POSTCARD FROM CARMEL


POSTCARD FROM CARMEL

Once every five years or so, we join our friends Mike and Jeanine to celebrate their wedding anniversary in Hawaii. We intended to do the same this year, but when we saw the airfares to the islands (close to a $800 per person this summer, and only marginally lower now,) we decided to go to Plan B, and rent a place on the beach closer to home. We were researching options in California when Michael found an ad for a house, perched on a rocky cliff eight miles south of Carmel, removed from lights and civilization, with a hot tub on deck, and views of the coastline as far as the eye can see. When we saw that this could be our dream home for a week at a price far less than the cost of airfare to Hawaii, we said, “Sold!”

It’s rare for a place to look better in real life than in the advertising brochure, but “Sea Swept” has exceeded its billings. You could easily cruise by on Hwy 1 towards Big Sur, and never know the place was here, except for a small white mailbox by the side of the road, and a discreetly set- back wooden appearing fence (concealing the iron electrically operated mechanism) with a small keypad on the side, and a sign cautioning you to “Beware of Dog.”  (We later found the final resting place of “Rags” under a Cypress by the ocean, dreaming his eternal dreams of chasing rabbits through the fields, so the sign was not a complete bluff.) As you come down the curving driveway, the majesty of the Pacific unfolds in front of you. The single story house with weathered spruce siding and picture windows on all sides sits off to one side, set back about 20-30 feet from the edge of the cliff, surrounded by a well trimmed lawn, succulents, and low cut bushes. Flagstones lead up to the porch, on which sit comfortable rocking chairs, a wooden chaise lounge, and a few plants in pots. The other side of the house also has a deck, with the hot tub strategically placed to afford views of the sunset and the night skies for the sybaritic visitor. The kitchen is small, but functional, and unusually well stocked with all manner of cookware and implements. The owners, recently here, I’m told, even generously left us several bottles of half consumed wine, as well as an assortment of liqueurs, gin and whiskeys.

The master bedroom (won by Miki and I by a coin toss with Michael) has cathedral ceilings with a wall of giant north facing windows that give the place a planetarium like feel at night, along with a westerly facing picture windows so you can see the sunsets and the pelicans flying in tight V-formation cruising by on their way south. (All day long we watch these large birds flying by in flocks of 3 to 30, and always headed in the same direction. Either they are in a migration pattern, or they get shipped north in trucks during the night by the Chamber of Commerce to give more picturesque views for the visitors as they stream South by the cliffs and glide over the waves with less than a foot clearance for their wings during the daytime.) The back bedroom has a separate entrance to the outside, and sliding glass doors with a view of the ocean to the south. There are two full bathrooms, so we don’t have to step on each other’s morning routines.

To the south of the house sits a bench, surrounded by ice plants turning various shades of orange and red, and an unobstructed view of the coastline with a rocky shoreline pounded by crashing waves. We can see several small islands of giant boulders that dot the shores from Big Sur, and extend up past Oregon and through the Pacific Northwest. We see several seals frolicking in the foam below the house, and can hear their distinctive bark as we hike up and down the coast. Brown seaweed spreads itself out like hair over barnacled rocks; gulls send up plaintive cries. Waves lap in with tongues of foam and recede, the smooth weathered rocks clattering like bones. Harder to see, but easily visible with binoculars, are the sea otters, as they wrap themselves around with seaweed for anchor, and float lazily on their back, often with a stone they hold with their paws on their bellies, used for cracking open the abalone shells, which are the favorite parts of their diet. (Who said man is the only tool using animal?) Having almost been hunted to extinction by Russian fur traders in the mid 1800’s, these small 15 pound aquatic mammals are now abundant along California’s Central Coast, consuming their weight in abalone every four days. That’s a lot of abalone!

We drove up in two cars, so we need not be tied to each other at the hip while here. It was a good thing, because each car was packed with groceries, giving us enough food and wine for the duration of our stay. Jeanine and I both enjoy cooking, but we decided to take off for one of the nights and drive into Carmel for dinner. I used to visit here yearly for the Western Society for Clinical Research meetings, so I knew many of the places in town. However, chefs and restaurants change, so I did a little online research, and came up with Anton and Michele’s, a French-Continental place in a very elegant setting near the center of town. The reviews I read turned out to be spot-on, and the food and service were both exceptional. To top off the evening, Michael and Miki split an order of Bananas Foster, flambéed at table side. It was a dish I hadn’t seen since I lived at New Orleans, where it was originally invented. A taste confirmed it was good as I had remembered.

We have brought a number of books with us, and Jeanine and Miki a couple of 1000 piece puzzles, of which they have already completed one. We have no cell phone reception along this part of the coast, so we are not tempted to break the blissful seclusion this place provides. It is, as Miki likes to say, “the relaxation response.”

I love to hike, and there are over 80 outstanding hiking trails within 40 miles of us, so I am in seventh heaven. Some of the trails wind through the giant redwoods of Big Sur, while others follow streams through narrow, fern laced canyons. Some lead up to waterfalls, or vistas of the spectacular countryside, whereas others meander along the craggy coastline, revealing pristine, empty beaches, scenic coves with white foaming waves, or tide pools with circling hungry shore birds looking for lunch. Miki loves big waves, and this is the place and time of year to see them. Giant, roiling, 15 foot monsters that come on with the power of freight trains, splaying cataracts of froth into Titanic fountains as they crash into the cliffs and boulders along the beach. Each day, the ocean is different, switching from the wine dark seas of Homer near dusk to aqua and green swirls through which we spot playful dolphins thrilling themselves in their freedom. Aquatic palms, anchored in the rocks below us, bend with each watery assault, then spring upright as the waves recede, mull their fates, then bow once more as the waves come roiling back again.

One day, as I’m looking at potential hiking trails, I discover, much to my surprise, that Mike and Jeanine have never been to Point Lobos State Park, arguably the most scenic section of coastline in this part of the country. It was an omission we easily remedied, and chose a good time to do it. Absent of tour buses and swarms of visitors, we practically had the place to ourselves. We came across more docents eager to help us and point out the wonders of the local flora and fauna than we did tourists. M & J got to see the iconic Lone Cypress, the rocks filled with barking seals, and the grand vistas for which the park is justly famous.

We have lucked into Camelot weather. Sunny, clear days, just brisk enough to make a vest or a light fleece comfortable for a hike, with evening clouds rolling in to help make the sunset more memorable, followed by a night time storm, where the howling wind and driving rain makes the comfort of the house even more cozy and welcoming, all disappearing for hopeful morning sunrise. We couldn’t have prayed for anything better. Each day, we remind ourselves how fortunate we are, to be able to be in this magical setting, to share the experience with each other, to be healthy enough to do the things we are doing, to have the abundance of good food and drink we consume each day – we take none of this for granted, and are grateful.

Advertisements
Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

POSTCARD FROM PARIS & BRUGGE


POSTCARD FROM PARIS & BRUGGE

It was the best of times; it was the briefest of times. We had not been back to Paris since Peter and Stephanie’s marriage a little over five years ago, and we were excited at the prospect of seeing them in their natural habitat, in their new home. Air Tahiti Nui has a non-stop from LA to Paris, and before you finished saying “fromage,” (the food on the flight was excellent, including ample samples of the aforementioned substance so essential to French life) we whisked through customs at Charles de Gaulle. After negotiating a small confusion as to which level of the airport garage we were to meet son Peter and our daughter-in-law, we successfully united, to be swept away by Stephanie in her Renault Twingo into the city. We had never ridden in her car before, and had minor concerns regarding the four of us fitting in her small vehicle with even our limited carry-on luggage. We needn’t have feared, as the Twingo accommodated our stuff behind the seat, and we found the back seat to be surprisingly spacious and comfortable. Stephanie, who drives with the élan and skill of an F1 Formula driver, had us back in the heart of Paris in record time. Weekends are definitely the time to arrive here, as traffic is light, and you avoid the many bouchons (traffic jams) frequent at other times.

