Of course we can’t go anywhere – who wants to get on a plane right now, if they don’t have to? But our birthdays came and we decided to live it up a bit. The Four Seasons hotel just ten minutes up the road from us was a poshy splurge. We ate it up!
The Four Seasons Hotel ten minutes up the road was our getaway. They’re serious about cleanliness and distancing, and have very few guests. Oh, yeah, and they’ve got luxuriousness down pat.
Everything worked perfectly there – which was especially great because at home we’d had a power surge. Burned out numerous appliances, including the aircon units in most of the rooms of the house, our printer, my little indoor garden… Coming to a place where everything worked was idyllic. However, I’m a really warm person and Ramon is not, so we did some adjusting:
The food was so delicious, and so different, and so made by someone else. My favorite meal was this beef stew with veggies set in mashed potatoes, while Ramon really liked his seafood spaghetti. The best dessert (IMHO) was called simply “Lemon” (“Citron” en francais).
When you broke open the “lemon”, it was citrusy and crunchy and matched perfectly with that bed of cocoa crumble. Oohhh, we have to go back.
Using the facilities
We had to test everything out so we asked for a tennis time, and were told we’d get a ride to the court.
It was literally 200 yards away. But lovely of them to pamper us! The pampering continued at the court, which was all set up for us with the necessaries, including bug spray for when night started to fall!
I got my toes painted in the spa. First time since February.
It is honestly amazing how nice that felt. We, of course, wore masks and stayed separated. But it still worried me, even though a study this summer showed St. Louis stylists who had COVID had not passed it on – oh, the efficacy of masks! I still need a haircut – I look like Elvira with her roots showing. But lovelier.
The Four Seasons do not screw around
But we do! These compare-a-picture things are cute. I hope. Because I have more, like a two-fer of Us At The Pool:
And Here We Are Getting Ready for Dinner with a Pretty New Scarf Ramon Got Me for My Birthday, while Ramon Looks Dashing As Always:
In a heartbeat
I’d do this little junket again, tomorrow, if I had any more points. Turns out, staying at the Four Seasons can set you back, whether it’s in $$$ or hard-earned credit card points. We scraped the bottom of the barrel! But it was really worth it.
Just seeing a wilder side of the sea, trying new foods, and feeling like a superstar for a short time – I think we both felt restored afterward.
It’s not hard to be charmed by this place. Not least because, up until just three weeks ago, we have avoided the worst of the coronavirus cases. Now, we’re just like everyone else – running up the numbers and shaking in our boots. But it’s fall, and I refuse to allow my favorite season to be a giant bummer.
I am certain I wouldn’t be so crazy about the place if it weren’t for the cats, but fall shows off some of the other charms of the place. It’s very green (and in fact is nicknamed “Green Tunisia” by Arabic-speakers the world over) with pepperings of flowers everywhere. Even the fall is not a time of plant death – just a rejiggering of the color wheel.
Today we saw kids heading Back to School. Ooooh, I love fall!
We’ve been in and out of the sea all summer, along with the rest of the nearby population. Our apartment is just up above the best public beach around, with nice clean sand and water. Each year when summer starts someone erects perfectly aligned umbrellas in the sand overnight. This year, the umbrellas were further apart from each other, but still just like graph paper in their precision. All summer, from well before I wake up to well after midnight, the beach is packed with folk. The water is packed too – standing paddlers, snorklers, swimmers, kayakers, the occasional jerko jetskiers, fishing dinghies, yachts, sailboats, and people just letting the gentle waves lift them and drop them softly back down.
Now, the beach is nearly empty, the umbrellas are gone, stacks of clouds come in and change the temperature in the blink of an eye. Still, it rains very little, and it’s not very humid most of the year, for such a green place.
A friend has stand up paddle boards and today we got up early to try them out. Unfortunately with 15-knot winds, it was too choppy. We’ll try again. In the fall you have to be persistent! And the water is still plenty warm for it.
We’re keeping busy, both of us – though the exact content varies and is thrown around tumultuously as the COVID rates climb. Ramon is working more from home again, and my fall work schedule is threatening to double. No complaints, but then we also need plenty of diversion to balance it out.
Like seeing weird patterns in household items.
Also, some cooler-weather cooking. I regret not getting a pic of Ramon’s excellent Ziti Bolognese, but we scarfed it down like we’d been on a desert island. I do, however, have these:
For all of August and much of September, having the oven on was like pouring chili pepper on a cut. Just too hot. Now it feels so… right!
