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The Rules of Travel

People always express so much surprise at my rather tame travel pursuits. As I was making my way along a particularly gorgeous section of the South West Coast Path today, I thought, the rules really aren’t so hard or so many but they are absolutely inviolate.

A. Do your research: I can’t believe the trouble people get themselves into because they don’t read enough and don’t bother asking the right questions. Ask the right people, read all your travel books and travel sites and blog posts. Google is your friend… And so is Lonely Planet. Gather the materials you need to make it happen. This includes learning as much of the language you can fit into your head and the bits of local culture to ease you into the fray. Not doing your research is the number one mistake and the most avoidable.

B. Always have a Plan B: Things happen. Places shut down, rules get reworked, new timetables are coming out all the time. Weather happens. Always have something else to do in case Plan A doesn’t work out. Don’t stress out about it, just do it. Always have something else to slide into place in case you weren’t able to do what you wanted. Don’t live with regrets, life is too short.

C. Always have cab fare: To anyone living in a big city, this one should be obvious. Yokels, learn from your city brethren. This could go under having a Plan B, but it needs its own note, I think.

D. Don’t overpack: Repeat after me “All problems can be solved with money.” Have several credit cards and be prepared to use them in case it’s colder than the usual or whatever. Don’t pack every goddamn thing in case of every conceivable problem. You will end up hoofing it all over airports, bus terminals, and rail stations. It sucks. Leave the crap home. That being said, do take the essentials of what your research has shown will be foreseeable ie. Rain coat in Britain. And here’s news, they have launderettes in other countries, too. You don’t just wear clothes once at home and then throw them away, right? The washing thing can be done on the road or you pay to have someone do it for you.

E. Do what makes you happy: This is why we leave home, to see what you want to see and pursue the sites that are important for you. To me, it’s history, preferably ancient and neolithic. Others like golf or good views or great food. Just do it. The only thing we can be sure of is that you’ll get old one day. Do you really want to regret what you could have done?

And a bonus… Fear nothing.

There’s A Storm Front Coming

I’m hunkered down in my living room in a midrise condo building watching the Valerie Plame movie Fair Game. I’m hoping the power doesn’t die, they’re saying it could take days to get it back. Days?! What will I do without my Internet? So I’m charging my portable devices and planning to use them in order, turning off the wifi to get me through. It should be a plan to hold out for a week. I used to have a wireless keyboard so I have more AA batteries than you can rain ten inches at.

In the end, we’ll just have to see what happens. What I’m most afraid of is my one Window That Never Closes will leak into my pristine bedroom. The next most frightening thing are the rodents and roaches that may invade buildings as they run to high ground. And I have to go to work Monday no matter what. The Evil Empire has all but threatened me with my job. I hate their nannering emails, as if employees were children to be controlled rather than professionals to be inspired. Damn them.

In the mean time, I have movies, red wine, and dozens of books, candles, crackers, flashlights and a tub full of water.

Of the natural disasters, even with my fear of deep water, earthquakes still win due to their sheer unpredictability. Cheers, East Coast. Drink up.

Why Open-Faced Sandwiches Are Stupid

Whether called open-faced sandwiches or the more gentile French term of “tartine”, this food is mystifying to me. This past Saturday I went to a local eatery that specializes in tartines and other pseudo-French bistro fare to get lunch. I wanted to eat in the park, though, and while they have great-sounding tartines, they also have baguette sandwiches for takeaway only. I got a cheddar baguette and minutes later was sitting on a park bench working out my front teeth plowing through the rough Parisian bread. And I thought, even though the fig and ricotta tartine sounded good, it would have been a fright to eat out of doors on a wooden park bench. 

I imagined pieces of fig bouncing off the bread only to be nabbed by the fearless squirrels that feast on everyone’s leftovers in this busy city park. I was impressed with the beauty and portability of a sandwich. Bread on both sides (either a loaf cut in half of two slices) and the filling in the middle. The ultimate, portable meal that’s been utilized time and again by the traveler or the busy and overworked. It’s said the Earl of Sandwich struck upon the concoction when he was trying to work and needed a free hand. Its sheer portability gives the item its right to call itself a sandwich. Anything without this does not. Open-faced sandwiches are colorful and fun but there is no portability or ease of eating them. Their multiple toppings teeter on the brink of oblivion if they’re picked up, almost forcing the luncher to pick up a knife and fork, taking the lunch food into the realm of upper crust snobbery as in Seinfeld’s Mister Pitt eating a candy bar with utensils. Is this the right way to treat a lunch food? I suppose the tartine could be engineered in some way to encourage the toppings to stay on it whilst lifting it like a noble savage instead. 

