Letters can be struggle to write. I have grown slightly better at reporting travels when I am on the move, but I have never quite mastered the art of dredging up smalltalk on the routine of day-to-day. I'm not sure how others do it, I find it all singularly uninteresting. The good stuff scarcely warrants recollection and the bad stuff --- well it was enough the first time, without having to relive the pertinent points with an audience who could scarecly find it entertaining.
I suppose I could list the books I have read, or the people I have met -- but they are so many! I could tell you about my work, but that usually causes others' higher brain functions to shut down. Some people assume that I must be doing something terribly interesting, given all the travelling and research -- and it's true enough: I am --- but when I try to relate it, it generally evokes a response of "No not that, tell me something that *I* would find interesting!" Okay, so I gained 0.2 kg in February, only to lose it again in July. The symptoms of heart disease have not yet set in, though Alzheimers is a distinct possibility, and arthiritis of my typing fingers seems to be a definite. I could weave a yarn of intruige about my colleagues or neighbours, and how we all live shut inside little boxes-- but you'd really have to be here to know what fun it is.
No, having pondered this at length, the best I can come up with is the one thing that seems to have made a lasting impression on me (at least my belly) and that is food. So I propose to provide you with an account of the six club sandwiches that I have eaten around the world, during the last year.
If you are sitting comfortably, then I shall begin.
My first club sandwich ever was in the Marriot hotel in Boston. It was not only my virginal Club, but also my first time with room service. Travelling across the Atlantic is pretty exhausting and some nights you just want to retire to your room, without seeking out some social event, or company. So on this one occasion, I wasn't even much interested in going out to find a restaurant. I figured that I would collapse on the bed and watch Star Trek on the hotel TV. But I was hungry and I browsed the menu...and found the Club.
In the U.S., nothing it small. Nay the Club. It's the smallest thing on the menu, but it's still large enough to feed a moderately sized family for several days. There must be a fully grown chicken stuffed in between each of the two pieces if bread, sliced into neat planar sections and folded like one of those pictures of gravitationally bent universes -- with wormholes representing the skewers keeping these potentially explosive sandwiches in check. Four layers of bread in each piece, and the whole plate is decorated beautifully with corn chips (crisps) in different colours: white, orange and red. They are delicious, and they are a meal in themselves.
Ordering from room service feels almost unethical -- you know you are getting fleeced. Moreover, it's even harder to deal with the person delivering the sandwich than it would be in a restaurant. It's one to one. The waiter clearly wants a fat tip --- after all, only rich, unethical slobs order room service and they have a ton of money (there are no metric tonnes in the U.S.). I accept the sandwich thinking: Why can't they just pay them a living wage and be done with? It would certainly save us Europeans from a good deal of embarassment.
The sandwhich lasts me the evening and half of it is left in the morning for breakfast -- a bit soggy, but what hey. There's still plenty left after breakfast, but it is magically removed from my room when I return later in the day. Probably just as well.
The Bostonians are a little odd anyway. Their idea of a Tea Party was to throw a few cases of Tea into the Boston river, in a tantrum and then boast about it for years afterwards. And I think they were all wearing Red Hats or something. Possibly no one had explained to them how to make a cup of it. Anyway, on the subject of Boston, let's cut to California.
California is a huge state. It has pretty much everything from sun, beaches and surf, to snow, mountains and forests. The famous giant-redwood forests lie to the North and the Napa valley wine regions are in between San Francisco and the forests. Having spent a few days with friends in Berkeley, a friend and I hired/rented a car and drove up the coast to see what was what. After a short stint on the freeway from Berkeley, we cut across to the coast and drive up the winding road, along the shoreline, following the whales in their migration up to Alaska. Although we were warned to look out for the whales, we were certainly in no danger of running one down, and the only whale we saw was a wooden one, hanging out at a lodge about fifty miles North of San Francisco. This is the venue for the next Club Sandwich.
We almost drive past the concealed entrance to the lodge. It is a fine darkwood construction, beautifully situated on a cliff overlooking the sea. The restaurant apparently has a whale eye's view of the ocean, but we've already covered that. We sit outselves down in what seems to be a homey living room, with an open hearth and stone walls. There are tables, and a few folks are eating lunch. It's too hot to sit near the hearth, so we pick a whale-watch post by one of the large French windows.
The waitress is a fantastic example of American hospitality. She is new on the job, but is already chatting up all the customers and recommending everything on the menu. She is the flawless mixture of `kind mom' and jokey waitress that makes a country restaurant visit in the U.S. most enjoyable. She presents us with a menu. It doesn't seem to weigh that much, but everything it contains is as heavy as food can be. I register vast burgers, New York steaks and `main courses'. And thankfully, I spot a Club.
