“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”
~Nelson Mandela

I think I’ve posted some of these photos before; maybe even in the very same arrangement: one next to the next; next to the next, but that’s only because after four years of living in this place, my time here has become a measurable epoch of my forty-plus years on this planet and I want to take note of it. Visiting this view each morning and every night has licensed it with a significance that I don’t yet fully understand. But I’m trying.

These photos were all taken from our back door over the past year or so. The water you see is the Hudson and the lights and the buildings belong to West Point Military Academy–which is flanked to the north (the right) by Crow’s Nest Mountain and to the south, by sixteen THOUSAND acres of land where the best and brightest eighteen year old aspiring American soldiers train for hand combat and chemical attacks. (Sixteen thousand acres just fifty miles north of New York City…think about that when you’re curious about tax implications and eminent domain.)

Our house here is creaky and old and drafty and cold and our bathroom is Pepto Bismol pink, but we get to wake up to this view every single day which, even after more than fifty months of mornings, persists as both a gift and a wonder. This view, and all of its iterations, leaves me awestruck when I think about the life that has happened–the battles with my heart  that I have fought and lost and the skirmishes with my soul that I have contested and won–during the time that it took for the river to freeze and then thaw; for all those leaves to darken and fall.

If you’ve been reading this blog regularly (errrr…or regularly until Gina and I got busy and distracted by rivers and vineyards) you know I’ve been lovingly envious of my friends’ journey and the opportunities they have EVERYDAY to see the world and themselves anew. The thing is, over the past few months; during this fifth winter of watching the same sky darken before 4pm and the same river steam like a volcano as it cooled and the same mountains stand majestic and still, I’ve begun to recognize the appeal of the endurance and opportunity in the stability.

Whatever really changes but ourselves–no matter where we are?

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Throw-Back…Friday?

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Gina, circa 1989 studying in her UPenn dorm. Christine, circa summer 1989, relaxing one last time before sophomore classes begin.

While Gina and her family traveled around Germany and Eastern Europe during the past two weeks, our family embarked on a different kind of journey. One that kept us (mostly) sleeping in our own beds each night, but transformed all those hours between bedtime and morning seem as if we were living in a foreign land. Over the summer Ray realized that it was time for him to put away the shingle for his small, home-based event production company and head back into the world of full time work in New York City. I, having not had any luck in the finding-a-teaching-job department, took on a bit of part-time work that has me running in several directions at once.

Our sweet little house by the riverside, once buzzing with activity all day long, is now quiet during the days what with Noah at school, Ray in the city and me…at one place or another. Poor Luca is home alone a lot these days, and is making us pay for our abandonment by jumping onto our bed each night and snuggling between us (something he’s never done before/we never let him do). I suppose we’re all trying to take advantage of the scant “together time” that we have now. So far this new chapter has been a wild ride and one that I don’t see an end to for quite some time as we get used to new schedules, missed meals together and calendar snafus. It’s an adventure, to be sure, and one that will hopefully be worth it in the end.

All this is just to say that I won’t be putting up a proper blog post today. Instead, I am treating you to that gorgeous photo history of Gina and me twenty-five years ago–right around the time the Berlin Wall fell. These photos were taken when we were in college in different places. Before husbands or kids, before we knew what we now know. We weren’t yet friends but we both watched that magnificent history unfold from vastly different perspectives but what I think is a shared passion for trying to make sense of and connections with the changing worlds around us.

Lucky, too, for both of us, our shared fashion sense was already intact.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 25th Anniversary Berlin!

Happy Friday everyone! During the last 10 days or so, we’ve been enjoying another road trip around Europe during the kids’ fall break from school. Although I have yet to evolve a stress- and anxiety-free way to enjoy these longish, multi-country excursions with Stefan and the kids, they will undoubtedly still go down as one of the best parts of our time living in Italy.

This journey ended up taking us to interesting places that aren’t only historically significant, but that intermingle with our own families’ histories as well. We found connections in Dachau, Prague, and Vienna, but it was our visit to Berlin and its infamous wall that once separated democratic West Germany from communist East Germany, that was especially meaningful for me, and not just because this weekend marks 25 years since it fell. My family emigrated to the US from communist Cuba, and it was both comforting and frustrating to uncover just how similar the German and Cuban experience has been. As in the case of East Germany, the communist government in Cuba has erected obstacles, much like the very long and winding Berlin wall, which have split families apart and isolated a population.

That’s probably why I was glued to my little TV set in my college dorm room in 1989, teary- eyed at the sight of East Germans insisting on passage through the wall. A still very young news network, CNN, was broadcasting all these jaw-dropping images, and I remember calling my mother to ask if she was seeing what I was seeing. We sat there in silence on the phone just flabbergasted by the moment. Most of the East Germans weren’t interested in staying in West Berlin, although some had surely been yearning for that freedom for decades. Instead, the majority just wanted to be able to go where they wanted to go, see who they wanted to see. Shop, eat, visit with family and friends, and then head back home.

