Category Archives: Susanna

See Sister Make Panzanella

Faithful readers will remember that last November I went to Forza Win(ter) – a family style Italian dining experience courtesy of Forza Win. Well, I had the pleasure of another Forza Win dinner last week. It was a delight (as the Forza experiences always are!). The company was grand, the food was delicious, the drinks were tasty, the after dinner music was utterly enjoyable.

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Perhaps more than anything, though, I was delighted that this feast featured panzanella. At my first Forza Win experience (CUTS, last summer), they served an INCREDIBLE, crazy addictive panzanella. The copious amounts I ingested undoubtedly played a large part in the painfully overfull feeling I had at the end of the night. But seriously, it was SO GOOD. So when it showed up on our table again last week, I was a very happy girl.

Given that I fell in love with the panzanella at CUTS last summer, it’s strange that up to this point I had never attempted it at home. Having it again last week prompted me to do just that. On Saturday evening, Louise and I had Danny and Marie-Laure (of the long walk fame) over for dinner, which seemed the perfect opportunity to try my hand at panzanella.

For those who may not be familiar… panzanella is a Tuscan-style bread salad. Recipes differ, but it always features tomatoes and chunks of crusty bread in a tangy, vinegary dressing. Forza’s version is ALL about the tomatoes, though many recipes include peppers (sometimes roasted, sometimes not). Since I was trying to emulate the crack-like addictive qualities of Forza’s recipe, I skipped the peppers and focused on finding fresh tomatoes. Fortunately, on Saturday mornings there is a small little farmers’ market in the square outside our flat. This week there were tomatoes in every color of the rainbow for sale – yippee! [This good news was reported by Louise, who passed through the square and bought some AMAZING fresh butter, which she brought home. That butter was basically the best thing that’s happened to me in months.]

I took myself down to the square and bought a load of tomatoes in various colors and sizes. Yay!

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Aren’t they puuurty??

Besides the tomatoes, the essential ingredient is obviously the bread. Some recipes said to just use stale bread, but the best part of the Forza version is that the bread is damp with the dressing but still slightly crunchy. If you were to use just stale bread, I think it would get too soggy. So I took my cue from the recipes that suggested cutting the bread into chunks and toasting it up in the oven, crouton-style. I tossed the pieces with a little olive oil and some salt and pepper and toasted them in a 350F oven for about 15 minutes.

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I didn’t strictly follow any one recipe, but I drew a lot from the Guardian’s Felicity Cloake and from Jamie Oliver’s version. I kind of played it all by ear, given that I was using all tomatoes and no peppers. The details that follow here, then, are vaguely what I did. Given the rustic nature of panzanella, I think it’s appropriate to just kind of feel your way through it.

Ingredients
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
Loads of fresh tomatoes
1 loaf of bread (ciabatta, sourdough, country loaf, whatever)
5(ish) tablespoons red or white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon capers (optional)
4 anchovies, finely diced
1 clove garlic, crushed
6 tablespoons olive oil
Fresh basil (I actually forgot this, but it’s definitely a good addition)

Felicity Cloake suggests soaking the onions in lightly salted cold water for an hour before using, in order to get more of a sweet flavor without the intense onion-ness. I did this, but I didn’t feel like it really got rid of the strong flavor. In fact, I thought the onion was too strong in the final product. The onions in Forza’s version are really thin, soft, and mellow. I don’t know if they cook them slightly before using or what, but that’s what I’d like to achieve in any of my future panzanella attempts.

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Soaking the onions (and toasting the bread) was really the only time consuming step in the whole process. Otherwise it’s pretty quick and simple.

Chop the tomatoes into chunks (I left some of the smaller ones whole), and set in a colander over a bowl, so some of the juice can drain out.

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Again, aren’t they so so pretty!?

Put the bread into a bowl and toss with the vinegar to moisten (I used white wine vinegar because that’s what I had, but I think red wine vinegar would work just as well – probably even better). Drain the onions and add them and the capers (drained of any excess liquid) to the bread. Give the tomatoes a toss and apply a little pressure to drain out any excess juice, then dump the tomatoes in the bread bowl.

Add the garlic and chopped anchovies to the tomato juice. Whisk in the olive oil and season with salt and pepper to taste (if you’ve toasted the bread with salt/pepper already, then go light with it here). Pour the dressing over the bread and tomatoes and give it a good toss.

Leave it to sit for 15 minutes or so before serving, so that all the flavors can meld and the bread has time to soak up the liquid. Don’t leave it for too long, though, because you don’t want soggy, mushy bread. For the same reason, it won’t keep overnight. In other words, eat it all up the same day you make it.

Voila!

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I won’t pretend it was as good as Forza’s, but I was pretty pleased with this first attempt. Next time, I’ll go lighter on the onions and perhaps a little bolder with the dressing. I’m gonna be chasing that Forza panzanella dream until I nail it!

What about you? Have you ever made panzanella? Do you have a favorite recipe? Have you ever attempted to recreate a restaurant recipe at home?

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See Sister Read: Wine vs Cheese

I’ve been on a serious reading kick lately. Since my trip to Greece (when I read The Tragic Teenage Cancer Love Story with the Unrealistic Male Lead), I’ve been steadily digesting book after book. I’ve always loved reading and I generally love to have a book on my nightstand or in my bag at all times, but there are spells when I fall out of the habit. These lulls usually happen because I hit a book that I’m not totally into, and therefore my reading slows down. It becomes more and more of a chore to read when a book is just not grabbing my attention (and I rarely rarely rarely rarely quit a book; it just feels wrong). You would think that when I finish one of those not-so-interesting-slow-progressing books, I’d be thrilled to finally be done with it so I can start a new, potentially better book. But actually, I find that those books kind of just put me off reading in general and it takes me awhile to get back in the swing of things.

I say all of this because I read one of those not-so-great books earlier this year, and it led to a fallow reading period for me. The book was The Billionaire’s Vinegar: The Mystery of the World’s Most Expensive Bottle of Wine. Great title, right!?

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I had wanted to read this book for quite awhile. It’s the true story of a bottle of 1787 Lafite that was supposedly owned by Thomas Jefferson and discovered in a walled up Paris cellar in the 1980s. The bottle was sold at auction in 1985 for over $150,000. The authenticity of the bottle, its provenance, and the reputation of Hardy Rodenstock (the man who claimed to have discovered the cellar) were all called into question immediately, and the controversy was revisited repeatedly in the ensuing years. As I work in an auction house, I was intrigued by the auction element; as a former history major, I was interested in the historical aspect; and as a breathing human, I was hooked by the mysterious drama of it all. In other words, my expectations were HIGH.

The book is not in print in the UK, so I nabbed a copy when I was home at Christmas last year. I eagerly started reading when I was back in London but after a chapter or two, my progress ground to a slow and painful crawl. This book had so much promise: Big spenders! Possible forgery! Potential con men! Reputations on the line! So why was it so difficult to get through?!

After opening with the sale of the bottle, Benjamin Wallace goes on to write at length about a ton of different wine tastings and various characters within the Super Old Wines World, instead of focusing on the big draw: Is the bottle fake or not? These tastings all relate in some way to Hardy Rodenstock, the Jefferson bottles (there were several more in addition to the 1787 Lafite), and other old bottles he purportedly discovered. As I read the book, though, all the tastings and all the people involved seemed to become one indistinguishable mass. Every chapter seemed more or less identical: one of the bottles is opened at a lavish party; some people marvel at it’s amazing taste and how well its been preserved; others are skeptical and accuse Rodenstock of forgery; something about the shape of the bottle, the size of the cork, the engraving is mentioned; the Jefferson people or some other historical body raise objections about the provenance; and so on and so forth. Always the same story. Over and over and over again.

It’s only at the very end of the book that Wallace gets to the crux of the issue: whether or not the bottle was fake. It is an extremely long walk to get to the really interesting question and when he finally addresses it straight on, he dispenses with it in two short chapters. Not cool.

