Heyo, I have not been blogging for awhile so here is a treat for the 20 people who may still read this. Recently I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story competition. About 5,000 people entered this year and I was given a random prompt: it had to be in the genre of fantasy, it had to include a hostage as a character, and it had to be on the subject of discipline. The most obvious choice should have been “elf sex dungeon” but because Trump was getting impeached and wanted to distract everyone he murdered a dude with a rocket, the first thing that popped into my head was “make everything a thinly-veiled allegory for the Iranian Revolution”. Now you all get to enjoy it. It was a strange exercise and I’m glad I did it. I’ll know if I make it to the next round of the contest in a few months. (I’m really hoping that wordpress puts just the worst ads in between the most dramatic moments of the story.) It is titled “The sky of Tahtikal”. Enjoy!

*****

When the revolution came, they burned the sky red. The diplomatic staff at the Carolingian Embassy had no idea how it was done, no known spelltext talked about weather control of that magnitude, or that violence. It was clearly tactical. The sandstone dwellings where the People’s Army had lived their bitter lives were havens from the storm, but the foreign embassies strained against their guy ropes tethering them to the ground. The Terraspana’s headwind balloon ruptured, and only a few survived when the airship crashed into the floodplains below. The quicker-thinking diplomats and attaches cut their ropes, and were able to escape, captains making desperate breaks for the border. The Sultan in neighboring Ozkarabak, doddery as he was, would protect the influx of foreign dignitaries from the chaos unfolding on his southern border.

Aberyst had been coming up from a routine check in the mines and was arrested without preamble. His aides – gone. His wand – confiscated. He tried to palm a fragment of Calathite, a ghost-stone, in a mad hope, but they found that too, cuffed him on the head so hard it plunged him into unconsciousness. When he woke up, he gave a cry and found his mouth to be full of rag, and he thought himself sightless – but of course it was a blindfold, crudely tied. It slipped off halfway through the journey when the autocart hit a bump. Daylight leaked in behind the canvas tarpaulin, and several other blindfolded foreigners sat next to him. But the daylight was the wrong color. The canvas flapped open, and in a brief flash, Aberyst could see a long pale road stretching into the desert behind them. And a sky, bloodied, cloudless, scorched.

A Tahti revolutionary sitting across on the other bench from him pulled the canvas flap closed, and spotted that the blindfold had slipped. He saw the fear and confusion in the bureaucrat-mage’s eyes. The Tahti smiled a savage grin and got up to retie it with his long brown fingers.

“Do not be afraid,” the Tahti said, in accented Caro. His voice was a thorn. “Be happy. The People’s Army has won freedom at last.”

They brought him to a basement in a village somewhere in the provinces. He could tell by the accents, the smell of lavanta in the air. He had a small window at the ceiling opening to the red sky. Aberyst felt fear and revulsion looking at that sky, but knew it was a masterstroke – no airships could fly through a sky like that. The Caro Parliament would either have vote for a land invasion, or worse, negotiate with some self-elected warlord. And in the meantime, this revolution, if it truly was a revolution, could proceed without involvement from foreign powers. Nobody was coming to save him. The other hostages had been spread out, no two in the same spot.

He went through the Disciplines to calm his mind. First the Grammarium, the Arcanum Dialectic, then the Syllabary, tracing all of the four hundred and seventy six of the Syllables in the shallow dirt of his basement cell. He practiced as he had when he was a child in the academy, and it did absolutely nothing to calm his anxiety. He was sitting on the floor, chained to the wall. A captive. But he wasn’t thinking about the gruesome stories of the People’s Army, and what they did with captives, it was the limits of his magic that made his mind strain. It was impossible, what they had done. Impossible. He’d seen village practitioners back in rural Carolingia push a few glistening shards of Calathite together on a shaggy mountaintop and beg the gods for rain, but anything larger…? Turning the sky to perpetual fire? His mind endlessly digested the facts.

He couldn’t stop himself from bickering with his captors at mealtimes.

“You must know that the Carolingian government will make an example of you,” he said, addressing him in fluent Tahtikal. The guard – the one from the autocart – gently set a plate of lentils in front of him. Aberyst from the floor pulled up his sleeve, showed him his diplomat’s tattoo. “You know who I am.”

The soldier’s response was even-toned. “Yes. You are a thief.”

“A thief!” The audacity of him. Aberyst knew there was no stronger insult for the hospitable Tahtikal, and had never heard the oath deployed at him in all his years of diplomacy. He puffed himself up. “We came to this pissoir of a country, sitting as it was on the greatest wealth of magic in the world, and gave you the knowledge to use it. We trained you. We helped you. Tahti work with all the foreigners.”

He shrugged. “They are thieves, just as you are. They’ve built the master in their minds. You are all thieves.”

