Saturday, December 19, 2015

Unexpected Friends

One of the best, if not the best, thing about traveling is meeting people who actually live in the place you are visiting. This is more difficult to do if you stick to the tourist highlights: Not many locals hanging around the Leaning Tower. Or the Boston Duck Tours. Or the Blarney Stone. I like seeing some of these places too but the best stuff happens when you least expect it, and it's more than likely to be unplanned.

Last October, we were enjoying another magical day in Venice. In the morning we wandered through the famed Rialto Market

Zucchini blossoms and multi-colored peppers. Fresh octopus and squid. Friendly vendors and lots and lots of photo ops. We stumbled upon a small trattoria, Tre Spiedi, and went in for lunch. It was crowded and the three of us squeezed into a corner table to order salad and pizza. At the table right next to us, there were 2 men dining on HUGE portions of pasta. They were seated at the table side-by-side, facing us. One was a generation or so older than the other. Father and son? Business associates? They kept looking at us, smiling and giving a quick nod, then commenting to each other. We smiled and nodded back, and speculated that we must so obviously look like tourists that we are eliciting comments. They left the restaurant before we did; the older man tipped his hat at us as they walked out the door. We continued on our way, enjoying the rest of our magnificent day in Venice.

The next morning, the hotel had arranged for a water taxi to take us to Murano. The ride over was fun, but the island itself was just OK. Glass blowing factories lined the canals and the shops were full of the kind of trinkets that can be found around Piazza San Marco. On a whim, we took a ferry over to the island of Burano. Ahh, Burano.

Lots of little canals. Lots of brightly painted doors on small brick and stone buildings along the canals. Lots of bikes. Shoes on windowsills. It was breathtaking in its ordinariness and lived-in look. We headed toward Al Gatto Nero for lunch; it was recommended by a glassblower we spoke to on Murano. 

Luckily, it was 2:30 and we were able to get a table after a short wait. The place was packed. As Massimo, the owner and our waiter, escorted us to our table, we saw the two men from lunch the day before! Many smiles, lots of hand gestures. They spoke no English; I speak very very basic tourist Italian. I did understand they were recommending the octopus (polpo) and pasta with black squid (calamaro nero) sauce. I felt like we were locals ourselves, regulars who are recognized and noticed in our own little neighborhood. 

A few years ago (OK, it was 13) we were traveling in Shannagary, County Cork in Ireland. We were staying at Ballymalloe House, an old manor house covered in ivy with croquet courts on the front lawn and horse stables in the back. Their dining room busted the myth of terrible Irish food, using local fish, meats, and produce, not to mention a well-trained chef. In fact they had their own cooking school and vegetable gardens down the lane. The gardens and grounds were open to the public, so off we went.

The woman at the front desk let us know that they were only allowing tours in groups and that they were expecting a bus momentarily. We looked at each other; we don't do tours and we don't do tour buses. The gardens were enticing, though. As we debated, a small van pulled up and out popped about 10 Irish senior citizens, 2 of them men. They were on a day tour; it was a group from the small town of Ennis on the west coast. We got swept along in their friendliness and enthusiasm. Everyone it seems has a relative in Somerville or South Boston. At one point one of the women linked her arm through mine as we sauntered through the beautiful Ballymaloe herb gardens. We ended up in the kitchens of the cooking school, watching demonstrations by local chefs. Our new Irish friends were effusive in their appreciation of the beauty and wonder of our surroundings. They were interested in our visit to Dublin. Were we going to the Ring of Kerry? We had a blast. When the tour was over, there were hugs and sincere goodbyes.

