Friday, February 29, 2008

Assessing February

I know that February is the year's shortest month and even though this year it is a little bit less short, it still goes in two ticks. I had the greatest February in a long time, not just because I had two great weeks in New York but also because I found a new pets' hotel where I could leave my dogs without worry. The weather was extremely pleasant, both here and in the USA while I was there, with very cold temperatures and clear skies, just as winter should be. I have also made extremely good progress in my book proposal and even though my PhD is currently lagging behind, I have managed to string together some significant notes that will help me considerably in putting the next chapter together. I can't believe it will be March tomorrow... I may as well have a brownie to February and one to the coming of Spring!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Knitting Virgin

I am a knitting virgin. I have had dirty thoughts about the craft for years and years but never followed them through, not even when I got my needles wet in the puddles of a local knitting group, almost two years ago. However, especially before my latest trips to America, I geared myself up for taking on the needle challenge. Now that I have returned, I am faced with a virgin stash that I am not quite sure how to rapture, tearing the skeins apart to put them back together before my not-so-expert manipulation can bring something new to the world. Nearly all of the above I acquired here, in the worldwideweb-famous Purl. everybody who knits and/or crochets and surfs the net knows of Purl.

Everyone loves Purl, its look and feel, the people who staff it and the ones who patronise it. I can safely assert that, were it not for the lovely lady with long, long hair I would have returned home empty-handed as there is little more intimidating to the knitting virgin than rows and rows and rows of tidy skeins one cannot quite figure out what to do with. I visited twice on separate days and still managed to walk by on a few more occasions, as wonton eyes peered through the glass, wondering what it would be like to live just around the corner, passing the shop daily and meeting up with people who so clearly make Purl one of their regular pit-stops. Yet Purl is not the only yarn shop worth visiting if you're heading for New York because, shock, horror, there is actually a much bigger one that offers many times over the selection that Purl can squeeze on its cooky display. Annie and Co is up Madison Avenue, with needlepoint upstairs and yarns downstairs.

The shop is much different from Purl, differences which can be quite simply summarised with Upper East Side vs Soho. That is all there is to know and it is no mean difference if one eavesdrops on the conversations as they take place over needles and yarns. As I was squeezing skeins of alpacas with a watering mouth, the mention of cookies just behind me released me from my wool-induced trance. 'Oh no thank you', one of the knitting ladies said to the other, 'I have not had a cookie since... uh... Christmas! Oh no wait... I had one. Yes, I had one cookie since Christmas'. Ok this was February and, really, there isn't that much time in the grand scheme of things between December and February and Lent hit us mega-early this year but still... not one cookie since Christmas? Annie and Co is an adorable, very well-stocked yarn shop, with staff that is amiable and knowledgeable, but you will find that its knitting mornings are only really likely to appeal to you if you are the kind of woman that can say NO to cookies for months on end.

Purl is at 137 Sullivan Street.
Annie and Co is at 1325 Madison Avenue at 93rd.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Home Is Wherever You Want To Be

I have always thought that favourite places, like music, are not chosen by us; they choose us. When I happened to stumble across Michael Jackson doing Billie Jean circa 1982, I did not choose to be mesmerised; I just was. Even now, many years, newspapers headlines, allegations, trials and tribulations later, when I hear Billie Jean or just about anything else that MJ did after it, my heart skips, flutters and tumbles as the epiphany of familiar notes brings me back to beloved memories. I never consciously decided to love New York, it just happened. I visited it shortly after my time in San Francisco and so much good took place to me there and then, that New York now intrinsically means the best place to go to the extent that every time I consider a holiday, I mentally flick through places I have heard of and invariably find excuses to divert back to the Apple. But I'll tell a greater truth than that: I like the familiar. I like to return to places for reasons other than new explorations. I like to find the same cake in the same coffee shop in the same road with the same smells and the same sights I left there years before. I like to get into the Waldorf through the back door and instantaneously find myself in a place that I can call home, even if only for two weeks. In fact, I always think that home is wherever I want to be and that, were it not for my beloved animals, I would have no issues to hop from place to place, owning nothing more than a handful of clothes and fifty pairs of shoes. But then who needs to move when the magical is just a park away?

