Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Whiling Away The Summer

Normally at this time of year I would be embarking on a mad cleaning frenzy of some sort, or restocking the kitchen, or some other such household based endeavor.  I've always liked a clean, orderly and well-functioning home in the summer months.

But this summer, the apartment is in "a bit of a tip" as Paul would say.  The putrid weather has sapped my energy entirely, and I just can't bring myself to do anything of a useful household nature.  Rather, I am reduced to laying on my couch near the window reading books and magazines littered about my place of repose that I have been too indifferent to to pick up and put away.  A bit too Grey Gardens for my liking, but as those holistic healers who are quoted regularly in GOOP like to tell us, one must live in rhythm with the seasons.  And this sloth-like state is the rhythm that I'm currently feeling.

But that said, I'm not a absolute and total loss.  I have been coming across loads of yarn balls over the past few months and had an ongoing resolution to do something about them.  And finally I made good on that resolution.  I've been sitting on the couch knitting away while watching bad summer TV.  And it has been lovely.

The fruits of my labor have mostly borne baby hats.  I've made many of these baby hats over the years as gifts for friends...I enjoy making them and people seem to enjoy receiving handmade baby gifts so I've kept it up over time.  But there are only so many baby heads that need covering in my life, so I've put the majority of these cute little things up for sale on Etsy.

Hop on over and take a look...

...and let me know what you think (but only if you like them).

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Great Falafel Debate

We are quite squarely in the dog days of summer now here in the northeast (although it seems our European, midwestern and southern counterparts are suffering similarly).  So this means I don't have a lot of interest in doing much of anything really, or at least anything that doesn't include a cool cocktail.  Cooking is a fairly unattractive option, and frankly so is eating.  Food that I generally find appealing is anything but, with a few choice exceptions of course.  When the mercury climbs I crave cool briny oysters, peaches and nectarines and falafel.

Falafel?  Although its a crispy, warm food, somehow it jibes well with warm weather.  Something about its Middle Eastern origins?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps I like the cool tahini sauce and the fresh veggies that accompany it, and the unchallenging pita that keeps the whole mess together.  Either way, I am lucky to work in the great falafel mecca of New York...Union Square.

You were perhaps expecting some obscure neighborhood far from Manhattan?  As would I, but there's no accounting for these things I suppose.

Everyone has their loyalties in these situations (the eternal debate between Pat's and Gino's cheesesteaks in South Philly comes to mind), and although I adore the salad bar at the Dutch falafel franchise Maoz ($3.25 for a small container of whatever you'd like), it is the hole in the wall option on the west side of the square on 17th Street...Rainbow Falafel....that I am drawn to time and again.

The shop is a tiny storefront, with not a seating option to be found.

But the men behind the counter are kind and the falafel is unusually dark and crispy, studded with bits of onion, garlic and herbs which lends a real like-your-mom makes it feel to the little fritters.  The pita itself is either flimsy or the man behind the counter adorns the whole mess with more delicious sauces than average, but either way you must be sure to keep the sandwich in the foil as you eat, otherwise you will end up with falafel on your lap.  But I must admit I don't consider this a flaw...I feel that this is the type of food that should get everywhere.  It shows a welcome exuberance if food simply cannot be contained.

As for the other menu items, the greek salad is far more interesting than just about any other greek salad I've ever had.  But that's the only non-falafel item I've ever eaten, and I've only had it once...you can tell that I rarely deviate from my tried and true?  I suggest you get here posthaste and follow my lead.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

All Things In Miniature

When those seemingly arbitrary airline restrictions regarding liquids and toiletries first came into existence I, like most of the traveling public, was irrationally annoyed.  I read horror stories of Cle de Peau concealers being tossed away as the owners wept (so mean, these TSA people!), of Bobbi Brown shimmer bricks being confiscated (how could you relegate something so pretty to the wastebasket?) and of those gorgeous pictorial Chantecaille compacts summarily disposed of and I sympathized with the poor voyagers.  I railed against the idiocy of the rules...endlessly.

But one day, as one does, I got over it.  Now, in an odd way, I almost like the rules.  They've forced me to be a bit more practical with my packing, to be more organized.  And now that I've found a quart-sized bag that resembles a chic pouch rather than something one might find in the lunch box of a third grader, I am utterly and absolutely on board.