I guess something could be done like serving it hot, maybe with cheese, the melted goo acting like a sort of glue to hold things on. But then I guess something else already exists, a slab of bread on the bottom and the main event being the topping instead, the hot cheese holding everything on. But then it exists under another, noble name– pizza.

It’s All Over

I went to see the last Harry Potter today. I can’t believe it’s over. The movie is almost entirely a climax and loose ends get tied up and suspicions explained. It was short, though, and I don’t think many people would have minded if it were 30 minutes longer.

The 1300 show was the 3D, so I went to that one, not so much because it was 3D but because it started earlier and I didn’t want to wait another half hour. Maybe if I had read Roger Ebert’s review first, I would have waited for the regular version. Regardless, I paid $12 and it’s a sign of how rarely I go to the movies that it wasn’t until I read his review this afternoon that $12 was kind of expensive, wasn’t it.

It’s a glorious close and I’m glad they haven’t dumbed down such a complicated story too much. Even the wand ownership thing (which I also was confusing in the book) made it in there. A few well-placed lines explained everything. I may have to read this book again just to figure out if Harry does have to break into Ravenclaw Tower or if I just made that part up. And didn’t the Baron kill the Grey Lady in real life, before they were ghosts? Wasn’t there something there, too?

Anyway, nice job, all. I still hate the epilogue, though. I hated it in the book and I hate it even more to *see* everyone, who is still obviously just out of teenage, parenting. I see hair and clothes haven’t changed in nearly two decades. Ugh. In future, I won’t sit right to the end.

BTW, the Batman trailer is exciting :)

Dog Days on the Pier

The new Race Street Pier

It’s been so long since I posted here. I don’t know if it’s inertia, boredom, busyness, or Facebook. Things have happened that are postworthy, I just haven’t done it.

The dog days of summer are here and the extreme heat turns the city into a smelly, soupy mess wherein cockroaches rule the sidewalks and drains, the ice cream vendors cash in as if it were Christmas, and the population leaves town each weekend for the shore, abandoning the city to the the tourists or those too weary to drag themselves away. Or the unfortunates who have to work. I’ve been one of those unfortunates. I usually wait out the summer by working very long hours and cashing in on the overtime and waiting for the first cool of the fall. I plan that autumn getaway like a prisoner plans his escape, never knowing if it really will happen, but ready the moment there’s an opportunity.

I tried out the new park today, the new Race Street Pier. It’s a pleasant place right over the water, blessed with the breezes of property near to bodies of water (in this case the Delaware River). It’s a little strip of pristine cleanliness (maybe because it’s new… give it time) right against the huge pylons of the Ben Franklin Bridge. It has a little of everything, plants, grass, and benches and a lot of sun. The new trees aren’t old enough yet to provide much shade and I got a fierce burn in spite of my 55 SPF. But I suspect most people were there for the sun and breeze. It was quiet, no dogs and few kids. It’s a little strip of silence, the only sounds being the inoffensive white noise of the the 95 and the rumble of the NJ Transit train on the way to or from Camden. There’s a little market at the condo development about a block away in case of some badly needed cold drinks, but otherwise it’s kind of a food desert and that makes it hard to cope with in this city of Iron Chefs and a new restaurant every week. Rittenhouse has the enviable chain of eateries right on its doorstep and the Washington West has some nice fast food/ drinks places nearby and great stretches of lawn. But Rittenhouse is always packed and Washington West has had its every inch peed on by the neighborhood’s vast army of pets. The Race Street pier doesn’t have those crowds yet. Maybe it just hasn’t been discovered. It’s a non picturesque walk down Race and across the busy Columbus Avenue to get there and maybe that’s saving it from the crowds for now. The locals go somewhere else and the tourists don’t know it’s here… those not on the obnoxious duck tours that is. But if you bring your own food and drink and have slathered on the SPF, it’s a great place to sit and relax in the breezes of the river. I felt I owned a little part of it when I saw one of the trees had a plaque thanking the OCCA.

I finished the last of my mystery book and thought about September. I think I may be bound once again for England. I don’t know why. I could go anywhere. I could go to Croatia or Peru but I think that with the death of Greece as an option, I’m for England again with its gorse and rain and chilly politeness. I haven’t been back in years, not really, and my excuse is I need more pictures, this time in digital.

