Sunday, September 28, 2014

It's The Little Things That Count, Part Three


“I want my life to have a rhythm more than anything else on earth.”  ~Denton Welch, A Voice in a Cloud

(via)

Denton Welch (1915-1948) scribbled these words while recuperating from a horrible bicycle accident that would ultimately claim his life at the age of 33. Bedridden for months in a nursing home in the English countryside, he fantasized about his former life as the world continued on around him. Acutely sensitive, it was the little things he missed most, those ordinary commonplace sights and rituals that we so often take for granted but which he felt gave our lives shape and meaning.


“Sometimes anything will make you want to cry. Why do people feel so sad when they see beautiful things? That is always being mentioned; it must be quite common.”  

(Pantry, Los Angeles, 2013.) 

(Flowers at dusk, 2011.)

(London café, 2014.)


“One of the nurses would wash me in the very early morning…then I would lie on my back, cross my arms and float away to an old brick house set in damp green fields in the depths of the country.”
(House spotted on a country walk, English countryside, 2012.)



“As a child I had delighted to look in at windows…they were a sort of giant dolls’ house to me.”
(Dining room at dusk, 2014.)


“In this daydream room, to which I was always returning, the wide floorboards were so fanatically waxed and polished that even the old nail heads glistened like silver.”
(Scotland, 2010.)

No memory of Denton's was too ordinary to merit a little bit of joy.


“The humdrum scene...held its own unexplained poignancy for me. The dog yapped, the tea poured, the human beings smiled without ceasing. It was as if they were all enchanted.”
(Scotland, 2007.)


“The room seemed like a brown casserole, a baked dish, warm and comforting and heavy.”
(Antwerp, 2013.)

“The scene...was candle-lit and fire-lit, but outside it was always day.”
(Antwerp, 2013.)

“I would sit down in front of this meal and begin to eat slowly, savoring each morsel, sometimes reading a line from the book I had been reading.”
(Dinner chez friends, 2013.)


 “I was utterly content to lie there and dream.”
(Scotland, 2007.)



*All photos unless otherwise noted by Lisa Borgnes Giramonti.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Disorderly Dinner Party

I posted recently on Instagram that a dinner table after a meal is bit like a bed after sex: the messier it is, the more likely everyone had a good time.
("Dinner Party Detritus", Los Angeles, 2013, by LBG.)

It's true that I take a keen delight in seeing my table in a state of disarray. A messy table is sexy. It's a tantalizing record of an evening. Looking at the candle stubs, the puckered linens and drained glasses, the laughter, cheeky stories and half-whispered conversations come floating back up to me. They speak of pleasures had, gustatory and otherwise. Poet Robert Herrick would approve. 

Eight Tips For a Disorderly Dinner Party:

1. Low lights, lots of little candles.
Low lights give people a reason to lean in closer to each other. Little candles flicker and make eyes more sparkly and complexions more luminous.

2. Scatter flowers.
This is my favorite little trick. I don't know why, but the sight of petals strewn across a table lets guests know that we don't take ourselves too seriously here. Which is a good thing.

3. Don't stress out about your linens. 
White linens are actually quite durable because most stains can be bleached out without too much trouble. If that's too much work for you, then stick with dense dark-colored patterns  -- they're much more forgiving to a splash of Médoc or an errant forkful of blackberry buckle. (If you're going sans tablecloth, use footed glasses to prevent rings and water spots.)

4. Don't cook above your comfort level.
This is obvious but it bears repeating. If you're not relaxed, your guests won't be either. It's much better to order take-out than to be dashing frantically in and out of the kitchen all night. 

5. Make a toast
It doesn't have to be grand or serious. Funny is good. Recently, a guest at our house brought the house down with this one. He said, "Here's to lying, cheating and stealing [dramatic pause]: lying to help a friend in need, cheating death, and stealing the heart of the one you love." 

6. If something spills or breaks, look delighted.
I don't care if it's your last piece of heirloom china, you smile and clap your hands. Whoever did it is probably writhing with guilt so it's important to say something funny or reassuring fast. My personal favorite? "Excellent! Now it's officially a party!" 

7. Pass something family-style, even if it's just bread.
It gives people, especially those meeting for the first time, a nice chance to interact and help each other out ("Here, I'll hold it while you serve yourself.") Another good thing.

8. Linger. 
Whatever you do, don't clear the table too early. In my experience, the most magical moments come at the tail end of a meal when everyone is feeling satiated and the disarray leads them to loosen up even more and let go. When you take away the dishes, the mood you've so carefully curated usually disappears right along with them.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Heat Seeker? Cool Hunter? I've Got a Book For You

I find that people fall into two distinct camps in life: those who long for the hot humid days of summer to stretch on forever…
(via)

...and those who pull out their knitting needles in August in feverish anticipation of the increased sartorial options that autumn weather brings.
(via)

Guess which camp I'm in? 
(Fingerless mittens. Knit kit from Wool and the Gang HERE.)

