Wednesday 5 October 2016

Mirepoix and Beyond

For years Tim and I had talked about going to Mirepoix, France, to pay homage to the cat of the same name who graced our lives, an expat herself who lived to almost 23 years of age (that’s 108 in human years). You may have never heard of Mirepoix the place (and perhaps know the cooking term), but it has a lovely cathedral dating from 1298; it’s your right proper medieval town!

Finally talk became planning, and planning became doing, and off we went, taking the 24-hour ferry (with car) to Santander, with stops along the way to see some of both Spain and France: Santander, if only to sleep overnight after the long  ferry journey; Bilbao, to swing through the famous Guggenheim museum and have some lunch before continuing on to San Sebastian, a city on the coast of Spain that the Basque call Donostia; then over the border to Mirepoix, St Emilion, La Rochelle, Angers, and finally back home via the much shorter, six-hour ferry via Caen to Portsmouth.

We called it our “taster tour”: not just because we were planning to taste a variety of food (pintxos, the Basque version of snacks on a stick), paella, an abundance of seafood, and French cuisine) and wine (Rioja, Bordeaux, Pineau des Charentes, Anjou), but because we’d hoped to get a flavour for what the region would be like and perhaps plan an extended stay in the future.
La Bodega del Riojano, Santander

The first order of business: the patch. As someone who gets seasick, I was willing to brave the overnight journey across the Bay of Biscay, but only with my trusty Scopoderm patch,  meant to prevent the confusing messsages going to your brain that cause travel sickness. The Bay of Biscay is known to be a bit “lumpy,” and to be honest I did wake up in the middle of the night and felt the ferry rocking a bit. Comforted by the patch (or at least the idea of it), I did fall back asleep and felt fine in the morning, and managed a light breakfast and lunch on the ferry before we disembarked in Santander in the early evening.

We didn’t spend much time once there; it was meant to be an opportunity to pause after the long ferry journey rather than a tour of the town. We found our hotel easily and also found a lovely restaurant to dine in—La Bodega del Riojano, which we’d highly recommend. We also found a little bar serving pintxos and wine, and sat idly watching activity in the port. Santander may not be a destination for most people, but the food and the wine are lovely, and we managed to pop into a cathedral there, dedicated to the assumption of Mary.

Alas the patch, stripped from behind my ear, should perhaps have stayed on a bit longer:  I was ill overnight and for the start of the next day, and many subsequent mornings felt ever so slightly under the weather. I was determined not to let it ruin the adventure, choosing to eat more toast, less coffee, slightly less exotic food (no oysters!) and drink slightly less wine.
Guggenheim, Bilbao

Our time in Bilbao was brief. We both wanted to see the architectural wonder of the Guggenheim museum, but were less enthusiastic about the exhibits. It was a rainy day and everything in Bilbao seemed crowded; it was the weekend, after all. We did manage to take lovely photos outside of Frank Gehry’s building, and strolled into the lobby, but left it there. We also went to St James’  Cathedral and, after a quick lunch at an Italian restaurant where we were served enormous salads we headed back in the car to find our way to San Sebastian.

While there we discovered a lovely place to have a drink and admire the pintxos at the bar—I can see how one can be tempted by the delightful snacks, like jambon and cheese peeking out of a bun, or some bit of seafood nestled in dough with a pink sauce.

We could have used more time in San Sebastian—there is a lot of history to take in, and the beaches are known to be lovely. We did take a stroll on the beach nearest our hotel, though the temperature was cool and the skies cloudy; still, there were families enjoying the sun—sometimes you just have to make do!

The drive to Mirepoix was about four hours—really a detour east from San Sebastian rather than heading north to Bordeaux, but it had to be done; it was the original purpose of our trek, after all. We were both quite glad we took the time to see this lovely town, with its market square, wood-timbered houses of various sizes and stages of crookedness, and the charm of a small French enclave happy to have tourists. The hotel we stayed at was small and friendly, and we had dinner there as well. 

On the way!
Naturally we posed with a few signs, and of course stopped into the lovely 13th century cathedral. It has one of the widest Gothic arches in Europe; I’d not seen anything like it before (perhaps because I’ve not been to Girona or Rome). And the gargoyles! Impressive. There were also some lovely doorknockers in Mirepoix well worth a photo!
Door knocker!

Mirepoix was earmarked just one day on our journey, so in the morning after our breakfast we hopped back in the car and headed north to Bordeaux country. If Mirepoix was lovely and quaint, well, St Emilion was that and more—my favourite destination on our taster tour. It felt like the countryside, rather than a city, and the rolling hills of vineyards and stately chateaux made for a photograph with each step down cobbled streets or along the path from one winery to the next. The shops were all rather posh; this is clearly a wealthy area. We stayed in a lovely stone-built guesthouse that was formerly a private mansion in the 17th century. With all of this going for it, it’s no wonder that St Emilion is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Mirepoix square

39 Rue de l'Évêché, Mirepoix
And of course there is the wine. We were perfectly positioned to park the car and have a bite of lunch, scanning the booklets from the tourism office on which wineries were open to the public in the area. We highlighted a few and then set off along the narrow, mostly quiet road to the first on our list which was open, Chateau Pontet-Canet, whose founder was the Master of the Horse to Louis XV in the early 18th century.  After viewing the underground cellar, we had a taste of one of their Grand Cru vintages, decided we liked it, and so began the filling of the boot (aka trunk) with wines from the region.

