Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ai Weiwei - a virtual tour of China

Since 2005, No Crowds has been brilliantly supported by the world's most patient Editor. He fixes my spelling, puts up with my inability to keep to a schedule and is good natured about being dragged to 1001 events that might someday produce a post. After we attended the opening of the Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy in London, he strongly suggested I write something about it. My reply: well if you feel so strongly about it, you write it. And so, he did

When the NoCrowds blogster wants you to accompany her to a cultural event, the editor refuses at his peril.  Last week we went to the opening of the Ai Weiwei show at the Royal Academy of Arts.  Having braved rush hour traffic and monsoon like rain, I was less than chuffed upon arrival in Piccadilly.

All I had heard about Weiwei was that he was a big deal in artistic dissent.  I thought this is going to be the Chinese “big art” version of Anish Kapoor.  Was I wrong!!  Weiwei, through his montages, takes you on a virtual visit of his country, from the end of the Qing dynasty to the present.  One of his creations is an inverted map of China with a three-legged stool representing Taiwan—powerfully demonstrating the disparity in size between the PRC and its “lost” province.  Another represents the destruction of Chinese cultural heritage to make way for megacities.  He also indicts his government for failing to control corruption, which contributes to a variety of disasters.

In eleven rooms, Weiwei uses different art media to explore the country’s past and present.  Do not be fooled, he is an ardent nationalist who wants China to face up to its glorious past, problematic present and its potential going forward.  His often petty treatment by the Chinese authorities tells us more about their insecurity and unspoken concern that China could be broken up as was the Soviet Union
Until Weiwei, my view of contemporary art was the Impressionists.  They made a big splash disrupting the cosy old boy hold on the Salon in Paris.  Weiwei goes far beyond them impressing us with his use of materials and his commitment to a better China.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Hanging Out in Hunt Country

Back in the spring of 2014, No Crowds wrote about college-touring in the US in Bataan Death March? No our baby is going to college.

Recently, we dropped that very same baby off at the University of Virginia and then high-tailed it down to North Carolina to get out of her way. After a lovely visit with The Tribe – my family and friends in the great State – it was time to head back to London. But first, we had to face the always-horrific drive up Interstate 95 to Dulles Airport. How I hate that highway. I used to love it as a child when we would cruise down from New York with my mother, the Mario Andretti of transplanted southerners, eager to get home. With no regard for speed limits or bodily functions - my brother once had to pee in a bottle - it was all great fun. But I digress.

So daunting was the idea of closing up the farm, driving and then flying all in one day, in the interest of our sanity and marital relations, we decided to drive the day before and spend the night somewhere near Dulles. But where?

Here’s where my father, well traveled and a man of few words, piped in, “Go to the Red Fox Inn in Middleburg, Virginia. Great place. Close to the airport.”

And so we went but we didn’t want to tell our daughter that we were heading back her way and wouldn’t be stopping to take her out for a free meal. In our defense, we thought it was disruptive. So very quietly, we made our way north.

Middleburg hasn’t changed much since I was last there in the 1970s for my sister’s graduation from the Foxcroft School. That’s good. Thank you town fathers, city planners and everyone who has kept out teardowns, dreadful add-ons and McDonalds. This horsey village is charming and filled with unique shops selling tasteful horsey stuff. It’s a lovely place to walk around.

And the Red Fox Inn? In a word – wonderful. Dating back to 1728 and still family owned and operated, there are 25 rooms spread over a number of buildings. We stayed in the dead quiet and comfortable Huntland room in the Stray Fox building,  that includes a terrific breakfast. We also had a nice dinner in the atmospheric Tavern.

The next morning we walked around some more and then took a leisurely drive (Middleburg is 23 miles to Dulles) through strikingly beautiful hunt country with a stop in Leesburg for lunch in the back garden of Shoes Cup & Cork that was very relaxing and the perfect antidote to getting on BA’s cattle class A380 to London.

So if you need a place to stay close, but not too close, to Dulles that is full of atmosphere, good service and good food, look no further than the Red Fox Inn in Middleburg.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Compartir - Delightful Dining for the Disorganised

I don’t know about you, but the one thing I do not want to be on my summer holiday is … organized. That’s for the winter. Well, at least that is my aspiration for the winter. In summer, I want sunshine and spontaneity but for that, of course, you pay a price.  Back in the day, you couldn’t eat at the world famous el Bulli restaurant near Roses in Catalonia if you didn’t plan a military operation months or even years in advance. Annually, they would get over a million reservation requests for 8,000 covers. Those are not good odds.