My friend, being a soup person, wants to start with soup, so we decide to start with a soup each and then share a Club. But now we're back to the Boston connection. We start with clam chowder, the famous Boston soup which is served with amazing sour dough bread. They really have good sour dough bread in the U.S.. Of course, not only misunderstanding the Tea Party, the Bostonians have created an almost solid soup which is richer in nutrients than the primordial version from which life itself emerged. Needless to say, after this soup, we are stuffed to the max, and lifeforce that haunted its primordial cousin is beaten out of us. A dessert is mandatory however, so we decide to bag the Club until later. Turns out, however, that it is not just a sandwich but is served with a plate of chips/fries. It comes presented in a plastic box that all Americans seem to have handy at any moment in case they experience a `too much food moment'. We manage about half a slice of New York cheese cake and chocolate cake (death by chocolate). The Club goes into the back of the car for later. So we leave, not having observed a whale, but possibly having swallowed one and we continue our drive up the coast in search of a motel to stay the night.
It seems to be off-season, so all motels are empty. But we also seem to be right in the middle of a tourist heaven, where a simple cup of drinking chocolate costs ten thousand million dollars. So we end up in a fairly `cheap' motel with a nice view of the surf in a cove, and go for a short walk.
By the time we get to the sandwich itself, it seems to have perished in its own steam, insulated in the little plastic box with a heap of chips/fries that are now limp and gravelly. The sandwiches themselves are a soggy pulp, half way towards a new phase of soup, not unlike the chowder. We look at it and shake our heads. Still no sign of whales.
Later in the year, I am on my way to a conference in the French town of Nancy (near Metz). Ville de Nancy is a charming Art Nouveau town in the Northwest of France. To get there a colleague and I take a flight to Metz. Alas, no one told us that Metz airport had been closed down six months earlier, so our flight is diverted to Strasbourg. From there, we take bus into town and change to a tram to get the the train station. Next time, we take the train from Paris. The trams in Strasbourg are wonderful glass carriages that trundle silently through the charming town. Each stop a long the way has its own `theme song' or jingle. The train station is a violin concerto, the bus stop is drum'n'bass. It's all part of the phat phun!!
At the train station in Strasbourg, my friend and I are looking for some lunch and anything that isn't Evian. Now water is not renowned for tasting of anything special, but the French are incredible -- they have actually invented water that tastes of Nothing!! A glass of Evian is like some partially wet breeze that blows inside your mouth: the least satisfying drinking experience ever -- it's placebo water. Even swallowing your spit is better than Evian. Anyway, this is the venue of the off-the-shelf club sandwich, only slightly more satisfying than the Evian. This is notable only for being the first club sandwich that I manage to finish...
Later in the year, on my way to San Diego I make a connection at Gatwick and have to spend the night at an airport hotel. In the evening, I am starved and look for a restaurant. The main restaurant looks expensive and forbidding. They seem to want something called a tie and even the doorway looks unfriendly. The smaller, less formal restaurant, on the other hand, looks kind of tacky, like a fast-food place.
By the entrance is a huge tub of plastic horticulture (in London, pronounced hawti-couwlcha! ain'tcha!)
"It's a bucket of flowers!"
"No, it's just a `pail imitation'...!"
There is a family with a whining child, decoratively adorned with ketchup. The white tiles make it look like cross between a swimming pool changing room and a Macdonalds. It doesn't really appeal, and I am about to leave when someone comes out and ushers me towards a table, in a quiet corner. Whatever. I have to eat.
The menu looks surprisingly good, but I have been eating too much rich food lately, so I go for something simple. I go for the Club and a treat myself to a glass of red.
The attractive blonde waitress cannot possibly be english. There is something far too familiar about her. No, she reveals herself to be of Scandinavian origin by her dour and confused demeanour and not insignificant physical beauty.
I ask her: "Are you from Norway?"
"No." She doesn't offer any information, but lifts an eyebrow as if to say: what the hell are you talking about?
"So where are you from then?"
"Finland." Not that it's any of your business you fucking creep.
Gotcha -- I can see she is Scandinavian, anyway. The scowl, the utter contempt for a friendly word. The avoidance of eye-contact. She cannot have been in England very long.