And there’s also this little eggplant number, with pine nuts, fresh sheep’s ricotta, green olives (supposed to be capers), spicety-spices, and (!) golden raisins. I was genuinely worried how all that would taste together but, Enthusiastic Thumbs Up is the verdict.
What else have you made, Keri? Well, how kind of you to ask! Here’s a selection of fall specialties you might have missed. Deliciousness is my diversion.
And going to the gym. And playing cards. (!) Ramon rarely wants to do that but we’ve had very wobbly wifi lately. Rummy, Cribbage, Crazy Eights, and – when I can overcome his natural shyness (ahem), Spit. He’s a born competitor.
Predicting the face-off between our all-natural mosquito enemies: who’s going to take the prize? And who will live longest, now that our mosquito population is dying fall-related deaths (HURRAH!)?
As much perfect-weather fall tennis as we can get away with.
When we’re not playing tennis, we’re often taking long walks. It’s such a joy to come out of the heat-induced summer stupor, though, maybe it’s just me, but it feels like there was no transition! Anyway, more walking means for me (and, later, for you) more cat pictures. Ramon, by contrast, will be daydreaming about future transport acquisitions.
That Other Pastime
I’ve been trying to avoid Facebook and read the news just once a day. My heart rate swings up, my throat gets dry. I’m scared about the wingnuts that say they’ll revolt if their wretched disgusting hero doesn’t win. It is a horrible, scary fall election season and I hope we vote out the Orange Menace on November 3rd. (Yep, I already voted – following my ballot online presently!) But I gotta keep myself outta the rabbit hole.
My first thought on this one is that it’s the Sideshow Bob of the Cat world.
My second thought was remembering the best beagle ever – no, not Snoopy. Our childhood dog when we lived in St. Louis was The Beagle, forever the archetypal “dog” in my brain. Sugar Culver. In a box in my sister’s closet, we have pictures of Sugar lying curled up in our backyard pampas grass. Those bushes were positively razor-like, but she had carved a nest for herself, and then Mom and Dad trimmed it back so she could access her Safe Place. Cute little fart that she was.
It’s a very good thing I don’t have our picture box handy – that’s not a rabbit hole I need to go down these days. I’m already mired in nostalgia. The simplest reminders of The Past set me off. I have been watching the Long Strange Trip documentary about the Grateful Dead – tears. When I find myself doing things Mom did a thousand times, like clean off the spatula on the beaters – tears. A dear friend from high school (!) wrote me a nice hello and referenced Bloom County dandelion breaks – you get the idea.
(For Bloom County fans, go to this link for a random strip generator. That’ll eat up an afternoon!)
Of course the Current Situation could cause anyone to go looking weepily for past innocence.
Wait, wasn’t I talking about cats?
Oh yeah. So I thought maybe all the cats had been rounded up and taken out of the city, but it turns out they’re all still here, waiting in the shady corners till that blasted heat abated. Now when we’re out walking, their little fur faces are gazing back at us from every corner again (or ignoring us completely, of course.)
Not a cat
Yeah, I know that’s no cat – it’s Gerardo, our house lizard. He’s quite small and cute and only rarely makes it into the silverware drawer. I’m heartened by the idea of him eating other bugs – which he must, in abundance.
Back to cats
Just a glamour shot here of my Raya and Tony’s Sox – they are big hams. Tony keeps them chubby, happy and entertained in NE DC.
My local cat here in Tunis is called Mogui. She has lived in front of my house since she was born, to the lovely Lucia Vinny, who is also a rascal for having left her kids here to go chasing Toms. Here is Mogui, having recently emerged after being hidden the last couple of months with her own litter of babies!
Still skinny, but I’ll put some weight on her before winter hits. Hey, it’s no Fat Bear Week (have you chosen your chubby ursines yet?), but it’s right here at our doorstep. Anything for entertainment these days.
Also not a cat
My brother has set up a wildlife camera on his remote Alaska property and captured this shot of a family of wolves, near the cabin he has so far built without doors:
[TRIGGER ALERT] This post is full of mouthwatering food pictures. If you’re hungry with nothing in the house, do not read any further! I’m getting more adventurous… and making more mistakes! You can’t help but love these new creations – or at least, I can’t. They’re like my latest litter of kittens. I see that food has half-taken over my blog, (and here, and here) but if you don’t mind, I don’t.
