The beautiful things we never use

It took me three days to find the china. Service for twelve should not have eluded me for so long. I eventually discovered it, but only by looking behind every door and in every box. As it turned out, before we moved to Amsterdam I had packed the dishes and stored them safely away. In the china cabinet.

In truth, it wouldn’t have mattered if it took me three months to find the china. It’s been nearly fifteen years since we received it as a wedding gift, and since then, we’ve used it only a handful of times. At least four place settings are on display in the aforementioned china cabinet, ready to be pressed into service for any Tuesday night dinner – an occasion that never seems to arrive.

One of the benefits of moving across the ocean and back again is the chance to consider your possessions. When we packed up our house several years ago, I handled (and I mean that literally) most of our stuff. Box after box was filled and donated to the Salvation Army. What we kept was stored in plastic totes, labeled, and put in the attic.

The process reversed itself when we returned to Boston. This resulted in another pile of boxes for donation; my threshold for “stuff” had decreased after our four years living abroad. There was no great virtue behind our minimalist approach to life in Amsterdam: the constraints of space and practicality dictated our choices.

Now that we are back in our very American-sized home, with space to spare, I’m resisting the urge to re-populate the rooms with stuff we no longer need or that is no longer meaningful. I think I’ve mostly been successful. But I’ve noticed in myself an unexpected reaction as I continue to work through the boxes and totes that hold our things. It happens when I come across something beautiful. A hand-embroidered tea towel made by my grandmother. The Depression glass sugar and creamer set that was my mother’s. My own china dishes. Things that were packed away long before our time abroad. Things that have always been packed away.

All these beautiful things we never use.

Well, enough. Why am I saving these things? What are they for, if not to be used?

I don’t think my impulse to protect and preserve certain things is unique.  We may all have a “good [fill in the blank]” that we’re saving for a special occasion; something that, due to its cost or provenance, we feel we cannot waste on the everyday. But there’s something to be said for loving and valuing the everyday enough to give it the good stuff, no? What are we waiting for?

So dine with the good china. Dig out the special underwear (yep, gentlemen readers, most women have them). Cut some flowers from your garden and put them in that vase that’s high up on a shelf, safe and forgotten. Bring out the beautiful things. Use them up.

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What this is about.

This was going to be a post about how, after nearly four years living abroad, my husband and I made the decision to return to the United States. That was in October.

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Ok, so we got a little bit of sun…

Then, in November, this was going to be about our last European adventure: our holiday to Spain and our unsuccessful search for the sun on the famed Costa del Sol.

In December, this was going to be a post about the start of our transition, of spending the Christmas holidays in Boston and getting used to the idea of our return.

By January, this was going to be about farewells, and packing, and reflecting on what we would miss. Oh, and checking things off our Amsterdam Bucket List.

Come February, I could have written about unpacking, readjusting to our house and neighborhood, reconnecting with friends, and rediscovering Boston.

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First time at the Massachusetts State House

March would have brought some variety and excitement. In the middle of our job searches, we took a vacation from this “vacation” and made a quick trip to London and Amsterdam.

And here it is, suddenly, unbelievably, April, and I haven’t told you about any of those things, really.

In the throes of so much change, thinking about this transition–to say nothing of writing about it–has felt like a luxury. Or maybe it’s just hard to reflect on something while you’re still in it. I’ll just say that there is much that is good about being back in Boston. But there is also much I miss about Amsterdam and the life we built there. To borrow a metaphor, I’m in the hallway. We closed one door behind us (for now), and the next door hasn’t opened yet. So I’m hanging out in the hallway, looking for the door, turning knobs, and trying not to let the search distract me from whatever fun and beauty might be lurking in this liminal space.

Time goes by…

I’m sitting on the couch, looking out on a foreboding, foggy horizon and listening to the wind swirl around our building.  It’s officially winter, the gloomy grey season in Amsterdam, and when you’re in it, it’s hard to call to mind any memories of sun and warmth. But, in my long absence from this blog, there have of course been some adventures, and some lovely moments in the sun. So let’s get caught up. And maybe in the retelling, I’ll recover the feeling of those lazy autumn days.