We headed back to the hotel to have lunch and hang out. We had no plans for the afternoon; the concierge suggested that we drive over to the Jameson whiskey factory. It is in Midleton, not too far. Back into the car we go and careen down the country roads toward Irish whiskey. We pull into the dirt parking lot and who do we see? Our Irish friends from Ballymaloe! Another tour? This time we didn't hesitate.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Road Trip Down Memory Lane

I just spent a weekend in upstate New York with my writers group. Unseasonably warm fall weather, great eats at great restaurants, and the fact that one of us grew up in Woodstock and could serve as tour director, contributed to yet another wildly successful road trip. Another reason for our visit: as a young mother some 25 years ago, I lived about 8 miles from Woodstock. I haven't thought about that phase of my life in a long, long time. Now, I'm thinking.

We moved to Kingston when our oldest was 6 months old. It was a change we were looking forward to. Steve had just finished a grueling stint at a Boston law firm; he would stumble through the front door at 10 PM every night only to face a colicky infant and the kid's frustrated and exhausted mother. An offer came to our rescue in the form of an alternative energy start up located in upstate New York. Still a lot of work, but more reasonable in its demands as well as more in line with his interests.

Real estate prices in that area of the Hudson Valley were low compared to the Boston suburb we were leaving and so we were able to buy a big old rambling colonial in the middle of the city of Kingston. We loved the converted carriage house that was now a detached garage. We loved the large backyard which could contain a playset and a sandbox and a garden. We loved the side sun porch with the gleaming wood floors. We could walk Uptown for lunch or coffee or ice cream. It was a great beginning.

Then, I tried to make friends. There were no neighbors close to our age, adults or child. I couldn't find a playgroup. It is difficult for me to remember how we spent those days, some 25 years ago. I soon discovered while our little part of Kingston was fine, we couldn't walk TOO far without hitting some areas in which I was uncomfortable with a stroller: Broken beer bottles on the sidewalks. Crumpled up trash blowing across the street. Deserted buildings and shattered windows. You get the picture. I do remember taking long drives: to Stone Ridge, to Boiceville, to Ellenville to meet Steve for lunch. I was on the phone a lot to folks back home in Massachusetts: friends, my mom, my sister.

Our second child was born in the middle of a really hot summer eighteen months after our move. That fall, we enrolled our oldest in a local preschool that took 2 year olds located just outside of Kingston. Aha, I thought! Now I will meet people. Oops! Not so fast. I had very little in common with everyone I was running into. Many parents were ex-hippies who once-upon-a-time moved up to the Woodstock area and now were tooling around in late model BMWs with their toddler Dylans and Jonis, espousing the joys of country life and tie dye t-shirts while waiting for the nanny to arrive. Others were folks down from the mountainside, badly in need of a bath or a shave; sometimes both. Where were the in-between people?

I made one friend. One. But she was a good one. Our kids were the same ages. We both read the same books and liked the same movies and laughed at the same jokes and shared the same politics. One of my best memories of that whole wretched 3-1/2 years was rigging up a small TV on her patio so we could watch "Blue Velvet" outside on a hot summer night and drink glass after glass of red wine while the kids played inside.

So, I returned last weekend armed with my one pleasant memory and many more distressful ones. What did I discover? Not much had changed, except that my lovely oasis of a house had aged badly, looked neglected and lonely, and unfortunately fit in too well with its dilapidated surroundings. So sad. So glad we left when we did.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Slippery Slope

“The weather report says heavy rain in Southern Vermont mid-afternoon tomorrow. Let’s leave around nine in the morning,”  Connor looked up and nodded in response as he finished his last supper of spaghetti and meatballs. Winter break was over and he was headed back to Marlboro College for his final semester.

Steve and I made a deal early on: I would drive Connor to school at the beginning of each semester and he would pick him up at the end.  When we first dropped him off at campus as a freshman, we had to put all of his stuff in storage; the incoming class was bonding through a series of off-site orientation activities, so the majority of clothing, electronics and toiletries were packed into plastic cases and boxes and stored until they returned. We didn’t even get to see his dorm room; we dropped him off at the student center while upper class men and women helped unload and pack cases and boxes into storage units. After orientation, each student was to retrieve their stuff and set up their room.

