Sunday, February 27, 2005
It used to be really amusing to watch the show on TV then. The cameras panning on the outlandish gowns and acres of botoxed foreheads and collagened lips, but no shots of the run-down Dennys right across the street or the Felix autodealer behind Shrine. Of course 5 minutes down the road is South-central, home of most West coast hip-hop and some rather notorious gang wars from the 90s. For us mousy grad students, our best night out adventure is to drive to the 24-hour Krispy Kreme donuts on Crenshaw in South-central at around 2 or 3 a.m. for donuts. No one to be seen except for the cops. I finally figured out that the reason there are so many all-night donut shops is because cops eat donuts all the time. And it's not just a stereotype, they really do (and drink Starbucks coffee, there's a line of police cars outside Starbucks all the time).
But I digress. So Emil and S and I have to gather some popcorn, chips and soda, curl up on his couch and watch the show. I think my special interest this year is to watch out for Mr. Director (see last post). I don't think he'll win, I think he's more of a rising star and sentimental favourite Martin Scorcese is in the reckoning. Or probably Clint Eastwood. But he's great eye candy (in a very geek-crush kind of way). His face is very elegant, very chiselled, and his features refined. He should have been reading Greek classical poetry to students on a sailboat off Despotiko, instead he's an honoured guest in the ultimate kitsch fest. C'est la vie.
Thursday, February 24, 2005
Let me tell you about EM. She is probably the prettiest woman of my acquaintance. Not surprising, considering the fact that she's an actress. She grew up in Greece, and got bitten by the acting bug in school. Later she joined theatre school, did professional theatre, hated it (according to S) and set her sights on TV. She acted in two long-running daytime soaps in Greece and her character became immensely popular and she was a star. Next thing you know she packs her bags and heads off to Hollywood to act in movies. When she arrived in LA, she only knew a single person, a Greek-American gentleman who had been a family friend. She had also been given S's email address by his friend, who had a holiday home next to EM's in Greece.
To cut a very long story (with way too many characters) short, nearly 7-8 months later, EM had more acquaintances in LA than we did after more than 4 years of living here. She had also gotten herself an agent, a lawyer, taken additional acting classes and became widely known in the Greek community here. Her energy is truly infectious and she is truly one of those persons who can light up a room by their presence.
Recently, at a networking event organized by our local Greek Orthodox Church, one of the speakers was a very famous director. Not naming names, but he's nominated for an Oscar this year, and is Greek-American, so that's not too hard to figure out. We thought it was a great opportunity for EM to make a really great Hollywood contact, and she did get his email address, but refuses to ask to meet him professioinally and audition or request referrals to other producers and directors. EM's usually a dazzler socially, but in this case, for some reason she's turned painfully shy. She does not want Mr. Director to think that she is like countless other struggling actresses who hassle him to cast them in his movies. Besides she doesn't want him to think that she's attracted to him. Which he can justifiably assume, because he is a very attractive man. But given the ad hoc nature of everything in Hollywood, I don't know how else EM can get a foothold here.
At times I wonder if it is essential for people who are trying to get a break in Hollywood to transform themselves from the wonderful person they are into utterly neurotic, driven, extremely ambitious persons who ruthlessly trample on people on their way up. Most film students I've met at University have been utterly obnoxious, Astrid and Todd being very fine exceptions. I was reading recently about what a terrible person Quentin Tarantino is, and it seems that his utter callouosness is somehow a big part of his success. That's a sad thought. But then not too different from stories I heard in India of successful musicians and dancers who were utter pricks. There are exceptions of course, and the same Salon story spoke well of Steven Soderbergh. The refined and dignified deserve their chances, so Mr. Director, if you ever happen to read this (and you know who you are), please, please write to EM.
In the evening Em and I went to Trader Joe's. Em insists on calling it the "Hippie Shop", but given the giant Lincoln Navigators that were populating the parking lot, I don't think too many hippies are stopping by anymore. The lady in my afternoon talk was a hippie or at least a 60s liberal, with her quilted jacket made of what looked like sari sections and kurta. Trader Joe's is mostly teeming with hipsters, the sort who drink organic soy lattes and wear "quirky" fashions identical to what everyone else in the store is wearing. I love shopping at TJs because they have many interesting products that are not available at regular grocery stores, have great wine and cheese at very reasonable prices and have the best selection of potato and other kinds of chips.
