Silver linings cheesesteak

A surprise cross-country trek.

Was it malice or incompetence which resulted in me having to get biometrics done at an immigration office on the other side of the country? With the US government, one’s never sure.

Regardless, this administrative snafu meant I spent much of my 32nd birthday in scarily crowded planes and airports, running the gauntlet of fellow passengers that had, let’s say, a more relaxed attitude to facial coverings than my own.

There were certainly upsides to travelling all the way to Philadelphia for fingerprinting, though. It meant I got to spend time with my lovely in-laws (at a safe distance, don’t worry) for the first time since February. Blessed with unusually mild weather, I strolled the streets, admiring the city’s historic architecture and murals (such as the one below). And, skulking in a side-street like a junkie who’s just visited his dealer, I inhaled a truly mind-blowing Philly cheesesteak I had picked up from Woodrow’s.

Not all versions of the cheesesteak — Philadelphia’s quintessential dish — are created equal. This one had tender, juicy shavings of ribeye, house-made Whiz (a kind of processed cheese) and caramelised onions all seeping into parentheses of cloud-like bread — a combination so satisfying, so perfect that I was sent into dazed ecstasies that only a maple spiced latte (cos: halloween) was able to snap me out of.

More silver linings this month

  • Rewatching both seasons of Fleabag and discovering that they are just as brilliant, funny and poignant as the first time I saw them

  • Reading cook/writer Nigel Slater’s memoir, Toast. It’s moving and extremely funny: I can’t remember when last a book made me splutter with laughter so frequently. So much more than just a vivid recounting of the truly awful food he endured while growing up in the British Midlands (though he does a gloriously good job at that too)

  • Watching the Borat sequel and the Downton Abbey movie — both silly, preposterous and hugely entertaining

  • Feasting on paella in the tranquil garden of the Boonville Hotel. Afterwards, making a fire and drinking yummy Syrah from Meyers Family Cellars (my absolute favourite local winery)

  • Becoming utterly transfixed by Emma, and the tiny, soothingly prosperous world Austen depicts in it; also, the novel is really very funny/witty/smart

What have your silver linings been this month?

To the giants: a pilgrimage

Less than 5% of old growth (never logged) coastal redwoods remain. These are the world’s tallest trees (the biggest are over 100m high); some are 2000 years old. On Thursday, we drove to Humboldt, the county neighbouring ours, where most of the surviving old growth is (thankfully largely now protected in state parks).

Describing these giants — or the experience of being among them — leaves me coming up woefully short. Neither words nor pictures do them justice. But let me say this: that amidst the upheavals and uncertainties of the present, spending time among these survivors — living things so much bigger and older than myself — has been exhilarating, humbling and calming.

The redwoods haven’t transformed me into a Pollyanna (rest assured, I’m still a neurotic cynic) and you only need the sound of car traffic to remind you of how much has been destroyed or how much, right now, is at stake. And yet: being back among these ancient redwoods has given me a degree of equanimity and (that most heretical of emotions right now) hope. I suspect the equanimity will be sorely needed next week; the hope may be sorely tested.

Hold tight, and look after yourself in the coming weeks and beyond.

Thanks for reading my monthly dispatch! If this made it into your inbox, it’s because, despite ditching social media, I’d still like to keep in touch.

Replies are always welcome! Feel free to hit me up with vials of Remdesivir or dexamethasone, “artisan” Philly cheesesteak, NetJets vouchers, spicy gossip or your favourite bread recipe.