Saturday, December 17, 2016

Kitchen Blizzard


Clic. Clic. Clic. My sandals sound as I walk across the kitchen floor. We’ll surely win first prize for The Absolutely Stickiest Kitchen Floor. My black pants wear white smudges. Flour. Powdered sugar. Blue food coloring adorns my fingers. Cookie dough has worked its way under my finger nails.
            I give each of my three granddaughters a job.
            “Who’d like to measure the flour?” I show Manuela how to bang the measuring cup on the counter to settle the flour.
Colomba flings her long hair in wide circles for several minutes. Then volunteers to separate the egg yolks.
Oh-Oh. Two yokes. Oops, the yokes break into the gooey whites along with pieces of shell. I demonstrate with the second egg. Again, two yokes. Tricky.
Pascuala has her hands on the glass sugar jar. I’d best give her a task with the sugar.
“We need one-and-a-half cups. Up to this line.” Crunchy sugar grains join flour on the floor.
They correct my Spanish. This is a first, but I don’t mind. I tell them, “It’s a deal. You correct my Spanish and I correct your English.”
Our first attempt using their great-grandmother’s cookie press is a disaster. Butter oozes from the press. An 85 degree day is not ideal for achieving the right consistency of cookie dough. We manage to pop one tray of cookies into the oven. The rest of the dough goes into the frig and we take a time-out for lunch. They wolf down spaghetti. Pascuala demonstrates her skill at counting from one to ten in Mapundungun, the Mapuche language. We devour the first batch of cookies for dessert.
Colomba suggests we start again, forget the cookie press and make patterned cookies with fresh dough. I send them off to put some ornaments on the Christmas tree, while I make a new batch of dough.
Manuela calls from the living room, “Sue, what’s your password?”
“For what?”
“Your computer,”
“Why?”
“We want to show you something on YouTube.”
“Please! Let’s get the cookies finished first.”
  They return to knead the dough into a compact ball and take turns with the rolling pin while Pascuala sings a song in a squeaky voice over and over again.
While they cut out the patterned cookies, I snap photos. Cookies in the oven, I get out the ingredients for the glaze. Pascuala yelps, “I burned myself!”
“Where?” I grab an ice pack from the frig and apply it to her elbow.
“We need Ziploc bags and rubber bands for the glaze,” says Colomba. They clearly have more recent practice with patterned cookies than I have and work well without my supervision. Soon the table, chairs, clothes and hair are dotted with globs of blue, red and green frosting.
While I’ve dropped my guard, they managed to take a dozen photos with my cell phone, photos of elbows and headless cooks.
“Damn! These cookies are stuck to the pan.” I pop broken chunks into my mouth.
Grandpa arrives and surveys the scene. The cookies are finished, and we all drift into the dining room. Pascuala trips and lands on the Christmas tree, her arm tangling with the tree lights. The girls want to play a new game with us, Mannequin Challenge, which requires us each to hold a body position while one films us. When the video maker sweeps the camera in another direction, we must change positions. No talking. No moving. Someone giggles. Then another. Soon all of us are laughing. Video maker gets frustrated. Try again. After five or six takes, we’ve had enough.
We sit down in the back yard, and I pass around chocolate ice cream bars. Manuela and Pascuala smear melting chocolate ice cream on their faces.
 Don’t know if I’m capable of standing up again.





            

Sunday, December 4, 2016

My Days



Tendinitis in my hip has me in the dumps. I’ve had to slow down, limit my walking. But the days go on; things happen to me or I make them happen – good and not-so-good, expected and unexpected.
My favorite moments are the good and unexpected. My neighbor-friend, Isabel, rings the doorbell. She holds a covered bowl in her hands.
“I’m hoping you’ll receive this.”
Is she bringing me food?
“My cat was about to kill it.”
An injured bird?
“Come in,” I say, “What is it?”
She removes the cover. “It has the most beautiful colors.” In the bottom of the bowl lies a multi-colored lizard – chartreuse, yellow and cyan – with part of its tail missing.
“I’ve seen these before,” I say,” but never here in the city. In fact, I’ve never seen any lizards in my backyard. Let’s check my “Wildlife Guide to Chile” to see what it is.”
We identify our visitor as a thin tree lizard “… females are always found within the confines of a colonized tree or fence.” This brightly painted fellow appears to be a male.
“Isabel, he may feel lonely in my garden. There must be a mate where you found him.”
“I’ll watch for another, if the cat doesn’t get to it first.”
“Shall we name him?” I ask. “How about Iggy? He is related to the iguana.”
I go outside and release Iggy into the shrubbery, wishing him luck.

The next day my clothes dryer breaks down. Oh, oh, is this the start of a chain of bad luck? A Chilean superstition has it that bad things occur in a series of three. The bright side of this incident is that I have a reliable repairman. The problem is just a disconnected wire, but… (isn’t there always a ‘but’?) the fan belt is about to break. He brings the part the next day, and charges me the minimum. Bless him.

