I can’t remember a busier two weeks than the last two have been. It’s a bit of a relief to have Saturday come, a Saturday with no plans, such a contrast with my Barnes Saturdays that always involved at least a long morning bell-ringing practice, and a visit to the farmer’s market. This Saturday means staying home and watching the rain pour down our enormous windows, watching the traffic and tourists go by, feeling lucky to be inside. Yesterday I fell victim to a massive hailstorm with a badly functioning umbrella and bare ankles. Not a happy memory.
Someday, when Avery is home to translate the Latin inscription, we’ll have to find out who this fellow is down below.
Having lived with him standing stalwart on his pedestal for nearly three weeks now, it’s amazing that it wasn’t until yesterday’s windy hailstorm that I noticed his clothing MOVES. So does his head! What on earth are they made of.? I’ll let you know, when I find out.
We are beginning…
I’ve been sitting here for about twelve minutes simply staring at my screen, trying to decide where even to BEGIN in describing what’s been happening in my life lately.
My blog has always been my best ally in the effort to frame what happens as the days go by, each one important and precious in its own way. Annoyances can be made funny, patterns emerge in my friendships and alliances, comfort comes from creating a narrative — a way of weaving together events that on the surface look unconnected, random.
But events over the last two weeks stretch even my capacity for storytelling.
Two weeks ago we were firmly ensconced in our four-story Edwardian semi-detached house in leafy, idyllic Barnes Village. The river flowed by effortlessly. All was well.
It was time to say goodbye to everything in the carefully constructed life I had grown for myself over the five years I had spent in Barnes. The last Home-Start playgroup came and went, with fervent hugs and goodbyes from the 20 or so toddler twins I had met as newborns, two years ago. Goodbye to the space that had been the scene of so much play, learning and love, given and received.
I gave a last dinner party for my beloved bellringers. Trisha and I spent a happy afternoon together, gossiping and cooking: salmon, chicken, chocolate mousse. The ringers came and ate.
It was a wonderful evening of food and laughter, speeches and a few tears.
And then it came: the last service ringing on a beautiful Sunday morning. I will never forget the joys St Mary’s gave me: the friendships, the challenges, the beloved tradition of getting to the church each Sunday to “summon the faithful to worship.”
It’s so hard to believe I won’t be there, next weekend, to ring for Remembrance Sunday, around this beautiful memorial.
I hung my rope for the last time, on the spider.
Of course, I can come back any time I like. But the weekly ritual was finished. We crossed the river to beautiful Chiswick. How I have loved becoming a better ringer there, accomplished enough that I could begin to ring and look around me at the same time, at the ancient inscriptions.
The churchyard was an autumnal spectacle.
On Sunday evening, the reality of the big change coming could no longer be ignored. The movers had delivered a giant pile of empty boxes (recycled from a strawberry jam company’s latest move, with a few sticky patches), and the great bookshelf dismantle began.
The books came off the shelves in John’s carefully organised system of numbered boxes, keeping the alphabet relatively intact.
Just an hour later, it was done.
Sam came, that evening, to collect the leather sofa and armchairs which found such a good home in his flat in Bath.
In the morning, Vitsoe came yet one more time to take away the shelves. “Hello again! Gosh, what is this, the fifth time I’ve come to you?” the head shelf guy laughed, not realising how tantamount to traumatising that was for me. Not funny!
In desperation I rang up a pal and arranged a bizarre but life-sustaining business arrangement. “If I bring you two cookbooks, could I get some Xanax off you?” Desperate times.
“Run and see your twins,” John advised, “You’ll feel so much better.” So I rang up Claire, and sure enough, she was happy to share them for an hour or so. It was impossible to feel quite so desperate in the company of such bundles of sheer joy.
Then my friend Elizabeth, her dog Louis, and I went on one last walk down the Barnes towpath, scene of so many, many walks in Wellies, bike rides to Hammersmith, to the Food Bank, to see my friend Suzanne. The combination of the timeless river scene and Elizabeth’s wisdom were consoling.
“Don’t be too quick to fill up your new life with replacements for your old life, like bellringing and Home-Start. Leave some space there, to see what gets planted by your new life.” Such good advice.
At that moment, all I wanted was to keep the old life, where I had been so happy.
But change waits for no woman, so off the lorry went with all our belongings in it and we spent one last, rather miserable night at “home.” And up in the morning to begin our new lives, in SE1.
Now, you’ve all followed me through many house moves in these virtual pages. I’ve always told the story sequentially, in a sort of “this happened and then this happened” manner. I’m going to break from that tradition in order to provide a more time-lapse indication of just what hyper-fast, insanely productive misery we have lived through in the last frantic week. Room by room.
First, dear readers, here is our new home. Toto, we aren’t in Barnes anymore.
Our new landlords had left us a darling little gift of honey produced right here at Neo, as our new building is known. Somehow I cannot imagine a place in this urban wonderland that contains bees, but I imagine someday I will see it.
As always, the move-in process involves an astonishingly exhausting, chaotic, messy transition from empty and impersonal to packed-to-the-gills-with-our-stuff and very personal indeed. With an awful, long, long moment of sheer horror in between.
What a view it is. Toto, seriously!
This is the view from our bedroom.
Someday this will be a beautifully landscaped garden, sitting at the foot of the elaborate Tate Modern extension. Luckily, for all I loved the tranquillity of Barnes, I am an urban girl at heart and this sort of view gladdens me.
“I just don’t see how they’re going to do this in one business day,” I mused for the hundredth time.
“I agree with you, and I warned their bosses, but they claim it should be OK.”
“But it’s already four o’clock…”
And of course we, who between us have about ten people’s lifetime experience of moving house, were perfectly correct. The afternoon became evening, evening became night. Load after load of hideous cardboard boxes came up in the glass elevators, were rolled into the flat on trolleys, were unloaded onto the floor for us to unpack, increasingly unhappily.
“I feel like I did in labor,” I said, “feeling like it really can’t go on any longer, but knowing that somehow it will, until my spirit is completely broken.”
The movers finally left at midnight, and we sat down in exhausted silence to our traditional dinner, “Moving-In Day Chicken.” Dinner saved our lives.
The next three days were a completely mad experience. Just look at the kitchen, before:
The study before:
Avery’s room before:
Our room before:
But by far the most satisfying, to me, is the sitting room. Because it holds all my books, and therefore is really the heart of the house, it’s always the most exciting room to see transformed. Here it is completely empty, a week ago:
The bookshelf guys came amiably again, this time ready to re-install in the intensely professional way they do. (And they were darn cute, too, which helps.)
“I went home after we took down your shelves, and googled you. Your Kickstarter campaign for your cookbook was really cool,” the charming Australian kid said. The fact that I am easily old enough to be their mothers was a vaguely unpleasant but increasingly admitted fact. They took pity on my total lack of technological skill and re-installed the telly and all the cables.
I gave them copies of the cookbook (“This is my second signed cookbook. The first one was when we put in shelves for Gordon Ramsay.”).
Their departure overlapped with the kitties’ arrival!
Tacy immediately went to sleep in the sun.
Hermione was equally chilled.
John was in Paris for the day, so I squared my shoulders, ate a little plastic box full of watermelon, took a deep breath, and attacked the stacks of boxes full of books. Sixty-four of them to be exact. And six hours later, it was finished.
Now you’ll notice that there are gaping holes. These represent the breaks between categories — fiction, history, memoir and biography, children’s, cookbooks, John’s architecture books, Avery’s politics (that didn’t fit in her own bookshelves).
Just as I was simultaneously patting myself on the back for a job well done, swallowing a couple of aspirins for my back and pouring myself a stiff drink, the doorbell rang and it was Elizabeth! Bearing flowers and advice for ways to fill the empty spots in the shelves. Between her suggestions and John’s cleverness early the next morning, everything was gorgeous and the room quite perfect by lunchtime on Saturday. Just look!
It is so heavenly in there now.
Here is the view from the kitchen table to the front hall. Now, keep in mind that no art has been hung yet.
Perhaps you can see how the room — the space, really — works together. Unless you’re in a bedroom or a bathroom, you are in the one big space — kitchen, study, living room/library. It’s a good thing John and I really love each other’s company, because baby, there is NO PLACE TO HIDE in this flat. You see everything from everywhere.
And people see us! The adjacent building is a giant behemoth, filled top to bottom with hard-working people who get to their offices long before I raise my bedroom blinds, so I can’t wander around in my skivvies. Actually, though, I probably can, because no one over there seems to pay any attention to us at all.
Saturday! This meant that food shopping simply had to be done at my new local source for ingredients, Borough Market. That’s right, that’s my local market now. With Southwark Cathedral looming impressively behind.
It was Halloween. Can you tell?
We carved our pumpkins — one of them a gift from my friend Sue, who came the day after we moved in! — at dinner time, while pork belly and beetroots roasted, potatoes dauphinoise bubbled away.
Then on John’s inspiration, we carried our jack o’lanterns to the Thames to photograph them with St Paul’s Cathedral in the background. We’re seriously not in Barnes anymore.
The tourists along the way clearly thought we had lost our minds. Americans, they are so silly about Halloween.
So we have settled. We are gradually hanging paintings and drawings, buying things like teakettles, toasters and shoe racks.
Last night, on an awesomely and rather historically foggy night, like London Fogs gone by, we took a romantic walk across the Millennium Bridge to St Paul’s, and back again, to see the Tate Modern looming up mysteriously out of the fog. This new life, exhausting as it was to achieve, is beginning to look rather promising.
“Let’s go for a curry,” is a very typical thing for a British person to say. It is short-hand for “Let’s have Indian food,” “Let’s have something spicy,” but also something deeper, like “Let’s let our hair down and do something completely relaxing and delicious and un-demanding.” The very word is mysterious — does it come from, as some suggest, the simple French word “cuire,” which means to cook? Or does it refer to an Indian word, “kari,” which means a spicy sauce?
Curry, of course, also conjured up romantic (or exploitive, depending on your perspective) images of British-occupied India, with tents in sand, white-dressed waiters, exotic spices filling the air.
Does the word “curry” refer to the flavoring paste, or to the collection of vegetables and meat that swim in it? Either, or both. Curry is essential mystery of British life.
