Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Eating alone in a foreign city

I haven't posted here for a long time, and my life is not currently conducive to writing anything new. So instead I thought I would post the story I wrote (based on four blog posts on Something Else to Eat) about eating alone in a foreign city.  I read this as a short piece for the Food History Symposium last weekend. No pictures - just words.

Eating alone in a foreign city

When I travel abroad now, I inevitably spend some time on my own – a few days, a week - in unfamiliar cities. I really don’t mind during the day, and mostly I really enjoy myself. In many ways it’s easier being able to do exactly what I choose, without having to negotiate with anyone else. But in the evening there is always the problem of dinner.
For me, going out to eat every night in a strange city is a tricky business. As a woman alone, with poor night vision and a dim sense of direction, I don’t like to stray too far from my hotel after dark, and I need well-lit streets with plenty of people around.
I could of course use taxis, but that would require a special destination worth the effort. On my own, that’s not what I’m after. I’m not chasing Michelin stars or tracking down the nasty bits. I want a modest menu featuring local dishes that are appealing and interesting without being utterly unfamiliar. At least two courses, not too expensive, and preferably eaten alongside at least some local people, rather than solely other foreign tourists.
But other things matter too.  One problem with the kind of travel where I’m not staying in houses of any kind, with kitchens, is that it’s always necessary to go out for dinner.  After a while, that can seem like a chore rather than a pleasure. The right place to go will be somewhere I can  return to over several nights. I want a small sense of comfort, of being accepted, so that I can feel at least a little known and at home.
In Barcelona the nearby streets were a little too smart. I ate well enough, more than once at the bright theatre restaurant with the marvellous name of El Glop. It served simple, filling Catalan dishes such as sausage and beans, the waiters dealt efficiently and for the most part kindly with me, and I enjoyed my toasted bread, main course and glass of wine each night. But it was simply food.
In Madrid everything changed. By then I had got my bearings a little better with Spanish food in general; and I was very pleased to find that unlike Barcelona, many of the local restaurants served a well-priced menu of the day at night, not just at lunchtime. So the first afternoon, I tried searching on the net for well-reviewed restaurants near my hotel.
One stood out straight away: La Sanabresa. It seemed to be only a few minutes’ walk away, straight up the main street and down a side lane with the memorable name of Calle Amor de Dios - Love of God Street. But just to be sure, I set off to find it in daylight.  It was plain and unpretentious, and the menu in the window looked promising – it seemed to be the nearest thing I’d found to Spanish home cooking.
I went back at exactly 8.30, when it opened for dinner. In my experience, no waiter or maitre d’ looks pleased to see a lone diner, but in a still fairly empty restaurant they usually seat you without any fuss.  And I know better than to commandeer one of the romantic little window tables clearly designed for couples.
In Lyon once, the proprietor of an almost empty restaurant told me bluntly that he had no tables for one.  Of course not, I said, in my perfectly presentable French, but there are plenty of tables for two, and I am a widow. But if I give you one of those, he said, a couple might arrive and want it.  I was so taken aback at this rare burst of rudeness and rejection that I turned and walked out. Too late, I realised what I should have said:  “J’espère, Monsieur, que lorsque votre femme sera veuve, elle ne tombera jamais sur un restaurateur comme vous.” I hope, monsieur, that when your wife becomes a widow, she never comes across a restaurant owner like you.
No such shocks at La Sanabresa.  With a wave of his hand, the magnificently moustached waiter invited me to sit where I liked. The table I chose was wedged neatly between two larger tables, and I could sit with my back to the wall looking out into the room and observing everyone else.
