Time-tripping: A new perspective

My husband and I took a journey [this past week], a trip into our past.

The miles were few; and the travel time far less, because of a new highway, than it had been 30-some years ago when we made the trip regularly. We recognized some scenes along the way, and when we turned into the little town square for a drive through our memories, it looked pretty much the same, only slightly more forlorn now than then. The same shuttered buildings still seemed in danger of falling inward during the next big storm.

This is not a thriving, bustling population center. It is a very small, simple, rural area adjacent to a lake which, for the past several years at least, has faced debilitating effects of the drought and the economy. People here, from the looks of it, are not yet feeling the benefits of a recovery. And, on a rainy day in February, in Texas, there are no fragrant blossoms or green leaves to signal the promise of spring.

Experiencing life in the rear-view mirror

But we drove on. We had returned only once before, in more than 20 years, to see the retreat we had owned for more than a decade beginning in 1981. We had spent many a happy, sunny, activity-filled day there when our son was young. I have trouble, even today, calling it a “lake house.” It had floor, walls and roof. It had a kitchen, and a bath, one bedroom, and another small sleeping area. It was filled with mismatched furniture and cabinetry. We applied gallons of white paint to freshen its old walls. It had air conditioning only in one room. We added a screened activity porch, floored with cast-off multicolored tile, and graced by one banging screen door.

Oh, the times we had there in the one large room with a view of the water. We laughed; we cooked and read and played board games on the floor as a family of three. We watched mourning doves hatch in their nest outside our window, and we shuddered when a swarm of bees made a home for a night in the same tree. We did much the same — laughing, cooking, talking and playing, indoors and out, in and out of the water, on and off the boat — when we invited a crowd.

In the summer, we all cooled off under an outdoor shower plumbed to the trunk of a big tree, before putting hot dogs and burgers on the grill. On July 4th, we spread IMG_0679blankets on the lawn, and watched fireworks explode over the water.  It was a place for all seasons, and during the heat of summer we occasionally slept in hammocks and deck chairs.  Occasionally the allure of the place meant we packed up our sweaters and boots, and brought lots of hot chocolate just so we could watch migrating ducks and angry skies. In the winter, we slept soundly under warm quilts, lulled by the sound of lapping waves.

We loved the place. Our son — and our dog — learned to swim at “Camp Swampee.” Our son learned to sail, and to steer the motorboat. He learned to love fishing, and to dissect frogs, and to chase butterflies. He learned which snakes to avoid, and to watch for spiders under rocks. He learned to occupy himself alone in the great outdoors. He learned to steer the truck down the long, straight, bumpy road to the compound. We all learned to deal with the Texas heat during the searing days and to marvel at the star-filled sky at night.

We learned that the alternative to our day-to-day busy lives in the city, filled with school and jobs, meetings and friends, planned activities and regular schedules, is a cadence of life far different. We had “lake neighbors” who were equally happy to trade busy everyday lives for weekend peace and simplicity.

Our son grew up. We moved on and we moved away, but we carried with us a peculiar nostalgia for that place and time, across the miles and over the years.

Some journeys teach unexpected lessons

So, given opportunity and no set schedule, we set out to visit the past.

But it’s not there.IMG_0674IMG_0678IMG_0670IMG_0676It was almost a physical pain: My husband and I exchanged glances, without speaking. We, both of us, took slow steps onto the lot, walking with a hesitant, measured pace to where our house once stood.

Grass has begun to grow, and falling leaves camouflage bare ground. The dock still stands, but just barely. And, because of the lake level, it would be impossible to pull a boat into the sling under the shaky roof.

The shock was not so much that the building was gone. It had been old and worn when we owned it. The surprise is, rather, that what still shapes the way we are and think and feel in numerous, important ways has no physical presence in this world. We have left no lasting impression on that particular spot of earth.

We move on through life; we learn from each experience, sometimes in graphic, poignant and unexpected ways.