But best of all?  The TSA has introduced me to the delightful world of travel sized lotions and potions.  Now of course, for the painfully practical among us, that simply means small containers (I love the ones from Muji) into which one decants cleansers, lotions and the like (I reserve these for Dr. Bronner's in case a bit of bathroom sink laundry is in order).  But I find the miniature versions of the adult-sized products to be much more fun.  I become so easily smitten with the tiny containers and the tiny labels...it's a bit like playing with a dollhouse.

So for my last trip, the item at the top of my to-do list was to find enough tiny containers of gunk and goop to maintain my oh-so-delicate visage for nearly two weeks.  At my last visit to the dermatologist the nurse had foisted enough sample sunscreens on me to last a lifetime, so that was sorted (Elta MD UV SPF 40 is my new love).  But I needed the rest.

In a fit of laziness, rather than search far and wide for each individual product need, I picked up the Evan Healy sample kit in Whole Foods.  I swear by the line's eye cream so figured I couldn't go too wrong with the rest of the products.  And at $30 for five items, it wasn't too much of an investment if things went south.

Now may I just say that as much as I love traveling, my skin abhors it.  Rather than coming back looking relaxed and fabulous from a sojourn overseas, I tend to come back blotchy, spotty and flushed.  This time, I returned to multiple compliments about how wonderful I looked.  How my skin nearly glowed.  Now I certainly spent no shortage of time on planes or in airports (thanks American for that canceled New York flight), nor did I avoid extreme weather nor did I avoid dust, dirt and grime.  So I can only assume that all credit must go to the fantastically gentle, plant-based Evan Healy products that I was sampling.

The lavender cleanser was creamy and smelled like a field in provence, the rose hip treatment oil was just moisturizing enough, never heavy or greasy, especially when used in tandem with the facial spray, and as odd as it did smell, the moisturizer, when used in the evening, left me with baby soft skin the next morning.  I can't tell you whether the green tea mask did anything, but I sure enjoyed using it...the experience lent a bit of luxury to my spartan Parisian digs.  And shockingly enough, the tiny, tiny bits of product lasted me through the entire trip!

Between the near-perfect scores that all of the products receive on the toxicity-revealing Cosmetics Database website and their (I think) fair prices, it just may be time to upgrade to the grown-up versions...

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Swanning About: The City of Light

After Manchester, Paul was headed to Rotterdam and other Dutch locales to attend to some professional obligations, so I opted to leave him to it and hopped a plane to Paris for a few days of personal indulgence.

I arrived in the midst of a heat wave, a fact I first realized on the train from the airport, which, in true European style, was not air conditioned.  Luckily I keep a fan, which I picked up in Seville a few years back, in my purse.  For fear of coming off as some faux flamenco dancer, I tend not to use it in New York. But french girls seem to have no such compunction, so I did as the locals do and fanned away, all the way to the Seine.

After a short walk through the St-Germain-des-Pres, I arrived at my incredibly well located, very cheap and therefore very funky hotel.  I checked in with Madame downstairs.

-  Vous-etes anglaise?

-  Non, je suis americaine.

-  Ah, j'adore les americaines!

I half expected her to put my twenty euro cash deposit (for what I'm still not sure) in her very ample cleavage.

I was faced with a few stairs.

But after a week of English food, exercise is not necessarily a bad thing so I gamely dragged my suitcase upwards, around and around again.

I arrived in my room to find Ivanka Trump on my wall.

And after I checked out my shower, I spent quite a lot of time trying to find my toilet before realizing that it was across the hall.  But then again I did have an adorable garret window with lace curtains.  And a view of Parisian rooftops above a quaint little street within spitting distance of half of the attractions in Paris.  I kind of liked the place.

After some pre-dinner relaxation I set off for a meal that I had been hotly anticipating for days.  Lauded for its delightful preparations of offal in Clotilde's Edible Adventures in Paris, I could not wait to dine at Ribouldingue.  Situated on a small left bank street a stone's throw from Notre Dame, I was instantly charmed by the establishment's decor, staff and clientele.

Once seated, I was immediately approached by an incredibly sweet waiter who was eager to try out his English on me.  As my French was just about as halting as his English, we were a perfect linguistic match, switching languages when one became too difficult (read: often).  He wasted no time in bringing me the best glass of wine of the trip, the name of which I have tragically forgotten.

I started with a plate of roasted marrow bones.  A bit heavy for the weather, but you see I had a small problem.  For years I loved this dish.  But after a disappointing meal that Paul and I had at Minetta Tavern a while back, which included copious quantities of mediocre marrow bones, I had gone off of them.  I figured if I could rediscover my love for them anywhere it would be here.  And they were indeed delicious, though far too rich given the massive quantity I was handed.

