Friday, December 28, 2007

Tea is for Trouble

Last night I had occasion to lie awake on the kitchen floor (my billeting since Mum arrived and was awarded the sofa bed) and to consider the British reaction to trouble, which is:
• Remain calm
• Crack jokes
• Make tea

And it seems to me that during this Christmas period we’ve been getting through an awful lot of tea.

Tea is for Truncated Sleepovers:
The reason for my kitchen floor reflection (and for being awake in the dead of night) was having sped along the deserted freeways of Los Angeles in nightdress and sweat pants to rescue my son who was having an asthma attack, unbeknownst to his sleeping hosts. Many sleepovers have ended in this fashion; in fact, I wouldn’t recognize many of the parents from Josh’s school if they weren’t in their pajamas. Nor they me.

On the way home, my son turned a worried face to me: “I’m sorry, Mama,” he said, putting his hand on my wrist and using the name that fell into disuse at about the time he learned to fasten his own shoes.
“It’s not your fault you’re sick,” I smiled back at him, dismissing memories of the blessed hours I had spent in his borrowed bed before being summoned by his call. When we arrived home, Mum had put the futon in the kitchen and lined up two cups and a spoon. I put the nebulizer together, while Mum put the kettle on. Tea-making is the Brit’s instinctive response to crisis – so much so, that a nurse once told me there is a huge problem in England, where accident victims arrive at the hospital needing surgery, but have to wait to go under the knife because of all the cups of sweet tea they’ve ingested from kindly neighbors.

Tea is for Ticker:
The morning after my mum’s arrival, she sat in bed holding her left side. “I didn’t sleep a wink,” she said. “I can feel my heart thumping against my ribs.” If this wasn’t alarming enough, she then announced: “I was thinking during the night, if I go while I’m here, I’d like my ashes to be scattered in Huntington Gardens.”
“Don’t be silly, we’re not members anymore - we'd have to pay admission! You’ll be fine after a cup of tea.”

Tea is for Toilet:
The phone rings on Christmas morning. “It’s probably the family ringing from England,” says Mum, excited.
“Good morning, Luisa, it’s your neighbor.”
“Merry Christmas!”
“I’m afraid it’s not so merry; the drain outside your bathroom has popped its cap and there’s sewage everywhere.”
“Mum, English breakfast or Ceylon?”

Tea is for Terrible Food:
Since Mum bought her ticket back in August, I’ve been saving my pennies to celebrate Christmas in style with dinner at the Ritz Carlton, Huntington. The hotel offered its usual discrete Christmas cheer, the mellow glow of wooden paneling offset with red velvet bows and evergreen garlands, and sedate clusters of armchairs and leather sofas in recessed lounges. The waitress in the dining room was just friendly enough to remind us we were in America, but professional enough to remind us we were enjoying a Fine Dining Experience.

“Ooawwhh! I’m Minnie Moush!” came a loud male voice behind me. Uh-oh! Someone’s had too much to drink. I discretely turned my head under the pretext of adjusting my earring and saw a long-haired gentleman with a two-pointed folded napkin on his head. He half-rose from his chair as a party passed him on their way out of the restaurant: “Lovewly famahly! Lovewly!” The Maitre D hovered close by and whispered something in his ear. “They wan’ me to leaf!” the long-haired gentleman informed the dining room. “I’m a Cuban exile. Why’m I always have to leaf. The people in this country are not warm, not warm!” he complained to his partner, who sat transfixed with rapt adoration, or as a result of technical difficulties with his long white scarf, it was hard to tell which. The Cuban exile settled down, and we went back to enjoying The Ambiance, provided by a classical guitar player whose music continued even when he stopped to shake hands with a departing guest.

The amuse bouche arrived. Chilly vichyssoise in a martini glass. A mouthful of cream is not the way to amuse my bouche or even tantalize my taste buds, but the night is young… Josh was reading his book, which is how he passes time at Michelin star restaurants, so he missed the Cuban exile, who on his way back from the restroom had stopped in the entrance next to the guitar player and was doing a slow-motion Flamenco dance, and then bowed in “Nameste” salute to the rest of the diners, who, although not amused by the chef’s efforts were very much taken by his. The Maitre D hovered nervously in the general vicinity under the pretext of pouring my mother’s champagne, whipping the white napkin from around the bottle as if what he’d really like to do was wrap it round the Cuban’s neck.
“I didn’t realize we were going to have live entertainment,” said my mother archly.
“Madam, I do hope you are referring to the guitar player,” replied the deadpan Maitre D.