Peter found us a hotel, the Residence Quintinie Square in the 15th, literally around the corner from their apartment. Our room was nicely appointed with coffee service on the table and a view of the park across the street out our window. It had a functioning elevator (not a fact to be taken for granted in Paris) and was very comfortable. After unpacking and briefly freshening up, we proceeded next door for our introductory visit to their home.

Peter and Stephanie live on the fourth floor (which in France is really the fifth floor, as the ground floor is considered to be 0) in a renovated building with a winding wooden staircase. There is no elevator, so you better check what you want to bring with you before leaving the apartment, or be prepared for more exercise. I now have a better appreciation of how the French are able to consume the quantities of baguettes and croissants they take in regularly, and still manage to stay slim. Between the stairs on the Metro you negotiate regularly up and down, walking and carrying groceries, then dealing with the stairs in your building, you really don’t need a Stairmaster or a gym membership.

Their slightly larger than 70 sq. meter apartment is very cute, efficiently laid out, and filled with wonderful light. I especially liked their wooden floors, the working fireplace in the living room (which they hadn’t yet used, but were planning to do so soon) and their newly remodeled kitchen. They wisely chose to furnish the place in a tasteful, minimalist style, yet with comfortable chairs and couches. Steph seems to have successfully reigned in Peter’s tendency for clutter and hoarding, which I must confess, has a genetic predisposition.

Shopping for food in Paris is daily ritual, made so by the small size of apartments and storage facility, as well as by the admirable desire to eat fresh food daily. While supermarkets are to be found in small numbers in parts of the city, most people still shop for their vegetables, bakery goods, meats, fish, and wines in separate stores. This is certainly less efficient than our one stop shopping, but it also provides a much more personal experience with the shop keepers who know their regular customers, as well as for a less homogenous choice of probably higher quality products. So far, Parisians have been able to resist the ruthless efficiency of the marketplace to maintain this style of life. Personally, I hope they always do. I also was impressed by the artistic arrangement of the food products in all the stores we passed, as well as by the abundance of floral stands along our way. No wonder Paris is the trendsetter for beauty throughout the world!

After laying in provisions for dinner, the kids took us for lunch at a small near-by restaurant.  It was one of those little, hole-in-the-wall places, filled with charm and eccentricity that can be found in a few cities around the world, but not many.  Drapeau de la Fidelite is owned by a Vietnamese gentleman who apparently was a professor of philosophy in Saigon. The small restaurant is filled with books, including many classics, primarily in French. Diners are free to browse through the collection. In addition, they can purchase one of the three books written by the owner on various philosophic topics. The food was extremely reasonably priced, excellent, and consisted of mostly Vietnamese dishes. Students are given a 10% discount on the menu items. It was a great introduction to our Paris sojourn.

Having arrived at 9 AM, and now starting to fight the nine hour jet lag, we knew it was not a good idea to give in to our fatigue, but stay up as late as possible to get adjusted to our new time zone. Accordingly, Miki, Peter and I headed out to the Place de la Concorde on the Metro, while Steph went back to the apartment to grade some of her students’ papers.  Now best known for the impressive 3200 year obelisk from Luxor given to King Louis Philippe by the viceroy of Egypt, the magnificent and historic square was once also the home of the guillotine, where in 1793 Louis XVI was beheaded, followed by over 1300 others, including Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, Madame du Barry, and Charlotte Corday, Marat’s assassin. The optimistic current name of the square was given the year after, when the Reign of Terror ended.

By this time, we were running out of energy, so we found some comfortable chairs by one of the fountains in the Tuileries, along the scenic garden path connecting the Louvre to the Place de la Concorde. Here, we proceeded to partake in one of our favorite travel activities, people watching. It was a sunny and balmy afternoon, drawing large numbers of locals as well as tourists to enjoy the charms of the park. We spent a couple of hours immersed in the flow of life around us, which Miki also used for what she considered to be a surreptitious nap. Then it was getting late, so we headed back to meet Steph. By the time we got to the apartment, we decided we were too tired to have dinner, so we opted for some cheese, sliced cold cuts, and a glass of wine before calling it a night. Steph had to work the next day, and we agreed to meet Peter in the morning for breakfast.

Neither of us had any trouble falling or staying asleep. I was awakened the next day by what I thought was the buzzing of the alarm clock. When pounding on the switches didn’t diminish the annoying “bbrrrr, bbrrrr, bbrrrr” noise, I decided to pick up the phone. The voice of the concierge conveyed to me in his limited English, “Call to you,” which was followed by what suspiciously sounded like a dial tone. I looked at the phone to see if there were any other buttons to push, and finding none, proceeded to yell “hello” several times without response. Miki finally woke up enough to ask “Who was that?” and to inform me it was 7 in the morning. Unable to elicit a response, I hung up the phone, only to have it ring again, and be greeted by the same message from the concierge, followed by the same dial tone. When the phone rang for the third time about 30 seconds later, I finally got Peter on the line, wanting to know if we were O.K. “Of course we were O.K.” I told him, “but why the hell are you calling us at 7 in the morning? Is something wrong?” He seemed taken aback at first, but then confirmed it was really 12:30 in the afternoon. With the curtains closed and the room dark, we had slept for over 16 hours! This was a new record, even for Miki.

With over half the day already behind us, we met Peter in the apartment for our next foray into Paris life. After some coffee and a piece of baguette generously slathered with Regine’s (Steph’s mom’s) wonderful homemade confiture, we were ready to face the world. Fortunately, we had both spent enough time in Paris on prior visits that none of us felt the need to do the usual touristy things (much, I suspect, to Peter’s relief.)  Instead, our goal was to explore some of Paris’s varied neighborhoods, immerse ourselves in the local life, and meet some of Peter’s many eclectic friends. Thus, we headed out to the Canal St. Martin, a 5 km. waterway with numerous locks from the 1800’s built to create a shortcut for river traffic between loops of the Seine. Still in use today, its tree lined quays, iron footbridges and public gardens are ideal for a leisurely stroll. Peter told us that on summer evenings, the banks of the canal are filled with picnickers and young lovers (not necessarily exclusive of each other.) There is a peaceful feeling walking along the well-worn steps and cobblestones of the quays, with overhanging trees providing a canopy filter for the wonderful light that has made Paris every photographer’s dream.

Peter had called his friend Jim to meet us at a waterside café. We had met Jim briefly at the wedding, and had a chance to chat with him at the time, as he and his girlfriend were sitting at our table. Five years later he was still the warm, interesting man I had remembered. He and his Vietnamese girlfriend, M.C. were still together, but he had recently taken leave of his IT job of many years, and was taking a sabbatical to consider what option to pursue for the future. He is an avid photographer, an avocation he shares with Peter. I admired his willingness to take risks, and give thoughtful guidance to his future, rather than drifting through life as many others seem to do. We had a pleasant, albeit brief, time at the café, as I had many other issues I would have liked to have discussed with him, but they will have to wait until our next meeting. After the café, we stopped in one of the many wonderful book stores found all throughout Paris – this one specialized in books on art and photography. (Sadly, the big book chains in the States have just about driven these great repositories of art and culture into almost complete extinction.)  I could have easily stayed in the store (or several of the others we had visited during our stay) for hours, but the troops were getting hungry, so it was time to head home.  On the way back, we again visited Peter’s local produce stand and boulangerie (Miki was not about to be deprived of her baguette!) while I popped into the wine store to pick up a bottle to complement our dinner.

