Looking back on Sicily

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The view from Erice’s medieval fortress.

It’s been about a month since our long weekend trip to Sicily. I’ve started to post about it a few times, never with much enthusiasm. We didn’t love Sicily, to be honest, and it’s been hard to write about it without feeling like I’m being too hard on it, somehow. It’s not as if anything went wrong. We survived our first experience of renting a car (driving in Italy is serious business), had nice weather and some good meals. From Palermo, we drove to Trapani and made our way to Erice, where we toured a medieval fortress and savored the views earned by the sometimes-harrowing route up the mountain.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve been spoiled by the travel experiences we’ve had since we’ve been in Amsterdam. We’ve eaten meals in Tuscany that we’re still talking about two years later, had conversations with 7th-generation winemakers in the Beaujolais region of France, and made friends in Berlin over beer and curry wurst. So when we travel, the bar is a bit high…we’re expecting a magical moment or two, or a great story to look back on.

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The Cathedral in Palermo

 

On the surface, Sicily didn’t provide those moments. Everything was…fine. But “fine”  doesn’t, at first glance, make for much to write about. In the weeks since our trip, I’ve been thinking more about our experience, trying to be more balanced about my impressions. But the truth is that not every place is going to “wow” you, right? Maybe due to weather or language or food or expectations, you connect with some places more than others. It’s not entirely fair, but that’s the reality of travel. I shouldn’t be too hard on Sicily, or on myself.

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Trapani’s coastline

Looking back, we did, actually, have one memorable moment. (Most of the other good memories involve cannoli.) Mid-February is not high season for tourists in Erice, and at times we seemed to have the little town to ourselves. Walking down a side street, we stopped and stood still for a moment and just listened.  Complete silence. Not a dog barking, or a car horn, or a human voice. Just silence, and a little wind. Magic.

 

 

The death of a poet doesn’t make headlines.

Earlier this month, scrolling through my Instagram feed, I noticed that a friend who normally posts her fantastic comics and sketches had instead shared a photo of a page of poetry. She commented that one of her favorite poets had died: Thomas Lux. He was also one of my favorites; this same friend had introduced me to his work. (We also share a love of Adrienne Rich, who we had the privilege of meeting at a lecture and book signing at MIT years ago. I’d like to say that we handled ourselves on that occasion with grace and gravitas, but we did not. We were both a little star-struck.)

As I searched online for more details about Thomas Lux’s passing, I discovered he had died almost 10 days earlier, on February 5th. How had I not known about this? Why didn’t I read about it somewhere? I answered my own question, surprising myself: the death of a poet doesn’t make headlines in today’s America.

As it turns out, this is not literally true in the case of Thomas Lux. The New York Times published his obituary (17 days after his death), and The Atlantic has a lovely memorial, complete with an audio recording of the poem “Virgule”. And maybe I’m being too cynical, as I’m sure that significant American poets – Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Adrienne Rich, to name just a few – received due recognition and praise at their passing.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that precisely at a time when poetry should mean more – when we need its honesty and insight and surprise like never before – it (and those who write it) are being overlooked or ignored. I hear the truth in what Audre Lord said: “…poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.”

So I invite you, in memory of an American poet, to take a few minutes to read the poetry of Thomas Lux. There’s Refrigerator, 1957, with a beautiful gut-punch of an ending that took my breath away the first time I read it. Or Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy, which is about exactly that. Or The Voice You Hear When You Read Silently, which will give a new perspective on something you do all the time – something you’re doing right now.

Next time I’ll catch you up on life in Amsterdam, our new apartment, and our recent travels, but for now, some poetry is necessary.

What we’ve been up to…

January is normally a slow, lazy month for us. The short days are grey and uninspiring, and our instinct is to cozy up in our apartment, watch too much television, and (in the evenings) work our way through the international liquor collection we built up from last year’s travels.

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Mid-day, mid-January, from the north side of the IJ River

We did manage to drag ourselves out a few times last month, twice to the annual Amsterdam Light Festival. This is one of my favorite local events. Last year we did the walking route and this year we managed to also do the boat route.

Having experienced both, I have to admit I like the walking route better, in spite of the cold. You go at your own pace, get closer to the art, and have the chance to stop along the way to warm up with some gluhwein. What could be better?

The glass-topped boat tours are a staple of the Amsterdam tourist scene, and we’ve done enough of them to last us a lifetime. When friends come to visit and the weather is good, we opt instead for the Friendship cruises, which offer smaller, open-air boat and on-board cocktails.

