A hell of a thing

Before you ask, no, this isn’t where we are. We’re back in Spain, tucked up and locked down in our cozy apartment. But this is my favorite picture from our recent stay in the USA; I took it in New Hampshire in February. We had a big snowstorm while we were there and spent a few days nestled in another cozy apartment, reading and watching movies and being all hygge. So at least we’ve had some practice for what’s going on now!

Much of our time in New Hampshire was occupied with attending candidate rallies in anticipation of the early primary in that state. Trust me, there was no social distancing going on there! But it was fun to be packed cheek by jowl with other folks out to see the candidates. Amy Klobuchar was our favorite, and it will be interesting to see where her career goes from here. After New Hampshire, we flew to Texas and our beloved home in the Hill Country. We had a great visit. There’s nothing like seeing family and friends, eating barbecue and Tex-Mex, and shopping for used books at Half Price.

All of those normal activities now seem like they happened to someone else. The world is experiencing a pandemic that is killing many people and sickening many more. This experience has brought to mind something our daughter Jane used to say when something happened that was important but hard to describe: “That was a thing that was a hell of a thing.” This pandemic is a hell of a thing.

COVID -19 has changed the landscape, literally and figuratively, for all of us. We’re now in a country where time outside is limited to trips to get food or medical care and to work. Oh, and people with dogs may walk them briefly outside. (Is some enterprising soul renting out dogs?) After we flew in yesterday, I made a quick run to our nearest grocery store for essentials. Happily, the store was fully stocked. The one difference in the store’s operation was that customers are not allowed in the produce aisle. Instead, you tell a store employee stationed in the aisle what you want, and they get your items and hand them to you. Everyone was kind and patient.

But today we’re in our apartment, listening to the sound of the waves crash on shore. No chatter from the restaurants and bars below interrupts the hypnotic rhythm of the sea. That part is actually quite soothing. I’m doing laundry and unpacking. Mark and his friend Rick just finished a videoconference in which they rewrote the lyrics of “I’m a Believer” to deal with COVID-19 issues. We’re lucky to be here.

Why are we in Spain instead of the USA? It certainly was a lot of trouble finding flights here; we had several cancel on us and ended up in cramped coach seats instead of our typical, more spacious Economy Plus ones. We also had a seven-hour layover in Toronto and shelled out for a sojourn in one of the airport lounges. We saw people everywhere with face masks and plastic gloves on, and restaurants and bars were mostly closed in the airports. It was a tiring trip, although for the most part people were kind and patient. Let’s put it this way: I was so jet-lagged by the time we got home that I failed to finish my glass of wine last night before heading to bed for 12 hours.

So why did we choose to return to Spain? It’s because of, not in spite of, COVID-19. Health insurance in the USA is so expensive that we don’t maintain an ongoing policy and instead buy travelers’ health coverage for our stays there. But our policy for this trip was expiring on March 22, and re-upping coverage was not an option. Our Spanish policy covers us up to about $30,000 in the USA if we get sick or injured there, but that amount will buy you about half an emergency room visit.  We figured that if you need to ride out a pandemic somewhere, you might as well do it in a country with one of the best health care systems in the world and complete health insurance. And while Spain is reporting many cases of the virus, it’s also taking strong steps, such as the ones described above, to flatten the curve. So here we are, and here we’ll be, at least for a while. And isn’t this a thing that is a hell of a thing?

Grab bag


After Christmas, I got to thinking about all of the wrapping paper I’d used over the years. We give a fair number of gifts, so our contribution to the world’s paper waste stream has no doubt been a large one. Of course we recycle what we can, but it occurred to me that using gift bags would be better. Unfortunately, conventional gift bags are made of paper, too, and really can only be reputably reused a couple of times. I therefore decided that making cloth bags for at least most of the presents would be a project for me in 2020. I don’t have or even know how to operate a sewing machine, but this little cutie above is the first of my hand-sewn efforts. I’m rather proud of myself!

Truth be known, I really like opening bags, boxes, and the like to see what’s inside them. I love looking through attics and garage sales and jumble tables to see what’s there, assuming no objectionable creatures make an appearance while I’m searching. Finding a bit of this and a couple of thats can be fun and, often, useful. It’s amazing what can be handy.

I’m finding the process of learning Spanish to be similar. My Spanish definitely has seams that are not quite straight and an amateurish top, but, like my bag, it’s remarkably functional. I can shop, read most signs, ask for rudimentary directions, and find the bathroom the vast majority of the time. Of course, it helps that many people here in Torrevieja speak at least some English. Both the Spaniards and folks from other parts of Europe generally have enough English to do about what I can do in Spanish, if not far more. It’s a point of pride to have several languages.

To work on our language skills, Mark and I do Rosetta Stone lessons online and practice Spanish in two language groups. One meets on Tuesday and is fairly basic, but the people are great, and I always learn something and have lots of fun with friends in the process. Our Thursday group is a bit more serious. It has a theme of the week, sent out over What’s App by our leader, Mara. Each participant (except for one lady from Wales who never says a word, but she seems very nice) prepares a small response to the theme in Spanish and English. For example, one week we talked about a risk we would take. (Mine was going inside the Great Pyramid at Giza, in case you’re interested. I don’t like dark, enclosed places, but this would be worth the inevitable bad dreams that would follow.) Several of the people in these groups know multiple languages. Inevitably, little conversations in Spanish, English, French, Italian, and German pop up, and those are just the languages I can identify. People are rightly proud of being polyglots and want to learn more.

