The Scent of a Storm

July is tempestuous. July is bold. July is hot. It begins with the slow staining of the blue summer skies. A hint of dirty blue, daubs of smoky blue deepening and darkening till suddenly the world feels like a place bereft of light, haunted by its own moodiness. The wind picks up, rushing through the thick cover of trees. Leaves and lightweight objects fly thick in the whirling winds. The cherry tomato plant, now about 5″ tall, waves its fuzzy-haired slender branches wildly, releasing a sweet, grassy fragrance that lingers on the fingers, long after I have secured the dancing branches to the stake to prevent them from flopping over.

With some fury, hail comes calling. It is pelting mad. Takes me back to a winter’s noon of being caught dab in the middle of a hailstorm in sweet old Bremen and securing comfort within the portals of a plush old café there, a big slab of kuchen and kaffee for company.

July for me has started with thunderstorms and my husband’s birthday. Both beloved and replete with loveliness. The first day of the month itself, I nipped out to the stores for ingredients essential to the feast I had conjured up in the mind. By the time I was ready with my totes filled with fruits, cream, and bottles of bubbly, my heart was quailing and rejoicing in equal measures at the sight of the wall of rain. I was caught in the middle of a flamboyant storm. Purple streaks of lightning followed by thunderous crashes. A flimsy brolly to carry me through this till I reached the cab that ferried me home.

Then a whole afternoon of cooking and baking, till I had half of what I wanted to put out on the table. Visibly overwhelmed, birthday boy exclaimed, “But it is just our two tummies that has got to tuck it all in. We have the entire month.” Clever hints. Nonetheless, the spread was truly enough. Soon we found that we could not plough through half of it without feeling comatose. The sparkling blackberry-laced cocktails helped the cause and we decided to dance off the rest of the evening. It was a strangely lovely birthday.

I have no idea why, but I have been unable to blog. Words have been spare in my head. I am not trying to say that we have been particularly troubled by this whole business of confinement. To be honest, we have discovered good old-fashioned fun in each other’s company. Adi has taken to running and we have been pounding the pavement rather religiously, winding it off with encounters with a big oaf, a malamute who loves to talk and lean on us. There are always sights for those who are keen to see. We have watched girls and boys, freshly graduated, stream through the park in cars, girls standing tall through sunroofs in tulle dresses, proudly swaying, others skulking inside stretch limos.

On quieter days, we have stood in the wetlands behind our home, where near the tall prairie grasses, egrets and herons come to fish. The gentle wading and poise of the white egret, the prowling of the yellow-crowned night heron with its comical, tufted head, that of the squatter and significantly hunchbacked black-crowned night heron. Nature is entrancing and she continues to soothe our souls.

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A Bank of Greens – More Importantly, Our Bank of Greens

The path to getting green fingers is a long, tortuous path, or so it would seem as you begin the journey, foraging in the aisles of your nearby garden centre.

As a child, I would give a hang for the new plants that arrived at home from time to time. They were kind of a given. Anyway, they were my mother’s department, her passion. I had more more pressing matters to deal with. When to meet a friend for sets of badminton; when to scuttle out and grab a scoop of ice cream with my group of friends at the nearby ice cream parlour that was the place to hang; where to hide that jar of berry pickle I stole from a cache of pickles that arrived home; how to sneak a book into the bathroom where I could read for hours uninterrupted before ma came knocking on the door … Such were the pursuits I was involved in.

But when the time came to pluck flowers, there was a solid pep in my step. I would pick fistfuls of shiuli, the aromatic night-flowering jasmine, to weave garlands for my parents’ beloved figurines of various gods and goddesses. There were gorgeous blooms of hibiscus to choose from, heavenly smelling jasmine and frangipani, purplish Madagascar Periwinkle that bloomed in abundance, white crepe jasmines, electric-blue butterfly peas. The memories of others have been blurred with the passing of the years.

There were the regular coconut and date trees, bananas, and neem trees, the last of which were the bane of my existence because my mother insisted on frying them up and made the entire family chew on those bitter leaves like our lives depended on the act of swallowing those god-awful leaves. Neem leaves, for the uninitiated, are numbingly bitter and linger in the mouth long after you have had them. However, they work miracles for the skin. Later, our collective misery was abated when my mother decided to grind them up, make tiny pellets to be dried in the sun. These pellets were to be taken orally daily.

But the show stealers for me were the tall eucalyptus trees, the susurrations of which mark the bulk of my summer holiday memories of idle prancing around the gardens, and the shower of pink bougainvillea that cascaded down the four levels of the balconies of our house with great glory. A day came when all three were felled. Great sadness reigned over the heart. The eucalyptus trees were hindering the growth of other plants around them. The main branch of the bougainvillea had grown so stout that it was digging into the railings, slowly corroding them. Still, how do you reconcile yourself to practical decisions when they collide with that sentimental part of you that will not abide by reason? Here was a lesson for life itself, it seems.

