No SIP here!

NO SIP HERE!

Here at our house there is definitely no SIP. That would be no Starving in Place. No Sirree, daily life now revolves, to a very large extent, about food and what we are going to eat each day.

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We have been exploring the freezer, taking out something hard, misshapen  and indistinguishable and waiting with bated breath to discover what it is and if we could eat it. If we think we just cannot risk it, we give it to the dog. If she doesn’t like it, then it gets tossed.

Last night we gave the freezer a break and went vegetarian.  Time to search the pantry shelves. A can of garbanzo beans, can of coconut cream, half a cauliflower, some rather squishy tomatoes, ginger (also about to expire, ) garlic and lots of spices like coriander, turmeric and cumin. I even had some red lentils that I threw in for good measure.  Served up in a bowl with yogurt and cashews, it was totally delish!

I start thinking the day before what our menu will look like the following day. While foraging in the pantry for the lentils and garbanzo beans for last night’s dinner, I came across a bag with white little globules in it. Curious, I lifted it down off the top shelf and read that the bag contained tapioca.  Really? When on earth did I buy that and more importantly, why did I buy that?

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The price tag said 99 cents, so I am willing to bet it was rather too long ago. Better use that up.  So tonight we will have dessert of tapioca made with the remainder of that coconut cream and on top will be a sliced banana before it turns completely brown

On the lower shelf of the pantry are three very large onions that are a bit soft to the touch.  Hmm, what will it be for lunch? Onion tart or French onion soup?  Whichever I decide,  I shall imagine I am at a table, on a warm day, under the shade of a leafy tree, on the little street in Paris where my sister and I rented an apartment. It was a favorite place to eat.

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Then there is that can of  garbanzo beans left off from last night’s vegetarian dinner. . I’ll go into the garden and pick a lemon off the tree, add some garlic and there must be a jar of tahini somewhere on the shelf marked “Asian.”

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Then, Bob’s your Uncle as they say  – we  have an appetizer for tonight.  Tonight? Oh you want to know what we plan for dinner tonight (besides tapioca pudding?) Pork shops from the freezer, one left over potato which I will saute in olive oil, and we have fresh broccoli purchased from the produce stand at the end of the street. (Its just five minutes away so that makes it safe, right?)

Now that breakfast is over (we used a box of Krusteaz dated 2018) it is time to get cooking.  This SIP (that would be Sheltering in Place) really isn’t so bad after all.

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Shelter in Place

SHELTER IN PLACE

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What a strange phrase.  Why not just say “Stay in your home and don’t go near anyone else.”  Why am I having such a hard time with this?  There must be something wrong with me.  Aren’t I that person whose calendar is filled each day with real estate appointments, classes, meetings, physical activities, choir, rehearsals, charity events, theater, dinners, grandchildren activities – the list is endless.  Now I look at the blank pages of my Day Planner and feel totally adrift.

My scheduled activities anchored my life. Oh, there were times when I might wish I were not so busy so that I could clear out those drawers of little used kitchen utensils, reorganize the pantry, sort the old photos, tidy up closets, attend to the garden.  I might even have been known to exclaim, “Stop the world, I want to get off.”

Well, the world has stopped and now I want back on. Quick.  I read that there is anxiety out there, people afraid of the virus. Personally, I am less concerned with catching the virus or spreading it since I am avoiding being around anyone except my husband and dog.  What I am suffering from is mild panic. I am a person who needs structure. I need to know what, when and where I am at all times each day.  The chores and fun activities revolve around and outside of those entries on the daily calendar.

Today is my fifth day at home. It is also St. Patrick’s Day.  I hear the pubs in Dublin are closed. I feel guilty about my silliness when the Irish cannot celebrate their greatest day of the year. In Italy, many people don’t have a garden, as I do, but only a balcony. Yet, they are not letting the enforced home stay quieten their spirits. They are out on those balconies, serenading the world. In Spain, if a big Fiesta is cancelled, bring your instruments onto your balconies and make music anyway!  I think if I were to open my front door and start singing I would be politely asked by those walking their dogs past my house, to perhaps go inside and shut the door!

This morning the local paper reported that there has been a spike in the sales of gun and ammunition. Good golly, have we come to this: “Stay away from my toilet paper or I shoot!”

Of course I realize this feeling of being adrift, mild panic if you will, is entirely in my head.  I try to tell myself that I need to slow down, to take stock of my life, to literally, stop and smell the roses.  All those chores that have been waiting for my attention are still waiting.  I feel lethargic. I want to be doing other things and not have to deal with those projects.  The drawers of my desk are total chaos, my art closet is a disaster,

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the pantry’s shelves are in disarray, clothes not worn for at least a year need to be culled, the freezer (three freezers to be totally honest) are stuffed with misshapen packages of unidentifiable food. Here at least, we can have the daily thrill of defrosting two bricks and making a meal out of whatever materializes.

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Perk up Sally.  Besides cleaning, sorting and reorganizing, there are creative things I can be doing for the next few weeks. I could paint pictures, I could paint a chair and cover the seat with fun fabric, I could mosaic one of our garden pots, I could learn a new song, practice songs from our Chorale class, read one of the books from shelves stacked with books picked up at garage sales.