Perhaps if I were more into wine, I would have appreciated all the who’s-who of the wine world and the stuff about vintages, grapes, bug infestations, glass shapes, etc. As it was, I was forcing myself to sit down and read 20 pages occasionally. And – while this will sound super harsh – it had nothing to do with the story and everything to do with the telling. Wallace took a super intriguing tale and beat all the interest out of it. What a disappointment!

Fortunately, the trip to Greece got me back on the reading horse, and I have been powering through books since May. And the book I most recently finished was in a similar vein to The Billionaire’s Vinegar, but SO MUCH BETTER.

This one was called The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese. Another great title, right?! And unlike the story of the wine, the story of the cheese did not disappoint.

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Michael Paterniti’s book tells the story of Paramo de Guzmán, a rare sheep’s milk cheese created by Ambrosio Molinos in the small Castilian town of Guzmán. While the book is ostensibly about this cheese – about how it was lovingly created by Ambrosio, built into a successful business by him and subsequently lost either through an act of betrayal by his best friend or through a poor grasp of business (depending on who you ask) – it is actually about so much more.

It’s about how we relate to the earth; about where our food comes from; about the modern pace of life; about the stories that make up our personal and communal history; about the importance of family; about the joy and the pain of friendships; about how we view ourselves and how others view us; about the love of one’s country; about pausing to enjoy life’s small pleasures; about understanding where you’ve come from; about the desire to achieve something significant; and so much more.

If you can’t tell, I absolutely LOVED this book. Truth time: I even cried at one point. I cried reading a book about cheese! It’s just so well done – layered, surprising, heartfelt, personal. So so good.

Michael Paterniti (right) with Ambrosio Molinos, the creator of The Cheese.

In reality, it’s probably unfair to compare The Billionaire’s Vinegar and The Telling Room. Wallace told a story about wine; a story in which he was not personally involved at any point. Paterniti’s book is almost a memoir at times. He is both the distinctive narrative voice of and an active character in the story. He lived in Guzman for a summer, researching the story, spending time with Ambrosio Molinos (they are pictured together in the image above*), and attempting to embrace the slower paced Castilian lifestyle. The book is as much about the cheese as it is about his own writing process and journey of discovery.

But stylistic differences aside, there are basic similarities to the stories. Each tale deals with a food/drink product surrounded by intrigue, history, and drama. In the end it comes down to the fact that I think Paterniti is a better storyteller than Wallace. Obviously, it may just be a matter of taste. Some people may love Wallace’s focus on wine tastings rather than potential forgery. Some people would probably hate the way Paterniti inserts himself into the Story of the Cheese, or his prolific use of footnotes, or the seeming tangents he goes on from time to time; but I loved all those things. They served to make the story of Ambrosio Molinos and his cheese so much richer – simultaneously more epic and more personal.

Suffice it to say, since finishing The Telling Room, I’ve been dreaming of a road trip through Spain – eating cheese and ham, drinking wine, telling stories. When I finished The Billionaire’s Vinegar, my feelings about both wine and auctions remained unchanged.

*That picture links to a GQ interview with Paterniti about the book. Worth a read.

See Sister Listen: The Moth Podcast

Now for the second edition of my podcast review series. I know you’ve all been eagerly anticipating this! This time I’m talking about The Moth.

I first heard of The Moth when my cousin commented on my original podcast post back in February and recommended it as one of her favorites. She said it regularly made her cry in public, which was pretty much all I needed to hear. Who doesn’t love a good cry on public transportation from time to time? And even better if it’s induced by a podcast and not personal tragedy/sorrow, right? I immediately subscribed, and I’ve been in love ever since.

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The Moth is a storytelling program, started by novelist George Dawes Green. The idea is to recreate the experience of hearing a good story told at a dinner party or a gathering of friends. All the stories are recorded live in front of an audience. The storytellers must tell a true personal story without notes. The podcast is simply a replaying of these stories for a wider audience. The stories on the podcast are mixed and matched from different events, so you’re not listening to all the stories from one event. 

As my cousin promised, I frequently cry when listening to them. The stories are often heartbreaking; but they are also hilarious, uplifting, intimate, inspiring, and always compelling. 

Given all of this, I was SUPER excited when earlier this summer at the end of one episode, the host mentioned that The Moth was coming to London for the first time! I am rarely on top of booking tickets to things that sound interesting, but I JUMPED at this chance and bought tickets as soon as I could. Which is how I found myself (together with three friends) at Union Chapel last Thursday evening for the first Moth Mainstage in London. 

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The theme was Eyewitness, and we heard five different stories. The adherence to the theme was a bit waffly (though I guess you can interpret “eyewitness” as “something that happened to me and therefore I witnessed”), but they were all captivating in their own way. George Dawes Green (founder of The Moth) spoke about the time he briefly lived in a graveyard; Lynn Ferguson spoke about receiving the devastating news that her unborn son had a severe disability; Andrew Solomon told us about his participation in the resistance to the 1991 August coup d’état attempt in Soviet Russia; Omid Djalili regaled us with anecdotes from his time on the set of Gladiator; and – most compelling of all – Noreen Riols spoke about her work with Churchill’s Special Operations Executive service during World War II, training men to become spies behind enemy lines.  

I loved being there as an active listener to the stories I’m used to hearing through headphones. I’m even more thrilled that The Moth seems to have some to London to stay. Besides this Mainstage event, there are several Story Slams already scheduled for the coming months. The Story Slams are events where anyone can come with a story prepared on the stated theme; hopeful storytellers put their names in a hat, ten are selected, each tells their five minute story, and a winner is declared at the end of the night. What fun!

So go check it out. And keep an ear out for the stories from London’s first Moth Mainstage. I’m one of those people shuffling and laughing in the background!

See Sister at The Rose of Tralee

Last week, I had the pleasure of taking a little trip to County Kerry, Ireland. The idea for the holiday was floated by my friends, Brendan and Beck. Brendan is from Cork and has visited Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula (where we stayed) several times before. In asking a bunch of us if we’d like to go, he mentioned that the trip would coincide with the Rose of Tralee International Festival.

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I can almost see your blank faces and hear the inevitable question: “What on earth is the Rose of Tralee International Festival??”

I’m so glad you asked! In the simplest terms, it’s a strange amateur-ish pseudo beauty pageant competition thing which takes place every August in the small Irish town of Tralee. In truth, there’s really no simple way to explain this event, but I’m gonna give it my best shot in this post. Because while Brendan was definitely joking about the draw of the Rose of Tralee, Louise considered it the best reason for going on the trip. She eagerly waited for tickets to be released and snapped up a handful as soon as she could.

So last Monday, the four of us found ourselves sitting in the “Dome” – a temporary marquee that is decidedly not dome-like in the least – in the midst of a crowd of intense Rose fans, waiting for the first of two live shows to get going. I should mention that two other friends – Sam and Emma – were meant to join us on this trip, but an unfortunately timed and rather grim stomach bug prevented them from coming. This was a bummer for all of us as we were really looking forward to seeing them, but I think it was particularly distressing for Brendan as it meant he had to come along to RoT instead of letting Emma take the fourth ticket for a girls night out.

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Now let me begin to try and explain exactly what this competition is… As I said before, it really is almost beyond explanation, but I will try to convey the amazingness of the experience for you. Louise had actually talked about it before, so it wasn’t a totally foreign concept to me when Brendan mentioned it. Louise became particularly fascinated by it when she happened to cycle through Tralee during the festival several years before. In explaining it to me in the past, she used this clip from beloved 1990’s sitcom Father Ted, which pokes fun at this type of local “lovely girls” competition:

Actually, the real Rose of Tralee does not feel radically different from that. There is something delightfully quaint and non-threatening about the whole thing. It is a million miles removed from the Miss America or Miss USA or Miss Teen USA or Miss Universe beauty pageants I grew up watching. And I think it’s safe to say that the girls competing in the Rose of Tralee would be horrified by the likes of Toddlers & Tiaras and its ilk.