Curry can be, in boring restaurants, a very watered-down, unexciting culinary experience where the intense flavors have been muted to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Or it can be, in your own home, an intensely flavoursome, colorful, creamy, spicy delight. The perfect thing, therefore, on a Friday night that caps off a difficult week, as ours was last night.
The only special equipment you need — if you are not devoted to a mortar and pestle (I am not) — is a small chopping machine or a blender.
The secret to truly tender chicken in this curry is two-fold: slice the chicken very thin AGAINST the grain of the meat. Turn the breast this way and that in good light, so you can see the way the meat grows. Cut it AGAINST the vertical lines, turning the meat now and then to make sure you are following the grain all through the breast. This will make complete sense when you begin to slice.
The second secret for the chicken is to bring the sauce to a high simmer, then drop in the chicken, then turn the heat VERY low. You can even turn it off. Stir frequently, bringing the sauce to a simmer again if you can see the chicken is still pink. This is really a poaching method. Cooking the chicken over high heat in this sauce will turn it tough. Do not let this happen.
Perfect Friday-Night Curry
for the paste:
6 cloves garlic
1 fat 2-inch knob ginger, peeled and cut in chunks
3 Thai red chilies
2 tbsps Sriracha super-hot chili sauce
zest and juice of 1 lime
1 shallot, peeled
1 stalk lemon grass, finely chopped
1 tsp Thai fish sauce
1 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp sea salt
fresh black pepper
1 tsp water
for the curry:
2 tbsps vegetable or olive oil
2 red bell peppers, cut in bite-size pieces
1/2 head cauliflower, cut in bite-size florets
1 white onion, cut in eighths
1 zucchini/courgette, cut in bite-size pieces
1/4 cup chicken stock
1 cup/250 ml coconut cream
1 soup-size can coconut milk
4 chicken breast fillets, completely trimmed
steamed basmati rice
large handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped fine
large handful cilantro/coriander, chopped fine
Place all the ingredients for the paste in your chopping machine or blender and pulse for a long time, scraping down the sides, so that they form a thick, even paste.
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the oil till very hot. Tip in the paste. Stir vigorously.
Tip in all the vegetables but the courgette and cook over a high heat until the peppers begin to color slightly. Add the courgette.
Pour in the stock, coconut cream and coconut milk and stir until fully blended. Bring to a high simmer and add the chicken. Turn the heat down very low and continue to stir, checking frequently to see if the chicken has turned opaque and lost its pinkness. This is the moment to turn the heat OFF.
Prepare your rice. Here is another secret for you. When your rice has fully steamed, turn off the heat and leave it, covered, for about 10 minutes. This will produce enough extra steam to loosen the rice from the bottom of the pan, and it will come away fully, leaving no sticky bits. Toss the rice with the parsley and cilantro and resist the urge to add butter. You don’t need it; the curry is creamy enough.
Our nest is different, that’s for certain. It doesn’t feel empty, quite, but it’s a new feeling.
Avery’s gone off to Oxford, finally, after so many months of anticipation!
Just over a week ago, we packed up a rental car with loads of carefully-filled luggage and drove the surprisingly short distance up the motorway, to arrive under perfectly blue skies and autumnal, crispy air. It was just as beautiful as we hoped, and Avery settled in very easily, into dappled loveliness.
With surprisingly little fuss, all her belongings floated into place in her college rooms. She seemed to have been there forever, really.
I will admit that it felt very odd to drive away leaving her there, but as the miles went by and we talked about how we were feeling, it was with a completely positive mood. After all, her being there is something she’s worked extremely hard for, and the new chapter has begun. It helps that Oxford is simply breathtaking. Avery sent this photo to us last night, of her quad.
It’s wonderful to think of her walking from place to place in Oxford, soaking in this atmosphere.
It’s definitely been for the best that John and I have more than enough on our plates to keep us busier than we really want to be. There is the house move, to be sure, which involves a seemingly endless parade of tasks, the latest being today’s venture into the dank, moldy, miserable basement — I will NOT miss having to descend into it! — to go through a simply towering stack of Christmas picture books, dusting them off and choosing which ones I really can’t live without.
The outlandish thing is that there is another stack just as tall that my favorite toddler twins are taking home with them this afternoon! How on earth did we amass such a collection? Because our entire lives with Avery have been defined by BOOKS! Never mind, hours of holiday bliss are collected between the covers of these lovely tomes, and the memories will remain intact. I personally plan to leaf through each and every one, in our new home, this holiday season.
Unbelievably, two weeks from today the movers arrive to do their best/worst to pack us up in two days, then the following two days they unpack us in SE1, to our eventual delight, I’m sure. We are taking absolutely nothing with us that we don’t love, and actually some wonderful things will be coming out of storage to join us, no doubt feeling quite new and exciting — a rug, a bench, possibly a sofa bought months ago at auction and nearly forgotten. What fun that will be!
Because I’m me, lots of my time has been happily spent with my new Home-Start family, which for reasons of obvious confidentiality I can’t tell you anything about, except that I’m safe saying it’s a very small baby, and a mum who is a fabulous, fantastic cook and has been generously teaching me her time-honoured, passed-down-by-mum recipes. I give you quite simply the most authentic, heavenly lentil dish you will ever taste.
(serves lots, perhaps 6–8)
about 1 cup/250 grams orange, yellow or brown lentils
about 3 cups water
1 medium tomato
1 medium onion
3 cloves garlic
1 heaping tsp ground coriander
1 heaping tsp ground cumin
1 heaping tsp ground turmeric
1 heaping tsp chili powder
1 heaping tsp garam masala
1/2 cup/125 ml vegetable oil
1 medium onion, roughly sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1 medium tomato
sea salt and fresh black pepper to taste
1/2 cup/125 ml plain yoghurt
fresh coriander/cilantro leaves to garnish
Pour the lentils into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and cover with water. You may need more water as they cook down. Into the lentils, coarsely chop the tomato, onion and garlic. My friend does this with a small, sharp knife, right from her hand into the pot. Sprinkle with all the spices. Bring to a simmer and cook until soft, adding more water if needed, about 30 minutes. Make sure the lentils are truly soft.
While they are cooking, heat the oil in a frying pan till very hot, then add the onions and garlic and fry until brown. This is absolutely crucial — continue to cook them past the level you would for any other recipe, except perhaps a biryani. They need to be fried nearly crisp, and you will find that they begin to stick together in clumps. This is perfect.
Now add them to the simmered lentils.
As the oily onions and garlic hit the wet lentils, they will make a crackling sound, very satisfying, which the Pakistanis believe mimics the sound of firecrackers, and the Urdu word for firecracker is “Tarka.” Hence “Tarka Daal,” since “Daal” is Urdu for “lentils.”
Stir thoroughly and add the second tomato. Cook just a bit. Season well and stir in half the yogurt. Serve topped with the remaining yogurt and the cilantro.
This dish is simply heavenly! So complex, so satisfying with a roasted chicken, a nice piece of fish, or with a fried egg on top and more crispy onions… the possibilities are endless! Of course my friend serves it with a nice chicken curry and boiled rice, which is a very good thing to do.
We have been having such fun together, learning from each other, taking a very long bus ride to the nearest halal shop to buy all the spices I need, plus special pickled mangoes, potato pancakes, and baklawa to assuage the taste Avery acquired in Greece. I’ll have to take some more to her when we visit.
Bell-ringing has been going quite well, with Plain Bob nearly under my belt. How I love the bellchamber with its humorous windows shining in the sun.
As is usual the second weekend of October, we bell-ringers took over the stocking and running of the church Coffee Shop on Saturday. I baked! Lemon polenta cake with blueberries, chocolate chip fudge cake.
At the same time a Ringing Training Session took place in the bellchamber, filled to the brim with teachers and learners.
I spent the whole day in the church, feeling as usual that I was in an Agatha Christie novel minus the dead body (so far), serving coffee, greeting the twins and their beautiful mum, when they came by for chocolate cake and a spot of gardening.
John popped in — looking as out of place amongst the ringers eating lunch as would a golden retriever amongst a gaggle of geese! — to confer on the ingredients for the meatloaf I was planning for dinner. One of the few benefits to Avery’s absence is the freedom to eat whatever we like, even if it’s not her favorite.
Meatloaf, ah, I’ve missed you. This recipe is inspired by the divine David Rosengarten, author of the Dean and Deluca Cookbook from our halcyon New York City days. I’ve replaced the dried herbs with fresh, and added a bit of cottage cheese, plus I always grind my own meat, and I’ve replaced all-beef with a trio of meats.
Perfect Soft-and-Moist Meatloaf
1 pound/450 grams beef chuck (or rump or chump)
1/2 pound/225 grams lamb neck fillet, or lamb steaks
1/2 pound/225 grams pork shoulder or fatty chops
3 cups/5 slices/180 grams bread (David uses white; I used granary)
2/3 cup/155 ml milk
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
dash fresh ground nutmeg
handful basil leaves, cut into ribbons
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 stalks celery with leaves, finely chopped
handful flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
12 rashers bacon, lightly browned and chopped roughly
1/2 cup/100 grams cottage cheese, small curd
Cut the meats into chunks of about 2 inches, trimmed of excess fat (but leave some). Pass through your grinder, alternating the meats so they mix loosely. Set aside.
Combine the bread and milk, then beat the egg lightly and add to the mix. Leave for a minute or so, then stir to break up the bread quite finely. Add all the other ingredients and mix well. Mix into meats until fully integrated, then pat into a buttered loaf pan. As David says, a loaf pan (rather than simply mounding the mixture in a dish) allows only the top to brown and the rest is soft and comforting.
Bake at 350F/180C for 55 minutes, then let rest for five minutes before slicing. This meatloaf is perfect with a pale gravy, such you might have leftover from roasting a chicken. Mashed potatoes a MUST.
The evening of The Divine Meatloaf, a lovely local man came to buy Avery’s bed, which we had undressed during the day. He and John toiled up and down the stairs from the top of the house to the hallway, carrying bits and pieces. I stood in the door making sure Tacy didn’t escape. It was an unforgettable autumnal moment — the intensely nostalgic aroma of the meatloaf stealing through the house, the dry leaves swooping down the pavement, tall trees rustling in the wind, the bed going to a new home. Avery will have the guest bed now, which began its life as her little-girl bed. Full circle.