Yet, despite the tree hugging core of me, I had no experience of planting a single seed or sapling by myself.

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Seeds of radish in the left container waiting to germinate and a cherry tomato sapling on its right

The stirrings of this need for a kitchen garden came about when I started watching chefs and cookbook writers on the telly wander into their backyard gardens and pluck glossy veg and herbs while cooking. It tantalised the senses. What would it be like to harvest veg and herbs from our own little garden?

In all our years of marriage, Adi and I have been living in apartments, none of which came with balconies. This year however we moved to an apartment with an enviable balcony that looks out onto a green belt, which in turn spills on to the bay and the park. My fingers were itching, no matter that they have had zilch experience in the field of growing foliage of any kind.

The other day we made the trip to a gardening centre. Haranguing a helper there for information till he wanted to be nowhere near us. We came back home with a few saplings, pots to replant them in, and a few bags of garden soil, potting mix, plant food, perlite.

Things started unravelling remarkably as we started our research into the heart of the matter.

What kind of pots to buy, what kind of plants to plant, does the balcony receive full sun, partial sun, or is it completely in the shade, how to cage/stake nightshade plants, what is a potting mix, how to use garden soil, the functions of perlite. Dear god, our minds felt fuzzy. Here was an overload of information and the realisation that we needed way more soil and way bigger pots if we were to get anywhere with our saplings.

In all of this routing around for knowhow of how to get our plants going, we never checked on the most basic thing. Namely, the amount of sunlight which we receive. This, as it turns out, is for a measly number of three hours. Exactly half of what our nightshades and other plants need. Excellent. This means that apart from running around with the pots, mostly on Adi’s insistence, and repositioning them to catch the ebbing rays of the midday sun, we have decided to turn from relying on nature to the machinations of man. Now we await the arrival of lights to assist our plants in the essential journey of their growth (and while we wait, we whisper to them — anything to make them feel better about missing out on their food).

But as the sweet elderly gentleman at another gardening centre told us after he had listened carefully to our woes and doled out plentiful advice, “You know what, just go with it. You will know better than me by the end of it. You will know what to do as time goes. All you have got to do is, just do it.”

And thus we roll, with this process of going bold or going home.

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Training a beefsteak tomato sapling
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One’s gotta have lettuce in the garden
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Hallo you lovely Rosemary!
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Italian Parsley
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The lavender is taking baby steps towards small but fragrant blooms. Next to it is the coriander  that has begun to sprout new leaves. It was deadbeat when we got the sapling.
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Meet the English Thyme
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And here’s a plump Basil to leave you with.

Broodings of a Grey Day

Some days the best thing you can do is go for a long run. The mind trots along with you, and well, by the time you have decided to call it a day and arrived home, you feel brand new. Nothing can dull the edge of an endorphin rush.

On other days, you stretch, stretch, stretch. A spot of gentle yoga to make you feel lissome.

And then, there are special days. When you gobble down cookies you have baked and admire your own handiwork. For, there is a time for everything. Isn’t that what they say? Right, so this be the time for oat cookies, and if you are in the business of details, laced with butter, chunks of espresso chocolate, demerara sugar, cranberries and sea salt.

Now, sat with a crime novel, I feel a bit like an elephant. A contented elephant, if I should have to point out. Guilt can come knocking another day.

So yes, instead of being outside and feeling the cold breeze stir up the cells, I am tucked cosily beneath my duvet, distracted by nothing in particular from this gripping novel, staring at the church steeple and the bland grey skies time and again, idly wondering when the park shall be mine again.

You see, the park, my park, as I call it bossily, happens to be a county park. Sometime ago, it was decreed shut by order of the governor of New Jersey. This means it is completely off bounds, for all of us. Yet, some have decided that this is the time they shall sneak into the taped-off stretches to stroll, jog, and walk their dogs. This also means that the copper is on his daily rounds, patrolling the park, bearing down upon this errant lot, his wrath released upon them through loudspeakers.

In the last few days, pounding the pavement alongside the park, staring dreamily at the water that sparkles bewitchingly in the bay across the greens, I have been startled a few times to hear people admonished so. Steely words ringing through the air. “Get off the park immediately. The park has been sealed for a reason.” For some reason, it puts me in mind of Mr. Goon and his spectacular “clear orfs”. You must know who I refer to. I miss Mr. Goon. I am feeling a bit random and meh, if you will.

