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Out-running Sandy

The flight from Barcelona to NYC was uneventful, as was clearing customs at JFK. I checked into the NY Athletics Club – a marvellous ’20’s pile overlooking Central Park. Karen was still out shopping, so I proceeded to unpack and quickly realised I’d lied to the Border Protection heavies. I’d declared food (fruit jellies and gluten free crackers) but failed to tick ‘insects’. When I opened my suitcase, arts scurried everywhere. What? How? It didn’t take long – the culprits were the crystallised violets and verbena that I’d bought in Tourettes-sur-Loup in Provence, and obviously the call had gone out to every ant in Barcelona that there was a party on. A trip to the drug store to collect spray and ant traps solved the problem.

Karen had a dinner reservation at Per Se (Thomas Keller’s 3* joint in the Time Warner centre) for 5:30, figuring I’d be fading early in the evening. Correct. It was pleasant and normally I’d probably rate it as ‘good’ but the price also covers the floorspace between tables and the view, so my credit card went into plastic seizure.

Thursday was designated girlie day out in the city – i.e. shopping. We started with a stroll through Central Park – gorgeous in all its Fall colours. On Madison Ave, we started with the Ralph Lauren flagship store, then sauntered down Madison with brief detours into dollar extraction havens without sustaining any major damage. We drew a blank at Barney’s so it was time to head down to the Grand Central Oyster Bar for a lunch of Wall Fleet oysters, plus a shrimp cocktail for me and Manhattan clam chowder for Karen. Excellent as usual.

We strolled back up 5th Avenue, then refreshed before heading for our pre-dinner visit to Karen’s son Ben and his lovely hotshot corporate lawyer wife Meredith and their two bubs Madison (Maddy) and Bianca. Maddy is three, smart-as-paint and has learned every angle in the book to ensure her place at the centre of the universe. Their 1-and-a-half bedroom apartment on the 21st floor at 7th Av. and 14th is worth $1m+, but at least it has a decent kitchen and good views to the MetLife and Empire State buildings.

The James Beard Foundation hosts functions in his former house, and Karen had booked us in for a dinner by Canada’s new breed of youngsters with talent. We quickly met some new best friends over canapes in the garden – one of whom is an IT banking security specialist and was due to fly to Osaka for a conference the following morning. Good luck. We were equally fortunate in our dining companions at table – Frank and Bob – both delightful and spirited company. Multi-lingual Frank is heavily involved in NYC’s ‘Institute of Retired Professionals’ which has been so successful it’s being replicated throughout major US cities and he also spends a couple of days a week working at the bakery in the Eately (Italian food) complex. All-in-all it was a fine evening and the food and wine from Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia were excellent (especially the salt marsh lamb). After unsuccessfully dancing around the streets trying to hail a taxi, we took the subway and called it a day.

Friday started with a subway trip down to 23rd at Madison to check out the aforesaid Eately for all things Italian, which is across the road from one of my favourite buildings, the Flatiron. Then we headed to the green market to check what NY’s organic farmers and producers have to offer, and lunched at Union Square Cafe before viewing the Forbes Galleries, trawling Bonnie Slovnick’s cookbook shop and Chelsea Market; finishing with a stroll along the high line, which has done wonders for the lower west side’s property values.

Another quick change, and cocktails on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Hotel – my grapefruit and ginger cosmopolitan was delectable; Karen settled for a vodka martini with olives. Both were fine aperitifs for dinner at Marea – an Italian restaurant down the road from the Club which is frequently praised as the finest in the city. The menu sported a long list of Crudo – Italian sashimi-style raw fish with assorted garnish. For main course we shared a sea bass baked in salt crust with a lemon/salt/olive oil emulsion and arugula salad and it was lovely, topped off with Amalfi coast Rosata. Lemon and basil/blackcurrant/pear sorbets to finish.

By the time we got home, news on Hurricane Sandy had hotted up and there were messages from Lee re potential for considerable discomfit in New England. The Boothbay Harbour sojourn was designated a trip too far, so it’s Portland then back to Dunstable. Portland’s attraction was the exhibition of Winslow Homer’s work (he lived nearby at Prout’s neck and his studio has just been renovated and opened to the public) and Lee had booked tickets for 2pm. It was a small but lovely exhibition, and included a favourite watercolour – ‘Blown Away’ – still fresh and stunningly beautiful after more than a century.

Maine is lobster country, so we headed for DiMillo’s, a floating restaurant at the port, for a late lunch of haddock chowder, a wedge salad with blue cheese dressing to share and 1.5lb steamers with drawn butter. Total cost including drinks – $115. Perfect. Maine lobster craving sated.

It’s a scenic two hour drive to Dunstable. John, three large dogs and a couple of cats made for a noisy welcome, washed down with Veuve vintage rose champagne, raspberries and a light supper of cheese (more raw milk epoisses, please) and my Auer (from Nice) fruit jellies (hold the ants). After checking on Sandy’s progress in her ambition to join up with an Arctic front to form the perfect storm, I rang Amex and changed my flight out of Boston to Monday at sparrow’s.

