Sunday, November 6, 2011

Bonfire Night

The walk to the top of the reservoir was longer than I remembered. The eight of us fell into a natural two-by-two, led by Max’s overcoated frame and Leona’s sharp figure. Kids bolted across the empty streets like delinquent ghosts while fireworks blasted along dark lanes, behind rowhouses and overhead. For a while, the cold kept us from noticing the hills we climbed. The blood that flowed warmed and itched my ankles. Our steady march curved up, up towards Nunhead Cemetery, whose wrought-iron gates loomed like a lit-up fortress below the cracks and explosions above us. Our destination was not far now. Just a little more. We turned. A trail. Soft, leafy foot-thuds replaced the pavementy clicks of our boots. And the hole in the fence was right where we’d left it. Under and through. Under and through. Under and through, three more times. November drizzle slicked the soil for the steepest part of our journey. The ground was so close to our faces. The faint laughter of others crept through the early evening mist, and soon we found ourselves within it. We saw everything from the top: Nunhead’s village-like splendor faded into a fuzzy London skyline framed on top by weeping clouds and below by the Thames, black as onyx. Every sparkling rocket, every puny flame played a part in the show we watched from our perch in the Southeast. Up close, silhouettes of embering cigarettes that hung from the lips of bulky-shouldered boymen were as grand a display as the Battersea big lights, where synced fireworks blew up so high they lost their top-halves to the grip of fog. We stood with neighbors we did not know to watch the city flicker. A dozen mittened hands glowed like phantom limbs by the lights of the sparklers they twirled. Recognizable faces lit up only to disappear into shadows. Rosa’s dark cloak rippled in the wind that nipped at us from every direction. Drunk voices got lost in the whizz, bangs and pops. We’d worn coats with pockets big enough for our hands and the cold Carlsbergs that sweated against them. The night reeked of whisky, damp wool, coal and salted chips. Nearby, a family lit a paper lantern and waited for the fire to inflate the fragile cylinder. It grew from nothing and glowed before us. A small boy held onto the light, unsure of whether he should set the lantern free. It looked like a burning planet in his arms. Finally, quietly, and of his own accord, he relinquished it to the elements. We watched the yellow globe fly into its vanishing point, a final ornament within a city blanketed by fog, flame, ash and the haze of our own silent anthems.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Parkville Luminary

A piece I wrote for the audience of the Parkville Luminary, the local community paper in my hometown:

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Ida Lake. If you don’t know who she is, you’ve probably seen her anyway. She’s been working the Parkville farmer’s market for decades. Six years ago, when I graduated high school, Ida was the first subject I interviewed as a “practicing” journalist. Ida was amiable and patient. In our hour-long interview at her market stall, she bequeathed years of her stories — each one like the perfectly ripe, juicy fruit around us. As I scribbled her every word into my pocket-sized reporter’s notebook, I remember thinking, “Hey, this is kind of fun.”

The interview ended. We exchanged goodbyes. Happily, I drove up Crooked Road, giving myself a pat-on-the-back for reporting well done. I could practically see my name in print. My first story in the Parkville Luminary. And I was being paid to write. My daydream was a little premature. When I sat down at my laptop to draft my first feature, my newbie glee disappeared. A blank screen and blinking cursor stood between me and my printed byline. Panic. There was no way I could write this. How do you even begin to tell the story of woman who’s worked the farmers market for more decades than you’ve been alive? For a moment, I considered quitting.

But my grandfather, the Prince of Parkville, had, more-or-less, gotten me the job. And if there was one thing the good-hearted tale-teller didn’t like, it was a quitter. Plus, the Luminary editor scared the daylights out of me.

So I struggled through every word, and filed it with my editor, Mark Vasto — a big, loud New Yorker, who somehow ended up in Parkville. I recoiled as he took his pen to my words. Thankfully he did. The story ran with my byline on top. I earned 10 honest bucks, and I was hooked. I continued to write through the summer. With each article, the words came more easily and Vasto scared me less. At the end of the summer, I went to journalism school, learned some, wrote some, worked some. And last year I moved to London to do, essentially, the same thing.

Throughout college I didn’t think much about Ida or The Luminary. When my grandpa asked if I’d read his latest column, I’d blush and lie — yes! Of course! I was interested in something else: bigger cities, bigger opportunities, bigger journalism. It wasn’t until I followed my instincts to London that I realized everything big starts small. And small ain’t so bad anyway. My summer at the Luminary taught me everything I know about being a journalist, or any kind of writer. It served as the foundation for what I think journalism should be. For me, it involved a lot of listening, paying attention and relinquishing my pride for a story — sometimes I had to look (or feel) stupid to figure out what was really there. Mostly, though, I was lucky to work for a guy with little tolerance for excuses.

