December

I have been gone long. But at the back of my mind has been this constant hum, “don’t be a numpty, get back to the blog already!” So the days have passed while I have been thinking of making a return, but words seem strangely sparse nowadays. Do you know what I mean? I think you do. I might meet you and talk endlessly, as is my wont, but when it comes to blogging, I feel like a dried-up well.

An endless litany of days just merge into the other, though I do not imply that I am discontented. Sure I have my wobbles (like any of us), but I have never looked more inward than now, to keep my soul invigorated. In all of this nature has made the biggest difference. I have found great comfort in watching the machinations of the birds that haunt the bay here. The season has brought about its customary visitors – flocks of Canada geese that honk in the evenings as they fly home, wherever that is, in perfect formations; the ring-billed gulls who perch themselves on the walls unafraid, even as one jogs by; the Snow Goose that looks picture perfect; the male mallards with their glistening green heads and the females with their speckled brown plumage; the cutesy Buffleheads that bob in couples on the waters. I have learnt to tell the young ring-billed gulls from the mature ones, by virtue of their plumage. Maybe because I have poring over Audubon’s wonderfully detailed field guide.

Meanwhile a snow storm in the last two days has coated my world pristine white. It has brought such a spark of joy. So what if I find myself slipping on the ice that has formed in the tracks on the park or sinking deep into the snow as I try to get to the many snowmen that have cropped up around us. Everyone is out there, sledding down the gentle slopes in the park, making the most of the landscape bathed in snow. We all need what we can get to tide us over this odd year, isn’t it?

I have been recharging myself through art. Watercolours and charcoal drawings. I have also started an etsy store: www.etsy.com/shop/Artbybasu?ref=seller-platform-mcnav. I hawk my wares on it. That apart I have been working on going the self-publishing route with my book. It is daunting and involves loads of research, but at least I have some control over the process. One needs control where one can find it, don’t you think? Anyway, I hope to get back to blogging more regularly, now that I have gingerly made my way back here, and catch up with my feed. Needless to say, but I shall put it out nonetheless, I have missed you all.

To you my lovelies, I send the brilliance of snow and oodles of love from Bayonne. Off I go to demolish some quiches and making December count.

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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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.

The River Town of Hope

An old grist mill caught my eyes. I was standing at the edge of the green truss bridge in Lambertville that spans the gentle Delaware and opens up to a twin town which does not however lie in New Jersey. Cross a line on the bridge and you find out that you have left the state of New Jersey behind; that now, my darling, you have entered the state of Pennsylvania.

With just the crossing of a bridge, we were in another town.

New Hope of the Lenni Lenape Indians; of a thousand acres of land gifted by King Charles II to a certain William Penn; of a succession of men who operated ferries and mills; of an industrial past riddled with working mills and the legacy of a small community that worked hard to produce paper, quarry stones and grind grains. That is till a bohemian lot of artists were attracted to the picturesque quality that this town presented with its farrago of farmhouses, mills and barns, creeks, and the river that slips gently by it.

Towards the end of the 1930s, a group of aesthetes bought the grist mill that you see in the lead picture. They transformed it into a summer theatre. The Bucks County Playhouse, where so many famous actors and actresses honed their trade before they tried their luck on Broadway. That is how artists put New Hope on the map for art aficionados. And then, the rest of us followed on a day drenched with sun, filled with hope about this town that called itself New Hope. Note that the mills had their say in deciding its title for there were the Old Hope Mills which burned down, only to be replaced with mint-fresh mills built as the New Hope Mills.

Right from the main street where the bridge disgorged us, we were hard pressed for which direction to take. But there was no chance of leaving any road unexplored here. There was a roll-call of restaurants and cafes, ice cream shops, hippie shops selling harem pants and Buddhas, decor stores where you could step in and complete wooden jigsaw puzzles only to find some pieces broken, gourmet popcorn shops, food markets promising a tantalising mix of world cuisine…and then there were charming old properties, stone houses and mansions. And a stone bridge below which a somnolent creek crawled past the photogenic grist mill of my fancies before it emptied into the Delaware river.