Anyhow, I have a new haunt now. Forty blocks down from where we live, is a small park by the bay where across a slipway boats are launched into the waters, and where baits cast into the waters, a couple of anglers wait for hours on wooden decks. I have adopted this park for me own. It stays so empty that when I first came across it, I felt it was the town’s well-kept secret. But yesterday, lopping down to it, I was startled. It being a day flooded by stellar sunshine, beautiful and liquid, people had arrived in droves.

Answering the siren call of the sunny evening, couples sat on benches snacking on sandwiches, girls and boys ran enthusiastically around the tracks, and families played all sorts of bat-and-ball games on the massive stretch of green. All in all, one big joyride. And certifiably strange for the first few minutes, you know. Like a preview of what the world was like before a certain virus came calling upon us. 

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Moving Day

There was the day I moved my blog. If I thought that was torment, eyes popping out with the strain of staring at the laptop screen for hours at a go, the mind dissolving into the consistency of mushy peas at the prospect of solving more WordPress dilemmas, there was the day we moved house. That was the gobstopper, so to say. But before I carry on, I have a request. In all this slippery business of moving the blog around, I realise belatedly that I have lost my followers. If you are here, and it is not too much of a trouble, may I ask you to follow me all over again?

Now, to get to the exacting prospect of the move (I don’t know why we do it to ourselves, but we do), the day itself was advanced by more than a week. The numbers of people afflicted by the novel virus were shooting up. The leasing offices of the building we were in had already shut down. It was only a matter of time before our new building’s offices followed suit. The less said about the expense of it all, the better.

If living in the terms of coronavirus took time to get used to, for all of us, as we made little tweaks and adjustments to the rhythm of life, moving did not allow us enough time to figure out how to go about it mindfully. We had masks and gloves, but halfway through the move they came off involuntarily. Moving day had in any case arrived all too early. Before the movers popped in, already we had a large number of boxes sat on the floor of the kitchen. Those I had packed beforehand in a lengthy process that informed me that we have too many spices and condiments.

The movers were a trio, their language foreign to the ears and features slightly Eastern Asian. The eldest, a compact man with vast reserves of energy (let’s call him M1) revealed that they were from a place my besties had proposed as a girls’ birthday trip destination towards the latter part of this year. An ancient city central to the operation of the old Silk Route. Samarkand. “The land of Babur,” offered M1, rhyming the word with Namur. He was not off the mark for Babur, the Mongol conqueror, from Fergana in Uzbekistan was enamoured of neighbouring Samarkand. He described it as a “wonderfully beautified town” in his memoirs, Baburnama, and had succeeded in occupying it twice in his lifetime.

Was this a sign that the girls and I should go ahead with our trip after this entire situation dies down? Should we believe in signs?

Anyway, M1 conducted his own mini-interview of us subsequently, and, in detail.

First, he informed us with great pride that his was not the hope to make the big busy city his home. His is to earn money and fly back to his nest. He noted: “My homeland is beautiful. I have a family and a big house there.” And as an afterthought, he added: “Where we come from, we do not believe in renting.”

Next he quizzed us about the apartment we were moving to. Was it better? Was it bigger? Was the rent more or less than the current one? This continued till Adi had to head to the nearest burger joint to get us all lunch. The inquisition rolled to an end.

A quick lunch break and the process of packing continued. This confirmed to us, if we had not known it already that our earthly possessions are the proverbial albatross around the neck. Most of them acquired through a mix of desire, want, greed… not need. This, after I have downsized to a considerable degree. I foresaw then a future of whittling them further.

At some point in the early evening, the truck-load of the various components that make up our home, finally reached the new building. Here ended the movers’ toil. Here also started our own portion of back-breaking work. The next four days involved furious cleaning. Wipe everything down, find a place for every little thing, cook, decorate. Drop a few things in exhaustion. The first wall clock we bought in Leicester for our first home together. The spoon rest from London. A magnet or two. A husband tired enough to drop the topic. Then, four days of drowning out the news and exchanging it for the sweet sounds of home. Revelling in the cackling of wild geese, the rhythmic thump of clothes in the washing machine, the whistle of the kettle, the sound of the oven dinging – the cake’s done — the pot of tea after. And at the end of it, a couple of happy roosters.

 

These Truly Hairy Days

Yesterday, I played the barber. Yesterday, I also arrived at the rapid conclusion that for all my sins, I am not cut out to be one.

