I Went to London for Work [in 2015]

October 16, 2017

(I went to London, for work, back in 2015, and then I wrote about it, for work, also back in 2015, but then the post never got published, and so I am putting it here, now, in 2017.)

When the opportunity arose to travel to London to spend some time working with our England-based Local Expert team, I jumped at it. I’d been to London a couple of times before, but never for longer than a weekend, and felt like I still had a lot of the city left to see. I knew that I’d be at the office during the day, but figured that I’d still be able to squeeze in some sightseeing and exploring in the off hours. Fortunately, with some pointers from friends and the travel-loving crew at Local Expert, I made the most of my six days in the English capital, and I made it out without buying one single “Keep Calm And” souvenir.

I landed in Heathrow after a (thankfully) direct overnight flight from Seattle, touching down mid-afternoon and breezing through customs. British customs agents are so polite! I’d booked a ticket for the Heathrow Express in advance and saved it to the Passbook on my iPhone, so once I’d grabbed my bag, I made my way straight to the train. Since I was doing my best to avoid international roaming charges, I was pumped that both Heathrow and the Heathrow Express offer free Wi-Fi. This meant that I could map out exactly where my hotel was while I was on my way into the city, making it very easy to decide that no, I would not be walking there from Paddington Station and yes, I would be taking a taxi. Also: British taxi drivers are so polite!

Like the Golden Gate Bridge’s “International Orange,” the color of British telephone boxes is officially standardized as “currant red.”

Like the Golden Gate Bridge’s “International Orange,” the color of British telephone boxes is officially standardized as “currant red.”

After a quick shower and a change of clothes at the hotel, I figured the best way to battle the jetlag haze and keep myself awake was with a long walk, so I took advantage of the blue skies and set out to explore the city on foot. I firmly believe that there’s merit to getting lost when in a new place, and I wasted absolutely no time in doing just that. I got very, very lost. Fortunately, London has really convenient map panels all over the place, so you can get your bearings and get an idea of what there is to see within walking distance. There are also Wi-Fi hotspots all throughout the city, which meant that when I got really desperate to know where I was, Google maps on my iPhone was always available. That first afternoon, I wandered south from Russell Square to Covent Garden, where I was only a little bit surprised to see the long line snaking out the door of none other than a Shake Shack. When I was there, the 19th-century covered market space was filled with glowing white balloons, an installation by French artist Charles Pétillon. It was very pretty, so, naturally, I Instagrammed it before moving on.

Eliza Doolittle, the heroine of My Fair Lady, sells flowers at Covent Garden.

Eliza Doolittle, the heroine of My Fair Lady, sells flowers at Covent Garden.

I wandered down to the Thames, crossed the river, and checked out the food trucks and carnival games along the South Bank next to the London Eye. Then I looped back up by Parliament and Big Ben, walked through St. James’ Park, and passed by Buckingham Palace, which I had only seen before when I watched the televised wedding of Kate and Will (yes, I watched that).

The London Eye is the successor to London's Great Wheel, which spun visitors in sightseeing rounds from 1895 to 1906.

The London Eye is the successor to London’s Great Wheel, which spun visitors in sightseeing rounds from 1895 to 1906.

Big Ben is actually the name of the bell itself, not the clock tower.

Big Ben is actually the name of the bell itself, not the clock tower.

In Victorian times, this area—known as Shad Thames—was London's largest warehouse complex. Today, they're flats, and I want one.

In Victorian times, this area—known as Shad Thames—was London’s largest warehouse complex. Today, they’re flats, and I want one.

Here is me awkwardly taking a selfie in front of the London Bridge. When alone!

Here is me awkwardly taking a selfie in front of the Tower Bridge. When alone!

By law, hackney cabs (at their origin), were required to be tall enough for a passenger to sit inside while wearing a bowler hat.

By law, hackney cabs (at their origin), were required to be tall enough for a passenger to sit inside while wearing a bowler hat.

St. James' Park is the oldest of London's eight Royal Parks.

St. James’ Park is the oldest of London’s eight Royal Parks.

Despite my sleepless stupor, I managed not to get hit by a car one single time, even though it is very disorienting that they drive on the other side of the street, and I kept myself awake until a reasonable bedtime, finally lulling myself to sleep with the British equivalent of an HGTV one-day home makeover show. British television is so polite!

Evidently, the British drive on the left as a holdover from the times of knights, who wanted to keep their right hands free for swinging a sword at a moment’s notice.

Evidently, the British drive on the left as a holdover from the times of knights, who wanted to keep their right hands free for swinging a sword at a moment’s notice.

Sunday morning, I ambitiously pulled out running shoes and set off in the direction of Kensington Gardens. Here’s the thing. I love Seattle. I think we have beautiful parks. But there’s just nothing that comes close to the sprawling greenspace of a royal park, with its fountains, and rose gardens, and manicured hedges, and gilded entrance gates—not to mention the palaces. The parks in Europe have actual palaces in them! I’m telling you, nothing will get you motivated for a long bout of outdoor exercise like being able to do it beneath Kate Middleton’s window.

Kensington Gardens cover almost 300 acres in the heart of the city. It's home to a statue of Peter Pan, since author J.M. Barrie was inspired by the park.

Kensington Gardens covers almost 300 acres in the heart of the city. It’s home to a statue of Peter Pan, since author J.M. Barrie was inspired by the park.

After leaving the gardens I walked up Oxford Street (one day I will return and shop in you, Selfridges) and found myself on Marylebone High Street. If anyone knows how to pronounce that, I will give you the remaining pounds in my wallet as a prize. Mary La Bonne? Marley Bone? Utter mystery to me, but this neighborhood totally charmed me: beautiful Victorian architecture, sweet cafes, authentic-looking pubs (though what do I know, really), and interesting boutiques.