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Heck, I could open up my Introduction to the Piano text book and start at the first page and try to remember my two years of piano class.. That keyboard has not been touched for over a year. What a great opportunity to remind my fingers and brain how to hit notes. There are dusty art books sitting patiently on shelves waiting to be savored once again.  Then there is the garden.  Always the garden with constant reminder that weeds need to be pulled, bushes trimmed, trees fed, and best of all, to be enjoyed.

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In the meantime, I will probably gain considerable weight since I seem to be eating more, have had to become intimately familiar with my toenails since I cannot get a pedicure, and am spending way too much time on Face Book. As a disclaimer however, I can safely say that I am not alone spending time on my phone insofar as I can report that I had thirteen comments on a recent post in less than an hour!

Enough of this moping and sitting endlessly at the computer writing blogs that probably no one will read. Time to go walk the dog and check on those weeds.

 

 

 

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I am a Dollar Store junkie

 

“My name is Sally and I am a Dollar Store junkie.”  There, I’ve said it. Let me be perfectly clear from the outset that I can perfectly well afford to purchase holiday wrapping paper, ribbons, dog squeaky dog toys, parchment paper, pens and so forth, at full retail. But I love walking the aisles at my local Dollar Store, looking at just how much you can buy for only one dollar.  Why, for what I would pay a single cappuccino, I can walk out with FOUR items for the same price!

I am also a bit of a ham. I love to dress up for the weekly office meeting preceding a special holiday such as Valentine’s Day, St Patricks, Halloween and so forth.

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Where else could I find the trimmings to add to a large hat, a boa, fun eye glass frames (that actually fit over my regular glasses,) stickers, patterned socks, battery operated miniature lights to sew onto clothing or to hang around my neck, glue and all kinds of little glittery items.

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Serious shoppers like me know you MUST shop at least a month to six weeks ahead of any special holiday because by the time the event is just a week or two away, nothing is left and the store has already stocked its shelves in anticipation of the next big holiday.When I heard in January my friend was throwing a Mardi Gras five weeks hence, I immediately stocked up on masks, beads, boa, wrapping paper, ribbons and birthday card.

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I am all set for Easter that follows quickly thereafter.  What fun to set a table (ideally a picnic table out in the fresh air someplace where the kids can run wild) with a spring tablecloth, matching plates, cups, napkins, a center piece.  The grandkids can search for colored eggs filled with candy and nickels. The adults get their little decorated boxes with adult goodies.

This is the go-to spot for stirring my creativity. I can find styrofoam shapes that I glue together, cover with cement and use as a base for mosaic work. (see top of totem) In fact, the red, yellow and green ceramic pieces are plates from the store that I smashed to bits!

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Two weeks ago, someone stole our street sign. OK – off to the store for supplies!

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Time for my dog to have a squeaky toy? It doesn’t matter if I pay $8 at the pet shop or one dollar at the Dollar Store, the toy is demolished in eight minutes anyway (yes, I have timed her ability to rip open the casing to reveal the little white plastic squeaker hidden inside.)

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Balloons? It’s a love hate relationship.  Helium balloons come in around 30 different designs for all occasions at the Dollar Store.

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But the person who checks you out at the register is the same one who blows up the balloons.  The checkout lines can be long so I always take a look to see which registrar appears to be moving the fastest. Recently, my arms loaded with treasures, I decided to stand in what seemed to be the fastest moving line. All went well until the person in front of me, having had all her items scanned said “Oh, and I need eight balloons.”  She and the checker then had to move to the balloon counter and we all waited while she looked over the selection, changed her mind several times and, after what seems like a very long time, finally got her eight balloons . It’s the trade off for scoring some fun stuff at a cheap price.   Just for the record, our family works diligently to make sure no balloons get released into the air to later collapse into the ocean to add to an already polluted situation.

Continuing on that note, with few exceptions, everything in this store comes from China.  I recognize the American consumer has, over the past twenty or thirty years, built up the Chinese economy to such a point they are now a major power.  On the other hand, I could argue our purchasing of those items has provided incomes to those who most need it. On the other hand, China’s record on the abuse in the workplace of women and children in particular, is poor.

When I spy the bin with the Weekly Specials front and center as  you enter the door, I have to take a look.  Will it be a solar light for my garden, a plate and matching mug in a lovely shade of green or orange, or some cute little animal or person that bobbles its head when the sun hits a minute solar panel as it sits on my kitchen window ledge.  I have quite the collection now – the Easter bunny, flowers in a pot, Thanksgiving Pilgrims, Santa Elf, Snowman…

Oh, I am feeling the pull. There must be something I need today that means I must make a trip to the store. It has been at least three days since I went and a lot of new stuff has probably arrived. I had better get in there quick before it is gone!

 

 

 

 

 

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A Tale of Two Sisters

 

From L to R : Violet, Nellie and daughter Pamela

Seventy years ago, two sisters, Nellie and Violet came into my life. Such sweet, old fashioned names for two charming, well bred upper class English ladies. Nellie was my grandmother and Violet her sister. They grew up in Sussex, England, in a large Tudor-like house with land and cottages inhabited by those who worked for the family, such as the cook, gardener, the man who took care of the pigs, the groom and house servants.