So what did we do? We ambled around as much as one could; had strange conversations with mothers holding onto occupied loos for their sons; scoffed delicious ice creams; bought popcorn; realised that a credit card had gone missing and which therefore an irate husband rushed to retrieve with remarkable scowls and mutterings; and perched ourselves at a quiet bar humming with couples, by the creek.

Weeping willows hanging shyly in veils of green around us, the waters of the creek sliding by in smooth emerald sheets while all along catching the reflection of leafy trees lining its banks and the dappled sunlight, and flights of sparkling wine. We were caught in the moment.

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A man-made waterfall at the former 19th century grist mill. Credit: Adi.

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Besotted by this old mill, so naturally you shall be treated to every possible angle of it. Credit: Adi.

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Baroque Victorian catches the eye on the main street. A man called Charles Crook had the mansion built for his wife who was a fan of scrollwork. Thus its elaborate stage-like front. Additionally, it was the first house in Bucks County to boast of running water. Mansion Inn is an 18th century property, and though the inn itself did not exist then, it is the site where George Washington and his men dined before heading for a battle of the American Revolution. Credit: Adi.

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A town of settlers, New Hope has these rows of picket-fenced historic brick and stone properties sheathed in ivy, that make the heart skip a beat. Historic plaques often tell of a house’s former owner and their importance in the scheme of things. Credit: Adi.

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The Town Hall once served as New Hope’s town hall, school and jail. Credit: Anuradha Varma.

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One of the oldest houses in New Hope is this, Carriage House. You can catch a night’s stay or more here because it is a bolthole for the keen, with exposed wooden beams and hardwood floors. Credit: Adi.

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A capture of my sister-in-law at the bar along the Aquetong Creek. Credit: Anuradha Varma.

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Sparkling wines and green creeks. Credit: Anuradha Varma.

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Crisp pita and divine avocado dips to cool scowls away. Credit: Anuradha Varma.

 

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Before falling upon that plate of grilled octopus with frenzy. Credit: Anuradha Varma.

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The bar by the creek. Credit: Adi.

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Picture perfect. However, that man on the bottom left hand side is not a dummy. For a moment I wondered if he was. Credit: Adi.

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Old grist mills can be grist for your fancy. Credit: Anuradha Varma

 

Love, Loaf and Hugo

If you asked a Parisian, what love is, he would thwack you with the golden loaf in his hand, and say, ‘Why, it is this, you numskull?!’ Here you would roll your eyes, and say, ‘Oh com’on, the baguette is such an overworked stereotype!’ Yet every time we stepped out on the streets of the city, there it was. A slender baton of crusty goodness staring back at us, tucked within the elbow of the old man in the long overcoat and beret, or sticking out of the tote of the young woman as she walked ahead of us. We even saw an old lady nibbling at the end of hers — probably best to have it fresh even before the day has waned. Lest the Parisian forgot this essential chunk of his daily diet, they have a Bread Observatory in Paris. It trots out the daily reminder, “Cou cou, tu as pris le pain?” (“Hello, did you pick up the bread?”). Now if that is not love, my darling, you tell me what love is. If you need further proof, just head to the nearest boulangerie. Finding yourself in a queue is an inevitability.

If we are talking about love, I would have to pipe in about the walrus with his fantastic pair of long, white tusks and grey, fluffy beard. My eyes fell upon this thing of rare, portly beauty in the window of a boutique, whereupon the batting of my eyelids made my husband acquiesce grudgingly. So that now this walrus sits pretty at home with my family of stuffed animals. This love however was eclipsed by far when we came across an elderly woman in the shadows of the Church of Saint-Sulpice. She was old but chic, in just the way an average Parisian is (must be the baguette). Even to walk their dogs, Parisians dress well. This lady was out with her 6-month old Cocker Spaniel pup, Lulu, who was the belle of the ball I thought, till I realised that Lulu was a tiny male with velvet soft curls. The love that shone in the woman’s eyes for her Lulu was palpable and touching enough that it remains in my mind as a radiant moment wrapped up in the soft sunshine of a December noon.

Be as it is may that we were in the 6th arrondissement when we met Lulu, I would actually like to whisk you into the 3rd and 4th arrondissements where lie the Marais quarter of Paris.

Charm and amour co-exist in Le Marais like an old married couple. What were marshes (hence Marais) in the early times, from land left over when a branch of the Seine dried up, is de rigueur today. But let me also describe to you how the day built up to lend itself to the laidback beauty of Le Marais.

We reached Le Marais after time spent dawdling at Shakespeare and Company, rifling through ancient books written by unknown authors, sniffing the scent of those old books (that’s how love smells), buying wedges of cheese from a Christmas market outside the Notre Dame, looking up dusty music covers and magazines that the line-up of Bouquinistes in their big fur hats and heavy coats sell along the Seine.

Twilight was gathering around us. Bang in the middle of a bridge — I believe it was the Pont Saint-Louis — a man sat playing his piano. The cadence of his music conjured up an ethereal quality to the evening when in the half light of it we stood by the bridge, a soft and cold breeze caressing us, lights glimmering across the Seine in the grand old buildings of Paris. It seemed fitting that we should walk into Le Marais right after, the afternotes of the performance playing in our heads as an amuse bouche of sorts.

Le Marais is timeless. Here there was no trace of Haussman’s wide boulevards and neoclassical facades. Here you still found a chunk of the old Paris, the narrow winding streets and medieval house fronts, interspersed by Jewish delis, tea salons, herb shops and hat shops, hole-in-the-wall curiosity shops, art galleries, hip bars and boutiques. There remains the impossible grandness of the city hall (Hôtel de Ville), and the opulence of the private townhouses, or hôtel particulier, which were built for aristocrats during the 17th century. Now, it would be entirely amiss of me not to take you to the oldest planned square of the city, Place des Vosges, that sits within the Marais quarter. Not only do I have memories of buying a beautiful blue cloche from an old man there in the autumn of 2016, but because it is also the location of one of my favourite museums. Maison de Victor Hugo — where I dragged Adi because a) it is free, and, b) it feeds the imagination to see how a writer of means lived in the 19th century.

Before I go, I wanted to draw your attention to that pair of aged nuns. They are hobbling across a cobbled courtyard and will gradually disappear into the shadows of the temple. Faith awaits them. And, did you notice the bride-to-be? She is trying on her wedding dress, looking a bit unsure. Then she catches your eye and casts a brilliant smile. All’s well there. As for the baker behind the till and his goodies displayed in the window, the less said the better. There lies defeat in the faces of endless slices of gateaux. It has been a fair amount of gawking and walking, so if your feet perchance feel worn, dear reader, take a cue from Hugo who had famously observed that to loaf is Parisian — and pause for that carafe of wine in one of those cafés where they serve enough popcorn to make it worth your while.

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These winding streets lead to baroque churches

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The 17th century Church of Saint Sulpice

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Rear portion of the church

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Place Saint-Sulpice and its church of the mismatched towers. You will probably know it better if I mentioned Da Vinci Code. It was shot here.

 

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A golden ball of fur charging towards her human 

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Meet Lulu

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Love

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Shakespeare and Company

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Cohen. Amour.

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Photobombed at the Notre Dame. It’s inescapable.

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Bouquinistes along the Seine

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My love and the Notre Dame

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Busy crossings

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The Seine

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 Île Saint-Louis

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 Le Marais

 

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St-Gervais-et-St-Protais

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Hôtel de Ville

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DC En Couleur

The need to craft words about the city falls away, for once you walk its wide open boulevards, there is no escaping the aura of power that envelopes it. Tangibly at that. Classic row houses lined up on broad, leafy avenues, impressive buildings of embassies and trade unions, grand hotels and saloons, followed by resplendent federal buildings and museums with their decided partiality for classical architecture, the many Ionic column, the mythological figures carved upon the facades… oh, but our senses were awash with these visions of grandeur. And all this, the conception of a Frenchman who in the late 1700s came upon a rolling landscape of hills and plantations, forests and marshes, at the confluence of two rivers. Together with the first president of the United States, Pierre Charles L’Enfant laid out an architectural groundwork for the city, imparting it with unequivocal majesty, but died without receiving payment and recognition.