Since when does Miss America get a rose sceptre?

What’s with the rose sceptre? Does Miss America now rule with a flowery fist?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up and deal with the questions I am sure you’re asking – questions like “Who are these women?” or “What are the eligibility requirements?” and “How does one make it to the final?” Oh dear, sweet reader. I wish any of one of these questions had a clear answer.

Despite attending the event in person and reading the website extensively, I am still pretty vague on how the whole thing works. One might expect that it’s just a bunch of Irish ladies, but actually there are women competing from all over the world. At no point during the televised event did anyone explain how the representation works or what the qualifications are. After years of watching Miss America, where every little moment is painstakingly explained as if the audience is a group of particularly stupid toddlers, I found it oddly disconcerting to be so clueless about the process. Therefore, for the benefit of my own sanity and because I am sure you’re all DYING to understand everything about RoT, herewith are some general rules I’ve cobbled together from my experience and perusal of the website:

1. The Roses must have some sort of Irish heritage. That makes sense, right? What is left unclear is the extent of Irish heritage required. Should they be able to trace it on both sides of their family? Do their parents need to be Irish or can it be a grandparent or great-grandparent? Or is it cool if they’ve just got an uncle who moved to Ireland on a whim after a tragic divorce and now speaks in a poor attempt at an Irish brogue? A lot of them seemed to have lived for at least a short period in Ireland – is this a requirement? I literally have no idea.

2. Each Rose represents an “Irish Centre” located somewhere in the world. This year, there were Roses from Canada! Australia! Dubai! England! USA! Luxembourg! Loads of other places! To make things more confusing, sometimes the Rose represents a whole country (i.e. Germany), sometimes she represents a city or state (i.e. London or North Carolina), and sometimes she represents a region (i.e. Western Canada, Southern Australia, or Boston & New England). And then of course, every county in Ireland has it’s own Rose. Again, at no point is it explained why the representation is kind of all over the place.

3. The Rose representing any given Centre does not have to be from that particular location. However, it seems that they do need to be currently living in that location…? So, for example, the Rose from Darwin, Australia (one of my personal faves – more on her below), grew up in Ireland and had only recently moved to Australia and had actually bounced around in Australia before settling in Darwin. That seemed to be more-or-less the story for most of the outside-of-Ireland representatives. There were quite a few who had grown up in Ireland and were now living elsewhere – like Luxembourg or Abu Dhabi – and therefore, represented that place. Even the girls from the States might have grown up in Texas but be currently living in New Orleans or something, but also spent a few of their childhood years living in Ireland while their dad had a midlife crisis. It was supremely confusing.

4. Not all the Roses appear in the live televised events. Apparently (according to the website), there is an earlier event called the Regional Festival which takes place about two months before the final. At that event, which follows the same exact formula as the final, ALL the Roses compete. At that point, they are all known as Regional Roses. It is unclear exactly how many there are – I can find no firm count of the number of Roses or Centres – but judging by the pic of all of them below, it seems to be 60 or so (I didn’t count). From that Regional Festival, 32 girls make the cut for the final competition at which point they become known as International Roses (even though lots of them were already “international”).

2014 Regional Roses

ALL of the Regional Roses

The final is televised over two nights. We went to the first of the two nights and saw 18 of the final 32 girls. Unlike Miss America and other similar pageants, the girls are never whittled down from that 32. They all participate fully until the winner is announced at the end of the second night. The entirety of the “competition” consists of them coming out onto the stage in a fancy dress and chatting for about 5 minutes with the host, local television personality Dáithí Ó Sé (who – I just discovered via Wikipedia – married one of the Roses in 2012. Wonderful.). Seriously, they more or less just have a little talk. They tell some little anecdote, they mention their boyfriend or their parents, they talk about where they live, they probably say something about the charity work they’re doing, they make a few jokes at the expense of their escort*, etc. etc. It’s very much like a late night TV interview where you know the host has been prepped to ask certain questions that lead the guest to tell very specific stories in a seemingly off-the-cuff manner.

There’s no bathing suit competition. There is no evening gown element. They don’t do an en masse choreographed dance at the start of the show or introduce themselves wearing stereotyped kitsch relating to their region/county/state/country (the opening number and weird introduction costumes are always the best part of Miss America, obvs). For some of them, there is literally nothing other than their little convo with Dáithí. They just walk off the stage when they’re done.

But those gals are in the minority; most of them do a little “talent” thing after their interview. And many of them are legitimately talented – Dublin did an impressive bit of Irish dance, Manchester played a tin whistle thingy, and Kerry played the concertina. But to describe this part of the show as a “talent” element is being generous. It’s more like a short little party piece. Think Tootie at the party in Meet Me in St Louis. For instance, Toronto taught Dáithí how to use an ice hockey stick.

A few girls recited/read poems. My favorite poem was an autobiographical selection from Darwin. I am so glad to say that I recorded the whole of this performance; I include it here for your pleasure:

Ah the beautiful lyricism of “my residency papers say I’m a Territorian”.

Okay, so that was a lot said about how it all works (sort of…I still don’t actually know how the judges make their final decision on the winner and I don’t really know what the winner receives other than a tiara) – probably more than you readers ever wanted to know. But hopefully that helps to paint a more vivid picture of our experience last week.

The Dome was pretty much packed with people, but I think I can confidently say that the four of us were the only people there without a personal connection to the festival – be it as a former Rose, a Regional Rose who did not make the cut, the family of a Rose, the friends of a Rose, or like the cousin of one of the cameramen. Nearly everyone was dressed in formal (or at least cocktail) attire, which made us feel woefully underdressed in our one-step-up-from-the-most-casual clothes. Loads of people had banners and flags to support their Rose.

Here’s a poor picture of the crowd, but it gives you an idea of the place:

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For the most part, the audience seemed completely sincere and totally invested in the success or failure of their Rose of choice, which just made our presence there as point-and-giggle spectators all the more obvious and horrible. The best part of the evening came pretty early for me. The first Rose to come out (Scotland) sang a song for her party piece – some Scottish song that I’ve forgotten – and the woman sitting in front of me to the left openly wept. And from what I could tell, she had absolutely no connection to the Scotland Rose; she was there for someone else entirely. She was just overcome. It was so great.

Unfortunately for us, the winning Rose (Philadelphia) was on the second night, so we didn’t see her. In her absence, we all agreed that the best on our night was Abu Dhabi, whose name was – wait for it – Patrice McGillycuddy.

Patrice!

She told a funny story about her car sliding down a hill, she talked about living in Abu Dhabi teaching underprivileged children, she was generally charming and engaging. Best of all, for her party piece was she sang the Cups song from Pitch Perfect – complete with the cup stuff and with a very lovely voice.

Sadly, Patrice was not to be the victor. I have to assume that Philadelphia’s chat was just off the charts interesting and charming and lovely and wonderful. Otherwise, I really don’t know how she could have beat such a delight.

I’ll wrap it up there, because this post is already much longer than what I intended to write. But hey, what can I say? The Rose of Tralee was just such an incredible experience! I’ve really only just touched on its delights and surreality of our night. Just know this, if you ever find yourself in Kerry in the month of August, you should seriously consider getting a ticket.

 

* The escorts are all local Irish boys, who are responsible for looking after the ladies during the competition week. I honestly don’t really know what this involves, and it’s yet another thing that was never really explained. There’s a separate competition for the best Escort, who wins 1,000 Euro, so that’s something! I highly recommend reading through the Escort bios on the Rose of Tralee website. They are a delight.

See Sister Take a Long Walk

This past Saturday, I walked along the south coast of England for roughly 10 miles. If you know me at all, you’re probably thinking, “That really doesn’t sound like something you would do… Did you suffer a recent blow to the head?”

