Some pictures for Cynthia

For blogging friend extraordinaire, Cynthia Reyes (.com), who I have walked some time in honor of during this hike, here are some pictures of Good Homes seen along the way in France and Spain:

Tonight I’m in Llanes, which a Spanish speaker tells me is pronounced “YAH-nez”. There are houses here called “Casas Indianos”. They are mansions built during a time after many from the Northern coast of Spain had gone abroad to the Americas to find a way of making a living during a time of hardship in Northern Spain. These mansions were built as fruits of their labor overseas.

Just beyond Unquera in the North of Spain. It’s been turned into a hiker hostel.

Spanish Colonial? This is in San Sebastián, Basque Country. San Sebastián was one of, if not the, most beautiful and vibrant cities I’ve ever visited.

Chambre d’Hôte “Les 3 Cochons d’Olt” in Arcambal, France (just northeast of Cahors).  “D’Olt” is supposed to be a designation for some of the villages along the Lot River.  A little luxury amid the hiker hostels and spartan monastery cells.

These places are probably mostly facades for rooms dug into these cliffs. They seem almost pasted on there. Troglodyte caves? Along the cliffs lining the Célé River valley.

The other Chambre d’Hôte on the France section – Chemin des Anges, Figeac, France

Today was a beautiful seaside walk. The pictures will be on NotesfromaHike later. You’re right about travel making coming home more dear, Cynthia!

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Compte à Rebours: Chemin St Jacques, Le Puy route

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It used to be that I left on trips delighted by the sound of rolling suitcase wheels and thrilled by the G-force of the plane’s liftoff into a new adventure.  Nowadays, I hoist my backpack and mutter to myself:  “Time to go and let the world beat the snot out of me again”.  But I’m evidently not QUITE done yet, so I go, adonnée, flinging myself out into the world to find some beauty and novelty, and hoping to return in one piece.

The journey to Aumont-Aubrac in France begins on May 28, 2018…….hopefully without being derailed by the French train strikes or having to stop and attend to too many of the snags that occur with travel in the Age of Maybe We’ll Get You There, Maybe We Won’t.

If all goes well, I’ll be starting across the Massif Central on June 1 and staying in Gites, Chambres d’Hotes, the convent-hospederia in St. Come d’Olt and the Abbaye St-Foy in Conques.  I’ll take the Céle variant to see the cave-paintings at Pech Merle.  The route is said to pass through one charming medieval hilltop town after the next (and is also said to be one of the tougher mountain routes of the many to Santiago de Compostela).  It will be my 8th trip through France, but probably the one where most French is required, as this trail is mostly hiked by the French as part of the GR footpath system

I’ll find a beautiful day and hike it in honor of blogging friend Cynthia Reyes (cynthiareyes.com – author/journalist, francophone, femme du monde).  One that involves both spectacular views and a charming gite that is someone’s Good Home, I think.

After Cahors, I’ll train down to Spain and do a few days of coastal walking and then go down to Oviedo to start across the Asturians on the Primitivo route to Lugo and Santiago.  I’m hoping to get to the monastery at Sobrado dos Monxes this time.

Thanks to husband Tom for his love and support, and for staffing the Adventure-Gone-Wrong-Hotline for these long trips.  And for looking in on Hide-and-Seek Louie and checking to make sure that my house hasn’t burned down.  Thanks also to family, friends and blogging friends for the connection while out there on the trail as a solo randonneuse.

So I’m off then.  I’ll send Notes from a Chemin via NotesfromaHike.wordpress.com.

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Louie-Louie.  It almost looks like he misses me, but in truth he’s a little opportunist who merely finds me useful because I have opposable thumbs and he doesn’t…….. :0)).

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Camino Portuguese with a side of London 2017

StrangeTableau

I know, I know……I’ve turned into a Camino bore.  The Hermitage has been very quiet all winter, as Hermitages should be.   The main activity has been working on getting a 62 year old body back into shape to do the next hike in France:  treadmill, weights, yoga and iTunes.  No complaints – there are worse ways to spend a winter.

I thought I’d do a quick post about the Camino Portuguese to commemorate it and to thank my sister Ellen for going with me this time.  She never aspired to be a hiker/backpacker, but agreed to go anyway on this long walk starting in Porto, Portugal and ending in Santiago de Compostela in Spain.  And afterwards, she still doesn’t aspire to be a hiker/backpacker, but she was a trooper, we made it to Santiago, and hiking with a partner was considerably easier.

Above is a strange little tableau set up on a street in Porto and including a nod to the symbol of Portugal, The Rooster of Barcelos.  The tale of the Rooster of Barcelos is very similar to the that of the the Rooster of Santo Domingo de la Calzada on the Camino Frances in Spain.  Loosely, there was a young man traveling through town who found lodging at an inn where the innkeepers had a daughter who wanted the young man’s attention.  When he refused her, the girl told the authorities that the young man had stolen some items from the property.  Seems petty theft sentencing was a bit more draconian in those days, as the young man was to be hanged.  But just before they hauled him off to the gallows, the young man said to the magistrate, who was in the middle of dinner:  “if I am innocent, that rooster on your plate will come to life”.  As roasted roosters do, of course, the rooster came to life and the young man was spared.  And most likely didn’t seek lodging again where there were any vengeful teenage girls…..

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The Rooster himself, in Barcelos itself

Porto is a lively, forthright place with plenty to do and see.  It’s fun to just wander.   You can catch some live Fado along the Ribeira.  Here’s a beautiful performance of this passionate, melancholy Portuguese musical tradition:

Ana Moura – Fado.

We stayed at the trendy BlueSock Hostel on the Ribeira, the Ribeira being their riverside in the city.   If you ever get a chance to try a Francesinha, they’re incredible.  They’re allegedly the Portuguese version of a Croque Monsieur, although there wasn’t much of a taste-similarity.  Francesinhas are full of various meats, bread, then smothered in a cheese sauce that involves about a liter o beer and various spirits.

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Porto’s two-tiered Dom Luis I bridge over the River Duoro – the top part is a pedestrian bridge and is a little un-nerving to cross, as it’s shared with the metro and there are gaps with views 146′ down.  It was started in 1880, a tidbit learned beforehand that didn’t make crossing it any easier.

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Cathedral do Se, Porto where you can pick up Credenciales for your Camino if you can get to the desk through the throngs of other tourists.

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Sao Bento train station, Portuguese tile work

25592110_10208095318541310_3648876174194943680_n  Igreja de Santo Ildefonso, Porto

IMG_3259  Coastal walk to Matosinhos

 

Tui       TuiCathedral

Tui  and Cathedral.  There was a medieval festival going on, seemingly mostly on the plaza outside our room.  Drums and bagpipes until 02:00.

Pontevedra Pontevedra

CorreoHorreos  Correo Horreos (Correo = mail,  Horreos = traditional raised grain storage structures found around Galicia)

The scaffolding was still up on the Cathedral in Santiago, but you will likely have more pictures of the Cathedral inflicted on you in the near future…..

We slipped through London two days after a nearby subway blast and a few days before a car plowed into tourists between the Natural History Museum and the V&A on the street we used every day by the hotel this time.

StPancras  St. Pancras Station, LondonVictoria&Albert. At the Victoria & Albert MuseumVictoria&AlbertDiningHall

Dining room at the Victoria & Albert, or possibly Hogwart’s.

Next up, the GR-65/Chemin St. Jacques Le Puy Route.

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Re-Entry

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Forgive me, for I have lapsed into hermit-ness again ……. it has been 9 months since my last post.  Thank you to anyone out there who still includes me in their Reader….on opening my own Reader today after such a long time, it was heartwarming to see the feed of your posts there waiting like a gathering of friends.

Since last Fall’s difficult Camino, I’ve worked on the house, painted a bit, made another quilt, rescued another house in Pittsburgh from the brink of un-sellable-ness, and hiked the Camino a second time.  It might sound as if I am truly a glutton for punishment…..but the goal was “undoing” a difficult experience, thus gaining some small sense of mastery.

I thought that, having had the experience, I could “do it better this time” and have a more positive outcome, and as an affordable way to spend a month outside one’s regular life, it’s hard to beat hiking trips.  Admittedly, it’s not for everyone.  I wouldn’t hike the Frances as a solo female again, and I’ve hiked and run for much my adult life (and I’m aware that almost nobody wants to hear that it’s really not all peachy for females alone on these Caminos).

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I re-hiked the Pyrenees in an attempt to re-experience them without the hurricane (this time it was only sleeting, hailing and muddy), then jumped ahead by train to where I’d left off hiking last time in Leon.  After meeting dozens more extraordinary people with extraordinary stories, hiking day after day in gorgeous scenery with wildflowers, and experiencing a whole new set of adversity, I eventually made it to Santiago 15# lighter and happy to find that I was managing it all with more equanimity this time around.  After all, this time I merely ran into another predatory and bizarre person, ran into a few concerningly persistent older males, was slammed into and pickpocketed in a grocery store line in Melide, got off-track and found myself inches from a massive and vicious dog,  performed a few hiking shoe surgeries to accommodate foot problems, was called a “puta” by a swaggering local while quietly passing through a town (completely covered-up, wedding-banded, and at age 60 – as it turns out, it’s not all that hard to qualify for Puta status……. female and walking alone will do it).  Then there was that small matter of two long-delayed flights and the airlines losing my backpack in Barcelona.  But even so, it was a less problem-fraught Camino than the first one.   Rereading this last paragraph,  I feel rather sure that I am certifiable.

Relief from standard Camino-fare in Santiago – wonderful food everywhere, but especially at Damajuana and Bierzo Enxebre. Baked goat’s cheese, roasted vegetables, rustic bread.

Damajuana

Triple spiral stairs – each beginning from one round hall (Museum of the People of Galicia, Santiago – Museo Do Pobo Gallego), each leading to different levels like an M.C. Escher drawing.

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View to Cathedral from the 4th floor pilgrim’s rooms – spartan lodging in an old monk’s cell at the Hospederia San Martin Pinario (Santiago de Compostela).  Happily for both of us, the old monk wasn’t still using the room.

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Paris (on both ends of the trip) seemed changed to me since the last visit in 2012 – perhaps a bit worn around the edges, but still lovely nonetheless.   Or perhaps it’s me who is worn around the edges, I’m not sure.   I’ve stayed in different arrondissements each time I visit (being a novelty junkie), but found a favorite this time, and will hope to find rooms in this neighborhood in the future  –  that would be Montparnasse with it’s street after street of Breton restaurants.

It was the start of Euro 2016, terrorism alerts were high, and police and military people were out en masse, yet the Parisians were everywhere lounging in the parks, strolling the streets, meeting friends for dinner in the sidewalk cafes, and hoards of sports fans thronged the tourist spots.

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Left: An artist “hides” the I.M. Pei Pyramide at the Louvre.  Right:  Parisians quaking in their shoes during the increased terror alerts related to the start of the Euro 2016 games that day (Place du Carousel, Jardin de Tuileries).

Here are some pictures to take you on a little vacation too.

IMG_2725   IMG_2699    ArtNouveauChaiseIMG_2688                 PorcelainTorsoMuseedesArtsDec.

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From the Musee des Arts Decoratifs and the Musee de la Publicite.  French Advertising art, Courtesan’s bed, Art Nouveau chaise, metal “chair”, torso of curled, glossed porcelain, Art Nouveau vase in ceramic and metal.

Grateful to be home again, I mentioned to my husband that I thought I was done hiking and traveling for awhile.  He just smiled and waited, as he always does, and in about a month, I’d finished Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” and Cheryl Strayer’s “Wild”.

Appalachian Trail, anyone?:0)).

 

 

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Protected: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly – Camino Santiago de Compostela (for women hiking it alone).

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Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

CremedeMentheParfait

Creme de Menthe Parfait (explanation for people born after 1955…..).

Occasionally someone in the small mountain town where I live these days mentions a local semi-secret restaurant reputed to serve extraordinary locally-sourced steaks.  Having managed to try every other local eatery EXCEPT this one over the years, it was time to brave what I was sure was going to be an intimidating dining experience.

There is no advertisement at all for this place – and no sign outside.  Local lore has it that it was a speakeasy during Prohibition.  The woman I’d spoken with for reservations wanted me to know that their menu is very limited, that payment is on a cash-only basis, and that “gentlemen are NOT ACCEPTED IN SHORTS”.  Her pleasantness made things sound less exclusive than I’d feared, and on the day of our reservation, my husband texted to joke that he was NOT WEARING SHORTS.  I texted him back to ask him if he’d remembered to at least put on some tighty whities.

