08 September, 2008

of first days, and beloved visitors

Goodness, what a whirlwind we've been in for the past week. No sooner had we settled into our post-summer routine than it was... the first day of Avery's new school. And of course in the tradition of all first days, John was able to produce his magical plate of cinnamon toast, albeit challenged by the number of curly letters this year! We tried to imagine a school that would provide a good acronym for cinnamon toast: something like Williams House Triptych. But in any case, although Avery said she was nervous, and certainly I was for her, she managed to wolf down the entire plate of toast as well as all the strawberries and a nice pile of prosciutto. She is definitely having a growth spurt: she's eating everything in sight. Plus, to get ahead of my story, the lunch at the new school is SUPERB! She is very sparkly at pickup every day, having ingested actual food between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Walking her to school was a nice social adventure! We were picked up by Elsa, who lives above us in a nearby street, and then we went on to find Holly who is across the first big road to cross (thankfully there's a zebra crossing which people seem to observe), then to get Sophia at the top of the next big intersection. The actual dropoff was a total anti-climax: barely a kiss and she was up the big front steps and gone. All of us, mothers and John, sighed. "Well, that's that." So everyone dispersed: people to work, Elsa's mom Annie and me to walk along toward home, chatting as best I can at 8:15 in the morning which isn't saying much. And Annie is of course an incredible morning person, filled with verve and fizz and conversation; what a waste, for her to be saddled with ME! But I did listen with attention to her tale of a nearby indoor pool in which I might swim, with her, at some later date (and later time of day, I pray). I turned in at our gate feeling that I'd dodged a bullet: Avery was safely at school and I had met nice people, and nothing terrible had happened.

I must explain something. About me and first days, and school dropoff. Although I am getting much better about the anniversary this year, I must say that the first full day of Avery's kindergarten experience was September 11, 2001. I am toying with the idea of someday writing this down, all that happened to us that day, but suffice to say that I spent the whole summer before her kindergarten fearing irrationally that something terrible would happen to her if I left her at school. All summer. Everyone was extremely frustrated with me, that I couldn't enjoy the idea of her being at school all day, independent and happy, no, I had to make it into a drama all about ME. And then I left her at school, about six blocks from the World Trade Center, and that's when it happened.

Believe it or not, I spent quite a lot of time afterward thinking about what was, to me, the obvious connection between leaving Avery at school and that terrible tragedy. I really did connect them. And in the intervening years I have struggled every super-blue-sky-day not to panic, and certainly every school first-day dropoff (and to a minor extent every dropoff, period), not to panic.

But you know what? It gets better. I was really pretty good about leaving her at the new school, and I was also absolutely saved by the arrival, shortly after school dropoff, of my houseguests for the week: Bob, the lovely minister who married us, and his dear wife Ann. Bob has turned 80 this year, and retired after 52 years of teaching theology, philosophy and religion at my alma mater. He married us! Lo these nearly 20 years ago. And goodness, I was glad to open my door to them and welcome them into our abode for the week.

Oh my did we chat! They settled into the guest room and then came down to the kitchen to sit and chat. Hours later we realized we were starving! It was but the work of a moment to find bean and lentil salad in the fridge, toss in some of the grilled shrimp we'd had for dinner the night before. And slice some tomatoes and mushrooms and toss them in balsamic vinegar and chilli oil, and put Brie and goat's cheese on a plate with some Ryvita. Voila, lunch! I will tell you now: if you have bean and lentil salad, you have lunch. Throw in anything leftover from dinner: sliced cold beef, pork or roast chicken, shrimp, scallops, anything. If you need some extra flavor, add a minced clove of garlic and some lemon zest. Done. And you've cleaned out your fridge.

Several more hours of catching up, and I realized I had lived through the entire horrible First Day of School and had given Avery scarcely a thought! How lovely. I ran off to get her and Bob and Ann relaxed at home, enjoying the break in the rain. And can I report, dear readers: Avery had a MARVELLOUS, wonderful, glorious day. "The second best day of my life, and I'm not even being fair: I can't count the day of the school play!" I felt so grateful to get her back, hear all of her enthusiastic account of, guess what most of all: the FOOD. Actually food, to be eaten! "There was steak, with mushrooms, and CHOCOLATE CAKE, with warm vanilla sauce!" There's a big difference between a growing girl who's spent the whole day using up her admittedly lovely breakfast, and one who's been well and truly fed five hours later. LOVELY. A huge sigh of relief to have her with me, happy, happy. And FULL. More than that, the girls were NICE to her. And the teachers lovely and supportive, the buildings full of potential for exciting getting-losts. Altogether, a heartwarming day!