But today, in the seaside town of Cadaques on the Costa Brava in Spain, where No Crowds has been holidaying for the last 20 years (you can read related posts here), three alumni of El Bulli have established Compartir, a fun, informal restaurant where we were able to book a table for 4 for lunch on 3 days notice.

And we were super-happy with our choice. We ate outdoors on the lovely terrace – buzzing but not frenetic.  Service was relaxed yet attentive and the young staff gave very good advice about navigating the menu. The food was interesting with lots of unusual – and delicious -  presentations of regional fare. The wine list was also interesting and very correctly priced. For lunch, calculate about €50 per head with wine.

So if you find yourself on the Costa Brava next summer and you want a great meal without all the strategic planning, head for Compartir in Cadaques. And yes, if I had been more organised, I would have written this post in August.

Riera Sant Vinc
+34 972 25 84 82

Photo courtesy of Compartir website:

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Why We Travel

“Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it.”

Emilia Earhart

When I was growing up, my parents often travelled to faraway lands. It didn’t worry me during the day, but at night I dreamt over and over again that they died in a plane crash.  I dreamt it so often that I taught myself how to control the story. Just as the plane was about to hit the ground, I would tell myself to wake up and not to worry, it was only a dream. One night, probably from boredom or just curiosity, I let the dream finish its terrible trajectory.  This night the plane crashed. Everyone aboard was killed. At the funeral, my father was quietly lowered into the ground. My mother, by contrast, sat straight up in her coffin right before they closed the lid and said, “If you think I am taking this lying down, you are sadly mistaken.” She got up and walked out. I never had that dream again.

So you can imagine the shock when she did die.  Not violently in a plane crash but quietly in a bed following a stroke. The doctors had prepared us for what was coming, but I didn’t believe them. After all, she had defied so many expectations and predictions. After a skiing accident, they said she might not walk again. She walked. Snow blind on Everest, she found the path. In jail in Algeria, she got out. Dead in my dreams, she quit her own funeral.

So you can see why I thought, of course, she would make it. When I arrived at the hospital following the call from my father, she was singing “A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down” from Mary Poppins and asking for bourbon. Even at the very end, even when the nurse whispered, “I think she’s gone” and began to check for a heartbeat, Mom took a huge, deep, gasping breath that made us all jump out of our skin. See, I thought, she isn’t ‘gone’. Not my mother. But a few minutes later, she was.

But this is supposed to be a travel story – about an adventurer - an old-school, lady traveller to be exact. Please note that I did not say old-school woman traveller. My mother didn’t set much store on feminist activism. I think she was bored with it. Instead, she just did her own magnificent thing. As the Reverend Tom Midyett said at her service, “Nan was an artist” with all the individuality that statement implies.

The sweetest words my mother ever heard were always, “No, you can’t do that.” Maybe she never intended to do it. Maybe she didn’t want to do it. But the minute something was forbidden, she would get a really fun, terrifying glint in her eye. I think she lived for those moments. And then she was off, to Africa, to Antarctica, to New York, to altitudes and deserts and rivers and castles, to all the places that for all kinds of reasons she was not supposed to go. She was Boudicca in a Chanel suit, Sacagawea leading Lewis and Clark, Gertrude Bell mapping the Middle East - always leading the charge against convention and expectation.

And just when you thought she’d done it all, she’d head off again. ‘Where’s  your mother now?’ was my favorite question as a child. It still is. So where’s my mother now? It’s hard to say. Off on some adventure, causing trouble, I suppose. I hope. 

I like to think of her this way. On her very first trip - 15 years old, excited, apprehensive, about to board the train in North Carolina bound for New York City and Julliard and my father and us, her children, and everything that happened after that including Antarctica and Algeria and Everest. My mother taught me this. We travel because God gave us two feet, a strong heart and a sense of adventure. We travel because, aware of all the hazards, we still want to do it.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

The Gardens at Highgrove

I visit gardens the way most folks watch MasterChef, I love to watch someone else perform but I haven’t a clue how to garden. Still, when the announcement arrived from my daughter’s school that tickets had been obtained to tour the Prince of Wales's gardens at Highgrove, I leapt at the chance. MasterChef Grand Finale here I come.

