30 November 2014

I look away

"I'm sitting down to write. I'll call you back later, I don't exist for now, only in my head." 

The bedroom window is chilled, a thin line between the post-sleep warmth and a day as grey as smoke. I've been at my desk since morning, in front of the blank page. Sentences circle in front of my mind's eye, but they are like an empty baggage belt. I'm thinking back to my trip to Russia in October. It was 4 a.m. when I landed, one of the few flights to touch down at such hour. I flew through Istanbul, it was a soft day, sunny. No one aboard expected to step into the rain. I found myself wondering if coming down from a high feels like this, dark and cutting. Someone joked it was for us to get a cold faster.

A man in front of me in line to passport control sneezes, then coughs -- I roll my coat collar up, as if this would protect me. Somebody hasn't filled out the migration form correctly, the line stops moving. I pull a pack of mints out from my pocket. The cool on my tongue distracts me from joining in the angry groans and hissing whispers. I'd been up for twenty hours, my stomach growls. Except for the two in-flight meals, I didn't eat much that day. I take another mint, and one more. I look forward to my grandmother's crepes, thin and delicate, as if made of lace. 


Another hold-up, now with the luggage. The waiting's turned my thoughts inconsequential. I'm thinking about why I often now prefer a splash of bourbon or gin to a glass of wine. Maybe because I'm getting older. The gin they offered on the flight tasted of ethanol and burnt my tongue, I couldn't finish it. It must have been over half an hour, but the baggage carousel still moves around unladen. 

I look away from my computer screen to find the daylight darker. My stomach growls again.  I go and toast a slice of sourdough bread. The warm crust, crisp and yielding, a layer of almond butter and honey on top, a winter mouthfeel. I toast a second slice. South Park is on TV. I end up watching a few episodes. "I'm cereal, I'm super duper cereal!"

It wasn't a long trip, only a week and a half, but a third day into my stay I was habitually counting down the time until my flight back. It's a terrible thing, it once more felt like a betrayal. 

The daylight's gone, the windows face the night again. A distant row of road lights line the horizon. I pick up the phone to call my parents.

"How have you been? Kak u vas dela? Skuchayu."

30 September 2014

Most likely, perhaps

It was the beginning of a luminous day; September is well-known for them. Everything is going to look crystal once the sun is up. Low, deep, golden light will polish the hours, make them precious, more than they already are. The night was bothersome though, mainlined with the monotonous pitch of a single mosquito. I kept waking up to brush it off me. At the end I got it in the groove of my elbow, squarely on the vein. I wonder how it knew, or was it a coincedence? Most likely, perhaps.

"You smell of knives", I want to say to a man next to me on the train. 

It's light out, and gauging by my dress it must be summer, I don't know, I think it is. But I'm cold. It washes over me every time his cell phone rings, and that's often. The rings are muted, coming from within his denim jacket. His eyes are closed, but he is not asleep. I look at his wristwatch -- the single hand is at a millimetre past ten. A wiff of his perfume brushes past me as he turns in his seat. It smells bright like citrus and ginger and deep like incense smoke. It matches his face very well, the sharp jawline, high cheeckbones, broad forehead. A birthmark on his neck looks like a merlot stain, and it's close to the pulsing artery. My eye keeps falling to it. It makes me feel unsafe.

The phone rings again and I quickly look away. "I'll call you back in seven minutes", he says and hangs up. The train groans and starts to move.

"You smell of knives -- unsafe, expensive", I want to say, but wake up instead.

The morning is in its double digits now and I'm ravenous. I brush my teeth, then go to the kitchen to make breakfast. It's going to be the very best oatmeal.

It will take seven minutes.



The Very Best Oatmeal
Adapted from Whole-Grain Mornings, by Megan Gordon
Yield: 2 servings

I don't like gummy, gluey, slurpy oatmeal. I like oatmeal where oats keep their shape, are perfectly cooked but still chewy. I'm not a big supporter of superlatives, but this one is indeed the very best oatmeal: equally perfect right off the stove as it is cold. (I often take it with me to work for lunch.)