It’s been a long-drawn-out two hundred years and more, Monsieur L’Enfant, but maybe, just maybe, you would strut its streets with pleasure, pronouncing it Ç’est Magnifique, even as you cock an eyebrow at the girl who walks past you with her mane of flaming brilliance and air of nonchalance.

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Again, in colour. Do you prefer the monochromatic version of it more?

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Colour, in DC

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The Commissary

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Samuel Hahnemann Monument. In memory of the German physician who founded the branch of alternative medicine called Homeopathy. 

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The Omani cultural center in DC

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Old Catholic churches

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The White House

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Trump and his admirers. Seen outside The White House.

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High-wheel bicycle for men. The Columbia Light Roadster, 1886. Spotted at The National Museum of American History.

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Apple Macintosh. The first box that arrived with flair in 1984 for the sum of $2,500. What a long way we have come!

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First Lady Caroline Harrison’s modest velvet-satin evening gown in burgundy and grey

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A New York dressmaker fashioned this gold damask and cream satin gown for Lucy Hayes, the first First Lady to boast of a college degree.

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First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s state dinner dress by Oleg Cassini in yellow silk, with an overlay of crepe chiffon, and her costume pearl necklace.

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Another Oleg Cassini grey brocade silk ensemble for Jackie Kennedy

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Curious stranger

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Us 

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Capitol Hill

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Library of Congress

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Shots from within the Library

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Minerva at the Library of Congress

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Feeling fizzy at Fiola Mare

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Lusciously grilled octopus, branzino, langoustine and lobster

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Raviolo Carbonara with black truffles and Beech mushrooms

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The National Monument

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Granite and marble come together in this imperial memorial to Thomas Jefferson

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National Monument through the columns of Jefferson Memorial

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Twilight on the Potomac

Upon the Snow-Laden Slopes of the North Cascades

The loveliness of the Pacific Northwest enveloped us from the moment we passed through deep forests of evergreens, beneath rows and rows of firs, cedars and hemlock. Through their thick outgrowths of needles, sunlight filtered in to rest awhile upon branches coated with moss which bathed in the glorious sunshine, seemed to have a life of its own. The forests looked like they have been around for a long, long time. Scattered log cabins showed up, framed poetically by all those evergreens and the snow-covered peaks of the Cascades. The Nooksack River popped up in places and it flowed gently gathering creeks along the way. Who knows if the Nooksack tribes still live around it, hunting and fishing, and generally, living off the land.

There is irony in the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, for the tectonic forces that have given birth to it, can reduce it to rubble. The region is edged by the Ring of Fire, a belt of volcanically and seismically active sites. All those mountains that rear their heads majestically — Rainier, Adams, Baker, St. Helens and Glacier Peak — they are actually active volcanoes. It never ceases to amaze me that nature holds such great power over our miniscule lives. That a thing of beauty is not a joy for forever. One day it shall pass into nothingness.

Farms and ranches, horses and vast tracts of land rolled by, with hardly a human being in our field of vision for miles, till we stopped at a local brewery for lunch and pints of chilled beer. There the fortune cookie revealed that in my stars was a road trip. What are the chances?

When we got back on the road, the scene started changing slowly at first, patches of snow peppering the woods. Then we were passing through walls of snow, out of which road signs stood out as if to declare proudly that they had held on despite the barrage of snow. Here there were only dark evergreens standing stark against the thick cover of snow on the mountains. Mount Shuksan stood dramatically in front of us, dots of skiers to be seen along its slopes. And there was this world of beautiful silence to be inhaled at that moment, the roads ribboning below us into swathes of evergreens.

The plan was to drive high up into the meadows, right up to Mount Baker, but the road was closed with this fresh onslaught of snow. Instead, surrounded by mountains with tickling names of the likes of Triumph, Despair, Fury, and Terror (evocative of the emotions of climbers who would have scaled them, I would imagine, but then I am wrong because the surveyor who had named them had not climbed these bad boys), we trudged up snowy hills clad in pristine snow, so thick that it was powdery on top, and in places where I sank into waist-deep snow, the indents revealed an icy-blue base.

