It’s been an eventful year, as always. To begin with, a few hours after I sent out last year’s letter, my son Adam had a TIA (mini-stroke), followed by a couple of others, and was barely out of hospital in time for the Christmas festivities. Much drama followed in the New Year, with recurrences, diagnosis of an unusual condition, talk of brain surgery and the like. All this concentrated my mind wonderfully, as you can imagine.
Adam continued to improve, so in July I wandered off to Poland for my cousin Stefek’s wedding. He and his bride are in their seventies, and I could only watch in amazement as they danced for ten hours on and off (mostly on) through the day into the evening. They met at a dance class and will obviously live forever if their current state of health is anything to go by!
It was a wonderful chance to catch up with other cousins and their children. And to my amazement and delight, Stefek gave me the small perfume bottle, shaped like a watering can, that had contained Violettes de Toulouse. My father had bought for his mother in France in 1939. It’s mentioned in a post on my website. If you’re reading this online, you can find it here.
I travelled on to Krakow, where I’d booked a night in a hotel, not realizing that it had formerly been a residence for priests visiting the city. I was eleven years old when I (and my twin sisters) first visited Poland. My uncle, a priest, took us to see Krakow, where we lodged with some nuns, but he stayed at this hostelry. I wondered if I might be sleeping in the same room he’d used, but decided I probably wasn’t — I feel sure that even so many decades later, I’d have been able to detect a lingering trace of eau de cologne, his favorite aftershave.
I took the train from there to Zurich, to meet up with my friend Liz, who normally lives in Carmel, California. We spent a few days exploring the city and eating far too much chocolate. (At least, I did…). I found out how much I enjoy traveling by rail. As the train rocked me to sleep in my little bunk, the memories of my first long-distance trip – London to Warsaw – many decades ago, flooded back.
I squeezed in a three-day writers’ conference at Wesleyan University, to get some feedback on my memoir, which I did. “Clean writing” said a famous writer for the New Yorker. I’d been hoping it might be a bit risqué, but apparently not… Also got a crick in the neck from sleeping in my own luxurious dorm room on a dauntingly firm bed, with the air-conditioning blasting as if it were cooling the dairy section in the supermarket.
Only a few weeks later, my daughter, Helenka and her two daughters traveled to London with me, and suddenly I was longing for the air-conditioning, even if it came with a crick in the neck. The temperatures were around 95F (35C) during the day and 80F (27C) at night, and the flat I’d rented hadn’t managed to provide a single fan! We found ourselves entering any establishment that looked air-conditioned – and taking boat trips along the Thames to cool off. At least Helenka and the girls reconnected with all their cousins, and Helenka treated me to tea at the place where she was born. Yes, that’s right. The former hospital, a lovely Regency building at Hyde Park Corner, is now an extremely luxurious hotel, with an English afternoon tea so lavish that we didn’t need to eat again that day.
Back home in early August, Amanda invited me to join her and her family in a house she’d rented on the shores of Lake Sunapee, where we used to live. It turned out to be delightful, and we found time to attend the local barn playhouse, for old time’s sake.
But I needed to focus on writing. I finished the memoir (because I’d made a bet with a writer friend and wasn’t about to lose!) and got the manuscript edited by two editors, one English and one American (two countries divided by a common language, as you know). Then I began researching publishers who might want it, only to discover that the market for memoirs is in a slump. So I’m considering plan B: a small independent publisher or plan C: publishing it myself.
I rashly agreed to help organize the first literary festival in the neighboring town of Westport, which turned out to be great fun. And at the same time, I was asked to contribute a short story on a time travel theme to an anthology, When to Now, which was published on October 1st. I knew nothing about sci-fi or speculative fiction, so of course I said yes. You can find it on Amazon… And throughout the year I kept running my monthly writers’ groups, meeting other writers, taking a class or two, and generally soaking up the culture round here.
Wishing you all a very happy Christmas and an excellent 2019!
I’m sitting at my desk, here in Connecticut, looking out at the icicles hanging from the living room roof as yesterday’s thick layer of snow, begins to disappear. The sun is out and the local birds are feeling quite encouraged, I can tell.
Almost a year ago, in January, my friend Liz and I were in Tahiti. And Huahine, Bora Bora, Rangiroa and Moorea. Just the names make one feel warmer. I understood why Robert Louis Stevenson and Rupert Brooke, two of my favorite authors, were captivated.
