Dateline – London

Sunday evening, Leicester Square, London (WC2H, for those who care). Sipping a cup of coffee in the hotel bar, @pex, and hopping online via one of the open nearby wireless hotspots, since wireless is on the fritz at the hotel. I’ve been up against a dull headache all day – nothing too bad, but annoying, and likely caused by the environmental switch (read: pollution) coming over here. I’ve picked up a box of Clarityn (spelling is correct, that’s a brand name for it here) that Christine swears by. It’s the same 10 mg dose of Loratadine found in Claritin, many OTC allergy medications, and a pack of the same that I bought in Holland this summer, but she insists it works better than any of the others. Placebo or not, I wasn’t about to argue it with her.

Arrived yesterday from The Hague, where I’d been for two weeks on business (more on that later). Walked about yesterday to wake up from the travel fatigue, mainly on autopilot around familiar areas. I’ve been over here a couple of times this year, but it’s still a bit odd to come each time – like I’m returning home after a long stay away and nothing’s quite the same. The streets feel somehow different when you’re visiting for a short time than when you live here. I started down the path of “that was another time, you can never go back” but decided that was the allergies talking and focused instead on almost obsessively wandering into the cookery section of every bookstore I could, something of a favorite pasttime of mine on any trip.

What struck me last night was that I’d forgotten just how many people could pack themselves on this tiny island. The crush of humanity everywhere was a bit startling. Houston doesn’t get that full except for a few times, and The Hague was largely the same way. I realise that part of this is being in a major landmark area on a Saturday night when the weather was particularly nice, but I could have crowd surfed all the way to Covent Garden and beyond last night.

This morning, once I was up and about, was one of those rare treats that I’ve only experienced in London. It was a crisp and chilly morning, perfectly clear and a bit calm. The sunlight in that case is extra clear, as if the contrast knob had been nudged up just a bit, and you really get a sense somehow of all the history of the place everywhere you look on these mornings – always brings a smile to my face. I haven’t really experienced that anyplace else that I’ve been.

This trip marks another first – after two weeks there, I was actually sad to leave Holland. It was a somewhat abrupt change of plans, as I had originally planned to be there this week instead of England, but plans changed on Friday. The weather was pleasant while I was there, grey but only occasionally rainy. I somehow understand the basics of things like public transport in Holland now, and even have a bit of a sense of direction among areas that I’ve frequented before. That little boost of confidence makes all the difference between feeling isolated and feeling competent in a city. The office also proved to be more dynamic than I remembered, with a variety of people coming in and out of town for various workshops, and I was able to get to know some of the folks there much better than I had on previous trips. All in all, it was actually a great and useful trip to make.

And the food! I’ve had the chance to eat some truly wonderful dishes on this current adventure. I’ve tried to stick to reasonable restaurants – can’t get away with (for example) $100 plates, even if it is business travel – but I’ve found some truly outstanding Japanese food, some wonderfully faithful French brasserie fare, and even rediscovered a taste for the Dutch kroket. I can’t wait to get home and try to recreate some of the dishes I’ve had (mental note: Pavlova).

This trip has been a good chance for me to reset personally. I have a nasty habit of taking on everybody’s problems as my own if I’m not careful – the end result that I worry not only about the massive amount of stuff I cope with at work, but also Christine’s classes, joint pains, and Jason’s schooling. The result? I’m happy but generally left feeling overextended and without any energy. Being gone for this long has forced me to not worry about all that – and short of a thoroughly sprained ankle, the family hasn’t fallen apart without me. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

In other news, I am working on chroniclng my culinary adventures of the year. Back in January, I began keeping a written journal of my efforts – successful or not – to broaden my culinary skills. By “working on”, I mean that once in a blue moon I sit down and have the patience to transcribe my notes into something that I can publish here. Writing this will hopefully be a bit of a motivation to kick myself into gear and get that done.

Inspired by the new copy of The Cook and The Gardener (Amanda Hesser) sitting next to me, I realised that I also owe a few people now some glimmer into my cookbook reading list. In order to manage the volume – if I kept all the cookbooks in the kitchen, then we’d have no counterspace left (same with coffee cups, incidentally) – I’ve had to organize into sections and rotate titles in and out depending on their usefulness. I’m doing this off the top of my head, but it roughly falls into the following sections, with a few sample titles:

  • Food Reference – On Food And Cooking (Harold McGee), Cookwise (Shirley Corriher)
  • Methods and Techniques – Complete Techniques (Jacques Pepin), The New Making of Cook (Madeleine Kamman), The Cook’s Book (ed. Jill Norman)
  • General Cookbooks – The Joy of Cooking, The Cook’s Bible
  • Spotlight – French – La Bonne Cuisine de Mme. Saint-Ange (trans. Paul Aratow), Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Julia Child), Glorious French Food (James Peterson)
  • Spotlight – Slow Cookers (sadly, can’t think of any – this is more of an aspirational section rather than the well-worn titles)
  • Spotlight – Baking (a.k.a. Christine’s Favorites) – The Betty Crocker Cookbook

I need to give more of these proper writeups, driven by the question I got last week – “What book do you give the man who doesn’t like to use recipes?” (short answer – see the techniques section above). This was followed closely by: “You take cookbooks to read on trips? Wow! Your wife must be really happy that you can cook so well.”