For Luke and Melanie, a gift, on the splendid occasion of their marriage!

Dearest Luke and Melanie:

First of all, I want to congratulate each one of you. Both of you have made a most excellent choice of life partner. You make an exciting team, and I know you are going to get up to all sorts of fascinating adventures together. I hope I'll be able to tag along sometimes, whether you are off following the trail of obscure superstitions in South India or paddling from village to village in the remote Brazilian Amazon.

I also hope you will invite me to your home, and cook me delicious vegetarian meals. Once you have a place to live, that is. Some would think it is daring enough that you would go ahead and get married while homeless, without all that gallivanting about to distant continents. I'm not worried, though. I know you will be settled soon. But under the circumstances, I thought it best for the moment to give you your wedding gift virtually. It's rather weighty, so instead of giving you a big heavy box full of cookware, which you would then have to schlep somehow or another to the greater St. Petersburg area, I thought I would just tell you about it.

Newlyweds, you've chosen door number one! What have we got for the young couple? Why, it's a wonderful set of cookware, from that fabulous country, Denmark, and that fabulous decade, the 1960s! Way before you were even born, you cuties!

That's right! This stunning thirteen piece set of enamel cookware, in almost new condition, features fire-engine red enamel on the outside, and beautiful blue-gray enamel on the inside. We'd like to tell you that you can take this straight from the oven or stovetop to your table and then pop it right into the fridge, but Le Creuset has that motto patented. Nevertheless, rest assured that you can do that! This stuff is every bit as good as that more famous French brand, except, dare we say it, it's even more elegant! This is Quality, people! If you want to get snooty about it you can even let slip to your dinner guests that it's decidedly Danish Modern! Timeless, and stylish. We just know you are going to enjoy using this for your legume and bean-based vegetable stews and curries.

If you act now, this set will include everything you see here: all four trivets; the rectangular casserole with matching lid; the low chafing dish (which I don't even have, in my own extensive collection of turquoise pieces by the very same designer!); the tab-handled skillet and lid; and two sizes of deep saucepans, each with their very own matching tops!.

Just drop me a line as soon as you have an address and this stunning collection will be winging its way to you!

Offer of free shipping valid only in the 48 continental states and the territory of Puerto Rico. Not valid where prohibited by law. Five dollar bill appears only to show scale of items and is not included with this offer at this time. No warranties implied or expressed. Acceptance of offer assumes extension of future dinner invitation to donor by recipients. Batteries not included.


Tour de France, part deux

If you have not read the previous post, you may wish to do so now, lest you be left bewildered by your abrupt arrival in mid-narrative.

Chapter Three

After the flurry of emails leading up to my final, embarrassed suggestion that she seek other transportation, I didn't hear back from Traci Macnamara that day. It was as if she had finally realized that the whole offer had been nothing more than a fever dream, a transatlantic hoax. I sheepishly wondered whether I would ever again see or hear from that poor woman whose time I had wasted, while she was stranded, lame, in Paris. I imagined she thought I had made the entire story up, for obscure and perverse reasons of my own.

The next day, to my surprise, I found in my inbox the continuation of our correspondence. "Unbelievable, mission accomplished! I have your yellow velo and a new kryptonite lock." (Velo means "bicycle" in French. As Steve Martin once said, "those French people have a different word for everything!")

The bicycle, saved, or at least salvaged? It seemed impossible, or at best, unlikely. I wrote back at once: "Please ring me tomorrow. This is a story I want to hear."

When Macnamara called, she explained that she was holding yet another bag of frozen peas hard against her inflamed achilles tendon. Her long and arduous trudging about the far-flung quartiers of Paris, while attempting to solve the bicycle conundrum, had caused a relapse. Nonetheless, she was effervescent.