Toast the oats to bring out their nutty flavor, add the oats only when the water is at a boil, don't stir. Once you add the oats to the pot, turn off the heat, cover said pot and step aside.

Here we go.

120 g (4 oz) rolled oats
60 ml  (1/4 cup) milk or oat/nut milk
195 ml (3/4 cup plus 1 Tbs) water
A pinch of salt
A pinch of cinnamon (optional)

Warm up a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oats and toast over low heat, stirring occasionally, until they begin to smell fragrant and nutty and take on a light golden hue, 5-7 minutes. Just so you know, if you skip this step (I often do) the oatmeal is still going to be at its very best.

In a medium heavy-bottomed pot, bring the milk, water, salt and cinnamon (if using) to a slow boil over medium heat. Add the toasted oats and gently stir once or twice. Cover the pot and turn off the heat. Allow the oats to sit on the burner for 7 minutes. Don't stir, don't peek. After 7 minutes, remove the lid and check the oats. If they are a little wetter than you'd like, let them sit in the pot, covered, for another few minutes.

Serve with your favorite toppings. I like mine with a little honey, cashews and blueberries for now. Store the leftovers in an airtight container, refrigerated, for up to 5 days. To reheat, you'll probably want to add a bit more liquid since the oatmeal tends to dry out with time.







31 August 2014

We laughed too loud

I'm standing in a thick pool of paint. Morgane advised we wear (old) socks to protect the skin, but this one is water-based, it should wash off easily. We've diluted it a little with tap water, so it's also cold, not much but enough for a slight cringe (from me) or a surprised oh! (from Nathalie). It's been more than half an hour since Morgane poured a martini glass filled with it over our neckline, but the paint keeps dripping and coating our feet. I stand still. 


Drip. I move my toes to let the paint seep through. Drip. It feels soft like silt, and similarly slippery. Drip. I'm remembering how my school friend and I had gone fishing with the local boys, at dusk. We caught a few common carps, but the night had settled sooner and we were far off from our dacha. My grandmother was going to be beside herself. To cut corners we hastened back down a sandless strip of the river bank. It was all silt and we were barefoot. We both knew there could have been grass snakes or glass shards in it and winced every step of the way. Drip. We laughed too loud when my grandmother swatted at my back with a towel for making her so worried.


The four of us are in Morgane's studio. We are making a movie to illustrate the necklaces she made out of melded cocktail straws. The color of the paint matches a necklace we each are given; mine is blue, red, and white. To cover our legs we cut through the bottom of a garbage bag and wrap the resulting strip around our waist. Morgane irons and pins to the wall behind a matching piece of fabric for the background. I ask her how my hair looks. We mustn't move to let the paint take its course down our crisp white longsleeves. These are going to be one-of-a-kind pieces. Now smile but don't move! Don't move now! Gwen calls from behind her camera. 


The paint needs to dry before I can remove this T-shirt. It's settled just enough for me to move around, so we climb onto the roof to dry it in the sun. Morgane says it will take less time than using a hairdryer. I shuffle from one foot to the other -- the asphalt roof shingles have heated up. The paint on my feet dries out first. 


It's deep into the afternoon and we realize we didn't have lunch. I brought a hefty bunch of white grapes with me, crisp and fresh, and by now the naked stem is what remains of it. We are thinking of going to KOKO, it's two minutes away from here, for coffee and a slice of our favourite banana bread afterwards, but Gwen says she can't wait till then. She goes and gets a falafel sandwich first. Nothing spectacular, she says. 

There is only a patch of paint on my right shoulder left to dry.