When I failed to show up to cover a local children’s science workshop, I didn’t have to look at my phone to know who’d be calling. Mark Vasto, The Loud New Yorker, didn’t hesitate to weigh-in on my conscience about missing the scoop at the H.M.S Beagle. But in an elegant balance of personal anecdote and unabashed reproach, Vasto’s words stuck with me: When you say you’re gonna do something, do it. The 18-year-old, overachieving version of myself cried a little at this display of tough love. But it was only because I knew Vasto was right. The next day, I swallowed my pride, walked into the science shop and apologized. It didn’t matter that the “scoop” was kind of boring. I should have been there. Writing for a community paper like the Luminary helped me understand why the big and small stories matter. There’s an audience who wants to know. And nothing’s boring. That’s just a lazy excuse (and I’ve made them) for doing a crummy job. I’ve always wanted to be a good journalist, but the Luminary (and my scary editor) showed me how to try to live good journalism. I still battle the exhilarating whir of reporting against the ever-looming writerly doom, but now I know it always passes. Six years and 4,000 miles later, my experience at the Luminary rings clear and true. But it sounds less like bells, and more like the thick New York accent of my friend.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

A study on ballet

She lives in many forms, but her makeup is the same. If you’ve not watched her on the stage, you’ve seen her everywhere else. On Tuesdays in March a company full of versions of her danced across your screen. BBC’s Agony and the Ecstasy was meant to curb your Black Swan fears. Surely they aren’t all obsessive. You wanted to watch the show of a ballet dancer’s real life. Offstage, the dance was even more of an edited performance. The mirrors were there, but the filmmaker’s smoke clouded our sets.

She loves that mirror. From the far corner of the studio she catches a glimpse of her fine, long neck. Once breathy wisps of hair now stick in wet, perspired tendrils against her pale nape. She quickly turns. Rotating from the waist up, she looks back at herself, a lithe corkscrew. She moves her right arm through the positions to an arabesque. Her fingers carry her gaze. She no longer sees her reflection, but she knows exactly how she looks: Shoulders down. Tummy in. Lift up off the hip. Chest out. Look up, look up, look up. Don’t sag. Mind the left foot turnout.

She tries to ignore the rumours. Ballet isn’t dying, some critics write. It’s already dead. What about me? She wants to know. She’s alive.

In the studio, she struggles to keep sweat from dripping into her eyes. Look up, look up, look up. She would like a sip of water, but she has jumps to do. Perspiration has soaked through her black leotard. She cannot hide the sweat marks all ballerinas have in the witching hour of rehearsal — under her breasts, on her pubis, down her crack.

Tonight, though, her brow won’t shine with damp. The only signs of work will be the flecked beads of sweat caught-out by stage lights, her heaving chest, and a perfection she cannot see. For those who watch her on stage, she is effortless, beautiful. What a talent, they say.

How do they know? They raved about Black Swan and Natalie Portman’s performance of Nina Sayers, who dances herself to death. They’ve even preordered the DVD. There’s Miss Page too, of The Red Shoes. “Why do you want to dance?” she is asked. “Why do you want to live?” she replies. The heroines are part of a long line of crazy ballerinas on a fanatical and fruitless quest towards perfection. Each one is the same — possessed, fragile and tortured. This must be the ballerina’s life if the films say so.

And what of Sarah Lane? Natalie Portman’s Black Swan ballet double says she deserves more credit, yet the filmmakers and choreographer disregard her claims. No one can be a professional ballerina in two years, Lane argues. Few, though, in the dance world stand up for her. Our Black Swan fears are confirmed. In the media, Lane looks obsessed. Like Nina, she is starving for attention — for the role. We can’t help but make comparisons. She begins to look like the oversized, fading Black Swan posters that hang on the walls of the Underground and watch us from below dark, winged eyelashes. A hairline fracture interrupts the porcelain, powdered finish of her face. We don’t know who is cracking.

For a wordless art, it seems we have lots to say about those eating disorders and battered toes. Between the psycho ballet thrillers, such as Black Swan, and dance-inspired fashion, (ballet pumps and ready-to-wear tutus), we continue to objectify and exploit the stereotypes — the starving dancer, the perverted director, the egotistical choreographer — rather than celebrate ballet’s rigour and the dancers who are talented enough to actually make it their job.

Everyone wants to wear her tights and layers and leotards. Everyone wants her pointe shoes and none of the pain. On her way home tonight, when all she wants is to put on pajamas, she’ll look at the pink, ballet-inspired flats on the feet of a middle-aged woman.

She cannot shake the hours and years in front of mirrors that have reflected the image of herself dancing: Pointe shoes at 11. Principal dancer by 24. Retired by 29. Maybe, though, she’ll stay healthy enough to perform through her thirties. It is difficult to imagine another life.

She looks and smiles like she’s in love because she is. She sees and knows the perfection audiences would rather not see or know, because who would pay to watch the joy and worry and focus and fury and love and ache and time and pain and falling arches and tiny sips of water in her short life as a ballerina? Lately, all anyone wants is crazy.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Getting Back To Making

Sometime, at the end of July, my appetite disappeared. And generally, from morning to night for that past two months, I’ve experienced very little hunger or real yearning for food — no pangs, shakes or headaches. Appetite: gone.

I guess that’s what grad school — and a thesis — does to a person.

In the filming, writing, designing and editing of my thesis, I lacked stomach-space for much else. I’d spent months eating but not tasting. Everything had the consistency of cardboard and was consumed more out of necessity and habit than enjoyment. I’d spent the week before the hand-in hooked to any caffeinated beverage available.