The cloudless sky visible through my window today is nothing compared to those of Tahiti. In fact, the place turned out to be a riot of color, from the thirty-eight shades of blue counted by a local photographer, to the many tints of Tahitian pearls, which make white ones look as though they haven’t really tried. I managed to restrict my shopping to one or two single black ones, imperfect in shape, but striking just the same. I could hear Jay nagging me to buy more. He would probably have come back with a freckled fistful of them, delighted at the thought we’d all have a string to wear.
As if to make the transition to Connecticut easier, winter wasn’t making much of an effort this year, so we had hardly any snow, but I went down to Florida in February to visit several old friends. I made my royal progress from Sarasota (West coast) to Palm Beach (Atlantic side) and back to Naples (on the western shores) studiously avoiding the topic of our new president, except to agree with Palm Beach locals that the man and his entourage were an infernal nuisance whenever they visited Mar-a-Largo. Funny, I thought he was more of a nuisance in Washington…
My peripatetic friend Liz called me in March, to say a fellow traveler had dropped out of a projected stay in Tuscany – would I like to take her place? I’d never been, so I said yes, of course. Only to find, about two days before departure, that a twinge of muscle pain in my left leg was turning into sciatica. “Ouch!” was putting it mildly. I exchanged travel plans for a bottle of prescription pain killers, and settled back in my only comfy chair by my new picture window to watch the garden slowly coming to life with spring bulbs and flowers. I barely walked anywhere for about five months, and decided if something like this could cramp my style without warning, I would do the things I wanted to do while I was feeling fit. (Which I can now, thank heavens, as though I’d never had a problem.)
I did manage to limp to my daughter, Helenka’s, graduation in May, where she received her master’s degree in education. Sitting under a big tent, with rain and thunder pounding down outside, I thought about the teenager who had rebelled against school and was now a (highly qualified) teacher.
In an extraordinary turn of luck, other old friends asked me to join them in Tuscany in September, but I still wasn’t confident I could walk further than a mile, especially up the hills. So I watched all the movies ever filmed there, and admired the countryside from afar.
As autumn approached, I decided to practice traveling again. I started with a car trip to Boston – three hours each way – to check in on the children and grandchildren who live up there. I stayed with Amanda & Co (Jay’s daughter) who organized a wonderful lunch with sons Freddie and Bertie and their girlfriends. Much hilarity ensued as we played a board game which depended on some skill with words. I turned out to be hopeless at it.
Progressing from driving to flying, I crossed the country to Carmel, where the smell of smoke hung in the air, from the forests burning 200 miles further north. There had been a similar fire as I drove across Florida in February. It seemed the whole country was going up in flames. Still is. Nothing to do with climate change, of course, which officially doesn’t exist.
My final trip was to a very sparkly London in late November with my son Adam. My apologies to those of you I didn’t manage to see, but this was Adam’s vacation, mainly, since he hadn’t been for twenty years or so, and wanted to revisit his roots.
Being virtually immobilized for so many months gave me time to write, and I’ve been adding memoir pieces to my blog (you can find them on the right). My cousin John, who lives in South Africa, has become my de facto editor. This is terrific, because not only is he an author himself, but he remembers some of the people in my stories. These are largely about my childhood, that don’t fit into my longer book about Jay and me, which has far too many pages, so I’m working on making it shorter. I’m encouraged by the fact that some memoirists I’ve talked to have taken ten years to publish theirs, and I’ve resolved mine won’t take that long. I started a monthly group for writers to come and read something they’ve written, and am still running the one I’ve had for a few years now – the one where I promise those who come that we don’t actually write anything at all – we just encourage each other.
I’ve had an extremely short story published, and won a couple of contests (or, more accurately, been one of the winners) and those stories will be in an anthology next summer. And I’ve been asked to read my Christmas story (the one about Jay trying to fit into a Santa suit…) at an evening called Dickens by the Fire, next weekend. No doubt Charles himself was unavailable, which is why they asked me.
Oh, and in my spare time, I attended a large rally of women on Fifth Avenue in New York in January (with Helenka), and a couple of demonstrations about gun control later in the year. Unlike my mother, I’ve never been particularly political, but I’m fed up with apologizing to my friends abroad for That Man.
Right now, though, I’m getting ready for Christmas. I’ve put my own twinkly lights up. I might have overdone it, since the house now looks like a fairy grotto, inside and out. My sister Jane will be here from England, and I shall be on an expedition to make sure I see all the family. Luckily, they’re clustered near Boston and in Connecticut, which makes it easy. This is something of a rarity in America, where families tend to be spread out, so I’m grateful.