31 July 2014

July

It feels like the air is melting on the skin, soft, sticky, trapped in heat. It's been like this since morning, a little after eight. I set a kettle on the stove. It's perhaps best to stay away from coffee now, but the craving is strong. The ceiling fan is on, the balcony door is open. I turn the kitchen faucet on to wash a bowl of cherries. Summer mornings with nowhere to go require the buzz of a radio set for company. My grandmother used to have an antique one in her dacha. From it I first heard the BBC, the rolling, elegant, distant English sounds. They seemed especially comforting on a choppy day, before a storm, the sky dark, about to deliver, the surface of the river Don like tree bark, the imminent downpour a conversation topic. Vovremya my pomidory podvyazali. Na samom dele! A okna naverkhu zakryty? 

You are listening to the BBC radio services in the background.



The water in the kettle starts to hiss. I quickly measure out coffee beans and pour them in my new hand grinder, Japan Porlex and Co., Osaka. I got it from Anthony for my birthday earlier this month. It was a good day, we went out for dinner. I had a roll of guinea fowl stuffed with truffles and pancetta to start with, and an Anjou pigeon with roast vegetables as a main, and half a bottle of Barbaresco 2006 ($$$),  and from our table watched the windows of Hotel De L'Europe across the road turn vermilion at sunset, but I'll remember the meal most by the pistachio gelato I had for dessert, a clean, unmistakable taste of well toasted pistachio nuts in every bite, cool, silky. I never tasted pistachio ice-cream as good as this before. I'm glad I did on the day I turned thirty.



Crack crack crack, my right arm starts to burn from rotating the grinder's handle. After the dinner we went to a bar, an underground rock/metal club actually; Anthony wanted me to try a vodka-coffee shot the bartender had designed for him before. I took a sip. Heavy metal tearing up the room, I shouted that mine was too strong, needed more coffee liqueur. Anthony downed his, placed the glass back on a Heineken coaster, then reached into his messenger bag. This is for you, and it's the filthiest gift you ever received. The wrapper was deep scarlet, matching roses and horns. It looked like something you'd get from an erotic shop. I tore into it -- and it was the manual coffee grinder I'd been eyeing the day before. You could hear my laughter over the music.

The kettle is about to boil.

30 June 2014

This is it

I write this on June 29th. It's eleven in the morning, although the wall clock's hands rest unanimously at 6, and for a couple of days already. I keep forgetting to get new batteries. On the other hand, it may be an omen. If you are into soccer and, by extension, the currently unfolding 2014 World Cup, you probably know it's the second round and today it's Netherlands v Mexico. If you are not into soccer and, by extension, the currently unfolding 2014 World Cup, you should know nonetheless that it's Netherlands v Mexico today. At 6 p.m. Amsterdam time, to be exact. Later tonight it's also Costa Rica v Greece, but let's not go any further.

What I wanted to say is: this city is electrified. Being outside right now feels like being near a high voltage transmission line. On my way to a supermarket to pick up fresh fruit for breakfast I ran into a neighbour and his toddler. Nine hours away from the match, both already had their faces stencilled with miniature Dutch flags, and the father admitted he was nervous and couldn't eat since yesterday.  

It's not unimagined that come 6 p.m. the TV screen will be the evening's focal point. In my estimation, this should leave the streets and most of the eating establishments temporarily empty. I'm thinking of using that to my advantage and get a pizza, a Salami Picante, at Anthony's restaurant, otherwise packed to the brim on a Sunday evening. I'm not the biggest soccer aficionado, as if it needed any pointing out. Besides, I don't even need to see the match to know how it develops. When Netherlands played against Spain, I heard it: car horns went off and lung-fuls of screams spilled out from each and every bar and home at every goal. When Netherlands took on Australia, I heard it. Actually, when Netherlands took on Australia I first nearly got kicked off my bike in the rush-hour traffic, and not once. Too much testosterone on the road that day. 

