01 January, 2007


For the last 9 days, San Francisco has been the city of journeys; Berkeley, rather, has been our home. Lily's aunt and uncle have put us up in their marvelous house high in the Berkeley hills, cold and beautiful in modernist glass and wood. Up here my experiences have been communal, not solitary, although dark has come in early, and with it the threat of the wild, of old age, even of death. Armies of Argentine ants, with multiple queens, and thus difficult to exterminate, threaten to emerge from underneath the walls. Uncle Peter tells us of raging eucalypt fires, and shows us the houses precariously held up on poles, ready to topple at the first sign of an earthquake. We felt the tremors of a 3 or a 3.5 just the other night. Thus it goes, says Peter. At night I huddle inside, my hands and fingers frozen, eating to stave off the chill, with the candles lighted to stave off the dark. In the morning all the glass lets the sunlight swell into the house, and you can go out on the terrace and gaze out over the Bay.


Peter took me out in the car to see the town. As in San Francisco, the local architecture is spectacular, and there are stunning art deco pieces all over the place, in particular the high school and public library. The style has the high excitement of the machine-age and Howard Carter, and on the façade of the library, designed in 1930 by James Plachek in a 'zigzag Moderne style', we see Mayanesque carvings, chevrons, pilaster caps and odd Egyptianesque murals by Simeon Pelenc, celebrating the production of books:

Inside the ceiling resembles native textiles, and the hanging lamps have a clean geometry—the combination a perfect expression of its milieu:

One sees Egypt also in the obelisks of the Edwards Stadium, named after George Cunningham Edwards, 'freshman in the first class of this university', and 'member of its faculty continuously from graduation till death in 1930'. Edwards, according to his plaque, was modest, kindly and selfless, but best of all, 'he believed in youth and youth made him its confidant'. What a remarkable phrase! Youth, I fear, never quite managed to make me its confidant, and wise old age has recently abandoned me in favour of 'grand-dad chores'. Still, perhaps maturity will take me under its wing at some point.

Much of the design is in gables, cornicing or window-details, simply delightful. Then there are the numerous art deco cinemas, with their magical signs evoking America before it was paranoid, such as this one:

Today we took a tour around the Scharffen Berger Chocolate factory, where the wife and I sampled various delicious products, and gazed at the machinery. We munched happily on chocolate nibs, and Mrs. Roth felt 'weak at the knees' upon sniffing a vanilla-bean. She has a better sense of smell than me. I, on the other hand, was attuned to discover the atavistic forms of art deco in the gigantic metal processors:

They recall de Chirico, or Ernst's Ubu. Thus the same shapes and lines, full of gaiety but never trite, continually assert themselves in this town, a reminder of better times. The sun gives the forms and colours proper substance. L'Architecture—wrote Corbusier—c'est le jeu savant, correct et magnifique des formes sous la lumière. But the locals do not look up at the walls, only go about their business in preparation for the new year festivities.


Peter is a cultivated man, but he is also earthy. He shows me the different trees of Berkeley, and the first he pointed out was what he called the Araucaria, what I would call the monkeypuzzle, my favourite. Last week he stopped in the roadside to collect refuse eucalypt for decoration and firewood. On the kitchen window-sill, Peter is growing narcissus, which he calls paperwhites.

Youth made Narcissus its confidant. When I first read the Metamorphoses, a long while ago, occasionally glancing at the Latin, I was charmed by the three-word sentence roger anne rogem, 'be asked, or ask?'—the context is love, of course. I decided to name a couple in my first novel, Roger and Anne Rogem. I haven't yet written that novel. Still, the Varieties is my window-sill, and with a modicum of narcissism I have now grown many blooms upon it.


A witty spot of sgraffito

Not, despite appearances, the home of Nam June Paik

The far distant Oakland elephant cranes, from the hills, at dusk


Food plays a big part in our life at Berkeley. Cooking and eating is a warm and convivial defence against the terrors outside, and a little red does wonders for winter melancholy. In the morning I eat oatmeal with currants and rhubarb jam. Palta has been a favourite at tea-time, mashed up with black pepper, salt and olive-oil on slices of baguette. In the evening, we do not just eat—we dine. Peter is constantly in the kitchen with his apron on, slicing and sizzling, tossing and drizzling. On occasion he corrals Lily into an apron also, royal blue, in which she looks heartbreakingly pretty. I do not cook. For Christmas I attempted to peel the potatoes, which was a disaster. I'm better with words than with food. Some are good with both, alas. But I eat with great gusto.