Bolney Grange, Bolney, Sussex, England

Nellie the youngest, was born in 1886. Their lives were privileged with a Governess as tutor and meals cooked and served by servants. Sewing, reading, painting, riding and attending balls filled their days. Nellie went on to marry a man named Sydney whose business interests lay in the diamond mines of South Africa.

It is my Great Aunt Violet (whom I always called Aunite V) that I write about. I look at photos of her and I see myself. While Nellie appears young and innocent, in Violet I see a certain defiance and independence. Violet was fun loving, flouting social mores of the time and unconventional in her thinking.

In those days, before WWI, the upper classes in Britain did not mix socially with those who served them. There was, as portrayed on popular BBC television series such as “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey,” an understood arrangement whereby those living upstairs did not concern themselves with the lives of the staff who worked in the kitchen, scullery, laundry and so forth, located in the basement.

Watching Downton Abbey, I have always had a suspicion that Julian Fellows must have known about my great aunt Violet. It was Violet, you see, who disregarded those social rules insofar as she became quite friendly with the family chauffeur who was from France. More than just friendly, they eloped! They didn’t just pop over to the local Magistrate for a quickie wedding. No, they eloped to France!

Alas, poor Violet. Upon arriving in France, the French paramour promptly dumped her. Here she was, this product of a privileged society suddenly on her own. She could not return home to England. She had embarrassed the family name and efforts were made to keep the scandal to a minimum.

The family supported Violet financially and she eventually found her way to Mougins, a little village up in the hills above Cannes in the south of France.

Auntie V with two of her many dogs

It was the circumstances of marriage that brought me into the lives of Nellie and Violet, Nellie’s husband Sydney died when their daughter Pamela, my mother, was about fifteen. The grand house was sold and Nellie and her daughter moved to London. It was WWII in London with bombs falling, sirens wailing and food rationing. These were hard and dangerous times for residents of London. Back in the south of France my maiden aunt continued to live alone and took in a few stray animals for company. Then she took in more. The war left many dogs, casts, pet marmoset monkeys and birds without homes. She took them all in. There were two houses on the property and one became the rescue shelter.

After the war, as a young girl, my grandmother and I, along with my mother and her new husband, would travel by train to visit my Auntie V. We traveled on the renowned Pullman steam train known as the the Golden Arrow from Victoria Station, through the English countryside, across the channel by boat and then caught the elegant overnight train, Le Train Bleu (The Blue Train) to Nice. I remember the cabin I shared with my Gran and the little private bathroom. To this day I am carried back to that memory whenever I spy a small shiny stainless steel sink!

How different it felt to be in my Auntie V’s village of Mougins. There were wonderful scents unknown to me in England – lavender, rosemary, citrus blossoms and outrageous colors of purple bougainvillea and scarlet geraniums. I had never seen cactus before, especially the very large ones that were twice my size.

When we were not at the beach in Cannes or Juan les Pins, I hung around the kitchen door while Jacque, the resident cook made stews for all the animals.
Auntie V was delightfully eccentric. Not only did she house more than a dozen animals (seventy two animals were living on the upon her death), she dressed to suit herself and not the fashion of the times. This was the late 1940’s and early 1950’s but Auntie V’s clothes were stuck back in the 1930’s fashions with cloche hat, calf length plain dresses, “sensible” sturdy shoes and if we went into town for an ice cream, she dressed up by adding her real fox fur complete with beady eyes, thrown over one shoulder.

I lived alone with my grandmother until she died when I was eleven years old. I did not have many close friends and my Auntie V became my confidante. I poured out my feelings, thoughts and opened my heart to this woman through very long letters. She, bless her heart, took the time to reply. Those letters were a lifeline, especially after my grandmother’s death and I went to live with my mother, her husband and their two children, my half brother and sister.

These two sisters, one widowed, one a spinster, shaped my life. Nellie helped me see the beauty in simple things – a small vase of yellow primroses on the kitchen table, the pleasure of getting lost in reading books, the importance of good manners, etiquette and respect for history and tradition.

Auntie V always strikes a pose in photos!

It was Auntie V and my memories of her that showed me I could break away from my grandmother’s more austere Victorian upbringing and that I should never be afraid to follow my dreams and above all, be true to myself. To those two sister, long gone, Nellie and Violet, thank you.

Posted in England, Family, France, Memoirs | 10 Comments

A Little bit of Crumpet

This morning I opened the refrigerator for milk for my morning cup of tea, and staring back at me was an unfamiliar package. “Ah, husband has been shopping at Trader Joes again” I thought to myself. I looked closer at the bag and it said “Classic British Muffins (Low Fat).” As if to really push home their authenticity, there are portraits of Prime Ministers Disraeli and Gladstone on the package.

Of course in Britain, we don’t call these round discs of dough Muffins. No, in Britain we refer to these as crumpets. They have a somewhat hardened top often with bits of loose flour and very uneven highly textured and crumbly inside.

Feeling a bit peckish, I decided I would give one a go. I was expecting to be very disappointed. I mean “Low Fat” to me is a sure give away that it will be tasteless and certainly not authentic.

Pulling the two halves apart very carefully, to preserve the crumbly texture, I popped them into the toaster. It is important to get them really crispy for the flavor to come through. Then I added butter and creamed honey and waited.

