Oh, it was bound to end badly, as Alyssa would say. Or as the English say, “it ended in tears.” Well, not literally, but we were wet enough.
As soon as everybody left for “Dick Whittington,” John and I decided to open Jill and Joel’s Christmas box and see what was inside. And there, tantalizingly, was the “Collectors’ Edition” Gone With the Wind that I had begged for! It was but the work of a moment to put Disc Three in and we were deep in the world of Margaret Mitchell, casting Scarlett, George Cukor’s hissy fits. So when the hour to leave for dinner arrived, I think it’s safe to say that for a bet, we would both just have stayed home. But you know when it’s An Event, like your anniversary, and you’ve made the reservations, and your child is safely in someone else’s hands (forget safely, in fact, she’s just somewhere else), you feel you must Go Out. So we did.
Straight into a blinding, blowing, freezing rainstorm. The corner of Wood’s Mews and Park Lane was…
What, you might ask, do these concepts have in common? I too was ignorant until this afternoon.
There we were, in the monkey section of the London Zoo in Regent’s Park (although with Annabelle, Avery and Elliot around, pretty much any section qualifies as the monkey section). One of our fellow tourists was just about to light up a cigarette when the little zoo guide elf person stepped quickly and efficiently forward. “Sorry, madam, we do ask that you refrain from smoking. The monkeys will think you’re putting food in your mouth and they will just go for your face.”
That was worth, as they say, the whole price of admission.
Truth be told, zoos alternately drive me crazy and bore me to tears. I simply do not care how many varieties of an awful lot of creatures there are. Creatures in the category of how many there are I don’t care about include all insects, most birds and nearly all fish. Now, big cats, there I’m interested. Even meerkats. But reptiles? Butterflies? Don’t care.
Glad to get that out of my system. We sent John home to take a nice nap and then proceeded to martyr ourselves to all this fauna, plus an unbelievably unappealing hot dog in a baguette (we’re not in Paris anymore!). Then, somewhere between the chain-smoking primates and the penguin pool, it started to rain. Which necessitated visiting the parts of the zoo that are even less pleasurable than primates and penguins: things indoors, behind glass, under water. Grrr.
Finally home to popcorn, a nap for Elliot, a good gossip session with Alyssa who sat on the floor of my study while I looked up restaurants for tonight. Oh, Happy Anniversary to us! Seventeen years ago tonight, we got married at the Junior League House of Indianapolis, Indiana. Why? I don’t remember. Wait, John wants me to point out that I remember WHY I got married, I just don’t remember why at the Junior League House! So noted.
Avery is going with everyone else to see “Dick Whittington and His Cat”, a classic “panto” which Alyssa was determined to put everyone through before they left. Meanwhile, John and I will revisit, if not our misspent youth, then at least one of the restaurants where we spent a lot of it: Wodka. Lovely Polish food and lovely Polish vodka. Can’t wait. And… put out that cigarette.
So as we’re putting them to bed (I am ashamed to say we still sing to Avery every night before she goes to sleep; my New Year’s resolution is to put a plan in effect to phase out the ritual before she goes to college). Avery says, “Last night, Annabelle tried to sing the whole of all the songs to me and she doesn’t know all the words.” “Avery!” I exclaimed. “How many of the words to [trying desperately to think of something she might have heard occasionally but not all the time] ‘Dreidl, dreidl, dreidl,’ do you know?” “Well [she says defensively], ‘dreidl, dreidl, dreidl…’” Explosions of laughter as it’s clear this is as far as her memory goes!
Annabelle chimes in, “I’m pretty good with your nighttime songs. I’ve heard them enough. ‘Over in Killarney…’” I thought of the dozens of sleepovers at our house, and Annabelle’s house, over the seven or so years that they have been friends. I remember that this picture was taken at the Easter just after Annabelle turned four: we have always spent Easter dyeing eggs with Annabelle, just as Avery has spent every Hannukah lighting candles and playing dreidl, and Annabelle has come to decorate our Christmas tree, and we have come to Passover dinner (where the matzoh ball soup includes asparagus, lucky us).