How could we have been so naive? Sweet Baby Shrimp Salad with Kumquats, Daikon Radish, Micro Greens with Avocado and Pepper Coulis turned out to be shrimp in seafood dressing. The only thing that was micro was the slice of avocado and if the shrimp had been any more baby, they would have been the subject of a Pro-Life campaign. This is what my mother used to prepare in the 1970s if my father unexpected brought home a colleague for dinner – hardly what we expected from an international chef. Fortunately, we had chosen not to go with the wine pairing, so I was spared the Chianti and was well into my glass of Byron Pinot Noir by the time our main course arrived: Roasted Beef Tenderloin and Braised Short Ribs in Yorkshire Crepes, Brussels Sprout Leaves and Bordelaise Sauce.
“Yes! Steak!” cried Josh, and tucked into the coin-sized tenderloin that sat forlornly between two miniscule deep-fried tubes filled with potato and peas. Short ribs? How short could they be? Of their existence there was no sign, nor of the Brussels sprouts, which appeared to have escaped after a short scuffle.

“I topped up your champagne,” said the kind waitress, and indeed we now both had half a glass before us. Just as well, as our calorific content was not going to be supplied by the food, or the bread rolls which would have been better employed down the barrel of a gun.

Warm Chocolate Cake with Liquid Center and Eggnog Ice Cream. Thank goodness! Someone had finally had the good sense to raid the freezer and treat us to something from a catering pack. As I paid the bill, bleeding every one of those $480 that would otherwise be going towards – what? A bed? A plumber? Asthma medication? – I detected movement to starboard. “Lovewly famahly!” breathed the Cuban in brandied fumes, “Lovewly.” My mother stared at him with the expression that has been known to wither supermarket managers, the entire staff and student body of Collingwood Boy's School, and even striking French farmers. The Cuban proved no less susceptible, and for the first time that evening, returned meekly to his table where he seated himself opposite his partner, who continued to gaze in starry-eyed admiration (or maybe the beginnings of an alcoholic coma).

Somewhat deflated ourselves, we took our time in the restrooms (we could at least recoup some of our costs in the unlimited use of functioning plumbing) and made our way to the hotel entrance. A waiter bearing aloft a tray with a silver coffee pot brushed past us. “They won’ releasth my keysth!” came a Cuban accent we had come to know well. A crowd of guests and valet parking attendants gathered around our fellow diner who was holding forth on the subject of keys, Cuba and his dislike of red-haired men, this last directed to the manager, who dismissed the waiter with the coffee after it became apparent that the Cuban would not be availing himself of this courtesy. “You look like Liza Minelli!” screeched the Cuban, to the irritation of the manager and the barely-concealed amusement of the staff.

The taxi driver added a fifty percent mark up to our fare on our way home, obviously basing our income on our point of origination, not our destination, and I was too disconsolate to complain.
“Never mind, Lou,” said my mother as we settled down for another night being serenaded by the refrigerator, “In the morning we’ll write a strong letter to the Ritz Carlton.” And that’s exactly what we did. Over a cup of tea, of course.

Copyright © Louise Godbold

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Spiritual Retreat

Just made my escape from a spiritual retreat. It seemed like a good idea, a weekend in an exquisitely restored Arts and Crafts house set in the foothills of Ojai. Panoramic views and a swimming pool; the womb-like wooden interior of the house and landscaped gardens; what’s not to like?

