One Each for the Medal Chest

August 11, 2008 at 4:00 am (Uncategorized)

I am feeling a little stiff today, I must admit… I stretched and stretched before the City to Surf (C2S) yesterday, but one thing I really didn’t do was stretch afterwards, and it seems I should have… I am walking around today like I don’t have knee joints, a sort of female Frankenstein or circus lady on stilts…

And now it’s over for another year. In fact, it was over for me yesterday faster than ever before; I went across the finish line at 71 minutes, 35 seconds, but my time will be adjusted to whatever time my chip first crossed the start line. According to Llew’s stopwatch (we started together, but I’m pleased to say he later ate my dust), it took us about two minutes to actually get going. If that’s correct, I may have just gone sub-70, which would be tremendously exciting, satisfying and surprising. The first time I ran was in 2002, and back then the C2S took me 120 minutes. Actually, I don’t think that’s right now I’m thinking back… maybe that was my unadjusted time. I was living on campus at UNSW… and I think it was about 96 minutes… I think I did a piece for the uni paper on the experience so I might have to see if I can pull it out to check. Whatever my time, though, I hadn’t been running for long, and I’d only given up smoking the year before. So to have improved significantly every year since gives me a quiet but sincere sense of accomplishment. I didn’t even attempt to do anything but walk up Heartbreak Hill for the first couple of years, and yet there I was yesterday, slow but steady, refusing to break my stride. I only qualified for the first group [sub-75 minutes, red] for the first time last year, and then by a whisker: 52 seconds, to be precise. And all I really wanted to do was beat that. If I’ve managed to go under 70 minutes, I’ll be completely chuffed.

The atmosphere was slightly peculiar this year, I must say. Very subdued. Usually it’s such a noisy sensory overload, but this year even the day was overcast, a first in my memory (and I mean even for the many years before I started participating). There was no soundtrack, not from the runners, nor, really, from the roadside. People watched us go by, but only very rarely did anyone say a word as we went. A band on Heartbreak Hill stood on top of a garage roof, silent, motionless, instruments slack in their hands. Some people mutely held posters aloft: GO MICHELLE! I wonder if they called out when Michelle actually went by? The runners themselves… well, we were admittedly pretty silent too – not even the tossing of the plastic cups at the drink stations seemed as frenzied or as loud. And coming into Bondi, I couldn’t hear a thing over the loudspeakers, not one word, not one time check, nothing at all until I rounded the final bend and could see the finish line gleaming up ahead. It was all very strange for that. Solemn crowds lined up like they were watching a funeral procession instead of a fun run, and all around me were faces set in grim determination rather than any sort of discernible glee.

Of course, I found out earlier today that a young man died just short of the finish line. I heard the ambulances yesterday, and I paused in my post-shower toilette at my sister-in-law’s Bondi flat. Ambulances, I thought. And boy, they really sound like they mean business. I hope no one’s hurt. Unfortunately this late-twenties Brit was dead of a heart attack, even as we were congratulating ourselves and each other and wondering how the rest of our friends fared. It’s a disconcerting thought now, because I can tell you it really doesn’t seem possible whilst you’re doing it that something like that could happen to you. There have been times when I’ve wondered if it was about to happen IN FRONT of me, but I’ve never imagined the C2S could be the death of me. I can say with absolute confidence that if I thought that was a possibility, I’d simply give the whole thing a miss. But of course you don’t think that, do you? No one does. Why would you? It does give me pause now, though, just in the sense of being glad the rest of us made it okay, because you realise with a jolt it’s not always the case, and boy, we haven’t always been the most sensible starters, we just assume we’ll somehow get away with it again.

So we were oblivious to the drama down near the finish line as we met up with friends, runners, walkers, and table minders, at the North Bondi RSL for the post-race debrief. It’s one of my favourite rituals, this annual pilgrimage to Bondi and the catch up that follows, in fact it’s one of the only ones I observe. I wouldn’t miss it, I love everything about it. Looking out at the incredible colour of the water, made intense by the grey cloud, and surrounded by happy and exhausted friends, I raised my icy shandy to my lips and was once again simply glad for it all.

