Scrambled August

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Just like scrambled eggs, yes. Clouds of disintegrated thoughts and distended grump.

August was to be the year of our Spanish road trip. An epic journey lasting nearly three weeks to mark the year of my fortieth birthday. This would be the time we would have been sat making endless lists, marking places on the map, totting up a rough budget for the trip, looking up our hotel stays all over again and thrilling at the thought of basking in the view of the Andalucian mountains, desolate sierras dotted with pueblos blancos, the roll call of limestone villages that turn up perched upon the high mountain roads and clifftops like whitewashed visions.

We would have found seats in a small corner cafe in some town of exquisite medieval beauty and breakfasted like kings on plates of crisp churros and dark chocolate, and I would have shut my eyes to savour the pure pleasure that jets through the body when you have fried dough at your disposal, and a meal you have paid a measly four euros for.

A litany of would-haves.

A litany of memories from the winter of 2016 when we had an apartment in Barcelona, a hotel in Malaga, and later in Madrid, because Adi had an ongoing project in Spain. An entire February spent taking trains by myself at dawn, of roaming the atmospheric alleys of cities and towns that made me feel like I was walking the pages of a book not yet written, seeing cities with strangers, and returning bone-tired to Adi, who along with his colleagues would meet me at night for dinner — the Spanish eat so terribly late.

Sticking to my customary dinner-by-seven routine, I used to meet my husband and co. for post-prandial drinks. They meanwhile ordered up meat-heavy dinners that made my stomach churn, especially at the sight of rare-done meat, blood oozing from thick slabs of steak. Our Spanish friend was in charge of picking dishes for the night from menus everywhere, and I marvelled at his ability to put away all that meat. Loved seeing the passion with which he fell upon his plate of food, for no matter what our likes and dislikes, when it comes to our gustatory preferences, what matters is the singular passion for good food. Be it vegetarian, non-vegetarian, vegan or fruitarian, raw food or paleo. What matters to me ultimately is the way your eyes light up when you see a plate of food, see the world in a grain of food, to riff bravely on Blake.

Adventuring and misadventuring, I swooned over the moorish beauty of Malaga, walking all over town under the hot midday sun till the legs screamed in protest and I almost missed the train to Madrid because I had been ambitious enough to slog up its hills to the castle called Gibralfaro. There was Granada, the old lanes and bylanes of which I sighed over with a German woman, Sonja.

In Girona, I thought I was in another time and place, stood upon Emperor Charlemagne’s walls and staring at rows of cypresses guarding cathedrals and monasteries. I must have been.

The molten silver waves lapping up the deserted beach near the castle of Altafulla in ancient Tarragona. The haunting Islamic-Gothic loveliness of Zaragoza, the magnificent standalone Benedictine monastery at Montserrat, utterly charming Madrid where I walked in the footsteps of Hemingway, and then Barcelona naturally. With a start I realise, I have not written posts on some of these wonderful places and I intend to remedy this oversight in the next few posts.

After exploring all of these places on my own, I was delighted when Adi and I walked the streets of Ronda and Mijas together. It felt complete.

So, this was to be our summer of seeing places that live in my memory. Old for me, new for Adi. And I was bloody keen on him looking at them through my eyes, me looking at them through his, gaining fresh perspectives. I am gutted at the falling through of our plans, but there is no self-pity, mind you. I cannot, will not stand for it.

No, I am not your dealer of self-pity, wallowing in that self-absorbing emotion which gets you nowhere. I am simply your dealer of words, looking for a way out of discontented moments through a flapping horde of moods and memories.

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Girona
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Granada
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When sat in a churreria, talk less, scoff more. Easy, when alone.
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Montserrat
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Zaragoza
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Malaga
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Slipping in a cheeky one of me from a cerveceria in Madrid. The waiter insisted on taking it, with the Hemingway poster that he took off the wall. He was, I imagine, amused by my enthusiasm at bagging this dark corner seat where the author once sat and drank beer while people watching.
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Fav hangout in Madrid
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Ronda

 

 

 

 

The Epicurean Pleasures of Lucca

In the town of Lucca, a Tuscan secret of sorts, we cooked with a chef in his palazzo (as I already waffled on in my earlier post). It was an intimate gathering of eight. Each one of us different personalities. Strung together by a common thread of curiosity, and if I may add cheekily, a passion for Prosecco. The point of this informal conclave was to figure out the theorem of Italian cooking. How do simple ingredients come together and produce an intense play of flavours? Wherein every morsel creates mini explosions in the taste buds, makes you close your eyes, smack your lips in appreciation, and reach out for more.

