Category Archives: culture

Keeping Christmas

The Dynamic Gingerbread Trio – Katie, Khamo and I – just finished our goopy, inedible creation, which we’ve been meaning to make for about a week now, or at least in time for Russian (Orthodox) Christmas (January 7).  Inedible because it is a kit that I purchased for $1.50 at after Christmas sales about five years ago.  The “ready to use” frosting was so hard that we had to revive it with hot water to make it usable, and it smelled nasty.

But who cares?  We laughed a lot, we got creative with frosting and garish candies, and we extended that holiday feeling into the darkest and gloomiest (and lately the coldest) part of the year.  That’s what “keeping Christmas” is all about.

We were also late, but not that late, with our tree, which has become a new holiday tradition at our house.   We spend Christmas (the December 25th version) with my mom, sister and brother in law in Hilton Head, SC.  It is usually about 75 and not feeling at all like Christmas, the only “white” part being the beach sand.  When we return to Arlington on the 26th, we start the ritual of finding a Christmas tree – on the street.

Yes, there are people who ditch their tree the day after Christmas, as sad as that might seem.  (They are probably the ones who put it up on Thanksgiving Day.)  Poor, forlorn trees thrown to the curb, sometimes with a bit of tinsel or some missed ornament clinging to them.  We pick one and give it a new life as our Christmas tree.  I like to think they are happy to have a second life in our living room.  Soon enough they will be turned into mulch, why not give them a little reprieve?

So, my advice, don’t let Christmas go too soon.  Keep the feeling of creativity, togetherness, and light as long as you can – all year if possible.  But maybe don’t wait five years to use your gingerbread house kit.

 

The Critters of Chestertown

Chestertown is a pleasant burg on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where we traveled for a day trip on Thanksgiving weekend.  It was “small business Saturday” so poking around in some of the little shops in town seemed the thing to do.  Unless you are an extremely pokey shopper, that can be achieved in a couple of hours, max.

If you stop at the Visitor’s Center on the way in to town, they will give you a map of town so that you can see just how small it is, as well as a walking tour brochure that guides you around the stately 18th century houses paralleling the river.  (Federal, Georgian, with or without Flemish bond bricks, take your pick.)  A walk down to the pier to view the schooner Sultana is also a must – tall ships are always intriguing.  There are several nice looking restaurants where one might get some local seafood, but we held out until Kent Narrows on our way home and indulged in some crab cakes, oysters, and scallops at the iconic Harris’s Crab House.

As we toured the town, I started noticing some interesting critter depictions.  First, some very boldly colored and rather saucy lions in a fountain in the park downtown. Second, a giant crab claw emerging from the water near the pier (see landing image, above). Third, the eagle carving on the schooner.  Fourth, a metal sculpture of honeybees outside a modest but well groomed house.  If you get to Chestertown for a visit, you can use these as a sort of critter scavenger hunt on a leisurely walk around town.  Enjoy!

 

Food = Family: Adventures in International Home Cooking

Many people think my husband and I are a bit weird to welcome into our home a succession of interns, research fellows and/or other young people who come to Washington, DC and need a cheap place to live.  (Well, that is not the only reason they think we are weird, but that’s another story!)

However, I must say, the benefit is huge, especially if these young people know how to cook.  Lately, we have been benefitting from one of our current housemates, Khamo, who has introduced us to Tibetan cuisine.  Not only have we enjoyed eating these spicy and noodley wonders, but we’ve have fun trying to master the art of making them.

Momos, a type of dumpling, are juicy packets of savory meat served with a fiery dipping sauce.  I almost got the hang of pinching them shut in a sort of pleating motion, but watching Khamo’s deft fingers at the job I knew I would never be able to match her years of growing up doing this.  It was like watching a ballet of the fingers.

Tibetan noodle soup is the perfect winter treat.  The dough is stretchy, and the technique of adding the noodles directly to the steaming pot of fragrant soup is to break off short squarish bits from a long thin rope of it with your fingers.  Again, a skill perfected in one’s family kitchen over years, though a little easier to get the hang of than pleating momos.  It took me five times longer than Khamo to break the pieces into the pot (and not drop them on the floor in the process).  