Somewhere between the long silences, we decided that my mom should just come over to my dorm room, so we could watch the coverage together. She was there within the hour and we watched as the gates opened and hundreds of faces poured through. Some were crying, others yelling happily, yet others looking completely astonished, as if they couldn’t believe this was happening at all. We were overjoyed for these Germans, as we saw a sister run into the embrace of a brother waiting on the West side; a group of teens, in all their late-80s gear, dance on top of the wall; and an East German soldier smile widely and give a rose to a girl on the other side, as if no one in the whole wide world was more relieved than he was. It was quite emotional up in that university high rise apartment. In part, of course, because the parallels to our family, stranded behind the formidable waves of the Caribbean instead of a cement wall, were far too clear. We couldn’t help but wonder, what if…

 

(Click on photos to enlarge.)

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The part of the wall that has been preserved with murals commissioned right after its fall, is part of the East Side Gallery. The neighborhood now feels like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, grittier and cooler than the rest of Berlin, but just as sophisticated and modern:

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This one’s for you, Mami!

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Leeloo’s come up with a very endearing new habit… listening to history through architecture. “Mom! It’s like I’m there and the soldier is giving the girl the flower!”

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For my Italian peeps/ Per i miei amici italiani:IMG_0512

 

This image evokes a way of life with which I’m quite sure my relatives are painfully familiar:

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How do you say “perestroika” in Spanish?

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Somebody made sure that I didn’t get too romantic about the whole thing with this insightful graffiti, in Spanish nonetheless! (Sons of bitches. Stop lying. We haven’t learned anything.)

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Yet, a girl can keep dreaming. IMG_0545

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I like that Leeloo serendipitously added her face to the hundreds in this scene, re-playing what I saw on my TV in ’89. She’s got quite a few cousins that I can’t wait to see pass through their own wall someday. Hopefully, not another 25 years from this anniversary.

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Falling Again

As I sit here in front of my open second floor window, the delightful smell of wood burning in the distance is wafting into our home office, a signal that colder days are surely right around the corner. Although today it’s mostly sunny and 75. A little lizard is happily basking in the sunshine streaming in through our screen. The neighbors, way across the fields, are the ones burning wood. I’m not totally sure why, but I love the smell anyway. The acres in between us have been buzzing with tractor activity as the farmers work, day and night, to get seeds in the ground before the cold arrives.

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Just this morning, as I was hanging a few things out to dry on the line in the backyard, a military-looking Land Rover with the windows banged out, drove up onto the adjacent field, one that was overflowing with chick peas just a month ago, and out jumped Luca, the guy responsible for all these crops. He whistled a melody loudly as he walked towards me, in an effort not to startle me in the quiet of the morning I think. Once we saw each other, he yelled over a cheery “Bongiorno Gina!” (Good morning Gina!) I told him I had noticed all the hard work going on all over the property this last couple weeks and he shared that the fields around our house were being planted with wheat today. On cue, a tractor, driven my his brother, went by in the distance, dropping seeds out a giant funnel. “In bocca al lupo!” (Good luck! or literally “In the mouth of the wolf!”) I shouted to the fields as he continued on. “Crepi!” (“May the wolf die!”) he said giving a quick glance back at me.*

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But back to my sunny window, the seasonal reminders visible from my perch over an active farm are varied and plentiful. Aside from the nonstop planting that’s going on now, there were the apple and pear trees just beyond the backyard that provided buckets of delicious fruit in September. (It would probably take us a few years to figure out how to really take advantage of it all, and how to do it before the calabroni (giant bees) beat us to it.) Then, there were the wildflowers of September that lined all of the gravel roads throughout the hills. Red poppies, cow parsley, dog rose and spear thistle were the ones we recognized. The vendemmia (grape harvest) that I mentioned last week, and the harvesting of all the other crops happened as Fall officially began. The Persimmon tree in the front yard blossomed in October, just like last year, when we were surprised by its dark orange fruit after returning from Halloween in the States. It’ll be the last fruit that we’ll see until Spring brings back the cherries that freaked us out earlier this year. But the pink, red and magenta roses that still cover what used to be the horse stable and barn are still blooming this month, and should be going until the first frost.

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You can’t help but be moved, emotionally and physically, by the rhythm of it all. And I don’t just mean that the beauty of nature can effect me, although it definitely does. Being this enveloped by it, seems to have strengthened the notion in my head that we’re just another part of this giant creation, one that is just as susceptible to its seasons as these crops and trees. And when I’m truly in sync with this truth, I feel less stressed, more calm, knowing that I’m following a cadence that’s existed for milennia. Simultaneously though, nature’s  incredibly efficient time-keeping, propels me into action, much better than any clock or calendar ever could. In the sense that I feel compelled by it to get out there – get those hikes in, eat on the patio, ride my bike, pick that fruit, wear those skirts, etc, etc, before the next season ushers me indoors for months!

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Leave it to the Italians to have the brilliant idea of placing Stations of the Cross all along a rather steep and arduous path in Parco della Chiusa, a lovely public park near our house! (Click to enlarge.)