TightyWhities  Not my husband……

Like most small, isolated mountain villages, there are regular folks who have always lived here and who provide necessary goods and services with their labor and their small businesses.  They are the backbone of the community.  There are also many who have discovered the town and come here at retirement age, and still others who are lucky enough to be able to work from any locale and so choose to live in this beautiful mountain area.   I personally got here in a more roundabout way and am glad to be here.

Otherwise, there are the people who live in the secluded enclaves outside town among country clubs and hunt stables. They are pleasant and surprisingly unostentatious when they show up in town, and aside from the fancier cars and the jodphurs they sometimes wear, you might hardly know that they have the last names of titans of banking and industry.  I’m told they are the habitués of the secret steak house.

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Two famous frenemies in town for golf, one of them a local, 1965 (Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer).

America in the 1930’s and 1940’s saw the rise of affordable automobiles for families, but the superhighways hadn’t been built yet, so when families went on outings from the cities, all went on the backroads (the U.S. had less than 1/3 of the population that we have now, so things in general were much less crowded).  This newfound mobility by car produced wonderfully-tacky roadside attractions and rustic eateries and accomodations all over the nation.

Noah'sArk                 RoadsideAttraction

Noah’s Ark, Shellsburg PA (gone now, overlooked 3 states) and Another Roadside Attraction, Bedford, PA

The mountains were a summer retreat for families fleeing the red-hot blast furnaces of Pittsburgh’s steel mills, where much of the nation’s steel for railroads and skyscrapers was made between 1865 and 1959.  Old-timers spoke of leaving their houses in Pittsburgh in white shirts at 8 a.m. and coming home for lunch at noon in the same shirts turned gray by the soot from the mills.  As such, getting out of the heavily industrialized city was (and still is) a welcomed relief.

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“The Beach” – filled by springwater from the mountains.

We found the secret steak speakeasy:  an obscure and weathered old white clapboard house off a quiet backroad.  The house is enveloped by towering pines whose branches drape over an old porte-cochere in front of a nondescript entrance with a discreet buzzer to announce one’s arrival.  There is a small square peephole in the door.  When the door opened,  we slipped quietly through a time warp and found ourselves in a dark roadside-style clubhouse, seemingly straight out of the late 1930’s.

The entrance was flanked by plastic-and-chrome gas station chairs, and there was absolutely NOTHING to indicate wealth or status. We were asked if we wanted to have a cocktail (a cocktail…..) at the bar before dinner.  Evidently this is de rigueur because every group who arrived after us gathered briefly at the large, rectangular bar for a quick before-dinner drink.  The adjoining dining room was dark and claustrophobic with dim yellow lights and thickly waxed linoleum tile squares covering the floors with deep shades of red and green.  The ceilings were low and the walls were paneled with dark wormy-chestnut – like a rustic hunting cabin.  There was a yellowed plastic Budweiser clock on the far wall and an ancient cigarette machine with art deco font.

As groups of patrons entered and took their places, it became apparent from their comfort and familiarity with each other that a sedate, predictable routine was in progress.

The menu consisted of two steak options and a salmon option.  The salad options were tossed or wedged lettuce  (thousand island dressing possibly mandatory for the wedged lettuce).  The vegetables:  plain lima beans or plain boiled mixed vegetables.  Husband joked that this was the kind of place where a creme-de-menthe parfait might still feature prominently on the dessert menu.  We were a little weirded out to be find that, indeed, one of the two desserts on offer was a Creme de Menthe parfait.

TheDriftwood

Another local retro place that probably went through a lot of creme de menthe back in the day.

There was nothing trendy or camp in the demeanor of this place – it had simply stayed fixed in time, seemingly with no awareness at all that the world outside had been adjusting and changing itself for 80 years.   I wondered if Rod Serling might stroll in to narrate the scene.   It was later explained that the original owner had wanted this original ambiance preserved, and so the family members who operate it now kept things the same in his honor.

As we departed, we were warmly greeted by diners we’d never met, almost as if in this one strange little place frozen in time, things could still be as they once were so long ago. It was a good and interesting experience, and we’ll go again someday.

And now, because sometimes it is necessary to get as far away from small towns as possible:

Let’s Do the Time Warp Again

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Anne Brigman – “The Bubble” (Nude by Waterpool)

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The Bubble – Anne Brigman – 1910

This image caught my eye in a shop when I was in my mid-20’s.  I bought a print, and although I’d carried it with me wherever I moved through the years, I’d never asked myself what it was about the image that I found so engaging.   Two decades later when trying to describe it to someone, I suddenly became a bit emotional without initially understanding why.  Actually employing words to describe it was much like when using words to describe dreams – the meaning becomes apparent in the concrete words of its description:  it is an image of a naked (exposed, alone) woman with darkness behind her reaching for something shining.

The print is rolled, semi-tattered, into a cardboard tube that’s been misplaced somewhere through the last 5 years of home renovation, but through the marvel of modern life that is the internet, I was able to find this photograph again by simply Googling words like  “sepia tone Anne 1910 photography”.   I’d remembered her surname incorrectly and managed to find her and this particular work of hers anyway.  Amazing.

In celebration of rediscovering both photographer and photograph, I thought I’d share a few words to introduce her to any of you fellow art-loving blogger friends who might not know of her already.

The Breeze

She was born in 1869 to missionary parents in Honolulu, moved to California with her family at the age of 16, and married a sea captain in 1894.  They separated in 1910.  She had been trained as a painter, but took up photography in 1902 and eventually contacted the renowned photographer Alfred Steiglitz (married to painter Georgia O’Keeffe) in New York.  He liked her work and asked her to contribute to his photography magazine (Camera Work) and to join his group, The Photo-Secessionists.  She was one of the few women in that group and the only member west of the Mississippi.

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Although she spent some time in New York, she did the vast majority of her work in California, often using herself or her sister or her friends as the models (women photographing nudes was considered avante-garde in those post-Victorian days).  She did much of her photography in natural settings, often in the Sierra Nevadas.  She was a part of the bohemian artist culture in San Francisco and kept company with other artists living in California at the time including Ansel Adams and Jack London.  Vanity Fair called her “one of the 7 most important photographers in the world” and although her photos were part of a style from the early 1900’s called The Pictorialists, her work can be thought of as Symbolist art, or art that reflects an idea or emotion of the artist.  She painted and drew directly on her negatives, used superimposition, and used techniques to soften and blur her images to make them more atmospheric.   A year before her death in 1950 she published a book of her poetry and photography called Songs of a Pagan.

 

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Flight 93 Memorial, Shanksville, Pennsylvania

Flight93

Maybe like a lot of people you remember exactly where you were at the onset of the events of 9/11.  I was doing morning nursing rounds in a small rural hospital in Western Pennsylvania when one of my patients pointed to his television and said, incredulously:  “Hey.  Look at that.  A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center”.

The news stations in New York already had cameras on the North tower sending live images of the black smoke billowing from the gaping hole made by the initial crash, so when the second plane blasted into the South Tower (literally out of the blue) the images were in real time and momentarily too stunning to comprehend.  The news anchor gasped and then scrambled to provide commentary (until that point, it sounded like the first crash was a small private plane that had just made a really bad error).  A short time later the third plane hit the Pentagon (my youngest sister lives just south of the Pentagon and felt the impact as a resounding BOOM beneath her feet).  On the heels of the information about the Pentagon, we heard rumors that there was a hijacked plane flying toward Pittsburgh, and soon afterward, our hospital was notified that a flight had crashed in farmland closeby and that we were being placed on alert to receive a possible influx of patients and/or bodies for morgue services.  Suddenly, the catastrophe was on our doorstep.

For us, as perhaps for the whole nation, it seemed as though something like the end of the world might be in progress.  Although the hospital staff stayed diligent and calm, there was panic in the communities related to getting children home from the schools because no one really knew what was coming next.  The information trickling in from Shanksville and on the news from the other sites was heartbreaking.  There would be no patients and no bodies arriving because there were none.

Fast-forward nearly 14 years.  Our little family has dinner together on Sunday evenings and this past Sunday we headed further into the mountains to eat at an old inn many miles away.  As we were already out on the backroads on a brilliant Spring day, we took the detour to visit the Flight 93 Memorial, now a federally-run park, as my husband hadn’t seen it.

The drive into the park curves through a breathtaking panorama of fields and blue mountains.  An ultra-modern concrete “learning center” is being built on a hilltop overlooking the crash site.  The road curves past 105 acres of newly-planted trees, ending at a modest visitors’ center of wood and glass.   Beyond that, at the end of a long walkway, there’s a sleek polished-stone Memorial Wall where the names of those aboard the plane are inscribed.  Beside the Memorial Wall is the crash site itself – a fenced-off area of open field at the edge of a thick forest.

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The timeline of the flight is given on signboards outside the visitors’ center as well as information and photos of the crew and passengers.  The hijackers are not named and scarcely mentioned anywhere at the site.

For those who may have been young when this happened and don’t remember much about this day, the flight left Newark, New Jersey bound for San Francisco, California.   It was hijacked and turned back around over eastern Ohio and flew back over Pittsburgh.  The target was thought to be either the Capitol or the White House in Washington, D.C.

The passengers and crew were from all across the United States, Germany and Japan, and were of many different ethnicities and ages. After the pilots were killed and the plane taken over, the passengers called their loved ones from the plane’s Airfones and learned what had happened to the other flights.  A passenger named Todd Beamer got ahold of an Airfone operator, calmly gave her information about what was had transpired, and told her of the passengers’ plan to take the plane back by overpowering the hijackers, as by then they knew there was no hope.  He then asked the operator to pray with him, which she did.  At the end of the call, he was heard saying to the others “Are you ready?  OK, Let’s roll”.

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Although buses and carloads of visitors to the Memorial come and go, there is little superfluous conversation and the general tone is one of gravity and respect.  There is little to indicate the horror of what happened there.   In fact, it would be difficult to imagine a place of more peace and beauty.

Three hours after the crash, one of the first FBI agents to arrive at the site reported seeing, to the left of the smoldering crater, shimmering lights which became a mist from which emerged hundreds of angels in lined formation with their wings stretched upward toward the sky, lead by what she believed was the archangel Michael.

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Thailand, Land of Smiles – Part 6: Ayutthaya, Adversity, and the Nightmare Night Train to Chiang Mai

Ayutthaya

Wat Chai Wattanaram, Ayutthaya

I’d gotten my ticket for the Night Train to Chiang Mai (kind of a romanticized tradition for travelers to Thailand) on the day I’d arrived in Bangkok to be sure to get a berth, and planned to take a morning train out of Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Rail Station to see the old temple ruins in Ayutthaya before continuing onward on the night train.

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Hua Lamphong, Bangkok

At Hua Lamphong, as many other public places, there’s special seating for the monks and their novices (all young males are required to do a period of time in Buddhist monasteries in Thailand).   Stray cats roamed the open-air station.  Having bought a cellophane-packaged red bean cake and a soda water, I sat down to wait for the train.  I was having trouble with the Thai SIM card in my phone and, unsurprisingly, there was no WiFi for my laptop at the station, so was incommunicado and alone halfway across the planet from home.

At departure time, the train cars were unmarked and there was much confusion about seating.  I was supposed to be in Car#2, but Car#2 turned out to be in the middle of a 15-car train.  Three different employees looked at my ticket onboard and each told me to go to a different seat.  This happened all over Thailand – employees behaved as if they knew, definitively, how to direct you – but then the next employee would direct you in a completely different way – around and around in circles.

Wat Mahathat

Wat Mahathat, Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya is worth the stop, but is, like Bangkok, not easy to get around in without private transportation.  I negotiated with a pleasant older couple for rides in their songthaew (a kind of covered truck with two rows of seats in the back) to see the outlying ruins, then rented a bicycle later.  The bikes are ancient and in ill-repair and getting to the leafy areas where the temples are required first maneuvering through at least a kilometer of traffic.  The ruins themselves are interesting historically and architecturally, but in the end, the best part of the stop was seeing elephants up-close in their “kraal” (enclosure).

