Wednesday, 5 January 2022

goodbye twenty-twenty one

ottolenghi in islington
and just like that the year ended, more a whimper than a bang. not that it matters. new year is an artificial construct which almost never lives up to the expectations of it. it offers no neat endings or clear beginnings. it is really just another day, arriving with certainty, unbidden and uninvited. the pandemic on the other hand is a keeper of its own time, and is particularly adept at being mean spirited during the holiday season. two years of pandemic life brings with it two certainties - that the year will end and that new variants of wild character will come along just when communal time is having its moment. 

typically, i write my end of year missive somewhere between the last days of december and the first of january. it is meant to capture things worth remembering. but this year, the timing is off and memory itself comes with the caveat of fault, a point well made by melissa fay greene on how we will not remember the pandemic the way we think we will. in the annals of pandemic time, the first year was an extended lesson in presence, quite often literally because of lockdowns and travel restrictions. the second has been a crash course in learning to live with uncertainty. the economist helpfully proffers that ‘the era of predictable unpredictability is the new normal’. so two years of practice has meant plans now come with the ready proviso of waves and variants permitting. it has also made us fluent in a pandemic led vocabulary. this includes learning the greek alphabet, albeit incompletely since the naming convention skips letters. on that note, mary norris rightly asks about the penchant for using greek to designate disasters. we have become adept at keeping up with the ever changing landscape of rules and regulations, some of which are quite frankly absurd. covid for instance only travels by air and not by car. it also does not travel to neighbouring countries if the trip is twenty-four hours or under. this was certainly true of our recent road trip from switzerland to the netherlands and back where we drove through france, germany, luxembourg and belgium. we did not need pre-departure tests or have to fill a passenger locator form when travelling by car. vaccine passports have co-opted the language of wireless mobile telecommunication technology coming in the range of 2g, 2g+ and 3g. the letter g refers to the german words geimpft and genesen which mean vaccinated and recovered. it follows that 2g is vaccinated or recovered, 2g+ vaccinated or recovered with a negative test and 3g vaccinated, recovered or a negative test.  in switzerland private gatherings are to be restricted to ten people if there is a person aged sixteen and over who is not vaccinated or recovered. while i was trying to figure out how this would work, i overheard a fellow passenger on a train chuckling and saying that he would bring along his certificate and passport for christmas dinner. so now, we will become citizen police and add checks to our repertoire of pandemic skills… or perhaps the neighbours will do the deed instead. omair is particularly irked by the 2g+ variation not only because we have done our civic duty by getting vaccinated but also the bureaucracy of certificates is such that it has spawned an industry of service around it, but when one needs to order or get help, there is no one to be found. 

there will come a time when the pandemic will recede but until that season arrives, time will be laced with the race to live fully in the trough of waves and between restrictions. this is what i want to remember of the times between delta and omicron. 2021 was as much about the things i regained as the ones i miss. 

family and friends. without a doubt, the most important trip of last year was the one to my parents. it was a long time coming and not without incident as it featured one cancelled flight and the need to reroute the journey and fly to lahore instead. theirs is my first and forever home and my time with them is never long enough, a point underscored by a separation of over two years. there was plenty of food, post-dinner walks in the sweltering heat, a small dinner with close family friends and two days in their cottage at whispering pines. baba warmed leftover seekh kebabs for breakfast wrapped in foil in the steam of an army issue kettle. a novel solution to compensate for the lack of cooking facilities. hina (my sister-in-law) and nikhil’s spectacular wedding in sitges, barcelona was of equal importance. it was a wedding two years in the making and in the bride’s own words, it was two days of magic. we partied like pre-pandemic times and remarkably pretty much most of the family and friends arrived in spain with little difficulty. we had lovely weather, dusky sunsets and soft sea breezes at both ceremonies. as always, there was drama but mostly on account of the hotel and its poor service. this included flooding in the maid of honours room, an iron that blew the fuse in our bedroom so that i was late to the henna evening, the slowest room service and a near altercation as the hotel management brought up a guest to the party suite complaining about noise. the latter was absolutely avoidable had the hotel accommodated our request for the wedding party to be booked onto the floors below the bride and groom’s suite, rather than scattering us across the building. omair and i continued to clock miles on the continent with a seaside holiday in alassio, italy and christmas in the hague. it was another lockdown christmas with my brother and his wife. we made some of the polish classics that are part of the family tradition - barszcz, mizeria, red cabbage and makoweic to name a few. we slept well, ate lots and walked a little. on the way back, we stopped in cologne and sadly missed seeing the cathedral. we made it to the porsche museum in stuttgart arriving in zurich to close the year. we spent a night in the swiss alps at the guarda val hotel where we slept in maiensäss, traditional alpine huts and stable barns made of wood that are centuries old. the hotel has a small spa and for the brave a hot tub out in the open surrounded by mountains and snow. a full moon illuminated the sky on the night that we were there, the snow glinting like silver, mountains evidenced in luminescence. the rooftops were covered with snow much like the over-generous frosting on american cakes. friends, old and new have been an absolute life line providing laughs, entertainment and emotional support on days when feelings ran haywire. friendships are an essential tool in the kit of not just surviving but thriving through crazy times.   

