Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Just an ordinary day

I am having the best day ever.

Up at 6am so I could drive Chris to work and then drop the car at the dealer for some minor maintenance, I was on the train this morning by 8am on my way downtown Stuttgart with the challenge of filling the day. With nasty weather outside, Starbucks was an easy choice to start the day.  (At this time of year I'd rather dodge snow dumping from the sky than this nasty, rainy, slush-making business.)

I spent the first three and a half hours in the upstairs lounge at my favorite Starbucks.  I'd been worried I'd grow bored sitting with my laptop in a coffee shop, but I was being ridiculous, apparently.  I was a machine, putting together a calendar for the upcoming year for the Writers' Group, working on a story I've been miraculously focused on lately, and up catching up with a few friends via e-mail.  Something I've noticed is that I'm constantly saying to friends that I'd like to "catch up," when what I should be doing is staying up in the first place.  I hear a resolution coming...  A delicious peppermint mocha and a nice stretch of time later, I left my cozy spot  to seek out something for lunch.

Sushi for lunch is awesome, and sushi for one is a nice way to spend an hour.  After that I walked (almost) straight to the store that shall remain unnamed (in case Chris actually reads a blog of mine) to find and purchase the one little thing I'd been looking for all over to complete Chris' Christmas, but what apparently is only carried downtown.

After that success I did a little window shopping until I passed an old man sitting against a cement building, his hat set in front of him with a few coins inside and a tired look on his face.  With nothing in particular to do, I shopped the nearby Christmas Market stands for a good deal on some food, settling on some bratwursts in a sliced baguette and a mug of gluhwein.  While attempting not to spill as I shuffled through a sea of shoulders and shopping bags, I was surprised to hear my name.  It was Sarah and her husband, Matthew, downtown for some shopping and getting food, themselves.  Sarah, I recently met through a mutual friend, and her husband, I met right then.  We chatted a minute and then I explained I needed to make a quick run, but I'd be back.  When I handed the old man the brats and gluwein, his eyes red with what I hope was fatigue and not drunkeness, he said thank you and that was all I needed.  I spent the next little bit talking with Sarah and Matthew until it was again time to wander.

I ended up wandering right back to the same Starbucks at which I'd begun my day, this time with a less fancy coffee, but a big, fancy, chocolate cookie to put a cherry on the afternoon.  And I just felt like writing about today, because so many days pass right by without much appreciation for all the good they bring: I didn't want to let this one go by without some gratitude.

I started this year reading a book called The Happiness Project, by Gretchin Rubin, where a writer devotes an entire year to becoming a happier person.  Each chapter is devoted to one month and one set of goals to achieve the main goal for that month.  As I often do, I started it with gusto but got lazy about half-way through.  But last night something made me pick it up and I read through a chapter devoted to gratitude.  Gretchin writes about how easily we overlook all the good in our lives, and how unfortunate it is to wait until some catastrophe wakes us up to really appreciate it.  In an attempt to learn from other people's catastrophes, she tried turning each aggravation into gratitude, and I really like that.  So today, I was grateful to be up early because that meant I got to come downtown and explore on my own for the day.  And I'm grateful that I had to come downtown (not having a way to get anywhere else) because I've gotten some serious writing done today, saw some friends, found that last gift for my husband, and got to feed somebody who was hungry.  (If you're one who scoffs at people who fall for the sympathy act along major shopping streets, think of it like this:  most of us will spend $10 on 2 coffees from Starbucks, like I've done today, without a second thought, so why can't we spend the same to put some hot food and maybe a little hot, mulled wine in someone's stomach?  There's a reason I don't give money when I pass someone with their hand out, but something's happened to someone whose dignity allows them to openly beg, and I don't mind sharing some kindness with a stranger.)

Did I mention the sun came out, too?

So today I'm grateful that I have people to shop for for Christmas, that I have the means to spend the day wandering and writing in a city buzzing with the season and drinking overpriced coffee, and that I'm still lucky enough to have a full-functioning body and a home to return to tonight.  Although there are countless things I'm thankful for today, at this moment that which I am most grateful is that today is just an ordinary day in my life.  And I think that's pretty spectacular.

Have a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a Festive Kwanzaa, and a Great Festivus, and a new year overflowing with joy and success.  I hope that if you're reading this, you know how much I appreciate the fact that you take the time to stop by.  I also hope that if you haven't done so in a while, you'll stop and think about the ordinary things that make your life good.

Love and happiness to all.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Why Did Constantinople Get The Works?

Istanbul
Day 1


Chris and I in front of the Blue Mosque
Turkey Day in Turkey, a concept that honestly did not occur to me until the day before flying out, but one that came to everyone else's mind immediately when I told them where we were headed for the long weekend.  Yes, this Thanksgiving we decided to go to Istanbul, which I learned years ago via They Might Be Giants, was Constantinople (Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople), along with the fact that even old New York was once New Amsterdam.  Why'd they change it?  I can't say.  (People just liked it better that way.)  You gotta love history lessons through music.

So we were off to the farthest place east I've ever been, ready to brave the chaos of the bazaars and for me to step into Asia for the first time.  We were eager to search out certain street food and learn what it's like to walk around a city where many citizens drop prayer rugs in the streets for when the call to prayer rises up from nearby mosques.  And although not every aspect of this trip was spectacularly positive, it was an amazing experience we won't soon forget.

Thanks to the recommendation of a friend (thanks, Melody!), we stayed in great little pension right in Old Istanbul with views of the famous Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya from the roof terrace, called Side Hotel and Pension.  Clean, inexpensive, and perfectly located, our trip was off to a great start at 11pm Wednesday night upon check-in.  We planned out the next few days and settled in for a good night's rest...

...and then, Good morning, Istanbul!  The 5:45am call to prayer rising from the city and into our windows was a little startling coming out of a deep sleep.  Being my first time in a Muslim country I had no idea that I wouldn't have to worry about setting my alarm, for the amplified song-like prayers to start the day would do the job.  I opened my eyes and listened, unsure of what I was hearing, half-convinced I was still dreaming.  Chris, of course, slept right through it, but I listened to the whole thing before going back to sleep for a couple more hours.

We started the first day at the Blue Mosque, a grand and beautiful house of Muslim worship.  It wasn't required of visiting women to cover their hair, but they had covers available outside the doors where we took off our shoes, so I tried one out, out of respect, before entering this massive structure.  The ceilings were dizzying but the air very calm, despite the waves of tourists ever entering through the doors.  We chose not to visit during a time of prayer because I knew it would be too difficult for me not to photograph what I saw, something visitors are asked not to do.  So we wandered and took it in, appreciating the beauty of such a place, then went on our way to see the former mosque, Aya Sofya nearby.




This is where the stories and warnings truly begin for any future travelers to this great city, for we were and you will be pulled in to one of the many attempts to sucker you into considering buying a fine, Turkish carpet, what you would think must be the life blood of this place by the actions on its devoted vendors.

"Mr. Sarasota"

His English was perfect and he was wearing a Sarasota, Florida golf club jacket when he called out to us as we passed, making our way around other obvious salesmen to Sofya ahead.  "American?" he asked.  "Canadian," we replied without slowing down.  "I'm not selling anything, I was just curious.  I'm from Florida."  He smiled and we turned around, embarrassed of our rudeness.  "We are, too, actually" we said.  "I didn't think you sounded very Canadian," was his reply.