Peter is most fortunate in having not only an intelligent and beautiful young wife, but also one who is an excellent cook. I must say, we enjoyed our role as honored guests, sitting at the table munching on appetizers and sipping wine, while the “children” prepared dinner for us. Steph’s salad was delicious, and her Cake aux Cardons et au Romarin was light and scrumptious. If you beg her, as I did, she may share the recipe with you. Sated with great food and good wine, we headed off to sleep.

The following day, Miki had made arrangements to meet her classmate from the Harvard orthodontic program in Chartres.  Nil lives in Paris, but commutes each day an hour by train to his office in Chartres.  He is a wonderful, warm man with courtly manners, who met us at the train station and proceeded to take us for lunch at Le Grand Monarque, one of the top restaurants in the city. Waiting for us at the table were Nil’s two office assistants, the vivacious Martine who loves to dance and smiles with her eyes, and the charming Francoise.  The restaurant, with its glass ceilinged atrium, attentive staff and rich linens brought back the quiet elegance of a bygone era. Nil, as always, was the perfect host, and any meal that starts off with champagne and foie gras, proceeds through wine and fresh sole that melts in your mouth, then finishes with a grand cafe royal, is not one to be forgotten.  As enjoyable as the meal, so was seeing the happiness and affection of two old friends reunited again.

Nil is very lucky to have Martine and Francoise, two women who have been with him for a long time, who obviously care about him, his patients, and each other. They appeared to make a well-functioning team, as after lunch they showed us around Nil’s office, located in an old house just a seven minute walk from the train station.  It felt more like a home than a dental office, and I’m sure its atmosphere, along with the warmth of Nil and his team, helped to ease young patient’s anxieties.

You can’t come to Chartres and not visit its justly famous cathedral. Arguably, it has the most magnificent stained glass windows of any church in the world. We were certainly dazzled by the panoply of colors on display, including the unique Chartres blue. The edifice and its brilliant colored windows draw the eyes of every visitor skyward, just as their creator intended. Regardless of your faith, you cannot escape a sense of awe in a place like this.

I could recount the chronology of our entire visit, but that would only bring boredom to those of you who are already getting tired of reading, so allow me skip around, and hit a few highlights.  Did I mention the food? Aside from the great meals Stephanie prepared for us, we found another noteworthy restaurant by serendipity. Prior to our visit, we were watching a program by Anthony Bourdain about some of his favorite French restaurants. Some were places that required reservations months in advance, and a mortgage on your house to pay the bill.  However, he mentioned a small place that served excellent food, was reasonable, and that he recommended highly, Je the…me. Turns out, we found a card for the place posted on the bulletin board of our hotel, and it was located just a few blocks from where we were staying. Miki and I took Peter and Steph there for lunch, and the place lived up to its advertised reputation. Uncharacteristically for French waiters, our server not only shared with us his opinions and recommendations about the items on the menu, but also his opinions about politics, tourists from other countries (the Russians are the worst) and the state of the economy.  The lunch was sufficiently tasty that we decided to come back for a farewell dinner the evening prior to our departure for the States.

You can’t be in Paris without paying a visit to Montmartre.  The steep hill has been associated with artists for over 200 years, from Corot to Utrillo to Modigliani. Today, street artists thrive predominantly on the tourist trade, but much of the area still preserves its villagey, sometimes seedy, prewar atmosphere. Street performers are abundant. Two standouts included a group of three young men from South Africa singing self –composed ballads in French that carried both a flavor of jazz, native African rhythms and gospel.  Le Presteej (the name of the group) sounded so good that we stopped for over a half hour to listen to them play, then went on to buy one of their CD’s. We were far from the only ones to do so. Standing on the bottom steps of the Sacre Coeur, the impressive white basilica best viewed from the outside rather than from within, the “White Man” was doing his shtick. Looking at first glance like a statue, he would periodically come to life to the amusement (and occasional shock) of passers-by.  However, the performer who deservedly garnered the most attention was a young black man with a soccer ball across the street. Bouncing and dribbling the ball with his feet, knees, shoulders and head was impressive, but nothing I hadn’t seen soccer players do before. It was when he proceeded to climb a thirty foot light pole while performing these same feats that he set himself apart from mere mortals and joined the ranks of the top Cirque de Soleil performers. The appreciative crowd rewarded his feat with showers of euros.  The panoramic vista of Paris from the basilica steps is alone worth the climb up the Montmartre. And for those who have the energy, I recommend avoiding the ease of the funicular, but rather walking along the streets to see the windmill, the still working vineyard (whose wine is auctioned off after the harvest each October) and various small shops with window items ranging from the artistic to the bizarre.

One rainy day, we met up with Mark, the best man at Peter’s wedding, a writer now working on his Ph.D. while teaching at the Sorbonne. An Irishman with a neatly trimmed beard, prematurely thinning hairline, and lively dark eyes, he exudes intelligence, focused energy, and the charming story-telling ability made famous by his other countrymen.  Miki and I were both charmed by his company, and were grateful that Peter had made a friend like him. He promised to help us plan our trip to his homeland, a promise I intend for him to keep.

One Sunday when Stephanie was off work, we all drove to Sceaux on the outskirts of Paris, close to where she and Peter used to live before moving into their current place. They treated us to a wonderful al fresco lunch, then gave us a tour of Parc Sceaux and its chateaux.  The vast grounds are an appealing mixture of formal gardens, woods and water. The gardens use water to a great effect, with tiered waterfalls and fountains presenting a moving staircase that cascades into an octagonal basin. The basin feeds into a grand canal offering poplar lined views of a baroque pavilion. Though smaller in scale than Versailles, to me this park held the greater appeal.

One afternoon we met two more of Peter’s friends, Jason and Chris. I had heard a lot about both of them, so I was looking forward to seeing them in person. Jason is a young American with long blond hair, filled with energy, who is in the process of re-writing his life – literally. He had a rough start, with many of the detours that alcohol and drugs can bring, but decided to choose life over oblivion, and was now attempting to use the material of his prior existence to inform his current writing and work. An admitted autodidact, he was an interesting conversationalist. Chris is British with some of the reserve for which the English are known.  He works as sportswriter covering professional soccer, and was due to cover a soccer match in Brugge, which also happened to be our next destination. He was quite surprised when we told him about our good luck in avoiding the train strike in Belgium, scheduled right after our departure. Turns out, that was the day he was scheduled to leave! (We later found out he ended  up having to take the bus.) Chris also turned out to be the top ping pong player in our group, followed by Jason, then Peter, with myself as a distant fourth. Watching people play any sport reveals a lot about their nature, and for all his quiet demeanor, it was obvious that Chris is a fierce competitor, but one who is content to let his opponent make a decent showing, as long as the score is not too close. Jason also has a lot of drive – he and his girlfriend were in training to run the marathon this fall – in Greece!

We had many more pleasant and interesting Paris experiences (did you know that Paris has a counterfeit museum? (Musee de la Contrefacon) And that besides Gucci and Louis Vitton knock offs, there are counterfeit drugs, wines, and even Tabasco sauce and Bic pens?) but we have to move this story along or it will become a novella, so let’s move on to Brugge.

Having nixed our plans to rent a car and drive to Brugge (read the fine print in the car rental contract before you rent one next time outside of the USA) we had our reservation on the Thalys (Belgium’s answer to the TGV, France’s high speed train system) that thankfully departed hours before the above mentioned strike went into effect. For those used to US trains, being whisked along at 200 km/hr. without much perceptible noise or vibration is a pleasant experience.  Even with a change of trains in Brussels, we arrived in Brugge a mere two hours after leaving Paris.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bruggge is a wonderful place preserved in time, offering an easily accessible collection of medieval and Gothic architecture, museums, culture, music, and wonderful food. If you love chocolate, this is the place to come, for if Belgium is the chocolate center of the world, Brugge is its capital. Without exaggeration, there are two or three chocolate shops on every block, each selling their unique, homemade products. Needless to say, we sampled several.  Our only saving grace was that the chocolates were not only fantastic, but by our standards, fantastically expensive.  So we contended ourselves to eating one piece occasionally, which is no doubt the way they were intended to be consumed. Ah, but how satisfying that experience!