As we strolled back to our car, the lesson we both have learned:

Savor the present time

Note: This story was originally published on February 10, 2013 on Yahoo Contributor Network. That creative virtual magazine was taken down several years ago, but I ran across this post recently, and thought it worthy of a reprint. Except for a few minor revisions, it is as originally written. 

We think often of the good times we had on that little slice of earth on the shores of Cedar Creek Lake, and remember the place fondly, even though it no longer exists.  Perhaps, now that more than five years have passed since our last visit, we will take another ride to see if someone else has built a new home on the site.

In a way, I hope so. The lake and its lakeside communities have changed now, populated with full-time residents, and much grander weekend and summer homes. Perhaps the spot is enjoying a new incarnation with another family.

Somehow, though, in our minds it will remain frozen in time just as we knew it.

 

A long time ago . . .

No, it was not in a galaxy far away and, measured by most standards, it was not even so very long ago. But five decades is a long time for two people. That milestone just seemed to beg for special recognition.

So it was with a sense of wonder and mixed expectations that my husband and I set off in late January to revisit the city where we met some 51-plus years ago and married a year and a half later. As it turned out, our wedding date fell on the same day of the week as it had 50 years previous. We were astounded.

Paris, France

Oh, yes. Mais oui! It was Paris that brought us together, Paris that we loved, and Paris that was the destination for our anniversary celebration. Even though we have traveled abroad over the course of our 50-year togetherness, even to France, we stubbornly refused to book a trip to Paris, although we had repeatedly considered it. We were concerned that, after years of absence, it would somehow disappoint.WP_20180125_15_56_05_Pro

We held to the mantra: We’ll return for our 50th anniversary, although it was often in jest.

But return we did!

Paris has changed a great deal in the intervening years. As have we. Paris has changed not at all. And perhaps we are not so different either.

We visited the city as tourists on this trip, because even though the city felt familiar, and much of it looks the same, Paris felt different somehow. No longer home, we viewed the monuments and the avenues, the food and the traffic, the rainy mist and the sparkling lights through different eyes, and heard the sounds of a language we no longer felt quite proficient in. But we were nonetheless entranced.

The Essence of Deja Vu

I now know with certainty what Thomas Wolfe expressed. No, you can’t go home again.

Revisiting a place once so familiar and well-loved is always a new experience. It can be wonderful. And Paris does not disappoint.

Returning to the synagogue where we exchanged vows was an emotional experience. Rabbi and Cantor welcomed us, complete strangers congratulated us, and we were greeted and embraced by a community we did not know at all, but somehow knew very well! We will treasure the memory of that evening.

We drove past the Mairie in Boulogne Billancourt where our union was solemnized and recorded under French law. We barely recognized it.

We engaged in numerous “Do you remember” conversations, walked back streets and photographed favorite Parisian landmarks from afar.

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We felt no need to pay admission fees to revisit them. Nor did we set foot in any museums, pay the price for a gourmet meal at a renowned restaurant or spend a night “out on the town.”

Just as we had when Paris was our home, we savored the simplicity of life. Corner markets and flower stalls, changing light patterns, simple foods and table wine, parks and playgrounds are every bit as impressive as grand boulevards and monuments!

The Familiarity of Change

We did, however, make our way to Au Pied de Cochon, a landmark restaurant in the former district of Les Halles. WP_20180128_15_36_52_ProIt was once a regular late night gathering spot, and it has been open 24-7 since 1947. Onion soup and moules with frites are still good, but perhaps no better than at a local bistro. What is worthy of note is the redevelopment of this busy formerly bustling market area. It’s been a long time coming, but today the city’s major transportation hub has been transformed into an oasis of contemporary urban culture. It’s impressive to the max!

We stood in awe in the chilly dusk to hear the chimes of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and then we hailed a cab to return us to our hotel near the Etoile. WP_20180127_21_33_36_ProWe enjoyed a simple  dinner and a sinfully rich dessert at a small neighborhood eatery, charmed by the friendliness of everyone there: Italian chef, attentive server and fellow patrons alike. A couple at a nearby table could not fathom why we chose to stay away from Paris for 50 years. In the warmth of the moment, we didn’t understand it either.

