Looking back . . .

During the past few months, I have spent many hours trying to organize travel photos and make sense of my travel notes and journals.

I have also spent hours poring over newly-discovered recipe books and cards saved by previous generations of family. They are nothing if not enlightening, filled with tasty treats meant for celebrating with family and friends, and also packed with ideas about how to “stretch” food enough to get through hard times. Some of them surprised me, and a few made me weep.

One — Fried Oatmeal — brought back childhood memories of what I thought at the time was the best breakfast ever, served hot and crispy from my grandmother’s cast iron frying pan. It was Fried Cornmeal Mush, the leftover “raw material” from a Sunday cornbread or stuffing dish or perhaps leftover breakfast grits from a previous morning. Served with butter and syrup, it was a favorite way to start a day. However, cold cereal was much more common!

This particular card — one of a collection of recipes in a box that was obviously a promotional effort for Gold Medal Brands — notes that “This is a good way to use left over porridge.” I could not help but remember my grandmother’s refrain, “Waste not, want not,” as I pored over other cards in the sturdy wooden box.

Interspersed with the printed cards, there are traditional Scandinavian treats, some no doubt passed down from generations past. There are Polish and Russian dishes with beets, cabbages and potatoes. Many are hearty and filling, healthful and full of vegetables, but not overloaded with meat. Some are simple egg dishes. The desserts, I found, tend to be less sugary than today’s versions, and many rely on fresh fruit and spice for flavor and punch rather than chocolate and refined sugar.

There are many recipes for sweets made rich with butter and cream. Some of the old recipes required spending hours in the kitchen, and intensive preparations for holiday observances. Others were quick and easy, no doubt meant for times when there were more important things to think about, when food counted only as simple sustenance.

Hand-written recipes sometimes had notations — “easy or fine, or from Aunt Ida, or Papa’s favorite,” and I have found interesting notations even in familiar well-used hard-cover cookbooks, the standard reference for any cook back in the day. One made me smile: “Too much work!” Another simply bore a single word: “NO.” Many of these recipes are reminiscent of “Sunday dinners” and holidays, and of life well-lived in small towns or on farms throughout the flyover states. That is my heritage.

Others of those tattered recipe cards, however, bear the stigma of more difficult times, when food and funds were scarce, resources and pantry reserves were slim and many of the men were off fighting wars in foreign lands. There are notes about sugar substitutes — sugar was one of the first products to be rationed during WWII. But rationing followed in 1943 for meat, butter, margarine, canned fish, cheese, canned milk, fats and oils. Fresh food was often in short supply simply due to the season or to transportation snags.

From the war years, there are numerous ideas for Jello molds, salads and simple puddings. And there are “ration recipes” for meats.

Celebrations were more somber and homemakers “made do” in innovative ways in the effort to use available food stocks and to preserve a sense of hope during those lean days. Epidemics, wars, weather, the economy and a shift from farms to cities all seemed to align against a comfortable existence during much of the 20th Century. But family life continued.

A “Hard Times” Recipe for Cinderella Crisps

The Secret: Magically turn ordinary white bread into extraordinary tea crisps. Scrumptious!

The Recipe:

6 slices trimmed white bread, each cut in 4 strips

1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk

2 2/3 cups (about) Baker’s Angel Flake Coconut

Using two forks, roll bread strips in sweetened condensed milk, coating all sides. Then roll in coconut. Place on well-greased baking sheet and bake at 375 degrees for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove at once from baking sheet. Makes about 24.

I will confess that this is one I have not, and probably will not, try. Please let me know if you do!

Moving on to New Experiences

Today I take it as a personal challenge to try to make healthful, good-tasting meals out of simple ingredients. I also have some recipe cards that became my “go-to” resource when I was a young bride with little kitchen experience to guide me. Perhaps not surprisingly, I still occasionally refer to them. I read recipe books with as much delight as the latest novels, but I tend to make up recipes as I go along, instead of adhering strictly to the directions. Although I like good food, I do not love spending unnecessary hours in the kitchen.

I collect recipes from my travels and love recreating the tastes of faraway places when I return home. I like to experiment with new flavors and seasonings, and I think meals should look appetizing, smell wonderful and taste great. Most of the time, I think meals should be prepared fresh, not pre-packaged or ordered as take out. I take as much delight in preparing a meal for two as I do planning a holiday open house. Those holiday gatherings have been in short supply this past year, haven’t they?

Perhaps before too many more special days pass, we will once again be able to celebrate together, with hugs and laughter, with old folks and babies, with new-found friends, and especially with family. This pandemic year has taken its toll. Hopefully we will get beyond it and look forward to the good times to come!

For now, it’s enough to remember.

Pizza — the ultimate comfort food?

My January/February issue of Food Network magazine arrived recently. Looking at the cover, I had to smile. Prominently displayed in mouthwatering color is a pizza with what appears to be some distinctly non-traditional toppings. I was eager to sit down with this new issue and explore ideas presented by some of my favorite television chefs.

