Thursday, February 28, 2019

A Bundle of Shirts

Yesterday's bizarre experience -- I seem to have at least one a day -- went like this:

As I set out for work, I gathered up all of Dave's and my dress shirts that needed laundering. I usually don't wash our nice shirts, because we don't have an iron and besides, I hate ironing and I'm terrible at it. So I take them to the cleaners on the high street and have them washed and pressed. I've been going to this same cleaner as long as we've lived in West Hampstead -- so, five years.

I walked into the shop and there was a young woman at the counter who I've never seen before. I greeted her and said I had shirts for laundering and pressing.

"OK, shirts for dry cleaning," she said.

"No," I replied, "not dry cleaning. Just laundering."

"Oh, we don't do that."

I looked her in the eye and said, "That can't possibly be true. I have this done here all the time."

"No, we don't do this here," she said. "Only dry cleaning."

Without another word I picked up my shirts and left, and went to the cleaners down the street, where they were perfectly happy to launder my shirts.

I'm sure that woman is new, or maybe just filling in for the one who's normally there, but good grief! I am not going to argue my way into being allowed to spend money in someone's business. And why on Earth would I want to dry clean a plain cotton dress shirt, and contaminate the world with all those toxic chemicals, when I could just get it washed?!

My enthusiasm for that cleaner has been waning for a while, for a number of reasons. I might switch to the other one permanently.

(Photo: A mural on the Isle of Dogs, a couple of weeks ago.)

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Nocturnal Confusion

We've been having clear, sunny days, relatively warm for this time of year -- although in the photo it still looks pretty wintry, doesn't it? I love those long shadows. That was on my walk to work on Monday.

I wrote about the snail haven in our garden a couple of days ago, and one of my commenters said jokingly, "Escargot!" And that got me wondering about escargot and whether one could, in fact, eat garden snails. Are they any different from the snails the French eat? (Don't worry -- I'm not about to try. I was just curious.)

I did some research and there are instructions online for eating garden snails, but it sounds like an incredibly laborious process. First you've got to "detox" the snails by feeding them fresh vegetables for a week or more, followed by a few days of fasting, before they're ready to cook up. And the cooking itself sounds pretty involved -- boiling followed by washing, followed by simmering, followed by baking. A snail is just not meant to be eaten easily. Even well-cooked escargot from a restaurant is only barely edible, in my opinion.

I think our snails are safe from predation -- by me, anyway.

I've been having some incredibly busy days at work, mostly because a lot of class projects have come to an end and kids are returning their books from February break -- so that means a lot of material needs to go back to the shelves. Not very exciting to write about, though! Plus I sent a fusillade of letters to parents whose kids have wildly overdue books -- like, from October.

I had the strangest experience early this morning. I got up about 4 a.m. to get some water and when I came back to bed, I heard the dog snoring down by Dave's feet. She doesn't usually sleep there -- she's usually in the middle of the bed -- so I pulled the covers back a bit and scratched and snuggled her head, saying, "What are you doing down here?" Then I covered her up again, walked around the bed, got in -- and there was Olga, in her usual spot. Whoa! Did she move super-fast? Is there another dog in the bed? Was I snuggling Dave's feet?

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The North Pole

One of the reasons I went to Canary Wharf a couple of weekends ago was to photograph this pub, The North Pole.

It's closed now, but I saw photos of it on Flickr and it looked like a place I'd have loved to visit. It's surrounded by glassy new construction and frankly I'm amazed it's still there. It's apparently been closed since 2014.

At one time it was voted by Londonist readers as one of the best pubs on the Isle of Dogs. From their photos it appears to have been a congenial little place.

I love all the Arctic imagery, especially the cement-spattered polar bear.

Canary Wharf is otherwise a very sterile land of chain restaurants and glassy mall shops. It seems like there would be demand for a traditional old pub in the neighborhood. Reviews on another site were somewhat mixed, though.

