|Like most medieval cities in the Tuscany/Umbria areas of central Italy, Assisi is built on a mountainside. As our car approached the foot of the mountain, following a road that wound its way upward, I was struck by the impression that Assisi seemed to cling to the side of the mountain, rather than sit on solid ground. The illusion was reinforced by the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, a mamouth, two-story structure that seemed to soar away from the mountain and out and over the Tiber Valley below. The Basilica was built in honor of St. Francis, a Catholic saint who founded the Franciscan religious order in the town of Assisi in 1208, an order whose members still live on that site. Sections of the Basilica were destroyed in an earthquake in the 1990s, some artifacts lost forever, but it is rebuilt now.|
We found out that morning that Pope Francis was visiting Assisi that day and the thought of seeing him added to the anticipation. After parking we walked down a long, narrow stone street, private apartments on either side, each identified by beautiful tall and wide wood doors that looked centuries old. There were no sidewalks, and steps rather than porches led to the doorways that were only a foot or two off the road.
The street emptied into a bright courtyard with a large water fountain in the center. Curious about when the Pope would arrive, I approached a town police officer to ask if he knew the arrival time. Unfortunately, he did not speak much English, but we did manage to communicate enough for him to tell me the Pope's estimated time of arrival. We continued to wander down narrow stone streets that led to the center of town. At one point, we noticed three black high-end cars in a row barreling down the street at us, we barely had time to step into the safety of a stone archway before they sped by. Later we heard it wasn't just the Pope who was in town, but leaders of most of the world's major religions were in Assisi to attend an ecumenical conference. Each with their own ontourage of security guards.
As we wandered through the town, more high-end cars sped by us, always a middle car protected by the other two, always at speeds inappropriate for the location. We tried to get near the Basilica, even thought we had found a route tucked under stone steps, but the police, this time what appeared to be the Polizia di Stato, or state police, dressed in a much more military style than the Municipal Police Officer I had spoken to earlier, stopped us and asked for our "ticket." It seemed tickets were required even to stand on the street where the Pope would pass.
Since we didn't have tickets, I wandered farther up the hilly streets and came upon a small square bordered by a spectacular panoramic view of the Tiber Valley and the Basilica Di Santa Chiara, or Bisilica of St. Claire, another catholic saint born in Assisi who began the order of Poor Claires. It was lovely to sit against the stone wall in the afternoon sun and look out over the Tiber Valley that went on and on, ending at the horizon. Clusters of small rooftops outlined towns sprinkled across the valley, the rest was muiltiple shades of green under a bright blue sky.
For the first time I tried a gilato, ordering it from a friendly older man standing behind a small counter in a sweet smelling bakery. He did not speak English very well but in cases like that pointing at what I wanted worked just fine. After deciding I like ice cream better than gilato, I tossed what was left of the treat into a trash bin and began wandering back down the hill to meet my travel companions.
As I strolled leisurely down the hill, I was rushed to the side of the stone roadway by a local police officer who saved me from being run over by yet another small grouping of speeding cars. This time the cars stopped 20 feet in front of me, backed into a space in front of an ancient columned building on my right, and parked. Curious, I leaned against a nearby car to see who or what would step out of the well protected middle vehicle. As I stood there doors opened on the two end cars and four men, two in each car, stepped out. They were characters out of a James Bond movie. Young, athletic, good looking, dressed in expensive suits, the expected white twisting cord running from their ears to some undisclosed location in their suits where their radio transmitters hid. They walked slowly up and down the street, checking everyone out, talking into their hands.
As I leaned against the car, not 20 feet from the center car that held the person they were so carefully protecting, I realized the body guards were systematically moving everyone, having them step back, step away, then I realized they were not moving me. I guess 70 year old women are not seen as a threat in Italy, it was like I wasn't even there.
I waited. Finally, a muscular, bald-headed man, maybe 45-50ish, in an expensive suit stepped out of the center car, looked around carefully, spoke into his hand and the four younger men who had wandered up the street returned to the area. If the four younger men were supporting characters in Bond movies, this new man reminded me of a Bond movie villain. Still I stood there, feeling like I stuck out like a sore thumb, still unnoticed. A few minutes later another man stepped out of the center car, obviously the man they were protecting. He looked like no one I had seen before, 50-60ish, slim, another expensive suit, a cellphone held against his ear. Unimpressed and somewhat disappointed, I continued back to meet my travel companions.
After a leisurely lunch at a small cafe, we wandered back to our cars and returned to the villa. Assisi is a beautiful town and I spent a lovely day there, but in my mind, whenever I hear Assisi mentioned, it will always remind me of "The Day I Did Not See The Pope."
|As soon as we stepped out of the car in Anghiari, the breathtaking panoramic views of the Tiber Valley far below the parking lot gave us a glimpse of what lay ahead. Crossing the town road we walked through a stone archway built centuries ago into the side of a fortress wall. We found ourselves at the top of a few dozen wide stone steps that led down to an area of small shops. On either side of the steps were quintessential Tuscany doorways dressed with pots of colorful flowers. I remember passing a large cat resting under a bed sheet drying in the breeze.|
Other than us, there were not many tourists walking about, just an occasional local resident going about his or her daily business. We stopped at a few of the shops along the way, and followed the old stone walkway down to a small, open courtyard. There we had a lunch of pizza and wine on the outside terrace of a small restaurant. The pizza was delicious, different from the hometown pizzas I am used to that are buried under melted cheese. While the Anghiari pizza did have small circles of melted cheese, the flavors of fresh basil, garlic, peppers and onions were prominent too.
After lunch we left the courtyard and followed two from our party who had spent time in Anghiari previously. We walked up a steep walkway until we reached the old fortress overlook that wound around the top of the town.
When I realized we were looking down at the Tiber Valley far below, images of Roman Legionaires marching in mile long formations immediately came to mind. I remember seeing a cemetary in the distance, outlined by those iconic Tuscan cedar trees. Like an arrow, a road ran straight across the valley, through small communities and onward until I couldn't distinquish it anymore.
As we slowly walked around the overlook, we came upon an area where actual homes were cut into the ancient stone at the top of the fortress, just across from where we stood on the overlook. Some had small balconies, most had small potted gardens outside the front doors. I so wanted to walk up and knock on those doors and ask if I could see inside. I imagined the inside would be cold and dark, but also imagined they cost a small fortune and recognized they were most likely quite comfortable.
