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they share a sort of casual summer shabbiness as well as the faint smell of mildew and damp, and typically inadequate, outdated and often jerry-rigged plumbing and electrical systems.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.

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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!

Settling In


This weekend I stopped being a tourist. Well, not entirely—I still can’t speak Spanish and continue to gawk at 14th century buildings. But I did spend most of the weekend more or less as I would have in Baltimore or Arlington.

First, I did the laundry. But instead of shuttling the wet clothing from one modern appliance to another, I dried them the Spanish way: hanging them on an expandable rack attached to one of my apartment windows. I clipped my clean clothing  to the rack, which extends out over a sort of interior courtyard, silently praying that nothing fell. Four stories down, the interior space seemed to contain just some mechanical equipment, a few buckets and the like. Besides, I had no earthly idea how to get there, and I presumed it was accessed only  by the first floor apartment. Or perhaps even the neighboring building. Either way, I didn’t relish  trying to recover any escaped undies from strangers I couldn’t communicate with.IMG_0535

Electricity is expensive in Spain, so almost no one has a clothes dryer. Most households have washing machines, though—often located in the kitchen. Enjoying an average of more than 300 sunny days a year, Spaniards let Mother Nature do the job for free.

Domestic adventure, number two:  Grocery shopping. Flavorful cured Spanish ham and cheese with fresh bread makes a great supper, but I was getting a bit tired of it. Time to see what it’s like to have to find the specific ingredients I need to make a real meal. Fortunately, the Mercado Central is less than two blocks away from the apartment.

Reportedly the largest market in Europe, it’s a treasure trove of fruits, vegetables, nuts, dried beans and lentils, meat, poultry and seafood. Not to mention olive oils, breads and pastries, wine and cheese. (More on this marvelous market coming later.) But I’m a from-the-recipe cook and don’t often wing it with whatever I find in the market. Plus the cooking equipment in the apartment is minimal—one small and one largish pot, what appears to be a pressure cooker minus the top, and a small skillet or two. So I decided on soup.

I knew the market had bacalao, the Spanish name for the salted codfish that I recalled being sold in a small wooden box at Rhode Island grocery stores when I was a child. I’d only once found it in the D.C. area, using it to make a Portuguese fish and vegetable soup. I figured I could find a similar recipe online.

The cod wasn’t too  pricey at about  6€ for a bit more than half a kilo. But the vegetables were an unbelievable bargain.  Five carrots, two stalks of celery, two kilos of tomatoes, a clove of garlic, a couple of fresh onions. All for less than 4€ (about $4.50 at today’s exchange rate). Wow, at a farmers’ market in Baltimore or DC, that would have run me well over $10, and I couldn’t have bought just 2 stalks of celery. (The lady at the booth just breaks them off and breaks them in half to fit nicely in a bag.) Two more euros at another “exotic” produce booth where I bought a fresh fennel bulb, and another euro for a loaf of crusty bread and I was set. But the fruit looked too good to pass up. Ditto the piles of artichokes. So, I bought two kilos of sweet oranges (1,5€), a big box of strawberries ( another 1.5€) and five small artichokes (1€!) . The grand total for my haul: 15€.

Now, with the soup simmering on the stove, I’m ready for the last order of business this weekend: Catching up on Downton Abbey. I’d left the U.S. after the first four episodes of this season and hadn’t had the time (or inclination, really) to find out how to watch the show online from Europe. I knew that Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and other services weren’t available in Europe. But a little googling, $55 for a year-long subscription to  a VPN (virtual private network), which makes it look as if my computer is in the U.S.  and I was streaming Lady Mary’s latest escapades.  Four episodes later, and I was on to The Good Wife.  No more English language TV withdrawal pangs for me, and the retired life continues to look sweeter and sweeter!

Indolence and Noisemakers

It’s after 6 p.m.  I’m still in bed.  Yes, I was up and out last night till past 2 a.m. watching the spectacular Las Fallas Nit de Foc fireworks  (worthy of a post of their own). And no, I haven’t actually been asleep all day. Since about 10 a.m., I’ve alternately read or browsed the web for a few hours and drifted back to sleep to the sound of nearly constant firecrackers set off across the city. I was definitely awake at two this afternoon, when the last Mascletá of the officially four-day, unofficially two-week-long festival went off a few blocks away at the city’s main plaza.

Las Fallas, in general, and the Mascletá, in particular,  is a 12-year-old boy’s pyrotechnical dream. When I think of the mischievous delight my son and his fellow miscreants had in designing their own jerry-rigged noisemakers, blowing up everything from potatoes to discarded GI Joes, I know they’d give their right arms to be in Valencia during Las Fallas. (I strongly suspect that some young Valencianos have sacrificed body parts to the gods of loud noises.)

Everywhere, all day and all night, people set off firecrackers. Tots  throw and stamp on those tiny poppers. 5-year-olds and their dads light and throw what I recall as salutes.  Teens and adults set off explosives that sound powerful enough to take out a car or a small building. They seem to be constantly going off just a few feet away, scarring the dickens out of unseasoned visitors like me. Mentally, I hear the perpetrators, like the bad guys in an old Western, gleefully shooting firecrackers at my feet, saying “dance, tourist, dance.”

Every day during the festival, the city sets off  its own barrage of the loudest possible fireworks. Crowds throng to the plaza and the streets surrounding it awaiting the moment when the first nearly deafening boom announces the day’s entrant to what is essentially a competition for the best—that  is, the loudest, most pulse-pounding, smoke-billowing—Mascletá of the festival. The din lasts for at least five minutes, and the noise is amplified by the echoes off the buildings surrounding the Plaza. The ground trembles. Tourists are warned to keep their mouths open when at the plaza for the event, lest the pressure from the explosions damage their ears. No one talks about earplugs, however, and I notice what seems to be an extraordinary number of audiologists’ offices and hearing aid stores around this city. I wonder if anyone has done a study to see if Valencianos have a higher-than-usual rate of deafness?

The surprising thing about the Mascleta is that it’s not cacophony. There’s a rhythm to the noise, with waves of smaller, quieter fast pops, interspersed with and underpinned by crescendos of bigger explosions. It’s rather like listening to an all-percussion musical performance, and it makes you want to stamp your feet in unison.

So, after nearly a week of the noise and pageantry that is Las Fallas, as dusk arrives today I’m still lolling in my rented apartment, occasionally nibbling the sweet local strawberries I bought at the market yesterday and munching some of the fresh bread, Serrano ham and manchego cheese, I also picked up. I feel a bit guilty wasting this time in such a lovely city, lying in bed. But I’m also enjoying it, thinking “Ah, this is what retirement is about: doing nothing if that’s what I want to do.”

Still, it is the last night of Las Fallas. The night when hundreds of Fallas sculptures across the city are set alight; the last one, the huge lion at the Plaza de la Ajuntament, well after midnight. The last night to catch a glimpse of some of the spectacular Fallas I haven’t yet seen and to check out the reportedly fabulous light displays in the Russafa neighborhood. I guess it’s time to get up!

OMG-Spanish Hot Chocolate!

Valencia is a city with an overabundance of food.  I’d swear that two of every three store fronts is a café, tapas bar, gelato stand or or some other sort of food seller. Tiny 5-foot wide storefronts sell sandwiches of fresh bread and delicious Spanish ham, beers and soft drinks. Only slightly larger take-out places showcase three-foot-wide pans of paella, dishing up lunches of authentic paella Valenciana (chicken and rabbit) to hungry passers-by.   And because this is the week of Las Fallas, Valencia’s incredible end-of-winter/beginning-of-spring festival, the streets are also lined with tents and booths selling freshly fried buñuelos (a sort of Spanish funnel cake), grilled sausages and more.

When I discovered the Valor café on the Plaça de la Reine, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.. Valor is, of course, a maker of Spanish chocolate and the café’s menu is nothing but this food of the angels. Chocolate granitas. Chocolate crepes. Chocolate gelato. Chocolate lava cake. Chocolate fondue. Chocolate everything. Since it was my first meal of the day, I decided to be temperate. I ordered by pointing on the menu to a picture of what looked like a cup of hot chocolate and a buñuelo. What arrived was delicious but nothing like what I was expecting. I’ve always believed in the rich variety of hot chocolate: the kind made with milk (preferably whole, not namby-pamby 2%, or even worse, 1%), a generous  scoop of high quality cocoa (can you say Ghiradelli?) and a big sloppy schlag of sweetened whipped cream. That’s a pale shadow of the Spanish stuff.

First, the hot chocolate here is dark brown, not the usual muted milky cocoa color. A rich bittersweet brown: the color of melted Lindt chocolate bars. Then there’s the consistency. It’s liquid, but barely. Pop this stuff in the fridge for an hour and I’m pretty sure you’d have fudge. Think pots de chocolate right when they come out of the oven and are barely done—the middle is still wet and liquid, but thick. Finally, a serving is substantial: an average sized coffee cup, not some dinky little expresso thimble.

When the waiter put my first cup in front of me, I was nonplussed.  Was I supposed to drink it? If so, how? I had visions of thick brown goop glopping out of my cup and down my chin. The presence of two packets of sugar and a spoon on the saucer further puzzled me. Did they think I could possibly want to make this stuff even sweeter and thicker?