It was not until the hour after I turned in my masters thesis that I recognized the pain in my gut as something other than stress. Immediately, I knew that the dull drone, which flooded my stomach, veins and heart, functioned as more of a primal, carnal urge than the usual three-meals-a-day timer I had been ignoring. Tom asked how I wanted to celebrate the end of my academic year. I told him I needed a burger, and I wanted it Rare. For the record, I totally wimped out and ordered my swiss and mushroom burger Medium Rare, but it didn’t stop a quarter pound of grilled, ground chunk from jolting me out of a work/survival state. Maybe I was completely iron deficient, but by the end of that burger, I was nourished, and not just because I’d consumed more protein than I had in an entire week (I’m not proud of this). With the ever-looming deadline now gone (crossing ‘Thesis’ off of my to-do list was weird), the flavors of food — nutty Swiss, the vinegar bite of pickle, the tang of ketchup and the earthy tones of lots and lots of mushrooms — mattered once more. “Hey friends,” I wanted to say, “I didn’t know how much I missed you.”

And so I started eating again. I became slightly less pale and less caffeinated. That’s simple enough, right? Well, yeah. But there’s another thing. All this stressed-out thesis-writing made me miss out on everything surrounding my plate: the making, the preparing, the gathering, the sharing. Thesis/Grad school-state had prompted the desire to cosy up to my pots, pans and food processor to slide down the drain. Going to the grocery store — one of my truly favorite places anywhere — was depressing. I didn’t even remember when or where I had last seen my baking tray (turns out it was in the safe hands of my deli man). In the process of not caring about food at all, I stopped caring about what I love about food. All of that inexplicable, unpinpointable stuff. Like how the mixed up fragrance of my spice cabinet transports me to either my parents’ house or deep into the dead of winter depending on how close my nose drifts to the cumin. Or how, due to my finger-cutting track record, my heart races into my ears every time I slice through a tomato, inducing a lycopene-ated adrenaline rush.

Despite all of my thesis-related complaining, things weren't that bad. I like having stuff to do. I like being busy, and I like when the busy-ness is thinking-oriented. The shelves inside my head move, shuffle and order themselves. We run in our own world.

But with my year-long project technically “over,” I have been at a bit of a loss. Under a rock, as one friend and fellow coursemate put it. But how do you get going when the thing you’ve been working towards for so long is gone? The past couple weeks have been a challenge. I’m trying to live in the moment and trying to learn that while change is hard, my own head shelves can be filled in other ways. I took up knitting. I spent most of last week covering the London Design Festival. I have begun the tedious process of extending my visa. But one thing has been slow to reshape. Maybe because it’s so, well, unpinpointable. And that’s been my desire to make for others.

The best kind of unpinpointable stuff has nothing to do with tasting or smelling or slicing at all. It is the opportunity to feed not only myself but to feed another that invokes a slightly levitation-like pleasure. Think of it as transcendental foodmaking. I know I’m romanticizing the idea of cooking for someone else. I don’t have kids. I don’t deal with picky eaters (Actually, I am, out of everyone I know, the pickiest eater). And now that I’m finished with grad school and applying for jobs baking cookies, I’ve got time to put more thought and time into the thing that sustains me. I am, by no means, a domestic goddess. Nor do I want to be. But in order to start moving out of this post-thesis slump, I’ve had to get my kitchen in order. Which is why Sunday was so special.

Tom woke up before the sun rose to go to Brighton for a fifty-mile bike tour. I awoke three hours later with the house and day to myself, a daunting idea considering the schedule I’ve been keeping. I’d wasted the gorgeous day before on the couch, knitting and attempting to keep the overwhelming and nervous feeling of having not-much-to-do at bay. Gross. I didn’t want to repeat that. So I wandered over to Kensington to take in the last hours of the London Design Festival. But my interest in chairs began to dwindle. I felt the pull of something else: the intoxicating, yeasty, thick aroma of bread. I bought a loaf. A giant, crusty, fresh round of Gail’s potato rosemary bread. What to do next? That was easy. It was time to start making. And so I did. I reacquainted myself with the grocery store and I decided not to play it safe; Sunday welcomed two new recipes to my repertoire — a red wine chocolate cake, topped with a creamy mascarpone and a sticky lamb stew that has, unbelievably, gotten better with each day. When Tom got home, the house smelled good (I think he was a little surprised to see me off the couch). Aproned-up, pony-tailed and floury-faced, I practically levitated across the kitchen floor — mixing and stirring, shuffling the shelves in the pantry and in my head — happy to be back. Happy to have finally pinpointed what had been there all along.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Notes from Hydra. 6.

The thing about last days is that you know they're inevitable. You see them ahead of time, on your calendar. You work tirelessly to beat the last day — to fill the days prior with all of the best and most wonderful stuff so that when the last day does come, it will be a celebration of a vacation or time well spent. But no matter how much I've loved every second of that well spent time, I find that last days are hard days. Sad and bittersweet.

On the eve of a last day, I go to bed imagining the perfect last day. I'll wake up early and do exactly what I've been meaning to do and all the things I've wanted to do again. But last days in a place never turn out like that. The tedium of packing and checking flights and cleaning and packing some more trickles its way into your morning. And afternoon. And evening. Every time I wake up to face a last day, I'm surprised by the power of these logistics. A last day is never what I think it should be.

You fight for that last walk or last bit of sun or that last bead of sweat because suddenly you panic. You're afraid that if this last day isn't perfect, you'll forget everything about the entire trip, and all of that time well spent won't matter.