Oh my, suddenly I had a flashback to when I was thirteen years old and spending a day with my best buddy.  I remember it was winter and was one of those overcast Sunday afternoons and there was a break in the weather so we could go out exploring. On this particular day, we went down to the mud flats of the River Thames. When the tide is out, you could walk below the walls of the Embankment and slosh around with your Wellington boots on, kicking up all sorts of treasures. It was not uncommon to find many glass beer mugs intact lying in the mud from a habit that seemed prevalent at the time, of tossing your mug into the river when empty. Since many pubs lined the Thames, there was lots of tossing. Broken smoking pipes, lots of rusted bits of iron and all sorts of broken glass and pottery. I don’t remember us finding any treasures but it was certainly a lot of fun.

When we were thoroughly muddy, cold and hungry we returned to the flat of my friend’s grandmother. She had tea all ready for us.  The  teapot was snug under its hand crocheted cosy and the plate of muffins lay waiting for us to spear them on a long fork to toast them over the electric fireplace.

Then came the butter, smeared heavily over the crispy hot surface until it ran down our fingers and we licked it up quickly as if it were a melting ice cream cone.

The ritual of afternoon tea in Britain may vary from one home to another, even from one part of England to another but that particular act of toasting a crumpet over an electric heater is one of the best rituals ever. But don’t trust me, give it a go. Remember, if Disraeli and Gladstone have their names and faces on the package, it had better be authentic!

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Hoarder of Memories

It happens every year. I cannot help it. As soon as December 25th has passed, I am itching to get everything Christmassy put away. I am just so over it by the time Boxing Day arrives (that’s the day after Christmas and no, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the sport ) that I am irritable, restless and short tempered.

The big plastic bins are surreptitiously brought in from the garage and I quietly begin the process of removing themed items from around the house. I don’t want to make a big deal of this because my husband grew up in a family that left their decorations up until past New Year’s.   As it is, I have managed, after forty seven years, to persuade him to honor my British tradition of opening presents on Christmas Day and not on Christmas Eve.

The tree is the last to go out and once that is done, I can breathe a great sigh of relief that the turmoil, chaos, stress and hard work of the previous four weeks is finally over. I mean really, let’s face it, try as you can to ignore the upcoming holiday, it is hard to get away from Christmas when you see trees and ribbons for sale in Costco in September, stores are decorated in October and then you have Black Friday in November. It seems to go on forever.

This year the clearing out and cleaning up fever did not abate as it usually does. I took a look around my office/workshop and realized that for the past year items have been accumulating on the long counter top. Time to clean that all off and put those items away in the closet where they belong. Oh, but wait, there is absolutely no room in the closet and I can barely open the door because of the big box of wrapping paper, (how many birthdays would it take to use up all that paper?) easels I never use, a banjo I never play, boxes of decorative papers I think one day I will use in collages, bags of knitting wool (who has time to knit any more) and shelf upon shelf of open shoe boxes, each stuffed with slides and photographic prints. Thousands of prints, still in the envelopes as they came from the store.

I have traveled a good deal the past fifty years and have always taken photos. For quite a long time when you took your roll of film in to be developed, you were given an extra set of prints. What was I supposed to do? Toss perfectly good prints away? Of course not, I put them into shoe boxes and up on the shelf – in the other house.

Yes, those prints lived in our other house for thirty four years and then were transported four years ago to the new house and shoved onto shelves in the new closet and have never seen the light of day until now. Thousands of prints, and I don’t exaggerate (thirty six prints to an envelope and hundreds of envelopes) had to be looked at, considered, and then either they get saved or tossed. The saved ones are now categorized and in clear plastic boxes. Whether the blue lids will eventually go on top, remains to be seen!

Then there are the slides. How shocking to go through those and see the younger me as a seventeen year old riding around in the boy friend’s Bull Nosed Morris (that’s a 1923 open car) or climbing Ayres Rock in central Australia as a 19 year old. There were photos of my student life in Berkeley, my M.A field work in India , our wedding photos from 1971 and our first child.

Around 1974 I made the switch to prints. Most are of places I have visited with a few family photos scattered among them. Apart from family photos, I don’t know why I feel I need to keep the images of cathedrals, countryside, canals, cafes, twisting old stone streets but I just cannot let all of them go. A little part of me is saying that perhaps one day I will sit and just slowly savor each one and relieve the journey. The other more practical part of me says “Don’t me ridiculous. You already have 46,783 photos on iCloud!” Its true. I am obsessed with trying to capture the present and to hold onto it for as long as I can, at least until “death do us part.”

This obsession if that is what it is, has led to my keeping a diary since I was a teenager. That’s the other thing that is taking up space in that closet – dozens of journals of scribblings. But I ask you dear reader, wouldn’t you like to read your diary dating back to 1965? It was the year I came to America and traveled for 99 days for 99 dollars around the United States on a Greyhound bus. Now that makes for a good read!

If I wasn’t a hoarder of the past, all my shelves would be clear of shoe boxes of slides, photos and diaries. Goodness, then I would have no excuse but to clean up that counter top once and for all!

 

 

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PARADISE LOST

Halloween in the mountain community known as Paradise, California, was much like Halloween in any other small town. Children dressed up in hand made and store bought costumes, going in groups from door to door, shyly holding out their bags and mumbling a quick thank you (if they remember!) before dashing to the next home.

