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.