Sunday, November 23, 2008

Packing for Paris

For years, I've been lulling myself to sleep at night by imagining I'm packing a lovely little suitcase for an imaginary weekend getaway. Three days in Paris, Florence, Vermont, New York.... I start thinking about which sweaters to bring and I'm out like a light. It works every time.

But in reality, packing is drudgery. By the time I finish, I often wonder if the trip's pleasures will outweigh the trouble of loading up the suitcase. It usually takes much of a day, even with advance planning. And then I panic: I feel a desperate need to re-pack about an hour before we're due at the airport. I always throw in several  ridiculous "what-if?" items at that point.

And it's not like I don't have a system. I aim for semi-minimalism. I believe I should be able to manage my suitcase easily while racing from one end of a train station to the other, or traipsing up and down steps and bridges in cities like Venice.

So I am not one of those people you see in check-in lines pulling suitcases large enough to fit a stowaway. I have standards, even if I fail to meet them. I use a 24", non-expandable suitcase, which is just barely over the limit for carry-ons. I've been stuffing it for years for any jaunt short of a 3-week trip (I borrowed a portion of my husband's 27" suitcase for that.)

Lately, I also bring a Longchamp carry-on with our airplane meals (I won't eat a particle of airline food, having learned the hard way), a pashmina (I won't unwrap those crummy pillows or blankets, either), reading matter (New Yorkers I can leave behind), and all the stuff that's too precious for the suitcase. I try to have enough essentials to tide me over for a day or two if my suitcase is lost.

Upon landing, I pack whatever remains in the carry-on into my suitcase so I'm only shlepping it and my handbag (another weightless Longchamp) to my destination. Leaving enough room in the suitcase is tough. But the beauty of Longchamp bags is that they fold into nothing.

I keep packing lists for various types of trips — Europe, Maine, home, etc. — on my laptop, so I'm never starting from scratch. I add notes later if my choices were particularly good or bad: "22 tees for a 9-day trip?" "Wore same damn skirt for 4 days. Never touched boots or coat." "Read all 4 novels. Wore 2 of 5 pairs of shoes."

Paris in November will be cold and often wet. I expected to spend a lot of time on my own, and planned to bring just a pair of dark jeans, dark cords, turtlenecks, a Barbour (the French seem to love them), and a nice skirt. But now we are meeting various friends for dinner and lunch, and we are invited to the country for the weekend. And I have to meet my husband's colleagues for one or two documentary showings. Busy. So I'm also bringing a long coat, three pairs of boots (two for walking, one for dressing up), a fancier skirt and top, and a pile of scarves because they are très chic et de rigeur in Paris. Plus hats, books, toiletries, and all the other things that make my lists a whole page long.

At least I don't haul heavy machinery: no laptop, hair dryer, iron, clock, or anything you'd find in a TravelSmith catalog. Just a tiny camera, its charger, and a skirt hanger (because there seldom is one).

My next suitcase may be a wee bit bigger, or at least expandable — and it's going to be a spinner. Two extra wheels make all the difference, especially in airports where you can glide them along with two fingers. My husband has a featherweight Heys spinner that I covet, although at 26" it seems too big for me. I'd try to pack my bed pillows with that much space.

Most of the packing for this trip is finally done, and I am going to try to forget about it and read Permanent Parisians, about old Paris cemeteries, one more time so I don't have to pack it. And in just eight days, I'll have the many displeasures of unpacking to contend with. With no croissants or éclairs to look forward to, that's going to be even worse!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Farewell, Farmer's Market

I went to the Farmer's Market in Copley Square yesterday for the last time this year. The market closes on Tuesday, but I'll be away. Winter has arrived and I was bundled up in my shearling coat, hat, gloves, scarf, and boots. Many market vendors close down after the killing frost, when the choices narrow to root vegetables, cabbage, and apples. So just a few hardy farmers were setting up their stalls when I got there, shortly before 11. Selling can't legally begin until the stroke of 11, so I had to hang around. I went to my favorite apple stand, and saw a fellow with his hood pulled down over his forehead and a huge scarf wrapped around the rest of his face, except for his blue eyes.

"Is that you?" I said, realizing after I spoke just how stupid it sounded. I don't know the guys' names, although I've been buying fruit and nursery plants from that stand for years. I never learn: when I call people I know well, I invariably announce myself as, "It's me!" I know it's dumb, possibly even rude, but I can't help it. My friends and family must not know that many idiots because they always quickly figure out that it is, in fact, "me."

