May 2009


Every peregrine has it’s aery. Or at eagles do, peregrines have nests I suppose. Only in the case of this peregrine even the aery was used for travel purposes. I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve always been an armchair traveler.  Make that a curl-in-bed or sofa type of traveler. In fact, long years before I ever took to trains, planes and automobiles (or boats and buses) to get me from place A – current residence – to place B – vacation spot, but more often than not summer or semester sojourn – by my own initiation (as opposed to my parents’) I was addicted to books and the travels of the mind and imagination that they brought with them. And remain addicted to this day. What I find odd is that despite this lifelong addiction  (one that arguablydates back even earlier than my other one with all matter edible) I have not blogged about it. Oh, I always meant to. Using occasional posts to write reviews of various books that I read, but somehow I haven’t. I’m hastening to remedy the situation.

Where to begin? At the beginning? With my favorite? The problem is I don’t think I can single out any particular book even within a single genre. And as for the beginning? Which book would I characterize as the first? I know for sure that my parents read to me, and also know from their teasing me about it until I was into my teens that I sobbed and sobbed at the end of the Ugly Duckling (despite its happy turning-into-a-swan ending) because I was upset at the memory of how the poor thing was treated when still ugly. Apparently I didn’t cry during the event, only from the memory of it, after the story was over and everyone was living happily ever after.  But the first book I have an absolutely clear memory of reading all by myself is an Enid Blyton book about this doll called Amelia Jane. “Naughty Amelia Jane” or “Amelia Jane Again” I can’t remember exactly which. But I do have this clear memory of finding this book – for some reason I know for certain this was not a book that belonged to me or one that I borrowed – in the first house that we lived in after moving to Chandigarh when I was about 5  or 5 1/2 years old. And there began my love affair with Ms. Blyton, one that lasted well into early adolescence, and echoes of which reverberate to this day. To illustrate the staying power of my loyalties to those that I love – one of my first major buys after arriving here in Egypt two years ago (without going into details, lets just say I’m certainly not 5 anymore) was the entire set of the Famous Five adventure stories by Ms. Blyton, ostensibly for my niece, who at the time was on the brink of 10. And over the course of that weekend I had re-read them all. In sequence, beginning to end like I’d never had the chance as a kid.

I’ll go into details later but here are some picks of authors – old friends and brand new ones too that I’ve loved and lived with over the years:

P.G. Wodehouse – anything but especially the Empress of Blandings books; Saki; Alistair MacLean, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, L.M. Montgomery (of the Anne of Green Gables fame), another L.M. ((Louisa May?) Alcott whose works I must have discovered earlier, Paul Scott, Gerald Durrell and many years later his brother Larry (ooops Lawrence, of the Alexandria Quartet), the evergreen J. R. R. Tolkien, Fairy tales named for every color of the rainbow and then some, TinTin, Asterix etc. etc. etc. And this is only a fraction, of  fiction at that. Another category included encyclopedias (I love Britannica so much that I even succumbed however briefly to the temptation of a salesman and bought the entire damn series on an impoverished graduate student budget. Of course when they arrived I came to my senses and returned them !!!! ) There was a second-hand set of geographical ones that may still be in my parents home in India, of which for some reason, the one on Scandinavia exerted a grip on my imagination.

I am always looking to expand my horizons so any suggestions will be gladly and gratefully accepted. Until next time, happy travels all.


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Summer, or the heat in any event is here in full force now, but that’s not the only reason I’m sweating. In 7 out of the past 8 days, I’ve gotten my sweat through honest toil – doing Yoga with friends, Brooke and Belle. Brooke started it, bringing Belle over to my place last Saturday for some stretching. Tw0 days later we popped my yoga DVD in and since then we’ve been at it, mixing up intense routines with easy ones, but only really letting up once in the whole week. And even in a single week, I can feel the muscles strengthen and becoming more capable of doing more work. Am sore in different spots each day, but these are good sorenesses.  I must say, having buddies to to these things with is definitely inspirational.  I’ve had the tapes for so long, and half -heartedly pull them them out once or twice every week or so intending to “be more diligent about doing the exercises more regularly,” but it’s just too easy, when by myself to simply “not” do it. But when Belle rings (sorry bad pun) I change and join her.