And as I did just that on a chilly day when it was prudent to stay indoors, I was reminded of the pizzas I have ordered and consumed in faraway places . . . Here are some of my favorites from the previous few years of sampling good food in unique places! Pizza does indeed seem to have universal appeal!

Pizza, whether shared with friends, prepared at home, or ordered by the slice as a quick snack, always seems appropriate. The fact that it’s so versatile — and so varied — is a large part of its appeal. No matter how you enjoy your pizza, at home or abroad, with a soda, a glass of wine or a beer, chances are good that others will share your opinion and be willing to join you for a slice of goodness.

Because it’s still impossible to take to the skies, the seas or the highways across the globe, the next best thing — for me and for many others this year — has been to spend time in the kitchen, savoring new taste treats inspired by our globetrotting of the past. That has taken me, at least, on some unexpected journeys — recalling previous trips and wonderful food experiences — as well as into past times when life was at least as difficult as it is today and good food was hard to come by. I have become captivated by some of the dog-eared recipes in my grandmother’s recipe box.

More about those in coming days — It has been an insightful few weeks, and I’m eager to share some thoughts.

I realize how lucky I am to be alive today, in these times, as hard as it has been to be at home and not on the road during this pandemic. There’s a reason I chose to write about good food and far away places. Cooking and travel are both art forms in their individual ways. Each brings joy.

One of the travel realities that continues to surprise me is that it’s possible to find pizza on a menu almost anywhere on the globe. The “pandemic hours” that I spent organizing photos and notes of my travels have confirmed that good pizza is not confined by geography or defined by a particular culture, that the love of pizza transcends borders, and that it can be both a satisfying “street food” consumed on the run and a full meal elegantly presented. Or anything in between! Also, almost anything can become a pizza topping! From the delightfully simple basil and mozzarella-topped classic in a tiny Neapolitan trattoria to an oversize and overloaded game day pizza delivered direct to my doorstep, pizza is a beloved tradition, and a treat that only seems to gain favor with each passing year.

One shouldn’t miss the classic Pizza Margherita when visiting Naples! But there are many other pizza choices in other places. On our European trip in late 2019, we enjoyed pizza several times in distinctive locations, from a seaside restaurant with a stunning view of the Adriatic to a cozy small-town town eatery tucked into a centuries-old building in Pula, Croatia. Pizza is a staple at airports across the globe, and during this summer’s pandemic shutdown, a required motel stay in Texas brought us “no contact” pizza delivery from a local take-out-only chain pizza parlor. It was our only option, and we were happy to have it!

I also found among my photos a shot of the familiar Domino’s sign in Barcelona, with a crowd of people awaiting their own orders, testimony to pizza’s universality!

Dessert pizzas have also become popular, and they are definitely worth a try. In addition, I have discovered how much fun it can be to make pizza at home; not only is it a great way to introduce kitchen skills to younger children, but there is nothing quite like the sense of accomplishment that comes from creating a hot and satisfying meal out of leftovers and “refrigerator finds!”

No matter how you slice it, it’s entirely possible to enjoy pizza wherever you may roam. By the way, the magazine photo that attracted my attention was of a non-traditional Brussels Sprouts Pizza Carbonara by Chef Ina Garten. Instead of red sauce, it features a white Bechamel sauce, ricotta cheese, Italian pancetta and thinly-sliced Brussels sprouts. Here’s the recipe. It’s one I’m going to have to try.

A relapse of restlessness . . .

Mornings are chilly. Daylight comes later and is as apt to be dull and gray as bright and sunny. Dark descends early, and the glow of a fire in the hearth is welcome. But today marks the winter solstice, and the earth will once again slowly begin to reawaken after its winter rest. So, too, will our spirits. 

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This has been a long nine months — leaving a wealth of sadness, anger, distrust and uncertainty in the wake. I know I am not alone with the feeling that it just needs to be over so that we can all get on with living our lives the way we wish to live them. And, because the nightly newscasts now intersperse continuing Coronavirus reports and charges of election irregularities with the news of vaccine approvals and deliveries, we have  cause for hope. The vaccines may be the best holiday gift we could imagine.

For me, my future will once again hopefully include travel, dining out in the company of others when the mood strikes and gathering with groups of friends to share good times. I hope we will soon be able to greet family and friends with hugs rather than fist or elbow bumps, and put away the masks that hide our smiles.

I cannot wait. I am making plans. However, I am well aware that the return to a sense of normalcy will not be abrupt. I just hope that the path to that return can be relatively smooth.

Perhaps, sooner rather than later, the threat of COVID-19 will become just another memory, and we can all succumb to Spring Fever instead. During these dark and lonely months, we have tried to cope in ways that made sense to each of us individually. Perhaps now we can join together to pave the way back to a lifestyle that is punctuated with laughter and hope rather than fear.