We fell easily into our old appreciation for the cadence of life in this city. We walked in the drizzle, admiring the juxtaposition of centuries-old architecture and modern design. We marveled at the cleanliness, and were confused by the automation, of the modernized Metro system. We were impressed again by how small the core of historical Paris really is, and by the ever-expanding sprawl of the city and its suburbs. We were amused by the streetcorner sellers of crepes with Nutella fillings.

Memories to Hold

We photographed idled Bateaux Mouches excursion boats tied along the swollen Seine, picked out stairs, riverside walks and signs barely visible above the water line, and noted sandbags stacked to keep floodwaters out of nearby basements. Parisians flocked to the bridges and promenades to witness the swirling, fast-flowing water.

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The Louvre relocated some of its priceless collection as a precaution. Ten days later, the city was paralyzed by record snowfall, and the Eiffel Tower was closed to visitors for safety reasons. We witnessed — and felt the effects — of both flood and snow! There was, in fact, some doubt that we would be able to drive back into the city after the blizzard! We flew out as the city still lay blanketed in white.

100_8385We visited the artists still painting caricatures and uniquely original art at Place du Tertre in Montmartre; the paintings we bought 50 years ago still hang in our home. We ducked out of the drizzle and into out-of-the-way brasseries for a warm cafe creme or a quick aperitif. The weather was damp, the skies were mostly grey. We were cold. And we loved every minute of the time we spent in the City of Light.

After three days, we left the city to explore new highways and byways in Normandy and Brittany. Yes, we’re happy we returned to Paris after all this time; we’re not sure why we waited so long.

But it was time to move on.

 

Grandmother’s lessons

Thanksgiving was low-key at my house this year. Not that there isn’t an abundance of things to be thankful for, but our small multi-generational family had an abundance of plans for the extended holiday. We gathered Thursday for what was to be a simple midday meal, before scattering in different directions to enjoy the long weekend.

What was to have been a small turkey breast to serve five (with enough left for a few sandwiches) became a 12-pound turkey. (The market had no fresh breasts available, and we had not built thawing time into the schedule; the option was a “smallish” fresh bird.)

The rest of it? A mix of traditional and easy prep. One large — overly large, as it turned out — fresh from the garden salad that boasted tiny boiled potatoes, green beans and dried cranberries. Roasted yams and wild rice stood in for mashed potatoes and cornbread stuffing. Savory pumpkin gratin, recipe courtesy of Jacques Pepin, homemade cranberry-orange relish, and a freshly-baked Challah, as pretty to look at as it was good to eat, kept kitchen prep time to a minimum.WP_20171123_14_01_38_ProAs usual, “simple” morphed into too much!

Friday, we were content with turkey sandwiches, salad and television movies. Saturday was a quiet day, with only a few must-do’s, and no plans for a “real” meal. Snacking at will was the order of the day.

When faced with options, make soup

I am grateful that my grandmothers were good cooks, and that I had a chance to hang out in their kitchens many years ago, not only during holiday preparations, but afterwards as well.

I learned the truth of “Waste not, want not,” and I learned to “make do” and make meals out of what was on hand. I also learned that simple meals are best!

Those were lessons well learned.

So, for Saturday supper, soup it was. Pan drippings and turkey parts that would have become gravy had we served mashed potatoes and dressing on Thursday became the catalyst. Leftover wild rice added heartiness. Fresh celery, carrots and onions, constant staples in the refrigerator crisper, are the basis of any good homemade soup, right? And leftover Challah is still delicious!

It was a large pot of soup, enough to feed son and daughter-in-law who stopped in unexpectedly Saturday evening, with enough “left over” for Sunday lunch.

No pie, you say? Well, not exactly!

It bears repeating that our Thanksgiving was pared down and simplified in many ways. There was no pie — not pumpkin, not apple, mince or pecan. No brownies, no ice cream. Apples and oranges, yes, but even they went untouched. None of us suffered from a lack of food; desserts were not missed.

However, I had purchased pie crusts, just in case. (No, I do not see any reason to make my own!)