Finding things a struggle, I eventually headed back to the train station early to wait the 4 hours until the onward night train to Chiang Mai arrived.  Here are some highlights from those hours:  Vagrants slept on station benches.  A local woman who had lived in the U.S. sat down to tell me a long and woeful story (I excused myself after 45 minutes when it appeared that a request for a donation was upcoming).   Schoolgirls in uniforms giggled in gaggles.  Large families tended their little ones and ate picnic dinners they’d brought for the trip.  Monks dozed.  Stray dogs roamed.  A food concession worker carried a large dead rat out from behind the counter in a dustpan, through the passengers, and dumped it into a clear plastic garbage bag between two passenger benches.  No one batted an eye.

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The Nightmare Night Train to Chiang Mai

About 30 minutes before the train was due, several other Westerners who had been hanging out in the nearby cafes converged and finally the night train from Bangkok arrived.  Trains in Thailand are known to stop along their routes for under 60 seconds and the platform workers were determined to jam passengers onto the train very quickly, so boarding was a mad scramble.

My ticket said I was in Berth 7, Car 13.  There were no employees around as I boarded, so I made my way through the cars to see if I could find Car #13.  I ran into one employee who pointed and said “next car”.   Next car was a food service car.  The food service person said “Next car”, so I went to the next car.  An employee in THAT car looked at the ticket and pointed me back to the direction I’d just COME from and said “Next car” (which was the food car). Eventually, I found what looked like my #7 upper berth (the other berths all had occupants and #7 was unoccupied).  No one came by to check tickets and I settled into the berth for the night.

An hour later, two British women pulled the curtain open and wanted to know what I was doing in their berth.  A train employee came and again tried to tell me that my car was “next car” toward the front of the train (the food car, again).  A uniformed supervisor arrived and nastily demanded to see my ticket, which I’d stuffed away after no one came to check them.  Rummaging in the tight space was nearly impossible and after 10 or 15 seconds she said:  “Madame, you will have to get off the train at Lopburi” (she had decided that I was a vagrant!).  I was shocked and worse, I knew what awaited in Lopburi at midnight.  Lopburi is the seediest stop on the train line (no hotels over 1-star and all with bars on windows, thickly over-run by wild monkeys that have free run of the town related to some religious practice.  All travel information I’d seen warned against staying overnight there).  I frantically rummaged some more and found a ticket, but it turned out to be the one from the earlier trip between Bangkok and Ayutthaya.  By then, she was convinced that she had a vagrant on board, and repeated “Madame, you will have to get off the train in Lopburi”  (At that point, THE TRAIN WAS STOPPING FOR LOPBURI).  Finally, I found the correct ticket and handed it to her.  She glanced at it, turned on her heel and walked away.  And  I STILL didn’t know where my berth was!  By then, the British women were sympathetic and the other English speakers in the car had pulled their berth curtains open and were saying supportive things.  Another passenger and I found a berth in the last car that looked like it might be correct and I climbed up, hoping nobody else came to claim it.  It was a very long night.

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Thailand, Land of Smiles: Part 5 – Of Massage and the Shadier Side of Things

 

Thai Massage

For those who have never had a full Thai massage, especially one IN Thailand, a word of caution:  they can be incredibly painful.  Some sources will tell you that they’re supposed to be on the edge of  painfulness to be most effective and that you’ll feel great afterwards (….”and even better the next day”).  I did not find this to be the case.  I google-translated with the masseuse that it was my first Thai massage and asked if she could do a gentle one. She said yes.  And then then the struggle to get through the next hour ensued.

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Typical open/communal massage area

It’s also good to know ahead of time (I didn’t) that during a full Thai massage, the masseuses are often in full body contact  –  being enfolded by a stranger can be awkward at first.  There are points where they literally climb on top of you to put full-body-weight-pressure on your femoral/groin artery (which is just plain alarming the first time until it becomes clear that it’s part of the routine).

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Nerve Pathways – Ancient chart, Wat Pho

Later in Chiang Mai (and with some apprehension),  I stopped in at the Women’s Correctional Massage Center.  This place gets great – and well-deserved – reviews on TripAdvisor.  The women there are nonviolent offenders and they’re learning a skill so they can support themselves after release.  The rates are very low (180 Baht, or $6.00 U.S./hour), so it’s a win/win for everybody.   The first very painful full Thai massage in Bangkok left dozens of sore thumbprint bruises.  While having a foot massage at the Women’s Correctional Center, the masseuse asked about the bruises and offered to do a “NO HURT THAI MASSAGE” if I’d come back the next day.  I did, and happily it was a much better experience.  Guess it depends on whether you go to an incarcerated criminal who has some compassion or someone in a more posh setting who’s determined to cause as much pain as possible.

Also in Chiang Mai there was a massage shop across the little gravel alley from the guesthouse where I was staying.  One night I walked home from Chiang Mai’s lively Night Market around 8pm with blistered, aching feet and stopped in for a foot massage there.  The night air was warm and thick and despite a few amber streetlights spaced at long intervals, the place was engulfed in silence and blackness save the occasional barking dog (strays roam the streets freely all over Thailand).  A tiny woman sat at a table in the dark in front of her massage shop waiting for a customer to come along.   She was extremely kind and seemed to be in a state of deep meditative reverence – or perhaps she was extremely stoned …….either way, this massage was a slowed-down, dreamlike experience after which I drifted like a somnambulist back across the alley, through the silent courtyard, past the glowing turquoise pool and up the staircase to slumber until the neighborhood roosters started crowing.  Unfortunately, Thai roosters don’t seem to be aware of that rule about starting at pre-dawn – they started at 2:30 a.m. and crowed until the sun came up.

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Wat Pho, Reclining Golden Buddha with Foot Inscriptions

The Wat Pho complex in Bangkok houses a pavilion that has been the teaching hub of traditional Thai medicine and massage for several hundred years.  After seeing the rest of the complex,  I went for a foot massage and had the good fortune to be seated across the aisle from a tall,  golden-tanned man with a shining shaved head wearing only Thai fisherman’s pants.   Clearly well-accustomed to Thai massage, he seemed to anticipate the next moves of his sturdy masseuse as if in a fluid dance.  It was a thing of beauty to watch.

The masseuses always bowed to little Buddha shrines at their stations before each massage and sometimes they said a prayer as well.  I did manage to wander into one massage place in Bangkok that possibly offered “happy ending” massages – I became curious when the younger of the masseuses passed through several empty massage areas with the next (and only other) customer, a Western male, and took him into a smaller backroom.  I wondered if she said a prayer to Buddha beforehand under such circumstances…..

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Foot Massage, Khao San Road

Bangkok has a reputation for sex tourism, but if you aren’t out at night in the known districts for this, it isn’t terribly obvious.  There did seem to be a certain type of Western tourist that to me, at least, stood out as likely to be in Bangkok for sex tourism: particularly unappealing, extreme loner-types with zero social skills.  While touring a museum, I had the misfortune to run across a solitary, neo-Nazi-looking guy with black hornrimmed glasses, large belly, tattoos everywhere and an Eastern-European accent.  I’d spotted him as a rigid, controlling type already, but later entered an exhibit room and unwittingly pushed a button to activate a display that, unbeknowst to me, he’d already pushed (my push meant he would have to wait longer because there was a time lag before the mechanical display started moving).  He became so aggressively confrontational that I was taken aback and had to be careful not to show fear or to apologize more than the situation warranted.  It angered me knowing that he probably wouldn’t take such a controlling, aggressive tone if I were not a female and alone, and worse, that sometimes this type becomes even angrier when they realize you’re not going to cower.   Now if I’d only gotten a picture of him for this blog post……….

A Singaporean man warned me about vagrant Western men living on the streets in Bangkok.  His narrative was that it was a problem caused by evil, opportunistic Thai women (“they go over to visit and then the Thai prostitutes take all their money”).   I saw these men:  grimy, disheveled, opiate-addicted, stumbling, shoeless, vacant.  Most of them looked harmless (many maybe merely schizophrenic), but I watched one lean down in a slo-motion opiate haze to fawn over a baby in a stroller.  The mother quickly moved the stroller away and it took him ten befuddled seconds to register that the baby was gone before he straightened and stumbled off.

Next up:  The Nightmare Night Train to Chiang Mai.

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Thailand, Land of Smiles – Part 4: The Ancient City, Bangkok

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Grand Palace Compound

On returning to Bangkok from Chiang Mai, I stayed in the Ancient City area along the Chao Phraya River.  Bangkok didn’t become the capital of Thailand until the 1780’s after the Burmese destroyed Ayutthaya, so it’s not precisely “ancient”, but some of the temples like Wat Pho and Wat Arun are older.   Bangkok’s monuments are spectacularly gilded and encrusted with gem-like bits of colored glass and mosaic tile and mirror, and well-worth  the discomfort of getting there via public transport and struggling with the crowds.  Unfortunately, each of these government-run sights has it’s own rigidly-enforced dress code – one place requires closed-toed shoes (which you will then take off before entering the temple anyway).  Another requires “a shirt covering upper arms and in one piece” (so, the shawl you’ve been carrying around in the 90 degree heat won’t suffice).  At another place, only a long skirt for females will do, and another prohibits entrance if any tattoos of the Buddha are showing.   But not to despair…..the special clothing item required at each place just HAPPENS to be sold in the adjacent gift shop.

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Demon Kings, guarding an entrance at the Grand Palace.

To make getting to the Ancient City sights easier during this part of the visit, I stayed at the Phranakorn-Nornlen Guesthouse, which is a green-leafy sanctuary that practices a welcoming, casual, “slow-life” philosophy.  There are large, shady, plein-air common areas with big Thai silk cushions, iced lemon-ginger tea, and lots of kitchy items from the 1940’s on display.  The hallways and guestrooms are each unique with detailed handpainted stenciling and trompe l’oeil scenes.

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Phranakorn-Nornlen Guesthouse

As mentioned previously, if I could have joined one of the omnipresent, happy, Asian tour groups mid-trip, I would have.  After having trouble getting in to see Dusit Throne Hall alongside these dense tour groups, I returned another day an hour before the guarded gates opened in the morning just to be sure to get in.  I was (by far) the first person to arrive.   Regardless, toward opening time, I was squeezed back from the gate again and again as the tour buses arrived, and then once inside the ticket hall, I was repeatedly displaced in line in a subtle choreography of ignoring done by at least a dozen uniformed employees.   I ended up being literally the very last (and literally the only) Westerner in a sea of nonWesterners taken at the ticket counter in the now-emptied ticket hall.   The woman behind the counter pulled out a laminated poster to show that I was required to have a particular type of skirt on to be allowed to enter, rather than the long, baggy pants and pashmina shawl I was wearing to show respect – but the worker (who had just been in the gift shop 30 seconds before to sell this particular site’s dress requirement) had mysteriously disappeared.  I’d read that guards are called if you express any kind of objection at government-run places, and in general, deference to official authority seems to be a part of the culture.  So, fairly boiling by that point, I gave up on seeing the Dusit Throne Hall for the second time and walked the 2 km back to the guesthouse, re-passing several blocks of homeless people who had been sleeping alongside the canal and were now awakening …….  and just because sometimes the universe likes to follow one crappy thing with another, a massive, grinning, toothless manic with vomit smeared on his shirt stepped into my path and wanted to have a hearty handshake.  That was the point at which I began to count down the days until my return flight with relish.

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At Vimanmek Mansion, there were exactly 2 other travelers with Western faces during my hours there, and as we each separately reached the head of the line to enter the mansion, we were held back and put in a waiting room until 9 or 10 massive groups from behind were let through at intervals.   After about 35 minutes, they motioned for us to go in after a smaller group.  But.  Having a leisurely wander through this gleaming, polished-teakwood mansion filled with velvet sofas, thick rugs and layered silk drapes?  Worth it.

I learned to skip eating shrimp in Bangkok.  It had a fecal taste everywhere I had it all over the city.  Turns out that the local shrimp is raised in tanks that are frequently flooded with septic system water during the rainy season………

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Wet Market, Thewet Pier

There is no separate “breakfast food” in Thai culture and business people eat breakfast at vendor carts along the sidewalks:  spicy, fried meat dishes and boat noodles are popular.

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Thai Breakfast at Guesthouse

Once I Google-translated a question into Thai on my iPhone when trying to buy some street food at a family-run vendor cart.  Evidently, I was the first crazy farang to do this because they all found it hysterically funny.  Every day after that they smiled and waved when I passed them going out or returning from the guesthouse, which I was grateful for because it made me feel momentarily warm and connected after being a stranger in a strange land for weeks.

