Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Unscheduled Dismount

It was bound to happen. I hadn't taken a tumble in over a year, and circumstances (or the gods) plotted my demise. Take a still fairly new horse, a sleep-deprived rider fighting a sinus infection, and a trial saddle; put them together; and voilà: the unscheduled dismount.

As tumbles go, it wasn't the worst I've had, but a sore right hip and several bruised ribs testify to the momentum with which I hit the ground. Sometimes, though, life impresses on one forcibly what should be learned in theory. I knew that Flynn, a highly-trained, former show horse, was sensitive to seat and posture; that is, I knew this in the abstract. Yesterday I learned the hard way that if you want to canter 20-meter circles, then you need to look in the direction of the circle, not the trotting poles and jumps on the other side of the arena. I looked at the jumps, and Flynn reacted with his usual quicksilver speed. Beau, by contrast, would have done a cost-benefit analysis of the situation and then decided whether it was worth his while to change direction at a leisurely, kick-along, pace. Sometimes I feel as though I've gone from a secondhand Toyota Corolla to a BMW roadster.


Three days later, at the behest of my husband, I dragged my sorry self to the doctor where an X-ray brought my fears to light. I've cracked the sixth rib on my right side. The doctor and radiologist were both incredulous that I wasn't in the ER immediately after the fall, howling with pain. Honestly, I'm a bit sore but hardly in agonizing discomfort. Mainly I'm pissed that I can't ride for 4 - 6 weeks, although I'm tempted to test the waters after 3 - 4 weeks. We'll see.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Beau's Harem

My sixteen year-old thoroughbred is going to make a sociobiologist of me yet: what the hell is it about old males and young females?

The story is this: Sheri Thornley, the owner of Southwind Farm, agreed with me that Beau seemed sullen, if that's not too anthropomorphic an emotion to assign to a horse. Indeed, he has had a tough time of it in gelding herds as of late. At our previous farm, Beau was chased and tormented during an attack of uveitis, and, even worse, badly bloodied before we left for Paris, his back a tapestry of bites and wounds. I had to put him on a full course of antibiotics. Even at Southwind, where the gelding herd is far more benign, Beau came in from the field with bad cuts and wounds. Ostracized, he stood apart, grazing alone day after day. Looking at Beau in his stall one day, head hanging and eyes dulled, my friend Susan remarked, "that is not a happy horse," to which I readily assented.

After much discussion, Sheri and I decided to shift Beau to field board. There are three long rectangular fields at Southwind, all level ground with good run-in sheds and rich grazing. Beau's sight is diminishing, and we thought he might do better in a neatly contained space with no obstructions as his vision worsens. There is also the not inconsiderable consideration of my pocketbook, now that I am supporting two horses. Field board runs about half of stall board, making Beau's retirement more affordable.

Most importantly, we thought Beau would do better with just one or two other horses, removing him from the bullying environment of a herd. Sheri decided to put Beau with mares, much to my surprise. In the past, Beau hasn't seemed terribly keen on mares: he was, after all, a teaser stallion in his younger days, which is not an occupation inclined to make a horse of the male persuasion cozy up to females. Sheri, though, is a consummate horsewoman, and I trust her judgment. So mares it was.

I am told that within fifteen minutes, Beau and the three-year-old filly, Slipper, were touching noses. When I arrived the next day, the two were inseparable, grazing side by side and standing contentedly together in the run-in shed to avoid the mid-day sun. I pulled Beau from the field for grooming; as we walked away, he threw back his head and started screaming for his lady love. He continued protesting all the way into the barn. Finally he quiet down, but once we headed back out to the field, the screaming (highly uncharacteristic, mind you) resumed. To say that I am gob-smacked, to use my husband's British expression, is an understatement. Beau has, quite literally, gone overnight from a tired-looking, withdrawn gelding to a strutting Lothario--and I'm not kidding. It's even worse now that a second mare, Skyy, has joined their little group. Initially he bullied Skyy, attempting to keep her away from Slipper. Now both mares follow him around dutifully. It's like some kind of equine parody of Big Love, with Beau as the satisfied Utah polygamist.

Other boarders have sent me humorous e-mails, remarking that Beau seems ten years younger, which is absolutely true. As one woman put it, there's nothing like a cute young filly to put the swagger back in an old boy's butt.

I half expect the mares to be serving his majesty tea and biscuits when I next arrive.

Monday, August 31, 2009

In Like Flynn

I am discovering the one drawback of having a nearly perfect horse: if anything goes awry during riding, it is my fault. "The horse is perfect," I am told repeatedly; "You, not so much."

Thus I soldier on, trying to live up to my new Argentine warmblood who is thought to walk on water by pretty much everyone. Yes, Flynn has a couple of unsightly scars, most likely the result of a youth spent amidst barbed-wire fencing, as is customary in South America. Barbed wire and young horses are not a good mix, as any horseman will testify, but it's cheaper than wood fencing and therefore still used in some cultures. He has a wind puff on the right hind ankle, another cosmetic blemish. Flynn can be standoffish with folks, and he can be hard to catch in a field if he doesn't like you.

These imperfections were not enough to deter me from buying a horse that still astonishes me with his training and beauty. He is a handsome chestnut, with a heart-melting face and four fancy socks. All three gaits are lovely, especially the walk and canter. As Susan puts it, "he is a forward-thinking horse," which means that Flynn likes to move out, an enormous relief after years of exhausting myself trying to get Beau to move off my leg. For the first time, I can actually focus on my technique and not having to motivate the horse.

I owe the fact of Flynn to my friend Susan, who had her eye on him from the beginning. He was at a well-known sales barn in Pennsylvania, priced to sell in this depressed economy--only he didn't. Perhaps he wasn't marketed correctly; perhaps his aloofness put off potential buyers. For whatever reason, Flynn remained while other horses left within days of arrival. His price kept dropping. When Susan and I went to this sales barn, I was actually more interested in other horses I had seen on their web site. Flynn seemed too fancy and too expensive for me, but Susan insisted.

This horse that had frozen out other customers over the past two months, turned his head to look at me intently and we locked eyes for the longest time. He sighed, and I stroked his neck, knowing I had passed some mysterious equine test. Accustomed to advanced riders, Flynn nonetheless took care of me, patiently carrying me over cross-rails and cantering in a nice collected gait.

I returned the following weekend, this time with my friend Hope in tow (in addition to faithful Susan). Hope didn't like Flynn initially--he wouldn't look at her, staring stonily ahead--and she frowned at the wind puff and scars. Once I mounted, however, her furrowed brow smoothed and a smile broke out. "You look great on him," she enthused. Again, I did flat work, in addition to an hour trail ride. Flynn nuzzled me affectionately afterward, eating treats and inhaling my human scent. Susan joked that it was like a bad commercial with two people running toward each other in a field of wildflowers, arms opened in an expectant embrace. Truth be told, it was that bad. I don't know if horses and humans are capable of love at first sight, but something like that happened between Flynn and me.

I worried about the wind puff and fretted that the pre-purchase exam would show up some insurmountable problem. Many tests later, my fears were allayed: Flynn was pronounced to be a remarkably hardy horse given his training and show-jumping experience. Especially for a rider at my level, he would give me many years of sound work and pleasure. Both the owner and the agent were eager for the sale to go through. Flynn's owner, now living and training in France, couldn't afford maintaining horses on two continents, and the sales agent had other horses coming in. Flynn's price dropped again, making him affordable. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine being able to own a fancy warmblood with years of training, but I have Susan to thank as well as the agent, who worked very hard to make the deal happen. I know that horse dealers generally have a bad rap; this woman, though, was the consummate professional.

And that, dear reader, is how I came to own a horse from Argentina, an animal who is perfectly behaved with humans but lavishly affectionate with me alone. I wouldn't have it otherwise.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Hell Point Seafood

The culinary curse of Annapolis continues.

For my birthday on the 17th of July, Rod took me and some friends to Hell Point Restaurant, the new venture by Bob Kinkead. We had particular reason to look forward to this meal. First, we were thrilled at the prospect of a decent restaurant in downtown Annapolis; second, we had our wedding luncheon ten years ago at Kinkead's in Washington, D.C., a memorable meal wonderfully prepared and served by the staff.

