WRITING SHORT: 34/50

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[Come summer heat, much of my blogging momentum melts away. Hence an experiment until Labor Day: fifty minimalist posts about whatever.]

I want to eat everything. The whole carton of chocolate ice-cream. The whole cheesecake. The whole box of blueberry muffins.  The whole family-size bag of potato chips. All the candy the kids collected in their hollowed-out pumpkin on Halloween and couldn’t finish.  It doesn’t matter that it will make me sick, and  later fat.

I want to buy everything I like in Vogue or at Pret-a-Porter — coats, dresses, sweaters, pants, boots, shoes, sandals, bags, scarves, hats. It doesn’t matter that I don’t need, can’t afford, wouldn’t know where or when to wear any of it.

I want to live in France, Italy, Spain, Greece — without moving away from home.  I also want to see Scandinavia, Germany, Japan, South America — without moving away from France, Italy, Spain, Greece. It doesn’t matter that unless someone figures out how to access multiple parallel universes before I die, this is impossible.

I want to be young, adventurous, and sexually attractive to all men I find attractive, while retaining everything I now know about youth, adventure and sexual shenanigans and without relinquishing Bill, social security, or the privileges of age. It doesn’t matter that this would make me a dirty old lady who can work miracles.

I want to take piano lessons, relearn French, enroll in a Shakespeare course, lead a meditation workshop, tutor English as a Second Language, do Pilates, participate in two reading groups favoring long books because I like the women in them, play Scrabble once a month, pet the cats, and go to New York once in a while without giving up my blog and long luxurious afternoon naps on our new bed. It doesn’t matter that there aren’t enough hours in the day for all this or enough energy in me, doesn’t matter that I’d collapse, despite the naps.

I suppose you could say I want to be God. (God can have everything.) But I’m still asking “Is there a God?” and coming up with “No.”  So it looks like I can’t have it all.  Bummer.

THINGS I WANT OR NEED TO DO INSTEAD OF BLOGGING

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You may have noticed.  I’ve been slowing down. Skipping days, even on my self-imposed every-other-day schedule.  Or else quoting a lot, so that I need to write less of the piece I post.  And now that spring has sprung, any thoughts I may be having about TGOB are definitely guilty ones. Poor blog. It’s fighting for my time and interest with so many competitors:

1.   What I really want to do right now is try on all my summer clothes from last year, decide most of them are out of date or no longer fit properly — and go shopping for new ones! For several weeks, since the sun first showed itself, I’ve been wasting at least an hour a day poring over the spring/summer collections on view in the emails Eileen Fisher (upscale clothing line) has been sending me almost daily — not to mention paying considerable attention to the weekly invasions of my email box by Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s newsletter about, among other things, the carefully “curated” items she is wearing this spring. Of course, almost all of this viewing matter is priced in the stratosphere but gives clever old ladies (like me) plenty of ideas as to what to look for elsewhere.

2.  I want (and now need) to install the AT&T microcell I purchased three weeks ago for over $200 to enhance cell phone (mobile) reception at our house. (Princeton has not permitted AT&T to put up a sufficient number of towers within its domain, so that indoors we get no more than two bars out of five on any cell phone, and a concomitant inability to hear anyone properly, if at all, even in the more receptive parts of the house.)

Moreover, if my installation achieves its goal, one of us can save fifty or sixty dollars a month by also transferring his (or her) landline from Verizon (our phone company) to AT&T, which will provide landline service through the microcell for twenty dollars a month. (The AT&T acronym stands for American Telephone and Telegraph, an out-of-date moniker, but long ago incorporated and now too well known in the US to change.) Strong as is my desire to keep at least one of our two monthly $70 to $80 payments to Verizon in the bank and pay AT&T only $20 a month for that landline, this reputedly easy installation has been awaiting my undivided attention since purchase.  Anything involving technology, registering long strings of numbers, and crawling under desks to plug colored wires into the correct apertures produces so much nervous apprehension  that I’m always telling myself I’ll do it tomorrow. (And no, Bill can’t do it because he says he doesn’t understand any of that.  He got through medical school and a five-year residency at Harvard, so go figure. But based on extensive prior experience with teaching him how to use his iPad, from which he is now inseparable, I believe him.)

