Wednesday, 15 April 2009

April is the loveliest month of the year (so far!)

Here she is again, after the 2-week hiatus...which has a very good reason, namely that I actually Got A Life and had people visiting on two consecutive weekends and went out and drank cocktails and gossiped and was girly for days on end. It was great - first Naomi was here, then my cousin (who is doing a PhD elsewhere in the US). Both visits (which were very welcome) involved lots of roaming about Princeton/Philly and eating out and having a drink or two (among others - lychee martini, some nice concotion of vanilla vodka and orangey thing that tasted like an ice cream lolly, various things involving fizz....). Much as I enjoy living on my own in my multi-room flat, it was also nice to have someone around for a few days, have meals with, chat before bed, and all that. Especially someone who knows me well so that I don't have to constantly worry about making a bad impression!

In between, there has been a fair bit of work, and planning for conferences in the summer. Also, crucially, increasingly nice weather - and suddenly Princeton seems to have sprung to life, cafes and restaurants have tables on the pavement, the queue outside the ice cream place snakes round the corner, everyone is out and about and it all feels rather Mediterranean, it's so nice to see. I am really looking forward to the months to come, I think I could quite love this town in the right season....

More importantly, I finally got round to having my first driving lesson!! I was so so so terrified beforehand given my well-known ineptitude with most things practical, but I quickly realised that actually driving an automatic car is very, very, easy: you step on a pedal, and the car goes faster. You step on the other one, and it stops. AND THAT'S IT. Well, and turning at corners and all that. But really. I drove for two hours straight, including on some rather main bits of road, and was incredibly pleased and proud of myself (though I was by no means perfect). What I do seem to have retained from my driving lessons in Naples is a deep mistrust of everyone else on the road - my instructor was half-amused, half-frustrated by my refusal to believe that people would really stop at a red light, or yield when it my right of way, and generally avoid doing anything unpredictable. I think one should always be deeply suspicious of every other driver out there. You never know.

The other day I was also given a more central leadership role at the Girl Scout meeting, while my co-leader discussed practicalities with some of the mothers. I think I failed - the five 8-year olds didn't really seem interested in doing the activity that I was supposed to lead them in, and you can't really tell them off like you would unruly undergrads - though the process of extracting answers and ideas from them was very very similar to that undergone in tutorials with said undergrads. I think they are just a bit confused by my role in life - I am a grownup and a teacher, apparently, because I am a co-leader - also apparently I could be 36 - but no, I am not a grownup because I don't own a car (insert desired scathing remark about cars and America here if desired) - also I am not a mom - but I do have a job - in short, I can kind of tell they are still trying to figure me out, and test their limits with me, which is ok, but I did feel a bit embarassed (towards my co-leader) that I couldn't keep them on task for more than 90 seconds at a time.

Finally, yesterday the NY cousin had her bridal shower, which was my first such event and saw me get rather dolled up and have lunch at a fancy restaurant mid-town. It was actually rather sweet, the whole thing, and very touching in parts, so it was nice to be there. But I do find New York weddings far too complicated...

Sunday, 12 April 2009

An Easter treat

I'm a bit behind with my blogging schedule as Naomi was over for the weekend and we were out and about. I just need to brag about the fantastic show we treated ourselves to on Saturday: we went to a matinee of this.

It was most excellent. No, it was absolutely fantastic. And Rupert Everett in the flesh...mmm.

Proper blogging to resume soon. Happy Easter!

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Embrace the Princetonness

Italiano dopo il testo inglese

It's amazing what mildly warm weather will do to one's spirits - the past few days (before the pouring rain and crazy winds arrived) have been relatively mild and very sunny, and I found myself going home in a mood very close to perfect happiness (sadly 100% is unachievable as long as I'm missing one or two key elements). Of course everyone who spent the winter telling me that the first few months in a new place are always hard, and it takes a while to get settled in, and it was going to be ok soon, etc etc etc was absolutely right, and it's not that I didn't believe them, just...well, you have to experience it yourself, I guess.