We were quite happy with that first visit. The restaurant was perhaps one-third full, and servers hovered attentively, perhaps overly so. The food was fresh and nicely presented. I had a delicious rock fish; Rod ordered a Portuguese fish stew; our friends consumed halibut and crab cakes. The menu, while small, was interesting, and I appreciated the extensive wine list, which includes some moderately priced labels.

Hell Point took over what was originally Phillip's Seafood, a cavernous, touristy venue right near the dock. The look is a bit more contemporary--painting and a few decorative touches have spruced up the interior--but it is not an especially attractive space.

We were, however, sufficiently pleased with the food and service to return in early August with my stepdaughter when she came down to visit from NYC. Alas and alack, nearly everything we liked initially had deteriorated. It was a Friday night, and the restaurant was nearly full, but neither the kitchen nor the staff could cope with the number of diners. We pleaded repeatedly for our bottle of wine; we waited endlessly for food to arrive; and we tried in vain to flag down our waiter. I sent my tepid, unappealing food back to the kitchen, only to wait a half-hour before a new meal arrived. Megan had the seafood stew Rod had tried three weeks earlier, only this time it was woefully overcooked. Rod's pork was, in all fairness, good but hardly stellar. Our waiter apologized, but it will be a long time before I try Hell Point again.

The restaurant should take notice: they are rapidly garnering a bad reputation. My hair salon is staffed by avid foodies, and the lousy service and erratic kitchen at Hell Point was a principal topic of conversation when I last went for a haircut. It seems that not even Bob Kinkead can overcome the culinary curse of Annapolis.

Snapshots of Paris

◆The small Russian band playing in the Champs-Elysée metro, a fabulous group of musicians reduced to passing a hat. We were furious with two Germans who muttered "Russian swine" as they walked by

◆The rage for chewing gum among adolescents and young adults, a trend I found startling given the social pressure against the same in "polite" American society. I never see middle-class American students chew gum--it just isn't done

◆The smokers huddled miserably outside cafes and shops, victims of the fairly recent ban against smoking. I had read of initial resistance, but everyone in Paris now appears to comply

◆The sales everywhere, evidence of "le crise," as the French call it

◆The wild enthusiasm of French audiences, who gave the Comedie Française a standing ovation and demanded successive encores from Tia Maria, the Brazilian jazz singer

◆The happiness of Parisian pooches on their daily walks, even in the stifling heat

◆The lovely presentation of food

◆The exquisite manners of French children, arguably the best-behaved youngsters in existence

◆The stylishness of older Parisian women, the inverse of what one normally sees in the U.S. Young women are largely unkempt and unfashionable, slopping around in flip-flops and shapeless dresses; women over 40, however, look terrific

◆The daily sanitation service and street cleaning

◆The herd-like mentality of tourists who dutifully visit the Louvre but ignore the many fine collections dotting Paris. Their loss was our gain: we had the smaller musées to ourselves

◆The casual nightlife everywhere in Paris. People poured into cafes to escape the heat of their apartments, but one never saw the kind of loutish drunkenness all too common now in the U.K.

◆The extraordinary efficiency of the metro

◆The politeness of the French. We have never understood the Parisian reputation for rudeness; to the contrary, we find people to be unfailingly helpful and courteous. What gives?

◆The easy (or easing) racial relations among young French people. This is very much a generational phenomenon: one rarely sees middle-aged people dating or visiting across racial lines; teenagers and twenty-somethings, though, are very relaxed, a welcome change

◆The paucity of pregnant women and/or young mothers, which explains why the French government offers so many incentives to reverse the plummeting birth rate

Paris - Day 7

We spent our last full day outside the city, a wise decision given the heat and humidity. Our newfound Australian friends invited us to lunch at the Palais Royale in Versailles, a posh hotel on the edge of the famous chateau. Lunch was excellent although heavy for the weather. Afterwards we wandered over to a tea salon on the grounds, glimpsing sheep and horses in luxuriant pastures as we sauntered. It all seemed very Marie Antoinette.

A stifling train ride took us back into Paris. We showered, changed, and after a brief rest, went to the Comedie Française to see Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, a play credited with inaugurating absurdist drama. Even the brilliant efforts of the company could not persuade me of the script's merits. I understand its historical importance, but I still think the play is essentially stupid. Jarry originally intended it as a satire against a loathed professor, and Ubu Roi still smacks overly of adolescent rage at adults. So much potty-mouthed dialogue! And all the references to excrement! It made me long for Terence Rattigan . . .

That the Comedie Française managed to keep us interested for nearly two hours despite these shortcomings, not to mention the slang-heavy script, is the highest tribute. I've seen black-and-white video from the 60s and 70s of the company performing Molière and Racine, back when they were still doing "museum acting," a superannuated style more suited to the 19th than the 20th century. I read that the company had updated their repertory and approach; if last night was typical, then they have succeeded brilliantly. We adored everything about the production (with the exception of the script): the use of space; the vocal training and enunciation; the clever blocking; and the intelligent staging. The actor who played Ubu Roi, looked like Oliver Hardy from "Laurel and Hardy" fame, even sporting a rotund belly and little mustache. He maneuvered his bulk with the balletic grace one associates with the great actors of the silent film era. The smashing actress who played his evil consort reminded me of a French Marlene Dietrich. The supporting cast were excellent too. I can't wait to go back and see a classical production, perhaps a tragedy by Racine.

As I write, we are trapped in an aluminum capsule, hurtling 550 miles per hour toward Washington, D.C. Today has brought back the horrors of air travel in fulsome detail. While the French do an excellent job of managing their metro and rail systems, they need to do some serious work on their airports. Let me put it this way: Charles de Gaulle makes Washington Dulles look like a model of efficiency--no mean feat. Only one station was open for passport control despite the thousands of travelers departing on a Friday, normally the busiest day for travel. We encountered the same at security, which was also woefully understaffed.

United Airlines added to our woes. We left late; our seats (in business class, mind you) are filthy; our "entertainment centers" are broken; and a stewardess just dumped red wine all over a much-loved white jacket, perhaps ruining it. To say that I'm not happy with United Airlines is an understatement.

Coming on the heels of our recent voyage on the QMII has made this miserable trip, well, all the more miserable since we now know there is a much better way to travel if one has the time. Indeed, I've been puzzling over the economics of the respective voyages. The airlines are supposedly broke, but virtually every seat in this Boeing 777 is filled. United charges passengers in economy class for luggage, in addition to ever-higher prices for seats. In business we get a bit more leg room and a marginally nicer lunch, but these paltry amenities hardly justify the exorbitant rates. On Cunard, we were fed and watered for six days in luxurious surroundings. We had access to pools, a splendid gym, a beautiful library, and countless lounges. We could listen to jazz in the evenings or go dancing. And we could haul along as much luggage as we wanted--for no fee. And yet Cunard is profitable, even though an Atlantic crossing costs far less than a business-class seat. I don't get it.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Paris - Day 6

We awakened to yet another sultry day in Paris; this time, however, we made certain to leave the hotel while it was still somewhat cool. Today was devoted to the Marais, a district that spans the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. For me, it was love at first sight (I'm not too sure about Rod). I read that the area fell into decline after WWII; in the last fifteen years, though, it has made an extraordinary comeback. The Jewish community is once again thriving; chic shops and restaurants are everywhere; a hip gay scene can be found in the southern portion of the district, while the Chinese have claimed another corner. It has all the energy of the Bastille but without the graffiti and trash. I also think it's much more interesting architecturally.

First we went to the Musée Carnivalet, a terrific institution devoted to the history of Paris from the Middle Ages through the early twentieth century. For someone like myself who is enamored of material history it was bliss. Some of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century paintings are very good, but one doesn't attend this museum for aesthetic quality; rather, the canvases and objects provide an overview of how Paris changed over time. We loved the models of bridges; the shop signs (some dating back to the eighteenth century); the strange bric-a-brac from the French Revolution; even the recreation of Proust's study. Many interiors, including some frescoes, were donated to the museum from old homes that were razed when Baron Haussman set about systematically destroying medieval Paris to make way for his sweeping boulevards and monumental edifices. We were enchanted as we flowed from one domestic interior to another, taking in beautiful furniture and objects. Several well-known paintings and busts of actors and mimes are included in the collection, and I was pleased to see the museum pays particular attention to performers and artists.

