Riding on the Ritz

Riding on the RitzJust when you think everything is getting worse, you run into something that throws you for a glorious loop. A time hiccup back to more prosperous days. My hiccup happened the moment Bob and I boarded a B777 for our Emirates flight to Milan.

Emirates, the fourth largest carrier of international passengers is on the rise. Last year they shuttled 44.5 million pampered passengers from Dubai to Milan to JFK and another 137 destinations without ruffling their feathers or charging economy class for peanuts.

Here’s a recent article about this new star from Vanity Fair’s July, 2014 issue:

The New Jet Age
“For anyone who has endured the post-deregulation austerity of U.S. airlines over the past few decades—uncomfortable, overcrowded, bare-bones bus journeys in the sky—the experience of flying on Emirates, Etihad, or Qatar comes close to recapturing the joy of jet travel from Pan Am’s heyday. There is a sense of fun on board, and that has come down from the top. [Emirates president] Tim Clark says he wants to bring a bit of glamour back into flying.”

With over two hundred planes, the Emirates fleet is looking to grow to nearly 600. They fly air buses and the smaller B777′s which seats close to four hundred. Because of their central location, what began in 1985 as strategy to make use of Dubai’s oil reserves has become a way to link the west with emerging countries.

StarsWhen Bob booked us passage to his High School Reunion in Switzerland he had comfort and quality in mind but discovered that Emirates was also offering the most reasonably priced flight. He’d read great things about Emirates and wanted to find out if classy and cheap weren’t mutually exclusive.

Right from the start, we were wowed, beginning with the flight attendants who were spruced up beyond belief. The women had perfect hair and were beautifully made up, all wearing the same shade of lipstick to match their red hats, each hat with a snow white scarf draping over their shoulder and around their neck. And there were GQ guys, too in a ratio of roughly one man to nine women.

After we were settled into our seats, the captain’s introduced himself and his staff in a rich voice. Today’s line up included fifteen flight attendants from Latvia, Poland, Rumania, Egypt and more. It seemed as if no two hailed from the same country. When he was finished in English, he repeated everything in Arabic.

We checked out our monitors, flipping back and forth from the camera mounted underneath the plane and the one mounted below the nose before perusing 600 channels of entertainment from Radio Lab to Modern Family. And then a stunning woman was offering us steaming white towels with a pair of tongs. A few minutes later I was handed a menu. It listed a Saffron couscous salad, Barbeque grilled chicken or Gulf style fish curry followed by an Apple and blackberry crisp. Our vegetarian and vegan options arrived hot and tasty on real plates with real silverware.

That evening when the cabin lights were dimmed I saw stars. I blinked. Turns out the ceiling panels had been engineered to mimic the night sky. They were back lit and stamped with a pattern of tiny holes in the shape of constellations. When I realized the implications of this I practically got giddy. How cool to put that much thought and trouble into such a sublime detail.

Nine hours of air travel is torture any way you slice it. But it’s discomfort made bearable by smiling attendants, back-to-back movies and free wine. Bob made sure to get us the first row in the back where the seats go from three to two so neither of us got squeezed in the middle, we had a little extra leg room and a nice place to stand out of the way with a clear shot to the bathroom.

It was nice to hear the sounds of laughter from between the passengers and those happy angels attending to the flow of food and comfort. During the day flight home one lovely woman went from family to family, borrowing their toddlers for walks around the cabin. There was peace in our metal tube full of people speeding towards Italy. We wondered if the attendants ever got stressed or depressed.

All I can say is, if you ever want to experience air travel like it used to be forty years ago, hop on an Emirates flight to anywhere. They will lighten up your sky.

Gelato and Cigarettes

CafeRome is a study in contrasts defined by monumental marble, miniature cars, horse carts, cripples, smokers and saints. A city of nearly three million represented by every race which draws about ten million tourists a year. A city where impeccably dressed men on motor scooters whizz past beggars and where gum spots collect on white marble steps.