At the Buddhist temples there was often a place where, as someone with a western face, you may or may not be permitted to buy a flower to make an offering.  That seemed to  depend on whether the attendant believes that you, with a Western face, could possibly respect Buddha.  If not, she’ll say, bluntly, “Not For You”.

The entire Thai public stops and sings the National Anthem together at points during the day when it’s played across the public broadcasting systems.  They aren’t doing it with halfhearted tolerance either…… they seem to enjoy it with great public spirit, and these minutes gave a very moving look at the underlying unity of these people.  They seem to genuinely revere their Royal Family (and tourists can find themselves in big trouble for  making sarcastic comments about their Royals).   They broadcast Buddhist chanting and do afternoon public announcements over loudspeakers throughout the neighborhoods, and although I enjoyed the novelty of it, for a moment there I wondered if this was what Communism was like.

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Mad Scientists

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A confession:  I find Bill Nye the Science Guy kind of attractive.  I like his jaunty bowtie, his braininess, and his enthusiasm for his subject matter.  I thought maybe I just had quirky taste, but a young anthropologist from the Smithsonian told me last weekend that several generations of women, herself included, feel the same way about Bill Nye.  Who knew?

I figured I just liked nerdy types because my father was an unmistakable nerd:  an electrical engineer of the old-fashioned slide-rule type, complete with black horn-rimmed glasses and pocket protector.  Early in his career, he ran General Electric’s Quality Assurance Lab for the the Range and Microwave Division.  Think lab coats and  Bunsen and Beaker.

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He occasionally took us kids to the lab on the weekends.  Mechanical arms endlessly opened and shut oven doors, thermostats adjusted themselves up and down, lights blinked off and on, buzzers sounded, and there was a strong electrical-metallic smell that permeated everything.  The lab was wondrous strange and we believed our Dad was a genius of epic magnitude to be in charge of it all.

Dad helped design and test the first microwave ovens for GE.  Our household served as a “test kitchen” for GE appliances and we watched in amazement as several of the very first microwave ovens literally cracked up as we sat at the dinner table.  Possibly as a result of massive exposure during these early testing phases, his eyes had permanent, completely non-reactive pinpoint pupils for as long as I can remember, which gave him a slightly reptilian look.  To date, European standards for microwave radiation exposure are much more restrictive than ours are here in the U.S.

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From Wired.com – “1955 – Time to Nuke Dinner”

My mother picked out his work clothing and packed his suitcases for business trips (I never understood his acceptance of this, but maybe he found it convenient to leave this up to her).  I guess it’s possible that she saved his career from disaster-by-atrocious-clothing-choices.  She has a picture of him taken by one of his fellow engineers at a Microwave Safety Conference in Russia during the 1960’s.   He’s at a podium wearing a plaid jacket and a paisley tie.  Mercifully, the picture is in black-and-white.

After retirement in his 70’s, he served as an Amicus Curiae at trials related to oven safety nightmares such as babysitters who had put infants into microwave ovens “just to see what would happen”, and children who were injured while jumping up and down unattended on the opened doors of operating ovens……..that sort of thing.  He called it forensic engineering.

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On Sundays, he drew electrical circuits during church, to my mother’s dismay.  In the evenings, he disappeared into his home lab in the basement which was jammed full of oscilloscopes, voltmeters,  and broken machines.  He spent years trying to invent a lightweight asphalt out of polymers, which as teenagers we called “Dad’s Clay Balls Experiment”.   He had little tolerance for chaos and people-stress, so his world below the madhouse above was a refuge.

When he was 81, he was jumped by 3 teens from a nearby group home who wanted his wallet (which he stubbornly refused to hand over).  They pounded him on the ground at knifepoint and fractured several of his ribs.  Fortunately, they lived in the South, as he might have been killed had passersby not immediately become involved.  He had been walking the 5 blocks to the church where he’d taught Sunday School for 50 years.

In his 80’s, he slowly became demented.  He’d always been quiet, soft-spoken and articulate, and his interests were almost exclusively cerebral ones anyway, so when he developed an obsession with producing biofuels from switchgrass, it didn’t initially register with anyone as a departure.  He called university agricultural departments to speak with professors all over the U.S. and plied them with questions about biofuels.   To my knowledge, they treated him courteously as a fellow scientist despite the fact that the technology he was asking about had long-since been surpassed and the information was easily available on the internet.

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Dad, from our trip to England 1985, Chilham

He then started interrupting family gatherings with long, elaborate oratories about switchgrass.  He grew switchgrass in the backyard and talked about it to anyone who made  the mistake of standing still.

Then one day when I was home visiting in Louisville, I looked out one of the back windows and noticed that the old brick fireplace in the back yard was covered with jars and a complex system of interconnected tubes.  I asked him about it and, delighted that someone was interested, he lead me out to explain the experiment he was conducting.  As he uncapped a tube, he pulled a lighter from his pocket, flicked on the flame and announced, with pride, “I’m making METHANE GAS!!!”

I waited for a call from the bomb squad for years.

So, my fondness for nerdy types comes naturally and although some people plant memorial trees or flowering bulbs in their yards in honor of their departed loved-ones, I’ve grown a hardy stand of switchgrass.

Switchgrass!

And if I post much more about switchgrass, please kindly alert the proper authorities……

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And Now for Something Completely Different…….Kirtan

Several of you will no doubt have had exposure to Kirtan, but for those who haven’t heard it yet, I’m posting three of my favorites from this beautiful musical tradition.  I like at least SOME music from almost all musical traditions (excepting gansta rap, that is…..), but had not run across this before.

Kirtan is devotional chanting music intended to quiet the mind and can produce a peaceful internal state.   Its roots are in ancient India.  It’s often sung responsively with a leader and accompanied by the harmonium, among other instruments.   Is is part of, to some extent, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism, although some consider it nondenominational music.

Snatam Kaur and Guru Ganesha Singh are Americans from differing backgrounds. Nirinjan Kaur is a Canadian Sikh in Vancouver.  Paloma Devi is of Cuban-Spanish descent and sounds to live an international life now.

It was a pleasure to stumble across this music when I finally got an iPhone, and I’ve since heard it played at our local yoga studio.  With earbuds in and the volume on 7 or 8 you can feel your entire being resonating.   I hope you enjoy.

Snatam Kaur – So Mai Visar Na Jaa-ee

Nirinjan Kaur, Mood Mantra

  Guru Ganesha Band with Paloma Devi

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Thailand: Land of Smiles, Part 3 – Bangkok Blues

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Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok

Arriving at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, you’ll notice an unusual design element – the airport’s architects have included arches in the abstracted shape of the Ram Thai Crown from Thai traditional dance.  When you see them, that’s your cue to enjoy the last of your nice plane seat (even though by then it won’t seem so nice) and give up the idea of going anyplace in comfort for the remainder of your trip…..and that’s no hyperbole.

I’ve been trying to find some way of writing about Bangkok in a positive light.  Having never tried to write fiction, I’m struggling.  So I thought maybe adding some pretty pictures might help……

Pretty picture #1, National Museum, Bangkok

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Plainly, Bangkok is a teeming, chaotic madhouse of 8 million people set to the loud, constant din of traffic from every sort of motorized vehicle imaginable.  I went there for the art, architecture, history, museums, and in general to “see what I could see”.  What I left there with was a badly bashed head, a massively bruised arm, a twisted ankle, blistered feet, a swollen kneecap, and fingerprint bruises from a very painful Thai massage.  And also some gratitude because things could easily have been worse.  I did not find it charming or even as interesting as I’d thought I would.  Most of the tourism information in English doesn’t forewarn of most of what I ran across.   Add age, mosquito bites, heat, and being bumped and banged all over Bankok’s public transportation and you have a recipe for a less-than-pleasant time.  I won’t be rushing back anytime soon.

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Kinnari, National Museum, Bangkok

The truth about tourism in Bangkok is that it’s not set up for independent tourists.  The  bulk of their tourism, and what they clearly prefer to encourage, is in the form of Asian tourist buses that use the higher-end hotels and have no need of public transport.  If I could have joined one of those tour groups mid-trip, I would have. It wasn’t necessary to see every nook and cranny of Bangkok.  It was enough to see a few select sights and to know that squalor sits right next to extreme luxury and that this is common and accepted and despite it all, people living there seemed loving and happy.

Then catch the next plane out to Chiang Mai.

IMG_0853National Museum, Bangkok – Buddha with Thai features

ALL of Bangkok’s public transportation is a nightmare and transportation officials from the airports to the river ferry system can be extremely rude.  The Airport Express metro between Suvarnabhumi and Bangkok wasn’t running at all, athough it was peak-tourist season.  The #2 bus between Don Mueang National Airport and Bangkok wasn’t running on the way back from Chiang Mai.  The metros are jammed to beyond-bursting (they DO have some English signage in the metros, a rarity in Bangkok).  The metros have security stops but during rush hour people flood through them with their laptops sounding the alarms nonstop. The Chao Phraya River Express boats (pretty much required if you want to see the sights in the ancient part of the city and don’t want to take a cab) have no signage in anything other than Thai, so tourists didn’t know which of the swaying, floating piers to stand on, whether the boat would stop where they needed to go, or even what stop they were arriving at.  There’s supposedly a flag system and a pier number system, but although I studied it online and had reference material, little of it was accurate.  The boat-staff angrily yelled at people to “WALK!!”, which meant “move faster and cram as far back into the already-jammed boats as possible” while the boats lurched and banged up against the docks repeatedly sending the standing passengers flying.  Since there was no way to tell where a boat was going or what pier was upcoming, tourists tried to help each other in many different languages.  How hard would it be to post some basic information in a google-able language?

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Spirit House, Jim Thompson House, Bangkok

The taxis have to be pressed to turn on their meters and they don’t like it……on the second day there, a taxi driver dropped me off literally ON the left side of an expressway near the Erawan Museum compound and left me pressed up against the concrete barrier of the fast-lane.  A beggar woman pointed out a stile (literally) over the barrier, which I gratefully used in lieu of being flattened by dense expressway traffic.  I had better luck with the tuk-tuks, but they require price-negotiation, hanging on for dear life, and hoping they don’t take you somewhere you don’t want to go (like for a little pressured shopping at some store that belongs to one of their friends).

IMG_0578The beautiful, if hard to get to, Erawan Museum

There are groups of motorcycle taxis ON the sidewalks waiting for fares. Women and men in business suits and young girls in miniskirts (no helmets required) climb on sidesaddle and off they go weaving in and out between traffic – it’s known as the quickest way to get around.

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Detail, Grand Palace, Bangkok

Every morning during the first part of the trip there was a scenario that was boggling to my western eyes, having never been to a huge non-western city before.  Not only were there throngs of pedestrians picking their ways around the vendor stalls, broken curbs and the napping stray dogs in the middle of the sidewalks…..there were bicycles, scooters, full-sized motorcycles and an occasional CAR coming down the sidewalk trying to get around the jammed traffic on Sukhumvit Road.  No one batted an eye.

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Getting across the streets seemed incredibly dangerous, yet the locals wade right out into the traffic.  Imagine a never-ending onslaught of delivery trucks, semis, hotel  vans, cars, neon-colored taxis, songthaews, tuk-tuks, bicycles, a rickshaw or two, motorcycles, scooters, city buses, and massive tour buses.  Once I crossed beside a young woman pushing her large stainless steel vendor cart (I’d recommend always trying to do this)……..she was talking on her cell phone while pushing the cart across 6 lanes of this traffic while her unrestrained 2 year old sat on top of the cart playing on an iPad.

This is Bangkok.

Next, tourism sights.  You won’t want to miss the taxidermied monk at Wat Intharawihan.  He’s advertised for blocks around on huge, peeling billboards of him in his glass coffin.  Poor guy probably died trying to get across the street.

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Still Life, Nursing 1918

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This painting was recently returned to me after my father’s death a year ago.  It’s a still life of some of my grandmother’s belongings from when she was young …..an elegant, beaded dress in the background, a glove, and the some nursing-related items that she had given me when I became a nurse myself long ago.

Nursing was a second career for my grandmother, as it was for me as well.  She’d already tried teaching, the other main occupation open to women back then, but she disliked the unruliness of the students she taught in the one-room schoolhouse of the same farming community where she was raised.