For some time now, Adi has been whingeing about the mountain of hair that has been steadily foaming above his head. I have been ignoring it for the most part because hoovering up hair, getting rid of those tiny stubborn bits that stick to the nooks — however fond of cleaning I might be — is not my jam. And really, as much as I do adore the thought of my hair being snipped and whipped into shape at a salon, I cannot bring myself to take on any level of salon activities at home. When I want to get rid of the pesky grey hairs that pop up at the temples, I go to the salon. When I want a fringe, I head to the salon. When I want a hair spa, I make an appointment at the salon. I think by now, you have it figured. The gist of my feelings about what came my way next.

We had spent a lazy Sunday afternoon watching a nice film, concluded with double shots of espresso and slices of raspberry pecan coffee cake, when Adi got up and declared that we were going to tackle his hair. “Wha..?” I wanted to faint, which my husband would not allow. He meant business.

Man on a mission, he set up the bathroom. A chair plonked in the middle of it. Fetched the worst pair of scissors one can use to snip hair. Kitchen scissors. But next to it lay an impressive caboodle of hair clippers.

Now, imagine handing a pair of clippers to an individual who has not given a single hair cut in her whole blooming life. The only time I played with giving myself a fringe was an experiment gone wrong. I can tell you about the drawbacks of a too-short fringe till the cows come home. But I think I shall stick to this particular event.

Armed with the clippers, I started at the nape. First, I raised the bottom hairline. Safe to say, it now rests above his lower ear lobes.

“Way too short!” pronounced the subject in tones that would not and could not hide heavy notes of dismay. After I made an allowance for the customary moaning and frowning, I got back to the task. I had not even begun properly, and I was yet ready to be done with it. Sheared the back of the head. For all the world, I could have been shearing sheep. That thought made me howl with laughter. Convulsions that alarmed the subject so that he could not keep turning his head at the mirror from time to time, to keep a check on this very odd barber. Psst: The best part is, he could not see the back of his head. We do not have one of those big rectangular vanity mirrors they use at the salon to show you the effect of the hairdresser’s artistry on the rear portion of the head. What a fortunate thing.

When you use kitchen scissors that ain’t all that sharp to handle thick hair, you end up with hair flying all over yourself. Which you promptly dump on the subject. Because well, it is his hair. He might as well get the brunt of it. He did try to interject the proceedings with, “I am not your dumping ground”. But did he stand a chance?

I will not bore you further with the nitty-gritties of executing a hair cut, the way the scissors flew, the hacking around with no particular aim, or the hot mess in the bathroom after. But I will leave you with this that there are enough bald spots on the unsuspecting husband’s head, a bizarre semi-buzz cut at the wings, not by design, but all happenstance. Today, during a video call, his dad pronounced it to be a punk cut.

But the good news folks is that I am done with it.

Now, there’s only rest for the wicked.

To Kill Van Kull

There are days when I want to walk so far that the mind is consumed by everything and nothing. Just the pleasures of walking down pavements, noticing life as it has become. A still painting.

Because we live in a post-industrial waterfront town of which we know nothing beyond traipsing around the picturesque park we are used to, one of these days when the skies are thick with swollen clouds, I walk to the other end of town which spills onto the tidal channel of the Kill Van Kull (Dutch for “channel from the pass”). Our waterway link with Staten Island and New York.

The road to Kill Van Kull is long, spanning quite a number of blocks, but the walk is not tedious. The pavements might not be lined with examples of flamboyant architecture, but a medley of styles, so that the mind is constantly engaged in noting the variety of architectural details thrown up along the way.

First, the unexpectedly attractive facade of the high school. Gothic Renaissance. Improved upon by the presence of trees bursting with magnolias.

Then, pretty row houses, community buildings worse for the wear, humdrum box buildings (the infamous Bayonne Boxes built in the wake of WWII — the architects who conceived them must have fallen asleep halfway through, bored by the results of their own efforts), part-brick part-clapboard houses, Victorian facades, skinny houses. Wrought-iron balconies, front porches, fire escapes climbing down big somber houses.  Sandwiched in between these is a tall building complex from the ’70s, stacked one upon the other.  Little boxes bring little joy to the eye.

However, as I near my destination, the houses begin to transform in character. These are surprisingly pleasing to the eye. Sprawling Mock Tudor houses, big clapboard houses that look like they must have been built when Bayonne started to get its first clutch of residents, elegant redstone houses with manicured lawns, wrought-iron garden chairs and tables, one of the houses with decorated carving and a small signage above the entryway stating that it was built in 1887… did anyone even live here in 1887, I think to myself.

Turns out the first person to set eyes upon the shores of Bayonne was a Florentine  named Jean de Verrazzano, as early as the 1500s. An explorer in the service of Francis I, King of France, Verrazzano had sailed into New York harbour at the time. They named the bridge connecting Staten Island with Brooklyn after the worthy Italian.