The chef, Giuseppe, who was the shepherd of this Prosecco-swigging lot, was born in an olive oil press in a Tuscan valley. He was part of a professional kitchen till he realised that the tension of cooking so far outweighed its pleasures. Giuseppe hit upon the fine idea of organising cooking classes within the comforts of his own home. His wife, who he met through these classes (which leads you to question if life is more than a mere string of coincidences), is a crackerjack at setting up a dining table fit for the queen. You can see how at the very beginning. It would be fair for me to to say for all that we were overcome by this glamorous apartment we found ourselves in, in a grand old palazzo within the medieval city walls of Lucca.

Beneath the blue skies of that hot summer’s day, we went shopping for the ingredients, before we entered the kitchen. As a child, I used to head out everyday for groceries with my father. Naturally, I take great pleasure in this sensory ritual of combing through fresh produce.

There we were, picking up focaccia at a feted bakery in town, culling sweet ancient bread called buccellato from old pasticcerias, examining yellow courgette flowers in grocery shops, tomatoes plump and small, red, green and yellow and sighing over their glossy beauty. More sighs later when we sunk our teeth into their luscious ripeness. The tomatoes burst with liquid beauty in our mouths, along with rounds of fresh mozzarella and basil, rocket leaves drizzled with briskly whisked balsamic and olive oil. We swooned over focaccia, oily and salty, crusty and yet soft inside. Mopped up fresh olive oil with our breads, la scarpetta, after smothering the focaccia with generous lashes of olive oil. Hey, there was no shame there. The most hardened keto advocates would have been driven into unashamed scoffing of bread. I can guarantee you that. Noshing on young and old pecorino cheeses with honey and fig relish.

Then we chopped and cooked, picking up on the chef’s earnest homilies on bread, rice, and olive oil, and left the palazzo, rich with stories, our stomachs lined with enough food, rivers of olive oil and red wine running through our veins — and maybe a scant knowledge of the workings of a Tuscan kitchen.

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At one of the oldest pasticceria in Lucca, Taddeucci, to pick up Buccellato. The bakery goes back to the year 1881. Buccellato in Lucca is bought fresh daily from this bakery, because if you have not bought it from here, you are a sad twat. 
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Buccellato, the crusty breakfast bread studded with raisins and aniseed.
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Gaping at the longest ream of focaccia at Forno a Vapore Amadeo Giusti in Lucca.
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Chef Giuseppe. This is for you, Caroline.
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Beefsteak tomatoes
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Pepperoncini, the dried version of which we bought greedily.
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 San Marzano tomatoes
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Pomodoro Pizza. Tomatoes from Firenze (Florence).
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Small red tomatoes on vines and vibrant green tomatoes.
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Courgette blossoms
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Inside the tranquil palazzo
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To the work stations
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But not before we are armed with endlessly flowing Prosecco.
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Cheese with fresh honey and fig relish
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My delighted love

 

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The many stages that went into cooking a soul-pleasing lunch.
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All-important task of chopping and slicing tomatoes.
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He bagged the courgette blossoms.
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Spooning out Gnudi (which means as it looks, a kind of naked ravioli). This is a Tuscan dumpling dish made of spinach and ricotta, and slipped into homemade tomato sauce.
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Feast your eyes on that lusty tomato sauce and tell me you do not want it right away.
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To the beautifully laid out, thin and long wooden table.
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Pumpkin and courgette blossoms, baked and gobbled. 
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Gnudi, served with fragrant risotto that is cooked with carnaroli, not arborio. The Tuscans sniff at the mention of arborio like it’s dog food.
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Thick Italian custard and berries, to be soaked up with buccellato.
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Nothing says it like plates licked clean and glasses of robust reds held up with cheshire-cat grins at the end of a long-drawn lunch. Limoncello at the very end to make sure that no one went home with a clear head.

 

To the New Season and the Past

Autumn has stolen in this year even before we could feel the sting of summer here on the East Coast. Sure the heat was blistering for a couple of weeks, but then it rained like the heavens were brimming, and could not, would not indeed, hold it in. The skies would darken and thicken with mushrooming clouds and there was pure drama in the build-up. When it pelted down, it was even more joyous, except if you were caught outside in the perishing rain.

The year has sped by in a string of house guests. Mid-August we travelled for 16 days straight, when we felt the sting of summer in Italy and Croatia alright. Yet what bliss! The mind and body screamed in unison, “We are not going back anywhere”. Eventually, we got back, but the head and heart refuse to leave behind the space they have nested in, in these beautiful lands.

In Tuscan country, we woke up to the sight of dreamy hills and dark cypresses with their ramrod backs, high above a town called Barga. Pastries and croissants for elevenses. After, we seasoned our souls with bread and olive oil so green that you could smell the grass in it. Demolished bowls of aglio e olio and grilled veggies drizzled with more olive oil. Learnt to cook creamy ricotta dumplings called gnudi; discovered that risotto in Tuscany is made with carnaroli, never Arborio, which is considered pedestrian; and used courgette blossoms for baked dishes. All at the palazzo of an Italian chef who was easy on the eye.

