Friday, December 23, 2011

Winter Colors...

The sun sets early here in England, ending my urban explorations and countryside walks much earlier than I'm used to, and filling my head with dissonant thoughts about the earth's axial tilt, obliquity, ellipses and other terms that ought to be locked far, far away in physics classroom where I don't have to be subjected to them. 
Uninvited as they are, among these thoughts about the planet's comings and goings is a glimmer of good tidings.  According to science textbooks and ancient warlocks alike, yesterday was the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, which means today is just a little tiny bit longer.  And even though I probably won't be able to tell the difference myself, this is still very exciting news.  It means summer is coming (more or less), and I can't wait!

 Uninhibited by the lack of proper footwear (Hunter rainboots seem to be the uniform de rigeur here), I have quite enjoyed walking through the fields of Nonsuch and Horsham Parks partaking in what seems to be the British past time of slow strolling.  Maybe it's the season, with everything exploding in the reds and greens of the Christmas season, but no one seems to be at all deterred by the weather. 
I know one Californian in need of a bigger jacket...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Fish & Chips...

I have about two hundred bookmarks saved on my computer.  Each one is neatly cataloged on the toolbar, under files ranging from food and photography, to subcategories of recipes, illustration, and craft.  Fourth from the left is a folder called world.  Click on this and it will drop down, opening up into continents, which lead off into countries, states, and finally, cities.  Here is where I have tucked away references for places that I have visited at home and away, with favorites like ForageSF, San Francisco's underground market,  to Refinery29's interviews with local chef that list their favorite places to eat in the bay.  These references are endlessly helpful and make for fun treasure hunts as I scope out new haunts in places I've never visited.  No system is fail proof however, and naturally, some of these places fall a bit flat.
Kerbisher & Malt, London's little Fish and Chips shop in the W6 neighborhood is one of these.  My standards for British fare have never been high, but a little bit of anticipation and a special train ride out to the city warranted something a little more exciting than what I got.  Though not bad, by any means, the bland fish and sorry chips were not entitled to any the awards or reviews they taut.  "I almost want to write a love poem to their chips", writes the Sunday Telegraph.  

Though I may be at odds with the British palate, Kerbisher & Malt was a charming place to sit and eat, cleanly decorated with subway tiles, sharp light fixtures and a community table which served as the perfect vantage point to watch red double decker buses roll by.  
And they do have quite good beer

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bah Humbug...

Oh, Christmas.  
How I love having an excuse to bake more often than normal- which usually means taking up entire fridge shelves with tupperwares of dough.
And how I love designing gingerbread houses, even though the time commitment for this sort of project usually means I kind of fizzle out just shy of complete execution.
I love pretty wrapping papers and packaging string, although, as a southpaw, I am completely inept with scissors and can't wrap neatly to save my life.
I love the strings of lights draped over everything, and how, if you squint your eyes, they all turn into stars.
I love hot chocolate, flavored with candy canes.
I love seeing wreathes on everyone's doors.
I love sitting and watching the fireplace crackle at the Swan's house.
I love the smell of fir and the burning incense curling up from the pipes of the räuchermann, and decorating the house with painted wooden ornaments from the German Christmas markets. 
And this year I developed a new Christmas love for the "nightcap", compliments of my grandmother. (Athough I don't think that this tradition is going to fade with the holiday season.)

Yet, despite all the things that make Christmas really special, I am pretty certain December 25th is my very least favorite day of the year. 

I am sure this benign word choice would be considered an quite an understatement if you were to ask anyone in my family.  They might be more liking quoted using strong verbs like hate, or despise, etc.
I can't really explain to you why this is.  Sure, you could attribute it to some innate loathing of materialism, but that would be entirely false, as I love presents, and anyone who has glanced at my Svpply knows, I am a wee bit materialistic.  Perhaps you might blame it on the weather or maybe the music.  But again, I've lived in the Southern Hemisphere and I promise you, this condition does not get any better regardless of the forecast, and last Christmas was spent entirely Jingle-free.
The simple fact remains that I am the holiday grinch.
And this is an apology to anyone who has ever had to spend Christmas with me.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Barcelona For The Blind...

I made plans to go to Barcelona nearly three months ago, and from the time I had my tickets in hand, I was so, so excited about the trip.  I had heard tales of warm weather, late night fiestas,  Spanish tapas, the whimsical buildings and mosaics of the legendary Gaudi, and of course, the chance to see Fleet Foxes play in Spain. 
As the date drew ever eminent, however, the hard truth that my camera was not magically going to come back to life sunk in.  Over the last months, I had grown so dependent upon it, photographing absolutely everything, from the meals I ate, and the streets I walked down, to the colors that rust made on fences, and lights illuminating the buildings at night. 
There is something about the experience of photographing something at the very first moment you lay eyes on it; the raw excitement and perspective of that fresh vision that can't be captured or re-experienced if you return to photograph it later.  Since beginning to document my life in photos, I've striven to take every photo in the very first moments and immortalize the sensation of each experience. And so, with that doctrine, my experience in Barcelona was a bit altered. 