First stop: Munich, October

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Dressed for strolling, shopping, and sightseeing. Like normal people.

 

If someone tells you they’re going to Munich in October (or, for that matter, September), you can be confident it’s for one reason: Oktoberfest. This year, we made good on a long-standing promise to a friend and joined the six million others who attend the Wiesn every year. Oktoberfest is like no other event I have ever seen. First of all, everything about it is huge. I was totally unprepared for the size of the  Theresienwiese fairgrounds, the size of the tents, and the size of the beers. During the day, there are families enjoying the rides and food, but as the day goes on, the action picks up in the tents.  They call them “tents” but they are enormous buildings with bandstands, and benches and tables for thousands of people.

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Welcome to the tent.

For most of the night, the crowd is up on the benches, dancing and singing and drinking liter after liter of beer. And, as you may have noted in the photo above, there is a dress code for Oktoberfest. We’re always up for an authentic experience, so we dutifully bought and wore our lederhosen and dirndl. Leaving the hotel, I felt completely ridiculous. But honestly, once we were at the Wiesn, we blended right in. You’d stand out more if you weren’t dressed in some variation of the traditional trachten. My husband found his lederhosen pretty comfortable; I can’t really say the same for my dirndl.

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Dressed for Oktoberfest!

On the Saturday night we attended – the last weekend of Oktoberfest – the festival was incredibly crowded and entrance to the tents was being tightly managed. We eventually found a spot at a table outside, with a couple of German women who were enjoying a girls night out. We were later joined by two Italians in their 60s and a group of Argentinian agronomy students in their early 20s. The table became a mash-up conversation of German, English, Spanish, and a bit of Portuguese. We didn’t always understand each other, but the beer and the atmosphere made for a fun night.

 

Oktoberfest has become a destination for tourists, and especially for groups of young people looking to drink to excess while wearing leather shorts. But it still retains some authenticity, especially during the day, when it’s obvious that the Wiesn is a family event and a celebration of the Bavarian culture and heritage.

I’m glad I went. I don’t think I ever need to go back. But if I do, at least I’ve got the outfit.

 

 

 

 

This is my hometown

I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but at some moment in my adult life, I stopped saying that I was from New York. Technically, I am a New Yorker. I grew up there – specifically, on Long Island – but then I moved to Boston to go to college, and stayed for a long time. When I traveled, if I was asked where I was from, I would say Boston. Through years, jobs, networks, marriage, home ownership, and friendships, Boston had become home.

But New York is, well, New York. And while I don’t always claim it as “home”, I admit to the occasional flash of pride or identification when faced with some of New York’s better-known traits: tell-it-like-it-is honesty, seen-it-all-before worldliness, or don’t-get-me-started frustration. New Yorkers are fun and surprising and resilient as hell. They are the descendants – or at least the inheritors – of the original Dutch settlers of Manhattan: the adventurous pirates and practical merchants who brought trade, religious freedom, and representative government to the “New World”.

It was with all this in mind that I returned to New York for a solo vacation. I spent a little more than a week between Long Island and New York City, catching up with family and friends, and rediscovering spots I used to know. I was explaining to a friend one evening that whenever I’m on Long Island, I have a sense of what I call my “ghost life”…a life I could have had, had I chosen to stay there.  In a favorite poem of mine, Thomas Transtromer writes, “Without really knowing, we divine; our life has a sister ship, following quite another route”. My sister ship may well be sailing somewhere in the Long Island Sound, but (happily), that is not the ship I am on.

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Central Park. (Not a “hidden gem”, I know.)

While I could never live on Long Island, it can be a great place to visit. Manhattan, too, offers so much to the visitor that it’s hard to know where to start. I’m always thankful for my guides: friends who have lived in NYC for years and have built up a stable of favorite places and neighborhood gems that I’d never find on my own.