Which brings me to something that happened on Facebook a while ago. I’m still thinking about it. There was a discussion on a friend’s page about speaking English in public in the USA. A friend of my friend- not someone I know – argued that it was justifiable to demand that people speak only English in the USA, because “If you were in Italy they’d get mad at you if you didn’t speak Italian, and if you were in Spain they’d get mad at you if you didn’t speak Spanish.” I normally don’t argue with strangers on Facebook, but I just had to respond. I said that this had not been my experience while traveling in Italy and most certainly was not my experience spending lots of time in Spain. He never replied to my comment, so I have no idea whether it had any impact at all.

All of this makes me wonder why such a big, diverse population as the American people would include so many folks who espouse the English-only stance I saw on Facebook. Is it actually a big deal if you can’t eavesdrop on the two women in front of you in line at the grocery store? Kidding aside, are we really that insular? Do we dislike education that much? And do we honestly think that the world shares our opinions on this subject? People generally are proud of what they know. Why aren’t we proud that people in our country know lots of cool things, including languages other than English? It beats me.

I’ll close this post on the grab bag of language with a fun factoid about a dead Mediterranean language. No, it’s not Latin; it’s Sabir, a Mediterranean lingua franca used from the 11th century up into the 19th century. It was apparently originally a commercial language used by merchants and sailors who needed a common tongue to do their jobs effectively. Later it was used in diplomacy and even shows up in a play by Moliére. Sabir borrowed from Portuguese, French, Spanish, Italian, Genoese, Venetian, Catalan, Occitan, Berber, Turkish, and Arabic to create a tongue that was understood and used throughout the Sea’s many cultures. Apparently you can take free online lessons in Sabir on Memrise.com, but we’ve mostly lost this useful tool. That’s a pity and a cautionary tale. How grateful I am for the many beautiful languages around the globe!



Dear Meghan and Harry

So you’ve decided to become a two-continent family! Welcome to the club, friends. And since Mark and I have been doing this drill for a year and change now, let me share some tips with you about living in Europe and North America.

First, be ready to enjoy what the local culture has to offer. You’ve chosen Canada as your home in the New World, and it’s a lovely country. You will need to learn to love the local cuisine, though, which for us has meant delicious tapas and paella. As for you – well, I hope you like poutine. And Tim Horton’s has very good doughnuts. You’ll also need to get up to speed on local sports, so you might start learning the rules of hockey, to the extent there are any. We have come to enjoy fútbol, although the rules still make no sense to me. There are yellow flags and red cards, and players get called offsides when the referee is annoyed. That’s about what I’ve learned thus far.

Second, you’ll have to learn the local language. Theoretically, Canada and England both speak English, although I’ve got to admit that with some Brits I really don’t understand much of what they say. I wish people came with subtitles. My tip is just to smile and nod and hope that the other person is not telling you about their cancer diagnosis. If they look worried, dispense with the smiling and instead murmur noncommittally. You can get a lot of mileage out of “Huh” or “Oh, my” in these situations. If you head to Quebec, you’ll need to learn some French; Harry, you have ancestors from Normandy, so this might come naturally to you. And of course for all of Canada, as far as I can tell, it’s important to be able to throw in the occasional “Eh?” at the end of a sentence. If you want to practice outside of the country until you get the hang of it, go to Maine. They say that there, too.

Third, and finally, don’t worry too much about shipping lots of stuff. Credit cards work all over the world. If you have something you really love, like a favorite bathrobe or paring knife, just get one for each continent. It’s way easier than trying to remember where you left it. And if you end up with three identical vegetable streamers and four pairs of tweezers in one country and zero in the other, don’t worry. Just make a little pile of things to cart across the Atlantic next time you go. Surely it enlivens the otherwise dull day of an airport security worker to speculate on why you have a vegetable steamer packed in with your ermine robe or Order of the Garter. And remember, when friends come to visit, they can bring you things. Lovely folks have brought us multivitamins and a good solid American vegetable brush. It’s the little things that count.

So enjoy your new life, and let us know if you need further counsel on the bi-continental thing. Oh, and one last reminder – in Canada, they’re diapers, and not nappies.







assorted color intermodal containers
Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

The bucket list

img_2427-1As part of my work to improve my Spanish, I use the Freerice  app each day. This app quizzes me on Spanish vocabulary words; for each correct answer, 10 grains of rice are donated to the World Food Programme. Those grains are literally a drop in the bucket, but they are something. Everybody wins.

The big problem with Freerice is that I can’t control the vocabulary on which it quizzes me. Words that haven’t proved to be terribly useful to me yet pop up regularly. For example, Freerice almost always asks me about the words for needle and thread, aguja and hilo, even though my sewing is pretty much limited to reattaching buttons. Likewise, I often encounter the word for basement, sótano, even though we don’t have basements in Torrevieja, because we are next to the sea. But my favorite unuseful word is cubo, or bucket. I get this word almost every day, which is a great deal more often than I use a bucket, much less have a discussion about one. This part of the Freerice enterprise reminds me of the scenes in “Love  Actually” where Colin Firth learns Portuguese in order to propose to the woman he’s fallen for. He mutters his new lingo in class and out of it, apparently hoping to cobble together a romance with some helpful phrases about that being his blue pencil and how he’d like to purchase a fish.