Eventually, we wandered into a green garden in the back of a pub where we found a table overlooking the Tiber Valley with a view that went on forever. We ordered snacks and for some unknown reason a Baileys Irish Cream whiskey over ice came to mind, so I sat sipping my Irish whiskey while enjoying good company and the remarkable Italian countryside.
When dark clouds began to roll in and rain seemed imminent, we reluctantly collected our belongings and left that little piece of paradise heading back to our cars, now walking UP all those charming stone steps that greeted us when we arrived, another cardio challenge.
We went back to the villa where we spent a quiet night of conversation and maybe some wine. Then off to bed with visions of the next day's trip to Cortona where the author of the book, "Under the Tuscan Sun," found her dream home.
To be continued ...
|When it was suggested that we go to the Polenta Festival in the nearby town of Monterchi on our first night in Tuscany, I wasn't sure what Polenta was, but even though I was tired, I didn't want to miss anything, so off I went with our small group prepared to be surprised. Surprised I was. First by the uphill hike to Monterchi Center where the festival was being held, and then by the food and good humor of the people there.|
We pulled our cars into a parking lot at the foot of Monterchi Center, climbed out and looked up ... and up ... and up. Looming overhead was what appeared to be an ancient stone foretress, lit up with a welcoming glow of lights, music drifted down toward us. Crossing the street we had a choice of walking up a winding roadway or climbing up centuries old crumbling stone steps. Since climbing the very steep steps would be quicker than following the winding road, we opted for the steps. They definitely provided a good cardio workout before we stepped onto a stone roadway hugged on either side by connecting stone homes that had remarkable panoramic views of Tuscany at night. One thing that struck me about the homes is that some had sliding glass doors cut into the old stone walls, the juxtaposition of such contemporary architectural detail forged out of ancient architecture made me stop and take notice.
We followed the road upward (there's a lot of upward in Tuscany) until we reached a landing in the road where tables displayed local crafts for sale. Making a left hand turn, we continued up 40 or 50 more feet and finally arrived at Monterchi Center and the location of the festival. The small center seemed more like a courtyard, surrounded by ancient buildings and what looked to me like a stone fortress, updated and used as a community center. Small shops lined the courtyard on one side, and on the other long white open-sided tents were set in rows, inside of each tent were long family style tables, and sitting at each table were friendly groupings of people enjoying polenta dishes in white throw-away bowls. Bottles of wine were set at strategic positions along the tabletops.
We stood in line and selected one of three polenta dishes offered and carried our warm bowls off to find a place to sit. I had chosen a mushroom dish that proved to be outstanding. Others chose the dish made with wild boar. I've never eaten wild boar and didn't feel any real need to start then. The mushroom concoction was layered over large chunks of polenta, a form of bread that reminded me of cornbread and I ate every morsal, washing it all down with a few bottomless glasses of Prosecco. Prosecco is a white, sweet, bubbly wine that it turns out goes with just about every food choice I made while in Italy.
The other people at our table were congenial and we all tried to communicate as best we could. Each speaking more or less English and Italian. A small band and a woman singer were set up on a corner of the courtyard and entertained the crowd.
Eventually it was time to leave and walk back down the ancient stone steps to our cars. Without a doubt the walking down was much more comfortable than the walking up.
Back at the villa we said our good nights and each wandered off to their room, sleepy after a long day of travel and a quiet evening of good food and drink. I was careful to pull my bed away from the villa wall and tuck my slippers under the covers at the foot of the bed having been told that scorpions like the warm stone of old villas and seeing small scorpions is not uncommon. I am happy to report that of all the wonders I saw in Italy, a scorpion was not one of them.
In the morning we were off to the gorgeous Medieval city of Anghiari.
To be continued ...
|The train ride from Venice to Florence offered an opportunity to relax. Nowhere to go but short swaying trips to the food counter a few cars away for something to munch on between naps, then later a glass of wine. Other than the town names printed in large letters above the ticket stands, the station stops along the way did not look much different than the stations back in the states, including lots of graffiti at the more urban stations. The graffiti was interesting; opinions on love and politics, and occasionally a poem, all presented in six foot high scrolls of vivid colors.|
That day we were only passing through Florence on our way to the villa, and there wasn't much of the city to see from the train station. We waited outside for our van to arrive and take us to a small stop about an hour's drive away where our rental cars waited. I was struck by the presence of armed military personnel standing on guard outside the Florence train station, not far from where we were standing. Young men in camouflage uniforms and army boots, assault rifles slung over their shoulders, purposefully eyeing travelers as they passed by. I had seen that type of military presence while traveling in Israel, but seeing it in Florence surprised me.
The transition from the van to the rental cars happened relatively quickly, then we were on our way to cover the final 50 miles of the trip from Venice to Tuscany. We headed toward our villa on the outskirts of Monterchi, which is located near the border between Tuscany and Umbria. The scenery began to look more and more like the Tuscany I imagned. Miles of hilly fields outlined by tall cypress trees, an occasional small village, populated by centuries old houses, fruit stands and a pub or two. A travel companion who had been in the area many times before told the story of her and a few female friends stopping at a pub and being ushered out ... men only.
As we drove through Monterchi, fields of sunflowers that had bloomed a month before and were now being harvested for their seeds passed by the car windows. Occasonally, a tall yellow face would beam at us in the now browning sunflower fields, the last of the late bloomers. We passed tobacco fields, and olive trees before taking a left turn over a small country bridge, then the cars climbed a hill on an extremely narrow road that slowly passed old stone homes and a small stone church that serviced the 80 or so people who lived nearby. What I thought must certainly be a one lane road turned into two lanes when a friendly driver came down the hill right at us. Turns out it was the owner of the villa, who we chatted with for a few minutes before he was on his way.
A few more feet up the hill and we pulled into a small grassy parking area on the left. In front of us was an old stone wall entwined with bright green ivy and to our right, an old, but not quite as old as the stone wall, wood building that looked like a garage. Turning around we saw our villa across the narrow road. The late afternoon sun still warmed the air and washed over the villa, brightening the red flowers in terra cotta pots and outlining the stunning stone building. It was as we imagned, a quintessential Tuscany villa made of large brown and biege stones and mortar, a heavy wood front door off the stone landing. The villa was built on the hillside and once inside the beamed ceiling rooms, the views from the windows offered miles and miles of postcard perfect images of the Tuscan countryside. (See photo below)
Settling into my upstairs room, I pushed open the windows that overlooked wide stone steps that led up to a flat landing where an inground pool was surrounded on three sides by shrubs and plantings and a panoramic view of Tuscany on the fourth side. The beamed ceiling parlor and dining room were large and welcoming and the kitchen was modern and well equipped, a window above the sink looked out onto the road and our parked cars.