So, she went off to nursing school just in time for the Influenza Epidemic of 1918.  She remembered corpses stacked up along the docks of Lake Erie like piles of logs.

In those days, nursing students went to classes all day and then staffed the hospitals during the evenings and nights.  Taking a blood pressure was something only a physician did.  Nursing students lived in a dorm, could not be married, had curfews, and were examined for proper appearance before each shift.  They gave medication from a little cabinet containing only 3 large stock bottles:  Digitalis, Chloral Hydrate and Morphine.

Although one was not expected to work as a nurse for any longer than it took to find a suitable husband, to have been a nurse was a source of great pride and brought with it some ongoing respect and standing in the community.  My grandmother married about a year after finishing school and then raised three boys.  She did private duty nursing during the Great Depression to help bring in money for the family, and then taught for the Red Cross during World War II (I have her Red Cross nurse’s uniform, which was lost for months in the costume racks of the theater department at my daughter’s high school…… I was sure some 11th grader would be wearing it with fishnet stockings to a Halloween party).   She later worked again as a nurse to make enough money to add a small breakfast area onto the cramped kitchen of their tiny house after my grandfather declined to put money toward it (by then, he was a bank president).  In family lore, this action of hers was portrayed as outrageous and unwifely willfulness.

At age 81, disgusted with the amount of medication she was prescribed, she promptly stopped taking all of it.  She lived another healthy 15 years and died at the age of 96.  She was formidable and tough, and loved us fiercely.

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Thailand: Land of Smiles, Part 2: Brave New World, A Very Long Flight, and Praise for the Singaporeans

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The Singaporeans, Changi Airport, Singapore

Getting to Thailand from the Eastern United States is best accomplished by begging your doctor for Sedative-Hypnotics finding 1.) the quickest route available that doesn’t land you in Bangkok after the metro closes for the night or 2.) flights that don’t require long layovers in Doha, Abu Dhabi or Dubai (where as a Western female alone it seemed likely that I’d spend the entire layover worrying about bigger things than whether they have free WiFi).

On departure day, the Pittsburgh Delta counter was staffed by 2 people:  a woman with a German accent and another with an accent from India. Delighted that Delta could check backpack and print boarding passes all the way through to Bangkok,  Hubby Tom and I kissed goodbye at the airport deli.  In this deli, there was one employee: a 6’6″ (that’s 1.98 meters to metric folks), mid-transition transgender person who was clearly enjoying monitoring others’ cautious reactions to his bizarre appearance (I know it’s not PC to say, but it strikes me as asking alot to both expect others to be accepting and at the same time to be so clearly enjoying their discomfort).  A few hours later at  JFK, there were literally ZERO airport or airline ground employees whose first language was English and among thousands of passengers within Terminal 4, there was minimal English being spoken among the flying public.   Every year it becomes more evident that it’s a brave new world out there, very different from the U.S.  I’d always known …… the comfortable familiarity has been replaced with something more uncertain and challenging.  It was at the new self-processing Passport Control kiosks in New York that I decided not to hope for predictable airport practices, for friendly staff, or even for sane seatmates, as it seemed like maybe this trip was headed down a path all it’s own.  Secretly, that’s why I travel anyway…..it’s an adventure (or maybe more accurately, a necessary break from my very quiet life) to fling myself out into the wide world to experience some novelty and beauty, and hopefully to come back in one piece.

The oft-acclaimed Singapore Airlines flies Airbus A380-800’s between JFK and Singapore with stopovers in Frankfurt, Germany.  These flights take roughly 22 hours and are the longest flights I’d ever been on.  The A380-800’s are amazing and comfortable double-decker aircraft, even in cattle-class on a sold-out, long-haul, redeye flight.  Singapore Airlines has better-than-usual meal options, good in-flight entertainment, recharging plugs for laptops and phones, hot towlettes to refresh face and hands, and maybe as their most well-known feature, elegant female flight attendants who might be more aptly described as circulating works of art.  Their black hair is meticulously-styled and lacquered in similar up-do’s, they all wear maquillage of the exact same peaches and mauves, applied in precisely the same way.  Their gowns are beautiful and their demeanors consistently professional, unruffled, and gracious.  It’s hard to call a flight of this kind a pleasure, but it was as much a pleasure as it could have been (that is, without having $14,373.67  to spend on the luxury “Sleep Suites”).  Not many airlines give a sense of luxury in economy class.

PlanetoBangkok

During this trip I developed a fondness for the Singaporeans (a country I hadn’t spent 5 seconds thinking about in my entire life) and I had the good fortune to meet a number of them.  It seems they were rather unceremoniously lopped off from Malaysia at some point several decades ago and left with very little in the way of land or financial resources.  At a café in Thailand I met an extraordinary Singaporean woman…… a lovely fellow-retired nurse watching her grandchildren play in this café that her sons owned.  I’d initially asked her son via Google translate in Thai if I could pay him to let me recharge my phone in his café – he responded in perfect English (which at that point I hadn’t heard spoken at all for many days), and when I expressed surprise that he spoke perfect English, he replied simply:  “Of course I do.  I’m a Singaporean”.  Singapore itself is an ethnically diverse area with 4 official languages spoken (English being one).  About a dozen religions are practiced there and it seems that they coexist mostly peacefully.  The Singaporean grandmother told me that at the time of the split from Malaysia, Singapore had a much-loved leader who helped them develop from their very disadvantaged state into a well-educated country with a high standard of living for all.  Singaporeans had collectively decided on a plan:  “Since we have no land, we’ll have to use our brains as our resources instead”, she said, which seems to me a brilliant (and optimistic) resolution for a group of recently-disenfranchised people to make.   Singaporeans are evidently known to place great value on their personal integrity, and invariably they exuded great pride in their country.  I was impressed with every one of them that I ran across.

Singapore Changi Airport is highly rated – I believe they’re one of the top 3 airports in the world currently.  Although during the first layover between Singapore and Bangkok several things seemed odd (such as the droves of silent young males lined up along the walls staring darkly at those passing by – I later realized the significance of this), when I returned for the home-bound layover I was grateful to be back in this comfortable place.

They do that annoying western thing  (“How did we do?”) – of asking people to rate their performance, sometimes after just a brief, simple interaction.  Several times, I was lead to a computer screen and asked to rate people I’d only google-translated with to ask a brief question.

They have a tiny movie theatre where a dozen or so transit passengers were -completely sacked out watching subtitled European films.  They have a little spa, a little hotel area, and a sunflower garden on a rooftop where the employees go to smoke cigarettes.  This airport has tried hard and done well.

In Singapore it became evident that the number of others with Western faces was dwindling to only a few here and there.   To be among Asians is to be among mostly pleasant, well behaved people, so being among exclusively Asians wasn’t uncomfortable, but it was a new experience to be in such a miniscule minority.

The flight to Bangkok was novel as well ….it was at the start of a business day in SE Asia, and I was a jet-lagged, bedraggled, Western female alone at a huge gate packed with 200 male Asian businessmen chatting amiably and attending to their electronic devices.  I counted 4 other women total on the entire flight.  I noticed something very smart that Asian women do in these public places full of men:  they consistently seat themselves closeby other women.  Seems like a no-brainer, yet I’d never seen this so assiduously practiced.  Henceforth, I followed their examples.

There WAS one other Westerner on this flight. A middle-aged man in business attire yelling animatedly into his cellphone about the hangover he was anticipating after his stay in Bangkok and the seedier districts he planned to visit.  Happily, rather than that guy, my seatmate turned out to be a big, affable Malaysian who spoke not a word of English.

We flew away in the bright morning sunlight toward Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi.

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Thailand: Land of Smiles, Land of …… what alternate universe is this? Part 1, Introduction

DragonsGuardingTempleChiangMai

Hopefully these posts on Thailand travel won’t earn me some Tedious Blogger of the Week award, because I do value you, my blogging friends, and would not want to bore you to tears.  To spare both of us,  I’m breaking things up into roughly 1,000 word parts and will let them fly roughly in sequence.

I’ve just taken a trip to Thailand.  The trip was a long time in the planning, and was my first trip to Asia at age 59.  I’ve traveled a good bit overseas, several times alone, and although have had difficulties on each trip, I know that every problem that arises really does have an eventual solution.  The best travel advice I’ve ever read was this:  “You will enjoy your first trip to a foreign culture to about the same extent as you are able to tolerate uncertainty”.   Being able to let go of needing things to be very predictable (not an easy thing) is probably the singlemost important travel skill I’ve learned.  In truth, no amount of preparation, even years of researching and learning local language will ever thoroughly prepare you for all you will encounter in a new culture.  I guess this is why more judicious people venture outward into the world only on guided tours or only on trips where others will be taking care of alot of the logistics and social supports.  I thoroughly enjoy the planning part of trips and I try to accept the difficulties that independent travel requires, for I would likely be very unhappy under the conditions that at least most guided tours seem to require.

My parents went on a 3-week tour to Europe in their 40’s (in the 1960’s) leaving us children with the most relaxed babysitter in the History of Childcare.  She nipped at a bottle of bourbon all day, and we were in heaven with the newfound freedom.  My mother came back from the trip with colitis and worsened anxiety problems.  This was her description of their time in Paris, a city I later came to love:  “We arrived in Paris later than planned, so we’d run out of time and the bus dropped us girls off at a big department store where they were having a fashion show and then dropped the men off at the Louvre where they had 15 minutes to RUN to see the Mona Lisa and then run back to the bus to pick us up at the fashion show”  (I would have burst into flames on the spot at having gone all the way to Paris and then been limited to 15 minutes at the Louvre……..or worse at being dumped off at a department store fashion show instead of the Louvre because I was a girl!).

I usually plan specifically what what I’d like to see when I travel, and then leave room for serendipity (which never fails to occur).  So when I invited others on this particular trip, a basic structure was already planned.   The invitees each immediately wanted to reconfigure and limit the trip to accomodate their own fears and priorities, which is, of course, understandable.  They said things like “let’s take a tour instead” and “I could never use a squat-toilet” and “can you guarantee that all my professional camera equipment will be safe?”  That’s usually the point where I sigh and re-resolve to travel alone.

I find it very uncomfortable socially to travel alone, even in an area as culturally familiar as Europe.  But social discomfort doesn’t seem like a good enough reason not to travel so I decide to tolerate the discomfort in exchange for having some enriching experiences.   There have been people who are unexpectedly kind in every country I’ve ever visited.  It’s something really encouraging about the world (cue Blanche DuBois: “Ah have ALL-ways deeypended on the kahnd-ness of straynjahs”…..).

Men have been roaming the earth forever, but women are sometimes looked at askance for wanting to be out there exploring.  I ran into 8 other women traveling alone across Thailand, all of them Westerners.   Thailand has a police phone line specifically for tourists and they widely publicize their help number .  Happily, I did not need it, and fortunately, there are some fairly straightforward ways to avoid being targeted  in Thailand.   There are certainly many countries and areas where I would not consider traveling alone.

I’d read that countries known to be safest for women travelers include Costa Rica and Thailand.  Having been to both, I would basically agree.  Although surprising squalor exists immediately alongside sumptuous luxury in Thailand in particular (something I’d not seen before), an extremely squalid area didn’t seem to mean what it does in the west:  crime, predation, hostility.  For the most part, most people in Thailand, men and women both, seemed gentle and most smiled kindly in interaction.  Buddhism and some of the Thais’ other cultural practices may contribute to the ways of these mostly friendly (except for most in official capacities) people.  I made myself aware of the seedier areas in central Bangkok where westerners really CAN get into trouble at night.  I don’t drink.  I researched, researched, researched and learned some basics of the language.  I took Google Translate (which served mostly to perplex the Thais).  I was inside the guesthouses before dark except for the very public night-market areas in Chiang Mai.

And so we begin.

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From the Arlington

ArlingtonRevised

This painting was started many years ago after I’d taken an apartment near the city hospital trauma unit where I worked 12-hour+ night shifts.  I considered that time period “Self Storage”, and although it was an exhausted, stressful time, it was also a time of reflection and relief.

The Arlington Apartments (hence the painting’s name) stand in a transitional block  between gentrification and near-third-world decay.  The place housed medical residents from all over the world and at dinnertime the halls were filled with exotic aromas.  In the 1930’s, it had been a grand hotel and the ground floor still contained a sprawling marble lobby that was dotted with ferns, graceful old furniture, and concierge desk.  There was an original brass-and-glass mail chute that rocketed envelopes down to the basement repository (just next to the elevator) with a loud, resounding THUD.  Despite it happening every morning,  these loud arrivals were somehow always an unexpected jolt as I stood waiting for an elevator  (more asleep than awake) on the way in from a grueling night shift.

