Monday, 25 August 2008


For several years now, a big black cloud seems to follow us wherever we go on holiday.

We've had April snow in Texas, a week of torrential rain in Italy at the tail-end of a summer of baking heat, and a soggy July in Ireland (although, granted, that particular weather pattern might not be atypical).

The last time we were in the south of France, it rained most of the week. Our swimming pool grew cold and went unused. We got soaked in a downpour in Grasse. We slipped on the steep
cobblestones in the ancient town of Eze. We huddled in a tiny appartement, playing cards and reading, hour after dank, gloomy hour.

Therefore, you will understand why day after day of the clearest blue skies leaves me feeling rather stunned . . . and sundazed.

In the first few days, we couldn't get enough of the sun. We were either swimming, or playing ping pong or tennis, or walking, or just lying by the pool -- soaking it up. I felt like an animal, or a child, or an aristocrat from prewar Europe. My day was devoted to feeding and watering and exercising my body.

On one particularly memorable day, I walked the two winding miles into Vence and back for the morning croissant run, I swam and sunbathed all afternoon, and I wound up the day with an hour or two of tennis doubles. As the sun waned, I drank a strong gin and tonic and nibbled olives on the stone porch -- feeling rather Great Gatsbyish. (As I want to keep on the truthful side of whimsy and romance, I will admit that the doubles tennis game was a round robin with six children . . . and that the gin and tonic knocked me out. I doubt that F. Scott and Zelda were ever felled by a single G&T, but then it requires more stamina than you might think to "play hard.")

Have you ever noticed that when you first relax you just feel tired? We've been to bed by 10 pm some nights, drugged by the great draughts of fresh air we've breathed all day. The outside is inside here because the windows and doors are always flung open. At night, a cool breeze drifts up-hill from the nearby sea.

A fair bit of novel-reading has been mixed in with all of this mindless physical bliss, and since most of it has occurred poolside I have given some consideration to the question of what makes a good holiday read. I have decided that being able to match the subject of the book to the physical and emotional landscape is a bonus, but not strictly necessary. What is really required is a book that is so engrossing that you can tune out the shrieking of six children in the pool, not to mention an occasional blasting from a water pistol. Language must be simple, but elegant.

So far, I have read three books . . . and they represent the entirety of my scattershot approach to holiday reading. I brought one of the books from my to-read bookshelf: Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. I found one book here, on the villa bookshelf: Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer. And my favorite of the three, The Road Home, by Rose Tremain, was a last-minute purchase from Heathrow.

I had heard good things about The Road Home, not least from my blogging friend Just a Plane Ride Away, and Tremain's writing is just the sort of reading terrain that I like best. It has substance, and style, but she lets those qualities serve the story -- and not the other way around. This is a really topical book, too, as it explores the experience of a Polish immigrant who has come to England to find new economic and emotional opportunities. Lev, the protagonist of the story, was totally real to me and I was positively gripped by the various learning curves thrown at him. I suppose that books always aim to reveal life from the perspective of another person, but rarely do they do it so thoroughly and believably. Some books are "hard to get into," but my attention was caught at the first page of this one and it really didn't flag until I, with some sad regret, finished the last page.

A couple of days ago, I received a charming email from one of the regular visitors to Storyvilla. She is coming here for her wedding in September, (!), and she happened upon my little blog while she was googling. We had an interesting back-and-forth about the contents of the villa bookshelves -- from the preponderance of Graham Greene, which the owner favors, to the presence of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, which my Irish correspondent left behind on her last visit. I have decided to leave behind The Road Home, and hopefully this Storyvilla visitor -- and others, too -- will enjoy the book as much as I have. Blogging often feels like a message in a bottle that you send out, with the hope that some likeminded person will read it. There is a particularly serendipitous pleasure when one's scribbled messages drift upon unexpected shores, and I like to think of holiday books as leaving a similar trace.

The light is starting to fade from the upstairs study window, which means that it is gin and tonic time. This is the light that has inspired artists, from Renoir to Matisse to Picasso to Chagall, but so far I've mostly just kept my sunglasses on. Perhaps next week, as we tire of the swimming pool, we will begin to visit the many museums in the area. In the meantime, most mental pursuits have been suspended . . . and I remain just a bit sundazed.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Book quandary

It is almost 1 am, and I really should be going to bed soon . . . but I am fretting about what books to take with me to France tomorrow.

After a day of manic pre-holiday preparations -- washing and drying and sorting, packing way too many clothes (but a modest number of shoes), cleaning out the refrigerator, organizing the pet-care rota, making numerous phone calls and appointments, paying bills, mailing packages, spending three hours on the Internet trying to find a hotel room for tomorrow night, editing the carry-on luggage -- I still have not sorted out the crucial detail of my holiday reading.