From all appearances, nearly everyone smokes in Rome. It isn’t unusual to see a beautifully dressed woman in heels toss her cigarette butt down and crush it with her next step. We noticed that while the cobblestones in Lugano were perfectly chinked, the stones in Rome are sometimes chinked in cigarette butts.

And as is befitting of a tourist town, every fourth shop sells ice cream and sandwiches. Only in Italy, they call it gelato.

Bob and I took the metro to Vatican City this morning, squeezing ourselves into a packed subway car at rush hour, wondering if we would fit before we were followed by another half a dozen passengers. No one squirmed mostly because we were packed too tight to move. And no one complained, perhaps because the crowding was not out of the ordinary. It was at once a very public and quite intimate ride.

Six stops later, the crowd thinning each time the doors opened and closed, we arrived intact. Before entering the Vatican piazza I threw my purse onto the x-ray belt and stepped through the scanner. Bob was on the other side recovering his pocket change and phone.

The piazza was magnificent. Beautifully sculpted saints gazed down at hundreds of plastic chairs set in rows upon the cobblestones below the papal balcony. Every type of attire was represented from diapers to long, flowing habits. A paunchy gentleman wore a white tee shirt with the words “The Beatles” in large black print.

StepsBefore entering St. Peters Basillica, women were asked to cover their shoulders and knees. Scarf vendors hovered nearby to help them comply. We opted to climb the five hundred or so steps to the dome with the others, some wearing collars and others who held terrified youngsters by the hand.

The views out the narrow windows grew more and more magnificent as we ascended and we noticed that steel bars had been bolted in the middle of the openings, to prevent what we weren’t sure. As the walls grew closer and closer together and finally began to curve to the right, my chest grew tight and children began to cry and beg.

We peered through wire mesh at the main altar, my heart swelling with love for my mother who has been here and loves this world passionately. We thought of our brother, Father Joseph who is at this very moment climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. We admired the mosaics, buying a little time before stepping onto the spiral staircase to the balcony.

From up there we couldn’t hear the hiss of the street vendors, couldn’t see the dog walkers, baby strollers or prostrated beggars or smell the air, heavy with sweet sugar and cigarette smoke. Instead we listened to church bells while a fresh breeze vaporized the sweat of our effort. We heard the children murmur in wonder at the view, the parents chucking soft praise. The marble monuments looked like toys, the river like a stream. We drank it all in and then turned and began our descent to the streets of Rome.

Before we knew it we were sitting at a sidewalk cafe watching the street traffic pass us by sharing some gelato while Bob enjoyed a cappuccino and a smoke.

Gelato  20140619RomanCobblestones

A Matter of Pride

DSC_4406

The view of Lake Lugano from our TASIS dorm room.

I can’t say I’ve been many places as beautifully engineered and tended as Lugano. Also known as the “Italian” part of Switzerland it is built along the shore of Lake Lugano and on up the hill. The streets here are tidy and clean with granite curbs and nearly everything is landscaped and coiffed. Even the vacant lots ablaze with wildflowers seem planned!

We’re staying at TASIS (The American School in Switzerland) the boarding school Bob attended in the seventies, here for the fortieth High School reunion of the class of 1974. Some of Bob’s class of 1976 alumni are here and about thirty others who lived here during that period. This is the first time he’s been back since graduating.

This has been an extraordinary opportunity for me to connect with Bob’s past. As we celebrate our fifth day of tours, festivities and food I am savoring two epiphanies. First off, I realize how much deeper the bonds between overseas boarding school students are than the relationships I had with my school mates in the States. The Tasis alumni welcomed me into the fold without hesitation, happily diving into deep conversation about every topic imaginable. It’s obvious that there is a special kind of camaraderie between these intelligent and worldly people.