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The June Bug’s Out in August

August 8, 2008 at 3:18 am (Uncategorized)

Llew and I finally saw Juno last night. We waited to watch it on DVD because at the time of its release, it struck us as a definite ‘home cinema’ experience. As we have a projector and therefore a big screen, these days it really takes a big action movie (the Dark Knight, for example) to get us to the multiplex. In retrospect, though, it would have been cool to see Juno with a theatre full of cackling homey youth. I can just imagine teens delighting in this flick, and I think it would have added another layer of pleasure to my own experience to see it with them. No matter: you’re no doubt well aware by now that Llew and I bear more than a passing resemblance to juvenile delinquents ourselves, if not in looks then certainly in thought and deed.

Great cast, with edible Iced Vo-Vo little cuties like Michael Cera and Ellen Page as well as hysterical favourites like Allison Janney and Jason Bateman, and that zinging Oscar-winning screenplay from Diablo Cody. Her story is justifiably famous now, the ex-stripper turned blogger turned Oscar heavy, and somewhere in amongst all the sass and coolly slouching smut of her tale is a fantastic dose of wonder-dust. It’s cause for great optimism for aspirants everywhere that Cody made it. Bravo, girl, there’s hope for the rest of us yet.

So we really enjoyed what is, let’s face it, a total fantasy run at teenage pregnancy. The boyfriend’s not a dick, the father’s not on the rampage, the stepmother’s not a witch, the best friend’s not a snitch and the pregnant teen somehow manages to exude a virginal grace throughout her entire ordeal whilst remaining uber cool and funny and adorable and… in school. A girl in my Year 8 class in high school (you read that right: she was 14) got pregnant, and her story wasn’t quite like Juno’s at all. But that’s okay, that’s why it’s such a champion of a film: we all know the reality usually stinks. Tricky subject, tricky lead role, and yet it’s handled beautifully, heroically, even. The best of us instead of the worst.

One thing I’m rapidly losing interest in is Special Features. I used to love these when DVDs first came out, but now they’re killing me. It’s exactly what happened to trailers; sneak previews used to be awesome, and now they summarise the entire movie from start to finish and show all the very best scenes and tell all the jokes. God I hate that. And now Special Features have devolved into some kind of arse-kissing fest where all the cast and director do is sit around blowing air up each other’s holes. It’s killingly dull for the rest of us, but maybe no one’s told them. In most cases, it also smashes to pieces whatever cosy reverie you’re in after a movie about the brilliance of the actors. Without the ready banter of a super smart script, some people do not have a single interesting thing to say. And it’s always unaccountably unbearable to hear a teenage actor waxing lyrical about their ‘work’ and ‘the incredible trust’ and ‘respect’ they have for the director. It may be sincere, but somehow that’s even worse. God, when I was Ellen Page’s age, I was incapable of deadpanning about myself and others like that. Actually, I’m still incapable. It’s just too absurd. Most of us are packing cones full of soft-serve, stacking shelves and flipping burgers at her age. There’s not a lot of sitting around ruminating on the building of one’s craft. So when Page says something like “And kudos to Diablo Cody… she’s one of the most real human beings ever,” all I want to do is direct her back to the script, when Juno says (of the term ‘sexually active’), “What does that even mean?”

My thoughts exactly, kid.

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With Thanks to the Indomitable Dombrowskis…

August 7, 2008 at 3:18 am (Uncategorized)

I had a day away from the office yesterday. I did try to post at the State Library, but my god, I wasn’t the only one trying to snatch a free computer, and who knew Sydney was full of such dedicated midweek swats? I gave up in the end and went and found a corner to sit and read my book (The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. I saw a rather overpriced secondhand copy at a market last Sunday and it occurred to me I’d never read it, which seemed a bit remiss. So I borrowed it from the library and despatched it in two goggle-eyed days. I hadn’t known it was rather like a girl’s own answer to The Catcher in the Rye… did you? That’s how it struck me, at any rate, especially in the early New York section. All very sad, really, and, given Plath’s early end, it casts quite a spooky pall over the whole experience of reading it).

