Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Untitled

I thought of Saad last night. My nostalgia is erratic, it settles absentmindedly on different persons. Most often it's my immediate family, and suddenly I'm enveloped in a Bengali universe that instead of encompassing our Delhi apartment, stops within the bounds of my personal space. My mind tries to recreate our apartment, the physical artifacts, the music, the chatter, the little rituals, and hopes that what is lost by fickle memory should be the trivial, not the essential.

But yesterday it was Saad. So vivid. No, not his face, which for some strange reason, I have trouble remembering very accurately. But just the fact of his being there for certain times when certain journeys were undertaken, the weather was a certain way, some new acquaintances made, some new facts learned. I have this incredibly rich memory of the day we went to JNU. How we met his unkempt friend, who assured me that what I really wished to study was Women's Studies, not Urban Spaces. We had coffee together in one of the cafes there, and he asked me why I did not try to look more, you know, more glamorous, if you will. I brushed it away. You do respect my mind, right Saad...and I know he did. In those days I craved for respect for the mind. Attraction is more complex, but I was young, and the mind and body fell into neat dichotomies then.

I remember sitting next to him in the autorickshaw, enjoy the cool dampness that my arm felt as it got lashes of the rain outside. At some point he said he didn't want the moment to end, or something to that effect. I think I said something in agreement, but I was lost in the weather and a different sort of longing. The sort of nostalgia that rains bring, when longing is so diffuse, strange, it does not correspond to anything vaguely familiar and yet makes even a little bird trying to shake off the water seem so very sad, sad. I did not love Saad, I do not love him still (and I so wish he doesn't read this, because I think he secretly thought and hoped I did). And yet the space we inhabited was infused with the aura of good spirits, when we walked the pavements of Connaught Place together, my heart could follow the pattern of shifting sunrays and feel reassured in their predictability. It was settled existence, very mundane, and it was happiness to feel that we both revelled in it.

This is another sort of settled existence. Where I have my last conversation of the night with Em, my last phonecall of the night with S, my last cup of tea for the night, and then sometimes, I think of past acquaintances. And wonder what Saad looks like now. He didn't even send me his wedding photos, like he promised he would. I missed the weddings of all friends in the last 5 years, even Saad's wedding. Haven't heard from him in a few months as well. I know he won't be lost to time and space, like all the acquaintances I've ever made on trains and never known again: Nigerian students in Aligarh, Chinese kids from Calcutta, the fresh-faced civil servant from Allahabad, the Algerian musician in Germany, Neapolitan man on the way to Nice......it was mundane with Saad, but it was never meant to be transitory. Now, I don't know.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Greek fun, Persian fun and then some non-Orthodox Easter fun

To begin, here's the result of my Imdb-ing Ingrid Bergman. The film was "Notorious", not "Spellbound", another early Hitchcock film, certainly not one of his classics. My nagging suspicion was true after all, "Spellbound" had Gregory Peck, not Cary Grant.

On to blogworthiness, which we had plenty on a great Friday evening and night. It's already been written about by someone whom we were so happy to have with us on Friday for the first event, and missed in the subsequent one. The first was a reception at the home of the Consul-General of Greece in Los Angeles to celebrate 25th March, the Greek Independence Day. The home of the Consul-General is gorgeous, right next to the Santa Monica Mountains in Beverly Hills. The view from the terrace is fantastic, a very green valley that lies below the snaking Benedict Canyon Drive as it disappears into a tunnel. Last year the Consul's speech was interrupted by helicopters flying over the house, probably used for a film shooting. This year, there was serenity, only interrupted by the chatter of guests, people swiveling their wines, and chomping on mezedes. We met lots of old acquaintances and many new interesting faces as well.

S and I got introduced to the Greek gymnast, and I had an opportunity to talk with Soto's brother, P. He's a really interesting guy, quite the casanova always out to charm his next conquest. He's very handsome and very charismatic, and I'm afraid I gave him the wrong ideas when I tried to be sweet and paid a compliment to him saying he was one of the handsomest men I've ever seen. Which is very true, but S said that I probably came across as a potential target of interest for P, which I certainly wasn't thinking of. Maybe I blabbered a bit too indiscreetly, and I have to blame the three glasses of heady Assyrtiko wine from Santorini, which I've since found has a pretty high alcohol content, so there you go. Even though I had absolutely no interest in seducing P, I was interested in his work, and since he was a garment exporter, he seemed like an excellent resource for my research. Also, he mentioned something about opening a Greek restaurant, and I got so excited about that! This has been a bit of a cherished secret dream of mine, to be associated with a restaurant, and I so so wish P would let me get involved in the planning.

