Sunday, August 6, 2017

My Love Affair

I’ve been meaning to buy a new one, but the old one, split in half with loose pages, does me just fine. I’m not sure how long I’ve had it, so I open to the first page to check the date. “Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus” reads the title page. But, what’s this? My son’s name is written in the top right hand corner and, under his name, “Berkeley Fall 98.” He must have bought it when he arrived to Berkeley as an exchange student.
            My Thesaurus and I are inseparable. It has been my faithful wordsmith throughout my years of crafting Word Prompts for my writing group, blog posts, magazine articles and essays, multiple edits and re-edits of a memoir and a collection of narrative essays. This yellowing, battered treasure has been my salvation in my struggle to extract words from the tangled jungle of my shrinking memory word bank. I say “shrinking” because in a non-English speaking country, a plethora of words fall by the linguistic wayside from lack of exposure and use.
            Logophile: a lover of words. I embrace them, their multiple meanings and uses and sounds. Gleeful gladiolas, riotous revelry. Magnificent metaphors and sly similes, allusions and delusions, hysterical hyperbole and holy hosannas. A scene of beauty, a moment of ecstasy, a spark of understanding – on the wings of words all can be revealed. The incredible silkiness of an owl feather, the trill of a canary, the tingle of a spicy, hot pepper, a watermelon sunset, the heady scent of spring’s first acacia blooms.
            Some ask why I don’t use the Thesaurus online. Habit. And there’s the pleasure of turning its pages, immersing myself its world of words. When I hit a word block, I gently pull it from the bookshelf and fit together its two halves. I turn the pages eagerly, hunting for just the word. I then try out the alternatives until I reach that satisfying aha! moment. Got it. The perfect word for the occasion. Sesquipedalian.

My dear old Thesaurus Rex.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Coco Fifty Years Later

During our recent trip to Costa Rica, I knew I had to return to Playa del Coco. Fifty years earlier, while traveling by land back to California after our two year Peace Corps stint in Colombia, Barbara and I took a local bus to Playa del Coco in northern Costa Rica. It was a small town and we stayed in a very minimal cabin facing the beach. I took two photos while I was there. One of a veranda with a thatched roof and the other of a lone tree on the beach.

            When I learned that this Costa Rica trip would take us near Coco, as the locals call it, I dug around in a box of old photos until coming across those two possible Coco photos. I say ‘possible’ because I hadn’t labeled them.
            So now our group – my son, his girlfriend Laura, his Argentine friend Sebastián, my husband and I and Frida, the rescue dog – piled into the worn pickup truck and bounced the forty minutes into “town”, Playa del Coco, now a rather shabby but bustling tourist destination. Nothing looked familiar to me – until we reached the beach. I looked up and down the curving stretch of white sand, trying to recall the moments all those years ago when I’d stood in that very place. I showed the group my two photos and we set off down the beach to find where I’d snapped the tree-on-beach photo.
“There, those hills bordering the beach look just like these in the photo.”
“You’re right!”
“Isn’t that your tree?”
“Oh, my gosh! It is!”
I ran up to it and wanted to hug it. There was no mistaking it’s broad, deep green leaves and its tilt towards the ocean. It hadn’t grown a lot in fifty years. They snapped several photos of me under my tree. 

I filled with nostalgia for the young woman who’d stood on this spot five decades earlier, never imagining I’d be there again in later life. I was moved by something more that has taken me some time to identify. The place had taken on a special meaning for me. Perhaps it was euphoria or gratitude – not only for the possibility of returning, but also for a deep sense of completeness.
            I still had the other photo to identify and needed to locate someone who’d been here in 1967. Walking along the beachfront, I spotted an elderly ice cream vendor with a friend. Aha!
“Señor, are you from here?”
“Then maybe you can help me. I took this photo here fifty years ago, but I don’t recognize this place.”
“Oh, that was the Playa del Coco Casino. It’s no longer there.”
“Muchas gracias! Would you mind if I took a photo with you to commemorate this fifty years event?”

