December 29, 2008

food recollections or ‘what would Jesus eat?’

When I first started to travel in the States, I was dazzled by the food I found when venturing into unlikely restaurants in small towns and off two lane highways. My transportation was a series of foreign sports cars guaranteed to raise suspicion among Detroit centric drivers everywhere. They always seemed to break down in some place like Uncertain, Texas, or Enigma, Georgia, where the mechanics regarded my car far-fetched exotic and I got all kinds of advise about investing in a reasonable vehicle, such as a Ford pickup.

Despite the exotic wheels, I grew to feel that the road was where I belonged. Invariably, after a few months of being stationary, my feet itched to see more of the country I was falling in love with. I then traveled with a journal. Today it is a notebook computer and a cell phone. When I started, being in rural America felt like traveling to the dark side of the moon.

The American landscape was very different from what it is today. I feel 150 years old to admit that there were no Wal-Marts, no Kmart’s, no Home Depots, no Targets, no Outback’s, no Olive Gardens, no Red Lobsters, and no Starbuckses. There was fast food, but it was not everywhere. This was a good thing.

Every place I went looked different. Today, Connecticut looks like Arizona, which looks like North Carolina, which looks like Oregon. It is possible to crisscross this country and never eat, shop, or stay in a strange place. This is not a good thing.

In my early days of travel, I rarely stayed in chain motels. They simply did not exist in the small towns and on the back roads. More typical were mom-and-pop places, dirt cheap and with amenities to match, none.
As basic as those accommodations had been, it was eclipsed by the joys I found in non-chain restaurants. Before fast food muscled its way into town, every place had at least one good café.

From the beginning, I was charmed by the South. The South has a reputation for hospitality, and despite being an oddball, I felt welcomed there. I was always struck by the signs and billboards that welcomed everyone who passes to churches usually Baptist but often something strange and exiting, like African Apostolic or Snake-handling Charismatic. Signs that read ‘Fun in the Son’ or, ‘I will be back to get you soon. Love. Jesus.’ Moreover, what was one to make of a poster inviting everyone to an ‘Antiabortion and Fish-Fry Rally’?

A great cafeteria could vastly enhance the joy of supper. All top-notch cafeteria-style restaurants, had dessert at the head of the line. Then the ‘salads’. Finally the big decision, the entrée, and if it was Sunday, a huge ham and a steamship round of beef stood ready to be carved by the chef at the cutting board.
Aside from how wonderful the food was, what amazed most was their cost. For enough food to feed a small village, I paid $3.00 mid-1970. Today the bill is $7.50 – not much more than you would pay for a Mc-Something-or-others handed to you in a paper bag.

Rules to finding road food in the South: There is a direct correlation between the excellence of the food and the number of pictures of Jesus on the wall. This is true of all kinds of restaurants, but especially in barbecues, where the Lord frequently shares wall space with pictures of pigs.

Of course, pigs are not worshipped in the South, but the image of the pig in and around barbecue restaurants provides comfort, security, and joy, which dovetails with similar feelings instilled by religious belief.

I felt irreverent making note of this fact until I walked into a Bar-B-Q restaurant one day and watched a waitress setting up tables. Oblivious of my presence she was exuberantly singing the soprano part of ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’, no doubt something she performed with a church choir. On the walls were several portraits of a crowned, cape wearing oinker carrying a fork like a royal scepter along with signs reminding customers that JESUS IS LORD. When the woman noticed me, she smiled, walked to a counter, picked-up a menu, pointed to a table, and joined me there, never once missing a word or note of her hymn. She handed me the menu just when she reached the last line – ‘His kingdom is forever’ – her voice hitting a crescendo nearly high enough to crack every coffee cup in the joint. As I opened the menu, she made me jump with her ‘Amen!’

As I see it, the art of smoke-cooking meat and an honest devotion to God depends on similar qualities of character. Making great barbecue is a slow and simple process that requires faith more than showboat technique. Those who tend the smoke pit never tell you that they are the ones who make the magic happen.

Long before GPS and MapQuest, getting lost was my lifestyle. It is how I found the most colorful people and eateries.
My first encounter with a restaurant where religion is always the special of the day was a tiny café I discovered during an early cross-country trip, when road food was only a notion. I was still debating if indeed there really was anything interesting about American eats. This place turned out to be incontrovertible evidence that a whole world of good food and fascinating people was out there, ready to be discovered.

It had been a long morning drive, when I saw a sign on the outskirts of a town that said CITY CAFÉ – CHRISTIAN ATMOSPHERE.
I found the place around noontime. It was surrounded by cars. One booth was open, but before I sat down, I walked to the cash register and picked up a brochure written by the owner, Iola Burgraff. It was titled ‘Angels singing to Iola’ and was headlined ‘Giant Angel Speaks to Rev. Burgraff Concerning Nixon, June 3, 1973.’ Ms. Rev. Burgraff was the cook, the owner, and a Christian visionary. She was also ‘in touch’ with multitudes of dead people, she has seen coming into her café. It seemed that even death could not keep loyal customers away from her lemon icebox pie. Near the cash register was a picture of Nixon standing in the palm of the Lord.
‘Have you seen him?’ ask a man sitting in the booth next to mine.
‘Er, umm, yes.’ I answered, not certain whether the man meant
Richard Nixon, the Lord Jesus, or the busboy. The man smiled and turned away, apparently satisfied.
I could smell fried chicken sizzling in iron skillets, saw plates of baked ham with macaroni salad, snow slaw, and corn bread being served on other tables. I consulted with the waitress, Zelda, who had the whole dining room to serve all by herself. ‘It’s hard to get Christian help,’ she said, explaining why she was alone.
‘Which should I get?’ I ask. ‘chicken or ham?’
She paused and seemed truly to consider my quandary, then offered this advice. ‘Do you know what I do when I face a question and I don’t know the answer?’ she said. ‘I reflect and I ask myself, ‘what would Jesus do?’ Chicken or ham? I do not know. What would Jesus eat?