For some reason, (could it be my curdled brain?) nothing is sounding quite right to me. I'm wanting something French in flavor, but a scan of the unread books on my shelf yields nothing but Suite Francaise -- and I'm not sure that I'm up for WWII stories at the moment. I should bring along Midnight's Children, but it doesn't seem like a good book for the pool. I'm looking for that balanced blend of substance and frivolity, and it just isn't jumping off the shelf at me. I suppose that I could rely on a random pick of Heathrow's offerings, but that's a risky strategy, too.

The right book at the right time always elevates a holiday for me -- and just like scent, or taste, or music, it can help reinforce the flimsy structure of my memory. When I read Eat, Pray, Love on the beach at Antigua (winter 2006), or The Big House by the sand dunes in Cape Cod (summer 2005), I experienced the perfect melding of inner and outer landscapes. Earlier this summer, in New England, I seemed to be stuck in the memoir genre . . . and this, too, was perfect for my nostalgic mood and a certain wallowing in Americana.

Should I just rely on the abandoned books of the previous residents of the house? Maybe those castoffs will be inspired . . . after all, the villa I am going to is named Storyvilla.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Eating my way through New England

Last night, when I couldn't sleep, my mind happily occupied itself with the business of remembrance: the remembrance of things repast.

As I have put myself on a strict diet, (and if you continue reading this, you will certainly understand why), my stomach was grumbling a bit. Since a late-night snack was out of the question, I decided to distract myself with the pleasurable task of remembering and ranking some of the many delicious meals I enjoyed on my recent vacation.

Although I am perfectly content to eat a bowl of left-over chicken soup for dinner when I am home, I want something a little more special -- a little more memorable -- when I am in holiday-mode. I tend to think of food more as "fun" than just "fuel," and I don't like to waste even one eating opportunity. Frankly, there is nothing I hate more wandering around a new place looking for a restaurant, reading menu after menu, getting hungrier and tetchier by the minute, and then ending up with a disappointing meal. In that spirit, and should you be travelling to New England, I offer up the following public service: five fabulous eating spots, tried and tested by Bee truly.

Red Arrow Diner
Manchester, New Hampshire
Number one in my top five was the first restaurant we actually ate at during our trip.

We had flown into Manchester, New Hampshire at around 9 pm, after approximately 19 hours of travel. At that point, we didn't want anything but a soft pillow, but when we woke up the next morning we were plenty ready to break our long fast. As we were leaving the hotel, I hit upon the brilliant idea of asking one of the desk clerks if she could recommend a place. Let's just say that she had the look of someone who appreciated a good meal . . . and my goodness, she really steered us to a winner.

Just to put this place into context, I need to mention that one of the main foodie things that I really miss about America is the kind of 24 hour place where you can get breakfast any time you want it -- not to mention a bottomless cup of coffee. I've waitressed at several of these kinds of places during the years, and I've always thought becoming "Flo" was a viable career option for me. Whether on or off the time clock, I've enjoyed wiling away the hours in the following diners: Earl Abel's, Jim's, Kerbey Lane Cafe, 59 Diner and the House of Pies .

If you, too, are a fan of the diner genre you MUST visit this fantastic spot. It looks just like a diner should, and if you check out the website, you can imagine me and my five-girl crew sitting on those round, red bar seats and stuffing ourselves with eggs, bacon, hash browns and pancakes. Although any moderate person would have been satisfied by a full American breakfast, I'm afraid that a terrible greed descended upon me and I kept ordering wildly. Despite the fact that it wasn't quite noon, I didn't want to be done out of the dessert course -- always my favorite. I just had to try a whoopie pie, a dinah finger (homemade "twinkie"), and an eclair . . . and I still regret not ordering any coconut cream pie. (In case my Mom is reading this, in horrified dismay, I will confess that I didn't actually eat all of these things -- but I did taste two of them!) Then, in true American style, I was able to complete the dining experience by ordering merchandise. We left the diner full and happy, with a to-go box, two frisbees and two "Moe" mugs.

