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Ants in my bed

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One ant, two ants, three ants four,

My bed is their grocery store,

Five ants, six ants, seven ants, eight,

They are swarming on my duvet.* (*author unknown)

I would (of course) have been able to guess that ants would be attracted to Loukoumades (honey puffs). Surely. But not Cretan Dakos (rusks w. tomato, feta, oregano, olive oil) or Briami (baked potatoes, courgettes, aubergines). But, then again, these are Greek ants. Indeed, attracted they were though I don’t remember dropping even a crumb, crust or a dollop of anything while I feasted and read (Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend) in a state of contented blank reverie, the smell of rain still in the air. 130 million years old with 22,000 species, and all (or so it seems) visiting my bed.

Lesson learned: Eating in bed is no picnic!*

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P.S. Thanks to H.V.G.

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This place

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If you dropped your wallet in the central square, it would still be there the following day; untouched, including contents.

Someone I haven’t seen in years sits at the next café table. Without fanfare, we resume a conversation begun in 1985.

A bakery, once new, is known as the Old New Bakery. The more recent, the New Bakery.

The label on the tinned milk, Noy Noy (pronounced new-new), was somewhat different before the socialists were elected, in the 80s. Then: one of the milkmaid’s breasts was exposed so the plump baby in her arms could happily nurse, also, one of the smaller cows lay contentedly on its side in the green grass. Alterations: the baby was replaced by an armload of white tulips, the breast covered over by a white blouse and the cow got to its feet. (see photo) I don’t know if the label’s redesign had anything to do with the changes in political situation.

Roosters do not abide by any rules when they crow and do so all day long.

I buy paint by number from the hardware shop. My kitchen floor is #26. My small bedroom floor is #62. My large bedroom floor is a mix of two parts #21 and one part #26. My windows and shutters are one part #38 mixed with one part white. My interior kitchen doors/windows are yellow #18.

A mangy, feral car with a crushed foot appears at my door like clockwork year after year somehow knowing that I’ve arrived, meowing hoarsely, insisting I feed her. I do. I’ve tried to love her but have failed. She’s called Olympia (O-lymp-pia).

There’s a cemetery in the hills with a view of the sea. This is where my great friend Lily rests. I visit bringing news good and bad, wine and/or coffee, my latest publication (if there is one) for a critique, flowers and/or fresh bread. We wile away the day. Lily’s conversation, even in death, is lyrical ‘flight of idea’ spoken in four or five different languages, sometimes at the same time.

Sparrows jabber at sunrise and again at sunset.

Summer guests and visitors have haphazardly mixed books with red spines and those that are blue, black or green. My Virgo pal who whitewashes the house, finds discarded junk that he refashions into bookcases then paints glossy white, will be furious when he sees that his careful color-code has been altered.

The sea is so salty and buoyant that my son (age five) walked boldly in and swam having had no previous experience. Even on the hottest day, if you can find a bit of shade, a breeze will always cool you. Also, Lily taught me, this same breeze will keep a watermelon cooler outside a refrigerator than in.

Why we need schmaltz

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At the movies, needing a good cry: Random Harvest, 1942, with Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson. War-addled Charles, an English officer, has amnesia. He’s in a sanatorium. An orderly forgets to lock a door on the day World War I ends and Charles wanders out into the world. He is drawn into a cabaret during a celebratory performance and taken under the wing of Paula, the beautiful, red-haired singer. She takes him far away to live in a little house in the country. They are blissfully happy and never apart. One day, Charles must go to the city to interview for a job. He takes the key to their cottage and promises to return the following day, however, while crossing a street, he’s hit by a passing car. When he comes to, the memories of his early life as a cold-hearted industrialist return and all memory of his life with Paula has vanished. Only a mysterious key remains in his possession. He resumes his previous life. Paula finds him but he does not know her. Wanting to be near him she interviews as his secretary, and gets the job……..(Won’t disappoint.)