An additional benefit is the increased inventiveness in the kitchen. In case folks haven’t guessed this about me already, I like to play to an audience, the more appreciative the better. My acting skills are not much to speak of and neither is my singing, (although the lack of talent doesn’t always deter me from bursting spontaneously into song) but my obsession with food has made me a good cook. Yoga seems to have stimulated a new avenue of creativity in libations. With the weather as hot as it’s now, the drinks we gulp after our session are cool, usually iced versions of infusions from the day before. Here are various variations I’ve tried:

Boil together fresh ginger root (or even just the peel if you want to use the insides for cooking) and several twigs of lemon grass. When water comes to a boil, add fresh mint leaves and turn off the heat to let the leaves steep. If using dried mint, add to the boiling water. Warm this is a reat non-caffienated, after-dinner or bed-time drink. In the hot season, cool the mixture, squeeze a lemon or lime into it seeds, pulp and all, and strain into a pitcher to refrigerate. You can add more water to the herbs and bring to a boil once more to get as much as you can out of the herbs. Serve ice cold sweetened or not, according to taste.

Hibiscus, known as karkady here in Egypt also makes for a great infusion, eather hot or cold. Tangy in it’s own right, it needs no additional lime or lemon. Bring water to a boil with some sticks of cinnamon. Add a handful of dried blossoms and turn of heat and allow to steep until water cools. Strain and chill. Sugar/sweetener optional

Green tea and fresh mint also make a great combination. Best to boil water and pour over a combo of tea leaves and mint leaves and allow to steep. Add the juice of a lemon or lime and then strain and chill. YUM!!!!

What does the quinoa in the title have to do with any of this, you may wonder. There is the healthy-food-and-drink angle. But mostly the grain appears here here because in Belle brought some over. Yesterday I cooked it, making a variation on khichidi, one of the quintessential Indian comfort foods I’ve mentioned in my food blog. Served it with kadi (a classic combo) made with left-over tamaiyas (falafels). Yum pairing, as it turned out. Here my recipe for Quinoa khichidi:

Chop some garlic and onion and begin to saute. Add some chopped veges such as bell peoppers, carrots, beans, and cauliflower (yesterday’s version was without any)  and continue to saute. Wash a cup of quinoa grains to remove the bitter powder coating it. Drain well and add to the saute pan. Stir and roast for a few more minutes adding extra oil of needed. Season with salt and a pinch of turmeric. Add boiling water to the mixture (about twice the volume of quinoa plus an additional cup)  and add half a cup of mung dal that has been previously washed as well. Bring to a boil once, turn the heat down to simmer, and cook covered until the water is absorbed and the grains are cooked. Serve with kadi (buttermilk soup) and some Indian pickles.

This is not going to be a story of a botched blind date (so there’s only some kinds of ridicule I’ll open myself up to willingly and my dating chronicles such as they aren’t are not for the public domain). Nope this post is about what without exception qualifies as the most unique dining experience of my life so far. The dark restaurant experience. Correction. Make that the absolute black zero light pitch black dining experience. Something like this:

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Apparently it’s not a totally new concept, having been around for a few years now, but I only heard about it when I went googling online to see what was interesting and cool on the Berlin dining scene. One, actually two, of the names that popped up were these dark restaurants. The basic idea is to eat a meal in a restaurants where all the wait-staff is blind and experience the meal their way. Sounded intriguing And so when I had an evening in Berlin sort of a free, and a dinner companion as interested in fun dining experiences as I am – Helen Rizzo, a fellow Cairene on sabbatical who’s spending her research time in Berlin – I called, made a reservation and we went to Nocti Vagus.

We arrived and were greeted into a lounge where a waiter brought our menus to us. Okay… where was the dark we wondered? Duh! obviously we had to decide on our meal ahead of time obviously since learning Braille instantly in order to be able to “read” them in the dark is not a skill most diners are assumed to have. There were four menus – vegetarian, seafood, meat and “surprise.” Based on the the divine strawberries-and-chocolate concoction promised in the dessert section of the fish menu, Helen chose that one, and as for me, well surprise! surprise! of course I went for the surprise.