Home for slow-braised chicken with root vegetables, simply the best cooks-itself dinner ever. And here's a hint: braise the chicken breast DOWN. That way, the breast, which tends to dry out, cooks entirely submerged in white wine-laced chicken broth. Just lovely. John came home and the conversation, which had been sort of catch-uppy about what's happened at college since we were there, turned political, philosophical, theological, you name it! It's been a long time since my brain was tuned that high. Discussions of Niebuhr and Tillich (both of whom featured in our wedding ceremony!), abortion rights and creationism, narrative theology and utilitarianism. Avery's head went back and forth as at a tennis match! Glorious.

The following day found us at.. St Paul's Cathedral. I've never, embarrassingly, been. But now Avery is at her new school, I felt we should go, and it was well worth the visit. Gorgeous mosaics, statues, tombstones. Just lovely. We climbed to the "Whispering Gallery," some 250 steps, and sat for Bob's lecture on the saints pictured in the gallery and the "gnostics" who interpreted them. And then would you believe Bob climbed the further 200-some steps to the very top! Ann and I did not follow! A nice lunch and then I was off home... they came back later to join Avery and me in the kitchen, and for Bob to ask a million questions about the works they had seen in the permanent collection of the Tate Modern, across the Millennium Bridge from the Cathedral. I had to put my brain back into art history land, away from recipes, pre-teen book plots, London friends, Connecticut friends and family... into that place where, in 1992, I was the King of my own world, knowledgeable about everything I could have wanted to understand about post-structuralism, deconstructionism, you name it! To go back and reach into that book list, idea list, comparative mindset... oh it was a stretch!

Bob asked earnestly, "I understand the notion of Modernism, Kristen, and Post-Modernism in theology, but what function does Post-Modernism serve in the history of art?" And somehow I was able to explain this, and to recognize the art they had seen from his descriptions, and provide names and titles (his eyesight doesn't permit the reading of museum wall text), and some interpretation. "'Oh, Kristen, where ARE you?' I kept asking myself," Bob mourned. I wish I had been there! One of those times when one's arms are stretched in different directions. "I haven't been able to tell you everything about my day," Avery whispered, and then John was home wanting to talk about the election... !! We finally sat down to grilled salmon, bean salad, roast beets... and more discussions, this time of racism in the 1960s in my college sorority, the careers of all my former professors. Just wonderful.

Thursday saw us at Westminster Abbey, in the pouring rain! I had never properly been there before, either, just a brief visit two years ago at Christmas when Avery's school sang there. And I can tell you, I have a good piece of advice for any possible future visitors: do your research ahead of your visit and find out what YOU want to see. Because it's HUGE. We did the tour guide, the audio thingy, and while I was fascinated by the mosaic floor restoration at the Great Altar, and then music of the Boys' Choir, I could not have cared less about all the royal graves. And then I came upon what I cared about most: Poets' Corner. Not just poets, but all sorts of artistic types, both buried there and merely remembered there: Avery's darling Anthony Trollope, Dickens, Olivier, Auden, T.S. Eliot, Jane Austen, you name it! Very exciting, although Bob felt it followed a cult of the dead person almost TOO far. He's very inclined to be dismissive of such slavish followings. Little does he know how many slavish followers he will have when he meets his reward. He can't stop us.

A nice sandwich lunch across Whitehall from the Foreign and Home Offices, and I got to hear the story of their meeting: at a Yale-Smith dance... 57 years ago! Just lovely.

Home to get Avery and to put together the Chicken Biryani and cheesy spinach for dinner, and to hear more from Avery about this shangri-la that is school, and most specifically the CLOTHING the girls wear. "I know you'll think it's superficial of me, Mommy, to care about their clothes, but after all these years of uniforms, clothes can be very revealing of a person's personality!" So much fun to hear her going on and on about this or that girl and her tights, skirts, t-shirts, hairdos... and the classwork sounds OK, too! Avery ended up in a bath while we watched the McCain VP choice speech. In shocked silence. Goodness. I shouldn't say more.

