My Year Away. And Back.

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


2 Comments

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.

IMG_4105

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.

IMG_4107

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?”

IMG_4114

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.


Leave a comment

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.

IMG_4099

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!

 


4 Comments

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.

IMG_4057

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.

IMG_4054

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…


3 Comments

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.)

2012-06-03 20.20.16

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.

IMG_3787

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.

 

 

 


4 Comments

When Achalasia Takes Vacation

As you all know, the hubster and I recently travelled through France and Italy to celebrate our 40th anniversary.  You all also know that I had put so much planning, hope, and expectations on this trip that some people (okay, my husband) was concerned I might be disappointed.  I mean what trip could possibly live up to a vacation I had spent untold hours thinking about, rethinking about, and then thinking about again?  Those of you who know me well, know that I have a vivid imagination.  Believe me, there was not one inch of this trip that I didn’t think about (multiple times) before we left.

So, how was it?  In a word, Epic.  I mean utterly, truly, unbelievably epic.  It was what I had hoped it would be.  And then some.

I could point to any number of reasons it was so magical.  Spending a month with the best guy ever would be one reason.  Being out in the middle of the ocean for two weeks would be another.  Breath-taking scenery everywhere we turned would be yet another.

IMG_20170509_200121322 (3)

The ship hadn’t even left port and I was already relaxed!

But, eating the food was a highlight that was so delightful, it’s difficult to describe.  Simply put, I ate with gusto on this trip. And, I ate a lot.  In fact, I am positive that I ate more in one month than I have eaten over the entire past year.  One night, for example, we decided to take a break from our normal four-course meal at our agritourismo.  We walked into town for a “light” dinner.  This breezy dinner consisted of a pizza for each of us (Do the math.  That’s two pizzas.), a scoop of gelato (I think on that night I had Nutella and Cream, if you can imagine) and a carafe of wine.  And, just for the record, that entire meal cost about 25 euro.

IMG_20170601_190817064_HDR (2)

This is the restaurant where we had a “light” dinner of pizza, gelato, and wine.

In Italy, if a pasta dish were available (and in Italy, pasta is always available!), I ate it.  Formaggio?  Oh, si, grazie!  Coupled with a delightful (and crazy cheap) local wine, I was happy.

IMG_3833

My lunch in Cortona. And, yes, I ate every bite.

It didn’t stop there.  We ate dessert with just about every meal, which, if you knew my husband (since he doesn’t like sugar), is amazing. At one restaurant, we even shared three desserts, each one yummier than the one before.

My achalasia was clearly on vacation.

I first started noticing that I was eating easily during our transatlantic cruise. While you hear stories of people piling their plates at the buffet with bacon (yes, I did see people eat way too much bacon in one sitting), waffles, and everything else they could grab, there were wonderful healthy choices that were truly mouthwatering.  Oatmeal for breakfast, exotic soup for lunch (and usually ice cream afterwards), salmon and vegetables for dinner.  I loved the food on the ship and ate it with joy.  I was relaxed and breathed deeply while sitting on our balcony.  Over the two-week cruise, I only had to pause and consider whether I could continue to eat (usually the answer was yes!) just a few times.

In Italy, I only had one semi-major constriction of my esophagus and I wasn’t even eating then.  It was while driving on a mountainous, supposedly two-lane road with 180-degree hairpin turns about every two minutes. I think anyone fearing a heart attack would be justified at that moment.

Before our trip, I considered whether I needed to worry about gaining weight over the month. After all, the only good thing about achalasia was that I was able to shed my excess weight.  What if it came back? I even brought a pair of my old-size pants just in case I wouldn’t be able to fit into my new-size clothes by the end of vacation.  I finally concluded that if I found I could eat, I wasn’t going to worry (much!) and that gaining up to 10 pounds would be acceptable and well worth the price for eating fabulous food.

But I didn’t gain weight.  Not even a pound.

I have no explanation for this.  Perhaps I ate less than I thought.  (Even if true, I’ve got pictures of the entire pizzas I devoured so I know I ate a lot.)  Perhaps exercise kept the extra weight away (Yes, we walked a lot, but I don’t think it would be possible to walk enough to keep the “calories in/calories out” equation even partially balanced.). Perhaps I only ate good-for-you food.  That was mostly true, but a big bowl of pasta has some serious calories, no matter which way you count them.  And, as for the 5 oz. of wine per day is good for you medical recommendation, yes, well…

IMG_20170530_184729978_HDR (2)

Just taking a rest before gearing up for a four-course dinner.

I think it was a miracle. A full-blown “hey, I’m going to give the girl a break just because I can” kind of miracle.  A challenging year of barely eating ended with a flat-out celebration of the goodness of food.  Ecclesiastes 7:14 begins “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other.” I’ve had a bit of adversity—not much compared to others, but I’ve shed a few tears—and from May 6 to June 6, I had joy.  Complete freedom to eat without worry.

