30 June 2009

The art of gracious living

Geretha has been telling me about her wonderful classroom assistant Sangeeta for a couple of years now. I e-mailed UK discussions of Slumdog Millionaire--including Salman Rushdie's attack on the film--to be passed on, and Geretha relayed Sangeeta's reactions. So even though Sangeeta and I had never met or even corresponded, I was thrilled when my sister suggested that we all go out to an Indian restaurant for lunch. This plan evolved into an invitation for Geretha, Michael, Kate and me to join Sangeeta and her husband, Anil, for a meal at their house. A delightful prospect, but we clambered into Geretha's car feeling decidedly exploitative that a lunch out had turned into a major effort for our hosts.

Chris and Brandon were at a baseball game, and Lindsay we dropped off at her boyfriend's house en route (this is a perfect glimpse of Billetz family life--always on the go), before entering one of Lansdale's beautifully manicured developments. Sangeeta and Anil live in what, for me, is the best of all possible worlds. They have an immaculate, spacious three-bedroom townhouse, new enough to be low maintenance, on a corner lot backing onto a creek and forest.

Geretha had advised me to ask to see the album of their gorgeous daughter's wedding in India, the book itself a family heirloom, but unfortunately it was with the bride. After a little begging on our part, Sangeeta and Anil agreed to show us the dvd of this extraordinary multi-day event, a blur of exquisite saris, elephants, dancers, singers, musicians--and a charming, tiny nonagenarian aunt who was coaxed onto the dance floor by her family.The wedding was in Delhi, where guests know how to have a good time, far more so, apparently, than in staid Calcutta.

Anil is a retired brigadier, who has now reinvented himself as an IT guru. In India, all the armed forces train together at the same academy, then splitting off into army, navy, air force. This means that his former classmates are now running India's military. The ground-floor den, opening onto the trees behind the house, is filled with some very impressive regimental memorabilia. And--he's the only person I know who was invited to Obama's inauguration (though they were unable to attend).

Next we moved to the kitchen, where Sangeeta instructed Geretha and me in the art of making roti. No wonder Geretha raves about her skills in the classroom: we actually succeeded!!!

On to the dining room, to enjoy dishes that had obviously taken hours and hours to prepare. We learned the name of a purveyor of excellent chutneys and pickles that we'll have to track down in London: Ashoka (the 3rd century BC emperor whose virtues Michael Wood extolled in the BBC/PBS program "The Story of India").

One last photo, taken by Kate, who enjoyed the afternoon every bit as much as we did. She's going to have to convert Robert to Indian cuisine.

Wrong number

Before I continue with my photojournal entries, I want to paste in this amusing aside from the flamboyant UK historian David Starkey that appeared in The Guardian. He collects joke cards and this is his favorite:

A city fat cat reclin[es] in his desk chair saying "Oh sorry, I must have dialled my salary by mistake."

This is perhaps a little less funny in the wake of what happened last autumn. . . . But at least Madoff did get 150 years, even if regulatory measures don't seem to have done as much to rein in salaries, bonuses, and pension pay-offs as they were supposed to.

29 June 2009

Michael makes a point

I've decided that I'll never make my way through the hundreds of photographs from our US visit unless I simply focus on highpoints, relying for the most part on the photo=1000words principle.

In that spirit, here's a photo montage of our visit to an old, old friend in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Walter was first a friend of my sister Cheri's in high school, then Michael's and mine when he was a freshman at Amherst during my senior year at Mount Holyoke. We'd lost touch--as one does--but his prominence as a blacksmith (the word seems so inadequate for what he creates) meant I could track him down. On my last visit on to Lansdale, Walter came out to Mom and Dad's to relive the Weisheit experience; this time we went to see his forge--and to reunite Walter and Michael after almost forty years. They have very similar senses of humo(u)r, sparking off each other so quickly that the rest of us merely try to keep up with the rapid-fire puns etc. Note, for example, the t-shirt Walter wore in Michael's honor:

Before heading to the forge, we met Walter and his lovely girlfriend Lyn for lunch at a local restaurant. She's not just a pretty face (and a magnificent mane of red hair--all our jaws dropped to find out she's only two years younger than I am): a professional photographer herself, she directs an extraordinary center for disabled artists.

Walter is a widower, and the forge is still on the farm his wife and he had once owned. His closest neighbor is this fine specimen of a turkey:

Walter's former family home:

The blacksmith at work:

Walter instructs Michael on how to fashion a point, hence the title of this post. Said point, slightly blunt though it may be, is now on display in our London living room next to the antique microscope Kate bought for her father.