We did laugh over Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" take on Joe Biden's VP speech. Biden had told, in his usual folksy way, the story of his nightly train-ride home, through the small towns, with the houses all lit up on the sides of the tracks, and his imagining their conversations, around their kitchen tables. "How are we going to pay the mortgage?" "How are we going to manage sending Johnny to college?" And Jon Stewart added to this, "Why do we have to live so close to the train tracks?" his voice trailing off in a Doppler effect. Avery has repeated that SO many times. But seriously, what one earth is happening to this election? It's very odd being here and being expected by our British friends to explain what on EARTH Americans are thinking. It's certainly not something I can begin to elucidate.

On Friday morning we had one more talky breakfast together, talking about parenthood, childhood testing, the future of our university, their upcoming biking trip from Bruges to Amsterdam! I hated to see them go. Enormous hugs and assurances that we will not let very much time go by before seeing each other again... and they were off, pulling their luggage behind them with their bike helmets snicked onto their suitcases. Remarkable people. I'm so glad Avery spent time with them. And... he taught Avery to crawl, right on the floor of the Philosophy Department offices, these 11 years ago. He reminds me of John's dad: stalwart, trustworthy, strong, righteous and gentle.

Dinner tonight was, I must say, just the three of us, and I say modestly, totally spectacular. Give it a try.

Pan-Seared Scallops with Bacon, Beetroot and Rocket
(serves four)

4 medium beetroots, roasted 1 1/2 hours at 400 degrees, peeled and sliced
2 tbsps olive oil
16 large scallops, roeless
8 rashers (slices) back bacon (Giggly Pig, preferably!), trimmed and sliced thin
1 bunch green (salad) onions, sliced thin, both white and green parts
1 bag rocket leaves
handful lentils

dressing: whisk everything together
3 tbsps olive oil
1 tbsp peanut oil
1 tbsp Japanese mirin or other vinegar (if regular vinegar, use less lemon juice)
1 tbsp grain mustard
1 tbsp creme fraiche
juice of 1 lemon
1 clove garlic, finely minced
pinch salt
pinch ground pepper

First: arrange sliced beetroot on a large plate.

Next, heat the 2 tbsps olive oil in a large stickproof skillet. Cook the scallops on one side for 1 minute, then turn over and cook to your liking: another minute for seared, slightly longer for well-cooked. Remove to a plate.

Now add the bacon to the same skillet and cook till cooked through and slightly colored. Add the spring onions and cook till soft. Remove to a medium bowl.

Now to assemble: toss the rocket in a little of the dressing and arrange on top of beetroot. Then arrange the scallops over the rocket and toss over the lentils. Now toss the bacon and spring onions in the rest of the dressing and pour over the scallops. LOVELY!


I can't tell you how good this was. And we had it with:

Cauliflower Puree
(serves four)

1 medium head cauliflower, separated into florets
1/2 stick butter
cream to taste
salt and pepper

In a large saucepan cover the cauliflower with water and season with salt. Bring to a boil and boil high for 10 minutes. Drain thoroughly. With a hand blender, blend with butter and as much cream as you need to get the consistency you want: less for thick, more for creamier. Season to taste.


This puree COMPLETELY cancels out any purpose mashed potatoes have, in my opinion! I have never eaten it before, but I read somewhere that cauliflower was the perfect partner for scallops, and it's true.

OK, enough food and whatever. Back to... the weather. How many adjectives can the British weather people come up with to describe the rain? Lately it's been... intermittent, pervasive, pernicious, everpresent, drowning... it's too much! I know it sounds like a joke, and I adore my adopted land, but it really does... rain all the time. Good thing we have sunshine in our souls. Oh, wait, that's the Republicans. But maybe they'll share.


S. said...

I was just talking to my mother about her own first school dropoff of the year, and she said something similar about it being a complee anti-climax. Apparently, a mere 10 years ago my little brother was begging her not to leave him alone in kindergarten and yet now he barely remembers to say goodbye when he gets off the car. I guess it's a universal phenomenon.

Also, I'm trying that cauliflower puree tomorrow. It's easy enough for this busy oven-challenged medical student.

Kristen In London said...

Good luck with the cauliflower! I think you'll love it.

min said...

Boy you had a busy week. I love Avery's outfit! I remember going to public school after six years of wearing a uniform. My mother was depressed about it and I was in my glory! I hope school continues to go well and the London weather clears up.

Kristen In London said...

yes, min, we've been crazy! Still enjoying "own clothes..."