In fairness, having the word bucket on my Freerice list has gotten me thinking about my own bucket list. In my very charmed life, I’ve had the opportunity to check off lots of items that most people, including me, have on their lists. I’ve stood on the Great Wall, floated under the Bridge of Sighs in a gondola, and walked the terraces at Machu Picchu. I’ve craned my neck up at redwoods, snorkeled among turtles, and peered (from a safe distance) at flowing lava. I’ve visited many of the great cities and seen the world from a hot air balloon and a parasail. How lucky am I? Lots of people who are kinder, smarter, and harder working than I am have not had these opportunities.

And that’s just the things that lots of people want. Of course, each person has items that might not appeal to everyone, and that’s true for me, too.  Living abroad, for example, was on my list and Mark’s, but it’s not for everybody. Riding bikes through Central Park and poking through bookshops on Charing Cross Lane  were fun for Mark, but those were more for me than for him. And spending time in a museum in Berlin gazing at part of Priam’s Treasure from Troy (see picture above) was definitely a me thing. I got interested in Heinrich Schliemann’s haul when I was a kid and read Elizabeth Peters’s madly fun novel, “Trojan Gold.” We know now that the Russians have some of the booty that they took from the Germans at the end of WWII (and boy, are the Germans still angry about that!), but Ms. Peters’s account of a search in the mountains of Germany for Priam’s gold conducted by one of my favorite fictional couples, intrepid American historian Vicky Bliss and charming thief John Smythe, is an absolute delight.

Back to the list. Many items remain. Some of them are in process: we are scheduled to travel to Jordan and Israel this Spring, and we’ve booked an apartment for 10 days in June in Florence. We are hoping to go to an opera at La Scala. Other items will have to wait their turn: Australia and New Zealand, Antarctica, Egypt, and Greece are ahead of us, God willing. There’s more on my list, but you get the idea.

But there’s another aspect of buckets yet to ponder. A couple of years ago when a friend and I were participating in the Reading Buddies program in a school in Austin, the girl I read with introduced me to yet another wonderful book. Carol McCloud’s adorable “Have You Filled a Bucket Today?” shows us how being kind and friendly can make others feel better and, in turn, make the world a better place. In other words, we try and fill other people’s buckets with good feelings. It’s a simple idea, but the book treats it with great care and good humor. And when I’m living my life the way I should, whether at home or out of a lark, filling other people’s buckets should, in fact, be the top item on any list I have.

So here’s to Freerice and cubos and Trojan gold and little kids and everything that fills our buckets. I hope yours overflows with joy and love today and that this post added a tiny drop to the deluge.



I’m dreaming of a light Christmas

img_2558When we still lived in our big family home in Austin, Christmas was something of an extravaganza. We’d put up a gigantic cut tree that would be covered in ornaments, lights, and multi-colored garlands. Greens would festoon the living room. Christmas Eve dinner would be a multi-course feast, usually with friends, family, or both in attendance. We’d all put out stockings; Mark’s and mine are about three feet long (a friend once called them “the greediest stockings in the world”) and would be jam-packed. The kids’ stockings would overflow onto the hearth, and everyone had many presents under the tree to unwrap and enjoy.

This Christmas, as you can imagine, was a bit different than that. Mark and I had pre-Christmas in Berlin, and then we flew to the USA. Flying Berlin/Lisbon/Boston/ Cincinnati made for a long travel day (and then some), but it was worth it to spend three fun days with our beloved Jane and JJ. Amazon has delivered scads of boxes to their house, and I admit that we just left our gifts in the delivery boxes instead of wrapping them as I’ve always done. And I managed not to feel guilty about that.

When we’d concluded our Ohio visit, we flew back to Boston, picked up our precious Mary, and drove to New Hampshire to spend Christmas in the White Mountains. There was some snow on the ground, although the only falling snow we saw occurred during our drive back to Boston, which made for fun driving for poor Mark. But in New Hampshire we bought a small artificial tree and duly buckled it up to take back to our condo. There we put on a few decorations, draped a garland over the Franklin stove in the living room, and called it decorated. I did wrap the gifts for Mark and Mary, but since we only got one roll of wrapping paper the color scheme was a bit monotonous. I did liven things up by using some flamingo wrapping paper we had on hand, drawing small Santa hats on the pink birds to add a seasonal touch. But there were no stockings except for the woolly socks everyone received, and we had a simple meal of roast chicken, new potatoes, green beans, and crescent rolls. And all of that was okay, even when it was quickly followed by a low-key New Year’s Eve. Delayed flights meant we got in just in time to watch fireworks from our balcony and drink a glass of champagne with the revellers on German TV, who were gathered to hear The Gypsy Kings play at the Brandenburg Gate. Randomly, the music included Doris Day’s standard, “Que Sera, Sera,” John Denver’s “Country Roads,” and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” And the next day was our first anniversary of coming to Torrevieja, but Mark got sick, so we skipped celebrating. It still was low-key, but it was okay.

What I’m getting at here is that we had less of a white Christmas and more of a light Christmas. Everything from trees to decorations to meals was simpler than in the past, but the holiday was still really lovely. I was hoping that I was finally detaching from needing the trappings in order to be okay. And I think I was. Frederick Beuchner, a contemporary American Christian writer and poet, once said that all good theology is about letting go. I was trying to practice good theology, and it felt great.

