Postcard from isolation

They say keeping a routine is important. My routine is mostly thinking about what meals I want to cook in the next few days. And excitingly, I now have three meals a day to consider. Back before, when you could decide on a whim to go down the shops for one ingredient, breakfast didn’t really feature on my radar. I don’t like food in the morning. A litre of strong milky hot tea is the only way to start a morning. It’s the ideal accompaniment to my hour in bed reading.

So now I am allowing myself to indulge in the mid-morning breakfast. It might be a case of using up the slightly-too-ripe tomato from the fruit bowl on toasted getting-stale bread ends topped with the wilting basil. Equally it is just as likely to be the three-weeks-in-fridge eggs scrambled and topped with hardened cheese nubs. Weeks of staying home to ‘flatten the curve’ (which we no longer need to explain. Other new phrases that have entered the common lexicon: social distancing, self-isolate, herd immunity, lockdown) force us to consider our fridges and pantries with a critical eye.

Now of course, there will be dishes to wash. Currently there are always dishes to wash. Next it’s time to do my yoga stretches. Move the ottoman, lay down on the floor, press play on whatever podcast I’m currently listening to (preferably non-Covid-19 in subject), notice how much cat hair there is down here, ignore it and begin the stretching routine anyway. My glutes are tight when I sit too much and I’m always sitting too much now. So as I lay flat against the floor I try to breathe slower, deeper, testing the capacity of my lungs. Covid-19 or Coronavirus (pick your preferred nomenclature) attacks the respiratory system and patients have reported the sensation of drowning. I have to admit that this is the thing that scares me the most. Drowning, in a hospital bed with the best medical care our country has but unable to do a thing, seems inconceivable.

So, breakfast and stretches done, time to do some laundry. Yes, I’m washing things more than I normally would. That’s the thing about an invisible virus, it could be anywhere. After venturing out into the world, the one inside opens the front door to minimise touching of surfaces.
Inside person – ‘wash your hands!’
Previously-outside person – ‘I am!’
I read an analogy about picturing the virus as glitter and as a glitter-phobe I know that shit gets everywhere even when you think you’ve cleaned it off and gotten rid of it. So yes, I’m washing our towels, our clothes, our bedding more often. I feel like I’m guarding myself against the unknowable.

Time to think about lunch. What might it be today? Cacio e pepe? Okonomiyaki? Cheese soufflé with a side of petit pois a la française? YouTube cooking channels have a lot to answer for. Get distracted by my phone and check Facebook and Instagram for absolutely no good reason apart from being reminded that there are people out the in the world. There’s a new messenger request. Someone else wants some of my sourdough starter. I’ve shared maybe 30 of these in the last month. People rediscovering the ability to make their own bread. Not that I imagine they will continue to be home bakers once ‘normality’ has been restored but maybe, just maybe, they won’t baulk at the $7.00 sourdough loaf from their local bakery.

I switch on our hand-me-down coffee machine and warm up the milk while it cycles through its start-up. We take our coffees on the front porch to discuss today’s lunch options while marvelling at how quiet the street is now most people work from home and the park next door has been locked closed. The autumnal weather is at odds with the sense of existential dread so many people are feeling.

I think the house directly opposite us is empty. Maybe they’ve a holiday house they’ve retreated to. I don’t blame them. The house with the most comings and goings in our street belongs to the weed dealer.

So what do I do with the rest of my day? I write. At least I try to write. This isolation has been great for my writing. The forced solitude (if you don’t count Steve in the next room or the two cats) encourages introspection. And that’s what I write. I write narrative non-fiction which is factual things I have done and my view on it all. I may massage details to suit but it’s my story so I don’t care.
I’m most of my way through a manuscript that I would love to finish. I want the lack of paid employment to continue so I have to keep writing.

It has been speculated that we’ll be in lockdown til late July. Yes please. Though of course it’s not as simplistic as all that. I still want to go the the pub and see my friends, more than one at a time. I want to share meals and laugh at a joke without the effort that Zoom sometimes requires.

So , Mr Prime Minister, can you forbid me from going back to work but let me go out and play with my friends please?

The New Norm

The world has shifted sidewards too rapidly these last few weeks. Maybe it’s only been a week but that’s the thing about time – when the laws of the universe have gelatinised, time itself becomes untrustworthy.

Most of my work has evaporated and the remaining quotient has become an ‘essential service.’ As the majority of the fortunately employed now work from home, we’re discovering the limitations of our country’s internet connection.

The local library has temporarily closed so friends are delving into their bookshelves and sharing the bounty.

Good Karma groups are reaching out to ask for assistance, sourdough starter or spare computer monitors.