As a music student, I became proficient at not listening to the advice of my piano and cello teachers: Just 30 minutes a day, and you'll be fine for that recital. My problem was never the 30 minutes a day. My problem was always the night before that recital, and the hours prior to performing — I panicked. However much I had practiced was not enough, and all of the doubt and worry I had worked so diligently to dispel through hours of meticulous phrasing, finger exercises and memorization engulfed me like a violent storm. On this last day, my confidence in the music transferred itself to my confidence in an impending on-stage failure. No amount of reassurance, breathing exercises or beta blockers could help me. Instead of listening to my my better judgment and taking a nap, I sat down at the piano, or I picked up my bow and proceeded in even more relentless hours of very, very panicked practice. When I'd practiced long enough to deaden the shakes from my hands and arms, I'd get up on stage and play (I'm never quite sure how I found my second wind). And usually (aside from a couple of very traumatic memory blocks), I played quite well. The thing was, when I was actually playing, I never worried about forgetting or failing miserably because I was always aware that the practice-everyday method worked. There was never a need to panic (except when I really hadn't practiced everyday, and these performances were always played like the grades of papers that are written the night before) because I knew that no amount of panicked practicing, no matter what I tried to quickly fix, would ever enable me to give a better performance. Last-minute practicing just made me more panicked.

This is what I've silently retold myself today, our last full day on Hydra. Normally I'm ready to go home after a long trip like this, but today I do not feel ready (and I don't think it's because I'm in the midst of my thesis — yet another example of the little-bit-everyday method). I went to bed with big hopes of taking a boat to a new beach, going on a long hike and spending every waking moment in the sun. We'd have a great lunch, take a nap, I'd write and press on with my obsessive reading of Freedom. There'd be drinks and dinner and yet another swim and star-watching on the roof. And. And. And.

This perfect last day didn't happen. Because we had to pack. And clean. And check flights. And pack some more. We did what you have to do on a last day. Instead, today has been a normal day on Hydra. We swam and read on Kamini beach, our favorite beach. And we read some more on the roof. We people-watched and drew and wrote. We continued to slice away at the melon-sized tomato in the fridge and we managed to (I think) fill our Paul Simon quota for a while (but honestly, who really tires of Graceland?). All this isn't to say I didn't spend an hour frantically taking pictures of every last shabbily beautiful, fading, chipped blue-painted door, alleyway or curve I could find (What? We haven't used all of the storage on our 15 gig camera card?!), but today I've done my best not to panic. Because if we had managed to do all the things I dreamt we'd do, the only thing I'd remember later would be a bad sunburn and sore feet. Today has been, like the rest of the days of this trip: a good day. An amazing one. And that's the way I'd like to remember it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Notes from Hydra. 5.

We wake earlier than usual, share a grapefruit on the roof and let the surprisingly cool morning propel us down the steps to the port that breathes with laughing, noisy locals. It is just after 7, and half the town — delivery men dollying 'fragile'-stamped crates; Michael the tan-bellied Los Angelesan painter; swim-suited mothers with big families to feed; a small legion of the island's stray cats — is waiting for the fish.

Some of the boats have been docked. Others are in the process of being tethered to the port. They look like quintessential toy-boats but life-size: comically rounded undersides lob happily among the water's translucent crabs and and fuzzy sea plants. Their wooden bodies bear well painted red stripes and more than one flapping Greek flag. I half-expect to see Popeye's tanned Greek cousin on board. Instead, a sturdy man the color of milky espresso emerges from the steering room of his boat and lugs with him the carcass of a fish that must weigh 100 pounds. He throws rough phrases and laughs to the fisherman on a boat further down, who has been metronomically hammering away at the bones of a 4-foot chunk of fish. I wonder how big it was when he dragged it in from the sea. The wooden hammer makes a surprisingly metallic clank! on the heavy backbone. It sounds impossible to crack. Finally, the iridescent set of scales loosens, and the fisherman pulls the skin back like a sock to reveal huge hunks of flesh the color of ruby grapefruit. The felines are licking their lips.

Hoping for a a nibble, a dozen cats inch their bottoms towards the silvery-blue skin that hypnotizes them in the sunlight. Except for us and a handful of other early-rising tourists, no one notices their quiet meows, their plea for a sea breakfast.

A man leading a pair of glossy-coated red setters strolls past several boats. He bids robust good mornings of Kalimera! and actually tips his panama hat to the shrunken grandmother who shuffles past. He reaches the boat where the fisherman continues to hammer away, he heels the dogs, shouts his order and engages the seller in a heavily animated story while he waits. A few cats take the eccentric man for an easy target, but with fish-in-bag-in-hand, he gives nothing away and continues his saunter west, towards Mari-Mara.

The boats don't stay for long. Soon after we've reached the port, we hear their battered engines rumble like congested chests, and with Popeye's breathren at the helms, we watch as the messy fleet put-puts away, into the Aegean.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Notes from Hydra. 4.

Before they had begun their climb, the pair had agreed to reach the monastery together.

She had not expected such a steep ascent up the mountain. She was used to the stairs that were built into the city, but these rocky steps were twice as tall, and every time she mounted one, she had to press on her front knee to harness a momentum that allowed her to swing the rest of her body and her other leg up to the next level.

He had slowed down. Way down. And she still needed to catch up. Under the shade of his straw, Van Gogh-esque hat, sweat dripped into his eyes, stinging and drying up his contact lenses. He took the full liter of bottled water from his messenger bag and took a swig. The sun was getting lower. It would set soon. At least their walk back from the monastery would be cooler, easier.

