Back Home, On the Range: A Prairie Sonata

by Emily Kemme

There’s a bird’s nest on our back porch, tucked between stereo speaker and blue-painted ceiling.  For a species widely dissed for their miniscule brains, its location points to the illogicality of that presumption.  The nest is covered, sheltered from wind, decorated to fit in with its inhabitants’ natural surroundings (the ceiling is painted to resemble sky, after all) and the abode comes equipped with a state-of-the-art stereo system.  Ok, so the birds have to wait for their humans-in-residence to turn it on, but nevertheless, when the music’s playing, they can have the best party in the neighborhood.

Here’s the rub.  Do we, or do we not, tear down the nest?  Lest you think we’re a bunch of evil, bird-torturing ogres who hate winged creatures, please be assured that there is a happy ending.  You don’t need to scroll down to the bottom of the blog post to find out what happened to the birds.  However, every year during spring cleaning, Dr. K, equipped with power washer and oversized ear mufflers, summons me out to the back porch and, pointing with a groan to the mess on the counter below, says, “ugh, there’s a bird’s nest up there.”

This isn’t news to me.  The evidence of our bird visitors has been obvious for some weeks now.  It’s unavoidable.  But it does bring me to the larger question.  What is it that makes a house, that pile of bricks and mortar, a home?  I realize this doesn’t come under the category of erudite conversation.  And yet, there are some essential elements that I find elevate a shelter to something more meaningful, that place to which we return from our perambulations around the world.  Even while we’re away, we continue to nest, to find that which makes us most comfortable in the most foreign of locales.

We’ve just returned from a spur of the moment junket to New York City.

Co-authors Ron Edgerton and Emily Kemme, with publisher Judy Joseph of Paros Press, accept the 2011 Next Generation Indie Book Award for “The Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra: A Century of Musical Magic, 1911-2011”, a winner in the Regional Non-Fiction category

A book I co-authored won the 2011 Next Generation Indie award for Regional Non-Fiction, and along with another of my co-authors, our publisher, and our assorted significant others, we headed to the Big City to receive the award at the storied Plaza Hotel, home of Eloise and all things grand, sitting right there next to Central Park.  It was fun, and quite the experience.

The Plaza Hotel in NYC, home to Eloise and host of the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

We were in the city a total of two-and-a-half days.  For me, it was essentially a trip centered around business; Dr. K and I also planned on attending Book Expo America, but a person does need to eat.

I made restaurant reservations before we even attempted to find seats on a plane to get there.

Which may not have been all that practical, (did I just hear the accusation of “bird brain” come winging its way across the Internet?) seeing that Dr. K ended up scoring the last two seats on the plane. Granted, it was on our regular flight (meaning the time of day we prefer to fly, on our airline of choice), but the possibility of not being able to snag a flight ten days ahead was a trifle nerve-wracking.  But, not nearly so unsettling as figuring out where we were going to eat.

I discovered a quaint little French bistro, Maison, situated on the corner of 7th Avenue and 53rd Street, directly across the way from our gargantuan and completely American hotel, the Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers.

The Sheraton New York Hotel is All-American, All the time

I made a reservation there for our first night’s dinner, thinking that since we’d be travel weary and foot sore (or some such permutation of being cooped up in a space no larger than one foot square for hours on end) we’d opt for something within strolling distance.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Maison carried a startling resemblance to a bistro we’d enjoyed so much years ago, which was actually IN France.  That establishment, which remains nameless in memory, as small bistros are, but notable for well-prepared meals, perched lightly on the corner of the Boulevard Raspail, across from the Hotel Lutetia, an Art Deco beauty which we will always thank our travel agent, LeJeane, for finding.  Within walking distance of the Seine, the Musée d’Orsay, the Luxembourg Gardens, and an abundance of shopping (that was the only part which Dr. K would most likely not thank LeJeane for), it was the perfect hub from which to explore Paris.