Each inclination to go down the street (for coffee, for flour or to just feel sun on your face) becomes a fierce internal debate.

Bedroom doors are shut so we can hear the rest of our team during the endless online meetings.

Social media has become something I wish to simultaneously avoid and yet that’s where I’m finding the biggest belly laughs. Nothing like a pandemic to inspire the best memes.

My podcast listening is down because I’m not commuting but on the upside I’m reading much more because books are excellent escapism.

I’ve always enjoyed showering in the middle of the day and it currently breaks up the day rather nicely into two distinct time frames. Of course, I also have no excuse not to do my morning yoga stretches even if I don’t get around to them until the afternoon.

Pubs, cafes and restaurants no longer exist as a viable place to congregate (even typing that word feels a little risky) so drinking at home is the only option. I absolutely believe I’ll have virtual drinks with friends via Skype/Zoom/insert app of choice before the new norm dissipates.

I read a book or watch a movie where people are cheering on a sports match, or slapping each other on the back at a pub and think ‘well, not now!’ We will become used to this new situation. That is a fact.

Just think how wonderful things will be when we’re sitting in a friend’s backyard passing around a bowl of chips and not second-guessing ourselves. It’ll take some time to be comfortable around other people, touching what they’ve touched, not flinching when someone coughs. Maybe that time will coincide with the same time people will use the last of their hoarded toilet paper.

The Revitalise Centre

The Revitalise Centre

My busy morning and the buzz of surrounding cafes is all forgotten as soon as I step inside the door and am greeted by mini indoor jungle. The large, shiny leaves force me to reach out and touch them to check if they’re real; they are. I smile and think ‘a place that nurtures its plants this well is certainly going to nourish it clients just as well.’ I report my name to the receptionist and she nods like she’s expecting me.

‘Welcome. Yve will be with you soon,’ she says as she gets up to pour me a glass of water. Grateful for this, I hadn’t even realised I was thirsty. I take in the calm blue/grey décor but don’t get a chance to pick up a magazine before Yve appears around the corner to collect me. As we walk towards the treatment room, I pass a small gallery of smiling therapists and more luscious plants that dot my path.

I’m guided into the room, which is bright with natural light and peaceful at the same time. I take a seat in a corner beside a salt lamp that reminds me of cityscape. We talk about what she can do for me today. Having recently had some traumatic dental work, we narrow in on lymphatic drainage as the most useful for me today. I have had lymphatic drainage before and been surprised how effective something so gentle can be. Small circular movements with a light pressure stimulate flow. In the past, it has helped reduce oedema from air flight, and restored balance after a fall.

The small stereo provides music that is subtle enough not to intrude into my bliss nor drown out the birdsong from outside. Walls are well-insulated as the only sound I hear from the nearby train line is a toot as the train departs the station. I had been first recommended to Yve through my mother. Word of mouth is my favoured way of finding therapists. A diabetic friend has been having regular reflexology sessions as a wellness strategy for many years now. Though she started with reflexology to directly help her feet, she’s discovered a more wholistic, active approach to her health.

Yve steps out of the room while I prepare myself and lay on the massage bed. She enters and checks in with me regarding comfort, temperature, etc. A weighted eye mask is placed on my eyes, instantly calming them. I’m centred in on my body and nothing else. She begins slowly and gently, unwinding the tension in my jaw, my neck and ultimately my shoulders.

Time passes to its own rhythm. I’m only aware of the end of the session as she holds my shoulder and tells me to get up in my own time. I stretch my limbs one by one, feeling the extent of my body. I slip off the eye mask and am surprised that it’s still daylight. I don’t know what I expected. Not sleepy but rested, I feel ready to leave the retreat and face the world afresh.

On the way out, I spy posters for kids and tween yoga. If only I’d found these when my kids were young, I think. A mindfulness program, anxiety workshops, meditation sessions, and more are also advertised. I make a mental note to check out the website when I get home. When I do, I discover The Revitalise Centre provides a raft of therapies: reflexology, massage, naturopathy, podiatry, reiki, kinesiology, hypnotherapy, craniosacral therapy, lymphatic drainage and wellness coaching. I can imagine these complementing each other, making for a place that honours both the body and soul.

I pause at some shelving to enquire about the potions and lotions on display. Yve pours me another glass of water and encourages me to use the testers. Apart from the gorgeous packaging, the scents are delightful – neither overpowering nor flaccid. Uluna are a local mother-daughter company producing high quality crystal essential oil products. Appropriately, it is JOY that resonates with me this afternoon.

That evening when I climb into bed, I realise that I haven’t thought about my jaw or tooth all afternoon. And that is joyful indeed.