That was, it felt great until today. Tomorrow’s my birthday, and we were going to go to Murcia to see some friends and then come back and go to a party at given by some other friends. Well, first Mark got sick, so we canceled the run to Murcia. And then one of the people giving the party got sick, so now the party is canceled. It’s just life – #winterbirthdaysarecomplicated – but I’m disappointed. And I’m disappointed that I’m disappointed. Where is my good theology, my ability to detach from wanting hoopla?

So I’m spending this afternoon making soup, catching up on laundry, and writing this blog post. After that’s all done, I’ll probably finish my library book and take a walk. I’m hopeful that somewhere along the way I’ll remember that I’m lucky to be in a beautiful place, to have all of my physical needs met (and way more), and to be able to claim sweet family and friends as I barrel into age 61. Perhaps along the way I’ll recapture that sense of a light Christmas. I hope so.



How to museum

img_2406Look at me! I’ve only written the title of this blog post and have already created a new verb: to museum. Normally I’m the last one to adopt new words; for me, “impact” is still not a verb, and I once nipped a potential friendship in the bud because the potential friend said “impactful” in every third sentence. There’s only so much a woman can bear. But now, in my lexicon, to museum is a verb.


We need this verb because the museum experience is so much more than “visiting” or “going to.” A good museum changes you, startles you, awes you. This has certainly been the case here in Berlin, where Mark and I have spent the last couple of days in four top-flight museums. The picture above shows you twilight on Museum Island in Berlin, home of several amazing institutions. We’ve seen the Bode, Altes, Pergamon, Neues, Surrealist, and Design museums. (Ironically, the Neues, or New, Museum houses the oldest of the materials on exhibit.) And although I’ve enjoyed each of these places mightily, please don’t ask me to pronounce them. Mark’s in charge of German in our family, since he had a whopping two quarters of the language in college. Besides that, he’s recovering from a gooey cold and has lots of phlegm, which immensely improves his German pronunciation.

But even if I can’t say where I’ve been, I can tell you a thing or two about them from experience over the years. My love affair with museums started when I was a kid and read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg. If you haven’t read this classsic, for heaven’s sake stop reading this blog, go read it instead. In the unlikely event you’ve forgotten the story, let me remind you. Two school kids who are seriously bored with their suburban lives run away to the Metropolitan Museum in New York and take up residence there. They become involved in a mystery surrounding the provenance of a statue of an angel which may or may not be by Michaelangelo. The resolution of the origin of the statue and the kids’ fates is way too good to give away here.

The lovely if less well-known The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright was my next museum book. In this gentle coming of age novel, which was published in 1941, the four Melendy kids decide to pool their allowances and allow each kid to have a Saturday adventure of their own. Miranda, who proposes the idea, takes her pot of dimes and goes to an art museum. There she finds a special painting and a friend, and I won’t spoil the rest of it by telling you more. This book is still one of my favorites, and Randy’s day out is a comfortable homage to museuming.

Once I got to be an adult, I could put away the books and go full steam ahead on actual museuming. I’ve been privileged to see some astonishingly good museums. Whether alone, with Mark, or with the kids in tow, I/we’ve been to several Smithsonians, the Metropolitan in New York, the British Museum, National Gallery, Tate, Tate Modern, and Victoria and Albert in London, the Louvre and Orsay in Paris, the Prada and Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Vatican…. You get the idea. And yes, we did drag the kids to art museums when they were young. At the Art Institute in Chicago, I hauled the two of them to a few famous pieces, made them stand right in front of them, and recited, “This is very important art. Remember that you’ve seen this.” I have no idea whether this tactic worked. Perhaps I’ll ask someday.

Based on these experiences, then, I offer you the following rules for museuming:

1.  Plan ahead. Many museums close on Monday. Check beforehand if that’s a day you were thinking of visiting. And if you’re in a relatively religious country, check to see whether some random saint’s day or feast day will interfere with your plans. This happened to us in Madrid, where the Reina Sofia closed for the celebration of the day of the city’s patron saint. Fortunately, since in Spain religious holidays always involve colorful processions, we enjoyed that instead and had hot chocolate to boot. But our daughter Mary still hasn’t seen Picasso’s “Guernica,” which sometimes makes me feel like a bad mother.

2.  Wear comfortable shoes. For that matter, wear comfortable clothes. Presumably patrons will be looking at the displays and not you. If the displays are so dull that visitors are resorting to checking each other out, you’re in a bad museum. Leave. You should and could more profitably spend your time doing important things, like playing the next twelve levels of Candy Crush or googling songs lyrics you’re not sure of. Face it, nobody really knows the correct words to “Blinded by the Light.”

3.  Take care of yourself. Eat before you go, and pee early and often. Waiting to go at the restrooms on the next floor up ensures that those restrooms are either closed for repairs or being cleaned by the most diligent person in the world, who’s going to take so long that they carry a bucket, mop, and camping equipment in with them before posting the requisite “Closed for cleaning” sign.

4.  Be ready for other people to interfere with your plans. In particular, beware of groups of tourists.  Here’s an example. In 1996, Mark and I visited the Louvre. The place was fairly empty, as we were there in November. So I’m minding my own business in a quiet room, leaning over a glass case to examine some coins inside. Behind me, I hear the sound of a stampede, and about 80 Japanese tourists, led by a guide holding up an pole with the national flag on it, trot into the room. They squish into the inadequate space, bending me over the case so that my cheek is squashed down on the glass. I can’t breathe and briefly consider whether asphyxiation by Japanese tourist is a recognized cause of death in France. The guide delivers a quick spiel, the crowd murmurs its approval, and they all turn around and trot out again to go terrorize some other poor soul in another part of the place. Museuming is not for the faint of heart, my friends. 