Anyway, the farmer was apparently cut from the same bolt of opaque cloth: "Yeah, it's me," he said. "But I wish it wasn't! I'm dyin' out here!"

Then he sold me some Galas and Empires. We wished each other happy holidays and said, "See you in the spring!" 

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Listening to: "Intervention" by Arcade Fire

I'm the last person to ask about popular music. Most of what I listen to is at least 10 or 20 years old. I tend to listen to the same album or group relentlessly. My Nick Drake obsession lasted more than a year.

My iPod shuffles from Gregorian chant to the Clash to the Beatles to Joan Baez to Stephane Grappelli to Death Cab for Cutie. I doubt anyone else could stand it. I rarely pay attention to current music, listen to the radio, or buy songs, so I only stumble onto new things when I'm out shopping or at the gym.

Last week, I heard an amazing song in a consignment shop in Beacon Hill and had to ask what it was: "Intervention" by Arcade Fire (2007). I expect I'll be listening to this band a lot. How often do you find a political rock anthem with an enormous, authentic pipe organ wailing in the background? With my Catholic roots, any half-decent song with a pipe organ will grab my attention.

The song is about war and the kind of religion that drives it. As I hear it, I keep seeing images of George Bush (I listen anyway) and Iraq in my mind. It's kind of corny and confusing, admittedly, but it's sung with such earnestness and passion that I can't get it out of my head. The link shows a video with clips from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925). This heavy-handed, sentimental treatment doesn't enhance the song so it's better to listen rather than watch (this from a nerd who grew up watching silent movies on TV).

Plus you can really dance to it. I give it a 10!

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Feeding the Cat

In my first post, I said I'd try not to bore anyone with cat stories, but that's history now. No one is reading this anyway.

Our 14-year-old tortoiseshell, a doll-face Persian named Snicky (actually Snictoria), has been losing weight, not eating, not playing, just lying around. She once weighed close to 7 lbs. and she dropped down to 5.8 lbs. two weeks ago, which is worrisome. It's the equivalent of you losing 20% of your weight. Unlike our other two cats, she never ate much or seemed interested in food; I used to joke that she absorbed moisture and nutrients from the air. As the others were galloping to their food dishes, I would issue daily instructions to her: "Snick! That's food there, in your bowl. Put your face in it and chew."

She's an odd cat. I look into her owl eyes and I have no idea what's going on in that tiny brain. I watch her walk, with her front paws elegantly turned out in a ballerina's first position, and I wonder where she learned that. I watch her carry her pipe-cleaner toys and place them across her bowl, even though they make it tough for her to reach her food, and I don't get it. I understand a lot about my other cats — and we all talk to each other all the time — except for why they eat plants and throw up.

Snicky had the basic tests to rule out various diseases, including a full-body X-ray, and she'll have an ultrasound next. First she needs to finish the antibiotics for a urinary infection she got about 10 days ago. We know she has early-stage kidney disease, as many older cats do, but it's not severe enough to be making her lose her appetite.

We think at least part of her problem is due to her being high-strung and sensitive, and our being bombarded with construction noise from the apartment below every weekday. This has been going on for more than two months and there's no end in sight — and very shortly after it began, the cat stopped eating. The noise is relentless: yelling, banging, hammering, drilling, nailing, stomping, a compressor, singing, Irish sarcasm. We're also dealing with dirt, dust, and smells filtering up here, because this condo building is still essentially a 19th-century house, porous, with no soundproofing or seals between the floors.

I sense a connection between the cat's illness and the noise, the vet suspects one, and more tests will tell us if it's something more serious. (I dread getting medical test results more than anything — even more than the test itself — whether it's for me or a person or animal I love. It gets worse as we all get older and more fragile.)

To help Snicky gain weight, we give her appetite-stimulant pills. Even though she's declawed and tiny, she transforms into a ravening, blood-thirsty banshee if you try to groom her or give her a pill. She bit straight into into my thumbnail the other day; It's still recovering. And it isn't as if we have no experience with pilling cats. We have decades of experience. She's a shrew.

But the pills work. She just ate most of a can of Fancy Feast trout. We're elated. Normally, I would find that stuff too disgusting to even put in a dish, but I've grown hardened. We've dealt with many revolting prescription cat foods lately, chopping it all into icky little puddings with extra water and flavor-enhancing powder. Yum. Yesterday's can of sardines and tuna was the winner: I'd swear it had fish eyes in it. She's finicky and we have to keep offering new things many times a day. Or she just sits by her bowl and stares at us with those alien orange eyes.

She's gained two-tenths of a pound, which the vet says is promising.