In other news:

  • The Flavia de Luce novels are a riot. Thank you, Alan Bradley!
  • Here’s to being done with two huge, anxiety-provoking work projects.
  • I am making ratatouille this weekend for the first time this summer. And here’s to sweet Lancaster corn.

Scandinavia

A place I never thought I would see and there I was stumbling around Gamla Stan in Stockholm in the morning. Thanks to all who made it possible. That was an expensive week (spent Easter Sunday cleaning the house and balancing budgets) but worth it.

Just yesterday, I finished the Steig Larsson Millenium triology. I read some of it on the train to Stockholm, where most of the action takes place. Sometimes it had its moments and I still have a soft spot for journalism but the books, all three, suffered from the worst crime of fiction… they’re boring and no, I didn’t like them. Yawn.

Next!

What You Get For Five Hundred Dollars

It’s been two weeks since the iPad 2 has come into my life. When I saw the first one at the store, I never thought I would have a need for one and actually considered getting a MacBook Air instead, but then cooler heads prevailed (or I just couldn’t get over spending $1000 when a perfectly serviceable laptop lives here). But then the iPad 2 was coming out and I felt like buying myself something. Thanks to a lot of overtime, it seemed clearly nearly already bought so I got one.

Other than having to be careful where I take it since I don’t have a case yet, I’ve used it as much as possible. I find myself going to it over and over again not only out in the city but in the comfort of my own home. It’s so instantaneous that doing things on the iPod feels sluggish and doing things on the iMac feels like so much work (and then I have to sit on that swivel computer chair). It’s so fast and the apps are so often streamlined versions of full programs. It’s small yet not too small. It makes the web and a lot of other activities immediately 3D. I’ve cooked with it (Epicurious), read in it (Nook and Kindle), facebooked, browsed pictures, taken notes at a conference, and used it to edit some files, and now I’m blogging on it. It makes things immediately real in a way personal computing has not been. It’s interactive.

There are a few downsides. The absence of the Tab key is irritating beyond belief, especially for dialog. Moving about in a document is less than easy since there are no arrow keys and the touch step is a little awkward and far from accurate. I will be writing and editing scenes on it but not whole novels. Somehow I keep missing the space bar and end up with words about twenty words long though I’m getting better at it. There appear to be no perfect cases available for it for now since people are backordered and I’m very picky. Mine is still in its shipping plastic suit. People need to make apps that work both as iPhone and iPad more often. It’s a ripoff I need to pay twice to use THE SAME APP!

Overall, I love this thing. It’s blazing fast, something full computers cannot be by their nature. Welcome to the new word of personal computing.

Daring Bakers March: Meringue Coffee Cake

The March 2011 Daring Baker’s Challenge was hosted by Ria of Ria’s Collection
and Jamie of Life’s a Feast. Ria and Jamie challenged The Daring Bakers to bake a yeasted Meringue
Coffee Cake.

Barely made it. I’m posting this the morning of the 27th while making spelt pancakes and coffee.

Since March has been a ridiculous month, I split this up over two days. I made the brioche dough one day, stuck in the fridge to rise until the next day. Then I continued with the recipe and rolled it out the next day. I had been so short of time that I used what was in my pantry to stuff it. I still had a few disks of El Rey dark chocolate. I ran to the corner market and got a little package of black walnuts. I even bought them chopped because I just couldn’t deal with it. I omitted the extra sugar and cinnamon in the filling and put the cinnamon in the dough instead. The egg whites beat quickly (I had them leftover from some other project) and I rolled the whole thing. It came together easily enough.

When still unbaked, it looked a lot like the pictures on Daring Bakers, but when I baked it, it imploded on itself so instead of a ring, it became a disk. The meringue leaked a little but less than I feared. I left it to cool overnight and then sliced it in the morning and packed it away in a tupperware container and took it to work where it was warmly received and devoured.

I had never made brioche before and I think that was the perk of this recipe. I have finally made a brioche-like dough. I may attempt the full thing at some point in our near future.

I’m unlikely to complete the April challenge since I’ll be away for vacation and then there’s Easter. Have to make that gallette du rois!

Now, back to those pancakes…

My Birthday Present

Because every human on this Earth someday comes to the conclusion that they should take care of themselves.

