Archive for January, 2008

Taste of the Place

At a wine tasting last night (held upstairs at the Corner Club, formerly QI) I discovered that, in fact, I have a curious way of tasting wine indeed, as it actually very often doesn’t involve taste at all, in its conventional sense. Instead, I have a tendency to experience the wine. As a pathetically undereducated and only very informal fan of wine, I certainly enjoy identifying the curious tastes in a glass (a cursory glance through the notes I made last night reveal that I found one to be faintly meaty, another nutty, another simply “sharp”) but what I notice more fiercely is what the drink actually feels like (how it rolls over my tongue, the way it leaves the roof of my mouth), and in fact most of the notes I did make have more to do with tactile impressions than flavors.

I found myself turning to the boy (beside me in a suit, looking almost unfairly dapper), who is of course infinitely more knowledgeable than myself in matters of both viticulture and culinary adventures (I had to ask him what was on my plate at dinner later), and telling him all about what my mouth was experiencing. Trust a girl to always want to talk about her feelings, even when it’s taste on the table, right?

Finally I said: “Actually, most of the time I’m so distracted by what I feel that I don’t even notice most of the flavors,” to which he very kindly replied (I’m including this only because it may add a tiny bit to my credibility here): “That may be, but you do notice flavors I would never be able to point out, and after I’ve seen you write them down that I find myself agreeing completely.”

Sweet indeed; and to be fair to myself, I’m unlikely to enjoy a wine whose flavors I inherently object to. But the discussion came to its zenith after the Syrah was poured; I took a sip, wrinkled my nose and twisted my lips as if I’d just tasted something foul, and was in the process of noting on my paper that I most definitely did not like this one when I discovered that the taste in my mouth was suddenly quite pleasing, and the actual feeling even more so: a kind of warmth spreading through my belly, settling on my tongue and in my head. The aftertaste was soft and buttery and I felt like I might be glowing. I immediately went back for a second (and rather large) sip; and was again confronted with revulsion. “Ugh,” I said out loud, and then felt all warm and fuzzy again, and smacked my lips happily against the creamy taste.

“This one’s like a fickle lover,” I said at first.
The pinstripe suit beside me lowered his glass in surprise. “I’m sorry?” he said.
“Well, that’s not the best description. But my first reaction was that I absolutely hated it. And about two seconds later I loved it. It’s got such a nice feeling—all sort of—warm and glowy—and—” I paused, wondering if what I was about to say was even allowed to be uttered out loud, or if someone would come escort me away from the very civilized table for being too crude—“it’s sort of like the feeling of being on the cusp of an orgasm? Only obviously not so intense.”

To the silence beside me I begged, “do you know what I mean?” and got at last a, “yes, I do, actually,” and a thoughtful sipping.

“But it’s amazing how extreme the two reactions are,” I went on, “and how quickly I switch from the first to the second. It’s almost like…umm…ok, these are probably not official wine-tasting terms, but it’s like someone who you think is a real bastard at first, only he turns out to be absolutely sweet in the end.”
He actually agreed (was it all the sipping?) and then “surely,” he said, “surely we know someone like that?”

(Which is how the Syrah, which they sell, rather wonderfully, by the glass at The Corner Club/QI, came to be called, between the two of us, after a friend of ours.)

Then Mike, the man who had brought all the wine, started speaking about terroir, which he translated roughly as “taste of the place”—an elusive term used, I gathered, to describe the way the components of place (soil, sun, wind, rock: whatever it is that makes one grapegrowing site utterly unlike another) are imparted into the taste of the resulting wine. Apparently new world wines (Australia, Chile, California, for example) have a tendency to lack true terroir, where it is far more apparent in old world wines.

My understanding of the term may be rudimentary at best, but it is interesting to think that there is a word for being able to taste the origins of a wine. Then I started wondering if perhaps the new world wines lack this because the new world itself (being new only in a euro-centric cultural sense, of course) lacks the same sense of roots and identity as the old?