My thoughts, sitting in the departure lounge finishing off my roast pork sandwich and the umpteenth cup of Cuban coffee.

December 28, 2008

Favorite islands…

Apropos nothing, just sitting and gazing in to the blue the question arose.

For Mona that is Martinique it suits her temperament to a ‘T’. She loves everything about it. The modest display of money, the apparent sophistication of its inhabitants. Small houses with never ending views and above all, no snow.

Charles is not partial,
as long it is surrounded by a rough sea to sail.

Peter, my brother, escapes to Samos.
Lives high up on a hill with access to the sea to sail the Turkish coast.
He enjoys straddling the dividing line between East and West.

Sylvia is permanently anchored to the Black Forest
and nothing and no one can extricate her from there.
Amazing. Neither sea, nor air can entice her.

For Brigitte it had been Ibiza. She called it the greatest escape island in the world. Whenever she needed some place to go to forget her trouble Ibiza was the place for her to go. She said it seized her soul. The natives have a saying: ‘Leave Ibiza at ones or stay forever’.

As for me, I am not partial either.
I am also lucky to live but a short trip of the island of Catalina, which I visit often.
I have drifted through the holidays on the island of Kauai. Explored on foot its wild northwestern shore and sailed the islands.

However, my heart belongs to the blue Adriatic and the islands of the coast of Dalmatia; Pula, Rabac, Lovran, Opatija, Rijeka, Pag, Trogir, Vis, my personal favorite Hvar, Brela, Mljet, Korcula, just to name a few. Those I began to explore during my married years. Rene had spent all his summers during his school years sailing up and down the Dalmatian coast. He had intimate knowledge of the Adriatic her moods good and bad. I learned her winds the Bura, Jugo, Maestral and the Tramontana. The towns and cities of Dalmatia, strung out along the whole length of the Adriatic Cost. From graceful, Renaissance Koper down to the ghostly, menacing fangs of Stari Bar and Ulcinj, the hideout of Utudz Alija, crazy admiral of the Islam pirates, who made war against all the navies of the Mediterranean. Each of them has its special history, thousands of years of it. It is impossible to travel without coming across stone monuments recalling events past, from antiquity to recent past.

Dubrovnik is only the best known. But there is Trogir, Split, Pula, Porec, Zadar and Rab entire chains of towns, large and small, with Gothic and Renaissance buildings, religious and secular alike, equally lovely and restrained, and all skirted and surrounded by the blue mantle and white lace of the sea, the warm, sunlit sea, which has provided a way of life for so many nations, has been the meeting place of so many cultures.

The sea is not for the summer months only. It is perhaps even more so when modern nomads depart and leave only the stubbornly incurable romantics. Then, for the lonely walker the shore puts on a special and magnificent performance. The air becomes heavy, full of the smell of rotting leaves, and the warm, damp, southern wind comes, driving heavy, thirty meter long waves to break on rocks pounded by centuries of braking waves. And nostalgia sets in, that quiet, consoling, Chateaubriand nostalgia that merges into the mood of the white foam under the heavy, grey southern clouds. Then a frozen blue sky opens up, and snow covers the ridges of the endless, high mountain chains, the sharp, dry northern wind, the Bura, begins to blow, and we can sit in our lair, sheltered from the wind and look out at the sea with waves dashing on the shore like scattered pearls.

After that, spring, early spring almost in the middle of the inland winter. Everything changes again, now it is all white from the thousands of flowering trees and the Mediterranean fruit trees, and beyond this white the cobalt blue sea and overhead the deep blue sky. And peace, a splendid feeling of endless peace. These shores have the power of imparting peace. At all times of the day, at all times of the year, these are the shores of tranquility.

December 27, 2008

Charting the Caribbean (the way I remember it)

If you were to close your eyes for a moment and try to imagine the West Indies, what would you see? The sun rising blearily on an unruffled blue ocean? Timeless beaches of inviolate yellow sand, with the slight violet hue of colored shells? Long fringes of palm trees shaking of their sleep in the gentlest of breezes? Or mornings of bustling activity, as markets spring into life, with the first sunny voices echoing sonorously in the clearings down innumerable goat tracks as people throw out greetings to neighbors or acquaintances, and converge on the towns with their wares borne aloft, bringing yet more color to color? More down to earth, perhaps, you might think of awaking to a dazzling sun, emerging onto the terrace to a breakfast of mango or papaya in the still, warm air, and contemplating the ocean with the yachts basking contentedly in the harbor, awaiting their next port of call, that island in the distant haze…

Life in the Caribbean is this, all of this, certainly - but not only this. Each island provides a variation on the theme, a different note; each has its own personality. There are hectic islands like Trinidad, just as there are island, like Dominica, of deep mystery and peace, where nature still dominates man, where the great forests, rivers and eerie landscapes have barely changed in five centuries, and much of the terrain has scarcely been explored. Some islands are mere specks above sea level, figuring on mariners’ charts; others, those to the north, Jamaica, Haiti, Puerto Rico, are almost continents unto themselves. Uniting them all, is something languorous, carefree and anarchic in the atmosphere, difficult to pinpoint but recognizable as Caribbean.
There are islands and peoples which have been so marked by their colonial history that they have come to resemble their occupants’ lands: Barbados, as English as pudding in outlook, behavior, almost in landscape; St. Barthelemy, a Norman island in a Creole sea where the inhabitants still wear eighteen century costume; Willemstad could be nowhere but in the Dutch provinces. The sophisticated elite of Haiti manipulate French as though in an eighteen century Paris salon. All the islands have changed hands several times, Dominica no less than ten, to the consternation of the Caribs, who were never sure who the ruling party was.

