Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Berkeley, Bite by Bite

I've just returned from a scrumptious trip to Berkeley, where I slowly ate my way through two weeks. For those of you who haven't been, it is probably the most delicious place on earth. There are restaurants absolutely everywhere that serve foods from all over the world. Best of all, it is all moderately priced!

When I last lived in Berkeley, my house was next to the Gourmet Ghetto neighborhood, thus named because of the high concentration of globally renowned eating establishments found within a small area. True to California form, these restaurants focus on great fresh food, culled from local sustainable farmers and presented simply. Berkeley restaurants are not known for fancy decor, but for a warm, comfortable and happy ambiance.

Here is a little tour of the places I visited while in town

1) Crepevine

This is a fantastic breakfast place. There are two locations, one in the Gourmet Ghetto and one on College Ave. My favorite breakfast item is the Pumpkin Spice Pancakes - they are available all year round, but always taste of Christmas magic. Crepevine also does fantastically creative omelets, which will keep you going all day.

2) Smart Alec's.

I have sampled burgers the world over and these are by far my favorite! Smart Alec's is located a block away from the Berkeley campus and purports to produce intelligent fast food. The burgers and fries are delicious and satisfying, AND they are made as healthily as possible. Smart Alec's uses whole wheat buns, puts lots of veggies in the burger and bakes their french fries. Amazing.

This place was a staple for me when I was living in Berkeley. I'd go with Isaac (pictured below) at least twice a week - sometimes more if I was particularly grumpy about my workload.

3) Cafe Trieste

This place does great desserts and coffees. But mostly, their kooky performances are the reason to go. The night I was there, they had an amazing mandolin orchestra playing! It felt a little like we were back in the old country...

4) Ici Ice Cream

I was hesitant about Ici at first, because it was just so popular. On weekends, there is always a line stretching outside this little shop on College Ave. However, I have come around. This place is wonderful. All the desserts are displayed in the most beautiful fashion! Plus, the ice creams are very very tasty - there are always interesting flavors, like lavender and horchata, but there are also basic flavors, for people like me who like straight up chocolate.

Get your ice cream in a cone. They are well worth it - especially for the rich chocolate bit at the bottom of the cone.

5) Guerilla Cafe

This is massive favorite of mine. This little cafe tucked away in the Gourmet Ghetto. The place looks like a traveler's rest stop in India or the Caribbean. It also functions as an art gallery of sorts, displaying the work of some new up and coming artist.

One of my favorite aspects of the restaurant is that when you place your order, you get a little card with a picture and short biography of an important guerilla warrior - someone who has been important in the fight for global justice in some way. On this visit, I got Edward Said, and I was ecstatic! He is one of my heros! His book, Orientalism, changed my field (and my life)!

To top everything off, the food is fantastic. I always get the prosciutto plate, with two poached eggs on toast. This time, the chef made my toast into a heart! (See below.) The coffee is also said to be pretty great - they use Blue Bottle Coffee (another Bay Area gem). I'm not a coffee drinker myself, but Amy tells me that the Spicy Mocha is amazing.

6) Yogurtland!!

Okay, this place is not technically unique to Berkeley - they have branches in several states. However, it has become super popular among the Berkeley student set. There are two locations across from the Cal campus.

Alex and I went there every night for about ten days straight to chat over sugar. The concept here is that you help yourself to self-serve frozen yogurt that comes in a range of exciting flavors - Alex is partial to the pistachio, and I, of course, stick to the chocolate. Then you help yourself to a range of ridiculous toppings. There is lots of frozen fruit to choose from - but we stick to the less healthy options, like the M&Ms and the Oreos and the gummy bears. Alex tends to drown his pistachio ice-cream in sprinkles, which often leads to a very queasy ride home...

The most amazing thing? They charge 30cents an ounce! I have never paid more then three dollars for a sick amount of fro-yo. I love you, Berkeley.

Venturing slightly further afield...

