the Penn Club needs you

I received the email below this afternoon and read it with a heavy heart.

Damn this COVID! Only five minutes before receiving the said email, I was standing in my colleague’s office talking about COVID.

“What if it never goes away?” I said.

Based in the heart of central London, The Penn Club has been one of my favourite small hotels for many years. On occasion my mother stayed there, and I’ve recommended it to friends. The location is perfect: a 15-minute walk from St. Pancras train station and in the heart of leafy, beautiful Bloomsbury. Oh, and steps away from the eminent British Museum and my favourite bookshop-cakeshop.


I’ve had some memorable moments during my stays there:

The morning I was awakened by a rustling sound at 5 a.m. I went to my window, looked down onto the street below and saw the most magnificent fox sauntering down the sidewalk. A fox! In central London!  He had been rummaging in one of the rubbish bins.

Reuniting with my two childhood friends, Kathy and Claire, in December 2018;

Meeting up with an ex-boyfriend there (oh, there were so many ex-boyfriends …);

Eating English breakfast in the communal dining room and having really pleasant conversations with total strangers sitting at the same table (breakfast is included in the price of the room);

Returning to the hotel after walking 7 to 8 hours all over London and relaxing in the quiet Cadbury Room with the daily newspapers and many books at my disposal. It’s a warm and welcoming place, not swish or posh, but cozy and tranquil.

Why is it called the Cadbury Room? Because the hotel fosters a spirit of fellowship in accordance with its Quaker values. Although not a formal Quaker institution, they maintain traditional Quaker values of integrity, equality, tolerance and simplicity, honesty and fairness in all of their dealings.

The great English confectionary companies: Cadbury of Birmingham, Rowntree’s of York, and Fry’s of Bristol were all rooted in Quakerism in their early years.

I go to London every summer for the simple reason that London is my favourite city. I wasn’t planning on going this year (because of COVID), but maybe I’ll change my mind. (Update: no I cannot, the U.K. has just imposed a 14-day quarantine on all travellers to Britain from France.)

Here’s their website. If you do go to London at some time, please stay here before it’s too late.

Welcome to The Penn Club

And here’s the email I received today:

Dear Friends of The Penn Club,

We hope that you and your families are well at this time of crisis. With a spirit of openness and transparency, we are writing to update you on how things stand at the Club in these extraordinary Covid-19 times and to ask for your help.

In this our Centenary Year it has been a particularly hard blow to experience, since March, the most severe imaginable drop off in business. We had hoped once we were able to reopen after our enforced closure that life at the Club would slowly return to normal. However, since reopening, room occupancy is very suppressed with July falling from an average occupancy in recent years of 91% to 3%. The outlook for the next few months is concerning, with pre-bookings not getting above 7%. Apart from a handful of visitors following on from the key NHS health workers we hosted over the worst-hit months, bookings are unsustainably low.

If we find that we are unable to bounce back financially in the coming months, we may, as a last resort, be (and are) forced to consider closing. Should this happen the Board is resolved to retain enough money to discharge liabilities (including towards our wonderful staff team) in a responsible and fair way so we cannot completely run down our reserves to zero.

We need your help. First, if you can possibly do so, please come to stay again. Our safe buildings are being meticulously cleaned and maintained to the highest standards and our health and safety processes can be relied upon. Feedback we have been receiving from visitors who have been to the Club since we reopened is that travelling to and being at the Club feels very safe.

London is uniquely quiet and fascinatingly attractive. Most Museums, Galleries, cafes, restaurants and other attractions are open and welcoming. Trains are not busy and even in London the tube and buses are relatively quiet. The wearing of mandatory face masks on public transport means infection risk is very low. Our location within walking distance of Euston, Kings Cross and St Pancras means many arriving into these termini can avoid public transport if they wish.

The Chancellor recently announced a cut on VAT for hospitality businesses. We have passed the full saving on to our guests. The reduction makes quite a bit of difference to our room rates.

Second, we need you to spread the word about the Club to your network of relatives and friends. We welcome all to our safe haven, renowned as home for one who is away from home. We are considering setting aside a portion of rooms for longer stay guests similar to how the Club operated in the past. Do you know someone who needs a place to stay to avoid commuting every day? If you have any bright ideas of what we could be doing to bring in additional income and encourage more visitors, do please get in touch.