3.  It is the first of the month and my desk (from which blog posts also issue, when they do) is covered with bills to pay, both electronically (mine) and with checks, envelopes and stamps (his).  This is something I need to attend to, sooner rather than later, but can also put it into the “I want to” category because if I don’t, the fact that my desk is a mess of financial obligations will keep me from doing anything else on said desk.

4. We have had a really bad stay-at-home-because-of-various-quite-serious-ailments-I-didn’t-blog-about-winter and I have been going stir-crazy. (This was the “dealing with the rest of it” in the blog’s subtitle.) Now that the ailments (which were not mine, at least not the major ones) have subsided and/or gone away for the present, I have expressed a desire to go somewhere for a while next winter and Bill has eagerly responded with a desire for the south of France!  Aix-en-Provence, to be specific. (Near the world’s largest plasma physics lab: Be still, my beating heart.  But also near Marseilles and bouillabaisse, and Avignon, past summer home of popes, and the general Frenchness that is everywhere in France — food, language, ambiance!)

Unfortunately, for travel to Aix (if we can even afford it) we will first need to train. Neither of us is the walker I used to be (and he never was), so we both now have prescriptions for physical therapy — mine for a bad knee, his for balance and general weakness through disuse — and are committed for the next twelve weeks or so to going here and there in Princeton to various physical therapists three times a week…and recovering afterwards.

5.  Should France remain the preferred destination (if otherwise feasible), I will need to do a major brush-up on my French, which at its best sixty years ago was a bookish sort of French (un francais scolaire). What especially needs work is my ability to understand the French when they speak without making special kind allowances for me. (“Tu comprends, Nina? Tu comprends?)  Without subtitles, for example, I am lost in French movies, except sometimes for the love scenes.  And I don’t expect to be involved in any love scenes with a Frenchman this time round. More probably, when I speak or ask questions (which I can manage, albeit like a foreigner), I will need to comprehend the answers.  (“Plus lentement, madame, s’il vous plait.”)  

6.  Also, my passport needs renewal.  It expired at the end of 2009.

7.  Now that I am facilitating a small meditation group that arrives in my driveway every Tuesday at 3, I feel obligated to set a good example: twenty minutes every day even when the group isn’t there.  Well, nearly every day.

8.  There is also my international student. (Every Wednesday afternoon at 3, for an hour — but on campus because he has no car, which means it’s at least an hour and a half for me. (Parking downtown is a bitch.)  He is a young, very sweet Chinese Visiting Scholar with whom I volunteered to converse (and correct his conversation) until he goes home in September.  Unfortunately, we cannot converse, because I cannot understand him.  (Nor can anyone else, which is why his teachers sent him for conversation tutoring.) So every Tuesday after meditation, I am doing conversation homework: seeking out things we can try to talk about (his work in advanced physics is impossible) and online aids to pronunciation — this week “r”, “l,” “th” and “s.”

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There’s lots more, but you probably get the idea.  Since I’ve never been able to multi-task or compartmentalize — you will perhaps now kindly forgive some blogging sloth until I find time to think of something interesting to post.  You can certainly speed things up by providing ideas. All suggestions welcome!  Don’t be shy. What would you like me to write about next?

SKARA BRAE: MY KIND OF PLACE

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Bet you’ve never heard of Skara Brae.  Don’t pretend. You haven’t, have you?  I hadn’t heard of it either, until I found it in this book with a really dumb title.

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I mean, come on.  1001 historic sites you must see? Before you die?  Like The Smolny Institute? (p. 669)  Or The Bank of England? (p. 290) Or Old Melbourne Jail? (p. 926) And if you don’t manage to get to them all by deadline, then what?

But after a day of windy rain and robo-calls and waiting in doctors’ offices for probably unnecessary checkups and/or “procedures” (the bane of an older person’s existence — if the older person has health insurance, that is), and after the cleaning ladies have canceled at the last minute and you discover the car has about a quarter of a cup of gas left on which you may just possibly manage to coast into the nearest gas station on a wheel and a prayer — after all that, stress builds to a point where Skara Brae, the one thousand and first site in the book with the dumb title, begins to seem like heaven on earth.