I can say this because I am myself a product of the new world (in other words: I may still offend but you cannot call me crass or unfeeling; I have greatest respect for my roots and my homeland) and the one commonality of my new world, at least, is a sense of confused heritage. I’ve lived somewhere that was settled by the Chumash, taken over by the Spanish and owned by Mexico before it was appropriated again by a young country whose ideological values tended to align more with Western Europe than anywhere else; somewhere that has subsequently been settled by scores of people from all over the planet. You see an old building and it is maybe a hundred years old; what is that compared to the ruins of Stonehenge, the medieval cathedrals of Western Europe, the villages that have existed since written records began? The place itself is old (the soil, the bedrock, the mountains and oceans) but the people who were there first are there no longer, not in any great number—replaced by inhabitants whose roots stretch all the way around the globe, invisible golden strings that run lines back and forth, up and down the earth.

In such places, grapegrowing is a new endeavor (I remember the fields of the Santa Ynez Valley before they were turned into a thousand vineyards, and I am young indeed). No wonder then that you can’t taste the place as well; for the place is still developing itself. Earlier we had sat upstairs with a local restaurant owner talking about California cuisine, which is so wonderfully a product of cultural hybridity, of combination and amalgamation: where else do you get a food culture where fresh is paramount (and, thanks to climate, eminently possible) but where dishes themselves are things which have been influenced by Mexico and South America, the Far East, Europe, and classic American ideals of cuisine? If terroir is about tasting the environment in which a given varietal has been grown, then it would be impossible to taste in new world wines, wouldn’t it, where the environment is as mutable as the sky?

for posterity’s sake, I should really add that none of the photographs in this post were taken at the event described.


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just for the sake of writing things down…

Have just noticed that both my previous posts begin with bathroom commentary (now of course this one does as well, in a roundabout kind of way).  I’m tempted to suggest that this is indicative of some kind of widespread societal absurdist attitude toward “the loo”.  Perhaps it’s in the building codes somewhere: toilets must either be designed to mask their true purpose (Selfridge’s) or designed with such frank lack of taste that visitors want only to get in and out as soon as possible (the Marriott in Clevedon).  But very probably I’ve begun seeking meaning in something empty, and all the bathroom motif indicates is that I have a preoccupation with details.

So some more details:
Sitting under a blanket in the lounge, I can hear the branches from the tree outside scraping against the window.  It’s a friday night, so the almost-dark has that jittery friday-night-feeling: full of promise and possibility, an empty weekend stretching out, and people step more lightly than usual.  In the early hours of the morning you’ll hear them walking wearily back, heavyfooted now and swaying, their voices rocking, their heads pounding, but this is part of the ebb and flow of the streets.
For reasons I think I begin to understand, but have not yet fully explored, the Cowley Road seems to be made up primarily of hairdressers’ shops.  I am being only a little hyperbolic (if you counted the number of hairdressers and compared it to the number of other businesses along the road I’m sure you’d find that “primarily” is not an accurate word).  
Then there are the priceless signs you’ve passed a million times and never seen until today–on the side of a shabby-looking takeout Indian place, “Dial-A-Curry” followed by a phone number.
Because I feel like I have inherited an evening that would otherwise be spent scrubbing pots and pans in a steamy kitchen (more on this later) I feel that I can make it stretch and be longer than it is.  But already darkness has fallen and it’s cold out and I’ve spent the better part of the afternoon napping and then subsisting on a diet of chocolate and tea (highly recommended, by the way).

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Bill Bryson’s England

The bathroom at the hotel was clearly made for old people.  The mirror was so dark I looked like I’d been sunbathing all month instead of wrapped up in scarves and coats; the walls were a pink you imagine the innards of some especially coiffed-and-bowed toy poodle to be.  The hotel itself was perched on the edge of the world; from the dining room, where I drank sweet sherry (filthy), dry sherry (slightly less filthy), and champagne (bubbly), all you could see was the cliffs crumbling into a murky brown sea, which heaved against the rocks below like someone had upset the bathwater.  A dark patch on the horizon looked like a fogbank, or maybe some imagined promise of land.  

“Look,” he said, my love, linking one arm with mine and pointing with the other, “you can see Wales.”  