As I’d all but smashed through The Bell Jar , I needed a replacement and fast, so I went to Dymocks, picked up next month’s book club book (we’re doing a non-fiction title this time, Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void. I’ve already written a post about the documentary based on the book, which blew my mind into a million little pieces, so I’m looking forward to reading it), and then strolled those aisles feeling alternately crestfallen and encouraged by the number of titles on the shelves. It seems a simultaneously good and bad thing for my own manuscript that there’s such an awful lot of books out there. Anyway, as I was scanning, I came upon Booker winner Anne Enright’s latest, a collection of short stories entitled Taking Pictures.

Well. As you know, I’m trying to develop some sort of clue about short story writing in the off-hours away from the MS. More and more it seems to me a critical skill to acquire. It’s such a different act of creation, and a very different discipline to any of the other writing I do, and I’d love to one day be tolerably competent in the art. So I thought ‘Yes, I should really read some Enright’ (couldn’t stand the thought of The Gathering, just reading the dust jacket depressed me, Booker or no Booker…). I idly flipped through the first few pages and what do you know? The dedication reads: For Theo and Eileen Dombrowski.

These names mean something (or a lot) to several readers of this blog, because Theo and Eileen Dombrowski are the tireless, endlessly versatile English teachers who worked first at Pearson College, Canada, where I – along with others who I know sometimes drop in here – was a student between 1989-91, and then the Red Cross Nordic College, Norway, and then back to Pearson, for so many years before retiring finally a year or so ago. Anne Enright, Booker winner, is a graduate of Pearson College herself, although I daresay her IB results were a damn sight sharper than mine (I nearly failed, thanks to my own immaturity and determination to spend my entire two years talking to people rather than doing a stitch of work… I don’t know that it was an altogether dud strategy, because I’ve never again been in any environment like it – it’s not every day you live with people from 75 countries – but I cut it a little too fine for comfort). I did know Enright was alumnus, because the college announced her Booker win on its website, but I somehow hadn’t put together the fact that she must have been educated by at least some of the same teachers as me, and certainly the indomitable Dombrowskis.

How wonderful. I’ve never known the people cited in a novel’s dedication before, and I got quite a thrill when I saw Theo and Eileen’s names there. How lovely they must feel to know, as teachers, what they’ve helped create, this Irish powerhouse who is now contributing to the very subject they taught for so many years. It must be incredibly gratifying.

I’m afraid as part of my intellectual atrophy at college I let Theo and Eileen down a bit. I didn’t perform at my best at any stage of the two years, in Eileen’s class the first, and in Theo’s the second. It makes me sad to think of my stupid obstinacy; I wish I’d made a bit more of the learning opportunity, although I can say with absolute certainty that as a LIVING opportunity, I sucked the marrow right from the bone, I was absolutely first-rate as far as seizing the day was concerned. Dear Theo and Eileen. The last time I saw them was June 2000, the first and thus far only time I’ve been back at the college since being a student. We were back there, so many of us, for our ten year reunion, and one night Theo and Eileen had us up to their house on campus for drinks. It was such a perfect night, one of the highlights of the entire reunion, and I remember it vividly, the warmth of their home and their company. I was so abashed by my poor showing as an English student a decade earlier that I felt when I first arrived back for the reunion that they might not know who I was; the relief when Theo gave me a queer look and said ‘Of course we remember you’ was pretty intense. They wouldn’t have any idea whatsoever what their good favour means to me, none at all, but I know.

In fact, I stopped writing short stories back then, in 1991, because I just wasn’t up to scratch. I only realised it yesterday, after I bought Taking Pictures and wandered through town with it thinking about Theo and Eileen. At the time, I did a creative writing major project, something the IB calls an ‘extended essay’ (EE) of 5,000 words. Eileen was my ‘supervisor’ of sorts, and my short story categorically sucked. I think I was too self-conscious and too insecure and too half-arsed about it for it to be anything else, and the screaming truth of my own inadequacy just snuffed me out like a weak flame. I didn’t attempt fiction again for a full 8 years after the IB, when I wrote an appalling MS whilst living in London. Knowing that it, too, sucked, I stopped trying again, for another 8 years.

