The Hibernian Connection

In the United States, once a year, on March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish., gleefully drinking Guinness and Smithwicks and scarfing up soda bread, corned beef and  cabbage.  The rest of at the time, about 35 million Americans–a bit more than 10% of the total population–claim Irish heritage. In New England — the northeastern corner of the U.S. where I grew up –more than one in five have Irish ancestors.

And it’s no wonder.  Since 1820, about 6 million people have emigrated from Ireland to the U.S., nearly a million in the decade between 1850 and 1860 alone, in the aftermath of the potato blight that decimated Ireland’s food supply.  Their impact on American culture and history is enormous. Nearly 200,000 Irish born fought in the U.S. Civil War, 90% of them on the Union side. Irish immigrants became leaders in the burgeoning U.S.  labor union movement which helped forge a thriving American middle class. Irish men found work in growing urban police and fire departments and remain a significant component of forces in New York, Boston, Chicago and other cities.

Before spending the last month in Ireland, I knew, of course, about the great waves of Irish immigrants who washed up on American shores during and after the horrific midcentury famine in Ireland. My own family has Irish roots: My mother’s paternal grandfather, James Kelley, arrived in the U.S. in 1866, one of a half-dozen or so solo male travelers  with that name listed as steerage passengers on steamships arriving in New York City that year from Ireland.  His wife, Julia (or perhaps Juliana — census takers in those days were either partially deaf or had the devil of a time understanding Irish accents, so exact names and spellings changed from one census year to another) , was born in the U.S. in 1853. Her parents had arrived  in New Jersey from Ireland a few years earlier. The gravestones of two of my dad’s great-grandparents, Michael and Kate Shoughro (or Sugrue as it is more normally spelled when anglicized) indicates that they were from County Kerry. They must have also arrived in the mid 1800s: their first child, Bridget, was born in Kerry in 1856; and died at age eight in Rhode Island in 1864. Another great grandmother seems to have originally come from County Clare. She emigrated to the U.S. in 1872 with a passel of Bristow kids born during a preceding decades-long sojourn in Greenwich, England.

The Famine Memorial in Dublin, outside just EPIC-The Erish Emigration Museum

What i didn’t realize until I visited EPIC The The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin
was how much earlier Irish immigrants to the US had been arriving and what an important role they played in our colonial history. The Irish were the second-largest group of early arrivals, behind the English. The majority of them were  Ulster-Scots or “Scots-Irish”, a term used loosely in the U.S. for Protestant Irish, who came largely, but not entirely, from the north.  Between 1717 and the early 1780s, roughly a quarter of a million of them flocked  to the American colonies.

Of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence, four were born in Ireland.  (Only 8 total were born outside the American colonies). Another 4 were the children of Irish immigrants.   Four delegates to the constitutional convention in Philadelphia and signatories of the Constitution were born in Ireland. One — Thomas Fitzsimmons — was a Catholic. His role as a delegate –along with that of fellow Catholic Daniel Carroll of Maryland, the son of a County Offaly man — paid proof to the the founding fathers’ devotion to religious freedom.  In the generations since, the descendants of Irish emigrants have continued to play an outsize role in American politics: Half of the 44 men who have served as U.S. presidents claim an Irish heritage. Both of Andrew Jackson’s parents were born in Ireland. So was James Buchanan’s father.  Woodrow Wilson, William McKinley, Grover Cleveland, Andrew Johnson  and John Kennedy were the grandsons of Irish-born emigrants.  Others whose Irish roots stretch further back include Polk,  Grant,  Arthur, Harrison, Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, Harding, Truman, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, both Bushes, Clinton and Obama. For a small island nation that, at its peak (in the 1800s) had a population of under 9 million  and currently has only about 5 million inhabitants, that’s punching well above its weight class.

The harbor at Carrickfergus.

The interactive EPIC museum devotes a lot of real estate to the Irish diaspora and the impact men and women born in Ireland or whose ancestors were born there, have contributed to  the worlds of art, literature, science, medicine, sports, entertainment and more.  From Dr. James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA’s double helix structure, to Oscar winning actor Daniel Day Lewis, hundreds of Irish, Irish American, Irish Australian, Irish-English , Irish-Spanish and Irish-everything else individuals are identified and lauded for their accomplishments.

But to me, the stories of more ordinary folks were more interesting, particularly those whose paths took the same course as my great grandparents and their children and siblings did.  Census reports indicate that  most of my Irish (and English, for that matter) progenitors worked unskilled jobs in the abundant textile mills of New York and New England,  There’s the occasional farmer, teamster or construction worker, but most list themselves as “bleachers” or “weavers” or simply as mill workers. Others call themselves  “day laborers”  and eked  out a a living at  farms, mills, coal yards or wherever else they could earn a buck.

Some of the women are occasionally listed as mill workers too, though in the once-every-10-year censuses, they more often appear as “housewives” or “homemakers”.  Doubtless some worked for at least a time as domestics; at one point, roughly 70% of the cooks, nannies and maids in New York City were “Irish Bridgets”. Prior to the famine years, most of the Irish coming to the U.S. were single men. But starting in the middle of the 1800s, an increasing number were young women on their own. Of the 4.5 million Irish who emigrated to the U.S. between 1850 and 1920, well over one-fourth of them were women between 15 and 24 years old. Many were happy to claim the higher wages plus free room and board that came with life catering to the needs of a burgeoning middle class, despite the long hours and lack of freedom it entailed.