Canal boating

‘It’s just like a bath tub with a plug and taps. When you want to fill up the bath, first you put in the plug and then you turn on the taps. If you want to empty the bath, you lift up the plug.’ He’s young and dressed head to toe in dark blue clothes. ‘Locks are as simple as that.’

Four of us are standing in close, so we don’t miss anything. Our fifth is at the back of the narrow boat, the stern, because he’s driving, or is it steering? Even the the term steering is misleading. When it is my turn, it feels like I’m trying to guide a 56ft (17m) bus along a narrow, icy road without any brakes. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s get back to the locks.

Locks are a way of altering the height of a waterway. They comprise of two sets of gates, one at either end, as well as paddles which are lifted or lowered to allow water out or in. Water inside the lock chamber needs to be at the level that the boat currently is. So if you’re going downhill, you make sure the paddles are down on the far set of gates and raise the paddles of the set closer to the boat. Once the water fills the chamber, the pressure has equalised and simply leaning on the gates will open them easily. If you try and force them, you’ll only do yourself an injury.

After bringing the boat inside the chamber, the gates are closed behind the boat. The boat needs to keep far enough forward of the cill which becomes exposed when the water level falls far enough. If the back gets caught, the boat can list forward and fill with water. So now we’re inside, the paddles at the front are lifted and the water drains away, levelling out again so the gates can open and the boat can exit. Don’t get carried away and motor off too fast though, as your crew has to shut the gates and lower the paddles again before you pick them up.

Anyway, do that a dozen or more times a day, motoring at a leisurely pace along a canal that you can probably stand up in. That was our weekend. We only moved 10 km down the canal before we had to turn around (another adventure) and do it all again. And I’m already conniving a plan to do it all again. Why? Because all mucking in together, talking things through, taking turns at the different roles steering, working the locks and steadying the boat with ropes was incredibly bonding. Steve and I, Steve’s sister, Sarah, and her husband, Craig, their 10 year-old son, Byron and my nephew, Marcus, all worked as a team. It was kind of like camping but on a narrow boat.

Our instructor, Will, has been only working for Shire Cruisers for four years but his family always had a canal boat so he grew up around them. Coiling the rope neatly and hanging it on the back hooks is second nature to him. You won’t find him tripping over it and falling in the fetid water. He scales the side ledges with ease, can reverse the boat in a tight spot and has no qualm sticking his hand in cloudy water to check the propeller can turn freely.

He gives us a short, fifteen-minute induction detailing the daily checks we need to perform to keep everything ship-shape, so to speak: grease, oil, propeller, prime the starter motor and so on. We are then sent on our way to practise our steering on the way down to the first lock. It is there that he goes through the process with us, directing us like a patient kindergarten teacher with addressing those with a short attention span. We struggle with the new vocabulary, soon coming up with our own names for the tools.

And like that, we’re on our way. The map and emergency phone number is left on the table so we can find it easily if we need to. I keep looking over my shoulder but Will has turned his back and is walking away from the canal. I miss him already.

Craig is doing an excellent job steering us in a relatively straight line. Out the window, three ducks swim past us. ‘Give it a bit of welly, then,’ I say encouragingly. Back in the day, horses used to provide the power, pulling cargo-laden barges down the canals. Nowadays, the canals are mostly full of tourists and holiday-makers trying to avoid each other and those who live on their boats. It’s toasty warm inside now as it’s early autumn but I don’t envy boat residents getting through the winter months.

‘Shall I put the kettle on?’ Sarah asks for the first of many times over the next few days. We all seem to agree that we’ve earned a cup of tea. The boat has a fully equipped kitchen with gas stove, mini fridge, microwave, crockery, cutlery and a dining cum lounge area that transforms into another bed in the evening. Down the stern end are two single beds with good storage, a bathroom with shower, then two more beds in the middle and another bathroom and shower, a slim wardrobe and then the kitchen/lounge area up front. At 56 foot in total length, it is both long but not very big. If we pair with a shorter boat, two of us can fit in a lock together which saves us all time and energy.

Before long, skipper announces another lock is ahead and teas are abandoned or skulled as we nominate ourselves as lock crew, rope assistant or gate watcher. It is quite literally all hands on deck and I can’t imagine doing this with less than four adults. None of us have ever done this before and it is a mental exercise as well as a physical one. For stretches at a time, we’re just cruising along slowly soaking in the ambience of the canals. Weeping willows over hang the water. Blackberries, ivy and fig trees come right down to the water’s edge. Moss-covered stones line the tow path which follows alongside. Excitable dogs followed by their owners and cyclists cover more ground than we do but it’s about how fast you get there.