Our third adventure in Tibetan cooking was hot pot.  This required a trip to the Chinese grocery store, Good Fortune, to get ingredients that we had no idea existed.  Frozen meat and fish balls of various hues, special sauces, and a variety of vegetables including lotus root.  We needed to learn how to eat this dish as well – you don’t eat the soup, you just scoop the contents out and leave the broth for cooking more ingredients.

We’ve lost track of all of the interns and fellows we’ve hosted in the past six or seven years, but we tend to recall the ones who introduced us to new food adventures or how to cook homestyle versions of foods we only enjoyed previously at restaurants.  Pho from Vietnam, authentic Indian cuisine from several parts of the subcontinent, Danish open faced sandwiches, German pastries…a world of good food and new “family members” to enjoy it with.

 

Art in, Art Out, Art All About

Nothing like visiting museums to make you see the world just a bit differently.  Last week we were visiting San Francisco, and we went to two art museums, one the first day, and one the second:  the Museum of Modern Art and the De Young.  We spent the better part of the day at these museums, since they are both huge and have a lot to see.  And hear, which I will get to a bit later.

Looking at a lot of art, then walking around the city streets, everything suddenly seems like art.  Building facades, business signs, vibrant sunsets, reflections on the water.  It makes you look at things differently.  (I know I am not telling you anything new, just stating the obvious.)

The MOMA right now has an installment of art and sound called Soundtracks, which is super cool.  I especially liked the big shallow pool of water with hundreds of ceramic bowls; when one hits another, it chimes gently, like random wind chimes.  I could have sat there and watched/listened for hours, zenning out.

 

But, there was more to see, and even more the next day at the De Young, which is located in the middle of Golden Gate Park.   First you have to climb the tower to see a spectacular view of the city from all angles.  Then, if you’ve paid the extra admission, the current special exhibition is a massive collection of artwork from the ancient (modern day Mexican) city of Teotihuacan.

What to see next?  Tough choice, as sensory overload begins to set in after a few hours.  We chose to spent some time exploring the exhibition, “Revelations:  Art from the African American South.”  Found materials was one theme, including a large installation composed of charred pieces of wood from a burned church.  Insightful quotes from the artists were blown up on the wall, and so I will leave you with the comment of artist Lonnie Holley:

“What is art?  Art is everything that we have used, waiting to be used again.  That’s all art is.”

Falling for Southern France, Part Four (final)

We returned from France over over a month ago, but still the memories linger and must have their due.  Here, the fourth and final installment finds us on our last full day of the trip in Sete, a small maritime city near Montpellier.

The first thing upon arriving is to find your way to the top – a challenging climb up steep streets and steps to the highest point, Mount St. Clair.  The elevation is a mere 574 feet, but the view is spectacular and lays Sete’s waterways out for you so that they make sense.  To the right, the Mediterranean.  To the left, Etang de Thau, a sort of large lake or lagoon.  And, in the middle, bisecting the town, a series of canals connecting the two.  Water, water, everywhere.

Because that climb up and back down will surely make you hungry, the next thing to do is to find a spot at one of the long string of canalside cafes.  If the weather is fine, as it was the day we were there, finding a seat around lunch time at one of the outdoor portions of the cafe may involve an awkward wait.  Seeing as most of these cafes seem chronically understaffed, also expect a leisurely experience once you are seated.

That said, the local seafood is worth it all no matter which cafe you end up at, and the menus are all very similar.  The most famous local dish is a sort of octopus pie which is called tielle setoise.  We got the last one in the cafe that day, and savored every bite of the salty crusty tomatoey minced octopusiness of it.   Mussels were also on offer, mine steamed and M.E.’s in a rich tomato sauce with sausage.   Water all around you, seafood inside your tummy…how much better does it get?