It’s funny, but when I found out Eileen and Theo were retiring, I emailed them to say that doing my PhD was in some way an attempt to make it up to them, and make it up to myself, and that finally I could stop looking over my shoulder at our mutual disappointment in my failure to really try. So now I’ll clutch Anne Enright’s book like a prize and a talisman, and keep Eileen and Theo’s wonderful teaching close to me once more.

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Gushing About Garfish

August 5, 2008 at 4:50 am (Uncategorized)

Apropos yesterday’s Pendolino blog, I thought I’d swing that pesky pendulum back in the other direction and tell you about my date with Llew last Friday night (some weeks we don’t eat out at all; last week we were merry-go-dining), and then I’ll get off this food jag, I promise. It’s just nice to be able to offer you a counterpoint, I think, and if anyone is looking for a lovely night out, you could do a whole lot worse than Garfish.

There are several Garfish properties: Crows Nest, Kirribilli, and Manly. We’ve had lunch and dinner at Garfish Manly, and we headed there last Friday for our date night. We often spend Friday nights locally, and it’s a lovely little tradition we’ve built up of meeting down at the ferry wharf, having a drink somewhere, and then strolling around Man Town village looking for somewhere to have a cosy dinner. Recession? Sorry? You’ll have to speak louder. I can’t hear you.

Anyway, we went up to Four Pines for our pre-dinner beverages. It’s fantastic to see them doing so well, and quite right too because they’re a lovely lot in there, so friendly, and they make good beer. Its atmosphere is great too – not too big, moodily lit, warmly furnished – I just can’t find a lot wrong with the joint. And by the looks of the Friday night crowd, I’m not the only one. We grabbed the last two seats in the place, right in the corner near the toilets, and had a de-brief about the day over the home brew. A dandy start. I was starving, and when I’m starving I am evil and dangerous, so food became a pretty big priority, especially after a Four Pines beer whet my appetite. Since Garfish is no more than twenty paces from Four Pines, it hit the lead in the ‘Where to Next’ poll.

It was only just after 7 pm, but Garfish was already jumping. Man Town has embraced this place like few others; it’s full even on a Monday night. And here’s why: they run a good joint. It’s a good model, and a smooth operation. Looking at it from outside is quite deceiving – it looks sort of cold and uninviting, and I am always surprised anew whenever I walk in there and see how pleasant a space it really is. Obviously the views across the harbour don’t hurt, but the fit-out itself is a lot more effective and comfortable than outside appearances suggest.

We decided to sit in the bar area (and we found out Friday that you can do this whether you’re planning to stay for dinner or not: good to know because it’s a lovely little bar), have a drink and a ‘traveller’ (also known as that little morsel that’ll stave off hungry psychosis until the main event) whilst contemplating the menu. We went for stuffed zucchini flowers. This dish is currently ubiquitous in Sydney, it’s like pork belly all over again, but here instead of the usual goat’s cheese etc. stuffing, it’s crabmeat. Mmmm… delicious. If we’d been teetering about staying for dinner (I was bleating something about our budget with a total lack of sincerity), the zucchs decided us. We wanted to sit along the banquette facing the rest of the restaurant and straight out to the harbour, and the staff happily obliged us with the ideal table as soon as it became free. People, by this stage, were teeming through the door at a rate of knots. Does anyone cook in Sydney anymore? I do – last night Llewie came home to garlic king prawns and a rocket, basil, parmesan and avocado salad. Not bad for a Monday night if I do say so myself. Tonight it’ll be a pasta of some description. I haven’t decided yet but it’s going to involve the rest of the fresh basil, some chilli, and a spicy salami we found on Saturday. The rest is yet to be decided…

Look, the main reason I want to say I’m pro-Garfish is that the service is lovely, always, and the food is just really, really good. We had a wood-roasted fish from their daily selection (irritatingly I can’t remember the species, but I was unfamiliar with the name. Happily it was just how I like my fish: white, moist, firm flesh) and lobster tails with salsa verde – I mean, Y-U-M. How delicious. So fresh, so simply prepared, so tasty, and so reasonable. You can even BYO wine to Garfish – fantastic. We were so sated, so completely chuffed and satisfied afterwards that we’re still telling people about it days later, so as far as I’m concerned they deserve some damn credit. Now that’s what I call a successful date.

