Shockolate –

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.

Evidence of disaster

Evidence of disaster

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…

2012 Christmas edition

It seems like less than a year since I wrote my last Christmas letter. Oh wait – it is less than a year. In fact it went out last January, which makes me realize how well-organized I am this year. When last I wrote, Jay and I were off to South America with friends. We took a ship through the Panama Canal. It’s not so much a canal as a series of very large locks which take a very long time to navigate, largely because the ships that go through it these days are designed with about a foot of leeway on each side – going through it reminded me of trying to put my jeans on after last year’s Christmas dinner. But I digress.

It was a wonderful trip. We went to Cartagena, Colombia, and though I looked around for drug cartels and similar miscreants, all I could see were pretty houses and ladies in traditional costume who wanted a dollar if I took a photo of them. Then on to Ecuador, where the port cities sat glumly under grey skies and tried to look enticing, rather like streetwalkers who’d been at it too long and had lost hope. But Peru made up for it all. Beautiful country with lovely people and a lot of potatoes. Some 300, sorry 3000 different kinds, and it seemed every one of them was to be found in a local vegetable market in Cuzco, high in the Andes. They even had a freeze-dried potato, pure white and weighing next to nothing, which you can store for years until you need it. (Frozen on a glacier and then left in the sun to dry – amazing). Cuzco is the jumping off point for Machu Picchu, at least I was jumping, and Jay was proceeding at a stately pace with his bionic knee. We took a train to the site, and I told Jay not to wear any clothing that gave him away as a Yale man, since a hundred years ago one such Yale man ‘discovered’ Machu Picchu and walked off with a huge amount of swag, which the Peruvians are now demanding back. Quite right, too, but I didn’t want anyone demanding it from Jay or his friend Tom (another Yalie who was traveling with us).

In late February I was planning a trip to England to see my mother, when she had a stroke. I spent most of February and March over there, and at the end of March, my mother had a heart attack and did what she always said she would, and left this world when she decided to. She also said she’d never go into a nursing home and by golly, she never did. She was an amazing woman who lived through some of the most important moments in history, grew up rich but learned to manage on very little, brought up five daughters and helped bring up sundry nephews and grandchildren. There were a hundred people at her funeral representing all the different interests my mother had. Nephews and nieces came from South Africa, Poland and Italy, as well as her grandchildren from the United States, Geneva and elsewhere. It was quite a party we gave her. I’m sure she was sorry to miss it.

Talk, talk, talk…

And speaking of parties, later in the year we got together with more former Yalies and their wives, Jay’s old classmates, in Charlottesville Virginia, where we sat around and chewed the fat for 72 hours straight. We also talked quite a bit.

Moving right along…Bertie our youngest, was lucky enough to be able to go to Geneva to study for his Spring term. Geneva is home to the CERN Hadron Collider, which…um…collides atoms or something to make even tinier particles. Point being that Bertie was there when they discovered something they’d been looking for for a while, the Higgs Boson… I have always told the boys that if they can’t find something, they should move something. (Whatever they’re looking for is always beneath, or behind something – usually their dirty clothes.) Apparently this works in astrophysics as well. So Bertie is becoming an astrophysicist. Scary, I know. But if anyone can find a way to live on Mars, Bertie can. So be prepared.

Fred is one credit short of graduating as a Bio-medical engineer with a side order of electrical engineering. The course starts in January, and so in the meantime he’s working for Sears, a huge department store company, unloading the trucks full of household appliances that wives everywhere are going to get for Christmas instead of cashmere and perfume. He’s also on an organizing kick, so their filing cabinets have never looked so good…

As a reward for the boys sterling academic work and because they didn’t go on last year’s Caribbean cruise, Jay and I decided to take them on a cruise round the Adriatic this summer. It was either that or travel around Europe with them, which sounded like hell on earth to me (trying to make them get out of bed and see the sights, trying to make them do things when we wanted to etc). The cruise was a great compromise, since it visited a lot of places they wouldn’t have got to on their own, and gave us all a bit of space while sailing so that we weren’t tripping over each other all the time. We went back to Istanbul where the smashing guide we had 4 years ago was persuaded to take us around that fascinating city. The boys loved it, partly because Ziya is such a fount of knowledge and could answer every one of their questions, of which they had many. We almost lost Jay in the Grand Bazaar, where he was being welcomed by the stallholders with open arms and cries of “Effendi!” which I believe means “Sucker!” in Turkish. They may have recognized him from our last trip…

A couple of ruins flanked by Bertie and Fred

A couple of ruins flanked by Bertie and Fred

Ephesus, Montenegro, Santorini, and a few rugs etc later, we ended up in Venice, just before it flooded. It was my first ever visit to Venice, so of course I loved it. Jay had a wonderful time at Murano where the glass-makers understand the art of haggling as well as they do in Istanbul. With the result that we ended up with a glass model of an Americas Cup yacht (practically life-size) and a Picasso head of a woman with two noses. Really, we need a bigger house to store all this stuff in. But weren’t we planning to downsize last year?

