May 16, 2012
I don’t like packing and getting shots, but when it comes to getting ready to travel, I love reading books and watching movies. I’m currently planning a trip to India, which I haven’t visited for almost 15 years. I want to find out how it’s changed, spend a week doing yoga at an ashram, see the burning ghats at Varanasi and taste the spicy food of the subcontinental south.
To prepare for my first trip I took in such standards as director Richard Attenborough’s 1982 epic Gandhi and David Lean’s 1984 film take on E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India; “The Jewel in the Crown” miniseries based on novelist Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet; Paul Brunton’s esoteric A Search in Secret India; A House for Mr. Biswas, V. S. Naipaul’s heartbreakingly funny look at family life in the Indian diaspora community; Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie’s evocation of India at independence; and everything by Louise Nicholson, the queen of India guidebook writers.
This time I’m finding much more to read and watch—India updated.
English, August (1988), by Upamanyu Chatterjee, follows a confused, morose, insidiously funny young man to an Indian Civil Service posting in the provincial backwater of Madna where, almost in spite of himself, he sees deeper into the nature of India with both its glories and absurdities.
A Fine Balance (1995), a richly textured, bighearted novel by Rohinton Mistry that follows two village tailors who search for work in the city during the “Emergency“ from 1975 to 1977 when the government of Indira Gandhi suspended individual rights and democratic elections, resulting in widespread abuses. “You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair,” a fellow train passenger tells them—sound advice, it turns out, as the tailors are beset by more woes than Job. Together with his more recent novel Family Matters (2002), A Fine Balance establishes Mistry as one of the best, most vivid and moving chroniclers of contemporary India, especially Mumbai.
India (2011), by Patrick French, a contemporary study of the Indian nation assessing the singular nature of its democracy, the flush economy and enduring poverty, religious fractures, intransigent caste system and high-tech genius—all backed up by moving portraits of Indian people, be they quarry workers, Bollywood stars or dirty politicians.
The Last Mughal (2006) is historian William Dalrymple’s detailed look at the 1857 Indian Mutiny, the chaos it wrecked on New Delhi, the brutality of British retribution and the pathetic end of the great Mughul dynasty under its last unfortunate emperor, Zafar.
Sacred Games (2006), by Vikram Chandra, is part-thriller, part-police procedural, all extraordinary literary investigation into the beating, red heart of the Indian city of Mumbai. It features a valiant, long-suffering Sikh policeman and bizarrely tortured crime overlord, along with the fully Dickensian world of characters who bind them together. A terrific read.
Salaam Bombay! (1988), artfully directed by Mira Nair, tells the story of a boy on the mean streets of Mumbai, the drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes and thugs he befriends and his hopeless struggle to make enough money to return home to the mother who all but sold him to the circus. If Slumdog Millionaire is glass half full, Salaam Bombay! is a more realistic glass half empty.
Sea of Poppies (2008) is the first book in a projected trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, set in the early 1800s when the British-run opium trade was pillaging Hindustan on one hand and enslaving China on the other. To evade it a group of travelers set out in a great sailing ship to the island of Mauritius, mixing customs and languages from all around the Indian Ocean, the rich backdrop for this epic of the Indian diaspora.
Slumdog Millionaire (2008), director Danny Boyle’s first hit film, uses flashbacks during a young man’s appearance as a contestant on the Indian TV version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” to tell the story of three orphaned children growing up in the shantytowns of Mumbai. It’s pure wish fulfillment with a full-throttle happy ending, but segments were filmed in desperately poor neighborhoods of the city most visitors never see, like the unforgettably funny scene set in a slum toilet.
A Suitable Boy (1993) is a novel by Vikram Seth that depicts the lives and preoccupations of middle-class India as a young woman chooses a husband from three very different suitors. Set against the political maneuvering of the post-independence era, it unfolds like a soap opera—but with finer sensibilities—and creates a world of involving characters. At almost 1,500 pages long, in for a penny, in for a pound.
The White Tiger (2008), by Aravind Adiga, another novel—contemporary Indian writers excel in fiction—channels the hilarious voice of a devious Delhi chauffeur to serve up a scathing picture of democracy in India—vote-buying, bribes, kickbacks and all.
Still, one book stands above all as required reading for the traveler in India: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling. First published in 1901, it is considered a relic of British imperialism by some critics (like Edward Said) and many Indians. But to my mind Kipling’s classic remains a window on the Indian soul and a spiritual lesson. Starting from the steps of the Lahore Museum, it travels across India in the company of an orphan boy learning to spy for the British and a Tibetan Buddhist holy man who meets adversity by remembering that “just is the wheel.” For historical background dip into The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (1990), by Peter Hopkirk.