art and culture. a full spirited and embodied summer exhibit at the royal academy which i visited on a cold, crisp november day. the summer exhibit has been held every year since 1769 and not even the pandemic could put a stop to that. even if it meant that it took place in the winter. coordinated by yinka shonibare and titled ‘reclaiming magic’, the art straddled different mediums and genres speaking very much to the times we are in. the art was not magical in the sense of what is beyond the realm of imagination but more of where prosaic, everyday and political things meet and are transformed by creativity. zanele muholi at the tate modern was powerful and arresting. the self portraits on race and representation, as well as their tribute to their mother bester were incredible. regal from a far, but a closer inspection reveals a life of hardship. the visuals then are as much a social comment and a way to honour. there was the exquisite display of artefacts, art, textiles and pottery at the epic iran exhibition at the victoria and albert. and postcards of pakistan in kings cross at the silk road and the travel photographer of the year exhibit. i saw the unauthorised private collection of banksy’s art in a basement in covent garden and finally made it to the estorick collection of modern italian art in canonbury, a few years after having moved out of the neighbourhood. in zurich, there was the compact and delightful display of the ocean in photographic form at the bildhalle and gerhard richter’s landscapes at the kunsthaus. the escher at the palace in the hague had an exquisite display of woodcuts and prints and was double the treat as i was taken there by my sister-in-law who is an artist and my brother. i saw ‘no time to die’ at the odeon and two theatre productions. leopoldstadt which was historical and serious and the wife of willesden which was brash, joyous and teeming with life.      

the department of edible and drinkable things is a catalogue of delicious food and drinks mostly with friends and family. pakistan - home cooked food at my parents in islamabad. mama’s firestarter plum vodka. baba’s smoked chicken and shawarma. mangoes that have been peeled and cubed, because in the words of connie wang ‘cut fruit tastes like love’. my father-in-law’s barbecued quails and tempura prawns. aushak and mantu at kabul restaurant. the club sandwich and coleslaw at whispering pines hotel and restaurant. channay and tandoori kulcha at chit chaat local in lahore. jal zeera, a tangy summery drink made with zeera, tamarind and brown sugar. haleem at jamil’s house. kulfi from jamil sweets. london - small plates at cafe deco examples of which include fried friggitelli peppers with long anchovies draped over and some grated egg, a salad of roast pumpkin, onion, sage and bitter leaves and toast with a warm puree of artichoke and berkswell. smoked eel on toast with mustard and watercress and grilled asparagus with ajo blanco, preserved lemons, hazelnuts and herbs at brawn. game tea, smoked cod’s roe, meat, confit potatoes and madagascar chocolate ice-cream with olive oil at quality chop house. sourdough from litttle bread pedlar, dusty knuckle and big jo bakery. pump street bakery’s croissant bar. hot butter cuttlefish, cashew fry and hiriketiya high’s at kolamba. the cocktail is made with tequila and lime with curry leaves and black peppercorns for spice. jinjuu’s spiced kimchi mary. hand pulled noodles at xi’an impression and sichuan at yipin china. all things laminated pastry and honey butter toast at arôme. tarunima sinha’s saffron, pistachio and cardamom cake. i have not stopped dreaming about it since my friend m introduced me to it. a brunch plate at 26 grains which took the classic of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs and reworked it so that it came with soda bread, whipped butter with fat crystals of salt, pickles with a sharp and citrusy bite of coriander seeds and shallot creme fraiche. nettle and pecorino arancini with parsley mayonnaise, green asparagus, hazelnut miso and parmesan and ravioli of trombetta courgette, preserved lemons and parmesan at clipstone. lip smackingly delicious lamb chops, chicken wings and mogo at the regency club. an excellent sunday roast with all the trimmings at the stag in belsize park. vandana’s homemade pajeon, namul and bibimbap. dipna anand’s chollay bhatura at somerset house. alassio, italy - roughly torn pieces of warm farinata (a chickpea flour flatbread shallow fried in olive oil), large heaps of fried seafood, focaccia di recco (a rather fragile pastry with a centre of stracchino), cuttlefish pasta with octopus and the most delicious courgette matchsticks. zurich. persian food at banoo im rössli. thai dinner cooked by the hanafi ladies. deeply comforting and creamy bowls of soup. omair’s had grains of barley. i chose a white wine one so that i had enough space for the beef brisket at crap naros in lenzerheide.  the hague. my brother’s homemade beef katsu curry, pancakes with orange juice like we had when we were children. morning coffee. alia’s khatti dhal. lasagne at pastaninni. barcelona. salt cod with white beans at can marti. white sangria. fideuà, essentially catalan style paella made with fideos, a kind of pasta that looks a bit like vermicelli. a cracking roast chicken with white beans at the no frills la oca. arroz negro (squid ink paella).  

someday, i will stop keeping score but right now everything from the past that is normal still feels novel and fresh - each gathering with family and friends, going to the theatre, each and every museum exhibit, every plateful of food at a restaurant especially at old favourites that have survived lockdowns and restrictions are a cause for celebration. there is so much of my old life that i still miss, like live music in spaces so intimate you can see the anatomy of the instrument being played, in person book launches where both seats and humans touch each other in a manner that is publicly consensual and in person studio classes where working out in sync with strangers is as much part of the thrill as is the activity itself. i miss the freedom from the mental gymnastics of risk taking. and most of all i am fed up with the evangelising of nature because it refuses to acknowledge its cruelty, as nature is what gave us the pandemic.    

i have no annual plans for self-improvement, just a resolve to be better at some things like reading more often, listening (rather than just hearing), asking more questions, practicing more yoga and most importantly i would like to configure my life in a way that it brings more time with people who matter. as 2021 came to a close, photographer amna zuberi wrote in her instastories ‘this is not a year to get everything you want. this is the year to appreciate everything you have’. i am borrowing her words for their acuity. here is to 2022. may it be a kinder, gentler one, with more known than unknowns. and may the worst of the pandemic be behind us.

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