Second, I have now experienced the standard of living Bob was exposed to as a youth. This is not a world I’ve ever lived in. All my life I’ve measured my surroundings with a yardstick that this week grew another couple of feet. Since his teens, Bob knew the world could be like this and now I realize it too. On the other end of the yardstick Bob lived in the incredibly dissimilar world of Ghana from the time he was nine. What a shock it must have been to travel back and forth from one world to the other and yet, at his age he would have taken it all in stride and fashioned his world view accordingly.

A Matter of Pride

A flower box on a street sign.

Bob and I have done quite a bit of walking these past five days and are quite impressed. The public realm, those places a passer by might happen upon, have been tended lovingly by either the land owners or the town. It is a joy to stroll groomed paths flanked in lavender, hydrangeas and fragrant hedges, looking up at architecture designed to please the eye. A little ways out of town there are lovely vineyards, many of them producing Lugano’s signature merlot.

A lot of the stone walls and buildings in Lugano seem quite old but are in great shape. Art is built into everything, from patterned cobblestone streets to ornate doorways. And everywhere there are flowers, dripping from window boxes, planted in medians, in carports, along fences and outside restaurants. We’ve noticed that much of the landscaping was chosen with fragrance in mind. This is what heaven must feel like, a place where every view is meant to please, the air is sweet and where you feel welcomed. It’s an honor to be a human being in a place like this.

James Howard Kunstler bemoans the loss of consideration for the common good in the United States with his books “The Geography of Nowhere” and “Home from Nowhere.” Whereas Americans once built cities in the European style, modern architecture has devolved into boxy structures surrounded by asphalt. Classic old buildings are routinely replaced by inferior structures meant to last a short time so they too can be replaced. What’s good for the economy is not at all good for our culture.

In terms of pride, Lugano is definitely on the very far end of the continuum from Ghana. Everywhere else we’ve lived in the United States is somewhere in the middle. I’m not talking about ego-driven pride but rather civic pride – the respect for humanity and appreciation for beauty that compels people to make things nice. The kind of pride that inspires one to make their bed in the morning or recycle their trash; weed their flower gardens and wash their cars. Civic pride is about taking responsibility and caring enough to keep up appearances.

In our time here we have only seen one piece of trash, a piece of white paper towel that somehow got away from someone. No junk cars, No burning piles of plastic. As I sit here typing, the lovely sound of a church bell floats up the hill and I look to my left and see the still waters of Lake Lugano. In a few hours we will cruise across the lake to Morcote for dinner. I won’t be surprised to find flowers on the boat and I’ll probably notice a few pieces of art tucked in and around here and there. In keeping with my experiences here so far, I expect the staff to be warm and accommodating. This is indeed what heaven must be all about.

Vineyard

A typical vineyard on up the hill from the school.

Turning Sixty

Turning Sixty

Eleven days away from turning sixty and still laughing.

On Wednesday I step away from my 59th year into my 60th, into my Golden Years. I honestly don’t know how I got this far given my many foibles and follies. Given my penchant for climbing aboard skittish animals and airplanes.

Sixty sounds old to me. Oh, it’s just a number, you say in a placating tone with slightly condescending body language. But it still sounds old.

When my friend Shirley turned sixty I asked her she felt about it. She said, “Camille, when you turn fifty everyone tells you how great you look and you don’t feel old. But when you turn sixty, no matter how good you look, you’re still sixty.”

Her words have been ringing in my ears for nineteen years and this year I finally get to test drive them for myself. I expect I may feel the weight of my age for the first time since the trauma of turning a quarter of a century old. Twenty five years on the planet was a sobering concept to me back in 1979 but after that, no birthdays have given me pause. Thirty, forty and fifty didn’t phase me but it doesn’t help that my husband, brothers and most of my friends are all younger than me.

In preparation for turning sixty I’ve done a lot of thinking about the upside of heading into the down side of my life span. I love the image of coasting down the peak of my earlier accomplishments. If you graph a life expectancy of eighty-five, I reached the apex seventeen and a half years ago. Even if you break it into thirds, I’ve already rounded the turn and I’m coming down the backstretch.