So many quaint lock-keeper’s cottages, village pubs and stone bridges than you almost become immune to their charm. Almost. The first afternoon, we don’t go very far at all but we all agree to moor within walking distance of a pub. We go through a lock and moor not far the other side of it. Stakes hammered in, ropes tied front and back, we lock up the boat to head into Elland for dinner at the Colliers Arms.

Typical English pub menu is on offer: pies, fish ‘n’ chips, liver and onions, roast of the day, burgers, gammon, and so on. Tonight we all order pie, mash and peas with a pint of local cask ale. Those drinks have never gone down so quickly. Seconds, and for some people thirds, are ordered and consumed. That night we sleep well even with the narrow, firm beds.

St John Restaurant

We’re early so we decide to have a little wander around Smithfield before arriving at the restaurant. We pass door upon door of generic coffee shops and take-away food outlet close to the station. An impressive, expansive building comes into sight – the wholesale meat market. Since the 10th century, first a livestock then a meat market has occupied this particular site. Between the bustle of the growing city and the ease of access to farms, Smithfield was well-positioned for this charge. It is suitably impressive with its pale stone arches, red brick infill and large cast iron and glass roof.

It’s getting on to noon so the market is closing as it’s been open since 4am. Time for the workers to knock off and have a full English and a pint. Slabs of gammon, thick fingers of sausage and a puddle of beans are washed down by hand-pulled cask ale. The Fox and Anchor has been serving the market porters for hundreds of years from 7am each morning.

We pop our heads into The Charterhouse, which is a school, almshouse and former priory. A small complex of historic buildings, part of it is now open for the public to add to the thousands of feet that have walked over the same ground. London’s like that though. Thin ribbons of roads weave between modern office buildings and public ale houses hundreds of years old. There’s no imposed grid system taming the streets with curbs and pavement here. It’s easy to imagine that you’re walking the same paths that thousands of others have over many, many years.

Eventually, we circle round on the main road back to where we need to be. Scaffolding and bright orange bollards are a common sight as much construction is underway. Cranes dot the skyline. There’s no point decrying that ‘they’re ruining the city’ as cities are dynamic places. They stretch their limbs, reconfiguring to meet new demands. People ebb and flow as industry, commerce and residential factors change. Cities have been, and will always, remain living organisms.

‘It should somewhere here.’ Steve pauses and holds his phone square in front of him. I pull up and step close to him, to allow the free flow of lunch-time pedestrian traffic. In doing so, I now see the simple black font (possibly Times New Roman) announcing our destination.

St. JOHN Bar & Restaurant

‘It is,’ I say and point over his shoulder. ‘I know we’re early but let’s just go in.’ We’re still half an hour early but I’m too excited to wait.

‘Just a minute.’ Steve turns me 90 degrees to my left and there just a metre or two away is the man himself. I put my hand over my mouth then scramble for my phone. I take a couple of photos of the food menu and wine menu as cover before nonchalantly snapping a couple of him.

Fergus Henderson is legendary in culinary circles. I see Fergus as the progenitor of a new approach to British cooking. In the mid-90s, he opened St John restaurant with Trevor Gulliver, the wine half of the partnership. And in 1999, the untrained cook published his first cookery book Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking. His bold approach to meat consumption quickly became a classic amongst industry and public alike.

So here we are, metres from a legend outside his original restaurant. It’s like seeing Father Christmas himself, in a bright navy pinstripe suit, white shirt, red socks, brown brogues with walking cane in hand. Steve tugs at my shirt and we walk through the portico and into the bar and bakery area. A staff member directs us up the short, black metal staircase which leads into the dining room.

To describe the interior as pared down is an understatement: no art hangs on its white-washed walls; a simple coat rack runs along the walls at picture-rail height; paper over white table cloths, dark brown stained chairs and painted, worn floorboards; basic salt and pepper grinders play floral arrangement relief on the tables.

A tall, lithe waiter soon arrives at our table with menus in hand. He smiles as he greets us and hands us the menus. I find myself staring at the few grey hairs in his beard. He announces a couple of specials for the day, then leaves us to peruse our options. Deciding on what to order is always a process of negotiation with us. I am looking for a balance of dishes with different proteins and no doubling up of ingredients. Sadly, I can’t stomach neither horseradish nor hot mustard so those options are immediately ruled out.

A metal basket of breads is brought to our table with a slab of butter. Wide slices from both brown and white cob loaves are laid out, their beauty self-evident. It’s a confident place that offers such simple things to begin with. Chewy, slightly tangy inner crumb with a satisfying exterior crunch is only achieved with years of sourdough practice. The demand for St John’s bread has been so strong that they’ve opened a separate bakery in one of the London markets. The options are limited – white, brown, light rye or fruit.

