My Year Away. And Back.

Five Years Later, My Sabbatical Continues to Teach Me Things.


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Whatever you do. Please. Read a Book.

This summer has been the wackiest summer I think any of us has ever experienced. Thanks to COVID-19, all sorts of “are you kidding me?” things have become normal day-to-day occurrences. It took a while, but it looks like we finally have gotten used to the mask wearing thing. I know I reached a new high (or maybe a new low) when I actually looked at a mask a person was wearing and thought “Oh, that’s cute.” Even weirder was when I said out loud to the TV screen while watching the news, “No, that is not a good look on you.” (Seriously. I’m embarrassed to admit I was complaining that the mask did not match the reporter’s outfit.) I’ve discovered drive-up windows for wine. (I hope that, at least, is permanent.) I’ve learned how to size up a restaurant and make a quick judgment on whether it feels safe to eat there. And I’ve learned how to not hug people.

Given how crazy the world is, as I’m preparing to go back to university life in a few days, I took time this summer to read books that swept me away from 2020. While I appreciate why others are drawn to breezy summer beach reads, my fantasy reading this summer has been looking back to a world that was better off than our world today.

Or so I thought.

I started with Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson. I have loved every single Meacham book I’ve encountered. I simply do not understand how he writes as much as he does. It’s like he turns his head and coughs—and out pops an incredibly well-researched, impeccably written tome. It’s impressive.

 As you know, since starting my sabbatical way back in 2014, I’ve been reading presidential biographies. I don’t read them in any particular order, which would explain why I’m only getting to Jefferson now. In past posts, I’ve mentioned how surprised I always am to uncover just how little I know about our presidents and the historical times in which they lived.  However, Jefferson is one of those well-known heroes. Founding Fathers and all that jazz.  I thought I knew him. Whew. The country was even more screwed up back then than I thought. I mean really and truly fraught with political division. Jefferson wasn’t sure the republic would survive. I was surprised to learn that I agreed with some of Jefferson’s decisions, but vehemently disagreed with others. (And I’m not even talking about his reprehensible ideas concerning slavery.) Wow. A flawed human. But, very presidential.

I moved from presidents to an in-depth view of everything—and I mean everything—in the kitchen. Bee Wilson’s Consider the Fork was a revelation. Talk about getting down in the weeds. This book dealt with every possible item that shows up in the kitchen. You don’t just learn about what the item does. You learn about the entire history of the item. Fork tines? Well. Turns out the number of tines told the whole story about a person’s status. The fork  chapter just broke the surface. Egg beaters. Ice. Graters. Ovens! (Now the oven chapter was particularly fascinating. It’s a miracle that any cook survived the early years of the oven.)

After spending so much reading time in the kitchen, I needed to know more about the whole house. So that took me to Bill Bryson’s At Home. Sort of like the Fork book, but through a room-by-room meandering journey. Bryson doesn’t just stick with items in a particular room like the kitchen. He branches out and offers an in-depth look at everything that could possibly be associated with that room. The bedroom chapter, for example, moves deftly from the history of mattresses (it’s a wonder anyone could sleep “back then”) to the development of plumbing. I happened to get to the plumbing part just as the hubster and I were struggling with putting in the rough plumbing in our Carriage House. Apparently even in the old days, people had difficulty getting the direction of the plumbing right.

After reading about houses—while working on the restoration of our own house—I decided to move on to my other passion (some might say “obsession.”). Italy. I lingered, savored, absorbed, and utterly adored Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome. This book made me miss Italy even more than I did when I discovered my May trip was cancelled. The book also gave me hope that Italy will be waiting for me when I am able to return. And it got me off my language butt to get back into studying Italian.

I rounded out my summer reading with Wine and War, a fascinating look at the role that wine had in France’s resistance efforts against the Nazis.  For as beautifully written as Four Seasons was, this book is a bit over-written and clunky. But still. It’s about wine. And how wine helped us win the war so what’s not to love?

Sadly, my reading now is more along the lines of frantic bursts of “Will this work?” for the classes I’m teaching starting in just a few days. (Please don’t tell the students that I haven’t found all the readings to go with the lectures. I also don’t have all the lectures yet, but that’s another story.)

As I prepare for the beginning of the fall semester, I can look back on the summer for all its Pandemic uncertainty and all its muscle-exhausting Carriage House renovations, and be thankful that good books surrounded me (thanks to Marcie Hinton’s willingness to share from her library).  As Victor Hugo wrote, “It is from books that wise people derive consolation in the troubles of life.” Lord knows we have trouble right here in River City (and elsewhere). But reading about  troubled times when our country was so young, or when the French had to use their wine to outsmart the Germans, or when tin cans for food preservation were invented before a decent can opener, I realized yet again that the world is tremendously large, history is long, and humans, though at times, are incredibly horrible beings, we are also resilient. Dickens was right. It truly is the best of times and the worst of times.  Reading reminds me that we have hope. Abbiamo Speranza. Tutto andra’ bene!


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I don’t like Mother’s Day. But I like my Mother.

Usually on Mother’s Day, I post something about how awful this day can be for those who can’t have children. Or those who had children and lost them. Or those who don’t really like their children. I often mention how it was a politically created holiday, filled with controversy. And, sometimes, if feeling particularly ornery, I would rant about how the holiday was simply one that allowed men to remind the world that women (read as “all women”) are supposed to sacrifice everything for the sake of others. Voila! A box of chocolates, flowers, and breakfast in bed (after which Mom has to clean the kitchen), and all of mankind (and I mean mankind here) gets a reprieve on how they treat women throughout the year).

But, I’m not going to write about any of that today. Because, today, I’m thinking about my mom and if she were alive, how she would be dealing with coronavirus. You see, my mother was a nurse. She went to nursing school at the University of Maine—Orono, shortly after WWII, where she met my dad on a blind date just days before graduation (she was engaged to someone else at the time). They married six weeks later and were together for 52 years before she died at 74 from lung cancer. This came after her twice-bout with breast cancer. Which came some years after her uterine cancer.