Life is always uncertain, and if that is the great lesson of COVID-19, let’s all take heart that good times lie ahead. I anticipate than 2021 will be a good year, even though I recognize that there are continuing challenges to meet.

In my heart — and in my world — the time to plan new excursions is past due. My travel partner and I want to escape to an island for a bit of sea and sun; we want to be able to freely explore our new home state, savor the fun of out-of-the-way destinations, and discover unique “back alley” eateries. I am compiling a list!

I have satisfied my wanderlust somewhat these past few months by reviewing and editing the past several years of travel photographs, reliving memories and cataloging ideas for posts still to be written. It has only served, though, to increase my appetite for the next journey and for new destinations.

It helps that cruise companies and travel planners view spring as the season to offer reduced deposits, bargain fares, new itineraries and great incentives. They’re all very tempting, but the reality is that travel plans are still tenuous, and the disappointment of more cancelled cruises would be almost too much to bear.

So, even as I ramp up the planning for trips that lie ahead, I remain sensible enough to know that for the next several weeks, perhaps months, my travel is apt to remain virtual. I will, however, post weekly photos and share some stories of past travels just for the fun of it. 

The good food? Well, that can be found almost anywhere, and staying at home has proved to be a way rediscover the goodness and the joy of home cooking. I recently found some old family recipes, saved from the hard times of long ago. So there will be stories of them as well. And some of them may surprise you.

When the world settles down a bit, I have compiled a variety of travel tips for anyone who is ready to pack bags and head off to new experiences. I hope you’ll join me!

Ring those bells . . .

A random Facebook post from a faraway friend captured my imagination this past week. And now it has become a “cause” because I can’t seem to help getting caught up in grand ideas that are designed to bring people together in quirky, frivolous ways. Great things often come from small and simple acts. This time it seems a lot of others have joined in with enthusiasm. I hope it lasts, and I hope it grows.

It has been reported that the effort was begun by a housewife and “mum” in the U.K. who thought it would be a good memory for her children in years to come. I learned about it via several Facebook posts, among them one from a relative in Norway; and the word is spreading fast!

Just as the balcony singing across Italy seemed so spontaneous and emotionally uplifting in the terrible, early days of the pandemic, this recent request for citizens of the world to gather on their front porches at 6 p.m. Christmas Eve strikes an emotional chord with me. I want to be a part of it. I want to hear bells ringing from every doorstep on my street. Then I want to watch the television news coverage of bells ringing in other time zones and in other nations. It will restore my faith that people everywhere — from Capetown to Chicago, From Anchorage to Ankara, from Dublin to Denver are more alike than they are different, in the words of Maya Angelou. I want to celebrate with those people on apartment balconies and front porches all across the world. I am gathering up my bells!

Does anyone remember Hands Across America?

It was 1986. It was a BIG IDEA. Organized by USA for Africa, the same organization that produced the star-studded video concert We Are the World in 1985, Hands Across America was designed to underscore the need for funding to fight devastating famine in Africa, and also to address hunger and homelessness in the U.S.

The thought of people from all walks of life clasping hands to form a human chain stretching from the West Coast to the East to highlight the plight of those who needed help was more than I could resist. I became an early supporter. It was conceived as a benefit effort, not only to address problems but to be a ray of hope for those who had little else to sustain them. The 80s were difficult times for many Americans and for the world, although the sting of those years has faded over time.

The route was designated and mapped, and for a small donation, individuals were assigned a place to be at a specific hour — 3 p.m. Eastern time, May 25, or noon Pacific time. It was a Sunday. I gathered up my family, including my husband and young son plus several equally spirited friends. We drove about 30 minutes to be at our designated spot along a highway not far from our suburban Dallas neighborhood. We arrived shortly before 2 p.m. to find only a few others scattered along the roadway. I remember being somewhat disappointed that the crowd wasn’t as large as I had hoped.

But, as happened in other communities, we joined hands at the appointed hour and stood in solidarity under the Texas sun for a cause that was born from a dream, a cause we believed had the potential to change the world. We stretched our line along the roadway as far as possible. It was reported that there were breaks in the line throughout the nation, but in a cornfield in Iowa, in the geographic center of the United States, 16,000 people gathered. There were throngs in New York, in California, and in Indianapolis, where the Indy 500 was rained out but people stood in the rain for another reason.

It is said that long-haul truckers honked as they passed the lines along the country’s highways. It is said that a few stopped and joined the chain for brief moments. In some small towns, church bells rang out as neighbors gathered along their streets, one hand in another. And anyone who participated felt uplifted by it all.

President Ronald Reagan joined hands with others at the White House and then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill brought the U.S. Capitol into the chain. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton joined in in Little Rock, and scores of entertainers lent their names and their support to the effort. A theme song, Hands Across America, was broadcast simultaneously from radio stations coast to coast. For 15 minutes or so on one day in 1986, millions of people came together in a most unusual way.