And lots of back stretching is required at my age just to keep all parts moving freely. Daily yoga is a must, even if it’s only ten minutes of floor stretching. Little kinks and hitches generally disappear in a day or two as long as I’m faithful about flopping onto the carpet and rolling around a little.

I love what Joseph Campbell says about these later years in a video about Myth as the Mirror for the Ego:

The older person must know – I’m not now participating in the achievement of life, I have achieved it! And I’m looking back.

And I can tell you that there’s a wonderful moment that comes when you realize, ‘I’m not striving for anything and what I’m doing now is not a means to achieving something later.’

Youth has always to think that way. Every decision a young person makes is a commitment to a life course. And if you make a bad decision of that angle, by the time you get out there you’re far off course.

But after a certain age, there’s no future and suddenly the present becomes rich, it becomes that thing in itself which you’re now experiencing and if you’ve been prepared a little bit for that, you’re ready. >snip<

I’ll be seventy-nine next month. I can tell you there came a gradual realization – ‘boy this is it, I’m in that place and every experience is of value in and for itself without any reference to anything that might happen.’

It’s beautiful.

All these years of shrugging off birthdays may be about to catch up with me. Or perhaps I will be just another year closer to mastering the art of living in the now. We’ll just have to see.

Running in the Family

RunningFamilyJoeI guess all families have their signature rituals and habits. Some families have a thing for lawn games. Others trend towards wine and esoteric conversation. Some like to camp together, shop together and/or beach together.

In my family, there are three main trends:

Food is never far from our minds.
We all like to eat and most of us are good cooks. An empty stomach is an unheard of concept.  I’m afraid we can get a bit carried away with the whole cooking and eating thing. For example, my soon-to-be eighty two year old mother is preparing at least three dishes for tomorrow’s potluck. Sure, there will be thirty people to feed, but “Mom,” I keep saying, “They’re all bringing food, too!” But, there’s no fighting mother nature so I plan on arriving two hours early to shuttle food from Mom’s apartment to the party hall.

We like to pick up animals.
Pretty much to a person, if we see an animal we have to pick it up. Enough said.

Disregard for authority and a thirst for adventure.
This is really two trends but they tend to go hand in hand. On Monday, my Aunt Jeanette told us two stories about her mother, my grandmother that highlighted this perplexing trend. Grandma loved the outdoors all of her life. She was known for taking long walks on a daily basis up until she had a stroke at eighty five.

When she was a young girl she once hiked high up the mountain alone, took a nap and had to hike back in the dark. She also was known for taking the boat out despite being warned that a storm was rolling in. Keep in mind that this woman was born in 1900, back when girls were supposed to know their limits.

My brother Joe demonstrated this third trend handily yesterday by climbing over a barbed wire fence to get a better view of things from atop a tower. On at least one occasion he has followed in Grandma’s footsteps by hiking into unknown territory alone and having to find his way back in the dark.

Suffice it to say, Bob and I are having a great time running around with my brothers and their families, getting plenty to eat, lots of animal encounters and enough vicarious adventure to keep us thoroughly entertained.

RunningFamilyJohn  RunningFamilyToad

Two Week Increments

Two Week IncrementsWe’re living life in two week increments these days. Two weeks doing this, two weeks doing that. Two weeks at home, two weeks away and repeat.

Last month I spent a week up in the Shenandoah with Stephanie and returned home for two weeks where I immersed myself in life at The Plant, getting caught up and preparing for another trip.

Now we’re in Maryland at the beginning of our annual family vacation staying with our friend Ned, a perfect host and great friend. Last night we dined in DC with Ned, Frankie and Jessica and this morning we’re preparing for a long walk on a stellar day. Yesterday we strolled down to the Potomac to gawk at the high water threatening to cover the walking path.

We’ll pick up brother/father Joe at Dulles this evening and tomorrow we’ll drive north to dine with our New Jersey cousins. Then the three of us will visit friends in New York City and head out to Pennsylvania to see Mom, the other brothers, their kids and grand kids. A little road trip with one of our favorite pals!