5. You have to make the experience your own. Sometimes this means not taking the exhibits too seriously. When Mark and I were first dating, I suggested we go see a showing of Kandinsky’s works at the Houston Museum of Fine Art. Mark agreed to go but was, I think, not exactly taken with abstract expressionism. I guess they don’t have a lot of that in Baytown, where he grew up. Anyway, he grew restive and started, in the nicest possible way, to express his opinion that Kandinsky had pretty much painted amoebas, golf courses, and amoebas playing on golf courses. I should have been mad, but it was all just so funny that it was hard to make it out of the exhibition without descending into gales of laughter which would have made sense to no one else in the room. We now routinely find the funny aspects of serious pieces. On Sunday at the Bode, for example, we saw a painting entitled “The Wave.” Having been to a zillion baseball games, we (briefly) did the wave in front of the painting. You just can’t take this stuff too seriously. 

At the same time, you should recognize the serious when you see it. At another museum here, we viewed a white marble sculpture by Antonio Canova. He was an Italian sculptor of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The piece is called The Dancer, and it’s so lifelike and graceful and masterful that I swear you can see the movement of the dancer’s skin under her robe as she moves in time to music only she can hear. I wanted to plop down on the cold white marble floor and cry for the sheer mastery of the craft and beauty of the work. This is the same feeling I get every time I see the Nike in the Louvre, too, but museum guards probably discourage weeping in the galleries. It makes the floors even slipper than they already are.

Making a museum your own also means that you get to like whatever you like. One of my friends expressed disappointment in the Mona Lisa, because it’s small and lots of people muscle their way in to see it. I think it’s exquisite partly because it’s not the size of a billboard, and it’s not the painting’s fault that apparently some tourists hire offensive linemen from the NFL to clear their path to its display case. I could study this painting all day, so if it gets stolen again, you’ll know I’ve finally put all of that reading about crime to good use.

Finally, museuming allows you to ask your own questions. I don’t have enough knowledge of art to comment on things like perspective and brush strokes; I couldn’t tell you a chiaro from an oscuro to save my life. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting questions to ask about a work. If your feet hurt after lots of walking, which they will, you’ll take the first available seat, no matter what pieces this move lands you near. I recently was marooned near a painting of a sunset with a totally incongruous yellow streak in its pinks and blues. To kill time while my feet recovered, I asked myself, why yellow? Did the artist have a bit left in the tube and operated on the principle of waste not, want not? Or maybe the guy who commissioned the picture stared at a pink and blue earlier version and remarked, “Hmm, don’t you think it could use a bit of yellow to cheer it up a bit?” I’ll never know, but the speculation kept me amused. Or you can play count the portraits  where the clothes were much more fun to paint than the faces. Elaborate, starched Elizabethan neck ruffles (rebatos, to the initiated), golden-threaded damask vestments, dark swirling velvet gowns, and blood-red rubies mounted in elaborate gold and silver rings must be much more of a painterly challenge than the zillionth prosperous, round guy with pudgy fingers and nose hairs that you discreetly omit from the portrait. Let’s get real here.

So that’s my list for museuming. It occurs to me, though, that this isn’t a bad list for living, either. Plan ahead. Take care of yourself. Be careful. Live authentically. It also occurs to me that maybe this overlap isn’t coincidental. Maybe the world is a museum, filled with things to look at and appreciate and marvel at. Maybe Mona Lisa is sitting next to me at the Starbucks where we’ve stopped for a quick warm-up and coffee. Maybe the woman in the red parka and the blue Pom-Pom hat swaying her toddler on her hip as she waits for the S Bahn train is Canova’s dancer. And I’ll be damned if there isn’t a preposterous streak of yellow splat in the middle of today’s  pink and blue sunset. So tell you what. You go on ahead to the next museum. I’m just going to sit here a minute and look around.





Christmas cards

img_1709-4The photo attached to this blog post isn’t the best photo I’ve ever taken, but it is one of the ones that’s had the most impact on me. It’s a very special Christmas card.

Now, I have a long history with Christmas cards. My mom always sent Christmas cards. I remember in earlier, more affluent years going with her to the printer’s shop to select a card from the options pasted onto big, stiff pages in the sample card books. After she’d picked her favorite, she’d instruct the staff person what greeting to print inside. Weeks later, a box of printed cards would arrive at our house, and the dining room table became Christmas card central. Before my handwriting was deemed acceptable for purposes of addressing cards, I was the chief licker and sticker of stamps and return address labels. Yes, younger generation, we had to lick stamps to affix them to envelopes. Plus, you had to lick glue on the the envelope flap to get a proper seal. And we did this while walking uphill both ways in the snow, because life was harder then.

The first Christmas card that ever came in the mail addressed to me alone showed up in 1965. It came from a girl in my first grade class who clearly was light years ahead of the rest of us in terms of sophistication. Not only did she send her own Christmas cards – carefully addressed to so-and-so at X address, CITY, because she was worldly enough to know that you didn’t have to write out “Beaumont” on each envelope if the addressee was in the same city as the sender – but she also had lived in New Jersey and owned a pair of go-go boots. To top it all off, in the third grade she decided that the spelling her name, Linda, was boring, so she changed it to a much more cosmopolitan Lynda. I doubt whether a more with-it chick has ever graced the halls of Sallie Curtis Elementary.