Looking across a river in Londonderry. The could almost have been the view from our living room window where I grew up in Rhode Island

As I traveled around Ireland last month, I found myself thinking about those men and women of the Kelley, McCormick, Moriarity, Shoughro and Leahy families, wondering what their lives were like in Ireland and what it was like to move halfway across the world. I think about how different their lives must have been in their new homes:  Did they miss the small routine patterns and pleasures of life back in Ireland, as I sometimes miss an American burger, supermarkets that are open past midnight and shopping at Marshalls?   Did they sometimes long for the taste of some favorite food that just didn’t taste the same made by different hands and with slightly different ingredients?  Surely they must have.

The 2 mile long beach at Port Stewart, Londonderry.

I think, though, that it must have been a comfort for those who, by luck or intent, wound up in the New England countryside rather than in the crowded, dirty metropolises of New York and Boston in the 1800s. The land and the sea doesn’t seem so very different from what they may have known back home. The dunes and sandy beach of Port Stewart  in Londonderry County felt an awful lot like Cape Cod to me.  The rolling green pastures and peaceful fishing towns of Antrim could have been Little Compton, Wickford or any one of dozens of small towns in Massachusetts, Connecticut or Rhode Island a century and a half ago.  One whiff of the sea — a powerful mix of salt, seaweed and shellfish–on a rocky coast  in Donegal, and I was instantly transported to the boulders along Ocean Drive in Newport.

A stretch of rocky Northern Ireland coast.

In a way, I suppose, Ive done my forbearers’ journey  in reverse, leaving the U.S. for a new life in Europe.  But our experiences aren’t really comparable. There are, of course, huge obvious differences wrought by technology.: I can be “home” in a matter of hours, not weeks.  While my great grandparents bid goodbye permanently to family, neighbors and friends  and would have gone weeks, months or even years with only an occasional letter bringing them news, I am pretty much constantly in touch with my son and friends in the U.S.  I hear their voices and see their faces via FaceTime, whenever I, or they, feel the urge.

But there are more profound differences in our experiences as well. They were, for the most part young and looking for an opportunity for a better life, a place to build their families and call home forevermore.  I’m old (well comparatively, anyway!)  and resting on my laurels.  I don’t need to make a living here, to assimilate and stake my future on my ability to adapt. I’m really just a traveler, who will likely pull up sticks in 5 or 10 years and return to the U.S. I can miss Smuckers’ all natural peanut butter or jones for a TJ Maxx fix and know that in a matter of months I’ll enjoy them again in the U.S.  But they must have felt a kind of mourning for the things they’d likely never encounter again.






On The Road Again

The itinerant is itinerating again.  After spending the past two years settling into life in Spain — buying a home and watching it being built, struggling with the Spanish bureaucracy and learning (to my great regret) about Spanish taxes — I headed off a few days ago on what I’ve been referring to as the Great British Isles Road Trip. From June 1 to mid-September, I’ll travel around Ireland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales, staying mostly in a series of homes that I’ve “swapped” the guest portion of my new home in Spain for. There’s a 400-year old stone cottage in the Cotswolds;  a new apartment on the South Bank in London; a fisherman’s cottage in Port Isaac, Cornwall (aka Doc Martin’s Portwen); a holiday apartment on the Northern Irish coast of Antrim; and a historic thatched cottage near Salisbury, among others.  I’m looking forward to all of them.

Last night, I landed at the first of my exchanges: A charming, modern cottage in County Donegal, in the far northwestern part of the Irish Republic. Just getting here was a major adventure: A drive of about 2500 kilometersroad trip map in my car. And that doesn’t count the 17-hour ferry ride from France to the Southeast coast of Ireland.  When you look at a map, Europe seems so small! The countries are so close together!  But 2500 kilometers is like driving from Washington, DC to Amarillo, Texas.  Of course, when I was done I was in Ireland, the land of freshly caught seafood, Guiness, soda bread, and lilting accents; rather than the place where Bob Wills is still the king.

Most of the drive through Spain was a tad boring, if blessedly uneventful. The stretch through the Sierra mountains is beautiful, but I’ve done it before. From there to Madrid and then north to Zaragoza is mostly flat, hot and uninspiring. But you could make good time and when I hunted down a bed for the night, I encountered the novelty of what was essentially a drive-though hotel!   You check in from your car at a tollbooth-like structure at the entrance to a ground level parking lot below the hotel rooms.  Once admitted beyond the barrier, you are confronted with a series of garage doors, one of which magically opens for you.  Drive in, park, close the garage door and head up the interior staircase to an ultra modern room. No need to unpack the whole car! Or worry about leaving your stuff in a car in an open parking lot!  In the morning, pull out of your garage, hand in your key at the tollbooth reception desk and the barrier swings open for you again. Cool!