I was being really good today, because I didn't pick up any dips or chocolates, but couldn't resist their amazing honey mustard hawaiian style chips. Try as I might, it's been hard for me to kick my chips craving. I am good at controlling it though and usually a medium pack would last me at least two weeks (if S has not been digging in). In fact I got a large bag of chips as a birthday present a few years back.
My most favourite chips in the world: Kettle brand crinkle cut salt and pepper chips
TJs Hawaiian style honey mustard chips
My least favourite ever: Pringles, every kind!
Monday, February 21, 2005
And now all I can think of is munchies for a rainy day. Samosas, alur chop, piyaji.....Must..stop.
Was supposed to take Suzy to the Hustler store yesterday but couldn't reach her. Wonder if she's mad at me. But it really wasn't my fault. Our land phone lines have been behaving like MTNL these few days. Mine was out for two days and I think Suze's conked off as well. Having grown up in Delhi, not having access to the phone for two days doesn't really bother me (and it helps that everyone around me has a cellphone I can use for emergencies). But I remember that a few months ago, heavy rains and storms knocked off the electricity connection in our building for a few minutes. Our resident advisor (who's from Texas) came out of her apartment horrified. She was in utter panic and wanted to know if this happened often, what was going on, is someone going to call public security, etc., etc. I do realise that robbery during blackouts is a very real possibility, but her anxiety was so amusing at that moment.
Of course, not communicating with Suze had the other fallout of not being able to introduce Soto to the Chinese girl in her lab. Which is fun at so many different levels. Soto is technically single, but has a bit of a thing going on with a French fashion designer 10 years his senior which does not involve a commitment from either person. The Chinese girl wants nothing more than a fling, as she's recovering from an old relationship. And Suze has very magnanimously decided to give up Soto after having a crush on him for all of 6 months! It would be a fun meeting whenever it takes place, and I look forward to it.
Friday, February 18, 2005
Now never having been a student of architecture I have a hard time keeping up with big name architects. I know of Frank O Gehry, but then it's hard not to be aware of Gehry's work living in LA. Actually, ever since I moved here, I've been an enthusiastic follower of the then-still-in-construction and now-finished Disney Concert Hall. On too many occasions, I've begged S to take Grand Ave. back after a pho trip to Chinatown. The Disney Hall, the new Cathedral, MOCA and the California Plaza, there's a lot of interesting architecture within the distance of a few metres. S just tags along for the joyride of the steep drop in Grand after MOCA :)
I had heard of Piano in context with classroom discussions of the Potsdamerplatz project in Berlin, which was a revitalization project involving corporate big names for the core of the city. I attended a presentation made by a German architect and Berliner who was none too pleased with the architecture which seemed to have a placeless, global quality to it, and spoke to nothing within the existing urban fabric of Berlin. Of course, the Potsdamerplatz revitalization consists of many different projects, and each project had a different architect firm associated with it. Piano was responsible for only about two of those and I honestly don't remember if this German lady was critical of Piano's work or not.
Anyway, Emil and I thoroughly enjoyed the hour long discussion between Rose and Piano. Rose is a fabulous interviewer and never lets his personality overshadow his subject. And Piano was a treat. He is very articulate, and speaks beautifully. I loved how he managed to straddle discussions of beauty as an intense emotion as well as discussing the importance of innovation in construction materials and techniques for architects. I don't know how he is in his daily life, but he came across as someone who was genuinely passionate about his work and thinks both intellectually and practically about it. And then he endeared himself to S (who later joined us) by revealing that he was a boat designer as well and every decade or so designs a sailboat using innovative new materials. That seemed like his little personal treat, he had such a twinkle in his eye when he talked about it.