“I’m a wizard of the Sixth Diplomatic Council of the Carolingian Mission to the most ungrateful country on earth. You’re a peasant with a rifle and a grudge.”

“Look at you! So angry, so angry.” The Tahti plopped down in a chair, agog. “A master of the Disciplines, yet he can’t stop himself from yelling at a peasant like me.”

Aberyst felt a rush of shame in his cheeks. “Listen, who’s in charge here?”

“No one is in charge. I’m in charge, you’re in charge.” He was mocking Aberyst.

“Someone leads the People’s Army. Someone leads your little cell. Don’t be absurd.”

 “Well, I suppose that’s the teacher,” he said, and stretched out on the chair, folding his long fingers behind his head, insouciant. “And we owe obedience to no one but the teacher, and the teacher says we owe obedience to no one but ourselves. That’s what you get when you’re a free man, no?”

“That’s absurd,” Aberyst said again. The Tahti laughed at him, stood up, and took the plate away.

“Who burned the sky?!” Aberyst said as they shut the door, clanged the bolt into place. Into the dirt, Aberyst traced the Syllable for ‘open’, and hated his own impotence. 

***

They moved him in the middle of the night by foot to a neighboring village. He was blindfolded again, of course, and he counted his steps to keep his patience. This new safehouse had no spare room, so they all slept on the floor in opposite corners. A week passed. Terror gave way to boredom His two captors played cards for hours, jabbered in their local dialect. Aberyst couldn’t make out what they were saying most of the time. At mealtimes, the Tahti ate their lentils with their hands from sheets of newsprint. Aberyst had found a broken fork and enamelled bowl, and his captors complained he was using too much potable water to wash them after each use.

“Tell me about this teacher of yours.” Aberyst was eating, the Tahti were playing at cards.

“We are his students, and we follow his path to freedom.”

“What sort of freedom is it to burn the sky and live in darkness?”

“Ah,” said the stout one, winking. “Now you ask more interesting questions.”

“I can’t understand how you did it. Calathite is not that powerful. No spell could do that.”

“And no spell did,” the stout Tahti said.

“What we desire can often be the best course of action,” the tall one said.

“But how can you work magic without the Disciplines? How did burn the sky? Be serious, no parables, please.”

 “Let me ask you, diplomat, what are these ghost-stones good for?” 

His diplomacy took over. “Industry, of course. Indoor heating for every home, autocarts and airships produced with little human effort, easy travel and convenient access to foods out of season. Opportunity, advancement, economy. Your nation got all these wonderful things through us, our presence here.”

The stouter one spoke: “Do you know why they’re called ghost-stones in our tongue?”

“No,” Aberyst admitted.

He fixed Aberyst with a stare and grinned. “It is because when we touch them, we can hear the ghosts of our ancestors screaming for freedom inside them. They’re mad from desire. Everyone longing that they ever had, every regret, every joy and every grief, transmuted to rock, over generations.”

“You’ve stolen our ghosts, Carolingian,” the tall one said. Their smiles were unwavering, eerie. Aberyst’s diplomatic training supplied him with nothing. He went with disdain.

“Poppycock.”

The tall one threw down a winning hand, and the other swore and collected the deck for another deal.  “I cannot say whether we shall win this fight, Foreigner.”

“Nor can I,” said Aberyst, scraping the last of the greasy red slurry into his mouth. “But I’m sure an exchange will be worked out soon. And you’ll get whatever sort of freedom it is you’re looking for.”

***

The door opened. A new solider stood in the frame, his face a rictus of anxiety. “They have said they will not negotiate. They’re sending soldiers. Martyrs,” he said. The word charged the air with electricity. A death sentence. The Martyrs did not leave survivors. Not even captive wizards of the diplomatic council. The Parliament had voted to invade.

“That can’t be right,” Aberyst said. “That can’t be right.”

“He’ll need to be moved.”

“They can’t do this to me,” he said.

“No?” his Tahti guard stood up. “To us, it is normal. In your newspapers, we are the enemy, we have already tortured you, we have done the worst, we are less than human.”

“Why could you not negotiate with them? Why!” Aberyst demanded. “Why could you not choose to make peace?!”

“They refused,” the tall Tahti said, simply. “They wanted control more than they wanted our mines.” All three slung their rifles over their shoulders and began throwing supplies into their rucksacks.

He realized.  “They’re afraid of you,” Aberyst said.

They put on the blindfold, but they did not gag his mouth. They gave him instructions. “Crossing the pavement now,” or “there is a step,” or “now we are going down a ladder, friend”. They kept up a busy pace on foot for an hour or two, and then stopped.

“They said they’d be an autocart here.” one said.

“So where is it?” The guards bickered. They elected to wait awhile in a tense silence, until a distant explosion pierced the air.