I think I managed to spend the weekend with my eyes half closed.  Everything I saw, I tried to avert my eyes from, tried to overlook or miss.  I was afraid of ruining any chance I did have of re-experiencing this place when I came back some day, with a camera.
Maybe this explains my hesitancy too, about taking pictures in Paris...
After a couple days in Barcelona, however, the need to "open my eyes" became more overwhelming.  I began taking pictures with a throw-away film camera, which I've found to be quite a gamble.  In about half the frames I had developed, the details of art nouveau interiors are completely lost, close-up piles of fresh seafood at the bouqeria market are out of focus, or the picture is mostly just of my fingers that, clumsily, have gotten in front of the lens. 
And though I do like the grainy aesthetic and exaggerated contrast of the disposable film, I am not quite confident enough to rely on these cameras as I have my Nikon.  I'm not as good at taking pictures as I would like to be. I can't get the results I strive for, I'm not consistent and I still need to take about five million pictures of the same thing before I'm satisfied.  But I'm learning, as I go.  And next time I come to Barcelona, I'll be ready.
I got the very best early Christmas presents from my grandparents this week:  a brand spanking new camera!  
So, I'm back in the saddle, off to explore with my Nikon around my neck, and a disposable camera in my pocket (just in case).
Thank you!!

Friday, December 16, 2011

Farewell Feast...

I spent my last week in Bordeaux dashing around, trying to visit every possible church, museum, or chocolatine shop that I had somehow over looked during my four months as a bourdalaise, and revisiting places that I was particularly fond of.  For the very first time, I walked around the cathedral at Hotel de Ville that stands right next to tram stop I've been to at least twice a day this semester.  I had a second meal at L'Entrecôte, arguably the best restaurant in Bordeaux, that serves but one item:  a delicious cut of entrecôte served bleu, à point, or bien cuit with limitless fries and the best secret sauce ever made.  I danced the night away at the legendary nightclub, La Plage.  I spent my last mornings at my favorite markets.  And finally, I took the baker's wife up on her offer, and made dinner in Bordeaux's 300-and-some-year-old wood fired oven.
My friend Sarah, who is one of the few people I've ever met who can keep up with poetic waxings about everything Portland, spent the day par-baking pizza crusts, and preparing the best pizza sauce ever (she's still holding out on my with the recipe!!).  To the amusement of the bakers wife, who I don't think sees many people, leastwise a gaggle of Californians, invade her kitchen often, we spent the evening sitting around Le Boulange's large dining table, dressing our personal sized pizzas with mountains of cheese and fancy deli-meats, fresh cut vegetables and arugula leaves. 
With a well practiced grace, the bakers wife helped us shuffle our pizza pies into the vast oven on a large wooden paddle, and waited with us until the kitchen began to fill with the smell of warm tomato sauce and the crusts were perfectly crisp.
I have to disclaim now that I am not the biggest connoisseur of pizzas.  I've never eaten at The Cheeseboard (gasp!), and my dad usually orders Pacifica when he's feeling lazy.  So you don't have to believe me necessarily, when I say that these were the most amazing pizza I have ever eaten.
But, you should.
Each little pizza pie was cracked and bubbling , and the sauce and olive oil topping made puddles of charred goodness in cheese-heavy areas.  It was...merveilleuse.  And the absolute best way to spend my last night in Bordeaux.

My camera is still on the fritz, but lucky for me, I have photo snapping friends!  These pictures are from Sarah.  (Thank you, Sarah!  And send me the pizza sauce recipe!!)

Au Revoir, mes amis bourdalais!!
On to the next adventure!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Home Sweet Home...

I have this funny habit of never quite fully unpacking my boxes and bags each time I move somewhere new.  On Olive Street, the back of my car was filled with blankets, books, and plants that never made it into the house.  At the Paul Sweet house, I left a giant storage bin of kitchen equipment locked up by the front door, and on Felix Street I refused to hang anything on the wall, and had a full trunk and several taped boxes ready to go at all times.
Here in France, this habit persists.  Of my two suitcases, one has remained untouched in the corner, and I did my best to contain my belongings in as small a radius as possible- the easier to sweep into a bag and whisk away when it came time to leave.
Sadly, this tendancy has always resulted in a sense of half-home; never feeling truly comfortable and settled wherever I am.  No matter how long I live somewhere, be it two weeks or nine months, I am constantly filled with the impending doom of departure.
Shannon always did her best to convince me to feel otherwise, putting tablecloths over our temporary plastic tables or hanging curtains to hide unsightly walls.  And although these gestures helped, the real problem is, I never really felt okay with the idea of being completely comfortable in a place I would inevitably have to leave.  And yet, for a long time now, I've wanted nothing more than to be settled.
So, as I gather up my few scattered belongs today here in Bordeaux, a place I've called "home" for these last months,  I can't help but evaluate what home truly is, and if I'll ever find mine.