That being said, I read several books this summer that made me take another look at the undeniable pleasures of sun, sand and Sangria. Below, a half dozen reads to suit whichever side of the thermometer you prefer to perch on.

FOR HEAT SEEKERS

The White Goddess: An Encounter by Simon Gough

Location: Mallorca

Heat factor: Scorching. Swimsuits optional.
(HERE.)

I love this book so much. Set in the artistic enclave of Deya, Mallorca in the 1960's and written by Robert Graves grand nephew, it's a "subjective" memoir (i.e. all true but he doesn't want to get into a James Frey situation) with a deeply intoxicating cast of characters. There's Robert, the world-famous poet who oscillates between magnanimous host and irascible hermit, Margot, the bewitching mistress/muse, Beryl, the long-suffering supercool wife, and a steady stream of visiting artists and eccentrics who put on plays in the backyard grotto and argue and dance until dawn. When Simon falls head over heels in love with one of Robert's mistresses, well, there's that wee little complication too.

Do me a favor -- take seven minutes of your life and watch this interview with the author HERE. My bet is you'll be smitten too.
(Robert Graves and one of his mistresses, Deya, 1970's. Via.)

The Rock Pool by Cyril Connolly

Location: South of France

Heat factor: Hot, oppressive. Open-necked shirt, sailor trousers.
(Image via. Buy it HERE.)

The Rock Pool was Cyril Connolly's only novel (you can read a more extensive post I wrote about him HERE). It chronicles the adventures of an aspiring writer in search of the chic Riviera lifestyle depicted in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night  but who discovers instead a small French artists' colony that's altogether darker and more callous. Connolly writes with strong undertones of sexuality. Take this passage:

"Dry again?" said the Crab to the Rock-Pool. "So would you be," replied the Rock-Pool, if you had to satisfy, twice a day, the insatiable sea."

Characters are always always sleeping off hangovers in dark airless rooms and the feeling tends to stay with you -- you'll want to make sure you stay hydrated while reading this book.

Let It Come Down by Paul Bowles

Location: Tangier

Heat factor: Fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk hot, but wear a jacket anyway, you're going to a party.

(HERE.)

Bowles' second novel, Let It Come Down, is set among the Tangier elite ("Tangerinas") and has a fish-out-of-water American protagonist but there's more drugs, more parties, and more corruption than in The Sheltering Sky -- think Less Than Zero meets Casablanca. Bowles' spare stylized prose packs a wallop: he doesn't go heavily into description but with a cafe called Lucifer, he doesn't have to. And in true Bowles fashion, just when you think you're having fun, there's a bit of nihilism to remind you where you're headed:

"If you let yourself have a really good time, your health goes to pieces, and if your health goes, your looks go. The awful part is that in the end, no matter what you have done, no matter how careful you may have been, everything falls apart anyway."


FOR COOL HUNTERS

The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig

Location: Swiss Alps

Cool factor: Bracing mountain air. Wear your summer ermine.

(HERE.)

If you're new to Stefan Zweig, this is a very good place to start. The story of a penniless village girl who receives a Cinderella invitation from her aunt to stay at a luxury Alpine spa, it starts off stylishly and spirals disturbingly downward, a Zweig literary hallmark. But oh! the textiles! From fur-lined cloaks to embroidered bedspreads and felted alpenwear, you'll completely forget that outside it's ninety in the shade.

Interesting tidbit: Wes Anderson based "The Grand Budapest Hotel" partly on Zweig's description of the hotel in The Post Office Girl. Read all about it HERE.


A Story Lately Told by Angelica Huston

Location: Ireland, memorably

Cool factor: Misty, damp. Turf fires, Aran sweaters, riding boots.

I started listening to this on a recent 3,000 mile road trip  and was immediately captivated by Angelica's lyrical evocation of her childhood in a romantic manor house in Ireland. It's all there: the sparkling hoarfrost at dawn, the roaring fires in the hearth, the fox hunts and the buttoned-up Irish nannies stirring porridge on the stove. Listen to it on Audible and I wouldn't be surprised if you told me you'd knitted a sweater by the last chapter.
(HERE.)

(St. Clerans, where Angelica grew up. Via.)

The Worst Journey in the World by Cherry Apsley-Garrard

Location: South Pole

Cool factor:  A frigid hell beyond all imagining.

(HERE.) 

Cherry Apsley-Garrard was one of the only surviving members of Scott's doomed expedition to the South Pole and his memoir of their hardships makes for a gripping read. What elevates the book to a classic, however, is the record Garrard gives of his team's spirit and grace in the face of heartbreaking odds. It's a stirring testament to the tenacity and -- yes -- humor that lies at the core of the British character:

"Polar exploration is at once the cleanest and most isolated way of having a bad time which has been devised."