After Memorial Day we’re coming home for my 60th birthday celebration (thanks, Haruka!) and get caught up again before flying to Europe for two weeks. Europe?! you say. Yep, we’re headed to Milan for Bob’s High School Reunion at TASIS across the border in Lugano, Switzerland. After the reunion we’ll travel all the way down Italy to Sicily. Just call us the world travelers.

This will be the first time Bob has been to see his old High School in about 40 years and it will be my first time ever in both Switzerland and Italy. Since two of my great grandparents are Sicilian, Bob is making sure I get all the way to that storied island.

Indeed, May and June are exciting months for us and we are looking forward to all of it. But once it’s all over and we settle down into the stultifying heat of a North Carolinian Summer, I’m sure our neighbors will be able hear long sighs of relief from across the yards and woods.

Book of Dreams

BookofDreamsMy friend Linda gave me a beautiful little notebook she brought all the way from Paris. I decided to use it for capturing my dreams and this exercise has led to a wonderful discovery. I am now quite sure that most of what I dream pulls directly from real life experiences.

Most every morning for the past month, I take my old ink pen and write in my dreamy little book. As I write, the words I choose highlight my feelings about what’s going on in my life and it’s plain to see that the images reflect things I saw, heard or thought recently. I’ve begun to add a few lines after each dream entry about what’s going on in real life.

For example, if I was gardening near our picket fence and thinking about how it needed paint and later telling someone about how I want to start riding again, I dream about three horses getting their heads stuck in the picket fence. Which ties in with having our three daughters here and memories of my little brother getting his head stuck in the picket fence when he was a baby.

Here’s a typical entry:
At a party I met a woman traveling to Ghana. We had just left. Maybe we were in Morocco. She needed cream rinse [conditioner] and I offered her mine because I wouldn’t need it in transition but told her she would have to come to our house to get it. So she did and left and I forgot to give her the cream rinse.
In real life – Molly was visiting and left her conditioner and shampoo behind. Also, I read Sala’s latest two reports about her trip back to Ghana yesterday.

So, while some would look their dreams up in a dream book and others suggest they are messages from a higher consciousness, I’m beginning to think they pretty much all pull from my daily life, my subconscious, memories, fears, hopes and dreams.

Restart Button

RestartButtonIf I were able to make one design change to the human form, I would install a Restart Button. Something easy to get to and push when needed.

Years ago Bob had a dog who, like most dogs had a habit of turning around in a circle before lying down. The only trouble was, she couldn’t stop circling. Round and round she’d go, unable to commit to a particular spot. He said he had to go over and gently push her rump before she would lay down and curl up. I’m feeling like that dog right now.

I’ve been immersed in the service of others these past few days and suddenly all has been said and done, everyone is gone and the housekeeping is completely caught up. Now what? I wander around the house, reviewing my multiple To Do lists in search of a Must Do and nothing presents itself. Nothing is compellingly urgent, yet I can’t help but suspect I’ve missed something extremely important.

“Well then, just relax,” you say. It’s true, this would be the right move with all the time in the world to myself. But I don’t know how to get there from here, or what to ‘do’ to relax. A part of me feels that I really shouldn’t lose my head of steam, that this would be the ideal time to tackle one of the many projects I’ve been shelving for a day like this.

Right here at this moment is where a reset button would come in handy. Lacking an actual button, I’m doing yoga, getting dressed, walking next door to chat with my homies and most likely wander down into the woods for a long walk. My guess is that this will do the trick.

Homeland Security

First stop on Trail Crawl with Jason, Camille, Ray, Tami and JennyDown here at the bend we measure security in terms of community. We live amid friends, people that help us when we need help. Unlike places we lived before where neighbors were distant and aloof, here everyone is into potlucks and parties. Which is why we moved here. We came and saw what kind of community Tami and Lyle were building and decided we wanted in.

