Monday, August 31, 2015

Settling In

We're all moved into our apartment. It's comfortable and surprisingly quiet*, with two bedrooms -- including the frightening bunkbed room -- and two baths up one flight of stairs, and an open kitchen/living/dining room up a second flight. There's a dishwasher and a TV and a clothes washer that also dries, sort of (a load takes between 3 and 9 hours -- not exactly energy efficient). All the creature comforts, and then some. Compared to Home Heymans in Gent, it is the lap of luxury (there's furniture!) and we don't even have to hop over puddles of student vomit on the weekends or deal with the shrieks of the drunks celebrating Wednesday. Or Thursday. (They all went home to their parents on Friday.) Here, the pubs close at 11, and there are no revelers in the wee hours.

Phil spent a day orientating, and we had a meal out at a Vietnamese place. It was newly opened and the food was spicy and fresh. The area is jammed with Asian restaurants of all sort, which makes us very happy after 18 years of little but Italian and bad Chinese.  (And the Culinary Institute, but they don't do takeout.)

On Friday the three of us headed to Westminster to take a boat ride down the Thames to Greenwich with the London Centre students and administrators. I met a number of the students, all of whom seemed excited and pleased to be there. The boat ride was typical tourist stuff: a guide with a fake cockney accent giving info and telling extremely
bad and sexist jokes. We did learn something entirely new, though, which I'll bet most of you didn't know: the word "wharf" is an anagram for Ware House at River Front (many websites claim this is entirely made up, but I prefer to believe it).We also saw new things:
the London Eye, a gigantic, overpriced Ferris wheel, which I find annoying; the Gherkin, a building shaped much like a pickle, which certain natives view with scorn but which BT compared to a Faberge egg; and the Shard, the tallest building in London, which struck us as both shocking and fascinating. I'm sure the architecture historians among our readers have Strong Opinions about them all. It's startling to see how much has changed in the skyline since we last spent time here -- much like New York, though for different reasons.
We didn't have long to look around at Greenwich, but managed to see the small WWI naval exhibit in the Maritime Museum, as well as some charming mastheads.
Sadly, BT left us on Saturday, though he will return. He made it back to JFK without incident (but with no seatback TV -- curses on you, Virgin Atlantic!). Lonely without him, on Sunday we explored and shopped, locating the necessities (gym, Indian restaurant, Thai restaurant, pizza restaurant, two bookstores).We happened on a film crew shooting an episode of  a popular TV series set in the 1950s called Grantchester, which explained why all the passers-by were wearing wide pleated pants or hats with veils. We also came across an upscale farmers' market selling honey, pastries, neckties, and beer, where a minstrel serenaded shoppers with Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."

I have really missed city life...

Our pubs for the week:

on nearby Clerkenwell Road
around the corner, BT's favorite
our spot--they have Belgian beers!
*Well, it was quiet until early this morning, when a construction crew arrived to hammer and scrape down the concrete walls in the courtyard. Just like Belgium -- but two hours later. And with more tea breaks.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Up and Down

Very few things were destroyed during our final days in Mallorca. Sadly, one of the items that did bite the dust -- literally, which led to figuratively -- was my beloved camera. Dropped on the hike to Soller by someone who shall remain nameless, its lens became stuck in the extended position, rather like men in those Viagra ads who are urged to seek medical help after four hours. I could not fix it, so we turned to my tablet for photos, and then, when that ceased to work, to Klauser's iphone.

the Graves house

The highlight of the trip was our visit to Robert Graves' house in the nearby town of Deia. It's now a well-maintained museum, but Klauser had many childhood tales of the time he spent there after befriending Tomas, one of Graves' sons from his final marriage. These included Graves telling him that he'd had a dream about the emperor Claudius, in which Claudius told Graves that if he were good to Claudius, Claudius would be good to him. And so the emperor was: I, Claudius was by far Graves' most successful book and subsidized much of his other writing. Robert Graves also told Klauser that the ghost of a local saint, Catherine, rose out of the sink drain in the kitchen in front of him. (St. Catherine, we learned later, was famous for very little, but she apparently didn't decompose after death, and her limbs were still flexible centuries later.)We spent a good deal of time discussing the scandals that drove the Graves family out of England to Mallorca (infidelity; an unorthodox family setup) and those that happened in Mallorca (a dive from a fourth-floor window by a besotted lover; a dive from a lower window in response by a maddened Graves). And we were able to see exactly why Graves chose Deia as his home: the view, the sea, the quiet were in direct contrast to his tumultuous life and gave him the peace he needed to
the view from Graves' window

Phil, Chopin, and Sand
We stopped in Valdamossa to view what used to be a monastery and is now a series of museums. It was where Chopin and Georges Sand fled for their own bit of peace in their hectic and scandalous lives.