Even though the actual human chain did not span the 3,000 plus miles as intended, it is estimated that more than five million individuals participated, perhaps as many as 6.5 million. Though there were empty spots along the route, it is also said that if those who joined the effort could have been equally spaced, the line would have stretched from coast to coast, and the effort was termed a success by the organizers, raising more than $15 million after expenses. Many of the participants donated more than the stipulated fee for the privilege of joining total strangers to see an audacious idea take shape.

So it is this year. It’s an outrageous request to ask people across the globe to step onto their front porches Christmas eve to perform a symbolic act — “to spread Christmas spirit and help Santa fly his sleigh” — with no thought of reward. But it’s also inspiring, isn’t it?

I want to hear bells echoing throughout my neighborhood the evening of December 24, and I want to see news reports of millions of people in scores of other countries shaking their own bells with an energy that could change the world.

Is that too fanciful a dream? Perhaps, but I hope not. Even if it doesn’t shake the world, perhaps it can open hearts, spark a new hopefulness, contribute to a happier holiday, and become the source of lasting smiles for many who have precious little to smile about this year.

So, enlist your neighbors, spread the word to friends and family, join neighborhood and online groups that are springing up to support what has become known as “The Christmas Eve Jingle 2020.”

Get those bells ready!

At the very least, perhaps it will be a fond memory, and provide a unique story for future grandmothers to tell their grandchildren in years to come.

We all know that 2020 has been a tough year. We all want the coming year to be better. And, no matter what holiday or holy day one celebrates this December, the year is coming to an end. Each of us must now look ahead to 2021. We cannot escape the passage of time, and we cannot turn back the calendar to a date that was more pleasant or more “normal.” All we can do is move on, so why not begin the process of moving ahead with a bell in each hand and new purpose in our hearts? It’s up to each one of us to make a difference.

I believe in hope and I know that we could all use a new measure of hope this season.

I remember Hands Across America, I remember We Are the World, and I want to be a witness as another Big Idea comes alive!

The art of sipping port

The mention of Port Wine has always, for me, prompted a vision of wood-paneled rooms filled with leather settees and impeccably-groomed men holding a glass in one hand and a cigar in the other. It’s a movie-set vision, I know.

Port still seems a bit mysterious. Like sherry, it has never really been a mainstream experience for most Americans. I was aware that port was produced in Portugal, while sherry is associated with Spain, but I knew little else. So, when my traveling companions and I had the opportunity to take part in a port tasting on a rainy day, we seized it. We were in Cascais, a delightful seaside city not far from Lisbon.

Port is produced only in a specific region in the country, and its designation is strictly regulated. Bottled in several varieties, there are expensive aged ports and sought-after vintages, but surprisingly smooth, rich and reasonably-priced options are also available. Stringent standards govern a port’s bottling and labeling. But all true port wine comes from the Douro Valley of northern Portugal. It bears what is termed a “controlled” appellation. Although other regions produce liqueurs and similar fortified wines, true port is distinctive and distinctively satisfying.

My brief experience in the tasting room certainly does not bestow expert status, but I feel confident that I would not embarrass myself by ordering an after-dinner port in a restaurant. For me, that’s a triumph. I also know now why so many people enjoy sipping port. I have a favorite, but the four different varieties we sampled were all pleasant. To my surprise, I learned that there is white port; and that it is, indeed, very good.

The cool, drizzly day presented us an opportunity to cozy up in a wine bar in the all-but-deserted marina area of Cascais. The proprietor beckoned us in, offering temporary shelter from approaching dark clouds. Within minutes, places were set, bottles arranged, and the learning commenced.

The tasting became a highlight of our two-week driving trip through Portugal. When we returned home, one of our first purchases was a bottle of Tawny Port. We savored it, both for its taste and for the memories it evoked.

A European trip the previous year filled in some gaps in my knowledge about sherry during a tasting and cooking class in the Spanish city of Jerez. I remember that experience fondly as well. Today, bottles of the two unique fortified wines share space in my home’s cocktail bar, offered as complements to good food and good times shared regularly with friends.

One of the best reasons for traveling, of course, has always been to experience new things. The tastes of new and previously unfamiliar food and drink rank every bit as high on my list as visual adventures. Even though, today, there is a temporary hold on my travel plans, the enjoyment lingers, the memories are sweet and fresh, and sharing past experiences keeps every recollection alive.

Oysters . . . and other Adriatic adventures

I had never developed an appreciation for raw oysters; nor for oyster stew or oyster stuffing at Thanksgiving, for that matter.

I have been known to order Oysters Rockefeller because that seems a “classy” choice at an upscale restaurant, on the same culinary level as escargot or whole artichokes. I love showy foods, and I admit that I enjoy demonstrating that I know how to deal with such dishes. I have, on occasion, skewered a salty, smoked oyster for a cracker.

But as for raw oysters. No, thank you. I do not love oysters.

My husband, on the other hand, enjoys oysters any way they’re served, but preferably right in the shell, cold, salty and fresh from the sea.