Since I’m in the fix-it mood, I decide to take my car to be washed.  (Its last bath was about six months ago.) Opening the driveway gate, I notice a semi-flat tire. Sh--t. The tire has a faulty valve so I can’t put air into it. Off to the tire repair shop. The helpful man replaces the valve and inflates the tire, but…there’s a nail on the inner wall of the tire.
            “We can’t fix it here. It has to be vulcanized.”
“Where?” I ask.
He describes a place a considerable distance way, which I spot amidst road work and mall construction. I pull up to the open air garage.
“You’ll have to wait while I fix that lady’s tire.”
She has driven in RIGHT before me. I’m glad I remembered to bring my I pad.  I turn the ignition on and off to get some AC. Did I mention it’s noon by now and a very hot day?
When it’s my turn, I sit in a greasy, grimy red plastic chair trying not to touch anything. The fellow tells me it will take about half an hour since he must apply heat. My eyes tired,  I close my I pad and study my surroundings: advertisements for motor oil, an old calendar page of an Alpine scene, oil stains on the concrete floor and assorted tools scattered about.
At last, it’s ready. I zip home and gobble down a salad, just barely to making it to my physical therapy session – a wonderful, painful deep massage. Ricardo knows all the key points on my half-exposed butt, reassuring me that we will beat this.
Back in the car, heartened, I think maybe I can still make it to the car wash. It’s 5 p.m. Friday, a very busy time, but, what the heck, maybe I’ll be lucky. There are five cars ahead of me, but I decide to wait it out. At least, I’ll have accomplished what I started out to do in the morning. Two of the young workers at the car wash are Haitians. I know this because an influx of Haitian immigrants is adding some diversity to this insular country at the bottom of the world. Outside a building construction I spot two signs reminding the workers of the safety measures – one sign in Spanish, the other in French.

My week ends with a joyous occasion – a reunion of my husband’s family, fifty-three including twenty four children ranging in age from 6 months to 21. Two sons can’t make it, including our New Yorker, Nico. Several of the smaller cousins barely know each other but a swimming pool and water pistols break the ice. The day is recorded with a plethora of photos.
            In the waning light we all agree that we’ll have to do this again next year.




Monday, November 14, 2016

Street Murals, Stray Dogs and Ocean View Cemetery


Valparaiso. A port city of cliff-hanger houses. Stairs instead of sidewalks. Bright, crazy wall murals lining narrow alleys and roadways. Homeless dogs with dreadlocks. We spend two days wandering and climbing two of the city’s steep hills: Cerro Alegre and Cerro Concepción. Yes, the many hills separated by deep ravines have names. You can walk from one to the other.



We’ve come to explore: an art gallery with a monster theme (left-over from Halloween), a sweets shop, La Dulcería, which advertises via white ants painted along the sidewalks, port and bay views from hillside promenades and  terraces, streets of grand 19th century homes built by foreign merchants – English, Scottish, German. A Scottish great uncle of mine had settled here. I want to visit the Cementerio de los Disidentes, Dissidents’ Cemetery, where non-Catholic foreigners were buried. I’d been here once before and spied a tombstone with his family name, Riddell.
            We easily find the grave and snap photos of the names inscribed on the pink-toned stone. I’m excited. This is definitely the family, but not my great uncle, Robert. Checking my hand-written family tree, I learn it’s the grave of his brother, Thomas, a daughter and his wife. Thomas came from Midlothian, Scotland and died in Valparaiso in 1880.

Headless angels and lopsided tombstones tell of the many earthquakes that have shaken up this quiet hillside. We visit the office where 80 year-old Señora Teresa, the administrator’s mother, is eager to help us search for more names. She has my son pull heavy, brown, dusty record books from a shelf. She turns the pages scanning the handwritten grave numbers and names, though she actually knows the names and location of most cemetery dwellers. She’s worked here for thirty-nine years. A living record book.
We then cross the narrow lane to the Catholic cemetery and wander about reading the inscribed names, wondering about their lives. I sit to rest on the edge of a dry fountain, its paint peeling. My son takes a seat by me. Strange. We look at each other. Is the fountain shifting under our weight? It only takes a few seconds to realize it isn’t the fountain that is moving. I announce, “Earthquake!” The rolling movement doesn’t last long, so “tremor” is more accurate. A fitting exclamation mark for a cemetery visit.

We follow narrow lanes and head for the Paseo Atkinson to view the city at night.  The lights twinkle. Then in a shadowy corner comes a growl. Black dogs at night run the risk of getting stepped on. All the strays look related or – is this the same one we saw earlier who has decided to follow us? Both my son and I are softies for abandoned dogs. He must have caught our scent.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Election Day Worries

I usually refrain from commenting on politics but I can’t pass up this opportunity to share an incident today at my local verdulería, neighborhood fruit and vegetable store (actually a repetition of the conversations at my morning Pilates’ class) . In line to pay, I recognized an acquaintance. After the usual greetings, she brought up the subject of the U.S. elections, which are being watched very closely here in Chile.
            “Have you voted?” she asked.
            “Yes, I have.”
            “I hope that horrible man isn’t elected! He hates latinos!
            Cristina, the owner of the shop, chimed in. “Oh, he’s awful.”
            The other customers in line agreed. While Cristina weighed my strawberries, I said to the group, “I only wish that Chileans could vote in this election.”


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

My Nation

My eyes travel to the top of the slim white obelisk penetrating the blue sky. Bright, fluttering flags ring the monument. A glorious day in my nation’s capitol, a nation in which I haven’t resided in over four decades. Is this patriotism that I’m feeling? This mix of nostalgia and pride? It’s been many years since I last visited Washington, D.C. Now I’m with Nico, my 38-year-old son, born and raised in Chile, and his girlfriend, as he sets sight for the first time on these monuments, the National Mall, the Reflecting Pool, the round-domed capitol and the just inaugurated African-American Museum. The flags and monuments and museums tell the stories of a nation – its founding, its growing pains, tragedies, errors and triumphs. They have the power to evoke in me the idea of my country.

            As if a preface to visiting the nation’s capitol, bits of American history and geography surface during our drive from New York City to Washington, D.C. The freeway doesn’t allow much of a view of Philadelphia. But then – “Look over there. Isn’t that the tower of Independence Hall? Yes, it is!” Even from a distance, I identify the familiar spire rising above the surrounding buildings.
            “Nico, that’s where the Declaration of Independence was signed.”
He hadn’t studied American history. Unexpectedly, I have the opportunity to imbue him with a bit of his heritage.
            An overhead freeway sign announces Betsy Ross Blvd.
“Do you know who Betsy Ross was?”
To his negative I explain about the first American flag.
“Do you know what the flag was made of?” he asks.
He has me there.
“Hemp.”
“Really? How do you know?”
“I read it somewhere.”
Studying for his Master’s degree in New York has clearly allowed him to absorb more than just what the curriculum offered.
Our chat is peppered with new discoveries.
“What river is that?
“Think it’s the Delaware.”
We decide that the large body of water on our left is the Chesapeake Bay.
“This must be Maryland.”
Five states within a few hours. A revelation to my West Coast geographical mind set.
Upon arrival, we head for George Washington University and the last session of the yearly Peace Corps Connect conference. The following day, our only day for sightseeing, we decide to start at the Capitol and walk that long open vista to the Lincoln Memorial. The Native-American Museum seems a good place to begin, after all, they were here first, and Nico tells us he has been reading about the sustainability practices of Native Americans. To our amazement the main exhibit explores the cultures of the Inca Trail, which extends the western length of South America through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and central Chile. Serendipity? We wander through displays highlighting the accomplishments of the Inca peoples: a facsimile of an intricate rope bridge used to cross deep canyons, intricately woven textiles and photographs of steep hillside agricultural terraces. But what catches my attention is the sacred Incan tradition of reciprocity (ayni). Ayni is the backbone of daily Incan human-to- human interaction, in which there is a mutual flow of giving and receiving. I am struck by how this concept dovetails with the ideas proposed at the Peace Corps Conference by journalists Sarah Chayes and Sebastian Junger.  They make a strong argument that the alienation of individuals in our society has its roots in a lack of community and sense of the common good. Values of cooperation and solidarity struggle to survive in our society where the almighty dollar rules. Not a heartening picture.
These momentous concepts percolate in my mind as we continue our stroll along the Mall to visit to the National Botanical Garden, lamenting we have so little time as we pass by one imposing museum structure after another. We contemplate the war monuments: World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which again takes my thoughts back to Sebastian Junger’s analysis of returning soldiers’ alienation in our deeply divided modern society which foments a culture of greed and fame.
Just beyond the Washington Monument rises the bronze-toned Museum of African American History and Culture. Barricades maintain order in the winding lines of opening day visitors. Bright faces reflecting anticipation and pride. The air vibrates with rock music and dance performances, while savory smells waft from soul food kitchens.

 In the late afternoon we climb the marble stairs of the Lincoln Memorial to stand before the solemn sculpture of Lincoln and contemplate the words of his Second Inaugural Address and Gettysburg Address inscribed on the walls. Again war and injustice are the focus, his words still relevant, still there for thousands to read and reflect on the injustices caused by slave owners ‘wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s brows…’ From his grand marble chair, Lincoln has a direct view across the Reflecting Pool to the African American Museum. But his countenance is lined with worry. Does he despair that our nation hasn’t followed his counsel: “a house divided against itself cannot stand….?”

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Sneak Preview

Sensations, experiences and smells pour through my fingers onto the keyboard. Just back from a month in the U.S. – New York, Washington, D.C., Iowa, Wisconsin, California – I don’t know where to begin.
To get a handle on it all, I write down some glimmers of my journey, a sneak preview of what’s to come:
New York:
Precious time with my son and his girlfriend
Pablo Neruda’s face on the Barnes and Noble coffee shop mural
An American kestrel alighting on rooftop terrace
Nocturnal stroll along the Chelsea High Line


En route from NY to Washington:
Warm welcome from girlfriend’s family
Touching five states: New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland
Independence Hall tower in the distance

 Washington, D.C.:
Award at the Peace Corps Connect Conference for my memoir “Marrying Santiago”
Recalling fifty-year-old adventures with long lost Peace Corps friends
With my son, his first view of the iconic Capitol, the tall, slim Washington monument mirrored in the Reflecting Pool, the solemn Lincoln Monument.
Inca Trail exhibit at Native American Museum – Incan concept of reciprocity (ayni)

Iowa:
 “Mammoth muffin” at Perkin’s roadside restaurant
Welcomed by eighty-nine-year-old Betty into her farmhouse
Corn fields, silos, green and yellow John Deere machinery, barns, barn quilts and white farmhouses displaying American flags
Local lingo: acreage, blacktop (paved road), and crick (creek); jokes about Minnesotans
Plot of wild prairie grasses, once site of covered wagons and grazing buffalo
Resplendent musical events at Luther College, friend Ann’s, alma mater
The plaintive call of the train passing through town. Whoo-whooooo.


Wisconsin:
My first sight since childhood of the wide Mississippi River
Green, wooded rolling hills
Our hostess Edie’s account of  taking tea with Svetlana Alliluyeva, Stalin’s daughter, who spent her last years in Richland Center, Wisconsin
Unique design of the A. D. German warehouse designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

California:
The pleasure of familiar sights and scents of my hometown
Reunion with former classmates at San Anselmo Coffee Roastery
Magnificent breakfasts prepared by my Airbnb hostess, Joanna
Point Reyes Station’s Bovine Bakery – refuge from the rain
Quiet moments at parents’ graveside at Tamalpais Cemetery
Poetry reading by two-time poet laureate Billy Collins
Blue Angels Squadron acrobatics over San Francisco Bay with friend Paula



And so much more that I must assimilate and let percolate….