The Marylebone, known for its botanicals-infused cocktails. I just liked the paint job.

The Marylebone, known for its botanicals-infused cocktails. I just liked the paint job.

I window-shopped my way down the lane and, in on-point Seattle style, I picked up a £7 green juice before heading back to the hotel.

A recent study found that 28% of Americans think that green juice is scary looking.

A recent study found that 28% of Americans think that green juice is scary looking.

Another fun thing about England is that their English is not the same as ours. Here is a word that I learned just by looking at street signs: mews. Mews (noun): a row or street of houses or apartments that have been converted from stables, built around a yard or along an alley.

I looked up a home for sale in the Warren Mews and it rang in at a cool £2.8 million, NBD.

I looked up a home for sale in the Warren Mews and it rang in at a cool £2.8 million, NBD.

This lovely little pub is on Warren Street, which is not a mew.

This lovely little pub is on Warren Street, which is not a mew.

Fortunately, I arrived back just in time for pub time. During my week in London, I learned—no surprise here—to really love pub culture. It seems like at any time of day, there’s a whole cross-section of the population gathered around a table, sharing stories over a pint. Naturally, this was a social practice I could get on board with. Also, I certainly don’t want to deride an entire culinary genre here, but I will say that pub food is a little bit like eating off of a kid’s menu… and you’re probably best off ordering the items that most closely resemble kid’s menu staples (think fish and chips and burgers), or sticking to beer-friendly snacks like peanuts, “crisps” (love that), and pork scratchings or pickled eggs (for the daring traditionalists among you). I’m totally content with beer and fries, don’t get me wrong, but let’s just say that if you order shrimp scampi, don’t expect sautéed gambas with garlic and white wine.

London boasts no fewer than 4,500 pubs and bars. Also, this is shrimp scampi.

London boasts no fewer than 4,500 pubs and bars. Also, this is shrimp scampi.

One thing that I noticed is that a lot of the pubs seem to be chains, even if they’re in historic spaces. The giveaway is the Chili’s-esque signage outside, advertising menu items on laminated, colorful plastic. It’s worth doing a bit of investigating to find less corporate watering holes if you’re looking for a real authentic atmosphere, but when it comes down to it, even the chain ones each seem to have their own charm, and (Seattle microbrew fans forgive me) beer is beer, right? Oh, and pro pub tip: you order at the bar. You don’t just walk in awkwardly and then grow increasingly uncomfortable as no one seats you or takes your order. You definitely don’t do that.

Of all the fine British drinking establishments we frequented during the week, my favorite was The Easton, not far from Expedia’s offices in the Islington district. Worn wood tables, plush seating, and big windows perfect for watching the rain fall while discussing the true meaning of the word “cheeky,” which is, according to this US English-speaker, very much still TBD.

This struck me as very funny.

This struck me as very funny.

Before the workweek kicked into full gear, we took a day trip out to Oxford, which may just have the loveliest nickname of any place I’ve ever been: The City of Dreaming Spires.  For a copywriter and a content editor, this was the perfect pilgrimage: my favorite comma bears this city’s name! Our day started at Paddington Station, where we met up with our guide near the Paddington Bear statue (worth a visit just to watch all the adorable little kids come pose for pictures) and hopped on the commuter train out to Oxford. It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again: train travel in Europe is fantastic. It’s fast, clean, convenient, cheap, and you can quite literally kick back, relax, and take in the scenery as you roll toward your destination. It was rainy in Oxford, but it kind of added to the ambiance as we followed our guide around the cobbled streets and through the campuses of some very elite and very Harry Potter-esque academic institutions. The lunchroom (hahaha) in Christ Church was just one Sorting Hat and some floating candles away from being Hogwarts, and the courtyard was used in the filming of The Golden Compass. I didn’t see the movie, but I did read the books, and have to say I approve of their choice of shooting location.

Oxford actually keeps its own time, given that it's technically, geographically 5 minutes behind Greenwich. This is the Tom Tower, which you might recognize from The Golden Compass if you saw that movie. I did not!

Oxford actually keeps its own time, given that it’s technically, geographically 5 minutes behind Greenwich. This is the Tom Tower, which you might recognize from The Golden Compass if you saw that movie. I did not!

The dining halls of University of Chicago and Cornell are both reproductions of Christ Church's dining hall.

The dining halls of University of Chicago and Cornell are both reproductions of Christ Church’s dining hall.

Our guide took us to some neat spots that we probably wouldn’t have discovered on our own, including a 13th-century pub called the Turf Tavern that’s tucked away down two discreet alleyways, just outside the original medieval city walls. As a life-long book nerd, my favorite stop on the tour was the Bodleian Library. Here, standing in the hushed, centuries-old courtyard, we were on top of a repository of more than 11 million books, since as a legal deposit library, Bodleian is entitled to a copy of every single printed work published in the United Kingdom. Wild, right? The tour was the perfect length, and by lunchtime we were on our own to explore and hop on the train at our leisure. Naturally, our literary mission continued with lunch at the Eagle and Child, where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to hang out and talk story with a group of friends they called “The Inklings.” Best group name ever, am I right?

Bodleian is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, housing works since 1602.

Bodleian is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, housing works since 1602.

Apparently, nicknames for The Eagle and Child include “The Bird and Baby” and “Fowl and Fetus.” You pick the most appetizing.

Apparently, nicknames for The Eagle and Child include “The Bird and Baby” and “Fowl and Fetus.” You pick the most appetizing.