Later, Mark and I (by which I mean I) used to send lots of Christmas cards. Ours always went out early. Before the children were born, that was because I took pride in being so organized that I could get my cards done early. After Jane and Mary arrived, life was super busy during the holidays, and the choice on mailing cards was between early or never. In those years, I occasionally realized that I was accomplishing Christmas instead of celebrating it, but that’s another blog post altogether. In any event, the number of cards we send has dwindled over the years, and this year this post and Facebook are about all the greetings we’re likely to send. But they are greeting nonetheless, and we carry in our hearts loved ones past and present even if we don’t – or can’t – communicate with them.

All of this leads me to the picture. It’s not great art; The perspective on Mary’s face is a tiny bit off, so she looks a little flat, and I’ve never been a fan of the School of Radioactive Jesus. But this card means a lot to me, because it was drawn by a prisoner in the Stutthof  concentration camp in Poland. Over 115,000 people were sent to that camp; 65,000 of them died. Prisoners were forbidden to make art, but they did anyway, in secret. This card was one of those secret pieces. It now resides in a glass case along with other small drawings in the Stutthof barracks. These drawings survived; I have no idea whether the maker of this card or its recipient did.

Imagine the nightmare of spending your Christmas in a concentration camp. Death, hunger, and cruelty are your daily lot in life. Illness is everywhere, and you’re always cold. But in the midst of this misery, where despair seems logical and hope ridiculous, someone draws this picture. Look at the drawing. It’s the incarnation of God literally juxtaposed with the barbed wire of the camp’s fence. “Glory to God in the highest” is written underneath. The praise song that the angels sang to the shepherds defies the cold and the hunger and the pain and the aching knowledge that chances are you won’t leave the camp alive. Want to know what faith is? It’s right here, on a hand-drawn, anonymous, unlikely Christmas card.

So open your mailboxes and your emails and enjoy the Christmas cards you’ve received. From beautiful artistry to beglittered renderings of Santa and Frosty the Snowman, they surely were sent with love and goodwill. As for me, I offer you greetings of the season from Stutthof. Glory to God in the highest. Peace to all on Earth. And let the people say amen.


On tapa the world

img_2301Last Saturday night, two friends joined us for an evening on the Ruta Tapa. This is a three-day event that involves many of our local restaurants. Each participating restaurant makes one tapa solely from local ingredients and one tapa of its choice. During the Ruta Tapa – literally, the Tapa Route – each delicious tapa plus a small drink costs €2,50 (that’s two and a half Euros, just in case the comma threw you). Three or four tapas make an excellent meal, and you get to try new restaurants. and restaurants get a bump in business during the low season. The tapa pictured above is a local fish dish, and trust me, it tasted even better than it looks.

But did I start in the middle of this story for some people? I’d never heard of tapas until a few years ago, so let me offer a quick explanation. Tapas are small portions served on small plates. It’s Spanish dim sum. Tapas offer you an opportunity to sample new dishes without the risk of ordering a new entree in a conventional restaurant and hating your dinner. Mark, for example, has become a real fan of sausages in cider. I order cod croquettes whenever I can. And we both adore patatas bravas (think home fries with a spicy tomato-based sauce) and patatas alioli (think home fries with garlic mayonnaise). Yum.

Of course the best way to eat tapas is at a tapas bar. In a place like that, you sit on a stool or stand at the scarred wooden bar and order from among the tapas in the glass case in front of you. The best places like this are tiny holes in the wall, about the size of a college dorm room. Two or three kinds of beer might be available, along with a house red and a house white. Sometimes you can get a soda, and water sin or con gas is always at hand. Choosing a tapa can be a bit of a crapshoot, as not much English tends to be on offer. But everyone knows how to point, so you don’t leave hungry.  Typically a jersey or pennant from a beloved fùtbol (that’s soccer to us Americans) team hangs on a wall, along with signs for various cervezas the bar may or may not serve and a few rather bedraggled attempts at decorating, such as giant ceramic flowers painted in color not found in nature (at least on this planet) or a bad painting of a female flamenco dancer swishing the skirt of her red dress. A place like that is an experience.

The best thing about tapas, though, is that they are small. You can get a big portion; that’s called a ración. But a tapa is a few bites, a sample, a suggestion. It’s a caress on the cheek, not a full-body hug. It’s a few notes hummed in remembrance of a long-ago dance. It’s a wink, a glance, a Mona Lisa smile of food on a little white plate. In a world that chants “bigger and better” and “grow or die,” a tapa is a tiny food rebellion, an homage to the small and perfect.

We loved the Ruta Tapa and will participate again the the Spring version. And in the meantime, we will eat our tapas at the little bars with the garish flowers on the wall. We’ll enjoy our time with the small treasures they serve.






Ms. Frizzle’s pumpkin pie

img_2253One of the many joys of parenting is the ability to enjoy the books that come from your children’s generation. A favorite at our house was The Magic School Bus series, which we enjoyed on TV and in book form – shout outs to Lily Tomlin and the Westbank Community Library, respectively. The protagonist of this series was the wild-haired Ms. Frizzle, a science teacher who regularly urged her students to “Take chances! Make mistakes! Get dirty!” Apparently the message sank with me, because this week Ms. Frizzle and I made a pumpkin pie.