“That’s them,” Aberyst said, and felt his heart thudding in his chest. “The Martyrs. We’re not going to outrun them, and we’re not going to lose them. We’re done for.” In the darkness of his blindfold his imagination conjured up the horrors from his training – the Disciples gone mad from study, the prolonged exposure to untreated Calathite altering musculature, warping mind and teeth and rattling bloodshot eyes—

He made his decision. “Take off my blindfold, let me help,” said Aberyst. “Find me vein of Calathite and break off a shard. Your ghost-stone.” There was a silence. “If I run to them, they’ll kill me too. Give me a ghost-stone, I can carve a door.”

“You will flee.”

“The Discipline does not allow me to lie in my magic-telling. A spell is not a lie, it’s the language of truth. If I say I will not run, then my magic will not permit me to.”

“Fine,” they said. The Tahti took off Aberyst’s blindfold. The shock of the bloodied sky hadn’t worn off. They stood in a concrete shelter by the side of a long road, stretching both sides through a flat yellow plain. A ridge rose up behind them, and even against the red sky, he could see the glow of a village on fire behind it.

The other two guards ran off into the plains, looking for a shallow cave where they might find a vein. The tall Tahti and Aberyst shared the guard’s last cigarillo, the foreigner taking it in his bound hands, and bringing both to his face to inhale.

“What is your name?” Aberyst asked.

“Now you ask.”

“Tell me.”

“Samareth, and I follow the teacher.”

“I am Aberyst. I follow my Embassy Council and keep to the Disciplines.”

“We know who you are,” Samareth said, smiling. Another explosion sounded behind the ridge. Aberyst flinched, but held his composure. Samareth was trembling.

“I was due for a posting in Terraspana,” Aberyst said, and let himself go dewy-eyed at the thought. “Chilled wine. Soft guitar music in the terraces. An earned vacation, really.”

Samareth nodded. “We never got to travel much. The teacher would love it there.”

“But who is this teacher?” Aberyst said, pulling on the cigarillo. “They must be somewhere safe. Your leader. We can go there. You must have him stashed somewhere.”

Samareth looked uneasy.

“If you don’t know, tell me the teacher’s name and I can find him.” Aberyst was already putting the sequence of Syllables together in his mind.

“Foreigner,” Samareth said, gently, “to follow the teacher, you must follow your own heart. And only that. The teacher is all of us.” Aberyst came up short. “Our desires already affect the world. We learned to tap our living desires for power. That’s how we burned the sky. No ghost-stones.”

“Without the Disciplines…” Aberyst said. “It would tear you apart. We’re taught to control our emotions for just that reason.”

Samareth nodded solemnly. “The People’s Army wanted to be safe from your airships. Thirty men and women lost their lives to ask this from the teacher. And now,” and he pointed up.

“What…what sort of magic is this?” he said.

“You have your disciplines. We have our freedom. It has a price.”

Aberyst felt drained, like the sense had gone out of the world. The other two guards returned, faces drawn. One was bleeding from his palm. The other held up a blue fragment, its surface flickering with power.

“I do not want to die today, foreigner,” said the stout guard. “I want to live.”

His diplomatic training took over, though he felt numb. He spoke automatically.

“I know of a Carolingian Embassy holding in the city of Thanalasht. I do not know what we will find there, nor whom. Be sensible and be ready for anything. Now cut my bonds,” he said, and they did so. They put the ghost-stone on his palm.

“I have never tried to do this without a wand before,” he said, but they could not do magic, and did not know what it was to wield the Disciplines. He breathed deeply, silencing the rattling fear of his mind. Now that the ghost-stone was in his palm he felt a genuine calm radiate from his center. And so he traced the Syllables he needed – Open, Walk, Find, Escape, please.

“On my mark, step into the black,” he said, voice coming from the ether, and they vanished through the air.



Old Delhi was the zaniest place I’ve ever seen. A neverending river of humanity flowed through in both directions on Chai Chowk, the main street. The shops were stacked on top of each other like egg crates. One good shove would knock the whole pile to the ground. There are whole shops which only sell different fried treats. Every street we looked down seemed just as chaotic, just in a narrower space. The buildings loom up on either side and everyhthing moves in between. Garbage and wires climb uip the walls like ivy. Some telephone poles have been so thoroughly knotted and pulled by random cables that they lean crazy to the side, on the verge of crashing over, only held up by tension pulling the other way. Every surface has been painted. Signs, religious symbols, text. Very little of what you or I would consider “graffiti” or “street art” – most of the street painting that goes on here has clearly sprung indigeounos. Every food cart has lavish handpainted signage and script, and a dangling chain of marigolds. Some have a small iron urn where coal or incense is burning. Honks from autorickshaws and motorbikes and vespas and regular cars barrage the air. Here, someone stokes a fire to bake pottery. Here, a potter sitting on the ground with his wheel shapes small cups. There’s a tea joint, or perhaps a yogurt place, a depo cut into the wall where a man with a huge cauldron and a ladle serves yogurt in the same ceramic pots. There, a street dog drinks out of an abandoned cup. The cycle of life is accelerated here. Things are produced, consumed, discarded within the space of a glance. *


