30 June, 2006

thespians, farewell

Oh, it's sad! We've all had such fun together. To think ten weeks have gone by since I first ventured into the doors of CityLit. As happens in an elective course that doesn't cost very much money, a good half of the people we started out with didn't continue, and mysteriously, Julian, our beloved renegade, didn't turn up for the final two weeks. Pip, the instructor, was afraid she had been too critical of him, but Katherine and I figure he's in jail.

So let's see, there's me with my scary orange hair (I got it fixed as near as it can be, by a Hairdresser To The Stars! he does Geri Halliwell's hair, and Tara Palmer Tompkinson's hair! What, you've never heard of them? better get a subscription to Hello! magazine right away). Then in the back row are Pip, the teacher, Katherine the fashion model, Colin the pub owner, Ken from Kent, Renee the 25-year-old mother of an 8-year-old boy, then next to me is Marcus the Brazilian waiter, Magalie the French physiotherapist, K the rapper, and Natasha, the posh Goldsmiths girl turned bartender. An acting class is different from other classes in that the subject matter is sharing yourself, in a way. There isn't anything of substance to learn, write down, get tested on. You just turn up every week prepared to do whatever embarrassing, frightening, personal, goofy thing the teacher asks you to do. So everyone is very, very supportive of everyone else. The last day's exercise was completely hilarious. Three of us volunteered at a time to get up in front of the rest, and Pip gave us each a slip of paper with a sentence on it. We were to memorize it and not share it with anyone. Then the rest of the class assigned us each an identity, a location, a situation, and a secret that we all share. Then we were to start conversing as who we were, in the situation, and somehow find a way to throw our sentence in without its being obvious. Then, once Pip knew we had all worked in our sentences, she stopped us and the rest of the class had to guess what the sentences had been. Crazy!

I was in a group with Magalie and Natasha, and two of us were to be patients of the third who was a gynecologist. "Who should be the doctor?" Pip asked. Colin said, "Well, not Kristen, that's too obvious." What?! So I was one of the patients and Magalie the other, with Natasha playing the doctor. Our situation was waiting in the "queue for the loo" at a rock concert. My sentence was "Studies show there are at least ten paedophiles in every school." And our shared secret was that we all had crushes on the male receptionist at the doctor's office. So off we went, randomly beginning a conversation, improvising with what each other was saying, and also trying desperately to work in the sentences. The funny thing being, obviously, that while we're all carrying on this conversation and trying to sound plausible, each of has a hidden agenda to steer the content in a way that the secret sentence won't be detected! Somehow I managed, because no one guessed, and in fact, our little threesome was entirely successful. Then we cast Colin as the grumpy barrista behind the coffee bar in the school canteen, and Ken as a Spanish teacher at CityLit, and Renee as a student, and they were all having a smoke outside the school building. I can't even remember what their shared secret was, but we all guessed their sentences because the randomness was completely obvious. "My uncle is a terrorist" is hard to plunk down in the middle of any conversation, and Ken had some rambling question about why all exits at the Oxford Circus tube station lead to Argyll Street! Hilarious.

Then as the final exercise, we read through and acted out a scene from "Titus Andronicus," which the class had seen but I missed by being sick, damn. Even though I have acted in Shakespeare plays before, somehow I never knew, or had forgotten, the notion of iambic pentameter. I never realized that every Shakespearean line goes "da da, da da, da da, da da, da da," in the rhythm of a heartbeat. Clever boy, that Will. And that when a line doesn't do that, it's for a specific dramatic reason. Renee had never read or seen Shakespeare before and started out completely befuddled, as I think you do when it's new, but by the end she and everyone else had a good handle on the text. Most of them are going to carry on with another acting class, and Colin in fact is taking four courses at once in the autumn. I do think he's good. When I got home, Katherine had emailed both Colin and me, asking if we'd like to get together this summer for improv. How flattering. The only reason to regret spending the summer at Red Gate Farm.

OK, speaking of text, I'll close with an absolutely fabulous poem written by Avery Curran. Too bad there isn't a QCPS Poetry Contest. Probably if I suggested it, Mrs Davies would find a way.


