March: Decisions

A month!  When I was in Cleveland, everyone used to say that March came in like a lion and out like a lamb: the beginning of the month always saw a massive, stay-at-home storm, and, by April 1, daffodils were shyly opening, the grass was reasserting itself, and the sun was struggling to get past the new leaves.

And Edinburgh.  Older people I spoke with said that the Siberian snowstorm at the beginning of the month was the largest, strongest, most terrible they’d ever seen in Scotland.  Train lines were blocked, streets were closed, and we stocked up on wine and cider and stayed inside.

But Carl had picked that week to come visit, and was on one of the last flights allowed to land at the airport; the runways shut a few hours later.  He was supposed to record some music he’d written at Abbey Road Studios in London, and en route, he wanted to see our new place and get some tweed.

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The jacket he is wearing was made maybe 40 years ago by a tailor at 79 George’s Street. Thus this picture.

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We did get to Walker Slater, which was open, and he got some new suits – gorgeous ones, matched with shirts and waistcoats and hats and socks.  At one point I put on a jacket that fit almost perfectly, and suddenly felt like I was born again – I don’t normally pay attention to clothes, but something about Carl’s enthusiasm, and the way a well-fitting jacket made me feel like a new man – well, I got the religion.  I decided to start dressing better then and there.

So I’ve been pulling sport coats out of my wardrobe, and looking at matching colors, and figuring out how to ensure that I dress better than I normally do.  And suddenly it is reaping dividends.  I not only feel better, but I notice that I’m treated differently than I normally am – perhaps more seriously, more professionally.  A couple of weeks ago I was going into a building with a door you need to be buzzed into; just as I got there, someone else was admitted.  Instead of making sure I was approved to enter, he just looked at my jacket and held the door open for me, letting me go ahead of him.

And it’s something I might have a philosophical problem with; I am the same person, just in a shirt and jacket, right?  Why should I be treated differently than someone in a hoodie, or torn jeans and a dirty sweater?  But it makes a difference in the real world.  I can rail against superficial materialism or I can use it to my advantage and not worry too much about it, accepting that the world works in a particular way that may not jibe with my philosophical ideals.  I can oppose it – or open my eyes and accept it.

So thank you, Carl.  You’ve been a wonderful influence and mentor to me in so many ways, and I’m so, so grateful to have your friendship and love.

Then, a few days later, we flew to Lisbon.

Which is a good transition to what I read this month:

  1. Conquerors.  Before we went on the Big Trip last year, I had this idea: we’d read a book or books about every country we visited, just to understand it better.  Before India, I read a book on the Partition, which just reinforced that India is far too large a country to write a single book about, or to hope to understand in a single lifetime.  God, India is massive.  But we read some really amazing books about Southeast Asia, and I think – through understanding either the history, the biographies, or the fiction of a place – we got to understand the people more than if we’d just read a guide book, or nothing at all.  So this month, as we prepared to visit Lisbon, I read two books on the history of Portugal.  I’ve wanted to visit Lisbon since 2012, ever since I read about a glove store that was supposed to be the smallest luxury store in the world; I was enchanted, and put it on my “must visit” list.  After running the Paris half-marathon in 2015 and loving it, we decided to be half-marathon tourists, visiting cities, running their halves and then enjoying ourselves for a few days.  It’s amazing to run through a city and have the streets blocked off and have everyone cheering you, then to also get to meet people from all over who are also running, or just living.  Anyways, Conquerors was the first book I read this month.  It was…uneven.  Basically, the Portuguese were terrible human beings, ignorant, stupid, and successful.  And that story is repeated over and over and over and over and over and over and over again throughout their colonial story.  It wasn’t well-written, and it was very poorly edited, so I ended up disliking both the story and the book.
  2. I wasn’t going to give up on Portugal, though.  Ryan Holiday recommended the Stefan Zweig biography of Magellan, and it was moderately better; it was more about a Portuguese man, not about the Portuguese, and he was in the employ of the Spanish for most of the book, so I still didn’t get a good sense of Portugal.  Sigh.
  3. SQL The Hard Way – read during the snow storm.  Programming.
  4. Scrum.  When I was done with this, I spoke to the Scrum Master, Robert, at my office.  He laughed and summed up how I felt about the book: it’s a sales pitch for Sutherland’s business, and you can get more from YouTube in five minutes than you’d get from two hours of reading this book.
  5. The Billionaire’s Apprentice.  This was an absolutely remarkable story – and while there were a few inconsistencies in the telling, and the author is obviously sympathetic to one of the main villains, it was still a brilliant read and really worth the time.
  6. Egg.  For some reason, I really wanted to learn how to make excellent omelettes and scrambled eggs.  I turned to Michael Ruhlman, whose book Ratio unequivocally changed my life.  Ruhlman’s Twenty was also brilliant, and I learned a lot from Braise.  Egg was…good, but not as good as the others.  Regardless, I got a lot of recipes and ideas, and my confidence in the kitchen – which was high already – is shooting through the roof.
  7. First Lady.  A remarkable book about a remarkable woman; I feel like I understand much more about the UK after having read this.