Imagine our surprise when we returned to campus on Parents’ Weekend in October. We opened Connor’s door and I let out a huge gasp. “Are you kidding me?” my voice rising higher with each word. We discovered a floor covered with boxes, shirts and underwear halfway in and out, and books and notebooks tottering on overturned plastic cases. Socks were balled up under the bed. The dresser, closet and bookshelf were empty. The only things he had unpacked since the end of August were his computer and his bed linens. The sheets and blankets were heaped on top of the bed in a tangled lump. Connor just looked at me and shrugged. “What’s the problem?”

Thus the driving arrangement: I bring him to school and exercise my ultimate control freak tendencies: Connor lugs his stuff into his dorm room while I make his bed: mattress cover, mattress pad, sheets, blankets, comforter, pillows. I hang curtains, place the carefully folded underwear and t-shirts into the dresser, hang jackets and jeans in the closet. I organize his shower caddy so that he just has to carry it down the hall to the bathroom. I fill the bottom of his bookshelf with popcorn, peanut butter, cereal and boxes of mac and cheese. The refrigerator has cheese, milk and Mountain Dew. When we hug goodbye, I’m good.  I no longer have to deal with the shock of the room detritus that is the end of semester condition.
So on this Sunday morning in January, as we get ready for the drive toward last semester we know what we are doing. We take our 10 year old Ford Escape because it is easier to pack and has four wheel drive. Marlboro College is on the top of a mountain; the only access is a serpentine, narrow 2 lane road which is not fun to drive on a good day.
Describing driving as “not fun” is a stretch for me. I love to drive. Ever since my big blue Buick Electra 225 in high school when I was the errand runner for my Mom, I have loved getting behind the wheel. Happily, I was the designated driver for all of my high school friends and our activities. I would bring us to the movies or to the mall or along Route 128 to the beach, windows rolled down and singing along to Carole King or Stevie Wonder. I am sure it was me Springsteen had in mind when he wrote, “Roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair.” Driving has always represented freedom for me, no more so than when I packed up my little stick shift Toyota Corona and sped away from a failed first marriage. And now, many years later, I attribute my good parking karma in which I rarely fail to find on street city parking, to my ease behind the wheel.
While I didn’t enjoy the 2-½ mile climb up Marlboro’s mountain where there is no radio or cell phone reception, the first hour and a half ride before we arrive at the base of the uphill drive was great. Car trips with my kids have always served as a forum for much needed conversation. There is something about being constrained in the front seat, side by side and not face to face that provides opportunities for opening up, especially with a non-communicative 20 year old son. On these back to school jaunts, we’d listen to and discuss whatever was on NPR and then when we no longer had radio reception, we’d talk about everything else: who he’s hanging out with, what he’s reading, how we’re both glad we’re driving back on a Sunday so we didn’t have to listen to Science Friday. These conversations helped get my mind off of the Subarus and pick up trucks with Vermont license plates that were whooshing around us and always going way too fast up this narrow country road with no guard rails.
It began sleeting at the Massachusetts/Vermont line. When we got off Route 89 in Brattleboro, Connor put his phone down and turned to me. “Courtney just got got there. She said the road is really slippery.” “She drives a Prius,” I scoffed. “We have 4-wheel drive. We’ll be fine.”
While my daughter inherited my driving gene, neither of my boys did. They drive only when absolutely necessary and are both very nervous drivers. They are also nervous passengers. “Relax,” I told him.
The road approaching the base of the mountain is straight; when it starts its incline, it is immediate. As we approached, we saw a line of backed-up cars in front of us, a sea of red tail lights. “Oh Oh,” I muttered.
I pulled into the Mobil station and Connor ran in to talk to the service attendant.  “Drivers of the cars coming down are telling those going up to leave a lot of space between them. Cars are skidding all over the place,” he told me as he climbed back in.
“As long as I can get up and down before dark, we should be fine, Con.” We amended our usual plan. We would fling his stuff into his room so I could make a quick turn around. No organizing. I would just have to live with that.
We got back into line and waited for our turn to start the climb. Connor tried calling Courtney at Marlboro but there was no service. There was no radio reception, so there was no traffic or weather news. Cars in front of us started to turn around, giving up the fight. We inched up in line, but I was starting to get nervous. “We could turn around now, drive to Brattleboro, get a hotel room and drive up in the morning,” Connor suggested.
We were at the base of the mountain. “Let’s go for it.” I rolled down my window to talk to the driver reaching the bottom. “Do you have chains on your tires?” I shook my head. “Take it slow, then.”
Up we go. The first incline was fine; there was an occasional patch of ice but we were OK. Then it happened. There was a dip in the road before the ascent began again. As we drove down, I felt the back of the SUV slip to the left, toward the line of cars in the other lane. Connor gripped the dashboard. I was able to gain control and we started to climb again. We were on sheer ice and skidded into a motel parking lot, the one that made us laugh when we first saw it with its neon sign advertising free tv and telephone. We were about 50 yards up, with well over 2 miles to go.
“Sorry, Con. Can’t do it. We’re turning around.” Despite the cold, my palms were sweating as I slowly slowly turned the car around the parking lot to head back down the mountain. As I pulled onto the road, the tractor trailer ahead of us was stopped. The driver coming up the mountain, who was obviously a Vermonter with the common sense to have tire chains in the winter rolled down her window. “That truck’s not going anywhere. He’s calling the state police for a tow.” Cars behind us started laying on their horns. “Fuck!” I screamed, then pulled to the left, into the lane that was supposed to be for climbing and made my way around the tractor trailer. We inched our way back down to level ground.
I pulled over to the side of the road and burst into tears.
“I’ve never seen you so scared,” Connor looked at me from the corner of his eye.
“Fuck Vermont. We’re going home.” As we headed toward the highway and radio and phone reception, we discovered that 15 minutes after we left the mountain, the road was closed and tow trucks were sent in.
The next morning, under sunny skies, Steve and Connor set out for Marlboro College and arrived without incident.
I still love to drive, but I resolved never to drive up or down mountains from October to June. I sincerely hope this does not affect my parking karma.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Don't Mess With The Mamas