Don’t worry, I’m fine. Yes, it’s true: I am not a huge nature enthusiast or exercise enthusiast or waking-up-early-on-the-weekend enthusiast. But it’s always good to break out of one’s comfort zone and do something different, right? Right. So on Saturday, I found myself walking the coastal/cliff route from Seaford to Eastbourne. It was absolutely delightful and a perfect way to revel in the longest day of the year, particularly as the weather was amazingly gorgeous. It was a truly sunny, warm (sometimes even hot!) day, the type of day that is sadly rather rare during the British Summer, so it was fortuitous that I was already committed to an outdoor activity and could therefore take full advantage of said sunshine.

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More or less our starting point.

While the weather was undoubtedly fantastic, the walk was made truly lovely by the company. It was organized by Danny, a friend who moved to South Africa last year. He’s been back in London for the month of June, working and doing some wedding planning with his fiancée, Marie-Laure. He and Marie-Laure contacted a bunch of friends last month to float the idea of this day trip. In the end, Louise and I were the only ones who tagged along, and I am so glad we did. It was a great time to catch up with Danny and hear about life in South Africa, while also getting to know Marie-Laure, whom I had only met briefly before. And she is super duper cool! Well done, Danny!

The walk was marked 9 out of 10 for intensity/difficulty, but at the end we all felt that while there were lots of ups an downs, the intensity was a little exaggerated. The picture below gives an idea of the route. The hills along this section of the coast are known as the Seven Sisters (for the seven little peaks). While those seven hills mean lots of ascending and descending, most of the inclines are relatively gentle, so it’s not too strenuous.

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Before we got going on the Seven Sisters, we passed through Cuckmere Haven, where the Cuckmere River meets the English Channel.

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The first and highest of the Seven Sisters looms above us.

I also just learned per The Internets that Cuckmere Haven was used in Atonement as the idyllic spot that Robbie and Cecilia dream of escaping to after the war, which OMG OF COURSE IT IS! Why did I not recognize it!? We walked RIGHT BY these cottages.

And now I’m super depressed because [spoiler alert!] oh my goodness gracious, that book/movie is so heartbreakingly, beautifully, shockingly sad. Also, I totally get why a couple with seriously upsetting romantic/life problems in war time would dream of living there.

Anyhoo, apparently if we had passed through Cuckmere Haven at high tide, we would have had to walk pretty far inland to get around the river and up onto the Seven Sisters route. Fortunately it was low tide, so we just took off our shoes and waded through the shallows. Which was actually kind of treacherous and painful given the slimy hair-like algae and rocks situation, but don’t worry, we all made it through without incident!

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The day was really just lots of walking and chatting and soaking up the sun. We paused for a picnic lunch on one of the peaks. We moseyed along, marveling at the large number of old people in Southern England and snorting in derision at the dorks playing with their drone-like model airplanes.

At Birling Gap, the others all took a dip in the sea while I chose to simply lounge in the sun topping up my tan. The cold-ish water and rocky beach didn’t really appeal to me especially since it wasn’t blazing hot, just pleasantly warm. I did enjoy watching the others try to navigate the slippery painful rocks on their way in and out, though.

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Danny goes for balancing with flailing arms; Marie-Laure opts for crawling.

We lazed about on the beach for a while, chatting and people-watching. Notable sites: the man with his children’s life-size faces tattooed on his back and the couple taking some really awkwardly posed wedding photos.

After our break at the beach, we only had about four more miles to cover.

We paused to take in the view near one modernish lighthouse…

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…before descending towards another very picturesque, quintessential lighthouse.

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Finally, at about 5:30/6:00pm, we reached the beaches of Eastbourne.

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After the others took another quick dip in the sea, we wandered up into town to find some well-earned fish and chips for dinner. We were definitely feeling weary by this point, but it was a happy, sense-of-accomplishment kind of weariness. After dinner, we hopped on a train back to London and that was that!

It was a really really great day. Good company, gorgeous weather – who could ask for anything more?

See Sister Travel: Greece (Part 2)

As promised, here’s the second part of my Greek Adventure: Ancient Sites and Ruins Edition. Let me tell you, people, we saw a lot of ruins. You might already know, but Greece is just full of ’em. So herewith, a run down of all the ancient places we visited.

The Acropolis

Obviously, when in Athens, this is the DON’T MISS thing. And it is definitely worth contending with the thousands of other tourists to get a glimpse.

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As many of you will know, acropolis means high point of the city (that may not be the strictly literal translation, but that’s what it boils down to). So the Acropolis in Athens is not the buildings on the top of the hill, but the hill itself. There are a load of buildings up there, including the small temple to Nike Athena and the Propylaia (entrance), of which I don’t have decent pictures.

Up on the top of the hill, there’s the Erechtheion, which is actually three temples in one, dedicated to Athena and Poseidon. It’s the one with the famous female figures as columns (aka caryatids) on the side.

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We had a tour of the Acropolis, in which I learned all sorts of interesting things, including the story that Athena and Poseidon competed to be the patron god/goddess of the city. Poseidon struck a rock and brought forth water, but it was salty seawater. Athena provided an olive tree, so the residents of the city chose her as the patron goddess. There’s still an olive tree next to the Erechtheion (visible in the above photo), but don’t be fooled: it’s not the original! Because Athena was the patron goddess of the city, the BIG temple on the Acropolis was dedicated to her. And that’s the Parthenon, duh.

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It was pretty impressive. And it was very interesting to see how they are going about restoring it.

We went to the new Acropolis Museum another day. It was opened in 2009 to house all sorts of goodies form the Acropolis, most importantly: the Parthenon marbles. The majority of these are in the British Museum and the battle to have them returned to Greece is ongoing. They’ve done a really nice job of presenting the marbles they do have, alongside plaster casts of the missing ones to give a feel for the scale of the Parthenon in its heyday.

 

Other Things in Athens

There are obviously loads of other ruins dotted around Athens, including the Agora (marketplace), throughout which there are all sorts of ancient bits and pieces, including the remarkably intact Temple of Hephaestus.

Photographed from the Areopagus.

Photographed from the Areopagus.

We also saw Hadrian’s Arch…

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…and the remains of the Temple of Olympian Zeus, which was completed by Emperor Hadrian. Although there are only about 15 or so columns still standing, it was originally made up of 104 (!!!) columns. For context, the Parthenon (which is pretty darn large) had 69.

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Temple of Poseidon We took an afternoon bus trip out of Athens to visit the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion. This the southern most point on the Attica peninsula. It was cold, rainy and windy that day (our only bad weather day), so our pictures are not great as we were just eager to get back down the hill for a warm drink.

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You can’t walk into the middle of the temple to see it, but apparently Lord Byron carved his name into one of the columns when he was visiting Greece back in the day. Fun story: This is also supposedly where Theseus’s father Aegeus threw himself off the cliff and plunged to his death when he saw Theseus’s ship returning from Crete (where he’d gone to fight the Minotaur) with black sails, which was meant to be the signal that Theseus was d-e-a-d, dead. But oops! Theseus was just a little spacey and had forgotten to change the sails. He was totes still alive! Anyways, Aegeus’s precipitous leap into the sea is why it’s known at the Aegean Sea today.

 

Delphi

I thought this was the coolest of the ancient sites we visited, and therefore I have the most pictures of it and the most to say about it. Delphi is a three hour-ish drive north of Athens. The site was built on the slopes of Mount Parnassus. Back in the ancient times, this place was busy busy busy, its big draw being the Temple of Apollo and the oracle who hung out there dishing out prophecies on the regular.

The oracle was always an older woman, typically an empty-nester who more-or-less abandoned her husband after her kids were all grown and went to live at the Temple, where she spent her days sitting in a giant three-legged pot (a tripod), chewing on laurel leaves and breathing in vapors from the hot springs. Basically, it seems, she was high all day long – from the laurel leaves or from the fumes or both. People of all types would travel great distances to come and consult the oracle over big decisions – “Should I get married?” “Should we go to war?” etc. She would spout a high-as-a-kite, most likely nonsensical answer and her priests would then “interpret” her words into a more coherent response. Bada bing, bada boom.