Day two brought some gorgeous scenery. I opted for an inland route rather than the motorway that runs up the northern coast of Spain into France. Heading through the Pyrenees was a good choice.  Deep green forests and towering cliffs of dark grey stone , with some mountaintops still capped with snow, at the end of May.  Steeply raked green pastures, dotted with cattle or sheep.  And just after the incredibly long tunnel that transverses the Spanish-French border, a lovely pristine town perched on a hillside and crowned with a beautiful grey-stone church.  In fact, most of the Aquitaine was attractive, filled with lushly green, prosperous looking farms.

As I headed further north, however, time seemed to melt away, while the miles dragged on.  GoogleMaps had led me to expect a drive of about 9 hours from my stopping point near Zaragoza to my goal of Nantes, France. In fact, it took closer to 12 hours and I didn’t even make it to Nantes.  I’d check the time left on my Google maps app every hour or so and discover that I had only chipped 15 minutes off the time remaining.  No idea what was happening. but it began to feel as if I were in some kind of enchanted land where time and space were disjointed. At one point, after driving for about 30 minutes from my last peek at Google maps, I was astounded to discover I had added 10 minutes to my remaining drive time!

Then, another night on the road, and one more at sea. Turns out that the ferries that ply what I have learned is called the Celtic Sea are rather like small, low-brow cruise ships. Having grown up riding ferries that carried as few as two or three cars or as many as 40, on trips that never lasted more than 4 hours, this was a new experience for me. The meal aboard was mediocre and expensive, but after two days of mainlining diet cokes and subsisting on road food, I was happy to have it. The bed was narrow and hard, but I liked the rocking and slept well.

AT 11 the next morning, we docked in IMG_0465Rosslare, at the far southeast corner of Ireland. Dungloe, where I’m berthed for the next two weeks, is in the far northwest in County Donegal, which I am learning to pronounce correctly. Americans are inclined to say DON-e-gal. Bu it’s Don-e-GAUL. When you put the emphasis on the wong syllable, people look at you as if they have absolutely no idea where you are talking about.  Gradually, it dawns on them; “Oh you mean Donegal!)  I’ve also learned that Dungloe, pronounced Dun-GLOW as I was doing, is unrecognizable to the locals.  It’s Dung-LOW or perhaps DUNG-low. I’ve still not quite caught where the emphasis goes, but in either case, the G all but disappears.

The drive north was pure pleasure.
I stopped for some fresh strawberries and munched on them along the way. The roads, even the smaller ones that wind up and down hills and around a million curves, were clear and are well paved.  And the countryside is simply gorgeous.  Delightfully,  the weather behaved fairly well, too, veering from light misty rain to sunshine every 20 miles or so. It surely is no wonder everything is so green.  I marveled at how very different it is from Spain. And yet, as I climbed further north, the  topography changed. It’s rougher terrain here than in the south. One gets the feeling it’s a harder living made off the land or off the sea. And despite the obvious differences, there are interesting echoes of Spain: The low white houses; here, concrete or stone under their skins of white cement and paint, brick in Spain.  Rock strewn hills and scrubby vegetation spreading out to the horizon. And splotches of shocking pink  (oleander in Spain, rhododendrons in Ireland) in an otherwise green and tan landscape.



Geranium Madness

In early May, the city of Cordoba holds a festival called simply Los Patios, when a few dozen private homes as well as public IMG_0334and private organizations throw open their doors , welcoming tourists and native Cordobans in to their interior terraces. The patios are lavishly decorated with flowers:
Vines and small trees trained to grow up the walls. Pots hanging from balconies and fastened to the walls. In wheelbarrows, barrels and a host of other conventional and unconventional containers, on floors, walls, ceilings, stairs and every conceivable space.

There are hibiscus, bromeliads, hydrangeas and a dozen other varieties of gorgeousness.  But above all, there are geraniums — of all sizes, colors and descriptions.  I had no idea that geraniums came in such a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some look like little butterflies.  Some like azalea or rhododendron blooms.  They are pink, white, coral, red, deep marroon, fuscia and all possible shades in between.  They are single colored, edged, speckled, veined, splotched and eyed.  They are simply amazing and I’m in love with them.



I think I’m going to start collecting geraniums on my patio in as many different colors and varieties as possible!







10 Things I Love about Spain

1 and 2.  The sun and the sea.  Let’s call it a tie. It’s impossible to love one more than the other.

My favorite view in Nerja.

It’s sometimes  said that Spain is a cold country with a lot of sun. That may be true of places further north than Nerja and the Costa del Sol. It certainly hasn’t been true here this winter. Most days the temperature has reached the mid 60s, and with the bright sun at midday, some folks sit on the beach or take a run in just tank tops and shorts.  It does cool off quite rapidly by about 4 PM, but rarely have I wanted more than a light polar fleece for the evening.

As for the sea, well I haven’t even dipped a toe in the Spanish Mediterranean yet, but it’s just lovely to wake up to view of the water, shining silver in the morning sun.  Or to walk to town along the beach, listening to the sound of the surf.

3.  The way Spaniards smile and encourage your halting, mispronounced Spanish. I haven’t yet encountered someone who responds with anything but delight when you attempt Spanish, no matter how badly mangled.  The locksmith grinned when I switched to Spanish after he had trouble understanding the English “five” in my phone number. The salesgirl at the Nerja bakery I patronize patiently repeats “ensaimada” with a smile when I try to order the fluffy pastry coil covered with powdered sugar.  And the dentist cheerfully gave me a lesson in rolling my “r’s” when I tried to pronounce the word for my new dental night guard.