April 20, 2012
When my editor at Smithsonian asked me to write a story about “The 10 Best Small Towns in America” for the magazine’s May issue, I didn’t expect an outpouring of responses: Facebook “Likes” and “Tweets” in the tens of thousands along with hundreds of very thoughtful e-mail comments, many of them from people happy to see their hometowns included. I also didn’t expect my research—hugely aided by Esri, a California-based geographic information systems company—to uncover towns of such widely differing character.
Small town meant just one thing to me: “Our Town,” the place described in Thornton Wilder’s classic American play as Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Remember how it begins with the Stage Manager pointing out its main street, drugstore, hitching posts and Congregational church? Later in Act I, the editor of the local newspaper makes his own assessment: Very ordinary town, if you ask me. Little better behaved than most. Probably a lot duller. But our young people seem to like it well enough: 90 percent of ’em graduating from high school settle down right here to live—even when they’ve been away to college.
There’s also an old James Taylor song I think of: “Letter in the Mail,” about what’s happened to small towns in the American hinterland as jobs dry up and people leave them.
I guess it never was much to look at
Just a one-horse town
The kind of place young people want to leave today
Store fronts pretty much boarded-up
Main Street pretty much closed-down
So, for me, it was an eye-opening pleasure to find that lots of small towns are thriving in ways unpredicted by the old model. Great Barrington, Massachusetts, for example, which claimed the top spot on our list, still evokes Grover’s Corners, with its white-steepled churches and doughnut bakeries. But you don’t have to live there to see that the town has changed, welcoming new immigrant groups and coming up with schemes like minting its own local currency to keep it vital.
My visit to Naples, Florida, another Smithsonian small town, underscored the way economy drives culture. As a second-home enclave for retired CEOs, it has the revenue to support a world-class symphony orchestra, art museum and theaters. With cultural institutions like those, no one has to sit home at night watching reality TV.
Gig Harbor, Washington, a working fishing village on the west edge of Puget Sound, was another story, perhaps the least reconstituted town on the list, which is actually its best feature. But with outlanders discovering its charms—a picture-perfect harbor and still relatively affordable waterfront property, not to mention very fresh fish—the town finds itself in a precarious place. Its effort to strike a balance between letting development in and staying the same requires thinking outside the box, protecting a traditional, low-tech industry that could die out as more lucrative enterprises come in.
In the end, writing the story showed me that every little town has its own distinctions, and challenges. No two are the same and there’s no single prescription for survival. I still dream about Grover’s Corners and can list any number of New England towns that recall it: bucolically beautiful Cornwall Bridge on the Housatonic River in the northwest corner of Connecticut; Cohasset, Massachusetts, just south of Boston; Hancock, New Hampshire, incorporated in 1779.
But in each case, if you look beyond the pretty picture, you find a tangle of small-town dynamics: conservation versus economic development, income inequality, environmental protection, public fund allotment—all driven by people with different agendas, intent on writing the continuing story of the place where they live.
I’m a city girl by nature, apt to romanticize dots on the maps with names like Menomonie and Siloam Springs—long may they live, all of them “Our Town.”
April 4, 2012
You are cordially invited to participate in this imperfect, subjective, thirst-provoking, sure-to-enrage (my editor, for instance, is highly doubtful about the King Cole Bar’s Manhattans) discussion of the best places to enjoy classic libations.
While the history of the cocktail remains obscure, one thing is certain: It has traveled around the world, reappearing in exotic new blends wherever man has found a novel poison. Indeed, the connection between cocktails and geography can hardly be denied. Singapore gave us the Sling, New York City the Manhattan, Havana the Cuba Libre.
The British developed many mixed drinks in their colonial conquest of the world—a taxing pursuit that must have required frequent libation.
Travel, like empire-building, often demands a well-mixed cocktail, which is surely why some of the best drinks are served in bars at grand hotels. Others occupy sightseeing aeries atop skyscrapers or historic old familiars around the corner. The key is to suit the beverage to the locale, or vice versa, an effort to which I am devoted. Wherever I go I try something different. What can I say? Here’s looking at you, kid.
Gin and Tonic
Those thirsty English developed the G&T, laced with malaria-fighting quinine, during the Raj in India, so it’s only correct to order one at the Patiala Peg Bar in New Delhi’s Imperial Hotel, which opened in 1931 and was the scene of partition discussions among Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah and Mountbatten.
The origin of the Manhattan remains contested; some credit it to Dr. Iain Marshall who supposedly mixed the first one up for a banquet at a stylish New York club around 1870, others to the bartender at a downtown drinking hole on Broadway near Houston. In any event, the quintessential New York cocktail, made of bitters, sweet vermouth and bourbon, is most at home at the King Cole Bar in the St. Regis Hotel on Fifth Avenue, though the house drink is actually the Bloody Mary (formerly known as the Red Snapper). Never mind that, there’s nothing swisher than sipping a Manhattan under the bar mural by Maxfield Parrish.