The day before, she had made her way to the Avenue de Suffren and, with the help of a Google streetview snapshot I had sent her, easily located the building. I had suggested that it was a large and crowded complex, and that even without the passcode it would be easy enough to gain access to the courtyard by opportunistically gliding in on the coattails of a resident. But Traci soon discovered that this notion was simply another one of my optimistic fabrications. She lurked and lingered about on the street in front of the locked doorway to no avail, until, perhaps, passersby began to look at her strangely and wonder what sort of sordid business she was up to. It was as mortifying as it was unproductive.

courtesy: Google Streetview

Already, imagining the raised eyebrows and the leers that might have been directed her way, we could forgive Macnamara had she abandoned the whole enterprise and gone hobbling back to her hotel. But I had described the courtyard, in which the bicycle might or might not still exist, as being a full city block long, and backing onto a sort of an alley. Instead of going home and sulking, she limped down to the corner and along the side street, looking for the service access to the back of the building. After jumping over a waist-high retaining wall, she found herself with her nose pressed up against the bars securing the courtyard, mere inches from the bike rack. "And there it was," she said. "I saw it right away."  (I believe she added that "The bicycle looked like it was painted by Jackson Pollack, with a bad hangover." Or words to that effect. I didn't record the conversation, so that might not be verbatim.) The bicycle was directly in front of her, elusive and unobtainable behind the bars.

Realizing that she needed a plan of attack, Macnamara set out in search of two tools that her scouting had revealed were necessary: a pump for the visibly flat tires, and something to cut a lock off with. Many disappointments were in store. The Avenue de Suffren, which divides the 7th from the 15th Arrondissement, is a rather toney address. Imagine lurching along Park Avenue in the neighborhood of 70th street. with a gimp leg, trying to borrow a hacksaw and a bike pump from the doormen there, and you will get some idea of what Traci was up against. There is a boulangerie on Suffren where the woman behind the counter looks over the tops of her eyeglasses with a disdainful sneer, as if to suggest that Americans are not fit to eat the baguettes that she bakes. On the corner, at the epicerie, blemishless fruits are piled in immaculate pyramids by fastidious Tunisians. There are no sordid corners in this hood. It is not the kind of place where a wink and the offer of a few francs in return for the short-term loan of a pair of bolt-cutters will be met with the knowing smile of approval of an underworld collaborator.

Seething with frustration, her ankle throbbing, Traci refused to lose focus. Instead of the criminal route, she determined to triumph with smiles, and perhaps even some feminine wiles. Plan B was to arrive at the front door, ring the bell, and explain her predicament to the concierge, who might, if he believed her story, be happy to see a surplus bicycle removed, never again to take up space on the bike rack of which he was the steward. With any luck the more friendly, flirty sort of concierge (if there is such a thing to be found in Paris) might even offer up a demonstration of his manly French bolt-cutting prowess. There was also the risk that she might be sent away, having accomplished nothing except the alerting of the building's guardian to her designs on one of its bicycles. She had to exercise caution, for nothing less than Wordsworth's legacy was at stake.

There is a uniform worn by workingmen all across Europe, a sort of coverall, in royal blue. German carpenters wear it, as do Swedish auto-mechanics, Spanish plasterers and French maintenance men. In front of the doorway Traci wanted opened was just such a workingman, all but blocking the entrance as he sucked on a Gauloise and chattered on a téléfone portable. He was clearly taking a break from some sort of task within the premises. Perhaps he himself was the concierge. Macnamara approached, trying out a few polite French trivialities. The man refused to come unglued from his cellphone, but he turned, punched in the code, and gestured toward the door with gallic dismissiveness. She was in!

Chapter Four

It was unbearable. She was now standing over the bicycle, touching it, and admiring the patina of its comparatively recent repainting. But she was no closer, really, to victory. Three years ago, I had purchased the most inexpensive lock I could find, five euros worth of cable. With the key permanently lost, that lock was now the only thing preventing Macnamara from continuing her glorious journey down the Loire valley. She tugged at it, and peeled back the plastic tubing that protects the cable from rust. It might have been a cheap lock, but it had done its work for three years already, and it wasn't done yet.