Anyway, the end of winter means that I can do a lot more things that do not involve being cooped up inside. Periodically S&Y and I will go for a mini-walk around the campus at lunchtime - we are basically surrounded by forestry and it's very pretty. I have the added bonus of having an office window facing some of aforesaid forest, and I've become a keen observer of the life cycle of leaves on tree branches. It's one of my favourite things about working here. (I also happen to face the car park, giving me unfettered access to the comings and goings of every person in the building, but that's a different story). Even more excitingly, the other day I finally tried cycling to work. It was mostly a success - the weather was lovely, the setting is fairly rural so it's pretty, and for almost all of the way I can cycle on a dedicated path which is raised away from the road, so I feel very safe. Until I have to take the same path on the way back, which involves crossing the main road which is distinctly lacking in helpful crossing points - the bike path is only on one side. The only thing marring the general pleasantness is that towards the end there is a nice bit of uphill, which left me rather breathless - and there is uphill on the way back, too, I'm still a bit confused as regards the topography of this place. It takes about half an hour each way, and hopefully if I do it often enough eventually the hilliness will stop hurting so much. As well as enjoying a nice bike ride, this means of course that I get to sleep a bit more, and get to decide at what time I come and go from the office - a pleasure not to be underestimated.

Also, the nicer weather makes one more inclined to go out and partake of all that Princeton, and the university in particular, have to offer. I've been to two really interesting talks this week, which I'll blog about separately because they gave me a lot to think about (topics - the concept of race in the Renaissance, and the issues faced by women in science - as you can see, some obsessions never fade), and the other evening there was a jazz Evensong at the University Chapel, which as you can see is a fairly spectacular place. It was a lovely, lovely thing - we were only in a corner of the chapel, which was mostly barely lit, there was a jazz quartet, some vaguely non-denominational (but still generically Christian) prayers, a poem by e.e. cummings (incidentally, the second line reminds me of colorless green ideas...) and one by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Jazz + chapels: definitely a great partnership. To be encouraged.

In other news, last Saturday I met with a brilliant tax accountant, who tried to make the crazy tax system in this country make sense to me. She succeeded only in part. The gist seems to be that a whole load of things that would have never occurred to me are tax deductible, which is nice. I just have to remember to hoard all sorts of receipts during this tax year. Also I finally had my first meeting with the Girl Scouts - a small group of 8/9 year olds, which I confess I found somewhat overwhelming at first. They have so much energy! And are so high-pitched! But they are also incredibly smart and quick, and fun to be around and talk to. So I think I'll enjoy it after all. And there's camping at the end of September!

Finally, let me end on a food note - last weekend I did a massive shop and spent several hours preparing food for the week (before the stove finally gave up the ghost - but luckily as of yesterday I have a lovely new stove made in the 2000s not the 1970s that I trust wholeheartedly, hurrah!). One of the things I made was a rather haphazard, middle-eastern-inspired stew, composed of the following:
some garlic, browned in oil/chili/cumin
a red pepper
an aubergine
some diced lamb
a tin of chickpeas

I browned the meat and vegetables, added the chickpeas and a bit of stock, and let it cook for about an hour and a quarter. It tasted really good, and even better the next day. And you can take the meat out to make it veggie/wallet-friendly. Try it!
For the second part of the week, I made a rather large batch of polenta, and I understand now why it was so popular in days gone by - it goes a looong way and is cheap and if you're lucky you can make it interesting with a few toppings. My choice was portobello mushrooms sauteed with a couple of tomatoes, but at a pinch, even butter with pepper or anchovies will do.

I've gone on for far too long...

In Italiano

E' incredibile l'effetto che fa il tempo sull'umore - gli ultimi giorni (prima delle piogge torrenziali e i venti assurdi) sono stati relativamente caldi e molto soleggiati, e al pomeriggio mi sono ritrovata di un umore molto vicino alla completa felicita (purtroppo il 100% e' irraggiungibile causa mancanza di uno o due element chiave). Ovviamente tutti quelli che hanno passato l'inverno a dirmi che i primi mesi in un posto nuovo sono sempre difficili, e ci vuole un po di tempo per ambientarsi, e presto sarebbe stato tutto ok, ecc ecc ecc, avevano perfettamente ragione, e non e' che non ci credevo, ma...beh, credo che sono cose che si devono vivere in prima persona.

Comunque, la fine dell'inverno significa che posso fare un sacco di cose che non richiedono l'essere rintanati in casa. Ogni tanto S&Y e io facciamo una piccola passeggiata intorno al campus durante la pausa pranzo - siamo circondati da forestame ed e' molto bello. In piu io ho il vantaggio di avere la finestra dell'ufficio con vista sul suddetto forestame, e sono diventata un'acuta osservatrice del ciclo vitale delle foglie sugli alberi. E' una delle cose che mi piace di piu del mio posto di lavoro. (A dire il vero affaccio anche sul parcheggio, il che vuol dire che posso controllare minuziosamente arrivi e partenze di ogni persona nell'edificio, ma questa e' un'altra storia) Ancora piu exicting e' il fatto che l'altro giorno sono finalmente andata al lavoro in bicicletta. Nel complesso e' stato un successo - il tempo era bello, il paesaggio e' abbstanza rurale quindi e' carino, e per quasi tutto il tragitto ho una pista ciclabile rialzata rispetto alla strada, quindi mi sento molto al sicuro. A parte il ritorno - per riprendere la pista devo attraversare la strada principale che manca alquanto di posti utili per attraversare. L'unica cosa che rovina questa piacevolezza e' che verso la fine c'e' un bel pezzetto di salita, che mi ha lasciata piuttosto senza fiato - e c'e' una salita anche al ritorno, non mi e' ancora molto chiara la topografia del luogo! Ci vuole circa mezz'ora ad andare e mezza a tornare, e spero che se lo faccio abbastanza spesso la salita mi fara' meno male. Oltre a godermi la bella biciclettata, questo significa che posso dormire un po di piu, e decidere autonomamente a che ora andare e tornare dall'ufficio, che e' una gioia non indifferente.

Il bel tempo ispira anche a uscire e approfittare di quello che Princeton, e l'universita' in particolare, hanno da offrire. Questa settimana sono andata a due talk molto interessanti, di cui scrivero' a parte perche' mi hanno dato molto a pensare (argomenti - il concetto di razza nel Rinascimento, e i problemi delle donne nelle scienze - come vedete alcune fisse non scompaiono mai), e l'altra sera c'erano i vespri jazz alla cappella dell'universita, che come vedete e' piuttosto spettacolare. E' stato veramente bello - eravamo in un angolo della cappella, che era poco illuminata, c'era un quartetto jazz, delle preghiere di natura genericamente cristiana, una poesia di e.e. cummings e una di Gerard Manley Hopkins. Jazz + cappelle: decisamente una grande accoppiata. Da incoraggiare.

In altre notizie, sabato scorso mi sono vista con una grande commercialista, che ha cercato di spiegarmi l'assurdo sistema fiscale di questo paese. Ci e' riuscita solo in parte. Il succo sembra essere che un sacco di cose a cui non avrei mai pensato sono deducibili dalle tasse, che e' bene. Mi devo solo ricordare di conservare ogni sorta di ricevute durante quest'anno fiscale. E sono finalmente andata alla prima riunione delle Girl Scout - un gruppetto di ragazzine di 8/9 anni, che devo confessare mi hanno alquanto spaventato all'inizio. Hanno cosi tanta energia! E le voci sono cosi acute! Ma sono anche molto sveglie e intelligenti, ed e' divertente interagire con loro, quindi credo che nel complesso mi divertiro. E a fine settembre si va in campeggio!

Per finire, parliamo di cibo - il weekend scorso ho fatto una mega spesa e ho passato varie ore a preparare pasti per la settimana (prima che la cucina morisse definitivamente - ma per fortuna da ieri ho una cucina nuova bellissima fatta negli anni 2000 non 70 e mi fido di essa ciecamente, evviva!). Una delle cose che ho fatto e' stato uno stufato un po a casaccio, ispirato a ricette mediorientali, con i seguenti ingredienti:
un po di aglio, in una pentola con olio/peperoncino/cumino
un peperone rosso
una melenzana
un po di agnello a pezzetti
dei ceci in scatola

Ho passato la carne e le verdure in pentola per farli abbrunire (si dira' cosi?), aggiunto i ceci e un po di brodo, e fatto cuocere per circa un'ora e un quarto. Era buonissimo, e ancora di piu il giorno dopo. E si puo eliminare la carne per i vegetariani o i tempi duri. Provatelo!
Per la seconda parte della settimana, ho fatto una grande pentola di polenta, e capisco perche' era tanto apprezzata - costa poco e dura molto e se ti va bene si puo rendere piu interessante con qualche contorno. Io ho optato per funghi passati in padella con un paio di pomodori, ma si puo fare anche solo un po di burro e pepe o qualche alice sott'olio.

Ok, adesso mi stuto, ho parlato abbastanza...