Come, my army
Of paper and pen.
Help me fight monsters.
Plus evil men.
Start my story,
End it too.
Stay and have tea!
For I love you!
Of course I do!
We are great friends
We'll enter a world
Of magic.

Avery Curran 2006

Curie sweeps Sports Day!

Yes, after early minor disasters like forgetting the Blue Shirt that would identify Avery as a Curie house member, and the school's not letting her bring her picnic lunch to the park, Curie rallied and brought home the Sports Day trophy! It was a truly glorious summer day in Regent's Park, perfectly blue skies, the nice fresh green of June leaves before they've been robbed of their glory by traffic smog, here in our urban paradise. I hadn't realized the extent of the competitive spirit among the houses at King's College Preparatory School, nor the degree to which the fathers got involved. It was pretty funny to see them all in their proper business suits and ties, glued to their Blackberries and texting away, no doubt changing the course of British commerce as they did so, only to drop them on the grass and shout "Go Curie! Crush Nightingale! Send Franklin back where they came from!" whenever their precious sprouts in blue stepped up to the line. As you can see from Avery's expression, it was all about winning. Well, in fact she didn't, but Jade's father observed, "Not from lack of determination." It was a great day, watching the "rising threes" run their tiny little race, looking oddly random out of their uniforms, and the big Form Sixes throwing off their lordly big-kid attitudes to run their little hearts out. Mrs D moved regally among the crowds of parents, grandparents, teachers and kids, unmistakable in her suit of lovely pink flowers, admiring picnic items, chucking little siblings under the chin. Becky and Susan and I spread out our tartan picnic rugs with the cool rubberised backings, and everyone but Avery had lunch, hers reposing at school to be picked up later with Kate, the babysitter. I hate it when all my hard-won perfect plans get ruined by someone else!

Then I madly dashed to get to my last acting class (more on that later), then dashed home to meet up with Avery and Kate and show Kate all over the flat, giving her a sense of how to make things work, and especially how to take care of the kitties, when she housesits this summer. Then we had the ultimate healthy, delicious and quick dinner: lemon sole fillets dredged in herbed flour and sauteed, three minutes per side, in olive oil. I start with the skin side down in really hot oil, and then when I flip it over, I can easily remove the crispy skin that most people like, but sends shivers down Avery's spine. With rice it's the perfect, nearly instant dinner, and since John was at a business do of some kind, fish was a possibility.

Other than that, my life has been taken up largely by trying to sort out Wimsey's issues. I have a cat psychologist on retainer ONLINE, if you can imagine. We email back and forth about his behavior, our living conditions, his sibling relationships, you name it. So far her advice has been to provide him with a litterbox, food and water dishes, all his own. "How will he know they're for him?" I wondered, but apparently it's all about offering him the CHOICE. Whatever. If it keeps him happy... so this weekend we must acquire a new litterbox. Where to put it? I have no idea. Then, let's see, here was a bit of excitement: I realized that Avery's library books were either overdue or about to be, so I gathered up the pile and headed out, down Dunraven Street to Woods Mews and planned to make a right on Park Street. However, at the end of the road there was a police tape blocking off the street and a nice bobby manning it. "Sorry, love, you can't cross this tape," he said politely. "Why? What's up?" I asked. "Oh, a bomb in an attache case under a car." "EXCUSE ME?" I spluttered, as a lady walked up with a tiny irritating little dog on a lead. "I must get past here," she said bossily, "I'm meant to be meeting a friend at 101 Park." "Well, you can't, lady, because that's where the bomb is," the bobby said patiently. She huffed and puffed. "But I came out without my mobile so I can't tell my friend that I'm not coming," she said petulantly. "Considering the whole block is about to explode, I don't think it's an issue!" I said. I couldn't be bothered to take it too seriously, though, with overdue library books to consider, so I skirted the barrier and crossed Grosvenor Square, figuring the Embassy was probably the target and they couldn't get any closer. By the time I got out of the library, however, the barrier was gone and all the excitement over. Oh, well, next time.