So I watched and waited, looking around to see what others were doing with their cups of melted chocolate. Alas, no one at a nearby table had ordered hot chocolate. (Despite temperatures only in the mid 50s, Valencianos were queuing up at the gelaterias and ice cream stores). I knew you could dunk the buñuelo in it, thanks to a picture in the menu. So I settled for doing that while I tried to figure out if I’d look more foolish attempting to slurp up the stuff from the cup or asking for some hot milk to pour into it. Once I’d scarfed up about a third of the cup along with half of the golden crunchy goodness of the buñuelo, I was too stuffed to care about the rest anyway. So I just paid the bill and headed off to see the nearby Roman ruins.

By the time I ordered my next cup, I’d watched half a dozen people in the Horchataría de Santa Catalina order and consume hot chocolate. Yep, they drink it from the cup (makes a helluva milk mustache). They also spoon it up and dunk. Any which way, it’s wonderful.

Germany and the CELTA

Germany was intended to be a sort of halfway house for the novice expat retiree. I could scrape the rust off my decades-old college German and draw on the experiences of several earlier short vacations there. It was meant to be a gentle, gradual immersion into European culture and being away from my own nest. And in some ways, it was. I was ensconced in a bubble of English language speakers. Both Ulla and Helmut, my very kind and generous hosts for six weeks speak English well and in the 11 years we’ve known each other, since my son Mac and I, hosted their son Martin as a high school exchange student in Arlington, Va., we’ve become close friends. Moreover, I spent four weeks in an all-English speaking course in Frankfurt, learning how to teach English to adult speakers of other languages. That turned out to be unexpectedly brutal.

I’d been warned that the Cambridge certification course (CELTA) was intense. But I figured (as did all my fellow trainees), how hard can it really be? Answer: Very. It wasn’t so much the difficulty of the material. Although much of it was new to me it wasn’t as if I were trying to understand quantum physics. Reviewing and analyzing the language was relatively easy and fun. (Thanks Mrs. Graham for requiring us to diagram sentences in the 6th and 7th grade!) And the pedagogy was, for the most part, logical and readily understandable, once the concepts were made clear.

But putting it all together? It was like trying to simultaneously skip, rub your stomach, pat your head and whistle Dixie—while dodging a barrage of spitballs.

The hours were long: Three hours of “input” sessions in the AM, followed by a half-hour of feedback from the previous day’s teaching practice. Then, an hour break for lunch—often spent frantically making handouts and organizing materials for an upcoming lesson—followed by 2 plus hours of practice teaching. If you weren’t in front of the class, you were behind it, critiquing your fellow trainees and desperately praying not to fall into the same pitfalls when it was your turn. And, finally at the end of the day, a session with the tutor to plan your next lesson. Then home, to work on either the lesson plan, language analysis or lexis analysis (fancy terms for grammar work and vocabulary) or one of the four mandatory written assignments. I haven’t had so many 2 AM nights in a row in decades. And, as my former compatriots at Kiplinger know—I was the queen of late-night work!

But the most difficult part, hands-down, was simply dealing with no longer being the accomplished old-timer who had the routine down pat. It was humbling, even downright humiliating, to have a teaching practice fall flat or an assignment handed back as inadequate. It sometimes seemed to me that I learned everything just too late to put it to use in my lessons. Perhaps my son comes by his learning behavior –an experiential type who has to burn his fingers before he believes the stove really is hot—naturally. After a surprisingly successful first teaching practice, I felt as if I crashed and burned with each new lesson. The next time, I’d solve the problems encountered in the last lesson only to stumble on a whole new set of obstacles.

In the end, I passed, with a good recommendation from my tutors and a touching endorsement from some of the students. That feels great. I made some new friends. I now have confidence that when I take on a teaching gig, I have some notion of what I should be doing. And for four solid weeks, I wasn’t bored for a single moment.

Valencia!

Sitting at Hahn airport in Germany, waiting for my cheapo RyanAir flight to Valencia, Spain, I’m popping gummy bears reflexively. Sugar—more usually in the form of chocolate – is my preferred method of self-medication. I’m more excited and more nervous today than I was six weeks ago when I departed from Washington, DC for Germany, the first stop in a multi-month expat retirement exploration trip

I know no one in Spain. My entire Spanish repertoire consists of three phrases: “Da nada”, “Que pasa?” and, appropriately “No hablo Espagnol”. I have an AirBNB apartment lined up for the month, but other than knowing it’s a fourth-floor walkup in the city center, rented by Ana, a young Valenciana with a fondness for the Beatles, I haven’t a clue about what it will be like. It’s possible that the apartment won’t even faintly resemble the modern one-bedroom flat with a flaming red kitchen prictured in the photos. But assuming it’s decent, I’ll at least have a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in. Since I figure I can always just point at food at the market or on a menu, I’m not likely to starve, either. Food and shelter–what more can a girl ask for?