Work nights were filled with intoxicated and uncooperative people with new gunshot and stab wounds, fractured femurs from car accidents or falls, skull fractures from assaults with bricks or baseball bats,  and with those who had jumped from the upper floors of crack houses after misinterpreting the significance of a police car passing by.  The initial treatment for many of these people included uncomfortable neck braces and lying flat, which are often more than an intoxicated person will tolerate.  The risk is, of course,  that if there is a spine fracture,  movement could cause spinal cord damage and paralysis.  When the nurses were unable to convince these (usually male) patients of the usefulness of keeping the neck brace on and lying more or less flat, we would sometimes call the resident-on-duty to try his/her hand at convincing them.  Shortly afterwards, a young male resident would come bounding out of the elevator from the Emergency Room, tear down the hall to the patient’s room and yell  (the yelling was possibly more for the nurses’ entertainment than for the patient’s benefit) “Mr. Smith, if you don’t keep that collar on and lie still, you might never have another erection”.   With a huge grin, the resident would then bound back down the hall past the nurses’ station as the entire night shift staff tried hard (and usually failed) to stifle laughter.   That one sentence was almost invariably effective.

In the mornings after work, I’d eventually fall off to sleep in a patch of sunlight like a large cat.  If the following night wasn’t a work night,  I’d wake again deep in the night to a silent building, intermittent ambulance sirens, and a magical time to paint.   Although a departure from what I usually paint, this is what materialized from those hours overlooking the dark city during that suspended time of life.

That’s me in the lower right with my head on fire.

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Kittens vs. Guns

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VS.

Kittensv.AR-15s

It occured to me a few days ago that a good way to stave off winter solitude might be to adopt a kitten from the county Humane Society.   A positive thing, you might think, especially since the shelter euthanizes if an animal overstays its welcome.

As a recently retired person who’s used up a considerable portion of my goodwill toward mankind by working 42 years in human services, I’ve taken the time since retirement to relish the lack of stress and to live quietly rather than tending many people-friendships.  In pursuit of a new cat-friend to care for, I drove 20 miles to the shelter, picked out an adorable 9 wk old kitten, and was told I’d need to fill out an application.  Sounded fair enough.   But the application required, among other things, THREE non-family references, a work number, a statement of occupation, and a willingness to undergo a home inspection.  Finding it all a little absurd, I told them I was willing to submit to a home inspection, but have taken care of humans for most of my adult life and although willing to give references by three people from my family, I was reluctant to bother neighbors and ex-coworkers and old friends out-of-state for references to prove I’m qualified to care for a homeless kitten.

The Humane Society workers discussed it among themselves and evidently decided that I don’t look like someone collecting cats for nefarious purposes.  One of my family members had worked in an animal shelter and quickly hit all the points in her reference to convey that I’m a “qualified pet owner”.  At this age, pets and their care are not new and the list of homestead alumni is long and varied.  They approved me the next day and I drove the 20 miles BACK to the shelter to bring this little guy to a comfortable and carefully prepared home.  He has had a computer chip implanted for tracking purposes, I am bound by a signed agreement to provide all care within specifications, and he is registered under my name should any question of who’s responsible for him arise.

As the kitten cavorted, discovering his new home, it was pointed out to me that it would have been an easier process to buy a gun than to adopt a kitten.  I have no problems at all with responsible people having guns, but was surprised to learn how little is required to purchase a gun in this state:  Walk in to a dealer.  Fill out a form,  wait a few minutes while they call for a database clearance.  Walk out with an AR-15.  No waiting period, no limit on how many I could buy or how much ammunition I can buy.  No registration required.  And no restriction on carrying that gun openly out in public.  This information was discouraging because I worked 15 years of that human services career in charge positions in psychiatry and was never once asked to inform any database about any of the extremely psychotic and agitated patients we treated.  And only a small percentage of those patients were brought in by the police and held on involuntary commitments.

Wonder what would happen if I “open-carried” this kitten into the local Walmart.

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Francophilia

Liz&MimeMontmartre, 2000

It began innocuously enough.  I was on an Edith Wharton binge – for those unfamiliar with her writing, she uses French phrases as if she assumes her readers would sans aucun doute know precisely what she was saying.  I suspected something terribly witty was being said that was frustratingly beyond my grasp as an unsophisticated anglophone.

Metropolitaine

My initial exposure to the French language consisted of listening to my best friend practice the French she was learning in school – in the South.  It went like this:   Ewn.  Dyoooo.  Twaahhhh.  Kawt.  Sank.   My first ideas about what life was like in France came from Pepe LePew cartoons.

SacreCoeurtoTourEiffel

Sacre Coeur to La Tour Eiffel

Believing that I was seriously missing out by not understanding these alluring phrases,  I bought a little french dictionary and started looking them up word by word (how did we ever manage before Google Translate?).  What I eventually found was that indeed, there was a whole new interesting world to be discovered.  The French language is replete with clever and subtle ways of saying things.  The French have ways of looking at things that are delightfully nuanced and very different from our own.  I was  smitten.

L'AbbayedeSenanque

L’Abbaye de Senanque, La Lavande épanouit

After I’d translated those phrases from Edith Wharton’s books,  I dove right into a copy of Moliere’s Le Misanthrope with my trusty dictionary, which was , of course, stupendously overly-ambitious.  Through the years, I’ve learned enough French to read, write, and survive in a basic way in France, but I still couldn’t begin to translate Moliere.  Le Misanthrope has been languishing on a bookshelf for decades.  Someday it’s presence might torment me enough to have another go at it, but mostly I just like to know it’s there so I can pretend that when I (miraculously) become ultra-fluent, I’ll be able to sit down and devour it in one go.  It’s good to have goals, n’est-ce pas?

EdithWharton

Edith Wharton, 1862 – 1937

When I realized that translating Moliere as a way of learning French wasn’t a viable option, I started torturing Francophones in the French Canadian chat rooms, which kept me productively occupied in my spare time and improved my understanding of sentence structure, vocabulary, and informal language use. It also mightily annoyed a whole bunch of French Canadians.  They suggested, sometimes not all that politely, that I actually take a CLASS, but by then I found eavesdropping and translating their conversations kind of enjoyable (sadly, the nearest potential French class in those pre-internet days was 52 miles away).

Roussillon

Roussillon, the Luberon, France

Next I tried a series of language CD’s called “Success in French”.  Each lesson began with the booming voice of the narrator:  “Bienvenue à SUCCESS in FRENCH” (Welcome to Success in French).   I listened to them with such frequency that when a lesson began, my husband and daughter shouted gleefully:   “Bienvenue à OBSESSED in FRENCH”.

IsledeOuessant

L’Ile de Ouessant/Ushant, Bretagne

Eventually I decided I had to go see for myself what France was really like.  My husband had no intentions of going to France and it was only when I announced my plan to go alone that he begrudgingly allowed himself to be dragged across the pond – almost literally kicking and screaming. But then a strange thing happened right around five minutes after we cleared Passport Control and emerged into the public areas at Charles de Gaulle:  He realized that there are many beautiful women in France, some of whom wear little underwear.  This changed his attitude considerably, putting an end to all of that silly kicking and screaming.

FortLaLatte

Fort LaLatte, Bretagne

But language and literature aside, exposure to French customs, gastronomy, monuments, history, film, art and music has enriched my life in a way I could not have pre-seen when stumbling through those phrases written by Edith Wharton.  I have a picture from a lunch on the terrace of the Palais de Chaillot.  It’s of the Eiffel Tower in the fall of 1999 with it’s Jumbotron counting down the number of days to the turn of the millenium.  And there are the pictures from the tremendously moving D-Day beaches and Cimetiére Americain in Normandy.  And of walking along the ramparts of Le Mont St. Michel late at night, right up to the cavernous mouth of this austere monastery, long after the gates to the town were locked and the town was fast asleep.   We ferried an hour out into the wild Atlantic toward the Isle de Ouessant as waves crashed over the top of the boat.  And all those beautiful, crumbly hilltop towns in Provence……..they are many pictures that bring back memories from France, each one treasured.

Gordes   Gordes, in the Vaucluse, from room

And so it was that Edith Wharton and her enigmatic phrases lead me to France again and again.   Nowadays when I run across some curious little postcard from an unknown world, I run it down to see where it leads.   Et Voila.

Brittany

 

 

 

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Protected: It’s OK about that handtowel thing…..

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Mon Oncle D’Amerique

Mon Oncle D'Amerique 1

Here’s an odd little story from a time after I’d finished my first degree and had taken a job close to New York City .

It was early 1981 and on days off from my job in Connecticut, I’d Amtrak in to the city to enjoy New York.  In my hometown several states away, there was a wonderful, ornate theater that was lovingly tended by a local film enthusiast, and which showed almost exclusively foreign films.  I’d spent as much time as possible there in between work and classes – it was a dark, intoxicating cocoon filled with strange and exotic worlds viewed through the eyes of Bunuel, Truffaut, Fellini, DeSica, and Bergman.  In searching for that theater’s counterpart in New York, I found the Paris Theater adjacent to the Plaza Hotel on West 58th Street.  It still shows first-run foreign films today.

Especially smitten with French cinema, one afternoon I went to see Mon Oncle D’Amerique (My Uncle From America), a then-new French film starring the young Gerard Depardieu.  I remember very little about the film from that particular day due in part to some unusual circumstances.

MonOncleD'Amerique2

The vast theater had very few patrons for that particular matinee, and I’d noticed, in the dark, that a man was sitting at the opposite end of the very long, curved aisle I was sitting in. About halfway through the film, from my side-vision, I became vaguely aware that he was moving a few seats at a time toward the center.  I assumed he was trying, Sheldon Cooper-like, to find the very best seat from which to view the film.

Normally I like new experiences.  Normally, but……

When this man (shadowy in the dark) passed the aisle’s mid-point, I started to become uncomfortable.  What was this person doing?  Every few minutes, he made his way to his left, 3 or 4 seats at a time, eventually ending up sitting in the seat next to me on my right.  Then in my mid-twenties and having recently moved from the South, I had little experience that helped me understand this strange behavior, and, idiotically, I just sat there, paralyzed, staring straight ahead.  Unfortunately, he seemed to have mistaken my frozen state for acquiescence and very soon his hand moved to my right leg.

Startled, terrified and furious (and sadly too dense to have anticipated this), I hissed into the dark in his general direction:  “Stop that!!!

And then bizarrely, silently, and without missing a beat, he began his methodical retreat exactly in reverse of the way he’d arrived:  slowly moving 3 or 4 seats at a time until eventually he got to his seat at the far end of the aisle.

When the film ended, I kept to the farthest exit on the way out and hurried toward the subway wondering if perhaps this was some strange sexual custom that happened in movie theaters in France.  Like some very French way of testing a woman’s willingness.

But maybe he was just a very compulsive perv.

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Please Leave Me!

Daily Prompt: Musical Marker We all have songs that remind us of specific periods & events in our lives.  Twenty years from now, which song will remind you of the summer of 2014?

About two weeks ago while searching for another song, I stumbled upon Maria Gadu’s rendition of “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (Don’t Leave Me) .  She’s added a Latin twist to this French standard, and to say it is catchy is an understatement.   I promptly downloaded it and listen to it in shuffle rotation with 47 other iTunes.

Problem is, I can’t get IT to leave ME.  Every morning, I wake up with it playing in my head.  I weed the garden and it’s in my head.  I have dinner with friends and it’s in my head.

It’s entirely possible that in twenty years I’ll be too demented to remember the song that defined the summer of 2014.  It’s also possible that Ne Me Quitte Pas may still be stuck in my head….

If it stays there much longer, I’m booking an appointment with a neurologist.  I’d post a link to the song for you, but I’m afraid it might be contagious.

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Daily Prompt: Middle Seat (What to do about those chatty seatmates) – Air Canada, Flight 9099

Opening Susan Cain’s “Quiet:  The Power of Introverts” worked well on a few flights to deter potentially chatty seatmates.  I chose window seats on the left side entering the plane, which had the added advantage of placing both my seatmate and the cover of the book toward my left.  That’s how desperate I am to avoid chatty seatmates.

