My Year Away. And Back.

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


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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!

 

 


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Everyone Moves. A Walking Tour of Florence

I am in Italy for most of the summer. I am traveling to big cities and small villages. Today I am in Florence.  The city moves. And we move with it. Tourists and Florentines, moving with an uneasy, yet familiar, flow. I first notice the tourists. The city teems with them. Many are college age. How did Florence become the playground for American students?

Upon closer look, the walking tour I am taking yields an insight to the daily rhythm of Florence life. First, there is the church. While tourists flock (and rightly so) to view the awesome sight of the Duomo, I notice other sorts of travel.

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The Duomo attracts travelers and it’s easy to see why!

There are the horses, waiting to carry the tourists away from the piazza. And there are church workers taking just pressed vestments to a baptism, perhaps.

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These vestments are traveling from the Baptistry to the Duomo.

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This horse looks like he is tired of traveling.

Second, there is the river. People walking across the bridges. Boats meandering down the serene water. Rowers perfecting their stroke—catch, drive, finish.  Runners and cyclists following the river’s path. The river provides both a place of solace and a beacon for wanderers. I hear a tour guide say, “If you can find the river, you can find home.” As a rower, I know this to be true.

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The river beckons.

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A rower practices his stroke.

Eventually, I peel away from the group to find my own path. I turn left. I turn right. I am not concerned because I know where both the Duomo and the river are. These two anchors assure me that no matter where I wander, I have a place.  Eventually, I find a quiet trattoria with friendly camerieri. I decide that this is where I will eat. “Buongiorno,” one waiter calls out. “Buongiorno,” I answer. “Siete aperti? I ask.”  “Si!,” he says, following this (in perfect English) with “Do you understand Italian?” I tell him that I am learning. That’s all he needs. We speak only Italian from then on. He is patient with me. What follows is a delightful lunch of pasta, sparkling water and local wine. Passersby are few as I marvel at the quiet just a few blocks off the main piazza.

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My lunch is a delightful respite from the throngs.

Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” I moved this morning. More than 10,000 steps of movement. And then I stopped. And I felt the rhythm of the city. And it felt bellissimo.

 


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It was the Best of Times. It was the Worst of Times. Life Aboard a Cruise Ship.

The beginning of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities could just as easily describe a cruise vacation.  While I’m a bit late to the cruising party, after five cruises in four years, I’m becoming a bit of an expert. This cruise on Holland America’s Eurodam, December 31-January 14, delivered just what I expected it to.

When I’m on vacation, I often don’t want to “do” all that much. Typically, I just want to relax, soak up the local culture, eat local food, and hang out. I like to go to a place, park myself there, and just see what happens.

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Who wouldn’t want to wake up to a sunrise like this?

But “seeing what happens” is the good-and not-so-good—of the cruising “culture.”  First the good.

The food. I can’t emphasize this enough. And not because there is a lot of it waiting to be gobbled up (although there is). What I love about food on a cruise is that there is always something available that I not only want to eat, but something that I can eat. One of the on-going challenges of living with achalasia is that I always have to pay attention to what I’m eating. Always. I have to analyze how my esophagus feels, make a judgment call whether the food in front of me is too hard, too leafy, or too complicated to give it a go.

Living with achalasia means that when I walk into a restaurant, I often have limited choices on what I can eat successfully. I always find something, but I might only have a couple of options on the whole menu.  However, on a cruise, the choices gloriously abound.

For breakfast on a cruise, I always start with oatmeal. (I know. I’m a little boring.) Steaming hot, hearty, and served with a smile.  (Seriously, the server who was always at the oatmeal station seemed pretty happy to see me each morning.) If I’m still feeling okay after that, I might add a croissant or some other soft bread item. Or maybe some strawberries and cheese.

For lunch, I start with soup.  During our two weeks at sea, I had roasted parsnip soup, asparagus soup, ginger carrot soup, hot and sour soup, garden tomato soup, potato leek soup—and those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. Then there was the spread of cheeses, fruits, pastas, stir fry, veggies, you name it. All sorts of things that were in my “achalasia-eating wheelhouse.” And, of course, a wee bit of chocolate ice cream to finish things off.

While more formal than lunch, dinner still had choices. And if there wasn’t something on the menu I wanted, I could always order salmon, which I often did. And, of course, the plethora of yummy desserts just waiting for me!

It’s not that I wanted to eat non-stop.  But feeling confident at every meal that I would be able to eat without repercussions made me feel like I was on a real vacation.