Wherever one goes and whatever former colonial power put its stamp on the land, the Caribbean welcome is one of lighthearted abandon. Whether in the patter of Creole, the strident overtones of Spanish, or the lilting rhythm of English, with outrageous images from any source, the message invites one to loosen up. The West Indian himself has superb self confidence that is unprickable; prove him wrong, by sheer talk, he’ll prove he’s at least half-right.

It’s hard sometimes to put one’s finger on what is typically West Indian; one thinks one found it, only to see it vanish. But occasionally a scene appears to seize its essence. In the centre of a town, a slight scrape between a taxi and another vehicle. Both drivers emerge, rolling their eyes. The crowd gathers, curious. Will things turn nasty? Each driver unites his audience, turns his back on his adversary, and, disregarding him, harangues his followers. ‘Naw, I ain’t saying he wasn’t looking, mon, ar’m saying he wasn’t looking enough. I’m saying he wasn’t looking enough, not he wasn’t looking,’ and so on. From the movement of the crowd, one can feel the tug of the rhetoric. Soon one driver is left high and dry, and, with tail between his legs, addresses his adversary, who ‘nobly’ forgives him. As so often, the Caribbean solution has no need of the law.

To many travelers, the great charm of the West Indies is the complete aimlessness; one can sail from port to port, bath and lounge beside the beaches, without the slightest pang of conscience.

Because West Indian art is virtually nonexistent, it is all the more pleasurable to notice the use made of imagination all around one: the surrounds to doors, the ingenious use of hencoops, and the improvisation of everything from household utensils to means of transport. And the colors! Colors with everything.
Flowers everywhere, tropical shapes, tropical colors, and tropical smells.
And always, everywhere, the sound of music. At the drop of a hat, feet start tapping, bottoms wriggle, hands clap, music takes over. Music has more than once been called the disaster of the Antilles. But try to stop it! A stick, a bottle, a tin, a comb, some saucepans, and a band is formed. An occasion? Anything goes…

The soul of the West Indies speaks in the evening, when the sun goes down, the warm breeze brings with it smells, balms that one hadn’t noticed by day; the bays light up. Houses come to life, the rum begins to take effect, voices rise to rhetorical peaks-speeches that should have made history, and the sheer, unadulterated delight of talk for talk’s sake…outrageous hyperbole!

December 26, 2008

Reunion at last.

I am sitting here looking out to the ocean; this is as I remember it. The breeze has remained the same. Everything else has changed. The Island now resembles a suburb of ‘Anywhere’, same everything.
Here we are, twenty some years later, vertical, self supporting, self sufficient and ‘virtually’ normal. How fortunate for us to find the good doctor. FDA you blew it, big time! One beneficial side effect of MS, you age slower (you also live less). Small consolation, but a consolation. We analyzed the state of our world, and consider ourselves very, very lucky indeed. We share memories and catch-up.

Question: ‘Doris, how do you do it?’

-back to the opening paragraph. I am sitting here trying to unlock the Doris Code. Well, I do not take myself that seriously, but at the same time, I have figured some things out. After age 60, most things become obvious, I am sure that is true off all of us. I laugh at myself all the time - and I am self-deprecating. I have a black sense of humor about my life, the good and the bad.

As for Doris’ Code, it is a satirical commentary on women’s magazines, fashions, beauty, diet, health tips – the whole nine yards.
Usually, that stuff is treated so terribly seriously, and it is all very repetitive – we all know what diet’s about, we all know what we are supposed to do. How do you get to benefit from your personal experience? That is what I am talking about.

At a certain age, you stop wondering what is in style and you figured out what you can get away with. Purple socks! Indeed. I have stopped caring what people might think. With age comes the liberty to be you.

Oh yes, MS and the weight issue. We became liberated in the ‘60’s, I discovered dance, hiking, and other ways to be physical. In my twenties, I settled down with a husband in California. I started cooking for fun and gained plenty of pounds! I started to run and it worked. (I later found out that the neighbors were betting on my times around the lake – just like a horse!) Then, post MS diagnosis and treatment, it was possible for me to stay active. It was move or perish. I stayed mobile and retained lots of energy. If you are not naturally athletic, you will find it more of a challenge to stay fit. To stave off total deterioration, walking is best. In addition, forget about age being a negative factor. If you are walking and breathing then there is hope for you. You do not have to be perky, sporty, or politically correct to be in shape; you can be bohemian, eccentric, artistic, intellectual, left wing, right wing, or even existentially alienated and still benefit from being fit.

Keeping partners post diagnosis is a painful and private subject. Let us keep it private. I can be demanding (so I have been told). Not to tolerant of laziness. I have been through some rough periods, black moods, and excesses (no details). However, I now can access my ideas faster and my vision is clearer. It is all in there. A lifetime of acquiring knowledge, whether I knew it or not. I select what I am taking in, so as not to be controlled by it. I like to produce a body of work that makes sense to me and that says something positive as well.

We have lived a whole life already, and we are still here. Breathing, moving, with an incredible resource within us. We are the children of the post-war generation. We became the ’60’s generation, a unique group. Baby boomers worldwide tried to change everything. I meet people in their twenties who say ‘You are so lucky you were young during the 1960’s’. The post war period was an incredible sterile shutdown, driven by a crazed economic striving – and a sanitized, smug view of life. We rebelled against all that in the most violent way. Living through all that and surviving is the story of my generation. Many young people now look at us for inspiration; we are back in the ‘50’s again. We just do not learn from history (are you paying attention Clive?).