To my great pleasure, all the entrees were vegetables. I chose the garlic mushrooms, the meatballs, and the flan.  Then I turned to the wine list and asked for a glass of rioja.  The waiter (who had very little English) held up his hand, and pointed to the words I had missed:  the 11 euro menu included not only three courses and bread, but also half a bottle of wine.  Tinto, blanco? Tinto, definitely.  He looked approving, and dashed away to see to it.
Just as well I had arrived on time. By now the restaurant was rapidly filling up with locals – mostly groups of friends, with a sprinkling of couples and a few other solitary diners.  The mushrooms were excellent, the meatballs a little bland but still interesting, and the flan – which turned out to be my favourite crème caramel – was perfect: rich, smooth and darkly sauced.  And the wine was perfectly drinkable. Everyone, including me, seemed to enjoy their dinners immensely.  By the time I left, I’d worked out what I was going to have next time, partly on the basis of what I’d seen arrive at the neighbouring tables.
Again I made sure to arrive promptly, and the waiter ushered me straight to the same table. He seemed pleased to see me.  I knew very well that as a passing tourist, even a returning one, I was just a tiny blip on the steady radar of his regulars. And yet I wanted him to like me, to approve of my choices, to appreciate me.  
One thing I think he really did appreciate was my decisiveness – no confused tourist dithering.  Grilled asparagus, grilled dorado with salad, bianco. Dessert was more of a dilemma. Should it be the flan again, since it was so good? Or (in the interests of research) should I try the torta de queso, cheesecake, which I envisaged as some rustic Spanish version? 
The cheesecake turned out to be a mistake - a small slice of some spongy, creamy confection topped with raspberry glaze, obviously bought in. I should have asked if it was casero (the equivalent of French maison). To offset this disappointment, I had to buy two little shortbreads from the still-open bakery on the way home, to munch in my room with Lady Grey tea. 
Because that's what happens on holiday by yourself - every small success or good decision is magnified, and so is every small mistake.  Wrong: Bypassing the hake with green sauce for what turned out to be a rather boring cod and orange salad in Cordoba. Right: Finding a sublime custard tart, served with a beautiful big glass mug of excellent black tea, to pass the time while entirely avoiding the ugly concrete complex for the cult of Our Lady of Fatima.
On the third night I was feeling slightly off-colour, so something fairly plain was called for: thin crisp eggplant fritters with lemon, and roast pork with mashed potato - always my favourite comfort food, and Harvey's too.  For dessert, no mucking around – the flan.
At the next table, two young Japanese (yes, there were some – they read Tripadvisor too) were having trouble with the menu. So I offered to help, and the waiter thanked me. At the end I splashed out on a small decaf espresso, and asked him if I could take his photo. He took the camera from me, handed it to the Japanese couple and bent down beside me so they could take us both. In my fragmentary Spanish I managed to tell him (I think) that I would come for one more night, and then I had to leave.
On my last night I had roasted red peppers with garlic and flakes of tuna, excellent cod in tomato sauce, and house made tiramisu. But the main courses I had been ordering from the 11 euro menu had migrated to the 13 euro one - still a great deal. Perhaps this was because it was Friday, which seemed to be family date night: there were more tables for two or four, filled with middle aged couples and small family groups.
My waiter dealt with them all with his usual speed and aplomb. And I learnt his name – Joaquín. He proudly brought over a laminated copy of a 2003 piece by the restaurant critic for the New York Times. It praised the restaurant handsomely, and paid special tribute to him and his moustache.
I told him my name too, and when I stood up to go we shook hands. He came with me to the door, I managed to say "Adios, mi amigo”, and he embraced me. I turned for home (well, the hotel) feeling pleasurably sad.