John and I just looked at each other over their heads and wished simultaneously for them to stay forever as happy as they are tonight, to be as protected, and to have each other to turn to, giggling, whenever the need might arise…
Although as Alyssa rightly points out, if we started observing the sabbath in London when the sun really sets, only a few of us would have got out of our showers in time. I forget, being a local, how early it gets dark. Of course, I love it, and start getting nervous when the sun isn’t down by the time Avery’s homework is finished.
Speaking of, can I say how wonderful it is when she doesn’t have any? Sorry.
The crowning glory of the reunion of the “Kristen and Alyssa Show,” that staple of family entertainment, was the chance for Kristen to eat matzoh ball soup. Of course, it was also vastly important to show Annabelle Avery’s school (I don’t know who yawned harder, Annabelle or Avery, although most of Avery’s energy was taken up refusing to walk up the steps: “I have to walk up these steps every DAY!”). But I insisted. Then we had a nice snack in Patisserie Valerie in honor of Alyssa’s sister Val, and came home to make Shabbat dinner. Not, as Alyssa assures me, that they do this every Friday night, but it was a nice coincidence that the first available night to do it was… Friday. I can tell you right now that there’s almost no point posting the recipe for the soup. It’s like… it’s like having Mozart play the piano for you, and at the end you ask him where he got his sheet music. Perfection.
Pastrami and salt beef from Selfridges, rye bread, weird pickles from the supermarket, good German mustard, soured cream, homemade applesauce with one apple left unpeeled, as per Alyssa’s Nanny’s recipe. “What? When on earth did you have a nanny?” I asked, horrified that an entire chapter of Alyssa lore might have been lost to me during our long years of friendship. “No, my NANNY. My grandmother! Yes, I had a nanny. When my mother was doing what?” We all simply tucked in and were happy. Of course the evening degenerated into the children’s renditions of “Bop Till You Drop,” from High School Musical, which I am afraid has thoroughly supplanted any lovely Christmas carols as the Song of the Holiday. Ah well, every silver lining has its cloud.
Tell you what. I’ll ask Alyssa for the soup recipe, and then you and I collectively can try to figure out what she’s left off, to keep us in her thrall. Meanwhile, I have the leftovers…
Let’s see: it all started on Boxing Day with the Big Bus Company Sightseeing Tour of London! From there it degenerated (or was elevated, depending upon your perspective) into every tourist site in the greater London metropolitan area. It’s like this: in New York, no self-respecting citizen would go to 1) the Empire State Building, 2) the Statue of Liberty, or 3) one of those tacky horse-drawn carriages in Central Park. Likewise, in London, no one who lives here does any of the touristy stuff. Suffice to say, if you have out of town visitors (especially who promise to make you matzoh ball soup), all such restrictions fly out the proverbial window.
As a consequence, although I have always wanted to do the tour bus thing, and my anti-tourist husband would not let me… Ah ha! Alyssa comes to town and I can do exactly what I please, because SHE wants to as well! So Tuesday morning found us shivering on top of the double-decker red bus, swanning our way through Mayfair, Fleet Street, across Tower Bridge (to the accompaniment of the tour guide who threw out such gems of wisdom as pointing out the shop who supplies knickers to the Queen, and the Angus Steakhouse, “who has got back some of its popularity since it put the missing “G” back in its name”). At the Tower we descended and thought we’d visit the Instruments of Torture and Doom, but the Tower was closed, since it was Boxing Day. So off to the boat half of the tour back to the Houses of Parliament. Periodically John, who had taken himself off to do other things, like stick hot needles in his eyeballs, called to get an update on all the cool things he had missed. Steve passed the time on the boat ride back by looking at the same map we were all looking at and saying OUT LOUD all the things we were passing. “That’s Blackfriars Bridge,” he’d announce, to which I could say only, “Oh, look, it’s Blackfriars Bridge on my map too.” This is the sort of brother-sisterly conversation that makes getting me and Steve together really annoying to everyone around us, but we don’t seem to mind.