I can report that there were snowball fights thrown into the mix, dodging and hurriedly hurling clumps of snow, training our cameras on all that beauty. And there was the intense urge to lie flat on the snow, to just stare for hours at the blue skies above our heads and the white, white world around us, as skiers and snowboarders swished past us, leaving criss-crossing trails in their wake.

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Scenes from around the Mt. Baker Highway 

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Farms and ranches along Mt. Baker Highway

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The brewery where they brew beers in small batches. They are delicious, so I vouch.

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Catching the sun on a wonderful spring noon

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Roads that wind through thick forests of deciduous and evergreen trees

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Around the creek are snowshoeing routes running alongside the Nooksack River

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Mount Shuksan

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Glaciated mountains around Mount Shuksan

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Chalets in the Mount Baker ski area

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Spring in Seattle

It is May already and I wonder what it shall bring, but in the last sunny week of April, we were whirling around Seattle. It was my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday and the family had decided to get together at my sister-in-law’s who lives in a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of the city. It was a merry gang of 8 and there was enough feasting to last us a month. I have to confess that Adi and I have returned home with food tucked into our waistlines. The sister-in-law is a great cook just like her mother and it was a pleasure to do justice to her efforts in the kitchen. Plus there was all the wonderful eating out.

We gorged on juicy chicken wings at Wing Dome which does a bang-up job including smothering its 7 Alarm Wings in heavy-duty sauce. There’s enough of it. So much so that the wings are incidental to the sauce.

Now the 7 alarm is a serious challenge. Worthy individuals have admitted defeat. That would include Adam Richman of Man Vs. Food. Imagine the hottest dish you have had and triple it — and you have this shattering sauce that sets your nerves on fire. The crackling in this affair is that they refuse you tissues to dab your runny nose nose or burning lips. Who said it was pretty? Then there is no beverage to accompany this challenge of stripping meat off 7 wings within 7 minutes, if you are up for fame upon its Wall of Flame.

The Wing Dome is kind though. It advises you to order a recovery kit before you start on this path of intense adventure. Expect two glasses of ice-cold milk and an ice cream sandwich to feel anywhere near human again.

Three years ago, we had visited Seattle from the UK. A time when I had short hair and the ability to handle nerve-wracking hot food. The niece had insisted that we take part in the 7 Alarm challenge. With no time at hand, we had to relegate it to our next trip. What broke me on that particular trip was a certain sauce in Leavenworth. Naturally, I am a cautious creature today.

This time, Adi, his sister and I, each ordered one 7 Alarm wing. The brother-in-law refused to be party to this brand of gastronomic self-flagellation. I threw up my hands halfway through that one wing and was tearing up, hyperventilating, while Adi and his sister finished it. And then began their tears.

The rest of the holiday was spent mooching around decor boutiques and antique shops in Snohomish which were exquisite and we had to garner all the self-control we could to not lay our greedy hands on just about everything; celebrating the mother-in-law’s birthday at a beautiful restaurant on the Puget Sound, along with an early barbecue supper; laying her hands on some exquisite Beecher’s handmade cheese; catching up with old friends and listening to smoky jazz in charming eateries; ooh-ing and aah-ing over cakes and mousses from Taiwanese bakeries (and making a mental note to never scoff again at the likes of them); and stalking neighbouring dogs.

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The family catching up at the sister-in-law’s tastefully done-up home

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Pink azaleas and us

 

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Violet azaleas

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Spring glory on the roads

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And some cherry blossoms, please

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Noshing at The Pink Door in an alley off Pike Place Market 

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Browsing stores in Snohomish

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This beauty of a lamp now graces my sister-in-law’s home

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A caramel coffee brûlée that had me heart and soul at 85°C, the Taiwanese bakery 

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Chocolate bomb at the Taiwanese bakery

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Shaky shot at Wing Dome. Blame the 7 Alarm Wings!