Before we were actually escorted to the dining area, our greeter at the lounge tipped us on the basics. Reminded us that the waitstaff was blind. Told us where to put our bags – on laps or under table but NOT under any circumstances on our chair backs. If we ever wanted anything – more drinks or to go to the toilets for instance, we were to call our server’s name, which the greeter supplied us with. Both Helen and I heard it the name as  Saviour – and repeated it aloud seemingly to our greeter’s satisfaction. I even made a weak joke about how he was indeed a savior to navigate us through the experience, but it seemed to go over the greeter’s head.  We were then led to a small antechamber one floor below the lounge where in a dim antechamber with a single square of light our greeter called out (almost yodeled really) “Saaa… vior”. Who upon arrival, we found much to our surprise was a young lady, not a man. It was only later when we heard her being called for by other dinner guests that we realized her name might have actually been Sylvia. But by then it was too late. Savior she had been and remained, as she continued to save us through the rest of the evening.

In the antechamber, our greeter positioned us to be led into the dining area, my hand on Helen’s shoulder, and hers on Savior/Sylvia’s. “Enjoy yourselves,” he said, warning me (in response to something I said about darkness – dunkel in German) that it wasn’t just dark in there, but pitch black. Exactly what he meant hit me fully the next second when he switched the light off. Zero light. Not a shape to be discerned.

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The eyes were obsolete indeed. At first one couldn’t help but try to strain to make out shapes etc but we quickly realized the futility. Once we sat, Savior showed us by touch where our cutlery and napkins were. She brought us our drinks – wine and beer for myself and Helen respectively. The wine came in a flagon but could be poured into the glass all at once. I had ordered a Spanish Rioja, full bodied and rich in flavor. Water, she warned us, had to poured with a finger inside the glass to make out the level so we’d know when to stop pouring.

Bread arrived, with a warning to feel in the basket for dip. Then the first course. My surprise appetizer had slices of a cold meat served with a compote that brought to mind the delectable cherry sauce I’d had at the Armenian restaurant in Beirut. The main course was another meat, warm this time, with a crunchy vegetable crust that reminded me of a sliced fennel bulbs only sharper. And dessert was a trio pf triumphs, a cool jelly a frozen morsel of yumminess and a custard. The most intriguing taste to me was the jelly – which I thought must have been made from a white wine. Hits and misses – the “cherries” turned out to be some wild berries no too far off the mark; fennel was wild garlic, and jelly was a Chardonnay (“you’re good!” the waitress upstairs was kind enough to tell me when I tried to play the guessing game later on).

Eating this meal made me realize anew, what a very visual world ours is. And how big a role visuals play in our meals, even for people like me, who don’t pay attention to presentation etc. as a rule. Everything I take for granted – reaching for a jug of water, knowing when to stop pouring, etc – had to be thought about. Textures, always an important element for my anosmic self, gained even more importance when I couldn’t see my food, and so did temperature. I also learned or rather relearned that despite my anosmia, I can indeed taste. Much to my gratification,  though not accurate, my guesses were apparently not much farther off the mark than most others who also ordered the surprise. Of course darkness lets us get away with certain faux pas. Eating continental meals with fingers for one or using the “wrong” fork. Much to my delight I didn’t spill anything on my clothes and being intrepid souls both Helen and managed to exchange morsels from multiple course and actually deposit them on each others plate and NOT on the table. Her fishies were wonderful too, by the way.

