstock, passing the impressive gates of Blenheim Palace on the outskirts, and in deference to John's parents (whose gift the whole weekend was, thank you), said as they always do, "You know, we should really visit Blenheim someday." We have probably passed those gates ten times in our 17 years of marriage, many times with John's parents in the car, and without fail, one of us always utters those words. But we never go.

Now, every American expat living in the United Kingdom has to offer the obligatory complaint each fall that, firstly, the British don't call it "fall" but instead "autumn," and then secondly, there isn't the gorgeous colorful foliage that we've all come to count on as the harbinger of whatever you call the season. It has something to do with the fact that Great Britain, or at least Southeast England, does not get what you'd call a good hard killing frost. I know, I sound like Garrison Keillor, but every once in awhile my midwestern upbringing surfaces with a vengeance. Anyway, as I was saying, the frost just never descends here in the way it does in the northern bits of America. So the leaves do not, in general, get to be brilliantly colored before they fall. Hey, maybe that's why they call it autumn: there's not much to write home about in terms of the leaves actually falling.

In any case, normally I do feel this sort of complaining homesick feeling about October in England. But in the Cotswolds, and in particular on the ivy-covered walls of Woodstock, it was glorious. Red, orange, and yellow ivy festooning all the old, old hotels and pubs and yarn shops that people all the little towns, and plenty of fallen leaves for little girls to scuff in. We had a truly awful lunch of watery shepherd's pie and fish and chips "like hockey pucks," restaurant critic Ava proclaimed, then the girls got ice cream and felt quite fine again. They shopped extremely laboriously in a darling art supply store, touching I think every SINGLE item on display, in search of whatever was worthy of their spending money. John and I took turns supervising them while the other lucky grownup got to exit the shop and wander around the town. John finally made motions through the shop window of peeling back his eyelids and putting hot needles in his eyeballs (he hates shops full of little things), so we got the girls to decide on various mechanical pencils and googly eyes, and were ready to go. We hopped back in Emmy and whizzed along, arriving at the hotel just at dusk, when it was looking particularly welcoming. The lovely Julia behind the desk who had helped us with reservations and the girls' extra bed came out to greet us by name, which was awfully professional and pleasant. In with all our clobber and through the remembered white-painted, book-lined rooms with massive fireplaces, lots of winding hallways that ensure I will be lost whenever I leave the room, and into our bedroom, on two cozy levels with a big four-poster for us and a nice plump pullout sofa for the girls, already made up. And a huge spray of beautiful flowers and a bottle of chilled champagne, from John's parents!

We settled in, which meant mostly that the girls went through all the sample toiletries and divided them up with a minimum of acrimony and lots of negotiations, whereupon I had to beg for just a tiny bar of soap to wash my hands. Gorgeous dark-red bed appointments, curtains and carpets, and golden wallpaper, and double leaded-glass windows opening out onto the hedge by the side of the drive. Just perfect. Avery and Ava quickly switched on the telly to find the usual Friday evening's assortment of dreadful English quiz programmes, so they were in heaven. John and I opened the champagne and sighed with contentment, albeit with the girls' swinging feet clunking us in the head as they lay on their stomachs on our bed, all agog with details of Welsh history, Latin American geography, and distinctions among various types of pasta shapes. I especially loved Avery's wry comment, "I don't have so much common sense. What I have is general knowledge."

Then they forced us to watch something called "Strictly Come Dancing," where for the benefit of some charity, celebrities learn to dance and then perform before a panel of deliberately cheeky judges. I was tempted to find out how much they thought they would raise for charity and offer to donate the whole thing if only they'd take the programme off the air. And even worse: we happened upon an "episode" where they wasn't even any dancing! Just interviews, and analysis. I complained, "This is just 'Strictly Come... Chatting,'" which cracked the girls up. All was well with the world. Except. I had forgotten to book for dinner! Oh no! And they were fully booked in the hotel's divine restaurant. Julia came to the rescue, however, and booked us at what she described as "a new place, or rather a refurbished old place," that the staff had been invited to last week and had reported favorably upon. So we headed out cautiously, the girls having got very dressed up in their favorite dresses: Avery in a lettuce-green linen dress that I had made for her one Easter (long ago, she could hardly breathe in it), and Ava in, she informed me, Bonpoint from head to toe. Lucky girl. I walked into the shop in New York, on Madison Avenue on the hottest day of the year this summer, just for the air-conditioning and had to leave immediately upon seeing that the coat I liked for Avery was $978. Oh my. They both looked extremely lovely.

The restaurant was, well, a pub. "The Coach and Horses," no less, the most boring of all pub names in a land where "The Slug and Lettuce" is not considered odd. John and I looked at each other in some consternation, not being devotees of pubs even now that smoking is banned in some of them. I just don't like watery warm beer and bad steak and kidney pie, nor the blare of some sporting event on the telly and the suspicious glances of the inevitable locals, not that I blame them. But there were were, so we descended the steps and went in, to be greeted with fervor by the waitress who anxiously assured us the hotel had called and we were most welcome. Uh oh, I thought, being, as a New Yorker, accustomed to the wait staff's chilly demeanor providing an exact barometer of the excellence of the food. The dining room was painfully newly-done up, with glaring shiny new wall sconces and a truly repellent flowered carpet. And it took the waitress a very long time to remove, item by item, all the unnecessary glasses, cutlery and chargers once she'd taken our order. However. The food came and it was simply superb. However this place got its new chef they must do whatever they can to keep him.

At first glance the menu looked hopelessly pretentious, but that was just in contrast to the surroundings. Actually the food was very simple, and quite, quite perfect. I ordered something called a "cannon of lamb," a name with which I wasn't familiar, but hey, lamb is lamb and I can't have it at home anymore with my soft-hearted daughter. It is essentially half a saddle, the best part of the fillet which in my Frenchy experience is called a "noisette." I have found in trips back to America that lamb is really not popular and I can never understand why. My parents report having it shoved down their throats drowned in mint jelly after being cooked for several days while the family went to five different church services in a row. Perhaps that has something to do with the country's general avoidance of the meat. Because of my parents' shared childhood experiences they shielded me from birth from both the Methodist Church and lamb. Now I cannot attest to the lack in my life of Methodism because I am ignorant of what I'm missing. To willfully deprive me of lamb, however, is an actionable offense. And this at the Coach and Horses was the real deal. A long fillet cut in small slices, pink and juicy and meltingly tender. The menu John snagged for me claims that it was presented with a rosemary puree, but this was not true. It was served with the same full-flavoured, tart and complex red wine sauce that came with Avery's fillet of beef, also perfectly cooked. John had the lamb as well, and we both savored the buttery potato puree nestled underneath, but were chilly on the "tian of vegetables" on the side, an odd sort of vertical pile of an aubergine slice, some red onion, and a yellow courgette, topped weirdly with melted cheese. Ah well, we can't expect perfection from a pub! Even, as they are known here so preciously, "gastropubs." I myself find that designation impossibly twee, and will not use it. Either you're a pub with a great restaurant or a pub without a great restaurant.

As it was, this place was like a fancy foreign cousin recently bereaved of both parents and forced to live with poor relations. The locals in the "pub" part of the establishment downed endless pints of lager and looked askance at us, putting their heads to one side and peering around the doorjamb. Something tells me there's still fish and chips available to them. I cannot see them getting on the outside of "pan-fried sea bass with ratatouille, potato galette and herb oil." Ava went for tagliatelle with goat's cheese (I love the English insistence on the possessive apostrophe, as though the goat might come back for it) and baby cress salad, and while she immediately dismantled the gorgeous presentation with wild mushrooms piled on top and issued a "yucky" decree, the pasta underneath was more than acceptable to her. We all happily plundered one another's plates and among the four of us ate every bite. Divine!