But neither was Macnamara. She is, after all, as close as one can come to being from Antarctica, a place where people survive the long dark winters by gnawing on frozen seal blubber and eating penguin sushi. Traci had dressed fetchingly for her trek to the 15ieme Arrondissement, in order better to manipulate hapless, besotted concierges, but inside her clutch she had a weapon. She took it out now. It was a petite and delicate Swiss Army knife, but one with a saw attachment. Looking about her to see if she was observed, she attacked the lock with the three-inch blade, like a prisoner on Alcatraz trying to remove a cinderblock with a smuggled spoon. If you lived there, and had been home that day, you might have spied out the window a woman in a dress, with an inflamed ankle, bent over a bicycle and savagely hacking away.

Those Swiss don't only make watches. Under the pressure of the serrated steel, first one strand of wire gave way, and then another. Soon Traci found her rhythm. Look around, saw feverishly, pause. Repeat. FWANG! Finally, the lock gave way. Macnamara smiled. Looking around calmly, she pulled the bike away from the rack, pressed the button to unlock the back door, and pushed out into the alley.

I'm expecting a postcard from Switzerland, any day now.

The bicycle, reclaimed, relocked and loaded

Macnamara, heading South, like Shackleton

Next stop, Chamonix

All photographs: Anne Aghion


A Bicycle in every Port, Part One (REDACTED)

Chapter One

People, and by that I mean primarily men, sure are funny about their vehicles. Perhaps the cherishing of vintage cars and the fetishization of motorcycles is a kind of evolutionary relic left over from the gratitude, grain, and soothing words we once lavished on our horses. Personally, I have a comparable fond spot in my memory for almost all the bicycles with which I have ever had an intimate relationship. There was my first ten-speed, the pale green Fuji on which I learned to race, purchased with months of salted-away allowance. The classic Italian steel Pinarello I ride now is bright red, like the convertible sportscar of a man in a profound midlife crisis. It is the bicycle I drooled over in my teenage years but couldn't dream of affording. Slowest by far, but no less cherished, is the one-speed Flying Pigeon I rode across Cuba, from Trinidad to Santiago, through weeks of unremitting headwind. Leaving it with a family at the end of the journey was heart-wrenching. I tried to make them promise they would care for it as I had, and allow me to come back, for visits.

But bicycles come and go. In New York the old saying is that you never really own a bicycle, you only rent it, until it is stolen and you are forced to return to the bike shop to "rent" another one. As a lover of bicycles, what shocks me more is how often they die of abandonment and neglect. The world's cities are full of mangled tubular corpses permanently affixed to lamposts and no-parking signs. Countless mouldering, rubber-rotted, dust-crusted orphans are left rusting in basements, storage rooms and courtyards just because their owners can't fit them in the moving van or be bothered to fix that flat.

I've only just noticed that the Eiffel Tower looks like a giant vuvuzela, set down on its business end

I found one like this three years ago in Paris, a once-stately Dutch city-bike, forlorn and forgotten and coated with ochre dust. Both tires were completely flat, the rubber cracked and brittle. I disapprove of theft, of course, but bicycles are a bit like pets; when they have clearly been abandoned by their owners, what crime can there be in washing them off, showing them some love, and taking them for a walk? Keeping in mind the Paris spirit of 1968, perhaps the same year this antique had been manufactured, I liberated her.

Encore une pauvre abandonée dans les tristes ruelles de Paris

Under all the dust, my Dutch was a satiny black, a classic tuxedoed beauty. Little can go wrong with these stolid, one-speed cruisers, and in no time at all, after a petit investment in a new set of whitewall tires and a few drops of oil, I was gleefully pedaling her through the rues and avenues of the left bank. I bought a lock, the cheapest I could find. The bike gave me weeks of faultless transport. When I left Paris, I gave it to my niece, Sophia, hoping to introduce her to the joys of urban cycling. I tried to make her promise to care for it as I had, and allow me to come back, for visits.

My niece's building made no accommodation for bicycles, so we locked the bike across the street in the courtyard of another apartment building where my parents had briefly rented; we knew the key-code for the front door, and imagined that no one would be the wiser if we parked it there temporarily. In any case I was sure that once Sophia got the hang of it she would soon be riding to school, and to cafés, cherishing it and generally getting such good use out of it that it wouldn't need a permanent home. That was three years ago.