We got back to London around 2:30 PM, which left a short window of time to fit in the last of the sightseeing I wanted to get done. Most London attractions close by 5:30 or so, meaning that weekday sightseeing was pretty much going to be a no-go. I was really torn between a visit to the British Museum and the Tower of London; I’d heard rave reviews about the former, but the latter had been at the top of my list ever since I saw The Tudors (<3 Thomas Culpepper <3) and read The Other Boleyn Girl. Since the British Museum was closest to my hotel, and since the afternoon was ticking away, I opted for the British Museum. Unfortunately, given the rain and the free price tag, a lot of other people did, too. I made it through a few exhibits before abandoning and sprinting to the tube to make my way to Tower Hill.

Sculptures in the entrance of the British Museum.

Sculptures in the entrance of the British Museum.

The London Underground is really easy to use, especially if you’re a little bit familiar with other metro or subway systems. I found it less complicated than New York’s, with lines and directions well-marked throughout the stations. This was good, because I was down to about an hour to get to the Tower of London, buy my ticket, and do a speedy visit of the grounds. I don’t necessarily recommend doing the Tower of London in 40 minutes or less, but I will say this: it can be done. I jogged along the ramparts, whirled past the Crown Jewels, saw the spot on the Tower Green where Anne Boleyn and company lost their heads, walked up the White Tower, and saw the river-level Traitor’s Gate, the watery entrance that required unfortunate prisoners to pass beneath the spiked heads decoratively adorning the London Bridge. I was surprised to see that the Tower of London is more than just, well, a tower; it’s a whole castle complex, and you can see what was added onto and changed over the centuries. Had I gone earlier, I would have loved to do a Yeoman Warder tour, because I hear they’re great, and because they have literally been giving tours of the Tower of London for centuries, so I’m assuming they’ve got the spiel down pat by now. A polite and friendly cab driver also told me that the Ceremony of the Keys, which takes place at the Tower every evening, is very worthwhile, though you need to request tickets way in advance. Alas! Next time.

The Tower of London from outside the moat.

The Tower of London from outside the moat.

The Tower of London from across the Thames.

The Tower of London from across the Thames.

This suit of armor belonged to a Renaissance-era bouncer, probably.

This suit of armor belonged to a Renaissance-era bouncer, probably.

The White Tower, the central tower and old keep of the castle, originally built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century.

The White Tower, the central tower and old keep of the castle, originally built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century.

A very pretty window in a very fearsome place.

A very pretty window in a very fearsome place.

For the rest of the week, we walked every morning the mile and a half or so from our hotel to Expedia’s Angel office—after, of course, enjoying a full English breakfast at the hotel. There are some things about English breakfast that I could really get on board with (roasted tomatoes are delicious with eggs, and there is nothing wrong with English breakfast tea), but let’s just call it like it is: beans and blood sausage are not topping most Americans’ lists of longed-for morning fare. A couple mornings during the week, I got up early and jogged over to Regent’s Park. In case I didn’t wax passionately enough about English parks when I talked about Kensington Gardens, let me do it here: Regent’s Park is amazing. Amazing! There are rose gardens. There are fountains. There is a pond with swans and draping weeping willows whose branches dip down into the still water. There are leafy plane trees and expansive lawns that, as the sun rose, were shrouded in mist. Particularly early in the morning, when the paths and trails were mostly empty, it was magic.

London_QueenMarysGardens

Queen Mary's Gardens are home to London's largest rose garden, with approximately 12,000 roses.

Queen Mary’s Gardens are home to London’s largest rose garden, with approximately 12,000 roses.

Until 1649, Regent's Park was a hunting ground known as Marylebone Park.

Until 1649, Regent’s Park was a hunting ground known as Marylebone Park.

More ugly park scenes.

More ugly park scenes.

Here’s the thing, though: jet lag is no joke. After sleeping soundly my first two nights out of, I think, sheer exhaustion, I was wide awake at 2:30 AM the morning of my first day in the London office. I read. I worked. I Googled “stretches to make you fall asleep immediately,” all to no avail, which made for a couple of serious afternoon slumps. Fortunately, it’s entirely socially acceptable to drink caffeinated tea non-stop in England, so I powered through and resisted the urge for post-work naps with more walking. One night, to avoid falling asleep at 7 PM (when I really really wanted to), I looked up London yoga classes and landed on something called Rocket Yoga that I’d never heard of before. I read about it and, seeing it described as “going stratospheric” and “rebel yoga” and having “a fun factor [that] appeals to laidback Londoners”, I decided: why not? A little intimidated, I signed up online so I would have to go or forfeit the fee, and then made my way to the studio in the dark, looking longingly at all the Londoners huddled in the warm glow of neighborhood pubs as I walked past. There’s not much of a climax to this story, other than that, yes, it was hard, but, no, it wasn’t ridiculous, and I’m now a big advocate of trying out things like unusual fitness classes while on vacation. You learn something, you stay active, you get out of your comfort zone, and you work off a bit of that restaurants-only eating regime.

Speaking of restaurants, during the workweek, most of our lunch breaks saw us landing at Prêt-à-Manger, a chain of take-out eateries as ubiquitous in London as Starbucks is in Seattle. Usually when I’m in new places I prefer to find smaller, less generic places to eat, but Prêt (yeah, we’re on a first name basis now) was quick, right across the street from the office, and offered a ton of really great, healthy options, so I was able to balance out my evening diet of Guinness and fries with some green things at midday. We did wander down a couple of days to the Exmouth Market, which I highly recommend if you find yourself in Islington. This pedestrian street is lined with cute boutiques and restaurants with outdoor seating, and during the day, street food vendors set up shop, selling everything from samosas to hummus and salt beef sandwiches to risotto. Go at night and check out the bar above the Exmouth Arms Pub, where the bartenders can craft a cocktail tailored to your liking.

Exmouth has been a marketplace since the 1890s, and draws its name from this pub.

Exmouth has been a marketplace since the 1890s, and draws its name from this pub.