And so it’s time for the annual update. I closed last year’s letter by saying that we were expecting my sister Jane and her friend for the holidays. What I didn’t mention was that because we were having so many people to stay, all arriving and departing on different dates, that I resorted to creating a chart which showed each bedroom (color-coded, of course ), who would be in each one on what dates, and how many people I’d be feeding on any particular day. I adore my family, but honestly – I can’t do that chart again. Next time they’ll have to fight it out among themselves. I will be in the local inn… But in the meantime, this year will be much more sensible, with everybody arriving at carefully regulated intervals.
It was only in January that I managed to get out from under the pile of sheets and towels and pack a bag for our house in Phoenix AZ. Jay and I decided to take a few days and see what we might need if we were going to use it as a holiday home. To get us started, Jay insisted on packing a huge suitcase with household paraphernalia, including various serving dishes and knick-knacks. Since the beds hadn’t been delivered when we arrived, we spent the night in a hotel, but Jay left the suitcase in the house to save having to carry it around. Much to our surprise, it was gone when we arrived at the house the following day. Apparently this is the first burglary in the area for over three years…Well, Jay bore it stoically and added serving dishes and knick-knacks to our ever-expanding shopping list. One forgets that a new home needs everything from knives and forks to furniture, but we had a good time visiting the consignment (OK, second-hand) shops, where Jay bargained to his heart’s content.
We’d barely come back from our visit to Phoenix when it was time to leave for Australia. I had visions of kangaroos and koala bears, but in fact, Australia turned out to be much more interesting than that. We snorkeled around near the Great Barrier Reef (my favorite thing). I mean that I swam, towing Jay behind me. I think he liked it…Then we took a tiny plane to a luxury camp in the middle of nowhere, where noises in the very early morning turned out to be wallabies waking up underneath our cabin. If only the tiny plane company hadn’t gone bankrupt while we were there… Still, we did manage to get to our next destination, the aptly named Kangaroo Island. About 100 miles long with a population of 4,000 people and about 10,000 animals. All the kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and emus you could wish for. And then it was on to check out the wild life in Sydney…
Just to remind us of our trip, I got us tickets for the Australia exhibition that was showing in London when we visited in September. We were on our way to Prague, to meet friends. Prague and our friends were delightful, and Jay was particularly pleased, because our enormous bedroom (in a former mansion by the river) had a balcony from which he could give speeches to the population below. He was going to try it, too, but I managed to distract him with the promise of some souvenir shopping nearby.
After that we took one of those Danube cruises from Budapest, via Vienna and Linz to Passau (on the German/Austrian border). Very relaxing. So much so, that Jay immediately went home and booked a cruise on the Volga River (Moscow to St. Petersburg) for next summer. Yo-o heave-ho. Or something.
We returned to New Hampshire in time for the end of a beautiful fall. It was too late for Jay to sit on his beach (see last year) but he was quite happy with his new lawn (did I mention that he’d had someone plant a lawn last year when we were thinking of selling the house?). He, Freddie and Bertie had spent most of the summer perfecting this, with Fred and Bert doing most of the work (heaving huge boulders out of the ground) and Jay ‘supervising’. From the beach.
The boys really didn’t need to do this, since they both graduated from university this year. Moving rocks hardly seems like fit work for a biomedical engineer and an astrophysicist, but Jay can be very persuasive…
And what of our careers? I hear you ask (don’t I?). I’m still writing; there’s a memoir of my mother based on her wartime diaries and my blogs keep me busy. Next weekend I’ll be telling my story of Jay and the Santa suit at a couple of Christmas concerts at a local inn. Jay will be there to
heckle cheer me on. Meanwhile, he’s still very busy with his usual pursuits, to which he has added the position of board member at Colby-Sawyer College, a small liberal arts school (liberal? Jay? Surely not…) in our New Hampshire hometown of New London). The board seems to like him, even though Jay spends most of his time “suggesting” ways they could be more businesslike.
I was beginning to think the whole idea of building a new smaller house had died down for good, when the house next door to us came onto the market. Last weekend (bear with me here) we were supposed to be visiting houses around town that had been decorated for Christmas. Instead I found myself being shown around a characterful (read: not enough bathrooms) 100-year-old house, with Jay murmuring things in my ear, like: “we could put the other bathrooms over here”, and “what about extending this wall and making this into a new bedroom?” I should have let him do more shopping in Budapest, so he got it out of his system.