The hustle of Chai Chowk



Harriet started picking up on the bizarre gender discrepency here. First off: mostly men out in public. Second: we were crossing the street across a drainage trench under construction. A little old man asked me for help, and I (along with three dudes who materialized out of nowhere) all pulled him up and over the dirt bridge. A little old lady, not two seconds after the little old man appeared, also came up asking for help. Everyone ignored her save Harriet.


doggy

zzzoooooom



At the Red Fort, what struck me was that everyone was waiting in patient lines to get their tickets. And that “everyone” was a loooot of people, all in really tight queues with zero personal space, ass to nose. Curiously, all Indians! Just to compare again to Turkey, Turks do not really visit their own historic or cultural sites — that’s mostly done by foreign tourists. Here, at probably one of the biggest tourist attractions in the capitol of India, we saw…probably only three other groups of foreign tourists? We got to skip the lines because you can pay the locals’ price of 50 rupees (50 cents)and wait in the long lines, or pay the tourists’ price of 500 rupees (5 dollars) and not wait in line at all. Easy choice there.



It was a beautiful old palace grounds, a strange mix of tourist trap shops, empty spaces, and mughal architecture crowded with people talking selfies.

The highlights were probably rescuing a chipmunk who’d trapped himself in a trash can (I tipped it over and let him out) and then it was suuuper weird to walk past a few of the laborers doing restoration work. It was a whole family — two old people, two younger people, their kids, a baby on a tarp. They were chatting to each other and ignoring the tourists. This was my first encounter with what I think was a job handed down through family. Oh, and people stopped us and asked for our pictures all the time. I snapped a few with them in return. Our flatmate Nina had warned us people would be excited to take pictures with foreign tourists, but I was not aware of the scale of it. As soon as one person got up enough courage to broach the polite social barrier and ask for a photo, about six other groups would converge and ask for the same.

At the mosque, we took our shoes off but were outside the whole time? Every other islamic place I’ve been is very fixated on, y’know, cleanliness, as it’s built into the prayer ritual. You wash your feet, your face, your hands before you pray. Here at the Jama Masjid you took off your shoes and then walked all over dirty pigeon-poop-coated sandstone. It made me thoroughly confused.

The most interesting episode in the bazaar — as we’re wandering around, we see a bunch of very dirty dudes all squatting on the ground in the middle of the road (unusual only because it’s a lot of dudes). They’re eating stuff out of paper plates with their hands (normal). Why were all these four restaurants giving food to unpaying squatting dudes? It took us a second to clock it — this was Friday, Muslim holy day, and they’re feeding the untouchables and other poor people.



* There’s this quasi-autobiographical book called Shantaram by and it’s the classic male India adventure story of an Australian criminal in Bombay. And, I hate it. It spoke about India in these grandiose ways, but that I’ve been to india and am trying to describe it, now I find myself using these same gradiose conversational patterns, which is super frustrating. Everything the guy wrote was just full of these pregnant pauses – “Little did I know this one insignificant friendship would become the basis for the rest of my years in india”, etc, bullshit like that. But then here I am, writing about how “the cycle of life is accelerated, observable in a single glance”. I’m making the place as exotic as Gregory David Whassisname was. Ugh.


Before we flew to Delhi, our homestay had told us the best way to get to their place was to go to the registered taxi stand at the airport. You go to the kiosk, say your destination and get a little slip of carbon copy receipt which you give to any of the drivers of the black and yellow cabs. They are not easy to find, despite being right in front of the arrivals door, because

  1. None of them are black and yellow
  2. They’re all different make and models of car
  3. We had to wave off a series of touts to avoid taxi scams

This was our immediate encounter with India at five in the morning. Who are you supposed to trust?

I’m familiar with being hassled by guys trying to sell me stuff and having to wave them away. I’m familiar with the predatory behaviour of cab drivers telling me, for instance, that the bus is cancelled for the day, but not for a country where I’m not even sure what’s a cab and what’s just some dude’s car.

As I quickly learned, in India, it is always just some dude’s car.

Eventually we picked a guy – we were walking away from him trying to find the taxis, and he made noises like “no wait you have fundamentally misunderstood” rather than “no wait I really want to sell you things”. A little dude in a turban – one of only two registered taxi drivers awake at that hour, despite an entire lane of parked “black and yellow” cabs in line — asked for the receipt (I was told not to give him the receipt by the taxi stand attendant until we’d arrived at our destination, but whaddayagonnado.)

