by Cari Borja
Happiness is the longing for repetition.
—Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
How do we measure time? From those meaningful memories of the rituals (or repetitions) that punctuate our lives, to those more novel experiences that may over time become a ritual—we are not only what we celebrate but how.
In a recent New York Times article, economist Arthur C. Brooks basically asks us, “Are you a Coward or a Coolidge?” Essentially, what is your state of mind during the holiday season?
For me, I do love things—meaningful things that have stories, memories and personal significance attached to them—glass hearts, amaryllis, jewels and sparkly, velvety wearable things. But it is the experiences that I remember, especially during the holidays … and I love to have them and give them. These are the things that both structure the holiday season and a state of mind; but it is the balance of those memorable moments that we do over and over again, with the desire for something new, that is to me essential in bringing in the New Year. Let’s take those rituals of doing and gathering that show a passing of time, and combine them with moments of spontaneity and newness. Here is my list of those things I love to eat, drink and watch—not the things themselves, so much as the experience—a list much like Shonogan’s “things that quicken the heart” in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983).
For the first time I know what it is to eat … I get frantically hungry, and the food I eat gives me a lingering pleasure. I never ate before in this deep carnal way…I want to bite into life and to be torn by it.—Anais Nin.
Gathering with friends during the holidays highlights the passing of a year. We talk of all that we have done, and all that we will do in the coming year. The atmosphere of these spaces in which we meet changes—with cork wreathes and trees, snowflakes and lighting that create depth, add dimension; but it is also the people, the energy, the spark. In the East Bay a favorite tradition is Chez Panisse, not just for me, but for many. A few blocks away there’s Comal, Revival and the Jazz Caffé. On 4th Street, Zut!, Cafe Rouge and Bette’s. Pizzaiolo and Oliveto for breakfast, Boot and Shoe for lunch, Penrose for dinner, and Camino especially for their beautiful book-signing dinners, especially around now. Last night at Cal Peternell’s 12 Recipes signing, sparklers even lit the room in celebration.
For a more intimate retreat, I go to Port Costa and eat at the bar of Bull Valley Roadhouse, the pizza bar at A16 Rockridge, the sushi bar at Iyesare on 4th. There’s something about sitting next to someone at a bar, like Nopa, that is the epitome of closeness and warmth. Other favorites during the holidays are The House and Tosca in North Beach, and RN74 for people watching, Zuni, Alta, Trou Normand, and most recently Monsieur Benjamin. When I want the best ramen in town I meet up with a friend and lose myself at Ramen Shop in Oakland with a mezcal sour.
These are the places I go to eat, but I also love to cook (especially with my kids)—and for me it’s about gathering those people I love around me, and sharing a meal with them … crostini, chicories salads, my grandmother’s ricotta gnocchi, Harry’s Bar risottos and bolognese with chicken liver are the tradition, but this year for New Year’s I want to make Joyce Maynard’s Labor Day Apple Pie that she brought to one of my salon dinners.
Great wines taste like they come from somewhere … you can’t fake somewhere-ness, you can’t manufacture it. But when you taste a wine that has it, you know.—Matt Kramer
Coffee, wine and cocktails are all like madeleines to me. It’s not that food doesn’t hold that power too, but usually I meet up with friends (especially during the holidays) for drinks, and the initial drinking begins on an empty stomach. There is something about the purity of that first sip, that can instantly bring you back to a moment or a somewhere-ness. Maybe not the somewhere-ness of the terroir from which a wine comes, but the particular place of where and with whom you have had that drink in the past. This is it’s power, and why I love it—the ability to simultaneously conjure a memory and create a new one that is experiential, contextual, meaningful.
My mornings begin at Sack’s, Local 123, Elmwood Cafe or sometimes Philz to work; La Strada or Cafe Milano on the edge of the University campus hold a place dear to me—nostalgic, memorable; Pizzaiolo, Boot and Shoe or Bartavelle to meet friends or do interviews. Sometimes I even cross the bridge for variety—to Four Barrel, Sight Glass, Ritual. This is where I begin, and then a couple of days a week I may have the luxury of ending a day with a glass of wine before pick-up duty calls. RN74 for wine—Meursault and Chablis by the glass. In the East Bay I go to Plum Bar, Prizefighter for “Carter Beats the Devil,” Hotsy Totsy, The Alley, or even Cesar, where I spent most evenings as a grad student drinking sangria and writing my dissertation. In San Francisco there’s 15 Romolo, the bar at Tosca, or Alta all for different moods, and depending on who I’m with. There are dozens that I’ve gone to, but these are the ones I come back to again and again—the constants in my life; and these are the places where I meet friends during the holiday season. I like to see how December marks a change.
My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected on to a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.—Robert Bresson
Movies are magical. Whether alone, or with friends and family, they are a shared experience. I love asking people about their iconic movie moments, especially during the holidays. It’s a way to connect with people’s pasts, and their present. My Decembers are always mixed with the standards like A Christmas Story (1983), Raymond Brigg’s The Snowman (1982), Bass and Rankin’s A Year Without A Santa Claus (1974), Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and Holiday Inn (1942). These we watch together as a family every year, but I sneak in late night screenings of Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones Diary (2001), Chris Columbus’s Adventures in Babysitting (1987), Richard Curtis’s Love Actually (2003), Wings of Desire (1988) … and more recently Die Hard (1988).
My friend Stu Maschwitz, a film lover and -maker, and co-founder of The Orphanage, always talked about Die Hard as the perfect holiday film. And it is. A few days ago he screened it for some friends and tweeted about it the following morning—“Die Hard changed how movies were shot, and certainly how they were pitched … the writing is simply perfect. Structurally it’s a Swiss watch. Fun semiotics, great character throughlines. And in both Die Hard and A Charlie Brown Christmas , the antagonists demonstrate their lack of understanding Christmas by playing Beethoven.”
I happened to ask Stu that very day, “Why Die Hard?” and he said, “It uses Christmas as a symbol of family … about a family trying to get back together. Throughout the movie, the bad guys assail Christmas, whether it’s the Japanese businessman playing Beethoven instead of Christmas music at the ‘Christmas’ party (that’s really celebrating a merger), or Hans and company mowing down Christmas trees with machine guns. John McClane spends much of the film flummoxed by ‘California.’ But by the end of the movie he’s defeated the terrorists and destroyed the building that was a symbol of his marital troubles, defeating the baddies by taping a gun to his back with Christmas tape, and made it ‘snow’ (negotiable-bearer bonds) on Christmas, in California. Once you watch the movie through this lens, it just keeps revealing new semiotics to you.” And this is the significance of repetition and our longing for it—to find wonder again and again in a tradition.
These people, places and things—the experiences of the things that quicken the heart—are the thread that holds one’s life together. The key is that balance between tradition and newness, ritual and spontaneity that inspires and moves us forward, especially as we enter a new year. Here’s to finding that balance.
One should always be drunk. That’s all that matters … But with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you chose. But get drunk.
For more on Stu Maschwitz, check out his blog, and his book The DV Rebel’s Guide: An All Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap.
Cari Borja began her career as a clothing designer while earning her PhD in anthropology and film at UC Berkeley in 2001. Since then she has created collections inspired by film and food, and has become known for her salon dinners in her Berkeley atelier, where she weaves together people from different disciplines and professions. Cari is currently writing a book of interviews with dinner guests featured on her FashionFilmFood blog, and she also consults with start-ups and other companies curating dinners and connecting people. Click here to read about Cari’s salon dinners in Berkeley.