At the chef’s magazine-ready interiors, we met people from Glasgow, Sydney and California, became a family for a noon, having cooked together and exchanged stories, all washed down with endless bottles of Prosecco, then Chianti, Brunello and limoncello.

When you travel, the essence of it is formed of these stories culled from strangers. Different people, different stories, bundles of shared laughter, moments of frothy joy. Some things are priceless.

Two were American ex-military officers, one of whom might be in his 60s but has shifted to the Tuscan town of Lucca to start life afresh there. The other was hopped up about growing courgette blossoms and ways of distinguishing a male blossom from a female. Their genuine passion for food and life was endearing. My favourite was Uncle Bill, as we referred to him. He taught me the Italian expression, fare la scarpetta. It is the custom of mopping up your plate (any extra sauce, oil) with bread. I have been indulging in fare la scarpetta  ever since. The Australian woman was old and ballsy. She had just arrived in Tuscany after hiking along The Path of the Gods on the Amalfi coast. Next was a possible backpacking adventure with her son. The rest were a family, a couple and their young daughter from Glasgow. The woman bore such an uncanny resemblance to Liz Hurley that I could not help comment upon it. Overhearing this natter, her husband warned in his lovely Scottish burr, “OKAY, no more Prosecco for you.”

With this bunch of people, and the chef, we shopped for fresh tomatoes and courgette blossoms in a local grocery store where the sight of the variety of pomodoro, plump and juicy, was a feast for the eyes. The produce was so fresh that the dishes we cooked tasted like no other. Then hopping over to an old bakery for some tasty bread, we sighted the longest slab of focaccia we have ever seen, in Lucca. It was 16-feet long. Epicurean explorations do feed the soul besides an ever-ready gut. We gobbled the focaccia later at the palazzo with plenty of extra virgin olive oil. I think I can hold a discourse on just bread now.

Tuscany was a revelation. Its beauty unsurpassed and added to by the warmth of the Italians. For beauty is an aura of goodness and nothing less than that. Like the young biker couple who made a pit-stop like us along a vineyard for photos, plucked plenty of grapes, and insisted we share. The old couple we met near the Maremma region, who shared their bounty of freshly plucked berries with us.

The generous quantities of bread and pasta had to be worked off, unless we intended to come back, two rotund individuals who would not fit into our plane seats. It worked out to our advantage then that we almost always found ourselves trudging to these towns built by the ancient Etruscans upon tuff hills. Towns threatened by erosion, but somehow clinging on for dear life.

If you look at the featured photo, it is of Civita de Bagnoregio, a tufa town two hours away from Rome and still in the Lazio region of Italy. It is a fantastic town shooting for the skies from its perch upon a column of tuff. Locals call it the dying town. A big chunk of it has already collapsed into the Valle dei Callanchi (Valley of the Badlands) that is its dramatic backdrop and only about 8 people live there now. Along with a colony of cats.

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Civita de Bagnoregio

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Valle dei Callanchi

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Limestone houses of Civita

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From its centuries old church

That’s my return from the land of silence. See how my mouth shoots off. Naturally, I have got to leave the Balkans for another post. It is time for me to sign off, but not before I point out that this is why I have been missing out on the blogging world and its news. Your news. I will catch up by and by and see how life has been unfurling at your end.

Love and peace for the season of flaming beauty.

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.

The Lambertville Photo Roster

An idyllic town filled with artists and antiques by the Delaware river, Lambertville carries promises of halcyon days beneath the bowers of trees that line its streets. The photographs you shall see soon have all been culled from Adi, but I do feel rather dissatisfied that I do not have enough to do justice to the air of Victoriana that hangs about the town’s able shoulders. A church spire glinting beneath the harsh glare of the noon sun, paint peeling off the red door on the street, carefully renovated old house fronts with period features still in place, transom windows, quaint lampshades lighting up interiors of cafes housed within aged properties, historic brick and stone facades, an old railroad and sprawling antique stores brimming with vintage finds.  I hope you will be a little carried away by the workings of this 18th century town that was the stopping point of choice for stagecoaches travelling the New York-Philadelphia route along the old York Road.

