Well, dear readers, selfishly this post is going to be for me..
I’m getting ready to say goodbye to my beloved little neighborhood, in favor of our new, unknown place across the river. A little walk down memory lane is in order.
Of course the reason we moved here to begin with was for the 8-minute walk to Avery’s school. Little does one know, before one has children, how proximity to school is paramount. Below the surface of the minute-count are all the happy and life-enhancing things one finds along the way. I think this particular walk to school has been unusually filled with joyous moments.
First there was our dear Chez Kristoff, that gorgeous deli on our corner where one could procure last-minute Parmesan for the risotto, or a desperate Diet Coke for lunch, a madeleine after school. Most important, Chez Kristoff was the go-to spot for coffee with friends, sitting surrounded by BBC types with their laptops and cell phones — now they’d be iPads, I suppose! — the smell of croque monsiuers being delivered to the person next to…
In honor of my half-Irish husband, I feel absolutely compelled to share with you all the recipe for a soup I think I sort of invented today. It is, for a short time, the GREENEST food I have ever seen! Then as time goes on, it gets a little less vivid. Is that due to oxidization? In any case, you can practically feel the nutrition seeping into your bones when you take a warm, velvety spoonful of:
Creamy Spinach and Celery Soup
2 tbsps butter
1 shallot, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 small potatoes, cubed (about a large handful)
1 cup celery, chopped roughly
2 tsps celery salt
480 grams/about 18 ounces, or in England two large bags washed baby spinach
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 cup whipping cream
Melt the butter in a large heavy saucepan and add shallot, garlic, potatoes and celery. Saute until the garlic is softened. Add the celery salt and the spinach. It will seem like a great deal of unwieldy leaves, but do not despair. Pour over the stock and bring to a simmer. The spinach will quickly wilt. Simmer for about 20 minutes until the potatoes are soft. Puree with a hand blender, then add cream.
It is hard to describe the experience of this soup: it actually TASTES green. The spinach flavor is intense, but it’s also enlivened by the two notes of celery. The potatoes add just the right amount of thickness and the cream cuts down the massive iron jolt from the spinach. It is marvellous. And each person is eating a half a bag of spinach in one sitting!
This pleasant experience today at lunch came on the heels of a morning at Lost Property. Now, you all know of my devotion to this activity, the Lost and Found Room at my daughter’s school, scene of many marvellous adventures folding dirty netball shirts with the other Ladies Who Volunteer, unpicking numberless name tapes so that we might sell unclaimed games skirts, home to many peculiar “lost” items, many of whose presence begs the question of what they were doing in school in the first place. We’ve had six matching chocolate fish, a rubber orca in a Ball jar, a giant stuffed clown bearing the logo of a prominent boys school. What we have not had, until this morning, is a tin of Refried Pinto Beans.
My fellow volunteer, Diana, placed her head on one side and considered. “It’s good to know they’re vegetarian,” she said in mystification. “How could they not be? They’re beans.” “No,” I explained, “most refried beans are fried in lard.” “Ugh,” she said.” “That image will be hard to get out of my head.”
We waded through piles of dirty unmatched trainers (English for sneakers), sweaty games shirts covered in mud, lacrosse sticks similarly bedaubed, and piles of class notes. “Whoever Nellie is, she lost EVERYTHING today. How will she get any work done?” As always, we spent a tiny bit of time thinking about how many advanced degrees will be represented in the women who volunteer at the Sale on Tuesday, how many hours of our time we will devote to making a small amount of money to pay for, say, a day and a half in the education of one of the girls on scholarship. Ah well, it all makes for convivial fun.
And a welcome distraction from the mindbendingly irritating job of house-hunting. How many hours of my life have I spent touring other people’s houses? More than I care to imagine. We think that some real estate people must get paid per house they manage to drag you to, because none of them seem to pay any attention to our meagre requirements: a great kitchen, a certain number of bedrooms, a reasonable distance to school, a certain budget. In response to these guidelines we have seen houses with galley kitchens in which I would not be able to extend both arms at the same time, houses with many, many bedrooms extending up into the gray London sky — “but we have only one child!” we wail -, houses with no public transport within hail, and houses costing 30% more than we can afford.
Ah well, at least it isn’t raining.
