Don’t you think Keechie looks better? I think things are looking up in her wacky little life.
Just briefly, must not get obsessed with my blog today, but I had two more to send you to, one who writes as “Bon Vivant,” and is very chatty about food all around the world, but particularly in Los Angeles, and another who calls herself “Kitchen Sister,” and promises to provide you with a meal suggestion for every blessed day of the week. She is acerbic, witty and very much a lover of life and food.
Both these lovely bloggers, as well as of course Laraland, have been sending readers to me, so I thought I’d return the favor… It’s so funny: “Laraland” says today how much she is looking forward to the Christmas Lights ceremony in the High Street on Thursday. Of course, that’s where they will announce Avery as the Christmas card design contest winner! Probably Lara and I will bump into each other several times or fight over a parking spot, and not recognize each other in the slightest, of course.…
It’s a first: fund-raising on Kristen in London! But as I was munching my lunch in front of the BBC midday news today, I saw a story that made me sit up and stop chewing. The Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust are appealing for donations to help them buy 72 acres of land in Berkshire, land and a river that inspired Kenneth Grahame to write the iconic Wind in the Willows. Apparently this area is home to all the Rattys, Toads (and presumably their Toad Halls), Mole and all their friends. How I remember the hours and hours spent reading that book aloud to Avery when she was tiny, and then watching the hilarious films. It took the devoted attention of both John and me singly to get through that long book the first time, and I imagine that experience is one that taught Avery the benefits of a long attention span. Not for her the instant gratification of Archie comics! Oh, wait, that’s one of her favorites as well. I suppose it’s the eclectic life that pleases. Oh, and if you need a little-child present there is almost nothing nicer than the Jill Barklem set of stories called “Brambly Hedge,” where you get not only your voles, but your basic set of other hedge inhabitants as well, mostly mice as I recall. I bet you if I offered to read aloud from “Brambly Hedge” at bedtime, Avery would still be happy to listen.
Anyway, my point is this: having spent many happy hours with “Wind in the Willows”, and almost as many happy hours listening to our Connecticut friend Anne talk about her work with the Southbury Land Trust, I can tell you that supporting a land or wildlife preserve is a good thing to do. There are 80% fewer water voles (i.e Ratty) now than there were just 20 years ago, poor things. But helping to buy this tract of land will ensure that Rattys can come and go as they please and no McMansions will be built. Why, it was only this summer that Avery was feeding Young Rollie’s goats on the farm formerly known as the Lovdal Farm down the road from our house, recently acquired by the Southbury Land Trust. What if 40 houses had been built on that land? Well, in any case it’s food for thought. There you go, now I’ll step off my soapbox and store it under my desk for the next cause that takes my fancy.
Other than that bit of news, it’s a grey, rainy day here in Mayfair, perfect for picking up my bedraggled childhood copy of “Ammie, Come Home,” the wonderful Georgetown ghost story that I read every November, for coziness sake. The rain means also, however, no top down on Emmy when I go pick up Avery and drive her to the stable. It’s always the first thing she says when she approaches the car: “Top down, top down!” I read with my Form Three gulls this morning and had the pleasure of hearing about four pages of Harry Potter with the amazing Victoria. It’s so much fun just to watch these gulls’ little English mouths form the words. Next week is the Book Fair, and at the grocery store yesterday I was forced to pause in the cat food aisle and take an urgent mobile call from the Librarian, Mrs Palmer, asking for my assistance. Absolutely! This is actually Book Fair week at PS 234 in New York, so it comes at the right time.
Yesterday I spent most of the day ordering tickets for us to see “A Christmas Carol” at the Shaw Theatre, and a traditional choral concert of Christmas songs at the dreaded Barbican. I’d better bring my walking stick with the compass in the head and a flask of brandy slung around my neck. Then a long session discussing the trials and tribulations of homework for Avery, over a bowl of (I’m ashamed to say) gloriously crunchy and salty french fries at Patisserie Valerie. I know I should be giving her granola bars or something, but it’s hard to resist those fries. Plus she needed all the strength she could get to cope with English revisions, science questions, maths timestables, French memorization. As usual we cracked up over the word for “lawyer” and “avocado” being the same. “Je suis un avocat,” “I am an avocado.” Juvenile bilingual humor always gets me. Luckily for both of us and our appetites, spaghetti and meatballs were in store for our dinner. Now, my meatball recipe is flexible in the extreme, unlike the quite, quite perfect recipe made by John’s assistant Olimpia. I cannot compete. Her name ends in a vowel, she was born in Italy, enough said. Maybe if I called mine Norwegian meatballs the bar would be lower. But Avery likes mine well enough, and I suspect Olimpia of leaving out some crucial secret step, rubbing her hands together and knowing that I will never ever be able to achieve her success. No, she’s too sweet for that. But anyway, mine are easy and you don’t have to worry about their sticking together properly and looking nice, because they end up their cooking being braised in the tomato sauce. That way all flaws are hidden, an important ingredient in my non-perfectionistic cooking style.
First you want to start your tomato sauce so it can cook down while you play with the meatballs. It’s the easiest sauce in the world and smells heavenly as it cooks.
Kristen’s Tomato Sauce
3 tbsps olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 soup-size cans whole peeled plum tomatoes
1 cup red wine
3 tbsps Italian seasoning
salt and pepper to taste
In a wide saucepan, saute garlic and onions in the olive oil, till soft. Then add all the other ingredients and prepare to wait. And stir. And wait, and stir some more. You can also break up the whole tomatoes with the back of your spoon. I advise against starting with chopped tomatoes because they just cook down into a mush. This way, you end up with nice recognizable and beautiful bites of tomato and a rich sauce.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
(serves four, or two people two nights in a row, in my life)
good splash olive oil
1 medium red onion finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 lb ground beef, lamb, pork or my combo of all three
one handful parsley, finely chopped
3 tbsps Italian seasoning
1 tsp dried basil
1/3 cup homemade bread crumbs
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 egg, beaten
First, in a large skillet saute the garlic and onions in the olive oil and let cool off the stove. Then mix all the other ingredients together. When garlic and onions are cool enough to touch, add them and mix, using your hands (sorry to say) at the end. Form into balls that fit in the palm of your hand (you should get about six). Heat more olive oil in the skillet you used for the garlic and onions and place the meatballs in a single layer. Fry on one side for about three minutes, then gently turn them over and fry on the other for three minutes. Gently remove the meatballs one by one with a tongs, and place in your tomato sauce. This can simmer indefinitely, at a very low simmer, while you make your salad and correct your child’s geography homework and boil your spaghetti. To serve, place a tongs-full of spaghetti on a plate, add two meatballs, and ladle over sauce. Top with grated parmesan.