One flight was different, though.

A little backstory: Once in awhile, I like to fling myself out into the Big Wide World completely alone.  Just to see if I’ll float. This particular time, I’d chosen the Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria regions of Germany as my destination.  The trip was everything I travel for with the exception of losing the heart medication I was then taking in Baden-Baden.  It was medication that shouldn’t be stopped abruptly.

Not good.  By the time I got back to Munich on a Friday afternoon, I was having arrhythmia problems with lightheadedness and a little shortness of breath.  I wasn’t sure if altitude would worsen this and was concerned about getting on a return flight without medication.  Although the hotel had said it had internet access, it wasn’t working, and I’d partially depended on that for translation needs.  Language hadn’t been a big concern prior to landing in Germany because I’d traveled alone fairly easily in other countries with English and French.  And besides, Rick Steves advised that English-speaking travelers would be fine in Germany taking only a basic phrasebook.  I’m still annoyed with Rick Steves. Getting medical help on a weekend without good German was a real struggle that involved walking across Munich to the only open weekend clinic, spending 45 minutes trying to find it – it was tucked within a maze of halls between a public parking garage and a mall.  And then being told to come back in 2 hours.  It was Monday afternoon before I could finally get a prescription filled at the airport on the way out and by that point I’d never been so glad to leave a country.

MunichAirport

So, it was under these conditions that I gratefully boarded the flight back toward the U.S.  My seatmate turned out to be a young French-Canadian who was en route from Nice to Montreal for an interview with Google.  I found him very bright and also endearing with his charming social skills and luminous blue eyes.  Being engaged with him was a pleasure.  We chatted comfortably for hours, which was a departure from the anxious and avoidant kind of interaction that I usually have with strangers on planes.  Notably though, he seemed to be putting forth effort to continue the conversation.  THAT I found curious, as I’m neither young nor beautiful nor fascinating.

Around the middle of the long transatlantic flight (as I was just beginning to worry that we’d awkwardly run out of topics), he suddenly changed his tone and said earnestly, with just a hint of his native French accent:  “I’m terrified of flying.  It really helps to talk”.

Truth be told, I needed his presence too just then.  And I hope he got that job with Google.

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Excerpts From A Mental Health History

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Nope, this post isn’t about MY mental health, although some might argue that it warrants attention.  It’s more a comparison between my original experiences working in mental health in the early 1980’s and more recent ones.

I have fond memories of the old days working in mental health.  I miss the times before insurance companies and healthcare corporations became so tyrannical, and before work became a frantic, soul-killing race to complete 3,462 mostly-meaningless tasks.  Before patients became incidental.

During the first of my inpatient jobs, I worked night shift at a lovely private hospital (back in the days when there WERE such things).  It was a large complex set deep in the woods above an old historic mill town.  The night-shift staff was a delightful assortment of slightly quirky people (self included).  There were long-term residents, said to be the mentally ill relatives of nearby Washington D.C. politicians, who lived in open cottages on-grounds.  They had simpler night-shift jobs and worked productively right alongside the rest of us.

I met my husband there.  Before that thought forms in your mind, he was a night shift supervisor then.  We escaped on lunch breaks to meet in various secluded nooks and crannies – and mostly ate lunch.  Mostly.

I remember that emptying the ashtrays in the nurses’ station was an end-of-shift duty.  I remember the chief psychiatrist smoking a pipe next to the oxygen tank during ECT.   Medications were given by a medication nurse whose job it was to make sure everyone got the right meds at the right times – and not the multi-tasking nightmare we now have: the same nurse is responsible for the medications AND the emergency room evaluations AND the searches for available beds for ER patients AND for incoming bed searches from other hospitals AND for writing notes on 1/2 the inpatients AND assisting with whatever crisis comes up on the unit.

A normal length of stay was at least one month.  Longer at state hospitals, which were at that point already sending people who sorely needed long-term placement back out into the community.

We were sometimes permitted to nap in the ECT room on breaks if there wasn’t anything major going on (some of us were working full time and doing full time coursework, so any bed anywhere had a powerful draw).   Sometimes we were asked to get in our own cars and go pick up patients – alone – at their off-grounds jobs in the little town below.

If a patient threatened anyone, they were automatically taken to an open-but-securable area for assessment and cool-down time. Within the last ten years, however, there has been a trend in some facilities to avoid all seclusion and all restraint – even if a patient has just injured 5 others and is known to be a ticking time bomb. The rationale is that separating the patient is punitive and a violation of the patient’s rights. So, the person is medicated and then permitted to roam freely among others again (think what message this sends the nonpsychotic, willfully violent patient about what is permissible…..).    These policy decisions come from both administrators and psychiatrists.  Those doing the direct care are voiceless.  And when the medication wears off? Those who made the policies will be nowhere around.

Although no one would say that it’s a good idea to smoke next to an oxygen tank, not one of those other then-common practices are permitted now amid all the rigidity of our hyper-regulated, mega-corporatized hospitals.   The powers that be seem to think that 5,000 tiny regulations will make hospitals safer, but what seems to be happening moreso is that each employee is required to do a fragmented and extreme volume of work at a speed that would kill a racehorse.  Those aren’t exactly good safety conditions.

The early 80’s were just before the next generation of better neuroleptics and antimanics were available.  The hospital had a separate unit for those requiring extra observation or seclusion.  It was an intense unit to work.  We frequently admitted a manic patient who had been a heavyweight boxing champion. This man sometimes required restraints for aggression during the early parts of his stays until he was restabilized on his medications.  Once, without warning, he heaved a huge Fred Flintstone chair through the “unbreakable glass” wall of the central nurses’ station (nicknamed “the fishbowl” because it looked out into 3 different units).  Those chairs are standard on psychiatric units and are designed to be huge and blocky and heavy specifically so they can’t be thrown.   Needless to say, all but the most medicated were alarmed and although the glass was replaced with new and supposedly stronger “unbreakable glass”, I doubt that anyone was convinced.

In those days, if you were a large male who came seeking a job, you would be hired immediately.  This hiring practice usually made the restraint codes (which could more accurately be called melées) easier unless the patient was so psychotic that he or she  wasn’t likely to cooperate no matter how many refrigerator-guys were present.  One time, the same manic patient allowed himself to be put into 4-point leather restraints without incident until the refrigerator-guys started to disband to go back to their respective units.  At that point, he twisted his arm up, breaking the leather restraint buckle, and said:  “You didn’t do a very good JOB!”.  He then waited patiently to be re-restrained before standing up and walking out of the seclusion room in 4 point leather restraints carrying the heavy restraint bed on his back.

I remember mornings when the entire night shift went directly to the local early-opening  watering hole.

Some of the addictions units in the early 80’s were like the Wild West.   Some groups in this hospital were based on the older Synanon model and it was common to hear loud yelling and chair-throwing coming from the group therapy rooms.  The problem of cross-addiction was less appreciated than it is now.  Although not exactly recommended, drinking to oblivion was considered acceptable as long as one stayed away from heroin.  At present, we seem to be going back to those practices in the form of  “harm reduction” treatment (surely the bright idea of insurance companies…..) and with the use of methadone programs-as-a-first-treatment-option for opiate abuse.  Methadone maintenance programs are HUGE money-making businesses and make little sense to me –  other than the hope that providing another similar drug under controlled circumstances will lessen the likelihood that the addict will continue stealing, overdosing, or otherwise wreaking havoc on his/her life and the lives of everyone in his/her wake.  I’ve rarely seen or heard of anyone on Methadone who wasn’t also using additional street drugs and involved in criminal activity.  Ever seen anyone nodding and dozing on opiates?  Methadone clinics don’t require an accompanying person to drive when they dose people.  And Methadone is harder than heroin to come off of (sort of sounds like they’re ensuring lifelong clients from the get-go, right?).  Sometimes people on Methadone will also get medication like Ritalin or Benzodiazepines at the pill-mills that are our out-patient mental health clinics.  Sometimes Methadone clients don’t tell the staff at mental health clinics that they’re involved in a Methadone program at all, and outpatient mental health doesn’t do drug screens.  These people literally fall asleep telling you how anxious and in need of more pills they are.

Drug treatment beds are predominantly used for heroin-addiction nowadays and we have a nation full of young people addicted to it.   I’ve been plowed into twice by people on opiates, the first time head-on, totaling a car I wasn’t ready to replace yet – it caught fire and burned to a crisp.  The second time, my daughter and I were repeatedly rammed by a woman nodding off behind us at a stop light, soon banging us fully into a busy main intersection in Pittsburgh.  Sometimes opiate addicts come to treatment for a more comfortable (medicated) detox to decrease their tolerance so that using on the streets costs less for awhile, which is a real misuse of a D&A bed.

Yet people do find long-term recovery.  Every single day.   A few even from within methadone programs if they can get hooked up with recovery groups and support.

Since autism has become so prevalent, mental health staff is now also managing these people in large numbers.  Recently, a nurse in her 30’s insisted (with a straight face) that the rate of autism hasn’t increased, but rather our diagnosis of it has increased.  In the early 80’s I could count the people I saw on psychiatric units who showed any of the symptoms of autism on one hand, and I almost never saw anyone in public with typical autistic behaviors.   Entire child and adolescent psychiatric units are now devoted to the treatment of these kids, and some of them can be extremely aggressive, especially during adolescence.

If you’ve never spent time inside the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, you might find it interesting reading.   Usually you can find a few family members in there and enough material to make worrisome self-diagnoses as well. Usually when one of these Manuals is left out in a nurses’ station, someone puts a sticker on the front of it saying “autobiography of…..(name of another staff member, but not usually the psychiatrist’s…..)”.

Sometimes working in mental health I had the impression (the seriously mistaken one) that I’d seen every permutation of thinking and behavior possible on the planet.  Usually about 5 seconds after this idea crossed my mind, the phone would ring for an ER evaluation on someone with circumstances so unique and strange that they proved once again that truth is stranger than fiction.  It so often seems unwise to be too sure of anything.

One of the good things about working in mental health is that the word “weird” disappears from your vocabulary.   You become very compassionate toward the suffering of people who have the major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar 1 and Major Depression.  One of the bad things is that you have no pretty illusions about who is out there living in your community, possibly not taking their much-needed medication, unsupervised.

I’m discouraged about how we do mental health in this country.  Care is as brief and cursory as possible.  There is little in the way of enforced follow-up for people who have known histories of becoming very psychotic and/or violent when they stop taking their medication, sometimes even if the person is court-committed to outpatient treatment.  Many jurisdictions have no legal provisions to contain someone who is floridly psychotic in the absence of an “act in furtherance” to prove that they’re an immediate danger to themselves or others (remember this last year of nonstop killing related to untreated psychiatric problems?).  Our mental health population suffers. Our communities suffer.  It seems long past time for a revision of the entire mental health system from the ground up.

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Acceptance and the Art of Home Renovation – (or, Lessons I Learned From My Crack House)

I lived in a rubble-heap for two years.  The good part:  I’d bought a place that was mine to do with as I wished, and it was on a good block in a charming  town.  And when you buy what was once likely the town crack house, the neighbors are just happy there’s someone responsible living next door trying to improve the property (and the borough permit office consistently looks the other way).

OldStairwell

Stairwell

I’d long wanted to live in a house that was a good fit and that I could put some of myself into. The area where I’d been living for many years was a small, decayed Rust Belt town whose options for almost everything were sorely limited.   It was a great town for those who have always lived there, but it had little that I needed or wanted.

I’d thought long and hard prior to buying this place about whether I was prepared to accept living in a decrepit mess for as long as it took to renovate it – renovating all immediately would not be possible and I would need to do as much of the work as I could to keep costs down.  After calculating and weighing all options, I decided that this was my best shot at having a place that felt like my own.  Not generic.  Not someone else’s idea of what I should want.  I signed on the dotted line.

The town where I bought has history and a beautiful old town square, a few internationals, a little ethnic diversity, a bit of artsy flair, a newly expanded YMCA, and is surrounded by mountains.  I’ve been happy here for what is, at the time of this most recent edit, 8 years. It took 4 of those to finish the inside.

BeforeBathroom    Old upstairs apartment kitchen.  Which became…..

BathAlcove New tub alcove in new 2nd floor bath.

UpstairsBathwithSinkFinished UpstairsBathFinishedimg_2811 Upstairs Hall

When the going got rough, I remembered that this was exactly what I’d signed up for and that something of value was slowly being formed out of the chaos.