Friday, September 16, 2016

Spring Cleaning

It’s not spring yet officially until two more weeks, but the warm, sunny days and the fragrant freesias blooming in my garden activate my spring urges. Our apricot tree wears soft white blossoms, and the perfumed air is intoxicating.
When I’m not outside talking to the seeds I planted, encouraging them to rise and shine, I’m tackling projects like cleaning out a closet in the spare bedroom. It’s a job I’ve dreaded – sorting through boxes and albums of slides taken by my parents on multiple trips and cruises to Jamaica, Norway, Scottish Highlands, the Pacific Northwest, Chile. Ten boxes, 70 slides per box. Through a mini-viewer I quickly check for people photos. Here’s a surprise. Shots of two survivors of the plane crash in the Andes involving an Uruguayan rugby team. They were staying at the same hotel as my parents while here in Chile for my wedding.
  I scan for good photos of my parents to save: my father gazing up at the Matterhorn, and stretched out for a siesta on a Jamaican beach; my mother, a Jackie Kennedy look alike, petting a burro, and posing before a bright flowering poinsettia bush. I study their facial expressions, the way my father stands slightly hunched, my mother’s wide smile. It seems unfeeling to throw out the slides, their memories, but they are not my memories. Now ten years after my mother’s death and twenty after my father’s I feel ready to let go. I’ve saved a few dozen – my first step towards photo closure.

            There is more in that dusty closet that I must face: my son’s paintings from childhood art classes, my own attempts at painting, binoculars inherited from my husband’s grandfather, a fishing tackle box, a game of Scrabble and…a slide projector. I tell my husband, “We can put the slides of our travels into the empty carousels – your stay in Germany training for the Mexican Olympics and my Peace Corps years.”  Maybe someday we’ll have a slide show and reminisce about the days when we were young.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Whoopee!


I’m on a serious binge. No, not chocolate. Chocolate is no longer at the top of my favorites list. I’m on a Netflix binge, hooked on “Grace and Frankie.” I am having so much fun! Laughter is far better for me than chocolate, anyway.
            I identify with seventy-ish Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. How I laugh as they bemoan the frustrations of their age, the chin hairs and flabby biceps. Even glamorous ex-Barbarella-Jane needs help getting up from a sitting position on the beach, and her hands are as wrinkled as mine. Laughing about these embarrassing signs of aging is very liberating; they become easier to accept.

Jane and Lily inspire me to be a little crazy and silly and throw off my cloak of ladylike demeanor. I want Frankie to send me some of her marihuana-enhanced, quirky, shamanic, Buddhist vibes. The humdrum of my daily life – planning what the heck to have for dinner, taking out the garbage, changing the sheets – offers few opportunities for risk-taking. I must be on the lookout – maybe strike up a conversation with the beggar woman on the street corner, read a science fiction book (not my usual fare), attend an art exhibit alone – and accept new challenges, even if they’re a little scary.
This past year I did just that: river rafting and hiking over a glacial moraine in Patagonia and riding as a passenger on a stranger’s motorcycle in rural Colombia. I foresee more adventures on an upcoming solo trip, touching down on the East coast, Midwest and West coast of the good ol’ USA. I look forward to acquainting myself with unfamiliar American landscapes.
 I’d welcome a “yes” night (Frankie says you’re not allowed to say “no” to anything suggested to you) but then I’d have to have a goofy friend to do it with. My oldest friend back home would be the perfect choice. She loves to laugh and talk to strangers. I’ll soon be spending time with her. I wonder what excitement we can stir up.
I haven’t given up chocolate. In fact, the ideal binge would be watching “Grace and Frankie” while savoring creamy, dark chocolate.


Bad idea. I just did it. Wolfed down the whole damned thing.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Short-lived Euphoria


Samba dancers in brightly colored costumes, big smiles on their faces as they swirl to the music; a large float bearing two red and yellow papagayo  figures and curvaceous dancers scantily clad in sequined attire; the entire center of the stadium  arena filled with people dancing in flashes of sweeping colored lights. Soon the Olympic athletes join the performers in one big happy, mad party. My husband is somewhere in that crowd. Later he tells me he made a new acquaintance there, Mustafa, a tall Sudanese man, dressed in traditional garments.

The gaiety and euphoria of the closing event of the Olympic Games in Rio are contagious. In front of my television I smile at the antics of the athletes and sway to the rhythm. Swelling euphoria fills me at the sight of thousands of people of many races and nationalities joined together in brotherhood. This is an example of what humanity is capable of.
            But then I recall the photo of the five-year-old Syrian boy, Omran, covered in blood and I know that men are also capable of terrible violence, hate and destruction. That young boy and the scenes of destruction in Aleppo and the massive crowded refugee camps trigger compassion. Then I feel anger – anger at the leaders (you know who you are) who allow this to happen, not only allow, but order the bombings and the killing, who believe only they are in the right, who are blinded by intolerance for those who are different.
            I want to put my arms around Omron, comfort him and clean his face of blood. But, of course, I can’t. But I can write, pointing out not only the violence and tragedy, which we see live and direct on television newscasts, but also the alternatives.
Hey, World, look at the Olympics. Look at what is possible with perseverance, will power and a vision.
 Feel the joy. The possibilities. The hope.
Then take the next step. Act.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Wanted: Twenty Thousand Words