Aya Sofya, former mosque
And so the ruse began.  We were suckered into stopping to chat with a fellow Floridian, who turned out to be a Turkish man married to a South Carolina woman who has a house in Sarasota, or so the story goes.  We had no reason to question (strike that, we had yet to learn that we DID have reason to question), so we had a nice little conversation about Florida and Istanbul.  In the city to do some rug business (he sells in the States, you see), Mr. Sarasota was waiting for a friend in the square near Aya Sofya, enjoying the beautiful weather.  As we chatted (he even showed me his Florida driver's license), Mr. Sarasota asked if we planned on doing any rug shopping, and having stupidly not discussed this before leaving the hotel, we looked at each other for help, then answered honestly that we weren't sure.  Surely he was just curious, there are rug shops everywhere.  Well it turned out he's a manufacturer and seller of Turkish rugs (also a businessman in real estate, hotels, and restaurants), and offered to give us some hints on how to decipher between cheap and well-made, natural dyes versus chemical ones, a rip-off and a good deal.  "Do you have 15 minutes?  My office is just around the corner.  I sell wholesale so there's no sign out front advertising rug sales, but I do take clients by sometimes to take a look.  If you're going to buy a rug in this town, you need to know what to look out for."
Inside Aya Sofya
I know what you must be saying to yourself.  Just around the corner?  How convenient, of COURSE he's trying to make a sale!  But we had been pulled in, trusting him a little more because of his connection to our home state, wanting to believe he wasn't trying to lure us in to make money.  He's a successful businessman after all, he didn't need our money.  Bravo, Mr. Sarasota.

So against better judgement, we went for the lesson and the apple tea, both of which were great.  When fifteen minutes and a free lesson turned into nearly three hours and me really wanting to throw a few thousand dollars at him for a beautiful hand-woven, wool masterpiece of a carpet made with all natural dyes, it was clear we'd been had.  Luckily for us, Chris is more immune to such ploys than I, and we were able to escape without handing over a cent.  Mr. Sarasota had made excellent use of such sale tactics as authority (he was the owner and was the only one who could make us such an incredible deal), time sensitivity (we couldn't leave and think about it because he had an appointment and would have to call a guy with the credit card machine to run over since this office wasn't normally a shop for sales), and so on.  How could we walk away knowing we were throwing away such an amazing opportunity to own a beautiful piece of art which we could pass along to our children, paying just $3,000 instead of the $15,000 we would surely pay in the States?  He knew, KNEW we'd regret it once we got home and realized what a deal we let slip through our fingers.
Aya Sofya

So even though we lost a few hours on our first day in Istanbul to a sales ploy, we decided to call it a much needed lesson to start a trip that would surely be chock full of other opportunities to avoid.  (What was more interesting was upon scouring the internet that night at the hotel, Chris found descriptions of similar experiences with a Turkish man from Sarasota who had an office near Aya Sofya, with every weird detail lining up with our afternoon.  This man is skilled!)


Us in a few years?


Every line of children that passed was a long line of enthusiastic "Hello!"s
Inside the Basilica Cistern
Medusa Head One
Medusa Head Two
The rest of the day was more enjoyable, though slightly soured by the events of the morning as we lost a lot of time on one of the prettier days we'd have.  We made our way across Sultanahmet, the old section of Istanbul, walking through Aya Sofya and watching the fountain outside while groups of school children practiced their greetings in English on us.  We read about and visited the two Medusa heads down in the Basilica Cistern, and marveled at how many cats and dogs roam these streets.  The cats lounge on steps, window ledges, vendor tables, hanging rugs, and benches, while the dogs seemed to plop down just about anywhere for a snooze.  I was surprised at how well these strays seemed to be taken care of, as cats don't approach anyone who's wronged them and these cats were all over everybody.  The dogs, I noticed, had all been tagged in the ear and not one looked malnourished.  I guess Turkish hospitality doesn't stop with people.


And that was something that really stood out - the hospitality.  Having lived in Europe for nearly seven years thus far, Chris and I have grown accustomed to the world outside American customer service standards where wait staff live off tips and everybody's willing to go a little overboard for the sake of a happy customer.  In Istanbul, even though most of the time the warmth was likely motivated by the desire to lighten our wallets, it was still nice to be around.


Istanbul at night was just as beautiful as it was in the day, though we knew we had much more to explore in the coming days.  Our first day, Thanksgiving Day, concluded with some delicious Turkish cuisine at a restaurant called Amedros Bistro.  Excellent food, excellent service, and some nice tea at the end of the meal made for a memorable Thanksgiving in Turkey.

At the end of the evening that melodic question entered my mind... with how beautiful, friendly, and richly historic this place already was to us, why did Constantinople get the works?

That's nobody's business but the Turks.

Monday, November 22, 2010

...so what comes next?

Lemon Slushee is falling from the sky!

Wouldn't that be cool?

It's snowing outside, the first of the season, and since I wrote the first line, it's gone from slush to almost real snow.  It was an ice cold rain when Heidi went out a half hour ago, then morphed into slush, and now is gradually solidifying into fluff...weird since, usually isn't it the other way around?  But I digress.

I've been neglecting the blog.  When I think back to how incredibly supportive those who have been reading along with me have been, leaving me notes here or making real life comments in the land beyond the internet, I feel guilty for not keeping it up more consistently.  I think now as I've faced the milestone (and kind of scary one) of 30, it's time for what's next.

'Why does she harp on about 30, it's no big deal,' you ask.  But for someone who had expectations far greater than their present circumstances describe, 30 is the first evaluation point, the forced stop where all of this is judged.  And to be honest I've had some difficulty facing it.  Having fallen into a crazy fortunate situation I've not done badly, but I wanted more from myself, and it's hard to excuse that when I was such an over-achiever in my academic years prior to this wonderful chapter.  I wouldn't change anything about my life; I would, however, like to change the me in the middle of it.  I'm 30.  I can no longer hang onto the mentality that I've still got time, I'm in my 20's!  I don't have to grow up yet, it's not time to look at the next part of life, I'm in my 20's!  Because I'm not and it IS time to grow up a teensy bit more and face life's next chapter.  And whereas I'm excited to move into that next part, it's always scary leaving the familiar for the unknown.  Will I make something of my writing?  Will I fail and have to face that maybe writing, this part of who I am, is not what I should be doing?  Will we start a family?  Holy crap, and be somebody's parents?!  Making their decisions for them (which, I must admit, as a control freak sounds lovely at first), and hoping we're not screwing them up from the get-go?  And then not save them when they make the wrong decisions for themselves, but let them get hurt instead?  And then watch them grow up and go out and get their own lives and leave me behind like I didn't birth them from my own womb!

I get ahead of myself.  This is something I do, which overwhelms me back into a state of paralysis and not-doing, something out of which I need to grow.  Maybe that starts now.  Because here's the kick-start I may have been waiting for, the psychological punch to get me moving.  I do want to make something of my writing, and I do want to be a mother.  I want to do good things and contribute where I can.  But none of this even sets into motion until I make some changes, some commitments, and pour some super glue between me and them.

I'm not sure what will become of this blog, but I feel it might be ready to grow with me, and that's exciting for me.  What has thus far been a kind of sounding board for all that bounces around my head, a place to recount trips and visits, and a blank canvas ready for whatever I feel like splashing across it, might be in store for some morphing of its own.  I don't know yet, though, what I want it to be.  Many successful bloggers become that way by finding what makes them stand out in the blogosphere, a reason to be sought out among the masses.  A niche.  So what's mine?  Because once you define your niche, don't you have to stay there in all you write?  I don't think just me and my voice are unique enough to carry me to the next phase, as much as my ego would be delighted to think so.  So this is something I have to figure out, and perhaps a new blog will come of it, something more defined.  I'll let you know.