And yesterday afternoon was the much-anticipated Singing Tea at Avery’s school. I always think that’s the funniest phrase, to an American. Tea, singing? But it merely means that we parents of children who take singing lessons are invited, once a term, to have tea after school and listen to them all sing the songs they will perform for their exams on Saturday. How Avery dreads the exams, with their nerve-wracking sight-singing, and the fact that they always occur precisely four days after she has come down with a cold. But it was lovely to sit back, fold our hands, and listen to the incredible variety of songs chosen. Songs in Serbian, Russian, and Latin, not to mention the usual French and Italian and German. Avery sang, “The Water is Wide,” which ALWAYS makes me cry, but I was good and kept control over myself. “But your eyes were very watery,” Avery pointed out afterward. That’s very good, for me.
The biggest excitement of our week has been Avery’s audition for the wildly admired British sitcom “Outnumbered,” and then her callback to meet the writers and perform improv with them! And then yesterday came an extremely enthusiastic email from her casting agent! Avery is in the final two girls being considered for the role, which is really exciting and a fine reward for the endless Saturdays she has spent in acting class. “The part is for a morose American teenager!” Avery announces in delight. “I hope that one of those qualities will require ACTING,” I rejoined. We can only hope! But the final two girls: that’s wonderful. Good on you, Avery.
The theatre beckons tonight, so I must dash. Don’t you find that on the nights when you have theatre tickets, you really really are not in the mood to go? We feel that way every single time. Somehow, on those afternoons when you anticipate going out, nothing sounds more appealing than to stay cozily at home doing absolutely nothing. But it means dinner out, and Avery has a date with the microwave, and a bowl of spinach soup.
There is no denying two important facts: Spring has sprung in London for one thing, as you see, and therefore, as night follows the day, the miserable/exciting/hilarious/backbreaking process of moving has begun. If only we knew where we were moving TO, and WHEN. Details, details.
Remember The Dollhouse, Option Number One? We went back, with Avery, and noticed that our entire discussion centered on what would not fit, what we could not bring, what we’d have to get rid of or put in storage, feeling as the great novelist Laurie Colwin said, that everything around us had been scaled down to fit a box turtle. Not a good idea.
But The Barn, Option Number Two, is still in play. We went to see it for a third time yesterday, and the door was opened by a delightful woman and her adorable Irish husband, beckoning us in and insisting we sit down for a cup of tea. “We just found out where our daughter got into school, and we’re thrilled! So it’s a celebration!”
(“How’s that whole ‘never make friends with landlords because it’s a mistake to mix business with friendship’ plan working out for us?” I asked John later.)
One of the funniest moments of this search? I opened the oven at The Barn to see if my excellent All-Clad roaster would fit (it wouldn’t), and in the slightly warmed oven was a hunk of rosemary-encrusted bread! All my life I’ve read about people selling their houses who bake bread before buyers come to see it, but it’s never actually happened to me before. Delight.
Add to this excitement the possibility of Option Number Three, a sort of Modified Dollhouse, where some of our things would fit, but not all. The famous wall of books would morph into four rather unimpressive and separated columns of books, in two different rooms. Avery could not bring her childhood bed because the four-poster would not fit under the slightly dollhousey-dormer roof of her planned bedroom. Okay, we can buy another bed. But no basement? Where do the Christmas ornaments go, and those dozen Russian consomme cups, and all Avery’s outgrown clothes waiting for my nieces to decide it’s not “girly” to wear dresses? Not to mention four litterboxes? STRESS!
The final Xanax-inducing point of drama is that none of the contractors working on any of these possible houses can be finished until — at best — JUST the crucial moment when our lease expires. Which means that we and the previous owners will be passing each other through the corridors on the Day of Reckoning, bringing boxes in while they’re bringing boxes out, and just HOPE that we end up with the right children and pets. And Christmas ornaments. All because of the massive inflexibility of all the powers that be. All the house owners on each side who have to put their hands on their hips and say, “That one particular day is the Magic Day! Live with it!”
Ugh. I can’t wait until John’s dream house is eventually built and we never have to utter another negotiating word as long as we live. Until then, we live a bit on tenterhooks.
It’s all a lesson in learning to live happily without the condition that you’re in control of any part of your life. Which is healthy, because any illusion that we are in control is just that, an illusion. Better, in some ways, to have your total lack of control thrust in your face, and then you’re forced to find ways to be happy even under those circumstances.
And you know what? I’m taking a completely healthy family — if neurotic cats can be considered healthy — to some house, someday, and we’ll be there together, cooking dinner, having friends over, supervising homework, listening to singing lessons being practiced, maybe even smelling bread in the oven! And that, in the end, is the only important thing. Doing it all together, in good health.
In the meantime, we’re determined not to pack up and take a SINGLE object we don’t LOVE, which means lots of clearing out. And cleaning out the squalid basement has its moments.