I’ve heard crazy stories throughout my travel life about India – people getting taken to random hotels or guesthouses, being told their hotel is closed or doesn’t exist. I’ve heard about dupes buying entire tour packages only to realize the entire sales pitch and office was a scam. I’ve heard about the crazy poverty and the robberings and I have to admit, I’m on my guard. It’s really difficult when you’ve just got to a new country, you’re jetlagged and exhausted, you don’t understand the language, what’s normal, what’s friendly, what’s not. It’s also difficult when your literal first experience of a country is “we don’t actually trust our taxi drivers enough to drive foreign tourists to the places they say they want to go, so we have this confusing system where you pre-pay, and then the drivers to come back and give the taxi stand the carbon copy receipt and that, like, pretty much guarantees the driver can’t decide to take you somewhere else”. What?

Too late! We were off to the neighbourhood of Hauz Khas. That was the address. That’s it! Hauz Khas, A-34. In a nighttime smoggy city of god knows how many millions of people, we had two monosyllables and a number. But ???? turned out not to be a problem. Hauz Khas is a self-contained gated community In South Delhi, outside of the bonkersness of the central bazaar. (I was advised by several travel blogs to avoid staying in the central city if I wanted to like Delhi, which I thought was pretty sensible advice.) It was 400 rupees ($4) for the half-hour drive, and when he straight up asked for a tip, I tipped him 500 rupees, because I had no smaller bills.

Our homestay had forgotten that we were arriving, and there was a slow-motion sleepy kerfluffle as each member of the family tried to locate our reservation. After they found it we passed out for a few hours and awoke to plod downstairs for breakfast – a curried buttery rice and peas with fresh roti, and then the whitest of white breads toasted and served with butter pats, like at a Best Western continental breakfast. One of the family living there gave us recommendations for a first gentle jet-lagged day in Delhi: go check out Connaught Place, the Indian crafts bazaar, and then go to a restaurant in Hauz Khas village for dinner. Sounds good to me.

We got our first daytime look at the neighbourhood, too. The houses were detached, had short walls and gates, vegetable sellers pushed their carts hawking wares in the street. Everyone had at least 100 potted plants out in their gardens — dumb cane, banana, philodendrons. Way more chilled out and personal-space-y than I had been led to believe.

Connaught Place was a city center, of sorts. It’s a series of interlocking ring streets, and it reminded me a bit of Taksim — a commercial and cultural hub where two kinds of people go — tourists, and young locals who want to look cool. Oh, and the people who prey on both. It was hard to pay attention to because a guy would approach us – me, actually, never Harriet – every time we stopped for literally two seconds to take something in or turned onto a new block. We had this conversation about six times:

“It’s this way for the ________”

“Thanks”

“Don’t go to the next block, it’s closed for lunch break/not patrolled by police/guarded by winged snakes”

“Okay”

“Welcome to India” (pretends to end conversation with a  head bobble)

“Thanks”

(appropriate length of pause)

“Where are you from?”

“America”

“First time to india?”

“Yep”

“(Pitch about going to official government of India tourism office)”

“Okay, thanks”

The first time I was just so genuinely spun. If it was a tout, he was the slickest tout I ever met. But then we had *the exact same conversation* a few more times, and the pattern became clear. They do everything to make you believe that they are just a regular helpful person who wants to chat, which is unfortunate, because it makes you suspicious of regular helpful people who just want to chat. They’d sense I was trying to detach myself and spin a line like “I’m going this other way, I’m not following you, we’ll part ways at the end of this block” . They’ve evolved more sophisticated trust-building mechanisms to trip up even the experienced traveller. Or, they really are just friendly, and also really want to help their friends make some money. Without any context, I just have no way of interpreting anything.

The rest of the day was a slur of metro rides and walks around curious bazaars. We saw our first monkey and a lot of decorated vehicles. Dinner was in “Hauz Khas Village”, a outdoor mallish area about a half-hour walk from the actual neighborhood of Hauz Khas. I thought I was prepared for general developing-country-traffic-madness. In Istanbul, if you walk out in front of someone, they stop for you. In Delhi, they keep moving at the same speed, but change direction. In Istanbul, everyone is trying to overtake at all times, which makes assholish behavior the norm, and therefore predictable. In Delhi, There are no obvious traffic rules, or even lanes, whether for those who walk or drive – everyone and everything justs drifts back and forth on the road from moment to moment, like a fluid, going where they feel called. Oddly it made me long for the comforting sort of Turkish chaos. The rhythm here made me feel completely out of synch.

It got dark fairly early (it is still winter, to be fair) and apart from the headlights illuminating the thick brown smog as they zipped by, there was little ambient light. South Delhi had plenty of wide mad boulevards full of bicycle, tuktuk, and regular traffic. We passed a group of street people who’d strung up their supplies from a tree in a traffic circle, and had set up a trash fire by the side of the road to boil the kettle. We passed a collapsed concrete shack that served as an active city garbage dump, and on the side of it was a portrait of Gandhi and a quote: “Sanitation is more important than political freedom.” It reeked of piss.