The next morning, after ringing for services, I made my way to Gloucester Road to meet up with the incomparable Silver Fox (my pal Rosie), and our partner-in-crime, the heavenly Sam. We shared rather a disgusting brunch — how DOES one partly overcook a poached egg whilst leaving the white still liquid? Never mind. We were together.
We meandered over to the Brompton Ceremony, where members of the Banks family that Rosie studies at Kingston Lacy are buried.
“So, Rosie, where are the graves?” Sam asked, looking around at the ivy-covered stones and monuments, under a brilliant blue sky.
“Mmm, not exactly sure,” Rosie murmured, almost as if she were trying not to be heard.
“You mean, they could be anywhere?” I asked, looking with a bit more attention at the expansive grounds.
“Well, yes, but it’s only 39 acres,” Rosie assured us, “and something tells me we’ll just COME upon them.”
Readers, we did not. But that didn’t spoil our fun on a glorious fall day, kicking leaves under our feet, enjoying the numberless paeans of praise to this or that Fanny, Amelia, Eliza Jane and Septimus.
We meandered here, wandered there, chatted about food, Avery, Sam’s career plans, Rosie’s plans to come back with a location (!) for her graves. Suddenly Rosie stopped in her tracks.
“Look, a stoat, rushing through the underbrush! Oh, no, it’s a squirrel.” (Deep disappointment.)
“Rosie, in what universe would there be a stoat just running wild in a cemetery?”
“Well, the sign said that it’s a very welcoming habitat for hundreds of species.”
“Very possibly, but BIRDS, and RODENTS. Not small pigs!”
[Author’s note: it has been pointed out to me by a loyal reader that I was thinking of a SHOAT. Like this.
A STOAT is this, much more likely to be haunting the cemetery:
And I REALLY WANT ONE.]
Finally we gave in and realised the Bankses were not going to pop and say, “We’re here!” and we decided to leave their discovery for another day. We parted at the bus stop, as usual reluctant to say goodbye. Until next time, my friends.
Late afternoon saw me at one of my favorite events: ringing for Choral Evensong, on an autumn Sunday when 5:30 is just beginning to feel like evening, a bit crisp, with a hint of woodsmoke in the air. I pedalled along the quietening High Street, peppered with parents toting weary children along the lovely village road. What a beautiful place to live.
We gathered to ring, listening to the choir practicing. My fellow ringers, and my beloved vicar, are some of my very favorite people.
“Why the photographs, Kristen?” Giles asks (he’s the chap on the right, the perfect English gentleman).
“Because I’m leaving.”
“Oh, come now, you’re not going THAT far.”
But he, Richard and Trisha posed for me, indulgently. And then we rang. Not brilliantly, but we rang.
Which is a fair attitude these days to life with all its joys and changes. We do it. Not always brilliantly, but we do it. And in the back of our minds, we know Avery is happy, and sending us photographs, and that’s all that really matters.
Will anyone who doesn’t live on a London train line understand my post title? It’s what they say when you come to the end of a line. “All change at Hammersmith/Waterloo.” So we do. All change, that is.
You know how everything’s about “mindfulness” these days? Our local bookshop is filled with tomes on the subject of mindfulness, living in the moment, appreciating life as it happens, BEING there, focusing attention on the here and now, and belovedness of the ordinary. The bookshop owner even complained to me that she had lost valuable children’s picture book space to the new genre of adults’ coloring books. Because apparently when you’re coloring, you have no choice but to be “mindful” and live in the moment.
I think I, by contrast, need to write a book on “mindlessless.” If I appreciate things any more, if I live any more in the beloved moment, my head will explode.
It’s finally come to this: Avery’s last day at home before starting university.
We are all a bit like peas on a hot shovel today, to quote Lord Peter Wimsey. Full of last questions about things to take with her — cutlery and towels, push pins and a copy of “The Great British Bake-Off,” our comfort telly-watching these last few days. The inevitability of departure hangs over the house, a combination of exciting, exhausting and not a little of the Great Unknown.
Clothes have been sorted, her books put into piles of “Take to Oxford,” “Take to New Apartment,” and “Oh, God, I have no idea.”
The church jumble sale lady has come with her station wagon and carried away all the things no longer needed before this big move out into the real world: sweaters and potato ricers, Avery’s photographic white box and my pasta machine, novels I have two copies of and mismatched drinking glasses. Quite overwhelming, the clobber. “Jumble” was just the right word. I was too traumatised by it all to take a picture.
It’s really the combination of Avery’s going and our impending departure later this month that’s made it all so overwhelming. Either one would be enough to make me a bit crazy, but together they form a perfect storm of nervous tension that is hard to describe. And yet perhaps it’s easier this way, leaving the home where the three of us have been so happy, to settle ourselves into a perfectly new empty nest, a pristine place with no memories, yet.
Although I’m excited about what the future holds (a bit), it is a wrench to drag myself away from the safe, cosy cocoon of Barnes (where I’ve been happier, really, than anywhere since we left New York) and to the urban, edgy, cool and rather intimidating world of Southbank, our new home.
Leaving behind my beloved ringing chamber and the friends I’ve made over the past nearly five years… How I will miss them!
Contemplating saying a bit of a goodbye — at least goodbye to our almost weekly playdates — to my little twin friends, Freddie and Angus, with whom I’ve shared so many happy hours… This was an idyllic game of hide-and-seek in yesterday’s sunshine, captured by their beautiful mom Claire. They have become irreplaceable people in my life, so a journey on the train, rather than a hop on my bike, to come back to them is definitely in the cards.
We’ve filled the week with the most delicious things we could think of to feed Avery before she goes — beef fillets and mushrooms, chicken tenders, roasted red pepper pasta, John’s marinated pork chops. Tonight because she wants to, we’re having BOTH spaghetti carbonara AND Orlando’s potatoes cooked in goose fat. Because we can. And who knows what tomorrow’s food will bring. It’s so hard for me to lose control of making sure she is fed properly! But it’s time.
“At least you have your fantastic, supportive yoga teacher to keep you calm,” you might say.
But no! Yesterday a group of her grateful students hosted a delicious lunch to say… goodbye to her! Carrie’s heartlessly leaving us for greener pastures in California. How I will miss her. But I suppose it makes it easier to leave Barnes. Our beautiful neighborhood will be a little less shiny, a little less warm, without her.
And thank goodness for occasional moments of levity like today’s visit from a brand-new neighborhood kitty, a virtual twin to our Hermione, only nice!
You can pick her up!
Tomorrow will see us heading off in our rented station wagon, heading packed to the gills to Oxford. John and I will return home to a new chapter, the empty nest. And real life, for all three of us, will never be quite the same.
Alice’s Walrus had it right: the time HAS come to talk of many things. I’m not sure what falls under the category of cabbages OR kings. You can decide for yourself.
It’s approaching late September, so a young lady’s thoughts naturally turn toward moving house. Yes, AGAIN. One more move between now and our eventual dream home I HOPE. Don’t you? Hasn’t it been tedious, watching us move all our lives from one place to another every two years or so? Does the sea glass go with us? The six little silver shot glasses we brought back from Moscow?
Yes to the above, they made the cut. But in sad and symbolic gesture, my tall piles of mismatched dinner plates, to host the Ladies of Lost Property, will find a home in the local charity shop. There isn’t any more Lost Property.
The pantry came under the knife. Why oh why do I have six different kinds of rice?
I’ve culled the spices. There are still about a thousand jars.
We feel reassured that every single thing we look at will find a place in our new, interim home.
House-hunting! How time-consuming it is to be sure! Rosemary came to help us choose. The flat in Shad Thames on the river with THIS view? Lead me to it!
But John could touch the ceiling of that flat (perfect word) with his hand and started hyperventilating with claustrophobia, so onward to this garden, in a Georgian house in a bit of a remote area. Yes please!
But the neighborhood was so depressing. I want to be there when it livens up. Right now there were at least two betting shops, a few nail salons, another betting shop, and an enchanting Potuguese deli. Not enough.
Or how about a cheaply-done, forgettable flat in the most stimulating and exciting neighborhood of Shoreditch? How could we leave this building-sized graffiti behind?
After much repeat viewing, and subjecting dinner and houseguests to endless pros and cons discussions (even dragging Avery along now and then, so she had a say in a room which she’ll come “home” to at Christmas), we settled on a place called Neo Bankside, right alongside the Tate Modern (never mind that it’s a giant construction site right now while they work on a massive addition; I like urban clutter), just a hop from the Globe Theatre, and if we lived in one of the apartments facing north, we’d have THIS view! Yes, it’s St Paul’s Cathedral.
We do not, however, have an apartment facing north. We have an apartment facing south, which is basically city streets and urban clutter. And only two bedrooms. What the new place has in its favor is a fantastic array of places for coffee — the Albion gets my vote — a great “Winter Garden” where can have our desk in glassy splendor, and a fabulous doorman called Tyrone. You can bet I’ll get a picture of Tyrone the moment I arrive. “I will consider it my work to make you as happy here as I possibly can,” he assured me solemnly, holding open the elevator door. I could get used to that.
So we’re set. We felt pretty good about it, collapsed at the Albion over a plate of their superb dessert, a creme brulee with apple compote and apple sorbet. I will learn to make it.
Perhaps it’s good in a way, as we approach saying goodbye to Avery next month, to be moving on ourselves? I am confident it will be better to miss her in a place she’s never been, than in a home that in the past two years has been so good to us. There are so many memories of her taking photographs for the cookbook in this house; the next kitchen will be neutral. For a bit.
What a funny late summer it has been.
This year, I went off to America on my own, Avery went off on her incredible summer adventure of travels through France, Italy and Greece, and John stayed in London to push his house-building project ever closer to a spade in the ground.
Then, I came home and began a month of very demanding jobs as a “paid worker” for my beloved charity Home-Start — replacing the various volunteers who go away (as I used to!) for the month of August. I worked with four families for a month, three hours at a time, getting myself hopelessly involved and interested in their trials and tribulations, and hopelessly attached to their beautiful children. And then I said goodbye. Forever.
It didn’t suit me. I know, it’s not about me, it’s about the children. But I think I do better work when I have the wide-open spaces of a year to be with a family, not a month. However, they reported that it was useful having me there, so there I was.
At least during this complicated month, we had the fun of our houseguest and friend Elise, between university and her first big job.