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The former residents of this town, the Lamberts and the Coryells, rest in the graveyard of the First Presbyterian Church of Lambertville. The church building dates back to 1854.
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The Marshall House is the legacy of James Wilson Marshall, the man from Lambertville who directed the world’s attention to California with his discovery of gold flakes along the American River. The irony is that Marshall received no recognition or gold and lived a hand-to-mouth existence till the day he died. 
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Adi and sister-in-law give into a photo at the stairs of The Marshall House that was built using ‘Lambertville Pancake brick’, a locally dug and fired clay. 
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‘Gram worthy streets and coffee shops of Lambertville
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Artists busy at work on the pavements of the 18th century town.
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The Victorian property within which sits Caffe Galleria, spelt with a double f as a tribute to its owner’s Italian roots.
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Inside the cafe, you still see a dated fireplace, beautiful wood panelling, and a period bathtub swathed in dust in its quaint loo.

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A church for the Catholics on Bridge Street
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A peep inside St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church
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Oomphy doors of Lambertville
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Antiquing pleasures
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Antique farm tools. A hand crank seeder.
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And other curios…

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Attacked by antiques

Whoop Whoop, These Summer Days of Bobbsey Twins and Vintage Gold Glasses

I woke up feeling chipper today. Was it because I was in a state of almost intoxicated sleep where I drifted in and out thinking, here I am getting out of bed now, but there I was, still in that beatific place? Or, was it because my husband appeared suddenly to lift me straight out of bed and deposit me in the bath? I could not tell, but the latter is rare commodity nowadays with Adi wading incessantly through a bottomless pit of work (on his part, the impetus would have been decidedly his morning dose of blended cold coffee).

Strangely enough, it is also one of those mornings when my body feels unaccountably light and frothy, ready to whiz up the intimidating Kanchenjunga (I told you, some kind of foolish and manic goodness this), or even brave the mugginess inside a cheese factory to churn cheese. If you have been inside of one of those, you know it is a feat. If you have not, imagine a steam room where you would not last more than 10 minutes. Or actually, you could just imagine plodding through the streets of Calcutta/Chennai in summer. Strange because it is the time of the month when my hormones do their crazy dance, and I feel far from dancing, more like curling up with a book into a ball of misery.

To not drive my male readers into the farthest corners of the universe, let me get on with the pleasant discoveries of this season. My sister-in-law was visiting us, sans family. She had heard from a friend about the antique towns of New Jersey. Imagine our chagrin. We have been here two years, and yet, we had no blooming idea about their existence.

It is thus that we found ourselves an hour away from home in a town called Lambertville.

Lambertville. When my sister-in-law read its name out loud as an antiquing town upon the Delaware river, my mind started twirling. Intimate cafés, leafy streets, sprawling antique stores, people ambling through a riverside town…We drove into this town that I had conjured in my mind. As delightful as Cirencester in its antiquing prospects. With as large antique stores that made the heart flutter with the anticipation of experiencing past pleasures.

The Lenni Lenape Indians lived in Lambertville before it was colonised. After the land was bought off them, the first resident of the town was a gentleman called John Holcombe. This was sometime in the early 1700s. Why is it not called Holcombeville then? Well, in came a family next. The Coryells. They developed a portion of the town and even started a ferry here, which was subsequently used by George Washington and his men, when they were quartered here during the Revolutionary War. But was it called Coryellville, or even Georgetown, as the Coryells wanted, after one of their sons who served in the New Jersey forces? No sir, no. The honour went to the Lambert family who swished into town a century later, in the early 1800s. The Coryells seethed, but that is all they could have done anyway, stewed in righteous indignation, because John Lambert was a New Jersey governor. And as we know, politicians are politicians for a reason.

The sky was chirping blue that morning, and the sun, it shone with no cares or clouds to mar its radiance. It was the kind of day when the Delaware glistened like a sheet of gently rippling mossy green, in no particular rush to be anywhere else.

People of the ‘Gram, be warned. In Lambertville, you lose your mind.  Historic mansions and brick row houses straddle its tree-lined streets. The architecture is Victorian and Federal in style, at once so classic and lovely that you want to walk in and declare one of them to be yours from this day on. The small churches with their aged visage and stained glass windows evoke awe and even the cafés are housed in period properties along quiet bylanes.

I went batty inside the antique shops. At one, I lay my hands on a pair of gold, wire glass frames. They were delicate, prompting me to picture their former wearer as a twittering old lady with powdery, white hair. Then there were some tatty Bobbsey Twins numbers I grabbed greedily. The chatty woman at the till informed me that they were from an old estate she had been to. She also told the elderly man she was conversing with, “Like this young lady, this generation loves everything old. All these things I buy at auctions, especially books, they are snapped up.” At this point I butted in: “Umm, I am not really as young as you make me out to be.” The man nodded wisely here and said, “Best not to go there.”