In the supermarket, besides me there are three or four shoppers, it's early still. I fill up my basket with punnets of local strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and (non-local) apricots -- as usual I go to town with the summer fruit. A stocky man in an orange T-shirt, "7" on the back, stocks up on beer (three crates) and soft drinks (one crate). At the check-out he exchanges a few words with a cashier, I can't hear what he says to her, the cashier smiles back politely. He looks excited. Maybe a little jumpy. I get jumpy like this when a pair of Phillip Lim shoes I ordered online finally arrive and I'm seconds away from finding out if they are a good fit, and thus, if the money I splurged isn't a waste, and similarly excited after two double espressos consumed at work, at dawn, within an hour.


By the way, that reminds me of one more subject I meant to talk about: cold-brewed coffee. How does it sound? I bet you think it's complicated to make, I bet you think you shouldn't even bother. But you should (assuming you like coffee)! If you've got a handful of good coffee beans, a grinder, a glass jar, a sieve and a few paper filters, you are set to make your own. Grind your beans coarsely (coarsely as in resembling salt crystals), mix them in the jar with cold water and leave the assembly alone, covered, at room temperature overnight or twelve hours. Done. This is it. This is a cold brew in the making.

Next morning strain the grounds through a sieve, run the brew through a paper filter to pick up any silt, and dilute it one-to-one with cold water. That's really it. Be sure to notice how much clearer than a hot brew it is, a lighter fit for the summer. Take a sip. There is no bitterness about it, no harshness, you'll probably forget about sugar, no need for it. You may want to add ice to the lot. I don't. I refrigerate it instead for an hour or longer. Take one more sip. You'll probably pick up on chocolate and caramel -- and even cream notes. There may also be hints of citrus or red fruit, and even pineapple. That depends on your beans. My recent cold brew tasted very much like Baileys, minus 17.0 % alcohol.

Hup hup!

Cold-Brewed Iced Coffee
Adapted from The New York Times
Yield: two or three drinks

30 g (1/3 cup) coffee beans, coarsely ground
375 ml (1 1/2 cups) cold water

In a glass jar, stir together the coffee and water. Cover and let sit at room temperature overnight or twelve hours.

Strain first through a fine-mesh sieve, and then once again through a paper filter. What you've got is coffee concentrate. Dilute it one-to-one with water. Refrigerate (covered) or add ice cubes, if desired.

31 May 2014

May 26th

A raindrop has appeared on the window. In a brief while it will be replaced, drowned, by the galaxies of others. For the time being it remains motionless and lone. The weather forecast foretells showers with thunderstorms. I should close the windows, a common act. I recall I feared summer thunderstorms (and stray dogs) the most. Were I to find myself home alone when a thunderstorm was looming, I would unplug every electrical device in my parents' apartment: the fridge, washing machine, TV, radio, phone, no exceptions. I would also shut the balcony door and each of the six windows, and then I would check if I'd shut the balcony door and each of the six windows well enough. I had heard horror stories about lightning bolts, and worse, ball lightnings passing through doors and windows, even through closed doors and windows, and so, regardless of the preventive measures taken, each thunderstroke punctured my nerves like a nail punctures a tire. I got hot, too. 

The rain drop inches downward, reluctantly, and then it stops. I hear a plane taking off. I can't see it -- the sky looks spent, seems like somebody has poured over it a massive quantity of bleach and then grey -- but the roaring of the engines is close. Humidity weighs the air down; the clouds are to burst open any time now. I was planning to go and pick elderflowers for the eponymous cordial, but their desired fragrance is in their pollen and rain is going to wash it off. I'll have to wait two or three days, perhaps longer, it needs to be dry out. Good that I have a little bit, a quarter of a bottle, of last summer's batch left.