I’m getting pretty good at these Asian noodle bowls – using whatever I have on hand. This one uses flat rice noodles and hot chili oil I made a few weeks ago, plus a precious, precious avocado – we do not get many of them! They cost over $2 each and are generally hard as stones. (You can’t say the market sellers don’t know their expat audience!) We put a fried egg on the leftovers – also good:
And here’s another version, with vermicelli, a bit of peanut butter in the soy sauce mix, sesame seeds and sesame chile oil. Ramon’s not mad about any of these but he liked this one.
A recent fave for me is this batch of meatballs with chickpeas – and a little yogurt sauce on top. The flavor of the meatballs is fantastic, for which the recipe writer (whoever that was) deserves all the credit.
The Incredible Edible Egg
I have trouble not breaking yolks. In Spain, sunny-side up is the norm, and somehow they cook the whites too – unlike in the U.S., where sunny-side-up should be called runny-side-up. If Ramon’s technique is any indication, they do it by splashing the hot oil up and over the eggs while cooking. I can’t quite get my head ’round all that, so I still go for the Over Medium Diner Special, which as often as not causes a Rupture. Ramon’s lovely version:
Egg dishes are in heavy rotation, like this sort-of-a-tortilla Pain Libanais with fried egg and my quick-pickled onions and radishes. We also do a fair bit of chicken – but we’re Jack and Keri Spratt, as Ramon will only eat white meat and me, only dark meat. Which is fine by me, actually.
But we’re eating most meals without meat at all these days. Most meat is available, and we like it, sure, but we also like the healthy, environment-friendly nature of veggie meals.
I’m calling this dal, even though the recipe said red lentil stew. It came out creamier than expected. When we cook together, we also often do chickpeas. Ramon is Sofrito Master. When I make a veggie tart, I’m on my own – this one came out totally weird because I forgot to lay down a layer of ricotta/goat cheese underneath the veggies and eggs, and instead had to just sort of smear it over the top before baking. It still tasted good, but it’s far from pretty.
This is spinach, peas, feta, scallions and chicken broth, with little pasta tubes that were orzo in the recipe but magically changed by the time I got through with it. Good food, man.
My kitchen antics regularly last about twice as long as they are supposed to, per the recipe. (Did you know that the recipe time assumes the stuff is already cut up??? That’s just deceptive practices, is what that is.) Anyway, I’m not fast, and this recipe was really long because I put three things on top of it. First of all there’s a semi-pureed beet soup under there, with a bulb of fennel because I had no carrots. Then the toppings: the little brown bits are turmeric-and-chile-roasted pistachios with herbs; I made some yogurt sauce with lemon and garlic; and then I fried up the pain libanais that was fixin’ to turn green (and which I will use for fattoush salad later!)
Not only super delicious but represents one of the other things I have felt REALLY INORDINATELY PROUD OF as I’ve been learning to cook – using up stuff. We are no longer throwing away food like we once did – especially me. There are two things I constantly google while cooking – English-to-metric conversions, and how long something is good for. It is a great step, but it’s hardly something to be proud of that all those years I was tossing stuff because I didn’t remember to cook it in time.
Ramon is no tomato
Another one with Ramon’s imprimatur is big pasta tubes with bolognese. He knows what he’s doing with tomatoes.
When it was still hot as the dickens, I made this little doozy from a red, red watermelon, cream, sugar and vanilla. It’s watermelon ice cream – no churn! It was a bit weird, mostly because I tripled-up on the watermelon (because it was there) but neglected to add more sugar. So eventually I started adding some sugared frozen raspberries to it to make it better. Either way, it’s gone now.
I also made a beautiful cake in a bundt pan and decorated it with soccer-ball candles for Ramon’s birthday. Somehow the only picture I came away with was this one, from an online party with his siblings (one of whom also aged up that week):
Nothin’ but the candles. Well, it’s not like it’s the last time I’ll ever make a cake!
The right ingredients
I find the whole herb thing a bit intimidating but I’m dipping my hand in there now. When an electrical surge hit our apartment in August, it burned out my little indoor garden, called Veritable, where I had happily grown some nice little patches of herbs and even some cherry tomatoes the size of chickpeas. About fifteen, I think, spread out over a couple of months. Anyway, when the garden lamp fried from inside, I took the spindly little plants and planted them in a planter outside. They looked a little peak-ed but they have lately taken off – probably because of all the rain. Pesto on the horizon!
I do not know hiphop, but I have listened to Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel, & the Furious Five so often there are grooves in my honest-to-God cassette tape. In my limited understanding, these guys were some of the very first rappers, and they’re glorious fun. When you listen to later hiphop, with really complex syncopations – since I don’t know much, my lame whitebread example is Hamilton – Melle Mel and the Furious Five seem rather simple and innocent by comparison – but you can’t help but rock to them.