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We continued to flit from store to store in a leisurely manner, by the end of which Adi flopped down at a bench outside a cheese boutique selling farm-fresh cheeses — and declared that he was Done. Oh, but were we? After nibbling on some sharp cheeses, we found a Turkish man selling Azerbaijanian, Kazakh and Turkish carpets and bags, and my sister-in-law was stoked by her finds. It was the perfect day for rummaging through interesting wares and cracking good bargains, and may I add, forgetting credit cards behind at aforementioned Turkish shops. Which meant a thunderous husband, and later, Turkish sweets from the man who returned the card to Adi. Here I have to slip in surreptitiously that I also forgot my phone at home. The suffering was all mine. All those photographs waiting to be clicked. Sob. Naturally I have to borrow them from Adi, but he is on a constant stream of calls, so I shall have to leave the beauty of the artist town of Lambertville to the workings of your pretty mind.

But before I leave, it would be amiss of me not to mention the old canal that runs alongside Lambertville’s old railway station. The canal that was laid out by thousands of Irish immigrants in the 19th century till a wave of cholera swept through town. Most of those poor labourers lie buried alongside this canal where people stroll or bike today on long, summery days. Odd to think of these stories that stay concealed behind the most serene facades.

I wish that this was all. For Adi was knackered. But why be satisfied with one bohemian town when there may be the promise of another lurking around the corner? In our case, right across the Delaware and the bridge sitting astride it, was the town of New Hope. Naturally, we were thrilled to bits. Two artist villages for the price of one. We had struck gold.

 

 

 

The Sublime Winds of May

The winds are in a hurry to get somewhere today. Their whooshing sounds permeate the insulation of these glass windows and there is this suggestion that they are feeling rather spunky. That’s all there is to it. Just the suggestion. No nannies and tots floating around. But there is this romantic feeling that sets in upon the senses when the wind whistles outside and the skies are smothered with clouds.

Now, the last time I last wrote here, I was in Calcutta, on a spontaneous visit to my parents. My father had just had an angioplasty then and I thought it was imperative to have a look in on them, if not for anything else, for the mind to stop concocting grim scenarios.

On the way to Calcutta, I flew Cathay Pacific for the first time. I was won over on two counts. The service was simply splendid and the food so healthy and flavourful that by the time I reached Hong Kong airport for a few hours’ layover, even after a 15-hour long flight, I was brimming with contentment.

I headed to The Wing, Cathay Pacific’s flagship lounge in Hong Kong, where I bathed in the shower suites. Minimalistic and neat inside, each suite was sheathed in beautiful dark stone and the fixtures carved from bamboo wood. Kitted up as it was with the fresh-smelling lux cleansers and shampoos, I came out feeling spiffy and ready to take on the world which as it turned out was not too tough. It was but a pillowy world of fluffy baos, you know, those big Chinese buns filled with vegetables and meat. The Chinese woman at the counter barely smiled and she understood no English, something that is rather common in the city of Hong Kong if you saunter into its flea markets and street food stalls, but all that mattered was that she doled out a platter of baos. Now these were proper bad boys. You could fashion them into pillows and sink into them, really. Except that the teeth would rather sink into them and make quick work of the matter at hand. This took place in the Noodle Bar which was one of the three sections in the lounge.

There was the Long Bar too where you could sit and catch a drink apart from making a beeline for the buffet, but this was kind of boring, it being early morning in Hong Kong, so I wandered into the third section, a Coffee Loft. Ooh now there was the real deal following a heartwarming breakfast. Shots of espresso and traditional  pastries. My pick was the Chinese Wife Winter Melon Cake. Names get me. Just like books with smashing covers and titles. Who says I am not superficial? To get to the heart of the pastry, it was flaky, and if I were a bard, there would be sonnets on Chinese melon cakes. This beauty was rich (you cannot go wrong with pork lard shortening) and it dissolved in the mouth in a beautiful symphony of melon and spices. As usual, there are enough stories behind the name, but I will tell you of two of them.

One goes back to a man’s love for his wife who sold herself as a slave to get money for her father-in-law’s treatment. The man conjured up the idea of this cake as a street snack. His plan was to get his wife back once he had enough money. The other is about a Guangzhou chef who worked at a teahouse. He initially took some round pastries home as a treat for his wife. Her feedback: They made it better in her hometown, with winter melon paste. The chef reworked the pastry with melon paste and gave it a flat shape.

Dear men, it is thus easy to draw the conclusion that good things come to those who listen to their women.

When I landed in Calcutta late at night, the wind was knocked out of me. It was sultry. The real feel was often 49°C during the day and I was dissolved in the heat every morning I headed out for a run. Summer had blustered its way into the city. But in a few days swept in Kalbaisakhi. The season of thunderstorms when the skies grow dark, so suddenly that you do not have the time to even cuss. Smoky blue clouds mushroom in armies and hang ominously above your head, like dark devils with a mission. They then proceed to let loose upon you with all their might. These are accompanied by dust storms, which are not kind on you if you happen to be walking on the roads like a daft creature out to court trouble. Naturally, I had the thrill of being caught in one. I had forgotten how it all was since in the last few years I have been going back to Calcutta during winters when the weather turns all mellow and lovely.

