April 3, 2010

Books Just Make the Greatest Present

I'm a big fan of birthdays. The last few months have seen a lot of friends and family members birthdays come and go, so I've got them on my mind. I may not always remember whose is on what actual date (I'm getting better... right?), but I think they're a pretty big deal. I don't why people want to pretend they're not happening. If you're going to stand up and celebrate anything, you should celebrate the day you were born. It's a celebration of the fact that you're alive. On what other day do you get to sip wine with the people who love you and have them rejoice in the fact that you are, well, you?

I'm also a big fan of giving books as presents. Yes, they're generally heavy and you can't guarantee that the person will like/not have read a particular book, but I can't think of a gift that is more personal. Personal, you say? Really? Yes, really.

I never give books that I haven't read. I only give books I've loved. By doing so, I'm giving that person something that has moved me, brightened me, inspired me, even shaped me. That book says a lot about me, about who and where I was when I loved that particular story. It is a window into my life and my passions, given in the hopes that it will serve the same service for them as it did for me. It also says a lot about my relationship with that person, because for me a book I've loved is a way to strengthen the bond between me and the friend I'm giving it to. It's me saying, "This book illuminated my life. I want to share that light with you."

There are people from my past who have given me books that have turned into beautiful keepsakes, more treasured than some of my oldest pictures and cards. When I open The Sheltering Sky and Catch-22, I remember the teachers who believed that I was something special. When I flick through Into The Woods and Dandelion Wine, I remember the good friends who love and have loved me. When I look at The Fledgling, Mom feels less far away.

Books own a special kind of magic. They're a great way to tell someone you're glad that they're alive.

3 Days in Melbourne

I just spent three days in Melbourne, and I have to tell you: I'm a big fan.

Melbourne, which is (I'm halfway sure) Australia's biggest city and which (I know) is the country's literary capital, is stylish and cool in a wonderfully grungy way. Imagine that the
cities of Australia's East Coast were all sisters: Brisbane would be the cute one with no shoes on who occasionally talked too loud (and picked her wedgies in public), but that always held doors open for strangers. Sydney would be (this is just my opinion, now- go easy) the well-dressed corporate snob whose hair was pulled back way too tight.

Melbourne would be the super cool one, the one who manages to look effortlessly chic in Converse low-tops and a tight black t-shirt with holes. The one with a chunky ring on each finger and pink tips in her hair. In short, the one I wanted to be at several intervals.

Melbourne is a city filled with tiny little back alleys that aren't scary or (from the perspective of a DC girl) at all alley-like, other than the fact that they are narrow and smeared with graffiti. There are hundreds of amazing underground restaurants in these back alleys, all of which are waaaaay too cool to advertise. They don't even have signs on their doors. Some of them don't have doors. You have to push aside dumpsters and uncover manholes just to find them (OK, not really. But seriously!). It's a great place to browse in funky bookstores, drink coffee served by lovable miscreants, and hang out in bars that don't feel the need to broadcast "look at us- we're cool!". Melbourne is, above all, an amazing place to wine and dine (and drink coffee- ohhhh, the coffeeeeee), which is what we did. Almost non-stop.

Here (because I can't contain myself) are some of the places that blew our minds:

We found this place by accident, and it was one of the only places that was open the whole weekend long. It's a tiny place, half of which is filled with a wood-fire oven decorated with a beautiful mosaic of tiles. They served up amazing Spanish-inspired breakfast food, from bubbling omelettes in cast-iron dishes stuffed with olives and feta to corn fritters with rocket and avocado dressing. I will dream about their coffee (what is it about Melbourne coffee? Do they just take more pride in the way they make it? Do they lace it?) Plus, they were never too crowded. It felt like we'd discovered a secret.

This place is faaaaancy. Like, I paid more money on a single meal than I've ever spent in my LIFE kind of fancy. Like, folded Manfriend's dirty napkin while he was in the BATHROOM fancy. And it was worth. Every. Penny. It was billed as a modern take on Greek food, dreamed up by one of the chefs on Australia's Masterchef. Every dish took me to another plain of existence. Seriously- it was that good. We had raw tuna with frozen watermelon (don't knock it), some kind of mushroom philo thing with fresh rosemary and some ridiculous sauce, a whole de-boned flounder with slow-roasted roots vegetables. They did things to vegetables that I had never dreamed could be done. And the dessert. Listen to me! THE DESSERT: it was baklava. Except not. It came out as a giant, puffy, golden souffle still sitting in its copper saucepan. The waitress then cut into it and soured salted caramel into the centre. We were told the actual baklava was in the bottom, and to have at it. This thing was so incredibly glorious- like nothing I've ever tasted before- so exquisite that I made noises in public that no one should ever make. I almost cried. It was, outside my Mom's kitchen, the best dessert I've ever had. And it had NO chocolate in it. (Wow).

This place was tucked into one of the back alleys in the middle of the city. It made its home in a converted garage, lining itself with communal tables, thick stands of lit candles and quiet, home-style confidence. We got to enjoy food that was mostly organic and locally sourced. I got to drink organic red wine from one of the tiny High Country Victoria towns I've been writing about for the past two weeks at work, which was great. The food was so luscious; it melted in your mouth. I ate things I never eat: rabbit, mussels, fried cheese. I ate things I eat all the time that were ten times better than I knew they could be: barramundi, gnocchi. We even had fried churros with dark chocolate sauce. Heartwarming. Glor.i.ious.

I hope you all enjoyed your Easter holidays, too.