It was so funny last night, though: first, I discovered I was out of butter, a complete catastrophe in my fat-laden household (I usually add a pat to my tomato sauce at the last minute, but it isn’t necessary). Then I found I was out of lemons for my Absolut Citron cocktail as well as to sprinkle on the avocado I insist on eating every night as I cook dinner. Just sliced, with lemon juice and Maldon salt that my mother in law and I are obsessed with (I have to add here that if you go on the Maldon website, by clicking the hot link, you can download a movie called, I am not making this up, “The Magic of Salt.” So far even I do not have THAT much time on my hands). So then I discovered I was out of salt! And I had no milk. Finally, I asked Avery in desperation, “What is, in your opinion, the main ingredient in spaghetti and meatballs?” “The meatballs,” she answered promptly. “Oh, thank goodness,” I breathed in relief, “because we’re out of spaghetti.”
(Linguini worked fine.)
But first, before I tell you about my afternoon in heaven, I must give credit to the owner of my photograph of sushi, in my previous post. At first I didn’t feel the need to credit her because her copyright watermark, “La Petite Chinoise,” is on the photo. I just found it by googling images of sushi, not having one of my own! But then I found myself reading her blog, and it’s really quite interesting. She lives in Paris, but happened to be visiting London, where she found not only Nobu London, but also “Books for Cooks” in Notting Hill, two of my favorite places in the world. So visit her blog, do.
Also, I must say that I am working on how to make the hotlinks to other posts in my own blog go right to the section that talks about the thing I’m referring to, not just to the whole post. I can see that it might be quite irritating to click on “Books for Cooks” and get sent to a post that is about a lot of other things before it gets to the mention of the bookstore. I’m on it! There must be a way. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy meandering through the various pointless things I have to say before I get to the pointless thing you thought you wanted to read. It’s all such a challenge.
Speaking of challenges, I drummed up my courage this morning and… drove! To the stable to drop Avery off for her day of mucking out and such, and then to the Marylebone Farmer’s Market. I really got myself scared of driving, since my horrific accident when I lived here last (don’t worry, nobody got hurt except the car). But not driving is one of those things that limits me, makes me even more timid than I normally am, which is saying something. I don’t like the idea that as life goes on, I do fewer things. I want to do more things! So John had encouraged me to drive, and I had demurred. But that’s ridiculous. You can’t just shrink into a person who either walks or lets someone else drive her around, whether it’s in a bus or a tube or a cab. So I took key in hand, reassured a dubious Avery that all would be well (“not only ‘can’ you drive, Mommy, but ‘should’ you drive?”), and got in the car. I should have known Emmy would not let me down. All was well! And as my reward I got to shop to my heart’s content, knowing that there was a nice car seat waiting for the ridiculously heavy bag when I was finished. And a handy car park doubles as the market anyway, so I just parked her and was off.
I sampled so many things that it was silly to think I had to have lunch as well. Let’s see, I had fresh pesto with a little bread stick, and a slice of Red William pear, and a bit of goat’s cheese on a little biscuit, and some apple juice! Then, however, I happened upon the fishmonger, one Maldon Oyster & Seafood Company , located at Birchwood Farm, Cock Clarks, Chelmsford, Essex. Their concern at the market consists of a sort of elevated truck whose side opens out, with three wonderful blokes behind the full-to-overflowing iced counter. One fellow helped me, and I was about ready to marry him by the time I was finished. “My little girl likes lemon sole, and Dover sole,” I said. “But I’d like to have money left over after dinner to send her to university, as well, so what would you recommend?” He put his grizzled head to one side, considered me, looked over his wares and said, “Time was when people asked special for whiting for the kiddies,” he said. He pulled a fillet from its bed of ice and laid it before me reverentially. “Take a look at that, my love. That’s a delicate fish, that is. I’ve never seen one that size, off the West Country, that is.” So I succumbed. He wrapped it up, shouting to one of his mates, “Don’t forget the brill, now, everything’s for sale except the staff,” and to another customer, “I’ll tell you the ‘erring’s lovely today, just lovely. Would you like it with the ‘ard roe, or the soft roe?” To me he said, “This whiting, now, to get it any fresher you’d have to get a sight wet. What else can I get for you, my love?” So I said as how I’d have a nice dressed crab, which is such a luxury considering the horrible experience I had once trying to get any usable quantity of crab from its shell. He sifted through the piles and came up with the best.
But then came the piece de resistance. I had noticed a Frenchy-looking girl queueing up at the side of the truck, waiting in front of a low table to the edge of which was a chalkboard proclaiming “1 pound per shucked oyster”. Now, I was introduced to raw oysters late in life, and have never been a huge devotee although I like them, and I will eat them if I trust the source. Also I adore oyster stew, for which I will give you a perfect recipe nearer to Christmas time. But one summer I found myself in, of all places, Waterloo, Iowa with my parents-in-law and they took me to a seafood festival at their beloved country club, Sunnyside. I know what you’re thinking: a seafood festival in a state that embodies “land-locked”? I thought the same thing. But I was a guest, and they were going, and I will do almost anything for my parents-in-law. I was seated next to one of my favorite people in the world, their friend Hugh, whose wife Janey gave me my first cooking lesson, lo these (eek) 23 years ago. Gosh, that’s scary. She’s a true French chef and I was in love right away, with her, her adorable and racy husband, with Iowa and life in general. So Hugh poked me in the ribs and said, “Gonna have some oysters, Kristen?” “You know, Hugh, they’re not my favorite thing. Plus you know what they say about oysters…” I said. “Oh, now, come on,” Hugh teased me mercilessly. “You can’t say you’re writing a cookbook, you can’t say you even care about food, if you don’t like oysters on the half shell. And these will be the best you’ve ever had. The freshest, anyway.” I closed my lips upon my skepticism on this point, and decided to take the bait, so to speak. Well, it was a revelation. As a fish chef once told me at the great Mitchell’s Fish Market in Indianapolis once told me, “We have to break the mold on freshness because the fish comes from so far away. You coastal people can get lazy, thinking it’s right there.” And obviously it held true for Waterloo, Iowa, that glorious July night. Thank you, Hugh.
