Half man half woman

That is what Chotto-ma drew when I asked her to draw Rome. After ten days in the city, that was how she saw it: a half-man-half-woman with many dogs.

And she couldn’t have sensed it better.

Rome is a cacophony of opposites. Its piazzas sit pretty like women in diamonds, while its cobblestoned alleys hurtle past like stubbled men on scooters. It greets you like an old friend, then wags a haughty finger in your face. It gives you the loud frenzy of a morning market, and then the sudden silence of an afternoon siesta. It stuns you with its old baroque beauty, then walks you into its new laidback grunge. It smiles, it scowls. Temperamental Roma; the city where we watched 2000-year-old ruins welcome in 2014.

Rome sits astride seven hills, spilling down into the Tiber, stroking you and slapping you, pulling you and pushing you. A relentless human theatre; only now without the gladiators and lions. The gladiators still lurk under the surface though; you can see it in the jaunty stride of Roman men, the shrug of their shoulders, the flick of their eyebrows, the arrogance of their hips. You can see it in the women too: in the cigarettes held at a slant between red lips, in the dismissive brush of their hands, in their raucous fights in crowded buses, in the ultimatums they throw down like ancient gauntlets. Goaded by past glory and old blood.

It’s a city like no other, and one that you must walk in at some point. Walk through its bylanes when you do, because it’s where Rome lives. We’d rented an apartment in Trastevere, a neighbourhood that packs as much character as a shot of dark, creamy espresso; un caffè, drunk standing up. It’s a tumble of crumbling houses in shades of ochres and oranges next to marbled apartments with old money. And bars and trattorias that spill out onto the street. And little neighbourhood bakeries that we would walk to in our pyjamas for warm loafs in the morning. And markets from where I brought back bags full of artichokes and chicory leaves and fresh ravioli. It’s also where I walked past Jhumpa Lahiri, more than once. Yes, we shared a neighbourhood, and I did say hello, but only in my head. No matter how well I know her work and the world she writes about, it felt far too intrusive, too personal, to stop her in her world; walking her son to school.

I did wonder though, if Rome ever reminded her of Calcutta. It did me. So much of it – the people, the narrow lanes and bumpy rides, the way the city heaved and the traffic screeched, the dusty windows and mosaic floors, the clotheslines, the way people stood in clustered conversations, the way their dogs barked. Everyone seemed to have a dog, or two or three; and they weren’t quiet, well-mannered English dogs either. They too had opinions like their masters.

There is nothing subdued about Rome. Apart from the first rays of mellow golden sunlight that touch its rooftops at dawn, the insides of its churches and the stone pines that stand in graceful lines. D said they looked like ‘puffs of green cloud’. They did. Puffs of green clouds hanging over the city like condensed thoughts, collected over thousands of years. From its mad emperors and great artists and the people who live and breathe and fill Rome today.

They’re the people who give the city it’s beautiful cacophony. So that when you walk out of its silent, dark churches, life screams from the streets and sings and hugs and honks and nearly runs you over.

That’s Rome. Half this and half that, half man and half woman, but not a thing halfhearted. Hell no.

 ***

Notes on Rome, for next week.
No, I’m not going to tell you anything about the Colosseum, the Pantheon, or the coin that you’ll inevitably throw into the Trevi. I’ll leave that to Lonely Planet.
But come back next week, and I’ll tell you all about Rome’s food – the best of what we ate, and where. I’ll also tell you about the perfect apartment we found after months of hunting. And the places that Chotto-ma recommends – Rome for little legs.
Arrivederci.

The art of an omelette

A couple of weeks ago, we drove to the mountains. Remember our winding drive through Wales last year? We went back there with Ma and Baba. This time, Chotto-ma was their glib little tour-guide, having sucked up Snowdonia through a straw on her last visit.

The mountains had been a brownish-grey in September; they’d stood like whittled warhorses against masculine skies. This time, everything was different; the same road now winds through mellow mountains; it’s summertime. Green has grown over slatey grey ridges and covered them in coyness. Their jagged edges gentled, the mountains hugged our car like lush, matronly ladies.

We went back to the lovely whitewashed B&B we had stayed in the last time. Surrounded by conifers, Glenwood House, sits opposite a rocky stream which hums past in steady song. The B&B is run by Marie and Said, a charming couple, with a little boy, warm smiles and seven chickens. They’re easy to return to.

Chotto-ma helped Said collect just-laid eggs in the morning, still warm to the touch. The chickens pecked at our shoes, ate some toast and cleared their throats. They had a lovely home at the edge of the garden next to a busy little brook. Before we left, Said packed up the eggs Chotto-ma had collected and gave them to us to carry back home. Fresh eggs from happy chickens who live by a mountain stream.