Then, let’s see, I had to point out all the things Steve was pronouncing wrong, and making us look like tourists (oh, wait, we were tourists, but as Avery always says, we don’t have to look like it). “If you say one more time how close your flat is to SOUTH-WARK Cathedral, I’m not making bolognese for you,” I said severely, “say it three times quick, ‘Suth-ick, suth-ick, suth-ick.’” At that point Steve said just “ick,” so we moved on to annoying each other in some other way.
Then there was the visit to the actual Tower of London itself, which I remember visiting about three thousand times when we lived here 15 years ago, but since all my internal brain energy has since been replaced by an encyclopedic knowledge of picture books and recipes, was new to me. And terrible fish and chips! And sixty different kinds of beers! And the only, according to Annabelle and me, bad hot dog ever invented. But there you go. Tourist traps.
Meanwhile we’ve been watching the Christmas episode of our favorite show, “QI” with Stephen Fry. My favorite line? “When I was up at Oxford at Christmas we used to ring up Jesus College and ask, ‘Is that Jesus?’ and then sing, ‘Happy Birthday to you…’”
And what else? The Changing of the Guard, where I nearly had to hire a chiropractor to help me recover from carrying Annabelle on my shoulders (John had Avery, to be fair). Why were they playing show tunes? I swear, not even show tunes, at one point the band was playing, “People who need people… are the luckiest people… in the world.…” WHY? I finally decided that because the Queen was at Balmoral, all the Guards were just goofing off. From there we had lunch in Piccadilly, and then shopping at Fortnum and Mason, and then Steve and Alyssa went off to dinner by themselves and we hung out with Elliot. He is officially the funniest child I have ever met, with really an adult sense of humor. And no, Steve, by that I don’t mean you have to produce a driver’s license to think he’s funny. He’s just one of my favorite people, who happens to weigh 40 pounds. He can be read to for an infinite amount of time, and finally succumbed to “Santa Mouse” and was down for the count.
Today was a riding lesson for Fifi, finally. Annabelle came along to pickup and got to hear Avery’s full-on English accent, from when she’s been hanging with English chicks. “There was a leaf-blowing machine, and the ponies were scared, but Smokey was the best pony EVAH.” Then home to feast on some of the Lincolnshire Poacher cheese Steve kindly brought to me from Neal’s Yard Dairy, yum yum. Then we parted ways: John to haunt the neighborhood of the house he wants to buy, Steve and Elliot to the London Eye, and us girls to the Sixties Fashion Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert, where I got all nostalgic looking through the glass doors of the National Art Library where I did so much research, these 15 years ago. What fun that was.
Whew. I’m going to take a break, see what the children are up to, and then I’ll tell you about the real reason for the entire Sadoff family visit: the Matzoh Ball Soup… I’d tell you I’m just kidding, but Alyssa knows the truth. Actually, here’s some food (so to speak) for thought: the whole song, and concept, “Make new friends and keep the old, one is silver and the other gold.” What does that mean, exactly? Because in the taxi on the way to the V & A, we analyzed it. “Well, gold is more valuable, so…” but that didn’t seem right, because there’s no way a new friend like Becky or Anna is less valuable than an old friend like Alyssa or Annabelle. In the end, I think, like a jewelry box is more satisfying to open if you see both shiny gold and shiny silver… maybe that works? Who knows. I just feel extremely lucky to be able to show our old friends around London and see, around so many corners, happy memories that involve new friends. The best of both worlds. The glass-half-full approach. Because truthfully, in my dark Scandinavian heart of hearts, I’m glass-half-empty. Wherever I go, there’s somebody to miss.
Well, when a couple of things happen. I’d think of ten and make a Top Ten list, but I’m too tired. For starters, it’s awfully nice when one of your oldest friends comes to visit and brings… companion holiday socks. And then your mother takes the mirror off the kitchen wall where she normally checks her hair (awful) before school dropoff, and turns it into a holiday village for the table in the sitting room.