Porchetta is not a typically British dish, but it is an entirely acceptable lunch at Exmouth Market.

Porchetta is not a typically British dish, but it is an entirely acceptable lunch at Exmouth Market.

There are a handful of things I would have loved to do while I was in London. Some of them are fairly standard (see a show in the West End, tour Hampton Court Palace, do a Jack the Ripper walking tour on a rainy night) and some I recognize are kind of weird (I’m fascinated by miniatures so Queen Mary’s Doll’s House seems like a thing I could get into, and I would like to take a picture at Platform 9¾ and no, I’m not sorry). I’d really like to explore some of London’s great restaurants; since I’ve never been a very brave solo diner, making reservations for one wasn’t something I worked up the courage for this time around. And a visit to see the eccentric curiosities of Sir John Soane’s Museum—in the evening, preferably, by candlelight—is something I’m not skipping on my next visit. Until then, I’ll just have to content myself with watching BBC series on Netflix (hello, The Fall, and Luther, and Broadchurch) and heading out for a pint or two anytime I wish I were back in the Big Smoke.

Piccadilly-- not an actual circus!

Piccadilly– not an actual circus!

London, like most cities, is home to pigeons.

London, like most cities, is home to pigeons.

#BookLoversDay

August 10, 2017

Love a holiday that’s a hashtag first!

For #BookLoversDay, here is a short stack of the best things I’ve read of late. As John Waters once said, “Fiction is the truth, fool!” In addition to being the truth, it’s way better than the real world, which is v bad, particularly right now, in case you hadn’t noticed!

Chanson Douce, for any fellow French-readers looking for a real mf’ing downer. (Yeah, ok, maybe this one isn’t a real escape from the real world.)

• If I haven’t already proselytized to you about Lincoln in the Bardo then we probably haven’t talked in the last six weeks. This book is hilarious and heart-wrenching and ~historical~ (kind of) and a lyrical delight to read.

The Buried Giant is not a perfect book and it is not my favorite Ishiguro (lol @ what a high-minded dick I sound like in that sentence, genuine apology) but it is worth reading for the emotional gut-punch of the final sentence alone (you have to read the whole thing for the effect, you can’t just skip to the last page, sorry). I audibly sobbed.

• Neil Gaiman made some magic in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is spooky, sad, and enchanting. It makes you wonder about the windows of imagination that were open to you in childhood and that are closed to you now. Haunting and lovely.

• How had I never read Shirley Jackson before?? We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a peculiar and engrossing little Gothic novella that reminded me of (the weirdly similarly named) I Capture the Castle, except it’s dark af and the little sister is more murderous than lovelorn. Good dose of genre.

• I read the phrase “a riffy playfulness with language” somewhere the other day and I liked it a lot and also it describes Miriam Toews’ writing aptly. All My Puny Sorrows is sweet and tragic and philosophical and funny, and it’s about all the Big Topics (you know, Death) but manages to tackle said Big Topics (Death) in a way that is uplifting and life-affirming and weird. I adored every page of this book.

• I almost always hate reading things that are supposed to be funny, but Samantha Irby made me laugh and cry on repeat in nearly every single one of the perfect essays in We Are Never Meeting In Real Life. I wish I had the guts to write like this, but thank god someone out there does. Even at her most absurd she is infinitely relatable. People who can articulate things that we think and feel but that we haven’t ever been able to put to words are the best writers. Writers who can do that AND do it with that much humor are fresh geniuses. 

Also, never forget, friends, the very worst book is The Good Girl. Of all the bad books about Girls, it is the worst. 

littoral zones

August 2, 2017

My dad’s sister is, as she worded it in her touching practicality the day before she passed, “on her way home.” It happened fast, in a way, and was uncannily similar to how my grandmother went, when I was 14. When Nana was in the hospital, I flew down to Santa Rosa with my dad, my aunt, my uncles, and we sat beside her in her hospital bed, making a memory that much of me wishes I didn’t have but providing that essential final infusion of companionship as she prepared to take the lonesome road from this world to the next on her own.

Those moments—the first time I was confronted with frailty and mortality, the Northern California beaches that define the landscape of that time for me—have been top of mind in the last week, not least of all because I spent the weekend in the gentle belly of those sun-kissed, tawny hills that frame Santa Rosa, being reminded.

I remembered apricot roses outside a sleepy Italian restaurant where we ate a quiet dinner after visiting hours were over, how thick and balmy the air felt compared to Seattle and how the crickets droned at sunset.  I remembered being captivated by the eye-twitching rhythm of driving by neat rows of lime-green vines on the winding road out to Bodega Bay (“Rows!” my brother had yelled excitedly every time we passed vineyards on that same drive on an earlier visit, years before, loving the thrumming visual effect). I remembered the way the hot sand burned my feet and sparkled like it was studded with flecks of gold as my grandfather, gray and stoic, walked along the kelp-draped, tide-washed rocks in his crisp shirt and long pants.

Those nostalgia-tinged mental souvenirs are interspersed with sterile scenes from the hospital, tubes and beeping, the sick smell of chemicals preserving failing flesh, the underwater feeling of not being able to speak for fear of crying (she said we’d go to the beach and I didn’t say anything back), the wet and papery feel of her hands and the real pain in her face as she tried to stay present.

I didn’t see my aunt in her last days or moments, but my parents did, and her husband did, and her son did, and her granddaughter did, and thinking about them being there with her seems like an echo of that earlier episode—most of the same players, a slightly different play, a different leading lady. I guess it’s about as unoriginal a realization to make as any that every death is as universal as it is unique.

Since my grandmother passed away, I’ve experienced departures in ways that have both deepened and cheapened my thoughts and feelings about death. I think about my brother and it makes me heavy and weightless at the same time—more one than the other, depending on the day. Loss hollows us out. It scoops an empty space that gets filled in, eventually, with things like time, and gratitude, and fear, and anger (let’s not pretend that we’re all at peace with everything or are ever going to be) and it changes our makeup, for better and for worse.