S and I moved on to the Persian New Year celebrations on my campus, and Soto was to join us later. The celebrations were organized this year by my roomie and homie Nel, who did a swell job. She and her co-chairs on the student organization board worked non-stop to ensure the biggest and best party in a long time for the Iranian student body. The food was served at 8:00, however when we reached there half an hour later, it was all gone. The food's usually the star of the show a very lavish spread, sourced from a great Iranian restaurant in Anaheim, Hatam. There were about 400 guests, a huge dance floor, a great DJ who works as an engineer by the day and moonlights as DJ by night and a lot of joy and bonhomie. We met lots of old friends, and had much fun trying to figure out how many hook ups were taking place on the dance floor. New haircuts were dissected, clothing choices ripped apart (the sad end to the evening were my own pants ripping apart when I reached home oooooooh, close call!), and snotty girls given the glare-down. Yes, snotty girls are the same everywhere, giving guys the cold shoulder, and then dancing with each other and glancing around in the hope that someone would notice.

As if all this fun was not enough to permanently ruin your academic and professional life, we had an Easter dinner (which my darling refers to as non-Greek Orthodox Easter to bug my friends) on Friday at my neighbour and friend Beck's house. Now Beck is moving to San Diego to join her boyfriend and start a new job in May, so this was probably one of the last few dinner parties we would have as neighbours here. Which is sad, because we've been together for the last 5 years, and she's such an integral part of all my LA experiences. The dinner would have been super fun if it only included us old friends, Beck, G & C (never referred to separately), Em, me and S (well technically not S, but since yesterday was also the third year anniversary of our meeting, I think he qualifies as old friend by now). But we were joined by a rather unpleasant, aggressive and needlessly cynical neighbour of ours, who shall be referred to as Canuck, in one stroke defining her moniker and origin. Our lady has led a problematic life and has trouble making friends, for which she has all my sympathies. But she's somehow managed to ingratiate herself to Beck and G & C, and now in her company they morph into her clones ever so slightly. Ever noticed how contagious bad behaviour is? Em and I can't stand her, and Em managed to conveniently excuse himself from time to time to go make coffee, take a phonecall, etc. I was the picture of discipline as I sat through really inane conversation, even when my neighbour's boyfriend tried to make a lame joke about how he wasn't able to figure out what the hell some Indian guy was trying to say when he invited the boyfriend for a "Holi fest". And how silly a bunch of Indian guys looked all covered up with colours crossing the street in San Diego.

Now what's the irony of the story? The boyfriend's Indian!! Not American-raised or Native American, but exported from Bangalore Indian. Granted Holi isn't big in Southern India, but jeez, is it so hard to figure out that those folks were referring to Holi the Indian festival and not inviting him for "holy" Easter? Don't get me wrong, he's a wonderful boy, incredibly polite and nice, but somehow he's internalized the message that to be with his girlfriend he has to be as much like her as possible. Which means American in a certain way. Now if he was raised in South Asia completely insulated from the space around him as some Indians and Pakistanis I know are, then I would not be bothered about his comments. But I know that there is an aspect of his character and upbringing that he suppresses to be with his girlfriend. Which makes it slightly sad, but then ultimately, it's really his choice to be this way.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Here's the spoiler: Indian chef, Hindi pronounciation and Ingrid Bergman

Almost a week has gone by since I've blogged. I've been in this state of suspended animation and anticipation: disappointed by the parsimonious weather gods, waiting for the sun to shine, and when it finally did shine, I was too lazy to blog. So finally, out of my spring stupor, here's a recap of what happened to me in the past week:

Got to attend a cooking class for the first time in my life courtesy the cyber-camaraderie of a rising star in the Indian culinary horizon, who's a chef/restauranteur/cookbook author. I've often wondered about the audience of a cooking class, and finally my curiosity was satisfied. I have a feeling that in India the audience may have primarily been young women getting prepped up for marriage, but here most of the folks were Indian food aficianados or foodies in general of all ages who wanted to recreate their aloo samosas at home.