Naturally, these reflections bring me back to thoughts of Benicia, and of my parents home.  Despite having had every young persons outlook on the place that I grew up, I am rather fond of it now.  Here, my parents have set down roots and invested not only in perennial plants for their garden and fancy doorknockers for the house, but also in the community around our home. 
And this, I think, is what I really need.  I want a matching set of silverware and dishes, to be able to plant asparagus like Barbara Kingsolver, and to find a place that I never want to leave.
Over the next three months on the road, I have a tiny bit of hope that I might stumble across some place like this, a place that I will want to be forever and can settle down in my nest of presidential themed forks and knives with a box full of honeybees.  I have the slightest inkling however, that home just might be the place I left behind.
We shall see...

Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas Cookies...

I've given three oral presentations over the last weeks of finals and somehow managed to finagle them all to be about food.  Sort of telling, don't you think?
Naturally, the easy-bake lifestyle has been somewhat trying at times for someone so obsédé with all things edible, but no experience has been quite as painful and demoralizing as sitting in front of the toaster for ten hours this weekend as I put cookies in, two by two. (This process wouldn't have taken quite so long had nearly half the cookies not come out too unevenly baked and oddly shaped for public consumption.)
However! The kitchen itch can be overwhelming at times, and the debut of the holiday season necessitated some serious home baking, proper oven or no. (That, and I was sort of obligated:  I'd  signed myself up for The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap, back when I had access to kitchen facilities.  Oops.)
What began as a rather stressful affair however, soon turned into something else.  After hours of throwing blackened cookies into the reject pile, I selected three dozen nearly perfect Cardamom Sugar Cookies to send, all wrapped up in brown paper packages, to the community of fellow bloggers here in France.  Thirty-eight almost round toaster oven cookies was quite a feat, I must say, and it only got even more satisfying when, several days later, the mail lady began ringing the doorbell and bringing me boxes of cookies in return!
With the help of Hannah and Tsoleene, these wonderful boxes of Christmas Spice Shortbread, French Biscuits, and Chocolate Covered Flake Cookies quickly disappeared, and so the yuletide spirit settled on our little apartment, little 2ft. Christmas tree and all.

Thanks to Julie and Lindsay for putting on The Great Food Blogger Cookie Swap! 
It was delicious!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Smells Like...

Shannon and I spent the better part of the year planning a pilgrimage to our mecca.  Portland represents everything we admire and strive for:  a thriving craft community, good music, fine food, beautifully designed storefronts, well dressed souls, and a can-do attitude paired with a healthy dose of ease and well being.  My guess is that this sort of lifestyle derives largely from the weather.  The chilly drizzles kept us inside mostly, fueled by coffee and beer. My favorite rainy day haunt was the lobby of this hotel.
Just around the corner from Powell's, and across the street from Living Room Theaters, the Ace was the perfect place to curl up and read, write postcards, and to try my first (and last) cup of coffee.
(Taste isn't the only thing deterring me from drinking coffee: caffeine, you see, doesn't agree with me, and one cup from Stumptown Coffee Roasters was enough to keep me awake all night.  This single cup resulted in the fire alarm going off for hours in the middle of the night as I attempted to make midnight pizza in the hostel kitchen.   With the perfunctory caffeine induced heart palpitations inhibiting my decision making skills,  I spent the rest of the night hiding with my head under a pillow in anxiety. Needless to say I did not make many friends, nor will I ever drink coffee again.)


It is said that olfactory sensations are the strongest links to memory.  I do not dispute this idea for a second.  On my little shelf here in Bordeaux, I have a bottle of Portland.  The Shepard and the Sea, a tiny perfume vial that Shannon and I picked out in a pop-up shop on the  south-west side, smells soapy, and soft, like the pages of an old book and light green, like moss and sage and cedar trees.   Most of all though, it smells like Portland.  And even here, half a world away in a tiny stone room in France, I can recall the memories of that week in Oregon, the long morning walks to Voodoo doughnuts, the feeling of the air and the smell of the wet sidewalks and stone buildings, of the bridge and the river, the coffee in the hotel, the sound of the music that we listened to, the memories of the books we were reading, the things that we ate and the people that we met, all just by opening the bottle. 
The strength of the link between the smells of this perfume and the time we spent in Portland inspired me to start making lists of other smells, smells that reminded me of home and of people that I miss.
I want to bottle these scents, and keep my memories in jars.  The essence of these perfumes would not be to smell good, necessarily, but to smell "right".  If I put my scented memories in a perfume they would be bottled landscapes, a means of linking myself inextricably to my land and a means of identification.
Until I figure out how exactly to make perfume, I'll have to be contented with making lists. One of the lists I've been working on is the smell of the apartment I shared with Shannon last year. Here is what fall smelled like in 2010.
Green Tomato Vines
The Hum of the Computer and Sewing Machine
Metal (like a ring)
Dust from a Cool Road*
Wet Wood
Wet Terra Cotta
a little bit like Nat Shermans and 27s
White Paint
Bike Tires
Wet Redwood Bark
The Floral Notes of Gin
National Parks Perfume
and very faintly of Mint and Felafels

*In making these lists, it occured to me how many different types of dust smells there are. Have you noticed a difference in the smells between the dust on the road when it's hot versus when it's cool.  Then there's library dust which is different than antique store dust, the dust on a mantle, clay dust, dust that falls in the streams of light between tree branches, the dust that birds create when the fluff their feathers, snow...  The lists are very addicting.