Right now, I'm trying to go through a report, and fortifying myself for it by listening to some Bach. I went through all the Brandenburg Concertos and decided I liked the 3rd one the best. Of course, Emil, my resident Bach conneisseur thinks that the Double Violin Concerto (not part of the Brandenburg series) is the most complex work, which it probably is. But then what does ignorant me know! I wouldn't be able to tell A minor from F major. And then I switched over to sentimental favourite Mozart's 25th symphony. When I was in India of course I had only one reason to listen to it (and anyone who was in India in the late 80s and early 90s would know what I'm on about). But later, I saw Amadeus, and the 25th just dominates the score. And that's when I discovered the other dimension of the 25th which was so intense, powerful.
Thursday, February 17, 2005
Which I proceeded to do, by reading this excellent blog about food in general and Thai food in particular. She also has an excellent write-up about going back to Thailand on a three-week vacation and negotiating your familiar yet ever-morphing land as an outsider. I felt that it mirrored some of my own thoughts when I visit India, about the pleasant nostalgia and burgeoning optimism contrasted with disappointment over entrenched hierarchies.
I have eccentric longings. I rarely have the urge to watch Bollywood movies, or read South Asian writing. I seldom attend Indian events in my university or within LA. But I do long for a conversation in refined Hindi and Bengali. I get very excited when I see rustic Bengali cooking ingredients popping up in unexpected places. I wish someone would plant a gulmohar tree in LA so I can go and shake the petals off in summer (they would grow in LA, wouldn't they?). I love the Indian afternoon siesta followed by tea and conversation.
But maybe I don't miss as much as I thought I would, or as they told me I would. Maybe the possibilities of new interests, new sensations, a world different from the one I inhabited for long is very seductive. Or maybe, growing up Bengali in Delhi, I already made part of the transition of existing in multiple cultural spaces without necessarily feeling longing to be firmly anchored to any. But I still believe that a deep understanding of the milieu that shaped you is important for appreciating that which is beyond it.
Tuesday, February 15, 2005
I think my personal best of continuously inhabiting a sailboat has been 6 days so far. When we finally finished the 6-day trip and docked at Lavrio marina, I almost leaped out of the boat. But then, I think it was a gruelling trip (at least for beginners) by all accounts. We made it all the way to Santorini from mainland Greece and back, and did mostly non-stop sailing. We left the sailboat only thrice for a few hours each time, and we sailed continuously each night. The winds in the Aegean are strong, and I almost got thrown off the deck in my sleep one night in the Santorini harbour (an unprotected marina with strong waves and winds). We sailed in winds that were 7 Beaufort at night and then were stuck in the middle of the seamless ocean with no wind annoucing itself to our senses. Will I do it again? Absolutely. But I still wouldn't live on a sailboat.
I think I dwelt too much on the rigors of the journey without saying anything about what made it so worthwhile and many things did. The experience of being in the open sea at night, with only the barest glow from a distant island in sight and only the light from your own mast is an indescribable experience. The only sound being the sound of bait lowered from the back of the yacht in the ambitious hope of catching fish, and the chorus of Greeks paying their own special tribute to Dionysis Savvopoulos by singing "Sinefoula". The joy of watching sunsets and then being part of the perfect sunset picture of that hundreds of honeymooning couples might have clicked in Santorni: a sailboat cruising against the backdrop of the sun dipping behind the caldera. An experience beautiful, humbling, enabling and reassuring, all at the same time.
But then, do I need to live on a sailboat to experience all this? No. So yes, S, even though I could see that look of longing in your eyes as you watched the sailboats in the marina, I'm not giving up the ground beneath my feet.
Monday, February 14, 2005
Now trying to hail a dimsum cart and get what you want without a working knowledge of Chinese seems almost like swimming with hands tied behind the back, but I think we managed fairly well. We did get the shrimp dumplings that I had sort of craved since Empress pavilion almost three years ago. I never seemed to have enough people around me who cared for dimsum (and some of my friends detest them) and I think I had this absurd notion that there should be a minimum number of persons in your party to be admitted to a dimsum restaurant. And then there is also the issue of never being able to lure S away from Pho 79 if we are in Chinatown. So thanks Urmi, and we really need to do this again :). And to all my Vietnamese friends, Chuc Mung Nam Moi and to the Chinese, Gong Xi for the year of the rooster.