This was my mom about two years into her fight with lung cancer.

No surprise that my mother was a fighter. As a teen during WWII, she pumped gas at the local station in Fort Kent, Maine because all the men were at war. This allowed her time to also serve as a look-out for potential bombers that might invade America airspace. After marrying my dad, she began a trek around the world, following my dad as his civil engineer career with GE took them all over the country—and eventually outside the U.S. My dad would come home from work one day and announce that we were moving. My mom would call the moving company, organize my sister’s and my school and medical documents, and off we would go. By the time I got to 7th grade, I had lived in New York state (a couple of times), California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut, and Kentucky. My mother fought to have my sister and me get into the best classes, and be welcomed into whatever community we would descend upon. I still remember her fury when we moved to Louisville and attended the local Presbyterian church that first Sunday. It was, apparently, “promotion Sunday” and all the little kids were getting new white Bibles. I lined up for my Bible. My mother was incredulous that there wasn’t one for me (“You’d think they’d have extras for visitors”). As an 8-year-old, I’ve got to say,  it was sort of inspirational watching my mother “having words” with the Sunday school teacher that day. I really shouldn’t have been surprised. You should have seen her when we lived in Connecticut and she discovered that I had been ostracized by my second grade teacher because I was left handed and used a fat pencil. (I also wrote upside down, but that’s a different story.)

My sister and me when we lived in Oregon. (Haircuts courtesy of my mother, of course.)

Even though we moved all the time, my mother always managed to find a job as a nurse. When we moved to upstate New York for the third and final time so my sister and I could have a bit of stability during high school, my mother got a job as a nurse in the burgeoning field of nuclear medicine.  Back in those days, nuclear medicine was risky. Just about every single patient my mother took care of died. There were lots of radiation spills in the labs and my mom was always the one who had to go and clean them up. She was on call a lot. When she would get the call, I would typically ask, “Hey, Mom, when will you be home?” And, far too often she would answer, “Depends on when the patient dies.”

My mom was not the ooey-gooey kind of mom who was often portrayed as the ideal. Rather, she was a no-nonsense, take-what-you-get-and-go-with-it kind of mother. She would nurse my sister and me back to health without complaint. When we each contracted the mumps and the measles together–at the same time–my mom simply told us to stop scratching and stay strong. I was 4 and my sister was 6.  By the time I was in college, my parents started moving outside the U.S. While living in Mexico City, my mom was asked to host a dinner party for Lady Bird Johnson. Mom was an innovative cook, which was a good thing because she didn’t have any of her good dishes with her in their city apartment. What she did have was beautiful, hand-crafted pots for her plants. Without missing a beat, she served an array of delicious casseroles to Lady Bird that day.

Mom worked in nuclear medicine until she retired to North Carolina with my dad. By then, she was already on her second round of breast cancer. Through it all, she continued to help others and make us all laugh.  She used her nursing skills to care for herself during her recovery from her second surgery. I remember calling her one day, asking if I could come visit to help her. She responded, “Well, you can come up if you want to go shopping with me but I’m not sitting around at home.”

By the time she got lung cancer (she never smoked a cigarette), it looked like she might have met her match. But always the researcher, she tried experimental drugs (one of which is now on the market as a way to prolong quality of life in lung cancer patients), she had surgery at Sloan Kettering (after convincing surgeons that she was a good risk), and she stayed positive. Until the time came where she decided that the ratio of quality of life had tipped in the wrong direction. She stopped medication. And she died shortly after.

During this pandemic, I am reminded that it was nurses who took care of my mother during her last days. Years after my mom died, I was taking a flight to a conference in FL, and in an unbelievable coincidence, ended up sitting next to the nurse who took care of my mother when she died. (I had not been there because I was out of the country at the time.) The nurse told me how appreciative my mother was of the care that she was getting. “Well, my mom was a nurse, so she knew.”

Yes. My mom was a nurse. She took care of people. She put her own health at risk in order to do her job. Working in nuclear medicine most likely had something to do with my mother’s multiple cancer diagnoses. I don’t know if she thought this at the time. But it probably wouldn’t have mattered.

So, I’m thinking of my mom today. I’m thinking of what she would have to say about the virus. I’m thinking of what she would have to say about the nurses putting their own lives at risk to care for others. I know what she would say to them. “Thank you.”


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I Went on a Cruise. By Myself.

Yeah, so I thought that was the story. And then the COVID-19 crisis got real.

The virus was just starting to rear its ugly head in my little world of academe while I counted the days until spring break. First, there were the students who told me their spring break plans included hopping on cheap flights to Europe to party with their study abroad friends who were being called back to the U.S. (So much for social distancing.) Then there was the reality that I had to cancel my travel writing and photography class in Rome in May—which meant my Italian vacation afterwards was also doubtful.

With future plans uncertain, I drove down to Fort Lauderdale to take the last cruise on Holland America’s Nieuw Statendam. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know it would be the ship’s last hurrah for the foreseeable future. I just thought it was going to be a run-of-the-mill “Hey, I’m going on a cruise by myself!” experience.

The first hint that this cruise would be different from my others was at embarkation.  I stood in line with 2,300 other passengers as we all waited to get our temperatures taken. It took an hour, but no one seemed to mind. Plus, I liked the idea of starting this cruise with some assurances that everyone was healthy.

Once on board, all the usual excitement before sail-away was in full swing. I explored the ship. I unpacked. I attended the mandatory muster drill. I met my friendly room stewards. Then, finally, it was time to literally sail into the sunset as the captain turned the bow toward the Caribbean. We all seemed blissfully unaware of the rough seas to come.

The calm before the storm.