But watching people of deep faith, like my grandmother and my aunt, take a deep breath and dive into the deep end with courage and conviction is a moving and powerful thing—a consolation.

Godspeed, Marlyn, and I hope the beach is beautiful.

on vegetables in spain

July 26, 2017

It was around day three that the bread fatigue set in, but there wasn’t a cure in sight—and wouldn’t be until I’d crossed the border back to France, a request for a salade verte and some haricots verts  and anything with “vert” in it filed in advance.

Our first night in Barcelona, we went to the beach. At L’escamarla, at the Port Olimpic, just a stone’s throw from the surf, we shared a seafood paella dotted with the occasional pea. We ordered an undressed salad of iceberg lettuce and shredded carrots, and a plate of oil-bathed pimientos de padron studded with flakes of salt. We didn’t finish the peppers. At the time, we didn’t know they were the last green thing we’d see for days.

With limited time in Barcelona and a lot to accomplish, our days revolved around a strict sightseeing regimen. This wasn’t a vacation of long lunches and lazy naps in the sun—we were here to get it done, and we weren’t above the inauthentic expediency of an iced coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts in a pinch. Food stops were less researched and more impromptu—with some advance planning, I’m very willing to concede that our experiences might have been different—but we had things to do. We traipsed from the luminous nave of the Sagrada Familia to the bony rooftop of La Pedrera, peering at the organic shapes of the stairwells and the patterns of the parquet flooring as our audio-guide instructed us to, and, in between visits, we ate at times that were odd: breakfast at noon, lunch at three, wine starting basically then and continuing into the wee hours.

But tapas are everywhere and they are an anytime food. They can be small as a snack or substantial as a meal, and when we sat down at the bar at El Nacional—a fern- and light-filled modernist space with a collection of associated eateries all under one soaring glass roof—we were ready to order up an array. Pan con tomate—that Catalan essential of grilled bread rubbed with tomato and garlic—and a plate of parchment-thin Iberian ham were set before us, along with a glass of vino rosado for me and a  20 cl jar (caña-sized) of fizzy Estrella beer for Jill. They had pintxos, too, which on paper sounded like they might actually contain vegetables (I saw a word that I knew meant eggplant on the description of one), but which were, in actuality, open-faced toasts, topped with things like an unctuous cream of potatoes and cod. Potato toast. It was good, adorned with a tiny purple comma of octopus tentacle. But the starch factor was real.

At El Tiet Taver in Barcelona’s Eixample district, a pretty but insubstantial flower crown of microgreens topped the crackly skin of suckling pork and I pulled the grassy threads onto my plate like they were sprouts of pure gold, relishing the light crunch of uncooked plants between my teeth after the béchamel-filled fried croquetas, delighting in the essential surge of chlorophyll that I was sure I could feel in my blood. Later, on the outdoor terrace at El Viti Taberna in El Born, a swoosh of nutty romesco sauce was a bed for charred octopus, its red pigment evidence of the existence of peppers on a table that otherwise bore no traces of ingredients that had come from the ground.

As we made our way beyond Barcelona and through Andalusia, spending our days in lush courtyard gardens and under the shade of leafy orange trees, my desperation for fruits and vegetables grew. I devoured the briny olives that were delivered alongside our vino blanco at the cafes where we stopped to rest, refuel, and hop on free Wi-Fi—after a while, even their salt-preserved flesh seemed fresh and raw. Once, I saw “ensaladilla” listed on a menu and looked to Lauren, eager and excited. She shook her head. “That’s Russian salad,” she said. “It’s potatoes.”

I knew that the vegetables were somewhere. Every once in a while they’d appear—a bit of garnish curled over a piece of fish here, a tousled dry side salad tossed next to a tortilla con gambas there. Surely, they must just have been hiding in dishes I didn’t know to order. In Sevilla (at, admittedly, a restaurant that even at first glance we could tell would maybe not be offering up the most authentic cuisine), I attempted the pollo Sevillano, a dish of braised chicken on top of an herb-flecked stew. I dug into the vegetables buried at the bottom of the bowl, savoring the soft carrots and wondering at the white, rectangular pieces—were they some sort of chard stem, perhaps?—before I realized that they were French fries. I had literally been served French fry soup, and that was when I decided to give up.

Later, we would find a French-inflected restaurant called Tata Pila where I would order the most beautiful bowl of lightly steamed white asparagus, draped in tendrils of greenery and plated meticulously with perfume-ripe strawberries and inky globules of roe. At Bar Alfalfa, for our last lunch in Sevilla, we would sit in air-conditioned splendor as we shared plates of crisp griddled eggplant and—praise be—a spinach salad. It is, as they say, when you stop looking for love that you find it.

I should say that I am not, by and large, a picky eater. I have no qualms about white bread or gluten, I will always help you share the side of fries, and, while I flirt with vegetarianism once a year or so, ultimately I am all too happy to try anything from land or sea. But at home, with my kitchen, my familiar restaurants, and my grocery store and market, I can balance the intake, and I can moderate. It is unlikely that I would have a hand-sized loaf of bread slathered with tomato for breakfast, and then a sandwich of ham and tomato for lunch, and then a dinner of pork and roasted tomatoes with a piece of bread on the side. I definitely would not be likely to replicate that eating pattern for multiple days on end, my food-group intake boiled down to just flour, tomato, and cured pig. But we wanted to eat Spanish food while in Spain, and this was the Spanish food that we found, and in time we accepted that it was what it was. As difficult a country as Spain must be to navigate, restaurant-wise, for a vegetarian or vegan, or even someone who, like me, just feels best when their sustenance is mostly plants, I couldn’t help but think of the self-imposed constraints of paleo dieters, or those macrobiotic adherents who steer clear of nightshades (a category into which potatoes, eggplant, and tomatoes all fall). How frustrating it would be, I thought, to be limited even beyond the limitations of the menu, and so I was grateful for my lack of food allergies and for my lack of belief in nutritional claims not supported by science.