TGIF, TGIF. I'm bringing Anna home from school with Avery, for the last sleepover of the term, before Anna heads to Scotland next week and we go to Connecticut. Today is the schoolwide Singing Competition, with Nightingale heavily favored to bring home the trophy. Poor Franklin loses everything. So I'm sure our walk home will be spiced up with stories of who forgot the words to what folk song, how strict Miss P is, whatever horror the official Commonwealth Judge chose to wear. Speaking of clothes, oh, dear, the Fashion Show was last night. What do you get when you put 120 hysterical girls aged 3-11 in a room with all their parents and grandparents and nannies and siblings and teachers, no air conditioning, and parade them up and down in various Victorian, hippy, flapper and medieval costumes? Did I mention no air conditioning? I would rather have stuck hot needles in my eyeballs, but by then I was pinned in the remotest corner of the room, miles away from Avery, much too close to several parents who had apparently been very hot with no air conditioning all day. Pretty gruesome. There were a few highlights: Anna looked completely the part of a glamorous 1930s starlet in a fur wrap, with perfect makeup. And of course the love of Avery's life, Ellen looked darling. The tiny Lower Kindergarteners came out in nightgowns with their teddies, which if we hadn't all been dripping with sweat and nearing the end of our oxygen supply would have been really darling. Oh, well, the admission charge goes to the British Red Cross. Next year maybe I'll donate the whole sum anonymously on the condition that there is NO MORE FASHION SHOW. Except when I said, "Next year let's get here early to get seats together," Avery objected, "But no, Mommy, next year I'll be IN the fashion show, I HOPE." Sigh.

On the way home, cooling off as we walked (contributing to that sense of false cleanliness you get and then forget to take a bath when you get home), stopping at the Waitrose in the high street for groceries. "Now, Avery," I said sternly, "I know burgers aren't your favorite thing, but I've been craving them and Daddy likes them too." "Awawah! They are disgusting!" she wailed. ""Be that as it may, your food tastes have been hijacking our dinner menu for months and years now. It isn't fair to have you dictate what we can and cannot have for dinner, is it?" "Well, no, I guess not." "Very well, then, let's do our shopping," I said, proud of myself for being so firm and reasonable. We got home with all our stuff and she went off to read her American Girl magazine, and then came into the kitchen to get her fruit bowl. "Look in the oven," I said. And of course there was a roast of filet mignon, her absolute favorite since she was a tiny child. I remember once she had been very sick with something or other, a rarity, and hadn't eaten properly in 10 days or so. When she got her appetite back, I told her she could have anything, absolutely anything she wanted for dinner. "Oh could I have that really bloody and expensive roast beast thingy?" I am such a sucker.

So I think as a reward for getting through an extremely busy week (studded with visits to various doctors to make sure I'm getting over this stomach thing; I'm much better), we'll take Avery and Anna to "The Lucky Spot" for dinner, getting home in time for the first match of the World Cup semi-final. It's gotten so pathetic, this newfound interest in football, that we actually know how many yellow cards the players have, and what substitutions might occur if so-and-so's thigh strain isn't better. Who would have thought! England play on Saturday, against Portugal. The governing body of the football teams are contemplating making a ruling that the players cannot do their traditional shirt-swap on the pitch, but must wait till they get to their lockers to do it. Why? The sight of all those ripped abs, be still my heart, is considered too risque for television. Awww, no fair!

26 June, 2006

The Case of the Pretentious Sneakers

Lord have mercy, I have reached a new low in this town where money can seem like another member of the family: constantly disappearing when it's most needed, demanding, worrying. For weeks, nay, months, Avery has been complaining that her sneakers (or as they are known in England, "trainers") were too flat, too small and just plain bad. I have received these frequent updates with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, because every time we pop into a shoe store to rectify the situation, there are no white trainers (uniform rules apply even to footwear), or none in Avery's size, or too many other people in line. Today, however, instead of playing tennis, Form Four practiced for Sports Day and Avery won one race and came in second in the other. Hampered as she was by low-performance equipment, this seemed impressive. So even though we had with us (in the pelting rain) one bag containing an enormous bottle of aloe vera juice for my delicate condition, one school rucksack containing the paper supply for a small developing nation, one gym bag containing a rumpled school uniform and the offending old shoes, one tennis racket, and one precariously-built model of a Viking ship created entirely from paper, it was deemed that a shopping trip to Selfridges was necessary. Oh, and an umbrella donated by my friend Susan at pickup to shelter said Viking ship. And a grocery bag full of ingredients for spaghetti and meatballs.