7) The Fifth Floor, San Francisco

Simon and Amy wanted to check out this new restaurant in SF. It was a trendy spot indeed. The ambience was warm and chic. The food was mostly New American - although every so often there would be something fusion related on the menu. Every dish we had was fantastic. I had seared scallops that were cooked to perfection. However, I would say that the service was only passable. Our waitress was a bit brusque...

There are many more places to describe! Including, but not limited to, The Cheeseboard Collective, Poulet, Chez Panisse, Cioccolata Di Vino, Bobby G's Pizzaria, Anh Hong, La Note, Cancun Taqueria, Herbivore and Cafe Fanny.

Oh man - there is also Jupiter's, Brazil Cafe and Zatars. Really, the list is endless.

I haven't even begun to describe the amazing cafes that surround the Berkeley area...

There will be much more food blogging on my next trip out to Berkeley, which will be in April!

Monday, 28 December 2009

Happy Holidays!

Okay, first of all: it is the middle of winter and there are PARROTS outside my window at my house. WHAT IS UP WITH THAT???? Global warming, man. It's no joke.

Now that that is out of the way, happy holidays everybody! I hope that all of you are enjoying time with your loved ones and keeping warm!

I spent Christmas in a cottage called The Forge in Herefordshire, which is three hours outside of London. We had a very peaceful, cuddly time together. I won't bore you with the details (think: 25 hours of Lord of the Rings + all the extras...). Here is a brief photo-summary:
The dangers of long-arming photos when there are three of you in the picture. Poor dad always gets cut off...
Fortunately the cottage came complete with a tree and a wreath on the door. The Segrans have been notoriously bad at getting into the holiday spirit at home...

The cottage came equipped with wi-fi. Which was great, because after watching LOTR for several hours, I could go online and discover obscure details about the differences between Silvan Elves and Sindarin Elves. (Trust me, you don't want to go there...)

This is what happens when three people from the tropics stay in a cottage that has a fireplace. In the second picture, my father is physically blowing at the fire. The general fog is a screen of smoke and ash.
Snow men are totally out of style. Herefordshire is all about the snow-caterpillars and snow-ghosts. Very cool.

I took my parents to the Stagg Inn for Christmas. Not a bad restaurant. I definitely prefer the Andover Arms though...
When dad is not actually in the picture, mom and I are pretty good at long-arming shots.
Funky hats are a must at Christmas! Ours are completely ridiculous AND match our coats. How snazzy are we?

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

The Maharaja Exhibit (Or, How Dissertations Affect Mental Health)

Writing a dissertation in the humanities is a psychological nightmare. For at least a year of your life, you are responsible for producing a long, detailed and original piece of work - and you have no external motivators driving your productivity. Advisors can help you set arbitrary deadlines, but all the while, you know everything about this process is arbitrary. You start when you decide to start, you finish when you decide to finish, and really, the thing has a life of its own. It sometimes feels like you are fighting a dragon or a leviathan. (Excuse my epic language - I pretty much always imagine I am fighting a dragon.)

Part of the problem is that the dissertation writing process relies on creativity. In the sciences, at least you have data to collect. For us, all of our work is conceptual and theoretical. I honestly don't think our brains are wired for constant creative or philosophical output. I am as nerdy and bookish as the best of them and even I get exhausted by concepts after a while. In fact, not long ago, my brain went on strike for an entire month. It was impossible for me to get any work done at all! Then, when the wheels got back in motion, I wrote twenty pages in five days.

My dissertation topic is still fascinating to me from a distance - I think that early South Indian poetry deserves to be translated and studied and I also think that feminist theories can shed a great deal of light on the pre-modern period. However, these days, when I dwell too long on the poetry in question, I lose focus and feel a sudden urge to do something completely different.

So, I need to play games with myself to get myself interested in the work again. The whole process is a bit bizarre, because it is entirely self-conscious. I know I am intellectually bored -and I know I am trying to trick myself into snapping out of it. But I have to do it anyway, because how else am I ever going to get back to writing?

Today, I attempted to get myself excited about my current chapter, which is about masculinity and kingship in the early Tamil poems. I finally decided to see the Maharaja Exhibit in the Victoria and Albert Museum. I had been a bit reluctant to go before, because I usually prefer to see art that has absolutely nothing to do with my work (for instance, I love the Tin Tin Museum in Belgium...) But today, I decided to schlep to Knightsbridge in the sludge to check out the pictures of the fat kings of old.

And it was amazing! The V and A made the concept of kingship so sexy. I think they managed to place each painting or artifact out of context - they used very modern design and architecture as a backdrop to the art itself. In a strange way, it made me think of my own work from new perspectives. I think it helps that I am seeing these works of art here, in London, rather than in a dusty old archive in India. Everything was literally positioned in a new light.

The exhibit emphasized the importance of the king in the Indian imagination. The king is a central symbolic figure within all the subcultures in India. He embodies the masculine ideals, which are inevitably connected to power. The exhibit also pointed out that he represented unbridled male sexuality - the kings were known for having massive harems and many paintings display the king's sexuality quite explicitly. Thus, male power is connected to male sexuality. And ultimately, this male sexuality is connected to reproduction and the giving of life.

There is a lot to unpack here. But I think an important concept is that the king is a life-giving force. His military strength keeps the people's lands safe, allowing them to continue to produce food to eat. His riches stimulate the economies in the courts, which in turn, allow for the circulation of wealth within his kingdom. His sexual prowess represents the epitome of male sexual dominance, which sets the standards for men all over the kingdom to produce heirs, in order to perpetuate the cycle of patriarchy.

We live in a world where kingship is an obscure notion. Our politicians make decisions for us by remote, through policy and communal governance - they have very little impact on our ideologies or on our immediate environments. It is sometimes difficult to imagine a world in which a king, or raja, in this case, was a primary figure in people's thoughts and lives. I suppose this is why we go to museums, because if our curators do a good job, it is possible to step out of our current worldview. That is always a good thing.

Friday, 18 December 2009

I'm back!

Friends! Family! Random blog readers!

Many apologies for the ridiculously long lag time since my last post! I have been significantly less connected in London than I was in India. My family moved houses a month ago, and Sky, the major broadband/satellite/phone company in the UK needed a month to set up operations in our house. Which is fine, because who needs to be connected to the outside world anyway?

Why did we move, AGAIN? Well, we're basically gluttons for punishment. In addition to moving countries every few years, which involves packing and unpacking all of our stuff, we are a particular about the kind of house we live in. Our previous house in London was gorgeous. It was huge, with a lovely garden and three guest rooms. Unfortunately, the heating didn't work, the roof leaked, the plumbing was a mess and to top everything off, gigantic white mushrooms sprouted in my bathroom overnight. The mushrooms grossed all of us out, particularly my mother. She finally put her foot down and decided we were moving. So with the help of the Aussie Man and Van moving company (no kidding - that is their real name!) we schlepped all our stuff to our new home. It is on the Hammersmith/Chiswick border, on the bank of the Thames! It is cosier, and importantly, it is structurally sound and free of fungus.

Meanwhile, the weather has gotten terribly cold. The beautiful cherry blossom outside my window is losing most of its flowers and every so often I see a bluster of snow sweep over the rooftops. These days I spend most of my time in my cloud pjs writing my dissertation or drinking tea while staring out the window:
Last weekend, we went away to the Cotswolds. My dad finally found a gap in his hectic schedule so my mother insisted that we get away from London. I had to work on my dissertation, so we decided to go to some place quiet and peaceful. Well, it doesn't get more quiet and peaceful than the Cotswolds. I spent the days curled up by the fire writing about masculinity. I am actually becoming quite an expert on the subject of masculinity. I have read all the latest psychological/literary theory/gender studies literature on masculinity, so if you ever need to know about the inner workings of masculine gender construction, do not hesitate to ask.

Thanksgiving came and went. I was sad not to be in California, doing the Thanksgiving thing with all my American nearest and dearest. It is the only day in the year when football is tolerable to me, and that is mostly because I am experiencing a food coma from Amy's mother's fifteen course Thanksgiving feast. This year, a friend of mine in London, Joyce, threw a little Thanksgiving do where we had a ton of fantastic dishes - the Turkey was perfect, the stuffing was delicious, there were about eight different types of vegetables and four pies.

Joyce and I went to the Borough Market in preparation for Thanksgiving. The Borough Market is a famous old London market with fantastic varieties of fruit and meat and desserts. I highly recommend it to all of you planning a visit to London. There are also stalls that serve food all through the day - and it is all delicious!

Apart from all this very civilized fun, I have been able to hear some good music lately! I haven't been to a concert in so long! Prog rock hasn't really made it to India and I hadn't met anyone into the indie music scene in London. But after a couple of months, I managed to find some kindred spirits who are moderately plugged in. A few weeks ago, I went to see the Panama Kings at the Luminaire. They are a grunge rock group from Northern Ireland. They were pretty excellent musicians, even though grunge isn't really my thing. I really liked the act that opened for them. They are called Sixstarhotel. They are mostly post-punk - lots of repeated verses, lots of hooks.

For those of you who are interested in some other good bands - at the moment, I am really into:

1) The Receiving End of Sirens: Really dark, epic music. It's kind of hard to describe. It's very ambient. Very good.

2) Dance Gavin Dance: I have been very disappointed with the latest Alexisonfire. As much as I hate to admit it, I am really kind of a fan of screamo... and I needed to find another band to fill the gaping void that Alexisonfire has left in my life. I love the combination of pretty-voices singing about sappy issues and the animalistic screaming. I find that old DGD is just the perfect blend of the two. Their album Downtown Battle Mountain is very good. It is like old-school Alexisonfire, except perhaps a little less hardcore. Their new stuff is just emo, without the screaming.

3) Paulson: They are a small band from Jersey. I got introduced to them by my Jersey indie music connection (Cub...) They put out an album in 2005. Pretty cool prog rock group. Nothing pretty mainstream prog rock fare, but very addictive music nonetheless.

Christmas will be here soon! I am not sure where we will be this Christmas. Our lives are very exciting at the moment. We decide at the absolute last minute exactly where we will be - I suppose provides some balance to my very sedentary academic tendencies...

I hope everybody is doing well. I still miss all of you in California and I'm looking to seeing you early on in the new year!

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Old Habits

This weekend, my mother had to go to Oxford to cover a Fairtrade conference that was going on there. My dad and I were supposed to go with her, but the day before, our hotel plans fell through. It was so sad to be separated like that. So, in our despondent states, dad and I decided to find comfort in our favorite place on earth! The Natural History Museum. Now I realize that I have recently written up a post about it, but it is just such a wonderful place that it couldn't hurt to write about it some more.

Going there with dad was a little trippy though, because I feel like the two of us have been going there my whole life. When the family visited London when I was growing up, we would stay at the Gloucester Hotel, which is down the road from the Natural History Museum. So, while my mother shopped to her hearts content, my father and I would sneak off to see the dinosaurs. It is still fun going there now at the age of 26. I am amazed by how excited my father still gets about seeing the giant plastic whale or the bizarre stuffed animals. I blame him for my lifelong fascination with museums.

After the Natural History Museum, including the mandatory tea break, we walked over to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see the Indian collections. They're collection is rather small, unlike the British Museum which has heaps and heaps of interesting artifacts. Still, being around the beautiful old Indian paintings and sculptures, I was reminded of why I love what I do. It's been hard to feel passionate about my work lately, with all the deadlines and the daily grind of sitting and writing. But Indian culture is rich and fascinating. There is still so much to uncover and learn about.

Being at home has been wonderful! I never thought I'd ever have another opportunity to live at home for an extended period of time. I have been living on a different continent from my parents for eight years now. It is such a luxury to spend the day in Kensington with dad.

I have completed a full chapter of my dissertation and I am in the process of submitting to a journal. I am feeling a little worn out from all the writing. Summer seems like such a long time ago, with all the traveling and the new sights and wonderful people I met! Still, it is nice to have my feet on the ground and to be surrounded by the stability of family and routine.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Our Local (Pub, that is...)

I am absolutely loving London at the moment! I love our neighborhood, I love our house, I love my daily routine. Lately, I've been getting out of bed and jumping right into the writing. I've been clocking about five or six hours a day. To keep me going, my mother has been keeping a supply of diet coke in the fridge. I shudder to think about what it is doing to my health, but unfortunately it is the only form of caffeine that I enjoy. In the evenings, I've been working out at the gym down the street, which I know sounds unbelievable to those who knew me in my previous life... But what can I say? I was well trained in the arts of getting ripped by two boys from the Jersey shore.
My Bay Area epicurean instincts have not faded away, however. I have still been in search of delicious new places to eat and I am happy to report that I have found a place that rivals Chez Panisse! And it is just around the corner from our house! It is called the Andover Arms, and EVERY time we have gone there, the food has been unbelievable. It is what is called a gastro-pub, which means that there is a chef on staff. The menu changes daily, and like many Slow Food influenced restaurants, the chef designs meals with local, seasonal produce in mind.

I highly recommend this place, so if you are passing through town, definitely come around to Hammersmith to check this place out.
Tonight, I had a mind-blowing lamb shank dish. The lamb was nicely placed on a bed of butternut squash and swiss chard. It was heavenly. For dessert, we shared the most amazing chocolate sponge cake with chocolate ice-cream and raspberries drizzled in chocolate sauce. And as you probably know by now, I don't really have a chocolate limit: I would eat myself to death if chocolate was involved. So, needless to say, the dessert also made me very happy.

What about my neighborhood do I love so much? Well, here's an example. Today, I was walking down the street, and this was graffitied onto the pavement:

I think I could live in a place like this. The only problem is that I really do miss all of you back in Berkeley - and I can't wait to see you very soon!

Monday, 19 October 2009

London Life

I've been away from Berkeley for about five months now - and I've had my feet in London for a solid month. With my current itinerant lifestyle, a month seems like a really long time. (In fact, I am kind of itching to go away again - to perhaps Morocco or Spain or Italy - is anybody interested in joining me?)

I sometimes forget how culturally different this side of the pond is from the states. Tea time is very important here. When our gardener comes by to tidy up our flower beds, he insists on being provided a cup of tea and biscuits (anything by Rich Tea biscuits, because those are just so boring...) I've been structuring my life around tea time a lot lately - and honestly, there is nothing more comforting than an warm cup of tea and a biscuit waiting for you at about three in the afternoon. We've been going to pubs a lot - we have a gastro-pub near where we live that has the most amazing food in London. I'll write more about that soon. So much social interaction happens over an early evening visit to the pub - it's an aspect of life that is completely absent in America. I have also been exacerbating my current state of Anglophilia by watching period dramas. It seems much more acceptable to be watching them here - it seems like more of an exercise in exploring historical fiction than an indulgent foray into sappy romance and funny posh accents. Also, it helps that I no longer live with Alan and Alex - it was impossible to watch anything British without an endless interruption of fake British accents and swooning in the living room.

I've been taking the tube a lot recently to get to more central parts of town. The city is a bit more spread out than, say, New York. It takes twenty minutes to get anywhere. It serves as a good opportunity to catch up on some fiction. (Incidentally, British people tend to read a LOT! I LOVE that about them.) Life is just as busy in London, but from where I stand, it doesn't seem as intense. The city is spread out and is peppered with spots of greenery. The Thames is always nearby, which seems to have a calming effect on the whole city.

My mother and I have a list of plays and musicals that we have been meaning to catch up on. We're having to compromise on our list, though, because we have such different tastes. She's not so interested in avant-garde nihilistic theatre, and I'm not so interested in lots of fluffly love songs and dancing. I decided to give in, on our first musical, so we went to see Hairspray. Mom really enjoyed it! I enjoyed dinner beforehand and the coffee break. Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music is supposed to be in London. I'm hoping to see that soon.

This weekend, I was out in the country again! It was lovely, with plenty of the beautiful scenery. We stayed in the Otford Manor in Kent, which is surrounded by rolling hills. Londoners are so fortunate to be able to spend their weekends relaxing in the peaceful British countryside.