Now, I have to admit that I am sometimes embarassed by my gender. It seems that the principle claim to charm for depressingly many men is the size of the pot-belly, hanging precipitously over a formless trouser waist that exhibits and almost complete lack of style, perhaps perpetually drunk, or at the very least with a feigned clownlike modus operandi. Something resembling a haircut, often with something in it (as though a smear of gel will somehow make it all right) sits atop an unapologetic and pudgy face. Compared to the stylish beauties they often accompany, they provide little aesthetic reward to the onlooker. As I heard recently on a TV show: if the female form is a sports car, with sleek lines and curves, then the male body is a jeep designed mainly to transport heavy weights. But in spite of all this, I cannot bring myself to believe that any man deserves the savage edge of a Scandinavian womans' occular blade.
This waitress has that uniquely Scandinavian pose: tight lipped, with chin firmly tuck against the wind-pipe and a glare between pure fear and hatred for the man that would behold her. There is a paradox here that they are just going to have to work out for themselves. It is not possible to be nice to the stereotypical Scandinavian female. Norwegian womens' faces scowl out their silent message of confusion: "Oh god, you creep! Why can't you just leave me alone? What makes you think that I would be remotely interested in you? Chat me up them, if you must. You're all alike, only interested in one thing! Yeah, come on! What's the matter with you? Get on with it! Why aren't you chatting me up? Make your move! Jeeze, what a wimp! You're not even a real man!"
Thankfully I am saved by a plump, cheery waitress from Portugal who is the social and physical antithesis of the blonde. She provides me with the perfect glass of smokey Cabernet Sauvignon to match the Club and a few words to remove the chill of Scandinavia from which I thought I had just escaped by plane.
When the Club arrives, it turns out to be the best and most unique club sandwich I have ever experienced. I take back everything I (almost) said about this place. Of all the places in the world to find it, this has to be the most unusual Club sandwich I have ever had. It is not so much a sandwich as a filet of chicken on a bread, salad bed. It is perfectly fried chicken filet, wonderfully dressed salad, and there is a sliced-boiled egg on top, and pesto decorations. It takes wonderful! And the wine makes my evening.
I cannot help but tell my portugeuse waitress my deepest emotional attachment to this sandwich. After all, I have just survived the food on the plane from Oslo airport (which is always some God-awful salad and salmon combination). I am quite sad when it's finished, but I'm tired and on my way to America. I have to be up early.
After my trip to America, I try to reproduce the Gatwick Club, one day on a whim. My own attempt at The Club Sandwich is a poor relation of the Gatwick Club, but it seems worth a try, even lacking all of the ingredients. Agruccola drowned in olive oil, salt and fresh Parmesan; tomatoes drenched in Balsamic vinegar; a fried filet of chicken, an almost hard boiled egg. No pesto, no wine.
Early in the new year, I have a visit from Dan Klein. I have plans to take him to some nice restaurants, but he arrives feeling under the weather, so it's home cooking for a couple of evenings. I consider attempting the Gatwick Club once again, but a hard day at the office gets the better of me, as it usually does and it becomes a failed Thai curry instead. Not my finest moment. Thankfully Dan is happy amusing himself by navigating between the kitchen and living room with the aid of his satellite GPS.
"Inconthievable!!" I say.
"I don't think you know what that means...", he replies correctly in fake Spanish accent, indicating a wry familarity with the movie `The Princess Bride'.
Thank goodness I'm not the only one who's seen that movie.
Just a stone's throw from my flat/apartment, through a small tunnel in the opposing block, the cafe Soria Moria has a street cafe during the summer months. Before 18:00 they offer a club sandwich that is chuncky and reasonably priced. The Soria Moria cinema is closed during the summer months, which is just as well, since the street cafe blocks its entrance. I've had a couple of these this summer. Summer in Oslo is light, warm and everyone is out on the streets. You have to be outdoors in the summer.
Runar, a friend with culinary interests created his own variation on the Club theme, with an Indian curry and apple salad Club, on the veranda of Nils' house, close to the forest lake. Summer in Oslo can be a thankful experience: hot and sunny, with long light nights. A short walk to the park for a barbequeue (on disposable grills), or a bicycles trip into the forest to sit by a lake .... ah, the stillness in the forest, just the lapping of the waves on the stones. An occasional motion of the wind.
The tendrils of civilisation have grown into my home district or Torshov with an excellent coffee shop. The best coffee and the best cakes, finally bringing coulwcha! to the local district. I have to be in cafes. It's essential to get away from the computers and the geeks whose main aim is to figure out whether `anally retentive' is hyphenated or not. Freud would have been proud.
Oslo will soon be more continental than the continent. Needless to say, I have had enough Club sandwiches for a while, but no doubt there will be more.
So, until the next menu item...