Monday, February 11, 2008

A Case Is A Case Is A Case

I cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be referred to as one that has packing down to a fine art, as the Vogue cliché would have it when very well-off women of all ages give all the ins-and-outs of their travel from its perfect pages. Unlike many other inexplicable genetic blunders (why I cannot sing to save my life despite numerous attempts that included recording myself and listening for melodic errors I could then correct for example), I do know perfectly well why I am not an Artist Packer, as I like to call these; I am not because I just do not believe there can be anything artistic in packing. Calling it ‘the art of packing a suitcase’ is an example of the proverbial tongue-in-cheek hyperbole that leaves the nation split in two: the smug ones (and their footmen) that get it, people like Elton John and the Queen for example, and the angry ones that sit on a case that just would not give in and damn close will you you bastard.

Over the years and over many wanted and unwanted travels, I have been in turn the one that was packing her entire house in order to satisfy the primordial just-in-case instinct built into any Virgo out there, and the minimalist Armani-traveler that whizzed from plane to cab to home with her handbag alone (or a birthday cake under her arm on one very special occasion). I resented these packing styles equally and felt that I did not just miss the domestic gene, but the packing one as well. In the first instance I would feel like an Egyptian donkey and indeed looked just as appealing under unwanted layers of clothing and pulling unnecessary pounds and pounds and pounds of stuff that slowed me down to an ungraceful crawl highlighted by a perlescent forehead. In the second instance, I would end up having to buy duplicates of everything at every destination which now explains why I have sixteen pair of tweezers and sixty pairs of shoes (I kid you not, I once arrived in New York in the middle of winter, snow and ice, click-clacking in one pair of dinky, open-backed Manolos on my feet, the only pair I had taken).

Something drastic happened that put my split-personality disorder in check: my back gave in, years of agony followed and I now pack a trimmed down selection of clothes and purposely leave home plenty of essentials that I can and will find in shops wherever I am going. I discovered that the toiletry bag does not have to weight more than the ski boots and that Sephora or Duane Reade provide a psychological comfort blanket that allows me to leave nail polish remover, cotton balls, cotton buds, full-sized shampoo, conditioner, body cream, hairspray and all the rest of them at home, safe in the knowledge that even the French or the Americans have shaving gels and tampons. The result is that I never, under any circumstances, pack more than one suitcase and this suitcase is now on average 8 kilos below the weight limit. If you consider that the rigid case itself is a hefty 6 kilos when empty, I am really only taking 7 kilos of personal possessions. Heck, if I were one of those animals that rushes to board in order to snatch the first overhead locker, claws dug deep into the bag, bared teeth glistening in the suffused white light, I could even take this on board. But I’d much rather sit in the lounge with only a little handbag and my computer, so that I can powder my nose as per need and type up this stuff when I have to wait. Consider this for example:

Do you know what is in there? Five dresses, three shirts, two belts, one pair of trousers, one skirt, one cardigan, eleven pairs of tights, two set of thermals, eleven pairs of knickers, five bras, two pairs of shoes, one nightie, one pair of wooly socks, a fur muff and matching hat, two scarves, one pair of long gloves, three jumpers, cables, adapters, batteries, all toiletries including makeup. And you cannot even see it. Total weight 13 kilos (includes the 6 kilos for the empty). How can this be? The dresses are all silk or silk thread (think Diane Von Furstenberg and Flora Kung), the shirts are all silk, the jumpers are all cashmere. Now you can see why they weight nothing, even when together. It is good going for two weeks in New York in freezing temperatures. The down coat, boots and long thick jumper dress are being worn in the journey and therefore take no space nor weight. As for the neat little fabric bags, they keep everything in place, neatly folded, ready to be whipped out at the Waldorf and stored in drawers or the wardrobe as applies.