Please be assured that we have not lost heart and that The Penn Club Board and management team are steadfastly working to survive this crisis and emerge into our new century. We have much valued your support in the past and realise how much the Club means to so many people. We hope that together we can continue to build and strengthen our shared home from home in Bloomsbury.

In Friendship

Robert Gibson and Fergal Crossan
Deputy Chair on behalf of the General Manager
The Penn Club Board

Here’s a blog post written in August a few years ago about Bloomsbury, The Penn Club and my favourite bookshop-cakeshop:

kick the bums out, all of them!

I just read this heart-wrenching, eloquent opinion piece in Sunday’s The Guardian.

Beirut resident, Lina Mounzer, is seething mad.

As she rightly says, these people are referred to as the “ruling elite”. There’s nothing elite about them. They’re the dregs of humanity. What did they do, in the past, with the millions and millions of dollars of aid to help the people of Lebanon? Those in the Ministry of Finance and elsewhere siphoned off millions for themselves, stashing their booty in offshore bank accounts.

The astonishing exploit of President Macron

Flying in on his glistening white jet with the words République Française emblazoned on its sides, President Macron arrived in shell-shocked Beirut yesterday like Jesus the Saviour riding on a white horse.

Then I saw the heavens opened, and behold a white horse! And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True. He administers justice and wages war righteously. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many royal crowns.

Revelation 19:11-16, The Bible, New King James version

Here in France, we watched our TV screens with stupefaction as the President of France walked through the crowded streets like the Messiah, surrounded by weeping, clapping, lamenting and visibly distressed citizens.

“Please help us!”

“Don’t give money to our politicians, they’ll keep it for themselves!”

“They’re all criminals!”

“Macron for President of Lebanon!”


“The Lebanese people are suffering an emotional, moral and financial crisis,” Macron proclaimed, “And we are going to help them.”

#EmmanuelMacron showing 10x more leadership than ALL Lebanese politicians combined.

Nothing could underscore more the ineptitude of the government as 2,750 tons of highly explosive ammonium nitrate was left to languish in a ramshackle portside warehouse for years despite repeated warnings.

The oddity of yesterday’s situation was the glaring absence of Lebanon’s leaders. Where were they? Too scared to show their faces for fear of being physically attacked by their own people or even killed, the cowards beat a hasty retreat to hide in their luxurious, air-conditioned homes and offices. How odd to see a foreign leader mingling with and comforting these beleaguered people when, in a real world and not this dysfunctional one, it should be the Lebanese leaders themselves.

For decades, the tiny country of Lebanon has been ruled by a mafia-like gang of thugs and thieves. The administration of the country has been compared to a feudal system, the lords being family clans, former war lords and militia leaders who provide housing, jobs and services to vassals in exchange for protection, subservience and allegiance.

They are, in truth, criminals who should be tried in a court of law and thrown in prison. For too long the country has been mired in government corruption, patronage and favouritism. Untold millions have been stolen from the public coffers by these thieving factions/gangsters/criminal families.

Home to 18 different religious confessions, ethnic groups and tribes, the President must be a Maronite Christian, whereas the Parliament Speaker and Prime Minister must be a Shi’a and Sunni Muslim respectively. In addition, 64 of the 128 seats in parliament are reserved for Muslims, while the other half is for Christians.

The Shiite coalition is composed of Hezbollah and the Amal Movement. Both are Iran-backed and trace their roots to the civil war era.

Wearing a black tie in mourning, Macron promised angry Lebanese crowds that French aid would not go into “corrupt hands”. “I want a new political pact and I’ll come back in September,” he said, adding “Without deep structural reforms, there will be no financial aid.”

But back in France, the French were not overly-impressed with Macron’s humanitarian mission. In the office this morning, the topic was discussed around my espresso machine. My French colleagues grumbled. (The French are always grumbling.)

“We have enough problems here in France; Macron should look after his own people.”

“It’s up to the Lebanese people to force change, not an outsider. Otherwise, that’s just called meddling.”

Quelle arrogance ! Have you noticed how arrogant all of our presidents are here in France? What right does he have to go to a foreign country and lay down the law? Lebanon is no longer a French protectorate. I mean, seriously, with what legitimacy is he able to do that?”