Well, perhaps the fact that it was a spiritual retreat should have been my first clue. On Sundays I go dance, free-style, at a hippie-dippie gathering full of yogis and New Agers, where I regularly feel a soaring freedom as I launch into pirouettes across the room, not caring at all what kind of a fool I’m making of myself, because nothing, and I say this most sincerely, nothing can compare with what the other folk are up to. There are even moments when the shaking of my body to some compulsive rhythm or a moment of quiet, sitting on the floor, I feel “connected to the Source” (as Jo, the DJ/guru would say), bathed in white light. It was the pursuit of more of that white light that led me to sign up for this retreat, even though I couldn’t really afford it and Josh will complain again about PB&J sandwiches for lunch and I will be shod in flip-flops for another year.

Unfortunately, our first retreat session was right after Friday dinner and I didn’t feel like prancing about, thanks to a very gifted (cute, interesting) chef. I had been assured that this first session would be gentle, but in place of Jo’s customary world music mix, we had live drumming – something I am usually enthusiastic about, but not on a full stomach. I swayed on the spot, waiting for that moment of enlightenment, of other-worldliness, but all I got was repeating pine nut and dill gravy. Maybe tomorrow, I thought, when I’m not so tired, and slipped out to get to the head of the line for the shower.

Despite being engaged in writing a book about my missionary experiences, I had forgotten the full Technicolor horror of communal living. I was sharing a room with 4 other girls and a bathroom with 8. Even though I stole the lead on the bathroom queue, there was nothing I could do about enforced proximity with 4 other people and their nocturnal habits. All night long, I was kept awake by someone tossing and turning (me?) and more trips to the en suite bathroom than seen by an airport restroom. Bang, went the wooden door; clang went the antique metal flush; thomp, thomp, thomp, went the returning weak bladders.

At 6:30 AM, a particularly annoying Hungarian woman took a shower (after two closely timed visits to the bathroom, just to set her intention) and then proceeded to fire up a hairdryer. Realizing I wasn’t about to get any more sleep, I shuffled down to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea. There I engaged in a conversation with a “body worker” (as in humans, not cars) and a yoga teacher. When asked how I slept, I could only be honest; when asked about the previous night, I couldn’t lie about my disappointment with the music. At this point, the Hungarian woman arrived and put her finger to her lips. Apparently, we were supposed to be observing a vow of silence until 9 AM. “Sod this!” I thought with my reflex refusal to abide by rules that don’t make sense to me (ergo, my current status as backslidden missionary). The other two early risers had sloped off to find more “positive” interactions, and the Hungarian woman and her sidekick smiled and shook their heads sadly as I expostulated about attempts to curtail personal freedoms. Usual story: I find myself in a religious community who are confused and hurt by my refusal to “get with the program.” My objections put a dent in their smiling serenity. Not good when we’re supposed to be cultivating inner calm as per the rituals of whichever religious leader I find myself aligned with at the time.

I started my new book, Misadventures of a Missionary, for a bit of fun. The accusation that I’m “rebellious” is a theme that runs through both this book and the last, and I took to be merely a misunderstanding - I don’t go around tearing things down for the sake of it; I just cannot shift my inner compass to unquestioningly point to the prevailing ideas of how I should think, act, be. If that makes me a rebel, then I guess guilty as charged. I prefer to see myself as Frank Sinatra, singing and pirouetting to “My Way.”

Explaining all this to a kindly roommate, I found myself in tears. I hadn’t realized how deeply I cared about being misunderstood by all the well-intentioned religious people in the past who have shaken their heads sadly over me; how much I wanted to be part of a shared experience of the divine; how much I wanted to be accepted and my inner compass respected rather than to be seen as a heretic. I just want to love God, love people and be loved. Simple really, but somehow I always find myself on the outside.

Realizing that in this state I was not going to be anything but trouble to the 50-minute meditation before breakfast, I snuck back into the kitchen to make more tea. (At least this one British religious ritual remains to me.) Lo and behold, the chef was in residence, and turned out to be someone with a colorful past to equal my own, and cute, did I mention he was cute? And Dutch. Perfect!

While everyone was dancing to more wild drums after breakfast, I packed my bag and left. I could not take another night like the last, and I was already getting far too much attention from fellow-participants who suspected I was mad about something and crazy, which just made me more mad and crazy. It’s the way they look at you – like you’re dangerous, or have something contagious. Lack of credulity, perhaps?