Am I now part of the smug crowd? Not smug, or maybe only a little. I feel a lot more relaxed though, safe in the knowledge that I can lift and pull my case unaided without dislocating my shoulder or breaking into an unsightly and very un-lady-like sweat and that I even have enough space for something new. Vogue won’t be coming to take a pic of my suitcase any time soon or to get my tips on how to do it, but that is really because I like to call a spade a spade; a packed suitcase is not art, but common sense. A Jackson Pollock is art, even though it may look like psychedelic vomit to some.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Home Warming Cake

Today I visited Laura who just moved into a new house. I brought her a little plant which I decorated with paper butterflies and a variations of my lemon cake which in turn is a variation of a basic Madeira cake. This one, which I decided to call Home Warming Cake given the above sub-text, is enriched with spices (cardamon, cloves) and happiness, kindly of a sprinkle of turmeric. I cannot think of anything more warming to the soul that spices and yellow, and this is why my kitchen is painted yellow. I am not one for the bland, hence in the recipe that follows you will find unapologetic quantities of all ingredients. I wanted a cake deeply lemony and soft but with bite (hence the butter brick as opposed to a stick), a cake that is plain and simple but neither boring nor simplistic in taste. And do not worry about the rosemary; it won’t make it a rosemary cake and the quantity is just enough to complement the spices without bordering into savoury pie-land. The sprig is from my own thriving rosemary and since this is the first plant I ever had that is looking entirely great, I thought I'd mention it.

You’ll need:

250g of very, very soft unsalted butter
210g of caster sugar
220g of self-raising flour
90g of plain flour
3 eggs
grated zest of two lemons, plus their juice (or one lemon if yours is of orange proportions)
grated dark chocolate
3 cardamon pods
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
a 10cm sprig of rosemary
6 cloves

a loaf tin lined with corrugated baking liner (makes it neater and easier than cutting paper to fit, trust me)

You’ll do it like so:

pre-heat the oven to 170C degrees or equivalent. Cream the butter and sugar, then add all the lemon zest. Add one egg at a time with a couple of spoons of flour, then add all the remaining flour and all the lemon juice. I use an electric mixer with two little kneading hooks and takes no time at all. Crush the pods in a mortar and remove the skins. Add the turmeric and the rosemary which you will have cut into small specks (I do this with scissors and throw away the main stalk). Add all of this to the cake, mix some more, then grate the dark chocolate on top and sprinkle with demerara sugar. This will give a really crispy crust which is my favourite bit! Whack it all in the tin and then in the oven for approximately 50 minutes. And for crying out loud, do not check the cake every ten minutes, leave it in at least 45 minutes before opening that door. It will not burn. Take it out once it is well gold on top and you have tested with a stick.

It really pays to let this cool for at least two hours before slicing. In fact, get to it in the evening, cool it overnight and start the following day with a slice of happiness which tastes so good you won’t stop at one. This is tremendously complemented by a cup of Prince Vladimir tea which is both spiced and sweet.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