After two weeks, I returned home to Bayonne, having spent time in Calcutta schooling and scolding my dad — also feeling relieved that all was fine with my folks for now. When I got back, I found to my delight tiny leaves upon the trees and cherry blossoms about to bloom. It was still nippy and the days were starting to warm up. On days, when it rains, it all looks like a beautiful painting. And with the change of seasons, there are children now in the park, yellow dandelions matting the grass in the parks, waiting to turn into those airy fairy balls of seeds, flowers everywhere you look. It is so happy and joyous that I can feel my heart bloom along with them. So that it is also time for me to stop prattling, leave you with some random photographs, and pop out for a wind-in-my-hair-and-a-song-in-my-heart kinda walk.

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I had forgotten how scenic the landing is in Hong Kong.
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Cruising along the runway in Hong Kong
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Bamboo wooden vibes of the Noodle Bar at The Wing, coupled with suspicious lady.
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Baos stuffed with pork and cabbage, sweet lotus, and the third was a plain mantou, a bao made from wheat dough. Teamed with the scallions and chilli and peanut sauce, these were the formidable three.
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Above-mentioned, Chinese Wife Winter Melon Cake.
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Flaky pastry to swoon over
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Moonlit night in Calcutta on our terrace
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Back in Bayonne, the green is so fresh and young, as the trees shrug back into their clothes. Nature’s fashion is effortless.
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Well hello, long time! What, no peanuts? Must have been waiting for a little booty since people here insist on feeding them.
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Cherry blossoms with their brief and intense spell of beauty
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And, that’s a wrap for today from Bayonne. 

Delhi to Calcutta

It is bright outside. The sun has the personality of summer, its glare reflected off the veneer of ice that coats the road. I can see great slabs of ice on the Hudson beyond, but I am tempted to step out for a few minutes even though it feels like -20°C outside. My great temptation is the resident Great Bernese of our building who is swaying her beautiful, big body through the park. Plus I have not met her yet in person and that seems a shame.

How different it seems to my time in India. For I felt a curious tug to Calcutta this time. Curious because here I had spent my grown-up years trying to get away from it, yet there I was actually lapping every moment I spent in my former home town. The thing about building this feeling called home in different places is that you have pockets of your soul invested in each place. Every time you return to any of those places, you have a reawakening of emotions. Then there is the constant clash running in your mind, the comparison of the old with the new, of keenly felt dissatisfaction at changes, and once in a while, an acknowledgment of the fact that some changes have actually been for the better.

In India, I find caught up thus in a maelstrom of emotions. The weather, the people, the roads, the scenery, the very pace of life, change significantly enough that the mind takes time to slip back into old familiar routines, what the body and mind has been used to for the longest time. It starts with Delhi, the city where I came into my own, but I have a short stop there on the way to Calcutta. So I do not have time to mull over it. I do not have time to see it once again as I used to as a reporter. I have just enough time to spend moments with family and friends and devour the luscious food cooked at my in-laws’. But I had a moment there when I felt unsettled in Delhi. Nothing too grave on the face of it. It’s just that when familiar roads start to look a little unfamiliar, you realise with a start that places and roads can gradually be erased from the mind. How could that even come to be, you wonder?

Then I got to Calcutta and the pace of life slowed down almost immediately. The pace of life seems hurried there only when it comes to eating. While Adi was there for a few days before returning to his parents’, we did eat out as much as we could — egg rolls, Indo-Chinese, more Indo-Chinese, phuchka (street food) over and over again (Adi was on a diet of phuchkas), and breakfasts at local sweet shops…but you cannot eat constantly really, so you take a breath, and you decide to stop before your explode. Though my Calcutta cousins here would like to interject and point out, as a couple of them did, that I certainly do not eat enough. That I do not eat at all. That I am sure to fall ill by the time I turn 60. I do not know if I can accommodate them, but you never know. The human body is a mystery.

Once Adi left, my brother and his family too left for a holiday in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where they had quite an adventure in that they were caught in cyclonic weather, but I was home. There was enough time at hand to bask in the earthy quality of Calcutta. I met old friends, nattered for hours, took out old books from my library room to dust and read, spent time running around the neighbourhood parks and getting chased by stray dogs who for some reason love to chase bicycles, cars (and now I am adding me to the list). I also slowly jotted down recipes from my mother — recipes with no measures, but after spending years in the kitchen, I have stopped carping about the lack of them. Cooking is after all an instinctive art, unlike baking. There were always four different dishes of veggies in every meal. I did not miss eating out. It is something I savour every time I am there in Calcutta, because at one point, ma was ill. She would hardly get up from bed. Clinical depression is suffocating even for the family. And here she is all about the place, chopping and cooking with ease, for hours at a stretch. She has mellowed with age, my mother — which makes it easier to actually enjoy her company (to think that she could grow on me is a most miraculous thought). Now, it has been a few weeks that I have been back in Bayonne, but I still miss it all.