But by Sunday morning things had changed. The local emergency services advised that any travel as of 6am Monday would be precarious, and Chicago was listed as getting hit badly by Sandy for most of the week! So we had a rethink and Lee and I simultaneously decided ‘drive to Toronto’ was the best idea. John had sagely noted that even if flights weren’t cancelled, they’d be delayed for many hours at least. So he rang Manchester airport (20 minutes north) and booked a car. Five minutes later, it was announced that 2,500 flights from the east coast were cancelled. Lee then checked on the fastest route to Toronto, via Syracuse NY, and found that Syracuse was also predicted to take a direct hit. So we decided that I should head north through Vermont, then west to Toronto – still problematic but if I left on Sunday arvo, I’d have some hope of staying ahead of the worst of the weather.

Having settled on a plan, Lee and I went to the Farmers’s market, grabbed supplies and cooked a pre-hurricane lunch (with leftovers) of quail eggs and radishes with butter, fantastic rib eye, pommes savoyarde, brussels sprouts and fried onions, while John and Gabe battened down the hatches. By this stage, Massachusetts’ chances of electricity supply failure were rated ‘high’.

John then drove me to Manchester, I jumped into my enormous, brand new SUV and drove 2.5 hours into sunshine to the Essex Inn (Culinary Spa) in upper Vermont, but food was hardly an option as I had no plans to be hungry until Thursday. When I checked online, all American Airlines flights out of Boston on Monday had been cancelled, along with 7,499 others out of the east coast. My Sandy avoidance strategy might need further adjustment. After checking in to Essex House, and noting through the cooking class kitchen window that a few hardy amateurs were learning the secrets of haute cuisine by turning on a KitchenAid, I headed for the tavern and had some crisps and a glass of vino verde and went back to my ‘suite’ – decorated in a symphony of bright apricot paint & florally stuff and boasting a spa of sufficient size to accommodate several overstuffed locals.

Unfortunately, my pre-snooze relaxation consisted of watching the Weather Channel. By this stage the Arctic storm was moving in to embrace Sandy in a bear cuddle – pretty to look at from the moon, but not an attractive sight if one is footloose in the North-eastern quadrant of the USA or the Great Lakes ‘district’.

Oh, so the intent is to potentially drown New York – the surge is predicted to race in from the sea to the south of Manhattan, and also scoot around the top of Long Island and then down the East River and surge south into the Hudson confluence – the whole schemozzle meeting up in a barrage of water that’ll be considerably enhanced by the full moon tide! Sotto Voce, there was mention that the sewers may back up well above ground. I think the gods have decided to party – in spades. Not content with scaring the shitter out of tens of millions of citizens from the Carolinas to Maine, they’ve also included the Great Lakes in their sights. As the storm cycles in from the north, Lakes Erie and Ontario are projected to host waves of 15′, then, as the surge drives south through to Lake Michigan, Chicago may witness unheard-of waves of 25′ rolling in from the north.

So, after a mostly unsuccessful night’s sleep, I decided I’d check on my progess at midday, then work out if I had the where-with-all to make it to Toronto. I left Essex at 8am, forewent the appealing detour up Skunk Hill Road and hit the Canadian border at 9am, driving into sunlit wheat fields with Combine Harvesters busily harvesting and a pretty silo-scape all the way to the horizon.

By the time I’d reached the turnoff to the 1,000 islands Parkway, the low clouds were barrelling southwards, the wind had picked up and the temperature had dropped to 40’F. If this is non-weather, with Sandy still a couple of hundred miles from landfall, Tuesday will have the already wayward B-doubles careering across three lanes! It’s Toronto or bust, then, and concentrate!

My faithful TomTom delivered me to the Hazelton in Yorkville by 4:30pm. Whew. I went for a revitalising stroll, taking the precaution wearing my heavy coat. My umbrella was nuked before I crossed the road, so I trashed it. It was freezing – my promenade lasted three minutes. I dined in the restaurant on 3 Mallet (New Brunswick) oysters with cucumber water and yuzu, white wine mignonette and a side of horseradish; a small serve of Alaskan black cod with kohl rabi pickle, avocado puree and yuzu aioli, then an assortment of Quebec cheeses with gorgeous berries. A lovely light meal, and a great place to hunker down for three nights.

As it happened, I missed Sandy completely, as I slept through the high winds and rain that hit Toronto overnight, but one woman was killed by a flying sign. By Tuesday morning, it was relatively quiet – just breezy with a few light showers.

After breakfast, the most pressing issue was to tidy up a few loose ends. I couldn’t part-cancel my Chicago-Winnipeg-Denver itinerary online, so had to ring Air Canada. Oh, joy – ‘wait time: more than one hour’, but fortunately I pressed the right button and got through (I had to cancel the first leg, otherwise my second leg would be wiped out following my no-show in Chicago).

Next, the lovely concierge, David, organised with Hertz for me to drop my enormous, trusty SUV a couple of blocks away, which I managed without too much hassle, provided the Toronto traffic cameras forgive a highly illegal U-turn in a pedestrian zone.