4.  The art and architecture.  OMG. The buildings. The ceramics. The ironwork. The carvings and plasterwork. The colors. It’s completely over the top, a fantabulous tangle of Muslim and Christian styles piled one upon the other over the course of centuries. At first, it seems just too much to absorb, but as you quietly try to take it in, your eye alights first  on one exquisite detail after another. The craftsmanship is simply amazing.

5. Convent cookies.  As membership and donations to religious orders have dropped off in recent decades, convents in Spain have turned to their kitchens to shore up their finances, selling preserves and other goodies, especially cookies.  In Seville, a half-dozen or more convents sell their wares, including these traditional sugar-encrusted lemony goodies called yemas. Each cookie is carefully wrapped in tissue paper before being packed into a small lightweight wooden box.IMG_2476

To my mind, the best cookie is a mantecado, a soft crumbly butter cookie, often lightly flavored with lemon, almond or, my favorite, anise.  In the small town of Trujillo, a Spanish companion and I knocked on the door of the tiny Convento de Santa Clara to be greeted by a tiny nun. Wizened and hobbling on arthritic feet, she was at least 80, but smiled broadly when we asked to buy some cookies, please.  She asked where we were from, and when told I was from the U.S., invited us in to view the tiny church and its prized artifacts. Only six nuns remain at the convent, all of them well-advanced in age. The convent isn’t likely to survive much longer–a shame, if for no other reason than that the mantecados they lovingly bake six days a week are delicious.

It’s worth noting that, should you buy some of these cookies when in Spain, prepare to eat them all before leaving the country. They don’t travel well.  They are so rich with butter that they’re extremely fragile, and the slightest pressure turns the round disks into a pile of edible sand. (Did that stop me from scooping it up and eating it? Of course, not!) I suspect it would make a fabulous cookie crumb crust for a pie. Someday, I’ll try it.

6. The orange trees that line the streets and dot the plazas and squares in Valencia, Malaga, Seville and, I presume, elsewhere in Spain.  When in blossom or fruit, the trees perfume the air. I don’t know what happens to the fruit–some of it falls to the ground and seems to be collected regularly by the street cleaners. I’ve never seen anyone actually picking the oranges, but I suspect that urban foragers do a gangbuster business. The oranges aren’t sweet, but bitter and better suited to marmalade than juicing or eating out of hand.

7. The ceramics. The Spanish can make anything out of tile and ceramic.  And it’s always colorful and beautiful.IMG_2387

8. The way even small packages are wrapped and tied up neatly. A pasteleria (a bakery that sells pastries, as opposed to a panaderia, which sells bread) will carefully transfer your cream-IMG_1947stuffed goodie to a gold foil tray, then wrap it in paper and tie it with a ribbon or string. In Valencia, the clerks at my favorite pasteleria eschewed the string, opting instead to hold two corners of the wrapping paper in each hand and swiftly flip it over a few times, winding the corners into twisted horns that hold your package closed. No plastic clamshells for these folks.

9. Seeing nuns in traditional wimples and habits, complete with heavy cotton hose and sensible oxfords. I don’t know exactly why I find this sight so anachronistically charming, but I do. My Catholic friends who attended parochial schools tell me that I might not, had I suffered the knuckle-rappings they did as a child.IMG_2458

To me, a Protestant  growing up in a largely Catholic town, nuns weren’t an uncommon sight, but they were always somewhat exotic and foreign.  Warren, R.I., had a Methodist church, a Baptist church, an Episcopal church and a small congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It also had an Irish Catholic church, a French Catholic church, a Portuguese Catholic church, a Polish Catholic church and an Italian Catholic church. (As a youngster in 1960, I couldn’t quite understand adults’ comments that the country would “never elect  a Catholic (John Kennedy)  president”.  Why not, I thought?  Almost everyone in the U.S. is Catholic, aren’t they?)

10. The smell of leather. Walk along any reasonably touristy street and you’re sure to pass a half dozen or more small shops selling sandals, purses, jackets, luggage and anything else that can reasonably be made from animal skin. Vegans won’t like it, but to me, the smell conjures up images of ruggedly handsome men, wine or whisky in crystal decanters and old, beautiful books. Maybe that’s weird, but the aroma of leather makes me happy.

And 11 (you didn’t really think I could confine myself to just 10, did you?). Flowers blooming all year round–really!  This was taken in a park in Seville  on Feb. 19.










Learned the Hard Way

All things considered, phase one –the exploratory phase—of my itinerant retirement is going remarkably well. Which is not to say that there haven’t been some “oh shit” moments.  So a little advice for anyone contemplating a similar adventure:

1. If you take a bus to a small town out in the countryside, make sure you know where to catch the only bus back.

The ride to Le Vigan, a small town on the edge of the Cevennes mountains was lovely. The goat cheese festival that drew me there, not bad, and I had a pleasant afternoon in the leafy park on the edge of town. I sampled some cheeses, lunched on grilled lamb and fresh salad, and dozed in the dappled sunshine. Edith Piaf recordings over a PA system alternated with lively and entertaining performances by the local band, it’s members clad in a dozen different iterations of striped shirts, pants and hats.