“A table to eat, or to drink?” the waiter asked. “Both,” I answered. It was my first night in Venice; as usual, I only slept briefly on the flight over and was determined to stay awake and adjust to local time as quickly as possible. I made my way to the tourist clogged Rialto Bridge to absorb the frenetic energy, and found a canal-side restaurant, Caffe Saraceno.

“For one, only?” Little did I know at the time that all waiters I encountered during this solo trip to Venice and Florence would react to my table-for-one request with emotion ranging from mild surprise to total horror and as a result, I never really dined alone. During my second week, Carlo in Florence asked, “Where is your husband? Did you have a fight?” When I told him I was traveling alone, he invited me to meet him the next morning and we would ride his scooter to Piazelle Michelangelo for cappuccino. “Maybe another time,” I told him. Another Florentine threw up his hands and exclaimed, “Impossibile!” when he discovered I was on my own. Both hotel concierges in both cities went out of their way to help me when I needed it; Fabio in Venice even walked me to a restaurant he claimed was difficult to find.

This first-night Venetian waiter was a bit younger than me, about the same height, with droopy hangdog brown eyes and grey streaked short hair. As he asked the question, he touched my elbow so I pushed my agenda. “Si, un tavolo per una. And I'd like to sit next to the canal.” There was only one table available, set for 4, and Giovanni (“call me Gianni”) walked me right over to it. “Prego, Signora.” Already seated next to me were three women, perhaps in their late 60's, speaking rapid fire Italian. After he handed me my menu, Gianni delivered a bottle of wine to my neighbors, then returned to take my order.