After a long and tasty lunch featuring lamb kidneys (translation error, but yummy) and tabletop drawings (see below), we drove back to Deia and parked the car at the top of a road that led down to the sea -- down and down and down and down, in fact. Klauser and I realized about a quarter of the way to the bottom that there was no way we were going to make it back up, and Phil realized that he would have to drive down and get us. In the
meantime, though, Sue and I took a brief swim in the cove, where the waves were high and the undertow fierce (and we were coated with black flecks of seaweed from head to foot). Phil made it down to rescue us, and then he and the standard shift made it back up, with the passengers honking like Roadrunner at each impossibly steep hairpin turn because no actual honking was allowed.

We ate our final meal at an excellent restaurant in the Fornalutx square, a three-course extravaganza that we all agreed was Michelin quality (none of us ever having eaten at a Michelin restaurant). And then to bed early for our six o'clock wake-up before a very long day of travel back to London -- to our apartment, and to the inevitable soggy downpour that would greet us on landing.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Balearic Adventures

This morning I used Google Translate to figure out how to say in Spanish, “My car has broken down. I will move it from this spot tomorrow.”

But let me backtrack.

We arrived on Mallorca on Wednesday after traveling on EasyJet, RyanAir’s big brother. We had twice as much baggage as we were allowed, having not read the (very) small print, but when we pleaded ignorance the attendant took pity on us and let us on.  We got lost only twice on the way
from the Palma airport to Fornalutx (the /tx/ makes the sound of ch, for those of you who’ve written phonics), a beautiful, remote little village up in the mountains, about 5 kilometers from the sea. The house is glorious, all stone and dark wood, scented with the rosemary and sage plants that grow in profusion in the garden.  There are three levels, with steep stone steps between, and the house itself is a long way up an almost vertical road that we did not assay with our little standard-shift car. Instead, we parked and pulled our numerous suitcases the quarter mile up the cobblestones, our exercise for the day.

We settled in and had a traditional meal  (including sucking pig and octopus) in a restaurant near the square, where everyone in the village gathers in the evening to drink and talk and, in the case of the slightly scrofulous dogs, jump into the fountain to relieve the itching.

In the late morning, we walked down to the car to discover our first parking ticket. 

After a certain amount of profane despair, we spent the rest of the day quietly, shopping in the square (Klauser and Sue), working on copyedits (me), hiking up a mountain (Phil and BT), and reading Robert Graves (Phil and Klauser).  It was quite hot out, but the breeze and the fans and the spectacular setting made up for the temperature. Phil cooked a fabulous paella and we began our nightly ritual of aperitifs and/or ice cream in the square.

On Friday, we set out along winding mountain roads and through a long tunnel to the Jardines des Alfabia, an garden based on a 16th century Arab model, featuring fish-filled pools and fountains, flowers, shaded paths, and friendly goats. Then it was on to Port Soller, a seaside town with a grand promenade. We had tapas, and all of us but Klauser (who watched our clothes and drank coffee) swam in the gentle Mediterranean, along with many, many other bathers, some semi-clothed.
It was in Port Soller that we got our second parking ticket.

Saturday was another hot, quiet day of hiking and copyedits. In the early evening we went to the square and had Campari and sodas in honor of Klauser’s father, who used to spend his afternoons in the exact spot where we sat, sipping the same drink. Phil cooked an excellent meal of grilled meats, made all the more challenging because there was no real charcoal. But he managed to get a fire going in the grill with dried wood and used the paella pan to turn out perfect sausages and burgers, accompanied by Sue’s delicious barbecue sauce. We watched
Rules of the Game before lapsing into exhausted unconsciousness.
There were no parking tickets on Saturday whatsoever.

Sunday was exceedingly busy.  We drove into Soller and parked worriedly, then walked through town, where a fair was going on. Booths selling all sorts of flotsam lined the streets, and a chess tournament was taking place in front of the cathedral. We took an antique wooden train through the mountains to Palma, the capital, past towering cliffsides and lemon, olive, and fig groves so close to the train window that we could have plucked the fruit if we’d dared.

In Palma, we grabbed a taxi and went up to the Belver Castle, a thirteen-century edifice with two different concentric tiers in the middle surrounded by towers. It’s incredibly well-preserved, intended for defense but used as first a palace and then a prison. Now it's a museum holding statuary and paintings from various eras, including a remarkable third-century alabaster Hermaphrodite Sleeping. Klauser and Phil were nearly overwhelmed by the classical statuary.

After walking a quite long way under quite a hot sun (did I mention it was extremely warm in Mallorca?), we found another taxi to take us to the ancient Arab Baths, used of course only by men (one towel covered the head, we learned, and one covered the loins). Then we separated. Phil, BT, and I went to see the cathedral of Santa Maria, the second-largest Gothic cathedral in the world (if anyone knows the largest, please tell us), which to our great pleasure was open to visitors. Klauser and Sue strolled back to the train.