When hungry: 1) Chop chicken/goose fat (and chicken/goose skin) into small pieces 2.) Drop in frying pan, with a sliced onion, cook over low heat 3) Stir while fat melts, then turns brown. As long as it takes, may take hours 4) Strain out gribenes/crackling 5) What’s left is pure schmaltz/rendered/melted chicken/goose fat, dense, golden 6) Spread on fresh seeded rye bread, sprinkle with kosher, coarse salt

Other uses: Three men are discussing the previous night’s lovemaking. Alberto, the Italian Catholic, says, “I rubbed my wife all over with the best olive oil, then we made wonderful love. She moaned for five minutes. Otto, the Swedish Lutheran, says, “I smoothed sweet butter all over my wife’s body then we made passionate love. She wailed for half an hour.” Harry, the Jewish American  says, “I covered my wife’s body with schmaltz. We made love and she screamed for six hours.” The other’s exclaim, “Six hours? How did you make her scream for six hours?” Harry shrugs, “I wiped my hands on the drapes.”

Unimagined

photo-11I was attending a small liberal arts college just outside of Mexico City on the Taluca Road overlooking Popocatépetl volcano under which Malcolm Lowry’s hero drinks himself to death. I was nineteen. I’d missed my bus back to the city after class that day so I stuck out my thumb to hitchhike and was picked up by two good looking young men in a dark blue Porsche. Long story short, I was to marry the curly-haired man behind the wheel of that car whose last name was Gold. My Russian grandfather was still alive at the time and assumed Mr. Gold was Jewish.** He wasn’t. My then husband came from a long line of WASPs, he explained, correcting the misconception but not to my grandfather as I asked him not to. Except for one aunt, my husband didn’t see much of his Michigan-based family. That aunt was named Mary Jayne Gold, had never married, had no children. She lived half the year in the south of France and half the year in a penthouse on east 68th Street in New York. My husband and I drove that car to my home town, New York, after our wedding. Once there, he took me to visit Aunt Mary Jayne. She was in her fifties and shared her penthouse with several (I think they were black) poodles. She was in the midst of redecorating in a style that (to unworldly me) looked like something out of the world of Louis XIV and had massive, ornate paintings in gilt frames on her walls. She was tall with thick gray hair, hard of hearing, was friendly but not what one might think of as overly warm. What impressed me most, at the time, was that the wrap-around terraces overlooking the entire city, were mostly used by the dogs.

Long story short, again, before very much time had passed, I had a beautiful son, was divorced, and had begun mindless traveling. My son’s and my wanderings rounded many curves, crossed several oceans. I lost track of my ex, his aunt, and anyone connected to an episode I preferred to obliterate. About fifteen years later, Aunt Mary Jayne found us, or rather, my son, with whom she wished to maintain contact. He was a lovable boy and the sole carrier of the family name. She and he were close until the end of her life. Out of the realm of my imagining, through these years, was the possibility that fate had ever wrested carefree Aunt Mary Jayne from a life of frivolity to a life of altruism and risk. When she published a memoir titled Crossroads Marseille, 1940, I was stunned to learn that she had – for one year of her life  — done exactly that. And, done so with history-altering effect.

In a nutshell: After finishing school near Verona, Italy, Mary Jayne stayed on in Europe, became a bon vivant. She flew her own airplane, was a devoted skier, a party girl, lived in glamorous luxury. When Hitler attacked France she had been living in Paris, was 32 years old. Rather than scurrying back to America as she might have, she instead drove south, stopping in Marseille now under the control of collaborationist Vichy. Here she rented a white limestone villa named Villa Air Belle, and, for the next year, until forced to flee France at the rick of her life, joined and worked with a small group called the Emergency Rescue Committee* devoted to aiding and rescuing those who Hitler had in his cross-hairs. She freely used her fortune for this purpose as well.

Among the many (over 2000) anti-Nazi and Jewish artists and intellectuals she helped to save: Marc Chagall, Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Hannah Arendt, André Breton, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, Jacques Lipchitz, Lotte Leonard, Max Ernst, who Peggy Guggenheim eventually married. In her memoir, Out of this Century, Guggenheim wrote of Mary Jayne Gold whom she first met on her first visit to Villa Air Belle where people were sheltered and committee meetings were held: “With them was a handsome American girl, Mary Jayne Gold, who gave them vast sums of money for their noble work in which she also took a hand.” A few years before Mary Jayne’s death in 1997 at age 88 in the South of France, near St. Moritz, after fate had chosen to prize me too from a vacuous lifestyle into a more useful life as a writer specializing in World War II and Holocaust matters and became able to appreciate what she has contributed with awe, she said to me: “I never again did anything useful.” Whether or not this was true, I never knew, but it seemed to me that there was no need to do more. She’d done plenty.

(*Here is an early case of non-Jewish Jewishness, at least in name only, that enabled my grandfather Sam to believe I’d married into our faith, re: Not Not a Jew, soon to be released by TMI Press.)

(**Also to be remembered as part of this rescue effort: Harry Bingham, Vice-consul of the U.S. in Marseille, Varian Fry, Miriam Davenport, among others.)

In the cards

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Seeing flinty dawn through a porthole, I left my cabin for a cup of coffee. It was November 2013; I was traveling from Patras to Venice on a ship named Coraggio (Anek Lines) with two new friends. A few Turkish truckers and their wives were fast asleep in the lounge where the configuration of classic red and blue playing cards along with the King of Spades had been abandoned on an otherwise empty, round formica table. Hearing the sound keee-oh cawww and seeing a lone seagull floating on an airwave beside the ship, the cards were forgotten in order to go outside to the deck to lean on a railing, sip my strong coffee and await the first heart-stopping glimpse of Venice emerging from the morning mist.

In childhood I played many card games and not just on rainy days. I played War, Go Fish, Blackjack, Crazy Eights, Poker, Gin Rummy, Twenty-one, Solitaire; I was extremely competitive and always played to win. Once I was told to keep someone who had escaped from a mental hospital busy until an ambulance arrived to take her away. I was too young (about age 6) to be upset, and we two (she was about 60), genially played Canasta, though I’d never played it before or since. At some point I no longer enjoyed card playing. Though I gleefully had also performed many card tricks, this activity exited too. From then on till now (except for playing a game with dice for drinks we called Pig and Chicken at a particular bar/restaurant on 88th Street where I spent many hundreds of hours in a large booth with a changing variety of playmates), any joy or compulsive behavior associated with cards or games in general faded entirely and has never returned. Nor have I ever had any interest in or taste for gambling – a good fortune that at least one vice has alluded me.

Someone recently told me, “My husband is going to a casino in central Asia.” I enquired, “Tibet?” and was huffily informed, “Of course, why else would he go!” Unfortunately, as a non-gambler, non-gamer, non-card player, non-competive being, I was the wrong person for this quip. Even worse, when I hear, “Don’t worry, it’s in the cards.” I can only explain wistfully, “Not in my cards. I’ve none.”

 

“A free day, a perfect pearl”

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I awakened today and found a gift had had been given to me during the night. The gift: a day that belongs entirely to me; seamless; to be shared or not as I like. Virginia Woolf’s line, A free day, a perfect pearl comes to mind. I google the line in order to attribute it properly. What comes up: 1) Wikiquotes/Virginia_Woolf 2) Love in the Second Act: True Stories of Romance, Midlife and Beyond – “I’d held his words in my hand like a lucky coin all day, until we met in his bed at 11 …and good fortune, with Virginia Woolf’s ‘a free day a perfect pearl’ ahead.'” This second item in my search happens to be a fragmented quote from my own book, originally published in 2006. I’m agog. Pleased, yes (as this book is soon to be reissued with a new introduction by TMI Press) but no help. I continue the search for attribution, finding tasty  Virginia Woolf gems, but not the jewel I’m searching for. One tea and two coffees later, I’ve uncovered many uses of the word pearl by Woolf  (Vita was a … ‘pink glowing, grape clustered, pearl hung’ ‘… a net one flings over some sea pearls…’ Eleanor finds Mrs. Levy’s daughter ‘…with her red cheeks and white pearls’ ‘Mr. Bacon is skeptical of the pearl’s authenticity…’ ‘Do you remember before the war you had gloves with pearl buttons?’) but not the right … uh, pearl.