Incidentally, I wondered about the name. Why "North Pole"? It's not a terribly common English pub name -- not even in the Top 50. It is near the northern edge of the Isle of Dogs, so maybe that's the reason, but your guess is as good as mine.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Snail Haven and Cactus Flower

When I was pulling ivy in the garden on Saturday, I stripped it off the rock wall that surrounds our patio. I found this incredible cluster of overwintering snails in a niche in the wall beneath the vines. Isn't that crazy? I count 17 of them -- and there were more in other locations.

Dave, ever the farmer, said, "Kill them!" But I just left them there. It seems a violation of the rules of war to kill the enemy when it's sleeping.

My feeling about snails is, as long as they're eating old leaves and other garbagey stuff, I don't mind them at all. They're only a problem when they get on our good plants. So we'll continue using snail deterrents to steer them away. I bought some copper "slug rings" to put around vulnerable plants -- we'll see how well they work. I have one around a tulip now and so far, so good.

Our cactus is now fully flowering, as you can see. This is such an unexpected joy to me -- I've never had it happen before with a potted desert cactus. As you can see, I removed that ring of orange fake flowers from around its base. They pulled right out -- they were on long straw pins inserted into the plant. Supposedly it won't hurt the cactus to remove them, or so I read.

Yesterday was a quiet day at home. A little more gardening, a walk with Olga in the cemetery. Oh, and I learned (via blog pal Linda Sue, who is like a human news aggregator) that Malta was battered over the weekend by high winds and crashing waves, uprooting trees and causing power cuts. Holy cow! It's so hard to believe, because when we were there just the day before the storm struck, it was sunny and tranquil. Talk about dodging a bullet!

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Early Spring and Peter Tork

Olga is so happy to be back to her routine. We took our normal morning walk yesterday, through the housing estate -- where we checked out the graffitied basketball court -- and she sparred with the cat beneath the door and sniffed where she always sniffs. I could just tell she was finding great comfort in it all.

Or maybe it was me who was comforted.

I did a bunch of stuff around the house -- once again, I am perplexed at how a house can get dirty when no one is in it -- and then Olga and I resumed our weekend routine by going to the Heath. We found a fruit tree in bloom...

...and an abundance of crocuses at the entrance to Golders Hill Park. I never get sick of crocuses.

The weather was incredible -- sunny and mild.

Another sight -- two mistle thrushes, flitting about near a field on the West Heath.

Dave and I were so motivated by the spring weather that we got out and worked in the garden. Dave transplanted some things -- we moved the rescued acanthus from its place near the garden bench into the central bed, where the apple tree used to be. It will get more sun there and will hopefully give us some flowers. We also moved a plant we'd put in the front garden, where it was overshadowed by larger shrubs, and Dave moved some daylilies to spread them around a bit.

Then I got sucked into a black hole of ivy-clearing. The ivy has become incredibly thick and dense in some areas, and I was out there almost until sunset. I'm trying to remind myself that it's only February and we could still get wintry weather, so I don't want to clear too much and expose delicate buds to the elements. But it's hard to think like that when the sun is bright and relatively warm!

On the culture front, I was sorry to hear that Peter Tork of the Monkees died a few days ago. I used to watch Monkees reruns religiously as a kid -- I knew all the episodes and all the songs, which I recorded off the TV onto a cassette, a sort of Super Monkees Mix Tape. Peter was always my favorite Monkee. I coveted his hair. I remember telling my mom, "I want hair like Peter Tork." And my mom said, "Well, you're not going to have hair like Peter Tork, so you better get used to it." Or something along those lines. And she was right.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

A Few Last Maltesers

Dave and I are both safe and sound back in London, and Olga, who was returned to us last night, is snoring by my side as I write this. Of course everything is just as we left it, since we were only gone a few days. I have travel laundry churning away in the washing machine.

Here are a few more pictures from our final morning in Malta. Dave kept joking during our trip that we were visiting the home of Maltesers, a British brand of chocolate-covered malted milk balls. Hence the title of this post.

First, I was specifically asked for pictures of cats, so here you go!

We tried to visit the botanical gardens, located in a park-like area not far from our hotel. But I'm not sure they're open to the public. A school group was entering while we were there and Dave tried go in with them, but a woman stopped him and said we needed "permission." There appeared to be no ticket office or anything like that. So we were stumped. We just looked in over the fence.