Ensenada, Tijuana, Juarez and Galveston all claim to be the home of the margarita. I like them best overlooking the Pacific Ocean from the rooftop bar at the Hotel Los Cuatro Vientos in the old town of Puerta Vallarta, once favored by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. But a connoisseur friend of mine says there’s no surpassing the icy green cocktail at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville bar in Key West, Florida.
I could write a book about this deceptively-simple crown prince of cocktails, made with gin or vodka and a whisper of dry vermouth, then decorated with an olive, pearl onion or lemon twist. Recent tinkering with the recipe has produced fancifully-named martinis in outlandish flavors. But the plain, dry classic is still the best and hardest to mix. I connect them with the mid-century modern America of Mad Men and the Brat Pack which is why I love to sip a dry one in a poolside cabana the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills.
Synonymous with Greek Revival plantation houses, the Kentucky Derby and everything else southern, the mint julep was imported to Washington, D.C., by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay who tippled in the Hotel Willard. The historic Round Robin Bar is still there, dispensing its signature mint juleps to politicos and pundits.
These days everyone’s drinking mojitos, a mash of rum, lime juice, sugar cane, sparkling water and mint, thought to have been invented in Cuba. All too often they’re ruinously watered-down, but not at the elegant lobby bar of the Metropole Hotel in Monte Carlo which serves mojitos in gigantic glass tulips at the Grand Prix price of about $25 a goblet.
Licorice-flavored Pastis is the summer drink of the French working man, served at bar-tabacs in the Midi; try any no-name dive at the harbor in Nice or Marseille. It comes with a carafe of tap water; watch with wonder during dilutions as the liqueur turns milky-green and eminently-drinkable.
A bartender at the legendary Long Bar in Singapore’s Raffles Hotel invented the sling, but you only have to go as far as New Orleans to get a primo version at the Carousel Bar in the Hotel Monteleone.
Spritz con Aperol
Together with Campari and soda, the spritz con Aperol—a bitter-tasting, neon orange aperitivo distilled from plants like gentian and rhubarb—is the cocktail of choice for steamy Italian summers, mixed with white wine and served on ice with a green olive and a slice of orange. It makes a colorful, thirst-slaking concoction at Bar Zanzibar on the Campo Santa Maria Formosa in the Castello district of Venice.
Does anyone really drink Tequila Sunrises in the morning? Of course not. Sunset is the right time for them, preferably at the Beach House on the south side of Kauai, Hawaii‘s garden island. But you’ve got to get there at just the right moment to see the fabled “green flash” that lingers briefly after the sun sinks below the western horizon.
February 2, 2012
Over 1.5 million people take the train between New York and Washington every year. Some do it so often it almost doesn’t seem like traveling. They get on and zone out; three hours later—actually two hours and 45 minutes on Amtrak’s high-speed Acela Express inaugurated in 2000—they’re in D.C.
But 225 miles of scenery lie between the Big Apple and our nation’s capital along tracks once operated by the venerable old Pennsylvania Railroad that run roughly parallel to Interstate 95.
Next time you take the train keep your eyes open. There are plenty of sights to see:
1. All aboard at Penn Station, New York, the slap-dash modern terminal below Madison Square Garden, a far cry from beautiful Beaux Arts Grand Central (celebrating 100 years of service next year).
At Penn you have to close your eyes to imagine what it was like when it was built of pink granite in 1910 with a waiting room modeled on the Baths of Caracalla. Its demolition in 1963 was lamented by architects, including Yale’s Vincent Scully, who wrote, “One entered the city like a god; one scuttles in now like a rat.”
2. The New York Jets and Giants play football at the Meadowlands near the mouths of the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers. Passing by on the train you wouldn’t know that the 20,000-acre wetland is infamously polluted, the perfect place for Tony Soprano to dump dead bodies. Instead, you see high reeds and water channels visited by snowy egrets and Peregrine falcons—indications that the natural wonders of the region may get a second chance, thanks to an ambitious plan mounted by the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.
3. The Acela train doesn’t stop in Trenton, New Jersey’s capital. But you’ll know you’re there when you see the big neon sign on the steel-framed Delaware River Bridge. With 9-foot high capitals and 7-foot high lower-case letters, it says, “Trenton Makes—The World Takes.” How‘s that for grandiosity? But back in 1935 when the present sign was erected (replacing an earlier version affixed in 1911) there was truth in the claim. Trenton was a major industrial center, producing steel, rubber and linoleum.
In 1776, George Washington crossed the Delaware River nearby for a surprise attack on English-employed Hessian soldiers garrisoned in Trenton. As the train goes over the river about 10 miles southeast of McConkey’s Ferry Inn (now the Washington Crossing Historic Park), it’s worth remembering how he and his ragtag Continental Army turned the tide of the revolution that snow-stormy Christmas Day at Trenton.