The chef's a fun guy, but boy can he be a diva! He kept picking on the support staff or their incompetent prep work, and said some rather mean things about the store hosting his event. I thought the support staff had put in a great effort, digging out ingredients for a cuisine they were thoroughly unfamiliar with, and didn't deserve to be picked on for roasting the cumin a little less than desirable. But then, I think otherwise, he did a great job with the class, and was able to communicate well the subtlety, simplicity and yet layers of flavours in Indian cooking. He presented me with his book as well, and I thought it was really well-written, very personal, and presented cooking in India within a specific multi-ethnic milieu, not an artificial construct like "Indian cooking".

Then I got into an argument about correct pronounciation in Hindi. I'm a bit of a nitpicker at times (rarely, mostly I'm quite laidback and easygoing) and when folks who should know better start arguing for incorrect usage of words, it kind of gets to me. I don't see myself as a linguistic authority in Hindi (or an authority on any damn thing), but surely 12 years of schooling in Hindi, a year of college education in Hindi, a couple of years of being girlfriend to a Hindi literature groupie, another couple of years of girlfriend-dom to an Urdu snob, and being friends for years with an Urdu journalist/Hindi wiz should count for something. Apart from the fact that I've studied and worked with very knowledgable Hindi speakers and writers.

Which still doesn't make me infallible in the language, I still live and learn, but at least gives me the sense to differentiate between the colloquial usage of a word and its standard pronounciation. But then, who am I kidding? One of the reasons I don't speak any Hindi with most Indians here is because their Hindi is so absolutely appalling, it's painful to hear them speak the language.

So anyway, to round off, I watched a movie last night with Cary Grant(love him) and Ingrid Bergman (love her even more) and I think it was Spellbound (didn't catch the opening credits). I think I had seen this film many many years ago, back in the days when Doordarshan used to telecast old Hollywood classics every Friday night. I had seen the other Ingrid Bergman classic "A Brief Encounter" on Indian state television as well. In fact, come to think of it, I've probably seen more classical Hollywood than most of my American friends, even the film students (I know "A Brief Encounter" is David Lean and not strictly Hollywood). What I didn't see as a kid are American TV shows, which is where S is light years ahead of me. You name the show and he's seen them all, CHIPS, Sesame Street, Melrose Place.

Now, I'll have to stop, otherwise I won't be able to get ready on time for two more blogworthy events. Watch the space!

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Bahar-e-delkash......rites of Spring

A very happy Norooz to everyone. Norooz-e-ton Pirooz! Today marks the first day of spring according to the Persian calendar, and is the biggest celebration for Iranians worldwide. And the weather gods of LA paid heed, because after two days of rather dismal clouds, there's beautiful sunshine outside. The last week brought some very good news for my dearest friend Emil, a great gift from the bounty of spring that will mark a very special Saal-e-Nau for him. There's a lot of happiness in these precious lazy days, when flowers are so absentmindedly beautiful, and the supreme joy is a cup of tea drunk leisurely with dear friends.

On Saturday a bunch of us danced all night in our apartment in anticipation of 4:30 a.m. LA time, which is the time at which the year was supposed to turn and the new year began. We had a traditional haftseen (seven S) on the table, put together beautifully by my roommate Nelia, and it was done with more sophistication and elegance than most haftseen I saw around town. All we missed were sabzeh (green sprouts) and a goldfish, traditional symbols of bounty and fertility. But even without them the haftseen was great. I wish I had taken pics before we dismantled it. There was much hugging and greeting when the arrival of the Norooz was announced on the radio, and it was quite amazing for me how an ancient Zoroastrian tradition had been taken up as the dearest celebration for the Iranians. The Norooz meal is special and sounds delicious (I'm tempted to make my own version): sabzi polo ba mahi (greens pilaf with fish).

The Gregorian calendar New Year is a global celebration now, and yet, traditional celebrations of a new year based on local seasonal variations and agrarian timetables survive in most parts of Asia. I had written about the Chinese and Vietnamese Lunar New Year before, and there was the Javanese New Year as well. And now Norooz kicks off a month-long period that sees the New Year celebrated in several communities in India including Bengal as well as in the form of Songkran (I think the Thai version of the Sanskrit "Sankranti") in Thailand.

And to invoke the musical strains that evoke Norooz, I listened to Mohammad Reza Shajarian's CD, arguably the finest living exponent of Iranian traditional music. Shajarian's brilliance is evident to even those completely unfamiliar with Farsi, in fact, I cannot fathom most of the very refined Farsi of the verses that he sings. However, his voice is so rich, with such exquisite timber, and seems to have such candour that emotion is communicated without the benefit of language. I'm really getting carried away here! But if you have the opportunity do listed to Bahar-e-delkash by him (according to a friend, the poet is Baba Taher, but I'm unsure).