A couple months ago, a short and lively Netflix documentary caught my eye, called We are Freestyle Love Supreme. Twenty years ago, Lin-Manuel Miranda (the Hamilton guy) and some friends started a troupe of musician-rapper-actor-improvisers that bravely go on stage and improvise – based on topics from the audience – an entire show in rhyme, night after night.
The group’s webpage is Freestyle Love Supreme – but it barely showcases how these amazing brains come up with stuff on the fly.
Reminds me of a famous Robin Williams bit where he took suggestions on what to talk about using Shakespearean iambic pentameter. It’s so gutsy, improvising. Who among us, seeing Williams do that, didn’t come away thinking he was an absolute genius?
Here’s one more, that actually has more of a Schwarzenegger impression than it does Shakespeare, but which is no less improvised:
He does more Shakespeare with Dick Cavett here, and Shakespeare oddly melded with Arnold Schwarzennegger on the Johnny Carson show here.
So it’s that insane ability to impro at will that drew me to the guys in Freestyle Love Supreme (FLS). They’re all guys in the documentary – but it seems they grew to include women cast members eventually. Gutsy geniuses, taking a form they love and turning it into a new art form, which they call freestyling.
It’s like tightrope walking. Lose the beat and you tumble down into Niagara Falls, right? But those of you who’ve seen Hamilton know he and his partners in the million-selling musical (some of whom you’ll see in the documentary) have rapid-fire rapping language, uber-clever syncopation, and a fascinating take on history (though admittedly with a lot of artistic license.)
I’m fascinated by the art of improv. When I lived in Spain in 2017 I took a few classes and was awed and thrilled. It’s not impossible or out of reach, but that does not mean it’s easy. Or, maybe it is easy – it’s just bog-standard, garden-variety insecurity that glues the lips shut, locks the tongue.
If you’ve got a good team, and can relax, you can do it – there’s obviously no “right or wrong” in it, I mean, it’s improvisation, right? Everyone can imagine things, and then voice them. It’s right there in the name that you’re just goofing off, pulling something out of nowhere. Even though sometimes I have perfect “five minutes ago”* responses to things, like we all do, I surprise myself sometimes with stuff that pops into my head unbidden and makes me laugh, and sometimes has that effect on others. (JOY, no?)
To be able to do improvise with a troupe of artists, and to fall into funny scenes sometimes, is amazingly satisfying. It didn’t happen all the time during my classes in Madrid, but it happened often enough to keep me coming back for that joy jolt.
Keys to the kingdom
Saying “yes, and” is the sine qua non of improv. This is one of the first things you learn. Say someone starts off miming being on a rocket ship. You accept (“yes”) that you’re on a rocket ship and move forward (“and”) using that premise. What you don’t do is mime potato farming on solid ground – that would be boxing out your teammate. To get to trust each other enough for this thing to work, you’ve got to take what they give you (“yes”) and then run with it to create something new (“and”). You can always start a potato-farming-based improv later on. Go with the rocket!
Improv on stage has some parallels to writing. Writing is solitary but you have to silence your inner critic and just create. There’s a leap of faith there, a letting go. The point is to let your ideas fly, emphasized by Herbert Lui in his article Getting Out of Your Own Way – with some discussion of the brain science around the value of letting go and ignoring your inner critic.
Alan Alda – famous forever and one of our family icons as Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H – opened a school for improv, not for actors, but for scientists.
M*A*S*H was scripted – closely. Sometimes, Alda admitted, he was “operating” on a copy of the script so he could be as exact as the writers wanted. He wore them down with pleas to use improv – and eventually two black-and-white episodes were filmed as if for newsreels, where the actors ad libbed responses to reporters’ questions about their lives in the M*A*S*H unit.
Why would improv be so important to an actor? Or, for that matter, to me? I’ve been on stage exactly once** and feel notoriously stuttery when asked to “perform,” aside from evaluation presentations.
Alan Alda says you can get at something “deeper, more personal” as he says in the Smithsonian article linked above by improvising. With his school for scientists, he’s convinced improv can help them communicate better with topics that are usually difficult and obscure. Herbert Lui says you can be more open and creative.
To me, it just looks like confidence. It looks like you fully believe your creative product is worth sharing. I struggle with that, even with creative product that’s very much in my wheelhouse – writing. Watch this space for an article on how those two might feed each other… (once I finish writing it!)
