Sunday, December 31, 2017

Girl Waits with Gun

What a fun meme! Answering questions with titles of books I've read this year. Thanks, Boston Bibliophile.

Describe yourself: Girl Waits with Gun

How do you feel? Bittersweeet

Describe where you currently live: The House on Fortune Street

If you could go anywhere...? The Hills of Tuscany

Favorite form of transportation: The Old Patagonian Express

Your best friend is: A Rising Man

You and your friends are: The Master Butchers Singing Club

What's the weather like? The Enchanted April

Your favorite time of day is: Late Nights on Air

What is life for you? A Tale for the Time Being

You fear: Lying Awake

Best advice: Version Control

Thought for the day: Still Life

How you would like to die: Airborn

Friday, December 29, 2017

Watched: Wind River

The beautiful title and the snowy setting of this movie have been calling my name for months, yet I did not watch it until the very end of the year. 

And it was supremely worth watching. Even if the themes of loss, despair, grief, madness and crime are all heavy, the director's touch is spare- thus giving us breathing space in the midst of  all its sorrow. This was essential in a story set in the vast, unknowable snow wastes of an Indian reservation named Wind River. Lyrical as it sounds, this is not a forgiving place. We see symptoms of the havoc it wreaks on its inhabitants: one is drug-addled to high heaven, another is driven to the madness of self-harm. Yet another is compelled to turn to crime to confront the seething nothingness. And this is all tied together by two crimes: one past, one present. 

The present crime of a young woman found dead in the snow is what brings FBI agent Jane Bannon to Wind River. There she is assisted by wildlife hunter and tracker Cory Lambert. (Her own handling of the admittedly difficult case is somewhat heavy-handed, so this assistance is much-needed.) Lambert is a crucial player: he is a residual victim of a crime from three years ago. Yet, the two crimes are not linked in the end by any conventional or expected thread. Instead, all is solved as we are shown explicitly what happened. There is no resolution, and that is as life is most times. 

There is some disturbing violence. It is not gratuitous, but horrific in its immediacy and very essential-ness. The landscape has its own violence too, as pitiless as the human variety. 

I am haunted by Wind River. It's an understated, accomplished piece of work with a chilling yet tender perspective on crime and justice. Awards Season? I don't know. Sometimes the very subtlety of a work can go against it, but I hope that is not the case here. 

Overall rating: 8/10
Director: Taylor Sherridan

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

One and two

In the spirit (!) of recording firsts for the year, ginjinha! What a marvelous word to say. (Trying to say it four times in a row while actually drinking it proved to be a pleasant way to spend an evening.)

It's Portugal's grand gift to me. Made of cherries, I ask you, what could be better than a liqueur made of cherries? Of course there was the wonderful setting when I first imbibed it: old stone castles, blue and white tile-work, cobblestone streets etc.etc. 

I even asked for it at a tapas bar when we went back to Madrid, the audacity! I was sniffed at and given a glass of what the bartender huffily called "esweet wine" which I discerned was very similar to that other Portuguese marvel, port.

So now I have two firsts. The second first is easily replicated here in the new world, but the first first proves to be rather more problematic. And no, I haven't explored the online market yet. I refuse to get my booze off the internet. I'll die a thirsty old hag but continue to poke around until I find it at some wonderfully unexpected place.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Desiderata

It's astounding that it's time to look back on 2017 already. 

It's been the quickest year of my life. 

And if it continues to go so very fast, I am terrified.

I always like to think of things that I do for the first time in a certain year. Well then, this is the first year I have begun to realize how short time  really is. 

All these years I only thought I realized it. And that means, perhaps, I am truly older now.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Progress

Looking back on 2017 it does feel like a long way on from last year in terms of speaking Spanish. There was that week in Spain - a somewhat nerve-wracking immersion where I did passably. I had my moments of dim-wittedness but that is to be expected at my level. The Spaniards were generally forgiving, except for that scary waitress at the breakfast place and the super-speedy check-in girl at the airport, but never mind. 

I also forced myself to forego subtitles on some of my Netflix shows. The result being that I am spectacularly foggy on plot points, a slight hindrance to enjoyment of the show itself. But that is where the wondrous rewind button comes to the rescue. Admittedly, on the second hearing, all usually becomes clear so there is hope yet. 

Also of note is the beginning of distinguishing between accents. Thanks to L.A.'s diverse population I have been speaking to natives of many countries. Most notable was one conversation with an Argentinian Uber driver where I did not have much trouble, contrary to what I had expected. No, the Argentine accent ('slushy' as described by Paul Theroux) continues to pale in comparison to the much more challenging Cuban one. How I struggle! Sigh. Suffice to say, nothing short of a full, merciless immersion in Cuba herself will rid me of this fear. 

And that might be a goal for the next year. Not to mention a reward for overcoming abject terror of the subjunctive. 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Joy to the world

Our downstairs neighbor moved out a couple of months ago. Not a great loss, except of course her beautiful old dog went with her. For the past few weeks, J and I have been speculating on who will move in next. Brazilian couple with whom we can share frequent caipirinhas? Salsa enthusiasts who will inspire us to dance again? Old Eastern European folks who will make jams and jellies and dumplings for us all winter long?

Alas, it has turned out to be, as life often teaches us, none of the above. We spotted from our vantage point a baseball hat on a very blond young head and the telltale local accent talking about (what else) sports. Just as we sadly began to dismantle our spying operation, all was improved.

Indeed, it is a new dog. This one is the opposite of the one who moved away. He/she is fat and spotted...a bulldog, no less.

Misanthropy lives on. My heart is full of joy for the dog who will now brighten my days.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Watched: If I were you

Rooting around on Amazon for something humorous and not overtly Christmas-themed, this caught my eye. And it turned out to be a good choice- it's funny and subtle, if a bit uneven at times.

The premise: the reliable, by-the-book Madelyn (Marcia Gay Harden) has proof that her husband is having an affair with a young woman. But in what has to surely be a unique twist, the two women end up becoming friends. Of course Madelyn knows who Lucy is but not vice-versa, so it's already lopsided and patently bizarre. Then there is the added twist of Lucy being a struggling actor but Madelyn getting chosen to play the lead in a production of King Lear. Lucy plays the Fool, in more ways than one.

Those are not the only complications. Keith, Madelyn's co-worker, and not to mention his wife, muddy the waters further. In fact this is all a bit Shakespearean in itself...mistaken identities and crossed connections. And finally, Dennis. It's all knotted and stirred up, and nothing comes up particularly resolved in the end. 

Of the performances, Marcia Gay Harden clearly carries the entire narrative on her capable shoulders. She doesn't falter for a moment, darkly funny and elegantly miserable with ease. (I have had the pleasure of working with her in a tiny capacity in real life but suffice to say this only brought me added joy and in no way clouded my judgment.) The young mistress is played by Leonor Watling who is an able foil to the older woman whom she comes to like and trust. And then there's the adorable Aidan Quinn as Dennis with his astounding blue eyes who brings mystery and surprise in the last third. The chemistry between him and Madelyn is sparkling; in fact their ice-cream scene at the cemetery was many-layered and subtle once you thought about it. Also it is with him that Madelyn delivers the best line of the movie: "When did we have our last first kiss, and did we know it was our last?"

Surprisingly, this movie did not fare well at the hands of the critics, who knows why. I found it engaging and likable, even if it is terribly talk-heavy throughout. And the performance of Madelyn's husband, Paul, could not match up to anyone else's and made his scenes sag, but there aren't any other complaints.

Director: Joan Carr-Wiggin
Overall rating: 7/10

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Firsts

I consider it a good year if we've had the opportunity to do something for the first time. This year has been a good year in that case.

In May, we set off for the central California coast hoping to spot humpback whales. It was a tiny boat on a fairly choppy ocean, but I was exhilarated. It didn't occur to me to be scared.

And then we started seeing the most amazing variety of wildlife out there in the water. Dolphins, seagulls, other sea birds, large fish, seals, and most delightful- sea otters, some with their meals clutched to their chests.

Finally, the denouement- not one but two humpback whales. One swam sedately for the most part, but the other one ended the excursion by showing off and doing gigantic belly flops off to the side. The crash of it hitting the water was almost as thrilling as the sight. So was the strange, almost-eerie song they sing to each other out there in the wilds.

I did not get stunning pictures. Must have been something to do with the listing surface of our tiny boat, slick with ocean spray and buffeted by serious winds. Never mind. The whales kindly gave us a grand treat, and I am sure they don't care if they didn't make it to 8X12 framed glory.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

White hat or pink?

Syzygy: an alignment of three celestial objects.

Is there a more wonderful word in the entire English language? I will use it to describe the circumstances that led to this being the most satisfying tennis year of all time. First, the ever-obliging Tennis Channel. Two, the fortunate location of LA on the world clock, whereby most tennis events are watchable in human time. Three, part-time employment. 

When the year began with the Australian Open and slowly but surely both Rafa and Fed crept closer to the final, it dawned on me that we were witnessing history. After having spectacularly bad times last year, they made it a final to remember. A titanic five-setter, which Fed ultimately wrested from the tenacious teeth of tennis's ace pugilist, Rafa Nadal. And it set the tone for the rest of the year, alas. For the first time, Fed began to beat Rafa consistently. All through the year. Rafa predictably fell at Wimbledon, but guess who won it? It was almost a joke. (Rafa still leads their head-to-head 23 to 15 though.)