(In 1923 and after the Partition of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations mandated that Lebanon would be administered by France. Lebanon officially became part of the French colonial empire. The French mandate lasted until 1943, when two independent countries emerged, Syria and Lebanon. French troops eventually left Syria and Lebanon in 1946.)

In Beirut a petition was signed with 60,000 signatures: that Lebanon returns to French mandate for ten years.

Whatever Macron’s strategy, it took a lot of courage for him to do what he did, and I applaud his efforts.


As I later wrote in the Comments section, here’s the primary reason of his visit:

One thing is sure: the country can no longer continue down this path. Most importantly, if it wants to receive financial aid from outside, it needs to clean up its act. That was the main reason of Macron’s visit. Serving as spokesperson for international organizations such as the IMF, the World Bank and the EU who are behind him (and poised to send billions to Lebanon following this recent crisis), the president went to Beirut to reflect the exasperation of the international community. No more subsidies until you provide us with complete transparency! There are conditions attached to receiving aid, and it will be outsiders now, not the crooks from within, who will monitor and distribute the funds. Don’t forget that before becoming Prez, Macron was a banker.

the continuing tragedy of Lebanon

I work with a dozen different nationalities in my office. It is a truly multicultural, trans-national environment that I go to five days a week. Four of my friends are Lebanese. They sit in the open space around me. This afternoon it was quiet, everyone working, each absorbed in his or her task. Suddenly, cell phones rang and people spoke Arabic, their voices raised and worried. My Lebanese colleagues rose in one movement and moved into the corridor to talk amongst themselves and make phone calls to their families and friends back home.

A terrible thing happened this afternoon. If you have Lebanese friends, colleagues, clients, neighbors (or your local hairdresser, shop or restaurant owner) reach out to them. Already, the country is on its knees what with COVID, corruption, the economic collapse and the influx of millions of refugees over the past decade.

Is it any wonder that one of the largest diaspora populations in the world is Lebanese? The majority of them are of the Christian faith.

Lebanon remains the country hosting the largest number of refugees per capita, with Government estimate of 1.5 million Syrian refugees, some 20,000 refugees of other origins, in addition to the Palestine refugees under UNRWA’s mandate. Lebanon has contributed immensely to the response by giving refugees equal access to the public schools, hospitals and social development centres. (source UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency)


Quintessence house tours in France, London and all over

This is what I do to relax, usually on Sunday afternoons, usually with a glass of chilled rosé and a salad. This is what I’m doing right now, as a matter of fact. I think I’ve mentioned previously that I’m kind of hooked on YouTube. I enjoy watching these house tours, some in the city, some in the country.

This morning I walked to my local market and bought a beautiful head of lettuce, some ripe tomatoes and a bunch of other produce. At home I whizzed up an anchovy-garlic-honey mustard-cider vinegar-olive oil vinaigrette in my mixer. Then I threw together a simple lettuce tomato salad and poured myself a glass of chilled rosé. The weather is perfection at the moment: cool and sunny.

The definition of Quintessence is “the most perfect or typical example of quality or class.” (I looked it up.) I find these house tours super interesting. With her natural curiosity and questions, Susanna brings freshness and candor to the table. Here are two in London and in Paris, but if you look on YouTube – and if you like this sort of thing – there are lots more in the USA and elsewhere.



the best banana bread

What’s great about this BB is that it’s super light. I made it tonight after work because tomorrow – for one day only, thank goodness – the temperature will shoot up to 39°C (102°F) and I won’t want to turn the oven on.

Up until now, we’ve been blessed with the most gorgeous weather: warm and sunny with a constant cool breeze.

I reduced the amount of sugar, using half a cup instead of three-quarters. I also used olive oil instead of butter. The chopped walnuts are optional, but make a nice addition. If you don’t have a proper bread tin, make muffins in a muffin tin. That’s what I did.