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This is what 1001 Historic Sites says about it (after telling you it’s in Orkney, Scotland):
Five-thousand-year-old homes with evidence of orderliness and comfort

This Stone Age village was buried beneath sand dunes for centuries until a huge storm blew the sand away, around 1850. What was revealed gives a vivid impression of ordinary life more than 5,000 years ago. Despite their great antiquity the houses are remarkably uniform, so much so that they have been likened to a ‘group of prehistoric council houses’ ….

Built of stone, the houses would have been roofed with turf or thatch. Their wooden doors opened off an underground maze of narrow passages …. Each house, however, had one spacious main room, measuring about 20 square feet (6 sq. m.). The fitted stone furniture inside included two box beds, possibly one for the man and the other for the woman and their children. The family would have slept on heather or bracken, under blankets of animal skin, and the stone floor would have been made more comfortable with strewn furs and skins.

The Skara Brae families had ornaments and used cosmetics, and each house had the same regulation two-shelf stone dresser, apparently placed to display precious objects to visitors. Stone shelves and cupboards were built into the walls. In the middle of the room was a hearth for burning peat. There are small cells that seem to have been lavatories, with drains, and one of the huts was apparently a workshop….The people of the village kept cows, sheep, and pigs, grew cereal crops in their fields, went hunting, and gathered shellfish. The occasional stranded whale would have been a blessing.  At about 2,500 B.C.E. sand dunes began to encroach on Skara Brae and the settlement was abandoned.

Orderliness, comfort, ornaments, cosmetics, toilets. Fragrant heather mattresses, leather blankets, fur rugs, heat.  Steaks, lamb chops, bacon, oatmeal, oysters. A workshop for weaving things from sheep’s wool or practicing a prehistoric reed instrument.  What more could you want, after you’d grown your crops, hunted, gathered your shellfish and displayed precious objects to visitors?  There was probably also plenty of sex.  I don’t know why the editor of 1001 Historic Sites thinks the man slept in one bed, the woman with the children in the other.  I would have put the man and woman together in one of the two beds, and all the children in the other, where they could giggle and play games in the dark under their leather blankets while their parents disported themselves, quietly, across the spacious main room.

The occasional stranded whale I would pass on. It would also be nice to have a few books to put on those fitted stone shelves.  But I won’t carp.  Even without the books, Skara Brae sounds like a welcome change from electronic devices pinging, telephones ringing and the washing-machine breaking down just when there’s no more clean underwear.  (I bet they didn’t even wear underwear in Orkney five thousand years ago, clean or otherwise.)

All right, so maybe Skara Brae isn’t for permanent relocation.  But a nice vacation?

And then those sand dunes came along 4.500 years ago and ruined everything!  Why do these things always happen to me?

TUESDAY AFTERNOON IN THE BIG APPLE

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I was born in New York City, lived all but seven of the first forty-seven years of my life there, and always yearned to come back — not only during the seven years I was away, but also for many of the years after I left for what turned out to be the final time. I knew all the songs from “On the Town” and “Wonderful Town.”  I could warble (badly):  “I’ll take Manhattan, the Bronx and Sta-ten Island, too.” While I lived there, I was so proud to be a New Yorker, whatever that meant. I think it’s probably just that I had an intimate knowledge of Manhattan geography, skill with elbowing my way through crowds and with hailing taxis  —  and diction that gave me away every time. Even today, no one who hears me speak would ever imagine I’m the out-of-towner I’ve been for thirty-five years.

Nonetheless, the times they are a-changin’ — both for me and the Big A. Yesterday, a glorious early fall day, Bill and I came in to the city from our leafy Eden in New Jersey because he is a medical snob and will only undergo necessary medical procedures at the hands of renowned Big City M.D.’s.  The procedure yesterday was cutting the stitches after a minor operation last week at HSS (Hospital for Special Surgery) for carpal tunnel in his right hand.  Don’t ask how he got it.  He neither types nor performs any repetitive motions with that hand, and never has. (He’s left-handed.) But as D. Rumsfeld, one of our unlamented former Secretaries of Defense, once remarked, “Stuff happens.”