There is apparently a nice art museum in Sete, and a lighthouse which we saw from afar, but we didn’t make it to either.  We opted instead for wandering around the town, up and down the canals, poking into some shops and a modern art exhibition, snapping pictures of sites along the water.  Here, a pile of fishing nets.  There, a row of Crayola colored small boats for rent.  Trying to capture the essence of the last place, the last day, of our wondrous trip.

I boarded the train back to Montpellier that afternoon with mixed emotions.  Tomorrow we would be making the long trek back to our normal lives via train to Paris and flight home.  It would be good to be home, but I felt as though I was leaving a part of me behind somehow.  The intrepid traveler who “conquered” this portion of southern France.  The adoring Mom who got the rare gift of spending protracted time with her grown daughter and loving every minute of sharing this part of the world with her.


Adieu, France, and thanks for opening your welcoming southern arms to us.

 

 

 

Falling for Southern France, Part Three: Quillan

To get a feel for a place, it helps to experience some public transportation frequented by locals.   Toward this end, we started out to catch the train south from Limoux to Quillan (the end of that particular train line).  We aimed for the 10:18 listed online, only to find out that there was no 10:18, and the train was really a bus.   Long story, but lessons learned.

Once that was sorted, we boarded the 11:18 bus to Quillan.  This is a short but very scenic ride along the Aude River, through a series of historic towns including Alet-les-Bains (ruined abbey), Couiza (jumping off point for Rennes-le-Chateau of The Da Vinci Code fame), and Esperaza (both a dinosaur and a hat museum).  We did not get out to explore any of those places, but they all had promise for the adventurous tourist.

Wednesday is market day in Quillan, so we headed downtown to check out the action.  We didn’t find the produce market (it had probably already ended, seeing as we didn’t get there until after noon), but there was a lively flea market, where one could find everything from clothing to books, housewares to new age paraphernalia.   We spent some time pawing through a huge and very funky pile of t-shirts on offer from some Northern African merchants and chatted in my broken French with them.

Next, a short hike to the highest point in town, which was to become a theme in our wanderings around this part of France, but is always a good tourist strategy wherever you roam.  In Quillan, that would be the site of the ruined castle, just a big square stub of stone with a few decorative features left, the rest of which we learned later had been pilfered by the locals to build houses down in town.  (Even the gargoyles have made themselves to the end of the drain spouts of a couple of homes.)  Good for spectacular views across the Pyrenees, though.

Back down into town for lunch and a decision.  Bolt down lunch and make the next bus to go explore somewhere else, or enjoy a leisurely lunch and experience the rest of Quillan?   We opted for the latter.  After lingering over an excellent seafood salad and scads of baguette, we headed for the tourist office in order to find out how to take a deeper dive into the less obvious sites of the town.  (Note, tourist offices in smaller towns in these parts close from 12 – 2 so plan accordingly.)

The rest of the day was spent strolling the streets, visiting the church, taking in the view of fishermen fly-casting on the Aude, learning how the past prosperity of the town had come from hat factories and poking down alleyways, guided somewhat by a walking tour the tourist office attendant had printed out for us.  This was topped off by a reward of afternoon ice cream before boarding the 4:00 bus back to Limoux.

In short, Quillan did not offer the Medieval splendor of Carcassone, nor the tourist magnetism of some of the other remarkable places we visited during our trip, but spending a day there was a wonderful experience of feeling the rhythm of a midweek in this part of the country, and feeling pleasantly surprised by the little things.  A sun dial on the side of a house.  Front and back yard flower and vegetable gardens.  School children headed home.  Old friends greeting one another.   All in the setting of the age-old mountains and the winding Aude.  A most excellent day all around.

 

 

 

Falling for Southern France, Part Two: Carcassonne

Carcassonne – the word rolls off one’s tongue in a whisper.  To many, the Medieval walled portion of this bustling city is an item on their “bucket list.”  Others know it only as a board game.  It is a wonderful place to spend a vacation day.  (Next time I would stay longer, because it is hard to take it all in during just one day.)