Robert, who can flick a fan open with such flamenco flair you wouldn’t be surprised to hear he moonlights as a dancer in one of those touristy tavernas, explained it thusly: “Spain is very poor. We keep the tomatoes. Everything else, we send out to other countries that pay more for them. So we have no vegetables.” Whether or not that statement was true, he’d also later coin the instant idiom, “Not meat, not sweet: it’s a vegetable!” which generously allowed us to group everything from fried, aioli-drizzled patatas bravas to wine (why not) under the header of healthful verdure.

In Granada, I drank gazpacho out of a pint glass, thrilled to have something refreshing—and (caveat: tomato) vegetable-based—in hand. “It’s so creamy,” I noted to Lauren. “Yeah,” she nodded, “they thicken it with bread in the south.”

the cluck truck & other pipe dreams

We first thought of it at Unicorn, a colorful bar in the once-alt Pike/Pine corridor known for its carnival-style food menu (corn dogs, funnel cake, etc.). It was a work happy hour, and we were the first ones there, so we bantered and batted ideas around for the next job, the fun one, the dream project that would get us away from our desks and computers and routines and out into the real world, where we’d work with our hands and interact with people and wake up every day pumped to get after it. “It isn’t work if you love what you do,” and all those millennial creative-isms ringing in our ears, visions of bearded chocolatiers and mason jar-peddling jam-makers filling our heads, well-dressed and cohabitating in a Kinfolk-worthy live/work/farm space with minimalist-eclectic décor, every meal a sunset gathering of friends in the style of a Bon Appétit aspirational lifestyle spread, my other car is a sailboat.

The Cluck Truck, we’d call it, and the slogan would be Keep on Cluckin’, and the menu would be narrow and niche and nostalgic: chicken nuggets, several different styles, several different sauces. A stranger behind us overheard and joined in, offering encouragement and a few flavor ideas—something maple bourbon, for a sophisticated spin, something in panko with a tangy katsu-style sauce. The idea for the food truck was a new one, but it wasn’t the first of its genre.  Patrick, the mastermind behind the Bagel Hole™ and ice cream dippers (you know, chips made of waffle cone) spearheaded most, but the group dynamic was needed to get the ball rolling.

Some of our enterprise ideas had been infinitely practical. We were all copywriters—let’s just start our own content company! Work for the clients we want. Set up shop in a cool co-working space closer to where we all live. Some were just ongoing comedy bits, like the bindle shop, in which we’d make turn-of-the-century hobo accessories hip again.

The Cluck Truck got some traction, though, and resurfaced every couple of weeks. What sort of sides would we offer? Some kind of slaw? French fries, maybe—but what kind, other than definitely not crinkle-cut? Tater tots? Tater tots made of some fancy array of root vegetables—daikon, maybe, or taro, or beets? And, chicken nuggets being the star of the show here after all, how many different breadings and sauces did we want? Not too many, to be sure, but an interesting variety—and would they be true nuggets, made of ground meat, or more like small tenders, sliced and brined and then battered for a firmer, fleshier bite?

And then we thought maybe we were getting ahead of ourselves. We needed to recipe test, to be sure, but before we went full on into menu development, we should do a little research. How much money it takes to get going, how to get a business license and the necessary permits for food, does anyone know how a deep fryer works, where are we sourcing our chicken—who has a chicken guy? Some preliminary googling wasn’t great news, as the capital needed for your standard food truck operation (according to Quora, and other authorities) was looking like more than guessed it at and when we pooled our resources we had roughly eleven dollars each that we were willing and able to put on the line.

We’ll keep looking into it, I’m sure, until we think of the next thing, and then we’ll look into that, and one day we’ll look back and think that if we had just put the time we spent talking about these ideas into actually making one of them happen, maybe instead of being in here now we’d be out there, peddling nuggets to the delighted passersby, pouring condiments into tiny paper cups, scrubbing fryer oil off the steel counters in our chicken-shaped truck.  But we all have jobs, comfortable and boring, and that’s the thing about decisions (and risks)—they’re only easy to make (and take) when there is nothing at all to lose.

Back at it. For real tho! Maybe.

I’m writing again. Different slant—I’m not, after all, in France, and this ain’t no lifestyle blog either. I’m going to start using this as a platform for posting the personal writing that I’m making a sincere effort to get in the habit of working on. It might be all over the place (so far this week I’ve written a missive on death and a list of gripes about the most recent episode of Game of Thrones), but like, aren’t we all a little bit all over the place, when it comes down to it? I also had to resist a strong urge to delete everything that was on here before, because the only thing in the world that is more excruciating than reading something you wrote yesterday is reading something you wrote five years ago. Anyway, this is my medium(.com) now.

The Bon Appétit Food Lover’s Cleanse: Day One

January 3, 2014

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How to go broke, steal from your parents, improvise, and cheat your way through January 2nd

9 am: I pull up the recipes for day one when I get up in the morning after spending the night at my parents’ house. I’m feeling especially motivated to cleanse following a fondue and red wine-fueled four day New Year’s celebration with friends, not to mention the two weeks of holiday spiriting that preceded it. A glass of warm water and lemon goes slightly wrong when I overheat the water and scald my mouth, but it cools down and I can practically feel the pH in my body realkalizing, or whatever it is that lemon water purportedly does for you.