The snow has lightened up; I can see across the hills now.  Heidi has gone back upstairs to bed, but it's 8:30 in the morning and I have blogged something!  And it's something I think I needed to work out through my fingers, to see in typed words across my screen and know has been said.

After this, my focus will be on a new story I've been working on, something a little light-hearted, not my usual kind of short story.  We all need to step outside our comfort zones from time to time to see what's possible, right?

Thanks for reading.  I promise not to let so much time pass next time.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Big 3-0

It's happening.  I'm officially stepping out of my 20's and into the next decade of life - but not till next weekend!  The party was Saturday and it was fantastic, thanks to some truly amazing friends.  

Farrah in Barbara Walters mode - me with a mouthful already
The night was a celebration of the 80's, with appropriate games and music to complement the Ghostbusters and Goonies posters hanging on the walls.  Farrah came armed with delicious mac 'n cheese to pay homage to a childhood favorite, as well as a list of trivia questions from the year 1980.  Though I do believe I surprised them all with my fabulous knowledge of my birth year, by the end I was three shots of green apple vodka and about six pieces of Bubblicious gum in the wrong.  You see, for each incorrect response I was forced to choose between a piece of gum and a shot.  I think the massive wad of sugar did more to me than the vodka!

Check out this wad!
Chris and I tried our hands at homemade pizza to celebrate my favorite food from the teen years, and for my 20's, Ashley provided mudslides all around.  I was extremely lucky to have friends willing to take over many of the responsibilities I first set out to conquer all on my own, since I decided long ago that I wanted a party for this milestone birthday.  Thanks to Angela and Diane, there were '30s' strung around the house, balloons in every corner, birthday confetti, candles, and everything needed for food, drinks, and cake in coordinating colors.  Diane also sneakily coordinated with my mom Stateside to obtain a slew of childhood pictures that were fantastic to see again, and stood about the room for everyone to see.  The pigtails, the spiral perm in the 4th grade, the snaggle-toothed grin and hair-sprayed bangs...it was great.

Diane, me, & Angela
After a while, Sara called everyone's attention to a challenging game of 'Name That Tune' that she organized, which stumped everybody at some point.  With plenty of food all around for munching and dipping (thanks to Diane and Farrah for the help), one might have scoffed at the idea of adding cake to this food fest.


Perhaps any other cake, but not this one, made by my friend Amy, who designed it, baked it, and graciously accepted the praise from every party guest as we dug into this chocolate-peanut-butter ecstasy.  I loved the book on top so much (it's made of cake, too!!!), I'm saving it to enjoy on the 13th (my actual birthday), if I can leave it alone till then!

In true Lindsey fashion I wrote a toast, and as I'm incapable of being brief, it stretched the length of one of those super long steno pads.  Here is what I subjected my guests to before rewarding them with champagne...

Thirty.  It probably seems silly to fear this number - after all, you've all already surpassed this particular milestone :)   I've been hanging out in my 20's for so long, what's wrong with staying there and holding onto that college age mentality that says it's not quite time to grow up yet?  But as all things do, life progresses, and instead of just planning where we're going next summer, I'm starting to plan for a family - though NOT YET.  I'm thinking more about hand moisturizer, the threat of wrinkles, and how the hell do I already have grey hairs?!  And just as I'm about to stomp my foot in protest and demand for all this to stop, I have to consider how kind life has been to me so far.  And this getting older doesn't seem so bad because I'm so excited to see what comes next.

I celebrated my 20th with Chris at the Roadhouse Grill in Gainesville, FL ten years ago, and how lucky am I to be ringing in my 30th with him still.  What I love most about this birthday is not only do I get to celebrate in this beautiful place with my best friend, I also get to do so surrounded by wonderful friends.  I'm lucky to have you all, and grateful for the friendship and for the opportunity to know each one of you.  As we're discovering more and more, it's the people connections that really make an experience, so thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for making mine.

To what comes next.

Back: Chris Cole, Amy  (the fabulous baker), Chris L., Angela and Chad, Farrah and Brian, Ashley and Sean, Diane, Josh, and Scott
Front, from one arm of the couch to the other:  Peter, Suzanne, Heidi, me, Kristen, and Wayne
Floor-dwellers:  Sara and Rick

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Germany Welcomes Kelly

Back in July my best friend came for a visit.  For her first overseas venture, Kelly would be spending three solid weeks between Germany, Italy, and France.  We were both as excited as a couple of pre-adolescents with tickets to see Justin Bieber, since 1. we hadn't lived under the same roof for more than 5 days since we shared an apartment in college, and 2. Kelly had never visited me in my post-college grown-up life.  When you can live with a person and still love them to no end, that's a relationship that'll last, so I had no worries about the length of Kelly's stay.  Living together had worked well for us; we were good for each other.  Like we've both said before, had one of us been born a man, it would have been the perfect marriage :)

After actually jumping up and down when we saw each other through the glass security wall that separates passengers gathering their luggage and the people waiting for them at the Stuttgart Airport, it was all hugs and smiles and stories of creepy men on the flight.  For the first week, we took it pretty easy, as jet lag is least kind to first-timers.  Kelly and I spent time wandering around Tubingen, a charming university town nearby, and Strasbourg, France, as well.  The real first treat of the trip, however, awaited us on her first Saturday in Germany.

every one welcome!
fun for all ages
I toyed with the idea of not telling Kelly the reason for Saturday's big parade in downtown Stuttgart, slightly concerned she might not want to go.  Mean, I know.  But in the end I felt honesty was the best policy so I let her in on the details, and thankfully, she was up for it.  Who doesn't like a parade?




You see, although we have mounds of things in common, I might be a tad more liberal than my dear best friend, but she kept her jaw-dropping in check and, I believe, had a fantastic time.  How could you not?  The Christopher Street Parade is an annual demonstration of freedom and pride for the area's gay/lesbian/bi/transsexual community and with the outrageous costumes, open trucks packed with candy (and condom) throwing celebrators, music, and dancing, it was a massive good time for the whole family.  The day was gorgeous and the spirits high as we watched the parade, then walked behind it through town, smiling and moving to the music blaring in the streets.


Ra-ra-relly!  Yea, it's Kelly!




 Really, could Kelly have had a better welcome party?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Submission

I'm finally realizing that no one reads what I don't share.  What, you already knew this? 

When I began this blog it was to work myself through the fear of sharing my writing, establish some kind of discipline, and explore myself through different means.  I've done the daily blogging thing, the travel blog thing, the random thoughts thing...it's time to actually start not only sharing, but pushing for attention.  As is often true of writers, I'm more comfortable behind the page - or the monitor - but if anything is to HAPPEN with regards to this love of mine, I've got to DO something more.  So I've been spending time looking over old short stories, snipping and polishing, organizing and trashing, looking for something worthy of submitting for publication.  The problem is nothing ever seems done, because you can usually add more, or shorten, or rake through one last time to sharpen things up.  Letting go of something into which you've woven a little bit of yourself is a little terrifying, because letting go of that baby so that it can fly out into the world invites criticism and rejection.  I'm no sadist, so this naturally makes me nervous.  But without letting go of our darlings, as creative pieces are often called, we rob them of the opportunity to return to us in another form, preferably, published in my case.  

I've searched writers' websites, scoured the internet and bookmarked like mad.  I've started subscribing and reading to get a taste for each publication that called out to me, and I've carefully read over each one's submission guidelines.  I have a stack of note cards on my desk, each one detailing one literary journal, magazine, or e-zine for quick accessibility, and this week I submitted to two of them already.  By the time I hear from either of them I will likely have forgotten I'd even sent anything in, but no matter, because there are many to which I'd like to submit, but a lack of finished material to send.