It’s a bit complicated getting oneself to Highgrove southwest of Tetsbury in the Cotswolds. First, you must pre-book a ticket from the website or you can call the booking office on 0207 766 7310.  I’ve been told tickets for the season go fast. On arrival, you must show a photo ID to get in. Public transport involves a train journey and a pre-booked taxi. Highgrove maintains a strict timetable so don’t be late. No phones, no cameras, no binoculars. But then, this is the home of the heir to the British throne so with that in mind, the rules seem pretty reasonable.

And the gardens? In a word - wonderful - and completely worth the effort. For the past 30 years, Prince Charles has engaged in an environmental project so full of vision, passion and empathy for nature that it totally lifted my spirits about the sorry state of the world.

The guided tour takes about 2 hours. Groups are small and the feeling is intimate. Our guide was terrific, knowledgeable and lots of fun. We had a delicious light lunch after our tour and of course, an opportunity to buy very tasteful things from the shop where all the proceeds go to support the Prince’s many charitable endeavors.

If you are a gardener beg, borrow or steal a ticket. If you are travelling in the Cotswolds, ditto. Even if you are a garden nincompoop like me, go. After 20 years of living in the United Kingdom, I would rank my day spent at Highgrove as one of the very best.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Chef, a TV Show and Flash Fried Collards

My daughter loves Master Chef. It’s charms are somewhat lost on this old curmudgeon. I haven’t been excited about a TV cook since Julia Child - until I was introduced to the award winning public broadcasting series “A Chef’s Life” featuring an eastern North Carolina girl, a Yankee husband*, and a backwater called Kinston that has a real Civil War ironclad the CSS Neuse washed-up in the center of town. Does this sound like the makings of a fabulous TV show? Honey, it’s a cracker.

I was introduced to “A Chef’s Life” by my friend Mase who would send to London DVDS and internet links and promises to take me to Chef and the Farmer, the restaurant featured in the show, the next time I was in North Carolina. And he did.

We arrived on a Tuesday night in July after a long journey with great expectations. Chef and the Farmer sits right across from that famous sinister ironclad across a large parking lot already filling with cars. It was an exciting start. We were early hoping to grab a table before our 7:45 reservation as Mase had a 3-hour drive home. So we started out in the wine bar and shop, had a lovely glass of red, got to study the evening’s menu and met some nice folks who had driven all the way from Raleigh. In my usual “sotto voce” I let it be known that I had come all the way from London and Mase all the way from Greensboro. That impressed the Raleigh folks.

It also caught the attention of Susan, a member of staff from the show who took wonderful care of us. Such is the charm of “A Chef’s Life” that we felt like we already knew her before she appeared, in real life, at our table. And there was a film crew all over the place shooting Season 2. How fun was that.

Throughout the night, Mase and I would spot all our favorite folks from the program. “There’s Vivian!” “Look, it’s Ben.” “Oh, her parents just arrived.” I acted like a complete idiot and boy did I have a good time. The lovely Susan realized we were besotted and brought Vivian and Ben over to the table. We were shameless in our praise. They were just as wonderful as on film.

And what about the food? Reader, it blew me away. Describing the cooking as a farm-to-table symphony of local classics just doesn’t do it justice. We had country ham with peaches, pork belly, flash fried collards (incredible), gazpacho (also incredible), squash casserole and tomato pie. We ate our way through the summer gifts of eastern North Carolina. We ate our way through the filming of our favorite TV show. We ate our way through an inspiring direction for a town that had fallen on hard times.

And as the sun set over the ironclad and vast parking lot of Chef and the Farmer, I asked myself, not for the first or last time, what the hell I’m doing in London when my tribe – and flash fried collards – are here in North Carolina. Well, I’ll always have Season 2 of a “Chef’s Life”.  

It’s not home, but for now, it’ll have to do.

* Mase says that since Ben is from Chicago, Illinois, he doesn't really qualify as a Yankee. I say that hailing from the land of Lincoln qualifies him for sure. The Yankee description stands.