But a slight diversion back to Portugal for a second; the absolute best dessert in Portugal is the Custard Tart.  In the five days we were there, I probably ate 40 or so of them – in bars, cafes, from street stands, and from Manteigaria, which really has the best we ate.

Here’s the recipe from Manteigaria.  First, forty-five of these little tins are put on a baking tray.

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Each gets a pad of puff pastry, cut precisely.  The pastry is made by rolling very very very thin layers together in a spiral.

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They are flattened out by a worker’s thumbs into the tiny dishes, then filled with custard.

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When all 45 are full, they’re placed into an oven that cooks them at around 330º Celsius.  EFFING HOT.

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They’re pulled out of their little tins, cooled, and then sold for a Euro a piece.

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Sprinkled with cinnamon, these may be the most delicious things I’ve had all year.  My mouth watered just typing that sentence.

Besides more belly fat, the souvenir list from Lisbon:

  • Four of the tart tins, purchased from a flea market.  After seeing them in Manteigaria, I decided that I needed some.
  • One vintage Parker 51 fountain pen – the same kind of pen that my grandfather gave my father when he left Mauritius to go to university in France.  My father gave that pen to me when I was five, and I lost it – something I’ll always remember with shame and sadness.
  • A grey cotton Charles Tyrwhitt summer jacket.  Luvaria Ulisses, The glove store that made me want to visit Lisbon actually didn’t have many of their styles in stock, and despite their reputation they wouldn’t custom make or order gloves in my size; I was given the choice of a single, poorly-fitting style of black men’s gloves or women’s gloves in my size.  I said I’d think about it.  Then we drank a lot of wine and went back to our AirBNB and I used the money I’d saved to buy a new Charles Tyrwhitt jacket, which fits me like a glove and has gotten more compliments and attention than I probably would have gotten from really nice gloves – and which I can wear more anyway.
  • Three Azulejo tiles from the 1800s.  They are the tiles you see on the fronts of Portuguese buildings, all patterned and beautiful; Alice wanted some, and we picked them out at an outdoor market from an old woman who had piles of different ones – very few of which matched.  They’re currently behind our stove, as a sort of backsplash.  We’ll incorporate them into the real backsplash when…well, when we have an updated kitchen.

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  • A blue and white Portuguese serving plate.  It was beautiful, but broke a few days ago.  Oh well.
  • A wool blanket.  For some reason Portugal has a lot of wool.  Alice loved this one.
  • Running shirts and medals from the half marathon, which was very fast but not very inspiring.

Also, last night, I drank a few glasses of wine and received a few texts from my friend Emily Moore in London, who might visit me this month and I might visit her, too.  I decided to write her a letter, not a long one but just a letter with the dates we’d be in London and be available, and suddenly it felt like the most luxurious thing in the world, although it may have been the wine.  A paper letter; a Waterman fountain pen; brown scented ink (“Old Library”) from Fortnum and Mason; and dates that we might visit her.  It’ll take three, four days to reach her, and then she can either text me, email me, or write me back to confirm.  So it may be four days before I hear back; it could be a week.  Or longer.  Maybe it won’t reach her, and she’ll never know that we were serious about visiting her.  Maybe she’ll think we blew her off, or something happened, or we are angry.  And then maybe she’ll get the letter later and feel terrible for thinking terribly of us.  Or maybe we’ll see her and the postal system will have worked its magic.  Who knows?  But it was a short letter, even though I could have written a longer one and paid the same stamp, but a short letter felt even more luxurious because of the potential waste.  I mean, sure, four pages, six, eight, could have been sent without issue, but a single page, with three paragraphs?  It’s somehow more glorious, more…sinful, perhaps, to have sent a short letter.  I wasn’t trying to maximize my space or time or money: I was asserting my control of time, my ability to not need immediate responses or to require instant gratification.  I’ve sent a short letter, with the hope that I’ll see Emily, and I will await a response.  And while waiting, I will enjoy the possibilities that time gives us.

It reminds me of a Mont Blanc advertisement from their 2000 catalogue, which I picked up in Oxford while visiting my friend Eryn Lewis.  I remember it well because it was a beautiful catalog, all full of inspiring photos and beautiful pens, but also because there were all sorts of quotes that I cut out of it and glued to the back of letters to Elizabeth Schwyzer over the subsequent years.  But one of the quotes always stuck with me, and just keeps getting more and more appropriate: “Time is the greatest luxury of our time.”

And now, after March is over on Easter weekend, we’re sitting in the kitchen; two candles are burning, two flutes of prosecco are being reduced, muffins are cooling, yogurt is fermenting.  So far this weekend we’ve shampooed all the carpets, painted two of the four bedrooms, rearranged tons, and gotten rid of loads of useless items that were left over from the previous tenants.  Every day this month, at least once, I’ve wondered how I got so lucky, with so much to be grateful for.  And that feels like a good place to be.

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