The bones were followed by a lamb's heart preparation which I fell in love with.  The meat, braised in a surprisingly light broth flecked with bits of fresh green herbs, was plump, juicy and gorgeously toothsome.  I used the entire bread basket (and then some) to sop up the delectable juice.

In an effort to balance out all of this decadence I opted for the most refreshing grapefruit and Campari jelly dessert.  Blessedly cool and bitter, it was studded with morsels of ruby red grapefruit and drizzled with creme anglaise (very important to include some fat in each and every dessert I think).  Between the revelatory food and the friendly couple from Montreal with whom I chatted all evening, I was positively smitten with my experience.

Apres dinner, I strolled about a bit, enjoying the shockingly late sunset and the consistently gorgeous sights.  I am still terribly jealous of whoever has this top floor apartment with french doors leading out to a balcony overlooking the Ile de Cite.

The whole city just felt like a sophisticated, sparkling party--one that is so fun you refuse to leave until the sun comes up.

The next day I awoke to a continuation of the heat wave.  In an effort to escape the Parisian oven, I headed out to Giverny to contemplate the water lilies in the shade of weeping willows.

The famous lilies were indeed blooming

but not much else was.

Still, I could see how Monet must have found endless inspiration in this place.  I mean the porch alone was pure rapture.

After a couple of hours among the plantings it was back to gay Paris, where I made a bee-line for the famous Rose Bakery in the 9th Arrondissement.

After contemplating the purchase of the establishment's cookbook for so long, I could hardly come to Paris without giving the place a try, now could I?

Housed in an old garage, the space is long and narrow, and when I came, it was nigh filled with crates of produce.

Clearly I had come towards the end of service, so I settled for the bits and pieces that were left over from lunch.  The salads were incredible, and I cannot remember consuming a dessert as quickly as I consumed their pineapple cake.  If these were the bits and pieces I can't even imagine the main events.  I will be purchasing the cookbook post haste.

Given that my main activity that day had been so cliched and touristy, I figured I ought to embrace the fact, and continue the tourist theme into the evening;  I headed to the famed Cafe de Flore for an early dinner.  The food was nothing to write home about and the service was a bit dismissive but the people watching was fantastic.  And I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with my friendly neighbors...a movie producer and his vaguely employed friend.  After taking the man's card I'm still not clear what his occupation is, but he did apparently know the owner of the largest jazz club in Paris.  I told him that regrettably I was not a fan of jazz!

The next day I awoke to gloom.

Steady rain.  But I could not bear to stay inside all day, so I borrowed Madame's massive umbrella (really, it must have been the heaviest umbrella in Paris) and headed to the right bank.  I simply had to check out the famed G. Detou.

Loads of foodstuffs packed into a surprisingly small shop.  I came away with some loot, let me tell you.  And around the corner I came upon a cookbook store, and was amused to find a book on American cooking titled "Yes We Cook!".  However, I could not bring myself to purchase a book which grouped Florida and California into the same "region".

Presently I made my way to Pierre Herme, which I idiotically missed the last time I was in Paris, as I fulfilled my macaron craving at Laduree.  Judging by the line this is Paris's version of the Magnolia Bakery.

Let me tell you, they got the better end of the bargain.

Macarons in hand, I headed back to my hotel and surveyed my purchases.

The best macarons known to man,

medicinal (but more importantly, delicious smelling) herbal tea,

an unfamiliar chocolate brand,

and totally unfamiliar mustard variety.

I cannot wait to give this pot of purple paste a try.

After gorging myself on macarons, I could think of only one appropriate dinner...oysters!  It was off to the 11th Arrondissement.

One of the more fantastic waiters in Paris served me what I can only assume are some of the more fantastic oysters in Paris at L'Ecailler du Bistrot.  I walked nearly all the way home, enchanted with the street performers, the lights, the buildings, and oh all of those top floor apartments with the fabulous french doors!

The next day I was determined to make a day trip out to Reims to see the renowned cathedral and drink some champagne in the region from whence it comes.  But after dawdling at the train station for far too long, I realized that in fact I had no desire to travel.  The weather in Paris was just too perfect and it was my last day in town!

So I headed down to a farmer's market...why had I been wasting my time doing anything else?!  The market was, as one might expect, phenomenal.  The produce was luscious and fragrant and the cheese was oozing and pungent and the pastries...oh don't get me started!  I picked up provisions for the day, and after a quick stop at the Centre Pompidou (admission was free that day)

I headed to the spot I had really wanted to be all this time, to the spot I've been pining over since I last visited this beguiling city...the Jardins de Luxembourg.  Best park in the world, hands down.  No offense to Central Park of course, but come on.

