A La Famiglia

When I left off, we were winding up our time on the mainland of Italy and heading for Sicily. Much has transpired since then. I could tell you colorful tales of our travels first through Sicily, then through a bit of Switzerland and France, and finally England. I could regale you with stories of what it was like to sail home across the North Atlantic Ocean on the only remaining ocean liner in the world, the Queen Mary 2. I could and I should share these adventures with my readers. The problem is, that very sense of obligation has created in me a frozen place. A place of not wanting to write, of avoiding what I am finally literally forcing myself to do: to sit down at the computer. And just do it.

I wanted to share the beauty of these places, my observations. The problem is me. Perhaps I have taken my own ability to live in the moment a bit too far! What energizes me when traveling is the immediacy of being there, in the midst of a new and exciting place. The thrill of getting there, the anticipation of planning, but finally, just feeling myself there, right in the nucleus of a different world. Happy.

Unfortunately, writing about it requires a distancing, a perspective that is impossible to achieve while being present where you are. Writing about traveling while you are doing it is akin to holding a video camera in front of your face for an entire show, then watching the film instead of seeing it fresh with your own eyes.

I have been selfish. I have chosen to be there instead of writing about it.

I thought I would pick up the thread when I got home, and fill you in with the details. Not ad nauseum, just the highlights. Some pictures. A few choice anecdotes. Poke fun at myself, because when you observe yourself in new surroundings, it can be really funny.

I haven’t wanted to.

I stand before you, humbly, in apology. We have been home more than a week. The thought of going back and regurgitating Sicily fills me with dread.

Maybe, over the past few months of being globetrotters, we have just worn ourselves down. That’s a real possibility.

I can tell you that my perspective has changed. When we set out on this experiment of being unattached to a specific place, nomads, as it were, I thought of it in terms of detaching.

What I have learned is that the more detached I become, the more attached I am.

But the attachment isn’t to a place, it is to my people.

If anything, not having a home base has made me cherish my loved ones more dearly, and to feel the connections as more grounding, more valuable.
People. And our love for them. Is there anything else more important?

The best part about Sicily was meeting Charlie’s cousins, and feeling that there was a relationship even though we were meeting for the first time. Laughing together, in spite of a significant language barrier, was wonderful. Being welcomed into their homes, fed, and treated like family. Wanting to go back. Wanting to learn Italian so I can get to know the women better. (The cousins are all males, but their wives were lovely.)

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Family

One of the benefits of retirement (or being on a sabbatical, which is how I describe my professional status) is that we have more time for what’s important. I have realized is that what is paramount for me is my feeling of connectedness, being a part of groups of human beings. My family is the obvious one, but also my circles of friends. The reason we keep returning to Isla Mujeres is that we have found a community there, of people we find to be kindred spirits.

But this: I feel pulled in different directions by my sense of connection with loved ones in different places. I have children in New Jersey, Vermont, and Boston. I feel a strong bond with Charlie’s daughters in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, also my children, though not by blood. Part of me wants to live in all these places. I have primary groups of friends in Vermont, New Jersey, and my new ones on Isla. How do I honor all of these connections and still center myself in one place?

Because one thing we have realized from our travels is that we do want to be centered, grounded in a place. Soon. We want to have a home base where, as well, we can welcome our loved ones with the same hospitality that has been extended toward us. The work that I want to continue – being a therapist as well as the creative endeavors that bring me sustenance – writing and painting – requires that I refill my emotional vessel. This calls for me to stand still and allow that refilling to happen.

My Dutch friend Agnes shared with me a comment that her doctor had made. He said that what matters when you grow older is not where you live, but who you live near. People do best when they have a community of family or friends, a support network. And, in spite of email and Facebook and texting and FaceTime, there’s nothing like a visit with a real live person to brighten your day. Especially if you love that person.

Tapping the keys of a computer will never replace holding a hand.

Does anyone else besides me feel this unrest caused by having loved ones scattered in different parts of the globe? What advice can you offer?

Not All Who Wander Are Lost

 

 

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Generally, I find it more interesting  to ‘wax philosophical’ than to broadcast a fussy exposé of our day by day experiences. However, since my last blog entry, we have been bombarded with sensations as we have traveled through Italy, Sicily, Switzerland and France. We have been undergoing sensory overload, and are more than a little travel weary – I don’t expect any sympathy….hold the violins! We have had very little down time, which meant scant time to write. As we have viewed one marvel after another, I have become overwhelmed, knowing that I was overdue to write.  The myriad impressions and peak moments were snowballing rapidly down the steep hills we had been climbing, possibly to be lost forever.

Some stories must be told. Today, I offer Part 1, in which I bring you up to date on Seiano through Salerno: a week in Southern Italy. In my last entry we had arrived in Seiano, where the endless stone steps down to the coast were keeping us fit in spite of our Italian calorie intake. We spent four nights in a little Airbnb, which was like a tiny country cottage in what appeared to be a gated townhouse complex. (Finding the actual “gate” had been a challenge…thank goodness our host was responsive when we texted her for assistance.)

Charlie and I are independent and adventurous travelers. Much of the meaning is in finding our way and trying to feel what it is like to really ‘live’ in the places we visit, rather than feeling like removed observers. So we choose an apartment over a hotel, always preferring to explore on our own over being part of a tour. Neither of us do ‘lemming’ very well.

One challenge is having limited access to the internet. At home, we’ve grown accustomed to consulting our devices for directions, to find a place to eat, or to get unlost. When traveling like this, such conveniences would be a godsend. But one must limit one’s data usage when abroad, unless one does not mind the ensuing charges. In Mexico, we never turn on our data. (I don’t think we did in Bali, either.) But in those  places,  we were not driving. Here in Europe, we have had to use cellular data on an emergency basis. For we are driving, and keep getting lost. Anyone who has ever rented a car knows that the maps the rental companies provide are crappy….can someone explain this to me? It makes no sense!

While traveling in Italy and Sicily we got lost a lot! Not lost as in we had no idea where we were…..no, we always (sort of) knew where we were. Lost in the sense that we had no idea how to find where we were going. I’m not complaining, for this experience of being lost would NOT convince me to become one of the masses who wait in line to get on tour buses and get off to wait in line again, observe the view or the world of which one is not a part, take some photos, and get back on line to board the bus again.

The experience of being unmoored is part of the adventure! When your goal is to experience a place, to feel it with all of your senses, how can you really get ‘lost’? You’re just temporarily adrift.

While staying in Seiano, we took side trips to Sorrento and Capri. Sorrento was crawling  with tourists, and after spending a few hours there, roaming the streets and finally having dinner, we were actually glad to return to our little town. It is just as beautiful and dramatic in geography as Sorrento, but far less commercial. Seiano is beyond lovely, and I was happy climbing down the ancient steps besides the lemon groves,  sitting at the edge of the sea, and drinking a caffe granita, with Vesuvius far in the distance, but impossible to ignore. Sorrento was overflowing with souvenir shops and restaurants, which in their plenitude sacrificed  their charm. Actually, our car ride was the highlight, if you can call a near-death experience that. It was beyond hair-raising, with its hairpin curves, distracting views of the water from above, and the tailgating, honking, and generally rude Italian drivers, including motorbike drivers that pass you if they have an inch, having no discernible awareness of their own mortality.

We got a little misguided on our way out of the city, finding ourselves on a little road so narrow that even our little Fiat Panda could barely fit. Not only was this road impossibly narrow, but it was winding, with high stone walls on either side. Fortunately, at least, it was one-way. At one point, our left mirror grazed the left wall, and as we corrected the error, our right mirror scraped its wall even more seriously. (We were glad that when we ultimately returned the rental car in Sicily, it was so coated in sea salt from our ferry ride over that the scratches were unnoticeable.)