Can our friends stay here forever with us? One of my most favoritest moments in life ever (I can’t foresee much happening before I die that will change this) is sitting on the sofa looking at the Christmas tree, listening to Annabelle and Avery play “Outrage,” the game sold at the Tower of London gift shop (along with 4 million other things your child CANNOT live without), while “A Charlie Brown Christmas” music played in the background, and John and Steve sat in the kitchen debating the relative merits of Marks and Spencer canned cocktails (very few merits, as it turns out, as I can attest having reluctantly sampled the Harvey Wallbanger, oh my it should be against the law) and torturing Elliot, making him smell John’s socks and beg for mercy. In the background simmered bolognese sauce, although I had been almost too tired to make it. “Just order Chinese, Kristen,” Alyssa advised, while the kids clamored, “Bolognese, bolognese…” “But it’s up to you, Mummy,” Avery allowed. To have small children beg is really compelling, so I caved. “You made a good choice, Kristen,” Elliot solemnly assured me. Alyssa sat next to me and moved buttons and snaps on Avery’s favorite grey skirt so she can continue to wear it in the New Year, and I just sat and felt happy to have everyone around me.
More tomorrow, but all is well here. How was your holiday?
It’s finally here: Christmas Eve. Our friends have arrived, hugs have been exchanged more than once, the merest beginnings of gossip relayed and received (a week will by no means exhaust Alyssa’s and my appetite for this topic), the cats have been mildely terrorized, Avery and Annabelle have listened to all the music of “High School Musical” more than once and sung and danced, a mammoth lunch of ham sandwiches with Wensleydale and Red Leicester cheese, red onions, avocados, tomatoes, and fresh Thai basil and cilantro pesto has been eaten. “A Christmas Carol” in rather unexpected humorous tones has been taken in (although some audience members who shall remain nameless but were severely jet-lagged, slept through the second half). Someday, I promised, I’ll tell Alyssa how it ends.
Home to oyster stew, the first presents of Christmas Eve unwrapped, Elliot’s nap in my new plastic orange boa (don’t ask) enjoyed by all, and the elder Sadoffs (not very elderly to be sure) and Master Elliot have whisked themselves off to their rented flat. Avery and Annabelle watched “Olive, the Other Reindeer,” and then we read “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” “Santa Mouse,” and “Pussycat’s Christmas,” and they are sound asleep, tucked up with numerous hot water bottles. John and I are madly finishing last-minute things with thousand of interlocking identical parts, while Hermione chases tissue paper and ribbon. In other words, it’s the last throes of Christmas Eve. Cookies, milk and carrots await Santa and the reindeer on the window sill.
How WONDERFUL it is to have our friends here.
A joyous and peaceful Christmas to all of you and yours…
Finally, I have made it to Borough Market, the place everyone I know has sent me to all year since I arrived. It needed the Saturday before Christmas, the busiest day of the known calendar, to get me there. But it was SO worth it.
First off, of course I had to get lost. John and I had stopped off to pick up five dozen oysters at Partridges farmer’s market in South Kensington, first detouring into Partridges itself to laugh at $15 boxes of Cheerios and other American necessities! Too funny. (Is it possibly a record to visit two markets in one day?). From there he drove me to the Green Park underground station, instructing me to take the Jubilee line straight to London Bridge. Only, I panicked: was it meant to be Tower Bridge? A frantic phone call to Twiggy, who I was meeting there, she didn’t pick up. Panicked message, call John who didn’t pick up. Finally I asked the tube attendant, and after a search through a map with a well-licked thumb, I was assured that London Bridge was my destination. Whew. Off I went. It required another series of silly phone calls between Twiggy and me to meet up finally outside Neal’s Yard Dairy with a massive queue outside! For cheese! Which sort of summed up the market. Long, long queues for everything, but so worth it. I will go back many times, I’m sure. I sampled everything! First, Twiggy offered me a sip of her hot organic apple juice, and I ended up commandeering the rest of it, so comforting and delicious.
Then it was onto one of the few treasured English traditions that I ended up not liking: roasted chestnuts. Hmm, the texture of building material, with a sweet, slick exterior. Plus I burned my fingers, which is almost impossible with my asbestos hands. I hated to disappoint Twiggy, but honesty prevailed. Maybe it’s an acquired taste.