The people. While we met a couple of interesting passengers here and there over our two-week cruise, what I liked best about the people were the staff members.  In particular, Rony, Yuri, and Isman.

Rony was our room steward. He kept our room immaculate, cleaning it twice a day. As we headed to breakfast, Rony would pop in and get our cabin cleaned before we returned. The same thing would happen when we left for dinner. If we needed anything, we only had to call and he would magically show up at our door right away. He was always in a good mood, always wanted to make sure we were happy, and always tried to figure out if there was something he could do to make our cruise more enjoyable.

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Sure, on every cruise, you get towel animals. But I thought Rony’s were especially cute.

Yuri took care of us in the “Lido,” the buffet area on every cruise ship where passengers typically eat breakfast and lunch. Yuri learned our names on the first day, figured out what we liked to drink, chatted with us each morning, and was just all-around pleasant to get to know. One morning, breakfast was a bit crowded because everyone was interested in going ashore at the same time. When we showed up, Yuri found us and took us to the table she had saved for us because  she wanted to make sure we had our “regular” table.

Isman was our head waiter for our dinner table (table #115). After our first meal, Isman knew that I drank black tea after dinner, but Gary preferred herbal “sleepy time” tea. He knew that we didn’t like ice in our water. He knew that if I ordered salmon, I didn’t want Swiss chard with it. He knew that Gary didn’t like chocolate, but I did. He took care of us at every dinner like we were the most important people in the world. It was lovely.

But, then, there was “the worst of times.”

The food. While I reveled in the delicious, fresh and healthy food options, there were also plenty of other foods that I don’t even like to look at. Like mountains of bacon, piles of powdered donuts, grilled hot dogs (I really have an aversion to shaped meat), you name it.

It was bad enough to look at the unhealthy food before it was served. But it really turned my stomach to see piles of half-eaten food left on people’s plates. Sure, I could have just looked away, but I was both horrified and fascinated with the kinds of food that people had no shame about eating publicly.

The people. I hate to say it, but as lovely as the staff members were, some of our fellow passengers were, shall we say, a bit self-absorbed? I know the feeling of “hey, I’m on vacation so I can do what I want,” but there should be limits. Here’s just a glimpse of some of the things we saw.

It was beautiful in St. Maarten, but devastation from the recent hurricane was everywhere.  As we walked into town, we were amazed at the overturned sailboats, the shipping containers piled up on the shore line, the missing roofs from shops. But we were equally amazed at the resilience of the town’s residents, how happy they were to see the tourists return, and how diligently they were working to repair their beautiful seaside town. It was an inspiration.

While resting on a bench along the beach-side main street, a woman joined me and quickly started chatting. She was clearly upset.  “What’s the matter?” I said, expecting her to say something about the sadness of the devastation.  Instead, she said, “I didn’t come here to see this mess. I already saw all this on television.” All I could mumble was something like “Well, what did you expect?”

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We were so glad to visit St. Maarten on our cruise. It is breathtaking!

Seeing piles of uneaten food was bad enough, but watching some people eat was like a bad horror movie in slow motion. I saw a guy eating a pile (I’m talking about a heaping pile) of bacon.  Standing up while wandering around the buffet.  Mouth to bacon.  I mean, why use a fork if you don’t have to? Eww.

I saw people walking through the Lido deck in their bathrobes.  I saw spouses berating each other. I saw parents talking to their kids in such a way that if I were their kid, I’d start looking for scholarships to boarding schools.

But, here’s the thing about life on a cruise ship. If you know what to expect, I still say it’s a great vacation. It is definitely not for everyone. I’m not sure I’ll be able to talk the hubster into going on another one. But, I’m ready. I’m ready to sit on my balcony and watch the sun rise as it dances across the glittering ocean. I’m ready to curl up in the really comfy bed and watch movies on the large HD TV screen. I’m ready to walk laps on the Promenade Deck, listening to my Italian lessons. I’m ready to soak in the Hydrotherapy pool, letting the minerals and pulsating water take my aches and pains away. And I’m definitely ready to have someone serve me oatmeal for breakfast every morning.


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Grab a Book and Count Down to New Years!

It’s just a couple of days until the hubster and I leave for our two-week cruise.  We’re finishing our chores here at our beach house where it is ridiculously cold.  (Truth be told, I’m relieved that the weather is so bad. It makes “Hey, let’s leave the beach and go to the Caribbean” a lot more logical.)