Much like Amsterdam,  Brugge is laid out along canals, which add a picturesque charm to the city, and also allows visitors to tour around in one the several boats offering this service. We availed ourselves of this opportunity, and if any of you choose to visit here, I would strongly recommend you do the same. For those preferring land based travel, horse drawn carriages make their way all around the city, but thankfully without producing any of the by-product this type of propulsion creates.  (A clever leather collection apparatus at the tail end of the equine engine gathers all the waste.) Inveterate walkers that we are, we eschewed the carriage rides, but for those with limited time or mobility issues, I can see the benefit.

There are sixteen museums in Brugge, and I must confess, we didn’t see a single one. Not that the museums didn’t offer any art of note; just that to me, the city itself was the most interesting art work to be seen.  The Church of Our Lady, with its 122-meter brick steeple, dominates the skyline of the city. Its stone work is the high spot of the medieval stonemason’s art.  Inside, you can find the classic ‘Madonna and Child’ by Michelangelo. Brugge’s town hall dates from the late 1300’s, and the Gothic entry chamber and polychrome ceiling makes for an impressive work of art in itself. While we were there, we found a movie set in the Middle Ages being filmed there. The actors, in their period costume, helped to complete our time travel back to life 500 years ago.

The Belfry tower on the Market square contains an impressive clock and a carillon with 47 bells. They have a two hour concert daily each summer, but during our visit, the music was reduced to thirty minutes. There are benches in front of the Belfry, providing a wonderful vantage point from which to survey the passing of city life. Again, we had a great chance to indulge our second favorite travel activity – people watching.  In case you hadn’t already figured it out, eating ranks at the top. There were certainly no shortage of bistros from which to choose.  Moules (mussels) and frites (French fries) are Belgian staples, and almost every restaurant we saw had them on the menu. And there is a reason they are called Belgian waffles… Our favorite food find, however, turned out to be a tiny restaurant, Malesherbes, tucked in alley so narrow we initially missed, though we were looking for it. Owned by a Parisian but run by a Belgian staff, the place was my idea of what a perfect restaurant should be – warm, cozy, with a helpful and attentive staff, offering a menu filled with scrumptious choices that made you want to go back and try every dish, a wine list with reasonably priced bottles from a wide choice of varietals and geographies, and an aftertaste that stayed with you and made you lick your lips periodically, hoping you’d find a morsel you’d improbably missed – yes, we loved it!

One of the nice things our hotel provided was a booklet about the city containing four different walking tours, along with a brief description of what you were seeing along the way. Each walk was 2 ½ to three miles long, and in our four day stay, we managed to do all of them. One took us along the periphery of the city along one of the larger canals, taking us past a beautiful and peaceful Jesuit monastery, a verdant levee dotted with four working windmills, and a replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built by a returning pilgrim from the Holy Land a couple of hundred years ago. Another meandered through Lowland shops and residences, the gardens of convent, past almshouses (small homes for the retired and the infirm built hundreds of years ago, each containing a tiny chapel where the residents were expected to pray for the benefactors who supplied their abodes,) and the inevitable canals. Everywhere the homes had windows with custom lace curtains (lace and tapestries, along with chocolate, being the most famous exports of the region.) Each window had a window box filled with blooming flowers. The streets are all spotlessly clean, broken up by small parks containing statues and more modern art pieces.

Last, but far from the least, there is another reason to visit Brugge – the beer. Neither Miki or I are particularly big beer drinkers, but we both enjoyed our sampling of local drafts. As many bars and restaurants offer up to 200 different brews, the choices were almost overwhelming. We loved all the ones we tried, and I seriously doubt we could have found one not to our liking.

I could write a great deal more, but if you haven’t already formed an image of what our trip was like by now, I doubt more description would help. Needless to say, we loved every moment, especially the time spent with Peter, Stephanie and their great collection of friends. If your name hasn’t appeared in these pages, it’s not because we didn’t think about or talk about you during our travels. The fact is, you, our families and friends, travel with us wherever we go. Be well.

Image

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

POSTCARD FROM LATVIA & COPENHAGEN


It has been quite a while since I posted here, and a lot has happened since then. I’ve written three separate “postcards” of this year’s travels, and what follows is the details of the first of our trips. Hope you enjoy it.