The bus making the journey back to Montpellier was scheduled to leave at 4:55, and I was waiting for it 10 minutes early. I wasn’t too concerned when it wasn’t there at 5:00. But by 5;15, I was pretty sure something was wrong. Up till then, every bus I’d taken had been smack on time. So in my fractured French, I asked a passing couple if they knew if the bus was ever this late. No, they answered in English. But the bus had already left, from the main stop in the town center. It didn’t come up to the final stop in the park on festival days. Some 60 euros poorer, I left the next morning, having spent the night at a local hotel and eaten an overpriced veal ragout for dinner. Still there was one plus: My hotel room had a tub and I got a nice long bath that night.

2. Always arrive at a new apartment with a stack of tissues in your luggage—especially if you arrive late at night or on a Sunday, when stores are closed. Apparently, you can’t count on a supply of toilet paper.

3. Do not overestimate your ability to learn new skills at age 62. I figured “how hard could it be to ride a motor scooter?” I should have been tipped off by the three grinning Frenchmen watching me from across the street as I climbed on for the first time. They’d clearly seen this drama unfolding before. I managed to wave jauntily to them and successfully traveled about 50 meters before I had to turn a corner. Down she went. I wasn’t hurt, fortunately, merely stuck under the tipped-over scooter and trying hard not to look embarrassed.

The young man who bounded over to help me up and right the scooter didn’t speak English, but he was pretty clearly saying “I don’t think this is a good idea”. I managed in a combination of Franglais and pantomime to convey that I wanted to get the scooter over into a nearby parking lot, where I could practice a bit more before taking it on the road. Reluctantly he wheeled it over, while making me promise “just one more try.” It wasn’t enough. This time, when the scooter went over, the side mirror broke and I called it quits. But I got to ride back to the shop on the back of the scooter, holding on to a cute French guy!

4. Do not order something based on a picture in a menu. It sure looked like a nice grilled piece of fish—something like tuna or swordfish. It tasted like cardboard and had the texture of a rubber boot. Sepia a la Planche turns out to be grilled cuttlefish—aka a chunk of a big squid.  In fact, don’t eat at any restaurant that has pictures in its menus. It’s probably aimed at tourists who the proprietors figure wouldn’t know good food anyway and, in any case, won’t be back.

5. Ask which floor your AirBNB apartment is on. The first one –in Valencia—was four long flights up. It made me feel better about the volume of Spanish cheese and fresh bread I was eating, but reclimbing those stairs for a forgotten umbrella was torture. As for hauling 50 pound suitcases up and down? Oy. The second one, in Montpellier, was on the ground floor. Easy on the knees, not so good for letting in sunlight. And when the windows were open, you could reach out and pet any passing dogs (windows don’t have screens here.)

6.  If you park in a garage, have cash, even if the signs say they take credit cards.  Some of the self-pay kiosks don’t take credit or debit cards from outside the country you’re in. Note that French drivers are unbelievably impatient with anyone who holds up the exit lane figuring that out.

7. Watch out for those fruity wine drinks. The first time I ordered Aqua de Valencia, I thought it was a generous pitcher that I got, but what-the-heck, it ‘s just OJ with some cava (Spanish champagne) in it.  It wasn’t until I tried to stand up (and later looked at the bill I’d signed) that I realized it had clearly been aqua valenciameant for two people. And it wasn’t until a day or two later that I learned, no, it’s not just a bucket-sized Mimosa.  Aqua de Valencia packs a potent punch of gin and vodka as well as the cava.

As for Sangria: Well, we Americans tend to think of it as a fruity summer drink for lightweights..  Take some red wine, add lemonade or fruit juice or club soda and a bunch of cut-up citrus fruit and you’ve got a nice, mild, refreshing summer drink.  Not in Spain you don’t.  Sangria here is red wine mixed with cava and brandy, with fruit soaked in enough brandy to preserve it for years.  I had one; it was good. I had another and staggered out of the bar, forgetting to pay my bill.

8. Just let your hair grow.  Despite checking for recommendations online, casing various stylists’ shops to see if the customers walked out looking good and happy, and even stopping total strangers in the street to ask where they got that really nice haircut, I ended up with some of the worst cuts I’ve ever had.  In Malaga, the hair on one side of my head was a good 1/2 inch longer than on the other. And considering that the longest hair on my head was about 3 inches, it was quite a sight.

9. Watch where you step. Pooper-scoopers are apparently unheard of in many European cities. Ask me how I know.

10.  If an AirBNB is described as “right in the center of things”, keep looking. My Malaga apartment was on the first floor (that’s up one from the ground floor in Europe) facing into what looked like a quiet little square a few blocks from Plaza Constitution, the main gathering place in the old quarter.  Perfect, right?  Wrong. At around 9 that first night, the doors on what had looked like shuttered residences on the ground floor were thrown open. Scores of tables and chairs filled the plaza and people began to gather.  Hundreds of them  And the party went on till at least 5 AM every night of the week except Mondays for the entire month I was there.  No earplugs in the world could have deafened that noise of that crowd.