[N.B. The only thing I don’t like about Garfish – and I HATE, HATE, HATE it – is that they have flat-screen TVs in the restaurant. They only show live footage from the kitchen and the view outside on the harbour, but they’re TVs nonetheless, and I wish they weren’t there].

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Pooh Pooh, Pendolino.

August 4, 2008 at 3:38 am (Uncategorized)

You’ve figured out by now that Llew and I really love our food. In fact, I’d estimate that beyond mortgage repayments, food and wine take out the first prize for the total income decimation of this household. We love eating out, we love eating in, we love drinking wine, we love keeping wine… one of the reasons we’re both incurable wanderers, and why we’re so restless at the moment because we haven’t been overseas in so long, is the chance to try new cuisine in new settings. Food experiences dominate my travel writing. So it’s not for nothing that I share some of my foodie finds with you on DoctorDi – it’s one of my chief preoccupations. I’m just going to launch right in with the email I sent to Pendolino restaurant just now, because I need to vent my ill-temper as quickly as possible before I give myself an ulcer:

To whom it may concern,
I feel compelled to write and let you know that I think it was both cynical and arrogant of you to reward a group that made its booking three – or was it four? – weeks in advance, and then called to reconfirm, with the worst table in the house. A secure booking: there’s nothing better for any restaurateur, but why is it that the people who did the right thing were punished rather than even remotely rewarded for their efforts in playing by the rules? Etiquette in these matters suggests that we should have been able to expect to be seated in THE ACTUAL DINING ROOM. Instead, you sat us in the cloakroom-cum-shop. In fact, we were so close to the coats of other diners that we could have checked their pockets had we been so inclined. We had to tolerate staff and diners alike rifling through the coats, discussing their coats, clanging the cheap, cheap, cheap wire coat hangers by our heads and – last but not least – making various attempts to fix the rack itself, which kept collapsing.

When I arrived and saw where we’d been seated, I was so incensed I immediately turned to our waiter and expressed my disappointment and anger. We were there for a special occasion, and we had done everything right. Why were we given the worst seat in the house? Do you know what he did? He offered us the table next door – which, as you know perfectly well, is the second worst table in the house. Why bother? We didn’t, although we did have to get up and swap that table’s lit candle with our own unlit one… Gee, I hope no one minds.

Let me tell you this: my husband and I stumbled across your restaurant just after it opened. We did a walk through, greatly admired the dining room (I actually said to him at the time “Gosh, you wouldn’t want to sit in here, though…” of the very place I found myself on Saturday night – oh, the awful irony), and decided we’d return with our best friends, which is what we did on Saturday night, when one of the couples was celebrating ten years of marriage. Since my friend made the booking so far in advance – literally since that day – I had been looking forward to sitting in that space taking part in the whole experience. It is never just about the food, especially not for a bill climbing toward $1,000 for a table of 7. And I can’t describe to you how I feel now, to have been so categorically locked out of the full experience by your cynical table planning. The disappointment was so acute I actually lay awake on Saturday night going over and over it, imagining the night I thought I was going to have instead of the one we got. Shove the dead certs to the cloakroom. Fill the worst tables first. It’s greedy, and it’s rude. Unforgivable, in fact.

Just thought you might be interested to know what we thought of your treatment of our good custom.

So there you have it, my friends. Pants to Pendolino. In fairness, the food was very good, although a serving of bread arrived with a red wine cork nestling in its centre, which suggests to me the possibility that it had been cleared from another table, and the bumbling serving of our entrees was comic but inept, but even if the food was sublime – and it wasn’t any better than 50 paces away at divine Intermezzo – it still wouldn’t have eased the insult of that table. We were in the cheap seats, all right, they just weren’t cheap. You know, the lesson is to always request a good table, and to expressly decline the worst seats in the house, but it really shouldn’t be necessary. I think it was obvious when we made that booking that we weren’t hoping to turn up and find ourselves with the coats in the gift store, and any restaurateur who thinks otherwise needs to start arming diners with a forewarning and just see how well it goes down. I guarantee they’ll never see so leaden a balloon as that.