There was little shade on the path. Nothing here looked as beautiful as it did when she viewed it from their rooftop. The red dirt that from afar, contrasted so vibrantly against the shining olive trees now made her sad and bored. Its rich, painterly quality was dust in her mouth. She could tell that he liked hearing the sounds of his shoes in the terrain — how they made that satisfying crunch — but each time he kicked his foot back, a light cloud of the red dirt spun into her face, making breathing on a very steep incline even more of a chore. She flicked away the pool of sweat that collected every five minutes between her chin and lower lip.

In her mind, she queued up a reel of desert movie montages. This was a real-life drought. She had spent months anticipating a week of hot and sun — two things she had missed in the nonsummer they were having back home. And on the plane, she resolved to say Yes! to his ideas. They would have adventures. They would be a team. In this Hades of an early evening, she resented that promise to herself. She knew she was being irrational, but she resented him. And agreeing to this climb. And this dirt path. And the stairs built into it. She had a sweat rash developing under her shirt. He had the better attitude and the water, which he offered to her when she reached the step he was on. She took a few sips and handed it back. They continued on in silence.

He knew she was not enjoying herself. He also knew that if this point was acknowledged, she'd deny it and press on. He regretted suggesting this climb. There were plenty of beaches they hadn't yet seen. Plenty of pretty wanders that could end with a dip. But he had wanted to make the trek up to this monastery for the view — 360 degrees of the island and sea. Instead of thinking about the small rage he knew was building within his girlfriend, he visualized the view to come. That would sustain the rest of the hike.

They were both so focused — she hating every moment and he imagining what lie at the end — that they missed seeing how the pointy leaves of the olive trees glimmer at dusk, and the ancient-looking Greek farmer who carefully picked the fruits. Buried deep in their own dark minds, they missed the wheezing hees and haws of the gangly donkey that excitedly trotted down the hill to greet them, and they missed the five minutes she ambled along with them, on her side of the fence. They missed a cluster of the world's tiniest kittens that peeked out from their hiding place in the brush and mewed sad, tired songs between suckles of the mother's milk. They didn't notice when they entered the shaded forest of tall evergreens — how cool it was and the novelty of smelling pine in summer. Too set on finishing, they forgot to look back — they missed the sun's generous glow over the very old city of white cottages with red-tiled roofs, the honks of big boats, the water's jewel-like quality. And as the sunset played out at their backs, they missed the fading signpost that pointed in the monastery's direction.

The day's light trickled and faded by the time they realized too many wrong turns had been made. She felt so far from the cottage and the afternoon and the sun. She felt far from her promise in the sky and far from him. It was all a fever dream lost in the red dust of their path. In the early dark, without a torch, their map was no use. There was little water left. She would never know why she came. He would not get his view.

Without a word, they turned back. But before their dark descent, they saw where they were. Lights of the city below them danced to a summer chorus of cicadas. Boats cast long, neon paintings across the rippling bay. New glowing splotches emerged from the island across the sea. And now, a breeze worked its way up the mountain, shaking the olive branches and wafting the faint fragrance of dandelions and pine towards their sweaty bodies like a kiss.

"I've been too focused on putting one foot in front of the other," he said to her.

On the ascent, she'd madly concocted many words to say about this journey, but they were gone now. She reached for his hand, and together they sat down in the red dirt.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Notes from Hydra. 3.

Here, it's hot enough early enough that we naturally wake not long after dawn. Unlike the thick stillness that sets in just before siesta, mornings are more generous and waft a salty but consistently relieving breeze to our spot halfway up the mountain. Perfect timing for a couple hours of swimming. On the roof of the cottage, we eat a quick breakfast of fruit and Greek yogurt and then amble towards town, down the stone steps that are slippery and worn in the middle from who-knows how many years of similar ambling.

The beaches of Hydra dot the shoreline like abundant watering holes. If you walk long enough on the main dirt road that circles the island, you'll find them tucked away into quiet, rough nooks in the rocks. None of these are conventional beaches, and you must work to get to them.

Because Hydra is a 3x10 mile rock in the sea, there is no easy decline from mainland to sand. Most 'beaches' are rocky oases that require careful footing down steep switchbacks of ancient stairs. Sunbathers lounge on giant concrete slabs and lean against the rocks that build the island to read water-wilted paperbacks. If it's deep enough, they'll canonball in, easily transitioning from basking to bathing. Hydra is home to the most enchanting beaches I've visited (I'm no pro), but it's not without the boob-jobs (read: unnecessary enhancements). There are, of course, the hotel-owned beaches, which employ a superficial facade of fake sand (made of ground up beach pebbles) that effortlessly fades into silent, sapphire bays. Rows of chaises and resort-like bamboo umbrellas dot the scenery, and mansion-like, oily sailboats are docked oddly close to shore.

Kamini beach is beautiful and relatively quick walk from the cottage, but even at 10 in the morning, it fills up with big, loud Greek families that splash its flickering surface. Kamini's water glimmers like stained glass: Tucked into the rocky coast, the turquoise shoreline reveals a clear picture of life below the surface — yellow and black striped fish weave between slick, earth-toned rocks — and bleeds impressionistically into slightly ambitious cerulean waves that crash steadily into the bay's curved arms.

Vlychos is ten more minutes down the dusty dirt road, past several baseball-capped and touristy American joggers and over the half-hexagonal stone bridge. Boats arrive on the hour to deliver well tanned beachgoers to idle their days away. We pay six euro for two chaises, hang our goggles on a straw umbrella, and continue our habit of people-watching.