Our one day in Capri was simply a feast of the senses. It began with a ferry-ride out of Sorrento. (I had to consent to take that dreaded drive again.) We took a walk in Capri that allowed us to circumvent a good part of the island and take in the dramatic rocky coast,  up and down countless, you guessed it, steps. There are no cars. We rode the funicular, a steep cable car – eeeek! – from the port to the main part of town, where we began our trek. We stumbled upon a 12th Century church, Chiesa di Sant ‘Anna, with frescoes on its walls which were recently discovered, having been painted in the 15th century, but later plastered over. I was particularly enamored with a fresco depicting the virgin mother and child, in which she was breastfeeding the baby. I had never before seen such a depiction. Not to be blasphemous, but  I thought it should be the poster for La Leche League.  Although the main streets were almost as crowded as in Sorrento, the long walk we took was much less peopled, quieter, allowing us to absorb the beauty without distraction. In the afternoon we joined a boat tour which circumvented the island and allowed us to view the ruins on the cliffs, and ultimately visit the famed grotta azzura, blue grotto.

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Fresco

 

It was in Sorrento and Capri that we first followed a tip that we found in our travel guidebook. It advised that hotels generally provide the best maps of a city, over the freebies that you can find on the street, or even purchased ones. When we arrived in Sorrento, Charlie entered a nice hotel, walked up to the reception, and asked for a map.  Worried that they would ask if he was a guest there and throw him out on his ear, I lingered near the foliage in the entryway so as to make a quick getaway and pretend not to know him. But the concierge was more than accommodating, even giving him some directions and advice about walking through town! In Capri, which is a place that reeks of money, Charlie repeated this heist, at a very well-appointed hotel, where, I am certain, one nights’ stay would equal at least three nights at our little Airbnb. This time, I waited outside. But again, he was given a beautiful map and good local advice…very gracious treatment. We started calling ourselves ‘the hotel crashers,’ as we repeated this throughout Italy.

 

Departing Seiano after three days, we headed for Pompeii, which was less than an hour’s drive toward Naples. We had booked a room in Scafati, a booming small city that borders the city of Pompei so closely that they run into each other. (Fun fact: the ancient ruins are spelled Pompeii, while the new city that replaced it is spelled Pompei.) We would be in Scafati for three nights, using it as our home base to visit the ruins and also make a day trip to Naples, where I wanted, simply, to have pizza. Naples is the birthplace of pizza, and continues to be known for that delicious concoction. Furthermore, Elizabeth Gilbert had convinced me in Eat, Pray, Love that, in Naples, there was a particular pizzeria that served the best pizza in Naples, and therefore, in the world.

But first, the ruins. We were a bit skeptical going in that this would be a kind of Disney experience, crawling with tourists and rather surreal. On our first day, we visited the ruins in Herculaneum, and were awestruck, not only by the buried splendor of an ancient city and the preserved aura of the destruction that occurred, but also by the image of this ancient city that has been partially excavated from beneath the present city (Ercolano) following  an accidental discovery. At the edge of the ruins,  you can see both the new and the the old in one continuous landscape. I never knew that there had been more than one city ruined by Vesuvius in 79 AD. In fact there are five major distinct ruins, and many others. We only visited two.

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Heculaneum and Ercolano

Our guidebook had touted Herculaneum as more impressive than Pompeii, being less touristed, and preserved in a different way.  The lava flow hit Herculaneum differently, and the ruins were encased in a mud like substance that completely kept them in an oxygen free environment which allowed greater preservation. Still,  we were unprepared for how impressive Pompeii turned out to be.

We wandered there for hours the next day, snapping photos and imagining the buildings in their earlier  glory. Our only disappointment was that the great amphitheater was closed, due to the fact that Elton John had performed there the night before. If we had known, we would have tried to get tickets, even if it broke the bank. Can you imagine seeing a performance like that in such a setting? If we only had gone to Pompeii first instead of to Herculaneum, we would have seen the posters and at least had a chance of getting a seat. Ah, the one that got away.

A funny thing happened in Scafati. We went for dinner at the same place two nights in a row! This is unusual, especially in Italy. There are so many good choices. But if one can fall in love with a restaurant and want to marry it, it happened to me in Scafati.We found the place on TripAdvisor…..a tiny mom and pop place on a quiet back street, with a wood burning oven and authentic local food. Reviewers couldn’t rave about it enough. It was called Taverna Mascalzone.  I had to go.

At first we had trouble finding it. We parked a distance away (having spent a futile hour seeking a self-service laundry that didn’t really exist. More about that later.) Charlie said we should walk from there, since parking had been so difficult, and so we took an evening stroll and were able to find the neighborhood with no trouble. There was a little square surrounding a church. We sat there for a spell and breathed in the charm. The moon was rising above the antiquated church, and it felt as if time had stood still for an eternity. Via Trieste, the street where the restaurant should be, ended on this square, so we tore ourselves away from our bench and headed towards it. But it wasn’t there! We went a few blocks past the Google Maps location, and……..nothing. We wandered back and forth along the little street to no avail. Still nothing, in fact the little street was so quiet we were essentially alone. I felt bereft. Finally, we gave up and headed back to the car. I was very frustrated. I had read the reviews! They were recent! Where had my restaurant gone???

Back in the car, Charlie proposed to search one more time as we drove toward our lodgings, since he doesn’t like to see me sad . No easy task due to the maze of one-way streets that comprised Scafati. We circled Via Trieste and drove toward the square from the opposite end. A restaurant appeared, though not in the right spot, according to the map.  Is that it? Yes, there’s the sign! Taverna Mascalzone.

We parked and hurried to the door of the restaurant. It was locked! It was 9 pm, early by Italian dining standards….it wasn’t that they were closed…… but they hadn’t actually opened …..yet. Charlie really hates to see me unhappy, and he wasn’t about to give up after all our efforts. And so he knocked, persistently! The door was opened by a woman who waved us in, and once she realized that we simply wanted to eat, led us up a tiny flight of stairs. She had been stoking the wood fire, but  escorted us up to a darling little dining room and gave us menus. We were the only guests.

This little restaurant took charming to a new level, and though the food was very good, what really sealed my love affair was the house wine. Five Euros for a bottle (a bit more than five dollars), the house red was sparkling, but not sweet. If you have not had such a wine you must. It is very special, and very very hard to find.

We had a long drawn out meal, typical of Italy. We met the  husband/chef as well. Their English was as poor as our Italian (i.e. nonexistent) , and I deeply regretted our inability to get to know them better. Leaving, we did manage to ascertain that they would be open the following evening, our last one in Scafati.  We would go back.

And so we did. It was Thursday night, and the empty streets from the evening before were teeming with people, a church event having just ended. Would we get a table in “our” little place? When we arrived, a long line of customers streamed out the door!  We were crestfallen. But……they were all getting take-out pizzas! Again, we were led to the little dining room, and again, we were the only diners-in. We ordered the wine, a pizza, and a salad. Perfection. Salad wasn’t even on the menu…he threw it together for us. It included tuna, fresh corn, and tomatoes grown on Vesuvius, in addition to the usual ingredients of an insalada mista. I truly have never had a salad so fresh and delicious…….the combination of ingredients was divine. I was in heaven, even before the pizza!  I wanted to remain in Scafati forever.

As for the self service laundry: When you are traveling as long as we have been, your clothes get dirty! More than once!  Laundry must be done; a challenge, depending on where you are. In Bali, we had a service launder two weeks’ worth of clothes for a total of $4US, but no such bargains exist in Italy. We needed to find a place to do our own.Such a place is not easy to find in small Italian cIties or towns. Maybe in Rome, but we were no longer in Rome. We had been searching for a lavendaria, and had “found” one on the Internet on the night we located Taverna Mascalzone. But finding it in the real world was another issue.

The following morning, we set out with our bag of laundry, continuing our quest. We finally found the lavendaria, but it was a dry cleaner, not a laundromat. The owner thought there was such a place in Pompei, called American Laundry (go figure). But nobody could tell us where it was, not even the Internet. (Our data usage was beginning to get out of hand.) We had spent about three cumulative hours trying to find a laundromat! Not what one wants to be doing in a romantic foreign destination.