A journal entry from Henry Hudson, sometime in 1609, describes shores he came upon during his sailings upon the Hudson. He wrote about the shores, that they were “pleasant with Grasse, and Flowers, and goodly Trees”. “Sweet smells came from them.” He was referring to Kill Van Kull, which I am bound for. It is also where his party was attacked by a group of Native Americans.

A network of roads wind above me, part of the highway that leads to New York City, and as I continue walking, the scene starts veering towards industrial. A 19th century brass foundry, which once supplied brass parts to the U.S. Navy during WWI, now converted to house a dollar store. A stretch of railroad tracks, probably disused. Geese droppings on the tracks. Old factories and warehouses in tatters. Large white tanks. And an atmosphere of haunting desolation typical to industrial quarters.

The wind has turned sharp as I sight the behemoth arch of the Bayonne Bridge spanning the Kill Van Kull and dominating the skyline. These very paths I roam was once covered in dense forests. Wild animals had the run of the place. Bears and panthers, wild cats and wolves, beavers, red deer, rattlesnakes, squirrels, and foxes. The only human presence here would have been of the Sanrikan Indians, of the Delaware tribe. When there would have been no bridge, no park, no houses, but just a small village. What would the Native Americans have thought of this transformation of their place? Who knows. They have long gone and what remains is this land. With a whole lot of houses stretching along the blocks, a couple of them formerly home to author George R.R. Martin. Them, a strip of a park, the bridge, Staten Island across the waters. And a gaggle of wild geese roaming about the greens, clucking and complaining. You are in the way.

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Spring Fever

I have been thinking of this moment for a long time, clacking on the keypad, drumming up words, letting my thoughts flow. It has been coming long, since the beginning of the new year which has delivered googlies with such precision that I honestly do not know where to start. Should I begin at the beginning with my travel to Calcutta on the first day of 2020? Should I tell you about the disquiet that spilled into my thoughts as I read there about this novel virus making itself felt in China? It was just the beginning. Who could have predicted that this would be the world we would be living in? Let me rephrase that – for there are revelations of foretellers who saw this coming for some time now — and say that I certainly did not think of the possibility. Must be the brand of arrogance human beings are naturally kitted up with.

We are spending all our time at home. The customary nipping to the grocery stores for provisions has been nipped in the bud. The library has closed its doors. New Jersey has set a curfew for its residents – 8pm to 5am. This leaves intact running in the park and walking till our legs feel it — we have been exploring every odd nook of this town we live in.

I am grateful for this. The opportunity to simply step out. Let my brains air themselves out, let the fresh spring air flood the head with serenity. The cells are in danger of feeling stale with the constant barrage of news that is all gloom and doom (I think the most disturbing part is to read about the panic-buying of guns in this country — not toilet paper rolls, cans of corned beef or soup, but Guns).

The trick is to funnel some of it out, however we can.  Let the mind slip into meditative spaces through long unhurried sessions of yoga, make way for the imagination to wander through books, of which one cannot have enough, flip through the pages of cookbooks, rustle up new dishes. There’s therapy in routine.

Spring has arrived earlier this year, but at least it has arrived.  To channel Rilke: “The earth is like a child that knows poems by heart.”

Pale pink Rosebud Cherry blossoms. Deeper-hued Sargent Cherry blossoms. Saucer Magnolias. White Wild Pear blossoms. Yellow wildflowers. Fuzzy catkins of Pussy Willows. Portly squirrels running around bushy tailed, nuts clutched in tiny paws, pausing occasionally in your path to see if you have anything to share (drat people who think that animals in the wild depend on them to be kept). The Canada geese and gulls slowly taking their leave. Plump robins flying in. Fresh clumps of grass. Tiny leaves so delicate. Buds unfurling. Sweet spring. Let it work its magic on this overworked state of mind.

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Doozy Times in Seattle

We spent five short days in the Pacific Northwest with my sister-in-law and her lovely family, and even though five as a number is short — it felt short — it was enriching within a tight span of time.

Enrichment came our way through activities. We chatted endlessly, baked and cooked, when we were not tripping over to the city’s iconic marketplace to gather fragrant spices and delicious cheese, sipping on hot apple cider, tasting moreish butter, and buying braids of garlic and chillies that did the singular job of elevating our hearts to our mouths with the amount they cost (oh, but they are beauties). Amongst all of this was the scenic presence Mount Rainier, with its upturned conical tip sheathed in snow, and the Olympic ranges. A band of photogenic siblings.

The sun was shining, and the days were spectacularly cold, but boy, they added sass to the time spent outside.