I should mention that there was also a show between the main course and dessert. Had we had time to plan earlier the one we wound up would not have been our choice since Helen and My combined German skills are not the best. I caught some jokes but ended up dozing a bit through the play especially since the eyelids just felt heavier in the dark anyway! Next time (if there is one) I’d opt for  a musical or the massage ???? version. Helen was told about that. Incidentally it did come up in conversation that with different company  this whole experience could take on an erotic tone. But not this time, I’m afraid(I mean she’s lovely but… by mutual agreement…)

Literary references? Well H.G. Wells’s Valley of the Blind came to mind briefly, but the most appropos one had to the line that my friend Paul Couto once quoted to me many years ago, something about the intensity of black by either Graves or Blake. I looked it up (hurray for Google!) and here it is in its entirety (btw it was Graves of I Claudius fame who wrote this one too):

Black drinks the sun and draws all colours to it.
I am bleached white, my truant love. Come back,
And stain me with the intensity of black.

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Wordsworth was indeed worthy of his name.  The first time I read his poem, oh-so-many years ago (in fifth grade or even before) the inner eye he spoke of, upon which those daffodils flashed and set his heart a-dancing, was something I could experience. Even though the only daffodil I had set eyes upon until that point had been a human-sized concoction (confection) of yellow and green crepe paper around my friend Dolly playing the “daffodil fairy” in a school production (I was a generic fairy in a salmon pink frilly dress and waved a wand and everything). The phrases “wandered lonely as a cloud,” “the bliss of solitude,” and of course “a host of golden daffodils,” were set indelibly in my memory. And while I have seen daffodils between then and now, it was riding in the taxi to Ringo’s home in Aberdeen, Scotland, that the true meaning and impact of Wordsworth’s wordsmithy struck me.

All in all, the whole trip to Scotland and London was an exercise in realizing (as in making real) my childhood fantasies, gleaned from Enid Blyton. Hiking in the hills, picnics in the open img_0051 with sandwiches, pork pies (in a word, ghastly!), and ginger beer to wash it all down – okay so that last was in a pub not at the picnic – gorse bushesimg_0057 dotting the hills,  ruined castles by the seasideimg_0058 – very picturesque, to name but a few. Back in town I even spotted (and then snapped) a “Thistle Lane”img_0052, though to my disappointment I didn’t find a “Honeysuckle cottage.” The castle [Dunnottar castle may have even had dungeons though we didn’t visit any. What we did get to however, was an equally dim, dank and sinister, “Whig’s vault” a dungeon-like chamber  img_00621where in the late 16th century the they (those in power) imprisoned some 122 prisoners, for nearly 2 years. Many died, some trying to escape but most due to the appalling conditions there. The dark history aside, the castle trip was lovely, especially the walk back to the town along the sea cliff. More gorse, a bunny sighting, Englishmen (sorry Scotsmen) walking their dogs… very much like being in the pages of my favorite childhood books.

Having dispensed with the golden from my title, I must attend to the silver. The silver darling. Silver darling is the name given to the eponymously-colored fish, herring, that are so abundant off the coast of Aberdeen, and which formed the economic foundation for this port city for many centuries. In fact it wasn’t until the discovery of oil in the North Sea in the fifties (195os) or so – this is information from Ringo, a very reliable source – that it’s economic structure changed. Until then, it was the silver darlings that sustained this part of the world. By the way, the kippered herring, yet another Enid Blyton-ism, was left unsampled though not for want of trying. Ringo and I even bought some for our breakfast, but then circumstances conspired to prevent this edible experience. Another untried delicacy was haggis, though we did get some pate (very nice) in which haggis was one ingredient. But back to the darlings, which, in another guise were the basis for what was likely the best meal in my trip in which I had a fair number of very nice ones.

The guise? A fancy restaurant called the Silver Darling (in the singular which is apt for it is) overlooking the Aberdeen harbor, which Ringo had already told me about (in fact it was one of the pieces of bait she dangled in my direction as inducement to visit her over this Spring break) and described as the “best seafood restaurant ever.” (Actually the best bait to hook me on line for the trip was the prospect of seeing her again after 6 yearsm but the restaurant didn’t hurt ;))  It was certainly up there – what with oysters (in a delectable tartare concoction with salmon) and a tender rock turbot and also a scrumptious desert. A real darling of a restaurant.