Home through the dark curving roads, we discussed accents. Now Ava is full-blown English, both parents, both sets of grandparents. But she has inherited, I think from her urbane and sophisticated father, an incredible talent for mimicry. She can be a perfectly English girl, with cut-glass vowels. But she can also be quite a good native Moroccan girl, gleaned from her incomparable nanny Fati, as well as a good French accent speaking English. So we decided to ask her some pronunciation questions. "Do you say 'gull' or 'gel' for 'girl'?" She says "gull," but I have heard Lord Peter Wimsey (in his Ian Carmichael incarnation) say quite plainly 'gel,' with a hard g. So I don't know about that. She produced a convincing Yorkshire persona, with "ayuh, lass," rolling out of her throat. She even could provide really good instructions on how to produce certain sounds! Maybe we have a linguist, or a speech therapist on our hands. Although something tells me Ava is destined for a more glittering future. "Do you say 'glahhss' or 'glass'? 'Tomahhto' or 'tomato'?" Very funny. We stopped at a forlorn little petrol station with a leaky broken-down ice cream freezer, so the girls had to abandon their plans for ice cream and have chocolate bars instead. Plus horsey magazines, so that all the conversation before they went to sleep was reading aloud from pony classifieds. "Oh here's one, Avery, that you could have. 'Fine scopey jumper, 13.4 hands, a lovely little chestnut mare with 40 rosettes.' And only 5500 pounds!" Quite the perfect day.

Saturday saw us at the luscious breakfast provided by the hotel: a cold buffet with many cereals, pastries and fruits, including a really good apricot stewed in cinnamon and honey. Then I had boiled eggs and toast soldiers, as did Ava, but she immediately objected, with a true English girl's specificity, to the width of the soldiers. "They are too big to get in the egg top!" And of course she was right, plus the bread was very fancy-dancy whole-grain, and I'm sure the proper deal is nice white toasting bread from Warburton's. John had the Full English complete with black pudding, roasted tomatoes, fried eggs, sausage and incredibly flavorful English rashers of bacon. Avery contented herself with massive numbers of pains au chocolat, and then we ran out into the countryside for the long refreshing walk to Lower Slaughter. Because naturally Lords of the Manor is in... Upper Slaughter. This walk is one of my favorite in the world, passing as it does through several sheep fields and affording many opportunities to chase them. Well, not chase of course because that would be scary and cruel to the sheep. No, we just... pursue them diligently. But someone stole a march on us and all the sheep were across an annoying body of water! Ah well, we'll come back in spring when the lambs are out. Much more trusting.

We passed through all the obligatory kissing gates, where the person passes through and has to offer a good-luck kiss to the one coming after. There was much strategizing about who went in what order to get the desired kisses. On the way we stopped at the Old Mill Museum and Shop and invested in several 50 pence bags of "duck feed," and thereby chanced on the single most satisfying bit of the girls' entire weekend! Take them to a four-star country house hotel with gourmet food, decked out in French finery, and what do they like best? Yep, a 50-pence bag of cracked corn. They just kept buying more and more, and feeding the little beasts right out of their hands, on the banks of the low beautiful River Eye that winds through Lower Slaughter. It has been named many times as "The Best Conserved English Village," and it's true. Perfection everywhere in the window boxes, front gardens, thatched roofs. They even lay on the occasional horseback rider who comes clip-clopping down the street, splashes into the river, and comes out on the other side, sending up sparkling droplets into the air. Weeping willows line the river which is spanned by several picturesque old footbridges, one of which the girls sat on to throw their duck feed. Pretty adorable. "Here's one hungry little adorable baby, Avery!" "Oh, Ava, this little white one misses you! Come back!"

Off finally to get in the car and go to their horseback riding lesson! On the way we stopped to try to have lunch at the Mount Inn, high above darling little Stanway, another perfect village. But no sooner had John dropped us off and driven away to get cash, than it turned out first there was no fish and chips, and secondly, anything we ordered would take 40 minutes. Grrr. Avery took a spill on the lawn and bruised her coccyx, a word that actually made her feel better. Naturally the child can ride enormous horses over huge jumps, but flat on the ground she gets injured. John picked us up and took us to Jill Carenza's stable for their lesson and frabjous day! there was time for a ham and cheese toastie in the barn's little cafe. Bliss. Avery got on a nice gray pony called Buttons, and Ava on Blue, and they were off. A good lesson, under at first cloudy then gradually clearing skies. Lots of high jumps! In fact her highest ever, we think, 30 inches. Quite high enough, thank you.

Back to Lords of the Manor for high tea, a ritual when we stay there and even when we're just passing through. Eclairs, meringues, fruit cake, shortbread, pound cake, and of course scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam. "Kristen," Ava asked earnestly, "Do you say 'scone,' or 'scawn'?" "I have to say I say 'scawn,' how about you?" I replied. "Oh definitely 'scawn.' How about 'the sun shone,' or 'the sun shawn'?" "Shawn," we agreed. The beauty of English books on tape: thank goodness I got it right for Ava!

Well, I am starving so I am going to go make some tuna salad with chick peas and lemon zest, and a side of oven-roasted beets with balsamic vinegar. Want to join me?

26 October, 2006

set yourself a challenge, why don't you

Well. Remember how I was going on and on about how good my French was? How proud I was to be able to get along without anyone trying to speak English to me, how cool it was to get new shoes for Avery entirely in French? Even prouder was I to wander into a French cookbook store, the Librairie Gourmande and express my desire for a cookbook that was a sort of memoire, a cookery writer's reminiscences, a sort of personal history of food. Just like, in fact, the sort of cookbook I am currently trying to write. As much personal memories as recipes. You know the kind of thing. Oh boy did I ever pat myself on the back when the nice proprietress put her head on one side like a little French sparrow, lead me to a shelf, and handed me exactly, precisement what I was looking for. "A la table d'un ecrivain: petit traite romanesque de cuisine," by Marie Rouanet. Translated: "From the table of a writer: a little romanesque treatise on cuisine." Isn't that exactly what I was looking for?

It's much too hard.

I haven't worked this hard since 1992. I have enlevee my massive Cassell's French Dictionary from a high, high shelf and I am madly sifting through trying to make head or tail of what this nice lady is saying to me. It is absolutely wonderful, though, when I manage to figure out a paragraph. English is so literal! At least the English I read, and speak, and write. I don't have a poetic bone in my body. But I had forgotten that French is almost entirely (when spoken by French people) metaphorical, and absolutely must mean several things, possibly contradictory, at once. Take even the word cuisine itself. To start with, it is both a noun and a conjugated verb, and even more than one of each! A cuisine is literally a kitchen, the room in your house, but it's also a certain type of cooking, as in "French cuisine." And the verb is much more expressive than just "to cook." The boring verb for that is "cuire," which is sort of like "to make cooked," like a bald instruction to "make not raw anymore." Cuisiner is poetry, it is to create, to transform, to render something not just "not raw," but lovingly lifted up and served. It's just a wonderful word.

"That cuisine might be love itself and only interesting when it is refined love, that notion of 'tell me how you eat, how you cook, and I will tell you how you love,' seems to me to be simple evidence; I read the proof of it in the pages of my cookbooks, those great books with their pages gnawed, dog-eared, stained with fat or sugar, at times torn out but minutely saved, companions of the art of cooking. In them one finds everything. They are swollen over the course of the years with recipes clipped from magazines, or copied out by hand, or noted down as dictated by a friend... And the vocabulary in these books is stunningly lover-like. There is no question but to simmer, to flame, to truss, to serve, to sing, to pare, to let rest, to burst, to stuff, to dress, to blanche, to lay out, to knead, to seize, to pluck, to mix. These are the words of passion, right up to that muslin bag for the bouquet garni, light as a marriage veil, fragrant and lined with white cotton."

Well, that's just lovely! But it took me nearly half an hour to figure out what the hell she was saying. I wonder if there would be an English or American market for Rouanet's books, and if so, if I could get the job of translating them? Who am I kidding, I'd be on my death bed before I got to Chapter Four. Ah, well, I can dream. But truly, everything she says rings true to me. I do think of everything I cook being a sort of offering. I know that sounds ridiculous, but it makes the annoying bits worthwhile; if as you scrub out the skillet from your tomato sauce you can imagine the moment when your beloved family will tuck into their lasagne, coming home to dinner after storm and peril in the business world and the riding stable, it makes those dishpan hands just a little more acceptable. I felt so good when the homemade chicken soup I made for my friend Jill was deemed to be "so terribly terribly welcome, and so good." It's enormously important, I think, to run the risk of being thought awfully presumptuous, to turn up with a container of unasked-for food, feeling slightly shy and silly, in order to have it comfort a new mother in between feedings, in the middle of night when she's all by herself and feeling possibly slightly panicked and neglected.