That’s it, so far-

December 20, 2008

Tales from cyberspace

Slowly without thinking, I have become married to my computer operating system. There are only six degrees of separation between Microsoft and all the other faceless corporations I am married too. I submit blindly to those corporations because they provide ‘essential services’. Now your business depends on the reliable functioning of the computer operating system so that is an ‘essential service’.

Microsoft is my gateway to cyberspace, they bill the gates, so to speak, and, after you become used to it, you go through those gates fearlessly, as if they were the gates to your own house.

Of course, you don’t have to pay when you pass through the gates of your own house, or I hope you don’t. Over the gates of your house, there is no inscription, or if there is, it’s usually your name.

The gates of Microsoft are more like the gates of hell, over which it says, ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.’

And you do, abandon hope, that is.

I have accepted all of this with weary resignation. When the operating system disintegrated the first time, I wanted to believe that it was an accident. I resurrected the station, and no sooner was I finished, when the operating system self-destroyed again. This time, I suspected something structurally wrong in the very gut of the giant. Losing your operating system is tragic; you feel alone in the world, just a flesh critter with no cyber-connections. It becomes an emergency.

I called Microsoft and wandered through Voice Mail Hell until Karl answered.
He admitted that there were problems.
‘What happens?’ I ask.
It gets corrupted,’ said Karl sternly, as if that ‘it’ had somehow been my fault.
I like to get precise answers from people that work in the field of technology; I am not holding a séance. I guess, I believe, could be and it’s are not terms associated with a straight forward subject.
‘What do you mean ‘it’? ‘It’ must be some flaw in the operating system.
Karl’s voice really hardened now: ‘There is no flaw in the Microsoft operating system!’ he answered officially, ‘It’ just corrupted, that’s all.’
‘Karl’, I said, ‘I do not want to spend every month diddling with the operating systems. There has to be a better way.’
Karl snickered; he has a sense of humor, and said, ‘I guess so!’
I guess, from Microsoft is not reassuring.
‘Karl, just tell me how does the Microsoft operating system become corrupted?’
Microsoft Karl ask if I would like to speak to a supervisor.
I hung up and found a better way.
I got divorced, and now live in sin with another operating system.

December 03, 2008

ALL RIGHT, its OFFICIAL…. this, that and everything else’s playmate of the year

The votes are in; we have our ‘Miss 2008’ (circa 1669)

A HIGH-FLYING BIRD (with apologies to you-know-hugh)

Noses as always to the grindstone, all of us went peeping high and then some, because our toothsome titian-haired trove, pick of the pix Sansbra La Nuit, actually lives right up atop the ceiling of Vaux-le-Vicomte chateau! Lives? Lives it up all right, for sultry snoresome Sansbra just adores nightlife, and still loves to adorn her luxureferous locks with plenty of Flower Power. Talking of power, Sansbra’s sometime hobby was lovely-amateur-lady-pilot. Amateur lady or amateur pilot is anyone’s guess - but Sansbra certainly got her wings! ‘After which’, avers our languorous come-hitter houri,’I thought I’d take a nap.’ Forty hundred thousand winks haven’t paled that roses-‘n’-cream complexion, and the concerted opinion of her many admirers - and what a concert, ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’ isn’t in it - is that a great future still yawns before her.

Hiding our blushes under a handy bushel in the formal park outside, we undertook to ask beauteous, somnolent Sansbra about her love life. Highflying' miss though she be, those cupidextrous lips certainly were not ceiled. Seems that after a first mordant never-to-be-forgotten date with the Sandman, she has spent most of her time in the arms of Morpheus. ‘He thimply won’t lethe me alone’ lisps our throttlesome odalisque. However, Sansbra’s really living for the day when she falls for, or on, Mr. Right. C’me up and see me s’metime, the air high around her seems to whisper, and don’t forget your ladder, daddy-boy.

Sansbra, 36-32-48, loves sports, ‘specially playing’possum – and best when that long feather duster comes ticklin’ around. But Mlle. La Nuit – Nightie Night to her best buddies – isn’t averse to intellectual pursuits too. She’s a ceiling wide authority on top-of-the-top-gear, that’s to say the three H’s, heads, hair and hats – from right up there she can tell a passing toupee from a purple rinse with her eyes closed. Talking of which, the only thing that really gets in Sansbra’s own hair is the perish-the-thought of whitewash – a real nightmare, she says, and enough even to disturb her Land of pulchritudinous Nod. ‘I well remember the day, comments languid Sansbra with a fetching little shudder, ‘when a lot of men came along with all the pots and ladders you ever saw. I thought then, ‘Sansie, this is it! The KO. Curtains, girlie, and great big dirty white ones at that!’ But it all turned out to be one of the biggest thrills of Sansbra’s whole life! The men were restorers! ‘Lovely gentlemen,’ cordially confirmed the sumbrous swanlet to our relieved ears, ‘and the feel of their camel’s-hair-brushes-mmmmmmmmmm! As much varnish as you liked too – bottles of it.’ Varnish is Sansbra’s favourite drink – ‘leaves you with a lovely clear head,’ she says. And her favourite cuisine, we ask? ‘Haute,’ of course, and her best- ever dish of all is a lovely big hairy spider, something outsize and on the bone of course, with lashings of cobweb ‘ a l’ancienne,’ please. No flies on Mlle. La Nuit!

November 30, 2008

Richmond Park, London

I spent a summer in the late1960's with a friend, and his friends, in Richmond Park. East Sheen to be precise. Then a sheltered backwater with no passing taxis, the nearest shop a car ride away and the journey to the City nerve-rackingly protracted.

My friend was accustomed and much preferred big city life-
‘Why did you buy a house in the country?’ I ask,
‘Well, it’s wild and beautiful and I have never had a house in the country’,
he answered and sighed.
‘What a shame to have the house stay empty all the time.’ I said.