"I am glad The Worst Journey is [being published by] Penguin; after all it is largely about penguins."

Read with a tumblerful of Scotch within arm's reach.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Novice's Guide to Israel: Part Two

It's the intensity of the light you notice most. Everything -- buildings, trees, rocks, people -- stands out in stark sculptural relief. And Goethe's observation that "where there is much light, the shadows are deepest" applies to the political landscape as much as it does the terrain. There is no gray in Israel.
(All photos by LBG, 2014.)

We stopped at a Bedouin outpost where a convoy of camels awaited us. FYI, the hardest part of riding a camel is the getting up part.  First, they lurch upwards with their forelegs so you need to clutch the saddle to keep from sliding backwards, and then when they extend their back legs you nearly get catapulted head over heels. Once you're up, though, it's relatively smooth sailing.

Contrary to reputation, our camel was a jovial fellow.

We spent two days at the Beresheet Hotel which sits perched on the edge of the three million year old Ramon Crater. It's an entirely new genre of resort: "luxury science fiction."

Colonies of minimalist architectural villas rise up out of the earth like natural rock formations. Underneath the stinging gaze of the sun, you're hard pressed to distinguish them from the landscape.

It's a strange feeling to sit in a modern hotel room and gaze at the ancient world. Do you recall in the Bible the part where the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years to get to Israel? Well, that's where they wandered. Right down there.

One morning, we hopped aboard this sturdy Lego-like contraption and traveled down into the heart of the crater.

But in the Judean wilderness even all-terrain vehicles have their limits...

...so we left our spaceship and trekked to this ancient motel frequented by weary ancient Spice Route travelers. Squint and you can almost see the caravans of camels bearing fabled spices, perfumes, silks, gems and precious salt on their way to the port of Gaza. 

After dinner one evening we were invited into a Bedouin tent for some music and mint tea. Outside, a fierce wind whipped the tent fabric causing it to undulate in time to the drumbeats. I sipped my sticky sweet concoction and was completely caught up in the romance of taking refuge from a desert scirocco in a goat skin beyt sha'r ("house of hair"). 

In Israel, every square inch of land is an open-air museum. You realize this of course after a day or two, but it never loses its ability to shock. I was gazing out the window when our tour guide suddenly remarked, "By the way, that's the valley where David fought Goliath."

We spent an afternoon at Yad Vashem, the national memorial to the Holocaust. After touring the underground museum with all of its profoundly affecting artifacts and video testimonies, you emerge into light and air and a view of the city of Jerusalem. The message is clear: Despite the horror, what endures is hope. 

When we visited Masada, a few in our group chose to hike up to the fortress at sunrise. I wish I could tell you I was one of them. The rest of us took the five minute cable car up to the top.

From the lookout points, you can still see the remains of the Roman ramp that breached the fortress walls when it was under siege in 73 A.D. It's horrible to think of the 945 Jewish rebels watching helplessly as that ramp slowly grew higher day after day, knowing there was no escape.

If heights don't bother you, by all means take the hairpin series of wooden steps which lead down to the Northern Palace, King Herod's royal villa. Very few people seem to go down there, so photo opportunities are spectacular.

On the way out, I couldn't resist taking a photo of this adventurous-looking nun in a baseball cap.

From Masada, the Dead Sea is just a short drive away. At 1400 feet below sea level, it's the lowest spot on Earth. I knew the water was going to be salty (at 34% salinity, it's ten times saltier than the ocean), but what I didn't realize is that it would be the temperature of a hot tub in July. However, the floating part is no exaggeration. You are so supported by the buoyancy of the water that you can pretty much fall asleep. In fact, I think my son did.

At the end of the trip, we flew to Eilat and took a day trip to Petra, Jordan. 

Again and again during this trip, I found myself invigorated by the emptiness of the landscape. There's still a lot of nothingness in the world. 



You can see the city of Petra on two feet or four: camel, donkey, horse. 


We opted for two feet because it seemed much more sociable.


From the main entrance, you walk steeply down a two kilometer sky-high gorge of sandstone that in one place is only ten feet wide.

Along the way, you pass ancient tombs and statues that date from as early as the 5th century B.C.

I was familiar with the famous Treasury building from movies like "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," but even though I knew it was coming, when I turned the corner and caught my first glimpse of that ancient facade through a sliver in the rock walls, it was breathtaking.


And there it was, rose red and half as old as time, complete with camels and costumed centurions to make the illusion complete.

While the children hid from the sun underneath the lantern-bedecked awning of a souvenir shop, my friend and I did some Bedouin-style bargaining to hire donkeys to take us up a nearby mountain. 

I'm happy to say we were successful. 

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