“Does mouthwash have an expiration date? Here’s some we brought from New York in 2005.”
“Do we want this tin of yacht varnish? Why do we HAVE a tin of yacht varnish?”
“Who gave us this set of salt and pepper shakers in the shape of Chinamen?”
“Do we know anybody who would take all these outgrown ice skates?”
“Why do we have three potato ricers?”
“Oh, look, it’s the other half dozen of those golden and red Russian consomme cups Binky gave us for Christmas in 1990. When did we ever know twelve people who all wanted to drink consomme at the same time? Maybe that’s why we never unwrapped this half dozen.”
And such sweet happy memories flooding back too, like the Christmas that my daughter, now topping me by at least an inch, was small enough to fit into this sleeping bag, a gift from my dear mum.
There were absolute treasures in a slightly mildewy cardboard box full of family memories. How about this for the moment before my wedding? Don’t I look excited and dewy, and ready for a lifetime of married bliss and constant moves?
And the invitation to Avery’s first birthday party here in London, nearly 5 years ago now. Back when I actually did things like compose poems, type them up on colored paper and tear the text out, to be glued onto a homemade card. Now I reserve that sort of attention for slicing potatoes paperthin and comparing the salt content of six different types of butter.
Happily for our sanity, in the middle of all this nonsense the gray London skies suddenly scudded away over the Channel and we were given five straight days of blue skies, or at least partial blue skies, and clear, dry air. Which meant dry tennis courts, which meant our return to the land of the exercising! John and I have long decided we’ll never be gym people, but give us a decent day and 45 minutes and we’ll happily bat the ball back and forth.
It felt so good, five days in a row feeling our hearts first start in surprise at being used for anything more than living, and leg muscles first say, “Hey, what the heck is THAT you want me to do?” and then start enjoying themselves. A relief.
Of course it rained last night. But we had a good week.
There was, as well, the Musical Evening at Avery’s school, where the girls are enjoined to turn up wearing all black, “No plunging necklines, please,” and there onstage, across the sea of black clothes and variously-hued faces, was our daughter’s bright-red-lipsticked smile. The ONLY point of color! And the music: Avery’s group sang, to her anti-pop chagrin, a couple of numbers by “Take That”, just a generation off really, and Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend,” which they all found impossibly cheesy.
Thank goodness for good food. On the night of the school musical evening, Avery was allowed to stay at school until the performance at 7, so John and I took the opportunity to eat something she doesn’t like: a category which includes, sadly, all shellfish. But this was DIVINE.
King Prawns with Saffron, Garlic and Champagne
2 dozen king prawns, raw with shells on
4 cloves garlic, minced
juice and zest of 1 lemon
2 tbsps olive oil
pinch saffron, dissolved in 1 tsp hot water
pinch Maldon sea salt
plenty of fresh black pepper
splash old champagne
2 tbsps COLD butter
handful chives, minced
Remove the heads of the prawns and cut up the back of each with scissors. Lay on a flat dish.
Sprinkle the prawns with all the ingredients up to the champagne, smoosh around with your fingers till the prawns are coated and set aside for about an hour.
Get a frying pan really hot and tip all the prawns in at once. Stand back! Now turn them in succession once the undersides have turned from gray to pink, and when each prawn is thoroughly pink but NO LONGER than that, they are cooked through. Add the splash of champagne and sizzle for a couple of seconds, then the cold butter. Toss thoroughly and sprinkle on chives. Let cool so you can peel them, then go for it.
Then there was the evening of the school dance performance to which we went to support Avery’s brilliant friend Lille. I confess that I don’t understand dancing, period, and I keep waiting for someone onstage to start talking and explain the plot. But it was lovely just to sit back in the dark, put all thoughts of landlords present and future out of my mind, and just watch the beautiful girls spin about.
Afterward of course I found I had four new emails, from John who had been composing them during the performance.
And while we watched the dancing, dinner was cooking all by itself in the oven at home, one of my favorite ways to feed the family. In that oven, at 140C/280F was a little gammon (ham to my American friends) glazed with honey, a butternut squash halved lengthwise, dotted with butter and sprinkled with chopped fresh sage, and then MORE sage in this creamy indulgent, carb-y delight of a side dish:
Potatoes Gratin with Fresh Sage
6 medium potatoes
1 cup whipping cream
1/2 cup cheddar cheese, grated
single cream nearly to cover potatoes (perhaps 1/2 cup)
1 dozen sage leaves
Peel the potatoes and slice them super thin, either on a mandoline or by hand. This is a soothing exercise for the tired and confused mind, because it turns out perfectly, every slice. Put a layer in a glass or pottery casserole, about 9x9 inches square or oval in a similar size. Pour over a bit of whipping cream just to cover. Sprinkle with some grated cheese and then sprinkle over a dusting of onion powder and a dusting of garlic powder. Repeat this process until you run out of potatoes, then finish by pouring enough single cream over them nearly to cover them, and arrange the sage leaves on top.