Wild towering elderberry trees, the fixtures of the northwest, start to bloom around here in the second half of May, and the lacy parasols that are the elderflowers, creamy-white and delicate, are what I'm after again. Right from the tree the elderflowers smell of fresh yeast, tea roses, lemons stripped of their zest, and tomcats, but steeped in lemon juice and syrup, they turn sunny, ethereal. They have become for me, a foreigner, a southerner, the equivalent of the first cherries of the season. The shoes are to get damp from morning dew as I'll tread on the spiky grass towards the elderberry bushes, and perhaps a few stray bugs will, until disclosed, call my jacket home, but I don't mind. That's to me the equivalent of the teeth and clothes streaked maroon by the fruit of the cherry tree. There is a large park close to my home, not even five minutes away by bike. When the rains subside, I'll aim to scout it for fresh elderflowers early on, in solitude, before the first joggers and dog owners are wakeful.

The raindrop is gone. In its place is a curtain of rainwater.



Eldeflower Cordial (Syrup)
Adapted from My Berlin Kitchen, by Luisa Weiss

I'm a big fan of Luisa Weiss's writing and recipes. I started reading her blog, The Wednesday Chef, soon after I got to know what a blog was. Her first book, My Berlin Kitchen, is about Luisa's journey away from and back to Berlin, her hometown, via New York, her other hometown, through heartbreak to bliss and three cultures and cuisines. It came out a few weeks before Anthony and I got married, and I remember thinking of it as a perfect pre-wedding treat. It's truly a beautiful thing, heartfelt and honest. Read it if you haven't yet. And if there is a flowering elderberry bush near you, make this cordial. 

Snip elderflower sprays with care. Do so over a basket or a large plastic bag lined at the bottom with paper towels; you don't want to lose any of that fragrant pollen. Which is why the elderflower sprays should not be washed (or rained upon), and that is why they should be exhaust-free.

Mix with tap or sparkling water (about a tablespoon per glass, or to taste), or with Champagne or Prosecco, what have you. Add a slice of lemon or cucumber, and that's what summer in the northwestern Europe may taste like.

Here in Amsterdam I found citric acid at The Vitamin Store. Labeled as "sour salt" or "lemon salt", it can also be found in Indian grocery stores.

Yield: about two 1-liter bottles

20-25 large elderflower sprays
3 organic lemons, washed and thinly sliced (seeds removed)
3 1/2 Tablespoons citric acid
1.5 kg sugar
1.5 liters of water

Wash and dry a big earthenware crock.

Hold each elderflower spray over the crock, snip the tiny blossoms and let them fall into the crock, making sure not to lose too much of the pale yellow pollen. Shake whatever pollen gathered on the paper towels into the crock as well. Add the sliced lemons to the crock and sprinkle in the citric acid.

Combine the sugar and water in a medium pot. Stir the mixture to dissolve the sugar and bring to a boil. Then remove it from the heat and let cool slightly. 

Carefully pour the hot syrup over the elderflowers and lemons, and mix well. Cover the crock with plastic wrap and let it stand in a cool place of your kitchen for 3 days, stirring it once a day.

On the final day, uncover the crock and pour the liquid through a strainer lined with a double layer of cheese cloth into clean glass bottles. Discard the elderflowers and lemon slices. Store in the fridge or in a cool, dark cellar for up to a year.

30 April 2014

Here you are

I'm in front of an Henri Cartier-Bresson's black-and-white picture of a street in Italy. The title says it had been taken in Salerno. In it, a boy, maybe eight, maybe ten years of age, stands in the rectangular shadow from the wall to his right, behind him another wall and the carcass of a cart, both whitewashed in summer sunlight. One knows, sees, it's summer, the boy wears the dark shorts and white tank-top, and the light is bright, high, blinding. There is a distance between the boy and the camera, his face and the nature of the object in his left hand are kept unseen. His right hand cupped to the chin, he appears to be intrigued. Involuntarily I mimic the boy's gesture, I can't take my eyes off the picture. I probably take too long, soft words and rich perfumes steadily gather around me, mix in one, seep into my ears and nose. Someone steps on someone else's foot, "Pardon, pardon!" promptly ensues. I move on.

Outside are a fresh night and Paris. 