A few hours later, the captain warned us that “weather” was approaching. And it would be turbulent. Even with the stabilizers, the ship rocked and rolled for a couple of days. And then finally by the third day, the sea was becalm. And all was right with the world.

Except of course, it wasn’t. Because, while the seas may have calmed in the Caribbean, the rough seas at home were only beginning.

Being alone on a cruise would be interesting in normal times, but navigating my feelings in uncharted territory made me feel distant and helpless in ways I hadn’t experienced before.  

The ship had live TV so I was able to watch the economy go belly up right before my eyes. What else was happening at home? I’d simply have to wait until we docked somewhere and I could get an Internet connection. I found it in the Dominican Republic at a café while I sipped pineapple juice. A WhatsApp call to the hubster brought me up to date quickly. 1. He made to it to our new apartment in Paducah (so we could stop relying on Airbnbs during house renovations). 2. The air mattress was okay, but I could have sent a few more dishes.  3. My university has shut down. Oh, and 4. A car ran pell-mell into our front yard, knocking out our side front metal fence, a front brick pillar, a crepe myrtle, and a few other things. But, no worries: we were still having the open house.

So, all that happened the week I took a cruise by myself.  The juxtaposition of tranquility and chaos was profound. This was my 6th cruise with Holland America. I’ve always appreciated the low-key (some might say boring) approach to cruising with HAL, but never was it more appreciated than in the middle of a galactic meltdown.

Docking in Key West was lovely. It’s hard to grasp a pandemic when this is your view.

For no logical reason, I’ve wondered what it would be like to take a cruise by myself.  As cruises go, it was pretty much everything I had hoped it might be (except for the world-wide plague). I met some interesting people, but not too many. I ate all my meals by myself and it didn’t seem weird. The food was spectacular. I think it’s been the best I’ve ever eaten on a HAL ship. Many of the crew throughout the ship called me by name and always wanted to know how I was faring being all alone.

I’ve written before about the good and the bad of taking a cruise, and I’ve got to say that the last cruise of the Nieuw Statendam was spectacular.

I’ve been home a week now. It’s mind-boggling how life has changed. I’m washing my hands a lot. I’m staying six feet away from everyone. I’m working in the virtual world, attending virtual university meetings, posting virtual lectures, pretending that I know what I’m doing in this new topsy-turvy world. I’m not looking at our retirement funds. And I’m trying to grapple with the fact that I may have to work longer than I hoped. I’m praying for all the small business owners out there who are on the verge of losing everything.  I’m trying hard not to be too sad that I’m not going to teach in Italy in May. I’m adjusting to take-out options.   

I may be losing my grip, but I’m still holding on to hope. One of my favorite books of the Bible is Ecclesiastes for its practical and, often, blunt advice. Here’s my verse for today: “But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” One thing COVID-19 has shown me is that we, indeed are “joined with the living.” Rich or poor, educated or dumb as dirt, Republican or Democrat.

So, there’s really nothing to do but carry on. I continue to teach and do all the other things a professor does. I’m still studying Italian believing that I will get back there sooner than later. I’m remembering my lovely serene solo cruise of just a few days ago. And, I’m planning the next one.


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Change, Change, Change.

It’s Saturday morning. The sun peaks above the horizon. The egrets leave their nighttime perches and line up for a trip to who knows where. It’s dead calm outside. A perfect morning for a row on Battery Creek, near downtown Beaufort, SC. This is a course I have rowed for about a decade. Meandering and beautiful—especially during a calm morning at slack tide. Exactly like this morning. Most likely a couple of 8+s will launch with varying skill levels, but filled with a highly enthusiastic gaggle of rowers. These are my people.

Who wouldn’t want to row in these waters?

Except this morning, I’m not there. Looks like I won’t be there next weekend, either. It’s hard to type these words, let alone say them out loud, but here goes. I’m not rowing now. I have to add the word “now,” because I want to leave a crack in the rowing door open. You know, just in case something changes.

But I guess I have finally owned up to the reality. Life is going in a different direction for me now and it’s time I acknowledge that.

It was a slow realization. Multiple hurricanes and a horrendous flood disrupted my rowing opportunities for a while. Then came the fateful morning row when I felt something not-quite-right in my left hamstring, resulting in a ginormous hematoma around my sitz bones, which made sitting in a rowing shell beyond painful. (And, thus, contributed to my decision to sell my racing shell.)  The achalasia diagnosis upended all sorts of parts of my life as well, not the least of which, was rowing.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad things that pushed rowing toward the bottom of the priority pile. Discovering an obsession with travelling to Italy meant limited rowing time in the summer. Buying a Big Brick House in Paducah, KY, for the restoration project of a lifetime grabbed the rest of the summer (and, perhaps, all the summers to come!). Discovering other fun things to do during spring break, like traversing Caribbean islands on a cruise ship, took away another prime week. And, so it continued, until I realized I wasn’t rowing very much. And, turns out, I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I would.

Even if I’m not rowing, I am drawn to water. The Tiber River in Rome is no exception.

So. I guess I’m a former rower now. After about 20 years, it’s hard to say good-bye. But it’s time. So, goodbye, and thanks to my four rowing clubs.

Beaufort Rowing Club. These rowers are the best. Some of their technique might drive me nuts, but I so appreciate how accepting this club has been to me—and to anyone who wants to row here. Other clubs should emulate BRC. Thanks for letting me be a part of this club for 10 years, Ken, Paul, Judy, Bill and the rest.

Columbia Rowing Club. The hubster and I wouldn’t have moved to SC for my job if there hadn’t been a rowing club in Columbia. I fondly remember the evening rows in my single with my rowing buddy, Laura. And, I loved rowing the quad with John, Marty and Brenda. We had some serious moments of run.