As we take down our Christmas decorations (which so far has taken a total of about 10 minutes—I definitely went “minimalist” this year), I’ve been putting things in our cruise suitcase to make sure we remember everything we need for the next two weeks. At the top of the list are appropriate books to read. While Holland America ships typically have decent libraries on them, I don’t want to leave our reading to chance on this trip.  Considering we aren’t interested in many of the official ship activities (seriously, who plays Bingo, anyway?!), having the right books to read is critical.

I picked two: An Odyssey, a memoir by English professor Daniel Mendelsohn who takes his dad on a cruise through the locations of–wait for it–The Odyssey.  I heard the author on NPR and I was intrigued.  For my second book, I chose Return to Glow, a memoir by Chandi Wyant about her pilgrimage on the Via Francigenia in Italy. I’ll read just about anything if it mentions Italy so this was a no brainer.

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Can’t wait to read this book on our cruise!

Selecting these books made me think about books that left indelible imprints on my heart—and also the books that got away from me.  During my sabbatical, when I was first dabbling with blogging, I had a “practice blog” called The Professor & Her Garden that I used during my WordPress Blogging 101 online class. For one of the daily assignments, I wrote about 10 books that influenced me.  Packing my new books for my cruise reminded me of that post.  So, first, here is the list of 10 books I mentioned at The Professor & Her Garden.

  1. That Hideous Strength (C.S. Lewis).  This book has it all.  Space travel; marriage advice; university politics; wizardry.  I first read THS at Oxford during my study abroad.  It’s my all-time favorite book and I’ve read it at least 20 times.  I own the paperback edition (that I loan to friends), a hard-cover American edition (that I read myself), and a British hard copy edition that I keep on the shelf with all my other C.S. Lewis books.
  2. This Perfect Day (Ira Levin).  I read this book in 9th grade and it rocked my world.  It’s creepy, other worldly, surprising, weird, thought-provoking, iconoclastic.  Everything in this book is topsy turvy, which, for a 9th grader, made for perfect reading.  Move over Holden Caufield.
  3. My Losing Season (Pat Conroy).  There is no question that I am crazy about Pat Conroy.  A bit of a stalker, really.  I live in the same town as Conroy did and I used to see him periodically at the grocery store.  (I made note of his grocery cart contents.)  I have a photo of his dad’s (The Great Santini) gravestone on my IPhone. And, sadly, I now have a picture of his grave as well.  I love, love, love his books.  But his book about playing basketball at the Citadel really resonated with me. I am still sad over his death, though—and maybe even a little angry—so I haven’t been able to read any of his books since he passed.
  4. The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear (Oliver Butterworth).  I read this book in grade school and it impressed me to no end.  It’s about a girl who “hears things” and ultimately ends up on a quiz show where she hears all the answers.  Freaky, ethics, and a strong female leading character.  What more could an independent little girl want? I loved this book so much as a kid, I decided to order it on Amazon and read it as an adult. Yikes. It’s really a terribly written book.  Henceforth, I think I’ll forgo re-reading “my childhood favs.”
  5. Drawn to the Rhythm:  A Passionate Life Reclaimed (Sara Hall).  This book is really about how rowing saved Sara’s life.  It’s heart-wrenching but inspirational.  I think of this book every time I don’t feel like going out on the water because I don’t want to row by myself, or it’s too cold, or too windy, or any other million reasons. Hmmm. Now that I think about it, I might replace Drawn with Boys in the Boat as my all-time favorite.
  6. Straight Down a Crooked Lane (Francena Arnold).  I can’t tell you how many times I read this book when I was a little kid, but it was a bunch.  It had romance, tennis, and race relations–all rather mind-blowing to me as a child.  Whenever I would read this book, I would think about what a great movie it would make.  I decided that Jimmy Stewart should play the father.  I felt really sad when Stewart died, in part, because he wouldn’t have the chance to play the role of, what I was sure, would be Oscar worthy. Based on my experience with rereading The Trouble with Jenny’s Ear, however, I now have second thoughts about its movie possibilities.
  7. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand).  Reading this book in 12th grade made me feel super grown up.  I wanted to be an architect and I admired Howard Rourk’s independent spirit.  I was a polar opposite to Rand’s philosophy, but I plowed through all her books in high school—and loved them all.  I even wrote a children’s book based on objectivism for an English creative writing class.  It was called Fritzi of Frumple Forest (or something like that).  My teacher wanted me to try to get it published.  I was horrified.
  8. Areopagitica (John Milton).  I was a mediocre (at best!) English Literature undergraduate student (more about that below), but I sure did love Milton.  No matter what college class I teach now, I always find a way to quote Areopagitica.  “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?”  Seriously. Can’t you feel your heart racing?
  9. A Girl Named Zippy (Haven Kimmel).  This book is laugh-out-loud hilarious.  Kimmel manages to get to the heart of what growing up in the ’50s was like.  I’m not kidding.  The writing is brilliant.  My daughter read Zippy right after me and guffawed at least as much as I did.  Years later, it has remained a book that makes the two of us laugh just thinking about it.
  10. The Time Bridge (Carol Pardun).  I wrote this young adult novel as my creative thesis project for my master’s degree in communications.  It’s a science fiction, young adult book in the spirit of Madeline L’Engle (or that was my hope, anyway).  It is about time travel and tennis.   I didn’t publish the book (I’m sure it needs lots of work), but it showed me that I could write something long from start to finish.  It let me successfully finish my master’s degree, which spurred me on to seek the PhD.  While my dissertation was nothing remotely similar to The Time Bridge, I like to think that my first attempt at a book-length manuscript provided the framework for successfully completing my degree.

So, those are the books I read.  But what about the books I didn’t read? I’ll say it again.  I was an English Literature major in undergraduate school.  What you do in that major is read books. A lot of them. So how in the world did I miss these?

  1. To Kill a Mockingbird. I know, I know. It’s embarrassing. I’ve tried the excuse that I was an English lit major, which means I studied mostly English stuff.  And, yes, I know that everyone read this in high school. But when I was in high school, I took English electives.  That’s where I was introduced to Ayn Ran and Ira Levin (see above).  I also took a class called “Hell.” (I’m sure it was actually called something else.)  We read The Inferno, No Exit, and Damn Yankees to name a few.  Going to high school in the early ‘70s offered some interesting experiences. I don’t know why I haven’t read Mockingbird (I haven’t even seen the movie), but at this point, I sort of feel like I’m committed to this short coming.  Like the people who have never seen a Star Wars movie. They are out there.
  2. War and Peace. I like books about war. And books about peace.  And long books. So this doesn’t make any sense.  But, for whatever reason, I have decided it’s just too late for me to read this book. Or any other Tolstoy for that matter.
  3. The Great Gatsby. So, I have seen the movie (the one with Robert Redford) and I didn’t like it all that much. (I did see The Way We Were about a zillion times, however.) I started feeling guilty about this recently after reading an essay about Tender Is the Night, written by a newly retired English professor friend of mine. I realized anew just how lacking my American Literature background is.  I think my demise started when I read Flannery O’Connor.  I pretty much have been running from American literature ever since.

I could go on and on about all the books I have not read.  But, I’ve decided to think about the books that I have read—and the impact that they have had on me. And to also think about the books that await me.  I have a quote on my office wall by (of course!) C.S. Lewis: “You can’t get a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me.” For the next two weeks, I’m planning on curling up in a comfortable chair out on the deck of a gargantuan ship, reading my new books, periodically lifting my head high enough to soak in the sun and contemplate the ocean—and other vast things. Not a bad way to start 2018 even if it is devoid of some classics that I know I should have read. I’ve got two weeks of nothing to do but read, think, and hang out with the hubs. Reality will start knocking soon enough.  But for now, grab a book and an afghan (unless you happen to be in the Caribbean) and celebrate! Happy New Year!

 


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So, You Might Not Think Baking Pies Has Anything to do With Travel. Let Alone Boats. But in My Mind They Are Inexorably Connected.

As some of you know, last year, I was alone on Thanksgiving Day.  The day turned out to be peaceful.  Full of quiet reflection.  So, I’ve been reflecting on that day as November started peeking around the corner.

And it occurred to me that we don’t actually have to have the big traditional eat-til-you-explode meal extravaganza any more if we don’t want to.  The trouble is that I love to cook Thanksgiving food.  And the hubster loves to eat it.  (Except neither one of us eats much meat anymore and could do without the turkey.)  Plus, not to boast or anything, but my Thanksgiving Feast is, well, okay, I’ll just say it.  Epic.

The most important part of the meal are the pies, of course.  In case you haven’t heard about the Roving Pie, have a seat.  Grab a fork.