There’s not a whole lot left of the actual temple. The outline of the base is still roughly visible, and a few partial columns remain.

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The columns to the left behind Rocket and Melanie are the remains of the Temple.

What was more interesting to see and learn about were all the ruins and partial buildings surrounding the temple. Given that the oracle was such a huge draw, a town of sorts sprang up around the temple. Pilgrims entered the temple complex along the Sacred Way. This switchback path led up towards the temple courtyard and altar. Lining the way were market shops, statues and buildings known as treasuries. These treasuries were usually dedicated by a town or city. Offerings or presents were stored here by the citizens of those towns/cities as thank yous for the oracle and Apollo. The many statues that lined the way served the same purpose. Apparently, back in the day, the place was chockablock with thousands of statues.

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Remains of shops and polygonal wall

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Reconstructed Treasury of the Athenians

Beyond the temple, further up the mountain slope were additional structures, including an impressive amphitheatre. This view down over the theatre gives you a better idea of the scale of the place. You can see the rough remains/size of the temple and imagine what it would have looked like with all its columns and a roof. To the right, you can see the reconstructed Treasury of the Athenians (pictured above).

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To the left beyond the temple columns, you can see another open, non-shrubby/grassy area. Although you can’t make it out in the picture above, those are the ruins of the gymnasium or training grounds for the athletes who competed in the Pythian Games, which were similar to the ancient Olympic Games (but obviously not held at Olympia and therefore not the same).

Continuing up the switchback path, higher up beyond the theatre, you come to the stadium, which is where the athletes actually competed. It was a bit of a hike, but really interesting once we got up there, as it’s very well preserved.

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Rather than a circular or oval track as we have today, the track was a straight line that they ran back and forth on for the requisite length. You could still make out the stone starting lines with holes into which the athletes would fit their wooden starting blocks. And in the middle of the spectator seats, a special row of judges chairs is still perfectly clear (you can just make them out in the picture above).

There’s so much more I could say about Delphi. I haven’t told you anything about the museum that is just next to the site and houses many of the statues and treasures the archaeologists uncovered, some of which are extremely well-preserved. And I haven’t mentioned anything about the actual excavation, which involved moving an entire modern town that had been built on top of the ancient ruins, even using some of the old stones. I could go on and on, but there’s not enough space. So I’ll just say: you should go check it out for yourself.

 

Delos

Delos is an entire island that sits just to the east of Mykonos. On our second day on Mykonos, we took a ferry over to check it out. The island is completely uninhabited and is only an archaeological tourist site now. According to myth, it was a floating island upon which Leto gave birth to twins Artemis and Apollo. [There’s this whole thing about how Hera made it impossible for Leto to rest on any land because jealousy. Anyways, because Delos was not fixed to the ocean floor, it was cool for Leto to stop there…? And then Zeus had Poseidon fix it to one spot or something…? I don’t know. It’s hard to keep all these myths and legends straight.]

The island had a very long history involving various different iterations. Sometimes it was inhabited; sometimes it was forbidden for anyone to live there; at one point the sacredness of the island was paramount; at another point, it was a political gathering place; for a time it was a major trading port. Anyways, all those changes mean that there are all sorts of different ruins/buildings on the island – houses, temples, cisterns, theatres, statues, mosaics – but very few of them are as well preserved as anything at Delphi, for example.

The most famous ruins from the site are the Naxos Lions, a row of crouching lion statues dedicated to Apollo by the people of Naxos. Originally, there were nine to twelve lions; now only seven remain. They’re pretty weather-beaten these days, and in fact, the originals have been moved indoors to protect them from further erosion, but there are replicas in their place.

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I don’t have any other helpful/useful pictures from Delos, because the ruins are – for the most part – more ruined than intact. The pictures I took from the highest point on the island don’t really look like much of anything other than a jumble of stones. It was interesting to think of the island as a once buzzing hive of activity – be it commerce, religious rituals, political meetings – but unlike Delphi it was harder to really picture it.

 

Akrotiri

Our final ancient site was on our short visit to Santorini. Unlike all the previous spots, this was actually a prehistoric site, so like really really really really old. This bronze age site was destroyed in the 17th century BC volcanic eruption that resulted in the island’s current geographical configuration. The settlement was buried in volcanic ash, much like Pompeii. Unlike Pompeii, no human remains have been found, so it seems the residents had warning of the impending eruption (probably an earthquake) and therefore had time to evacuate. Of course, it’s entirely possible that they were then subsequently drowned in the ensuing tsunami, but let’s imagine they all made it to safety somewhere!

Aaaaaaaaanyways, the city being buried in volcanic ash means that it is amazingly well preserved. Although original excavations were done as early as the 1860’s, the modern excavations were begun in 1969 by a Greek archaeologist named Spyridon Marinatos. Although he later tragically died while working in the site, his careful excavations and dedication to the project led to the most significant discoveries and it’s current state.

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The pots in this building indicate that it was probably a shop of some sort.

Turns out this civilization was remarkably advanced. Archaeologists have uncovered beautiful wall paintings and mosaics, three story structures, civic and religious buildings, residences, shops, and – most impressively – an intricate plumbing system. The site is covered by a special bio roof that regulates the temperature and protects the ruins. The excavations have actually been halted over funding issues, and only a minimal estimated percentage of the site has been uncovered. If the work ever gets started up again, they could find all sorts of amazing things!

 

And that’s it folks! Those are all the ancient places we visited. Quite impressive to see all these structures and think about all the people who lived there thousands of years ago. If you’re into history, go to Greece! There’s so much to see and learn!

See Sister Love Rioja Tapas Fantasticas!

So Saturday was a pretty great day. I spent the day sampling Spanish food and wine from Rioja at the Rioja Tapas Fantasticas festival near Tower Bridge. As the name promised, it was fantastic.

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The festival, now in its seventh year, takes place at Potters Fields, a green area at the southern end of Tower Bridge. Potters Fields is a great little public space with lovely views of Tower Bridge and the Thames. There is often some fun activity happening there in the summer, particularly on the weekends. During the Olympics, they set up big screens for public viewing. They do the same every year for Wimbledon. I watched Andy Murray’s victory there last year in the blazing sun with a bunch of happy Brits. A couple weeks ago on Sunday evening, Louise and I spotted a random dance party complete with DJ as we walked home from church. Naturally we joined it and boogied until they stopped playing. I am still unclear on what it was exactly.

All that is to say, Potters Fields is a fun spot and Rioja Tapas Fantasticas is a particularly great use of the space. Louise has gone for a few years now. I was very sad to miss it last year, so I made sure to sign up for the fun when it rolled around this time. While Lou had booked a wine tasting in the afternoon for a bunch of friends, we saw no reason to limit ourselves and decided to head up earlier in the day to take advantage of all there was to see.

We started at 12:45 with a tapas and wine demonstration presented by Jose Pizarro and Susy Atkins. Jose owns two restaurants on Bermondsey Street (aka our neighborhood): Jose and Pizarro (get it??). Susy is a wine expert who writes a regular column for the Sunday Telegraph magazine, among other things.

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They bantered and chatted away while Jose cooked up some yummy food and Susy told us about the wine we were sampling: Decenio Blanco and Faustino Rivero Rosado. Jose talked us through preparing scallops with cauliflower puree and delicious chorizo croquetas. Both were amazing. I nearly bought the cookbook on the spot.

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We had such a lovely time at the tapas demonstration that we immediately decided to return for the Ibérico ham carving masterclass 30 minutes later. In that class, presented by Chuse Valero from Bar Tozino (another local spot), we learned ALL about Ibérico ham. Chuse told us all sorts of interesting things and by the end of the class basically had us convinced that we need to invest in a whole ham and carving stand for our at-home snacking pleasure.