This was a trial run pumpkin pie, in anticipation of celebrating Thanksgiving with two other American couples. Mark and I are providing the turkey and dressing, which we’ve been doing for years back in the USA. Others have volunteered to bring sweet potatoes, green beans, jello salad, and wine. We ordered cranberry sauce from an online vendor and are now the proud owners of the world’s most expensive Ocean Spray offering. Then it dawned on me that stores here, unlike those in the USA, don’t sell pumpkin pies. It sounded like a good idea to farm this problem out to more talented pals. To my horror, I got no takers on making the pumpkin pie. “I’m a cook, not a baker,” explained one friend. As a last ditch alternative and despite the fact that I’m not a cook or a baker, I decided that I’d give this pie-making business a whirl.

Let me clarify here that I’ve never made a pumpkin pie before. In fact, I’ve never made a pie. In further fact, I haven’t even bought a pie for several years, because my sister has done that bit for our November celebration. So to decide to make one is kind of like saying that I’ll be happy to drive a big rig from Boston to San Francisco. My experience with big trucks is pretty much limited to nearly getting killed by them on Interstate 35. But what the heck, you never know until you try.

Figuring I’d start at the bottom, I went to look for prepared pie crusts. Surprise! At least where we live, stores don’t have those. Spain, apparently, is not much on pies. When I asked at the biggest store around for a borde de la tarta, all I got was a blank look from a woman stocking the freezer case. “I don’t know what that is,” she responded, piling bags of frozen Kung Pao chicken onto a shelf. Uh oh. This meant I was going to have to make a pie crust.

In case you’re not a female who grew up in the South before, say, 1975, you probably have no idea what it means to make a good pie crust. This is one of the pinnacles of womanly achievement. To say “She sure makes a light, flaky pie crust” translates as “She can cook, sew, apply perfect makeup, and keep her husband (whom she secured partly by dint of said pie crust) happy, and she’ll never wear white shoes before Memorial Day or afternoon Labor Day.” Other than the husband part, none of these is my aspiration or my reality, although I do cringe if I wear white shoes out of  season. And I mentally apologize to my grandmother, who’s been dead since 1967.

Girding my baker’s loins, I found a recipe and began cooking. It soon became clear to me that Houston, we have a few problems. For starters, we don’t own a pie pan. After briefly considering the paella pan as an option, I recalled that we possess a baking dish for vegetables, so that’s what got used. Then came the thorny question of the fact that all the recipes call for electric mixers, which we also don’t own. I decided that pies predate mixers and got out a spoon. Last but not least, Spanish stores do not appear to stock shortening. Who knew I would ever long for Crisco? My plans for personal use importation are underway. In the meantime, Google says that you can substitute more butter than it seemed one dish could possibly take for shortening, so I got another tub of butter and proceeded. In hindsight, it would have been more economical and, possibly, efficient to rent a cow and a churn, but there you are. To make a long paragraph not quite as long as it could be, an acceptable pie crust appeared some time later. It wasn’t light and flaky, but it was adequate. Perhaps I should re-try makeup one of these days.

Anyway, now it was on to the pie filling. Naturally, no convenient cans of pumpkin were to be had. We did find pumpkin pieces; this obviated the need to purchase a pumpkin, disembowel it, and cut my fingers to ribbons trying to get the meat off the shell. Score one for the home team! Evaporated milk was also available. So now we’re just looking for spices, which Google Translate and I figured out in only three trips to the grocery store. Now it’s assembly time.

And now it’s roadblock time as well. All of the recipes for pie filling that I found assumed one of those nice, convenient cans I didn’t have. So I need to liquefy the pumpkin. Just trust me when I tell you that a food processor doesn’t cut it here, literally or figuratively. Rejecting the notion of premiering the world’s first pumpkin bits pie, I decided to stew the results of my efforts with the food processor. But that requires liquid, so I added a smidge of apple juice to my bits and stirred the whole shebang in a pot. Apples and pumpkins are sort of alike, right? They’re both roundish Autumn fruits. Besides, the other other liquid choices I considered were chicken broth (yuck), orange juice (too tart), and Scotch (best saved for the cook in case of emergency). I was so unnerved by this process that the option of adding water never occurred to me. Criminy.

That crisis averted, I added the evaporated milk and spices, per the recipe. This was going to be the easy part, right? Wrong. To my dismay, the consistency of my pie filling was that of a cream soup. Baking will firm the filling up, of course, but firming this mess up would take a blast furnace, not my funky Spanish oven. What on earth was I going to do?

I did, of course, what any red blooded American would do. I reverted to middle school behaviors and chewed on my fingernails. One of them promptly broke, which turned out to be the best possible thing that could have happened. Here was a problem I could solve. I sat down on a chair on the balcony, filed my nail, and contemplated the Mediterranean. And the peace of God, which passeth understanding and bringeth creative ideas, settled on me and brought to mind the sieve. So I returned to the kitchen with a renewed heart and sieved my filling into the merely wet ingredients and the basically liquid ingredients. The merely wet I poured into the pie shell, and the super liquidy part I finished cooking and put into a leftover dish in the fridge. Pumpkin oatmeal is delicious!

Aside from burning the crud out of the top of the pie and peeling it off before taking the attached picture, the pie turned out okay. We’ll see whether pumpkin pie 2.0 works out, but at least I followed Ms. Frizzle’s advice. I took a chance on a new baking process, made my share of mistakes (and somebody else’s), and definitely got very dirty. (Hint: My version of mise en place is mise all over the place, and I had to take a shower while the pie was baking.) And then there was pie. May all your risk-taking turn out as sweetly.