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BUT, for the Light Festival we made an exception and boarded our evening cruise with 50-some tourists and locals. We put on the headphones and listened to the guide, and even laughed at some of the jokes made by our “Captain”. Many of the installations I had already seen, at least from a canal-side view. One of the best things about the Light Festival is the first day or two, when the art work is being installed but I don’t know exactly what or where they are. I’ll be on my bike and turn a corner and suddenly there’s a giant bunch of tulips in the canal, changing color and lighting up the water.

img_2819As for the boat cruise, it was nice to see the light installations from the water, as several are meant to be seen, but I think we could have lived without the tourists taking selfies out every window, and the humid, greenhouse-like environment of a glass boat in January. Lesson learned.

We’ve not been great about using our Museumkaarts this year, so in an effort to remedy that, we headed to the Nieuwe Kerk last weekend to see an exhibit about Marilyn Monroe, who would have been 90 years old this year. Neither of us are big fans of Ms. Monroe; we both admitted that we’ve never seen one of her movies from start to finish.

The exhibit was an odd one. I’ve seen a few other exhibits in the Nieuwe Kerk and it’s not my favorite setting. The “new” church was built in the 15th century and it is cold and cavernous. There were costumes from Monroe’s films – the famous dress from the “The Seven Year Itch” making its Netherlands debut – and many of her personal items, including some that I found strange to have kept for so long. (An eyeliner pencil from 1956?)

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The juxtaposition of this sombre space with the sex appeal of Marilyn Monroe didn’t quite work for me. The exhibit seemed to whitewash her difficulties with substance abuse and mental health issues. Still, it was interesting to learn more about her early life and about the many ways she tried to control her own career and image – not an easy thing for a woman of that time to do, especially in Hollywood.

The other thing we’ve been up to is finding a new apartment! Just after we returned from our Christmas holidays, the owners of our current rental confirmed that they planned to sell the apartment this year. So…on the move again! The good news is that we’ve become experts in the Amsterdam expat rental market, and were able to find a new place in about a week. We have already gotten the keys and will be moving over the next few weeks. The new place does have a guest room, of course, and visitors are welcome!

The end of the month brought the launch of my company’s new website, a project I was working on for a long time (you can check it out at http://www.idafoundation.org), and the booking of our first weekend getaway in 2017: Sicily!

As the days get longer, we’ll be settling in to our new neighborhood and looking forward to the brightening spring that can’t be far off…

 

2017

On more than one occasion during my childhood, my mother managed to squash her children’s potential birthday meltdown by reminding us that, “If you cry on your birthday, you’ll cry all year long”.

I never really believed her, but I seem to have internalized the idea just the same. Only I apply it to New Year’s Day. I’m not one for New Year’s Eve parties or resolutions or grand plans for the year ahead. But I do think it’s important for the year to be well-begun, and I’ve long believed that January 1st can set the tone for what is to come.

If I continue to believe that, then 2017 is not looking promising. It’s 3:40pm as I write this and I’ve been in bed most of the day. Any plans for New Year’s Day have been thwarted by a continuing cold. The “12 days of Christmas” we spent in the U.S. were not filled with lords a leaping or ladies dancing, but rather with boxes of Kleenex and endless doses of NyQuil. It was not how I wanted to spend our limited time with family and friends. Thankfully, I managed to keep most of our appointments and dinner dates, but I didn’t feel fully present for some of them, lost in a haze of medicine or struggling from a lack of sleep.

And now we’re back in Amsterdam, another year having gone by. In spite of all the public loss and the political disappointment, 2016 was a good year for us personally. We traveled a lot, hosted visiting family, made new friends and deepened other relationships.

If I take a glass-half-full approach, maybe the year is not off to such a bad start. After all, I’m well-rested, I finished a book, spent time with my husband, and finally posted something here. There are still a few hours in the day to email old friends, work on my French studies, and make a nice meal. Not a terrible way to begin a new year, right?

If nothing else, 2017 will be a year of uncertainty. If you’re anything like me, you may be wondering what we can do to be a force of reason and goodness in an uncertain world. As I do every year, I turn to my favorite New Year’s poem and its reminder that we need to “stay alert, reach out, speak when not spoken to…”. Training starts today. Happy 2017.

New Year’s Resolution
Philip Appleman
Well, I did it again, bringing in
that infant Purity across the land,
welcoming Innocence with gin
in New York, waiting up
to help Chicago,
Denver, L.A., Fairbanks, Honolulu–and now
the high school bands are alienating Dallas
and girls in gold and tangerine
have lost touch with Pasadena,
and young men with biceps and missing teeth
are dreaming of personal fouls,
and it’s all beginning again, just like
those other Januaries in
instant replay …
But I’ve had enough
of turning to look back, the old
post-morteming of defeat:
people I loved but didn’t touch,
friends I haven’t seen for years,
strangers who smiled but didn’t speak–failures,
failures. No,
I refuse to leave it at that–because
somewhere, off camera,
January is coming like Venus
up from the murk of December, re-
virginized, as innocent
of loss as any dawn. Resolved: this year
I’m going to break my losing streak,
I’m going to stay alert, reach out,
speak when not spoken to,
read the minds of people in the streets,
I’m going to practice every day,
stay in training and be moderate
in all things.
All things but love.