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Please stop selling atrocious food in the name of the Mughals

First, let's get the important stuff out of the way. Which means hot gossip. Mr. Director just split with his wife! Of course as soon as we read the news, we called EM and told her. We haven't heard back since. S has a theory that EM is delirious with joy, but why exactly we're not sure. After all, she has a boyfriend of 9 years, and is not really attracted to Mr. Director, right? Right.

Now for my long and meandering rant. Which would only make sense if you have some knowledge of Indian culinary culture and different kinds of Indian cuisine. I could try to explain things more, but I think I'll gloss over a lot of things. But in any case, here's some background.

The Mughals ruled India for nearly 350 years, and their courtly cuisine evolved during these years. Initially the food of the Mughals displayed their Central Asian and Turkic roots (as a few mentions in Babarnama would show), but later Persophilia brought a lot of Persian influence into the cuisine. Of course Indian ingredients, techniques and spices got incorporated in the process of assimilation, giving us a cuisine sophisticated with varied influences, impossibly rich, complex and not something that someone with a family to feed or a restaurant to run would attempt on a daily basis. In this respect of course they were exactly like every other royal family anywhere else in the world.

Two offshoots of the declining Mughal dynasty (actually aristocrats working for the Mughals) went off to Lucknow and Hyderabad to start their own dynasties and took Mughal culinary sophistication with them. However, these offshoot cuisines evolved over time with newer techniques and local ingredients, hence the presence of tamarind in Hyderabadi Nizam cooking. The rulers of Lucknow made cuisine their special obsession, and in the twilight years of their rule, the food became incredibly elaborate. Outlandish descriptions pepper Abdul Halim Sharar's "Hindustan mein mashriqi tamaddun ka akhri namuna" (the last example of Eastern culture/civilization in India), a physician who was part of the Lucknow aristocracy before its fall to the British. And then of course 1857 happened. In Lucknow most of the highest level of aristocracy were put in exile away from the city, but many surviving in surrounding towns and countryside. In Delhi, the events were truly tragic. The entire population of the city was forced out, and later only the Hindu population allowed to return. The Muslims, especially the aristocracy were kept out for a long time, and when they were finally allowed to return, many chose not to, and many had already been dead. The ruling family was killed and the king exiled to Burma, where he died a lonely death.

Now why talk of 19th century Indian history in a discussion of cuisine? Because my point is, what existed as Mughal cuisine, the cuisine of the Delhi aristocracy, the residents of the Red Fort in Delhi, died with the events of 1857. The cultural milieu that sustained this refined culinary exercise was shattered, and there was no aristocratic class to patronize such food. Vestiges of the food were preserved within the food of the ruling families in small Northern Indian principalities and wealthy, upper-strata Muslim families with a certain savoir vivre. Thus it was only in Lucknow and surroundings that certain aspects of the cuisine were preserved as an everyday exercise. The Mughals were gone, taking Mughlai food with them.

So then what explains the fact that every second restaurant in India and outside it claims to serve Mughlai food? Hmmmmmm.....that in my opinion is the biggest food scam perpetuated on patrons of Indian restaurants. Most of these restaurants are run by restauranteurs who have virtually no knowledge of Mughlai and Lucknowi culinary traditions. All they need is a USP to sell their dodgy culinary output, and the name of the Great Mughals comes as a handy excuse. And their brilliant strategy? Pour fresh cream by the gallons in any dish and voila! you get to call it Shahi (royal) and its Mughlai provenance is established. And hence, atrocities like navratan korma (basically a mish-mash of veggies in cream), malai kofta (cheesy koftas dunked in cream) or the worst of all shahi paneer (fresh cheese chunks in a tomato-cream gravy). Most of the dishes at these restaurants are overspiced and smothered with tomato puree, an ingredient that the Mughlai cooks were virtually unaware of.

The saddest part of the story is, there are food writers in India and abroad who eat at these so called Mughlai restaurants and then shoot off about how awful Mughlai food is. Or those who make absurd statements about Mughlai food, about how it is all about the use of cream! These food writers are allowed to get away with outlandish statements about Mughlai food purely because there aren't too many out there who know better. There is, of course the venerable Jiggs Kalra, who's knowledge of North Indian culinary traditions is encyclopaedic. But Jiggs is more of a food consultant than a writer these days, and no one else in India has quite the breadth of knowledge and authority as him.