We posed, smiling, in front of his ice cream cart, Playa del Coco and the Pacific in the background. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Intermittent Friendships

A newspaper journalist reported in her column having visited six countries and boarded ten airplanes in the past few weeks. She made time in her schedule to visit briefly some dear friends, exercising the style of friendship that she has accepted as the only one possible: intermittent friendship. The phrase catches my attention.  It seems to describe many of my friendships as an expat/immigrant. Are these friendships as superficial as the term sounds?

My first two decades in Chile, I only managed to travel to the States every two years to visit my parents and, like the journalist, I got together briefly with a couple of friends.  We had no Internet at that time so contact consisted of Christmas cards with a letter enclosed. Many of my teacher friends at the International school where I taught eventually moved on. I still keep in touch with Kristina although we haven’t seen each other in thirty or more years. What keeps us friends?  Perhaps because we both are readers and writers and have lived the expat life. I cannot say that we continue to be as close we once were, but we did have that spontaneous connect at one time, and now keep in touch commenting on each other’s blogs. If we were to see each other again, I’m certain we’d have plenty to talk about.
Internet has allowed me to reconnect with former classmates from high school and the university. Though I no longer have family in my hometown, I return every year to get together with my dear friends and experience that beloved landscape of my growing years. Those days when we’re catching up at the Coffee Roasters or doing lunch and visiting the De Young Museum in San Francisco feel so complete.  How much I enjoy these friends. How is it that we still call each other “friend”, although we’d been out of touch for long periods of time? I believe it’s because we shared significant periods in our lives: childhood, high school, university. I’ve known my closest, dearest friend and soul sister all my life. Our parents were friends. She knows me better than anyone. Our long phone conversations every week nourish our friendship.
Yearly visits are wonderful and frustrating. I want to spend more time with these friends. On my return flights to Chile I think of them – Judy, Barb, Melodie, Vreni – on that shrinking landscape below and regret that those friendships are intermittent and interrupted and only partially satisfying, leaving me with a sense of loss.
In Chile many of my friends are also expatriates which immediately gives these relationships a unique character. We are from different countries or different States; we didn’t go to school together; we didn’t know each other as children; we are often traveling back “home.” We lead double lives, no matter how long we’ve been here. Our contacts are often intermittent in spite of having known each other for years. How solid are these friendships?

 Being expats is precisely the strong connection that enables us to relate. We’ve had to adjust to a different culture and language. We know what it feels like to leave family and close friends behind. It is even possible to overcome the lack of a common background. I’d never visited Iowa and Wisconsin, but made the trip to spend a week there because my dear friend Ann, who I’ve known for twenty years here in Chile, spends her summers there near family and childhood friends. Our two lives – U.S. childhood and Chile adulthood – came together. I remind her that it’s now her turn to visit my hometown.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Living with Jungle Critters

Kiss. Kiss. Kiss. The strange noise wakes and frightens me. Something has invaded the sleeping area of our large safari tent. A frog? A large beetle? A snake? All kinds of creatures inhabit this Costa Rican jungle. It could be anything. Kiss-kiss-kiss. My husband sleeps peacefully beside me, so it’s not him. I sit up in bed and shine my headlamp over the canvas walls and high ceiling where a large fan revolves. Nothing. But the noise continues. Finally sleep overcomes my fear.

Costa Rica has between 200,000 and 250,000 species of insects. This doesn’t surprise me. At least a third of them must dwell in this forest. As I ascend the trail from our tent, perspiration streaming down my face, the air vibrates with the deafening, incessant buzz of cicadas. Ahead of me two black beetles with yellow stripes scurry under a log. Tiny insects flutter past. I stop to observe a moving trail of green triangles, just the hard-working leaf ants bearing their cargo to their underground nest. Lizards scamper away as I approach. This air, this soil pulsates with activity.