I want to order us wine but I have little frame of reference for the mainly French offerings on the wine list so I’m going to need help. Jean-Patrick, our waiter, offers assistance. ‘Perhaps if I know what you’re eating then I can suggest something to go with it.’

‘Well, I was thinking something white or pink. I work in a winery region at home in Australia so I’m familiar with those styles but I don’t really know French wine that well.’

‘Why don’t I bring you a sample of both our whites?’ Two small footed glasses are delivered with generous amounts of wine for us both to taste. We settle on the 2017 Languedoc blanc, plenty of fruit without being sweet, and a small amount of oak.

Our order is taken and the three starters are quick to arrive. The first plate holds two pools of thick, buttery yellow mayonnaise. Plump anchovy fillets and two soft poached eggs sit proudly atop. Tiny capers and a bunch of baby cress finish off the plate. The second plate has a mound of potted hare, thick shreds of meat obvious, with celeriac remoulade and one fat pickled walnut. The final plate presents a meaty fillet of house-smoked eel with cucumber and dill tossed in a hot mustard dressing. We decide against the signature dish of roast bone marrow and parsley salad as we had an excellent example of it for breakfast the day prior.

For the main course, we’re sharing devilled kidneys. Six portly kidneys nestle together on a thin slice of toast. The whole lot is bathed in a piquant gravy, featuring a generous hand of Worcestershire sauce. It’s sweet and vinegary and sour and rich all at once. In a similar vein, the Welsh rarebit is all crispy, cheesy goodness. To assuage any possible guilt, I also order a vegetable side dish. Thick green ribbons of cabbage have been lightly steamed and tossed with lashings of butter, salt and pepper.

I’m done. Only a few ribbons of cabbage and a swirl of gravy remain. The wine is finished and my elasticated outfit is proving a wise choice. Just one more mouthful of cabbage perhaps. I’ve never tasted cabbage so sweet and unctuous. That’s it. No more.

‘Would you like to see the dessert list?’ Jean-Patrick suggests as he clears the plates.

’No, I’m all good,’ I say.

‘I already know what I’m having – Eccles cake.’ Steve’s grinning like a small child. ‘You sure you don’t want a glass of something sweet, my sweet? How about a sloe gin?’

I cave swiftly. ‘Alright. Wouldn’t want you eating alone.’

The dessert arrives quickly. It’s a rotund shiny pastry sitting next to a thin, triangular slice of Lancashire cheese. No more and no less. The food on the plates speaks for itself. There’s no garnish, no flurry, no attempt to disguise the food for anything other than it is. I sit back into my chair, interlocked hands resting on stomach and look around the unadorned dining room. I sip my sweet, berry-infused gin while Steve picks up the currants that fall out onto the plate. ‘Well, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now.’

‘Glad to hear it, love.’

Tuesday September 4th 12.10pm Butter & Scotch Bar and Bakery.

Tuesday September 4th

12.10pm Butter & Scotch Bar and Bakery.

Bar AND bakery, I hear you say. Yes, bar and bakery. Why does this concept not happen more? They open at 9am and offer brunch options until mid-afternoon. Think sandwiches in the American sense ie hot fillings sometimes toasted and often in a bun not bread, biscuits/savoury scones, sweet pies, cake, ice cream – cause, you know, America.

This morning I tried to go to the Museum of Women’s Resistance but, alas, it appears to be no more. Damn internet! Promising a vibrant experience that in reality is a nondescript townhouse with a for sale sign hanging out front. Of course, it was bound to happen at least once this trip. Occasionally, the internet doesn’t always tell the truth. Who knew.

So that’s how I made it to this oasis earlier than planned. On this trip, I’m trying not to consume alcohol before noon although the crossing of time zones can mess with one’s sense of whose noon it really is. It’s quiet in here; there are a couple of guys sitting at the bar drinking coffee plus me. The air conditioning is strong and welcome. My 4000 steps this morning were hard work in the relentless sunshine.

‘How you doing this warm day?’ The barman stands behind the bar polishing glasses in the way that barmen all over the world do.

‘Better now,’ is my response.

‘Yeah, it’s getting warm out there.’

I slide along the wall, edging past the two guys perched on the chrome and vinyl bar stools. Black and white chequered tiles on the floor, painted, colour-blocked walls and a feature wall of red lips by the bathrooms signal the fun, casual vibe of the place. The mirrored wall behind the display of extensive spirits indicates it’s a bar in more than just name only. I grab a table near the bar for ease of service as much as conversation.

Traveling by myself has its pros and its cons. I don’t have to please anyone else but at times I crave human interaction beyond the cursory. In the mornings, as I’m having my mandatory two cups of tea, I listen to podcasts. It helps prepare me to interact with the big wide world outside my bedroom door. This trip is an ideal mix of time alone, time with family and time with friends old and new.