The solution! When we had visited Pompeii, we had been directed to park in an adjacent campground, also serving as a parking lot for the attraction. After we had parked, we had used the rest room, which in fact was the campground rest room. I had noticed a washer and dryer in that building, between the showers and the toilets. So, having despaired of ever finding a proper laundromat, we decided to return to the campground/parking lot, to pay to park, and then use the washing machine instead of going to Pompeii, for which the parking was intended.

We finally washed our clothes! We were now not only hotel crashers, but campground crashers!  Charlie was of the opinion that, since we paid to park there, we had every right to use the machine….. but I still felt a bit subversive. My Catholic school upbringing has served me well. But, desperate times, desperate measures.

Our final day “on the boot,” followed. We were to take a ferry out of Salerno at 11 pm, to arrive next morning in Palermo, Sicily, the homeland of Charlie’s paternal grandfather Carlo, after whom he was named. Since we had a whole day to squander before boarding the ferry, we had devised a plan. First, my long awaited pizza in Naples, and then, a drive on the Amalfi Coast en route to Salerno.

Both stops were wrought with vehicular peril. Our guidebook had warned against driving in Naples, and parking was to be even more difficult. We considered parking elsewhere and taking the train in, but Charlie considers himself a New York driver, so he scorned the warnings.  The Fiat Panda would carry us to Naples. (That disastrous train crash in Italy had been less than a week ago, so I quickly agreed.)

Our trusty guidebook provided the address of a parking lot convenient to Pizzeria da Michele. The parking lot was connected to a Ramada Inn, where we took our hotel- crashing skills to a new level. Charlie went up to the reception to inquire about a map, while I found a comfy seating area and discovered that the  WiFi didn’t require a password. So armed with our new excellent map of Naples, we sat comfortably and charted our course. We also checked out email and used the clean and spacious bathrooms. This ritual would be repeated before we left town .

First, lunch. Unfortunately, it was pouring, so we wouldn’t do much sightseeing in Naples. Just a fifteen minute walk to Pizzeria da Michele. Before you remark that we had just had pizza for dinner the evening before, please remember that all food rules are suspended in Italy. We were going to this particular place for the experience as much as the pizza, and it did not disappoint on either front. The place was a beautiful,  tiled restaurant with a big wood burning oven. A host of strapping Italian men were all over the place, getting the pizza ready and taking orders, like bees in a hive.

The menu was very limited….two kinds of pizza: pizza margarita and the same, with extra cheese. A few different drink options. That was it. Though we arrived just as it was opening at 11 am, people kept coming and before too long they had to open their second room. It was festive, and everybody seemed happy. I marveled that this happens there every day.  The walls boasted photos of famous people who had dined there. There were two photos of Julia Roberts, one a shot from Eat Pray Love, and another of her with the staff. I didn’t see any of Elizabeth Gilbert. I think the idea that a famous and attractive American actress had been there meant a lot more to these guys than the fact that an American writer had mentioned theit restaurant in her memoir (and consequently put their restaurant on the map.) I even understand it, in spite of the fact that I would be Elizabeth Gilbert and not Julia Roberts. At least in this lifetime.


We left Naples, after freshening up at the Ramada Inn, of course. We took the highway until we reached the Amalfi Coast, and then we took the seaside road for the rest of the day, stopping when we pleased. The drive along the Amalfi Coast is not for the faint of heart. It was our second wave of anxiety for the day, the first having been driving in Naples. To our surprise, we had become much more comfortable since our first outing to Sorrento, Charlie with driving and me with being a passenger, and I could relax and enjoy the view, in spite of the dire warnings in our guide book.

My favorite spot was the little village of Vietri sul Mare, where we first exited the highway. We spent a good hour there, roaming the winding streets and enjoying the ceramics for which the little town is known. The town of Amalfi itself, though lovely, was so crowded with shops and tourists that it felt overwhelming. What I have learned is that these little medieval towns cannot withstand their own popularity, at least in the busy season. When crawling with visitors, the charm of these delightful places is lost.

But onward to Sicily.©

 

 

 

Ciao!

Greetings from Seiano, Italy. Today is the 10th of July, exactly a month since my departure from Philadelphia to Bali. I don’t know what we were thinking when we made these travel plans, back in the month of January when the heat of the Mexican sun was melting our synapses. Possibly, we weren’t really thinking at all. All I know is that within a space of two weeks we booked a trip to Bali and a trip to Europe……and that our return from Bali would allow us only a precious six days home before we once again boarded a jet for an overseas flight. And during that six days we would not only pack (three suitcases) for the next (complicated) leg of our journey, but also attend a family wedding that would require an overnight stay at a hotel, the very night before our travels. As I said, I don’t know what we were thinking. If we were thinking at all.

So this first week in Italy has not only been a feast for the senses, as a trip to Italy must be, but it has also been an opportunity to sleep, to recover from the previous weeks and months of emotional and physical upheaval. For, we have not only been going-going-going, but in the midst of this we have faced some personal crises that have taxed our resilience, with Charlie’s loss of his dad being paramount. What this has meant in real time is that, in between long walks and climbs in the Mediterranean heat, and languishing meals consisting of pasta and wine – and did I mention pizza? -we have slept. Long deep sleeps that have surpassed any sleep in my recent memory. Sleep very much needed, and most restorative.

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A Slice of Rome

We spent three days in Rome, and it was freeing to know that we did not need to see ‘everything’, because our previous trip in 2006 had provided the opportunity to do that. This time we could roam the streets more aimlessly, making sure to allow time for another visit to the Pantheon (and the caffe granita loaded with whipped cream at Tazzo d’Oro nearby….a treat that puts Starbucks to shame). We also made sure that we visited the Trevia Fountain (a short walk from San Crispino – the best gelato in Rome). And before our departure on Friday, we had to visit St. Peter’s Basilica, because how can you go to Rome and not pay the Vatican its due? While in Rome for three days, we clocked about twenty-four walking miles, and consumed I cannot say how many calories. Because who can count calories in Italy?

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Vesuvius

If we walked in Rome, we have climbed in Seiano. This is a small town on the coast south of Naples, with a view of Mt. Vesuvius. But the coast of Italy is different from the beaches of our east coast, and even more extreme than northern California. Formidable rocky ledges and cliffs, with little beaches virtually inaccessible beneath them. Except that the Italians did not comprehend the concept ‘inaccessible’…..they set out to prove it a lie, and so there are steps, and/or treacherous winding narrow roads that provide access to the water, as long as one is sufficiently determined. And so we have descended in the footsteps of generations to the water’s edge in Seiano, and refreshed ourselves in the Mediterranean Sea, only to again climb the stairs that were long ago etched into the precipitous coastline, this time upwards. A word to the wise – the beaches one reaches after the descent are small and crowded. One must arrive very early to stake a claim on that prime real estate. Which we did not, because, as I alluded earlier, we slept in.

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Prime Real Estate

As this is not so much a travelogue as a record of my impressions and contemplations on this journey, I must now share those. As I sat at water’s edge at a little cafe, which gave us a welcome respite in spite of having arrived too late to have a place to sit on the beach, I reflected on the vicissitudes of travel. Sometimes, while traveling, I have felt like a welcome guest, and other times, I have felt like a tourist. There is a difference. I think that for me, a big part of that rests on how well I can communicate with the people who are sharing their home turf with me, a stranger. It doesn’t matter whether I have command of their language, or they have that of mine, but it is communication that is key.

Here, I have felt a sore lack of connection in spite of pleasant encounters with many hospitable locals. Surprisingly, their command of English is (at best) slightly better than my non-existent Italian. Others may disagree, but I have felt the language barrier to be an isolating factor. We are traveling through, taking in the sights and sounds and tastes, but not partaking in significant discourse with our amiable and gracious hosts. This is a loss, especially to me, a person who had dreamed of becoming fluent in many languages when I was younger.

I failed to achieve this goal, because life took me in other directions. I am not one who is prone to offering unasked-for advice. However, if any of my readers are the age I once was when I dreamed of being multilingual – in my twenties – please consider this. I have no regrets in my life regard things I have actually done. My only regrets are related to what I have not done. I wish I had followed my dreams more, and not allowed the random fluctuations of life to lead me astray. I wanted to travel when I was younger. I did not, and I am making up for that now. But who knows what experiences may have taken me on an alternate path if I had done so sooner? I wanted to be a writer……well, I am writing now, but how many years were wasted? And I wanted to learn languages, and let’s face it….no matter how hard I try, my capacity to do so is far less than it was back then.