POSTCARD FROM LATVIA AND COPENHAGEN

A poet once described Norway as “the land that laughs with flowers.” Had he visited Latvia, he might have written “the land that sings with its people.” As I was soon to discover, a song is never far away from a Latvian heart.
This was my first visit to Miki’s ancestral homeland. Though she was born and grew up in Chile, both her parents were Latvian, her father being one of eleven children (if you didn’t count the two who died shortly after birth.) As you might imagine, this provided a very large number of first cousins close to our generation, and even more children now in their 30’s and 40’s who, in turn, had produced offspring of their own to provide playmates for Alex, our five year old great nephew. For someone who grew up as an only child, the reunions produced by this large family might have been daunting, had they not been so warm and welcoming. During our short four day stay, we were only able to meet a small fraction of this very large family, but all of the dozens of cousins and respective spouses were so warm and welcoming that I felt as though I had known them for some time. In fact, Miki has spoken of them often, especially after her prior two visits, but now I was able to associate faces with the many stories I had heard. It helped that cousin Andris with wife Silvija and daughter Sandra with her husband Edgars I already met on their recent visit to California this past fall.
Disclaimer: The following represents, as the Germans would say, “ein Augenblick.” My impressions of people that I mention here, most of whom I had never met before, is based on very short, and limited contact, and may be completely wrong. I mean no disrespect to anyone here, and if you feel unfairly characterized, I apologize and am willing to make whatever corrections you feel are appropriate. Also, I lack the Latvian accents in this program, so my apologies to those whose names are incorrectly spelled.
Sandra, who is incredibly organized and energetic, provided us with a typed schedule (times included) of what were to be activities during our stay, along with two alternative choices for each selection. She and Edgars picked us up at Riga airport and drove us to our hotel, Ragi un Draugi (appropriately named, meaning “Relations and Friends” in Latvian) while her father, Andris, stayed behind to await Miki’s sister, Eva, along with daughter Maia, husband Jeff, and grandson, Alex, all of whom were flying in from England shortly after us.
I must confess, I did not have very high expectations of Riga, knowing from personal experience what war and years of Soviet occupation can do to a city. I was thus very pleasantly surprised what an amazingly great job the Latvians had done in just over twenty years in restoring their capital to its former glory. Added to the restored beauty of baroque and rococo apartments and famous towers of the city’s many churches were the numerous modern new buildings and bridges, some still under construction.
Despite a dire weather forecast of nothing but rain for four days, we arrived to sunshine, giving Miki the opportunity to show me around our centrally located hotel, so I could document for our friends the architectural gems surrounding us. The old city is blessed with a number of spectacular churches crowned with different styles of cupolas and spires that prompted me to recall the look and feel of Prague, along with imposing public buildings reminding the visitor of Riga’s historic importance as a trade center, with old German script on walls as mementoes of its place in the Hanseatic League. The setting sun over the Daugava River lit the golden spires of the churches with a rosy glow, providing impressive photographic memories of my first day in Latvia.
Good Friday morning reunited us over breakfast with Eva and her gang. Promptly, as always, Sandra and Edgars arrived with Lillita, one their three children (a talented young ballerina,) to take us on a walking tour of the city. Due to the Easter holiday, all museums were closed, but we had a chance to admire the impressive architecture of the city, to see the Opera House with its adjacent gardens, watch the proud guards in front of the soaring Brivibas piemineklis, Latvias Freedom Monument, and visit the ornate, and newly restored Nativity of Christ Orthodox Cathedral. Having now worked up an appetite (never a challenge for our family,) Sandra and Edgars treated us to a tasty pastry and coffee at a charming restaurant near one of their offices. (Between them, they work four jobs, are raising three children, both going to law school, travel around the world, and manage to look great doing it – with people like them, I shouldn’t be surprised Riga was rebuilt in just over 20 years.)
Fortified with calories, we proceed to City Hall, St. Peter’s church, the old Powder Tower, through the Swedish Gate, and on to Livu Square, past Kaku nams, a yellow house with a large black cat perched on top, past street vendors with a dazzling array of Baltic amber, to touch the noses on the statue of the Bremer Stadtmusikanten (remember the fairy tale, The Musicians of Bremen?) for good luck, before moving on to an early dinner. Sandra had made reservations for us Rosengrals, an authentic medieval restaurant near the city center. It was certainly atmospheric, added to by the waiters being dressed as serfs, with candle and torch lights being the only illuminations. Throughout our stay, we were never allowed to pick up a check, and were treated as honored guests everywhere we went. Alex, who managed to be good throughout the day was getting worn out and a little cranky, so proceeded back to our hotel with grandmother Eva, while the rest of us made our way to the Doma baznica, the majestic cathedral where two choirs and the organ provided a memorable Good Friday concert. Despite our fatigue, Miki and I both enjoyed the evening of great music in an unforgettable setting.
As I said before, our hotel was desirably in the center of the city, within walking distance of most of the important sights. Unfortunately, it is also located across the street from a rock club/bar, which means loud drunks yelling in the street throughout the night and into the early morning. (Sadly, Riga has a number of these folks, thanks to a 20 euro one-way fare from London, attracting a number of hooligans drawn by the good and relatively cheap Latvian beers.) Despite being exhausted, we had less than restful sleep. But now it’s a new day, and refreshed by breakfast, we are picked up by Sandra, this time with all three children, along with her dad and his wife, for what I’m told will be a “full day in the country.” Having seen the typed schedule Sandra made for their last American visit, I knew I should have packed stimulants in my carry-on. Too late now. Besides, her father, Andris, who is at least my age, is as chipper as a chipmunk, and if he can do it, so can I. (Perhaps, he takes stimulants – after all, he and his wife just did a bus tour from Latvia to Spain and Morocco with stops in between 10(?) days just to prove they could do it. Now, he’s getting ready to go to Pakistan. But at least, I’m getting an insight into Eva’s genetic background.)
Included in the list of things unexpected was our visit that morning to Ligatne. We arrived at a one story building that is the prototype of Soviet era “holiday” spas, complete with ping-pong and pool table, ugly, institutional furniture and dim lighting. All this, however, is a subterfuge for a small, unmarked door toward the back of the building which, in its operational days, if you passed the security scrutiny, would allow you to enter a stairwell leading to three foot thick walled concrete bunkers thirty feet below ground that was a top secret Russian command post from which to operate during a nuclear war. Equipped with decontamination chambers, steel blast doors, its own power, ventilation and generation systems, capable of housing 250 people for a period of at least three months, the bunkers contained communication equipment with a direct KGB link to Moscow, a war room with maps of Latvia and its cities, along with evacuation routes, military zones, security and listening equipment so the KGB could monitor those inside the bunker as well as out, along the requisite bust of Lenin, Soviet flags, and the ever present slogans exhorting all to fight for the Worker’s Paradise. The flags and slogans were all depressingly familiar to me, having grown up with them in Hungary. What I found most disturbing, however, was that this facility was built around 1980, one of apparently 110 similar facilities just around Latvia alone, and that it was, intentionally or not, a design that would give the occupants a belief that they could somehow survive a nuclear holocaust. After the tour, we were given a lunch in the bunker’s cafeteria of what appeared to be a rather unappetizing plate of semi-translucent pasta pockets not unlike Chinese dumplings with a white sauce on the side that actually turned out to be quite tasty.
After our bunker tour, we were quite happy to be back above ground, visiting Gaujas National Park, where to my pleasant surprise, we had a chance to hike through the woods, see a brown bear, a Siberian raccoon, wild boar, several deer leaping through a meadow, some owls, and assorted other wildlife kept in nature enclosures. We reached a recently built 30 meter tall observation tower which gave those of us willing to climb up a panoramic view of the nearby river and the tower of Sigulda in the distance. Ever prepared, Sandra brought snacks for us to assuage our appetites in case we were still hungry after our Russian meal, and then proceeded to lead us to Sigulda to visit the remnants of the old castle, as well as the adjacent open air sculpture garden. The later I found very reminiscent of the Vigeland sculpture garden in Oslo.
We finished up the evening at her and Edgars recently built spacious home which they share with her parents. We were treated to a dinner of sushi and Chinese food. Alex enjoyed this part of the day the most, as he got to play with son Lauris’ Lego toys. We in turn had the chance to meet Sandra’s sister Ilze and husband Andris, along with their two children. Conveniently, they just live across the street, giving the grandparents lots of time with the grandchildren.