Nashville Rowing Club. Helping to start this club was hard work. But when you want to row and there is no one to row with, you do what you have to do. The club is now huge and doing incredibly well, but back in 2005, all there was, was me, and an old 4+ that I purchased sight unseen from Georgia Tech. How I found Erika, Joy, and Stephanie to row in that 4+ with me remains a mystery, but it was a time of magical rowing in a less-than-desirable situation. Erika was an emergency room orthopedic surgeon who would come to an early morning practice after operating all night. She was the most competitive rower I have ever had the privilege of knowing. As the stroke, Erika took us to places I didn’t even know were possible. Sitting at #3, Joy was a surgical resident at Vanderbilt and former varsity Virginia rower who was over 6 feet tall. Her schedule left no time for rowing, but somehow, she showed up enough times that we were able to practice for the Head of the Hooch head race. This is the only time I have rowed behind a woman taller than me. Rowing behind Joy was, well, a Joy. And then there was the bow, Stephanie, a recent Vandy grad, who barely pushed 5 feet. I still can’t figure out how she rowed like a tall person, but that girl rowed long. No question that at #2, I was the weak link in the boat, but these women didn’t complain. Maybe it was because I owned the boat. Or, maybe it was because, for whatever reason, when we rowed together, we flew.

Carolina Masters. And, this leads me to the Carolina Masters, my club in Chapel Hill, NC, where my rowing career began. I am thankful to a former student (and university rower) who encouraged me to go to a Learn-to-Row clinic because she thought I “looked like a rower.” I’m thankful to Julie, our volunteer coach, who was patient and encouraging, and helped me realize that I could be a decent rower. And, Ruth, who rowed in the pair with me in the dead of winter when no one was all that excited to row with me.  And the other Julie who also rowed in the pair with me when she didn’t have to. And all the rowers who were a part of those exciting years of racing—especially that second place nail-biter of a race at the Hooch.

You can see in our faces how seriously we took racing. In this boat, I had the privilege to row behind Julie, the best coach I ever had.
We were just a few seconds behind the #1 boat, but it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had racing. Standing on the podum for the medal ceremony was fun too!

And, then there’s Patti, my rowing soulmate. Patti and I were starting to become friends when I asked her if she might be interested in taking a road trip with me to Maine to pick up a single—an old restored wooden racing shell from the ‘70s. I didn’t even know how to row a single yet, but somehow, we both thought this was an excellent idea. We drove from Chapel Hill to Thomaston, Maine, and back again in four days with a stop in Philadelphia to pick up a former Olympian’s rowing shell that needed restoring. Having never transported a boat before, starting in Philly, and driving through cities like New York and Boston was challenging to say the least, but Patti never doubted for a minute that I could do it. We talked about everything over those four days (and, I mean EVERYTHING).  From that trip on, we drove together to racing venues, rowed side by side in our singles during our weekly “chat and rows,” talked about rowing until there was nothing left to say about rowing—and then talked about it some more. For me, rowing means Patti. And it always will.

Patti and I were frezzing in between our races, but that didn’t keep us from have a blast.

I guess you can tell that rowing has had an impact on my life. But, as I’ve been learning recently, just because you love something doesn’t mean that it must stay the same. Living at the beach part of each week, I see the ocean, the beach, and the tidal creeks. They are ever changing whether by erosion, storms, king tides, or anything else that nature throws. We have a lot of birds on Harbor Island, but they change, too.  Sometimes, it’s the ospreys who capture our attention. Sometimes it’s the pelicans perched at the Harbor Bridge. Now, it’s the migrating birds who join us for winter.

We change, too. I love rowing. But I guess I love other things more now. And, that’s okay. I used to think Aretha Franklin’s classic song was called “Change, Change, Change.” Okay, so I understand now that “Change of Fools” makes no sense whatsoever, but still, “change, change, change” could—and perhaps, should—be our anthem.  Bob Dylan once said that there is “nothing so stable as change.” And with that, I say The Beat Goes On.


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I Left My Heart (Not in San Francisco).

As many of you know, I am an academic. As a professor in a school of journalism and mass communications, one of the rights of passage at the end of the summer is to attend our annual conference, hosted by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC).  I started going to this conference in 1993. Over the decades, I have presented refereed papers, sat on panels, gone to untold business meetings, and served in just about every leadership role available, including president of the organization a decade ago. I never missed.  One year, I even requested my daughter move her wedding by a week so it wouldn’t conflict. Rumor has it I phrased the dilemma as “Oh, Grace, I’d hate to miss your wedding because I was at the conference!” One of the best parts of the week-long event is reconnecting with colleagues around the country.  This year, even my new book was on display! Exciting times.

Except, I wasn’t there. And I probably won’t be there next year. In fact, most likely I’ll never go to the AEJMC annual conference again. While this news won’t cause any seismic ripples around the world, it’s rather earth-shattering (or at least earth-quivering) to me. I think it means my heart is focused on other endeavors.

It’s just a few more days before the new semester begins. Um, sure, I’m looking forward to the new academic year. It’s just that I really, really, really liked my summer and I’m not quite ready to give it up. The (not so) lazy days of summer started off, of course, in Italy.  Then we came home for 10 days (split between the beach and the city), then one month in Paducah, KY, working on the Carriage House and Big Brick House. A week of visiting relatives in Minnesota and Wisconsin followed. Then the loooonng two-day drive back to South Carolina.

And, now, here I sit at the beach for my last week of summer vacation, thinking about, well, the things I’m thinking about.

My heart is back in Italy. How could it not be? Six weeks split between Rome and Meta di Sorrento. Eating pasta, drinking wine, walking everywhere, daily trips to the grocery, staring at the sea, toasting the sunset (with more wine of course!), and just general soaking up every little ounce of every little tidbit of belissima l’italia! (I’m already checking flight schedules for next year.)

I will never get tired of watching the sun set on the Tyrrhenian Sea.

