Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Sunny Side of the Street

This story is about a skirt, and a Big Day Out in London, and a moment of sheer ebullience that ended badly. I feel like telling it, because I wore the very skirt the other day, for the first time in a while. It is October now, and it was October then, when the skirt was new. Autumn in Santa Barbara bears almost no resemblance to an English autumn, but every time—EVERY time—I put on that skirt, I am there in that morning again.

We were living in Leeds. Lydia, my youngest, had just started school, and I had just gone back into paid employment. I had loved being a full-time mother, and now I loved my new job, in nutritional research at the University of Leeds. Though I had no professional background in the field, it was a good fit for my interests, and getting a paycheck was the icing on the cake. Oh, and after 12 years in jeans and a sweatshirt, wearing nice clothes to work was the sprinkles on the icing on the cake.

Sooner than expected, I was asked to represent my department at a conference in London. I was excited at the prospect of a trip to London, less so at the prospect of being an amateur among professionals and quite possibly making an idiot of myself. So I decided to splash out on a really great outfit: the sort of thing worn by people who know what they are talking about.

I went to an expensive shop in the Victoria Quarter of Leeds, a shop I had dawdled past but never actually set foot in, and bought a v. fashionable skirt and lovely pair of boots. These clothes were not exactly “me,” but that was the point: I wanted to look a lot better than me.

I took the train to London the day before the conference, and stayed overnight with a cousin in Pimlico. It rained all night, but the next morning the sun reflected brilliantly off every wet, bronzed autumn leaf, and I felt a tingle of well-being. Dressed in my new duds, I headed out to join the people streaming towards the Underground. Jostling along with the surging crowd, my spirits rose still higher. This was something I remembered from my early working days in London: being part of the pulse and vigor of a big city at work.

If there had been a soundtrack to those few minutes, it could have been the song Julie Andrews sings on her way to the Von Trapp home at the start of the Sound of Music, “I have confidence.” It was just like that, except I was swinging my briefcase instead of a guitar.

Then I noticed something. The crowds hurrying along towards the Tube were all on this side of the street, whereas the glorious autumn sunshine was all on that side of the street. Staying over here in the gloom would have made sense if the Tube stop was also on this side of the street, but it wasn’t. At the traffic light a hundred yards ahead, everyone had to cross over to the other side anyway!

Wow, I thought: life in the big city. These people are in such a hurry—or such a rut—they can’t move a few feet out of their way to find some sunshine. Well, I might be a stay-at-home mom from out of town, all dressed up and not knowing much, but I know enough to nab a spot of sunshine when I see one. It was time to break free of this crowd. I looked both ways and stepped off the curb.

I’m not sure about the soundtrack for the next bit of the story. Obviously Willie Nelson’s “Sunny Side of the Street” would work, but I am leaning towards the theme from the Mary Tyler Moore show, especially the bit where we see her throw her hat into the air to demonstrate her feisty, independent joie de vivre.

The street was empty, the black asphalt shining underfoot as I walked briskly across. I did not actually look back at the crowd I had left behind, but I imagined one or two had noticed my departure from their ranks. Perhaps they would even be inspired to follow this feisty, independent young woman striking out on her own. If I’d had a hat to throw in the air, I’d have thrown it.

Then I approached the other curb, and saw one possible reason why I was alone in this venture. There was a puddle: a wide puddle, extending several feet out into the road, and the whole length of the block.

I hesitated. What to do? Of course, I could walk back and join the crowd, but that went totally against the mood of the moment. Would Mary Tyler Moore have walked back? Would she, heck! This would be my hat-in-the-air moment! I had jumped puddles bigger than this! So I ran towards the puddle, and I leapt.