For he, we gave a Burger Bash — home-minced to be sure. To feed a medley of our favorite friends, the burgers were to be piled high, eventually, with rocket, fresh tomatoes, red onions, fresh pesto, blue cheese and FOIE GRAS. Heaven.
Who could not come prepared to have fun, knowing there would be creamy red pepper soup and French fries? Not to mention Lucy’s fabulous “apple crumble cake” and Elizabeth’s perfect berries and cream, and Suzanne’s peach trifle (page 242 in the cookbook!). How lucky I am in my friends. It was my last chance to feed Maddie before she left for university. Sob.
Elise busied herself enjoying one last bit of carefree holiday, living the glamorous London life, while we two looked at houses, went to Paris, and missed Avery. To console myself, I cooked a completely ridiculous amount, lots of favorites from the cookbook: spaghetti puttanesca, three-bean chilli, chicken tenders with spicy mayo, tuna tartare, roasted salmon with Fox Point, then salmon mousse with the leftovers. John was happy.
I invented a few things, like:
(serves at least 6)
1 butternut squash
1 head cauliflower
1 1/2 cups wholemeal couscous
boiling chicken stock to cover, plus an inch extra on top
sprinkling Fox Point Seasoning or poultry seasoning
3 tbsps olive oil
2 tbsps butter
1 red pepper, diced
handful mushrooms, diced
a bunch asparagus, diced
handful broccoli florets
4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
Cut the butternut squash in half and scoop out seeds. Drizzle olive oil over it. Place it, with the head of cauliflower, on a baking tray lined with foil, and roast at 220C/425F for about 45 minutes, or until each is soft. Cool.
Pour the couscous into a very large bowl and cover with the chicken stock, then cover the bowl for five minutes. Uncover and fluff the couscous till the grains are light and separated.
Cut the butternut squash into bite-sized pieces, and pull the cauliflower apart into florets of the size you wish. Pour onto the couscous.
Place the oil and butter into a frying pan and cook all the remaining ingredients in it until softened. Pour over the couscous and mix well.
Oh, this was good. So was the:
Grilled Whole Herbed Sea Bass
(one fish per person)
1 bunch fresh thyme, leaves and stems if not too woody
1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped coarsely
1 stalk lemon grass, chopped fine
2 lemons, sliced and deseeded
generous sprinklings sea salt and fresh black pepper
2 tbsps olive oil
Have the fishmonger gut and scale the fish, but leave the heads and tails. Then stuff them with the herbs and lemon grass, and lay the lemon slices along the herbs. Season well and close the fish as best you can.
Barbecue or grill on medium heat for 6 minutes per side or until flesh is cooked through. Yummo!
My new year-long Home-Start mum taught me to make sublime “daal,” that creamy concoction of slow-cooked lentils in an incredible broth of spices and yogurt. When I make it at home, I will let you know how it all works.
And finally, Avery came home. It was simply lovely to see her after so many weeks!
How hard it was for her to re-enter the cruel real world, after so many days of gracious Greek living, not to mention her adventures in Paris, Rome, Florence, Bologna and Venice. She was HOME. Knowing she’ll be going away again so soon makes me particularly appreciate the light coming from her room at the top of her stairs. A treat.
And Rosemary arrived. Such a wonderful feeling to know everyone was safe and sound under my roof.
To celebrate, we pulled out all the stops for a dinner party, taking time to polish the napkin rings beforehand, a luxury I normally don’t bother with! But it was a special occasion.
We made a Greek-ish dish, to welcome Avery home, inspired by the great British chef Rick Stein’s recent journeys from Venice to Istanbul.
Slow-Roasted Greek Lamb and Potatoes
(serves 8 easily)
3 lamb neck fillets (or the equivalent amount of boneless shoulder), cut in serving pieces
8 large potatoes
1 bunch fresh oregano, leaves only
1 bunch fresh thyme, leaves and stems if not too woody
1 bunch rosemary, leaves only
12 fresh (if possible!) bay leaves
10 cloves garlic, chopped fine
zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 cup white wine
2/3 cup olive oil
lots of sea salt and fresh black pepper
This dish couldn’t be simpler. Simply lay the lamb pieces in a single layer in a baking dish, then tuck the potatoes in with them. Scatter over the oregano, rosemary and thyme, and tuck in the bay leaves. Scatter over the garlic and lemon, and pour over the wine and oil. Season well.
Bake at 260C/320F for three hours. That’s it.
This dish is fantastic because it uses a little-known cut of lamb which is inexpensive. Also, the potatoes (should you be wicked enough to eat such things) cook right long with the meat — no fussing with an extra prep. With a big bowl of green things (we had beans, asparagus and broccolini), you’re DONE.
What a fabulous evening, so much fun we forgot to take a picture! Among our guests were my beloved Sue and her husband Paul, who’s a very loyal alumnus of Avery’s soon-to-be college, so that was fun, to get his perspective on her upcoming life. Though truth be told, we talked even more about real estate, kids, recipes and Avery’s adventures with Laundry In Europe! “We shoved euros into a washing machine and then realised it took TOKENS!”
The following morning found Rosemary and me in a cheerful London drizzle at, wait for it, St James’s Palace!
Of course you already know what takes me to that gorgeous place every September: the folding of clothes and then distribution of clothes with the Queen Mother’s Clothing Guild, which fantastic charity my friend Fiona has included me in every year for years. I adore it, and Fiona was glad to welcome Rosemary. As indeed EVERYONE did. She was like a mascot! All those wonderful English ladies took her under their wings to include her, explain things, show her around. Susan even took time to lead her down a weaponry-lined royal corridor in time to see the Changing of the Guard from within the Palace walls! Strictly NO photography allowed, I’m sorry to say. Trust me, it was glamour personified.
And the Prince of Wales’s Red Reading Room! And the tall-ceilinged rooms liked with Gainsboroughs in which we labored. Glamor!
We came away in the afternoon ready for a change and a bit of fresh air, so it was onto Fortnum and Mason for us, to buy biscuits and spices for Christmas gifts, and of course a mushroom for dinner. Why not? They sell them! And then Hatchards, where I found this treasure. It brought tears to my eyes.
Of course I knew, when I named our cookbook “Tonight at 7.30,” that it was a poem by W.H. Auden, in honor of the great food writer MFK Fisher. And I’d read the poem online (remembering particularly that he felt the perfect dinner party included children being in bed and out of the way!). But somehow I hadn’t reckoned with how emotional I would feel, seeing the poem in print. Rosemary bought the book for me!
We were back at the Palace the next day to meet Princess Alexandra, our patron! How the ladies laughed to try to push Rosemary (“stop, I’m really quite shy!” she insisted, to no avail) to the front of the receiving line. How we laughed further when she maneuvered herself to the back of the line, only to find that the Princess had reversed her direction and she was now FIRST! We took pity and shoved her between us, but she still got to curtsy and shake the Princess’s hand. That was fun. Because Royal Things Are Fun.
“What is this, an outpost of Lost Property?” my irrepressible friend Prathima asked, hands on hips. And sure enough, we realised as we looked around that a good half of the volunteers on the “6–15″ stall were my Lost Property team! Now Fiona’s, of course, bless her. It’s very much the same sort of person, an LP person and a QMCG person. Order out of chaos, and a strong sense of teamwork.
We said goodbye for another year, and rushed to first Marylebone to see a house, a darling mews affair that didn’t make the cut. Sadly.
Of course our London adventure began in Marylebone, with Avery’s school there! It would have been fun to re-visit, or “regress” as Avery termed it. There was even a small girl from her school scootering by, complete with the heart-rending uniform!
But it was not to be. They were just too small, felt too temporary. And John kindly pointed out that there would be no place for my walls of books, which seem to have dominated our lives all out of proportion. But there you are. “If you were just here for six months,” Rosemary said rightly, “you could just accept it. But two, three years?”
From there we rode in stately exhaustion in a black cab to Neo Bankside and pretty much decided. Sighs of relief.
Because then we could turn our attention to really necessary things like baking bagels! I used my very own recipe, but because I didn’t pay attention to details, I messed up the first batch. Avery and Zoe gazed at them cautiously. “They’re very… flat, aren’t they?” “Well, maybe they’re FLATBREADS,” I countered. We ate our way through them bravely, Rosemary pointing out sweetly, “Bagels are really just vehicles for cream cheese and smoked salmon anyway,” but we had to admit they were very, very heavy vehicles.
I had to try again. And readers, they were perfect. Don’t stir the yeast until you are damn well told to! And don’t let the dough get too hot.
Since our borrowed KitchenAid mixer was being picked up by its mother, my friend Nora, the following morning, we went whole hog and made Avery’s favorite beignets too, rich with powdered sugar. To clear our heads we took a lovely walk through September Barnes, spending money at the bookshop, having coffee at the little Italian place. Isla, the bookshop owner, smiled at me. “Why would you leave Barnes?” Why indeed.
Lunch at Petersham Nurseries! Is there anything more delicious? Deep-fried nuggets of polenta with pickled pumpkin, red mullet with pesto, bruschetta with wild mushrooms, grouse, poussin and John Dory! But we all agreed Avery’s handmade spaghetti with girolles mushrooms was the best. As the rain pattered on the greenhouse ceiling, we had FUN.
Saturday dawned with the sensation that we were at the bottom of a very steep hill: why had I planned so many things for the same day? Because that’s when they happened, and that’s all there is to it.
First up in the morning was a long-awaited tour of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry! I have never been, which seems silly given how obsessed I am with bells. Rosemary and I went off in uncertainty as to my ability to get us somewhere completely new, with no help, but I was fine! And it was lovely. We learned so much, from our tour guide, a member of the original founding family, an employee for 49 years.
The old song rang in my head…
Seeing so many bells in one place, all where we could study them and admire them without having actually to RING them, was a total treat!
I could even drum up some enthusiasm for the concept of a handbell, so beautifully made.
We raced home in order to make the next big special event: the Barnes Food Fair! Always delicious. We met up with Elizabeth and enjoyed the day: spicy mutton sandwiches, goose salami, Pimms! And it was a cool, beautiful afternoon.
And my book at the bookshop table. Isla is a sweetheart.
We barely took time to lie down for five minutes before it was time to pop onto Southwest Trains (where I spent the bulk of my summer, going on Home-Start visits), to Twickenham to see… the rugby!