One literary journal is all food related, though the stories need not be about eating.  Since Chris and I enjoy so very much the experience of new and sometimes scary-sounding food whenever we travel, I bookmarked Alimentum.  A few are travel-oriented, like the Literary Bohemian, but instead of travel pieces, per se, they're looking for quality stories that really transport the reader to another place.  This feels familiar, so onto the bookmark list it went.  Given the opportunity to travel I have, an international readership is attractive, so there are a few of those, plus the regular American big name magazines like the New Yorker, Cimarron Review, and Glimmer Train.  I've also got an all woman journal in the mix and a few that seem a little dark in nature, both showcasing sides of myself.  So a good list, I've got.  Now I just need some new material.

I thought about posting some short pieces here, in hopes of getting some feedback.  Would anyone read it and feel like offering some constructive criticism?  I'm not sure, but it's a thought.  I'm still (slowly) learning the ways of blogs, and am hoping to add more dimensions to this one.  Like a section for fiction writing.

As I've been bad lately, NOT blogging regularly, this is me trying to get back in the habit without the pressure I've put on myself to recount life since July in order.  This, I have little doubt, is the reason for my hiatus, but I'm working on getting over that.  Thanks for stopping back in.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Coffee House


This morning I found my way to a small coffee shop very close to the gym where my friend Sara is now kicking my behind four times a week, or will be starting today.  My new commitment to a healthier me includes a 6am spin class and then a 9:30am Body Pump class to keep me sore.  I like that her classes have fallen on the same day as one another, as this makes for a serious workout at least twice a week.  Since my employment has shape-shifted again this school year, I’m without a consistent daily schedule to make sure I get to the gym otherwise, so this is something I plan to cling to, nails dug in.

Ten months ago, Sara decided she wanted to be a fitness instructor and after some classes, exams, and waiting for the paperwork to settle, she’s doing a superior job.  It doesn’t hurt that she’s in crazy good shape and perky in a very non-annoying, if not kind of inspiring way.  And let me tell you, that’s a hard thing to pull off when you’re leading a huffing spin class at six in the morning. 

Having successfully gotten through this morning’s spin without the embarrassment of vomiting on my handlebars, here I sit in this cute little coffee shop, positioned next to a wall with an outlet for my laptop, facing the door so I can do a little people-watching while I enjoy my cappuccino.  I told a member of the staff that this would likely be a twice-weekly occurrence, me setting up for a couple hours between classes, if they didn’t mind.  It doesn’t make much sense to go home, only to turn around and come back a little while later.  I’d rather be stuck somewhere because being stuck means there’s nothing I can do except that which I can do sitting around.  Sure, I could run errands, but the amount of sweating one does in the typical spin class is not conducive to being around other people.  It’s safer for everyone if I pick a spot and stay put to keep my moving around to a minimum, thus containing my area of possible air contamination.  I like my little corner and I think this is going to be a great chance twice a week to sit down and write.

When I talked to one of the staff of the shop about making this visit a habit, it was after she handed me a flyer for this weekend’s artist exhibition where local artists will be showcasing their work.  She’s an artist, she told me, and will have a stand there.  I’d already planned to go and am really looking forward to it.  I have a deep respect for people who not only create art, but share it, which is why this blog ever came to be.  I would absolutely love to have a body of work good enough and complete enough to put on display, and even more to give it to people who actually want to give me money in return.  I am an artist at heart, but even though one would assume the part of the brain that handles creative writing would likely also handle visual art, I have a very hard time focusing on both at once.  As I’ve repeatedly admitted, I’m not a great multi-tasker, not even a good one, but it still surprises me that I can’t work on a story and a photo project at the same time.  My brain makes a noticeable shift when I move from one to the other, so I guess this is just a limitation I have to learn to work with.  Another detail that factors into my lack of creative aggression is the sheer amount of things I’d like to do.  Again, too many choices is paralyzing.  When my mind starts making a list of items I need to work on, and that I’d like to work on, writing for my blog, writing and editing short stories, submitting said short stories for publication, and doing work for Klett Publishing are quickly joined by experimenting with photography in a mixed-media piece, attempting to combine writing with visual art, and working on putting together a photo book of our time living in Italy.  And then I just sit there, blank.  Unmoving.  Chris is great and listens to my rambling concerns every time, and he actually asks if there’s anything he can do.  Really?  I have all these ideas, the luxury of having the time and opportunity to do something about it, AND a supportive cluster of people around waiting to help?  And I still have the ability to sit still?  Shameful.

So I’ll visit other artists’ exhibitions and appreciate their efforts, because not only is this fun for me, it’s a chance to soak up some of their creative energy for my own use.  Tonight I’ll be attending the official opening of 'The Turning,' a photographic and literary exhibition in downtown Stuttgart at the Deutsch-Amerikaner Zentrum.  Jim and Tiffany from the Writers group have collaborated to put on this fall-inspired showing and I can’t wait to see it.  It’s important to support your fellow artists because I doing so you’re not only strengthening their conviction in what they’re doing, but you boost your own need and ability to create.  I’ll be getting quite a dose of creativity from other people in the next couple of days, and am so happy about it. 

The coffee shop was experiencing a small rush when I came in close to seven this morning but it soon calmed down and eventually emptied out.  The next rush was at eight, and now it’s 8:45 and the place is full again with people placing their orders, joking with the staff, and chatting about work and the sharp cold outside.  The sweat has almost completely dried from my clothes and it’s nearly time to walk back over to the gym for Sara’s next booty-kicking session via Body Pump.  I’m quite sore from Tuesday’s class, but looking forward to round two.

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What is it about sore muscles that feels to good?  I think for me it's a reminder that they're in there somewhere, waiting for me to pay attention to them again.  Nurture them.  Thanks, Sara, for 2 hours of pain today :)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Proud to be an American?

There's something I need to fess up to today, something that's been growing inside for a while now but wasn't completely obvious to me until Saturday.  I am guilty of being somewhat of a self-loathing American.  I don't mean this in the literal sense, only that ever since we left life in the US, my perspective has grown and changed in a way that has actually brought me to lie about my nationality on more than one occasion.  Coming into contact with so many different people from just as many places has deepened my criticism for my own country, and already having a critical outlook as it is, my view of my homeland began taking on a tint of embarrassment.  Do we really need a fast food restaurant every three and a half feet?  Is it really necessary to have everything delivered?  And do you really need to shop at Walmart at four in the morning?  I have developed an aversion to excess in some ways, but I believe one incident, in particular, is partly to blame for this larger shift in attitude.

We were visiting Ireland with a couple of friends our first fall living overseas, when upon asking in which direction could we find the town center, we were faced with a rather rambunctious local demanding to know where our "I Love Bush" T-shirts were and why we weren't carrying around little American flags.  What was this guy's problem?  This was my first encounter with someone stereotyping me because of my nationality, and I had to hold back from arguing with him that I hadn't even voted for Bush, because honestly, it didn't matter.  Living in a place where some people used graffiti to tell me to go home nudged along my desire to disassociate myself with the "typical" American and blend in as much as I could.  This is where it began, my attempt to de-Americanize myself, if you will.  Am I proud of this? Absolutely not, but I think in attempts to show other people, mostly European but not all, that I am not, in fact, the loud, arrogant, entitled, and spoiled American that has earned us such a reputation, I started to look at where I come from in a different light, one that included some shame.  You think just because I'm an American I expect to be catered to?  I'll show you!  I'll clean up my own mess, and yours, too!