To mitigate the chill, we slurped on Taiwanese food. Mere broth and garlic, yet divine. Xiao Long Bao (soup dumplings for the rest of us) and Sichuan noodles stole the highlight simply because we had never had them before.

Novelty is a cracking thing. You always remember that first trip you ever took, that first time you explored a new place and came across things alien to your culture, met a person who turned out to be a beloved figure in your life,…you never forget those, do you? The Taiwanese meal had left its impression upon us, indelibly.

Now, Seattle for us inevitably means Snohomish. A place the father-in-law chanced upon during a golfing trip and introduced the sister-in-law to. Ever since, she has been a fixture there. It’s her pick-me-up, a no-brainer, according to her. Snohomish has an assortment of shops that deal in antiques, time-worn, quirky objects that make your heart flutter with want. Safe to say, we have never returned empty-handed from there.

The nephew and niece have grown up a fair bit. If the little missy is all for mathematics, reading and baking — she made us delicious mini brownie pizzas — the nephew is a level-headed teenager with none of the angst of one yet. From them, we gained new knowledge. Of the concept of sneakerheads. We had zero idea of this. You can call it a subculture, if you please. Sneakerheads are sneaker collectors who like to accumulate limited edition shoes and even vintage ones. They then swap or sell them for exorbitant prices. There are other little details culled from the mouth of these babes that made my mind tumble and stumble, but they escape me now.

We wrapped it all up with a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner, decorated the Christmas tree, and nibbled into a sticky and lovely Christmas cake, the best I have ever had. It was baked by the sister-in-law’s neighbour. It was shattering and I cannot wait to replicate its goodness.

Now that I am back to reality, it is unsettling, but it is acceptable because Christmas is around the corner. The city has gone the festive route. We got our first batch of snow too yesterday, big chunky flakes that drove through the day, changing directions, and in all of it, through the slush that resulted on the pavements of New York City, I was out to meet a blogger. She turned out to be as humorous as her blog and wonderful company because the hours sped by as we prattled.

That’s the beginning of December for me. I cannot wait to see what else it brings.

I am hoping for more Christmas cake and snow.

Iconic Pike Place signage
The iconic Pike Place signage
Matt's in the Market at Pike Place
Matt’s in the Market at Pike Place
Spices at Pike Place
Spices at Pike Place
Tiramisu from the Chinese bakery 85°. Astonishingly good.
Spicy Sichuan soup @ Din Tai Fung
Taiwanese soup dumplings @ Din Tai Fung
A chilly break from Black Friday shopping at a shingle beach in Kirkland
Sunset trio at Kirkland
Tag!
Brother-sister act at the gardening-decor store, Molbak’s.
Christmas windows at Snohomish
Rummaging for vintage
Green touch
Why we are enamoured of Snohomosh
The Snohomish Santa
Christmas tree at sister-in-law’s
Christmassy note at Seattle airport

Namaste

I am back after more than a month and why, oh why, do I feel like a truant? Friday evening has arrived with smoky blue skies and a kingdom of clouds, so I am feeling it. The frothy state of mind that accompanies weekends. You know, cracking open a bottle of red to dissipate the chill of autumnal evenings walks, followed up with plenty of cheese, pasta al pomodoro, grilled veggies…

Let’s see what have I been upto during my absence here. Mostly I have been working on my writing, without distractions (phone and social media).

But I am a creature of sensory pleasures, so there have been sessions of baking upside-down cakes incorporating the flavours of the season. I have been scoffing a wedge a day.

Meanwhile, the beauty of autumn has me bewitched. The colours have peaked and faded, the leaves are gathered in huge piles everywhere, and the sun has been flaming out every evening over the bay with precision. It is like being part of nature’s gallery of astonishments. To keep up with my beloved workouts, I am notching miles on a Peloton bike. Paired with my evening walks, these gruelling sessions make me sleep like a log (not that I could ever complain about the lack of it, which goes to say that I am loving the extra hour of sleep everyday).

What are long, dark evenings tailor-made for? Devouring books. I have stumbled upon the delicious writing of Marlena de Blasi. Her artistry with words has woven magic into my evenings.

There has been a splash of travelling too. We took off to Boston for my birthday earlier in the month and traipsed around in freezing climes. Found that it did not match upto the images of it I had conjured up in my mind . Yet what a wonderful time I had with my love, examining its old graveyards, pottering around its posh neighbourhoods with their pretty bakeries and antique shops, tasting bread at a celebrity chef’s restaurant that made me shut my eyes and will myself to remember its divine flavours for a long, long time. Oddly enough, I thought I saw a man butt-naked from the waist down, running along with a troop of people dressed up in costumes. I am glad I did not choke on the calamari I was in the process of gobbling down.