My heart is also in Paducah. For the entire month of July, the hubster and I poured concrete, wielded jack hammers, pried nails out of lumber with crowbars (which I redubbed “cry bars” and with good reason), took down, put up, measured, sawed, and did just about everything else a person can do in the summer heat while working on renovations of a 100-year old house. By the end of the month, more than one waitperson recognized us at our favorite restaurants (amazingly, little Paducah has a bunch of great eateries!) and people around town knew about “that couple from South Carolina who bought the big brick house.” As we labored, we talked about the possibilities of using the Big Brick House as a seasonal small bed and breakfast establishment. Certainly, something to contemplate as we consider life beyond our current careers.

So this might not look scary, but I am up high, doing carpentry things
that are way out of my wheelhouse.

My heart is also in Minneapolis where our adult kids and happy grandchildren live. Seeing our daughter and son-in-law’s thriving pottery business, Studio2Ceramics (why, yes, they are on social media and they send pottery nation-wide), makes this entrepreneur-minded mom happy. And spending time with my son and daughter-in-law’s kids is always delightful (albeit, exhausting!).

Just helping to clean the bottom of one batch of pre-fired mugs was intense. The least you all could do is buy a mug from Studio2Ceramics!

But my heart is also at the beach.  And, given that we have our beloved beach house on the market, my heart feels particularly vulnerable right now. We need to sell this house so we can move forward with some of the big expenses of the Paducah house. But I also hate to think about not taking a walk on the beach whenever I want. Or even just sitting on the front porch drinking coffee while watching the egrets fly hither and yon. I love my beach, rowing, and church friends in Beaufort, I love singing in the choir, I love having Sunday lunch on the river front. I even love our Publix here.

This selfie of me with our former choir director and organ maestro captures what I think about singing in the choir.

And, now, I have to get up the gumption and search for a piece of my heart that can still find joy in university life.  I’m not going to lie. It may be an extra challenge this year. Our beloved university president has retired. The Board of Trustees then made some zany decisions over the summer while faculty and students were conveniently away that may make all our jobs a little less joyful. I hope I’m proved wrong. But, in the meantime, I muse about the summer as I contemplate the future. There’s a lot to think about. But, as that great philosopher Dr. Seuss said, “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!” Okay. I’ll try. Right after I grab my coffee and settle into the rocking chair, listening for the waves to tell me the tide is coming in.


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Things I Simply Don’t Understand About Italy

This is my fourth time to visit Italy. I have now spent well over 100 days in this country and I look forward to the next 100 days over the next couple of years. After teaching a study abroad class in Rome, the hubster and I are tucked in at Meta, a small town just two train stops from Sorrento. To say I am obsessed with Italy might be a bit of an understatement. In many ways (and I’m not sure why), it feels like home.

Still. From an American’s perspective, anyway, Italy has some odd quirks that I simply don’t understand. Here is my list (in no particular order).

Coffee. I love coffee. Italy is known for its coffee so this seems like a no-brainer. But, non e’ vero! To me, coffee should both satisfy the caffeine fix—and serve as a beverage. Is that too much to ask? In Italy, yes. First, understand that you pay for your coffee by the cup. And by cup, I mean a teeny, weeny hint of a cup. One swig and you’re done. If you want something a bit larger, try a cappuccino, but Heaven help the American who tries to order one in the afternoon. Cappuccinos in Italy are works of art, but still, they are made with a touch of coffee and a whole lot of foam. So, again, a swig or two and you’re done.

I might have conquered the Italian espresso maker but I don’t understand it.

The apartment we’re living in this summer is huge. It sleeps five, but it contains one espresso maker. As in one coffee maker to make one itsy bitsy espresso for one person. I’ve at least figured out a way I can get two (small) cups of regular coffee out of this Lilliputian contraption. While it’s perking, I boil a pot of water so I can pour half of the (okay, yes, quite delicious) espresso into a cup and fill the rest with water. Caffe Americano! It’s a labor of love, but at least I can get a morning beverage. (Now, if I repeat this three times, I will have had my morning coffee.)

Bathrooms. C’mon, Italy. You can do better. I’ll let you have the bidet, although I simply do not understand this contraption other than it takes up too much space in small Italian bathrooms. But, why do the showers have to be so small? Our shower in our apartment doesn’t even have doors that close, which means that after you shower, you have to use towels to dry the floor. Public bathrooms are even more confusing. Why do so many Italian public bathrooms include missing toilet lids? The design of the toilet shows that it calls for a lid, so did someone, somewhere, decide that Italians can’t trust tourists with toilet lids? Of things to swipe to take home as souvenirs, I wouldn’t think toilet lids would top the list.

Street Noise. In every Italian town we have visited over the years, the noise on the street is LOUD. Even the quaint towns with only local traffic have way-too loud noises. Italian towns are built in stone, so noise reverberates off the postcard-worthy buildings. Add to that the barking dogs, the Italian mamas yelling at their Italian bambini, the teammates of the local Italian soccer club yelling at each other just because they can I suppose (we hear this every night), the motorcycles weaving through the narrow streets all day (and night) long, and the street sweeper cleaning the streets every morning, it’s hard to get away from the noise. From pictures, Italian towns look quiet. Rest assured, they are not.

This is the lock to our front door in Meta.

Obsession with Security. All the Italians I’ve met have assured me how safe Italy is. And I feel safe in Italy. Back home, I never walk alone around my town at night. But, while in Italy, nessun problema. Given how late the morning starts, the three to four-hour riposa in the afternoon, and the evening, which begins around 6, if you don’t walk around at night, you are basically stuck at home the whole day. However, as safe as Italy feels, locked gates barricade every home. Each front door has a deadbolt system that would rival any New York City walk-up. Every first-floor window has steel bars on them. I’ll tell you. No one is getting into your home.