Between the perfectly groomed walkways lined with moveable furniture,

those crazy square trees that the french adore (as do I, it must be said),

the lawns designated for lounging and relaxation,

and the apiaries (!)

there just is no comparison.

I spent the afternoon eating

and reading a book about love.  I practically melted from pleasure.

Later on, I came quite close to grabbing a famous Parisian falafel for my last dinner in the city, but at the last minute opted for a traditional meal in a very traditional bistro.  Discovery of the evening?  I love tomato mousse.  I ambled around the corner from my dinner spot to check out this falafel place about which I have heard so much, and was so glad I had made the decision I did...

...the line was worse than at Pierre Herme!

I spent the rest of the evening wandering the old Jewish quarter, nearly weeping with despair at the prospect of leaving the city.  Like New York (but different), it just gets under your skin and stays there, imploring you to return.  Which I shall.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Swanning About: Up North

After an action packed few days in the south, it was time to head up north for some relaxation and family time.  Paul and I were ferried to Euston Station by a cabbie who had an enviable knowledge of the local shortcuts, and who insisted on dropping us off at the front of the station, despite our protestations that we would be fine at the corner.  I could take cabs in London all day long, I love them so.

We hopped on the Richard Branson-branded train (I must admit that I don't love Virgin trains nearly as much as I love Virgin America Airlines) headed to Manchester.  After a couple of hours and a charming conversation with our Anglican priest seatmate, we were in the city of Paul's youth.

We were greeted, warmly as always, by his family and headed out back in short order to bask in the garden.

Paul's salty, irreverent and hilarious Auntie Pat came by for dinner in the evening.  Topics of conversation ranged from the royals ("Now what do you think about that prostitute Camilla that Charles married?") to...well, to just about everything else.  After a quick drink at the local pub, Paul and I fell on our pillows, happy to be back in the embrace of a familiar bed.

The next morning, after tea and toast in the conservatory, we all headed to Chester (in the county of Cheshire), a town founded during Roman times and flawlessly maintained ever since, from the looks of things.  After a lunch of lamb balti in the cathedral the four of us ambled over the ancient wall down to the river.  The motor boats at the dock caught Paul's eye, so the two of us took one for a spin.

We headed, full throttle, up the river, past sprawling homes and compact townhouses.

Although the motor was not the most powerful, the ride was thrilling nonetheless, as it had been quite some time since I'd been on a boat, no matter how miniscule.  We were momentarily the captains of our own vessel, waving gleefully to those on shore (all but two of whom had no idea who we were) and politely maneuvering around our fellow boaters.

Our twenty minutes was soon up though, and we were back to being landlubbers.  After a quick coffee in town it was back to the homestead, and to a dinner of fish and vegetables from the family allotment.  Delicious.  After four days of festival food I was seriously craving something fresh!

The next morning, Paul was in the mood for a root around Manchester, so off we went.

First to his favorite record store...

...where he spent the vast majority of his youth rifling through records.

Great selection of music and excellent, useful advice for DJs:

He loved being able to pick up his favorite new single (from a band he happens to manage) in his favorite record shop.

Then it was off to his favorite Manchester lunch spot, Mr. Thomas's Chophouse.

I had to admit that the name had me a bit worried, but as I walked in my concerns were dispelled.  The staff were polite, the interior was full of dark wood and gorgeous tiling, and there was even an outdoor space in which to enjoy the rare bit of sunshine that graces the Macunian sky.

I could not quite stomach the idea of their famous steak and kidney pie (although Paul had no problem with it) so I opted for a Manchester salad.  Delicious but was approximately 50% meat.  So my tastebuds were happy but my food guilt barometer was once again off the charts!

In a near food coma, we headed next door to the Royal Exchange Theater to meet up with Paul's parents and loads of their friends.  We had all gathered there to watch a farce, a perfect choice of play for a summer afternoon.  

The Royal Exchange building itself was fascinating.  You see, Manchester was once a center of the British cotton and textile industry, and this building served as the cotton exchange for the area.  It has, over the years, been damaged in various bombings (first during WWII, then in the 1990s by the IRA) but has been restored beautifully, with a small freestanding stage, in the round, constructed in the middle of what was once the trading floor.  And, to keep a bit of history, the original trading prices from the last day of trading are kept on the big board near the ceiling.  