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Steps

So be it. My life is good. And I am hoping that next week, when we meet Charlie’s cousins in Sicily, the feeling of connection will be unquestionable. ©

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Is There a God?

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Java Kingfisher

As Charlie and I wind up our time in Bali with a few days by the sea, I am reflecting upon my experiences here. The past two weeks have been a virtual cornucopia of impressions: the overall natural beauty of the island, mischievous monkeys, and birds! – the brightly-painted Java Kingfisher rivaling a constant brilliant display of blossoms. And rice! in glistening fields, and on my breakfast and dinner plates. The hustle and bustle of the beehive that is Ubud, sleepy villages where time is forgotten, and always serene distant mountains contrasting the roar of insanely busy roads where pedestrians must be constantly vigilant. All of this, combined, is Bali.

And finally, the people. It is the people that I want to write about today, because I envy their wealth. In a country where two travelers can eat like a king and queen for ten dollars, and natives observe an endless procession of visitors but rarely venture beyond their own island, I have discovered a secret to happiness that is essentially inaccessible to westerners like myself.

The Hindu people of Bali possess an innocent spirituality that allows them to live their lives with unparalleled contentment, and commitment. Daily life is structured with prescribed rituals that give meaning to one’s life and a rhythm to one’s day. A Balinese person does not torture him or herself with questions about the existence of god. God is in every moment, in all the temples and alters that inhabit every home, every street, even the rice fields, and in each meeting of two people. Balinese spirituality is a palpable presence, as real as the chair one sits in or the coffee one drinks.

The streets are littered with the daily offerings of every person, and the women can be seen carrying towers of fruit on their heads toward the temple. But the real presence of God on the streets of Bali is in the sweet and gracious hearts of the people. Their embrace of their spiritual culture is so deep and so true that there is no room for doubt. And therefore, the light shining within them is the same light so many westerners seek with futility.

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Offerings

There is a childlike innocence in these traditions. For example, the Balinese dress their stone gods and goddesses in sarongs, with head coverings for the males! Everywhere you go, the sculptures are dressed. There is a beautiful simplicity about this tradition. Is it not something a child would do?

 

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In Front of a Bank

I was privileged to be able to partake in a lunch in the home of one of our hosts. This was a traditional Balinese “house” where several generations live together. The young men marry and remain in their parents’ home. The daughters move to the homes of their husbands. There, the young man stood in the doorway of his living quarters and welcomed us. He then proudly explained that where he was standing, the placenta from his son’s birth had been buried. With great emotion he explained that the placenta is considered the “brother” of the newborn. The “brother” has protected the baby in the womb, and is thus honored after the birth. It is buried near the home, and when the baby is sick, or inconsolable, the father will pray to the “brother” placenta to continue to protect his child. His story was very moving because of the sincere trust and adherence to old beliefs contained within it.

In our culture we consider it a great accomplishment to reject old beliefs, to “know better”. At what cost? Watching these trusting people, it occurs to me that the price we pay is measured in our tortured lack of certainty.©

Beginner’s Mind

Yesterday evening, the stars came out in Bali. Where I am staying, in the highlands near Ubud, the night sky has been generally overcast, with startling flashes of lightning the sole celestial entertainment. But last night, walking back to my villa after dinner, the stars twinkled their welcome, and I could finally locate the Southern Cross. It is a simple constellation, but meaningful, and something I’ve long been waiting to see. I felt that gasp of awe reserved for rainbows, meteor showers, and moments of connectedness with life itself – life with a capital L.

When you see the Southern Cross for the first time
you understand now why you came this way.
Cause the truth you might be running from is so small.
But it’s as big as the promise, the promise of a coming day.
-Stephen Stills

 
I never expected to travel halfway around the world, but here I am on the beautiful island of Bali.  An opportunity arose for me to attend a women’s retreat, and the whole package just looked too good to be true. I’ve learned that many people have Bali on their bucket list, but it wasn’t on mine. In January, while we were in Mexico, the die was cast. Karen, the woman who rented us our house on Isla Mujeres, facilitates women’s retreats  that sound juicy and exotic. I didn’t plan on attending one, because Charlie and I like to travel together, and I had made the decision quite some time ago not to work hard enough to have the kind of disposable income that allows for this level of travel. We are supposed to be traveling around the US in a second-hand RV!

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Rice Field in Jati

It was an impulsive decision. While we were having a chat on Facebook, Karen said, “why don’t you come?”  Over my shoulder, Charlie said, “Go.” Then he said, “If you’re going to Bali, I’m going too.” As I write this, he is somewhere in the air between Philadelphia and Indonesia enduring the same 24 hour journey that I accomplished last Friday. and Saturday. And into Sunday, when you take into account the International Date Line. I learned this week that many of the participants made their decision to come to this retreat in a similar slapdash way. Maybe that is the only way you can make such a plan, because it is unfathomable to fly to the other side of the world, just to take care of yourself.

But here I am, in a place that defies description. http://www.bagusjati.com/
The power of this magical setting engages all the senses. At the close of my first day I sent Charlie an email:

“My Sunday morning began with amazing birdsong just three and a half hours after I finally closed my eyes. When I heard the jungle percussion, it was hopeless. I had to open my eyes and take in the view, which was veiled in darkness when I first arrived. By now you have seen some photos. It is breathtaking and welcoming and healing.”

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Home for a week

And that is simply the backdrop. Because in addition to the awe-inspiring surroundings, I am cradled in a group of funny, intelligent, engaging and wise women, finding renewal and making lasting connections.

In three short days, we have experienced a Welcoming Ceremony given by the gracious staff in their temple, gone on a trek in the jungle, picnicked at the edge of a rice field while a light rain cooled us, had a lesson in Balinese dancing, and told countless stories (in a circle, in a palapa that opens out on a deep valley next to the jungle’s edge).

This is an inner and outer journey. There is the exterior, the physical environment so different from home, so exotic. And then there is the interior. I have been observing myself with different eyes in this new context. This is one of the gifts of travel, and it is enhanced when you don’t arrive with a ready-made companion. You are more open to the differences, more present. I have been taking a lot of alone time to take it all in. Often chatter distracts us from what’s important and deep.

Surprisingly, what I’ve been noticing  is a lightness, and a playful awareness of myself, of my foibles and faux pas. I have an awkward side. Sometimes I just don’t get the way objects in the world are meant to work. So it was no surprise the other day, when THIS happened:

I went to the hotel spa for a massage. The attendant brought me to the little locker room so I could prepare. I was given a wrap and a pair of jeweled flip-flops. She also handed me a little packet wrapped in plastic. I didn’t know what THAT was for, so I opened it. In it was a black paper-mesh thingy that looked a lot like what cafeteria workers wear on their heads. A light went off in my head! How clever! They give you this to protect your coiffure from the massage oil. Now this made sense to me. I have been known to schedule a massage in the middle of a work day, returning to work with greasy hair, looking slightly disheveled.

So I wasted no time in slipping the thing on my head, tucking my stray hairs neatly in. I hadn’t taken note of the two leg holes on either side of my new headgear. Then my massage therapist arrived, and in her sweet, courteous demeanor, she said, “I’m sorry, miss, that is for your underwear.” Paper panties for modesty during the massage, and there was I sporting them on my head! It was a precious moment. Even funnier was trying to fit them on my derrière, as they were made in a decidedly Indonesian size. One size fits none. At first I thought I had them on backwards, then when I switched them they were even more uncomfortable.

What a wonderful massage, though. The treatment room was open out to the deep valley, and I could hear the chanting from the meditation class in a room below us. The only problem was that I kept bursting out laughing when I pictured myself sitting there with the underwear on my head, and the poor therapist thought she was tickling me.