On Monday, we travel to Seattle for Thanksgiving with the sister-in-law’s family. The excitement begins now — I love the countdown to a holiday — and continues into the next week. Here’s to cooking, baking, thanksgiving, and some loving with the family.

Now, it’s your turn to fill my ears with your life events, and fill your senses with a few suggestions of autumn’s resplendence.

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On the Trail of Bonny River Towns

Summer has come in with a show of jazz hands. The days are hot, and the nights so lovely and soft, filled with breezes of pure delight and fireflies that twinkle and dim like their very lives depend upon it. The gentle warmth in the air has as if unlocked the ridiculously sweet fragrance of the Sweetgum trees in the park. Every night as I walk through the maze of tall trees, a strong scent cocoons the senses in the quiet of the night. A skunk skulks around in the dark and I look warily at its quivering fan of a tail. Would not do to spoil the peace of the night.

Which reminds me of the other evening when a friend accompanied me on my nightly walks. She shrieked hard at the sight of a skunk. I do not know who was more startled – the skunk or I.

Summer is the time to potter around and we have been doing so on weekends —  seeking the solitude of the small towns that flank the mighty Delaware. The river that the Lenape Indians called Lenapewihittuk. It means rapid river of the Lenapes. But I have found it to be a remarkably serene river for the most part. To pick your way slowly along the Delaware is to pave the way for bluish green hills and rolling farmlands (how they make me sick for the British countryside) which land you in the middle of surprisingly photogenic towns nesting along the river. Perhaps you remember Lambertville (there’s a separate photo op on it here) and New Hope. They are of the Delaware river town tribe that set us off on this trail.

Imagine here, towns with historic vibes, all part of the Lenape belt where the Algonquin speaking Native Americans lived. That is till colonisation took place and the settlers came in, hopping around, renaming places and rivers. Delaware, for instance, was named after a British politician, Baron De La Warr. Along with some heritage, throw in generous dollops of old architecture, art galleries, antique centres, decor boutiques, bookshops, and friendly folk — and you know it’s gonna be something special.

It turns out that the Raritan River, which is connected to the Delaware River via a canal, has its share of pretty townships. Like Clinton, a town in Hunterdon County in New Jersey, where we ended up in our quest for placid weekend rambles.

The main protagonist of Clinton is a red mill. The rest of the town is cobbled together with old houses built in ornate architectural styles. Plenty of balusters, gables, pilasters and porches there.  During the 1800s, travelling theater companies would make stops in Clinton because of its banging music hall. But all footsteps now lead to a couple of old mills there that straddle the South Branch of the Raritan River. I have a weak spot for barns and mills. The older, the better (but of course).

Under the sufficient glare of a June sun, we trod across the rusted grid of the truss bridge. On one side of it stood two picture-perfect mills, facing each other across the smooth spill of a man-made waterfall. A small flock of geese drifted around the waters and everything around was somnolent in the heat, like a picture playing out in slow motion. On the other side of the bridge, we watched an angler, submerged in knee-deep water, cast a fly rod into the mossy green waters. I wonder if he struck lucky. Meanwhile, people sat on garden chairs of some café that lined the pavement along the river – and I would like to think that they took cooling chugs of heady drinks to stave off the heat shimmering around us.

Now the Red Mill is the kind of place you walk into and get lost for the better part of an hour. The men behind its conservation must have put in enough thought to engage the visitor, for it is mighty easy to induce a snooze fest with so many details. It is when you recreate the lives and stories of people who worked and lived around the mill that it can spark off the imagination. The mind then latches onto the recreation of a lifestyle that was the only one the people of the age knew and lived. Several universes away from this modern world of ours where man has contrived to make life as divested of effort as possible.

A one-house schoolroom with its coal burner, small wooden chairs and slate-boards, the blacksmith’s quarters, the quarries where Irish immigrants must have slaved away to earn their daily bread, corn cribs and herb gardens, … life would have been tough and yet rewarding for the settlers who made a living off their surroundings. Just for those moments when I was peering into the schoolroom, sheds, quarries and log cabins, I was whisked back in time to the Smoky Mountains where the legacies of the settlers are everywhere, even in the mid of dense forests. Come with me into Clinton and have a peek?

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Main Street in Clinton

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Historic properties line the roads of Clinton

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A lane that turned out to be not Dickensian in the least but filled with vintage guitars, bearable Thai food and friendly locals.

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Maine Coons of Clinton on the prowl

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They have great personality, like you can well make out from the visage of this whiskered beauty.