3 very ripe medium bananas ( 270 gm) ¾ cup dark brown sugar, 90 gm 2 Tbsp. honey , apple butter or maple syrup(25 ml) 2 eggs ½ cup melted butter or extra virgin olive oil ( not too spicy) (125 ml) 1 tsp. vanilla extract ( 5ml) 1 1/3 cup unbleached all purpose flour (325 ml) 1 tsp. baking powder (5 ml) ½ tsp. baking soda (2 ml) ½ tsp. salt (2 ml) 2 tsp. ground cinnamon (10 ml) Chopped walnuts, optional Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste Preheat oven to 350 F In a large bowl, mash bananas, leaving them chunky with brown sugar, eggs, honey, oil or melted butter and vanilla. Sift dry ingredients into a bowl and add to banana mixture, blending with masher again just until flour is absorbed . Add chopped walnuts, if desired . Makes 3 small loaves 3 ¼ x 6“ each 2“ deep Bake 350 F for 20 – 25 minutes until tester comes out dry and tops are springy.

Here’s Christine, the author of this recipe. I think she lives in France. She used super-ripe bananas, I used just ordinary ones.

pesto presto, a simple summertime salad, and chilled rosé

I was about to dig into this salad an hour ago when I said “Dang! That’s one beautiful looking plate …” and I photographed it before eating.

It’s important to use quality ingredients: the best olive oil, the best mozza, the best summer tomatoes, sea salt, etc. This salad takes only 5 minutes to make.

Fresh basil is in abundance during the summer. I buy a plant because it lasts longer and I can pick off the leaves when I need them. Rinse them, pat them dry on paper towels and just tear them and throw onto the salad.

So what to do with fresh basil? Why, make pesto, of course! This too takes only 5 minutes. You need a small food chopper or a mortar and pestle. Here’s my Moulinex hachoir that I use all the time, it cost me 45 euros.

I didn’t make enough, I should have doubled or tripled this. What’s great about making your own is you can make it extra garlicky, use parmesan or pecorino (or both) and walnuts instead of pine nuts. I’ve never been a fan of pine nuts.

Here’s what I had for dinner yesterday; simple and tasty on a summery Saturday night. I sprinkled on more grated parmesan cheese. If you can, buy a chunk of real parmesan or pecorino and hand grate it.

Dang, that wine was good. Wines from the Loire Valley are my favorite.

For the pesto recipe, click on this link below called ‘Two Pesto Variations’ that I posted in May 2018. Bon appétit !

AOC’s epic speech, and what many men don’t know

I was blown away by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezs recent speech excoriating Republican representative of Florida, Ted Yoho, after he had verbally assaulted her on the steps of the U.S. Capital. It’s in all the European papers: on the front page of Le Monde (her searing words translated into French), The Guardian and elsewhere. It blows me away that some mature men need to be (publicly) scolded by a 30 year old, as if they were recalcitrant children.

And did you hear Yoho’s feeble apology? After denying that he accosted AOC, he went on to say “I cannot apologize for my passion or for loving my God, my family and my country.” Huh?

Here’s what a lot of men don’t know: women of all ages experience harassment and incivilities from men all the time, mostly from complete strangers as we go about our business in our daily lives. As AOC said – “this is nothing new”. But why don’t men know about it? Because we don’t mention it. Why bother? It’s so widespread and commonplace, most of us prefer to just carry on and put the hurtful words behind us (and not take it personally.)

As I sit here at my kitchen table editing my soon-to-be-published memoir, it seemed fitting to print an excerpt, here on my blog, of my first assault at the age of 18, my first physical assault, that is. As for verbal assaults, sexual innuendos, pestering and wolf whistles, all that started at around the age of 13.

To be frank, I wasn’t even going to put this in my book, I stuck it in at the last minute. I had viewed this type of behavior as so ordinary, it hadn’t occurred to me that it might be noteworthy or interesting. But since the MeToo movement and the unfurling of thousands and thousands of sexual misconduct stories, I figured “What the heck, I’ll throw my story onto the heap.”

But I want MEN to read this blog post (as well as women.) I want them to know what goes on in the daily lives of their daughters, sisters, wives, aunts, mothers, etc. Please pass this post on to men who you know and love. MEN (good men, not the creepy kind): we need you to step in, stand up and speak out. We need your support!

I was eighteen and seeking a summer job. My mother told me that her best friend, Anne, who ran her own public relations agency, had a client who was hiring for the summer season.

“What does this client do?” I asked.

“It’s a husband and wife team who own a lakeside resort in Algonquin Park.”