This reminds me of the time I was researching Anne Frank Remembered in Holland. I was going over some materials with Miep Gies and her husband Jan. I’d mentioned their wedding attended by (I thought) the entire Frank family – Margot, Anne, Edith, Otto. Miep corrected me, “Only Anne and Otto were there. Mrs. Frank’s mother was sick and Margot and Edith stayed home to take care of her.” This couldn’t be true. I pointed out a photo taken by a street photographer showing Anne, Otto, Margot and several others. (Upper right hand group photo below.) They shook their heads. “Isn’t Margot one of the smiling woman to Otto’s left, slightly behind Anne, as repeatedly attributed in various sources,” I asked? They shook their heads again. “Now we will correct this mistake in our book,” Jan exclaimed. And we did.

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Is this Virginia Woolf quote a Margot Frank-like misattribution? Am I copying my own mistakes… I’ll save this quandary for another, less pearly day. This one is still lustrous; still warm to the touch.

Fear of impending doom

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As spring of 1945 burst through exhausted ruins, peace visited Europe beginning on May 8th. Now was a chance to make a better world and what better time to begin than spring. A few days less than three months later, August 6th, 8:15 a.m. 1945 an American B-29 bomber dropped a uranium gun-type atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, Japan. When the bomb was detonated, temperatures reached 60 million degrees, incinerating anything (human or other) in it’s range. As this didn’t seem to be enough for the deciders, a stronger plutonium implosion-type atomic bomb nicknamed “Fat Man” was destined for Kokura, Japan. It was rerouted on August 9th because of thick clouds and instead was dropped  on Nagasaki, Japan at 11:02 a.m. Seventy years ago today. Midway between these two events, in 1945, I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My mother’s cousin Pauline – a pediatrician married to a pediatrician named Al  – might or might not have birthed me. Mother didn’t remember in later years when I asked. Pauline, who soon became a psychiatrist, called me “Alki” sometimes. (When she became a psychiatrist I thought she would be able to read my mind.) One neighbor called me “Petunia” but I didn’t have a nickname until I was christened “Ally Cat” at camp. I was born around 1 p.m. or perhaps 1 a.m. also not remembered by my mother later on. By the time I had an inkling of the world beyond my family, we were in a state of perpetual Cold War (1947-1991) that promised “mutually assured destruction” to all. Bit by bit, as the existing  bombs didn’t seem to be enough, bigger and better hydrogen/lithium bombs, at least 1,350-1,570 times more powerful than the combined strength of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were crafted. Some folks built air raid shelters in their back yards, other’s either couldn’t afford to or didn’t believe it could help. At school we had frequent air raid drills during which I made sure no sharp objects like pencils were in my pockets and would “take cover” under my desk until an all clear sounded. Every night, when the light went out, I was visited by a chest-gripping fear of impending doom. Would a nuclear war start while I was asleep? Would my flesh boil off my bones? Would my eyeballs melt? Would I have a ravenous thirst for which nothing could quench it? My parents were unable to offer any reassurance, nor a plan as to what we might do to survive in the event. Growing up without religion or belief or faith in anything, where could I find relief? It wasn’t so much the fear of dying as I imagined death would be instantaneous, it was the ever-present, claws of impending doom that kept me in their relentless grip for many, many, years. This unrelenting fear was a kind of necrotising fasciitis (flesh eating virus) that invaded my spirit. Although, so far, I’ve survived, another rot, a sense of moral implication, continues to this day to eat away at me. But, not to be underestimated, there were eighty-nine full days out of the last seventy years (or twenty-five-thousand-five-hundred-fifty-five days) when it seemed that the world would be a better place.