Then he came rushing out after me, saying "Sorry!"  I had forgotten my scarf. Real life endings are never quite like the movies. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

For Suffrage Day

It's Suffrage Day in NZ but here in Barcelona it's still the day before. I want to mark it with a post related to what I saw in Vienna. Gustav Klimt had a long relationship (no one knows if it was sexual or not, but it seems likely it wasn't) with a remarkable woman, Emilie Louise Flöge.

Emilie and her sister Pauline ran Vienna's leading haute couture salon. They included loose, flowing dresses in the Secession style worn by many women in Klimt's paintings. The one below is of Emilie, and the second photo of her shows her in feminist reform dress.  (Sorry the pictures here are too small, Blogger on iPad won't let me enlarge them - I'll fix it when I get home.). The shop had to close after the Nazis removed most of the sisters' wealthy customers.  The other sister, Helene, was married to Klimt's brother.

The Leopold Museum has a touching display of Klimt's postcards to Emilie over many years. "The Kiss" is said to show her and Klimt - which would explain the woman's apparent reluctance to be kissed at all. 

You can buy Kiss umbrellas, bags, mugs and cushion covers. When the Vienna Museum held a Klimt kitsch contest in 2012, they awarded the prize to a plastic egg that opened to show miniature “Kiss” figures which rotated to the tune of Elvis’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” 

Monday, September 14, 2015

That's history

If Harvey had still been alive, he would have turned 81 today. Here in Vienna I keep thinking of him as I enjoy yet another new experience that he would have loved, from the delightfully enthusiastic concert of Vienna's Greatest Hits last night (think The Merry Widow, etc), complete with excellent singers and ballet dancers, to the free Amaretto my friend Ulrike and I were given just now to end our Italian dinner round the corner.

I think he would have liked seeing Sigmund Freud's house, too. Freud lived at Berggasse19 for 47 years, from 1891 to 1938. This photo of him in his study was taken there jin 1937.

Sometimes history seizes you by the throat.  I put up a post on Facebook recently showing my first coffee and cake in Vienna. I had it at an attractive old place I found near our hotel, Cafe Eiles. Later, wanting a photo of the interior with its faded tapestry banquettes and round marble-topped tables, I looked it up on the Internet. 
           There's been a cafe on this site ever since the building went up in 1840. Cafe Eiles itself dates back to 1901. Eiles means rope. On 23 July 1934, the illegal Nazi party held its last meeting in the cafe before launching the failed putsch against the Austrian government. 
            Less than four years later, on 4 June 1938, Sigmund Freud left his house after he managed to raise (with the help of friends such as Marie Bonaparte) the very large sum of money demanded by the Nazis for letting him, his wife and his daughter Anna leave for refuge in London. His apartment was turned into a crowded holding pen for other prominent Jews. He died less than 16 months later on 23 September 1939, aged 83. Four of his five sisters later died in the concentration camps in 1942.

  • Tuesday, September 1, 2015

    Looking ahead to Suffrage Day

    I'll be out of New Zealand for Suffrage Day this year. I'll ask my house-sitting son to mark it with a bunch of white camellias from the garden.
            You can now look up the original suffrage petition online to see if any of your forebears signed it.

    Back in 1993, when the country (very ambivalently and sometimes disgracefully badly marked the centenary of women's suffrage, there was a slew of cartoons, some of them openly misogynist but others wryly commenting on how far equality still had to go. My favourite, by a veteran male cartoonist, showed a harassed looking woman trying to go out the door while her husband whined from his armchair: "So that's it, is it? I have to get my own dinner every flaming suffrage centenary!"

    Sunday, August 2, 2015

    The winter of our discontent

    It's far too long since I posted here. Partly it's because, while I think of Harvey a great deal, the acute feelings of loss have diminished. But also I have my son staying with me, so I'm not actually living alone, and that makes a big difference - someone completely familiar to cook for and have dinner with and talk to and watch TV with (fortunately we have quite similar tastes, on the whole).
           The other thing getting in the way of posting is my general feeling of angry impotence in relation to what's going on in New Zealand. Just one example: last week the front page of the DomPost featured a photo of a young child's teeth savagely eroded by sugary drink.