Just a week later, on November 8, life was forever changed. The worst fires this nation has ever seen, roared to life, eradicating an entire town. In a matter of hours and days, 13,972 homes and businesses would be gone. Aerial photos showed a vast grey mass of desolation, with nothing but flattened homes and foundations and chimneys standing sentinel.

Saturday 15th December was the first day that residents who lost their homes in the fire, were allowed back into the area. My friend Michael asked me if I would go with him to search through the ashes of his home to see if there was anything salvageable. Of course I agreed. I realized just how emotional this experience must be for those who have lost absolutely everything, including their home. All the memories, valuables and personal items gone. Sadly, in Michael’s case, gone also were his three cats.

It was a very dull, gloomy, heavily overcast day with lingering fog. We drove up the long road towards the town at first seeing nothing but charred trees. Then came the burned out cars abandoned by the side of the road. It was a chilling reminder that not everyone was able to escape. One woman lost her eighty year old aunt who was found beside her car, unable to escape the flames. The cars had large orange crosses on them to indicate to volunteers that the car had been checked for human remains.

We arrived at a police check point. My friend’s ID verified that he was a resident and we moved forward onto the second checkpoint. Here we were handed two large plastic bags containing a white suit with hood, mask and bootees. We were entering an area where there were toxic chemicals on the ground and contaminated ash.

Me in protective gear ready to search…

Then we saw the homes, or what was left of them. Behind melted plastic fences and charred iron gates, was twisted metal from awnings and garden umbrellas, collapsed roofs, jagged stucco walls, chimneys, and so much rubble and ash. We were quiet, shaking heads in disbelief at such total destruction. Amidst this stark grey scene, there was one house, intact, with rocking chair still on the porch and geranium baskets hanging. The opening scene of the original film “Wizard of Oz” flashed into my mind, when the black and white film suddenly changed to color. It only served to highlight the horror all around.

We arrived at his home or what was left of it. As we pulled up, he murmured rather quietly, “Holy Shit.” What else could you say when your life for the last seventeen years now lay flattened to the ground. We got out of the car, donned the protective garb, pulled on heavy gloves and grabbed a plastic bag hoping there would be treasures to retrieve. I suppose a sense of humor helps at this point and I was relieved that he picked up the mailbox lying on the ground and wondered aloud if perhaps he had mail?

We walked onto his front lawn to see what had once been his home, now collapsed and nothing but a huge pile of wires, pipes, metal, glass, ash and more ash. My friend was a bit of a collector, to put it mildly, and so there was a lot of stuff for that fire to burn up. “Where is my Tiffany lamp” he asked and tried to work out where that would have been. The house was so badly destroyed it was hard to navigate the rooms. The brick fireplace was the only real indicator as to where we were standing at any one time. “Ah, here it is” he said as he lifted up the burnt and twisted base of his lamp.

A stone lion was still guarding the fireplace, but now the face was broken and the body turned black. There were vases, a lot of vases, buried in the ashes, broken and fused with other items. Out back, bicycle frames, exercise equipment, electric tools, tennis racquets – everything burned but for the metal. His guest house was gone. The barn that was filled with years of collecting furniture, papers, jewelry, camera equipment, tools etc. now nothing but a concrete perimeter foundation filled with piles of ash, soggy from the rains that followed the fire.

His car parked in the driveway was nothing but a shell with the big orange X on its hood.

        

We left sooner than I had expected. There really was nothing to save. Except for one terracota Della Robia face lying on the ground near the back steps. It went by itself, into one of the plastic bags. That was it.

Across the street his neighbor and family, also dressed like snowmen in their white suits, were sifting through the remains of their home. It had been a two story house with lovely grounds and a pool. They had two daughters and a son living just a few blocks away. Except for one daughter whose home was spared, both the other two homes are also gone. What an incredible misfortune to hit this family.

Everyone has a story. Karen the neighbor told how her daughter with a six month old and two year old heard about the fire around 7.30 that morning but did not realize how quickly the fire would be upon them. When she saw flames she grabbed the kids and rushed over to the elementary school to collect her four year old. Imagine the frustration when the school would not allow her son Luke to come out to her and so she had to unstrap the two youngsters  from their car seats, carry the baby and toddler into school to get Luke and back into the car. With the fire moving so fast, they only just managed to get out of town. Meanwhile, the brother who has a severe hearing problem, was asleep in his home and knew nothing of what was going on. His sister physically went to his home to get him out. He in turn went next door to get the elderly couple out of their house and made sure they drove away before he himself escaped to safety.

 

So many near escapes. My friend Michael believes he would have died in the fire had he not decided, on a whim, to go meet his friends for coffee at the local donut shop. It was 7.30 in the morning. As he left his home, he saw smoke across the street and assumed it was just someone burning leaves. During the last major fire in Paradise, he refused evacuation and stayed in the home and it was his good fortune that the fires stopped before reaching his property. Had he stayed home before leaving for work as usual around nine o’clock he would still have been in the home, refusing to leave, fighting to protect his property. Fate intervened and he was directed along with others, to an evacuation center in Chico.