A side-effect of the appetite pills is that cats become more vocal. Snicky previously had little to say, although she had an irresistible "silent meow" if she wanted milk or a treat. She would also complain for a few minutes, every few weeks, in a long string of chirpy meows, as if she'd been storing up a lot of private comments over that time and needed to get them off her chest.

Now Snicky often sounds as if she's being fed into a wood-chipper. Her howls usually mean she's hungry or wants to drink from the faucet, but not always. They go on through the night. I didn't know she had a foreign accent. Usually it's her sibling, Snalbert, who entertains us with cat speeches in the middle of the night. Now he's competing for air time.

We are going to Paris soon, and I considered bringing Snicky along to keep an eye on her, but I know she'd hate every moment. Because she's such a demon about pills, and needs frequent feedings, we will board her at the vet while the other cats have a sitter. She will hate that, too, but they claim there Feliway pheromone spray will make her calm and relaxed. I hope so.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

One More Reason to Enjoy Winter

Potatoes Dauphinois. It's impressive to say, easy to make, and so satisfying to see — bubbling and browned — on the table on a cold evening. I made this the other night, along with herb-roasted chicken, mushroom ragout, and a green salad with pears, dried cranberries, and clementines. Add a fresh Iggy's baguette and some softened Président butter from France, and you can pretend you're in Paris.

For the ingredients, I went to Trader Joe's: a 2-lb. bag of small Yukon Gold potatoes, a pint of half-and-half, and a chunk of their best Gruyère. I rubbed my oval baking dish with butter and a clove of garlic. Then I scrubbed the potatoes and sliced them into very thin rounds with my V-slicer. It's fun. (You may prefer the fancier mandoline, but a Japanese V-slicer is equally effective, fast, safe, and at least $100 cheaper.) 

Put the potatoes in a medium saucepan with the half-and-half and add salt, pepper, and ground nutmeg. Simmer gently until the potatoes have softened. Grate the cheese as you're waiting. You should have about two cups, but more is better, of course.

If you want to enrich the flavor, you can sauté a small amount of thinly sliced and chopped sweet onion in a little butter and add it to the pot. But the three-ingredient version is a winner.

Spoon the mixture into the baking dish, alternating with sprinklings of cheese as well as more dashes of nutmeg, salt, and pepper to taste. Pour the last of the liquid around the dish. Save plenty of cheese to cover the top. I also added a layer of panko (Japanse bread crumbs) for extra crispness. 

Bake at 425° for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the top is golden-brown and gorgeous. Or bake longer at lower heat if you've got other dishes in the oven. Serves 6 to 8 hungry eaters and reheats nicely. I can't wait to make it again, and next time I'll have my camera on hand.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Three Museums, a Wedding, and a Chilean Sea Bass

This weekend, we went to my niece's wedding in Philadelphia. It was a joyful, beautiful, lavish affair. The rehearsal dinner was at Amada, an excellent tapas restaurant. We stuffed ourselves with serrano ham, crab wrapped in roasted peppers, garlicky shrimp, and perfectly dressed green salad.

The vows were exchanged in a jewel of a Victorian Gothic church in Little Italy. The groom's cousin sang a heart-rending Ave Maria. I read from Paul's letter to the Philippians, 4:4-9, apropos for both weddings and post-election high hopes.

The reception at the Loew's Hotel featured a four-course dinner, a 10-piece R&B band, thousands of white orchids towering over the tables, and a buffet loaded with Viennese desserts and tiny ice cream meringue sandwiches — in case the chocolate wedding cake wasn't enough.

The bride was incandescent in Michael Pool beaded satin, the groom played a set with band, and the dancing hardly stopped. The parents of the newlyweds tore up the floor.

My family looked civilized and almost aristocratic in tuxes and sparkly dresses. My cranky Republican brother cracked a smile occasionally, although he refused to get down and boogie.

At dinner, I found a new object of adoration. I recently decided to stop being a picky eater, and have been sampling oysters, mussels, squid, shrimp, octopus, and other fishy things I previously scorned. After hearing the foodies at my table rave about Chilean sea bass being well worth $30 a pound, I decided to skip the Black Angus filet mignon and try it.

Oh, my god. Who knew fish could taste like that? Who cares if it's really Patagonian toothfish? It was sublime: rich, sweet, light, satisfying, and healthy at the same time. Its crabcake-and-roasted-tomato topping blew it out of the water. So to speak.

Good fish makes me feel like I'm near the ocean. My first oyster startled me: it tasted exactly like the sea. Sitting in a gown in a ballroom on 12th and Market Streets, I was simultaneously splashing barefoot in the waves on Long Beach Island.