We started our adventure by parking near the train station, which is close to the Canal du Midi – which figures later in the story – and setting out for the walled city.  In all the photos you see of the walled city (which is situated as every fortification worth its salt on a high and formidable hill) one would assume that it must loom up from the more modern part, and that you should be able to see it from everywhere you look.  Not so.

You walk and walk through the lower portion, past attractive shops, cafes and parks, and finally catch a glimpse of the ramparts high above, across the Aude River.  Your first thought is, how the heck do we get way up there?  Following the crowd that is inevidibly climbing the same way is one method.  A young person adept at smart phone way-finding is another.

However you get up there, you must climb steep pathways or series of stairs, but as usual in this part of the world, it is well worth it.  Once you reach the inner walls, you find yourself accosted by gift shops, tourist attractions such as The Torture Museum, and cafes touting the ever-present cassoulet (reportedly invented in this region of France and featuring enough types of meat to make you want to become a vegetarian after a close encounter with it).

You can merely stroll around the walls, which offer lovely views of the hills in the distance, or you can go the historical interpretation route of a visit to the Chateau Comtal, the inner residence of the aristocracy of the city, which is now a museum.  (Even on a non-tourist heavy weekday, the line to enter this inner sanctum is long and slow, especially around lunch time, so maybe take the advice of some Trip Advisors and get tickets ahead.  Also, some of the ramparts are closed between 11:30 and 2 for some strange reason.)

The chateau is a maze of enchanting stairs  and towers that you wish would go on and on forever.  Here, a view of over the tiled roof to the courtyard.  There, a peak through some arrow slits.  Windows open to the bracing wind of the Midi, and views of the mountains beyond.  Even though the useful interpretive slide show at the beginning of the tour reminds us that much of the walled city was reconstructed, it still feels as though you are transported back to the heyday of the 12th century, before a hoard of Northerners laid siege to the castle and brought its inhabitants (including those notorious heretical Cathars) to their knees.

I must admit, my whole experience was colored by the reading of Kate Mosse’s romantic historical novel The Labyrinth, which is required reading before a visit to Carcassonne in my mind (thanks, Hanna!).  Though reading these Goodreads reviews, you might be tempted to skip it, I recommend wading through if you like your historical background sprinkled with plenty of blood, lust, intrigue and time travel.

We finally, and reluctantly, left the walled city and headed back to the canal for another history lesson wrapped in a relaxed boat ride.  The Canal du Midi is part of a system that runs from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.  You can take a commercial boat ride along it, or actually pilot your own canal boat for a leisurely holiday, which may be tempting some day with the right cast of characters.

As you glide down the plane tree lined canal a guide gives you excellent background information, you go through a lock to find out how those work, and you have a lovely rest stop at an old inn.  A whole different view from the rugged walled city, which you could not see from the part of the canal we toured.  It seemed something we had dreamed instead of actually having visited just hours before.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Falling for Southern France, Part One: Limoux

My sister, the planner, booked a house (“villa” I should say) in Southern France over a year ago, and then populated it with family and friends for a September 2017 stay.  Her husband, my daughter and I were the family and two other couples who were friends of hers made up the balance.  None of us had ever heard of the town it was located in, Limoux, which is located in the southwestern portion of France known as Languedoc.  By the time we approached the date of the vacation, it had reached a sort of mythical status in our minds – the ideal French village, as my daughter half-joked, a la the opening scene of Beauty and the Beast (animation or live action, take your pick).

Tantalizing photos of the charms of the villa had been offered up by the booking agency, although Google street view made the exterior look bland and ordinary.  Opening the substantial front door, a whole new world was revealed.  A Medieval courtyard with vaulted ceiling led to a stage-set of a grand interior, with three floors and amazing views from all windows.  Here, the Gothic church across the River Aude.  There, a hillside with the ubiquitous vineyards.  I would not call it cozy, by any stretch, but rather intimidatingly majestic.