I’ve been baking Thanksgiving pies for well over 30 years.  Without question, whether the table is full of guests or we are alone, three pies always make an appearance.  The Apple Pie.  The Pumpkin Pie.  And the Pecan Pie.  (These pies are so important, each warrant a separate sentence.)  The Apple Pie is made with Granny Smith apples only, at least eight cups worth, with brown sugar, cinnamon, and a bit of this and that.  The Pumpkin Pie is a version from Southern Living that is so smooth, it just doesn’t warrant any messing with.  And the Pecan Pie is devoid of corn syrup, but chock full of whole pecans (about three times more than any recipe would have the nerve to suggest) and a hearty helping of brown sugar.  All are paired with an all-butter crust.  I know you have been told that you need to add shortening to get the right crust flakiness.  Or vodka.  Or some other nonsense.  You don’t.  Period.  King Arthur all-purpose flour, unsalted butter, a swig of salt, and 4 tablespoons of iced water.  That’s it.  And, just try to say my crusts are not flaky.

But those are only three pies.  I always make at least four.  The fourth pie is the Roving Pie.  The Roving Pie emerged decades ago when I decided to “try something new.”  For whatever reason, I chose to make a pie I had never made before.  And to make it even more interesting, I decided that I would never make it again.  No matter what.  This quickly became a Pardun Tradition that has now been passed on to my daughter Grace.  I am pleased to report that she takes her role as Keeper of the Roving Pie Tradition very seriously.  As she should.

Most of these Thanksgiving pies have turned out rather stellar. But a couple have been bloopers.  I seem to remember the pear/cranberry/walnut concoction not going over well.  But, the coconut cream macadamia nut was a huge hit one year, as was the chocolate-lined crusted cream pie.  The pineapple grits pie was, um, interesting.

Often a fifth pie would make an appearance.  The Decoy Pie.  This tradition started when the hubster felt sorry for our new next-door neighbors one year and invited them to Thanksgiving Dinner (which is always at 2:00, no exceptions, by the way. Did I mention I have traditions?).  They were happy to come and they also let us know that they would be bringing all their relatives who were flying in to visit.  I didn’t know these people, but one thing I did know was that I sure didn’t want them hogging the apple, pumpkin or pecan pies.  So, I made a raspberry cream pie that was extremely showy.  A piled-high mound of yumminess.  And then I talked it up while we were eating.  Sure enough!  They took the bait, loved the pie and kept their pie-crusty mitts off our beloved traditional pies.  Everyone walked away sated–and happy.  From that year on, if someone new was at the table, the Decoy Pie would make a showing—and all the “regulars” knew it was their job to convince the “newbies” that the Decoy Pie was the best.

Outside of the pies, the Thanksgiving meal is a typical New England dinner.  Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, honey glazed carrots, herbed stuffing, balsamic pearl onions, etc., etc., etc.,

Who wouldn’t look forward to a meal like that?

Except, neither of us can eat all that at one sitting any more.  Nor do we care to.  What to do? What to do?

Introducing Thanksgiving Month. With a renewed sense of “hey, we’re getting older and it is perfectly fine to do things differently if we want to,” we are going to try ignoring Turkey Day this year.  But, we’ll still eat all the foods we love.  We’ll just take a month to do it.

It’s early November so we have just started this, but so far, it’s been a success.  I baked the pecan pie (with maple syrup infused whipped cream) this past weekend.  We invited friends over to share it with us.  I also made mashed potatoes (spiffed up with crème fraiche) and peas along with baked honey-marinated salmon.  Next up, I think we’ll hit the stuffing and the pumpkin pie.

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Here’s the Pecan Pie I made last week.

 

Since having my mid-life crisis (okay, my two-thirds life crisis), I have a new lease on life.  There are all sorts of things in life that I love—and no one loves tradition more than me—but I’m discovering that I’m ready to let go of traditions and do things a little bit differently.  Which leads me to two other “You Did What?!” things that have happened recently.

First, I sold my boat.  It was a tough decision, but the right one.  I’m still rowing, but now, I row with one club rather than two, and never alone as I often did in my single.  I’ve got to say that I’ve relished the rows I have had since letting go of my boat because I know how fortunate I am to still have a group of people to row with.  And, especially a group that still wants to row with me.

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Boat loaded and ready to drive to its new owner.

Second, I’ve taken the proceeds from my boat sale and booked another cruise for the hubster and me.  We’ll be tooling around the Caribbean for two weeks over the university holiday for no reason other than to relax, read, and hang out.  Yes, I know we could do that at home, but for whatever reason I felt compelled to trade one boat (albeit one that only weighed 34 pounds) for another boating experience. The hubs asked many, many times “Uh, really?  Do you really, really want to do this?  Why? Why?”  But, in the end, he agreed, trusting me that getting away will be good for us.  (And, yes, I do remember that we “got away” for a whole month this past summer.)