Two years ago, I asked Sophia, via trans-atlantic skype, if she was taking good care of my baby. Was she riding it a lot? Caressing it, polishing the brake calipers and whispering sweet nothings in its ear? Feeding it the occasional sugar cube? Things got a bit quiet at the other end of the internet. "Well, I did paint it, one afternoon," she said, finally. I took a deep breath, and said nothing. "Yeah," she went on. "My friends and I spray-painted it yellow. It looks kind of cool." I said goodbye, exhaled, and closed my laptop. Horrors and sacrilege! The mere thought of it was unbearable. How dare she? I tried to continue my New York life as usual, but I was living a poisoned quotidian existence of bitter denial. Eventually, after months of struggle, during which I undoubtedly drank too much and snapped angrily at my loved ones, I managed at last to put the whole sordid business out of my mind. Picking up the shattered pieces of my broken avuncular dreams, I moved on.

Quel horreur. If I wanted a taxicab, I would stand in the street with my hand out.

Chapter Two

Last week I got an email from an antarctican acquaintance, my friend Traci Macnamara. She used to wish us good morning on the Motorola radio from MacMurdo Operations, when Anne Aghion, Sylvestre Guidi and I were camped in the remote wilds of the Friis Hills. Every day at 6AM it was obligatory to put a call in to "MacOps" to announce that all were healthy and accounted for, and often Macnamara was on the other end of that call. We kept vaguely in touch, and from time to time since leaving Antarctica I have checked in on her blog. In northern hemisphere life Macnamara is an accomplished writer and adventurer. Unless she is making it all up, she is the sort of woman who lives for months on end in a tent in a remote Rocky Mountain encampment, goes solo off-piste skiing deep into the wilderness, and pulls her way up vertical cliff-faces in the French Alps with her fingertips. I knew that for her latest little jaunt she was planning on "fast-packing" her way across Europe, retracing Wordsworth's journey from England to Switzerland on foot. Whereas for most people going to Antarctica is the adventure of a lifetime, for Traci it's just a day job.

I was flattered when Macnamara referenced my book in her email. It's the story of an overweight and out-of-shape slog across Cuba, and for those of you who haven't read it, I don't think I'm spoiling anything by telling you that I fell lame with a blown knee after four days of hiking. Ultimately I procured the bicycle I mention above. "Here I am in Paris, thinking of you," wrote Macnamara. "After 7 days of near heat stroke in the wheat fields of northern France, I developed tendonitis in my left ankle. I'm sitting here with a bag of frozen peas on my leg, dreaming of finding a bike over the weekend so that I can continue this warped journey in some manner...."

Suddenly, memories of my beloved Parisian ride came rushing back. For all I knew my niece had by now completely dismantled the bicycle and sold the parts on eBay in order to buy Gauloises, but at this stage, I couldn't bear to ask. I was thinking only of the bike and how it could still be saved from the terrible death of neglect. "I have a bicycle you might be able to use," I wrote back to Traci, somewhat optimistically. "It is locked up in a courtyard on Avenue Suffren, a few hundred yards from the Eiffel tower." I had only vague hopes that this was still true. "I imagine it would need new tires and a good going over by a bike shop." This last bit, although perhaps an understatement, seemed less of a stretch. "Let me know if you are interested."

To my embarrassment, she wrote back almost immediately: "Seriously???? I'm absolutely interested!!" It seemed I would have now to reveal what we might politely call the vagueness and uncertainly surrounding my offer. Namely, the probability that the bicycle had long ago been removed by a fastidious concierge and carted off to the dump. By coincidence, my sister, the mother of my nefarious, spraycan-wielding niece, was stopping by for lunch that very afternoon. I wrote Traci that I would ask for any and all details, and explained that I hadn't actually seen the poor beast myself for almost three years.