It was a preference he worked hard to cultivate, ordering oysters on the half shell several times in his early 20s. He initially discovered that the slippery oysters didn’t slide so easily down his throat, no matter how much he tried to disguise them with cocktail sauce and and Tabasco. Those first few times, he admits, were less than pleasant experiences.

But he persevered. At a tiny cafe in Brittany, with a view of the oyster fields just out the window, he ordered an oyster. One fresh-from-the-Atlantic oyster. The lone half shell on ice, accompanied by lemon and course sea salt, was brought to the table with a flourish by an ever-so-proper French waiter. It prompted curious smiles from those seated at nearby tables.

The waiter stood by expectantly, awaiting a reaction.

I was there, cheering him on.

Other diners also waited, and nodded approval as he downed that first cool slippery oyster. It was a personal triumph. And it started a trend. He has since ordered oysters in Maine, in numerous Gulf Coast eateries, and in fine restaurants in cities across the globe. He does, you see, love oysters.

After many years, we returned to that same restaurant in Cancale, France. It had changed a bit over the years, but the oyster fields are still the same, and this time my husband ordered a half dozen and enjoyed every one. In fact, he considered ordering another half dozen.

Today, he rarely passes on the opportunity to order oysters on the half shell when we’re near an ocean that allows them to be delivered fresh and cold from their habitat. He still asks for extra horseradish and hot sauce.

I resisted for the longest time, until we visited the Adriatic three years ago. Sitting on the open deck of a vessel anchored only feet from the oyster beds, I was prepared to enjoy the local fare along with the white wine promised as part of a half-day excursion from Dubrovnik, Croatia.

I had planned to say no to the oysters. But I was curiously enthralled as I watched the servers expertly open the shells and plate up the briny treats. Before I took much time to think about it, I was repeating “I can do this” to myself. I accepted my plate with a bit of trepidation, but I knew my mate would help me out if I couldn’t finish my share.

I sprinkled the smallest oyster with lemon juice, added just a drop of Tabasco, and closed my eyes. My first sensation was memorable. I sensed the cold, and tasted the sea. Then I swallowed. It was a whole new reality.

I actually liked the sensation. I was pleasantly surprised by the silky texture, the intense fresh flavor, and the saltiness. I felt close to the sea and its bounty in profound ways.

It was a lesson. It was delicious. It was unforgettable. Not only was it an eye-opening confirmation of the bounties of the sea, but it was the beginning of a love affair with Croatia. The time we spent there was all too short. Last November we returned to see more of the country.

I did not sample any more oysters, but I did partake, willingly, of other Croatian treats! The food is special, as are the people. To say we loved our two short visits to Croatia is an understatement. I still have no great love for oysters, but Croatia captured our hearts. This Thanksgiving I cannot help but think again of those trips.

I am thankful that we took those trips when we did. When the world is once again healed, we will return. I look forward to it.

And I am sure there will be more stories to tell.

Revisiting Rouen

Last May I wrote about a 2018 visit to this city in Normandy against the backdrop of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing. We were still in the early days of the pandemic. Two months ago, the world marked the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Today we are engaged in another battle against a formidable virus. On November 11, we honored those who serve or have served in our military. Today, we still await a definitive answer to the question of who will be our next president. Through all of this, I cannot help but remember my visit to Rouen. It serves as a reminder that generations of our forebears survived wars, devastating plagues and years of civil unrest. They endured. And so will we. Rouen adds new perspective to contemporary history. Perhaps we should learn from it.

The heart of a great city

William, Duke of Normandy, became King of England in 1066 following his victory at the Battle of Hastings, and the course of history was forever altered for two nations, if not for the entire world. Known today as William the Conqueror, his coronation was held at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day, but soon after his investiture, he returned to the capital of Normandy.

Considered a military genius, he was a descendant of the Viking Rollo, was uneducated, lacked culture, and spoke little English. He returned to England to quell periodic uprisings, but he spent most of his reign on the continent. He died near Rouen at the age of 60, in 1087, and is buried near the coast, at Caen, France, in the The Abbey of Saint-Étienne which was founded in 1063.

Another Duke of Normandy, who also held the titles of Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony, and Count of Anjou, was born in England, the fifth son of King Henry II and Duchess Eleanor of Aquitaine. He led a turbulent life, rebelled against his father the king, and formed an alliance with the king of France, along with two of his brothers.

Richard I was crowned King of England in 1189, but spent little time there. Like William the Conqueror, he may not even have spoken the language, but he was educated, enjoyed music and the arts, was personable but temperamental and quick to anger. He was also obsessed by the Crusades. He reigned for less than 10 years, and is best remembered for his exploits in the Holy Land, fighting Saladin and the Saracens during the Third Crusade.

Richard the Lionheart, not quite 42 years old, died of an infected arrow wound in 1199. History recounts that he had always “held Rouen in his heart,” and his embalmed heart rests in Rouen’s Cathedral, while his body is entombed “at the feet of his father” at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. His younger brother John succeeded him on the English Throne, and Phillip II of France gained control over Rouen, assuring that Normandy and Brittany would remain under French control.