Now, an hour and a half before you want to eat, put EVERYTHING in the oven at once. Leave. Come back and take the gammon out to rest for about 15 minutes, covered with foil. Take out the potatoes as well and cover to keep warm. Turn the oven up to 220C/425F and get the squash bubbling. Then slice the gammon super thin and dig in.
At the end of this overwhelming week, all we could do on Friday — after Avery’s exciting acting audition! more on that when we know — was to come home from our various activities, order a pizza with every vegetable in the world on it, then after dinner retreat under a duvet with a hot water bottle, the new biography of J.D. Salinger (which is wonderfully dense and satisfying), a couple of cats, my husband by my side to appreciate, my daughter there to hug goodnight, and PEACE.
And a Saturday visit from my beloved friend Esme from America, although this time via Amsterdam. She came bearing salami — “I really wanted to buy this and I knew you were the only one who would appreciate it!” — and I of course reciprocated with a jar of goose fat, as one does.
Then we settled down to enjoy each other’s company, such a rare treat, and talked for 8 straight hours. John and Avery drifted in and out to contribute, I cooked slow-roasted shoulder of lamb, butter beans in the jus, and steamed artichokes with a mustardy vinaigrette. We covered many important topics such as the brilliance of our children — I first met Esme via email when we were both art historians and both pregnant! — the complications of breeding Newfoundlands, the annoyance of moving, and the wisdom or not of color-coding one’s book collection.
Have you ever heard of such a thing? Esme actually arranged her books, a huge collection, by the COLOR of the spine. I know that there are people who are irritated by the sight of my enormous wall of books all different sizes and colors, but they’re alphabetized! I can find them! Esme, on the other hand, lives with a perfect rainbow, a palette if you will, of her books, but she can never reread anything unless she can remember the color of its spine. We had to laugh. “Don’t even think about it,” John warned. “But it would be the perfect time, when we’re moving!” I said. “I do not want to live with you, your face constantly pressed against the bookshelf, trying to find an Agatha Christie only you can’t remember if it’s red or blue,” he said flatly. “That is just dumb. Sorry, Esme.” “No,” she said, “I know what you mean. But it’s beautiful.”
This morning saw Esme off sadly early, and us to our moldy basement. But the fun of her visit, the warmth of friendship with someone who accepts me just as I am and has seen me through all of my daughter’s life, both good times and bad… those feelings stay with me. And I am energized.
Which is just as well, don’t you think?
Life has taken on a peculiarly frenetic quality lately, encompassing a week’s trip back to the States to visit my beloved family, which involved more home decor discussions and shopping than I could ever have imagined. As you can see from her gorgeous plant room above, my mother has a genius for cozy comfort and she is simply overflowing with ideas to freshen up my childhood house. There was time for a night out with old friends, the best of times.
Then back home to London to pick up the threads of real life, including an afternoon spent celebrating John’s birthday by having tiny Turkish fish nibble on our feet — I’m not making that up! I also have spent the last week trying madly to recover from a massive cough I was graciously given on the plane over to the States. Every winter seems to include one of those, doesn’t it, where you throw your back out from hacking away and then can’t stand up straight for a week or two. March. A month to get through.
And World Book Night! Several publishers here in the UK got together with the intention of publishing and distributing 1 MILLION copies of some of the most popular contemporary books. Then they put out a call online to the public to volunteer to give them away! I applied, went through the whole process of selecting a book and being selected as a giver, and yesterday acquired my own temporary pile of “Toast,” by Nigel Slater.
Ten copies have found their homes so far — some to friends, some to strangers like our grocery cashier yesterday, and a guy hanging around the Marylebone High Street with a cute puppy — and another 28 will make their way to my Lost Property volunteers via a stack in our room at school. The remaining copies? Not sure. John wanted in the worst way for one to go to a proper London bobby yesterday, but there was none to be seen.