Peter likes to go to the Berkeley Bowl to get his groceries. This is, quite simply, the best grocery store I have ever seen. The produce is gorgeous and extensive, including dozens of exotic fruits I'd never seen before—durians, buddha's hands, taro, heirloom tomatoes, naga imo, and these kiwano melons:

When I saw these melons I insisted we buy one, though 3 dollars apiece. What I wanted most to try was the durian, which is banned on the Singapore MRT and allegedly tastes like custard, despite smelling of 'pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock'. But Peter thought they weren't ripe, as we could sniff them without vomiting. So I settled for a horned melon. The four of us shared it for afters the other day, and to be honest it tasted pretty bland, the inside gelatinous with fibrous seeds:

Peter, a Chileno, shows us a Chilean favourite, along with the palta; it is a sort of salsa made with cilantro, keylime juice, peppers and red onions, called pebre:

We eat this spooned generously on bread, as a side to the meal. For mains we have eaten salmon and chili con carne, but my favourite were these little skirt steaks, prepared expertly by Peter's wife, which we took medium-rare:

Isn't your mouth watering just looking at them? In the background would be a little light classical music, and our napkins, red for the girls and blue for the boys, are in brass rings. The table is spotlit in halogen, and Peter extinguishes all useless lights in the kitchen. Thus in this house high in the hills, darkness surrounds us. There is no saying of grace. But there is a toast—I suggest Lechayim! for his nonobservant Jewish wife—and we clink glasses, all except my own wife, who has no taste for wine. Over dinner we are treated to a Shandean tale of family history—the girl who made the rough crossing from Chiloe to the mainland in mysterious circumstances, recounted by a local villager—full of digressions and interruptions, dialectic. It was a Romantic ideal for Karl Solger and Jean Paul, who admired Sterne. The digression is the story:
Jean Paul made extensive use of delays—of interruptions, prefaces to prefaces, and extra pages, in order to loosen narrative convention and raise the reader to a pitch of imaginative stimulation, where he could awaken to the realisation that the preparative or the delay and the goal, if understood rightly, are identical.
For dessert we eat pears cooked in white wine, demerara and orange liqueur, topped with hand-whipped cream and a seasonal plum pudding.

With this our supper ends. It is New Year's Eve. Peter has suggested champagne, but decides against it. He is going to bed before midnight—normally he is up till one or two—just to be contrary. In this he reminds me of my father. Lily is keen to stay up. At the moment she is rereading Anne of Green Gables to remember her childhood. I help with some washing-up, the lights are put out, the music is put off, and the cold and the silent dark hold illimitable dominion over all. There are troubles with us, and our sojourn's end is beckoning dully. The new year has come. I have new shoes. The devil has been ritually executed, to put a smile on the world's face. I make no resolutions. There will be no more photographs, not for a while. I have taken a great number, many of my lovely wife, in all her myriad costumes, with all her myriad faces. It is the time of year to be sentimental and unabashed, and to combat the anxieties of illness and death with an unforced lightness of heart, with an eye for beauty in nature and upon the human face, and most of all with the determination to take pleasure in the food and sustenance of life as it is lived now. Friends, let us build our lives in the Art Deco style.

When, looking for his corps, they only found
A rising stalk, with yellow blossoms crown'd


chris miller said...

This is blogging at its best: a full day of sight-seeing -- market going -- and finally, elegant dining. (without even having to worry about those damn Argentine ants living in the wall)

Now, I feel somewhat embarrassed that I could only offer one dish from my recent holiday feast -- but some people just have a greater appetite than others.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Chris, good to see you again!

Paul Decelles said...

Wonderful...but of course all that food made me hungry...and it's 11:00pm.