This is the view from our terrace in Meta.
This is also the view from our terrace.

Juxtaposition of Squalor and Splendor. Like any tourist, I want my pictures on Facebook to look pretty. So, I post the sea view. The lemon groves. The bucolic vistas. But for every lemon grove in Sorrento, you can see an empty lot strewn with trash. For every winding street, you can find another right next to it packed with garbage, junk, and all sorts of gross things. (Speaking of garbage, every day is a different recycling day, which means basically, that refuse sits out on the street, waiting for pick up, every single day.) For every great masterpiece, you can find 10 times the amount of graffiti. The graffiti is so bad that most of the village names at each stop on the Circumvesuviana local train from Napoli to Sorrento are grafitti-covered and unreadable. Which is challenging giving the train stops for about 30 seconds before moving on to the next village.

Pizza. Pizza in Italy is ridiculously delicious (especially near Naples). It is also ridiculously cheap. Last night, I chose the Marinara pizza (tomatoes and basil). It was huge. It cost 3.50 euros. The hubster splurged and ordered a Margherita (tomatoes, mozzarella and basil) and added olives and eggplant. His totalled 4.50.  The dichotomy of pizza prices compared to the cost of one cup of coffee, water, bread, or just about anything else on the menu does not make the least bit of sense to me. Seems to me that Italy could erase its economic woes just by charging tourists double for their pizzas. I don’t think we’d even notice. 

But I’m not going to complain about cheap pizza. In fact, I’m not really going to complain about anything in Italy. Just because I don’t understand much of it, doesn’t mean I’m dissatisfied. I like the confusion of Italy. I like that my wash takes hours and that I have to wait additional multiple hours for it to air dry (this also explains why laundry is always hanging outside in Italian homes). I like that I need to ask the grocery guy to select my vegetables because, apparently, you do not touch the produce. I like that I can basically mix anything together in a pan, cook it for a long while, mix in pasta, and have a rather delicious meal. I like that we buy our wine from the wine guy down the street and pay 4 euros for 3 liters of wine. I like that we relax in Italy.

Resting. Eating the best food in the universe. Drinking excellent wine. Walking everywhere. Repeat. So maybe I do understand a bit. Amo l’Italia!


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The Adventure Begins!

A few weeks ago, we drove 10 hours to Paducah, KY, checked into our Airbnb, and began what we think we will come to call The Challenge of a Lifetime. As I wrote in my last post, we bought a Big Brick House, basically sight unseen. It was now time to come to terms with that decision.

Gary had seen the house after closing in October. But, for me, this was the first time to open the door, look around, and absorb the enormity of what we had done. I was rendered nearly speechless as our decision started to sink in. What. Were. We. Thinking?

I walked through the carriage house (1,700 square feet), trying to imagine the apartment we would build on the top floor and the workshop Gary would build on the lower floor. Then I walked over to the Big Brick House (4,200 square feet. And, yes, I realize that we’re supposed to be in the “downsizing” stage of our lives.). I paced back and forth trying to make sense of this behemoth we had bought. Then I realized I hadn’t even gone upstairs yet. Once on the second floor, I gazed upward into the attic. It’s possible that I gasped. Thoughts like “You could build a whole gymnasium up there” crossed my mind. Dumbfounded, I walked around the house again. Upstairs. Downstairs. Front. Back. Upstairs. Oh, and did I mention there is a basement?

And then, after about 48 hours, I started to see it. Our house! First, in the apartment, I saw the open concept plan (thank you Property Brothers). I saw me sitting on the porch with my morning coffee. I saw where I’d be baking pies. It took longer over in the Big House, but, there too, I saw the kitchen with the exposed brick walls, the cheery living room with the funky fireplace, the tucked away suite where the hubster and I would escape. And once I saw it, I was ready to attack.

First up, the house needed a bit of cleaning. I started by trying to sweep dirt, spider webs, and unnamed gross things out of the spaces between the joists and the brick walls. I scraped off layers of wallpaper on wall fragments that hadn’t been removed.

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Whew. I’m glad this is not the style today! I think my wallpaper days are over!

The hubster and I loaded the car with items strewn around the house that we knew we wouldn’t be using in the rebuild. An old, but not antique crib. A car full (yes, we completely filled the CR-V) of chandeliers. Off to Goodwill we went.

Now I was getting downright excited.  But this is not to say that things moved quickly or easily. They did not.

First, it was crazy cold outside—and also inside since we don’t have heating yet. It’s not easy working with tools with frozen hands or while wearing fluffy gloves.

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Ripping up floors is invigorating. But doing so in winter clothing is challenging!

Second, learning how things worked in the town took some time. We needed to find out about the trash, start the process of getting building permits, figure out how to pay our taxes, try to get the house reappraised. Getting a library card was fairly simple, but from there it got a little bit nuts. We were late in paying our city taxes because we weren’t sent a bill. We were sent a blank envelope from the city, but nothing else. That took a while to explain (and to successfully argue why we shouldn’t pay a penalty for neglecting to pay our taxes). And, just understanding city taxes took some mental gymnastics. Turns out, you pay half of the taxes for the previous year and half of the taxes for the upcoming year. At the same time. Okay.

Our trash bill is part of our water bill. Uh, okay. Recycling costs extra—and recycling is limited. If we want leaves and small brush to be picked up, that’s part of the trash bill, but you have to call and talk to an actual person to arrange for this—every time. I did this for one bag of leaves and a small pile of brush. The phone conversation took about 10 minutes while I answered all the nice lady’s questions. All the while I’m thinking, well, lots of people have their leaves and brush on the curb. Can’t the leaf guy just pick it up when he drives by? (The answer to this is no. You have to call.)

You get your main building permit in the Fire Prevention Office. And you get your plumbing permit at the County Health Department. The plumbing inspector’s office is just down the hallway where people get their HIV vaccines.