To end this post I’ll return to the gold and offer a daffodil wave. More backblogging about Spring break (next stop London) in a couple of days, weeks…maybe not… TTFN

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Last week I had yet another of my brief visits to Amsterdam – at 2 nights, it was probably my longest visit yet. The excuse this time was not transit. In fact the visit this time had a specific purpose – my friend Matthijs Lok, whom I’ve known since my first year in graduate school when he was a visiting student from Leiden – was defending his Ph.D. thesis. In the Netherlands this is is a mega big deal – a ceremonial affair complete with both defendant (I should probably say defender) and forgive the excessive use of the metaphor, a jury or panel of professors (nope not peers – at this stage distinctly not so – more like su-peer-iors!). I had heard of these affairs before from other people, and it always sounded intriguing, so when the chance came to attend one, I did my utmost to attend.

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Matthijs in writing to me about prepping for the event had mentioned that it was something like preparing for a wedding, and he was not far off the mark. First the venue – very church or chapel like in appearance, and indeed may have at one point been one – the stained glass windows are a clue perhaps? (On a side note — the ceiling reminded me of some of wooden ones we’ve seen here in Egypt, painted in intricately patterns in many colors. The structure of the ceiling was identical to those here, the patterns and colors however, distinctly Dutch seeming, and there was even a chandelier with bulb holders resembling tulips).

Another similarity to weddings was that the main man of the day, like a groom, wore a tux, which in the true groom fashion was a rental. Professors, came in full regalia too – which means their academic robes. I wore a sari (something I usually only wear at weddings). Finally, there was the chanting (oops, speech) followed by the question-answer session with the professors, all in a language that it’s safe to say was unintelligible to me. It was in Dutch after all.

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But jokes aside, the whole ceremony was very impressive. And though I couldn’t understand anything – my rudimentary German was inadequate to cope with Dutch – I could make out that Matthijs was doing well. He waved his book at the beginning, and appeared relaxed, and was able to draw laughs from his examiners. The presentation and talk was followed by a few minutes of the professors leaving the room (this part was familiar having experienced something similar myself just a couple of year ago) and then coming back in to congratulate M on his successful defense and declare him Dr. Lok. Then there was a cakes, chocolate and juice reception in the lower level of the building, where we lined up (again just as if it were a wedding) to congratulate and welcome the newest member of the academia into its fold.

Took me back briefly to my own Ph.D defense – a very different affair – small (there were three of us: my adviser Bill, committee member Sue Lederer and me chatting with a fourth, Angela via speaker phone) in a hotel room with me at the desk nearest to the phone, Bill on the armchair and Sue on her bed. Ceremony due or undue was not part of the mix. But it was in Vancouver rather than New Haven, to take advantage of the fact that most of us were there anyway. Plus the fact that the entire profession of science historians was there to welcome me to the other side (the fold) made it special in its own way. Not to mention the superlative dinner at Tojo’s that we had in celebration, with a dozen of my friends and colleagues, and Bill footing his namesake. But that’s another story (or should have been) we’re talking about Matthijs’ big day here. Its not all about me, even when it is 😉

Later that evening [back in Amsterdam now] there was an informal reception with drinks and cheese and such at a bar in an old movie theatre. In the interim I took a trip to Rembrandt’s house. Highlights were, (i) his studio, a portrait of which I’d seen in Vienna’s Kunsthistoriches Museum in the summer, and which was even better than the painting had indicated; and (ii) a demo of the engraving and printing techniques he used, as well as an exhibit of engravings from his plates.

An account of Amsterdam would be incomplete without mention of Ingrid-Anne and David, who so graciously put me up in their lovely apartment overlooking one of the canals. So pretty. We were instant friends, sharing as we did a fondness for travel – David like me is something of a citizen/child of the world – and good food. My fondest memory with them is riding home after dark from the party back home on the back of I-A’s bike, something I haven’t done since college days in Chandigarh. We stopped off for a bite at a Thai restaurant called Cambodja run by Panjabis from Delhi. Talk about international confusion! It was fine because were were also a rather motley lot. Despite being nearly closed , they gave us a spot-hitting meal of warmth – soup and rice. With that I’ll end this post with a toast to all my Dutch friends –

Prosit! here’s hopingI meet many of you in different places all over the world… soon!