My presence was from a medical point of view unnecessary.  But Bill is unfamiliar with either the layout or rhythm of New York, has no sense of direction whatsoever, walks with a cane and would be a pushover for any unscrupulous taxi driver looking to run up the meter by taking the longest, slowest way around Manhattan to get to the surgeon’s office on East 72nd Street, where the stitches were going to be snipped. So I came along, to hold the unbandaged hand, run interference through crowds, serve as human GPS and speak with the inimitable New York accent that alerts said unscrupulous taxi drivers not to mess with me.

We came in by bus, not my preferred mode of transport to New York but Bill hates, hates, hates (admittedly crowded) Penn Station, where the train would have smoothly brought us after seventy minutes or so. He feels arriving at the New York Port Authority after nearly two hours of bumping along by bus is a less traumatic experience. The Port Authority is at Eighth Avenue and 42nd Street; Dr. A’s office is at  523 East 72nd Street, between FDR Drive and York. That’s 30 blocks going north, and 8 1/2 blocks going east.

Twenty New York blocks is roughly a mile, but the east-west blocks are longer than the north-south ones, so let’s be generous and say it was a two and a half mile trip each way.  The meters on New York taxis run on time as well as distance.  We took a taxi because an out-of-town man in his mid-eighties with a cane, no matter how sharp from the neck up, would not do well taking the 42nd Street crosstown bus  — crowded, lurching and v-e-r-y slow — and then waiting for the uptown York Avenue bus, which normally runs infrequently and is also pretty slow. After that, there would be a longish walk to FDR Drive anyway.  (Longish for Bill with his cane, that is.)

The snipping of the stitches took fifteen minutes, which time also included a steroid shot for tendonitis of the wrist.  Despite this blog’s name, I don’t normally mention these sorts of accompaniments to getting old. The blog is for the most part about living our allegedly golden years, not qvetching about the tarnish on them. I note what happened in Dr. A.’s office not to dwell on it but to compare the time it took for these two brief medical events with the time it took to get there, and then the time it took to get us back to the Port Authority (where we only had to wait an additional twenty minutes for the next bus to Princeton).

The two and a half mile trip northeast consumed forty-five minutes and cost $26.00.  The two and a half mile trip back was fifty minutes and cost $28.00.  In each instance, I’ve included a $2.50 tip in those amounts, which is only 10% of the total and makes me, in my own mind, a cheapskate. I used to tip 18-20%, because driving in New York traffic is not a barrel of laughs, but we can’t do that any more because we are, as they say, “old” and have no more earned income stream. We also hope to last as long as possible, for which we need to conserve what funds we have. But we do what we can. Also, I digress.

Why did driving two and a half miles in New York City on a Tuesday afternoon take forty-five minutes, the return two and a half miles take fifty minutes and the whole damn thing cost $54?  Let me show you.  Consider it a preview tour of Manhattan, if you’re thinking of coming yourself.

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Nearing Sixth Avenue on 48th Street.

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Note congestion — aka “traffic” — at bottom of photo. To avoid staring at it in frustration from inside your cab, the only place to look is up.

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Our driver is trying to turn north on Sixth Avenue here. Operative word is “trying.” They renamed it “Avenue of the Americas” when I was young, but the old name refused to go away. Now the street signs have both names on them. Since I’m old school, I still call it Sixth Avenue. That doesn’t make the traffic disappear, though.

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You could try to meditate, I guess. But it doesn’t really help. If you didn’t already know what “gridlock” looks like, now you do.

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I’ll stop commenting and look out the windows for a while. There’s a TV monitor in front of the back seat, but it only shows garbage, so we always turn it off.

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Glamorous, isn’t it?

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See, it’s not really faster by bus.

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When you get tired of the gridlock, you can always look up again. Different building.

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In case you didn’t know, this is why taxis are known in New York as yellow cabs.

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You can look at your watch and fume. Or look at the meter and fume. Or tell yourself not to get an ulcer; it will all be over by the end of the day. Maybe.

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Oh, I think we’re moving. A little bit.

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This is not the destination. But enough already. We did get there eventually. Two and a half miles, as I believe I already mentioned. $26.00, as I believe I already mentioned.