Malaga street bar


Dolce Far Niente in Sicily

Summer in Sicily reminds me powerfully of childhood. True, it’s a much more exotic setting than the small working class town I grew up in, and the thermometer indicates that it’s at least 10 to 15 degrees hotter most days than southern New England ever got. But there’s much that feels the same. The tempo of life, for instance.  The languor of Sicily in August feels a lot like I remember summers as a nine- or ten-year old: Waking late, with the sun already well up in the sky. Spending hours reading a book or just sitting idling, daydreaming. It’s what the Italians call dolce far niente—the sweetness of doing nothing.

There’s a freeing carelessness that feels like childhood, too. Most days I don’t bother with make-up, just smearing on some sunscreen. And much as I did as a youngster living close to the waterfront, I often simply put on a swimsuit and a light cover-up first thing in the morning, because it’s cool and comfortable and I know that at some point before the sun sets, I’IMG_2240ll end up in the water. Those of you who know me well will recognize this as highly unusual behavior. I typically avoid occasions that require scanty clothing and don’t particularly like swimming either in pools or at beaches. But in Sicily it’s easy to leave behind the self-consciousness about dimply thighs, sagging boobs and ginormous butts. Women (and men) of all shapes, sizes and ages have no compunction about revealing far-from-perfect bodies—pasta-bellies and wrinkles be damned. (Of course, some of them do look pretty good!) I’ve even taken to wearing sleeveless tops in the only slightly cooler evenings, letting my usually camouflaged underams flap freely.

The neighborhood I grew up in was originally a summer community, made up mostly of small homes where families parked for the summer. As time passed, many of the homes were insulated and enlarged for year-round occupancy or new ones meant for that purpose were built. But there were still a number of summer-only residents when I was young; many of the neighbors had boats of one sort or another (I, in fact, had a canoe); and community life centered around the local beach.

IMG_2335In Syracuse, the homes aren’t wooden and are centuries older than the summer houses of Laurel Park, but they share a sort of casual summer shabbiness as well as the faint smell of mildew and damp, and typically inadequate, outdated and often jerry-rigged plumbing and electrical systems. And just as in my hometown, here wet swimsuits and threadbare towels hang outdoors on railings to dry; flip-flops are the footwear of choice for all ages; and meals are casual affairs, often eaten outdoors.

Although there’s no actual beach in Ortygia—the small island that is the antique and cultural heart of the working city of Syracuse—the sea is very much present. While three bridges connect one side of the island to the rest of Syracuse and a marina occupies another stretch, much of the island is surroundIMG_1625ed by a steep, fortress-like seawall, adding to the sense of Syracuse as a place  with a long history of cultures repeatedly clashing  and commingling. At one or two spots, long, steep staircases lead down to small sandy areas outside the seawall and a handful of tourists and locals spread their towels there to take in the sun and jump in the waves.

But I, along with most of the inhabitants, prefer the Solarium—a large wooden deck-like affair accessed by a metal stairway down an outcrop of boulders. Hovering over the water, it’s large enough for a couple dozen souls to spread their towels and bask in the sun until the heat drives them to IMG_2264jump off into the sea. An adjacent spit of boulders shelters those who prefer a more natural, if less comfortable, place to park their bottoms and a higher diving point for the more intrepid teens and tweens.

The water is clear and its temperature perfect—cool enough to refresh, warm enough not to chill. Some people swim vigorously or snorkel, but most, like me, simply float, bobbing up and down in the modest waves, grinning at the deep blue sky and endless sea ahead of them.

Is Madrid “The One”?

We’ve only been dating for a day or two, but I have a good feeling about this relationship. As a potential long-term match, Madrid ticks a lot of the boxes.

  1. Physical attractiveness. Madrid has that particular handsomeness of so many Spanish men, combining a dignified aging with youthful vigor. Stylewise, Madrid is pretty interesting, too. Like the Spanish policemen who role up their sleeves just-so, Madrid can be a bit fussy, what with the Baroque palaces and manicured formal gardens. But just as the policemen’s muscled physiques and hip beards bespeak their more macho selves, so do Madrid’s casual outdoor cafes and tapas bars, not to mention the bull ring.
  2. An interest in culture–ballet, symphony and opera, as well as Broadway style theater and flamenco. But Madrid’s no snob. Along with the St. Petersburg ballet performances this summer, there’s a showing of all the 007 James Bond films along with a special on the costumes and sets for the movies. And of course, Madrid has plenty to offer in the way of art, architecture and history, as well.
  3. An amiable disposition. Madrid’s friendly and open, and loves a good conversation.
  4. An intriguing history. I think I could spend years getting to know it all.
  5. A mutual interest in food and eating well.
  6. Imagination and a good sense of humor. How else could you explain all the giant winged creatures, horses and chariots atop the buildings?
  7. A nice ride. I’d never have to drive again. Madrid just takes the wheel and whisks you wherever you want to go via Metro or bus.
  8. Our communication is good, too. Between my rudimentary Spanish and Madrid’s cosmopolitan grasp of English, we’re getting along fine.

Of course, Madrid  can be quite moody—extremely hot and bothered sometimes and very chilly at others. That’s a red flag, but it’s too early to tell if the big swings will be more than I’m willing to tolerate.

I wish Madrid were more green, too. Big shady trees lining long pedestrian walkways and a giant urban park are all well and good. But that side of Madrid can be a bit of a hassle to access, if you’re not careful.