Two hundred miles north of Toronto, Algonquin Park is a vast swathe of pristine forest, lakes and rivers dotted with campsites, cabins and inns. The husband and wife, according to Anne, were upstanding members of the Toronto community and well-known in the hotel and lodging industry. She set up a meeting. A few days later I made my way to their house, not far from ours, and knocked on the door. The man who opened it – beefy and silver-haired with bushy eyebrows – looked to be in his mid-sixties. He introduced himself as the resort owner.

“Come in, come in,” he said, ushering me inside and guiding me down the hallway with a hand on my shoulder. “My wife is up at the lodge, opening it for the season. I was just making coffee, would you like some?”

It happened fast, one minute we were sitting on the couch chatting, the next second he lunged at me. With sheer brute force he shoved me backwards onto the couch, slithered on top of me and pinned me down. Then he groped my body all over while trying to kiss me. I guess I weighed around 100 pounds compared to his undoubtedly 200 plus. Utterly repulsed by the grotesque thing on top of me – minutes ago a cordial man, now a grunting beast – and all the while struggling and yelling at him to get off, I somehow managed, in a surge of adrenalin-fuelled superhuman strength, to push him off of me and onto the floor. Then I ran out of there.

“How did the meeting go, dear?” my mother asked when I got home.

“OK,” I said, grabbing a bag of jellybeans and heading to the living room to flop onto the sofa, cuddle with the cat and watch The Mary Tyler Moore Show on TV.

I had just been violated, but it didn’t occur to me to tell anyone. For weeks afterward, I’d have bruises all over my body. I was confused and conflicted, and didn’t have a word to articulate what had just happened to me. The word is ‘assault.’

There was a muteness back then, and little awareness. We had never had a conversation about rape or harassment or how to react in the face of physical male aggression. There was no handbook or instruction manual, so we had to deal with things as best we could on our own. I was too naive to understand that I had been preyed upon, and did not know the words that are common parlance today: abuse. domination. molestation. sexual violence. impunity. victim shaming.

The summer before, on a night train down to Marseilles, I was stretched across four seats in an unoccupied compartment, sleeping. I was on my way to Aix-en-Provence to learn French at the summer school there. In the middle of the night, as the train clacked and rumbled through shuttered towns and across dark swathes of countryside, I awoke to find a well-dressed man sitting upright on the seat directly across from me. He must have crept into the compartment while I was sleeping. In the semidarkness I discerned some jerky movements going on. It took me a few seconds to comprehend his actions: while watching me stretched out and sleeping, he was pleasuring himself. Enraged, I sat bolt upright and screamed at him to get out. If he didn’t, I threatened, I’d pull the emergency alarm. He fled the compartment. I was seventeen years old. I never told my parents.

I never told them either about the tree-men, the Arabs who gathered at dusk in the olive trees that ringed the women’s residence hall on the Aix-en-Provence university campus. It was the oddest, most unforgettable sight. Climbing the tree trunks like monkeys, they’d perch on the higher boughs, intent on spying on us before we lowered the shutters at nightfall. My roommate was an older girl from Illinois. One evening we stood stock-still in the half-light of our room, watching them through the window.

“But what on earth are they doing?” I said, my voice betraying the naivety of my teenage self.

“They come to look at us,” she said.

“Us? You and me?”

“All of us. All of the women in this building.”

The next night we were startled by screams coming from the communal bathroom at the end of the corridor. All the women on my floor, myself included, tore down the hall to find one of us wrapped in a large towel and standing outside a shower stall. She was semi-hysterical, her hair sopping wet and still shampooed. Blobs of lather fell onto her shuddering shoulders.

“What happened?” we cried in one voice, instinctively forming a protective circle around her.

She had been taking a shower, she told us, when one of the Arab men strolled in.

“Just like that?”

“Just like that,” she said, shaking with fright.

“And what did he do?”

“He stood outside the shower door and watched me through the glass.”

But what was equally revolting was the reaction of the French administrators who laughed in our faces. A group of us marched over to the main office to complain, not only about the presence of the men on the premises, but the overall absence of security. We feel unprotected, we told them. They just laughed, or rather sneered, as if we were the foreign intrusion, and not the tree-men.

So why did I never mention these transgressions to my parents? Why did I, and most women back then, keep quiet?