They were meant to be omelettes.

Courgette & Gruyere Omelette

Now, there’s an art to an omelette. It’s one of the easiest foods to rustle up, but very few make it well. A good omelette is soft, but not soggy. It’s golden-brown on the outside, pale on the inside. It’s fluffy, but full. It’s seasoned, it’s seasoned, it’s seasoned. I belabour the point for a good cause.

Thanks to Ma, I grew up on artful omelettes, folded off the heat at the right sliver of a second. Her omelettes had a secret. Not a secret ingredient, no. But a secret sleight of hand. A secret rule: Don’t let the egg rest. As you pour the egg into a hot pan, with whatever you’ve whisked into it, take a fork and give the middle a stir. It should scramble up, and parts of the pan should show through. Pat the top of the omelette to fill up those bits. Then, scramble it up again. And pat it again to patch up the top. Let is rest now for a few seconds. Move off the heat, and fold.

For this omelette, here’s what I whisked in:
Courgette, grated.
Gruyere, grated (use any cheese you like)
Coarsely ground pepper
Salt
Oil

Strangers straightened their clothes

We’re back. In a way.

Not wholly back.

Bits of Kolkata came back in our suitcases, and bits of of us stayed back there. Our three weeks wasn’t enough. But then, six wouldn’t have sufficed either. No matter how long you stay, in the end, you feel like you’re cutting the cord all over again.

Four years ago, we’d flown to Kolkata with a four-month old baby tucked into a bassinet. This time, it was with a four-year old who sat in her own seat sipping apple juice, peering into clouds and watching Mary Poppins.

From the minute we landed, Chotto-Ma loved everything. She loved the cabs with seats like trampolines; no seatbelts, no rules. The colours, the sun, the stray dogs. Hours of playtime with Mamma, scratchy kisses from Dada. She ate shondesh in every shape, and puchkas from street corners. She rode an auto, a mini bus, a cycle-rickshaw. She made new friends. Met family she hadn’t met before. She threw herself right in there, and forgot we had to leave.

My photographs can never do the city justice, but here they are as promised. I’m splitting them over two posts – this one diaries the city as I saw it, from dawn to dark. The next, of course, will have to be about the food.

This was the first time I’d ever walked around Kolkata with a camera. The most wonderful thing about taking photographs in India is how much people want to be photographed. Strangers straightened their clothes, smoothed their hair and asked me to take a picture before I could ask them. I had no use for my Anglicised sense of camera-manners, permissions and privacy.

So this is Kolkata. The city, and its people.

I hope the photographs give you a sense of the place, the pace, the people. It’s where I grew up, where D grew up. It’s where we fell in love. It’s where the people closest to us live. And where we’ll always go back.
 


Araf, araf, araf

That’s ‘slow’ in Welsh. Slow, slow, slow.

Slow, like the old train that trundled up Snowdon. Slow like the smoke that wafted out of the chimney of our bed-&-breakfast. Slow like a sheep’s chew.

Araf.

Because you want the time to last. Even as your car speeds through mountain roads, and curves around coastlines, you slow down. You melt a little bit, your shoulders lose their angles, and you breathe in-in-in. It’s atrocious, the sheer beauty of Wales. Fierce, sharp and gentle, all at the same time.

D, Chotto-ma and I spent a week winding through North Wales. The first half in the mountains, and the second along the coast.

I’ve been waiting to share the week with you, so hop on, strap yourself in, and slow down.

The mountains
From Betws-y-coed, to Llanberis, up to the summit of Mount Snowdon. And down past mountain streams that giggled like a child and waterfalls that fell downdowndown. Faeries floated past I think.




The coast

We started with Portmerion – Wales’ unashamed ‘riviera’ – which makes you walk around with a silly smile on your face.

Then on to the tiny fishing village of Aberdaron. From Aberdaron to Porthdinllaen, where a pub called the Ty Coch Inn stood like an old weathered boat on a small smuggler’s cove. Tucked away from all the world. Offering warm, baked pots of food to only those who ventured far enough to find it.

Our Welsh week ended at Llandudno – the lively Victorian seaside town that leaned against the mountains and stretched its feet into the sand.

Araf. Araf. Araf.

 


















Tiddely-om-pom-pom!

Oh! I do like to be beside the seaside

I do like to be beside the sea!

I do like to stroll upon the Prom, Prom, Prom!

Where the brass bands play
Tiddely-om-pom-pom!