“How many words does your manuscript have?” asks the editor.
“About forty thousand,” I answer.
“Well, you’re short twenty thousand words,” she says.
I slump in my chair. We’re talking about a manuscript I submitted for my second book. Twenty thousand more words? And not just any words. No fluff. No verbal garbage. No verbiage. But words that add something.
I spend a few days in a writer’s funk. Ideas do not come running towards me like a friendly dog with its tongue hanging out. I must not look for them. Pretend I’m not interested. Then when I’m taking out the garbage, an idea raises its hand.
Today I think: why start from zero? Go to my previous blogs. Maybe there are some that can be expanded or further developed. So I read through this year’s blogs and make a list. I feel better already. Having a list is a start. Isn’t it? If I develop some blog pieces, I figure they will give me another four thousand words. Only sixteen thousand to go.
Of course, the best source of inspiration is life itself. My life is not exactly action packed. I look over my day: cycling at the gym, doctor appointment and more Donald Trump on CNN…. I certainly don’t want to go there. I have an appointment with Andrés to get my hair trimmed. Can I write about haircuts? Hmmm. Maybe something will spark an idea while I’m on the metro. This is beginning to sound like fluff….
The trip on the metro and the visit to the hairdresser provide no inspiration but, as I walk along, I’m reminded that I mustn’t try so hard. The trouble is that it’s not just ideas that play hard to get. Words avoid me. My word retrieval problem grows with the passing years. Those elusive words on the tip of my tongue get lost in the labyrinths of my cerebral cortex. With my peers we laugh and joke about those lost words. But the experience is really quite frightening. What will I be like at eighty or ninety?
Rereading pieces I’ve written sometimes offers consolation. Did I really write that?! It’s not so bad. And look at the sparkling words I magically pulled out of my hat!

 Those sixty thousand words will come, one word at a time, or as writer Annie Lamott says “bird by bird.” 

Sunday, July 31, 2016

European Flashbacks

Weeks after our return from Europe, images and newly-acquired information continue to surface in my memory: the breathtaking beauty of the St. Petersburg Church of the Spilled Blood, Adriaen Van De Velde’s detailed depictions of Dutch landscapes and medieval daily life, stories of tsarinas and kings, conspirators and war heroes, battles and treaties.
Musical moments also come back to me, although the sounds of music are more difficult to recall than visual imagery. What I do remember is how the music made me feel, the euphoria it produced. The magnificent organs in every church spoke of the importance of religious music in centuries past. We visited a cathedral just at the right moment to hear the powerful swells of music from the organ that filled an entire wall.

Outside El Prado Museum in Madrid, a man sat on a wall playing on his guitar the Concierto de Aranjuez, perfect for creating the mood to view the paintings of Velázquez, El Greco and Goya.
  Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, its dimmed chandeliers glittering like fairy candles, provided a magical venue for opera music from Wagner, Massenet, Bizet and Saint-Saens. There the sweet notes of a violin solo rang clear and perfect, glorious and true in that hall famous for its acoustics. When friends ask me what the best of our trip was, I tell them about that evening concert.



Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Sneak Preview

A warm sunny day in midwinter is delicious. Outside tiny wild canaries twitter in the branches above me. I tell them that I feel like singing, too. I walk with an energized pace along the sidewalk, but then stop and sniff the air. Is that scent what I think it is? Yes, there in a garden – the yellow buds of an acacia are opening, perfuming the air with the fragrance that triggers childhood memories of early signs of spring in California. Acacia and daphnia scents always remind my gardener’s nose of the promise of spring days.
            The memory of brightly colored flowers in the Baltic countries even in the smallest spaces – doorways and windowsills – prompts me to put in some winter blooming plants in pots to shed some light on grey winter days. Just back home, I buy primroses – red, yellow, purple – and primulas. Trowel in hand, I work them into the soil in three large pots. Like the nesting instinct of birds, my gardener impulses are activated by the sun. Maybe having recently come from northern summer climes has them bewildered.

            This spring preview can’t last. Rain is predicted in a few days. But I have the view of my bright flowers. To the patter of rain, I’ll bite into a chocolate bar and return to the biography of Catherine the Great, a story of courage, perseverance and intrigue. With ingenuity she fools her tutors, chaperones and the Tsarina Elizabeth who keep her a virtual prisoner in the palace. She dresses as a boy to escape at night to meet her lover. She pulls a curtain over an alcove in her apartment to hide the friends gathered there.
Now I read of her efforts as Tsarina to determine the shape of Russian society and government and reorganize the legal system. A daughter of the Enlightenment, she aims to abolish capital punishment and the use of torture and guarantee equal treatment for all citizens, even the serfs. She publishes this document, the Nakaz, in 1767.
                                                Product Details
How is it possible that these issues continue to be debated centuries later? Today’s leaders and governments would definitely benefit from a large dose of enlightenment.

Monday, July 18, 2016

My Russian Mosaic

A metronome ticks and stops. Music plays. The metronome ticks and stops. Music plays. The transmission of Leningrad Radio keeping alive the hopes of the city’s inhabitants. It is 1944. The German army siege continues to its strangle-hold over the city during the past 900 days. One million people are dead due to cold and starvation.

            I stand in the windowless museum commemorating the heroic defenders of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). That recreation of the radio’s transmission takes me back in time, more real than the battered army helmets, rifles and photos on display.
            Valentín, our 40-year-old guide, tells how the siege affected his family. His grandmother died of starvation. His grandfather’s brother disappeared. The rest of the family was eventually evacuated through the one route open to the interior. In impeccable Spanish he tells us, “No one is alive today who hasn’t lost someone in the siege.”