After unpacking and settling in, we realized we were all hungry and because we were told Monterchi's Polenta Festival was that evening we hopped in the cars and drove the few miles to Monterchi's town center, an ancient town first mentioned in the history books in 1095, and built on a hillside approximately 1200 feet above sea level. What a beautiful night it was.
To be continued ...
|By the time we left the apartment for our last dinner in Venice, I had showered and changed, no longer the drowned woman that appeared at the apartment door a few hours before. The rain had stopped. It was getting dark out. The streets were still busy with tourists and the warm yellow light spilling out of still-opened shops marked the coblestone streets ahead of us. Again, we had vague directions on the location of the restaurant that had been suggested to us, but we could already tell by the volume of tourists that we passed that it would not be as private as the charming restaurant from the night before.|
We enjoyed the leisurely stroll down streets lit by lamplight, and occasionally lingered at the storefront of a shop that catered to those much wealthier than me. We retraced our steps a few times, but eventually found the old wood front door that led into a narrow, wood paneled bar area that led to a handsome maitre d' dressed in a sharp black suit and tie, the opposite of the apron clad gentlemen from the night before.
Even though it had begun to drizzle again, we opted to sit at a beautifully appointed table under the side canopy that abutted the square. My memory of that dinner is more of the fun and conversation than of the food. As we lingered over wine I looked across the square and discovered someone was projecting a movie onto the side of a four story building, the images towering over the square. I could vaguely hear the dialogue but it didn't matter. The image of the square, the movie, the people walking by, the hint of fog under the lamplights will remain forever in my memory. I do remember the bill being a bit shocking, but in the end, it was my last night in Venice, and worth every euro.
Wandering in the general direction of the apartment, we lingered a bit on the streets of Venice, but I was weary from my wet afternoon adventures, and knowing we had to be on the dock at 7 a.m. the following morning forced me to give in, return to my room, pack my luggage and climb into bed. My travel companions advised me to turn on the air conditioner in the room as it would drown out the street noise. I followed their advice and slept well, although when I saw the photos taken of me the next morning as we waited for the water taxi, I can't say I looked very well rested. If you're wondering who carried my 40 lb piece of luggage down from the third floor that morning, it was a very gracious and strong gentleman, a fellow traveler.
At precisely 7 a.m. we climbed into our water taxi and made one last trip down the Canal. Almost as though it was a consolation gift for the regret I was feeling having to leave beautiful Venice so soon, a golden morning sun appeared from behind the buildings and its reflection on the water followed us until we reached the dock where we disembarked and headed to the train station.
As we waited for our train, the imagines of Venice were gone from sight, hidden on the other side of the station. I consoled myself with the thought that the train would take us to Florence, where we would connect with our ride that would take us to our rental cars that would take us to our villa in Tuscany.
To be continued ...
|We were exhausted when we finally climbed the stairs up to our rooms that first night in Venice. It was difficult to give in to sleep in such a wonderful city with all the sights and sounds it had to offer, but we had been traveling since the evening before, a long flight from New York's JFK to Milan, then a train from Milan to Venice, a quick stop in our rooms, and back out again to explore the streets of Venice and find that enchanting little restaurant. |
My travel companions planned to get up early and explore more of the city, but I felt a need to sleep in, and ultimately was glad I did. It was warm that September night so I opened the bedroom window and lay there listening to the voices of the people passing by on the street below. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep only to wake in the dark to what sounded like gunshots. I lay there holding my breath while trying to make sense of what I was hearing. The loud voices persisted as did an occasional "gunshot." While I never did have the courage to get out of bed and look out the window, eventually I realized someone close by had a TV on and the volume was turned up. It was two or three in morning, and I was wide awake. As the morning dawned outside the window, the loud TV still blared away, and the morning sounds of delivery trucks and doors being opened and closed joined the campaign to keep me awake. That's when I finally fell asleep.
It was mid-morning and the sky was grey when I woke. A half hour later my travel companions returned from their morning walk. By the time I left the apartment it had begun to rain. I stopped at the shop on the corner and stood at a small counter where I ate a freshly baked croussant and drank freshly squeezed orange juice and watched people traffic as it passed by the big picture window. When breakfast was finished, it was time for the adventure to begin.
I popped open my umbrella and headed down the narrow street toward St. Mark's Square, occasionally bobbing up and down as I walked to avoid poking passers-by or being poked by someone else's open umbrella. Small leather shops, tiny restaurants, and a few footbridges later the narrow street opened into enormous St. Mark's Square. Rather than "opened" into the square, maybe a better word would be "spilled" into St. Mark's Square. By the time I arrived at the square it was pouring rain.
It was warm that day, which meant even as my summer dress began to soak up the rain, and my open sandals sank into the ankle deep water that had accumulated in spots around the square, I wasn't chilly at all. I believe it was around that time that I decided to abandon my umbrella, give into the rain, and enjoy Venice. As I stood in the square, the magnificant St. Mark's Basilica in front of me, I had an epiphany and decided to include my open, yet useless umbrella, in every picture I took that afternoon.
As a result, I created a complete and unique album of that afternoon in Venice. My open umbrella in front of St. Mark's Bascillica, next to the ages old lion statue protecting the basilica, on a bench in front of the square's beautiful clock tower. I left the square via a side street, and found myself standing on a footbridge. In the distance two more footbridges spanned the same canal and I recognized an imagne of the city I had seen before, but couldn't place where. I placed my umbrella on the footbridge and stepped back to take a photo as a filled gondola rolled closer. The wind picked up and moved the umbrella but luckily two young men were standing nearby and grabbed it before it went airborne and conked the gondolier on the head.
Moving on ... I turned the corner and there in front of me was the magnificant Grand Canal. The water was choppy in the Canal, making the hundred gondolas and water taxis parked at the blocks-long landing bob up and down precariously. Across the lagoon I could see the beauty of Venetian architecture on display. It was pouring rain, my hair and dress were soaked through, but it truly was a stunning moment.