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image: bonappetit.com/cleanse

9:30 am: Breakfast looks doable: steel cut oats, some blackberries, nut milk, and hemp seeds. I scour the pantry and find no oats. Ultimately, I settle for a package of microwavable Chai flavored oatmeal, which is probably exactly the kind of food this cleanse is supposed to be weaning me off of. I dump it into a bowl and make a small effort at brushing some of the sugar off the oats before heating it up. My parents also, predictably, do not own hemp seeds. I settle for flax, and in lieu of blackberries, a little pile of mushy blueberries still left in the fridge from Christmas morning’s breakfast. I check the expiration date on the almond milk and decide it’s safer to forgo than to risk an unintended cleanse of the food poisoning variety. I consider breakfast an incomplete failure and/or a mild success.

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10 am: Thinking I’ll get a jump start on lunch prep, I scan the menu. Basically a salad with greens, carrots, radishes, tofu, and a homemade dressing containing approximately 14 ingredients I don’t own and am not planning to purchase solely for the purpose of this lunch. As much as I would like to treat myself in 2014, it’s not going to be with an 85 dollar salad. Also, I have some pretty strong feelings about the taste, texture, and actual status as food of tofu and they aren’t love. I table my concerns to focus on the task at hand. Fortunately, some pantry scrounging turns up a good percentage of the ingredients at my parents’ house, so I decide to stay there for a while before heading back to Seattle to prep my salad dressing. I find soy sauce, rice vinegar, toasted sesame seeds, toasted sesame oil, vegetable oil, ginger, limes, and a jalapeno that I figure will work just fine in place of the Fresno chile they call for because I don’t know what that is. We’re only missing white miso, another unknown, so I add garlic instead and call it good. The salad also calls for a spicy crunchy nut and seed (pepita, rather) mix with cashews, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower seeds. My parents own neither of these seeds and I do not plan to buy or harvest them. I find a jar of dry roasted cashews left from a holiday gift basket, add the curry and chile powder, sub honey for agave because that’s what we’ve got, and feel good about what I’ve done this morning. Aside from the fact that it’s now 11 am on January 2nd and I am still unshowered at my parents’ house with only a few partially successful meal components in front of me. I scan the week’s shopping list and decide, while I’m there, to take some walnut oil, black rice, paprika, turmeric, cacao nibs, and slivered almonds (they unfortunately don’t have sliced almonds, which is a separate ingredient), because they have all those things and, well, I’m not buying them. Essentially, did my parents not have a well-stocked pantry, I would have spent 10% of my month’s rent on this morning’s food and just some of the seasonings for the food that is yet to come.

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image: bonappetit.com/cleanse

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11:30 am: We start the drive back to Seattle, and I’m already planning how to make this work. This printed list of ingredients is two pages long (with columns!) and includes things like Aleppo pepper, tahini, pomegranate molasses, and escarole, as well as about a thousand dollars worth of other produce, seasonings, and ingredients. I ask if we can stop at Trader Joe’s, but my husband says it’s inconvenient. Can’t I just walk to the Safeway across the street? I want to argue that Trader Joe’s is more likely to have tahini, but feel this argument will not sway his sensibilities. Meanwhile, I get a detox-themed email from GOOP. Gwyneth, it seems, is also cleansing, along with her team. Oddly enough, many of her cleansing tips involve staying warm, since apparently when the body is cold it wants to consume more energy for heat, and more energy means more food, and more food means less cleanse. I consider. Gwyneth looks good, and when I think about it I don’t actually know what the editors at Bon Appétit look like. But drinking smoothies and lemon water doesn’t sound like something I’m going to adhere to for more than about 14 minutes. By now, my husband has finally agreed to go to Trader Joe’s, but only after lunch. He suggests Chipotle. I say no. He says, “But it’s been a week.” I acquiesce.

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Noon: Since the proscribed cleanse lunch consisted essentially of veggies and tofu, I figure I’ll avoid straying too far if I get a salad with sofritas (that’s tofu, but one with enough Mexican spices that I can tolerate it), veggies, and salsa at Chipotle. I skip the cheese and cream, but can’t say no to the guac, even though I know my cleanse breakfast tomorrow has avocado. I’m such an avocado monger. After lunch, I feel my cleansing willpower begin to give way to cleansing excuses as I seek to justify the fast food substitute. I vow that dinner will be clean. We get home and our apartment is freezing cold. I think of Gwyneth, getting skinnier by the minute in her organic cotton and wool, sipping tea by the wood-burning fireplace in her infrared sauna. We turn on the heat. Nothing happens. We are going to be fat and freezing in 2014.

3:00 pm:  Husband is eating Toblerone chocolate and I am watching, sipping tea. Puppy is glowering at us from her woefully cold bed near the not-hot heater.

4:00 pm:  We went to Trader Joe’s, and they didn’t have tahini. They did have a pre-made tahini sauce, which I bought, because you know what, it just so happened that they were fresh out of watercress and mint, too, and so the green tahini sauce on tonight’s menu isn’t happening.

4:30 pm: Someone just posted an article on Facebook about how taking hot baths with bath salts is great for detox and cleansing. It makes sense, especially now that I know what I know from Gwyneth about staying warm. I draw a bath and realize that I’ve never seen this much water in our tub before. Either our bathtub is very dirty or the water is not especially sanitary. It only gets greener and has more red stuff in it as it fills up. I add extra bath salts to compensate and tell myself that whatever minerals came out of the rusty, 100-year old pipes are extra nourishment for my dry winter skin. Husband says he wouldn’t get in it, then we spend a while thinking about the fact that this is the water that we shower in. While we have a water filter for drinking, we cook our pasta in this sludge. I’m ready for a snack and, frankly, a new apartment.