So off we went, stopping so Avery could have a snack at Patisserie Valerie and have the fun of dumping all these belongings on the floor in a wet pile. Enter Selfridges. Which happens to be having its semi-annual "Buy me, I will change your life" sale. These words are emblazoned on every vertical surface in the store, in the slanting black and white letters on gray made famous by the artist Barbara Kruger. Are they just copying her? I must find out. We stood disconsolately in front of the enormous board proclaiming on what floors various items could be found. "There! Kids on 3!" Avery shouted. "If I stand here long enough, will it say 'Kids on Ground Floor?" I asked. We fought our way up three flights of escalators, through the sale crowds, past endless displays of unnecessary materialist fodder. Who were all these people? I began to have misanthropic fantasies about throwing them all over the glass walls surrounding the escalator shaft, to land in the Pink display of tuxedo shirts. No matter. We found the children's area, also in sale hell, and dear readers, you will understand my chagrin when I found that the ONLY pair of white sneakers left in Avery's size was... Dolce e Gabbana.

Mind you, I don't even own anything by Dolce e Gabbana. The fact that Madonna's daughter is decked out from head to foot in custom made garments by this pair of Italian fashionistas (or is fashionisto, if they're men?) only adds to the glamour. I remember that Mr. Dolce and Mr. Gabbana, whoever they are in real life, caused ripples of fear and anxiety throughout the world of people who spend money on clothes, when they broke up their love affair. But devotion to fashion knows no bounds, so they still design clothes together. And tiny children's footwear too, apparently. I have to admit, they're cute. And they look very well-made. Avery was extremely appreciative and feels that she might well win several races in them. And they WERE 40% off, after all. Which makes them only twice as much as you would pay under normal circumstances. What ARE normal circumstances? I don't remember. Wish her luck on Wednesday morning. And hey, guess what? At least the Prada trainers were all sold out in her size.

is there a cat psychologist in the house?

Well, all right, here he looks pretty happy. At least he's not clocking his sister Keechie over the head. But in general, Wimsey needs some therapy. He skulks about looking sinister, whacking his siblings around, looking suspiciously as if he's scouting an alternate litter box to the one I've planned for him. In general, our relationship is fraught. So believe it or not I'm surfing this morning for kitty therapists. So far I have honed in on a hilarious website called "Pets Behaving Badly," and apparently parrots are a high-risk pet, which I didn't know. Lots of "rehoming issues." Maybe that's what ails Wimsey; he's an Anglophobe caught in a luxury London flat. Secretly he longs for the plains of Kansas, or even the smelly July streets of New York, eating Friskies from a can instead of the high-protein health food we're pushing on him here. Maybe he wants to be an only cat. Unfortunately John is all too ready to make that happen, so I keep telling Wimsey he's skating on thin parental ice. So far he seems too sunk in his own psychodrama to pull up his socks (one of my favorite English expressions for "get over it") and move on with his life. Sigh. I've got to get this sorted before he's the responsibility of our lovely housesitter, Kate, beginning July 12, when we arrive in Connecticut.

As if this were not enough stress in my delicate condition, guess how I look as a redhead? No, it's not Photoshop we're talking here, it's a REALLY bad color job. I wish I were making this up. Last week I decided I deserved a little pampering, plus I wanted to get back to my nice fake blonde highlights with which I've been living for years, instead of the grown-out dirty blonde that is my natural color. So against Avery's and John's wishes I booked myself an appointment at a posh (so I thought) salon in Wigmore Street, that I pass every day on the way to and from school, and turned up at noon on Friday to become A More Beautiful Me. FOUR HOURS LATER I finally escaped, having been, in that time, a sort of watery strawberry blonde horror, a slightly darker insipid kind of beer color, and finally a reddish version of what I went in as. And to cap it all off, it was done by a wretched girl who was introduced to me as something pronounced like "Mahn-OO-ray," but when I got her actual business card, yep, she's Manure. I got my hair done by Poop Girl. It's just awful. I get a little horrid shock every time I see myself, and John and Avery are silent in their condemnation. What to do.