Gradually, my umbrella and I made our way down the Grand Canal landing, crossing untold bridges, passing hotels and buildings from the 14th and 15th centuries, stopping near statues, at the water's edge, sometimes just stopping to drink it all in, always taking photos. I had only a vague idea of where I was in relation to where I was staying, but it didn't matter.
Eventually, and quite reluctantly, I wandered down a side street that I thought would bring me back to my apartment and, with a few minor detours, much to my surprise, it did. I climbed the stairs, and entered the apartment to find my travel companions, my completely dry travel companions, waiting for me.
To be continued ...
|Close your eyes and imagine Venice, Italy. What did you see? |
When I closed my eyes and imagined Venice before I visited there, I saw water, lots of water, and an ancient white city at the horizon. I saw gondolas, lots of gondolas, steered by men in stripped shirts as they slowly made their way down narrow canals surrounded by stone buildings with window boxes filled with geraniums (red, of course!). I saw those gondoliers duck as their small boats floated under carved stone foot bridges.
I wasn't sure I would like Venice, there were conflicting stories about the quality of the water in the canals, but felt everyone should visit Venice at least once if the opportunity presented itself. The reality of Venice was different than I had imagined it. Venice is much more beautiful than I expected.
When I heard we were taking a water taxi to our rooms in Venice, my mind immediately went back to the image of crossing a wide sea with the ancient city on the horizon. I was disappointed when our train pulled into the station in Venice and found no horizon, no sea to cross. We pulled our luggage through a small building and out the otherside into a small park-like area. The first glimpse of the Canal came just beyond the park where boats were moored.
As we approached the docks and more of the Canal appeared, I began to understand the uniqueness of Venice, the beauty there. In order to climb onto our taxi without ending up in the Canal, I was forced to pull my eyes away, but as soon as the water taxi began to back up I leaned against the back railing and drank in the scenery. There were moments when I couldn't really concentrate on what I was seeing because the amazing notion that I was actually in Venice, kept filling up my head.
As the taxi followed the twists and turns of the wide Canal, so many images that I had never seen before, but were so familiar to me, passed by. Bridges and terraced homes, old, old hotels with outside dining areas, ourageously expensive boats tied to wabblying docks, all below a blue gray sky. It was five o'clock traffic on the Canal: water taxis, bobbing gondolas filled with tourists, private boats, and utility boats, all barely missing crashing into each other, the drivers waving and greeting each other in words I did not understand, yet to my eyes, all so exotic and wonderful.
A very friendly young man met us as we left the taxi and escorted us to our rooms a block or two way from the canal. The space was nicely appointed and generous enough to accommodate the four of us, but, much to my dismay, located on the third floor. The young man carried my 40 lb. piece of luggage up the stairs as I wondered how I would ever bring it down again. What followed was an unplanned and unexpected magical evening.
As you probably know, much of Venice is packed with tourists. In an effort to get away from the crowd we took advice from our strong young man and left to find the out-of-the-way restaurant he described to us. We wandered the back streets of Venice, the less traveled, quiet cobbled stoned streets that wind through neighborhoods with no water in sight, and are lit by doorway lanterns. A few times we were willing to give up the quest for the illusive restaurant, but instead followed the lead of a fellow traveler who assured us she was closing in by using her phone's GPS system. Then, finally ...
We walked down a cobble stoned alley, quiet in the night, turned a corner and entered a beautiful, large, square courtyard surrounded by old stone apartment buildings. There, in the farthest right hand corner of the dimly lit square we saw a canvass-covered dining area attached to a small restaurant. Inside old men in white aprons tied around their waists smiled warmly and welcomed us in. We settled into a long candle lit table under the canopy in the disserted courtyard under the stars, and ordered wine and more wine, and unknown dishes off the small menu. Much later, our bodies warm and comfortable, we wandered through the quiet back streets of Venice until the streets became busier and we knew we were close to our rooms.
To be continued ...
Why the littlebrowndog?
My adult son was to be a co-owner of any dog we selected that afternoon at the Humane Society, and while I was attracted to three other dogs, he kept walking back to the large cage where the littlebrowndog was throwing a hissy-fit. Granted the 50 pound, pitbull mix was handsome, but he was a pitbull and the only thing I knew about the breed came from the bad press that seemed to follow them around.
I persisted and made three separate trips outside with the other dogs I was interested in, but each was rather lackluster and one was a bit scary. Finally my son convinced me to try the loud littlebrowndog on for size and I reluctantly agreed. The young woman from the Humane Society staff who accompanied us assured me that any dog they displayed for adoption has passed rigorous testing, including testing for aggression. As soon as we entered the fenced in area and sat down, the littlebrowndog picked up a stuffed toy and literally threw it into my son's lap.. At that moment, I knew any protest I might make against adopting this energized bundle of muscle and fur would fall on deaf ears.
After completing the paperwork, writing the check, and buying a new collar and leash. the three of us stood in the Humane Society parking lot wondering what to do next. The littlebrowndog silently refused to get in the back seat of the car by sitting down on the pavement. It took a few minutes of coaxing to get him to climb in and I took that reluctance as a sign of an intelligent dog. By the time we arrived home twenty minutes later, the littlebrowndog had a new name, Riley, along with a new home.
Flash forward four years. My son has moved into an apartment,and has begun a job that requires him to work long hours. The thelittlebrown dog and I are roommates and have become fast friends.
It's all about a shabby old couch. You know that feeling when you walk into a room and realize for the first time that the furniture looks worn-out, that the material on the chaise you have spent years relaxing in is looking thin and shiny, that the couch the littlebrowndog has made his own looks a little too doggy. Once that thought creeps in, it becomes impossible to ignore, impossible to pretend. Once the decision is made to buy new furniture, then, as any animal lover knows, the problem becomes how to replace the shabby couch while acknowledging that particular piece of furniture really belongs to the dog.
I decided to use the three weeks before I began painting and updating the room as a transition period for the littlebrowndog. My first step was to buy a new, orthopedic, dog bed and to clear out a particular spot in the room for the new bed. When I brought the new dog bed home, it was love at first sight. When I laid it on the floor, Riley immediately climbed on top and began sniffing. Throughout that evening he alternated between the old couch and new bed but when push came to shove at the end of the night he curled under the slipcover and fell asleep on the couch, leaving his new bed empty in the dark.