We met at the station, and managed to sit in the first-class cabin, which had padded leather seats. There, Klauser and Sue surprised us with tasty local snacks and champagne. When Phil pulled off the metal fastening of the bottle, the cork exploded with a noise like gunfire, and half the contents ended up in his lap. We enjoyed the remains, eating and drinking as the sun set pink across the mountains, but the surly Spaniard sharing the cabin with us was not amused.

It was nearly dark when we picked up the car in Soller (no ticket!), but we made it back to Fornaluxt quickly. Sadly, the free parking area we had found had no spaces, and by the time we realized this, Phil had driven up a steep hillside so far that the road had become a mere path, with short gnarled trees pressing close on either side. 

We left part of the car on one of the trees, and left the car itself at the top of the path as it smoked gently in a way that let us know it did not want to go any further. And in the morning, before I settled down to finish my manuscript and after the others had set off on foot to Port Soller to swim and eat black paella, I went down to the café in the square. There I used Google Translate to compose a note that I could leave in the window of the poor gouged car to forestall a third parking ticket:

“My car has broken down. I will move it from this spot tomorrow.”

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The First Pub(s)

And...we made it!

We got to JFK ridiculously early, thanks to the slightly scary skills of our driver, a Bronx native who pleased us by actually saying "Fuggedaboudit" several times, entirely without irony. The flight was predictably uncomfortable, but we did have seats in the upstairs in the double-decker plane, so we can't complain (except about the uncomfortableness, and also climbing the stairs with our luggage, and then there was the food...). And our dear Klauser surprised us at the other end, waiting with a driver of his own to take us to his flat (note the word!) for tea and sandwiches.

Before dinner chez Klauser, we stopped off at our first pub, the Roebuck, a Victorian building tucked away in a side street, which had an outdoor garden. Though it was cloudy and cool, we sat
outside and partook in local beers -- a pilsner, IPA, and stout.

Sue made us a lovely meal, complete with a cheese course and a special birthday cake for Phil, who'd had to celebrate the day before on the plane with inedible chicken and a cardboard roll.

Our B&B was fine, though the previous tenant had, for no apparent reason, dismantled all the bathroom fixtures. I spent a bewildered hour tinkering with the plumbing and wondering if this was a futuristic European thing that hadn't yet come to America (no need for faucets! The shower comes on automatically when you step inside!). The owner, as confused as we were, quickly put everything back together.

In the morning Phil and BT visited Heythrop College in toney Kensington, getting only a little bit lost due to uncrossable high-speed railroad tracks that Google forgot to include. It's where Phil will teach, and he met the various officials in charge of the London Programme. Then they made a brief stop at the Imperial
Not phallic at all
War Museum, where the students will spend considerable time -- it seems to focus more on weapons and battles, less on the class divisions and military mistakes that contributed so much to the incredible destruction of the war.

A visit to The Flask, a pub in another Victorian building, brightened them up a bit. I quote from the pub's website: The name The Flask comes from the medicinal waters known as "The Wells" which came from a spring that ran down from the heath. This water was originally preserved for the sole benefit of the poor people of Hampstead. 

We found it quite therapeutic as well.

Tomorrow: Mallorca!
                                          The Flask       

                                        The Roebuck                                                                          


Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Flower of Cities

We're off again, one week from today.
I know, it seems ridiculous. Didn't they just come back from Belgium? you ask. Who do they think they are? Shouldn't they be attending to their falling-down house and grass-challenged yard? And why are they making us read yet another blog about food and beer and getting lost?

You are entirely right, and yet here we go, away to London for 5 months. We're flying on Virgin Atlantic, which apparently used to be a good idea but which has already cancelled one of our flights and replaced it with another. They also won't let us choose our seats. But I'm sure that all will be well...

In case you wondered, Phil will be teaching a course on England in World War I in Fordham's London Programme (check out those extra letters!) It will be interdisciplinary, covering history, literature, music, and art. There will be field trips. The students will be Fordham kids on their junior semester abroad, so you know they'll be well-behaved. There will be lots of them.

We've arranged to stay in an apartment in Hatton Garden, the diamond district of London. The neighborhood of Clerkenwell, I'm told. Between the City and Bloomsbury, if I have it right. It was the site of a recent, very dramatic jewel heist, so we've decided to leave our diamonds at home.

We plan to spend considerable time with our dear friends Klauser and Sue, and many evenings at the theatre (check out those transposed letters!), as Klauser has already procured tickets to several performances.

But first, before we even move in, we'll take a week-long jaunt to Mallorca with K&S, staying in the ancestral Klauser house, just down the road from Robert Graves' ancestral house. Ben will come with us. It will be an ADVENTURE.

See you on the other side!