So faux "Mughlai" food continues to spawn and the cuisine itself keeps getting bad press because of these terrible restaurants. At least Lucknowi and associated culinary traditions have benefitted from the efforts of chefs like Imtiaz Qureshi (with his "Dum Pukht" restaurant, and no, for the last time, "Bukhara" is not a Mughlai restaurant!) and writers like R.K. Saxena (writer of Dastarkhwan-e-Awadh). But with Mughlai food, what we need is either a careful revival aided by food historians, talented chefs and those who have partaken some bit of Mughlai tradition in their families. Or else we should just accept the fact that it is a cuisine that had its heyday and then faded away in the aftermath of the tragic demise of the city of Delhi itself. If the Delhi celebrated in prose and poetry is no more, what hope is there for Mughlai food?

And if you still want a sense of what Mughlai culinary achievements were like, please, please, avoid the Indian restaurants and go to Persian one instead.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Greeks wrote stuff besides The Odyssey you know

Kathryn decided to link one of my posts in her blog, making it the very first time my post has been linked by someone. It's a milestone and my blog feels very special. She produces a fine succinct analysis of the nature of diasporic communities and their relation to the homeland that they grew up in and migrated from. Certainly, I think Kathryn is right when she says that diasporas resemble each other more than they resemble the populations in their home countries.

Kathryn's blog is excellent overall, and is a great resource for someone who wants to follow contemporary Greek literature but is not fluent in Greek. When I first started learning Greek, I decided to put my dive into Greek literature on hold till I acquired sufficient fluency to read the originals. Now the learning Greek project is taking a hiatus, and I've realised it'll be several years before I can be fluent enough to even understand the words of Greek nursery rhymes. Reading the translations doesn't seem so bad, but a full-fledged literary odyssey (cheesy metaphor) will have to wait till I find some direction with my dissertation. In the meanwhile, Kathryn provides such fabulous nuggets, like the excellent poem by Kostas Karyotakis translated by her.

I think it's a pity that growing up in India, our anglophone inclinations kept us from exploring the fine literary traditions in non-English speaking nations. The only exception was Russian literature (mostly 19th century though) that came via cheap Raduga and Progress Press translations and India's proximity to the Soviet Union (if you looked at Raduga's book list, you'd think nothing except Russian literature existed in the USSR. Hello..Armenian anyone?). So of course I grew up with Auden, Elliot and Hughes, with the occasional Chekhov and Dostoevsky thrown in. The first time I heard of Nikos Kazantzakis was with the controversy over "The Last Temptation of Christ", a film made in 1988 by Martin Scorsese. The film was based on a novel by Kazantzakis, and he blipped on my mental radar again with another film based on a novel of his, "Zorba the Greek". I'm yet to read his works though, and when I do get down to my Greek literature project, he would be an excellent place to start.

I'm especially interested in the poets though, Elitis, Cavafy, Karyotakis and Palamas and of course classical Greek poetry. I think the economy and lyricism of the Greek language is especially suited to poetry, which is probably why Homer chose to write as he did. The landscape and culturescapes also prod creatively minded souls to versify, witness how Byron and Keats squeezed music out of English in writing about Greece.

Friday, March 11, 2005

So you watched "The Old Fox" too?

From time to time, Emil and I do this fun thing. We compare notes about the TV we used to watch growing up. I in a still sort of mixed economy tilting to socialism India and he in Islamic Republic of Iran. Satelite TV came to India in the early 1990s, with economic liberalization. It also came to Iran, though there you had to set up an illegal dish antenna to catch signals beamed to neighbouring countries. That was actually way cooler, because they could see satelite TV catering to, and originating in many different countries. They saw the first avatar of the pan-Asian Star channel (based in Hongkong with mostly syndicated American shows, and some originals like "Yan can cook"). The same crappy "Bold & Beautiful" and "Santa Barbara". Later they got Star Plus India, the Indianized Star (after Star became part of the Murdoch stable), and Channel V. He still remembers the Quick Gun Murugan spots on V, the Tamil cowboy, who'd burst into a salon and say "Oru Whisky, oru masala dosa"!!

They also managed to catch signals to Turkish satelite channels, and Israeli TV, as well as a few channels based in Kuwait and UAE, which of course we never managed to see. So Emil has a great pan-Middle Eastern and South Asian perspective on 1990s television. The more exotic choices on our satelite channel list were PTV International and ATN Bangladesh. And oh, we had Fashion TV, I believe based in France, the most mind-numbingly boring channel ever.