And, well, there are signs that Madrid may prove to be somewhat high maintenance. Other dates I’ve had in recent months have been the complete opposite: It would take so little to keep up a happy domicile that I could easily dally with other suitors, skipping off for long weekends regularly. I fear that won’t be the case with Madrid. I’m sure I wouldn’t be tethered to my kitchen stove, but I probably would have to trade off some freedom.

Of course, it’s early days, yet; I’m far from ready to make a commitment. At my age, you really need to date for quite a while before you’re ready to move in together. Baltimore taught me that. And playing the field for the past five months has made me cautious about love at first sight.  Uzés, France just looked so good at first glance, it was hard not to keep my heart from bounding out of my chest. But with a little more perspective now, I can see that a pretty face isn’t enough to keep me interested over the long haul. Like many charmers,  Uzés is just too shallow. Mirepoix, with it’s lovely medieval arcaded town square—never was more than a harmless flirtation. As for Montpellier—such a strong candidate on paper: I stuck the difficult relationship out for two months, struggling to give it a chance and appreciate the good in it. But, come on, a girl just shouldn’t have to work that hard.

When the right one comes along, there should be some magic, some fun involved. The fact is, I wasn’t planning to meet Madrid. Browsing the Internet sites for a good match, Madrid looked too hot, too cold, too big and too expensive, so I never even tried to arrange a date. I just wound up stopping by for a few days on my way to another engagement. And whether it works out between us in the end or not, I’m sure glad I did!

The 10 Best Things about Montpellier

  1. Passion-fruit sorbet shaped like a flower in an ice cream cone. Aside from how pretty it looks, it has a sweet-tart tang that makes the world seemIMG_2021 cropped like a happier place. And it reminds me of Hawaiian Punch, a favorite beverage when I was young.
  2. The English Book Shop on the Rue de la Bras Fer, crammed with English language books of all sorts and IMG_1991offering tea, coffee, soft drinks and assorted goodies. It’s also where a small mob of native English speakers and a polyglot mix of others eager to practice their English skills cram a downstairs room every Friday from 5 to 7 pm.
  3. The limestone paving in a small pocket of streets in the Ecusson—the old city. The Rue de l’ Ancien Courier and others nearby are narrow and twisty, IMG_0998filled with history and crammed with cute little boutiques. The Rue du Bras de Fer even has one of the few remaining original arches crossing the street, which is actually a series of wide shallow steps.
  4. Tuesday evening organ practice at St. Michel’s church just around the corner from my apartment.
  5. The colorful trams, with paint jobs designed by the likes of Christian La Croix. In fact, the public transit as a whole is pretty great. A 10-trip ticket for the tram costs 10€. IMG_1977Ditto, a 10-trip ticket for the regional bus system, which will get you the 20 minutes away to the Mediterranean beaches or 40 minutes to the gorges and mountains of the Cevennes.
  6. The Monoprix, where you can buy “une cannette du Coca Light” for  0€89. Plus, it’s actually cold and not just slightly chilled as most soft drinks in France and Germany are.
  7. The fedoras. Everyone–male or female, young or old—wears them.IMG_1979 cropped
  8. The trompe l’oeil buildings.  I had to go up to and touch this building before I understood that it really is just one big flat wall.IMG_1982
  9. A cold Monaco—a frothy pink concoction of beer, grenadine and either lemonade or lemon-lime soda. Probably too sweet for real beer dinkers’ taste,but surprisingly good on a hot afternoon.
  10. The quirky bicycle art scattered around the city. IMG_0953 I’ve spotted one emerging from a staircase, three whole bikes emerging from a wall two stories up and one with half the bike on one building and the other across the alley. I’ll bet there are lots more in the outer sections of the city.

Montpellier: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

After nearly four weeks here, it’s time to admit it. I don’t particularly care for Montpellier. I don’t wake up with a smile, eager for  some new adventure every day the way I did in Valencia. Somedays I haven’t really wanted to get up at all.

Perhaps it’s the mostly cloudy weather.  Or that this apartment is depressing. 61745_Home_Rent_House_Rental_Montpellier_France_Filename1_AppartementpanoramaWith its ancient ceiling beams, marble fireplace surround, monogrammed linen lamp shade and antique prints on the wall, it looked so charmingly French  in the online listing. And it is in many ways  a very typical old French city apartment: small, dark and smelling slightly of damp and mildew. What else would you expect from a building several centuries old with stone walls nearly a meter thick?

I knew the apartment was small—45 square meters (about 480 square feet) when I rented it. What I hadn’t realized is that there would be about 18 inches of space between the bed and the closet wall. And that only about half of the reasonably sized shower cubicle shown in the pictures is usable space. If you fail to draw the shower curtain which divides it in half or turn the shower on full blast, you turn the entire bathroom into a wading pool. And because it also has a nicely inclined floor, the deep end is near the door. Ask me how I know.

There are two nice-sized windows, which might, in theory, let in some reasonable sunlight. But the apartment is on the ground floor (admittedly a relief after schlepping up four flights of stairs in Valencia). So opening the curtains means youIMG_1250 can easily carry on a quiet conversation with the folks sitting at the café no more than 8 feet away, across the narrow street. In fact, the squeal made when you open the window shutters usually prompts most of the café’s patrons to turn and look. They nod hello and smile, and I adopt a rueful grimace and shrug an apology for the noise. At night, one draws closed the heavy wooden shutters and it’s pitch black inside the apartment. In fact, it’s still pitch black at midday the next day. If it weren’t for calls of nature, I might sleep right through from one evening to the next.