At which my friend remarked that Tartars were extravagant by nature,
and with that curious faculty he possessed for linking a remote past with present life,
he told how Tamerlaine’s daughter-in-law was in the habit of throwing pearls to her goldfish, beating Cleopatra hands down for she, after all, only squandered one pearl on one man.

He also abhorred the ritual of a daily walk, and only reluctantly accompanied me. I had to scout for interesting venues. On our walks I made up stories to go along with the landscape.
Walking through Sheen Common, an area of dense woodland, he said it reminded him of Russia.
‘Let’s pretend we are in the Caucasus,’ I said.
He answered, ‘Your appetite for adventure would at last be satisfied. There’s everything. Danger, beauty, innocence, corruption, small-pox, syphilis, stagnation…’ well, that broke the spell.
I am sure the trees were astonished to hear my version of Richmond’s history.
‘All those walks they are as habit forming as drugs,’ he would say. The ritual still held. A day without a walk was somehow not right.
On one of our excursions we found Eel Pie Island and he was in heaven,
NIGHTLIFE at last!
It may not look like much, but Eel Pie Island was once home to the famous Eel Pie hotel where the Stones, The Who, Pink Floyd etc. all performed between 1962 and 1967.
Starting life as a 19th century tourist attraction, the hotel - with its sprung dance floor - hosted 'tea dances' in the 1920s and 30s.

Weekly jazz dances followed, featuring the likes of
George Melly, Ken Colyer and Kenny Ball before Rhythm & Blues took over in the early 60s.

Eel Pie Island was forced to close after the owner could not meet the £200,000 worth of repairs which the police had deemed necessary.

A brief renaissance saw the premises re-launched as Colonel Barefoot's Rock Garden, with progressive bands like Black Sabbath and the Edgar Broughton Band rocking the joint until a 'mysterious' fire put paid to the club forever in 1971.

Left on my own I went exploring-


With the exception of dockland, there is only one area of London where the River Thames is a constant presence. Running from Hammersmith Bridge south-west, and taking in among many others Richmond, before it rolls into the Surrey golfing suburbs of Virginia Waters

I call it Waterside-not Riverside, for one of the features of this region is the number of ponds and gravel pits towards its western boundaries that are now almost as much a source of recreation as the river itself.

This is largely flat country, which makes the views from such hills as do exist seem more dramatic than you would expect.
The most famous is from the terraces on Richmond Hill. Enjoy the early morning shadows along the Terrace at Richmond.
A prospect that has hardly altered in 200 years.

Walk up Richmond Hill from the town towards the Park in the early morning or at sundown. Below this gravel walk lined with ancient elms the Terrace gardens slope steeply to the Petersham Road, and below that, again is one of the finest views of the Thames to be had anywhere, The gardens used to be part of the grounds belonging to Buccleuch House, which was built on the Petersham Road. They were bought for public use in 1886.

A very different view, looking into London rather than away from it, can be obtained at Runnymede, worth a visit. Set high above the river, the terrace of the RAF war memorial looks out over the whole of south-west London, with a haze of the city center visible on the skyline.

Richmond Park has been used intensively for horse riding since its first designation as a hunting park by Charles I.

I dawdled along the Richmond towpath with the dogs, letting myself out by the blue gate under the fig tree where the wild ducks waited to be fed. I would stop before Cholmondeley House which was, I still believe today, haunted. What scenes, what talks, what exiles Cholmondeley House must have known.

Only in that part of England -London- could merchants escape just a few miles from their place of work to homes of remarkable comfort and quiet. You could walk, or bicycle, along the southern bank of the river from Hammersmith to Kingston and for much of the way find it impossible to believe that you are in the middle of a city.

I enjoy English country houses, so five miles of river downstream from Richmond was a must. You could catch Marble Hill house, Ham, Strawberry Hill, and thence to Hampton Court, surrounded by the flatness of Bushy Park, or, a little to the north of Richmond through old Isleworth, Robert Adam’s exquisite Syon House.

East Sheen was not the multi-racial, edgy, yet exciting, London of much of today’s inner city, but there’s no doubt that Waterside had its ‘secret charms’.

November 24, 2008

Autumn, again

Here it is, the rich golden light that announces for the umpteenth time that it’s autumn in the world. We are all hurtling toward a new year, resolved to make a difference, to make sense, to produce something.
After the losses of this year, there seems to be more room in the world, there are voids everywhere.
Two thousand-eight was a particular grievous year. People we loved died, people we love are struck by disease, people we love draw closer in an ever-tightening circle of grief. Dying and illness have a sober set of requirements. How does one say anything? No book can help you with this, because what you say must come from the heart and what’s in your heart is never in books, not even in the best ones.

Our friend Brigitte was the last of those who died recently. The past two years have seen carnage among my contemporaries. Our generation, all gone at once, in a boom, the way we have always been perceived, destination Comet Hale-Bopp.

Fall narrows like a wind tunnel and the end of the year is in sight. If we come out of it we should meet the new exigencies of the future, their faces veiled, their shapes unknown, their mysteries more promising and terrifying than ever. The future always lies in the womb of the autumn-the inevitable fruit of loss and promise. But hard like a seed in the flesh of it is the bitterness of this year.

And it was bitter.