Easter Sunday – and it’s snowing! No big blizzard, just a gently drifting white cloud coming to cover Riga and the countryside, dressing up the scene for a festive holiday. This morning, I got to meet Martins, another cousin, who came to pick us up and take us to mother Inara and father Gunars house in the country, where I’m about to meet over a dozen more family members, along with respective spouses and children. Martins, though his English is a little more limited, is not at loss for words. He’s very warm and friendly, making me feel welcome. He points out all the sights as we are driving, which makes me a little nervous, though he’s driven these roads so often, commuting into Riga from Sigulda, that he could probably drive it blindfolded.
We arrive at Inara’s without incident, where delicious smells are coming out of the kitchen as soon as we walk in. Inara and I have exchanged letter over the years, and I heard so much about her and Gunars, I was looking forward to meeting them. She’s short, filled with energy, and overcome with emotion upon seeing Eva and Rute (Miki) along with the rest of our family. She holds me at arm’s length, looks me over, and gives me a great bear hug. I just walked in, and already I feel at home. She reminds me a lot of my father’s sister, Aranka, in Hungary – not in appearance, but in the emotional impact of her. Before I have a chance to even sit down, we are given a cup of delectable soup broth, and offered a large basket of piragi (pastry stuffed with spiced meat.) I’m already in seventh heaven, and we haven’t even sat down for our meal. Gunars has had a stroke and suffers with arthritis along with the other ailments of age, but he gamely shuffles from room to room, keeping up with the festivities. As he speaks no English, and apparently lost his German with his stroke, we have no common language besides smiles and hugs. It has to suffice.
Inara shows me a photo album of her and Gunars dressed up for the annual summer festival in their traditional native garb, and Gunars with his head covered with a crown of green leaves. I am inducted in the Latvian celebration of the seasons, of life, of family. Here I am sitting next to this woman I just met, and feeling like I’ve been a part of her family for ages.
I’m introduced to Martins wife, Ieva (an anesthesiologist who gets into a long work related discussion with Eva) along with their three sons, Matiss, Jurgis and Edvarts. Matiss looks like an artist, and is there with his attractive girlfriend, Olga. They seemed to keep apart from the rest of the family, (possibly because Olga doesn’t feel comfortable in this big family setting) so I never had a chance to talk with them beyond ‘hello’, though I notice Matiss pays attention to all that goes on, and when I finally find a topic to draw them out a little, their English is very good. Jurgis and Edvarts are much more approachable, and we soon found ourselves in conversation that lasted intermittently throughout the day. They are both bright, well informed, polite, and easy to talk with. Edvarts, the youngest of the three, is just turning twenty. He’s a tall, good looking young man with a ready smile, studying at the Swedish University in Riga, one of the two top schools in the country. Though he loves basketball and the NBA, he turned down an athletic scholarship to play at the University of Texas, choosing (wisely, in my opinion) to concentrate on academics to provide a more long term and secure future for himself. He’s already being recruited by some top firms, and I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t have a successful life. He’s very much a “people person,” and appears very close with his family. Jurgis, the middle son, is also quite pleasant, with well-formed opinions, which he’s willing to discuss and defend. He’s married with a five year old son, though I didn’t have a chance to meet his family.
The snow had almost stopped, and Martins led us on a short walk through the woods and the countryside surrounding the farm. The air was fresh and crisp, and the scenery enchanting. The first of the spring violets were making their appearance, and the daffodils were starting to bloom. Martins laughter and songs added gaiety to our outing. Soon, however, we had to head back to be in time for the festive feast ahead.
A good part of our food was prepared by Irita, Martins sister. She teaches English, so talking with her was no problem for me. She looks a little like Eva, but more with Miki’s personality. Her husband, Janis, is also teacher. Our meal, consisting of delectable small meat cutlets, poultry, potatoes, sauerkraut, carrots, and condiments was not only organic, but mostly home grown. With enough food to feed an army, I knew I had to pace myself for the dessert I foresaw coming.
In Latvia, you don’t just sit at a table and eat. You sing. It seemed everyone at the table (myself excepted) was blessed with musical talent. Inara led the group with more verses of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” than I knew existed, sung along in English by almost all those present. I doubt this is a traditional Latvian Easter song, but done, like much else, to make us non-Latvian speakers welcome and comfortable. Martins, and Antons sitting across from me, started up a duet, soon joined by others. Antons not only could have been one of the Three Tenors, but also whipped out his harmonica to enhance the music fest. Edvarts, though he did not have his guitar present, enthusiastically joined in all the merriment, as did Agnese (Irita’s son, Karlis’ significant other) of the memorable eyes and smile.
After filling ourselves with more food than I thought possible, Martins led us on another walk through the woods to a scenic cliff carved by the bend of the river gliding through the snow dappled pines and birches. Alex had a chance to get into a snowball fight with Martins while Karlis hoisted his 1 ½ year old daughter, Elizite (looking for all the world like a small, pink Easter bunny in her warm outfit,) on his shoulders to give her a better view. The time in the woods also gave me a chance to discover the source of Karlis’s excellent but British accented English – he and Agnese had lived in England for a couple of years before moving back to Latvia. I was also very happy to have a chance to talk with Jeff and Maia, not just this day, but throughout the trip. Since they moved to Colchester where Jeff is finishing up his Ph.D. at the University of Essex, we haven’t had much time to be together. Their son, Alex, remains the cutest boy in the world. (No, I’m not prejudiced.) Speaking of Alex, he had a chance to swing (literally) with Martins and Maia. The swing Martins led us to was actually more like a giant pendulum with a plank on which you stood as you pumped yourself with your legs into ever larger arcs into the sky. Alex got to stand in the middle while Maia and Martins did the hard work. And as Martins kept reminding us all, the mosquitoes can’t bit you while you’re swinging, so we were all safe.
As we headed back to the house, Martins stopped to drink out of a large glass jar in the woods that was collecting juice from one of the many birch trees by means of a hollow pipe driven through the bark into the tree, much as we collect maple syrup from the trees in New England. This is a popular drink in Latvia, though I’m told, somewhat of an acquired taste.
Now it was time for another Easter tradition. Inara requires those present to bring decorated Easter eggs, which are then judged on the merits of beauty and originality. Given how far we had to come, the Americans were given an exemption, though I was recruited to be one of the impartial judges. Agnese did a particularly clever job of decorating her eggs with hair made of yarn, and creating an Easter family. An egg painstakingly woven with blue thread produced another winner. Then, it was time for the egg roll. Martins brought with him a board a little over a meter in length, varnished and decorated with a burned-in design, with ledges on the side – this was placed on a 30 degree incline, and served as the ramp on which to roll the eggs. Each person selected one of the many colored eggs, and rolled it down the ramp so it would go across the floor. The winner was the one whose egg was closest to the far wall at the end of the contest. There were a variety of rolling techniques in evidence, but the laughter was universal. Prizes were handed out to the winners, as well as to the participants. I am now the proud owner of a nice coffee mug inscribed with the name Latvia.
Though I didn’t think I was going to be able to eat again that day, dessert on the table changed my mind. There was the traditional Latvian pashka, an egg shaped cheesecake like Easter specialty, as well as klingers, a sweet bread twisted into figure-eights, and filled with raisins and dried fruit – absolutely scrumptious! (Thanks to Irita’s generosity, we even got to take some with us to Denmark, where we had a chance to enjoy it again for lunch.) Antons’s wife, Arija, also brought a large cake with yellow cream filling, somewhat resembling a Napoleon, that was expertly served by Edvarts, and also quite luscious, filled with more calories than I wanted to contemplate. I just enjoyed it all, along with this great family on an unforgettable Easter Sunday.
Sadly, time (and to some degree my lack of Latvian) did not permit me to talk with all those who were present. Elina with her red hair, one of Irita’s daughters, was among those I missed. However, we were all getting tired, and Martins had to drive us all back to Riga, then drive himself home to Sigulda. I hope I can come back to Latvia again someday, and spend more time with this amazingly warm family.