It is necessary to say, however, that I have never forgotten the fact that I am endlessly fortunate to have been born in the United States of America, especially given that I am female.  There are sadly few places in the world where a woman can pursue higher education, career, and family if she wants, and with the freedom to walk about without fear of persecution for it.  I'm aware of how lucky I am to be from a nation that symbolizes freedom and opportunity, but I'm not naive enough to believe that's all the US is.  There is corruption everywhere.  I consider myself a realist, able to appreciate that which should make a citizen proud of their birthplace, and a little disappointed with its shortcomings at the same time.  There are people all over the world who still dream of visiting America, as I've learned most people call the US outside of it, and this has got to say something about where we stand in the world, short-comings and all.  

The problem seemed to be that I allowed my focus to linger far too long on the parts of being an American of which I am not proud, and have actually found myself in conversations where a non-American was telling ME why America is so wonderful.  Had I really gotten this bad?  Had I been so worried about embodying the stereotype that I'd become ashamed of part of who I am?  (Am I really putting this out there?)

We went to Frankfurt this past weekend for the International Book Fair held there annually.  What was during the week a trade fair for all things books, a meet market for publishers and artists, alike, turned into a public show on the weekend.  Author interviews, readings and discussions, and new technology demonstrations accompanied the rows and rows, halls and halls, floors and buildings of books for everyone and everything under the sun.  We went, we looked, and we bought books.  It was heaven, especially when we discovered Hall 8, an airplane hanger-sized hall full of English language books and materials.  But the most interesting few hours we spent at the Frankfurt Book Fair happened over coffee inside Hall 4.1 beside the non-book vendor stalls where we had been browsing through things like notebooks, journals, and various book accessories.  What began as an excited gesture on my part when another woman was looking at her purchase, a gorgeous hand-made leather journal I had just been drooling over, soon turned into a lengthy and invigorating discussion.  At first she just looked at me, perhaps a little confused, and smiled.  It became clear to the entire table beside the drink stand what I'd been gesturing about when Chris handed me my very own gorgeous-hand-made-leather-journal, secretly purchased while I ordered our coffees.  I think I kind of squealed before kissing him thank you, and the people around kind of laughed.  So that's how our conversation began, two strangers excited over a couple of books.  

And so we began talking, we three, and even though the seats around us emptied and refilled with new people several times over, nobody realized just how fantastic a conversation we were having.  When four hours can pass by without anyone noticing, THAT'S a great talk.  They did, we didn't, and it was.

Her name is Nicola and she's a PhD student living near Frankfurt, though she comes from a smaller town in the country.  A simple chat about where everyone comes from and the differences between Germans from different regions easily flowed into a discussion of attitudes toward foreigners, learning new languages, living as foreigners in Germany, and the degree of truth in most stereotypes.  Nicola has yet to visit the States, but has hopes of doing so in connection with her studies, and later, profession.  Her sister has traveled to a few places Stateside and brought home with her stories of people who weren't sure if Germans had phones and microwaves, let alone where it's located.  This was several years ago, but I'm fairly certain there are places in the States where the knowledge of places beyond our national borders doesn't exist.  Although the world seems to be growing ever smaller and more accessible, not everyone cares to know about other cultures, and most don't have the resources to visit them, anyway, so why bother?  I like the idea of learning about other places, trying to understand foreign customs, and tasting life elsewhere; this is why we are so appreciative of our ability to travel.  I don't understand the kind of thinking that prevents people from wanting to explore, given the opportunity, and I'm actually related to a few.  One part of travel Chris and I have been noticing more and more is the human connections we make along the way, and this, too, was one topic we discussed with Nicola, of many.

As is common among Europeans, when there is talk of war or military of any kind, the conversation invariably revisits WWII.  And why shouldn't it, I suppose, since 70 years isn't so long ago when you live in a place with a history that stretches beyond America's young 200 years?  Many of the scars left by that era are still sore, and understandably so, but it's in talking to the younger generations who live only in its wake that conversations such as this can roll out across a table with such an eager desire to learn from the mistakes from the past.  I imagine this might be more difficult for someone who lives with personal memories of something so awful as WWII was, but what do I know.  While my mind was already preparing to shake my finger at my own country, Nicola talked about how Germany wouldn't be what it is today had it not been for the USA's involvement in WWII.  If it's going to be between the US, Russia, and China, she said she's glad it was the US.  She told us about an elderly neighbor of hers who's told her stories of his encounters with American soldiers during the war.  Upon his capture, the man was sent to live and work in a camp quite unlike those Hitler had built around Europe.  Those captured and brought here were fed and given shelter, but what surprised him the most were the parties.  Soldiers and for lack of a better word, prisoners eating and drinking beer together, laughing and relaxing like friends - this was unheard of.  He said one evening a high ranking officer walked into one such gathering and asked what was going on.  Instead of unloading on his soldiers and kicking the prisoners back to their barracks, he sat right down and grabbed a beer for himself.  What a thing!  

Friendliness, hospitality, and a willingness, if not eagerness to help is apparently very American, and as I thought about this notion I realized how true it tends to be.  Images of Katrina flashed through my mind, as well as those from the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.  Whereas Nicola's experience as a German has always been that people are hesitant to talk to you until they know your status (title ranks higher than money), I know most Americans to be rather curious about people from other places, which tends to carry with it an openness and friendly touch.  (Of course introducing fear into it changes things.)  I hadn't thought of such qualities as being typically American, but the more I talk to non-Americans about their interactions and views of my people, the more I realize I've been rather hard on them.  Perhaps it's my need to beat one to the punch, to make the joke first to prove I get it so there's no question.  This habit goes right long with my secret need to prove I'm intelligent, the source of my self-esteem as a kid.  Regardless of the why, I'm realizing now that Americans aren't just known for wearing athletic shoes and baseball caps while chewing gum (there's one stereotype), or behaving obnoxiously and expecting to be catered to (there's another); we're also known for our kindness and friendliness.  The United States is a place where someone can seek political or religious asylum, or where a person of absolutely no means really can do anything given they work hard enough for it.  This isn't something many countries can boast.

I guess what I find the most interesting about all this is that it's taken the perspective of other people not from the States to remind me of what I have to be proud about.  There will always be things about the culture of the States I don't like, policies with which I do not agree, and decisions behind which I cannot stand, but what remains the same is that I'm free to my thoughts and opinions, and I have the privilege of keeping them.  So maybe I need to stop focusing on how I don't want others to see me because I'm an American, and start focusing on demonstrating the great diverse pool of experiences, perspectives, opinions, and belief systems that is the United States of America.  It may not be perfect, but there is a lot of good going on, and plenty for which to be grateful.

Thanks, Nicola.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Alberto, part 2

It was the Tuesday of our one week Tuscan vacation this past September, and there had been very little discussion of how we would be spending it: Tirrenia.  The old neighborhood, our first real home together.  And as it was only the first week of September, the summer market was still hanging on, and this meant not only could we do a little stall browsing, there'd be the chance of running into some old friends.  Guy was one, a Senegalese street vendor with whom I formed a kind of friendship with, who returned to Tirrenia every summer for market season on his sales route through Europe.  Him, I'll get to in another post, as he'd already moved on to Pisa by this time.  Another was Alberto, aka, the Grumpy Old Man of Via dei Biancospini.  This one is for him.