Maison is one of nine New York City restaurants participating in the Tour De France NYC theme. A meal there is guaranteed  to be an authentic taste of coastal Brittany.

But, back to New York.  Paris it is not.  NYC is grit and neon.  Paris has that subtle filtered light; a special glow that I’ve yet to find anywhere else.  Poems numbering in the thousands have been written extolling it.  This isn’t to say that New York doesn’t have its elements of beauty; certainly walking down Fifth Avenue, or exploring Central Park has its charm.  Mind you, our visit was very short, and we lacked the opportunity this time, as well as during past visits, to venture much further afield where we would in all likelihood uncover pockets of beauty.  It is missing one essential element, a statement which creates a world of difference:  les gens de Paris.  That unquenchable style, that lilting accent, and yes, the bistro and bakery on every corner.  Mon dieu! I’m sorry, but a New York delicatessen doesn’t come close.

That first night, we walked into Maison, and fell apart in our own backyard.  Well, technically, our front doorstep, but you get the gist.

A classic French bistro, blocks from neon-lit Times Square

Simple, yet elegant. Just a tin bucket.

After checking out the menu, sipping perfectly shaken martinis, we began with Moules Frites Dijonaise (steamed mussels in a dijon mustard cream sauce, with a tin bucket of the most crispy french fries ever), followed by roasted chicken for me, a grilled salmon for Dr. K. You can’t go wrong with either of these.

There are very few comfort foods better than Moules Frites.

In fact, the meal was so perfect that we returned for a lunch repeat of the mussels, and two breakfasts.  I can handle breakfast in France; our server’s soft gutteral r’s issued so quietly from the back of her throat, I didn’t have to bother to wake up to answer her as she poured thick black coffee from a silvered pot.  This was not the case for our stab at breakfast across the street, at Lindy’s, where the waiter greeted us with a hairnet futilely attempting to contain his blonde frizz (which I’m pretty certain was a wig, given this guy’s age), and our Chinese waitress who periodically showed up with lukewarm coffee in an orange-topped carafe, to ask “would you like a warmer, sweetie?”  Our one other dining attempt during this brief visit was a very successful experience, celebrating the book award together with my confreres at Brasserie 8 1/2.   It too, calls itself French, whether for the orange-carpeted curvaceous stairway (featured in “Sex and the City”) that deposits diners from a New York street into its dining room, or for its creative food offerings, I’m uncertain.

Which brings me to esteemed Chinese Aunt, also known as “Aunt Kathy”, who is spending her annual three weeks in Beijing with my Uncle Rudi, a geography professor collaborating on a comparative geography book with his Chinese colleagues.

Honorable Chinese Aunt (let’s just call her HCA, to make this easier) has entertained family and friends over the years with daily travelogues from wherever in the world she might be.

A crowded Beijing subway car, significant for its 95 degree temp.  (Photo by Rudi Hartmann.)

Her observations run the gamut of topics, wandering from societal morés, landscape descriptions, art, music, the odd Yoga pose she’s mastered, and, yep, you guessed it, food.  The obsession with eating tends to run in the family.

What caught my attention on HCA’s most recent trip to Beijing is what she is not eating.  I don’t mean to imply that HCA is finicky; she’s one of the most adventurous eaters I’ve ever known.  It all boils down to choice.

Think you’re in Italy? This Prosciutto di Parma y melon is served at Taverna, in Beijing.  (Photo by Rudi Hartmann.)

Given the choice of eatery options, HCA gravitates towards Continental dining.  If the menu boasts a chocolate torte, she’s all that much happier.