The obligatory glass of water is delivered with the menu. I opt to begin with a coffee with the encouragement of the barman despite my reticence for American coffee. He promises to attempt a piccolo latte for me. I’ve coached him through it and I reckon I’ll get something close. I do, in fact, receive a passable piccolo latte. The espresso shot has enough oomph for my liking and it’s not been watered down with too much milk. In reality, it is a flat white presented in a glass mug with a handle. Some sugar helps balance the dominant bitterness.

I scour the menu for a smaller-sized breakfast dish and I want to leave room for something sweet afterwards. Steve would be disappointed if I didn’t. I settle on the chicken, chilli and cheddar hand pie with salad. A hand pie is a filled pastry triangle by another name. The buttery pastry is flaky and tasty all on its own. The diced filling is good value on the chicken front with enough heat not to warrant any extra use of hot sauce or chilli-infused honey that sits on the table. A little light on the cheddar for my liking, it’s a small, insignificant criticism on my behalf. The mixed salad greens are perfectly dressed in a country where I often find dressings overwhelming the salad they’re supposed to complement.

Coffee downed and I decide to step things up a notch with a michelada. A tall glass is rimmed with spicy salt, then half-filled with ice, doused with hot sauce, and finished off with a crisp lager and a wedge of lime. I need to embrace these more in my summer life. It’s thirst quenching and substantial at the same time. I take photos, all the time thinking Steve would love it here.

The menu which is currently discarded on the table next to me promises desserts in a variety of styles: key lime pie, s’mores pie, daily special pie, unicorn cake, salted chocolate cookies, six flavours of ice cream. All these are made in the bakery section next door which I can see into through a doorway behind the bar. I finish up my breakfast grateful for the small serving and embark upon an in-depth consultation with my friendly barman. Between us we concoct a boozy milkshake based upon the key lime pie with coconut ice cream and added rum.

When it arrives, I’m not disappointed. It’s thick and creamy with generous amounts lime zest sprinkled on top. The rum comes through immediately and I give it a thorough stir in case I’m drinking all the rum first. I slurp again and it’s just as good. I don’t often order sweet things and I think I’ve only done it this time in honour of my absent partner. I’m delighted that I did and even more grateful that he’s not here because I don’t have to share it. It’s mine, all mine I tell you!

Sunday September 2nd Smorgasburg, Prospect Park Brooklyn

Sunday September 2nd Smorgasburg, Prospect Park Brooklyn

11.57am

Not quite noon and I’m full up to pussy’s bow. I’ve found a shady spot on some soft grass in between picnic rugs. It feels like it’s time for a nap. I arrived an hour ago as the food stall event was opening. The sound of grills being lit and ice tipped into cooler bins was the soundtrack to my entrance. Grabbing a cold coffee with whole milk at the first stall in, I decided a reconnoiter was in order. The business names delight and amuse me.

Takumi Taco

Lobsterdamus

Bonsai Kakigori Japanese shaved ice

Jian-bing Shanghai-inspired street food

Mighty Quinn’s slow smoked barbecue

Rooster Boy

Handsome Hank’s Fish Hut

Mao’s Bao

Noodle Lane

Oyster Party

Okay, first point of order. Figure out which stalls sell smaller portions. After one circuit, I decide the morning is best started with a blood orange donut to go with my coffee. For $3.75, I buy enough donut for 2 people. I ask for a bag so I don’t feel compelled to finish it all. The wooden picnic table under the large central tree are still pretty empty so I take one end in the shade of an umbrella. The coffee is disappearing fast, long before the ice has a chance to melt. The tartness of the donut is balanced perfectly by the soft sweet dough. I look around at the crowds that are starting to gather.

That ramen burger is so instagrammable

Anyone want to share some mozzarella sticks?

Excuse me sir, what’s that you’re eating?

‘I’m not hungry but . . .’

‘Well, I’m here so I might as well like go crazy.

What is it? A dumpling? Wanna share?

The best thing about the jet ski is that you feel like you’re going through time. I’m not even joking.

It’s toss up as to begin the savoury section of my brunch with a taco or a sandwich. Slow cooked beef brisket wins. Two generous slices of tender brisket complete with smoke ring at the outer edge are placed on a soft slider bun. Creamy coleslaw, pickled cucumber and rings of red chilli are then piled on top. I attempt to return to my spot to find it’s already taken. The tables soon become hot property whether they’re in the shade or not.

I point to a vacant spot and ask, ‘do you mind if I sit here?’

A Scottish accent replies, ’go for it.’