One of my very first posts to this blog was about Alberto, a neighbor of ours while living in Tirrenia.  (Want a refresher?  See http://thehouseofcole.blogspot.com/2010/02/vita-italiana-in-beginning.html )  Reading over it now fills my chest with emotion because he really was an important part of My Italy then, and always.  After Chris and I moved to San Piero a Grado ten minutes away to a bigger and better-maintained house, I usually ran into Alberto on Tuesdays in the summertime at the morning market.  He liked to buy a rotisserie chicken from the roasting van that always set up there in case anyone dropped by over the weekend.  He told me he liked to have something tasty ready to go, to share.  Once or twice he treated me to a cappuccino and we chatted a while at the small cafe at the back of the loop where the market sets up.  He refused to let me pay him back, so one time I treated him to a cafe AND a pastry, playfully ignoring his protests and attempts to reimburse me.  Running into him was my favorite part of the Tuesday market.

The last time I saw Alberto before this trip was at the Italian American Carnival held every July on the American base nearby.  It would be our last summer living in Italy and we decided to finally attend this annual event.  I spotted him walking in front of us, then took off from Chris and a couple of our friends to catch up, calling out his name.  He turned and opened his arms to receive me, smiling and kind of chuckling at me.  We kissed our hellos and spoke for a minute; he loved attending this carnival each year.  That was two years ago now.  I'd always regretted not going back by the old neighborhood before we moved to tell him goodbye, and to thank him for all he'd meant to me.  Which brings us back to the Tuesday that began this piece, Sept. 7, 2010.

We'd walked the aisles of the market with friends, but no Alberto.  We walked up to the beach to talk lunch with some from the group who'd spent the morning in the sand with the kids, before heading back to the center to meet up with an American friend living in Tirrenia for pizza and pasta.  And though I'm tempted to follow this tangent, I'll have to save Jim for another post, as well.  After a nice, long, Italian lunch (close to 3 hours, including the stroll towards Jim's house and our car) Chris and I drove up to his old office to visit a few old colleagues before they left for the day.  By the time we left there, it was six o'clock.  Marcella at the office assured us an unannounced visit at this hour was perfectly acceptable, so we returned to Tirrenia to knock on an old friend's door.

Although we'd lived beside him for two and a half years and knew very well where Alberto and his wife lived, I questioned myself as Chris and I walked up the drive that lead around to their half of the house.  Was this it?  Chris didn't know, but I did so why so nervous?  Part of me worried he wouldn't remember me.  It should be said that last I'd seen Alberto his wife was in the hospital for her heart, and both of them were pretty advanced in years.  Maybe they didn't live here anymore.  Or maybe... so I rang the bell at the side of the gate and held my breath.  A loud and sudden buzz made me jump and the gate swung inward.  I stepped cautiously in and followed a short stone path around the gate.  Just then, Alberto opened the patio doors and looked out at me.  His expression went from neutral curiosity of who was ringing his bell to a wide-eyed kind of surprise, immediately followed by a great, big smile.  He stepped out and raised his hands, almost shouting hello, and I walked swiftly to him, embracing him and matching his smile.  "You remember me?" I asked.  "Of course, how are you?" he replied.  My heart was bursting; it was almost like seeing my grandfather again.

Teresa and the fattest cat ever

Alberto didn't let Chris get away without a warm embrace, too, and he called his wife, Teresa out of the house to say hello.  I'd never met her before, but had listened to Alberto worry over her health in the past.  She looked radiant to me, and we all kissed hello and sat together at their patio table talking for the next two and a  half hours.  After refusing cafe, cappuccino, wine, water, and a shot of some kind of liquor, we finally accepted a small glass of beer to put our old neighbors at ease.  We toasted to old friends and talked about life.  They have the fattest cat I've ever seen, and we laughed over his girth and looked at a photo album they'd kept of him since kittenhood.  They showed us pictures of their kids, all grown, and their beautiful lone granddaughter.  Alberto talked about his daughter's dog he often walks, and asked about Heidi.  When I mentioned how I never saw him without a pipe in his hand or in his mouth, he promptly retrieved pictures of his extensive pipe collection at their apartment in Florence.  There are many things Alberto had in common with my own Papa.  Conversation was a little bumpy since Alberto's English is limited and my Italian is quite rusty, but we managed just fine.  There was a moment when Alberto disappeared into the house suddenly, emerging with an Italian-English dictionary to help us avoid confusion.  It was sweet, and I was so glad we decided to stop by.

Before announcing my intention of getting pictures of and with them, I took a moment to clumsily stumble through something I very much wanted Alberto to understand.  I explained how it had been difficult for me in the beginning, living here in Italy far from home and family, alone most of the time and struggling to make being a foreigner regular life.  I talked about how I first saw him, this grumpy man passing by each day, grumbling at Heidi on his way to the dumpster, pipe in mouth.  And then I told them both how much it had meant to me when we finally started talking, and how Alberto had become an important part of my day, becoming a source of comfort and familiarity, something I needed very much at that time.  They listened and I said as much of it as I could in bad Italian, feeling very self-conscious all of a sudden.  And then I thanked him for his friendship and he squeezed my hands until they hurt.

They tried to feed us dinner, as anybody would around here, but not wanting to put them out but also not wanting to insult them, we lied and said we were meeting up with friends.  We took some pictures in their garden and I embraced Teresa goodbye, so glad to have finally met her.  We exchanged mailing addresses with promises of writing and sending pictures, and Alberto walked us to our car out on the street.  I was filled with such happiness that we'd come, that they'd been home, and that we were able to spend some time with Alberto and Teresa.  On the street Alberto squeezed my hands in his again, pulling them right up into his chest, and we kissed goodbye, right cheek, left cheek.  He grabbed a hold of Chris, gripped his shoulders, and kissed him the same farewell.  Then before we got into the car, he grabbed my hands and held them a minute one last time.  I didn't mind that he squeezed the blood from my fingers, because the dampness in his eyes looked like love.  He's a part of my Italian family, after all.

A couple days later we had dinner at Lo Squalo, a great ristorante down in the center of Tirrenia, owned and run by another pair of old neighbors from Biancospini.  When it was time to pay, we finally said hello to Christian, the owner, having not wanted to disturb him during dinner rush.  He spoke briefly of how everyone was and where we were living now, and it was nice to be remembered.  But the best thing Christian said was that Alberto had told him about us stopping by.  He said we had really surprised them, and it had meant a lot to him to see us again.

When we left Tirrenia that night to return to the villa in Lucca, I whispered goodnight to Tirrenia, and to everyone who made that place mean something to me.  This trip to Tuscany with such good friends would be filled with so much, but Tuesday evening at Alberto's will always be my favorite part.


My Room

It's beautiful out today, and sitting behind my much loved writing desk offers an inspiring view.  I decided this morning that I've got to start actually writing in my writing room.  Novel idea, I know, but as Chris and I enjoy being in the same room when we're both home, my laptop tends to stay atop the dining room table.

It's been a busy summer, and here we are into fall already and I'm just now finding the time to dive back into writing.  Like my last post said, I've missed it.  Transferring photos to the appropriate drive to get started today reminded me of the growing backlog of things I intend to write about here, which of course paralyzes me in a non-start position.  But last night Chris had a lovely idea, to just start with whichever moment grabs me and take it one at a time, as they come.  And whereas the plan was to systematically tackle each item in the order in which it occurred, detailing each day and event like a reporter, I think I like his idea.  As they come, in no particular order, but labeled, of course.  A somewhat unorganized organically-chosen retelling of the past months.  And maybe I'll get really wild and not even draw out every detail; maybe it's time to allow myself to treat this as less of a self-imposed assignment, and more of a lazy story-telling session.  It's in the moments that meaning lives, anyhow.