So, for tonight’s dinner, the plan is to have Turkey Pot Pie. Actually, I can picture it already: Colorful carrots, peas and potatoes joining small bits of turkey meat, oozing with creamy goodness and threatening to bubble up through the golden crust. Chilled (leftover) cranberry sauce will add color and tart flavor to the simple dinner. With a green salad, it will be nutritious and more than ample.

Will one pie suffice to clear the refrigerator of leftovers? I am not yet sure, but if there’s enough turkey to make two, I will be happy to have an extra to pull from the freezer.

On this weekend, especially, I am thankful to have the blessings of home and family, a warm, comfortable hearth, good health and good food.

And those leftovers!

Where to go; when to stay home

Somehow, I am out of words.

Projects call for completion; I have holiday plans to make and work to do, but I am stuck in the doldrums. The year is inching toward its close and the new one seems filled with promise. But little is happening in my world, or in my mind, right now.

I am stuck. It’s cold. Right now, a cozy fire, a good book and a hot cup of tea are the delights I savor, along with an occasional old movie on television. Just as sailors of old awaited fresh sea breezes to clear away the calm, I look forward to bursts of new energy.

There was a December trip planned — a 30-day excursion around the tip of South America. The journey would have taken us, perhaps not coincidentally, through the doldrums. Alas, the time away seemed too long, the distance too far. Home won out.

So here I am, wanting to write about good food and faraway places, but searching for a biscochito recipe instead!

A quick Thanksgiving road trip to visit family in Santa Fe was an unexpected pleasure, and it left a lingering desire for those spicy, anise-flavored, miniature treats that are holiday staples in the Land of Enchantment.

p2070090-2-516x360Even though Santa Fe is no longer home, there are elements of life there that are hard to leave behind. Biscochitos,  a dusting of snow on pinons trees and adobe walls, green chili stew, bright sunlight glistening off snow-covered mountain peaks, antelope cavorting on the eastern plains, lone coyotes standing watch in unexpected places, and the wonder of lighted trees aglow on Santa Fe’s plaza.

Pictures tell the story, even though the words won’t come.

There are more trips waiting in the wings, but right now home beckons. As does the kitchen. And that’s not a bad way to spend the rest of December.

 

Portovenere: Poetry in any language

My husband and I hadn’t really intended to be in Portovenere. We were driving through Italy with no particular destination in mind. At a small gas station in the port of Genoa, we stopped to ask general directions to the waterfront, with every intention of finding a charming out-of-the way inn along the way, perhaps one with a view of the harbor and a trattoria within walking distance.

We had no timetable. It was chilly. It was the end of January, not the height of tourist season along the Mediterranean coast. The prospect of a good glass of red wine, a simple pasta and a comfortable bed beckoned. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The station attendant pointed — Portovenere, he repeated — along with a rapid stream of Italian, most of which was lost on us. “Portovenere, Portovenere, Portovenere. . . ,” accompanied by hand waving, curliques in the air, motor sounds, big smiles and, once again the repeated word: “Portovenere!”

It was decided. We pulled out the map, pinpointed the location and the route, smiled at our benefactor and trip planner, and were off to Portovenere.

What a Delight!

The little city is nestled into the craggy cliffs that line the sea; it has all the charm and colorful beauty of better-known Cinque Terre villages. Along with them, Portovenere is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. They are all magnificent. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Portovenere is ancient, and it retains the homey aura of a small fishing village, with terraced hillsides above.

Perhaps it was just because we arrived at dusk during a very slow season, but everyone we met, from the hotel desk clerk to local workers on their way to the trattoria, greeted us cordially and made us feel like long-lost friends.

The feeling was not diminished the next day, nor the next. We stayed on, enchanted by everyday life in this beautiful village. We walked the streets, sauntered along the docks, ventured up the steep, hillside cliffs when we felt like it. We breathed deeply of the fresh seaside air, and looked out on the waters of the Med, but felt no need to take the sightseeing boat to the nearby trio of islands that are major tourist destinations.