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I took notes and Louise made fun of me, but I don’t care. We learned that Ibérico ham comes exclusively from specially bred black Iberian pigs; it is aged for a minimum of 3 years; the flavor and desirability depends on whether the pig is acorn-fed (this is the top-of-the-top) or grain/acorn-fed or grain-fed; and that within a single ham, there are 12-15 different textures and flavors.

We also learned all about the two different styles of knives you need; how to make the first cut; how to cut around the tricky bone/tendon sections; and what to do with the bones once you’ve managed to strip them of all that tasty meat.

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Oh and we got to eat two plates of the ham and had two more glasses of wine: Navajas Crianza and Berberana Carta de Oro Tempranillo. The crianza was really good – interesting and different. The color was quite yellow and the flavor was robust/oaky. And of course, the ham was amazing.

After that class, we had some time to kill before our wine tasting class. As other friends started to arrive, we milled about a little bit, sampled some of the food on offer around the fair, and then headed to the wine tasting tent for a session with Olly Smith, a wine expert/columnist/TV personality and all around delight.

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He talked us through five different wines from Rioja, including one from Vivanca, a vineyard that features a glass elevator which takes you underground! Per Olly, it is a “Gotta go!” if you visit Rioja. He also told us which wines smell most like a puppy (South African, earthy).

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All-in-all, a really lovely day. The sun even decided to come out in the afternoon – how nice!

Sarah, Mitch and Lou - representing half of our jolly group.

Sarah, Mitch and Lou – representing half of our jolly group.

I don’t think it’s overstating things to say I am eternally indebted to Louise for bringing such a fabulous, happy event into my life. I’m DEFINITELY going back next year.

See Sister Read: The Fault in Our Stars

Have you heard about The Fault in Our Stars? The novel about teenagers with cancer that has taken the world by storm? The latest young adult offering to appeal to teenagers and adults alike? The book that touches the heart and makes people weep openly?

No? You haven’t? Well, there are only two possible explanations for your ignorance: 1) You don’t know any teenage girls; or 2) You pay absolutely 100% zero attention to any form of pop culture. Otherwise, this cultural phenomenon has been unavoidable of late. The current ubiquity is primarily due to the fact that the book was recently made into a movie. A movie that just hit theatres in the States and is shortly to debut here in the UK.

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Given that I am someone who pays 100% too much attention to pop culture in all its forms, I was aware of the book. I hadn’t been really tempted to read it given that recommendations were generally along these lines:
“It will make you ugly cry so hard!”
“It’s the most tragic story ever!”
“It will absolutely destroy your soul and send you spiraling into an intense depression wherein you question your very existence and the unmitigated cruelty of the universe. You’ll emerge from isolation six weeks later with 30 pounds of OMGWHYISLIFETHEWORST weight and a regrettable self-administered haircut, but a deeper understanding of your inner self and the beauty of humanity! You just have to read it!”

Hmmmmm, not really that tempting, actually.

But then the movie was coming out, and I have this thing where if I think there’s any chance I might see a movie which is based on a book, I feel like I have to make an effort to read that book first. So I bought a copy at the airport before departing for Greece. I figured even if it made me ugly cry, at least I’d only be doing it in front of my parents, and surely a Mediterranean holiday was the perfect antidote to any existential, depressive crises.

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I got Instgrammy in the airport pre-flight.

Turns out it’s a pretty fast read (not that surprising I guess, given that it’s a YA book), so I had finished it by the next morning. And, well, I have Thoughts. With a capital T.

To put it simply: I am not on board the Fault in Our Stars train. Also, I might be dead inside.

Okay, it’s gonna get a little spoilery from here on out, people. Sooooo, this serves as your SPOILER ALERT! Consider yourself warned: if you’re planning to read the book or see the movie, you might want to skip out at this point.

Are you still here? Alright, well you were warned. Soooooo, for those few who have not read the book, don’t care about being spoiled and are still reading, here’s some general plot info before I launch into things.

Main character who is also the narrator: Hazel Grace Lancaster, age 16
Her affliction: Terminal thyroid cancer which has spread to her lungs; perpetually burdened with oxygen tank

Other main character who is not the narrator: Augustus Waters (aka Gus), age 17
His affliction: Amputated leg from osteosarcoma, fear of oblivion; currently in remission

The very basic plot: Hazel meets Gus. Gus loves Hazel. Hazel is hesitant, but eventually she returns Gus’s love. Love love love. LOVE.

Things that complicate the very basic plot: CANCER. DEATH. The difficulty of embracing true love in the face of said CANCER and DEATH. Parents struggling to deal with the sickness and inevitable death of a child. Children struggling to deal with the guilt and worry over subjecting their parents to crippling grief. The desire to be defined beyond one’s illness and the longing to leave something/anything behind and thus to be remembered, to not fade into oblivion.

Movie poster - for visual interest in this ranty post.

Movie poster – for visual interest in this ranty post.

So what’s my beef with this heartbreaking love story, you ask? It boils down to two main problems:
1) I dislike emotionally manipulative novels
2) I dislike Gus.

Let me explain.

I dislike emotionally manipulative novels. Okay, this may be painting with too wide a brush. I suppose on some level all novels are emotionally manipulative in that they are centered around fictional characters in whom we invest our time and energy, and to whom we therefore have varied emotional responses. Fine, fair enough. What I dislike about TFIOS is not that it’s a sad story, but that it’s a sad story that feels the need to go beyond being a Sad Story to become a Super Depressing Overwrought Story That Depicts the Harsh Reality of the World While Simultaneously Illuminating the Beauty of Humanity. It’s the type of book that is straining to be earnest and deep and ends up being melodramatic and unbelievable.

It’s a tricky thing to define, but I suppose it comes down to whether or not you can see the seams of the story. It’s not that I didn’t care for Hazel and Gus or understand the emotional and physical pain of their story. It was that I felt like I could see the gears moving behind the scenes; I was being beaten over the head with the Importance of Their Story. The story felt more like a carefully worked strategy to produce human tears than a natural, realistic story about what it’s like to be a teenager in love who happens to have cancer.

TFIOS is not the first of its kind. There are plenty of other emotionally manipulative books that have come before it. These books usually contain a twist that helps to propel the story from just very sad to woefully horrible. The most egregious example of this Surprise Twist to Make What was Already a Really Sad Depressing Story Even More Soul-Crushing and Horrible is without a doubt My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. That book is an abomination. I cannot speak of it without having a physical reaction. It induces a flames-on-the-side-of-my-face kind of rage in me.*

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There were bigger problems with MSK throughout than there are in TFIOS, but the same feeling of cheap, emotional manipulation was there at the end.

Suffice it to say, reading a book in which the main character has terminal cancer is never going to be a picnic and that’s fine. But then there’s the “twist” – a word I use in the loosest sense as I could see it coming from about page 2 (I will admit, this may be due to the fact that it is a YA book) – a twist that took things over the edge from Sad Story to well…see above.

In reading TFIOS, I could see how the progression of the story – twist included – served to develop the characters of Hazel and Gus, both within their relationship and as individuals. I think within a novel that felt more true-to-life and realistic (more on this below in my dislike of Gus section), I would have felt things more deeply. As it was, the same feeling of manipulation that I felt so vividly in My Sister’s Keeper was there again. It produced less white hot this time around, but it did produce a kind of sad disappointment, particularly given the target audience for TFIOS: teenage girls. I could see how of course TFIOS would produce weeping and gnashing of teeth in teenage girls. Of course! Because the story is about such a beautiful romance with such a beautiful guy; because that guy is so dreamy and cool and wonderful and funny and he loves Hazel so much and he’ll do anything for her and oh right, he is completely 100% unrealistic.

Which brings me to my other main complaint against the book: I dislike Gus.