A saying by Nietzsche (and later employed by Viktor Frankl) helped:  “Those who have a ‘why’ can live with almost any ‘how'”.   A little Buddhism 101 helped also:   Everything is incomplete (and an old house will never be completely finished).  Everything is imperfect (and an old house will never be perfect).  Everything is impermanent (no matter what I do, this house will eventually cease to be….hopefully later rather than sooner, as I will as well).

BeforeMBR

LivingRoomRevised

LivingRoom

From the outside, the house was a derelict Victorian cottage, badly in need of paint, a new roof, and some serious work on what was once a lovely wraparound porch.  Doing a house history helped narrow down the year that the house was built to between 1898 and 1902.  The entire place was very dark and a number of original windows had been boarded over.   Almost all of the walls were covered over with dry, splintering 1970’s vinyl paneling.  Every room had a yellowed and stained drop ceiling.  The walls were full of ancient, dusty Vermiculite insulation and under the thick, cracked and gouged plaster was dried mud-and-horsehair-on-slats……all of which had to be hacked out and pitched through open windows onto a pile in the backyard that eventually reached the first floor windows (then later transferred again to a series of dumpsters).   The place smelled as if for a century, heavy smokers had worked in round-the-clock shifts standing knee-deep in empty cigarette boxes blowing smoke into every surface and crevasse.  Not exactly fun, but I like to work, need to have a project going, and it gave me years of useful work that kept me relatively happy and occupied during the first few years of (early) retirement.

OriginalHousePictureKitchen3

KitchenEatArea

005

The house had been split up into an upper-floor and a lower floor apartment, and any element of charm that may have been original to the interior of the place was long-gone, save a fireplace mantel whose back was signed by a local business owner who ran a cabinet and casket shop in the late 1800’s.  I’ve removed the fussy Victorian trim, refinished it, and reused it. The kitchens were each deplorable and had smelly plywood cabinets.  The yellowed linoleum flooring was literally stapled together at the seams.  During the first winter, I could have flown a kite when the wind howled through the mountains (so new windows were a high priority).  There were bird skeletons in the boarded-up fireplaces.   The bathrooms were ….. at least as bad as the worst truck stop bathroom out there.

BeforeStudio  Studio

img_3009-1

CaminoRoom

I’d asked my real estate agent for a recommendation for people to do the initial projects –  first roofing (required in order to get homeowner’s insurance), and then gutting and refinishing the downstairs bedroom and bathroom just to get me started with a useable room to sleep in.  An Amish group from a community about 40 miles away was recommended.  Two days after the new roof went on, I woke to what I thought was the air conditioner running, but which turned out to be rain gushing into the room from the chimney – they’d forgotten to flash and seal it.  One morning I went down to find their driver (who was a retired nursing home administrator) putting in the shower floor.  He looked up brightly and said “I’ve never DONE this before!”   The main worker was a delightful, wiry, feisty Amish guy in his mid-60’s with coke-bottle glasses who liked to tell slightly off-color jokes.  The work was halfway finished when I realized that he couldn’t see a thing out of those coke-bottle glasses, and the downstairs bath and bedroom could be politely described as finished rather roughly.  As the local NON-Amish home renovators like to say…..”well, they build good barns…..”.   I ended up having to tear out and re-do the shower floor that the driver put in because it was “wavy” with uneven-ness and there were places where water pooled 2 inches deep (the job I did is nothing to crow about, but it’s an improvement).  After that, I gutted the rest of the house myself over time, room by room, and did everything I could possibly learn to do on my own.  There were great guys locally to help intermittently with the rest.

OriginalMBR

GirlyGirlCorner

This corner was a shallow closet with pegs for hanging clothes.

Almost any project can be accomplished with enough time, especially if you break a task down into parts.  And ask enough questions of the wonderful guys at Lowe’s.  And if you watch enough YouTubes, you can do almost anything……

It also helps to talk to every person you run across who knows anything about home renovation, because chances are you’ll pick up a tip from every single one of them.    Listening to iTunes helped get into a flow state.  Making a realistic budget and then adding about 20% to that helped.   I developed a whole new respect for the work of people who do this for a living, and am grateful for their teaching and help.

DownstairsHall

For the most part, guys who do home renovation work have been less difficult to work with than I’d expected.  It takes a little time to get used to their directness.  Twice there were people who mistakenly thought that trying to bulldoze me related to a project was OK (NOT OK).  And sometimes these guys tell you something can’t be done (or doesn’t need to be done) when what they really mean is that they don’t want to do it.  They don’t watch HGTV and most of them in a rural mountain area have been doing things one way for their entire working lives.  But even so,  I’ve been amazed at how many men are supportive and will help you learn when they see you’re trying to do the work yourself.  I worked on the wraparound porch for most of the good-weather-part of 2013.  Think cement mixing, jacks, lumber – none of it was pretty.  Many passers-by were encouraging (some just look amused and one called me “buddy”).  Women who would never consider doing the really heavy and dirty work themselves offered encouragement.  It’s been kind of touching, really.

DownstairsGuestroom2 Downstairs Guest Room

GuestRoomBath

Occasionally I try to get my daughter to learn some of these practical home-repair and renovation skills.  I tell her it’s really rewarding to work with your hands.  She tells me she has a nail appointment.

This might have been an old nursery off the master bedroom.  When I got here, it was a nightmare of a second floor bathroom.  First attempt at drywalling with scraps from Lowe’s.  I never did pick up any proficiency with drywall, but it turned out OK.  For a closet.

I would imagine that more women will learn to do these things, and have found a couple of young women bloggers who are thrilled to be working on their own houses.  It would be nice to not be such an oddity in the lumber department at Lowes.

I never thought I’d know how to install sink plumbing, install a toilet, lay a hardwood floor, wire an outlet, change the blade on a circular saw, or build a large deck. But I do now, and at long last I have a home that I like very much.  And now I think I’ll go sit on the porch in the frilliest, most feminine dress I can find with a pitcher of iced tea enjoying the blogs of people like yourself.  But before I go, I hope that you find the message encouraging:  home renovation for anyone inexperienced is entirely possible. You could even renovate a crack house.

DeckBeforeStain

 

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26 Things to Consider Before Making Your First Move to a Small Town…..

The most serious thing in this post is that I do LOVE where I live, and although have been in different cultures and different places, right here in this beautiful mountain town is exactly where I want to be.  I’m not from a small town, but have lived in them for 30 years now, and arrived here when things were more insular/less interconnected via the internet.  These are mostly observations from those early days.

1.) You will be given directions involving landmarks that burned down 20 years before.  When you bring up that there is no red barn at the turnoff where it seems your error was made, your direction-giver will exclaim “Are you KIDDING ME?? You don’t REMEMBER that BARN???”.  Because everyone who’s here has always been here and it is assumed that you must be as well.

2.) If you make the mistake of mentioning that you like to eat Indian Food, you might be stared at with unveiled suspicion.   Once when I made this mistake, my co-worker said:  “You have odd food tastes”.   I refrained, as always, from saying “Or, you need to get out more”.

3.) Old women will immediately ask you what church you go to.  But you don’t go to church.  Or maybe even worse – you’re…..A  Unitarian.

4.) People will automatically ask you what high school you went to, even if you have a couple of college degrees, an accent from another part of the country,  and went to high school several states away.  But say the name of your actual high school anyway, because  the momentary confusion it causes has some entertainment value.  Mean-spirited, I know.

5.) If you do Yoga, make sure to call it “stretching exercises”.  To not to have to endure that uncomfortable silence that says “Oh.  That’s weird”.

6.) If you try to find some instant espresso crystals to make an espresso cheesecake, GOOD LUCK WITH THAT within a 50 mile radius.

7.) If you like any ethnic food other than Chinese buffets or Chinese carryout, be prepared to drive to the next major city.

8.) If you like art, that’s weird too. God forbid you MAKE art.  Only crazy people are artists (Seriously.  I heard someone say this).

9.) The guys who come to work on your house will try to tell YOU where the light switches and plugs will be going.  Me: “Could you please avoid this small area so I could hang a picture?”  Him: “you don’t need a picture there”.  Another worker: “You don’t need two windows in this bathroom. Just one”.  Consequently, you may want to pick up some home reno skills before you move…..see item #21.

10.) The signboard in front of the Main Street Presbyterian Church promises the answer to the Chik-Fil-A controversy during the coming Sunday’s sermon.  You may find yourself curious enough to actually get up on a Sunday morning, dress nicely, and attend, thinking maybe the town is less conservative than you thought.  Careful there, also.  The pews will be awash with white hair. You’ll be suddenly sorry you are now 10 feet into the sanctuary and it’s too late to turn around – because you are a new face, and everyone is looking at you.  You will hear words like “Abomination” and “Burn in Hell”.  But everybody will be real friendly otherwise.

11.)  Roads will be named for actual qualities that they possess rather than inflated names intended to make you feel inflated to live on them (such as “Renaissance Court” and “Shakespeare Lane”).   They will have names like “Possum Hollow Road” or “Woodchuck Road”.  Because there actually WAS a possum infestation Possum Hollow Road, and there currently ARE woodchucks all over Woodchuck Road.

12.) You will also arouse suspicion if it’s found out you’ve ever been to a foreign place other than, perhaps, the Lancaster Outlet Malls with a local bus tour.  And unless you enjoy uncomfortable silences, don’t mention traveling alone to distant foreign countries. I worked with women who told me they won’t get into elevators alone and would never consider getting in a car and driving 52 miles to the nearest big city alone.  And if you want to practice your low-intermediate-level French with anyone for an upcoming trip, that’s, at minimum, 104 miles to-and-from the nearest 1-hour “MeetUp” group in Pittsburgh.

13.) Your eyeballs will fall out of their sockets when you read that KKK meetings are occasionally advertised on the back pages of the local paper.  You will be astonished that this goes on and tell your NAACP friends.  They will shrug and say they know.  The presence of your visiting friends who are people of color causes the restaurant dishwashers to giggle and point from their kichen doorways.  But merely light brown people are OK if they’re doctors.

14.) Each person is known by the worst thing they ever did.  Usually something they did in their youth on the most intoxicated night of their life. And as a newcomer, you’ll be told about that thing as soon as their name comes up (30 years after the event).  Most characterizations start with: “She’s OK, BUT….”

15.) People say dreadful things about each other, but eventually, you realize that they really do like each other.  It’s a little confusing…

16.)  There  is a preferable side of Market Street to live on and a less preferable side of Market Street to live on.  Only there is no observable difference.

17.) A considerable percentage of the women over age 45 have downright butch haircuts and stocky builds.  And only a couple of them are actually gay.  My then-12-year old made this observation and asked me to explain it.  I had no explanation.

18.) People will stand in front of your house and comment on what you have and haven’t done to your house.  Usually what you HAVEN’T done or what you HAVE done that they wished you had done differently. Even if you have your windows wide open and the sidewalk is 10 feet from your porch.

19.) You might be invited to join the DAR.   Run!!!

20.) If you have on a uniform – military or scrubs – people will invite you to go ahead of them in line at the grocery store.  And they’ll smile and speak to you.  Otherwise, you’re kind of on your own.

21.) You’ll find that the area’s Lowes is good, though.  They train ’em to be helpful toward women trying to work on their own houses (in truth, the people at Lowe’s and a whole bunch of wonderful local guys got me through renovating a house, and have been surprisingly supportive).  Unfortunately, though, since they ran every local hardware store in this rural area out of business, you have to make a 2-hour time commitment to get to them…….

22.) As opposed to city settings, your neighbors will help you when your car gets stuck in the snow in the alley.  They’ll invite you to their barbeques.  And their kids will call you “Miss _______” or “Mr. _______”.  They’ll treat you like they recognize you from one time to the next, as if they are aware that the same person is living next door from one week to the next.  You will grow fond of almost everyone living on the block.  Almost.

23.) The local crime report in the local paper makes you howl with laughter. Or possibly with gratitude.

24.) You can actually be as involved or as uninvolved as you wish.  People will generally leave you alone if you’re not the most social person in the world. Unless, perhaps, you sit on your front porch (but who would want to do THAT?).

25.) Your citified daughter rolls her eyeballs when you suggest that she could move out of the city and return to a small town.

26.) The landscape around your town is drop-dead, gobsmacked gorgeous.  Like. You know.  Not concrete.

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