At breakfast in the main tent, I’m taking in the panoramic view of the blue-green water of the Pacific when I hear the kissing noise again.
“Did you hear that?” I say to the others. “That’s what was in our tent last night.”
“It’s a gecko,” says my son, who, along with his girlfriend, is managing this eco-lodge.
What relief. I can live with the tiny salamander-like geckos which creep about on walls and ceilings. They eat insects. So do some birds, like the flycatcher we spot and the colorful squirrel cuckoo which dines on cicadas, wasps and caterpillars. The white-nosed coati that passed by our tent was no doubt foraging for tasty beetles and spiders. Insects are not even safe at night. Sitting at a small bar lit by a string of tiny lights along its base, we discover a nocturnal visitor, a large warty toad whom we name Kermit, or Rana René, as  they say in Costa Rica. I watch his tongue flick out in a flash to devour bugs drawn to the light. He makes quick work of a very large grasshopper. Later we meet several of Kermit’s cousins further along the walkway.
Other jungle inhabitants prefer hanging out in trees, like the howling monkeys pigging out on the mangoes dangling over our heads. The ceibo trees are in full brilliant bloom, their red flowers attracting a multitude of yellow butterflies.
We descend from our hilltop lodgings to an uninhabited white beach. Well, not exactly uninhabited. Hermit crabs hide in tiny shells while the larger ghost crabs speed to their burrows or into the sea as I approach. I follow uniquely patterned prints in the sand to depressions covering the eggs deposited the night before by two sea turtles. How many will survive? Then I notice wiggly prints in the sand. “A snake!” I call to the others. It’s a yellow-bellied sea snake struggling to return to the water.
My son points out a drama unfolding in the shallows – hundreds of tiny fish fleeing over the surface in leaps and bounds to escape a large dark shadow visible just behind them. Fish face danger from overhead as well, where pelicans glide and frigate birds soar watching for a catch.
The word to describe this landscape is intense. Intense heat. Intense rains. Flamboyant oranges, yellows and vibrant greens. Countless varieties of unique species, all working members of a complex, wondrous living network.  I know that I have only glimpsed an infinitesimal part of this jungle world.

Sunday, May 7, 2017


My garden reveals its own names for the seasons. Today it tells me that fall is the time when:
the hummingbirds return to town after their summer get-away.
chrysanthemums perfume the air with their pungent scent.
bougainvillaea petals among the chrysanthemums

the leaves on the snowball bush blush in tones of burgundy.
yellowing leaves of the apricot tree flutter to the ground.
camellia branches bear swelling buds, pregnant with promise
leaves on the tomato plants recoil from the cold.
turtle doves and chincoles discover something of great interest in the dry weeds where a lawn once grew
the scent of wet, dry leaves evokes childhood memories
a hungry thrush feeds on the red berries of the nandina doméstica
sequoia branches sway in greeting to the wily wind

and sister sun follows a more northern path
street sweeper with Chilean rake

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Egg Lady

“Remember going out to Mrs. Bianchi’s?"
Paula laughs. “Yes! The egg lady!”
Our long distance, weekly phone calls replenish our spirits.
Together we reminisce driving with our moms out to the northern California hamlet of Woodacre, a primarily Italian community of houses, farms, a church and a general store embraced by rolling hills. We’d turn off the main road to a country lane and pull up in front of white wooden house set behind a fence. There we’d buy fresh country eggs. Ours were not big families, yet our mothers felt it was worth the effort to make the trip. It wasn’t far, but it was out in the country.
            “My mother always gave me soft boiled eggs for breakfast.” I tell Paula. “I hated that runny gelatinous slime. It would stand before me turning cold as I tried to gather up the courage to eat it.”
“Me,too! Awful! Just couldn’t get them down and would barf all over my St. Anselm’s school uniform!”
“Those early soft-boiled ruined me for eggs for life!” We howl with laughter at this yet another convergence in our childhood memories.
I haven’t changed my opinion over the years. Scrambled and egg salad I’ll accept. Forget poached, fried or eggs Benedict. I now justify my egg phobia pointing to the mass egg production process, herding thousands of hens into wire cages with no elbow room and just food and water. Only free-range go into my shopping cart.
            I can no longer picture Mrs. Bianchi, but I do remember the trip. What a treat sharing those memories with Paula, recollections only she and I, as lifelong friends, can appreciate. Our phone conversations ripple with laughter:
“Remember the Russian Dance in ballet class with those flowered headdresses and streamers we’d wear?”I ask.
“Yes! Yes!”
“Didn’t your mother have an old grey Plymouth?”
“Yeah. It was a 1939 coupe, dark grey, had running boards (remember those?) and a rumble seat.”