4:35 pm: While I’m waiting for the bath to drain so I can just take a shower, I see that Bon Appétit has retroactively included a snack that I totally didn’t see before. Unfortunately it’s an avocado smoothie, and I think I filled my avocado quota with the $1.50 glob of guacamole on top of my earlier burrito lapse. Though, truth be told, I don’t regret the fact that I ate my avocado today rather than drank it because, well, think about it. Should one ever really DRINK an avocado?

5:00 pm: Despite a long shower during which I try, Paltrow-like, to convince my metabolism that it is a balmy summer month, I’m still hungry. We eat tomorrow’s breakfast of rye crackers and salmon with tonight’s tahini sauce as a snack. It’s delicious and I have no regrets (I say, trying to convince myself I have no regrets about having botched this cleanse so entirely less than 8 hours into it).

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5:40 pm: I’m trying to make a dinner plan to balance us back out and use the groceries and components I have managed to compile during this day so intensely devoted to cleansing and shopping for cleansing. I have the salad dressing I made this morning, I have my seedless spiced pumpkin seeds, I have spinach and carrots, and while I do not have the requisite radishes for the lunchtime salad I do have some edamame, cucumber, and pomegranate seeds I picked up because they were on the list for later in the week. That’s good enough for me, especially after our snack, but my husband, and I quote, “can’t eat a meal without meat,” and so I’m thinking of also making tomorrow night’s chicken with walnut and red pepper spread. I’m not a math whiz, but I’m pretty sure this means we will have eaten two days worth of meals in one day of cleansing. Also, the roasted vegetables and walnut quinoa that were supposed to accompany the tahini sauce later that we already ate earlier—should those be incorporated, too? That could be a lot of walnuts. I could put a beet in the salad. I could eat quinoa for breakfast instead of steel cut oats. This is hard. I should have followed the plan. I wonder what Gwyneth is doing.

7:00 pm: Should probably be roasting some vegetables or looking at how you make that walnut and red pepper sauce, but I’d rather watch The Good Wife, so there you have it. Totally intended to go to yoga today, but spent a little too much time worrying about condiments—I will not let sauces and dressings detract from my day any longer, and I like, really need to know what happens with Alicia and Will.

7:30 pm: I should have looked at this Red Pepper and Walnut sauce sooner, or just bought roasted peppers in a jar. Maybe we’re just having some plain-ass chicken on our random-ass salad with the almost-right dressing I made from things I took from my parents. The cleanse allows for one to four drinks per week—would it be bad form if I blew my quota on day one?

8:30 pm: Ultimately, we ate salad. Spinach, the red pepper initially intended for the chicken sauce, grated carrot, a beet, edamame, this morning’s sesame dressing, and the crispy seedless seed mix. I cooked a chicken breast to serve with it, seasoned with the turmeric I brought home from my parents’ for some future dish, the suggested thyme, and a little cumin. Honestly? It was delicious. That salad dressing is great. I think this is probably going to be my last day of actually attempting to adhere to the cleanse, however, though I’ll probably reference it periodically for ideas, starting points, and inspiration. Also life lessons! I learned so much today. We found out the puppy likes cucumber but isn’t especially fond of spinach, though she’ll eat it anyway.  We found out that while variety may be the spice of life, it is also really expensive, and I prefer recipes that call for a smaller number of components and fewer complex condiments. We also found out that, despite the best intentions, I’m just not that great at following instructions, and you know what? That’s okay.

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It’s been a while, right?

September 17, 2013

Actually, it’s been such a long while that I didn’t remember my login or my password for WordPress. Suffice it to say that it has been quite the busy summer around here. The last six weeks have been full of visitors and presents and champagne and parties and moving and puppies and flowers and friends and a whole lot of Seattle sunshine. I got married, I went to Yellowstone, I watched my best friend get married, we got a puppy, we didn’t sleep for three weeks, we drank too much wine and didn’t watch nearly enough Jeopardy. We went on lots of hikes, refinished a dresser, made and ate some amazing food (Hello, Joule! Hello, Spinasse!), and have been assembling a whole lot of furniture. All in all, it’s been a pretty good run. While I’m contemplating changing the name of the blog since, well, I’m not actually IN France anymore, for the time-being it sticks, and in that spirit, here is what I did with my last weekend in Paris.

The sun was out, and so we picnicked. In a park with a pretty decent view.

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The park was also home to this little fellow, so that was fun:

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We had lunch at the Marché des Enfants Rouges, the oldest covered market and maybe my favorite place in Paris. 

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We strolled around the center of town in the sunshine, baking amongst throngs of tourists and waiting in a long long line for ice cream at Berthillon. Note: however long the line for ice cream at Berthillon, it is worth it. So worth it. Then we wandered through the Marais with all the other Sunday shopper and strollers, including a one Jean Dujardin on his way home from a run.

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And we ended the day at a little table next to an open window at Glou, a bottle of wine in a bucket of ice and a table full of amazing food in front of us, and it felt just right to say “au revoir” to Paris on that sweet and sunny note.

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“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” -Ernest Hemingway

Book Love: Rules of Civility

June 21, 2013

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I spend a minimum of three hours a day in train, since I accepted a job that came along with the commute from hell two years ago. The downside of this arrangement is, well, everything, but if there is a bright spot in my train story, it’s that I have lots and lots of time to read. While I always have a book in my bag, it had been a while since I’d read one that actually made me look forward to the trains being delayed because that meant I’d have more time to read. That was until I picked up Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I. Loved. This. Book. Snappy prose, a clever and relatable heroine, all the thrills and disasters that come with living in a big city in your 20’s, the glamour (and myth) of New York in the Golden Age, societal commentary… all there. The NYT did a better write-up than I could, but take my word for it and read Rules of Civility. Like one of the main characters says frequently of Manhattan, it’ll “just turn you inside out.”