Rudi and Honorable Chinese Aunt have been visiting Beijing since 1996, and the scenery has altered dramatically over the years. Numbering 19,612 million, the mass of humanity is staggering.  (New York City isn’t all that far behind, totaling 18.9 million, if the entire metropolis is included in the calculations.)  At the time of their first visit, Rudi taught at China Agricultural University, which, as might be expected, was in the middle of nowhere.  It’s difficult to grow things in concrete. Dirt is a prerequisite.  She recalls:

“We only had hot water 4 hours per day and the sheets were so filthy, our head imprints were permanently imbedded into the pillow cases.  A microphone awakened the entire campus at 6:00 AM and not a blade of grass grew anywhere within the college walls.  Our source for familiar foods was the Lufthansa center near the embassies. . ..  Now, we live in relative luxury with a marble bathroom, glass enclosed shower and hot water 24 hours.  We have crisp, fresh sheets and roses adorn the sides of the thoroughfares.

A busy Beijing thoroughfare.  (Photo by Rudi Hartmann.)

We are able to find any type of cuisine and the natives take every kind of foreigner in stride.  Still, there are vestiges of the old times:  the hutongs with tiny alleyways where the people live in extremely close proximity without indoor plumbing, the broom people riding bicycle carts with brooms made from sticks, the occasional man pulling a cart by hand, squatting men playing cards in an alleyway, food stands with all manner of exotic delights, but all fast disappearing in this thriving city.”

In today’s Beijing, while my aunt and uncle enjoyed a welcome dinner of bull frog, a shark fin rice dish and oysters served in shells on a bed of tiny glass noodles, dining out includes chic Italian restaurants, a French bakery offering carrot and pumpkin soup with a crisp green salad, and a place called “Taverna”, which HCA holds in high esteem because of its desserts (what did I tell you?)

A fish out of water? In our global society, what we once could only dine on locally can be found worldwide. This filet of sole is featured at Taverna, an upscale Northern Italian eatery in Beijing.  (Photo by Rudi Hartmann.)

She still enjoys the occasional trip backwards to the pancake cart on the street, but then glisées to descriptions of an incredible performance of Bach, Schumann and Chopin by Piotre Anderszewski at The “Egg”, the spectacular two year old National Center for the Performing Arts, designed by a French architect, which appears to be floating on water.

We email often while she’s out and about, and she agrees with me that given a choice, she gravitates towards continental.  On the other hand, Uncle Rudi assures me that he eats Chinese food every day with his colleagues and that Kung Poa Chicken is also comfort food.  And while one man’s comfort food may be a delicatessen, or The Hard Rock Cafe on Times Square, what stands out is that when away from home, rather than exploring unique cuisine, most veteran travelers I know head for the foods which make them feel closer to home.

Honorable Chinese Aunt will return to Denver, (mere population of 2,552,195, if you count outlying areas,) and we have returned to our backwater town on the plains.  It’s nice and quiet, the cows are mooing across the way, and we’re picking off the coyotes that’re roaming the north 40 while seated on our back porch.  The bird nest is safe though.  Don’t worry.

It’s spring time in the Rockies, which means infestations of miller moths.  They’re everywhere.  At last count, there were easily a thousand swarming the grill on Memorial Day.  There are no such things as miller moths in New York City.  I crawled into bed the other night, past midnight, afraid to turn on my book light for fear I’d be dive-bombed by a miller.  There is nothing like miller aggression to create insomnia.  Dr. K. was already lightly snoring, but I woke him with a yelp.

“Arrrghhh!  There’s a miller walking on my hand!”

“Shhhh,” Dr. K counseled.  “Let him sleep.”

“But,” I sputtered, “it’s still in the bed, somewhere, I’m sure of it!”  I wasn’t about to let this go.

“All God’s creatures need a good night’s rest,” he muttered sleepily.  Which is Dr. K-speak for “shut up, roll over and go to sleep.”

Mmmmmm.  It’s great to be back home.

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Michele V June 5, 2011 - 2:44 pm

Fun reading about your adventures and observations, Emily, and a special CONGRATULATIONS on your book award. The book is a wonderful gift to our community.

Doug June 4, 2011 - 7:25 am

Don't mussels look a little like millers?


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