I knew of the historical ties Rouen has with these renowned English kings, but it was yet another historical figure that beckoned me to Rouen. The Maid of Orleans met her destiny in Rouen in 1431. She was tried for heresy, witchcraft and other offenses ranging from horse theft to sorcery. She was burned at the stake by the English in a square that still serves as the site of the city’s public market. Her bones and ashes were gathered and thrown into the river.

History recounts that Joan of Arc did indeed hear voices and see visions. She believed they were signs, but modern authorities suspect she suffered from a medical disorder, something akin to epilepsy or perhaps schizophrenia.

Although characterized as a warrior, she actually never fought in battle, choosing to simply accompany the troops carrying a banner to urge them on. Nonetheless, she is credited with turning the tide of battle and securing a French victory over English forces in Orleans in 1429.

Joan was originally charged with 70 crimes which were later narrowed to 12; it is said that she signed an admission of guilt in exchange for life imprisonment, but days later violated the terms of that agreement by, among other things, once again donning men’s clothing and admitting that “the voice” had returned to guide her. She was subsequently sentenced as a “relapsed heretic,” according to historical records.

Joan of Arc — the name stems from her father’s surname d’Arc, even though she was simply known as Jehanne or Jehannette. During her trial, she referred to herself simply as Jehanne la Pucelle (translated as Joan “the maid”).

The young peasant girl became a national symbol, a uniting influence on French forces during the latter part of the bitter 100 Year’s War that lasted from 1337 to 1453. There actually was no victor in the war; the English simply retreated, finally realizing that the cost was too great, and the conflict ended.

Twenty years after the war ended, Charles VII, the French king who owed his position to Joan, held a posthumous retrial to clear her name, and she became not only a folk heroine, but also a mythic symbol of French nationalism.

As a child I was fascinated by her exploits, and by her brazen defiance of existing norms. I am still fascnated, and I wanted to see for myself the place where she met her fate.

For centuries, there was no monument to mark the spot of her demise in Rouen, just a simple cross in commemoration of the 19-year-old’s martyrdom. Today, a large modern Catholic church stands to honor Saint Joan; it was completed adjacent to the square in 1979.

Joan, by all accounts, never doubted that she had been chosen by God for her role in history, but it was not until 1920 that she was canonized as a saint. Today she is revered as the patron saint of France.

Then and now

Rouen is filled with good restaurants, small cafes and local bakeries. It boasts boutique hotels tucked away on narrow streets, within walking distance of major sites, a newly-redesigned and attractive riverbank that beckons river cruisers and bicyclists, picnickers and artists. Prior to the pandemic, visitors from across the globe arrived in the city during every season, seeking their own fulfillment. Rouen’s cultural appeal is catholic, and it resonates on different levels depending on one’s personal interests.

But Rouen offers something else as well. Visit the city during the off-season, and a uniquely personalized view of the city is your reward. The pace of life in this part of France is easy-going and friendly, surprisingly subdued. Indeed, if you stay in the medieval quarter or the university district, the slice of life that presents itself is distinctively “common.” It’s truly delightful, relaxed and unpretentious.

One can walk seemingly endlessly through the narrow cobbled streets of the Medieval quarter. We marveled at the clock, standing under its archway one dismal, chilly late afternoon. We lingered, snapping pictures, studying the artistry of its face and enjoying the music of its chimes. We knew that darkness would soon descend, but we hesitated there, unwilling to break the mood.

It’s impossible to be in Rouen and ignore its past. Napoleon visited textile factories in the city in 1802, helping to build that industry in the region; he also is credited with commissioning the Corneille Bridge and both Lafayette and Republic Streets. In Rouen, it is impossible to escape the emperor’s historical influence. In numerous ways, the history of France is tied to the history of Rouen.

Seeing it all unfold during a walking tour of the city is spellbinding. The most enduring memory, however, is of being alone in the courtyard of Rouen’s ossuary, the “Plague Cemetery.” It is an experience seared into my consciousness, as the world faces an unknown future besieged by a seemingly unstoppable virus.

Later, we ducked into a small brasserie for a cup of hot cafe au lait, and exchanged small talk with the proprietor and two other patrons who were as happy to speak a few words of English as we were to practice our French. We were immediately transported to the present, and we were buoyed by the charm and vivacity of the city’s modern vibe.

We left, strolling the almost deserted streets in search of an informal place to eat. Arriving too early for dinner, we were led upstairs to a warm, cozy nook that suited us perfectly for an early-evening supper. We sipped good red wine, dined on burgers and fries served in true French style, and conversed with the establishment’s friendly proprietor about contemporary life. It was a perfect finale to a day of immersion in the life of Rouen.

We will long remember our visit to Rouen, for any number of reasons.