It was a little early for the Bros Bar... instead we found a sunny terrace behind the gardens where we had terrific views over the city. (That's not Valletta's big cathedral on the horizon, by the way. That's just another church. Malta has a million of 'em.)

Finally, we passed this construction truck with a creative name. It wasn't until we saw another truck at the same site called "Obscured by Clouds" that I realized the owner of the company must be a Pink Floyd fan.

We took a taxi to the airport at 11 a.m. and although our flight was delayed a bit, we were on the ground in London at 3:40 p.m. (with a one-hour time change). This time we traveled with the normal contingent of babies -- maybe one or two -- and the flight was much calmer. After passport control and the lengthy train ride from Gatwick we were home just after 6 p.m. Whew!

Friday, February 22, 2019

Mdina, Coleridge and a Neolithic Woman

Yesterday morning Dave and I figured out the public buses -- it wasn't hard -- and took one to the town of Mdina, which is located on a hill in the center of Malta. It's an ancient city built on the site of Phoenician fortifications from 1,000 BC. The Arabs, who arrived in the 9th century after a period of Roman occupation, gave it its present name as well as its strong walls and deep dry moat.

On the bus we were seated near an evidently carsick boy who threw up into his baseball cap, prompting a lot of scrambling by his parents and other passengers for tissues. Poor kid! Mercifully the ride is pretty short.

Once in the town, Dave and I wandered the narrow streets lined with medieval buildings and had coffee at a rooftop terrace overlooking the countryside. This was the view, looking north toward St. Julian's:

All the guides say Mdina is a must-see, but I found it preternaturally clean and quiet and somewhat sterile. I didn't see any food stores or drug stores or any sign of everyday life -- all that seems to occur in the surrounding modern town of Rabat. Mdina was just tour groups and upscale souvenir shops and art galleries.

Of course there were plenty of houses, with the typical Catholic plaques beside the front doors, but was anyone living there? Or are they all Airbnbs?

Don't get me wrong -- it was pretty. It was just too darn quiet.

This tree amused me because I'm pretty sure it's a Brazilian pepper. In Florida, they're a scourge -- an invasive species and the subject of eradication efforts by the state. Maybe here they don't grow as wildly. Or maybe I'm wrong and it's just something that looks like a Brazilian pepper -- but I don't think so.

When we got back to Valletta I was so ready to soak up some urban grit. So I got off the bus early while Dave went back to the hotel and I strolled through some outlying neighborhoods, where I found lots of cool shops and stray cats.

I got a tuna sandwich at a little open-air cafe, and of course the minute I sat down the pigeons began coming around. I tried to feed a few of the sorriest-looking ones, but I've found that if you try to throw a crumb to a sorry-looking pigeon, a healthy pigeon barges in like a linebacker and seizes the food. (Which explains everything, right?) I did manage to get at least one crumb into all the sad-looking birds.

This very fierce guard dog was curled up in the sun on the floor of an appliance shop.

I walked through the city gate and back into central Valletta, where I had coffee in the square outside the National Library, beneath the gaze of Queen Victoria.

I listened to this busker, who was playing much of the Peter, Paul and Mary songbook. He's standing next to a plaque proclaiming that Samuel Taylor Coleridge worked in that building in the early 1800s.  Apparently Coleridge lived here for a few years, becoming increasingly addicted to opium, after the British took control of Malta from Napoleon.

But if we're going to talk about history, let's go WAY back. After coffee I went to the archaeology museum. Malta is full of ancient temple complexes and other remarkable ruins, and since we aren't going to go to any of the sites on this trip, I wanted to at least see some of the artifacts found there. This statue of a sleeping woman is 5,000 years old! Just think -- it was already 3,000 years old when Jesus was preaching in Jerusalem. Doesn't it look like something by Fernando Botero?

Last night Dave and I went to dinner at a little bistro called Guze where we tried to eat light. I had a pot of mussels and Dave had rabbit, a Maltese specialty. Today we're headed back to London!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Up and Down God's Hills

Dave and I spent yesterday entirely in Valletta, exploring its steep, sloping streets. We're going to have some serious leg muscles by the time we go home.