Deftly entering Hydra's waters seems to be a skill acquired from years of visits (Much like the Greek families who allow momentum to gracefully carry their bodies down the island's thousands of slippery, donkey-poo'd stairs). Because there is no sand, anyone who wants to swim must first traverse a few shallow feet of slick stones. Most of these stones are planted slolidly, but the rippling water elicits a trompe l'oeil of wobbles. A few very old, leathering women gracefully drift from slippery stone to slippery stone, but most people — even the most athletic — fall victim to the tricky shoreline.

A chubby kid sprints from chaise to water. His right foot splashes into the sea and slides off a rock. He falls face-first into a cool salt bath and struggles to stand again. A handsome, young couple with a collective 12-pack of visibly flexed abs, is no match for the challenging entry. Holding hands, they wobble together and wave their free arms for balance. He takes a careless step and they both fall in too early.

Tom says that he can't watch me enter or leave the water. He's afraid his laughter will make me mad. I slowly walk into the sea and grip each wet stone with the balls and heels of my feet. I'm suddenly conscious that I am now a participant in a naturally occurring slapstick comedy: frantically circling my arms; biting my lower lip; concentrating more on my balance than the idyllic nook of the clear saltwater I've been craving. I last a few seconds before my flexed thighs slip up and I splash in too early. With a sigh and a mouthful of salt, I resolve to half-crouch-half-crawl my way to deeper water. As Tom describes it, on these beaches, you relinquish all dignity when you enter the sea.

But my dog-paddle out to the farthest buoy, where I catch the humpbacked swells that drift in from boats' crests, is well worth my embarrassing foray in. Happily, I tread water and wait for just the right second to push myself up to catch the high points of these oversized ripples. The only thing better would be catching the crests, but the water here is too calm for big waves. Instead, like the yellow buoy, I bob in my black bandeau and forget about how I got here and how I'll leave.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Notes from Hydra. 2.

A strip of cafes lines the Hydra port. The old buildings are set back from the water, and in the morning, while the fishermen bring in their catch, restaurant owners arrange long rows of tables and chairs that slope down the slight hill towards the water. For shade, the light but necessary canvas ceilingtops are rolled out over the makeshift patio. Tourists from all over and weekenders from Athens and families who've come to Hydra for generations fleck the cushions, lounging — their skin practically shimmering bronze against the white seats — and always making sure theirs is a view of the sea.

We pick a table and share an ocean-facing bench. Tom orders a freddo cappuccino that comes out looking like an icecream float — dark, icy and frothy. My medium espresso freddo is sugared well enough to curb the bite of the strong beans. I force myself to sip slowly. It would be easy to down the drink in one parched gulp. Mostly, we are quiet. We lounge. We do what you do on vacation: we take it in. And we people-watch.

Flocks of Grecian gods and goddesses flip-flop along the pavement. For a moment I allow myself to envy their noses — the product of thousands of years of heritage. Stray cats mew and weave through tables and customers. Kids sprint to a nearby pebble beach, their neon innertubes fly behind them.

Old local men with citrus-stained, leather-like skin play backgammon for hours. Each takes his turn at satisfactorily slamming down his piece, much to the blithe chagrin of his opponent. They laugh. They sip on hot espresso that steams from shot glasses. They stack their empties, and I wonder how they seem so calm. Perhaps with age and sun, caffeine works more like a sedative.

To our right, a pair of pale, ginger-headed guys lap up big, melty parfaits of chocolate ice cream so thick, even with the heat, you could still stand your spoon in the middle. They say nothing. It's as if they doze with their eyes open. By the looks of their bursting backpacks, they must be traveling. Hydra is simply their stopping-off point. They speak in hushed but harsh murmurs, and judging by the black cotton socks and tennis shoes, they are most likely German.

A large, very Greek, very American family takes up two tables in front of us: Dad, tanned and raven-haired, gazes wantonly towards the boats. Mom looks pissed. She crosses and uncrosses her jean-shorted legs and taps her fire-engine red manicure on the table. She has spawned a family of bored-looking mouth-breathers, but she herself purses her Miami Vice-pink lips. Is she trying not to scream? Her hair is dyed the color of sun-drenched straw. It also looks like the texture of sundrenched straw: fried and snappable. When a waitress approaches the table, the mother of the four sullen preteens and teens, snaps her order: "I want coffee." But she really says: "I want cww-aww-feee."

"Coffee," repeats the waitress.
"Yeeah. With sugah. Lotsa shugah."
"How many sugars?"
"A. lot."
"Would-a-you like milk?" the waitress asks. Her English and this American's are equally difficult to understand.
"I want cream. Cream and sugah."
"Yeah cream. You got that? Don't you have cream?"
"You mean milk?"
"No. Cream. Like creamah. Like dairy creamah."

The waitress is confused. She sits down. They argue. The daughters — two, gorgeous, long-haired, long-legged girls who dress older than their short-shorts-donning non-hips will allow bury their heads in embarrassment.

"Just order milk, Mom," I hear one say. Finally, she does.

Tom and I wear dark sunglasses. We can get away with staring (or so we think). This scene is almost too painful to watch. Almost. The cww-aww-feee arrives, and the sub-par Marcy Walker lookalike (a la 1980s All My Children) downs it fast so her gaggle can make it to the boat by "5 'till." I comment on the expense of a trip to Greece for a family of six, and the fact that no one looks happy.