Though the apartment offers some theoretically nice modern conveniences, I am somewhat puzzled as to their operation and/or usefulness. The small bathroom, for example, has a large electric towel warmer rack. But getting up two hours before your morning shower to give it enough time to warm up rather dims the appeal of using it. Also, it’s located right next to the narrow 18-inch-wide opening to the shower, so I’ve got scorch marks on my arms from squeezing by.

And you’d  think the combination washer/dryer would be a great convenience. But after two hours of drying time, a small load of laundry is still very damp and requires hanging it on a rack in the kitchen overnight to reach a wearably dry state. (No lovely Spanish sun beating down on a window clothes line here.) The stainless steel hood over the ceramic range looks great, but the fan doesn’t seem to be connected to any exhaust vent. Glad I’m not frying any fish.

There’s no oven either—something I probably should have anticipated from all those International House Hunter episodes I’ve watched. This, I admit, doesn’t bother me much. Why bake, when you can buy such good bread and luscious pastries, right down the street? Roasted chickens, too.

As for the city of Montpellier itself, the gray weather has done little to brighten the appeal of street after street of monochromatic limestone and shutters, by ordinance, painted a uniform cement color. Flower boxes, climbing vines and other greenery–so cheerfully prevalent in cities I’ve visited in Germany—are missing here. Many of the pedestrian-only streets in the old quarter are unattractively—and poorly–paved with asphalt, though some retain the original stone.

Still, the city does have some charms. Thanks to the zeal of religious reformers who tore down many neighborhood Catholic churches during the religious wars of the 16th century, there are many open spaces scattered throughout the city–small plazas filled with open-air cafes. It’s often frustratingly slow to catch a server’s attention and order, but there’s also no rush to turn the table. Servers don’t hustle  you out once you’ve finished your meal or glass of wine. Indeed, they don’t seem to mind if you linger for hours over a single, long-since emptied glass. Meanwhile, there’s usually entertainment nearby–street performers of all ilks, including a New Orleans style band and a troupe of  swing dancers.

It’s a kick, too,  to step into the boutiques and restaurants nestled into the ground floors of Gothic mansions. Whether to spareIMG_0998 the expense of remodeling or to evoke some historic charm, many expose the original stone vaulting and heavy beams. Touching the carved arches around a 14th century door and the iron rings where peasants tied their donkeys when they came to town connects me to history in a very real way. My special guilty pleasure: Reimagining the scenes from my favorite historical novels.

I’m guessing that in centuries past, the dog poop that litters the streets and walkways was even worse and almost certainly accompanied by donkey and horse poop.  I’d forgotten what it was like to have to watch where you’re walking. Like the haze of cigarette smoke in restaurants, shit on U.S. sidewalks was common not so long ago. But Americans now take the absence of both for granted.

In the last few days, the weather has brightened; the sun is out, the skies are blue and daytime temperatures are toasty.That’s done a lot to improve my mood and help me remember  why I wanted to come here. But what’s probably done more is escaping the city. Montpellier and the surrounding area have a remarkably good and wonderfully cheap public transportation system. For one euro, I can take the tram to the far outskirts of the city. For one euro sixty,  I can take a regional bus to a variety of charming towns within an hour or two’s travel. Suffice it to say that I’m aiming for at least 5 day trips a week from now on. Today, I went to see an acre or two of irises in bloom. Tomorrow, there’s a goat cheese festival  that’s calling my name.

Le Supermarket

So how would you expect a French supermarket to differ from your average suburban Safeway?  Some of my expectations were right on the money. Others, not so much. The French cheese selection was pretty phenomenal–got that one right. Ditto, the wine department. The variety there dwarves the pretty meager selection of soft drinks–the reverse of what you’d find in a U.S. supermarket. IMG_0931 IMG_0932

IMG_0937 But the prominence of Red Bull?  That was unexpected, though maybe it shouldn’t have been. I didn’t realize that it was a European (Austrian) company. Slurping up sweet, super-caffeinated soft drinks seems so quintessentially American. IMG_0925

The French don’t have Americans’ mania for low-fat, low calorie versions of everything. Lots of yogurt, for example. But in that whole big dairy case, there were only two low-cal fruit-flavored versions. Plenty of “cane-sweetened” ones and lots of plain–aka.”natural”–yogurts-plus a smattering of Greek style yogurts. But no flavored Greek yogurts with low-cal sweeteners.  I miss my Chobani!

IMG_0922 It was surprisingly difficult to locate the milk in the store. That’s because the packaging in France makes it look like a cleaning product and it isn’t located anywhere near a refrigerated case. IMG_0929

Prepared entrees are more exotic  than in the U.S.   That “Lapin” in the lower corner…it’s rabbit.

IMG_0919 cropped And if you think Americans demand convenience, check this out: The French can buy their bread with the crusts already trimmed off! IMG_0934 cropped

And finally, the French are known for their design esthetic, right? But  neon-colored toilet paper? Really?