Monday after Easter is still a holiday in Latvia. Edgars, Sandra, along with parents and kids, arrive to take us on our last outing in Latvia to the Ethnographic Open Air Museum, located on the coast of Jugla lake in Riga. Started in 1924, the complex consists of over 100 structures of typical buildings, a church, homes, farm structures, a large windmill, as well as demonstrations of weaving, games, folk art and utensils as they have existed for over 400 years. We arrived early, which is fortunate, as we were able to park and get in before the crowds showed up. We are looking at the small church, whose doors are locked, when Sandra is approached by an elderly, somewhat disheveled woman in a large winter coat that has seen better days. She offers to open the church for us and guide us around. She extracts a ring of huge keys, suitable for entry into Notre Dame, and finally locates the one for the ancient lock. The church inside has a painted wooden roof, as well as carved wooden figures familiar to anyone who has visited a country church in Eastern Europe. It’s still used for Lutheran services and occasional weddings. We are a bit leery at first of our guide’s capabilities, but soon discover that she is extremely knowledgeable, having served in this role for over 30 years. She’s now retired, but is giving us this private tour that makes our experience of the place much deeper than if we had wandered around on our own. Sandra and Edgars afterward admit to learning many things they had not known about their own history. The sun is out, making it a perfect day to walk about the grounds, where a food and craft fair is occurring, in addition to the usual exhibits. For lunch, they treat us to a traditional Latvian meal, complete with potato pancakes – outstanding!
In the afternoon, we head back to our hotel. Along the way, Edgars proudly shows us the site where his new office building is being constructed. We say our good byes to the always chic and smiling Sandra, to her gracious husband, parents and children, sad that we live so far apart, and hoping to see them, along with others in this wonderful family before too much time passes. That evening, Eva keeps Alex entertained, giving Miki and I a chance to spend some quiet time with Jeff and Maia, as we don’t know when we will be seeing them again. Jeff & Maia would like to stay in England if he can find a university post there, but only time will tell if this is possible.
Our flight to Copenhagen leaves at 6:40 in the morning. The weather forecast, which showed rains throughout our Denmark stay, is now accurate, as we arrive to grey skies and light showers. Maia had scouted out a great hotel with a perfect location along the scenic Nyhaven canal on her previous stay in the city, and gave us simple directions on how to get there from the airport by Metro. Having done prior research on Danish prices (very high for everything,) we purchase a 72 hour Copenhagen card for a $100 that allows us to use all Metros, buses and regional light trains, in addition to admission without charge to many of the museums and sights. Adding up the savings and convenience, it’s a bargain.
It’s too early to check in, but the Hotel Bethel takes our bags, as we proceed to explore our new destination. Along the pastel colored buildings of the canal lined with sailing schooners and houseboats, there are numerous (and pricey) restaurants and, despite the weather, a multitude of outdoor cafes. Our first stop is Rosenborg Castle, within easy walking distance from our hotel, a pleasant feature we find of many of the subsequent places we visit. The castle, built as a private country palace for Christian IV in the early 1600’s, is now a museum of the history of the royal family. Each room is furnished and decorated as it would have been during the reigns of various kings. In the great hall stands the unicorn throne of the kings, guarded by three silver lions. The walls are covered with wonderful tapestries, showing scenes from the Scanian War of the late 1600’s. Underneath the castle is the Treasury and the ornate crowns of the Danish kings and queens. There are botanical gardens just coming into spring bloom, and incredibly young looking guards in modern day uniforms, sporting the latest weapons, standing at their posts at the castle entrance.
From the castle, we move on to the nearby National Art Museum, containing an excellent collection of French Impressionist paintings, one of my favorites. We also luck into a special exhibition Vilhelm Hamershoi’s work, complemented by showing of other paintings borrowed from other museums, such as the portrait of Whistler’s Mother, that had an obvious influence on the artist. It was the best exhibit of its kind that I’ve seen. Both Miki and I came away with a new appreciation of the interconnectedness of art, as well as of the work of a man neither of us had seen before. The klingers I was carrying in my backpack from Irita carried us through the lunch hour. Tired of museums for the day, we decide to move outside.
As we walk past impressive churches and the Royal Theater, we are struck by the number of Danes who bicycle through the city, apparently oblivious to the elements. Most major thoroughfares have a bike lane, and even their own stoplights and turn signals for the cyclists. Like much of the Scandinavian countries, the city is remarkably clean. You can enter any public bathroom, and be just about guaranteed that it will be spotless. No longer a homogeneous blend of pale, blond, and tall Danes, there are a number of people of color throughout, and a surprisingly large number in Muslim dress. Reading the local paper, this is causing no small controversy in a country that, at least until now, forbids the flying of any other flag besides the Danish anyplace except on an embassy.
In the afternoon, we wander down Stoget, one of several pedestrian malls lined with expensive brand name shops like Dior and Hermes. It’s a great place to people watch, especially in the big square that contains the famous stork fountain. Out hotel had given us a recommendation to eat at Jansens, located behind a church just off Stoget. The food turns out to be very good, though with a limited selection, and the prices reasonable, at least for Copenhagen. It’s hard to adjust to sticker shock in a city where a cup of coffee costs $6, and hamburgers or sandwiches start around $20. The Danes obviously have a high standard of living, which may be why a recent UN poll of citizens of various countries placed them at the top of the happiness scale.
Our room is much quieter than the one we had in Riga. The bathroom is also a bit different. It is basically a large shower with a 3 inch high step that you have to remember not to trip over, in case you want to survive getting up during the night without turning on all the lights. And the toilet? Why, it’s in the shower room, of course. It’s very convenient if you multitask and wish to accomplish two functions simultaneously.
Breakfast is wonderful, but you wouldn’t expect anything else from a country that invented the Danish pastry. I have to say, the one I had that morning was the best I ever tasted. Fortified with sufficient calories, we have our first experience with the Danish regional train system. Fast, quiet, clean, well signed – I can’t say enough good things about it. It should be the model for light rail anywhere in the world. We are on our way to Kronborg Castle in Elsinore (or Helsingor, as the Danes would say) to visit the castle Shakespeare made famous with his play, Hamlet. As the guide at the castle would later tell us, you can’t buy publicity like that! The cannon surrounded fortress looks across the bay at what used to be Northern Denmark, but has been Southern Sweden for over 400 years, thanks to Danish kings coming out on the losing side of the wars they had started. Each summer, Hamlet, along with other Shakespearean plays, are performed at the castle by some of the top actors in the world.
Underneath, in the castle casements, sits the statue of Holgar the Dane. Head bowed over his mighty sword, with his shield beside him, he slumbers through the ages until, according to legend, he shall rise again to defend the Danes in their hour of need. He is the national icon of the Danish people, much like Uncle Sam is to the American. I would have liked to have visited the nearby Danish Technical Museum, but by then Miki had had enough, so we returned to Copenhagen. The rain had lifted, so we decided to take the canal tour of the city, leaving conveniently just a block from our hotel. If you come to Copenhagen, I highly recommend this tour, as it shows you many of the sights you can later come back and explore, along with an overview of the history and architecture of the place. You can also, if you like, get off the boat in three different locations, walk about, then catch the next boat coming by every fifteen minutes.
In the evening, we decided to try a new restaurant, Hoppe’s, also recommended by the folks at our hotel. The food was even better than at Jansen’s, and the prices similar. If you decide to eat here, I’ll caution you about one thing. The tables are close together, as in many European restaurants, and have large, exposed candles burning at their sides. Thus, you have to exercise extreme caution as you push your way between them, or you are likely to experience the unpleasant hot seat, as I did, when my bottom caught on fire. Fortunately, the only damage was to my pants, and the lower edge of my sweater. I hated to lose those pants, but it could have been worse. (Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they named the place Hoppe’s – for I certainly hopped about until the fire was out.)
On the last day our Copenhagen card is valid, we try to maximize its benefits. We therefore start the day by taking the train to Central Station, just opposite the Tivoli Gardens. Bypassing the Gardens for now, we visit the impressive City Hall, then admire Jens Olsen’s amazing mechanical astronomical clock. From there, it’s a short walk to the Hans Christian Andersen museum, whose statue stands prominently in front of City Hall. You don’t have to be a lover of fairy tales to enjoy this exhibit, but it helps. Two more blocks takes you to the Ny Carslberg Glypotek, a world class art museum. The building itself, with its Winter Garden, and impressive performance hall, rivals the quality of its art, from French Impressionist artists and Rodin sculptures to treasures of Egypt and Rome. When we are finally saturated with art, we walk across the street to the Tivoli Gardens. Miki was expecting lush, formal gardens, like at the Huntington. Instead, it’s Europe’s oldest amusement park, filled with roller coasters and thrill rides, and more of a Disneyland vibe than a royal garden. Still, it is interesting, with comfortable benches, from which we spent a couple of hours doing our favorite activity – people watching.
It has been a great trip, and though we are both exhausted, as you must be if you read this far, we are looking forward to our next adventure. Until then, this postcard finally ends.
Be well.