Which brings me back to this room.  One floor up from the many distractions of any household, like the laundry piled on the recliner, folded but waving at me to be put away.  And the kitchen counters, littered with evidence of last night's dinner, crumbs and dishes waiting to be cleaned.  The clean dishes in the dishwasher matching the clean clothes' call to be nestled back in their places.  The dog hair on the floor, the bags from this week's purchases, the tables beginning their paper collecting...it's like a visual roar of other things to do before I sit down to write.  Isn't this something all writers deal with?  Calling responsibilities distractions without guilt when it comes to working?  Making writing a priority?  It's tough.  So up I climb to this sacred space, this quiet space where the breeze and birds outside gently drown out the responsibilities downstairs and invite me to listen.  And to write.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

I Miss You

I've been putting off posting anything at all since the beginning of September because I haven't had the time necessary to really get into the next thing on my growing list of catch-up items.  This isn't to say that there haven't been instances of 15min. or so since then when I could have gotten in a few lines, but I am behind and travel blogging takes considerably longer than my typical ramble, as it involves recounting actual things we did, and then sorting, shrinking, and appropriately matching pictures.  It takes a couple hours, minimum, per post, and the time just hasn't been there.

But I've missed blogging; I've missed writing anything at all.  In fact, I originally wrote at the start of this post that I hadn't blogged since the end of July because it feels like it's been that long.  It took actually double checking myself to see that it's only been a couple of weeks.  At any rate...you see, I do not multi-task well.  My brain lacks the ability to split focus, so if I've got a week between events such as the last guest and the next trip, I'm all about  knocking things off the regular life list and getting things ready to go.  It so happened that yesterday was our September Writer's Group meeting downtown, pushed back a couple of weeks to allow for more attendees, and while I listened to the personal updates around the table, I had a moment to compile a list of above mentioned catch-up items.  Let's review this summer, shall we?

Last blog: Sept.1, regarding July 14-15
Had meant to finish blogging Scotland in the week we had post-Scotland before Kelly arrived.  That didn't happen; I got to day two of Scotland: Dunnottar Day.

Kelly was here from July 25 - Aug. 16, and I wrote nothing while she was here.  Had thought I could wake up earlier than her to write in the mornings, but that, too, didn't happen.

First item on catch-up list: WAS finish blogging Scotland, but since I got that done before leaving for Italy, IS NOW blog Kelly's visit.  All.  Three.  Weeks.  To include The Christopher Street Parade in Stuttgart, Venice and Verona, and life with my old roommate.

We had one week between Kelly's departure and ours to Tuscany with a big group of friends from around here, so that week was all about errands, planning, and then packing at the last minute.  Oh, AND getting the car (that we were going to drive to Italy) in and out of the shop so it was safe to drive.  More on that one later.

Item #2 on catch-up list:  Our week in Tuscany

I actually did take my laptop to Italy with honest intentions of blogging while there, but spending time with the friends we'd traveled with took precedence and here is another intention that fell flat on its face.

We had another one week stretch between Tuscany and the arrival of this year's final out-of-town guests, Katie and Nick.  Did I get in any writing?  Ha!  This last week was devoted to coming down from a solid week with 7 other families, getting pictures distributed to some of them from the trip, restocking the fridge and getting the house re-cleaned and ready for new company, and trying to figure out WHY Heidi no longer tells anybody when she needs to go out.

This brings us to yesterday, the day Katie and Nick arrived by train from Frankfurt, Writer's Group meeting day, and the writing of this list.  It is Sunday morning and I've just administered the requested wake-up call, the coffee is steeping in my lovely French press, and I'm getting in a damn blog before anyone else gets down here!

So now you've got an idea of where I've been lately, and what's to come very soon.  Katie, Nick, Chris, and I will be attending Oktoberfest in Munich next week, so that'll become item #3 for catch-up, and the time to follow with our friends while they're in town, #4.  Item #5 will be the blurb about Microluv, something I promised to do MONTHS ago, and item #6 will be about my awesome Writer's Group and a friend who's moving onto the next continent.  Something else we talked about briefly in our meeting yesterday was balance. Here's THAT list for me -
*subbing at the school (I miss the kids and the faculty, and I need to keep myself current there if there's even a remote chance of getting hired as a teacher there.)
*blogging
*work for Klett
*personal writing
*focus on health, ie, making and sticking to a new work-out schedule to include several classes a week
*travel planning
and then there's all that socializing and keeping in touch with friends and family business.

And I totally forgot to mention the World Wide Photo Walk in which I participated the day before Kelly arrived back in July, so switch that to item #1, and shift everything else down a notch.  It would be ideal to get totally caught up before my birthday in mid-November - the big 3-0 - so I can start blogging current stuff by then, but we shall see.

So this is it.  This is my big, fat, To-Do list starting next Monday, and though I know I'm going to be having an awful lot of fun over the next week, I'm kind of looking forward to getting back to the normalcy of life.

Until then :)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

July 14-15: The Journey Home

We ate our final Scottish breakfast, haggis and all, a little sad this morning.  We didn't want to go home.  We talked with David and dragged our things to the car, perhaps hoping a minor natural disaster would strand us there a little while longer.  But it didn't happen, so it was time to go, but not without a print-out from a fabulous website that caters to British ex-pats living all over Europe.  Mail-order haggis, my friend!  David was truly an exceptional host.

We drove to New Castle, England to catch our overnight ferry back to Continental Europe.  It was a first for us both to actually sleep over on any kind of boat, so the Princess of Norway would be a small adventure.  Our toilet may have been in the shower, but we had a decent window looking out over the sea and the bed was surprisingly comfortable.  Chris and I explored the Princess with interest, but came up empty when it came to things we might actually enjoy.  The casino (or 6 machines lined up behind a partition) isn't something we're into, and the lounge was loud with the on-board entertainment, something we could do without.  Are we just boring people?  I don't know, but the 70s Disco Hour and over-the-top singers weren't doing it for us, so we got a drink and watched the water for a little while before dinner.


When it was time for bed, what was lulling before kept us awake most of the night.  The ship rocked and stuttered here and there when a sizable wave smashed into our side of the boat head-on, and whereas the former is quite comforting, the latter was quite loud and jarred us awake.  That made for a longer drive the following day.

Regardless of how amazing a trip away has been, nothing beats the feel of coming home and sleeping in your own bed.  Scotland, however, has come the closest.

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Some parting thoughts about this trip...







I can't be sure if it was just the common language that made the people connections on this trip more prevalent, but there is something entirely different about Scotland.  Maybe when part of you comes from a place it just feels more comfortable.

From the first time I set foot in the country of Ireland, I was in love with her hills and her people.  When people talked about how fantastic Scotland was, I always replied with a declaration of love for the Emerald Isle just west of there.  Even when those who had been to both places stuck to the opinion that Scotland far out-weighed Ireland, I wouldn't even consider it a possibility.  I admit, from the first moments our car rolled into the southern hills of Scotland I felt a twinge of guilt.  And now, after all is said and done, I'm afraid I've abandoned my devotion to Ireland, though I still love that place, in favor of the other.  It's a little rockier, a little more severe, and a little more magical, Scotland, and the people are phenomenal.


Funny how we spent a couple days between Belgium and England, but didn't meet a truly friendly face until we got to Stonehaven.  From Alan and his mum at the B&B, and Gary and the pub owner we couldn't understand; Ian and some other local artists near Loch Ness and in the Isle of Skye; Andrew and his dog, Nelson, in the park and Mum's guy in Edinburgh; from one of Johanna's favorite restaurants to Bernie and Sarah's dining room, this trip has been fuller of personal interaction than any other by miles.  So give credit to the fact that we didn't have to pantomime to communicate, but don't discount the beauty and love that live and breathe in Scotland.  It is now one of my favorite places in the world, and a place I will always want to revisit.