The Capital of Christmas

Last December, just before heading back to the US for the holidays, we took a quick weekend trip to Paris. Somehow we had spent the whole year in Amsterdam without ever jumping on the Thalys, and I was determined that we would get to France before 2015 ended. It was unseasonably warm, making what is already a great strolling city even more irresistible. We told ourselves we were going for the Christmas market, but to be honest, the setup along the Champs Elysee was disappointing: tacky, touristy, over-lit stalls hawking cheap ornaments and barbe a papa. We enjoyed Paris (because, after all, it’s Paris), but we didn’t feel like we had the traditional European Christmas experience we were looking for.

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Well, we more than made up for that error this year, when we chose to go to Strasbourg, the “Capital of Christmas”.  Strasbourg claims the oldest Christmas market in Europe – theirs began, they say, in 1570. I don’t know what it was like back then, but today it is a well-organized event that consumes Strasbourg’s Grande Ile, bringing in about 2 million visitors over a 4-week period. And, as we were told by the charming 4th generation wine maker we met, 1 million of those visitors will be carrying a cup of gluhwein.

imageGluhwein is a mulled and spiced wine, which we first encountered here in Amsterdam last winter. On a cold winter afternoon or evening, it is just what you want to warm you up. The selling of gluhwein in Strasbourg is so organized that there are standardized plastic cups used by every vendor. You pay a 1 euro deposit for the first one, and then every time you buy another glass, you swap your old cup for a new one. The used cups are picked up every night, washed and redistributed the next day.

We learned this and lots of other fun facts during our almost-2-hour adventure with Food and City Tours. We’ve gotten a bit hooked on food tours, and they’ve become our preferred way to get to know a city. Our culinary tour of the Christmas market was led by Virginie, who was friendly and charming and very knowledgeable. At 4pm on a Saturday, the market is wall-to-wall people, and Virginie did a great job navigating our group of 10 through the very crowded lanes. We enjoyed gingerbread, kuglehopf cake, butter cookies, and, of course, gluhwein (this time, made with white wine). Virginie introduced us to the merchants, bakers, and winemakers, and shared some of their history and expertise. This kind of personal interaction is usually a highlight of any food tour. Why travel if not to meet and talk with other people?

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As beautiful and festive as the city is, the crowds can be overwhelming.  We enjoyed Strasbourg the most when we wandered away from the crush and found some quiet corners. My favorite discovery was the Church of St. Pierre le Jeune. Compared to the long entrance line and marked visitor paths at the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, this church was peaceful and let us wander at our own pace.

The Cathedrale, of course, has its own beauty, especially the exterior.  We learned that there are building ordinances in Strasbourg to limit the height of any new buildings; nothing can be taller than the Cathedrale. Its spire can be seen from any point in the city and from miles away.

We left Strasbourg with the expected souvenirs: Christmas ornaments, decorations, cookies, and gingerbread. We also had a few surprises sneak into our bags: new French books for me (hooray for FNAC!) and a Portuguese chorizo. Portugal was the featured guest country at this year’s Christmas market, and we took advantage of this little piece of Portugal in the middle of France. (The chorizo caused some trouble at airport security, but the French know how to deal with a saucisson.)

I left Strasbourg fully in the Christmas spirit – the city pulls out all the stops, so it would have felt ungracious not to go along. It takes its name and its primacy seriously: the Capital of Christmas does not disappoint. Go, enjoy, eat and drink, shop and stroll, and soak up Christmas in all its wonder.

 

We get cookin’ in Madrid

Is it fair to let the weather color your impression of a city? We’re just back from our three day getaway in Madrid, and we had almost non-stop rain. We were prepared with good rain gear – we DO live in Amsterdam, after all – but it definitely dampened our spirits and our desire to explore the city in our usual, wandering, “let’s see where this street takes us” way.

Still, we couldn’t spend the whole weekend in the hotel. Thankfully Madrid has plenty of charming corner cafes where you can stop in for a plate of jamon and a glass of wine. Or a cup of thick hot chocolate and some churros, when “sweet” wins out over “savory”. And while it’s probably a terrible thing to admit, we didn’t go to the Prado Museum, or any art museum. What did we do, other than eat churros?

We did a quick tour through the Palacio Real, and saw the table where King Juan Carlos I signed his abdication papers, elevating his son, the current King Felipe VI, to head of state.

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Take the stairs at the Palacio de Cibeles

We visited the gorgeous Palacio de Cibeles, a former post office, now a cultural center with art exhibits and public reading spaces. (Tip: skip the elevator and take the elaborately tiled winding stairs.) We escaped the rain for a few hours by ducking in to the Naval Museum, where we saw the Mappa Mundi, a beautifully drawn map of the known world, created in 1500. Since most of the museum’s interpretive information was in Spanish, we missed out on some of the juicier details, especially about the map’s creator and his tragic end.  And even though it kept on raining, we took a slightly muddy stroll around Retiro Park and visited the Palacio de Cristal.

(An aside: For reasons I cannot explain, the Park was overrun by Mormon missionaries. We saw no fewer than 4 pair of them, and I swore to talk to the next team of Elders we encountered, mostly to find out why there were so many of them. Both in the Park, specifically, and in Madrid, more generally. And why they didn’t seem to speak any Spanish. Unfortunately, no more crossed our path and I’m left to live with more unanswered Mormon questions. So it goes.)

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You can’t see the Mormons but trust me, they’re there…

But the highlight of the trip came near the very end, on Saturday evening. In the past year or so, we’ve started looking for food tours when we travel. Food tours are a great way to find some hidden gems, learn about a city’s history and gastronomic culture, and get recommendations from a local guide. Our beer and currywurst tour in Berlin was great, and introduced us not only to the wonders of currywurst, but to some lovely new people. We were looking for another tour in Madrid when my dear husband suggested, instead, a cooking class.

If you know me, you’ll know I’m not much of a cook. I am a baker. Give me recipes and measuring cups and clear instructions and I’ll give you a delicious chocolate cake or the best florentine cookies you’ve ever had. But cooking? Too much approximation. A “pinch” of this? “Season to taste”? Whose taste? Cut the onion how?

But vacations are opportunities for adventure, right? And so we found ourselves in a bright, well-equipped kitchen with one other couple, turning out 5 traditional Spanish tapas dishes. (Four are below; not pictured: the crema catalan for dessert. Oh, and the sangria.) The instructions were clear, the recipes were relatively simple (even for me!), and everything was delicious. Especially the tortilla espanola, which is NOTHING like what most Americans think of when they hear “tortilla”. We left with full bellies, a copy of all of the recipes, and the seed of an idea for a Spanish-themed party.

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We made this! (Ok, well, half of it.)

Did we give Madrid a fair shake? Or did we let the rain and wind and cold get to us, so we failed to see the best of the city? Is it like the stranger you meet who could have been your soul mate, if not for the fact that you met at the podiatrist’s office, or at a funeral? Circumstances matter, environment matters – there’s no escaping that. So we gave Madrid our best, under the circumstances, and we’ll extend some generosity to Madrid, knowing that she wasn’t at her best. Maybe we’ll go back, maybe we’ll move on to another part of Spain, in the spring, when we’re sure the sun will be shining. Until then, we’ll be making sangria and cookin’ up some tapas.

No turkey, but tapas

There’s no Dutch equivalent of our American Thanksgiving, but that’s not going to stop us from celebrating with a long weekend getaway. We’re off to Madrid, so our Thanksgiving dinner will include patatas bravas instead of mashed potatoes. It won’t be a traditional meal, but living abroad has taught me that the trappings of a holiday matter a whole lot less than the person with whom you share the holiday. This year, as always, I’m grateful for my generous, patient, and loving husband, who has made this adventure abroad possible. (And who will have his patience tested by the horrible Spanish I am about to unleash on the good people of Madrid.)

Many believe that gratitude is something that can be taught, or cultivated. I don’t think it is a natural state for most of us. And in difficult or stressful times, it can seem that we have little for which to be grateful.

I’ve written many times (too many?) here about David Whyte’s remarkable book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. I return to it over and over and always find just what I need, or just what I didn’t know I needed. Here he is on gratitude:

Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously, part of something, rather than nothing.

It isn’t about cataloguing a list of what we’re thankful for – though that never hurts – but about paying attention and being alert to the wonder in the simplest acts of our lives.

Thankfulness finds its full measure in generosity of presence, both through participation and witness. We sit at the table as part of every other person’s world while making our own world without will or effort, this is what is extraordinary and gifted, this is the essence of gratefulness, seeing to the heart of privilege. Thanksgiving happens when our sense of presence meets all other presences. Being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention.

Wherever you are on Thanksgiving, whether you’re celebrating or not (or wishing you were) I hope you’ll join me in an effort to pay attention, and to cultivate a sense of presence. Although my seat at the table is far away from family and friends, I am grateful that we are all part of each others’ world.