Delhi

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The star of the show at my in-law’s is the cook. Here he is waiting on the fire to barbecue kebabs.
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My in-laws just before we fell upon a Christmas feast put together by my mother-in-law.
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Adi with our nephew and niece
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Boozy sisters-in-law at Delhi Gymkhana
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Christmas Eve with our friends
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Hmm cake, can you even have enough of it?
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The mad as a hatter musician who does exquisite covers of Ella Fitzgerald
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Journalists of Delhi

Calcutta in Colour

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Coz my mother’s fond of these leafy boys
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And they deliver enough bananas and banana flowers to demand a few images
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Catching the liquid sunshine in Calcutta
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Banana flowers. In Bengal, these are used to rustle up mochar ghonto. A dish cooked with potato, a few spices and garnished with grated coconut. 
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Shiuli. Night jasmine. Its fragrance steals over the senses like the sweetest melody.
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Iconic Park Street
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A view of the city’s past glory — St. Paul’s Cathedral and Victoria Memorial — from Monkey Bar
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When the family sans my mother (she eschews fried foods) stops for a round of phuchkas.
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Stepping out for egg rolls with the sister-in-law and nephew
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Coffee with a friend with whom I used to catch the bus to school (in pigtails and glasses).
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My former flatmates who live in Delhi and Kiev
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Ready to gobble up Indo-Chinese at Chowman with Adi and my brother.

Calcutta in B&W

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My father and the vegetable seller 
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Fish sellers
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Phuchka-wallah 
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Eco Park,  a sprawling affair in Calcutta where the Taj Mahal brushes shoulder with the Pyramids of Egypt and the Colosseum too. It is as mad as the chief minister.
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Cristo Rei also shows up near the Pyramids in Eco Park.
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The family gathers over sparkling wine on New Year’s eve. My parents can never keep their eyes open.
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Squeezing into a frame because that’s what family does. My arm features prominently too.

We Were in an Apartment in the Air!

To start with, I wanted to tell you about the terrific manner in which one may travel nowadays. Think beyond Business. As a frequent flyer informs me, ‘Forget it, everyone flies business nowadays’. The thing is that one can actually have an ‘apartment’ or even lord over a ‘residence’ in the air. Here I see you rolling your eyes and thinking, ‘what on earth’, before proceeding to inform me that it has been around for some time. But in 2014 Etihad amplified the definition of luxury in the sky. This made the first-class cabins of European and American carriers look like old fogeys. The first-class suites of Singapore (the old ones) and Emirates were suitably snubbed too.

On each of its double-decker Airbus A380s, Etihad introduced nine first-class suites that are known as Apartments if you will and a hoity-toity affair called The Residence.

I would be a pretentious twat if I said that I was not overwhelmed. That my senses did not go into a tizzy at the sight of a whole suite to myself on a flight. That I did not want to run the whole length of the plane, to and fro, like a crazed creature. That the dapper butler with his fine accent did not make a difference.

‘A butler! Did you just say there was a butler on board?’ I hear you ask. Damn right, sistah. Downton Abbey-style. A younger, handsome version of Carson. To this, bung in a chef too.

Three days before Christmas, we were leaving behind the city of immeasurable charm, Paris. Along with that a delightfully relaxed celebration of our wedding anniversary (to think that we have been married for seven whole years already). When we boarded the upper deck of the A380 at Charles de Gaulle that would whisk us into Abu Dhabi in a matter of 7 hours, it took off the edge of the sting (a part of it anyway) of leaving Paris.

The suite was splendid. Its latticed doors came together with the consistency of butter to slide shut. The beige armchair by the window could accommodate three of me in its cushy Italian leather seat. Opposite it was a swivel 24-inch flat screen telly and an ottoman that would be transformed into a twin-size bed, long enough to fit Adi. The making of this bed would naturally be taken care of by the flight attendant because remember you are a helpless ninny, to be cosseted and cared for. Why should you have to lift a finger for your cake?

What got me going was the discovery of Bose headsets (so nickable, but cannot be) and a full-size vanity mirror. Then the fact that I could slip in my book, travel journal and kindle into a drawer (this proved to be my undoing) and stow my bags into a space beneath the ottoman (I hate putting my bag into the overhead bin because I always want to fish out something from it).