Monday, August 30, 2010

July 13: Finally - Bernie Day!

And so it was Tuesday, the day Queen Elizabeth would be arriving to her Edinburgh palace.  We went to Glasgow instead to see some new friends.

Statue of Robert Burns
But before dinner at Bernie's house, we had a day to fill, so we made our way to his once home-town to do some looking around.  It only makes sense that we began the morning on a quest to locate something called a bacon roll.  We'd had sausage rolls along the trip so far, a delicious sausage lovingly surrounded by a doughy embrace most bakeries carried, but bacon?  We hadn't seen it.  And since this elusive bacon roll had apparently changed Jo's life (in Edinburgh), it only seemed right we should seek it out.  I'm not sure if what we had was what she had, but it was decent.  The way people in Glasgow looked at us when we described what we thought it was, it's either an Edinburgh thing, or we were way off.

We walked George Square and moseyed about the Modern Art Museum for a while.  We walked Argyle Street (the pedestrian shopping street) and High Street that ran through the center of things.  We found St. Mungo Cathedral, named for Glasgow's patron saint, though it sounded more like a college nickname to me.  And whether it was because we had come to the end of our trip and were growing exhausted, or had just surpassed or capacity to be overly impressed, we felt satisfied and moved on.

Having some time to kill and just a half hour drive to Bernie and Sarah's suburban town, we found a grocery store and packed the trunk with cases of Bulmers and Magners cider, an assortment of shortbread cookies, brown sauce, and potato chips.  Gluttons, you might say, but none of these things are findable in the rest of Europe, aside from a pint in a pub.  Bulmers is a British cider and Magners an Irish one, that we have searched for high and low.  Nowhere but in the UK have we found these fantastic hard ciders available at a regular grocer.  And Chris loves shortbread, so why not try a few fancy kinds they've got in the homeland?  Brown sauce is as common in the UK as barbecue sauce in the US; also yummy but impossible to find elsewhere.  And the chips...that one's mine.  I love chips.  I can't often allow myself to buy chips because they last such a minuscule amount of time in my presence, it's hardly worth the ungodly number of calories they carry.  But when you're staring at such an odd selection of flavors found only on the shelves of a foreign grocery store, it's difficult not to justify a few bags.  You know, to try.  So yes, we hit that grocery store and we hit it good.







And then it was time to see Bernie and meet Sarah.  I think I was a little surprised that it was actually happening, as it seems these kinds of plans are often meant at the time, but easily fall through.  But here we were on our way, with Belgian beer, flowers, and baby gift in hand, as Sarah was about seven months pregnant.  When we rang the bell of their pretty house I felt nervous, but Sarah's friendly smile put both of us at ease pretty quickly.  We said our hellos and I handed Sarah the flowers, thanking her for her hospitality, then quickly handed her the baby gift we'd brought them.  She was clearly surprised, and she thanked us and set it aside to open once Bernie was home from work.  Sarah showed us around their house a bit, explaining changes they'd made and how parts of the house had been somewhat falling apart when they moved in.  It was a tall home, four levels, I believe, with a few rooms per floor, beautifully arranged with a sophisticated touch.  As we stepped through the kitchen to get to the garden, it smelled amazing and I suddenly couldn't wait for dinner.  Out in their gorgeous garden, Sarah walked us around, pointing out the green house and the pond, the flowers and vines growing here and there.  It had come with the house, of course, but you could see they put a lot of love into it.  Sarah told us how the small pond had been frozen over when they moved in, so they hadn't known until the thaw that there were two fish inside - still alive!  They fed them and marveled over how they'd managed to survive all that time under the ice.  Then one day a bird swooped down, and that was it for the fish.

Bernie got home soon after and there were more handshakes and hugs all around and within a few minutes we were seated at the dining table talking over some nice Rose' wine.  Now we had already been told that Sarah was a great cook, but we still weren't prepared for the spread that was about to hit the table, one course at a time.  Half-way through this trip I'd wished I would have had the mind to photograph the food, just to add a visual to my raving reviews.  This was the night I did.

Course #1: Blood pudding with dark green salad with homemade croĆ»tons and apples, and balsamic drizzle.


When she sat our plates down she said right off that she wouldn't be offended if we didn't like it.  She and Bernie just really wanted to give us a real traditional Scottish feast.  Now the blood pudding, we'd had, but not like this.  Nothing at all like this.  This was thick and rich in flavor with hints of nutmeg.  Sarah explained they got their meat from a local butcher who handmade things like blood pudding and haggis on-site.  It was all local and lovingly made, none of that mass-produced stuff many Bed&Breakfasts served with breakfast.  No one left a morsel on their plate.

Course #2: Smoked salmon with cream and crackers; rare venison sliced over skirlie; and a haggis, neeps, and tattie tower.

I ate my smoked salmon without noticing the cream and crackers, it was so delicious.  The venison was heavenly and tender, over what is apparently an old Scottish favorite Sarah's dad suggested she pair with it, made of onion, oatmeal, butter, salt and pepper.  Yum!  And then the haggis...oh, the haggis.  Now we already liked haggis, but had yet to have it like this.  The haggis we'd had up till this point had been served on a platter in a more ground up state between blobs of mashed potatoes and mashed turnips.  When made into a tower, the haggis or cooked in a way that keeps it together a bit more, also making it possible to get a taste of all three elements with a single stab of the fork.  Insanely delicious!  We had no idea Sarah was a gourmet!

Course #3: Tea with sugar cookies, fresh raspberries, and a cheese plate.

With smooth green tea all around, we indulged further in this amazing spread Bernie and Sarah made possible.  It had been an incredibly enjoyable evening between the wonderful company and ridiculously great food, and I was so happy this came together.

I think what took me by surprise the most was how comfortable the whole night was.  We talked and laughed easily, and Bernie and Sarah seemed just as excited as we were to get together.  Bernie had even told some people at work about the Americans he had coming over for dinner, which made me laugh - I'm not used to being considered so exotic.  It seems he also relayed to them the whole rescue story from Prague, the strange coincidences there and the plan to meet back up here.  They thanked us again for saving Bernie from the dark and scary woods of the Czech Republic, swearing that a European wouldn't have done him the same kindness.  We said we'd just been happy to help out a nice person in need, and by the way, thanks for the feast!

Bernie and Sarah talked about old TV shows from the States they'd watched growing up, and Chris and I asked them about slang terms Americans associate with people from the UK.  Like did you know a Scottish person will likely have no inkling as to what you mean if you call him 'limey'?  As the wine flowed and the evening wore on our small attempts to mimic an English or Scottish accent were met with much laughter, and even a compliment or two.  We learned that the term 'Brit' refers to anyone living inside the UK, including people from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, not just those from England.  We learned that 'bloody' is pretty universally used, but 'ginger' is rather derogatory.

They opened the baby gift we'd brought and we were endlessly pleased they seemed to like it so much - a baby duck bath set and a onesie with an electric guitar on it for daddy.  We did meet Bernie at a metal music festival, after all.  Apparently because the pregnancy came so quickly after the wedding this was the first baby gift they'd really received, and we were excited to have contributed to the new addition.

When we left it felt like we were hugging goodbye old friends, promising to keep in touch and swap pictures.  It was the perfect way to end our Scottish vacation, in the comfort of someone's home over the best meal we'd had all trip, by far, and fantastic company.  Thanks again, Bernie and Sarah, for a fabulous evening!