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Ethiopian at Caboose Cafe
Photo: Caboose meat combo III, chicken infillay, beef alitcha, doro watt, zilzil tibbs, beg watt, with salad and “harvest veggie” (carrot, green bean, onion, and tomato), and gomen (collards).

You’d never know it from the coffee shop/soup & sandwich decor, but Caboose Cafe in Del Ray serves Ethiopian food at dinner Monday through Saturday. We’ve been back quite a few times for this unpretentious but delicious food. They go easy on the spice for the Del Ray-eans, so we promise the waitress we can take the heat. No raw kitfo, no tej, but a decent selection of dishes from the Ethiopian owners.

I love the “harvest veggie” in the vegan platter. When I asked the waitress what the dish is called in Ethiopia, she didn’t know, but my Time-Life African Cooking from 1970 has a photo/recipe of something that seems very similar called yataklete kilkil (potatoes, carrots, beans, onions, etc.). Why not just call it that on the menu?

They also sell bread (baguettes and rustic loaves) and they serve an ok soup and sandwich for lunch. Blah blah cafe stuff. Mancini’s down the street does a better breakfast. It’s the Ethiopian food that brings us back here.

Ethiopian at Caboose Cafe
Photo: Vegan sampler, miser watt, gomen, cabbage, kik alitcha, and harvest veggie (aka yataklete kilkil?).

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Del Ray Ave.

On Mt. Vernon Ave.

Vintage

Alexandria library

Del Ray scene

Del Ray window

Boai-so
Photo: Entryway of Boai-so, a soba and tempura restaurant in the Arashiyama neighborhood of Kyoto.

It has been a lovely morning despite the guilt I feel not doing much productive work in the new house while my husband is in an office doing that Navy stuff he does. I checked out Daily Kos, watched Prop 8–the Musical. A comment on that thread directed me to Neil Patrick Harris in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Then I remembered and read some more Dispatches from Roy Kesey, An American Guy Married to a Peruvian Diplomat Living in China on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. All the videos and readings were delightful. I drank Coca-Cola (the hard-core stuff) that we bought because we were having a big family party and some people would be driving. Otherwise we wouldn’t have it in the house because I tend to drink it. All.

Last night the new stainless steel vent hood for the stove arrived in an overly large FedEx truck. The truck was at least 50 feet long and it made all the 1939 brick bungalow houses on our street look tiny. It was huge, not one of those boxy FedEx trucks that look friendly and efficient and from which the guy in shorts jumps out and hands you a thin white package. This was a trailer truck; it was moving-your-household-goods-from-Japan big. The delivery man, whom we were inclined to like already because he had called ahead to tell us there was traffic and that he’d be late, swung open the back doors and disappeared into a long, shockingly empty, very unlit trailer. While he was banging around in the dark, rolling a hand cart, unfastening things, the guys across the street walked out of their house. We had been informed by other neighbors that these guys “do the big Christmas lights every year.” I was eager to meet them because they have lived in the neighborhood for more than 10 years and because the yard contractor who trimmed our bushes and cut down a dead tree after we moved in told me that the inside of the guys’ house looks “exactly like Key West.”

Carlos introduces me. They tell us about the previous owners of the house: conservative, Southern, not entirely happy living in Northern Virginia, she a “natural gardener.” I tell them I like plants you can eat. They speak of dead heading the perennials and I feel panic rise. I was thinking a few basil plants would do. We agree to show them ours if they show us theirs. They laugh and say they can see well into our house anyway. I have to remember to draw our newly hung curtains at night. The delivery man emerges from the dark, rolls our vent hood into the house, and drives off in that rattling, empty truck. The guys head off to buy a Christmas tree; we walk to the butcher to buy the duck and pork belly Carlos ordered to make cassoulet this weekend. Good first meeting.

At family gatherings I am asked, “You miss Japan, huh?” I do. Now I love that we’re ordering meat from the butcher and talking neighborhood history and picking out paint colors and having a vent hood put in, but it’s difficult to express the loss I feel having returned from five years in London and Yokosuka. Roy Kesey’s dispatches from China reminded me of that feeling of adventure and strangeness that becomes addictive. I crave the everyday newness of a foreign country. I miss speaking Japanese. At this point in the conversation someone will suggest I find a language group to practice Japanese and I say, yes, of course. But it’s the otherness, the dream state of living in a foreign country—you are yourself and yet you are someone else—that I miss. There I was Studying Japanese or Tasting Sake or Soaking in an Onsen. Even in English-speaking London, we were Having a Pint at Our Local or Taking the Train to Scotland. Here, in Virginia, I am definitely the regular me, with all my regular characteristics: unevenly ambitious, Coke-swilling, indulgent me. And if I cannot conjure a Rilkean poetry out of our new household adventure, I will have failed myself. I dread the guilt and the failure.

How to invest the arrival of the vent hood with the same frisson as an entry into an unknown soba restaurant in Kyoto? After all, observing the mechanics of the process by which the contractor will hang the machine and construct a soffit (a new vocabulary word! I’m learning a new language!), the satisfaction of having a good vent hood under which I shall fry and sear, these are solid experiences, are they not? I shall persevere through this banal nostalgia for the exoticism of the East and embrace the Christmas lights, the raking, the dead heading, and the vent hood. Onward!

Del Ray farmers' market
Photo: Today’s farmers’ market basket—apples, apple cider, 2 & 1/2 years cave-aged raw milk cheddar cheese, and lamb and steak from Smith Meadows Meats.

For Del Ray Farmers’ Market shoppers: don’t trust on-line schedules that report that the Del Ray market ends the first Saturday in December. The salty dude who sold me the aged cheddar above told me that the Del Ray market will continue on. A small but hardy group, including the cheese and yogurt seller, Smith Meadows Meats, and a few others, will try to keep selling all winter on Saturdays, the regular market day.

Planet Wine
Photo: Planet Wine on Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray, Alexandria.

We had a clear vision of the neighborhood where we wanted to live. After living in great neighborhoods in the past, we knew what works for us. The streets would be walkable, with small, older homes and apartments. Main street would have local shops including a butcher, a cheese shop, a bakery, a wine shop, some cafes—dared we hope for a farmer’s market?


Photo: Evidence of wine tastings.

People would say hi on the streets, assuming you were also a local, and introductions would quickly lead to statements like, “We just bought the place on X Street. You’re on Y?” You could walk almost everywhere, and to where you couldn’t walk you could easily take a bus or the metro.

Mount Vernon Avenue
Photo: Bus stop on Mount Vernon Avenue.

The vibe would be old-fashioned, small town, but in general the people would slant towards progressive values. It wouldn’t be too precious. There would be people who had lived their entire lives in the neighborhood and they would transmit the history.

Mount Vernon Avenue
Photo: On Mount Vernon Avenue.

All of our notions by coincidence follow the principles of “new urbanism.” In contrast to a newly developed suburb, we wanted our neighborhood to have history and to have grown organically. No new development, no matter how well planned according to new urbanist principles, could feel as legitimate, as authentic, as a neighborhood with 100 years or more of history.

We wanted a prewar (as in La Seconda) house with quirky but solid construction. We wanted that house to be located in a neighborhood as old as possible. We wanted the neighborhood to function now; we didn’t want to wait for the promise of better things to come.

We found all this in Del Ray, Alexandria. I’ll let you know how it works out.

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