Onto an olive stand where we sampled a green variety stuffed with carrots, of all things. Most delicious, crunchy and unexpected. Then a lovely mild Stilton, which I’ve always thought I didn’t like, but it was creamy and nice, so I bought a wedge from the apple-cheeked central-casting English farmer girl (I wouldn’t have minded bringing her home as well, so pretty). Then an oyster! Just to try another purveyor, and it was fresh and cold. Twiggy averted her vegetarian eyes. Then onto a Polish stand with gorgeous dried salami and a condiment called “cowberry sauce,” or borowka which was sweet and tart and actually very good with the salami (defiantly flaunting John’s stringent rules prohibiting anything with fruit and meat together). Then we ended up at a juice stand and had hot pomegranate and blueberry juice, which Twiggy assured me would cure, or prevent everything bad. Lovely! And flax seed (did you know it was the same as “linseed”? I didn’t) johnny cakes! And fresh sage and butternut squash ravioli from The Fresh Pasta Company, to die for! I bought asparagus and pecorino tortelloni instead, though when I can plan to cook and eat it I do not know, with our company coming today. And finally a little triangle of palek paneer at Mrs Bassa’s Indian Kitchen, lovely. “I was just telling Eddie last week that there were no Indian stalls at the market, and here she is! But my mother can make better,” Twiggy promised, and one of our plans for 2007 is for her to teach me some Indian cookery secrets. I can’t wait. My first Indian friend, and she can cook. What luck.
After chugging one more oyster, picking up two enormous stalks of brussels sprouts, trawling Konditor and Cook with their chocolate delights, and politely refusing a bunch of mistletoe the size of Southwark Cathedral (which looms over the market like a benevolent uncle), I reluctantly parted company with Twiggy and came home.
Avery had just come home from the stable, but had an agenda: to go to the eyeglasses store and get her prescription filled. Did you know that Boots pharmacy will provide a free exam and prescription to children? They do. So off we went, leaving John with a cup of hot lemon juice with fresh-grated ginger and honey, to soothe his hacking cough. We ended up at Optical Express and ordered two darling pairs, which were ready by the time we finished our mammoth shop at Tesco. Avery is a new woman: “I can see EVERYTHING! I can read the little print on that street sign, and see people’s eyelashes, and the spots in the sidewalk where people have dropped gum! It’s incredible! It’s magical!”
“I’ve run out of superlatives!” she exclaimed finally, stopping point blank in Oxford Street to notice that the lights above were all individual! Not just an incalculable mass of illumination. It reminded me so of the first day I wore glasses, and said to my mother, “The trees have individual leaves! Not just up close, but far away, too!”
She settled down to reading Christmas books, and I hunkered down in the kitchen with various tasks. First up was to brine my turkey. Vincent gave me quite the stern lecture about the importance of an organic turkey, at lunch yesterday, but I was having none of it. I braved his considerable and implacable directives and came home with my usual Dolly Parton of a fowl, and within minutes he was reposing in a nice warm bath (had to be filled by the bathtub tap, actually! too heavy to carry the pot, full of water, down the stairs and out the bedroom door). I watched Nigella yesterday put cinnamon, cloves, allspice and other nasty things in her turkey brine, but not for me. No, savory is the order of the day. Into my pot went my fresh Thai green peppercorns, now nicely shriveling into regular crunchy specimens, and lots of fresh sage, rosemary, onion and celery, and two lemons, juice squeezed and their little bodies dropped into the water.
Then I was determined to take advantage of my trip to the dusty, dank, unimpressive but entirely brilliant Thai market I visited yesterday. I have looked in vain online for any information about this shop, so I’ll have to check back with Vincent and find out exactly where it is. Westbourne Grove-ish. Even the spectacularly surly checkout girls could not dim my enthusiasm. I invented a lovely sauce, and let me see if I can remember exactly what I did. With it you can serve sauteed chicken or beef (I did both, actually, a cut of beef I’ve never heard called an “olive steak”, rather like flank). I think you could also do steamed potatoes and carrots for a vegetarian version. Here goes:
Kristen’s Thai curry
2 tbsps olive oil
5 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, minced
12 leaves Thai basil, chiffonaded (you know, rolled up and cut in slices)
4 leaves Thai mint, chiffonaded
1 stalk lemon grass, first outer layer peeled off, and sliced very thin
1 soup-size can of coconut milk (thoroughly stirred to mix as it separates on storage)
2 tbsps Thai green curry paste
1/2 cup water.