Malta is very Catholic. There's religious imagery everywhere -- various saints and the virgin overlook many street corners, and there are often religious plaques and icons next to the front doors of houses.

We found this business on the main drag, devoted entirely to individually tailored little white suits for first communion. (It looks like they only do boys. I guess girls go elsewhere.)

In fact, Valletta's cathedral, known officially as the Co-Cathedral of St. John (apparently there's also another, older cathedral in the town of Mdina, hence the "Co-") is one of the city's must-see destinations. So we went.

It's just a modest little thing. Not very ornate at all.


It's actually probably one of the most beautiful churches I've ever seen. The floors are paved with colorful inlaid marble tombstones from the knights of St. John, an order dating from the time of the Crusades, who governed the island from the Middle Ages until the Napoleonic era. The walls are carved and gilded, the barrel vault ceiling is entirely painted with scenes from the life of John the Baptist, and there are two Caravaggio paintings and countless artworks by other lesser-known artists. An audio tour comes with the price of admission, but it was so detailed that I began skipping parts about halfway through. I think I'd still be there if I'd tried to listen to the whole thing.

Afterwards we walked to the Upper Barrakka Gardens, which offer an amazing view of the city walls and the harbor.

We made our way back into town (keep in mind nothing is very far away in this city) and found lunch -- more pasta, which was amazing, with butter and sage and burrata cheese. Then we wandered down to Fort St. Elmo, one of Valletta's many military fortifications. The city has an extensive military history dating from the "Great Siege" when the Turks invaded in the 1500s right up to World War II, and there's even a museum dedicated to it, but Dave and I didn't go. A little of that goes a long way in my book.

Instead we wandered through the little fishing village on the Grand Harbor. There were cats galore, hovering around doorways and washing themselves atop walls in the sun.

Then we found the Lower Barrakka Gardens, and more views of the waterfront and the city's War Memorial, which we visited.

Finally, we made our way back to the hotel, passing lots of fabulous shopfronts and old signs along the way.

I am obsessed with all the old signs.

Last night we went for a wonderful seafood dinner on the waterfront. We had a course of spaghetti carbonara, made tableside in a giant bowl carved out of a wheel of parmesan cheese, followed by a fresh red snapper baked in salt. (Dave and I split the fish.) I felt like I'd eaten two entrees, and basically I had, but that didn't stop me from having tiramisu and strong Italian-style coffee. Which of course kept me awake until about 2 a.m., but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth it.

Oh, and speaking of coffee:

I got this when I ordered coffee at a cafe yesterday afternoon. It was obviously a stirring implement, but why the big hole?! Well, I did some research, and it turns out it's called an Espoon (I'm not sure whether that's pronounced like "e-mail" or "esteemed") and it's supposed to stir the coffee without breaking the foam seal on the top. How it's better than the simple balsa wood stick you get at Starbucks I'm not sure, but I imagine there's definitely a theory behind it. And it does look so elegant.

Today the plan is to go to Mdina, provided we can figure out the buses!

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The Maltese Falcon

Well, we made it to Malta, after what Dave pronounced the worst flight of his life. I would estimate there were at least 80 babies on our plane. (There may have been only about eight, but it's a mathematical law that every baby on land produces the noise and bodily fluids of at least ten babies once it takes to the air.) The family sitting next to us had two babies, which they stuffed with Cheetos until the kids' eyes bugged out, and Dave said one of them had smelly gastrointestinal issue on its clothing, which the parents decided to simply ignore. They were too busy being vexed and belligerent with the flight attendant, who had insisted that they put their stroller in the cargo hold. It was quite a show.

But anyway, we got here!

Above is the view from our third-floor hotel room balcony. I could do without the satellite dish, but I think it's on the roof of the French embassy, which makes it somewhat more romantic. All of Valletta, the Maltese capital, is built from that beige stone.

Our hotel is called La Falconeria. Apparently actual Maltese falcons -- a subspecies of peregrines -- haven't been seen in the wild since the 1980s. But that doesn't stop the falcon from featuring prominently in the islands' mythology.

Dave and I went out for a midday meal and found a terrific pasta place on a sloping street, where the cafe tables had longer legs on one side than the other to accommodate the slope. I'd never seen anything like it. The food was fabulous.