4. You get a fine view of the skyline as the train approaches 30th Street Station, Philadelphia. If the windows opened you might even hear monkeys chatter and elephants trumpet because the track goes right by the gate of the Philadelphia Zoo, American‘s first, opened in 1874.
On your way out of town watch for Victorian Boathouse Row, a National Historic Landmark on the east bank of the Schuylkill River, still a major rowing center that holds a big regatta on the Fourth of July.
5. When you reach Wilmington the train passes close to Old Swedes Church, built in 1698 by Scandinavian immigrants who came to the Delaware River delta before English Quakers settled Philadelphia. With a mossy, old cemetery said to be haunted, the church still celebrates Swedish St. Lucia’s Day in early December.
6. There’s fine open duck-hunting country south of Wilmington and you get your first real look at the Chesapeake Bay as the train crosses the mouth of the Susquehanna River at little Havre de Grace.
7. Then it‘s on to Baltimore where mostly all you see are the thick granite walls of the 7,000-foot long Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel, built in 1873.
8. Little foretells the train’s arrival in Washington, D.C., a city with almost no skyline, its uncontested high point the 555-foot top of the Washington Monument.
Collect your belongings as you pass through the grimy train shed at the back of Union Station, then disembark into Neo-Classical glory, thanks to an Act of Congress that mandated restoration of the terminal in 1988. The front door is better than the back, opening directly onto the U.S. Capitol.
December 1, 2011
Now if a group of American expats get their way, another one will be posted on the Left Bank apartment building where Julia Child lived with her husband Paul in their post World War II frisée salad days.
Among the exponents are Walter Wells, a former executive editor of the International Herald Tribune, and his wife Patricia, who teaches and writes about cooking in France. In 1984, just after the publication of her first book The Food Lover’s Guide to Paris, Patricia got a fan letter from JC and the women quickly became friends. On the way from Paris to their country house near Cannes, the Childs often stopped at the Wells’ place in Provence, where Patricia and Julia gossiped while shelling fava beans in the courtyard.
Like other friends and admirers of the inimitable JC, the Wells think her passage through Paris ought to be noted with a plaque at 81 rue de l’Université, where Julia began testing recipes for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the two-volume compendium she co-authored with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle that helped introduce the bland palate of Betty Crocker‘s America to the transcendent pleasures of French cuisine.
To Americans Child is a pop culture icon, famous for ground-breaking PBS cooking shows, a long chain of bestselling cookbooks, the 2009 film Julie and Julia, and her posthumous memoir My Life in France. In 2001 her Cambridge, Mass., kitchen was moved almost intact to the Smithsonian Museum of American History; next year marks the 100th anniversary of her birth.
But our beloved French Chef is no celebrity in France, never mind that she was inducted into the French Legion d’Honneur shortly before she died in 2004. “In France the ordinary person has no idea who she is,” said her grand-nephew Alex Prud’homme, who helped her write My Life in France.
Moreover, in a city with 1,300 commemorative plaques, getting one installed at 81 rue de l’Universite—Roo de Loo, as the Childs called it—is no easy matter. Approvals are required from the building’s owners, the arrondissement and the city council; other than exceptional cases, those honored must have been dead for a least ten years. Recent recipients include the film director Francois Truffaut and the writer Marguerite Duras.
“This project is important because France has never had a better ambassador to America‘s heartland, or a better loved one,” Walter Wells told me in an email. “The goal is not to establish a shrine to Julia. It is an homage long overdue.”
Meanwhile, Roo de Loo has become something of a pilgrimage site for American foodies embarked one of the growing number of French cooking programs dedicated to JC. If you pass that way you might see some of them on the doorstep trying to hear Julia whistle as she puts a capon in the oven.
Here are a few tours and classes dedicated to Julia in France:
Tour de Forks, a small New York-based tour company, offers “A Taste of Julia Child’s Paris and Provence.” The seven-day itinerary (priced from $2,450) begins, as did Julia and Paul, at the Hotel Pont Royal in the 7th Arrondissement.
Le Cordon Bleu in Paris added “In Honor of Julia Child“ to its schedule, a three-hour lecture demonstration (about $60 per person) producing a JC meal you get to eat.
At Home with Patricia Wells has five-day courses (from $5,000) in Paris and Provence taught by the author of The Food Lover’s Guide to France. In Provence, Wells uses a La Cornue stove given to her by JC.
Cooking with Friends in France is American chef Kathie Alex’s school at La Pitchoune, JC’s beloved retreat in Provence. Four and five-night courses (from $2,450) include cooking classes, marketing and meals in Michelin-starred restaurants.
On Rue Tatin is headquartered in the Norman village of Louvier. JC friend and cookbook writer Susan Herrmann Loomis presides over three and five day courses there, as well as one-day classes in Paris ($350).