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Candy pink and white ice-cream parlours

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The bootery in town

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Graffiti showcasing the Red Mill and the adjoining quarries 

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The old truss bridge 

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The stone mill on the South Branch of the Raritan River, known formerly as the Dunham-Parry Mill. Nowadays it goes by the name of the Hunterdon Art Museum. It was a grist mill before it was repurposed to serve as a space for art lovers. Before this particular stone mill came up, on this site stood another mill that is said to have been used by George Washington’s army to grind wheat in the mid-1700s.

 

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The Red Mill. A Mr. Ralph Hunt owned both the Red Mill and the Dunham-Parry Mill in the 1800s so that the town was naturally called Hunt’s Mills. However, his use of the Red Mill as a wool producing one ran into severe losses and he had to let go of it. The mill changed several hands over the decades. The subsequent merchant owners decided to rename the town from Hunt’s Mills to Clinton, after the New York Governor of the time, DeWitt Clinton.

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Fly fishing on somnolent days in the South Branch of the Raritan.

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The Red Mill went into operation around the early 1800s and has had many epithets since. First  was Hunt’s Mill, as you well know by now. Then it was dubbed the Black Mill. You see, one of the new owners turned from making grist to graphite. Greasy black dust issued forth from the mill. The same owner decided to switch next to the production of talc. So the next local name for it was the White Mill. And now, as you see, it is the Red Mill.

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Willows and an old pick-up made for good friends

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The look of the mill has changed with each ownership. The mill I saw that day with Adi was the result of centuries of tweaks.

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In the same county as Clinton, roughly 10 miles away, is the town of Alexandria where this one-room schoolhouse called Bunker Hill School House once stood. It was the Old Church School then and began life as a log building in the 1700s that was revised to give way to this 1860-frame. In use till the early 1920s, it was retired and used as a chicken coop and pig house before it was moved in the ’70s to its current location within the compound of the Red Mill.

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Students from the year 1891. They would have studied by the light of kerosene lamps and the sexes would have sat separately in the room. Girls to the left, boys to the right. The ‘good’ students would have been awarded the privilege of stoking the fire in the coal stove that heated the classroom. Students who were poor at studies would have got the dunce cap and high corner stool treatment. Loos were outdoors and these little men and women would have made do with corn cobs and catalogue pages as toilet paper. 

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Parsing the school room as it was. Windows came with generous frames as you can see, to allow the room maximum exposure to natural light, there being no electricity at the time. The children had sand tables at the front of the classroom to practise writing and on a shelf at the rear of this room there used to be pails in which the students carried their lunches.

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Coal stove

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Old school paraphernalia. No laptops here, mind you.

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The Tenant’s House for quarry workers. It had a parlour and kitchen on the first floor and two bedrooms on the second. The unit was first built by an Eli Bosenbury in the 19th century for the sum of $38. Life was notoriously simple. There was no electricity till the 1940s, so it was lived in the light of kerosene lamps, water had to be lugged to the kitchen in 8-quart buckets from a spigot located outside since there was no plumbing, children slept on the floor on mattresses, and stacked their clothes on the floor, there being no dressers at their disposal. 

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One of the quarry workers who lived in the Tenant’s House starting 1860 was Peter Dalrymple. He was a day labourer who paid up $25 annually as rent for this house. He had a large family that included his wife and 8 children. From the expression of their faces on this snippet, they look quite contented to me despite the hardships they must have faced in their daily lives.

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The replica log cabin, modelled on the early 18th-century childhood home of local Revolutionary War General, Daniel Morgan. Here is a typical way the original colonial settlers lived when they occupied this new land.

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The log cabin originally had a sod roof which had to be watered during dry spells. Log cabins usually had these small rooms because trees that were used were seldom more than 30 feet in length. Plus smaller rooms could be heated more efficiently by the open fires on which one cooked as well.

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Windows were small and few to prevent the loss of heat, and more than often they had no glass,  but were covered by a loose fabric. Roofs were pitched low and there was normally just enough headroom to allow a sleeping loft for children because it was warmer near the chimney.

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Essentially your kitchen garden

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Corn crib where corn was dried and stored

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The quarry was named the Mulligan Quarry after the Irish Mulligan brothers from Cavan County in Ireland who worked at the quarry and later bought it.

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Clinton was rich in dolomite limestone, a kind of calcite rock. After a great fire in the town in the 1800s, Mulligan stone was used to rebuild the town.

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The Stone Crusher and Screen House stands adjacent to the quarry. Limestone was dynamited and loaded here. Large chunks were pulverised and the screen sorted them out into four sizes that would then be led into chutes to be loaded onto wagons that would wait at the bottom of the building.

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An impressive 19th century carriage shed

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Kayaking on the South Branch of the Raritan

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Because one cannot have enough of such views.

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Or this, for that matter.