Merrily we strolled along, taking in the vineyards around us which were still heavy with the deep purple grapes, mostly merlot and cabernet franc which were to be harvested the following day. There were no gates, no guard dogs, and not a lot of other people frankly as we walked up the hill a bit to continue the self-guided tour.

Our second chateau visit was a bit more structured: an opportunity to have a guide speak to us—fortunately in English—with a small group of Argentinians and Canadians who ambled into Chateau Soutard. Tim and I arrived a bit earlier not knowing that there was a specific time for a tour, and so we wandered a bit around their land, which included a chicken coop and koi pond. Oh, and a rather lovely gift shop where Tim tried on a beret and announced he would buy one, though the one in the shop was oversized (and therefore we left without). 

It was clear the winery has had a recent refurb—it was all new and state of the art, complete with 72-person glass elevator to transport you down to the cellars. There are 52 vintages on offer, and we had a taste of two wines, one being the 2015 Grand Cru which was quite a nice quaff. They are a 30-hectare estate (about 75 acres) and their wines are available locally, so we left without stashing one in the boot and strolled back among the vines to the centre of town to have a coffee and take in the fading sunshine of the late afternoon. Bliss.

La Rochelle, our next stop on the journey, was to be a two-day stopover in a town filled with boats—both an old and new marina—seafood restaurants, a maritime museum, and lots of shops and yes, a cathedral!

Evening view, St Emilion
Tim had been once before—in fact it was the only destination that either of us had been to previously—but it was a long time ago and a lot has changed. We stayed in a hotel central enough to the old port and shopping, which was lovely, though it was also an area of the city that felt a bit worn. In fact La Rochelle has been a centre for fishing and trade since the 12th century—evidenced by some of the architecture.

While we absolutely loved the food in Spain, our favourite meal was probably in La Rochelle at a place aptly named Saveur Vivre—and why not with a name that translates into flavour and life? It was steps from our hotel, and we’d seen it had good reviews so decided to give it a go on one of our two nights in La Rochelle. The service was lovely, too, and Tim enjoyed his foie gras ravioli in a supreme sauce (which was rather foamy a la Heston) and I absolutely loved my langoustine spring rolls with a tamarind paste. I’d wholeheartedly recommend a visit there.

After a second day of traveling about the town on foot we decided to try a restaurant a friend of Tim’s had recommended—only his friend couldn’t remember the name of it, and gave us some slightly ambiguous direction to go by—in the new marina, along Avenue des Minimes, serves seafood . . . we walked about 40 minutes and found a place, which was very good but likely not what he had in mind! Le Plaisance was pleasant enough. What was special was as we walked we enjoyed the setting sun, and the sky was filled with lovely shades of pink that was a perfect backdrop to the boats in the marina.

One more stop, in Angers, where we needed to switch taste gears and drink pink! Angers is a medieval town beside the river Maine, just at the edge of the Loire valley. (More notably for history buffs it is the seat of the Plantagenet dynasty.) Oh, and it has a . . . you guessed it, one of those! The Cathédrale St-Maurice is known for its twin spires and beautiful stained-glass rose windows. We peeked in, of course. There are also some lovely timbered buildings and a chateau that has beautiful grounds and in a cold, dark room, the Apocalypse Tapestry.
Le Chateau, d'Angers

The tapestries were commissioned by the Duke of Anjou, woven between 1377 and 1382. The panels tell the story of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation by Saint John the Divine. These wonderful tapestries are now well faded from their previous colourful glory, though still quite something to see. It reminded me of having read a book, quite some time ago, about medieval weavers, and how I want to read it again having now seen some of original works from centuries ago. If only I could remember the book’s name! (Will have to scour the bookshelves at home.)
Tapestry panel -- seven-headed beast

We’d walked well more than 10,000 steps in the day and deciding that dinner was going to be all about what was near the hotel. Angers has an area that is actually quite cosmopolitan, and after taking a break in a nearby bar to rest our weary feet and think about what next, we’d seen a place with the odd name “Joe Carpa” just two blocks away, perfect for our tired toes. Carpa is short for carpaccio, and they had quite an extensive list of beef carpaccio dishes with different reductions, sauces, etc. I recalled a simple pasta dish on the menu outside that would be a soothing treat for my still aching stomach. 
Cathedral, Angers

The restaurant has an open front, with heat lamps for those who dared sit at the tables on the pavement on a rather cool evening. We chose a table just indoors which was a bit protected from the night chill and still had a lovely view. It was a lovely meal and a lovely last dinner on our wonderful journey.