So I'm going to try to wade through these two books I bought, dictionary at the ready, and if I come upon any more gems, I'll pass them along. In the meantime, I'll continue to taste-test among the seemingly endless varieties of tiny tomatoes at Marks and Spencer, and force my child to eat "just one more bite" of pear to see if she prefers Commerce to Red William, and convince ourselves that guinea fowl tastes any different from your run-of-the-mill chicken. And there's always a skillet waiting to be scrubbed.


People always say, "It must be so wonderful to live in London, all those museums [or galleries, or restaurants, or theatres, or fancy shops]." All those wonderful whatevers that we never go to, use, eat at, do or buy! We live as if we were in Southbury, Connecticut, most of the time. That is, eating at home, wearing the same old clothes, watching "All Creatures Great and Small" or arcane BBC programmes about word origins.

But this week: we went to the National Portrait Gallery! Again, you might ask? Well, we didn't want to do anything TOO radical. So yes, at Avery's request we went back to the Tudor Portrait Galleries and she looked and looked, and copied her favorite Elizabeth I portrait, and mused on having the same name as her middle name, only spelt differently. What a coincidence. Who could deny anything to a little face like this? She has the absolute longest attention span of any child (or even adult) I have ever known! We sat in the one gallery for nearly an hour.

We actually did something new, as well: lunch at the Crypt, a little cafe I remember from long ago, under the church of St Martin in the Fields, where "Sir Neville Marriner" used to conduct, I remember from National Public Radio. Can that be right? Could there have been someone called Sir Neville Marriner? It's quite odd, in any case, to walk along in the cafeteria line carrying your tray, getting a nice plate of tuna mayonnaise in an avocado half, and be stepping on gravestones all the time.

22 October, 2006

a good film, a fabulous high tea, and an insanely simple recipe

Well, we have not been idle since our return from Paris. Avery has spent the better part of every afternoon at Pony Club, at Ross Nye Stables. She, Ava and Anna have joined with whatever other stable gulls are available and have ridden, cleaned tack, mucked out stalls, fluffed hay and generally made themselves useful in the way of small slaves. And then there are the post-Club playdates, and the post-playdate sleepovers. So all in all, John (who found a week of leisure to his liking and so took another!) and I have been tooling around town, running errands, ferrying children to and fro, and generally having fun in a leisurely sort of way. We would recommend to you a new British film called "The History Boys," by Alan Bennett, directed by the brilliant Nicholas Hytner, creative Director of the National Theatre where he, SIGH, directed my crush actor Matthew Macfadyen and his idol Michael Gambon in "Henry V," just a few unfelicitous months before my arrival on these shores.

First "The History Boys" began as a wonderful book, then a huge success in London's West End and subsequently a huger hit on Broadway, it has been made into a film. The story follows the lives of a number of awkward but quirkily intelligent boys trying against all odds to get into Oxford University, with no panache, no charm, no polish, but an incredible grasp of history. Now, you ask, could there be a more British sort of project? This film clearly comes out of the same culture that spawned the wonderful television programme "QI" which you simply must see if it plays on BBC America. Here's what the official website says about "QI":

Quite Interesting - or 'QI' to its friends - could loosely be described as a comedy panel quiz. However, none of the stellar line-up of comedians is expected to be able to answer any questions, and if anyone ends up with a positive score, they can be very happy with their performance. Points are awarded for being interesting or funny (and, very occasionally, right) but points are deducted for answers which merely repeat common misconceptions and urban myth. (Alan Davies has turned this aspect of the game into somewhat of an artform.) It's okay to be wrong, but don't be obviously, boringly wrong. In this way, QI tries to rid the world of the flotsam of nonsense and old wives' tales that can build up in your mind. QI not only makes us look more closely at things, it encourages us to question all the received wisdom we have carried with us since childhood. Think of the program as a humorous cranial de-scaler.

It's so much fun, in the way that the crazy "Balderdash and Piffle" was last year (haven't seen if there's a new series this season). British television is perfect if you like to watch people exercise wits much sharper than your own. The humor is just what the doctor ordered for the increasingly fast-moving, mind-bendingly empty cultural world we live in. OK, one giant step off soapbox.

Anyway, we really enjoyed "The History Boys." There are some wonderful comedic scenes in schoolboy French, some gorgeous scenic shots of Oxford both interior and exterior. In my new screenwriting mode, it was interesting to see what is essentially an ensemble-cast film, and to try to decode who was even slightly the main character, what counted as plot and subplot. I'm about to watch "A Cock and Bull Story," which I think will be more of the same. As Abraham Lincoln allegedly said, "It's the kind of thing you'll like if you like that kind of thing," an expression that for some reason has always delighted Avery.

We ended up after the film at the St. Christopher's Place outpost of Carluccio's, a small chain of restaurant/deli/larder-ish shops that can be counted on for excellent housemade mozzarella and pesto, if you defy my instructions to make your own. I had a pretty good sage and spinach ravioli, but John had the real deal: pumpkin risotto. It didn't taste particularly like pumpkin, which to my generally anti-squash mindset is a good thing, but it was a beautiful color and topped with a generous spoonful of sauteed rosemary and garlic. On a cold night, wrapped up in my husband's enormous Shetland sweater, it was a great dish for the outdoor table.

Friday we spent the morning with Keechie at the vet. She's really off her rocker, so along we went with her in the soft-sided kitty prison slung over my shoulder so I could look in on her, pupils enormously dilated with fear, poor dear. I mean, the cat's afraid of the sound of the washing machine door shutting, so you can imagine the effect that London traffic and construction sites had on her. Actually, she's so insane that the stress levels were about the same with both experiences. She's now on Valium. Seriously. The vet explained quite solemnly that tortoiseshell cats are that sensitive, in proportion to the bright colors of their fur (I'm not making this up) and that at least she wasn't feral. Well, OK, that seems like an extreme version of looking on the bright side, but whatever. So after two attempts to stuff the pills down her throat by brute force, I have resorted to crushing them up and offering them to her in a spoonful of potted chicken. Yes, in England there is such a thing as potted chicken, and let me tell you it makes her REAL popular with her siblings. They're all now trying to look anxious so as to get in on the goodies.

My reward was to have tea with my friend Twiggy. Now, when I first met Twiggy she was introduced to me as Trupti, and we had our day at Wimbledon together. Her husband Ed and John work together at Reuters, and so what started out as a sort of business day out became the start of an email friendship between us, and several scotched attempts to get together in person. We finally achieved it, at a truly splendid place called The Wolseley. I got dressed up in my new Paris outfit and cute knee-length high-heeled boots and was driven in style by John, taking Avery and Anna ice-skating (I know, he's a saint). I was a bit early and so got to sit in the centre of the gorgeous room, ceiling towering over me, carved swirling wrought-iron scrollwork everywhere, people looking like they were famous seated all round. The people who didn't look famous looked either like they were about to sign on some dotted line or like they were worth a GREAT deal of money and had decided to invite three of their most beautiful friends out to lunch. Rachel Hunter was there! And a shaved-head Ralph Fiennes, which unfortunate hairdo choice took away some of the fun of seeing this erstwhile crush of mine. Note to Matthew: don't do it.