Hang on, I have to go back and fill in one tiny detail. I see now that I didn’t actually describe the skirt I was wearing, other than to say it was fashionable, and not the sort of thing I would normally wear. Well, the fashion that autumn was for long, straight skirts. This one was quite long, ending about four inches above my ankle. And it was quite extraordinarily straight. The diameter at the hem—the length of stride it allowed, to put it another way—was 24 inches. So you see what I mean, about it not being the sort of thing I would normally have worn. I’d spent years chasing toddlers about. All I’d worn were comfortable clothes that permitted maximum speed and range of movement. Unfortunately, it was in clothes like that, not clothes like this, that I had jumped puddles bigger than this one.

So, to the end of my story. Let us imagine it from the viewpoint of the crowd back on the pavement.

We are hurrying along, on our way to work, when suddenly a young woman from our midst breaks free! She strikes out on her own, trotting briskly in her very fashionable outfit across the road, towards the sun on the other side. What verve! What indep—wait, what’s she doing now? Is she…? Yes she is, she’s running straight towards that puddle! Now she’s jumping, jumping… right into the middle of the puddle. Ker-splash! She ran across the jump into that puddle!

And now she’s...well, she's just wading out and going on her way, looking up at the beautiful trees, swinging her briefcase and leaving wet footprints in the sunshine.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Marmalade, please...

This is a story about longing, and marmalade, and longing for marmalade.

It was the morning of my fourth day in India. I was on my way to see the Taj Mahal, but what I really wanted to see was a nice cup of tea. Since our arrival, I had not been sleeping well, and the food—how I had been looking forward to the food!—was not agreeing with me. Especially breakfasts. As is typical when I travel, I could be thoroughly adventurous at lunch and dinner, but at breakfast I nursed a shameful longing for a non-adventurous menu of tea, toast and marmalade.

I have an odd history with marmalade: as one of my father’s favorite substances, it was always on our breakfast table, and as a child I loved it on dosai, the thin rice pancake of south India. But I developed a grudge against the stuff after reading "Ten Fingers for God," a book about my father’s life and work. In that book, the account of each of my siblings' births occupies at least a paragraph of text—sometimes whole pages! My arrival gets exactly half a sentence: “Besides Pauline, they took along another new product: marmalade.”

Having slogged through five previous birth stories, the biographer had clearly run out of ideas, and saw the opportunity to use my birth announcement as no more than a segue to the entertaining story that followed. (And it is a good story. When I was barely a month old, the whole family sailed back to England for a stay of a few months. The last time Dad had visited, post WWII rationing was still keeping marmalade off the grocery store shelves, and he was worried. He suggested that Mum make a gigantic supply of home-canned marmalade and pack it in our trunks, cushioning the tins between layers of clothes. Arriving in London on a freezing January day, Mum discovered that there was plenty of marmalade in the grocery stores, which was just as well. Because when she opened the trunks she discovered something else: that the seals on the tins had not been adequate to the rigors of a sea voyage, and that our marmalade was now acting as a sort of marinade for all the family’s winter clothing.)

It took me a while to get over the discovery that marmalade's status in the family was exactly on a par with my own, but I had moved past that, and it was once again my favorite toast-topper.

Anyway, back to the story. I had been eager to see the Taj. I might have been less eager had I known that this trip started at 4 a.m. and included over four hours of driving each way in a moldering bus—sorry, “luxury coach”—with no padding between the seat springs and my bottom. At the last minute Mum and Dad could not come along, a switch in plans that I regretted at first, and viewed as highly suspicious after a few hours on the luxury coach. We rattled along the highway in the pre-dawn gloom, with the driver adopting the standard Indian practice of blaring the horn every 30 seconds. I stared out the window at the empty, flat landscape with one phrase repeating itself in my brain: this had better be worth it.

I was not by myself; a friend of our Delhi hosts had agreed to be my companion. The engine was too noisy for conversation, so Sarah and I sat side by side without speaking. Not so our fellow passengers, who were a boisterous lot from somewhere in Eastern Europe. They were in a fine mood, thanks to the large quantities of beer they were drinking. I felt like the unwilling guest at an early morning, mobile, Slavic frat party.