This past week has been celebration week. There was the Asian Lunar New Year, and the Islamic New Year a few days before. And then, there was the Javanese New Year, and Saraswati Puja for the Bengalis. And now we have Valentine's Day. One more compelling argument for turning cosmopolitan. You get to celebrate more.
Saturday, February 12, 2005
This is a view from a bridge in Lyon, where Deepak and I went on our one free day away from our conference. This was just before it started to drizzle. It is amazing how timeless it all looks, because there were cars and buses whizzing by behind us. On one side is medieval Lyon, on the other the more modern city.
Friday, February 11, 2005
Lata is a very dear friend and we grew up together in the same neighbourhood. After she hit 25 the pressure started building for her to get married. She had never dated anyone and been too timid to actively seek a boyfriend. She decided to go the arranged marriage route. After meeting many men in this manner, one day she wrote to me saying that all she really wanted was a relationship with a man and she didn't really care if it ended in marriage or not. I was happy for her, that she was able to set aside the pressure and family rhetoric and decide for herself what her desires are. A few months later, I heard that she was getting married to someone she had barely met for a few days. She was moving to another city and was going to live with him and his parents. I realised that the pressure must have become intense as she was only a year away from her third decade. And it was sad that she was forced to succumb to it.
But she's not exceptional in that. Again and again, I've seen friends and cousins falling victims to their own anxieties about missing the boat once the magic 30 is crossed. Do I not worry about this? I think I used to, much more in the past than now. But the space that I have in being physically removed from people who might cause such anxious moments helps a lot. Also, the ability to live life in short parcels instead of dwelling on some grand scheme. And being in a very loving relationship. I think that helps the most. To know that wedding or no wedding, there are comfortable silences, the ability to agree and agree to disagree, and a lot of joy in each other's physical warmth.
It's strange how conventional I am when it comes to financial self-reliance. I think it comes out of having grown up in India, and spending my early youth (late teens and early 20s) during an era of considerable economic and institutional change in India. There was much public debate about what the fallout of these changes would be, and much alarmist rhetoric about disappearing economic security and eroding employment opportunities. Additionally, there were a lot of people willing to believe that a great part our art, literature and cultural production would be swept away by the import of Western pop culture. Many of those doomsday prophecies never came about, but I think a lot of it affected me deeply, and made me feel financially and intellectually vulnerable. It took nearly three years in LA for the cultural insecurities to disappear, but I think I still panic when I see someone oblivious to the state of their financial future.
Hence, my other friends can understand and appreciate when S decides to take a break to relax and recover from the effort of a Masters program, but I fly into panic, thinking he is diminishing his job market value. He very correctly argues that it is my Indian background that makes me so nervous about the lack of employment. And I envy him, and envy other Greeks, Americans and Germans for the sense of stability and solid foundations that their upbringing could provide to them. The sense of security that could lead them to stubbornly pursue their dreams inspite of the definite possibility of poverty. Make them risk takers, so attached to their music, their acting, their sailing, their martial arts. I am not saying there aren't enough Indians who are equally determined, but I think a the great Indian middle class is probably the most paranoiac about economic safety.
S and Pho and I went for lunch to Papa Christo's. This is one of the things I love about LA. The speciality grocery store (in this case, Greek) that also doubles up as a food counter. Except in the case of Papa Cristo's it is hard to tell what gets bigger billing, the grocery shelves or the restaurant. Unlike a lot of other grocery store-food counters where ambience is not the point, Papa Cristo's has nice chairs and tables and posters from the Greek Tourism Board on the walls. And unlike many Indian food counters, the staff at Papa Cristo's is always friendly and warm.
S and I shared a plate with arni sto fourno, paidakia, fasolakia and rizi. Most of it very homestyle Greek food, except the paidakia, which is mostly restaurant food, much as ribs are in the US. I love Greek food, and it's disappointing that a lot of what's available in LA is so mediocre (Papa C is an exception). Greek food in Greece is different altogether, fresher, excellent ingredients, and more varied menus. I've been so tempted to go and join this cooking school for the coming summer, especially since I'm a great admirer of Diane Kochilas' books, but alas, no time.