Saute the garlic, onion, basil, mint and lemon grass in the oil until soft. Then add coconut milk, curry paste and water and simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve with sauteed chicken, beef or prawns, and with basmati rice.
It turned out really well! Too spicy for Avery, though, who contented herself with strips of beef and a mound of rice.
Through it all, my pot of oyster stew, waiting for Alyssa’s family arrival today, bubbled at the back of the stove. So exciting to putter about and produce good things to eat. The stew has joined his briney brother out on what I think of as my larder, the little step outside my bedroom door. That’s a must for any new house: somewhere outdoors, even a window ledge, to cool food.
So now it is Christmas Eve Day. We all arose early to do last-minute things to make the house festive, in that sort of nervy, anticipatory feeling that is part of every Christmas Eve Day. Thank goodness for the fresh tree! It twinkles merrily. I’ve put the various Christmas cards that have crossed the Atlantic on our Chinese chest in the foyer, and music from “The Nutcracker” is caroling away, Keechie has had her valium so as to survive Annabelle and her brother Elliot, and all is in readiness. Last night we all had a cozy talk with my family in Indiana, Janie warbling “Jingle Bells,” Joel asking me to identify various packages that had arrived at my parents’ house for their arrival, my mother and dad sounding excited and appreciative of the baby’s arrival. Avery is feverishly finishing various secret items and John is pocketing a list of last-minute ingredients for our holiday. This afternoon we’ll see “A Christmas Carol,” so I shall report on how that is. In the meantime, everyone: Merry Christmas!
May I just take a moment to be grateful? To have a child at any time. But to have a little girl at Christmas time, who takes so much joy in what is under the tree that is NOT for her, who is so excited for, more than any gift, the arrival of her friend Annabelle from New York for a visit, is a thing to behold.
And I must say as well, while I’m being all sentimental, one of my strongest childhood memories of Christmas is of the piano recital just days after my darling Grandpa Loyd died (yes, he was a Loyd with only one l, just as my grandmother was and IS a Bettye with an extra e!). I remember coming home from school just after we had spent Thanksgiving with my grandparents on their southern Indiana “estate”, Five Green Acres, and how we loved to visit them there. The pickle tree! The basement with the pool table! The stairway we could all slide down, toward my grandfather’s study with his tree full of pipes to be smoked. For YEARS afterward, whenever I smelled a pipe being smoked, I though it was my grandpa.
Well, one day shortly after Thanksgiving I came home from school, and instead of just opening up the front door, which was never locked as far as I can remember, my mother opened the door herself and stood, tall as anybody you ever saw (and she wasn’t all that tall), crying. I never saw her cry, except when the boy across the street was hit by a car (he was fine, by the way). But, her father, my beloved Grandpa Loyd, had died. Something super sudden, super painless, just gone. And my mother was gone, then, too, to help my grandmother prepare for the funeral. And there we were, us three kids, sitting on top of the washing machine in the middle of a cycle, trying to figure out what happened after the clothes came out, and my dad was there, being valiant, folding clothes, and wondering what to do about the piano recital?
Because of course, as parents with small children, you find that plans must go on. In the end, our great, old-lady friend Mrs Young from two doors down, came to take me to the piano recital. Did my sister play? She would remember better than I. But I played. “I’ll Be Home For Christmas…” My mother couldn’t be there, but there was Mrs Young, who I remember visiting in a nursing home on the morning after my wedding, and my husband spent the whole of our after-wedding day with her lipstick on his collar (imagine her stopping to put on lipstick!). And she had been there for me at my Christmas recital.
I suppose, more than dinners or presents or stockings, this is what we remember for Christmas. And I’m grateful for everyone who was there, when I was a little girl.
Oh my. Can I just say that last night’s concert was quite the most beautiful, touching and festive events of our holiday season? And as you know quite well, it’s been packed with good things. But if you ever get a chance to hear The Choir of St George’s Chapel, Windsor, run, don’t walk. They were simply breathtakingly marvelous.