Before we know it, Halloween will be here. And for this family, it’s usually a downward spiral of activity from there, one that we usually recover from in March some time. This year, it’ll start with Halloween in the Czech Republic, then Thanksgiving (if we can find some willing Americans to share it with us!), then four important birthdays, followed by a family trip to Paris, then back home to Philly and New York for Christmas and New Year’s with the family and friends. My normal tendency is to see all of this before me, and start to panic. Instead, however, I might try taking a lesson from Mother Nature as I sit here breathing in that wood smoke, and note that each of these things will happen in its turn. In between, the plants will keep growing, the seeds germinating, the sun will go up and the sun will go down, over and over again. There is space to breathe in there somewhere, so that all of that goodness can be enjoyed instead of just worried about.

So here’s to a beautiful Fall everyone! And hopefully a nice, slow entry into winter and all the holiday merriment that comes with its start.

* (The internet says this Italian way of saying good luck may have come from rural life in another time when a wolf would have been a danger to a farmer’s animals. Going into the mouth of the wolf would have been about going towards or being in danger, so the appropriate response is to hope the wolf will die, so the danger will go away. There’s another popular way to wish some one luck that involves going into the business end of a whale. No idea how they came up with that one!)

 

Autumn’s Arrival

A former yoga teacher I once studied with, while attempting to guide our class of restless New Yorkers through a pranayama (breathing/meditation) exercise, likened a full breath cycle to the sequence of sunlight in a 24-hour period here on Earth. He wanted us to pay attention to the two obvious portions: the rising part (the inhale) and the setting part (the exhale), but more important, we were to notice the less obvious spaces that separated those two–the metaphorical equivalents of dawn and dusk. We were to observe the brief intervals of time when our breath seems suspended–just after an inhale and then again after an exhale–and to investigate what happens in our bodies and to our minds when we really focused on those parts. Try it now; I’ll wait.

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So…? I’m sure you didn’t do it, but give it a try the next time you’re laying in bed and can’t sleep. It’s a pretty interesting practice. I remember getting nervous and even a little bit panicky at first as I waited in, and even courted, that in-between time. It was a sensation that made me breathe quicker and more urgently–not the state of mind that that yoga teacher was trying to cultivate in students who were desperate for a way to calm down.

I remember, too, wanting to get back to the marquee moments of breathing as quickly as possible. I felt safer there because it was what I knew. We gulp for air when we’re winded. We try to breathe easy when we’re scared. We run, we breathe. We swim, we breathe. Childbirth seems like one big practice in controlling your breath (and your body fluids). Usually we only think about taking breaths and releasing breaths when it’s the transition times that are the most compelling and, dare I say, transformative.

Once I started practicing slowing down, once I actually made a point of noticing what was going on with the parts of my breath that weren’t active or obvious, I actually began to relax and hold off my more rapacious instincts. It was almost as if, during those brief intervals when my breath was on hold, that my mind got turned off (in a good way), too. And that, for all who know me and have had the pleasure (i.e. the pain) of listening to what goes on in my mind, is the definition bliss.

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I mention this now because of the change of seasons that we’re in the midst of; a change, mind you, that I’m not taking very well. I don’t like the fall. Sure, it’s pretty and it is a bit easier to sleep at night on account of the cooler temperatures, but it being fall mostly just marks the beginning of me being cold for the next five months. And wearing socks. Coming off the grouchy-pants year I’ve just had, however, I’m trying to appreciate, if not enjoy, this time of year…which is how I got to thinking about the breathing thing.

See, the calendar year is broken up into four parts, too, and right now we’re in one of those in-between times: fall.

Not that fall doesn’t have a temperament and actuality all its own. People here in the northeastern United States are very demonstrative and vocal about Autumn being their very favorite time of year. It’s high wedding season in the HudsonValley (an even more popular time to get hitched than in June) and every Saturday and Sunday brides, clutching bouquets of dried hydrangeas wrapped in burlap twine, stand with their grooms for photos all along the river’s edge. Our hiking trails are teeming with Brooklyn hipsters and other city folk. The frenzied squirrels in our yard are gathering nuts and seeds at a frenzied pace, as if their lives depend on it; which, of course, they do. What with all of that activity and its natural beauty: the crimson and cadmium leaves, the crisp air laced with the sweetness of ripened apples mixed with smoke from newly lit chimneys, it’s a lovely time of year.

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For all of its unique qualities, however, fall–like that pause after the inhale–is a space between. Acquaintances never ask “How was your fall?” or lament about “What a long autumn it’s been!” It’s like fly-over country for seasonal-speak. Fall is the time between the two gaudiest and blatant seasons and is composed of a temperature gradient as inconsistent as it is variable. It’s days reflect both summer and winter: not uncommon are 75 degree late-October afternoons or frost warnings in early September. Fall is an amalgamation of what came before it and what we imagine will come next.