Hattie's Restaurant
Saratoga Springs, New York
My friend Laurita and I have a long history of eating fried chicken together, and at Hattie's, I think we may have reached the pinnacle of fried chicken achievement. Blog evidence to the contrary, it's not something I eat very often . . . but it's something I love. Plain ole chicken is an everyday thing, a cooking standby -- but fried chicken is something else! It is a holiday food, a celebratory food. For me, it is also a deeply nostalgic food. When I lived in Houston, Laurita and I had a tradition of eating fried chicken, mashed potatoes, black eyed peas and spiced pecans at the Daily Review Cafe during our mutual birthday week in January. While I still consider the Daily Review version to be the height of comfort food, I was deeply impressed by Hattie's chicken. It was golden brown and juicy, with a delicate, crispy skin. It is deeply flavorful, without any particular flavor (pepper, for instance) calling attention to itself. You can choose your side dishes, and we felt that "sugar corn" (the sweetest I've ever tasted; it didn't need butter or salt) and cucumber salad was just right for summer eating. Here's a tip: Being a Hattie's veteran, Laurita suggested that we share a chicken plate -- which comes with four pieces of chicken! Believe me, two pieces are plenty . . . and we still couldn't even look at the dessert menu.

Hattie's is steeped in Saratoga history. The Hattie, a Southern cook who worked for a wealthy horse-racing family, opened the place in 1938, and from what I gather, it's being going strong ever since. The website gives you a great sense of what it looks and feels like. It is as homespun and authentic as your grandmother's best quilt -- the very antithesis of "chain" food. You also might get a kick out of knowing that the current chef, Jasper Alexander, beat Bobby Flay in the fried chicken throw-down. I didn't get to taste Flay's version, but it's difficult to imagine anyone bettering the chicken that I ate that warm July night.

PJ's Bar-B-Q
Saratoga Springs, New York
I know that I've already waxed lyrical about PJ's, but I just can't leave it off this list. It is pure American nostalgia -- and it is also great food. They have a large menu of typically American fare: burgers, milkshakes, sloppy joes, hot dogs, and various kinds of barbequed meat, but I'm really not tempted to try any of that. Do yourself a favor and stick with the ribs. Ribs, corn, and fried green beans: messy, but perfect. If you are lucky enough to eat this food on a warm junebug night, with some great Stax classics playing in the background, you will have a deep and true sense of some of the best of what America brings to the cultural table.

The Red Lion Inn
Stockbridge, Massachusetts
One of the little things that makes me forever Texan is my internal map. Texas is so big, that if you look at a map and measure off a couple of visual inches, you know that you will be involving yourself in several hours of driving. Conversely, the same distance on an English map takes about 20 minutes! I've just never been able to get used to that. Driving around New England fills me with a even greater sense of wonder because you can get from one state to the next so quickly! The same hour and a half that will take you from one end of Houston to the next, (if you are lucky with the traffic), can take you from Saratoga Springs, NY to Stockbridge, MA.

Laurita suggested this little side trip, and I was so grateful that she did. Without a doubt, there is an America littered with strip shopping centers, fast food outlets and billboards . . . but you won't see any of that America in Stockbridge. Instead, you will find the Norman Rockwell Museum, Tanglewood, green hills, white picket fences, well-tended gardens and this historic tavern. The Red Lion Inn has a deep, shaded front porch crowded with wicker furniture, and you can sip your iced tea (or other, stronger libation) and watch the world go down Main Street. Both of the Roosevelts have stayed there, Teddy and FDR, and such literary giants as Hawthorne, Longfellow and Thornton Wilder. It truly has the sedate, gracious pace of a bygone era.

Because we had an early dinner reservation, we were fortunate enough to catch the 5 pm sideboard of nibbles that the Inn puts out for its guests. The famous "cheese log," accompanied by fat berries, carmelized walnuts, and buttery crackers, was so delicious that I could barely restrain myself from making that my meal. Indeed, it was so scrumptious that I ended up ordering a "Flight of Cheese" for my dinner. All of the cheeses were local, and they had poetic names like Twig Farm Tomme (a goat's cheese) and Bayley Hazen Blue. With a glass of red wine, it was a deeply satisfying meal.

Friendly Toast
Portsmouth, New Hampshire
I couldn't find an official website for Friendly Toast, surprisingly enough, but the linked food guide of is entertaining . . . and it gives a whole list of great food finds in New England, thus continuing what I've started here.

Friendly Toast is exactly the kind of place that makes me want to be a college student again. If I were a college student in Portsmouth, I would hang out there all of the time. It has deep, inviting booths and an eccentric, witty decor. It is the sort of place that you can happily visit on your own, and there is so much memorabilia dotted all over the place that you can easily amuse yourself for hours -- just by looking. (The waiters and clientele are pretty interesting, too.) Friendly Toast has an extensive, quirky menu which ranges from vegan options to Almond Joy pancakes (I really wanted to try those) to cheese fries served with a strawberry habanero sauce. My friend Monique ordered the cheese fries, and that sauce -- which sounds really strange -- actually did "work." I had a bizarre, but tasty, grilled cheese sandwich on oatmeal bread, with a side of Guinness battered onion rings. Again, we were too full to sample the dessert offerings -- a great pity, and an oversight which will be corrected as soon as I can get myself back to Portsmouth.