As we walked, tuktuk drivers would slow and approach us when they noticed our foreignness, and offered a ride. “You want to walk?!” they’d say when we tried to wave them off, and they sped off, laughing. I kind of get it now.

Approaching Hauz Khas village it got much more crowded along the sidewalks, which were paved and unpaved alternating with every stone, and cars and tuktuks all mashed together. One dude swaddled in random rags was operating a barrier arm across the road to enter — yet another gated community thing — and the barrier arm itself was weighted down with rocks. He literally just pulled on the rope to hold the barrier down, and let up on it after a car had paid him the appropriate fee (bribe? Was that actually a job, or just a guy who’d set up a barrier? who knows).

Anyways. The restaurant our homestay had recommended was wonderful. We ordered much too much food and had no idea what anything was. In the middle of our meal, the head waiter started ringing a bell by the door and waving some incense in front of a gold statue. It delights me that many years of living abroad I can still be utterly lost.

The video has been made, edited, and is now online. Special thanks go to Duncan and Sarah for being really jazzed about learning a dance one day before they had to do it in public all over town. It was very, very fun to film and it wouldn’t have been half so much as fun without them. YES.

LINK TO THE SKIBIDI

Dad and Kel were kind enough to mail a box of mexican chilis to London a few months ago, because they are just unfindable here unless you’re willing to pay six pounds a bag. Using a recipe from Stephen’s facebook page (this was one of the internet friendos I met in person last week as detailed in the last bloggo post) I whipped up a batch of chili from scratch, and it was fabulous. I share his recipe with you now:

8 oz dried mixed chilis (poblano, guajilla, pasilla, new mexico, etc)
Twoish pounds of chuck beef, cubed
Maybe some ground porky pork
Two beastly onions or three less beastly onions diced
Couple a cloves a garlic, chunky minced
Big tablespoon cumin seed, mex oregano, salt, and cocoa powder and a cinnamon stick

1.Reconstitute chilis in SUPER HOT HOT BOILY WATER for ten minutes, strain out water (and save it), blenderize chilis, pour through a strainer to make seedless paste.

2.Brown meat cubes and porky grimbles in a HOT HOT dutch oven or gud big dam stewpot, remove after briwning

3.Lower heat, throw in a bit of oil and onions and garlic, saute til transparent

4. Readd meet and pour in chiliwater just below the top of the meets and onyuns, simmer for a bit, and Pour in chilipaste

5.Grind up spices in a mortar and pestle if you’ve got it, throw in

6.Stir and cover and simmer at wicked low heat until it’s thick and sexy, maybe add black beans if you feel like it (I did)

The stew comes out thick and red, and actually way less spicy than you’d imagine for blending up a half-pound of dried chilis. Though when blenderizing it, I did tear up.







I lasted how long, like two weeks? Posting every day is super hard. I even missed like four days (before yanno the last six days of total radio silence). I have a good reason though! I’m at work every day (because Ian the Scottish Manplant is in Morocco) and busy every night (because, no joke, we have had random friends call us up all at once to hang out.) We had dinner with Ruşen and Mengu, two Turkfriends we met through Asli. They had been meaning to invite us to their places for ages, ever since we met back in February when Asli was in London. We met their hilarious flatfaced cats:

And generally just had great conversation about living in London, Turkey, and performing. (Rusen is a comedian and Mengu is an actress.) All over a delightful homecooked meal of kofte, pilav, falan and filan. (Delicious. Been way too long since I’ve had Turkish home cooking.)

We also met up with Harriet’s friend Rachel who was at the Crete wedding, because she got stuck in London on a layover back to the States. Went aaaaall the way down to a weird suburban hotel neighborhood near the airport and ate in an 800 year old pub. She had just done a random trip to the mountains of Switzerland and was heading back to Colorado for SKI SEASON. She works as a ski instructor and it made me intensely homesick.

Rachel and Emily and Whiskey as Madonna and Child with Whiskey in Crete

Then we also got to see our friend Federico from Istanbul, also on a brief weekend stopover in London. (He played Franz in the Producers and was in the improv group). His friend Yiğit, also in attendance, suggested we all meet at a gay bar in Soho because it had the greatest happy hour in town. Fede had an insane story about doing a play in Turkish after the Producers, and then almost going to acting school in Moscow despite never having really considered acting as a career, but then he got offered a way good job for the UN in Copenhagen. So.

And then, we met up with Meg and Stephen, two Seattle people whom I had only met through mutual friends on the internet, but we all share key interests — namely, Georgia, wacky travel adventures, writing, food. They’d just done a road trip in Albania and Montenegro — based on the trips I put in my book!!!! Fan club!!! I felt very special — and we all met at a Georgian restaurant called Minimo. We had to Instagram the food, and then Instagram ourselves instaframming each other.