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If fall serves as the culmination of summer (the harvest, the end of the life cycle for certain plants and insects/a dormant time for others) as well as a time when we humans prepare for the intensity of cold and snow and what will come, than isn’t it the very best time for silence and reflection, too? In the fall we put the patio furniture away, ready the flower beds for latency and put snow tires on our car (or, in Gina’s case, chains on the tires). It’s a time when we’re required to clean up from the three month fiesta of sunshine and bare feet and gird our loins in anticipation of the drop-kick into wool skivvies.

At its very essence fall is the moderation between two extremes. At its very essence it begs us to stop. To wait. To take note. To set an intention. We’ll be moving as soon as winter arrives. We’ll have no choice. We have to stay warm.

So, I’m keeping careful watch of myself this week, lest I get too nostalgic lamenting the exiting warmth and ease of summer, and too concerned about the impending trials and tribulations of winter so much so that I miss out on the quiet respite and beauty and tranquility that fall provides. By pushing this metaphor to the limit today–and I’m sorry about that–I’m hoping that I will learn to appreciate autumn for what it is. I’m hoping that I can rest in its quiet and absorb its moderation and be, if not happy, than content.

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Midsummer’s Mirth & Melancholy

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‘Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing’ by William Blake

Today is July 15th so technically it’s well past midsummer here in the Hudson Valley. When the term is used correctly, midsummer denotes the celebrations and festivals that mark the summer solstice and the longest day of the year–an occurrence that falls at the end of June. Today–three weeks after the longest day of 2014–the earth has already begun to tilt its northern hemisphere away from the sun, incrementally adding minutes to our nights and steadily marching us towards winter and darkness. Midsummer, at this point, really is just a dream.

But forget science and poetics for a minute. I’m taking license with the term and using it to describe the fact that today feels to me, psychologically anyway, like the middle of summer; the safest, best part of the year. It’s equidistant from the end of the chilly spring and the arrival of the chilly autumn. We’re living inside the few weeks of the year when it is completely and truly Summer.

Here at the riverside we’ve fallen into a slow and soothing routine–no school for Noah means long, relaxing mornings in our pajamas when we make waffles and Nescafé and walk the dog together before heading out to camp or on the day’s errands. Some days we’ll have a fancy lunch outside and coax Ray out of his office to join us for a little while. Afterwards we’ll water the herb garden, check the tide and maybe go on an afternoon paddle. Longer, brighter evenings mean late dinners in the gazebo, sunset swims with Luca and candlelit games of chess accompanied by pizza and wine. Even though Ray’s work is busy and I’m still (frantically) looking for a job, the pace of our days is unhurried, and I find myself bursting with contentment, especially on nights when it looks like we’re doing nothing at all.

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Checkmate.

There’s magic in the air right now–and not only because of the canopy of blinking fireflies covering the yard and all that birdsong at dusk. Sitting outside at 9pm, barefoot and wearing a sundress, IS the very definition of summer to me. It’s that simple. The humidity pressing against my skin is healing and the cool flagstone underneath my feet is comforting and the  gentle purple twilight creeping in over the river melts away all of the stress from the day’s job search and softens the worry about paying next week’s bills. Peace descends with nighttime in the summer. And surrender. During winter, night falls like an ax, violent and deadly–uprooting all of my anxiety and leaving it exposed and writhing at my (sock covered) feet.

Laughter is easy during summer, too. Even when storms move at us across the river and threaten a perfect evening. We always stay outside until we hear the first rumble of thunder and then Ray and Noah and I quickly blow out the tea lights and gather the dishes and the chess board and run inside, trying (and not trying) to dodge the fat drops of warm rain. We race around the house closing the windows and comforting the dog (who hates storms) and eventually end up on the couch together, damp and laughing and out of breath. These are moments when lightening seems like a blessing. Or an answered prayer.

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“15” is half of something, right?

But each passing day, as lovely and mirthful as the cumulative moments of them might be, is just bringing us closer and closer to the inevitable season(s) that come next. Three of them. Three of them that are mostly made up of days and nights that are dark and gloomy and cold.

This reality came charging at me the other day when I went outside to water the garden and noticed that one of our tomatoes had turned red. Ripened tomatoes on the vine, along with the early corn you can now find at farmers’ markets around here, are a sure sign that summer’s song is coming to its inevitable end. After all, the ripening of said fruit is the final stage in the life cycle of this plant; and of this season. All that’s left is the thing falling to the ground and decomposing or, you know, me cutting it up and eating with a nice fat wedge of mozzarella and a sprinkle of salt.

Harrumph.

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first tomato

It takes a pretty cynical soul to lament the arrival of a garden’s bounty, but the folks who know me best won’t be surprised by my perspective. Maybe I’m extra sensitive to  summer’s mellowing because of the very long, very snowy winter that we endured this past year and I just don’t want to be cold again. Maybe in my older age (I’ll officially hit the ‘mid forties’ next month) I’m simply more aware of the passage of time.