I really only needed two things in order to save face. One was the key code to get into the courtyard, and the other was the key to unlock the bicycle. No sooner had she sat down at my luncheon table than I made my poor sister call her daughter. The news was not good. My ingrate niece had no memory of the key code and had not visited the poor and affection-starved bicycle in at least a year and a half, since doing a "very, very ghetto job" of painting it. Her keychain, containing the key to the bike lock, had been pickpocketed from her only a few months ago, while she was sitting in a bar, guzzling kir and smoking Gitanes. It was hard for me to complain about the loss of my key once my sister informed me that as a result of the same crime she had been forced to replace her own apartment's front door lock to the tune of €1600. I gathered that Sophia is unlikely to receive any more allowance until her eightieth birthday, but this was but a small consolation.

"Bad news," I wrote to Traci. "Nobody knows nothing. No code, no key, no clue. Take my advice, forget I ever even mentioned it, and have a look on eBay.fr for something used and reasonable. Sorry to have gotten your hopes up."

To be continued...

Traci Macnamara, soothing her disappointment, and her tendonitis, with a frozen bag of organic peas.

All photographs: Theo Cremona

For Part Two of this cliffhanger, click HERE


Economic Recovery Barometer, Bronx and Queens billboard edition

A couple of days ago the NYT ran a breathless story to let us all know that even if times are tough, at least Wall Street is hiring, "in anticipation of an economic recovery." One of the ideas it promotes is that we New Yorkers should all feel good about this, because of the potential trickle-down effects on the local economy. A closer read, with some peering between the lines, suggests that Wall Street is hiring largely because the banks that are too large to fail turned the economic bailout into yet another gigantic cash-sweeping opportunity, and they are so flush with lucre that they need a few extra bodies to help them squeeze the lemon dry.

Here at antarcticiana we have our own notions about how, when and why to call an economic upswing, including the scintillating theory that our nation's economic health can be judged by the billboard rental rate. On a recent drive up to the Berkshires, for what could be termed either a delightful long weekend or just another routine four-day-long stretch of underemployment, the number of blank billboards lining the highways of Queens and, further north, the Bronx, continued to impress. These images may not have the crisp composition of our earlier Gowanus series, but I think they are none the less poignant for having been snapped from a moving car in classic BQE stop-and-go traffic. To us, this spells ongoing slowdown.

One emerging trend is that with such broad expanses of unsold canvas left dangling for so long in prime eye-catching territory, graffiti and street artists are beginning to seize control of the visible landscape.


I don't need yer Grey Poupon (poem)

Let's talk about mustard,
It's not often that we do.
A manufactured condiment
That comes in a jar,
Purchased from the store.

Some say I'm a foodie, but
I had never thought to make my own.
In my defense
I've made mayonnaise.
Is mustard too mundane?

The recipe is short: mix seeds with vinegar.
We pay the French for that?

I tried this at home:
Half a cup of mustard seeds
And half a cup of vinegar
Together in a bowl.
That's all.

Two days later I put my nose down close.
"It smells like mustard"
I told Laura. She said
"That's because it is mustard"
What a revelation.

Delicious, creamy
Yellow, seedy.



Insult to Injury

Argentina's devastating loss to Germany this morning made for a horrific start to the 4th of July weekend. Since the very beginning of this year's World Cup I have been hating on the Germans, not least because their coach, Joachim Low, and his staff wear matching suits over collarless sky-blue V-neck t-shirts. This sort of cheeseball Miami Vice look, combined with what appeared to be a bad dye job, actually managed to make Diego Maradona's quarter-million-dollar diamond stud earrings and circa 1972 Serpico hairstyle look good by comparison.

Worst of all, there was no joy on Low's face, even in victory. He responded to German goals with a grimace and a kind of antagonistic, sneering, fist-pumping. I disliked him on sight, whereas Maradona broadcast his big heart and his love for his team and his country from every square centimeter of his boxy, shiny, silver suit. I don't generally like to judge a book by its cover, but I really didn't like the cut of Low's jib. And that was before I saw this: