13 March, 2007

the worst job in London (but also a great visit from NY)

Wouldn't you hate to know that every single person who calls you, all day long (and so many people call you that your line is nearly always busy) hates you? And has never even met you?

This is what it must be like to answer phones at... The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Declamping Unit. Yes, it finally happened. I got clamped. That's how it feels. I don't even feel as if they clamped the wheel of the car. I feel as if the horrid yellow triangle was attached to my very own foot and tightened until I bled pounds. As in 115 pounds.

Does any other city have such a nasty little parking scheme? Or as many rabid traffic wardens who walk along in their ugly reflective waistcoats (probably because they know most motorists would dearly love to accidentally run them down), waiting by parking meters until the last pence drops and then pouncing on the windscreen with glee and the satisfaction of having bled yet another driver of yet another enormously inflated fine? We have, several times, come upon a traffic warden writing out a ticket for us, even though there were, say, five minutes left on the meter. Just hoping we won't come back in time. They must be on a commission system.

The problem is for the motorist that these wardens are only occasionally caught in the act. Mostly you come back to your car to find the ticket flapping in the breeze. And there's no one to scream at. But the poor man answering the phones when you call in to get your car declamped, now he's a sitting duck. A tethered target for my wrath. The nasty parking regulators had played a cunning trick on me: they put a parking sign indicating a "pay and display" spot on a spot that was actually, if one looked down at the road and noticed an extra little white painted line, a "resident's only" spot. I fell for it, bought my ticket, displayed it proudly in the window and went off happily to have lunch with friend Julia, visiting from New York. Only to come back two hours later to the ugly truth.

Well, enough about that. The rest of the day was lovely. Yesterday, during Avery's brief but unpleasant little illness, I had got a text message from her science teacher indicating that "we will all meet at Paddington at 8:15 a.m. next to the ticket counter." Indeed? And why would that be? "Oh, Mummy, I forgot, Daddy signed the permission slip. It's the 'Inter-Schools' Science Challenge', in Westonbirt. We will spend all day there, and it was a real honor to be asked; just four girls in the class can go." Well, it's nice to be told. So I packed a lunch and hoped for the best, and sure enough, this morning she was well enough to go. So we got ourselves to Paddington, met up with the other little girls and the teacher, and I had just said, "See you at pickup," when the teacher smiled and said, "No, indeed, Mrs C, we'll see you HERE at 6." "P.M.?" I asked in amazement. "Oh, yes, I asked Avery if you needed another permission slip to know the details, but she said you knew all about it." Sigh.

So my seven-hour free day became a 10-hour free day, and suddenly my planned lunch with Julia, such a treat to see her, became a potentially even nicer whole afternoon with her. Suffering from a dreadful spring cold as she was, she bravely met me at home after I had done all my little household chores of dishwasher, litterbox, laundry, bedmaking and the like, and then I confidently led us to the car, since I'm not afraid of driving anymore and not (very) afraid of getting lost. Up to Notting Hill to a gorgeous place called E&O, one of the brainchildren of the hot Australian chef and restaurateur Will Ricker. He was not in evidence this afternoon, however, which is too bad since by all accounts he's an amazing, energetic man. The name stands for "Eastern & Oriental," and I'm not sure why we need both designations, but the food was simply sublime.

Julia and I kept interrupting our by no means boring conversation to exclaim over another unexpected texture, or lightness of touch, or unusual sauce. We started with two dishes to share: prawn and chive steamed dumplings, and a sauteed beef dish called "san choi bau" (the bits of beef a perfect compromise between strips and mince) with red chilis and bean sprouts, to be wrapped in a lettuce leaf with basil leaf and what I think were ground pinenuts sprinkled on top. Spicy, light, salty and crunchy, it was simply perfect. And Julia declared that one bite blew her cold right out of the top of her head (although this prognosis proved actually a bit too optimistic on her part).

Then we went our separate culinary ways and I had a tempura soft shell crab, nicely halved and therefore manageable with chopsticks. There was a sour green dipping sauce that could have been parsley and citrus? Don't know for sure, and I should have asked. Julia went for a green curry with lichee and and aubergine and the presentation alone -- topped with curls of slivered red bell pepper, daikon and a crispy fried aromatic herb -- was worth the money. And the heavenly curry aroma, rich and coconut-milky, just perfect. We ended up sharing everything, and talking about her daughter Nina, one of Avery's riding pals in New York, her work at the Guggenheim on James Rosenquist and other Pop artists (she's knee-deep in her dissertation on Pop and collage, poor girl), my cookbook project, our various family entanglements, joys and sorrows.

Well, I'm flagging. Avery's safely home from her Science Challenge, which was perhaps both more, and less, than what one expected. More on that later. We are full of chicken in a calvados and mushroom cream sauce, and ready for slumber.

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