It turns out that our host in Ohio is probably alien, but not alien like me, genuinely alien. Not only does his blood clot like no other normal living being but a variety of CT scans have revealed that his brain waves lack harmony. Given that his wife is a lovely musicologist who chairs a department of music, this is a little ironic. Apparently a specialist simply concluded that this has never been witnessed before and therefore he is not human.
I can quite believe this. Our host’s knowledge on every subject is encyclopedic. It is like being driven over by one of those great rollers that flatten tarmac.
I cannot recall in what language our welcoming Martini glasses were proffered, Hindi, Italian, French, Native American? All I can say is that it resonated well after the final miles of animated count down. Equally welcome, was the sight of a huge baking pan swimming with onions, squash and ginger – heralding things to come.
Standing with the debris of the journey at our feet and glasses in our hands, I notice with satisfaction that the kitchen has already taken on its Thanksgiving role as stage set. The hob pulses at its heart. Kitchen trolleys have been wheeled out and sit in a state of readiness for pie preparations and to grind the meat for the Gatton Tartierre or The Black Hole of Pastry. Characters begin to enter, faces flushed from the cold, like actors congregating for a play.
First comes our gracious hostess, burdened by brown paper bags from Whole Foods and fantastic tales from the world of academia and the microcosm of her music department. Hot off the press is the news that her assistant has confessed to being held up at gun point by her boyfriend. A police search of the assistant’s apartment has revealed guns of all shapes and sizes, including a couple of sawn off shot guns. Last year she had appeared in much the same way, with a set of Whole Food bags but exhausted from a stint of filling out Consensual Relationship Management papers for her randy band master and a couple of nubile students who had taken his fancy. Her tone on the matter had been less than musical.
Next enters a guest complete with daughter and a large take-away pizza. I foolishly enquire what she is up to in Cleveland which I feel is just askew of asking what she does. She is the director of the Contemporary Art Museum and has just commissioned a new building. She later takes me to see the model, a mixture of origami and stone of Mecca that puts MOMA’s recent wing in the shadow. Along comes another visitor bearing several cases of Belgian beer, I have wised up and discuss the American diners in Rockville and Bethesda and steer clear of his profession.
The place is wallowing in people with too much talent and too much knowledge. It is very bad for the ego. Whilst our house is littered in spelling tests and sticky tape, this house is littered with fascinating reading matter, chiefly about Paris at the turn of the century: art, artists, music, composers, dance and fashion. Our musicologist has just finished a book on the influence of the Ballet Russes on haute couture, which is now on sale in London at the V&S’s exhibition on the subject. The shelves in the children’s bedroom read Goddess – the classical mode, Poiret le magnifique, Coco and Dior, Isadora, La Belle époque, giving Julia Farr all the allure of Desperate Housewives. It is tempting and tantalizing and utterly beyond my now shredded attention span.
Despite this dense academic mire, the Thanksgiving ritual plays out in all humanity with the inclusion of a dose of exotic and predominantly friendly guests. The only exception to the script was our failure to make it out to the “farm” to slay the Brussels sprouts. Jet lag was our undoing but Alexander made up for it by finding a Bavarian ceremonial sword and a Philips screwdriver with which we severed the sprouts from their moorings in the back garden.
On the night before Thanksgiving the girls took up their habitual positions, perched on chairs in white cotton nightdresses, chopping potatoes and turnips with large knives from Dehillerin in Paris.
On the day itself the tried and trusted recipes held fast, and minutely follow the precepts of our host’s Native American grandmother. A copy of Bon Appetit languished on a radiator for the cat to sit on but fortunately no new fangled ideas had been unleashed.
And now it is time for A Brief Ode to Cleveland.
There are some, if few, that mock our annual pilgrimage North to Ohio. I can only say that this is a mistake. Cleveland is vibrant and happening and it lacks complacency.
The modern architecture beats anything in Washington: see the Frank Gehry buildings, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the beautiful and well endowed new wing of the Musuem of Art where the black and white marble stripes recall Orvieto or San Miniato in cubic form. The new Museum of Contemporary Art , only two years away from construction and completion by Foreign Office Architects of London, will be next. It will be moving from its current location, incorporated in the immense Cleveland Play House – incidentally designed by Philip Johnson, to form part of the nexus of museums, faculty buildings and botanical gardens of uptown Cleveland.
On a domestic level the architecture of historic Shaker Heights beats anything in Potomac. If you happen to suffer from an urge to construct a McMansion visit Cleveland for some decent inspiration. Even the quiet strip of shops in the local Victorian-style high street holds far more charm than anything we have outside of Georgetown. But it is not only charm; there is something more fundamental than that. The replica architecture has an authenticity and gravity typically lacking in most copies of anything. It embodies the grit, enterprise and heart-felt endeavour of a community bent on setting up a cultural centre on the northern frontier. There is no goof, it holds intrinsic merit and can be beheld, absorbed and appreciated seriously. I love it.
We leave spiritually humbled but abundantly fed.
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