Lookee – the exit from the rental return is into the fifth floor of “the Bay” (as in Hudson Bay Company) department store! And they have a sale on this week! But I escaped with just an umbrella. I stooged along Bloor Street with all its high-end shops, then onto the Guild Shop, where I’d bought my first Inuit sculpture (the bunny licking his paw) nearly twenty years ago. The last thing I need is another bear. But this is not about ‘need’, and sometimes a piece just leaps out of the pack and this one was a bear by Noah Law (same artist as my musk ox) and nearly as beautiful as my first serpentine bear, Snowy. Oh dear. But I resisted (only because I was headed to the Balzac Gallery downtown on Thursday).

I’d been craving something Asian, so lunched at the sushi bar near the hotel on a yummy set lunch – a bargain at $9.95. David had also organised for my hair to be fixed (cut and coloured in) at the flash salon across the way, so that was another task done. More superb oysters for dinner and a small serve of beef shortrib with parsley root puree, carrot slaw, garlic chips and red curry sauce, plus passionfruit and hibiscus sorbets.

A concierge’s bulletin in my room recommended a timed-ticket exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario – Frida and Diego – so I organised a ticket for the afternoon. But first, a trip down to the Fairmont Royal York and Balzac. Helene, the manager, remembered shipping me the musk ox, but the gallery is closing at the end of the year because the Fairmont owners are unwilling to provide guaranteed leases to the retail arcade occupants. Silly. And apparently their sister gallery in Quebec City is also closing to make way for a conference centre. Surely the world doesn’t need any more of those!

(Aside: one of the fun things in travelling alone is unobtrusively eavesdropping on corporate-speak. My hotel is obviously a power-breakfast; cocktail-loosener haven for corporate and other heavies. Last night I settled in for an aperitif and my table was invaded without so much as a by-your-leave by a Cuban mafiosa and his new (third) wife who’s a young and cool jewellery designer. “Oh, we always stay at the Plaza Athenee in Paris”. The black chap who was the local stooge countered: “I find the Dorchester is charming when in London”. The chap calling the shots bore a remarkable resemblance to ‘The Mentalist’ chappie and stopped by to organise his charges: “the cars will be here in five minutes, darlings – the opera won’t wait for us” – a new experience for the assorted glitterati, apparently.

Then in the morning at breakfast, I had the full corporate-weasel-speak performance involving ingenuous flattery, false modesty, feigned sympathy and a slow-burn push-to-sign powerplay – it was easy to identify the protagonists roles (aka the f*^%er and the f*^%ee).

The previous morning I’d enjoyed breakfast in the peripheral company of an Executive who spent half an hour without drawing breath educating her two victims on life in the property business. Poor bastards – someone should have told her that you don’t learn anything by talking incessantly, but perhaps she already knew everything there was to know. I assume her expense account was picking up the check (sic), probably under the category of ‘torture’. And these (and their like) are the people running companies in which we have shares and on whom our retirement funds depend! They’re all living on Planet Cheese, along with the world’s politicians.)

For lunch I hit another Yorkville Japanese – miso soup, edamame beans with sea salt and tuna and salmon nigiri – all good light stuff. The Frida and Diego exhibition was excellent – she was surprisingly beautiful when young, despite the one eyebrow and upper lip fur. Diego freely admitted that she was a better painter than him, although his fabulous murals in Mexico City stand as iconic nationalisitic art (and his industrial murals in Detroit are definitely on my list, although I can’t think of another reason to go there).

I still had time before my complimentary massage back at the hotel, so headed down to the Inuit Museum at Queen’s Quay. Nothing grabbed me, so I headed back to the Guild Shop to find that the Manager had decided “The Bear” had to head for warmer climes and had adjusted the price including shipping and insurance into the ‘yippee’ range – about the same price/kilo as Iberica ham. I guess he/she will have to be called ‘Sandy’ (I doubt I can claim the cost on insurance, citing the purchase as ‘consequential damage’ caused by my mandated change of itinerary).

A final dinner of New Brunswick oysters and then off to Winnipeg, with a forecast for clear skies and freezing temperatures. They lied about the sunshine.

I took the bus into the city. Winnipeg is as flat as a shitcarter’s hat. It’s apparently city law for all girls to have bred by the time they reach puberty. There’s a reason I avoid public transport, and I was quickly reminded of it when a large crazy woman got on the bus and attempted to sit on my lap, ignoring a sea of vacant seats. I leapt for safety a nanosecond before her large arse made contact. She then proceeded to wipe her nose on her woolly glove, which just about put me into a blue funk.

Another old biddy got on with something in a papoose on her back. It might have been her house. Plus she had six carry-on bags that she proceeded to strew around the bus. Meanwhile, miss new mum (15-ish), wearing flip-flops on bare feet (it was only -3C) held the transiting captives enthralled with a running commentary on her texting dialogue. Apparently she’d scored a five perfume set from Victoria’s Secret for $16. Some things are not bargains at any price. A couple of failed lumberjacks in army fatigues completed our mobile village.

But the bus driver was nice, and dropped me off as close as possible to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which has a fine collection of Inuit sculpture. And it was very good, although only a couple of pieces really appealed. Time to get back to the airport hotel and pack for the north. Needless to say, I took a taxi….

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