My Kind Of Oz

There is a narrow country lane in the middle of Cheshire that always prompts me to slow right down before I turn in, so that I don’t fling my car against the postbox on the other side of the road. Yet as I slow down, my heart speeds up with delight as the lane turns and curves around the fields and hikes up to the top of a gentle hill until a field unravels inside a fence and I proceed down the ribboned passage flanked by trees and bushes. I always think that this is my land of Oz, this is my yellow brick road where my black-and-white and depressing working life turns into technicolor, and all that is sour in my day fritters away without leaving as much as a crumpled memory behind. This is where Mervin, my horse, lives. I went to see him today after weeks of mundane occupations and a poorly back kept me away. My heart fluttered and my lips curled into a smile of Grinch-like proportions as soon as I got out of the car and breathed in the familiar air warm with soil, mud and hay. There is nothing as evocative as smell. There are currently many more peacocks around than last year and although I tried to gently approach them in a non-confrontational manner, I guess my camera was threatening enough by itself, never mind my 5'10", over-11 stone ungraceful shape in squeaky wellies barely squat behind the naked bushes. They quickly dispersed in the fields and up the trees, getting set for the night. There has been a spell of good weather this week and getting out of the house after so much pain made me feel much better. I had a walk in the fields and even brought Merv back to the stables, for a friend to give him some exercise later in the evening. Merv has just turned 16 and is an ex hunting horse, a huntsman. He is a fabulous horse and although I myself never was a nervous rider, he was recommended to me as a horse particularly good for beginners and scardey cats who still persist on riding. I have progressed enormously ever since we partnered up and no matter the level of my riding, what is most comforting to me is just spending time with him, picking up hooves, brushing his coat and ears and when the weather permits even giving him a bath. I have found that a horse is good for the soul on many levels, one of these being teaching you how to get in control of your emotions. People who are ignorant of horses (or, more generally and perhaps cruelly, people who just are more ignorant than others) are baffled by this, yet it shouldn’t come as a surprise that an animal as sensitive as the horse can teach humans how to get in control of themselves by its presence alone. The close proximity of a one-ton animal is not a good place where to be scatty and edgy. And hoof-proof boots help too.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Shrove Tuesday Self-Portrait

I can't believe we are nearing the end of Pancake Day and I still have to start any flipping at all. This is the problem with Easter being so early this year; usually Shrove Tuesday falls shortly after my return from New York, at the end of February, when I am therefore still on holiday and have all the time to start the day by flipping pancakes, usually both plain and treble chocolate ones. Today instead I was already at work at my desk well early in the morning, with a call from abroad as punctual and as inescapable as the Council Tax bill. Even though I promised myself that I would hit the kitchen 'in ten minutes', it is now past 5 pm and I still haven't done so. Pancakes aside, this day is Mardi Gras, or Carnival. I don't know about you but for me carnival has little to do with Rio and Brasil and itsy-bitsy feathered bikinis and dancing until dawn; for me carnival is all about La Serenissima, also known as Venice.

It's a curious thing because I have never even been to Venice, and I never ever harbour any desire to go at any other time of the year, but come carnival an uncanny feeling sweeps over me and surprise myself thinking of canals I have never seen, streets I've never treaded and sights I have never enjoyed, all punctured by flamboyant, feathered, full-face papier marche masks. I have a few of these and I often observe their apparent delicacy and their breathtaking beauty. Mine are wall decorations all year round, even though last October I wore one to a masked ball. I have all sorts of masks around the house, not just Venitian ones (what I otherwise call 'proper' masks) because they have always fascinated me. I enjoy the disguise and the veiled other, as I discuss in my PhD in the chapter about horror, of all things. The pic above was taken a couple of years ago. I am holding up a mask that I bought at Zitomer in New York and that is purely for home decor, even though it worked out as a pretty disguise for this picture. More recently, I bought this other one at Harrods as a Christmas decoration.

It looked fantastic on the Christmas tree that I also decorated with peacock feathers I picked when the resident peacock at horsey shed all of its tail at the end of last summer. I particularly love purple and green with purple. I think it's a lethal combination as also these fetching shoes, my absolute favourites, demonstrate:

Monday, February 4, 2008

Daily Treats

At some point in life, one will be faced with a perplexing and equally inexplicably recurring suggestion: to have a glass of tepid water with freshly squeezed lemon upon waking up in the morning. I am one that rather likes lemons, despite their association with illness and sickness of stomach, for my mum used to make me suck on a lemon when I was not well as a child and their intrinsic partnership with vomit has not quite left me. Yet, they are lovely and spell summer and gaiety all around. Bar freshly squeezed in a glass of tepid water, that is. Even typing it makes me feel queasy and I can assure you it has nothing to do with unwelcome childhood memories. I cannot think of anything more unpleasant to start one's day with. Or perhaps I can, a cold shower. Or in fact any kind of shower, that's why I prefer to shower before I go to bed in the evening. But I digress. Back to the squeezed lemon now, sort of. My idea of starting the day in the best possible manner is this:

A hot cup of thick cocoa with a drop of coffee added for good measure and so we have a proper mocha. This wakes me up like not even a fire alarm can because it actually sets me off in a lovely good mood. This morning, working from home due to my back, I managed plenty of productive phone calls on the spur of this liquid velvet. It's a bit of a shame that the adorable heart-shaped cup (new, from Paperchase of all places) has a smaller capacity than my average tea cup. I suppose that it's so terribly girly and fabulous and mahaaavellus dahaaalin' that I will excuse its dinkiness and will just have to make enough for seconds tomorrow.