Since we’ve been back, I continue to do well, but I certainly can’t eat the way I ate on vacation.  I’m back to thinking carefully about my food, paying attention to the pains, drinking plenty of hot water when I get into trouble.  In short, I have nearly daily reminders that I still have achalasia and I always will.

But, that’s okay.  I got a glimpse of joy.  My favorite author, C.S. Lewis, once wrote, “I think that all things, in their way, reflect heavenly truth, the imagination not least.”  I might be stretching here, but I think I got a glimpse of a sliver of heaven on this trip. And it looks a lot like Tuscany.


1 Comment

A Gastronomic Epic Anniversary Trip Right Around the Corner.

I know it might seem like I am obsessed with food.  I’m not.  Okay, actually, maybe I am.  But when you’re staring into the abyss and wondering if you’ll ever eat like a normal person again, it makes you pause.

That’s one reason when I discovered I had Achalasia about the same time my husband and I started planning our 40th anniversary trip, we quickly zeroed in on France and Italy—both places that excel in foods we like to eat. The idea was that we’d celebrate our anniversary—and the joy of being able to eat again post surgery.  During the darkest days leading up to my surgery in February and ongoing recovery ever since, when I was feeling particularly bad, I’d close my eyes and imagine myself sitting in a small Parisian café, eating split pea soup with a touch of sherry ladled out of a white porcelain tureen.  Or sitting in a Tuscan village pizzeria tasting that first beautiful bite of pizza con pomodoro.

No doubt about it, I love food.  When I think about the best times of my life, it often includes eating something delicious, often with my favorite people.  Here are some of the best times I’ve ever had eating.

  • Eating alone in Tbilisi, Georgia. I prefer not to eat alone, but sometimes, there is no choice. Right before my sabbatical started, I spent about a month in Tbilisi, Georgia (the country, not the state), teaching a class. It was my second time in the country, but the first when I was alone for most meals.  That made the comfort of food even more important. When I ate “Georgian beans” I never felt lonely.  It’s hard to describe how delicious Georgian “lobani” are.  But, every time I ate them, I felt better, I felt at home, and I felt like everything would be okay.

    thumb_IMG_0611_1024

    A simple meal, but until you’ve eaten Georgian beans, you don’t really know what comfort food is.

  • Eating dinner at the Alvah Stone. My friend Kathy F moved from South Carolina to Massachusetts and I visited her a few years ago on my way to an academic conference.  Converted from an old mill, the Alvah Stone restaurant had it all—including an incredible chef.  We didn’t know what to expect, but it surpassed everything we could imagine.  We enjoyed the food (and wine!) so much that as the hours rolled by, the chef eventually came out of the kitchen to say hello.  I seem to remember an inventive take on gnocchi, a hint of lavender water in the shortbread, and a dry Riesling that made me swoon.  It remains a dinner for the record books.

    thumb_IMG_0763_1024

    The chef at the Alvah Stone was delighted that Kathy and I loved his food.

  • Creating a send-off dinner party. My friend Marcie and I cooked and hosted a dinner party last summer to celebrate our friend Kathy R who was heading up north to begin her presidency of Westminster College. We invented a cocktail (the Presidential Cocktail, of course) and cooked our hearts out (does blueberry soup with toasted pound cake croutons ring a bell?) as we toasted our dear friend.

    thumb_IMG_3224_1024

    The Presidential Cocktail that Marcie and I invented was just the beginning of this send-off dinner party.

  • Independence Day every year. Speaking of Marcie, many of my epic food experiences involve Marcie. And one of my favorite culinary events is the 4th of July when Marcie heads down to our beach house for a weekend of sun, relaxation and epic cooking.  Over the 4th, you can be sure that a blueberry pie will emerge along with any number of salads, fish, and veggies.  Cooking with Marcie is always grand.

    IMG_2048_1024

    I’ve made a lot of pies in my life, but there is nothing like a blueberry pie in July.

  • Cooking for the hubster. One of the joys of cooking is to cook for people I love. And the ultimate example here is cooking for my husband, Gary.  One of the many great things about my mate is that he always appreciates when I cook for him.  Doesn’t matter what it is, he eats it and (usually) likes it.  During our 40 years of marriage, I don’t think he has ever complained about something I cooked.  (And this includes the tater tot casserole with canned peas I made when we were poor and newly married.)

And now here we are, one week before we leave on our “big trip.”  In my mind, I have imagined in exquisite detail every meal I am hoping to eat during our 31 days away.  There are the four-course meals on our transatlantic cruise.  We’re sitting by the window at a table for two, gazing out at the sea, savoring a mango and feta salad.  Or a pile of heirloom tomatoes with a balsamic reduction.