He made some menu recommendations, one of which I took, poured my wine, and became very chatty. Where are you from? How long are you in Venice? Are you traveling alone? Really? He would leave my side briefly then reappear in a flash to refill my wine glass. After placing my salad on the table, Gianni whisked away the table oil and vinegar and replaced both with extra virgin and balsamic. “For you, Signora.” Again, with the elbow touching. I was totally charmed.

My table was perfect; I had a great seat: front row on the Grand Canal. Gondolas drifted by. Vaparetti stuffed with tourists wielding video cameras chugged along, the waves from their wake lapping by my boots. I finished my salad and sipped my Chianti. I'm sure I must have sighed. Here comes dinner. As Gianni served the veal, the table next to me erupted. The trio of Italian Mamas was pissed.

I couldn't understand much, but I heard “L'Americana” this, and “L'Americana” that. Hands flying. Fingers wagging. They had no food yet. “No rispetto! No rispetto!” Everyone in the restaurant was watching. I was terrified and terribly entertained at the same time. Gianni stood there, arms crossed. Then one of the women shouted, “Il conto. Allora!” Yikes. They wanted the check before they even had dinner. He started to reason with them, I think, but seemed to get nowhere. I concentrated on my dinner and the water taxis zipping by, avoiding eye contact with both the table of Mamas and my beleaguered waiter.

He finally raised both hands and shouted, “Basta!” He brought them their check and as they stormed out, one of the Mamas lectured another waiter as well, for good measure. Wow. I wasn't expecting dinner AND a show.

Gianni sauntered over with a slight smile and a big shrug. “Mi dispiace,” he said. “Boy, you really got in trouble,” I told him. His smile widened and he poured me a big glass of wine: not my house Chianti, but a Brunello. “My compliments, Signora.” As I left the restaurant, he thanked me with a kiss on each cheek and a “Ciao, Bella!”

And that, my friends, is one of the many many many reasons I return every year.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Still in the Driver's Seat, For Now

(I wrote this over 4 years ago.)

Yes. I'm still driving him. And I'm done being apologetic about it.

Yes. He's had his driver's license for over 5 months and could probably drive himself the 25 miles to classes on the 3 days he attends. But, he doesn't. I do.

At the beginning of the semester, it was my intention to do the driving for a couple of days then have him drive with me in the car to make sure he knew the way. Oh I had my reasons: it was rush hour, after all. Bumper to bumper on 2 congested highways, not a quick trip to the local high school. He, like his older brother and unlike his sister and me, doesn't really like to drive. He's not a freaking control freak and is quite fine sitting in that passenger seat. I am a freaking control freak and never like sitting in the passenger seat. Ever. I especially hate it when one of my kids is at the wheel. I gotta admit that I didn't really take that last point into consideration when plotting out my original plan.

It just became a habit: I would drop him off and either head back home to the gym and the treadmill or to a cafe to write. He never insisted on driving; I never insisted he drive. Friends started asking, "Why doesn't he drive himself?" and I started making excuses. "He's not comfortable with the route" turned into "We're down a car and I've got stuff to do" turned into "It's so snowy and icy and oh those crazy drivers out there."

And now, damn it, I like it. We listen to Morning Edition on the drive in and Radio Boston on the way home. We groan in harmony when Sarah Palin's name is mentioned and debate economic and racial segregation in the neighborhoods of Boston. I hear about the Ugandan boy in his anthropology class who is estranged from his family and holding down a full time job and the man, who apparently is even older than me, that sits behind him in his world history class. I can get away with comments like, You know, when you're away at school next year, you'll have to be responsible about eating right/getting enough sleep/keeping your side of the room clean/insert another annoying momism here and he can't run away because he's stuck in the car laughing at me.

This is the third kid of mine to go away to school; when Fall rolls around I don't want to wish I had spent more time with him when I could have. So I complain about having to get up early and worry about being pulled over by the cops when I'm in sweats and no makeup and lament how much time out of my day all this driving is taking while in private I'm enjoying the hell out of it. There's only a month left. It's not nearly enough time.