***
It was January when we started planning our trip. The four of us, girlfriends. We decided on the early April, a couple weekdays. Fewer people on the streets, more space for us. We rented out an apartment in Montmartre, on rue Lepic, curving and steep. To get inside is to walk through a courtyard, enclosed, unavailable for everyone else but the insiders and an occasional (and privileged) guest. A home for somebody's flower beds and herb pots, its other purpose, a more important one it seemed, was to collect, to contain, the evidence of everyday life. Piano sounds; a child's voice singing along with a song on TV; a plate breaking; even our loud and foreign exclamations about the light in the apartment as we stood by the elegant windows (two), and our "We have arrived!". Even those, perhaps. 

***
Ask my mother and she'll tell you I've been to Paris many a time.
In my early teens I dreamed of travelling like there was no tomorrow, and of all places I wished to see Paris was, somehow, the most important. I didn't have the means to go, so I was looking for a chance. 1998 FIFA World Cup was to be held in France, and Snickers® promised a free trip for the winner of their raffle. To participate I collected five (or was it ten) of the limited-edition Snickers® chocolate bar wrappers. I so hastened to send them in that I completely forgot I had to include an inspired letter about why I loved football, or was it why I loved Snickers®?  

I didn't get to be in Paris in 1998. 

Later one evening over tea I pleaded my allegiance with another city. It surprised my mother. 

"What happened with Paris?", she asked. 

"Nothing happened, but in my mind I've already been there more than a dozen of times." 

***
There are moments that attach themselves to one so strongly that no amount of time is enough to overwrite them. 

On our first night we strolled around the Sacre-Coeur, dignified, in no need of superlatives. We ascended the hill (by foot -- I refused to take the cable car) and our breath wasn't ours anymore. It was of Paris, among the breath of that homeless man who laid asleep by a metro entrance, and that of Hemingway who might have stood on the same spot and looked up the way we did. Silently and awed. Until someone threw an empty bottle at a taxi car and shattered the repose. We walked on, stumbled over the uneven cobbles. The night was fresh and clear, and in the distance were the Eiffel Tower's golden lights. 

I had to stop, stand still. I'd seen it countless times before, all through the eyes of others. From afar, through the bars of a fence, now I was looking at it. Here you are.



"I feel you've had quite an emotional moment there", said Morgane. She was referring to a heart-to-heart conversation we'd had earlier in the evening, over wine and dinner haute vitalité (Cafe Pinson), but I took it to mean this very instant.

   ***

A sight of worship for hundreds, thousands, millions. With each photograph I took I was stealing you from others. You are mine. You are everyone else's.

                     ***

We were at The Broken Arm, in pursuits of caffeine (without a doubt one of the finest filters I had) and sartorial splendor (the best top in color blocks I almost bought), when I saw a familiar face. "This man'' -- I nodded towards the entrance --  "was on the train to Paris with us. Doesn't he look like somebody we might know?" Correct. The father of a good acquaintance, in Paris briefly for a meeting, he will snap (iPhone) the only picture of the four of us together.

                                                ***
I have this image in my head from years ago, maybe even since I was fourteen. I forget what brought it about, a movie, perhaps, or a book. A moody day, soaked in autumn, the color of the sky matches the buildings'. I stand at the traffic lights, waiting for its permission to cross over. Barren trees flank the road, cars swoosh through the pools of rainwater gathering by the curbstones. Parisian houses, a story in each window, up and down the street for as long as the eye can see. Not so picturesque, this image. But it's not why it has stayed with me. It has because in it I had felt very accomplished, the way one does after nudging their dream into the outside world.

                                                  ***

I can't wait to go back to have more breakfast (pancakes strewn with crushed pistachio nuts and elegant pieces of fruit, in a pool of maple syrup, served with vanilla whipped cream; "Jesus!" escaped my lips when the plates touched down on the table), coffee, and lunch at Holybelly. A must! As is dinner at Septime, they say. And more of THE falafel sandwich (from L'As Du Fallafel).

La Fin