Twiggy arrived shortly and we ordered full-on afternoon tea. I have to go back sometime, however, when I don't have to eat anything sweet, because the savory menu looked fantastic: steak tartare (bet I could learn something there), rack of lamb, all the usual suspects. But our tea was lovely: fresh mint-leaf tea served in little filigreed silver and glass cups, perfect sandwiches of the usual variety (ham and cheese, egg mayonnaise, cucumber), but the added attraction of a finely chopped celery and soft cheese on a golden sundried-tomato bread. Then of course scones and Devonshire cream and strawberry jam (our waiter got very concerned that our scones had cooled as we chatted, so he marched them away and came back with fresh). Amazing. And Twiggy made a special request for her favorite cocktail, served to her once in Gloucestershire and never forgotten:

The Cowley Cooler

1 shot Amaretto
equal parts fresh orange juice and cranberry juice
a generous squeeze of lime juice

Serve over lots of ice in a tall glass, and garnish with a twist of lime peel.

It was so refreshing, and this from a girl who was taught nearly 25 years ago that a real drink consists of only two ingredients, and one of them is ice. We chatted and chatted, covering her travails with her new house, located under Tower Bridge, my two writing classes, her plans for Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Lights and New Year, to be celebrated this weekend. "It's so nice in this day and age to have a festival, and in fact a religion, that isn't founded on conquering anyone or killing anyone or sacrificing or punishing anyone," she said earnestly. "It's all just a celebration." I can second that. She is such a calm, peaceful person obviously very comfortable with herself and her life, that is was a pleasure to sit in her company and talk over things happening in our lives and our families. Her soap box? Fresh juicing. I can tell I'm ripe for the picking on this subject, because while I get fully half my calories per day in one kind of juice or another, she has convinced me that all the nutrients flee the liquid within three minutes of being juiced. So I'm hot on the trail. As is usual with my food obsessions, while they don't always last long, in the meantime my family will be subjected doubtless to every known substance in liquid form. I'll try to stick to non-meat products, for their sake. Duck juice? I don't think so.

Among Twiggy's other contagious enthusiasms (she's that sort of person, in her tiny doll-like beauty) is the photography of Yann-Arthus Bertrand. Not being much of a photography fan, this man's amazing work had completely passed me by, and I'm not still sure if I would ever buy a piece, but I can see the appeal: he photographs the earth from the air. Both natural sites and cities come under the lens. I've posted this, one of his best-known images, of a heart-shaped crop occurring in nature. Quite interesting, and worth knowing more about, clearly.

I floated home past the Ritz, through Berkeley Square crammed with home-going busines people glued to their mobile phones, and felt very very lucky to have a friend as refreshing as Twiggy, not to mention cool enough to get the best table at the Wolseley. At home it transpired that Avery had achieved her Level 7 Skating Badge! It's amazing what just a few private lessons with Nicky have done for her skills. Good on you, Avery. So I diligently sewed it to her PE bag which is now beginning to look quite like an embroidery project. Anna had come home with her to spend the night and although I was full of tea sandwiches and amaretto I nevertheless managed to produce food for the hungry.

Yesterday found me at my "creating fiction" class, shaking in my boots and reading aloud. I'm happy to say it went well! I could have written the responses myself, because I knew it already and they all said essentially the same thing: entertaining, but where's the plot? I have a plot, actually, but everyone was unanimous in saying that it needs to rear its ugly head much sooner, because while they were all lulled happily into listening to all my dialogue and descriptions of places, people and things, at some point their protesting intelligence said, "Wait. Where's the plot?" So I can take that on board and improve it. What a relief to have it over! Today is a nasty, rainy day, which didn't stop me from hounding Avery and John into taking me to the farmer's market. I came home with ridiculously sweet and juicy British cherry tomatoes, gorgeous beetroot, a topside beef roast for tonight, a new kind of apple juice called "Worcester and Bramley", some unusually dark and dense little cucumbers, and a crusty ciabatta. Once at home I shook myself like a dog and made:

(serves four as an appetizer with toasted bread and crudites)

1 410-gram [soup size] can chick peas (also known as garbanzo beans)
1/2 cup tahini (sesame paste, in foreign or Middle Eastern section of shops)
3 whole cloves garlic
juice of 1 lemon
salt to taste
1 cup olive oil, maybe more

Simply put all this in the Cuisinart and turn it on, pulsing occasionally and scraping the chick peas away from the sides. Then, if you want to, pour some more olive oil on the top and leave it. The flavors will improve. Go blog or give your cat a Valium or fold laundry. But you may not be able to resist dipping in right away. Can you imagine something so good for you could be so cheap and so quick to make? If you like it thick, use less olive oil, if you like it runnier, add more. Could it be easier?

Before I go watch my film, I have to tell you what we overheard in the restaurant at dinner last night, although to preserve whatever clientele the place has, I will withhold its name. Not good Indian food. Anyway, this fellow over my shoulder was bemoaning the character of the French people, I know not why, and this is what he said: "I'll tell you what's wrong with the Frogs: they don't even have a proper word for 'entrepreneur.'" Now THAT man will not be appearing on "QI" any time soon.

20 October, 2006

Sunday in Paris

OK, this is ridiculous. I'm getting my knickers all in a twist over my writing class today. "Creating Fiction," it's called. Why does that carry with it the knell of doom? I don't have any trouble "Creating Nonfiction." I have slaved for WEEKS on these precious 2500 words that I'm meant to be reading aloud in three hours to twenty hypercritical classmates. Well, guess how long yesterday's post was to this darling blog? 2250 words. And readers, I assure you I did not slave over it. What makes fiction so much harder? I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday night in Paris found us all completely exhausted! Sarah's happy hour resting turned out to be an Hour From Hell listening to the girls play their annoying Nintendog, with whatever little beeps and blips and little barking sounds accompany it, so she had been rode hard and put away wet by the time we met up and was sorely in need of a demi-bouteille de vin rouge. I laid our case before the concierge. We wanted a dinner out that was charming, authentic, kid-friendly and close by. "But of course," he purred, "the Brasserie Balzar is what you want. Just around the corner," and he gave us tres short directions to this little spot. Sarah and I looked at the girls, slumped in their chairs in the lobby, and looked at each other. "Let's just see for ourselves how close it is, and come right back," she said, so we exhorted the girls to stay put and ran out. Sure enough, it was literally around the corner, and we stopped to study the menu. A man appeared at my shoulder. He looked both of us up and down and then said, in French, "Would you like to come in and have a drink with me?" I almost, but not quite, burst out laughing. "Non merci," I said, and Sarah surfaced. "What was that about?" "We just got propositioned," I said. We looked at each other. Finally Sarah said, "Let's tell him we changed our minds, and we'll just run get our children and be with him in two seconds. That'll teach him."

Ten minutes later we were happily settled at a typical French dinner table covered with heavy white linen, not so happily surrounded by smoking diners, the only complaint we could make about the darling restaurant. I did not realize that the typical French brasserie, somewhere in between a fancy restaurant and a bistro, was an endangered species. Not that it's going to disappear, but that it's going to be taken over by a chain of bigger restaurants and slowly go in the direction the entire world seems to be going: bigger and all alike. So we were happy that even though Balzar had in fact become part of a bigger restaurant group called Flo, it retained all the beauty, expertise and charm of its sistren throughout the city. Waiters balancing untold layers of plates climbing up their arms, their faces sporting handlebar moustaches, lots of potted palms and foxy mirrors tilted from the wall to afford diners the best possible view of everyone coming and going, a swinging kitchen door that threatened to topple every waiter who came in or out but never did. And interesting diners. A very elegant single lady next to us with her half-bottle of Cotes du Rhone, a nice gay American couple on the other side speaking fluent French with the waiter, lots of Frenchy people smoking like chimneys. Ours were the only children and they were properly subdued.

Because we don't get it to eat it at home anymore (unless cuteness-protesting Avery is away), I ordered lamb. Gorgeous thin salty chops, not too Frenched, so there was still a bit of gnawable crispy fat left on the bones, for me and for Eve, while Avery had one more coeur de rumsteck, and we all had pommes de terre purees; why are they so much yummier than ordinary mashed potatoes? Again, is it just atmosphere? But the true star of the evening was Sarah's steak tartare. For some reason I am always a sucker for raw whatever: I love the Korean dish of ground raw beef with a garnish of pear and mushroom slices and a quail's egg broken deliciously over the top, or sashimi of tuna with a nice spicy dressing on a bed of greens. This was an indisputed masterpiece of freshness, a perfect balance of flavors, and most mysteriously, the supreme texture of hand-chopped meat. I have to admit that I came home and tried making it the other night, and while it was fine, good quality, looked nice, it was nothing compared to the Brasserie Balzar. We identified the usual ingredients: capers, scallions, tabasco, all perfectly mixed with the chopped filet mignon. Simply sublime. Cold, cold, cold of course, on a chilled plate. It was a large portion, so my friendship with Sarah was not compromised by my fork's little voyages to her plate. Oh la la.