I can report, however, that you do, indeed, get your library card at the library.

The good news is that we ended up spending 12 eventful days working on the Big Brick House and getting to know this community we have decided to join. Our Paducah friend Marcie returned from her London study abroad trip in time to spend a few days with us, introducing us to people we should know, running errands, sharing meals. And laughing as we do every time we are together.

This is just the beginning. The task is unending and will be that way for a long time. But that’s okay. I can see the house in my eyes. It is beautiful. And it is Home!

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I know we have a lot of work ahead of us. But that’s the fun! (Or at least I hope so!)


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We Bought a House.

Yes, we already own two houses. But, well, this one was special.

Driving back to South Carolina after our yearly summer trip to Minnesota to see the kids, we stopped to visit our friend Marcie who lives near Paducah, KY.  And that’s when it hit us. Paducah was exactly half way between our Minneapolis family and our home in SC. If we lived in Paducah, we could drive up to visit the grandkids in one day. And maybe they would even visit us!

With those thoughts swimming in our brains, we took a little stroll down beautiful historic Jefferson Street. And there it was. The Big Brick House. In the front yard was a sign that said “For Sale” but there was no phone number, no name, no information, nothing. Still, we jumped out of the car to take a look.  I clamored up the front steps and peered through one of the three front French doors. Flailing my arms, I turned around screaming “It’s gutted!”

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Here is our Big Brick House!

While not everyone’s dream, for us, this was a miracle. We had often talked about how great it would be if some day we could find a house where the outside was complete, but the inside was a blank slate just waiting for us.  And here it was! But how to get information to find out if it was really for sale, let alone if we could afford it.

During the next several weeks, Marcie tried to find people who knew the owner. We heard the house might be for sale, but, apparently, out of our price range until we sold our beach house. Then we heard that a couple of people had started a bidding war over the house. We could feel the dream vanishing.

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Our Living Room with original fireplace tile made right in Paducah.

We had to do something. So, we put our beach house on the market with plans that the minute it sold, we would head up to Paducah and find the perfect house, if not the Big Brick House, something as exciting. We even connected with a real estate agent.

And then it happened. Our real estate agent found someone who knew the owner. For whatever reason, our agent and the reclusive owner connected and the next thing we knew, there was a chance that we could buy it: The Big Brick House, which also included a carriage house and a three-car garage. We had to act fast. Word had gotten out that the owner might be ready to sell and already someone was lined up to view the house that afternoon. So, we called our realtor and said we would buy the house (even though we hadn’t sold the beach house). Right then. Without actually stepping foot inside. And that’s what we did.

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Can’t you see the possibilities?

T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Home is where one starts from.” That’s what The Big Brick House feels like to us. It seems like our whole remodeling lives have led to this house.  We still can’t quite believe that this worked out. It will take years of work, we know. But we’re ready. As Plato said, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” We bought a house. We have begun.

 

 

 

 

 


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Cooking 4th of July Dinner When in Italy

Those who know me, know that on the 4th, it’s an all-out summer cooking extravaganza. Lots of variety of salads (pasta, potato and fruit are always on the menu) as well as some kind of fresh fish. And always the legendary blueberry pie. Our friend, Marcie, is always there to help us celebrate (and to cook!).

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Last year, our Marcie celebration of the Fourth was in high gear!

Well. Here we are in Italy on the 4th. Since Marcie’s gone back to the States, we have invited our apartment owners over to experience a good-old fashioned American Independence Day Meal. However, shortly after the invitation, a couple of challenges  emerged.

No blueberries. Okay, so I’ll switch to an apple pie. That’s about as American as it gets. No Granny Smith apples. Oops. I’ll improvise. No brown sugar. Okay, let’s go with miele (honey). But, when I get to the flour section of the Jumbo Supermercato, I know I’m really in for it. A gazillion choices for flour, but nothing that says anything remotely like “all purpose.” Instead, I see endless varieties of pasta flour and pizza flour. I make a choice (having no idea what kind of flour I am actually getting) and move on.

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An endless supply of pasta flours left me really confused!

When I get back to the apartment, I realize I also have no measuring cups—and most importantly, no pie plate. This is going to be interesting.

There are a couple of good finds, however. Kraft mayo. Dijon mustard. American potato salad is a go. However, these are the only “American” foods I find.  If I’ve learned one thing about Italy during my time here, it’s that it is important to be flexible. For example, here’s how we get our food:

Tomatoes. We walk a little over a mile into a neighborhood and enter what looks to be a random neighbor’s house. The house is modern in a McMansion kind of way. We walk down the driveway to the back of the house, past the carport of BMWs, to find the tractor with the fresh-picked vegetables. Two stereotypically good-looking, tanned Italian 20-somethings (in bathing suits, no less!) help us with our order.  We buy about five pounds of tomatoes. The most delicious, vine-ripe tomatoes. Two Euros.

Water. We walk up a hill to the back side of the town and find the “water station.” There we put our jugs under the spigot and pay 5 cents per liter for frizzante (fuzzy) water.

Pasta. We walk the opposite way down the main road (Viale Roma as in “all roads lead to Rome”) and buy a couple of days’ worth of pasta, including fantastic ravioli filled with ricotta and spinach. We tell the counter person what kind of pasta shape we want, and he cuts it right there.

Bread and Cheese. On Tuesdays, we go to the weekly market and purchase our weeks’ worth of cheese, bread and random vegetables. We’ve been there twice now and already have seen an increase in what gets thrown into our bags because we are returning customers.

Gelato. In the evenings, usually instead of dinner, we walk down Viale Roma to what is now our “regular” gelateria. We gave up on our first place because the owner seemed more interested in keeping the regular card game of a group of men going than serving us gelato.