That's Jay beneath the umbrella

That’s Jay beneath the umbrella

Yes, we were. And yet, once Jay started fixing all the little things that tend to go wrong with houses (like no beach, for example) he decided he loved it so much we would stay. So he put in a beach. Of course. (If you’d like to know more about the beach, check my blog here.)

This encouraged Fred to begin putting in a lawn, creating new stone steps in the garden and generally beautifying the place. Once all this had been done, there was no point in moving.  Having run out of things to buy abroad, Jay decided to buy a house in Phoenix, Arizona. Now there’s a place with a beach. Actually, more of a desert. A friend was looking to sell his house at a bargain price, and so… About six months after we’d bought it, I actually got to see it, and allowed Jay to buy two tiny lions to grace the front doorstep. It’s delightful, of course, and the weather in the winter there is pretty much perfect – it’s just that I don’t know when we’ll have time to visit, because we have so many other travel plans. I fully expect we’ll be the proud (or possibly suicidal) owners of a kangaroo by this time next year, because we’re going to Australia in April.

Our Fairfield home, for those of you with less than stellar geography skills, is about a mile from a real beach, which proved to be interesting when Ultra Storm Sandy arrived in October. The water came up to the end of the driveway and then evidently thought better of it and retreated, but we were without electricity for 5 days, which wasn’t as much fun as I thought it might be. I finally had a ceramic sign in the shape of a lemon made for the front of the house. It read: 33 – The Lemon. Naturally, it was doomed, and, true to the nature of the house, fell down during the storm and smashed into several pieces. TangoBut to console myself, I was able to read Tangerine Tango by flashlight. It’s a small pocket-size anthology of women writers, in which three of my memoir pieces and a poem were published in October. It’s selling quite well (considering) on Amazon. (Thank you to those of you who bought copies. And those of you who didn’t, will be buying them soon, won’t you? All proceeds to benefit research into Huntington’s Disease.) Now I’m finally revising the novel I wrote last year with the help of my writing group, and writing Christmas letters in my spare time.

We’re expecting my sister Jane and her friend Sheila to arrive for Christmas any day now, and once again we’ll be hosting the hordes over the holidays. Here’s hoping you’re planning a restful and happy holiday season.

Time for the Christmas edition of this blog…

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!

London: gone to hell in a handbasket?

Yesterday I was laughing at my husband’s relationship with his laptop. Today I’m sitting at my desk watching my home town burn on Youtube.

I grew up in a leafy genteel suburb of London. Ealing was known then as the Queen of the Suburbs, a title we mocked in public, but secretly appreciated since it was always a safe, clean, friendly place to live. Since I left for the States over 30 years ago, it has changed. So has the world. But each time I go back, I find the atmosphere a little more charged. People are still friendly, and I feel pretty safe on the streets. But I’m constantly being told by my friends there that I’m too laissez faire, too lacking in awareness. They see me, as they see themselves, as a potential victim.

I have vowed not to be one of those people of a certain age who think the world is going to hell in a hand basket. But I do think that the cycle of lack of parenting, false expectations of wealth and fame, and lack of rewarding work (or maybe work of any kind) are proving to be a combustible mix. Even more repressive laws are not the answer. You cannot legislate good behavior.

The British Government has put in place many measures to deal with potential terrorism threats. Closed circuit TV means you have over 300 chances per day to be caught on camera in London. And local governments, desperate for more income, have adopted a draconian fine system for any infraction of the law. Parking tickets start at $150. Leaving your garbage unsorted or with the lid of the garbage can open can elicit a fine. Be a day late paying your property tax and the fine is around 40%. It makes for a very confrontational mindset. People like my 90-year-old mother, hate opening their mail because it will contain threats from the utilities and other companies that she deals with. These used to be reserved for the reminder invoice. Now they’re standard. Government offices are plastered with signs telling you that threatening or abusive behavior towards government officials will be prosecuted. When did those reserved, polite British people begin to threaten and abuse people they voted for?

Growing up in this sort of world is bound to take its toll on young people. Instead of looking forward to college and work, many of them spend their days trying to collect ASBO’s. These are Anti-Social Behavior Orders – a sort of legal parenting done by the police for kids aged 10 and up. You can get an ASBO for yelling at the neighbors, throwing bottles or otherwise behaving inappropriately in public.

And now we can add economic distress, government cutbacks, and cell phones to the mix, and suddenly there’s an excuse to start fighting the police, setting fire to cars and busses, torching shops, smashing glass and looting.

The 21st century has overwhelmed a Britain that was chugging along using the mores of the 1950’s as a benchmark. The government has tried to legislate a new way of behaving. Instead, it has simply given people an excuse to rebel against measures that would seem repressive in a dictatorship.

Okay, enough. I’m beginning to sound like one of those old farts…