There is nothing left of the downtown. Will people rebuild? Some may but the community is shattered. There is currently no safe water, septic systems are impaired, no power, and no neighbors. The church is gone as is the school and stores are burned to the ground. Paradise is prone to fires and there is little doubt there will be more fires in the future. Many people will relocate and others will think twice before building and risk losing a home for the second time. My friend Michael will not return. He will sell the land and start life anew someplace else. It is not easy at seventy years of age to start all over again, but happily I think he sees this as an opportunity to move closer to the ocean, away from trees that can burn, and experience a less cluttered life. His Paradise is lost, but paradise is a state of mind and I believe he will find it again.

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I confess, I am spontaneous.  Some might say “Sally is impulsive” but that has a more negative tone than “spontaneous.” Whatever adjective you use, I have to admit that sometimes I really should be more careful about what I sign up for!

A few months ago I was reading an article about the Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage trail in southern Japan.  It sounded intriguing, somewhat romantic and certainly “out of the ordinary.” (magazine photo of couple in traditional Heian dress)

Walking the Kumano Pilgrim trail

Without much further investigation or research, I impulsively purchased a ticket to Osaka. Three hours train ride and a bus trip later, I was at the beginning of the trail.

The Kii Peninsula has been associated with nature worship since prehistoric times and there are three main shrines in this region which have been pilgrimage destinations for the imperial family and aristocrats since the 10th century. The Kumano Kodo trail is one of two UNESCO recognized pilgrimage routes. The other being the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain.

Green indicates the major Shrines. I was on the trail to lower shrine.

Walking those 500 plus miles on the Santiago trail a few years ago, was a highlight of my life. I thought I would enjoy the Kumano as much as the Camino trail. After all, it is only ninety six miles! I looked forward to seeing old villages, farms, open fields, wonderful vistas and interesting insights into local life.  However, it turned out to be quite a different experience.

The entire five days are in the mountains among forests  with occasional vistas over more forested mountains. Had I studied topographical maps before I committed to this trip, I would have quickly realized that this just was not the trip for me, not someone with a bad knee that objects strongly to stairs. I was warned that this was a Level 4 hike. Is that a 4 out of 10? I was soon to find out that is 4 out of 5 and that I probably need a Level 1 on my next trip!

The first day was a killer.  Most everyone I met agreed it was indeed one of the hardest days.   We climbed a mere 2.8 miles but with 1214 feet ascent with boulders as high as 30 inches.  The path was entirely in the trees and never seemed to end.   Every time you thought surely you had reached the top, higher and higher went the trail.

While the book claimed it was a quick two hour hike, most everyone took at least 3 ½ hours. One young man did it in just under two hours but two days later, had to give up entirely because his knee had gone out.   It took me five hours to reach the small village where I was staying the night. Already it was dusk, the sky darkening with storm clouds which had been gathering most of the afternoon. What had started as a pleasant sunny day was now dark, ominous and I was lost.  I had walked past the little trail that led to my inn for the night. Thankfully a farmer,  took pity on me, flagged down a neighbor who made a call to my ryokan to verify that I was their missing guest and then took me in his car to the inn just as the rains came down.

My first night wearing a yakata. Note traditional open fire pit behind me.

Ryokans are quaint at first, but the four inch pad on the tatami mat is not the same as a mattress. There is a nice puffy duvet but the pillow takes some getting used to.  It is hard and filled with rice husks.

Then in the night, if you have to get up, you fish around for the flashlight, open the sliding shoji screens, put on slippers, pad down the hall to the toilet, (which is low on the floor and you crouch over it) slip out of the slippers and then into special bathroom slippers, repeating the process back to the futon pad (about four inches thickness) and by then, you are wide awake. Don’t even mention the sixteen hours jet lag.

When I arrived at my ryokan on that first night  exhausted and utterly at the end of my endurance, I was given a room within the kitchen.  A platform and paper Shoji screens separated my space from the stove.  I had to lie there recovering from my five hour hike (remember it was supposed to take just two hours…) listening to slicing, chopping, sizzling, fridge door opening and closing, kettle boiling, dishes, splashing water…  After the meal, it was more noise as clean-up progressed.  To top it all off, at 5.45 the next morning, the whole process began again as they owner prepared breakfast for myself and the other single guest.

There was a fearful storm in the night.  I lay there (between my trips down the hall) listening to the storm rage around the home and point the roof above me. Suffering from jet lag, I lay wide awake, thinking about the day ahead and anxious about climbing those rocks which would be slippery, my poncho flapping around me, my poles sticking in the mud. I decided that henceforth I would forget about pushing myself to do something that was not enjoyable and instead, I would take a bus to each nightly destination.  I was glad to learn on the fifth day, that no one I met had hiked every day.  All agreed it was extremely difficult and frankly, just not rewarding.  The path is entirely in forest with few vistas and apart from a few simple shrines (usually rocks with inscriptions) en route, there is little to see on the hike. However, the main Shinto shrines are grand, imposing, spiritual destinations and fortunately, accessible by frequent bus service!

Shrine at Nachi-Taisha in the Kumano route

I prescribe to the tortoise and the hare method of climbing.  Very slow, plodding ever upwards.  A blog I had read said (i) it was easy to get lost on the trail.  Wrong. There are little blue tiles along the path whenever there might be a question as to where the trail went. (ii) The same writer said you could go a whole day and not see anyone.  Wrong again.  I was passed up by at least two dozen people, all looking as if they were out for a Sunday stroll while I lay splayed across a rock, trying to catch my breath.  Admittedly, I was carrying 24 lbs on my back and they were wearing just day packs.  (iii) This same blog writer said that sending your luggage ahead was risky and it takes two days.  Poppycock to that.  Admittedly it does cost $25 a day per back, but the service is very reliable.