Thanks to a local business and some string pulling, I was able to get myself a great birthday gift. I used it today to write a lengthy scene. I was envious at the girl at the next table because she had a MacBook Air (a thing of beauty) but I had the IT thing of the spring. The iPad 2… in white. It weighs next to nothing and sits well my fashionable, moderately-sized purses. And that’s what I wanted, right? What I need for it is a word processor app I can use without being online. Even TextEdit is far more sophisticated a word processor than most apps since they’re good at handling chunks of data in useful ways but not so much at writing scenes of fiction. The keyboard is completely useable, though. Maybe not for marathon sessions of 10,000 words + but certainly enough for lengthy scenes and blog posts. The only thing that’s hard is the absence of the tab key and the extra work required to write dialouge. Dialouge is hard enough on a normal keyboard at my iMac, with its many syntax needs. On the iPad, where you have to switch out between so many instances of the keyboard to get to all the keys you need, it can be infuriating. But I bought it because everyone wants it, its perfectly capable for notes, it looks awesome, the apps are great, and its my birthday and I wanted it. So there.

GoodReader and Evernote are standing in for my writing needs right now but I can’t wishing with all my might Google (or someone) would write an app that mirrors (and syncs) with the fabulous Google Docs. Evernote is close but it doesn’t have the same tools to handle large text files, great for notes but not hardcore text. Google Docs is the answer, but I’d like to use it without being online, some kind of a standalone version of it that would sync with the server as soon as a connection to the web was made. I can only dream on. Better food apps are needed, too, like a cheese compedium. Come on, Max McCalman, you can do it (or a techie paid to ghostwrite it for you)!

Soft Rainy Days

It’s mild outside, just a jacket necessary. The rain falls eagerly sometimes and then it stops as if to take a breath. The clouds hang low but there’s nothing bleak about them, just a weary silence that invokes novels and cheese plates and baking and bowls of ice cream. The rain is washing the city clean. It brings out the old architecture in high relief, it makes the colors bright. It’s washing the winter away.

Daring Bakers February: Panna Cotta

The February 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mallory from A Sofa in the Kitchen. She chose to challenge everyone to make Panna Cotta from a Giada De Laurentiis recipe and Nestle Florentine Cookies.

Honey Panna Cotta with Raspberry Jam

For some reason that’s unfathomable to me, somehow I’ve never had panna cotta. Ever. I know what it is and I frequent all kinds of trendy restaurants where this dish makes a frequent appearance on the dessert menu, usually next to the creme brulee.

So it was killing two birds with one stone for this month. I read the recipe and came across the 3 cups of heavy cream requirement. After I finally managed to shut my mouth, I reasoned I could just cut the recipe. The smallest container I could find easily was 250ml. So I got to subdividing the rest of the ingredients. I made it one Sunday afternoon, just as the ribollita was boiling on the stove and a tray of scones was in the oven.

I generally avoid working with gelatin. I’ve never been able to get it all to melt in without leaving odd, tough particles at the edges of whatever I’m making. I thought I gave it enough time to soften. I thought it heated long enough over the medium heat. I whisked and whisked and whisked, even after taking it off the heat. I thought I had made it as smooth as I possibly could. I took out some little plain glasses I use for gin and tonics in the summer and got two of them filled to nearly the top. I let them set. The next day, Valentine’s Day, I softened some raspberry jam over the stovetop and poured it over the panna cotta to create some contrast. I topped the whole thing with a split almond.

Well, the gelatin did the stupid gelatin thing again. The top was smooth, the middle nearly runny, and the bottom was tough and grainy. What the hell? It tasted good but I usually don’t eat so much cream. I guess it’s not much different from ice cream and ice cream has a lot of sugar in it which this did not.

If I make it again, I may try the other method which is to heat the cream and sugar first and them pour it over the water with gelatin and whisk until smooth. Maybe I didn’t wait long enough to soften it. Maybe I should just do what Nigella Lawson says and get leaf gelatin instead of the grainy stuff. Who knows. Either way, I like creme caramel better.

I didn’t make the cookies. I had buttermilk to get rid of and I made two batches of whole wheat scones for people at work instead. Oats and Nestle don’t seem to go well with panna cotta so I didn’t think I was missing anything. I’m glad I finally made this storied dessert, though.

A Valentine From England

No, no. Thank YOU. I had been listening to them again for the first time in probably years after a long Killers kick. And now, here they are. Thank YOU. I hope it’s not too weird.

Someone’s Already Said All the Good Stuff

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