Just for now, we’re still in the house with the beach, the lawn and the gigantic fireplace, so I’m going to ignore the future and enjoy the present. (I think Jay got me a present?)
Wishing you a very happy and peaceful Christmas, and an encouraging New Year
In case you’re wondering about the title, no, I’m not illiterate. But I was in Europe recently, and this is the medical term for what happened to me…
Naturally, one expects some sort of chocolate temptation while you’re over there. In London its good old British-made Cadbury’s, which tastes so much better than the pale imitation preferred by American palates. (The stuff they make here has less milk in it, I think. At any rate, it’s not the same.) I managed to restrain myself somewhat in London, helped by the fact that our very swanky hotel (now relegated in my preferred accommodations list to a camping facility) did not leave any chocolates on my pillow. But that was helpful in a way, since I was trying to keep my blood sugar levels where they’re supposed to be.
I survived Prague. All was well until we embarked on our Danube cruise. When we entered our ‘stateroom’ (otherwise known as an underwater hideaway, since we only managed to get the last cabin available, so when we looked out of the window, we saw the river lapping gently against the glass…) provided a glass jar full of chocolate goodies. There are several things wrong with this. First of all, the jar was made of glass, so I could see the darn things staring at me seductively. Second the jar was full. And third, chocolate. There were some of those adorable tiny individual chocolate bars, as well as soft nougat ‘enrobed’ (read dressed seductively) in chocolate… I’m harping on about seduction because I was a fallen woman by the end of the evening. I had to leave a note in the jar asking the maid not to refill it. Then all I had to do for the next seven days was to slide by the huge bowls of mints, toffees and what-have-you by the reception desk without disgracing myself.
And then came Bratislava. I was minding my own business, having just seen a beautiful collection of Mortlake tapestries in the old cardinal’s palace, now a museum. Sashaying down the enormous staircase and imagining myself in a long bright pink dress (oh wait, that’s a cardinal’s outfit isn’t it? Oh well…) I met a slender Australian woman (a new friend from the cruise) coming up. She grabbed my arm, gave a furtive look around and hissed, conspiratorially: “I just had the hot chocolate. I’ve gained 3 kilos…it was worth it!” Her charming French husband shot me an apologetic look and helped her up the rest of the flight.
Curious, I decided to investigate further. In the charming central square, a cosy café beckoned roguishly from one corner. My feet were killing me by this time, and a brisk wind was making me feel chilly, so I suggested we sit for a minute and maybe have something hot to drink. “Excellent idea,” said Jay. “I’ll have a latte.” I cast an eye over the eight page illustrated menu of hot drinks. Jay ended up with a hazelnut praline latte with extra cream on top. I ordered hot chocolate and was congratulating myself on my steely willpower when my bright yellow cup arrived. The chocolate was so thick that I’m pretty sure that if I’d turned the cup over, the contents would have remained inside. I sniffed it. When I returned to my senses, I found myself sitting with a spoon in my hand. Someone had licked the spoon clean. Apparently that was me. I would simply have to try again. By this time the women at the neighboring tables were staring at me curiously. “Chocolate,” I blurted out and pointed at my cup. The Slovakian women simply shrugged. They’d seen this kind of weak-willed tourist before. But the American women around me were edging their chairs closer and closer.
I nodded regally and told them to help themselves. There was a reverent silence as the hot spreadable chocolate hit their tongues. We worshiped at the chocolate shrine together.
I wonder if that’s why that cardinal was hanging out in Bratislava in the first place…
I know you’ve all been pining for an update about Ernest and Mabel, the two marble lions that my husband Jay bought in a mad moment in Vietnam. (Click here to read that post if you missed it.)
When last seen, they were standing among a forest of other white marble flora and fauna (not forgetting the odd Venus or cherub) in the showroom of the marble factory in Da Nang. We took it on faith that they would indeed be sent to us via freighter. And in December, we finally got word that they were in…Los Angeles.
But, said the man, we’ll be trucking them over to you as soon as we can. It was the day before we left for the Panama Canal and Peru that the call came through…from Arizona.
They’re here, said the man. In Arizona, we asked. “
No that’s just my cell phone. They’re in Boston, and we can deliver them soon.”
“Not today then?” asked Jay hopefully.
“No, but we can do it next week,” said the man. Luckily we had Fred and Bertie still at home before they returned to their respective studies. Jay briefed them on where the lions should go and we left for points south.