I got a great t-shirt at Friendly Toast which has a Humpty Dumpty looking egg character on both the front and the back. The front says, with accompanying sad egg expression, "We make a lot of eggs cry . . .," while the back says, "to make you happy."

When I was packing to go home, I realized that I had also bought a Hattie's t-shirt with a line drawing of a chicken on the front. Not only does this confirm that chickens seem to be an ongoing theme in my life, but it also answers that age-old question: What came first? The chicken or the egg? At least in my case, it's the chicken.

Monday, 4 August 2008


My house in England, a 200 year old converted barn, has a distinctive underlying smell all its own. Underneath all of the transitory fragrances and odors of the house – the scents of candles, cooking, or the cat, for instance – there is an indescribable, and yet readily identifiable, smell that never changes. When we returned to this house after five years of living in Texas, and despite the fact that two families had occupied the house in the meantime, I immediately detected that unique smell.

But just like one’s own skin, or the perfume one always wears, I lose the ability to discern that smell when I am constantly in the house. I have to go away for a time, and the house has to become slightly foreign to me again, before I can truly smell it.

When I returned home on Saturday, after nearly three weeks of being away, I was really struck by the strong, strange smell of my own house. It seemed to assault my fragile, exhausted senses, rendered oversensitive by that long and tedious process of getting from one distant place to another. (With the five hour time change, it takes exactly 24 hours of travel to get from the lake house in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire to my door.) Although my husband had made various, obvious efforts to tidy the house, it felt off-kilter to me. In some subtle way, it didn’t feel quite like “my” house. And yet, that dichotomy of being able to smell it for exactly what it is!

While we are on subjects olfactory, have you ever noticed that airplanes all have the same smell, too? Whether you are in first class or the cramped cattle car section, all of the various smells of humanity are boiled down to some airless essence: part human dirt, part chemical sanitizer, part lack of oxygen. I always have to bathe after flying because I can detect that stink of “plane” on me, and I feel it like an actual physical discomfort.

Perhaps it is a sort of ritualized cleansing too, like the post-plane purification, but I cannot apply myself to any task – even that of relaxation -- until I have washed and ironed every scrap of clothing that made the journey with me. When everything is unpacked and back in its rightful place, I start to ease back into my real life.

The very process of travel, not to mention the destabilizing effect of the time difference, is so unsettling. Having established a vacation routine, it takes me a few days to get comfortable again in my home routine. I’m so aware of the deep, dense quiet of this house – so different from the airy, open-plan companionable clatter of the lake house in New Hampshire. In the lake house, I could hear the downstairs shower start every morning before 7 am. The house would be flooded with sunlight. A pot of coffee, the first of the two that we would drink every morning, would be brewing by 8 am. Here, the light and the sound are muffled by carpet and dense walls and thick curtains, not to mention the low, cloudy English sky. It is early afternoon, but I might as well be alone in the house because my children are still sleeping – stunned by jetlag. Instead of coffee, I drink cup after cup of tea – which never tastes the same in the U.S., even if you bring English teabags.

I remember, just this time last week, looking around the lake house and taking deliberate stock: Thinking, this place so familiar to me now will soon be lost to faulty memory. Blue kitchen; pine floors; large wooden table, which has anchored meals, and conversations, and hours of puzzle play; the smell of pine trees, which can be seen through every window; the creak of the swinging door to the porch and sun room; the tobacco-brown leather chairs; the rubberized smack of the large American-style refrigerator door opening; the sound of crushed ice being poured into plastic cups. I felt so rooted in that place, but I will almost certainly never see it again.

My mother claims that when I was a child I told her that “the days move slowly, but time passes quickly.”

It must have been summer when this thought occurred to me. Remember how slowly summer days seemed to pass when you were a child? I always feel like summer vacation days, particularly when they are lazy and agenda-less, are almost the only time an adult can still feel the expansiveness of time. A week ago, I remember having that thought: How long a day can seem when all you have to worry about is what you are going to eat for lunch, and whether you would prefer to swim or read a book. It seemed like I was on vacation for such a long time, but the time has passed – and will start to recede quickly now, because it always does. And in a few more days, I will have almost forgotten what it even felt like.