After the fifteen minutes of snipping and needlework at the incomparable hands of Dr. A., we had to get back.  When we had come in the week before for the actual surgery, our driver had tried to return us to the Port Authority by going south on Park Avenue.  Not a wise decision:

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Everyone who explained to us that it was particularly bad yesterday because the UN is in session was full of it. It was also particularly bad last week, when the UN was not yet in session.

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Approaching Grand Central on Park Avenue. These buildings are “older” — probably pre-World War II “older,” or built just afterwards.

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Looks Kafka-esque, doesn’t it? (Yes, this is still Park Avenue, in the high 40’s.)

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While we were stalled in the street below, people were actually working, getting things done. See the lights?

So going south on Park Avenue was not such a good idea. Yesterday, our driver tried Fifth. As the young might say: “OMG!”

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See what I mean?

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Scenic, isn’t it?

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Relax. Go with the flow. (What flow?)

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I bet the view overlooking Central Park from one of those (extremely expensive) apartments must be lovely.

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The view down here is less lovely. At least now you know where to phone for Eli (Zabar)’s bread.

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We’ve moved about a block and a half since I began this photographic journey with you.

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Trapped! Trapped in a New York taxi! The only way out is to walk! But even if we were hale and fit and young enough to do it, the sidewalks are pretty crowded, too, because it’s such a beautiful day! (I refer to the weather, of course.)

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A bus? Don’t even think about it!

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Lift your eyes up and pray.

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Yes, dear readers, we — who had pulled out of our driveway at 10:40 a.m. to be on time for the 11 a.m. Coach USA bus to New York — did eventually get home to Princeton again.  At 6 p.m. But there’s an upside to all this angst-in-a-taxi. I discovered something. The Big Apple may still be a helluva town, but it’s a different sort of hell.  I no longer yearn to live there — a relatively new development in my life.  You see? There’s no upper limit at all to the age at which you can learn and grow.

I’m so happy we live here instead:

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It’s good to be home.

A TRIP BACK IN TIME: PART III

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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:

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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:

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

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

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Madrid. Near the Prado.

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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:

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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.)

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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.

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“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.

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

I preferred Segovia’s window boxes:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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Vallodolid cathedral in the rain.

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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!

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What a great john!

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

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

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Leaving the St. Thomas monastery.

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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:

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Detail: Avila Cathedral.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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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.

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Avila cathedral, 1990.

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Avila Cathedral, 1990.

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

A TRIP BACK IN TIME: PART II

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University of Salamanca. August 1990.

[The story thus far:  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. The pictures that follow are not good. They were taken by an extremely inexperienced photographer (me) with a small automatic camera on film that passed through customs x-rays twice, albeit in a lead-lined bag, and then was developed without instruction by sending it out through a drug store back home.  I couldn’t crop, brighten, or edit. So what you see is what I got.  But for me, anyway, these prints certainly bring the trip back.  Which, aesthetics aside, is what vacation pictures are supposed to do, no?]

Because a university had sponsored the trip, there was necessarily an educational component to this vacation, which I could have done without. After all, I had already had twenty-two years of schooling, not counting nursery school and kindergarten. Nevertheless, for the first three or four days our mornings began after breakfast in a classroom: teacher, blackboard, pointer, the works.  Here is “Professor Nena Lucas, N.A.” telling us what she and the colegio for which she worked thought we ought to know before we actually saw anything.  Her English was reasonably fluent but heavily accented.  She was twenty-six, married with two small children, and earning summer money to finish her doctorate.  She was dedicated to her job with us:

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“Professor Nena Lucas, N.A.”, map of Spain, and back of elderly American  heads.

I liked her.  I really did.  She worked so hard. But you can tell from the picture I took that I sat in the rear of the room.  You also can tell from the blur what an amateur photographer I was. Anyway. Salamanca is the capital of the Province of Salamanca in the Community of Castile and Leon [in northwestern Spain].  Its Old City was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site in 1988. It is the second most populated area in Castile and Leon after Vallodolid, and ahead of Leon and Burgos.  16% of Spain’s market for Spanish language study is here.  It has lots of iglesias (cathedrals and churches), conventos (convents) and a Roman bridge of which fifteen arches date from the first century B.C.  That’s the kind of information Professor Nena was there to provide. She also offered a brief overview of Spanish history  — tactfully omitting Franco, under whose regime she must have grown up —  Spanish economics, art and literature.  I confess I remember none of it and just now paraphrased Wikipedia to give you an idea of what our first few mornings on the tour were like.

Some of us were more interested….

Some of us were more interested….

…than others.

…than others.

I counted four unattached men among the twenty-eight participants. It later turned out one of them had brought his girlfriend along so he was already part of a couple. There were also perhaps five married couples, of assorted ages but all over fifty. That left about eleven unattached women — nine if you subtract R. and me.  Of the three “available” men, the one in the picture on the left worked in a monastery as a lay clerk and was with us for the religious experience, and also to improve his Spanish. Another (face hidden in picture on right) had gone on every tour the University of New Hampshire ever offered and was still unattached, which might tell you something.  Then there was W., also on the right, checking me out instead of paying attention to Professor Nena.  Boy, was he busy during his twelve tour days fending off attention from women, visibly playing them off against each other and loving it. Conclusion: Do not sign up for older-traveler tours to meet men!  Mr. Right — or even Mr. Acceptable — generally doesn’t go for this kind of thing alone.

After the lectures, we were free to roam.  There was the bridge, the two main cathedrals — old and new — and the University to see. [Shot of University at top of post.] That University, which dates from 1136, is the oldest in Spain, the fourth oldest in Europe and remains an important center of learning. A few parting words, though, about the “educational” component of non-specialized tours. (I exempt specialized programs specifically focussed on architecture, or horticulture, or Great Homes of England, or like that.)  Even before the Internet, we could have found everything Professor Nena had to say in a guide to travel in Spain, and I wish the program had provided recommended preliminary reading for those who signed up and cut the “colegio” hours.  It would have left more time for looking, which is what most of us, except perhaps the monastery guy, had come to do. There’s also a lot of dead time on buses — perfect for little refresher courses on whatever we might be going to see that day.

Below is what almost all architecture in the Old City looks like to the uneducated eye.  I’m sure there are important architectural differences between buildings erected in different long-ago centuries, but I couldn’t tell you what they are and I’m sure no one else on the tour could, either.)

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One of the two major cathedrals. The newer one, I think. But don’t bet on it.

Note that one of the real difficulties in capturing an entire significant building on an automatic camera is the inability to adjust for size.  Unless I was very far away, I had to do tops, or bottoms, or a detail. (Details were usually of saints.)  Hence you get only a piece of cathedral here, and only a small piece of the university up at the top of the post.  On the other hand, the university courtyard  — with R., the American tourist in the middle of the picture, rolled-up souvenir between her white-sneakered feet — came out much better.

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Courtyard of University of Salamanca, 1990.

The camera also worked well for city scenes:

Watching the world go by.

Watching the world go by.

Tight squeeze.

Tight squeeze.

Delinquent (?) youth.

Delinquent  youth.

Lacemaker.

Lacemaker.

Self explanatory.

Self explanatory.

Street market.

Street market.

And then we hit the road. August 15 is some sort of local religious holiday in a tiny village called La Alberca. You can reach it from Salamanca in about an hour by bus.

The countryside is not scenic.

The countryside is not scenic.

There’s a pageant, with traditional costumes, and people who’ve come from all around the vicinity to see the show.

August 15 festival procession at La Alberca.

Trying to get a good view at the August 15 festival procession.  La Alberca, Spain.

The children were more interested in playing behind the scenes.

The children were less interested in the procession’s religious significance.

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I can’t explain what all this means. No one explained it to us. It was colorful, though.

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Villagers after participating in the procession.

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Are you taking my picture, lady?

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Woof. It’s hot.

But the part of La Alberca I liked best was in the countryside just behind the village.  Before the bus left to take us on to Miranda del Castenar (another village), I walked back there by myself. After the tumult of the procession and its spectators, it was so peaceful, quiet and green I could have sat down beneath the trees and stayed and stayed….

Instead, I took these two photographs, which are still in my bedroom, twenty-four years later, enlarged and framed:

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Behind La Alberca. August 15, 1990.

Behind La Alberca. August 15, 1990.

Behind La Alberca. August 15, 1990.

Miranda del Castenar is a village from another time.  (Although people still live there, and have cars — which spoil the view.) I’m a sucker for places like this.  It has too many steps without railings for me to think of ever, in my real life, living there. Or anywhere like it. But I do love the idea of life in an earlier, simpler time.  I know, I know: a time when life was, as Hobbes famously said, “nasty, brutal and short.” But isn’t travel a form of fantasy?  We can never know what it’s really like to live anywhere, unless we move there ourselves.  And even then, we’re “the others.” So let me have “my” Miranda del Castenar — stage set for a daydream about long ago.

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Stone steps. Miranda del Castenar, Spain.

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Miranda del Castenar, Spain.

But you must be tired by now. That was a lot of sight-seeing for one time. I’m tired too.  (I’m not so deft at uploading photos and inserting them where I want them in a post.) So I think I’ll call it a day and try to finish up next time.  Or the next two times. ( I do tend to run on.)

[To be continued]

A TRIP BACK IN TIME: PART I

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Evening. Salamanca, Spain, August 1990.

In the days before digital cameras and iPhones, there was the little automatic camera, designed for the “real-camera”- challenged and also for tourists wanting to take hasty snaps of twelve-day trips covering lots of places. When departing by plane with such a camera (or even with a more complicated one), it was wise also to bring enough film to get you through the trip, because it might cost the earth if bought wherever you were when you ran out — or not be available at all, depending on location.  You also needed a lead-lined bag in which to put the film when you went through customs, both before inserting it in the camera and afterwards, when you brought it home undeveloped to be turned into pictures back in the good old USA.  After that, if you were industrious you invested in albums for storage of your photographed memories, carefully labeled.  If not industrious, you showed them to a few people, hating how your hair looked under such hurried and often under-washed conditions, and then left them in the paper envelopes they’d come in, mysterious hints of your past for your descendants to find and puzzle over when you had passed on to a place where no cameras would be needed.

I was one of the “real-camera”-challenged. No time and light determinations for me, much less changing lenses when the tour leader was calling for a return to the bus.  Not that I didn’t own a “real” camera.  My newly adult children had thoughtfully provided one on my 59th birthday, just before I set off on what was to be my first travel experience outside the United States since I was nineteen.  (I omit several day trips to Tijuana with my first [California] husband because he liked bullfights, a five-day honeymoon in Bermuda with my second [New York] husband, and a long family weekend in Montreal just before the oldest child went off to college. None of those required a passport, so they don’t really count.)

However, there was no time before the trip to become deft and knowledgeable with the “real” camera my children had bought, so I acquired one of the small automatic ones — a Canon, I think — as an interim measure.  Also many boxes of film and the lead-lined bag. And when I got home, a large photograph album in which to mount my camera work, carefully dated and labeled, as the still practicing lawyer I then was might be wont to do. 

I bring all this up, after first bringing that heavy album up the stairs to my office, because one of the things that soured my summer — besides having to edit a very long manuscript written ten years ago about a subject unpleasant to recollect — was reading about other people’s travels in their blogs while Bill and I weren’t traveling anywhere. (Yes, I am sometimes mean-spirited.) So I decided to console myself with a trip through that first photograph album. [There were many more to come.]

Many photograph albums of many trips….

Many photograph albums of many trips.

 I hadn’t looked at that first album for a long time. The photos now seem pretty awful technically, and that’s probably not the fault of the camera. (Re-photographing the prints with an iPhone to upload them to WordPress probably didn’t help either.) But I’m glad I took them (bad as they are), saved them in the album and labeled them. They do exactly what they were intended to do: bring back the past now that I’m older (so much older) than before.

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In 1990, I had been separated from my second husband for three years, had briefly recycled two old boyfriends (sequentially) with results no more satisfying than the first time, was living in a studio apartment in Boston by myself, and had just finished paying off all the credit card loans that put braces on my children’s teeth, sneakers on their growing feet, got me through three years of law school and bought me a Subaru. (In Massachusetts, you drive or you’re stuck.) I was nearing sixty and had a net worth of $0.  But I had a good salary, no more college obligations for the children, and had begun to save a little something.  It was time to go somewhere, while I was still young enough to do it. I renewed my passport of forty years before.  Unfortunately, it was nearly summer, and I didn’t want ever-ever-ever to be in debt again.  (Even though those were the days when you could still deduct all interest — not just mortgage interest — from your gross income before calculating what you owed Uncle Sam.)  So whatever trip I took had to be cheap.  And because it was so late, there wasn’t much choice. On someone’s advice, I wrote away to the University of New Hampshire (no email yet), which then ran a program of tours for older travelers.  Their August trip was two weeks in Salamanca and northwestern Spain. By bus. If I were willing to room with a stranger, it would be even cheaper. 

I spoke no Spanish and had minimal interest in Spanish culture. I also suspected that Spain in August would be extremely hot. But I was lonely. I needed company, and I needed to get away from the Uniform System of Citation and the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure for a while, if only a short while.  That meant I was in for Salamanca. On balance, it turned out to be a pretty good trip.  Besides the copious perspiration, there were some things, identified in what follows, I could have done without. But I made a friend who’s still a friend, and laughed a lot (which I needed), and revived my interest in seeing how other people lived.

 Why don’t you come along for a while?

Plaza Major, Salamanca 1990.

Plaza Major.  Salamanca 1990.

The first thing we learned on arrival:  all Spanish towns, Salamanca included, are organized around a central square.  Pronounced (in Spain): Platha Mayor.

The street leading to the Plaza Major from our one-star hotel.

The street leading to the Plaza Major from our one-star hotel.

 The first thing I learned on arrival:  I don’t like traveling in large groups of people who have to stick together for purposes of the tour schedule.  The second thing: I don’t like crowds of tourists either.  I want it to be just me, me, me!!!  (And chosen friends, of course.)

First good thing about the trip:  My luck-of-the-draw roommate.  Not because she had a “real camera.” Because we got on like gangbusters, and she’s still a friend.  Even reads the blog. Sometimes.

Luck of the draw roommate.

R.: My luck of the draw roommate.

One of the fun things R. and I did together in the hot un-airconditioned room we shared for twelve days was pee in our pants and do hand laundry at midnight.  It was always blistering out (unless it was raining), we always drank a lot of water all day long and didn’t perspire it all away — and then we spent many an evening and every night in the room exchanging stories about men and laughing. We laughed so much and so hard people down the hall who heard the laughter, if not the stories, thought we had come on the trip together. If you know what laughing does to the aging sphincter of an overfull bladder, then you know what I’m talking about.  If not, wait.  (How long, I can’t say. But Kegel exercises or no, the day will come…..) It was a small room, with a tiny bathroom and a really minuscule sink. We had been cautioned to travel light and each had a limited supply of underwear. There was accordingly much late night washing (taking turns at the sink) and hanging wet panties on the shower rod.  More difficult was a more occasional need: washing the under sheets of the two twin beds.  Sometimes we didn’t.  They usually dried of their own accord, if the hotel didn’t change them, which wasn’t often.  Sssh…….

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View of shop across the street from our one-star hotel.

Hotels in Spain were then rated from one to five stars.  There were no hotels without stars.  So expectations for ours, Hotel Gran Via with its single star, were low.  But Gran Via was clean (when we weren’t soiling it), and it tried.  Pedro (I found his name in the photo album) — maitre d’, waiter and general factotum for all twenty-eight of us — was very nice. (No picture of Pedro uploaded.  Sorry.)

Being a one-star hotel, Gran Via’s menu was heavy on starch, pork, and sweets.  Within a few days, R. and I — trying to stay healthy — were craving something that had grown in the earth.  All we could find in all of Salamanca, during what was labeled “free time” on the schedule, were”sandwiches vegetales.” White bread, a few wisps of blessedly green lettuce and — yes! –slices of fresh tomato!  Here I am, thirty-five pounds heavier but twenty-four years younger than today, under the sign for the “sandwiches” — looking coy and trying with my fist to hide from the camera what might be called a slight double chin: 

Ou sont les neiges d'antan?

Ou sont les neiges d’antan?

And now, dear readers, I fear this self-indulgent reminiscence has run on too long.  Back next time with the rest of the trip, unless too many of you cry, “Enough!” Which you can do in the comment section below. I won’t be offended. Honest.

Although next time — if there is one — will be much more cultural, I assure you.