If this surprises you, all I can say is that the three tickets were given to me by Richmond Council! In a completely unnecessary but lovely gesture of appreciation for my work with Home-Start. A major award! A Community Commendation.
So we went! We and 76,000 other sports fans, if you can imagine! It was utterly incomprehensible, but we had an amazing time anyway.
I staggered up in the morning to ring my bells. And because they are practically perfect in every way, Sue and Rosemary came along to support me. I was given the job of calling changes, by Trisha, who always likes to show people off to their family members and friends. There was a lot of jollity!
How I adore Trisha.
We went along to a glorious brunch at the Olympic, in the summer sun, under the perfect blue sky. Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, lovely conversation. I wish I could bottle the sense of perfection of that morning.
Rosemary’s visit had come to an end. We had packed in every single celebration we could, eaten every wonderful meal, had every luxurious conversation. And we had found a home!
Life has been a little bit of all right lately, with more adventures to come: Avery’s departure to Oxford, our big house move. Take a deep breath, and read a little Alice.
Click here for a completely bell-ringing post!
What a spoilt-rotten title for a post that is, to be sure!
But it’s true.
We’ve been planning this trip for months — a chance to meet with our Famous Architect in Paris, and increasingly for me to express some of the wishes I have for our eventual dream house. It was time, after John has put in endless months and now years working on this project, for me to think seriously about what matters to me, and to articulate it for the creative people.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though, because before that meeting happened, I had 24 hours in Paris to do with whatever I liked!
We popped up out of the Gare du Nord into one of those perfect, warm, blue-sky days in Paris, the kind of day that reminds you to look around, crane your neck at the inimitable angle of the tourist, to appreciate the extraordinary beauty all around you.
Firstly, lunch. We had looked forward ever since we booked our tickets to the ultimate Paris picnic. Actually it couldn’t be more mundane: wander down the boulevards until you find a supermarche, no matter how ordinary. G20 will do, with their excellent catch-phrase, “Depenser moins, sans aller loin [spend less without going far].” We came away in an instant with a bloc of pure foie gras, goose liver, a terrine of pate with forest mushrooms, a round of goat cheese in ash, and a baguette. Sauntering along with our booty, I realised if I didn’t acquire some butter I would regret it all my life, so as soon as we found another shop I dashed in and came out with a wastefully large slab of President butter, so delightfully salty and perfect.
We repaired to the cobblestoned yard outside the Guggenheim and carefully spread out paper maps of Paris to sit on. And we had our picnic.
Foie gras. Nothing should be so delicious. But truth be told, as always in Paris, it was impossible to separate the intensely rich goose liver’s flavor from the simple flavor of the city — full of people enjoying themselves, a violinist playing the Schindler’s List music behind us, French toddlers racing by chasing pigeons. We ate until we couldn’t eat any more, and then went on our way. “We haven’t planned anything,” John observed. “Nope,” I agreed. We simply walked, heading to the river and the Ile St. Louis, walking along the water until the pathway came to its pointy end, following a “chien typiquement francais” on its mysterious errands…
then heading up to a bridge to cross in the warm sunshine.
And there was the Musee d’Orsay! Since my dark past as an art historian, I tend to shy away from museums, galleries and other places of culture where I might be expected to display some expert knowledge, since it’s my sincere fear that I’ve forgotten everything I ever knew.
But in a fit of nostalgia for my old Paris self, working industriously at this archive or that private collection, we went into the Orsay. And readers, the past 25 years simply fell away! Rodin!
I’ve seen the “Gates of Hell” in many iterations over the years — the Musee Rodin itself, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Cantor Collection in New York (tragically destroyed in the World Trade Center). But I’ve never seen it in plaster before. Did you know that this sculpture is the art world’s only example of a work that exists in many copies, but with no original? This stems from the fact that Rodin worked on the piece from 1880 until his death in 1917, but never assembled it. When he died, in the confusion of the war and a desire to enhance his posthumous reputation, the pieces of the independent works of which it’s made were gathered up from the floor of his studio and … cobbled together, according to the views of various curators who had made it their business to appear there. Consequently — copies without an original.
How lovely, in any case.
How I was transported back to the many, many lunches I spent with my beautiful friend Joan, curator of the Cantor Fitzgerald Collection at the World Trade Center. My heart truly filled with memories of the intense conversations we had about the sculptures, about the man Rodin, about our ambitions in the art world.
Once I brought my newborn baby to see her there. I thought of that so many times, on September 11.
The “Monument to Balzac”!
How I love it, and cherish the knowledge that the Parisian public reviled it, and vendors produced little statues of penguins draped in cloth, to sell at the exhibition when it was revealed.
Around a corner we found a treasure, the avowed masterpiece by Camille Claudel, my dissertation topic.
She would be astonished to know that her work sits alongside Rodin’s, in the Musee d’Orsay. Importantly, directly opposite is Rodin’s bust of her, probably sculpture by her, since he never touched marble himself.
What a lovely afternoon, in that former rail station.
It was onto the paintings, with endless crowds of tourists. I tried to be glad they were enjoying my favorites, but I was happy when they stepped aside. Oh, Manet. I love your shadows.
John paused by the iconic, enormous clock window. I could feel his excitement over the upcoming meeting with his architect, the inspiration that comes from looking at art created by people at the top of their game, the happy revisiting of old memories.
“Now, look like you have an Instagram page for your architecture firm.”
Finally, feet already tired, we walked all over the Tuilieries.
Such happy memories of a Paris trip long ago with little Avery… she travelling now on her own all through Europe, nearly 19 years old. Smashing times.
Avery was with us in spirit in the Tuileries, however, as in the way of modern life, she texted us to say, “You HAVE to have sorbets from Amorino!” We found it, a busy hub of activity under an awning. Melon, lime and basil, and “agrumes de Sicily,” blood orange.
Home to our hotel, a lovely gem near the Republique, 123 Sebastapol. I stupidly took no pictures, but suffice to say it is a wonderful place to stay, the kind of staff who let me speak my best French, but speak to John in English, who help me find words and give me extra pillows and buckets of ice. Lovely.
We wandered the neighborhood at dinner time and sat down at several outdoor cafes, only to rise again and reject them — wrong ambience, touristy clientele. Just as John was about to strangle me, we found the delightful Bistro de la Gaiete, just off the busy road and so quiet, and in any case on our night in August — season of annual closings all over the city — quieter even than usual.
We sat outside in the pleasantly sultry evening, eating confit de canard and steak tartare, feeling that sense of excitement and coolness that is the hallmark of a Parisian getaway.
In the morning, we found ourselves at the sumptuous hotel breakfast of every cured meat and sausage on earth, creamy scrambled eggs, fresh yogurt and that special French method of serving coffee — a pot of hot black brew, a pot of equally hot, full-fat milk, poured in in equal measure. Divine. Rain pelted down onto the glass ceiling. “I hope it stops before we have to go out,” John mused, remembering the incredibly tacky “London 2012″ umbrellas we had brought with us, purchased cheaply after the Olympics and our standby ever since, since we tend to lose umbrellas. But we had to take them.
Out into the sprinkly day, filled with that grey, close, humid smell that comes up from Paris sidewalks in the rain. We arrived at the architect’s office.
Elevator out. We climbed five stories to the office itself.
There we were ushered into a simple conference room where, with piles of drawings, a model of the house, and a plentiful supply of little triangular rulers, we went over every square centimeter of the plans. The balcony doors? Will concertina all the way back on the dining and living floors, so that our living space will seem to reach straight to the Tower of London. There will be a new freestanding wall to accommodate an installation of sculpture I’ve been missing for 10 years, stuck in storage since we moved here.
The kitchen will have a hidden, capacious pantry for all my ingredients. Since I own only a paltry few clothes, my walk-in-closet will morph into our bathroom being much bigger. No tub, but a huge shower. Avery has a cozy room, to be sure, for the times she’s able to be with us in two years’ time or so.
I’m not able to tell you too many things about all our plans yet, because official channels are still considering what we want to do. Rest assured as soon as I’m able, I’ll show you plans and photos of every description!
We repaired, together with our architect and his assistant, to a simply SUPERB — but completely down-market and simple, in the Japanese way — restaurant for a feast of “tonkatsu,” a superior sort of crunchy, juicy fried things.
Pork fillet, chicken breast, giant shrimps, potato “croquettes.”
All accompanied by the finest shredded cabbage on earth, and a sauce of “everything savory” which I learned later is called “bull-dog” sauce. Vegetable-based, mixed with soy and mirin and sesame. And Japanese pickles! Cucumber and shallot. Our architect ordered everything for us, along with an udon noodle soup with some little bits floating in it. “Are these little bits of pasta?” I ask. “No, no, they are, how to say it, puffed rice.” Rice krispie soup! Fantastic.
We ate in what I think is a Japanese way — very quickly! With lots of steamed rice, an assiduous amount of attention to making sure everyone had equal portions. “What percentage of your clients can eat with chopsticks?” John asked, smiling. “One hundred percent,” our architect answered, dead serious.
We parted, simply filled to the brim with Japanese delicacies, with a plan to see each other soon in London, and a copy of his newly-published catalogue raisonne in John’s briefcase. How exciting it all is, to be sure.
We indulged in some desultory wanderings about and a visit to an exhibition of photographs of the Kennedys.
Finally, in need of a pick-me-up, we collapsed back at the bistro of the night before, for a much-welcomed coffee. And for John to take my “Paris Photo.” I call this my PhD look, slightly marred by my poodle hair from the rain. Ah well, it’s a truthful image of me.
And before you could blink, we were peacefully on the Eurostar, and another blink and home in London, our heads full of everything we had seen, heard and eaten. How is that possible? Whenever I get a little too absorbed by the sheer dailiness of life — the laundry, the litterboxes, the grocery shopping — I stop and remember that in two and a half hours, Paris is ours.
The gorgeous St Pancras station loomed over us as we arrived.
Paris. There is nothing like it, even for 31 hours. Or maybe especially.
I’ve been home a whole week now, battling jetlag with every weapon at my disposal: afternoon naps, two new Home-Start families to look after, more naps, and over the weekend, a two-day writing course on “Autobiography Into Fiction: How To Turn Your Life Into a Novel.” Being unable to nap for two whole days in a row actually got me over the edge, and I’m cautiously optimistic, from the point of view of a grey, sprinkly Monday in London, that I’m back in the saddle of my English life.