What Emil and I also share in common is a childhood and adolescence spent watching cheap syndicated German TV. You see there was a German syndicating company called Transtel, that used to sell German TV shows from the 1970s to state channels in countries like India and Iran, which could use these as evidence of diversity in programming. Hence Emil and I both have vivid memories of "so bad it's actually good" cop shows like "The Old Fox" (Der Alte in German and "Kargah Koster" in Farsi). And of course "Didi's Comedy Show", and "Derrick", another cop show.

On the plus side it seems the folks running both the Indian and Iranian state TV were firm Anglophiles and BBC and ITV productions featured prominently. There was "Yes Minister" and many other series based on books. The funny thing is that the cheesier shows are a bit of a private joke between me and Emil, because none of our American friends have seen them. Strange that coming from countries with very restricted electronic media in the 1980s like India and Iran, Emil and I had a greater range of programmes from many different countries.

Compare this to American TV, where if you watch the big three terrestrial channels, you'd think no TV shows are produced outside the US, because they are never featured. This of course does not stop American TV from ripping off ideas from TV in other countries - "American Idol" from "Pop Idol" (in England), "The Office" on NBC from "The Office" (BBC) and they even had a shortlived rip-off of "Kumars at No. 42" (a BBC show with a British Indian family) but with a Mexican family. And then there is "Real World" on MTV, inspired by "Big Brother" on British TV, which supposedly started the reality TV craze.

But to cut a digression short, it's surprising and reassuring to know that we weren't inhabiting some bizarre isolated realm of entertainment, where everything we saw or listened to was eccentric and alien to the rest of the world. I find it reassuring to think that Indian film musicians were ripping off songs from other countries, which means that they were listening to those songs in the first place, and not stuck in a self-referential loop. And it is very good to know that someone else in another part of the world was as mesmerized by a cop show where the hero was a 70-year old German cop with never a change of expression in dozens of episodes, a hypnotic tedium of pace that was only relieved briefly by the appearance of a very young and very attractive Natassja Kinski in one episode. And yet I loved "The Old Fox" and Emil did too. Why? I think for the same reasons. We wanted to reach out, see what was out there, and anything would have sufficed.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

I'm not biased towards Asian cuisines!

Yay, I just finished the Zagat survey, although the last page ominously was an error message. Does that mean that I won't get my Zagat guide? They'd better give it to me, I spent an hour meticulously rating and giving comments for every restaurant I've been to that's listed on the Zagat list. When I told Emil that I was rating restaurants for Zagat, he was so horrified. "You are going to make sure Thai and Korean restaurants are top of your list!". Emil thinks I am excessively fond of East and South-east Asian food. He of course hates most East and South-east Asian food, except Malaysian, which for some reason he's really loves. But then, when I compiled my final top five this is what it looked like:

1. Shahrezad - Iranian restaurant in Westwood. The one place where I've eaten the most in LA. The consistency of this place is amazing. Never a bad meal in 5 years! Hopefully never in the years to come.

2. Papa Cristo's - May not be the best Greek food in the world, but certainly beats the competition hands down in LA. And the folks there are so wonderful. And Chris the owner is a great guy, there isn't a soul in the Greek community who doesn't know him!

3. All India Cafe - I know there are those who think All India Cafe caters to the anglo hipster crowd, but I really like the food there. Very fresh flavours, gentle spicing and everything doesn't end up tasting like tomato puree.

4. In n Out - I think there are enough folks out there willing to build shrines to this best burger ever for me to elaborate.

5. Pho 79 - It is healthy, nutritious, incredibly flavourful and costs $5. Is there anything not to love in pho? And then, this place is so close by.

So there, that's only one South-east Asian restaurant in the list. It is not that I don't have other favourites, primarily in South-east Asian cuisines, but these are places where I've eaten repeatedly, and there are other aspects besides the food that appeal to me. So I think I've managed to successfully prove to myself and Emil that I am indeed quite cosmopolitan when it comes to food. I might draw the line on monkey brain, well maybe pig's blood as well. And bull testicles...umm..peanut butter too. Ok, ok, there's a lot I won't eat, but generally speaking I'm quite open to most cuisines.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Stolen centrepieces and the Cyprus question

I'm taking my 265th break from work. No that's not a real number, that's the random number generator in my head working overtime. Just thought I'd write down my experiences of last Saturday before I forget all about them. So last Saturday, S and I scored tickets to the annual dinner of the American-Hellenic Council due to the generosity of a friend and EM's recommendation. The AHC is an organization of Greek-Americans and the big attraction of going to the dinner is networking opportunities (aka schmoozing), hooking up (does not apply to S and me) and Greek dancing. We didn't really make it in time for prime schmoozefest, the time before everyone sits down to dinner, when people are ambling around the lobby and receptive to conversations with strangers. The dinner was in the Biltmore Hotel in downtown LA, which seems to have been built in an era when folks had more ambition than taste. The outside looks unobstrusive enough, but inside is an exuberant mess,and not exuberant in a good way, with its high ceilings, uninspired murals and incredibly tacky carpets. But enough about the venue.