This had better be worth it.

I decided to write in my journal, and unlatched the drop-down table in front of me. The table dropped down—all the way down—to rest upside down on my feet. So I wrote on my lap: wrote the vibrations coming up through my feet, wrote every pothole in a jagged scrawl. Soon I had a page of squiggles that my five-year-old would have been proud of.

At 7 a.m. we pulled into the parking lot of a large truck-stop style restaurant, joining a number of other luxury coaches. This was obviously the stopping point of choice for all the tourists doing the Taj day trip, so the chances looked good for the kind of breakfast I’d been missing. I felt a tiny upsurge of enthusiasm as I eased myself stiffly out of my seat. The tour guide told us repeatedly that we must be back on the coach in 25 minutes. “Not twenty-six!” he shouted into his microphone, with a hearty chuckle that brooked no disagreement.

The restaurant was plain and noisy and packed with small tables. Harassed-looking waiters in black suits observed our arrival with no pleasure. We looked at the menu and I was guiltily thrilled to see a number of western items on offer. I decided on eggs and toast, feeling confident this would bring me in well under deadline. There was no specific mention of marmalade, but really: who would offer toast without it?

Several precious minutes ticked by before we snagged a waiter. We placed our order. Then I asked, “Will this come with marmalade?”

The waiter nodded energetically. “Yes, marmalade.”

I smiled. “That’s lovely. And tea, thank you.” The day was definitely looking up.

Seven long minutes later the tea arrived. And ten minutes after that, when we had drunk the pot dry and wished we had ordered two, our food came. I looked at my plate, on which sat a hard fried egg, two triangles of toast, and a dusty-looking blob of dark red jam.

“No marmalade?” I asked the waiter.

“Yes, marmalade,” he said, bobbing his head in the same lively nod he had used before. I dipped my teaspoon into the jam and tasted it.

“Well, actually, it’s not marmalade,” I said, apologetically. “But that’s all right.” I was not looking for an argument. A few members of our group were already finished, and leaving.

“Yes, marmalade,” the waiter said again, a little louder, and pushed my plate an inch closer to me, as if all I needed was a better look at the substance in question, to be convinced. I looked hard at the jam again. I realized we were seeing it from two very different positions. I was seeing it from the position of it not being marmalade, and he was seeing it from the position that he had 100 customers and there was another big coach pulling into the parking lot.

“Lovely,” I said. With that settled, I had a leisurely 78 seconds in which to eat my breakfast.

Back in the coach, I remembered something. In many languages, the word “marmalade” can actually just mean “jam.” Now I really regretted the time I had spent disagreeing the waiter, over what turned out to be a vocabulary matter.

But I felt as though my mistake had been deeper than that. I had been thinking of another India, the one where, whenever I sat down to breakfast, there was marmalade. Now I reminded myself: that was not anything to do with India. That was just my Mum, who made the marmalade because of my Dad, who loved marmalade.

The tour guide turned on his microphone and began to tell us the story of the Taj Mahal: the creation of a monument to lost love, numbers defying belief: 10,000 laborers for 17 years, or was it 17,000 laborers for 10 years? Either way, it was a story I was to hear many times that day. But for now I closed my eyes and remembered a different demonstration of love.

The labor of it was what Mum seemed to relish. The scale and complexity of the operation—the muslin bags full of pith and peel, dripping their bitter treasure into bowls, the exactitude of timings and tastings—all this was her domain, and she presided over it with an energy that I believe was driven by her joyful anticipation of one particular moment. Not the moment when a dozen jars were brimming with hot, fragrant gold. No, the moment after that, when she handed the pot and wooden spoon to my father.

He would sit down at the table and apply himself with a surgeon’s precision to the task of scraping every last drop from the inside of the pot, then licking it off the spoon. Mum, cleaning up the kitchen, would glance at him now and then, shaking her head and laughing at the extravagant care he took not to leave a molecule behind in the pot. This was his labor, offered in response to hers. In exchange for marmalade, the transparency of his delight.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Pondicherry rat

Ten years ago, shortly before Christmas, I went to India for a month with my parents.