But R. Nadal showed up at Wimbledon having torn through the clay season, which was a spectacle to behold. He won Monte Carlo and Barcelona for the 10th time, narrowly missed Rome for the 8th, won Madrid for the 5th, and then topped it off with a 10th Roland Garros. (Uncle Fed sat this one out. Smart choice.) By this time I was swooning in awe, but the Rafster then pulled another trick by polishing off the U.S. Open. Thus were the 2017 Grand Slams won, neatly book-ended, by these two unbelievable monsters.

Late in the year they played together on the same team for the first time in history in an event called the Laver Cup, where their bro-mance was in full evidence.Then poor Rafa had to concede defeat to wily Uncle Fed yet again at Shanghai, but ended the year at No. 1 nonetheless. 

What's been most amusing has been the crop of young players dubbed the "Next Generation." Almost every time any one of them tried to wrest a crown, one of the two old goats would smack them down. Ha! There's a lot of life left yet in those old bones.

And now the Aus Open is round the corner. Might we hope for a glorious repeat? Especially since I am well-equipped with my Rafa hat: J kindly arranged a Rafa-themed birthday for me this year. (Of course, my hat is white, and Rafa keeps changing his to pink just to annoy me, but that shall be overlooked.)

Friday, December 15, 2017

French Movie Friday: Little White Lies

Would we able to stand one another without uttering hundreds of little white lies throughout our lifetimes? No. I was expecting a different take on this question once I knew Les Petits Mouchoirs tells the story of a tightly-knit group of friends. However, the whole premise seemed a bit hazy; not about white lies at all. In fact it was on the whole just about the relationships within the group and the inevitable tensions and joys. I did not see where the lies came in. 

The basic gist: one of the friends begins the film by crashing his bike into a truck and ending up in serious condition in the hospital. The other friends visit. But it's that time of the year when they all take off to the coast for the annual vacation together; what to do? After a brief discussion, they agree to shorten it to a fortnight instead of a month. And off they go. 

The vacation spot is breath-taking, a sparkling white beach and waters of  a magical blue, further enhanced by a couple of boats and a charming wooden house owned by one of them, the batty Max. A jolly time is had by all. We get to see romantic and sexual confusion, the intimate tensions of a marriage, the solidity of platonic friendship, etc. And this is all fine. In fact it's engaging in that they show us their flaws and their vulnerabilities; even the injured friend, Ludo, had been drinking heavily before he rode off on his motorbike. 

But there were two things that I did not get on board with. One being that Ludo doesn't seem to be on anyone's mind while on holiday except Marie's. She (Marion Cotillard) had been his girlfriend in the past and still cares for him deeply. She's the only one who wanted to stay in Paris for him while he's in hospital. One of the guys, Eric, does visit him. But this is only because he happens to be in Paris anyway chasing after a lost girlfriend; he promptly starts whining about his own love problems to Ludo while the latter is lying battered on the hospital bed! Incredible.

And second, how come not one in the whole group elected to stay back in Paris and forego the vacation in the first place? I am hard-pressed to imagine myself going off on a glorious beach holiday while a member of my inner circle lies battling for life, his face unrecognizable, alone in hospital. No. In the end I couldn't give this a pass. No-one is perfect and I am fine with flawed or selfish characters, but this particular behavior just didn't sit right with me. If Marie had in fact stood her ground and stayed behind, the whole story would have been elevated for me. 

Then there was the maudlin ending and the usage of English-language songs at key points. Hmph! If only I could use my magic wand and change these few elements, I would be happy to love this movie. 

Director: Guillaume Canet
Overall rating: 6/10
English title: Little White Lies

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Readings 2017

I am getting good at only one thing as I age, apparently. And that, unsurprisingly, is reading. I have found to my astonishment that the number of books read each year has been increasing. (That is just as well. Since I don't particularly do anything much else of note, such as sing, paint, bake, sew, cook, play sports or instruments. Ha.)

Looking at the favorite list for this year, I was inspired to institute a few awards. Forthwith! Here they are, the category names being clunky and horrible, alas.

New Author I am Most Eager to Read Again: Elizabeth Hay. Her Late Nights on Air was such a lovely, and I mean lovely, work, that I would perhaps even re-read it. It's a tranquil, almost meditative story of some intersecting lives in a tiny town in frigid northern Canada. I'm afraid I failed to review it when it was freshly read, and for that I am regretful.