It wasn’t long before we started receiving irritated emails from Fred (and he insists I quote these word for word, because he’s not impressed by my (occasional) lapses into poetic license. (I don’t know what he means.)
“Firstly, the lions. No one has contacted us about them yet. Either on the home phone or one of our cell phones. I thought they were supposed to have done so by now. We have no means for contacting these people, so if you do, maybe you could pass it along to us.”
I suggested he leave it for a couple of days. A couple of days later:
“The freight people… want to bring the lions in on a tractor-trailer. Which Bertie and I are both skeptical about. We don’t think the vehicle will be able to safely get down the driveway and back out again without hitting trees, rocks or some other obstacle. If I remember correctly the cab is 12′ and the trailer is 48′.” (And Fred always remembers correctly…)
A day later:
“The lions are evidently in two separate crates on a single skid. The skid weighs a total of 800 lbs. We assume the crates are about 400 lbs each. Making them probably unmovable by us. The person I spoke with today suggested we could meet them somewhere and they could put them in our truck. I’m not really sure, so I thought I’d see what you thought.”
I suggested the freight people might have a fork lift on the back of the truck. Jay suggested they back down the quarter mile distance from the main road to our house (with a bend in the road).
All the suggestions failed, and eventually Fred threw up his hands in disgust (figuratively, Fred). We arrived home from our travels to find a message waiting for us from the freight man. He was about to charge us for storing the lions, since we hadn’t arranged for delivery. Jay soon sorted him out.
And the lions arrived. When I first saw them, they were standing in their wooden cage listing drunkenly to one side exactly where the snowplough would hit them. (Luckily snow has been rather thin on the ground, literally, this winter.) Jay had phoned our snow-ploughing guy, Matt, who was looking for work, since there wasn’t any ploughing to do, and Matt was due to arrive within hours to unpack and place the lions where we wanted them.
Jay paced around the outside of the house, trying to decide where to put them. Finally he called me outside to see what I thought.
“What about here?” he asked, pointing to the spot where they were already standing. I wondered whether to let them be run over by the snow plough. But I knew they meant a lot to Jay, so I hinted that perhaps they should be closer to the house.
“There,” said Jay, pointing to the path closer to the house.
“I think they might block the path unless we turn them sideways. How about on the porch?” I suggested. “Then they’d be out of the rain.” (As if that would do them any damage…)
We agreed on the porch, and Matt and his team of three muscly guys managed to get them there. Here’s the picture to prove it.
There is one thing, though. Jay decided we should name the lions something other than Ernest and Mabel. That was fine with me. I’d only been joking about the names.
“How about Leo and Lucy?” he suggested. “Or Lenny and Louise?”
I was looking at the lions as he said this and a sudden thought occurred to me. You’ve probably spotted it already. Both our lions are boys. I pointed this out.
“Never mind,” I said. “I’m sure two gay lions would be great for our Chi.”
They still don’t have names.
When I first started writing this “Christmas” letter it started “It’s November, and…. Then it morphed into “It’s December and…”
Fact is, you’ve probably noticed that, in fact, “It’s January and…although I’m sitting here looking at a deceptively placid and sunny lake, we’ve already had at least a foot of snow here in New Hampshire. And that was quite a shock for us when we returned from our longest vacation ever in early November. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As I think I mentioned last time, Jay and I had taken a cruise to Alaska last year (2010) and Jay liked it so much he booked another for the whole family to go to the Caribbean in February. And so we went. Fifteen of us. Actually, Freddie and Bertie couldn’t make it, since they had to stay at their respective universities. When we said we would be traveling with six grandchildren, they seemed somewhat less disappointed to be missing the trip…
Here’s a picture of the band of seafarers, and considering it was taken at 11 at night, it’s a miracle that everyone looks more or less awake!
It turned out to be a great trip. We visited San Juan (very Spanish), Grand Turk (very sandy), and St Maarten, which Jay and his daughters had visited regularly in the 1970s. Determined to recreate this past paradise, Jay rented a truck (sorry, minivan) and we set off to find the fabled beach house of yore. After several wrong turns and dead ends, we found the beach.
It was a stone’s throw from the airport, which in the 1970’s didn’t matter, because the planes were small and relatively infrequent. Now, the roar of jets probably drowns out the local birds. Still, the view was lovely, and Amanda (left) and Heather (right) had fun trying to decide which of the now huge beach houses had once been the cottage they rented.