Since arriving, though, I continue to be inexplicably drawn to the man sitting on our left. Instead of the sea, he faces the cafe. He is old, but everyone can tell his has been a seasonable, graceful age: his Mediterranean tan radiates beneath a coral, linen shirt. His white hair and well kept beard connote a groomed Hemingway. A pair of fiercely blue, still-youthful eyes flicker across the lines inside his copy of Hegel et Marx: l'interminable debat. Nothing distracts from the text. He turns page after page, unfazed by the crowds and heat, but eventually his focus falters. He looks straight ahead and smiles the biggest, toothiest, happiest smile. A man, possibly in his late 30s, walks up to the table. "Mon enfant," says the elder of the two, reaching up his arms and tugging the younger man into an embrace. "Mon enfant. Tous es ici." The father happily smooches his grown son on either cheek. The son sits down. The waitress stops to say hello. They are French, and she is Greek, but immediately she understands: "Your son!" she says excitedly. "This is your son?"

"Yes," says the father. "Mon enfant. My son." The pair holds hands so tightly their fists shake. They fall into conversation. The book is forgotten. And it becomes clear why this father has chosen to face the cafe. The people and boats and port and endless sea — this view is for his son.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Notes from Hydra. 1.

The trip to Hydra from Athens is two hours by fastboat. Stephanos, the housekeeper, is waiting for us when we arrive at the port. His skin — tanned the color of sunned wood — suggests he's lived here all his life. Immediately, we begin our walk towards Kiaffa Cottage — rolling our suitcases on hundreds-year-old cobblestones and past rows of cute, saddled donkeys (four-legged taxis that are the only mode of transportation on the island besides foot, bicycle or garbage truck) that doze standing-up in the 100-degree heat.

The island of Hydra emerges like a battered rock in the sea. And the terrain rises fast. For 20 minutes we climb up, up, up hundreds of winding, steep and narrow stony stairs with curves that reveal more and more white-plastered houses, shaded by vines that look like gnarled green lace, topped with identical red-tile-roofs. Brightly colored doors and windows pop from the white surfaces like Tempera paint on blank canvas.

The walk to Kiaffa Cottage shouldn't be long, but the shortcut is too steep with our suitcases in tow. Ten minutes in, Stephanos stops to buy bottled water (the water here is undrinkable and, according to Tom, it tastes like licking a rock). Already, we drip with mid-day sweat.

Stephanos, it turns out, was born in Bulgaria. He's lived here for 10 years. He doesn't speak English. Greek, Bulgarian, Russian and German are enough. He is a painter and sells pictures in a small shop by the port from 9 in the morning till 2 p.m. His sweat-stained safari hat and ruggedness remind us of our equally sweaty and safari hatted friend from Columbia. And we continue to follow him, past the grocer and past more white buildings. One is punctuated by an elegant pair of evergreen doors (leading to who knows where). We wonder how we will ever find our way back to town. "You cannot get lost here," Stephanos tells us. "Just walk down. Or walk up."

The outside of the cottage is unassuming. Just another white-plaster wall with a door. Stephanos unlocks the entrance, whose plain front is adorned only with a heavy, metal knocker that looks both menacing and cherubic. We walk into what I can only describe as a hybrid open-air foyer and front porch. Like the outside of the house, it is also painted white. There is an outdoor sofa built into one side, and the bare walls climb high. We can hear the donkeys that clatter up and down the cobbled stairs outside, but we don't see them (Nor they us).

In the ceiling-less entrance, a set of white stairs leads up to the roof, where there is room for another built-in bench and a canvas hammock-chair. Since arriving, I have tried to avoid phrases such as "breathtaking" or "speechless," but from the rooftop, with the Greek sun burning our backs, we are stunned by the view: a sea any painter would love to capture that meets boats and rock beaches. And the port that rises fast, from the umbrella'd restaurants below, to white houses built into the rocky island like haphazardly stacked porcelain teacups.

The inside of the cottage is exactly what you'd expect the wedding guests of Mama Mia to retire to after a long afternoon of hanging with Meryl. The 300-year old cottage is completely renovated, but vignettes of tactfully exposed stones and weathered rafters afford it an unavoidable charm and beauty. A wardrobe in the study (like all of the rooms, it is painted white, white white) opens up to an enviable record collection and player. A guitar and a mandolin lie dormant in the corners. The frenetic, caffeinated chirp of cicadas plays on repeat all morning and night. Their thousands of voices scatter about before sunset, but by 9 p.m. they sing that long, all-familiar locust-song in unison.

And there is a trapdoor. Open it up to reveal stairs that lead to an expansive lower level. The tile floor and dim light grants cool relief from days that reach 95 degrees by 8 a.m. The fireplace fills a large corner and elicits daydreams of returning in winter. Beneath the cicada song, we can almost hear the crackling, burning wood.

There is no air conditioning, but throughout the cottage, fans circulate the ancient, sea-breezed air. We sweat freely, happily.

Stephanos told us to close the doors and unscreened windows at night: "The cats might scare you." We follow his advice, and when we wake the next morning to the distant cock-a-doodle of roosters, we discover five felines who've nested into the outdoor couch. Tom mews to them, and they scramble to a secret cat-hole in the corner — away from us and into the shade.


Sam Cooke on the record player

Saw, among other things:

Cloudless sunset

Ate, among other things:

Grilled octopus

Saturday, July 2, 2011

In London? Or not? Come to this!