A day to pay tribute

The world has changed, and no doubt it will continue to do so. However, no matter how much things change, hopefully we will continue to remember our past and to look forward to a bright new future. It is good for us to pause for just a moment to pay tribute to our veterans on this day. One hundred and two years ago, an armistice agreement was signed that signaled the end of what was to be the “war to end all wars.”

That, unfortunately, was not to be, but it was a lofty idea. And, because Veterans Day comes so soon after election day, this seems an ideal time to put our differences aside, and to remember just what it is that makes this country great.

I have written before of Veterans Day. This year, because of a nasty virus we cannot gather en masse, so it is up to us, individually, to honor it in our own ways.

This year, in particular, I believe it is important to look at our past as we look forward to our future — to pay tribute to those who served, and still serve, this nation. Those who don the uniform, any uniform, of the armed forces of the United States of America — deserve our respect. They have our backs. They are sworn to defend us abroad and at home, and they do so with honor.

Now more than ever before, we all bear a responsibility to look at our world with new eyes, with new understanding, with new determination.

This year, I fear, there will be few public celebrations — a sign of the times. But we must still remember — and celebrate — the legacy of the past century.

So, will you join me at 11 a.m. today — the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month — the exact time that that historic armistice became effective in 1918 — to pay tribute not only to our veterans but also to our country? It’s a small, symbolic request, but an important one.

As we face the challenges that lie ahead, whether of COVID-19, unrest at home or conflict with other nations, let us understand that we are strong, and that together we can respond to those challenges.

For at least 100 years, we have been the hope of the world. America continues to be so today. Believe it! Let’s try to live up to that hope!

A lesson in democracy

San Marino, capital of the European “microstate” of the same name, is not on most lists of “not-to-be-missed” European destinations. However, this tiny nation, founded in the year 301 and reputed to be the world’s oldest constitutional republic, ranks among our best adventures.

We had read, in passing, about this tiny, ancient city-state, and could not resist the temptation to visit a modern-day anomaly. The lure of the fifth-smallest nation on earth was strong.

My husband and I planned this quick excursion in conjunction with last winter’s Mediterranean/Adriatic cruise. Tiny San Marino is an easy drive — not more than about an hour — from the Italian port of Ravenna.

The world’s longest-surviving republic has known its share of difficult times and has been occupied three times, it is said, by foreign powers. But it has survived, and today it enjoys one of the world’s most stable economies, much of it derived from tourism, and is considered one of the wealthiest countries in Europe in terms of GDP.

Its claim to be the oldest existing sovereign state as well as the oldest constitutional republic is not disputed. San Marino’s 60-member legislature is elected every five years, and dual heads of state, “Captains Regents,” are elected by the council every April and October to serve six-month terms. From all outward appearances, the system of government, with an unlimited number of political parties, seems to work very well.

I think of San Marino now, as the calendar ticks down to our own election and wish I had been able to spend more time getting to know the people and learning more about their system of government.

The few hours we spent there are unforgettable. The mountaintop site of the old city is spectacular and the people we met were lively, welcoming and “real.” There is something compelling about a “parliamentary representative democratic republic” that has survived this long!

With a land area of only 23.6 miles, and a total population of just over 36,000, San Marino is completely surrounded by Italy. Its official language is Italian, and the currency is the Euro, although San Marino is not a member of the EU. There is no official border crossing.

The drive along the coast from Ravenna takes one along modern highways and through charming seaside resorts before turning inland to wind through agricultural fields and vineyards. It’s pleasant. The weather forecast was for cool temperatures with a chance of rain. We knew about San Marino’s strategic location, but we were not prepared for the fog that shrouded the peak as we began the ascent.

We had seen the pictures of “The Three Towers” that cap the crest of Monte Titano, and the medieval wall that surrounds the capital, also named San Marino. We had hoped to see them outlined by blue sky, as they had appeared in the tourist guide.

A roadside cafe on the way to the old city beckoned us, and we enjoyed steaming cups of hot chocolate with local workmen and uniformed highway police before pushing onward. It was grey and overcast, and the aerial tramway that would have whisked us to the summit on a sunny day was not running.

Not knowing what to expect, we pushed on and were able to park just outside the gate of the medieval city. Passing through the gate was like stepping back in time, or entering another world. Cobblestone lanes not much wider than a primitive wagon path greeted us, and even though the mist hung heavy all about, we were enchanted.

We could not see the valley below, nor could we see the crenelated towers above, but we were content to walk the steep lanes, peering into shop windows, catching glimpses of gardens and marveling at the statuary and art that punctuated plazas and wide spots along the narrow walkways.

We stopped at the upper station of the tramway, impressed by the engineering expertise it had required, and we looked over the edge of the city wall, disappointed at the mist that still blocked our view of the valley below. We ducked into the nearby Visitors Center to have our passports stamped as proof of our visit.