My American life, telescoped into two beautiful weeks, was so lovely! Of course Indiana and Iowa were sublime, but there was more fun, love, blue skies and good food to come. I headed to New York.
Knowing I would not want to jump in a rental car at 10 p.m. at JFK and drive to Red Gate Farm, long ago on my sofa here in London John kindly made hotel reservations for me, so very late on a steamy July evening, I turned up happily at the Duane Street Hotel — I would highly recommend this elegant, peaceful, friendly little retreat if you need a place to stay in Manhattan — and collapsed for the night. How civilised to wake up the next day and mosey on over to Morgan’s Market, the Tribeca delicatessen that fed me lunch more times than I could possibly count, during my years as a young mother and a local gallery owner. And guess who was still there behind the counter, quite as if no time had passed?
“Kristen! How have you been?”
“I’ll be better when I’ve had two eggs on a roll with bacon and cheese!”
We chatted over the unbelievableness of time gone by, that we’ve been gone nearly ten years, that Avery’s going to college in the fall.
“My oldest too, she’s a sophomore this year,” Manny assures me.
I grabbed my sandwich and said it wouldn’t be another ten years before I saw him again, and popped uptown to get my rental car, and up the West Side Highway I drove.
Months ago, I’d had the sense to realise that I’d be passing right through the town of one of my favorite artists in the world, Duston Spear. It was easy-peasy to arrange a studio visit, and although she ended being called away on a family emergency, her delightful husband Jon-Marc showed me what she had wanted me to see. Oh, heavenly work.
These pieces have everything I gravitate to: text, texture, muted greys, browns, greens, with the occasional red or gold to shock me out of my reverie. Even as non-figurative as my interests usually lie, she can seduce me with her people, her humanity.
Jon-Marc and I looked and looked, talked and thought. Then we paused at the railing of Duston’s studio-in-a-barn, and drank in the countryside, the peace.
I drove away with so much to think about that the journey up to Red Gate Farm seemed very short.
What a joy to arrive.
I unpacked as quickly as I could, and Rollie and Judy turned up just to check that I’d arrived safely! We talked fast and furious about the state of the house, the oppressive heat (delightful), and then I jumped in my car to head up to find my family.
Everyone was deeply involved in the creation of a plum and caramel cake! Jill, Joel, Jane and Molly, just as I’d left them at Christmastime.
Joel kindly fed me crab cakes — pasteurised lump, to be sure — just as I had requested. And Jill’s plum cake. And then we repaired to the swing-set for a vigorous game of “Sharky, sharky.” Don’t ask.
It was beautiful to be back together, and actually selfishly, very relaxing to have them all to myself — my beautiful sister with whom I never get to spend enough time, especially — not to have to share them all with John and Avery (I tell myself, knowing actually it would have been heavenly to be all together). We discussed the girls’ summer camp, Jane’s upcoming musical (I can’t believe I’m missing it), their exciting plan to build a new porch on the side of their house. “The window will become a door, and the door will become…” Something to look forward to at Christmas!
The girls have gotten just that little smidgen taller, skinnier, and seem to embody all that is all-American sporty childhood.
We decided that the best thing would be to have them straight over the next day to Red Gate Farm. “How about a honey-glazed ham?” Jane asked, leafing through my cookbook. “And slaw, please, and tomato-mozzarella salad,” Joel added hungrily. We had just had dinner, for heaven’s sake! That’s what reading “Tonight at 7.30″ will do for you, apparently.
I drove home in a haze of happiness at the prospect of five whole days of peace, nothing really to do, just hang around, at Red Gate Farm.
The moment my car pulled up in the drive, up ran little Kate-from-across-the-road, full of her summer’s adventures. “Kristen, my Kristen! Have you met my fairies? Have you seen them yet tonight? We have glitter on a stick to attract them and I’ve built them a house and they’ve written me NOTES!” So much for her Christmas shyness! We arranged for her to come over first thing the next day, to help with preparations for our dinner party. I fell into bed, and morning came quickly.
Anne and Dave lugged chairs up from the Little Red Barn.
Kate donned an apron to lend some help in the kitchen.
Tomato mozzarella salad — with a smiley face, to be sure.
The family turned up, with an addition in the shape of one Kai, excellent next-door-neighbor and Jane’s shadow this summer. He commandeered my camera, and Jane her father’s, and some 300 photographs ensued, among them some real jewels, as they gathered up Kate and Molly to cross the road to Stillmeadow, surely among the most photogenic of all acres of Connecticut countryside.
The fairy correspondence was duly recorded, with solemn attention from all the children, big and small. Having been asked if she believed in fairies, Molly replied, “You mean the kind that go across water?” She is rather a practical child, it would appear. Never mind.
The webs where the fairies play were much in evidence.
The kids swung (or “swang” as I’m sure we said in our childhood) on the swingset which requires adults to hold it into the ground. This gave me a rare chance to tether my dear Anne to one spot, and really chat, about fairies, Oxford, Potters Fields, the cookbook, our parents.
We crossed the road for an exploration of the Big Red Barn. Kai captured Molly’s little profile perfectly.
I grabbed the camera to get my beloved brother-in-law at his laughing best.
Poor Quincy, relegated to the Little Red Barn. He didn’t run last summer, and I don’t think we even tried to turn over his motor at Christmas. Land Rover as camping tent, perhaps?
The horsey jumps, possibly the most appreciated of all toys ever, made their appearance.
We wandered around Red Gate Farm, assessing all the ways in which it is falling down, with special attention this summer to the mossy, moldy damage from the winter’s outlandish snowfall. “You can see the problem,” Anne explains. “The gutter has become twisted and has come away from pointing downward to the downspout, and all the water’s just pouring down the side of the house, leaving mossy streaks.”
Indeed it is, but such was my sunny, happy relaxation at being there, with all my beloved people, that I could only smile and say, “I’m sure something can be done.”
I honestly feel there must be some sedative ingredient of life at Red Gate Farm, even for just a few days, that should be bottled (it could fund our moss removal). I felt as if I’d had a tranquiliser. Even with dinner for 9 to produce!
How we ate! All the way through an entire roasted ham, with the attendant crisp slaw and creamy salad, with its fragrant fresh pesto. Jane might well be on her way to photographing a cookbook herself!
Finally the end of the day had come, and the family piled in the car to go home, with many hugs and plans to see each other one more time before it was time for me to fly away.
Anne, David and Kate lounged on the trampoline with me in the gathering dusk, talking about school, favorite picture books, Avery’s travel plans, the fairies’ wishes for Kate. The bats circled overhead, eating up the mosquitoes, one hopes. Total peace.
Taylor stopped by with her American Girl doll, so Kate dashed across the road for hers (“look both ways, then look again!” Anne and I shout as she dashes), and was back in a moment.
Taylor’s mom Konnie found time to hang out on the terrace with Anne and me, then share a barbecued chicken dinner. Not, however, successfully grilled by me. “The grill’s just not heating up!” I discovered, feeling that essentially feminine frustration when a task traditionally taken by a man turns out to be a problem. “Check your propane level,” Konnie advised, arguing for a level of capability beyond me.
The chicken went into the oven.
Thankfully, Rollie and Judy showed up to see how we were doing, and Rollie crawled helpfully under the grill to remove the tank. “You’re running on empty,” he said, and for a brief moment I thought about lugging the replacement tank up from the barn. Nah. Much more fun just to wander down to the pond with the girls, to catch up with chat.
Taylor and Kate were fearless about the pond, which I admit always gives me pause. What’s under that murky surface? They didn’t care.
Tuesday morning found me lounging on the terrace, reading and corresponding with John and Avery, lazy in their London July lives. And then up popped Mark, sweaty from scything the meadow, and happy to replace my propane tank. It takes a village! You can’t help but smile when Mark’s around, which is a gift, in case you didn’t realise it.
“Konnie tell you about the rabbits she’s planning to raise, for meat?” he asked me, eyebrow quirked.
“Yep, she did.” A pause.
“Now, keep in mind this is a lady who hasn’t eaten pork since she was a tiny kid. She helped her grandma raise a pig on her farm, named it, played with it, the whole nine yards. Then she turns up at Sunday dinner one day and there’s ham. Uh-oh.”
“Ooh, that’s harsh,” I said.
“And so she’s gonna raise little Easter bunnies and eat ‘em? I don’t know about that.”
He downed a huge glass of icy water, and was back to the meadow.
I settled down to a bison burger — grilled with my new propane tank in place! — with a small feeling of guilt that Avery and John weren’t there to help me enjoy it. Just a small feeling.
There was succotash to go with it: zucchini, crisp fresh Connecticut corn, red onion, garlickly olive oil.
A quiet afternoon, a trip to the Gap. Our favorite saleslady exclaims. “Oh, you’re here! I wondered what had happened to you all. I wonder — could you be my son’s emergency contact when he spends his fall semester in London?” Of course.
Wednesday meant a trip to the seaside with Rollie and Judy! Guilford, a lovely spot.
Oh, the fresh breeze stirring the American flag, the scents of ocean and bait, the sailors buffing up their boats. What a treat, an outing with two of my favorite people in the world. They’re not at all old enough to be my parents, but when I’m with them, I feel like a bit of a daughter.
I got home in time to wander, in the stunningly sunny humidity, up Sanford Road to visit Mike, hard at work on the new barn at Phillips Farm.
Mike is an artist, giving his heart and soul to this building.
To think that when we arrived at Red Gate Farm for the first time eleven years ago, this spot was occupied by a sadly dilapidated, falling-down, neglected structure. It took the passion of the Southbury Land Trust to clear it away and put in its place this beautiful, artisan barn.
“We had a fundraiser,” Mike explained, “where people could buy pegs — the whole structure’s pegs — with names on them. Here’s Abigail’s peg.”
Abigail, her little brother Gabriel, mother Lauren and Mike appeared later in the day for a delicious dinner at the picnic table. There is something heartwarming about the bond between beautiful Lauren and intrepid Abigail. Lauren is one of those women who can wholly devote herself to a “real” job — a pediatric nurse — and then somehow also have 110% to give to being a mother.