Back on dry land (in Florida) Jay and I decided we needed a vacation, so we drove down to Key West, the most southerly point of the continental United States. Key West is famous for Ernest Hemingway (who spent most of his time in a local bar or fishing), Harry Truman (who spent his time gambling – either playing poker or taking important policy decisions) and Key limes. We ate a lot of Key lime flavored things – pie, of course, ice cream, barbecue sauce, dips, crisps, crackers, soap…oh, no, wait, we didn’t actually eat the soap. But you get the drift.
And talking of drift, our next stop was Sanibel Island, also off the Florida coast, and famous for its shells. When people told me they went shelling on Sanibel, I had visions of dangerous military activity, but the American verb, ‘to shell,’ means to look for shells. I dutifully did this, wandering up and down the beaches and coming home with a few bedraggled samples. Jay did much better than I did. He walked into the nearest shell shop and bought several magnificent specimens (probably from Thailand, of which more later).
From March to July, we more or less behaved ourselves, but we got itchy feet again in August, and decided, on the spur of the moment, to drive to Canada. We spent our first night in Ottawa, a city I had seriously prejudged. I think I expected it to be a completely modern city, purpose built to be the capital. I was probably mixing it up with Canberra or Brasilia. Anyway, it turned out to be delightful, historic (the changing of the guard with real Coldstream Guards) and beautiful. We’ll go back, I’m sure.
Next we visited our best man and his wife in Toronto. I had always told Carl that I thought he might actually have been the best man, but that since he was already taken… We had a wonderful time before we set off for Niagara Falls, which Jay and I had never visited together. All the hotels there now have windows facing the Falls, which meant we had a terrific view, and even though I managed to prevent Jay from shopping in Niagara itself, he managed to discover the tiny town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, from which he came away with armloads of Christmas presents for the family.
On the way home, I noticed we weren’t travelling in the right direction. I put this down to the fact that Jay’s sense of direction leaves something to be desired, and hinted that if we travelled east rather than south we might get home sooner. “Hall of Fame,” he muttered under his breath. And I thought he’d forgotten. He knows it has been a lifelong dream of mine to go to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, and so he was taking me there. Wasn’t that sweet of him?
After we returned I was off again for my third visit to my indomitable 91-year-old mother in London. Bertie decided to come too, and due to our impeccable talent for organization, we left on separate planes one day apart. We saw each other briefly in London, but while we were there, Hurricane Irene terrified the airports into closing, and we ended up flying home two days late. And in fact, we flew home to Montreal (about three hours drive from New Hampshire) because there were no flights available to either Boston or New York. Jay drove the three hours to meet us, which was noble of him, and the four hours back, since we got lost in Montreal’s one way system for an hour on the way out of the airport…
September saw us at a Yankee Red Sox baseball game in Boston. This is dangerous turf for a Yankee fan (Jay) especially if he’s taken there by his daughter Amanda, her partner Barb and their family (avid Red Sox fans). The Yankees had been losing all season long, and I had prepared myself for a stressful game by downloading a copy of War and Peace onto my cell phone to read when the going got tough. To my surprise, Napoleon had barely decided to invade Russia when the Yankees started to win, and continued to do so until the end of the game. Rejoicing ensued, especially on my part, since I would have had a two hour drive home with a despondent Yankee fan, and that’s no fun.
Just as the leaves were turning their usual gorgeous colours here in New England, we left for Indochina. Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, to be precise. Now that we’ve got the cruising thing down, we decided to try a couple of different kinds of boats, One was a junk on Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, a unique part of the world (UNESCO says so). Another was a trip down the Mekong River from Cambodia to Vietnam in a new river cruiser, something like to paddle steamers of old to look at, but with all mod cons. (Air conditioning, hot water, fitness center – where, by the way, people stuck their heads in to laugh at me as I desperately tried to shed the pounds I seemed to be gaining on board). It was a good thing we were traveling by boat – Cambodia and Thailand were both suffering from the worst floods they’d had in a long while. It was a fascinating trip and we were glad we’d been able to see Vietnam and Cambodia in particular, before they become industrialized and their old way of life is lost.
Jay was thrilled that we managed to get some clothes made in 24 hours, and that he succeeded, after much haggling, in buying two huge marble lions, which he expects will be gracing our front doorway any time now. Ernest and Mabel are shown at left…
It turns out that Jay is a firm believer in feng shui – no, I didn’t know that, either – and the lions are going to improve the chi flowing into our home. So long as they keep Jay from breaking anything else, that’s okay with me. Maybe it’s working already, since this is the second break-free year in a row!