I need to find a rich person to invite us out for dinner. Now.

There was an after-party in the penthouse, with a DJ and a candy bar in the bridal colors of black, silver, white, and green (licorice, M&Ms, nonpareils, jelly beans....) and a sort of soft-pretzel buffet. But we were too exhausted to linger.

My non-wedding goal for the weekend was visiting three museums for the first time. The Mutter Museum, with its "disturbingly informative" collection of medical specimens, models, and instruments, was fascinating and a bit sickening — and my husband was thoroughly creeped out. I'll have to go back alone. The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in a landmark Gothic Revival building by Frank Furness, is full of old favorites from my Swarthmore art history classes. And my husband had business at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It has a fine collection, some cool Victorian architecture, and friendly staff. I heard the Romanian accent of a guard and realized we'd worked at the MFA at the same time. We had a great time catching up and telling stories.

The day of the wedding, we had breakfast at the Reading Terminal Market. We began with a big slice of marble layer cake, served by a friendly Amish girl. Then we split an apple-cherry-walnut bagel. And wandered, wild-eyed, overwhelmed by the array of local produce and meat; imported Italian groceries; and best of all — Amish pickles, preserves, baked goods, meats, dairy, ice cream, and pretzels. And so much more.

The only thing we couldn't find, oddly enough, was a good cheesesteak. The renowned Rick's in the Market closed years ago, we were told (after two Philly natives insisted we go there and only there).

Boston really needs a food market like this. Philly's serious attention to take-out puts us to shame. Any place that can offer more than six different kinds of chocolate- and candy-covered pretzels deserves our respect. Let's import some Amish farm families right away. Let's put the cows back on the Common, and see if our vaunted local ice cream shops can beat theirs.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

History Made. Time to Make Progress

I heard the victorious cheers and shouts of students and neighbors from our windows last night and knew Obama had been elected. I had given up on following the returns online because every site was giving different numbers and I was nervous. I pretended to read a novel. But when the cheering began, we turned on the TV and heard McCain's and Obama's speeches. McCain was gracious and generous; he reminded me of the guy I'd always appreciated before he became a candidate and morphed into somebody else.

For at least a few years, we won't have to worry about Sarah Palin representing us anymore. That's worth a celebration with cupcakes all by itself.
I am proud to be American for the first time in eight years. It feels odd, but good. The next time we visit Europe or the Middle East, we'll have a little less to explain and apologize for — not that anyone we've met on our travels has ever held anything against individual Americans like us. People are smart enough to know that government and politics are one thing, while the beliefs and desires of the people are another. They also know that Americans who travel and talk to foreigners tend to have broader vision than Americans who always stay home. However, people overseas do tend to wonder aloud why America, which is able to choose so freely, had chosen so disastrously. Twice. But every political discussion we've had over there has revealed a degree of understanding that's far more sophisticated and encompassing than the myopic mental workings of the average Joe over here. 

People abroad have been watching us closely and most have wanted this outcome badly, because they realize that what happens here reverberates in their world. They would usually begin a conversation by quizzing us cautiously, discover we're kindred spirits and tell us their hopes and fears for America. While a typical American has zero interest in European elections, it seems like most Europeans wish they could cast a US ballot. Today we're getting jubilant email from foreign friends we haven't heard from in ages. Even the Berlin couple we met briefly at a Venetian B&B located our address. People care.

So, history was made yesterday, and politics and people were united on a new course that ought to generate solutions rather than just rhetoric. It was inspiring to see the mosaic of colors, ages, and ethnicities joined together in celebration. I was relieved to see blue spreading further across the map of the states. (I was also surprised to see that a million Massachusetts voters picked McCain. Whoa! Vermont tops us as the bluest state — those lovable old hippies.) 

The new president faces unprecedented problems of mind-boggling proportions, as he well knows. But if anyone can deal with the mess we're in, I think he can. He has brains, vision, staff resources, and diplomatic skills, which are all ostentatiously missing in the current administration. (When Clinton was elected, I remember thinking the same positive things, although I also worried that it would all end in tears somehow, no matter how much he was able to accomplish. This time I'm much less worried about personal foibles and Republican slime tactics.) 

I know I sound disgustingly starry-eyed, even for a Massachusetts liberal, but there is a time for everything, and today we have a reason to hope. I'll go back to being cynical tomorrow. Today, my brain is taking a rest from my jobless situation, tanking portfolio, and generalized worries for the economy, the world, and the future.