One more short drive to the ferry, and in Caen we found a lovely bistro not far from the terminal and had the most delightful lunch—huge salads filled with fresh ingredients and of course, a carafe of local pink to toast the upcoming six-hour “ride” home. I would have sworn our host was not French—he was quite animated, and even gave us a thumbs' up at one point!

Before boarding the ferry there was first, of course, a pit stop at a local supermarket to scan the Bordeaux and Anjou on offer and use up the remaining space in the very small boot of our car. I was happy to have my Vivino app and free wifi to scan a few labels and get a quick check on ratings—there is such a wide selection it’s hard to know which to choose without a little help.

Once on the ferry we stayed on the stern of the ship for a couple of hours, sipping a little pink champagne to toast the end of the holiday and watch France and the sun disappear from view, and then moved inside when the air was too chilly to be comfortable. We had a quick dinner and then, because the boat was rolling a bit, we found comfortable seats to read and wile away the time until it was time to pop back in the car and head to the “little” ferry from Portsmouth to Fishbourne, not far from Cowes on the Isle of Wight. Fortunately we had GPS to help us get there, and with one minute to spare we pulled into the lot and were able to squeeze our little car into the last space for the 45-minute trek.

Portsmouth, from the ferry
Driving home with the top down on a balmy evening, we were happy to arrive back to Cowes and get under the duvet for an alarm-free Sunday morning.

And with that another wonderful adventure comes to a close. I certainly learned a lot along the way—about the history of the area, wine, cathedrals. Tim is a wonderful traveling companion because he knows so much about the history that he can casually work into the conversation. I also learned that taking a long ferry journey should be followed by a couple of days of rest for my body to “recover”! As with other journeys abroad, I longed for a better grasp of French; I keep saying that, but then after some time the feeling wanes until the next journey and I wish it all over again.

Taster tours are a great way to see a lot in a short space, though you have to be prepared to live out of a suitcase most of the time; I didn’t mind that at all, though I did occasionally wish we were settling in for a bit longer, particularly in St Emilion which has all the signs of a return journey.

La vie est courte; profiter du voyage!

Saturday 9 July 2016

[Extra]ordinary London versus New York

I had one of those days that reminded me why it’s so wonderful to live in London. Even the weather cooperated!

Tim and I try to visit the Royal Opera House at least twice a year. Frankly we could go more often, but I quite like splurging on pricey seats in the Orchestra stalls; it makes for a very rich sensory experience, and we can fill the cultural craving gap with cinema offerings from both the Metropolitan Opera House and the ROH. The ROH offers discounts now and again on new productions with “no-name” performers to fill the seats, and I like taking advantage of their generosity. When an email flooded in giving half-price tickets to a new production of Il trovatore, well, I only hesitated long enough to see if my opera partner was available on a date I’d chosen.

Fast forward to a few days before when I thought it wise to book a restaurant nearby the opera house. We have often found ourselves at Café Des Amis on Hanover Place, steps from Bow Street, and as we hadn’t been for a while it felt about time. Unfortunately I came to PERMANENTLY CLOSED on a table booking site; a fixture of Covent Garden no more. Disappointed but not dismayed I booked a table at Masala Zone, a chain of Indian restaurants whose owners’ portfolios include some well-known restaurants in London where you can pay more and eat as well. We’d been once before (though I’d forgotten about the ceiling full of Rajasthani dolls) and needed only to be mindful of service with a 7:15 date across the street; previously we were struggling to flag down someone to bring us the bill.

Fast forward once again to 5 pm on a lovely, sunny Thursday and I’m walking to meet Tim. Just as I arrive he exits the building with a warm smile and a very cheery hello; the day has been good already with a favourable verdict in a trial that kept him from coming to America with me. We strolled (yes, hand in hand) through Lincolns Inn Fields, across Kingsway and along Longacre to the restaurant, chatting about the day’s events, the next Prime Minister (Theresa or Andrea, either way a woman), and the upcoming weekend sailing.

At 5:30 pm we are ushered to a window-side corner table with views of Floral and Hanover Streets, where there are any number of strollers, tourists, lovers, kids, and opera goers walking by. I remarked that it was quite a busy corner and Tim reminded me that the street parallel to Floral is Longacre, filled with shops and a main drag generally, with a tube station for Covent Garden. Ah yes. A waitperson promptly appears and cheerfully asks for a drinks order. It’s decidedly pink. We also order quickly to make the most of our 90-minute dining window. It all arrives at a pleasant place and is all delicious.

At 7 pm we are walking through the entrance for a 7:15 start. We pick up flyers that tell who the cast for the evening is along with a brief synopsis of the Verdi opera. I don’t believe I’d seen it, even going back to my days of seasons at the Met in NYC, but I’d read ahead—I try not to be too distracted by having to read the projected dialogue, and knowing what the story is helps to stay focused on the music and the stage.

Because I acted quickly on the ROH email, I was able to book seats very near the orchestra pit and stage—perhaps the closest I’ve ever been to be able to occasionally turn my eye toward the conductor, Gianandrea Noseda, who was mouthing along the words and moving his arms in harmony to the music, sometimes swaying gently, other times juddering in staccato. This was his debut at the ROH, and he received warm applause at the conclusion.

To see the performers so closely, too, is a real treat; there were times I felt the Count, sung beautifully by the handsome Brit baritone Christopher Maltman, was looking right at me. The character portrayed by Marina Prudenskaya—who stole the Count’s brother to to avenge her mother’s burning at the stake for witchcraft, and blinded by rage instead threw her own child into the pyre—was at once disturbed, wild, and sorrowful. And, dare I say, the American tenor Gregory Kunde had a hint of the lyrical voice of Pavarotti, though without the power. It reminded me how fortunate I was to see Luciano several times in New York.

At the interval we strolled up to sip our preordered Ruinart (the ROH has an app, but of course) and  watch the flurry of activity at the bar. I just love these 30 minutes of standing in the Paul Hamlyn Hall, glasses and silverware clinking as the opera goers enjoy a quick meal or a glass of something, chatting away about the set (it was modern, and has had mixed reviews), the performers, or perhaps just the events of the day. It never fails that Tim sees someone he knows, and this time I was introduced to Lord Trimble, the first minister of Northern Ireland and once leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, and his wife Daphne. They were certain Theresa May would be the next Prime Minister.

And as the curtain came down and we poured out of the building we were greeted with a noisy, busy London evening. Theatres on Drury Lane were also releasing their patrons, and as is typical on Thursdays the outdoor space at the pubs was filled with customers holding their glasses and chatting loudly. It’s a scene that never gets tired to my eyes; I love the vibrancy of the city, particularly on warm nights where it’s far better to be out and among the crowds. We had a short walk to the bus, and ambled up the stairs to sit on the top deck and watch the city go by. Everywhere along the ride there were people out and about as it approached 11 pm. Perhaps London is rivalling the city that never sleeps? (We need to get the night tube working!)

Park Avenue looking south
Freedom Tower
Yes, I absolutely loved my recent trip back to America; I satisfied my craving for “proper” pizza at Roberta’s in Brooklyn, and spent a few meals over food and conversation at Tops Diner. There was a wonderful trip into NYC to have brunch at The Odeon in lower Manhattan, a lovely treat with my sister and her other half, and then a walk along the water to see the boats and enjoy the sun.

I got to the beach (though, like England, the water was still too cold to swim) and the boardwalk with my dear friend Jill, and spent an evening with her husband and daughter, who has grown into a beautiful, smart adult like her mom. I saw two of my wonderful university friends Haydee and Terry who I know went out of their way to see me, and caught up with a dear friend from work and strolled around nearby Grand Central Station. I attended a work reunion, seeing several people I hadn’t seen in multiple years, and saw relatives and friends of relatives who came a distance to catch up in person, always a treat.

Donuts at The Odeon
The graduate!
And of course I got to see my nephew graduate and then spend an evening with my family—even ¾ of the Texans (the fourth did call to speak with us, which was lovely)—and finally meet my niece’s fiancée. (I approve.) 

It was a trip, solo, that was filled with lots of little excursions that I might not otherwise have spent the time doing if accompanied; I'd forgotten how much New York, like London, is so easy to navigate, making it possible to see so many people uptown, downtown, and back in New Jersey.

There were precious moments each day and quiet reflection each night at how very fortunate I am to have these bonds that never seem to weaken with time or distance. Finally all those promised warm hugs in emails, texts and chats done in the flesh! It’s still feels wonderful and warm weeks later. 

Still, still, London is my home. And it's a fabulous place to be.

Sunday 5 June 2016

Ups and Downs in Sicily

Let me start by saying even the downs are good . . .

My reference is really to the climbs—either up to Mt Etna with a wonderfully knowledgeable and funny guide called Fabio, or up to Castelmola with Tim, 1.9 miles of uneven but only slightly treacherous stairs where, at certain landings there are beautiful statues of the Stations of the Cross.

I quite enjoyed all of the effort; it made eating pizza and pasta feel positively necessary to have enough carbohydrate energy to get up and down! My first meal was aubergine (eggplant) ravioli with parmesan. The restaurant was steps away from our hotel overlooking Isola Bella, and it had a lovely view. The local Etna rose was crisp, chilled, and delicious. It was the start of a fabulous five days, and throughout that time there wasn’t a meal that disappointed nor a vista that didn’t give me reason to pause and sigh. When I opened the curtains to our room and saw Isola Bella looking back, well, I am fairly certain I gasped something in delight.

There’s too much to tell and far too many photos to post, but there’s room for highlights . . .

The sea is gorgeous, but cold. We bought slip ons to enable us to get beyond the rocky shoreline, but I only managed up to my ankles. The Mediterranean doesn’t warm up much before June or July, I suspect. Tim, however, was determined to swim in the sea and so after a slow start he managed the full immersion, dodging between tiny jellyfish about the size of a rosebud. Beach bumming was good people watching, though, and the sun was warm.

We took a tour of the Greco-Roman amphitheatre (Teatro Antico) in Taormina; while you can stroll the theatre on your own, it’s nice to have someone tell you a bit about the history and culture and I’d not done any reading ahead. Guido, our guide, told us who lived where (Truman Capote, DH Lawrence, Oscar Wilde, Johannes Brahms, Florence Trevelyan), how the Romans rebuilt the Greek theatre and many of the original bricks still stand, primarily because they weren’t worth stealing. 

The theatre is still in use; when we were there they were setting up for a concert, and I recall an advert for Duran Duran. Guido also kindly tested the acoustics by clapping loudly so we could hear the echo as we stood in the middle of the open air arena. It has a lovely view of Etna as well as the sea; you could lose yourself in the view if the concert isn't worthwhile!

Taormina has lovely squares and main streets filled with shops selling ceramics, postcards, coffee and cannoli and dozens of restaurants. We chose some places simply by where they were rather than knowing where to go—most of the menus have the same selections, and all of the prices were about the same. And it’s just about all Italian; there was one kebab shop we spotted when we found ourselves drawn to a little café on a side street for an iced coffee or a glass of wine at the end of each afternoon.

We hadn’t practiced any Italian—we’d picked up a few phrases when we went to Naples and to  Sorrento a couple of years ago—but it didn’t matter; just about everywhere we went there was enough English spoken to find our way around a menu or a map. Everyone was pleasant and helpful. Well, there was one taxi driver who was a bit brusque and no doubt overcharged us for a short journey, but we had walked quite a bit into nearby Naxos and wanted to get back up to Taormina without the effort of hundreds of stairs.Again.

If I haven’t enticed you enough to see Sicily, and particularly Taormina, do drop me a comment—there are a lot more stories and photos I can share to convince you. Don’t let hundreds of steps deter you—there are other ways to get up and down this lovely area (including a cable way that goes some of the distance), though the pizza tastes that much better when you know you’ve earned it.

Monday 18 April 2016

[4]5 Years

There is almost nothing in common in the themes between my life and the move 45 Years, yet the 99-minute film resonated with me in small ways. Have you seen it?

First, Charlotte Rampling is my new idol. The grace she displays in her role makes me want to see every movie she’s ever been in. She is still attractive; there is no surprise she was a model. I like her for the fact that she is lithe and lovely and doesn’t seem to give a care about showing her wrinkles. In some scenes, she positively glows; in others, she looks more her age—which is not by any means a bad thing, it's just reality. She played the role as though she was simply playing out life.

Occasionally, in certain scenes, she reminded me of Tim’s mum; something in the eyes I think. I’ve didn’t know Tim’s mum when she was Ms Rampling’s age at the time of the movie—born in 1946, she’d have been in her late 60s—yet there is something . . . another icon of the swinging 60s! (The sons are no doubt laughing at me.)

There is a wonderful intimacy between the couple in the movie; the conversation is easy-going and meaningful. There are long walks and tea in bed (though we prefer coffee). Gasp, there is sex! It gets all a bit knotty when her husband’s ex-lover turns up, frozen in time where she fell down a glacier fissure before his now wife came on the scene, but they both admit that they had life stories they’d never shared. It’s always a bit tricky to decide how much of your past to reveal: what’s important, and what needn’t be rehashed. Trust me, I’ve been there.

I hope that Tim and I reach a 45-year anniversary. Of course that would put us both in our mid-nineties, having started the relationship a bit late . . . hey, you never know. We’ll have to decide whether the party will be in London, where we will no doubt keep a little place to feed our cultural selves, or that place we decide to spend part of the year where it’s not as grey and damp. We haven’t a clue where that is, though we have discussed a few options. We both like the idea of someplace else between November and March where we can keep a bit warmer. Greece? South of France? Florida?

In fact, we recently went to Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands off the coast of West Africa, and found some of the areas quite lovely. Friends who live in La Santa, a little fishing village on the western part of the island, invited us over for gin and tonics and nibbles. Their flat is steps away from the sea, a place popular with surfers. It was near sunrise and we did have the treat of seeing a few managing the waves. I don’t know that I could work there the way Dan does—the beauty of the sea is far too distracting. Compared to the more tourist-laden areas of the island, like Costa Teguise where we stayed, it is an oasis of calm, low-key living.

Speaking of Tim’s mum, she was a companion on our get-warm retreat, along with one of the aforementioned sons. (I am told that I should not mention names as some of them are shy.) And what a lovely trip we had! The weather cooperated, though the first three mornings were cloudy and cool leaving us initially skeptical. By midday there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the sun was very warm, a real respite from the England spring where the temperatures were mostly below 50 F / 10 C.

Most days we spent mornings over coffee and conversation, planning what the rest of the day would be. Several days included journeys by car—the trip to Timanfaya National Park to get a closer look at the volcanic part of the island was absolutely stunning. I would not want to drive the narrow, barrier-free roads that took us high for breathtaking views or down low in valleys where the mountains soared above us. Our coach (bus) driver managed the drive effortlessly. We all loved the architect / artist / activist Cesar Manrique’s former home, now a gallery, with its delightful rooms designed around the volcanic plugs. We also took a trip up to Mirador del Sol, a restaurant hidden in the rock, another Manrique wonder.

It was from there that we noticed La Graciosa, one of the lesser-known islands of the Canaries. There is a short ferry ride that we decided to take one sunny afternoon, just at the gap where the return journey was three hours away (rather than half hour). We had absolutely no idea what there was to do on the island, but Tim's brother would swim and we’d find a place for lunch and maybe a short walk.

The ferry was filled with a German tourist group who beat us to the closest restaurant with a view, and we were told there’d be an hour delay in getting service. Not a problem; we trundled on in the sand (no sidewalks here) to a small Italian restaurant that had a few tables outside, protected from the hot sun by umbrellas, and some couches covered with blankets for those who wanted to soak up the rays. We opted for the umbrella and the pizza. There wasn’t much else to do—La Graciosa is an island for cyclists and trekkers and I believe divers, and we were simply day trippers who thought a ferry ride would be a nice way to travel. Tim’s brother did get his swim in, and managed to get back just in time to board the ferry though we had our doubts!

Similarly a trip to Famara, on the west coast, was nothing like the more populated, popular spots—there are surfers here, too, and another beach to swim in the sea. Driving along the coast there are a number of little coves occasionally dotted with swimmers, though quite a bit of the landscape is rocky. When we first arrived both Tim and I both thought that it reminded us of Iceland, another volcanic island, though Lanzarote has less vegetation and more cacti—I don’t recall either a cactus or vineyards in Iceland, in fact! The local wine is a nice treat, particularly the rose, which is slightly fruity but with a clean finish. Sure, you can get a Spanish Rioja just about anywhere these days, but the small production of the local wine likely doesn’t leave the resorts, and I was happy to have had a taste, or two . . .

None of us speak Spanish with any fluency, but we managed our “hola” and “como esta” and “buenos dias” phrases well enough, and occasionally ordered food and wine in the native language. Lunches were wherever we were, and mostly unresearched, which meant a bit of hit or miss though mostly all the meals were quite good. We found a lovely Spanish restaurant called Bodega Marcelo, just outside our hotel, where a harpist and guitar player serenaded patrons both inside and out by standing just near the entrance. It was lovely music to enjoy our paella and tapas by. Oh, and of course the wine. In fact it was one of the places we returned to later in the trip.

Our biggest disappointment on the excursion to Famara was that our most favourite restaurant, a place called La Norte in Haria, was closed. We had delicious paella and a lovely Lanzarote rose a few days before. And the staff was wonderful—we suspect the restaurant is family-run, but didn’t ask.

It’s those little finds that make you smile when you recall the memories of the trip.

(Our second choice, named something like La Loca Gambera, could not compare; just in case you’re heading in that direction.)

We didn’t only eat the local cuisine—we did pop into the Indian restaurant near our resort called Fazz’s and that turned out to be a hit—a perfect mango lassi, cold beer, and for me a nice house white, though it took a bit of back and forth to know what it was; the waiter finally brought over the bottle for my approval.

I’ll admit I didn’t swim in the sea—it’s the Atlantic, and even in April it was a bit too chilly for me. Tim and I waded in the shallow bits while his brother bravely took the plunge—always insisting that it wasn’t cold, LOL, so clearly he has a different body temperature than the two of us! The Atlantic here is gorgeous and clear and marvellously blue green.

So the first holiday of the year is behind us, and we’ve mentally ticked and verbally discussed the plusses (no mosquitoes is certainly one) of spending time on Lanzarote. No doubt there will be a few more excursions to places not far that might suit us for when the time comes to spend a few months in the sun. And, no, America has not yet been ruled out, LOL!

(Written and posted while en route to Dubai. Onboard Wifi!)

Wednesday 9 March 2016

What makes me Appy

Mobile technology has changed my life, and mostly for the better: I can sip rather than slurp my morning coffee because I can use my bus countdown app to see when the 341 is approaching Aden Grove. I can book an indoor tennis court a week in advance (providing my click is faster than dozens of others vying for the same slot). I can send postcards where I get to choose the picture (from my phone’s camera). And now . . .

The Royal Opera House has a new app: you can pre-order your interval champers with just a few clicks. Just download the free app! Which I did, after spotting the advert while in the ROH waiting for Il Trittico to begin. In less than five minutes I had ROH Bars on my phone and ordered our first interval Runiart for 20% off, totalling £21.60. Brilliant!

First hurdle: where to find the pre-ordered bubbly at the interval? The ROH has a lovely bar that is just captivating to look at and rather vast and crowded during the interval. Tim and I wandered over to where the usual pre-ordered drinks were placed, but didn’t see our name. Tim flagged down a harried waitperson who asked if we ordered “on the app” and then directed us to another corner. Lo and behold, two glasses of champagne under our name sat on a shelf where a few others were sipping their own bubbles. Tim did remark how anyone could have picked up ours . . . but this is the Royal Opera House, where we’re all too sophisticated to nick someone else’s booze!

Il Trittico is a Puccini creation of three one-act operas, each about an hour with a 25-minute interval in between them, all of which I would highly recommend. The first two are rather dark, and the finale, Gianni Schicchi, a bit of dark comedy.  This is also the opera that has one of the more famous arias (even if you’re not a huge opera fan): O mio babbino caro, sung lovingly by Susanna Hurrell, a Londoner, in our performance. Some of the actors appear in two of the performances, though I didn’t see any of the cast appearing in all three.

Have you figured out the dilemma yet?

Two intervals. Only ONE bar order available.

Clearly the ROH hasn’t figured it out either!

Monday 29 February 2016

Did I really write that?

I had a lovely note from my university friend Vivian that while going through boxes of stuff after recent flood damage she’d found an essay I’d written in 1979. My missive was remarkably preserved.

Vivian kindly took a snap of it and sent it along. I braced myself waiting for it to arrive in my Inbox; what would it be like going back thirty-plus years to a biography of an 18-year-old student? I’d hardly lived at that point (though that doesn’t seem to stop celebrities from penning their life stories). I immediately thought of my friend Taron who had a recent, similar experience; she found one of her diaries “equal parts funny and painful to read.” I suspected that I’d be feeling the same.

Well, I wasn’t let down; the writing was stilted, a bit pompous, and generally not very good. And (gasp) I used “a lot” a few times—without the space between two words. There were thankfully no “um”s.

Besides the overall middling quality of the writing, there were a few other surprises. When did I like puppies? At 18 I don’t think I’d ever been exposed to any. I can’t recall any relatives or friends who had a dog that made any sort of impression on me; well, there was Chuckie, the next door neighbour with his dog Spot, but I wasn’t coveting the dog; the walks with Spot were about spending time with Chuckie when we were both around age 12 (ahem, puppy love of a different sort). I did have one friend in grammar school who had a Chihuahua called Dobbs, but I found him annoying –he had a persistent, piercing yap. 

Me and Sandy, NYU graduation day
At home we did keep a neighbourhood stray called Sandy fed, and in the winters we let her in the hallway to stay warm, but she was a full-grown dog. In fact she would follow me to the bus stop  each morning and wait with me until the Number 10 arrived. It was sweet, but oddly enough whenever a driver asked me if that was my dog, I’d always say “no” in an embarrassing tone.

Apparently I also had a dislike of buses, which I find quite amusing now that I enjoy a good ride on the 341, my double decker ride here in London. When Tim and I ride the bus together we almost always head to the top for those prime seats right in front, and we’ll quickly jump up to take them when vacated if we’re initially disappointed to find them occupied. (OK, if there are kids on the bus I don’t jump as quickly.)

Thinking back to my teens I suppose I can understand why I felt that way—as youngsters we had to take the bus to grammar school and it was a 15-minute walk to the bus stop. On freezing winter mornings it was dreadful; you couldn’t predict when the bus would come and sometimes we’d be standing there for what seemed like ages before one would show. Through high school I had to take the bus in at least one direction; there was a point where my mother did drive us to school, but we always had to find our way back.

I didn’t live quite close enough to the train station to get to NYU, so the drudgery of the bus continued another four years.  Make that eight years, actually; until I left home at the age of 25 the bus was the primary mode of transport to get to the train to get to the job in New York City. And there was no such technology as exists today in London—I am ever grateful for the bus countdown online tracker,  a fantastic innovation that has changed my life. I tap my stop on my phone and see the buses approaching for the next several minutes, leaving me to sip my coffee in the comfort of our kitchen until four minutes to the mark when I stroll out the door and to the stop just around the corner on Green Lanes. I can, if need be, make it in three.

I also apparently hated liver and lima beans. Well, to be honest, I still don’t like the former; it’s a texture issue rather than a taste problem. I recall once in my life enjoying a small piece of liver at a restaurant that my friend Barbara took me to somewhere near West Orange.  I used to try it every time Robyn would order it, but never found it to my liking. I have since stopped trying, probably because I’m not spending dinners with Robyn (sad face).