So today I was in such a good mood, and such a food mood, that I thought I’d have one. The beefy guy in his wet and bloody apron laid the oyster from the Blackwater River in Essex on a well-worn wooden block with an oyster-shell-shaped indentation in the center, and advanced on it with a proper oyster knife, split it open, slid his knife around under the oyster, and placed it on a little plate piled with crushed ice. “There you are, now,” he said as he tendered it. There was a little plate of lemon wedges, a dish of salt, a dish of chopped shallots in red wine vinegar and a bottle of Tabasco. I squeezed on some lemon juice, added a drip of vinegar and slurped it down. Ahhh! Icy, icy cold, fresh, briny, just sublimely fresh and perfect. “I’m going to have to have another of those, if you please,” I said, handing over another pound coin. “Oh, make it two more.” He looked on, smiling slightly with pleasure at my pleasure. So guess where I’m going for my Christmas stew oysters? Something to look forward to.
I came home with my laden L.L. Bean canvas bag (I’m trying valiantly to stop the invasion of plastic carrier bags in my home), and a slight case of indigestion at so many different foods! I thought of the wonderful poem by Egon Ronay, the Hungarian restaurant critic whose food guides have been bibles in my two London homes. It starts out like this…
A Food Inspector’s Lament
Spare a thought for the bloke in the corner
With the newspaper, notebook and pen
He put away four courses at lunchtime
And this evening he’s at it again
Before the black pudding (with scallops)
Came veloute of butternut squash
’Compliments of the kitchen,’ how charming
(And veloute make soup awfully posh!)
And afterwards, sea bass ‘n’ pesto
Risotto and Shaved Parmesan too
With buckets of oil and balsamic,
What happened to old-fashioned stew?
So spare a thought for the bloke in the corner
With the heart attack lying in wait,
And if he seems a bit down in the mouth, well,
He’s got rather a lot on his plate.
Now, to get the 12 stanzas in between, you’ll either have to buy the food guide, or… come to my house and borrow it.
Pssst. Want a hot, secret nugget of wisdom about the Tate Gallery here in London? Go on, you know that’s why you read “Kristen in London,” it’s for the hot, secret nuggets of wisdom about just about anything in our fair city, stuff you can’t get from a guidebook. Well, here’s today’s little treasure: if you don’t have to cross the Thames to GET TO the Tate, you shouldn’t cross the Thames to GO BACK HOME.
That’s right, I managed to top yesterday’s Barbican Blunder, and we got on a Number 88 bus to come home from the museum and got all the way to bleeding Brixton. Went in the bloody wrong direction! Just happily riding along, both Avery and I exclaiming over the lovely lights on the river, “Hey, the London Eye is red! Must be for Christmas,” never once thinking that it was odd to have to cross the river to get to… Mayfair. From the Tate. Mind you, I’ve been to the Tate that is on the other side of the river. I can offer no explanation for my extreme stupidity. Be sure and say that with the proper posh English “shtew-pidity” pronunciation. Avery said today, “It makes me slightly crazy the way the English say Tuesday as if they were talking about eating. Chews-day.” Well, at least they don’t spend an hour and a half getting home from a major landmark.
Anyway, we had fun. I needed a bit of cultcha because last night I made a real stab at seeing an actual film in a theatre, for some cultcha, and when I got there, they had mysteriously decided to substitute the film I wanted to see with a Latin American Film Festival. What? No one seemed very interested in my whingey protestations about accuracy on one’s website about what one is offering to the innocent film-viewing public, so I slunk out. By then the drizzle had turned to a real soaker, so I quickly decided I needed to go indoors and would you believe it? The closest place I could find was… Nobu. Okay, not the closest, but the closest place that served yellowtail with jalapeno and cilantro in a ponzu sauce. Always makes me a bit homesick, Nobu. I have no idea why they seated me, in ratty jeans and soaking wet and in an orange pashmina that smelled like a wet labrador, but they did. Bliss. A double order of the yellowtail, a nice chat with a Portuguese fellow sitting next to me at the sushi bar who was missing his kids back in Sao Paolo. Not for me the flirtatious chat with someone lonely on a business trip. No, we talked about our children. Sigh. That is so representative of my life.
Home and to bed early, missing my family. I was glad to run out to Kensington this morning and pick up Fifi from her friend Julia’s house. What an incredibly erudite family Julia’s is. Her mother is Italian, her father Polish, and their house completely beautiful, filled with Italian contemporary paintings and gorgeous piles of impressive art history books on their (yes) coffee table, reminded me of the gatrillions of equally lovely books that I own, now providing hours of educational entertainment to the bats and mice in the barn in Connecticut. Some decisions I make are just shtew-pid.
So Avery was hot to see the Holbein showbecause of their studying the Tudors and the Renaissance at school. And it was worth seeing. We each got the audio guide because I know next to nothing about Holbein and Avery, while extremely knowledgeable, allowed as how she might learn something from an actual museum expert. It was fun to wander around and enter numbers into the guide and have the nice English lady tell us lots of things we did not know about Sir Thomas More, Jane Seymour and the like. I wish I had had my camera with me, because Avery’s outfit was amazing and she got lots of admiring looks from the other museum-goers: robin’s egg blue tights, a fuzzy caramel-colored short skirt, a sequined pink vintage cardie, and a grey felt beret with the silhouette of a jackrabbit on the bit that hung over her eye (the rabbit had a crystal eye, just so you know). But John has the camera in Connecticut, and I’m ashamed to say Avery actually said she was relieved to have a moment in her life go undocumented.