Adi was adjacent my suite. A partition halfway between the two suites could be lowered when we were in bed.

Now as soon as we were on board, we were offered the customary welcome drink of Champagne and dates — and a change of clothes accompanied by an amenity kit in a beautiful yellow leather bag from Acqua di Parma. ‘I am going to change into mine straight away,’ I announced to Adi and hopped off to the loo which turned out to be oh so lovely. It had a shower. The entire affair was so swanky with beautifully lit interiors that I kept thinking it was all a dream.

Before the flight took off, a chef appeared in my suite and offered anything at all. He could customise dishes outside of the menu. Maybe I should have come up with something ridiculous but I just went with whatever was on the menu, simply because there was enough to choose from. Next he enquired if I would like a hot shower — they need notice so that they can prepare a shower for you. Of course, you have to take a five-minute bath. I was too lazy, but for those who travel longer distances it is a blessing.

Later, Adi and I dined together in his suite. A retractable table was unfolded for us and the food was exactly as I would find in a fine-dining restaurant. With the best of Champagne and service. This was followed by the flight attendant making up our beds in some time so that we could slide our doors on the world outside — and let me say this that I would have never believed the decadence of it all till I stepped into the Apartment.

P.S.: I came back with four lessons from our stay in the Apartment.

  • The importance of using miles. A single ticket would have cost us anywhere near $8,000 for a long-haul flight between Paris and Abu Dhabi. This is where Adi’s banking miles with American Airlines rewarded us. Etihad has airline partners and American Airlines is one of them. Each of our ticket could be booked for 65,000 miles.
  • Take a super-long flight to avail of the luxury of such experiences. For us, 7 hours seemed way too short.
  • Never slide the contents of your bag into the drawers. If you are as scatty as me, you are bound to leave them behind even when your husband asks you twice if you have collected everything. I have just received my Kindle back, but lost my book of Love Poems from Shakespeare & Co. and my beloved journal. Whoever nicked them has taste.
  • The Residence which is the pinnacle of grandeur on board, can cost upto $32,000 (above 2 million miles) for a single ticket for long-distance flights. I found it meh given the astronomical figure it demands. Our butler took us in when Adi asked if we could peep in. The only differences I found significant were that you could queen over your private loo and a double bedroom (but the bed was mighty tiny, like the ones those old-time kings and queens slept in).

Helpfully I have reminders in hand if my head gets detached and starts to float. Midway through our dinner, Adi looked at me over a glass of bubbly and said with a gentle smile, ‘I hope you are not getting used to it. If the Apartment is for our 7-year anniversary, for our 10th, it will be the Shatabdi Express.’

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Etihad’s First-Class Suites
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The delighted miles hoarder
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Preen away at this vanity mirror
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Your personal mini bar
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My precious, now lost, commodities in the drawer of my suite
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The Apartment’s coat rack
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Self-explanatory
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Some caviar
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Chickpea soup
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Lime sorbet as palate cleanser
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Mezze platter
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An extra, just because I like this shot
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Prawn biryani
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Grilled black cod
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Profiteroles
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Cheese and crackers
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The beds
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When you peek out and let your jaws drop at the beauty of nature after you have had a measure of the beauty that man can create.

Snippets From Wears Valley

The road below the cabin dipped alarmingly. So sudden was this drop that it felt like rolling down a playground slide in tar. This road then led us on a serpentine drive up and down the mountains, past burnt-out trees, skeletal and stripped enough that it was a surprise they were standing at all. Half-built cabins too. A reminder that all it takes is a wildfire for every effort of man to be laid to waste (but here we are, creatures of toil and industry). The green was so very green, the hills with their stubbles of bluish-green startling, the sky thick with batches of clouds who could not make up their mind if they wanted to stay or go. Some settled atop the peaks to catch a breath before they dissolved into tears. The fancy of the clouds. In the Smoky Mountains, you will find that there is no guarantee. The rain clouds, they gather upon your heads in a jiffy. Before you think of the shortest swear, they let loose, and when they do, you’d better find a roof of some sort.

Before I get ahead of myself, we found ourselves in Wears Valley that runs parallel to the Smoky Mountains. Once a theater of squabbles between the Cherokee tribes and the first European settlers, and named for a Revolutionary War veteran, Samuel Wear.

It was an idyllic place. Isolated farms composed of old log houses and barns and sheds, mom-and-pop groceries with old biddies behind the till pointing out to basic tuck shops for tasty sandwiches and local fare, modest chapels and churches, mountain stores where they sell local concoctions of jams and jellies. Just an outpost of the old Appalachian culture with autumnal hoards of pumpkins and squashes as harbingers of this ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ that is finally upon us.

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