In Thailand, we went to visit some elephants, and soon (rather too soon, in my opinion) found ourselves riding them bareback around a large paddock. The mahouts were kind to us and didn’t laugh too much, though they did take quite a lot of photos, which was rather mean, since we looked incredibly silly. The high spot, however, was painting with the elephants.
Hearing about this, I visualized the elephants slapping paint on a large wall, with us looking on and feeding them the occasional Danish pastry. Au contraire. They painted with paintbrushes, watching our hands as we sketched the design on an easel, and copying it with the paintbrush. Jay got a bit carried away as you can see here. I am not even going to attempt to explain what it’s meant to be.
While in Vietnam, we hit the first of November. This is significant, because I had signed myself up to write a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November, and if I were going to succeed I’d have to start on vacation. So there I was, in the back of the bus, typing away on my laptop. Unbelievably I did it. I now have a printed copy entitled Horrible First Draft. Funny title for a novel, you might think, but I maintain it has a certain ring to it. And maybe the next version will be called Slightly Better Second Draft.
Two weeks after our return I was off to London again, which is one reason this letter is so late. My mother is battling on, living on her own, criticizing the Tory government and attending the vicar’s coffee mornings and afternoon teas. The assistant vicar got married while I was there, and my mother and I went to the wedding. But only after she’d insisted on having a new hat. Well, one must dress for a wedding, it goes without saying.
Then came Christmas and the New Year. My daughter Helenka and her children went back to Connecticut, and our other daughters Amanda and Heather and their families came for New Year’s weekend. So it was a very busy week (meals for 12 every day…)
However, my reward for this virtuous life was that we left on January 5th for a cruise through the Panama Canal and on to South America and Machu Picchu. I had my fingers crossed that Jay wouldn’t fall off this fabulous Inca ruin high in the Andes. And told him he’d better not buy a llama, either, no matter how nice a pet it might make. Progress report next year, or sooner if you sign up to follow this blog. 🙂
Here’s hoping you have a very happy and healthy 2012!
We reached Hoi An in the early evening and checked into our riverside hotel. But before we reached there, our guide stopped in a courtyard with a large open storefront.
“Here we make clothes,” he announced. It goes without saying that the CS (Chief Shopper) was agog at the prospect of a new jacket, though he bemoaned the fact that he’d packed one and not worn it yet. And I must admit that even I felt a little frisson at the prospect of some trousers that actually fit me. That’s what I went in for. I came out having ordered an Armani knockoff trouser suit in heavy black silk. They took about 75 different measurements, some of them in places I never even knew I had measurements.
“You come back tomorrow at noon,” said the charming and efficient sales girl.
And it continued to rain. We didn’t mind though, because we felt we’d done a lot to contribute to the Vietnamese economy, and besides, the sun would come out tomorrow, as the charming redhead Annie would have sung, had she been there. She would have been wrong.
Our guide picked us up the next morning at 9. He had long ago given up trying to get us awake, never mind alert, before 9. Off we drove to the old town , to visit a thousand-year-old pagoda, complete with 9 foot dragon fountain, and Asian tourists clicking away. Almost next door was the famous Japanese covered bridge. I hadn’t realized before that the Japanese, Chinese and Hindu Cham peoples had all made their home in Hoi An over the centuries. The covered bridge was guarded at one end by stone (or possibly marble) lions and the other by similar dogs. A small shrine half way across beckoned us in the smell of incense. The river was slowly rising to meet the bridge…
Our guide took us for coffee before saying goodbye. He was worried about his wife, because Hue was flooding, and he wanted to take the bus home. We asked him what time the bus left. 12 o’clock, he said. It was twenty to.
Before he caught the bus, Nyan insisted on walking us back to the tailor shop. By the time we got there, it was noon, and I was worrying about him missing the bus.
“No problem,” he said, “it will wait.”
We forced him to leave us, eventually, and Jay and I headed upstairs for our fitting. This was a mistake. The trousers I’d ordered fitted so perfectly that I actually looked pretty good. “You take extra pair?” asked my ever helpful sales girl.
“No time, I said, we’re leaving tomorrow morning.
“No problem,” she said, “they’ll be ready by five.”
“In the morning?”
She seemed to be wondering whether I was a bit slow on the uptake. “No, tonight. And we deliver to your hotel.”