That's when it occurred to me that the slipcover was the littlebrowndog's "Linus blanket," so I went back to the store and bought him his very first blanket. Who knew there are such things as blankets made exclusively for dogs? As soon as I unwrapped the blanket, Riley took it from me and dragged it with him wherever he went that night. I was in the kitchen and called him. He came running down the hall dragging his new blanket behind him, it was absolutely adorable to watch. But, again, when he fell asleep that night the blanket was abandoned for the couch and slipcover.
And so we wait ...
A few days have gone by now. Riley still drags the blanket with him most of the time and when I find it in a heap on the floor I pick it up and thrown it on his new dog bed. During the evening he goes to the bed and lays on the blanket, then wanders back to the couch. I have noticed that he has taken to tossing the new blanket over his head, attempting to cover himself with it. Two more weeks and his shabby old couch will be gone. I am optimistic that the littlebrowndog will be ready for the transition by then.
It's less than two weeks until Christmas Day here near Albany, NY, and although I'm certainly not complaining, there's not a flake of snow on the ground. The grass in my front lawn and backyard is still green, and the ground hasn't frozen yet. Last year at this time we had already been pounded with one major snowstorm after another and we were already measuring our snowstorms in feet rather than inches.
A part of me loves this unusually mild weather. Arriving at work in the morning without my heart beating out of my chest because of the stress from driving in a Nor'easter snowstorm, is a relief. Not worrying about getting stuck in my own driveway at the end of the workday because the city snow plows dumped a foot of snow at the entrance is a relief. Falling asleep at night without trying to decide if I should make the attempt to get to work the next morning, if it's worth risking life and limb, is a relief. It's even appealing to hop in the car and go Christmas shopping without listening to the day's weather report first, do I need boots, gloves and scarves? What time will the snow start? Better be home by then.
BUT, on the flip side, there is something special about Christmas shopping with snow on the ground, something magical about watching fresh white snow flakes sparkle as they drift down under the streetlights, and anyone who has ever seen a fresh layer of soft white snow shimmering on the ground would be hard pressed to choose snow-less Decembers instead.
Perhaps the issue here is choice. If I could choose to be a kid again, home from school, my snowsuit warming on the hot radiator, mom searching the house for my one lost mitten, then pulling on my navy blue rubber boots over warm wool socks, stuffing the pants leg of my snow suit into the top of my boot, struggling to force the ankle strap to close, then a snow-less December would be unthinkable, unacceptable, inconceivable!
So, I sit here conflicted. The adult me would be happy to get through the entire winter without a drop of snow, but the kid in me, oh, the kid in me, wants to find my round metal snow saucer, drag it across the street and fly down the mounds of snow in reckless abandon laughing alongside my childhood friends while our cheeks grow red and our socks collect tiny ice balls of snow.
Growing up in the northeast I’ve seen all types of winters. From mild winters where southern breezes blew unfrozen dirt on the side of the road into small spinning cyclones to winters of relentless snow storms and brutally cold temperatures that assaulted my exposed skin and left red blotches that took hours to fade away.
Whether or not any particular winter was problematic for me over the years depended on where I was in my life. When I was a child the more snow the better. As a young woman riding buses to work the height of the snowbanks and snowy sidewalks were my main concerns. There were winters spent in a warm house playing with a growing child all day when I hardly paid attention to the weather outside the window. As a single working mom supporting a household, a frozen car that wouldn’t start and miles of slippery, slushy roads between me and my place of employment caused weeks of winter stress. Throw in a few unexpected school closings and the stress level soared to new heights.
Of all the winter memories I have accumulated over the years, there is one that replays during winters like this one, winters when the snow piles high. It’s of a sunny, yet bitterly cold winter morning some time back in the 1950s when my family lived in what was then a new large apartment complex built on a flat hilltop near my hometown.
I have a very vivid memory of watching my dad walking through snow up to his knees in front of our building that winter morning. The wind lifted the ends of the scarf wrapped around his face and he walked with his head down as he trudged through the deep snow toward the plowed road that circled the development. He followed that road down to Campbells Avenue where he met a ride to work. He usually drove our car and I don't remember if it wouldn't start or if it was simply buried in snow. I don't even remember if I was old enough to go to school or if it was a snow day but I clearly remember standing in front of the warm radiator below the frosted window in my second floor bedroom and watching dad until he disappeared from view.
Why do I remember that morning so clearly? Maybe it was the first time I truly understood his responsibility as a parent and it became a lesson I never forgot.
|This morning I’m thinking about the destruction in Israel and the Gaza Strip as a result of the ongoing bombings between their borders Certainly I’m thinking about the situation from a humane point of view, all of the people injured and killed, homes and communities lost, lives disrupted, but also from a personal perspective. |
Half a dozen years ago I visited Israel for three weeks on business and discovered a beautiful country. It’s difficult for me to think of today’s bombings and the damage being done as I remember my time there. Yet, the possibility of real danger existed and we were reminded of that possibility by the armed military personnel we passed walking the streets of Jerusalem and the glimpse at the charred skeleton of a bus parked behind a garage.
It was daylight when our plane flew over the Mediterranean Sea approaching Ben Gurion Airport, the waters of the clear Mediterranean sparkling close below us. As soon as we disembarked from the plane I realized that my preconceived notions of what Israel would look like were light years away from reality. There was not one man dressed in flowing robes in sight. Not even one camel. Instead, a young Arab man dressed in jeans and sneakers and wearing a baseball cap welcomed us to our air conditioned tour bus as we walked out of the modern airport. Driving away on a newly built highway, passing stylish business and apartment buildings, I was struck by how clean and new everything was.
Watching the reports of the fighting there today I remember how small Israel is. In approximately five hours we traveled the length of the country, from Eilat, a luxurious resort town at the southern tip of Israel on the Red Sea wedged between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to the Golan Heights at Israel’s northern border with Syria and Lebanon. In that short period of time we traveled from the barren beauty of the Negev desert (where we did indeed see men in flowing robes racing across the sand on camels) to the lush green hillsides of the Sea of Galilee.