Back in Chile, I look over the past three weeks of travel in Europe trying to process all that my senses have taken in. Certain moments and places stand out, like the siege museum in St. Petersburg. Already my memories grow fuzzy. I write to Valentín. What is the music in the radio transmissions? He sends me a recording of the transmission and the popular Russian song on which the music is based. I listen. It strikes me that the ticking of a metronome and the strains of a song can affect me so strongly. Once again I am back to those tragic times. These are no longer just historical facts but real events within my generation’s lifetime.
Valentín takes us to a metro station constructed during the years of Communist rule. We descend into a work of art of marble columns, mosaics, gold carvings of Soviet designs and of workers of different trades, their faces reflecting pride and strength. Beautifully wrought chandeliers light up the spacious hall. We board a train that rattles and rumbles us to the next station. We stand awe-struck at the elegance.


These impressions are mosaic pieces that I must fit together in my mind, constructing a picture of the Russian people, their history, their culture. I have begun to read a biography of Catherine the Great. More pieces to fit into my mural.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Glimmers

It’s not difficult to feel grumpy, irritated and downright depressed in this city of ours, what with grey winter days, carjacking, house and mall robberies, traffic gridlocks and hooded vandals destroying and looting during weekly student demonstrations. These scenes have become our daily bread. Days ago a water main broke on a principal artery of the city. A deluge of escaping water flowed down towards the center of town. Surface traffic and a major metro line were cut. The news showed streams of city folk walking long distances to work.
But, all is not gloom. I laughed out loud at the sight of a young, well-dressed woman, desperate to cross the street, clambering aboard a grocery cart pushed by an ingenious Chileno. For a few pesos he delivered her across the river to the opposite corner. Oh, those enterprising Chileans. At the first drop of rain, they’re selling umbrellas at metro stations, or cellophane wrapped roses for Mother’s Day, or ready-made salads and sandwiches at lunchtime.
I see glimmers of hope and humor as I go about my city.  One night a friend and I decided to go to a concert of the Santiago Symphonic Orchestra downtown, which meant boarding the metro at peak commuter hour. We are not the pushy type but, when it came to a packed metro car, we had no choice but to squeeze and elbow our way in, that is, if we wanted to go anywhere.
The live performance of Tchaikowsky’s glorious Fourth Symphony swept me away on a wave of wonder to the steppes of Russia and the glittering halls of the Hermitage. Unbelievable, the magic created by those violins, violas, cellos and bass.
Returning home on the metro, passengers eyed us as we broke into giggles, lifting our feet to avoid contact with two large balls of hair rolling down the aisle and back again, not an unusual sight in the otherwise clean metro cars.
A sharp clear blue sky greeted me this morning and, in the distance, the snow-covered ridges gleamed. A gaggle (at least a dozen) of rowdy green parrots invaded the liquidambar tree next door, gorging on the seeds of the prickly pods. On the ground turtle doves grazed on the fallen leftovers.

Like the seeds of the liquidambar, abundant reasons for joy and laughter are here for the taking in this urban landscape. It’s a matter of paying attention.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Liquid Contentment



 My redwood tree looks perky and content. The neighborhood robins are out breakfasting on an abundance of juicy worms. Hummingbirds squeal and careen in delight. Wet leaves cover the pavement. Even I feel light and energized after the refreshing rain yesterday. After years of drought, rain is reason for celebration. I also am grateful for the clear skies after days of smothering smog, and for the white ring of snow on the Andes surrounding the city.
            Our current rainfall is three times greater than last year at this time, and winter doesn’t start for three more weeks. I wonder what the rain gods have in store for the next few months.
The rainfall in the usually wet southern Chile has diminished. The city of Coyhaique, set in a bowl of verdant hills, is rated as one of the most contaminated cities in the world. Besides the scarcity of rainfall, its problem lies in a longtime tradition in the damp, cold south – wood burning stoves. They are the heart of all southern homes, providing warmth, heat for baking bread and heating water and a gathering place for the family and friends. Because of the increasing pollution as the city grows, authorities are mandating a change to gas stoves. A loss for the inhabitants of the city, but wood stoves will continue to burn in countryside and small town kitchens.

            Days later we are blessed with two more days of solid rain. This morning the sun makes an appearance in a true blue sky with patches of luminous puffy clouds. A great morning for a walk. Many others have the same idea. The sun draws us out of our dens: runners, some with dogs, cyclists, flocks of showy, squawking parrots, wild canaries and house wrens. The yellow leaves on the ground glow in the sunlight. The air is brisk and hopeful. And the mountains…they have revealed to us their gift of white splendor.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Meet My Cousin Bob Mushroom



 Since I lean increasingly towards nature writing, I find myself ordering Kindle books on the topic. I’m delighted with my latest purchase: The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter by Colin Trudge. In very accessible prose, he provides a truly refreshing “refresher” course in basic biology.
Product Details
 In high school, as I was on the college track, I was instructed to take chemistry and physics, rather than biology. Maybe biology was considered a lesser science then. In college Biology 1A and B, I barely scraped by. I was a liberal arts gal.
 Fast forward fifty years: Now I realize that I want to deepen my understanding of the scientific foundations of the natural world – the evolution of scientific names for things and Carolus Linaeus’ system of classification: species, genus, orders, classes and kingdoms (later phylum was inserted between class and kingdom and domain added after kingdom). Add to that the later use of phylogeny, the family tree of the natural world demonstrating the relationship between the different groups of creatures. I’m learning (or maybe relearning?) biological concepts like analogous and homologous, convergence and divergence, and most confusing to me, haploid, diploid, polyploid and tetraploid (which has to do with genetics, hybrids, chromosomes and all that stuff that gave me so much trouble in college biology). Fortunately, I don’t have to take a test on this material, but just grasping the broad concepts is enhancing my wonder for the complexities, order and vastness of nature.
I totally share Mr. Trudge’s love for the idea that we humans are literally related to all things. He plays with the notions that ‘apes are our sisters, and mushrooms our cousins, and oak trees and monkey puzzle are our distant uncles and aunts.’ (Uh - I’d like you to meet my cousin Bob Mushroom.) Like when involved in a good novel, I can’t wait to get back to Mr. Trudge and his trees. On to chapter three: How Trees Became.
Today, as I walked down the street, I looked at the city trees with new eyes and wondered what they were saying to each other. If only I knew their language.

Baobob Tree  Adansonia grandidieri



Monday, May 9, 2016

Acceptance

Acceptance


In my memoir “Marrying Santiago” (2015) I wonder where my two sons would choose to put down roots. I ask: “Would I lose them someday to the place I left behind?” My parents’ only child, I left my California home forty-five years ago to marry and live in Chile. The great distance that separated us was the source of tremendous sorrow for them.  
            While my oldest son married and settled in Chile, the younger one has been living and working in New York for four years. I miss him terribly. Living in this hyper-connected era does ease the pain somewhat – we chat online, talk by Whatsapp and Skype and send photos taken instants before.
 Today a Chilean friend who passed through New York brings me a present from my son. An enchanting little book entitled “Owls: Our Most Charming Bird” by Matt Sewell. A rich text accompanies the delightful drawings. I am so pleased with this gift that I immediately call my son. We don’t talk long as he is at work, but just hearing his voice brings me pleasure. I recently ordered Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” for him. Since he’s a hiker, I thought he’d like it. He did.


With these small exchanges – books, photos, and online chats – the distance seems less. Last month he sent me a photo to show he’d just voted in the New York primary. I’m happy he takes seriously his American citizenship. I recently voted in the California primary by absentee ballot – signed, sealed and delivered (well, actually faxed). My son and I agree on the presidential candidate.

 This not just the expatriate’s or the immigrant’s dilemma. Several of my California high school and university classmates have children living on the east coast (many in Brooklyn, like my son.) But Brooklyn is a lot further from Chile than California. Here I’m at the bottom of the world.

Will he return to Chile someday? That is a question that must wait for an answer, and I must accept whatever choices he makes.

(I'd love to hear comments from other expats and/or parents.)

Friday, April 22, 2016


Recipe for Disaster


Mud. And more mud. That’s the scenario that the city’s inhabitants will wake to tomorrow. Though it’s stopped raining for the moment – after 48 hours of relentless downpour, the meteorologists and Yahoo Weather predict the rain will continue through the night and tomorrow.
The Mapocho River wanted to follow its true course, its ancient familiar bed of rock and gravel and sediment. But major works of engineering placed obstacles in its way – tunnels, holes, temporary retaining walls, subterranean underpasses – to facilitate the movement of masses of motorists rushing to destinations throughout the city. After all, we all fume when stuck in the ever-increasing traffic jams, grouching why don’t they do something?
 Roaring down the slopes of the Andes, gathering force and speed, the river waters suddenly confronted foreign obstacles in their path. Rivers are not patient with obstructions. They stubbornly forge onward. With its natural flow blocked, what does the river do?  Detour through the paths of least resistance: underground parking garages, subterranean malls, underpasses, basements, cracks, crevasses, mouse holes, potholes, perforations and fissures. Because forward it will go, downhill, seaward, obeying the laws of physics.
As the water surges down drought-ridden slopes, it sucks up loose soil, rocks, and assorted plastic bottles, depositing them in the flatter areas. A recipe for a muddy mess. Though the water moves on, like an undisciplined child, it doesn’t clean up what it dropped along its wild way.
Thus, out roar man’s machines: pumps, bulldozers, hoses and trucks to undo what nature has done. With furious urgency, they’ll reestablish the obstacles and barriers, move earth, pump water, drill holes, erect stronger retention walls, widen the river bed.
Not for the first time. Repeated interventions have paralleled the growth of the city of Santiago, immediate gain being the top priority. Walls, buildings, houses, stores and highways line the banks of the man-handled River.
There’s no one around now who remembers the river when it flowed freely along its natural course through fields and valleys. Contemplating today’s mud soup, I grieve for the River and its valley, once a bucolic landscape as portrayed by artists in the early days of settlement.

  

Friday, April 8, 2016

A Bookworm’s Dilemma


I never thought I’d be saying this but I have to admit it now – Kindle is a great invention.  A plethora of books in English are accessible with the tap of a finger to this eager reader living in a non-English-speaking country. Of course, I’d prefer the real thing – the book in my hands, my fingers turning the pages, underlining brilliant thoughts or beautifully expressed ideas. Then, when I finish the book, if I decide it’s a “keeper,” I’ll squeeze it onto a bulging bookshelf, or else pass it on to another eager English reader. Besides its accessibility, Kindle has the marvelous option that with another tap, the definition of an unwieldy word pops up.
            I’m reading more than ever: fiction and nonfiction, exploring authors new to me, recommended books, Pulitzer Prize winners, well-known authors I hadn’t read. I read not only for pleasure, but to learn more of the writing craft. I read more critically. Some authors disappoint me, but if they enjoy wide acclaim, I don’t give up on them. I may encounter within the pages an illumination that renders the effort worthwhile.
            When I discover an author whose writing I love, I want to read more. This happened after reading Geraldine Brooks’ book “March,” a novel about Mr. March, the father of the girls in “Little Women.” What a clever idea to imagine the life of a secondary character in a famous novel. I then realized that I remembered very little of “Little Women” and would like to read it again. I no longer have the blue hard-cover copy that belonged to my mother.
 This started me thinking of other books I’d like to reread: “Ann of Green Gables,” Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie,” Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead.” Then a doubt haunts me. Should I spend time to reread when there is so much out there I have never read?
It was time well spent rereading “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” “Ishi in Two Worlds,” and William Least-Heat Moon’s “Blue Highways,” but, more than all others, I return again and again to Amy Leach’s “Things That Are.” I make lists of her goofy, wonderful word combinations, as well as invented words (jewel-babblers, botherations), reading them over in the hope that some of her magic will rub off on me. I’d be desolate without my hard copy.
I particularly love books with a strong sense of place, like Ivan Doig’s “The Sea Runners.” If the place is one I have visited or plan to visit, my journey is all the richer. I’d read Lawrence Bergreen’s “Over the Edge of the World” before my trip through the Straits of Magellan. Knowing details of Magellan’s voyage, I felt such wonder viewing the same glaciers and walking the same shores that the explorer and his sailors once trod.