Don't worry - the cigarette's a metaphor. What a cool dude.

Don’t worry, he’s not a smoker; the cigarette’s a metaphor. What a cool dude, right?

Now I don’t out and out hate Gus. My biggest problem with him is that he just is too good to be true. Literally. He is not a realistic character. He’s the embodiment of every bookish/intelligent/sensitve teenage girl’s dream. He’s good-looking! Smart! Funny! Witty! Sarcastic! Generous! Well-spoken! He finds equal pleasure in video games and books; he tells the girl he likes that she’s beautiful and that he loves her without embarrassment or hesitation; he supports his friends through incredibly difficult situations; he respects and loves his parents; he sticks with people even when he gets nothing out of it; he does everything in his power to deliver the one thing that his true love wants more than anything; etc. etc. etc.

I’m not saying that teenage boys cannot be decent human beings or display any of the above characteristics. I’m saying the likelihood of finding a teenage boy who is that amazing ALLTHETIMEALWAYS is so unbelievably unreal that it made Gus into a caricature.

And while he is undoubtedly supposed to be awesome, there are parts of Gus’s character that I actually find pretty distasteful. For example: when Hazel says she doesn’t want to get involved for fear of causing him future grief, he pursues her relentlessly anyways and it’s supposed to come across as romantic. More like pushy and selfish, if you ask me. Or when he explains how he stuck with his late [Yes, as in deceased. This is a cancer book, remember?] girlfriend even though he wasn’t really into her anymore, it’s supposed to seem wonderfully noble  given that she had a personality-altering brain tumor. But in telling that tale to Hazel, he just came across as arrogant.

So I find it upsetting that teenage girls are reading this book and mooning over this completely unattainable perfect cancer-stricken soulful hunk of a teen. If Gus had some more obvious flaws, then I might very well be Team Gus! I’ve tried to throw myself back in time and consider if Teenage Susanna would have swooned for Gus. I’d like to think that at even as a teenager I would have found his too-good-to-be-true-ness a bit much. But maybe not; maybe I would have fallen for the fallacy and spent several years hoping to meet a super cool guy with a fatal disease.

Interestingly, after I had already written a good chunk of this post, I came across an article entitled, “He’s Perfect, He’s Awful: The Case Against The Fault in Our Stars’ Gus Waters” on one of my favorite pop culture blogs. The author is careful to stipulate that he is writing about Movie Gus, but from what I read, he seems pretty much the same as Book Gus. And all the author’s objections about Gus boil down to pretty much the same problems I’ve got with him. So really, I should have just linked to that article to begin with because it is written by a professional.

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Anyways, this post is already far too long. So I’ll try to wrap this up. Even with all my complaints above, I would recommend the book to others, and I’ll definitely see the movie at some point (maybe not in the theatres…) and I will surely sob my eyes out when I do. There are parts of the book outside of the central romance that I found wonderfully moving and authentic. Like the way Hazel’s parents deal with the fact that they will inevitably outlive their daughter, or the feeling of helplessness that goes along with a serious illness, especially as the suffering becomes more and more intense. Despite some of the things I’ve said above, I do think John Green is a gifted writer, and I would check out some of his other books…as long as they don’t feature terminal illness as a central plot point.

The good parts, though they may be secondary, make the book worth reading. It’s just a shame that they come hand-in-hand with the melodrama and overly-perfect Gus.

Oh, and kids? I’m gonna go ahead and say it’s never in good taste to make out in the Anne Frank house.

But what do I know? I’m dead inside.

 

*It should be noted that I read MSK because Rachel loved it and got really excited when they were making it into a movie. She wanted us to go see it together, and she wanted me to read the book because she loved it so much. It is one of the few things on which I have taken such an absolutely opposite view to her. And to be clear, if I could save Rachel’s life by giving her an organ or donating my blood or something, I would do it in a heartbeat because I love her very much. So my problem with MSK is not with the sisters’ relationship which is loving and sacrificial, genuine and realistic. My problem is with EVERYTHING ELSE. Ugh.

See Sister Travel: Greece (Part 1)

As Rachel mentioned yesterday, part of the reason for my long silence (though not the primary reason – that would be laziness) was the recent fabulous trip I took to Greece with our lovely parents, Rock and Melanie.

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In front of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens

We were there for ten days – five nights in Athens (with several day trips from there), three nights on Mykonos and two nights on Santorini – and we saw a LOT of stuff. I could write four or five posts on the subject, but many of the details would probably not be terribly interesting for you readers, and I don’t want to make you all desperately jealous about how fantastically wonderful our time was. So, I’m planning to write two posts on the trip. This first one will focus on the islands we visited. I’ll write a future post about all the many many many ancient sites/ruins we saw.

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Mom stands in front of our hotel in Santorini.

Before I tell you about our island visits, some general reflections on Greece.

1. I loved it.

2. May is a great time to go! The weather was beautiful – warm and sunny but not oppressively hot. May is the very beginning of the summer season so there were fewer tourists and cheaper prices.  The only drawback was that the sea water was pretty cold, so there was no real swimming to be had.

3. The people are lovely and friendly and helpful. It was almost embarrassing how well everyone spoke English, and they were (on the whole) warm and welcoming and happy to answer questions/give directions/what-have-you. Very nice.

4.  The recent economic troubles of the country are particularly evident in Athens where nearly every other building was abandoned. The economic issues also mean that prices (especially for food) are rather high, but even so, I enjoyed it enough to say I’d go back…probably not to Athens, which is a been-there-done-that kind of city, but to any of the islands for sure.

5. My one significant complaint: the cost and quality of food. Greek cuisine is very tasty, but unfortunately, in touristy areas lots of places can get away with serving less than amazing food for steep prices. Even some of the places recommended in our guide books underwhelmed me. When we hit upon a good spot, it was always really really good (our final meal in Athens was particularly great), but on the whole, I thought our meals were just okay. And seafood is SHOCKINGLY expensive – especially for a place with such direct access to the sea!

Right okay, on to the islands…

As I said, we spent five nights in Athens (more on Athens in the future ancient ruins post), but we did day trips out of Athens, so it wasn’t like we were really in the city for those full five days. One of our day trips was to a small island that was about 1 1/2 hours away by ferry: Hydra (pronounced Ee-dra).

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Enjoying an iced coffee in the harbor.

This little island has no cars/trucks (save for some small garbage collection trucks). Instead, there are lots of donkeys to do the heavy lifting up the steep and narrow streets. There’s not really a whole lot to “see” in Hydra other than the island itself, which is picturesque and quiet. We sat down and had a pick-me-up coffee (a Coca-Cola for Melanie) when we first arrived; then did a short little self-guided walking tour around the main town/harbor and then a slightly longer walk along a stretch of the coast; had lunch; and then had another drink in the harbor soaking up the sun and people-watching while we waited for the return ferry.

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Our lunch in Hydra was actually one of our best meals of the whole trip. We sat under a bougainvillea arbor at a little taverna set back away from the harbor, where we shared some simple – but very well prepared – small plates (fried cheese, salad, grape leaves, fava dip) while a guitarist played in the background. It was painfully charming (and tasty!).

As our first island experience in Greece, it was fantastic. I highly recommend Hydra, and I would go back for another longer, leisurely stay.

Our next island – Mykonos – has a reputation as a party island. I have no doubt that this is true in the height of the summer, but in May, it was still pretty quiet. In fact, we were the only people staying at our bed & breakfast. The main old town is centered around the sandy harbor where numerous small fishing boats bob up and down. The few “iconic” spots on the island include a row of old windmills on a hilltop and some waterfront restaurants/shops in an area they call Little Venice.

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The small streets behind the main harbor are twisty and narrow and confusing, packed with shops and restaurants and people. Again, if it had been the height of summer, I imagine they would have been a nightmare, but while we were there, it was lovely.