Aunt Harriet’s ghost

Like a lot of people in my generation, I had an Aunt Harriet. Actually, as the sister of my maternal grandmother, she was my great-aunt, but that slight attenuation of the blood tie did not diminish her impact on our lives.

Aunt Harriet was the classiest lady I knew in my childhood. Admittedly, the bar may have been kind of low, since I grew up in deep East Texas, where one of the major events of my childhood was the opening of a McDonald’s. But it was clear that Harriet Smith was special. She lived in San Antonio, which sounded exotic, was married to a bank president, which sounded important, and had traveled to Europe, which sounded adventurous. She corresponded with my mother on monogrammed blue stationery and signed all of her letters “Devotedly, Aunt Harriet.” Most importantly, though, Aunt Harriet was a visitor. She came to see us.

When Aunt Harriet announced a visit, things got done at our house. We cleaned like crazy, waxing furniture and pulling out the sofa to dust behind it and pick up all of the small items our cats had scooted under it and failed to retrieve. (Did someone expect Aunt Harriet to get down hands and knees when we left the living room and peek underneath to make sure we weren’t living in squalor? This never occurred to me as a child, and my mom has passed away, so I can’t ask her.) We even got crazy once and bought a new tablecloth. Woohoo! But mostly, my mother and grandmother prepared for Operation Harriet by fretting. Would the food be okay? Would the Holiday Inn have scratchy towels? Would she notice the fact that my grandmother’s pier-and-beam listed to port like a slightly inebriated sailor? Worrying was an important part of our pre-visit ritual.

And then it would be the day of The Arrival. Aunt Harriet would drive up in her washed and waxed car, which sported tinted windows and a radio. These miracles would have been enough to impress me, but the figure of A.H. also left an indelible mark. Harriet Smith was tall, dressed in smart suits, and smelled of Chanel Number 9. (Chanel Number 5 was common.) Her handbag (don’t say purse, that’s vulgar) matched her pumps, and her hair didn’t dare move, no matter how much the wind blew. This was class on the hoof.

Ah, and she brought gifts! Once she brought me a small version of a train case she’d gotten on a cruise. I still have it. It would be a decade or so before I’d step on a train, and more than that before I boarded a cruise ship, but here was a taste of glamorous travel. Once she brought our family a Harry and David selection of Gala apples, which got my mother hooked on them for the rest of her life. Her best gift of all was a compendium of Ogden Nash’s poetry. I don’t know if you know Ogden Nash, but he wrote divinely silly poetry that amuses me to this day. Mom wasn’t much of a reader and therefore didn’t get a lot out of the book, but I pounced on it and laughed till I cried over Nash’s wit. Here’s an example I still remember: “The song of canaries never varies/And when they’re molting, they’re pretty revolting.” Magnifique!


Alas, our visitors these days are treated with a bit less pomp than Aunt Harriet enjoyed. In fact, we’ve had several visitors here in Spain- two sets last Spring, our daughter and son-in-law this Summer, and four sets this Fall – and a more delightful group of people you couldn’t meet. Our preparations look rather meager in comparison to Mom’s, though. The sheets are fresh, and everyone gets a fresh set of towels. The End. If I’m feeling particularly energetic, we might all troop to the grocery store to buy food that the visitors like. Otherwise, we talk, eat, hang out, and sightsee. We should hang a sign outside our apartment, I guess. “Darwin’s Nest,” it would read. “Only the strong survive.”

Our visitor/survivors come from a long line of folks who come to stay. Spanish has a couple of words that we would translate as “visitor.” A visitante is a friendly, familiar person whom you welcome into your home. This word shares its Latin roots with our words visit and vista; in other words, it’s all about coming to see. The other Spanish word, huésped, is used for paying guests. Interestingly, its roots lie in words meaning strangers (possibly even threatening ones) to whom a duty of care is owed. This root gives us huésped in Spanish and, in English, hospital, hospice, hospitality, and the like.

We’ve definitely been having visitantes, and it’s been a ball having folks from the USA, Ireland, New Zealand, and Canada with us. And remarkably, just like Aunt Harriet, they bring us gifts! Some are tangible, like the Mountie thermos and Guinness coffee mug pictured here. Our kids brought us a fabulous coffee pot. (Perhaps we look dehydrated, as people keep bringing us items facilitating the intake of liquids.) But far greater are the gifts of fun and laughter and deepening of friendships. Being with our kids, of course, is always joyous. With one of our non-family guests, it was the revelation that she and I both collect souvenir spoons when we travel . She’s the only other person I know who does that. We now address each other as “Spoon Sister.” One couple arranged an amazing hotel stay in Granada, where we were huéspedes, and we all toured the Alhambra together. Another guest cooked for us and left me easy recipes; she also showed me how to clip my bangs. Yet another visitante shared her adventures walking the Camino de Santiago; her husband shared his love of the ancient world as we toured archaeological sites in Cartagena. And our Texas visitors brought us news of our home state and beloved Austin, the kind of news you can only get from someone who lives there. What glorious gifts these all are!

So the ghost of Aunt Harriet, my paradigmatic visitor from childhood, may or may not approve of our rather casual handling of those who come to us. But Mark and I feel warmed by each of our visitors and are grateful for their presence and their presents. So here’s the question: who’s next? As long as you don’t intend to look under the sofa, you’re all more than welcome here.