I wasn’t surprised to see that I mentioned my love of the New York Yankees—my high school photograph is captioned with “Mrs Bucky Dent”. I so enjoyed going to see the Yankees play:  hopping the D train to the Bronx, sitting in the cheap seats, and actually keeping score. I wonder if they still give out scorecards and little pencils; I suspect not. I had two friends whom I would regularly go to the stadium with, and we’d get there early and wait at the players’ entrance gate to get autographs. Poor Bucky must have thought I was stalking him, considering how many times I’d ask him to sign my notebook. But he always did.

And, finally, I was apparently delighted with my life, aged 18 11/12, and was “studying to be a magazine journalist.” True, I did take a few courses on magazine writing that I really enjoyed, and fancied myself someone who could write for a living. My favourite professor,  Margo Jefferson, had previously been at Newsweek and later became a theatre critic for the New York Times. She is a brilliant teacher and I admired her for her accomplishments as well as her instruction and feedback. I Googled her and found that she still teaches, now at Columbia, and that she won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1995. How fortunate I was to have access to that calibre of learning.

In the end I didn’t actively pursue that avenue. After graduation I had two job offers: one at a publishing company to be an editorial assistant and one at CBS to be a secretary, that latter I declined (perhaps in short-sightedness) for the mere thousand dollars more that the publishing company was offering. Then again, it’s been a fantastic career and I have no regrets.

I owe Vivian a big thank you for sending me a blast from my past. I suppose in another 30 years when I look back on this one I will find at least one turn of phrase that will absolutely make me cringe!

Monday 15 February 2016


What does an ex-pat sports fan do on Valentine’s Day? She asks her husband to book a table at the local pub to watch rugby.

And of course Tim obliged; the match of the day was England versus Italy. The venue du jour for us was one of our “local” favourites, the Pier View in Cowes, which was recently voted one of the best yachting bars in the world. (It tied for first place with a bar in Wales.)

There’s nothing all that special about the interior of the Pier View. There are two bars to order food and drink from, and three rooms, each with a big screen TV and one that has a small fireplace, which is inviting when it’s cold. (It happened to be the room we wound up in as well, which was lovely for a chilly Sunday afternoon.) When the weather permits the crowd spills outside where metal chairs and tables front the high street, though many patrons are apt to just stand, drink in hand. On very busy days you need to walk in the street to get past the pub, though that’s safer than it sounds as the only traffic would be cars going to and from the ferry to pick up or drop off passengers every half hour. The publican, Sue, is a lovely woman who always greets us with a smile, and the staff at the Pier View is young, friendly, and best of all efficient—I don’t like looking at my empty plate for too long and glasses are swept up quickly enough. The food is good—particularly the burgers—and the menu has all that you’d expect from a pub, including a Sunday roast that I’m certain Tim has sampled. 

Best of all, they’ll take a reservation for a table so you can secure a seat near the TV when you don’t want to watch a sporting event on your computer (because you don’t have a television).

So why was it voted #1? You’d probably have to ask a sailor that, though I see its charms as a landlubber too; one is its superb location on the high street, a short trip from the house (for me) or from the ferry (for sailors looking for near-immediate refreshment). But you can’t walk far before bumping into another pub, so there’s got to be a bit more to the Pier View’s reputation as a favourite. In the summer when Cowes is heaving so is the Pier View, primarily with crews who make it the first stop after a race, shunning the Island Sailing Club if they’ve come from that pontoon or the Vectis, just across the road from the PV. Even the Anchor, closer to Shepards Wharf Marina, doesn’t seem to get the same traffic. To hear the conversation about the race and get in the middle of it all is certainly alluring, both to crews who may have just crossed the finish line as well as those of us who just enjoy hearing the stories about the wind (or lack thereof), the mishaps (of spinnakers that didn’t quite go up or come down elegantly), and the protests that did or should have happened.

It would be unusual to enter the Pier  View and not see someone you know—not just during the high season, but even when Cowes is quieter, like this weekend when we invited two sailors to join us. And when those occasions happen where there is not a familiar face, chances are you’ll be chatting with the sailors / rugby fans / drinkers / diners sitting nearby; likely in part a Cowes phenomenon than a PV one, but it helps that the tables are close and the tables for six or eight are often shared by more than on reservation. Case in point: during the Rugby World Cup I acquired a blow-up hand, decorated with the British flag, from the table next to ours when I showed my admiration for it by taking a photo of it.

And when you’re all not rooting for the same team, it doesn’t matter—it’s a friendly crowd that will smile at the opponent’s try and certainly not heckle a less-than-stellar performance.

That attitude is in no way limited to the patrons of the Pier View, having spent a few rugby matches in other pubs . . . so maybe it’s more about the fans—sailors, rugby watchers, whatever the sport—than the venue. 

Or maybe the beer’s cheaper.