We were so entranced by the collection that it was nearly 2.30 when we realized we hadn't eaten since early this morning. Using our intrepid Time Out guide, we hiked over to Breizh Café, a Breton-style crêperie that turned out to be very popular with the fashionistas in the neighborhood. It was just the thing for a hot day: we both ordered galettes, essentially chewy buckwheat crepes topped with various fixings. Mine was a mixture of salad, smoked salmon, and a poached egg. It sounds strange but was actually quite delicious. Rod's galette featured salad and melted roquefort. During lunch, I eavesdropped on the table of hip designers and fashion buyers next to us, an international mix of Europeans and Chinese. I was especially amused by the young Asian women moaning about the "deplorable" state of fashion in Hong Kong.

All that talk of clothing tempted me to hit some of the excellent sales in the Marais. In other parts of Paris, the shops haven't invited; here one sees interesting boutiques featuring striking but affordable clothing. The sales are very good--50% reductions on average--with a further reduction of 17% for non-E.U. citizens such as myself. The stifling heat, however, made the thought of trying on clothing simply unbearable.

I also decided that I wanted pots and pans more than clothing, which says volumes about me. So after lunch, we took the metro to Les Halles to visit E. Dehillerin, the high temple of fancy cookware. It was everything I imagined and more: never have I seen copper pans or stock pots of that quality. Easily I could have bankrupt myself; as it is, I splurged on several pieces, which are being shipped back to the States tomorrow. The staff were unfailingly courteous and helpful. I can see this will be a recurrent vice on future trips to Paris. My only consolation is that the pieces are about half of what one pays in the U.S.

We're back at our hotel, resting and reading. We've fallen into the pattern of having a late lunch, followed by light snacks (fruit, cheese) in the evening. Again, the heat has rendered the prospect of a substantial dinner fairly revolting. And after the week of culinary excess on the QMII, neither one of us wants complicated three-course dinners. At least from the perspective of food, this trip has turned into "Paris light."

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Paris - Day 5

It's been another woefully hot day here; at least we have the consolation of low humidity. On our way to the metro, we saw a group of roughly fifty chefs holding a demonstration, evidently protesting the impending reduction of the VAT on restaurants. Mystified, we asked various people to explain the protest, but no one understood the reason behind it. We thought the chefs would appreciate the extra business--the economic crisis has felled many restaurants here--but they seemed quite pissed off, perhaps at the prospect of extra work.

We spent the day on the Ile de la Citè, the wonderful area around Notre Dame. We saw the cathedral two years ago; this time we wanted to visit Sainte-Chapelle and other sights. The chapel deserves its reputation. Light and airy, it is comprised almost entirely of stained glass windows that take onlookers through the Old and New Testaments. Slender Gothic columns carry the eye upward and across so that one naturally "reads" over a thousand key moments from the Bible. We were enthralled.

Afterwards we went to La Conciergerie, the fortress dating back to the Capetian kings. Despite its historical importance, the edifice was largely devoid of tourists. We found it fascinating, though. We worked our way around the central hall (the Salle des Gardes) and then to the areas associated with the French Revolution. We saw grim cells for the payeux, the poor sods who couldn't pay for a bed or desk, and the slightly nicer (although still depressing) accommodations for the pistoliers. I was unexpectedly moved by the sight of Marie Antoinette's cell. I'm no lover of monarchy, but recent revisionist histories paint a portrait of a well-meaning if somewhat gormless young woman manipulated by court factions. I can't imagine being 28 years old and spending the last two months of your life in a cell alone, awaiting word of your fate as well as that of your family.

Most troubling of all was the room devoted to victims of the French Revolution; a wall listed names and occupations. Only a quarter were nobility. Most, surprisingly, were commoners, including laundresses, bakers, tailors, even several actors. Some might have worked at the palace, but I suspect others were just unlucky, perhaps turned in by vengeful neighbors or avaricious relatives. As with most violent revolutions, the deaths seemed largely senseless and unspeakably cruel.

We wandered the narrow streets for a while before stumbling upon a real find, La Réserve de Quasimodo, a cave à vins and tiny restaurant. It's the oldest bistrot on the Ile, dating back to the thirteenth century. There's a wonderful story associated with the site: in 1223 the roof fell in, trapping a family of doves that had taken up residence. The male escaped but faithfully fed his mate and chicks until they could be freed, thus inspiring la légende de la Colombe. Although it was late--nearly 3.00 p.m.--the chef gladly fed us an excellent lunch. I had a huge salad with thin slices of duck breast and chevre chaud on toast; Rod had the prix fixe lunch, which included a substantial salad (again, with hot goat cheese) and a superb salmon and spinach quiche. Our delightful Polish waitress chatted with us at length. Against our better judgment, we bought several bottles of wine to haul back to the U.S., our seeming fate in life.

We finished our afternoon with another walk around the Ile, stopping at the famed Berthillon shop for ice cream. Alas, it was closed (the same thing happened two years ago), but we found another storefront that purported to sell the same ice cream. We each had a small boule. I thought the ice cream was very good but not deserving of the hype; indeed, I had better in Provence.

We learned today that one can still eat well and reasonably in Paris--but it takes some effort. We were astonished, for instance, at the vast difference in price between today's lunch and yesterday's. Our waitress said that overall the Ile is priced well compared to other parts of the city. I noticed that bistros and brasseries in the Bastille were also competitive, but this little resto gave particular value: for 16 euros (around $21), one could have an entrée, plat, and a third of a bottle of wine-and all very good indeed. Yesterday, near the Louvre, 26 euros ($35) paid for a small omelette, some fries, and a paltry glass of wine. The moral is to shop around.

Tomorrow and Thursday we plan to take day trips, partly to escape the heat of Paris and partly to do something different.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Paris - Day 4

Our meal last night at Le Souk was excellent--every bit as good as promised in the Time Out guide to Paris. It was nice to have a break from traditional French cuisine. I started with a very good "caviar" of aubergine, followed by a tangine poulet that included dates. Rod began with a duck b'stilla and then had an enormous serving of a tangine agneau laced with artichoke hearts and olives. Everything was subtly spiced and piping hot. Even the wine list was good. Much to our delight, we found a rose from Orange, close to where we stayed with friends in Provence two years ago. It too was excellent. Our waiter, a charming French Algerian, was very concerned that we enjoy our food. Periodically he would come to our table, anxiously inquiring, "good?" Yes, we assured him, "la cuisine est superbe."

I liked too that the restaurant got us out of posh neighborhoods into a more ethnically diverse and youthful environment. Located in the Bastille, Le Souk hardly looks out onto a scenic setting--the restaurant is across from block housing, probably subsidized--but I liked the energy of the streets. The neighborhood is definitely grittier than the area around the Louvre or our sedate bourgeois neighborhood of the 7th. Graffiti adorns (or defaces, depending on one's view) buildings; signs warn of pickpocketing; and trash litters the streets. One can see, though, that the Bastille has become a hip urban outpost for twenty-somethings: it reminded me of the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood in Washington, D.C.

Glutted on North African food, we walked slowly to the metro, eventually disembarking near the Seine, where we spent a half-hour wandering and trying to work off some of the meal.

I couldn't face anything other than a cafe creme this morning. We braved the crowds and went to the Louvre for a couple of hours. I've decided the only way to manage the enormity of the Louvre is to tackle one gallery per visit. Last time we did Italian painting; this visit we looked at Greek and Etruscan antiquities. I have to say that the Venus de Milo is every bit as breathtaking as its reputation. So often women in Greek and Roman statuary are static and nondescript (with the exception, perhaps, of Amazons captured in bas-relief on sarcophagi). The Venus de Milo, though, moves with the sort of energy and grace customarily accorded young men: her torso twists and her left knee lifts, giving a sensation of energy. The rounded curves, the sinuous lines of the spine, and the movement of the drapery enhance her irresistable appeal.

I was also smitten by the so-called Borghese Gladiator, an extraordinary sculpture of a young warrior in as he steps forward to challenge his imagined opponent. The sense of three-dimensional space is extraordinary, as is the exaggerated musculature. I marveled too at several of the sarcophagi, in addition to several mosaics that have managed to retain their color.

By the time we finished browsing the Etruscan, Greek, and Roman collections, we were done. I had hoped to see the Egyptian collection as well, but the tour groups, loud children, and haphazard air conditioning (on a very hot day) wore us down. I was tired of people walking into me and irritated by the hordes rushing by beautiful works of art. Barely anyone stops to look, much less savor the experience. Most people go to the big-name objects, such as the Venus de Milo, pose for a snapshot, and then hurry on to the next famous work. Rod made the sarcastic remark that it's the aesthetic equivalent of vulgar tourists in game parks who ignore the extraordinary panoply of birds, insects, and flora for the "big five" (i.e. elephants, rhinos, lions, buffalo, and leopards).

I was additionally troubled to see that parents now arm children (as young as 7 or 8) with digital cameras, a seemingly universal phenomenon: kids of every nationality run amok, madly snapping photos of art works and interiors. Indeed, most youngsters either view art through a camera lens or ignore it entirely, sullenly plodding after parents determined to innoculate their children with high culture. With a few rare exceptions, this parental exercise seems like a waste of time and resources: just take the damn kids to Euro Disney and be done with it!

We left the madding (and maddening) crowds and collapsed at the Cafe Ruc across the street from the Comedie Francaise where we had a decent if woefully expensive lunch. I must admit that prices have knocked us back: costs seem to have spiraled since our last trip to France two years ago. The unfavorable exchange rate hasn't helped. We are eagerly awaiting the new VAT reduction on restaurants that takes effect on July 1st, down from a whopping 19.5% to 5%.

Refreshed, we walked across the Tuileries to L'Orangerie, which recently reopened after extensive remodeling. It was a welcome anodyne to the Louvre. We saw Monet's Les Nympheas, the amazing series of panels arranged around two salles eliptiques. We sat on benches for a long time, thoroughly enthralled. We then proceeded downstairs to the small but excellent collection of Impressionist and Modernist canvases assembled by Paul Guillaume. The museum reproduces in a couple of rooms the interior of his 1930s apartment, giving one a sense of how the paintings were originally juxtaposed against "primitive" artifacts from Africa and Oceana. The collection is superbly displayed and lit. It's small and infinitely manageable, again, a relief after the overwhelming scale of the Louvre.

By 4.30, we were exhausted. It is very hot here right now, and by most afternoons we have clocked hours and hours of walking. We returned to our hotel, showered, and then retreated to the pleasant little courtyard at our hotel. Guests often purchase wine, cheese, and bread at local stores and then sit at the tables outside, eating and drinking. We nibbled at a good Camembert and baguette while visiting with the nice Australian family we've befriended. Then to bed (and blog).

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Paris - Day 3

Last night we went to a jazz club on the Right Bank to hear a terrific Brazilian singer/pianist, Tania Maria. She's 70 and still swings! Maria works in a variety of styles ranging from jazz-inflected sambas to Brazilian-tinged scat singing; a very good bass guitarist and drummer accompanied her. The club, Duc des Lombards, has been around for a while. A small venue, seating no more than 50, it gives patrons a marvelous sense of intimacy. We enjoyed ourselves immensely.

I was amused to see that martinis, a huge fad in the U.S., have not made similar inroads here. I ordered a vodka martini, which completely confounded the waitress. The menu listed martinis as being largely comprised of vermouth (horrible!); when I asked for a vodka martini--in decent French, mind you--I got, well, a straight shot of unadulerated Polish vodka.

After the set ended, we wandered around the Right Bank, settling ourselves in a little sidewalk cafe. Rod wanted food; I needed water; and we both wanted to watch the parade of humanity saunter by. Hauntingly, Michael Jackson's songs played everywhere, on car radios and on the street. Groups of young people spontaneously broke into song and dance, some attempting to moon walk. It was moving and strange.

We overslept woefully this morning. After a light breakfast at our hotel--good strong coffee, baguette, and confiture--we took the metro to the Père Lachaise cemetary. I expected hordes of people, but with the exception of one tour group, the cemetary was quiet for a Sunday afternoon.

I found Père Lachaise as compelling as the accounts I've read over the years. Some memorials are haunting. Both Rod and I were especially touched by the statue of a nine-year-old boy with his devoted Irish setter. Other tombs were fascinating in their grotesqueness and sheer bad taste. One faux Aztec temple caught our attention as did a 20-foot high sarcophagus decorated with every manner of gargoyle and flourish. I was dismayed to see that the French also ignore their literary and intellectual greats. Astonishingly, Pierre Augustin-Caron Beaumarchais, one of the monumental figures of the French Enlightenment, doesn't merit special notice in the map of the cemetary, nor does Jean Racine, a major figure in theatre history. We stumbled around for half-an-hour looking for Beaumarchais' grave to no avail. At least Moliere is somewhat venerated. Visitors gravitated, perhaps predictably, to pop icons such as Jim Morrison and Edith Piaf. Apparently no one shares my predilection for Sarah Bernhardt or Pierre Bourdieu, both of whom I saluted. While the authorities have erected a fence around Morrison's monument to prevent vandalism, the same has not been done for Oscar Wilde's tomb, which is covered with graffiti and, weirdly, lipstick kisses. I'm still trying to puzzle out their semiotic significance outside of the usual connotation.

The last time I wandered around a cemetary was during my student years in London. I lived not too far from Highgate Cemetary, home to Karl Marx, and I remember giving directions almost daily to radical German students intent on paying homage to their hero. Today was strangely peaceful. The weather was warm, but a refreshing breeze blew through the cemetary. The site is huge--over 100 acres--and traversed with tree-lined cobblestone avenues that mimic the layout of Paris itself. I can see why people want this bit of real estate for their final resting place.

This afternoon we are resting up before heading out for dinner. Both Rod and I have tired of traditional European cuisine--we ate too many elaborate meals on the QMII--so we are opting for North African food tonight at a restaurant called Souk in the Bastille.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Paris - Day 2

Saturday morning we hauled ourselves out of bed at a reasonable hour, had our usual quick breakfast, and then walked in the cool air over to the Tuileries. I had never explored the gardens before, and I found myself underwhelmed--I'm not quite sure what I expected. They're pretty but something of a disappointment after the grandeur of Central Park, Golden Gate Park, or even various London parks, such as Kensington or Hyde Park.

We planned originally to spend the morning at the Musée de l'Orangerie but were sidetracked by the prospect of a special exhibition on Mount Athos at the Petit Palais. I'm very glad we took the detour. This is the first time these religious artifacts have left Greece. The exhibit was a surprise in several respects. First, we marveled at the excellent condition of the objects, especially the fine vestments that gleam with undiminished lustre. Perhaps the French government restored the artifacts as part of a deal struck with the monastery; perhaps they have never seen the light of day. Whatever the reason, everything was in fabulous shape. Second, I was struck by the difference between Greek and Russian icons. I have seen numerous icons on my trips to Russia with Rod, but they have neither the color nor complexity of these extraordinary works. The Greek monks seemingly possess an artistry and technique that renders their Eastern European counterparts primitive by comparison. And, finally, I was taken by the aerial photographs of Mount Athos and the sheer expanse of the monasteries, which are larger and more complex than I expected. Of course, being a woman, I will never see them.

Around 2.00 we walked over to Angelina's, a tea room and restaurant recommended to us last night by Australians here at our hotel. I ordered a salad with smoked salmon and vegetables. After all the elaborate food on the QMII, I can't bare to look at anything cooked right now. Rod had a superb cod served over chopped squash. We did on the advice of our acquaintances order dessert, which was unbelievably wonderful--the sort of pastry one simply does not get in the U.S. unless you're lucky enough to find a Michel Richard or a Boucheron. Rod had a flaky, light pastry filled with excellent custard; I ordered a confection that was essentially coffee-flavored brioche filled with coffee custard and topped with a thin crunchy layer of caramel. Neither one was sweet and both were divine. We fully intend to return.

Back in the 7th, we stopped at the Musée National Rodin, which is literally on the way to our hotel. Rodin lived in this building, what the French call a hôtel particulier, during the last years of his life (I believe the poet Rilke lived there too for a while). The building is shabby and rather sad. Rooms are not climate controlled and light beats down on paintings, several already ruined. The collection inside is mixed: a lot of plaster heads and figures by Rodin, basically rough versions of works he would eventually cast in bronze. I must admit to preferring many of the heads by his mistress, Camille Claudel, which are finer and more expressive. Outside in the lovely garden, though, is where one sees the magnificent bronzes and sculptures for which Rodin is known: the Thinker (overrated to my mind); the Gates of Hell (astonishing); and the Burghers of Calais (moving). I like Rodin best when he translates narrative to three-dimensional form: his interpretations of Dante are unsurpassed. I like less the endless nudes melting into stone (or emerging from stone, depending on your perspective), and I tired quickly of the infinite variations on The Kiss. While it's pleasant to gaze upon youthful flesh captured in ardent embrace, one can see it only so many times.

Now we are back at our hotel, resting and relaxing. Tonight we're heading out to a jazz club to hear a French singer who supposedly excels at a variety of genres.

Paris - Day 1

We slept far too late this morning: I think we were still exhausted from all those late nights on the QMII (too much partying for these old fogies!). We hurriedly threw on clothes and then ambled down the street to our excellent local bakery. Fortified by good strong coffee and buttery rolls, we took a short walk to the Musée de l'Armée and the Tombeau de Napolean, both here in our neighborhood of the 7th arondissement. The collection of arms in the musée was extraordinary, unlike anything I have ever seen under one roof. One goes through room after room piled high with armor, early pistols, such as flint locks, and various implements for skewing victims, some truly terrifying in appearance. We saw early examples of medieval chain mail along with formal jousting armor for horse and rider. By the time we had exhausted the pre-Napoleonic period, we burnt out on implements of destruction.

The sheer breadth of the collection cannot fail to impress. The early weapons derive mainly from the royal collection of Louis XIV; somehow government ministers managed to save 25% from destruction in the French Revolution. The rest of the collection has been added to gradually. Of course, Napoleon did his bit. There's nothing like pillaging to build up one's museums.

By 1.30 we had seen enough evidence of humanity's penchant for destruction. Most disturbing is the artistry of these weapons: their purpose is to kill, but they also function as aesthetic objects. The craftsmanship is oftentimes breathtaking: one almost forgets the diabolical end of an exquisite broad sword decorated with filagree or encrusted with gemstones. Does aestheticizing weapons make them less threatening? Create categorical confusion? Encourage a warrior to imagine himself participating in a higher form of activity, the proverbial "art of war"? I left depressed.

We boarded the metro for the 8th arondissement, alighted near the Boulevard Haussmann and realized we were hungry. We tried a local bistro and had a respectable but not great lunch. It was warm and a bit humid today so neither one of us felt like cooked food. We opted for salades grandes, which were certainly grand in size if not in taste.

The real treat of the day was our trip to the Musée Jacquemart-André, a lovely collection acquired over many years by the nineteenth-century heir to a wealthy banking family, Edouard André. His wife continued building the collection after his death, an impressive array of Rembrandts, Botticellis, and Mantegnas. Frescoes by Tiepolo grace the ceilings, as well as the wall above the stunning curved staircase. I especially liked the portrait of the Comtesse Skavronskaia by Vigée Le Brun, in addition to the achingly beautiful painting of the young Mathilde de Canisy by Nattier.

The museum reminded me a bit of the Frick in New York; indeed, one can see how the great New York families modeled their upper East side mansions on these magnificent nineteenth-century edifices in the elegant 8th arondissement. Best of all, the museum is quite manageable: one can spend a leisurely two hours and have the sense of an individual collection built over a lifetime, hardly the sensation afforded by the Louvre or the Met. As we left, we caught a glimpse of the lovely tea room on the premises and kicked ourselves for not dining there instead of our indifferent bistro. We heard the lunches and pastries are superb; if we're back in that neighborhood, we might pop in before the end of the week.

Tired, we returned to our hotel, eventually joining a very nice Australian mother and her teenage daughter in the patio for drinks and conversation, a pleasant ending to an equally pleasant day.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Journey to Paris

Thursday we awakened early, ate a substantial breakfast--our final meal on the QMII--and then disembarked early in Southampton, England. As always, Cunard did a brilliant job of organization. We left our luggage in the corridor last night; this morning everything was sorted and waiting for us in the dockside terminal. Even our departure from the ocean liner was orderly. After years of ghastly flights, our Atlantic crossing has been something of a revelation.

We made our way via train to London, arriving mid-day at Waterloo Station. A taxi took us to St. Pancras where we had a brief layover before boarding the high-speed train for Paris. This is our first trip on the Eurostar, an impressive mode of travel. The new modern wing in St. Pancras is clean and airy; check-in and boarding are effortless. On board, one finds comfortable seats, nice tables, and outlets for laptop computers (no WiFi, alas). We traveled "leisure select," essentially business class, which meant that we were fussed over from the moment we settled into our seats. I knew that Eurostar provided some sort of lunch, but I expected no more than a little sandwich. To my shock, we were given champagne and a full lunch (pollock, salad, vegetables) that was very good indeed. This being service to France, we also had a choice of wine with lunch as well as an excellent panna cotta for dessert, all included in the price of a ticket. We have taken the Acela between Washington, D.C. and NYC--a longer journey than this--and one pays for a bottle of water, never mind a dry, unappetizing sandwich. It's more expensive than the Eurostar and far less efficient. There's much to be said for a European sensibility that expects creature comforts, even in economy class.

The actual journey under the "chunnel" is quick, perhaps all of fifteen minutes. Once in France, you can gaze out the window upon lovely farms and small towns. I smiled at the French cows grazing contently in lush pasture (no industrialized farming here), some so fat that they stretched out on their sides, semi-comatose from the abundance of grass.

What is wrong with our politicians that we refuse to invest in transportation? Why shouldn't high-speed trains traverse the U.S. or ocean vessels travel the coasts? And why can't these forms of transportation include some basic amenities? Idiot Republicans scream about socialism whenever any program that benefits the public good is discussed: have any of them actually experienced firsthand the civilizing effects of European travel? Yes, it is subsidized by taxpayers, but frankly I would much rather dedicate my tax dollars to excellent public transportation, education, and health care than the various ill-advised invasions and wars since the 1970s. Just think of how that money could have improved infrastructure.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cunard Adventure, Part VI

On this, our final full day, I will conclude with several observations about:

*The "gentlemen dancers" who steer unescorted women around the dance floor (and, yes, such a convention still exists). These six gents, somewhere between their late fifties and early seventies, wear tuxedos, have impeccable manners, and evince the old-fashioned courtliness of another time. They are unfailingly patient, whether squiring an ancient lady or showing an awkward girl some basic steps. I find them charming and touching.

*The international flavor of the staff. Some 42 nationalities are represented; as I mentioned previously, Russians and South Africans appear to predominate. For the most part, they are beautifully trained and quite pleasant.

*The band singer Michel who accompanied the small orchestra and jazz combo. He looks like a young and perhaps more compact Kevin Spacey and sounds eerily like Chet Baker. He has a meltingly sweet voice and impeccable phrasing. Given the penchant for electronic music and hip-hop, I don't foresee much of a future for a honey-mouthed singer crooning old standards--outside of a cruise liner such as this.

*The unpredictable nature of dining companions. We didn't realize that you can request special seating arrangements when booking the voyage. Cunard seated us at a table for six for lunch and dinner. Our dining companions were pleasant enough but boring as mud. Making conversation was difficult if not impossible. By the third day, we pleaded with the maitre'd to secret us away to a corner of the restaurant, which he was kind enough to do.

*The absolute luxury of room service and dining in. Now I understand entirely why moneyed characters in 1930s movies bounce around merrily: they have servants. Breakfast arrives magically to our suite, beautifully hot and handsomely presented. Our steward makes certain everything is tidied up whenever we leave. We always return to a clean room, replenished fruit bowl, and fluffed pillows. Most terrifying is how quickly one adapts to this luxury.