Familiar Comforts

The truth is that Portovenere wrapped us in the comfort of normal lifestyle, at a point in our three-week trip when we had tired of tourism. In some ways, it felt like going homeOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We sipped aperitivos at the local bar, and watched local television with residents relaxing after work, and then we ambled down the street to enjoy fresh seafood, good wine and spirited, if awkward conversation with other diners in the sparsely-occupied room. I’ve forgotten the dishes and the details, but the warmth of the experience, and the certainty that it was a good one, remain. I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but I like to think it is still there, awaiting my return.

It’s a fanciful thought, I know, appropriate in some odd way for this Thanksgiving week. Going home for Thanksgiving is deeply ingrained in our consciousness, whether that trip is to Grandma’s house or simply a gathering that brings family and friends together for shared experience, wherever it may be.

Special Places and Times

That first and only visit to Portovenere was more than a decade ago and it still stands out in my memory as one of those places I would return to on short notice! That’s what I have been thinking about this week — the prospect of revisiting favorite spots across the globe, an irresistible urge to experience old delights once again. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Pisa is on the list, and Assisi, along with Carrara, where Michelangelo found his stone. The tops of the mountains shine white in the distance, chipped away over the centuries to expose the shining white cores. Counter tops are still quarried here, some of them by old methods. It’s quite an experience to drive to the summit of a marble mountain!

There are other places, too, to revisit, most of them not the subject of travel guides and magazine articles. But that’s what makes travel special, isn’t it? Finding those places that speak to the soul is not something a traveler plans.

If it happens, it’s hard to deny. Portovenere is like that.

Savor the Good Times

In my mind, I can picture my return, just as I picture returning to my former home city of Santa Fe this year for a large family Thanksgiving.

May all of you find a special place in the heart this Thanksgiving. Maybe we can all search out those delightful spaces and places at other times of year as well.

If it’s impossible to return home in a physical sense, however, at least make a point to revisit those special places periodically in spirit. Savor those experiences.

There are many ways, and many reasons, to celebrate Thanksgiving

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It’s a community of sorts. Loosely knit, perhaps, but the armada of sailors and cruisers that descends on St. Mary’s towards the end of November each year is every bit as much a family as most of those with blood ties.

It’s Thanksgiving that brings this marine family together in a little town on the river between Georgia and Florida. It’s a time to share stories, good times and good drinks. They arrive each year. They come “home” for the holiday.

St. Mary’s residents have been hosting this gathering for Intracoastal Waterway voyagers since 2001. This year, it begins the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and ends with a pancake breakfast the following Friday. There are other events over the weekend and some of the vessels stay on for a few days. Cumberland Island is nearby; there is much to see and do.

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Newcomers are welcomed by the old-timers with warmth and good cheer, greeted as new friends and immediately inducted into the “family.”

There is a camaraderie that is natural and unforced. The week’s activities center around the Riverside Hotel and its Seagle’s Restaurant and Saloon.  Boaters and townspeople mingle at happy hour, enjoy a chili cook-off  and consume dozens of oysters at a Wednesday afternoon free roast. They drink coffee and other libations, exchange anecdotes and tell tall tales.

Townspeople come to the harbor to meet the “boat people.” They offer “restocking” rides to nearby grocery stores and gift shops and they renew old acquaintances. They come to ask questions about the boats, to hear stories of adventure, to marvel at the hardiness (or the folly) of those who choose the sea over the comforts of land-based homes. Children view the boats with wide-eyed wonder.

Those who arrive early find dock space. Those who come later pick up moorings or drop anchor. There seems always to be enough room. Those who travel the Intracoastal Waterway routinely plan their voyages with a St. Mary’s Thanksgiving in mind. Others happen on the celebration by chance. Still others hear of it, and can’t resist the urge to see if it’s true.

Photo by Tony Alter/Flickr15714052278_913ff71a3c_zIt does not disappoint. Thanksgiving festivities begin along the docks, and drift into town each day. On Thursday, local resident volunteers arrive in the morning with home-cooked turkeys and hams. Side dishes, salads and desserts appear as if by magic, contributed by the boating community. Dinner is served buffet style, beginning just after noon, and it continues until the food disappears. There always seems to be more than enough — of food and friendship.