They had kindly invited me to their house, but had succumbed to my wish to spend as much time at Red Gate Farm as possible, merely bringing their kebabs to me, luxurious with giant shrimp, zucchini, peppers. How thoughtful!
Mike was there, and since he was a man, he grilled. What a wonderful person he is, a perfect combination of dreamy artist, practical griller, devoted father and husband.
We feasted, and tried to work sort of six months’ worth of news, reflections, predictions into one evening. The story of my American holiday, in short.
Thursday I spent running errands madly, to the post office to thank our dear friends for forwarding our mail, to the Laurel Diner for one quick “two eggs on a roll” and brief “hello” with brilliant Pete, diner chef extraordinaire. Home to wash sheets and towels, clear out the fridge. Didn’t I JUST arrive? And in the evening, off for an Italian dinner with the nieces, one last treat before I had to say goodbye.
That evening, in the warm dusk, I couldn’t help thinking about all the classic Connecticut things I never managed to do, in my five days. No library trips (I love that library), no lounging by the scruffy Town Pool, no ice cream excursion to Rich’s, no trip to the Hickory Stick bookshop in nearby Washington, CT, no visit to the lowkey, intimate farmer’s market. There just wasn’t time, and my heart broke, a bit, to turn my back on so many pleasures.
In the morning I was off, locking the door, looking back over my shoulder at Red Gate Farm, goodbye until Christmas. How hard it is to drive away, every time.
New York City, positively sizzling in the heat, awaited. I managed — readers, it was a miracle — to drop my luggage off at the hotel downtown, wend my way through the endlessly circuitous one-way streets of the West Village to return my rental car, then saunter along the sidewalks, enjoying the inimitable energy of New York City. There is just no place quite like it.
Lunch with my darling Alyssa! Mario Batali’s Lupa - fried baccala, heirloom beet salad, peppered, buttery spaghetti — did not disappoint.
We talked feverishly, exchanging observations of the unbelievable position we find ourselves in — sending our girls to college. How I miss Alyssa and our almost daily coffees, lunches, walks, talks.
How on earth could any place be so HOT? I walked slowly, cooking in my shell, to meet my friend Elizabeth’s gorgeous daughter Isabel, and her friend Alex, and bravely make our way to Long Island City — I can’t convey to you my pride on not getting lost!
My darling artist friend Kate awaited, to welcome us to her studio. Our friendship goes back 20 years, to my first experiences teaching in New York City. My gallery would not have thrived without her work, her intellect, her heart.
I had almost forgotten what a joy it is to be welcomed into an artist’s realm, to have her pull image after image — magical — from her flat file, to help her unwrap framed treasures, to look and ask questions and listen to the description of an artist’s life.
I think Isabel really enjoyed herself, and as a future art historian, it doesn’t get any better than that afternoon.
After the heavenly cool of Kate’s studio, we braved the harsh sun and took the subway to Brooklyn to find Kate’s husband David, the most brilliant sculptor I know, happy to welcome us as well. Oh, the work.
Isabel and Alex went off for a further Williamsburg adventure, and Kate, Dave and I found ourselves at a gorgeous local Italian spot, to share prosciutto e melone, pizza with bresaola, and the luxury of conversation. I headed back, exhausted by my day - Connecticut, West Village, Long Island City, Brooklyn, Tribeca.
Saturday, my last day in America, and I was in an emotional mood. I toured my beloved Tribeca, home of Avery’s babyhood and childhood. How many games of hide and seek were played in this gazebo, figures of colored chalk drawn around her toddler body, birthday parties with cake and ice cream eaten, in her little local Washington Market Park?
Her heroic school once more thrives in the shadow of the World Trade Center.
It was, quite simply, the warmest neighborhood anyone could ever wish for, site of the September 11 tragedy and despair and fear, but then recovery and beauty and love.
I went for lunch at one of my favorite spots in the world, Roc, in my beloved Tribeca.
And who, out of the blue, appeared before me?
Rocco himself, of course, to give me a much-needed hug and to remember the old, dark days (“I remember you stood just here and cried,” he said, shaking his head, “and I told you everything would be all right. And it is.”), and to celebrate the hot, happy afternoon we had right now.
My darling friend Binky — of whom no photo can ever be taken — joined me for tuna tartare, for baccala croquettes, for tortellini with peas and ham. And for irreplaceable friendship, of a lifetime, reminiscences about last summer, Avery’s life with them. Why, oh why, I wondered, do I have to leave New York?
Because it was time to go “home,” whatever that could possibly mean after my Summer Adventure 2015. Exchanging one brilliant set of characters for another. Home to London it was, with enough memories to last the summer, or even longer.
Do you remember, back in the autumn, when the Kickstarter campaign ruled my life?
When all I could think of was bringing our cookbook project out of the recesses of Word files, graphic design plans and publishing contracts?
No one in the world could have been more supportive than my mother, and my mother-in-law. They listened, cajoled me out of my blue moods, reminded me how much I really love to cook, to feed people, to tell our stories. They convinced me that however tired I was of the project at any given moment, it would be worth all the trouble to bring the book to fruition.
And together, we did!
Fast-forward to this summer, with John deeply occupied in building plans and Avery happily all over Europe for a fun-filled adventure. I decided to go on an adventure of my own, to thank as many of the people as I could who had come together to make my book a reality.
And frankly, to go home again.
Because as much as we’ve moved around in the last 30 years or so, the wonderful years we’ve spent in New York and London, the Midwest will always feel like home to me.
I began in Indiana, in my childhood home, cooking a celebration lunch for Mom and her closest inner circle, the long-awaited, exclusive Kickstarter luncheon! A day travelling from London, through Detroit, I rang Mom from the lounge. “My flight’s due in at 9 o’clock,” I said breathlessly, cocktail in hand. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she said sadly. “We are having near-tornado storms here.” Sure enough, I ran to the gate to find that the flight before mine, mine, and the flight after had all been cancelled. “Don’t DO this to me!” I shrieked inwardly. “I can’t be late for tomorrow.” And five LONG hours later, I arrived in Indianapolis after midnight, to look at the clock in Mom’s kitchen and realise that I had twelve hours in which to shop for, cook and present a three-course meal for eight! I had planned to spend some of those hours sleeping, to be sure.
It all worked out. I’d come armed with gifts, of course.
The guests arrived, among them an early bird, one of my oldest friends in the world, my dearest Amy. Partner in many a childhood caper.
We talked fast and furiously as I raced about, preparing creamy red pepper soup, slow-braised chicken thighs with olives and bay leaves, tomato and mozzarella salad with fresh pesto, steamed rice, all to be served on Mom’s highly-prized brown and white china.
The guests arrived! Janet, my mother’s dear friend for over 50 years. Oh the years our families shared a duplex, a little plastic swimming pool, a swingset.
And their great chum Dallene, the best piano teacher a girl ever had.
Janet’s beautiful sister Judy, and my mother’s newest friend Julie.
And Julie’s mother Nancy. She and her daughter have added so much fun to my mother’s life!
We settled down to our lunch, and a rather frenzied attempt to relate all the important things that had happened to us all since we last saw each other — and in Nancy and Julie’s case, since it was our first meeting, proper introductions. “Julie reminds me so much of you!” my mother said, which is always an intriguing suggestion. And indeed, super-extroverts we both are, always happiest when surrounded by lots of people. I knew she and Amy would find each other kindred spirits, since my mother loves us all.
We ate and ate, with second helpings, and finally cake. A towering Victoria sponge with a layer of lemon curd I had brought all the way from Barnes, from our Christmas Fair.
Our guests departed one by one, Amy with an extra “Tonight at 7.30″ apron over her arm, to try a spot of tie-dyeing on it! “That way, the places where you wipe your foodie hands don’t have to try to stay white!”
I raced to a nearby bar to make my next rendez-vous, drinks with a little group of high school friends, plus my dear friend Kristin. We talked over and over each other, trying to explain to Kristin via a sort of Venn diagram on the tablecloth, how intricately we are all involved in each other’s pasts: who dated whom, who married whom, whose brother was married to whose sister, whose law firm represents whose business. A tangled web, stretching back 35 years or more.
I drove away in the intensely humid Indiana heat, reflecting on the extraordinary luck that gave me such friends, still such fun after such a long time.
And as I settled into a nice talk with my mother, the doorbell rang and up popped Todd, who was to be the only man at our drinks party but missed me, and trailed me home!
It was a happy accident, really, to miss each other at the bar, because we got an uninterrupted evening of catching-up, hearing of his brilliant children’s activities, telling him about Avery’s adventures. Someday our families will meet.
I awoke again very early next morning, on London time, and decided that I would go on a little voyage of reminiscence around my childhood neighborhood. Everything always feels slightly askew, when I return. The church where my madrigal group sang its Christmas concerts, for my dear old friend Mrs. Young, looks tiny, insignificant and rather awful, compared with the glowing image in my memory.
The tiny, dollhouse-like house where I had my first baby-sitting jobs, watching “The Newlywed Game” and doing my homework, seems also much smaller than in my memory. It’s now on the Historic Register.
I parked the car and wandered, ducking under the hanging branches of oaks and maples, down to the creek where as a little girl with my friends I clambered among the rocks, swung from a very dangerous rope swing. No one must play there anymore; the path is entirely covered in ivy.
Where, in fact, were the children, any children? In the whole of my Midwestern trip this summer, I saw no children just out and about playing. Perhaps they were all indoors looking at one kind of screen or another, but I chose to think they were in summer camp somewhere. Not that my childhood was spent at camp; most of it was spent trespassing across this lovely golf course, whether disturbing angry golfing dads in summer, or sledding down snowy hills in winter.
I meandered in a fog combined of Midwestern humidity and nostalgia, thinking of the innocent hours I spent on my bicycle in these neighborhood haunts, dreaming of what would become of me when I grew up. I picked up a souvenir for Avery, whose childhood — spent in the urban purviews of New York and London — has probably never admitted such an exotic object.
I like to imagine another kind of life I might have had, one where I stayed “home,” close to my parents and my friends, a continuous sort of life rather than one I’ve had, with a series of curtains coming down between its acts — childhood in Indiana, the first scary decision to live on the East Coast, early married life in London, my teaching years and Avery’s babyhood in New York, our European adventures since then. Oh, it’s been wonderful, but how wonderful, too, it would have been to remain where I began, ties unbroken.