In a few months, I’ll be cruising the Baltic and visiting St. Petersburg. I’m already in a Russian state of mind after reading Rosemary Sullivan’s “Stalin’s Daughter.” Years ago I found Edward Rutherfurd’s “Russka” fascinating. Perhaps a reread to brush up on my history?  Or a Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky that I haven’t read. My options are endless. Before downloading on Kindle, I’ll ask my friends if anyone has something Russian.

Monday, March 14, 2016

In Patagonia

Small Things:
Bountiful bumble bees busily harvesting on sunflowers.



 Delicate golden grasses bending in the wind



Plethora of rose hips blushing in ripeness



The Colors of Water:
Can the written word capture the true color of water?
General Carrerra Lake (Chelenko) on a cloudy day – steel, pewter, slate
Catalina Bay in bright sunshine – bright teal, cerulean, azure
Lago Negro – indigo, ultramarine
Baker River – turquoise, aquamarine
                                    

The rhythmic sounds of indigenous place names:
Pichi Mahuida – little mountain
Chelenko – lake of storms
Coyhaique – lagoon-camp
Chacabuco – slopes of chacay trees

The Trail of Torture:
The sign indicates 9.3 kilometers to Lago Leones. One way. The guide tells us it’s relatively flat most of the way. What he didn’t say that the flat was over a rocky glacial moraine. Loose rock. Boulders, pebbles. Angular, round, flat. He didn’t mention that we’d be balancing on branches and wobbly wooden slat bridges to cross rivulets of glacial melt water. Or that the flat rises into steep slopes bedeviled with protruding tree roots and narrow rocky ledges. I cling to a rope to clamber along a slanted wide rock face. A precarious wooden ladder facilitates a tricky vertical descent. Most appreciated are the hands of Sebastian the young guide designated to keep to the end of our line of hikers. I’m the end. I feel like an aging mountain goat, left by the herd to die. What are the others trying to prove anyway? The head guide checks with Sebastian often by radio: How am I doing? Keep in mind the return trek.
            “How much further?” I ask Sebastian. I don’t want to give up, but worry I’ll slow the others down.
            “About 3 more kilometers.”
            That’s it. Sebastian and I have our lunch under some trees and begin the return, a return that seems interminable. I’ve developed a blister on my foot and my progress slows to a crawl, one-foot- in-front-of- the- other, skirting rocks, fording streamlets.
Is it worth it? What can I take from this experience?
The majesty of the towering ridges on the sides of the valley.
The glowing glaciers looming from the edge of the southern ice cap.
The milky green of the roaring river.
Determination to get into better shape.
Acceptance of my limitations.

Knowing when it’s time to call it quits and being alright with my decision.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Going to the Movies

I’ve asked my three granddaughters to reserve a day for me this week, their last week of summer vacation. “We can do whatever you want.”
            They decide on a movie and an ice cream afterwards.
            “What movie?”
            “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”
Oh.
We go to the multicine at the mall and stand in the line to buy tickets and another snail-slow line to buy Combo #3 – a giant bag of popcorn, drinks and candy. The movie has already started. We grope our way to our numbered seats and settle down to distribute the goodies. I try to ignore the fact that my sandals stick to the floor.
I love looking at the girls’ entranced faces while they watch the movie. It’s a happy, funny film with singing and dancing. I even manage to stay awake. When it ends, Colomba says. “That was so short.” We file out with smiles on our faces. I ask them if they still have space for an ice cream. They decide they do.
A few days later, a friend and I take the metro downtown to see a movie at one of the few theaters that show art/foreign films. The theater is located in an old, once bohemian part of town, though now invaded with restaurants and coffee shops. The theater, separated from the small lobby/ticket office by a shabby red velvet curtain, seats about one hundred. We’ve come to see “Wadjda” or “The Green Bicycle,” the first film made by a Saudi Arabian woman. Through the eyes of ten-year-old Wadjda, we enter the restricted, controlled world of Saudi women. Her mother and the school director remind her to keep her hair covered, not to speak to or be seen uncovered by unknown men, not to play with her neighborhood friend, Abdullah. Wadjda observes how her mother must hire a driver to take her to work as women are not allowed to drive. She helps her mother prepare food for her father and his friends, then leaving the food outside the door of the room where they are gathered.
Wadjda is a free spirit, wears running shoes under her long black robe, listens to American pop music and doesn’t understand the restrictions which go against what comes naturally to her. Her greatest wish is to buy a green bicycle she’s seen in a shop so she can race with Abdullah. She saves her money but the school director and her mother tell her that girls do not ride bicycles.

My friend and I left the theater pensive, struck by the discrimination we’d observed in that subtle portrayal of Wadjda’s reality. We discussed the movie as we walked along the sidewalk crowded with diversely-clad, talking and laughing men and women, rushing to enjoy a beer or an ice cream on this hot Friday afternoon.