After emerging from stressful and expensive taxis  in New York, Bill and I sometimes calm ourselves at the Heartland Brewery, situated on the Eighth Avenue side of the Port Authority.  [This, of course, is only if the taxis have taken us to the Port Authority, terminal for buses bumping southbound into the belly of New Jersey.  Taxi trips to Penn Station, whence New Jersey trains  flow (or lurch), are openers for quite another kind of post. Contain yourself.]

The Heartland Brewery, darkly panelled to produce an interior of almost stygian gloom, is not quite empty at about two-thirty in the afternoon, but nearly.  It’s an eatery right out of what I recall as the Midwest. (“Heartland,” get it?)  I only passed through the Midwest once, in 1952, when my father drove cross-country in his brand new ’52 Pontiac, loaded with my mother, me and quite a lot of luggage that didn’t have wheels because no luggage had wheels yet. The purpose of his trip was to find a lifetime of happiness for us all under the California sun,  and never mind what kind of food they served along the way. But Heartland certainly does bring back memories of those once-in-a-lifetime mid-America meals in all their caloric glory. Whenever we sit down and open the menu, I’m surprised not to find chicken-fried steak still on offer.

The great thing for us about Heartland, though, is its flexibility.  It is willing to depart from its printed offerings if the kitchen’s not too busy — which apparently it rarely is, at least by the time we get there.  So Bill can have a Swiss cheese sandwich on thickly cut rye toast, with mustard and tomato inside, a heap of crisp french fries alongside, and a cup of ketchup all his own, plus a bonus of two excellent dill pickle spears. Not only is this not on the menu. Its constituent parts are almost all things not usually found in our longevity-seeking, gluten-free, lactose-free (except for goat cheese), deep-fat-fried-free home. But after our taxi traumas, treats are in order — on the understanding that  leftovers don’t get on the bus with us. What leftovers? There never are any.

The first time we were there, Bill had to describe this “novelty” lunch in detail to the waiter. Thereafter, the waiter remembered. How could he not?  A Heartland customer who, peculiarly, wanted something not on the menu? Of course, we had to remember the waiter, too.  Otherwise — with another waiter — it might always be the same story: “Why can’t I? Javier always manages to get it!”

[Just so you know — in case you too want the Swiss on rye — Javier is on the 11 to 4 “lunchtime” shift.  Although I would recommend leaving the sandwich to Bill and having what I had last time: the one non-mid-America thing on the menu. It’s a sashimi-grade tuna burger, done medium rare, served bunless with ginger slaw on top, wasabi sauce in a cup, and a side of spinach sautéed in olive oil and garlic instead of the standard fries. Really good.]

The point of all this, however, is not to guide your eating choices but to guide you to Javier.  Just a few questions and a wealth of  information pours out of this man. One wonders how he holds it in when Heartland does get busy. The youngest in a family of Cuban emigres settled in Miami, and the only one of the children born in the United States, he is perfectly bilingual. He speaks his fluent English mainly at work though, since he lives in a mainly Hispanic community in Weehawken.  He also visits Cuba regularly to see relatives left behind, and is entirely comfortable there, too.  Cuban medicine, he declares, is the best in the world, and available without cost to everyone.  Cuba has universal literacy, too.  Javier advises a visit soon (if it can be engineered minus relatives in Cuba) because — he further opines — when Castro goes, American money will move in and ruin it.

But setting aside his travel advice, the really fascinating thing about Javier is his extracurricular life.  He coaches speaking!

“You mean you teach Spanish on the side?  I ask.

No, he doesn’t mean that.  He means “speaking” as in “public speaking.”  Javier is active — a co-chairperson, I think — in his local Toastmasters organization.  The local meets every Thursday, at which time aspiring public speakers stand up and deliver.  Javier coaches the newbies, gets them ready for the mike.

“You must make a pretty good speech yourself,” I say, “if you can coach.”

“Oh, yes,” he exclaims.  “People like me.  I’m personable.”

“And modest,” I add.

“That too,” he agrees.  “You see how easy it is for me to talk to everyone here?”

“We do, we do,” we assure him.

“Of course,” Javier continues, probably missing another bus to Weehawken thanks to our charisma,  “it’s much easier to talk to somebody one on one, the way we’re doing.  Speaking to a group is different.  That’s scary.”

“Even for you?” (I do like to lead people on.)

“Are you kidding?” exclaims Javier.  “I’m petrified every time! You know public speaking is one of the three things people are most afraid of?”

“What are the other two?” asks Bill, who’s pretty much polished off the fries by now and has freed up his mouth for talk.

“Spiders is one of them.”

“And the third?”

“Anything you want to name.”  (Which is a pretty good answer, when you think of it.)

“Like cancer?”  [Trust a medical man, even one retired from practice, to come up with the big C.]

Javier shook his head.  “No,” he said.  “It can’t be a disease or death. Anything else you want to name, though.”

What does he mean, “it can’t be?”  If I want to be afraid of cancer, why can’t cancer be up there with spiders for me?

But I didn’t speak out, so Javier didn’t explain. Instead, he asked:  “Do you want to know what I tell my students when they say they’re too scared to get up there and do it?”

Yes, we both wanted to know.

Javier (with gravity): “Public Speaking doesn’t get easier. It just becomes more possible.”

A light bulb went off in my head.  (Forgive the cartoon visual; it had been a long day and, as you already know, New York taxis are exhausting.)  “That would work for writing, too,” I said.  “Wouldn’t it? I’m always so afraid of the next blank page.”

“She tries to write,” Bill explained.

“It works for everything,” declared Javier.  “Everything in life you’re afraid of doing. Speaking, writing, flying, roller blading.  ‘Whatever It Is doesn’t get easier. It just becomes more possible.'”

Second light bulb:  Blog post!

“Javier, may I take your picture with my i-Phone?”

The next morning there was, understandably, a minor editorial change.  My blog, my prerogative.

 “Writing doesn’t get easier as you write. It just becomes more possible.”

 Gnomic perhaps. But worth the price of two Heartland lunches, don’t you think?  I might even get a tweet out of it.

Thank you so much, Javier.



Spanish saints of long ago.

[In the summer of 1990, I left the United States for the first time in forty years on an inexpensive two-week tour for older travelers sponsored by the University of New Hampshire. “Inexpensive” was key for me — which explains why the destination was Salamanca, Spain, the hotel had only one star, the food was unhealthy and unexciting, the program had twenty-eight participants (too many) and I agreed to share a room with a stranger. It wasn’t all a disappointment though. R., my luck-of-the-draw roommate, turned out to be terrific. And during that first trip I learned what I liked when traveling and what I didn’t.]

Among my discoveries was that one of the joys of travel can be eating.  This insight did not come from the breakfasts and dinners at the Gran Via included in the program price, which sustained (perhaps over-sustained) life but could hardly be described as “joys.”  However, in our second week of Salamanca togetherness, R. and I broke step with the others for lunch at a “real” restaurant in a part of the city not considered “Old.” There we found that food as we know it did indeed exist in Spain, together with spotless tablecloths, cloth napkins, crystal wine glasses, leather bound menus and a young waitress clad in sleeveless pastel linen eager to practice her charmingly shy but correct English on us  — the daughter of the proprietor, home for the summer from college in the states.  The bill, by our standards, was high. But worth every penny.

After we had paid it, carefully doling out equal numbers of pesos from each of our wallets, came the interesting question of who was to keep the “factura.”  I want to say that like small schoolgirls playing hooky from the tour, we played one potato, two potato or eeny miney moe for it.  But I seem to recall that in fact R. ceded it to me because of the two of us I was the virgin traveler.  Here it is, all fancy-framed and still hanging in my kitchen:


Souvenir of my first European restaurant meal in forty years.

I see we had wine, salad, perfectly cooked salmon and black coffee. The bread on the bill came, and was charged for, without our ordering it, but neither of us was then savvy enough to send it back when it appeared, not knowing we would have to pay.  Oh well.

Our second hooky experience was more adventurous.  We cut out for a whole day — missing, I think, an educational visit to a convent or two — not specifically for a restaurant meal, but to see the Prado in Madrid. (How could anyone come to Spain for twelve days and not see the Prado?) But it goes without saying  we weren’t going back to Salamanca after the museum without first experiencing gastronomical Madrid.

It was a round trip by train, tickets acquired at the train station by means of R.’s then relatively primitive Spanish.  (She’s far more fluent today.) A woman who taught first grade in a New York City public school wanted to come with us.  Here we are after two or three hours of wandering from Velasquez rooms to Goya rooms to the museum bathrooms. Some people take photographs in museums despite pictograms everywhere showing cameras with big X’s on them, but I was good and didn’t.  So all you get of this wonderful museum, through the kind ministrations of a passerby, is the three of us outside, beneath Velasquez himself:


NYC public school teacher (left), R. (center), me (right) and Velasquez (on high).

Afterwards, we had a short stroll through a park nearby:


Madrid. Near the Prado.


Madrid park.

And then — a Madrid meal!  Bookish ladies, we took a taxi to what  the Frommer guidebook identified as Hemingway’s favorite restaurant and ordered, with reckless disregard for gastrointestinal consequences, what the elderly waiter, who spoke some English, identified as Hemingway’s favorite dinner.  Was he really old enough to know? Was this kitchen lore? Piggyback hearsay?  It was roast pork, with many trimmings. (We were all three ethnically Jewish, but had left observance far behind long before crossing the entryway.) It was heavy on the plate, heavy on the fork and later heavy on the stomach, especially in the Spanish heat.  Also very very expensive.  Maybe they got away with charging extra because of the Hemingway benediction? But it was a cozy little place, and fun while we chose and chewed, and I’d probably go again if I were still there, If only to try to find my own favorite dinner on the  menu.

As I acknowledged in the first of these three posts, the Hotel Gran Via — despite its single star (not to be confused with a Michelin star) — did try.  One night, they even provided musical entertainment to enhance their tasteless and boring dinner.  I tend to disfavor non-spontaneous simulations of native culture, trimmed and flavored for tourists.  But then I thought: the musicians were at least working, which might not have been the case for them every day.  And many of our program’s twenty-eight participants seemed to enjoy the hokey performance.  So who was I to carp? I took a picture instead:


After-dinner song at the Gran Via: employed musicians, gratified patrons.

Another afternoon we were taken to a sort of bullfight, with paella afterwards. I say “sort of” bullfight because this bull had had much experience, which is not supposed to happen, and had been trotted out and put through some paces for our benefit.  Neither matador not bull died at the end, and no one was even injured.  (There were no picadors.)


Showing tourists how the cape stuff is done.

But the paella was pretty good.  Not quite as good as one Bill and I ate in Barcelona twelve or thirteen years later, but maybe third most memorable meal of the trip, so I’m not complaining.

Another discovery was how much I disliked being endlessly bused from place to place to cover all the “must see” historic artifacts and “must see” cathedrals in the area, with too-long stops on dusty highways for impromptu lectures and photo ops. The lectures could have been delivered on the bus, if it had been equipped with sound equipment.  And souvenir books contain better pictures, taken by professional photographers, than you can ever take yourself.


“Professor Nena” lecturing about aqueduct with great seriousness during bus stop on way to Segovia cathedral. Lecture was followed by photo op.

I also became depressed by all the unrelieved religious suffering depicted in Spanish art.


Excruciating suffering in Segovia cathedral. Note the skulls below the crucified Christ.

I preferred Segovia’s window boxes:


Cheering view from the bus.

Sitting in Segovia’s Plaza Major, where we ate lunch-time sandwiches, was also a pleasant experience: we watched whoever walked by while waiting for more busing. We were going on to Alcazar, summer palace for Ferdinand and Isabella.


Alcazar: the royal summer palace. It’s above the plain, so presumably somewhat cooler than below. But it wasn’t really cool inside, believe me, despite the thick stone walls. And we weren’t wearing layers of fifteenth-century royal trappings!

What I really wanted to see was how life was being lived in 1990 by people still alive. Which is probably why I took this picture on our next day’s busing to the province’s largest city:


You can see where my mind was at.

But by the time we got through the Sculpture museum in Vallodolid, and hurried past the Palacio de Justicia (which would have been interesting to me, but no dice), it began to rain.  So this is all I can show you of Vallodolid cathedral.  Does it look much different than other cathedrals of the period?  I am not the one to ask.


Vallodolid cathedral in the rain.


Vallodolid’s Plaza Major. Same (unanticipated) rain as above. We didn’t have umbrellas.

Here’s a happy picture.  On the next day’s bus trip, to Avila, our pit stop for toilet needs was (oh joy!) an up-to-date modern bathroom.  You can see that R., like me, thought it a welcome event.  At last!


What a great john!

Our destination that day was the monastery of St. Thomas at Avila:


Inside the cloisters of the monastery of St. Thomas at Avila.


Leaving the St. Thomas monastery.


Edible souvenirs of Avila’s Santa Teresa. I didn’t buy any.

When we reached the Avila cathedral, I was cathedral-ed out.  But I couldn’t resist these three near the door:


Detail: Avila Cathedral.


A photo op of something outside Avila. I photographed the photographers. Oh, there is R. in the purple t-shirt, tirelessly taking pictures. I wonder if she still has them, and if so, whether she ever looks at them.

Our last bus trip was to:



Graffiti even here, in Spain. How did they manage to spray paint so high?

First stop: the Hostal de San Marcos, Leon. This is the most luxurious of all the stops for religious pilgrims. We weren’t supposed to photograph the interior, but this time I was not a well-behaved tourist:


Illicit shot of interior of Hostal de San Marcos, Leon.

And then it was back to Salamanca for our farewell dinner at the Gran Via.  They tried to make it festive.  We actually had fresh oranges for dessert.  Here is Pedro — yes, I finally found his picture! — peeling an orange decoratively:


Pedro — waiter, maitre d’, général factotum. He did his best. We tipped him generously. I’m glad I found his picture after all.


But of all the photographs of this first trip [and I’ve spared you more than half of them], the ones I still like best — together with the two from behind the village of La Alberca in the last post — are these, taken in front of Avila cathedral.  I couldn’t decide which I preferred, so I enlarged and framed them both. They hang over the upright piano in our small dining room where I can look at them every evening while we have supper.  The children so intent on their game and oblivious to the foreign lady with the little camera are now adults in their thirties.  But in my awkward pictures they remain forever at play with a ball, caught in a moment before they grow up and raise their eyes to the saints above them.


Avila cathedral, 1990.


Avila Cathedral, 1990.

Well, what’s past is past. Time to put the album away and get going with making dinner.