The first full day there, my daughter and I explored the town.  The obligatory historic central square was only a couple of blocks from the villa, over a scenic stone bridge, and had all the usual French town amenities – bakery, butcher shop, wine shop, cafes with sidewalk seating, and a fountain in the middle.   The first day we were there, it also had a portable stage with a spin class instructor blaring out music and loud speaker instructions to a cadre of stationary cyclists.  Welcome to the blend of old and new that is contemporary Europe.

Since we spend a lot of time exploring Limoux (two whole days and in between other excursions) I will only cover some highlights of the town without boring you to tears.  The details of someone else’s trip, I realize, grow tedious after a while.  Suffice it to say that Limoux has many charms, including some very interesting museums.  We started at the Museum of the Piano, which is housed in an old disused church, and was again only a couple of blocks from the villa.   Do you like pianos?  Well, you will love this museum then.  Even if you like old churches, and just nominally enjoy pianos, it is worth a visit.  It also features a concert area in the back, where we capped off our visit to Limoux at the end of the week with a wonderful piano and cello recital.

We also visited the Museum of Automotons, which features life-sized figures created by the enthusiastic and talented artist in residence, brought to some semblance of life (movement at least) by a colleague.   Later in the visit, we tried in vane to find a place called Catharama (which still existed on some maps), only to discover it had met its demise several years back.  (More about the Cathars, infamous 12th century heretics who continue to capture the collective imagination at a later date.)  The Musee Petiet, a nice smallish art museum featuring the work of a local female painter, was well worth a visit as well.  We eventually found the Printing Museum (which is listed as being it two different places) near the river, but no one was inside though the door was open.

A few pointers about Limoux, in case you find yourself in the vicinity some day.  First:  food. Market day is Friday, and the food market is not in the central square but in and around the market building a few blocks from the square.  There are several green grocers in town, though if you crave fruit and veg, and their produce is reasonable and delicious.  (Best peaches ever!)  There are some smallish in-town grocery stores, and on the outskirts of town, there is one of the biggest grocery stores I have ever seen anywhere, not as charming but good for stocking up if you have a car.  It is a much better deal, and in keeping with the local customs, to go out for a leisurely two or three course lunch and make your own light dinner.  Cafes and restaurants abound, cheaper fare being pizzas and crepes off the square.

Next:  transportation.  The train station is convenient, and you can get north or south easily and pretty often, though northward you must change in Carcassonne no matter where you are headed, and southward, Quillan, about 40 minutes away, is the end of the line.  I guess the mountains get in the way from there.  Also, you buy a train ticket but only some of the conveyances are actually trains.  The others are buses, and you have to know the difference because you wait one place for trains and the other for buses.  And, the interior of the train station, with an actual service person to ask for clarification, is only open on the weekdays.  (Trial and error are the watchwords in this part of France.)

Recommended:  find the tourism office early in your visit.  That motto holds true for any town in this area of France, or elsewhere in the world I would guess.   In smaller places like Limoux, this helpful office and its usually cheerful personnel is not open during the lunch hour, however, so catch it before 12 or after 2.

Next up, day trips to Carcassonne, Quillan and Sete, with castles, water features, and sweeping views on offer.  Stay tuned if armchair travel is your thing!

 

 

Seaside Sojourne 2 (sort of) Colonial Beach edition

The widest parts of the Potomac River are not quite “seaside” but they have that sort of feel, nonetheless.  On a two-day tour through Maryland’s Western Shore (or, as some call it “Southern Maryland”), and the Northern Neck of Virginia, my friend Debi and I experienced a wide variety of sites, tastes, and even smells (fish guts on a public pier and fried food in a divey pub/Tiki Bar for instance).

For brevity purposes, I will concentrate on the Northern Neck portion of our journey.  For those of you who are uninitiated, the NN is the portion of land between the mighty Potomac and the Rappahannock Rivers.  This area is billed as, among other things, The Birthplace of the Nation since several founding fathers and other historic personages were born and/or grew up there.