Call me ignorant, but it never occurred to me that, when you listen to a CD of Christmas music, the high piping voices belong to… little boys! Not to sopranos at all, dumb me. I actually felt a pang of worry that Avery would be bored, since all the singers looked to be boys. What was I thinking? Now, I imagine adult choirs have to run to actual females, but if you don’t have to, don’t. And THIS from a card-carrying feminist! No, truly there is nothing sweeter than little boys singing, and I don’t think I ever have done, before, actually live. They sang all the wonderful bits I love, like “Joy to the World,” and my all-time favorite, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” although to a completely different tune than I am used to. Of course in blogworld I cannot sing this tune to you. But has anyone else heard two different versions? Anyway, it was lovely. And “The Holly and the Ivy,” and to Avery’s delight, “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” since she played the violin for it at the school festival. Just wonderful. When the interval came, we had the awful thought that it was over! But no, there was more. John turned to me and said, “I don’t think I have ever shed a tear listening to music, since we listened to ‘Concert for New York,’ after the World Trade Center.” It was terribly moving. And then after the interval came what the conductor called wryly, “The loneliest solo in the business,” the beginning verse of “Once in royal David’s city,” which our little friend Lindsay sang at the school festival. All alone, out there on the stage in front of everyone, a little chap called Oliver sang his heart out last night, their “senior chorister,” looking as if he should be in the dusty stacks of the British Library, looking up some arcane bit of pre-Raphaelite intelligence. A dear little fellow, and a simply magical voice. Then, also mysteriously, there was a carol called “Angels from the realms of glory,” but I’m sorry, it was “Angels we have heard on high.” Who knows from what arcane distinctions these variations arise.
Then they trotted out a female opera singer as, one supposes, a sop to those who want to hear a lady sing, and she was a yawn. Unfortunately I happened to mention to Avery that she looked like “The Opera Camel,” a reference to a joke I had with a friend in college, when we could make all sorts of camel faces. There was the “Scholarly Camel,” the “Supercilious Camel,” the “Astonished Camel,” and the “Pathologically Shy Camel.” But the “Opera Camel” comes with a dark, dark history. Years ago, during our first sojourn in London in the early 1990s, my dear family came to visit us at Christmastime, to mark the end of my sister’s dreaded semester at Essex University, or “Gotham City,” as she referred to it (suffice to say she spent a lot of time at our flat in London). As a special holiday treat, we all went to hear Handel’s “Messiah.” Which would have been lovely except that as an ignorant idiot, I thought there was the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and that was it, and we’d all go have a lovely dinner. Oh ho. It lasted for HOURS. And my sister and I began to get squirrelly. I made one, just ONE “Opera Camel” face at her, and after that, all bets were off. No amount of stern looks from our mother (who sadly began to do camel faces too after a bit), or angry glances from other occupants of our pew (shaking with laughter) could dispel. Then John got it. One by one, we had to leave the chapel, to try to stop laughing, but it was no good. We snickered and shook the pew and giggled until finally it was the bleeping “Hallelujah Chorus” and we could just shout and get it out of our systems.
Well, I’m ashamed to say that Avery took the “Opera Camel” face in much the same spirit. She is, however, considerably more mature than I was at, say, 26 years of age, and came to her senses. Whew.
We emerged from the concert into the glow of St. Paul’s cathedral, and came home in a fog of appreciation. Plus Avery was wearing my favorite grey coat that makes her look so cozy, and a very fancy dress from Morgane le Fay that her Iowa grandparents bought for her at least three years ago and which has seen her through every festivity in her life since. Dark blue woollen knit, swirly about the hems, with a dark-blue silk lining. And a cream-colored silk blouse with a ruffled collar. With this fetching ensemble she wore a grey felt beret with a felt rabbit on it. Both John and I were quite silly with admiration for her, in the tube.