November 22, 2008

Brigitte de Harrault

Today we would have celebrated her 62nd birthday. Brigitte, who so unexpectedly took her exit in September, or as Doris said, turned to ‘cosmic dust’.
How to describe her? How do you hold a rainbow in your hand?
And that is, ultimately, an appropriate question, because Brigitte was, in essence, light.
Like light, her properties were fluid as a wave in some interactions, and as hard-hitting as a particle in others.
Gently warm at times, but incisive when focused and coherent.
Capable of illuminating beauty as well as scorching that which was rotten.
When you got to know her, like light, she was made of a riot of colors and shades and wavelengths. Light, as telecom veterans know, when stimulated and decoded in the right ways, can carry an amazing number of diverse messages, in both directions, simultaneously, instantly, around the world.
We all knew, better than she did, that Brigitte was like light-fundamentally bright.
Brightness measured in what’s:
What were you thinking?
What are you up to?
What about this?
What if?
There is no need to rage against the dying of the light. Light affects us for a long time after it’s fused. We’ll be discovering energy reserves, and experiencing sun spots, for a while yet.
How do you hold a rainbow in your hand? If she were here in a more physical way, she might ask if we were working on the right problem. And if she could have disassociated from herself, a process she would have had fun with, she would ask if things needed to be solved at all.
Brigitte is now part of our experience. And she would tell us to process that experience. Having been brightened, warmed, and occasionally tanned and burned by Brigitte was not an annunciation. But it was an illumination that calls for reflection.
And if any one of us tried to bury what we felt about her, rather than feeling it, she would tell us, tersely, to remove the earth, and grass we had piled on those feelings.
She would command, Sod Off!

November 21, 2008

The life of an English Gentleman

(or: keeping your car dirty and your shoes clean)

THE IDEAL English gentleman has no more than two suits in his closet. He also has one wife and at least one dog. The dog usually sleeps in the same room as the gentleman and his wife.
He has been raised to believe that money is somewhat vulgar, and that a suitable profession would be chicken farming.
These and other morsels were revealed to me on my last trip.
The lecture was well received by all that listened. Everyone seems to be cataloging endangered species these days, and a favorite seems to be the elite Anglo-Saxon Homo sapiens.
Our lecturer’s views, himself a staunch member of this vanishing race, were appropriately witty and ironic. He was on a short foray from his family seat in Perthshire, Scotland.
His further claims – English gentleman do not live in London, and that they concern themselves almost exclusively with hunting and shooting. Life begins on August 12th, he was referring to Scotland’s main summer event-the opening of the grouse season.
In true gentlemanly style, he and his wife live in an inherited, drafty castle (called Hangover Hall by his friends, one of those big turreted piles designed by a committee of architects-oops sorry I let this slip).
What all gentlemen’s houses have in common are long, dark corridors, windows with inside wooden shutters, and a special arrangement whereby the kitchen is situated as far from the dining room as is architecturally possible.
‘That’s the way we live, of course,” he told me rather archly not enjoying my quips.
Women get short shrift from the gents, especially when married to one.
‘Gentlemen simple don’t call their wives sweetheart, or things like that.’
‘No, he refers to me as that gray old bag or whatever, said his wife, Diana, a pleasant, woman with a no-nonsense bearing.
(What is the male equivalent to an old bag?)
Our man is 100 percent Scottish (a fine qualification for an English gentleman).
The aforementioned two suits are: one for formal occasions, the other at the cleaners. His tie was cleverly spotted, and cigar ashes drifted down the lapels.
Suits last many years until they become threadbare, then they should be handed down.
His own models originally came from what he considers London’s finest tailor -Ligour, French & Standbury-not in Saville Row, but on Dover Street. Saville Row has become a habitat for pop stars, he observed.
His shirts come from Turnbull and Asser, on Jermyn Street. His polished shoes (a sparkling neat detail essential to the gentleman) are made by Lobb.
His cologne made popular by Edwards the VIII. ‘Women invariably call it the sexiest they’ve ever come across. So I only wear it when I go on the moors now.’
Flaunting of wealth is something to be avoided at all costs.
The old school tie is de rigueur, of course. But it must be the real thing.
‘You know, I’m not, strictly speaking, a true gentleman. I took up the writing of historical books. Writing is not a gentlemanly profession.’
Earning a living though, is not part of the training of the typical gentleman-a peculiar mixture of nanny-pampered schoolboy and bloodthirsty sportsman.
Gentlemen join wildlife preservations societies, and then devote their lives to keeping down the bird and animal population.
These men also thrive on the occasional war. They stride around in battle as if dressed for a Sunday stroll, convinced that the enemy is a very poor shot indeed.
And dogs do crawl into bed with gentlemen and their wives. This matey approach to dogs can be hazardous to house-watching. Our gentleman had a recent robbery. While his pony-sized Irish wolfhound snoozed peacefully near his master, the master’s lair was relieved of a sizable amount of heirlooms.
But dogs are like nannies, you never put them down.
A permanent nanny is a must. A gent’s wife must put up with the nanny as long as she lasts.
The gentleman’s wife doesn’t usually go shooting, but she is terribly athletic and rides to the hounds. True to form, Diana and I rode for hours, I was exhausted, she, just warmed-up for sundowners.
Furthermore a gentleman belongs to an exclusive club whose purpose is the opposite of sociability.
The car scene is tricky; Rolls-Royces, once acceptable, are now taboo. If the gentleman has inherited one he must make sure that it looks both old and not very clean. Our gentleman drove his into the rhododendron bushes where it sits abandoned. He now drives a suitably spotty and ash-littered Rover.
Gentlemen should be ignorant of things mechanical, except for guns. His, matched Holland and Hollands. The tycoons are buying Purdeys, and there is a 10-year wait.
When I ask about Americans qualifying as gentlemen, he hedges politely. I press on (not very gentlewomanly like). ‘I know several, he said, and they can be very gentlemanly. But the thing about Americans, they’re rather like old Etonians. As individuals, they’re all right; I love them to distraction. But together, they’re unbearable.’
I got news for you, everybody is that way. It’s the herd instinct.
Thanks be to heaven the weather stayed clement, we were not snowed-in. I had avoided the dilemma of trying to figure out how to murder a gentleman in a most gentlewomanly way, of course.