There were two big “events” around which my vacation was centered. At the end of the week, I had a cousin’s wedding – the first in many years. I’m one of twenty grandchildren on my father’s side (good Irish-American Catholics), and when the whole family is together, it is something to see. Growing up, I was a shy child and my family overwhelmed me; they were loud, argumentative, overly affectionate, physically imposing (very tall), and there were just so damn many of them. As an adult, though, I’ve come to love my big, crazy family. And if nothing else, we are really, really good at weddings. It was great to see my cousins and get caught up on their lives.

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My cousins, aunts, and uncles. Yeah, there’s a lot of us.

Mostly, though, we danced, following the example we inherited from our parents and all those family parties at the Knights of Columbus Hall, where the grown-ups did the Stroll and the Mashed Potato while we kids goofed around at the edges of the dance floor or hung out in the coat room. A DJ and a few cases of beer and a couple of 6-foot subs were all that was needed for a good time.

 

The other big event of my trip was almost like family, at least to me. Several months ago, my friend Ellen had finally gotten us tickets to see Springsteen on Broadway. Ellen is a true fan, and we’ve now seen Bruce together on several occasions and in multiple countries. I’ve written before about my love of Bruce, about which I am unapologetic. I love the man and his music, and it’s been the longest love affair of my life so far…over 30 years.

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A little blurry, but definitely The Boss.

What else is there to say? I can say that the intimacy of a 900-seat theater can’t compare to Bruce’s big stadium shows, even when I was up close to the stage in the Pit. And to be clear, this is not a concert. It is a performance; a beautiful blending of story and song meant to chart a life, a journey. It is funny and touching and poignant and, at moments, heartbreaking. It is, as a good friend and serious Bruce fan noted, a recognition that while we continue this journey together, there is more road behind us than there is in front.  As Bruce himself said, “I hope that along the way, I’ve provided you with some measure of joy”.  No amount of applause could convey just how much joy this man and his music have given me. And alongside the joy, in equal measure, there’s been comfort, solace, energy, retreat, nostalgia, longing, hope, and celebration. So thanks, Bruce, for a great night at the theater and for a life-long journey that continues on, as long as you’re here, and as long as we’re here.

See you further on up the road.

 

 

The meaning of a day

Well friends, here we are again. Like it or not, ready or not, this day rolls around. Another August, another anniversary. Today it is four years since my mom died, and, as in years past, I don’t really know what to do or how to mark the day. My family and some of my mom’s friends in New York have already gathered at church for a memorial mass and breakfast, an annual tradition they have created. My dad and my brother will go to the cemetery, a place I have only been once since my mother’s death.

imageAs the years pass, I find it harder to know what I should do, or even what I want to do. On the first anniversary, I took the day off and spent it on my own, wandering around the city, reading in the Vondelpark, sitting in the sun, and finally sharing the thoughts that had been rattling around my head for the previous year. In the years since, I’ve been wondering more and more about the meaning of this day. Should the day that my mom died be given any more importance than any of the days she lived? She’s more present to me on her birthday, on my own birthday, and on any number of ordinary days that I miss her, than she is today, the anniversary of the start of her absence.

One thought I’ve had consistently over the past several years is how much she’s had to miss. There are so many things that I know she would have enjoyed. Our lives go on – as they must – and a lot has happened in four years. I think about my sister’s children and how much Mom would like seeing her first granddaughter rowing with her high school team. She’d appreciate that her first grandson has become a voracious reader, and that her second granddaughter has blossomed into an academic powerhouse. She’d love helping them through their awkward but thoughtful teen years, and watching them grow into young adults.

My brother’s kids are younger, but they’re at or near the same age as the students that my mom taught for decades. Their energy and goofiness – and the youngest’s startling resemblance to my brother – would have tickled her. Even the little things, like a (widely-panned) movie adaptation of one of her favorite books; she’s had to miss that, too.

There have been less-than-wonderful moments, also a part of life. Disappointments, challenges, the deaths of neighbors and friends. These are moments when my mother’s friendship, compassion, and fierce loyalty would have been a welcome balm. She understood the importance of showing up and being present for others in need.

All day today, a line from Lori McKenna’s beautiful song “Never Die Young” has been running through my head. The song is a deeply personal, one-sided conversation with her mother, who died when McKenna was only seven years old. As an adult and a mother herself, McKenna looks around at the joy-filled activity of her home and young family and notes, “I was the one who I felt so, so sorry for, but you are the one who is gone.”