Most Intriguing Work: The Lonely Hearts Hotel. There is beauty in things that are just a tad off-kilter. A face, a piece of pottery, even a building. And such is the case with Heather O'Neill's novel. The writing is in fact so metaphor-heavy that it would induce much eye-rolling and book-flinging ordinarily. But lo! Here it lies in my favorites pile. What witchery has O'Neill performed?

Tempting Enough to Read the Sequel/Next in Series: Amy Stewart's dry and lively Girl Waits with Gun. Also perhaps by just a smidgen, A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee- British Raj murder mystery set in Calcutta! We shall see. I am notoriously ruthless when it comes to not following faithfully along for any given series. Notable of course being Harry Potter as an exception. But then we all know Rowling is actually a wizard so no-one has a chance. 

Everyone, except I, loved it: A Gentleman in Moscow. This was a case of beginning to read with the solid certainty that one would love it. That, as has been proven often, is a witless way to go about it. And thus it was with Amor Towles's much-applauded and in fact well-written tome. For unknowable reasons, I was simply too fatigued to continue on through its impeccably-worded and genteel pages telling of the life of a house-imprisoned old aristocrat. Incidentally, the author picture and bio so matched the novel itself that I may be inspired to come up with another category to note other such (meaningless) similarities.

Best Non-Fiction: Entirely pointless, this, because I read all of three in this category. And two of these by the very same man - Paul Theroux. Need I say more? His The Old Patagonian Express wins. Then again, Dark Star Safari can, technically, share the spot. The third and final was Dreaming in Hindi by Kathleen Russell Rich. I enjoyed her re-telling of her experience learning Hindi whilst living in Rajasthan immensely. I was deeply saddened to know that she has since passed away; I was looking forward to more from her. So sad do I feel that I'm compelled to include her work here as well. Or perhaps it should win its own: Most Poignant. 

There. And now I shall gape at the year's collection once again, in case any worthies have been missed.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

I, iconoclast

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Armageddon may in fact be near. Let me hasten to explain, and the reason for this alarming statement and the grandiose title shall soon be clear as crystal.

Out for some innocent grocery shopping a few weeks ago, my eye was drawn to some funny stickers on the bananas. Now I am against this insistence on festooning every single piece of fruit I purchase with these irksome stickers, even ordinarily. But when there are STAR WARS stickers on the bananas I intend to consume (because I only consume bananas as a mid-morning snack, lacking imagination of any sort) I must protest.

On an aside, I once read an expatriate's memoir of living in Venice and shopping deep in local fruit markets. Upon commenting on the sticker-less state of the produce there she was met with deep disdain. What kind of place are you from, the seller wanted to know, where you need to stick stickers on your fruit???

Gulp.

So then what does this nefarious new Jedi scheme reveal? Alas, all has been confirmed. The U.S. of A. is not a society at all. It is simply a marketplace. And I shall soon be expelled for my objection to Star Wars packaged with my daily dose of recommended fiber. That, and my refusal to cave in to all the other FREE SHIPPING AND HANDLING SWEET JESUS WHY AREN'T YOU BUYING THIS ALREADY YOU MUST BE DEAD INSIDE YOU JOYLESS GIT!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Watched: Some highlights 2017

 It seems funny that living and working in La La Land, I would watch a television show about French movie agents. Then again, they're French. Call My Agent is a story about the ASK agency in Paris and its revolving cast of (actual) famous French movie stars, engaging from its very first minute. It was regrettably short as European series tend to be, but I have found the second series on Netflix is already playing. There's plenty of backstabbing, one-upmanship, egos, power plays etc. going on at ASK. But it's all so real. Suffice to say I will be jumping on series 2 very shortly, tonight perhaps.



Then there were The Durrells. This oddball little family moves from England to Corfu in 1935. Louise, the mother, a recent widow, thinks it a good place to get a fresh start for their entire brood. It's based on the actual books written by the youngest, Gerald, but is not a strict adaptation. Since I haven't read those, I enjoyed this series thoroughly. It's such a visual treat, not to mention a genuine break from the tedium of the news cycle, that I wanted more episodes. Also the oldest, Lawrence, is the author of the very respected Alexandria quartet, of which I've read the first; so it was interesting to see the venerable writer portrayed as a very young man just beginning to write. 

As for my Spanish series: Velvet season 4, and Las Chicas del Cable season 1, suffice to say that both were disappointing. I am not entirely sure I will be into season 2 for the latter. Also there is the confusing El Barco. I have given up on that, as I have on Crematorio. It's back to re-runs of the old stalwart El Internado, though at this point solely for Spanish comprehension and not entertainment. 