“What kind of whales?” I said, just to be cheeky.
It was cold and it drizzled on us.  I was wearing a trenchcoat and my swanky red flowerprint dress (my “I won a writing contest!” dress) and was actually shivering when we entered the building.  About five minutes later, drenched in sweat, my legs all itchy and my cheeks flushed, I wondered why I had wished to be warmer.  Clearly some kind of temperature god had heard the fervent desire and turned the heating on in the hotel to approximately 120 degrees (give or take a little).  I appeared to be the only uncomfortable person.  None of the men were loosening their ties.  All of the white-haired women retained their thick woolly cardigans.  It was only when next to me, he started guzzling icewater at an alarming rate, that I realized we were just meant to grin and bear it and wish a very happy 90th birthday to Great Uncle Bert.
For 90, he was strikingly present.  Any senility was hid quietly and completely behind a smiling wrinkled face, a smart outfit, a genuine interest in conversation, and the apparent ability to understand what was going on as well as anyone else in the room.  He had been a great footballer, I gathered, and various members of his extended family liked to tell the story of how he’d been offered a place on some fancy national football team after the war but he’d refused because he’d just been married and had a son.  They revered, it seemed, both his footballing skills and his sense of family duty, and all these things combined to make him, at 90, the paragon of a good Clevedon citizen.  
“You’ve come all the way from California?” Great Uncle Bert said.  “I bet the sea isn’t this colour there.”
“Sometimes it is,” I said.
“If you look just there,” Bert went on, “you can see Wales.”
“I don’t see any whales,” I insisted.  It was the only joke I could tell.
When I thought I couldn’t sweat any more I decided I would take a walk to the bathroom.  Surely it would be cooler out in the hallway, with the forest-green-and-purpleish-maroon patterned carpet and the glass cases displaying old photographs and silver cups.  It wasn’t.  It was just darker, and smelled increasingly musty as I neared the dark wooden doors marked “Ladies”.  It was like stepping into Bill Bryson’s England, where war veterans and their woolly-cardigan-wearing wives gathered on Sunday afternoons for roast potatoes, beef, and sherry in hotels that had once been grandiose but now looked slightly dilapidated and had somewhere along the way acquired the name “Marriott.”
I accidentally showed my California roots when I ordered the fish with potatoes and carrots after the leek-and-potato soup.
“That’s very brave of you…” said the mother of my love.  My fork hovered over my food.  One doesn’t typically want to be called brave before digging into lunch.
“SHH,” he muttered to his mother, in the same tone of voice I would have said it to mine.
“Well tell me,” she said,  “if you ordered cod in California, what would they serve it with? Salad?”
“I suppose,” I said.  “But they serve salad with everything in California.  They even serve salad with salad, probably.”
“It’s just that I was going to have the fish, but I asked if I’d be served root vegetables with it and when they said I would, I decided not to.  There’s just something not right about eating root vegetables with fish.”
“Oh dear,” I said, and my cod-with-potatoes-and-carrots suddenly tasted slightly cold.
Then it was time for the group photograph.  Revision: then it was time for the full-on-circus.  Someone set up an absurdly long row of straight-backed chairs, and people started sitting in them.  The rest of us hung back, hoping we wouldn’t be called upon to sit in the front row.  Perhaps, with any luck, we’d even be deemed not-part-of-the-family-enough and allowed to stand and watch the process with champagne flutes.  Instead, we were picked like flowers and set carefully upon the stage, a row of us behind the chairs, another row behind that.  The photographer rather disconcertingly handed a white napkin to the man in front and told him to hold it up so they could set the camera accordingly, but it looked like a blanched bullfighter’s scarf.  “Remember to put it down before we take the photo,” someone giggled.  
Outside, the brown sea went on heaving and Whales hovered on the horizon.

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London Notes

The bathrooms at Selfridges smell like cinnamon.  They are hidden away, like the kind of ladies who shop here do not want to acknowledge the fact that bodily functions coexist with couture. 