The theater experience was wonderfully intimate, as the enclosure was relatively small, and I always enjoy seeing performances in the round.  The play was riotously funny, and, followed by a dinner with all of our theater companions and then drinks along an old canal with some of Paul's oldest friends, the day was an unmitigated delight.

Sad to be leaving but excited for my next stop, I spent the evening packing for the final leg of the trip...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Swanning About: The Festivals

At 8:00 on a sunny Saturday morning, the annual comedy show that is me driving a stick shift on the wrong side of the road began.  One of those fabulously polite and navigationally astute London cabbies dropped us off in Victoria where we picked up our very sexy Ford Focus, and hence the road trip began.

Eventually, after some streets, highways, mini-highways and tiny country roads, we came to what would be our home for the next twenty-four hours, the Hollies Hotel in Bower Hinton (near Yeovil).

I was utterly charmed from the start...how could I resist a place so enamored with the various roofing options in the world that it couldn't pick just one?

And any establishment with such a soft spot for gargoyles is OK in my book.

It had been quite some time since I'd been outside of a city, so I was loving the uninterrupted expanses of green.

I should also point out that the rooms were lovely and the breakfast was top notch so if you are looking for a place to lay your head in Bower Hinton (near Yeovil), look no further.

After we dropped off our things and met up with our friends Dan and Nicky, and it was off to Glastonbury.  Thank god Dan was kind enough to do the driving.  As a native Brit he's better on the left side.  And besides, bourgeois as it may be, his Land Rover was a more appropriate vehicle for a farm than our Ford Focus.

Now last year, as is the case nearly every year, the site of this fabulous festival was a mud pit.  Everyone was frolicking happily in their wellies, with nary a sunburn in sight.  This year we were faced with a hot dust bowl.

The crowds were parched and listless.

the dry as a bone, limited shade hospitality area

Eventually, after attempting in vain to eke out some shade in the noontime shadow of a fence, we gave up and headed to one of the tented stages.

Sprawled on the grass at the side of the John Peele stage in the blessed shade, I gazed upward, thankful for a respite from the searing sun and for the breeze, however slight. 

Luckily we hit the good old John Peele at the right time.  The stylings of the fantastic band Delphic were followed by the gorgeous strains of Marina and the Diamonds, which I enjoyed immensely as I lounged.  After a bit of Lissie over at the Queens Head and a few stolen moments watching the US v. Ghana World Cup game, it was time for the main event, the reason we drove halfway across England for a mere day.  MUSE.

Night fell, the temperatures cooled and the boys took the stage.  The dazzling light show alone would have been worth the trip, but man oh man did that band perform.  With more energy and vigor than I could ever imagine mustering, they played what can only be described as a blinder.  The crowd (myself included) would have followed them anywhere.  In fact this young gentleman was so enthralled that he climbed 15 feet up on a rickety wooden trellis in order to get a better view:

And I image he was handsomely rewarded, especially once the Edge took the stage with the band to play a bit of U2.

But, as is always the case, all good things must come to an end, and presently it was time to head back to good old Hollies Hotel.  We left our 150,000 fellow festival goers to their tents and sleeping mats, while, after cool showers with lovely scented soap, we laid down in our nice comfy beds.  It was perhaps the boring old person way to go, but I can't say I regretted it!

Stopping only for some roadside strawberries along the way, we hauled back to London the next day.  It was of course imperative that Paul get to Hyde Park in time for the 2:00 kick-off of the England vs. Germany game (the less said about the better, obviously).  

After dropping him off and a brief stop at the borrowed apartment, I took the opportunity to relax and wander around town.  I was very nearly the only one on the streets, but the pubs were packed with soccer fans!

I ambled down Bond Street, then over to the Phaidan store, Fortnum and Mason and finally into the courtyard of the Royal Academy of the Arts,

where I joined the other tourists in kicking back, putting my toes in the fountains, and gazing at the sky.

Delightful.  After a stroll by Buckingham Palace and a lounge by the Serpentine in Hyde Park, I was ready for the evening's entertainment.


We spent a lot of the first half of his set relaxing towards the back of the field.

But once Live and Let Die and the accompanying pyrotechnics came about we were on our feet.  And once he got hot and heavy with the Beatles catalogue it was all over.  As it turns out, there aren't many things better than seeing a Beatle play the Beatles.

We were too jazzed to sleep so Paul and I took the long way home, strolling about the wide boulevards, the tiny side streets and the occasional green squares.  And presently we fell into bed, spent but happy from our musical adventures.      
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