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Rose Parade


THE SMELL OF ROSES

We awoke early, in time to get up and get ready to watch the annual spectacle of the Rose Parade in Pasadena. In keeping with tradition (and no one reveres tradition more than the white jacketed Tournament of Roses committee, with the possible exception of the British royalty) the Parade is never held on a Sunday, and thus never interferes with the WASP worship traditions of the committee members. This benefited us by allowing a decent recovery period following our New Year’s Eve revelry (modest by most other people’s standards, but hey, we were up to one AM!)

Today was an exceptional weather day, even by Southern California standards; crystal clear skies, sunshine, and temperatures in the mid to high seventies by the time the last  float passed the reviewing stand across from the Norton Simon Museum, whose wall was appropriately decorated with the stylized Rose emblematic of the event. There has long been a rumor that the Rose Parade organizers had a pact with the devil, guaranteeing no precipitation during the march down Colorado Boulevard. While I would not be terribly surprised to discover that some of these eminent members had at least a passing acquaintance with Old Nick, all I can say is that in the 40 years since I lived here, I have never seen rain befall the actual parade. Sometimes there was rain before the start, occasionally rain after, but during? Never! You be the judge.

I have to confess; as cynical as I may be towards the politics and the motivation of the organizers, there is a beauty and grandeur in the artistic arrangement of the millions of flowers and plants that go into the making of one float, and youthful wholesomeness to the faces of the thousands of young people who come here from all around the world to take part in a spectacle and tradition that is jubilant, festive and uniquely American. Watching this event on television in the cold, snowbound homes of the Midwest and Northeast, I can certainly understand why each year several million people decide they want to pull up stakes, stop shoveling driveways, and move to Southern California. Like most Chamber of Commerce brochures, you have to take this one with a large grain of salt, but there is no denying the appeal of the image that is broadcast into cold and wet homes elsewhere.

The millions of dollars and countless hours of volunteer time that go into this event certainly could be spent more productively and wisely than investing them in this very ephemeral day, but the reality is, they wouldn’t be. If the Rose Parade were to be abolished, I doubt all those people who are involved in its creation would suddenly channel their energies into feeding the poor, or helping the homeless. (In fact, a number of these people do both.) People have the need to create something that is beautiful, artistic, that celebrates life. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have had the enjoyment of watching the splendid group of kids from Japan infect the crowd with their energy and music, or the pale blond mariners from Sweden squinting at the masses lining the boulevard as they marched for the first time in this granddaddy of all American parades.

Happy New Year to you all,

J.

 

Posted in News and politics, Thoughts & Musings | Tagged , , , , , , | 9 Comments

How Do You Justify Your Existence?


When I was considerably younger, I had a circle of friends who would get together once a month, and discuss items relevant to our lives at the time. Each meeting would start off with a question – “How do you justify your life?” We would then go round robin around the table, giving our answers, and receiving comments and questions in return. We were all survivors of some calamity or tragedy, be it war, physical trauma, a major illness – a happenstance from which not all walked away. This exercise proved to be not only useful, but life altering for many of us. It gave us a chance to acknowledge our good fortune, remind ourselves that our survival was not necessarily due to our skills and preparation for life events, but more to random chance (or to a few in the group, Fate, or God’s will; I was never quite sure which was the more terrible.) What we all shared was a sense of obligation to ourselves, and the rest of the world, to give something back for our good fortune, to give meaning to being survivors.
This by no means is a new theme. It has been addressed by many over the years, notably by Victor Frankl in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” It’s part of the essence of being human that we seek to find a narrative that makes sense of the randomness of life. For those of us who sat around that table, the answers were all different, but all contained a common theme – one of service to others. Some of us chose to provide service through our choice of professions; doctor, teacher, policeman, butcher (dispensing philosophy with his cuts of meat.) Others chose to serve through family, church, or community; lifetime care of a brother with Down’s syndrome, Kiwani’s, Lion’s, foreign missions. What we all shared was a sense that we had been given a gift, and we had the need to give back.
Sadly, our group has long separated, scattered around the country and the globe. Some of us never returned from serving our country; others have fallen to the ravages of disease and time. Still, the question we used to ask of each other, I continue to ask of myself – “How do you justify your life?” You need not share the answer with anyone other than yourself. However, it is a useful exercise to remind ourselves of all that we have to be grateful for, what we choose as our expression of gratitude, and the ways in which we are all connected to each other.
Be well,
J.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 5 Comments

Long time gone


It’s been quite a while since I was able to come here and post a blog. In case any of you wondered what I was up to, I have been completely swamped in the myriad of details involved in merging and moving a medical practice. I’m just now settling in to my situation, but it will be some time before the adjustment is complete. I had no plans to make such a move until relatively recently, when it became obvious that with the changing economic situation of our country, I either had to find a way of reducing my overhead costs by sharing space and personnel, or retire. Since I enjoy what I do, and feel I’m entirely too young to spend my time sitting at home clipping coupons, the former option was far preferable. The down side of my move is that I’m no longer my own boss; I have to learn a new computer system, and get rid of a lot of accumulated stuff my new, smaller quarters will no longer accommodate. The upside is that I can continue to work at a reduced schedule, continue to teach at the University, have available coverage when I’m away or if I get sick, and there is someone who has made a commitment to take over my patients when I finally make the decision to retire.

My “new life” began on November 1, and while the transition hadn’t been as smooth as I had hoped (after a week, my phones are finally working and most of the computers are functioning, though the forwarding of mail is still an issue in negotiation with the US Postal Service) I feel the end results are going to justify the pain, and I feel good about my decision to embark on this new road. Now, I’ll have more time to read (my backlog of books and magazines should keep me busy for several years even if there are no additions to the piles,) write more, and visit some of my neglected blogging friends. I also look forward to more time with friends, more hikes in our local mountains, and a chance to visit my far away son more than I have been able to in the past.
To the few who may still read these words, be well.
J.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged | 7 Comments

Chocolate


I had just come back from a delightful hike in the local mountains. As we sat down with our friends,  I opened a bottle of wine, and shared a taste of chocolate. I confess – I’m a chocoholic. I’m afraid I will never be cured by a 12-step program, as I am shameless in my desire, and find myself surrounded by like minded people who fuel my addiction by giving me boxes of the stuff for birthdays, Christmas, anniversaries – you name it. I was going to write a whole blog on this topic, until I remembered, “Wait! I’ve done this before.” So here it is. Hope you enjoy it with a nice piece chocolate truffle!

CHOCOLATE – THE ALL CONSUMING PASSION
For those of you for whom chocolate is not just a passing fancy but a philosophy by which to live, but whose cravings are afflicted with guilt about health and nutrition, I offer the following items.


1) Chocolate is a vegetable. How, you ask? Chocolate is derived from cocoa beans. Beans are a vegetable. Sugar is derived from either sugar CANE or sugar BEETS. Both are plants, which places them in the vegetable category. Thus, chocolate is a vegetable.

2) To go one step further, chocolate candy bars also contain milk,
which is dairy. So candy bars are a health food.

3) Chocolate covered raisins, cherries, orange slices and strawberries all
count as fruit, so eat as many as you want.

4) If you’ve got melted chocolate all over your hands, you’re eating it too
slowly.

5) The problem: How to get 2 pounds of chocolate home from the store
in a hot car. The solution: Eat it in the parking lot.

6) Diet tip: Eat a chocolate bar before each meal. It’ll take the
edge off your appetite, and you’ll eat less.

7) If calories are an issue, store your chocolate on top of the
fridge. Calories are afraid of heights, and they will jump out of the
chocolate to protect themselves.

8) If I eat equal amounts of dark chocolate and white chocolate, is
that a balanced diet? Don’t they actually counteract each other?

9) Chocolate has many preservatives. Preservatives make you look
younger. Therefore, you need to eat more chocolate.

10) Put “eat chocolate” at the top of your list of things to do today.That
way, at least you’ll get one thing done.

11) A nice box of chocolates can provide your total daily intake of
calories in one place. Now, isn’t that handy?

12) If you can’t eat all your chocolate, it will keep in the freezer.
But if you can’t eat all your chocolate, what’s wrong with you?

13) If not for chocolate, there would be no need for control top pantyhose. An entire garment industry would be devastated. You can’t let that happen, can you?

Posted in Humor, Thoughts & Musings | Tagged , , | 7 Comments