Back to the hotel where we hung around the lobby trying to decide what to do the next day, asking the advice of the two concierges where we could possibly find shoes for Avery, whose feet had mysteriously grown out of her shoes over the course of the day. As we dickered, the girls played little games with the tiny colored lights adorning the floor of the lobby. One mysteriously turned from red to green to off with unpredictable frequency, causing much to-do for our detail-oriented children. Finally they decided they had to alert the concierge to this flaw in his otherwise perfectly-oiled machine of a hotel. Now, Avery, while not possessed of what I would call even a minimal grasp of the French language, has nonetheless a rock-solid memory. So it was but the work of a moment to teach her to say "Pardonnez-moi, monsieur, mais quelques uns de vos lumieres ne marchent pas," meaning, "I'm sorry, sir, but some of your lights are not working." And because she is a perfect mimic, her accent was spot on. He looked down gravely at her and said, "That is to give you something to think about, little one."

Another perfectly cozy night in our little beds, except for one small thing: we woke up with mosquito bites on our hands and faces! I think they came from the lovely fountains outside the hotel, which must get switched off during the night and provide a perfect bed for bugs. Ah well. We met up with Eve and Sarah, they headed to the post office for postcard stamps, and I checked out of the hotel. Thence to the Ile St. Louis, a part of Paris I had never visited during my times there, since it contained no art history libraries. Isn't that pathetic? But Sarah, being an adult without a mission except having fun, had tracked down this beautiful area and in particular the rue Saint-Louis-en-Ile, a gorgeous tiny road lined on both sides with purveyors of fine food products. So we ambled up the street, taking in olive stores, ice cream stores, a chocolate store called Cacao et Chocolat where we came away with gorgeous chocolate pillows made with sea salt, so not too sweet for me. And a beautiful epicerie, or spice shop, called oddly enough l'Epicerie where I bought some fish spices for my mother in law, some raspberry-flavoured sugar for Avery's breakfast toast, and for me, because I couldn't resist the darling little cans, a container of mousse d'homard which will either be delicious because it's lobster or degoulasse because it's all been mashed up and put into a tiny tin.

Finally, however, it was time for Eve and Sarah to head off to the airport, so we parted sadly outside Notre Dame with many promises to meet up in London soon. Eve and Avery have made fast friends, so I don't think there will be any problem convincing them to travel wherever it takes, to have another adventure. The perfect traveling companions!

To distract ourselves from both our sadness at parting from them and Avery's itchy mosquito bites, we dipped into Notre Dame, just for a glimpse of the imposing facade, a nice short lecture on one of my favorite architectural elements, the "flying buttress," and a look at the gorgeous stained glass inside. We lit a candle to whatever cause Avery had in mind (probably something to do with a French pony), and ducked back out again. Not exactly the semester-long lecture course on the church that I remember sitting through in graduate school, but hey, she's ten years old. Time enough to bore her to death in future years. It was time to SHOP. We jumped in a taxi and took the most scenic route you can imagine, along the rue du Rivoli, past the Opera House, to the Galeries Lafayette, a ridiculously enormous and elaborate department store. I think it's sort of the Saks, or the Harrods, of Paris. It reminds me of the huge department store GUM in Moscow, where were used to wander around in 1991, still sporting its Art Nouveau architectural glory, but empty of anything to sell. Well, Galeries Lafayettes has plenty to sell! Just ridiculous. However, we made a beeline for the children's shoe department and, an hour or so later, emerged with a darling pair of ballerina slippers and a cute pair of knee-length boots. It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to explain "narrow feet" in French, as well as "no, no laces please, nor Velcro," but we pulled it off. It was actually a lot of fun to accomplish, and I came away with a whole new set of vocabulary words as well as a renewed respect for the subjunctive and the conditional and other grammatical conundra that I had forgotten since about 1986.

We tried and tried to find something for me, but I get very easily flummoxed and feeling all Socialist when confronted with a great deal of expensive merchandise. We had almost given up when the agnes b shop presented itself, and no matter that I pass the shop here in London on the way home from Avery's school every single day and have never gone in: no, this time I found the perfect, perfect little short brown skirt, and a cardigan with little knitted thingys that fit over my thumb! I changed into them and came out feeling quite French. We smiled at each other in mutual satisfaction, and headed out, back down the rue du Rivoli, to Brentano's, the great French-English bookstore where I spent a lot of time my last trip around Paris. "Oh my goodness, the last book in the "Series of Unfortunate Events" is out!" Avery gasped. Naturally, we would buy this in Paris. We collapsed at a sidewalk cafe to have some lunch and I cruelly did not allow Avery to read, otherwise she would run out of books for the train ride home. We shared an incredible platter of smoked salmon and foie gras, with perfect toast, and I felt very sad that I was leaving a city where the most ordinary of food establishments offers up something so superior to anything either London or New York can aspire to. How is that?

Back to say goodbye to the hotel and collect our incredibly enlarged baggage, in a taxi ride that took us down the Quai de la Megisserie, possibly the strangest street I have ever seen. Why would one particular street contain all the city's collection of both garden centers and pet shops? Honestly, one after another, jardinieres and magasins aux animaux, with cages full of parrots adorning the sidewalk in front of one shop, and then next door to it a motley assortment of garden gnomes. I'm none the wiser for looking up "megisserie" in the dictionary and finding that it means "tawing, or leather-dressing." Hmmm. Of course, New York has its flower district, and London has its bookshop district, but pets and plants together? Just another indication of how Paris doggedly maintains its idiosyncracies. I like that.

And off we were to the train station, and through immigration. The English passport chap gave us the usual skeptical "why do you have two different last names" scrutiny, asked what my husband did in London. "He works for Reuters America," I said patiently. "And you believe him? Would you trust him if he told you he worked for Reuters Uzbekistan?" he asked. "I'm not a very trusting person," I told him, and for whatever reason, it worked. We got in the train, stowed away our belongings, and settled down for a return to... normal life. But I must admit, normal life isn't too dreadful when it means being met at the train station in London by John in our darling Mini Cooper, and being driven home in the nice foggy dusk past the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park. Not too dreadful at all.

nostalgia at the Musee Rodin

Our second day in Paris dawned fair and perfect, with a sharp breeze and intense blue skies. After breakfast we were all agreed that a visit to Sarah's and my old haunt, the Musee Rodin, was in order. We walked down a beautiful little street that I'd like to visit again when the shops are open, the rue de Four, lined with gorgeous magasins whose windows were full of darling little skirts and shorts. The new thing this fall seems to be tiny little cuffed wool shorts, which I would love to have. We arrived at the Musee Rodin to find, to our amazement, not just a lovely open garden through which to walk to get to the front entrance, but an entirely new marble building, provided, the wall literature assured us solemnly, by Samsung, complete with a video display and a SHOP. Now, in MY day, the Rodin Museum did not take itself so seriously. I am quite sure there was no shop. Certainly no enormous sets of glass floor-to-ceiling doors marked "tirer" and "pousser." Sarah and I gaped in astonishment at the enormous quantities of merchandise. Admittedly a lovely bookshop with lots of new books I had not seen or heard of since taking my vow of silence on all things Rodin and Claudel, but also cufflinks featuring little silver likenesses of his watercolored Cambodian dancers, paperweights, ashtrays, mouse pads, pot holders, t-shirts and even neckties festooned with "The Thinker," "The Kiss" and other iconic imagery. Little leather cellphone holders, pen and pencil sets, notebooks, earrings, you name it. At some point it ceased being tacky and was just funny. I bought Avery a little viewfinder after our visit to the museum, because she did manage to see everything featured in it.