    The accompanying story detailed the extraordinary damage these drinks are doing, resulting not only in bad health but also in extremely costly hospital care. Rob Beaglehole, principal dental officer for Nelson Marlborough District Health Board, faced with the huge increase in such cases, said that junk food advertising has "huge sway over children's diet":
          "Our kids are watching their sporting heroes slugging back bottles of sports drinks containing three days' worth of a child's daily recommended amount of sugar. If we want to protect our kids and address this health crisis, the first step needs to be restricting advertising of junk food directly to our children."
            Carrick Graham (if you don't know who he is, read Dirty Politics and the Metro article mentioned below) had the gall to comment, "What do you say to the parents of the babies that you have to extract teeth from? Why aren't they held responsible?" Beaglehole replied, "I say to the parents please don't give your child any more sugary drinks. They say 'but the All Blacks drink them...'"  (Just like runner John Walker for FreshUp - "It's got to be good for you".)
           Taxes are another effective way to cut consumption. Yet earlier this month, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman ruled out taxing sugar-laden products, saying exercise and education should be the focus in efforts to reduce obesity. He now says that over the next two months, he plans to recommend "a set of actions to address the nation's sugar problem".
           Beaglehole said the minister should look to introduce measures to tackle the marketing of sugary drinks and junk food, in the same way tobacco and alcohol were treated.Yet so far the government has adamantly refused even to consider any such measures. (They've also refused to take effective steps on the price and availability of alcohol.)
            On the second page there was an article about Labour's data on the steady decline in health funding in real terms, amounting to a cut of $1.7 billion since 2010. In response, Jonathan Coleman said - this deserves bold type:
            "We want to move funding away from expensive hospitals and into communities so we have early intervention, we have preventative measures so we keep people out of hospitals, and prevent them from getting really unwell in the first place."
              If that's so, Minister, why not start with taking the steps all the experts are calling for to prevent further expensive damage to children's teeth?  And why all the stalling over an even bigger and more expensive cause of ill-health in children - cold, damp, rotten rental housing?
              We've heard the awful reports on killer state houses, but private ones are even worse. As Rebecca Macfie's recent Listener article makes clear, people rent these houses not because they don't think damp matters (they do), or because these houses are cheap (they aren't), but because they have no choice - they must have somewhere to live and they have to take whatever they can find. The government pays accommodation supplements for 60% of rental housing, so it's directly subsidising hundreds of landlords providing dangerously bad housing.
               Every day, there's clear new evidence that the current government is much more concerned with not upsetting its big business supporters than with minor issues like children's health. As Professor Doug Sellman, head of the National Addiction Centre, said in a recent article in Metro:
               "Current economic models are not sufficiently accounting for the harm to ordinary people from certain big businesses – ‘addictionogenic’ big businesses... They’re headed up by people who hide behind the mantra we so often hear: ‘It’s all about individual responsibility.’ However, they know very well how risky their products are to ordinary people, how much harm is being caused, and how deviously clever their marketing and government lobbying is to maintain their grip on the New Zealand population and their profit flow." (To see what he's talking about, go and see "Merchants of Doubt", showing in the film festival.)
                So far it looks very much as if, despite the best efforts of the best qualified people, children will go on suffering and this government will go on letting them suffer, for the sake of protecting profits.  It's going to be a long winter.

    Tuesday, April 28, 2015

    After Anzac Day

    I don't know who wrote the speech delivered by John Key at Gallipoli on Saturday, but they did a superb job. Steadily focused on what happened there 100 years ago, recognising that it was an invasion ending in defeat, thanking the Turks for their generous friendship. Carefully avoiding the foolish, false cliches that have persisted in surfacing all too often in recent weeks, such as the claim that the First World War was about "fighting for our freedom". And above all, stressing that:
    "while this was a place of courage and heroism and duty, it was also a place of fear and waste and loss ... a place of unspeakable suffering on both sides of the fighting." 

    I didn't go to the parade through Wellington last Friday. To me it seemed too much like boys' obsessive war games - look, real uniforms and trucks! (Or at least meticulous recreations of them.) I saw it as far too likely to conjure up the jaunty enthusiasm of those early weeks, when men were waved off to war by oblivious crowds convinced they would be triumphing home by Christmas. 