Plopping down on the bench opposite I place my bun, napkins and various wet wipes on the table. ‘What a place. The hardest thing is deciding what to get.’

‘I know. My girlfriend has just gone for another pass at things.’

‘What was that?’ I point to the detritus in front of him.

‘A philly cheese steak, from over there.’ He points behind and I make a semblance of turning to check it out.

‘Good?’

‘Great. We don’t get them in Glasgow.’

I press the top of my bun down in attempt to get solid purchase on my meal. Fortune favours the bold, it is said, so I abandon all decorum and get stuck in. Lifting the bun to my mouth, I take a generous bite, hoping to get some of each part of the whole. There’s nothing worse that the last mouthful of anything being just the salad, or just the pickles. Balance is important. I can feel something clinging to my chin. I grab the wholemeal napkin and wipe extensively.

Pale skin and ponytail bobbing, the girlfriend returns. ‘Hi, I’m Rachael.’

Wiping my hands hurriedly, I introduce myself. ‘Hi, I’m Mandy.’

My table buddy takes his turn. ‘Oh, sorry. I’m Grant.’

Friday 31st August NYC

2pm

After less fuss than it could have been, Simone and Richard are packed and ready to leave. It takes a couple of trips in the lift to get all the bags down to the lobby so I wait downstairs and mind the bags. I finger the door key in my pocket. With damp eyes, she steps from the lift with a dog in her arms.

‘I had to say goodbye,’ she explains. The white fluffy dog is clearly missing the sobriety of the moment as it moves around in her arms. The doorman wedges open the door and starts to roll the bags out to the curb. I take the smaller ones and roll them out also. Richard requests an Uber and stands by the curb looking up the street towards the Queensboro bridge. We corral the bags to take up less pavement space. A light breeze is keeping the morning cool and my sister wipes her eyes.

Minutes later a dark sedan pulls up and the driver eyeballs the amount of luggage. He pops the boot open and starts the game of Tetris that is packing the bags into the car. Cars start to bank up behind and the horns start. No one rushes and eventually the cars manoeuvre into the next lane and around.

‘You’re a real New Yorker now,’ I say. Last hugs, tight and held, and they’re in the car. I wait til they pull out into traffic before I turn to go inside. I pat the outside of my pocket to feel the key safely tucked inside. The streets are quieter this morning. It’s a Friday at the start of Labor Day weekend, the last hurrah of Summer. Richard’s favourite coffee spot two doors along is even closed. I turn, enter the lobby and go to wait for the elevator. Well, the one that is working anyway. The superintendent told me there’s little chance of getting a repair man out this weekend.

Back upstairs in the apartment, I take stock. I stack the dishwasher and open the fridge to see what might be consumed in the next 24 hours before I leave and what should be thrown out. My suitcase is mostly packed. The long-sleeve tops and cardigans haven’t even made it out of their packing cells since I arrived. I choose loose denim trousers, a black singlet and a black top. With a bit of make-up and some bling, I’m ready to hit the town. Well, a small section of it anyway.

I grab the bag with some of Richard’s leftover clothes on my way out the door. I’m heading for the goodwill store on 62nd and 1st. I’m determined not to get my phone to look at the map. Most of the pedestrians seem to be tourists this morning and I’m even able to give directions to one. Feeling quite chuffed, I saunter along and jay-walk with more confidence.

It’s mid afternoon when I make it to The Jeffrey. It’s a bar I’ve walked past many times and this time I’m going in. The front bar is buzzing and I’m grateful to arrive before it gets too busy. I locate an empty seat away from the door and swiftly the bar staff hand me a drinks menu. I open it up and instantly regret not bringing my glasses.

‘What can I get you?’ The pretty blond barmaid asks me.

‘I forgot my glasses so I’ll have to ask you for some recommendations.’

‘Here, borrow mine.’ The woman next to me hands me hers.

‘Oh, that’s very kind. Thank you.’ The prescription is so strong that I can’t make anything out. Meanwhile, the barmaid asks, ‘what kind of beer do you like?’

I lower the glasses.

‘All kinds. I’d like to try something local-ish. Something hoppy?’

While I’m poured a couple of tasters, I hand the glasses back to my neighbour. She reminds me of someone though I can’t place who. Tight grey curls ring her round, warm face. A bunch of cellophane wrapped flowers sit on the bar in front of her next to a glass of prosecco.

‘I’m Karen,’ (say this in your head long and drawn out). I introduce myself. She smiles and nods. ‘Ah, I recognise that accent. A coloniser.’

‘A coloniser?’ What am I missing here?

‘I’m from Jamaica. One of Britain’s colonies.’ She laughs and smiles and takes another swig of her drink.