And of course house-hunting, which is trying under the best of circumstances and even more so when it’s not our idea to move. I think it’s the first time in all our 14+ moves that we have been at the behest of other people. Being simply turfed out because our landlords want to sell, no matter how inconvenient the timing for us, is frustrating to say the least. And it is doubly annoying living through both ends of the process — “hosting” endless groups of people who say, “I hate to invade your home,” and also invading endless families while WE say, “We hate to invade your home.”
We are torn right now between a tiny, perfect dollhouse of a house and a rambling, encompassing barn of a house. Each in a lovely neighborhood, each offering its own delights and burdens. John, Avery and I each have our lists of responsibilities to make our move more palatable: mine includes going through all my spices and herbs and throwing out the stale ones, recycling their glass jars, making lists of what to replace. I have taken a huge pile of motheaten sweaters to a repair lady in Chiswick to have their holes darned. John has put all our mismatching drinking glasses: chips and broken handles and all, into a cardboard box to be taken to Oxfam and we are starting over with perfectly boring, inexpensive but MATCHING new glasses. Avery is going through her American Girl dolls and all their belongings, to give away to a young friend.
And she has cut off all her hair! While I was in America, I received this photo in my email box. Hair all gone!
I think the most relaxing thing to do would be to relive the second half of our Somerset adventures, which now seem so long ago, but I don’t want to forget such good times. It is important to hold their memory in reserve, to assure us that the crazy days we are living through now will not last, and we’ll be cozy and settled somewhere new soon. And the peaceful times in the country are always there to be enjoyed, just a Landmark Trust booking away.
Remember our brilliant bellringing friends? They kindly told us of the glorious farmer’s market to be visited in nearby Wells, on every Wednesday. And so we went. Gorgeous scallops, artisan cheeses, a glorious bunch of curly parsley, bacon, a delicious cup of coffee and sausages in a bap. Lovely, all in the shadow of Wells Cathedral.
And cheesy feet! The ultimate cocktail snack.
From the market we wandered around the Cathedral Close and came upon possibly the most beautiful street in the world. Vicar’s Close, now the home of many of the music students and teachers of Wells Cathedral School. We read later that the street was designed to narrow at the top, so as to encourage the illusion of its being longer and taller than it really is. Simply ethereally beautiful.
And home to possibly the craziest dog on earth, who for some reason insisted on leaping up against his house, as if to enter through the window.
We abandoned Crazy Dog finally and walked slowly back to the Cathedral, admiring all the schoolboys rushing past with their floppy hair and musical instruments slung about their shoulders, shouting to each other and looking quite acceptable as boyfriend material for Avery, eventually. Somehow they seemed undaunted by the grandeur of their surroundings.
We waited for the little clock ringing fellows to do their job.
We took our tour of the cathedral itself, admiring in particular the tomb of one bishop who seemed to have attracted the most talented of the medieval graffiti artists.
We finally took our leave of Wells, driving home in the country twilight.
Warm Scallop Salad with Beets, Bacon and Goats Cheese
12 large scallops
2 tsps butter
4 medium beets, roasted
200 grams goats cheese
handful rocket leaves
200 grams bacon, cut into small lardons
good glug olive oil
2 tbsps mayonnaise
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
juice of 1 lemon
sea salt and black pepper to taste
Heat butter in a heavy frying pan and cook scallops JUST until done, about 1 minute on each side, maybe more if they are very large. Set aside. Cut beets into bite-size pieces, set aside.
Line a large serving platter with rocket and scatter goats cheese over. Fry bacon until it is crisp and has given up its fat. Drain. Place all ingredients on the rocket and mix dressing ingredients until thoroughly mixed. Pour dressing over, and ENJOY.
Our last day in Somerset we spent first wandering around our graveyard (where I spent evenings shivering on the phone to my mother, since it was the only place where I could get a proper signal!). There was, of course, a kitty.
Finally for our last adventure: a climb up to Glastonbury Tor, a medieval remains of a church, perched as high up on top of a steep hill as can be imagined, providing the most glorious views of three counties.
What a scary walk up! Definite “oops, I lost my wife” opportunities.
And there was our Somerset adventure. Home we came, to pick Avery up at Euston Station, “fresh” (or rather, very much not) from her Cumbrian jolly time, climbing hills much higher than ours, writing and acting in original plays, juggling the social needs of four girls aged 8–14.
And these peaceful times will come again. We have come to realize that the process of moving involves several weeks of choosing a house — difficult and stressful — a week of PURE HELL which is living out of boxes, about three weeks of medium hell which is unpacking boxes and getting rid of boxes. Then life settles down to its predictable round of chauffering Avery to the skating rink, acting class, the stable.
I promise I’ll be back.