We arrived right in time for a slew of speeches that continued all through the salad, dinner, dessert, coffee and a couple of pee breaks. A number of people were being honoured whom we didn't recognize and then they proceeded to thank more people we didn't know and reeled off lists of more folks we didn't have a clue about. I looked around and found many masters of the art of dozing off while sitting ramrod straight. And then I had to amuse myself by checking out the rest of the room.

At the other end of the room was Soto with his brother, and his brother's girlfriend who looked like she was half his brother's age. Soto's brother P is a gorgeous man, one of the handsomest I've ever seen, and takes good advantage of his charm with women. Sitting at their table was a Greek Olympic gold medal winning gymnast, now Hollywood aspirant, who seemed to be the target of the horniness of many of the older women in the room, and yet sent our gaydar sensors into high spin. Oh puleeeeez, pretty boy gymnast, squeaky voice.....gay, gay, gay!!!! On the table next to us were two more aspiring actors, both rather famous in Greece, but starting as nobodies in Hollywood. Fame doesn't translate well, as the Javier Bardems of this world know. On the table behind me were Mike and Mike (I think they do have different formal names, but both answer to Mike). Mike the dentist is the prettiest robot, with a gorgeous plastic smile, but has some mechanical errors, like the tendency to always look over your shoulder to see if he's not missing out on better action elsewhere. Mike the lawyer has political ambitions, and hence was schmoozing up to political biggies throughout the evening. And then there was Aldo the musician, rolling his eyes as the speeches got longer and longer.

But then, something interesting happened. Someone mentioned Cyprus. Actually a woman who's not of Greek origin, but she represents Astoria in the US Senate, so of course knows what raw wounds to tweak. There was much slander directed at Turkey, and that brought thunderous applause in the room. A lot of these folks are an older generation of Greek-Americans and haven't forgiven the forced Greek exodus from Asia Minor or the Cyprus invasion. I don't think they take the changed geopolitical equation of Greece and Turkey into account, or what a new generation of Greek Cypriots may desire. But the infusion of energy into a room that had been hitherto napping or making eye contact for purposes of hook-up set the stage for the dancing that followed.

There was lots of dancing, and EM was appalled at the massacre of Cretan dance moves by the young Greek-Americans. I of course thought they were fine, with their rhythmic steps and beautiful synchronization. But I'm not Cretan so what do I know. Here are some folks who should know. There was a lot of other music as well, some tsifteteli (best described as Greek belly dancing), as well as kotsari. I've yet to see a nation as passionate about their dancing as the Greek. For most Greeks, dancing embodies the essence of the Greek spirit, bon vivant, refined yet raw, linked to the everyday celebrations of his/her ancestors.

As the evening winded down, we prepared to leave. And then we saw something really amusing. People were carrying off the beautiful floral centrepieces as they left! I asked someone next to me and he said that the organizers said it was alright to do so. Well, that anecdotal evidence was all the encouragement I needed to cart off one for my own apartment. So whatever the actual position of the organizers on the centrepieces may have been, now I have one sitting on my dining table, adding much needed organic life to a very uber-urban space.

Friday, March 04, 2005

German lesbians and white giant grasshoppers

Ok, I think I need to title my blogs. I was scrolling down glancing through my entries and I realised they were a bit tiresome without any breaks to refresh the eye. And now here's the part where I explain the title.

So today, I duly got up at 6:45 a.m. (yay me!) to meet my advisor at 9:45 a.m. to visit the port. He had told me earlier that we would have a visitor from Germany and her friend accompanying us. When I reached his office and peeked in, I saw two very gentle looking women waiting outside his door. They introduced themselves to me and I realised that one was the visitor (she teaches planning in Germany) and the other was her friend, a physician. Now this seems awfully nosy, but believe me when I say that I was not being the slightest bit homophobic when I immediately started speculating if they were a couple. I would have done the same had they been of opposite sex. It seemed plausible. They both looked fairly masculinely dressed (not that I'm assuming that all masculinely dressed women are lesbians), were taking a vacation together, and had that attentive tenderness for each other that couples have. They were very refined and restrained in that classic Germanic way.