My suspicion, though, is that my melancholy is the result of something else; specifically my inability to recognize and feel gratitude. Yep. Gratitude. I mean, sure, I say “thank you” when it’s socially appropriate–I’m not a exactly a heathen–but the thanks I give is, at best, intellectually driven. I can be obsessively polite and self-denying to a fault, but the “thank yous” I offer seem lifeless and gaunt and, at times, insincere. Like my appreciation (or, rather, my lack of) for that tomato and the soil and all that sunshine and rain. My suspicion is that I’m mistaking sadness for gratitude. It’s midsummer after all, and not time to lament. We’re heading to New Hampshire to see my brother and his family this coming weekend and Gina will be here, sitting at my kitchen table, very soon. In a few weeks we’ll get to party in Philly with my favorite adopted family and then, just a day later, we’ll party at the Cape with my real one.

The thing is, it is summer NOW and it’s high time I realized that before it’s not anymore. Thank goodness I have half a season left work it out.

Summer Nostalgia

When I was a kid, our family summer vacation always included going to the beach, and then doing next to nothing for a solid week. During the rest of the year, my dad’s schedule involved working 10-hour long days, usually six days a week, and my mom’s consisted of holding together everything else during those long days (and nights.) Given this, it’s not at all surprising that vacation meant parking ourselves under an umbrella on a hot, sandy beach with a cooler filled with sandwiches, soda and beer, and absolutely nada on the agenda. That kind of full stop is what I’m craving right now as we race past the middle of summer, with 2 trips out of the country, a few road trips, 3 sets of guests, and more than a few local events under our belt, and with much more to come before the end of August rolls around.

All of this movement has me thinking about one of my parents’ preferred locations for their restful summer pause from the stress of everyday life, Wildwood, New Jersey. If you’ve never been, Wildwood is a one-of-a-kind East Coast beach town populated by 1960s art deco motels, many of them conceived with a design theme like the Casa Bahama or Lollipop Motels. 

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It’s just a 3-hour drive from Philadelphia, but we’d get up extra early to pile all of our things into the Buick, and make it to the shore before lunchtime. I remember the excitement in the car as we neared our destination, and started to smell the fishy air of the bay and feel the warm, salty breeze coming in through the rolled down windows. Vacation began at that very instant. We packed our sony walkmans, mad libs, tiger beat magazines and invisible ink fun pads back into our sacks, knowing that soon we’d be winding through Wildwood looking for our colorful ocean side motel.

There was yet more anticipation as my dad went into the motel office to get the keys to our room. Which floor would we be on? Would we be near our cousins? Would the strangely alluring ice machine be closeby? Would we face the pool? The beach? Would we have a balcony? Which bed would my sister and I get? Would the room have a kitchenette? It was enough to keep two little girls giggling and bouncing around the giant backseat of the car for hours. Luckily for my mother, it was over in minutes, as we raced after my father to uncover all the mysteries held by our motel room. By that time, the cousins had probably arrived and were doing the same. A lot of running back and forth between rooms usually then ensued as our parents lugged in our bags and beach gear.

Shortly after a quick lunch at the motel’s diner and a change of clothes, we would all climb the stairs down to the beach to set up our spot for the day. Beach towels were arranged side by side, two or three umbrellas were driven into the sand and opened, the cooler was strategically placed between my dad and uncle, and our bags of multi-colored buckets, shovels and sand sifters were dropped close, but not too close, to the adults. And that was it. There we would exist, between the motel and the beach, the beach and the motel, for five or six days. Well, that was almost it.

We’d be deliciously exhausted by the sun, sand and water every evening, but managed, at least 2 or 3 nights out of the week, to make it over to Wildwood’s Morey’s Piers, a seemingly never-ending wooden boardwalk, packed with rides, games, food and t-shirt stands. I only wish I had a picture of the totally rad air-brushed baseball shirt that I got on the boardwalk in 1980… light pink sleeves and a white torso, a black and white checked background on the chest, my name in graffiti emblazoned over the top, complete with sparkling stars. In addition to getting totally awesome shirts, we tried our luck at picking yellow plastic ducks out of a spinning pond for prizes, devoured delicious funnel cake and cotton candy, and then tried to keep them down while spinning on the super loud music express train.

But in the morning, we’d be back at the beach with nowhere to run to, nothing on the schedule at all, no monuments, no historic sites, no lunch reservations, no crazy dinners, no event start times, and no summer homework. It was great for us kids, but frankly, we probably would have been fine anywhere school was out. I realize now, that for our parents, it may have been an even more special place, and the perfect way to rest their bodies and minds. They were too far from home and work to be weighed down by their normal responsibilities, yet the surroundings and people were familiar and comfortable. They weren’t tethered to a smart phone beeping with messages or news from the world outside the beach. All they had to focus on was not losing their joy-filled kids and keeping the overflowing cooler in the shade. Magic.

I’m very grateful for all the things were able to do and see over the course of one summer, but next time around, I’m going to keep Wildwood in mind, and make sure there’s at least one week of the summer just like it. For now, we’ll have to steal some lazy moments when we can, like this rare occurrence from yesterday, all of us sitting at the same time, in the same place. Magic.