A lot of the shops have signs that seem to be at least a half-century old. I'm going to have fun photographing shopfronts, I can tell! (This particular shop appears to be vacant. Apparently it's looked this way for more than ten years.)

There are plenty of modern shops, too. And since Malta was a British possession in the 19th and 20th centuries, there's lots of British iconography.

In fact, Queen Victoria still reigns in front of the National Library.

After walking around town, past the sleek modern Parliament building and the city walls, Dave and I wound up on this wide plaza with a gigantic fountain. The sun was setting and it was getting cold, so we went back to the room for our jackets -- and I'm ashamed to say we stayed in the rest of the night. So much for being adventurous! I think all those babies just wore us out. We'll make up for it today.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Flowers, Exotic and Not

I was just saying to Dave the other day, "Don't we usually have a purple crocus in the garden?" And then, as if summoned forth by my words, it bloomed in the grass days later! It was promptly plucked by a pigeon, but fortunately I got a photo first.

Our daffodils have also appeared, and Olga, on cue, has begun knocking the heads off with her garden escapades. It's an annual ritual.

I bought this little cactus years ago for Dave. At the time, that ring of tiny orange flowers circled the top. Since then it's been steadily growing in its misshapen, cactusy way, and now it's sent up what looks like a large yellow bud. I think we may get a proper flower!

The orange things, it turns out, are almost certainly fake. Apparently this is a thing. The mere fact that they've been there for years suggests that they are not natural. I guess, deep down, I suspected as much.

Finally, here's one of our orchids, blooming once again. You can see flower stalks from two other orchid plants in the background. Give us another month or so and we should have orchids galore around here!

Speaking of gardening, we had some drama yesterday. Dave and I were sitting in the living room when Dave exclaimed and pointed to a guy walking around in the back garden! He turned out to be a gardener from next door. The neighbor (the one who took down the big cypress tree) is having her landscaping redone and asked the gardener to bring her climbing rose back over the fence so she could put it on a trellis at the back of her property. Until now, it's been winding its way through a tree in our garden -- you may remember we had our tree trimmers spare it during our recent pruning. It is indeed her rose, because it's rooted in her garden, so we couldn't really argue with them to leave it alone.

I'm concerned that the gardeners' work may have damaged the greenery in our trees -- much of it ivy. If that ivy was rooted on the neighbor's property, and they cut the vines at the base, all that green growth will die and that will look like hell. There's still some climbing rose up there, now deprived of its roots, that will certainly die. Ugh -- we may have to have the tree trimmers back again! Only time will tell.

But anyway, for the time being, I'm not going to think about any of that. Because this morning, we're off to Malta!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Paddington Jesus

I had grand plans to take Olga to Wormwood Scrubs yesterday morning, but when we got to the Overground station the trains weren't running. (Of course.) Rather than change plans and backtrack toward the Heath, I decided to continue on towards Paddington Old Cemetery, where we hadn't been for about a year.

It was a beautiful day, sunny and spring-like.

The crocuses were out in profusion, which provided me with plenty of photographic opportunities. Olga was more focused on chewing up her tennis ball.

The cemetery's beautiful gothic chapels are still fenced off and inaccessible, just as they were last spring. It seems tragic that those 160-year-old buildings are being left to deteriorate. The light was hitting the stained glass windows, and through a gap in another window I could just make out Jesus, looking down on the empty room. That's probably as close as I'll ever come to seeing those windows from the inside.

Among the crocuses and snowdrops I also found clumps of iris. I'm not sure what kind this is, but it's much earlier than the irises in our garden, which won't appear for another few months.

Back home again, I joined Dave to do a little bit of trimming in our garden. More is scheduled for today -- we need to hold back the flood tide of English ivy that threatens to swallow up our plants. I still don't see any sign of life from the passionflower vine, which you may remember I cut back really hard a couple of months ago. I still think I may have killed it.

Last night we went to dinner with Chris and Linda, our pals from Notting Hill. I privately pledged not to discuss Brexit, which turns into more of a disaster every day, and we never broached the topic -- thank goodness.