She was a little melancholy on the ride home, totally unconnected to the fact that we saw most of greater London on the bus ride. “Mommy, this is my first Christmas not at home. I mean, we are at home, but not… at home. And I know there are people who spend Christmas abroad. But we’re not that kind of people! And yet we are! Spending Christmas abroad. And yet at home.” She sighed. “It’s very confusing.” Poor dear. She is also concerned that the famous Oxford Street Christmas lights are number one, wasteful of electricity in these environmentally sensitive times, and number two, really tacky. At least she has her priorities straight.
Whew. Michaelmas Fair over, and may I just say that our class mother says we set a record: we sold every last skanky toy. It turns out that if you remove, say, a well-loved Spirograph set from its tired old box, wipe it up with a diaper wipe, wrap it in shiny cellophane and tie the top with raffia, you can charge a pound for it and it flies off the table. Just before the big rush, a hilarious ex-New Yorker mother that I had just met asked if I wanted to grab a sandwich at Villandry, so we headed out, exchanging stories madly along the way. Wendy said, “You realize that our school is rare in that they have established a no-scans admissions policy.” “No scans?” I said. “OK, I’ll bite. What do you mean, no scans?” “Well,” Wendy said, “in order to make sure their children will have a place at some of the other girls’ schools in the city, pregnant women are going in with their ultrasound scans, and an estimated due date, and putting them down.” “Oh, stop, Wendy,” I said, “you mean unborn children are being signed up for preparatory schools?” “Yep,” she said, “only not our school. Absolutely no in-vitro admissions.”
The feeling in the air by 2 o’clock was an exact replica of the atmosphere at PS 234 for Winter Fair, or the Spring Auction. Kids out of their minds with excitement, damp money clutched in their hands, filled with sugar and desperate to buy something, anything. I tried to remember the feeling, not just imagine how they felt but really remember it, that Friday-afternoon, autumnal, special-occasion, no-worries mood, running around with my friends, my mother behind a table looking helpful and welcoming (lord knows I came by my school-mother martyrdom honestly), but I couldn’t, really, recapture the sense of utter bliss and celebration. What happens to that feeling when you grow up? Maybe some people are better at holding onto it than I am, but at least I could enjoy looking in on my child feeling that way. There were all the traditional English fair things I had always read about (except no teas! darn): the Toy Tombola, the Lucky Dip (oh, the excitement of not knowing what might come up!), the sweets stall, Father Christmas in his grotto! My favorite moment of the day: Annabelle comes running up to her mother to show her what she bought and her mum wails, “But Annabelle: we DONATED that!” The impossibility of bringing something you have been wanting to get out of the house for ages, because your child will find it and buy it back.
Oh, and also a wonderful story about a visit to a popular choice of senior schools among our set. One of class mothers reports that she was led around by a charming young teenager, full of enthusiasm, and when she asked about the food, the girl said firmly, “It’s really quite good. My mum absolutely put her foot down about it. She’s quite keen on food.” Something prompted the mother to look at the child’s name tag. Mimi Lawson-Diamond. Yes, well, with the Domestic Goddess Nigella Lawson as your mum, it might hold more weight than my opinion does at our school.
Finally all was gone, with Amy’s exuberant mum Kelly shouting at the end, “Fine! Fifty p will do! Just take it!” then, aside, “Can you tell I’m in retail?”
We emerged into the late-afternoon sunshine to find a taxi and hightailed it to the stable, where Avery had the enormous responsibility of grabbing the bridle of a smaller gull’s pony and leading her all the way across the Bayswater Road (Alexa following at a safe distance, of course), to the ring where Avery’s own pony was already waiting. My mind’s eye saw her crushed in the road when the pony balked and a lorry ran over her, but no, all was fine. I simply froze as I watched, suspended in that limbo of boredom that is the lesson time. Around and around, Alexa screaming ceaselessly at the children: “change your lead at ‘haitch’ [the tacked-up letters around the ring to help guide the children] and go large, Avery, and Rosie, you’re on the wrong diagonal, sit two beats…” On and on. The universal experience of a riding lesson, plus freezing cold. I find it amusing that Avery completely believes that I love her lessons. What I do love is getting to see her improve at something, and be so determined. But the lesson? Please. Back at the stable, Mr Ross Nye was in attendance, dropping a gnarled hand on a small head and asking, “How was that canter today, young Emma?” I wished him Happy Anniversary, he and his wife having celebrated 50 years this week. “Thank you, my dear, and what’s more, they have been happy years.”
This morning found me on the tube trying to get to The City of London School for Girls, and since I didn’t know how long it would take me, I allowed a whole hour. Well, typical me, the tube ride took all of 15 minutes, but I managed to take advantage of the full 45 minutes that were left to get utterly lost. Well, not lost exactly, just stuck inside the hideous complex that is the Barbican theatre and music mecca, walking in circles looking for the school. Just hopeless. Finally I called the school in shame and chagrin, and ended up experiencing the lost-person’s equivalent of delivering a baby while on the phone to 911: I kept that lady who answered on that *&^% phone until I was at the bloody door of the school. “Now, sweetheart, if you see the music shop on your left you’re going the wrong direction. Pass the pub on your right…” So embarrassing. I slunk inside the school in case she was behind the front desk and I had a big red L for “loser” on my forehead. Anyway, I went on the tour with two slightly lame little 12-year-olds who kept looking at each other and giggling at every question they were asked, and having precious little to say to enlighten us. And the physical plant? Let me put it this way: the school and I were both built in 1965 and we both could do with a little lick of fresh paint and some new carpet. And actually, I think 1965 was a better year for humans than for institutional architecture, so I may be ahead in the race. Anyway, UGLY, can I tell you. Poured concrete and tired bricks.
However, the classrooms looked exactly like classrooms everywhere, the gulls in general looked happy and energetic (and since school was actually running, unlike at St Paul’s and Godolphin’s nighttime tours, they can’t just have locked up the odd children, unless they put them all in the locker rooms). The headmistress was very impressive, but just about the second sentence of her speech was, “I am retiring in the summer.” So much for that beacon of guidance. I don’t know. I wish John had been there too. It’s very competitive, though, and very hardy and edgy, I’d say. A lot of energy. We stopped in a science classroom and watched 20 gulls in red jumpers and red skirts, eyes trained on their teacher, who was attempting to explain electrical circuits to them. I’m afraid we happened in at an inauspicious moment, however, because he had just asked, “And what is the force called that pushes the electrons along?” and about ten girls called out “Duracell!” He just sighed.
I raced home in a combination of tube and long walk down the Edgware Road, having to buy a single ticket since my Oyster card seemed to have been pinched by one of the 600 people I asked for directions at the Barbican, or else I dropped it at the school when getting my Chapstick out. Who knows. So I was on foot. Home, gave a pat to my posh going-out clothes and was off again. Oh, posh clothes: you will chuckle. The skinny black sort of faille pants were purchased at the San Francisco Clothing Company on Lexington Avenue in 1992, to celebrate my first job at Hunter College (gotta wear black when you’re an art history professor in New York), and the Rodney Telford jacket was bought the week after Avery was born, to reassure myself that I would once again, someday, be a size 6. And the boots? Black ankle length high-heeled Varda, my absolute favorite last, purchased at least three apartments before we left the city. Proves one of my most treasured adages: if it’s black and you save it long enough, it will come back in style.
I ended up taking a ruinous taxi to the Savoy to have lunch with my friend Susan, since I was fresh from my humiliating directions defeat at the Barbican. Finally I unburdened myself to the driver, and he was all sympathy. “Why, love, we taxi drivers do the Knowledge to learn our routes, and we all dread the days when it’s the Barbican!” We had a nice discussion of why the leaves are still on the trees, coming to the conclusion that like everything else, it’s global warming. Except that it was freezing cold! John had reported last night that every single leaf has fallen from the Red Gate Farm trees, and… had been swept up, raked, blown, hoovered or otherwise wafted from our property by forces unknown. Those lawn guys! Honestly, why do they keep coming and working for us with no money coming in? Still, why complain. One year without raking will not kill us. I remember last year we waited so long that we were shoveling leaves. Under SNOW.
To the perfect, iconic entrance of the Savoy, where I gathered up Avery’s overnight bag and skate bag for her sleepover with Jamie (always arrive at one of the world’s poshest hotels in style, is my motto) and went into the lobby, looking for the Savoy Grill where I had booked us. Before I went in, I looked at the menu propped up on a marble table outside the door. Eeek, a 55-pound three course lunch. On top of the taxi! I just couldn’t do it. I swallowed my pride and the awkwardness of having to change things around, and went up to the desk and arranged to have our reservations switched to the much lower-key menu and atmosphere of the Banquette, still run by Marcus Wareing and so, promising an excellent lunch. That ordeal over, I sank down with all my clobber in a plush velvet chair, and a nice dapper little waiter-ish man caught my eye and glided over. Just then I noticed a sign saying, “Reserved” sitting on the table beside me. Posh places always make me feel so awkward! “I’m so terribly sorry,” I said. “Who is the table reserved for?” And that little man bowed deeply and said, “For you, madam.” Now that is just sweet. So I ordered a glass of champagne and sat back to wait for Susan. She came in, her usual elegant self in a gorgeous autumnal sweater with fringey cuffs. She is the sort of person who keeps her reading glasses in a little pouch hand-knitted for her by her daughter Sophia. I would like to be that sort of person.
We had a lovely lunch. Susan had a pear and stilton salad with crispy bacon, and “goujons” of plaice (a goujon being the English word for what we’d call “fingers,” you know all those foods that don’t have fingers except when they’re fried, like chickens and fishes) with homemade tartare sauce. I really could not say where the word “goujon” comes from. I know it is a real kind of fish, a sort of catfishy fish, but then it couldn’t be made of plaice. And he was a 16th century French sculptor, but that’s a stretch. Could someone in France five hundreds years ago have inspired a term for English junk food? Probably not.
I probably ordered wrong because both dishes were so heavy and rich, but they were so good that I’m not sorry. I started with duck spring rolls and a sweet chili dipping sauce, and then braised pork belly with black pudding mashed potatoes, parsnips and grain mustard sauce. To die for. The only flaw? No leftover containers. So I watched sadly as the portion of pork belly and potatoes went away not nearly depleted enough. To have John there! He can always finish anything. We had enormous fun gossiping, talking school choices, catching up on each other’s lives the way you do when you have both the present and the past to talk about. She has had a fascinating life filled with friendships whose glamour and craziness make excellent lunch conversation. How lucky I am to be in a town that contains Becky and Susan, the Savoy, King’s College. I could do without the Barbican, though.
Rushing off to meet Avery, Jamie and her mother at the skating rink, where we traded off belongings: I gave away skates and overnight bag, and got backpack and gym bag in return. A kiss and goodbye. What shall I do with myself this evening, all by myself? I know, I know, just don’t get lost.
Not that we have candles burning in the hydrangea tree at all times of the year (OK, only on Christmas Eve if you have to know, buzz kill), but I am thinking of John at Red Gate Farm today and am feeling nostalgic. He emailed late last night to report that the stream is nearly flooded from the torrential East Coast rains yesterday and that everything is peaceful and lovely there. Sigh. I bet it is.
Now then. I have barely ever read anyone else’s blog, because please remember that I am extremely self-centered. However, in my recent quest to get more readers, I googled some blogs, about London, about food, I think that’s as far as I got. Mostly because I got sidetracked by one extremely well-written blog about being a mum (or rather a person who is a mum) in London, “Laraland.” She has kindly posted about my blog, so I shall return the favor. If you do nothing else today, go on her blog and click “photos”, then click “May.” I’m not providing a hot link here because I think you will enjoy going to the whole blog. But that one photo is worth the whole price of admission (bear with me, it’s free, but you know what I mean). Her photographs make me sick with envy, but then a person who posts a picture of her camera probably has more invested in her photographic skill than I have I, who has none. She mentions, so I will too, that it is funny to think of our passing each other in the Waitrose in the high street, or sipping coffee next to each other at Patisserie Valerie. It is a very small town, after all.
I can’t dilly-dally another minute. Got to go slave away at the Michaelmas Fair. See you later.
Avery! Of the (drumroll please) Lord Howard de Walden Christmas card design competition! Out of all the London girls’ schools that competed, citywide, her design has been chosen as the winner. Now, tomorrow we will find out more, after the school assembly where it’s announced. But today at pickup, where I was admittedly feeling a bit blue, not to say melancholy for no good reason, Avery came out all pink-faced from her run in Regent’s Park, and there on her heels was Mrs D, the headmistress. “She actually CAME OUT of the school!” I hissed later, as we walked away. “I know, like a turtle out of its shell,” Avery said. “Or a hermit crab out of its shell, or…” “I get you,” I said. The point being that Mrs D is always in the school. So she came sailing majestically out the door and down the step and right to us as we stood there, Avery munching a lemon biscuit and looking sweaty.
“Mrs C? Mrs C, has this child been good today?” Well, I didn’t know, did I? “I, uh, think so,” I said. “Well, I can tell you she HAS. Who do you think has had her design chosen out of all the gulls from all the schools participating in the Howard de Walden Christmas card competition? Well, it’s this gull right here.” Heavens above! “I just got the letter in the post this afternoon,” she continued. “It will be announced at assembly tomorrow, as well as the prize given to her. I do not know what the prize is as of now, but we will all find out tomorrow. Well done, Avery!” and with a final pat on the head she went back into her shell, I mean school.
So! I have been doing a bit of research on old Howard de Walden now. Of course, last year on Prize Day when Avery got the Howard de Walden essay contest prize, I felt a brief frisson of interest in the fellow. But now that I know our relationship is going to be deeper than just one prize, I have wikipedia-ed his family. And found a very good peerage website description as well. He was born in 1880 and passed along his lordship, or whatever you call it, to his son, who died in 1999 aged 86. Somewhere along the line the father, the one the prize is named after, married, as all savvy chaps do, a woman whose dowry was 92 acres of prime London real estate, namely that which is Marylebone today. So there you go! And would you believe that this bust of him was sculpted in 1906 by… Rodin! The connections just go on and on. Unfortunately there was no son to inherit from the Howard de Walden who died in 1999, so the title is in “abeyance,” which means there’s no heir to google to fix up with Avery. I guess we’ll hang onto the Duke of Westminster who owns Mayfair. Or whoever. Gee, all these titles and dowries get confusing.
She’s very proud. We think the upshot is that her card design will be made into a real card and sold in large numbers (bought by me, mostly, I imagine) for charity. Tomorrow afternoon is the Michaelmas Fair, so it’s going to be pretty exciting for Avery to have had her big announcement at assembly beforehand. I’ll let you know what the prize is! Good on you, Aves.
Remember I mentioned “A Most Uncommon Degree of Popularity” to you? Well, halfway through it, it was just a charming book. Very funny about a group of women who get really, really invested in their daughters’ lives, worrying over their social status, their clothes, their history essays, their carpools. It all rang true to me, especially the part where the main character, Lydia, explains that “When we moms are talking about the Spring Fair or cotton-fleece drawstring shorts, we’re talking shop. In some ways it isn’t any different from when the men talk about how their firms are billing. We are talking about our jobs, too…” That is so true! From the outside looking in, it would seem that having coffee with other mothers is just social life, and in a way of course it is. But it’s also part of our jobs: to build relationships with the mothers of our children’s friends, so you’re speaking the same language when it comes to discipline, homework, what is acceptable for your children to say to you, what sorts of presents you bring to birthday parties. It’s all part of building a little world within which your child can function in lots of different settings because the professionals in charge (the moms) have made it all consistent, and safe, and life-enhancing. In this world, what is one person’s gossip is another person’s (a mother’s) essential due diligence.
That was all a lot of fun to read about. The author, Kathleen Gilles Seidel, has a funny caustic wit, and the character has a great deal of strength, tenacity and honesty, but also somewhere between the author and the character I suspect a lot of overlap has taken place, and that adds to the authenticity of the story.
But then at the end it became all about my life! It has been so wonderful seeing Avery so happy at school that I haven’t spent much time thinking about what we left behind. And everyone has been so ready to welcome me as another mother at school that I have certainly not felt left out, not at all. But when Lydia realizes that the school she has chosen for her children and been part of for so many years, since they were really tiny, is no longer best for them and she needs to move them to another school, it all felt just like having to leave P.S. 234 in New York for our school here.
“Living in a small town teaches you a lot, but one thing it doesn’t teach you is how to say goodbye. Families don’t move away as much as they do in D.C., and even when you do, you don’t say goodbye because your parents are still there and you will be coming back… This time I was going to say goodbye, bid farewell to the first place I had felt so completely a part of, so completely at home.
What precious, precious memories I had — the Halloween parades with the masses of little witches, Indians and princesses; Erin and her friends wearing their Brownie uniforms for the first time, both Erin and Thomas being so excited about reading their first ‘chapter’ book; and that funny, wonderful moment when Erin was in first grade and one of her friends saw me and chirped, “Hi, Mrs. Erin’s Mom.”…
I wasn’t just saying goodbye to the school; I was saying goodbye to my children being young.”
It’s hard to leave behind a place where your child was born, and then was the talkative baby that all the doormen and grocery store checkout girls learned to know by name, and then was the best customer at the ridiculously expensive children’s clothing shop (when they gave Avery a doll with “Happy 5th Birthday, Avery” embroidered on it, John said suspiciously, “How much are you spending there?”). She was little there. There’s no denying that by the time we arrived in London, she was a bit of a young lady, and all the more so since we’ve been here. I guess part of what touched me about this book was how important it is to notice when you’re leaving one part of your child’s life behind, how good it has been, and then to notice again when the new life is heartwarming and lovely as well. We’ve been very lucky. Thank you Becky, for loaning me the book! Among other things.
Yesterday at school pickup when I introduced Avery to a mother friend of mine, she shook hands and curtsyed! Eeek, what happened to my rough and tumble child who once clocked a classmate over the head with a broom handle? Of course, the other child started it.
John is off to New York, or rather to Red Gate Farm, for a week, where we have a sinking feeling we packed up ALL the bedlinens, towels, and other tiny details that make life possible, in boxes in the basement in case our realtor found a renter (which she didn’t: her emailed assurance that she would “suspend all showings” while John was there fell on slightly deaf ear: I couldn’t imagine that she was leading swarms of people through the place when he wasn’t there). He hasn’t been away since the first week in September, so Avery and I are a bit flustered contemplating life as just the two of us. I suspect that Emmy will spend more time parked on Green Street, as I am still not wholly comfortable driving here. John promises to report all news from Connecticut, where the fall foliage is no doubt a bit more spectacular than it is here. But this morning when I opened my window shade, there was a shower of golden leaves fluttering to the ground in the garden: a rather muted, but still lovely, sign of autumn.
OK, this title is a little misleading because the first step is: be really self-centered to begin with. If you are not, you must add this step.
You write a blog, say about moving to London. This way, everything you do is experienced not only by you, but by innocent people who happen upon your blog.
Start trying to find new people to read your blog, by searching for other self-centered people who write blogs and sending them the link to your blog. Seriously, this is how pitiful I have become. You would be surprised at how many scary websites there are claiming to be about, for example, “Expats Living Abroad.” Or even “Expat Mothers Living Abroad.” Except that both of those particular websites were heavily populated by people who titled their posts things like “XXX Hot Fuzzy Girl in London,” and “Military Girl Looking for Fun,” which at least sounded potentially more entertaining than “Attachment Parenting in London.” I remember “attachment parenting” from when Avery was a baby and various people tried to get me to read books about being a mother, and one of them suggested that the “24-hour cure” for troublesome nursing was placing the mother and baby in bed together and not letting them come out for 24 hours. It was surmised that by the end of that time period, the necessary amount of bonding would have taken place and all would be well. My idea of a “24-hour cure” was a night at the Tribeca Grand while somebody else took care of the baby. Not that I ever did that, but it always seemed like an option.
But I digress. My point is, I have now reached the point of… blogging about blogging. It’s just that pathetic. Seriously, though, I found one good site, and that’s expat-blog, full of other people who have been sent to, dragged to, otherwise forced to move to foreign lands. There are lot of people living in London, but I think there’s a significant risk that some of them may be as self-centered as me, in which case there is not room for more than one of us.
Meanwhile, let’s see, it’s a typical grey London morning. In a rare early-morning social encounter, we stopped off at Avery’s friend Angelica’s house before school dropoff in order to receive a birthday present too large to be brought to school! Oh my. When Angelica’s mother arranged this with me last night, I was of course wide awake and it sounded like a perfectly reasonable thing to do: just set the alarm half an hour early and stop off to chat while Avery opened her present (what on earth could be too large to bring to school? Avery guessed a pony). However, I forgot that I’m really not at my best at 8 a.m. I tend not to be able to think of anything to say, and if I do think of something, I don’t remember afterward that I’ve said it. John is this way late at night, but somehow life seems to embrace his approach, where everyone expects me to be chirpy and responsive when I first wake up. At any rate, 8 o’clock found us in Angelica’s warm, homey kitchen, with a lovely housekeeper making crepes and Jill holding the new baby. I promptly woke up enough to ask to hold her, and she spent the next few minutes chewing on the shoulder of my cardigan, the dear little thing. Avery opened her present, and it was, amazingly, the largest of all the Sylvanian houses. She is in complete heaven. Now her beloved animals have an even larger place to live than then darling cottage her friend Anna gave her. For sure, these children know each other very well. We sat down with the parents while the girls oohed and aahed, and chatted about the elections in America today. I wonder what will happen. England is, unusually, very interested this year because they think it will affect British troops in Iraq, so there is a surprising amount of coverage here. I’ll have to pay attention.
In the few moments available to me yesterday not to be self-centered, I spent time sorting toys and wrapping presents for Thursday’s Michaelmas Fair at school. It was the exact replica of the hundreds of other mornings I have spent at Washington Market School or P.S. 234 in New York: granted, the women had elegant English names like Geraldine and Josephine instead of peppy American names like Alyssa and Hali, but still, the atmosphere was the same. The same joy in contributing to our children’s lives, the same petty arguing over who was in charge of pricing the puzzles. “If you don’t MIND, I could use those scissors,” and “Well, Arabella told me yesterday that at the birthday party on Sunday, Henrietta said…” Just in English accents. Mothers across the world are pretty much indistinguishable. After school Becky and I wandered around John Lewis looking for stuff to buy, namely a sewing kit so I can sew yet more *&^% name tapes on Avery’s riding gloves, so that at least the next time she loses them there is a hope that someone could return them to her. Also I found a darling little “pinny” for Baby Jane. What is a pinny, you ask? Well, so did I, and it’s short for “pinafore.” I am always obscurely relieved to find time-honoured national Britishisms (like putting an unnecessary “u” in “honour”) that still hold sway. Jane will grow up to call her pinny a jumper, which of course in England would get her a sweater.
Oh, and a book you might like! Becky gave it to me saying, “This will remind you of our lives,” which of course at times is not what I would call a ringing endorsement for a piece of American literature, but hey, I gave it a try. An Uncommon Degree of Popularity, by Kathleen Gilles Seidel. About a group of sixth-grade girls and their mothers, all trying to cope with the social realities of being popular or not. John and I have discussed this a number of times with Avery, since we were both rather un-cool as pre-teens and teenagers, and never got any cooler, but for some reason were always pretty warmly accepted by the kids who were cool. Looking back I think it was a nice place to sit: no pressure, but plenty of friends. I’m about halfway through and it’s a clever read.