While you’re singing that, go grab a bucket and spade. We’re going to the beach. You really have no choice. The sun’s out, so beach you must. (I know, I completely verbed my noun there. And some day, I’ll tell you why that doesn’t bother me.)
So here’s Chotto-ma at the railway station, with some goslings who we assumed were waiting for the fast train to visit cousins up north.

And here we are, an hour-and-a-bit later, at the beach. And that’s all I’m going to say about it, really. I’ll leave you to feel the sand between your toes, and hear the seagulls squawk, and smell the fish and chips.

And while we sat with our fish-and-chips, we talked about what we usually talk about. Other food. We do that a lot, D and I. We talk about what we’re not eating, when we’re eating something which isn’t as good as it could be. We talk about the could-haves. We also talk about food while walking hand-in-hand under the stars – but that just makes us gluttons, so we won’t go there.

Anyway, so there we were, eating fried fish and fried potato, and imagining the very British beach filled with Indian street stalls selling fried Indian food. Alu-r Chop (fried potato cakes), Beguni (batter-dipped fried aubergine), Shingara (samosas, but not the flat trianlgles you find here; these are triangles that have fat bottoms to sit on). And Nimki (the gorgeous things you will see below)

I made Nimki today. Suddenly, and on a whim. Just before tea-time. That’s how it is with Nimki – fried without a plan. And served with a cup of tea, in Kolkata. Very far from the prom-prom-prom were Dickens strolled.

Nimki – or, fried little diamonds of dough

(there’s not a single thing wrong with them, nor a single thing healthy)
Ingredients
1 1/2 cup plain white flour (for the dough)
1/2 tsp kalo jeere/kalonji (known as nigella seeds)
5 tbs oil (for kneading the dough)
Water (about 1/2 cup for kneading the dough)
1 tsp sugar (flattened, not heaped)
Salt
Oil (for deep frying)

Take the flour in a large, round bowl. Sprinkle in the kalo jeere, sugar, salt and oil. Get your hands in, and mix well till the flour starts looking like crumbs. Add water, a little at a time, and knead it into a tight dough. Knead for another 2-3 minutes (It’s good for the dough, and relaxing too.)
Divide the dough into 4 balls. Using a rolling pin, roll out the balls to circles. Now, the circles should not be too thin, nor too thick. About the thickness of the average dinner plate, if that helps.
Now, take a sharp knife and do what you see me do in the photographs – cut criss-cross lines to make doughy diamonds.
Heat oil in wok/pan.
Add the Nimki to the oil and fry them on low heat.
Your Nimki is done when they’re golden brown in colour. Fish them out of the oil, and drain on a paper towel.
Make yourself a cup of tea.

Red, blue and white

That was the colour of the city this long weekend. Four days of utter Britishness, and four key words – Queen, coronation, jubilee, flotilla. So, did we queue up for the famous flotilla? No, Ma’am. But we did queue up for something that rhymes with flotilla. Tortilla. Will that do?

It did do for us. The tortilla, the kibbeh, the paella, the churros, the Malaysian curries with roti canai. London’s Street Food Festival was on.

World street food, on a very British day, on a very British street, under a very British drizzle. It seemed just right.

If you weren’t there, here’s what London looked like. When it all turned red, blue and white.

Cambridge, from dusk to dark

Yesterday, I was walking around town with D and Chotto-ma, down the same streets that I walk every day. But everything looked different. It was winter’s early dusk, and the light was tinged with blue. It was enchanting. Now, enchanting is not a word that sits comfortably with me. Like red nail polish. But it’s the only word that comes to mind.

The light poured itself on rooftops, trickled down, past the sashed windows, down to the pavements and onto the streets. It splashed about people’s feet, and soaked their skirts and skin. It slid down the canopies of the market stalls, and dripped down on blond heads and black. It covered the city with a sheer, blue-tinged stain. 

There was this deep sense of melancholia, interspersed with merry christmas lights. There’s nothing more beautiful than a good contradiction.

It’s the kind of light that makes lovers break up, and strangers fall in love. It’s the kind of light that makes you rethink. Or lull you into thinking it’s alright. It makes you smile without reason. Drink a glass of wine by the roadside. Buy flowers. Cry. Hold hands. Slow down. Dance. Write.

As we walked, this odd, beautiful light slowly changed. From blue to butter, and then to black.

I didn’t have my camera. But I really wanted to share this with you, so I used the camera in my phone. It’s not the best, but it’s what I’ve got of the day. The photographs are in the order of our walk, so you can take the same walk we did.

Come.