The revelation of the year was murder/crime series. The series I watched were so finely-made that one realizes somewhere along the way, death is not being packaged as entertainment; rather, the show itself is a kind of nuanced meditation on grief and motivation. And in this I must applaud the European style which I favor heavily. Starting with the stunning Broadchurch. I don't use the adjective lightly- it is about the murder of an eleven year old boy.  Yet it managed to keep me hooked the entire first season. Followed by Southcliffe, which turned out to be a finely-wrought study of an entire town post a murderous rampage, chill and spare though it was with no relief. And finally I plucked up the courage to watch Wallander. It proved to be in the same vein as the other two. 

This trend of watching murder mysteries on t.v. has slowly led me away from reading them. I'm not sure if it will reverse, although I am very sparing in watching them in the first place.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Woe is me

The only good thing, and I say this only with the utmost selfishness, about the recent wildfires has been the frequent presence of Police Chief Charlie Beck on t.v. 

I have developed rather a crush here. Not a romantic one, mind. But one altogether more formless. It's rather like an intense desire to somehow be that person's neighbor. Or friend. Or student. Or employee. Or something. 

It's the same with that checkout clerk at our local supermarket. He wears his glasses on the tip of his nose and renders me speechless every time he makes pleasantries. Once, I tried Spanish and committed atrocious errors and/or was inaudible, and he never took me up on that again. Also there was the gent who looked just like Tim Robbins and was a co-visitor at our neighborhood cafe. I could have cooed over his dog and struck up talk. But no, again, I was as forthcoming as a snail. 

Sigh. What is to become of me? There are so few men on whom to bestow crushes in L.A. anyway. If all I am left with is this chaste and pointless devotion, that is that. 

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Ashes

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As southern California endures its worst wildfire season, I am once again thankful for the small things. For a start, we did not have to evacuate. 212,000 others did. 

30 horses perished. This piece of news kept me up at night. Wednesday was particularly bad; the winds howled with near-hurricane ferocity, fueling the mad fires to even more hellish proportions. J drove into a nightmare scene that morning. But he was one of the lucky ones who managed to make it back home without being stuck in dangerous conditions for many hours.

And today the sky is innocent and clear, free of the ominous dark smoke. The winds have calmed. Can the worst be over?

But the horses, the horses. My heart weeps.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Readings: The Master Butchers Singing Club

The title intrigued me quite a bit. Then there's this cover. I found that it's an actual photograph from 1912. There! I bought the book. (My criteria for book purchase are very rigid.)

Happily, the novel itself proved to be highly wonderful. In fact it's among my favorites for the year. Louise Erdrich is a new author for me, but one I am glad to add to my list. Here she tells the story of one Fidelis Waldvogel, a WWI soldier who marries the pregnant lover of his dead colleague. Then, they strike out for America. North Dakota is where they end up and Fidelis sets up a butcher shop.

The other strand of the story is introduced in Chapter 2. It's a young woman named Delphine Watzka who is a performer in a vaudeville act. As the novel goes on, one realizes that it is mainly her point of view that we are witnessing. Her relationships with Eva Waldvogen, their children, her own booze-hound father Roy, and with her somewhat-lover Cyprian. All these threads are equally meaningful; the writing is simple and spare, like a well-made kitchen table that bears immense weight while being the coziest spot in the house. 

The town of Argus, ND, comes alive much like the arresting cover photograph. There is a good deal of plot that keeps going in a skillful arc from 1919 to 1954. Life, love, devotion, war, death...such are the common themes that Erdrich writes about with uncommon loveliness. There is even a surprise at the ending which left me with mixed feelings, but only because I wished to know more about the circumstances.

The only two things I would quibble about are: one, the title. Fine, Erdrich has creative choice in naming her own novel. But in the end I feel that simply, "Delphine" would be a good title. And second, the inside-jacket blurb. It somehow gave a different impression of what the book promised to be. While this was not exactly misleading, ultimately this fine novel is left under-served by its own inside jacket; quite a shame.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Roasted chestnut afternoons

Riding on the old tram today, it seemed possible to imagine the town as it was in the black-and-white era. The foolish imagination of yet another visitor, I realized, and wished wildly that the trams themselves did not bear advertisements for whiskey. Still, the squealing of the brakes, the wheels scraping on the tracks as we rounded corners barely edging past blase pedestrians - I was pleased. I wanted to see more of the old Chinatown  as we trundled past. But we had to give up our seats for two woven-basket-bearing old folks so we couldn't see much. 

Everyone except those two were outsiders.

And in fact we ourselves have arrived two decades two late here. In the Internet Age, Lisbon is perhaps a victim of its own beauty. Mercilessly photographed to an inch of its life, sidewalks jammed with souvenir shops, the dock crowded with the hulking presence of cruise ships.

