TGIFOOD

GASTROTURF

Life in Tableau: The world from my front window

The magnificent Flatiron building. Image by Manuel Romero from Pixabay

It’s like being caught in a tableau on the Great Stage of Life. You’re running, whorling, leaping, spinning, a jeté, a plié… and then the director of all of our lives claps his hands, and in a nanosecond we all have to stop, not move a muscle, scarcely breathe, until further notice. For 21 days. Or more.

And then you were at home. Somehow adrift in your own safe space. Just grateful that that was where you were on Monday of the previous week when the national lockdown was announced, with not much time to get in the supplies you needed to scrape through till what (you hope) will be the hitting of the (un)pause button again to whirr us all back into action.

I have a friend who was in hospital, just starting fearful cancer treatment. Others whose house had just been sold, while their new house is still being built, and they were caught between the two, and are in limbo until further notice. Luckily they’re not entirely without the wherewithal, but it must be unsettling nevertheless. My mate in the US has an interior design business and he’s in lockdown too, fretting about how to look after his staff, not least the guy with small kids that now weighs on my friend’s mind while he works out how he can pay them with nothing coming in.

That three-day hiatus between the announcement and the kicking in was a godsend, undoubtedly. The luckier among us could plot and plan a way through. We decided to try to stay home throughout, and did what used to be called a monthly shop, although I had long since taken to shopping on the day for whatever I’d cook that night. We can go to the shops, we know that, but being in a high-risk category (diabetic, older, survived double pneumonia) makes you want to keep away. From everyone. For their sakes and yours. And the days get ticked off.

Seven, as I write. I lope through to the front room in the morning and look out the window. Nothing. Not even a dog. Di has put our garbage bags out earlier, while I slept. But the pickers are not here this morning. The two packets of unwanted cereal we had put out, tightly wrapped, are picked up later by the refuse crew themselves. They open the bags up to see what’s inside, and put it on the truck.

My bread hero is in the kitchen, the yeasty aroma of two plump loaves fills the house. It smells like childhood and bakeries. That’s a thing you can do, to change the mood. Like changing the lighting on the theatre stage, to transport you somewhere else. You’re still there, on your seat in the theatre, but you’re not. In your head, you’re in Prague, in that subterranean cavern of a restaurant, and the waiter has just placed a half duck in front of you, roasted to crisply golden deliciousness, though served with stodgy dumplings.

We move from room to room on different evenings, to give an impression of variety. Let’s have pasta tonight and eat it in the front room. I’ll use some of those capers I found in a jar in the door of the fridge, and that half-full carton of frozen long life cream I found in the freezer when I was packing the lockdown meat last Thursday. Tomorrow night let’s braai those skilpadjies and a chop or two, and eat it under the shiny new back patio roof. The one that we had just finished putting up, and thankfully had paid for, when lockdown descended.

On Wednesday morning I defrosted a chicken for a midweek treat, and roasted it with two potatoes that were on their last legs in the crisper. Last-legs potatoes come magically back to life when you roast them in olive oil with the chicken. Normally I’d parboil the peeled potatoes, heat oil until super hot in a loaf tin in the oven, and then let them sizzle in that for an hour, but I decided using that much oil would be wasteful right now. They’d cook perfectly well with the chicken. We ate that at the kitchen table, with candles. Normally, a Wednesday sees us out at the local pizza place; the kitchen would be our mini-restaurant-for-two for the evening.

The front room is huge, because somebody a long time ago incorporated the old stoep into it to make it a third larger than it was. The houses in this town have big rooms with high ceilings. We’re humbly grateful for our good fortune; thoughts turn frequently to those with tiny homes, or none at all. On Saturday night we’ll play with the lighting and be creative with table settings and imagine it to be a restaurant we’ve gone out to, to celebrate having met each other 41 years ago this week. We’ll get the family on WhatsApp speakerphone and we can all raise a glass to that.

By day the big front room serves another purpose. Now and then I take a break from my work and stand at the front window and look out and beyond, over the roofs, over the trees, beyond the koppies and the faraway blue mountains, far far away to where other worlds lie and people unknown to us are locked down in their homes, standing at their front windows and wondering in their own minds, all the way back to me. We feel in a way that it’s just us, but it isn’t. Has anything before ever united us so much in our solitude?