“Remember our buckeye apple fight with those mean kids in your neighborhood? I’d walk alone over to your house over hill and dale. No roads or subdivisions between my house and yours.”
“I know.”
“What was the name of that crazy, untrainable dog you had?”
“That’s right! Now that Easter is coming up, I think of the photo of us decked in our Easter dresses and hats sitting in our front garden.” I say.
“And the gin fizzes that our parents drank Easter morning.”
            “At your house.”
“No, it was your house!”
“Sometimes we’d go to the Hamilton House in Fairfax for Easter brunch.”
“I remember that place, right across the road from where you and I go every year for dinner.”
Our restaurant.”
“Let’s have a long distance toast on Easter.”
“Yes, let’s. Cheers.”
“Love you.”

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Fall Explorations

 These golden-brown fall days spark nostalgia. The scent of wet leaves underfoot and a wood fire. A campfire. Bright crackling flames in a dome of darkness. Roasting marshmallows and singing old Girl Scout ditties: Down yonder green valley where streamlets meander...
Fall is bright days punctuated by an occasional shadowy day, like today. I pull on my Berkeley sweatshirt and take off for a stroll. I am grateful for the growing coolness after the harsh summer heat and savor the soughing of the paper-dry leaves waving to the breezes, tapping like strings of wooden beads.

Five months without respite from this city stirs in me a need for a distant, uninterrupted horizon stretching out before me. Forest and ferns, paths through moist soil, gurgling streams, fresh cool air filling my lungs. While I wait for an escape to the countryside, I take refuge in a new book, Robert Moor’s On Trails: An Exploration. Just what I need. The author, while hiking the Appalachian Trail, begins to ‘ponder the meaning of this endless scrawl.’ He wonders who created the trail and why does it exist. Some trails are very old, often starting as animal paths. Usually, no one person made the trail; it just emerged satisfying a need
            I wish I’d read this before treading the many paths I’ve covered over the years. Trails invite me to appreciate and communicate with the natural world, maybe spotting a kingfisher, a frog, a coyote, or a delicate forest orchid. But did I stop to wonder how this trail emerged or who were the first to walk it? Native peoples? Deer? Rabbits? Wild boar? I think we humans share most trails with animals. Though smaller animals – skunks, rabbits, badgers – have an advantage over us, carving narrow paths through thickets and prickly grasses where we just do not comfortably fit.

Chilean kingfisher

            Although a sporadic hiker, I possess a deep treasury of trail memories which bring me great pleasure. In case my memory fails, I can turn to my travel journals that include descriptions of the trails I’ve known. Yet, what gives me the most joy is recalling sharp visual memories of those landscapes – whether they be Patagonian glacial moraines or slopes of California’s Sierra Nevada – which I can call up on a moment’s notice.
Mr. Moor explores the deeper meanings of paths: the roads we choose to follow in life. Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken comes to mind. Many writers and philosophers have pondered these meanings: Emerson, Wendell Berry, Lord Byron, Bruce Chatwin in Songlines. Rebecca Solnit devotes an entire book to exploring people’s meanderings in Wanderlust: A History of Walking.

I don’t know which will be my next trail, but I do know I’ll be pondering its origins. Will I unknowingly leave a subtle sign here marking my passing? A bent fern frond? A footprint?  Will I be changed by having taken this path? Will it have made all the difference?