Another thing: I keep getting lost. I think this is a good thing. The first morning, I awoke and got ready for breakfast. When I exited my little house, I saw a stairway heading downward and took it. I thought I remembered climbing up the night before when the porter delivered me to my room. But the stairs ended, and there was no sign of the path we had arrived upon. I climbed back up the stairs, went around in circles. Finally I noticed an obvious set of stairs going UP,  which I had completely overlooked in my certainty that I needed to go DOWN. These stairs went right to the path! Even then, following my map, I had difficulty finding the restaurant. True, I had only had a few hours sleep after a twenty-four hour journey. But, more than that, it felt like a reminder that I was no longer in my comfort zone. Being lost is truly a gift, because it forces you to notice things in a different way………beginner’s mind.

Yes, I am a beginner in Bali. I am enjoying the feeling. It is a reminder that nothing is to be taken for granted, and that life is still new.

Today we visited a traditional home in a Balinese village. It was explained that the houses are built with three principles in mind: your relationship with God, your relationship with your family, and your relationship with nature. First, there is an area of worship in the form of a temple or an alter. Then there is the family gathering place, including a kitchen, and finally there is a garden, providing both food and beauty. The point is to have these three things in balance: spirituality, family and nature. Not a bad recipe for living! The people are not rich, but this long tradition of nurturing their spirits, their bodies, and their connections has created a sense of abundance that we would be fortunate to imitate.©

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A Nice Place to Visit

We remained in Florida after Charlie’s dad’s death, savoring time with family and performing the many practical  tasks a death sets in motion. After a week, Charlie’s mom graciously scooted us out the door, perhaps needing some alone time to better acquaint herself with her grief, but also not wanting our plans to come to a halt. Life, as it is said, goes on.

Our original plan had been to travel west from Florida on this leg of our journey, with the hope of making it to Los Angeles before the end of May to visit our daughter Rachel. Two factors now made that impossible: the extra time we had spent in Florida, and the need to return there by May 20 for the service planned in celebration of Charlie’s dad’s life. All things considered, we would have only half the time on the road than we had expected.

While we could have pushed straight through to LA, this was not in keeping with the spirit of our Casa Blanca adventure. No, when we had hatched this plan long ago, we wanted to visit stops along the way, savoring the experience and seeing our country with all our senses. While I never seriously expected to live in the places we would visit, I wanted to feel them as if a local, not rush through like a tourist. But we ourselves had made other traveling plans for the summer, involving passports and flights, imposing upon ourselves a time limit that was never a part of the original idea. We had done that to ourselves! Charlie’s dad’s death had simply tightened our already self-imposed deadline. Now what to do?

This situation threw me off balance for a bit! I knew we had no choice in the matter, and that our family had endured a painful loss that dwarfed my petty annoyance about thwarted plans. Still, I had difficulty accepting the changed situation, and we both had difficulty deciding how to salvage our remaining road time. Good friends of ours, Jane and Richard Owens, had generously offered us the use of their second home in Venice, FL, and so we took them up on their offer for a few days, to regroup alone together in a quiet and relaxing environment. Laying by the pool, we discussed our travel plans, and decided to just go west as far as we could….maybe Arizona?… and then find a place to store Casa Blanca while we flew back to Florida for the service, followed by our summer plans. We could return to Casa Blanca in the fall to complete our journey.

As we set out again in Casa, I was pleased that I felt happy with our decision and had been able to let go of what was “supposed” to be, and embrace what would be. I reflected that this was what the journey was really all about: letting go, and adjusting our sails to the changing wind. Leaving Venice,  our first day’s itinerary was easy….a stop in Indian Springs Beach to have lunch with two old friends of Charlie’s, Ray and Dennis, and then on to sleep at a camping spot in Keaton Beach, Florida.

Lunch was fun. One of the best things about our travels has been the opportunity to connect with friends, distant by time and/or geography, on their own turf. This was just lunch at an upscale pizza place, but for me it was a gift. Seeing my husband with friends he had known since high school allowed me to know him in a different way. Not to mention seeing these two peers, whose paths had crossed with mine briefly in the past,  with my new eyes which have become, through life experience, much more appreciative of others and open to knowing them. I’m sure that when I was in college, these were just two more boys, but now they are seasoned people carrying their own truckload of memories and experiences, good and bad. And we are all richer for it.

Later, as we ventured west on the Florida panhandle, it began to feel like we were back in the south. In general Florida does not feel like a southern state, in spite of its geography, probably because there are so many northerners living there. But on the panhandle, the topography has a low country feeling, and I found myself unconsciously humming “Born on the Bayou.” I also started to feel nervous. While southern people are on the surface very hospitable and welcoming, I never really feel welcome in the south. I feel as if I’m wearing a sign across my chest that identifies me as a Yankee liberal. Of course, this is a projection on my part. I would have plenty of time to reflect on this over the coming days.

We had a special treat awaiting us at the campground, where we were given a waterfront site just in time for the sunset. There was a deck on the water right in front of our site, where the campers could gather. We sat on Adirondack chairs snacking on cheese and crackers with a glass of wine until the last rays of the sun disappeared below the Gulf of Mexico and our neighbors dispersed. Although we didn’t really converse with the others beyond asking a fisherman what was biting, it felt friendly and comfortable.

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Sunset on the Gulf

The proprietor had directed us to the nearest (and only!) local restaurant, with the unfortunate name of Whitey’s. It was a down-home southern roadside place, where  I ate my first catfish, which was very tasty, showing no evidence of whiskers.

The next morning we had one of the only negative encounters we have had in all our travels. It was a silly thing, really, but it added to my tension about being in the south. We stopped at a fast food restaurant to use the bathroom. When we were leaving, Charlie was slowly backing out of the parking space and didn’t see that someone was edging behind us. Casa Blanca is a bit more difficult to maneuver than a normal-sized car, but this was just a careless mistake that happens when one is distracted.

What followed felt like a scene from Deliverance. We really weren’t going fast enough to do any harm, but the vehicle we barely tapped was driven by a very volatile redneck. I cannot come up with a more suitable description. The battered pick-up she drove appeared to be held together by duct tape and string. The driver was 400 pounds if she was an ounce, and the two passengers, a man and another women, rivaled her in weight. At least the other two were quiet, but the driver, as they say, had a mouth on her. Charlie got out to apologize and make sure there was no damage, and she started screaming and cursing as if we had intentionally insulted her character. She may have been drinking, though it was before 8 am, but she was probably just being her sweet self. Letting out a stream of insults peppered with the foulest language, she berated Charlie up one side and down the other. I began to feel that I should show some solidarity, so I started to get out of the vehicle, only to attract her vile attention. I said to Charlie, “Honey, is something wrong,” to which her shrill response was, “What’s wrong is that your man can’t drive!” Then a lightbulb went off in my head, and I said, “Charlie, do you want me to call the police?”

“Call the police so I can tell them your man can’t drive,” she squealed, but then her tires squealed as well, as she pealed out of the parking lot. Apparently she was not relishing a visit from the cops, for reasons unknown, although we could guess.

We went on our way feeling more than a bit shaken by the sheer hatred that was pouring out of her. It is sobering to encounter someone that has so little control over their emotions. I’m sure she has a sad story of her own, but her behavior repelled compassion.

The rest of our trip was uneventful, albeit long, as we pushed our way through to New Orleans. As I write this, I realize that I haven’t mentioned our state map. At the onset of our travels, we purchased a US map which attaches to the exterior of one’s RV. As we pass through each state, we add that state onto the map. Our travels from FlorIda to New Orleans allowed us to add two states, Mississippi and Alabama, without actually spending much time in either state. It felt a bit like cheating, but we pressed  onward due to our time constraints.

That being said, when we arrived in New Orleans, we stayed for four nights and loved every minute. I had never been there. We had so many recommendations from friends and family for places to eat that four days was barely enough. I was sure that I would gain weight! To my advantage, we walked so much in the city that over three days we clocked over twenty-five miles. (Thank you, Fitbit.)

Grilled Oysters at Dragos, Shrimp barbecue at Mr. B’s Bistro. Preservation Hall Jazz (the trombonist tickled my foot with his slide), a stroll through the Lafayette Cemetery #1, a ride on the St. Charles trolley. Beignets.