They were going in order to be useful--a thing they were regularly, despite being 80+. Every couple of years, they went to train and encourage the staff carrying on work they had started in the 1950's, among the leprosy patients of South India. They were also going on this occasion to see my niece, Stephanie, a medical student from Minnesota who had been interning for some weeks at a hospital there: the very hospital where I was born.

I was going (at their invitation) as a freeloading tourist, to see the country of my birth for the first time since I was five. I was about to turn 42, and felt useful to no one. (Except perhaps my three children, and not even them anymore, since I had temporarily abandoned them in England to come on this jaunt.)

In this blog, I will occasionally write about that month, in small stories that I hope will string themselves together in the reader's mind like bright beads. If I were a proper writer I would do the stringing together myself, in an actual book. Perhaps that will happen one day, but for now the stringing is up to you.

So, today's story--a nod to the Fun Table theme of this blog--is about a meal in Pondicherry.

After a short, stunning, grueling trip to the hills of my father's childhood, where we had visited numerous orphanages and churches, Stephanie and I were exhausted. She had heard that friends of hers were going to Pondicherry for the weekend. Neither of us had ever visited Pondicherry (though I got a kick out of saying the name). We'd heard it was quite different in its architecture and vibe from the rest of the country, perhaps because it had been a French colony. Beautifully situated on the coast, it was described as a favorite on the ashram circuit. That all sounded completely lovely, but anywhere with a cold beer, a hot shower, and a comfortable bed sounded completely lovely to my shallow ears at that point. We decided to go.

The story of how we got there--and the surreal events surrounding our attempts to check in to the hotel where Steph's friends were staying--that is all for another time. All you need to know is that I narrowly avoided being put in jail, for not having my passport with me. Fortunately we escaped that fate by running off to another hotel--one with hot showers and no threats of imminent arrest (two things now firmly on my hotel checklist). We were relieved, but rattled--or at least, I was, being the one who had contemplated spending Christmas in an Indian jail. Stephanie found The Angry Beavers on our room TV. I had never heard of the show. Strange, that it took a journey to the southeast corner of India to see the two cartoon beaver brothers slapping each other. Stranger still that it made me feel much better.

The next morning, we tried to connect with Stephanie's friends for breakfast, but they had rented bicycles and cycled off without us. I began to wonder whether these people were in fact Stephanie's friends at all. Somewhat deflated, we decided to look for breakfast on our own. It was hot. We passed a couple of vendors and hole-in-the-wall places that would probably have been just fine, but when we spotted the cool shade of a restaurant set back from the road, open on all sides to the breeze, spacious and quiet, we did not need to discuss the matter any further.

The restaurant looked quite sophisticated, with polished concrete floors, and tables of gleaming dark wood. Tall, glossy-leaved plants lined the open breezeways, giving the place a dappled green light. We were the only customers; I reckoned 10:30 was probably not peak breakfast hour in Pondicherry. There was one waiter, elegant in a Western-style suit and eager to demonstrate his pretty darned good English. We placed our order for omelets and coffee, and were just leaning back in our chairs in relaxed anticipation of these delights when Stephanie--looking over my shoulder at the restaurant entrance--gasped, leaped to her feet and ran outside.

Feeling jumpy after my brush with the law the previous evening, I almost dove under the table, to hide from whatever uniformed official Stephanie must have seen approaching the restaurant. But she returned to announce that what she had seen was all her friends riding by on their bicycles. She had tried to call out to them, but they had not heard her, and they'd gone. Again, I thought, with a private "humph": friends? Had they really not heard her?

The smell of coffee drifted towards us, mingling with the slight saltiness in the air. I felt suddenly ravenous, and annoyed, and anxious, and generally jangled. That was when Stephanie's eyes, now watching the doorway with fixed concentration, widened again, this time in horror. I froze.