The vista broadens from my front window to the town and province and out across the world as every story I read paints in a section of the lockdown canvas; every story I read in my real job sub-editing the news, analysis and opinion stories you read in Daily Maverick. You read about Covid-19 all day, every day. It works on the mind, weighs you down; and there, there at my front window, there’s an escape, where the mind can fly free.

I’ve been watching CNN’s Chris Cuomo broadcasting from his New York City basement, while his Big Bro Andrew governs the state, the latter doing all the things the nation’s leader is not doing while his kid brother wonders if he will ever emerge from his pristine urban hideyhole. Chris was diagnosed with the virus during the week, and from his lair beneath the family home he interviews Dr Sanjay Gupta about the rigors he had the night before, so violent that he chipped a tooth; then the screen splits into three as he interviews the husband of a doctor who contracted the virus one day and died of it only a week later. Next day he’s telling Anderson Cooper and Dr Gupta that he’s eating like he did when he and his wife were courting. That the nights are the worst, that’s when The Beast comes down, as the virus is being called now. How he saw, clear as day, his father sitting at the foot of his bed. Him, a tough CNN reporter, admitting to that. How this is unlike anything he’s experienced before and that, no matter how sick as he feels, his great dread is that pneumonia might follow.

At my window, I try to push the fear of that away, cast my mind to February 2013 and buying breakfast bagels every morning from the deli on 45th street, between 6th and 7th Avenues, after that first morning’s breakfast at Connolly’s, the Irish pub nearby. The best fried eggs, the best bacon, the best chips in the world, and a little round each of black pudding and white pudding (blood, the first, and suet).

And hotdogs from the carts on every corner. That’s how we ate in Manhattan. Fancy-schmancy restaurants you can get in Cape Town, London, anywhere; we wanted the real street-level New York. Where will all of Manhattan’s hotdog vendors be now? Are their jaunty carts parked in mournful misery while New Yorkers make their hotdogs indoors? Off Madison Park opposite the exquisite Flatiron building is Eataly, the great food emporium where I saw more varieties of garlic and mushrooms than I knew existed, and which must surely be closed now. So I google. Nope, they’re open. And look, they’re selling wine. Maybe NYC would be a better place to be despite the calamity that has befallen the city. But still, you know best I’m sure, Bheki Cele.

From my front window I’m leaving Eataly Flatiron with a bag of exotic garlic and hopping in a yellow cab saying take me to JFK, where I board a plane. Back in the lounge at home late one night I had typed “drone virus” into the search field and up had popped drone videos of Chicago, NYC, Paris, London. Cafés are shut, bistro tables nowhere to be seen. The Champs-Élysées is eerily quiet. I imagine there’s Lucy Jordan down there, in a sports car, with the warm wind in her hair. But she wasn’t even there then, only a dream Marianne Faithfull once had and Lucy never realised. Suddenly I’m at the Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre and I stand at the top of the broad, deep stairs and try to spot the corner café where we had the steak et frites, and the tiny park where we sat that morning with our croque-monsieurs while Parisians strolled by.

Back on the TV, there’s Sky News doing a report on Bergamo, Italy. Stuart Ramsay is bringing us all upright, just in case any of us had let our imaginations run away with us, to Manhattan, or Paris. Now to Bergamo, where mayor Giorgio Gori drives around in his tiny red Fiat as Ramsay divulges that locals in this, “the most hit city in the most hit province in the most hit country in Europe” (by the virus), locals first bought a few things when shopping but now pile the trolleys high so that they don’t have to do it again too soon. My conviction to do it that way is refuelled.

Watch the video:

Where to escape to when the bell jar descends again? Back at my front window, I’m suddenly glad that this is our stage, right here, a limited one and a peaceful one, for us to play on while an entire planet deals with this terrible thing. That we are lucky not to be in Paris, in New York or in Bergamo. That this small reality, with those houses across the road, our friends nearby, if out of reach for now, and plenty in the cupboards and fridge to see us through for the time being, will do just fine. That we’re the lucky ones. And that here’s a weekend. Maybe avoid the TV news for a day or two. Light a fire. Braai a pork rasher or two, phone the family. It sure beats the realities in Bergamo and NYC. DM

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