November 20, 2008

A Lebanese Mountain Oasis

Lebanon is an old land, a well seasoned strip of earth separating the sharp-ridged Lebanon Mountains from the Mediterranean Sea. For thousands of years the region had been a crossroads of the Near East, vulnerable to the attacks of one alien race after another.

Houses, like people, are far more interesting when they have stories to tell. They link us to other times and peoples in a way no history book could.

My friend Larissa and husband Eduard bought an 18th-century house in the Lebanon Mountains. In historical perspective it was relatively modern, an intriguing survivor of a venerable past.
And a designer’s challenge. When the house was bought, only its walls where standing; its labyrinthine chambers where open to the sky. (When originally built, certain rooms were intentionally left unroofed as cool summer spaces.) The architecture was restored to its original design. We made no radical alterations and the results were a timeless oasis of simplicity, comfort, and practicality.

All the windows had a view of the brush-covered highlands. Each room of the house opened onto a central courtyard-enclosed from the world, open to the sky, an oasis within the oasis.

According to a French journalist, Lebanon is a “land of passage, land of refuge”.

Unfortunately, it did not prove so for my friends…

November 15, 2008

Posting from the edge of the canyon


Since you felt at liberty to post your question publicly wondering, among other things, what strange, isolated, and remote part of the universe I inhabit these days.

I feel at liberty to write these thoughts in answer.

I have been thinking and reflecting seriously since the beginning of summer and the resurfacing of some unexpected feelings.

After I left the audio industry I realized fully that 'the one' would live permanently in a save niche in my heart. Many uninvited happenings intruded into my life, and as the years went by I composed to the idea of an impossible love. I could sit for hours trying to remember all the details about him and comfort myself with the feeling that if I died and people examined my heart they would find his name engraved on it.

When I occasionally came at close proximity I was terrified that I might be carried away by an impulsive act of mine. It was during the summer Olympics that my cousin, who was riding with the German Equestrian team, needed something out of the ordinary, urgently. We drove out to the Red Barn feed and saddlery. Bad idea! For weeks I felt devastatingly sad. But, ‘I was fine'.

So I made absolutely certain that in future I would keep a very long and cool distance. I put my heart into the deep freeze and my feelings into mothballs. And, 'I was fine'.

Until this summer, when an innocent conversation brought on this thunderclap from hell and my very emotional reaction (you can add your own adjectives of choice here I'm sure it's appropriate).

I am sorry to confess, that I have not recently allowed my prudent? nature to guide me and for that I apologize. Regardless, today that nature needs to dialog without wanting, or asking for anything, but just to say that all of me, the serene and the emotional, the good and the bad, the relaxed and the tense loves this man most dearly.

November 11, 2008

Real Visit to an Imaginary Country

to my friend Mona, Happy Birthday

I had lived in Germany from 1946 to 1958 and travelled extensively.
But I do not claim to know all of Germany, and East Prussia in particular was to remain terra incognita until the 1960’s.
My paternal Grandfather had always been in love with East Prussia, it was horse country, and as a member of the German cavalry close to his heart. My friend Mona loves horses almost as much as Grandfather did. It was decided to make the trip after Grandpa had reestablished contact with a friend who wanted to see his former home once more.

East Prussia has always played a prestigious and poetically charged role in the German spirit. Nations have long been fond of claiming possessions of distant, legendary lands. Such remote territory functions both as a reservoir for dreams and as a hinterland to which can be packed off mystics, miscreants, and other social misfits. India filled this role for England. America had its fabled Far West. Spain and Portugal had the South American Continent; France the Sahara.

East Prussia was the home of the Teutonic knight and the cradle of Prussia itself-the first Prussian king got his crown at Konigsberg in 1701. It has long retained the wavering aura of a dreamland, with its shifting dunes and lakes speckled by flocks of migrating birds. Its denizens include the European bison, the wolf, and the black swan. East Prussia was also the first German territory claimed by Russian forces in WW II. After the war, East Prussia was divided up between Poland and Russia. Danzig became Gdansk; Königsberg, Kaliningrad.

To make up for my lack of knowledge of the region I carried off all I could find in way of maps, photographs, memoirs, historical studies, and travel guides. My best find was the publishing house of Grafe & Unzer, formerly located in Königsberg. Moved to Munich, and continued stocking the memoirs of 2 million eastern refugees, with an imperturbable production of picture albums, memoirs, calendars, local recipes, and short stories written in the dialect of the lost land.

I also had the good fortune of finding the memoirs of Walter Frevert, the last keeper of the Rominten preserve. Rominten was the site of Göring’s chalet, the Jägerhof. Romingten became Russian territory, Fervert relocated to Baden-Baden in Germany. We met and talked and exchanged many interesting stories.

In Summer of 1968 we finally got to see it. I call came trough from Grandpa’s friend, he was leaving for East Prussia there was room for us in his car. We immediately accepted.

He welcomed us with all the cordiality his natural timidity and reserve permitted. He was as I had imagined, only more so. I had expected him tall and thin. He was very tall-6feet, 4inches, (2 inches taller than Grandpa)-and skinny as a rail.

I knew that his only reason for becoming a surgeon had been to devote his life to helping others. It was said that the royalties from his books-including an East Prussian diary that sold over 500,000 copies in Germany-went to the ecumenical monastery of Taizé, France.

This voyage into Poland (formerly East Prussia) had the quality of a film. This was due partly to my total passivity. Seated in the back of the big car with Mona, intermittently dozing and only half conscious of the talk coming from the front seat, I let myself be carried along without concern for itinerary or stops, as inactive as a moviegoer. Whence too, I suppose, the seeming unreality of it all. For our actions alone give reality its weight.