We started our adventures in Colonial Beach.  The first thing we noticed was the mural that we parked near, depicted in the large photo at the top of this blog, which might tip one off to the fact that the town, while still charming in its own way, may have had its heyday at an earlier time period.  Other murals we encountered around town had a vintage feel as well (you can view a slide show of more of them here).  

What does one do in Colonial Beach?  We started out by indulging in some retail therapy at a very nice second hand store.  Then, we walked down and out onto to the town pier, where locals were catching some impressive catfish.  Next, walked along the beach on a pathway that leads to, among other things, the humongous Riverboat on the Potomac, a casino and restaurant which apparently gets around strict Virginia laws against such gambling establishments by being located on the river, which is technically part of Maryland.

When asked about the best crab cakes served in a beachside atmosphere, the proprietor of the second hand store recommended  The Dockside, a couple miles out of town.  Basically, you just follow the road that parallels the water until it ends in a marina and the sprawling restaurant, offering a slightly seedy but cool interior as well as two levels of “outside dining” – steamier but with water views.  There is a little beach and a small performance venue on the grounds, no doubt very popular on weekend evenings, and the de rigueur “tiki” furnishings – thatched huts and Hawaiian style decor.  The crab cakes and hushpuppies were very satisfying (I gave it a good rating on Tripadvisor.).

Our appetites being satiated, we next turned our attention to history.  Which eminent figure’s birthplace to visit?  George Washington seemed too obvious.  James Monroe was also vetoed.  Robert E. Lee…well, who could resist such a controversial and complex personage?  We headed for Stratford Hall, birthplace and boyhood home (till he was little more than a toddler) of REL.  This site did not disappoint.

In addition to the Great House, which has an oddly truncated appearance and layout despite its impressive cadre of brick chimneys, the museum at the visitor’s center and the grounds are worth lingering in.  Unfortunately, we caught the last tour of the day and didn’t have enough time to do the site justice.  But we caught the gist.

I came away feeling sad for Robert E. Lee, a brilliant and conflicted figure.  His father was a poor money manager and they had to leave this idyllic home on the Potomac for less impressive digs when the lad was four years old.  Our tour guide indicated that he seemed to yearn for this home for the rest of his life.  (The stately Lee Custis House now located in Arlington Cemetery was his wife’s family home.)  No denying, he was one of the most prominent Confederates and, of course, one of the statues in his honor was a major catalyst of the recent tragedies in Charlottesville.  But visiting his boyhood home also reminded us that he was a human being with an extremely complex history.

The Northern Neck is worth visiting for all of the above reasons:  crab cakes, scenic views, and historic circumstances that continue to haunt us all.

Sojourn by the Seaside, Ocean City Edition

It just started out as an innocent day trip to Salisbury, Maryland to deliver some maritime books I wanted to donate to the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art... but my friend Lora had other plans.  To be fair, I had requested a cultural experience (mostly of the food variety), but she went for the full package:  a trip to Ocean City.

We started at the Harborside, an OC institution and home of the Crab Club, pictured here.  This is a crab lovers dream, or nightmare perhaps, consisting of a generous crab cake on the bottom and a friend soft shell crab on the top, with the usual club sandwich accompaniments in between. (We opted out of the bacon, though, the better to savor the full crabby flavors.)

We then hit the boardwalk, which was crawling with August humanity.  Our destination was Trimper’s, a historic amusement arcade/park with some amazingly well preserved and somewhat scary features.  (Including the extensive shooting range featured above.)  After touring the sites, both historic and more contemporary, we gathered our quarters and embarked on some skee ball action.

Somehow, even though I have reached a fairly advanced age and have visited a many seasides, I had missed the experience of playing skee ball.   I found that I had no aptitude for the game whatsoever, but it was fun nonetheless.  After spending about two dollars worth of quarters trying to improve, I gave up and donated my meager stock of tickets (which you win for scoring a certain amount of points) to my intern Alison to add to her own so she could cash them in for a cheesy prize.

Crabs, check.  Boardwalk, check.  Skee ball, check.  Beach?  Well, we saw it in the distance, which was good enough.  All in all, an excellent day in OC.