It was precisely 7pm on our final night and by now, after six days staying in small Japanese inns (Ryokan) we knew not to be late to arrive for dinner.  Everything would be laid out at each place setting, meticulously arranged and worthy of yet another photo to post on Facebook to make our friends totally envious.

One place setting for our final night dinner.

There was a bustle of noise as shoji doors were slid open, murmur of voices and the padding of slippered feet along the hallway.  We were all dressed in identical yakata (printed cotton robes secured with a belt tied in a bow.) I couldn’t but help thinking of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Three Little Maids from School are we….”

Some of the folks gathering in the dining room I already had met on the trail or at ryokans on previous evenings.  This was our last night since we had reached the end of the trail and tomorrow we would be moving on with our Japan adventures or traveling home.  I was looking forward to spending my last night with some delightful travelers from Australia whom I had come to know during the week.  But it was not to be.  The ladies of the house had decided where we were to sit based on our room number and I was placed across from a man with a strong Australian accent who introduced himself as Dan. In less than a minute, before I had even stirred my miso, Dan asked, “So, did you experience any spiritual enlightenment on the trail?” For once, I found myself without knowing quite what to say.  At first I thought “Goodness, that’s the kind of question I myself would ask of a stranger!”  Then, realizing he was being serious and not joking , I thought  “that’s a pretty heavy question to ask someone you have just met.”

I squirmed around a bit, stretching my legs out on the tatami mat under the Japanese style table that was about sixteen inches off the ground. I hoped I wouldn’t poke Dan in some awkward spot.   Except for one guest, everyone one of us chose not to sit in the traditional Japanese style where you place your knees on the floor and then sit back on the top of your feet with the tops of the feet flat on the floor.  We were all sitting, legs stretched out under the table, trying to avoid hitting the person across the table. Sitting for a long time in this fashion, with no back support, can be tiring.

Getting back to Dan’s question about having a spiritual awakening, I would have to say, on greater reflection, that I did have an awakening of sorts. I had to come to terms with my own physical limitations. I hate to admit that I cannot do all those things that I once could do.  That includes heavy uphill hikes.  Next time I see a hike labeled LEVEL FOUR, I know to steer clear!  Perhaps I have also learned to be a bit more careful about what I sign up for – read the fine print and don’t believe other people’s blogs!

 

Posted in Camino de Santiago, Japan, Kumano Kodo | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Me? Spontaneous?

“Spontaneous” was one of the three words used by friends to describe my personality. We were playing a parlor game (do they still call these games “parlor games” since most of us no longer have a parlor?) where we describe one another using just three adjectives.

My husband of 45 years has borne the brunt of my spontaneity over and over again. He rolls his eyes when someone says “Oh your wife, she is so spontaneous!”  He is only too happy to tell them about the “Geneva Incident.”  We were traveling around Switzerland,  in a VW pop up camper with our three children aged three, eight and ten. (How I so wish we had kept that beloved van….)

On this particular day, we were parked right by the lake about 25-30 miles from the city of Geneva itself, having lunch.  The table was set, cheese, bread, and fruit were laid out.  The children were playing down by the water. The perfect picnic in a most perfect spot.

Suddenly a boat came into our view across the lake, slowed and pulled up into a dock not more than a hundred yards down from where we were parked.  Here is where the “do it now, think about it later” syndrome hit.  I raced over to the dock to find out where this lovely boat was going.  I discovered it was going across the lake to the city of Geneva. I ran back to the family and said to the kids, probably a sense of urgency in my voice, “Quick, now, grab a sweater, we are going for a boat ride.”  “See you in Geneva,” I called out to Lee, almost as an afterthought.

Before husband Lee could realize what was going on, I was clip-clopping down the dock in my sandals toward the boat, with three kids trying to keep up.  I saw that the ferry was leaving in just a few minutes.  Tickets in hand, clambered aboard, “toot toot,” and off we went.

 

There was Lee.  Totally bewildered as to what had just happened.  He had to pack up all the lunch things, close up the camper, and turn to several maps trying to figure out how to get himself into Geneva by road.

Now in case you don’t know, Geneva happens to be a rather large city.  It has a huge lakeside harbor with a famous fountain in the center.

The harbor is shaped sort of like a crescent, and has a lot of boats docking there from all over the lake.  Lee had no idea whatsoever which boat we were on, what dock it would head towards, and at what time it would arrive there.  Upon arriving in Geneva, he proceeded to drive back and forth along the broad street that circles the harbor, trying to watch for our particular boat.

Meanwhile, The kids and I were having a lovely time out on the water.  “What a great idea” I thought, patting myself on the back for giving the kids such a special outing.It was a lovely cruise on the lake.

We got off the ferry in Geneva, and looked around for Lee but couldn’t see the white van anywhere.  So we strolled around, picked up ice cream cones and ambled around the water front.  I am not quite sure how it happened, but purely by chance, the kids and I were standing on a corner enjoying our ice creams when Lee pulled up in the van for a red traffic light.  At first we didn’t see each other, but then he glanced over to the nearby sidewalk and there we all were !!   He leaned on the horn, and we all piled into the van. The light changed to green, and off we went.