We strolled to the city’s beautiful basilica, marveling at the skill and endurance it must have taken to construct on top of the mountain in 1836, on the site of an earlier church that dated to the 7th Century. We were enthralled, and could have spent longer inside, but because we were on a strict time schedule, we decided to make our way back to our rental vehicle.

When we emerged, the clouds had lifted and the sun was shining. We could not leave without once again making our way to the city’s encircling walls to gaze in awe at the countryside far below us.

Although Ravenna has its own attractions, we were more than pleased by our decision to forego the eight UNESCO world heritage sites located there and head instead to a tiny nation-state with a long history.

It remains a fond memory.

Confronting history in Rouen

It is impossible to arrive in Rouen without feeling the weight of centuries. Every vista, every dark paving stone, every building carries a past both eerily familiar and somehow ominous. Despite that, Rouen is beautiful, and welcoming in many ways. And it is endlessly fascinating.

Much of Rouen is clothed in the layered green moss and the dark grime of centuries past; some of it chipped and broken or intentionally destroyed by succeeding generations of combatants and conquerors. Parts of the city still reflect the majesty and the mystery of past eras, testimony to times of unrest, when royal intrigue held sway over daily life, and the city was a jousting court for the powerful and ambitious.

The functional and the artistic are intertwined in this capital of Normandy. In the same way, the city’s history is both majestic and mysterious. The city oozes history, and happily unveils a contemporary spirit as well.

Some of it is elegant, some a bit bizarre, and some just quirky.

Situated about halfway between Paris and the beaches of Normandy to the northwest, Rouen is a stopping-off place and a guidebook “must see” destination for first-time visitors to France.

Rouen’s past history fills volumes. It is captivating. Its past imbues its soul. Gaudy tourist trinkets are available, but they don’t detract from its aura. Rouen’s ties are to French royalty, English kings, legendary warriors, beloved artists and esteemed writers. Its history was shaped by Rollo the Viking, William the conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Claude Monet and Gustave Flaubert, among others. It is said that Julia Child ate her first meal in France at Rouen’s La Caronne, the oldest auberge in the country. Rouen boasts a university and the spires of its noted cathedrals stretch to the heavens, punctuating the cityscape.

The reality of suffering

We spent a busy couple of days simply walking the streets of the medieval quarter. We did not venture into the modern city; instead we relished the experience of traveling, at least in our minds, to a time long ago. We were there during the off-season. For the most part, we had the city to ourselves, to discover at our own pace.

Before driving on to Caen and the D-Day beaches, our mission was to visit what is known as the Plague Cemetery. Little did we realize that just two years later the memory of that visit would haunt us. It is not a cemetery in any traditional sense. There are no headstones in neat rows, nor are there any crumbling monuments; there is no statuary. It is, indeed, almost impossible to find. But find it we did, and we entered the grounds of this somber place with more than a little trepidation.

Aître Saint-Maclou is small square not far from the Church of Saint Maclou in Rouen. The massive Gothic structure almost seems out of place amid surrounding half-timbered homes and ancient lanes. Both have slightly macabre carvings that recall the grim influence of the Black Plague that swept through Europe and led to the deaths of up to three-quarters of the citizenry in this parish.

During the plague of 1348, the area was used as a communal grave site for many of the city’s victims. Exterior timbers of the buildings that were later constructed around the perimeter of the site are decorated with skulls, crossed axes, shovels and other reminders of a time long gone.

A second round of plague swept the land about two centuries later, and previously-buried bones were exhumed and stored in an ossuary above the cloisters. During this second round of pandemic, the city required additional burial space. In the 16th Century, two-thirds of the population succumbed to the disease.

It is a sobering experience to stand in the middle of this now peaceful “atrium,” thinking about a time when it had another purpose. Other reminders of those times exist: The remains of a black cat that was entombed in the walls are now enshrined in a glass case. Some say that the cat was plastered into a wall in a superstitious attempt to repel evil.

Originally occupied as homes and places of business, three of the buildings date to about 1526, and a fourth was built in 1651 as a charity boys’ school. The cemetery itself was closed in 1781, and the place became a designated historical site in 1862. It is the only medieval ossuary that remains in Europe, although no bones remain either above or below ground.

In this time of pandemic, I could not help but recall our visit to Rouen, and the startling effect of the place.

Historic Rouen is unforgettable, with many stories to tell. We drove on to the coast, in search of brighter days and happier stories.

This year we are battling a perplexing pandemic. I could not help but think of our 2018 visit to Rouen. It seems there are always lessons to learn from the past.

This Memorial Day, we also especially remember the American Cemetery in Normandy, hallowed American ground with the graves of 9,388 American military dead. There the white markers stand in perfectly aligned rows, in high relief against the grassy landscape, to honor the sacrifice of servicemen and women during a war that ended 75 years ago this month.

Note: This is perhaps the last of what I have called the Corona Chronicles. It is time to move on. Other travel stories remain to be told, and I look forward to a time in a not-too-distant future when we can all travel freely without masks, and without fear. That time cannot come soon enough!