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http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1946/08/31/hiroshima

Notes from Ecuador

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A young Canadian acquaintance has gone to the interior of Ecuador as a volunteer. Following are a few notes taken from a phone call he made during his stay:

“…, they are the most beautiful and lovely people.
Words can’t even describe how beautiful they are.
I went there to help them.
But they helped me – I was deeply cared for the entire time.
They are so gentle and generous.
…, I held a pirahna.
There were ants the size of my finger.
Oh the parrots.
I would take one step and a family of the most beautiful butterflies would fly up around me.
The sounds at night were unbelievable.
It is a different life – it is another, most incredible world.
It is so beautiful.
It is so stunning.
A friendly opossum would crawl up and on me everyday.
The children were so loving and sweet.
Baby monkeys were everywhere.
I was soaked with the rain.
The smells – Oh the smells – they were the most gorgeous.
Big snakes.
Bees the size of my thumb.
Huge spiders….the smallest was the size of my hand.
Life is abundant there. Overflowing life.
Teeming with life.
EVERYWHERE.
I learned how to blow darts and make traps.
And trek.
I learned how to trek through thick beautiful nature.
The biggest most beautiful trees.
Oh the trees.
I slept on a hard floor under mosquitoe netting.
It rained and rained.
And rained and rained and rained.
It was so beautiful.
And I bathed in the river.

This land is extroardinary.
This wilderness must be cared for.”

 

 

The best of times – Laughing Water

photo-10This photo depicts someone who looks like they wandered onto a Civil War battlefield. Or, an extra from Grapes of Wrath. Not so. It happens to be me at about age 11 or 12 at sleep-away camp.

For about 5 years, every August 1, I was taken to the Port Authority Bus Station and put on a bus by my parents. I doubt I looked back or waved goodbye. I was going to Girl Scout Camp–at last– after waiting an entire year for the day to arrive once more. The bus was headed upstate to Bear Mountain where I would spend an entire month at Camp Laughing Water sleeping in the woods on a cot in a tent that had a plank floor. I shared my tent with 4 other girls who I’d never met before, our suitcases under our cots while personal items (like shampoo, toothbrush, folding cup) were kept in a shared unpainted orange crate. The off-white canvas tent had sides that hung down when it rained but remained rolled up most of the time, day and night, allowing us to sleep in the open air a few inches from the trees and woods. One time I woke suddenly. A deer was standing not two feet from my face. My heart raced while we looked into each others eyes and I felt the closest I’d ever felt to euphoria in my life up to this point.

I’ve only done 3 things really well in life. (I’m not kidding or being modest.) One of these was being a camper. This meant that while I was preparing to take my Life Saving tests I studied under my blanket with a flashlight every night, something I’d never done before or since, and got a perfect score. I could build many kinds of fires, do canoe-over-canoe rescues, identify Poison Ivy, make a bed roll, say the Conservation Pledge. (I give my pledge as an American to save and faithfully to defend from waste the natural resources of my country–its soil and minerals, its forests, waters, and wildlife.) I could whip the end of a rope, lash things together when nails or hammers weren’t handy, cook a Doughboy over an open fire on the end of a sharpened green stick. And much more. I was never again as happy or carefree as I was during those times.

On the bus coming and going we’d sing. We also sang while hiking, canoeing or sitting around the camp fire. We sang all the time. It didn’t matter if you had a good voice or any musical sense whatsoever. I don’t recall a single person, camper or counselor, not joining in. And, no matter how many times we sang the same song, I never tired of it.

One song we sang about a million times:

Bed is too small for my tired head,

give me a hill topped with trees;

Tuck a cloud under my chin,

Lord, blow the moon out, please

[www.youtube.com/watch?v=-f5FaYy3cSc]