Below are some of Walter's creations. The door is not his own design, but a faithful--and laborious--reproduction he's presently working on for Florida clients. Be sure to click on the photograph of the dragon door he did design for a prominent Manhattan attorney so that you can see the detail.

When we knew Walter way back when, he was carving in wood (as well as being granted patents on various inventions). A few of these projects remain in his workshop.

Last, especially for Kate, photos of various corners of the studio. A dream environment, eh? Something to aspire to.

28 June 2009

Sentimental journey

Who says you can't go home again? Michael's engagement to talk about sand at Long Beach Aquarium gave us the opportunity to alight in Detroit en route to California and see our dear old friends Ri (Maria Jane) and Bruce. I hate to think for how many years we've been promising to do this. No time for hand-wringing over procrastination, though. We got there and it was wonderful!

Above is a photo of their lovingly preserved house. Most of the fine homes in this neighborhood were built in the early years of the last century. This is still east Detroit, but driving through the three-street-wide community, goggling at one impressive edifice after another, you can so easily forget that urban poverty and its attendant ills are just around the corner. The billboard Michael saw on the way in from the airport advertising AFFORDABLE BANKRUPTCY seemed a long way away once we were ensconced in the elegant comfort of Ri and Bruce's beautiful home.

Ri, however, would be quite happy to leave this "elegant comfort" behind and move to Grosse Pointe. As she puts it, "I live in Grosse Pointe but sleep here." Maintenance of an aging property like this is expensive and time-consuming. She seems to us as much of a non-stop energy source as ever but, envious though I am of the generous proportions of the property, I wouldn't want to undertake the upkeep--and I'm 61, not in my mid-eighties! It's Bruce who is adamant about staying in what had originally been his wife's family home. I expect that, like my dad, he thinks of all those years of painstaking work the house represents--plus the memories--and hates the thought of abandoning it to strangers. This most gentle of men can display his stubborn English streak on occasion, so stay they do.

Here are some more photos, the first of Ri and Bruce in front of the house, on their way to the wedding of their next-door neighbors' daughter. This was a Jewish ceremony (the neighbors now keep a kosher kitchen, out of respect for their only child's new faith) which, as Ri commented, left her feeling that the couple were "more married than we are." The marriage contract, drawn up by the couple in conjunction with their rabbi, included the statement that their home would be devoted to learning as well as loving. A noble sentiment--I can think of stretches where Michael and I were too distracted by quotidian pressures to keep that uppermost in our minds. Enshrining the principle in your vows might be a very good idea.

The garden is Ri's province:

(NB stainless steel gazing ball; the previous mirrored ones gradually deteriorated over the years as the silvered interior wore away. Michael spotted a cardinal perched atop the ball,
but no camera was at hand--Sod's law--for the perfect shot.)

(Lilac and clematis)

(Blossom from bushes above in one of Ri's distinctive arrangements. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I'm on the lookout now for a simple square vase
like this one--and a ceramic frog.)

(View into the backyard of neighbors on other side from wedding family; the building you see is the guesthouse at the back of the property that is rented out.)

Ri doesn't just garden, arrange flowers, polish silver, research family genealogy, play bridge (Bruce and she have won their couples tournament for eons), arrange purchases like the incredible OnStar navigation system in their Buick (the reason we rented a more primitive GPS system in California). . . she's also a formidable cook. I returned home with several recipes. As a sampling, here's the chicken pie she served the night we arrived:

(I was glad to hear that even from-scratch Ri swears
by Pillsbury crust.)

Bruce, Ri and Michael tucking into the gazpacho that preceded the pie, which in turn was followed by a coffee ice cream and Heath bar frozen dessert (I should also have recorded the omelettes-in-a-bag we had for breakfast the next morning):

Another of Ri's projects was finally having the top to her ancestral bed brought up from the basement and restored to its former glory. Ri's family was from the southern US and, during the Civil War, they hid their silver in the top to protect it from marauding Yankees. Even in this high-ceilinged bedroom, the bed just barely fits.

Although Ri is a forthright, straight-speaking geologist, her southern roots certainly show in her hospitality. We couldn't have had more gracious hosts. And speaking of "loving and learning"--we came away enriched in so many ways from this visit. I'm not even referring to my salvation-in-the-Mojave straw hat, the framed picture agate, the sodalite and tourmaline/quartz eggs. . . . I'm thinking of the way conversation flowed around and through so many topics, whether we were chatting over dinner, playing Chronology, filling in crossword blanks. Thank you, Bruce and Ri, for those wonderful, memorable two days.