So we made it a point to linger in a nondescript part of town later. There were shabby apartment blocks, a kids' playground with escaped dogs, the ubiquitous chestnut-man with the smoke from his roasted wares enticing some old ladies. We tried to make ourselves inconspicuous, and to remember as much as possible without the aid of a single photo.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Light and dark

It rains in paradise!

Last night's sly drizzle has grown, lending a melancholic air to the day. Fortunately yesterday when we rambled about the flea market it was lustrous sun and crisp skies. The market itself, despite being named Feria da Ladra- Market of Thieves- is an optimistic place. We only bought some blue and white tiles and an old photo of women making lace in an alley, since we are restricted by baggage allowances. (Otherwise J would have certainly bought that blond-wood airplane propeller and the weathered metal mailboxes and I, the obligatory colored glass bottles, a vintage trunk, and an old fan.)

And today, this wistful rain. This slight sadness, akin to a kind of longing, is characterized as 'saudade' in Portuguese and is represented in all the Fado music. We are beginning to understand the language, if not the words. Huffing up to a viewpoint this evening, the effect was magnified as the drizzle made a whispering sound on the rooftops and the river clung to its fog-covered bridge way down below us. J took one picture of me holding down my flyaway hair, the water silver-grey behind me. The walk back down was slow and careful. How do the older people here brave these cobblestones up and down?

Later, we searched for a small place to eat. In the end we stumbled into the place right below our hotel where mysteriously, we were the only guests aside from two local cops who stood eating and watching the soccer match on t.v. We didn't understand: was this the back section of the trendy restaurant we'd been led to believe it was, the place where only locals actually ate? In any case, we were treated to a special house-made hot sauce and given recommendations on what to eat, which we followed. The fresh bread was free. We were elated to find comfort so close, where it was so unexpected.

Outside, the tram tracks gleamed in the drizzle. I remembered again that tomorrow is Diwali in my homeland, and all the old streetlamps with their cine-noir halos became even more evocative.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On the waterfront

Yesterday we set out in the evening with the purpose of finding and imbibing our first ginjinha. Cherry liqueur, Portuguese style. It was a grand success, in fact I had two shots. (Some might say it tastes rather a lot like cough syrup, to which I say, I've always considered cough syrup one of life's great delicacies.) Anyhow, today I found that it is also to be had in chocolate cups. Zounds! This could spell trouble. That old lady who was hawking it in an alley was certainly twinkling enough- evidence of its mood-lifting properties. 

Thankfully today was a ginjinha-free day while we wandered around yet another hilly part of town. It's so steep they have actual old elevators to transport tired legs. 

Then there was that lovely plaza that offered marble benches from which to listen to a beautiful quartet of musicians- the live music here has been continual and amazing.  And dinner was at a restaurant we had earmarked earlier. It was black-and-white and tiny (a good sign) with a display counter on the left and teeny tables on the right. There we sat, communal style, with an older lady who ate the most fastidious and impeccably cut-up meal we have ever witnessed anyone eating. The waiter liked J and me enough to take pictures of us, to cries of "que lindo!" from the other staff, which we found immensely gratifying. There had been not a word of English the entire evening, except those that escaped our own lips.

We stepped out to slick cobblestones under a fine drizzle that had turned the streetlamps even more cinematic. Two women kissed deeply under a stone archway. Hurrying home without an umbrella, plans of trying maracuja  ice-cream forgotten, we yet again fell into the conceit of imagining ourselves living here.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The age of discovery


There's an old part of this old city that bears the most heavy Moorish influence in layout: it's called Alfama, from the old Arabic "al hammam" and is a fine place to meander in without any clear destination.

It was wondrous there. Also, it was steep. So steep that it was almost all staircases among all the cobbled, narrow alleys. 

And then Alfama began to give  me an uneasy feeling. Amid all the wonder and simple beauty of discovering this part of an already-old city was the knowledge that we were perhaps encroaching on people's homes, or at least their neighborhoods. (Once, we climbed up a lovely staircase only to discover on top a small, private courtyard. Its owner's face, visible from a tiny window, looked dismayed as we mounted and we hurriedly went away.)

But I am a citizen of a new world. We must all get along, trying not to step on too many toes. And so this afternoon wandering there was one of the best of my life. We even witnessed a small neighborhood fracas as we ate lunch on a quiet bench: someone's tiny but pugilistic dog set upon a slumbering cat and sparked off a heroic chase by the many owners of each creature. The three ladies who chatted nearby simply tut-tutted, not as moved as we were by the drama. Perhaps it was a regular occurrence. 