A woman stops me on the street.  She’s scouting for a talent agency, she says.  She takes my photo and I write down my name and phone number just-in-case
Just-in-case what?  But there is a little bit of me that is flattered and another little bit that wonders if the kind of jobs she scouts for (movie extras mostly is what she needs, she says) pay very well.  “See, the reason I’m telling you all this, the reason,” she says, “is you have the sort of look we’re looking for.”
 Is it possible to sprain a toe?  I think this maybe is what I did, on my way to the bus this morning when I tripped on nothing and stepped all funny.  And I’ve been walking on it for hours on cool London streets and now it aches hotly.  But then again, this may just be the melodrama of a city.
Without a computer, my words (these words) are slower, but I don’t know if that makes me more careful or not.  I think not, really.
Reflecting on the fact that we were both, in a weird and abstract sense, miracle children, in that our parents each had thought at one time that they couldn’t ever have babies and then they did, we seem even more miraculous.
Sometimes, he talks about the brother-and-sister.  The first time he ever mentioned them to me–no, not to me but in front of me–it was to make a point in some silly intellectual argument about capital punishment (what the connection was I cannot remember; it was the kind of argument that nobody who has ever been faced with that kind of thing would have because I don’t think when it really comes up in real life you start quoting political philosophy, do you).  But then once he said to somebody, “I can remember holding them,” and I felt sad and tender all at once.
I can see the cloud of my reflection in the window.  And the glow of streetlamp bulbs.
If I could be anywhere right now–and I do not know why–I would like to be at a pub on St. Giles, or perhaps somewhere near Little Clarendon Street.  Even Walton Street or at the Royal Oak.  With an evening stretched before us.  It occurs to me that the city on an everyday scale does not really agree with me, except in small doses.
I feel as though I could fall right asleep just now.  London does it to me.  A city does it to me.  
(Everyone must have a place like that–for some it’s the country but it doesn’t matter because I think the feeling itself is universal, being at home one kind of place, and edgy in another).

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Tout Doucement

Minus the foot-long stapler that belongs to George-the-poet-who-lived-here-in-the-fall, the things in our lounge are pretty good representations of us: the still shot from a Fellini film, Marcello Mastroianni and Fellini himself holding up an umbrella that threatens to but doesn’t quite blow away; Tim Curry, from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, comfortable–no, downright charged with sex–in drag, painted lips plumped round a cigarette; and Samuel Beckett looking faded and chiseled, eyeing the camera sideways, sultry.  All in black and white.

Oh.  And lots of books.  I mean lots of books and they aren’t even all the ones we own.  Mine are the ones that have followed me from California to Boston to here.  I spent over $800 sending them here and it never occurred to me that this was a luxury expense.  It was money I had to pay, because, well–where would I be if I didn’t have weird histories of the British colonization of Kenya and the Almanac of American Politics to flip through late at night someday when the urge (which has yet to strike) finally comes?  Old favourites, too.  You never know what book you will need and when.  I have many more in California and I tell you, I miss them.  He has books too.  Lots and lots and lots (he did used to be a bookseller but mostly I think it is like me: a security blanket for the nerdy adult).  
Our books don’t all fit on the shelves, so they are also in the kitchen, the guest room, our bedroom, and the bathroom.  They are on shelves and in piles; perched on mantles, tables, the trunks that serve as coffee tables in the lunge, the wooden board that serves as a spicerack in the kitchen.  
We’re a little baffled by George’s stapler, not because we don’t see the point of having such a thing but because of its size: absurd.  A Dada-ist office appliance.  But maybe I think it’s because we can’t lose something that big, not even in a house so full of words you have to swim through them just to get to bed, just to hang the laundry up.  Not like other things we’ve lost here.  A brown dress, once.  Then a ring, which I thought was

 important but wasn’t in the end, from the island John Fowles based his Phraxos on.  I thought it meant a lot to me but I was surprised to find that a day after losing it, I no longer minded.  What turned out to be more important was being somewhere so happy that losing a thing, whose value had been attributed only arbitrarily by me anyway, didn’t seem very important.  That’s what was important.
Other things in our lounge are more obvious, like the suede and sheepskin blanket that keeps us warm during naps, and the pokers and the steel bucket beside the fireplace, and the firewood.  It is winter, after all.  And one evening, we are sitting on the couch, sharing some champagne that George-the-Poet kindly left for us when he moved out, eating pizza and watching Sideways, when Xander suddenly pauses the film and sits up straight and said “shhhh.”  S0 we listen, and a woman’s lusty voice is coursing down the street, French and brazen.
“It’s George,” Xander whispers.  “It has to be, no one else would be playing Edith Piaf that loudly,” because a few days before we had driven through town out to the Rose and Crown with George and the whole way he had played her, and the sheer volume of those magnificent vocals filled the car and made it–not crowded, exactly (though it’s a very small car)–cozy.  And sure enough, he is suddenly on our doorstep, just saying hello, he has a quick question, he was passing by–something, but I’m only half-listening because I can’t even get up to greet him because underneath the blanket I have shed my jeans (I’m about to eat half of a very large pizza, remember).  So I wait until they go back outside and I find my jeans and pop out to join them.  