We bought our tickets and duly "tirer-ed" the pretentious entry door, and there we were, looking up at the magnificent building where Sarah and I each spent so much time in the early 1990s. I looked up at the tiny window on the upper right of the top floor, remembering the hours and days and weeks I spent in the room beyond, the Archives Rodin. The little wizened man who held court there, with a cigarette in one hand and une verre de vin rouge in the other, giving me chary access to his treasures with many exhortations to "soyez soigneuse." We felt quite overwhelmed with nostalgia! How did I have the courage to storm the citadel, a little 25-year-old nobody?

The girls zoomed around the garden, playing Avery's old Tribeca game running up and down wheelchair access ramps, chanting as she did as a two-year-old, "the dog goes up, and the dog goes down," over and over, to Sarah's intense nervousness since last year Eve broke off her front tooth doing just that. They posed as you can see beneath "The Thinker," and shook their heads over the creepy figures in "The Gates of Hell." I delivered a little homily about the meaning of the sculpture, how it was Rodin's project from H-E Double Hockey Sticks because after it was commissioned and he'd spent half his career working on it, to be the doorway to a new museum in Paris, it was cancelled. "He couldn't stop working on it, and he put all his frustration and conflict into all these figures," I explained. "When he died, the man he had instructed to set up a museum here went into his studio and found it all in pieces on the floor, and had to think up as best he could how to put it together. Then it was cast in an edition of multiples and sent all over the world. That's why it's known as the world's only sculpture of which there are copies, but no original," I said. The girls ingested this drop of art historical wisdom in respectful silence (or just boredom). "Why is everybody so depressed on this sculpture?" Avery asked. "Can't anybody just be happy?" Eve sighed and said gloomily, "Not in H-E Double Hockey Sticks, they can't." So then they raced around looking for a happy sculpture, and after a bit we went inside and found Eve's namesake, which they liked a lot, and some piles of tiny plaster hands which they deemed "freaky." There was, finally, one "happy" bust, but then it was discovered that her eye sockets were empty and that was that. "Creepy," was the verdict. But they greatly enjoyed themselves. I found the little hidden door that leads up to the archives and was visited with a very strange sense of the passage of time: the years I spent there as a newlywed, homesick for my husband in London, working so diligently on what would become a 400-ish-page dissertation, then to be whittled down to a 20-ish-page article in a learned journal, and hundreds of hours of lectures. And now here I was, one teaching career and one gallery later, with one of my best friends, and favorite artists, leading our 10-year-old daughters around. Very odd.

After raiding the museum shop, we hopped in the Metro and headed to the Champs-Elysees for our one purely-photo-op-motivated stop. The girls had messy chocolate crepes (Sarah and I bravely resisting our urge for a French hot dog, encased as they are in baguettes), and the we started on the marathon walk to the Tuileries, where they indulged in another time-honored French child's pasttime: they rented little dilapidated old, old boat models, and sticks, and spent a blissful half hour pushing them out into the enormous fountain, racing from one side to the other as the breeze sent the boats on mysterious journeys. The nice, dreamy lady who rented the boats to them said, "You must tell the boats what is your heart's desire, and then the boats will go in search of it, and you must follow." Which was a nice way of explaining that the boats would have a path of their own! They had a very good time. Sarah said ruefully, "You know, we'll show them the Rodin Museum, and the Louvre, and all that, and THIS is what they will remember from their first trip to Paris." Not such a bad thing, that. Sarah and I took the time to chat, and marvel at the quirks of fate that have smiled down on the two of us. Not long into our friendship, lo these 10 years ago, we discovered that we spent the identical two years from 1990-1992 in London, both of us studying in the library of the Victoria and Albert Museum, both of us living in South Kensington. Now what is the chance that we did not see each other during those two years, indeed we probably shared a tube ride, probably sat across from each other at a study table, had a sandwich next to each other in the museum cafe? And then to meet up years later at the College Art Association and become such fine friends. Even if Avery and Eve don't become best chums, to spend their first trip to Paris together will be a nice memory, and it was so satisfying for us.

From there to the Louvre, where the girls were determined to see the Mona Lisa, of course. We warned them that they mightn't be able to get very close, and that it would be smaller than they expected. They were, however, invited by the guard to come right past the barrier and really quite close, and Avery whipped out her Rodin Museum notebook and made a little sketch, then they came back to us. "You know, that's kind of a disappointment," Avery said. "I mean, why is it so famous, anyway? Is it really better than any of these other paintings?" Of course the $64,000 art historical enigma. Sarah and I explained a bit about the chicken-and-egg nature of "great art" and "great artists." When does the object make the artist famous, and when the other way round?

We emerged from the museum, feeling a bit hungry and tired, and decided to take the Batobus to the hotel neighborhood and find a snack. As we waited for the boat, however, we got more and more famished. Finally the boat came, we got on, and Eve was sure there was a vending machine, so we weren't too panicked about having no food with us. Well, there was a vending machine, but it was evilly out of order. And then what was meant to be a 15-minute ride around the Eiffel Tower and back to Notre Dame, became an hour-long ride with many irritatingly long stops! Eve had a book, but Avery did not, and she became more and more wilted. Finally Sarah had an inspiration: her box of mints! It turns out that if you're desperate enough, Certs are one of the Four Basic Food Groups. Sarah saves the day!

We finally trouped off the boat and walked toward our hotel, undecided as to whether we should eat at the now-awkward hour of 5 p.m., or stick it out till dinner. Until we came upon the strangest little sidewalk eatery we had ever seen, specializing in... falafel, pizza and hot dogs! Yes, there was the hot dog we had resisted five hours before, displayed before us in all its bizarre glory, in a baguette topped with cheese. We succumbed. "Une verre de the citron pour vous," the little proprietor said in a jolly way, and sure enough, two little paper cups of lemon tea appeared on the counter. It was strangely welcome, and we sipped happily as we waited for the odd hot dog to emerge from the panini maker. We divided it into four portions and walked along munching. "Now, I consider us to be quite the gourmets, as well as the gourmands," Sarah said indistinctly through a cheesey bite. "Is this really good, or are we just starving to death?" "Well, we are starving to death, true," I agreed. "But think: it's a really good quality hot dog, and a Paris baguette, and what tastes to me like really quite good Gruyere cheese," I diagnosed. Sarah considered. "So what we're basically eating is a croque monsieur with a hot dog instead of ham," she decided finally. "Exactly," I said. The girls were giddy with relief at having something to chew and swallow, and we were all in quite the best humor possible. "Oh, I know where we are," said Eve. "Look, there's that Vieux Campeur store, the Old Camper. It's quite near to the hotel." Avery paused. "Except, Eve, that there's another Vieux Camper store, there, on THAT corner as well." "And look, there's another halfway down the block," Sarah pointed out. All in all, we counted eight Vieux Camper shops within two blocks. It turns out there are 19 of them all in all. Tres bizarre.

We finally arrived at our respective hotels and made a plan to meet up in an hour, after we rested a bit. Eve invited Avery to come play with her Nintendog, so we parted, and I fetched a bucket of ice from the friendly hotel barman (I was ridiculously pleased when he complimented my French!) and had a lovely Scotch while speaking with John on the phone. "You guys can never leave me!" he wailed. "I am so pathetic when you're gone! All I do is watch movies." He was planning to have noodles and the homemade pesto I left for him, and was proud to have bought lamb's lettuce for a little salad. Don't ever buy commercial pesto, because look how easy it is (and very flexible, you can always do less or more of any ingredient according to your taste):

Fresh Basil Pesto
(makes enough for a sauce for pasta for two)

1 medium bunch of basil leaves (a generous handful), stems removed
1/4 cup grated pecorino or parmesan cheese
juice of a lemon
1 clove garlic (or more)
1/2 cup pine nuts
olive oil to achieve consistency you like, perhaps 1/2 cup
sea salt to taste

Place all ingredients in Cuisinart and whiz till liquidy (although pine nuts will remain tiny chunks). Taste for saltiness. If the cheese was not salty you will want to add some. VOILA. You will be amazed at how pretty, and how fresh, this is.