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As the day winds down on my side of the ocean, I can’t help but think that the best way to honor the death of someone you love is to just keep living as fully as possible. To be present and alert to the people around you. To give of yourself, your time, your energy. To make the most of wherever you are, and whatever you have. We’re still here, even though that often seems unfair or impossible, and our debt to those we love but no longer see is to witness and participate and enjoy this life as much as we can, for as long as we’re given.

I love you, Mom, and I miss you still. Everyday.

Driving around (and around, and around…) Portugal

Portugal may be best known for its fado music, or its deliciously salty bacalhau, or perhaps for the above-average futbol players that it turns out on a regular basis. On a recent long weekend visit to this lovely country, I discovered another defining trait: roundabouts.

We don’t normally drive much on our travels around Europe; we prefer to stay in the city center and use public transportation. This time around, we wanted to see several inland villages and castles, so a car was the best way to go. Since I am the proud holder of an international driver’s license, I was the designated driver. (An aside: has anyone ever been asked to produce this document for anything? A rental car agency, a law enforcement officer, anything? Is an international driver’s license – valid for only six months – even necessary?) Once we were off the highway, we would encounter a roundabout every 800 meters or so. Some had only two or three exits and could have made do with an intersection. In Lisbon, I had to navigate two concentric roundabouts – an inner and an outer rotary, both with multiple exits. I’ll admit that was not my best bit of driving, but I managed. At least twice, I took the roundabout literally, and just kept driving in circles while my co-pilot did some on-the-fly navigation.

There was another unusual feature of this trip: my dear husband planned almost everything. In conversation with other couples, I have found that the responsibilities for planning a trip fall to one person or the other. In our relationship, I’m almost always the planner. In my husband’s mind, if we have a flight and a hotel, a trip is planned. In my mind, we need a rough idea of the transit system, knowledge of some of the major sites, and a dinner reservation for Saturday night. This time, however, he had places he wanted to visit and had mapped out our route for our four days. I got behind the wheel and went where he and the GPS told me.

Our first stop was the Batalha Monastery, which was breathtaking. The construction began in the late 1300s (!) and the architecture reflects the

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The unfinished chapel at the Batalha Monastery

changing styles used over the 150-year construction period. A portion of the church remains unfinished, with the walls opening up to welcome the sky and the weather and the local birds. The Monastery is also the home of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War; the tomb is watched over by guards and by the battered remains of Christ of the Trenches, a statue of Jesus that Portuguese soldiers carried into battle in Flanders. It was a somber and impressive memorial to the losses that Portugal suffered during the Great War.

We drove on to Coimbra, home of the oldest university in Portugal. We enjoyed a great meal at a local restaurant, and discovered that the owner spent more than 15 years living the Netherlands. We also enjoyed the Portuguese price point: a bottle of wine, two entrees, a shared starter and dessert only cost 42 Euro…a big difference from an average night out in Amsterdam. At the recommendation of our hotel concierge (who was also our bartender, although he preferred “mixologist”) we made time in the morning to visit the university. The student prison is no longer in use, but many of the buildings, including the former palace, are still used for formal university ceremonies.

From there, we went to Fatima, a Catholic pilgrimage site where the Virgin Mary appeared to three children in 1917. (For the non-Catholics or the public school kids, you can get up to speed here.)  In spite of my many years of Catholic education, I know Fatima best from the annual Easter airing of the 1952 film The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. Every Easter Sunday of my childhood, we’d visit family friends before we went to my grandparent’s house. Every year, we’d arrive at their home near the end of the movie, just in time for the scene when Mary appears in a great ball of light, causing the residents of Fatima to panic and assume that the sun was falling.

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The Basilica at Fatima

Fatima today includes a basilica, an enormous plaza, and a series of chapels where masses are held almost non-stop. There were also some odd elements, including beeswax candles in the shape of different organs or body parts. These were sold as offerings; you could purchase the candle that matched whatever illness you had, and then cast the candle (prayerfully) into a large fire. We also witnessed a number of women making the journey from the far end of the plaza to the Visitation Chapel, following a white marble path that they traversed on their knees. A penance of some kind, I assume, but it’s not my particular brand of Christianity. I don’t think that God is terribly interested in intentional suffering.

We moved on to the walled city of Obidos, not knowing that our interactions with the Virgin Mary were not quite behind us. As we sat in a plaza enjoying an afternoon drink,

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Obidos prepares for the procession of Mary

we noticed that the locals were busy with flowers and greenery and votive candles, decorating the town. We learned that in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the end of Mary’s visitations in Fatima, a statue of Mary had been traveling around Portugal since 2017. That night it was Obidos’ turn to host Our Lady. Again, processions and statues of saints in glass boxes are not really my thing, but the preparations were lovely. The small town was quiet. Every home and shop put out candles or statues of Mary, and flowers lined the road. A sense of reverence and anticipation settled over everyone as the sun set. Eventually, the procession moved silently through the streets and we went on our way.

In the morning we drove to Lisbon and had a relaxed day that mostly involved sitting in the Praça do Comércio, or wandering the very hilly streets. We dove into Portugal’s lesser-known culinary heritage and had dinner at a Goan restaurant, where we were told (in our case, reminded) that vindaloo is originally a Portuguese dish.

The other unusual feature of this trip was that my husband occasionally busted out his beginner Portuguese, which I found impressive and delightful. He ordered our lunch in Fatima with no hesitation, and while I know it can be stressful for him to speak Portuguese, the waiter didn’t notice a thing, and we got exactly what we ordered. Mission accomplished!

This was our third visit to Portugal. Years ago we spent time in Lisbon and the Azores, and more recently we went to Porto with some friends from the U.S. This time, we saw more of the inland villages and the landscape. On every visit, I’m amazed by the diverse beauty of the country and the relaxed and easy attitude of the people. Many travelers overlook Portugal, and that’s their loss. Each time we go, I discover more reasons to return.

Lovely Lille

When I told people that I was going to Lille, the most common response I received was something along the lines of, “I’ve passed through there a lot, but never stopped.” This penchant for pass throughs made me a bit skeptical about what I’d find in Lille. But IMG_3915I didn’t need to worry; Lille is a charming small city with lively energy and a rich history.

I was traveling with a girlfriend, so compared to my usual trips with my husband, this weekend featured a bit more shopping, a bit more wine, and a (failed) attempt at spa treatments.

Another change was the mode of transport. Since we booked our Lille adventure very last minute, the train was expensive, so we opted to take the bus. This was my first European bus trip, and it was…okay. More comfortable than I expected, but certainly not the fastest way to get around. Also, at our stop in Ghent, a large group of young men in full cycling kit boarded the bus. The fact that they were seated eight or ten rows apart did not stop them from continuing their conversations. Loudly.

Once we arrived in Lille, the weather and the charm of the city erased all memories of the bus ride. Our hotel was formerly a convent hospital. I’m not sure what the sisters would have thought of the soaring glass ceiling and the plush Tiffany-blue leather chairs in the hotel’s bar area, but I enjoyed them.

IMG_3927Over our two and a half days in Lille, we explored the park around the Citadel, browsed used book markets, discovered canal-side restaurants for relaxed lunches, ate some wonderful confections, visited every church and cathedral in town, and joined the throngs in la Grand Place for a beer in the sunshine.  And, after four attempts (yes, FOUR), we finally managed to gain entrance to the Belfry at Town Hall, the tower that was the one thing on my Lille to-do list. (Because you haven’t seen a city until you’ve seen it from above.) Oh, and as an additional bonus for me, I got to do all of those things in French. It’s always great to have the chance to use my French in the real world, and to see how my memory and my classroom language hold up in the face of actual French people. The verdict? Not too bad!

So, if you’re driving through Lille anytime soon, don’t pass through. Stop for a couple of days and enjoy the scenery and the relaxed pace of tourism. Eat some mussels and fries. Sample the great beers from neighboring Belgium. Learn about Lille’s history. While there may not be a lot to see, there’s much to like in Lille.