In a lovely coincidence, later tonight we returned and found the very same restaurant we had remarked on in the afternoon. There had been virtually no chance of finding it, and yet we did. So we sat grandly at one of the two tables outside. The old, dignified owner suggested a dish or two out of the 5-item menu and served us with great aplomb. The simple meal ended with a custard drenched in port wine. No other tourists were to be found, and we took this as a great privilege in this unbelievably alluring place. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Tempus fugit

We arrived in Lisbon the day of their annual Marathon. It was a fresh but cloudy morning and we sat by the waterfront- the estuary/River Tejo- admiring the distant 25 de Abril bridge enticingly half-visible under fog.


Very soon, upon some initial wandering, it became evident that this here is a very photogenic city indeed. Disappointingly full of other annoying tourists like ourselves it might be, but it has a curious appeal that drives me camera-crazy. Everywhere are slightly faded, peeling, colored balconies and mazy cobbled streets with streetlamps that bear ironwork depicting grand ships. This genteel air of slight disrepair tugs at my heart. Anywhere else perhaps, it would border on shabbiness. Here, it has the peculiar effect of setting the city apart, as if to say it has depth; a texture that belies the hordes of visitors.

There is much live music everywhere. And today we had the first of our many pasteis de Nata, the famed Portuguese pastries, for breakfast. They are flaky pastry shells filled with custard and together with a cup of coffee (served in white ceramic cups, not silly paper ones) are the perfect start to a day.

We ended a day of tireless wandering back where we started at the waterfront. At some point during the day, we were sitting in an alley that was a wide, shallow staircase between two rows of old buildings. There was no-one else around except for a young man who emerged from a doorway bearing a drum-kit with practiced ease. The tree above our heads smelled fresh, but had shed yellow leaves that lay poetically across the stairs. And I looked around us, feeling the strangeness of being foreign again, and at the leaves, and the thought was inescapable: Time is passing. Time is passing.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Night train to Lisbon

Yesterday, the fourth day of truly heroic amounts of walking, our feet gave in their notice. Or at least, demanded a break. So we gave the day over to chores- we did laundry (astoundingly expensive) and I had my hair done (astoundingly cheap). 

And finally we were on the night train to Lisbon. After having watched a movie of the same name some years before, it's been a great desire for the both of us. We were predictably giddy as we entered our cabin - even the too-rapid Spanish of the rosy-cheeked, chubby conductor didn't deter us when he hared off. I had understood barely a word.

It's a pity that this train travels entirely in the dark. I am longing to see out of the window. But as a reward, it's two or so hours into it and suddenly, I see a circus tent out there in the blackness, partially lit up like a somewhat-magical castle. A circus in rural Spain, slumbering in the dark. I love train travel.

And tomorrow, Lisbon.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

El Parque de Buen Retiro

We bought some sandwich stuff and a few almonds from the local market and set off with the grand goal of getting to the big park. It is aptly named El Parque de Buen Retiro. There we sat on a bench and watched the many locals: today is Spain's National Day, and there was an abundance of local conversations to be overheard. Feeding the birds and having overcome our awe at the hundreds of acres of marble-statue-studded garden around us, we ate our sandwiches and took several sedate walks. We had quickly realized we would have to come back here; this park is simply too vast to attempt in a single visit.

Later, the La Latina section of town near our hotel is a fresh maze of delights. Here too locals are out in full force (we were thrilled to see that we did not particularly stick out as foreigners). I had one lovely conversation about cherry liqueurs with the clerk at an old shop also stocking various desserts and preserves made by local nuns. It smelled like a fresh spring garden dusted with sugar in there, and soon after we saw in the plaza outside, a row of eight nuns peering into a closed convent garden like little girls. How delightful. They surely are the very nuns who made the heavenly things on the shelves.

At dinner - opposite the reputed 'oldest restaurant in the world'- which we opted out of visiting, the waiter gave us free house-made liqueurs. Was it my fledgling Spanish that did him in? In any case, the local news was playing, and Rafa Nadal featured prominently.

Yes, it's been a day well spent.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Almond Street

The day has been a maze of plazas and winding streets. The street-signs are a delight, like their names. I have giddily taken a few dozen pictures of each, planning to bore the general populace with what I shall call my Street Sign Series. My favorites are Calle del Codo (Street of the Elbow) and Calle Almendra (Almond Street). But then, to remind us that Madrilenos themselves are but human, the waiter at our cafe at lunch treated us with deep condescension radiating from his trendy little high bun-ponytail down to  his pointed shoes.

