Archive for the ‘Notes and Thoughts’ Category

Postscript by the Sea:

Sunday, September 30th, 2007


        On the high-speed boat from Nice to Corsica — the name of the line, amazingly enough, is Ferryterranée — you stand at the stern and watch the fast boil of the ferry’s wake. Spray and a meridional hypnosis are your portion in this Mediterranean surround. Thanks to the curvature of the earth the boat seems to be scratching an incision down the middle of a great blue egg laid flat as a Dutch landscape. The sky, of course, has become a dome; the French coast is disappearing.

        We traveled to Corsica to visit Henri Blumenfeld, Monsieur l’Inspecteur I call him, because he looks like a seasoned Maigret. Henri had the good sense to buy a vacation home overlooking the elegant bay of Calvi, a pristine crescent that reminds me of Carmel-by-the-Sea only there’s a fortress at its head instead of Point Lobos, and the mountains surveying the scene, with a toy train rattling by down near Lumio plage, are considerably more heroic than any hillside the Monterey Peninsula can muster. No highway in sight is wider than two lanes: this is a time-warp isle, a mystery even to savvy travel agents.

        Henri also had the good sense to marry Marie Jacqueline who’s a keen chef as well as the superb designer and custodian of a bougainvillaea and cactus-stuffed jardin. Thanks to her I can tell you about a symphony of gastronomic browns providing a footnote to our Daube recipe several pages back.

gt62_lunch.jpg        Marie Jacqueline dished up a daube featuring sanglier, that’s wild boar, marinating it in red wine, garlic, shallots and local herbs, and cooking it long and well, without tomatoes you should note. M.J.’s harmonizations for this aromatic stew were the biggest cannellini beans I’ve seen yet, surpassing, I believe, their Oakland Greek counterparts, and chestnuts simply taken from the tin and boiled to perfection.

        The warm, gently humid air on Henri’s terrace was superb, the company, including son Alexis, a marine biologist of a lyrical turn, excellent, the sunset a gorgeous rose, the Paris plane landed neatly in the distance, a ferry eyed its dock across the bay, the toy train mumble-rumbled by on schedule near crisp-cut little houses straight out of Cézanne, and, as Henri observed of it all, “C’est presque trop parfait.” But only almost too perfect!

        . . . Then it was back to Nice, the crossing too rough for a passenger to conjure metaphors, and home to San Francisco where, at ebullient Plouf, I was seduced by an upwardly mobile but not too chi-chi Salade Niçoise, perhaps the most elegant in my experience while retaining bistro status. To “duplicate” it you could begin with our Salade Niçoise but for the tuna element employ seared ahi slices, for the olive component tapenade toasts with their caper-accented spread, and weave through the lot strands of poached fennel. And where is the book on 100 Salades Niçoises?

        In Corsica I asked Henri (as I had other of the several European cousins I know on the Jewish side of my much-researched family tree – I seem, by the way, as what you might call an “artistic type” to identify much more with my Jewish half, although I was very close to my mother), at any rate I asked Henri how his immediate family had survived the Second World War in Paris, and he told me he and his siblings were distributed among several Catholic schools where, more or less as in a Louis Malle film, they sank into the Aryan woodwork.

        Matthias my Berlin Blumenfeld cousin told me “a good German” saved his grandfather back in the 30s and Matthias’ uncle went on to be a distinguished diplomat in Willy Brandt’s post-war government.

        In Holland my cousin Rob, the grandson of Freud’s larger-than-life colleague and eventual “victim” ViktorTausk (they had a disagreement and Viktor committed suicide) told me his Viennese father, working in Holland when the Nazis arrived, had to produce his pedigree, and when Marius Tausk’s lawyer back in Vienna tallied it up as extrmely damning from the Nazis’ point of view, Marius wired his lawyer, “That cookie recipe you sent me is not quite to my taste, would you send me another?”

        But we’ve gotten a long way from Corsica . . .

Train Spotters’ Interlude

Sunday, September 9th, 2007


        The only embarrassing moment I know of in the annals of the French National Railroads occurred a rainy spring day in ’71 when our Paris-Milan rapide unaccountably got stuck negotiating a rather steep hill in the Jura Mountains.  Sitting in the diner we couldn’t help noticing the engineer of an express in the opposite direction making the gesture of wiping the sweat off his brow as he passed our hapless string of mortified streamlined coaches . . .  And the cream of train jokes: the conductor taps the shoulder of the engineer in the glassed-in cab just ahead of us, points to the sharp Alpine curve ahead and advises, “Tout droit,” in other words, “Straight ahead!”

        I’ve been on Amtrak a lot lately and have not witnessed any of the staff achieving such a peak of rail-wit, but I have delighted in how many interesting strangers one meets in the diner.  One day four of us even formed a group, complete with name, and had three meals together, professing of course eternal friendships that haven’t quite come into play.  (I’m told, by the way, on a more intimate note, that fascinating strangers in coffee houses who give their telephone number to captivated souls are apt to be unavailable when further pursued: it’s a shipboard situation).

        Trying to communicate with a Yorkshireman whose accent was as impenetrable as the glowing Utah menhirs outside our late afternoon window on the California Zephyr was a problem not to be solved.  But that was an exception to the pervasive rule of conviviality.  Once I actually deserted my breakfast biscuit and crossed the aisle to pry two Americans loose from a hopeless linguistic misconception: the German farmer at their table was talking about raising what in his language would be corn but in English sounded like mice . . .

Interlude on Track 10

Sunday, September 9th, 2007

        I’m still thinking about the Lark, that crack overnighter to L.A.  I used to ride to boarding school in a stew of conflicting emotions, fear of group living (and being tossed in the pool) jostling with the thrill of Taking the Sleeper. Normal bedtime — before The Great Gildersleeve roared out of the radio into my darkened room — was waived on travel nights.  And off we’d drive to Third and Townsend station, skirting the jaywalking winos behind the Palace Hotel.

        Step 1, check in at a table manned by elderly gents in many-buttoned black uniforms with stiff, trim caps like the streetcar motormen wore.  Next, down the platform hoping a massive, rumbling train two feet from one’s ear would not emit from its metallic udders a sudden and deafening hiss of steam.  Then up the child-challenging steps, around the corner and into our compartment, gleaming, organized, cozy with its lower berth standing so to speak horizontally at attention, fuzzy blankets with the SP logo pulled taut over the sheets.  Mom, of course, took the upper.

        The diner up a car was lit and serving Tenderloin Tips Southern Pacific and maybe the line’s celebrated Omelet Eclair, but for this little connoisseur, already fed his chop at home, it was time for bed.  Then the long cat-like engine standing maybe grumpily in the dark, 4-3-7-6 or some such number, carried me away.