Fifteen years ago, Tami started Trail Crawl, a ridiculously fun way to build community. When the trout lilies and daffodils have bloomed, neighbors on both sides of Stinking Creek celebrate by opening their homes. Meeting people is work for an introvert like me but Trail Crawl makes it just plain fun.

Last weekend four families opened up their homes and thirty of us walked the trails from the Farm to the Burrow to Abeyance. It was gloriously nourishing, as always. All of it – the food, Spring weather, food laughter and sharing. We met new friends, connected with old and posted pictures here.

This morning I saw a crow sauntering down the yellow stripe on the Moncure Pittsboro Road and I wondered if it walked all the way from Abeyance with a picture in my mind of the place and the people. Bob speculated it might be the ghost of Buddy, Janice’s black dog who had a fatal disregard for traffic.

Homeland security means that when Ray is driving to work and sees a truck on fire in someone’s front yard, he pulls in and alerts the owner. When a neighbor is sick, we bring food. When Jim needs some extra hands to install a cupola, he calls Bob who calls Malcolm and Nikolas and they get it done. When you want to share a secret or feel like looking for morels but don’t want to do it alone, you know where to find a friend.

When/if the economy crumbles, we’ll be well-served to know our neighbors. When we can no longer afford fuel to run our cars, I feel secure knowing we’ll figure out a new path as a community. In the meantime, it’s just fun to see what pops into our heads when we see a crow walk down the street.

In Our Backyard

We grow food in our back yard. The Sunken Gardens of Moncure is the name we gave to the old swimming pool Lyle filled in with dirt in 2009 and that Bob fenced in the following year. We have a compost pile, wood pile, fruit trees, two cars, one run on biodiesel, and a few milk crates with recycling. You can see where this is heading. In general, we are doing our best to achieve a small footprint. We lean heavily in the direction of sustainability, self-sufficiency and resiliency.

A little further away, Jason and Haruka grow a lot of organic food on several acres of greenhouse and fenced-in beds. Tomorrow they co-host the first stop of this year’s Trail Crawl with Rachel and Scott who heat their home primarily with wood. Again, we congratulate ourselves for having such groovy activities in our back yard. Down the road, Lyle and Tami are growing fruit and chestnuts and using a big solar array to defray their power demand on the grid.

However, just a mile and a half west of our backyard, 3M is mining rock for gravel, operating a granule manufacturing facility on 2100 acres. Viewed from Google Earth, their operation looks like strip mining a stone’s throw from our little organic homestead. We are dwarfed by an eyesore which we rarely consider to be in our neighborhood.

One evening the four of us, Bob, Jason, Haruka and myself were driving home after dark and were startled by the lights from 3M. It seemed so close, just the other side of a thin tree line. A giant operation right under our noses. I think of this at night when I hear the rumbling of their crushers and picture the lights, the people on night shift, the endless chewing up of the earth. And yet, we depend on the gravel to keep our driveway from turning into a mud hole.

OurBackyard

InOurBackyard

Trail Crawl 2011 creek crossing

Ten miles down the road, Shearon Harris makes nuclear power. A couple of years ago they had an unplanned shut down upon discovering a 1/4″ crack inside the reactor pressure vessel head. They test the evacuation sirens monthly. But we depend on the grid to power our heat and air conditioning, our computers, lights and refrigerator, a grid powered by nuclear power and mountain top removal coal. So, again, we are complicit.

All of this reminds me of a hike I went on with a group of friends about thirty years ago. The idea was to climb to the peak and begin our descent before the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in, but with such a large group we found ourselves above treeline when the first storm hit. Someone had brought a tarp and another a bottle of wine. We huddled underneath the tarp, passing the bottle and listening to the thunder. Somehow we managed to feel safe in our huddle while outside an electrical storm raged.

The same applies to our life here in our bubble of perceived self-sufficiency. We know there are unsustainable practices going on all around us and that we benefit from them. But most of the time, we choose to enjoy the camaraderie of a robust neighborhood and the simple pleasures of eating food we grow in our backyard. Trail Crawl, here we come!