This morning she tripped off to her eye doctor appointment with John while I slept in like a lazy slob. What on EARTH am I going to do when he eventually gets a job? I have got sinfully accustomed to having a second parent in the house. And I must say that late last night, after Avery had gone to sleep and we were having a restorative shared scrambled egg in the kitchen, we discussed the incredible luxury of a two-parent household at all. We’re looking to buy a house in North Kensington, currently lived in by a lovely Irish lady called Sally and her little boy William. And that’s all. How incredibly brave of her to manage on her own, without the adult to talk to at the end of the day, to share errands, handle half (or more, in the case of my husband) the moral dilemmas and behavioral concerns. I wanted to take the two of them in to live with us! Hey, if we are able to buy her house, you never know! Seriously, though. A thing to be grateful for at any season, but especially now: a second parent. And we realized: this is the first Christmas ever that John has been able to do anything about the holiday. Which was always fine, because I love anything to do with Christmas preparations, and historically he has been very Scroogey. But now I wonder how much was Scrooge and how much was just sheer exhaustion. I remember the childhood feeling of my dad being able to relax. It was always like an extra Christmas present, having him be the self he probably always would have been without the pressure of being head of household. At Christmastime he got to have fun, and be funny, and play jokes and have me sit on his lap in the firelight (which, dear readers, I did throughout college). What old fashioned lives we still lead, some of us, at-home mothers with working husbands. And what a treat to get out from under the mantle, this one Christmas, and play a different role.
Anyway, Avery needs glasses, it turns out! Never one to be conventional, her left eye is near-sighted, her right eye far-sighted. Not to worry, modern technology will figure this out. From her eye exam she went to her classmate Kimia’s for a playdate, and I? I swanned off to a Thai grocery store with my friend Vincent, since I never really been to such a thing. Vincent specializes in three things: one, knowing all the cool things to do, two, introducing them to his friends, and three, sitting back and loving watching his friends like what he likes. It goes for Thai groceries, favorite restaurants, other friends. It’s one of the nicest things about him, his generosity about what he loves. We had FUN. And I bought lots of exotic things like kaffir lime leaves, Thai basil, three different kinds of pickled cabbage for John to try (having a childhood friend from Vietnam who instilled in him a lifelong love of kimchi). Noodles, green curry paste, lemon grass, you name it. Tomorrow night is, I’m thinking, Thai night.
From there, we ended up having a totally unexpected lunch out (at least, unexpected for me, but Vincent had of course booked) at The Providores in the Marylebone High Street. Second direction for you to run, not walk, should have the opportunity: a lunch to die for. First, “can I take all those packages for you?” meaning, “can I stop you from entering my uber-cool restaurant with all those tacky Thai grocery bags?” Although to be fair, she also took our bags from Skandium, the sublime Swedish design store, and Brora, the Scottish cashmere shop (I cannot divulge, for obvious reasons, anything that was acquired anywhere).
The food sounds indescribably pretentious when I think how to describe it, when what it really is is imaginative New Zealand fare. Which includes… kangaroo. Don’t fret! I did not indulge. Too… pouchy for me. Or something. But I did have a wonderful bowl of something called laksa, which is an Indian-ish soup with a coconut milk base. This particular bowl happened to be filled with crab, black cardamom, and galangal root, with a fried crab dumpling (to die for), lime-leaf-marinated squid (never did like eating rubber bands, so Vincent got mine) and green tea noodles. Sounds ridiculous? Perfect, Some noodles and the crab to eat with chopsticks, and a nice sterling spoon to get the coconut milk, unbelievably rich and creamy. To follow I had… foie gras, pan-fried with roasted pineapple and, I have to say, an oily coriander pikelet (a sort of potato rosti, a non-Jewish latke). Tell the truth, I always say! What was great was great, but the pikelet was oily. There you have it.
Vincent’s friend Pete joined us later on, and we lingered, oh did we linger. How wonderful to abandon any idea of what you thought you would do between sort of 1 and 3, and just sit, and eat and chat. Total luxury. Presents were exchanged, and I came home to see if John was still among the living, and I must say, even with the glorious restaurant lunch, the lingering aroma of homemade chicken soup was pretty amazing. Last bits of present wrapping, now, and so the clock to Christmas winds down.