"There's a rat," she said. "A rat just walked in to the restaurant."

"Phew," I thought. Just a rat, then.

I looked over my shoulder, and there was a rat. An enormous rat, if it was a rat at all. Perhaps there is some other large Indian rodent species with which I am thankfully unfamiliar. This looked like your basic giant rat, to us. The odd thing about it, though, apart from the fact that it walked into our restaurant at 10:30 on a sunny Pondicherry morning, was the way it walked. This was clearly not a well rat. It would stagger along for three or four feet, then collapse to the ground dramatically. Moments later it would lurch to its feet again, and stagger a little further, to collapse somewhere else. It reminded me of the climax of the only opera I ever saw, where the heroine kept appearing to have died (at last) of tuberculosis, only to rally for one final aria. And then one more.

Stephanie and I looked at each other. Seconds ticked by. Eventually it became clear that we were not going to do anything. Not leap up and leave the restaurant in disgust, not make a complaint; we were not going to move an inch from the table where we would shortly be served omelets and coffee. It was the clearest indication I ever had of the way in which travel in India had changed my priorities.

We started laughing. By this time, Stephanie and I had laughed together often and hard, often ending in hysteria. This time, I went straight to the hysteria. My stomach clenched; tears began to stream down my face. I made sounds like the keening at a Middle Eastern funeral.

The waiter approached with our food. He was obviously aware of the rat, having had to skirt its twitching form to get to our table. He set our food down, and asked if there was anything else we would like. We shook our heads no, wiping our eyes and whimpering as we struggled to control ourselves. He turned and looked at the rat, and then back at us. He clasped his hands, clearly wondering how to address the situation.

Finally, in a tone of gentle authority, he said, "It is dying."

We nodded, happy to agree to the blindingly obvious. We didn't ask the obvious follow-up question: why it should be left to keep dying, a few feet from our omelets. The waiter moved away, and we tucked in, chewing between bouts of ghastly, uncontrollable giggles.

Later, I wondered if he was speaking in mild reproof of our hilarity: a creature's life is ending, he may have been saying. Have a little respect, please.

What seemed more likely was that, even with his pretty darned good English, he just didn't have any words sufficient to the event. He had been trained in omelets and coffee.

Perhaps, on the subject of a giant rat's death throes on the floor of his restaurant, he was as helpless as we were.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Wait a second: I'm still cooking!

This whole blogging thing is, frankly, a terrifying venture.

So much so, I haven't been able to get out of bed this morning. Normally I'd have been up for two hours by now, but here I am, frittering the time away, fiddling with backgrounds and color schemes, trying not to think about the fact that I have nothing of any interest to say. What the heck have I got myself into? I mutter, as I type and erase, click and unclick.

Two hours! With spectacularly little to show for it...and I haven't even had breakfast yet.

Still, didn't someone important exhort us to do six terrifying things before breakfast? Mark Twain? Margaret Thatcher? Virginia Woolf? I should stop guessing and look it up, but I'm terrified to navigate away from this page; I'd never find my way back.

Chester the wretched dachshund is snoring somewhere around my feet, not the slightest bit terrified. He's pleased with any life development on my part that involves staying in bed for longer than usual.

I think what scares me is that I've called this blog The Fun Table and invited people to join me here, and that's bound to raise expectations (never a good thing). There are probably people on their way here already, and they're looking forward to food and fun and I'm not ready! I'm Basil Fawlty, racing around in the kitchen, slapping a meal together and hoping the rat doesn't show up.

Which actually reminds me of a funny story. Phew! I DO have something to write about.
First, though, I really have to get up, roust Chester from his happy burrow, and have some breakfast.

When I get back, I'll tell you the story about the rat.

Oh, and it was Lewis Carroll, and it was believing six impossible things, not doing any terrifying ones at all. So we're clear on one thing, at least: I don't know what I'm talking about, most of the time.