Before visiting Tel Aviv, I imagined a mysterious and exotic city based on stories and books from my childhood. Tall potted palm trees and streets filled with camels (there are those camels again) where merchants behind booths sold their wares were a part of that fantasy. In reality, Tel Aviv is a bustling modern city with blocks and blocks of businesses and luxurious hotels on the Mediterranean Sea. There are outdoor booths where merchants sell their wares today, but those booths line modern city streets and the merchants are dressed in summer dresses or bermuda shorts.
Old Jerusalem, on the other hand, is exotic. It’s exotic and mystical and mysterious. It’s the birthplace of the world’s major religions, how could it not be. The golden Dome of the Rock that shines over Old Jerusalem represents so many different things to millions and millions of people. Today The Dome is a Muslim shrine, its turret occupied by armed Muslim guards overlooking the Western Wall where Jews come to pray every day. Muslims believe the stone inside The Dome is the place from which Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. The Jews believe the stone under The Dome is the same stone where Abraham prepared to kill Isaac, some believe it stands over the sites of both Solomon’s and Herod’s Temples.
For the Christians of the world, Jerusalem represents the city where Jesus taught, was crucified, died and was buried. Just outside Jerusalem’s ancient walls and across a valley is the Garden of Gethsemane and The Mount of Olives. We looked at the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in the distance while standing on the grounds of a Jewish kibbutz on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
While in Jerusalem I spent much of my very limited spare time sitting in a chair and looking out my hotel room window at the walls of Old Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock and the Mount of Olives in the distance behind them. One can feel the blessedness of the city and its surroundings.
To the north of Jerusalem is the Jordan River, Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Tiberius, Haifa, Akko, all ancient touchstones for many of the world’s religions and all archeologically significant. Watching the week's news I feel a sense of sadness for the human loss, but I'm also fearful that these ancient places could be destroyed. Losing just one would be a tragedy.
When I decided to leave my camper Tuesday night because of a tornado warning, I left quickly. The weather station was indicating a 10 minute window before the storm. Happily an actual tornado did not touch down but the next morning at home sitting in my comfortable den with the sun shining outside I began to consider the items I took with me when I dashed. I was reminded of a theoretical exercise I participated in years ago. Here’s the exercise:
If you had just minutes to evacuate your home due to fire, storm, etc. what would you bring with you?
Tuesday night I didn’t think too much about what I was grabbing but in retrospect what I took represented what was most important to me. Riley, the littlebrowndog, was first in the car. Then my reading glasses, the thumb drive carrying my novel (I would face a tornado head-on before I lost those chapters again!), my laptop with a few chapters from my novel, my thyroid medication, my purse and wallet and that was it. If I had been home instead of at my camper I’m sure I would have grabbed my will and any insurance papers too.
My plan was to spend the whole week at camp so I had all of my casual wardrobe with me and while I’ve never been a clothes horse, I didn’t throw any clothes into a bag, I left all my toiletries, and didn’t grab a picture or a book. I do remember driving away and thinking if the camper goes, well, it’s all insured.
The things I did walk away with are not a surprise to me. It makes perfect sense. It’s interesting what a few hectic minutes can tell us about ourselves.
Outside the windows of my den the sky is grey; most of the trees are bare. The big beautiful maple tree in the front yard is standing there naked for the entire world to see. Not that long ago she wore blazing red but that dress is now discarded, a wrinkled heap on the lawn. I hear the furnace kicking on, forcing warm air into the rooms of my house, protection against the cold air that has begun to move into my neighborhood, pushing fall aside, and making way for the bitter cold of winter.
The littlebrowndog is curled into a warm ball on the chair nearby. His eyes opening every now and then to be sure I’m still here. I’ve noticed he doesn’t want to stay outside as long as he did in the warmer weather and that he runs to the back door as soon as he is convinced the grounds are secure. I’ve found his winter hoodie but do not look forward to the struggle of getting it on and off every time he goes outside.
Sitting here on the first day of daylight standard time it suddenly occurred to me that my cable TV company has reached into my house and turned a few clocks back. Part of me is thankful. Most times over the years when I forgot to turn the clock back there were no major problems. There was the time, however, when I was a real estate agent and woke to a ringing phone and another agent wanting to know why I wasn’t at a planned contract signing. That question was followed by the awkwardness of me explaining I had forgotten to adjust my clock.
On the other hand, the cable company reaching into my house is kind of creepy and I’m reminded of how incredulous I would have been if someone told me years ago such technology was coming down the pike.
As the clocks in my house change, I feel a shifting in my inner clock; a slowing down, a nestling in. My focus changes from living outside to moving inside. That part of me that resisted the end of summer and the onset of snow and cold weather has finally been seduced by the prospect of cozy weekend afternoons in my den writing all those stories that have been floating around in my head, while winter roars outside the windows. I look forward to the sensations of a blazing fire in the fireplace; hot feet, wood snapping as it’s eaten up by bright orange and red flames, the smell of burning wood that makes its way up my neighbors’ chimneys and floats by me on a crisp, cold winter night as the littlebrowndog and I stand in the backyard at the end of the day.
Now that I have given in to the notion that the arrival of winter is inevitable I have adjusted and I know that somewhere in the roots of my beautiful maple tree there is an understanding that the humiliation she now endures will be forgotten in the redressing that comes with spring.
September. How did it get here so quickly? Everyone I speak with says the same thing, the summer went by surprisingly fast this year. Often Labor Day weekend means flannel shirts and wool socks in the Adirondacks, yet this Labor Day weekend has been warm with occasional showers and the sun is hot, the breeze is cool.
September. The 11th, never to be forgotten.
September born. Memories of mom-made birthday cakes and my family sitting around the kitchen table singing happy birthday after dinner. A wrapped birthday present from mom and dad.
September. Back to school. Memories of new plaid dresses, new shoes, new school uniforms, new friends, new teachers, homework again and no more sleeping in.
Reluctantly I surrender to September and turn my attention to where I left my warmer clothes when I so willingly shed them last April.
Living in the Northeast I’m aware of how the change of seasons affects trees. Even the most inattentive person living in the northeast cannot ignore the brilliance of fall. The fall foliage in the northeast can be rather pugnacious; it comes right up, lifts up our eyelids and challenges us to look away.
During the past few years, however, I’ve come to understand that even though trees scream at us in the fall, they talk to us more quietly all year long. I learned this by driving up and down the Northway into the Adirondack Mountains and home again.