POSTSCRIPT: I’ve just had a very nice, sincere call of apology from Nino, Pendolino’s main owner and head chef. He very kindly offered me the opportunity to return for a meal on him, which I felt I had to decline (tempting, but still: it’s the principle of the thing). I didn’t write my complaint with a view to getting a freebie make-good out of it, I just wanted the right person to receive the feedback, and he did. Anyway, he was good to call, and he was upset that we were upset, and I daresay some solution to the challenges of storing coats may well emerge from our exchange, as well as the necessity of asking guests if they’d like to be seated in the shop or the dining room, because some people – incredibly – apparently prefer the former. So, my disappointment stands, but I do feel better knowing that Nino knows.

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Jamon, Jamon!

August 1, 2008 at 3:15 am (Uncategorized)

I’ve been fortunate in this eating life to experience some of the world’s great taste sensations… truffles, oysters, stinky cheese, and now, finally, Jamon Iberico. Only available in Australia for just over a year, Jamon Iberico is as artisanal a pork product as the swine is capable of producing. I love my oink oink, and this is the foodie equivalent of pig heaven.

Where did I sample this gastronomic delight? At the opening of the Jamon Bar, of course. What a fantastic idea: MuMu Grill has just opened a long narrow bar to one side of the main dining area, and there you may gaze upon a side of Jamon Iberico that will leave your taste buds damp with desire. This porky pig is no ordinary swine; at about $500 per kilo, a couple of slices is going to set you back about $25. But it’s worth it. It melts in your mouth. Eating it is one of those genuine food epiphanies, where your soul rushes into your mouth and riots there. Joy. Pure food joy.

What’s not to love about the fact that this unique cured meat is so particular to its region – close to the border between Spain and Portugal – as well as to its hog: Iberico is from the relatively rare black pig, and these Iberian beauties are fed on acorns, the flavour of which seeps into the fatty folds of piggy flesh and the properties of which incredibly contribute to more than half the fat content of Iberico being the Good Kind (as in, the same kind of fat found in olive oil). Don’t you love it when someone says fat is good for you? Brilliant!

It sounds like a pretty idyllic life. If you’re going to be a pig, this is not a bad pig to be: gorgeous Spanish fields in which to roam freely, oak groves in which to push one’s curious hairy snout, and acorns on which to feast…ahhh… but for that whole inevitable slaughter thing, I think it sounds grand. I also love the fact that the 3 year curing process is so stunningly pure and simple – temperature control is critical, and maintained by so simple a tool as opening and closing the window. That’s skill for you, and no amount of money or technology or commercial imperative has figured out a way to fast-track this system. Three years. In it for the long hog, I mean, haul.

As I was chasing down every morsel of cured meat in the place with a really unseemly zeal, I stopped just long enough to take in the main restaurant and apprise myself of its philosophy. I even got to have a quick chat with the owner and head chef, Craig Macindoe, because I’m a pushy little grazer that way. I’d have made a fine Iberian pig. They have a whole sustainability focus on their meat at MuMu, favouring top of the line organic. They also make their own woodfired bread daily – is there anything more comforting and delicious than homemade bread straight from the oven? The answer, in case you’re wondering, is no, and I say this with the authority of someone who has made her own bread many times. It is one of the most nurturing things I can imagine. Oh, and once I’d inhaled every last skerrick of Iberico, I proceeded to hoover whatever was going from their specialist butcher, Pino Tomini-Foresti, whose salamis and cured meats made me too greedy for appropriate manners at table. Needless to say I think I’ve found my new pig pen.

P.S. My friend Anna, who’s currently living in Barcelona (lucky bitch) and maintains the wonderful foodie blog Barcelona Food Girl, has been in-swine-situ, and has this to say.

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