As masters students in Design Writing Criticism, we’ve spent the past year exploring design writing. And design theory. And design history. That’s like, three design pies. Per person. Our brains are full. So before we embark on our separate major projects, we thought we deserved a little summer holiday.

We’re inviting you to pull up a chair and join us for an open conversation on food and design with some of our favourite foodies. We'll talk with author, photographer, designer and many-hat-wearer Jake Tilson about his new (beautiful!) cookbook on fish, In At The Deep End. We're also joined by
Christian, Martin and Tom, the professional popcorn enthusiasts and business-dudes behind the brilliant and delicious Love Da Pop.

Sounds pretty tempting, right? The more the merrier. Come hungry for good conversation (and a free drink or two!). We’ll be cooking up some great discussions before you can say 'spatula.'

We’d love it if you could make it to our chat at LCC. But we understand if you’re busy. So we’re extending the conversation to you. Just follow us on Twitter at @MA_DWC to join the discussion. Find out what we've been up to. Ask Jake if fish still make him squirm. Duke it out with Love Da Pop over sweet versus salty.
We'd like to think of it as a virtual drop-leaf table. So if you can make it to LCC, come say hello. Otherwise, we’ll see you in the Twitter dining room.

Friday, May 20, 2011

3:42 p.m. A Creation Myth

A Black Hole in Medusa's Hair: A galaxy lies about 110 million light years away.

If a black hole could slowly reverse itself and regurgitate the swirling bits of cosmic dust and dirt into a sucking, cyclonic universal current, the world would be born and eventually so would we. The particles you couldn't see or know would fly together — circling with the force of storms that sink ships and the chancing purpose of a tornado that gently hurls a golden retriever from his master and safely plants him, 200 miles away, on sunny hunting grounds. At some point, the winds would die down, and the prehistoric atoms would dance like jumping beetles, crashing into one another until their atomic hearts exploded, and with their insides joined, they'd create something newer than themselves. These heart-wrenching explosions would continue until the living bits you could see only with the help of a microscope turned into living bits you could see with your naked eye, and soon they'd be living organisms that you could hold and feel the weight of. They'd turn into families and orders and phylums and kingdoms bigger than family trees; vaster than that black hole (if it had the foresight) had ever imagined. So when your mother tells you that you came to be by winning a baby running race in Heaven, you can look in the backyard at that 1000-year-old tree of particles — of space and time and black and history and prehistoric atoms — and know that something doesn't feel quite right.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mastering the Art of the Vice

Hey! Get on over to Not French Cooking to read the latest issue of the zine. It launched today and Mondays are for chumps anyway. Have fun and enjoy!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

3:15 p.m.

Turkey burgers and homemade baked potato chips

3:14 p.m.

Salmon with mango, mint and cashew salad.

3:12 p.m. Snacktime

Chewy granola bars with coconut, blueberries, macadamia nuts, strawberries, cherries and pecans

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

5:38 p.m.

New name for Tuesday: Homemade Breakfast Bar Day!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

10:58 p.m.

This much baking only means one thing: there is a deadline to ignore.

Keylime Pie

Chocolate pudding pie

Saturday, April 30, 2011

10:16 p.m.

What could that be?
Something incredibly delicious?
A tart, perhaps?
Made by T?

Pear, rosemary and almond tart deliciousness, made by guess who.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

1:02 p.m.

Post-dinner haze + Strawberry milkshakes.

T, Me and Bjorn.
Photo by Sam Taylor

Monday, April 25, 2011

9:58 p.m. Quiche-off Update!

Truly the duchess and the duke of quiches.
On the left, the Lady Quiche: Crustless, and as dairy-free as they come, with roasted red onions, tomatoes and artichokes.
To the right, the Man Quiche: Very delightfully crusty, not-so-dairy-free (not at all), with cheddar, mushrooms, bacon and roasted red peppers.

Despite its omelet-like consistency, Lady Quiche wins on taste. Man Quiche takes the prize for best-looking. Everyone is happy.

7:29 p.m.

T's homemade vanilla bean ice cream, refreshing bevs, a worthy start on Not French Cooking's next issue and a quiche cook-off. All in a day's work.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

5:45 p.m.

I know a lot of amazing people, and for that I consider myself to be quite a lucky gal. I couldn't help but feel pretty extra-special this morning, when I received a package from my brother Paul containing this pair of smart lace-up Keds.

Earlier, I had been complaining about how I needed more comfortable summer shoes (no support over here, people!). I'm just lucky I've got a brother with great taste and even better timing. Thanks, Paul!

Monday, April 18, 2011

11:05 p.m.

Behold, the Animal Kingdom.

8:02 p.m.

Last week, I blabbed about Belvoir Fruit Farms Presse's. Until this afternoon, I had forgotten what happened post-gushfest. Today the evidence presented itself in the form of a very heavy, well-taped box in our front garden. At least our gin and tonics will be a little more lively.

I certainly don't plan on living by this rule, but perhaps some of the best surprises are the ones you buy under the influence and forget about.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

10:43 p.m.

Blue sky ice cream cones

10:34 p.m. Patternesque Landscapes

It was raining. What's a girl to do? Picnic indoors.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

2:04 p.m.

Weekend wrap-up

Sun, quiet city, proving bread, canal flats, sweat, anarchitecture, picnics, letter-writing, lunch next to Ronnie Wood.