I began this blog three years ago in preparation for my sabbatical.  I called it My Year Away.  I expected the year to be life-changing.  And it was.  I learned so much that I decided to continue writing the blog, renaming it My Year Away.  And Back.  I thought I would be done by now.  But, once I got Achalasia, I had a whole additional experience about being “away” from normal—and working my way back. Since then, I’ve decided that “Being Away” is a state of mind that I should relish as I try to navigate life in my 60s.  That involves doing things differently (like Thanksgiving Month, for example).  And, I think it also means spending part of all my remaining years “Away.”

St. Augustine wrote “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” I might not make it through the whole book, but it won’t be for lack of trying.  Eating Thanksgiving over 30 days.  Meandering the Caribbean on a Cruise Ship. Rowing at Sunrise.   Now, if I can just finish the semester…


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Can you have a mid-life crisis when you’re 61?

Okay, okay.  I know I’m past middle age (At least I know that when I’m thinking straight).  That being said, ever since returning from Italy on June 6, I’ve been contemplating the next phase of life.  Usually, I phrase it something like this:  “ARGHHHH!  There’s not much time left!  I’m 2/3 of the way through life. IF. I’M. LUCKY. What happened?  So much to do! So much to do!”

Since learning to live with achalasia, I’ve spent a lot more time contemplating “What’s next?” than I would normally be inclined to do. Clearly, I’ve had some sort of massive wake-up call.  For example, I’ve always planned to work until I’m 70. And why not? Being a tenured full professor is a fantastic profession. Job security. Good pay. Flexible hours. Extremely liberal vacation time.   Who would walk away from that?

Except, I just had the vacation of a lifetime. And I want more. I loved being in a different culture. And I want more of that. I loved crossing the ocean at 15-20 knots (i.e., slowly) with time to stare out into the horizon wondering about everything or nothing.  I want more of that, too.

Seventy as a retirement age is starting to sound too far into the future. I’m not getting any younger. Clearly. I used to look younger than my age. But, people no longer stare with their mouths agape when they find out I have grandchildren. Sometimes I’m given the Senior Citizen Discount. Without asking.  And, more than once recently, I’ve had acquaintances assume I’m retired—and look a bit of a confused when I tell them I’m still working.  Heck, I’m not even Social Security eligible yet.

In my “I’m getting old!” full freak-out mode, I’ve noticed more creaks and moans coming from my body. Recently while rowing, I damaged my “sits bone” (the ischial tuberosity for anyone who is interested in keeping up with my continued bizarre medical escapades) and for the first time, I’ve wondered if it might be time to sell my racing scull.

We own two houses (one at the beach and one in the city), which take a modicum of effort to keep in good shape.  Lately, I’ve walked around both houses thinking about things we should start getting rid of.  (Including at least one of the houses.)

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Here’s a view of our island at high tide.

I met with the retirement guy to get his opinion on whether we have enough money to retire sooner than later.  And, I’ve read just about every online publication Social Security offers trying to figure out if I know enough to make the decision to retire.

As for the hubster, he’s taking my whirling dervish “let’s do something” activity in stride. Occasionally, he’ll listen in when I say I’ve found the perfect cruise that leaves Amsterdam and travels through Iceland and Greenland on its way back to the States. Apparently, I have just developed a NEED to see the Arctic Circle. I think I’ve convinced the hubster that we need to get our next adventure to Italy set right now.  We’ve booked an apartment in Nereto, Italy, next July.  I’ve never heard of Nereto. either, but apparently I need to go there as well.

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I can’t wait to go back to Italy to see more views like this!

I’m studying Italian every day—determined to be at least 50% fluent before I return. I’ve read that studying another language helps delay brain deterioration.  So, now I’m worried that my brain is deteriorating. (Drat! I broke my 29-day streak on Duolingo.)

Big breath. Sigh. Here’s the thing. Yeah, I’m getting older. But my life has been pretty awesome—and it looks like it might be pretty awesome in the future as well. (I’ve got my next trip to Italy planned so it can’t be all bad, right?) I’m normally not a freak-out kind of person. Maybe a wake-up call once in a while is good. And maybe visiting the Arctic Circle really is a good idea.  Who knows? But, what I do know is that I’ve had an amazing summer—and now it’s time to get back to work. The fall semester starts in just a few days.  Looks like I’m not retiring this year no matter what the retirement guy says.  And that’s okay. I’ve got time. I hope.