I pondered this, but decided against another pair. I wandered over to the CS, who was trying on his new trousers. They looked great, but CS was scowling.
“They don’t have cuffs,” he said, mournfully. I had an idea. “Why don’t you order another pair, with cuffs, maybe in a different color? I think they can deliver them by tonight.”CS perked up.
What color?” he asked. We settled on a grey/greenish color and I went back to my salesgirl. “I’ll take the other pair of trousers,” I said.
“And a skirt?” She asked.
I nodded. Damn the expense.
It came to $325.
And it kept on raining as we drove to Hoi An. Our tour company had suggested we fly there, but I’d heard that the views along the three hour drive were stunning, so we kept our guide and driver, and set off. We were enjoying splashing through the mildly flooded roads, trying not to drown the poor intrepid souls on mopeds and bikes. Soon however, we began to see small landslides of the brilliant red earth that is characteristic of this part of Vietnam. Then we came across a truck that had just failed to slide off the road down a steep ravine, but whose cargo had not been so lucky.
“So, said the guide, “I think we take the tunnel through the mountain, instead of the pass.” Since it was still pouring, we agreed, eventually arriving at Danang – until now just a name from the war called the American War here. Along China Beach, the new Hyatt Danang was opening that very day. Behind high fences that kept the beach out of our site, a Korean construction firm had temporarily suspended work due to the weather. “It will be a hotel and golf course,” said Nyan. Jay perked up at that. He perked down at the next remark.
“They have moved all the bodies,” said the guide, with a fair amount of savoir faire, I thought.
“The what?” said Jay.
“This was a cemetery,” said Nyan, cheerfully, “and the government paid the people to move their ancestors’ bones somewhere else, so the Koreans could build a golf course. We call it the ghost course,” he said, showing off his excellent grasp of the nuances of English.
Seeing Jay’s crestfallen expression, Nyan suggested we stop at a marble factory. I was imagining somewhere where they made the little glass marbles the kids love to play with. It turned out to be an enormous warehouse with Brobdinagian Buddha’s, gigantic modern sculptures and vast menageries of marble animals. I had been contemplating purchasing a modest Buddha to take home, with the thought that it might help me meditate. The first one I saw came up to my shoulder and I felt as though it might try to terrify me into meditating, so I wandered inside to look for something smaller.
I had lost sight of the Chief Shopper for a while, when he suddenly reappeared and, grabbing me by the elbow, said “It’s time we were leaving, darling.” I was astounded. We’d only been there for what seemed like an hour and a half, and I’d decided the nice Buddha’s were too expensive or too heavy. But I was delighted that Jay was showing signs of being sensible. Honestly, I’d thought he might try to buy a couple of Chinese style dogs for the mantelpiece, or some oversize splashing fish for the garden (to compensate for his lack of fishing success). And here we were, leaving.
“Sir, sir, I give for you $2,700 dollar,” piped up a delicate voice from behind my husband. He grinned and winked at me. Turning , he countered with $1,500.
“What are you haggling over?” I hissed at him.
The sales girl was moaning quietly, as Jay led me outside to the marble bestiary lined up in neat rows, interspersed with the occasional woodland nymph, or (remarkably similar) Virgin Mary.
“What do you think of these?” He pointed. Words failed me, as they so often do around Jay. He was pointing at two large lions of threatening aspect.
“Oh, I don’t think we want those,” I said at last.
“Very good, darling,” said Jay. The he continued, in a voice designed for the shop assistant to hear, “My wife doesn’t want these, so I’m afraid…”
“I give for you $2,300 dollar,” said the assistant, doing some rapid calculations on the back of a sales brochure.
“Sorry, no,” said Jay
By this time I was seriously worried. I knew Jay when he got into haggling mode. This was not going to be pretty.
“We don’t have anywhere to put them,” I said, but I was talking to myself.
“How ‘bout Vietnamese lucky number $2000.” She was practically in tears.
“$1800,” countered Jay. The shop assistant scribbled madly.
“Okay.” Her lower lip was trembling. “ $1800.”
“Done,” said Jay. “Shipping included, and a Buddha for my wife.”
I knew there was no point in remonstrating. The shop assistant was smiling as she walked Jay over to a marble table and chairs to sign the paperwork.
I went off to find a small Buddha. I found one, with a nice face and a slightly pained expression, lying down and taking a break. A reclining Buddha. I felt an immediate sympathy with him. Probably his wife had just bought two stone lions.