We pulled in at dusk:  It had been a long and chilly journey.  But fellow cruisers along the waterway had told us it was worth the effort. November is somewhat late for pleasure boats to be traveling on the Intracoastal Waterway, but 2008 was relatively mild, and we encountered few problems other than the loneliness of being alone for Thanksgiving.

How quickly that changed. Although we have not returned, we think of that special Thanksgiving often. It was, indeed, memorable — an event out of all proportion to the size of the town. We filled our stomachs. The experience filled our hearts.

Even old salts find solace in planting their feet firmly on the ground on occasion. This holiday in this town, with these special people, is a unique and lasting gift.Chasing Sunsets 054

All boaters travel on, but they leave satisfied, awed and thankful.

For more information on St. Mary’s, visit the city’s official website.

 

How to know if you’re a food snob

 . . . and what to do about it!

Some people celebrate their snobbery, of course, by reading restaurant reviews before making a reservation, cultivating their knowledge of the proper wine to accompany a rare steak or a traditional Welsh rarebit, diligently identifying every ingredient and perfecting the most unusual preparation techniques.

That’s okay — absolutely! The joys of cooking and eating are individual pursuits.

But good food is found in unusual places and, at least sometimes, under the oddest of conditions — on street corners, in out-of-the-way neighborhoods, in unexpected circumstances. Good food is also found, commonly and abundantly, around a simple family dinner table, whether it’s a hearty soup, a warm casserole, a generations-old treat, or a weeknight family get-together. Good food does not have to be fancy, and it can also be fast.

Food, at its best, is a celebration. Breaking bread together is an honorable tradition in every culture around the globe. It’s not in a literal sense that sharing food is so important, but in the wider sense of sharing a small slice of life with other people, be they family members or strangers, along with the slice of beef, the slice of pizza, or the slice of pie.

It’s the connection that matters; food is the glue that binds us together.

I happened to catch the last few minutes of a Jacques Pepin cooking show recently on PBS and was transported back to the time I spent in Paris as a young woman. French food was so good; learning how to prepare it properly seemed so unattainable. And then I learned.

What I learned is that French cuisine, at its heart, is simple food. It’s crafted from simple ingredients, picked fresh from the garden, or purchased fresh from the market. It’s peasant food and, as such, often there are no recipes, just general guidelines. It’s meant to be shared, with friends and family, both the preparation of it and its consumption. It evolves naturally from what’s available.

Iconic French onion soup illustrates the point — humble onions and a bit of butter combined with dry bread and a some leftover cheese! It’s a classic. But, at its heart, it is simply a “make do” meal for times when no meat is available.

Although I never met him, I feel as if I know him. Jacques Pepin’s brand of kitchen reality resonates with me; he is the chef I would most like to spend time with in the kitchen, or have as a guest at my dinner table.

Yes, I know that he once prepared dishes for the presidents of France. I know that he’s a renowned chef, and that he has written cookbooks and mastered all the fancy kitchen techniques. I know all that, but as I watch his shows, and see him interact with his family and friends, I can’t help but appreciate how this 80-year-old chef views food, with a sparkle in his eyes, and a smile on his lips. It’s always a celebration.

“The love of food, and cooking, is passed down from generation to generation, with favorite recipes at the heart of every family. What do you say to that? Happy cooking!” Jacques Pepin.

I am convinced again that this is the way we all ought to approach food — in our own kitchens, laughing and sampling and experimenting — tasting as we go along — just the way Jacques Pepin does. My grandmothers did that too. They sampled food with their fingers, added a “bit of this and a pinch of that,” rarely followed a recipe exactly, and always let the “young’uns” lick the spoon and sample the pie crust tarts hot from the oven. They also learned to “make do” when necessary.

PBS stations around the country air a final 26-week series on Jacques Pepin, “Heart and Soul,” this fall. Check local stations for scheduling. Segments from a previous series, entitled “Jacques Pepin: fast food my way,” are available to watch online.