More on our Paris Sunday evening dinner later, because it was, as was so much of our trip, a real French experience. A toute a l'heure.

18 October, 2006

marionettes and foie gras

I think I need to describe our trip chronologically. It will give a better sense of what's possible to do, odd to experience, fun to eat, and easy or difficult to get to on any given day in Paris, with two ten-year-old girls. Which I am certain is a manifesto for more people than I might think!

I'm sorry to say that the Eurostar was a complete bore. Might as well have been on New Jersey transit going from Newark to Philadelphia, except for the French accents of the chefs de train. I think my preconception was colored by the fact that reportage was done by John, who has always traveled some expensive and fancy way via business trips. Alas, we went by second class. Yawn. Cramped, not particularly comfortable. However, the fact remains that an hour and some speeding through English countryside, 20 minutes in the dark tunnel under the English channel, and another hour and some speeding through French countryside, and you emerged into the Gard du Nord! Such a gorgeous train station. A brief kerfuffle trying to get Euros, realizing I was traveling with three bags and allegedly an extra person, except that Avery's arms were completely occupied by her doll Holly and so she did not actually serve as a person to help carry baggage.

I had forgotten how completely... French Paris is! Whereas London has become a bit too, in my opinion, Starbucks-ized and Pret a Manger-ized and any other chain you can imagine (the English imagination running to the predictable and the frequently available, as far as shops go), Paris is resolutely, trenchantly, rebelliously ITSELF. Everyone smokes, there are seventeen cafes on every block, everything looks a hundred years old and completely solidly... French. And so very, very beautiful. All the ornate ironwork and stuffed flower boxes, the brass door surrounds of all the cafes, the dark red awnings protecting the ubiquitous lounging Parisians puffing away and sipping endless cups of coffee and verres de vin rouge, at all times of the day. We jumped in a taxi and sped away to the hotel, the Grand Hotel St. Michel, to meet up with Sarah and Eve. However, we were met by a most gracious hotel concierge who hastened to take our bags and say that he had made une faute, and was actually fully booked for the night, and so was taking us to a sister hotel around the corner. We arrived at the Hotel Select on a darling little open piazza, the Place de la Sorbonne, because guess what was across the little street? The Universite de la Sorbonne, full of sophisticated-looking students puffing away, of course, elegant in their completely understated French way, comparing notes, exchanging books, generally looking much cooler than their English or American compatriots. We checked in to the modern and sleek hotel, my French returning in leaps and bounds, and before we knew it there was a knock on our door and there were Sarah and Eve! Much hugging and kissing, and we spilled out onto the street to explore.

Avery and Eve lagged behind Sarah and me, and they were clearly getting to know each other very quickly. It's really a case of two girls' being forced to be friends because their mothers are friends. But it did not seem to be anything of a hardship. Eve is much more the urban-looking child, with jeans and a backpack, even though she's spent her entire life in the suburbs of Rochester, New York, whereas Avery, born and raised in New York City and now living in London, looked like some throwback to "The Little Princess," having dressed up for her trip to the big European city. They chattered away and Sarah and I caught up on what's been happening in our lives, our husbands' activities, her artwork, my writing classes, our children. She had left her son Noah at home with her husband Mike, and seemed not at all certain that both of them would be intact when she got back. "He's already had to raid Eve's savings to pay the cleaning lady, so anything's possible," she said ruefully. I reported this to John, laughing, and there was a little silence. "How much do I pay Dorrie?" he asked anxiously. Husbands left at home are a breed apart.

We stopped for lunch at a little sidewalk place in the rue St. Germain and ordered salades nicoises, while the girls had croissants stuffed with cheese and smoked salmon. Complete heaven. Unfortunately Avery is now acquainted with a real croissant, which will decimate her opinion of the English cousin croissant with which she's been content up to now. I remember so clearly coming home to Indianapolis after my blissful summer in Brittany, when I was 16, and my father and I scouring the so-called bakeries for croissants, much less the pain au chocolat which I craved. There was no joy. Just think of the French food you can get in Indianapolis now, I'm sure. Still, nothing beats the native baby, and boy did those girls eat. Our salads were very odd: one grated vegetable was unidentifiable by either of us, and we're neither of us food slouches, so I asked the waiter, straight out of central casting with a big gray moustache and white shirt and tie, and he said, "Celeri," which is celeriac to you and me. Most odd. Still, any good in Paris is better than most food anywhere else, so we were quite content.

From there we walked to the Jardins Luxembourg
to find the marionette show Eve had been keen to see. The park was gorgeous in the October late-afternoon sun, and the weather completely perfect: perhaps 70 degrees and breezy. The trees were just beginning to turn and the girls cantered ahead (Eve being quite a keen horsewoman as well as Avery), toward the bell that a fellow was ringing in front of a tiny little white clapboard theatre. Avery said dubiously, "If he's hoping to get customers with that bell, someone should tell him it's actually more of a deterrent." Truly! We got tickets, and submitted to a bizarre entry ritual where the ticket taker bellowed out the number written on people's tickets, and admitted perhaps six people to the theatre at a time. We waited anxiously for "41" to be called out and when it was, entered the theatre cautiously. Never found out what the rigmarole was about; they just let us sit anywhere. Except that the children were sent to the first few rows. After a bit, the puppet show began, and there followed the funniest, strangest hour of theatre our girls had ever encountered. "Little Red Riding Hood", in FRENCH. Truly silly puppets, lots of dashing about hitting people over the heads with broomsticks and a wolf with lots of white teeth and red gums, all in FRENCH. I began to realize, as the play went on, that it was running true to the classic pantomime form, in French and English theatre. I had wondered what "panto" was, as I always read about in Hello! magazine. Actors being interviewed about their love affairs with other actors always saying, "We met in panto." Well, I asked in my acting class, and it turns out it's a classic show form with many set characters, who given the individual drama play out their parts basically as always the same character. So there is the evil witch, the good witch, the jolly professorial type who saves the day, the good prince and the prince of darkness, and the old man played by a woman and the old woman played by a man. Too funny! One chap who appears all the time is "Guignol," and this time he was the sort of deus ex machina who saves Little Red Riding Hood from the terrible jaws of the wolf in grandmama's clothing.

So all the French children knew when a classic question would be asked of the audience and what to reply. Our children were completely mystified! Not to mention that the questions and answers were in FRENCH. At the interval when the French children were grizzling for sweets from the sweets lady, our girls rushed back to where we were sitting and said, "We have no idea what's going on!" So we reviewed the story plots, and tried to give them some phrases, or at least words, to look for in the next act. "Mon Dieu, mere grand, que vous avez des grands yeux!" "My goodness, grandmother, what big eyes you have!" But it was too hard. So they sat with us for the second half and we tried to translate, and at least they were able to shout "loup!" at the grandmother when the wolf came in to fool her.

It was truly the most French-child thing they could have done!

We emerged into the sunshine, and there trotting along ahead of us were a bunch of little children having pony rides. The girls joked broadly about what fun it would be to take a pony ride, and "then we could just casually say, 'Canter on!' And no one would be able to catch us!" Sarah and I kindly refrained from pointing either of the obvious flaws in this: they don't know how to say "canter" in French, and we also doubted that any of those animals had cantered in many, many years. Nevertheless.