Well, enough about something besides me. I think I’ll google myself…
Ah, Avery’s at the stable with the remains of her birthday cake and seven forks, so my time is my own, for the following hour and seventeen minutes. As the last gasp of birthday celebration, we took Avery and Anna to the hot-needles-in-eyeballs experience that is “Build-a-Bear” in Covent Garden. Truly not a thing a rational adult wants to do, where the child chooses a flat animal (why they don’t mind the flatness, I don’t know, but they don’t) and then get it stuffed by an enormous stuffing maching. Which was broken. So the poor little lame employees, enjoined by their corporate betters to SMILE SMILE SMILE, had to stuff them by hand. Sort of defeats the purpose of buying a flat animal, no machine to stuff it, but there you go. Then they choose outfits. Then they fill out birth certificates. By this time John was about to pass out from sweetness overdose, so we sent him out to get a table at the Covent Garden Kitchen opposite and order a beer, right away. We joined him and the tiny table was immediately completely covered with the two dogs (huh? Build-a-Dog? not as felicitous a ring as “bear”) that the girls chose, and their leads and their plushy vests, and their ear bows, etc. It was a completely gorgeous day so we couldn’t be churlish. And I had excellent food! John said his chicken club was good but would have been better with toasted bread, and the girls probably did not taste their kids’ menu pizza with all the Build-a-Whatever stuff they had to concentrate on. But I went with my instincts and ordered two starters, a delicious salad of smoked salmon rosettes on really crispy lollo rosso greens, with a very tart dill and lemon mayonnaise-y dressing. Then also a toasted round of focaccio studded with oil-cured black olives, with sitting atop it a baked slice of aged goat’s cheese and drizzled with balsamic vinegar and garlic-infused oil. A bite of everything together was HEAVEN. I am posting a review of the restaurant here not because it’s positive, it isn’t. But the writer, one Jay Rayner, is so funny! I wrote him/her a fan email just now because that’s what I need to be doing to promote my blog: reaching out to the competition. Ah well, sincere admiration must be expressed however impractical the result.
The girls went home with John to drown in Sylvanians, and I trotted over to Citylit for my fiction class. For whatever cowardly reason, the people assigned to read aloud that day did not turn up! Which left us lots more time for responses to our own writing. So, so interesting. Of course I am devoted to my blog, no question about that. But in general I like writing just about anything: grocery lists, emails, whatever. And I would really like to figure out a way to transform my blog into fiction, not just to protect all the innocent people who figure in its virtual pages, but to stretch my creative muscles a bit. John Petherbridge, the tutor, talked a lot about why we do all the exercises we do, which can be daunting, draining and difficult. Take that lesson. We were to write about a smell, experienced in the present, which took us back to the past, and then brought us back to the present again. Now, the brilliant Denise sitting next to me is an experienced writer, a voracious reader, and does not suffer fools. She did the exercise, but then said that she personally hated description and always skipped over it to get to the part she cared about: the action. So John listened to that, and then said that it was the right of every writer NOT to write about certain things, but that it had to be a creative choice, and not a result of not being ABLE to write about that thing. “You as writers face a task that often looks undoable: to WRITE. So you break it down into things you think you can do, tasks you can accomplish, and once you’ve achieved many tasks, you can begin to reject the ones that don’t help you in achieving your big goal, which is to WRITE.” Very good advice! I had never thought much about the evocative nature of smells before, but it was a good thing to buckle down and produce a piece of writing about it. Now, that’s an ingredient for a novel that I didn’t know I had.
Coming home in the dusk, I was so absorbed by all these thoughts that I… got lost. Yes, on Oxford Street down whose blocks I have walked, now these ten months, twice a week, in both directions. Oooh, I make myself so mad sometimes! So it took me forever and a day to get home. My special spaghetti carbonara and sparklers for the little girls, to celebrate Guy Fawkes Day! Hey, by the way, what do you think of my providing a link to the page of the blog with a recipe I’ve referred to? All you have to do is scroll down the page to see the recipe.
Later that night fireworks went off from several rooftops in our garden, to the unmasked chagrin of all the cats except Keechie, in her dreamy Valium land. The little girls subsided with their Build-a-Creatures and their hot water bottles and were asleep before we could even sing their lullabies.
Finally, to be prepared to start the week, John and I have completed a mammoth grocery run at the ginormous Tesco in Earls Court. Now before you start to egg my house with your organic free-run eggs from the farmer’s market cooperative where people would sooner sport an intercontinental ballistic missile than a plastic carrier bag, just wait a minute. I know, I know, Tesco are (love the random English plural there) a horrible, evil multinational conglomerate bent on stripping every high street in every British village of their uniqueness and family-owned businesses. Believe me, I agree with you! But there comes a time when a cook’s fancies turn to… saving money.
As strongly as I feel about supporting small businesses and doing our best to prevent the Tescos of the world from taking over, there is stuff like washing-up liquid, kittylitta and cat food, toilet paper and the like where there is no value-added (one of the few businessy terms I understand) to purchasing these items in a cozy mom-and-pop store somewhere in Notting Hill. No, for these items you get in your environment-friendly little Mini Cooper and hightail it to Earls Court to the largest supermarket in London.
While you are there of course you can shop for other things, like the many varieties of organic tomatoes, which I feel compelled to sample and rate. Now, this larger one in the photo, the Marzanino, was fleshy and yummy, but not sweet. And the slightly larger of the two on-the-vine, the Jersey Jewel, was rather too thick-skinned but very flavourful. My personal favorite of this particular Sunday afternoon is the Piccolo cherry tomato. Tiny, you take each one off the vine just before you eat it, dipping it in Maldon sea salt first, and oooh! A burst of red, sweet, make-your-mouth-water freshness. And if you eat 11 of them, you’ve got one of your five servings of fruit or veg per day. And yes, that counts even if you buy them at Tesco.