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Hudson River, New York, USA

This summer is turning out to be a ‘stay-at-home’ time for our family here on the western edge of the Atlantic. It’s not that we’re trying to be sedentary, but life’s predicaments, as they sometimes do, have dictated a season of job searches (for me and Ray) and local day camps (for Noah) and we’re trying to make the best of it. Honestly, it’s been a pleasure to stay home, as we’ve never really spent an entire summer here, watching the leaves get greener and the endless parade of storms pass through the valley. Other years we’ve traveled during summertime; looking out and over there for inspiration and delight.

Lingering at the edge of the river is not only proving to be beautiful and serene, but is offering us plenty of opportunities to observe difference and the reshaping of the world that is happening all around us, all the time. Sure, this physical staying in the same place requires discipline and a keen eye when it comes to noticing the world–it’s easy to stop seeing the sunset over the river each night or our resident cardinal’s daily breakfast routine. Attention to what is happening around you is a necessary element of remaining open-minded and not developing tunnel vision about one’s life. It is vital to immerse oneself in difference and to discern variations in the natural world, a practice that is automatic when traveling but less so when you’re staying in one place.

When you’re staying in one place some transformations, typically those that take weeks or months to happen–think springtime or tomatoes ripening on the vine–can be missed or noticed only after a change is so pronounced (the snow is GONE, the tomato is RED) it’s impossible not to see it. In those instances we miss the melting, the subtle shades of pink and that’s a shame. Sometimes, though, changes are abrupt and forceful and are good to notice for just that reason. Here are a few photos taken from roughly the same location over  the last week or so. Variation, indeed.

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Let Us Eat Cake

“The first year was like icing. Then the cake started to show through …”
― John Ashbery

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When Gina and I decided to write posts marking the one year anniversary of their move to Bologna (we started this blog about half a year later), I thought that all I’d have to say about the matter was that I was lonely and that I missed them and that I wanted them to PLEASE COME BACK, and while I am sometimes lonely and I do miss them fiercely, these are not, surprisingly, my only thoughts on the matter. (Wanting them to come back is simply an unfluctuating state of mind that requires no explanation or justification.)

It’s strange, from the perspective of this side of the blog anyway, to write about their move as if it happened to me; as if the new life they’ve made for themselves on the other side of the world has anything to do with me at all.

Over the past year I had the good fortune of landing at its airport and strolling around its narrow streets and hearing, peripherally, about its quirks and quaintnesses but Bologna, in all the ways that really matter, remains as foreign to me as it did a year ago. I mean, Boise remains as foreign to me as it did a year ago, too–but what separates Bologna from Boise in my life at this moment of time anyway, is that I haven’t given the latter city a minute of thought over the past twelve months and sometimes Bologna, the intimate stranger that it has become, seems so close that it visits my dreams.

Gina and Stef moving away from here changed my life in ways that I’m just beginning to notice now, one year out. There are obvious ways of course, like the reality that fewer conversations take place between us and we have less knowledge of the day-to-day goings on in one another’s lives. Sometimes I worry that I’ll be replaced by newer, cooler friends or harbor concerns about being forgotten altogether. The Bouvarez clan moving out of our town also means that Leeloo has lost teeth that we didn’t celebrate and that Zoel grew a mop of hair (and cut it off) before we were able to run our fingers through it and that Noah had fewer fans cheering him on at the Middle School play. Most conspicuous, of course, are the many, many Friday nights that have passed–that will pass–when we’re not sitting at the same table together breaking bread.

My perspective is not as simple as labeling myself as a Friend Who Was Left Behind. The truth is their moving had NOTHING to do with me. I’m not a victim of their circumstance any more than I’m the victim of my own life. This situation, the Here and There configuration of this blog and of our friendship, is simply the context within which I am (we are) living life right now. That I am choosing to spend several hours a week highlighting the disparity (and the homogeneity) of our daily existences has forced me to bring many moments of this past year into focus in a way I might not have if our friends had stayed here and our lives had just continued on as they were. The digging deeper into my life that this kind of constant scrutiny entails, in me calling the details of my thoughts and actions to the front of my attention so they can be examined and understood…this move, their move has, stealthily and steadily transformed me as well.

The whole premise of this blogging endeavor was predicated by the different trajectories we realized my and Gina’s lives would be taking from the juncture of their flight to Europe forever onward, but the truth is our lives were going to follow different trajectories even if they had stayed in that house a mile down the road from us. The other-ness of other people’s lives (especially those of our loved ones) might be less obvious when we are all are painting with the same verb conjugations and a similar culinary palate, but there are a million ways to be American or a New Yorker or ‘From Garrison’, too. If we don’t pay close enough attention to what’s going with ourselves in relation to the people around us (which we usually don’t when our lives appear pretty similar on the surface), we miss everything the contrasts and convergences and the fact those differences are always, always there, can teach us.