Back to the hotel for a little rest, a little reading, and then I ran down to the lobby to ask the concierge for some ice, and help in making reservations at Cafe Max for dinner. Alas, it turned out the cafe is closed Saturday AND Sunday. What? Next time. But dear readers: I accomplished this all in French! My grammar came back, my vocabulary, and my accent got better as the minutes went by. I must say, what a pleasure to know that a skill I spent so many years honing, and then just as many neglecting, was still functional. What fun to speak French. So the nice concierge sent us to a restaurant he was very fond of, Les Editeurs. "Bon, it's not too far, and the atmosphere is excellent, and they will be nice to your little girls," he assured me. So we met up outside the hotel and set off, and sure enough, it was near the Place de l'Odeon very nearby and adorable. Frequented in the olden days by members of the literary community, the walls were lined with books and painted a cozy dark red. We were ushered upstairs, and had simply the most divine meal. I'll tell you both the French and English descriptions, so you can order them for yourself. I started with saumon marine a l'anthe et deux poivres, creme legere a l'anthe et toast de pain bio, a gorgeous dish of marinated thinly sliced salmon with two peppers, and a light cream dressing. Now, however, what is "anthe"? I have looked it up in vain. Possibly something related to anise? I don't know. Not a strong flavor, in any case, and the fish was perfectly prepared. All accompanied by the typical French salad of frisee and other bitter greens. Sarah had a tarte fine d caviar d'Aubergine et anchois, a small tarte with eggplant caviar and anchovies. Then we each succumbed and had a belle tranche de foie gras de canard et toast compagne grilles , huge slabs of duck liver with gorgeous triangular slices of grilled country bread. The girls shared a coeur de rumsteck et frites, a perfect rare filet of rump steak with French fries. We were all frankly thrilled to bits. Avery and Eve amused themselves drawing strange cartoon characters and discussing "electronic toys I have known", in Avery's case followed mournfully by "that my mother and father will not let me have," like Nintendog. When dogs fly, maybe, but not until then.

Back to our hotels to collapse. Avery and I each had a cozy, puffy single bed, with fluffy eiderdowns and really good pillows. I opened the casement windows wide and our room looked directly onto the carved marble figures adoring the rooftops of the Sorbonne. Gorgeous. We could hear the splash of the fountains in the piazza and the sounds of street musicians. "I don't ever want to leave," Avery proclaimed. And so to sleep.

17 October, 2006

just a Chunnel away

We're back chez nous, and I promise (well, sort of) that that's the last French you'll hear from me for a really long time. Sans doute! Sorry, I really mean it now. Absolument.

We had the time you just can't describe. John advises that I break it up into FOOD, SIGHT-SEEING, and FRIENDSHIP. Because that's how it was. So I shall take his advice, come tomorrow. Right now I'm crashing, so I'll leave you these three lovely photos, none of them to do with food, but oh well. Je suis fatiguee. A demain.

13 October, 2006

Paris ici nous venons!

That's "Paris here we come" to you, Avery. Got to brush up on that French homework! We're off tomorrow morning on the Eurostar for... Gay Paree! It will be such fun to meet up with Sarah and Eve at our cute little hotel in the 5th arrondissement (much plushier than any of the questionable places I stayed as a doctoral student lo these 15 years ago). I think our first-day plans include a marionette show, a carousel, some shopping, and dinner at my old haunt, Cafe Max. We'll report back as soon as we get home on Monday evening.

Wednesday saw us at church for the autumnal Harvest Festival Thanksgiving concert. Avery was most disconcerted to find that since she did not take violin, and chose Book Club over Choir, she did not get to do anything more special than deliver food to the altar and sing "All Creatures Great and Small" at the end. So violin lessons are a high priority, should Mrs D allow it, in advance of any more concerts. But it was lovely anyway, and darling Becky shared her girls' flowers with Avery.

We were then off in the clearing rainy day to visit St Paul's, a possible senior school for Avery. Everyone had said, "Oh, it's the top school for girls in all of England, you won't believe the facilities [a word I really dislike]," so we were prepared to be impressed. But oh MY. As you can see, just the building itself is lovely, and it's situated on Brook Green in Hammersmith, a lovely little villagey corner of West London, the most perfect verdent little common you can imagine. Then once in the entrance doors of the school you find yourself treading black and white marble and looking up at an enormous, carved-wood ceiling in the great Assembly Hall, with seats up in the gallery set alongside a huge floor-to-ceiling many-paned window through which the sun began to stream as the High Mistress gave her welcoming speech. We found ourselves seated next to Susan, Sophia's mother, and so clutched at each other as babes in anticipation of the forest of competition, pressure, and hothouse preciousness that is the famed reputation of St Paul's. But I beg to differ. It was warm and friendly, openly competitive and high workload, but the gulls who led us around were completely charming and relaxed, informative and cute, and the general atmosphere of the school as far as we could infer, was one of happiness and total fun and fulfillment.

And even more to the point: there are THREE libraries! Avery's mouth simply dropped open and stayed open. Floor to ceiling books, with sliding library ladders just like she has always dreamed of. She fell ecstatically upon a copy of "Jane Eyre" lying on a table and said, "I am officially in heaven." There were several state of the art computer labs, art studios that rival Hunter College (and several artworks on display that I would have happily shown in my gallery in New York), a swimming pool, an English lab with professionally-published magazines containing the gulls' prize-winning essays and short stories. Completely impressive. All this in surroundings that just oozed with Victorian charm, carved woodwork, old wooden floors, worn concrete stairwells, bell chambers and outdoor spaces that overlook all of Central London. And the cafeteria! Ten or twelve food stations with everything you can imagine to eat. And in the last two years the gulls can go out to lunch in the nearby High Street, where we saw a gorgeous fish shop, a florist, lots of little cafes.

Let me see if I can possibly relate the Byzantine structure of the school years. They begin in Lower Fourth, then go to Upper Fourth, then Year Nine and Lower Sixth, then Middle Sixth, then Upper Sixth. I think. Or maybe not. I couldn't keep track. And sometimes they call the Lower Fourth "Year Sevens." I will never be able to keep track. Our guide, Amy, could not have been more poised. Wearing a little blue polka-dotted dress with a Peter Pan collar, topped by a short tartan jacket and with little embroidered flats, she was like a book illustration for "Charming English Teenager." But sharp as a whip. Taking four A-levels in chemistry, physics, biology and... art! She's a photographer on top of all her scientific skills. And she's the first person I've ever met in real life who is planning her Gap Year! And no, it's not a year spent folding clothes and dressing mannequins, it's the year between high school and university when upper-class English kids get to bum around and play, presumably before the unbearable pressures of Oxford or Cambridge dig in their claws. Would you believe: 40% of all Paulinas (isn't that an almost too-sweet designation for girls at the school) go to an Oxbridge school. Incredible.

We all emerged with the definite sense that whatever it takes, within reason, for Avery to get to go there, we will try to achieve. She absolutely loved it, and I can definitely see her at home within those walls. So fingers crossed! The entrance exam isn't until a year from January, so I'm actually glad we had a chance to see how wonderful it is and have a year to prepare. We'll see. Avery has the right attitude: "It would be perfect for me to go there, but if I don't get in, another school will be wonderful too." She's right.

Thursday saw me at my screenwriting course, screening the first half hour of "Ed Wood," which left me completely cold. But it was good to analyze another film. Next week Dalia and I are meeting up in advance of the class to compare notes on the one-page film outline we're meant to bring on Thursday. And big sigh of relief: I hve finished my 2500 words for the following Saturday's fiction class. It's so hard to read aloud! I read it to John who had suggestions, and I think if I read it several more times I'll be bored enough with it not to care how it sounds in front of 20 strangers.

Today was a half-day for the beginning of the half-term break, so the gulls were allowed an "own clothes" day. I will never forget a year ago today, going back to King's College after Avery's interview, once we had decided to attend the school, to tell Mrs D she would be coming, and feeling at home in her "own clothes." The gulls then donate however much money they like to a named charity, for the honor of leaving their uniforms at home for a precious day. I remember Avery going up to Mrs D holding out her pound coin and smiling shyly. "I'd like very much to come here to school, if that's all right." It's been quite a year. It was funny at pickup to see all the outlandish clothing items that emerge to celebrate their freedom to choose what to wear! Fake fur, sequins, much-tattered jeans, and the SHOES! Dress-up pumps, cowboy boots, Avery's own blue furry Mary Janes, which beloved shoes turned out to be too small, and so they belong to Anna now. The girls and I went to lunch with Becky, in the cool blinky October sun in the Marylebone High Street, and now we're on our way to the Friday skating lesson and dinner out. Then, we must pack! And go off on our French adventure. I hope I remember the language?