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At the Cemetery

The French Market, where a woman who sold me a bracelet handmade from livery straps told me a delightful story about when her mother stopped to buy donuts when the she and her brother were very small. Mom left them in the car while she was in the donut shop……little brother released the parking brake and the car rolled into the shop, pinning Mama against the counter. “We never knew what to expect from my mama,” she said affectionately.

New Orleans was everything I expected, and more. I expected soul food, music pouring into the streets, and rambunctiousness. I didn’t expect the feeling that I was in a livable city to which I would want to return. (My mouth is watering as I write.) We left, reluctantly.

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And headed north, to Arkansas. The road north runs elevated above the swampy lowlands, like an endless bridge, for miles and miles, adding to the sense that we had been somewhere special. Eventually, though, that ended, and we were back on the interstate, and I became grumpy. You can read about that in a previous entry: (https://averysmallnest.wordpress.com/2016/05/12/life-is-what-happens/)
Our day of driving ended at a campsite in Crater of Diamonds State Park. It was beautiful, situated near a river, The Little Missouri, to which we were lucky enough to hike at dusk. A peaceful hike serves to undo the stress of the day.

The next day found us joining the many who congregated there for the sole purpose of digging for diamonds. This is a real thing. After a study of the area determined that it wasn’t worthy of professional mining, the state made it into a park. For $8 (additional fee for rental equipment) you can spend the day digging, raking and sifting in the hope that you will be the next lucky winner. The “mine” is  a large bowl-shaped rocky area. The strategic signage informs one of the significant past diamond discoveries, as well as the fact that you can also find amethysts, crystals, and other desirable gems if you are lucky.

We were not lucky. In addition to gathering a small bag of rocks which upon later inspection were worthless, we collected lots of dirt and I needed a shower more badly than I have for a very long time. The state hit pay dirt, though (pun intended)…..what a way to collect revenue!

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The truth is, it was a fun day. Lots of families were there…what an ideal activity for adults and kids together. The grown-ups pursuing serendipitous wealth while the kids are just in the glorious moment, playing in the dirt. Win/win.

Our next stop was Hot Springs, Arkansas. This is a beautiful town, where we were able to “take the waters” as people have done for years. It was delightful, relaxing. In our relaxed state, we adjusted our plans yet again. We found we no longer wanted to try to make it to the southwest. It would be too rushed. Instead, we would take the remaining week to slowly make our way back to Florida.

Obviously, I no longer felt the compulsion to get through the south as quickly as I could. The exposure therapy was working. And so we meandered east in a zig-zag fashion with stops in Memphis and Nashville. More soul food, more music. We detoured to St. Louis to see the famous arch, the gateway to the west. (Sigh. The elusive west…..next time.) Eastward, Kentucky, and a visit to a bourbon distillery.

Did I tell you that a southern accent is contagious? I had quickly found myself speaking in a bit of a drawl in spite of myself. It kind of goes with the atmosphere. Perhaps I was being a chameleon, trying to disguise my northern edge. When in Rome.

We didn’t make it where we planned, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to spend some time in the south, a place I had chauvinistic feelings toward. It is good to immerse yourself in a location that your pre-conceived notions have prejudiced you against. Do I feel differently now? In short, I wouldn’t want to live there, but it was a nice place to visit.©

 

An Interlude

We  arrived in Cape Coral on Friday April 22 at around 3:30 pm. Charlie’s mom Adele and his brother Jim were waiting in the hospital room with Dad for the transport to hospice. We decided to meet them directly at the hospice because otherwise, arriving at the hospital just as the transport was taking place, we would just add to the commotion. So we found our way to Hope Hospice – a drive we would take many times over the next three days – arriving there at 4 pm. Dad was already in his bed. We entered his room to greet him – Mom and Jim were not yet there. Looking back on that day I am thankful that we arrived when we did. Charlie was able to have a pivotal, though brief, conversation with his dad while Dad was still somewhat alert and coherent.

Dad: How’d the vehicle run coming down here?
Charlie: Great, Dad. No problem at all.
Dad: Why am I here?
Charlie: Because the doctors at the hospital couldn’t do anything more for you.
Dad: Am I dying….?
Charlie: Yes, Dad. I’m sorry…….but yes, you are……Do you want to talk about it?

At that, Dad smiled and shook his head, ‘no’. He closed his eyes, and drifted into a light sleep.

There is no need to give a play by play of the deeply personal events that took place subsequently. However, the story of our travels would not be complete without acknowledging the shared journey that we as a family experienced at the bedside of a beloved elder. For me, a person who grew up fatherless, it was a privilege to be a participant, both eye-opening and moving.

For three days, the family kept vigil around his bed. At any given moment there would be a different constellation of children, their spouses and the grandchildren that were present. We all wanted to be there, for Dad, for Mom, and for each other. It was family at its best. Watching out for Dad’s comfort, taking turns holding his hand and sitting at his side, wiping the tears of a younger family member, even making time on Saturday to see two teenage granddaughters all dressed for the prom. Sami and Emily had misgivings about the prom, but we assured them that Grandpa would hate it if they missed it. So they went after we’d all seen them off, and later at midnight they visited the hospice in their finery so Grandpa wouldn’t miss out, to the delight  of the hospice staff.

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Before the Prom

In varied constellations we lunched at the in-house cafe, took walks outdoors in the labyrinth, left for breaks in shared cars, slept back at the house, and took the overnight shift at the bedside. We laughed together, cried together, and ate together, but the central focus was being with Dad during his final days. He was less and less alert, fluctuating between both emotional and physical discomfort, sleep, and moments of awareness of the love around him.

Cooperation, composure, and love predominated, in spite of the stressful circumstances, in spite of being an Italian clan. Everyone rose to the occasion by being their highest self. Now that I have been through this with them, I am even prouder to call this my family.

I know Dad would be proud as well. He passed away peacefully on Monday, April 25, at 6 pm, surrounded by his loved ones.©

Life is What Happens…..

 

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Casa Blanca on the Road Again

“We’ve been in the middle of nowhere before, but it wasn’t Arkansas!,” I muttered to Charlie as I steered Casa Blanca down the desolate road toward our campground. The fact that he had been dozing for a while had allowed me to fully absorb the isolation that enveloped us. Usually I notice countless quirky sights when we take the road less travelled – my favorite road to take. Earlier I had been whining, because our ambitious day’s itinerary had forced us to be on interstates all morning. “I may as well be in New Jersey,” I had complained as we flew by a Walmart. But all I had found interesting while Charlie slept was one lone wooden beehive, and a confederate flag futilely waving at me from a dilapidated A-frame.

When we had finally ditched the interstate in Cheniere, Louisiana, we happened upon a small discount supermarket, Mac’s Fresh Market, and stopped to stock up on staples for the next few days. We enjoyed Mac’s, as it had a southern feel, and that little twang of difference made grocery shopping an adventure. (What can I say, we are easily entertained!) Shortly thereafter, we found a local dive for a sit down lunch, not disappointed in our quest for one last taste of Louisiana cookin’. I had a catfish sandwich and Charlie had a Po Boy. Mm, mm!

We didn’t originally plan on coming to Arkansas. This leg of our journey has been a lesson in “Life is what happens when you are making other plans.” We left New Jersey on Tuesday, April 19, with a tentative itinerary. We would travel south, stopping to visit two nieces (mine) and a cousin (Charlie’s), all in South Carolina.We would then continue to Florida for a longer stay at Charlie’s parents’ home. His father had been in the hospital with complications of kidney failure, so we wanted to spend some time visiting him and supporting Mom in person rather than over the phone.

We would then head west with the intention of making it to California after many stops along our way that captured our fancy. We needed to be back on the East coast sometime during the last week of May, so we anticipated that we might have to store Casa Blanca on the west coast and fly back.

So that was the plan. It began to unravel before we even set out, as my surgery caused a delay in our departure. Still, as we finally headed south, inhabiting Casa Blanca for the first time since early October, we felt free and happy. We traveled diagonally southwest from the DC area to the beautiful Blue Ridge parkway, where we were able to stop for a late afternoon hike along the Otter Creek. We stopped at a lodge shortly thereafter, searching for some WiFi service so that Charlie could check on his dad via Skype. (Phone service on the Blue Ridge Parkway is nonexistent at best.) Dad was then stable enough to allow us to continue with our slightly meandering journey south. We had made all our plans tentative upon any change in his condition.

We camped near Roanoke, VA that first night. Since we arrived late, we dined at the only place nearby, a pizza place, where we were served by a polite young man with a classic southern accent  who told us his daddy was a minister, and made us feel welcome as only southerners can, “Hope you come back and see us again real soon.”

The following day we had lunch with my niece Ellen and her daughter Alex in Greenville, SC. It was good to catch up with Ellen over Japanese food on her lunch hour, and to see her daughter so grown up. Then, on to the Charleston area to spend the night with Charlie’s cousin Cindy, whom I had never met, and her husband in Folly Beach. They took us to the local farmer’s market in their golf cart and showed us the laid back vibe of their little town. We had a delightful evening with Scott, Cindy, and their daughter Maggie. In the morning, Cindy and I took a long walk around the neighborhood and on the beach, enabling me to get to know her a bit better.

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Charleston Beach

On our way again, we stopped to visit with with another niece in Charleston, Becca (the twin of Ellen, who we had seen the day before). These two girls were six months old in October 1979, when they were the youngest wedding guests for my first marriage. Now they are competent and personable young women with families of their own, and I feel privileged that they still call me their aunt. All in all, South Carolina was a feast in family bonding. Saying goodbye to Becca and her two little girls, we felt rich as we made our way south that afternoon on our last stretch toward Florida.

We got the very last campsite at Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine. We almost drove away without trying to get a campsite, as the sign said none were available. Charlie persevered and decided to ask at the office anyway, over my insistence that he was wasting our time. He emerged in smiles, as the woman had miraculously made room for us. I was so happy, I didn’t even mind having to apologize for my lack of faith in him. I had been looking forward to our night there. Not only since is it right on the beach AND adjacent to a historical city, but also because my mother’s name was Anastasia. Charlie was even happier as we entered the campground and discovered not one but two other Rialtas parked there. Our RV is kind of rare, and has a cult following, so it’s always fun to encounter others. We then walked around St. Augustine and had dinner, enjoying the quaint historical buildings and welcoming ambiance, and relishing a dinner “just the two of us” after all our socializing over the past couple of days.

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Anastasia Morning

In the morning we took a walk on the beautiful beach, enjoying some peace before driving to Cape Coral and the many days ahead with family. Just as we were ending our walk, Charlie’s phone rang and then things shifted. His dad was doing poorly and we needed to step on it.

And so we did. As is often the case with serious illness, the situation with Charlie’s dad had deteriorated precipitously. During our six hour trip we received the report that the decision had been made to admit him to hospice. His admission and transport to the hospice facility was within a half hour of our arrival. We went directly to the hospice to be with both of Charlie’s parents. Our journey had taken an unexpected turn, but we were glad to be exactly where we needed to be.©

Home, Again

Hello!

Over four weeks have passed since my last entry, and much water has flowed beneath the bridge of my awareness. Although (or perhaps because) our days have been so full, I have not been writing. It has been very comfortable, in a snugly kind of way, to be back in New Jersey. Times with good friends and family that we have missed, nesting a bit before our next wave of travel, sorting through belongings and musing about what will be needed for our anticipated journey westward  in Casa Blanca.

We are now nine months into our first year of living a nomadic life, and I am delighted to report on a wonderful discovery. It is simply this: I have become aware that I completely feel that I am at home no matter where I am. I have shaken the idea that one particular location bears that designation. I feel at home in Charlie’s parents’ retirement village, driving in my car, walking in the woods. The locus of home has become for me like that little arrow on the gps that locates me in the world, except that it zeroes in on my heart and says, “There.” Or, more aptly, “Here.”

And so, today “home” is sitting in my daughter Eva’s living room looking through the picture window at the grey lake and sky, crading my iPad in my lap and sipping strong coffee as I type.

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Lake Bomoseen

Yesterday, “home” was riding beside my good friend Mary in her Prius, on the way to Vermont. In the coming weeks, “home” will be visiting Theo in Cambridge, and dog sitting for Robert in Philadelphia. Or meals with Gabe and Elise, Katie and Alex, Ellie, and many dear friends. Or sitting beside Charlie with the atlas in our laps planning our next adventure.

I know that not everyone would feel as content to be living like this – in fact, I didn’t  dare hope to be content myself! In the beginning, I worried about how I would manage without a “home,” and even needed to hold my future dream of a home as a carrot in the distance. “Home” was something I would eventually reach by moving through the coming months of travel (which I saw as a trial even while I was excited about the adventure in store).

It never occurred to me that one could feel so calm and present in these circumstances. But I do. It feels like wearing the most comfortable of garments. The temperature is perfect, nothing pulls or tugs. I am wrapped in perfection.

There you have it. I am home. I do not mean to imply that everything is ideal at every moment. Nevertheless, this is the closest to lasting contentment I have ever come. Why? Because it is simpler. Much less is needed to live a meaningful life than we realize. In fact, much of what we accumulate interferes with  our inner peace.

Of course, this is only true for me because my physical needs are beyond met. I not only am able to have food in my belly, I can pick from a wide selection of delicious and nourishing choices. I have a reliable car,  money for gas, shelter, water to drink, and the means to travel and enjoy the world. I am as wealthy in circumstance as a millionaire is in dollars.

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Whitesbog – Where we like to walk

Flash! Another three weeks have passed since I began this entry. All those meals with friends and moments of joy delayed further productivity. We have also had a delay in setting out on our new  journey, as I am now a little less of a person than I was three weeks ago – minus my gall bladder! It was removed by laparoscopic surgery on Monday morning. This was a development which was looming for the past year and a half, but I am not one to hand myself over to a surgeon lightly. The time seemed right, and the cost/benefit analysis pointed to getting the bugger out.  So this has been a week of recovery for me, which I am pleased to report has gone very smoothly. We will travel next week, so it is high time that I began recording once more. And it is time to get moving: I am gathering moss! (See blog entry of July 22 – (Gathering Moss)

When immersed in my familiar world, I am less reflective and thus feel less inspired to write.  Although there have been ponderous moments. One such moment occurred when my daughter Ellie reported that, while she was recently visiting family in the Netherlands, a friend or family member familiar with my blog remarked to her that, “Certainly your mother doesn’t want to spend the rest of her life on vacation! She must want something more than that!” This gave me pause. Is that how my blog makes me appear? I will admit that I felt a tad defensive. I’m not a hedonistic couch potato! (It is probably for the best that Ellie cannot remember exactly who made the comment.)

Admittedly, some of our travels may come across as a prolonged vacation.  (And  if you knew what we have in store over the summer you would roll your eyes and say, “Madame, methinks thou protest too much!”)  I completely get this, and feel guilty about my great good fortune.

Still, this year of travel is, for me, so much more than a vacation. I wanted to know whether I could be comfortable living with less, and not having a big house full of my worldly possessions surrounding me. In order to be able to have the wherewithal to travel for a prolonged period, I had to give up all that security. We are not rich enough to travel like this and pay a mortgage, property taxes and so on.

In addition, I have taken a year (plus) off from working and am enjoying the opportunity to “work” instead on my writing, painting, and becoming the person that was on the back burner through long years of child-rearing and wage-earning. While this is indeed a luxury, it is not laziness. There are many days when I feel more productive than ever! I have time to feel, which seems to me an essential ingredient for creativity.

What a privelege, only too rare in our society, to spend ones’ days doing things that bring one satisfaction and joy. I know this. Still, when people comment that they are jealous, I do know that this is a lifestyle choice, one that many people could make at some point in their lives if it is important enough to them. It’s all about what you are willing to sacrifice. So I will make no apologies.

Blogging is my effort to share my joy and wonder and the insights about life that give meaning to my journey.©

Whitesbog Today

Whitesbog Today

Words Fail Me

A few days ago, my daughter Ellie told me this story: She was exiting a local business, when she encountered a little boy. He looked up at her and said, in that earnest way that only children can pull off, “You look like a nice lady.”  She answered him, “And you are a nice boy.”

The image of this encounter delights me. I have revisited it more than once over the last few days. A chance moment between an adult and a child, a few kind words spoken that did not need to be said.  And now, joy in the telling and retelling. So simple.

Funny thing: when I was sharing this story with Charlie last night, I realized that, though the incident happened in Westmont, New Jersey, I was imagining a Mexican child. I saw a boy of about five, with wide dark eyes, silky black hair and an open face. Every time I encounter a Mexican child, which is several times a day, I fall in love a little bit.

Which is one of the main reasons I grow frustrated with my laborious acquisition of the language. Lets face it: I’m turning sixty years old in less than two weeks. These old synapses are not as flexible as they were back when I should have been more serious about learning foreign languages. I have continued to work on my Spanish, but I will have to be much more committed if I am going to get further. It’s really true that immersion is the only way, and I haven’t tried hard enough to engage with the people on a daily basis. I’m always afraid I will end up out on a limb of incomprehension.

Having long flourished in the world of verbal expression, it is difficult for me to try to communicate with only a limited arsenal. I dread that moment when I run out of words, wanting to express a thought or question for which I lack the vocabulary. It’s like starting to cross a bridge to a splendid place, and discovering that the bridge has not yet been completed. You can see where you so fervently want to go, but instead of a road to get there, you face a churning river. Maybe there are alligators, or you’ll drown. So jumping in and trying to swim doesn’t feel like an option. That’s me trying to speak Spanish.

Beyond not being able to befriend small children, another major frustration for me involves taking cabs. I HATE riding in cabs. Many of the cab drivers don’t speak English, and I feel like the ugly American, sharing in silence a small, almost intimate space with someone who is performing a service for me. Yesterday we took a cab downtown for dinner. The cabbie had cheerful instrumental Latin music playing, and I said, “Me gusto la musica.” He laughed and I could tell he appreciated my comment. It was a little bridge, so we were humans together for a moment. The ride was very pleasant.

But I can’t always create that little bridge. Or I get so far, but no further. Case in point: Yesterday Charlie and I were in the artists’ market – this week, a fantastic artist’s market with artisans from all over Mexico is on our island. Charlie was buying a lovely hand-stitched shirt while I was at a table nearby, perusing amber jewelry from Chiapas. Charlie came over to me and asked, “How do I ask him where the shirt was made?” So I (momentarily…) left the amber table, and asked Charlie’s vendor, “¿De donde es la camisa?” The young gentleman smiled widely and said, “Isla Mujeres.” It was made right on our island! A little surprised, I asked again, “¿Isla Mujeres?” He pointed at the colorful sign at the front of his table, “Isla Mujeres.” And then we had what I call a bobble-head doll moment, when we smile and nod our heads in lieu of communicating more deeply. I would have liked to ask him more. Who makes this beautiful clothing? Is it sold anywhere on the island regularly? My inquisitive mind works faster than my words can communicate, and I get frustrated, and turn into a bobble-head.

Last weekend we were on our way into the big supermarket, Chedraui, and happened upon some vendors selling pottery on the sidewalk in front of the store. We decided to purchase two mugs, and made our selection. Alas, we did not have small enough bills and the vendor did not have enough change. I had a simple request – can you hold these mugs for us while we go into the store and do our shopping, because then we will have the right change? But I could not communicate this effectively, although I did my best. We ended up having Charlie stand down there with the two mugs in his hands, while I went up the escalator, into the store, on the cashier line, made change, and went down to complete the purchase. Awkward, but we got the mugs.

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While on the subject of Chedraui, I recall that early in our stay here we needed to purchase a frying pan. Charlie found one there that seemed nicely heavy, which everyone knows is a good quality in a frying pan. The pan was covered in a colorful cardboard wrapper with a lot of writing on it, then covered again in cellophane. Charlie couldn’t read the writing on the cardboard, but it was clearly a frying pan of the size we desired, as we could tell by the contours and the handle sticking out from the packaging. He brought it home, and upon unwrapping it we discovered that it contained not only a frying pan but about two pounds of powdered chicken broth, which actually comprised the weight of the parcel. It was actually a flimsy, lightweight pan! Well, we thought, who knew that chicken broth came free with the pan???

A couple of months later, when shopping again, I discovered several of the very same packages on the clearance table. With the Spanish I had gained in the interim, I was able to discern that we had NOT purchased a pan with free chicken broth, but rather, we had purchased chicken broth that came with a free pan! Such are the perils of shopping in a foreign country.

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Getting back to taxi rides: I need to vent. As I explained early on, our transportation on the island is a tapestry of walking, bike riding, rental golf carts when we have guests, sometimes being lucky enough to catch a ride with friends, and, as a last resort, the occasional cab ride. I’ve already expressed the hatred I feel about this option, but it seems important to elaborate. To begin with, there is a lot of negative feeling about the taxi business on the island. The drivers have a union, and, I’m told, a good deal of political clout. It is suggested that the taxi folks don’t always use that power for the common good.

That being said, I have nothing against the individuals who are struggling to earn a living providing this service. In spite of all the popular complaining about the cabbies, I have observed that the drivers are struggling just like everyone else…their lifestyles are just the same as their neighbors’, they work long hours, and no doubt deal with some very unpleasant customers in the bargain.

Added to my frustration with not being able to communicate sufficiently with the drivers while sharing their space, there is another sticking point: the fares. Not because they are expensive, but because there is such a strange dynamic involved. When we were first tourists on the island, we would dutifully pay the driver what they asked of us, and we felt we were getting a fair price. As we spent more time here, we began to realize that there was a wide chasm between what the tourists paid and what the locals were charged. Often a local will ride up front with the cabbie while another fare sits in back, so that essentially the driver collects two fares on the same trip. No problemo. It makes things more interesting.

As we grew to be aware of the two-tiered fare system, our local ex-pat friends gave us the scoop: “Don’t ask the cabbie what you owe them, just give them 30 pesos,” and, “Ask them what the fare will be before you get in the cab, and refuse the ride if it is too much,” and “Make sure you have the right change.” While I found the whole ordeal more than a little uncomfortable, Charlie embraced this approach. (After all, he has family in Sicily.) After a year or so of experimentation, he now has this down to a science. Before we leave the house, we gathers 30 pesos, exactly. Then we hail a cab, and when we arrive, as I disembark, he hands the driver the money and we say adiós. The cabbies accept this – even though, had we asked them what the fare was, the answer would have been anything from 40 to 70 pesos, sometimes even more. Apparently, by just handing them the exact change, the assertion is, “I know what this costs, don’t pull one over on me.”

For me, the word-woman, this is just a little too nonverbal, too posturing. The other day, as we were vamoosing out of a cab, I said to Charlie, “I feel like we’re Bonnie and Clyde and we just pulled off a heist.” I just can’t shake that feeling, with two consequences. One, I always let Charlie be “the man” and pay the money. Two, I refuse to take a cab by myself, because, as much as I don’t like the method, I’m certainly not willing to revert to paying the turista rate. So, in this one aspect of travel on the island, I am not an independent mujer. I have been known to walk three miles in the burning sun to avoid that experience. Crazy, I know, but we are all allowed our little quirks on Isla Mujeres.

As I write this, we have one week and one day remaining on this beautiful island. We have begun our process of taking leave, as we discuss what restaurants we want to visit one last time, how to spend our diminishing days, and how hard it will be to take leave of this place that has become another home for us. If I have one regret as I write this, it reverts back to my disappointment in the slow development of my fluency. If I had these four months to live over, I would spend more time immersing myself in the language by speaking with the locals more and the English-speakers less. You can get by on Isla Mujeres with little or no Spanish, but you miss out on getting to know many wonderful people, with stories to tell that are truly the fabric of this magical place. I am sorry for the stories I have not heard, and hope to hear more next time.