Another such place I like going to is a tiny Indonesian grocery store in a blink and you miss strip mall. I first came across a reference to it in LA weekly and was intrigued because the article said it served gudeg, which is Javanese (Yogyakartan to be precise) style jackfruit curry. I love raw jackfruit (and am indifferent to the ripe kind) and am always willing to try different dishes with it. So I enthusiastically dragged S over and got myself a very reasonably priced lunch special with the gudeg. Honestly, the gudeg was a disappointment. Now I don't know if this is because I do not have a taste for gudeg per se, or the way it was prepared in this particular place. But thankfully, it didn't deter us from going back and exploring other stuff on the menu, and most of it turned out to be delicious. The nasi Padang is a steal, a fabulous plate of food for the price they charge. And the jackfruit tastes far better in this version.
Among the Indian places, the only barely satisfying one I've been able to find is Ambala Sweets in Artesia, which probably does the most competent plate of chhole bhature in the whole city. Now this is one dish that doesn't seem worth fussing about, till you encounter the generic Indian food place run by the Gujarati/Goanese/Bangladeshi who present a giant lumpy puri soaked in oil and claim that they are serving a bhatura. They also make good samosas (which are not so hard to find) and are quite pleasant to their customers.
Anybody reading this (yes, I'm speaking to you, my non-existent readership) would have figured out that I'm a bhojonrasik (food lover) on a budget. So there will be much talk of food here.
To end, here's a perfume scribble after a long time. Today, I decided to wear something rather "greeny" to go with the weather and settled on Vetiver Tonka by Hermessence. It starts out with a heady burst of something that smells alternatively like caramel and amber, a deep rich aroma. And then, there is also a slight hint of some sort of lily. I wait. Five minutes. Still no vetiver. And then, nearly 10 minutes later, there is the barest hint of vetiver, sort of peaking out from behind a tonka curtain. Very subtle and complex. Me likey.
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
Went with Em to Zankou chicken yesterday. Love the chicken there. Though Em doesn't and usually gets the shawarma. I think our tastes in chicken are mutually exclusive. Actually there is very little in cuisine where Em and my tastes can be in agreement. He is completely averse to all Asian cuisines (and I mean Asian in the American sense, East and South-east) and is very constant in his food choices. He loves going again and again to a few chosen places (think three-Canter's Fred 62 and Zankou) and orders from a limited range (burgers, shawarma, pasta, and meatloaf). It is so predictable, I know exactly what he will order when we go to any of these places.
This is Em's way of bringing stability and tranquility in his life. Five years in the same apartment, the same friends, the same places, the same food. I know exactly what this urge is, because I have it too. The urge to be able to see exactly the same palm tree, road and buildings from a particular point year after year. The desire to always hear the same unchanging laughter and not-understood conversation outside my window. The desire to travel to other lands and yet have a home that is eternal. And yes, by now, LA is home. Which doesn't mean that India or Iran isn't, it's just that it has become possible to parcel out our lives, to exist in different times and places simultaneously and become disengaged from a specific set of memories.
And so Em and I try and create a magical land where our apartment doors always open onto each other, where there will always be "The Simpsons" on TV at 6, a quest for the best-tasting coffee (and a cup a day of the not so good in the meanwhile) and birthdays, and relationship anniversaries, and heartbreaks, and talk of democratic reform and porn stars, computational linguistics, institutionalism and who has the best ass in the building.
Monday, February 07, 2005
I think the other problem is that I started out with a certain idea that had a lot of appeal to me (port development and global trade) and then had to move on to something that I've sort of learned to like (intermodal transport and port cargo) due to funding requirements. It's hard to constantly reassure yourself that you can always do whatever you want once the constraints of writing a dissertation are done with. Then there is the vulnerability of being an immigrant, the lack of wider choice (go where your work visa leads you).
Sunday, February 06, 2005
Yesterday for inexplicable reasons, or for reasons I'd rather not explain to myself, I was looking for information on the Indonesian senior secondary exams (EBTANAS-equivalent to the Indian 12th Boards) and University entrance (SPMB). What I was able to find set me thinking about the delicate balance in public purpose that state education policies strive to. Now, my comprehension of Bahasa Indonesia is rudimentary and mostly derivative of my equally dodgy knowledge of Sanskrit, Persian and English. But still it seemed to me that at least the Mathematics exam for EBTANAS covered less material and was easier than the Indian 12th Board exams (I took CBSE, some state boards are more difficult). The University entrance Mathematics exam was certainly no match for the Indian engineering and medical entrance exams.
Both the EBTANAS and SPMB have multiple-choice answer sheets, which was baffling to me. But then I realised that for an exam conducted nation-wide, there would be regular controversies over marking and biases if there is no multiple choice. Also, it seemed that unlike India, it wasn't assumed that the natural progression after high school is to move to university education, hence a separate exam for university entrance. There seemed more emphasis on widespread literacy at least at the school level. There are fewer university students and even fewer students at the Masters and PhD level. I don't know which approach is a better one, to spread the resources out so everyone can at least get some education, ensuring a trained manufacturing and lower-paying service sector workforce or concentrating all energies on training highly skilled professionals. I think India loses out on the manufacturing investment, due to poor labour productivity (poor education and skill sets). But then it gains R&D and high-end service and manufacturing jobs.
I do think though that the Indonesian achievements primary education is worth emulating for India, though their higher education system has been criticised as sub-standard by many. The conditions that enabled Indonesia to achieve what it did don't exist in India though. A uniform national education system, one national language and strong central rule (in the days of Suharto). Not that I'm saying any of these are necessarily desirable. The strong centre days are over in Indonesia and I wonder if any of the changes would affect education as well. Anyway, it was fun taking the EBTANAS Mathematics test online and trying to guess what the Bahasa Indonesia questions were all about.
Yesterday, I was at the gym and fretting about not being able to go and explore the city as much as I was like to, given my precarious finances. I worried about not being able to smell and see and touch the ocean, not being able to see the miniature sailboats, the size of Em's sugar spoons, floating precariously, so vulnerable and yet so resilient. I haven't been on one in a while, telling myself that I'm jaded with the whole sailing around Marina Del Rey thing. That I'd only deign to get on a boat for some "real" sailing, for a trip down the coast. And then when I was walking out of the gym, I looked up to the sky. And it was the time of the evening when the LA sky is so fluid, so transient. And the colour of the sky was beautiful, a rich, intense and yet sophisticated blue, and it reminded me of Nicole Kidman's gown from the Golden Globes. Nothing interrupted the expanse of the sky, except a tiny plane flying to LAX and some slender palm trees. At that moment, I didn't miss the ocean, it was almost as if the colour that LA's muddy Pacific waters lack had been sucked up by the sky. And as Ileana once said to me, what strikes you immediately about LA is the scale. So dramatic, grand, expansive, belittling almost. The sky seemed never-ending.
Tuesday, February 01, 2005
The story of how I got to know this guy (who I'm supposed to meet for lunch) is moderately interesting. So back in the day when I was single and sort of working the dating scene a friend of mine bullied me into registering for Salon personals. I had already tried out some Indian-specific dating sites with very disappointing results. I mean, I got in touch with nice men, but they seemed to run out of things to say after a few email exchanges. And most of them were people with very unidimensional lives (work and more work). Anyway, I registered on Salon and emailed some fun people and met some as well (a Jewish actor, a rich Persian-American brat, a writer, a Caltech nerd...) but nothing really worked out beyond the first date (or a couple). I forgot all about Salon and met my S and life was well and all that. But I never deleted my account, for the simple reason that I kept getting emails from really interesting people and it was fun to read about them (and their Salon ads).
And among these emails was one from this guy who seemed to have led such an experience-rich life in different parts of the world. He had worked as a lawyer and then given up his job to travel to Cambodia and then lived in Italy for two years. I had just been to Italy last summer and the South-east Asia connection resonated as well. I told him I didn't want a date, but would love to know him and hence the lunch. And we are going to meet in a Khmer restaurant, which is super fun because I've never had Khmer food before ( I suspect it's an amalgam of Thai and Vietnamese). So I must go.