Relationships, long-distance or next door, must always find their way around obstacles and impediments if they are going to survive and thrive. This year the Atlantic Ocean and five time zones proved challenging to the intimacy of my relationship with my friends (luckily love and connection and the want to stay in touch are present in both camps) and, sure, it’s been annoying (sometimes) and inconvenient (all the time), to drive by their old house and have to stop myself from pulling up their (old) driveway when I need a talking to and a healing cup of tea. Instead, I call or I email or I take a walk by the river and imagine the conversation and their advice and I feel better. Stef and Gina are still here in my life, they’re just not Here.

Geography, I’m learning, is not the insurmountable adversary to intimacy that I once thought it to be.

Here’s where I’m going to get polly-anna-ish, but bear with me: what if changing the perspective of a relationship can, perhaps, bring to light qualities (delightful qualities), in the other person that you weren’t able to discern from your original, up-close vantage point? Most certainly if you, ahem, consider the situation of friendship and togetherness diligently and then closely investigate the experience of being separated from someone you love, you will, at the very least, bring to light unexplored qualities in yourself. And that’s not nothing.

Increasing the physical distance between two people has proven to be the downfall of many friendships and loves (especially when paired with a wandering eye and anemic efforts to connect on one or both persons’ behalf), but it is my hope that the opposite result has the potential to be realized, too.

As Gina and I enter this, our second year of long-distance friendship and prepare for the second birthdays and holidays we’ll spend apart; now that our memories of “last year at this time” already allows for her absence at my kitchen table (and me at hers), I’m hopeful that the deeper elements of our connection–and a more profound appreciation of one another’s unique situations and sensibilities–will emerge from under the delicious but sugary glaze of honeymoon-love and the necessary but not always profound fondness and adoration that’s present at the beginning of a relationship.

I always scrape the frosting off slices of cake–the good stuff lies beneath it.

 

More Pleasant Adventures (by John Ashbery)

The first year was like icing.
Then the cake started to show through.
Which was fine, too, except you forget the direction you’re taking.
Suddenly you are interested in some new thing
And can’t tell how you got here. Then there is confusion
Even out of happiness, like a smoke—
The words get heavy, some topple over, you break others.
And outlines disappear once again.

Heck, it’s anybody’s story,
A sentimental journey—“gonna take a sentimental journey,”
And we do, but you wake up under the table of a dream:
You are that dream, and it is the seventh layer of you.
We haven’t moved an inch, and everything has changed.
We are somewhere near a tennis court at night.
We get lost in life, but life knows where we are.
We can always be found with our associates.
Haven’t you always wanted to curl up like a dog and go to sleep like a dog?

In the rash of partings and dyings (the new twist),
There’s also room for breaking out of living.
Whatever happens will be quite ingenious.
No acre but will resume being disputed now,
And paintings are one thing we never seem to run out of.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 1st Anniversary!

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I’m sitting on the floor of the living room of this old farmhouse built in 1836 by the Modrone family for their workers. The beautiful evening light of the sunset is streaming into our backyard, my decaf caffè lungo is next to me on the table, and a strong feeling of home pervades. We’ve only been here a year? How is that possible? It feels much longer, certainly more than a year’s worth of events have transpired (trips, lessons, plays, visitors, a book, an album, more trips, more visitors, a blog, a graduation, a recital, etc, etc…).

Before assuming this very comfy position on the rug, looking out onto the sun-filled porch and the garden that’s just been soaked by a quick summer shower, I was in the Centro of Bologna, where I returned to Orea Malia hair salon for a new short haircut, with the very amiable Marco. About 12 months ago, to the day, I wondered into that same place, fed up with my long hair, and looking to mark myself with some outward sign that I had just uprooted myself and my family to start a new adventure in a galaxy far away from New York City and Garrison, NY. Since tattoos aren’t so much my thing, I settled for shaving my head.

Today, a smiling Marco greeted me warmly, and quickly got to work on a less severe looking short ‘do. Within a few moments, I learned that his daughter was now the person at the front desk, and that his very dashing son, who was clipping someone’s hair just a few stations away in his tan shorts, button-down shirt, and suspenders, was about to become a Papa. “Auguri! Tanti auguri Marco!” rang out around me. He was about to become a nonno and his daughter, a zia, and they were all buzzing with anticipation. Like so many here, this is a family business and their joys, dramas and troubles are shared with employees and customers alike, with no apologies and no pretending that their personal lives don’t intertwine constantly with their work lives, in the way we tend to do in the U.S.. On the way out, the soon-to-be auntie confessed that at first she was unnerved by the news that her younger brother was beating her to the child-having years, but that now, she was so very excited, never mind that we had only met a few minutes ago. She had created an instant intimacy between us in the way only people from Latin cultures (and possibly the Irish!) know how.