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Oden the Mighty

 

 

 

The Sassy Winter Spirit of Budapest

I overheard a conversation at a Christmas stall in Bryant Park in the first couple of weeks in December last year. No darling, I do not make it my business to stand around people earwigging, but in this case I was hovering near a stall of fairy lights wondering if it was the owner who was gabbling rather animatedly with another woman about the dilemma between choosing Budapest and Prague. I was tempted to squeak in with my two bits about both but it seemed then that the other woman had a handle on the situation. She noted: ‘For me, it is Budapest.’ Those five words settle Adi and mine emotions when you mention the Hungarian capital that throbs with youth and energy. Actually make it three since we were there in the winter of 2016 with our friend Vee who we had met during the hike to Pulpit Rock.

Vee is a chilled-out guy who lives and works in London managing the wealth of millionaries, smokes cigars and lives life to the hilt with his plethora of Russian girlfriends. The feminist would want to pack him a wallop for carrying on about the quality of women in various parts of the world but the guy is good at heart and a seasoned traveller. Poor Vee was enthusiastic about travelling with us to Budapest but then he found himself there with us and I suspect that he wanted to beat himself up over his commitment to the cause. You will know the why and wherefore of it soon.

On an early morning in December, a few days before Christmas, the three of us landed in Budapest. I was disconcerted. A frosty sight greeted my bleary eyes when I peeped out of the cab. There is a shot of it in the post I updated on The Little Corner Apartment, the cosy nook in the Jewish Quarter that Adi and I stayed in for the duration of our stay. Later, when we walked to Vee’s hotel about 15 minutes away from our apartment, we had a measure of the day-time temperatures that averaged -3°C. With wind chill, it stood at -8°C. We quickly scarfed down that crisp sweet bread called Kürtőskalács (important to note: you can pronounce it, just keep at it) with glasses of hot mulled wine. Cinnamon, allspice berries, cardamom, star anise, mace, ah how those wonderful spices hit the right notes as we stared at a mob practising Tai chi on the pavements outside the hip Jewish Quarter and wondered why.  We revelled in festive Christmas sights that made our nerves hum with pleasure even as we tried to deal with the importance of going numb with cold. It so happened that without an ounce of planning we had adopted a ritual that would stand us (for the most part) in good stead. Drinking, eating and walking, repeated all through the day and night.

We jump-started the routine at a café called Bouchon where couched within its warm mahogany tones, we tried out Hungarian red wines with fillets of rolled chicken and wild boar. At the end of the meal the waiter passed me a folded paper. Eeh, a note expressing amour? Even better, a hand-written recipe for the rolled chicken I had so admired.

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Street Tai Chi in progress

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Jewish Quarter

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Jewish Quarter

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St. Stephen Cathedral (Szent Istvan Bazilika)

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Wild boar and potato croquettes

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Rolled and stuffed chicken served with an apple and plum salad

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Heroes’ Square (Hősök Tere). Here there are statues of the seven chieftains of the Hungarian tribes, the Magyars, at the time of their arrival to the Carpathian Basin in 895 AD. Here there also figures statues of national leaders and the tomb of the unknown soldier.

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Vajdahunyad Castle 

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In the grounds of the castle 

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Vajdahunyad Castle was originally built out of wood and cardboard by the architect in 1896 commemorating a thousand years since the medieval Magyars had first settled on the plains of Pannonia.

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Then they found that its blend of Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and Romanesque architecture appealed to the public, so it was rebuilt in stone.

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Adi tests the water of a spring near the castle

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Shots of Pálinka, traditional fruit brandy, became our go-to everyday

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A Ukrainian stone-carrier ship that is a bustling concert venue now

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Enough wine in my veins 

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The jazz outfit from NYC that had us grooving

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Christmas markets

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Deep fried Hungarian bread. Lángos. The guys were so surprised at the sight of it that they left me to finish it all by myself.

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Hot mulled wine

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Christmas markets at Deák Ferenc tér

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 Deák Ferenc tér

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“If my Valentine you won’t be,
I’ll hang myself on your Christmas tree.” 
― Ernest Hemingway