    But it's always more complicated than it seems, and that certainly wasn't true for everyone watching last Friday, any more than it mulst have been back in 1915. A friend who was there told me what she saw: a middle aged woman with tears in her eyes as the young volunteers marched past in their stiff, scratchy khaki. "My great-uncle was only eighteen," she was saying. "He must have looked just like that."

    Harvey was born in 1934. He grew up convinced that he, too, would have to go off overseas, like the two waves of men before him, to fight and quite possibly die at his country's bidding - if not in battle, then in the long aftermath of war, as his apparently strong stepfather had done at the age of 59. From the few stories Dick had told him, he knew only too well what a shambles war usually was. When Suez erupted, he thought, "this is it." But he was lucky, he lived out his 76 years in peace. 

    When the commemoration came at 10 am on Saturday on the radio, I thought of the mothers. Unlike me, they lost their sons - and sometimes their daughters - alongside so many others, and supposedly for good cause. But I don't think that would have made it any less searing a loss. 

           August 1914

           What in our lives is burnt
           In the fire of this?
           The heart's dear granary?
           The much we shall miss?

           Three lives hath one life –
           Iron, honey, gold.
           The gold, the honey gone –
            Left is the hard and cold.

            Iron are our lives
            Molten right through our youth.
            A burnt space through ripe fields,
            A fair mouth’s broken tooth.

                    Isaac Rosenberg, 1890-1918

    Wednesday, March 18, 2015

    Ireland's best loved

     Seamus Heaney's "While all the others were away at mass" has been chosen as Ireland's best loved poem in a poll. From Clearances III - In Memoriam M.K.H., 1911-1984, it recalls a morning he shared with his mother, peeling potatoes. 
    Harvey loved Heaney's work and he would have thoroughly approved of this choice. I'm posting this as a belated tribute for St Patrick's Day, in memory of my two mothers. One was connected with Ireland by birth and one by marriage.
    When all the others were away at Mass
    I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
    They broke the silence, let fall one by one
    Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
    Cold comforts set between us, things to share
    Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
    And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
    From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.
    So while the parish priest at her bedside
    Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
    And some were responding and some crying
    I remembered her head bent towards my head,
    Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–
    Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

    Friday, March 13, 2015

    Feminists: Why are we still here?

    Recently I was asked to contribute to "Why are we still here?", a Commonwealth Writers blog about feminism for International Women's Day on 8 March.

    My post went up on the day itself, with a new one going up every day since. More will go up over the next week, including:

    Maori academic Ella Henry on indigenous women’s rights, and the need for women to re-politicise their personal lives.

    Right now you can read:

    - Poet and playwright Sitawa Namwalie on the incremental fight against deep-rooted gender equality in Kenya

    Urvashi Butalia, founder of India’s Zubaan Books, on the changing landscape of feminist publishing and its relevance today

    - Writer and academic Martine Delvaux on the importance of feminist writing in countering the erasure of women in Canada

    - Film activist Marian Evans on the deficit of complex female protagonists in New Zealand’s film industry

    - Trinidadian activist and artist Ellen O’Malley Camps on carnival theatre, working in a maximum security prison and fifty years of feminist activism.

    Tuesday, March 3, 2015

    Thirty years on

    Summer and some other things got in the way of blogging for a couple of months. For the first time I embarked on the revival of our Christmas-with-friends tradition by myself, and on the whole it went very well, though I felt - wistful, I think, best describes it, for past times and the beloved company I no longer have.  Then I went away to stay with various friends in various lovely places, spent a lot of time eating (and cooking) and basking in warm shade with a book, and by the time I got home I felt very relaxed indeed.
              This Monday it was thirty years since Harvey and I married in our garden, on 2 March 1985, and had a joyful party at home afterwards.

    Without him, it didn't feel right saying to people that it was our wedding anniversary (though dear Ali remembered and phoned me). Celebration didn't seem in order either. Instead I marked it by walking down to his plaque in the cemetery rose garden with a friend and leaving a spray of white lilies given to me by my neighbour. Then we went home for a glass of wine.