*The pleasure of seeing people dressed up. Like most Americans, I inhabit social spaces where casual clothing is customary. The notion of "dressing for dinner" went out decades ago. On Cunard, though, everyone dresses, even in the lower class of service. I came to enjoy very much seeing men in dark suits and evening dress and women in cocktail dresses and formal gowns. Last night, for instance, I saw a striking woman in her seventies wearing a gorgeous cowled organza blouse over a long black skirt that fell into sinuous folds of material. Her white hair was beautifully coiffed, and she accessorized her stunning outfit with striking, bold jewelry. I hope I look half as good at her age.

*Our wonderful South African dancing instructors, Mel and Alain. Both hail from Durbin, where they ran a studio and performed. Outgoing and straightforward in the typical manner of South Africans, they're living a dream, as Mel put it, sailing around the world and doing what they love. Like several staff we chatted with, they feel extraordinarily lucky to be employed by Cunard. Staff enjoy full room and board in addition to salary and benefits. Some use their earnings to help family back home; others save toward purchasing a house (like Mel and Alain) or sending children to prep school.

*The seeming infinity of the ocean. Although I grew up on the Pacific and frequently went deep sea fishing, I have never spent several uninterrupted days at sea. We have seen other vessels only twice in six days. Mainly one looks out upon a blue-grey sea that goes forever.

*The dog kennel on the 12th deck. Unbelievably, you can arrange to have your beloved dog or cat do an Atlantic crossing too. We visited the facilities and were impressed by the care. Only 10 animals are permitted per voyage, and they get 2-hour blocks of play time throughout the day and early evening. There's an indoor playroom for bad weather and an outdoor run as well. When we stopped by, several owners were tossing balls for their dogs or cuddling them. Everyone looked pretty happy.

Would I do this again? I'm not sure about a conventional cruise, where one skips from island to island or scampers from one tourist site to another, disembarking for a few hours and then clambering back on board. Generally I like going somewhere and staying put for several days in order to walk and explore. As a mode of transportation, however, a cruise liner can't be beat. We will arrive tomorrow, refreshed and relaxed, in Southampton: no jet lag, no exhaustion, and, best of all, no airports and their attendant insanity. We've met several folks on board for whom this too is a maiden voyage; like us, they're exploring the option of sailing to Europe annually rather than flying. If one can forgo the upper class of service, the cost is surprisingly reasonable given what airlines now charge. For half the price of a business-class seat, you can cruise the Atlantic for six days, enjoying good meals, fine surroundings, and fun entertainment. We're certainly thinking about it for the future.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Cunard Adventure, Part V

I have figured out how to dine very well on the QMII: pretend that it's 1950 and order accordingly. Last night at dinner I succumbed to traditional fare to very happy results. I ordered prime rib (which I have not eaten in years), which was absolutely superb. It was accompanied, of course, by the requisite baked potato and horseradish. Initially I refused dessert given previous disappointments, but the waiter talked me into peach flambe.

Now who on earth serves peach flambe or baked Alaska anymore? Well, they do on the QMII--and it's fantastic. The French server who prepared the dessert table side described the ingredients as she went along: fresh peaches, fresh raspberry puree, a bit of simple syrup, and peach liqueur, accompanied by a dollop of homemade vanilla ice cream. She pointed out that "no one in Paris makes these kinds of desserts any longer," adding dismissively (with a Gallic wave of the hand), "it's all that nouvelle nonsense now." It's clear that her culinary sympathies inclined toward Escoffier, not Michel Richard.

Last night was clearly a Mad Men moment: me in a navy sheath and pearls; Rod in a smart dark suit; and both of us eating prodigious quantities of red meat washed down with red wine (I did at least forgo the pre-dinner martini). Forget healthy eating; ignore post-1980s nouvelle cuisine. Basically, any dish you would have seen in a 1950s or 60s cookbook will be superbly done on the QMII. More contemporary dishes? Not so much.

After dinner we went to the ballroom and danced to a live orchestra, happily fox-trotting, waltzing, and cha-chaing until 1.00 a.m. We went to bed blissfully content, and I had some insight into why all those characters on Mad Men seem to be having so much fun. All I needed was a cigarette holder and undulating trails of smoke.

Cunard Adventure, Part IV

Blessedly calm seas have prevailed now for over 24 hours. We could use some sun, but I'll take the temperate weather. I realize now why the Atlantic has a reputation for being such a grey ocean. On overcast days, the horizon blurs into an indistinguishable mass as though a giant finger has smudged the line separating sky and sea.

This morning I saw the resident osteopath at the Canyon Ranch Spa, who was a revelation after the fellow I had visited a couple of times in Annapolis (and to whom I will not return). Using a combination of electrical stimulation, acupuncture, and good old-fashioned manipulation, he rotated my sticky sacroiliac joint back into functioning mode. I may very well return for a second visit just before we disembark. I only wish I could find someone half as good back in Annapolis.

We whiled away the rest of the afternoon on a leisurely lunch and walks around the deck. I am told that three laps = 1 mile. Keen joggers run in mad circles, determined to make their daily quota. Most folks simply stroll, an activity much more suited to the stately pace of life aboard the QMII. As I write, I am happily settled in the library, my favorite spot aboard the liner.

Food continues to be very good although not quite as excellent as I expected. The kitchen seems to excel at old-fashioned English favorites: puddings, cream soups, breaded fish, and scones. Indeed, the soups are just wonderful. Last night I had a mushroom soup for a starter that far surpassed the entree of sea bass. Gladly I would have made a meal out of the soup alone, with nice crusty bread on the side. Desserts at dinner have been a disappointment. Last night I tried an indifferent lime panna cotta; by contrast, Rod's rice pudding was very tasty. I think the trick is to order the occasional custard or pudding--or simply hold out for the superlative afternoon tea.

Fortunately, one can also dine healthily. Fresh fruit and salads abound, and the restaurants feature Canyon Ranch sanctioned items on every menu. One of the cafeterias is kept open 24/7 to accommodate insomniacs or the perpetually hungry; again, fresh fruit, cheese, and salads are offered alongside less healthy fare, even at 3.00 a.m. If one were so inclined, you could spend the entire voyage eating, with only an hour or two between meals. Lunch morphs into afternoon tea which then melts into dinner, followed by a late-snack snack (or two). Most people, though, seem pretty good about pacing themselves. From conversations I gather that many people eat a substantial lunch or dinner, preferring to graze lightly at other meals.

In a few minutes we're off to another dance lesson with our South African instructors. Then I will go to the gym for some stretching and a session in the hydro-therapy pool. Tonight we will dance again but not for too long. Poor Rod's neck makes it difficult for him to "hold a frame" for more than 45 minutes. And we'd like to get to bed before 2.00 a.m. for a change.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Cunard Adventure, Part III

Saturday was not a good night: winds picked up to gale force, clocking 60 knots over the deck while waves rose to 18 feet. The much vaunted stabilizers on the QMII could only do so much to allay the effect. Rod is seemingly impervious to sea sickness, no matter how rough the seas. I suppose his stint in the South African Royal Navy, navigating the rough waters off the Cape, steeled him for any future turbulence. We learned from our steward that last night was sufficiently rough to fell staff as well, who lined up to receive the magic injection. Fortunately for me, the tablets were enough.

Stomach settled and balance restored, I've decided this is a most civilized way to cross the Atlantic. One's body clock adjusts gradually to the changing time zones, as we move ahead one hour each day. Cunard delivers each evening a schedule of the following day's activities, which passengers are free to ignore or join as they wish. If one were so inclined, you could run around from 8.00 a.m. until midnight, participating in dance classes, wine tastings, bingo, table tennis, and watercolor seminars. Lectures abound. A very good music historian has done a series of talks on great American composers such as Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, while a maritime historian gave a splendid lecture on the great ocean liners of the pre-War era.

We've selected gingerly, preferring to pace ourselves. The rough conditions last night (and the resultant sleeplessness) made for a late morning. We had some breakfast, wandered a bit, and then attended a samba dance class conducted by a lovely young South African couple. Some 42 nationalities are represented among the Cunard staff, although South Africans and Russians seem to predominate, interestingly enough.

We indulged in afternoon tea, which is lovely. White gloved waiters circulate with silver trays laden with traditional tea fare: finger sandwiches, petit fours, little tarts, and absolutely the best scones I've ever eaten. Passengers nibble to the sounds of a very good string quartet. It is eminently enjoyable.

Tonight we dine at the private restaurant reserved for our passenger class; then we will dance to ballroom and Latin music until mid-evening, followed by a late evening drink in the "Chart Room," where we will listen to jazz before retiring for the evening. We are clearly falling into the pleasures of shipboard life.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Cunard Adventure, Part II

Today has been a mixture of delicious luxury and downright misery. We had a "couples massage" at the Canyon Ranch Spa aboard the QMII, which was unbelievably fabulous. Rod's masseur paid particular attention to his damaged neck; mine gently worked the lower lumbar region. Canyon Ranch is known for exquisite pampering, and it certainly lived up to its fame. The entire spa is luxurious, with hydro-therapy and relaxation areas. I could happily spend the rest of the cruise in the spa, albeit to ruinous financial results.

Our other bit of luxury involved in-suite dining, which the QMII offers as part of the general service. I take an almost childish delight in room service, so awakening to a tray laden with fresh fruit, good yoghurt, and rolls was pleasure in the extreme. I may very well order in breakfast for the remainder of the cruise.

Now the grim bit.

I awakened this morning feeling a bit queasy. Rod, by contrast, was hale and hearty. Breakfast did not settle my stomach, and by 9.00 a.m. I succumbed and took a Dramamine. Rarely, if ever, do I experience sea sickness, and by the afternoon I understood entirely its fearsome reputation. The seas worsened, the winds picked up, and the rolling increased, as did my misery. By late afternoon I was one of numerous passengers in queue at the medical center, begging for relief. The ship offers an injection that supposedly lasts five days, but the medical officer wanted to hold it back as a last resort. I was offered instead a tablet not available in the U.S. but one which worked like a bomb.

After two hours of sleep, I awakened feeling ship-shape again, even though the squall persisted. We thought about attending the black tie dinner tonight but decided to dine in (again!), giving ourselves a quiet, uncomplicated schedule. Room service, incidentally, is excellent, and we were pleased by the quality of the food, which arrived hot and freshly prepared. Mind you, this was no small accomplishment given that half the passengers on board decided on the same: evidently sea sickness had felled dozens as well as myself.

As I write, the waters are calming and the winds dying. Hopefully we will have smooth seas tomorrow.

Cunard Adventure: Part I

Through our ten-year marriage (celebrated yesterday, by the way), Rod and I have sniffed dismissively at the prospect of a cruise. None of it appealed: the fixed itinerary, the canned entertainment, the excessive quantities of food, and, worst of all, the thought of being mewed up with all those people. So it was with some shock that I learned Rod had booked us on an Atlantic crossing on the Queen Mary II, the flagship of the Cunard line.

I have now been on board for roughly eighteen hours, not enough time to form definitive opinions but certainly a sufficient span from which to jot down initial impressions.

The QMII earns its reputation for luxury. Our "Princess" suite features a comfortable queen-sized bed, walk-in closet, sofa and sitting chair, and various other amenities such as a little fridge and stemware. We have a nicely apportioned balcony with two deck chairs. Weather permitting, we can sit outside and gaze at the Atlantic.

Public areas are also quite grand, with sweeping staircases and plush carpeting. Everything is immaculate and staff materialize out of thin air with the quiet, helpful advice one expects from Cunard's famed "white glove" service. My favorite area, perhaps predictably, is the handsome, wood paneled library, which houses over 8,000 volumes and contains lovely desks and seating areas. Afternoons will me find comfortably settled in one of the overstuffed chairs, working on my book or blogging about the QMII.

Many of the other public spaces, while grand, are not to my taste. I suppose I expected something out of Noel Coward--the sort of art deco or high modernist furnishings that The Shakespeare Theatre Company recreated so lovingly in their current production of Design for Living. Instead Cunard has gone for a style I can only describe as "Vegas with taste," which means that it isn't very tasteful at all. Beiges, pale woods, and muted golds predominate, but the carpeting is faux leopard while trim is gilt. Never in my life have I seen such a surfeit of bad art. I'm not sure what the designers were thinking.

Food so far is good but not superlative. We dined last night at the Princess Grill, and I had a very respectable haddock, preceded by a chilled asparagus soup. Both were fine. Rod started with an excellent pumpkin soup, followed by a very good crab cake. Dessert, however, was a disappointment. The grill made us a special little cake for our anniversary, which we shared with other guests at our table. A sponge cake with whip cream and strawberries, it was not to my liking.

As we went to bed, winds increased and the seas roughened, not a good foreboding for tomorrow.

The Horrors of Horse Hunting, Part I

For good reason, horse themed magazines are filled with articles regaling readers with hilarious tales of horse hunting. The phrase "horse trader" well earns its pejorative connotation. In the right mood (and fueled by a couple of beers), I too can sit around with horsey pals and swap stories about crazy sellers and loco horses. My friend Susan has some of the best anecdotes I've ever heard, including one about an old guy who tried to demonstrate a horse's jumping ability but kept falling off at every cross rail. She thought he would die before he ever had a chance to sell the horse.

So it was with trepidation as well as anticipation that I embarked on the grand search. Most people have been surprisingly professional, fessing up to vices, such as cribbing, or problems with hooves and old injuries. I have run into the occasional unrealistic seller like the woman who claimed her horse was perfect except for his habit of cantering up to a jump on a cross-country course, spinning, and then running off in the opposite direction. This is not, to put it mildly, what I want in a horse.

So far, I've looked at a Belgian Cross at a local farm that seemed nice enough but too green. The connection just wasn't there. I tried a thoroughbred with a meltingly lovely face and luminous big eyes, but his trot tossed me up and down in the saddle, not a great movement for my aching lower back. I saw an adorable Haflinger pony that I would have bought in a heartbeat--he and I truly did "connect"--but he's been ridden the last three years by an adolescent boy who's taught him to run at everything. He goes from a walk to a gallop with little in between, and I didn't feel like retraining him to be a sensible mount. The pony needs another young rider who also wants to chase deer on horseback, a fitting pastime for a fifteen-year-old but not a middle-aged woman all too aware of her increasingly brittle bones.

Then there was the heartbreaker of the lot. My trainer Nina and I avoided him as long as possible for one very good reason: he was in Arkansas, and we're in Maryland. We loved the video, though, and we really liked the horse, so I did a truly crazy thing and bought us tickets to fly down to Arkansas to look at said horse. This gelding, a paint draft X, wasn't perfect, mind you. He turned out to be younger and greener than we expected, but Nina felt confident that with time and training he would make a great all-round horse. I worried about some weakness in his hind end, but we scheduled thorough vetting to disclose any potential problems.

This experience turned out to be my first truly strange horse encounter. I must admit to concern at the outset, when the seller played games with the price, dropping it by two-thirds. Who advertises a horse for three times what it is worth? One expects, especially in this economy, some wriggle room of 10-15% but not 65%. Then there was the demand for a deposit to look at him, 10% of which was non-refundable, a condition that stopped me dead in my tracks. It's like a home-owner asking for a down payment before you even see the house. I outright refused and more negotiations ensued. As soon as I bought our tickets, the seller called and claimed that she had other folks flying down. We had no way of knowing the truth of this statement, but I was sufficiently worried that I moved up our visit by three days.

The trainer in Arkansas was pleasant enough and very kind in letting me ride both days. And Arkansas proved far prettier than I expected, lush and green with lovely farms as far as the eye could see. I had a chance to hack out and see firsthand the horse's calm, sensible nature. By far, this gelding was the most comfortable horse I've ever ridden: his canter was a revelation after years os struggling with Beau's choppy, uneven gait. So I left Arkansas fully intending to buy the boy.

Then all hell broke loose. The trainer didn't seem especially interested in getting the horse to vetting in a timely fashion, and the delays concerned me, especially given the weak hind end. I've heard too many stories of drugging horses, and I know that many drugs wash out in seven days. Nonetheless I set up the vetting, and then the seller wanted a deposit--without anything in writing on her part. Two days of hassles ensued. As we got close to an agreement, I learned that she was still flying down other buyers while demanding a deposit from me. I asked that the horse be withdrawn from the market if I was going to put down part of the asking price. More hassles. The seller refused, claiming that folks were flying out that evening. When I inquired the following morning about the other buyers, she accused me ofsuspecting dark motives and professed ignorance about other prospective purchasers.

I thought about forwarding the long paper trail of e-mails to refresh my lady's memory but decided ultimately to bail. By this point, I was exhausted, fed up, and not a little worried that the seller was either wildly duplicitous or not entirely of sound mind. Either way, it didn't feel right. I called a couple of horsey friends I trust who advised me to get out--quickly--before I lost any more money.

The upshot is that I won't be hopping on planes anytime soon, swanning around the country like I'm Jackie O searching for the perfect hunt horse. But I still keep thinking about the horse that got away . . .

Horse Madness

Jane Smiley's fabulous novel, Horse Heaven, is built around the love affair between horses and humans. She chronicles its many strange incarnations, from the racetrack to the retirement farm, but constant throughout is the all-consuming passion some of us have for horses. This obsession oftentimes borders on madness that leads otherwise perfectly sane women to end up with several equines when they can barely afford the cost of one.

At the moment, I am questioning my sanity in thinking about a second horse. It isn't entire whimsy, though.

Mr. Beau just turned 16, not old for a horse these days, but his eyes are beginning to fail, and this last year has been an endless ordeal of vet bills, medicines, and care. The cataract in his left eye blurs his vision, and I began noticing back in January, especially on overcast winter days, that he often spooked at objects on that side. The right eye is still pretty good, but a bad attack of uveitis in early May resulted in another trip back up to New Bolton. Future attacks of uveitis, though, will compromise vision in the right eye. In short, his sight, while diminished, is still good enough for riding, and I might even be able to manage some jumping outdoors in bright sunshine. We don't know how long his eyes will hold out. They could stabilize and be fine for several years, or he could be blind by winter. It's a crap shoot.

So after weeks of looking at finances and figuring costs, I decided to take the plunge and look for a younger, healthier horse. If Mr. Beau's health straightens out, then I will have two horses to ride, an unbelievable luxury, especially given my mount's penchant for getting into periodic scrapes (and thus getting out of work for long stretches). If he continues to decline, I will at least have one rideable horse while caring for Mr. Beau as he transitions into retirement.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Rosa Mexicano

My son introduced me to Rosa Mexicano a couple of years ago, before he decamped for San Francisco and fame and fortune with Twitter. I'm pleased to say that the food and service remain very good.

Rod and I enjoyed a nice Easter brunch at Rosa Mexicano before going to a matinee of Ion at The Shakespeare Theatre Company (see subsequent posting for review). Although I don't normally associate Passover fare with Mexican restaurants, Rosa Mexicano featured several specials that qualified dietarily. Rod ordered one of these dishes, a whole roasted bass, and not for religious reasons--it just looked good! The bass was perfectly prepared, moist and juicy, with just enough seasoning to enhance but not overpower the flavor of the fish. I opted for Mexican-style scrambled eggs over ham, which was nice but certainly not as good as Rod's bass. We each had a glass of wine, a respectable Sauvignon for me and an Argentinean rose for Rod. A delicious coconut flan topped off the meal.

Our server was excellent, polite, cheery, and attentive without being officious. I would certainly return, and the convenient location--within a block of The Shakespeare Theatre Company--makes Rosa Mexicano an inviting locale for a pre-theatre meal.

Obama Bo

Okay, it's official: the Obamas have a new pup, and he's a Portuguese water dog. We had a taste of our future yesterday when walking Chloe and Jack. A car slowed, head leaned out, and the driver exclaimed, "Oh, you have Obama dogs!"

So we're now the proud owners of two "Obama dogs." Never mind that our dogs preceded Bo; they will be forever known (at least for the next 4-8 years) as "Obama dogs."

Chloe actually comes by the moniker honestly. We got her from the same breeder, Martha Stern, who bred Bo, and they share bloodlines through their sire, making them distant cousins. Certainly, Bo looks eerily like Chloe, sharing the same cute baby face and white markings (Jack, by contrast, has a far more poodle-like face, with a longer nose and deeper-set eyes). If Bo also shares Chloe's sweet disposition, the Obama girls will be in for a treat.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Iron Bridge Wine Company

In our ongoing bid to find edible food, we have decided to venture afield from Annapolis. As various posts from 2008 indicate, my opinion of local restaurants is low indeed, with the notable exceptions of Joss (for sushi), Jalapeno (for Latin food), and Osteria (for Northern Italian).

We went with our friends Donna and Mike to the Iron Bridge Wine Company in Columbia, Md., around a 35-minute drive. It was worth the trip. The menu is limited, which probably works to the advantage of the kitchen in terms of quality control. Rod and Mike had the 3-course special, which included duck breast and a nice selection of appetizers and desserts. Donna and I had a couple of starters. We both selected an excellent beet salad; I followed with mussels (fresh and plump), while Donna went for the jerk shrimp (again fresh and nicely spiced).

As the name of the restaurant suggests, Iron Bridge specializes more in wine than food. Donna and Mike did tasting portions of several wines, while we went for an excellent Oregon Pinot Noir. The restaurant also gives customers the option of selecting a bottle off the shelves, which they will open and pour for a $10 corking fee (a bit excessive, I thought).

I would certainly return. The food isn't especially innovative, but it's very well done and nicely presented. Service was efficient and pleasant. Pricing, given the quality, is reasonable. My only complaint has to do with the claustrophobic nature of the seating. Tables are so tightly packed that it's almost impossible to navigate a path to the loo and the noise can be off putting. Still, compared to our choices here in Annapolis, Iron Bridge Wine Company is a culinary oasis.

Next: we venture into Baltimore to begin working our way through the "50 Best" list compiled by Baltimore Magazine.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Many Pleasures of Jack le Portie

First, the blog is back. Various events conspired to keep me from the keyboard: Maggie's death, my own health issues (thankfully minor), and an overly busy schedule. I'm still waaaay too busy, but I miss blogging.

There's also the matter of having something to say, and for a while inspiration failed me--perhaps related to the struggles over my book and my grief at seeing Maggie succumb to cancer, despite my best efforts at nursing. Life is odd, though. The book finally "fell into place," and we now have a new addition to the family: Jack, a three-year old Portuguese water dog.

Jack needed a home, and we needed another dog. Jack's original owner dumped him at a grooming shop, declaring that "anyone who wants this damn dog can have him." One of the groomers, a young woman named Krystal, knew Jack to be a perfectly sweet dog, and she took him in even though she has show dogs of her own. Indeed, between Krystal and her boyfriend, they have six dogs, way too many by anyone's estimation. Nonetheless, they cared for Jack for eighteen months, teaching him nice manners and even a few tricks.

Rod first glimpsed Jack last fall. Occasionally Krystal would bring him along when she did grooming at our local doggie day care place. In January, Rod joked that we would happily take Jack if Krystal ever tired of him, and much to our surprise, she said, "let's talk." She was fond of Jack, but she also knew that he needed a different kind of home; at her place, he was just part of a large pack, which didn't suit his typically needy Portie nature. It's to Krystal's credit that she had the grace and generosity to put the dog first, something his original owner clearly didn't do.

So Jack came home with us on the 18th of January. We were immediately smitten. What is not to like about a dog that is beautiful, smart, playful, and obedient? Jack's zest for life is seemingly endless. Whether it's catching a frisbee in mid-air or playing tag, he's exuberant. Jack might also be the most affectionate dog I've ever owned. By nature, Portuguese water dogs are big, sloppy loves; even by the standards of the breed, however, Jack is infinitely doting, laying his head on your shoulder or climbing into your lap. How anyone could give up a dog this wonderful is beyond me. Best of all, Jack's presence has transformed our other dog Chloe, who lapsed into sullen despondency after Maggie's death. She's now her old self, tail upright and a little swagger in her butt.

I must admit to feeling some guilt regarding the Obama children: Jack would be the perfect dog for the first family. He's a rescue; he's three (i.e. no housebreaking); he's obedient; and he's a big kid himself. I worked hard for the Obama campaign and dutifully wrote out checks, but I draw the line at Jack. Yes, I adore Obama, but I love my new dog even more. What can I say?