Our first stop was Berlin. It was not my first visit to the pseudo-capital, that absurd and tragic symbol of the gash the ideological war had cut between East and West.

The next day, we sped along the Autobahn towards Pomerania and the Baltic shore. East Germany was crossed with little fuss, and Poland entered with still less. First conclusion: the Eastern countries are easier to get into than out of. (We were to verify that on our return).

Our main destination was Olsztyn (formerly Allenstein) on the edge of Masuria. Once there we conducted forays through the countryside trying to locate the castles and subjects of our friend. These were surprising expeditions ending more often at charred walls and desecrated tombs. Our friend was most disturbed by the transformation of the grounds. After 35 years, old trees had fallen, new trees had grown. Some path had vanished and others had appeared.

Once, we walked for hours in a forest while searching for a manor. Three times we met living souls, as the expression goes, but the souls were in bodies so odd and twisted that doubt and alarm held us back. What manner of evil forest was this? The building loomed at last, handsome, well maintained, and haunted-but by most contemporary ghosts: the manor had been turned into an insane asylum. Steinort Castle, where Heinrich von Lehndorff was arrested in 1944, was being restored with considerable care, as was Preussisch Holland; as a matter of fact, a painter was in the process of restoring, high on the façade, the arms of the Dönhoff family, to which Preussisch Holland had belonged. On the other hand, homes more famous than these had been reduce to cinders by the Russians before they handed the sector over to Poland. This was true of Finkelstein Castle, where Napoleon stayed in 1812, and of the Teutonic fortress of Schönberg. At Rastenburg, bombs had devastated Hitler’s Wolfschanze, an imposing, windowless structure that seem to lean in all directions, at once off-balance and absolutely indestructible.

Our friend’s reunion with the woodsmen, craftsmen, and peasants of his estate completed his moral exhaustion. After an emotional exchange of greetings and old memories, he would have to accept their hospitality and spend the night. We returned to our comfortable hotel in Olsztyn, leaving our friend to fold his big frame into a sagging sofa. These people were Germans, naturalized as Poles. The elders said that they had never been able to learn the new language. The 40-year-olds spoke both languages fairly well. The children spoke only Polish. Their extreme poverty was neither worse nor better than before the war. It is easy to think that political regimes and economic fluctuation have little to do with everyday life at this level of simplicity, but such proposition is probably false. A rise of a few cents in the price of milk and potatoes can have an immediate effect on the very existence of these families.

We spend a week at the Liski stud farm, a veritable village serving the last breeding ranch for the Trakehnen horses; over 5,000 acres, including 2,000 in pastures, to feed 600 animals. We rode in hunting carriage-the driver in livery-around the splendid estate. Its large, traditional farm abounded with calves, cows, pigs, flocks of geese, turkeys, ducks and even storks astride great nests of branches balanced on chimney tops. The old-fashioned Polish farm, a hymn to the peaceful and bucolic life, is doubtless the equivalent of French farm 100 years ago.
The horse remained king in Poland (there were some 2,500.000). Cars were constantly held up on narrow roads behind teams of horses driven by women, their muscular forearms bared and brightly colored scarves on their heads. Wherever you went, the familiar, hypnotic clatter of shod hooves was never far out of earshot. It would be unfair, though, to say that progress had made no inroads: all carriage wheels had air tires.

A landscape is a state of mind. Ensconced in a big car laden with food for a king, we saw East Prussia as a gentle rolling countryside, fertile and sensuous, studded with majestic trees and dotted with picturesque lakes.

I have mentioned the storks, which plant their familiar angular forms on chimney tops and strut cautiously in the marshy prairies. We also saw black swans. From a lakeshore, we saw an island wholly given over the cormorants perched in black –and-white clusters in trees-big beeches that their droppings had stripped to resemble gallows. They go south every autumn, but when spring comes they return to take over that island in that lake, and none other in the entire region.

Our excursion led one day to Mohrungen, now Morag, a small town that boast a Herder museum in a big square house flanked by bronze cannon from Napoleon’s Russian retreat. Johann Gottfried von Herder-philosopher, critic, and leading theoretician of German romanticism-was born in Mohrungen in 1744. The letters, manuscripts, engravings, and maps in the little museum testify to his refusal, shared by other early romantics, ever to choose between science and poetry, mechanics and mysticism. With the same impassioned curiosity as Diderot, Lessing, d’Alembert, and other encyclopedists, Herder was to claim all of his life as his subject matter.
As we were leaving, a boy approached; clearly he had been waiting for us. With his long blond hair, blue eyes, and a Madonna-like face with salient cheekbones and pointed chin, he reminded of Novalis, the angled mechanic who had so well mixed metaphysical dreaming with his profession as mining engineer. The boy fell into step with us, insistently repeating a word we had trouble understanding. The mystery cleared when we reached the car. Motor! Said the young Pole, pointing at the hood of the car. He wanted to see the engine.

The hood was raised, and half of the angel disappeared from view as he plunged into the engine’s greasy, smoking entrails, and he caressed with loving respect, the still warm sides of the crankcase.

Our voyage ended in Krakow, once the royal residence and religious capital, and now a living museum miraculously spared in the war. We witnessed the remarkable turnout for Sunday morning Mass. We were told that for Poles, the church was the old and unconquerable fatherland, and impregnable camp that foreign-dictated political power could never invade. We heard a story that had circulated a few years ago when Archbishop Felton of Paris visited Warsaw. He had attended Sunday mass and been impressed by the crowd that overflowed into the square outside.”How do you attract so many people to church?” he asked the priest. “Me?’ the priest answered. “ I ring the bell.”

The next day we were on our way back to the West.