This evening, even though it might be a little unconventional, we will have some sort of 4th of July celebration. My pie (cooked in a torta pan) is a little odd looking, but I hope it will be tasty. I’m confident about the potato salad, less confident about the shrimp and pea salad (made with frozen shrimp because those were the only ones without the heads on). The farmer’s tomatoes will take up space on the plate—and will be red. At least one of the items will be patriotic.

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Without a pie pan, I had to be flexible. But, for the most part, it worked out.

Postscript. Our American 4th of July dinner in Italy is complete. Our dinner guests enjoyed eating American potato salad and while a bit confused about the pie, they seemed to like it.  I’m not the most patriotic person out there, but I am definitely glad I am an American. Since our Italian is basic and our guests’ English (while way better than our Italian) has gaps, discussing the history of our country was exhausting.  But, it was also lovely to have a concrete example that demonstrates no matter where we’re from, we have a lot more in common than we may think. Felice Quarto,  tutti!

 

 

 

 


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Far from the Maddening (Tourist) Crowd

As of today, I have been in Italy for four weeks with three more weeks to go. After spending time in the crowded, tourist-teeming cities of Bologna, Florence and Rome, the hubster and I are now tucked in at a little Italian town near the Adriatic Sea.

A common thread I heard throughout my early weeks in Italy was about finding the “non-tourist” restaurants, the coffee shops where the “locals hang out,” the places where “real Italians” shop, walk, eat, you name it.

American tourists are an interesting bunch. Florence, in particular, is overrun with American college students on their first study abroad experience, which means they tend to move in a pack with their fellow American students. I watched them eat American French fries, share a pizza (c’mon, order your own pizza!), ask for more ice for their Diet Cokes.

I, too, found myself searching for the “non-tourist” parts of the city.

But, here’s the thing. Tourism provides the mechanism for the  interesting non-tourist places to visit in these towns. Tourism is what makes these cities flourish. For example, during our last day in Rome, we took a tour of the Vatican. It was a tourist-crushing experience to say the least. Sure, I saw the Sistine Chapel, but it was difficult to truly appreciate Michelangelo’s talent when we were packed in like sardines (and we were on a “skip the crowds” tour) while we were just trying not to suffocate. Craning our collective necks to gaze at the ceiling provided work for the tour guides, the guards periodically yelling “Silenzio!,” the refreshment hawkers at the museum entrance, the gelato sellers near the fountains, the Airbnb apartment owners near the Vatican, the ristorante owner around the corner, the taxi drivers waiting at Borgo Santo Spiritus, and on and on.

Even the small “authentic” villages of “old” Italy depend on tourism. Cortona, for example, is a fantastic village to visit with lots of lovely shops and restaurants. The town thrives because tourists have read the book or seen the movie, Under the Tuscan Sun, and they want to experience the authenticity for themselves.  (When I was there last year, I was ready to buy a house on the spot.)

You can stay at a quaint agritourismo (and we have!) to experience the authentic Italian country way of life. Except most likely the other guests at the agritourismo will be Americans or Canadians (and an occasional Australian). Tourism has allowed those with these lovely farmhouses to eke out a living.

Rick Steves has been both celebrated and criticized for bringing tourism to previously little visited areas like the Cinque Terre, which now is nearly impossible to visit without stifling crowds.

But what about the towns untouched by tourism?

Currently, the hubster and I are in Nereto, a small town about 10 miles from the Adriatic Sea. It’s in the province of Abruzzo, a strikingly beautiful area of mountains, hills, blue skies. While it is hot and humid back in South Carolina, here in Nereto, it is in the mid-70s with low humidity. We have all the windows of our apartment open and I am wearing a sweater.

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This is the view of the hills outside Nereto.

There is not a single tourist in this town except for us. When we walk the streets, people look at us strangely. Surely, they know we don’t belong here, but they don’t seem overly curious about us. No one speaks English, but we know enough Italian now that we can order in restaurants (there only appears to be three here), can tell the grocery check-out person that we don’t need a bag, and can ask directions if we need to. Then again, we don’t need to because this town is so small, you can’t get lost.

But, I wouldn’t call Nereto quaint. Actually, I don’t know what I’d call it. It seems to be a town that had an idea for improvement and innovation, but somewhere along the way, it forgot about the master plan (if ever there was one). There are some beautifully renovated homes (where we’re staying is one of them), but lots of abandoned buildings, stores that are closed, others that we can’t really tell if they are open or closed.

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The old blends with the new in Nereto. It’s hard to tell what is in the process of being renovated.

The Jumbo Super Mercato is quite modern with lots of choices at excellent prices. Cars fly through the town to go who knows where. As I write, there is a week-long “beer fest” in the town square that includes a couple of hours of not great music in the evening (which we can hear even with all the windows closed), a bizarre bouncy house contraption, and some horribly cheap toys and other junk to purchase. A beer fest doesn’t sound very Italian to me, but who’s to say?

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Here is a half-built apartment building in Nereto that seems to be abandoned.

When you get right down to it, what does the average American know about Italy, anyway? Ask 100 Americans who have been to Italy where they went, and I’ll bet they’ll answer some combination of Florence, Rome, Venice, Cinque Terre, Tuscany and the Amalfi Coast. But what about all the other places without the amazing art, or spectacular duomos, or tantalizing beaches?

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There might not be any amazing art or duomos in Nereto, but it still has some beauty.

This is my third time to visit Italy. I have been working hard every day for the past 18 months to learn Italian. I suppose I am getting better at it, but the more I talk, the more I realize how basic my language skills actually are. Come to think of it, that’s a lot like spending time in another country. The longer I’m here, the more I realize I don’t know Italy at all.   I’ve heard plenty of tourists say things like “I did Italy last year.” Well, I’ve got news for them. They didn’t.

Meanwhile, as I try to get my head around what I’m doing here, I’m settling in, figuring out the rhythm, drinking wine. Writing. And cooking pasta. Non che male!