During the spring months, April, May, early June, the trees are stretching, standing taller, sprouting leaves, but I can still see through the branches because their leaves are small and sparse. I feel a wonderful sense of what’s to come, the freedom of throwing off the sweaters and heavy coats, the gloves and wool hats. I sense the freedom of longer, warmer days just ahead. I feel the excitement and anticipation of opening my little place in the Adirondacks; spending late afternoons floating in the pond and watching the clouds drift by.
Driving north in August I begin to feel some trepidation. The trees begin to look a bit limp, there’s a crispness about them. Most are still green, although a few have begun to turn red. The trees are telling me it’s still summer but I should start thinking about where I threw my heavy coat and wool hat.
Today, on this hot and humid July morning as I drove into work, I noticed the trees were talking again. Today the trees are full of themselves. They are bursting with seeds and fruit. They are standing tall and allowing the gentle morning breeze to dance between their branches. That’s when it dawned on me.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “enjoy the moment.” But, I can tell you every time I’ve heard it I’ve agreed wholeheartedly and vowed to live my life that way even though it’s a true challenge for this pragmatic Virgo.
That’s what the trees told me this morning, "enjoy the moment." Don’t look back at how we were in the spring and don’t look forward to how we will be in August. Enjoy us today; celebrate this wonderful mid-summer with us.
(Of course, the pragmatic Virgo in me realized the temperature will rise into the 90s again today and wondered if it would be okay to enjoy this wonderful mid-summer day from inside an airconditioned room.)
The most important part of dad’s life was his family, his wife and his children. From my perspective he loved mom without reservation from the day they met until the day he died and he had no choice but to leave her behind. In the weeks before dad died he and I spent every Friday night together and literally talked all night long. He once told me he wasn’t afraid to die, he just hated that us kids wouldn’t have a father anymore, even though “us kids” were in our late 40s and early 50s.
I have a sister I’ve never met. Her name is Mary Theresa and she was the first born in our family. Mary Theresa died before she was 10 days old of a hole in her heart. If she was born today instead of 72 years ago, she no doubt would have survived after surgery. This photo is of dad and the second baby born to our family, my sister, Carol Ann. It’s so obvious how happy dad was to finally be a father.
It took mom awhile after dad died to start looking through his things. When she finally went through his wallet she found a tiny, yellow, well-folded piece of news print, Mary Theresa’s obit from the newspaper. Mom had no idea that dad had carried that little piece of news print with him for 56 years but when we thought about it we realized, knowing dad as we did, of course he would.
I know this may seem like a sad story, but I love it because it's a peek at the wonderful man dad was and how lucky I was that he was my father.
Happy Father’s Day, Pops … Love you.
When I was a kid growing up in Troy, NY, my older sister, two brothers, assorted friends and I would hike from our apartment in the Griswold Heights housing project to Prospect Park. Troy had almost two dozen neighborhood parks, but Prospect Park was unique because it was home to a public swimming pool. It was a huge pool with concrete steps leading to 3 feet of water at one end. At the opposite end was a long springy diving board that in our childhood fantasies became Captain Hook’s infamous plank and we took turns walking the plank as dramatically as possible before stepping off into 8 feet of water and our demise. In my memory the Prospect Park pool was large enough to accommodate every kid in Troy and on a few of those sweltering summer afternoons it sure felt like every Troy kid was in that pool.
Of course, we didn’t walk the three or four miles from our home to Prospect Park following the city streets, we walked the “as the crow flies” route; from home, down a sloping hill covered with tall grass and underbrush to Spring Avenue. From there we’d hike up a steeper hill following what remained of an old grass covered dirt road until we reached the top of Prospect Park hill. Often when we reached the top of that hill we’d drop down on the grass to catch our breath and look out at the 20 mile panoramic views until the stiff, dry, just-mowed summer grass began to prick at our bare legs and prod us on. At the end of the day, after spending the whole afternoon in the pool, we’d drag our sunburned and weary little bodies’ up and down those hills all over again, this time anxious to get home.
The reason I’m writing about Prospect Park Pool today is because Esther Williams died yesterday. She was 91 years old which means many of you reading this may not know who she was. Esther Williams was a competitive swimmer, winning three gold medals at the national swimming championships in 1939 and a place on the 1940 US Olympic swim team. Unfortunately, because of the onset of WW2, the 1940 Olympic Games were canceled. As a consolation prize (her words) she became a movie star. Because she was a beautiful woman and a talented athlete a whole new movie genre grew around her … the water extravaganza, filled with scenes of synchronized swimming and death defying high dives. Her neck was broken during one of those dives but she recovered and continued on with her career, becoming known as The Million Dollar Mermaid.
Now, back to Prospect Park Pool. As a child I loved to watch the old Esther Williams’ movies. My friends and I would sit in the parlor and watch them on our black and white TV. We’d roll around on the floor mimicking the synchronized swimming routines, confident we could easily recreate them once we got to … you guessed it … Prospect Park Pool. It wasn’t as if we didn’t try. I can’t even guess at how many gallons of chlorine laced water we swallowed as we slowly sank to the bottom of the pool still holding our perfect synchronized form. Or how many times our graceful and perfect dives off the Prospect Park pool diving board ended in perfect belly flops.
Esther made it look so easy.
President John F. Kennedy assassinated on November 22, 1963.
Reverand Martin Luther King assassinated on April 4, 1967.
Senator Robert F. Kennedy assassinated on June 6, 1968.
The assassination of President Kennedy was the end of my innocence. As a child growing up in the ‘50s my life was very sheltered. Politics was something men argued about the same way they argued over the Friday night fights or the last Yankees game. Back then the President of the United States was perfect and in our Irish-Catholic household John Kennedy, the first Irish-Catholic president, neared sainthood. Watching President Kennedy’s assassination replayed over and over again on the news, then watching Lee Harvey Oswald shot in front of me on live TV made me feel vulnerable out there in the world for the first time in my life and I as 17 years old.
In my memory JFK, MLK and RFK were shot one right after another. In my memory MLK and RFK were shot the spring after JFK was murdered. In reality there were years between the shootings. Maybe I remember the murders the way I do because each shooting was so traumatic to me, each shooting made me, as a citizen, feel more vulnerable.