I barely even use my instanfram anymore

We had an excited conversation about their trip, escaping the US of A, and then we drew the waiter into a fifteen-minute discursus of Georgian politics. It was so so great to meet them in person.

And then, we saw the Lion King on the West End.

Legally I can show you nothing

SO it’s been a bit of a week. Very fun. I have also reported all these things out of order.

  1. Make a huge facebook/whatsapp messaging group with all your friends. Bandy about the idea for curry and beers. Send lots of happy or thumbs up or vomming emojis/gifs. Everyone suggests the soonest possible weekend, and the soonest possible weekend wil be inevitably shot down for a weekday or compromise weekend date.
  2. Three people drop out of the whatsapp/facebook messaging group before curry day, or message to say that they can’t make it.
  3. Everyone comes from different directions on different trains/buses/bikes/super-jumps and meets somewhere in the middle of Brick Lane. It is raining, and nobody has brought an umbrella.
  4. Since you haven’t obtained a quorum yet, go to the Pride of Spitalfields for a pre-dinner drink. The Pride of Spitalfields is a tiny pub full of armchairs, framed black and white pictures of pancake-necked men, and wall-to-wall red carpets stained with centuries of dried alcohol. Stand outside in the rain and drink your beer with the three other people who are on time.
  5. Four other people arrive, and everyone decides they are hungry enough to deny any stragglers a vote in which restaurant we end up going to.
  6. Start shopping for a deal. Brick Lane, before becoming a gentrified street-art-covered hipster demilitarized zone, first was a Bangla community. Every family opened up their own curry restaurant along Brick Lane, and each restaurant offers a “set menu” deal — for in between nine and twenty pounds you can get an appetizer, curry, rice, naan, and some quantity of beer. Outside each restaurant, a buyruncu will try to talk you into coming in, and bargain with you to reach a good price. The trick is to get three courses and at least two big beers for less than 13 pounds. Bargain down until you feel your guts wrench with the absolute shamelessness of what kind of a deal you’re asking for. But if you go too low, you risk creating an adversarial relationship between you and the restaurant staff. Who’s ripping who off?
  7. Always refuse the first deal you get and look somewhere else.
  8. Unless you’re me, and starving, in which case vociferously recommend that everyone take the very first restaurant you can.
  9. Get seated in a large group, realize there aren’t enough seats available in the restaurant for your large party, and then negotiate with the other patrons/waiters to move everyone around in a logistical curry shuffle.
  10. Receive a text from the last person in your group, cancelling because something came up at the last minute.
  11. Order. Ask for really spicy, because remember that they had to tailor their food for English people, who did not natively eat spicy food. Do not, under any circumstances, order the Tikka Masala or Butter Chicken. Again, they were created for an english palate, and taste like chicken in fancy ketchup. Get the pilau rice and the garlic naan.
  12. Your starters and beer arrive. Everyone is in a great mood and talking loudly/yelling. The other patrons begin to eat faster in order to escape the drunken revelery they see coming from your end of the restaurant. Half of the starters are incredible homemade bhajis or samosas, and half are from a frozen packet bought down the street. There is no way to predict which starter will be which.
  13. The waiters come by and try to upsell you on pappadams. You decline.
  14. The mains arrive. Everyone either says this is the worst or the best dish they’ve ever gotten on Brick Lane. None of them are truly spicy. You flag down a waiter and remind him of your deal, and that it included a second big beer. You feast
  15. The bollywood music kicks up. It is awesome.
  16. You are all impossibly stuffed, due to several meals’ worth of curry and fried things, combined with dense starchy carbohydrates.
  17. Get up one by one to pay by card, or be a lazy fatass and wait for them to bring you the card reader.
  18. Everyone heads to the Pride of Spitalfields for a post-curry drink. Brendon buys everyone beers and tries to get the karaoke piano guy to sing Tutira Mai Nga Iwi, which he doesn’t know, so we all settle for Piano Man. It is great.
  19. The next morning, a sludgy hangover. Questionable bowel movements for a day or so.

One of the main reasons we moved to London, the most culture-y city in the English-speaking world, was to be able to participate in some fun cultural arty activities. Like…we can go see a musical any time we want, and it’s pretty cheap usually — something like 15 to 25 pounds for a West End show. We can go to the library. There’s any kind of music, every neighborhood, every night.*Harriet’s already signed up for a tap dance class in Herne Hill (just two neighborhoods north of us) and I have tried several things so far. In no particular order, here are the extracurricular things I have tried:

1. Improv theatre. I learned a few favorite games and techniques, including “scene study”, a game in which you present a made-up scene from a made-up play as if you’ve been rehearsing every line/gesture/meaningful glace for an entire week. “Now we’ll see the famous ‘Barn love scene’ from the Tenessee Williams classic ‘Palaver Wednesdays Down at the Ranch”. The class is over now, it ended back in June. We met on Wendesday nights and then went to the pub after class.