Well, in the meantime was Avery's school outing to York! She and all her little school chums met up at King's Cross railway station (with their groggy mothers and overwhelmed-looking teachers) bright and early at 8 a.m. on Friday. They looked pretty darling in their uniforms, clutching backpacks filled with reading material for the train, heavy-duty lunches and snacks and water bottles, disposable cameras, and ABSOLUTELY NO soft toys. Mrs Bickley got that one right. Can you imagine all 17 of them turning up with their hundreds of Sylvanians, those tiny little flocked animals they all collect? The beleaguered teachers marched them off toward the train platform, looking slightly as if they ought to be scattering bread crumbs behind them if we planned to see them ever again. But sure enough, six p.m. found John and me scanning the crowd for their little faces. Everyone appeared a bit rumpled but otherwise intact, and full of stories about the archaeological dig they went on (yielding the largest fossilised poop ever found, what a treat), the bridge that had only one railing and if you fell off it would be into a stinging nettle patch, the creepy tombs with people on top folding their hands, and of course most important, the gift shop. It may be the very first time that Avery's been somewhere we've never been, which is a milestone in its own way.

My week, before the hair disaster, was enlivened by a visit from my longtime New York friend Joan, here on a business trip with her husband who is the curator of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame! She was full of stories about her Cantor Fitzgerald boss Howard Lutnick, whose art collection she manages (to my delight as gallery-owner; he was a frequent client), and her two little girls, and life in New York in general. They were sandwiching in a visit to us between dinners with The Clash, concerts, and trips to see secret collections of rock memorabilia. We had a little cocktail party in the garden here at Warburton House, with blinis topped with smoked salmon and sour cream, and my latest packaging obsession: Marks and Spencers gin and tonics in a tiny little green can! All mixed up and ready to drink. Very pleasant.

The end of the school year is gearing up, rather than winding down, with an exhausting array of responsibilities. The headmistress's weekly letter on Friday ended with the succinct observation, "It will be a busy week, one feels." One certainly does. I live in the knowledge that I will forget something, sometime. I figure as long as it's not my child, left in a railway station, everything else can kind of go. Let's see, there's a pile of overdue library books that must be dealt with today, and the last skating day tomorrow for which I did not succeed in acquiring a fancy skating outfit for Avery, bad me. Then Sports Day on Wednesday, in Regent's Park, where the gulls all compete vociferously for House Points. Don't know how Avery will fare. Mostly she is rejoicing at England's World Cup progress to the quarterfinals, after yesterday's nail-biting win over Ecuador (David Beckham's barfing on the sidelines notwithstanding, ick). Avery's house, Curie, owns England, so that's good news, 20 points. Or do they have to make it to the semi-finals? I can't keep track. Then Thursday is a visit to school by one of her favorite authors, who will read aloud and then sign books provided by Daunt Bookshop, necessitating the provision of spending money and much discussion among the mothers about how much is reasonable. Thursday evening is the controversial School Fashion Show, with ticket sales to benefit the Red Cross. Luckily Avery was not asked to participate, because I would have been forced to take sides. So we'll just turn up in the audience and see what's what. The social things these girls are going through defy description. I think "rising nines" are a very vulnerable age. They are all trying to figure out their pecking order, the best friends who must let in other children to their games, who dresses "cool" outside school, etc. In discussing one of the more troublesome relationships, Avery said, "It's not that I don't like her. It's just that our friendship is quite volatile, and fickle." As good a way to describe the torments of pre-adolescence as any.

We're really ready for school to be over. The lovely no-homework hiatus of the pre-Joseph week, and the exam week, has given way to what will no doubt be compensatory heavy loads this week. To think that American schools have been out for two weeks, some of them! We've got 10 days left till freedom, and... Red Gate Farm!

21 June, 2006

we've won the Group!

Whatever that means! But it's clearly good news for England. Isn't this a gorgeous photo by Sam Taylor-Wood? We ended up in a draw with Sweden last night, which was not as good as trouncing their little Scandy pants, but better than losing. All the commentators assured us solemnly that England haven't beat Sweden since 1966, intoning the year as if it were before electricity, which considering I was sitting up in my high chair at the time I found depressing. However. Plus, you've got to get the latest issue of Grazia magazine, a sort of tackier Hello! but on really nice glossy paper which leads you to believe at first that it's a nice magazine. But it's really filled with things like a full-length feature article on the WAGS ("Wives and Girlfriends") of the English footballers, and their antics around the pool in Baden Baden at the World Cup. Honestly, the things I can convince myself to get interested in, if I'm desperate enough.

So that's cool. Now we play Ecuador next. I can't remember when, but I'm sure I'm the only person in the country who can't.

It's official: I feel well now! Thank goodness. There's nothing like a bout of real illness that lasts a fairly long time, to give you an appreciation of just feeling normal. It will be awhile before I am back to complaining that I won't look great in a bathing suit this summer, or that I hate my haircut, or anything else. I'm just glad to feel normal. Maybe we'll even mosey over to the Lucky Spot for dinner this evening. I have my penultimate acting class this afternoon, while Avery pays homage to the latest guinea pig babies who were born at Anna's house yesterday. "They are so cute, Mommy! And you could feel their little parts under the mother's skin, moving around, before they were born." "Gee, I remember that before YOU were born," I said. "Do you remember anything from before you were born, Avery?" "Oh, yes, I remember it was dark and crowded. That was the beginning of my claustrophobia." What a sweet, heart-warming thought. I'm so glad I asked.

13 June, 2006

choose your distraction

Well, reports of my recovery were sadly premature: it's taking me longer to get over this tummy trouble than I would like. The downside of this is that the fridge is basically empty (I'm not up to dragging home heavy bags), and I'm a very boring phone conversationalist for poor John who's in New York, because absolutely nothing is happening to me, flat on my back. The upside of the situation is that I have learned lots of interesting things by being stuck watching television and listening to Avery prattle about her life (much more eventful than mine).

Let's see: I could natter on about the World Cup! Excitement is at a fever pitch in this country, which is just insane for football. Being an avid reader of Hello! magazine all these years you'd think I'd be interested in David Beckham, but I never have been until seeing him play. Amazing! So England had its first game on Saturday, and immediately afterward the nation's attention turned to tomorrow's game with... Trinidad and Tobago. Now how many of you knew that was ONE country? I didn't. In the meantime I have, believe it or not, martyred myself to the Brazil-Croatia match and the Korea-Togo match. Who knew Togo was a country, and not just Nancy Drew's dog? Since the motto of King's College Preparatory school is something along the lines of "Compete or Die," the headmistress has thought of a way to get the gulls involved with the World Cup. The school is divided, for various competitive purposes, into four "houses," as those of you familiar with Harry Potter will know. In fact one house is "Potter," and then there are "Franklin," for Rosalind, and "Nightingale," for obvious reasons, and then Avery's house, "Curie." Normally they compete for things like spelling words, speed in packing up the rucksack neatly, netball successes, that sort of thing. But to encompass the World Cup, which you'd think could not touch a nine-year-old girl, they've randomly assigned 8 countries to each house, and there is a Draconian and very amusing set of rules that governs what earns house points for which house. I think if a country in Curie's house gets to the quarter-finals there is some point thingy assigned. So all is at a fever pitch.

Then, as you can see from the photo above, I have become quite concerned about the plight of the grey squirrel, victim of the much maligned red squirrel. There is a public debate about offering a bounty on the pelts of red squirrels in Scotland (I am not making this up), so as to protect the grey squirrels from their furry little clutches. I can just see your average Englishman, dressed to the teeth in tweeds and armed with a nice Purdey rifle, stalking a red squirrel in Edinburgh town centre, for the 2 pound bounty that some scientist has deemed "reasonable for an individual pelt." Then, of course, there is the opposition. They claim that it's a virus or something that's killing off the grey squirrels. My favorite line from the whole debate is this, from one of the bounty-seekers: "To blame this situation on a virus is merely PLAYING INTO THE HANDS of the red squirrels." Indeed!

If neither of these topics is of interest to you, there's always... Joseph. And his interminable, all-consuming, obsessive Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. What I do not know about the Hairy Ishmaelites and Joseph's nasty slavery-loving brothers, not to mention the hot-to-trot Potiphar's Wife and her unappreciative but clingy husband, is not worth knowing. The rehearsals are taking the place of many school activities like anything that involves actual learning, and Avery's crush on Edwina, the Form Six girl who plays one of the leads, is taking up a lot of the family energy. The actual performance is on Saturday, after which I think we will all collapse in a Lloyd-Webber-induced catatonic state. But they are very proud of what they're about to perform, and it will be wonderful to see it all come to a head, after such devoted preparation.

Well, I'm sorry to say that I'm ailing, so I shall go put my feet up with a nice iced green tea with a shot of peppermint (go, Starbucks!), and reach for... the clicker. I'll let you know if there's any news on the squirrels.

06 June, 2006

I'm back

I'm sorry I've been so silent! A long-awaited visit from John's parents, combined with a nasty bout of a stomach bug called ulcerative colitis, have curtailed my communications for a couple of weeks. But the visit is, sadly, over, and the bug, not so sadly, on its last legs, so here I am.

Second mental note to self (after the one not to ruin very expensive dress shirts and school uniforms with one flick of a pashmina): don't try to melt butter in a Pyrex dish directly on top of a scary ceramic stove. Why not? Because it freakin' EXPLODED! There I was, innocently cooking dinner last night, and the main dish was to be Mama Nel's chicken, named after my darling mother who invented it. It's easy peasy, as Jamie Oliver would say: simply pour some flour into a grocery bag, or some other bag, and add lots of herbs: rosemary, thyme, paprika, garlic powder, basil, marjoram, whatever you like. Then pour some vegetable oil in a nice Pyrex dish and dip chicken pieces skin side down in the oil. Then shake them up in the herbed flour and lay again skin side down in the oiled pan. Bake for about 20 minutes at 425, then turn over and bake skin side up for another 20 minutes. You can do the last few minutes on broil if you like crispy skin.

Anyway, I decided to combine the oil with a little butter, so I was herbing my flour and watching the butter melt on top of the stove when KABOOM the whole thing simply exploded into hundreds of tiny shrapnel pieces. I'm lucky I didn't put my eye out, or some kitty's eye. My bleats of dismay brought Avery and John, who looked on in horror, and then John cut himself trying to help. Finally it was all cleared up and dinner on its way, only to find, as we ate the steamed basmati rice to go with the chicken, that glass fragments had found their way into the butter I put on top. A very effective way to control portions, it turns out. No one wanted to eat anything after that! What a night.

John's parents' visit was completely wonderful. As you can see above, they went everywhere with us! They accompanied us to the barn and met Cookie, and to school and met Mrs Davies, and to playdate dropoff where they met Becky and her family. It was school half term, so things like showing them Avery's ice skating had to happen with just us, not the fun of the whole class, but still, I think they got a good feel for the way we live now. Let's see, they treated us to a ruinously expensive afternoon tea at Brown's Hotel (I've always wanted to go back since my own parents took us way back in 1990 or so). Since then of course we have acquired Avery who is a great fan of Agatha Christie, and in particular the thinly-disguised version of Brown's that appears in "At Bertram's Hotel." So I innocently booked us for one afternoon, not knowing that by now it has climbed in price to the astronomical fee of 29 pounds per person! Honestly, even for Londoners that's going some. Still, it was lovely.

We trekked out to the countryside to see Lullingstone Castle, whose family fortunes (or lack thereof) and renovation have been the subject of a wonderful BBC documentary that we're addicted to. We actually got to meet Tom Dyke Hart, the son and heir, and inventor of the marvelous garden that's the centerpiece of the new public areas of the house and grounds. John went around mumbling, "I REALLY want that house..." Then we went to see the "Mousetrap," and John's parents took my tickets to see "Coriolanus" at the Globe (my acting class was studying it, I thought, but it turns out I was wrong and THEY were all at "Titus Andronicus"!), we went to an incredible polo match at the Guards Polo Club in Windsor (Prince Philip's own polo club, if you please). Did you know that at halftime, after the first three "chukkas", the crowd are all asked to go out on to the field and stomp on the "divets"? So there we all were, finding all the places where the hooves and mallets had chewed up the polo lawn, and stomping the sod back in place! Of course, only John Curran could make this a competitive sport, so he was practically mowing Avery down trying to stomp on all the divets SHE found.

On the last day of the visit, after Avery's riding lesson in Wimbledon, we moseyed out to the McBs' for Sunday lunch in Stroud. Incredibly all four children were there, so John's parents got to see the towering thing that is Nick (who I first met when he was four, sob), shortly to leave his rowing days at Eton behind and conquer Yale University, and Emma who's off to Exeter, and Rose whose birth announcement I discovered in a box of memorabilia last week, and Una who was not even born when we last lived in London. How have they all grown so old, and so accomplished? Every time we see that family I feel that it's best just to skip the fiery crash and give Avery to them now. They're such professionals!

John's dad performed his usual neighborhood miracle and found us a local restaurant to patronize, the Lucky Spot, right on South Audley Street, so we went twice in a row and were much made over. Their stracciatelli soup, lemony and eggy, was just what the doctor ordered for my fragile health. We discovered many heretofore unknown bus routes and went to the Tower of London, the Portobello farmer's market, shopping in Oxford Street, and everywhere else you can imagine. Through it all we ate: even with my sad stomach, we ATE. Susan's orange and ginger chicken curry, roasted pork spareribs (their leftovers made a superb picnic for the polo match), avocado salad galore, cream of red pepper soup with fresh thyme, you name it. And pink gazpacho, for which I must give you the recipe because it's sinfully simple and inexpensive, and aside from a cucumber and an avocado you can easily have everything on hand in your pantry:

Jeanne Grieger's Pink Summer Gazpacho

1 cup slivered almonds or pine nuts
2 pieces white or wheat bread or 1 cup breadcrumbs
2 cans plum tomatoes
1/2 long hydroponic cucumber, or two small kirbys, sliced
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup cider vinegar (you can use balsamic but it will change the color of the soup)
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp chili pepper or cayenne
salt and pepper to taste
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup half and half
1 avocado, cut in small bite-size pieces

Pulverize the almonds or pine nuts in a Cuisinart, then whiz in the bread. Add the tomatoes, cucumber, oil and vinegar and spices and pulverize until smooth. Pour into a very large bowl and add the chicken broth and half and half and blend well. Taste it and add more of whatever spices or salt you think is needed. Chill thoroughly and serve with a little group of avocado pieces mounded in the center. Delicious, and so good for you! If you like a more elegant soup, you can peel the cucumber first, or you can strain the soup. But I find the green bits and the nutty bits are very nice.

Sadly the inlaws have gone callously home, leaving me with nothing more exciting to do than laundry. I caved to the pressure of my tiny washing machine and yesterday dropped off two huge bags of sheets, towels and John's business shirts at a nice laundry in the Marylebone High Street. Simply abandoned it all.

So today I don't get Avery back in my clutches until 5:30, due to the fever-pitch excitement of rehearsals for the school-wide production of "Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." What I don't know about Joseph's 10 hapless siblings, the many hues of the coat, and the endless number of repetitions of "AHA" isn't worth knowing. Andrew Lloyd Webber has a lot to answer for, in my humble opinion, but I'm sure when it's not just burbled at me in a taxi on the way to school or chortled at me as cooking implements explode, it will be very charming. The production is on June 17 so we have a ways to go as far as exposure. Avery was astounded that her grandparents did not immediately change their tickets and stay an extra twelve days in order to see the performance. They are such saints, I think they actually considered it. How we miss them. Now it's time for MY parents to come! But I am afraid I have to wait until the fall for that delight.