Each of these shootings changed our political and cultural landscape, changed our world. Maybe because these assassinations shook me to the core and destroyed my innocence it feels to me as though these murders were the beginning of the long destructive road that has led to the almost casual violence we see in our world today.
All of these thoughts come to mind on this 45th Anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy’s death; rest in peace, Bobby.
Palm Sunday wasn’t just another ordinary religious calendar event when I was a kid. When Palm Sunday arrived it brought with it a satchel filled with mixed emotions to sort through. The end of lent was near which meant desserts would soon reappear on the dinner table and I no longer had to decide whether breaking my pledge and eating that small piece of chocolate during lent was worth living with the guilt.
Palm Sunday meant learning new songs in choir and that it was time to shop for a new spring coat or receive a new-to-me spring coat from a cousin. I loved shopping for the new pair of black patent leather shoes with the strap across the top, the small straw white hat with pink rosebuds, the white gloves with a dainty lace trim at the top that matched my new white dress socks. Thoughts of Easter baskets with colorful jelly beans and marshmallow yellow chicks filled my head and I prayed the Easter Bunny would leave my favorite dark chocolate Easter egg filled with white coconut cream.
Yet, all of those pleasant thoughts were distractions from the emotional trauma I experienced during the week that began with Palm Sunday. Never having had a tolerance for violence, the graphic descriptions and photos of the torture and crucifixion of Christ that were discussed and displayed at school and during church services during that week literally made me sick to my stomach and year after year I cringed when Palm Sunday arrived and found I had no option but to witness the violence all over again.
Ironically, many years later, after I had long since grown away from the religion of my youth, a serendipitous event in my life brought me to the Garden of Gethsemane in the foothills of the Mount of Olives in Israel. On the grounds of the garden is a beautiful church built in the 1920s by the Franciscan Friars. Inside the church is a large rock surrounded by a small black cast iron fence and there is a small sign which indicates that this rock may be the actual rock Christ was sitting on when the Roman guards came for him after he had been betrayed by Judas. The name of the small church is the Basilica of Agony.
After visiting the church I walked back into the garden and sat on the ground on that cloudy weekday afternoon and looked across the Kidron Valley at the ancient walls of Jerusalem still standing under the Dome of the Rock after all these centuries. I could see the large areas of archeological excavations and the ancient stairs that had recently been unearthed. Stone steps that had been dated back to the time of Christ; steps that Christ most likely climbed.
Funny that I would find myself in that garden, on the Mount of Olives after all the emotional upheaval caused by my childhood reactions to the story of Palm Sunday and the week that followed. It was thrilling to be there and it felt like a spiritual experience but then so many of the world’s religions began in Jerusalem that I suspect there are few people who could spend time in that city and not feel the spiritual connections.
Was Christ the Son of God? I do not know. I do know Christ lived and I walked where Christ walked and saw where Christ suffered. I know Christ suffered an agonizing death and believed the suffering was for us. How could we not love and respect those convictions?
When I started writing this I wasn’t thinking about that trip to Israel, this story just evolved as I continued to write. Now as I reread this story and see where my life has taken me regarding Palm Sunday and the week that followed I have to admit I find it all quite amazing.
My maternal and paternal great grandparents came to the US from Ireland. I have never been, but lately I’ve been taking a virtual tour of the country looking for photos of the countryside and I’m reminded of my mom’s take on Ireland.
I grew up in a house that celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with Irish music and a grand corn beef and cabbage dinner. Mom made soda bread and sent us girls off to school with a green bow in our hair and my brothers went off with a green ribbon pinned to their school uniform shirt. I know for a fact my green bow stayed on my head for the whole day, although I suspect it had a jauntier look as the day went on. My brothers, well, I’m not so sure how long those green ribbons lasted on their shirts. As my brothers grew older, there’s a strong possibility those green ribbons didn’t make it around the corner from the building where we lived.
Mom’s grandmother, who emigrated from Ireland during the potato famine, lived in the household where my mom grew up. I’ve only seen pictures of the thin austere woman but understand she could be a challenge. I suspect being a child in the same house with someone who witnessed the mass deaths and suffering caused by the Irish potato famine had an effect on mom because as proud as she was of her Irish heritage, she never felt the need to “see” Ireland. She would, in fact, temper her children’s tendency to romanticize Ireland by saying she didn’t understand people’s fantasies about Ireland, after all, millions of the Irish left that country and came to the US to live a better life.
Dad’s childhood was different. His mom died in the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 when he was 3 and he spent the next 5 years living in a children’s home. When his dad remarried and took dad and his sisters out of the home dad was already 8 years old. At 13 he left school and went to work to help support his four half-brothers, a new one arriving each year. Although dad’s ancestry was just as Irish as mom’s, I don’t think he celebrated it until he met mom.
So I am a third generation Irishwoman wandering around the land of my ancestors via the internet. As beautiful as the Irish landscape is, I can also see how difficult it would be to make a living from that harsh rocky soil.
Every now and then I get the urge to make a drastic move to another part of the world or another part of the country. As a young woman I made a few semi-drastic moves with mixed results which have left me a bit leery of following my impulses. Ten years ago I considered packing up and moving to Ireland. After all, it is the home of my ancestors, Irish blood runs through my veins and when I traveled in England and Scotland most people thought I was Irish until they heard my “American accent.” I could picture myself writing in front of a warm fire blazing in a stone fireplace in the living room of a thatched roofed cottage across the dirt road from sprawling green fields (you can see how I get myself in trouble).
Ten years ago the computer industry in Ireland was booming. Young people were no longer leaving Ireland to build a life somewhere else; prosperity no longer depended on the soil and the seasons. They were attending college elsewhere and returning to live in Ireland. My son was just out of high school and warmed to the idea of moving to Ireland but somehow life continued on and we never built up the momentum to make the move.
I suspect most of us have a wish to see the homeland of our ancestors (my mom excluded, of course) and visit the towns where they were born. I came close a few decades ago when I was in northern England and could have taken the ferry to Northern Ireland, but it was the days of the Irish Republican Army, when bombings and gunfire occurred randomly in Northern Ireland and since I was traveling alone I decided traveling solo through Northern Ireland probably wasn’t one of my better ideas.
One day I hope to visit Ireland. In the meantime, I will continue our family traditions of celebrating on St. Patrick’s Day and being a proud Irish-American.
Go n-éirí an t-ádh leat! (Good luck to ya!)
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