Or, we’re grabbing a croissant in Paris on our way to a stroll along the Seine.  Or we’re tucking in to a piece of focaccia in Recco, Italy (which happens to be where focaccia was invented). Or eating dinner at our agritourismo in Tuscany, rendered speechless by the lightness of the homemade pasta.

Gary’s worried that I’ve played these scenarios out in my head so many times, the reality of our trip will not live up to my dreams of it.

But, I’m not worried.  The trip is already an unmitigated success in my mind, however it ends up in reality.  During the most painful days of my recovery, I would close my eyes and imagine the cooking class I’m planning to take in Italy.  Or the gelato I am planning to eat.  Or the breakfast on our balcony during our ocean crossing.

All of these dreams involve my husband.  He’s looking forward to the trip, but probably not to the level that I am.  He’s been on one cruise.  And he hated it.  Still, he is willing to take a two-week transatlantic cruise where we will spend many days at sea (and no way to get off the ship no matter what the weather is like, or how loud the people are, or how obnoxious the lessons in making animals out of towels may be).  And any ideas I have had about what to do while we’re in France and Italy, he has basically said, “Sure, sounds great.”

He is taking this trip to make me happy.  I am already happy over the whole thing.  This 40th wedding anniversary trip is already one for the record books.  And nothing like weather, long lines—or even achalasia—is going to change that.  I’m spending an entire month with the man who, as a college student, saw my potential.  What in the world did we know so long ago?

Turns out, we knew more than we thought we did. And that makes me happy.  And grateful.  So Bon Voyage! Ci vediamo quando torniamo!


5 Comments

When You Become a Member of a Community You Didn’t Ask to Join

Well, it’s been six weeks since I had surgery to make my achalasia manageable.  I had my “How are you doing?” appointment with my surgeon this week and got the green light to go out into the world and act like a normal person.  I have been cleared to go back to rowing, to lift heavy objects, to give eating salad a try if I feel like it.  In short, the rest of my recovery is up to me.

But, I still have achalasia.  And I always will.  And because it is such a rare condition, I have also been introduced to the world of Rare Diseases.  On social media, I’ve read several posts from others who are members of this “I didn’t ask for it” community, and I’ve got mixed emotions.

For the most part, I like being identified by my groups.  I’m a Rower. I’m a Professor. I’m an Obsessive Pie Baker.  I’m a Christian. I’m an Alto.  I’m a Wife.  I’m a Mother.  Heck, I’m a Grandmother.

pie

Here is one of the pies I obsess over. It’s a strawberry rhubarb.

And, well, now I’m also a Rare Condition Member (that sounds awkward).  How about Achalasia Survivor?  (No, that doesn’t quite work since I still have the condition.) Achalasia Sufferer? (No, that sounds too dramatic.  Surgery has given me a new lease on life.)  I’m an Achalasia Aware Person?  Hmm. Awkward, but okay.

To me, my recovery has been nothing short of a miracle.  For the first few weeks, I was concerned.  I still couldn’t eat.  And, then, I started to get better.  I stopped throwing up clear, sticky Ghost Busters-like goo. I started successfully eating firmer food. I stopped having horrific esophageal spasms several times a day.  I ate some pasta.  A cupcake for my birthday. And then a few days ago, I ate thin crust cheese pizza.  And it didn’t hurt.  (Or not much anyway.)  I am on my way.

IMG_3526

My birthday cupcake! It took two sittings, but I ate it.

So what’s all the belly aching about? Can’t I just forget about the Community I Didn’t Ask to Join?  They don’t need me.  There are plenty of sufferers out there who can moan and groan about the horrors of achalasia.  They can be the ones to run the 5Ks to build awareness. They can be the ones to fight for research to better understand the mystery of this rare condition.  They can be the ones to post their sad stories on You Tube.  They don’t need me.  I’m better now.

Except, they do need me.  And, surprise, surprise, I think I need them, too.  They are the ones who helped me understand what was happening to me.  The ones who let me know that I was not alone with this wacky condition.  The ones who said they had been helped with surgery.  The ones who still had questions. They are the ones who understand what it’s like to have achalasia.

I’ve never come face to face with anyone who has achalasia.  I only know them virtually.  But when I read their stories or watch their videos, I get it.  I understand.  When I read posts from people who are afraid of having surgery, I understand.  When I read academic articles about achalasia, I want to weigh in with my own opinion.  I know you all.  And you know me.

Sure, this is a community I didn’t choose to join.  But it’s a welcoming community nonetheless.  For better or worse, I’m a life-long member now. So to my new-found community friends, take heart.  You are not alone.  And, get this!  Because of surgery, yesterday for the first time in about a year, I ate a salad.  And I rowed today for the first time since surgery.  Who knows what next week will bring?

Sculling October 10

It was so great to row this morning!