2. Choir. Recently I joined the Victoria Park Singers, and they’re even doing a few songs that my college choir actually did for their Christmas concert. It’s a fun bunch of people. One of the guys is 90 years old and was a spook for MI5 during the Cold War, listening in on Soviet agents, and now he sings tenor. He was talking about learning French by immersion, and going down to meet his son in Bordeaux. What a cool guy. The choir meets on Wednesday nights and then goes down to the pub after class.

3. The London Bridge Writers’ group. I found this one on Meetup, and everyone takes a turn reading out loud whatever they’ve brought for ten minutes (~2000 words) and then everyone gives constructive criticism for about ten minutes. It’s a really supportive group with some really skilled writers. A few short stories, a YA novel in verse, fantasy, poetry, literary fiction…it’s really helpful for me, since this is my first foray into longform fiction. I’ve only read once there (both because I don’t want to crowd everyone out, and because I am a coward) but I have gotten some fabulous commentary from them and I am happy to give it in return. The writing group meets Monday nights in a room above a pub, which is convenient, because we don’t have to go anywhere else after the meeting.

As you have now surmised, English social life revolves around pubs. It’s pretty ok.

*One memorable nights out was Miranda’s birthday at a live-band piano request bar called Pianoman. They actually had a line to get in the door — maybe the first time I’ve ever had to wait in line and get accepted by a bouncer, which I thought basically only happened in LA, New York, and TV — and inside it was RAMMED. We could barely move through the throng. The band was on an elevated platform in the middle of the room, the bar was at the far end, and the rest of the place was a maze of smaller rooms and private booths and screaming humans. There were tiny pads of paper at each table for requesting songs, and then you had to submit the songs to a huge vat overflowing with slips of paper, and then the slips of paper would get transferred to the music stands of the players. I naturally came up with a way to avoid all that and picked a song that I knew would be fun for the players — “Because I Got High” by Afroman — and then gave it directly to the drummer, the most underappreciated player in any live band (next to perhaps the bassist.) They played it about five minutes later. Brendon, as usual, bought everyone too many beers and tried to get them to sing the Kiwi classic, Tutira mai Nga Iwi. This is a common pattern with him: buy beers for everyone, sing Tutira mai Nga Iwi. It is a great pattern. I always sing along.

A few weeks ago, Nina mentioned that she’d seen someone use the Ritz Theatre’s board to propose. I snapped a picture of it on the way to work:

 

“It’s a shit proposal,” she said.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“You see it for two seconds on the way to work. You think: welp, that’s it.”

“That’s my proposal, I guess.”

“That’s my proposal. Moment’s done. I suppose I’m engaged now. Better start thinking about who to invite.”

“I see your point, it’s pretty unceremonious.”

“I’d want a flash mob. At least. In front of a huge crowd, lots of photographers, get to be the center of attention.”

“What if you drove by and didn’t see it? Mike would have to keep on paying for the next day until you did.”

“Or maybe we’ve just been assuming that it’s about Lynsey. Look, there’s no comma. Maybe it’s about asking Mike to marry whoever’s put up the sign.”

“Lynsey was just a red herring, you mean.”

“Exactly. Still a shit proposal, though.”



A few months ago Matt Smith visited and we went up the tallest mountain in Wales with the Kiwis. Were you aware that Britain as an island even had mountains? I was not. As I had grown up in a place where mountains are both 1) large, and 2) everywhere, it just hadn’t occured to me that the flat glacier-scraped plains of England would or could taper to a point.

We took the train up to Llandudno on the north coast of Wales. I was so nature-starved after months in the big city that even the dinky green hills and froppy surf of the Llandudno landscape got me excited.

Here is where I would post a photograph of the moutain, but it was so foggy that it took away all the majesty. We had no idea what we were climbing up half the time. We could see below us into the valleys — and the view was wonderful — but above it was just damp cloud.

The other extremely strange thing (to the visiting Alaskans and Kiwis) was how crowded it was. There were people everywhere. It felt far more like a pilgrimage up a sacred mountain than a hike in the wilderness. There was a dozen charity walking organizations, tens of schools groups, packs of people on guided tours, a race complete with trailside medics, cheerleaders and snack captains. We were on the most recommended and direct path up the mountain, I suppose, but none of us had anticipated it.

We actually stopped here on the way down, but it gives you an idea of the crush of humans

When we got to the top, we saw the trolley line that connects the summit to the base, a cafe/bar, and most bizarre of all, a stone staircase up to an artificial summit where you could take a selfie. There was at least fifty people in line.

Important summit selfies

Upon getting down the mountain we went to Sir Edmund Hilary’s favorite pub. He had apparently trained here before going up Everest.