Happy with my new cut and buoyed by the joyful family, I floated down the marble stairs of the old building and down on to Via Ugo Bassi, a main shopping street in the center, and head toward the Palazzo, which dates back to the 1500s, on Piazza Maggiore. From there, I walked around to a small cobblestone street where Stefan, the kids and our good friends, Melissa and Oliver, who are visiting from NY, were waiting for me at a French cafe. The children munched on Croque Monsieurs (when they weren’t stealing pieces of my Quiche Lorraine) and the adults nibbled on their Salades Niçoise, a welcomed menu change since we mainly stick to the food that dominates our surroundings – salumi, pasta, pizza, tigelles and piadinas (both kinds of sandwiches), roasted potatoes and steak – partly because it’s everywhere, and partly because it’s so, so good.

From there, Stefan walked back towards the kids’ school, to grab two of Zoel’s friends who live in the neighborhood, and then head back home for a dip in the pool. Melissa and I decided to stay around the Centro to visit some shops. We had only been in Bologna for a month when she first visited, and I remember telling her at that time, how annoyed I was at not knowing where anything was or which way to go to get anywhere. I wanted to be able to download a map of the city directly into my head, along with a lifetime’s worth of Italian vocabulary and verb conjugations. The stress of the move had all but immobilized us, and we reacted by barely leaving the house during that first visit.

Today, instead, I move around these streets without thinking, by foot, bus, taxi and car, happy to share the few shops that I’ve found that suit our New York City-groomed tastes, cutting through a piazza here or down a side lane there. We have our favorite fish monger, butcher, grocer, our preferred trattorias, and the guys at “Two Brothers” cafe never fail to wish us a Buongiorno as we walk by. The language too, is no longer anxiety-provoking. I’m far from fluent in Italian, but might solidly be labeled proficient, and no longer feel that someone speaking to me is cause for alarm.

I know that these challenges are exactly what we came seeking when we decided to change country, culture and language, but it’s also clear now that they have sometimes been much more difficult to deal with than we had expected, especially over the first 8 or 9 months. For me, the biggest one was the initial uncertainty about EVERYTHING, although I was able to enjoy some of it as it was happening (See this post about early visits to the cafe bar), the newness and constant re-discovering of how to move about daily life was energy-depleting and sometimes, downright depressing. For Stefan, it’s been the inefficiency and arbitrary nature of Italian bureaucracy that’s almost driven him nuts. He’s returned from the post office or city hall many times, just about ready to pack up and “get out of this #$@^% third world nation pretending to be an actual country!”

The kids have probably made the smoothest transition, proving that old adage about the adaptability of the young. Together, our biggest test has been being an ocean away from our family and close friends. Their visits throughout the year, have undoubtedly helped us make it through this significant change relatively unscathed. They’ve brought news of home and products that don’t exist in Italy (see here!), but their presence has been the most needed thing of all. It becomes more obvious that there are certain conversations that you only have with particular people when they’re 2000 miles away, and those talks have to wait six months because Skype or the phone just won’t provide the level of connection you need in order to get going. You try out the topics on some of your new friends, but the reactions just aren’t right, so you wait.

And then there are Friday nights. Oh man, we miss our gentle giant, Ray, and his stories of kayaking and biking adventures, his tales of crazy clients and past travels; getting our groove on with Noah or cooking with him in the kitchen or hearing about his week and his thoughts and opinions about everything; conversation with Christine, time to sift through all the week’s events or contemplate the minefield that can be the life of a mom/wife/creator/worker, while drinking delicious wines or consuming a beautiful meal. You just can’t re-create that chemistry, so we’ve stopped trying, and look forward instead to our visit in August!

Despite those initial challenges though, we’ve definitely found another place on the globe to call home. Although we’re still growing into that relationship with Bologna, I already have no doubt that when we leave, we’ll always feel an attachment to this city. I’m curious to see how the children will relate to it as they grow older… Bologna might be that town I lived in when I was 7, or it might be much more than that. Stefan may continue to think of it as a place where nothing #$^%&$* works or maybe he’ll soften with time. Regardless, he will  miss Bolognese foods for the rest of his life. As for me though, I love living in this Latin culture. It reminds me of my Cuban upbringing in so many ways. The language is, of course, very similar, but it goes beyond that. There are so many intangibles, like the warmth of the people, and the familiarity that comes quickly in a society that transitions from formal to informal instantaneously when a connection is found. There’s the ridiculously dramatic, but oh-so-heartfelt pop music that fuels my rides around town, and there’s the fact that there’s always “a guy”, and if you can get to the right guy, anything is possible! In addition, there’s the tribe of international families that we’ve met here, who believe whole-heartedly in multiculturalism, multilingualism, travel and exploration, just like us.

At several turns this year, I’ve been left wondering how my parents ever chose to stay in an Anglo world, when all this Latin goodness exists, but then I spend 3 hours (or days!) trying to get an appointment to have some ailment seen, or the young men at the shipping office are bewildered by a request to include a return-address envelope in my express mail package.  In those moments, I remember that stuff actually works in my home country, and really, really well. I know we’re very lucky to have been raised there, but I am now, more than ever, acutely aware of what my parents lost when they had to change homelands and cultures. And I’m happy that my young family gets to experience a piece of this world, kinks and flaws included, at least for a little while longer.

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