Underlying my nostalgia, of course, is the massive missing of my father. So sick now, in faraway Connecticut, no longer himself, I feel his presence along every path when I go “home.” I spent many happy early evenings as a little girl down by the creek, waiting for his car to pull into the alley on his way home from work. Everything has changed now, from the driveway that some professional now tars (how I remember the intense smell and the beating heat of those weekend projects with him each summer), to his tomato garden now filled with my mother’s daisies, to the garage once so filled with uncontrolled piles of his tools, small motor parts, collections of Miracle Whip jars containing this or that handful of nails. Now all that remains in the garage is a small huddle of the Squirt bottles, his favorite tipple.
I drove to the nearby grocery store, with its shelves of unabashed American bounty.
What fun to whizz along the wide American streets in the early morning sunshine, singing happily to “The Greatest Hits from the 80s and 90s” on the radio. Nothing beats the B52s, and “Roam If You Want to,” and Glass Tiger’s “Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone.” My teen years, on the FM dial.
Home to prepare lunch for my beloved Wedeking family all the way from Kentucky, on an impromptu whirlwind visit to celebrate my uncle’s 70th birthday! My Uncle Kenny, fondly known as Uncle Whiskey for the single-malt devotion we share (he tried the amazing peaty sample I brought from Duty Free!), my beautiful Aunt Mary Wayne, and their daughter, childhood partner in crime Amy, with her gorgeous son Ryan. How the years have flown!
We laughed and ate, ate and laughed. I am always so glad to know that my Kentucky family are on the other end of a telephone line, and there for my mother and brother at the Thanksgivings and the Christmases when we are not together. They have such fun, always.
We repaired to the living room for lemon bars and more family gossip.
Far too soon, with shouted goodbyes in the late afternoon sun, they departed. What fun we had had, remembering their trip to London, our family reunions, bringing my father into the room with favorite stories.
I spent the evening looking through old photos of our shared ancestor, our darling Mamoo. We all thought we saw a distinct family resemblance to Avery, though Avery can’t see it herself. Maybe we never can, see ourselves, that is.
Mom and I sat on the porch late into the night, the air filled with lightning bugs and the sound of two wonderfully evocative Indiana institutions: the railroad, and the race track. Wooh-wooh, went the train whistle, and vroom-vroom, the cars around the Brickyard. Those two sounds, like the smell of freshly cut grass, bring back my childhood in an instant.
The next day found us back on the porch, sharing a lovely chat with Mom’s friend Pam, provider of beautiful manicures as well as warm friendship. And then I concocted a big pot of Tom Yum soup and left it on the stove, wandering out to the lovely, ferny front porch to catch up with our next-door neighbors, hearing of their grandchildren’s exploits, wondering together “where are all the children?” I marvelled at the profusion of daisies that Amy’s garden firm have provided for Mom, adding so much to the beauty of our little street.
I managed to capture my brother Andy in a contemplative mood. It is always so lovely, on my visits, to have a chance to find out what he’s been up to, to thank him for being in Mom’s corner, for keeping her company.
And our next guests arrived! Our old friend Kevin, and his startlingly grownup daughter, Colleen. Happy to share a bowl of spicy Thai soup with us.
Absolutely nothing brings the passage of time to the forefront like sharing a meal with a young person you have firmly age 5 or 6, and to hear her describe her professional accomplishments, her travels, her undeniably adult life. It was a total joy to see her with her dad, such a staunch friend to our family over the years.
It was so hard to say goodbye to my mother and brother, to leave a place where I’m loved for just being me. What a perfect visit, far too short, but filled with all the things I long for when we’re separated: a long-awaited luncheon, mother-daughter gossip, a chance to give and receive a tight hug whenever I want.
In the morning, Andy brought me to the airport for the next phase of my Midwestern jaunt: Iowa!
It’s been 31 years to the month since I packed up my little Honda Civic, my hands full of maps given me by my anxious father, sure I’d get lost (I did), and crossed Indiana, Illinois and half of Iowa to arrive in Waterloo, at the beautiful home of my then-boyfriend, and this dear lady, my mother-in-law Rosemary, friend now for my whole adult life.
She greeted me in the best possible way: with a lunch of BLTs and fresh-picked corn!
As much as I love my adopted home of England, and superior as its ingredients are in many instances, nothing, NOTHING beats the Midwest of America for its ultimate summer treat of corn on the cob. The crispness! The sweetness. Oh, it can’t be rivalled anywhere in the world, I feel sure. The lunch was a perfect throwback to the old days of my Iowa visits, when his dad would turn up for lunch in the middle of his workday in a crisp, gorgeous suit. BLTs with the bread cut in half, so you could eat two or even three quite easily. What happy days those were.
Because much as with my Indiana visits, there is something now missing from my Iowa trips. How I miss John’s dad, with his tight hug and insistence on carrying suitcases, driving us home from the airport past waving cornfields, his fatherly demeanor placing us firmly in the position of “the kids,” not in charge, not yet adult, not responsible. What a forever arm-around-your-shoulders sense of protection he conveyed, always.
Even with the empty space, there is so much to love about a visit to Waterloo. Not the least attraction of which is the beautiful screened-in upstairs porch. “Gosh, I sure wish we’d made this porch a foot wider,” John’s parents were wont to say, as soon as it was built. No matter, it is a haven of serenity on a July afternoon, and I lay back on the sofa cushions, listening to the birds in the pine trees, to the air conditioner humming off and on, to the sound of a faraway lawnmower.
I roused myself to join John’s mom at Sunnyside, the perfect country club where I spent so many hours and hours, first as a girlfriend on the diving board at the shimmering pool, then as a young mother chasing after my little girl on the immaculate green.
What IS it with me and golf courses? I think it’s the unchanging quietude that attracts me, year after year.
It was lovely to be reunited with Dennis and Camille, best friends of John’s parents for so many years.
We reminisced over perfect, crunchy fried shrimp, my special treat at Sunnyside, harkening back to my first visits there. “Where, do you think, is the playground, with a merry-go-round where John and I had our first picnic?” I wondered. We had ‘Hay and straw salad,’ made by you, Nonna. Do you have any idea?”
“That will be at Lookout Park,” Camille said immediately, and it was but the work of a moment the following morning to find it, and its attendant memories of a summer 31 years in the past.
On this wave of nostalgia, we drove to nearby Cedar Falls, home of the world’s greatest coffee shop, Cup o’Joe, presided over by the beautiful Dawn, who remembered me and asked after Avery. What makes their coffee so delicious, so inimitable? Dawn’s passion, I think.
We wandered down the charming American village street, like something out of a picture book.
I’d forgotten all about RAGBRAI, the Iowa “Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa,” a completely nuts thing that some 20,000 bike riders take part in every July in Iowa, riding across the entire state, in any and all kinds of weather. John and his family took part, many times — his first kiss occurred with one Elizabeth, somewhere in a cornfield! The ride just happened to be passing through Cedar Falls the very day I was there.
Cedar Falls is a perfect example of Americana gone terribly right: small independent shops selling beautiful things, cheerful people. None lovelier than Anne, who used to own Cup o’Joe, now proud proprietor of a charming vintage shop.
I could easily have bought a suitcase full of her things. Perhaps an apron for Avery, pursuing her first adventures in cooking, in London.
We drank our coffee in the warm sunshine, texting photographs and messages to John and Avery, in one of those wonderful moments when technology really does add to one’s life. We stopped in our mercantile adventures for quite a perfect Reuben, without which a trip to America is not worthwhile.
We dashed, then, to the grocery store to finish off the shopping that would be needed for our long-anticipated dinner party the next night, to celebrate a number of things: Rosemary’s new kitchen, my cookbook, my visit. What fun to plan every detail.
For our evening’s adventure that night, though, we journeyed back to Cedar Falls to observe RAGBRAI in all its glory: the tents…
The sponsors. What a sight!
And a sight that would have astonished little John, back in the day. How can so much change in so short a time? “This would have made my meeting up with Elizabeth a bit easier!” John laughed, when I sent him this photograph.
We repaired to a local sports bar to achieve one other culinary wish for my Iowa visit: the perfect pork tenderloin. And for conversation with Dennis, Camille and Rosemary’s cycling friend Randy, all of us happy to bask in the easy familiarity of such an American evening.
The next day was given over to party preparations. Thank goodness we had a decent cookbook.
There is no happier way to spend a day, to my mind. Chopping, chopping, chopping, together with Rosemary. How many times we have done this! But never together at her house. It was a treat.
She happily pulled out the best china cups for my red pepper soup. How beautiful the table looked, when we were ready.
Everyone arrived, feeling festive. Camille and Dennis, of course, and old friends Ric and Mary, and new friends to me — I have heard about them all these many years — David and Lyn.
“Where’s Suave Duck?” Ric immediately asked, taking me back three decades to his old, perfect nickname for John! Who was incredibly Suave, to be fair, at age 20 or so.
How wonderful it would have been to have John there, especially to explain the plans for Potters Fields! I did my best.
What a wonderful evening. The food was delicious, though I say it myself, especially the curried chickpeas with spinach and feta, and the star of the evening: Rosemary’s plate of lemon bars, since she is the queen of delicate desserts.
A day to remember, full of reminiscent laughter, warm memories of many summer visits, anticipated times together in London in the coming years. Not many people are as lucky to gain such a mother-in-law as I have, an endlessly supportive listening ear, making me always feel much more interesting than I really am. And such fun in the many kitchens we’ve chopped in, over the years.
The next morning dawned dark and gloomy, with a promised rain storm that sent Cathy scurrying away back to her real life in Minnesota. And we turned our minds to driving about, finding the perfect, iconic Iowa barn for me to take home in my mind. There is something magical about the white against the cornfields, so different from our red Connecticut barns.
The cornfields themselves swayed with their tassels in the wind.
That was my Midwestern extravaganza of Summer 2015. A trip planned in the chilly, damp spring of London, come to fruition in the hot, steamy world of Indiana and Iowa. So many meals shared, so many cookbooks inscribed to dear people, without whom it would never have come about. Long, luxurious conversations with people I see far too infrequently, but who are always ready to pick up where we left off, to maintain the ties.
I was up in the air again, to land on the East Coast for a week of adventures in New York City, Connecticut, and points in between. Watch this space…