Emphasis on the “Freestyle”
Imagine what you saw on Hamilton, then, improvised from an audience suggestion of a place or a thing or a person. It feels like you’re on the tightrope with them – and I felt relieved and surprised when they made it through each number without falling. They have amazing skills to be able to do it – endless years of practice, I’m sure – but then you also have to have a lot of confidence to take it on stage. Straight guts.
Keri is reminded to read the fine print
I went to the FLS website and they have an improv academy in New York, which (of course) has moved online. To sign up you’re asked to fill out an uncommon questionnaire (‘What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?’). A week later I was invited to join the upcoming, two-evening class of five hours total. I was thinking “improv” but the class was much more “freestyling” – that is, with rhythm and beatboxing and (*gulp*) rapping. (Reference “not Melle Mel”, above.)
There were sixty or so participants and a bunch of instructors. So after initial stretching exercises, a basic beatboxing demo, and reassurances that there were lots of beginners here, we were sent into individual Zoom “rooms” in groups of nine – eight students and a teacher.
First, we practiced beatboxing. Have you ever noticed how some letters make you hum a bit? Try an S and a Z – the S can just be air passing through your tongue as it’s pressed partially on your palate. But to make a Z sound, you have to hum a little bit. It’s the same with F and V, and K and G, and kind of P and B too. You blow air on S, F and P, but to make a Z, V or B, it also comes either nasally or in your larynx, I guess. The hum makes it a different letter.
Anyway, so for the beatboxing exercise we used just three key sounds that mimic percussion instruments. B and K are like the snare drum; saying “TS” sounds like a cymbal.
So using B, K and TS they tried us out on two words: Boots and Cuts. You don’t use the hum part of your voice much – it’s more the percussive sound of the air passing lips and tongue.
Try it! You’re alone in your home, right? Who’s gonna know (i.e., make fun?)
Boots, cuts, Boots, cuts. Now do it rhythmically. Bob your head. Move your hips. Snap. Whatever helps. Just give it a go!
Me and a couple of others were absolute beginners; others in our group were really accomplished, able to add interesting syncopation and other sounds. I did the basic “Boots Cuts” one and could barely stand to hear these new sounds coming out of my mouth. They didn’t sound like me, or anything I knew. It was as if I was all of a sudden speaking Korean – it sounded fake and really dumb! Then one of those really good people would do their thing and I felt even more like a talentless, flaming weirdo.
The group was really nice, even (or maybe especially) to us newbies. We snapped for each other since clapping would have gotten really loud on Zoom, right?
The snaps reminded me of beatniks – very cool. The teacher was so encouraging (named Kahyle – don’t know if I’m spelling it right but it sounds just like my brother’s name, Kyle.)
Getting from improv to freestyle was a leap for me. There was an idea on the table that really appealed – but I had to figure out how to use it.
The idea? Rhythm.
Anyone who knows me well knows I LOVE TO DANCE. I’ve danced forever, though rarely with lessons or any principle other than wild abandon. Even if I will never go to the New York School for the Performing Arts (FAME!), I daresay I’m not bad on a dance floor. That means, inside me, rhythm is not a foreign concept. Making rhythm for others – beatboxing, playing drums, clapping along even – that’s the new part. So I built on that and was able to play a little bit with this Boots Cuts thing.
We practiced in the class and then had an assignment to make our own more “freestyle” beatbox clip to share. Here’s my more elementary one, that I practiced approximately seventy-one times before recording for the class:
We move on to rap
On the second night we were asked to come with stories from our past. Insanely enough, we were going to tell these stories in rap. I can’t say mine rhymed, at least not very often, but I was amazed at how much more confident I’d gotten by taking on “rhythm” as my guide. No one will be buying any Keri the Rapper CDs anytime soon, but I tell you with all honesty, it was a blast.
And it didn’t hurt that everyone snapped afterwards. I learned a lot about hip hop, too – particularly through this take-home study article they sent us on 50 seminal hiphop works. (Here’s the article – or jump right to the Spotify list. Grandmaster Flash, Melle Mel and the Furious Five are at #2.)
I didn’t record my rapping (and probably wouldn’t post it if I had) but if you’ve read this far, check out my 2017 stage debut below.
Get you some Freestyle Love Supreme, my friends. If you haven’t, you don’t know what you’re missing.
I also have perfect “five minutes ago” Spanish sometimes. My French is often only perfect about a week later, but I’m convinced it is getting closer…
** In Spanish – the culmination of an acting course in Madrid for Spanish-language-learners. We were seven women, all with Spanish boyfriends, who comprised the entire audience. If you’ve read this far, you’ve earned this: