Head Wins (for now)

 

I was in my Sis’s kitchen twenty minutes or so before my nephew’s first day of 5th grade. Knowing that I’d be over to witness the event, Sis had a hot cup of strong, perfect coffee ready for me. As I take my first sips I watch as she gathers lunch items for her son’s lunchbox.  She finishes by nestling a sweet note under his sandwich.  I think about the days eons ago when I did the same thing for my kids.

I joke with my nephew saying, “So…what’s up with a yellow bus in the neighborhood?”

He rolls his eyes.  He’s not ready for summer to end.

Truth is, I feel the same.  Honestly, my entire being is still back at the beach.  My toes are in the sand and the book I brought but never open is cast off to the side as I gaze out at the ocean.

Apparently, some of the kids I queried while standing less than a half hour later at the bus stop with my nephew feel the same.  They aren’t ready for what seems like an abrupt end to summer.  “It’s not even labor day and we are back in school,” says one youngster.   There were seven or eight kids all with new backpacks, lunchboxes, and noticeably of course, new shoes, along with their parents waiting for the bus.  It’s not yet 8:15 and we’re all sweating as we stand waiting with the kids.  The Poodle had plopped himself down on the sidewalk and is panting too from the heat.  The humidity level is already high for what will be another scorcher of a day.  For one little one it would be her first time on a yellow school bus.  Wearing a blue dress with pretty pink shoes she was, understandably, a very nervous kindergartener.  Both mom and dad were witnessing this milestone day for their daughter.  Mom carried her little pink backpack while dad did his best to reassure.  It helped that her big brother would also be on the same bus.

As the kids broke off into their own circle the parents stood together and chatted about their summers.  Most everyone went to a beach over the summer.

Ocracoke morning

“We went to Ocracoke,” I say to one dad.

“Where is that?” he asks. I was not surprised at the question as it isn’t necessarily a hot Outer Banks destination.

So off I went only too happy to babble on for a good five minutes about our beach week in rustic Ocracoke.

“…and at one point,” I continued, ” I could look as far as the eye could see on my right and again to my left…and as God is my witness…I was the only person on the beach!  I felt like I had been deposited on uninhabited island!”

“Really?”

“Yes, really! There are no houses or high-rises on the beach.  In fact, there are no high-rises anywhere on the island.  The only structure you’ll see on the beach is a small wood lifeguard stand” I replied.

“Wow, I’ll have to check that out for next year,” he said clearly interested.

Later back at the house over my second cup of coffee and a delicious banana muffin that my nephew had made the day before, I thought about our first beach evening just two weeks ago.  At the time, we were dining at the Ocracoke Oyster Company, one of the larger restaurants on the island.  As we sipped on wine, Sis and I had our wheels seriously turning and our heads high in the clouds about ditching city life for Ocracoke Island living.

Hmm.  We’d add five to the population of roughly 591, eight if you count the pets,” I say wistfully.  “But where would we shop?  I don’t even see a real grocery store around.  I mean, there is an elementary school and at least one church but I don’t see any non-tourist stores here.”

At that moment our young server comes with our appetizers.  Oysters, calamari, and a basket of onion rings.   Without a pause I begin peppering her with questions (something I’m more bold at doing now that I am in my 60’s).  She is happy to answer our questions as she refills our water glasses.  Coming from New York, she answered a help-wanted ad for Ocracoke and left on the spot.  She’s been living on the island for most of the summer.  She’s not sure of her future plans but she’s having a blast so far.

Sis and I marvel at her fearlessness.  Oh to be young again….

“So, where on earth do you shop for stuff?” I ask.  “I mean, it’s not like you can order from Amazon all the way out here.”

“Actually, I order stuff all the time from Amazon,” she replied.

“Seriously?”  Seriously.

I asked another person, an older guy, who has lived on the island for twenty years.  He confirmed that he gets most of what he needs from Amazon.  He even joked that being a Prime member doesn’t help the Ocracokers much as purchases obviously don’t arrive next day.  I imagine a UPS truck on the ferry and think that must be one uberly cool route for that driver.

But here’s the thing:  I’m not sure about my Sis but after four days on the island, as charming as it was, my island-living dreams lessened considerably.  I asked any local that would spare two minutes how they liked living year-round on tiny Ocracoke.  While most folks were very upbeat it was unanimous that winters were particularly brutal.  “It takes a special someone to like our winters,” said one.  “Winters are downright dead with nothing to do,” said another.   One spirited woman that worked in a tiny gallery summed-up what most people said: “It’s freaking bleak here in the winter plus, I’d be as big as a barn eating non-stop and watching Netflix 24-7.”  She added that she leaves the island every winter spending a month or two away, traveling to exotic locales.  Last year it was Thailand.  This year it will be somewhere in Europe.

Though we enjoyed, unexpectedly, an Italian white wine from Venice during one of our nights, I start to dwell on the remoteness of Ocracoke island living not to mention the memory of that terrifying lightening and thunder storm which sounded to me as if the world was coming to an end.

Wine from our neck of the woods in Italy!

Ocracoke has its unpleasant side then.  Dramatic weather, bitterly cold winters, dreary, depressing, and dead for months on end.  Ah…Reality bites.  My romantic bubble has burst.  Sigh.

So yeah…realistically, I don’t have the luxury of the peripatetic life of a twenty-year-old and truthfully, even when I was that age I didn’t live free and footloose.  My heart says one thing…my head says another.  And yes, often –admittedly, perhaps too oftenmy head wins.

Though I am not ready for the proverbial rocking chair just yet, as boring as it may sound, my head now is all about quick access to a good hospital, preferably by car or ambulance and not by helicopter.  And I need the fun of a zoo, lots of museums and the promise of attending concerts, cultural events, wine tastings, and so much more.  Plus, I like touching and feeling stuff before I buy.  How would I manage without Target (weekly), REI (frequently) and Nordstrom’s (once in a blue moon)? Not to mention reliable internet access!

Yes, my head wins, for now.  All is good.  As I sit here with my heart at the beach I acknowledge that it will just have to be enough.  At any moment I can sit back, relax, and close my eyes and…with a slow and steady breath…the ocean is right before me.  I can hear the crash of waves on the shore and the gentle peeps of Sanderlings skittering about looking for food….

My only Ocracoke shells

It will do, I think… until next time. 

And there will be a next time.

There is bliss in that.

 

Blissed-out (mostly) on Ocracoke

It’s been a little more than a week since returning from our second summer adventure yet it feels more like months ago.  I’m lamenting already but hopeful that more adventures will spring up in the fall and winter.  For now, though I am still tackling the sand in the car, memories of a lovely week with my sis and family will have to calm the itch to pack another bag and be off somewhere….anywhere.

I’m listless and finding it hard to get back into the groove after truly doing nothing. The beach does that to me every time.

This time our destination was a bit more rustic than other beach trips: Ocracoke Island, North Carolina.  We’re no strangers to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. We’ve done a fair amount of vacationing there, mostly on the northern part of the barrier chain in Duck and Corolla. Admittedly, we haven’t really explored a lot of the 130 miles of the thin strip of these barrier islands; we tend to drop beach chairs down into the sand and veg for the duration of a week.  We hadn’t for example, ever driven beyond Nags Head and Roanoke Island, the very spot where I married Rocket-man years ago. Yep… The Lost Colony island of Roanoke.

Sis is the one who suggested this particular beach destination.  She and her husband, on a whim, spent an overnight on Ocracoke last year when returning from a beach stay near Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.  They were immediately smitten with its rustic charm.

“How do you get there,” I had asked at the time.   “Isn’t it the most remote island in the Outer Banks?”

“You take your car and ferry over,” she said.  “It takes about an hour.”

Away we go to Ocracoke!

“Wow…you put your car on a ferry?” I said in wonder.  I’ve taken ferries before.  It’s not that I don’t know the concept of vehicles on a ferry it’s just I’ve just never put my car on one.

Before heading to our Ocracoke (pronounces just as you see it: like the vegetable Okra and the soft drink Coke) adventure we made a pit stop in Manteo, on Roanoke Island. Sis and I wanted to see our great-aunt, family historian, Auntie Lou and her husband, our Uncle Jack. Auntie is in her 80’s and now needs a cane to get around but her mind is still pretty much sharp as a tack. Uncle Jack sat mostly quiet as sis and I peppered auntie with questions. It was lovely to spend a couple of hours catching up on life and listening to some family-tree stories. 

After we said our goodbyes we explored the area a bit, shopped, and decided on an early dinner as we planned an zero-dark-thirty departure for the Hatteras ferry the next morning.

The early morning sun shined happy as we drove through the little towns and quaint villages along the thin strip of land flanked by the Atlantic ocean on one side and the Pamlico Sound on the other.  I was excited to pass through the tiny town of Rodanthe, the locale featured in Nicholas Sparks 2002 tear-jerker Nights in Rodanthe, which was adapted into a film starring Richard GereWe also inched out way through Waves, Salvo, Avon, Buxton, and Frisco finally arriving to Hatteras where we would take the ferry over to Ocracoke Island.  I was positively energized with excitement as we pulled into the Hatteras ferry station.  As we queued-up behind a long line of cars sis stepped out of hers which was several cars ahead of us. I thought for sure we’d be the first ones here given that we woke up before the roosters.

How long is this going to take?” I asked sis.  “There seem to be so many cars!”

“The line moves pretty quickly,” she said.  “You’ll see…maybe a half-hour, tops.  We’re just waiting for another ferry-boat to pull in.  Don’t worry…this is going to be fun,” she added as she hopped back into the car.

Ah.  She caught that hint of nervousness in my voice.

And fun it was! I was amazed that some folks stayed in their cars for the ride. The weather couldn’t be more perfect with the wind calm enough to be gentle on the hair…and yet there are people, sitting in their cars, sleeping or on their devices. I had to catch my myself in that moment of judgement: who am I to critique these folks?  Perhaps they make the ferry trip often enough that the novelty of it all has worn off.

Standing at the front of the boat, rows of cars behind me, I inhaled the experience into memory. I breathed in deeply, feeling the subtlety salty ocean air far to my left and the Pamlico sound air directly to my right. As I strained to see land I caught sight of flying fish which makes all of us watching ooh and aah at the spectacle. Before an hour is up we are slowly pulling into the Ocracoke ferry dock.

At sixteen miles long, and at its widest point, three miles across, Ocracoke is barely five feet above sea level so flooding is always an issue.  In fact, it rained two of the four days of our stay and large pools and lakes of water sprouted everywhere. There are no high rises or beach mansions so it’s mighty rustic as beach towns go.  As of 2014, an estimated 591 people live on the island year-round.  This “sand bar” of a place has some interesting history too.  For example, It was, understandably due to its remoteness, a favorite hang-out for pirates back in the day.  Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, frequently anchored just off the island.  Apparently it was his favorite anchorage spot and it’s where he ultimately met his demise in 1718.

Vowing not to let rain spoil our time, we managed to get to the beach everyday.   We frolicked a fair amount of time in the water on day two of our stay. My nephew had oodles of fun body surfing with his father and Zio “Luigi.”  I also spent more time than usual in the water thanks to the peace of mind of my newly purchased Sharkbanz, a device intended to deter sharks by way of upsetting their electroreception.  On advice by my dear friend, Miss Cookie who used the product during her beach week, I purchased one literally three days before our trip with only a quick perusal of the official website and a couple of YouTube videos. You can check out their site here: https://www.sharkbanz.com/pages/how-it-works

I had my Sharkbanz strapped to my ankle which, at first glance, could easily be mistaken for an ankle bracelet monitoring device for someone on parole or under house arrest.  “HA….let’s give ’em something to talk about!” I thought as onlookers noted my accessory as I played in the water on my boogie board.

Of course, it was only after my trip that I delved into more YouTube videos to see that on occasion the device doesn’t work!  Miss Cookie, had warned that Great Whites appear to be unaffected by the strong magnet device.  They stalk from a distance and then purposefully aggressively strike to kill. Still, Ignorance is bliss, I say. Even if it was but a placebo effect, my “fashion” accessory allowed me to spend hours in the water without worrying much about what lurked below the surface.  Later that night as I tossed and turned in the motel bed to the loud drone of the window unit air conditioner, I thought about my Starkbanz safely back in its proper box for storage.  How about similar devices to deter snakes…and spiders…and frogs that fall atop one’s head?!   Alas, sleep eluded all of us that night as powerful thunder and lightning tormented the tiny island for what seemed like hours.

Foggy-brained in the morning due to lack of sleep, we were all dragging just a bit.  At a quaint coffee shop around the corner, the Ocracoke Coffee Co., people were all a-twitter about the terrific storm of the night and all the rain that came with it.  As I stood in line for my java fix I caught bits and pieces of conversation from folks coming and going.

“What a night, eh?” said one guy who looked to be in his fifties.

“I know, amazing right? I just love lightning storms!” gushed the barista gal behind the counter. She sported Shamrock green braids gathered into a loose bun at the base of her neck. While I don’t have green hair I think I am stylin’ with my well-worn Chacos and Lululemon capris.  Still, I feel like a fossil in that moment as the general consensus of the morning chatter in the coffee-house was just how “freaking cool” that lightning show was.

Am I the only one on the planet who doesn’t find it particularly soothing to be squarely under a thunder and lightning storm?  As a side note, By chance I happened to read that last week severe lightning damaged the steeple of the Ocracoke Methodist church.  It took out the wooden cross.

Ocracoke Methodist Church – now missing part of its steeple and it’s cross.

 

Ponder on the meaning of that weirdness whilst I think of more Ocracoke tidbits to share….

A Roanoke relic in the brackish marsh….

Forget “Bella Figura”… Mangia!

Fresh on the heels of a two-week European adventure I’m tired beyond belief. My body feels like a ton of bricks and my mind is in such a jet-lag induced fog that I cannot even add two plus two.

Wait.

What was that?  European adventure?!

Yes!

So folks, it was pretty much a spur of the moment deal. If there isn’t a “rule” there ought to be. Let’s say rule # 43, just for fun: When a business trip takes a husband overseas then wife gets to travel along too.”

OK. So he’s had a number of overseas trips in these past four years that I’ve had to sit out for a variety of reasons but this time presented an opportunity to visit my Italian roots once again (the last time being 2008), something that was necessary for me to do in the recent aftermath of my mother’s passing. So invoking rule #43, a business conference in Vienna morphed into a side trip to the Czech Republic (only about four hours by car) and a six-day jaunt to northern Italy. My mission in Italy was to lay a few things to rest…or attempt to at the very least. I was marginally  successful there. Suffice it to say that more time is needed. I did accomplish one goal however. I ate. A lot. And I enjoyed every minute of it.

I seriously kick myself for not writing much of anything during these past couple of weeks but honestly folks, I was too busy eating my way through three countries. Every morsel of food that I put into my mouth was fresh, wholesome, fabulously delicious food. Food sans preservatives that thrilled the taste buds in ways too numerous to count. In the days leading up to my trip I’ll admit that I swore up and down that I would be a “good” girl and fight to keep a semblance of  una bella figura (a nice figure) for a gal pushing sixty.    I knew I wouldn’t be doing my normal gym workouts for two weeks so managing my caloric intake would be important.

“I’m not going to pig out,” I said to Rocket-man as I threw stuff into my suitcase in giddy anticipation at the prospect of traveling overseas again.  (Full disclosure: I will confess that I was, at times, a nervous ninny about travel given the rise in terrorist atrocities.)

As I prattled on whilst deciding on which shoes to pack I vowed to Rocket-man that I would absolutely restrain myself from overeating.  Translation: a) I will not order dessert, and b) I will leave food on my plate.

Ah…you guessed it. That did not happen.

Forget the whole bella figura thing.  Mangia was my mantra.  Eat! (and drink).  And I did both with joyful abandon.  I enjoyed desserts (but managed to restrain myself in this department!) and I practically squeegee-cleaned my plate at every meal. Except for once that is. In that case, the schnitzel was positively ginormous. No doubt I’d still be sitting in that Viennese restaurant attempting to finish it. Still, I gave it my best effort; who knew when I’d be in Vienna again, if ever…right?

But here’s the thing:  Freshly prepared, real food with good olive oil, fresh spices, and herbs straight from the garden is enormously satisfying in smaller portions and for the most part, smaller portions are the norm in Europe.  With the exception of the schnitzel, everything I ate arrived on a smaller-than-U.S.-size plate.  And European sweets?  They are not loaded with sugar and sickeningly-sweet icings.

Pizza, Quattro Stagioni....so good it brought tears to my eyes.

Pizza, Quattro Stagioni….I ate the whole thing!

Perfect Papardelle in a lavender purple, lavender everywhere roadside restaurant.

Perfect Papardelle in a lavender purple, lavender everywhere roadside restaurant.

 

Though too much to cover now, here is a short account to make your mouths positively salivate:

In the Czech Republic I had the best pappardelle dish I had ever eaten during a roadside stop just off the highway en-route to Vienna.  It was a curious place nearly smack dab in the middle of a field of lavender.  Inside the modern decor was awash in white and varying hues of purple with dried lavender bouquets hanging everywhere.   My pappardelle dish was laced with grilled vegetables and topped with delicately shaved Parmesan cheese. I didn’t leave so much as a parsley sprig on my plate.

Schnitzel.  Divine...but I absolutely couldn't eat the whole thing!

Schnitzel. Divine…but I absolutely couldn’t eat the whole thing!

 

Oodles of noodles...a lovely spinach dumpling dish

Oodles of noodles…a lovely spinach dumpling dish

Sachertorte...a Viennese chocolate cake that is not sickeningly sweet.

Sachertorte: a Viennese chocolate cake that’s not overly sweet

 

During our five days In Vienna I dined on schnitzels (highly recommend schnitzel at Figlmueller’s) and an assortment of dumpling (Austrian noodle) dishes. Folks, I’m not even a dumpling person but as the saying goes… when in Vienna!  Therefore, in my quest to try all things Viennese I gushed over one particular plate of spinach dumplings, using pretzel bread to soak up the last bit of sauce.

 

I ordered Sachertorte (A Viennese specialty) with the intent of sharing it and didn’t!  I mean really, share this specialty chocolate cake….who does that?!   Later in that week we enjoyed lunch, in a quaint courtyard restaurant off the beaten path.  I groaned with pleasure over my plate of velvety smooth polenta topped with a lively peperonata sauce. If I could, I wouldn’t have left my chair that afternoon and I would have stayed on for dinner.

In northeast Italy–in my mother’s neck of the woods (and mine as well), I was transported to another universe with melt-in-your mouth Frico, a specialty dish of the Friuli-Veneto region. Originally considered a peasant dish when Friuli was a poor region, this fried (or baked) dish of potatoes, grated onions, and Montasio cheese comes together in a marriage made in heaven.

Mangia!” urged my cousin, as the dish was set before me on the table.  No urging necessary, by the way.  Frico is the ultimate comfort food, far more comforting than mac and cheese in my humble opinion. Add a bottle of red-wine to the table and it’s easy to say “God, take me now.”

In Udine, my mother’s home town and the place of my childhood memories,  I refused to miss lasagna (which did not disappoint) nor polpette (Italian meatballs).  A gnocchi dish with sage and butter nearly made me faint with pleasure.  My order of pizza Quattro Stagioni (four seasons) brought a tear of joy to my eyes…it was that good.  Only Italians know how to do pizza! Fabulously thin crust, very little sauce and even less cheese and a plethora of wholesome toppings to choose from. I didn’t feel one bit guilty for eating the entire pizza set before me.

There were more fabulous meals to be enjoyed while in Udine, particularly at my cousin Rinella’s home.  We dined on bruschetta and insalata caprese, followed by an absolutely perfect frittata (I’ll admit to having seconds!).  At a family reunion picnic just outside of Udine there were mountains of home-made bread to sample, a divinely delicious radicchio tart as well as grilled meats prepared by grill-master Marco (owner of Martha, the chicken-killer dog.  Story to follow at some point!).  He masterfully prepared sausage, ribs, and thickly sliced pancetta.  This meal was topped off with gelato for dessert along with glasses of ice-cold limoncello to go around, and fruit marinated in grappa. Fabulous food…wonderful friends and family…. How could life get any better than this?! 

Marco, the grill-master and owner of Martha- the-chicken-killer dog.

Marco, the grill-master and owner of Martha- the-chicken-killer dog.

 

After Udine, we made our way to elegantly decaying Venice.  I’ve been to Venice at least five times–perhaps more, during my toddler years–and it is still as magical as ever.   At lunch, I ordered a signaature Venetian seafood pasta dish, Bigoli in Salsa, at my mother’s favorite restaurant, Trattoria Alla Madonna ( It’s off the beaten tourist path).

Bigoli in Salsa. A Venetian signature dish

Bigoli in Salsa. A Venetian signature dish

Bigoli is a long, thick tube type of pasta. Traditionally, it used to be made of buckwheat flour but now it’s more likely to be made with whole-wheat flour. The Salsa consisted of a pureed blend of onions and a salt-cured fish, anchovies. As I had done numerous times in the preceding days, I groaned with pure pleasure, savoring every bite.  I didn’t leave a drop of sauce on my plate.

On our last night in Venice I was conflicted over what to order.  There were so many wonderful choices to be had.  This is not the end!  It will not be my last meal in Bella Italia. Again, I ordered pizza…this time with prosciutto, peperoncini, and arugula. It was huge and at first I thought I couldn’t possibly finish it given that I’d eaten pasta for lunch. But it was my last night in a magical city–until the next time— and I was determined not to disappoint the plate!

I ate with gusto as gondolas slowly inched past our table and the water lapped at the sides of the bridges and walls. I ate to lively music, laughter, and people chatter, with wine glasses clinking at table after table to animated cheers of salute and buon appetito…with the sun settling down low into the eastern sky and a million twinkling lights reflecting in the water.

In less than eight hours my heart would be sad to leave the land of my roots.  I’d miss Venice, where my mother lived as a child to escape the threat of bombs in World War II.  I carried little flashbacks throughout that last day in Venice:  Venice…where over thirty years ago I pushed my son’s stroller in St. Marco’s square among a sea of pigeons.  Venice, where I walked for hours one late July day in sweltering heat while pregnant with my daughter.  Venice, where my ex and I had a day of sightseeing and then found ourselves (by choice) at Harry’s Bar, Hemingway’s hangout.  We had no idea that we’d be way under-dressed. Blanching over the menu prices for lunch we still ordered. We had to…it was Harry’s Bar!   Ah…Bella Venezia: It’s is where I ran my one and only international marathon and it’s the birthplace of my favorite composer, Antonio Vivaldi.  Despite the throng of tourists, Venice never disappoints.  I feel blessed to have another beautiful memory of my days there to take home with me; memories that are sure to make me smile during inevitably blue times.

So….back in middle-earth land now, another universe (or so it seems) away,  I recall a magical moment in Piazzo San Marco, under the night sky.  There is a slight breeze, welcoming after a hot and humid day and a lot of walking.  I’ve got a glass of white wine in hand and it is wonderfully refreshing.  The sound of live music from a quartet just a few feet from our table makes the moment almost impossibly romantic.

Yes.

I will be back.

P.S.  For inquiring minds, I did hop on the bathroom scales the day after my return. I didn’t gain a pound!  Seriously.  That’s a testament to eating real food….and lots of walking.

Memories….

Solidarite

Solidarite

I adjusted the glittery mask to my face, blowing a wisp of a plume of bright red feathers out of my eyes as I did so.  “How do I look?”  I asked Rocket-man as he donned his own mask.

“Beautiful,” he said.  “Yeah, right.  That’s what you always say,” I quipped.  “Well, here goes!”

Without knocking I opened the front door and stepped inside.  I could see that there was a lively bunch of folks in the kitchen.  Music (though I cannot recall the genre) was in the air and the sounds of talk and laughter filled the entire downstairs area of my sister’s home.  Miss Nica-Roux, a bundle of beagle-mix puppy love, was the first to great me.  I silently petted her and, with a finger to my lips, whispered a “hush, no barking” to her as I tip-toed down the hall into the kitchen.  The Lord of the manor (my sister’s husband Greg) didn’t see me enter the kitchen as his back was to me.  He was at the bar mixing up a batch of drinks, talking animatedly to one of his guests as he was mixing.  Greg was dressed in pirate garb, his costume of choice for Halloween this year.  He certainly looked the part with a green bauble faux-piercing his right ear, a billowy white shirt with a bright red sash around his waist and a black pirate hat.   He was quite absorbed with his guest when I tapped on his right shoulder.  Still engaged in conversation with his guest he turned slightly towards me.

“Um, can I have a pomegranate martini please?” I asked as non-nonchalantly as possible.

“ACK!!!!!! What in the world….Oh my…..!”  He screamed in wide-eyed delight (Yes…I’m absolutely positive it was delight).  His eyes literally resembled 9-inch pie plates.  I kid not!

“CC! What a surprise!  Your sis did not tell me you were coming!”

“She didn’t know either,” I laughed with childish glee as we shared a long hug.

Just moments earlier Sis was equally thrown for a loop.  I surprised her just as she was walking down the street with Alexandre-the-Greatest and a group of his trick-o-treating friends.  We hugged and screamed together with happiness.  “In all my years I’ve never been surprised like this,” sis gushed with joy. I was pleased beyond belief that I had succeeded in thoroughly surprising my sis and her husband, arriving just in time for their Halloween party.  They weren’t expecting Rocket-man and I for another week.

So folks, that was a delightful memory forever etched in my heart.  I smile from ear-to-ear every time I think of it. I share this recent memory because of the times we live in.  Friday’s terrorist attack in The City of Light (so named because Paris was considered the center of education, learning, and ideas during the Age of Enlightenment) makes me realize more than ever our mortality.  Our hearts beat in this moment.  But in the blink of an eye–whether it be from a health affliction, a drunk driver, or God-forbid, at the hands of an insane terrorist/suicide bomber–our breath can be snuffed out and, in an instant, we are gone. We. Are. GoneMy heart has been heavy all weekend.  Our world seems to be going to hell though my historian bro-in-law reminds me that these are not the worst of times humanity has endured.  He speaks the truth though It sure seems to be the opposite to me.

During a recent walk with The Poodle, I resolved to snap out of my funk.  The universe obliged, for as I soon as I thought it another lovely memory came out of the recesses of my stressed-induced brain fog.  This one in beautiful Paris a year before my sweet nephew, Alexandre-the-Greatest, was born.

I was with my sis and her husband for a weekend in Paris and while there, we were lucky enough to meet up with my California friend Miss Lou who was in town celebrating a honeymoon with her love.  We all met for dinner (the restaurant escapes me now) and decided to dine outside under a perfectly starry nights’ sky.  We ordered Champagne (but of course!) and we clinked glasses to Lou and her husband.  We also thought we’d order an appetizer to go with that Champagne.  For inquiring minds, Sis and I don’t speak french but I took a semester in college and together with our Italian, we were confident we could figure out the menu.  Miss Lou had studied French too so between the three of us, we felt fairly confident that none of us would starve that night.

“How about shrimp?” Asked Greg, sis’ husband.

“Oh yes…a shrimp cocktail sounds perfect for a start,” I agreed.

Since there were five of us we wanted to order several shrimp cocktails to go around.  At this, the waiter’s eye-brows came together.  It was but a nano-second, like a blip on the radar screen, as it were. But, it was telling.  If only we hadn’t been so wrapped up in our starry-night bliss.  In retrospect, though it was an expression that was ever-so-subtle and gone before my brain could process any meaning, I should have given pause and asked for clarification.

When the waiter returned with our “appetizer” order of shrimp some ten minutes later we were all nearly stupefied at what he placed before us.  It was a very large platter piled high with some form of teeny-tiny crustacean.  It looked akin to that scene from ET…remember?  Who could forget the most famous mashed potato scene of all time with Richard Dreyfus piling his plate high with an enormous mountain of mashed potatoes?!

“Yikes!!! This looks nothing like shrimp cocktail.  Could it be a mistake?” I whispered to my sis in quiet horror.  Seriously….It looked like a pile of cockroaches, sautéed in a dye of festive red.

They look big in this photo, but trust me....they were teeny-tiny.

They look big in this photo, but trust me….they were teeny-tiny.

“Yum. Looks like crawfish,” Greg said.  The Cajun in him was quite happy. I do believe he was the first to dig in.

No wonder the waiter gave us a strange look!  We had ordered too many servings.  One small plate was meant for our table, not the mountain before us.  He probably thought we were typical gluttonous Americans.  Or stupid.  Or both.

I was not about to dig in.    But, not one for drama –meaning, that I certainly didn’t want to be the party-pooper in the bunch– I knew I’d have to hide my true feelings about this food nightmare and at least give the dish a try.  A long sip of Champagne gave me the courage to pick up one tiny “shrimp”.

“How on earth are we supposed to peel these?” I asked,  non too pleased about the pile of eyes and antennae on the platter.  I honestly tried to peel a couple but the task seemed impossible and I gave up quickly.  Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one. The lot of us barely made a dent in the pile.  Even Greg gave up.    There were so many tiny crustaceans on that plate that I daresay we’d all still be at that table today.

We all laughed and laughed over our food error, though, If memory serves me, Greg wasn’t quite as euphoric over the bill.  Still, it was a delightfully magical night in every way possible.  It’s a memory I’ll cherish until my lights go out.

As Paris mourns in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks last Friday, I mourn with her and her people.  Paris will always hold a special place in my heart because I spent time there–though short– with family and friends.  My soul was bathed in the joy of a new adventure, made complete with walks on both sides of the Seine, strange food, heavenly buttery croissants, and love and laughter.  I’ll forever cherish what Paris gave to me.

I’m keenly aware that I could die in the next moment, especially in a world that seems to be growing more insane by the minute.  But, I’m lucky enough to be here…now…in this moment, with a pocketful (and then some) of memories.  I’m ever thankful for the good memories AND even the not-so-good ones.  They all make up the fabric of my life.  All the insanity in the world cannot erase what lies forever etched in my heart and soul.

There is bliss in that.

 

The Cure for Opal Fever?

Walking The Poodle this morning I was deep in thought over the events of the last couple of weeks.  Last year we were dealing with issues pertaining to my mother.  And, for inquiring minds, the drama continues, just escalating yet to new levels.  Impossible to comprehend, I know!  But, that’s my mother, God (and family) love her!   Now, it seems we will be tackling issues with Rocket-man’s mother and it isn’t good. Unlike with my mother,  her body is just fine.  It’s her mind that is going.  She is sliding slowly into dementia.

When we went to see her last week to assess the situation we walked into a totally unexpected mess.   She has been living under deplorable conditions.  With a daughter (Rocket-man’s younger sister) living in the same town, not even twenty minutes away,  both Rocket-man and I were outraged, not to mention overwhelmed over what we found.  It seems that his sister has mother “baggage” issues and decided to “check-out” in the help department.  News flash: Who doesn’t have childhood baggage?!   “There is no excuse for your sister’s behavior!”  I cried…literally, as I surveyed the mess before me.  My heart broke for the old woman seated quietly on the sofa, watching Bonanza re-runs on TVLand.  She was happy as a clam…in her own universe.  There was not an angry bone in her body.  I thought of how lucky my mother was to live in her beautiful new place…and I quietly seethed with anger as I cleaned; my mother isn’t grateful for where she is now, nor all the hoops we went through to make it happen for her.  Sigh.

Without hesitation, for two days we were knee-deep in cleaning and hauling what junk we could away, trying to make order out of the chaos in our short amount of time there.  Luckily, we had the help of Rocket-man’s older sister who, like us, doesn’t live in the same state.  There will be a great amount of work ahead, sorting everything out for his mother, and all the related responsibilities of finding the right care for her, not to mention the emotional heaviness of it all.  It begins anew, with barely time to exhale from the trauma–emotional and otherwise–of last year.  And of course, with it all comes another potential financial exhaustion of funds.  We just cannot seem to catch a break!

The only silver lining in this new catastrophe is that Rocket-man’s mother is fairly docile in the face of her crumbling world.  While I was filling garbage bag after garbage bag with years-old receipts, stacks of old catalogs, well- expired food, and (inexplicably) empty plastic milk cartons piled high in many places, she simply smiled and joked as if we were relaxing at a family picnic on a lazy Sunday afternoon.  It was a blessing after what I experienced last year with my combative mother.

So….In an effort to get my mind off of pressing issues as I walked my dog in the quiet of this fog-laced morning I had to think of something enjoyable…like our recent trip to Australia.

Yes.  It seems hard to believe that just three weeks ago I was giggling like a school girl over my first business class flying experience.  Just weeks ago I was petting a Koala one moment, then later excitedly pointing to a Kangaroo on the side of the road.  I’m sure the taxi driver was rolling his eyes while thinking “Another silly American tourist.” What a sight I must have been to him as I was literally jumping up and down in my seat with joy over a kangaroo sighting.

“Roos here are like your deers on the road; we often think of them as a nuisance,” said the very friendly taxi driver with a twinkle in his eye.  Glad you’re enjoying our roos though.”    I still marveled that everyone I had met during my ten-day Aussie adventure was a nice as can be.  I hadn’t met a rude Aussie yet.

And, our two days in Sydney weren’t nearly enough.   It had been cut hours shorter as our flight from Canberra was delayed due to dense fog.   We had to cram as much as possible in the short amount of time we had there before returning home (and we did!).

High on the list of my priorities as soon as our flight landed was a trip to the National Opal Collection on Pitt Street.  I had no idea it would be steps from our hotel (really…wink, wink).  Rocket-man however, had another agenda.  He wanted to tour Sydney’s iconic Opera House first.  But I was a woman on a mission and steadfastly holding my ground I said, “No….not just yet.”

“The opera house isn’t going anywhere,” I said breathlessly as we hurried through our hotel check-in.   “This afternoon is the only opportunity we have to look for an opal. The store is closed tomorrow since its Sunday.”

Between you and me, I’m positive Rocket-man was hoping that I’d forgotten about opal shopping.  I’m sure he thought that once I set eyes on the Opera House I’d beat feet there first.  He was mistaken. I’ve had opal fever for years–as far back to our dating days seventeen years ago—and he knows this.  The cure for this sort of fever is to shop for one I reasoned.  So, being the wonderful kind of guy that he is, he simply said; “Yes… my queen.  Your wish is my desire too!”  We dumped suitcases in our hotel room, freshend-up and within five minutes we were out on the street for the three minute walk to my opal destination.

Once I entered the small, rather non-nondescript store I made straight to one long display case.

“Wow.”

It was definitely sensory overload as I looked over the sea of opals…large, small and tiny even.   A spectrum of colors literally took my breath away–from milky white with glittery pastel tones, to intense greens swimming in fiery reds mixed with mesmerizing blues.  I learned quickly that I was terribly naive about my birthstone.

The opal expert sales associate was an Asian man who appeared to be in his fifties.  He stood quietly while I looked at the opals in the display case.  “I’m only interested in a black opal,”  I told him.  “It’s my birthstone.  The one I select will be for a ring and (throwing my former boss under the bus) my friend Jeff said I must look for one from the Lightning Ridge mine.”  Somehow in the busysiness of our days I had neglected to tell Rocket-man this.  I could tell he was getting nervous.  As I chatted away my eyes locked onto one beautiful stone.

“That one….there,” I said to Rocket-man, pointing with steadfast confidence to a black opal beauty.  “That’s exactly what I’m looking for.”

“Ahh…excellent choice,” said the sales associate as he opened the display case.  “You have a very good eye.”  He took the opal, which was the size of a quarter and placed it in my hands.

“Oh my.  This is stunning,” I breathed.  “How much is this stone?” I asked as I turned it around in my hand, admiring the changing array of blues and greens dancing before me.

“$10,500.00.”

My heart sank. Literally.  Rocket-man turned a dismal shade of ash.

“Well…um…. that’s just a wee bit outside of my price range,” was all I managed to squeak out.

“If it makes you feel any better, this one is well over $15,000,” said the associate pointing to magnificent black opal, nearly the same size but just a bit larger.

I was ready to abandon the mission entirely.  In fact,  I almost walked out of the store then.  I had not foreseen that an loose opal would be so expensive.  Strange as it was to me, Rocket-man was very patient and suggested we keep looking.  Really?   So, together we looked at a number of much smaller stones for a half hour, trying to find one that wouldn’t break the bank.  Finally I settled on one that was smaller than my pinkie fingernail and sincerely, the vibrancy of its colors made my heart sing.

“So, how about this be your birthday and Christmas gift?” said Rocket-man.

Really?”  Oh God yes!”  I replied, planting kisses on both of his cheeks.

My Lightning Ridge black opal. It looks big but it's smaller than my pinkie fingernail. I love it!

My Lightning Ridge black opal. It looks big but it’s smaller than my pinkie fingernail. I love it!

The fever has gone…for now!  And, like me, my little opal gem must remain patient before it can be set into a unique piece.  For now, we mustl navigate through the maze of another aging parent’s storm.   It’s not going to be pretty; hearts are going to be strained to the limit and patience will be tested over and over again.   Once all the financial dust settles  (which could mean another year, perhaps  longer) I’ll need to find a good jewelry designer.  But for now I’m content to gaze at my little gem in its box and when I do, I am instantly transported to the land down under and that beautifully crisp, clear, sunny day in Sydney where I spent the remainder of the afternoon walking hand-in-hand with my Rocket-man, enjoying the sights of downtown Sydney, the glistening waters around Bennelong Point, and the magnificent Sydney Opera House too.

A view of Sydney Opera House

A view of Sydney Opera House

Poppies of Remembrance and Sorrow

Another day Down Under. Another day of lots of walking in cold, windy weather.

Australian War Memorial; view from the back

Australian War Memorial; view from the back

Today’s adventure was getting myself to the Australian War Memorial. It’s about three miles from the hotel. I had no trouble finding it. Canberra is easy to get around, on foot at least. I wasn’t about to drive since that meant learning to drive on the opposite side of the road…..something not on my list of things to try while I’m on a mini-holiday and Rocket-man is at work.  Visions of me running straight into a Eucalyptus tree or any number of memorial statues around the city were enough to squash that seed of desire to learn a different skill.  Maybe some other time…or in my next life!

I was met with a slap of cold air as I stepped outside shortly after breakfast.

Brrr. Well, at least it is not raining today.

The sun was shining, the sky a brilliant blue. There was a steady breeze keeping the various types of Eucalypts active under the windy conditions. Despite gloves, hat and my warm, wooly scarf, I was cold just five minutes into my walk.

It took me a good forty-five minutes to walk to the Australian War memorial. There was no need for a map as there were plenty of signs along the way; I knew I was on the right path. Again, up another long boulevard, mostly cutting through residential areas. Despite the cold I was enjoying the walk. I passed by homes that were quaint and well-kept and many that were quite the opposite. Piles of leaves and bark from the eucalypts covered sidewalks and driveways and most yards were devoid of any landscape color, which is what one would expect as it was still winter for another month. White cockatoos screeched from the treetops and Australian magpies, their song ending on a curious boing-like note, also filled the early morning air.

By the time I arrived at the Australian War Memorial my hands were thoroughly numb with cold and my head was pounding. I don’t often get headaches so I reasoned I must be very dehydrated.  The lingering effects of jet lag coupled with four days of eight to ten-mile walks around town were catching up with me.  Opened in 1941, the memorial is simple in design, imposing but not ornate.  There are Art Deco elements in its design.   It’s actually a national military war museum as well as a memorial to honor the men and women from the Commonwealth of Australia who so bravely gave their lives in wars dating as far back to the British Sudanese Expedition, the Second Boer War, and the Boxer Rebellion. Naturally, the memorial also honors those who sacrificed their lives in both World Wars, as well as the more recent involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In 2001 the memorial was further expanded with the addition of ANZAC Hall (ANZAC is the acronym for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps ) which displays an extensive collection of large military hardware.  Another incredible fact about this memorial is the artist Napier Waller.  He lost his right arm in World War I and he learned to write, create and work with his left arm.  He created all the mosaic work (tiny, tiny mosaic tiles from floor to the domed ceiling) in the domed chapel, along with the beautiful stained glass windows adorning the chapel that contains the Tomb of the Australian Unknown Soldier.  He finished the project in 1958.

Ceiling of domed chapel.

Ceiling of domed chapel.

Stained glass in the domed chapel

Stained glass in the domed chapel

Red Poppies of Remembrance

Red Poppies of Remembrance

There were only a few people walking about the large expanse of the memorial grounds which includes the memorial shrine, the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier, and Memory Hall where the names of 102,000 men and women are inscribed on floor to ceiling bronze plaques.  The bronze plaques are also literally awash in red; hundreds of silk red poppies, left by friends and relatives, are inserted in the cracks besides names of loved ones lost.   It is both strikingly beautiful and immensely sad.  While there looked to be plenty to see on the grounds I wanted the warmth of indoors at the moment. I was dismayed as I walked up the front steps of the memorial to note that the place didn’t open until 10 a.m. I looked at my watch. Oh dear. I’ve got another forty-minutes to wait?  I walked back down the steps and around to the side of the building. That’s when I noticed a sign for Poppy’s Cafe.

Oh, thank heavens….there is a God!  I made a bee-line to the cafe, which thankfully was open.  Ah.  This was where all the folks are. The small modern cafe was full of people and was lively with conversation.  Within a few minutes I was holding a steaming hot latte in my cold hands. While I waited and warmed up, I connected to the museum’s Wi-fi in an effort to learn a bit about the memorial before heading into the building.  For example, Charles Bean, Australia’s official World War I historian, was the guy behind the idea for a memorial to Australia’s soldiers.

Preferring art to things about war, I didn’t think I would enjoy a visit to a war museum.  But, I had heard from enough people (and comments posted on Trip Advisor too) that it was a definite must-see. It turns out everyone was right.  I spent over three hours there, not nearly enough time as one could really make an entire day of it.  I wished my history buff brother-in-law would have been able to tour this with me. I’m sure I would have absorbed a lot more information about each exhibit with his knowledgeable commentary.

Suffice it to say that for me, most of the exhibits (particularly the extensive World War I and II exhibits) evoked sadness and heartbreak over so many lives lost…so many irrevocably broken families.  At one point–while lingering over a large photo of an emaciated young Australian soldier held captive as a prisoner of war by the Japanese–tears welled up in my eyes. These images of war were getting to me.   How is it that we, the human race, cannot seem to stop the cycle of death, war and destruction? How can we treat each other with such savagery, cruelty, madness, and inhumanity?  How is it human kind continues to do so…still?  We don’t seem to be learning a damned thing!

I was completely spent after a little more than three hours.  I needed fresh air and sunshine. But before I walked outside I stepped into the museum’s gift shop.  I purchased a red poppy lapel pin. I affixed it to my hat knowing it would serve as my daily reminder of this day. IMG_3107

It had warmed up considerably while I was in the museum and the intense (though winter!) Australian sunshine was quite a lift to my spirits.   I decided to take a different route back to the hotel.

ANZAC Parade. View from the memorial to the Parliament House

ANZAC Parade. View from the memorial to the Parliament House

So up ANZAC Parade I went.  It’s an exceedingly long boulevard, flanked with Eucalypts and New Zealand Hebe bushes, as well as many more war memorials all along the way.  It effectively ends at the Parliament building some five miles up on the opposite end of the thoroughfare.  In fact, it’s quite a beautiful view from the memorial to the Parliament House.  I tried to shake the bleak, stark images of war and destruction out of my mind as I walked. I wasn’t having much luck I’m afraid.  And, with all that is going on in the world, I doubt that I ever will.  It struck me that perhaps that is another reason these museums are so critically important to the world.  They serve not just to honor our fallen men and women soldiers but also as a somber, grim reminder of just how devastating and ugly war truly is.  Can’t we learn from this?!

I let out a heavy sigh.  I had to shake the sadness. So I picked up the pace and briskly walked back to the hotel with my sights on another hot coffee and a sweet treat to cap off the late afternoon.

 

I Could Get Used to This!

We’ve got a little over four hours remaining on this amazingly long, long flight…..a flight of fifteen hours and forty-five minutes to be exact.  Yep…that’s right.  Over fifteen hours, on an airplan!   Add to that: this is the third leg of our journey to the land Down Under, and we’ve still got one more to go.   Middle-earth to Houston (uneventful)….Houston to Los Angeles (screaming child in my ear)….Los Angeles to Melbourne….and from Melbourne, a short hours’ hop to Canberra, the capital of Australia. 

I’m happy to report that this third leg is simply marvelous.  You see, I lucked out and was able to fly business class on this third leg, outbound part….and wowza!  Having never traveled first class, this is turning out to be one cool experience!   It’s definitely taken the sting out of an excruciatingly long (about thirty hours in all) journey.  I was delirious with happiness over the seating. A large, comfortable seat that, with the push of a button, fully reclines! After our first two flights, my knees were not happy from too much sitting in a cramped position.   I was ridiculously over the moon about my seat!  

Ahhhhh.  I might actually be able to sleep during this flight!  Okay, well…to be honest, I haven’t been able to really sleep–only dozed– but it has been heavenly to be able to fully recline into a semblance of a normal sleeping position.  

As we took to our seats at the start of the flight– before I even had started to pull stuff out of my backpack (book, iPad, headphones, lip gloss) in preparation of situating myself for the long haul, the flight attendant was introducing herself to us.  

“I’m Mary. Your international travel attendant.  I will be taking care of you during your flight.  I am here for anything you need to make your flight comfortable.”

I wanted to say: I’ve got a seat that fully reclines.  Your job is done!

Mary provided us a menu and asked us to consider our dinner selections, and she brought us our first drinks: Jack and Coke for Rocket-man, and just water for me….for starters.  I couldn’t read the menu as I was stupidly giddy over all the business class amenities which tickeled Rocket-man to no end.  I was given a small travel kit containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, hand cream, sleep mask, hand wipes, and cozy travel socks.  I had a large blanket, a substantial pillow and a large T.V. screen in front of me….and my seat fully reclined.  Fifteen hours like this?  No problem!       

  And my dining experience?  Wow.  First off, we each received a steaming hot hand towel with which to wash our travel weary face and hands.  As I handled the hot, wet towel, letting it settle for just a moment over my eyes,  I had a childhood flashback.  I don’t get many of these!  When we lived in Okinawa, it was customary to be given steamed little handtowels in small banana-shaped wicker baskets at restaurants or dinners out with friends.   We even had these at home.  I can still see a stack of little wicker baskets in our cupboard; my mother would bring them out when she had small dinner parties, a practice that certainly impressed her guests.Our first course was a snack to knosh on while waiting for dinner.  We were presented with a small white bowl of warmed nuts along with our libation of choice….in a real glass!  (I know.  You must think I’m being a bit ridiculous here, but what a lovely little pleasure to be able to drink a beverage out of a glass instead of a tiny plastic cup!).    I was ready for wine so my choice was either a pinot noir or a Cote-du-Rhone.  I chose the latter and for the entirety of dinner Mary would come by to re-fill my glass (for the record, I allowed myself to splurge….I stopped at three).  

Before Mary brought our dinner she provided us with a linen “tablecloth” for our tray tables along with a large linen napkin and not one, but three sets of flatware (one for salad, the entree and then dessert).  Another wowza moment for me!  How decadent!  A tablecloth?!  Really!  

 I chose salmon with a dollop of crab meat,  which was all  tasty, though just a tad overcooked. Mary also brought a basket of warm bread along with a tiny tub of butter.  Dessert was an ice-cream sundae.  ICE-CREAM!  I nearly fainted with delight!       

 Once dinner was over, I reclined, sinking myself into my lovely seat, with a blanket over my legs, and selected a movie to watch: The Second Best Marigold Hotel.   

Yes folks…I could get used to this.   Realizing there will be another twelve hours to go, I’m simply going to sit back, relax, recline and set myself up to enjoy and savor the rest of what may be my one and only  first class travel experience.  

Ahhh….Bliss!