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Since our b&b was not in easy walking distance of anything, we rented a car, which was great since it gave us freedom to explore the island. On the first day, we drove all over the place, taking in the scenery and scoping out all the beaches to determine which ones were worth a visit the following day.  This was actually a terrifying undertaking as the roads from the rocky hilltops down to those beach fronts are narrow, winding and occasionally nearly vertical. Still, it was a good way to get a feel for the place.

The next day was all about the beach. We went to one called Kalafatis in the morning and stayed pretty much all day. It was wonderful: very few other people; gentle breezes; clear, cold water; a yummy waterside lunch; sunny all day long – not a cloud in sight; reading all day; relaxing. I loved it. I don’t have a picture of it (taking pictures would clearly not have jived with my totally-vegging-out attitude that day), so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

There’ll be a bit more about Mykonos in my second Greece post, but for now…on to Santorini.

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Orthodox church in Oia

Santorini is probably the most popular and well-known of the Greek islands. It’s the one with all the blue roofs and whitewashed buildings (okay that’s like every island) and homes/hotels built into cliffs that drop down into a volcanic caldera and beautiful sunsets and all that jazz. It is geographically stunning and beautiful. You can see why it’s a popular honeymoon destination.

Our time on Santorini was very brief (like we’re talking 36 hours brief), so we opted for a bus tour that took in all the big sites on the island in one day, including the ancient ruins of Akrotiri (more in the second post), the highest point on the island, a charming old village in the middle of the island, the red beach and the black beach, and a winery. I didn’t do a great job of taking pictures that day since it was such a whirlwind, but it was a good way to see as much of the island as possible in one day.

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Red Beach (I think you can surmise why it is called thus)

The night we arrived, we wandered from our hotel down into Fira (the biggest town on the island) to watch the sunset and have dinner. The night of our bus tour, we went to Oia with the same intention. Oia is a town on the northern side of the island that is supposed to have BREATHTAKINGomgyouwilldieitissoBEAUTIFUL sunset views, but we learned the hard way that if you want those views over your dinner, you best book a table. We couldn’t find a restaurant with a free table AND a good view, so we opted for one without a sunset view. Post-meal we decided it wasn’t worth watching the sunset with a crowd of people only to subsequently fight them for a taxi or a seat on the bus afterwards. After all, we had a 5:15(!!) wake-up call the next morning, and the sunset view from our hotel was pretty darn good.

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Our time in Santorini was definitely too short, but it was also the only stop on our trip where I felt overwhelmed by tourists…and it was just as early in the season there as it was everywhere else in Greece, so I can only imagine what it’s like when the real hordes arrive. It was also the place where I felt most keenly that the economy is driven almost entirely by tourism. It kind of took away the charm of it for me. I got the impression that it’s the type of place to go if you’ve got money to burn and can stay in one of the really really really posh hotels with a private pool on your cliff-side balcony and can drop money on the really nice restaurants with the stunning stunning views and drink wine all day and have someone chauffeur you from beach to beach.

Don’t get me wrong – the views and picturesque-ness definitely live up to the hype – but the tourism machine was a little too strong and prevalent for my taste. I’d rather visit a different island that didn’t have quite such a big reputation if it means a slightly quieter experience.

But that is a nit that is hardly worth picking. It was a lovely locale to end a very lovely island hopping adventure. And the company could not be beat.

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Oh, these two!

Seriously, it was so great. Greek islands = awesome. And that was only half the trip!

Stay tuned to hear about all those ruins!

See Sister Love Wes Anderson

That title might be slightly misleading. I don’t have a crush on Wes Anderson. This isn’t a post about my affinity for skinny, pale men with questionable haircuts and distinctive artistic visions. [No offense about your look, Wes! Though, actually, maybe do rethink your hair.]

Source: WSJ

Source: WSJ

No, this post is about my love of his films and their very particular style. From Rushmore to The Grand Budapest Hotel (no, I’m not forgetting Bottle Rocket), I’ve made it a point not to miss one of his movies when they show up every two or three years.

In fact, one of my favorite movies (if not my absolute favorite) is The Royal Tenenbaums. I had seen Rushmore before Tenenbaums and enjoyed it well enough, but it hadn’t blown my mind. But then I watched Tenenbaums and I absolutely fell in love. It made me go back and watch Rushmore again, and I totally appreciated it in a way I hadn’t before. It made me sit up and take notice of Anderson, a film maker with a singular style. I sought out his directorial debut Bottle Rocket and re-watched Tenenbaums numerous times.

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As a side note, I think it was with Rachel that I first watched The Royal Tenenbaums (probably at her suggestion, because she was super cool and so much more hip than me in 2001, the wise college student to my dorky high school self). Our absolute favorite character was and remains Dudley, the psychological patient of Bill Murray’s character, who suffers from “a rare disorder combining symptoms of amnesia, dyslexia, and color-blindness, with a highly acute sense of hearing.”

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He is a treasure. And our favorite part is at the end of the film, when Raleigh St Clair is asked, “Can the boy tell time?” and Dudley himself shakes his head and scoffs at the absolute absurdity of the proposition. We use that headshake often to express our own derision at preposterous suggestions. It was only upon a recent re-viewing that I realized we’ve been misquoting it for years as “Can Dudley read?” Oh well, I think we’ll stick to our misquote as it’s now become our own shorthand for absurd suggestions.

Anyways, that was a tangent! The point is, by the time The Darjeeling Limited – his follow-up to The Royal Tenenbaums – was released I was a committed Anderson fan. His films tend to focus dysfunctional families (or surrogate families) and a desire to belong or to define one’s identity. While his films often have a silly or surreal tone, these themes of family and belonging lend his films a very real and poignant emotional core.

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I often don’t appreciate this depth on the first viewing. Many times, I’m too caught up in the amazing visuals that Anderson creates to fully appreciate the deeper tones of his films. I may think his latest offering is just okay when I first watch it, but then the more I think about it and mull it over, the more I appreciate it – as I did with his most recent film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Or I’ll re-watch the film months or years later and appreciate lines or observe tiny details that add weight and resonance to a scene, which is what happened with both The Darjeeling Limited and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. The characters seemed more fully realized and heartfelt than they had when I first watched.

But other times, I love the films right from the start, as with Tenenbaums or Moonrise Kingdom, which is just an absolute delight. In fact, the only film of his that I don’t go back and re-watch periodically is Bottle Rocket. It didn’t hit me in the same way as his other films, but to be honest, I can’t really remember it that well, so maybe I should go back and rewatch it!

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While these common themes run through each of his films, they are each unique, original stories. And each story exists the in the other major hallmark of Anderson’s films: the fully realized, beautifully constructed, highly stylized worlds he creates.

Much smarter, more coherent film critics and super fans have devoted more research and delved far deeper in Anderson’s technique and style than I ever could. Like The Rushmore Academy, a blog dedicated to his work. Or The Wes Anderson Collection, an encyclopedic overview of his work up to Moonrise Kingdom by critic Matt Zoller Seitz.

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So I will not attempt an in-depth analysis of Anderson’s technique, as it couldn’t possibly compare to their much better work. I’ll just say that I love the way each of his films has a very carefully created world. A world that is very close to the real world, but tweaked just enough that it comes across as an almost alternate reality. All of his scenes are carefully blocked and choreographed. The sets, props, and costumes are meticulously designed.  And most charmingly of all, he often uses miniatures for big set pieces.

I know lots of people find his style really cutesy and painfully overwrought, but I just love it. I find the meticulously crafted scenes captivating and utterly engrossing. Anderson’s attention to detail translated perfectly to his stop-motion animation take on Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.

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Basically, all of this is to say that I simply love Wes Anderson. And he seems to be getting better with age. While Tenenbaums will always be my favorite of his works, his two most recent offerings – Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel – deal with themes of loneliness, abandonment, loyalty and fear in the face of change. 

So yeah, I love Wes Anderson. And I can’t wait to see what he does next.