Because it was the 1970s, and that’s what it was like back then.

Because it was becoming clear to me that the life of a female is full of peril, the peril being predatory men. And navigating such a life was like crossing a grassy field studded with land mines.

Because I loved my mother and father, and didn’t want to upset them.

Because I intuited that women have a price to pay, just for being women.

Because it was a given, the way of the world. Pestering, molestation, assault, as if our bodies were public property; a violation so trivialized and normalized back then (joked about, even) that it wasn’t worth mentioning. And so we dealt with it alone, while protecting both the perpetrator and our parents.



Here’s yesterday’s front page of Le Monde. If you scroll down, you’ll hear a portion of AOC’s speech with French subtitles. This is important because male chauvinism, abusive behavior towards women and anti-feminism is rife in France. French people need to hear this. Only recently, President Macron nominated a man to be Minister of the Interior. His name is Gérald Darmanin and he’s been accused of rape. But Macron protects him and, prior to any investigation, goes so far as portraying him as the victim.



Paris by night (with the kids)

The weather here is perfection: blue sky, abundant sunshine, cool breeze and not too hot. Last night the kids and I went out at 9:30 pm to the amusement park in the Tuileries Gardens. To get there, we strolled down the rue de Rivoli from Place de la Concorde in the gathering dusk. Note the darkening colors of the sky from lilac blue tinged with orange to midnight blue.

This is the giant ferris wheel called La Grande Roue. From the top, you can see all of Paris.

Empty. Because of COVID-19, very few tourists. No Americans. All businesses in the tourist and hospitality industry are suffering. Our very capable government is pumping billions into the economy in an attempt to keep everything afloat. I have complete confidence in President Macron’s exceptional measures and policies.

Here’s the west wing of the Louvre which overlooks the Tuileries Gardens. Tuileries comes from the word, tuile, which means ’tile’. Since the 13th century and before Queen Catherine de Medici moved into the Louvre palace in 1559, the area had been occupied by tile-making factories.

We left the amusement park at around 11:30 and strolled up the rue de Rivoli towards the Place de la Concorde. It was a perfect warm midsummer night. I loved this illuminated tuk-tuk.

We had every intention of jumping on the metro at Concorde but, as I said, the night was beautiful, so we decided to walk to the Champs-Elysées. I also wanted to show my young companions where I used to work. Taking the road called rue du Boissy d’Anglas which runs off the Place de la Concorde and alongside the Hôtel Crillon on one side and the American Embassy on the other, I took them to number 9 which is where I used to work in an international boutique law firm.

“I met and made a lot of friends here,” I told them, referring to my Swedish friend and 4 British friends. But no French friends. I have very few.

Then we strolled back to the Place de la Concorde and the American Embassy (cops everywhere, so we felt safe) and headed west along the avenue Gabriel. Suddenly it got very dark and the street lights were dim. On our left was a dark leafy park, on our right policeman with rifles standing guard in sentry boxes. Rows of paddy wagons with Gendarmerie emblazoned on the side were lined along the avenue Gabriel. Why? Because we were passing the back garden of the Elysee: the offices and apartments of the President. The kids were impressed.

“You mean President Macron lives here?!?” they said. Yes, I said before explaining that the Elysee Palace is the official residence and workplace of the President of the French Republic. I don’t know why the road was so dark, but it was. Of course our every move was scrutinized, but I suppose that a woman out walking with two kids didn’t seem threatening. Although one might wonder why we were out so late …

We came out onto avenue Matignon which leads to the Champs-Elysees. Normally, even at midnight, the Champs-Elysees is filled with tourists during the summer months, the height of the tourist season. This is what it looked like:

We ended up here, eating delicious burgers out on the terrace. Then we jumped on the metro at George V. Twenty minutes later we were home by 1:15 am.

a brilliant new cookbook

Wow. I flipped through this cookbook yesterday at my Swedish friend’s apartment and thought the concept was quite brilliant: 5 ingredients with which to throw together a great meal.

Sometimes, the best thing in the world is simplicity. It’s true this book came out a few years ago, but I’ve just discovered it and I’m going to buy it. I’ve been following Jamie Oliver since his Naked Chef cooking shows back in 1999. He’s the best!