I resolved mid-afternoon that only a classic cup of tea accompanied by a hot-cross bun would rescue me from attention-deficit. I know that it's no way near Easter but it is Mardi Gras tomorrow, or Pancake Day, and Easter comes early this year, so I may as well have an early treat. The fact is, I just love hot-cross buns, especially these ones that come from Marks and Spencer. And wanna know the best thing of all? This one I actually froze last year, fearing that I would have to wait for many months before I could taste the beautiful spiciness again. Yet, I realised just before Christmas, as I was perusing shelves, that they are actually sold all year round which annoyed me slightly. I felt far less forward-thinking for having frozen a couple of packs and also thought that they are not half as desirable any more (but are still as good).

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Tom Cruise's Scientology Rant

The Church of $cientology would like to keep this under wraps but it keeps rearing its head all over the internet. As far as I am concerned, the more people know about this raging lunatic and the more can stay away from the cult he promotes. I used to really like Tom. Now I cannot figure out anymore whether he is acting or whether he really has gone nuts. Yet, over the past few years, we have all had confirmation of the latter.
The Cruiser's Scientology Rant.

Good Times

This morning I woke up to this:

and realised that February is quite possibly my favourite month. It turns up in the depths of winter, I usually spend half of it in New York, there is Valentine’s Day, then my wedding anniversary and Pancake Day (most of the time!) and much as nature may seem asleep if not totally dead, the Christmas tree under my bedroom’s window starts to sprout and plenty of little birds begin their songs when the weather permits. February has a lot going for it, including a sense of relaxation before everything is set in motion again. I don’t know if you ever noticed but it is also a great time to hit the shops; there are hardly any people around, there is the tail end of the sales (and Presidents’ Day sale in the USA, certainly my favourite sale-day ever), new collections have already hit boutiques and department stores, yet there is none of the pressure associated with big holidays or indeed with ‘the season’ as we call it in England. February is also a very good month to get the New Life into gear. You know the resolutions that we usually draw up in January but are too bleary-eyed to even consider only a few days later? February brings clarity of mind and none of the sluggishness associated with the immediate post-holiday drag. The year has well and truly started and this is the time when I need to act on my plans. Kindly of my prolapsed discs and the hideous pain that they have caused me in the past week, I have been able to make a start on my knitting and crocheting, something that I had delayed for a long, long time, especially following acquisition of a horse. Now that I can barely move around the house (although I am getting better) and that both work and horsey are entirely out of the picture, I have had the opportunity to read my knitting books without sense of urgency, finally able to re-read the same passage ten times if needs be, without watching the clock ticking. It’s good to be ill sometimes, even though it’s fair to say that I would have preferred a simple flu to the excruciating pain I’ve been in. But hey, I am not really one to complain! I have to fly under the radar for a while, I may as well make the most of it and do something I really love. Rich will be coming back from work very shortly and we will be able to have a hot chocolate with ice-cream, one of my favourite treats at this time of year (or indeed at any time of year). I like mine seriously chocolatey and seriously thick, the sort that is served at Patisserie Valerie or Laduree. The secret to thickness is cornflour; my secret to thickness is Ciobar, pre-packed hot chocolate that I get shipped. I kid you not, it is The Best Hot Chocolate there is and it is a little shocking considering it comes in sachets and does not have the looks, nor the price, of a high-end product. But, trust me on this, it is au par with Laduree’s and for that alone I am extremely grateful.
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