‘Oh, no. I’m not a coloniser. I’m Australian. I’m a fellow colonist,’ I explain and take a gulp of my cold beer.

Tuesday 28th August NYC

Tuesday 28th August

5.05pm and 34 degrees outside. Lucky for me I’m in 21 degree air conditioned comfort sipping on Blue Point Brewing’s Toasted Lager American style Amber. How it’s a lager and amber is beyond me. This afternoon I went for a wander. Not straying too far, I jay-walked like a local, I clung to the shade and I even had a cold coffee. It wasn’t from Starbucks, I promise. I took a cut through Bloomingdales – it’s just like any other city department store, in case you’re wondering – and passed by Sephora, Zara and H&M.

What made it feel unlike my hometown though was a few things. New York in the summer has a particular odour. It’s fetid. Stale urine, fried food, refuse in bags on the sidewalk, engine exhaust and subway venting all mix to produce an assault on the nostrils. Every now then it hits me in a wave and I reel back.

Hot dog carts on every corner selling dirty-water dogs, salted pretzels, iced drinks and more. I’ve not bought anything as they couldn’t appeal any less to me. I like trashy food but I can’t imagine that anything tastes good from them. Dubious refrigeration concerns me as much as flavour. I congratulate people for making a dollar where they can but I’m going skip the dirty-water dogs, thanks all the same.

I’m staying in the Upper East Side between Central Park and the Roosevelt Island Tramway. I mention the tramway because I’ve found it a useful visual guide to help me get my bearings. Numbering the streets helps immensely too. Now all I have to do is remember the address of my apartment.

On approach to the front door of the lobby I like to play a game. I try to hide behind the outside columns as I walk up and then suddenly appear by the glass doors. It keeps the doormen on their toes and their reflexes sharp. Only once have I managed to get my hand to the handle and attempt to open it myself. I smile and greet them and mostly they respond in kind.

There’s a sassy one I really like called Marek. He’s polish, tall and always wears black trousers, white shirt and black tie. He enquirers as to our day’s intended activities when we’re on our way out. He commiserates on the oppressive humidity when we return drained and battered. One evening after dinner at an Italian restaurant two doors over, Richard remained to philosophise about world issues. It was more than half an hour later that he’d finally appear back upstairs.

Monday 27th August – NYC

4.08pm

We return home, our temporary home, with tired and sweaty feet. The subway exit is a block and a half from the apartment. Climbing the steps up to the street is just that extra bit of struggle after a crowded, stuffy four-stop subway ride. Scaffolding covers a high percentage of the Manhattan footpaths and today I’m grateful for the shade it brings. Waiting on the corner for the lights to change, I announce my detour.

‘I’m going to pop into Dylan’s Candy Bar for a look around before coming up.’

‘You going to get something for Steve?’ my sister asks.

‘Probably. I’ll see upstairs in a bit.’ It’s across the road and only a few doors down. No chance of me getting lost on the way back.

I cross the road and push open the double glass doors. It’s a multi-coloured wonderland inside. Over-sized fixtures proffer packaged confections in every colour of the rainbow and more. Signs point to the café upstairs, the cotton candy bar downstairs, corporate gifting in a corner and much more. Walls of jelly beans in every conceivable flavour, shelves of boxed chocolates and stands of personalised mints delight and confuse the eyes.

‘They really do have every kind of candy,’ I hear one kid say.

Earlier in the afternoon we visited The Metropolitan Museum of Art, or as the cool kids call it The Met. When my sister first moved to New York, she made the fortuitous friendship with a woman who has a membership. After some fancy soirées and exclusive tours, she now knows her way around this cultural institution without a map. We picked one up for me anyway.

Room upon room of art from around the globe and through the ages is presented for one’s viewing pleasure. Writing tablets from ancient Sumer, a complete reception room from early 18th century Damascus and six-metre high fresco of Buddha are only some of my highlights. Over two hours we weave our way through the galleries and exhibition spaces. Simone has compiled her own top ten list: Madame X by John Singer Sargent (link here), Washington Crossing the Delaware (link here), The Oxbow by Stephen Hancock (link here) to name a few. If The Temple of Dendur doesn’t impress you, then something’s wrong.

It was a shame that due to an exhibition setting up, we couldn’t get to the Frank Lloyd Wright room. I love me a bit of interior design porn. Up and down the odd stair, we would settle in the quieter rooms for some restful contemplation. Every now and then, an unexpected vista would present itself through a doorway. I can’t say which piece was my favourite. That’s like asking me to choose a favourite child. It’s the middle one but don’t tell the other two.

So after a few hours in air-conditioned splendour, we trekked out into the heat of afternoon and the sauna that is the subway platform. I hope Gregory is staying cool.