Then my advisor and our co-partner in the project M came and we headed to the port. Now it was an interesting coincidence that only a couple of months ago, I had been interviewed for an internship by the very same duo of port planners we were supposed to be meeting now. I had not been selected for that internship, and for some inexplicable reason it was a bit awkward for me to meet them again. And then, the two of them made it even more awkward, by not greeting me initially, and then greeting me only half-heartedly later. I got a sudden rush of wounded pride, and wanted to dazzle these fellows by asking them some brilliant complicated questions. All I managed were some half-ass idiotic comments, and now I feel terrible.

I have often felt that I'm a bit too sensitive to what I assume are others' perceptions of me, and it is mortifying for me to think that others see me as a fool. At these moments I have to tell myself repeatedly that it's not important that everyone likes me, that it is not even desirable that everyone likes me (which would mean that I have no personality to speak of), and that what matters is that those who matter to me like and appreciate me. But I also have to acknowledge that this hypercritical superego is the only thing that spurs me to read on, do research, learn a new skill, better myself in some way. That's just so silly and so human.

Oh, the giant white grasshoppers? Those were just the large fixed gantry cranes at the port.
It takes a very compelling reason to get me out of bed at unearthly hours (anything before 9:00 a.m.) qualifies. I don't really mind having to do it tomorrow, because we are taking a trip around one of our local ports (only the 3rd largest in the world,hmmm......). I do have some ambivalence about the environmental impact of ports on marine life and on residents in neighbouring communities, but I'm also absolutely fascinated by their scale and the gateway to the world that they represent. Well, in this case, it's more like gateway to the Asia Pacific, which dominates imports to the US, and accounts for most of the cargo to the LA port.

I was told that George Lucas found inspiration for some of the fantastic creatures in Star Wars by looking at the gantry cranes in the Oakland port. That sounds entirely plausible. If you've ever seen a gantry crane (scroll down for a picture of a row of them at the Oakland port), you'd realise what incredible, phantasmagorical creatures they appear to be. They seem so devoid of softness, any fragility, that they are almost impossible to love. And yet, I had met a civil engineer once who told me his greatest pleasure is to look at gantry cranes. He had designed many and was absolutely fascinated by them.

Point being, industrial landscapes can have their own appeal. That's what the German government and European Union hope is true, because they've invested so much money into recasting the Ruhrgebeit into an industrial heritage tourism site. Some of the things that they've done are absolutely great. Like this old gasometer that's been converted into an exhibition space. Or the marvelous red dot design museum, a tribute to cutting edge design that is housed smack in the middle of Zeche Zollverein, an old coal mine converted to an industrial heritage site. A lot of it is ingenuity in the face of the 80s slump and lasting depression in the German steel industry. But I think a lot of it is very avant garde and visionary, and makes one rethink the very notion of heritage.

Pity the Americans don't think this way, otherwise they wouldn't be trying to replicate one cutesy fishing village after another in waterfront development schemes that do not seem to even acknowledge the rough around the edges world of seamen and dockworkers.
So Mr. Director didn't win. I mean he did, but not in the best director category. We had a fun, fun night watching the Oscars with Urmi, Emil and S. With lots of popcorn and soda. Hollywood and munchies. What a classic combo. And now we've discovered that the family members of some friend of EM know Mr. Director and have been threatening to tell him that she's obsessed with him. She's been begging them not to.

On the other end of the Greek spectrum, Soto ended up going out not with the Chinese girl from Suzy's lab, but with some Ukrainian girl he met at a European mixer. I guess he'd invested some effort in getting know his Ukrainian ex-girlfriend's cultural background and didn't want to waste it. But I think it would have been fun for us if he'd picked the Chinese girl. I mean, c'mon given a choice between an insider's guide to Chinese restaurants or one to Ukrainian food, what would you pick? Apparently this is a Ukrainian delicacy. I rest my case. To be fair to Soto, he was very eager to meet the Chinese girl, but our plans went awry when Suze took off to India without arranging the meeting. But the Ukrainians get a lot of coolness points for their Orange Revolution, and for proving that peaceful democratic change by popular mandate has taken firm hold in the Eastern bloc. The Chinese are yet to pull that one off.