Us in the Swiss Alps (before the “Geneva Incident”

Our state of mind needless to say, was rather different to his.  The kids and I were in an easy happy mood.   Lee was absolutely fuming, livid.   He had spent nearly a frantic hour driving around to all the docks searching for us, without a clue as to where he might find us.   As I remember, he didn’t say a word to any of us for well over an hour as we drove across the border into France.

Spontaneous I am. No doubt about it.  Plunge in and then worry about the consequences later. But look at the experiences I would have missed had I thought about so many opportunities first.  I don’t know about you, but I find it is pretty easy to talk oneself out of something if you wait long enough.

As for the other two adjectives used to describe me, they are less exciting than being “spontaneous.”  Take a moment, ask yourself, what three words would you use to describe yourself.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Family, Memoirs, Switzerland, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Chianti Classico

 

Le Freschette Agritourismo, Radda, Ital

I was stretched out on a lounge chair, sedated by a carbohydrate-loaded lunch of bruschetta with sweet tomatoes, and pates of white beans, mushrooms and liver, followed by home made pasta with a rich ragu sauce.  The finale had been a toss up  between the Tiramasu or Panacotta with red berries. The wine was from the grapes growing in the fields below me, here in the Chianti region of Italy.

My eyes were shut, I was drowsy with satisfaction and just about to drift off when there was a low rumble in the distance.  I would have let it rumble along but my sister woke me from my reverie ” What’s that?” She asked.  I knew I would have to bring my consciousness to the surface to answer.  Should I just ignore her, or come up with a joke.  Too tired to think of something along humorous lines, I told her it was just a storm over in the distance.  I squinted out of one eye at the pure blue sky decorated with a few puffs of white clouds.  Closed my eyes again and let myself sink once more into that delightful state of blankness.

 

The rumble was louder this time. I again opened one eye just the tiniest bit. “Oh oh, what happened in the last few minutes?”  The clouds had all come together to form a large black mass that was hanging ominously overhead.  The patchwork of countryside was now partly in shade while the rest was sunny.  Uncanny.  More rolling thunder and getting closer and closer. I sat up, looked at the sheets and laundry hanging limply on the line and wondered if the Signorina would be out to rescue them.

The air cooled, I retreated into our apartment expecting a rainstorm any moment.

Memories of childhood summers spent with my aunt at her home in the hills above Cannes in the south of France, came flooding back. There the skies would open and there would be torrential rain, lightening, thunder and just as suddenly, it would end. The sun would come back out and the water would be lifted back up as steam.

Not today.  The thunder did its best but no rain followed. It left and once more we were basking in warm sunshine.  Perched on the old stone wall, dotted with occasional terracota pots with red and white begonias, I looked out on this amazing scene that had not changed in hundreds of years.

Other homes, as old as the fifteenth century stone farmhouse that we were staying in, were off in the distance.

Patches of olive groves, swaths of vineyards, fruit trees, tall cypress and other vegetation all fitted together like jigsaw pieces to create a divine landscape.  This is the Chianti district of Italy, the area below Florence but above Siena.  Famous for hundreds of years for producing red wine, almost every farm had a vineyard and either processed its own grapes, or took them to the Black Rooster coop.  The shelves of the local supermarket as well as speciality stores are filled with wines bearing the names of many of the small communities of this area.

Wines from Le Freschette, each year a label with an image of her children

Our agritourismo where we are staying in Radda, Le Fraschette, is just one of hundreds of wineries that makes its wine from start to finish.

Excitement around the farm is building as relatives begin to arrive to prepare for the harvest in just four days time. About twenty people will turn up and clippers in hand, will pick the grapes from the field below us.

 

They will work long hours and be done in just two days. Already relatives are arriving to prepare for the big day.  The workers have to be fed.

It’s time to let the dogs out, grab the guns and go hunting!  Dogs have an uncanny sense of time and for the past couple of days they have been baying and howling, anxious to be released to join the fun.  Male members of the extended family are arriving for an early start in the morning and there is anticipation of bringing home at least twenty rabbits for the women to make into Ragu de Coniglio to go with all that home made pasta.  The bottles from last year’s harvest are ready to be enjoyed along with the meal.

Le Fraschette is an idyllic spot to simply slow down and savor the timeless simplicity of a life lived on this very estate for over five hundred years.  Desiree Gagliardi, our hostess, came to live here twenty years ago when she married into the family – a family that has lived within these old stone walls for many generations.

        

The wine label for Le Freschette Chianti.

Desiree is the only one with a rudimentary knowledge of English and an absolute delight.  There are two apartment on the grounds and we had a choice.

Our apartment

View from our terrace

I couldn’t resist the one with the window offering a scene as if lifted from a Renaissance painting.

View out the kitchen window

What a pity that we cannot stay as long as the previous tenant, a couple who drive here every year from Denmark to enjoy three long weeks of peace and tranquility. At the very least, if we could just stay to help with the harvest…. Sadly, we will have to return again another year or maybe we should come back in November when it’s time to pick the olives?

Posted in Food, Italy, Memoirs, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments