Saturday, January 21, 2012

An Omelet in Paris

     Can one remember the taste of a memorable meal long after one has enjoyed it? I think so. Like a particular scent, a specific meal can linger in the memory  especially if it was associated with a beautiful and pleasurable experience. That experience could be anything: a romantic assignation with a loved one,  a dinner  on a first visit to a new city, or even just the simplest fare to ease the pangs of appetite after a long hike.  In my case, I tend to associate a memorable meal with a memorable city or a scenic view. Sometimes you can just be having coffee and a sandwich, but when the scene spread out before you is the Pantheon in Rome or a dazzling white-sand beach in Tahiti, your perspective changes.  That coffee and sandwich will become imbued with the romance of the scenery and will seem like a feast fit for a king or queen.
     Nothing lasts forever. A pleasurable experience, like a meal, lasts while it does, and then flits way, like everything else. One of the ways of remembering it is through taking pictures. Nowadays, this is an inescapable part of the digital experience. Facebook is full of pictures of meals taken with friends and family.  However, pictures alone don’t tell the whole story. A couple could post a picture of themselves enjoying a luxe dinner in a posh Parisian restaurant: the very picture of happiness. What their smiles, Bordeaux and roast quail don’t tell us is they’ve fallen apart and are in the  initial stages of a separation. Or that the waiter was rude. Or that  the accompanying ratatouille reminded  them of home and mama’s cooking and the beautiful childhood summers one spent in the Auvergne or Ormoc City. Yes, photos are great and helpful, but a memorable dish can whip up memories and emotions -- like the ones experienced by Marcel Proust when he bit into a madeleine .  Only  an essay, a novel , heck, a movie, can fully explore and give meaning to it. Is it any wonder that Babette's Feast remains one of my favorite movies of all time?
I’ve had the good fortune to travel the world due to my work on cruise ships. That means, I’ve had many a chance to experience and delve into the local cuisines of the countries I visited.  I always made it a point to eat what the locals eat, even if it’s just a sandwich. A  sandwich in Italy is called a “panini” and in France a “croque-monsieur”.  Somehow, the experience of eating a panini in Rome or a croque-monsieur in Paris seems subtly different from  eating a ham-and-cheese sandwich in  your local Arby’s.  Ambience is everything.
     In my next posts I will attempt to recount meal experiences that have lingered in my mind years after I’ve had them. The landscape of the mind can stretch decades back into the past. It is possible to remember the room, the atmosphere, the music, the good feeling and the company associated with a particular meal, if one wants to. If  nothing else, I will recount these meals so as not to totally consign them to the bin of forgotten pleasures.
For starters, here's a brief account of  a lunch I had on my first visit to Paris.

                                An Omelet in Paris

     I had a full morning walking on the Champs-Elysees, taking the bateau-mouche for a cruise along the river Seine, traipsing through the courtyard of the Louvre (and deciding not to join the line to get in because it would have taken me half the day just struggling to see the “Mona Lisa”) and walking on the tree-shaded river embankment, thrilled to finally visit Paris. My time however was extremely short. It was already noon. I had to be back at the Gare St. Lazare to take the one pm  train back to Le Havre where my cruise ship, the old M/V Crown Princess, was docked. All I had time for was a quick lunch. Was it possible for me to partake just a little bit of that famous French cuisine here in Paris?
     There were so many bistros in the street I walked on (I believe it was the Avenue Montaigne) that I was at a loss which one to choose. The prices displayed on the menus were also eye-wateringly high. I finally decided to throw all caution aside and enter a small  bistro whose prices seemed to be on the lower side.
     The waiter approached to take my order. It is on an occasion like this that I am eternally grateful to a priest (now former) who first turned me on to the French language back in the seminary. Without him, I probably wouldn’t have bothered studying  the language. What sounded snobby at the time can really help you out when you travel, especially in France. I also decided, much later, to study French more intensively in preparation for an (aborted) trip to Europe. I put a lot of work into it, studying genders and declensions. I also had the help of a Belgian doctor who was sympathetic  and appreciative of my attempt to learn the language. Even if I decided not to pursue an European vacation due to Chernobyl, the knowledge remained with me.
I ordered the only item that I felt wouldn’t take long to prepare: an omelet with fried potatoes plus a glass of  white wine and some French bread. It was quite easy to say: “Une omelette et vin blanc.”  To any question the waiter uttered, even if  I could barely understand it, I automatically responded: "Oui!"  (“Des pommes frites, m’sieur?” –“Oui!” “Du pain?” -“Oui!”) Note: It's one thing to learn how to read and speak French. It's a totally different matter understanding what a Frenchman actually says!
     The waiter quickly brought my order. He had none of the rudeness that  tourists (mostly Americans) like to complain about.  Because I spoke a little French, perhaps it was easier   for him  to tolerate me.  And I didn’t order a coq au vin or poisson en papillote, which would have complicated matters. No, I decided to order the simplest and quickest lunch I could (and please, spare me McDonald’s).
What did the omelet taste like? Strictly speaking, just like any omelet washed down with an alcoholic drink.
     But then again, a French  omelet enjoyed  with the accompaniment of French wine and French bread on an outdoor table on a street of a French city that many consider the most beautiful city in the world is bound to be an omelet that tastes like no other. Now that I have committed the memory of that omelet into this blog, the pleasure is, as it were, complete.

How to Make a Classic French Omelet
Items needed: For each omelet: 3 eggs (just 2 eggs for a smaller omelet), 1 tablespoon milk, 1/4 cup shredded cheese, butter.

Mix eggs & milk with a fork until blended. In a non-stick omelet pan melt 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat, when butter stops foaming pour in eggs, swirling around pan to distribute evenly. Cook, lifting sides of omelet to let uncooked egg flow underneath, until almost set (about 1 minute), quickly sprinkle cheese over half of omelet. Fold plain side of omelet over cheese and cook for an additional 20 seconds. Serve at once. Salt & pepper to taste. Serve with fresh French bread and coffee or wine.
Bon apetit!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Day in Stockholm

The beautiful city of Stockholm.

Our ship, the M/V Royal Princess was in for the day. The weather was sunny, the sky almost cloudless.  Considering how gloomy and rainy this part of the world can be, this was a day not to be wasted in the confines of the ship.

When I got off the gangway and into the terminal, I had no idea where to begin. I knew I could take the local bus, but the walk to the bus stop outside the pier area took too long. There were taxis, but I knew they were going to be expensive. Then I saw the red hop-on hop-off bus parked outside. It advertised unlimited rides throughout the day. The ticket was thirty euros. It was a deal, relatively speaking. Scandinavia is not cheap, absolutely speaking. One just has to get used to it. I hopped on. 

Stockholm is a very beautiful city, the home of Ingmar Bergman and the Nobel Prize.  However, there is only so much you can see in the limited amount of time a cruise ship docks in the city. The only thing a tourist can do was to prioritize and hit only the most important sights. Sure, I would have loved to spend half the day in the Nobel Museum or a boat cruise around the canals and islands of Stockholm, but there was hardly time to dawdle, so I just hit the spots I needed to see  and reserved the rest for later visits.

The red bus stopped first at the Stockholm amusement fairgrounds. I resisted getting off there, although the idea of a Swedish ice-cream on this warm sunny day truly tempted me. I got off at the next stop, the Vasa museum. This was a purpose-built museum built to house the 16th century warship Vasa . The Vasa is a splendidly restored wreck viewable through a  multilevel showing gallery. The ship was built of black oak and adorned with baroque, wooden carvings. It was magnificent and huge and fully intact after lying for four hundred years at the bottom of Stockholm harbor. There were no teredo (ship) worms in these cold northern waters, so the Vasa was miraculously well-preserved for later generations to marvel at. Incidentally, it sank on its inaugural cruise, right before the eyes of the king at the time.  His loss, our gain. If the ship had sailed and gone on to engage in one of the interminable wars that Sweden conducted with its neighbors, Russia being foremost among them, it wouldn't be here at all.  How often can you see a perfectly preserved 16th century warship with its original timber? Answer: seldom, if at all.

From reading the notes on the display, I learned that in those days, talking against the captain was punishable by a process called hauling the keel. The errant sailor was secured with a rope then thrown overboard below the keel of the ship. He could drown before being hauled up, since the keel kept him down. Not a good time to be a sailor. 

I took the hop-on/hop-off bus to the Royal Palace, an impressive, Italianate building. The king, Gustavus XVI still lives in this palace.  Many of the rooms inside were converted into individual museums. For each of these museums,  you had to buy a separate ticket. I elected to expend one hundred krona (about $14) to visit the Royal Treasury. The dimly-lit chambers of this treasury displayed the jewelry of Swedish royalty.  I was quite bedazzled by the number of tiaras and crowns here. They spoke of a bygone era where a king or queen  stood for somebody truly rich and powerful, as opposed to current ones who are mere figureheads.

After being suitably impressed by this display of diamonds and gem-encrusted furs, I went out to the great courtyard and saw a crowd gathered, waiting expectantly behind a roped off area. They were waiting for the highlight of any visit to Stockholm: the changing of the guard.  I took my place beside a middle-aged lady  who had a bandaged hand. She turned out to be from Chicago. She said she was visiting her relatives somewhere in the middle of Sweden.  She was a teacher who traveled quite frequently, oftentimes chaperoning  students.

The ensuing changing of the guard was a magnificent ceremony. The young officers were all smartly dressed in blue uniforms and flashing bronze helmets. The band was very good and treated the crowd essentially to a mini-concert. If there is one thing you need to see in Stockholm, the changing of the guard at noon is it. Besides, it's free.

After the changing of the guard, I walked down to the seaside promenade where the statue of Gustavus III stood on its pedestal. From this vantage point, the view of a masted ship docked beside a wooded park  as well as the other grand buildings of Stockholm took one's breath away. This was a very romantic view, as good as any in Paris or New York.

 I espied a gaunt-looking young man with a thin moustache and unkempt hair. His hand was gently caressing the face of a sad-looking woman. Behind them rose the towers and battlements of the  Gamla Stan -- old Stockholm. To me, they looked like characters in a scene from an Ingmar Bergman film, full of silence, sadness and repressed emotions.

I imagined the film direction of this scene going like this:

              He touches and caresses her cheek.

                   She looks back at him with a sad expression on her face.

                 He: “ I’m sorry I sold your Manolo Blahniks for a couple of toots. I couldn't help it.”

                  She continues to regard him with a tragic expression on her face.


 Wrenching myself away from this enigmatic scene, I caught the hop-on/off bus (yes, you can do this all day) to the Town Hall, the same one where the Nobel Prize banquet is held. It was not possible to go around on your own in this building. You had to be on a guided tour. The next one was at 3:00 PM. It was too late for me because I had to be back on the M/V Royal Princess at 4 PM. I went out to the back garden overlooking the bay and asked a pretty, dark-haired  woman to take my photograph. She kindly obliged. I thanked her and asked  where she was from. "Iran," she said.

I went out of the Town Hall and re-boarded the hop-on bus back to the theater district in front of the Swedish National Theater. From there I hailed a taxi back to the cruise ship terminal. No use counting one's krona. It was either get the fastest way possible back to the cruise ship or get left behind.

The taxi driver's features told me he wasn't Nordic at all, let alone Swedish. He had dark hair,  swarthy skin and a middle-eastern nose.  He told me that  he was originally from Iraq. He was an Assyrian Catholic. This meant that he was a refugee not just from his country but from other Iraqis who didn't like Assyrians. He said he missed Iraq. He said he was going back one day when all the Arab Muslims had killed each other. He was quite hopeful about this. I wished him well. 

 At the cafe in the cruise ship terminal, I ordered a sandwich and a Stella Artois beer. There was time for a little snack before getting back onboard.

You never know who you meet, even within the space of a few hours in Stockholm.

Monday, January 2, 2012

After Seeing Herzog's "The Cave of Forgotten Dreams"

There on the cave walls the lines curve around the rounded corners and cavities,
 creating scenes of life  thirty thousand years before today.
 An ancient Picasso, armed only with the black stump of charcoal,
 drew scenes  of rhinos, bison, wolves, bears, horses and lions  
  and knew fully well
   (where many artists spectacularly fail),
    where each sinew strained,
    every muscle bulged,
     every nostril distended in the attitude of flight or repose,
     even where woman becomes wolf
     or  bison becomes man.
Nothing else mattered, not even time
 for by ancient reckoning, time never existed.
Yet here we are today, still thinking we matter more
 than this anonymous Michaelangelo, who walked the earth those
 thousands of years ago thinking, not of fame or fortune
 but of what made him kin to the life that was all around him
and what made it all worth laying down
 on the walls  of the cave of Chauvet
that desperately long time ago
in sure-handed strokes of ash.