After J's afternoon nap with the sun slanting onto his face like a kitty's, we embarked on a haircut for him. This turned out to be vastly successful, both for the low price and the unhurried sculptor-like concentration of the young barber who took my faltering Spanish instructions very seriously. His dog, small but with a grand proprietary attitude, played with us and sat on our laps. (His birthday was coming up, he was turning one, and a party was planned.) J and I make such fine faux-locals.

The light, even at 730 p.m., continued to astound. We were sitting next to an old man on a fountain at the Plaza del Sol (vast and teeming with millions, like India) when we registered afresh that it would be darker than this in Los Angeles in the evening. I reminded J of how he was awoken from his nap by a man, somewhere deep down in our hotel alley, clapping and singing a throaty and quite-good flamenco.

Sunlight and flamenco. Hackneyed imagery is not a bad thing when it's in Spain, I have decided.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Madrid, por fin, Madrid

Sitting in the Plaza Mayor in astounding light, it became somewhat easy to shake off the inevitable time-travel sensation of making a trans-Atlantic crossing. It was unexpected; we had thought it would be dusky by now. How little we know!

Madrid, Madrid, the word kept bouncing around in my brain. Images skittered helter-skelter: the swirled, stylized wooden ceilings at the airport; an old lady in a tiny balcony with a table of wine and cheese set for one; the sense of wonder when we emerged from our Metro station to look up at the thick stone buildings that led the way to our tiny hotel.

Later in the night we walked to a tiny plaza behind. It was a  neighborhood gathering place. Several young men in African attire chatted and waited. Dogs escaped from an apartment building, causing much chaos and laughter. The Bangladeshi lady at the corner grocery smiled shyly at me from under her scarf.

In the balcony of a building whose wall was a huge, exuberant mural, a man shook out a single, billowing white sheet. The laundry hung in the semi-darkness, glowing, and I felt a peculiar rush of happiness. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Monte Carlo diaries II

No pigeons interrupted in the quarterfinal match between R. Nadal and the newbie Argentine Diego Schwartzmann today. (It's the Monte Carlo Masters, and I care because it's the run-up to Roland Garros). Just as well, since Nadal seemed a tad distracted. In fact he began with a hideous first game, practically giving away his service game with clunky unforced errors. Schwartzman promptly gave away his service game next, and I was beginning to wonder what we were in for with this inauspicious start. 

Well things did look up from there. The sprightly Argentine stirred things up a bit, making Rafa look sluggish and out of sorts as the first set went on. Never mind that Rafa is his idol; he kept chipping away until Rafa decided enough was enough and began to take control. The same continued in the second set, and at one point Schwartzmann evened the score to 4-4. Que horror! 

In the end Rafa prevailed. He still does not look particularly dazzling though, to be honest, except for one genius shot in the second set. If he is to defeat the tricky little Belgian David Goffin ( Dav-eed Goff-an, how delightful) he'd better step it up. Goffin took out Djokovic, no less, so there.

And with that stern warning, I shall await tomorrow morning. Since he insists on playing the match at 6:30 a.m. my time, I'll have to content myself with the Google update. So be it. If the results are not to my liking I shall be very displeased indeed, purple shirt notwithstanding.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Monte Carlo diaries I

Nothing like a little classic rivalry to lift one up out of ennui. I refer to exhibits A and B, otherwise known as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. 

First, they crept up to the finals of the Aussie Open early this year, shocking me out of total indifference towards tennis since late last year. Of course Fed won the whole thing, spoiling things just a tad, but the match was so close that I was overjoyed anyway. Poor Fed! He's had a heck of a year with his bum knee. And then Rafa with his never-ending wrist troubles. No one believes me when I say I adore Fed; it's just the blind adoration that gets in the way of that if the other one is on the scene.

So that was the beginning of the beginning. 

They rapidly went on to the finals of two more tournaments. Here too, Fed unkindly snatched the trophies from Rafa's waiting teeth. (It's been awfully long since we got to see Rafa chomping down on his trophy at any tournament.)

Now, thank heaven, he has stayed out of the Monte Carlo Masters. Monte who? I would normally ask, having been so far predisposed to care solely for the Grand Slams. But with age comes wisdom. Or at least the realization that since Monte Carlo is a tournament Rafa has already won 9 times, it might be something special if he went for the 10th. 

So when I watched him in the second round against one Kyle Edmund, I was rather keyed up. Too bad the high point of the match came when a rotund and very determined pigeon interrupted proceedings by perching, hilariously, on the net. Rafa vaguely waved his racket in its general direction, not looking too perturbed. No, he won the match quite coolly. Must be my spirit animal, though, that there pigeon. 

On a side note, neon purple seems to be his chosen color for the tournament. I heartily approve. So much so that I am inspired to apply for the position of his stylist; never mind if men's fashion ordinarily bores me to tears. 
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