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Evening In the City of Students

I’m in a hazy jet-lagged state.  I wake at 4 AM, unable to sleep, weirdly hungry, so we get up and eat cheese and crackers and then find crumbs in the bed for days.  Yesterday I climbed out of bed with all intention of doing something useful, like cleaning the three dishes by the sink, at the very least, but all I managed was to tidy the piles in the lounge up and put my newly-arrived books on the shelf before I sat down on the couch and promptly fell asleep, for three hours.  

When I awoke it was dark out, and I was meant to have met Xander in town fifteen minutes ago, but I didn’t have the energy to hurry, and I knew I needed a good spell in fresh air if I was going to be remotely human, so I walked. It was cold out but the cold felt good–not a harsh cold but a gentle one, with a moist breeze blowing off the river and a fog laying low over the city, weaving in and out of spires.  I went down the Iffley road, which was full of bikers going the other way, away from town, girls in red coats with baskets full of books, boys in jaunty caps and scarves.  Magdalen bridge seemed to stretch over an invisible river, a thin line of black nothingness–if you peered over, all was blank, except a few silver trees on the bank.  Across the way the ghost of Magdalen tower crept up into a foggy sky and a wind neither warm nor cool silked past.  As I approached it rang out some hour–6, 6:30?  It didn’t seem to matter what the time was, only that at regular intervals, the city gave a call.
There were a lot of students.  Or people I assumed were students.  They had books tucked under their arms, or they looked weary, as if they’d been studying too long.  They had sporting gear slung over their shoulders.  At the Turf, where we settled for a drink, they crowded the inside of the pub with excited chatter and hot breath–a sea of young lithe bodies.  We stood by the radiator in the back, huddled, and they drank circles around us, and sometimes talked about the things you think Oxford students talk about: philosophy and writers, with vague gestures indicating complicated theories.  But sometimes not.  Sometimes they only talked about things that ordinary young folk talk about: each other; the sexy boy behind the bar or the beautiful girl smoking outside; something they’d read in the paper or seen on TV.  
It only occurred to me after awhile that I wasn’t one of them.  Not older or wiser, but not one of them either.  In a city of students–arguably the city of students–I am not a student any longer (except of the world, of course).  The first place that I go to live having finished my undergraduate career is a place where you can be an eternal undergraduate, if you so choose.  
It got colder and colder as the night progressed.  The outline of the city looked hazier and hazier.  I have never thought about it before (I think of Oxford as a conglomeration of towers and spires and beautiful buildings but in my mind they are generically beautiful, vague in image, shimmering) but each college tower has a distinct shape and a particular hue.  Draped in night, the entire place seemed eminently mutable.  On Magdalen Bridge I could picture romantic 19th century undergraduates quoting the poets of yore and falling in love with the fleeting image of a woman, some Zuleika Dobson-esque seductress (though not one so harmful); as I walked down Queen’s Lane in comfortable quiet, everything felt medieval; under the Bridge of Sighs on my way to the Turf, I could only think of Sayers’ Gaudy Night and prim women scholars making a place for themselves alongside handsome men in 1930s garb under their gowns.  
All tied up in literature like that, it didn’t seem so much a place as an idea, a state of mind, a state of being.  I have things to ground me, of course–the happily reinstated vegetable deliveries, the creaking wood in the house, the promise of a beautiful new bicycle, the man behind the counter at the sandwich shop who, realizing I haven’t enough cash to pay for anything, kindly lowers the price of a vegetable samosa so that I won’t go hungry, snuggling under a duvet in chilly morning.  These are good things, and when I think of them I no longer feel as if I’m swimming through an impressionist painting.  But there is something about a place marked as much by intellect as by physical habitation that gives you a pleasant kind of almost-vertigo if you walk through it on the edge of darkness, if there’s a wind you can’t quite place and a fog on the horizon.

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A Link…

click on this

(it was a memoir-contest-type-thing in the local newspaper/magazine/publication-of-some-kind for Santa Barbara)

and yes, I am shamelessly self-promoting…*guilt, a little*

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